Roman J. Israel, Esq.
by Philip Price
Rome and Israel. They share quite the history with one another; a history that is splattered with wars over ideals some of which deal in economics, but those most notably that deal in religious and/or philosophical dealings. In the latest from writer/director Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”) it seems the use of these two titles that exist in the realm of common knowledge as opposing forces is to illustrate another kind of philosophical war-the one within a person who has principles, a code of ethics he has lived by his entire life, and the choice to betray those principles, a choice he is totally justified in, due in large part to the fact the world doesn't understand him. One could draw many conclusions as to why Gilroy might have chosen these two words to identify the unlikely hero of his story, but it seems to make the most obvious sense that Rome and Israel are these two ideas, these two kinds of states of consciousness that are constantly at odds with one another. In “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” these two pillars of opposing thought form the basis of Denzel Washington's character, a savant of sorts who has worked behind the curtain at a law firm for thirty plus years while his partner, an unseen enigma of a man who was nicknamed "The Bulldog", handled all the courtroom dealings that Roman didn't have the desire nor the social skills to navigate. It is when our titular character is unexpectedly put under this spotlight and then further humiliated by the realization he's invested his life in a practice that has seemingly invested nothing in him that he comes to this fork in the road where his ideals no longer seem to matter and so the point or validity in continuing to try to fight for them is futile. On a broad scope that all may sound like a fancy way of saying this film deals in themes of doing what one feels is right for the recognition and doing what one feels is right because it's right and the difference in character that dictates the difference in intent, but “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” goes a little deeper than that for Washington's Roman gladly worked in the shadows for years doing work he needed little recognition for, but that he at least thought was making a difference. When Roman is forced to awake from his routine he comes to realize the system he has worked under all these years has allowed for little change after all, but has instead been replaced by a world that isn't based around right or wrong or bad or good, but more around what deal can be made to avoid circumstance if possible.
For the first hour or so “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” was shaping up to be one of my favorite movies of the year as it has this insatiable appetite to dissect and devour the justice system as well as both its strengths and shortcomings through the eyes of a character who, by nature, would seemingly be unable to comprehend the minutia in between the black and white-the informalities of the system, if you will. Roman doesn't do informalities, you see. Roman is the kind of guy that has a massive record collection at his small apartment in New York City as well as over eight hundred songs on his dated iPod that he listens to constantly with the same pair of (Sony) headphones. Another constant is JIF peanut butter as it is seemingly stocked to never run out in Roman's small apartment where he eats a sandwich over the sink for dinner every night. Roman, as someone who is clearly on the spectrum, desires order and consistency in as many aspects of his existence as possible. Consistency is comfort. Through this mindset, and through what is another stellar Denzel Washington performance, we are brought into a world where that comfort is being threatened daily which causes both compassion on the part of the viewer because we sympathize with Roman's situation while also intrigue with how such a character will handle the sudden and dramatic shifts his life is taking. It is in this first hour that these kinds of avenues are explored and investigated-leading Roman to make friends with a local leader of a civil rights group in Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo) with whom he finds someone, the rare person, that sees him for who is, what he's sacrificed, and the good he can genuinely do as well as Roman's new boss at a new law firm run by a former student of his long-standing partner, the flashy George Pierce (Colin Farrell). George is more interested in profit than he is bettering the world which initiates this conflict in Roman that he's never had to invest effort in before. While the film never outright states what Pierce's intentions are or how sincere some of his proclamations are meant to be taken, though some are clearly telegraphed to be generalized boilerplate for the sake of gaining business, this leads one to believe Farrell might be a bit miscast here due to extenuating circumstances that have to deal with roles played in the past, but overall these avenues in which Roman travels create interesting questions of identity and even more layers for Washington to play while at the same time continuing to reveal plot points that are engaging so as to not allow the film to lose itself in these thoughts of the nature of how we all continue to tick. It is in finding this balance that the first hour or so of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” reaches moments of inspired greatness.
At one point in the film a woman asks Roman what the Esquire on the end of his name means to which he replies that it is a title of dignity, just above a gentleman and just below a knight, in the legal arena. It is seemingly another example of Roman's taste for the formalities of life, but as this pattern comes into question the film becomes more about how far Roman will go to the other side before realizing he's fallen victim to a perspective he could never truly believe in. This becomes the crux of the movie, but is positioned as that beginning of the third act slump where we typically see a character mess-up, or ruin whatever was going their way so that they might redeem themselves in the climactic act of the film. What Gilroy might be saying with the fact the moment this man, Roman J. Israel, turned on his principal that he then falls victim to the pitfalls of such a lifestyle rather than prosper in it could mean something, but I'm not sure I've quite settled on an opinion yet. As Roman clearly states, "he's tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful." It's a great line (and make no mistake, Gilroy has come up with a handful of solid ones here) and it summarizes the breaking point we see Roman reach perfectly. This is a character we've come to care about and are invested in-this is a man who would risk his well-being for an instance of righteousness when most of us live day to day hoping we aren't forced to make such choices-who turns away from the truths he's always believed upon realizing the movement he once stood for no longer stands with him; it has morphed into something else that Roman can't fully comprehend. This realization he is a man out of time is legitimately heartbreaking and understandably complex. Gilroy never forces these complexities on the audience though, for they can be as layered as one wants to see them-Washington certainly offers a performance worthy of and that could withstand heavy scrutiny and the picking apart of-but “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” could just as easily be about little more than a man who decides to abandon the conflicting ideas in his head, the effort it takes to have as much, and the decision to look out for himself for once. Roman concludes after the succession of events in the first act that purity can't survive in this world and maybe he's right, but there is always those, such as Maya, who can't believe as much it true. It doesn't seem Gilroy can convince himself of this either, for as much darkness and pessimism that is present in his screenplay it is impossible to believe a man who ends his film with a The Spinners track doesn't believe there is some good in the world. Speaking shortly to the extraneous factors that add to the overall feel of the film, James Newton Howard's score feels appropriately dated in its use of a haunting choir that serves the tone in a more suggestively epic way than expected. Robert Elswit's (“There Will Be Blood”) cinematography is also to be noted as it captures Los Angeles in this light that doesn't feel familiar whereas the whole concept of Roman and who he is, the staples of his appearance, and what Washington is doing with these to better inspire interest in the arc of this character are each element that only enhance this complicated, but involving character study.
It is at about the halfway point of the film (the movie runs just over two hours) that one can feel the shift in tone that Gilroy employs to begin the back-half of the discussion he's started on identity and how we balance doing what is best for us and what is best for all of us. While Gilroy walks the line between story and plot to impressive degrees what ultimately stands to not necessarily be the downfall, but more so the less interesting side of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is the fact Gilroy more or less paints himself into a corner where there can be only one way in which the majority of what he has set in motion resolves itself in a realistic and rather dignified manner and so this second half of the film comes to be more a confirmation of what we know has to happen in order for the movie to have the necessary impact rather than a movie that continues to surprise the viewer in the perspective it takes on the material and the themes it is tackling. And yet, despite this slight level of predictability I still found myself invested in these characters-hoping against all odds that Gilroy might come up with a way in which to avoid the obvious conclusions viewers would draw and instead wrap his story up in a satisfying, but maybe even more profound way than could be gleaned from where it seemed everything was headed. And while the second half of the film certainly doesn't derail the movie completely it certainly knocked it down a few pegs for me as it went from being a movie that puts its own spin on the character study by utilizing a unique set of circumstances and a different persona Washington has yet to explore onscreen to the kind of conspiracy drama that feels the need to push actions on its characters that might otherwise fall outside the realm of that grounded reality of social activism that roots the first hour so strongly. Like “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy uses this very particular, very strong personality as an "in" to discuss an aspect of society that he finds fascinating and so, while “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is meant to be a conversation around the judicial system and the decline of activism in general, it becomes so much about the arc of its titular character that the latter part of the film feels like it's trying to recover a handful of the scenes that dissect these conversation pieces. The uncompromising nature of Roman and how it applies to this world of the judicial system and activist groups that he once felt a part of is arguably the better way to convey Gilroy's main ideas anyway, but the movie seems to feel as if it needs to make up for lost ground when, to have followed this character who is his own worst enemy through to a natural conclusion instead of a more concocted one might have allowed this to rank among the best of 2017. I get it though, endings are tough.
by Philip Price
At the heart of all Pixar films there is a journey. There’s the journey to get the thing or the person to the place to save the day. This is a template Disney and Pixar have used time and time again to ensure a structure and beats that the youngest of audience members can seemingly recognize and appreciate, but I didn’t consider this initially. As an adult viewer I was simply bummed to discover that the studio was once again leaning on this crutch in “Coco” in order to convey what seemed to be a unique narrative from a marginalized culture. “Inside Out” did the same thing when it took these original ideas and concepts it had and then used them in service of the hero’s journey arc we've seen countless times before, and especially in films whose target audience is largely children. What “Inside Out” did to ultimately reverse this expectation by the end of the film was to of course use that template in service of those original ideas and concepts to explore them as well as the ideas and themes the filmmakers were keen on conveying. It worked. I teared up. “Coco” more or less does the same thing in that this is a heroes journey of self-discovery for our protagonist, Miguel (voice of Anthony Gonzalez), and it is an entertaining one at that, but while these familiar beats are present to allow the younger audience members a sense of connection and understanding it is the emotional strands of family, legacy, and pride in that family history that are woven throughout this otherwise standard structure to be the connective tissue for what “Coco” is truly meant to represent. This dawned on me as the credits began to roll and I was feeling content with what I'd just experienced if not bowled over by the visual prowess that Pixar is now achieving, but as I looked down at my three-year old daughter sitting next to me and asked her if she enjoyed the movie it became obvious as to why there needs to be this accessible structure by which the character's and their story arcs relate to younger viewer's otherwise Pixar would strictly be making films for adults. Pixar does make films for adults wrapped in the facade of colorful children's fables, we've known this for years, but with “Coco” it became more evident why this approach has been so important in that, as my three-year old grows up and continues to watch “Coco,” she will only gain more from it on each viewing. In this way, “Coco” carries on the great tradition of Pixar while continuing to diversify and expand that special brand it has now seemingly perfected.
Beginning with a great epilogue as told through the decorations hanging in the small village where our story takes place we are first informed of the history of the Rivera clan and why they have been shoemakers for generations upon generations as well as the small detail of why they hate music and why everyone in the Rivera family has been banned from both listening to and playing music. Naturally, this restrictive (and frankly ridiculous) rule against music doesn't jive well with the young and exuberant Miguel (I get it, it's a plot point, but so extreme!) as he idolizes a famed singer known as Ernesto de la Cruz (voice of Benjamin Bratt) who has long since died, but is still known as one of the greatest musicians in the history of Mexico. We come to meet Miguel on Día de los Muertos, the Mexican day of the dead, where Miguel's family is preparing their altars and food in honor of family members who have died before them. While Miguel struggles with his identity as part of the Rivera ancestry and wanting to strike up his guitar and perform in front of his small village of Santa Cecilia it is his Abuelita (voice of Renée Victor) who puts her foot (which may or may not have a shoe on it, depending on if she's thrown it at Miguel yet) down definitively on where Miguel's future stands. His parents, Luisa (voice of Sofía Espinosa) and Enrique (voice of Jaime Camil), side wholly with Abuelita though Miguel's great-grandmother, Mamá Coco (voice of Ana Ofelia Murguia), seems to still have a soft spot for the sounds and melodies music produces despite it being her mother, Imelda (voice of Alanna Ubach), who banned music in the first place due to Coco's musician father walking out on his wife and daughter when Coco was only a small girl. Despite his family's words of warning Miguel can't help but to want to play music, signing up for a talent show that takes place in the town square on the night of Dia de los Muertos. The only problem is, Miguel needs an instrument-a guitar-to play his music ultimately deciding his only option is to break into the mausoleum of de la Cruz and steal his guitar. However, during obtaining the guitar Miguel becomes a type of ghost unable to be seen or heard by the living except for Dante, a street dog he's taken to. In the cemetery, Miguel meets his deceased relatives who are surprised that Miguel can see them and is there with them and immediately connect it with Imelda's inability to cross to the other side. This prompts his family to take Miguel with them to Land of the Dead, an afterlife dimension where the deceased live outside of being able to come visit their relatives on Día de los Muertos.
There are several things in “Coco” that are worth noting, but what struck me almost immediately was the flawlessness of the images and the rendering of this fully fabricated world that felt tangible in ways Pixar hasn’t reached before. There are certain shots in “Coco” where the animation combined with the camera movement make it feel as if one could visit this Land of the Dead if they so desired. It’s visceral and immersive which aren’t terms I use lightly, but it is arguably the movie’s strongest trait. Both the unprecedented quality of the animation as well as the world building that occurs. To draw comparisons once more with “Inside Out” the environment that is Riley’s brain, while layered and inventive, can’t touch the authenticity that is the norm in “Coco.” This Land of the Dead is a real, lived-in community where the world economy is solely based on the memories of the living. The currency and therefore the livelihood of these spirits, these already dead, but still very much alert beings, depend on how great their legacy lives on in the hearts and minds of those who knew them. And so, someone like de la Cruz, who was adored by millions, continues to live a lavish after life whereas someone such as Héctor (voice of Gael García Bernal), who can’t even cross over to the land of the living on Dia de los Muertos because no one puts out his picture, stands to be forgotten completely and is relegated to the slums. It is in the introduction of Héctor that the film begins to really dig into both this world as well as some of the deeper themes writers Matthew Aldrich and Adrian Molina (“The Good Dinosaur”), who co-directed the film with Lee Unkrich (“Toy Story 3”), are interested in discussing. While the animators spoil the audience in lavish production designs-wide and aerial shots of the neon-lit cityscape of the Land of the Dead are worth the price of admission alone-and fantastical creatures that are typically a mash-up of a jungle animal and wings as viewed under the most intense black light ever and come to be known as spirit creatures are among other visual treats “Coco” consistently delivers, but as it turns out it is actually Héctor that comes to serve as the audiences spiritual guide through both the Land of the Dead and the movie itself. You see, “Coco” does this weird thing where it begins with an intriguing enough concept through this celebration of Día de los Muertos, but if you saw “The Book of Life” from a few years ago you'll quickly realize this isn't the most original lens through which to take this journey of self-discovery, but Pixar knows that if the story itself is striking enough that similarities in look and tone and backdrop will come to matter very little. This is true as “Coco” quickly steeps us in the Rivera experience, reminding us that we're all more alike than we are different, before plunging us into the thick of the plot where we already know we'll be satisfied with the outcome because this world that has been created is so exciting to exist within. Where the movie gets you though, is with the introduction of Héctor and the realities of the afterlife we come to be made aware of through Miguel's interaction with him that strengthens that connective tissue.
Legacy is something that has seemingly always been squabbled about. Specifically, the conflict of whether it is more important that you make a great and lasting impact on those closest to you that you love and who love you back or if the more venerated path of being regarded with great respect and honor by countless numbers of people, most of whom one will never meet, is the more rewarding one. “Coco” gives one of its characters this choice, exemplifies the inner-struggle associated with said choice, and then adds tragedy to it by sprinkling in plot points that serve to emphasize the constructs of this world they’ve built. That connective tissue specifically coming into play when a character, a dead character, must ask themselves if they’re going to be remembered long enough to see the ancestor who is the last one to remember them one final time. It was this moment in the film when what Aldrich, Molina and Unkrich were trying to accomplish hit me in a way I didn’t expect and frankly, wasn’t prepared for. There are tons of movies every year that claim to be about the importance of family, but often times these “messages” feel more like scape goats of morals given the broad range of examples that can be shuffled under such an umbrella idea, but with “Coco” it's clear this isn’t just a message or vague thesis, but something the movie genuinely means when drawing these supporting characters who are deeply concerned with those who come after them and how they are remembered; not only for their own sake, but because it is vital to them that they make their family proud. This is the lesson Miguel must ultimately learn. It’s not about defying your family out of spite, but earning their respect to feel blessed with their endorsement in any path you choose. Everyone needs a support system and “Coco” is most genuine in relaying why it’s vital to keep those ties that bind as strong as possible. Yes, the film can be fairly predictable and if you’ve seen any movie ever in your life you can probably see a certain twist coming from a mile away (my wife and I figured it out about mid-way through the second act), but this goes back to the story beats not being for the adults-these are for the kids and these are fine enough as they are-for Pixar saves the more poignant idea of not being relegated to being one of the forgotten that dissipates even in the afterlife for the adult gut punch just when you think you might get out unscathed. This was always next to impossible, especially considering the added value of Michael Giacchino’s score and a handful of original songs penned by “Frozen” songwriting duo Kristen Anderson-Lopez and her husband Robert Lopez, but while Coco may feel familiar in certain aspects it is truly a startlingly beautiful contemplation on the ones we leave behind, what we leave them with, and how resolved we need to feel when our time comes for the sake of our own contentedness. It’s heavy stuff for a PG-rated adventure/comedy so it’s a good thing those tropes and that predictability are there to rope in the movie from becoming too heavy-handed leaving us with this engulfing, enjoyable, and meaningful film that can be embraced by the whole family because it’s about family in the truest sense of the word.
by Philip Price
Sometimes we forget there is more to the movies than entertainment. Sometimes, it seems, we forget that there can be more to a story than information, simple insight, or distraction, but rather that a story can genuinely move you. I mean, truly move you to the point it inspires a change in mentality, a refreshed outlook, or even just a slight alteration in compassion. As sappy and excessively sweet as it may sound that is what “Wonder” does. It is a movie that has all the trappings of a melodramatic dramedy that plays on the sentimentalities of the audience in false ways and if you're a seasoned movie-goer of any kind it's easy to see why this would be pinpointed as such. The trailers and other marketing material have made “Wonder” look like something that ranks somewhere between a Hallmark made-for-TV movie and an after school special that shows children the repercussions of bullying, but walking out of the theater it is beyond evident that this movie is so much more than these dismissive descriptions would have you believe. “Wonder” never succumbs to the sappiness of it all, but more importantly is when it does reach for its peak emotional moments or dare to try to move the audience-it owns it completely. “Wonder” is a movie aware of what it is meant to do without being self-aware in the slightest. The word is humble. “Wonder” is a movie that defines being respectable without having to feel like it needs to announce its importance; it just is. Manipulative by nature, but unassuming and wholly modest in its execution writer/director Stephen Chbosky (“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) finds the perfect balance in understanding the specifics of what his movie is intended to accomplish while making the audience wholly aware of it without flat-out exploiting their emotions. As a dad though, this thing hit me right where it was supposed to and while I understand that what is presented on screen is to a large degree a completely manufactured world where the schools are exaggerated, family time is strictly mandated, and there seems no financial concerns whatsoever these are also all things that aren't critical to the main idea and morality that the film is trying to convey and much can be forgiven when your movie promotes a simple idea like kindness this well and moves you this effectively.
The first time I heard about “Wonder” was in a text from my wife asking if I'd heard anything about an upcoming movie. I hadn't, but I was curious as to why she suddenly seemed so eager and excited when anticipating movies wasn't typically something she made a hobby out of. Turns out my wife, who is a high school librarian and reads A LOT, was during the novel of the same name that this Stephen Chbosky adaptation is based on. The book, a New York Times bestseller by author RJ Palacio, is by all accounts a solid piece of work that is genuinely moving and heartfelt as the wife described it as a work that nearly every middle schooler she encountered had read with some teachers even electing to teach the book as a part of their curriculum. This speaks to the resounding positivity of the book and how much it has resonated with the generation first introduced to it while also speaking to its popularity. While I personally only read the first three or so chapters for nothing other than lack of time prior to seeing the movie it is fairly evident from the get-go that screenwriter Steve Conrad (“The Pursuit of Happyness”) as well as Chbosky were keen on giving the material an accurate presentation as not only does “Wonder,” the movie, remain candid and conscious of itself in terms of the characters understanding where they stand in their family and in society, but a few title cards hint at the approach to structure the film will have which, while I knew the book utilized multiple perspectives, was somewhat surprised the movie decided to adapt this aspect as well. Given “Wonder” is essentially about a boy with a physical deformity front and center on his face who is tasked with going to public school for the first time in his life as he gets ready to embark on the fifth grade the film might elect to solely follow our protagonist's journey with anecdotes filling in the exteriors that concern those in his family as well as the friends and enemies he inevitably males. By not doing this though, Chbosky makes it clear that he isn't interested in only how August Pullman, Auggie for short, deals with his deformity and the life that comes because of it, but how as much informs the lives of those around him. It's a tool to better demonstrate that this isn't a black and white situation of bullies and victims or of good and bad, but a world of opinions and perspectives that can draw everyone to different and/or opposing conclusions even if all anyone wants is the same peace and happiness. As Auggie, Jacob Tremblay (“Room”) is certainly still the star of the film, but Auggie is as much a reminder of the kindness that needs to exist in this world as his sister, his father, and his mother come to be.
As he did in adapting his own work with “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Chbosky is able to take a broad canvas of potential emotions and narrow it down to the specifics of those characters whose lives his film is zeroing in on. This is always the best alternative when it comes to dealing in movie that carries a lesson or reminder as the face of what the audience is being told is more than obvious, but by dialing the details back to certain individuals and chronicling how we each tend to deal with daily struggles “Wonder” automatically becomes more personal. Beginning with Auggie, the film allows the audience to be privy to the anxiety he feels about going to school for the first time along with the lack of transparency he picks up on when dealing with his parents, Nate (Owen Wilson) and Isabel (Julia Roberts), and their opposing views on if sending Auggie to public school at this moment in time is the right decision. Auggie isn’t an only child though, despite the fact his older sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), sometimes feels as if he is. Initially we peg Via as one of the most understanding humans on the planet, just as her parents do, but we soon come to understand the extent of the pain and loneliness she is feeling. Vidovic never makes Via the archetypal scorned other sibling who comes to resent her younger brother though, but instead Via goes and reaches her breaking points in quiet away from those she loves because it’s true-she understands why things are the way they are and is compassionate to that fact. As the narrative continues, Via becomes one of the more engaging characters for the layers that have lent her in terms of her own friendships with Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) and its inherent drama as well as a budding relationship between herself and fellow dramaturge Justin (Nadij Jeter). It is in Via’s thread that “Wonder” especially reinforces this idea that there are not only two sides to every story, but that there are often many shades of gray to both sides. We are given Via’s perspective on her little brother, but are pulled into her issues with Miranda only to also be given Miranda’s story which ultimately comes to be something not so easily pegged and specific to the point it's more honest than might be expected from a movie that is coated with as much sweetness as the façade that has been painted upon “Wonder” does. The same is true of Auggie and the friends he eventually encounters at school that include Jack Will (Noah Jupe, who was one of the two redeeming qualities in last month’s “Suburbicon” and is so obviously destined to be a movie star), Summer (Millie Davis), as well as class bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar). Julian may not necessarily come to be more than we think he is, but the movie brings more understanding to why he is the way he is. This is all to say that “Wonder” may initially seem little more than surface deep with its outwardly schmaltzy premise and spotless aesthetic, but the more you get to know the characters the more it seems this was done intentionally to reinforce that basic principle of not judging a book by its cover.
Furthermore, a key point in the film’s success is also knowing its own limits. Never does Chbosky attempt to go bigger or deeper than he needs to which, either way, might have veered the film into confusing territory tonally. Rather, the writer/director utilizes his all-star cast and inherent charm of the well-intentions the film carries to take his film through to its genuinely affecting conclusion. Full disclosure: I didn’t necessarily expect “Wonder” to be a bad movie and I certainly thought it seemed to have the potential to be an inspiring tale in ways that had been done and seen before, but never in a million years did I think that it would give me the type of gut punch that it does in the third act when a key moment happens that includes the whole of the Pullman clan and specifically Roberts’ Isabel having a moment of clarity and realization that is something I tend to struggle with on a daily basis. It is this thought of time, of actual quality time, and the impression, and vitality of spending time with your family and your children that wracks a parent with constant guilt and concern. What is enough? What is too much? When being present am I the best version of myself I can be for them? Roberts communicates this flood of emotions in a single look and an isolated moment that Chbosky and his editor cut together expertly to accomplish that balance of nailing the idea that needs to be communicated without stating it explicitly. Considering this it should also be noted just how good movie star Julia Roberts is in this role and I reiterate “movie star” Julia Roberts exactly for the reason of saying that if anyone ever needed proof as to why Roberts has been a staple of Hollywood royalty for so long now, “Wonder” is a fine example of just that. And while I wish the movie would have given Wilson more to do (or at least told us what the guy does for a living) it is something of an unspoken understanding from the outset that, as the stay at home parent, Isabel is the one who factors more strongly into the minds of her children and it is her approval, her attention, and her love that is almost more meaningful than that of the goofy dad who makes sure everyone is taken care of and always has something to laugh about. That isn’t to say Wilson doesn’t fit this specific bill perfectly, he does and is growing into roles such as this quite nicely, but knowing that the actor is capable of more while not having the opportunity to show as much in a movie like this is a little disappointing. Both Mandy Patinkin as Auggie’s principal and Daveed Diggs as Auggie’s homeroom teacher should be noted as well as both have key scenes that could have played as little more than mawkish, but both come across as times you want to literally stand up and cheer. Of course, “Wonder” has a few shortcomings in the form of one too many tacked on endings and a fight scene that plays false, but again this is a movie that clearly states what it is and what it wants to teach you while simultaneously being an introspective and sensitive piece that states and tell its audience these things in the most earnest fashion possible.
by Philip Price
I guess I should start out by saying that I am and always have been a fan of Zack Snyder. Without much effort I can recall sitting in the theater and experiencing “Dawn of the Dead” along with that moment when it clicked that this wasn't just a fun horror flick, but it was a good movie. I can remember seeing “300” several times if not for the admittedly thin story, but for the ways in which the director was pushing the boundaries of the visual medium. My heart almost dropped out of my chest upon first glimpsing that opening credits sequence to “Watchmen” in glorious IMAX and with “Man of Steel” it felt as if Superman had never been so epic; that the whole scope of his being had been presented, warts and all, even if most didn't agree that Superman should have warts. I loved “Man of Steel” and to a certain degree, I loved “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” as well. I'm not one to say that film is without its flaws, there is a convoluted nature to the proceedings that are unnecessary, and it devolves into a CGI crapfest for the last 40 minutes, but for me ‘BvS’ was very much a personal film and one that was as grand in scale as it was deep with heart and rich with themes. Though the marks against it have their validity it is a film that arguably has more to say and more at stake than any other superhero film produced in the last seventeen years and certainly in the last nine or so since Marvel has streamlined the process. This brings us to “Justice League,” a movie that is hard for me to even call a Snyder film for, despite having the trademark look of the director during certain sequences, is undoubtedly the least Zack Snyder film to have ever been produced. It's sad and disheartening in the way that “Justice League,” or what Snyder began in 2013 and has been building through to up until recently has culminated with this, a vanilla action film with people dressed like characters we know and love, but to the benefit of a story that is paint by numbers if not the simplest example of such, a barrage of unfinished CGI and shortcuts, with no real stakes to be felt. Say what you will about those civilian casualties or the lack of awareness for them in previous films, but they added a weight to these proceedings that reinforced that for evil to be avenged evil first must occur. Warner Bros. and Geoff Johns have gone out of their way to ensure “Justice League” took into consideration the complaints from previous endeavors and it does, resolving it to be the broadest and most generic theater-going experience one might have this year. The masses will no doubt love it.
Everything requires balance and while I may not be a fan of this new direction the DC Extended Universe is shifting toward if all their movies are going to feel as safe as Justice League (here's looking at you, James Wan) I can at least appreciate that they are searching for that balance. They may have gone a little too far to one side with this one in the wake of the complaints lodged against ‘BvS,’ but “Wonder Woman” certainly proved there can be a happy medium. Where this first needs to come to resolution though is in the storytelling. I'm a fan of mythology and in both “Man of Steel” and ‘BvS’ there was a sense that something bigger than ourselves was taking place; that unknown entities and unknown consequences for their actions would come to pass while also suggesting that there was a bigger purpose to all that was happening even if some of the characters and much of the audience couldn't yet comprehend the complexity of it. This mythology lent these Snyder superhero films, despite being so broody and dark in mood, an outlying ethereal tone that very much kept these heroes, and in turn myself and at least a few other audience members, aware that there was a level of perfection being chased after; a goal of peace, if you will. Unfortunately, this mythology that made the previous films feel inherently epic is gone in place of a straightforward narrative that makes no qualms about depth or substance around the action that is taking place or the events that are occurring. To be clear, there isn't anything wrong with having a simple, throughline plot that goes from point A to point B and resolves itself nicely at point C, but the best examples of the medium are films not solely concerned with or about what you see happening on screen, but the ideas and transformations that you see through the characters and what is happening around them. With team-up films in general it was always going to be tough to accomplish as much for all involved and especially in “Justice League” as three of the six main heroes have yet to be introduced to audiences. With a script developed and written by Chris Terrio and Snyder that was then undoubtedly wrangled in and streamlined (there's that word again, huh?) by the presence of Joss Whedon who was brought in to re-write and finish directing the film after Snyder had to leave the project due to a family tragedy, it feels as if this thing has been stripped down to its bare bones and is now being hung out to dry in hopes of pleasing the focus groups and internet trolls. Still, in the opening credits of “Justice League” it proclaims this both to be a Zack Snyder film and is directed by Zack Snyder. While there are shades of what Snyder's original vision for his “Justice League” film might have been, what we have in front of us is a movie that is quick to identify its main players, quick to define the threat to earth in one of the worst CGI villains in super hero history, and seemingly even quicker to cut all former ties with story threads that have come before it. In doing so, the mystique and grandeur of Snyder's visual sense and the raw intensity of both his construction of action and dramatic sequences are diminished to passable entertainment that is, given the rocky production, admittedly more coherent than expected.
If you weren't a fan of either “Man of Steel” or ‘BvS,’ but agree that “Wonder Woman” helped put the DCEU's best foot forward (I think we can all agree on “Suicide Squad”) then odds are you will likely also enjoy what “Justice League” at least promises for the DCEU's future. And while I am certainly disheartened by the fact Snyder won't be able to complete his vision I like a lot of the ideas that “Justice League” proposes without executing and I look forward to the kinds of filmmakers Warner Bros. brings in to deliver on these proposals. That said,
“Justice League” begins by feeling very much like an episode of the nineties animated series where Ben Affleck's Batman lurks around on Gotham rooftops, in a Gotham that very much resembles the forties inspired architecture with hints of the "dark deco" that defined that series' aesthetic while still functioning within the technology of the modern day. To boot, Danny Elfman's score and the utilization of the theme from that series and his Tim Burton's 1989 film only adds to the air of similarity Snyder and Warner Bros. were likely going for to hit the target audience square in the nostalgia; it certainly got to me a few times throughout. That isn't to say, “Justice League” rises to the quality that “Batman: The Animated Series” often did, but rather that there is a clear objective to mimic that same style. At the onset, Affleck's Batman is tracking down small-time crooks to produce fear and attract those pesky Parademons that he had a vision of in the previous film. Batman isn't sure what these giant bugs are or where they're coming from, but the Amazonian's, Atlantian's, and a certain Star Labs employee named Silas Stone (Joe Morton), father of Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) AKA Cyborg, might each have a better idea. We get a fantastic re-introduction to Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman via a classic bank robbery scenario that is arguably the best action sequence in the film in terms of both doing something interesting artistically and different in terms of how the action is handled. What this sequence does show is that after a century Diana Prince might be willing to put herself back out into the world as Wonder Woman. The film then introduces us to the main antagonist of Steppenwolf (at the very least voiced by Ciarán Hinds) who audiences might be familiar with if they saw the deleted scene from ‘BvS’, but otherwise feels like an odd choice as the big antagonist for the first team-up of the super friends. Steppenwolf is introduced through his descent into Themyscira where he collects the first of three MacGuffin's, I mean Mother Boxes, which are items that don't contain power, but when all three are brought together embody power themselves. With the other two Mother Boxes having been hidden by the Atlantaians and the other currently being researched after it started acting up after the arrival of Superman it's not difficult to see why Batman AKA Bruce Wayne thought it best to gather the gang for this one.
So, what about the team itself? That's what we're here for, right? That's the point of all of this, correct? Sure. Fortunately, the interaction between the team members and the personalities established by each of the newcomers as well as carried over by the returning cast are what make up the best aspects of “Justice League.” Though the story may be slim, and the CGI ridiculously spotty for a film that cost upwards of $300 million, the interaction between the team members counts for a lot here. Beginning with Affleck's Bruce Wayne/Batman the actor (who has been consistently rumored to be on the outs since July) at least feels committed to the journey he understands he is meant to go on in this arc. There isn't much time to deal with the double life aspect or the running of a major business as 20 years into being the Batman are finally starting to wear on the caped crusader. Affleck plays this role with the appropriate amount of his discouraged scowl, but there is also a sincerity to his determination to find others who can save the world while coming to terms with the fact he is out of his depth and can no longer handle things on his own. Some may read this as Affleck being disinterested or tired of the baggage that comes with playing such an iconic character, but as in ‘BvS’ we understand this is a Batman/Bruce combo that has been in the game far longer than we've ever seen represented on the big screen and thus understand his weariness and seeming anxiousness to not necessarily pass the torch, but of ensuring that someone will be there to save the world when he can't. As she did in the biggest film of the summer, Gadot carries this film with ease as well. It is her Diana that possesses all the charm, wit, and virtuous mentality that makes her capable of truly leading the team and this shines through most not when we're seeing Wonder Woman save the day or slice the bad guy (or be shot in more male apparent ways than what we saw in the Patty Jenkins-helmed origin story), but more when she and Bruce come to butt heads over the ethics of certain decisions and/or discussions around what it means to be a leader; the authority, but also the responsibility that comes along with it. In these two fleeting scenes where such quiet, but stirring conversations take place “Justice League” enters some of its most fertile terrain as it begins to dig into of themes that might be allowed to breathe were they not so quickly stuffed out by the cutting to of the next scene. There are battling perspectives, opening the film up to the varied backgrounds of where these characters have come from with both how and why they see the world the way they do and, as a result, how they feel is the best way to fix it. Like I said, this is all quickly resolved as if Warner Bros. feared getting into too heady of territory and reminding fans of what once made Snyder's takes on these characters so much deeper.
As for the new additions, if you've seen the trailers know that you've seen the entirety of the introduction of Ezra Miller's Barry Allen AKA The Flash. We do in fact get a few notable scenes where Barry interacts with his incarcerated father, Henry, as played by Billy Crudup, but otherwise this version of The Flash is a loner who is looking to find himself as well as still figuring out his powers and his potential to the point he's not much help to the actual team, but he could be. Miller is hamming it up a little too much for my taste to the point that he may as well be wearing a sticker on his forehead that tells the audience he's the comic relief, but that he pulls off most of the one-liners helps. I'm anxious to see what a Flash stand-alone film will look like with Miller in the lead as we get a sense here that he is very much a supporting character and nothing more despite the fact there is seemingly plenty set-up for which the DCEU can explore. I only hope Miller can handle the weight of a solo film as his take on the scarlet speedster can hardly handle himself in the field in this first outing. All of that said, The Flash is a part of a pretty great post-credits scene that, if it's any indication of where the DCEU is heading, could prove to be a closer mix of that balance this cinematic universe is still searching for. Next up is Jason Mamoa's Arthur Curry AKA Aquaman who is also the biggest departure from the character in terms of how he's been traditionally portrayed in the comic books. As Aquaman, Mamoa seems to be little more than a version of himself that also happens to be able to talk to fish. Meaning, this version of Curry is a badass metalhead who has parental issues that deal with his Atlantian mother dropping him off on the doorstep of his human father thus having forced him into a pattern of self-proclaimed selfishness while secretly keeping seaside villages fed when the water freezes on their shoreline and boats with supplies aren't able to get through for months. One can't help but feel with this iteration of the character that people will either love it or hate it. Personally, I've never had enough of an attachment to the character to care either way, but in his own words, "I dig it." Mamoa is a welcome slice of machismo and vulnerability that makes the sillier aspects of the character feel as badass as possible and making those already cool aspects even cooler. I only wish this film utilized him a little more as his personality gives the impression of greater influence over the movie despite being on screen less than Cyborg. And as for Fisher's Cyborg, he is certainly the one who gets the least development despite having as equally a tragic backstory as Allen. While the “Justice League” script utilizes Cyborg often for his skills and capabilities it rarely allows us to get to know the young man inside the machine past his initial reluctance to join the team out of an insecurity for still being alive when he feels he should be dead; a trait that is given a nice touch in the finale, but is seemingly forgotten throughout the middle section of the film.
Despite my fear for what “Justice League” could have ultimately been the final product is admittedly sounder than I expected. There are some great moments with the League itself, but this thing also sports a rather expansive cast that sees Jeremy Irons taking on our most involved Alfred yet, Amy Adams and Diane Lane not necessarily passing the Bechdel test (they're failing it miserably), but talking nonetheless in a quiet room about quiet things like loss and the inability to move on. Connie Nielsen reprises her role as Queen Hippolyta and is given the opportunity to lead another of the more sweeping battles in this effort (come to think of it, the action sequences become more and more dour and more and more darkly lit as the film goes on) whereas the likes of J.K. Simmons and Amber Heard are present and accounted for, but have very little to do. It's understandable that these things happen when your movie is centered on a core group of heroes yet each of those heroes have their own lives and their own people that must also be incorporated into the fold. “Justice League” does an admirable job of attempting to make sure these facets are at least included, and this is kind of the mentality across the board. “Justice League” is an enjoyable theater-going experience. On the surface there isn't much to complain about for, as far as the standard template for super hero movies goes, this thing fills it out adequately and delivers some winning dynamics between heroes whose stories we can't wait to see more of. That is essentially all one can ask of a big budget studio film made for the sole purpose of making more films in a franchise, but given this super hero resurgence has now been ongoing for nearly two decades that standard template doesn't always suffice. The genre has evolved, and the heroes and movies produced within it have evolved as well. While many will undoubtedly feel as if “Justice League” is a step forward for the DCEU, and it likely will be in terms of public opinion, in terms of art and the championing of original, voices this is a big step backwards. Come what may though, “Justice League” may be remembered as the final corner turned before the DCEU finally found its groove and began focusing on its individual heroes rather than rushing them into their cinematic universe and I truly hope that happens as I will and always have been a fan of the mythology imbued on these modern-day Gods, but chances are “Justice League” won't be remembered much at all.
Daddy's Home 2
by Philip Price
I will admit, and not necessarily begrudgingly, that I didn't mind 2015's “Daddy's Home.” One might even say I liked it to a certain extent. Did I understand why stars Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg were reuniting with something that was a more standard studio comedy rather than following up their 2010 Adam McKay film, “The Other Guys,” despite the fact it was likely because that film only made $170 million worldwide on a budget of $100 million? No, despite that evidence I still didn't and yet, somehow, “Daddy's Home” was something I laughed at consistently enough and had a warm enough time with that I was more than happy to recommend it to those looking for a light watch on a weekend afternoon. This was undoubtedly all it was ever meant to be. That was, until that second Ferrell/Wahlberg collaboration ended up going bonkers and making over $240 million worldwide on a production budget of only $69 million and thus is the reason we now have a “Daddy's Home 2” that cost just a little more ($31 million more to be exact) with the addition of granddaddies Mel Gibson and John Lithgow present to up the antics of Ferrell's Brad and Wahlberg's Dusty as they try to co-dad in peace. Paramount was also keen to release this sequel prior to the holiday season as a whole thus kind of inadvertently kicking it off itself (“Bad Moms Christmas” obviously helping with this as well) as the studio looks to capitalize on their family-friendly PG-13 comedy playing through the Thanksgiving break and having collected all it needs prior to “Star Wars” coming in and claiming all the screens. That said, is this strategic approach going to work? Does “Daddy's Home 2” offer the same comforts as its predecessor without succumbing to the stupidity that first film was always on the verge of flirting with or without becoming a carbon copy of that initial film? For the most part, sure. “Daddy's Home 2” ups the antics in the way that sequels do without being maybe as consistently funny as it should be given the talent on hand. All things considered though, “Daddy's Home 2” does further the story of the scenario set-up in the first film in natural and organic ways while adhering to the wacky tone that first film defiantly established. We are introduced to more family members to spice up the proceedings and from keeping it from becoming that total retread of the original while the dynamics of such relationships are explored, and caveats of others revealed to add layers to characters we might have imagined we already knew everything about. That isn't to say writer/director Sean Anders (“ Horrible Bosses 2”) and writing partner John Morris (“We're the Millers”) have delved into the anxieties of blended families and come up with a film that analyzes the dynamics and struggles of such situations-this is very much of a movie world where no one has any problems except the ones in their personal life as created by their personal life with money being no object-but there is something to be said for “Daddy's Home 2” as it doesn't simply rest on the laurels of its predecessor when it very easily could have.
Maybe more than summarizing what happens in “Daddy's Home 2” the more appropriate thing to do (without spoiling things, of course) is to tell of what one probably expects to happen, but might not necessarily think it will explore in this admittedly obvious sequel. From the trailers released, one might draw the conclusion that in “Daddy's Home 2” there will come to be a battle over which grandfather gets more attention between Gibson's Kurt and Lithgow's Don and that the film might then proceed to unfold in a similar way to the first film, but you know, with grandpas instead of the biological dad and the step dad fighting over affections. This storyline is only given a nod upon the arrival of both Kurt and Don at the Whitaker household. Brad and wife Sara (Linda Cardellini) seem to typically keep her and Dusty's children and Brad's step-children, Dylan (Owen Wilder Vaccaro) and Megan (Scarlett Estevez), with their new, younger brother Griffy (triplets Connor, Daphne, and Dylan Wise) who is Sara and Brad's child together though I don't recall this sequel explaining how Brad was all of a sudden able to successfully inseminate his wife or if they went through some kind of procedure given Brad's past run-in with an X-ray machine. While this rivalry between Kurt and Don is hinted at for a moment, the film's script quickly backs away from this implication and instead uses the evidence that Kurt's biological grandkids know their step-grandfather better than they do him as motivation. Meanwhile, Kurt isn't too fond of the new and improved Dusty that is more accepting of others and more open to change which may lead you to believe “Daddy's Home 2” will largely focus on Dusty finding a balance between being a co-dad with Brad while remaining true to the badass he once was and the guy his father would be proud to call son-which is something it seems Dusty has been striving for his entire life. And while the movie covers some of that ground, “Daddy's Home 2” becomes more about both Kurt learning to be a better father and grandfather than it is about Kurt refusing to stray from the values and ideals that he's been beholden to his entire life. Everyone in “Daddy's Home 2” tries, begrudgingly or not, to be more than they've been in the past which is a nice change of pace, especially given the dynamic that is immediately introduced between Don and Brad that, as viewed in the trailers, would seem to be little more than a one-note joke played for laughs, but in fact comes to mean a lot more when that uniquely close relationship and the trust that exists within it is betrayed. Meanwhile, though Dusty is having to deal with his own daddy issues the movie doesn't let him off the hook on the other end of the spectrum either as he now has another party with which he must also co-parent in John Cena's Roger, the ex-husband of Dusty's new wife, Karen (Alessandra Ambrosio). As Brad did in the first film, Dusty is given the run around from step-daughter Adrianna (Didi Costine) showing that even the coolest among us are privy to feeling insecure. Again, this isn't to say, “Daddy's Home 2” turns the expectations set for it completely on their head, but it doesn't hit every beat in a way one might expect either.
Much of these points are in support of the fact that “Daddy's Home 2” likely deserves more credit that it will receive, and I genuinely think the movie is deserving of a similar recommendation as the first which is also to say that “Daddy's Home 2” has many of the same issues that could be logged against its predecessor. Whereas something like the aforementioned “The Other Guys” is a comedy that also felt like a film, an actual, real, weighted film with an objective and a structure that felt inspired without being standard whereas both “Daddy's Home” and “Daddy's Home 2” admittedly feel like rushed jobs from a couple of funny guys getting together and seeing what they can come up with out of obligation rather than inspiration. It is worth noting that I found Anders trio of films prior to “Daddy's Home” to all be pretty solid efforts in terms of bawdy, raunchy R-rated comedies that were inherently fun and genuinely funny despite a premise that sounded hokey (“Sex Drive”), that were willing to go for the dirtiest joke possible for little more than guaranteeing a laugh (“That's My Boy”), and for making a sequel to a comedy I adored that was arguably better than the original while proving what would seemingly be narratively impossible to in fact be possible (“Horrible Bosses 2”). That each of those films possessed their own kind of mojo gave me hope for what the director might bring to the pairing of Ferrell and Wahlberg, but it seems that with the watered-down PG-13 rating Anders wasn't ready to deal with how to make people laugh without having every cuss word and sex gag possible at his disposal. And so, it's as if Anders resorted to what he knew might work and has thus now constructed two studio comedies in what could rightfully be labeled as the most generic examples of the genre as both “Daddy's Home” and “Daddy's Home 2” have seemingly been dropped off the Hollywood assembly line. With the hope of appealing to as wide an audience as possible this sequel offers just as much insight, the same type of light chuckle humor you won't remember three days later, and just enough product placement to make you feel like there are still commercial breaks despite your theater setting (which is another odd point to bring up later) as the first. And yet, somehow the movie still retains just enough character development, appeal, and several other endearing qualities that, while completely recognizing what it is and the place it comes from, make it hard to hate. This is still a movie that stars the likes of Ferrell and Wahlberg both of whom are likable, but have a winning chemistry that only gets more effortless with each outing no matter how pedestrian the package is they're wrapped in. Add to this the supporting cast that includes the always-pleasant Cardellini, the one-two punch that Lithgow and Gibson bring to their relationships with the two leads, and a scene-stealing Cena as well as a couple of cute kids saying inappropriate things (despite the movie giving them some weird choices) and this is enjoyable enough if you go in expecting exactly what has been advertised.
The moral of the story is: it's all about expectation; as it is with most things. And though it was easy to gauge what one might get from “Daddy's Home 2” prior to buying a ticket the big question mark was always Gibson and how he might factor into this light-hearted tone of a holiday Christmas comedy despite anyone vaguely familiar with popular culture knowing enough to associate the guy with anti-Semitic remarks and drunken, derogatory words towards an ex-wife. First, it says a lot that the likes of Ferrell, Wahlberg, and especially Lithgow in a sense are willing to share this opportunity with him as there have been many opportunities for stunt casting Gibson since his fall from grace, but “Daddy's Home 2” is kind of the first one to roll the dice. Going one step further, Gibson plays into these pre-conceived notions the audience likely has of him as Kurt is a former astronaut who favored shacking up with Dusty's teachers and so on rather than staying to watch his son perform in the school glee club. Kurt is the type of guy that scoffs at men showing emotion and believes men are the ones who hunt the food while the women wait in the kitchen to cook it. It's kind of ballsy, really-the way in which both Anders and Gibson himself are so willing to accept the public perception, play into it so hard, and then only give the character a tepid moment of redemption at best given the closing button doesn't work as well as one might expect. That said, both Gibson and Lithgow seem to be having a blast playing off one another as well as their co-stars here as the alliances between the core four are constantly shifting from scenario to scenario. There is a moment about halfway through the film that deals in Adrianna adjusting the thermostat at the cabin everyone is staying in and Dusty not bringing the hammer down. Kurt, Don, and Brad are all aghast at the fact Dusty has allowed such a blasphemous act to occur and while the joke could have certainly gone somewhere better (or anywhere at all, actually), the idea counts for a lot given how well it plays through these actors. And while it may just be rose-tinted glasses playing tricks on me I still feel as if the first “Daddy's Home” edges out this sequel despite other winning sequences that include Ferrell wearing an all-time fantastic jacket at a family bowling outing, a living nativity brawl, and a finale that Cena absolutely kills with each line of delivery. Speaking to the finale, I only hope theaters this holiday season are as full as “Daddy's Home 2” thinks they will be for, as strange as it was to be watching a Christmas movie in a theater with a finale that takes place with our group of characters watching a Liam Neeson Christmas caper in a movie theater, “Daddy's Home 2” is exactly the kind of movie one would end up watching with a large group of family and/or friends over the break as it has something for everyone and goes a long way on the charm of its cast to make something by no means exceptional or even necessarily very good, but totally and completely reliable.
Murder on the Orient Express
by Philip Price
You know those times when you think something is unnecessary, let's say for the sake of this format it's a movie, and yet despite those initial hesitations and questions of purpose you come to realize that it's not a complete waste of time, but rather that you like certain aspects of this fresh perspective it once seemed was uncalled for. I have never read the 1934 Agatha Christie novel, Murder on the Orient Express, nor had I seen what is probably the most famous adaptation of this work in Sidney Lumet's 1974 film that starred Albert Finney as one of Christie's most famous and long-lived characters, Detective Hercule Poirot. That was, until earlier this week when I decided to catch-up with what was no doubt much of the reason 20th Century Fox decided it was indeed necessary to bring Christie's work back to the big screen with no lack of prestige in either its talent or production. In doing so, it became clear how much that '74 film serves as a perfect blueprint for the murder mystery venture and while I certainly doubt it was the first film of its kind it certainly is a fine example of how to make this type of movie in an effective, fun, and engaging manner. So, what does Kenneth Branagh do when he gets his hands on such rich material and the opportunity to play as famous a character as Poirot? Well, not much really. Branagh keeps to the guidelines of the genre for the most part while the changes in characters and character arcs in this latest adaptation feel more like attempts to differentiate this version from Lumet's more than they do organic changes that came out of adapting Christie's story for a more modern audience. Sure, there are changes made to certain character's ethnicities and the color of certain character's skin, but beyond these factors serving to be acknowledged as they might have been in the context of 1934 there is no reason to have changed anything about the character other than for the sake of variety and equality, which is never a bad thing, of course, but the hope was that whatever changes Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green (“Logan”) made for this latest adaptation they might have been done to either improve upon the story or offer some facet previously unexplored. And yet, this version of “Murder on the Orient Express” is a safe if not efficient take in the mystery genre that relies on star power for character development and handsomely mounted production values to fill in for substance leaving the experience of Branagh's latest to be perfectly serviceable if not exactly fulfilling.
If you're familiar with Christie's novel or any iteration of any given adaptation of Christie's work, but specifically dealing with the Orient Express (there was a British series titled “Agatha Christie's Poirot” that ran from 1989 until June 2013 and featured David Suchet as the master detective), then you're familiar with the narrative that is spun here. The set-up is simple, but intriguing (as always) in that it brings together a group of seeming strangers into the confined quarters of a passenger train for a handful of days where a murder is then committed leaving the remaining twelve passengers in the first-class car to become prime suspects. Of course, what this murderer did not account for was the fact famed Belgian detective Poirot (Branagh) would be joining the trip after we are first introduced to him solving the case of a stolen artifact in Jerusalem. Branagh executes and exemplifies the famous detective's stance on enough things to hint at what Poirot's arc will likely be in the film while simultaneously displaying the skills that have earned him his current reputation. Upon the resolution of this opening case Poirot is looking forward to taking a much-needed holiday from work hence the reason he enlists the assistance of old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) a scoundrel who comes from a privileged bloodline and now serves as the director of the Orient Express if for no other reason than his benefactor thought it the best way to keep him out of trouble (he's making arrangements with a prostitute upon his introduction). Bouc offers Poirot passage to France via a three-day trip on his luxurious train to which Poirot greatly accepts putting him in the company of those he will soon be investigating. Unbeknownst to any of them, Poirot meets two of his fellow passengers in Governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) on his boat trip from Jerusalem to Istanbul where the Orient Express will be departing from. From here, Branagh intentionally introduces us in rather coy manners to each of the other players that will be taking part in this commute. In a rather strange introduction that sees the classiest bar brawl of all time happen without little to no context, we meet the Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his new bride Countess Elena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton) before they seemingly disappear until the plot calls for their presence once more. Branagh smooths out these initial, rather muddled introductions by then taking us onto the train in a single tracking shot that sees a homely maid (Penélope Cruz) make her way to her cabin as quickly and as quietly as she can whereas Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) seems intent on letting everyone he meets know he is riding first class due to his booming automotive business. Then there is sleazy American Ratchett (Johnny Depp) with his secretary McQueen (Josh Gad) and personal butler Masterman (Derek Jacobi) followed by divorcée Ms. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer) who can't seem to stop talking...ever. Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) is followed every step of the way by her loyal and humble servant, Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), while a professor Gerhard (Willem Dafoe) slips slyly onto the train, largely unnoticed.
So, as one might have gathered, Branagh has stacked this thing with big names and even bigger personalities with this both demonstrating one of the more entertaining aspects of the film while also providing one of the more glaring issues with Green's updated screenplay and Branagh's execution in balancing his large cast. That is all to say that much of the enjoyment of watching “Murder on the Orient Express” comes from seeing these well-known faces not necessarily "ham it up", but knowingly kind of position themselves within these roles and play fully into the single characteristic that is defines them. This can be a ton of fun, especially when you take into consideration the amount of focus Branagh gives his own character in which he genuinely seems keen on setting up someone the audience might enjoy going through several of these kinds of cases with sprinkled with the likes of Pfeiffer doing her best impression of traits many no doubt imagine are inspired by her own persona and just playing fully into this while Depp seems more self-aware than ever with his casting here feeling more like a stunt than anything else. The inciting incident and eventual resolution have long since faded from popular culture and thus makes how Fox and Branagh have gone about this rather intriguing likely adding a layer of intrigue for those who walk in cold. Other standouts in the cast are Gad for the rather meaty role MacQueen is given in this adaptation whereas it is nice to see Ridley in a role outside of ‘Star Wars’ that shows the young woman will be fine when Rey's saga comes to a close. Other than these though, it's as if Branagh relies on the star power (or lack thereof) to help the audience gauge how much we are aware of/care about each of these potential murderers. Dr. Arbuthnot would seemingly stand to benefit the most from having had someone more famous in the role, but Odom Jr. does what he can with some of the bigger actions his character must make despite us hardly hearing a peep from him otherwise. We understand how Dench is going to play the Princess because we recognize her demeanor right away with Colman being so criminally underused it may be the most disappointing facet of the whole film that there isn't more Hildegarde. Furthermore, Dafoe is an afterthought, but it's Dafoe so we understand he's critical to a certain extent. This is to say we get little in the way of characterization around Cruz's Pilar, the couple played by Polunin and Boynton, with Richard Clifford's previously key Maître d' barely registering. This is the main difference between Lumet and Branagh's take on the material as Lumet's film at least gave each of the characters a moment to shine, a chance to get intimate with the audience thus making the eventual revelations more impactful and sensical whereas Branagh's third act feels more like patch work than a cohesive whole.
This brings us to what I was mostly looking for when walking into Branagh's “Murder on the Orient Express,” that of which is how the director and star might utilize the advances in filmmaking that have come along since the mid-seventies. And aside from some blatant CGI shots of vast exteriors and the train itself moving at accelerated speeds this is an otherwise grand and handsome production to be envied by the most accomplished of set, production, and costume designers. Shot on full, glorious 70MM film there is certainly an expansiveness to the vision Branagh had despite much of his film taking place within contained quarters and in one location. Of course, this is likely the reason Branagh wanted to shoot the film on this dying format as the closed quarters and expansive cast made for shots with not much room, but plenty of people. The wide scope and high resolution of these kinds of cameras give the narrow corridors and dining carriages a depth of field that would undoubtedly be lost in more restricted formats. Branagh also does some interesting and rather impressive things as far as the movement of his camera are concerned including the single-take that takes us through the introductions of all the key players. This is done in interesting enough fashion while capturing the immediate tone each character possesses in their moment on camera, but while these single takes are impressive and the consistent choice to keep overhead shots of multiple characters in corridors for long periods of time, even through dialogue exchanges are notable, one thing remains the same: Poirot is seemingly always the focus of these set-ups. While it was evident Branagh would see himself as the main character it wasn't a foregone conclusion that he would be the center of attention. Rather, it always felt as if Poirot would be more a conductor in his own regard; an organizer of the chaos, if you will. Instead, Branagh gives Poirot an arc that deals in having to learn that not all things are black and white, that not all cases come down to the guilty automatically being the villain (which is stated outright in the opening sequence), but rather that there are shades to each of us and often, more than meets the eye when it comes to crimes dealing in the taking of another's life. One would imagine Poirot has been on the job long enough to have made this realization by now, but alas that is the journey we are given so thank God, the procedure of the investigation and mystery of it all still hold up rather well. Playing Poirot as both direct, but often unintentionally funny if not mostly dismissive Branagh also struggles in moments to find balance in the fact his story revolves around death and tragedy while making light of characters, some of their traits, and some of their circumstances. It's a tone that doesn't always meld, but has just enough of both to deliver an experience akin to that of a meal made of meat and potatoes-it's familiar and comforting, but there's nothing surprising about it-you know what you're getting.
by Philip Price
You know those ideas that are better in conception that they ever turn out to be in actuality? The ones where the pairing of two things, like Vince Vaughn and “True Detective,” sound fantastic, but when the reality of it comes into being it only serves to prove that some mediums and personalities just weren't meant to be meshed? Well, for the first twenty or so minutes of the third solo Thor film I thought that might be what was happening. The idea of taking darling indie comedy director Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows”) and pairing him with the massive machine that is Marvel to bring their most self-serious and most dour hero into the new phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that might bridge the Shakespearian those ideas that almost felt too good to be true, you know, like Edgar Wright making a Marvel Studios film (which, it turned out, was in fact just that). It was an idea that seemed it might produce something truly singular for the long-standing MCU, but would it be too weird for Kevin Feige and the gang to really let slide? Honestly, I was waiting for the moment over the last two years when the news would break that Marvel and Waititi had to break over "creative differences" but to my pleasant surprise that day never came and today we sit here with “Thor: Ragnarok,” the best solo ‘Thor’ movie that has been made to date, the first Thor movie that truly seems to utilize the full spectrum of the character and the world he inhabits and the never ending reaches of the cosmos he can inhabit while also upending many of the story conventions we've come to expect from our super hero epics. That is all, of course, after the rather nerve-wracking 20 or so minutes at the beginning of the film where it looked as if Waititi had bitten off more than he could chew in terms of managing a production the size of ‘Ragnarok’ while also in the simple splicing together of jokes and story, of tender moments and CGI-filled natural environments where it was apparent that maybe the best choices had not been made. It's a rough start, but this only makes all that follows that much more assuring in its competency. “Thor: Ragnarok” is slight to be sure, but it is a ton of fun and serves up just enough freshness for the title character and his present situations that it's impossible not to throw your hands in the air and just enjoy the cheeky ride this take on the super hero genre offers.
If you’ve been wondering for a year and a half where Thor and Bruce Banner’s Hulk were during all of that ‘Civil War’ commotion then ‘Ragnarok’ is here to remedy those questions as ‘Ragnarok’ begins by introducing Chris Hemsworth’s Thor as he lays trapped within the bowels of the fire demon Surtur’s pit where he has come to find himself in the wake of his nightmares that we caught a glimpse of in ‘Age of Ultron.’ Having now been unsuccessfully tracking down those pesky infinity stones for two years it seems the right time that something more substantial might occur n Thor's life. It is here that Surtur tells Thor his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), is no longer on Asgard prompting the rightful heir to the throne to return home (but not before Thor defeats Surtur and claims his crown, believing he has prevented Ragnarok) where he finds things aren’t as he left them. Apparently, Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has been running things the whole time Thor has been out trying to save the universe, impersonating their father, leading Thor back to earth in a quest to locate what Odin has been up to or where Loki has banished him. This is all to serve the purpose of reuniting the brothers to introduce a bigger threat than their volatile relationship in Cate Blanchett’s Hela, the Goddess of Death, who has returned to claim her rightful place as the ruler of Asgard. On her return trip home, she dispenses of Thor and Loki on a planet known as Sakaar or a garbage heap of an orb where all the galaxy’s trash is dumped through a countless number of wormholes that pollute the planet’s sky. On Sakaar, Thor is taken prisoner immediately by Scrapper 142 AKA Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) for the purposes of serving in Grandmaster Jeff Goldblum’s (which is not the full character name, of course, but it probably should be) gladiator matches. Naturally, Loki has already wormed his way into the Grandmaster’s good graces while Thor is told that any hope of escape can only come from him defeating the Grandmaster’s grand champion which turns out to be none other than Mark Ruffalo’s Incredible Hulk who has been living it up on Sakaar as grand champion since the Quinjet crash landed there after the events in Sokovia. As these things go, Hulk and Thor come to form something of an unexpected, but totally expected bond that propels both Avengers back to Asgard who, with the help of Loki and Valkyrie, fight to defeat Hela and her new henchman Sjurge (Karl Urban) before she’s able to use the Bifröst to expand Asgard's empire for her own, evil purposes.
It is this rather detached and wonky story structure that doesn't necessarily adhere to your typical beats of hero fights, hero wins, hero encounters new world-ending plot, hero and villain play cat and mouse before villain seemingly defeats our hero only to teach that hero the very thing they need to learn in order to redeem themselves and save the world. I mean, it kind of adheres to that, but it makes enough odd stops along the way and comes up with a weird enough way of getting to each of these points that it feels like a diversion which makes for a nice balance between what we've been conditioned to expect from these kinds of movies while simultaneously being surprised as well. That there is anything left to mine in these tropes that allow audiences to still be surprised (this is the seventeenth Marvel Studios film!) is a wonder, so kudos to Waititi and his writing team of Eric Pearson (“Agent Carter”), Craig Kyle (tons of animated Marvel features), and Christopher Yost (“Thor: The Dark World”) for that alone. What Waititi does especially well is upend the certain staples of these films in clever and genuinely funny ways without ever coming off as mocking. Whenever there is a moment when we think we know how things are going to play out or at least subconsciously recognize how this certain line of dialogue will be delivered only to provoke another specific type of response the audience has been conditioned to see coming from a mile away Waititi will throw in a joke, or a pratfall, or in what are some of his best twists-take an obvious aspect of such situations we might not have considered before or have always been dismissed because of inconvenience and play into the comedy of them. This is made evident almost immediately as, in the opening scene where Thor is chained and held prisoner by Surtur, he dangles from a chain while having a conversation with the demon that one would assume to be all ego and anger, but as much is quickly dispelled when Thor unexpectedly halts the conversation every time he spins slowly away from Surtur. This isn't to spoil the joke, but more to give an indication of the type of humor that ‘Ragnarok’ possesses and that Waititi employs to play with the audience's expectations of what has come to be expected and how that can still be honored while being infused with something equally entertaining. And “Thor: Ragnarok” is nothing if not entertaining as everyone from returning cast members to new additions seem to be having an enviable time at work. Hemsworth seems especially tickled to be given the opportunity to improvise as much as he has while Blanchett is fully aware of what kind of movie she's in, Goldblum is doing his best and biggest Goldblum impression, Thompson comes off as bad ass as anyone else on screen, while Ruffalo finally is afforded the opportunity to not only portray Banner, but fully inhabit Hulk in what is the most engaging depiction of the big green guy to ever grace the big screen.
Speaking of balance though, it is in the balance of this humor with everything else that Waititi gets a little carried away while not being able to find his way back around to the heart of the matter-if there even is one. This means the film’s biggest shortcoming is the fact it packs a laugh a minute, but has nothing meaningful, nothing substantial beyond these amusing nods to all that has come before while setting us up for everything to come after. While some may have felt the trailers for ‘Ragnarok’ indicated a similarity to that of the tone of “Guardians of the Galaxy” those James Gunn pictures possess a striking balance between outlandish humor and real heart. In other words, those movies feel like they're about something more than just the spectacle and the laughs, but rather they possess actual themes and thoughts on aspects of existence and relationships whereas the deepest ‘Ragnarok’ gets is a short moment in an elevator between Thor and Loki where they come to grips with where each of them have fallen in their relationship despite once being truly bound by, if not blood, at least trust. Of course, that has all since been shattered and Hiddleston continues to display a knack for making Loki deceptively charming even if the act has grown somewhat familiar in his fourth appearance in the MCU. Though Waititi can lend a lighter touch to this tale of Norse mythology than either of his predecessors in Kenneth Branagh or Alan Taylor he is unable to lend the proceedings any weight to make any of what we see in bold, bright colors remain a lasting impression. That isn't to say there is anything necessarily wrong with this approach as I had a great time in the moment, experiencing ‘Ragnarok’ for what it is and will undoubtedly watch it again when it is released on Blu-Ray, but to say it moved me, or will stay with me in any capacity would be to give it more credit than it's due. That said, it would be a shame to write a full review of the film and Waititi's contributions to the ever-evolving MCU without mentioning Korg. Korg is a rock monster whom Thor meets on Sakaar who is intent on little more than helping others, starting revolutions, and making friends out of all those who come to land in the same unfortunate circumstances as him. As played by Waititi who gives this intimidating persona a colloquial New Zealand accent Korg offers some of the most relentlessly hilarious moments in the film and would undoubtedly feel a little lacking without his presence. It's a shame that in some instances the visual effects look as cheap as they do (why would you shoot that cliff on a green screen?!?!) while others are far and away some of the best motion capture moments put to screen (Hulk talk!), but through the good and the bad, the good bets and the missteps “Thor: Ragnarok” is a (bloody) good time at the movies with a killer Mark Motherbaugh score that helps propel it to that slight if not significant bit of escapism.