Frances McDormand Outstanding in Powerfully Relevant THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017)

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Frances McDormand in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2027).

Can a bad cop be a good man?

Can an officer of the law who spends most of his time drunk and has been known to harass people of color have redeeming qualities? Can a woman whose teen daughter was brutally raped and murdered become so hated in her community that she receives death threats because she takes aim at the local police department for failing to solve her daughter’s case?

These are just some of the serious and complicated questions posed in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), a comedy drama by writer/director Martin McDonagh, a movie that does indeed produce frequent laughter but is driven by its serious themes, which by far are the best part of this film.

Mildred (Frances McDormand), an embittered coarse woman, spies three decrepit billboards on a lonely road on the way to her home and immediately hatches the idea to use them to combat the local police department.  She seeks out the young man Red Welby (Caleb Landry Jones) who runs the company that owns the billboards and pays for her messages to be put up, three simple statements which pretty much accuse the local police department of not doing enough to find the person who raped and murdered her teenage daughter.

Both the police department and the community as a whole take offense to Mildred’s billboards.  The very popular Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) tells Mildred that his department has been doing all they can to solve the case, but some cases are harder than others, and so far they just haven’t caught a break.  He tells her the billboards are not helping, but she ignores him.  To further exacerbate the situation, Willoughby has cancer and doesn’t have much longer to live, and with a wife and young children, he’s got the full support of his community, which makes people lash out at Mildred even more.

Most effected by Mildred’s actions is Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell), an oftentimes drunk officer with violent tendencies who is not above using threats and physical harm to get his job done, and he does indeed threaten Mildred.  But Willoughby defends his officer, claiming that deep down he’s “a good man.”

Mildred could give a care.  She only wants her daughter’s case solved.

With such a serious plot, you may be wondering how this can be a comedy.  The comedic elements come from the quirky townsfolk and from Mildred’s over-the-top way of dealing with them, from using a dentist drill on her dentist after he criticizes the billboards, to firebombing the police station.

The laughs also come from the language, which is vulgar and crude.  Everyone in this town, both young and old, talk like they’re related to Deadpool.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI tells a quirky story that gets better and stronger as it goes along, and its told well by writer/director Martin McDonagh.  His script is sharp and incisive with some truly biting humor, and even better, its serious themes like police brutality and vigilante justice are handled deftly.

Frances McDormand gives an outstanding performance as Mildred.  She has the weathered, determination of an army drill sergeant, and you can see in her drawn face the deep pain of having lost her daughter.  She’s particularly wounded because she and her daughter argued the night the girl was killed, and this was the last conversation she had with her daughter.

Sam Rockwell is equally as good as Officer Dixon.  At first, he makes Dixon someone you pretty much can’t stand, and Chief Willoughby’s comments that he’s a “good man” ring hollow.  But as the story goes along, and we learn more about Dixon, and we see that in spite of all his shortcomings, he really does want to do the right thing, his character becomes more sympathetic.  Rockwell is terrific in the role, and it’s saying something that he’s able to take this very unsympathetic character and give him significant depth to turn him into a guy who later in the movie the audience actually roots for.

And later when Dixon reaches out to Mildred with information about her daughter’s case, it’s not only a testament to the solid writing that this moment is believable, but to the two powerhouse performances by McDormand and Rockwell.

Woody Harrelson enjoys some fine moments early on as Chief Willoughby, but as the movie goes along the story really focuses more on Officer Dixon than the chief.

Other notable performances include Abbie Cornish as Willoughby’s wife, Anne, and Caleb Landry Jones as Red Welby, the man who owns the billboards and catches just as much heat as Mildred for allowing the messages to go up.

Lucas Hedges, who was outstanding in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) and who we just saw in LADY BIRD (2017), has less to do here as Mildred’s teen son Robbie.  Clarke Peters enjoys some fine moments later in the movie as the newest police official in town, who, unlike Willoughby, has no patience for the volatile Dixon.

John Hawkes is sufficiently slimy as Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie, and Samara Weaving is equally as good as his innocent, clueless nineteen year-old girlfriend Penelope. In one of the movie’s better scenes, Mildred looks like she’s about to verbally thrash Penelope in front of Charlie, but instead she recognizes Penelope’s innocence and she simply tells her ex-husband to be good to the girl.

The cast also features some familiar faces.  Peter  Dinklage has a small role as James, a local who has a thing for Mildred, and veteran actor Zeljko Ivanek plays the desk sergeant.  And in a very creepy performance, Christopher Berry plays an unsavory stranger in town who later becomes a person of interest in the case.  Berry was similarly creepy in a couple of episodes of THE WALKING DEAD as one of Neegan’s scouts, before he was blown up by a bazooka-wielding Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus).

Come Oscar time, you may see Frances McDormand as one of the final contenders for the Best Actress award for her performance here as Mildred.  She’s certainly one of the strongest draws of this movie.

But THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI also tells a relevant and powerful story and does so while interspersing genuine laughs throughout, thanks to some quality writing and directing by Martin McDonagh.

Its story remains genuine and true to life. There are no easy answers or quick fixes or nice neatly wrapped endings.  It’s full of people who mean well but screw up all the time, and others who don’t mean well and get away with their crimes. In short, it’s all rather ugly, but as in life, the things that matter don’t exist in a vacuum.  They’re oftentimes surrounded my muck and slime.  You just have to navigate through the mess to find what you’re looking for.

Or as is the case in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI, you have to go above the muck and plaster your intentions on billboards, igniting a fight that you have no intention of losing.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

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THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017) – Authentic Movie-Making at its Best

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Willem Dafoe and young Brooklyn Prince in THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017).

If I were to tell you that THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017) was about life at a Florida motel that housed low-income and out of work families and immigrants, as seen through the eyes of a six year-old girl and her friends, you probably wouldn’t be rushing out the door to your local theater to see this one.

And if I told you it was rated R and starred Willem Dafoe, you’d probably be scratching your head saying, “Whaaat?” because that’s exactly what I did when I first heard about this movie.

But what I heard was all good, and being a fan of Willem Dafoe, I decided to check this one out, and I’m glad I did.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT takes place at The Magic Castle motel in Kissimmee, Florida, just outside of Orlando, and it caters both to tourists visiting Disney World and to low-income families.  Six year-old Moonnee (Brooklynn Prince) lives at the motel with her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite), who’s on welfare. They and other families in similar situations are allowed to live there because the motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) knows they have nowhere else to live, and he has a soft spot for them, especially the children.

The film takes place over one summer where we mostly follow Moonnee and her friends doing what most kids do over the summer, hanging out and getting into mischief, but it’s also the story of Moonnee’s mom Halley, who due to her work situation will never win a mother of the year award, yet she is certainly a caring mother, just not in the traditional sense.  It’s also the story of motel manager Bobby, who really looks out for these folks, and we catch a glimpse as to why he’s so soft-hearted towards the kids, as his adult son Jack (Caleb Landry Jones) helps out around the motel and through their conversations we learn that Bobby’s family life has long since ended, and it’s just these occasional moments with his son that he has left.

But the driving force behind THE FLORIDA PROJECT is Moonnee and her young friends. The film truly captures the essence of childhood, from innocence to devilish endeavors, like when the children are giving people the finger and spitting on cars.  There are a lot of precious moments in this movie, like when Moonnee is giving her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) a tour of the motel and tells her, “These are the rooms we’re not supposed to go in. Let’s go in any ways!”

And when she’s trying to get free ice cream and approaches a woman outside the ice cream stand and says, “Excuse me, could you give us some change? The doctor said we have asthma and have to eat ice cream right away!”

Writer/director Sean Baker, who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, imbues this movie with authenticity.  With up-close hand-held camera work, the movie has the feel of a documentary.  Baker also does a phenomenal job with the child actors, as they are amazing and pretty much steal this movie. He also captures the feel of Florida, as you can almost feel the humid heat and smell the acrid air.  More importantly, he’s masterful at telling these folks’ stories.

Again, the children steal this movie, led by Brooklyn Prince as Moonnee. Her exchanges with the understanding yet increasingly frustrated Bobby are worth the price of admission alone. You wouldn’t know their lives were difficult, because they have so much fun in and around the motel.  Kids being kids, and there are some truly hilarious moments, like when they shut the power off at the motel, much to Bobby’s chagrin.

There are also serious moments, like when they are playing in some nearby abandoned homes and start a fire which burns them down. They are also in one very brief yet poignant scene which serves as a metaphor for the entire story.  Moonnee and Jancey are sitting by a tree, and Moonnee says, “You know why this is my favorite tree? ‘Cause it’s tipped over and it’s still growing.” And then we see a shot of the fallen tree, indeed on its side but still alive, a metaphor for the broken lives of the folks in this movie.  They’re fallen, too, but they continue to live, grow, and endure.

Young Valeria Cotto as Moonnee’s friend Jancey is also a joy to watch, and it’s fun to see the two become closer friends as the summer goes on.  And Cotto’s best scene may be her last one, when she sees Moonnee breaking down for the first time.  No spoilers here, but the film ends on a strong note.

As much as I enjoyed the kids here, I thought Bria Vinaite was phenomenal as Moonnee’s mom Halley.  Again, the word “authentic” comes to mind.  Vinaite completely loses herself in this part and becomes Halley.  It’s a spot-on performance. And she really is a caring mother.  Everything we see her do in this movie is for her daughter, even if most of it is flat-out sketchy and oftentimes illegal.  But desperate people do desperate things, and she has a six year-old daughter, and she’s got no job and no money.  You do what you have to do.

I also really enjoyed Willem Dafoe as Bobby.  It was fun to see him cast against type, as he plays a sensitive caring guy who is always there for these people in his quiet unassuming way.  One of his best scenes is when he spies a weird man talking to the kids when they’re playing across from the parking lot, and so he approaches the man and— well, it’s another scene that is worth the price of admission.

Dafoe recently had a small role in Kenneth Branagh’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017), a film that largely wasted Dafoe and the rest of the cast of A-list actors.  If you want to see a top-notch actor like Dafoe strut his stuff in a movie, THE FLORIDA PROJECT is the movie for you.  Like everything else about this movie, Dafoe’s performance as Bobby the motel manager comes off as wonderfully authentic.

You might not be hearing much about THE FLORIDA PROJECT, but it’s a film that you definitely do not want to miss, especially in the here and now, where it’s no secret that in the United States the chasm between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen at a tragically alarming rate.

The children in THE FLORIDA PROJECT remind us why it is so important that this trend be reversed.

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LADY BIRD (2017) – Truthful Coming-of-Age Tale Quirky, Uncomfortable

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Saoirse Ronanter  as Lady Bird, and Laurie Metcalf as her mother in LADY BIRD (2017).

Critics are raving about LADY BIRD (2017), the new comedy-drama by first-time director Greta Gerwig.

Now, I’m a fan of Gerwig’s work as an actor, and so I was looking forward to her first film behind the camera.

LADY BIRD tells the story of high school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) who is hell-bent on getting out of her hometown of Sacramento, California.  She wants to attend college on the east coast, which is no easy task since her dad just lost his job, and her family is really struggling with money.  She goes by the name “Lady Bird” because she says she thinks it’s crazy to accept a name given her by her parents before she was born. Yep, you can see right away that Lady Bird is an intense young woman.

She gets along well with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) but not so much with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Marion is a nurse, and with her husband out of a job, it’s up to her to support the family, which includes Lady Bird’s older brother and his live-in girlfriend, who’s been taken in by Lady Bird’s parents.

Marion and Lady Bird butt heads constantly, and Marion can’t seem to talk to her daughter without criticizing her. We learn why when Marion says her own mother was an abusive alcoholic, the implication to Lady Bird being that her woes are nothing in comparison.  There is also a shadow hanging over the family, as Lady Bird attends an all-girls Catholic School, and most of her friends there come from wealthy families.  The stigma that Lady Bird and her family feel about living in relative poverty is nearly palpable.

When she’s not fighting with her mother, Lady Bird is attending school and becoming involved with boys, all the while doing everything she can during her senior year to get accepted to an east coast school, which is a challenge for her not only because of her parents’ lack of money but also because of her own mediocre grades.

LADY BIRD is a largely autobiographical tale.  Writer/director Greta Gerwig also grew up in Sacramento, attended an all-girls Catholic school, and her own mom was also a nurse. Gerwig definitely knows this material and is deftly able to tell this story, which is the best part about LADY BIRD, the honest fresh way it relays its narrative.

There are some truly remarkable scenes in this movie, including one of the more honest scenes dealing with a first sexual experience I’ve ever seen.  There are also some poignant moments between Lady Bird and her first boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges), especially one moment in particular when he reacts to a realization about himself.

The scenes between Lady Bird and her mother are painfully uncomfortable to watch, mostly because her mother is so relentless, and yet we know that aside from her relationship with her daughter, she is a very good person.  She was quick to take in her son’s girlfriend when her own family disowned her.

The other strength of this movie is Gerwig gets the most out of her actors.  There are some very strong performances here.

To me, Laurie Metcalf steals the movie as Lady Bird’s bitter mother Marion.  It’s a supporting performance, as this is really Lady Bird’s story, but whenever Metcalf is on-screen, the tension between mother and daughter is agonizing.

Tracy Letts is also very good as Lady Bird’s father Larry.  To Lady Bird, he’s the strong sensible member of the family, the person she leans on, and so she is completely surprised to learn that he has been struggling with depression for years.  The scene where he interviews for a job, and he’s interviewed by a much younger man, and it’s clear that the man isn’t taking him seriously, is brutally honest and sad.

Lucas Hedges does a fine job as Lady Bird’s first boyfriend Danny.  While not as impressive as his work in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) he does deliver a sensitive performance.  I also enjoyed Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, and Odeya Rush as Jenna, the wealthy popular girl who Lady Bird later befriends when she tries to move into a new crowd.

Timothee Chalamet does a nice job playing the cool, offbeat teen musician Kyle who Lady Bird later falls for.  Their relationship runs the full gamut from infatuation to disillusionment, at least from Lady Bird’s point of view.  Kyle remains coolly distant throughout, something Lady Bird at first finds attractive until she realizes that is how he is all the time.

Two other memorable performances include Lois Smith as Sister Sarah Joan, whose opinions often surprise Lady Bird, and Stephen Henderson as Father Leviatch, who runs the drama department.

In the lead role as Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan is completely convincing as the strong-willed high school senior.  She makes Lady Bird a force to be reckoned with, even when she’s vulnerable.

That being said, I really struggled to like Lady Bird.  There was something off-putting about her, something I simply couldn’t rally around.  I enjoyed her personality, enjoyed going along for the ride during her high school misadventures and her plight to get accepted to college, and her fights with her mom, but I never felt all that invested in any of it.  I never warmed up to her character.

The scenes between Lady Bird and her mother remain nearly unbearable to watch throughout, and I suppose that’s the point, that there are no happy endings with this kind of relationship.  And while we see proof separately that they indeed love and care for each other, we never see it when they’re together.

There are some moments that work in terms of generating emotion.  The scenes between Lady Bird and her father, especially when he works behind the scenes to get her financial aid for college, are noteworthy.  Likewise, the scenes between Lady Bird and Danny have some emotional resonance.

But most of the emotion here is reserved for scenes between Lady Bird and her mother, and those scenes are difficult to endure.

LADY BIRD is marketed as a comedy-drama, and it is, but the emphasis is more on drama.  The comedy isn’t at all laugh-out-loud funny and works more on the level of when-things-are-awkward they are humorous, which is often true.

LADY BIRD is certainly a successful debut for first time writer/director Greta Gerwig. She succeeds in creating three-dimensional characters and tells an honest, quirky and oftentimes uncomfortable story about a young woman’s senior year of high school, with heavy emphasis on the strained relationship between the girl and her mother.

While I would have preferred a lighter more humorous tone, I can’t deny that the strength of this movie is the truthful way it is told.

It’s just that as most of us know, the truth often hurts.

—END—

 

 

 

WONDER (2017) – Sincere Story of Middle School Acceptance a Crowd-Pleaser

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Jacob Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic, and Julia Roberts in WONDER (2017).

 

I read the novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Its message of tolerance and inclusion at the middle school level was spot-on, its characters so fleshed out it was easy to forget it was a work of a fiction, and the way it told its story was fresh and insightful.

Now comes the movie WONDER (2017) and it too does a terrific job with its subject matter. The best part about the movie is it stands on its own. Whether you’ve read the novel or not, it doesn’t matter. It will still move you.

WONDER is the story of 10-year-old Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) who was born with a genetic defect that left him severely disfigured. He wears a space helmet when he’s in public.  Up until now he has been home-schooled by his mom Isabel (Julia Roberts), but he’s about to enter fifth grade and start middle school, so Isabel thinks it’s is time for Auggie to attend a real school. His dad Nate (Owen Wilson) doesn’t necessarily agree, but as he so often does, he defers to his wife’s wishes.

When they leave Auggie for his first day of school, Isabel mutters, “Please let them be nice to him,” and with that Auggie enters the world of middle school. For any student, the middle school experience can be daunting and difficult. For Auggie, for obvious reasons, it’s more so. And while Auggie has supportive teachers and a very understanding principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), the students are a different matter, at least at first. The road ahead for young Auggie is a challenging one, as it is for those around him, and that in a nutshell is the story WONDER tells.

And that’s certainly the biggest strength of WONDER: its story. Like the novel, the movie tells its story through the eyes of different characters, and while it’s mostly the story of Auggie, and we really learn what it’s like to be in his shoes, we get to be in the shoes of a lot of other characters as well.

For instance, there’s Auggie’s sister Via (Izabela Vidovic).  From Auggie’s perspective, she seems like the perfect sister, but as we learn when we see things through her eyes, she feels increasingly forgotten by her parents who pour all their energies into caring for Auggie.

Likewise, parts of the story are told from the perspective of Auggie’s friends, which really helps to flesh out the characters and tell this story. The audience is treated to all sides, not just Auggie’s. And while the novel did a better job of this than the movie, where entire chapters were written from the perspectives of the different characters, the film makes a good faith effort and achieves similar results.

WONDER is not a dark drama full of middle school horrors, teen angst, and parental disillusionment. On the contrary, it is a story of hope. The characters in this tale regardless of the adversity they face, keep it together, never losing sight of what matters. Auggie’s sister, for example, doesn’t lash out at her family because she feels neglected. Rather, she goes on with her life, making her own way, knowing how she feels, but not letting it become something that she cannot control.

What keeps these characters together is in fact Auggie. He’s such a likable kid, and for those who get to know him, they realize that he’s not defined by his deformity, which in fact is the message of the movie. That Auggie can have this effect on people is what makes him a wonder.

There are plenty of emotional moments here. You might want to keep the tissues handy. When Auggie breaks down, unable to take the way the other students are treating him, he laments to his mother, “Will it always be like this?” To which she honestly replies, “I don’t know.”

When his dad tells Auggie that his space helmet is not lost, that he had been hiding it in his office, Auggie is shocked, but his dad tells him that he did it because Auggie had taken to wearing the helmet all the time, and he never saw his face. He tells Auggie, “I want to see your face. It’s my son’s face. I want to see my son’s face.”

There are lots of creative touches here as well, like when Auggie imagines that if Chewbacca from STAR WARS were to enter his school, everyone would be staring at him too, and as such since he’s in Auggie’s mind, the eight foot tall Wookie makes several appearances in the movie.

Jacob Tremblay is a talented young actor, and he’s truly wonderful here as Auggie. He’s convincing as the frightened yet sweet boy who just wants to be a normal kid. While I enjoyed his performance more in ROOM (2015), he still creates a very memorable Auggie.

One thing I wasn’t so hot on here was the make-up on Auggie.  The novel described him in an almost horrific way, whereas in the film, it’s not really all that shocking.  I thought the make-up job was a bit tepid.

The other child actors are also very good.  Noah Jupe who plays Jack Will, the young boy who eventually becomes Auggie’s best friend, does a nice job with the two sides of his character. At first, he befriends Auggie only because he’s asked to by the school and his mom, but he grows to like Auggie and their friendship becomes genuine.

Similarly, Millie Davis is also very good as Auggie’s other friend Summer.

Even better is Izabela Vidovic who plays Auggie’s sister, Via.  I liked her a lot, and it was nice to see a teen character with problems who didn’t become a movie cliché and drive her parents batty just because she was an angst-filled teenage girl.

Danielle Rose Russell is effective as Via’s best friend Miranda, and she’s yet another example of a teen character who is not a cliché. When we first meet her, she’s cold to Via, and for the first time their relationship is strained.  When they both audition for the same role in the school play, a lesser story would have gone down the road of teen jealousy and petty revenge, but this isn’t a lesser movie. When we see the story through Miranda’s eyes, we understand her behavior.  Rounding out the young cast is Nadji Jeter as Via’s boyfriend Justin, who’s another well-written fleshed out character.

The adults mostly remain in the background here. Julia Roberts is convincing at Auggie’s mother Isabel. She is the driving force in the family, and she is the one who keeps pushing Auggie forward. As he says later in the movie, she never gives up on him.

Owen Wilson is fun as Auggie’s soft-spoken dad who provides most of the humor for his family. It’s a fun role for Wilson, who hasn’t had a hit movie in a while. Mandy Patinkin is perfect as the understanding and calming principal Mr. Tushman, who has no problem poking fun at his own name.  Likewise, Daveed Diggs is energetic and affable as Auggie’s teacher Mr. Browne.

Steve Conrad, Jack Thorne, and director Stephen Chbosky wrote the screenplay based on the novel by R.J. Palacio. It pretty much succeeds on all fronts, giving Auggie’s story as much resonance and sincerity as it had in the novel.

Director Stephen Chbosky has made a likable, unpretentious film about a young disfigured boy who enters the scary world of middle school and finds what parents of middle schoolers want them to find: friends and acceptance by his peers.

One could make the argument that the story WONDER tells is not realistic, that its positive message is too happy and unchallenged.  Perhaps.  But the film is not syrupy-sweet, it doesn’t pull at your heartstrings in an artificial forced way, and it doesn’t manipulate its audience. It’s sincere and convincing.

It tells its story from all sides, presenting characters who are admirable and likable, who refuse to take the low road, no matter how dark things get.

Most of all, WONDER is the story of Auggie, a young boy who has a lot of heart, who shows us what we all should already know, that in terms of character it’s what’s inside us that matters, not how we look.

Spend some time with Auggie, and you too will understand that he is indeed a wonder.

—END—-

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017) – All-Star Murder Mystery an Exercise in the Mundane

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Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot in MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

I consider myself a Kenneth Branagh fan.

I have absolutely loved every Shakespeare play he has brought to the big screen, from his masterful debut with HENRY V (1989) to his wonderfully witty MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (1993).  But his non-Shakespeare films haven’t been as successful, and I’ve never been exactly sure why.  His MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN (1994) didn’t work, and his THOR (2011) was just an OK Marvel superhero movie.

Branagh both directs and stars in today’s movie, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017), which is based on the novel by Agatha Christie, and is a remake of the 1974 film of the same name directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as detective Hercule Poirot.  It featured an all-star cast of train passengers, including the likes of Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Richard Widmark, and Sean Connery, to name just a few.

In this new 2017 version, Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, and he too has assembled an all-star cast of passengers, which for me, was the best part of this movie.  The cast is superb.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS opens in the middle east in the early 1930s where famed detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is busy solving yet another impossible crime.  His job done, he climbs aboard a train for some rest and relaxation, but things don’t go as planned when there is a murder committed on board, and suddenly Poirot finds himself once again trying to solve a complicated mystery.

And this is a mystery, so the less said about the plot the better.

As I said, the best part about MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is its cast, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but for the film itself, it’s a mixed bag.  The biggest knock against this movie is it just never reached out and grabbed me.  There is never a defining moment in the film where I felt, okay, this is where it gets going.  It just move along at a steady pace with no sense of urgency or dramatic build-up.  It’s all rather listless.

It certainly looks good.  The shots of the train travelling through the snowy mountains are picturesque, and the costumes and set design are impressive.  But director Branagh seems satisfied to film a period piece drama without giving much emphasis on the suspenseful side of things.  This film just never gets going.

But the cast is fun, starting with Branagh himself as Hercule Poirot.  Branagh seems to be having a good time with the role, and he’s convincing as the meticulous borderline-OCD Poirot.  And his full mustache is so noticeable it’s nearly a character in itself.

Johnny Depp makes for an excellent gangster-type, and his was one of my favorite performances in this film.  I’ve grown tired of some of Depp’s off-the-wall acting roles of late, and it was fun to see him actually play a character.  He does a fine job, and I wish he would do this more often, play someone who actually seems like a real person.

I also really enjoyed Michelle Pfeiffer, and although she wasn’t as memorable as she was in MOTHER (2017) earlier this year, she’s still very good.  We haven’t seen a whole lot of Pfeiffer in recent years, and I hope this changes because she remains a strong talent whose presence has been missed in the movies of late.

Likewise, Josh Gad was particularly effective as Hector MacQueen, the right hand man and attorney for Depp’s Edward Ratchett.  While Gad was more memorable as LeFou in the recent live-action remake of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017), he’s still pretty darn good here.

Also in the cast are Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, and Willem Dafoe. Now, all of these folks are fun to watch, but none of them do a whole lot.  Like the film as a whole, no one really has any signature moments.

Michael Green wrote the screenplay, based on Christie’s novel.  It’s a decent screenplay with believable dialogue and interesting characters, but it doesn’t score all that well as a whodunit mystery.  There is a murder, and Poirot investigates.  This in itself is interesting, but without compelling dialogue and conversations, and without energetic directing, the process of solving the crime somehow all becomes rather mundane and lifeless.

There are some good moments, like when Poirot says he’s reached the age where he knows what he likes and doesn’t like, and he partakes fully in all that he likes and completely ignores what he dislikes.  For those of us who have reached a certain age, this line rings true.  It’s too bad the same can’t be said for most of the other dialogue and situations in the film.

Green was one of the writers who wrote the screenplay to BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017), and he also worked on the screenplay to LOGAN (2017).  Of these three, the Marvel superhero film LOGAN is clearly Green’s best credit.

Another drawback to this film is if you’ve seen the 1974 movie, it’s hard to forget, and this new version doesn’t really offer anything that is new.  I’m going to guess that if you haven’t seen the 1974 movie, you might like this version better than I did.

I found MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS to be simply okay.  It didn’t wow me, didn’t have me on the edge of my seat, or scratching my head wondering who the murderer was, but it did hold my interest for the most part, in a rather routine pleasant sort of way, which for a period piece murder mystery, doesn’t really cut it.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) – Light But Ultimately Superficial Tale of Unlikely Friendship

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victoria_and_abdul_poster

There’s a funny line in VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) where Queen Victoria (Judi Dench) receives a mango from her entourage, and hearing her friend Abdul’s comments about the fruit, tells them, “This mango is off.”

The same can be said for the movie itself.  It starts off well, but as it goes along, I couldn’t help but notice it was all just a little “off.”

VICTORIA AND ABDUL (2017) begins playfully, as the first words on the screen are “Based on real events—- mostly.”  Good for a chuckle, it’s the first of many humorous moments during the movie’s first half.

It’s 1887, and Queen Victoria has been ruling for fifty years.  She’s pretty much bored to death with all the ceremonies and pomp and circumstance which surround her life. Enter Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal), an Indian clerk who has been sent to present her with a ceremonial coin, a gift from the queen’s colony in India.  The queen notices Abdul, later quips that she found him terribly handsome, and the next thing Abdul knows he’s invited back.  Soon, Victoria is taking to speaking to Abdul privately.  Bored with her life, she is fascinated by his fresh positive outlook on life, and she even makes him her “Munshi,” a spiritual advisor.

These decisions absolutely enrage the officials surrounding the queen, including her whining son Bertie, the Prince of Wales (Eddie Izzard). It doesn’t take long for the plots to begin, plots to remove Abdul from the Queen’s confidence.  And it’s here where the film started to lose me.

The relationship between Victoria and Abdul is quite charming at first, but as the story goes along, it becomes less so because the movie does not give its audience reasons to really understand why this relationship is so important to them.  In terms of the queen, sure, she finds her life boring, and Abdul is like a breath of fresh air, and this works at first, but it only goes so far.  Abdul’s motives are far less understood.  In fact, of all the characters in the movie, he’s probably developed the least.

And then there’s the undercurrent of racism and imperialism.  The British officials disdain Abdul mostly because he is an Indian peasant, and they look down at him throughout the movie.  While this keeps the story real and relevant, it also doesn’t really mesh all that well with the lighter, fun tone of Victoria and Abdul’s friendship.  As the movie moves forward, the ugly imperial undertones grow stronger while the witty friendship tale reverts into the background, paving the way for Abdul’s eventual fate. The film does not end the way it begins.  In fact, the ending seems like quite the different movie.

I saw VICTORIA AND ABDUL because of Judi Dench, and she does not disappoint one iota.  She delivers a solid performance as Queen Victoria, and she is the main reason to see this movie.

I was less impressed with Ali Fazal as Abdul.  There was just something less real about Abdul than pretty much all of the other characters, and I believe the fault is a combination of the acting and the writing.  I just never really understood what Abdul really wanted.  Supposedly, in real life, he used his relationship with Victoria to be a voice for Muslims and their rights, but that kind of motivation is absent from this movie.

But the supporting cast here is very good. Adeel Akhtar, who was also memorable earlier this year in a supporting role in THE BIG SICK (2017), plays another Indian peasant named Mohammed who also meets the Queen with Abdul.  Early on, Mohammed provides plenty of comic relief as he criticizes what he sees as the barbaric English society, and later, he has one of the better dramatic moments in the film when he rejects the British officials’ plea to him to help them get rid of Abdul.

The recently deceased Tim Pigott-Smith is excellent as Sir Henry Ponsonby, the queen’s long-suffering handler who receives most of the pressure for not being able to rid the royal household of Abdul.  Eddie Izzard is both comical and menacing as Victoria’s whiny son Bertie.

Then there’s Michael Gambon as Lord Salisbury, Paul Higgins as the queen’s personal physician, Dr. Reid, and Olivia Williams as Lady Churchill, who all can’t wait to rid themselves of Abdul.  They all give very effective performances.  And Simon Callow even show up in a comical bit as the famed singer Puccini.

Stephen Frears directed VICTORIA AND ABDUL, and in terms of period piece photography, there aren’t any complaints here.  The film looks terrific.  The pacing is a bit slow, and while naturally entertaining, it doesn’t really take advantage of its more powerful moments.  The disturbing parts of the story are not explored as deeply as they could have been. Frears has had a long and successful directorial career, from films like MY BEAUTIFUL LAUNDRETTE (1985) to THE QUEEN (2006).

Lee Hall wrote the screenplay, based on the book by Shrabani Basu.  Early on, the humor works, but I never completely understood the relationship between Victoria and Abdul, mostly because I didn’t get a good sense of Abdul’s background and motivations.

And later, when things grow ugly, events just happen without there being much thought or reaction to them.  Again, it comes down to Abdul.  When things go badly for him near the end, his thoughts and feelings barely register.

VICTORIA AND ABDUL is a fairly entertaining movie.  Judi Dench gives a professional performance as Queen Victoria, and she’s aided by a strong supporting cast.  But there’s more to this story than just a lighthearted friendship between two unlikely friends. There’s a tale of racism and imperialism, but the film barely explores these darker more cynical parts of the narrative.  They’re there, but they remain superficial.

As does the entire movie.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

Jackie Chan Returns in THE FOREIGNER (2017)

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Jackie Chan is back, and he’s taking on Pierce Brosnan in today’s thriller, THE FOREIGNER (2017).

Quan Ngoc Minh (Jackie Chan) is a quiet store owner living in London whose world is shattered when his daughter is killed in a terrorist bomb attack.  He seeks out answers, demanding to know who killed his daughter. A group identifying itself as a new faction of the IRA claims responsibility for the London blast, and so Quan’s search leads him to Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a former officer in the IRA who’s now working for the British government.

Quan isn’t the only one demanding answers.  The British government wants them, too, and Hennessy promises to find them.  He assembles a group of his IRA contacts and puts them on notice with his suspicions that someone in their circle is part of this new faction.

When Quan shows up at Hennessy’s doorstep looking for the names of the bombers, Hennessy tells him he doesn’t know who is responsible and quickly dismisses his visitor without a second thought.  But Quan is relentless, and soon he is bombing Hennessy’s home and threatening his family unless he is given the names of the terrorists.

Hennessy’s search for the terrorists leads to some  unexpected answers, while his efforts to apprehend Quan, who is a former special forces soldier, repeatedly fail.

THE FOREIGNER tells two different stories, and as such, at times seems like two different movies.

The emotional story is Quan’s, as he vows that nothing is going to stop him from finding the people responsible for his daughter’s death.

Quan Ngoc Minh is a serious somber role for Jackie Chan, and it’s not the usual lighthearted fun action role that Chan generally plays.  Quan is an older, more reflective character who goes all in to avenge his daughter’s death. Chan doesn’t play the character as unhinged but as extremely determined and focused.  He somehow manages to keep Quan a sympathetic character throughout, even when he is blowing up Hennessy’s property. It’s an impressive performance.

But while Quan’s story is emotional, it’s also just a simple revenge tale, and as such,  is far less interesting than the more intriguing story of Hennessy’s investigation into his IRA contacts.

As Liam Hennessy, the former IRA officer who’s now in the difficult position of siding with the British government, Pierce Brosnan delivers a solid performance, showing grit, determination, and eventually despair.  That’s because the deeper Hennessy digs, the more his world unravels.

Hennessy has the double whammy of learning some unsavory things about both his IRA connections and people very close to him, while being unable to fend off Quan who is hiding in the woods outside his home and is constantly attacking him.  The scenes where Hennessy expresses frustration and disbelief that his trained security detail cannot handle Quan are some of Brosnan’s best.

Both the IRA storyline and Quan’s vengeance story are dark, grim tales, but there is a disconnect between the two that prevents this movie from really taking off.  The two stories never really come together in a satisfying way.

One reason is that they are so different.  Quan’s revenge tale is right out of an old Charles Bronson movie, while Hennessy’s investigation into the depths of the IRA is more akin to a political suspense thriller.  They don’t mesh all that well, and the biggest reason for this is the film’s climax. For Quan, there’s only one solution, and in this movie just like in those Charles Bronson movies, whether or not he achieves it is never really in question, and for Hennessy, the answers he finds have less to do with what Quan wants to know and more to do with his own past.  And so their two stories aren’t exactly on a collision course with each other.  They connect, but only long enough to send each of them on their merry ways.

If you like Jackie Chan action scenes, you won’t be disappointed. Director Martin Campbell does a nice job with them, and they were probably my favorite part of the movie.  My only beef is that there weren’t enough of them.

The Hennessy scenes are taut and intriguing.  The investigation into who is behind the bombings is compelling and hard-hitting.

Director Campbell is no stranger to action thrillers.  He’s directed two James Bond movies, GOLDENEYE (1995) the first Pierce Brosnan Bond movie, and CASINO ROYALE (2006), the first Daniel Craig Bond movie.  Both films are excellent.  Campbell also directed GREEN LANTERN (2011), which was not so excellent.

David Marconi wrote the screenplay, based on the novel “The Chinaman” by Stephen Leather.  It’s an okay screenplay.  It has believable characters and tells two compelling stories, even if they don’t mix together all that well. Marconi also wrote the screenplay for LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007).

Chan and Brosnan are helped by a solid supporting cast.  Michael McElhatton from TV’s GAME OF THRONES (2012-2016) plays Hennessy’s loyal right hand man, Jim, while Dermot Crowley from TV’s LUTHER (2010-2015) plays Hugh McGrath, one of Hennessy’s IRA brothers who may have his own agenda.

Charlie Murphy plays Maggie, a woman who Hennessy is having an affair with, and Orla Brady plays his wife Mary, who has her own issues with her husband.

And Rory Fleck Byrne is very good as Hennessy’s nephew Sean, a tracker and an assassin, who Hennessy eventually employs to find and take out Quan.

But the two best performances in THE FOREIGNER belong to the two leads, Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan. Chan is excellent in a far more somber and serious role than he usually plays, and Brosnan is just as good as the increasingly beleaguered Hennessy whose world is under constant threat.

THE FOREIGNER is a decent thriller featuring two veteran actors. Its two separate stories don’t always gel, but the acting, directing, and writing are strong enough to make THE FOREIGNER an enjoyable action movie.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.