Movie Review: Murder on the Orient Express

“It drew her eyes; it frightened her. A big black hook.”

That’s not from Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” the film version of the novel which opens today, directed and starred in by Kenneth Branaugh, but “And Then There Were None,” which I read in junior high and involves a couple of key characters, trapped in a small space with a bunch of accused murderers, doing something grisly with that hook. Shortly after I read “And Then There Were None,” I stayed at a ski lodge on vacation which had a spare bedroom with a big black hook hanging from the ceiling. In retrospect, it was probably just there for a plant, but it gave me the chills nonetheless. Did our host – whom I did not know very well – want me dead, too? Had I committed a crime for which I had gone unpunished?

Admittedly, I had an overactive imagination, so I can only wonder what I would have started thinking had I been in Kenneth Branaugh’s shoes (he plays the famous Belgian detective Hercules Poirot) when he boards the titular Orient Express in the film and a dead passenger (Johnny Depp) is soon discovered. The bad news: the train has more than enough suspects; the good news is that there’s a famous detective on board who can solve it, plus the train keeps breaking down in the middle of snow-covered nowhere, so at least there’s plenty of time to think before they reach their destination. (Of course, that gives the killer plenty time to strike again). And I had plenty of time to ponder things while watching the movie. Things relevant to the movie, such as whodunit, but also things like, “Is Kenneth Branaugh wearing colored contact lenses? Surely, that’s not a shade of blue found in nature.” and “Just how long did it take to put on that mustache anyway?” This is because although all the performances (from Dame Judi Dench to Josh Gad) as the other passengers are excellent, the movie seemed awfully long. A critic (sorry can’t remember who) once said of Johnny Depp’s performance in “Black Mass” that he enters every scene as if he’s won first place in a costume party, and that line ran through my head whenever Kenneth made a dramatic appearance. (Sometimes he is even filmed from above, which gave me a crick in my neck, but didn’t happen too often.)

The plot revolves around a crime that occurred prior to the journey, when the young daughter of a rich couple is kidnapped and murdered. Unsurprisingly, everyone on the train has some kind of connection to this crime – though of course, there’s plenty of misrepresenting the truth so it will take all Kenneth’s wits and wiles to extract what is really going on. And naturally, the killer might possibly want Kenneth dead, too once he starts snooping around. There is lots of tension, but also lots of scenery chewing, and not just by Kenneth, although he’s the worst offender. I expected to see “Oscar clip” pop up in a few scenes, a.k.a. “Wayne’s World.” But it does provide food for thought – you could hear a pin drop in my theater once it was done, though that may just have been people wondering what they were going to have for dinner.

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A Look Back: Dark Shadows

When some infants are born, those present may make prophecies, although this mostly just happens in fairy tales. But I suspect that when Johnny Depp came into this world, the doctor examined him briefly and proclaimed, “One day, this lad will play a vampire on the big screen.” So far in his career, Johnny has portrayed a Jesus figure with scissors for hands, several real-life criminal masterminds, the current POTUS, a sad sack small town guy with the world’s most dysfunctional family, and the owner of a magical chocolate factory, not to mention a pirate with an over-fondness for eyeliner. He began as an undercover cop/high school student on a popular eighties’ TV show, but by 2012, he was ready to fulfill the prophecy and play Barnabas Collins, a time traveling vampire on “Dark Shadows,” the titular soap opera made into a Tim Burton movie. (Like many vampires, Johnny is rather gentlemanly – except of course, when he gets thirsty, and then the manners go out the window.)

If you wish to flee a curse, as young Johnny’s parents attempt to do in the 1700’s, traveling a fog-filled route from England to America probably won’t achieve the desired effect – particularly if a little girl is eyeballing your son, and she grows up to be Eva Green, a witch with an undying crush on him. However, Johnny is more bewitched by a young maid (Bella Heathcote), although he is the scion of a wealthy, influential Maine family. This upsets Eva to the point where she forces Bella to leap off a cliff, enchant and entomb Johnny but not before (she’s on a roll) turning the entire town against his family. Fast forward a couple hundred years, and Johnny’s resting place is disturbed, so he awakens in the seventies. Not the best era to awaken in, but Johnny makes the best of it, returning home to his family mansion, (after performing an enchantment of his own on the groundskeeper, Jackie Earle Haley), which is now headed by Michelle Pfeiffer and Jonny Lee Miller. Also present is the new governess (Bella again) for Jonny’s son (Gully McGrath) who sees dead people and as a result, has a live-in psychiatrist (Helena Bonham Carter, like Johnny, playing yet another resolutely not normal person). In addition, Chloe Grace-Moretz plays Michelle’s rebellious daughter who has a hair-raising secret of her own. Thus the stage is set for wacky high jinx galore.

Unfortunately, Eva is also still very much around, and soon tangles with Johnny, who manages to get the family business back in gear, and have both a sexual encounter with Eva and a chaste but charming meeting with Bella on the cliff. To celebrate, the family holds a ball featuring (yes really) Alice Cooper. (“Ugliest woman I’ve ever seen,” quips Johnny.) However, the course of love is never smooth, resulting in a series of unearthly encounters, attempted murder and entombing, escape from a drastic house fire, villains receiving their comeuppance, and Bella making an extreme deal so that she and Johnny can be together forever. The soap was before my time, so I can’t say how well it’s replicated, but “Dark Shadows” certainly serves up a healthy helping of cheese. Offhand, I would say Velveeta.

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

“Mostly, I annoy people,” Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) notes wryly to his companion, a Polish-American immigrant (Dan Folger) who falls unintentionally into an underground world of witches and wizards in 1920’s Manhattan in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” (based on the book by J.K. Rowling). Certainly, Dan is having quite a day, beginning when he goes to the bank to request a loan so that he can open his own bakery. Alas, being a mere factory worker, he has no collateral and as the man who sees him points out, machines can now make mass produced pastries these days, so out he goes – only to have something else grab his attention. As Dan stares in disbelief at the shaking egg that he pocketed after a brief meeting with Eddie, who leaves it behind, he manages to stammer out, “Mr. English Guy? Your egg is hatching!” And this is only the start of the adventures which take place pre-Harry Potter-era Hogwarts (obviously) in times which dark arts wizard Gellert Grindelwald is wreaking havoc. Gellert, if I have my Potter-ology correct, is Albus Dumbledore’s (now teaching at Hogwarts) former best friend/nemesis who dreamed of a master race with the chilling slogan “for the greater good.” But the duel between the two is fodder for another movie – right now, we’re firmly in America.

Eddie, whose yearly fall appearance starring in an Oscar-bait movie (“The Theory of Everything,” “The Danish Girl”) comes around like clockwork isn’t kidding when he says that he tends to rub people the wrong way. If carrying a suitcase of perpetually trying to escape magical creatures doesn’t do it, maybe it’s the fact that he’s a walking collection of all the mannerisms – stammering, head ducking, physical clumsiness that British actors can get away with without coming across as merely goofy the way an American actor would. He first bumps into Dan – literally, and after Dan’s ill-fated interview, the two are thrown together when Eddie’s pursuit of an errant niffler (a burrowing creature with a fetish for gold) causes him to be mistaken for a thief by the bank security team. Due to an inadvertent briefcase swap, Dan is drawn further into Eddie’s world.

Currently, times look bleak for both the rights of fantastic beasts and magical children born in Muggle (non-magic) world, who are both being persecuted. Anti-magic crusader Samantha Morton extorts crowds to stamp out magic, “for the future, for our children,” while secretly abusing her own including “Squib” (non-magical) Ezra Miller. Ezra, for his part, has formed an alliance with a mysterious man who promises to help him as long as he helps find a magical child who supposedly is the answer to a prophecy. (Or something. I never quite did work out why the child (Faith Wood-Blagrove) was so central to the whole plot.) There is also a subplot about the corrupt son of a newspaperman running for Senate, as well as Johnny Depp popping up in a crucial role. But the real “stars” are the magical creatures themselves.

To aid them in their quest, Eddie and Dan hook up with a pair of witches (Alison Sudol and Katherine Waterston), who shelter and feed them (and in the case of Alison, bewitch Dan), but who the guys eventually ditch by jumping into Eddie’s magical suitcase, where we’re suddenly ushered into a multi-dimensional, multi-environmental world full of the creatures. This is the part that is truly fantastic, though I also enjoyed Dan’s performance and thought he should get nominated for convincingly conveying what it’s like to wake up from an enchantment. I’ve always thought that more than one actor deserved an Academy Award nomination (not necessarily win) for their role in the Harry Potter franchise, but of course, that and “Fantastic Beasts,” have the stigma of  being a “kids’ film,” although I expect it to pick up at least one non-acting nomination this year. The movie also gets journalism as a profession mostly right – something that doesn’t always happen in the movies, at least when the climax arrives and makes the “Ghostbusters'” remake’s parade of invaders look tame, the publisher notes the goings-on, and solemnly instructs, “Take pictures.”

Movie Review: Black Mass

As I settled into my seat at a local theater before the start of “Black Mass,” questions ran through my mind.

Will Johnny Depp give a chilling performance as the lead, notorious James “Whitey” Bulger: a psychopathic criminal from Boston’s South End, who had his finger in just about every illegal pie, and wound up collaborating with the FBI to decrease crime (at least that of his rivals), an arrangement that worked nicely for years until it no longer did?

Can both a British and an Australian actor nail that pesky Boston accent?

Since I’ve lived near Boston, will I recognize any of the scenery?

Answers: Yes, more or less, and yes.

The movie begins with various informants being interviewed and then goes into flashbacks, beginning when Johnny has been released from prison (“It’s nice to have you back,” a neighbor says sincerely.) and is ready to get back in the game.  We’re soon introduced to his brother, a Senate member, (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his old pal turned FBI agent (Joel Edgerton).  We briefly meet Johnny’s mother (who cheats at cards), but there is no sign of a father anywhere.  The movie does not really address the natural question, which is how two brothers from the same environment took such divergent paths in life, which perhaps is unanswerable.  Instead it focuses more on the complex system of loyalties between Johnny and his allies, something that is eventually threatened when a former Boston FBI agent moves back and cannot be bought or derailed from bringing Johnny to justice.

Throughout “Black Mass,” Johnny wears the same black jacket and the same inscrutable expression for pretty much the whole thing; he stays deadpan (helped by lots of makeup) regardless of whether he’s shooting someone at close range, strangling them or just wheedling out the secret to a friend’s steak sauce.  Lots of characters are beaten to a pulp in this movie, and most wind up at the bottom of a river.  Benedict and Joel attempt to stay loyal to Johnny, and do a decent job here, but I never got a sense that either was struggling too hard with his conscience over what the right thing to do was (something that would have brought more depth to the movie).  There are female characters, too, but they are basically there to nag at the men and fail to grasp the concept of loyalty to one’s brothers and friends.  At one point, Joel attempts to explain his wife that Johnny looked out for him when they were growing up.  “What did he do – take you trick-or-treating?” she snaps, unimpressed.  Women just don’t understand in these kinds of films.

At the end, consequences are finally meted out, and we find out what happened to most of the major characters, although if you’re already familiar with the story, there’s nothing new.  Overall, “Black Mass” is an absorbing way to spend two hours, even if the cleverest part of it is the title.   My theater was full, and except for a few people, everyone seemed riveted to the screen.