Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
“Murder on the Orient Express,” directed by Kenneth Branagh, is such a stylish-looking picture that certain scenes emit yellowish glow and it is filled to the brim with performers of recognizable faces. However, one gets the impression that it might have been a stronger work had it been three hours long, thus paving the opportunity for the audience to get into every possible suspect’s psychology. Instead, what results is a mildly interesting mystery with some superficially curious exchanges, but certainly not a film that commands first-rate tension and urgency. It is passable as a late-night or rainy day cable movie.
Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, a renowned detective with an obsession for detail. The material makes a point that this case is of a particular challenge for the supremely observant detective since he is someone who believes there is only right and wrong. Branagh makes a potentially insular character into someone accessible by expanding upon the more humorous lines through carefully calibrated facial expressions meant to nudge the viewers that there is more to Poirot than solving puzzles and a strict sense of morality. In less capable hands, the protagonist would likely have become one-dimensional.
There are nearly a dozen suspects and some of them are more intriguing than others. Michelle Pfeiffer is a standout as a widow who knows exactly what she wants. She commands attention in just about every scene she is in, mixing sensuality and sexuality with seeming ease. Her performance is exactly right especially when her character must come face-to-face with a detective of extreme logic. Another solid performance is by Daisy Ridley who plays a governess involved in a relationship that she feels she must keep under wraps. Although she does not have as much many lines Pfeiffer, Ridley is able to communicate a level of desperation, mixed with fear, especially when her character is challenged by seemingly straightforward questions.
The rest of the suspects, however, require more time to be thoroughly engaging. While nuggets of mystery are teased, especially by Penélope Cruz and Willem Dafoe as a Spanish missionary and a racist Austrian professor, respectively, these characters do not get the opportunity to shine because the script requires a constant forward momentum. The problem is, although the movie moves at a constant pace, it is not exactly fast-paced. The exposition will likely test the patience of some viewers who crave action almost immediately.
Detective stories thrive on sneaky suspicions and heart-pounding uncertainties. This interpretation of “Murder on the Orient Express” fails to create a level of claustrophobia that functions as a pressure cooker. Notice there are numerous overhead shots of the train and the snowy terrain—beautiful but these do not contribute in establishing the correct tone and mood. Perhaps the director ought to have chosen a more humble route.
Counselor, The (2013)
★ / ★★★★
Most of the time, I preface my reviews with a brief plot summary as to what one might hope to expect from a movie in question. But approximately fifty minutes into “The Counselor,” written by Cormac McCarthy and directed by Ridley Scott, I still had no idea what was going on. There are images to be seen and dialogue to be heard but there is nothing to be processed and compiled to create a sensical narrative arc.
Still, I did not find the movie to be egregious on every level. On the contrary, there are a few scenes dispersed throughout that inspired me to look closer to the screen either due to a strong performance or the rhythm of the dialogue being effortless and magnetic.
Two scenes stand out. The first involves the meeting between a man only referred to as Counselor (Michael Fassbender) and an even more enigmatic gentleman called Westray (Brad Pitt), the latter of which has been involved in the drug business for years. The magic between their interactions lie in the performances. Fassbender and Pitt play their characters cool, calm, and collected—like reunited old buddies sharing a drink—but the unsaid—silent moments where they measure each other up—suggests that something very bad is going to happen to one or both of them. And it does.
The second involves the counselor’s visit in prison because he is appointed by the court to deal with a woman (Rosie Perez) whose son is in jail because he is unable to pay a speeding ticket. It is memorable in a different way—with respect to Westray and Counselor’s meeting—because one is playing a certain level of toughness, almost aggressive but never completely obvious and the other is more relaxed, almost taking his job lightly or as a joke. The interplay between Fassbender and Perez is executed with a whiff of playfulness but at the same time we are left wondering if there is more to it than meets the eye.
Figuring out how subplots interconnect is a challenge because the script offers very little connective tissue as the picture moves from one scene to another. It is like being given an incomplete mathematical formula and expecting us to arrive at the right answer. I wondered if the writer intended it to be this way. Is the big picture not supposed to matter? Are we only meant to understand or be entertained by individual scenes? What is the target audience? It functions as a thriller but is not accessible enough to be a good one.
The film should have been called “Westray” because I did not at all care about Counselor. Though Fassbender attempts to emote by invoking desperation, fear, or grief, I felt nothing toward his character. The problem is that the central character is not written to pass as a whole person. He has the charm, the confidence, and sexual magnetism but we never get the chance to get to know him on a personal level other than the fact that he loves a woman (Penélope Cruz). As a result, the emotions come off false. On the other hand, Westray is played straight—a smooth talker, very little emotion. And yet I cared what would happen to him. He talks big but can he back it up when it counts most?
“The Counselor” is a mess but I was never bored by it. It made me laugh when I probably was not supposed to but it is much better than just waiting for the film to be over. There is a very funny scene where Fassbender engages in a sort-of phone sex—awkward, pointless, and amusing. There is also a pair of horrifying sequences involving beheadings. It dares one to keep watching. It is really too bad that the material fails to form a coherent whole.
Carne trémula (1997)
★★★ / ★★★★
Isabel (Penélope Cruz), a prostitute, is in labor and a friend (Pilar Bardem) opts to help her deliver the baby on the bus while on their way to the hospital. The newborn is named Víctor. Twenty years later, Víctor (Liberto Rabal) calls from a pay phone outside of a drug addict’s apartment. Elena (Francesca Neri) declines to allow him to come up because she cannot remember agreeing to go on a date with him a week prior. Still, Víctor finds a way to get in. A gun is fired and the neighbors call the police.
David (Javier Bardem) and Sancho (José Sancho) are summoned to investigate the call. While Víctor and Sancho wrestle for the gun, David turns away from the scuffle to tell Elena to run downstairs. The gun goes off.
Based on a novel by Ruth Rendel and directed by Pedro Almodóvar, “Carne trémula” is an elegantly constructed story about obsession. Víctor is obsessed with Elena but he is not the kind of creep who sneaks into her house and steals memorabilia for his shrine. He is charming on the outside but holds a darkness within. The kind of things he considers valuable are of his memories with her. Since he can take those memories wherever he goes, images of her face, her body, and her quirks constantly bounce around in his head.
His actions are driven by this obsession. After being released from jail, he decides to volunteer at a children’s center that Elena helped to finance because he knows that sooner or later, she will have to come in and interact with the staff. Since he cannot be with her, given that she has married David during his years of incarceration for shooting a cop, being around her will have to do for the time being.
Sex is never used as a product of, or through an act of, love. Rather, it is used as a means to an end and a catalyst that highlights the broken part of the characters. For example, initially, David and Elena look like a perfect fit. While in prison, Víctor, raging with jealousy, watches them hug and kiss on TV. But when David is shot in the back, the bullet severs his spine and the injury leaves him unable to move his lower limbs. As a result, David and Elena are not able to have a normal sex life.
He gives her oral sex and she is able to experience pleasure, but a woman needs every part of a man–physically, emotionally, psychologically–to be fully fulfilled. Elena is not fulfilled. If David is not able to tell, and a fool he is not, that is because Elena goes on great lengths to hide it. That is when Víctor comes in. The way I saw it, Elena considers him as the reason why she cannot be fully happy with her husband even though she loves him–and he loves her–dearly. At the same time, she sees Víctor as a person who she knows is messed up in the head but is able to give her his all.
Almodóvar is melds disparate emotions and psychology to make intricate patterns about human behavior and desires without coming off as forced or one note. There is an excellent scene when David visits Víctor to warn that he ought to away from Elena. Víctor asks, in a mocking way, what David is going to do if he does not. The husband punches the stalker where it hurts, but instead of exploding into a fight, the two end up cheering together because their fútbol team scores a great point on TV. Even though the two are opposite forces on collision, the scene puts them on common ground.
“Carne trémula,” also known as “Live Flesh,” is in control of its themes. Its assured direction anchors the abrupt changes in our sentiments toward the people on screen as well as the characters’ opinions of one another. The answers are never easy or predictable as our feelings for another person does not reflect that of a straight line.
Vanilla Sky (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
David Aames (Tom Cruise) seemed to have it all: he was rich, he could have any woman he wanted, he could be great at his job if he wanted to, and a very good friend, Brian (Jason Lee), was only a phone call away. But what David didn’t have was romantic stability. David and Julie (Cameron Diaz) would hook up and the two share great sex. However, Sofia (Penélope Cruz), Brian’s date, caught David’s eye during a party at his fancy loft. Suddenly, his affection was torn between the two women. Julie did not like it one bit. Based on Alejandro Amenábar’s film “Abre los ojos,” Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky” deceptively started off like a romance picture but it evolved into a mystery and changed once again into a curiosity. What I loved most about it was its audacity to dream big. Its tone and storytelling techniques always changed; the events felt like fragments of memories and they didn’t seem to fit. A question gave birth to other questions in an exponential rate. We were offered possible explanations but we had a choice not to accept them. I didn’t know what was going on some of the time but I found myself fascinated with what the movie was attempting to say. It was like sitting in front of someone who had been almost completely paralyzed and it tried to communicate with nothing but its eyes. I’ve seen Cruise embody plenty of roles but I believe David was one of his best. Two scenes stood out to me and they reminded me why was he was a movie star. David’s face had been horribly disfigured. He had a meeting with doctors and he expected that they had solutions to fix his face. After all, money was no issue because he commanded an empire. Unfortunately, the doctors had nothing but roundabout ways of saying there wasn’t anything they could do. In that scene, the way Cruise controlled his character from quietly hopeful to a monster full of rage stripped me of my defenses. I probably would have reacted the same way. David claimed it wasn’t about vanity. We should all know it was exactly about vanity but there was something more to it. Reclaiming his face was an act of getting his power back. Another strong scene was when David finally decided to show his scarred face to Sofia after months of hiding in his apartment. Cruise made David extremely vulnerable. He was ashamed of his ugliness and he felt even uglier because Sofia was so beautiful. David must have felt like he wasn’t worthy of being considered a person. It was like watching an exiled king, now a leper, begging to admitted back to his kingdom. Notice that I’m highlighting the emotions because I believe “Vanilla Sky” was, first and foremost, an emotional journey. The last thirty minutes asked us to take a giant leap of faith. Without being emotionally invested, we wouldn’t take that leap. I believe the reason why the film polarized audiences was because half didn’t feel emotionally connected to David. For those that did, half probably felt like they were constantly getting tricked by the push and pull forces of real and fantasy. In other words, they felt cheated. But I consider “Vanilla Sky” a wonderful entertainment because I felt like a homicide detective. In most homicide cases, not all the pieces fit exactly as we expect them to, despite what TV shows led us to believe, but those pieces that do are enough to provide a clear picture.
★ / ★★★★
Dr. Miranda Grey (Halle Berry) worked in a psychiatric hospital in which her current case was a woman (Penélope Cruz) claiming that she was being raped while she was in her cell. Dr. Grey surmised that the woman’s story was simply a reflection of an abused childhood. Of course, on a dark, stormy night, the psychiatrist got into a car accident because she attempted to avoid hitting a girl standing in the middle of the road. The next thing Dr. Grey knew, she woke up in a cell as if she was one of the patients in the hospital. “Gothika” was not a smart supernatural thriller. Instead of using images of a ghost as a backdrop of deeply rooted psychological problems, it used the paranormal in the most literal way. We were supposed to believe that the ghost could be touched (and possess someone despite the fact that the person didn’t believe). We were supposed to believe that the ghost was trying to communicate in order for it to find some sort of peace. We were supposed to believe that ghosts only appeared when lights flickered in quick succession.How was I supposed to believe in such things if I couldn’t believe for one second that Dr. Grey and his colleague (Robert Downey Jr.) were competent doctors? I knew they knew psychological terms because they had no problem throwing them at each other (perhaps as foreplay because the two were obviously attracted to one another), but I didn’t feel like the actors embodied their characters in such a way that I could feel an air of presence about them when they entered a room. Downey was too quirky to the point where I thought he suited being a clown more than a doctor. Berry seemed like a first-year graduate student who didn’t know how to adapt when a situation turned grim. (Initially, I thought it could work. Just take a look at Clarice Starling in Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs.”) Instead, in the most crucial times, she shrieked and hid and then did more screaming and hiding. The script needed some serious work. For supposedly intelligent individuals who ran a psychiatric hospital (where the film took place for the majority of the time), both the material and the characters lacked logic. Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, the pacing was deathly slow and borderline soporific. I didn’t find the quick editing and the booming soundtrack scary in the least. In fact, I was annoyed because I kept wondering when it would focus on the real issue at hand: the question involving Dr. Grey’s sanity. It never did. “Gothika” is a meandering picture with painfully mediocre storytelling techniques. The Best Unintentional Laugh should go to the scene when Berry’s character declared, “I don’t believe in ghosts… but they believe in me.” I don’t believe in either.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Fearing the Spanish would get to the mythical Fountain of Youth first, King George (Richard Griffiths) assigned Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) to lead a British crew to where it was located. Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and Gibbs (Kevin McNally) happened to know exactly where it was. Gibbs was captured by Barbossa and just when he was about to get killed, he revealed the map and immediately burned it. He evaded certain death because he informed Barbossa that he had memorized the map by heart. Meanwhile, Sparrow bumped on Angelica (Penélope Cruz), a former flame, whose father, Blackbeard (Ian McShane), was also on a quest to find the fountain. Blackbeard heard of a prophecy of a one-legged man taking his life and he believed that drinking from the fountain would give him eternal life. Directed by Rob Marshall, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” was painful to sit through because it was essentially a compilation of lackadaisical dialogue and uninspired action sequences. Sparrow made a comment about the journey being more important than the destination and I wish the writers kept that advice in mind. The highlight of the picture was the first thirty minutes. When Sparrow impersonated a judge, we were reminded why we fell in love with watching a pirate who acted drunk and loved to make wisecracks during the most dire situations. Impersonating a judge was an act of poking fun of a justice system and its unchanging, sometimes unfair, rules. Being a pirate meant being a rebel and there’s a rebel in all of us. I also enjoyed the scene that came after when Sparrow tried to escape from the hands of British guards while half of his mind was focused on grabbing a cream puff. However, when all the key characters boarded their respective ships, it was downhill from there. The mermaids were interesting because they weren’t just there to look pretty. They could actually defend themselves. Unfortunately, the momentum came to a screeching halt when the romance between Philip (Sam Claflin), a cleric, and Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a mermaid Blackbeard’s crew captured, began to take center stage. I didn’t care about either character. The romance was predictable and out of place. Given that a mermaid’s tear was requisite for eternal life, it was transparent that Philip had to suffer in some way. With the way Blackbeard treated the mermaid, she wouldn’t give up her tears so easily. There should have been more meaningful scenes between Sparrow and Angelica yet they were reduced to meeting in secret, arguing, flirting, and talking about their past. It was like being in a room with two lovers and we weren’t in on any of their jokes. “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” was unnecessary, at times, excruciatingly, for a lack of a better word, boring. It made me wish there was a wind strong enough to let a hefty two hours and twenty minutes fly by.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★
I knew Woody Allen still has it in him to make a really good film. After the wishy-washy “Scoop” and “Cassandra’s Dream,” a lot of people began to lose hope once again because they wanted a film as great as “Match Point.” “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is sexy, character-driven and sublime. The premise is two best friends (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) spend a summer in Barcelona and unexpectedly fall for an artistic and charismatic Spaniard (Javier Bardem). At first I thought I could relate more with Hall because she’s sensible and she knows exactly what she wants. But as the film went on, I could identify with Johansson more because she doesn’t limit herself by following society’s labels. She’s very open to things that can enlighten her not just intellectually but spiritually as well. Things get more complicated when the Bardem’s ex-wife, played by the gorgeous Penélope Cruz who deserves an Oscar nomination, returns after trying to kill herself. She provided that extra spice that the film needed in order be more romantic not in a safe way, but in a dangerous and unpredictable manner. I was impressed with this picture because each scene felt so organic. The characters talked and acted like real people, which I think is difficult to accomplish in a story about the complex dynamics between the characters. All of the actors had something to do and impacted each other in both subtle and profound ways. Another factor that I admired about this film is its stark contrast between American and European. The most obvious one includes Hall’s business-minded, unexciting husband (Chris Messina) compared to raw, passionate Bardem. One can also argue that Hall is more American while Johansson is more European. These differences even go as far as which types of clothes the characters wear. As much as I loved this film, I cannot give it a four-star rating because it needed an extra thirty minutes to reach a more insightful conclusion. I don’t mean tying up some loose ends in order for everyone to be happy. In fact, I love that this film was bold enough to leave some unhappy characters. It’s just that, in a Woody Allen film, you expect something more profound, something more complete. It’s not as introspective as “Match Point” but it comes very close.