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Movie Review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Runs Slow and Dull

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Murder on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh can do Shakespeare, but he certainly can’t do Agatha Christie. In his treatment of a theatrical production of her classic Poirot novel, he seems to favor more of the text than the characters, under the impression that the plot is stirring enough to hold a film of overly shady characters and a dry atmosphere. Branagh’s approach makes the decadent cinematography, and a stellar cast feel vastly underused in a script that could use something to wake it from the doldrums of a somber and sleepy production.

The detective of Hercule Poirot is played by Branagh himself with unusual weariness, playing up the character’s traits stiffly as though he were in the third week of a stage production. Committed more to dialogue than actions, Poirot spends more

Murder on the Orient Express

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
Kenneth Branagh

time talking about himself than letting the audience deduct his character. He has an obsession with perfection that he confesses makes it difficult for him to live in a word of imperfections. There’s excellent use of this in his preference for breakfast and stepping through manure, but rarely do these frustration come about in the mystery at hand. His additional traits for the lost love of a woman and his current love for the works of Charles Dickens do little for this case as well.

Before the central train mystery begins, there’s an early case that signals a bad omen for this film. Poirot makes his grand reveal of who a thief is with a grand audience, but we’re stuck in the back watching him solve the case from the worst seats for the event. He reveals the clues calmly and coldly for what should be an invigorating mystery. And his foreshadowing for the culprit’s escape route comes off as amateurish and silly, somehow predicting that the escaping guilty party would somehow dash off at the precise angle to run into his cane lodged in a wall. This kind of direction suggests that things in this story will just happen less by the insightful buildup and more based on convenient occurrence.

Poirot is hoping for some rest and reading on the Orient Express, but no such luck. He’s approached by the questionable character of Ratchett (Johnny Depp), seeking protection from some wicked men coming for him. Poirot refuses as he’s not interested in dealing with criminals. He’ll have to, however, when Ratchett turns up dead in the morning with multiple stab wounds. Who could have committed such an act? It could be anyone on the train, considering we don’t learn much about them before the action. We know individual personalities and specific facts, but not much else. The suspects are discovered as Poirot interviews them, but the strict running time only allows for about one or two meetings each.

This is a shame considering the fantastic ensemble cast. We have Willem Dafoe as a deceptive German, Judi Dench as a snobby elite and Josh Gad as a nervous fellow. But they don’t have much to do and exclude little personality, refining themselves as if they were in more of a stuffy melodrama than one of the grandest mysteries of all time. This is most evident in the scenes where Branagh holds on his subjects for far too long, better showcasing how well the actors memorized their lines in one shot as opposed to exuding some level charisma. Everyone plays their role so straight and free of eccentricity or charm that their small bursts of emotion come off as little surprises akin to a firecracker going off in a rainstorm.

The film isn’t without its beauty. I love the way Branagh sets up certain shots, playing considerably with how to stage the train. When the suspects all sit in the restaurant car, we see them behind the prisms of the glass windows. When Ratchett’s body is first discovered, it is shot entirely from above, the camera aiming directly on top of all the actors and the train. Even the climactic solving of the case, weirdly staged as it is, present an unforgettable sequence with Poirot behind the glow of the train and all the suspects sitting in a row inside a tunnel as though it were the Last Supper.

Kenneth Branagh must’ve had a tremendous amount of respect for the written word to make sure no actor runs off with this film, including himself. But he must’ve known his production was in trouble of being too wary with such exciting additions of a chase beneath a bridge and a shootout inside the train. At least they should be exciting as opposed to being a momentary jolt to an otherwise dreary and dull film. Branagh certainly knows how to shoot a mystery, but he forgets to add in the sense of intensity and colorful characters that makes us give a damn about the journey of whodunit and the twisty reveal of the actual killer. This is a gorgeous but empty interpretation of Christie’s work, making the versions seen through Masterpiece Theater all the more fitting of that title.

[author title=”About the Author” image=”http://popstermedia.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/mark_mcpherson-300×221-150×150.jpg”]Movie Reviewer Mark McPherson has been all about movies since working at a video store in his youth. His talents range from video editing to animation to web development, but movies have always been his passion to write about.[/author]


Box Office

The Meg Munches For Box Office For Debut

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The final month of summer seems to be the time for creature feature horror. The Meg, the giant shark movie starring Jason Statham, made a splash to debut at #1 with a box office gross of $44.5 million. Not exactly a big wave for a summer blockbuster with a budget of $130 million, but still a decent premiere as the box office begins to wind down during the end of summer. Expect it to linger around for most of the month.

Still a top contender in the box office and easily one of the biggest success for the second half of the summer is Mission: Impossible – Fallout. As the sixth entry in the saga, starring Tom Cruise as the action-hungry agent Ethan Hunt, the film has pulled in another $20 million in its third weekend for a domestic total of $161.9 million. Also lingering in the top spot is Disney’s Christopher Robin, the live-action adaptation of the Winnie the Pooh stories, now in its second weekend to add $12.4 million to bring up its domestic total to $50 million. With no significant family-friendly movies coming out for the month, you can expect this film to cling to the top 10 for quite some time.

A few new films debuted lower on the list but with what could be considered success. Slender Man, the horror film based on the online legend, made $11 million for its debut, clearing the $10 million budget. BlacKkKlansman, the latest film by Spike Lee that focuses on the investigation of the racist Ku Klux Klan, made $10.7 million for its premiere. While it still has yet to clear its $15 million budget, the positive word of mouth around this film may keep it steady in the box office for August. One premiere that wasn’t so lucky was Dog Days, the new animal-centric comedy starring Vanessa Hudgens, came in at only #12 for a debut of $2.6 million.

Though the rest of the films had expected drops, one milestone was crossed for Ant-Man and the Wasp, despite only being at #10 for the weekend. After six weeks, the film has made $200 million domestic and $448 million worldwide. While this doesn’t make it equal to Marvel’s previous successes his year, it’s still proving to be a solid summer for the unstoppable Marvel superhero franchise.

View the top 10 box office results for the weekend below:

The Meg ($44,500,000)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout ($20,000,000)
Disney’s Christopher Robin ($12,430,000)
Slender Man ($11,325,000)
BlacKkKlansman ($10,799,000)
The Spy Who Dumped Me ($6,600,000)
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ($5,820,000)
The Equalizer 2 ($5,500,000)
Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation ($5,110,000)
Ant-Man and the Wasp ($4,048,000)

Next weekend will be a three-way battle between the new romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, the survival action picture Alpha, and the gritty action/drama Mile 22. Considering Crazy Rich Asians and Mile 22 will both be debuting in over 3,000 theaters, they’ll be the top contenders, although Crazy Rich Asians will get an early start by debuting on Wednesday.


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“The Meg” is Without Bite

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In the swarm of killer shark movies, The Meg does so little to stick out as being more worthy of the theater than the plethora of other B-movies in this subgenre. It’s not stern enough to match the character and terror of Jaws. It’s not silly enough to duplicate the delicious camp value of Deep Blue Sea. And it’s undoubtedly not wild and insane enough to be as goofy a concept as Sharknado. It’s rather sad to admit that a heftier dose of special effects for this usually cheap type of movie amounts to little more than a forgettable B-movie, putting in the minimum effort to be earnest and campy.

An expensive underwater research facility is run by a greedy billionaire (Rainn Wilson) with a research team that includes the tattooed bad-girl (Ruby Rose), the “no way” black engineer (Page Kennedy), and the eager to prove herself Chinese scientist (Li Bingbing) with a child randomly wandering the halls. When the facility discovers an unexplored part of the ocean floor, they’re excited to discover all the new species. One animal they’re not too keen on getting to personally know is the legendary Megalodon, a shark so monstrous in size it can chew through the largest of whales as though they were breadsticks.

The giant shark damages an exploration vessel that leaves the crew stranded below. The only man for such a rescue is former deep-sea rescuer Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham). He was previously disgraced for leaving people behind during life or death situations, but maybe this time he’ll save everyone. Well, perhaps not everyone; the shark has got to eat. And given the PG-13 rating, he won’t be eating much off the human menu, feasting more on the filling meals of giant squids and whales.

While there are no quality kills to be had in this creature feature, the film does its best to be as showy and shlocky as possible, striving to be the most average of B-movie storytelling with a blockbuster budget. There are plenty of great shots of the monster looming over vessels and toppling over ships, including a high-tech chase of mini-seacrafts zooming around reefs as the Megalodon pursues. There are also plenty of brilliantly bad lines delivered with a tongue almost too deep in its cheek; scientists will laugh at the term “insertion,” the billionaire will mutter that he can’t swim, Statham will do his expected trash talking while battling the sea-beast, and a little girl will ask point-blank if her mother bound on a dangerous mission will end up dead. All the actors are trying their best to make this overly expositional monster movie fun, though this tone comes easy for Statham who seems always to have a knowing smirk on his face.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the more bombastic shark movies, but the lack of graphic violence felt like the film was holding back from its grander camp potential. How can you have a shark movie where such an enormous creature attacks one of the most populated beaches on the planet and mostly knocks a few boats and platforms around? I started to spring from my seat when I saw that wide shot of the beach with all those people, hoping the shark would ascend from the waters and swallow a few victims whole. And those hopes were quickly dashed when even the dog is spared from this slaughter, most likely edited back in because people don’t like seeing dogs as appetizers. While there are no humans bloodied or gored too visually, there is plenty of underwater life that become massacred. It’s an interesting study in MPAA logic; a human mother and daughter being torn to bloody shreds by a giant shark is most likely an R rating, but a whale mom and daughter are PG-13 approved when their tails are bitten off as their blood clouds the ocean.

Despite some second-act melodrama that made me ask “where did this subplot come from,” there’s nothing all that memorable to The Meg. The film’s sharper teeth for both horror and comedy are trimmed down to a standard summer blockbuster formula, best suited for those who want a killer shark movie without all the blood and gore, except for some chum and plenty of gored sea creatures. It’s a monster movie so severely mid-tier, garnering laughs by formula and scares that come telegraphed, that it’ll easily be lost in the endless pile of marine life massacre films. Okay, maybe it’ll be remembered as the one with Statham in it; it’s hard to forget such a smile.


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Review: “Christopher Robin” Brings Happiness and Heavy-handedness

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There’s something so enduring about the characters of Winnie the Pooh that even the most simplistic of their stories have a certain intelligent charm to tales of talking stuffed animals. Disney’s Christopher Robin is a perfect example of how they can save a film too safe, sappy, and overbearing with its message about growing up without losing your sense of play. There’s thankfully no darkness in its depiction, despite the dreary streets of London and the more muted tones of Hundred Acre Wood. At its core, it’s same old Pooh antics that have made this fluffy collective the most wholesome, smart and funny of the Disney ensembles.

Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) and his longtime friend Winnie the Pooh in Disney’s CHRISTOPHER ROBIN.

The film centers on a question that always lingered in Christopher Robin’s conversations with Pooh but never adequately addressed: What will happen when Christopher grows up? Not surprisingly, he leaves behind the woods for boarding school, the war, a job, and to raise a family. But he’s not the same Christopher (Ewan McGregor), more of a worrying worker that puts business ahead of family. He arrives home and can’t even smile at his wife. His daughter wants him to read her a bedtime story, and he selects text on the industrial revolution. He’s lost his playful ways that once helped his animal friends.

Into his world comes Pooh, the silly old bear willing to venture out of his fantastical woods and into the stuffy world of post-war England. This could be a dangerous development, as we’ve seen from previous experiences of fantasy cartoon characters coming to life in fish-out-of-water tales, the sourest being The Smurfs that should’ve stayed in their land of mushrooms and magic. Thankfully, the familiar characters, despite looking a little odd as more realistic computer-generated depictions, haven’t lost their touch. Pooh is still a dopey questioner of the world, Piglet is still a fearful creature, Rabbit is still a worrying wart, Owl is always a wise sage, Eeyore is still a sad sack, and Roo still a cute little kangaroo. Oh, and of course Tigger still bounces. Why wouldn’t he? It’s a wonderful thing, bouncing.

Madeline Robin (Bronte Carmichael) and her father Christopher’s longtime friends Tigger, Piglet and Winnie the Pooh go on an adventure in Disney’s CHRISTOPHER ROBIN.

It helps that the story is simplified to keep Pooh’s adventure free of convolution and modern world set pieces, despite some silly accidents of Pooh breaking Christopher’s house and Tigger causing a ruckus in traffic for little reason with forced hilarity. After much denial from Christopher and rushing of Pooh back to his home before more Englishmen are freaked out by a talking teddy bear, the film finally starts to take off with its whimsy. Watching Ewan McGregor get back into the swing of things and embrace Pooh’s impeccable logic of play and doing nothing brings back the familiar and powerful charm the characters were known for.

It’s just unfortunate that the characters find themselves trapped in a live-action film with morals so painfully spelled with overblown scenes of sentimentality that themes of favoring family and imagination feel artificial. Once more, Pooh and company come to the rescue with their well-defined comedy, whereas the human characters spell everything out within big, bold letters that are sure to give a concussion of good intentions. While I fully expected Christopher Robin to realize that life is more than business meetings and studying, I wasn’t ready for him to point these lessons out like the review of an after-school special, making sure the message is loud and clear.

Piglet, Pooh, Rabbit, Roo, Kanga, Tigger and Eeyore in Disney’s live-action adventure CHRISTOPHER ROBIN.

Christopher Robin has the tricky balance of fantasy and reality where honey-seeking and Heffalump-hunting trump a standard plot of Christopher trying to save a business and his family. It seems like the type of film Disney would have made in the late-1990s and thankfully not the mid-2000s of trying to fathom how Pooh would handle driving a car or eating honey out of the head of a plastic bear container. Whenever the characters are on screen getting into their usual squabbles and discoveries laced with witty commentary on life, I smirked and even laughed, perhaps harder as I wanted to push the predictable plot aside, which must insert scenes of Christopher at war and telling off his bosses in an almost cartoonish manner.

Much like Christopher Robin’s arc, I wish the film would learn its lesson about embracing woodland adventures sooner than its brief dip into a more somber story, teetering on the edge of becoming as awkward as Hook. The film, if nothing else, is a testament to how you can’t help but love Pooh. Well, until he’s forced into a movie where he uses an MP3 player and does a suggestive dance with a honey pot on his head. Let’s hope we never reach that point where I find myself looking at this franchise with a sigh and an “oh, bother.”


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