Murder on the Orient Express (Full Review)

Who doesn’t love a good murder mystery? This genre can be just as suspenseful as any action movie and just as emotional as any drama. And when at their best, murder mysteries can give us some amazing twists and turns. First published in 1934, Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie is one of the most iconic in the genre and makes for a compelling film adaptation.

Murder_on_the_Orient_Express_teaser_posterKenneth Branagh (Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Cinderella) directs this film and plays the lead role of Inspector Hercule Poirot, the world’s greatest detective in 1934. After solving a case in Jerusalem, Poirot is invited by his train conductor friend (Tom Bateman) to take a vacation aboard the Orient Express. But his leisurely trip is cut short when a shady businessman (Johnny Depp) is murdered on the train. Among the suspects are the businessman’s secretary (Josh Gad), a rich divorcee (Michelle Pfeiffer), a doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), a mysterious governess (Daisy Ridley), a stingy princess (Judi Dench) and her assistant (Olivia Colman), a deeply religious former nanny (Penelope Cruz), a racist German (Willem Dafoe), and a slew of other passengers with dirty secrets.

The film’s murder mystery aspect doesn’t disappoint. The clues are strategically relayed to the audience through the eyes of the wise and charismatic Poirot so that things never drag. Every so often, a new wrinkle is introduced to throw the audience off of the scent so that by the time the truth is revealed it feels genuinely surprising and exciting. Each cast member effectively does their part and their characters are each given enough flaws to make even the most likable a logical suspect.

Things aren’t all perfect. There is a ton of information thrown into the movie that at times make things difficult to follow. It also feels like there are a few too many suspects to keep up with. Some characters are underdeveloped and their arcs are tossed to the wayside making them feel wholly unnecessary except for a scene or two. The film’s narrative attempts to make some moral commentary that feels somewhat preachy by the climax, but overall it shouldn’t distract from a story that delivers on intrigue and suspense.

FINAL GRADE: B

 

 

Advertisements

Justice League (Full Review)

Dreary, uninspired, and virtually tone deaf to the decades of phenomenal source material that came before it… the more you think about it, the more Batman v Superman feels like a train wreck. But Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman showed that DC and Warner Bros. has some footing. Now comes Justice League, the original super team of marquee heroes hoping to keep the DC Extended Universe from completely derailing.

Justice_League_film_posterFollowing the events of 2016’s Dawn of Justice, Justice League begins with Batman (Ben Affleck), his trusted butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons), and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) struggling to pick up the pieces following the death of Superman (Henry Cavill). When an alien god (Ciaran Hinds) who was once thwarted by Amazons and warriors from Atlantis returns to conquer Earth, Batman and Wonder Woman must recruit more metahumans to oppose him. Joining them are nerdy speedster Barry Allen aka The Flash (Ezra Miller), macho half-man, half Atlantian Arthur Curry aka the Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) a former football star who is fused with alien technology by his father (Joe Morton) after a near fatal accident. But to prevent the apocalypse, they’ll need to quickly gel as a team and find a way to resurrect the Man of Steel himself.

Justice League is by no means a polished movie. After an untimely and unfortunate exit from Director Zack Snyder, Avengers helmsmen Joss Whedon was brought in to finish the job. It is pretty noticeable in a few cringeworthy scenes where the reshoots and edits are glaringly obvious and out of place amidst the finished product. Not helping matters is the generic plot and somewhat rushed together opening act that attempts to pull together several characters never fully introduced on screen before.

But since when does having a flimsy plot make a superhero movie not entertaining? Audiences collectively gushed over Avengers even though it was about a random alien invasion bringing together a rag tag group just the same. And several of the touted Marvel films involve finding a magical mcguffin to thwart a megalomaniac. So the overarching narrative shouldn’t distract from the excitement when the tone is balanced, the action is intense, and the chemistry between characters works.

Justice League succeeds in the most important aspects of the genre. The chemistry between the heroes works wonderfully without compromising the more serious tone of the established universe. Affleck is brooding, but slyly exuberant and more balanced as Batman this time around. Fisher brings toughness and soul as Cyborg. Miller and Momoa are both boyishly comical in their roles and Gal Gadot is just as sophisticated and elegant as she’s been in every role as the Amazon warrior. Even Henry Cavill’s Superman, who swoops in as the team’s resident cheat code in the climax (it’s not that big of a spoiler. Trust me), manages to feel like a welcomed fit amongst the group. His charming boy scout routine works well in its small dose and manages to elevate another dull showing by Amy Adams as Lois Lane.

The action, though heavy on the CGI, is well paced and exhilarating with each team member getting a moment to flex their muscle. Several sequences, including one involving Connie Nielsen and the Amazons from Wonder Woman, are downright show stoppers. More importantly, characters finally feel true to their comic cores, so DC fan boys who have been waiting for the big screen films to be as engaging as the studio’s animated properties will have enough to feel satisfied. So while Justice League doesn’t break any new narrative ground and may only be wholly memorable to comic purists, it succeeds in rectifying the wrongs of Batman v Superman and showing that the DCEU does know how to put something fun together without completely losing its knack for spectacle and an emotional foundation.

FINAL GRADE: B

A Bad Moms Christmas (Full Review)

This year’s obligatory Christmas film that releases the day after Halloween is A Bad Moms Christmas. 2016’s Bad Moms was a wholehearted tribute to mom’s everywhere. And even though many of its raunchy jokes failed to land and its script often felt cartoonish, a solid cast with good chemistry helped it get its point across. But that doesn’t mean there’s more story to be told with these characters.

BadMomsChristmasA Bad Moms Christmas once again follows the lives of three middle-aged mothers whose individual crazy mothers come to visit them for the holidays and threaten to ruin their planned stress free Christmas. Amy (Mila Kunis)’s relationship with her snooty, overbearing mother (Christine Baranski) threatens to drive a wedge between her and her kids on the first holiday since her divorce. Sweet and docile Kiki (Kristen Bell) must find a way to tell her clingy, widowed mother (Cheryl Hines) to give her space . Meanwhile, resident bad girl Carla (Kathryn Hahn) just hopes her gambling, vagabond, mooch of a mother (Susan Sarandon) will stick around.

The first Bad Moms is hardly a year past its release, and the short time table between films is pretty noticeable in the script for this sequel. A Bad Moms Christmas seems like it was filmed in a day, with the story following a predictable arc and many of the scenes being nonsensical filler. The rushed execution also tends to rely on raunchy potty humor and foul language to get the audience laughing more than comedic timing. As a result, despite having some touch of endearment, this watered down continuation may be a fun romp for die hard mom’s who loved the first film, but anyone who expects anything better, or even something memorable, will be sorely disappointed.

FINAL GRADE: D

The Dark Tower (Full Review)

When you think of Stephen King, horror films like The Shining, Carrie, and It are the first things that come to mind. But in his decades of creating literary classics, he’s also managed to create one of the best selling fantasy series’. I’ve never read The Dark Tower but have always been vaguely familiar with some of the story elements and concepts. With King’s track record, I went into the film adaptation of his 1982 novel with modest optimism.

The_Dark_Tower_teaser_posterThe Dark Tower film tells the story of a boy named Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) who begins having visions of a parallel world. In those visions, Jake sees that a man in black (Matthew McConaughey) is kidnapping psychic children and trying to use them to destroy the dark tower that protects each world from a realm of evil monsters. Once he realizes his visions are real, Jake journeys into the parallel world and joins forces with Roland (Idris Elba), the last remaining gunslinger charged with protecting the tower.

Although the source material predates a lot of films in the genre, the fact that a film version is just being made doesn’t do The Dark Tower any favors. Several moments, like the bullied teenage main character, come off extremely cliché. The plot almost plays out like a bedtime story for children, spouting out pieces of its vast mythology and expecting the audience to catch on or not ask any deeper questions.

But there is an overall simplicity to the story that actually feels refreshing. In a time where so many science fiction films are bloated with two hour long convoluted plots and unnecessary characters, this movie feels fairly concise. McConaughey’s villain is imposing even if his motivations are juvenile, and Idris Elba delivers his performance with the necessary dose of grizzled swagger to make him both likable and heroic.

As a person who never read the books, I fully understand that there is a better version of this story. But holding it to the standard of simply being entertaining, The Dark Tower works. The action sequences, though reaching Wanted levels of ridiculous, have a keen rhythm to them that make them fairly fun. So despite the fact that it doesn’t reinvent the wheel and never truly feels as compelling as other summer blockbusters, The Dark Tower is a fairly decent time at the movies if you are a fan of the genre.

FINAL GRADE: B

My 10 Least Favorite Movies of 2016

You should never take negativity into the new year. So before the calendar turns, let’s get the countdown of the worst movies in 2016 out of the way. As always, I don’t get a chance to catch every movie, and the bad flicks slip through the cracks way more than the good ones do. So there are plenty of movies that won’t make this list because I never got around to wasting my time watching them. Also, full disclosure: If you’re looking for movies like Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, or Passengers, there’s a difference between disappointing and virtually unwatchable so those 2-hour balls of depression managed to miss the cut. Click on the title to get the full review. And of course, have a happy and safe New Year everyone.

  1. OFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY

Office Christmas Party seems to inefficiently operate with the idea that loud and outrageous always equals funny. It doesn’t”

  1. ANGRY BIRDS

everything… about the film, from its relatively flat sight gags and slapstick humor to the overly kinetic plot, is an absolute mess. The story flows like a concept being pitched by an imaginative 4th grader who’s making it all up as he’s playing the game for the first time”

  1. WARCRAFT

a bland script and a plot void of any real surprises gives us a cast of generic characters that lack the charm or unique qualities to make them stand out as memorable. The result is a movie that struggles to make anyone care who, like me, never played the games.”

  1. RIDE ALONG 2

“Ride Along 2 just isn’t funny and like its predecessor, relies on the same tricks to try and justify its existence.”

  1. KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES

“It almost feels like a Saturday Night Live parody of something more interesting. The plot has no twists or unexpected turns making it feel like something written in a day”

  1. THE DIVERGENT SERIES: ALLEGIANT

“Allegiant isn’t quite as droll as Insurgent, but it is bad for entirely new, avoidable reasons. Shoddy CGI and a few segments of noticeable green screen make the movie look cringe worthy in certain spots”

  1. GODS OF EGYPT

“this movie manages to be chocked full of as many plot holes as action sequences…  The fact that the film is poorly cast, filled with hardly relevant/unlikable characters that do idiotic things, and is about 30 minutes too long all make for an unpleasant overall experience.”

  1. WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS

“These movies usually involve stalker tendencies, blackmail, and the inevitable violent showdown at the end, but this movie does the bare minimum to even qualify as a thriller. I gave The Perfect Guy an ‘F’ last year, and this movie is significantly less watchable.”

  1. THE BOSS

“This may very well be McCarthy’s worst film. I spent the first 45 minutes waiting to laugh and even after the movie was over I had trouble recollecting a single funny moment.”

  1. INDEPENDENCE DAY: RESURGENCE

“I searched myself for over 24 hours for something enjoyable about this film. Make no mistake, Independence Day: Resurgence is a loud, clumsy and hollow sequel that taints the legacy of its predecessor.”

HONORABLE MENTION: Now You See Me 2, The Legend of Tarzan, The Perfect Match

 

Holiday Quick Reviews

trolls_film_logoTROLLS One of the most popular children’s toys of the 90’s becomes a kids movie, ‘cause why not? Anna Kendrick stars as Poppie, princess of the happy-go lucky singing trolls who must team up with surly troll Branch (Justin Timberlake) to rescue her friends from big goblins who believe that eating the trolls are the only way to be happy. The movie is filled with covers of popular songs and a message about true happiness being something that comes from within not from what you put into your body or what you materially gain.

Filled with bright colors and enough pep to make even the most whimsical person gag a little, Trolls can be a bit much to any viewer over the age of five. Most of it I found downright annoying (the Trolls literally hug every hour). The plot, which feels almost exactly like the Smurfs, doesn’t take very many risks and none of the supporting characters do anything of significance. So while it may be a movie to take your kids to, if you don’t have any little ones, you might want to pass. FINAL GRADE: C

allied_filmALLIED Brad Pitt stars as Max, a Canadian spy who infiltrates Casablanca with a French spy (Marian Cotillard) named Marianne on a mission to assassinate a Nazi general. While posing as husband and wife, the two fall in love and once their mission is over, they marry in London and give birth to a baby girl in the midst of World War II. A year later, Max’s superiors suspect that his wife is actually a German spy and give him orders to kill her if their suspicions turn out to be true.

The film is intriguing throughout and carries a mysterious tone that makes it a worthy thriller. The problems stem from the relationship between Pitt and Cotillard’s characters. The two are great actors with solid chemistry, but the romance never truly has time to develop. Everything seems rushed in the beginning so it takes Pitt’s amicably desperate performance to even make us care whether Marianne lives or dies. Things wrap up well in the climax, but a better conceived construction of the romance would’ve made the film stand out much more. FINAL GRADE: B

nocturnal_animals_posterNOCTURNAL ANIMALS This dark and gritty film stars Amy Adams as Susan Morrow, an art gallery owner who’s marriage to a wealthy businessman (Armie Hammer) is slowly fading. One day, Susan receives an early copy of her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal)’s novel, Nocturnal Animals. In the story within a story, a husband (Gyllenhaal) on a road trip encounters thugs (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who kidnap his wife (Isla Fisher) and daughter, forcing him to get the help of a local sheriff (Michael Shannon) to find them. As Susan reads the violently grim story, she begins to notice the undertones that hearken to her past relationship.

There’s a way to be poignant and powerful without being overtly graphic. And here, director Tom Ford (yes the fashion designer) doesn’t seem to know whether he’s making a drama, a thriller, or a horror film. The overall narrative is void of subtlety and he seems hell bent on beating you over the head with blunt imagery that horrifies more than intrigues culminating in an equally depressing, albeit fitting, climax. The performances are strong, and sure, not all movie need to have a happy message, but watching a film should never feel as uncomfortable as it does here. FINAL GRADE: C-

office_christmas_partyOFFICE CHRISTMAS PARTY It isn’t the holidays without a Rated-R holiday comedy. This year’s designated film in the genre unites an all-star cast  (Jenifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Olivia Munn, Kate McKinnon, T.J. Miller, and Courtney B. Vance) in an outrageous twist on a holiday tradition. In the film, a failing software company seeks to avoid the closing of their branch by wooing a high end client with a Project X style party in their New York office building.

But, this isn’t remotely as charismatic or fun as Project X. None of the characters seem to have chemistry and most of them aren’t effective in this style of comedy. The ones that are (specifically Miller and McKinnon) seem bogged down by a script that doesn’t know how to flesh out characters. Even the party scenes that are supposed to be hilarious, seem recycled or forced. Last year’s The Night Before was a goofy, but fun romp that gave each of it’s leads time to be funny in their own way, but Office Christmas Party seems to inefficiently operate with the idea that loud and outrageous always equals funny. It doesn’t. FINAL GRADE: D

When the Bough Breaks (Full Review)

Morris Chestnut sure likes to make movies where he is engulfed in a love triangle with a murderous psychopath. Last fall, he was in The Perfect Guy (if you can call fifteen minutes of screen time being “in” the movie).That movie was awful. This time around Chestnut takes the lead role in a film with a much different twist on the fatal attraction thriller.

when_the_bough_breaks_2016_filmChestnut plays John, a lawyer on the verge of making partner at his firm who is married to a beautiful, successful chef named Laura (Regina Hall). After several unsuccessful attempts at conceiving a baby, the two place their last embryo in the hands (or uterus) of a shy girl named Anna (Jaz Sinclair) who is more than willing to be their surrogate. After a violent night with her abusive boyfriend (Theo Rossi), Anna is invited to live with John and Laura leading to a creepy obsession with John that threatens his career, his marriage, and his unborn child.

There is a certain soap opera, turn your brain off and watch, type of intrigue to films like this. So even when they’re awful audiences can find some type of enjoyment with them. And yet, When the Bough Breaks, barely manages to deliver on that aspect. The first half of the movie is mainly spent dealing with Anna’s crazy boyfriend, a man Chestnut’s character inexplicably lets off of the hook even with the golden opportunity to get him out of the picture. These movies usually involve stalker tendencies, blackmail, and the inevitable violent showdown at the end, but this movie does the bare minimum to even qualify as a thriller.

The result is a story that feels like a cliff notes version of something fans of the genre might expect to be far more entertaining. The performances are decent enough for a glorified Lifetime movie. Jaz Sinclair at least gives emotional weight to a character that actually has motivation to be insane. But everything else about this movie is completely unlikable. Regina Hall’s Laura isn’t even endearing. She isn’t a great spouse and she has an unhealthy obsession with having the baby even after she learns Anna is a psychopath who tried to steal her husband. The ending is also anticlimactic. I gave The Perfect Guy an ‘F’ last year, and this movie is significantly less watchable. So guess where that leaves it.

FINAL GRADE: F

The Girl on The Train (Full Review)

Who doesn’t love a good mystery? And when there’s infidelity involved, it makes it all the better. A good mystery always keeps you guessing. The Girl on the Train is the latest mystery-thriller novel to get the film treatment, and my hopes were high that it could deliver the same jaw dropping feeling I had when I saw 2014’s Gone Girl.

the_girl_on_the_trainEmily Blunt stars as Rachel, an alcoholic whose ex-husband (Justin Theroux) is now married to his former mistress (Rebecca Ferguson). The two live a happy life with their newborn baby, while Rachel spends her days riding the train to and from New York City in a drunken depression. While peeping from her usual train seat, Rachel becomes entranced with the life of a young woman named Megan (Haley Bennett), who she believes is cheating on her husband (Luke Evans) with her psychiatrist (Edgar Ramirez). When Megan goes missing on the same day Rachel follows her in a drunken stupor, a detective (Allison Janney) begins questioning whether Rachel is responsible for Megan’s sudden disappearance.

Emily Blunt carries the film with a wonderful performance as the pitifully broken lead character. She elicits genuine sorrow for Rachel that makes you never really feel like she’s guilty even when the evidence is stacked against her. Unfortunately, her performance is really the only one that stands out and some performances, like most of the men, seem rigid.

I never read the book, so I can only comment on the structuring of the film. And for the film, it falls a bit flat. Certain clues and instances are often poorly placed making them feel like obvious miscues meant only to distract. As a result, the ending revelation isn’t remotely as surprising as I wanted it to be, or as surprising as it wants to be. And while I hate to compare this movie to Gone Girl, since none of the same pieces are involved, the two films are of the same genre. Gone Girl was so fantastic because just when you think you have things figured out, a new wrinkle is added to the narrative to make you second guess your hypothesis. Here, I was able to pin the culprit and motive down to one of two people as soon as all of the major players were introduced.

This coupled with weaker supporting performances makes the film suffer a bit. Maybe it was my own lofty expectations after watching the movie’s riveting trailer, but The Girl on The Train never feels as mysterious as it markets itself to be. By the end, the strength of Blunt’s emotional portrayal is the only thing keeping this from being a complete letdown.

FINAL GRADE: C+, Red Box it

The Magnificent Seven (Full Review)

magnificent_seven_2016The western, or “Shoot ‘em ups” as my grandfather calls them, was once America’s most popular and profitable movie genre. But after the days of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, America moved on to science fiction and buddy cop movies, leaving the old west behind. Now, even the best westerns get little love. So, here comes Denzel Washington to the rescue along with Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) to try and revitalize the genre with a remake of The Magnificent Seven.

The original Magnificent Seven (1960) is itself an old west retelling of a (superior) Japanese film called The Seven Samurai. Both tell the story of a group of seven outlaws who band together to defend a small town from bandits. This new film carries the same premise with Denzel stepping into the lead role as a bounty hunter recruited by a widow (Haley Bennett) to save her town from a wealthy land thief (Peter Sarsgard). Rounding out the seven cowboys are a snarky gambler (Chris Pratt), a former soldier (Ethan Hawke) and his assassin friend (Byung-Hun Lee), a Mexican fugitive (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier), and a comedic old timer with a proclivity for chucking axes (Vincent D’Onofrio).

The premise was fresh to audiences in the 1960’s, but here it feels cliché from the pacing to the characters. The dialogue, the camera work, and even the gunslinging all ends up feeling like a generic western. The often cartoonish nature of a few scenes make the overall product seem like a summer blockbuster version of something meant to be a little bit more thought provoking (see the Japanese original).

But there is certainly some enjoyment to be had. As always, Denzel Washington commands every scene he’s in. Chris Pratt, through a relatively weak cowboy accent, does provide a few laughs even though his character is just an 1800’s version of Star Lord. And overall the camaraderie of the seven men is felt even if it is rushed through. As for the loud, often over the top and formulaic action, it’s hard to not find it entertaining. So even if Magnificent Seven isn’t fresh or memorable like Quentin Tarentino’s Hateful Eight, it is a relatively fun two hour romp filled with the guns, explosions and bravado that make the genre worth watching.

FINAL GRADE: C+

Bad Moms (Full Review)

Poor mothers. They live for us, would die for us, and yet we aren’t always as gratifying to them as we should be during our awkward adolescent years. So a movie where moms get to cut back and have some fun should be a welcomed concept for not just the moms out there, but for anyone who has ever had a mother figure. Add some raunchy ‘R’ rated flavor to the mix and we’ve got ourselves a surprisingly fun movie in Bad Moms.

bad_moms_posterMila Kunis, who stills looks the same age she did in That 70’s Show, plays lead mom, Amy; a mother of a brainy girl too concerned about college while still in junior high and a son who is too lazy to apply himself. Dealing with kids and a boss that don’t appreciate her (Clark Duke), and a deadbeat husband (David Walton), Amy finally decides that enough is enough. With the help of a negligent, promiscuous mother of one (Kathryn Hahn) and an uptight, overstressed stay at home mom (Kristen Bell), Amy decides to be a bad mom and do what she wants for once. Christina Applegate, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Annie Mumolo co-star as a trio of snooty, sinister PTA moms hell bent on making Amy and her friends conform.

At times, the story falls dangerously close to being as over-the-top corny as The Boss. Moments like a destructive trip to the grocery store come off as more cartoonish than outright funny and some of the characters like Jay Hernandez’s overly perfect love interest to Amy are about as realistic as a talking sponge. Most of the movie’s laughs are when it isn’t trying to be gut bustingly funny. The banter between the women, usually when driven by Hahn’s hilarious character Carla, is usually what works the best.

Where Bad Moms really succeeds is in its endearing message. Our moms, the women who gave life to us and would do anything for us, deserve to have enough appreciation to where they don’t have to be negligent just to feel like they matter. And by the end of the movie, we feel genuinely happy at where the three mom’s are in their relationships with their families. A nice touch during the end credits, which has the actresses being interviewed with their real life moms, adds just enough to make Bad Moms a feel good movie that is the perfect date to treat mom to.

FINAL GRADE: B-