Friday, November 24, 2017

"Murder on the Orient Express" and The Week in Reviews

[I review the new movie "Murder on the Orient Express" as well as the DVD "Dean" and "The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)," a Netflix original now streaming on Netflix.  The Book of the Week is "Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside His Cult and the Darkness that Ended the Sixties."  I also bring you up-to-date with "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project" with Bergman's "Through a Glass Darkly."]




Murder on the Orient Express


When a murder occurs while famed detective Hercule Poirot is on vacation on the equally famous Orient Express, he is recruited to solve the mystery.

There is actually a kind of mystery as to how I came to see this film. 

I didn't plan to.  I sat in the theatre through a half hour of previews waiting for "Wonder" to come on, and what should come on but this film?  Several of us ran out to the lobby to find out what was going on and were assured that they would fix the issue, but 20 minutes later, a staffer came in saying they couldn't fix it and to come back for the 1:40 showing.  Since I am a busy person and since I had already sat through the first 20 minutes of "Murder," I decided to walk next door and watch it. 

And that's how I came to be reviewing this film now, though the mystery of why "Murder on the Orient Express" was playing in the theatre where "Wonder" was supposed to play was a mystery that was never solved.

But that's not the case with this mystery. We know the murder mystery on the Orient Express will be solved because the detectives in Agatha Christie novels always solve the murders, it's just a matter of how.

Many of you may already know this story by Agatha Christie, who was one of the best-selling novelists of all time.  This Agatha Christie novel was published in 1934 and has been made into a movie and TV mini-series many times.  Christie's mysteries all have the same classic mystery structure that has been copied ever since:  a murder is committed, there are several suspects and the detective investigating the crime gathers everyone into one room where the murderer is revealed in a shocking twist.  And one of Christie's favorite detectives was Hercule Poirot who the leading character in this film.

Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is the World's Greatest Detective.  How do we know this?  Poirot says that himself!

The film begins with Poirot solving a crime in Jerusalem and, finding this wearying, declares that he must take a vacation.  It is a great burden for our dear Poirot to have the curse of being able to spot every little detail that might be out of place from a crooked tie to imperfectly cooked eggs.  It makes him a good detective - did I mention he is the World's Greatest Detective?  But it makes for a burdensome life for our poor Poirot.

Poirot's friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman), the director of the Orient Express, offers him a place on the train headed back to London via Calais.  Soon after boarding the train, Poirot is approached by a rather unpleasant American businessman, Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp, oozing sleaze which he often does with that sleepy drawl of a voice of his), who offers Poirot a large sum of money to be his bodyguard. You see, Ratchett deals in dodgy antiques and has been getting death threats.  Poirot declines, but that night Poirot hears strange noises coming from Ratchett's compartment next door, and when he sticks his head out of the door, sees a woman in a red kimono running down the hallway.  Later, Ratchett is found dead in his compartment with 12 stab wounds in his chest, so Poirot is forced back on the job, his holiday being ruined by yet another murder that he must solve.  But we all know he will because...why?  He is the World's Greatest Detective.

When Poirot discovers that Ratchett was really John Cassetti, a famous kidnapper who had kidnapped and murdered little Daisy Armstrong in a Lindbergh style kidnapping, he wonders what the connection to that might be.

Mmmm - I wonder.

Since the train has been stopped by an avalanche, Poirot is conveniently able to  sequester the passengers so as to investigate each one and eventually gather everyone into one train salon.  

We have the Russian Princess (Judi Dench) and her maid (Olivia Colman); Rachett's assistant, Hector McQueen (Josh Gad); Ratchett's valet (Derek Jacobi); a missionary (Penelope Cruz); a governess (Daisy Ridley, who is unrecognizable from her character in the latest "Star Wars" movies); a rich American widow (Michelle Pfeiffer); a German professor (Willem Dafoe); a doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.); a Spanish gentleman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); and a young Count and Countess (Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton).  They all look suspiciously shifty.

Who done it?

The film is stylishly produced and directed by Branagh himself with a script by Michael Green, who most recently penned "Blade Runner 2049," and Branagh seems to be having a wonderful time directing the cinematography, because the camera shoots from below, from above (he particularly likes that), from afar and close up.  And he enjoys starring as Poirot too, it seems, because most of those close-ups are of himself!  He also has a moustache that is so big it could have its own Twitter account. 

The actors all do what they can with this old chestnut, but throughout the film I just couldn't tell what Branagh was trying to do.  Was this a comedy?  Was he playing Poirot tongue-in-cheek because there were certainly some funny and over-the-top moments and that moustache!  But then there would be these dramatic sad moments, the moustache not withstanding.  Also for a murder mystery, not much happened.  We didn't really see Poirot do much detectiving (is that a word) nor could we read his mind, so as a viewer, we were pretty much left off this train.  So I didn't know quite what to make of this film or how I was supposed to feel. 

The bottom line was that once again, this was an unnecessary remake.  

Albert Finney starred in a perfectly good version in 1974 that also included an star-studded cast, and of course there is David Suchet, who made a name for himself as Poirot, so I really don't understand why this one needed to be made or why all of these A-list actors wanted to do it, especially since the material itself is dated, the story doesn't really stand up well today and the characters are not fleshed out at all.  So why?  Did they all just want to wear stylish 1930's clothes and chew the scenery a bit, which, believe me, they did.

Rosy the Reviewer says...Christie may have been one of the best-selling authors of all time and this film may be star-studded, but none of that can save what is very corny and I don't like corn.






***Some Movies You Might Have Missed***
(And Some You Will Be Glad You Did)!

On DVD and Streaming








Dean (2016)


Dean is having a difficult time dealing with his mother's death and it doesn't help when his Dad decides to sell the family home and move on with his life.

Demetri Martin wrote, directed and stars as Dean, an artist/cartoonist whose mother has died and he is having a difficult time moving on.  He also has a difficult relationship with his Dad, Robert (Kevin Kline), who has decided not to wallow in grief but to exercise, embrace self-help programs and find another woman to love, which he does.  Dean wants to wallow.

When his Dad decides to sell the family home and asks Dean to come over to get rid of some of his stuff, Dean takes a friend up on an invitation to go to L.A. to try to sell his cartoons as a way to avoid all of that.  However, when he meets with the ad executives in L.A. and discovers that they want to use his drawings for a deodorant commercial where a nerd suddenly can turn his rudimentary drawings into amazing works of art once he has used the deodorant and the ad guys want his drawings for the "before" drawings, he excuses himself.

He reconnects with an old friend, Becca (Briga Heelan), in a very funny scene where she tells him she has a boyfriend but at the same time is clearly coming on to Dean.  Later he meets Nicky (Gillian Jacobs) and the two hit it off but Nicky has a secret that drives them apart.

In the meantime, Robert has put the house up for sale and meets a realtor, Carol (Mary Steenburgen), and the two have an attraction but Robert is still hung up on the fact that he is "married.

Will our father and son, separated by grief and the generation gap, find love and connection?

The film is all very hip and millennial with strangely hip characters, like Dean's friend Eric (Rory Scovel) who is an over-the-top cat person, and Dean is so hip and millennial that he has a poster on his wall that says, "Poster." The film is also festooned with Dean's drawings, which are actually drawn by Martin (is there anything this kid can't do?) and they are hip but also very funny.

But the film isn't just millennial hipster schtick.  It's really all about grief, the different ways that people deal with it, and the difficulty of connecting with others.  Sometimes we might not think someone is grieving because they avoid it, and it takes awhile for grief to kick in.  The deaths of others forces us to face our own mortality and that's not something we easily embrace. There is also a generation gap that makes understanding each other difficult. But in the end we discover that if we really love someone we never lose them, even if they are no longer physical with us.

Like Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Samantha Bee, John Oliver and others, Martin is a talented "Daily Show" alum who has struck out on his own and who I hope will make more films.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a charming little film with an unlikely, but realistic, leading man.






The Meyerowitz Stories [New and Selected] (2017)


An estranged family gathers in New York City to celebrate their father.

I have an affinity for Noah Baumbach films (he writes and directs) partly because of his association with actress Greta Gerwig, who has starred in many of his films, most notably "Mistress America" and "Frances Ha."  I have always wondered when she was going to break out big and maybe this is her time with a new film that she has directed that is in theatres now and getting a lot of buzz - "Lady Bird (see my review next Friday)! 

But I am also drawn to Baumbach's films because of his writing, which is always fresh and real and character driven ("The Squid and the Whale," which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay).

This film is no exception.

Adam Sandler plays Danny, a guy who is getting a divorce and who basically was a house husband who never had the confidence to pursue a career, despite some musical talent.  Now his daughter is off to college.  Danny has had a rocky relationship with Harold, his Dad (Dustin Hoffman), who is an egotistical, insensitive, curmudgeonly sculptor and ex-art teacher at Bard College who is divorced from Danny's mother and now married to his fourth wife, an alcoholic hippie (Emma Thompson).  Danny has felt the greatest impact of Harold's ego and neglect and still cares very much what Harold thinks of him.

Then there is Danny's brother, Matthew (Ben Stiller).  He is a happily married developer who now lives in L.A. and the son Harold brags about.  He has come home to try to get Harold to sell his house and do some estate planning.

And Harold has one daughter, Jean (Elizabeth Marvel).  Like Danny, she too was neglected by Harold.

Harold has been married four times. Danny and Jean were the products of Harold's second marriage and Matthew his third and Matthew is clearly more favored than Danny or Jean.  Ironically, though, Danny cares more about his Dad and what he thinks than Matthew does so the brothers are always jockeying for position with Harold, each in their own way.

Harold is not an easy guy to get through to.  He neglected his older children, Danny and Jean, but when Matthew came along with his third and younger wife, that child received what the older children didn't.  You see this a lot with the children of celebrities and other hugely successful people.  In the early years of a celebrity career, the father is focused on his career.  Then when fame hits, he sheds his first wife (in Harold's case, his second one too) and children and marries a much younger woman with whom he also has children, and since fame has already arrived, he can now focus on the younger children.  It happened with Caitlyn Jenner's older children and the older children of Michael Douglas, Bing Crosby...I could go on and on.  It's a thing.

But though Harold focused more on Matthew, his ego was really too big to have much to do with any of his children.

"It's hard to have a relationship with a child," he says at one point.

But then Harold is diagnosed with a brain tumor and all bets are off, because no matter how horrible or neglectful our parent might be, he's our horrible and neglectful parent.

The film is broken into chapters and there is a chapter for each of the siblings, and we get to see their individual stories and how they ended up as they did.

This film also explores the age-old generation gap and the resentments children have toward their parents and the cluelessness of the parents as to why. It's also about siblings and how easy it is to lose touch when they grow up and move away, but who still come together over the common parent.  How much do parents play a part in siblings being close or not?  How much that is unsaid causes rifts?  What happens to parent-child and sibling relationships when one sibling leaves home and the other stays?  All of these family issues are explored in this smart and fascinating family story now streaming on Netflix.

It's strange seeing Adam Sandler as a Dad worrying about Dad things. 

I still think of him as Stud Boy on the MTV game show "Remote Control," which was where I first saw him.  I always remember him having a perpetual smirk, a warning that he was about to say something funny. Whether it was on SNL singing one of his Hannukah songs or as a character in one of his films, whether he was telling a joke or saying a dramatic line, it seemed he always had this perpetual smirk going on, and because of that, I was never much of an Adam Sandler fan.  So I didn't want to like him in this.  But I am happy to say that he has finally not only gotten rid of that smirk, he was really believable here.  I am actually going to go further than that.  He was a revelation. He exhibited a poignancy I have never seen before.  I didn't want to like him in this but I did, and I didn't see a trace of those old mannerisms.  Perhaps Stud Boy has finally grown up.  He does sing one of his little silly songs of his but it was a very sweet scene with his daughter.

Then there was Dustin Hoffman.  Dustin was...well, Dustin Hoffman.  

Always the consummate professional, always a good actor, he also does pretentious very well.  I saw him on a talk show recently talking about his role in this film.  He talked about how his career had changed from leads to old dying guys so because this part in this film was another old dying guy, he almost turned it down but was glad that he didn't because he thought the writing was good.  And good for him, because Harold is not an easy character to like.  In fact, I know guys like him and dislike those kinds of people immensely: long-winded, uncaring, insensitive, opinionated and lacking any self awareness about how his actions are affecting others.  Hoffman is very good at those kinds of parts and he is very good here.

And no matter what kind of part Ben Stiller plays, he always gets a chance to look flummoxed and cast his deadpan face on something crazy going on and this film is no exception.

There is a Woody Allen feel to this film, and come to think of it, there is that feel in many of director and writer Noah Baumbach's films, which are usually family dramas and character-driven stories that are funny but funny in a smart, real way, not in a pratfall, silly-situations way.  I think Baumbach will carry on Woody's torch - the torch of subtle intellectual comedies that focus on human relationships.  That is, when and if Woody ever passes it along.

Rosy the Reviewer says...all adults with issues about their parents and siblings should see this film.  Then you will know you are not alone.




***My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project***





165 to go!

Have YOU seen this classic film?





Through a Glass Darkly (1961)


Recently released from a mental hospital, Karin (Harriet Andersson) joins her family at an island retreat but her mental illness starts to haunt her.

Karin is just back from a mental hospital and is vacationing with her husband, Martin (Max von Sydow) her younger brother, Minus (Lars Passgard), and her father, David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), who is a writer.  Karin seems carefree and feels that she has overcome her mental illness but is devastated when she finds her father's diary where he writes that her illness is incurable and he plans to use it as fodder for his writing.  As the film progresses she starts to break down again and has hallucinations, finally seeing God as a frightening spider.  

All of the characters react to Karin's illness: Martin realizes that no matter how much he loves Karin, he can't save her; David realizes that he has put his work before his family; and Minus is dragged into Karin's mental illness himself while at the same time dealing with his blossoming sexuality.

Directed by Ingmar Bergman, this film won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1962 (the second of three he would receive in his career) and is part of Bergman's "Silence of God" trilogy that includes "Winter Light" and "The Silence."  It also includes lots and lots of angst.

There is a reason why Bergman influenced so many filmmakers from Frances Ford Coppola to Ang Lee to Woody Allen.  He was innovative and did things on film that had never been done before - long lingering close-ups of faces, breaking the fourth wall by having the characters talk directly to the screen, characters uttering deep thoughts in profile, obsession with death, crisis of faith, black and white cinematography and characters who out of nowhere say things like "The wolves have their teeth." But those things are also the reason why Bergman is so easy to parody.

Bergman often explored the issue of faith.  Is faith the equivalent of madness?  Is that why madness is so often associated with seeing God or thinking one IS God?  Or are we considered mad when we show emotion and tell the truth? 

Harriet Andersson was Bergman's muse for many years and starred in many of his films. Sven Nykvist was his cinematographer and Woody admired Bergman so much that he poached Nykvist for his films.

Why it's a Must See: "...with its handful of characters, isolated setting, brief time span, and uncluttered visuals...[there is] nothing to dilute the force of its emotional and philosophical thrust; no wonder Bergman saw it as the first of his films to pave the way toward the masterpiece that was Persona (1966)."
---"1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"

Rosy the Reviewer says...when you consider what was coming out of Hollywood in the early 1960's, it becomes even more apparent how Bergman was a masterful filmmaker ahead of his time.
(b & w, in Swedish with English subtitles)




***Book of the Week***




Member of the Family: My Story of Charles Manson, Life Inside his Cult and the Darkness that Ended the Sixties by Dianne Lake (2017)


A little known member of Charles Manson's "Family" shares her story.

What a strange coincidence that I would have just finished this book as Charles Manson took his last breath.  One of the most reviled mad men of our time, he died in prison this last week at the age of 83.

And yet, despite the evil that he engineered, I have always been fascinated with Charles Manson and his "family." I don't have a personal connection at all with Charles Manson per se but the Tate-La Bianca murders happened right before I moved to California from Michigan after college.  The Zodiac killer was running around there then too, so that was very much on my mind when I moved to San Francisco in 1970.  There was a very scary and sinister quality in the air.  

Dianne Lake was only 14 when her parents decided to drop out and move into a bread truck and live the hippie life.  They gave her a note giving her permission to be on her own, and through a series of circumstances, she ended up under the influence of Charles Manson, whose stints in prison as a young man taught him the ins and outs of being a pimp, how to be all things to all young women, and eventually get them to do whatever he demanded.

Dianne was one of the youngest member of his "family," and though she did not participate in any of the murders, she was an active member of the lifestyle and privy to all that was going on.  When Manson and some of his followers were arrested, Lake eventually joined the prosecution's case against Manson and those who participated in the murders.  Over the course of two years with Manson, Dianne endured his psychological control and physical abuse as Manson prepared for "Helter Skelter," the race war he believed was coming when he and his family would rise from the ashes and rule the world.

Though there have been many books about Manson over the years, most famously Vincent Bugliosi's book "Helter Skelter," which has served as the definitive story, few have been written by those who were actually there with Manson and could give a first-hand account as everything played out.
Lake is candid about her time with Manson and his followers and her story is a riveting one, a tale of lost innocence and redemption in a time of great social upheaval.

I have always been fascinated by cults, why and how people are pulled into them. Though I didn't have parents who dropped out and left me to fend for myself - rather I had a very middle-class, Midwest upbringing - I moved far away from home at a young age to San Francisco at a time when many were experimenting with alternative lifestyles and young people were rebelling against the establishment.  Looking back, I also realize that I was a very immature and naive young woman who, if circumstances had been different, might very well have been lured into something by someone like Charles Manson and ended up like some of Charles Manson's girls, many of whom grew up in environments much like mine.


Lake explains it very well:

"There have been many false prophets like Charlie, but even now, all these years later, I find it hard to explain what it was like to actually believe that he was a kind of messiah.  It's an incredible concept, totally impossible to fathom: that the person you're standing next to or having sex with is somehow related to God...But that's what it means to be in a cult.  You lose a part of yourself to someone else or to a group, so that your entire mind no longer belongs to you...There are not obvious analogies to what it's like when someone has that kind of a hold over you...You simply have an unwavering faith that the person has a power that no one else on earth can possibly know or wield.  And when you look at someone and honestly believe that person is related to God, and that person looks at you and tells you you're special, that you matter -- it gives that person a power over you that's unlike any other...I'd come to the Family because I'd wanted to belong, because I was looking for a place in the world.  I was gradually drawn in until I couldn't see how lost I'd become.  No one chooses to be in a cult; no one seeks it out or strives for it.  Being in a cult is not something you notice as it's happening -- it doesn't matter if you're incredibly aware or if you're a teenager who can't see past her own emotions.  With a cult, you believe you're on solid ground until you discover -- usually much too late -- that not only is your footing shaky, but it's already given way."

Rosy the Reviewer says...there but for fortune...






Thanks for reading!



See you next Friday 


for my review of  

"Lady Bird"  

 

 and


 The Week in Reviews
(What to See or Read and What to Avoid)


 and the latest on



"My 1001 Movies I Must See Before 

 I Die Project."

  

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Check your local library for DVDs and books mentioned.
Next time you are wondering whether or not to watch a particular film, check out my reviews on IMDB (The International Movie Database). 







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