“Murder on the Orient Express” is fine but lacks gravitas

Directed and starring Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express” tells the story of Hercule Poirot (Branagh) in one of his most famous cases. When Mr. Ratchet (Johnny Depp) is murdered in the dead of night aboard the Orient Express, everyone in the coach is a suspect. Could it be Miss Debenham (Daisy Ridley)? Or Dr. Arbutnot (Leslie Odom Jr.)? Or perhaps the butler, Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi)?

The film is a fun, if ultimately forgettable, jaunt into an old time mystery. The movie plays it up hokey at times and it could have done so even more. Keeping things light and campy would have really accentuated the classic sense of the film and harken back to an oldtime era. As it is, the reason behind the movie is more of a mystery. It tries to incorporate modern technique into an old story but comes across as too beholden to the past. Perhaps it is just a vanity project as it is directed, starred in and produced by Branagh.

The cinematography is great and the acting is solid. It’s an enjoyable ride that just glides along the surface. The original 1973 version seems so much more memorable though. It really took time to delve into the characters and the story and focused on the mystery as the driving plot. This film is adequate but lacks muster.


“Paterson” a beautiful story

Very few films are made about everyday life. Most movies are about “super” people: spies, politicians, doctors, heroes and the like. But writer and director Jim Jarmusch has always been interested in the “lesser” told stories about everyday folks and “Paterson” is such a simple yet unordinary story.

“Paterson” is about a bus driver, Paterson (Adam Driver), who writes poetry. He takes an active interest in the conversations and lives of those who ride his bus and the people he meets on the streets. His girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), is an eccentric who keeps trying to find herself through various hobbies such as baking and artistry.

The film doesn’t have a concrete plot and seems to wander from encounter to encounter, all done with a purpose but seemingly as random as the flashes of a rolling river shown onscreen. All the characters are trying to find their way in life and Paterson sees their struggles mirror his own in a way, but his outlet of poetry helps him find meaning in a life that on the surface doesn’t seem to be too interesting.

The film is a beautiful tale of seeking an avenue of expression in a world full of stories. We just need to take the time to listen and observe those around us to find meaning in our own lives and realize our full potential of love.

“The Theory of Everything” misses the point

Another British film. Another leading actor who transforms himself for a role and is helped by a supportive female character without much depth. Another biopic. Another overcoming-physical-ailment plot. Another love story that ebbs and flows and plays fast and loose with the facts. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before because “The Theory of Everything” is exactly the type of film you’d expect it to be.

Written by Anthony McCarten and directed by James Marsh, the film examines young Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his relationship with his girlfriend and then wife, Jane (Felicity Jones). As Stephen’s ALS ravages his body, his bond with her is tested and outside influences change their relationship.

The film deals much more with the familial relationships in Hawking’s life rather than the physics which makes him world-famous. In a way, this is a detriment as it minimizes Hawking’s contribution to the world of scientific thought and instead looks at him as some sort of inspirational figure, plugging in a story that really isn’t there and is meant solely to pull at the heartstrings.

The film is a cookie-cutter, Oscar-bait narrative meant to tell a simple story, not offend anyone, and not to engage beyond purely surface detail. There’s as little thought here as in many a modern blockbuster.

The acting is good. Both Redmayne and Jones fill in the empty story with a degree of relatability and charm. You can always count on that with a film like this.

But “The Theory of Everything” should have been so much more than just another Oscar-bait narrative. You could imagine an exploration into Hawking’s theories and dramatic representations of them onscreen. You could see the mental fortitude needed to come up with his ideas while restricted to a wheelchair. Perhaps the film balances Hawking’s life with his theories and shows how one influences the other. There’s a moment near the end of the movie where the film plays back in reverse, highlighting one of Hawking’s theories about time, and we see how his life is played out back to a single instant. It’s just a glimpse into the kind of film we wish we had.

“Toni Erdmann” a strange, heartfelt familial story

Written and directed by Maren Ade, “Toni Erdmann” tells the strange story of a father, Winfried (Peter Simonischek), who sneaks his way into his daughter’s life, Ines (Sandra Huller), by creating a character named Toni Erdmann and pretending to be her life coach.

A critical analysis of the business world, “Toni Erdmann” is immersed with strangeness and abnormality. At times comedic and at other times despondent, the film is likely to affect people in different ways, some immediately connecting with it and others just not getting it.

The film is long and at times wandering. Some of the moments hit their mark and others don’t. The characters however are strong and the film is certainly memorable. Just thinking back on it, I recall three or four striking scenes that make me sit back and think, geez, what did that mean? Perhaps nothing at all. That is the mark of an interesting if not quite engaging film.

“War Horse” turns up the schmaltz to 11

Director Steven Spielberg has been known to oversentimentalize his movies, especially those that deal with important historical events or ethical causes. So with “War Horse”, a film about protecting animals and the horrors of World War 1, you can practically taste the sugar-coating over the film.

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) develops a strong relationship with his family’s horse, Joey. At the outbreak of World War 1, his horse is recruited into the war effort by Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), and Albert is enlisted soon after. As the war rages on, Joey is exchanged between the British, the French and the Germans throughout the front, finding humanity in each of them despite the carnage of conflict.

The morals of the story are fine. The beauty of nature, man should be more kind to each other, respect divine laws, blah, blah, blah. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before which makes the film pretty redundant.

The production feels like an expensive version of “Black Stallion” meets “Little House on the Prairie”, so full of schmaltz and pomp and circumstance and tear-jerker moments. It’s a Hallmark greeting card propped up by millions of dollars. So while it’s a typically well-made Spielberg film, it’s nothing more than a glorified soap opera.

There’s a touching scene where a British soldier and German soldier work together to free Joey from barbwire. It’s one of the only interesting scenes in the film and pretty much could have served as just a short film and gotten across the same meaning. Layering everything else on is indulgent. Noble intentions aside, “War Horse” falls short.

“Seven Psychopaths” a fun character story

There are actor’s movies. There are director’s movies. There are even cinematographer’s movies. “Seven Psychopaths” is a writer’s movie.

Written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the film tells the story of struggling screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) who becomes entangled in the story he’s writing as he becomes surrounded by seven psychopaths, including Billy (Sam Rockwell), Hans (Christopher Walken) and Charlie (Woody Harrelson). Hans makes his living kidnapping dogs and returning them for ransom money. When he accidentally steals mob boss Charlie’s dog, Marty is thrown into the struggle of his life as he, Billy and Hans go on the run.

The story of the seven psychos is intricate and interesting. Seeing how they all interact together with Marty’s journey gives a fascinating portrait of madness and how it ties into violence. Though all violent in their backstories, all 7 characters find solace in peace at the end, asking the question, what qualifies you to being a psychopath? And can you change once you realize what you are?

The film is well-acted, well-shot and decidedly well-written, with many funny lines and sublime character arcs. Some have compared the film to a Tarantino-esque style, but it is definitively McDonagh’s style, blending violence, comedy, high ideas and deep characterizations. He does a good job in all of his films of building the themes of his narrative up to the conclusion. Who would have thought that a movie like “Seven Psychopaths” would ultimately be a story about finding peace?

“Thor: Ragnarok” goes for straight-up fun and it works

The previous “Thor” films were admirable action adventures, but lacked heart and individuality. It’s hard to make a serious film when your protagonist is a hammer-wielding god and the villains are weird space aliens. So Marvel has wisely decided to ditch the pretense and go straight past logic into pure fun. These films are better for it.

Directed by Taika Waititi, “Thor: Ragnarok” features the titular character (Chris Hemsworth) trying to prevent the foreseen end-of-days. Despite his best efforts, his long-entombed sister and goddess of death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), emerges to destroy the nine realms. Trapped on an alien planet with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor must team up with the Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) to escape his bondage from the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) and save his home before Hela destroys it.

In lieu of trying to capture the serious tone and majesty of “Game of Thrones” or “The Lord of the Rings”, “Thor: Ragnarok” instead throws caution to the wind and tells a fanciful adventure-comedy that ties in to its predecessor’s mythology. Never taking itself too seriously and playing up the dynamics of the visuals, the film is a constantly enjoyable ride. Most answers to the plot seem to be as simple as why not. We want to see Hulk and Thor in a gladiatorial match. Why not. Wouldn’t it be cool for Jeff Goldblum to be in a Marvel movie just playing himself? Why not. No room for Natalie Portman in the story? Cut her. Why not. Let’s have Thor fight a literal Satanic creature. Why not. Let’s put in Dr. Strange for pretty much no reason. Why not. There’s something oddly commendable about such an approach.

For the returning characters of Thor, Loki, Banner, Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), having been with the franchise for so long, they have developed a comforting rhythm. The viewers know what to expect and they deliver their part.

It’s sad to write, but again, it’s the role of the villain that is a tad shallow and forgettable. Even with an actress with the chops of Cate Blanchett, there’s just not a lot you can do with a one-dimensional, evil villainess role. Her desire is to destroy the galaxy because she’s the goddess of death and hated her father. That’s not very interesting. Throwing in that she’s Thor’s sister does little to deepen their connection since they’ve never actually met before. If Thor and Hela remembered each other, if they used to play as children until Odin banished her for being evil or Loki tricked her into becoming goddess of death, that would have added some personal stakes. Thor would be remiss to kill his sister because he cared about her once. Perhaps Hela might have second thoughts about annihilating everything, but chooses to forge ahead regardless. But instead we get just another going-to-destroy-the-world story.

Regardless of that, the even humor and colorful visuals keep the story entertaining. Most other characters, no matter how insignificant they at first seem, are fleshed out, interesting, and given good character arcs such as the Grandmaster, Skurge (Karl Urban), Valkyrie and Korg (voice of director Waititi). It gives the film an intriguing ensemble usually lacking in Marvel films.

The film fully feels like Thor’s story as the stakes for him grow higher and the personal choices he has to make impact his character. Can he take his father’s throne? Can he make the hard decisions he needs to without corrupting himself as his father did? Can he bring Loki, Hulk and Valkyrie to his side? At the film’s conclusion, the weight of responsibility for his people is all that matters and his love for them drives his heroic nature. His story therefore, with actual stakes to the film, is memorable.

Understanding films from all angles