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)

Movie Review ~ Cinderella (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When her father unexpectedly passes away, young Ella finds herself at the mercy of her cruel stepmother and her daughters. Never one to give up hope, Ella’s fortunes begin to change after meeting a dashing stranger in the woods.

Stars: Lily James, Helena Bonham Carter, Cate Blanchett, Stellan Skarsgård, Derek Jacobi, Nonso Anozie, Holliday Grainger, Richard Madden, Sophie McShera

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I remember being none too plussed when it was announced that Walt Disney Pictures would be giving their timeless classic Cinderella the live-action treatment. Could you really blame a fella for worrying that the studio that turned their lovely Alice in Wonderland into a madcap mind meld that wasn’t even interesting to look at (it’s one of the few films in recent memory that lulled me to sleep behind my 3D glasses) would muck it all up again by sending another valued animated classic into the live-action void just in time for its 65th anniversary?

Turns out that the studio saw the error of their ways (even though an Alice sequel is in the works…shudder shudder) and took a very traditional approach to bringing the tale of the orphaned girl that slept in the cinders who gets to go to a ball courtesy of a fairy godmother to the screen. Well, traditional isn’t really the right word because that suggests something perhaps more serviceable than memorable…and this Cinderella might just be a classic all its own.

With a script from Chris Weitz (A Better Life) that hits all the proper beats of Charles Perrault’s pristine fairy tale, this Cinderella is a gossamer gown of a film that beats with a heart that’s true. It’s so rare these days to be able to describe a film as celebrating goodness without passing out an airsick bag to anyone that’s listening but even at its most saccharine (and it does get ever so close to diabetic-shock inducing sweetness) there’s something so totally winning and, yes, enchanting to be found in every frame.

The look and feel that director Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) brings to the screen can be attributed to Branagh’s classy Shakespearean roots, as well as Haris Zambarloukos’s (Thor) unobtrusive cinematography, Dante Ferretti’s (Hugo) striking production design, and Sandy Powell’s (The Wolf of Wall Street) gorgeous costumes. All of these production elements work in harmony to create a world of fantasy that doesn’t seem so hard to believe in.

Branagh has assembled a cast that are across the board perfect for their roles. Though she’s playing a damsel in need of a Prince’s salvation (which could be enough to make any grrrl power supporter raise an eyebrow or two), Lily James never lets her Cinderella be pitied. Though suffering through the tragic loss of her beloved parents and forced into servitude to a wicked trio of women, she never loses the goodness inside her or the search for the goodness she believes is in everyone else. She’s matched well by Richard Madden’s restless Prince, handsome and quite dashing is the name of Madden’s game. James and Madden create some palpably chaste chemistry, so by the time the two meet when James makes the kind of entrance usually reserved for a Broadway stage, we long to see them kiss more than anything else.

Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) has a devil of a fun time as the wicked stepmother and is wise enough to understand that she’s in a sophisticated re-thinking of Cinderella, resisting the urge to camp it up. Hers is a porcelain doll of a performance, never showing the cracks underneath until very near the end when some believable rationale for her treatment of her stepdaughter is revealed. Blanchett gets to wear Powell’s most gorgeous frocks and the actress revels in every moment onscreen.

Wicked stepsisters Holliday Grainger (Anna Karenina) and Sophie McShera may not be as comical as their animated counterparts, but they balance it nicely by being such refreshingly clueless dingbats. Derek Jacobi has several wise scenes as the King and Nonso Anozie (The Grey) is particularly impressive as the Prince’s trusted right-hand man. I could have done without a largely unnecessary political subplot involving Stellan Skarsgård, it’s the one weak spot in an otherwise rock-solid film.

Oh yes…let’s talk about Helena Bonham-Carter’s (The Lone Ranger) daffy Fairy Godmother. Sporting some interesting veneers, the actress is a looney treat as she bibbity bobbity boo’s her way through her short appearance onscreen. Her transformation of Cinderella, several four-legged friends, and one pumpkin into a troupe fit for a palace ball is, of course, a highlight.

This is one of those movie-going experiences I call a 1-101. It’s perfect for any age and moves briskly enough to hold your attention…not that you’d be bored with the sumptuous costumes and shimmering magic on display. I rarely see movies twice in the theater but this is one I’m looking forward to experiencing on the big screen again. Don’t forget to stay until the end for some familiar tunes!

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Cinderella is great entertainment on its own…but the good feelings start even before the credits roll because Disney is also releasing a new Frozen short before the film and it’s nearly worth the price of admission itself.

Picking up shortly after the events of Frozen, Frozen Fever finds ice princess Elsa planning the perfect birthday party for her sister Anna. Things don’t go quite as planned as Elsa comes down with a…wait for it…cold. With sneezes that produce mini snowmen (Disney’s attempt to Minion-ize their cash cow of a franchise), Elsa sings her way through her party plans while Olaf and Kristoff help out in their own way. The song featured here is no Let It Go (parents, you’ll be glad!) but it displays the same playful fun that won the same songwriters an Oscar a year ago.

It’s a truly delightful 7 minutes, so don’t be late!

Movie Review ~ Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Jack Ryan, as a young covert CIA analyst, uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack.

Stars: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Peter Andersson, Kenneth Branagh, David Paymer, Colm Feore

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: The only thing Hollywood seems to love more than a remake is a reboot and we’ve certainly had our fair share of those in the last several years….some good (Batman Begins), some iffy (The Bourne Legacy) and some disappointing (Man of Steel).  Then you have reboots like The Amazing Spider-Man, which are more puzzling than anything else.  Why kickstart something new if you don’t have anything remarkable to add?

You can toss Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to the garbage pile though because it’s a disappointing waste of time, talent, and resources.  A character that was brought to life on the pages of Tom Clancy’s bestselling novels and in four previous film outings has been reduced to a standard grade action hero that’s light on the action and questionable on the hero.

First appearing in 1990’s The Hunt For Red October (and played by Alec Baldwin), Ryan played second fiddle to Sean Connery’s defecting Russian sub commander.  When Baldwin wasn’t available for 1992’s Patriot Games, producers nabbed their original first choice Harrison Ford to take over as the CIA analyst in a film that was a slickly made bona fide commercial affair.  Returning in 1994 for Clear and Present Danger, Ford’s second outing was a more somber picture, almost the polar opposite of the tight packaging of its predecessor.  A half-hearted attempt to re-launch the franchise was made in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears with Ben Affleck not totally able to bear the weight of it all.

Instead of  remaking a previous Jack Ryan film or delving into the other five novels Clancy included him in, the studio went the Muppet Babies approach and just chose to turn back time and start over again with Ryan now injured in a post 9-11 Afghanistan rather than during a routine exercise.  Even worse is that they repurposed an existing script for a generic action film and just plugged in Ryan and a few others familiar to fans of the novels and tried to make a go at it.  What we’re left with is a script barely better than a failed NBC pilot and thrilling action sequences that are missing any sort of thrills.

I knew we were in trouble even before the title came up when the first shot of Chris Pine’s Jack Ryan involved a badly coiffed wig.  Pine has found great success in outer space (Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness) but has struggled with films of the earthy variety (though I liked it, People Like Us, was a bomb).   While Pine may have the requisite All American boy scout looks like would go well with any vision of Jack Ryan one may have, the script affords him no favors with wooden dialogue and a plot involving financial ruin that would makes sense only if you weren’t really paying attention.

As his quasi-mentor, Kevin Costner (Draft Day, who would have made a great Jack Ryan back in the day) doesn’t work up much of a sweat since I’m almost positive there are no shots of him doing anything but standing still or sitting down.  Costner seems as bored as we are and I find myself missing his early days when he could deliver a line with a sly sideways glance and make even the most cornball of situations amusing.

Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina, A Dangerous Method) doesn’t close her mouth the entire film, opting to let it just hang open whenever she doesn’t have much to do…which is the majority of the time.  Though the film tries to put her in the middle of the action late in the game her ship has sailed by then and she just gets in the way – until she suddenly becomes useful when the film needs her most.

Actually, there are several of these moments in the movie where a heretofore useless character magically becomes the expert in a field they know nothing about.  Take Ryan himself for instance; the entirety of the movie has Pine saying things like “I’m not cut out for this” and “I can’t do that”, only to gloriously rise up to astounding heights at the opportune moment.  If it was a result of the character finding some inner strength or deeper knowledge that’s one thing but it’s almost as if lines meant for someone else were accidentally spoken by a different character and no one noticed.

Someone should have noticed though and some of that falls on Kenneth Branagh who seems to gain a new mole for each movie he directs as well as stars in.  As a Russian businessman with plans to throw the economy into ruin through a seriously dated (and tremendously gauche) terror attack, he gets the accent down but follows through on little else.  Like his directorial duties in Thor, Branagh shows a strange lack of a big picture view…almost forgetting that he’s in charge of a huge movie.

I wouldn’t say that I exactly had high hopes for the film but I was at least looking forward to something entertaining.  The shortest Ryan film at less than 105 minutes, the film feels hours longer mostly because Branagh has a plethora of shots with people just staring at each other and not speaking like some Ingmar Bergman flick.  The film had my sympathy when it was bumped from its primo holiday spot by Paramount when The Wolf of Wall Street ironed out its kinks…but Paramount clearly knew that it was better to give Wolf a go and leave Jack to wallow in the shadows.

Please…leave Jack Ryan alone.

Down From the Shelf ~ Thor

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The powerful but arrogant god Thor is cast out of Asgard to live amongst humans in Midgard (Earth), where he soon becomes one of their finest defenders.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgard, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Josh Dallas, Tadanobu Asano, Idris Elba, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Buoyed by the enormous success of Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Marvel sought to continue toward its ultimate goal of making what would become the 2012 blockbuster The Avengers by releasing Thor in May of 2011.  Re-watching the film again before taking in its 2013 sequel, Thor: The Dark World, I was again reminded why Thor was my least favorite of the Marvel films franchise so far.

In the two years since I originally saw Thor theatrically Marvel has also released Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man 3 and these films have only served to solidify my thoughts that Thor doesn’t work as well for me  because so much of it is set primarily in a world of CGI fantasy.  Whereas characters like Iron Man and Captain America operate in a world not so far away from our own recognizable metropolis capitals, Thor’s land of Asgard is a nicely rendered but ultimately too shiny a façade to keep my interest.

It doesn’t help that Thor has the least interesting characters and villains in the Marvel Universe so it’s hard to get attached to any of them.  While he fared better in The Avengers, Chris Hemsworth (Rush, Cabin in the Woods) is a sullen dud as Thor, confusing rote glowering for juvenile indignation when he doesn’t get his way.  When he’s banished from his homeland and left powerless in the deserts of New Mexico where he’s rescued by astrophysicist Jane (Natalie Portman, fresh from her Best Actress Oscar win for Black Swan) who happens to be studying the very wormhole that brought him to Earth.

In a plot that mines some of Shakespeare’s best works (no wonder Bard-indebted actor Kenneth Branagh is in the director’s chair here), Thor must come up against his half-brother Loki (a benignly sinister Tom Hiddleston) to stop him from taking the throne as the heir of Asgard and plunging the world into a frozen wasteland.  The familiar themes of a royal family betrayal are a nice complement to the mythology of the superhero but a lack of original battle sequences and climax that feels rushed ultimately lets the film and audience members down.

The big budget bucks are fully on display here and, don’t get me wrong, though the film is effects heavy it looks great.  It’s just so different from the other Marvel films (so far) that I always knew I was watching a film that existed within its own rules.  There’s something about seeing Iron Man/Tony Stark pursued by various nasties through an urban earthly landscape that speaks to me more than watching Thor dangle dangerously on the edge of an impressive but obviously effects created black hole.

As with every Marvel film there are fun cameos, hidden clues that tie the film to other movies, and hints at what’s next to come.  The final scene in the end credits was directed by The Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon because it served as a bridge toward the opening scenes of Whedon’s awesome summer blockbuster.  There’s also a quick appearance by Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy, American Hustle) as Clint Barton/Hawkeye who would become a major player that next summer.

A solid super-hero flick with a spattering of theatrical drama, Thor is still low on my Marvel list but does serve its purpose of introducing The God of Thunder to whole new legion of fans.

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The Silver Bullet ~ Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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Synopsis: Jack Ryan, as a young covert CIA analyst, uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack.

Release Date:  January 17, 2014

Thoughts: Poor Jack Ryan…he can’t catch much of a break.  The star of Tom Clancy’s bestselling novels has already shown up in four screen outings and his latest screen adventure was set to open in a prime late December spot…until The Wolf of Wall Street was pushed back, taking good ‘ole Jack’s place.  Perhaps moving this reboot from the crowded Christmas season will be a good thing but I can’t imagine director Kenneth Branagh and stars Chris Pine (Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness) and Keira Knightly (Anna Karenina) were all that pleased with the last minute shuffle.  I’m not sure I love the idea of moving Jack Ryan back into his youth…he’s been played by three different actors so far (Alec Baldwin in The Hunt for Red October, Harrison Ford in Patriot Games {my favorite} and Clear and Present Danger, and Ben Affleck in The Sum of All Fears) and I think I prefer the character to have a few more miles on him.