“Murder on the Orient Express”

LOUISA: 3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Stylish and incredibly well acted, Kenneth Branagh‘s retelling of “Murder on the Orient Express,” the famous 1934 novel written by world renowned author Agatha Christie, is a fine piece of solid storytelling. Branagh’s talky whodunit harkens back to the days of old fashioned Hollywood filmmaking when movie stars wore lavish costumes, the production design was rich with detail, and films had a visual richness because they were actually shot on 70mm film (as Branagh did here).

This well-made vanity project makes only slight changes to Christie’s original work, managing to make the familiar seem new. The well-known murder mystery takes place in the confined space of the Orient Express train, where thirteen strangers are stranded due to an avalanche. When one particularly sinister passenger (Johnny Depp) is murdered, mastermind detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) must piece together clues and solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

The ensemble players are top notch in every respect and are all perfectly cast. There’s the talkative widow Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), aristocrat Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), personal accountant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), stern professor Gerhard (Willem Dafoe), proper governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), humble Spanish missionary Pilar (Penélope Cruz), the elegant Countess Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton), and a charming doctor (Leslie Odom Jr.), just for starters.

The role call is large, which means we only briefly get to meet and attempt to dissect the characters and their likely motivations. Branagh makes a point of boosting his own ego by making his Poirot the real star and relegates his top-shelf supporting cast to brief snippets of screen time. This results in a sometimes frustrating exercise because these are complex characters that you’ll want to get to know better, yet you’re constantly pushed away.

Although the audience is kept at a distance, the film is simply gorgeous and it’s hard not to appreciate its handsome cinematography and opulent direction. It’s very orderly and neat, rich in a refined elegance; a stylish and suspenseful thriller and integrity tale of the moral gray zone of seeking justice through revenge. The riddle will keep you engaged and the filmmaking style is grand. If you’re seeking old Hollywood glamour, you’ll find it here.

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Roman J. Israel Esq.” certainly is an ambitious mess. Director Dan Gilroy has a knack for making oddball films (“Nightcrawler”) but here he rambles around, seemingly lost, switching in tone and style so frequently that the end result has no clear direction. What kind of movie is this supposed to be?

Denzel Washington plays civil rights attorney Roman, a human encyclopedia who can recite every legal code from memory. He’s stuck in the late 1960s / early 1970s and when his law partner suddenly dies, Roman is recruited to join up at the high dollar law firm run by slick and ambitious attorney George (Colin Farrell). What follows is a totally bizarre and completely sloppy character study about the criminal justice system, political revolution, legal activism, and human fallacy.

Unconventional storytelling can be effective but here it’s lost amid a sea of uninspired performances. Farrell seems to be going through the motions in a surprisingly sterile turn, and Washington gives an off-kilter performance that, while more than competent, is wholly out of character. He is physically effective as a hulking presence whose distressing personality is swallowed only by his large afro and frumpy clothing, but his peculiar mannerisms of a psychologically and emotionally disturbed man come across as a little over the top at times. There are a couple of flashes of brilliance in both the performances, script and direction, but the highlight still is the distinct character that Washington creates onscreen. As with most of the leading men characters Gilroy has penned, Roman is creepy yet oddly sympathetic.

The plot, while basic, isn’t really a bad one, but the other shoe doesn’t drop until long after you’ve lost interest. The nuances in the story are incredibly detailed, yet audiences are left to their own devices as far as filling in the blanks to other parts of Roman’s backstory. It’s a real shame that this film isn’t more focused on its own finish line.

“The Post”

LOUISA:  3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

What does it say about us as a society that “The Post,” director Steven Spielberg‘s insightful and intense historical retelling of the Nixon White House’s attempt to silence the press, is sadly topical today? The 1970s period piece is astonishingly timely in the era of Trump, making it not only a relevant drama but also a type of psychological horror about censorship and the First Amendment.

The film depicts the true story of the unthinkable legal battle between The New York Times and the United States government after the paper reported on a massive cover-up of secrets about the Vietnam War from a study commissioned by Kennedy and Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood). The New York Times was subsequently banned from publishing the classified material (which was stolen by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) and sent to Times reporter Neil Sheehan (Justin Swain)).

After some expert investigative reporting, journalists at The Washington Post got their hands on these top secret documents (which came to be known as the Pentagon Papers), and publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) made the gutsy decision to publish them. The entire news team fearlessly risked the future of the newspaper and braved threats of going to jail in a bold fight for the freedom of the press, rocketing The Post to its current status as a relevant powerhouse of significant reporting.

This is precisely the kind of story Spielberg excels at telling, a big, historical drama that’s handsomely directed and sharply written with an ensemble cast who dive straight into the deep end of in the Oscar pool. Streep and Hanks lend an effortless credibility to two colleagues whose relationship is one that’s built on cold banter with an ever-so-slight sprinkling of mutual respect. Rhys, Greenwood, and Tracy Letts (as Fritz Beebe) are equally strong. Often the trouble with such a large cast of pedigreed talent is that performances tend to get lost, meaning actors have to work twice as hard to stand out. Surprisingly, the actor who rises to the top is Bob Odenkirk. Odenkirk runs the gamut of range and is outstanding.

It’s nice to see that Spielberg hasn’t lost his flair for directing either. He lights many scenes with cool grays and blues, an effective contrast to his signature sweeping, fluid camera movements that accurately capture the stress and excitement of a buzzing newsroom. I appreciate that this isn’t a dumbed-down film; a working knowledge of history is required. In chasing his desire to make yet another ‘Movie That Matters,’ Spielberg plays it a little too safe with predictability, particularly in the scenes that focus on the business side of a dying newspaper versus the straight history of the event (causing the story to feel like two different movies in one).

How frightening to think of the myriad parallels to the Trump administration attempting to exert its own control over the media, selling the public ludicrous lies at press conferences and through Twitter, while their hands are constantly poking and prodding in the pie of honest journalists the world over. Our own president has gone so far as to call reporters the “enemy of the American people,” something that is chilling when you examine the present day parallels to Nixon that are depicted here.

This is the kind of film that red states hate, one that’s filled with historically accurate scenarios that’ll surely make them scream liberal elitism. Spielberg’s utter detest of Trump intermittently becomes a little too obvious, especially in his heavy-handed direction towards the end, but this is an important story that deserves and needs to be told in this distressing time of “fake news.”

“The Post” expresses the intoxicating euphoria of speaking the truth and having the courage to expose the lie, even if you’re on the losing side of a Goliath. The film’s message is more important now than ever, and I hope we won’t see history like this repeat itself.

“I Love You, Daddy”

LOUISA: 1 STAR


LOUISA SAYS:

As a critic, I try to distance myself from an actor or filmmaker’s personal life because I find it unfair to punish all of the other cast and crew who worked tirelessly on a film, but the subject matter of the Louis C.K. co-written and directed “I Love You, Daddy” makes it damn near impossible. The Orchard (the studio behind the movie) hastily pulled it from theaters, and now I can see why they made this incredibly good move.

The film feels like a disturbing prophecy of Louis C.K.’s recent unmasking regarding his admitted abuse of power and sexual harassment of women. There’s an ugly, icky, and cringe-worthy undertone to the project now, its story existing in the heavy shadow of the director’s own scandal. Perhaps you can say that C.K. writes what he knows, with tone-deaf gags that objectify women, a character with a penchant for dating underage girls, and several lines encouraging people not to believe sexual predator rumors (yes, really). In what was likely meant to be a provocative, brutal look at the entertainment industry instead comes off and downright gross and appalling given what we now know about the man.

The story centers around television producer Glen (C.K.) and his spoiled teenage daughter China (Chloë Grace Moretz). Glen idolizes legendary film director (and reported pedophile) Leslie (John Malkovich), but he starts to worry when China insists on spending time with the man. The supporting cast is largely female, including Glen’s ex-wife Aura (Helen Hunt), ex-girlfriend Maggie (Pamela Adlon), movie star Grace (Rose Byrne), and his production partner Paula (Edie Falco). Charlie Day shows up as sarcastic actor Ralph and has one of the most disturbing scenes in the entire film (again, due to what we now know about C.K.’s behavior), as he pantomimes exactly what C.K. has admitted to doing in his office in front of women. Yuck.

The characters are insufferable, a gaggle of rich and privileged white people who crack jokes at the expense of Jews and African-Americans, and try to wring inappropriate laughs out of sexual harassment antics and animal cruelty. The film is packed with irritating insider Hollywood references too, making it the type of film that Hollywood types love: arty black and white cinematography, mentions of the business side of the entertainment industry, and the pet project of a (formerly) hot comedian. Oops.

Content aside, the film is technically a misfire. Instead of presenting an original vision, C.K. comes across as a wannabe Woody Allen with a copycat score and monochromatic cinematography. The film is poorly directed with sloppy camera movements too, like he took a master class in bad sitcom directing.

Misogyny rears its ugly head throughout, and there’s a particularly unpleasant riff on feminism and female empowerment that just plain makes me angry and makes my blood boil to think C.K. himself penned it. By the end of the film, Glenn eventually apologizes to all of the women in his life but for them (and for me), it’s far too late.

DVD Roundup: December

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Highly Recommended

Worthy Rentals

You Can Do Better

 

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“Daddy’s Home 2”

LOUISA: 1 STAR
MATT:     1.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Christmas is the time of year when craptacular yuletide entertainment like “Daddy’s Home 2” is forced upon the moviegoing public, slung like a bucket of slop into your local cineplex by money-hungry studio suits. Think of it as the cinematic version of a lump of coal in your stocking.

This unnecessary, formulaic sack of disappointment has few laughs, is excessively mean-spirited, and has repeated disturbing, tone-deaf attempts to make comedy out of generally unpleasant situations like teaching a young boy how to grope women, joking about dead hookers, laughing at 10 year olds getting drunk off spiked eggnog, and giving a little girl a hunting rifle on a dare.

The film is barely 90 minutes long yet when it’s over, you’ll feel as though you just spent three weeks in a secluded cabin with your red state cousin who wears a ‘Country Thunder’ t-shirt and rants about his ideas to make ‘Murica great again.

Formerly dueling co-dads Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) and Brad (Will Ferrell) are back, and this time they join forces so their kids can have — wait for it — the perfect Christmas! As is the norm with most Hollywood sequels, the film tries to make things interesting by parading out — wait for it again — the men’s own daddies! Dusty’s dad Kurt (Mel Gibson) is a macho misogynist while Brad’s dad Don (John Lithgow) is overly emotional and slightly goofy. Can you believe the night and day difference in the two dads? I know I can’t!

Of course the dream of snowflakes and candy canes is swiftly ruined by the complete and utter idiocy of slapstick antics like characters falling down, getting hit in the face, getting hit in the groin, falling down, getting hit in the face, falling down, getting electrocuted, getting hit in the ear, falling down, getting hit in the head, falling down, falling down again, and getting punched in the stomach. We don’t need no stinking script, it’s like the movie writes itself!

There are a couple of decent jokes sprinkled around that miraculously don’t land with a thud (including a pretty fantastic one-liner about divorce and improv), but it’s mostly dumb and nonsensical pratfalls of the most inane variety that are played for laughs — and the laughs never come. The film is devoid of all merriment and holiday fun, and the cast (and audience) deserves far better than this overstuffed turkey of a movie.

MATT SAYS:

“Daddy’s Home 2” is a movie designed for idiots. Specifically. As in laboratory-tested, focus-grouped, workshopped and engineered to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

In the very best comedies, jokes are either constructed (with the film carefully laying the foundation that leads to the payoff) or they’re experiential (relying on the audience’s outside knowledge about the world). In movies like “Daddy’s Home 2,” you get neither. Instead, a joke is someone getting hit in the face with a dodgeball. Or a snowball. Or a tree. Or a kid on a swing. Or Christmas decorations. For movies like this one, the film treats it as the absolute height of hilarity for a person to get hit with something or fall down. “OH!” or “OUCH!,” the audience exclaims. And sitting among them, I feel my hope for the future of humanity quickly draining away. This is “Ow My Balls!” as blockbuster entertainment.

All of that being said, the movie’s not unwatchable. Maybe it’s because I found myself being so amused at how effectively this laugh-cue extravaganza appeared to work on my fellow audience members. Maybe it’s because Mark Wahlberg, Will Ferrell, and Mel Gibson are still eminently watchable, even in a poor excuse for a comedy like this one. Or maybe it’S because the movie tries so shamelessly to ingratiate itself to the public as a classic Christmas movie like  “Christmas Vacation,” “Elf,” or “Surviving Christmas” (Louisa and I continue our quest to single-handedly make “Surviving Christmas” a beloved holiday movie). It’s probably all of these things.

“Lady Bird”

LOUISA: 4.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Garden variety coming of age films are so prevalent that it’s all the more refreshing when something truly personal and original like “Lady Bird” comes along. The small scale intimacy of the story about a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood in Sacramento feels raw and real, its cozy focus creating a universal anecdote that relives (with bittersweet affection) a part of life that’s filled with constantly fluctuating highs and lows. This is exactly the type of indie filmmaking that we need more of, and the awkwardly charming Greta Gerwig has hit a home run with her equally awkwardly charming directorial debut.

The film gives an unromantic glimpse into middle class life in 2002, where we meet Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), her recently laid off and depressed dad (Tracy Letts), and her hardworking, steadfast mom (Laurie Metcalf). The film is perfectly cast, with Ronan and Metcalf being the real standouts (the two are at their best when pushed into blow-up clashes between mother and daughter, an emotional tug of war between a teen impatient to break away from a hometown that’s beneath her and a mother so desperately hanging on that she’s unable to express her love and disappointment). It’s apparent the actors felt emotionally connected to the material while on set, and their performances bring a biting honesty and empathy to the family dynamics of Gerwig’s screenplay.

Gerwig has said the film is semi-autobiographical and she writes with an authentic voice, taking great care with her story (a story told with the hindsight of being a grown up). She brings a confident wisdom, an earnest insight, and a fresh voice through a witty and bright script that mirrors her true-to-life, free spirited personality. It’s as if the film exists within its own glowing aura. With Gerwig at the helm, the film has a particular hipster quirkiness written all over it, yet its sunny disposition and sharp humor is abundant with sincerity and avoids falling into the trap of being overly cynical or jaded.

The film is so observant that I could totally and wholly relate to our adolescent heroine through a realism that instantly transported me to the past. While I grew up in a different decade, some of the situations seemed like actual pages ripped out of my own high school experience. There are plenty of moments in a teenage girl’s life where the trivial becomes momentous and the momentous becomes devastating, and they are presented here with a poignant and compassionate vibrancy that I’ve rarely seen so accurately captured on film.

“Thank You for Your Service”

LOUISA: 4 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

I’m drawn to war movies that simultaneously pay tribute to our veterans yet have a staunch anti-war message, and “Thank You for Your Service” is one to add to the list of other films in that same vein (“The Deer Hunter,” “Platoon,” “Fury”). This sobering look at soldiers returning from war and the horrific emotional impact of combat suffers only briefly from flashes of predictability and overall presents a realistic portrait of PTSD.

Based on a true story from the 2013 novel of the same title by David Finkel, the film follows a trio of soldiers (Miles Teller, Beulah Koale, Joe Cole) returning from Iraq. It starts off like every other war movie as the men struggle to integrate back into civilian life. Their children barely know them, and their wives (Haley Bennett, Erin Darke) hardly recognize them anymore with their stark changes in personality. What’s shocking is that the film manages to avoid most of the usual ‘soldiers coming home’ clichés, instead painting a haunting and authentic portrait of the mental struggles of veterans who wish aloud they were disfigured or even dead rather than having to live a life trapped in a constant cycle of self-doubt and severe depression.

This is a gripping story that’s intimate and beautifully filmed. It’s a story that’s bleak, dramatic, and compelling, and it’s incredibly well acted (this is easily one of Teller’s best performances). Teller and his co-star Koale excel at portraying the sensibilities of the modern soldier, paying tribute to the men (and women) who put forth a stalwart exterior yet bury an emotional fury of pain, blame, and regret.

The story is emphatically human and intimate, not the type of film with a rah-rah patriotic message or preachy ‘Christian values’ propaganda viewpoints. In fact, this is one of the few movies about the military that doesn’t resort to any overt religious imagery. Now that’s something we should all appreciate no matter our beliefs.

This is a thought provoking and eye-opening film that presents an unflinching look at the traumatic aftermath of the tortuous mental anguish and residual torment suffered by many of our veterans. After every war there are soldiers who return carrying debilitating guilt to the point where they can no longer function as regular human beings. It’s a sadly relevant topic that explores how America fails her forgotten heroes. Shame on our country for abandoning these brave men and women who return home beaten and battered yet are turned away and unable to get basic psychological help. We have to do better and we have to be better than to let them suffer this way.

Warning for animal lovers: there is a very graphic and very disturbing dog fighting scene, so prepare yourself. It works well as a metaphor for a soldier’s wartime mentality so I understand why it was included, but it’s tough to sit through. And of course, there are plenty of disturbing, bloody war scenes involving humans too.

“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”

LOUISA: 3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

You either love him or hate him, and I am a big fan of director Yorgos Lanthimos. I feel like this is an important fact to disclose before launching into my review of his latest film, “The Killing of A Sacred Deer.” If you’re unfamiliar with Lanthimos’s work and you aren’t the type of viewer who appreciates the abstract or being challenged by film, you may want to stop reading here. For those of you who know the director (“Dogtooth,” “The Lobster“) and are fans of the grotesque and macabre, this one may be right up your alley.

Heart surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) is happily married to his ophthalmologist wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and dotes on their two perfect children, Bob (Sunny Suljic) and Kim (Raffey Cassidy). The family exists within their comfortable life in the suburbs until, after an unfortunate death on the operating table, Steven takes the deceased patient’s strange teen son Martin (Barry Keoghan) under his wing. It turns out that Martin is the incarnate of pure evil, and he issues a nightmarish ultimatum to the family that doesn’t end well for anyone.

Lathimos knows how to cast his stories with leads who have a flair for the bizarre, and even the supporting players (Alicia Silverstone, Bill Camp) add a distressing tone to the story. The acting is of note across the board, with Farrell slowly imploding as a rational man who is taken down by his own rationality in an irrational world (got it?) and Kidman deliciously understated as a mother with several emotional defects who also refuses to admit defeat. But the one to watch here is Keoghan, doing a 180 from his role in this year’s “Dunkirk” and stealing the show as a menacing, awkward, and brutal monster.

The story of domestic bliss that uncomfortably burrows into a horrific nightmare is destined to shock, offend, and disgust by design — that’s Lanthimos’s calling card after all. While this exercise is starting to get less and less jolting with each film, I’m not sure if that’s a criticism that reflects on the director so much as it reflects on the audience.

The sense of agonizing fear, formidable dread and discomfort is constant, and even more haunting is the calculated, almost inelegant pacing that’s punched up by the emotionally vacant characters. These people speak in monotones and go through the motions of life with rigid, robotic mannerisms, using as few words as necessary. It’s a bit of a genius move in the context of the story; an agitating and disquieting display that not only serves to keep the audience at a distance but builds distressing tension and suspense. You’ll not only have an emotional reaction to this film but a physical one as well.

For two hours Lanthimos pushes viewer’s buttons to the extreme, taking his time with a deliberate, slow unfolding of the story before he launches into a hypnotically idiosyncratic, disturbingly violent, savagely symbolic viewpoint that is drawn from the tragedies of Greek mythology, the harsh underbelly of human nature, and the consequences of bad decisions. This is an extremely cynical viewpoint that takes an unsettling revenge tale to a new level of alarming (and oftentimes darkly funny) absurdity (pay particular attention to the scenes in the principal’s office, a discussion about eating spaghetti, and an obsessive conversation about armpit hair).

The attention to detail is astounding, and the unnerving, stressful original score ramps up the tension to almost unbearable levels. “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” certainly is not for everyone, but those who appreciate the director’s work will find the film, and especially its finale, greatly rewarding.

“Leatherface”

MATT: 1 STAR


MATT SAYS:

“Leatherface” is a deeply unpleasant movie. I know, I know: horror movies are supposed to be unpleasant. But on a spectrum of horror films, this one leans in the direction of very, very unpleasant. And it’s also no fun.

This is at least the second time that someone has tried to tell the origin story of the titular character, who debuted in Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” The first one was 2006’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,” a film that I remember seeing but don’t remember disliking as much as I hated this one. The difference, I guess, is that Hooper was involved with executive producing “Leatherface,” whereas he had no involvement in the other film. But so what?

In “Leatherface,” we are introduced to the character as a child, when his murderous family, the Sawyer clan (led by his mother Verna (Lili Taylor)) is celebrating his birthday with, well, murder. After the family kills the wrong person, young Leather is taken away from his family to be put in a juvenile detention facility full of other murderous youth. In a shocking (not) turn of events, the boy escapes with a group of other demented killers for a blood-soaked road trip, eventually making his way back to his family home in Texas.

There’s not much to like here. Lots of gore but nothing unique or inventive. And for a film promising to tell us how Leatherface came to be, we get very little insight into his character and what motivates him. In fact, when he does begin killing it actually doesn’t feel true: in other words, nothing that came before Leather’s first kill explained how he got there (other than his family ties).

Yuck. “Leatherface” is no fun at all.

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