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Josh Reviews Murder on the Orient Express

November 28th, 2017
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Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Kenneth Branagh, is the latest film adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel.  Mr. Branagh also stars as detective Hercule Poirot, who finds himself enmeshed in a complicated murder mystery while traveling from Istanbul to London on board the titular Orient Express.  When the criminal Samuel Ratchett is killed, there appear to be a plethora of suspects on board the high-class train, and the finicky detective Poirot must sort through the clues to find the killer.

I have been a fan of Kenneth Branagh, as both an actor and a director, ever since Dead Again.  Mr. Branagh might not be the most showy or edgy of directors, but I have usually found his films to be solidly entertaining, and Murder on the Orient Express is no exception.  The film is a joyful little puzzle from beginning to end.  This is not terribly innovative or boundary-pushing cinema, but it’s comfortably enjoyable like a favorite cushy chair.  Many of the beats of the film feel familiar — not only is this the fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s novel, but much about the story has been imitated by other films — but Mr. Branagh manages to keep things feeling fresh.  I feel like maybe I am damning Mr. Branagh with faint praise, and I don’t mean to.  With his steady hand at the helm, he has assembled an endearingly fun spin on Ms. Christie’s most-famous story.

Perhaps Mr. Branagh’s greatest achievement in the film is the way he is able to wrangle the film’s large, and very famous, cast.  The cast is extraordinary: Olivia Colman, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, and several other talented supporting players.  Almost any of these movie stars could have been the lead of their own film.  I have seen many other movies sink under the weight of so many stars.  Yet Mr. Branagh was able to balance all of these actors and their characters beautifully.  This could have easily felt like a film without any real characters, just Hollywood stars hobnobbing.  However, Mr. Branagh was able to achieve the benefit of casting all of these talented performers; since most of the film’s ensemble of characters have only a few scenes that spotlight them, these actors’ movie-star charisma is able to, in most cases, flesh out a full character despite their limited screen-time.

It’s great to see Michelle Pfeiffer given such a meaty role to play, and Ms. Pfeiffer is terrific.  She doesn’t appear in many films these days; it’s nice to see that she’s still got it.  Judi Dench can play haughty arrogance like nobody’s business, and I … [continued]

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Josh Reviews Dunkirk

In May of 1940, German forces had trapped the British Expeditionary Force, along with French and Belgian soldiers, along the northern French coast.  The Allied troops pulled back to Dunkirk, but efforts at evacuation were at first thwarted by the German Luftwaffe.  In what came to be known as the miracle of Dunkirk, the British navy, assisted by hundreds of small civilian merchant vessels, evacuated over 300,000 Allied soldiers from Dunkirk back to England.  Christopher Nolan’s film, Dunkirk, follows three parallel stories: the soldiers trapped on the Dunkirk beach (the “mole”), a civilian sailor and two young boys who have set off to Dunkirk to assist the evacuation effort, and an RAF (Royal Air Force) Spitfire pilot in combat with the Luftwaffe.

Dunkirk is a powerful film, riveting in its depiction of this evacuation effort.  Dunkirk is the story of a retreat, but it is as visceral and engaging a war film as ever I have seen, filled with depictions of the best and worst of humanity, of heroism and of cowardice in the fate of terror.

There is very little dialogue in Dunkirk.  Mr. Nolan has crafted what I might call a tone poem of a film.  The power of the story is conveyed by the performances, by the extraordinary visuals, by the crafty editing, and by the score.

It’s a cold film, one that often keeps its audience at a distance.  This is the polar opposite of, say, Steven Spielberg’s approach in Saving Private Ryan.  Mr. Spielberg and John Williams are experts at tugging on the heartstrings.  Mr. Nolan (and his collaborator on the music Hans Zimmer — more on Mr. Zimmer’s work in a moment) take the exact opposite approach.  They avoid any hint of sentimentality and schmaltz.  There are many ways in which this could have failed.  There are times when the nearly-silent Dunkirk reminds me of The Thin Red Line, a film which I love in places but which, ultimately, I feel does not succeed.  But where that film stumbled, Mr. Nolan is able to pull together all of the elements of his film in a way that works beautifully, using an unusual approach to achieve a resonant thematic and emotional power.

Mr. Nolan and his frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer have, over the course of their films together, often gotten very experimental in their scores, frequently utilizing tones and sounds rather than traditional thematic elements.  Dunkirk feels to me like the culmination of these efforts.  This score uses an auditory illusion called a “Shepard tone” to develop an ever-increasing intensity.  A “Shepard tone” gives the impression of an infinitely ascending tone, thus seeming to build and build and build without ever giving the audience … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

I am a huge fan, over-all, of the Jack Ryan film series and I believe this is a character, and a series, that still has quite a lot of gas in its tank.  What a disappointment, then, to watch the latest installment, the rebooted Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, and discover a total waste of this franchise’s great potential.

I am a huge, huge fan of The Hunt for Red October.  It’s one of my very favorite films of all-time, a smart, fun thiller with a large scale and grand stakes, and a story that is filled to the brim with wonderfully drawn characters.  I love to imagine what a series of films spun out of Red October would have looked like had Alec Baldwin remained in the role.  Instead, he left the series after that initial installment, and was replaced by Harrison Ford for Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.  I really like both of those films, though neither achieves the greatness of Red October, and there’s no question that the flavor of the series changed with Harrison Ford as the lead rather than Alec Baldwin.

They painted themselves into something of a narrative corner with the end of Clear and Present Danger, though I certainly think that a smart screenwriter could have found ways to continue telling new Jack Ryan adventures.  Unfortunately, the series seemed to flounder after that third installment, with the producers eventually deciding to reboot with from the ground up, re-casting Ryan with the young Ben Affleck and re-starting the story from zero.  I sort of liked the film that resulted, 2002’s The Sum of All Fears, and while I think it was the weakest of the four Ryan films at that point, it could have been the start of an entertaining new series of films.  Unfortunately those follow-up films never materialized, and the series has been dormant for over a decade.

With Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the studio decided to once again reboot and re-start from the beginning.  Obviously at this point, more than a decade after The Sum of All Fears, recasting the role made perfect sense, and I was excited when I heard that Chris Pine (pretty great as the young Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek films) had landed the role of Ryan.  But I am mystified by Hollywood’s insistance, every time they re-cast a film series these days, on starting over with a new origin story.  Every time they re-cast James Bond, they didn’t re-tell his origin, did they?  No, they just carried on and told a fun new Bond adventure!  (Though, of course, the most recent time they re-cast the role of Bond, they DID start over … [continued]

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Although Thor doesn’t come close to equalling some of the amazing super-hero films we’ve been blessed with over the past several years (the first Iron Man, which kicked off this current run of inter-connected Marvel films, The Dark Knight, the first two X-Men films, and the first two Spider-Man films), it is a WAY better film version of the character of Thor and his mythos than I EVER would have imagined possible.

Despite by being a huge comic book fan and a Marvel Zombie since I was a kid, I never read the Thor comic regularly.  I always thought Thor was great as part of the ensemble of The Avengers, but his solo title never captured my interest.  And when Marvel announced, after the huge success of Iron Man, that they were working on a film version of Thor (as part of a series of films that would build up to The Avengers), I was dubious.  The recent Marvel films had worked so well in large part because they were fairly grounded.  Sure, Iron Man wound up with two guys in huge metal suits punching each other, but the filmmakers and the actors took pains to ground the story in the real world (and to give the characters human, real-world motivations and emotions).  I think that was a big part of the film’s success.  Same goes with the Spidey films and the X-Men films (which, for example, cast off most of the more colorful aspects of the comics — like the yellow spandex costumes).

But Thor? The Thor comic books are all about a big guy who is ACTUALLY A NORSE GOD and speaks in archaic language (a lot of “thees” and “thous”) and who has crazy adventures with other gods or god-like characters.  How could that possibly be achieved in a film that wouldn’t feel painfully small-scale (without the budget or the resources to properly achieve the epic scale of Thor’s cosmic adventures as seen in the comics) and/or feel totally ridiculously silly.

And yet, somehow, director Kenneth Branagh managed to pull off a film that, for the most part, works really well and is enjoyable both as a film in its own right and as a key stepping-stone towards The Avengers.  This is an impressive achievement and a pretty fun time at the movies!

As with Iron Man, the film’s biggest success lies in it’s casting.  There are other things that one can pick at about Thor (and I will of course do so momentarily), but I think the casting is pretty much spot-on perfect.  Chris Hemsworth (so great as James T. Kirk’s doomed dad in the opening scenes of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek[continued]

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Hamlet Double Feature Part II: The BBC’s Hamlet Starring Patrick Stewart & David Tennant!

January 7th, 2011
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After finally watching, for the first time, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet (1996) (click here for my review), I thought it would be fun to crack open the other production of Hamlet I had sitting on my DVD shelf — the BBC’s 2009 version starring Patrick Stewart and David Tennant!

While I certainly enjoyed Mr. Branagh’s version, I was really much more engaged by the BBC’s effort (despite my assumption that it was made for a much smaller budget)!

Mr. Branagh’s version had a more modern look to it than one might be used to thinking of Hamlet — his film seemed to be set around the era of WWI, with trains, newspapers, etc.  The BBC’s Hamlet is even more modern than that — this Elsinore castle contains electronic surveillance cameras, a character wields a handgun, and many of the actors wear modern-looking collar-shirts and ties.  Some aspects of this modernity were a bit jarring — the device of our occasionally seeing scenes play out through the castle’s surveillance cameras continually felt distracting to me, and the choice of Hamlet’s outfit during the “to be or not to be” speech and the key scenes that followed (jeans and a muscle t-shirt) was weird — but for the most part, the film found a potent sweet spot between modernity and timelessness.

Then there were the scenes in which the film was decidedly NOT timeless, but in a purposeful way that really worked.  I laughed out loud, for instance, at the moment when Ophelia pulls a bunch of condoms out of her brother Laertes’ bag early in the film.  (It was a decidedly unexpected way to show her gently mocking her brother for the rather condescending speech of advice he had just given her.)  And speaking of Ophelia and unexpected, I was not expecting Ophelia to strip down to her bra while freaking out in front of the king and queen after her father’s death!  (Though I’m not complaining, mind you.)  Those are two extreme examples — I don’t want to suggest that the filmmakers were falling all over themselves in order to make Shakespeare “hip.”  This is a series, dramatic presentation of the play.  But it’s also one in which the creative team was unafraid to add in a surprising twist or reinterpretation of a famous moment here and there, in a way that keeps viewers powerfully engrossed.  (At least this viewer.)

I loved the look of the Elsinore castle sets, particularly the throne room in which much of the film takes place (a sign, to me, of a far less expansive budget than that of Mr. Branagh’s film, which was able to open up the story into many different sets … [continued]

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From the DVD Shelf: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, and Valkyrie

I know some people who can’t stand to see a movie a second time — they think “been there, done that, I’d rather see something new.”  I certainly don’t have anything against seeing something new, but I’m also someone who loves seeing movies for a second time — and, if it’s a good movie, seeing it many more times after that!  (I’m the same way with books, comic books, etc. — I love re-reading stories that I enjoyed multiple times.)

I find that my feelings upon watching a film for a second time often vary wildly from the experience of seeing it originally.  I can absorb the film without all the baggage of hype, my anticipation, etc.  I can also more accurately judge the movie for what it is, rather than what I had hoped it would be or was expecting it would be.

During September I had a chance to take a second look at three films that I really enjoyed during last year’s Oscar rush of films (in late December 2008).  Did my feelings about them change, for better or for worse, upon a second viewing?  Read on!

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — read my original review here.  Benjamin Button was one of my very favorite movies from last year (it ranked as no. 6 on my list of my favorite films from 2008) and, if anything, I was even more in awe of it the second time around.  The film is magnificent.  It is one of those special collaborations where every single element works just perfectly, from the gorgeous sets and costumes, to the jaw-dropping visual effects (that create fully-realized environments from France to Russia to a tug-boat in the middle of the Pacific, not to mention the completely convincing creation and de-aging of Benjamin Button himself that is as wonderful a combination of makeup, prosthetics, and incredible CGI as I have ever seen), to the wonderful performances by Brad Pitt (who proves in every film he’s in why he is so deserving of his movie-star fame), Cate Blanchett, and a wonderful array of other talented actors.  Director David Fincher (Fight Club, Zodiac) knows how to incorporate cutting-edge visual effects into a film without ever letting those effects overpower the film, and he knows how to tell a deeply emotional tale without ever veering into schmaltz.  As I said: magnificent.  (I also had the fun of watching this film on Blu-Ray, and let me say that my jaw was on the floor at the clarity of the images, the colors, everything.  As the enclosed booklet notes, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was created in the digital realm without ever … [continued]

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Valkyrie

Bryan Singer’s film Valkyrie has been getting a bit hammered in the press lately.  (Actually, I feel like I’ve been reading bad things about this movie for over a year, mostly in connection to the multiple shifts in its release date, which usually indicates a studio’s having lost faith in the film.)  I think a lot of people felt that the do-no-wrong wunderkind who made The Usual Suspects and the first two enormously successful X-Men films had stumbled a bit with Superman Returns, and they smelled blood in the water.  That pile-on attitude also extended to the film’s star, Tom Cruise, who as I’m sure you all know has had a rough time of it over the past year or two in the press.

Well, I’d advise you to leave those pre-conceived negative notions at the door, because Bryan Singer, Tom Cruise, and a phenomenal ensemble of British actors have made a fine film for you to enjoy.

Valkyrie re-tells the true story of the group of German officers who, in 1944, attempted to kill Hitler and wrest control of Germany from the SS.  I don’t think I have to tell you that the plan failed.

Much of the criticism of the film has centered on the casting of Tom Cruise as the central figure in the story, Claus von Stauffenberg.  Since one would be hard pressed to name an actor who seems more strongly associated with modern-day America (maybe Will Smith??), he seemed a bizarre choice to play the German main character.  Furthermore, he is surrounded by a cadre of other familiar, mostly British faces as his German co-conspirators.  If you closed your eyes while watching this film it would be difficult to guess that you’re watching a movie about Germans.

But everyone should just relax about this.  The film makes clear early on that everything is meant to be taking place in German (by fading from the German dialogue of the opening moments into English).  Far from a hindrance, I actually think casting the main group of Germans with American and British actors is a smart idea — it makes it easier for the audience to connect with and sympathize with these characters, which is important for our engagement with the story being told.  Would this film be a stronger movie if it was all told in German with English subtitles?  I don’t think it would.

Frankly, the biggest thing that Valkyrie has going against it is it’s release date.  By coming out at this time of year, surrounded by so many other SERIOUS-with-capital-letters Oscar-hopeful films, it becomes easy to dismiss.  Because, while this film does have something to say, and an important story to tell, this … [continued]