MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence and Thematic Elements

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Written by: Michael Green

(based on the novel MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Agatha Christie)

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton & Marwan Kenzari

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is arguably Agatha Christie’s most popular mystery novel (with AND THEN THERE WERE NONE being the only possible exception). Christie’s book has been adapted onto the big screen, the radio, and the small screen (three different times). ORIENT EXPRESS’s most recent adaptation has come loaded with big talent and recognizable faces. Though this film isn’t perfect and I wouldn’t rank it as the best Agatha Christie adaptation that I’ve sat through (that honor actually belongs to the miniseries adaptation of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE), MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS should provide classy entertainment for mature audiences.

In the 1930s, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is famous for solving seemingly unsolvable cases. Poirot seems determined to put a stop to all crime, but he also needs occasional vacation time. In an effort to get away from his stressful line of work, this mustachioed crime-solver has booked passage on the Orient Express in the dead of winter. Poirot’s holiday is cut short by the sudden murder of shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp). To make matters even worse, an avalanche has derailed the train. With a train full of suspects and an increasingly tense atmosphere, Poirot must uncover the killer’s identity before another life is lost.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS benefits from high production values and a cast/crew who clearly cared about putting their all into this project. Kenneth Branagh shot this film on 65mm cameras and the resulting visuals are gorgeous to behold. Most of MURDER’s plot doesn’t necessarily rely on effects (other than shots of the train and its snowy location), instead playing out as a tense thriller between its contained cast of characters. There are a couple of confrontations and suspenseful chases, but this film mostly builds its tension from conversations and flashbacks within those conversations (that reveal further clues about a possible motive and the killer’s identity).

Having not read the source material, I had the pleasure of not knowing a thing about MURDER’s conclusion. Though thrilling, unexpected and oddly moving, I have to imagine that ORIENT EXPRESS will likely lose some of its impact on repeated viewings. Still, the film benefits from the sheer entertainment of Kenneth Branagh in the leading role as Hercule Poirot. This over-the-top Belgian detective is quirky to the extreme and noticeably obsessive-compulsive, as opposed to being a borderline sociopathic detective (ala Sherlock Holmes). Besides driving the plot forward and cleverly piecing together clues for the viewer, Branagh’s Poirot also provides enjoyable comic relief. The tonal mix of almost cartoonish humor and straight-faced seriousness never once dissuaded my love for this strange protagonist.

As far as the supporting cast goes, ORIENT EXPRESS contains quite the impressive gathering of A-listers and emerging talent among its passengers/suspects. Johnny Depp gets some mileage out of his scumbag victim because he actually gets to flex his acting muscles in this role. Penelope Cruz is a standout as a suspicious missionary, while Willem Dafoe plays an oddball professor. Judi Dench fits well into the role of a creepy princess. The usually comedic Josh Gad plays a far darker character than his usual light-hearted fare. Michelle Pfeiffer is a hysterical (though possibly deceptive) passenger, while Daisy Ridley is a charming (though possibly homicidal) woman hiding secrets. Meanwhile, Leslie Odom Jr. is good enough as the charismatic (but possibly murderous) doctor.

On the non-suspect side of things, Tom Bateman is also a lot of fun as Poirot’s best friend (and the Orient Express’s director) Bouc. ORIENT EXPRESS’s only noticeably bad performances come from Lucy Boynton as a reclusive countess and Sergei Polunin as her ill-tempered count husband. Boynton is bland in her role and doesn’t get enough screen time to leave much of a positive impression at all. Meanwhile, Polunin is laughably over-the-top in the scenes where he switches from a calm 0 to a furiously enraged 100 in a matter of seconds. His violent temper just feels unbelievably forced. One confrontation involving this character comes out of nowhere and is almost laughably bad due to Polunin’s unconvincing line delivery. Still, both of these performers don’t receive too much screen time.

The beauty of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is that its seemingly simple murder-mystery that gets drastically more complex as the list of possible suspects and motives continues to grow. Clues and red herrings run rampant. The viewer’s emotions are thrown into a borderline distressed state as you try to figure out who the killer is…much like protagonist Poirot. As I mentioned before, I don’t think this film will hold up nearly as well upon a second viewing. Once the cat has been let out of the bag, the film’s surprise and novelty is pretty much gone. However, Branagh’s Poirot, the visuals, and performances from a talented cast make a viewing worthwhile. If you’re into murder mysteries and enjoy classy slow-burn storytelling, then you’ll likely dig MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.

Grade: B

THE SQUARE (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language, some Strong Sexual Content, and brief Violence

Directed by: Ruben Ostlund

Written by: Ruben Ostlund

Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary & Christopher Laesso

Art can be hilarious, insightful, powerful, heartbreaking, and force people to contemplate deep thoughts long after they’ve finished watching, listening to, interacting with, or looking at the piece of art. Art can also be extremely pretentious. Much like beauty, what constitutes the pretentious side of art is all in the eye of the beholder. I’m sure that I’ve raved about certain arthouse flicks that have rubbed certain readers the wrong way, while I also roll my eyes towards what I view as pretentious nonsense. THE SQUARE is a satirical drama that openly mocks and draws dark laughs from its vicious skewing of the fartsier, ultra-pretentious side of the art world. It also tackles a few deep themes of its own and contains lots of absurdity. While this film certainly isn’t for everybody, I truly enjoyed THE SQUARE!

Christian (Claes Bang) is the upper-crust curator for a Stockholm art museum. With a new exhibit (a square of neon lights simply called “The Square”) on the way and little to garner public excitement for it, the museum attempts to draw controversy and inflammatory press to generate much-needed publicity. Meanwhile, Christian is preoccupied by a quest to retrieve his stolen cell phone. To boot, Christian’s apathetic attitude towards the bombastic press campaign might land him in hot water and he also finds himself romantically drawn towards ditzy journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss). Much like the museum’s reputation, Christian’s life begins to fall apart at the seams.

Even though THE SQUARE’s narrative frequently dips into absurdist comedy, it also has the feeling of a bizarre slice-of-life tale. Selling us on the role of snobby pretentious asshole Christian is Claes Bang. Bang’s protagonist starts off as a thoroughly unlikable, but remains amusing to watch. As the film goes on, Christian goes through a convincing story arc that progressively forces him to confront his uglier qualities and attempt to fix them. This adds a level of believable emotion to a movie that gets crazy and ridiculous. On the supporting side of things, Elisabeth Moss gets a few great scenes as strange journalist Anne, Christopher Laesso is hilarious as a cowardly assistant, Dominic West pops up (twice) as a frustrated artist, and Terry Notary makes a huge impression during the film’s most memorable sequence!

One scene that has been mentioned in many reviews and discussions about the film is the already infamous “dinner scene” in which a shirtless man parades around a room, acting like a violent chimpanzee. This moment starts off as strangely funny, but things quickly take an intense turn when people refuse to help dinner guests who clearly might be in real danger. This dark tone may seemingly come out of nowhere for some viewers, but transgressive humor fills the entire film. Other humorous moments include a man with Tourette syndrome interrupting a press conference, an awkward battle over the contents of a used condom, and painfully ironic interactions with homeless people. This movie is sure to shock and offend some people, but it simply isn’t afraid to push touchy buttons in order to entertain and make darkly humorous observations about society.

THE SQUARE contains lots of laughs, but a surprising amount of heart as well. Christian’s gradual transformation from heartless asshole to person who actually cares about his fellow-man is at this film’s core. However, the final minutes come to an abrupt conclusion that left me a bit unsatisfied. The point of this conclusion might be that life doesn’t quite work out the way you want to, but it felt like something crucial was left out that could tie everything up as a cohesive whole. To make the sudden finale even more baffling, THE SQUARE has a couple of spots where the pacing noticeably lags.

While it may not be perfect and the final third seems incomplete (like the story required something more to wrap it up), THE SQUARE is a cinematic oddity that provides genuine emotion (encased in a video message-turned-rant about society that brilliantly sums up the film’s main themes), lots of laughs, and a foreboding sense of psychological darkness (that damn dinner scene is satirically scary). THE SQUARE is a ballsy piece of art that will leave some viewers head over heels in love with it, others completely indifferent towards it, and some folks absolutely loathing it. I fall into the “I really liked it, but it could have been better” crowd. If you love arthouse cinema and also love mocking the pretentious art crowd, then you’ll likely get a lot of enjoyment out of THE SQUARE!

Grade: B+

THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 58 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and Language throughout

Directed by: Patrick Hughes

Written by: Tom O’Connor

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Elodie Young, Salma Hayek & Yuri Kolokolnikov

The trailers for THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD promised three things: Samuel L. Jackson, Ryan Reynolds, and explosions. I like Samuel L. Jackson. I like Ryan Reynolds. I also enjoy explosions. Lucky for me, THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD pretty much delivers on its promises of lots of bickering between Jackson and Reynolds, set alongside occasionally rousing action. THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is tepidly enjoyable. I wish the overall film was more entertaining and funny, but it’s okay enough for what it is.

Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) was a top-tier bodyguard until one of his targets was horribly assassinated. Ever since that tragic event, Michael has been regulated to bottom-of-the-barrel bodyguard status. Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) is a hitman who’s killed well over 200 people and enjoys his violent line of work. Darius is also the only person who can put brutal Belarusian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman) behind bars. Darius needs to be at a Netherlands courtroom by a certain time or the international case against Vladislav will be thrown out. A reluctantly bitter Michael is dragged into protecting Darius’ life. Together, the mismatched pair dodge bullets, get chased by cars, and scream profanity at each other. If the bad guys don’t kill them, they might just wind up killing each other…or become oddball friends. You already know how these buddy action comedies tend to work.

HITMAN’S BODYGUARD’s best quality is the chemistry between Reynolds and Jackson. Both of these actors are great at generating laughs and seeing them paired together is pretty damn enjoyable by itself. Ryan Reynolds mostly serves as the straight man and his frequent agitation at the increasingly dire situation is amusing. Samuel L. Jackson spews his expectedly excessive profanity (including a constant use of “motherfucker”). Jackson also seems to be having a complete blast at this deadly, ultra-sarcastic hitman. The film even manages to milk some good character development between Reynolds and Jackson as their reluctant friendship evolves.

On the negative side of things, THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is noticeably unbalanced in its tone. Gary Oldman plays a stone-cold dictator and his introductory moment includes the brutal execution of a man’s family. In an action-comedy, this entire scene feels too bleak. The film frequently cuts to this main villain being a genocidal dictator who is accused of “ethnic cleansing.” We see photos of mass graves and this all seems mighty depressing for what’s mostly trying to be a light-hearted action comedy. Oldman’s performance is straight-faced and serious too, which certainly seems to throw a wrench into the fun factor. The script’s darker spots drastically put a damper on some of the potential enjoyment to be had.

Besides a tone that seemingly doesn’t know what it wants to be, this film also runs a tad too long in the tooth. HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is just barely under two hours long and it feels like 25 minutes could have easily been shaved off this entire experience for a tighter running time. There’s a love-interest plot between Ryan Reynolds’ character and Elodie Young’s bland Interpol agent that feels tacked on, but Penelope Cruz gets a couple of decent scenes in as Kincaid’s equally violent wife.

HITMAN’S BODYGUARD ranges in its action sequences. A few potentially exciting spots are compromised by choppy editing and shaky camera work. This mainly arrives during the opening 30 minutes and one car chase. Not every action scene is ruined by bad editing though, because there are a handful of cool bits. An early confrontation between Jackson and Reynolds is equally funny and tense as they go at it with fists and guns. There’s also a moment where Reynolds deals with a thug in a hardware store and this very violent (but oddly goofy) sequence ranks as the best fight in the entire film.

THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is generic in terms of its plot and the tone seems to awkwardly shift between exciting/funny to needlessly dark/depressing. However, there’s still entertainment to be had in watching Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson play off each other in swear-filled verbal sparring matches. The action also squeezes in some cool sequences. If you’re sold on the idea of Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson in a buddy action-comedy, then you’ll likely have some fun with THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD. If that idea doesn’t interest you at all, then you’re not missing out on much.

Grade: C+