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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Daddy’s Home 2

The sequel to the 2015 family comedy Daddy’s Home, Daddy’s Home 2 is a silly family-friendly comedy that is at times entertaining as a result of the dynamics between the talented actors but is a rather stale comedy blockbuster that is not always funny. Taking place several years after the shenanigans of the original, the manly Dusty, played by Mark Wahlberg, and the sensitive family man Brad, played by Will Ferrell, are on good terms co-parenting Dusty’s kids Megan and Dylan who live most of the time with their mother Sara, played by Linda Cardellini, who is now married to Brad. Things once again get complicated when Dusty’s macho father Kurt, played by Mel Gibson, and Brad’s kind and emotional father Don, played by John Lithgow, arrive in town for a joint Christmas between the families. Very much like the first movie, the grandfathers become competitors for who is the better parent and grandparent and thereby indulge their sons and grandchildren in order to favor love and make the other jealous. Stereotypical buffoonery and slapstick hijinks rapidly escalates, especially after Kurt comes up with the idea of celebrating Christmas in a luxurious cabin in the mountains. Along the way, we meet new characters, including Brad and Sara’s baby, Dusty’s new attractive wife Karen, Karen’s daughter Adrianna who Dusty tries to impress, and eventually Adrianna’s hunky father Roger, played by pro wrestler John Cena. With brief moments of laughter and even touching family moments mixed with a holidays theme, the film is your typical family Christmas movie that helps pass the time with family audiences during the holiday season. However, going into the movie I was not expecting what turned out to be a Christmas flick and actually thought that it was too early to release such a movie with Christmas a month and a half away. Overall, I found it to be a somewhat enjoyable and light-hearted comedy that could have been better if the all star cast was not wasted on such a frivolous and ridiculous premise: at least, the first film had some originality because the sequel feels like the filmmaker simply rehashed the original plot with only slight modifications. 

The Florida Project

Directed by Sean Baker who is best known for the 2015 independent film Tangerine, The Florida Project is a wonderfully crafted indie film that explores the largely unseen impoverished American population living in budget motels and the struggles that the adults go through while the children seem happy in the innocence of childhood. It is a fairly simple film that is more of an observant witness to the characters, predominantly a group of children, and follows their daily lives surrounded by what most people would describe as horrible living conditions. As emphasized by the movie’s title referring to the name used for Walt Disney World before it was built, the filmmaker points out the cruel irony of these innocent kids living in a rough neighborhood of Kissimmee, Florida next door to the fantastical Disney World, a place they can only dream of visiting. The main protagonist is a 6-year-old girl named Moonee, terrifically played by the charming young actress Brooklynn Prince, whose mother Halley is a troubled out-of-work single mother that goes to increasingly desperate lengths to financially support her daughter. The movie sentimentally depicts the rebellious young girl as she happily enjoys what she believes is a normal childhood playing with her group of friends and exploring her neighborhood full of run-down strip malls and motels, almost oblivious to her otherwise depressing situation. She even has a special relationship with the kind-hearted manager of her home The Magic Castle Motel, a gentle man with his own problems who becomes a father figure to the children living at the motel. Brilliantly played by Willem Dafoe in one of his best performances, the manager Bobby Hicks clearly has the kids’ best interests at heart, and he is often in the hard situation of cleaning up their parents’ messes, ranging from drug addiction to prostitution. Despite lacking a traditional plot line, the filmmaker is a master storyteller who is able to flesh out the characters through a series of small moments in their lives that add up to a powerfully empathetic portrayal of such a tragic yet hopeful underrepresented segment of our population. The audience viscerally experiences both the heartwarming and heartbreaking moments in these people’s lives: the children’s innocence lifts up our spirits while the adults’ daily challenges reminds us of the hardships of those living in poverty. Overall, I found it to be one of the best films of the year because of its captivating storytelling that feels very real and is able to illuminate a previously unexplored problem in today’s modern society in a sympathetic and non-condescending manner. 

LBJ

Directed by Rob Reiner who is mostly known for comedies, LBJ provides a fascinating historical look into the larger-than-life 36th President of the United States, unexpectedly played by Academy Award nominee Woody Harrelson, but,  unfortunately, becomes nothing more than a formulaic biopic that adds very little significance to the already robust cultural treatment of President Johnson. The movie is a series of flashbacks between the fateful days of November 1963 following President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas and the early years of the Johnson Administration pursuing the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964. It does a fairly good job of recreating the moments surrounding the JFK assassination, but it does not feel that remarkable since it has been depicted so many times in films and television. The main emphasis of the film is the emotional stress of LBJ witnessing the death of the American president at the same time that he finally achieves his lifelong dream of becoming president. I found the most interesting aspect to be the portrayal of the often difficult and toxic relationships between LBJ, JFK, and members of JFK’s inner circle, especially his brother Bobby who was the attorney general. When he finally ascends the presidency, LBJ must work all legislative and executive options to pass the controversial Civil Rights Act, which potentially alienates him from his former Democratic colleagues from the South serving in the Senate and House, including the more conservative Georgia Senator Richard Russell, played by Academy Award nominee Richard Jenkins, and more liberal Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, played by Bill Pullman. The movie does a superficial job of delving into the emotions of LBJ and only provides a little insight into his special relationship with his wife Lady Bird Johnson, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Overall, I found it to be intriguing only for providing additional stories about such a complicated figure as LBJ, and the film feels lacking in providing a fuller picture of such a charismatic and dynamic president by just focusing on two very specific moments in the life of LBJ.

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. 

Thor: Ragnarok

Directed by New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi who is best known for the brilliant 2016 comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Thor: Ragnarok is a wildly entertaining and hilarious comic book superhero movie that is unlike most of the other sixteen films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the third installment of the Thor franchise, we first meet Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth, as a prisoner on a fiery planet who eventually escapes to return to his home planet Asgard to discover that his father and ruler of the realm Odin, played by Anthony Hopkins, is living on Earth and his trickster brother Loki, played by Tom Hiddleston, is the de facto leader. Both brothers learn from their father that there is a prophecy soon to take place known as Ragnarok that says that Asgard will be destroyed. Soon afterwards, Thor meets his secret evil sister Hela, played by the particularly devious Cate Blanchett, whose appearance will hasten Ragnarok through her destruction and enslavement of those living on Asghar. On a desperate mission to get rid of his powerful sister, Thor finds himself on an extremely colorful alien planet called Sakaar, which serves as the garbage planet for the universe, where he is captured by the female bounty hunter Scrapper 142, played by Tessa Thompson. She turns over Thor to the comically over-the-top ruler of the planet known as the Grandmaster, played by a perfectly cast Jeff Goldblum, who forces Thor to participate in a gladiator-like tournament against the dim-witted yet strong Hulk, voiced by Mark Ruffalo, who appeared with Thor in The Avengers movies. After several funny reunion scenes with Thor and Hulk, they team up with Scrapper 142 who turns out to be from Asgard and embark on a joy ride adventure to save Asgard and kill the deadly Hela. Reminding me of the equally comedic Guardians of the Galaxy films and the vulgar Deadpool movie, the film is chock-full of self-deprecating humor that pokes fun at superhero franchises and references to the other movies as well as today’s pop culture. It also includes completely random and unexpected cameos that further conveys a fun and sometimes ridiculous atmosphere. Overall, I found it to be one of the more entertaining Marvel movies and thereby provides a refreshing reboot of the increasingly stale comic book superhero genre. Even if you are not a fan of comic book superheroes, I would highly recommend going to the film if you are looking for an amusing and good old time at the movies.

Thank You For Your Service

Directed by Jason Hall who is the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of 2014’s American Sniper, Thank You For Your Service is a powerful film that takes a raw unflinching into the life of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after being deployed and its effects on their lives back home. Based on true life stories, the movie follows three recently deployed soldiers in Iraq who have returned home but with horrific emotional scars. The main character Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann, played terrifically by Miles Teller, tries to be the good soldier and hide his emotional distress from his loving wife, played by Haley Bennett, and their two young kids. Although broken himself, he becomes the core emotional support for two other soldiers from the same unit who are suffering much more visibly. American Samoa-born Specialist Tausolo Aieti, played by Beulah Koale, has a particularly challenging time acclimating to civilian life and the news that his wife is pregnant with their first child. He suffered traumatic brain injury after withstanding several bomb blasts while on tour in Iraq. Along with Schumann, he tries to get help from the VA but discovers that receiving medical attention is a much more complicated and lengthy process due to the backlog and bureaucracy of the VA. They are particularly desperate to receive help after helplessly witnessing the rapid downward spiral of the other soldier that returned home with them, Billy Waller, played by Joe Cole. His tragic mental breakdown is accelerated after learning that his fiance has left him when he was deployed. As he tries to alleviate the other soldiers’ suffering, Schumann must grapple with his nightmarish flashbacks and guilt over possibly causing additional harm to a soldier with a grave head injury after an accident while trying to save his life. Eventually, Schumann realizes he also must face his own mental health issues caused by PTSD since his marriage is strained and his depression could lead to suicidal thoughts. Unlike most other movies dealing with war, the film is effectively able to focus on the often overlooked and stigmatized effects that war has on soldiers, especially debilitating mental health problems and PTSD. Yes, it is heartbreakingly depressing watching the movie but, I feel, that everyone should see it as it relays such an important message about soldiers and veterans. It vividly reveals how many of them are suffering without insufficient help from the overburdened and underfunded VA. The filmmaker puts faces to the truly shocking statistics about the increasingly large number of soldiers and veterans suffering from mental health illnesses and committing suicide. Overall, I found it to be a highly evocative movie that is sometimes depressing and anger-inducing about such an important issue as PTSD and whose stories are brought to life as a result of the brilliant acting performances.