Hi readers! Work has been a bitch of late, so I haven’t had much time to post recently. Needless to say, I’m quite pissed off about that, so excuse me if this next batch of mini-reviews seem a bit terse. In any case, yours truly has been hitting the movie theaters again (which is a better medicine for my moods than hitting somebody instead), and I’ve copped my eyes on Murder on the Orient Express, Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League. Some of these films are good. Some are just.. meh. I’ll leave it up to you to guess which is which though!
(or you can just read below, no need for the false sense of mystery or whatever)
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
The last time I saw Kenneth Branagh in a movie was 1995’s Othello, which I was made to watch in an English class umpteen years ago back at high school. No doubt this was part of an attempt by teachers to instil some Shakespearean culture into me and my classmates, which wound up being as successful as teaching a dog to ski. Safe to say I haven’t exactly been keeping tabs on Branagh’s work either, but that’s not out of intention, per se. In any case, he’s definitely the central figure in Murder on the Orient Express, an adaptation of prolific whodunnit scriber Agatha Christie’s classic novel. Christie’s original book is still quite the page-turner. Unfortunately, its current-day film equivalent lacks the same kind of urgency, and despite the dutiful efforts of its A-list cast, often feels as trundling as the trans-European train ride it sets itself upon.
Set in the snowy winter of 1934, Branagh assumes the role of Belgian Hercule Poirot, unquestionably the world’s most legendary detective (sorry, Monk fans), who finds himself requiring to fulfil his duty while making his transit back to London from the Middle East by train. Mr. Poirot hitches a ride in Constantinople on the Simplon-Orient Express - a sprawling service that links Turkey in the east to the French shores of Calais in the west. He’s jumping on board with sixteen other passengers of varying stature and motive for travel, too - and none of them carry a more shrouded nature than a certain Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp). An American art forger, he comes to Poirot not long after the Express’ departure with a strange request - to act as his bodyguard in the wake of a number of threatening messages from people he believes to be from disgruntled former clients. Naturally, Poirot refuses the offer and - quelle surprise - Ratchett soon ends up dead, murdered overnight in his cabin with multiple stab wounds to the chest. The mystery is deepened still by the circumstances surrounding the shocking event; Ratchett’s cabin is found locked on the inside before his body is even discovered, and Poirot’s own witnessing of a figure in a red kimono rushing down the train carriage by the victim’s lodgings at the time of the crime only adds further intrigue. A murder is most definitely in need of solving, and as Poirot begins to discover Ratchett’s hidden past - as well as his real identity - he’ll find that a clear culprit from the suspects on board isn’t quite as obvious as it first appears.
One thing that is obvious however is the sheer amount of pedigree present in the film’s casting. Both Depp and Branagh feature in an exhaustive list that successfully manages to give Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. all screen time. And if I forgot Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi and Olivia Colman in that last sentence, it’s also because my fingers got worn out typing it.
Trouble is though, the film spends so much time focusing on Branagh - no real coincidence, given he’s directing too - that most of the others barely get a chance to shine. Dench and Cruz, as Russian royalty and a Spanish missionary respectively, are reduced to ample cameos. Ridley and Odom Jr. also go through the motions largely unchallenged, their on-screen coupling lacking energy. So it’s just as well that Dafoe and Pfeiffer offer compelling performances (the latter particularly excelling in the film’s final revelatory climax) to counter the mildly awkward nature of Branagh’s Poirot - a caricature whose Gallic effusiveness often feels too camp for the cold-blooded killing at hand.
Still, it’s certainly a beautiful looking movie, with the dramatic happenings within the Orient Express given further gravitas by the stark, snow-swept (and certainly CG) mountain peaks its railroad burrows through. And it’s still an effective murder-mystery yarn too, with the film able to deliver a couple of punches to keep it from descending into doldrums. But it never really feels tense enough. Branagh’s unbalanced direction also struggles constantly to keep a tab on all of the clues, red herrings and big reveals that it digs up, resulting in a middle that dodders around on the brink of full apathy. Somehow it all stumbles into an ending that is just about worth the wait, and also hints at a follow-up in the guise of another Christie classic, Death on the Nile. Whether such a sequel gets made remains to be seen. For now, Murder on the Orient Express should be adequate viewing for most murder-mystery junkies - but only if you’ve already seen all of ITV’s Poirot, and David Suchet’s enduringly superior offering in the lead role. 6/10
Like the rising of the sun, the gridlock of a Los Angeles freeway or another idiotic herald from the POTUS to the Twitterverse, the release of a new Marvel movie seems to be a daily bloody occurrence. I feel like I repeat myself every single time I review these movies, so here’s the gist of Thor: Ragnarok: If you have no qualms over yet another grandiose action superhero movie in the usual Marvel fashion, with epic battle scenes and goofy comedy skits, you’ll be fine with it. If you’re not, then actually, you might still be fine with it anyway? Because it’s still a thunderously good movie despite the repetition of its formula.
Maybe the reason Ragnarok continues Marvel’s relentlessly good form at the box office is simply because it’s about time Thor (Chris Hemsworth) got a good side movie. While it’s practically impossible to imagine the God of Thunder appearing on-screen without Hemsworth himself in the role, previous solo films have been, shall we say, only kinda decent. The original Thor has aged rapidly since its release six years ago, and The Dark World sprang up a conflict with Dark Elves that ultimately wasn’t all that bright either (pun intended). So what does Ragnarok have to offer instead? Well, as the name might imply, there’s the possibility of an apocalyptic destruction for Thor’s home realm of Asgard, plus the return of Loki (Tom Hiddleston) as well as appearances for both the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). And also, we get to bear witness to Jeff Goldblum fulfilling a role as ruler of an alien garbage planet where gladiatorial combat is the only way to freedom for most of its slave inhabitants. So, yeah - safe to say this has a bit more going for it than previous Thor efforts.
Ragnarok also introduces another one of Thor’s Norse god siblings to serve as main nemesis in the form of Hela (Cate Blanchett). Being the goddess of death, she’s a being so powerful that she’s been locked in a trans-dimensional prison for years which is bound shut only by the lifeforce of Thor and Loki’s father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). Which would be fine, if not for the fact that Odin soon tells his sons that he’s dying, and that his time of passing is upon them. As soon as Odin bites the dust, Hela is freed from her imprisonment - leading to her immediately using her new-found freedom to seize a ruler-less Asgard and expand its empire with a conquest upon the universe. It’s not as though Thor and Loki can really stop her - she breaks Thor’s hammer in the battle that ensues, and manages to fling the pair of them to an unknown corner of the cosmos thanks to a little assistance from the Bifrost Bridge, Asgard’s portal to the rest of space.
Ultimately, Thor winds up crash-landing into the planet of Sakaar, a sprawling junkyard of a world that happens to be the dominion of the despotic Grandmaster (Goldblum), an individual with a penchant for throwing any would-be prisoners into gladiatorial fights to the death for the entertainment of his people. Thor wouldn’t count himself among such unfortunate folks if not for the fact that he’s rescued - and then sold to the Grandmaster - by a ruthless bounty hunter named Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson). Scrapper is naturally an alias - she’s really Valkyrie, one of the few remaining Valkyrior warriors of Asgard who survived the battle to banish Hela to confinement in the first place, and who seems to have turned her back on her once-honourable past. But before he can even persuade her to turn once again, free him and help him in his bid to defeat Hela once and for all, Thor has a much larger problem to contend with inside the battle arenas he’s now condemned to. A Hulk-sized problem, in fact. Bruce Banner’s big green alter ego has also wound up on Sakaar following his stranding upon Ultron’s ship at the end of the last Avengers movie, and he’s Thor’s first opponent in combat. Certainly, the self-proclaimed ‘Strongest Avenger’ has a few obstacles to take care of first before he can even reunite with his new-found, war-monging sister - especially now that he doesn’t have a hammer to negotiate them with.
Of course, he does eventually get through them - if he wouldn’t, it’d make Avengers: Infinity War a little awkward. Obviously, it’s the ‘how’ rather than the ‘if’ of Ragnarok’s premise that is required to provide the justification for this effort, and the movie packs more than enough action, drama and tongue-in-cheek humour to leave any cynic appeased. Creatively, there’s a bit of variety beyond the usual Norse mysticism too. The opening sequence, a battle between Thor and the demon (as well as long-time franchise villain) Surtur within the firey realm of Muspelheim, packs enough hellish beasts and spurting lava to make for a great metal album cover. Meanwhile, the planet Sakaar offers generous helpings of Guardians of the Galaxy-esque space fantasy - no bad thing at all, considering a brilliantly cast (and hilariously on form) Jeff Goldblum is its focal point. As for the rest of the newcomers, Blanchett as Hela makes for a memorable and enjoyable villain, while Thompson as the rogue-ish, booze-loving Valkyrie means that the Thor saga finally gets an interesting female anti-hero of its own. It’s quite an achievement just how Marvel continues to find acting talent who can seamlessly sift themselves into its still-expanding universe without them ever looking out of place. Kudos should go to Taika Waititi’s direction for maintaining that habit, as well as to the man himself for providing an entertaining voice cameo for Korg, the most amusing and amiable of Thor’s gladiatorial inmates on Sakaar.
As for the rest, it’s the same ol’ Marvel stuff. Hemsworth continues to excel as Thor. Hiddleston does the same as Loki. Cumberbatch’s fleeting appearance as Dr. Strange is good fun. Idris Elba also turns up in the latter stages to kick ass once again as Heimdall. The epic arena duel between Thor and Hulk deserves every second of the trailer that it got, and if you still need more epic battles, incredible special effects and destruction on an intergalactic level - well there’s still quite a good deal more of that too. It might just be mere filler until Avengers: Infinity War hits screens, but Ragnarok is still fine filler nonetheless. 8/10
As consistent as Marvel has been with the high standard of its outings, the story of DC Comics’ cinematic fortunes have been more about the consistency of their film-on-film improvement. Batman v Superman was a confused mess, Suicide Squad was a surprisingly fun mess, and Wonder Woman wasn’t a mess at all - it was excellent, in fact. All evidence would therefore suggest that Justice League would be a continuation in this upward curve - maybe even an Avengers beater. Unfortunately, what we get is a film that, while still markedly better than Batman v Superman, lacks both energy and a good script. Justice League is a significant disappointment, a premise squandered somewhere in the confusion of Joss Whedon and Zack Snyder trying to make a good movie out of a production marred by an extravagant budget, reshoots and personal tragedies. Nonetheless, it still carries some great set pieces and a few revelations to make it worth the viewing effort. But along with that, it also means we’re back to talking about the potential of DC’s movies to be great, rather than the actuality of it.
To suggest that Justice League’s plot is also pinching a few ideas from Marvel narratives would also be a fair take. The movie primarily centers itself around the aftermath of Batman v Superman, where Superman’s death has rocked the world and made it vulnerable to attack from practically any outer-space villain with an eye on conquest. Sure enough, one in particular has already begun an invasion. Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), an alien military commander who presides over an army of creatures known as Parademons, seeks to regain the fabled Infinity Stones - sorry, Mother Boxes - to obtain enough power to achieve his aim. Turns out he possessed them centuries ago during the last time he tried to invade Earth, but all the different forces of ‘good’ - the Amazons, the Atlanteans and Men - rose up, kicked his ass and then locked the Mother Boxes away in their respective realms. Superman’s death somehow means that Steppenwolf is free again to try and get them back (although there was a good deal of time when Superman wasn’t around to stop him, so I dunno), and that’s exactly what he’s chosen to do, with giant axe and silly helmet in tow.
Steppenwolf’s ambitions have been met with a modicum of defiance from Batman (Ben Affleck), who’s been battling an incursion of Parademons in and around Gotham City. Gotham is but one region needing protection though, and Bruce Wayne only knows too well that without Superman, the only option is to unite the world’s superheroes to replace the planet-wide shield lost through the Kryptonian’s demise. With Steppenwolf also setting his sights on the Mother Boxes hidden within Themyscira and Atlantis, he looks to get Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) and Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) - Wonder Woman and Aquaman - on board to form an alliance. College athlete turned cybernetic war machine Victor Stone / Cyborg (Ray Fisher) is also headhunted for a place in the team, as is Barry Allen - better known as The Flash (Ezra Miller), who for some reason has been cast as an irritating Millennial stereotype. Daft characterizations aside, there’s an omnipotent super-villain to fight and a world to save. But can this new-found Justice League put aside their own differences to do so? Or will it take the still-lingering legacy of Superman himself to turn the tide?
Regardless of its numerous flaws - and we’ll certainly get to those - Justice League definitely entertains with the generous amount of time it dedicates to hard-hitting action sequences and set pieces. Most of them might be inundated with the kind of CG that made Batman v Superman appear so ingenuine, but they’re still very satisfying. Steppenwolf’s battle with the Amazons, as well as his eventual showdown with the Justice League climax, are definitely the highlights, but they’re highlights of what is still a very good film from the perspectives of special effects and superhuman battling. The problem is that when the Justice League isn’t busy saving the day, they’re much more busy struggling to connect with each other - and I don’t mean that in terms of the plot narrative.
Justice League’s script is surprisingly lousy, and resorts to too many strong-armed characterizations of its protagonists - especially the new arrivals - to get its plot down. Affleck is still a decent Batman, but still better as Bruce Wayne. The overt suggestions the film makes to show his crime-fighting persona to be completely dependant on gadgetry and money also diminish him somewhat - it just feels like a clumsy attempt to annul the mythos surrounding the character following the Christopher Nolan movies. With Jason Momoa, at least we have a ‘cool’ Aquaman, but the script doesn’t allow him to be anything else, but ‘cool’. Ray Fisher as Cyborg has some interesting scenes with his on-screen father Silas (Joe Morton) regarding his past and his coming-to-be, but he too, isn’t given much else to do apart from brood and offer motion capture. As for The Flash, one can only tolerate his faux-nerd schtick for so long. It isn’t necessarily Ezra Miller’s fault that practically every awful one-liner he’s given caters to grating hipster parody, but it is his fault that he clearly enjoys delivering them. But the most troubling aspect of all is that just isn’t enough energy or chemistry between the five of them. Affleck and Gadot play off each other well, but the rest never feel like they’re anything more than token allies, unable to offer their own unique dynamic to the collective, a la the Avengers.
And we still haven’t even mentioned the likes of Lois Lane (Amy Adams), Martha (Diane Lane), Alfred (Jeremy Irons) and more, who all show up here in some degree. I left another important character out too, because spoilers are still a thing even at the end of a film’s theater life. But ultimately, none of them are able to raise Justice League up from being anything more than a passable superhero flick - one in which a bunch of flagship superheroes struggle to overcome a particularly bland CG villain, as well as their own lack of kinship with one another. They’re certainly not the Avengers - in fact on this showing, they’re not even close. 6/10