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.

Movie Review ~ mother!


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A couple’s relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I truly wanted to like mother!…I did.  In the weeks leading up to the screening I literally counted the days until it arrived, and if I’m honest it was more for the chance to see Michelle Pfeiffer up on the big screen again.  Still…maybe I set a bar so high that no final product that Darren Aronofsky (Noah) could have delivered would have made the grade.  Then again, the movie winds up being so vile, so grossly arrogant, and with its head so far up its own backside that it’s hard to believe anyone could leave a showing of mother! better off than when they arrived.

No sooner do the lights go down than the image of a woman bathed in flames appears.  A single tear rolls down her cheek and by the end we’ll want to cry too as Aronofsky lays everything on thick for Act 1 of this nightmare.  Not much can be revealed about mother! without leaking several key twists but if you’ve seen the trailer for the movie you’ll get a pretty good taste for what the first half of the movie has to offer.

A young woman (Jennifer Lawrence, Joy) is fixing up her older husband’s childhood home years after it was gutted by a fire.  Without asking her, the husband (Javier Bardem, Skyfall), a famous poet with writers block, welcomes a stranger (Ed Harris, The Abyss) and his wife (Pfeiffer, Dark Shadows) into their house and that opens the door for a bevy of visitors with their own inexplicable agendas.  Even before Harris arrives, the relationship between Lawrence and Bardem is so awkward you’re already curious what kind of power he has over her.  She allows him to make all the decisions, rarely challenges him, and barely raises an eyebrow when he doesn’t seem to notice that the visitors are odd with a capital O.

For a while, mother! hums along with a decent amount of atmosphere and head scratching developments that Aronofsky somehow manages to stay one step ahead of.  Lawrence plays the role with such wide-eyed growing dread that I half wonder if she was fed her scenes one at a time and didn’t know where it was all heading.  Bardem sure seems to know, though, and he starts to gnaw on the scenery in no time flat which puts him in a plum position as the film reaches its zenith about 75 minutes in.  From there it quickly descends into a delirious mess and while it gets advanced brownie points for its boldness it loses them in the same breath for going to such an abysmally rank place in its finale.  I was a bit appalled to tell you the truth, not so much for one seriously gory stomach churning curveball but for extended scenes of violence toward Lawrence that just felt so wrong.

Aronofksy and Lawrence are a well-publicized power couple in Hollywood and if this is the kind of movie Aronofsky writes and directs for someone he loves, I can’t even imagine what he’d do for someone he can’t stand.  A snuff film, maybe?  His previous works are just as divisive as mother! is sure to be but, save for Requiem for a Dream which even he couldn’t top for sheer Grand Guignol chutzpah, at the end of the day the final message he’s delivering doesn’t seem wholly original or meaningful.  In past movies, he’s tackled drug abuse, man’s inhumanity to man, and paralyzing ambition…here he’s trying to speak to everyone on the planet and the reach is too much.

Like Natalie Portman in Aronofksy’s brilliant Black Swan, Lawrence is in nearly every frame of the movie and she’s well cast in a terrible role.  Why she doesn’t just pack her bag and head out the door each time her husband does something looney tunes is maybe the biggest mystery of the entire film.  When she does decide to head for the hills, she’s pregnant and her house is being invaded by hordes of people (including Kristin Wiig, The Martian, who pops up in the briefest and strangest of cameos billed as ‘the herald’) who are there for her husband.

You’ll be surprised to find out just how little Harris and Pfeiffer are in the movie…and more’s the pity because what the final half of the movie needed is the spark Pfeiffer brings to each of her scenes that are front-loaded into the first hour of the film.  Always a favorite of mine, Pfeiffer is gleefully loosey-goosey as a gin-soaked annoyance who pushes Lawrence’s buttons with delight.  She’s rarely been this relaxed in the last decade of her career and while it isn’t the Oscar-winning performance the studio is gunning for, she’s the best thing about the movie by a longshot.

With dizzying camerawork by Iron Man’s Matthew Libatique (seriously, bring a barf bag) and a purposefully irritating sound design, the technical elements are sharp as a tack in true Aronofsky style.  The sound is so specific by making sure you hear each floorboard creak and droplet of water falling in a copper sink that there are times when I swear you can hear the actors blink.  A little of that goes a long way and by the finale when all hell is breaking loose (literally) it becomes an overwhelming cacophony of visuals and sound that you’ll be desperate to break free of.

While I just can’t bring myself in good faith to endorse this one, if anything, mother! will be a fun movie to dissect over drinks after…but take my advice and steer clear of food before, during, and after.  While there was potential for something interesting to take shape with the strong elements Aronofsky has assembled, at the end of it all I just wanted my mother…to give the director a good whack upside the head.

The Silver Bullet ~ mother!

Synopsis: A couple’s relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence.

Release Date: September 15, 2017

Thoughts: Oh let’s just face facts, they had me at Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s always a special joy to see Pfeiffer (Grease 2) onscreen at any time and we’re fortunate that she’s popping up in so many places in 2017.  Before she boards Murder on the Orient Express in November, she’s going to be seen in Darren Aronofsky’s strange little thriller mother! (no capital letters for this guy!) this September.  This looks like it’s either going to be a nasty little nightmare that Aronofsky is so good at or a total mess which would be pretty unfortunate considering the stellar cast assembled.  I wince a bit at 27 year old Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) married to 48 year old Javier Bardem (Skyfall) but let’s hope Aronofsky offers an explanation within the first reel.  Ed Harris (The Abyss) also stars but it’s Pfeiffer looking snazzy and sinister that seals this deal for me.

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 ~ The Family

family

The Facts:

Synopsis: The Manzoni family, a notorious mafia clan, is relocated to Normandy, France under the witness protection program, where fitting in soon becomes challenging as their old habits die hard.

Stars: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Domenick Lombardozzi

Director: Luc Besson

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going in to see The Family.  As a fan of Michelle Pfeiffer, I knew that my seeing this was an inevitable event but based on the trailer and seriously boring title I just didn’t know how the whole thing was going to turn out.  Would it be another in a long line of Robert De Niro films that seemed to get made only because he signed on the dotted line?  Or would it be the kind of daring European action film that director Luc Besson first rose to fame for?

Well, it turns out that the movie can’t ever really decide what genre it wants to fit into so it instead just lays down and rolls around several different themes all at the same time.  That may not work for most movie audiences and it’s not surprising that people are coming away from the film feeling a little empty, but I found the film to be an interesting potpourri of tones that worked more often than not – even if it’s more than a little odd.

Moving into a new European town after an incident necessitated their hasty retreat; a family in the witness protection program find themselves in the quaint/quiet town of Normandy in France.  Taking up residence in a money pit-esque dwelling, the Manzoni’s clearly are getting old hat at the process of moving from one town to another.  Dad (a more low-key than usual De Niro, Being Flynn, Silver Linings Playbook) just wants to settle in and write his memoirs, to the horror of the long-suffering FBI agent (Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln, Hope Springs) assigned to their case.  Michelle Pfeiffer (Dark Shadows, People Like Us) is De Niro’s wife with anger issues of her own, eventually turning to the church for help, spilling her secrets in confession that leads to a moderately nice payoff.  The kids (Diana Agron and John D’Leo) are fashioned as doppelgangers of their parents and both give off a playful vibe, even as they find themselves in hot water at school.

As the family is getting acclimated to their new town, we also follow a creepy crime henchman (Jon Freda) that continues his hunt for De Niro and his brood after De Niro became a turncoat to his Mafia family.  It’s in these scenes that wind up leading to an out of left field tension filled finale that the film may confuse some people.  The passages with the family are given a light touch that belies the darker tone brought on by Freda’s intense chase.

For me, it worked.  I enjoyed that the film feels different than what it would have been were it produced in your typical Hollywood fashion.  That it was made in Europe by a European crew and director has given the film a golden hue and the chance to take risks with its twists and turns.  By the time the film reached its finale I wasn’t sure how it was all going to work out for everyone involved.

Sure, the film has several extraneous storylines that could have been trimmed to keep the running length to 90 or so minutes but the actors play these moments so well that it’s forgivable.  It may be harder to forgive one of the most laughably contrived cases of coincidence since, well, ever, but by that point the movie had won me over enough to just brush it off.  There’s also a wonderfully weird bit where De Niro is feted by a local film society who has asked him to come and speak to the finer points of the classic film…no…no…I won’t spoil that moment for you.

Returning after several years of being absent from the director’s chair, Luc Besson (Leon: The Professional and The Fifth Element) brings his trademark cinematic flair to The Family and navigates it’s up and down and crisscrossed tones with ease.  I’ve always enjoyed Besson’s creative way of cutting from one scene to the next and he keeps the pace going, even when his screenplay based on the novel Malavita doesn’t fully support itself.

The Family isn’t a movie that you’ll need to see in the theaters but would make for an interesting watch when it finds its way into the home viewing market.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Family

1

family

Synopsis: The Manzoni family, a notorious mafia clan, is relocated to Normandy, France under the witness protection program, where fitting in soon becomes challenging as their old habits die hard.

Release Date:  September 20, 2013

Thoughts: Despite having one of the most lackluster titles in film history (why not just call it, That One Film with Robert DeNiro and Michelle Pfeiffer?) it’s hard for me to feel like I want to pass up a movie with Pfeiffer (Grease 2, Dark Shadows) because she works so rarely now and seems to choose projects that are of real interest to her.  True, they may not always be on the money (see Dark Shadows) but they are rarely boring.  DeNiro (Silver Linings Playbook, Being Flynn) is another story with the veteran actor making some ghastly films in the past decade.  Another bit of interest is that the film is directed by French auteur Luc Besson (The Fifth Element, La Femme Nikita, The Professional) who has stuck to producing action flicks (Taken 2, Lockout) so his return is welcome in my book.  Looking like a dark mix of mafia comedy, The Family (originally titled Malavita) probably won’t rank as career highs for anyone involved but it might turn out to be a decent romp.  We shall see.