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Branagh’s Misguided MURDER & More THOR

And now, catching up with a couple of movies currently playing at every multiplex:

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

(Dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2017)


Kenneth Branagh takes on the directing duties, and the starring role of Detective Hercule Poirot in this fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 bestselling novel, which never leaves the shadow of Sydney Lumet’s 1974 version.

In that first adaptation, Albert Finney is initially unrecognizable as Poirot with his slicked-back black hair, outrageous mustache, and stodgy demeanor, but the blond Branagh just looks like himself, only with similarly exaggerated facial hair. His accent, an attempt at a thick Belgian brogue, even disappears a number of times.

Branagh’s Poirot fronts a cast comprised of A-listers Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, and Judi Dench, alongside lesser known names such as Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Tom Bateman.

Yeah, it’s a big ensemble, so, as can be guessed, most of these players gets a limited amount of screen-time so if you’re a Depp fan, be warned that his role is a glorified cameo at best.

Especially since Depp, as rich businessman Samuel Ratchett, is the murder victim so he’s a corpse throughout the bulk of the picture. As the well worn mystery trope goes, the rest of the cast all have dark connections to Rachett, which means tons of motives, and Poirot interrogates the suspects one by one for his investigation.

This all takes place while the train has been stranded on its route by an avalanche and they have to wait for help to arrive. Unlike MURDER ’74, Branagh takes the passengers off of the train for a lot of the second half, and even stages the big reveal in the exterior of the tunnel the train has been stalled in front of.

This movie is full of such visual choices – the camera swoops over snowy mountaintops, cranes from the bottom to the top of the frame while its subjects stay in the middle of the show, and, most annoyingly, films two entire scenes from directly overhead. As gorgeous as much of the scenery shot by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos is, these show-off moves distract from the story and make what could’ve been a tense gritty remake into something that looks like a glossy magazine spread.

But the most frustrating thing about Branagh’s take on the 83-year old story is how he botches the conclusion so that it has precious little impact. The construction of the big reveal is as rickety as the CGI bridge the train is trapped on. Branagh, working from a screenplay by Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN), has fashioned a self indulgent, yet pretty looking muddle out of Christie’s most famous whodunit.

It just doesn’t hold a candle to what Lumet did with this material in ’74. Consider the superiority of that film’s all-star cast – Finney’s Poirot is joined by Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, John Gielgud, and Jacqueline Bisset (if you younger readers don’t know these names – spend some time with movies made before STAR WARS) – the infinitely sharper script by Oscar winning screenwriter Paul Dehn, and its suitably claustrophobic interiors which are free of any visual trickery.

So obviously, my recommendation is to skip Branagh’s misguided MURDER ‘17, and seek out Lumet’s much classier ’74 version. I bet it’ll make for a more satisfying experience, and you will be spared about how this new one so cynically sets up a sequel – Poirot gets a message at the end from Egypt about being needed to investigate a death on the Nile (get it?).


THOR: RAGNARAK
(Dir. Taika Waititi, 2017)

We’re now halfway through Phrase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie franchise, so here’s the third installment of the THOR adventures, currently # 1 at the box office, which I enjoyed a lot more than the first two (the first one was directed by Branagh incidentally).

As I’ve written before, Thor is my least favorite of the Marvel movie characters, but this time around the guy, again played with gusto by Chris Hemsworth, has grown on me, and with Taika Waititi (who directed the hilarious 2014 vampire mockumentary WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and year’s winning comedy adventure HUNT OF THE WILDERBEAST) at the helm, the Norse God heads a smashingly funny film. One that stands beside ANT-MAN, both GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY entries, and DEADPOOL in the realm of Marvel movies that are really comedies at their core.

The plot, which has something to do with Thor trying to save his home city of Asgard from being destroyed by his sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) with help of his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), really doesn’t matter as the narrative zips through one action set piece to another racking up a lot of big laughs in the process.

Tony Stark is brought up enough times (Ruffalo even wears his clothes) that I was expecting Robert Downey Jr. to pop up, but instead we’ve got Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange to do that duty. But the cast member that appears to be having the most fun here is Jeff Goldblum as the unctuous Grandmaster of a planet on which Thor winds up getting pitted against the Hulk in an arena gladiator fight.

It’s a fun yet disposable entertainment as I laughed quite a bit, but now can’t think of any notable quotes – oh, wait, there was Thor saying “A creepy old man cut my hair off!” which totally sums up the obligatory Stan Lee cameo.

THOR: RAGNAROK may be an overly formulaic (Thormulaic?), and maybe not a really essential entry in the Marvel canon, but it’s sprinkled with so many gags that land that it really doesn’t matter.


More later…

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA There’s A Lot Of Boring Bombastic Bravado

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA

(Dir. Ron Howard, 2015)

It’s Ron Howard’s “Moby Dick!”

No, not really. It’s Ron Howard’s adaptation of Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2000 bestseller “In the Heart of the Sea,” about the incident that inspired Herman Melville’s 1851 classic “Moby-Dick.”


Via a framing device, Melville, played by Ben Whishaw, gets the tale how the whaling ship Essex was destroyed by a ginormous 100-foot sperm whale told to him by Bremdan Gleason as Thomas Nickerson, who had been a 14 year old cabin boy on the ship at the time.

So we flash back to the coast of Nantucket, Massachusetts in 1821, where the young Nickerson (Tom Holland) fades into the background as Chris Hemsworth (THOR) as Owen Chase and Benjamin Walker (ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER) as George Pollard step forth as the stars. Hemsworth’s Chase, looking like he’s ready to pose for a romance novel cover, was promised that he’d be captain of the Essex, but the powers that be gave the job to the more refined rich boy Pollard.

Chase kisses his pregnant wife (Charlotte Riley) goodbye and the Essex sets sail on its voyage to hunt whales for oil. Tensions rise between Chase and Pollard when Chase defies the Captain’s orders in a vicious storm scene, but they agree to put their differences aside in order to achieve their chartered goal of 2,000 barrels of whale oil – a task that could take several years.

Several months into the voyage is where serious shit goes down. The whale we’ve been waiting for wreaks havoc on the ship and the crew in the central bombastic as hell action sequence, and the surviving sailors, including Chase, Pollard, Nickerson, and a few others including Cilian Murphy, looking as Willem Dafoe-ish as ever, as first mate Matthew Joy, are left with only three small open boats, and very little food or water.

As the men grow weaker so does the film. And, wouldn’t you know it, the cannibalism scene doesn’t help make the story any more compelling! Maybe it would’ve if I cared about these characters, but, even with knowing they were based on real people, the film’s mechanics made them feel like expendable cogs.

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA has a lot of bluster and bravado bursting through its frames, especially during the whaling sequences, in which there’s some mighty fine filmmaking. It’s too bad that its post production 3D conversion renders the imagery dark and murky, diluting its possible power.

That said, the film would still be problematic in 2D. Howard’s film, his 24th as director, is an attempt at a swashbuckling ocean epic that has more realism and grit than the Hollywood sea adventures of the past, but it’s so CGI saturated that its ends up having very little resemblance to reality, and as such, detachment and boredom massively set in.

It also bugs me that Nickerson and Melville never met in real life, something I didn’t know until after the movie, but still felt contrived in the film’s context. It’s TITANIC-style storytelling, and the film could’ve really done without it. 

Gleeson, as the boozy, disturbed Nickerson, is likable as always, and Whishaw does his best with , but their scenes add little but some random humor to the equation.

Hemsworth and Walker’s rivalry never gets very interesting either, so what we’re left with is over-sized, over CGI-ed whaling spectacle that failed to leave much of an impression on me. From what I hear about this film’s opening grosses, I know I’m far from alone in that accessment.


More later…