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
NEXT:
Wonder

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New Releases for the Week of November 10, 2017


MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

(20th Century Fox) Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, Derek Jacobi. Directed by Kenneth Branagh

On board a luxury train traveling from Istanbul to Calais a passenger is mysteriously murdered. The cabin door has been locked from the inside. Who done it? Fortunately, the world’s greatest detective – Hercule Poirot – is on board the train and if anyone can make sense of the bewildering maze of clues, it’s the Belgian with the grand moustache. Based on the book authored by Agatha Christie, this is one of the greatest mystery novels ever written.

See the trailer, interviews, clip and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Mystery
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for violence and thematic elements)

Daddy’s Home 2

(Paramount) Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, John Lithgow. Christmas time is here and there’s nothing like the holidays to bring a family together. For Brad and Dusty, the two co-dads are happily contemplating a blended Christmas with all their family under one roof. Then, both of their dads decide to visit for the Yuletide and all of a sudden things are getting way more complicated.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for suggestive material and some language)

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

(A24) Nicole Kidman, Alicia Silverstone, Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan. A brilliant cardiovascular surgeon takes a young man under his wing when his father, a patient of his, passes away. When the boy’s behavior turns sinister, the surgeon notices that his family is getting seriously ill. He will be forced to make an unthinkable sacrifice in this new film from the director of The Lobster.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for disturbing violent and sexual content, some graphic nudity and language)

Wonderstruck

(Amazon/Roadside Attractions) Oakes Fegley, Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Millicent Simmonds. Two young children – one a boy in the Midwest in the 1970s, another a deaf girl in New York City of the 1920s – search for answers about who they are, unaware of the connection that binds them together. Brian Selznick, who wrote the novel this is based upon, also wrote the screenplay. Look for the review tomorrow.

See the trailer, clips and a video feature here.
For more on the movie this is the website

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Family Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village, Rialto Spanish Springs

Rating: PG (for thematic elements and smoking)

ALSO OPENING IN ORLANDO/DAYTONA:

Hello Again
Pottersville
Qarib Qarib Singlle
Walking Out

ALSO OPENING IN MIAMI:

BPM
C/O Surya
Hello Again
My Friend Dahmer
Paradise
Pottersville
Qarib Qarib Singlle
The Square
Tom of Finland

ALSO OPENING IN TAMPA:

Amanda and Jack Go Glamping
Hello Again
Qarib Qarib Singlle

ALSO OPENING IN JACKSONVILLE:

C/O Surya
Hello Again
Jane
Loving Vincent
No Greater Love

SCHEDULED FOR REVIEW:

Daddy’s Home 2
Jane
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
Loving Vincent
Murder on the Orient Express
Walking Out
Wonderstruck

New Releases for the Week of February 12, 2016


DeadpoolDEADPOOL

(20th Century Fox) Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller, Gina Carano, Ed Skrein, Lesley Uggams, Greg LaSalle, Taylor Hickson. Directed by Tim Miller

This is not your daddy’s superhero movie – although it might just end up being your daddy. Wade Wilson is a mercenary with a particular set of skills…oh, not that tired old movie again. But Wade has a big problem – it’s cancer and it’s everywhere in his body. Things don’t look good for our good ol’ buddy Wade – until a mysterious man recruiting for a mysterious agency makes a proposal that Wade might not be able to turn down. One of the hotly anticipated movies of the year.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and promos here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard (3D, IMAX 3D)
Genre: Superhero
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for strong violence and language throughout, sexual content and graphic nudity)

Fitoor

(UTV) Katrina Kaif, Tabu, Aditya Roy Kapoor, Aditi Rao Hydari. A Bollywood take on the Charles Dickens classic Great Expectations. A young street boy in Kashmir falls in love with an upper class girl but the girl’s mother conspires to keep the young lovebirds apart.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romance
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex, AMC West Oaks, Touchstar Southchase

Rating: PG-13 (for sexual content and some thematic issues)

How to Be Single

(New Line/MGM) Dakota Johnson, Rebel Wilson, Damon Wayans Jr., Leslie Mann. A group of young unmarrieds in the Big Apple cope with the vagaries of the dating scene in a digital world as well as the sometimes confusing rules of behavior between the sexes.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for sexual content and strong language throughout)

The Lady in the Van

(TriStar) Maggie Smith, Alex Jennings, Jim Broadbent, Roger Allam. Playwright and television presenter Alan Bennett is annoyed to discover an elderly woman living in her van in his driveway. Grudgingly, he allows her to stay, a decision that will change both their lives.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D
Genre: True Life Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village
Rating: PG-13 (for a brief unsettling image)

Tumbledown

(Starz Digital Media) Jason Sudeikis, Rebecca Hall, Dianna Agron, Blythe Danner. The widow of an iconic folksinger finds it hard to move on and retreats to the woods of Maine. When a brash New York writer approaches her with the proposal of writing his biography, she is at first cool to the idea but the more she allows him to write his story, the more she heals.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: R (for a sex scene)

Where to Invade Next

(Drafthouse) Michael Moore, Tim Walker, Kirsta Kiuru. Professional gadfly and documentarian Moore turns his eye to the American dream and how it seems to be alive and well – and living in other places around the globe. He comes up with ways that dream is being pursued, and how the ideas that other countries have used can work here.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for language, some violent images, drug use and brief graphic nudity)

Zoolander 2

(Paramount) Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell. Down on his heels and irrelevant, supermodel Derek Zoolander gets back in the game in more way than one when a mysterious Interpol agent discloses that the world’s most beautiful celebrities are turning up dead – with Zoolander’s famous “blue steel” look on their faces. Lucky bastards

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual content, a scene of exaggerated violence, and brief strong language)

The Counselor


Michael Fassbender doesn't know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

Michael Fassbender doesn’t know what to say when Javier Bardem insists on toasting their barbers.

(2013) Thriller (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Rosie Perez, Ruben Blades, Bruno Ganz, Toby Kebbell, Emma Rigby, Edgar Ramirez, Dean Norris, Natalie Dormer, Goran Visnjic, John Leguizamo, Fernando Cayo, Paris Jefferson, Andrea Deck, Giannina Facio. Directed by Ridley Scott

When we choose to abandon the straight and narrow, we do so most often because of greed. We want more than we would otherwise be entitled to by the dint of our hard work and effort, so we take the shortcut. Sometimes we escape with a tidy sum to put by for a rainy day but more often than not, we reap the consequences of what we have sewn.

The counselor (Fassbender) – he is never given a name in the film – is a sharp lawyer who must have been absent the day they were handing out a conscience. He’s all about the Benjamins, although he is madly in love with Laura (Cruz) whom he has proposed to. While his practice is making him a decent amount of money, he is raking in the cash like he’s printing it thanks to his relationship with Reiner (Bardem) who is part of the Mexican cartel, and middleman Westray (Pitt) who brokers the deals.

Reiner is arranging for the shipment of some drugs from Mexico to Chicago in a septic truck. Being the paranoid sorts that they are, the truck is only going to go as far as Arizona before finishing it’s journey. The Mexican nationals driving the truck get it to its destination, then a courier is supposed to take a kill switch needed to start the truck to the next driver who will finish the job.

Unfortunately, the courier is ambushed and killed on his way to the next driver and that courier happened to be the son of Ruth (Perez), a high-up member of a cartel family that the counselor is defending on a murder charge. To make matters worse, the counselor had sprung the courier from jail after a reckless driving and speeding arrest, which led the cartel to believe that the counselor had something to do with it.

Reiner, Westray and the lawyer are all at risk as are their immediate loved ones which in Reiner’s case is the ice-cold financier Malkina (Diaz) and in Westray’s case is nobody. Malkina, who has a soft spot for watching jaguars take down jackrabbits in the desert and knows more about what’s going on than Reiner or the counselor suspect, promises Reiner that she is going to leave at the first sign of trouble but in point of fact she’s long gone well before that.

As you would expect from a screenplay written by Cormac McCarthy, the plot is very complex and requires a good deal of attention on the audience’s part, particularly during the first few scenes of the movie where those paying close attention can pretty much garner everything they need to figure things out.

The cast is impressive as you might expect with all the A-list power behind the camera. Fassbender is a busy man these days but makes time for a role which is as much of a cipher as any he has played to date. Not only is his character given no name, he isn’t given much of a soul either. That seems to reside all in Cruz who is unaware of the depths of the double dealing her groom-to-be is sinking to.

Bardem, as always, is interesting whether he is shamelessly hamming it up (as he is here) or underplaying discretely (as he does in Skyfall). As you can see in the photo above, there is nothing subtle about Reiner and for that kind of role, Bardem is a good first choice (or fallback as the case may be). Pitt is serviceable as the wise and worldly Westray who understands exactly what sort of people they are up against.

I’ve never been particularly a Cameron Diaz fan but this might be my favorite performance of hers to date. Malkina is a manipulative predator, weaving a web of lust and betrayal and then striking as true and as deadly as a cobra. It is one of the best female villain roles since Cruella de Ville – while Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster did show someone who was evil, you can’t really call truly call the role that of a villain.

The movie is pretty convoluted in places and there are a lot of characters who show up, say a few lines and then disappear for good. Perhaps the audience might have appreciated combining some of these roles or at least having other characters mouth the platitudes. The bean-counters would have appreciated it as well.

McCarthy is never a particularly easy read and this screenplay, an original story by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, isn’t always easy to watch. The sex is in your face (quite literally at times) and those who are uncomfortable with sexuality will certainly be disturbed by what they see here. There are some pretty violent moments as well with at least one beheading and a lot of bodies being shot to pieces. Those sensitive to those sorts of things should take note too.

Still, this is a solid thriller that is a little smarter than most and a bit better-written as well. It is a grim movie that just gets bleaker as the film goes on and as the Counselor and his allies realize that they are trapped in a situation that there is no escaping, try as they might. This may not end up in anyone’s top 5 Ridley Scott movie lists but it should certainly make his top ten.

REASONS TO GO: Generally smart and well-written. Fassbender, Bardem and Pitt are terrific and Diaz makes a surprisingly vicious femme fatale.

REASONS TO STAY: Convoluted and hard to follow in places. Unrelentingly grim.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some fairly graphic violence and language, along with a few morbid images and a fairly extensive and graphic amount of sex and conversations about the same.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Production shut down for a week in August 2012 after the suicide of director Ridley Scott’s brother Tony, who was also a co-founder of their production company Scott Free. The movie is dedicated to him.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 37% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scarface (1983)

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Winged Migration

New Releases for the Week of October 25, 2013


The Counselor

THE COUNSELOR

(20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz, Rosie Perez, Toby Kebbell, Ruben Blades, Goran Visnjic. Directed by Ridley Scott

A respected lawyer gets involved with a crooked business deal and discovers that it’s not just his life and career that’s at risk but everything – and everyone – he holds dear. Oscar-winning director Scott is working off a script by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Cormac McCarthy. That’s the kind of one-two punch I can get into.

See the trailer, a clip and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language)

Bhai

(Reliance) Akkineni Nagarjuna, Prasanna, Richa Gangopadhyay, Kamna Jethmalani. Telugu superstar Nagarjuna hopes to restore his fading box office appeal with this action-drama-comedy with musical overtones.

See the trailer, promos and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: NR

Jackass Presents Bad Grandpa

(Paramount) Johnny Knoxville, Bam Magera, Steve-O, Jason “Wee Man” Acuna. Irving Zisman, an irascible 86-year-old man, heads off on a trip to discover America accompanied by his 8-year-old grandson and a bunch of hidden cameras. Along the way he will meet male strippers, toddler beauty pageant contestants,  mourners at a funeral and an assortment of ordinary and unsuspecting Americans.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard (opens Thursday night)

Genre: Comedy

Rating: R (for strong crude and sexual content throughout, language, some graphic nudity and brief drug use)

Short Term 12

(Cinedigm) Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Rami Malek, Kaitlyn Dever. A young supervisor at an at-risk teenager facility finds her own past brought bursting through her carefully erected defenses when a troubled young teen joins the facility. Unexpectedly, she finds a bond developing between them that may help her overcome her demons yet.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: R (for language and brief sexuality)

A True Story

(Freestyle) Cameron Fife, Tyler McGee, Jon Gries, Katrina Bowden. Two friends who have nothing other than their belief that the screenplay they’ve written will someday make an amazing movie navigate the waters of Hollywood. Swimming those waters are apathetic studio cronies, predatory agents, slutty ex-girlfriends and a motley collection of back-stabbers and bootlickers. In short, a true story.

See the trailer, a featurette and a link to stream the full movie here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Dramedy

Rating: R (for language and some violence) 

We Are What We Are

(eOne) Julia Garner, Ambyr Childers, Bill Sage, Kelly McGillis. A seemingly normal family in a small seaside town is ruled by a patriarch who sticks to custom and tradition with the rigidity of the self-righteous. He is grooming his daughters to take over for him one day but that day comes much too soon when a terrible storm strikes the area. As local authorities begin to realize the full extent of the horror that the family has kept secret for years, the storm grows in intensity threatening the entire town.

See the trailer, a clip and a promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for disturbing violence, bloody images, some sexuality, nudity and language)

New Releases for the Week of July 6, 2012


July 6, 2012

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

(Columbia) Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Embeth Davidtz, C. Thomas Howell. Directed by Marc Webb

Peter Parker, a brilliant but somewhat outcast high school student, was abandoned by his parents as a child, leaving him to be raised by his Uncle Ben and Aunt May. When he finds a mysterious briefcase that his father left behind, he’s sent on a journey to Oscorp, the somewhat unbalanced one-armed scientist Curt Connors and a rendezvous with a radioactive spider.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Superhero

Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of action and violence)

Bol Bachchan

(Fox Star) Ajay Devgn, Abhishek Bachchan, Asin Thottumkal, Prachi Desai. A Muslim breaks the lock on a Hindu temple to save a trapped child but through a series of misunderstandings is believed to be a Hindu. In order to preserve the lie, he is forced to tell more and more outrageous tales until he is trapped by his own falsehoods.

See the trailer  here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Bollywood

Rating: PG (for sequences of action violence, thematic elements and brief mild language)

Katy Perry: Part of Me

(Paramount/InSurge) Katy Perry, Glen Ballard, Shannon Woodward, Rachael Markarian. A chronicle of Perry’s California Dreams Tour of 2011, during which her marriage with Russell Brand came to an end. How she coped with that loss, her relationship with her fans and the story of her perseverance in becoming a pop diva is told through interviews and archival footage. There is also, as you can imagine, plenty of concert footage from the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

See the trailer and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D

Genre: Musical Documentary

Rating: PG (for some suggestive content, language, thematic elements and brief smoking)

Savages

(Universal) Taylor Kitsch, John Travolta, Blair Lively, Salma Hayek. Two Southern California friends share a thriving Marijuana business and a girlfriend. When a particularly vicious Mexican drug cartel moves into their territory and demands that they work with them, the two friends decline, leading to a cycle of escalating violence and high stakes. Oliver Stone directs.

See the trailer and promo here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Thriller

Rating: R (for strong brutal and grisly violence, some graphic sexuality, nudity, drug use and language throughout)

To Rome With Love

(Sony Classics) Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penelope Cruz, Jesse Eisenberg. Woody Allen’s latest takes him to the Eternal City for the first time, following a group of people – some local, others that are visitors – who fall in love, or fall out of love…or get into some pretty odd predicaments because of love.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Comedy

Rating: PG-13 (for some crude sexual remarks and brief drug references)

Gothika


Gothika

Penelope Cruz and Halle Berry conduct a pretty faces who aren't just pretty faces face-off

(2003) Supernatural Thriller (Warner Brothers) Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr., Charles Dutton, Penelope Cruz, John Carroll Lynch, Bernard Hill, Dorian Harewood, Bronwen Mantel, Kathleen Mackey, Matthew G. Taylor, Michel Perron, Andrea Sheldon, Amy Sloan, Anana Rydvald. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz

 

After an Oscar-winning tour-de-force in Monster’s Ball and a well-received role as Jinx in the James Bond  (Pierce Brosnan-era) flick Die Another Day, what Halle Berry needed to do was to show that she can open a film, in Hollywood parlance, to move up into upper echelon of stardom.

On the surface, Gothika would seem to be a strange choice for Berry’s declaration of superstardom. After all, it comes from Dark Castle Productions, which up to that point had for the most part been serving up remakes of William Castle-produced B-movie horror classics, only with better budgets and modern eye-popping effects (see House on Haunted Hill, Th13teen Ghosts). This one is a bit different. For one thing, it is a completely original story, one of the first Dark Castle produced.

The plot isn’t a simple one. At first glance, Dr. Miranda Grey (Berry) seems to have a pretty nice life. A respected psychologist at a gothic woman’s prison in New England, she’s married to the warden (Dutton), himself a psychologist of some repute. There are hiccups, of course. One of her patients, Chloe (Cruz) seems to be imagining phantom rapes that she claims were perpetrated by the devil. When Miranda seeks a more rational explanation, Chloe exclaims “You can’t trust someone who thinks you’re crazy.” But the ever-rational Dr. Grey, who believes in logic above all, finds that Chloe’s rantings are the cries of a woman attempting to displace her guilt at having murdered her abusive husband.

That dark and stormy night Dr. Grey is forced to take a detour home when her normal route is washed out by the rain. She has to pass over a lonely bridge, when she nearly runs into a girl (Mantel) standing in the middle of the road, causing her car to skid into a ditch. When Dr. Grey goes to see if the girl is all right, she finds the girl is badly gashed. That’s the last thing she remembers.

Three days later, Dr. Grey wakes up — to discover she is now a patient in the penitentiary at which she formerly worked. When she demands to see her husband, her former co-worker, Dr. Graham (Downey), informs her that her husband isn’t in and wouldn’t be in again for the foreseeable future – and that Dr. Grey herself had punched his ticket for the choir invisible.

When Dr. Grey loses it, she is sedated. Over the next few days, she tries to piece together what happened, through therapy sessions, interviews with the sheriff (Lynch) who also happened to be her late husband’s best friend, and her own fragmented memory. When Dr. Grey sees the girl in the prison shower that she nearly ran into that fateful night, she becomes upset which I suppose is perfectly justifiable.

After some digging, Dr. Grey discovers that the girl is actually the daughter of a hospital administrator (Hill) and there is a bit of a problem; the girl had committed suicide years before. Dr. Grey, being the logical, stable person she is, doesn’t believe in ghosts. The problem is that ghosts apparently believe in Dr. Grey, and they begin to have several violent encounters with her, escalating with each incident, and always prefaced by flickering electric lights which go largely unnoticed in a prison that has had electrical problems for years.

It becomes obvious that there is more to the murder of her husband than Dr. Grey was led to believe, and that something or someone is willing to kill the good psychologist to silence her about what she knows. The only way to survive and find the truth about her husband’s murder is to escape from the maximum security prison, and only then will Dr. Grey confront what really happened to her husband – and find out that her life will change forever.

Director Mathieu Kassovitz sets up a wonderfully spooky atmosphere, which is absolutely essential for a ghost story. Unfortunately, Sebastian Guttierez’s script has a few leaps in logic which — when you consider his main character is supposed to be defined by her devotion to logic — derails the movie at times. For example, during the escape from the prison, Dr. Grey is allowed to leave by a friendly guard who even gives her his car to use. Why would he trust her when the evidence points to her as an axe-murderer?

There is another, even more glaring hole, but I can’t discuss it here without giving away a vital plot point. The characters are a bit stock but Berry does an excellent job. She has to play a strong, self-confident woman whose whole world is shattered. Dr. Grey is not the perfect hero; she loses it from time to time, which makes her more realistic. She has to re-evaluate her view of the world as it becomes more and more evident that there is a supernatural element in the events transpiring. She shows self-pity from time to time, but her inner strength carries her through.

With an Oscar victory in hand and an important role in the X-Men franchise, Berry is a formidable presence in Hollywood. In Gothika she more than proves that she is capable of carrying a movie herself. Kassovitz, who has directed Crimson Rivers (one of the best horror movies of recent years) and Amalie, a delightfully charming fantasy, is a first-rate talent. Although the flickering electricity can sometimes be a bit heavy-handed, he prefers to build the horror through atmosphere, suspense and misdirection. There are some horrific moments of gore, but the gore isn’t so over-the-top that it defines for the movie. With this impressive cast (Downey and Cruz are wonderful), he does a fine job in his first English-language movie. I had hoped we would see great things from him at the time this came out although to date that hasn’t happened yet.

Gothika is one of those movies you don’t want to see in a dark room without someone to clutch. There are a few genuine shocks, but nothing that will put a pacemaker into overdrive. It derives its success from excellent acting, fine directing and a compelling story advanced by characters who rarely stoop to cliche. If 2003 is remembered as the year visceral horror made a comeback (and it well should be), Gothika should have been noted as one of the films that fueled the trend. Unfortunately it didn’t get the respect it deserved.

WHY RENT THIS: Stellar performances and well-received scares. Kassovitz creates an admirably spooky atmosphere, perfect for a good ghost story.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many lapses in logic and plot holes. Some of the characters are a bit stock. The ending is a bit weak.

FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a good deal of violence, a bit of nudity and plenty of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Berry broke her arm during production when Downey grabbed her arm harder than he meant to and snapped it.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a Limp Biskit video covering the Who’s “Behind Blue Eyes,” a song that figures prominantly in the movie. The Special Edition DVD also includes an episode of “Punk’D” featuring Hallie Berry being led to believe she had been locked out of the premiere of the movie, as well as an MTV documentary on the making of the Limp Biskit video. There is also a featurette on the inmates in the prison, giving their backstories. It doesn’t really add much to the movie but it’s a nice touch.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $141.6M on a $40M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW:One for the Money