Murder on the Orient Express: Movie Man Jackson

Everyone is a suspect…and connected by six degrees of separation. After a demanding case solved in Jerusalem, Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh)—the world’s greatest detective—is allowing himself some R&R in Istanbul. The best laid plans never go according to plan, as durign his time away from work, Poirot is called to London to investigate a case.

With no travel plans readily available, Hercule turns to his friend Mr. Bouc (Tom Bateman), who helps run the Orient Express, a train on the path to London. While vacation is cut short, at least the detective can relax by reading some Dickens for a few days.

Again, the best laid plans never go according to plan, as the train is derailed from its course, and during this derail, someone on the train has killed a passenger. There’s a Murder on the Orient Express and said murderer is still on the train. Only one man can solve this.

Ahh, the whodunit mystery. It is a movie genre that can be pretty limiting when one thinks about it. Often, there isn’t a ton of depth under the initial mystery to make for anything unforgettable, whether the production is loosely defined as an “original” (à la Happy Death Day) or a remake adapted from an Agatha Christie novel, which Murder on the Orient Express happens to be. Summed up, this remake is probably unnecessary but is certainly impressive to look at, have a little fun with, and never think about again after an initial watch.

The first thing noticed about “MotOE” is the well-done cinematography, commitment to the respective time period via costumes/setting, lighting, and just the mostly strong direction from director Kenneth Branagh (Thor, Cinderella) shot on 65mm. Very easy to feel transported into 1934. Along with a fitting score by composer Patrick Doyle, it all adds to the old-school feeling. Stylistically, this is a classic movie made in 2017. In ways, the last-generation video game LA Noire comes to mind, from style to execution. While this Orient Express is far from original, there is a small feeling of freshness, because this type of production isn’t that common. As a basic whodunit, those who have never been exposed to prior iterations (like yours truly) may be surprised at how everything shakes down. While the actual culprit reveal isn’t something I’m completely pleased with, it did keep me guessing for the bulk of the runtime, doing the job on that front.

While Murder on the Orient Express’ highest plus is that of the technical work behind the screen, it isn’t without a little fault. The murder scene in particular which the movie is built around is rather rushed and isn’t really treated with the gravitas one would be led to believe. The medium shots from outside the train peering into the glass in voyeuristic manner is nice to look at, but probably a bit overused as well after so many times without amounting to much. As inane as this may sound, the white subtitles were a little easy to miss at times with some of them being shown against backgrounds (walls, dress shirts) that also happen to be white. Small, but some of this dialogue is critical and easy to miss.

What isn’t easy to miss is that mustache Kenneth Branagh sports as the famed detective. It stands out among everything, like his performance among the rest of the cast. Call Murder on the Orient Express ‘The Kenneth Branagh Show’ as director, lead actor, and producer. He is an interesting character with some internal depth and Branagh does a great job with an intro scene that makes Poirot easy to buy into as the self-proclaimed world’s greatest detective. Where Branagh (and screenplay writer Michael Green) struggles is with the repeated stabs at humor. A few are effective, most are not. Same can be said for the interrogation scenes. Half seize attention, but others can actually be dull.

A cast this beefy shouldn’t be predominantly forgettable though. Yet, that’s accurate for this film. Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo all blend into each other. Honestly, I can’t remember who was the countess and who was the cook! Others like Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr, Johnny Depp, and Michelle Pfeiffer do make a little more of a lasting impression, but to call them fairly detailed would be a tad too generous. This is Branagh’s baby and his alone.

It is Branagh as the conductor, engineer, and bellhop who leads Murder on the Orient Express to a destination of Finesville. Choo-choo.

C+

Photo credits go to cinemablend.com, highsnobiety.com, and filmandtvnow.com.

For additional detailed thoughts on films both small and large, games, and the key moments that comprise each, check out ThatMomentIn.com

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Black Mass: Movie Man Jackson

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“If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”

Wise words from a notorious criminal. It’s the 1970’s, and the city of Boston, Massachusetts has become rife with criminal activity. Many gangs run the streets, like the Winter Hill Gang, led by Boston native James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp), brother of state senator William Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch).

As much as the FBI would love to shut down all criminal organizations in the area, sometimes a one-or-the-other choice has to be made. In a land of big wolves, the biggest is the Italian Mafia, and it takes a wolf to catch a wolf. Knowing this, an old childhood friend of Bulger’s, John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), approaches Bulger with a deal: Become an informant, giving intel of other local empires, in exchange for the bureau turning a relative blind eye to Whitey’s operation. Originally believed to be the lesser of all evils, the FBI soon finds that Bulger is the biggest one.

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Director Scott Cooper’s (Out of the Furnace) Black Mass asks one real question: Does it mean anything to take down the house if a stronger one is built on the side? The clear answer is no. Aside from that, though, Black Mass isn’t a new spin on biographies or gangster flicks. But, it is engrossing once it gets going, and benefits from a strong cast, spearheaded by a guy who the world has been begging of to sink his teeth into something other than a pirate, a vampire, or an art-dealing buffoon.

Yes, Johnny Depp, delivers here. Instead of the makeup and the accompanying appearances making, or in some cases, marring, his more recent roles, Depp’s appearance here, though still with makeup, is minimal enough to allow Depp the actor to shine through. His Bulger, make no mistake, is very evil, so if looking for a truly dynamic lead character, it may be best to look elsewhere. But, from the first scene Depp appears in, it never feels like he’s has to “warm up” to be evil; he’s ready from the jump. The performance is high quality throughout, featuring many scenes packed with tension as to just what Whitey will do. Sometimes he does something, and other times he doesn’t, but the unease and unpredictability are always present.

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It may be too early to say, but Depp should almost certainly in the nominee pool for Best Actor. His character’s counterpart of John Connolly, played by Joel Edgerton, should almost certainly be in the nominee pool for Best Supporting Actor. Seeing Edgerton’s character devolve from an agent who wants to do the right thing by aligning with a lesser evil to bring down a bigger evil, to desperately trying to convince himself he’s still doing the right thing is equal parts fascinating, sad, and even funny at times.

The relationship between Connolly and Whitey is more brother-like than Whitey and his own brother, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in a good but “I still see this actor/actress” performance. In defense of Benedict, he’s not really on screen enough to build any momentum. In smaller roles, Dakota Johnson, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Kevin Bacon, Jesse Plemons, and Peter Sarsgaard all fit nicely and contribute as key pieces all revolving around Whitey and John.

Filming around the same areas where so much of Bulger’s criminal empire occurred is a great (and probably necessary) choice that gives more authenticity to the movie. Cooper lends some solid camerawork to the story’s events, nothing spectacular as this is an intentionally drab visual palate, but technically sound it certainly is. It’s the story itself, however, that works well enough to get into, but, based on what appear to be a mostly true telling of events, doesn’t ascend to classic mobster and crime movies. As a whole, it just sort of lacks that emotional hold that similar movies in the genre possess.

Additionally, Black Mass suffers somewhat from a slow start as the result of an iffy effort to flesh out Bulger beyond being only a bad guy. It doesn’t truly get going until about 25-30 minutes in. And, while the events are told in a very straightforward manner, gaps exist and seem to be evidenced by fade-to-black timelime jumps that possibly could have given the movie opportunity to explore more relationships and key characters if additional runtime was given.

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The term Black Mass has a religious origin, literally defined as the darker inverse of the traditional Catholic mass, bordering on parody and obvious blasphemy. As for the film Black Mass, the story isn’t a parody, or treated glamorously, but brings, what feels like at to yours truly at least, a true-to-real-life history lesson presented on the silver screen of a guy who I only knew of through America’a Most Wanted.

Grade: B+

Photo credits go to liveforfilms.com, blogs.indiewire.com, and boston.cbslocal.com.

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21 Jump Street: Movie Man Jackson

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“Are you ready for a lifetime of being absolutely badass mother****ers?”

High school. You may have peaked in it, or you may have suffered through it. At any rate, once you are done, you never are forced to go back…unless it is part of your job. This is the situation Jenko and Schmidt find themselves in during 21 Jump Street. Way back in 2005, Jenko (Channing Tatum) and Schmidt (Jonah Hill) were but a few of the average high school stereotypical students. Jenko is the average dumb jock, while Schmidt is a socially inept but smart dude.  Being on complete opposite ends of the high school food chain, it isn’t exactly shocking to see these two never interact. The off times they do, it goes as one would expect.

Enter 2012, and the two find each other in the police academy. Instead of remaining in high school mode, both end up helping the other with weaknesses they struggle with and ultimately forming a bond that leads to their graduation. After an odd mishap one day on patrol as bike cops, the duo is reassigned to the 21 Jump Street division, a program revitalized from the 80’s. Led under the direction of the always-angry Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), this tag-team is assigned to go undercover as high school students in an effort to snuff out a new drug known as HFS. Sounds easy enough, but 2012 in high school is nothing like 2005.

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If you have never seen the TV series sharing the same name of this film, do not fret. In all honesty, the only link the show and its remake share is the title. The 2012 version of 21 Jump Street eschews the seriousness and drama from its predecessor and opts for a lighter and humorous take. From start to finish, laughs are to be had at a pretty consistent clip.

Within the first few minutes, it is evident that this movie never takes itself too seriously. Whether it be through a simple moment of the main characters locking eyes over expertly timed music cues reminiscent of iconic 80’s movies, or expecting the obvious explosion to occur after shooting numerous flammable objects, it pokes fun at itself, the implausibility of the scenario, and staples of the buddy cop genre. The film also gets commended for going in an unexpected direction. At its core, I got the message of change in the fact that nothing stays the same and what was once cool can easily become outdated. It would have been real easy, and lazy, to keep Jenko as the ultra-suave and straight man while sticking Schmidt as the loser with no chance at progression. Thankfully, it goes a different route.

This “meta-ness” alluded to previously extends to the duo themselves. The stereotypes that Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum embody here are in a way what others think about them in real life. Hill to a lot of people is or at least comes off as an insecure and occasionally douchey guy, and Tatum for the longest time (perhaps still) was only thought of as eye candy with not much to offer anywhere else. Maybe I am looking too much into this, and if I am so be it. It’s just something that worked into my mind when watching.

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Being able and willing to take shots at yourself is well and good, but the characters and the actors playing those said characters still have to be interesting enough to make it matter. Luckily, they are in 21 Jump Street. Jonah Hill has proven his comedic ability previously before this, but he is in top-notch form here. Not so much a shock to see him score so many laughs, but it was refreshing to see his character with a fair amount of heft. His character allows for more connection with the audience, as many have been there at some point in time.

Channing Tatum is the real revelation in the film from a comedic standpoint. He gets many great lines and serves them up with exceptional delivery. He is really shaping as a versatile guy in Hollywood, something I never would have thought possible during his roles in Coach Carter and Step Up. As a duo, their chemistry was infectious and appeared natural, which is a must for buddy cop films.

The supporting cast is nothing to scoff at though. Rob Riggle, Dave Franco, Ellie Kemper, Brie Larson, DeRay Davis, and a few others bring humorous moments to varying degrees. But Ice Cube as the police captain steals the show as Captain Dickson every time he appears on screen. Based on a stereotype like Tatum and Hill’s characters, he is consistently angry throughout the movie in the most over-the-top way. His delivery and timing is flawless, and whenever he spars with Jenko and Schmidt is a riot.

As a whole, the dialogue and writing is pretty strong, if occasionally overdependent on the F bomb. For the most part it works more often than not, and it it pretty realistic of what is heard in most high schools. There were just a few times where it came across as a crutch, but it is to be expected with a R-rated comedy. What wasn’t expected in the way it was carried out happened to be the last third of the movie. Unlike the previous thirds, the last 30 or so minutes serves more as an action movie. Not that there is not still comedy to be had, but the tone obviously shifts and it is a bit jarring to see blood spraying and bodies dropping.

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More of a re-imagining than an remake/reboot, the film incarnation of 21 Jump Street is good entertainment through and through, bolstered by self-referential humor and a strong (covalent) bond between main characters. Maybe going back to high school isn’t such a bad thing.

Grade: B

Photo credits go to sonypictures.com, movieforums.com, & totalfilm.com.

Follow the Movie Man @MovieManJackson.