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Truth or Dare - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on April 12, 2018 at 8:10 PM Comments comments (0)


“Truth or Dare” starts off with an intriguing, if not brilliant, premise: a game of truth or dare where lives are on the line. Throw in a capable cast and a fairly well-plotted screenplay, and you should have an all-around enjoyable horror flick. Unfortunately, the filmmakers simply don’t take full advantage of the concept at hand. There are ideas here that were tailor-made for a classic supernatural thriller or even a dark comedy. Watching the film, the audience can cook up a dozen terrifying scenarios that could’ve been derived from this setup. That makes it all the more disappointing as the movie doesn’t answer the door when opportunity knocks.


Lucy Hale is Olivia, a college student who joins her friends for Spring Break in Mexico. While there, she runs into a mysterious hunk (Landon Liboiron) who convinces Olivia and her palls to visit an abandoned church. Drinking too much, they start to play a game of truth or dare that gets far too real. Returning home, the gang is followed by a smirking demon, who I’m not convinced we’re supposed to take seriously. The rules soon become clear: do the dare or you die and tell the truth or you die. So what do the filmmakers do with this fun, creepy plot? Eh, that’s where the movie lets us down.


The characters could be dared to do any number of crazy things. Outside of a drinking game that takes place on a roof, though, there are no edge of your seat dares. The truths aren’t that stimulating either, primarily because our characters have nothing very interesting to hide. While we do get a couple twists, it's nothing that the audience can’t see coming from a mile away. There aren’t enough truly challenging ethical dilemmas to make us cringe in terror. Even the deaths feel all too restrained, especially when you stack them up against something like “Final Destination” or “Saw.”


It doesn’t help that the characters are for the most part blank slates. Hale’s time on “Pretty Little Liars” certainly gave her enough experience to become an overnight scream queen. Outside of Hale, though, the rest of the cast aren’t given much to work with, despite their best efforts. The only other character who has a distinct personality is Sam Lerner as a pervy nerd, who of course doesn’t last too long. What we’re left with feels like a game of Monopoly that has almost all the right pieces, but the dice are missing.


While “Truth or Dare” doesn’t quite merit a recommendation, a part of me still wants to see it perform well. This is largely due to the ending, which – without giving too much away – leaves the door open for a lot of cool possibilities. A sequel could deliver where the film that started it all fell short. Having produced hits like “Get Out” and “Split” in recent years, Blumhouse Productions has what it takes to make it happen. They just need some more inventive and ambitious storytellers to tackle the next film.


Grade: 2.5 Out of 5 Stars

Rampage - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on April 12, 2018 at 8:00 PM Comments comments (0)


Of all the modern film adaptations of video games, “Rampage” probably had to build the most from the ground up. In “Tomb Raider,” the filmmakers had one of the greatest game protagonists of all time to work with. In “Warcraft,” a whole world and mythology was delivered to the filmmakers on a silver platter. “Rampage,” however, is based on a 1986 arcade game where a giant gorilla, lizard, and wolf attack a city. How is that a movie? In many ways, director Brad Peyton and company deserve credit for trying to make something out of nothing, even if the results still come off as half-baked.


While it’s a monster movie on the surface, “Rampage” is also the tale of a man and his monkey. Dwayne Johnson plays David Okoye, a primatologist who would rather spend his time with an albino gorilla named George than with people. When George comes into contact with a mysterious experiment from outer space, he grows to the size of Mighty Joe Young and develops a serious attitude problem. He’s not the only one, as the experiment also affects a wolf and a crocodile that grow big enough to join the Toho family. Along with a former genetic engineer named Kate (Naomie Harris), David sets out to save George before he and his fellow giants level Chicago.


Through motion capture effects, performer Jason Liles brings a great deal of personality to George, just as Andy Serkis did with his portrayal of Caesar in the “Planet of the Apes” films. George is really the only beast anybody seems that interested in, though. Ralph the Wolf is pretty much sidelined, although he does have one fun encounter with Joe Manganiello, who ironically played a werewolf on “True Blood.” Meanwhile, Lizzie, who’s never actually referred to by name, doesn’t pop up until the climax. While the destruction is visually impressive and captures the spirit of the game, the film keeps trying to shoehorn in humans we don’t care much about. That actually seems to be a problem with a lot of modern monster movies, as well as films with “vs” in the title.


As per usual, Johnson gives it his all, even when he’s not given the most complex character to work with. Harris also tries hard, although her character is basically just there to spout exposition and to be “the woman” archetype. The film honestly could’ve used more of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a government agent with a cowboy persona. It’d actually be great to see him and Johnson in a buddy picture later down the line. Then there’s Malin Åkerman and Jake Lacy as the evil brother and sister behind Project: Rampage. As cliché as these villains are, at least they’re entertainingly over-the-top on occasion. Imagine Cersei and Jaime Lannister if you crossed them with Sharpay and Ryan Evans from “High School Musical.”


It’s becoming clear that the best video game movies are the ones that aren’t directly based on video games. “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Ready Player One,” and “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” a better film starring Johnson, all had fun with ideas and concepts derived from video games. “Rampage,” on the other hand, is just another film that isn’t sure how to adapt its source material. The movie might’ve worked it there was more emphasis on the monsters and less on the humans. Let’s just hope that “Godzilla vs. Kong” can get that right.


Grade: 2.5 Out of 5 Stars 

Blockers - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on April 5, 2018 at 7:00 PM Comments comments (0)


20 years ago, we got “American Pie,” a film about four teenage boys determined to lose their virginity before prom night. “Blockers” possesses a similar premise, albeit with a few notable changes. For starters, rather than boys, this story revolves around three girls who enter a sex pact with the end of their senior years on the horizon. Of course the film is just as much about the parents of the girls, if not more so. Unlike Eugene Levy as Jim’s dad, however, these parents aren’t exactly eager to give their children advice on intercourse. This helps to distinguish “Blockers” from its predecessor, making for a comedy that’s not only funny, but also kind of poignant in parts.


Our three comically seasoned leads are all tailor-made for their roles. Leslie Mann plays Lisa, the loving – yet clingy – single mother of Kathryn Newton’s Julie. Ike Barinholtz is Hunter, the clueless estranged dad of Gideon Adlon’s Sam. Then there’s John Cena as Mitchell, the overprotective father of Geraldine Viswanathan’s Kayla. While their daughters have been best friends since they were five, the three parents have had a falling out over the years. Once the parents find out that the girls are planning to give their flowers away to their prom dates, they reunite to prevent them from ending up on “Teen Mom.”


It’s a simple, if not clichéd, premise that still makes leeway for a lot of hilarious scenarios. The highlight involves a drinking game that, without giving too much away, is simply crap your pants funny. Gary Cole and Gina Gershon also give some uproarious supporting performances as a couple with a VERY open sex life. The screenplay from Brian Kehoe and Jim Kehoe is additionally ripe with one-liners. Actually, there are times when the audience is laughing so hard that it’s easy to miss some of the dialog. That’s just a reason to revisit “Blockers” when it comes out on DVD, however.


“Blockers” marks the feature film directorial debut of Kay Cannon, who is best known for her work on the “Pitch Perfect” movies. Cannon injects sharp comedic timing into her film, getting strong work from the entire cast. The dynamic between Mann, Cena, and Barinholtz is especially refreshing. In most films like this, the leads would typically be either three dads or three moms. Gender isn’t really a factor when it comes to this trio, though, as they’re all simply concerned parents who have their daughters’ best interests at heart… even if they go a bit overboard. Cena in particular does a genuine job at making the audience forget that he started out as a professional wrestler, masking his hulking physique with a parental persona.


As great as the parents are, the film fortunately doesn’t forget about the daughters either. Newton, Viswanathan, and Adlon also strike an equal balance of being humorous, complex, and down-to-earth. The three actually share a very believable friendship and the rapport they have with their parents is just as sincere. Despite all the unrealistic shenanigans, the interactions between the characters feels surprisingly authentic and the film’s messages regarding teen sex ultimately ring true. It might not be a proper substitute for the sex talk, but “Blockers” will speak to parents and young adults when that awkward time comes.


Grade: 4 Out of 5 Stars

Maze Runner: The Death Cure - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on January 23, 2018 at 7:40 PM Comments comments (2)


My feelings towards “The Maze Runner” movies are very mixed. The first film, while nothing groundbreaking, at least had a gripping sense of mystery and a premise worthy of a “Twilight Zone” episode. 2015’s “The Scorch Trials” threw all of those interesting ideas out the window, becoming a straight-up “Hunger Games” knockoff. That shouldn’t come as a massive surprise, seeing how this franchise primarily exists to bank on the success of Katniss Everdeen’s story. Since the young adult craze has started to die out anyway, “The Death Cure” is about three years too late. Of course the filmmakers and studio can’t exactly be blamed for the movie’s poor timing, as Dylan O'Brien’s on set injuries delayed production.


O’Brien reprises his role as Thomas, who just might be the key to saving humanity as a deadly disease continues to plague the world. Thomas is once again joined by… well… I can’t really remember any of the other characters, which is this franchise’s main problem. While the actors all do a fine job, Thomas’ friends are interchangeable and have few – if any – defining characteristics. You know the one kid in Stephen King’s “It” that everyone forgets about and is nobody’s favorite? Imagine if they just made about four or five of them and you’d basically have the primary ensemble here.


The other supporting characters aren’t much more interesting and come off as unenthusiastically clichéd. You’ve got Kaya Scodelario as the traitor who’s bound to reteam with our heroes, Patricia Clarkson as the big bad government figure who sees the light, and Aidan Gillen as the other authority figure who gets no redemption. Giancarlo Esposito is also there, although he’s never utilized to his full potential. Nobody is. Everyone just seems to be there to collect a paycheck and nothing more.


As half-assed as “The Death Cure” can feel at times, director Wes Ball’s action sequences do brighten matters up a bit. There’s an especially impressive set piece involving a bus that manages to be inventive, thrilling, and humorous all at once. While it’s a well-crafted movie on the whole, “The Death Cure” also borrows from one too many other franchises. In addition to “The Hunger Games,” the look of the film was clearly influenced by “Mad Max” and “Blade Runner.” Huh, maybe this movie should’ve been called “Maze Runner 2049.” Ultimately, there’s a been there, done that mentality to the whole experience which never lets up.


Of all the “Maze Runner” movies, “The Death Cure” isn’t the worst, but it’s arguably the most uneven. For every moment that’s legitimately fun, exciting, or dramatic, there’s another that’s redundant and monotonous. It’s a middle of the road conclusion to a franchise that was always average at best. For what it’s worth, this was probably the best ending we could’ve hoped for and if the previous two films had you at the edge of your seat, “The Death Cure” will leave you satisfied. Personally, I’m just glad they didn’t try to split the final book into two movies.


Grade: 2.5 Out of 5 Stars

The Commuter - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on January 12, 2018 at 11:50 AM Comments comments (0)


It’s been almost ten years since “Taken” became an unlikely hit and in turn made Liam Neeson an unlikely action star. One could argue that Neeson is the action star equivalent of wine. The older he gets, the more badass he looks and sounds. In “The Commuter,” Neeson plays a 60-year-old man who manages to survive multiple fistfights, as well as a train crash that would kill Jason Bourne. In the back of your head, you know that this is preposterous, silly, and even downright stupid. Neeson plays the part so well, however, that you can’t help but go along for the ride.


The best scene in the film is the opening credits, as we’re introduced to Michael MacCauley (Neeson). The sequence takes place over several months, although it’s brilliantly edited to feel like just a single morning, emphasizing the repetitive nature of Michael’s daily routine. He wakes up at 6:00 A.M. next his wife (Elizabeth McGovern), takes a train to work, and puts in his eight hours at an insurance agency. Michael’s routine takes a twisted turn, though, as a mysterious woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) approaches him on his commute home. She offers Michael $100,000 to single out a person on the train who doesn’t belong. Michael soon begins to unravel a conspiracy that puts several people at risk, including his family.


The setup here is worthy of a Hitchcockian classic like “Strangers on a Train,” “North by Northwest,” or “The Lady Vanishes.” Of course “The Commuter” never comes close to reaching the brilliance of a Hitchcock picture, instead taking the safer action route. On that basis, though, it’s by no means poorly made. Director Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously worked with Neeson in “Unknown,” “Run All Night,” and “Non-Stop,” knows how to turn in an intense, well-shot thriller. That’s exactly what we get, which will leave the core demographic satisfied, but others longing for something a little more.


“The Commuter” might have actually earned comparison to a modern “Murder on the Orient Express” if it made slightly better use of its supporting cast. The film features several commendable character actors, including Jonathan Banks, Patrick Wilson, and Sam Neill. Yet, none of them are really utilized to their full potential. Everybody seems to take a backseat with Neeson behind the wheel. Then again, Neeson is the reason why audiences are going to buy a ticket and he once again has a lot of fun in this role.


It’s hard to say how much longer Neeson will be able to milk this aging tough guy caricature. Sure, stunt men and CGI will always be there to fill in the blanks, but can he really pull this part off with his seventies and eighties on the horizon? Well for now, Neeson isn’t showing any sign of slowing down. Even if certain tropes from his films are growing tired, he keeps us coming back with his charisma and gruff charm. I’m totally onboard for more senior action flicks, assuming they have more integrity than “Taken 2” and “3.”


Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Blood Country - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 27, 2017 at 12:00 AM Comments comments (1)


You can tell from Travis Mills’ filmography that he practically lives behind the camera. In addition to writing, producing, and directing several dozen shorts, Mills has also directed a handful of feature films. With his features, Mills has explored a variety of different genres. "Durant's Never Closes" was an intriguing character study about a mysterious restaurant owner. "Porches and Private Eyes" was a quirky comedy with elements of "Desperate Housewives."


"Blood Country" is perhaps Mills' most polished film to date. Well, the most polished to my knowledge, as I've yet to see his "Duel at the Mound" or "Bride of Violence." To think, Mill made a good chunk of his features between 2014 and 2017. How he found the time to direct all these projects in such a short amount of time is beyond me. All that can be said for sure is that filmmaking is in his blood.


His latest film draws inspiration from Robert E. Jones' short story, "The Outlaw, the Sheriff, and the Governor." Taking place shortly after the Civil War, the story revolves around a man accused of murdering his brother. Cotton Yancey, who's a dead ringer for Sam Elliot, turns in effective work as the sheriff tasked with seeing that justice is served.


"Blood Country" has echoes of several other films that came out in 2017. The murder at the center of the story calls Taylor Sheridan's "Wind River" to mind. The racial tensions addressed in the film are also reminiscent of Dee Rees' "Mudbound." As familiar as parts of "Blood Country" might be, Mills sets his film apart thanks to some strong performances, atmospheric cinematography, and a distinctive tone.


As is the case with Mills' other films, "Blood Country" may prove a bit too slowly paced for some. For those that can look beyond its understated nature, though, they'll find a film that poignant, gripping, and ultimately rewarding. It'll additionally leave them eager to see what project Mills will take on next.


Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

The Disaster Artist - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 5, 2017 at 7:05 PM Comments comments (0)


How did you first learn about Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room?” Chances are a friend dragged you to a screening one night or lent you a copy of the DVD. Perhaps you stumbled upon the Nostalgia Critic’s review on YouTube. Maybe you just so happened to pick up a copy of Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell’s award winning book, “The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Film Ever Made.” However you came across it, “The Room” has worked its way into the hearts of many, even becoming one of the most quotable movies of the 21st century. Considering how much joy it’s brought audiences, should it technically be classified as a “bad film?” In any case, “The Disaster Artist” is undoubtedly one of the best films of 2017.


Even after over a decade of being in the public eye, Tommy Wiseau remains a walking question mark. There’s still debate over where he came from, how he made his personal fortune, and how old he is. As far as we know, he’s an alien that crash-landed on earth and decided to pursue an acting career. James Franco masterfully captures that bizarre sentiment with his performance as Wiseau. From his dazed appearance to his indistinguishable accent, it’s eerie just how well Franco mimics this one of a kind individual. The same can be said about Franco’s feat behind the camera, as he recreates several scenes from “The Room” to near perfection.


While Franco’s performance is well worthy of a Best Actor nomination, he’s not the only one who deserves recognition. Seeing how Greg Sestero has been like a brother to Wiseau, it’s fitting that James Franco’s own brother would play him here. Dave Franco portrays Sestero as a naïve, yet ultimately kind-hearted, aspiring actor that just wants to perform. While his decision to follow Wiseau to Los Angeles is certainly questionable, if not crazy, we can also see how somebody in his position would be eager to go along for the ride. After Sestero fails to get anywhere with his talent agency and Wiseau is repeatedly told he’s only qualified to play a monster, the two decide to make a movie of their own. What emanates from Wiseau’s mind is a rollercoaster of confusion and unintentional hilarity.


The acting ensemble that Wiseau assembles includes Josh Hutcherson as Denny, Jacki Weaver as Claudette, and Zac Efron as Chris-R. Seth Rogen is especially good as script supervisor Sandy Schklair, who was arguably the closest thing this production had to a competent filmmaker. The cast and crew ask all the questions audiences have when they watch “The Room.” Is this story supposed to be autobiographical? Why use a green screen for certain exterior shots when shooting outside would’ve been easier? Why doesn’t the cancer subplot ever come back into play? Since their checks clear, everyone tends to indulge Wiseau’s insanity, but even they have their limits.


“The Disaster Artist” doesn’t shy away from Wiseau’s shadier moments, as he deprives his employees of water, humiliates a young actress, and costs his best friend a potentially game-changing gig. Even when he’s at his most unlikable, though, Franco manages to paint Wiseau as a believable human being. That might sound contradictory, as I previously described Wiseau as an alien. While we may never understand Wiseau’s mindset, any artist can understand his obsession and determination.


The best movie to compare “The Disaster Artist” to is Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood.” Like Wood, Wiseau is far from perfect, especially when it comes to storytelling. Their ideas are so out-there and their passion for filmmaking is so unyielding, though, that you can’t help but root for them. It’s clear that they’re never going to succeed in a conventional sense, but you want to see their visions brought to life regardless. Both give hope to artists that refuse to give up on their dreams… even if they probably should.


Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

The Shape of Water - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on December 5, 2017 at 7:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Earlier this year, Disney broke all kinds of box office records with their live-action adaptation of “Beauty and the Beast.” While certainly enjoyable, I’d be lying if I said the remake didn’t leave me longing for a fresher take on the tale as old as time. Guillermo del Toro has answered my wish with “The Shape of Water.” Like “Pan's Labyrinth,” this is an original fairy tale that feels like it’s been passed down from generation to generation. It also has the distinction of being a fairy tale exclusively for older audiences. Of course when you think about it, a lot of classic stories intended for kids go to some pretty sadistic places. In that sense, del Toro is perhaps the closest any modern filmmaker has come to replicating the voices of the Brothers Grimm.


Sally Hawkins has yet to hit a false note throughout her career. As the mute Elisa, Hawkins breathes magical charisma into a performance that’s almost exclusively reliant on facial expressions and body language. Elisa works as a cleaning lady at the Occam Aerospace Research Center, which calls the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense to mind. Speaking of “Hellboy,” Doug Jones once again plays an amphibious humanoid creature that’s held captive in the center. Never given a name, the creature finds himself at the mercy of a cruel colonel, played by a chilling Michael Shannon. When Elisa opens her heart to the creature, it marks the beginning of a romance that transcends language, species, and every conceivable obstacle.


In lesser hands, “The Shape of Water” easily could’ve veered into satirical territory. Just as the love between Elisa and the creature defies all logic, though, del Toro has made a fantasy that’s as strange as it is lovely. Both Hawkins and Jones have such genuine chemistry that we not only come to care about this romance, but we actually take it seriously. Even when Elisa and the creature consummate their odd relationship, it’s surprisingly intimate and elegant. Wonderful supporting performances from Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg only add to the heart of this touching story.


Visually speaking, this might be del Toro’s finest achievement, which is saying a lot. The steampunk production design is cleverly draped in green, making this whole world feel like a kingdom constructed from algae. The artists behind the makeup effects help mold the creature into an emotive character that Jones simply escapes into. Perhaps the greatest achievement of all is Alexandre Desplat’s enchanting score, which gives the film the essence of a silent picture from France. Since “The Shape of Water” is full of dialog-free moments, Desplat’s music plays a key role in shaping the many emotions on display.


2017 has been a strong year for mature fantasies, between “The Shape of Water” and to a lesser extent “Okja.” Both of these movies take setups that risk coming off as cliché or silly, but somehow work as gripping entertainment that adult viewers can get wrapped up in. Just as love comes in many different shapes and sizes, they truly challenge what movies can be and make us see the medium in a new way. “The Shape of Water” in particular might be the best gothic love story since “Edward Scissorhands.” It's bizarre, beautiful, and could only come from a brilliant mind.


Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Last Flag Flying - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 10, 2017 at 10:05 PM Comments comments (1)


“Last Flag Flying” is kind of like “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” meets “The Best Years of Our Lives.” That’s definitely an odd combination and there are times when Richard Linklater’s film runs the risk of being uneven. Thanks to his capable direction, a sharp script co-written by author Darryl Ponicsan, and three strong leads, though, everything balances out. Well, maybe not everything. We do get a few scenes that drag on for too long. Given how this movie could’ve misfired in so many different ways, however, it’s impressive that it manages to juggle comedy, drama, and patriotism at all.


The film is actually based on a novel by Ponicsan, which was actually a sequel to “The Last Detail,” which was actually adapted to the screen in 1973 with Jack Nicholson, Randy Quaid, and Otis Young. The aforementioned trio of actors is nowhere to be in this unofficial follow-up of sorts, but their replacements light up the screen with chemistry. Steve Carell gives his most subdued performance since “Foxcatcher” as Larry “Doc” Shepherd. Bryan Cranston steals the film’s best lines as Sal Nealon while Laurence Fishburne is a pitch perfect straight man as Richard Mueller.


These men served together during Vietnam, but haven’t seen each other since then. In 2003, Doc looks up his unit after his son dies in Iraq. Sal and Richard agree to help their old friend through the ordeal, but sign on for more than they bargained for. Upon learning exactly how his son was killed, Doc decides that he doesn’t want him to have a military funeral. He’d rather burry him at home, meaning Sal and Richard must come along for the long haul.


At the beginning of “Last Flag Flying,” the characters might be complete strangers to the audience. As the narrative unfolds, though, the film starts to feel like reuniting with some good buddies. We really come to like each of these men, as if we’ve known them for years. This has a lot to do with the impeccable rapport between the actors, who work off each other wonderfully. Their dynamic ranges from hilarious to poignant and there’s never a second when you doubt their bond. Even if the story is light on plot, just listening to Doc, Sal, and Richard for two hours is interesting enough.


What prevents “Last Flag Flying” from being a truly great film about veterans is a killjoy colonel played by Yul Vazquez. This character is determined to give Doc’s son a military funeral, as if he’s property of the U.S. government. While not everyone in the military is perfect, this guy just sends the wrong message in a picture that otherwise avoids cheap shots and caricatures. His character arc doesn’t even have a real payoff and could’ve been removed altogether. Nevertheless, that’s just one bump in the road for a film that mostly does our troops justice.


Grade: 4 out of 5 Stars

Murder on the Orient Express - Review

Posted by Nick Spake on November 8, 2017 at 5:35 PM Comments comments (0)


When it was announced that Kenneth Branagh was adapting “Murder on the Orient Express” for modern audiences, it was hard not to think of when Gus Van Sant remade Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Outside of their craft and performances, both of these murder mysteries stand out thanks to their killer twist endings. So if you’ve already seen the 1974 version of “Murder on the Orient Express,” this new one isn’t exactly going to take you by surprise. Of course with “Psycho,” virtually everyone has seen it and even those who hadn’t knew how the film ends. “Murder on the Orient Express,” on the other hand, has perhaps slipped through the cracks for some, especially younger viewers. On that basis, Branagh’s interpretation is a worthy remake and a solid introduction for those unfamiliar with the classic Agatha Christie tale.


The title alone pretty much spells out the setup. Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, who you can tell is a master detective based on his mustache alone. While traveling on the Orient Express, Poirot crosses paths with a fellow passenger named Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), who believes his life is on the line. Ratchett is right, as he winds up dead the next morning with twelve stab wounds. When an avalanche literally stops the train dead in its tracks, Poirot conducts an investigation in which every passenger is a suspect.


The original film featured an all-star cast that included Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins, and Ingrid Bergman in her Oscar-winning role. This version brings together an equally impressive ensemble with the likes of Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, and Michelle Pfeiffer, just to name a few. They all fit comfortably into their parts and never feel out of place in the film’s 1930s setting. Branagh in particular manages to be as dignified as Sherlock Holmes while also being as over-the-top as Adrian Monk. It might sound blasphemous, but I actually prefer his portrayal over Albert Finney’s, which always felt a little too close to Inspector Clouseau.


Branagh deserves just as much credit for his work behind the camera. Although much of the film is limited to a confined area, Branagh keeps things interesting with inventive camera angles. The cinematography never becomes gimmicky or distracting like in a Guy Ritchie movie, though. The art direction, costumes, and musical score additionally make for an extremely well crafted picture. Even some of the CGI imagery and green screen effects, while sometimes obvious, are still executed with a fair deal of class.


All in all, everything that worked about 1974’s “Murder on the Orient Express” works here. That being said, not everything about the original film was perfect. Both versions suffer from pacing issues, especially in the sluggish middle. There’s also one too many characters to keep track of, even for a film that almost runs for two hours. You could argue that these problems stem from the 1934 novel that started it all. As far as Agatha Christie’s works go, I’d personally take “And Then There Were None” over “Murder on the Orient Express” any day. Nevertheless, the story does have its merits and Branagh’s take more than does them justice.


Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Stars


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