Movie Review: Murder On The Orient Express

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Wonderfully acted. Brilliant introduction. Cute rest of the movie.

What happens when you take a diverse cast of actors, give them all distinct and colorful characters to play, put them all on a train together, kill one of them off, and just happen to have one of the most beloved literary detectives on board to solve said murder? Not much, unfortunately. What you do get is a fun little movie with some gorgeous set design and costuming, but one that leaves you feeling a little empty inside when it’s over.

Most of the fun in the movie comes from the first act and it is just a delight! For one, you are introduced to Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh). If you have not read a Agatha Christie Poirot novel, you should. In fact, you should probably read “Murder on the Orient Express” and then just watch the first half of this movie. Hercule Poirot is a character in every meaning of the word. Even when you get past the ridiculous mustache, you also have a ridiculous personality couched in extreme self-awareness. The introductory quick-solve case lets you know everything you need to know about the man, even if it does come very close to the cheesy line to do so.

After the Poirot introduction, we are then introduced to the parade of suspects through a series of meetings both incidental and intentional resulting in everyone eventually aboard the Orient Express itself. It is a lot of fun watching Poirot interact with this motley cast of characters on the train. Up to this point, it felt like I was in for a wonderful ride of mystery and suspense. Unfortunately, then the train and the story lost its head of steam. There are just too many people with too many moving parts to effectively capture this detective tale in under two hours. What you end up with is a few pieces of the puzzle exposed while others are kept maddeningly hidden from view. Already having read the book, albeit a long time ago, I already knew the ending so I was focused on the pieces and how they fit together and there is enough there to make out the edges of the picture, but not the middle.

“Murder on the Orient Express” is still an enjoyable movie and worth your time, but it would be nice if stories like this were given the format they deserve. I am unsure what that format would be for a Agatha Christie novel. They’re not exactly serial in nature, but nor are they a good fit for the two hour movie format. Maybe what’s best for Christie is a streaming service where three hour movies would be more welcome. The movie format choice has been made and “Murder on the Orient Express” sets up the next movie, “Death on the Nile”. It has been reported that Branagh plans on doing all the Agatha Christie novels and with “Murder on the Orient Express” being a pretty decent box office success, looks like we’ll at least see him continue his quest for one more movie.

Book Review: Day by Elie Wiesel

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

I realized something very early on into reading “Day”. Elie Wiesel has a very bad relationship with women. Neither “Night”, nor “Dawn” has a viable female character in it so this unhealthy relationship stays hidden, thought there are hints of it in “Dawn”. With “Day”, it is out in full force and really detracts from the novel. Here, women come in two different camps. There are the mothers and there are the objects. The early concerning scene was when Elezer (who is Wiesel’s id) and his girlfriend, Kathleen, are walking down the street when Kathleen gets catcalled by some construction workers. She expresses anger at this and Elezer completely blows it off. He does so very poetically and beautifully, but still blows it off. This is the best that Kathleen or any other non-motherly woman is treated throughout the novel. What’s left is women being tolerated, pitied, scorned, or objectified.

Horrible depictions of women aside, “Day” is also incredibly depressing, but in a way that it absolutely should be. Elezer is a Holocaust survivor who gets hit by a cab in New York City and ends up in the hospital for weeks as a result. Bedridden, his mind wanders from past to past questioning his life. Always in the past. There is nothing for him in the present or the future. Survivor’s guilt is a thing. “Day” explores it in depth. It sucks. Elezer’s mental scars run deeper and stronger than any scars he might gain from his car accident. Wiesel is very good at evoking the sadness and pain that accompany those scars. Unlike the other two novels, there is absolutely no hope to cling to here. Everything is horrible and will continue to be and all you can do is deal with it. That’s the lesson here.

If you can get past the whole treating women like crap thing, this may be a book you should read if you’re not affected by such a doldrummy book. That sort of sadness would not normally bother me in a book, but I can’t forgive a novel that treats its women the way this one does. It is a shame Wiesel included this book as the third of the “Night” trilogy because he was really on to something with the other two novels. The other two were by no means happy or terribly hopeful, but at the same time there was hope. A realistic hope. Or perhaps they were just dreams and “Day” is all those dreams coming crashing down to the earth.

Movie Review: Coco

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Stab Olaf repeatedly with his stupid carrot nose. Takes a while to get going, but turns into a fun, colorful, family themed movie.

Ok, Disney, we really need to talk. The beginning of a Pixar movie is usually set aside for a short, independent animated special. That was thrown out the window here. Instead, what do we get? I’m not even sure. What the eff was “Olaf’s Frozen Adventure”? I mean seriously, holy crap. Disney has a pretty good reputation of buying studios and letting them do mostly their own thing and they have done so with Pixar. Until this flaming sleigh ride of blatant commercialism gone horribly wrong. I don’t think it was nearly as bad as everyone is screaming, but it is just so out of place and so saccharine and so in your face that it riles up so much hatred. Luckily, Disney has listened to the venom spewing pubic and has promised to remove “Olaf’s Horrible, Horrible Mistake” from the beginning of “Coco”.

And on to “Coco”! Perhaps this movie deserves four stars, but it is part of a package and the package must be taken together. “Coco” itself is a delightful film even if I strongly disagree with the main theme of the movie. More on that later. It is colorful and vibrant and brings the Mexican heritage surrounding Dios de los Muertos to life beautifully. It does take a bit of time to get going, but once it does, it is an enjoyable ride filled with music and skeletons and spirit animals. The movie’s only other real flaw is how long the final bad guy battle goes. Other than that, lots of fun.

I would make a horrible Mexican. The main theme of “Coco” is family and how all important they are and how they come to visit you on Dios de los Muertos as long as you remember them and put up a picture of them on your shrine and this is pretty ingrained in Mexican culture from what I can tell. Ugh. I can give the whole afterlife concept a pass because it’s really cool and the idea of you being alive in spirit as long as people have you in their minds and hearts is very touching. The whole emphasis on family, though, I could do without. Some families are great. Most of mine included in that. Some, though, are not. Where is the theme in this movie for the people that belong in the latter group, of which there are many? According to “Coco”, they’re out of luck. How difficult would it have been to add in a much more inclusive version of family. Family is not who you’re born to or where your family tree branches. Family is who you choose to spend your time with. The ones who make your life special. The ones whose lives you make special. My family expanded beyond blood relations long ago. It’s time that movies like “Coco” do the same.

Now that the short that shall not be named is no longer opening for “Coco”, I highly recommend going to see this movie with your family, no matter who they may be. Maybe even go to a Mexican restaurant together afterwards and celebrate this family that you’ve created for yourself with a margarita or two. Family is what you make it. Keep them close. Hold them tight. Celebrate being in each other’s lives.

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

Bottom Line: Doesn’t take itself seriously. More of a series of buddy comedies than a movie. Lots of fun.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is best thought of as a series of buddy comedies in which Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and an ever-changing buddy find themselves in and get themselves out of amusing situations through hijinks and shenanigans. Or maybe it’s actually a Dungeons and Dragons game with a series of quests eventually leading to the boss fight at the end? Hmmm… Either way, it’s a lot of fun!

This is a wonderfully entertaining movie filled with tons of characters across vast expanses of the multiverse. It can be a lot to take in, but it is grounded by some pretty fantastic comedic acting pretty much across the board, anchored solidly by Chris Hemsworth. Jeff Goldblum ties much of the story together playing Jeff Goldblum, er, Grandmaster. Even the director, Taika Waititi (yes, that’s really his name!), gets into the mix as computer generated bit character Korg.

As has become rote with Marvel movies, the main villain is played by an awesome actor who is completely underutilized and mostly one-dimensional. In this case, it’s Cate Blanchett as Hela. In the Marvel retelling, Hela is the sister of Thor, while in Norse mythology, she’s actually Hel and the daughter of Loki. Why they decided to change this bit of mythology is beyond me. The stuff they could have done with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Hela could have been epic. But nope, once again, they just wanted a disposable villain. Can’t blame them, as the formula has been proven to work, but man do I long for another Loki.

Every Thor movie that has come out has been better than the last. With “Thor: Ragnarok” being the third Thor movie, I think I can safely say that it is now the best standalone hero franchise in the Marvel universe, surpassing Ironman which started strong but has been weak. A lot of people dissed the first Thor movie, but I enjoyed its campiness which was very new at the time for a Marvel movie. It would be interesting to re-watch it and see if that holds up.

Movie Review: Justice League

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: Didn’t suck! A mess of a movie, but fun. DC will live or die with the Wonder Woman franchise.

I had pretty low expectations going into “Justice League” because DC is really not good at making movies about their franchises. The previews for the movie didn’t help anything. Luckily, they actually did a pretty good job of introducing the myriad heroes and making them interesting. Well, mostly. Here is the definitive list of how interesting the “Justice League” heroes are:

  1. Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot)- Everything in the movie about Wonder Woman and the mythos surrounding her was awesome and DC is going to depend on her success for a long time, methinks. DC knows this which is why the Gal Gadot vs.serial harasser Brett Ratner contest resulted in him being removed from being involved with the sequel. A small victory.
  2. Cyborg (Ray Fisher)- There is some good potential here. His back story is interesting if not wholly fleshed out in the movie. I worry, though, that they’re going to stick with his “Justice League” intro as his complete backstory, which is a shame. I love the human side vs cyborg side of his character.
  3. The Flash (Ezra Miller)- Great comic relief. I’m not sure if there is a potential for a stand-alone movie or not with him, but he brings great energy to every scene he’s in. A Flash comedy along the lines of the recent Thor movie might work.
  4. Batman (Ben Affleck) – I am not a fan of Ben Affleck as Batman. He mostly comes off as an aloof jerk. Perhaps Batman is just too complicated of a character to fit in with the whole ensemble cast idea. This is a shame because Batman is without a doubt the most interesting character. This is especially true because he is also the only destructible character in the DC universe even if they liberally eschew what would actually kill him.
  5. Superman (Henry Cavill) – Superman is just not a compelling character despite Cavill having the perfect Superman look. Every problem can be solved by just calling in Superman. Boring.
  6. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) – Jason Momoa is lucky he’s hot because Auqaman has nothing going for him. The whole sarcastic Aquaman was a nice touch, but there’s really nothing there except super-hot Aquaman.

“Justice League” went for a lighter version of pretty much all the characters and their charisma together really showed. This charisma makes up for a messy plot that basically boils down to “send in Superman”. Sure, they did some “lets do this together” kumbaya crap, because that stuff is cool, but it still boils down to Superman at its core. It is definitely a fun movie, though, and if you are at all interested in the DC franchises, this is one of the better showings. That’s not saying much, but I would say that DC might be starting to learn from their mistakes with this movie and maybe there’s better things to come.

Book Review: Dawn by Elie Wiesel

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

The most shocking thing I discovered upon reading “Dawn” is how little I know about the history of the creation of the state of Israel. In my mind the narrative went kind of as follows: The world, feeling absolutely horrible about the mass extermination of Jews and their complicity of silence in not doing anything about it decided to partition Palestine into two countries so the Jews would have their own homeland. It didn’t happen like that. Like at all. Boy did our world history classes suck back then. And now. But we’re Americans, we like our history sanitized.

“Dawn” is not autobiographical like “Night” was, but it is still a very obviously personal novel as Elie Wiesel tries to put to paper his struggles both with his post-Buchenwald life and all the psychological horrors that go with it and with what the Jewish people had to become in order to make their state of Israel a reality. It follows a boy named Elisha whose background is much like Wiesel’s. Elisha is lost both physically and spiritually in Paris after being freed from the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. While in this lost state, he is visited by a man named Gad who works for what can only be described as a terrorist movement in Palestine that is trying to wrest the land away from British control and establish a Jewish state. Gad manipulates Elisha’s religiosity by behaving like the rabbinical messenger of fate, Meshulah. Elisha accepts and joins the Movement. I am not sure if Wiesel meant Elisha’s acceptance to be one of manipulation, but that is how I took it. Elisha is eventually tasked with the murder of a British officer named John Dawson whom they have captured in retaliation for the British capture of a fellow Movement member named David B Moshe. Moshe is scheduled to be hanged at dawn for his crimes. If the hanging goes on, John Dawson’s death will soon follow at the hands of Elisha. The book explores Elisha’s coming to terms with this very personal killing.

This is another very powerful novel by Wiesel. His use of the dead coming to visit Elisha is very effective, especially Elisha’s childhood self who “died” prior to being sent to the concentration camps. His dead mother’s (as well as other’s) use of the phrase “Poor boy!” to describe Elisha and the predicament he finds himself is haunting. “This is war”, is the refrain of his compatriots who do not envy Elisha’s task. Yes, it is war. But does it have to be? Is there another way? The novel asks those questions, but has no answers for us. How could it? Jews had a different answer for a very long time and look where it got them. It’s time to try something different. But at what cost? This fight for independence was the beginning of something or possibly the end of something. But what? I’m not sure Wiesel knows the answer, but he is very effective in asking the question.

I would not say that “Dawn” is quite as effective of a story as “Night” is, which again should be read by everyone, but it is a wonderful “coming to grasps with horror” novel. If such could ever be described as wonderful. It is certainly a novel that makes you think. About war. About life. About death.  And novels like that don’t come around very often.

Book Review: Night by Elie Wiesel

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 5/5 stars

“Night” is one of those books that is very difficult to read because of the subject matter but is a must read exactly because of that subject matter. It is the biographical story of teenage Elie Wiesel’s time in World War Two and traces his time from the beginnings of World War Two in Sighet, Hungary, to the rounding up of the Jews in his town in 1944, to his travails in the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald, to his emancipation at the end of World War Two. It is important to be reminded again and again that this stuff happened. It is so far outside our experience that it’s very difficult to believe that it did happen. That it does happen in places we don’t care about. That it can happen. Even here. Even now.

I have, for a long time, been uncomfortable with the concept of good and evil and the battle of good versus evil with which a majority of humanity seems to view the world. Reading “Night” greatly reinforced that discomfort. I choose to view the world as comprised of those who have retained their humanity and those who have lost it or have had it taken away from them. Our humanity is a fragile and precious thing that can be snuffed out as easily as blowing out birthday candles. Luckily, we share a common interest in our own humanity and the humanity of those close to us. Sadly, we choose to retain the humanity of our own cohort at the expense of the humanity of another cohort. I use the word “cohort” on purpose because the big trouble comes when we become militaristic against another group of people. This is what happened to the Jews in World War Two. The Nazi cohort went against the Jewish cohort and systematically and effectively removed the Jewish humanity while maintaining a perverse Nazi humanity as justification. The Nazis definitely took it to the extreme, but war requires both a loss of one’s own humanity with regards to the “enemy” and a reinforcement of one’s own belonging. This is the central terror of Nationalism. And once the Jewish humanity was removed well past the stereotypical nonsense that still pervades society today, it became trivial to snuff their souls. Because they don’t have them. Look at them fighting for scraps. They kill each other for a piece of bread. I can beat this one’s father right in front of him and he will do nothing. Surely they wouldn’t participate in the killing of their own people if they were human. It is a mercy to kill them. They are suffering. You don’t feel bad for putting down a horse who is lame. Is the Jew who killed another Jew for his shoes evil? Is the father who shared his bread with his starving son good? No, one had his humanity stripped from him and the other was able to maintain it for at least a portion of the time.

Reading “Night” should be thought of as taking a journey of the soul. There are times when I was close to tears and I still well up in the eyes thinking about those times. There are times of such stark beauty that it is almost preposterous to believe that such things can exist in dark times and I still smile when I think of them. Well, smile and well up with tears. It’s an emotionally complicated book. My journey is continuing with Elie Wiesel’s other two books in the trilogy, “Dawn”, and “Day”. Do yourself a favor and read “Night”. If you’ve already read it, read it again.

Book Review: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 stars

“The Alchemist” has the power of vocabulary that will stay with you for the rest of your life. I will from this day forth forever be living my Personal Legend. Perceived truths of goodness and love will always come from the Soul of the World. Being able to communicate with individuals or animals or nature without the use of spoken word will always be speaking with the Language of the World. So poetic! It is a very influential book, indeed, that can impart such things unto its reader and any book that can do so deserves to be read by everyone.

The story revolves around a young shepherd boy named Santiago, but throughout just called the boy, who has a recurring dream. This dream informs him that he should go to the Pyramids in Egypt to find a great treasure. While extremely content with his shepherd life, the boy is disturbed by the dream enough that he follows it and meets a series of figures along the way who encourage him to do so. Thus begins the boy’s Personal Legend.

The ideas in this book are romantic and seductive. How could it not be when it’s called following your Personal Legend? The boy travels from place to place, sometimes finding things easy, sometimes finding thing difficult and meets all of these interesting people, some following their Personal Legend, some not. It’s basically my dream life. Where the book shines, though, is in its ideas about love. There aren’t any mind-blowing pronouncements or earth-shattering revelations about love, just more of a matter-of-factly but beautifully stated and mentally appealing realities about love. I didn’t come out of the book thinking “Wow, now that’s love!”, but more of “Oh, of course that’s love! Why would it be any other way?”. I found it immensely satisfying.

The ending, I will admit, is a bit trite for my tastes. Not nearly as trite as I was fearing, fortunately, but there are a variety of other endings that I would have been quite happy with. It should also be said that the ability to follow your Personal Legend comes from a place of extreme privilege. One of the themes of the book is that the whole universe conspires to help you on your Personal Legend if you are willing to follow it. It is true that the boy suffers hardships, but his starting point was as a pretty successful shepherd. There is not any acknowledgement of this in the book. Those who are not following their Personal Legend are portrayed as scared or lazy, not necessarily in a bad way, mind you, just kind of now worthy. It’s not quite a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” message, but it teeters dangerously close to it.

“The Alchemist” is a book very much worth reading. It is beautiful and won’t take much of your time to boot. It is eminently quotable and poetically delicious. I shall leave you with a quote from the book that I think sums up the wonderful qualities of “The Alchemist” nicely: “Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.”

Movie Review: Suburbicon

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom Line: A slow crawl through the incongruities of suburban life that ramps up quickly at the end and has a somewhat satisfying ending.

“Surburbicon” has a lot going for it. It was written by the Coen brothers, directed by George Clooney, and stars Matt Damon and Julianne Moore. Wait, no, that’s all it has going for it. It all should count for something, but it doesn’t. What you get instead is a ploddingly paced crawl through the banalities of evil set in a suburban environment.

Coen brothers films are like a frame of bowling with manual pin setters. They spend an inordinate amount of time painstakingly setting up the pins and then knock them all down with a bowling ball in a matter of seconds. “Suburbicon” follows this analogy. But whereas most of the enjoyment of their films is the setting up of the pins, here the pins seem to be set up haphazardly and in such a way that it takes a few extra throws of the ball to knock them all down. Don’t you worry, the pins do, indeed come down, and somewhat satisfyingly, but there’s still a messiness to it that leaves a bit of a feeling of being let down.

It’s best to view the film as told exclusively through the eyes of a child. In this case, Nicky (Noah Jupe), the son of Gardener (Matt Damon). It would make the simplistic, almost childlike, dialogue and the incongruous scenes make a lot more sense. Even though Nicky is not in a lot of the scenes, the movie is mostly about how the innocent have to survive the evils that surround them and how they eventually become immune or desensitized to them.

There are a few excellent scenes worth mentioning. The first is the initial interaction of Bud Cooper (Oscar Issac), a suspicious insurance investigator who interviews Margaret (Julianne Moore) about the insurance claim that Gardener has filed. Bud Cooper is the quintessential Coen brothers character, wily, suspicious, gregarious, dangerous, and Oscar Issac serves him up perfectly. The other is the scene where Uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) saves Nicky and puts him in the closet. It is a harrowing and tense scene, but also touching. Uncle Mitch can best be described as a well meaning but crass person and his well meaningness comes out in this scene.

The Coen brothers are excellent writers and a miss here and there is to be expected. “Suburbicon” is a solid miss. This isn’t a completely unenjoyable movie, but neither is there much enjoyment. I highly recommend you go watch just about any of their other movies instead of watching this one. Except “The Big Lebowski”, though I recognize that I am about the only person on the face of this earth that didn’t like that movie.

Movie Review: American Made

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 3/5 stars

Bottom Line: A decent enough movie, but an incredibly crazy story! The things our government does…

“American Made” is one of those movies where it’s very difficult to tell fact from fiction. It purports to be based on the life of Barry Seal, a former commercial pilot who gets caught by the CIA smuggling Cuban cigars and ends up working for the CIA to avoid jail. This work includes running drugs, guns, money, and information back and forth between the U.S. and various Central and South American countries. Some of these details are almost assuredly untrue, but the movie contains so much truthiness that it’s all pretty easy to believe. For instance, the fact that Seal was first arrested for trying to smuggle explosives while working for TWA, not cigars, is completely absent from the movie. In the same vein, like anything to do with the CIA, it is almost impossible to tell what, if any, involvement Seal had with this clandestine organization.

Regardless of the inability to tell fact from fiction, the life of Barry Seal was absolutely insane and it makes really good fodder for a movie. The movie itself suffers from pacing problems and at almost two hours, could certainly do with some trimming. This is covered well by all of the absolutely incredulous stuff that happens throughout. Did the CIA really buy hundreds of acres of land for Seal to operate off of?  Did Seal really smuggle Contras into Mena, Arkansas for the CIA to train? Did Seal really meet George W. Bush in the White House and talk about their shared piloting experience? Who cares! Just believe it while you’re watching the movie and figure out the facts, as far as they’ll get you, and have a good time.

“American Made” is by no means in the neighborhood of required watching. It’s enjoyable enough for a rainy day, though. Those of you who live and breath government conspiracy theories will likely get a lot of enjoyment. Like I said, the truthiness is strong with this one and it’s really easy to get sucked into it.