Hello and welcome to the movie blog of author John DeFrank - FilmZ and Guy Sobriquet Malone - Researcher

Brief Reviews: Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and LBJ (2016)

Murder on the Orient Express by FilmZ

It's probably unfair to review director/star Kenneth Branagh's 2017 Murder on the Orient Express when I hold Sidney Lumet's 1974 version in such high esteem.  Still, it's Agatha Christie, and when it comes to murder most cozy--nothing beats a ride across snowy Europe on the world's most romantic train with the ritziest of 1930's Art Deco trappings.  No one does it better; all you have to do is stay faithful to the template.  Well, Branagh stays reasonably faithful, but his vision is lighter and his interrogation techniques and plot development are more overt to accommodate modern mass audiences and non-readers who lately have proven that being forced to think doesn't sit well with them.

Hercule Poirot (Branagh), self-professed as "perhaps the greatest detective in the whole world," has brilliantly solved a mystery at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall through the use of his acute attention to detail and fastidious need for order and justice.  Now, he relies on Bouc (Tom Bateman), manager of the famed train, to secure him a compartment for a luxurious, restful ride home.  Along for the ride is a classic cast of Christie-types: crooked businessman Ratchett (Johnny Depp), his secretary/lawyer MacQueen (Josh Gad), his manservant Masterman (Derek Jacobi), socialite/vamp Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), a Countess (Lucy Boynton), a count (Sergei Polunin), a Princess (Dame Judy Dench), her secretary (Olivia Coleman), a racist professor (Willem Dafoe), a missionary (Penelope Cruz), Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.), prim tutor Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), and car dealer Marquez (Manuel Garcia Rulfo).  The victim is drugged and stabbed multiple times, an avalanche strands the train in a mountain pass, and Bouc pleads with the Belgian detective to please solve the crime before rescuers and the police arrive and surely accuse one of the minority passengers--and save the reputation of the railroad.  And so, with methodical precision, Poirot goes to work.

MotOE is a beautiful film--its cinematography, production design, and costume design dazzle, as the film spins perhaps Dame Christie's best, most satisfying whodunit.  For those reasons alone, we recommend it despite its blemishes.  The supporting cast seems more caricature than character (did Branagh see fit not to rein them in?).  Poirot has been played by many fine actors, none better than Branagh, but we've come to expect the little detective to be fastidious, narcissistic, and formal--David Suchet has indelibly hewn closest to the book's image.  Branagh has Poirot giggling over the pages of Dickens, mooning over a photo of a mysterious woman (huh?), and twisting the English language in a silly way rather than a Belgian way.  All this is not necessarily to the film's detriment as the director is playing a long game: at the end of the film, a message arrives, urgently requiring his services to solve a Death on the Nile.  We look forward to it, but for a stand-alone film, stick with the 1974 Albert Finney version, which had six Oscar noms and one win (Ingrid Bergman).
The 2017 film:
7.0 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale
6.0 out of ten on an Awards Scale for the nice period production values.
The 1974 version:
8.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment (and whodunit) Scale
8.0 out of 10 on an Awards Scale
*       *       *

LBJ by Guy S. Malone, Researcher

Rob Reiner's LBJ was a Toronto International Film Festival entry in September 2016, and it's not certain why it took over a year to release (perhaps to gain distance from Bryan Cranston's Tony-Award winning performance of the President reprised on HBO?).  As LBJ's credits rolled at the end, Captain HE, a member of our August body gave credence to that theory by remarking that Woody was all right, but, boy, we should have seen Cranston.  Word has it, in fact, that Woody Harrelson consulted with Cranston before taking on the role.  Several positive aspects: Harrelson's commitment to the role, the always excellent Richard Jenkins as racist Southern Sen. Richard Russell, and Reiner's period authenticity.  One warning: Harrelson's heavy prosthetic makeup takes some getting used to; I kept thinking I was seeing Rondo Hatton as LBJ (seriously, Google images of the old-time actor).

The action unfolds from the perspective of Lyndon Johnson, opening with the primary season for the 1960 Presidential election.  Johnson's coyness about running allows the charismatic JFK (Jeffrey Donovan) to clinch the candidacy at the Democratic Convention, and Kennedy surprises everyone, most of all brother Bobby (Michael Stahl-David) and LBJ himself, by asking the big Texan to be his running mate.  LBJ discusses his deepest thoughts with his wife, Lady Bird (Jennifer Jason Leigh), most personally, his dismay that however respected he may be, he is not embraced with the affection JFK enjoys.  Rather than react with bitterness, this melancholy reality spurs Johnson to be the best he can be, a difficult task, considering that Bobby (painted as a snotty and snobbish Macchiavelli) does his best to make LBJ a nonentity.  Bobby doesn't count on Johnson's savant-like ability to maneuver through the Byzantine swamp that is Congress, so given nothing to work with, Johnson works the angles and his connections to carve a meaningful place in the Administration.  Then comes that fateful day in Dallas, and Johnson is thrust reluctantly into the Presidency at one of the most critical social junctures in American history.

Screenwriter Joey Hartstone makes the good decision to avoid a broad brush approach--Vietnam is hardly mentioned--instead, the spotlight falls on the Civil Rights Act.  It is foreshadowing to see the smug caucus of Dixiecrat Senators, led by Russell, cock-sure that Johnson's ascendency brings the death knell to Civil Rights legislation.  Instead, it brings the best scenes of the film: the tête-à-têtes between Russell and LBJ over equality for Black Americans.  Between threats, pleas, bombast, and reason, LBJ shows his true mettle.  Had the whole film, or even half of it, delivered the electricity of Harrelson's and Jenkins' performances, LBJ the film might have grasped the affection that LBJ the man so desired.  Instead, it suffers for the risks it didn't take.
6.5 out of 10 on an Entertainment Scale (not an Awards player)

Lady Bird

Lady Bird Review by FilmZ

As much as we like Laurie Metcalf and Lucas Hedges, and as much as we love Saoirse Ronan, we had reservations about Lady Bird.  The coming-of-age movie seemed to have epic twee potential, hardly the stuff to attract the likes of Guy S. Malone, Researcher; Dude of the Serf; Captain HE; and your humble servant, FilmZ.  Still, we are nothing if not open-minded, and based on its rave receptions at the Telluride and Toronto festivals, we decided to give it a shot.  Upshot: we are men enough to admit writer-director Greta Gerwig keeps her autobiographical baby twee free.   Neither quaint nor sentimental, Gerwig uses snappy, snarky quick-cut scenes to whisk us along through Lady Bird's (Ronan) momentous senior year in high school and the culmination of a stormy relationship with her judgmental, overworked, and stressed-out mother, Marion (Metcalf).

It is Sacramento, "the Midwest of California," in 2002: Christine McPherson, who prefers her "given" name, "Lady Bird" ("... given to me, by me") is an odd duck, a misfit who revels in her uniqueness even as she longs to be one of the cool kids at her Catholic high school.  Lady Bird and her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), plan their self-actualization as they snack on Communion wafers, a juxtaposition of the normal and the absurd that provides much of the film's humor and endearment.  Their quest takes them to the drama club, where Lady Bird meets Danny, a sweet soul.  But the transience of youth leads her to Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a guitar-playing nouveau-Kerouac and a new best-friend--wealthy, popular Jenna (Odeya Rush).  Gerwig remembers well the ups and downs, fits and starts, and the Icarian flights to the sun where wings scorch and aspirants plummet to earth.

At Lady Bird's side throughout is her doting father (Tracy Letts), who hides his career downturns from her even as he becomes both confidant and buffer between her and her mother.  Central to the story, though, is the relationship between Lady Bird and Marion McPherson, and it is what makes the film transcendent.  The mother-daughter complexity: each elicits both empathy and ire, each is right and wrong, each knows the other well but at the same time lacks understanding.  And the perfect match of actor to role as achieved with Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.  It is that relationship that bookends the film and drives it, even at those times when it is only in the back of our minds.

Lady Bird is a triumph for Greta Gerwig in her first film as sole director, a labor of love put forth without a false step.  It is a comedy-drama that allows us to relate to the characters as real people living within the artifices of high school and to remember the intense love-hate between a parent and a child striving for independence.  The film should garner a Best Picture nomination and Saoirse Ronan could end up as the frontrunner for Best Actress.  The 23-year old has a gift for timing that wrings out the power, humor, and truth from every beautifully-written line.  Which brings us to the third probable nomination: Original Screenplay.  Laurie Metcalf has the role of a lifetime, and it could lead to a Supporting Actress nomination.  And finally, if there is any justice Greta Gerwig will earn recognition as Director.

9.0 out of 10 - Entertainment Scale (Dude and Capt. HE declared it their favorite film so far this year)
9.0 out of 10 - Awards Scale
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