Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Murder on the Orient Express

I’ve always loved a good mystery. When I was a kid I used to read Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew and the like. I marveled at the mental dexterity and nearly prescient reasoning those young sleuths displayed. Moreover, there’s just something about a good mystery that feels comforting, yet thrilling. Couple my affinity for mystery with an enjoyment of ensemble films, and there was no way I’d miss Murder on the Orient Express. It was a treat to watch our charming protagonist, the affably eccentric Hercule Poirot in action, extracting information from suspects both willing and unwilling.

Although some viewers may be familiar with Poirot (Kenneth Branagh, Dunkirk), the film begins with an effective introduction to the genteel gumshoe, as he solves a theft by uncovering the smallest, most inconspicuous clue. Watching Poirot is like a master class in crime solving. His reputation precedes him, and those being interrogated often police themselves, dispensing with lies without bothering to try to stump the ever-observant Poirot. When our vaunted detective finds himself aboard the Orient Express, the stage is set. Poirot is headed to London to consult on a homicide, but not before meeting a colorful cast of characters aboard the train, one of whom will become a victim themselves.

Most notable among the passengers are Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), a seedy underworld type running from a mysterious foe, along with Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his companion Mary (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), two acquaintances who are curiously pretending to be strangers, and Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer, Mother!) a saucy older woman looking for a good time. Rounding out the bunch are an assortment of other passengers, including a wealthy grand dame (Judi Dench, Victoria and Abdul), a religious domestic worker (Penelope Cruz, Zoolander 2), and Mr. Ratchett’s assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad, Beauty and the Beast).

Quite simply, the crux of the movie is the murder of one of the dozen or so passengers. The ambience of the confined space and the proximity of the guests to one another make for a taut and suspenseful journey. I found myself trying to think as Poirot, to observe as he did. Nothing was what it appeared to be, and the storyline kept me in suspense without being intellectually dishonest. While the pacing and emphasis on dialogue won’t appeal to everyone, I never lost interest thanks in large part to Kenneth Branagh’s jovial turn. He seemed to relish the role, and it was fun to watch him be the smartest person in the room. Or in this case, on the train.

Murder on the Orient Express will appeal more to grandmothers than millennials, due to its slow pace and the genteel nature of its protagonist. It wasn’t an action-packed nonstop thrill ride; it was a quiet, enjoyable film for those who enjoy a good mystery. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if the trailer piqued your curiosity at all, I think you’ll be pleased.

Grade: B+

War for the Planet of the Apes

I’m usually not a fan of reboots, because most of the time they tarnish the good name of the original. Sometimes we don’t need to bring a film/franchise to a new generation. Sometimes the younger generation should just refer back to the original and learn to appreciate cinematic history. But before you knock me off my high horse as another millennial hater, I can admit that the Planet of the Apes reboot has been pretty solid. The original 1968 film contained a powerful over-arching metaphor in which apes were a proxy for Black and other oppressed people. This latest addition to the rebooted franchise hearkens back to the original with its symbolism and allusion to the darker undercurrents of society.

When we last saw Caesar (Andy Serkis, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), he defeated his nemesis Koba after a bitter act of betrayal. War for the Planet of the Apes, the third installment of the reboot, finds the apes under siege from the military, which is thoroughly outmatched by their simian adversary. I was reminded of some of the better battle scenes in recent memory, and the CGI was A-plus. Throughout the movie I truly cared more about the apes than the humans, all of who displayed abject cruelty and duplicity, save for one child. I appreciated that the plot was completely linear, a straightforward tale of pursuit, of hunter vs. hunted. The apes’ morality was a central theme, and there was a clear dichotomy between man and animal.

Caesar is merciful and just, resorting to violence only when provoked and in defense of his fellow primates. He represents a superior moral archetype, compassionately sparing the lives of captured human hostages, an act of mercy that would have devastating consequences for his family. While the apes traverse the Pacific Northwest in search of a new home, they are hotly pursued by a military faction helmed by a psychotic Woody Harrelson (Now You See Me 2) as The Colonel.

The movie was characterized by a somber, heavy tone, as the director eschewed any emphasis on the human element, instead focusing on the relationships and survival of Caesar and his brethren. While Caesar plots against The Colonel, his fellow apes “Bad Ape” (Steve Zahn, Captain Fantastic), Maurice, and Rocket travel to their new home. The powerful character narrative and emotional quotient of the movie made it well worth watching, and my only criticism is that it was surprisingly tragic and bleak. Nevertheless, War for the Planet of the Apes was a compelling movie that drew me in with an emotional storyline and a thought-provoking depiction of humankind’s inherent, persistent tendency towards savagery and oppression of those whom we marginalize as different. Grade: A