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

 

 

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Wonder (Full Review)

I just recently got married. And of course, this logically leads to that inevitable annoying question: “When are you having kids?”. Parenting can be both an exciting and terrifying journey. Wonder, adapted from R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel, is a nerve-racking, but beautiful illustration of just how nuanced that journey can be.

Wonder_(film)Wonder tells the story of a boy named Auggie (Jacob Tremblay) who was born facially disfigured. After years of spending time with his boisterous father (Owen Wilson) and being home schooled by his overprotective mother (Julia Roberts), Auggie is thrust into the fifth grade where he is forced to deal with the terrifying reality of making friends, bullying, and all that encompasses that of childhood social interaction. But it isn’t all about Auggie. His older sister (Izabela Vidovic) tries to deal with living without the full attention of her parents as well as the drifting away of her best friend (Danielle Rose Russell).

Wonder is the most heartwarming film of 2017. Tremblay is marvelously triumphant in the lead role and makes Auggie the kind and intelligent yet wholesome child every parent desires. The supporting cast also works wonders (pun intended). Julia Roberts gives heart and soul as Auggie’s mother and Owen Wilson brings his trademark exuberance and charm as Auggie’s dad. Their chemistry as a couple also gels without the slightest wrinkle. Younger actors can be hit or miss, but in Wonder, each supporting youngster (Bryce Gheisar, Noah Jupe, Elle McKinnon, Millie Davis) delivers each line with utter perfection.

Things can feel a bit too light and fluffy at times, but the drama that encompasses the story and the attention given to the supporting characters makes Wonder feel like something wholly realistic and true. Even characters you want to dislike are given depth that makes them relatable and their actions relatively understandable. It is a story perfect for people of all ages and if watching it doesn’t give you hope and a sense of love for the strength and capacity of the human spirit, then I don’t know what will.

FINAL GRADE: A

 

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

Thor: Ragnarok (Spoiler Free Review)

The Thor films have always been the weak link of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The first movie about the God of Thunder was bogged down by hokey human characters and a setting that skimped on the action. Thor: The Dark World was a somewhat forgettable romp with one of superhero cinema’s weakest villains. But one thing the Thor films have always had, is two great lead characters with a compelling arc. Leaving Earth behind for a new adventure, Thor: Ragnarok reunites Thor and Loki and hopes to give them a story that leaves a memorable mark on the MCU.

Thor_Ragnarok_posterRagnarok finds Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Prince of Asgard and God of Thunder, searching for his displaced father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) whose throne was stolen by Thor’s mischievous brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston). But finding their father quickly brings them into contact with Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death who proves to be too powerful for the two of them. Banished to a junk yard planet ruled by the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), Thor’s only hope of stopping Hela is to ally with a disgraced former Asgardian warrior (Tessa Thompson) and defeat the Grandmaster’s greatest warrior… who just happens to be Thor’s old ally, The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).

Ragnarok is certainly the most entertaining of the Thor films. It paces well and there are tons of CGI filled action sequences that make for good ‘turn your brain off and watch’ fun. New director, Taika Waititi, also infuses this latest entry with loads of colorful imagery and brilliant costumes and set pieces to create a world that make the previous films in the trilogy feel a bit bland by comparison.

But the story itself is no more intelligent or enlightening than any other Thor movie. The plot, which has elements of an epic and dark apocalyptic core, falters thanks to the hordes of new characters who take turns being utter buffoons. The cartoonish tone does deliver some laugh out loud moments, but seemingly spends every available minute trying to make the audience laugh which gets irritating once you take the overarching plot into consideration.

Even characters that should be grittier, severely emotionally grounded, and enticing throughout are weighed down by disjointed wacky moments. Tessa Thompson’s drunken Valkyrie is introduced in a way that makes it hard to take her seriously until the film’s latter half while Blanchett’s delightfully sinister Hela is brushed aside in favor of Goldblum’s clownish Grandmaster. So even though characters like the Grandmaster are occasionally funny, their antics make light of serious stakes.

Ragnarok is certainly ‘fun’, but a movie about the Asgardian apocalypse that features the deaths of several characters in the Thor mythos, probably deserves to be taken more seriously. No one wants another dreary Batman v Superman, but there’s a such thing as a happy medium. Someone needs to tell Marvel that it’s okay to have characters who don’t make the audience chuckle.  When everyone is a comedian, the stakes don’t seem so threatening and when the jokes don’t land, the whole exercise feels corny. Things are smoothed over by nice psychedelic visuals, fine chemistry between the cast, and a few endearing moments between Hiddleston and Hemsworth whose brotherly dynamic has become the only reason to pay attention to Thor. But it’s still irksome that to make Thor appeasing to the masses, they had to turn it into Guardians of the Galaxy 3.

FINAL GRADE: C

A = Must See/Top 10 Nominee

B = Good film. Flawed, but still very entertaining

C = Not Bad, but highly flawed/Probably better off waiting for Redbox

D = Terrible Movie with a few redeeming qualities

F = I wanted to walk out/Don’t waste time or money

Flatliners (2017) Full Review

What happens when scientists look for evidence of the afterlife? It’s a fascinating concept, if only because humans have a tendency to not trust things until they’ve experienced them on a personal level. But if you’re coming to Flatliners for eerie, hypothetical answers to the aforementioned question, keep on searching because this film is basically a cheesy horror film disguising itself as something deeper.

Flatliners_(2017)A remake of an early 90’s film, this Flatliners stars Ellen Page as Courtney, a medical student who seeks to connect with the afterlife after her sister dies in a car accident. With the help of her colleagues (Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev, James Norton, Kiersey Clemons), she embarks on an experiment to die and be resurrected. Despite gaining knowledge and clarity, their quest for the great beyond eventually has side effects that lead them down a dark path.

The movie spends half of its time introducing the characters who are mostly insufferable. James Norton’s Jamie is obnoxious while all of the female characters are either selfish or naively short sighted. Believing that any of them could be medical professionals is the real horror of the film. In fact, when things go south, you almost want all of them to get offed.

The horror does eventually come along and for a moment, the jump scares and eerie imagery is a bit exciting. But it all comes so fast and is resolved so easily, that the payoff isn’t worth the buildup. If you want an existential lesson on not crossing the line between life and death, you’ll be disappointed because the film drops that concept by the way side as soon as it focuses on trying to frighten the audience. Instead, you’ll get what feels like a lengthy B-movie that ends with an after school special lesson on owning up to your past mistakes.

FINAL GRADE: D

The Lego Ninjago Movie (Full Review)

Like most, I was skeptical when a movie franchise based off of LEGOs was announced. Then I saw the Lego Movie. It wasn’t great, but it was good enough to be seen as something more than a soulless cash grab. Lego Batman came along in 2016 and set the bar even higher with a witty and fun film for all ages. Now comes Lego Ninjago, a big screen version of the popular line of toys that also happens to be a TV show.

The_Lego_Ninjago_MovieTaking place on the island of Ninjago, this story revolves around six “ninjas” who use giant robots called Mechs to defend the city from the Evil Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux). Under the tutelage of ninja master Woo (Jackie Chan), the team consists of macho earth ninja Kai (Michael Pena), humanoid ice wielding robot Zane (Zach Woods), panicky lightning ninja Jay (Kumail Nanjiani), feisty water ninja Nya (Abbi Jacobson) and her obnoxious fire ninja brother Cole (Fred Armison). Leading the team is Lloyd (Dave Franco), a teenage outcast who lives with his mother (Olivia Munn) and just happens to be the son of their arch nemesis.

In many ways, this movie is the epitome of my fears when I first heard about the LEGO movie franchise. Kids who play with LEGOs have a ton of imagination, but that imagination can concoct a ton of random, scatter brained adventures that just don’t translate to a cohesive story. The father/son dynamic between Garmadon and Lloyd that dominates most of the narrative is fine, but all of the sequences that surround them are noisily uncoordinated. From the goofy start, the action in the movie moves like it’s being made up as it goes along. And that may be fine for children, but it’s just annoying to anyone who stopped playing with LEGOs years ago.

There’s no point in most of the characters even being ninjas, as they’re more like members of Voltron or Captain Planet’s Planateers than Power Rangers. Many of the jokes are forced too, with the few comedic moments coming from the villain. By the end, if you haven’t gotten bored, you’ll just be hoping that the creators of this mess can scale it back a bit for the next installment.

FINAL GRADE: D

Mother! (Full Review)

Have you ever been forced to be around an awkward conversation that has nothing to do with you. Like being on a bus next to a couple and one of them is about to get dumped, you can tell everything is slowly going south but you can’t remove yourself from the area so you just have to sit there and uncomfortably take it all in. If you’ve made it through something like that, then you can make it through Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!

Mother!2017Mother! Is a really, really, abstract film. This should come as no surprise coming from the man who also directed Black Swan and The Fountain. Jennifer Lawrence plays the wife of a writer (Javier Bardem) who is supporting her husband through a stint of writer’s block by helping refurbish his old home. Their tranquil life of solitude is interrupted when the writer allows a doctor (Ed Harris) and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) to stay in their home.

While it markets itself as something eerie and suspenseful, it’s actually more like an art film with dark undertones. The first two thirds play out like a melancholy stage play with the most tense moments coming from the sheer vagueness of the movie’s intensions. In its final act, however, the film undergoes  a complete shift in tone that brings intense clarity.

But when I say ‘intense’ in reference to the movie’s final act, I mean overwhelming more than exciting. After seemingly wandering around without concrete purpose, the conclusion brings its intentions with the subtlety of Donald Trump with a bullhorn. There is a ton of metaphorical meaning to it all with different interpretations, some that could offend, some that could disgust, some that could inspire, and some that could just flat out depress. It’s hard to call Mother! a bad film, as artistically it deserves credit for its cinematography and metaphorical nuance. But it’s equally as difficult to call something so dreary enjoyable.

FINAL GRADE: C

 

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Full Review)

2015’s Kingsman: The Secret Service was stylish, campy, action packed, outrageous fun. It was a refreshing call back to the James Bond films of old and it ended up being a surprise hit and one of my personal favorite films of that year. But if Hollywood has taught us anything, it’s that following up a hit is not an easy task.

Kingsman_The_Golden_CircleKingsman: The Golden Circle once again follows Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the young agent of the Kingsman tailor shop in London that moonlights as an undercover intelligence agency. When a former rival (Edward Holcroft) resurfaces and compromises the agency, Eggsy and Kingsman tech guru Merlin (Mark Strong) are forced to journey to Kentucky and team up with their American sister agency, the Statesman (Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, Channing Tatum, Pedro Pascal). With their resources combined, the Statesmen and Kingsmen will have to work together to stop Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), a deranged Martha Stewart-esque leader of a drug cartel.

The new characters, mainly the Statesmen, all feel like caricatures. But in a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, that isn’t a problem at all. As for the new villainess, Julianne Moore’s performance isn’t quite as charismatic as Sam Jackson’s in the previous film, but her actual motives are a bit more inspired and nuanced. Where The Golden Circle slips is in its narrative flow. There is a needless twist that the movie could do without and the story often creates loose threads that are tugged at but never fully explored. There’s also such a thing as overboard when it comes to quirky cameos (Elton John has entirely too much screen time).

But with Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class) thankfully back in the director’s chair the tonal aspects of this film are almost identical to its predecessor. The action, humor, and style of this sequel all feel organic so there’s no real reason to dislike this film if you had any sort of appreciation for the first. Colin Firth (in an only moderately forced return) is a welcoming presence as Eggsy’s mentor Harry. Taron Egerton once again brings boyish charm and sincerity to the lead role and Mark Strong again feels like the cool, British uncle we all wish we had. With camaraderie and some brisk action choreography, Kingsman: The Golden Circle has enough of what audiences will ask for to offset any lingering side effects that inevitably come with being an unnecessary sequel.

FINAL GRADE: B

IT (Full Review)

You can count on one hand the amount of horror films I’ve reviewed. That’s because, to me, the genre has become hellishly stale. Jump scares accompanied by long gaps of mediocre character building simply doesn’t interest me anymore, and rather than paste that opinion on every horror review I do, I simply just ignore them. But there’s something intriguing about scary movies where kids are the stars. Unlike the films with adults as the leads, these stories are more likely to be void of the asinine decision making that often plagues the genre. IT, a remake of the classic Stephen King novel and film, is a perfect example of how much more interesting a film can be when you’re actually latched on to the pieces involved.

It_(2017)_logoIT begins with a boy and his brother. Stuttering teen, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) makes a toy boat for his little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) that ends up floating into a gutter on a rainy day and bringing him into contact with creepy Pennywise the Clown (Bill Skarsgard). One year later, Bill and his band of bullied friends known as the Losers Club (Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs) begin searching for Georgie and the other kids that have gone missing in their town which brings them face to face with the evil personification of fear itself.

Anyone who was captivated by the Netflix series Stranger Things will absolutely enjoy IT. The camaraderie of the teen protagonists is almost identical and the film does a sensational job of making each character necessary to the story. There’s an evident touch of heart to this film that makes its message of getting over loss and facing fears wholly relatable.

Aesthetically there is a lot to love about the film as well. The effects and scares are done without much hokey CGI and makes the movie feel more tangible like the 80’s horror flicks of old. Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise the Clown is also magnetic. The entity itself probably won’t scare any full grown adults who aren’t afraid of clowns, but the portrayal moves and speaks with a subtle eeriness that would be undeniably terrifying if you switched places with any of the teenagers involved.

Our desensitization to the genre, thanks to the over saturation of horror films, may make the scares relatively weak for many. If I were in my early teens watching it, the film would probably give me nightmares for life, but even as an adult the movie garners appreciation for its tactics. Sometimes instead of scaring the audience, a horror film can be worthwhile because you can feel the fear in the characters and this remake of IT manages to be an emotionally grounded and smile inducing adventure. No matter how irrational it may be, fear is incredibly encompassing and running from it only makes it stronger and this concept comes across in full force making for an entertaining journey whether it scares you or not.

FINAL GRADE: A

Ingrid Goes West (Full Review)

September isn’t exactly a month that begets movie going. It’s pretty much the month where everyone focuses on the beginning of football season. But if you’re willing to search for a gem, there is always some lower budget film with a solid cast that can catch your eye and hold your attention. For September 2017, that movie is Ingrid Goes West.

Ingrid_Goes_WestAubrey Plaza, who produced the film, stars as Ingrid, a neurotic millennial fresh out of a mental institution after pepper spraying a presumed friend who failed to invite her to her wedding. When she inherits thousands of dollars from her deceased mother, Ingrid decides to move to California for a fresh start. There she begins stalking an Instagram socialite named Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen) with a seemingly perfect life. But after entering Taylor’s circle, Taylor’s tool of a brother (Billy Magnussen) threatens to unearth Ingrid’s unhinged ways and ruin her newfound friendship.

Nearly all of the characters in this black comedy are hard to find favorable. Ingrid is despondent, creepy, and willing to go through anything to be likable no matter how self-destructive. Olsen’s Taylor and her Californian friends and family are all either insufferably shallow or grotesquely pretentious. But the performances are the driving force that help prove the film’s point. Plaza’s grounded portrayal as the mentally unstable Ingrid feels tragically real in today’s social media obsessed society that places influence on appearances.

The heart and soul of the film ends up being the surprising romance between Ingrid and her Batman obsessed land lord (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). Jackson Jr., in his first major role since Straight Outta Compton, has organic chemistry in every scene with Plaza. The two characters unexpectedly coming to love and understand one another is what pushes this film to being enjoyable and not just an uncomfortable testament to our own society’s scary narcissism.

FINAL GRADE: B