Movie Review ~ Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: A lavish train ride unfolds into a stylish & suspenseful mystery. From the novel by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express tells of thirteen stranded strangers & one man’s race to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Coleman, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, Lucy Boynton, Sir Derek Jacobi, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Sergei Polunin, Willem Dafoe

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In my limited experience with Amtrak, I’ve come to the conclusion travel by train through the Midwest can be the most exciting way to be bored. There’s a rush of fun and thrill to board, find your seat, and sit back as the chugging engine moves you past the fields of wheat and country roads. Then that first half hour is over and you realize you have seven more to go until you reach your destination. I’ll admit that there were times when I wish there was something more exciting to do aside from looking forward to your time in the dining car. Not saying that murder would be a welcome addition to riding the rails but…it could spice things up a bit.

Maybe that’s why I was always such a fan of Agatha Christie’s sparkling 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express and its various incarnations on film and television over the years. I have a particular fondness for Sidney Lumet’s star-studded 1974 film that featured Albert Finney as Christie’s famed moustachioed detective, Hercule Poirot. Though too young for the role and padded enough to make him look like a Belgian Humpty Dumpty, Finney won me over (even if Christie didn’t care for him) and the ensemble cast of A-listers made solving the mystery Christie cooked up that much more fun. Poirot has ridden the Orient Express again in two more adaptations for television but he’s back onscreen under the guidance of director/star Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and the results are similarly old-fashioned and quite fun.

Many are going to have a problem with the relative cool tone of the film and it’s aloof star player. This is a movie that unspools slowly and with precision, taking care to present grand elegance instead of common luxury and nuanced performances in place of star cameos. I’m not saying it all works but, for me, it was the ride I was hoping for.

On his way back to London to help with a case, Poirot finds himself on the famed Orient Express on a three day journey back from Istanbul. The train is unusually crowded at this late winter date so all compartments are occupied. En route, Poirot’s careful eye sees an unusual familiarity between two supposed strangers (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.) and a sadness in a deeply religious missionary (Penelope Cruz, Zoolander 2).  He spots a divide in the working relationship between an art dealer (Johnny Depp, Tusk) and his two employees (Derek Jacobi, Cinderella, and Josh Gad, Beauty & the Beast) and observes a brusque chill from a Russian Princess (Judi Dench, Skyfall) traveling with her maid (Olivia Colman, Hyde Park on Hudson).  There’s also a strange German doctor (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project) and a brash man-eater (Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!) keeping him occupied and, at the very least, entertained.

It’s when the train derails in the middle of the night and one of the passengers ends up dead that Poirot’s brief bid for rest gets interrupted. There’s a killer onboard and the longer Poirot interrogates each passenger the more he begins to realize there are multiple suspects with the same motivation.  Can he detect who done the deed before the rescue crews arrive and the train makes its way to its final stop?  The solution to this one is a corker and those who know it won’t be surprised but Branagh and company want you to remember it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.

This is a handsome looking film and Branagh has captured it nicely in 65mm, preserving the lushness of the setting and maintaining the classic grain of a celluloid experience while keeping things crisp. The landscapes are almost entirely CGI (didn’t think Dench was going to get snowbound in the middle of nowhere did you?) but the period details are all practical and perfect.  Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Thor)works with Branagh to find interesting angles, such as the discovery of the body filmed from above which makes the audience feel like we’re watching rats in a maze.  There are nice long takes as the camera moves throughout the train and everyone is framed to look their absolute best.

Branagh will likely catch some heat for making the thrust of the film rely a bit too much on him. The magic of the previous movie was how well balanced Finney was with the rest of the actors; Ingrid Bergman even won an Oscar for her small role which is played here by Cruz.  The interrogation scenes felt more intimate and personal there whereas under Branagh’s watch the interviews are brief and blunt.  There’s a crime from the past that mysteriously links everyone on board and because it weighs so heavily into the solution there could have been better steps taken by screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) to lay the groundwork throughout the first ¾ of the film.

I didn’t mind Branagh’s screen time, nor did I think twice about his crazy facial hair or thick Belgian accent. I liked his persnickety ways and it plays nicely off the rest of the cast who are allowed to be a bit more broad.  The film ends with a hint that we might get more Poirot (Death on the Nile, from the sound of it) and I’d be up for another adventure with Branagh.  Dench, as always, makes the most out of her role, easily nailing all of her character’s grand snooty comebacks.  Gad and Depp are usually pain points for me but they play a good game here, both actors are restrained without feeling constrained.  Ridely, Odom Jr., and Cruz might be far less memorable than previous actors that have played these roles but they acquit themselves nicely the more we get to know them.  Lovely Pfeiffer is having a grand time playing a loudmouth widow, she looks gorgeous and Branagh even got her to sing a lullaby over the closing credits.  Pfeiffer has a sweet, if thin, voice but it works for the song and the character.

I always enjoyed watching the original film during the winter months on a cold day. It’s good timing this new version is coming out just as the temperature is dropping and snow is on the horizon.  It’s a perfect film for a lazy day or sophisticated night out.  The deliberate pace and overall conservation of energy might bore audiences that just paid to see the brain smashing Thor: Ragnorok last weekend, but I’d encourage you to book passage on Murder on the Orient Express for another type of adventure.

The Silver Bullet ~ Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Synopsis: A lavish train ride through Europe quickly unfolds into the thrilling mystery of thirteen strangers stranded on a train, where everyone’s a suspect. One man must race against time to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

Release Date: November 10, 2017

Thoughts: Oh boy does this one look fun.  Based on Agatha Christie’s twist-filled 1934 novel, audiences have traveled on the Orient Express already in a BBC adaptation and the 1974 star-studded spectacle which remains one of my all time favorite films.  I admit I grimaced a bit when I heard a new version was in the works but as the cast came together for director/star Kenneth Branagh’s remake I began to soften a little.  This first trailer hints at the high level of class the filmmakers are employing for this murder mystery and though I’m guessing movie-goers may chuckle a bit at Branagh’s grandiose Poirot mustache I’d be willing to bet they’ll be intrigued enough to hop on board when it’s released in November. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer (Grease 2), Judi Dench (Skyfall), Johnny Depp (Dark Shadows), Penelope Cruz (Zoolander 2), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Willem Dafoe (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and, regrettably, Josh Gad (Frozen)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

The Facts:

Synopsis: Captain Jack Sparrow searches for the trident of Poseidon.

Stars: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom

Directors: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: You’d be entirely forgiven if you look askance at the arrival of the fifth entry in Disney’s impossibly lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.  After making a huge splash in 2003 with their surprise hit based on the ever-popular theme park ride, Disney quickly plotted filming back-to-back installments to capitalize on the public’s Pirates-fever.  Trouble was, these films made the unwise choice to focus less on furthering the story and more time on star Johnny Depp’s increasingly tedious portrayal of boozy Captain Jack Sparrow. Though Depp netted an Oscar nom for the first film, his subsequent appearances gave him a mile when he should have only been allowed an inch (or centimeter if we’re being honest).  One last try at keeping the Pirates franchise alive was attempted in 2011 but it too got lost in a sea of Depp shenanigans and an over-reliance on CGI action sequences.

Here we are in 2017 and while Dead Men Tell No Tales suffers from many of the same barnacles that sunk previous installments, directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson have mostly reigned in their returning star while crafting a continuing tale on the high seas that’s more swashbuckling than shticky.

If you’re behind on the Pirates films, some of what comes next would be considered spoilers but I’ll keep it as brief as possible.

A long prologue introduces young Henry Turner, son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, Troy) and Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightly, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) as he makes a moonlight voyage to the bottom of the ocean in search of his father.  Will’s been imprisoned by a curse on the ghost ship The Flying Dutchman, and his young son pledges to find Jack Sparrow and get his father back on dry land where he belongs.  Flash forward nine years and Henry (Brenton Thwaites, Oculus) is laboring on a ship that runs afoul of a cursed vessel belonging to Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem, Skyfall) and his cleverly CGI-ed crew.  Salazar also has an interest in finding Jack Sparrow seeing that he’s the one who cut his sailing days short in the first place and uses Henry to pass a message on to his old nemesis.

Meanwhile, back in warmer climates Sparrow attempts to pull off a bank heist that provides the film with its first extended action sequence.  Feeling like an old-School western that would have been filmed on a studio backlot, it’s a fun (if pointless) introduction back to Jack and his men with satisfyingly comedic results.  It at least dovetails nicely into introducing Kayla Scodelario (The Maze Runner) as Carina, a plucky lass in trouble with the law on suspicion of being a witch.  Turns out she’s just a bookworm with a penchant for telling anyone trying to man-splain something to her where to shove it and she’s got the same pluck Knightly exhibited in the original film.

Getting into how Henry, Jack, and Carina end up back on the Black Pearl with Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush, Minions, letting the costume do most of the work for him) searching for the trident of Poseidon could occupy several pages and I have a deadline to make so just take my word for it that Nathanson doesn’t have to push too hard to intertwine the end goals of these three castaways.  It’s a fantasy film with little to no need for a ton of explanation.

Without question this entry is the second most enjoyable one to date.  It’s the shortest one of the bunch and uses its time and talents wisely without working bits down to the nub.  Depp (Dark Shadows) may not look rejuvenated but it feels like he actually showed up for this outing.  While Thwaites and Scodelario give spunky performances the two lack the kind of romantic chemistry the film desperately wants them to have.  Coming off more like squabbling siblings they both fare far better when they get to make some headway with their own story.  Rush is getting a bit on the campy side by now but the way he seems to relish drilling down into his pirate brogue is at the very least amusing.  I always get a kick out of Bardem’s take on villainous characters because somehow he manages to find the humanity below the hate and isn’t afraid to go to weird places to get there.  Most of his dialogue is purely expositional but he chews on his words as hard as he chews on the scenery as a once honorable man trying to rid the world of Pirates who now haunts the seas as a vengeful fright searching for Jack Sparrow (or, as Salazar would say, ‘Jah Spah-ro’.

Rønning and Espen keep things moving at a good pace and stage their big special effects sequences with some interesting flair.  A mid-movie chase by three zombie sharks could have gone SyFy Movie Channel wrong but wind up providing a few decent thrills matched up with seamless CGI.  My only complaint is that so much of the movie is staged in dark environments that you wind up losing the location details and it becomes just another overly CGI imagined world.  At the screening I attended, the 3D was askew which likely added to the visual fatigue but I’m sure had the effect been working properly more depth would have been added into the mix.

On two recent trips to Disney World, I had more fun waiting in line for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride than I did at any of the previous three films.  Aside from the original, Dead Men Tell No Tales is a marked improvement in the Pirates series and if a post-credit stinger is any indication, Disney is hoping audiences get their sea legs again and demand more skull and crossbones fun.  As long as Depp is kept at bay and more focus is put on the lore behind any adventure embarked upon, I’d be willing to get my feet wet.

Movie Review ~ Into the Woods

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A modern twist on the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales, intertwining the plots of a few choice stories and exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Tracey Ullman, Frances de la Tour, Johnny Depp, Lucy Punch, Simon Russell Beale, Tammy Blanchard, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Christine Baranski, Billy Magnussen, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, MacKenzie Mauzy, Richard Glover, Joanna Riding, Annette Crosbie

Director: Rob Marshall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: If there’s one take-away from the big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine’s Into the Woods it would be that director Rob Marshall proves once again that it’s possible to transition a stage-bound work quite nicely to the silver screen.  As he did with his Oscar-winning Chicago (which, to be fair, was a far trickier beast to wrangle), Marshall brings a sense of wonderful theatricality to the proceedings that helps keep a saggy second act afloat.

Arriving on the heels of the disappointing remake/reboot of Annie, the first 75 minutes or so of Into the Woods is a gleefully wry take on the fairy tales we all grew up with.  There’s Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) spunky as all get-out, even when faced with a zoot-suited Wolf (Johnny Depp, The Lone Ranger) intent on making her his next meal.  Depp is, pardon the pun, howlingly bad in his brief cameo and you’ll be glad to know that his total screen time amounts to about 5 minutes…which still feels too long.

We also get Cinderella (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect) fresh-faced and clarion voiced even under a pile of soot.  Kendrick has true musical theater chops and Marshall gives her a wonderful moment to shine in a delightfully reimagined “On the Steps of the Palace” which takes place in a bit of suspended time as Cinderella ponders her next move.

Then there’s the Baker (James Corden, One Chance) and his wife (Emily Blunt, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) so desperate for a child they agree to fetch items for a next-door Witch (Meryl Streep, Hope Springs) who promises in return to have the ‘curse reversed’.  Venturing into the woods (a-ha!) to find the items they run into Little Red, Cinderella, as well as a pre-Beanstalk Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and a variety of other storybook figures.

It’s within the first half of the film that the best scene arrives featuring two puff-chested Princes (Star Trek’s Chris Pine and Broadway newcomer Billy Magnussen) hysterically belaboring their romantic entanglements (one with Cinderella, one with Rapunzel) while traipsing around a waterfall.  It’s the crown jewel of a film sparkles quite a lot.

Then something happens…and if we were in a theater I would say it was Intermission.

You see, it’s in the second half of the film that I found the same sort of problems I have with the stage show.  I know that the whole point of the second act of Into the Woods is to show what happens “after happily ever after” and that’s all well and good but where the stage show becomes somewhat intriguingly heavy handed the screen musical loses its spark and never fully recovers.

That’s due in some small part to the ‘Disney-fication’ of the film.  With the House of Mouse forking over the dough for funding certain adjustments were necessitated and that includes softening of more than a few rough edges that helped define the stage musical.  Now, certain tragedies that helped drive the musical to a conclusion onstage are rather toothless here…with some changes downright confusing from a narrative point of view.  Even die-hard fans of the show may be left scratching their heads wondering what just happened.

Were the performances not so strong, this type of late in the game mishap may have spelled certain doom for Marshall and company but he’s assembled a frothy cast with several unexpected delights.  Streep is, of course, right on the money with her hag witch popping up (and in and out) at just the right moments.  She eschews the delivery of any previous Witch and makes the part wholly her own.  I question the decision in the second half to give her a peculiar set of buck-tooth veneers that have a worrisome impact on her speech but otherwise she looks and sounds exactly how you’d imagine.

The roly-poly Corden and ethereal Blunt make a nice pair and the two play off of each other quite nicely.  Both have pleasant voices with Blunt the real surprise as she tackles the difficult passages Sondheim created.  Crawford, Mauzy, and Magnussen acquit themselves nicely but as the film progressed I found that Pine’s bo-hunk royal, with his affected upper-crust accent, didn’t work for me.  Pine takes the cartoon-y nature of his character a bit too far and Marshall should have reined him in a bit.

With a gorgeous production design (the majority of the film was shot in a man-made forest) and Colleen Atwood’s trusty duds the film looks like a fairy tale come to life.  Even with a slower second half the film doesn’t feel long and breezes by as fast as Sondheim’s score.  Worth a trip into the theater.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Into the Woods (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: A witch conspires to teach important lessons to various characters of popular children’s stories including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.

Release Date:  December 25, 2014

Thoughts: Though some have turned their noses up at Stephen Sondheim’s musical being given the big screen treatment by Walt Disney Studios, this final trailer for Into the Woods looks positively charming. Considering the budget was “only” 40 million dollars, I’m happy to see that a lot of that money was seemingly spent on actual sets and not some CGI created world for the impressive roster of actors to play out Sondheim and James Lapine’s sly take on the fairy tales we all grew up with. Meryl Streep (Hope Springs) sounds like a perfect Witch and while I’m not too keen on the notion of Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect) as Cinderella or Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger) as a zoot-suit wearing Wolf, I’ve got a feeling director Rob Marshall will wrangle this into one enchanting evening.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mortdecai

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Synopsis: Art dealer Charles Mortdecai searches for a stolen painting that’s reportedly linked to a lost bank account filled with Nazi gold.

Release Date: January 23, 2015

Thoughts: The literary anti-hero Charles Mortdecai makes his long-awaited big screen debut in a film that seems perfectly pitched to be a Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger) vehicle. My own personal qualms with the intriguing actor taking on some less than worthy projects aside, I have to say that this might be the right balance of quirky comedy and action mayhem that Depp has long sought with frequent collaborator Tim Burton (Dark Shadows). Here he reteams with his Secret Window director David Koepp (Premium Rush) and I hope the results are as promising as they appear to be.

Movie Review ~ Tusk

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When podcaster Wallace Bryton goes missing in the backwoods of Manitoba while interviewing a mysterious seafarer named Howard Howe, his best friend Teddy and girlfriend Allison team with an ex-cop to look for him.

Stars: Justin Long, Michael Parks, Haley Joel Osment, Genesis Rodriguez

Director: Kevin Smith

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  A certain chill washed over me when I saw Tusk on my upcoming screening agenda.  Having just seen the trailer and posted a review (see above for the link) I wasn’t sure I was quite ready to see what I knew was in store for me.  Also playing a factor is that I’m no fan of writer/director Kevin Smith’s previous work, something many film aficionados feels akin to sacrilege but which I simply chalk up to as not being as interested in what he has to say as others seem to be.

I’m not kidding when I say that walking down the hall into the theater gave me the same sort of chilly willies I get when I’m about to reach the top of a rollercoaster or turn the corner at a haunted house.  So I was surprised that 100 minutes later I walked out into the light not only being impressed with the quality of Smith’s work but that I enjoyed it more than I ever thought I could.

As far as movie pitches go, Tusk may herald a new way to throw ideas out seeing that its plot began as a joke on a podcast Smith was involved with.  When enough fans voiced their enthusiasm to see a movie made out of a twisted idea, Smith gathered his troops and produced not only Tusk but a companion film, Yoga Hosers, set for release in 2015.

Taking aim at everything from Canadians to naturalists, Tusk concerns a smarmy shock-podcaster (Justin Long) making the most out of his visit to Manitoba by answering an ad placed above a urinal at a kanuk bar by a handicapped man looking for companionship.  Traveling to a secluded home in hopes of finding his next great podcast subject, he soon gets tangled up with the mysterious man (Michael Parks, Argo, Django Unchained) who may not be as wheelchair-bound as he presents himself to be.  What’s in store for the podcaster is both horrific and horrifically bold in its dedication.

Had Smith turned the dial even a hair more into camp territory, Tusk would have been DOA but as it is the film finds a remarkable sound balance between horror and comedy thanks in no small part to the commitment of Long and Parks to the whacked out premise.  Long has never held much appeal as a leading man or even a worthy supporting character, but with Tusk he finally finds a way to make an argument for his legitimacy as an actor.  Parks has a long career as a character actor and he easily walks away with the film after delivering the first of several impassioned speeches regarding his history.

It’s when the film strays from Parks and Long that it tends to feel flimsier and less interesting to audiences.  Focusing on Long’s girlfriend (Genesis Rodriguez, Man on a Ledge) and his partner in crime (Haley Joel Osment) as they search for their lover/colleague with the help of a Jacques Clouseau-like detective (Guy Lapointe…who looks suspiciously like an A-list Oscar nominated actor under that fake nose and comic French accent), this secondary storyline feels like the padding it is–though it does give Smith the opportunity to show off some of the restraint he’s learned as a maturing director.

All in all, Tusk reminded me of a B-movie you’d catch on late-night TV.  It’s not quite as disturbing as it may look but it’s not as gross-out icky as The Human Centipede.  Providing the right amount of laughs as well as horrific images you’ll most likely view from in between the fingers that cover your eyes, it’s a well-made midnight feature (probably Smith’s best filmed to date) that works more often than it should.

The Silver Bullet ~ Into the Woods

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Synopsis: A witch conspires to teach important lessons to various characters of popular children’s stories including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.

Release Date:  December 25, 2014

Thoughts: The anticipation is certainly building for the big screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine’s 1987 Broadway musical Into the Woods, with Disney carefully releasing nice bits and pieces in recent days.  After dropping some dreamy looking pictures earlier this week of the star heavy ensemble all fairy-tale-d up, the first preview is finally at hand and it’s a nifty little teaser that pleasantly keeps some of the bigger names in shadows while  predictably avoiding any musical cues hinting that the film is largely sung.  No matter, with Meryl Streep (August: Osage County), Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger), Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow), and Chris Pine (People Like Us) leading the cast the stage is set for a lovely transition from stage to screen.

The Silver Bullet ~ Transcendence

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Synopsis: Two leading computer scientists work toward their goal of Technological Singularity, as a radical anti-technology organization fights to prevent them from creating a world where computers can transcend the abilities of the human brain.

Release Date: April 18, 2014

Thoughts: Wally Pfister, the Oscar winning cinematographer of Inception and long-time Christopher Nolan collaborator makes his directorial debut in a movie that looks…well, like a Christopher Nolan film.  That’s not a bad thing, mind you, and one can glean from this first look that the movie will look glorious…but how much sense will it make?  The plot sounds like something that became popular with the dawn of The Terminator but with the A-list stars and impressive creative team assembled I’m thinking this will, ahem, transcend its familiar plot.  Plus, it’s nice to see Johnny Depp (Dark Shadows, The Lone Ranger) sans Tim Burton-esque make-up and Pirates of the Caribbean costuming.

Movie Review ~ The Lone Ranger (2013)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Native American warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice.

Stars: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter

Director: Gore Verbinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 149 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  I made the mistake of reading too many early reviews of this update on the classic character featured first on the radio, then in a run of popular films in the 50’s, and finally on television.  Words like disastrous and failure were touted loud and clear and maybe that’s why I wound up like the film far more than I thought I would.  Does the film have its problems?  Oh yes.  Did it wind up being a total bomb for Walt Disney Studios?  Oh yes.  Is the film as bad as knife wielding critics would have you believe?  No, not by a long shot.

It’s probably safe to say that the deck was stacked against this from the start.  While The Lone Ranger has been a popular icon of American culture since his debut, there has been an inescapable cloud hanging over the franchise when looked at from a modern day perspective.  Simply put, there are some serious un-PC stereotypes going on and even dismissing these incidents as a product of the time in which the episodes were shot can’t fully exonerate those involved.  So the film had to find a way to parlay the relationship between John Reid (aka The Lone Ranger) and Native American Tonto into something more than a master/servant sort of relationship.

The casting of Johnny Depp (Dark Shadows) as Tonto didn’t start things off so well.  Though Depp has claimed to have Native American heritage, there were more than a few eyebrows raised when Depp, known for his broadly sketched characters, was cast in a role that already had studio heads sweating.  To the credit of Depp, director Gore Verbinski, and screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio there are strides taken to make Tonto his own man.  Given a back-story, motivations of his own, and ample screen time, the character becomes more central and fleshed out than the title character…so much so that it can feel like overcompensation.  Depp bookends the story under some quite impressive old age make-up and at times I totally forgot the actor was there.

Even though they spend the large majority of the film squabbling, Depp and star Armie Hammer (Mirror, Mirror) have a nice rapport and it’s their eventual team spirit camaraderie that gives the film some much needed steam as it trudges ever closer to its too long two and a half hour running length.

Working with Depp for the third time, Verbinski makes a case for the resurrection of the Western though there are perhaps one too many sweaty bearded men on hand and audiences may feel they need nametags to keep everyone straight.  It’s an efficient if overproduced picture that, while never boring, does meander through its middle section while Tonto and Reid find some footing in their growing friendship.

Though the film markets Helena Bonham Carter (Les Misérables) as a supporting player she’s a glorified cameo with quite limited screen time.  She makes the most of it though in a role that has one or two tricks waiting to be discovered.  William Fichtner (The Dark Knight) is a wonderful character actor equally at home in good or bad roles.  He’s a real bad guy here and the performance would be a highlight…if the appalling decision to give him a cleft palate hadn’t been employed.  It’s pretty much an unforgivable move in my book.  Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina) is memorable as Reid’s sister-in-law who finds herself and her son in trouble when a greedy landowner (Tom Wilkinson, Batman Begins) sets his sights on her and her property.

Halfway through The Lone Ranger I couldn’t help but think of 2012’s John Carter, another mega flop from Walt Disney Studios that I found to be unfairly maligned by critics.  Both films have handsome production values and maybe overreach and oversell in their attempt to make a proper adventure epic.  I feel both films got a bum rap and it’s up to audiences to make the final call