By Request 006: Frozen

Aaron reacts to Disney’s mega-hit, Frozen, and comes away from this viewing with mixed opinions and some questions, too.

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Minisode 31: Murder on the Orient Express

In this minisode we discuss Agatha Christie’s often adapted book to film, Murder on the Orient Express, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, along with Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Leslie Odom Jr., Willem Dafoe, and a handful of other people potentially accused of murder. This story is special for a reason and we enjoy talking about the ethics and morality at play, while also gushing over a beautiful visual aesthetic in the film.

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MOVIE REVIEW: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

GOING IN

In all my years of devouring classic literature, I never read a single Agatha Christie novel. A travesty, I know. Arguably her most famous work, Murder on the Orient Express features the famous reoccurring detective Hercule Poirot. The story tells of thirteen stranded strangers on a luxurious train ride, one of them a murderer who Poirot must discover and stop before they kill again. As intriguing as the story is, I’ve intentionally avoided reading the novel or seeing the 1974 film that came before, and therefore will be able to go into this mystery spoiler-free. Branagh’s work is never short on panache and the all-star cast assembled points to an exciting cinematic game of whodunit, reminiscent of the board game Clue.


COMING OUT

For me, the success of movie mysteries is largely measured by the answer to two questions: “was it entertaining” and “did it keep me guessing until the end? ” Unexpectedly, the film is very much not a thriller. The style is theatrical in nature, which should be no surprise with Branagh directing, combined with some modern stylish cinematography. It felt very much like Branagh’s tone in Cinderella and made for a weird experience, which to be honest, did not always work for me. At many times I expected the energy of the film to increase as suspects were considered and the investigation grew nearer to resolution, but aside from one or two scenes this felt more like a stage play minus the heightened drama. And that leads into question number two, because despite not knowing the story and end result, I was certainly not guessing until the end. I’ll admit that I did not know every detail until Poirot’s classic reveal speech, but the clues were easy enough to read that it felt more like I was watching to discover how the detective would deal with the outcome versus whether he would learn the truth or not. The “whodunit” simply wasn’t filmed in such a way that lived up to my expectations for an exciting mystery and at times was downright boring.

So far, by my standards, Murder on the Orient Express does not succeed. What saved the experience for me, however, was the story itself. Though I don’t feel like this is a great adaptation, I was definitely intrigued by the moral implications that arose once the killer’s identity was revealed. The questions about justice, and what is right versus wrong, were compelling and it is easy to see why this is one of Agatha Christie’s most beloved stories. Talking through the implications of the ending on the drive home with my 14-year old made for great conversation.

With regards to the stellar cast, I feel a bit cheated. We simply don’t get enough time with each of the many characters to establish much of a connection. The acting is fine, although I’m quite tired of Johnny Depp as a gangster at this point, but no one really stands out because all of the characters are equal and overshadowed by the hero detective. Branagh really just can’t help himself here and his camera keeps Poirot in focus in almost nearly every scene. Those he isn’t in are filmed from his perspective.  There are so many closeups and monologues that the film starts to feel much more about him and less about the mystery. Branagh is no doubt a stellar actor and his presence serves the character well,  but his direction creates an unevenness to the style in Murder on the Orient Express that makes it feel awkward.

Verdict

I’m glad that I now know the story of Murder on the Orient Express. Christie’s tale is fantastic and is a unique scenario in murder mysteries. It brings up questions about justice, judgment, and forgiveness. Branagh’s adaptation is good, and I don’t regret seeing it, but instead of wanting to re-watch it, I am more compelled to seek out the source material and previous adaptations. Murder on the Orient Express is just an okay film. You can see better, but you could also see a whole lot worse.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Marshall

Marshall (2017)

Chadwick Boseman as Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. Honestly, this film didn’t need more than that to get me interested and it should have your attention, too. Boseman’s star is rising and he is no stranger to playing heroes, having already embodied sports great Jackie Robinson and Marvel superhero Black Panther.

Marshall follows an ambitious young Thurgood Marshall in the early stages of his career as a hotshot attorney representing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Not knowing the history behind his rise to becoming a judge in the highest court in the land, I was hoping to get a history lesson along with some cinematic enjoyment, and to some extend I did. This story focuses on a single case in 1941, the rape of a wealthy white woman (Kate Hudson) by her black chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown from This is Us). Marshall is brought in to assist the local counsel, Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), but is denied the ability to speak in court by the judge and therefore must rely on Sam more than he intended. At the heart of Marshall is a strong reminder that fighting for civil rights has never been easy and that as a country we haven’t come as far as some might believe. It’s also a reminder that this is a fight the oppressed side cannot win on its own, but one in which it needs allies. It’s also not just Marshall and Spell that experience discrimination, but as he becomes further involved, Sam (a Jewish immigrant) too becomes the target of hate. Throughout the film Marshall is strong, intelligent, and respectful, even in his defiance. His unwavering fight for justice becomes something easy to root for, and his ability to lead and teach Sam bring about a change of character that is a real strength of the film. Perhaps it is somewhat a matter of my own perspective, but by the time the credits rolled, I was as invested in Friedman as I was Marshall and was inspired to take his words to heart myself

With regards to the Spell case, I am a bit concerned at the unfortunate timing of Marshall‘s release. Currently Hollywood is in a tailspin as sexual assault and abuse cases come bubbling to the surface. At a time when we should all be standing with women and acknowledging our trust in accusations they make, the case depicted here presumes the possibility of a woman who has lied about being raped. That being said, defending African-American men accused of rape was an enormous part of Thurgood Marshall’s career and was a huge problem for much of the 1900’s. Of the 455 men executed for rape between 1930 and 1972, 405 were African American, so it’s no surprise that Marshall would have had his hands full fighting for fair trials in this area.

The performances in Marshall are excellent across the board. Josh Gad stands out the most, bringing more than just his usual comedic tones to a role that requires nuance and has emotional weight. I came away incredibly impressed. Dan Stevens plays the prosecuting attorney perfectly, his smarmy and smug demeanor both captivating and enraging. And Chadwick Boseman is Chadwick Boseman. Folks, this man is going to be a superstar.

What I don’t understand is the film’s tone, or should I say tones. Director Reginald Hudlin seems to be all over the place. At time this does feel like a superhero origin story. There are brief moments of film noir and comedy, and then the sections where it appears to be a hard-boiled courtroom drama. The unevenness was distracting for me and it all can be summed up by an oddly included scene where Marshall is having lunch with Langston Hughes and they are joined by Zora Neal Hurston. For a moment I thought that I was watching Midnight in Paris. It’s a scene meant to show Marshall’s connection to other visionaries of his time, but in truth it just felt out of place and awkward. Perhaps expecting a true dramatic turn from a director best known for House Party, Boomerang, and The Ladies Man was unfair. Regardless, it was a major disappointment and I would have preferred a more documentary-like telling of Marshall’s accomplishments. Instead Marshall feels like something you could just as easily have watched on cable television and not a story that needed a theatrical telling.

“It all means nothing, unless you stand up for something.”
Verdict

Marshall feels incredibly relevant right now and in some ways it better evokes a conversation around race relations and civil rights than Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit did earlier this year. Strong performances from the lead cast and highlighting the importance of Sam Friedman were strengths of the film, while its tonal inconsistency and almost mythic framing of Thurgood Marshall were distracting at times. Marshall ended up not being the film that I wanted it to be, but it did serve as a solid introduction into the life of Thurgood Marshall and inspired me to learn more. For that alone, it is worth recommending and has to be considered a success.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

MOVIE REVIEW: Beauty & the Beast (2017)

Piggybacking off the success of recent live action adaptations to its animated library, Disney unveiled its modern retelling of the tale as old as time to audiences this weekend. Based on the box office reports, a lot of audiences at that. And while the Twitter-verse and various blog sites continue to hem and haw over the necessity of another visual iteration of this story, I will simply tell you that you should ignore it at your own risk, because the experience is breathtakingly magical.

In the name of full disclosure, I’m a bit bias toward Beauty & the Beast. I was under the employ of the Mouse when the animated film came out, and the future Mrs. and I had our first date at a showing on Disney World property. I hold that film in very high regard, both as a masterpiece of animated filmmaking and for the sake of nostalgia. To that end, please accept this film on its own merit. Don’t muddy the waters trying to compare it to previous versions, animated or otherwise. I won’t belabor this post with words outlining a plot we are all familiar with. Suffice it that the core of the story remains, with a little bit of fluff in spots which only serve to enhance the story, not alter it. No childhoods are being ruined here.

Disney has turned the production value up to eleven. Previous animated to live-action adaptations have fared well- I look at Maleficent, Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon as good examples- but none of those fine films can touch the majesty on display with Beauty & the Beast. It would be criminal if the Academy were to ignore these set designs and costumes next February. If I must find a reason to criticize, I did find some of the visual effects and visual editing to be a touch blocky in spots, but never distractingly so. For the most part, the scenes that really mattered came off seamless.

As for that “other” big thing being bandied about on the Interwebs, I will not dignify it with debate here. I’ll just say, if THAT truly does hold you back from seeing this film, then I feel sorry for you that your life is so devoid of joy. It is much ado about nothing, and I implore you to take it as such. There is a line in the film, and I paraphrase it here…”People who are angry say a lot of things…it’s up to us whether or not to listen.”

The cast works on every level, but Emma Watson is a pure revelation, whether aided and abetted by Autotune or not. She is a voice the next generation of young girls needs to rally around. Knowing what she stands for and how she manages herself in a world that is built to obstruct her as a strong woman, makes her presence on screen all the more engaging and important. And she is enchanting at every turn.

Don’t let the cynics dissuade you. Beauty & the Beast is a magical, dazzling spectacle of pure enjoyment, even though you know how it all shakes out in the end. Each flicker of a candelabra or twirl of a ball gown is handled with the utmost of care. When I look back at my own time at Disney, I fondly recollect those moments when the real magic was being made. For every ignorant adult that couldn’t stop complaining about the long lines, or the prices, or whatever, there were dozens of children, young and old, laying eyes upon Cinderella’s castle for the first time, eyes wide and full of wonder, unsullied by the cynicisms that consume too many of us. And when a young girl in my theater, perhaps all of six years old, squealed “BELLE” when the character first pops on screen, I realize that Disney is still making magical moments. This is still the tale as old as time. And it is timeless.

phpxnctheamSTEVE CLIFTON has been writing moderately well on the Internet at this blog, Popcorn Confessional, for the better part of the last decade.  His love for movies can be traced back to the North Park Cinema in Buffalo, NY circa 1972, when his aunt took him to see Dumbo.  Now living in Maine, Steve routinely consumes as much film, television, and books as time will allow.  He also finds time to complain about winter and Buffalo sports teams.  He is a big fan of bad horror films and guacamole, and mildly amused by pandas.