Murder on the Orient Express

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Who done it? I’ll never tell. But here’s the thing, I’m not really sure it’s worth finding out. If you’ve read Agatha Christie’s novel, published way before our time in 1934, you know the outcome. Then there are the majority of us who haven’t read the source material – you’re my main focus. Do not waste your time. What went wrong? Well it was a perfect storm – the directing, screenplay, and most shocking of all, the acting.

While Kenneth Branagh (Valkyrie) no doubt is multi-faceted and talented, his directing style has become predictable and forced. There’s a fine line between being ambitious and overly ambitious, Branagh falls into the latter. Directing and acting in your own film works for many, but not in his case. Staring in this as the most complex character distracted him from what should’ve been his main priority, directing. It showed Sir Branagh. He resorted to the obvious techniques used in every other crime, mystery film to create an ominous, mysterious feeling. First and foremost, the lighting with dark hues that glowed with CGI effects made the shots look fake. Next, he panned the camera in several shots slowly from the front of the train to the end with an actor in each window looking scared and concerned. Cheesy much? Let’s not forget the melodramatic music. Less is more…

I can’t speak to Agatha Christie’s classic crime novel, but I can say for sure, he butchered it. Murder mysteries are supposed to be suspenseful with twists and turns around every corner, providing clues that keep you guessing. Don’t hold your breathe, you’ll be waiting a long time if that is what you’re looking for. ‘Twas predictable, not thrilling, and highly anticlimactic. It’s the worst to sit through a film for two hours, only to walk out feeling no sense of closure after the big reveal. Needless to say, this is NOT for adrenaline junkies.

The biggest disappointment of all was the star-studded cast including, but not limited to Branagh, Penélope Cruz (Vanilla Sky), Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man), Judi Dench (Skyfall), Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean), Michelle Pfeiffer (Scarface), and Josh Gad (Frozen). This film proved that ensemble casts aren’t always the greatest idea. Each one tried to out act the other, resulting in unconvincing, over exaggerated, unimpressive performances – not a good look. The previews say it all with their Zoolander-esk, seductive gone wrong faces look at you through the windows as described above, but hey ya can’t win ‘em all!

Bottom line: There’s nothing better than a good crime mystery that’s gets your heart rate pumping and your stomach churning. Sadly, you will find no such sensations during Murder on the Orient Express. It’s a quick ride with no climax – you do the math.   

The Beguiled

Looks can be deceiving, a phrase perfectly suited to The Beguiled. By the looks of the trailers, this film had it all – an intriguing story with an impressive cast, great costume design and beautiful cinematography. Sounds like a well-oiled machine, right? Before I continue explaining how I was oh so wrong, please don’t waste your time on this surprisingly unfortunate film.

When a wounded Union soldier, played by Colin Farrell (The Lobster), arrives at a girls’ school in Virginia during the American Civil War, the women attempt to nurse him back to health, but jealousy and betrayal overcome them causing havoc in the house. Curious what the illustrious writer and director Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation) had cooked up for us, I had to see it. The novel, written by Thomas Cullinan, is apparently freaky with leading women who all become feisty and animal-like once the soldier arrives. Perhaps this kind of historical fiction is better suited as a good read, rather than for the big screen because there was nothing captivating about it. The bizarre series of events are drawn with no apparent purpose, simply no suspense whatsoever. Coppola’s characters needed more bite, but instead were dull, as though she had put them in a cage to subdue them, unnecessarily so, which resulted in her cast going through the motions in an unflattering way. 

Coppola is known for her leading women, but these were less than impressive characters and acting that didn’t make up for it. The head of the house, played by Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!), was blah, just there – she was the films only hope for survival. Kirsten Dunst (Bring It On) and Elle Fanning (Neon Demon) were no shows as well. There were few times when I felt a fire from them, disappointing as it was the two of them who were supposed to raise hell and cause the drama. Farrell and Kidman should've been the leaders of this young pack, which was definitely not the case. 

The only redeeming qualities of the film were the serene shots of rural Mississippi, executed by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (Seven Pounds) and the costumes by costumer designer Stacey Battat (Still Alice). Le Sourd's camera movement was slow and steady to show the beautiful scenery of the moss-draped trees – there should've been more of that. Battat's costume choices were stunning and enchanting, perfect for this period piece. Seems like Le Sourd and Battat were the only ones who showed up for work. 

Bottom line: Coppola’s latest film, The Beguiled, is both tedious and unimpressive. Better luck next time. 

My Cousin Rachel

Daphne du Maurier, the famous British novelist, is well known for her short stories and original novels, many of which have been adapted into films over the years. Alfred Hitchcock (ya remember that genius) alone adapted three of her works: Rebecca (1940), The Birds (1963) and Jamaica Inn (1939). It begs the question – why didn’t Hitchcock want to make My Cousin Rachel after adapting so many of Du Maurier’s other novels, two of which are arguably his best films. Perhaps it’s because some ideas are better left on paper…

The plot, cast and cinematography all looked enticing in the previews. Turns out, trailers are getting better and better at deceiving us. Let’s start with the plot. Long story short, Philip, played by actor Sam Claflin (Me Before You) seeks revenge on his cousin, played by the beautiful Rachel Weisz (The Mummy), whom he thinks used spells and tricks on his guardian to lure him in, kill him, and thus inherit his estate. It’s Heartbreakers (2001) meets Pride & Prejudice (2005) – murder mystery romance all in one. That sounds pretty compelling right? Not when screenwriter and director, Roger Michell (Notting Hill), convolutes a fairly straightforward story. Not a single scene seamlessly transitioned into the next. Instead the scenes were choppy, which made what little build up there was to the climax, less exciting. The “spooky” music was deliberate and obvious; therefore making it irritating knowing Michell tried to use the music to get us in a somewhat anxious and scared mood. Fail! Boom boom boom, then nothing happened. Yup, nothing happened.

The biggest disappointment of all: the actors. Claflin and Weisz had zero, I mean zero chemistry. Their interactions were awkward and almost comical with random outbursts from both that added nothing to what I would assume was intended to be strong performances. Weisz was definitely creepy, but not in a jarring or haunting manner, instead bizarre. The two of them are solid actors, there’s no question about that, but sadly there was something missing here that did not bring this one home.

Bottom line: The only thing worth going to see this film for is the stunning cinematography of the English countryside, but there are even better films for that, leading me to recommend not to waste your time. When you hear other audience members saying, “what just happened,” followed by a chuckle, you know something went awry. I thought perhaps I was missing something while watching, but clearly not. All I’ll say is there are better choices out there. 

The Circle

Technology has been moving at lightening speed, but who’s really in the driver's seat? Some food for thought! In 2013, author and screenwriter Dave Eggers explores the use of technology in a book called The Circle. The story is about a girl who is hired by a powerful Internet company (her dream job…our version of Google), but as she goes deeper and deeper into their web (no pun intended), a dark truth reveals itself. DUN-DUN-DUUUN!!!

I haven’t read the book so I can’t speak to the adaptation from the novel to the film, but I can speak to the film’s screenplay. Director and screenwriter James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now) was all over the place. Thrillers should get your heart rate pumping, but there are no adrenaline rushes in this "thriller". It’s no wonder when every other scene was a big ball of cheese. Picture tumbleweed…as the film progressed, the chunk of cheese got bigger and bigger. Both the story and directing was predictable, NOT a filmgoer's dream.

Even though Ponsoldt locked down two heavy hitters, Emma Watson (Harry Potter) and Tom Hanks (Castaway), neither of them blew me away. Watson’s delivery was laughable. It was as though she didn’t take the role or herself seriously. This came as a big disappointment after being mesmerized by her performance in Beauty and the Beast this year. Hanks is always held to the highest standards, but he got lazy in this role. You can now add a C grade to your resume. We know you can do better Tom :/

Bottom line: The Circle was one of the most highly anticipated films of 2017. I’ll admit I too had some pretty prettty high hopes. Hate to burst your bubble, don’t waste your time

Burn Country

I wish I had the ability to get up and walk out of a film. It’s almost like I’m glued to my seat and can’t get up out of desperation that maybe the film will miraculously get better. Even while thinking WTF throughout the entire 1 1/2 hour film, I still sat there anticipating the guilt I would feel if I left. In its entirety, the film was absolutely bizarre – don’t get me wrong, bizarre can be good. Think Wes Anderson (Grand Budapest Hotel) films. Change can be also be good, but not when nothing makes sense at all. There’s no reasoning to this indie film directed by Ian Olds (Fixer documentary) and written by Olds and Paul Felten (Francophrenia).

Olds’s directing was average at best. Several of the scenes tried so hard to be weird and out-there for the sole purpose of being weird. It was as though he was trying to prove something, perhaps with a goal in mind to do something “different.” Felten dropped us into the middle of this random person’s life to show that life has no rhyme or reason. The long shots of scenery, filmed in the desolate, middle-of-nowhere California, were intended to give the sense that the Afghan immigrant, played by Dominic Rains (A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night), had an idealized vision of California and America as a whole, but turned out to be nothing as he expected. The music was the only redeeming quality, but it too had many shortcomings, as it constantly built up each scene with suspense, only for nothing to happen.  

Rains overacted. That’s an understatement to the point of stomach churning embarrassment where you’ll want to cover your eyes. A piece of advice: while your eyes are closed, take a catnap instead; it’ll be more worthwhile. James Franco (Pineapple Express), what happened to you dude? Franco’s fallen waaay off the deep end, too far gone and not worth saving at this point.

Bottom Line: If you decide this brutal movie’s for YOU, make sure you watch on a couples’s retreat (friend, family, or significant other) to have someone to share in your misery. Don’t waste your time, but if you’re so inclined, rent it; it’s currently on On Demand.

Office Christmas Party

When you enter the real world, one thing is for sure, you’re guaranteed an office Holiday Christmas party. While some are crazier than others, it’s safe to say none of us will be attending one that is anything remotely like Office Christmas Party…thank god. HR violation, you feel me?

Now the reason this is because this was absolutely absurd and painfully unrealistic. As the film progressed, it dug itself deeper and deeper into a hole. I know you’re thinking well what did you expect, but it was unnecessary to go as far as they did.

The overall story was a giant cliché – the big bad boss threatens to make layoffs so the employees go to great lengths to ensure this doesn’t happen. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Big surprise, they throw a “kick ass” holiday party. Justin Malen and Laura Solon (Office Christmas Party being their first major motion picture as writers), as well as Dan Mazer (Borat) packed too many subplots into one film, creating a longwinded and ultimately disorganized script.

Malen, Solon and Mazer, along with the main actors, Jennifer Aniston (Friends), Jason Bateman (Horrible Bosses), Olivia Munn (Magic Mike), T.J. Miller (Deadpool), and Kate McKinnon (Saturday Night Live), tried too hard to be funny. This is the epitome of a film packed with star power, intended to attract large audiences, but no luck there. Put it this way, I was in an empty theater. A few laugh out loud moments would’ve been much appreciated, but nope, not even Santa could grant this wish.. It was crass in unnecessary ways. Too far, waaay too far. (**** this! ****that!) Get the picture?

Directors, Josh Gordon and Will Speck (both directors of The Switch), who tag team all their films, took too many risks. By risks, I mean over the top shots, including outrageous stunts, not risks as filmmakers attempting to create something groundbreaking. The soundtrack was the only redeeming quality of the film, but then again it’s not hard to look at the top 100 chart.

Bottom Line: Office Christmas Party was a timely release this season, but don’t waste your time, rent it instead and spend your precious holiday time elsewhere. Think of me as Santa’s little helper – trust me on this one!

American Pastoral

When a film leaves you asking yourself, “what just happened?” it’s probably not the best sign. Sometimes, that confusion can lead to interesting discussions, hearing everyone’s varying interpretations. However, American Pastoral will certainly not spark these discussions, as there were loose ends left and right in just about every subplot of the film. You’d be up all night if you embarked on speculating.

In his directing debut, Ewan McGregor (Big Fish), didn’t quite bring it home and should highly consider sticking to his original day job as an actor. He somehow managed to butcher Phillip Roth’s novel, published in 1997, which was beloved by many. Although the novel is known for its long drawn out scenes, something McGregor adhered to closely, McGregor should’ve found a happy medium. It needed to be far more engaging and conducive for the big screen. Viewers just don’t have the same attention span as they did in the 90’s, something he failed to recognize. And in failing to do so, he lost his viewers quickly when all of the pinnacle moments end flatly with zero follow-ups.

Additionally, the Film Noir-esk style he chose to use for his direction further begs the question what his intentions were for the film, as it came off as nothing short of melodramatic without needing to be. Film Noir for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term began in the 1940s and lasted up until the late 1950s, a film style marked as being pessimistic and menacing. The style of directing still exists today and permeates its way through films of this disturbing and bizarre nature. Several cover your eyes scenes can only be described as highly uncomfortable with a pit in your stomach. Film Noir is recognizable with silhouettes of the characters for dramatic and ominous effect. Once you set out to use this style, there is no going back, consistency throughout is key. And while McGregor did consistently use the technique, his so-called threatening characters were all talk, no action, a clear contradiction from the basic qualities of this Film Noir style.

Bottom Line: Strong performances from Jennifer Connelly (A Beautiful Mind) and Dakota Fanning (I Am Sam) weren’t enough to save this film. Don’t hold your breath – you’ll never get the closure you want so consider yourself warned to not waste your time with this one. If you are by chance set on seeing it, then rent it, just know there will be a lot of unfinished business. 

Money Monster

Money Monster

You won’t see the rent it recommendation often as I’m a big advocate of seeing films in theaters. A popcorn fix is needed now and then (or at least once a week in my case, oops). The addiction is real. The reason for the rent it category for this film is there will be no difference whether you see it in theaters or at home.

There were two standout disappointments. The first was the adherence to a typical hostage takeover formula, a “bad guy” who you turn out to sympathize with, and well, you know the rest. Thus, the film had little to no depth and differentiation between this and other movies with similar storylines. I had high expectations for Jodie Foster, director of the film, best known for her role in Silence of the Lambs. Ironically, she acted in a film with this same formula, Inside Man, the movie I hoped Money Monster would live up to – daring, carefully thought out, twisted, and left you on the edge of your seat. This couldn’t have been more opposite – it was predictable and far from bold, which brings me to the second disappointment.

Jodie Foster and writer, Jamie Linden, best known for Dear John (oy, enough said) took zero risks. Controversy over how Wall Street corrupt practices take advantage and mislead the masses has recently flooded the news. And with an upcoming presidential election and Bernie Sanders focusing on this topic, they had a distinct opportunity to confront the issue head on and create a thought provoking film. It’s a shame they missed their chance.

Bottom Line: Who doesn’t love a Julia Roberts and George Clooney combo? I know I do! The cast was great, but overall, it was shallow, and inappropriate at times. George Clooney did not need to rap and dance like a buffoon, just saying. See it in theaters, rent it, or don’t see it at all – it’s all the same.