The Bad In Every Man

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It’s been a banner year for spectacle films, with Dunkirk delivering on the war picture, Beauty and the Beast an unquestionable musical smash hit, Thor: Ragnarok undoubtedly the best blockbuster of the year, and a litany of independent critical darlings peppered throughout. Often overlooked in trade papers and festival buzz was the resurrection of the whodunnit mystery, in the form of Murder on the Orient Express. A paragon in Agatha Christie’s repertoire and another daring project from Kenneth Branagh (he of 1993’s full-text version of Hamlet), the film is simply amazing, but like its famous detective, we must go further into the who, what, when, where and why.

After an impressive case in Jerusalem, and now in Istanbul, renowned private detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) seeks a holiday away from the crime scene. Already travelling back home, he is persuaded by a close friend of his, Mr. Bouc (Tom Bateman, Da Vinci’s Demons) to travel with him by rail on the Orient Express — first class, all expenses paid! Quickly, the lush scenery and amenities do not justify the means when duplicitous passenger Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp, Black Mass) is found dead in his cabin, and so, for the greater good, Poirot must discern a killer from a motley crew of passengers-cum-suspects — among them, governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), Doctor Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr., Red Tails), automotive dealer Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, The Magnificent Seven) missionary Pílar Estravados (Penelope Cruz, Volver), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project), widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer, Dark Shadows) and the butler (Derek Jacobi, Anonymous) and bookkeeper (Josh Gad, Beauty and the Beast) of the recently deceased.

Star-studded this may be, but this film does not get lost in starpower like so many ensemble pieces do over the years — everyone gets their moment in the spotlight, and not one suffocates the other, not even Poirot himself! This is also firmly grounded as a murder mystery, first and foremost, and you will be shocked with how things play out — I’ve never read the book on which this is based, but by all accounts, there are numerous differences between the book, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation and Branagh’s, and that has drawn much ire and anger from critics and authors alike; I regard that as a great thing, because in a day and age when anyone can look up spoilers from classic novels via a smartphone, turning one such novel on its end only helps to surprise filmgoers and book-lovers. Rest assured, this film has a twist, and it is the most daring I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Branagh’s regular cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukis (Cinderella), returns for this film, and masterfully shoots it — on 70MM film, no less! Using the last four Panavision-made 70MM film cameras, the film’s native 8K image shines, even on a digital screen as I saw it. Despite the bulk of 70MM cameras and close quarters of a train cabin set, Zambarloukis manages to impress a wide viewing area, making the viewer feel that terror can come from anywhere, not unlike a horror film. My only gripe with said cinematography is that 20th Century Fox, the film’s distributor, opted for a Los Angeles/New York-only 70MM release, which I feel was stupid, given the amount of money Dunkirk made exclusively from said film showings. Still, it’s been a great year for movies photographed on film, and here’s looking to more!

Another returning Branagh regular is composer Patrick Doyle (Thor), bringing the requisite suspense and awe to a mystery picture, but also great moments of humility and drama at the appropriate times. He also co-composed an end credits song, with Branagh providing the lyrics (as they did on Cinderella), that is sung by co-star Michelle Pfeiffer, who carries the ballad with grace and heart.

In a cover story for Entertainment Weekly, the producers of Murder on the Orient Express spoke of sequels based on other Poirot mysteries if the film did well. The film has already outdone expectations at the box office — third place is nothing to sneeze at for a film like this — and I only hope that Kenneth Branagh and Company will be able to top the absolute perfection they have done with this film. As Poirot says, “there is good, and there is bad… and then, there is you.” We’ll see you at the Oscars, Monsieur.

Rating: 5/5

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Thunderstruck

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Not many people would care to say it, but Marvel Studios’ 2011 effort at bringing Thor to the screen was a big friggin’ gamble, after the earthen adventures of the first two Iron Man films and The Incredible Hulk. Its final result, however, was masterfully helmed by Sir Kenneth Branagh was nothing short of amazing — thus, the God of Thunder quickly became my favorite Avenger. The second outing is well chronicled in the backlogs of this blog and was, I regard, the first big misstep from the House of Feige. Still, I held out hope for the third outing, but worries beset me when I heard the newly-announced director, Taiki Waititi (What We Do In The Shadows) said he was “going to take the second Thor movie and add more jokes.” Jokes, I regard, were what killed Thor: The Dark World, but having seen Waititi’s effort, I feel nothing but giddiness and contentment with what I saw!

The film opens with several king-sized bangs, as Thor (Chris Hemsworth, In the Heart of the Sea) claims the life of a gigantic monster and finds a new threat awaiting him, in the bloodlusting form of Hela (Cate Blanchett, Cinderella), the Goddess of death. Destroying his prized hammer, Mjölnir, Thor barely escapes to distant planet Sakaar, where the Contest of Champions awaits, an old friend lies captive, and old wounds look ready to burst.

Hemsworth is in better comedic form than I have ever seen him! While I stand by my comment that dedicated comedies are not for him, this is a superhero film in the hands of a sharp, talented comedic director, and that same talent only helps our hero. Tom Hiddleston (I Saw The Light) is in equally fine form, returning easily to the black wig as Loki and never once stooping to the suffocating caricature he was in The Dark World. Finally returning to the MCU is Mark Ruffalo (Begin Again) as Bruce Banner/The Incredible Hulk — the latter of whom now talks! There is no better heir to the legacies of Lou Ferrigno and Bill Bixby than Ruffalo, bringing the brawn and brain in both sides of his character! A surprising return comes in the form of Heimdall (Idris Elba, Star Trek Beyond), the Asgardian gatekeeper who has a lot to deal with this time — his return is surprising given his well-publicized disdain with the franchise, but is all the more welcome, as he’s integral to this story and the franchise’s future.

Newcomers to the franchise also shine — Tessa Thompson (Creed) does her first accent role as Valkyrie, the last of an elite Asgardian platoon, and she is fierce as can be, with a smoothness comparable to crystal rum! That being said, lots of female roles in blockbusters these days like to emulate Star Wars‘ Rey, but apart from being a scavenger, the same can’t be said of Valkyrie — she’s got a vocabulary like an acid-soaked whip and fighting skills to match, no matter how smashed she gets! Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom) is in fine, debaucherous form as The Grandmaster, he who pulls the strings in the Contest of Champions. You really want to smack him in this, because he’s a perverted jerk, but then you want to kiss him, because he’s Jeff Goldblum! Karl Urban (Pete’s Dragon) provides a comedic edge to his work as Skurge, an executioner under our villain’s payroll, and almost makes us root for said boss! Finally, Cate Blanchett — she takes another grand, villainous turn that most would be chewing the scenery in, but she manages to bring a level of humanity to such a horrid creature, one that suggests an abandoned child whose mind has filled with thoughts of vengeance. Bravo, Blanchett. Here’s hoping you make Dame by next Christmas!

The crew behind Ragnarok are integral to the films’ success — the film is brightly colored and peppered with detail, evoking memories of Mad Max: Fury Road, truly looking like a comic book without falling into the self-parody that Ang Lee’s Hulk did; see it in IMAX or IMAX 3D! The music is something else, too! Legendary composer and former Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh brings a score together that suggests the best of Patrick Doyle’s work and also Daft Punk’s score for TRON: Legacy (sidenote: fellow TRONiacs will surely appreciate the gladiatorial battle midway through the film!)

To clarify Waititi’s earlier statement, he did add more jokes, but the juvenile nature of said gags is toned down immensely — while there is one truly juvenile joke in the film, which you will surely recognize, the suddenness of its appearance actually makes it funny! The Dark World was inundated with them, so what could have remained the superhero equivalent of a Three Stooges comedy becomes that of a Marx Brothers satire, and it’s all the better. Waititi brings a comedic flair to the film reminiscent of James Gunn’s efforts in Guardians of the Galaxy, and as such, he’s not afraid to go serious when the need arises, and rest assured, there is as much at stake as there is in one of those films — one of the best examples of that is in Thor’s continued attempts at bringing Hulk back into the form of Bruce Banner, which starts off as a lighthearted gag, but evolves into genuine pathos by the time Banner becomes himself again. Also, Waititi isn’t afraid to linger with story elements — one of my biggest complaints with The Dark World was its glossing over the story in favor of naked actors, but though jokes may run deep in Ragnarok‘s DNA, it is still a film, and most great films have a narrative to follow with characters you care about! Here’s hoping Waititi is signed for more Marvel Studios ventures!

Let me reiterate, Thor is one of my favorite movies — I saw it five times in the theater! — and, until now, my favorite film in the Marvel Studios pantheon, as it has been gleefully upended by Thor: Ragnarok, one of the greatest trilogy-makers since Toy Story 3. Lusciously photographed, brilliantly scored and joyously written without a shred of fear in taking its time, this has all the makings of a classic.

Rating: 5/5