And now for additional things which are in some ways different
Still going here, ladies and gentlemen. With a new year comes a new attempt to start afresh by catching up with everything we saw at the tail end of this remarkable year.
The General's Post Fall/Winter Roundup, Part 2
Murder on the Orient Express
Alternate Title: Mustaches on the Orient Express
One sentence synopsis: Internationally-famed detective Hercule Poirot must spring into action when a man with many enemies is murdered aboard a luxury train in Eastern Europe.
The Verdict: Those whose tastes run to detective fiction must know of Agatha Christie's most enduring creation, the fastidious Belgian investigator Hercule Poirot, a 20th century rendition of the Sherlocke Holmes archetype, the eccentric sleuth whose perceptions and deductive skill penetrates all efforts at obfuscation. The character has been portrayed dozens of times, by great actors across stage, screen, and television, including David Suchet, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, Ian Holm, and even Orson Welles (in a 1939 radio-play). It's not entirely astonishing to find someone like Kenneth Branaugh, a man who has never seen a piece of scenery he could not eat, nor a classic character he did not wish to cast himself as, deciding to undertake a rendition of his own.
Unfortunately, nothing else is particularly astonishing either.
Murder on the Orient Express, despite the services of an impeccable cast, a luxurious old-world location, and several decent-to-good ideas on the part of the cinematographer (Cypriot veteran Haris Zambarloukos, of Locke, and Branaugh's Thor), is pretty much a dud, and for this we really have nobody except Branaugh himself to blame, given that he directed the film, starred in it, and helped produce it in conjunction with Scott Free films (Ridley Scott's production company). It is a rote film, blessed with neither novel ideas as to how to perform the material nor any sense of proper excitement as it runs through its labyrinthine and yet rather absurd plot. None of this is the fault of the cast, a fascinating collection of excellent actors, including Judy Dench, Willem Defoe, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley, all of whom do serviceable work as the various European and American archetypes they are assigned, particularly Dench's turn as a Russian Heiress and Defoe's as a bigoted Austrian doctor who is more than he seems. But none of the characters are given any real personalities beyond the vaguest sketches, it's as though Branaugh instructed all of them to do nothing more than look vaguely worried and recite their lines with a minimum of emotional effort. And given the sheer size of the cast, and the mechanical requirements of the plot (a murder has occurred, and Poirot must interrogate the various persons present to determine who the guilty party is), what this means is that the entire movie is simply a series of discussions wherein Poirot asks the same stone-faced upper-middle-class professional a series of questions which will slightly discomfit them, causing them to glance about their railway car in a guilty fashion before he moves on to the next one. Repeat for two hours and roll credits.
The plot's insane, of course. A wealthy American (Johnny Depp, an actor that studios seem to think we continue to want to see in the late 2010s) with a shady past is murdered while on a train from Istanbul to Vienna, and Poirot must deduce which of the other passengers has murdered him, after first digging into their backgrounds and associations with the murder victim, associations which every single one of them is plentifully supplied. I don't really blame the movie for this, as the book it's based on is equally labyrinthine, but the duty of the filmmakers is not only to give us something to elevate the complex material, but also to differentiate the film from the 1974 version, a rendition that (though I have little use for it) was regarded in its day as being one of the finest mystery thrillers ever made, directed by the great Sydney Lumet and starring a veritable cornucopia of towering screen actors, including Sean Connery (back when he still gave a shit), Lauren Bacall, (Sir) John Gielgud, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins (Norman Bates), and even Ingrid Bergman (who won her third Oscar for the role). It's not that Branaugh has no ideas as to how to freshen the material, for he does, including a few bits of interesting cinematography (such as an extended long-take from overhead to show the reveal of the murder, with all of the characters hidden from view by their period hats), as well as re-casting one of the principal suspects (Doctor Arbuthnot) as a black veteran of WWI, so as to entwine the racial dynamics of the 1920s into the plot. But minor changes to an established formula are not enough to salvage anything really interesting from the whole affair. As to Branaugh himself, the best that can really be said is that he fails to embaress himself unduly, despite the ridiculous French accent and a mustache that someone really should have talked him out of (though admittedly, a sight gag of the mustache protector he wears at night is pretty good).
Final Score: 4.5/10
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Alternate Title: South Fargo
One sentence synopsis: A woman purchases space on three billboards outside a small town, demanding to know why the police have not solved the rape and murder of her daughter.
The Verdict: ... for instance, you could consider this.
And holy hell, it's so good.
Manchester-by-the-Sea's Lucas Hedges). Harrelson, an actor I've never had a lot of use for, is almost as good this time, a cynical, weary sheriff who is simply trying to do right by everyone he knows with what little time he has left, the only person in town who manages to disarm Mildred, if
But... if this sort of thing isn't really up your alley, don't worry...
Final Score: 8.5/10
Alternate Title: El Mariachi
One sentence synopsis: A boy who dreams of becoming a musician finds his way into the Land of the Dead, and must discover the truth about his ancestors.
The Verdict: ... we've got you covered.
Pixar was the defining animation studio of the 2000s, of that there's really no debating. The 2010s... not so much. An increasing addition to sequels to movies that were not all that good in the first place (the Cars series for instance) was coupled with new features that simply did not meet the high standards of their glory days. Brave, Inside Out, and The Good Dinosaur were decent movies, certainly, but not the equal of masterpieces like Up and Wall-E, and even these were intercut with things like Monsters University, Cars 2/3, and Finding Dory, which varied from the good to the... less good. Admittedly, most of the above films would have been perfectly acceptable offerings from any studio other than Pixar, but setting high expectations comes with the price of not being able to slum it insofar as the critics are concerned. And with parent company Disney's own in-house animation studio producing signature masterpieces like Frozen, Big Hero 6, and Zootopia, I, at least, began to wonder if Disney hadn't poached all of Pixar's best people or ideas, and if the studio would ever return to the prominence it once enjoyed.
I still wonder that, to be frank, but the question has become somewhat more nuanced in recent weeks, because it turns out that Coco is a goddamn masterpiece.
Pixar film", and this fact alone should banish all doubt. It is a bouncy, adventurous film, with a vibrant atmosphere and a genuine warmth absent from all but the absolute finest animated movies on offer. Practically everything about this movie is fantastic, and if, like me, you assumed that Pixar's best years were behind them... well you were still probably right, but at least they can still muster up the old magic when it really matters.
Final Score: 8.5/10
The Disaster Artist
Alternate Title: Oh hi, Oscarbait!
One sentence synopsis: A would-be actor meets one of the strangest men on Earth, who finances, writes, and directs a feature film that will go on to become one of the worst movies ever made.
The Verdict: There's a concept in film criticism of a movie being "so bad, it's good", movies that are so baffling in their utter wretchedness that they become paradoxically fascinating and even highly enjoyable to watch. As someone who has spent more than their fair share of time watching bad films, I can assure you all, my gentle readers, that such concepts are 99% crap. Bad movies are generally just bad movies, unless of course they are really bad, at which point they become truly awful movies, and you all get to chortle at my misfortune as I expend rivers of virtual ink excoriating them for your amusement. And yet, even I have to admit that there are a very, very small handful of movies who actually do manage to attain some kind of idiot-nirvana, either by being so alien to common sense and decency as to defy belief, or by evidencing an almost touching lack of awareness of their own purulence. Plan 9 from Outer Space, the infamous Ed Wood magnum opus, is one such film, a movie that today plays like a brilliant parody of Z-grade 50s sci-fi, and features a chiropractor with his face covered serving as a stand-in for Bela Legosi, who died midway through production. Zardoz, the 1974 John Boorman film that can only be explained by vast quantities of hallucinogens or a series of massive brain aneurysms, is another (it features Sean Connery in a red diaper chasing a flying Easter Island statue which vomits assault rifles and intones, with stark gravitas, "The gun is good. The penis is evil"). In all the many years and hundreds and thousands of movies I have seen, only a handful of films have ever reached the lofty heights of being truly so bad that they were good. And one of those is The Room.
Indeed, the whole film is more about Tommy the weird and occasionally creepy bastard, than it is about the fun-loving keystone-kop hilarity that was The Room's production. The movie pulls few punches when it comes to Tommy, recognizing his passion for film-making, his deep and abiding loneliness, as well as his staggeringly petty behavior as soon as anything comes between him and his one friend or goal. Without trying to diagnose a man over the internet, Tommy in this movie comes across as a truly weird individual, not in a conventional "zany artist" manner, nor a bumbling incompetent, but a sometimes-vindictive, sometimes-incomprehensible, sometimes-tragic, and sometimes-absurd figure who simply has latched onto the idea of making a movie with himself as the hero, and will not be talked out of it, no matter how batshit insane the ideas he has surrounding this notion are. This does not make Tommy Wiseau look particularly good, but paradoxically it humanizes him far more than all the gut-wrenching laughs to be had from The Room showings ever could.
Though I have to say, if this movie somehow wins an Oscar, and the winner in question brings Tommy Wiseau up onto the stage to help accept it, then my lifelong dream will also be complete.
Final Score: 7/10
Next Time: The last roundup of the year covers the films we saw this December, and what a collection of oddities they are...