Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

This is part of my Sidney Lumet Syllabus

Murder on the Orient Express (1)

After watching this film on the weekend past I start to question how to truly tackle it. This is a story that has been reshaped and used in so many ways with so many different characters and actors that I can’t imagine saying the title and someone not already being familiar with the entire story. I almost can’t imagine talking about the film without just playing up the entire plot (spoilers included)… however, I shall remain vigilant and move forward none the less.

When Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) boards the Orient Express for London he does so not knowing that a murder is about to take place. With peculiarities abound he is tasked to solve the murder of Mr. Ratchett (Richard Widmark) using his wits and not much else as a passengers do their best to outsmart the man who uses his little grey cells to their finest.

There are those films which feel like overcasted television episodes that manage to last two hours, and then there are television shows that feel like overproduced films. Murder on the Orient Express feels more like the former than the later. With Albert FinneySean ConneryIngrid BergmanVanessa Redgrave and Lauren Bacall all on this train at once it feels like all these people may of all just been on holiday at the same time and Lumet magically got them to all say yes to a month on a train set supposedly in the middle of Yugoslavia — yes, yes… I could probably guess that they didn’t film this in Yugoslavia. This however, doesn’t really do much for the film though. While I adored being able to add another film to baffling moments of Sean Connery‘s film career, there wasn’t much in the way of great moments that allow themselves to be self satirizing or unintentionally silly.

The film is done very much in a manner that is reminiscent of the PBS Poirot series and in that manner I almost find it sad that I can’t quite distinguish the two. Even if the series was done after this film. Maybe it’s that Lumet did it so well that the series decided that would be the tone of the Poirot to come and now looking back they’re just two indistinguishable entities.

Regardless the film remains a piece of entertaining Sunday early evening murder mystery for those looking for a family piece with characters that you’d expect to act out at home ironically while playing Clue with your parents who still think you’re eight.

What do you think of Murder on the Orient Express?


Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)

Aint Them Bodies Saints

If someone were to promise me a film with the visual appeal of The New World, an outlaw and his family story that could be out of the pages of No Country for Old Men and that old Texan post-cowboy pre-hipster Austin lifestyle from Lawless I’m not quite sure I could resist it. However, when that film turns out to be Ain’t Them Bodies Saints I see that mixing bits and bobs into a pot doesn’t always garner the best of results.

Bob Mulden (Casey Affleck), after discovering he’s going to become a father, decides to do one more job to set his family for the forseeable future. On this job his partner is killed and he takes the blame for the shooting of a police officer, Patrick (Ben Foster), in order to keep the mother of his child, Ruth (Rooney Mara), out of the eyes of the law. Eventually Bob, under a 25 to life sentence, escapes prison and looks to make his family whole again.

Mimicry is the kindest form of flattery many say. So when Bradford Young (cinematographer) and David Lowery (director) decided to take on Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki‘s style as it relates to their work in films like The Tree of Life and The New World, it creates a relatable bond for fans of that work that adds a sense of immediate gratification. However, what Lowery fails to capitalize on is actually presenting character through this narrative style of numerous voice-overs, jumping between characters and creating a sense of stoicism throughout. Here however it just feels like an added effect, like an Instagram filter, for those same audience members who can attach themselves to it that doesn’t do anything other than the fact that we got a really pretty picture with the sun off in the distance and generally looking at our character’s back as they move off towards said sunshine.

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As it relates to the story of Bob and his criminal life there are a number of elements that never quite feel paid off fully. When we see him escape prison, his first task — after evading police and getting out of dodge — is to recover the money from his series of robberies and final job. At around the same time we see a group of men appear in town and we can easily assume that they are there for Bob and possibly the money, though this is not confirmed. This revenge element leaves many questions up in the air with little attempt to answer them. Who are these men? Why do they want to kill Bob? What did Bob do? It would be easy to answer these questions ourselves, however eventually the film starts to answer them and the answers we’re given contests what we would easily assume — and accept — and this leads to more questions which are absolutely never answered.

Otherwise the film features a time and place when cowboys changed to outlaws and for anyone interested in those kind of characters will have a lot to dig into here. Casey Affleck channels characters that he’s given us before, with The Killer Inside Me and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and we are not disappointed. The addition of Ben Foster and Keith Carradine makes the cast even more well played. Rooney Mara also does her fair share of great moments of character.

In any other relatively well put together film these characters would thrive. However, here — mainly due to the visual style that doesn’t work — they are stifled by all the visual pieces that takes the film by the wheel and drives it straight into a brick wall repeatedly.

What do you think of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints?

Blindspot: Close-Up (1990)

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If I had to be honest, I believe this was the film that was my excuse for doing the Blindspot Series. I purposefully scheduled it as the March entry, as March is my birth month, and magically the date for posted happens to fall on my birthday. This just seems like too much. Some would say that a date like today would warrant a much more personal entry into the blog — that may come too — but somehow I’m okay with this being the primary posting for the day.

Abbas Kiarostami is a filmmaker that’s been constantly in my head for the last couple of years. My introduction to him through his recent films (Certified Copy and Like Someone in Love) has had me pining to dive into his previous works, and where else is there to start than with the film which is considered to be his greatest — Close-Up.

Using the word documentary feels almost dismissive of what Kiarostami is able to accomplish with this film. Where elements are filmed as happens and others re-enacted (for the sake of narrative) it never feels completely directed or forced in any way. Even scenes, like the trial, gives an uncertain feeling as to whether we’re watching the real thing or a re-enactment. This is to the film’s benefit as it ties in further into the filmmaking idea of how this drive and passion that pushed Sabzian to lie about being Makhmalbaf out of a love for cinema even more apparent.

Close Up (3)Kiarostami was able to enlist the support of not only Hossain Sabzian, who wanted his suffering to be told, but also the Ahankhah family — the family that Sabzian pretended to be Makhmalbaf for — as well as Hossain Farazmand. All parties involved in the original incident made themselves available for not only interviews to discuss the case but also to be apart of their own re-enactments of days prior to the arrest and trial of Sabzian. Not only does this allow for a much more engaging narrative than any run of the mill ‘talking heads’ documentary but it helps ring the final note of hope that the film leaves us with as being more sincere. You can imagine that if this confrontation had ended in any way other than how it did no party involved (or at least some) would not be willing to act in a film about the very incident.

While the crime being discussed in the film is one that I doubt many of us would be willing to easily dismiss or take part in there is an element of it all that makes us empathetic to Sabzian, partly thanks to Kiarostami’s constant focus on Sabzian’s remorse and justification — no matter how unwilling you are to buy it as a true excuse. Sabzian does this because of his love for cinema. Not all of us truly want to be a part of cinema, meaning that if the camera was put in our hands we would actually create something, but most of us fantasize constantly about it. Even in the reviews (like this one) where we discuss films we now and then place criticisms in the form of claiming a scene to be unnecessary or a character not having enough time on the screen or even asking for a reworking of the direction that the film presents itself.

In an early encounter where Kiarostami is first interviewing Abolfazi Ahankhah we hear him talking about his desire to film this story and how he is very interested in it for the tie ins to cinema but all we get in return is Abolfazi’s reluctance. He even goes so far as to compare Kiarostami to Farazmand (the journalist who wrote the originating story) claiming that all he wanted was to get Sabzian out of his home and have him prosecuted now we have this big media rhetoric around the case which (none of the participating parties know yet) ends up painting Sabzian in this empathetic manner. We become witness at this time to how Kiarostami begins to lean the characters, as well as us the audience, into rethinking their perspective of the entire tale. Another moment that shows the power of Kiarostami’s camera is where he first appears trying to find out more about the case (including the address of the plaintiffs) interviewing the police officer, and you notice not so subtly in the background we see the entire company of men shift themselves into frame because they now have the opportunity to be in a movie.

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Close-Up’s true strength is not in how it creates a narrative around a factual event or even how it presents reality in the middle of what is obvious fictional recreation, but rather how Kiarostami blurs that line so much that we as an audience are unable to truly determine where fact ends and fiction begins. Even in the court room scene — which is documented as the actual trial — when it begins with the actual clapper noting that it’s Scene 1 Shot 1 of the court room it attempts to paint the reality as fake. Kiarostami purposefully leaves that moment in the cut of the film so that he can seed the thought of doubt into the audience’s mind in order to make us more invested in the story as a film as opposed to trying to be outraged by Sabzian’s ludicrous crime in reality.

While these moments of intrusion that Kiarostami places all throughout the film helps it become more of a character journey for us as an audience it also places a heavy burden on the director himself, who we see and hear occasionally in the film. We begin to focus on him and become aware of how he’s pushing us in and out of the story of Sabzian. We think back to the opening scene — a recreation — where we are privy to a conversation between Farazmand and his cab driver as he takes two police officers to eventually arrest Sabzian. When we reach the home Kiarostami refuses to take us inside to see what this whole story is about but rather leaves us outside with the cab driver and the two police officers where they have a relatively unimportant conversation. Moments like this (which is also present in his other films Like Someone in Love) Kiarostami does on purpose in order for the audience to begin to engage with the film in a way that is much more rewarding than if he had just taken us step by step. We begin to ask questions of the film which he leaves open for a later stage of the story.

Close-Up is a film that discusses cinema in a manner that not many people would be able to claim it quickly as a ‘film about film’ movie. The subvert nature of how Kiarostami shows his hand in pushing characters into a factual tale as well as keeping the story focused on the passion of art is commendable and hard to not love.

What do you think of Close-Up?

Movie Review: Savages (2012)

“Adrenaline is natures way of telling you ‘don’t fuck up.’”

What makes it right for one to complain about the disparity between what one imagines a movie will be and what it turns out to be? Is the fact that there is one the fault of the film or the viewer? What if the only thing the viewer hopes for is to be able to use the word “good” when asked that person’s feelings about said film? These are questions I ask myself everytime I walk of out a film not liking it. Somehow I start to question whether I am to blame for the fact that I didn’t like the movie.

Savages is, what I like to call, the Smoking Aces of drug films. When it comes to movies about drug dealers, suppliers and/or manufacturers you have a lot of examples to pick from. You have the comedy side of Pineapple Express, the serious dramatic version of Traffic and the action packed edition The Raid: Redemption(the guy they’re going after is a drug lord, I’ll take that); Savages however, almost seems like it wants to be all three versions of that in one, without having enough interesting bits to keep any of the above sustainable over the span of over two hours.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Oliver Stone hasn’t made a good movie since the Y2K bug was a thing people were honestly worried about. Before that threshold he was somewhat revered for films such as Any Given Sunday, Natural Born Killers and Platoon. Now he’s added such gems as Alexander, W., and now Savages. Each of those films try to be some sort of action packed version of the genre it exists in – history, politics and drug culture – without actually having enough meat within its own genre to warrant any love at all. With Savages his crucial misstep is that he attempts to lump a lot of the weight of the film on us falling in love with the performance of Benecio Del Toro, as Lado – the assassin and all around leg worker for the Mexican cartel – but the truth in fact is that is nowhere near enough.

The film opens with the narration of O (Blake Lively) saying that this is her story and just because she’s telling us this story doesn’t mean she lives in the end. I want to make a petition online to end this trend. Please can screenwriters stop trying to be smart and opening narrations with characters already acknowledging the fact that they can die even though they’re the narrator? It’s not smart, it’s annoying, especially when you have an ending as troublesome as this film does.

What this movie also suffers from is tired characters that never seem to feel any version of interesting. Elena (Salma Hayek) is the woman who’s the head of the Baja cartel, who gets to shout a lot and exude power from having an almost mother-like quality, Ben (Aaron Johnson) is the hippie scholar who believes in Buddha and loves weed, Chon (Taylor Kitsch) is the war veteran who’s ready to kick in doors whenever you need and doesn’t take shit from anyone, and Dennis (John Travolta) is the law enforcement that you think is your friend but is really just an opportunist with “friends” on all sides of the argument. The only character who doesn’t make the list is Lado (Benecio Del Toro) who is another trite played character, but I almost forgive him because I enjoy seeing Benecio be the menacing bad guy for a bit, not enough to forgive the film, but enough to forgive him.

The biggest problem though, character/actor-wise, is with O (Blake Lively) as the California-girl who just loves the sun, weed and her two boyfriends (if you can call it that) who share her. Between O’s narration and bordering on Keanu Reeves’ level of emoting, I don’t know what was worse. The fact that a film this boring was more than two hours or the fact that I had to hear O in scenes she wasn’t even in thereby ruining said scene immediately.

Rating: 2.0/10

Movie Review: Contraband (2012)

“You think you’re the only guy with a gun?”

There are many things that make a film stand out from the rest. Sometimes it’s a performance, a plot twist we didn’t see before, a setting or even just a line of dialogue that works so well. However, the truth of the matter is that a lot of films that are released over the span of year do nothing to stand out. They actually work very hard to be indistinguishable from the rest of the pack. Contraband is one of those movies.

Mark Wahlberg is dragged back into the underworld of smuggling goods across the border because his brother-in-law, Andy (Caleb Landry Jones), has found himself in the precarious situation of owing a crazy gangster a lot of money for a job gone wrong. So Chris (Mark Wahlberg) has to jump onto a ship and do what he does best one more time to help out his family so that they don’t have weirdly accented people with guns knocking at their doors anymore.

Now if you read the above synopsis and thought to yourself that this sounds a lot like Gone in Sixty Seconds (which was a remake in itself), then you would be right. Mix in a little unnecessary references to another Wahlberg movie, The Italian Job (another remake), and you’re pretty much wrapped this criminally bound action-less action film in a nice tiny bow.

With all that said, this movie isn’t as bad as it could’ve been. It is a completely serviceable treatment of a plot as old as movies themselves. Yes it’s at times funny to see how over the top Giovanni Ribisi can take the ridiculous Mafioso character, but that didn’t keep us away from the trite nature of the film itself.

Where this film truly fails to do anything right is in the innate cleverness of the crime itself. Like The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven what ends up hooking us, besides interesting characters we enjoy hanging out with in a voyeuristic sort of way, is the brilliance of our criminal. It’s fun to watch someone do bad things and get away with it like having that adventure we’d never have the balls to go on, but it’s great to see some manipulation of the real world that we would’ve never seen coming before because our minds aren’t built like that. We had that moment here and there in this film, but it was so poorly accomplished that we didn’t have enough time to realize that Chris was actually being clever.

Take all the above and add the waste of Ben Foster as an acting talent and you have a film that is released just because Hollywood believes that if there isn’t a new film at the cinema each week we would all lose interest and stop going.

Rating: 4.5/10