Murder on the Orient Express

Directed by Kenneth Branagh who is best known for his work in Shakespeare plays and film adaptations, Murder on the Orient Express is a stylish adaptation of the classic 1934 Agatha Christie novel of the same name and later adapted into a critically acclaimed movie in 1974. It feels very much like a modern update to the murder mystery genre and is jam-packed with an all-star cast, but the film largely does not live up to its predecessor and the novel itself. The always terrific Academy Award nominee Kenneth Branagh stars as Hercule Poirot, a brilliant and eccentric Belgian detective who is a recurring character in Christie’s books. While on a break between cases in the winter of 1934 in Istanbul, he is recruited to investigate a case in the UK and is offered a ticket on the world-famous luxury train the Orient Express headed to Calais, France in order to quickly reach his destination. He, along with thirteen strangers, mostly keep to themselves on an uneventful first leg of the journey. The first few scenes on the train introduce the audience to the passengers ranging from a governess, a professor, a duchess, a secretary to a mobster and are played by such famous faces as Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., and Derek Jacobi. Things rapidly become chaotic after the Orient Express is stranded after an avalanche and a body is discovered in one of the cabins. Detective Hercule Poirot is then enlisted to help solve the murder before the train reaches its next destination. With unique cinematography, including overhead shots and long panning shots, and sumptuous detailing of the original Orient Express and 1930s costumes and decor, the meticulous detective interrogates all the passengers and tries to piece together the evidence to discover the culprit. The best part of the movie is Branagh’s portrayal of the charismatic and mysterious Poirot and the fascinating ways he is able to solve the murder mystery, all the while interacting with a terrific ensemble cast. Overall, I found it to be an enjoyable and beautifully shot movie that does not reach perfection as a result of its bloated cast, sometimes too slow pacing, and attempt to revitalize an already beloved classic murder mystery novel and film. 

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Suburbicon

Directed by George Clooney, Suburbicon is a strange movie mixing satire, murder mystery, and racial social commentary that ultimately fails its great potential with such a stellar cast of actors and famous writers and director. Going into the movie, I was fully prepared for a zany and eccentric experience since it is partly written by Joel and Ethan Coen, both highly-skilled writers and filmmakers known for oddball humor and satire. The movie starts like a stereotypical vintage infomercial for a bizarrely exaggerated picturesque and quiet suburban community with a 1950s-sounding narrator and imagery associated with that era. I was almost immediately reminded of the 1998 movie Pleasantville, which effectively captured the 1950s and was mostly shot in black-and-white. We first meet the protagonist Gardner Lodge, played by Matt Damon, who appears to be a gentle and normal middle class suburban father and husband in the relatively new predominantly white town of Suburbicon. Coinciding with the first African-American family moving into the community, much to the consternation of the white neighbors, Gardner, his wife Rose, played by Julianne Moore, their young son Nicky, and Rose’s twin sister Margaret, also played by Julianne Moore, are robbed by two mysterious strangers. Rose who is bound to a wheelchair after a recent car accident is subsequently killed during the robbery. Gardner, in a peculiar calm fashion, tries to return to a life of normalcy and asks Margaret to stay and help with raising Nicky. Reinforcing that not all is well in the seemingly perfect Suburbicon, the residents’ hatred and problems arise as their discomfort with the black family becomes a race riot. With such chaos surrounding them, suspicions about the robbery and Rose’s death are raised by the police and the life insurance company Gardner is trying to collect from his wife’s death. To make matters worse, a slick insurance agent named Bud Cooper, played by Oscar Isaac, arrives at the Lodge residence aggressively investigating the life insurance claim and if the death of Rose was orchestrated to defraud the insurance company for money. Chaos rapidly engulfs this supposedly idyllic town where everybody gets along, and the increasingly violent acts expose the hypocrisy and true nature of the residents, especially Gardner and Margaret. Unexpectedly, the movie becomes predominately a murder mystery almost immediately after the satirical opening act and does not have as much dark comedy as the promotional material would have you believe. Overall, I thought that the film tries too hard to blend several genres together to provide biting social commentary, and, unfortunately, fails to capitalize on the terrific talent involved and thereby becomes a wholly different movie than expected. 

Blade Runner 2049

Directed by Denis Villeneuve who is best known for the 2016 Oscar-nominated movie Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 is an extraordinary film that lives up to its predecessor, the science fiction cult classic Blade Runner released in 1982 and based on a 1968 Philip K. Dick novel. Heavily influenced by the first movie’s director Ridley Scott who is one of the producers of the sequel, the film remarkably recreates the dystopian hallmarks of the original with beautiful cinematography of a bleak yet futuristic world of monolithic skyscrapers illuminated by extravagant neon signage rising above a rain-soaked suffering population. The story takes place thirty years after the first Blade Runner and follows an officer with the LAPD officer named K, played by Ryan Gosling, who is sent on a secret mission by his boss Lieutenant Joshi, played by Robin Wright, to discover the truth behind the discovery of a mysterious skeleton. K is what is known as a blade runner whose job it is is to hunt down and destroy renegade replicants, human-like robots originally created by the now defunct Tyrell Corporation featured in the original. Officer K is a replicant himself but of a more advanced and better controlled version built by the all-powerful Wallace Corporation led by the vicious Niander Wallace, played by the especially creepy Jared Leto. The Wallace Corporation is intrigued by the LAPD’s investigation because it may lead to a key development in their replicant program. Throughout the slow burn and sometimes complex esoteric scenes, K questions his own existence and whether he is in fact a human and not a replicant with implanted memories. The very nature of what it means to be human is the core of the film’s deep dive into the philosophical exploration of humanity and artificial intelligence. Eventually, Gosling’s character comes to a greater understanding of who he is after encountering Rick Deckard, the main character from the original played by a particularly gruff Harrison Ford. Deckard is a replicant who has been on the run over the past thirty years and had a romantic relationship with another replicant named Rachael who may have had a very unique capability desired by Wallace. Overall, although the heavy dose of sci-fi and philosophical elements may not appeal to all viewers, the movie is without a doubt a cinematic masterpiece as a result of being a visual marvel presenting a stylized dystopia complete with a very futuristic-sounding soundtrack emphasizing the dark and moody themes. If you are a fan of the original Blade Runner or any other sci-fi flick, you will not be disappointed by this long-awaited sequel. 

Wind River

Written and directed by Taylor Sheridan who wrote 2015’s Sicario and 2016’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, Wind River is a gritty and riveting crime mystery thriller with terrific acting performances and excellent cinematography capturing the dark nature of the story. Set in remote Wyoming on the Wind River Indian Reservation, the film follows U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert, played by Jeremy Renner, as he investigates a possible homicide after discovering the frozen body of a 18-year-old Native American girl miles away from civilization. He is forced to team up with the novice FBI agent Jane Banner, played by Elizabeth Olsen, who is brought in to see whether it was a murder and help the Wind River Reservation Tribal Police investigate. Based out of Las Vegas, she is woefully unprepared for the frigid weather and must rely on Lambert for his animal tracking skills to literally follow the trail of the mysterious crime. Shot in such a desolate and unforgiving location in which exposure to the elements can result in death within minutes brilliantly underscores the unsolved brutal death of a young woman among the largely overlooked and oppressed Native American population suffering from severe poverty and substance abuse. Throughout the film, there are moments of intense standoffs and violence at unexpected times and places that help to create a gripping thriller in which audiences are desperate for answers. Overall, I found it to be one of the best movies of the year, and the brilliant script and acting fashions not just a truly great crime thriller but a stark exploration of the plight of many Native Americans, especially the disproportionately large number of missing girls cases that are never solved in the community.

My Cousin Rachel

Based upon the 1951 novel of the same name written by the British author Daphne du Maurier who is best known for writing Rebecca and The Birds that were adapted into successful films by Alfred Hitchcock, My Cousin Rachel is a well-crafted gothic mystery-romance that is noteworthy for Rachel Weisz’s powerful performance and beautiful cinematography that underscores the dark and foreboding nature of the story. Played by the English actor Sam Claflin, Philip, a young and handsome bachelor taken in by his older cousin Ambrose Ashley after being orphaned at a young age, is heartbroken to learn of his beloved cousin’s death in Florence, Italy where he was recuperating from an illness. Philip also finds out Ambrose recently married a mysterious woman named Rachel in Italy, and Philip becomes increasingly suspicious that she was somehow involved in his death. However, when Rachel, played by the deliciously enigmatic and devious Rachel Weisz, returns to Ambrose’s Cornwall estate that Philip just inherited, Philip’s attitude towards Rachel quickly changes. He soon becomes infatuated with her beauty and seductive charms and disregards his previous suspicions. Possibly poisoning Philip with her special blend of tea and with questionable ulterior motives in returning to England, Philip, in the throes of desire, decides to give all of his inheritance from Ambrose to Rachel. Eventually, Philip with the assistance of his godfather, played by Iain Glen from Game of Thrones, begins to realize too late that something is amiss with Rachel, and he may have been deceived. Besides the sublime acting performances, the setting in the English countryside in the early nineteenth century is effectively used to reinforce the dark and gloomy atmosphere; it is very remote and rainy with spooky candlelit rooms in dreary expansive estates. Overall, I found it to be an excellent mystery-romance period piece with stellar acting, terrifically moody cinematography, and well-timed elements of a slow burn gothic thriller. 

Get Out

Written and directed by Jordan Peele who is best known as the co-creator of the hit sketch comedy series Key & Peele, Get Out is a surprisingly phenomenal film that expertly crafts the comedy and horror genres to create an incisive social satire about contemporary racism. The plot follows black photographer Chris Washington, played by Daniel Kaluuya, as he goes to the suburbs to visit the parents of his white girlfriend Rose Armitage, played by Allison Williams. Rose not telling her parents that her boyfriend is black makes Chris worried about their reaction when he first meets them. However, he is pleasantly surprised by the warm welcome of her father and neurosurgeon Dean, played by Bradley Whitford, and her mother and psychiatrist Missy, played by Catherine Keener. After spending more time with the family and meeting their black maid Georgina and black groundskeeper Walter who both act zombie-like, Chris senses there is something peculiar about the Armitages and their white neighbors. The film rapidly evolves into a horror thriller after Missy hypnotizes Chris, and he learns more about what is actually going on in the neighborhood. He relays his concerns to his black friend Rod who works for the TSA and serves as comic relief, with his exaggerated reactions and outlandish theories about what Chris is experiencing. Things get even weirder when Chris tells Rose about his suspicions and that they both must get out immediately. The film’s ending intensifies as plot twists abound and the audience finally figures out the sinister secrets of the neighborhood. What makes the movie so good is Peele’s ability to perfectly time scary and funny moments in order to keep the viewer engaged. By using the horror genre in which everything is not as it seems, Peele also cleverly devises a way to comment on society as a whole. He uses film to highlight the fact that racism still exists today even if people claim that we are in a post-racial society the result of Obama’s election. For instance, the Armitages, seemingly the epitome of white liberalism who say they would vote a third time for Obama, and their white suburban neighbors have a dark side that may counter their belief that they are far from being racists. Thereby, as evidenced by current race relations, actions and beliefs do not have to be overt in order to make somebody racist, but unrecognized subtle acts of prejudice can have a little-by-little detrimental affect on another race. Overall, I found it to be a highly entertaining experience, despite my general dislike of scary movies, that unexpectedly provides a profoundly important message about racism. 

Arrival

From Denis Villeneuve who directed 2013’s Prisoners and 2015’s Sicario, Arrival is a brilliantly crafted intelligent sci-fi film that heavily relies on terrific performances rather than over-the-top fantastical CGI. Played by the two-time Golden Globe winner Amy Adams, Louise Banks is a linguistics professor tasked with the unusual role of communicating with aliens who have mysteriously landed twelve spacecraft across the world. Not knowing whether they are peaceful or hostile visitors, a global panic ensues, and the United States government and other nations must figure out how to proceed without provoking war. Dr. Banks along with a team of experts, including a theoretical physicist portrayed by Jeremy Renner, are recruited by Forest Whitaker’s character, a U.S. Army Colonel, to unearth the extraterrestrials’ intentions. Working through her own personal issues, Dr. Banks must face the alien creatures and interpret their language with the aid of complex mathematical and scientific computations. The film underscores the mysterious circumstances by setting the floating crescent-shaped spacecraft that arrived on American soil in the eerily quiet Montana countryside where a temporary military outpost is established. It is smart sci-fi that delves into somewhat plausible scientific details and the often overlooked important implications of the linguistics academic field. Dr. Banks uses her esoteric knowledge to come to understand the aliens and try to prevent the world’s fearful militaries from embarking on a cataclysmic war possibly resulting in the extinction of the human race. Without spoiling the mind-blowing plot, the further along she gets in her extraterrestrial interactions the stranger things get for her. The movie’s thought-provoking material reminded me of such sci-fi films as 1997’s Contact and 2014’s Interstellar. Like those sci-fi flicks, the audience leaves the theater thinking about what really happened and tries to warp their mind around the deeply philosophical issues that it provokes. Overall, I found it to be one of the more noteworthy sci-fi films in recent memory because it went beyond simply providing mindless action like most Hollywood blockbusters. It was full of superb acting and masterful elements of mystery and intricate science fiction based on real science and fields of study.