Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)


Here is one of the unexpected things in 2017 cinema: Hercule Poirot and Agatha Christie making a resurgence. It's the old "whodunit" tale--somebody is murdered, and a famous detective has to solve the case. I guess Hollywood decided it was okay to try something else in that department since recent adaptions of Sherlock Holmes in cinema and TV have been going quite well. 

Here's the thing about these kind of "whodunit" tales, though. You have to make them stand out in one way or another, because the same old "murder mystery" routine can get old after a while. There are two ways to do this--make the main characters/actors stand out (as has happened in recent adaptions of Sherlock), or have an unusual twist to your murder mystery. The film had the opportunity to do both given the source material and the cast. The results are a little mixed, however.

If one is not familiar with the "Murder on the Orient Express" tale, then there is little that can be said without spoiling one of the most famous murder mystery plot twists of all time. Basically, a businessman is murdered on a train and Poirot, one of Agatha Christie's two mainstay detectives, has to solve a case in which clues and suspects abound. 

Here's the deal with this movie. It's nearly impossible to ruin the twist that the book is known for. However, everything else can be up for grabs. This film deviates from the source material a little bit in other ways (non-critical ways, mind you); a couple of which are not very effective. Namely, the decision to throw in a couple action sequences with Poirot. These just do not work; Poirot is by no means an action hero here. And these scenes just are not that overly exciting. 

Also, there is a mysterious lost love interest we are shown in a photo from Poirot's past *three times.* And they never even attempt to explain that. Further on, the ending itself (after the big twist) has a slight change of its own; it may not seem like much, but if you still remember either the book or the 1974 movie (or you have your memory refreshed, like I did), it's a strange change to what character makes what decisions. Finally, there's the portrayal of Poirot himself. While most of the cast is excellent (more on that later), Kenneth Branagh's portrayal of Poirot is a little mixed. While he definitely has his moments, there are also times when he seems like he's trying too hard. 

So what works? Well, this is still an excellent and rather different tale. The plot twist is still a big one, and the ending (though it may be alarming to some) is still very different and more thoughtful than normal in its genre. And there is a very strong cast in here. This includes Branagh himself (despite his mixed performance), Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Johnny Depp, and Penelope Cruz. Michelle Pfeiffer and Josh Gad are also pleasant surprises; I was a little skeptical on those two castings (particularly Gad, because of Frozen) but they both did well. 

Even with certain flaws, it's still kind of hard to go wrong with a tale that good and with a cast that good as well. One can't really shake the feeling that it could have been better, but it's still a decent time. The fact that few movies like this exist might be an attracting factor for some. I'm not sure how a proposed sequel with another Poirot mystery may go (since Orient Express is pretty much the pinnacle), but we'll see. 

Saturday, March 3, 2018



Gore Verbinski is mostly known for directing the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Since then, he has not done much. There was that weird modern-day adaption of The Lone Ranger, but that one was average at best. And there's his most recent work, A Cure for Wellness... which I do not think anyone actually watched. But there was one other post-POTC project where he (and everyone else involved) showed greatness: a slightly overlooked animated film called Rango. 

Rango is a very unique film. It's a spaghetti western of sorts--or at least a tribute to the mostly-gone genre--but it's also an animated film that was marketed to kids, despite stretching the limits of the PG rating as much as it possibly could. It's a strange film to describe, actually. It's about a lizard (named Rango) who has a flare for acting that finds himself stuck in the Mojave Desert after his cage is knocked out of a car. And he stumbles upon a town that is basically every movie western town ever--only it's tiny to the human eye and run by critters. Where water is currency. And that currency is disappearing. And after a handful of circumstances, he gets made the town's sheriff and has to solve the mystery--all while he himself is not really even sure what kind of story he's in. 

Admittedly, the movie itself is not really sure what kind of story it is. But the unconventional formula it deploys really works--a spaghetti western involving critters that still takes place in the modern-day world and delves often into total randomness (a little dash of Monty Python-esque humor style, arguably). But really, it's a competent enough story that's carried by its affectionate parodying and the hilarity strewn throughout. This is a very funny movie with jokes of multiple types thrown at you. All the while, the film does not lose sight of the main story. 

The animation also helps. It was done by Industrial Light & Magic in their first foray into animation--and the film is just straight up incredible to look at. There is an excellent level of detail on the various animals--and really, everything else too. They really created a truly convincing western-style setting for a computer-animated movie. The voice cast is also excellent--which includes Johnny Depp in the lead role, Isla Fisher, Bill Nighy, Ned Beatty, Alfred Molina (though you may not recognize him at all), and others. 

This is still a bizarre film though. It pulls it off in a good way, but a lot of it sounds strange when you say it, especially if you're expecting this film to be more serious. This film includes a hawk that can operate a vending machine, a rattlesnake with a Gatling gun for a rattle, an "owl mariachi" band (no, seriously), and a strange unexplained apparition scene involving a parody of... Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" himself. Now these random things that are thrown in really work and are either hilarious or awesome; but there are a couple weird bits that don't work as well. For example: a scene involving the releasing of water to the townspeople by way of turning a valve that's turned into a spiritual ceremony, or a part where pillbugs come to life in a horde and carry Rango somewhere--which is really just ripping off that stupid crab scene from POTC: At World's End (you didn't think we'd notice, did you Verbinski?). 

Rango is serious in basic tone, but also not very serious because of the humor thrown throughout. It's one of those rare films that manages to find that medium between the two and actually be successful at it. Rango is a unique experience of an animated film. It's definitely worth a look, unless you just really hate westerns. It's such an oddball film but still succeeds on most fronts. It's a shame Industrial Light & Magic have not really done anything in animation since--and that Gore Verbinski has not done really anything good since this either. 

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Tron: Legacy


This is kind of a strange film to watch and review. As most of us know, there was an original Tron movie back in 1982. The problem is that original movie has *not* aged well at all. I guess the visuals and design were excellent back then, but now (especially when comparing them with this movie) they do not look so good. For a person like myself who wasn't even alive then and never watched the original until the second one came out, the original feels incredibly forgettable. I don't really remember anything of what happened in that movie. 

The good thing is that remembering what happened in the original Tron is not overly necessary. There is reference to the events of that movie, but mostly just towards the beginning. Much of the more important background flashback events still take place *after* the events of that movie. This franchise centers around a world where one is able to be transported *into* a specific software program--a virtual reality--known as "the Grid." (I guess it was known as "the Game Grid" in the original... but the two are similar enough.) 

In the original movie, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) was sent into that world and escaped. But now in *this* movie, he's actually stuck in there--and has been for 20 years. To the real world, he simply disappeared. And his son Sam was left an orphan. However, when a a mysterious pager message comes from the old arcade Kevin used to run, Sam investigates--and gets transported into the Grid himself. Fun and chaos ensues. 

This movie is an incredible experience on the eyes. The world of the Grid in Tron: Legacy is one of the most impressive pieces of visual work you will ever see in a movie. Everything in here looks gorgeous, and it's all set to a surprisingly well-done soundtrack by Daft Punk (no, seriously). The first 20 or so minutes in the real world are necessary, but mostly boring by comparison. 

And what happens in the Grid is often quite exciting and fun as well. There's "the Games," which are essentially gladiator matches in which the program humans throw their identity discs at each other and try to kill--err, de-rez (the process of a program shattering into a million tiny pieces) each other with them. (It's not as strange as it sounds.) Then there's the famous "Light Cycles" deal (essentially, a Grid bike competition). Again, I hardly remember anything of Light Cycles from the first movie, but in this movie, it's easily the best scene. It's just mind-blowing to watch and has the perfect soundtrack music set to it. Even the "End of Line Club" is a pretty fun place--especially with Michael Sheen absolutely hamming it up on screen. Even the CGI de-aging of Jeff Bridges for the program Clu is pretty good (as far as CGI de-aging goes). Having Bridges play both a good guy (his older present-day self) and a bad guy (Clu) turns out to work quite well. 

It's elsewhere in the movie that some problems arise. While the story at its core is fairly simple--father-son reunion, escape the computer program world--it's made a little more convoluted at times. While some parts are quite clever, there are also some things that make little sense or that are not explained that well. And aside from Bridges and Sheen, much of the acting is a bit mediocre. Also, there's a surprising bit of heavy-handed spiritual metaphors/allegories. While one could argue it was necessary--since part of the story turns out to be about what happens when you play god--it's still a little corny at times. Also, while most of the action and visuals are astounding, the airplane-chase-crossed-with-Light-Cycles scene in the final act feels less inspired and is oddly a bit more overwhelming. 

Tron: Legacy is undeniably a bit of a surreal experience--you won't see anything else like it. There are problems, but the movie is still a piece of entertaining work that arguably has to be seen to be believed--my words describing the Grid and what goes on there really do not do it justice. That might seem like overwhelming praise for a B-grade movie, but awesome Grid stuff and Light Cycles do not make the movie perfect by default unfortunately. It's too bad we may never see a proper sequel to this movie, because it would have been quite interesting to see where they would've gone next. 

Saturday, February 17, 2018



What would happen if Lex Luthor won and beat Superman? That's the question that builds the basic opening premise for this movie. In all actuality, Megamind was a pretty clever animated film with a "bad guy" as the protagonist that had the misfortune of being released around the same general time as Despicable Me--a movie with a similar premise (not-so-nice guy turns good) that got all the attention instead.

The movie starts off as being pretty much an affectionate parody of Superman. We have Metro Man, the Superman rip-off who is all too perfect. We have Megamind, the villain who believes himself destined to fight Metro Man for all eternity (and is based off Luthor and Brainiac, apparently). We have Roxanne Ritchi, who is the Lois Lane spoof--constantly getting kidnapped and needing Metro Man to come and save her. Heck, Metro Man and Megamind were even both sent as babies from their planets before their respective Krypton parodies were swallowed up by a massive black hole.

But what happens when one of Megamind's plans actually *works?* He wins. Metro Man is dead. The city is his. The question then is... now what? Megamind finds his life has no meaning now that there is nothing in his way. So he tries to create a new superhero to fight against him. That plan goes just a little bit awry though. And... well, you can probably guess what happens from there. In a kids' movie with a premise like this, you can guess how it will end at least.

Megamind's a pretty good movie, for sure. The interesting thing about is that after all the affectionate parodying it does in the first 30 minutes, it throws all the typical superhero movie stereotypes on their head. Our heroes may not always be what they seem, the bad guy may not be as bad as we think, and the actual monsters can come from unexpected places. Megamind isn't even really that bad of a guy--in fact, his status as a "villain" stems more from his rivalry with Metro Man than being an actually horrible person. And the actual villain we get is quite unique--he's not the usual "take over the world/city" type, he's a jilted self-entitled type who just so unfortunately happens to be super-powered.

The biggest problem is that the middle is pretty slow at times. The movie takes an unexpected left turn in terms of subgenres that was not included in the marketing. It's unfortunate too, because a lot of the movie is actually pretty funny--much of the humor being courtesy of Megamind himself and his Minion. No, not *those* Minions--this is a fish in a mech suit and he's actually pretty awesome. And there's actually a little exciting action, particularly in the final act. Heck, the only other animated movie I can think of with this much destruction (and thus likely a high body count) in it is The Incredibles. So having the slow middle act which lightens up a bit on the action *and* humor (though not entirely with the latter) is a little unfortunate.

Megamind seems to be a slightly forgotten animated movie, which is unfortunate. It didn't get a franchise (which is probably a good thing, because the story really ends here) and it's not good enough to really make anyone's Top 10 list in the animated genre. But it's still a pretty good and fun film. The basic premise might be predictable, but the movie still has a few surprises up its sleeve. It may not be fantastic, but it's still worth a spin.

Postscript: This movie also has one of the best soundtracks in an animated movie you'll ever hear. "Bad to the Bone," "Crazy Train," "Back in Black," and "Welcome to the Jungle" are included among others. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Terminator: Salvation


So this might be a bit hard to imagine, but they made a Terminator movie... without Arnold Schwarzenegger. I know, crazy right? Despite the fact that the series is actually a bit of a convoluted mess of time travel and paradoxes and confusion pretty often, Arnold has been the main force holding this series together. We had two great movies and one good one before this, but those movies probably would not have done well without Arnold. But they made one without him anyway. (Well... mostly. Arnold himself does not appear, but there is a wacky use of CGI involving his likeness briefly.)

This is actually a very different Terminator movie altogether. The previous three movies all dealt with cyborgs time traveling from the future--for one purpose or another. Time travel was a main theme, for better or for worse. And T2 and T3 both dealt with fighting against fate and the seemingly inevitable--both with very different endings on the matter. This one actually takes place almost completely in 2018, during the war between the humans and machines that had only been teased in the last three movies. And no one (or nothing) really time travels in this movie. The character Marcus Wright kind of does--but only in the sense that he wakes up in a new time/world unexpectedly. So this is pretty strictly a sci-fi post-apocalyptic war movie--which definitely has its benefits. 

In this different Terminator movie, John Connor is a figurehead of the "resistance"--but he's not actually the leader, oddly enough. Apparently that comes later. The humans think they may have found a way to finish off Skynet. While Connor is dealing with that and trying to keep Kyle Reese alive, a newcomer shows up: Marcus Wright, who is something totally new to either side. A machine that actually thinks it's human. (That may sound like a big spoiler, but for some reason the marketing was not too concerned with keeping that a secret... therefore, it is fair game as far as I'm concerned.) Connor and company have to figure out if Marcus can be trusted, and find out what role he has to play in the war. 

Despite the lack of Schwarzenegger, the movie still is pretty entertaining to watch. We have some great special effects and camera work, as well as some cool design on the machines (although at this point the question of how any human is still alive with machines this powerful around comes up). There's some exciting action scenes, including another thrilling automobile chase (because apparently it wouldn't be a Terminator movie without one) and a pretty exciting final act. The story, though once again a bit convoluted, is still pretty interesting--especially with Marcus being thrown to the mix which leads to an interesting plot twist near the end that the marketing thankfully did keep under wraps. 

Also, there's a couple of things regarding the cast. Christian Bale is easily the best John Connor yet. After the mostly annoying performance from the kid in T2 and the perfectly "meh" actor in T3, we finally get a more convincing version of the important character. Anton Yelchin is also a worthy Kyle Reese, and Bryce Dallas Howard is a better version of John's wife than the actress in T3. Sam Worthington is okay enough as well and Helena Bonham Carter is also there in a small role. Despite a merely okay script, we still had a couple pretty good performances. 

Terminator: Salvation does also have its problems, but the biggest one is the same problem that has plagued almost the entire series: the convoluted timeline. There may not be really any time travel, but this movie is still a little confusing at times. Namely, when Skynet is implied to have knowledge of all of the events of the previous three movies--which is totally impossible for a multitude of reasons. Basically, Skynet seems to know way more than it should about everything at this point. And really, if it knows that much and has all the robots we see at its disposal (cool as they are), they should have already won the war themselves--possibly without even ever sending anything back in time. There's some other issues as well, such as some other characters that aren't very fleshed out and some impossible survivals that sometimes really stretch the limits of suspension of disbelief (a guy actually gets impaled through the chest and does not die immediately). And although the movie does at times actually kind of compensate for the lack of Arnold, the lack of Arnold and his charisma is still noticeable.

Terminator: Salvation is actually a pretty decent and entertaining movie. It has its problems, but many of them amount to the utter confusion and convolution that is this series' timeline, which has also changed more than once. And honestly, they've already dug themselves so far at this point with plot holes and paradoxes that it really can't be fixed anymore. While this movie (and T3) still showed that this series can be entertaining and fun to watch even when the timeline makes no sense, it's still quite likely that this franchise's best days are long behind it. 

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The LEGO Ninjago Movie


They gave us the first LEGO Movie in 2014... and three years later with nothing in between, they give us *two* spin-off movies. The first one was The Lego Batman Movie, which was pretty much a glorious and hilarious parody and also not a bad Batman movie on its own either (though a little corny/cliched near the end). Then we have... this. Whatever "Ninjago" is. Okay, I know that it's another brand of LEGO toys and they even had a TV show. But I still know literally nothing about it. But hey, those first two LEGO movies were pretty funny, right? So this one should be as well, right? Right? 

This particular LEGO movie takes place in an actual city called "Ninjago," where an evil warlord named Garmadon attacks the city basically every day and tries to take over--and is met by a "secret" force of ninjas who are high school students. Although at first, the ninjas aren't really ninjas--they fly around in mech suits suits that reminded more of Power Rangers than anything. But it's pretty effective. So what's the catch? Lloyd, the leader of these young "ninjas," is also the son of Lord Garmadon. Yikes. 

This movie actually does start out kind of decent. The "mech suit ninja" stuff is kind of fun, even if a little unoriginal. And most of the film's funniest gags come in the first 35 minutes. Namely, a scene involving a swarm of LEGO sharks that flap around literally saying "nom nom nom" is hilarious. And there's a funny gag involving missile overkill too. 

However, it's still kind of clear from the start that this is going to be the weak link of these movies--and it only goes downhill from there. The first two LEGO movies had their issues, but they were great because they did not take themselves too seriously for the most part, and they had laughs practically by the second. Here, the structure of this movie goes in all the wrong directions. They try to balance things out with a more serious plot and more spaced out humor. 

The problem is, this doesn't work when your story is only so-so at best. All it really is a cliched story of a father and son on opposite sides--and it's really easy to see where that's going. That's another thing--the other two LEGO movies were often unpredictable, and that was also part of their mostly successful formula. This one is ridiculously predictable. Oh, and the cat you saw in the trailer? See, that's actually a very clever plot device they bring in here--but after its initial introduction, we actually don't see much of it until the very end and it kind of becomes an afterthought. That's unfortunate. It's quite silly, but there was more potential there than the direction they go instead--which is essentially a generic boring movie quest. Seriously, very little happens during the middle section of this movie.

Also, the humor takes a step down as well. It's still there and there are a few hilarious moments. But as was mentioned before, it's more spaced out. And some of it feels really forced and weak. The writing for this film in general just does not feel as inspired. There's just not a lot about this film that stands out. It doesn't really suck either though. It just kind of... happens. You laugh a little bit, predict accurately how the general story's gonna go, and then it's over. The very ending is actually a bit heartfelt, but it's not enough to change your opinion of the movie. 

The LEGO Ninjago Movie is without question the weakest movie in this LEGO film universe. It's not terrible or anything, but after the other two fast-paced and hilarious movies, it's a bit of a slog by comparison. I highly doubt that this series has already run out of magic; in fact, they can take this failure as a learning experience. I have no doubt the sequel to the original LEGO Movie will be fun. But they're going to have to do better the next time they make a movie based off a LEGO property that the majority of the viewing audience knows nothing about. 

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Maze Runner: The Death Cure


Remember when these YA sci-fi dystopian adaptations were all the rage? That feels like a long time ago now. That era did not last very long at all. To recap its demise, it essentially ended when the Hunger Games did--after Mockingjay Part 2 came out in 2015. Many people were disappointed with both Parts 1 and 2, something that I still have been unable to comprehend to this day. But splitting the final books into two movies was part of the reason for the genre's fate. The third movie in the Divergent series came out in 2016 and bombed to the point where they cancelled the fourth one. And that was that--The 5th Wave had failed to get off the ground at all, and at this point people just got sick of the whole thing. 

Over a year later, we get the final gasp of the genre--the final entry in The Maze Runner series, delayed almost a whole year due to Dylan O'Brien getting injured on set, and *not* split into two. The Maze Runner was arguably the most inventive one of the bunch, even if parts of its premise felt ludicrous at times. And the films--particularly the first--had a since of relentless mystery to them that kept one's attention. Unfortunately at this point, some seem a bit pre-disposed to hate this genre by default--something I again fail to understand. To be clear, it should not matter who the target audience is *or* the age of the protagonists if a good yarn is being told (or at least an interesting/exciting one). 

In this final installment, the organization who lacks subtlety in their acronym (WCKD) is still trying to find a cure to the virus that turns you into a zombie. Unfortunately, the means they've taken to find that cure have obviously been questionable at best--hence why they are the bad guys. And they have a few of main protagonist Thomas's friends now. And he is gonna do whatever it takes to get them back and destroy WCKD for good--even if it means breaking into the seemingly impenetrable "Last City." Good thing he has some help. 

Like the previous movies, The Death Cure takes you right into the action--only even more so this time, as it opens with an excellent train action sequence. And once they get to the "Last City" and start their plan, the action is pretty relentless from there--it basically becomes over an hour of total chaos, insanity, and the usual twists and turns we are used to in this series by now. One thing that admittedly was a little underwhelming in Mockingjay Part 2 was the short length of the final assault/battle between the Districts and the Capital--which lasted about all of three minutes. Death Cure improves upon that, giving us a colossal assault upon the Last City from a bunch of random rebels who help add some extra chaos. Basically, one thing is for certain: one will not be bored easily. 

Visually, this is a pretty great movie to look at as well. There is a great level of detail in the Last City, and there are plenty of excellent shots. Wes Ball has shown himself as a talented director over the course of this trilogy, and it will be interesting to see what he does next. Elsewhere, some of the actors step up their performances. Dylan O'Brien has been doing pretty good the whole time, but Thomas Brodie-Sangster steps it up quite a bit (perhaps because they actually did more with his character this time), and Aidan Gillen does *way* better in his second go-around in this series as well. Also of note is Walton Goggins, who is new to the series and does not get much screen time, but does well with the time given. (Also some impressive detail on the design of his face--you'll see what I mean.) 

While this is an improvement over The Scorch Trials, there were still some issues. While they finally do a better job explaining why the heck they put some virus-immune kids into a dangerous maze, they still never really explain the whole "Flare virus" thing and how in the world that could turn someone into a cast member of The Walking Dead. There's some other little things that could've been fleshed out a bit more too. They bring back a character from the dead, but that character does not end up serving much purpose to the main plot itself. Also, as thrilling and tense as most of the final act is, there was a certain late event (not *that* one, book fans) that feels like it was supposed to impact us... but it really doesn't. And the very end in general kind of felt a little cheap--without spoiling anything, my thought was "Why didn't you just do this a long time ago?" 

Maze Runner: The Death Cure will probably not get seen by many people unless they already read the books or they enjoyed the movies without reading the books (me being one of those)--and the latter seem to be few and far between. That's a bit unfortunate. Maze Runner has its problems, but it's a pretty exciting trilogy. And ironically, it actually avoids some of the tropes of its peers in the genre (no love triangle, for example). It may not end up being a well remembered series, but it was still a fun ride and this was still a pretty good final installment.