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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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (Full Review)

Few summer blockbusters have ever been as much fun as Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl. The movie had thrills, humor, and charming characters. But the more movies they attempted to squeeze out of Johnny Depp’s iconic Jack Sparrow, the more the franchise began to lose its luster. Dead Man’s Chest was good, not great. At World’s End was far too long and overstuffed to truly enjoy. And… and… there was a fourth one, right? Something about Blackbeard? Anywho… this newest installment hopes to bring the Disney magic back to the eerie waters of the Pirates franchise.

Pirates_of_the_Caribbean,_Dead_Men_Tell_No_TalesThe aptly named Dead Men Tell No Tales once again finds an undead sea captain searching for the bumbling, alcoholic, but keenly clever scoundrel known as Jack Sparrow. This time, said sea captain is Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem), a Spaniard who once hunted pirates but was tricked into defeat by a young Jack. To escape Salazar, Jack must team with a female astronomer (Kaya Scodelario) and Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Jack’s old ally Will (Orlando Bloom returning in a cameo role), to find a legendary trident that will grant them power over the sea.  Meanwhile, Jack’s old rival Hector Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) seeks to save himself from Salazar and his henchmen of zombies who can’t step on land by helping in the hunt for Jack Sparrow.

Like most Pirates movies (even the good ones), the plot can get a bit caught up in itself as it lumbers on for over two hours. There are some characters, like a British Naval Captain (David Wenham), that take up too much screen time despite being both generic and unnecessary. The plot itself also carries its fair share of conveniences. But what is Pirates of the Caribbean if not an unbelievable tale hidden beneath massive set pieces and well crafted costumes?

For the most part, Dead Men Tell No Tales manages to recapture the swashbuckling fun that made the franchise so popular. Yes, the plot often seems filled with holes so big that previous films can even get sucked into them, but that doesn’t take away from the fun at all. Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush effectively step back into their roles as if they never left. Newcomers Thwaites and Scodelario provide wholesome focal points as a boy fighting to reunite with his father and a woman trying to forge her own path in a world where a woman is deemed a witch if she reads a book. Javier Bardem even manages to succeed in being a wholly threatening adversary even though he’s essentially no different from the villains in the other Pirates films.

The movie is filled with some scenes so over the top or cheesy that your eyes might fall out of your head. But those moments are eclipsed by all of the genuine laughs and charm brought to the story. With stunning CGI effects and likable new characters, this entry feels much more like what audiences fell in love with. By reconnecting with the original trilogy (something the fourth film almost completely failed to do), this new Pirates manages to give us an adventure both nostalgic and compelling.

FINAL GRADE: B

Black Mass/The Walk Quick Reviews

Black_Mass_(film)_posterBLACK MASS Scott Cooper (Out of the Furnace) helms this biographical film about South Boston criminal Whitey Bulger and his time as an informant for the FBI in the late 1970’s. The film features an all star cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Joel Edgerton, Kevin Bacon, Dakota Johnson, and Peter Sarsgaard. Professional changeling Johnny Depp goes bald, puts in blue contact lenses, and conjures up a Boston accent to play the lead role.

As expected, Depp does an amicable job as does the rest of the cast. But this story is lacking something. I love a good mob movie, and Black Mass features most of the good elements of one, but somehow the structuring makes everything feel a bit dull and dated. Sure, this is a true story and the filmmakers are relatively at the mercy of the actual events that took place, but one can only think that better pacing and perhaps a livelier soundtrack would’ve made this film stand out more. It isn’t boring, but it does end up being a bit forgettable when stacked up to other films in the genre. FINAL GRADE: B-

The_Walk_(2015_film)_posterTHE WALK 3D There’s a reason I included the ‘3D’ moniker. For the most part, 3D technology has become an tired gimmick used only to squeeze every dollar out of moviegoers. But every once in a while, when the technology is used to its actual potential, a movie is made that is meant to be viewed in the format (Tron: LegacyAnt-Man). And seeing the movie without the 3D means doing yourself a disservice. The Walk is one of those movies.

Telling the true story of high-wire artist Phillipe Petit’s daring 1974 walk between the twin towers of The World Trade Center, this film is one of the reasons why 3D filmmaking was created. The imagery creates a true sense of vertigo and does nothing but add to the movie’s beautifully intense tone. But the awe inspiring visuals aren’t the only reason to see the movie. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, through a relatively mediocre French accent, does a wonderful job of bringing passion and charisma to the screen that feeds off on the rest of the cast. It results in a movie that at times feels more like Ocean’s Eleven than a biopic. The fact that these events actually took place is a mere footnote to the overall tone and scope of a surprisingly satisfying two hour journey. FINAL GRADE: A-

January 2015 Quick Reviews

It’s January, so suffice to say any movie out is either up for an award of just flat out lousy. I’ve already reviewed some of the more critically acclaimed films of the month. Here are some quick thoughts on the rest of the pack.

TheWeddingRingerPosterTHE WEDDING RINGER By now you should be accustomed to Kevin Hart’s antics. And if you are a fan than you’ll undoubtedly enjoy him in this role as a businessman who lends himself out to desperate grooms to be their impromptu best man. But as Ride Along so eloquently taught me last January, Kevin Hart antics are not enough to make for an enjoyable comedy.

Luckily, this time around, there is more to like than just Kevin Hart. Co-Star Josh Gad (you might recognize him as the voice of Olaf in Frozen) is actually pretty funny and loveable himself as the groom who hires Hart in hopes of impressing his attractive, but shallow fiancé (Kaley Cuoco of Big Bang Theory). Like with many comedies nowadays, some parts of the movie go for the raunchy factor instead of just attempting to have good comedic timing, but overall this generic comedy packs enough genuine heart and laughter to make for a worthy couple of hours spent. FINAL GRADE: B-

Mortdecai_posterMORTDECAI Johnny Depp stars as eccentric art collector Charlie Mortdecai in a comedic caper apparently based on a 1970’s book series. Supporting roles include Gwenyth Paltrow as his witty wife who struggles to get passed his newly grown mustache, Paul Bettany as his loyal best friend and bodyguard, and Ewan McGregor as a police detective who enlists him to help solve a murder and find a missing painting worth a fortune.

The movie certainly is zany, sometimes to a fault and sometimes perfectly enough to squeeze out some strong laughs. And if you can get past the scattered pacing and the classic-Brit vernacular, the story isn’t all too bad. Or, you could just skip it all together and watch the much more solidly staged The Grand Budapest Hotel. The latter is probably the wisest. FINAL GRADE: C

The_Boy_Next_Door_posterTHE BOY NEXT DOOR Jennifer Lopez is still incredibly attractive into her mid 40’s. But we all know that already. So ogling her shouldn’t be that big of an incentive to see this movie about an affair between a divorced mother/teacher and a barely legal psychopath. We’ve seen this all before. In fact, movies like this seem to come out every January and each seems to grow more forgettable than the last.

If the acting were good, or even if there was a hint of a twist thrown in, I could possibly understand the intrigue with seeing this movie. But, there is nothing memorable here. There is nothing that you can’t find in dozens of other thrillers. So don’t bother. Even if watching Jennifer Lopez in a steamy love scene is your sole mission, you can save yourself some time (and some brain cells) by getting up and walking out a third of the way through. FINAL GRADE: F (YES… my first “official” F)

April-May Quick Reviews

It’s my favorite time of the year; Summer Movie Season. But before I start cranking out the weekly reviews on the big Summer blockbusters like Spider-Man, there are a few movies I’ve seen that I need to crank out some quick reviews for. Enjoy.

 

Rio 2

ImageNearly everyone is back in this sequel to 2011’s animated hit about two endangered blue macaw’s finding love in vibrant Rio de Janeiro. The film picks up with Blue (Jesse Eisenberg) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway) now raising their three children in the safe confines of a bird sanctuary run by their favorite humans Linda (Leslie Mann) and Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro). A new adventure begins when Linda and Tulio stumble onto a whole world of Amazonian blue macaw’s led by Jewel’s dad, Eduardo (Andy Garcia).

The animation is beautifully vibrant and the music is often as fun as it was in the original. The opening number featuring Janelle Monae is specifically pleasing. But overall this movie comes off bland to even those with the shortest of attention spans. Characters from the original (Will.I.Am’s Pedro, Jamie Foxx’s Nico, Jemaine Clement’s villain Nigel… to name a few) are thrown in with little to no regard to the actual plot, making this movie feel about twenty minutes too long. Then there’s the plot itself; Blue trying to win over his father-in-law’s approval. Not exactly the freshest film concept. It almost feels like they could’ve sent this straight to Redbox with a different voice cast to save on the budget. No one would’ve noticed. FINAL GRADE: C

 

 

Transcendence

ImageJohnny Depp stars as a scientist Will Caster who creates the world’s first super intelligent, somewhat self aware, computer system. When a group of radical anti-techno terrorists assassinate him, Caster’s wife (Rebecca Hall) decides to upload his consciousness into the machine with the help of their friend Max (Paul Bettany). As the super intelligent Will grows, so too do the number of terrorists and government officials who believe that he is a danger to mankind’s existence.

The movie certainly means well and boasts a talented cast that probably had faith in the concept. But it can’t help but come off a bit dull in the end. Other than the three characters mentioned above, no one else, including Morgan Freeman and Cilian Murphy, really gets to do anything. It’s certainly worth viewing, as the movie raises several philosophical questions that certainly make you ponder ideas about human progression, technology, and what it means to be human. But given its cast and budget, its narrative in no way lives up to the potential of its concept. FINAL GRADE: C+

 

 

Neighbors

ImageSeth Rogen stars as Seth Rogen (basically) and is inexplicably married to Rose Byrne. The couple are proud parents of a ridiculously adorable baby girl and have just moved into their first home when they get new neighbors. Hoping for a nice quiet gay couple to move in next door, they are instead bombarded by a college frat, led by Zac Efron and Dave Franco, that just won’t stop partying. After the police are called on the frat, a comedic prank war ensues.

I admittedly thought the movie would be funnier, but in all fairness my expectations were asininely high (blame Bridesmaids and The Hangover Part 1). Many of the funniest scenes are in the trailer, but there are still plenty of surprises to make it worthwhile. Efron, Franco, and their Delta Psi Beta brothers are what make the movie. They’re pretty much hilarious from start to finish, but if you don’t like penis jokes or if you find Seth Rogen annoying then you might want to pass on this one. FINAL GRADE: B

 

 

P.S.

Tis come to my attention that I never clearly personified my grading scale. So, for your convenience and future reference:

A+ : Drop what you’re doing and go watch this movie. Then watch it again. Then buy it when it becomes available to own.

B+ to A- : Fantastic movie. Go see it as soon as possible.

C+ to B: Not bad. Worth seeing at least once, but no rush.

C- to C: Wait for it on Redbox.

D+ or worse: Don’t bother.