Film Review: “The Commuter”

Starring: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson
Directed By: Jaume Collett-Serra
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 104 minutes
Lionsgate

Sometimes the best compliment you can give to absolute schlock is that it’s alright. “The Commuter” doesn’t try to be more than it is. It manages to be mildly thrilling, sometimes genuinely intriguing, but mainly remains over-the-top. Sometimes bad movies sacrifice entertainment for the sake of attempting to become logical, or God forbid, taking itself too seriously. But luckily “The Commuter” is as fun as it is forgettable.

The fun begins after Michael McCauley (Neeson) is fired as an insurance salesman. Not looking forward to delivering the news to his wife, he sits quietly on the train ride home, attempting to push his troubles out of his mind. In comes a mysterious woman, calling herself Joanna (Farmiga), offering the recently fired and down on his luck Irish immigrant a chance at $100,000. $25,000 is offered up front if he accepts her strange quest and the rest comes if he completes it. His mission is to find a passenger named Prynne and plant a tracking device in their luggage.

“The Commuter” does a decent job establishing that Michael is desperate for money, and not just with his firing. He has a son at home who’s about to head to college and back in the 2007-2008 financial crisis, he and his wife nearly lost all their assets; so $100,000 dollars seems very tempting. Of course as Michael unravels the mystery around him, he finds that his task isn’t easy as it originally appears and there’s more at stake.

Consistently hinting at powerful men, evil that’s pulling the rods behind the curtains and other allegorical bad men, “The Commuter” never really fulfills on what should be a promising solution to the puzzle. Maybe the socio-political commentary was there, but scratched out in a noble attempt to make “The Commuter” sillier than it was originally attended. There are plenty of solid laughs intentionally written in, but an equal amount of unintentional chuckles at the absurdity of it all.

However, when “The Commuter” buckles down for drama, it wrings out a lot of tension from Michael going back and forth through train cars, as well as some surprising twists and turns. Neeson commands a lot of these scenes, conveying checked anger and frustration, as well as general bewilderment at the unfolding scenario. The movie does shoot itself in the foot when several other actors, like Jonathan Banks and Sam Neill, distract from the plot more than provide to it.

Without Neeson or director Jaume Collett-Serra, “The Commuter” would have certainly been a stumbling mess. The moments of mystery, amplified by Neeson’s willingness to go along with it, are what keep this train moving. There are moments that feel cliché and contrived, but they never actually feel like they’re beneath the 65-year-old actor. It’s a testament to Neeson’s body of work that he can still make the silliest of premises believable and fun without going full on Nicolas Cage with his performance.

Film Review: “Downsizing”

Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau
Directed By: Alexander Payne
Rated: R
Running Time: 135 minutes
Paramount Pictures

The most positive thing I can say about “Downsizing” is that you’ll never be able to guess where it’s headed. Even as the film hit the homestretch, I kept waiting for that “a-ha” moment or the singular statement that the movie looked to deliver. I never got that moment and in a way I left the theater in disappoint. But what lingered was uncertainty. Even after weeks of thinking on it, I’m still unsure about the message in “Downsizing” and whether or not it’s a peculiar sci-fi reflection on humanity or a tonal misfire.

Environmentalism is at the forefront in the opening minutes as we watch the Norwegians at work in a lab. They’re looking for a solution to the world’s overpopulation crisis. A solution comes in the unlikely form of shrinking. They’ve developed a way to shrink fully-grown humans down to five inches tall. This mean that the tiny humans will produce less waste, take up less space, and use less energy. Thinking long-range, they say in a few centuries they hope that all of humanity is down to a miniature size to help save Planet Earth.

Fast forwarding a few years after this scientific breakthrough, we meet Paul (Damon), who’s manages to persuade his wife, Audrey (Kirsten Wiig), to sell their assets and move to one of the biggest downsized communities in America. The pint-sized world, smack dab in the middle of the Arizona desert, presents an opportunity for the lower middle-class couple from Omaha to be millionaires in the miniature world, since you can stretch a dollar farther when your house is the size of Barbie’s Malibu dream home. Of course, not everything goes to plan.

Like I stated at the beginning, “Downsizing” is unpredictable because it manages to take every possible detour away from its original comedic premise of Paul attempting to adapt to his new life in a tiny world. It soon becomes a film about societal constructs, then organized crime amongst elites, then refugees, then class warfare, and then back to environmentalism. There’s the possibility I’m forgetting a few themes that Director and Writer Alexander Payne manages to wring out of his script. It’s a bold, bizarre endeavor that pays off sometimes.

But because of the constant gear shifting, there were moments I found myself bored and wondering if I really should get invested in any of the characters introduced, especially with how disposable most are outside of Paul. The sprinkling of humor sometimes keeps the movie grounded in its roots, but when it branches out it pokes you in the eye rather than enlightens. “Downsizing” may be a fun movie to discuss after watching, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into an entertaining film.

Film Review: “Darkest Hour”

Starring: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James
Directed By: Joe Wright
Rated: R
Running Time: 125 minutes
Focus Features

Earlier in 2017, Christopher Nolan gripped audiences with a land, sea and air telling of the evacuation of “Dunkirk.” While I personally wasn’t wowed with Nolan’s WWII film, I appreciate his craft at conveying fear and desperation in the eyes of thousands of Allied soldiers looking to escape the stranglehold of the German army. For those, like me, who were looking for a little bit more in narrative substance, “Darkest Hour,” might scratch that itch.

“Darkest Hour” begins with Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) being named Prime Minister after multiple failures by Neville Chamberlain. Despite commanding respect from the House of Commons, his blunt speak and unorthodox approach quickly draws enemies behind the scenes. Lending their ears to the embattled Prime Minister is King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) and his personal secretary, Elizabeth Layton (James). While showing passion for defense his homeland, Churchill becomes increasingly difficult to work with as Hitler’s grasp on Western Europe grows bigger and tighter.

“Darkest Hour” tries it’s best to summarize a turbulent short span of time between Churchill’s ascent into one of the most difficult positions at the beginning to WWII to the formulation of Operation Dynamo, the evacuation of Dunkirk. While narratively confusing sometimes, white lettering telling us the specific date keeps things in line as Churchill digs in heels and sticks to his guns against confrontations with his enemies and his allies.

Thanks to history books, and “Dunkirk,” we do know how the story will play out, but the drama and emotional turmoil behind the decision making makes for a fascinating retelling. The war room, that Churchill manages to glide through at his brittle age, is always buzzing and the potential for a “negotiated peace” with Germany sheds light on the diplomatic crisis at hand as the body count for the good guys mounts.

Underneath heavy makeup, Oldman is able to capture Churchill’s warmth, impatience, generosity and unpredictability. At times his tongue slips and we hear a little bit of the actor’s voice come through, but overall his mannerisms, matching Churchill’s voice, keep him in a grounded and highly believable role. Oldman’s performance is just as commanding as Churchill’s presence in the face of insurmountable odds.

History junkies may like this straight-forward and poignant approach to political discourse during war. But that’s not to say that movie goers will find themselves entranced by Oldman’s performance and this unique history lesson. Not only is the Oscar hype real about Oldman’s performance, but it’s a refreshing reminder about the power of genuine men and the power of their words during a world at crisis.

Film Review: “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Karen Gillan, Kevin Hart and Jack Black
Directed By: Jake Kasdan
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 119 minutes
Sony Pictures Entertainment

In 2015 there was a collective gasp by 90’s kids after Sony confirmed long held rumors that the studio would be making a sequel to the much-beloved “Jumanji.” The 1995 film is just one of the many reasons Millennials fondly remember Robin Williams, so creating a sequel for it over two decades later for a new generation is no easy task, even if their the goal is to cash in on nostalgia.s

The new film picks up in 1996, where an unnamed boy is given the classic Jumanji board game by his father. He tosses it aside and proceeds to play a video game instead. Sensing its expiration date, the board game creates a video game cartridge for the unnamed boy to pop in. Tripping ahead 20 years later, we meet four teenagers, stuck in detention with a mundane task, and looking for an escape. That’s when the Jumanji video game rears its ugly head, with those iconic jungle drums, entrancing the high schoolers to plug it in.

Whereas the original brought the jungle to our realm, the new Jumanji transplants it’s victims into its realm. The teenagers take the form of video game avatars, played by the surprisingly charismatic and charming hodgepodge of Johnson, Gillan, Hart and Black. Their comedic strengths (except Gillan) are somewhat subdued so that there’s a lot more group improvisation and camaraderie so that no one overwhelms or steals a scene.

With five screenwriters, there are moments where “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” seems to understand video game clichés and utilizes them while at other times it seems to be written by a middle-aged man who believes video games are the death of creativity. In some ways you could say this movie suffers from the pitfalls of other video game movies where there’s not enough time to flesh out exposition and the action sequences suffer from rushed conflict resolution. But when the movie embraces video game tropes, it genuinely excels as popcorn entertainment and parody.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” benefits from a fun cast, willing to embody their absurd characters and the even more ridiculous plot. But that doesn’t mean the film isn’t without its flaws. The third act is weak, sometimes neglecting established plot points and making little use of the actual jungle. I’m also curious as to how well it’ll be received and understood by those who grew up without the film or are unaware of the previous flick. For those looking for a healthy dose of nostalgia, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is a passable film, but it doesn’t make the case for a potential franchise or another sequel.

Film Review: “The Shape of Water”

Starring: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon and Richard Jenkins
Directed By: Guillermo Del Toro
Rated: R
Running Time: 123 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Guillermo Del Toro is known for his love of monsters, creatures, ghosts, ghouls and the macabre beauty of it all. That love takes on a new meaning in “The Shape of Water,” where Del Toro conjures up classic cinema vibes with the setting, cast, and trademark visuals throughout his latest film. After years of scaring and provoking thought, it appears that Del Toro is instead reflecting, not only on himself, but his influences.

On paper, “The Shape of Water” is a curious, if not off-putting, love story between Elisa (Hawkins), a woman made mute by an injury, and an amphibious creature, played by Doug Jones under heavy makeup. Elisa first spots the creature at her janitorial job at a secretive research center. She comes across the creature as it arrives at the base, after recently being captured in a South American river where it was worshipped as a God by local tribesmen. Curiosity gets the best of Elisa as she sneaks in to see the creature first-hand. She quickly becomes enchanted, spending her lunch breaks in the enclosure, to feed it hard boiled eggs and share her love of music with it.

The love story, as usual, has a deeper meaning that speaks volumes, but is unappealing to those who will simply see something else that’s a little too much for average audiences. It’s not necessarily a complaint of mine, but it is a scenario that’s a little rough to warm up to. It also lacks the benefit of necessary build-up and wordless romance that might not be Del Toro’s strong suit. If you can get past the strange romantic entanglement, there is a lot of beauty in Del Toro’s script.

Beyond that, there’s the evil in the world that inadvertently tries to tear the two apart. The creature’s captor, Richard (Shannon), is a dangerous control freak. He takes out his own insecurities on employees and looks to kill what he does not understand. His inflated sense of self-importance is compensation, but he’s looking to attain more power and work his way into the hierarchy of the military and other powers to be.

Because this takes place in the 60’s, there a sense that Elisa and the creature represent the counterculture to Shannon’s violent character. Very few people aid Shannon in his pursuit, while those around Elisa go against their common sense and assist in her attempts to break the creature out of confinement. It’s once the creature is out and Elisa gets to spend some alone time that I begin to feel conflicted about the attitude and direction of the film.

Del Toro’s “Beauty and the Beast” take for adults hits and misses in its third act when everything comes crashing together. There are signs of a cinematic masterpiece in “Shape of Water,” but too often Del Toro seems to cheapen the message about love for those without a voice and those who are alien in a “normal” society. It’s a tricky juggling act that would have been tough for any director, but Del Toro does make it work with his gothic imagery and performances from his cast. “The Shape of Water” should be a stronger film under Del Toro’s direction, but it’s still an emotionally resonant film.

Film Review: “The Disaster Artist”

Starring: James Franco, Dave Franco and Ari Graynor
Directed By: James Franco
Rated: R
Running Time: 103 minutes
A24

“The Disaster Artist” is a film where you have to continuously remind yourself that the characters portrayed on-screen are real people and that the events that transpired actually happened. The absurdity of Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) is like something out of a fantasy novel. His confidence is matched by his obliviousness. He steps onto the stage during an acting class giving a performance that borders reveals his narcissism. On the surface, his awful interpretation of “A Streetcar Named Desire” could be viewed as intentional deadpan genius.

But in the class, looking on after failing to work up the nerve to put together any acting chops, is Greg Sestero (Dave Franco). Unlike the rest of the class, which looks on in gross astonishment, Sestero sees a man who’s unafraid of the lights, the crowd, and of his own lackluster talents. Sestero approaches the Eastern European sounding man, already aged with wrinkles, to figure out how to obtain that fearlessness. Although what Sestero doesn’t realize, is that that fearlessness was birthed in a pool of egotism. But what arises is one of the most bizarre creations of the 21st century.

“The Disaster Artist” somewhat chronicles the beginning of the friendship between Wiseau and Sestero, which led to the disasterpiece known as “The Room,” a film that’s now shown at midnight screenings around the country and mocked much like the “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” The film is almost a love letter to the boldness of Wiseau as well as the fragile bromance that develops between the two. It’s in the Franco wheelhouse, which brings in other actors and directors from that genre, like Seth Rogen, Zac Efron and Judd Apatow.

Because the film plays out as an ode and embrace of Wiseau’s misguided efforts, it does tend to gloss over some of the troubled rumblings of the production of “The Room.” Tales of gross negligence and fights are shown, and sometimes played for laughs, but we don’t get a good enough grasp on the story behind the movie. A lot of that may be because Wiseau and Sostero, in real-life, remain good friends and even still work together. It’s understandably tough to trash talk a friend, but “The Disaster Artist” could have benefitted from getting out of bed with Wiseau’s quasi-charming ambiguity.

Mirroring the film’s creation, Franco is the director, lead, and one of the producers of this film, highlighting his eerily physically similarities to Wiseau as well as perfecting the mannerisms of the mysterious man who explains away his Eastern European accent as being from New Orleans and profusely lying about his age. Franco plays Wiseau as an unlikable dolt who shouldn’t be liked or applauded for his efforts. But by the film’s end you find yourself warming up to Wiseau with likability that’s almost beyond explanation to a layman.

Generally when discussing the latest Marvel film, I don’t tend to think about how the average moviegoer, who has no prior knowledge of the other films. Marvel’s cinematic universe sometimes requires a little bit of visual homework, but superheroes are so pervasive in culture, you’d be hard pressed not to find someone who doesn’t at least know of Captain America and others. However, you’ll find plenty of people scratching their head over Wiseau’s name and who might mistakenly think of Brie Larson’s award winning role in the film “Room.”

“The Disaster Artist” is more or less bonus content for fans of Wiseau’s passion project and cinematic abortion. I’m in that camp and enjoyed Franco’s recreation of particular scenes, along with the behind-the-camera retelling of insufferable moments with Wiseau, as well as the monumentous occasion where Wiseau premiered the six million dollar film that’s considered one of the worst in modern history, if not all time. For those outside that bubble of knowledge, you may find yourself wondering what all the fuss is about. For those in that bubble, you’ll relish and eat up this biographical travesty.

Film Review: “Coco”

Starring the Voice of: Anthony Gonzalez, Gail Garcia Bernal and Benjamin Bratt
Directed By: Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina
Rated: PG
Running Time: 115 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Death and life after death are incredibly tricky subjects to maneuver for filmmakers in the animated-children’s movie genre. When making a family friendly film about the passing of a loved one and what waits beyond in the afterlife, you run the risk of not only upsetting children, but also their parents for how you’ve delivered your content. To say Pixar has done it again is an understatement because they’ve seemingly handled the subject matter with ease.

Miguel Rivera (Gonazalez) is an aspiring musician, trapped in a family that has barred music from the household. The Riveras are a shoemaking family because Miguel’s great-great-grandmother started the practice as a way to prove her own independence after her husband abandoned the family to pursue his musical dreams. Hence this is why artistic pursuits in music are frowned down upon, even to the point where Miguel’s grandmother smashes Miguel’s makeshift acoustic guitar after finding it in his secret room/shrine dedicated to popular singer-songwriter, Ernesto De La Cruz (Bratt)

Despite those attempts to dismay Miguel, he develops suspicions that he’s related to his idol Ernesto and enters the Mexican singer’s enshrined tomb on Dia de Muertos (The Day of the Dead). Believing that he’s simply borrowing a long lost relative’s heirloom, Miguel steals Ernesto’s guitar. But instead he’s committing an unspoken cardinal sin that isn’t grave robbing. He’s transported to the afterlife where he meets his long deceased relatives and discovers unspoken family secrets long forgotten.

There’s a lot of moments where “Coco” could have easily coasted on spectacular visuals and charming characters, but instead Pixar does what it does best, surpass expectations and craft a unique and heartwarming vision. The animation studio also manages to package its themes of perseverance, family togetherness, forgiveness and following your dreams, all in a cohesive message that’s easily consumed for parents and kids alike. “Coco” immerses audiences in a culture and tradition that speaks universal truths.

The music, which will surely win an Oscar, by Robert Lopez keeps tempo with the animation pushing audiences into fresh colorful territory, but also bringing audiences back down to Earth during the film’s most subtle moments. The man whose done music for everything from “Frozen” to “The Book of Mormon” makes another catalogue of music that’s seemingly timeless, fitting Pixar’s effort’s to make “Coco” an instant classic, worthy of standing atop their growing catalogue of masterpieces.

“Coco” takes a while to get going, but once it does, it manages to hit every high note along the way. It may not be as clever as “Inside Out” or groundbreaking as “Wall-E,” but it finds a way to wedge itself into contention with many of Pixar’s great because of its expert use and understanding of the Mexican heritage that it uses as a plot device and backdrop. It’s a movie that not only enlightens some about a specific culture, but makes audiences feel like one of the family. And for those who’ve ever dealt with the loss of a relative, you’ll find the ending equally heartbreaking and endearing.

Film Review: “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri”

Starring: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell
Directed By: Martin McDonagh
Rated: R
Running Time: 109 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

“Raped While Dying.” “And Still No Arrests?” “How Come, Chief Willoughby?” The billboards put up by Mildred Hayes (McDormand) hope to shed more light on the rape and violent murder of her daughter Angela. But the billboards aren’t the powder keg, they’re the fuse. The bright red billboards with black lettering quickly become the talk of the town, despite being placed on a rural stretch of untraveled road outside the sleepy Missouri town of Ebbing. Frustration turns to anger. Anger turns to rage. Rage turns to violence.

As “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” slowly unravels and reveals it’s hodgepodge of townsfolk and officers in the local police department, we learn that justice isn’t black and white, literally and figuratively. We learn that Chief Willoughby (Harrelson) isn’t incompetent or ignoring Angela’s murder, but the case has simply gone cold. We do however learn he acts as warden of his own prison that houses racist, bigoted officers, some of whom are drunk and known throughout town for savagely beating minorities.

What director and writer Martin McDonagh does so wonderfully is avoid propping the two opposing sides, Mildred and the Ebbing Police Department, as the heroes and villains. All the characters in his film are flawed creatures, and McDonagh twists the audience’s expectation on their heads and plays with our distaste and sympathy simultaneously. Despite the obvious commentary on contemporary on social and political topics, McDonagh constantly reminds us that morality is a fluid beast.

For a film with such dark thematic content, like rape, murder, racism and hatred, there’s a lot of witty dialogue and wicked humor. It’s a perfect counter-balance to some of the film’s more gripping moments, serving as an exhale during those tense scenes. There’s even a twinge of sardonic humor for those guilty enough to laugh at it. The laughs are mainly led by Mildred in her most ferocious moments or when one of Ebbing’s most incompetent boys in blue, Officer Jason Dixon (Rockwell), wants to retort.

McDonagh is a master at introducing characters and automatically telling the audience who they are, but at the same time manipulating their actions in realistic manner that subverts our expectations. Caught in the war between Mildred and the police is the townsfolk, sometimes offering their condolences in private, but publicly taking the side they disagree with. It’s an honest portrayal of small town politics, how rumors become truth, and how sometimes no one’s really right or wrong in an argument.

Led by an outstanding cast, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is a smartly written film capturing the raw emotion of tragedy, it’s tangled aftermath and how attempts at a resolution sometimes leads to more pain. It conveys a lot of unspoken truths without providing a lot of answers. If “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” has a message, it’s not one of optimism or pessimism, but it’s complicated, just like the characters populating this rustic Show-Me state town.

Film Review: Justice League

Starring: Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot and Ezra Miller
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Rated: PG-13
Running time: 2 hr 1 min
Warner Brothers

Until this season, when the NFL allowed players to celebrate after touchdowns, many referred to the game as the No Fun League. That is also how many fans referred to the DC Comic film universe. Christopher Nolan’s ultra-dark Batman trilogy, not to mention Zack Snyder’s brooding “Man of Steel” and “Batman vs Superman” gave fans their favorite characters, usually having a bad day. While they were entertaining, they missed the one thing that has made the Marvel films so appreciated: humor. Earlier this year we got a brief breath of fresh air when Wonder Woman arrived in her own film. Things continue to look upward with the arrival of “Justice League.”

The film opens with a phone image of Superman (Henry Cavil), happily agreeing to answer some children’s questions. They bombard him with queries, which he smiles at. He is then asked, “What do you like best about Earth?”

Full of action and some much needed humor, “Justice League” is an entertaining two-hour roller coaster ride. With — SPOILER ALERT— Superman having died at the end of “Batman vs Superman,” the world in general, and Metropolis in particular, have became a haven for evil doers. Even Gotham City isn’t spared. One night, while on patrol, Batman (Affleck) comes across a mechanical monster that, when destroyed, leaves a pattern of marks, similar to marks found in Lex Luthor’s papers. As things go from worse to…whatever is worse than worse…Batman decides he needs to recruit other people to help save the world. Besides Wonder Woman (Gadot), he travels north to meet the strange Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) and then hits the city to find the young and friendless Barry Allen (Miller). Finally he tracks down Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) a former athlete. Each of these people have a secret but also learn they have a common goal – to save the world.

It can’t be easy to run around on screen in your underwear, and part of the success of “Justice League” must be attributed to the actors who embody their roles completely. Affleck and Gadot have already built some chemistry with “Batman vs Superman,” and Momoa, Miller and Fisher blend easily with them as, respectively, Aquaman, the Flash and Cyborg. Miller steals every scene he’s in as the teenage Scarlett Speedster, making him as appealing here as Tom Holland was this past summer in “Spider-man: Homecoming.” As the junk food loving Barry (due to his very high metabolism, he must constantly eat), Miller gives the character a heart, a soul and a proclivity for one liners.

Director Snyder took some time off from the production of the film after his daughter passed away in March. He was replaced by Joss Whedon, the director who gave us “The Avengers” among other films. Whedon shares a screenwriting credit here, and it looks like he may have been the perfect piece to solve Snyder’s dark puzzles. If you’re looking for excitement and a few laughs this weekend, look into joining the FUN “League!”

Film Review: Murder on the Orient Express

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz and Willem Dafoe
Directed By: Kenneth Branagh
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 114 minutes
20th Century Fox

One of the most impressive ensemble casts of the year seems lost in sweeping CGI landscapes and overstuffed set pieces. “Murder on the Orient Express” is geared more towards technical film geeks who enjoy richness in their production design, more than they do in the script or the acting. I only say that because “Murder on the Orient Express” is awfully pretty to look at, but there isn’t much behind the lens.

Through happenstance, world-renowned detective Hercule Poirpot (Branagh) has found himself on the Orient Express. The luxury train connects Istanbul to the rest of Europe, which means the train is filled with socialites heading back to the Western World. The hodgepodge of characters seems at odds during casual dinner and indifferent during coffee, but there’s a singular thing that connects them all. It’s something Detective Poirpot will have to uncover after a passenger is found murdered in his cabin.

Murder mysteries are usually good, if not Oscar bait this time of year. However, “Murder on the Orient Express” is neither. While I haven’t read Agathe Christie’s work or seen the previous adaptations of her work, I can still confidently say that this isn’t on par with its predecessors or source material. I can surmise this because of how ambitious it looks, but the story never matches that visual gusto.

Johnny Depp plays the murder victim, but he’s not painted as a victim. We’re told he’s a scumbag, but we never feel like he’s one, despite the overwhelming evidence. The others on the train are played by the likes of A-listers, like Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, and Michelle Pfeiffer, while up and comers, like Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr. round out the cluster. The ensemble is too overwhelming, visually and narratively, with the film struggling to divvy up enough even time for the audience, and Poirpot, to question the lengthy list of suspects.

For those unsure of how this film will play out, like me, it’s slightly interesting in some spots to watch Poirpot work out the tangled web surrounding the murder. For those who love a good whodunit, you may not be disappointed, except for how the end and reveal is executed. “Murder on the Orient Express” is a classic in the literary sense, but this 21st century retelling offers nothing new.

Film Review: A Bad Moms Christmas

Starring: Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn
Directed by: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 44 mins
STX Entertainment

Soon it will be the season for presents and mistletoe, Santa and his reindeer. And family. I always welcome the chance to see my mom over the holidays. Of course, my mother is nothing like Ruth (Christine Baranski), Sandy (Cheryl Hines) and Isis (Susan Sarandon). Thank God!

Just as funny and, even though I never thought it possible, raunchier then “Bad Moms,” “A Bad Moms Christmas” finds our heroines from the last film getting things in order in the last week before Christmas. Amy (Kunis) is now happily dating Jessie (Jay Hernandez) and is unprepared when her very wealthy and judgmental mother Ruth shows up a few days before she was expected. Same with Kiki (Bell) and her mom Sandy, a woman who has become more and more clingy since her husband died. And Carla (Hahn) never knows when to expect Isis (her mom, not the terrorist group). She only knows it’s when she needs to borrow money. ‘Tis the season!

Blame it on “Bridesmaids.” Ever since that movie came out and made almost $300 million world-wide, Hollywood has inundated moviegoers with all kinds of “women talking dirty” films. For every funny and successful film, like “Trainwreck” or “Girl’s Trip,” you also have to put up with “dirty talk for talk’s sake” in a movie like “Rough Night.” (I did give “Rough Night” a positive review but did note that a lot of it’s raunch was for shock value, not laughs).

“A Bad Moms Christmas” works mostly because of two things: the cast and the script. The film was written, and co-directed, by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who in the past have written, among other films, the first “Hangover.” They obviously know what works where funny is concerned. All six female leads, mothers and daughters, work great together and, on a personal note, a movie that features two of my three biggest Hollywood crushes, Baranski and Sarandon, has got to be enjoyable. If Judith Ivey had played Sandy I’d have given this movie five stars!

If you like to laugh, and if you like your humor extremely “R” rated, then there’s an early Christmas present waiting for you at the multiplex!

Film Review: “Thor: Ragnarok”

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Cate Blanchett
Directed By: Taika Waititi
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 130 minutes
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

While “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was only about two and a half years ago, it feels like an eternity since we last saw Thor (Hemsworth). It can easily be said that Thor’s cameos in other Marvel films are a lot more enjoyable than his own feature length vehicles. That’s mainly because his two previous movies are devoid of mentally stimulating storytelling, hollow villains and an inescapable sense of forced plotting. Luckily, third time’s the charm for the God of Thunder.

In an attempt to get to the meat of the story, “Ragnarok” spends the first handful of minutes rushing through plot points about Thor, Loki, Odin and Jane Foster, and what they’ve been up to since we last saw them. It’s taxing, especially since no one really cares about Odin and I think Loki is a reminder of Marvel’s previous attempts to make him more of an imposing bad guy than he actually is. But it’s during these clichéd moments that “Ragnarok” still manages to find fun and establish tone.

For instance, the cold open finds Thor having the most fun we’ve ever seen him have on screen. With a flick of his wrist and a twirl of his hammer, he obliterates dozens of faceless foes, and it’s all set to Led Zepplin. We also get a much needed detour from the story line catch-up with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch). His cameo is unexplained and seemingly unnecessary, but it’s certainly one of the most delightful highlights of the film. Once the film catches up on two years, we meet the Goddess of Death, Hela (Blanchett)

Hela may be the blueprints needed for a Marvel universe in sore need of a compelling, yet dangerous villain. Hela is a genuine threat, demonstrating her overt God-like powers throughout. Her first scene shows her destroying Thor’s hammer with a singular flex of her arm and disregarding Thor’s threat much like a pesky fly. There’s a charming menace behind her smile as she slaughters countless soldiers on her way to Asgard’s throne. Blanchett’s performance is simply magnetic.

Most Marvel films know how to have fun, but “Ragnarok” is an entirely new beast. It draws upon child-like humor, usually seen in more mature Saturday morning cartoons. The film expertly utilizes humor to introduce new characters flawlessly and in minimal time. Jokes convey their attitudes and mentality easier than any drawn out exposition could. It also helps when you have the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) aggressively stomping around like an upset Kindergartener. Director Taika Waititi deserves a lot of credit for taking the title character and its world in such a retro direction so that’s equally lighthearted and visually joyful.

“Ragnarok” isn’t breaking the established Marvel mold, as much as it wants to. Film executives might have pulled their hair out if the film didn’t still lean on protagonist redemption subplots, cheeky squabbles amongst allies and fanboy pandering. That shouldn’t take away from Waititi’s vision. He’s brought his own brand of goofiness, managing to make the film and its characters crass, yet warm, and brutish, yet charming. “Ragnarok” is a dazzling space opera that finally gives Thor meaningful purpose in the vast Marvel cinematic universe.

Film Review: “78/52”

Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Peter Bogdanovich and Guillermo del Toro
Directed by: Alexandre O. Phillipe
Not Rated
Running time: 1 hr 31 mins
IFC Midnight

It is one of the greatest scenes in movie history. Like the crane shot showing the carnage of the Civil War in “Gone with the Wind” or the Odessa Steps sequence in “The Battleship Potemkin” (later copied by Brian De Palma in “The Untouchables”), whenever you think about Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film “Psycho” the first thing you think of is the shower scene. The new film “78/52,” which references the number of pieces of film (78) and edits (52) that comprise the scene, takes a look at the creation of the scene as well as its impact on Hollywood and world cinema.

Despite the use of plenty of footage from “Psycho,” the film begins with a recreation of a scene featuring Marion Crane’s car driving thought the rain. What is disconcerting about this footage is that the woman featured bears a very close resemblance to Adrien Brody in a blonde wig. Thankfully we soon return to the film being discussed and take a painstaking journey of 90 minutes to dissect a scene that only lasts three.

General fans of the film will be impressed with all of the “behind the scenes” interviews with everyone from Mali Renfro, who played Janet Leigh’s double during the shoot to Jamie Lee Curtis, Leigh’s daughter. Also included are fans like Elijah Wood, Danny Elfman and Bret Easton Ellis. Film buffs will also enjoy the comments of filmmakers great (Guillermo del Toro, Martin Scorcese) and, well, not so great (Eli Roth) as they explain how the film helped shape some of their own work.

A seemingly unending number of industry insiders (editors, writers, etc) offer their own takes on the meaning of the scene, going so far as to dissect it nearly frame by frame. In between the comments are some great moments, including the actual storyboards Hitchcock had Saul Bass design for the scene as well as the still-to-this-day argument about whether or not we actually ever see the knife penetrate the body.

If you’re a fan of “Psycho” and want a good “behind the scenes” look at the film, I’d recommend the brilliant documentary put together by the great Laurent Bouzereau that can be found on the DVD release of “Psycho.” But if you’re REALLY keen to learn the in-depth story, you should give “78/52” a look.

Film Review: “Suburbicon”

Starring: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac
Directed by: George Clooney
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 44 mins
Paramount

1959. In the quick-growing town of Suburbicon things are about to get a little dicey. It seems a black family has moved into the snow-white city and the townspeople aren’t happy, even when the town leaders offer to pay for fencing to separate their houses from the new arrivals. But this isn’t the only thing going on in town. A house has been invaded and a woman killed. What the hell is going on here?

Cleverly written by the Coen Brothers (in “Blood Simple” mode), George Clooney and his writing/producing partner Grant Heslov and directed with a keen eye by Clooney, “Suburbicon” is a black comedy with a message attached. It’s also a story about infidelity, greed and murder, not necessarily in that order.

The film opens like one of the old educational films they used to show in high school. It chronicles the very beginning of Suburbicon, boasting how in a dozen years the town has grown a population of 50,000 people. Among the residents is Gardner Lodge (Damon), who lives there with his invalid wife, Rose (Moore) and young son Nicolas (an outstanding Noah Jupe). When the new neighbors move in to the house behind them, Rose urges Nicolas to go over and play catch with the young boy (Tony Espinosa) in the family. However, it seems only the Lodge’s are accepting of the newbies, as night after night, mobs begin to gather outside their house, loudly urging them to move.

On one such night Nicolas is woken up by his father who tells him “there are men in the house.” Downstairs, he finds his mother and his aunt Margaret (also Moore) in the kitchen along with two bad guys. The robbers assure them they won’t be hurt but soon tie them up and chloroform them. When Nicolas awakes he learns his mother is dead. He now spends his days playing with his new friend and his nights worrying that the bad men will be back. Even if he could sleep it would be hard with the mobs screaming on the next block.

I’ll say up front that I pretty much figured out the plot twist about 10 minutes into the film, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying “Suburbicon.” The performances are solid, with Damon also shining next to your Mr. Jupe. Another standout is Gary Basaraba who plays Nicolas’ fun-loving uncle Mitch. Also funny is Oscar Isaac, an insurance claims adjuster investigating Rose’s death.

There are plenty of laughs and some great sight gags but I did find it a little hard to chuckle during the mob scenes, which get progressively larger, louder and more violent. I understand the message, but I didn’t need to get hit over the head with it. I will say it was nice to see the Mayers (Karimah Westbrook and Leith M. Burke) portrayed as a strong black family unit. They refuse to let the hate envelop them and it is their bravery in the face of adversity that is an important part of the story.

Film Review: “Goodbye Christopher Robin”

Starring: Domnhall Gleeson, Margot Robbie and Kelly MacDonald
Directed By: Simon Curtis
Rated: PG
Running Time: 107 minutes
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Origin stories are all the craze in Hollywood right now, so why not one for Winnie the Pooh? I know that’s a tough sell. But luckily “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is a decent enough biopic drama that sometimes handles the weight of its thematic messages. The film is about author A.A. Milne (Gleeson) and how through his own struggles and an attempt to bond with his son, he created one of the world’s most iconic children’s characters.

The mood of England is to forget rather than confront the demons of WWI that linger throughout its picturesque countryside. Milne’s writer’s block is compounded by his that he suffered on the front lines. When Milne’s wife Daphne (Robbie) gives birth to their son, Christopher Robin (or Billy), Milne sees it as an opportunity to hit the restart button on life. The young family moves to rural Essex where Milne’s bouts with PTSD flare up, Daphne becomes disenfranchised with her husband and a young Christopher Robin has a more meaningful connection to the family’s live-in nanny.

It’s not until Milne’s life begins crumbling around him, that he attempts to find some sanity and joy to grasp on to by playing with his son in the surrounding woods. Milne views these moments initially as an opportune moment to bond, but as time passes, he finds that his creative juices start to flow again. He brings his son’s stuffed animals to life and makes the sleepy humdrum woods around them more vibrant and adventurous. But not everything works out in the end as Christopher Robin’s persona becomes larger than his own life.

Most of “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is mired in turmoil, with happy moments and achievements sprouting up few and far between. But even those tiny victories for our characters are quickly overshadowed by more troubling developments. It’s interesting watching a family suffocate from early-to-mid-20th century tabloids and a boy’s childhood innocence and wonder get smothered in a flood of worldwide fame. Instead of playing with his toys or meandering outside, he’s making global calls to radio stations and having tea with dignitaries.

Gleeson plays an emotionally fragile, yet stonewalled man who’s finding it hard to tap into his own youth that was nearly killed in No Man’s Land. Much of his role is spent expressing the difficulty of restraining tears and fear while raising a child, teenager, and then a man. He’s definitely the highlight of the film considering Robbie is wasted as her character is relegated to bored housewife/angry spouse purgatory for unknown and unexplained reason. Gleeson also has to work with a child actor that’s equal parts adorable and annoying.

“Goodbye Christopher Robin” spends a little bit too much time playing in the woods instead of expanding on its emotional stakes for a finale that should have been way more impactful. It attempts to tie a lot of its theme together in the final few minutes, with some hitting harder than others. It manages to squander its theme of unnecessary war and the heartache it causes, but manages to find beauty in forgiveness and child rearing. We also learn that Christopher Robin’s miserable childhood led to happiness for millions of children and adults. Almost makes you hate yourself for ever taking pleasure in ever loving Winnie the Pooh.