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.

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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.

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 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.  

 

 

 

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PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017) Will Hold Your Interest—If You’re Six Years Old

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PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017).

Ain’t that the truth!

While I still enjoy the Captain Jack Sparrow character played by Johnny Depp, the PIRATES films themselves have become shallow and redundant, with no sense of storytelling whatsoever.  But I get ahead of myself.

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017) is really the tale of two new characters.  Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) is the son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), the dashing blacksmith who teamed up with Jack Sparrow in the first three PIRATES movies.  We learn in a pre-credit sequence that Will Turner is forever cursed to spend his days in a watery grave beneath the ocean, but his son Henry is determined to free his dad.  And what self-respecting son wouldn’t naturally try to free his deceased dad from an underwater curse?  This is the sort of thing that happens every day, right?   Anyway, the only way Henry can do this—of course— is with the help of one Captain Jack Sparrow.

To free his dad, Henry needs the Trident of Poseidon, which gives its handler total control of the seas, and the only person who possesses enough gumption to get it, I guess, is Sparrow.

The other main character is Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario).  When we first meet her, she’s about to be executed for being a witch, but she’s not a witch.  She’s just smart and enlightened, but being an intelligent woman in those days doesn’t sit too well with the men, and so she’s accused of being a witch.

When  Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and his pirate buddies attempt to pull off a bold heist, things don’t go so well, and Sparrow is captured and set to be executed on the same day as Carina Smyth.  But the two escape with the help of Henry Turner, setting in motion the quest for the Trident of Poseidon.

Meanwhile, the undead Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) is also searching for the Trident so he and his men can escape their own watery grave and kill Jack Sparrow in the process. And if all this isn’t enough, old nemesis Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) also shows up, and he too is interested in the elusive Trident.

ZZZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Talk about a story that generates absolutely zero interest.

And that, by far, is my biggest problem with PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES.  The screenplay by Jeff Nathanson is pretty much geared for six year-olds. Seriously, unless you’re a young child who loves pirates, I don’t know how you can sit through this movie.  It’s not even appealing to teenagers, let alone adults.  The Trident of Poseidon?  Seriously?  The story here works on the same level as something like PETER PAN, which is fine for a children’s movie, but for a PG-13 pirates adventure?  It just doesn’t cut it.

The humor doesn’t work either. The jokes are watered down and not edgy enough to earn many laughs.

The film plays like a TRANSFORMERS movie under water.  Special effects galore, but no story to be found, which is a shame, because it wastes a character I like a lot, Captain Jack Sparrow.

Directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg have created a polished looking movie that is as hollow and empty as it is visually striking.  It’s the kind of movie that puts me to sleep, because there’s no story to support it, and no characters to capture my interest.

The action scenes don’t distinguish themselves, except for the early robbery scene, which was a pretty fun sequence, as Sparrow’s pirate buddies literally drag the entire building housing the safe they were robbing through the streets of the town in a rather rousing chase scene.  But other than this the action scenes fall flat.

I like Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, and I have no problem with his performance here.  The problem is with the script, which can’t seem to give him worthwhile lines or things to do. The first PIRATES movie, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN:  THE CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL (2003) was a snappy, rousing, and very creative flick with a story that featured lots of satisfying twists and turns, and at its center was Depp’s Jack Sparrow.  Here, there’s barely a creative spark to be found, and Depp is stuck saying inferior lines and having his screen time reduced in favor of newer younger characters.

Javier Bardem is a fantastic actor, but I found his performance as Captain Salazar grating and difficult to watch.  It didn’t help that the character is as dull as a piece of floating seaweed.

Geoffrey Rush is another superior actor, and he benefits here from having his Captain Barbossa  character introduced in the earlier movies.  Rush actually does have some fine moments here, especially with some revelations about his character later in the movie.

Newcomers Brenton Thwaites as Henry Turner and Kaya Scodelario as Carina Smyth pretty much put me to sleep.

Kevin McNally, who has appeared in all five PIRATES movie as Sparrow’s fellow pirate Gibbs, is enjoyable once again here, but like Johnny Depp, he’s contending with an inferior script.

My favorite part of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES was the music, and I’m not talking about the new score to this film by Geoff Zanelli, but the original PIRATES theme written by Klaus Badelt.  That theme was and still is perfect for this series, and whenever it was used in this movie, the film became at least tolerable, but outside of that, there’s nothing worthwhile about this movie.

Check that.  There is one more thing.  Paul McCartney shows up in a cameo as a pirate named Uncle Jack (What?  No Uncle Albert?).  His exchange with Depp’s Jack Sparrow is brief but it’s fun.

The rest of the film is flat-out awful.  Better to walk the plank than to sit through two plus hours of this sea tale.

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THE DROP (2014) Is Crime Drama At Its Best

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Blu-ray Review:  THE DROP (2014)

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Michael Arrudathe drop poster

Tom Hardy is one of my favorite actors working right now.

Every time I see him in a movie, he’s playing a completely different kind of role.  Whether he’s the villainous Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) or the heroic Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015) he’s making an impression.  In THE DROP (2014) which I recently watched on Blu-ray, he plays a soft-spoken ex-con bartender named Bob who works at a bar where there is more mob activity than alcohol served.  Bob is a fascinating character who plays his cards close to his vest.  You know there’s something more to this guy, but you just can’t figure out what it is.

In THE DROP Hardy is flanked by two equally talented actors, Noomi Rapace and the late James Gandolfini.

I saw THE DROP on Blu-ray the same week that I saw BLACK MASS (2015) at the theater, the lurid Whitey Bulger bio pic starring Johnny Depp as the infamous Boston mobster.  I found THE DROP to be the more compelling of the two, equaling the intensity of BLACK MASS but having a better story and more interesting and captivating characters.

In THE DROP, ex-con Bob (Tom Hardy) tends bar at Cousin Marv’s, a bar owned by Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini) himself.   It’s a drop bar, meaning that the mob deposits money there on a regular basis.  One night, the bar is robbed, an act that the Chechen mafia who rule that neighborhood does not take kindly to, and they immediately suspect Bob and Marv of being in on the robbery. While Marv reacts nervously, Bob seems to take it all in stride and goes about his business in a quiet, unobtrusive way.

When he discovers a badly beaten pit bull puppy left for dead in a garbage can, he’s encouraged to take the dog home by his neighbor Nadia (Noomi Rapace).  He doesn’t want to do this because he says he doesn’t know how to care for a dog, but Nadia pretty much tells him the dog will die without his help, and she in turn helps him take care of it, and soon they become good friends, until her former boyfriend Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts) shows up, claiming the dog is his and that he wants it back.  Bob tells him no, even though Eric has the reputation of being a loose cannon and evidently killed a man.  None of this seems to faze Bob all that much.

When Marv’s bar is chosen as the main drop bar on the night of the Super Bowl, meaning that a huge amount of mob money will be deposited there, the story comes to a head as Bob finds himself in the middle of yet another plan to rob the bar, the vengeful Chechen mafia, and the psychotic boyfriend who seems ready to kill Bob at the drop of a hat.

THE DROP works as well as it does because of the superb acting performances in the movie.  Tom Hardy knocks the ball out of the park with his performance as Bob, a man who finds himself in the tensest predicament yet doesn’t seem to break a sweat.  He’s a fascinating character who seems to be harboring some sort of secret, a key which defines his personality.

Noomi Rapace as Bob’s love interest Nadia has played this kind of role before and she can pretty much sleepwalk through it, but that doesn’t mean she’s not excellent.  She is.  Her part here reminded me a lot of her role in another thriller DEAD MAN DOWN (2013) but that didn’t stop me from liking her performance.

The late James Ganolfini is also exceptional here as Cousin Marv.  When the movie opens, he seems to be the wise and weathered bar owner, whereas Bob seems more naïve, but as the story goes on, we learn that this is not quite the case.  Marv has a troubled life, and he makes poor decisions as a result.

The screenplay by Denis Lehane is flat out excellent.  It’s a complicated story that is never too confusing.  It creates captivating characters who you want to learn more about. It’s based on his short story “Animal Rescue.”  Lehane also wrote the novels Mystic River (2003), Gone Baby Gone (2007) and Shutter Island(2010). And even though this movie was based on his short story, it plays like a novel.  Its story is rich and deeply textured.

Director Michael R. Roskam has made a very suspenseful thriller that is as dark as it is satisfying.

If you like your crime stories populated with multi-dimensional characters who face crucial decisions throughout, in the face of threatening mob violence all around them, you’ll love THE DROP, a compelling movie that isn’t afraid to take its time with its characterizations.  It allows its audience time to get to know its characters without sacrificing intensity or excitement.

It’s also a showcase for Tom Hardy who continues to impress in movie after movie.

I loved THE DROP.

It’s crime drama at its best.

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BLACK MASS (2015) Tells Lurid Tale of “Whitey” Bulger

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Movie Review:  BLACK MASS (2015)

By

Michael Arrudablack mass

 

BLACK MASS, the lurid bio pic of Boston mobster Whitey Bulger is as heartless and cold as its subject, and this isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Sure, Johnny Depp is near brilliant as Bulger, and co-star Joel Edgerton might be even better as FBI agent John Connolly, and both men lead a very talented cast, but Bulger’s story is as ugly as his crimes, and the result is a soulless movie that is difficult to like, in spite of its strengths.

For John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), life is about loyalty, and he sees as his ticket to success as an FBI agent reaching out to his childhood friend from his old neighborhood, Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) to form an alliance to work together to take down the Italian mob.  Connolly sees this relationship as his best chance for making it big, while Bulger views it as a business transaction to get the FBI to do his dirty work and take down his enemies for him.

And so faster than you can say “Don Corleone” John Connolly is bringing down members of the Italian mafia while Bulger moves from small time hood to the criminal mastermind of Boston, all while the FBI turns a blind eye towards him because of the information he is providing them.   The feds, led by Agent Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon) constantly ask why they’re shielding Bulger, but each time the questions are raised Connolly comes to Bulger’s defense and sweet talks his superiors into letting the arrangement continue.

It’s not until a new superior Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll) comes onto the scene, arriving in Boston from Philadelphia and decides to make it his business to go after Bulger that the arrangement between Bulger, Connolly, and the FBI unravels.

Johnny Depp is as good as advertised and leads a powerful cast in this effective crime drama.  That being said, “Whitey” Bulger is such a cold-hearted unlikable character that a movie about him is just as unlikable.

Joel Edgerton is every bit as good as Depp as FBI man John Connolly, but Connolly isn’t any more likeable than Bulger.  He’s loyal to his gangster buddy rather than to the FBI, and his arrangement with his childhood friend does more to raise crime in Boston than quash it.

Benedict Cumberbatch is also notable as Bulger’s politician brother Billy Bulger, but he rounds out the triumvirate of unlikable characters.  He’s not any more engaging than his mobster brother.  Three central characters.  Three unlikable souls.

Some stand-outs in smaller roles include David Harbour as Connolly’s willing and spineless partner John Morris.  The scene where “Whitey” torments him over dinner about his willingness to give up a family recipe is one of the better scenes in the movie.  Jesse Plemons makes good as a young man whose loyalty and devotion make him a “Whitey” favorite.  Plemons played a similar role during the final season of BREAKING BAD.

Dakota Johnson makes the most of her brief screen time as “Whitey’s” girlfriend Lindsey Cyr, and the scene where they argue over the fate of their young son is a keeper.  Peter Sarsgaard is effectively paranoid and hyper as the frightened loose cannon Brian Halloran.  W. Earl Brown and Rory Cochrane are memorable as “Whitey’s” loyal henchmen, and Julianne Nicholson is effective as Connolly’s fed up and frightened wife Marianne.  The scene where “Whitey” “visits” her in her bedroom is one of the more menacing moments in the movie.

The screenplay by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, based on books by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, does a nice job showing how coldhearted “Whitey” Bulger was and explaining how his arrangement with John Connolly and the FBI came to pass, but in terms of creating compelling characters, it falls short.  It’s all very stoic and cold.  When the tide turns on John Connolly and he’s facing arrest, I didn’t feel for him at all.

The direction by Scott Cooper captures the feel of 1970s Boston, and it certainly shows the ruthlessness of “Whitey” Bulger, but as an entire package, I found his previous movie OUT OF THE FURNACE (2013) much more compelling.  Its story was better, and its characters were deeper and richer. BLACK MASS has characters I really had no interest in learning more about.

Still, BLACK MASS is a decent movie, worth a trip to the theater. It’s not sugar-coated, and it’s not glorified.  It is what it is:  a lurid tale of a Boston mobster.

What it does better than anything else is give you a seat at the dinner table right next to “Whitey Bulger,” up close and personal.  And that’s simply not a place I want to be at for very long.

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