Monday, November 27, 2017

The Making of Scrooge: "The Man Who Invented Christmas" a bland, clunky hybrid of biopic and "A Christmas Carol"

The Man Who Invented Christmas (2017)
104 min., rated PG.

“The Man Who Invented Christmas” is almost a mirthful delight, but it’s more of a handsome bore that doesn’t become the gift that will keep on giving. As if inspired by 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love,” 2004’s “Finding Neverland” and 2017’s “Goodbye Christopher Robin,” director Bharat Nalluri (2008’s “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”) and screenwriter Susan Coyne seem to use a familiar recipe, taking one crucial moment from Charles Dickens’ real life that would inspire his beloved, immortal 1843 novel, “A Christmas Carol.” It is an adaptation of Les Standiford’s 2008 non-fiction book, but as the film plays out, one would rather be watching a biopic that isn’t so surface-level or any of the hundred cinematic adaptations of “A Christmas Carol” (1988’s enjoyable, satirically biting Bill Murray-starrer “Scrooged” is a personal favorite) instead of a hybrid of both. “The Man Who Invented Christmas” is innocuous as a genteel, glossy trifle about the inventor of a then-minor holiday but clunkier and duller than it should be.

Following his success of “Oliver Twist,” revered London writer Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is the toast of the town in New York City, 1842. One year and three consecutive flops later, Charles is experiencing writer’s block, up to his eyeballs in debt and in desperate need of a rebound, particularly now as he and wife Kate (Morfydd Clark) have their fifth baby on the way. When his publisher is hesitant about the writer’s latest pitch about a miser finding redemption on Christmas Eve, he decides to publish it himself. As Charles tries working, his father (Jonathan Pryce) and mother (Ger Ryan) arrive unexpectedly to stay with their son, and his Irish maid, Tara (Anna Murphy), opens his eyes to pulp literature, which would bring about his creations of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come. As he races to complete his book, Charles envisions a grave digger (Christopher Plummer) he witnesses as the “humbug”-muttering Ebenezer Scrooge and begins seeing and talking to unseen apparitions during his writing process.

“The Man Who Invented Christmas” offers intriguing facets of Charles Dickens, like his affection for the poor and disenfranchised in his stories, as little Charles was forced to work at a shoe polish factory after his father was sent to debtors’ prison. Beyond that, though, the script is more schematic than insightful, name-checking every recognizable creative inspiration before the light bulb goes off in Charles’ head, like his searching for the name “Scrooge" and someone reciting the line, "God Bless Us, Everyone." And, if cynics ever hated how Scrooge turned to mush and helped Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol,” we can all apparently thank Charles’ maid Tara. Charming, lively and sometimes muggy, Dan Stevens is, for the most part, the movie as Charles Dickens, while a perfectly scowling Christopher Plummer is ace-in-the-hole casting as Ebenezer Scrooge that it’s a wonder he never played the part in a traditional adaptation of Dickens’ tale. The production is solid enough, sometimes resembling that of a made-for-TV movie, and the energy level hums along with a jaunty score. “The Man Who Invented Christmas” isn’t a bad film that will make audiences grumble “Bah, Humbug,” just a frustratingly bland one that comes closer to being Cinematic Ambien.


Thursday, November 23, 2017

No Ancestor Left Behind: Imaginative, touching, gorgeously animated “Coco” pretty perfecto

Coco (2017)
105 min., rated PG.

Breaking the tradition of sequels, Pixar returns with an original in the winning “Coco.” While 2014’s Guillermo del Toro-produced animated effort “The Book of Life” highlighted Mexican culture first, director Lee Unkrich (2010’s “Toy Story 3”) and screenwriters Adrian Molina (who receives a co-directing credit) and Matthew Aldrich come up with their own rich, personal story that is at once culturally reverent and thematically universal. Celebrating the importance of family is a common throughline in many Disney pictures, and themes of believing oneself and seizing the moment may seem theoretically basic for a film targeted at children, but the filmmakers also have something to say about memory, regrets, family ties and mortality. Top-notch in the animation department, full of imagination, color and detail, and the amount of pathos the story conjures up, “Coco” is a joy.

Growing up with a family of shoemakers and shoeshiners in Mexico, 12-year-old Miguel Rivera (voice of Anthony Gonzalez) has always loved music. Though pressured by his abuelita (Renée Victor) to follow in his family’s footsteps, he aspires to be like his late idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a movie star and “the greatest musician of all time” who was crushed by a bell, but there’s one rub. Ever since his great-great-grandfather abandoned his wife and daughter, the Rivera family sees music as a family curse and bans Miguel from strumming a guitar in front of them. On Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), where photos are placed at an altar so those who have left the Land of the Living can cross over and see their loved ones for the holiday, Miguel sneaks into the tomb of the legendary Ernesto de la Cruz and gets transported to the Land of the Dead. He’s visible to all of his skeleton ancestors, who are excited to see him but must get him back home. His great-great-grandmother, Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach), will grant Miguel her blessing to return him home if he promises to never pursue a career in music, but if he does not exit the afterlife before sunrise, he could be trapped there forever. When Miguel evades them with his street-dog companion Dante, he meets gangly con artist Héctor (Gael García Bernal), who agrees to help Miguel find the long-passed Ernesto de La Cruz if he puts up Hector’s photo up in the Land of the Living so he can see his family before he’s forgotten forever.

Nobly expanding an audience’s worldview with Mexico’s cultural tradition that comes with a dose of the macabre, “Coco” is simply enchanting. Named after the eldest living member in the Rivera family—Miguel’s great-grandmother, Mamá Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguía), whose memory is fading fast—the film makes it a vital lesson in Miguel’s life-or-death quest to honor and remember deceased family members even if they are no longer with us. Such a delicate idea sounds like it would be heavy, but how director Lee Unkrich and screenwriters Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich integrate what’s underneath Miguel’s lively adventure into the Land of the Dead is handled with wisdom, good humor and hard-earned emotions through its distinct, engaging characters.

As thoughtfully written as it is rousing and dazzling to look at, “Coco” is an inventive, touching and flavorful treasure that delivers on every level. It is often very funny with no less than two laugh-out-loud gags with Frida Kahlo's edgy art pieces and a lot of playful humor involving skeletons and their body parts. The script also very carefully unpacks a family history and revelations that are surprising and gutsy for an animated film as the story comes to a head at Ernesto de la Cruz's concert "Sunrise Spectacular," where Mamá Imelda finally gets her chance to share her voice with the world. The fact that the cast is filled with fewer A-listers than usual makes the story that more emotionally immersive, led by endearing newcomer Anthony Gonzalez who makes for a charming, plucky young protagonist. 

A visual treat of bright animation, the film is wondrously, painstakingly designed from its opening of cut-tissue-paper streamers to its festive and vibrant presentation of the Land of the Dead, a metropolis of floating towers, and its flower bridge that allows the dead to cross over during Día de los Muertos. In a story about the love of music, the songs, written by Germaine Franco, Adrian Molina, and married “Frozen” team Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, are exuberantly performed, including a duet of “Un Poco Loco” between Miguel and Héctor played at a talent show in the Land of the Dead and the lovely “Remember Me” with Miguel and Mamá Coco. All that has gone before the film’s last five minutes won’t prepare one for the beautifully moving, smiling-through-tears final moments, making “Coco” pretty perfecto.

Grade: A - 

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Girlhood: "Lady Bird" freshly observed, poignant and altogether wonderful

Lady Bird (2017) 
94 min., rated R.

More than a decade ago, quirky indie darling Greta Gerwig might have starred as the titular character of “Lady Bird”—not a biopic of Lyndon B. Johnson’s wife—but Gerwig actually makes it her solo writing-directing debut (she co-wrote and co-directed with Joe Swanberg on 2008’s “Nights and Weekends”). The project feels undeniably personal that one can just hear Gerwig’s voice through the performance of Saoirse Ronan, although not in a self-consciously quirky way that reminds one of the many times Woody Allen sometimes unsuccessfully cast another actor as his stand-in. Rather, Gerwig’s title character is an offbeat original and Ronan in the role only enhances the longing and adolescent emotions found in the already-terrific writing. Not only a coming-of-age film about living on the cusp of adulthood and trying to navigate pre-college life but also a love story between a mother and daughter, this is a lovely slice-of-life that feels freshly observed and deeply felt with a confident voice. In one word, “Lady Bird” is wonderful.

17-year-old Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a bit of a rebel and a free-thinker. She has red-dye streaks in her brown hair and prefers to be called by her self-given name, “Lady Bird.” She’s starting her senior year at a Catholic high school and hopes to get out of Sacramento—the “Midwest of California”—and head to the East Coast, where the artists live. Her loving father, Larry (Tracy Letts), has recently lost his job and her family can barely afford to send her to a state school, while overly critical mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) has a tumultuous relationship with her daughter. At school, Lady Bird and best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) sign up for a school play; she starts dating a nice, musically talented Irish-Catholic boy named Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges) and later hipster band leader Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), who fortuitously hangs out in the same circle as rich queen bee Jenna (Odeya Rush). Throughout the course of the school year, Lady Bird tries out different versions of herself as she tries finding her way in the world.

From the first telling moments of the film that are by turns sweet, intimate and tense, Lady Bird and her mother have a relationship that’s grounded in love, but their strong personalities clash when it comes to talking about Lady Bird’s work ethic and future after graduation. They’re prickly and then instantly bond, whether it’s over a powerful book on tape or a pretty thrift-shop dress. Lady Bird is an ordinary but compelling teenage girl, which in a way makes her extraordinary. Like any teenage girl, or teenager for that matter, she thinks the world revolves around her, blind to everyone else experiencing their own problems, and she doesn’t always do the right thing, and yet Lady Bird has her redemptive moments that come on their own time and avoid coming off false or contrived. Saoirse Ronan’s open, appealing, identifiable and complicated performance would be enough, but the film is generous to all of its characters, giving them all room to shine and finding humanity in all of them without seeming like a bunch of eccentrics on the sidelines.

Receiving the meatiest role she has ever had on screen, Laurie Metcalf is sensational as Marion, encapsulating “scary and warm,” a contradictory description made by Danny. The actress finds such a recognizable truth in Marion who fears letting go of her daughter that’s heartbreaking. Beanie Feldstein (2016’s “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”) has a gawky authenticity and sweet grace about her as loyal best friend Julie, who shares a box of communion wafers that “aren’t consecrated” with Lady Bird as they talk about masturbation between classes. Tracy Letts gives his warmest and most compassionate performance as Larry, who acts as the “good cop” to Lady Bird and supports her when she’s down, even as he feels dejected without a job. As Danny and Kyle, Lucas Hedges (2016’s “Manchester by the Sea”) and Timothée Chalamet (2016’s “Miss Stevens”) play both different sides of the spectrum as the main boys Lady Bird comes to love. Lois Smith is also a delight in only a handful of scenes as Sister Sarah Joan, who’s down-to-earth enough to even forgive Lady Bird when she’s the subject of a prank, and Stephen McKinley Henderson paints a sad picture with brief screen time as Father Leviatch, who’s in charge of the theater club. “Patty Cake$” star Danielle Macdonald, though, has only a blink-and-you’ll-miss-her appearance, credited as “Another Young Lady.”

So much happens in “Lady Bird,” but everything feels satisfyingly developed in a semi-autobiographical script that is well-stuffed, albeit tight, without coming across episodic or unfocused. It feels as messy as real life and covers a full emotional spectrum. Proving herself an assured storyteller and filmmaker, Greta Gerwig beautifully builds her scenes into one another with speedy, efficient and effective use of editing; for instance, the audio of a countdown starts three scenes early, shifting from Lady Bird printing out her financial aid and then rushing into the post office to a scene of her ringing in the New Year. Setting the film in a post-9/11 reality from 2002 to 2003, Gerwig also sprinkles in pitch-perfect musical choices for flavor of the aughts, including Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket” and Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me,” which is used in a pivotal moment on her way to the prom. Sharply funny, insightful and poignant, “Lady Bird” is close to perfect, the kind of film the viewer doesn’t want to end with characters one doesn’t want to see go. On second thought, it is perfect.


Thursday, November 16, 2017

Still Halfway to Justice: Uneven "Justice League" offers more levity but garish action gets in way of new team

Justice League (2017)
119 min., rated PG-13.

With 2016’s messy, bombastic, oppressively self-serious and failingly overambitious “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and this summer’s hopeful, confidently helmed “Wonder Woman,” DC Extended Universe superhero conglomeration “Justice League” had to not only cleanse the palate of the former but be as good as the latter. Fortunately, there is more levity, fun and humanity to be found in director Zack Snyder’s follow-up to “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” which was sapped of all three, and for almost two-thirds of its 119 minutes, “Justice League” is fleet, lively and even enthralling. Unfortunately, for every triumph with the Justice League’s loose, breezy dynamic, there are two steps back, and the scattered high points end up getting drowned out in an uneven whole with garish CG work and a generic dud of a villain. As of now, justice in bringing this iconic mega-team to life in a satisfying extravaganza is only halfway achieved, but there is still hope for an upswing with the DCEU. "Justice League" just isn't that time.

After Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck) called a truce over both of their mothers being named Martha and were both joined by Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) to battle Lex Luthor’s engineered monster Doomsday, Superman impaled the monster with a kryptonite spear but selflessly died in the process. With Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman six feet under and leaving the world reeling from the loss, Bruce Wayne/Batman assembles an alliance to take on the End of Days, fast approaching in the form of intergalactic conqueror Steppenwolf (a motion-captured Ciarán Hinds) and his army of fear-smelling, insect-like Parademons who are out to steal three Mother Boxes (cosmic cubes of alien technology with infinite possibilities) from the Amazons, the Atlanteans, and the Earthlings. Bruce and Diana quickly round up their team, among them gawky young wisecracker Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) who dons a red suit and sports lightning-fast abilities as alter-ego The Flash; the whiskey-guzzling Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) who resides in the underwater Atlantis as the trident-wielding Aquaman; and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a former college athlete installed with robotic parts by his scientist father (Joe Morton) after a lab explosion. Can one of those Mother Boxes help resurrect a certain Kryptonian?

As directed by Zack Snyder and written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon (who directed reshoots when Snyder had to step away during production after the tragic death of his daughter), “Justice League” has a lighter touch with “Avengers”-like banter, employing the sensibility of Whedon and the best and worst sides of Snyder as a visual filmmaker. The division of directorial visions and post-production issues—most distracting of all being Henry Cavill’s digitized lips when the editors had to erase the actor's mustache he was contractually obligated to keep for another film project—are noticeable on occasion, but there are moments and elements to like here, particularly early on. Sigrid’s funeral-toned rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” plays over the opening credits, dramatizing the hopeless world without Superman, with an amusing newspaper headline asking if David Bowie, Prince and Superman have all returned to their home planets. Danny Elfman’s varied score then swings in as Batman fights off a criminal on a rooftop, jetting audiences back to Tim Burton’s 1989 original for just a moment. Wonder Woman’s solo sequence where she saves a group of hostages from a terrorist group, blocking every bullet with her bracelets, is attention-grabbing, and there is a thrilling set-piece on Themyscira where Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and the Amazons fend off Steppenwolf and his flying minions from getting their Mother Box. Then, as Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg are introduced and their interactions tap into the bickering, joking vibe of a family forced to work together, the film still stays on solid ground. It’s when the plot—standard fate-of-the-world stuff—keeps having to kick in and center on thoroughly lackluster, uncanny-valley-residing CG villain Steppenwolf that the film begins to split at the seams. One would almost rather see a movie with the Justice League going to brunch (which does get its own joke) than save the world. 

As Bruce Wayne/Batman, Ben Affleck is given even less to do here than in his first incarnation as the character whose super power happens to be his wealth. By himself, he stoically conveys guilt for what happened to Superman, but luckily, Affleck looks more engaged when he’s around his co-stars. With co-lead duties, Gal Gadot more than holds her own as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman with her warm yet fierce presence, and she gets a funny gag with her Lasso of Truth aimed at Aquaman. The brawny Jason Momoa exceeds expectations, carrying himself with a devil-may-care attitude and dude-bro bravado, although his Aquaman is missing a few key beats to make sense of why he chooses to rescue the team at one point and then join them. As well-cast and understatedly compelling as stage actor Ray Fisher is as Victor Stone/Cyborg, he’s mostly a cog in the wheel, even with a tragic albeit undercooked backstory that would have made more room for pathos in an origin story. In charge of most of the comic relief is Ezra Miller as Barry Allen/The Flash, and he is the clear standout of the newcomers, almost reminding one of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man for still being in giddy awe of his powers. While early scenes of Barry visiting his imprisoned father (Billy Crudup) are cut short and his action moments are inferior to all of Quicksilver’s whiplash-fast sequences in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “X-Men: Apocalypse,” the endearingly enthusiastic Miller is a major source of the film’s joy and energy with cheeky, crowd-pleasing jokes linked to brunch and “Pet Sematary.”

Returning for a handful of scenes, Amy Adams and Diane Lane share some nice moments as the mourning Lois Lane and Martha Kent, who thankfully don't have to be rescued this time, while J.K. Simmons is underutilized as Commissioner James Gordon. Though Ciarán Hinds is credited as Steppenwolf, this part could have been played by anyone. Aside from his giant axe and his army of Parademons, Steppenwolf is as unimpressive as Enchantress and Incubus in “Suicide Squad” and holds no threat when he looks so processed and animated, resembling a mutt mixed with a billy goat and an orc out of “Warcraft.” His agenda to create Hell on Earth and become a new god is also too uninteresting and murky, despite an overt exposition dump.

Less afraid of having a sense of humor than its predecessor but saddled with a pedestrian story, “Justice League” levels out as a down-the-middle distraction at best. If more time had been taken to develop each new member of the Justice League and much, much less time was spent on Steppenwolf, this might have felt more like an epic than a “meh.” Save for a couple exceptions, most of the action is executed as flashy, overblown, weightless blurs that the viewer might as well be watching the “Justice League” video game tie-in and not the $300-million feature film. As is the requirement of superhero movies to end with a big showdown, the one here is such a busy, aesthetically samey destruct-a-thon presumably shot in front of green screens in a studio warehouse that’s supposed to stand in for Russia. No matter what anyone says, “Justice League” will still deliver as the movie diehard comic book fans craved all this time, but when will the hope of better luck next time cease? As with so many superhero movies of any universe, there is always the sinking feeling that the studios fill audiences with promises that never come, hoping they will wait to see the next movie instead. This may be a minor course correction for the DCEU—it’s not a total bust—and maybe the release of a longer “Ultimate Edition” will improve upon things.

Grade: C +

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Be Kind: Emotionally earned "Wonder" celebrates compassion without turning mawkish

Wonder (2017)
113 min., rated PG.

“Wonder” has all the trappings of a feel-good picture that tells audiences how to feel and tests their sugar tolerance. It is sentimental, sure, but this adaptation of the 2012 bestseller by R.J. Palacio about a boy with a facial difference knows just when to reel in the emotions and make the puppet strings invisible, just like 1985’s “Mask.” Just as he did in adapting his own YA novel and making one of the most truthful, relatable and special high school-set films out of it with 2012’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” director and co-writer Stephen Chbosky keeps any potential mawkishness and overt emotional manipulation in check. Humane and open-hearted rather than cloying, “Wonder” never goes for a cheap cry, even with the passing of a pet, but sneaks up on audiences without pandering or straining to be inspirational. 

August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) is an intelligent 10-year-old boy born with a congenital disorder that caused facial disfigurement, having endured 27 surgeries that have allowed him to breathe, hear and have a face, but otherwise, he considers himself a pretty ordinary kid. Having homeschooled Auggie in their New York brownstone home all these years, mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) and husband Nate (Owen Wilson) decide it’s time to enroll their son in a new school for fifth grade. Beecher Prep School’s principal, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), supports Auggie and has him get shown around by three students, including rich-kid bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar), chatty commercial-actress Charlotte (Elle McKinnon), and scholarship student Jack Will (Noah Jupe) who gives Auggie a chance. At first, he wears an astronaut helmet to hide himself from the world, but eventually, Auggie will become more comfortable in his own skin when others begin treating him the way he should be treated.

As Auggie’s older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) puts it, “Auggie is the sun,” but everyone in the cast gets more than enough to do. The screenplay by Stephen Chbosky, Steven Conrad (2015’s “Unfinished Business”), and Jack Thorne (2014’s “A Long Way Down”) takes time to delve deeper, fleshing out and actually listening to other characters who get their own chapter headings and vantage points. Via has a rough time at school but doesn’t share it with her parents since they’re more worried about Auggie adjusting and takes a chance by signing up for theater; Jack Will carries on a friendship with Auggie, going over to his house and playing video games, and then around Halloween makes the mistake of saying a cruel remark about Auggie to his other friends; and Via’s former best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) has rebelled after returning from summer camp with pink streaks in her hair and sitting with a different social circle at lunch. As the film sheds light on the people in Auggie’s life and sensitively sees them beyond shades of black and white, it finds a relatable truth in that one never knows what’s actually going on in one’s life, so why judge?

What keeps the film from turning Auggie into a saintly mascot that everyone can learn from is making Auggie and everyone around him feel like an actual human being. Jacob Tremblay, who got his revelatory start in 2015’s “Room,” is adorable but pours so much humanity and humor into Auggie that the transformative make-up never distracts or does all of the acting. Izabela Vidovic (2013's "Homefront") is emotionally available as Via who has trained herself to be self-sufficient and bottle up a lot, and there’s a lovely, moving scene on the Coney Island shore with the grandmother she called Grans (Sonia Braga), Via’s greatest support system who is now gone. Julia Roberts never hits a false note as Isabel, a loving parent who, by placing all of her attention on Auggie, has failed to realize the neglect of her eldest and finally finds time to finish her dissertation that she put on hold while homeschooling her son. Next to Roberts’ Isabel, father Nate might be dealt the most underwritten, almost too-good-to-be-true part in Auggie’s immediate family, but casting Owen Wilson as a cool, understanding parent makes up for that. Also, Noah Jupe (2017's "Suburbicon") is as much of a natural as Tremblay in playing Jack Will and Broadway’s “Hamilton” actor Daveed Diggs lends charisma and support as teacher Mr. Browne.

“Wonder” might be unabashed in its use of the standing ovation cliché twice during both Via’s school production of “Our Town” and Auggie’s elementary school graduation, but even those moments work and make one in the audience want to stand up and cheer. Because Auggie and other characters are so believably developed before this point, the film earns such a cinematic stand-by. It also helps that Stephen Chbosky’s direction is almost always character-oriented and low-key, aside from whimsical flourishes involving “Star Wars” characters and Auggie joyfully running down the school hallway in an astronaut suit to convey the character's active imagination and love of science. Handled with wit, grace, and more subtlety than expected, “Wonder” is a heart-driven celebration of compassion and empathy. Tidy but more than just an “anti-bullying” message movie, this is a gentle, emotionally earnest film for anyone who follows the golden rule in his or her own life. Every sniffle, tear of joy, and lump in one’s throat is earned.


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Strangers on a Train: “Murder on the Orient Express” a poky ride that largely wastes a starry cast

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
114 min., rated PG-13.

A star-studded 2017 remake of Sidney Lumet’s star-studded 1974 film, “Murder on the Orient Express” is the second big-screen retelling of Agatha Christie’s 1934 whodunit yarn on a locomotive. Once again, it is lavishly mounted and bursting with a cavalcade of first-class acting talent, but this rendering is a surprisingly flat mixed bag. It’s only intermittently diverting, poky when it should be enthralling and suspenseful, and never as involving as it wants to be. While most of the film’s $55 million budget went to paying a troupe of stars as part of an ensemble piece, director Kenneth Branagh (2015's "Cinderella") comes off self-congratulatory by casting himself (and his glorious mustache) front and center in every frame like a one-man show instead of devoting much time to the other passengers. Having positioned itself as the award season’s kick-off for a starry, refreshingly old-fashioned entertainment and a whodunit mystery that is usually reserved for BBC and PBS, “Murder on the Orient Express” is a crashing disappointment with the biggest mystery being how it could waste so many untapped performers.

The great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has just cracked a case of a stolen artifact in 1934, Istanbul. When he runs into a scoundrel of a friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot is offered a place on a sleeper train en route to Calais, France. Hopping on board the Orient Express, the detective hopes for a vacation, until an avalanche stalls the train. Then a dead body turns up in one of the cabins, having been stabbed repeatedly in the chest, and one of the passengers on the train is a murderer. The suspects include governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley); black English physician Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.); husband-hunting widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer); smarmy art dealer Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), butler Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi) and private secretary Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad); religious maid-turned-missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz); Austrian engineering professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe); icy Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and dutiful handmaiden Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman); dancer Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his sick, barbiturate-taking wife, Countess Elena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton); and Cuban businessman Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). Not everyone is what he or she may seem, and Poirot will not rest, interrogating each and every one of them on their alibis, until he finds the killer among them.

“Murder on the Orient Express” would seem to have all of the proper ingredients for a worthwhile whodunit, including pedigreed source material, a pro at the helm, and a seemingly endless murderer's row of A-listers all in costume and ready to shine. While Hercule Poirot might be one of Agatha Christie’s long-lived characters who appeared in 33 of her novels, he deadens the proceedings almost from the word go. With a hammy, self-amused accent, the preening, mustachioed Kenneth Branagh’s shtick delights at first and then grates on the nerves thereafter. In small doses, his comedy lands, from giggling while reading Charles Dickens to wearing a mustache guard in bed. However, as he opens the film in a lengthy prologue, proving Poirot is “the greatest detective,” and then even gets a backstory involving his lost love, it becomes a long haul with Poirot trying to outshine everyone else. Out of everyone, Poirot gets an arc, but it feels dishonestly earned. At the end of his case-cracking in Istanbul, he expresses his worldview to a policeman, “There is right, there is wrong, and nothing in between.” And yet, by the end of cracking the case on the Orient Express, Poirot takes all of ten minutes to realize that life is more complicated beyond black and white.

Screenwriter Michael Green (2017’s “Blade Runner 2049”) had his work cut out for him, adapting Agatha Christie’s oft-adapted yarn as a highbrow potboiler but taking few liberties outside of flirting with a certain passenger of a different race. With an impressively assembled cast at director Branagh’s disposal, it feels like a major missed opportunity when so many of them are underserved, not only for there being so many characters to manage but because director Kenneth Branagh makes himself the star. They are all purposefully underwritten playing strangers who have secrets and then all become murder suspects, each given a single compartment to play in, although only a few get the chance to make a juicy impression or even register. Haters of Johnny Depp will delight in knowing that he ends up being the corpse, and he might have the most lively interaction with Poirot over a pastry before rigor mortis sets in. Enlivening every scene she gets her hands on as Caroline Hubbard, Michelle Pfeiffer is appropriately slinky and gets in a few delicious lines. With her innate charisma, the lovely Daisy Ridley (2015’s "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens”) lends enough spark as Mary Debenham for one to wish she had more to do, while Broadway actor Leslie Odom Jr. has the same qualities and gets the same treatment. Josh Gad and Penélope Cruz each have their own respective moments, too, but in other thanklessly tertiary roles, Willem Dafoe is nearly forgotten and Dame Judi Dench gets to give annoyed glances and answer Poirot’s questions.

Production values are solidly handsome, with sweeping shots of the train ripping around the track on a snowy mountain, and Alexandra Byrne’s costume design is exquisite. Although on a few occasions, it seems as if even a pro like Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos struggle on where to place the camera within the train. For instance, a tracking shot from the exterior of the train isn't even stylishly show-offy as it bungles the introduction of Mrs. Hubbard, roving from window to paneling to window to paneling, and an overhead shot that remains hovering in the corridor when Poirot discovers the dead body in one of the cabins is awkwardly staged, favoring the tops of the actors’ heads. A more fluid camera movement dollies down the aisle of the train, getting a reaction from each passenger. 

Since the whodunit reveal of “Murder on the Orient Express” is already well-known—and it is a humdinger—it’s a matter of seeing how the filmmakers will get there. As the film chugs along, the mystery lacks urgency, the tension remains slack, and the claustrophobia of being in a train with a murderer among the passengers is never taken full advantage of by Branagh’s stately direction. Poirot takes so many leaps from clue to conclusion with deduction that there’s little time for the viewer to get wrapped up in the mystery. As the motive behind the killer (or killers) clearly tries to move on an emotional level, the only thing the viewer is left to feel is indifference, and that shouldn’t be. All dressed up with little place to go, “Murder on the Orient Express” is just inert.


The Boy Who Wasn't There: "My Friend Dahmer" an unsettling and oddly sensitive portrait

My Friend Dahmer (2017)
107 min., rated R.

Based on Derf Backderf’s 2012 graphic-novel memoir and written for the screen and directed by Marc Meyers (2015’s “How He Fell in Love”), “My Friend Dahmer” dares to explore the formative years of notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer before any of his actual murders that weren’t exposed until 1991. In the most psychologically disturbing sense, this is more of a coming-of-age story than a horror film that plants the seed of early psychosis by simply observing its subject in the late-1970s (shot in Dahmer’s real-life childhood home, to boot). It might not offer many new insights, but without excusing Dahmer’s actions that would devolve from weird to downright sociopathic, “My Friend Dahmer” is oddly a rather empathetic portrait the way it depicts high school and a broken home for an incipient serial killer before he passes the point of no return.

In 1978, Bath, Ohio, Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is a senior at Revere High School. He’s a social outcast and just plain off. Although he plays tennis and plays in the marching band, Jeffrey mostly keeps to himself and spends his days after school collecting roadkill carcasses and dissolving them in jars of acid in a shed—his “lab”—in the woods. At home, his chemist father, Lionel (Dallas Roberts), wants Jeffrey to get out of his shell, going as far as throwing away all of his son’s animal-filled jars, while his mother, Joyce (Anne Heche), suffers from mental illness. Once Jeffrey realizes his “spazz attack” performance, inspired by his mother’s interior decorator with cerebral palsy, gets him attention at school, he is welcomed into a group of pals, John ‘Derf’ Backderf (Alex Wolff), Mike (Harrison Holzer) and Neil (Tommy Nelson), who find him oddly hilarious. Even as Jeffrey finds himself more accepted by this trio of friends, his parents file for divorce, forcing him to take up drinking and show even more erratic behavior. Jeffrey Dahmer’s violent tendencies, sexuality and biology aspirations slowly awaken once he finally meets the doctor (Vincent Kartheiser) who jogs past his house three times out of the week. 

Sensitive and unsettling in equal measure, “My Friend Dahmer” soundly centers on one pivotal stage in its subject’s life and never strays with a framing device or flashbacks. In a way, it still feels made up of moments that don’t always build upon each other, which might have increased the sense of dread, but the most compelling constant in the film is the actor portraying Jeffrey Dahmer. As the growing trend goes with Disney Channel alumni taking risks on the big screen, 21-year-old Ross Lynch takes the darkest route in portraying Jeffrey Dahmer. In what should be his breakout role, he alarmingly disappears and finds a sliver of sympathy before the monstrous side completely takes over. It’s especially uncomfortable to watch Jeffrey keep resorting himself to his prankish “spazz” stunts in the school halls and eventually, much to the encouragement of his “friends” and some jocks, a shopping mall. Dead-eyed behind clunky aviator glasses and physically awkward with a slumped-over gait, Ross’ performance is less mannered than it is subtle, bottled-up and chillingly detached. In supporting roles that bring context to who Jeffrey Dahmer is and who he will become, Dallas Roberts and Anne Heche are effective as Jeffrey’s bickering parents, and as aspiring-cartoonist Derf, Alex Wolff has an inviting presence but also gets to convey culpability and standoffishness through the course of his friendship with Jeff.

Writer-director Marc Meyers lays out an ethical conundrum and goes just far enough to the edge to allow one to empathize with a budding serial killer. Viewers who hope for cut-and-dry answers will not get such a thing since it is impossible to pinpoint what drives someone to commit such unspeakably awful crimes, but the groundwork is set up to hint at Jeffrey Dahmer’s homicidal and cannibalistic tendencies with his reclusiveness and morbid bone fascination. The signs are certainly there, as impure thoughts bubble inside of Dahmer, even if he hasn’t quite acted upon his impulses yet. As the film ends with Jeffrey picking up hitchhiker Steven Hicks, the viewer knows where things will lead and that all hope is lost. If “My Friend Dahmer” is absorbing enough in the story it tells and never pats itself on the back with an ultimate verdict on what made Jeffrey Dahmer a monster, it does make one intrigued to research more. 


Monday, November 6, 2017

Not Safe for Work: "Mayhem" gonzo, ultra-violent and mad as hell

Mayhem (2017)
87 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

If the office drones from “Office Space” acted on murderous impulse, “The Belko Experiment”-style, due to a viral outbreak, director Joe Lynch (2015’s “Evelyn”) and screenwriter Matias Caruso’s “Mayhem” would be the lunatic bloodbath. A satirically blunt indictment of corporate greed and a corrupt system, the film finds its own individuality as a mad-as-hell, metal-infused genre concoction that often plays like a frenetic, destructive video game on speed, and that is a giant compliment. Between the Greg McLean-helmed, Sean Gunn-penned “The Belko Experiment” from earlier this year and now “Mayhem,” there must be something cathartic for genre filmmakers who paid their dues working in a cubicle about sticking it to the 1%. "Mayhem" is one insane workplace comedy with misanthropic bite and bloody exploitation aplenty.

Successful but feeling like he’s sold his soul to law firm Towers & Smythe Consulting with little to show for it except for a corner office, executive associate legal analyst Derek Cho (Steven Yeun) is about to have the day from Hell. First, he discovers his precious coffee mug has been stolen by his fierce, condescending superior, Kara Powell (Caroline Chikezie), whom he dubs “The Siren." Then, after Kara throws Derek under the bus and gets into the ear of pompous, coke-snorting CEO John Towers (Steven Brand), aka “The Boss,” with no help from HR head honcho, “The Reaper” (Dallas Roberts), he is terminated. Just as Derek is escorted out of the building, a SWAT team and people in Hazmat suits arrive to quarantine the firm. While no one inside has noticed they all display symptoms with a red eye, the ID-7 Virus—an airborne strain that attacks the infected’s id and forces an imbalance between emotion and reason—spreads like wild fire through the office building. Taken out by the CEO’s bodyguards in the basement, Derek soon comes to and teams up with Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving), who not long before Derek’s termination was turned away when she tried fighting a foreclosure notice on her home. Armed with nail guns, hammers, electric saws, wrenches, and their own temporary insanity, Derek and Melanie aren’t about to stay calm, even though all traces of the virus are said to be eliminated in approximately eight hours with an antidote pumped into the ventilation system.

Following a fair amount of exposition-heavy setup, “Mayhem” never takes its foot off the gas with a humorously mean spirit, lots of ultra-violence, and a frenzied energy that proves infectious. Throwing a virus into a law firm is an extremely clever idea, especially when the sufferers can't be prosecuted for murder once the "red eye virus" is out of their systems. Told through flashback with deadpan narration by Derek and cutaways to paintings he’s created, the film opens with the in medias res damage of a previous viral outbreak in an Iowa office building. Though the rules are efficiently laid out, the ID-7 Virus mostly serves as a McGuffin to accelerate all of the anarchy and carnage that ensue. Once TSC gets hit, all inhibitions are thrown to the wind, as Derek’s afflicted colleagues begin acting violently and not holding back their sexual impulses. It’s advised by a quarantine specialist that stressful work-related situations should be avoided, but that’s a lot easier said than done. Also, stimulants, including caffeine, accelerate the effect of the virus, but “The Siren” keeps screaming for more coffee from her assistant. 

Having a blast with the gleefully gonzo tone of the film, Steven Yeun (TV’s “The Walking Dead”) and Samara Weaving (2017’s “The Babysitter”) make spectacular impressions on their own and form a badass team. Yeun is charismatic, assertive and quick-witted as Derek, and with a demented smile and a glint in her eye as Melanie, Weaving makes for an enthusiastic foil with a cool presence and sharp comic timing. As Derek and Melanie are hellbent on crawling their way upstairs where the top-of-the-food-chain scumbags hide out in a boardroom, the viewer sticks with these two all the way. Providing just enough quiet time from the relentless violence for Derek and secret hesher Melanie to argue on the quality of Dave Matthews Band and kindle attraction, director Joe Lynch keeps a fun vibe going when this could have just been an onslaught of brutal, meaningless executions. Not to put too fine a point on it, a little of “Mayhem” still goes a long way, but it is a delirious blitz, the perfect kind of primal midnight movie that would play like absolute gangbusters with a loud, boozy crowd at Alamo Drafthouse.

Grade: B - 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Norse Farce: Waititi turns "Thor: Ragnarok" into a goofy, rainbow-colored lark

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
130 min., rated PG-13.

A significant upgrade even from 2011’s solid but generally unexceptional Shakespearian fish-out-of-water fantasy “Thor” and particularly 2013’s dreary sequel “Thor: The Dark World,” “Thor: Ragnarok” is easily the strongest of the Norse God of Thunder’s own installments by going off brand and being more of a buoyant, slap-happy cosmic comedy without an ounce of self-seriousness. Hiring New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (who put his own fresh spins on formulas with 2015’s “What We Do in the Shadows” and 2016’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”) proves to make a world of difference, opting for a jokier, cheekier tone and coming close to making his “Flash Gordon” that’s more aware of its campy trappings. Filled with more guffaws than danger—even though “Ragnarok” means the End of Days for Asgard—“Thor: Ragnarok” borders on being a lightweight lark, but it plays out as a brisk, splashy and unpretentious roller-disco bonanza that knows how to entertain.

After being imprisoned by fire demon Surtur and then escaping, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard to find mischievous half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in command of the kingdom. Loki explains to Thor that their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), is dying, and when he does, his passing unleashes Odin’s exiled first-born daughter Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, from centuries of imprisonment. When she deprives Thor of his mighty hammer, she vows to overtake the throne and bring down Asgard with the oncoming Ragnarok. Meanwhile, as Thor and Loki flee from Hela, Thor crashlands in a junkyard on planet Sakaar, where he’s picked up by Valkyrie/Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson), who takes him to the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). There, Thor discovers co-worker Hulk, who hasn’t been in human form as Bruce Banner for two years, and must convince him to help save his homeland.

Marvel TV writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle & Christopher L. Yost abide by the formula of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—Thor and company must demonstrate teamwork to save his people and defeat a Big Bad in a finale that culminates in a big battle—but what they bring to “Thor Ragnarok” is a refreshing amount of jocularity. They also answer every viewer’s question, “Where were Thor and Hulk?” during the events of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” making this particular entry a “sidequel” of sorts. Director Taika Waititi’s trademarked touch of the quirky and offbeat is all over this tentpole project and enhances it a great deal, letting his own personality smother the obligation of the Marvel machine. The color palette matches every candy in a bag of Skittles, especially on planet Sakaar, and the retro synthesizer score by Mark Mothersbaugh is pleasing and propulsive.

The charming Chris Hemsworth has already shown his timing for comedy before as Thor and in other films (primarily 2015’s “Vacation” and 2016’s “Ghostbusters”), but this time, he’s unleashed with an adorable klutziness offsetting his muscle-bound masculinity. Hemsworth shares tremendous chemistry with Hulk/Bruce (both CG avatar and Mark Ruffalo) and Tom Hiddleston’s impish Loki, as well as Tessa Thompson (2015’s “Creed”), who’s indomitable with moxie as the confident, hard-drinking Valkyrie/Scrapper 142, an Asgardian-warrior-turned-mercenary. Jeff Goldblum is at his Goldblum-iest—a good thing, indeed—as the flamboyant but maniacal Grandmaster, ruler of Sakaar, and Taika Waititi, himself, steals scenes as the voice of rock monster Korg. As far as other characters from the MCU cropping up, Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has an amusing encounter with Thor and, briefly, Loki, while Natalie Portman’s Jane sits this one out but does get one quick mention involving Thor’s break-up. 

Hela, the villain of the piece, is a vicious, unforgivable badass who takes no prisoners (okay, she crowns Karl Urban’s Skurge as her executioner), but Cate Blanchett is too nuanced and magnetic of an actress that one wishes she were given extra shadings to play with this stock role. Hela may be Odin’s first-born daughter, and yet she is evil incarnate without much more to do than order someone to be killed or to do it herself. In any event, Blanchett goes all in, camping it up and having a grand time performing with an antler headpiece and a spandex suit that many will try donning next Halloween.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is so much fun and not afraid to be goofy and weird that it’s hard to complain too much. On the action front, set-pieces are only memorable when Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” is being used, and that happens twice, and a gladiator match-up between Thor and Hulk is an amusing one. As the 17th piece in the MCU, it doesn’t challenge the rest of the installments in terms of emotional gravitas or stakes, but as a rainbow-colored blast, it does stand apart by reveling in the humor as much as the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films. Thor, we’ll see you in 2018's “Avengers: Infinity War.”