Murder on the Orient Express: Bad Mustache, Good Movie

When I saw the first trailer for Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie novel “Murder on the Orient Express” my initial reaction was “My God, what an appalling mustache.”

It’s true. In addition to directing the movie, Branagh also plays Christie’s famous detective Hercule Poirot. I associate Poirot with David Suchet, who played Poirot on TV from 1989 to 2013, which is frankly astonishing. Suchet’s Poirot always had an immaculate mustache, whereas Branagh’s version seemed to have an overgrown monstrosity that looked to me like a Civil War general’s facial hair.

Image: 20th Century Fox

I was also nervous about Branagh’s portrayal of Poirot in general. Branagh is a very talented actor and filmmaker, but he tends to be his own worst enemy. In films in which he both directs and stars, he always gives himself a lot of screen time. I get the impression that he’s got a bit of an ego. I was concerned that his portrayal of Poirot would be too over-the-top, that he would exaggerate Poirot’s accent and mannerisms far too much.

Fortunately, he reined it in, delivering a far more restrained performance than I had been expecting. There are a couple of moments that don’t quite work, such as a moment early in the film in which Poirot steps in horse poop. But these moments don’t overwhelm the film. Despite the Stonewall Jackson mustache, Branagh is quite good as Poirot, and the film as a whole follows his lead. It’s not perfect, but it’s entertaining and engaging.

Aside from Branagh, there are tons of great actors in the movie. Branagh has given himself a hell of a cast to work with, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Judi Dench, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, and Daisy Ridley. All of them are great, even if some feel underutilized.

If you’re concerned about spoilers, don’t worry. I won’t give anything major away. The story is exactly what you would think of from the title: a group of people who are mostly strangers to one another are on a train together for a few days, until one of them turns up dead. The train gets stopped by an avalanche so they’re stuck together until workers for the train company come and dig them out, and one of them is a killer.

It’s an irresistible premise, and Branagh is able to mine it for all of the drama and suspense he can get. The movie also looks great, and there are a lot of shots that look gorgeous. It must have been a ton of fun to work on this film, everything and everyone in it looks fantastic. The costumes are immaculate and the sets are beautiful, and even Poirot’s absurd mustache starts to look natural once you get used to it.

Image: 20th Century Fox

The trailers for the movie make it look more action-packed than it really is. This is not an action movie, it’s a murder mystery. If you come into it expecting slow-motion action sequences like something from Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies, you’re going to be disappointed. This is an old-school whodunit. Poirot is a detective, not an action hero. One could say the same about Holmes of course, but I digress.

The movie has its flaws. A couple plot elements are somewhat unclear, and certain aspects of the film have an air of theatricality that doesn’t quite ring true. I saw the movie with the family, and we all agreed that whenever people were outside in the snow, they never looked particularly cold, despite the fact that they were in the middle of the damn mountains. These flaws don’t ruin the experience, but they are noticeable.

There are also quite a few funny moments. Not all of them work (see: horse poop) but a lot of them do. Poirot in this film has a certain knack for comedic understatement that leads to a couple of good chuckles, and it’s easy to see that Branagh is having fun playing Poirot and not taking himself too seriously. And how could it not be fun to play such a great character? I especially liked Poirot’s high-pitched giggles that he uttered while reading Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

Branagh’s adaptation is not perfect by any means, but it’s fun and engaging and presents a compelling mystery with a surprising outcome. It was surprising to me at least because I have not read Christie’s book, nor have I seen any of the previous film or TV versions of Murder on the Orient Express. From what I understand the movie is largely faithful to the book, with the biggest differences being that some of the film’s characters are changed slightly from their literary counterparts.

Branagh has made a fun and suspenseful murder mystery, and it takes place in a world in which the viewer can’t help but be swept up in. It’s fun to be a part of the movie’s world, and even though the ride is a bit bumpy at times it still gets you there in the end.

Next week, it’s back to superheroes with the long-awaited superhero ensemble Justice League. It’s got a lot to live up to, with 2017 having been a standout year for superhero cinema (Logan, Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor Ragnarok were all excellent). Early buzz has been encouraging, so hopefully Justice League will be closer to Wonder Woman than Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice or Suicide Squad. Tune in next week to find out.


Thor Gets Thunderstruck in THOR: RAGNAROK

Marvel is on a roll this year. They’ve released three new installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok), as well as Logan, Hugh Jackman’s poignant final appearance as Wolverine.

And I loved all four of those movies.

The latest is THOR: RAGNAROK, which is absolute loads of fun.

Image: Marvel/Disney

The standalone Thor films are generally regarded as some of the weaker entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. They’re not terrible by any means, but they’re not as good as the Captain America or Avengers films, for example. Ragnarok is by far the best solo Thor movie and one of the best MCU movies in general.

The movie was directed by a New Zealander named Taika Waititi, previously known for two well-received independent films, What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. I haven’t seen either of those films, but I’ve heard lots of great things about them. Ragnarok is Waititi’s first foray into big-budget blockbuster filmmaking, and he nails it. He perfectly captures the humor, beautiful visuals, and exciting action scenes that MCU movies have become known for. His style is the perfect fit for Thor.

Ragnarok is a surprisingly hilarious movie, and is right up there with Spider-Man: Homecoming and the Guardians of the Galaxy films as one of the funniest Marvel movies. The cast has great chemistry and there are more funny lines and moments than I can even remember off the top of my head as I’m writing this. Waititi has said that much of the dialogue was improvised, which shows how good the actors are together.

Chief among them are Chris Hemsworth as the heroic Thor and Tom Hiddleston as his mischievous adopted brother Loki. Both actors have been playing these roles since 2011, and they’re both fantastic. Their relationship is consistently interesting and funny, and it’s so much fun to watch the two actors bounce off each other. Even though they’ve been playing these characters for more than half a decade, the tempestuous relationship between the brothers doesn’t feel stale, and is one of the best things about the movie.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the plot, since the film is still brand new. Suffice to say that Thor and his pals have got their hands full this time around, since the film’s villain is easily one of my favorite villains of the year.

Her name is Hela.

She is the goddess of death.

She is played by Cate Blanchett.

She’s awesome.

Image: Marvel/Disney

“Oh, I’ve missed this,” she purrs, after making short work of Asgard’s armies. She is a force to be reckoned with, and Blanchett plays her perfectly. She reminded me a bit of Cruella de Ville, although perhaps Maleficent would be a better comparison. Either way, she’s fantastic, and Blanchett looks like she’s having a great time playing her. Hela is easily one of the best MCU villains, and just might be my number-one villain of 2017.

The movie is a joy to look at. The different settings in which the movie takes place all look gorgeous, as do the denizens that populate them. The movie is full of eye candy and the visual effects are among the best I’ve ever seen. Between Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel movies have been killing it with cutting-edge visual effects that are wondrous to behold.

The action scenes are exciting and will really get your blood pumping, and the movie contains two excellent uses of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” which was also used to great effect in the film’s trailers. “Immigrant Song” includes the lyric “Valhalla, I am coming,” so it’s perfect for Thor. And everyone knows that Thor is the God of Thunder, but in Ragnarok we get to see him cut loose with his thunder and lightning powers in ways we haven’t seen onscreen before. The results are fun and badass, which is everything Thor needs to be.

Image: Marvel/Disney

And let us not forget the green elephant in the room. That of course would be the HULK, who hasn’t been seen onscreen since 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. He’s played once again by Mark Ruffalo, who perfectly embodies Bruce Banner’s absolute bafflement in finding himself on an alien planet with no idea how he got there. The Hulk is a very fun character and it’s great to see him portrayed so well, after Marvel’s first two Hulk movies (2003’s Hulk and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk) met with mixed results.

The film’s trailers, posters, and other marketing material heavily promoted Hulk’s role in the film, which does somewhat lessen the impact of his initial appearance in the movie. There’s quite a lot of buildup to the not-so-jolly green giant’s big introduction, but if you’ve seen any of the movie’s posters or trailers, you already know what’s coming, so the moment doesn’t resonate as strongly as it would have if Hulk’s involvement had been less highly publicized.

Image: Marvel/Disney

Still, it’s hard to fault Marvel for promoting Hulk’s involvement, not to mention it would have been very difficult in this modern smartphone era to keep it a secret. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity though, since if Hulk had appeared with no one having had any idea he was going to be in the film, minds would have been blown. Mind you, I’m not criticizing Hulk’s inclusion in the movie, merely the way Marvel chose to promote it. Hulk fits right in to the story, and the scenes with Thor and Hulk are hilarious and give parts of the film a buddy-comedy vibe.

Image: Marvel/Disney

There are some new characters, such as the hard-drinking badass Valkyrie played by Tessa Thompson (of Creed and Westworld fame) and the Grandmaster, played by Jeff Goldblum at his most Jeff Goldblum-iest. These characters are a lot of fun, and I look forward to hopefully seeing more of them in future movies. There’s also Skurge, played by Karl Urban. Skurge is the only character who felt unnecessary to me. I like Karl Urban a lot but his character seemed like a bit of an afterthought.

There’s also Korg, played by Taika Waititi himself, although you’d never realize it because Korg is some kind of rock monster. He’s a very funny and likable rock monster though, and proves to be a strong ally for Thor and his pals. Anthony Hopkins returns as Odin and Idris Elba as Heimdall, and it’s fun to see both of them again. There’s also a brief but fun cameo from a certain Sorcerer Supreme, as well as the expected cameo from Stan Lee.

Thor: Ragnarok is a film that succeeds on every level. It’s quirky and weird and hilarious and beautiful and exciting and absolute tons of fun. If you weren’t impressed by previous Thor films, give this one a try. It just might change your mind.

On November 17, another big superhero movie lands in theaters. That movie is Justice League, and it’s got a lot to live up to after four excellent Marvel movies and the also-excellent Wonder Woman. We’ll have to wait and see if it can live up to the high standard of those movies, but in the meantime there’s another reason to head to the theater this weekend. It’s Murder on the Orient Express, and we’ll be talking about it next week.

Headhunters in More Ways Than One

After last week’s terrible film, I wanted to watch a good film to wash away the bad taste left by The Snowman. Since The Snowman was based on a book by Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo, what better film to watch and write about than another film based on a Nesbo book?

That film is Headhunters, a brilliant 2011 film from Norway. Yes, it’s a foreign film and it’s in Norwegian, which necessitates the reading of subtitles (unless you speak Norwegian of course). But this does not detract from the sheer pleasure of watching this excellent film. As with The Snowman, I haven’t read Nesbo’s book. Also, beware of spoilers.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Headhunters has an irresistible premise. The main character is Roger Brown, a successful corporate recruiter (or headhunter, if you prefer). He is five feet six inches tall and overcompensates massively. He lives a luxurious lifestyle and his wife Diana is tall, blond, and beautiful. He showers her with expensive gifts and they live in an elegant house.

But it’s all a façade. In reality, Roger is living well outside his means. All of his accounts are overdrawn, and he keeps his financial troubles from his wife. Roger and Diana are happy together, but Diana longs for a child and Roger is reluctant to have children, for reasons that are not immediately made clear. Diana has recently opened an art gallery with financial help from Roger, which has put him even deeper in debt.

But Roger has a secret way of making money. He uses his position as a recruiter to learn personal details about people he interviews. Specifically, he finds out if they have any valuable works of art. He finds out if they’re married, have kids, housekeepers, or dogs. Once he has this information, he uses it to figure out the right time to break into their house and steal their valuable paintings.

Aiding him in this endeavor is his associate Ove Kjikerud, who works at a security company and deactivates the alarms at the homes of Roger’s marks, allowing Roger to sneak in and swap the real painting for a counterfeit. It’s a slick operation that Roger and Ove have going, but of course it all starts to fall apart.

At the opening of Diana’s new art gallery, Roger meets a friend of Diana’s named Clas Greve. Clas is a former executive of a GPS company who is interested in working for the company Roger is recruiting for. Roger doesn’t like Clas at first, since he seems a bit too friendly with Diana. But he changes his mind when Diana tells him that Clas has asked her to help him authenticate a Peter Paul Rubens painting thought to be World War II. It could be worth tens of millions.

It’s too good of an opportunity to pass up, even when Roger discovers that Clas is an expert at finding people. Before he worked at the GPS company, Clas was a member of an elite military unit that specialized in tracking people. Clas was clearly involved in some dark stuff, and has the scars on his back to prove it.

Despite his misgivings, and after a fight with Diana about having children, Roger goes to Clas’ apartment to swipe the Rubens painting. While there, he sees a group of kids playing outside. He takes out his phone to call Diana, perhaps having changed his mind about not wanting to have children. But as soon as he dials her number, he hears a phone start to ring somewhere in Clas’ apartment. He follows the sound to Clas’ bedroom, where he finds Diana’s cell phone next to the bed.

Could she be cheating on him? With Clas?

I don’t want to give too much away, because I don’t want this post to drown in plot summary and because I really want people to see this film. Headhunters is a film that is full of twists and turns, and it would take too long to summarize them all. Instead, I’m going to focus on a couple of scenes that have always stood out to me.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

From the moment that Roger swipes the painting, he is a marked man. Clas proves to be extremely adept at finding him. He’s like the damn Terminator: wherever Roger goes, Clas is not far behind. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Roger goes to a remote cabin he and his associate Ove would use as meeting place in order to hide the painting. Roger takes the painting to the outhouse to hide it there, only to see Clas and his terrifying, enormous Pitbull arrive at the cabin. When the dog barks at the outhouse, Clas draws a weapon and advances on the outhouse. With nowhere else to hide, Roger takes refuge in the only place he can. Yep, this film gives entirely new meaning to the phrase “in the shit.” It’s disgusting but it’s also hilarious, and it’s tense as hell.

The suspense in this film will have you literally holding your breath. The first time I watched it I remember being on pins and needles the entire time, sometimes peering at the screen from behind clenched fingers. The tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Other highlights include Roger, covered in filth, driving a tractor down the road in the middle of the night with Clas’ gigantic Pitbull impaled on the front of it. Or Roger’s bumbling attempts to get rid of a corpse, which turns out to not be quite as dead as he thought it was.

Or the film’s most gruesome scene, when Roger is in the back seat of a police car sandwiched between two burly police officers, and Clas rams the cop car with a semi-truck, sending it flying into a ravine. Roger winds up upside down, still sandwiched between the two very burly and now very dead police officers. Seeing Clas approaching, he smears himself with blood and plays dead. But he is unable to close his eyes before Clas reaches him, and has to keep his eyes open while Clas investigates what he thinks is Roger’s corpse. It’s a fantastic scene, one of the most riveting and nail-biting I’ve ever seen. Brilliantly, the film forces the viewer to keep their eyes open the entire time, since Clas takes his time inspecting the crash. It’s bloody and not for the faint of heart, but it’s utterly fantastic.

Afterward, Roger realizes that Clas has planted microscopic tracking devices in his hair, so he brutally shaves his head using scissors and a razor. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Roger. He’s a bit of a cad, but watching him break down in tears as he painfully shaves his head in a ravine surrounded by corpses is downright emotional. He’s in hell, but it’s a hell of his own making, which is always the worst kind.

Roger is a fascinating protagonist. Why does he do what he does? Many of his actions are deplorable, but you could argue that he does many of them for his wife in order to make her happy. Conversely, you could argue that many of his actions are simply for the sake of his own ego and his massive need to overcompensate. He’s psychologically complex and always watchable. He’s in pretty much every scene in the movie, and he’s magnetic in all of them.

There’s a deeply touching scene late in the film between Roger and Diana. They haven’t seen each other in a while because Roger has been on the run from Clas, and when Roger finally comes home Diana welcomes him. She is heartbroken when she sees Roger bald, scarred, and wearing someone else’s clothes. She admits to her affair with Clas, and deeply regrets it. She tells Roger that she’s done with Clas. Roger is the one she wants. She loves him.

He loves her too, and finally tells her what he has been unable to tell her the entire time they have been together. He tells her that he’s scared. He’s been scared ever since he first met her. Scared that she would see what kind of person he really was, and not like it. Scared that, if they had a child, she would love the child more than him. It’s a heartbreaking revelation, and it’s easy to see that it’s a hard confession for Roger to make. It also reframes many of his actions throughout the film and makes the viewer see him in a completely different light.

Roger is played by Aksel Hennie, a Norwegian actor known to American audiences for his roles in Hercules and The Martian. In Headhunters, he gives what is probably one of my all-time favorite screen performances. The fact that all the dialogue is in Norwegian does not detract at all from Hennie’s superb acting. The movie puts Roger through the ringer time and time again, and Hennie sells every second of it.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Clas is played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a Danish actor best known for playing Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones was actually filming at the same time as Headhunters, which made scheduling difficult for the film. As a result, there are long stretches of the film in which Clas does not appear, but as with any good suspense or horror film, the presence of Clas as the antagonist is strongly felt. It’s like he’s always lurking just out of frame, and when he does appear it’s all the more meaningful. Coster-Waldau is a great actor, effortlessly suave and menacing. Someone make him the villain in a James Bond movie, ASAP. Daniel Craig ain’t getting any younger.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Finally, Diana is played by Synnove Macody Lund, in her first acting role. She was formerly a model, journalist, and even a film critic. She’s gorgeous in that statuesque Scandinavian way, and whenever she’s onscreen it’s hard to take your eyes off her. She’s soulful and intelligent, and it’s understandable that Roger would be protective of her, and maybe even intimidated by her. She’s great.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

The movie was directed by a Norwegian director named Morten Tyldum, whose next film was The Imitation Game, which earned multiple Academy Award nominations, including best picture, actor and director. He then made the controversial sci-fi film Passengers with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, which received a mixed reception. Headhunters is a fantastically-directed movie, and is funny, gross, touching, and nail-bitingly tense, sometimes all at the same time. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Tyldum makes it look easy.

Headhunters is the kind of film in which every small detail is important. You could probably poke holes in the story if you really wanted to, but why bother? Headhunters is a superbly-crafted thriller that easily rivals any American-made film, and is right up there among my favorite films of all time.

Coming up next week, one of the most highly-anticipated movies of the year. I’ve heard nothing but great things about it and I can’t wait to see it. It’s THOR: RAGNAROK. See you next week!

The Abominable Snowman

The Snowman should have been a good movie. It had all the right ingredients. Top-notch cast? Check. Talented director whose last two films (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Let the Right One In) were critically acclaimed? Check. Based on a best-selling novel? Check.

And yet, the movie is terrible. One of the worst films I’ve seen all year.

What happened?

In order to answer that question, let’s start with the film’s plot. The Snowman is based on the novel of the same name by Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo. I haven’t read any of Nesbo’s books, so anything I say about the plot and characters of The Snowman will be based entirely on the film’s portrayal of them.

Image: Universal

The main character is named Harry Hole. While this sounds like a horrible name for a main character, it’s worth mentioning that I read an interview with Nesbo where he said that the last name is pronounced “HO-leh”, and apparently it’s a common Norwegian name. But in the movie, everyone pronounces it like the word hole. You know, like something your dog would dig in the backyard.

And that dog-dug hole in the backyard is where this film belongs, because it sucks. The plot is ostensibly about Harry Hole’s search for a killer nicknamed The Snowman whose calling card is leaving snowmen at the scenes of his crimes. He also cuts off one victim’s head and uses it as the head of a snowman, which is thoroughly grisly.

But the movie never explores the killer’s psychology, and his motives are frustratingly thin. The movie never gets into his head and the viewer is left wondering why he does the things he does. Half the movie involves a bunch of boring subplots that, after thinking it over, seemed completely irrelevant to me. I didn’t see how half of it had anything to do with the killer. The movie completely fails as a psychological exploration of the mind of a madman. It also fails as a detective movie. There’s no compelling detective work, there’s no list of suspects, the entire thing just feels rushed. And apparently it was, since the director, Tomas Alfredson, has stated in interviews that 10-15% of the screenplay wasn’t even filmed. No wonder the film feels so incomplete. The subplots are pointless and the motivations of the characters either don’t make sense or are utterly nonexistent.

Think of other serial-killer movies. Specifically, the films of the brilliant David Fincher, like Se7en, Zodiac, and his version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In these films, the villain is kept offscreen for most of the movie, but the viewer can always feel the treat of him lurking on the edge of the screen, like he could emerge at any moment. That’s called atmosphere, and is another thing at which The Snowman utterly fails. The only thing atmospheric about The Snowman is the admittedly excellent cinematography, but the movie’s beautiful scenery can’t disguise its sheer emptiness.

And let’s talk about the main characters. Harry Hole is a detective played by Michael Fassbender, and his sidekick is a new recruit named Katrine Bratt, played by Rebecca Ferguson. Both actors are very talented, but their characters are poorly written and they have almost no chemistry. They don’t even have a compelling reason for joining forces. Hole bums a ride off her, and since he’s bored he starts reading her files while she’s out of the car.

Really? That’s it? God, this movie is so half-assed. Of all the films I’ve seen this year, this one feels incomplete. It just feels rushed and unfinished. For example, Val Kilmer is in the movie for a couple of scenes, and he looks awful. What the hell happened to Val Kilmer, he looks like The Ghost That Ate Val Kilmer. He doesn’t even sound like Val Kilmer. His dialogue doesn’t even match up very well with his lip movements, which makes me think that his dialogue was hastily and sloppily dubbed over by another actor. Really? Just…really?

I don’t even know what to say about this movie, it’s just terrible. Michael Fassbender is a great actor, but he’s completely wasted in this movie. The movie portrays Hole as an alcoholic detective and there’s nothing to him beyond that. Anyone could have played the role in this movie. The Snowman is Jo Nesbo’s seventh Harry Hole book, and the movie implies that he’s been hunting down bad guys for quite some time. Katrine tells him that his cases are studied at the police academy, but it’s not enough to establish him as the brilliant detective everyone says he is. If you’re a fan of Jo Nesbo’s books and you think I’m not being fair to the character, keep in mind that everything I’m saying is based off the movie’s piss-poor portrayal of him. I have no doubt that Hole is a more compelling character on the page, because in this film he’s not compelling at all, and neither is anyone or anything else.

The movie desperately wants to be the next Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but it’s not going to with such awful execution. The movie has an abysmal 8% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and scraped together an equally-abysmal $3.4 million over its opening weekend. It’s one of the biggest cinematic failures of the year, a shockingly inept piece of hackwork that had a ton of potential but managed to squander every last bit of it. It’s really a shame. I’ll have to read Nesbo’s book at some point, because I have a feeling that this half-baked adaptation of his work doesn’t do it any form of justice. The movie ends abruptly without any sense of resolution, and leaves the viewer feeling cold.

If you want to see a good movie based on a Jo Nesbo novel, you should see the Norwegian film Headhunters. Or, you can tune in next week, since I’ll be writing about it then. It’s a terrific movie that I’ve been meaning to write about for some time, and I figure with no major new releases hitting this week, next week will be the perfect time to talk about it. See you then!

The Foreigner is Jackie Chan’s Version of Taken

Martin Campbell is a director who seems to specialize in revitalizing old warhorses. He did it in 1995 with GoldenEye, which was the first James Bond film since 1989’s License to Kill and was also Pierce Brosnan’s Bond debut. Campbell did it again in 1998 with The Mask of Zorro. He revitalized James Bond again in 2006 with Casino Royale, Daniel Craig’s first Bond movie (and still my number-one favorite Bond film). Campbell did it yet again in 2010 with Edge of Darkness, Mel Gibson’s first starring role after a long absence (and several well-publicized offscreen meltdowns). In 2011 Campbell made Green Lantern, which…well, the less said about that one the better. But with The Foreigner, Campbell has made a return to form.

Image: STX Entertainment

This time it’s Jackie Chan getting the Martin Campbell Old Warhorse Revitalization Treatment. An alternative name for this phenomenon would be Taken Syndrome, referring to Liam Neeson’s 2008 surprise megahit which proved that people will go see movies starring aging action stars.

The circumstances are a bit different, since before Taken Neeson was not known as an action star. The same cannot be said for Jackie Chan, whose willingness to perform fearless and death-defying stunts in his films has rightly become the Stuff of Legend. The Foreigner also stars Pierce Brosnan in a villainous role. The combination of Campbell, Chan and Brosnan feels just right, and I quite enjoyed The Foreigner.
The film’s plot will be immediately familiar to anyone who has ever seen an action movie. Chan plays Quan, a restaurant owner living in London whose teenage daughter is killed in a terrorist bombing in the film’s opening. Killing Quan’s daughter will of course turn out to be the worst (and last) mistake the culprits ever make, since like Liam Neeson’s character Bryan Mills in Taken, Quan turns out to have a very particular set of skills, as well as a tragic backstory that both serve as strong motivation to find and punish his daughter’s killers.

It’s a familiar plot (the 2002 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Collateral Damage had nearly the exact same setup) but an effective one. Pierce Brosnan plays Irish Deputy Minister Liam Hennessy, a man who, let’s just say, has fingers in many pies. After seeing Hennessy on TV and learning that he is a former IRA member, and since a group calling itself the Authentic IRA claimed responsibility for the attack that killed his daughter, Quan becomes convinced that Hennessy knows more than he is letting on.
Long story short (and I don’t think this is much of a spoiler): Quan is exactly right, and Hennessy is up to his ears in it. I won’t go into more detail than that, but it doesn’t take long before Quan has Hennessy running scared and hiding out in the countryside. This does not deter Quan and he takes up residence in the surrounding woods and wages a guerrilla war against Hennessy, which includes setting Rambo-esque traps in the woods that come in quite handy when Hennessy sends his henchmen into the woods after him.

Image: STX Entertainment

Jackie Chan is great in this movie. He’s 63 years old but is still pretty spry, and the fight scenes are excellent. The trailers for the movie would have you believe that the movie is a non-stop action thrill ride, but the truth is that it’s more of a political/conspiracy thriller with some really great action scenes. The plot gets a bit muddled at times but I was still able to follow it without too much difficulty. In addition to a strong physical performance, Chan also does a great job at nailing the more introspective and emotional aspects of his character. The scenes of him mourning his slain daughter are genuinely affecting.

The movie also knows how to make the most of Chan’s presence, and keeps him offscreen for much of the movie. While Quan wages his guerrilla war against Hennessy, we spend most of that time following Hennessy as he becomes increasingly paranoid, so when Quan makes his move it comes as a surprise to the audience as well as to Hennessy and his men. Even when Chan isn’t onscreen, his character’s presence is strongly felt. It’s very effective filmmaking.

Brosnan is also excellent as the duplicitous Hennessy, and speaks with an Irish accent that feels genuine. I mention this because Irish accents are easy to overdo, but Brosnan and the rest of the actors who play Irishmen speak with Irish accents that sound real, so the film never comes across as campy or exploitative. And yes, I realize that Pierce Brosnan is himself Irish, but I thought it was still a point worth mentioning.

The Foreigner is undeniably similar to other thrillers, but the strength of the performances and strong sense of realism raise it above the level of other campier films. I thought that Martin Campbell’s 2010 movie Edge of Darkness with Mel Gibson was ok, but the pacing of that film was sluggish and the plot was hard to follow. The Foreigner is much better in both of these areas and to me feels like a more complete and well-rounded experience. The villains in Edge of Darkness were members of a shady evil corporation, whereas The Foreigner’s villains are shady evil politicians. The movies are similar but The Foreigner ultimately comes out on top. It’s not perfect but I really liked it.

It’s October, which means that I have to write about at least one scary movie. Fortunately for me (I think), there’s one coming out this Friday which looks like it will fit the bill. That movie is The Snowman, a twisted Scandinavian crime thriller starring Michael Fassbender and based on a bestselling novel. The early buzz for the movie has been mostly bad, but I’m going to check it out anyway. I guess I’m still feeling brave after surviving IT. Tune in next week for a review.

Blade Runner 2049 is as Good as Belated Sequels Get

Confession time: the first time I saw Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner, I didn’t much care for it. Please don’t judge me too harshly.

This could be because I saw it on TV and it was probably edited to some extent. This could also be because the version I saw was the original theatrical version, which most fans of the film agree to be inferior to later versions. But I think the most likely reason of all was that it did not conform to my expectations. I expected a rollicking, action-packed thrill ride. What I got instead was a dark, moody, slow-burning sci-fi noir. It wasn’t what I wanted at the time, but I have a much greater appreciation for it now. Scott’s Blade Runner is a stone-cold classic and has been hugely influential on generations of filmmakers and writers.

The idea of a sequel coming out some 35 years after the release of the original film could lead to understandable skepticism. We all know what happened with that last Indiana Jones movie, after all. But I am happy to say that the new film, Blade Runner 2049, is an excellent sequel. People have called it one of the best sequels ever made, and it’s hard to disagree.

Image: Warner Bros.

The new movie was directed by the brilliant French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. I haven’t seen all of his films, but the ones I have seen (Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival) were all excellent. Villeneuve is one of the best directors working today, and he has delivered another near-masterpiece with Blade Runner 2049.

Villeneuve’s film stays true to Scott’s beloved original in tone, style, and content. The cinematographer was the great Roger Deakins, and the movie looks amazing. It brilliantly recaptures the iconic look of the original movie while also providing new environments and landscapes that fit right in with the world these films have created. If Deakins doesn’t finally win an Oscar for his work on this film, then the Academy Awards are officially Dead To Me.

Image: Warner Bros.

But aside from the eye-popping visuals, the film is rich in ideas and emotion. One of the main questions the original film presented was: what does it mean to be human? If it becomes possible to one day create synthetic beings so lifelike they’re virtually indistinguishable from real people, who’s to say those synthetic beings aren’t human? HBO’s Westworld recently pondered similar questions, and they’re as relevant and intriguing now as they were when the first movie was released in 1982.

Much has been made of Harrison Ford’s return to the world he helped create, although (this could be considered a minor spoiler) he doesn’t actually appear in the new movie until it is more than half over. Most of the movie rests on the shoulders of Ryan Gosling, and he is more than up to the task of carrying the film. Gosling’s performance here is superb and absolutely Oscar-worthy.

Image: Warner Bros.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, here’s a quick recap. The original movie took place in 2019, and followed Ford’s character Rick Deckard as he attempted to track down four rogue replicants. Replicants were created by the Tyrell Corporation to serve as off-world slave labor, but after a series of violent rebellions, they became outlawed. Blade Runners such as Deckard were cops who specialized in tracking down and “retiring” replicants.

Gosling’s character, known simply as K for most of the movie, is a Blade Runner hunting down replicants in 2049, thirty years after the events of the original film. I’m not going to go into much detail about the plot, since I really want to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say that K’s background is complex and is an integral part of the film’s plot. It becomes necessary for him to track down Deckard, who hasn’t been seen for thirty years. When we do finally meet Deckard, he’s tired and worn out. It’s some of the best acting Ford has done in recent years. He does a great job capturing Deckard’s cynicism and world-weariness, and is soulful and sympathetic.

Image: Warner Bros.

In addition to Deckard and K, the rest of the characters are equally fascinating. Robin Wright plays K’s no-bullshit boss Lieutenant Joshi, Jared Leto plays a creepy evil industrialist named Niander Wallace (who now owns the company that makes replicants and has made a fortune producing a new, more obedient series of replicants), and an actress named Sylvia Hoeks plays Wallace’s main henchwoman, disarmingly named Luv. Despite her name, she is not to be messed with, and provides a fierce adversary for K as he attempts to locate Deckard.

There’s also the lovely Cuban actress Ana de Armas as a character named Joi (pronounced like the word joy), who is, for lack of a better word, K’s companion. No, not that kind of companion. She offers him support and guidance despite, let’s just say, not being entirely human. I found the relationship between K and Joi to be quite fascinating, and genuinely moving at times.

There’s a lot more I could say about the plot, but I’m not going to because this is a movie you should experience for yourself. I will say that I loved the film’s plot. The filmmakers did an incredible job of telling a story that feels like a logical evolution of the original film, instead of just a flimsy excuse to make another movie and make more money. Blade Runner 2049 is a movie made with immense care and attention to detail. It feels completely faithful to the original.

I wouldn’t call either Blade Runner movie an action movie. Both movies are deliberately paced, and while there are fights and chases, the emphasis isn’t on the action scenes. Both films have a long way to go and are in no particular hurry to get there. The new movie is nearly three hours long, but it didn’t feel that long to me. It immediately sweeps the viewer up into the vivid world it creates, and it’s the kind of world that is thrilling to explore, but you probably wouldn’t want to live in it.

Every aspect of this movie is Oscar-worthy, from the production design to the writing to the acting to the directing to the special effects to the cinematography. Every one of those things from the first movie became iconic, and it’s easy to see the same thing happening with the new movie. Denis Villeneuve and his team did an incredible job crafting this film, and they have made Blade Runner 2049 every bit as emotionally resonant and thematically rich as its esteemed predecessor, which is no small feat.

Coming up next, in The Foreigner Jackie Chan will show us that it doesn’t matter if you’re in your sixties, you can still kick ass.

Operation Anthropoid

It is with a heavy heart that I begin to write today. Last week I decided to write about a movie called Anthropoid, which is a dramatization of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich which took place in 1942. It’s a movie with a lot of gun violence, and after what happened in Las Vegas after the weekend I wondered if it was the right movie to write about. I’m going to go through with it, but this week in addition to the standard spoiler warning I’m just going to say that this post will be getting into some pretty dark stuff, so if you don’t want to read about a film in which many people are killed with guns only a few days after dozens of Americans were actually killed with guns, I completely understand.

That being said, let’s get to the movie. Anthropoid is a movie which was released last year, starring Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan, and was written, produced, and directed by Sean Ellis (he was also the cinematographer). Ellis is an English filmmaker with only a handful of directing credits, but Anthropoid is one of the best-directed films I’ve seen in quite some time. It flew under the radar last year, but it’s a great movie and deserves to be more widely known.

Image: Universal

Reinhard Heydrich was an evil man. He was one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials and one of the main architects of the Holocaust. Hitler himself referred to Heydrich as “the man with the iron heart” and the people of Czechoslovakia nicknamed him the Butcher of Prague. I’m not going to say much more about him because I am not a historian and because writing about such a monstrous person is depressing. Suffice to say that if one were to compile a list of the most evil humans to ever exist, Heydrich would more than earn his place.

As I talk about the film, I’m going to be talking about historical events as the film depicts them, and I’m sure the movie takes some liberties with the actual events (as all movies based on true events inevitably do). Just letting all the historians out there know that in advance.

The movie’s main characters are Josef Gabcik, played by Murphy, and Jan Kubis, played by Dornan. Both Gabcik and Kubis were real people, and the performances by Murphy and Dornan are excellent. Murphy is a talented and versatile actor, while Dornan is unfortunately known best as Christian Grey from those godawful Fifty Shades of Grey movies (no, I haven’t seen them, nor do I ever intend to). For those of you who think Dornan is a bad actor based on those movies alone, I’ve got some potentially surprising news: he’s really good in Anthropoid. Amazing what an actor can do when given good material and a director who gives a shit.

For me, one of the most remarkable things about the movie is how genuine it feels. A lesser filmmaker could have taken this story and turned it into a Dirty Dozen-style action thriller about heroic underdogs assassinating a horrible person and subsequently going out in a blaze of glory. But director/producer/screenwriter/cinematographer Sean Ellis wisely and correctly realized that that would be a false way of telling the story, and instead makes the film frighteningly realistic. It portrays its characters as deeply flawed and unsure if what they’re doing is really the right course of action, and doesn’t gloss over the horrific consequences of their actions.

Image: Universal

Gabcik, Kubis, and their fellow conspirators are scared and uncertain. They were airdropped into Czechoslovakia with orders from the exiled Czech government in London to assassinate Heydrich, but the way the movie portrays it the details were mostly left to them. The first part of the film follows Gabcik and Kubis as they meet up with their contacts and form a plan to ambush Heydrich while he is out taking a drive. One of the biggest complications is that Heydrich sometimes travels with an armed escort and they haven’t been able to discern a pattern as to when Heydrich will be guarded.

They decide to wait for a day when Heydrich is unguarded, but when they receive news that Heydrich will be returning to Germany in a few days, it forces their hand and decide to ambush him regardless of the presence of an armed escort. Fortunately, when the moment arrives Heydrich is alone, but when Gabcik steps into the road in front of Heydrich’s car and attempts to open fire on him with a machine gun, his gun jams. As Heydrich and his driver prepare to shoot Gabcik, Kubis, who was positioned nearby, throws an anti-tank grenade at the vehicle and wounds Heydrich. Heydrich stays in the vehicle while his driver pursues Gabcik, who is able to shoot him and escapes.

This is the way the film portrays it, and from what I’ve read the film’s depiction of how the assassination played out is highly accurate. Ellis extensively researched the actions of every member involved in the assassination, and even portrays the events of the assassination in real time, meaning that the amount of time the film spends showing the assassination is the actual amount of time the events themselves took to occur.

That’s an impressive commitment to detail and historical accuracy. The entire film is tense as hell, and there’s very little artificiality to it. There’s little in the way of background music for most of the film, and Ellis uses this to increase the tension to nearly unbearable levels. There are no scenes of Gabcik and Kubis’ bosses back in London strategizing, and no scenes of Heydrich himself doing whatever it was that a sick bastard like him did in his day-to-day life. The viewer doesn’t know anything more about Heydrich’s movements than the assassins do. There is also a strong sense of just how isolated Gabcik and Kubis are. They have a few co-conspirators but little to no outside help. They are on their own.

At first, they fear that they botched the assassination, but a few days later, as they are hiding out in a church, they get the news that Heydrich died as a direct result of the wounds he sustained during the assassination attempt. From what I’ve read it sounds like he died of infected shrapnel wounds. The Nazis get a hint of the assassins’ location when one of their own, a Czech resistance operative named Karel Curda, betrays them for the sum of one million Reichsmarks.

Curda leads the Nazis to the home of the people Gabcik and Kubis stayed with during the planning of the attack. The mother of the family kills herself with a cyanide capsule before the Nazis can take her, but the rest of the family is not so lucky. There’s a horrific interrogation scene where the Nazis learn of the assassins’ location in a church from the teenage son of the family. I won’t describe the interrogation scene, but it’s appalling, and once again, from what I’ve read the depiction of the Gestapo’s interrogation methods is accurate, which is all the more horrifying if you see the film.

This leads to the final confrontation, which is one of the most epic and harrowing last stands in cinematic history. When the Nazis arrive at the church, three of the Czech resistance fighters are standing guard (one of which was Kubis) with the remaining four taking refuge in the crypt below the church. When the three start shooting, the four hiding in the crypt want to help but know that they can’t reveal themselves to the Nazis. The church shootout is intense and unrelenting, as the three Czechs desperately attempt to hold off wave after wave of well-armed and relentless German soldiers. Inevitably, all three are killed. The last to go is Kubis, who loads his last bullet into his gun at points it at his own head.

Just as he is about to pull the trigger, the film cuts to Gabcik’s horrified face in the crypt below as he hears the shot, and the expression on his face tells the whole story. It’s a quietly devastating moment, and is exemplary of the way Ellis directs the film. It’s not showy, it’s not stylized, it’s not drawn-out. It happens and it’s devastating and then it’s over and the survivors have to carry on. The Nazis soon realize where the remaining conspirators are hiding, and attempt to flush them out by flooding the crypt. Cornered, with the chamber flooding and the Nazis closing in, the surviving conspirators take their own lives.

Concluding text informs the viewer that Hitler’s reprisals were swift and terrible. Tens of thousands of Czechs were arrested, many of whom were later executed or died in concentration camps. The Czech villages of Lidice and Lezaky were burned to the ground and all their inhabitants either executed or imprisoned. It’s estimated that 5,000 innocent Czechs were killed as a direct result of Heydrich’s assassination. While the film mercifully doesn’t depict these events, it doesn’t ignore them either. Heydrich was the highest-ranking Nazi to be successfully assassinated during the Second World War, but it came at a terrible cost.

Image: Universal

The movie is a poignant examination of morality and justice, and doesn’t shy away from depicting the violence of war. Anthropoid is not a combat movie like Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, it’s closer to Schindler’s List or The Pianist. It’s hard to watch at times but is well worth the effort, even if you never want to see it again after the first viewing. It’s not as graphic as Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge, but is no less emotionally draining. It’s vividly realistic and fantastically-directed, with excellent performances across the board. It’s a movie that is challenging but very rewarding, and will stay with you for a long time.

Coming up next week is a long-awaited sequel to a bona fide sci-fi classic. It’s Blade Runner 2049.