Wednesday, November 29, 2017


It seems like with every subsequent film, Pixar is upping it's game in terms of the films it makes. The studio's latest offering, Coco, is easily one of the studio's best. Filled with some of the most breathtaking animation I've seen, some magnificent music and a genuinely moving story, this is easily one of my favorite Pixar films and I only just saw it. 

Miguel Rivera (played by Anthony Gonzalez) lives with his family in a small Mexican town where his family runs a small shoe factory. His family has had a generations long ban on music, dating back to when his Great Great Grandfather, a talented musician, left his family to pursue his singing career. Left on her own, his Great Great Grandmother Imelda (played by Alanna Ubach) banned music in the household and founded the shoemaking business to support her family. This ban has continued through the generations until young Miguel, who has a burning desire to be a musician. The town is having a talent show as part of the Day of the Dead celebrations and Miguel decides to enter, unbeknownst to his family. In need of a guitar, he decides to break into the tomb of deceased singing celebrity Ernesto de la Cruz (played by Benjamin Bratt), a musician Miguel idolizes and has recently discovered is his Great Great Grandfather who left all those years ago, to borrow his guitar, which occupies the tomb with him. Because of this, Miguel finds himself transported to the Land of the Dead, cursed for stealing from the deceased on the day gifts are meant to be given to them. He soon finds his deceased relatives, including Great Great Grandmother Imelda, and finds out his curse can be lifted if he's blessed by a deceased relative. Imelda is willing to give that blessing on the condition he give up music. Unwilling to compromise, Miguel runs off into the Land of the Dead, determined to find Ernesto de la Cruz, who he is certain will give him the blessing he needs without requiring he give up his dream of being a musician. He teams up with the loner Hector (played by Gael Garcia Bernal), who once performed with Ernesto and can help get Miguel into the big party Ernesto throws every year on Day of the Dead. But they need to hurry, because if Miguel doesn't break the curse by the next sunrise, he'll be among the dead forever. 

There is so much to love about this movie, I am not sure where to start. The heart of any good film is it's story and this film has a great one. It hits many of the familiar beats of Disney and Pixar films, but manages to find enough new material to keep things fresh and interesting. The screenplay by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich finds the heart of their story and it shines brightly throughout the film. They really craft a group of characters that I found myself genuinely caring about. Then it is paired with some of the most gorgeous animation I've seen in quite some time. From the design of the Land of the Dead to the glowing orange of the Aztec Marigold flowers that make up the bridge from the Land of the Living to the Land of the dead, it all just looked breathtaking. The film's directors, Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina, did a fantastic job bringing the world of this film to life. 

For a film where music plays a central role, they did a great job with the music for the film with original songs by Adrian Molina as well as Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, with the main reoccurring song, "Remember Me", reappearing at least four times in the film but the interesting thing is what they do with it. Normally, in movies like this the main song like this starts off slower and grows with each time you hear it until it's the big music number and this film smartly does the reverse, with the first time you hear it, it's this big musical number performed by Ernesto de la Cruz, and then as the film goes on the song becomes softer, slower and ultimately more meaningful. The film also has a lovely score by Michael Giacchino that ties everything together nicely.          

When it comes to Pixar, they always cast their films incredibly well, finding the right voice for each character. The have an incredible find for their main character in Anthony Gonzalez, who not only voices the character but also does all his own singing as well and does a fantastic job at both. Gael Garcia Bernal is wonderful as Hector, giving his character great hidden depths while also doing a great job playing to the more humorous aspects of the character. Benjamin Bratt is great as Ernesto de la Cruz, capturing the sort of larger than life aspects of the character who is an incredibly famous singer both in the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead. Alanna Ubach gives a good deal of depth to her character as well, one that could have been a one note stick in the mud thankfully isn't as the film goes on and develops her character as well, showing clearly why banning music in her house made sense, something that carried through subsequent generations. 

Coco is a marvelous film that really captures Mexican culture incredibly well (or so I've been told). Even beyond the Day of the Dead traditions, it has nods to Mexican history and culture all over the place, with various deceased Mexican making appearances in the Land of Dead, notably Frida Kahlo. Furthermore, they are actually having screenings of the film with the Spanish language track in addition to the English one, which I think is awesome. I did see the English language version of the film, but I am tempted to see it again in Spanish (there are screenings with English Subtitles). If not, I will definitely give it a try when I get the Blu-Ray. Regardless, the film at it's core is a deeply touching story of family and how important it can be to people as well as just being a fun adventure story. It's a film I give my heartiest recommendation to and am confident it will be on my list of favorite films of the year. I encourage everyone to not only see it, but see it in a theatre.     

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

When it was first announced that Kenneth Branagh was doing a new version of Murder on the Orient Express, my first thought was, "Why?" In my mind, the 1974 version was a classic and it had also just recently been redone as part of the David Suchet "Poirot" series. Did we really need yet another rendition? Yet, as a long time fan of his films, I kept an open mind, curious to see what he brought to the Belgian detective's most famous case.

We are first introduced to Hercule Poirot (played by Kenneth Branagh) as he prepares to deliver the summation of his latest investigation concerning the theft of a priceless jewel in Jerusalem. From there he is intending to travel to Istanbul for some much needed rest when he receives a telegram that he is needed urgently back in London. His friend Bouc (played by Tom Bateman), as Director of the line, offers Poirot passage on the Orient Express. Poirot gratefully accepts and soon boards the train. Amongst his fellow first class passengers, he meets the eccentric Mrs. Hubbard (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), Mary Debenham (played by Daisy Ridley), Dr. John Arbuthnot (played by Leslie Odom, Jr.), Spanish Missionary Pilar Estravados, Princess Dragomiroff (played by Judi Dench) and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (played by Olivia Colman), Mr. Ratchett (played by Johnny Depp) and his secretary Mr. McQueen (played by Josh Gad) and valet Mr. Masterman (played by Derek Jacobi) along with assorted others. Also joining them on the trip is Bouc, accompanying Poirot personally. The trip hits a snag on the second night as the train gets stuck as the result of an avalanche, stranding the train. It is discovered the following morning that Mr. Ratchett was murdered, poisoned and stabbed 12 times specifically. Bouc requests specifically that Poirot investigate the crime before the train arrives in Yugoslavia and winds up turned over to their police. Poirot agrees to, despite preferring to stay in his cabin with his Dickens novel, but finds what initially appears to be a simple murder is anything but as he digs deeper into the crime and the backgrounds of the people on the train.

In addition to starring in the film, Kenneth Branagh directed as well and brings a new and unique vision to the Agatha Christie classic. I've always enjoyed Branagh as a director, whether it's his epic adaptation of William Shakespere's Hamlet, the warm comedy Peter's Friends or the epic Marvel film Thor, they are always handsomely mounted productions. He manages to pull of the same here. Shooting in 65mm, this film is simply gorgeous to look at either on the train or the surrounding landscapes. They also open up the action of the film more than the previous film, with some of the film moving outside the train as Poirot investigates the murder. The screenplay by Michael Green is largely a faithful adaptation, but at the same time they throw in a few new wrinkles to keep viewers familiar with the source material on their toes. The one flaw with the film is that it keeps it's focus on Poirot too much, with many of the other characters fading into the background. I get the feeling that anyone not familiar with the text may be a bit lost keeping everyone straight, or at least fully understanding how the mystery was solved. If nothing else, it relegates a genuinely great cast to the background.   

Luckily, Branagh is surprisingly good at the famous detective turning it a fun and at times moving performance. It is a different interpretation in some ways than what we have seen before, but I still really enjoyed it. However, he has saddled himself with what has to be one of the more ridiculous mustaches I've seen on screen. When the 1974 film came out, Agatha Christie famously said she was unimpressed with the mustache of Albert Finney's Poirot and I can't help but feel like they over corrected here. It took some getting used to at least. Daisy Ridley has a nice turn here as well as Mary Debenham, who catches Poirot's interests early in film when he overhears her speaking to John Arbuthnot and what they said raises his suspicions once the murder has been committed. She does well playing her character and conveying so much in the few scenes she is featured front and center. Josh Gad has a few great moments as Mr. McQueen, who also finds himself as a prime suspect, given his access to the victim. Michelle Pfeiffer has a nice turn as Mrs. Hubbard and I got the sense she was having some fun with the part. Johnny Depp is likewise having fun with his role as the despicable Mr. Ratchett, who shares a scene with Poirot and tries to hire him as his bodyguard, which Poirot refuses. But beyond that, I feel like the rest of the cast was a bit wasted, to be honest. Penelope Cruz has a nice moment towards the end, but other than that was relegated to the background. Likewise, Leslie Odom Jr. has a memorable moment towards the end, but other than that not so much. Judi Dench barely makes an impact as Princess Dragomiroff nor Derek Jacobi as Mr. Masterman. Willem Dafoe also appears as a German Professor, but only has one or two moments in the film. The interview scenes are intercut and almost glossed over which robs so many actors of wonderful character moments that the 1974 film juggled so well, and also makes critical plot points easy to miss. It's the one downside for me in an otherwise wonderful adapatation. It's not any of the actor's faults but rather it's the writing or the editing that cuts the film's individual moments with each of them short.   

Overall, I did enjoy the film. I have a few small nitpicks to be sure, but I really liked Branagh's take on Poirot. The film does end with a cheeky opening for a sequel, something about someone dying on the Nile River, and I for one would welcome a second outing with his Poirot. I would just hope he doesn't rush things quite so much the next time around and let his characters have a little more room to establish themselves.            

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

"Has it occurred to you that there are too many clu-ues in this room."

There is something about Sidney Lumet's Murder on the Orient Express that I just can't help but love. Adapted from the classic Agatha Christie novel and brimming with A-List actors all giving fantastic performances playing off a witty and clever script, the film is simply fantastic. With the upcoming release of the Kenneth Branagh adaptation, I thought it would be fun to take a look at this classic rendition ahead of the release of the new film. 

Famed detective Hercule Poirot (played by Albert Finney) is in the process of traveling home and has booked passage on the famed Orient Express train, sharing it with a group of colorful characters that include the eccentric Mrs. Hubbard (played by Lauren Bacall), Col. Arbuthnot (played by Sean Connery) and his girlfriend Mary Debenham (played by Vanessa Redgrave) Count and Countess Andrenyi (played by Michael York and Jacqueline Bissett), Mr. Ratchett (played by Richard Widmark), as well as Ratchett's personal secretary Mr. McQueen (played by Anthony Perkins) and valet Beddoes (played by John Gielgud) and Greta Ohlsson (played by Ingrid Bergman). That night, Mr. Ratchett is murdered, having been stabbed twelve times and his body is discovered the following morning when the train makes a stop due to the tracks being blocked by an avalanche of snow. Bianchi (played by Martin Balsam), a friend of Poirot and owner of the railroad line, implores Poirot to take the case. Poirot agrees and along with Bianchi and another passenger, Dr. Constantine (played by George Coulouris), set out to investigate and find the murderer.     

The film was directed by Sidney Lumet from a script by Paul Dehn, based on the classic Agatha Christie novel. The filmmakers do a wonderful job of juggling all the different characters in the film and for the most part keeping all the different plot points clear. Dehn's script is wonderfully witty and manages to transfer Christie's story to the screen. Sidney Lumet and his Director of Photography Geoffrey Unsworth do a good job of moving the action around the train and mixing up the shots within the cramped quarters of only a few train cars to keep things interesting visually. I also adore the film's score by Richard Rodney Bennett. They could have gone any number of routes when composing the score, especially the main theme but instead decided to compose this big, joyous waltz and it works so well. Upon my latest rewatch of the film, I noticed a couple subtle nods to other classic films by Mr. Lumet. First, there are a couple references to another train set whodunit, Hitchcock's A Lady Vanishes, which starred Vanessa Redgrave's father Michael Redgrave. Secondly, in a couple of early scenes in the film, Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman are frequently seated together. This is noteworthy to me because some of Lauren Bacall and Ingrid Bergman's most iconic work are their collaborations with Humphrey Bogart, with Bacall in the likes to To Have and Have NotThe Big Sleep, Dark Passage and Key Largo and Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Now, this could be coincidence  but I figure if you're enough of a film nerd to be making references to a Hitchcock film, you know enough to put Bacall and Bergman next to each other when you have them in the same film. 

Speaking of the cast, they deliberately packed it with as many well known movie stars as they could and they got a fantastic cast for the film. Albert Finney is fantastic as Poirot, perfectly capturing the famous detective. He does a great job conveying the detective working things out and piecing the mystery together as he interviews each of the passengers. As the investigation goes on and he digs deeper and deeper, I really started to get a sense that Poirot was having the time of his life. Albert Finney as Poirot remains may favorite portrayal of the character (before you all start throwing things, David Suchet fans, I liked him as well (although I hated his version of Murder on the Orient Express)). Lauren Bacall's portrayal of Mrs. Hubbard is also a favorite of mine. Loud, brash and fussy she is also quite a character and I could tell Bacall was having a lot of fun with the role. Ingrid Bergman puts in quite the performance as well as Greta Ohlsson and even won an Oscar for the performance. Overall, the entire cast was fantastic though from Anthony Perkins to Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York and Jaqueline Bissett. There really isn't a weak link amongst them.

Murder on the Orient Express has long been a favorite of mine after having been introduced to it by my mom. It's a fun and entertaining movie that surprisingly holds up to repeat viewings, in many ways it's even more fun the second, third, onward times forward as you pick up little details you missed the first time through. Hopefully, with the release of the new film, this rendition picks up some new fans along the way as well.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Only the Brave

This past summer, I drove through Montana on vacation and as part of my drive I got a good look at the wildfires the state was experiencing in a big way, as well as seeing Hot Shot teams at work (including following a couple of their busses on my way out of Great Falls at one point), so naturally this film held a great deal of appeal to me as it tells the story of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots, a team of firefighters that specifically handle wildfires based in Prescott, Arizona. Now, I also find myself at a quandary as to how I review the movie. Do I presume that my readers know the true story or do I avoid spoilers? What I will do is keep the main review spoiler free and then discuss more in depth at the end of the review.

Eric Marsh (played by Josh Brolin) wants to certify his team of firefighters as a legitimate Hot Shot firefighting crew after years of not being able to call shots during wildfires his crew is called to as he feels he could fight the fires better and more efficiently. He turns to Prescott Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink (played by Jeff Bridges) to help get his crew certified. During the process, Eric starts interviewing for a couple open spots on the team. One applicant, Brendan McDonough (played by Miles Teller), is a recovering junkie with a newborn baby to support that the other teammates don't think will make the cut but are surprised when Eric hires him. However Brendan rises to the challenge and gets in shape to become one of the team and eventually befriends them, especially Christopher McKenzie (played by Taylor Kitsch). Against the odds, the team gets certified as fire season starts, taking the team all around the state to fight intense wildfires while dealing with the tensions being away so much puts on their home lives, especially between Eric and his wife Amanda (played by Jennifer Connelly). 

The film was directed by Joesph Kosinski from a script by Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer. The filmmakers took a lot of care with this film giving their characters room to breathe and develop. They maintain their main focus on only a few of the crew, mainly Eric Marsh and his wife Amanda, who supports her husband's firefighting career, but also has found herself missing him more and wanting to start a family. The other main focus is on Brendan McDonough, who we first meet getting high with a friend but when he discovers his ex-girlfriend is pregnant with his kid, he decides to get clean and try to get a job to help support her, which leads him to Marsh's team. None of the rest of the team think McDonough will get a shot, but Marsh takes him on immediately recognizing that Brendan was a former drug addict. The film reveals over the course of it's runtime that Eric Marsh was a former addict as well and probably recognized himself in McDonough to take a chance on him. They also take a fair amount of time establishing the friendship between Eric Marsh and Duane Steinbrink as well as Marsh and his second in command, Jesse Steed (played by James Badge Dale). 

The film also does a good job depicting the job of fighting wildfires and exactly how that is done. It really gives a good sense of how it works and what the job is like, based on the reading I've done since I saw the movie and reactions of real life wildfire firefighters. The actual was they go about fighting these fires and how it works was fascinating to me. The film also goes over the training the hot shot crew goes through, including deployment drills to pull out and set up protective shelters they can use as protection if they get caught in the middle of a wildfire.  There is also a great moment where the team is sitting along a ridge, watching a wildfire they successfully contained, enjoying a moment of rest and cheering each time a flaming tree falls off the opposite cliff side to the rocky floor below, each erupting in a large fireball.

The acting all around is quite good in the film. Josh Brolin leads the group with a wonderfully layered performance as Eric Marsh, who so badly wants his team to become certified Hot Shots and Brolin does a great job of portraying the stress that Marsh was under trying to achieve that as well as his drive. Miles Teller likewise does great as Brendan McDonough, showing the drive he has to get his life together and provide for his newborn kid. Jennifer Connelly was also really good as Amanda Marsh, who worked as a horse trainer on the ranch they shared. Connelly does a good job in the role, showing the conflict her character feels. She wants to keep supporting her husband and his career, but also wants him home more too and Connelly does a good job portraying that struggle. Taylor Kitsch has a nice supporting turn as Christopher McKenzie who becomes a good friend and eventual roommate of Brendan McDonough. There's an amusing sequence in the film where Brendan gets to babysit his kid for a weekend and Christopher goes a little crazy with baby proofing the place with bubble wrap and electrical tape, as well as watching these two hapless guys try to take care of an infant on their own that provides some welcome comic relief. Kitsch has had a bit of a rocky transition to a film career, but here finds an opportunity to unleash the same charm that made him so lovable on the T.V show Friday Night Lights.
Only the Brave does more or less follow the mold of the biopic film, but at the same time excels in how it portrays it's subjects. Taking a very much warts and all approach and allowing them to exist as they were, as fully formed individuals, rather than simply stoic heroes makes it stand out. Because of this, the viewer gets a better sense of each character and in turn makes the film that much more potent. Along with skilled direction and some fantastic cinematography made for a really good movie. 

Now, I'm going to get into the more spoiler-filled section of the review. If you wish to remain spoiler free and want to go into the film completely fresh, turn back now. It is a very well made film and one well worth checking out. 

Okay, if you're still with me you have either already seen the film or already know what happens and want to know how it was handled. The bulk of the film covers the formation of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots and them getting certified as well their growth as a unit leading up to the climactic Yarnell fire. The film takes some relatively minor liberties with with the true story in the interest of the narrative, but the actual events of the Yarnell fire pretty much unfolds exactly as it did that day. It takes us through them arriving at the fire, trying to work and contain the fire, Brendan being selected to act as lookout for the team and the rest of the team having to make a fateful move during the course of the fire that eventually led to them becoming trapped by the increasingly intense fire. In a last ditch effort, they cleared an area and deployed their shelters, hoping to ride out the fire. Mercifully, the film cuts away at this point to Brendan being rescued from his position and assisting with moving his team's vehicles. From the safety zone, he listens intently to the radio, hoping to hear news that his team had gotten to safety only to hear the report that all 19 were killed in the fire. Throughout this, there is superb acting, with Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly and Jeff Bridges all being standouts when they individually hear the news. I went into the film knowing what happened and the ending was still gut wrenching to watch. The big reason is that, for the prior two hours or so, the film had done such a great job developing these characters it makes the ending all that more tragic. I also appreciated the fact that the film portrayed the events more or less as they actually happened without adding anything additional or trying to assign undue blame for the tragedy.   

In the end, I found the film to be very well made and quite moving even with the devastating ending. It is definitely one I would categorize as an ugly cry movie. At the same time though, because the film keeps it's focus on the characters themselves and not the tragedy that happened, the film succeeds wonderfully and one that I would recommend.