REVIEW: “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) 20th Century Fox

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CHOO CHOO!! ALL ABOARD..ALL ABOARD THE ORIENT EXPRESS! Murder! Mayham! Suspense!

Yes..If you’ve read Dame Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” or have seen the 1974 version you know the storyline. If not, or like me, couldn’t remember all of it – what’s left to deal with then, is how well this one is done and of course the big ‘whodunnit’ reveal at the end.

The story of master detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) who is hoping for a break after numerous years of solving cases, jumps onboard The Orient Express thanks to friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) who was able to secure him this spot. While onboard, Poirot ends up having to solve a murder committed while traveling with 12 other passengers on The Orient Ecpress – a train that made traveling in style from West-East axis and back again, very popular.

Director and lead actor Branagh takes on the popular story, with a nod to nostalgia in three ways. First, the flair of the train travel at that time, which was associated with adventure, pleasure and discovery, must be brought back to life. Second, the charm of the detective-witty inquiry that the character is closely linked to that era. And thirdly, a remake must also pay homage to the original film and the book itself, because Agatha Christie stories are still hugely popular and it’s 1974 version brought much critical and acting acclaim. Thus, Branagh with his well-known cast, recognizes this and with a good but alas not perfect effort, tries to retain that feel. Its highlights include dazzling production design, period costumes and of course I would be remiss to not mention the highly distracting signature moustache! The opening portion of the train journey is spent as you would expect – introducing us the characters on the train. But it’s the last 30 minutes of the film where the detective really gets into why each character is there and what part they play in the film which make that the most interesting part of the film.

Branagh as Poirot, does a fine job mixing in the brilliant detective with the comedic, witty sarcasm the character is known for. It’s always a kick to see Dame Judi Dench, here as Russian Princess Dragomiroff, and the wonderful Olivia Coleman (one of my personal favourites) as her besieged maid, Hildegarde Schmidt. But they have literally nothing to do and are almost shamefully underused. Leslie Odom, Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot is the racial switch in the casting – as Sean Connery had the role in the 1974 film – shows welcome daring for a remake that plays things stodgily by the book.
Michelle Pfeiffer shines in perhaps the meatiest – certainly the cheekiest – role as Caroline Hubbard, but those such as Daisy Ridley as Miss Mary Debenham shows that even her secret relationship with another passenger can’t give Ridley’s character enough boost to make it stand out as much as Pfeiffer does with her role – though both of these characters have a bigger chunk of the many supporting roles. Derek Jacobi as Edward Masterman & Willem Dafoe as ‘Austrian scientist’ Gerhard Hardman, both have secrets but can’t help but appear simply there for the ride. There’s a decent dramatic turn from Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen, though it might be because you only know his work as a comedian so his drama performance get a tick of notice. Also underused are Lucy Boynton and Sergei Polunin as Count & Countess Andrenyi who have a brilliant scene with Branagh but never really do anything else. Johnny Depp plays that typical smarmy-charmy type crook here which completely works for his character Edward Ratchett. Penelope Cruz on the other hand, has it worse as the religious introvert Pilar Estravados. It hard as I always find her work to be sub-par in English movies as she excels so well in the Spanish ones, I end up feeling a bit of a let down by them and here she is barely a blip on the Orient Express. So for all the resplendence of this cast, it’s hard not to feel that Branagh isn’t really pushing any of them to work.

Conclusion: Branagh’s staging of this famous crime thriller tries to do justice to the charm and the time-frame of the original with visual charms, a well-known cast and a little humor. However, this succeeds less convincingly than hoped.

Grade: C+
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REVIEW: “THE MUMMY” (2017) Universal Pictures

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Remember the 1999 version of The Mummy? How fun it was and you loved it! Well this isn’t that. This one take us to the old school premise of The Dark Universe, a creation of creatures that put Universal on the studio map back in the 30’s. Though the franchise had been struggling ever since the original 1999 movie was released, as the sequels to the first fun film gradually got worse. The first “Mummy” was slick, well made and entertaining; the second was your typical sequel movie, not the worst but far from the best, and then with the third installment it was clear that Hollywood had given up on the franchise and wanted to squeeze out one more pay-check.

Well skip forward to 2017 and we have Tom Cruise leading this one. While it may appear to have something just as good as the original, sadly it falls short of that kind of fun. Sure, for some, the flashy visuals or the (occasional) uninspired dialogue, may work – but most will see right past all this. However, there is no doubt that a lot of money was invested in making this film look good, and it does an okay job of doing that.

(L to R) Nick Morton (TOM CRUISE) and Chris Vail (JAKE JOHNSON) in a spectacular, all-new cinematic version of the legend that has fascinated cultures all over the world since the dawn of civilization: “The Mummy.” From the sweeping sands of the Middle East through hidden labyrinths under modern-day London, “The Mummy” brings a surprising intensity and balance of wonder and thrills in an imaginative new take that ushers in a new world of gods and monsters.

To summarize up the plotline quickly, Tom Cruise is Nick Morton who along with his fellow partner in crime, Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), are supposed Army men, but really are just there to loot antiquities from local Iraqi war zones. Archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) is there trying to stop that from happening while having a little liason with Morton. What they find though is the mummified remains of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who was the sole heir to Egypt’s throne before her Pharaoh dad found a second wife and had a son. Furious that she wouldn’t be Queen, she vowed revenge, killing all three and making a pact with the bad-news Egyptian god Set. But before she could sacrifice a lover, who was to become the god’s human embodiment, she was captured and “mummified alive.” The ceremonial dagger with which she intended to make the sacrifice was split into two parts, putting its magic powers on hold until the about-to-wake-up Ahmanet can put the pieces together again. Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) – yes, THAT Dr. Jekyll – is the holder of one of these parts and of course wants to use it for his own means.

I think that it’s important to remember that you’re not seeing anything ground- breaking with this film. It’s not the same type of storyline as the originals nor is it going to have the same impact as those and it certainly isn’t going to steal the show at the Oscars, with the acting by all the leads, Cruise, Wallis, Crowe & Johnson being very stilted. But it has its moments of adrenaline-pumping action, some well-crafted visuals and of course the lead in to what The Dark Universe is set to bring us.

Some of this 1hr 47min Egyptian-fetish flick feels a bit clunky, and the story is all too familiar sounding (disturbing an ancient evil which comes back to wreak havoc on everyone), but when you consider that there have been worse redux films, The Mummy does have its entertainment value. It has its action, but it also has some cracks in its sarcophagi which will, hopefully, be ironed out when they inevitably make another of these in two or so years time.

Not the worst, not the best, and hopefully they will step it up some for the rest of the Dark Universe series for us.

Grade: C-
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Media Review Screening in IMAX 3D: Tuesday, June 6th, 2017 ~ Courtesy of Universal Pictures
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REVIEW: “BEN-HUR” (2016) Paramount Pictures

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Let’s start by stating the obvious. If you go into this version Ben-Hur with visions of the original classic film, you will be disappointed. It is a very conservative, safe, tale re-told for current audiences. Remember this is being done by none other than Roma Downey & Mark Burnett, sponsors of some of the most cheesy TV shows ever done. And while it’s the ‘cool’ thing to just trash this film because it is a remake blah blah blah.. give it a rest people.
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Opening up on this remake/adaptation of the classic epic of Ben-Hur it has mostly the same plot-line as the original. We move on through the tale of the two brothers, Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston), is falsely accused of an assassination attempt by his childhood friend and adoptive brother Messala Severus (Toby Kebbell). He survives years of slavery under the Romans and rises from the ranks hoping to one day get his revenge. The storyline is the same predictable one as the 1959 version though some of the dialogue was very modern day, which was a bit distracting, as it took me out of the time-frame of the story on occasion. One of the things that really struck me and stood out, is when they flash the time period it’s set in, you realize just how long people have been killing each other in the name of religion.
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The main positive point is the acting as Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell both do a decent job, again, if you’re expecting Charlton Heston, Don’t. Let it go and just roll with it. Morgan Freeman as Ilderim, does voice over and basically phones in his acting performance also. At one point, it’s so completely ridiculous that he’s yelling instructions that would’ve been impossible to be heard over the noise of the race! Add in one other notable cheesy scene for me, is where Judah Ben-Hur is washed up ashore as the only survivor after the ship he is a slave on is destroyed, and I felt like Wilson the volleyball should just make a quick cameo. But to give credit where credit is due, I must say that I did enjoy the spectacle that was the ending chariot race.
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The women in the film Ester (Nazanin Boniadi), Naomi Ben-Hur (Ayelet Zurer) and Tirzah Ben-Hur (Sofia Black-D’Elia) all felt really muted. Esther didn’t really feel like a full character for her being the female lead. Add in Rodrigo Santoro as Jesus with the muted group as he’s barely featured until the end. And while I’m not a fan of religious films, they did need to give the character a little more explanation here.

So continuing on with quite the dismal film year of 2016, I can’t say I hated this film as so many of the people who are trashing it just because they can. I will say that the venture might have fit far more comfortably perhaps on a home screen level. Lastly, though I believe a great movie might be in here somewhere, sadly, only a mediocre one found its way to the screen.

Grade: C-
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Review Screening: Tuesday, August 16, 2016 ~ Courtesy of LAFTV meetup
Nationwide Release: Friday, August 19, 2016