ESCAPE ROOM (2019) – Puzzle Thriller Better Than Expected

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Deborah Ann Woll feels the heat in ESCAPE ROOM (2019).

 

I wasn’t expecting much from ESCAPE ROOM (2019), the new “solve the puzzle or you die” thriller that clearly has eyes on becoming a franchise. Critics haven’t been kind to it, and word of mouth has been mute.

But in spite of a boneheaded opening and very contrived ending, ESCAPE ROOM was easily better than I expected.

ESCAPE ROOM opens with a supposed harrowing sequence of a young man Ben Miller (Logan Miller) desperately seeking clues inside a room that is quickly closing in on him, and he’s in danger of being crushed to death unless he can find whatever it is he’s looking for. Since we know absolutely nothing about this character, this opening sequence is just okay and is hardly an exciting way to open the movie.

The action jumps backwards several days, and we meet a group of characters who all receive a strange cube for various reasons inviting them to take part in an escape room puzzle game that will put them in a room with seemingly no escape. If they can figure their way out, they win $10,000.

There’s main character Zoey Davis (Taylor Russell) an extremely introverted college student whose professor advises her to take more risks in life, and to start by doing something that is out of her comfort zone over the Thanksgiving break. We also meet Ben Miller, a young man who’s sort of a loser and is struggling even to keep his grocery store job. Of course, we met Miller in the opening sequence, giving away any suspense as to his fate since we know he’ll survive long enough to reach the collapsing room, which is why I called the opening sequence boneheaded.

There’s also Jason Walker  (Jay Ellis), a hotshot stockbroker who always plays to win, Amanda Harper (Deborah Ann Woll), an Iraqi war veteran with a traumatic past, Mike Nolan (Tyler Labine) a down to earth truck driver, and Danny Khan (Nik Dodani) a nerdy gamer who’s played these escape room games before.

At first, they’re all pretty excited to play, except for Amanda who seems to sense something is wrong from the outset, and something is wrong, because it doesn’t take these folks long to realize that it isn’t a game but is real. If they don’t escape from each room, they die, and once they start being killed, the intensity ratchets up.

The main reason ESCAPE ROOM works as well as it does is its cast, which creates amiable characters who in spite of their flaws are folks you easily feel comfortable rooting for.

Taylor Russell is excellent in the lead role of Zoey Davis. She’s convincing as an introvert who later on must channel her energies to survive and help her new friends to do the same. Russell was also memorable as Judy Robinson in the Netflix reboot of LOST IN SPACE (2018-2019). She is a young actress to keep your eye on.

Logan Miller is very good as socially challenged Ben Miller, and his performance keeps the audience from ever really disliking a character who could have been very annoying. Miller has also appeared on TV’s THE WALKING DEAD.

Jay Ellis is sufficiently cold and driven as winner-take-all stock broker Jason Walker, and Deborah Ann Woll adds a lot of depth to her Iraq-war veteran character Amanda Harper. I’m a big fan of Woll’s work on the Netflix Marvel shows DAREDEVIL (2015-18), THE PUNISHER (2017-2019) and THE DEFENDERS (2017) where she has the recurring role of Karen Page. In fact, the main reason I wanted to see ESCAPE ROOM was because of Deborah Ann Woll.

Tyler Labine does a nice job as Mike Nolan, while Nik Dodani plays the one character Danny Khan who’s sadly reduced to being a cliché.

Most of the escape rooms in the film are pretty creative, and the sequences where the characters need to escape or die are generally exciting, although they never approach seat-squirming levels. It’s all pretty neat and safe, but it’s not dull, and with these actors in the roles I really did care for them and wanted to see them survive.

The screenplay by Bragi F. Schut and Maria Melnik works for the most part. Its strength is it creates likable characters and gives them realistic dialogue. It wisely avoids giving away answers— the biggest question being who is doing this and why?— until the end, and that’s where things dip a bit.

The idea of characters having to escape a series of deadly rooms works best in the abstract. It all makes for thrilling cinema until the moment arrives when it’s time for some answers. Who is doing this? Why? How? And these answers are far more difficult to come up with while keeping the story realistic. I can’t say the writers really succeeded here.

And the set up for a sequel is by far the most contrived part of the movie and the least believable. It’s also the weakest part of the film.

But before this I thought director Adam Robitel did a nice job keeping things suspenseful. I certainly enjoyed ESCAPE ROOM more than I did Robitel’s previous directorial effort, the dreadful INSIDIOUS:THE LAST KEY (2018).

The story itself here is secondary to the plight of the characters trying to escape the rooms, and that’s the best part of this enjoyable thriller. For most of the film, you don’t know why this is happening, but you also don’t really care. The characters are fleshed out enough so that you care about them.

And sometimes for a movie to work, that’s all you need.

—END—

 

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BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018) – Uneven Opening Gives Way To Intense Second Half

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So, are there bad times at the El Royale?

You don’t know the half of it.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE (2018), the latest film by writer/director Drew Goddard, takes place at a run down hotel, the El Royale, which sits on the border between California and Nevada, and follows the stories of several guests who all arrive there one night, each with dark secrets. When their lives intersect, all hell breaks loose.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is uneven at times, especially early on, when the stories told are somewhat disjointed, but it’s one of those movies where your patience will be rewarded. It gets better as it goes along, and it finishes strong. Still, it doesn’t entirely work as a complete package. It’s more a series of moments, and it does have some powerful moments, scenes that pack a wallop. You just have to wait for them.

The film is also helped by an excellent cast, with several players delivering outstanding performances. Jeff Bridges, for example, carries the film whenever he’s onscreen, which is a lot, and Chris Hemsworth, who shows up towards the end, steals the scenes he’s in.

It’s 1968, and struggling singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) arrives at the El Royale to find a priest Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) standing out front looking lost. They strike up a friendly conversation and enter the hotel together to find the lobby empty except for one other person who’s helping himself to the bar, and that’s salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Jon Hamm) who tells them he can’t seem to find any hotel staff.

This opening scene, in which the three have an extended conversation, plays like something out of a dream. The hotel seems to be deserted, yet they’re talking like that’s not so strange. It’s a weird and slow scene, not the strongest sequence in which to open a movie, but like I said, things get better.

The hotel clerk, a young man named Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) eventually shows up and apologizes for not hearing the bell, and as he does so, another guest arrives, a woman named Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson). Needless to say, none of these folks are simple hotel guests. They have all arrived with an agenda, a story, and through a creative series of flashbacks, we learn what they are all doing there. Yet, the flashbacks are only a small part of the story, as most of the film takes place at the hotel when these characters’ stories intersect, and the less said about their stories, the better. I wouldn’t want to ruin the fun.

And BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE is a lot of fun, in a dark violent sort of way.

Drew Goddard has written a very creative script, which is no surprise, because he’s done this before.  Goddard wrote the screenplays for such films as THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2012), which he also directed, THE MARTIAN (2015), and one of my all time favorites, CLOVERFIELD (2008). He’s also written a lot for television, lending his writing talents to such shows as BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (2002-2003), LOST (2005-2008), and Marvel’s DAREDEVIL (2015-2018), a show in which he also serves as the series creator.

With BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, as both the writer and director, Goddard has created an enjoyable puzzle of a movie. The characters’ stories intertwine seamlessly, helped along by Goddard’s effective use of flashbacks, both from years past and just minutes before. The film shows several events more than once, as seen through different characters’ eyes.

There’s even a Hitchcock MacGuffin, a roll of film containing footage of an unnamed prominent figure, now dead, in a compromising situation. It’s an item everyone wants because of its value.

As I said, the cast is at the top of their game.

The two characters who get the most screen time are singer Darlene Sweet and Father Flynn. Cynthia Erivo is very good as Sweet, and of all the characters in the story, she’s the most straightforward. Her past isn’t so much about a secret, but about a decision to buck the system, to reject the sexual advances of her producer who promised he could make her a star. She decides to make it on her own. Her story really resonates today.

Jeff Bridges is superb as Father Flynn, who does have a secret to hide. Now, since Bridges has had a long and remarkable career, I hesitate to say that this is one of his best performances, because he’s had a lot of those, but let’s put it this way: he’s really, really good. For me, even more than the story, Bridges’ performance is the best part of this movie, and is what I enjoyed most. Bridges’ best scenes are when he talks about and deals with his bout with Alzheimer’s.

Jon Hamm is also very good as Laramie Seymour Sullivan, although his character ultimately has less of an impact than Bridges’ or Erivo’s. For me, the best part of Hamm’s performance was he was playing someone very different from Don Draper on MAD MEN (2007-2015).

Dakota Johnson is fine as Emily Summerspring, but even better is Cailee Spaeny who plays her younger sister Rose, and Lewis Pullman as hotel clerk Miles Miller.  There’s something almost hypnotic about Spaeny’s performance as Rose, a sort of flower child who becomes obsessed with Chris Hemsworth’s Billy Lee, a relationship that leads her to violence and murder. And Pullman starts off as a meek hotel clerk, but his secrets are painful and deep, and his performance gets better as the film goes along.

Speaking of Chris Hemsworth, he has a field day as Billy Lee, this 1960s anti-establishment leader who sees himself as a cross between Abbie Hoffman and Jesus Christ. Throw in a little Charles Manson and you get the idea. Hemsworth fills the character with creepy charisma.

It’s on full display in the scene where he uses an allegory to share his views on war, having Rose fight another young girl while he stands back and watches, asking his followers to observe how he has made them fight while he remains far away from the scuffle and profits from it.

Hemsworth and Bridges are the two best parts of this movie, and their confrontation during the film’s climax is a major highlight.

That climactic scene where Billy Lee holds the characters hostage and uses a Roulette board to play a deadly execution game is a nail-biter and by far the most intense sequence in the film.

However, one major knock against the script, as fun as it was, and as much as I liked it, is it’s not all that believable.  Other than the Alzheimer’s subplot and Darlene Sweet’s plight with her sexual predator producer, there’s not a lot of realism here, and for the most part, I didn’t believe what was going on. For me, this usually spells doom for a movie, but that’s not the case here. I enjoyed all the clever touches used to tell this story, and combined with the phenomenal acting, it made up for the lack of believability.

BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE begins slowly, but it gets better, providing some potent moments while it builds to a satisfying and intense final act.

These are some bad times you don’t really want to miss.

—END—

 

A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018) – Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively Lift Uneven Comedy Thriller

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Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively in A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018)

The combination of comedy and thriller is a complicated dance.

A SIMPLE FAVOR (2018), the new film by director Paul Feig, known mostly for his comedies, with films such as BRIDESMAIDS (2011), THE HEAT (2013), and SPY (2015), makes an energetic attempt to master this nuanced tango, but with a few missteps along the way, especially towards its latter half, it’s not exactly a polished polka.

The best part of A SIMPLE FAVOR, and honestly the main reason I wanted to see this one, is its casting of Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively, as two very different moms whose lives intersect in a way that at first suggests an unexpected friendship but gradually reveals the hatching of a sinister plot.

Kendrick and Lively are both excellent, and they are the main reasons to see A SIMPLE FAVOR. What stopped me from really liking this one was its story, filled with more twists and turns than an Agatha Christie novel, and as such, far less believable.

A SIMPLE FAVOR opens with Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) hosting her vlog, which is usually a platform for helpful tips for moms, but this time she’s discussing the disappearance of her best friend Emily (Blake Lively) who five days earlier had asked Stephanie to do her a simple favor and pick up her son from school because she had to work late, but then Emily never showed up, and no one has seen her since.

Stephanie decides to bring her viewers up to speed and tell the whole story leading up to Emily’s disappearance, and thus the film flashes back to how the two friends first met. Stephanie is an incredibly energetic single mom who volunteers nonstop for her son Miles’ first grade class. When Miles wants to have a play date with his friend Nicky, Nicky’s mom Emily (Blake Lively) at first says no, that she doesn’t have time, but eventually changes her mind and invites Stephanie and Miles over to her luxurious home.

They live in a small town in Connecticut, and Emily works for a high-profile designer in New York City, and her lifestyle is completely opposite from Stephanie’s. But the two strike a friendship which at first seems odd but happens because the one thing they both have in common is that neither one really has any friends.

When Emily disappears, Stephanie joins forces with Emily’s author husband Sean (Henry Golding) to find out what happened to her. And what quickly becomes apparent is that this is not an ordinary missing person’s case. With that in mind, I’ll stop right there because the less known about the plot the better.

That being said, the story as a whole even with all its twists and turns, didn’t really work for me. For starters, there are just so many curves thrown to keep the audience off-balance that after a while it simply becomes too farfetched. By the end of the movie, I found myself believing very little of it.

And this is where the thriller/comedy combo comes into play. Had this been a straight comedy, then I most likely wouldn’t have cared as much if the story wasn’t all that believable. But A SIMPLE PLAN in spite of frequent comedic outbursts retains a serious tone throughout, and when a thriller isn’t believable, that’s problematic.

The screenplay by Jessica Sharzer, based on the novel by Darcey Bell, mixes things up from the outset. In her opening vlog Stephnie announces that Emily is missing, a serious beginning, but in the ensuing flashback Stephanie is shown in highly comedic scenes. It’s an odd mix. The overall look of the film is light and bubbly, yet the dialogue and the plot is most often somber. At one point Emily says the best thing she can do for her son is “blow her brains out,” to which she quickly follows with an “I’m kidding.” The entire film plays like this, and to be honest, as it went along, I had a difficult time determining what was supposed to be taken seriously and what wasn’t. The plot certainly goes down some dark roads as it involves fraud and murder.

And it’s not a comedy which just happens to feature murder a la some of the classics of yesteryear like FOUL PLAY (1978) and MURDER BY DEATH (1976). It’s much more a thriller with some quirky characters and brief comedic moments.

Both Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively are excellent, even if they are playing characters who by film’s end I didn’t find very believable. Which is another problem I had with the movie. Most of the characters didn’t seem credible, and so you have this rather serious plot inhabited by characters who were difficult to take seriously.  It just didn’t quite work for me.

I like Anna Kendrick a lot, and her performance was my favorite part of this uneven movie. At first, as Stephanie, she seems to be this supermom, but when she starts loosening up and confiding with Emily, she has some secrets of her own to share. And later, when her relationship with Emily’s husband Sean changes, it opens up the door for some questions about her character and motives. Kendrick does a nice job capturing the nuances of the character, even if the script ultimately lets her down.

Blake Lively is equally as good as the complex Emily Nelson. She’s the complete opposite of Stephanie. She’s the trend-setting go-getting career woman with little or no time for her son, but yet she and Stephanie do become friends. Stephanie is attracted to Emily’s fierce no-apology take-everything-you-can philosophy of life which is so opposite of her own self-sacrificing personality. Lively has a field day as the no-nonsense power mom, whose shadowy past is revealed once Stephanie starts looking into her disappearance.

Henry Golding rounds out the triumvirate as Emily’s husband Sean. Fresh off his starring role as eligible bachelor Nick Young in CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) Golding is married this time around but still brings his attractive good looks to dress up the proceedings. Golding makes for a confused husband. At times he’s completely mesmerized and dominated by Emily, and at others he seems genuinely in love with her and sincere in his efforts to find her.

But when his relationship with Stephanie develops, it raises questions that ultimately I’m not sure the film does the best job answering.

When all is said and done, and all the twists and turns have come to a halt and the dust has settled, the result is a plot that is pretty darn ludicrous. I bought very little of it. And one of the main twists in the film is one I’ve seen done many times before.

But it might not matter. I saw A SIMPLE FAVOR in a crowded theater, and there was lots of genuine laughter from the crowd.

Some dark comedies work. In fact I love most dark comedies. But A SIMPLE FAVOR is less a dark comedy and more a comedic thriller, with the emphasis on crime and mystery, but it’s a crime and a mystery that I just didn’t believe.

I ultimately found  A SIMPLE FAVOR to be a disappointment, even with solid performances by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. Kendrick and Lively are very good, but the story they occupy is too far-fetched not to have been played completely for laughs.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

Streaming Movie Review: THE GIFT (2015)

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Rebecca Hall, Justin Bateman, and Joel Edgerton share an awkward dinner in the mystery/thriller THE GIFT (2015).

Even though I see lots of movies each year, I’m never able to see every one I want to see at the theater, so it’s always fun to catch a film I missed the first time around.

Such was the case with THE GIFT (2015) a thriller from few years back written, directed, and starring Joel Edgerton.

I like Joel Edgerton a lot.  I’ve enjoyed nearly every movie I’ve seen him in, from IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), BLACK MASS (2015), to THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) where he played Tom Buchanan.  THE GIFT was his directorial debut, and as debuts go it’s pretty darn good.

 

THE GIFT tells the story of a married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) who move to California to get a fresh start in life since Robyn had recently suffered a miscarriage. They move to a place close to Simon’s home town. Not long after they are there, they run into a man (Joel Edgerton) who says he used to know Simon, but Simon doesn’t recognize him until he tells Simon his name, Gordon Mosely, or “Gordo” for short. At that point Simon does remember him and they have a polite exchange.

That is the end of that until Gordo sends them a gift, a gesture Robyn thinks is sweet, but Simon strangely seems unnerved by it, and explains to his wife that Gordo was something of an odd duck back in school, so much so that he earned the nickname “Weirdo.” When Gordo begins to visit more often and attempts to become closer friends with the couple, Simon pushes back, and the whole thing raises a red flag for Robyn because she doesn’t quite understand her husband’s feelings of hostility toward Gordo.

As things grow weirder and tensions rise, and as Simon and Robyn begin to feel threatened by Gordo, Robyn decides to look deeper into the man’s background, and what she finds is not what she expects, especially regarding her husband.

I really enjoyed THE GIFT.  Its story grabbed me right away and held my attention throughout. Because I thought I knew where the plot was heading, I kept expecting it to become stupid or predictable, but that didn’t happen.  It stays strong throughout and kept me guessing all the way to the end.

As a result, THE GIFT is a solid mystery/thriller.

The three principal actors all do an excellent job, and as a director, Joel Edgerton should be commended for getting so much out of his actors, even if one of those actors was himself.

First and foremost, it was fun seeing Jason Bateman cast against type. The comic actor, who has enjoyed a very long career and has starred in the recent comedies GAME NIGHT (2018), IDENTITY THIEF (2013), and the HORRIBLE BOSSES movies, as well as the ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (2003-18) TV series, is really good here as Simon, the seemingly wonderful husband with a dark past. I bought his performance throughout.

Likewise, Rebecca Hall is equally as good as Robyn. It’s a nuanced performance because she has to react to things that affect her intuition and gut feelings, rather than to things that are blatantly in her face.  And she pulls it off because most of the time I knew exactly what she was thinking and feeling. I’ve enjoyed Hall in other movies, in films like THE TOWN (2010) and VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA (2008), but her performance here ranks as one of my favorites.

To round out the trio, Joel Edgerton does a fine job as Gordo as well.  As I said, I’m a big fan of Edgerton’s, even though the last two films I saw him in weren’t very good, GRINGO (2018) and RED SPARROW (2018), but that being said, Edgerton’s performances in those movies were just fine.  In THE GIFT, as was the case with Rebecca Hall, Edgerton’s performance is a nuanced one. At first, there’s something quite sad about the man, and then something a little creepy, but then sad, or is it creepy? That’s part of the reason this movie works so well.  It keeps you guessing.

Which brings me to the screenplay, also by Joel Edgerton. It scores high on several fronts. It creates realistic three-dimensional characters who are difficult to label, because we get to see different sides to them. It also works as a solid mystery and thriller.  I did not figure out where the story was going ahead of time, which is always a good thing, nor was I disappointed with the reveals at the end of the movie. Everything pretty much works.

The screenplay also works as a social commentary, as it has something to say about bullying, and it says it well.

And as I said, it’s an impressive directorial debut for Edgerton. In addition to being a successful mystery, it’s also an effective thriller.  The best part is that it doesn’t rely on violence to unnerve its audience.  It relies on its story and its characters. There is a feeling of unease throughout the movie, a feeling that keeps the audience off-balanced, and this feeling pervades until the end credits roll.

THE GIFT is an excellent thriller, one that I’m sorry I missed at the theater during its initial run. But it’s currently available on Netflix, and I highly recommend you take a look.  You’ll be sure to enjoy it— unless, of course, a long-lost friend shows up at your doorstep bearing gifts. If that happens, you might want to look over your shoulder— or into your significant other’s past.

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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.  

 

 

 

Emily Blunt Best Part of Brooding Thriller THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016)

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I wish the girl had been on a faster train.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016), the new thriller starring one of my favorite actresses, Emily Blunt, and based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Paula Hawkins, is a decent enough flick, but it moves at such a deliberately plodding pace that it never reaches out and grabs you by the throat, never goes for the jugular, although truth be told there is a bloody stab-in-the-neck scene late in the film which is one of the more effective scenes in the movie.

Rachel (Emily Blunt) is a sad alcoholic who rides the train every day to and from a job she doesn’t have anymore, and from this train each day she observes a beautiful young woman Megan (Haley Bennett) with her husband Scott (Luke Evans) both outside and through curtain-free windows inside their home.  Rachel fantasizes about the happy life the couple share with each other.

Rachel used to live next door to Megan and Scott, in a house still occupied by Rachel’s ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and his new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their new baby.  Furthermore, Megan now works for Tom and Anna as their baby’s nanny.  Small world!

Rachel is a depressed young woman, and in her drunken stupors she becomes unhinged. At one point, she walks into Tom and Anna’s home and takes their baby, albeit only as far as their front lawn.

Anyway, one day Rachel observes Megan at her home with another man, which disturbs Rachel, since it ruins her fantasy of Megan’s and Scott’s happy life together.  One night, when she’s drunk, Rachel returns to the neighborhood, sees Megan jogging, pursues her, screams at her that she’s a whore, and then passes out.  When she awakes from her blackout, she is covered in blood.

And when it’s discovered the next day that Megan has disappeared, the mystery begins, and Rachel finds herself as an early person of interest by the police, since she was seen in the neighborhood, and since it’s on record that she’s been a threat to Tom and Anna, and that Anna and Megan bear a resemblance to each other.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN isn’t exactly the most compelling thriller you’ll ever see.  It has moments here and there, but for the most part it’s all rather sad and dull.

The best thing THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN has going for it is its three female leads.  I really liked the fact that the three main roles in this movie were women.  But that being said, none of these roles are all that exciting.

I’m a huge fan of Emily Blunt, and she doesn’t disappoint in this movie.  She’s very good as Rachel and captures the depressing sad life, the misery, in which Rachel exists.  In some ways, it’s a thankless role, because she spends most of the film in a drunken stupor. The biggest drawback, which can be said for the entire movie, is there’s never that one moment, that big payoff, where things are taken to the next level.  Blunt is very good here, but it’s not  a role, as written, where you’re thinking, Oscar material.  As such, I enjoyed Blunt more in SICARIO (2015) and in the Tom Cruise science fiction movie EDGE OF TOMORROW (2014).

Haley Bennett is okay as Megan, in yet another role that isn’t written as effectively as it could have been, and that holds true for the entire movie.

The screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson presents an elaborate mystery with lots of characters but none of these chararacters are developed as deeply as they should have been.  It seems to be a clear case of trying to cover all the events of a novel and getting them into one movie, which is difficult since novels and moves are so different.  That being said, it’s not a bad screenplay, it’s just a little too peripheral and superficial to  really work.  Wilson also wrote the screenplay to a similar thriller some years back that I liked a bit more than this movie, the film CHLOE (2009), starring Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson, and Amanda Seyfried.

Getting back to Haley Bennett, she enjoys a few good moments as Megan, but for the most part the role was underplayed.  I’ve seen Bennet a lot lately, as she was just in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016) as Emma Cullen, the woman who hires the Seven.  She was also in HARDCORE HENRY (2015), THE EQUALIZER (2014), in which she also co-starred with Denzel Washington, and way back when she played Molly Hartley in the mediocre horror movie THE HAUNTING OF MOLLY HARTLEY (2008).  Bennett is good in all these movies, but I’m still waiting for her to have that break-out role where she’s better than “just good.”  The most memorable thing about her performance here in this movie is that at times the way she is photographed she resembles Jennifer Lawrence.

The third female lead is Anna, played by Rebecca Ferguson, with similar results.  Decent acting, superficial role.

Justin Theroux plays Rachel’s husband Tom and gives an okay performance in yet another role that struggles to be three-dimensional.

I thought Luke Evans was very good as Megan’s slimy husband Scott.  He looks like a hothead and he acts like one, but there are some scenes where he reveals that there’s more to him than just being a controlling husband.  Evans played Vlad/Dracula in the underwhelming DRACULA UNTOLD (2014), a film I really didn’t like all that much, but Evans was pretty good in it.

And one of my new favorite actors, Edgar Ramirez, shows up in a key role as psychiatrist Dr. Kamil Abdic.  I first noticed Ramirez in his supporting role as Jennifer Lawrence’s husband in JOY (2015), but he’s been in a bunch of other movies, most recently playing Roberto Durant in HANDS OF STONE (2016), a film that got swept under the rug this year but is one of my favorite films that I’ve seen in 2016.  Ramirez also starred as the demon-hunting priest in the lackluster horror movie DELIVER US FROM EVIL (2014).  Here in THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, other than Emily Blunt, Ramirez gives the best performance.

Allison Janney  is quite good in a small role as Detective Riley.  The film really doesn’t follow the police investigation very much, and as such the police play a very small part in the film, which focuses more on Rachel, Megan, and Anna.  But in her brief time, Janney is very good.  As is  Laura Prepon as Rachel’s sister, Cathy.

And Lisa Kudrow shows up in a very, very small role, yet one which plays an important part in the plot.

Another thing I didn’t like about THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN that I thought hurt its story is it tells its tale through different characters’ perspectives.  It’s funny, becasue this is the type of storytelling that I love in a novel, but it’s easier to do in a novel, where you can have entire chapters told from different characters’ perspectives, so that you learn one thing about the plot from one character’s point of view, and then later you see it differently through the eyes of another character.

This doesn’t translate as well in a movie, or at least it didn’t here in THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN.  It comes off as more of a cheat.  You see a certain character act in a certain way through the whole movie, and then later, you learn, nope, that character is not that way at all.  The person you thought was decent really isn’t.

The film definitely manipulates its audience, and I have to say I for one didn’t enjoy being manipulated in this way.  I felt cheated.  In a novel, you would know exactly which character was telling the story.  In this movie, it comes off as something that is held back from the audience to fool them, as opposed to watching the story unfold from different characters’ points of view.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN was directed by Tate Taylor to mixed results.  He captures the mood of the piece for sure.  It’s all very gray and gloomy, depressingly so.  The film looks like the embodiment of what is to be Rachel.

But in terms of being a thriller, Taylor’s direction doesn’t cut it.  The pacing just isn’t there, nor is the suspense.  It’s all very interesting in that you want to know who did what to whom, especially since the movie goes out of its way to confuse you with its changing points of view, but it never ever becomes edge-of-your seat material.  And although there are a couple of nicely shot brutal murder scenes that may make you turn your head from the screen, neither of these are so intense or shocking that they’re all that memorable.

I enjoyed similar thrillers GONE GIRL (2014) and THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATOO (2011) better than this movie.

That being said, if you’re an Emily Blunt fan, as I am, THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN is worth a look.  She’s the main reason to see this brooding thriller.

 

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MR. HOLMES (2015) – Sherlock Holmes Tale An Outstanding Period Piece And Solid Vehicle for Ian McKellen

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Mr.  Holmes

Blu-ray Review:  MR. HOLMES (2015)

By

Michael Arruda

 

We all grow old.  Even Sherlock Holmes.

That’s the premise of MR. HOLMES (2015), the story of an elderly Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) trying desperately to remember the details of his final case, a case which ended so horribly it convinced him to retire.  But remembering is no easy task since he’s dealing with early stages of dementia.

Holmes, now in his 90s,  lives in a plush quiet home in the country along with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her young son Roger (Milo Parker). The year is 1947, and Holmes has been retired for thirty years.

He finds himself haunted by his final case, because he knows the events of that case caused him to retire outright.  The trouble is, he cannot remember any of it.  He tries all sorts of methods to stimulate his memory, but what he finds works best and inspires him most is spending time with young Roger, who loves Holmes and constantly encourages him to come out of retirement and solve another case.  So Holmes spends considerable time with the boy, often teaching him about beekeeping, in the hope that his memory will return.

And it does, but in bits and pieces and over the course of the movie, where we learn the fascinating details of the case which led Sherlock Holmes to an early retirement.  Since this is a mystery, the less said about the plot the better.

There are several reasons to see MR. HOLMES.  One is the cinematography.  The English countryside has never looked more inviting.

Better than the cinematography is the acting, led of course by Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes.  McKellen does more with just his facial expressions in this movie than most actors accomplish with their entire bodies.  Director Bill Condon takes full advantage of close-ups of McKellen’s face, showing us the pain, annoyance, wisdom, frustration, and flat out devastation felt by the aged Holmes.

As Holmes, Ian McKellen shows us a man struggling with memory loss, who at times still possesses the mental faculties which made him the world’s greatest detective.  He can be grumpy and aloof, but also compassionate and caring.  And in flashbacks from thirty years earlier, we witness a Holmes in his 60s working on that fateful case which would force his retirement.  McKellen handles these different stages of Holmes’ life with relative ease.

Young Milo Parker as the boy Roger is the perfect complement for McKellen’s Holmes here, and the two share the best scenes in this movie.  Laura Linney is also very good as Roger’s mother and Holmes’ housekeeper Mrs. Munro.  Tired of Holmes’ crabbiness and lack of cooperation, she actively wants to seek employment elsewhere, but that’s the last thing Roger wants since he idolizes Holmes.  It’s also not what Holmes wants since his time with Roger seems to be the only thing that sparks his memory.

The rest of players also do a very good job.  MR. HOLMES features splendid acting throughout.

The screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on a novel by Mitch Cullen, and using characters written by Arthur Conan Doyle, works on multiple levels.  It’s a poignat tale about the relationship between a very old person, Holmes, and a very young person, Roger, and on this level alone the film succeeds.  But it’s also a very compelling mystery, as Holmes’ final case involves the investigation into a supposed unfaithful wife, as well as a fateful trip to China.

Director Bill Condon does a nice job here.  For a film about an elderly Sherlock Holmes, the pacing is quick, and the film flies by, even though it is an hour and 44 minutes long.  Condon also directed McKellen in GODS AND MONSTERS (1998), an excellent movie about FRANKENSTEIN director James Whale, in which McKellen starred as the famous filmmaker.  But Condon also directed the last two TWILIGHT movies.  MR. HOLMES, no surprise, is much closer in quality to GODS AND MONSTERS than to the dreadful TWILIGHT films.

The other thing I liked about MR. HOLMES is that in spite of its central character dealing with dementia, the film resists the temptation to overplay the sympathy card.  Holmes harldly speaks of his memory troubles.  He just deals with them.

MR. HOLMES is an outstanding period piece, featuring a superb performance by Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes, and solid acting by the rest of the cast.  It’s well-directed, exhibits beautiful cinematography, and contains a first-rate mystery to boot.

It’s elementary, my dear Watson.  This one is definitely worth a look.

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