The Guilty (Den skyldige)


Phone calls to a police emergency call center require nerves of steel in the operators.

(2018) Thriller (Magnolia) Jakob Cedergren, Jessica Dinnage, Omar Shargawi, Johan Olsen, Jacob Hauberg Lohmann, Katinka Evers-Jahnsen, Jeanette Lindbæk, Simon Bennebjerg, Laura Bro, Morten Suurballe, Guuled Abdi Youssef, Caroline Leppke, Peter Christoffersen, Nicolai Wendelboe, Morten Thunbo, Anders Brink Madsen, Maria Gersby. Directed by Gustav Möller

Every so often a movie comes along that simply hits every note perfectly and sets the bar just a little bit higher. It is even more rare for that movie to come out of nowhere with little fanfare. While this movie has played Sundance, Rotterdam and our own Florida Film Festival (and recently got a distribution deal with indie heavyweight Magnolia) other than devoted film festival junkies there isn’t a lot of buzz going on about this movie but fear not; once the critics clue in to how good this movie is, they will absolutely lose their minds.

This Danish thriller from first-time director Möller (who also co-wrote the script) introduces us to Asger Holm (Cedergren), a police officer who has been exiled to their police emergency call center (the equivalent of the 9-1-1 in America although the number you dial in Denmark is 1-1-2) after some incident that is only revealed gradually. He is awaiting a hearing the next day that is expected to exonerate him and return him to being a cop. He is terse and unsympathetic on the phone, often blaming the callers for their own troubles.

Then he gets a call from Iben (Dinnage) who is highly terrified and well she should be; she’s been kidnapped and is being driven in a van to some unknown destination. The call is cut off before Asger can get an exact location from the panicked girl. Asger moves heaven and earth to try and find her, even resorting to some tactics of questionable legal and moral legitimacy. By the time the call is resolved, Asger’s perspective will be called into question as he will be forced to confront his own demons in order to save Iben from the demon that has her.

This is the kind of movie that the less you know about it going in, the more you’ll end up appreciating it. Therefore I’m only going to give you the barest outline of the plot and assure you there’s much more to it than this. Also, the entire film takes place in the call center so a tremendous burden is placed on Cedergren to be the emotional avatar of this film and he delivers in spectacular fashion. There are plenty of twists and turns and the audience will have their own preconceptions tested.

Again, given that the nature of this film is that it is way more effective if you don’t see what’s coming and I can tell you that for the most part, you can’t although the big twist you may be able to figure out before it arrives. Möller directs this so confidently that it’s hard to believe this is his first feature. While it is way too early to compare him to the greats of the thriller generation, he does show enormous potential and may one day be considered among names like Hitchcock and Scorsese.

This is simply a must see and is surely going to be among the year’s best films when all is said and done. I know I’m asking an awful lot of you to go and see a movie based on  what little information I’ve passed along here but this is a movie that you will be glad you saw if you accept my recommendation on faith and I guarantee you that you’ll be grateful that you knew little or nothing more about it than what you read here.

REASONS TO GO: The film is extraordinarily suspenseful and the story extremely involving. The twists are absolutely picture perfect. The use of the single setting is imaginative. Cedergren grows more likable as the film goes on.
REASONS TO STAY: This may be too talky for American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director, cinematographer, producer and film editor all attended the same Danish film school at the same time and know each other well.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/3/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Call
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Sunset (2018)

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Beirut


It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad in the desert.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Jonny Coyne, Leila Bekhti, Kate Fleetwood, Alon Aboutboul, Larry Pine, Sonia Okacha, Mohamed Zouaoui, Ben Affran, Ian Porter, Idir Chender, Nora Garrett, Mohamed Attougui, Anton Obeid, Jay Potter, Brahim Rachiki, Max Kleinveld. Directed by Brad Anderson

 

Lebanon has a history of being a cosmopolitan, beautiful country. Beirut was once described as the Paris of the Middle East. There were sizable Christian and Muslim communities but in the 1970s with an influx of Palestinian refugees Beirut became a powderkeg that exploded into Civil War that by the 1980s left Beirut the usual analogy for dangerous, hostile places.

Mason Skiles (Hamm) in 1972 was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. A disciple of Henry Kissinger, he was the fair-haired boy in the State Department, on his way to an ambassadorship of his own and at the very least becoming a major player in the diplomatic corps. Then, a terrible tragedy leaves his career in tatters and Skiles personally broken.

Fast-forward ahead ten years and Skiles works as an arbitrator in labor negotiations and not a very good one at that. Maybe it’s due to the fact that Skiles has fallen into the bottle and shows no signs of emerging. However, he is summoned to Beirut – the last place on Earth he wants to go – ostensibly to lecture at the American University there but in reality he is savvy enough to know that’s only a cover.

In fact, his good friend Cal (Pellegrino) has been kidnapped by a PLO splinter group and they will only negotiate with Cal for reasons that will become readily apparent. The problem is that Cal, who works for the CIA, knows enough to make life uncomfortable for the agency in the Middle East. Mason soon discovers that everyone in the American embassy seems to have an agenda of their own; nobody is trustworthy, not even the assistant/handler Sandy (Pike) who has been assigned to Mason. Getting Cal back alive will be no easy matter, not will it be easy for Mason to stay that way as well.

Veteran movie fans will note that Tony Gilroy wrote the script and won’t be surprised at the often convoluted plot – nor will it be surprising that the story is interesting throughout. Anderson is a strong director who keeps the pace brisk without going too fast and glossing over things. Despite having a plot that requires some concentration to follow, this is nonetheless an easy movie to watch.

.Hamm has been on my radar ever since he starred in Mad Men and I’ve always thought that he was going to one day be a big movie star; he’s just one good role away. This is the closest he’s come to that role; despite his character being deeply flawed, Hamm makes him sympathetic. He shows a great deal of charisma and onscreen charm from start to finish. In short, he’s the best thing about the movie which is saying something in a movie with Rosamund Pike in it.

The dialogue can be a bit noir-ish (which can be a bad thing) and the flashbacks can be jarring. Most negatively, there are sequences in which handheld cameras are used that are literally jarring. Those are all minuses to be sure but the pluses just edge them out enough to make this worth a shot.

REASONS TO GO: Hamm continues to show off star quality. The pacing is very crisp.
REASONS TO STAY: There are some unnecessary handheld camera sequences. The ending is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and a brief image of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hodge and Hamm have appeared on the Netflix series Black Mirror.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Feels

Devil’s Gate (2017)


Bridget Regan is having a bad hair day.

(2017) Horror (IFC) Milo Ventimiglia, Amanda Schull, Shawn Ashmore, Bridget Regan, Jonathan Frakes, Javier Botet, Spencer Drever, Adam Hurtig, Will Woytowich, Scott Johnson, Sarah Constible, Beverly Ndukwu, Jean-François Ferland, Jan Skene. Directed by Clay Staub

 

There’s something about creepy old farms that just seem to lend themselves to horror movies Old time farm implements like pitchforks, scythes and rakes become all the more sinister hanging in a barn when someone is being stalked by a creature or a serial killer. American Gothic has more than one subtext, after all.

A local farmer’s wife, Maria Pritchard (Regan) and her son Jonah (Drever) have disappeared and suspect number one is the husband, abusive but devout Jackson Pritchard (Ventimiglia). They’ve owned their piece of land in Devil’s Gate, North Dakota for generations and while Jackson awaits the arrival of angels to make his barren soil fertile the FBI in the person of Special Agent Daria Francis (Schull) to investigate the disappearance.

One wonders who called her in; it certainly wasn’t good ol’ boy Sheriff Gruenwell (Frakes) who not-so-subtly warns her to stay away from Pritchard; reluctantly, he allows Deputy Colt Salter (Ashmore) to accompany her. The Deputy warns the Special Agent that Jackson, whom he went to high school with, is a little bit twitchy and is known for his explosive temper. Still, nobody is prepared for the police cruiser they arrive on the farm in to be struck by numerous bolts of lightning. I mean, lightning doesn’t strike the same place twice, right?

Well, it does in Devil’s Lake and more to the point on the Pritchard place. Soon it becomes apparent that Jackson may not be as crazy as everyone thinks he is; there are most definitely some things lurking in his basement. There are also beings coming from the sky but they might not be the angels Jackson thinks they are.

The cast is pretty strong with some TV veterans as well as Ashmore who cut his teeth on the X-Men movies. Surprisingly, Ventimiglia chews the scenery more than I’ve ever seen him do before. He was such a compelling figure in Heroes but here he truly embraces the crazy. A fairly high percentage of his dialogue is shrieked rather than stated and when he’s quiet, it’s because he’s giving a menacing mumble. Beyond that, it’s great to see Frakes in a role that isn’t named Will Riker although it is a bit disturbing to realize that 31 years has passed since he originated that role in Star Trek: The Next Generation and the years are definitely taking their toll.

The actors for the most part do their jobs well but they aren’t given a whole lot to work with; the characters really aren’t developed much as writer-director Staub and his co-writer Peter Aperlo don’t give them much in the way of character development to hang their hats on. There are other compensations however; the creature effects are pretty damn good and reminiscent of the work of Guillermo del Toro. There’s also some nifty storm effects although they don’t really break any new ground there.

It’s not an entirely well-filmed movie though. The cinematography ranges from outdoor shots that are so overlit that they look like the sun’s exploding, or indoor shots that look like they were lit by candlelight. Less extremes on both ends would have been sincerely appreciated.

For the most part this is a fairly entertaining sci-fi/horror creature feature, set on a desolate farm in the middle of nowhere a la Texas Chainsaw Massacre loaded with traps a la Saw and some slimy monsters a la Pan’s Labyrinth. This isn’t a rocket science kind of movie but it is a decent enough thrill ride nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the special effects are pretty impressive. It is good to see Jonathan Frakes in a non-Star Trek role.
REASONS TO STAY: Ventimiglia is more than a little bit over-the-top. The cinematography is either virtually washed out or just  about too dark to see.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The town itself is fictional but there is a town in North Dakota called Devil’s Lake.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Last Exorcism
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
For the Love of George

Insidious: The Last Key


Someone needs a manicure badly.

(2018) Horror (Blumhouse/Universal) Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Kirk Acevedo, Caitlin Gerard, Spencer Locke, Josh Stewart, Tessa Ferrer, Bruce Davison, Aleque Reid, Ava Kolker, Pierce Pope, Javier Botet, Marcus Henderson, Amanda Jaros, Judith Drake, Hana Hayes, Thomas Robie, Josh Wingate, Danielle Kennedy, Melanie Gaydos, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins, Rose Byrne. Directed by Adam Robitel

 

Horror franchises can be very lucrative indeed for a studio. Look at the Friday the 13th franchise for Paramount, the Paranormal Activity franchise for the same studio and the Nightmare on Elm Street and the Conjuring universe for New Line. It’s hard to know where Lionsgate would be had it not for the money generated by the Saw franchise years ago.

Insidious has been part of a renaissance of horror franchises that have taken hold of studio imaginations. For the most part these horror franchises are very cheap to produce and can generate tens and even hundreds of millions of box office profits when all is said and done. They may not be prestige projects or win many awards – or even gain much critical respect – but they are vital to a studio’s bottom line. Insidious has for the most part (especially in the second two of the four chapters to date) followed the story of Elise Rainier, a psychic who is able to communicate with the dead and sometimes venture into a dimension she calls The Further in which the living and the dead can sometimes interact – although it is the supernatural who reign there.

Like the previous installment, this is a prequel. Elise Rainier (Shaye) is at home when she gets a call from a potential client in a small New Mexico town. When she hears the address, immediately it becomes obvious that she is terrified as she abruptly declines to take the job and hangs up.

That’s because the address is her own childhood home, now occupied by a lone man named Ted Garza (Acevedo). As a child (Kolker) and as a teen (Hayes) as her abilities were manifesting themselves, she was tortured by the souls of those who had died in the nearby prison where her abusive father (Stewart) works. He not only doesn’t believe in the supernatural, he thinks his daughter is crazy and whenever she confesses that she has witnessed something supernatural, she is beaten with a cane.

Eventually she runs off leaving her brother Christian to survive alone with his dad but not before she unknowingly allows a terrible entity into this world which ends up killing her loving and supportive mother (Ferrer). Troubled not only by the memories of the abuse she suffered but also haunted by the guilt over her mother’s death, she realizes she can’t find peace until she faces her own demons – literally. So with her assistants Specs (Whannell, who directed the last one) and Tucker (Sampson), she goes to Five Keys to do battle with evil.

There she’ll meet her now-grown brother (Davison) who hasn’t yet forgiven her for abandoning him, and his daughters Imogen (Gerard) and Melissa (Locke) who are both fetching which attracts the attention of Specs and Tucker but also Elise realizes that one of them may have inherited the gift/curse that she possesses.

Elise is one of the most admirable horror heroines ever created. Generally most horror franchises are about the monster and rarely is there a single hero that runs through the series. Insidious is the reverse of that (as is, to be fair, The Conjuring) but in the case of Elise, she is not a young person; Shaye is a rare hero of a certain age group (let’s call it AARP-friendly) who appeals to young people as well as others. She is grandmotherly at times but she kicks spiritual booty when she needs to. There has never been a heroine quite like her and in this film Shaye is at her absolute best.

In fact it’s safe to say that the acting is pretty solid all around. Sure, the two nieces are pretty much interchangeable and Whannell and Sampson occasionally try a little too hard for comedy relief but Davison is a savvy pro who compliments Shaye nicely and Ferrer does a bang-up job as the ill-fated mom. Acevedo also gets kudos for taking a character who has some depth and translating it into performance.

The Insidious series has never been gore-heavy and also quite frankly not really overloaded with scares as well, which makes it a target for some derision in horror fanboy circles. I’ve always appreciated that the scares in the first three movies are well-earned and if there are occasionally an over-reliance on jump scares (or startle scares as I like to call them) when they do go out to get you they generally succeed.

The one thing that keeps this from a higher score in my book is the ending; the final confrontation is a big letdown and is that unusual situation where it should have  gone on longer, even though because this is a prequel you pretty much know the outcome because…well, certain characters HAVE to survive or else the continuity is completely shot to hell. Of course, one of these days a franchise picture is going to shock the living daylights out of us by killing a character who is shown to have survived in one of the earlier films. Perhaps that will cause a paradox that will bring the whole universe to an end – or perhaps just a portion of it, like all politicians. That would be worth it, I’m sure we can all agree.

REASONS TO GO: This could be the best performance by Shaye in the series. In general, the acting is better than the average horror film.
REASONS TO STAY: This installment is a little bit less scary than other films in the franchise. The final confrontation between Elise and the demon is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some disturbing thematic content and imagery, horror violence, scenes of terror and occasional profanity. There are also a couple of scenes of child abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This film is meant to conclude the prequel series for the franchise, leading to sequels that may or may not continue the character of Elise Rainier.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Annabelle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Downsizing

Scorched Earth


Unlike Jesse Ventura, Gina Carano has time to bleed.

(2018) Sci-Fi Action (Cinedigm) Gina Carano, John Hannah, Ryan Robbins, Stephanie Bennett, Dean S. Jagger, Patrick Gilmore, Luvia Petersen, Patrick Sabongui, Nathan Mitchell, Alisha Newton, Daniel Bacon, Sarah Troyer, Bart Anderson, Kailey Spear. Directed by Peter Howitt

 

I’m all for B-movies, so long as they’re reasonably entertaining and have at least a scrap of originality or at least some imagination to them. Scorched Earth, a post-apocalyptic ecological action western (that’s a mouthful) probably doesn’t qualify for either and if it does only barely but I found myself giving it a fairly mixed review.

Bounty hunter Attica Gage (Carano) wanders the wasteland following a global ecological disaster (take that, climate change deniers!) after an event known as Cloudfall permanently polluted the planet with toxic chemicals leading a need for re-breathing devices that use powdered silver to work properly and tiny chemical pellets that purify the polluted water. In her era it’s a capital crime to drive a fossil fuel-burning vehicle and she collects bounties on offenders of that law, for instance Chavo (Petersen) who wears a cowboy hat with a couple of aces in the hatband. That’s what passes for eccentricity among the mass murdering set in the future.

Gage is one of those bounty hunters who always gets her man (in that case, woman) but she has a run-in with the sheriff of New Montana (population 24) whose sheriff (Gilmore) has misplaced her bounty until Gage “finds” it for him. Her only friend is Doc (Hannah), the town medic and a former bounty hunter himself until a knee injury did his bounty hunting days in. He tells her of the biggest bounty ever offered for Thomas Jackson (Robbins), the mayor of the town of Defiance – wait, wasn’t that the name of the town in a SyFy post-apocalyptic Western? – and warns her she won’t be able to collect it by herself as Jackson has a crew of ruthless killers. Of course she sets out on her own after him, confident she can impersonate Chavo by wearing her hat. Of course nobody really sees anybody’s face that often due to the re-breathers which are taken off regularly.

Anywho, it turns out that Gage has a personal connection to Jackson as well as his bar chanteuse and occasional plaything Melena (Bennett) who bears a passing resemblance to Gage’s dead sister Beatrice (Newton) who was kidnapped by Jackson years earlier. Jackson and his flunky Lear (Jagger) have plans to work an abandoned silver mine near Defiance but needs manpower to do it; what better way to get manpower than to kidnap slave labor from surrounding towns and caravans passing through? You know all this is going to lead to a reckoning between Gage and Jackson and let the best man – or woman – win.

It’s hard to believe that Howitt also directed the superb Sliding Doors but he did; this is definitely not his finest hour. The script is loaded with elements borrowed from other films and has little originality in that regard. That would be okay if the elements were handled in an original way but they’re not. You’ve seen this movie before kids, even if you haven’t seen it yet.

Carano was at one time thought to be a rising star in the action field in Haywire never really fulfilled the promise she displayed in that movie (which was not as good a movie as most people at the time thought) despite a couple of high-profile roles. Direct to home video seems the next step for her; I can’t imagine that this film will get her decent roles in future films. It’s not that she’s bad, she just has cringe-inducing dialogue to recite and most of her hand-to-hand combat is done with guns which is a failure to utilize her skills properly. At one point she tells Melena “Head to New Montana; it’s a better way of life” which sounds more like a slogan the Montana tourism board might utilize than something an actual human being might say.

For some reason Howitt has chosen to stop everything dead in its tracks by having Melena sing the blues in his saloon every so often. The music isn’t really all that scintillating and the tone is jarring enough that it takes the viewer out of the film. Worse still, the singer – who is obviously not Bennett – doesn’t lip-synch very well to the actress, or vice versa.

 However, Howitt does handle the action sequences with aplomb and they flow nicely. Also the deadly cloud effects with plenty of CGI swirlies and lightning are pretty cool in and of themselves. Those however don’t a great movie make and quite frankly watching Gage get up and walk away after being thrown over a cliff in a coffin that’s been nailed shut is the kind of taking-leave-of-their-senses logic that the screenwriters display all too often in this mildly entertaining but ultimately not really worth seeing film.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are handled pretty nicely. The cloud and storm effects are also pretty nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: The musical interludes are jarring and disruptive. This film has a definite case of the indestructible heroes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, adult themes and profanity herein
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gage was initially written as a male character with Sean Bean being considered for the lead; when that fell through, the part was re-written for a female character and Carano was eventually cast for the role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/2/18: 13% positive reviews: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Book of Eli
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Above & Beyond Acoustic: Giving Up the Day Job

In the Shadow of Iris (Iris)


There are layers of deceit when it comes to sexual fetishes.

(2017) Thriller (Netflix) Romain Duris, Charlotte Le Bon, Jalil Lespert, Camille Cotin, Adel Bencherif, Sophie Verbeck, Héléne Barbry, Jalis Laleg, Violetta Sanchez, Gina Haller, Félix Cohen, Waël Sersoub, Benoit Rabillé, Antoine Bujolli, Mourad Frarema, Vincent Dos Reis, Olivier Galzi, Christian Ameri, Nicolas Grandhomme, Betony Vernon, Alexandra Langlais. Directed by Jalil Lespert

 

Who knows what is in a woman’s mind (or a man’s for that matter but that’s for a different review) behind the façade of civility? All sorts of things percolate; the woman who may seem to be a model wife may have cheating on her mind. The woman who seems proper and prim may indulge in fetishes and perversions that would shock you if you knew.

Iris (Le Bon) is the wife of wealthy Parisian banker Antoine Doirot (Lespert). They are at lunch one afternoon when she excuses herself for a smoke. When she doesn’t return, at first Antoine wonders if she didn’t decide to go shopping without saying goodbye but as the day wears on and there’s no sign of her he begins to worry…but then the call comes in on his smart phone complete with a photo of his wife tied up and gagged in some dark room. The ransom is high but affordable for someone like Antoine.

She is in the possession of auto mechanic Max Lopez (Duris) who not only is in financial trouble and dealing with a divorce, but is about to lose his home due to Antoine’s bank. Yet he is not a suspect right away; though he has a criminal record, nobody thinks he has the skills to pull something like this off. As the police detectives Vasseur (Cotin) and Ziani (Bencherif) look into the matter more deeply, it quickly becomes clear that all is not as it seems – and that nobody is as they seem in this twisted drama.

This French thriller has noir-ish elements as well as being heavy on the erotic. Playing heavily into the plot are bondage and S&M fetishes – one scene includes a dominatrix whipping the hell out of a main character’s back, almost into unconsciousness. There is sex on top of a murder victim by the murderer, and there are all sorts of references to marital infidelity, sexual violence and prostitution. This is most definitely not for family viewing, unless your family hangs out in leather clubs.

I’m not a prude but the eroticism feels a bit gratuitous to me. It doesn’t really make too much of a difference in the plot really but that’s neither here nor there. If you’re into S&M it’s fairly tame stuff compared to what you might find on some of the adult movie sites but more realistic than what you’ll find in the Fifty Shades movies.

The real problem here is that Lespert inserts flashbacks throughout the film to explain some of the things going on, but there’s no real way of telling you’re watching something from a different time until often later in the movie. It’s confusing as hell and the plot, convoluted already, doesn’t need that kind of confusion. Lespert is decent enough with the tension, keeping viewers into the movie but sometimes it’s truly hard to figure out what’s going on. It doesn’t help matters that Lespert and Duris look fairly similar and the only way to tell them apart is when Max is wearing his mechanic coveralls – which he doesn’t always do.

On the plus side the soundtrack is awesome with a lot of great pop and rock songs from France, England and the U.S. I’d go so far as to say that it may have the best soundtrack of any of the Netflix original films I’ve seen thus far. Still, if you’re looking for an erotic thriller, there is a lot going for this one. There’s also a lot going against it, to be fair. I think what it boils down to is whether you can tolerate the film’s flaws, are able to tolerate (or if you have a thing for) bondage and S&M, and if you don’t mind subtitles. If the answer to all of those are positive, definitely have at this one.

REASONS TO GO: Lespert does a fine job of maintaining tension. The soundtrack is excellent.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the plot points are far-fetched. The flashbacks are often confusing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is nudity, sexual situations, brief language and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a loose remake of the 2000 Hideo Nakata film Chaos. Initially this was going to be an American film but when no studio would finance it, the movie was shopped to other countries with a French production company footing the bill.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Disappearance of Alice Creed
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
American Folk

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)


Hercule Poirot is on the job!

(2017) Mystery (20th Century Fox) Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzan, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Phil Dunster, Miranda Raison, Rami Nasr, Hayat Kamille, Michael Rouse, Hadley Fraser, Kathryn Wilder. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

 

Train travel has a certain romance to it. Strangers trapped in a metal tube, rumbling across the countryside. Anything can happen; anything at all.

Many might be familiar with the classic Agatha Christie novel, one of the most famous mysteries ever written. Some might be familiar with the even more classic 1974 movie based on it which starred such legends as Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Richard Widmark. This new remake stars Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) as the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Albert Finney in the original) who is returning to England following a grueling series of cases leading to a successful resolution in Istanbul – not Constantinople.

Taking the Orient Express back home, he is approached by Ratchett (Depp) who is looking for protection after receiving some threatening letters. Poirot, exhausted, turns down the case. The next morning, Ratchett turns up dead. The train is stuck after an avalanche buries the tracks. As crews arrive to dig the tracks out so the train might continue, Poirot must solve the case quickly but there are a number of suspects – everyone in the Calais coach had opportunity and some even had motive. Soon it becomes apparent that the murder has links to a famous unsolved crime of years past.

The Sidney Lumet-directed 1974 version to which this will inevitably be compared was a light-hearted romp with a Poirot who was quirky but undoubtedly a genius. This Poirot is more tortured than quirky, a man who realizes his own obsession with perfection will leave him perpetually disappointed in life and of course he is. This is a different Poirot than any we’ve ever seen onscreen, whether David Suchet of the excellent BBC series or Peter Ustinov of several all-star Christie cinematic adaptations which followed the success of Murder on the Orient Express. The tone here is certainly darker than we’re used to seeing from a Christie adaptation.

Michelle Pfeiffer turns in an extraordinary performance as the predatory divorcee Mrs. Hubbard, portrayed by Bacall back in 1974. While Bacall was loud-mouthed and brassy, Pfeiffer is intense and smart. Once again the characters are very different although there are some recognizable similarities. Pfeiffer twenty years ago was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood which she remains; that beauty often overshadowed her acting talent which is considerable. Although not in the league of Meryl Streep (who is in a league of her own), she is one of the four or five best American actresses working in film today.

Most of the rest of the cast do at least adequate jobs. Depp is as restrained as he’s been in a decade, playing Ratchett as a thug more so than Widmark did in the same role. Dame Judi Dench is, well, Judi Dench. She brings dignity and a regal air to the role of Princess Dragomiroff. Penélope Cruz has a thanklessly un-glamorous role that she makes her own.

I should mention the cinematography. The 1974 film primarily took place aboard the train. Certainly the Orient Express is the star and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos takes great pains to present her from every angle conceivable. Occasionally he goes a bit overboard – an overhead shot in one of the train’s cars gives us an uncomfortably long view of the tops of the actors heads – but he also manages to make the snowy Yugoslavian countryside look positively idyllic.

Let me be plain; this film is not as good as the 1974 version and I don’t think Branagh had any illusions that it ever could be. However, it is different than that 1974 version and one that is just as valid. You may not love this film in the same way that you loved the original but there is a good chance you’ll at least respect it. You may even want to see it more than once.

REASONS TO GO: Fans of the 1974 version will find the approach here very different. Branagh and Pfeiffer are outstanding. The cinematography is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The tone here is much darker than the 1974 version. This isn’t nearly as good as the original which it will inevitably be compared to. You don’t get as good a sense of the era it is supposed to be set in.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence as well as violent thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The song played over the closing credits was sung by Michelle Pfeiffer and the lyrics written by Branagh.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Death on the Nile
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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