Murder on the Orient Express (2017, Directed by Kenneth Branagh) English 6

Starring Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley

A man, who turns out to be a violent and repulsive criminal, is found dead in his locked room aboard the Orient Express, a train travelling from Turkey to Europe. Unfortunately for the killer, Hercule Poirot is also on the train, and, in his own words, he is probably the greatest detective ever. It’s a classic whodunit scenario: everyone’s a suspect, lots of red herrings. As the second major adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel, after Sidney Lumet’s star-studded take on the material, Branagh’s film follows much of the same formula: a cast full of A-listers with luxuriant art direction and beautiful visuals to bolster Christie’s incredibly clever murder mystery. This film succeeds on many of those same notes: it is truly a gorgeous film, the cast is well-matched to their roles, and the technical skill of the production team is plainly on display at every turn. The main issue here is that it is a whodunit in which I already know the solution (from reading the novel and seeing the previous film adaptation). Branagh does his best to alter the material just enough to feel fresh without being unfaithful to the material. He adds some depth to his understated take on Christie’s greatest detective. I liked his performance. He also adds two red herrings to the story, to some effect, but mainly this film feels too much like a cover band. It’s fine, but not completely necessary.

Last Minute Replacement

Two months ago, the first trailer for Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World came out, just ahead of the release of Blade Runner 2049. One of its big selling points appeared to be Kevin Spacey in layers of special effects makeup as the real-life figure, J. Paul Getty, the richest man in the world for a time, with the plot revolving around Getty’s callous renegotiating of his grandson’s ransom in the 1970s. The film was meant to hit theaters in December, just in time to make Oscar waves. However, Sony now has bigger concerns than whether or not their big movie will get any Oscar love. Last week, Sony announced that they were reshooting all the scenes with Spacey as Getty, using Oscar winner Christopher Plummer instead, in lieu of the recent allegations against the former. That is bizarre. It’s definitely warranted, and if they can pull it off and still push their movie out on time, it’s the right business decision, but it’s absurd to me because we already have a trailer with Spacey.

This trailer is now an artifact. It’s essentially a trailer for a film that doesn’t exist since new actor means new movie in my eyes. Are you familiar with the trailer for Roger Corman’s Fantastic Four (a real trailer for a non-existant film)? This trailer is almost as farcical as that one.

To end on a more positive note, here’s why I think this last minute alteration can be a blessing. Just from a technical standpoint, and not factoring in heinous allegations against Spacey, Christopher Plummer fits the role better. Getty was in his seventies during the film’s events,, which caused Ridley Scott to indulge his worst habit of over-doing the aging special effects. If you look at Spacey in the trailer, his appearance is a distraction rather than a boon for the drama. I’m assuming, since Plummer is nearing 90, that they will let him play the role freely, without this obstruction. Even before recent revelations, I would have preferred Plummer in the role. It should be worth the millions it’s reportedly costing the studio to reshoot J. Paul Getty scenes. Mark Whalberg and Michelle Williams costar.

-Walter Howard-


R.I.P Kevin Spacey

Image result for kevin spacey la confidential death

At the age of 58, Kevin Spacey’s career is now over. After more than three decades in the business, the two-time Oscar winner, Broadway regular, and star of a Netflix series,  will probably never work again. He started out in theater, made a brief appearance in the ’80s flick Working Girl as a creepy boss harassing Melanie Griffith, but the ’90s is when he really hit quite the stride: Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), The Usual Suspects (1995), L.A Confidential (1997), A Bug’s Life (1998), and American Beauty (1999). In recent years, he had revitalized his career by playing a string of villainous roles that includes most prominently, House of Cards for television.  By now, everyone pretty much knows. He is part of the massive hammer being dropped on Hollywood abusers that may have claimed another yesterday in Louis C.K. We’ll see. There’s been a number of claims over the past three weeks. Ever since Harvey Weinstein. Weinstein is as big and powerful as it gets in Hollywood, or was. If he could be brought down, it seems it was only a matter of time before all the guilty followed. Should any of the accused be given the benefit of the doubt? Probably not. There’s no innocent until proven guilty in the court of public opinion, and there has been no reason to defend any of the accused yet. It’s more pertinent to talk about degrees of shame. On one side of the scale, you have the assaulters: Weinstein and Spacey for example. They’re dead. On the opposite side, you have old-school male chauvinism (Trump’s locker room talk), with actors like Dustin Hoffman and Richard Dreyfuss. They used their power as elite movie stars to embarrass females that worked with them. I’m curious to see what kind of penalty there will be (if any) for them. There’s not much one can do to them in terms of taking away work. As opposed to Louis C.K, who has been kicked off of everything. It’s more about how big of a hit will their legacy take. Remember that Errol Flynn slept with underage girls apparently, and I don’t believe it has done much to hurt his fandom or watchability.

-Walter Howard-

Eight Things I Liked About Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Directed by Taika Waititi) English 7

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anthony Hopkins, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo

Chris Hemsworth’s Thor returns for his third solo outing and fifth Marvel film altogether. I could not have cared less. That is, until I saw the trailer, and thought, this looks different. The first Thor movie (2011) was bad. One of my least favorite Marvel films, and Thor himself, was boring. He’s indestructible, devoid of a real personality, and trapped in an unappealing romance with Jane Porter, played by Natalie Portman (I don’t care how attractive the actors are, their relationship was dumb). Then the second film came along, The Dark World (2013), and managed to be even worse. Somehow, fans hung in, and thanks to them, we get this third adventure, directed by New Zealander Taika Waititi. Unfamiliar with his work before seeing the Thor trailer, I have since seen a number of his comedies, and been impressed. They’re funny, and beyond all of the special effects, CGI, and technical brilliance Thor: Ragnarok boasts, it, too, is very funny. Here are the ten things I liked about Marvel’s latest that make it worth seeing:

  1. Thor: Ragnarok is an oddball comedy-There is a lot going for this picture, which I will proceed to list out, but it all comes back to the director’s comedic sensibility. Every scene features some humorous detail or punchline. From the start, to the end, making this a fun picture.
  2. Death of Stoicism-Stoic heroes can be good when a film warrants being taken seriously, or if you have a solid comic foil. Neither of those reasons pertained to the Thor franchise. This time around, they got it right. Gone is the humorless protagonist from previous movies. Hemsworth has even commented, saying he was, “a bit bored” with his character. He, after being the only source of light in the Ghostbusters reboot, proves once again to have comedic chops, and despite the colorful supporting cast, he owns this movie.
  3. Stakes is High-The plot mainly concerns a long lost sister named Hela (played by Blanchett) who returns to Asgard seeking destruction and revenge. When attempting to stand up to her, Thor is defeated easily and his hammer destroyed. This happens at the film’s outset and allows for actual stakes, as we wonder how Thor will be able to stop her. Thor’s still a god, but not as invulnerable.
  4. Thor and Hulk bromance- Thor gets reunited with his old Avengers teammate on the planet Sakaar where the two are forced to fight it out Gladiator style. This sets the tone for their relationship in this movie, a very antagonistic rivalry. Much humor is derived from their arguments over who is stronger, but Thor knows he needs the Hulk if he’s going to stand a chance at Hela.
  5. Jeff Goldblum- He plays Grandmaster, a hedonistic leader of Sakaar, where most of the film takes place, and he almost steals the show. Goldblum was allowed to ad-lib and his humor fits right in with the director’s. I hope they work together more.
  6. Taking Cues from Guardians of the Galaxy-Guardians of the Galaxy hit big by mixing the superhero genre with comedy, huge amounts of color, and an eclectic soundtrack. Thor does that formula better than either Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Standouts from the soundtrack are, of course, Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin and Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
  7. Korg-Voiced and played through Motion Capture by the director, this new character Thor encounters while enslaved as a gladiator is a new favorite. Huge and fearsome looking, his soft-spoken demeanor comes as a wonderful surprise. Marvel even considered some sort of spinoff featuring the character, but have opted for a reappearance in some other Marvel property.
  8. Fresh Love Interest-As mentioned the Jane Porter romance was going nowhere. This entry features a jaded Valkyrie warrior played by Tessa Thompson. More Thor’s equal in fighting, and given a real personality right off the back as she stumbles drunkenly from her ship (she’s the one who captures him, leading to his stint as a gladiator). Interested to see where the Thor-Valkyrie relationship goes.

To wrap it up, Thor was a good deal of fun and a step in the right direction for the franchise. Marvel has given us two strong offerings this year with this and Spiderman: Homecoming which I give the slight edge. My main drawback was the villain, which is a common complaint I feel for the Marvel movies. They do not give as much thought to making their villains compelling as they do everything else. I like that Hela is stronger than Thor as I’ve stated but besides that, she’s not unique. I guess they thought by getting a great actress to play the role, the work was finished. Also, I wish there was more done with the gladiator fighting. I love the idea of fight to the death tournaments (Gladiator, Bloodsport, Enter the Dragon, The Quick and the Dead). It’s a very entertaining premise. All in all, an excellent action-comedy adventure.

-Walter Howard-

American Made (2017, Directed by Doug Liman) English 6

Starring Tom Cruise, Sarah Wright, Domnhall Gleeson, Lola Kirke, Jesse Plemons, Caleb Landry Jones

Barry Seal, a TWA pilot in the ’70s, spirals into the ’80s as a gun and drug runner for the CIA, Pablo Escobar, and much of Central America. I knew none of this, and as a story, apparently true, I found it fascinating. As a movie, I found it competently done, but rather safe. Tom Cruise plays Seal, and he still has enough star power and charisma to guide us along the course of the film. I feel American Made aimed for some of that Wolf of Wall Street chaotic, stranger-than-fiction true story energy and it only partly comes off. It’s a good film, but not one you need to see twice.

Happy Death Day (2017, Directed by Christopher B. Landon) English 6

Starring Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine

By its own implied admission, Happy Death Day borrows/steals heavily from the Bill Murray classic, Groundhog Day. That’s not a problem though, since the premise (an unexplained time loop that causes its selfish protagonist to repeat the same day) is so good, it could go in a dozen possible directions. Here, reworked for the horror genre, a college sorority girl named Tree, is stuck on Monday, September 18th, which happens to be her birthday. Repeating your birthday wouldn’t seem so bad, if not for the brutal serial killer murdering her at the end of every loop. I enjoy a good slasher-whodunit, and Happy Death Day delivers on that count, although it’s more funny than scary. Suffers from downright silliness at times, but is engaging enough to be passable entertainment.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017, Directed by Noah Baumbach) English 7

Starring Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, Emma Thompson, Elizabeth Marvel, Candice Bergen

Episodic dramedy following the lives of the Meyerowitz family led by Harold (Hoffman), a semi-successful sculptor. Danny (Sandler), Matthew (Stiller), and Jean (Marvel), middle-aged adults still cope with being loved too much or not enough by their domineering father. Writer/director Baumbach has been doing terrific work within this niche for a while now, and his latest represents another strong film dealing with the funny and awkward moments that make up his neurotic characters’ lives. Sandler proves once again that he is an excellent actor when he decides to be, and Hoffman gives one of his best performances in many years.