Murder on the Orient Express

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and thematic elements
Profanity: Some mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Plot concerns a murder, references to kidnapping and murder of a child, suicide, miscarriage, gun, knife, scuffle
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters, racism is raised as an issue
Date Released to Theaters: November 10, 2017
Copyright 20th Century Fox 2017

One of Agatha Christie’s most beloved mysteries has returned to the screen with another all-star remake of “Murder on the Orient Express,” this time starring Sir Kenneth Branagh, who also directed, as the brilliant Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. It does not have the lush glamour of the 1974 original, directed by Sidney Lumet, and the tone is uneven, but the tricky puzzle is still fun to try to solve, for those who have not read the book or seen the earlier film, and the international cast makes it entertaining.

We first see Poirot in Jerusalem by the Wailing Wall, one of the most sacred locations in the world. It is before WWII and Israel is not yet a state. A priceless relic has been stolen and the suspects, as Poirot notes, are right out of the set-up for a joke: a rabbi, an imam, and a priest. Poirot neatly solves the crime and even more neatly blocks the culprit’s attempt to flee. He explains that he is what decades later would be called obsessive-compulsive, so aware of patterns that he becomes deeply distressed when they are not symmetrical. He even refuses to eat two boiled eggs because they don’t match. But what causes him enormous anxiety in life turns out to be ideal for solving crime. “The imperfections stand out,” he explains. “It makes most of life unbearable but it is useful in the detection of crime.”

When he says he is going to take a nice long train ride and relax with a book by Dickens, we know he will soon be solving another mystery.  As his friend, a handsome but louche train company official, says, a train combines three things: boredom, anonymity, and a gentle rocking motion, and that can lead to all kinds of fascinating possibilities.

Of course, in order to have a mystery, we have to have suspects and clues, so much of the film is taken up with introducing us to the cast of characters, a very international group, as one might expect on a train from Istanbul to Paris. It includes a friendly governess (“Star Wars'” Daisy Ridley as Mary Debenham), a British doctor of African heritage (“Hamilton’s” Leslie Odom Jr. as Dr. Arbuthnot), a professor (Willem Dafoe), an elderly countess (Dame Judi Dench), an Italian-American car dealer (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a shy missionary (Penelope Cruz).

Some additions to the storyline are more distracting than illuminating. More seriously, they take away from our chance to get to know the very large cast of characters and that takes away from the sense of mystery and the stakes of the outcome.  Shifts in tone give the film a disquieting inconsistency and flashy camera moves, like an extended shot looking down at the characters’ heads, serve no purpose except to make us wonder what they are supposed to be doing.  Poirot is famously proud of his mustache, and so any depiction of the character must have some impressive facial hair.  Branagh’s is close to farcical, making us wonder whether it merited or required its own trailer on set. One thing we know about Christie and her famous creations — they always knew exactly where they wanted us to be. This movie does not.

Parents should know that this film contains peril and violence including murder, references to kidnapping and murder of a child, suicide, miscarriage, gun, knife, scuffle, drinking, smoking, drugs, sexual references including prostitute, some racist comments, and some mild language.

Family discussion: Did Poirot make the right choice? What were the most important clues? What can you learn from him about observing significant details?

If you like this try: the original version with Albert Finney and other movies based on Agatha Christie stories like “Death on the Nile”

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Trailer: The American Side

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Following a mysterious suicide at Niagara Falls, a low-rent detective unravels a conspiracy to build a revolutionary invention by the (real-life) enigmatic scientist, Nikola Tesla. This noir with a dark comic twist stars Matthew Broderick and Camilla Belle.

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Mystery Trailers, Previews, and Clips

Inherent Vice

B

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Lowest Recommended Age: Adult
MPAA Rating: Rated R for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence
Profanity: Very strong, explicit, and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Extensive substance abuse including drinking, smoking, and drugs, drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: January 9, 2015
Copyright IAC films 2014
Copyright IAC films 2014

We love mystery stories because they reassure us that questions have answers and justice is possible. But some mystery stories are there to remind us that life is complicated and messy, and sometimes answers are just more questions. This is one of those stories.

Inherent Vice is a novel by the famously private author Thomas Pynchon, whose books are dense, complex, and thus rich fodder for grad students and intelligentsia. Writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “Magnolia,” “There Will Be Blood,” “The Master”) is also known for dense, complex stories, and he likes to focus on decay, corruption, and bruised innocence. They are well matched in this weed noir story, sort of Dashiell Hammett crossed with Hunter Thompson.

The original set-up is right out of a classic detective story. A beautiful woman named Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) visits her ex-boyfriend, Doc (Joaquin Phoenix), some kind of hippie detective, to ask for his help. The narrator (singer Joanna Newsom), in a hypnotic, vocal fry deadpan, lets us know right away that Doc would be better off telling her to leave. But he cannot say no to Shasta or to a mystery, so he is on the case.

Shasta’s new boyfriend is a wealthy (and married) developer named Mickey Wolfman (Eric Roberts). Shasta believes that Wolfman’s wife and her boyfriend are trying to have him committed so they can get his money.  As Doc begins to look into this, he encounters many odd characters, most with their own unsolved mysteries, some of which begin to intersect with the Wolfman story or with each other or both.  And it all comes together, or doesn’t, in a haze of, yes, decay, corruption, and bruised innocence that is about the failure of the American Dream or existential chaos or the fragility of our concept of reality, or maybe just that the journey and those who accompany us along the way are more important than the destination.  Also, something about the optimism and passion for changing society of the 60’s giving way to the me-decade and passion for individual self-exploration of the 70’s.

Doc encounters a number of extremely colorful characters as he explores a series of mysteries that appear to be linked, or perhaps all part of one big mystery involving a secret and very powerful malevolent force.  The only one who seems to know what’s going on is the almost-never-seen narrator, and it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to root for the characters or laugh at them.  But as always, Anderson’s impeccable casting and music choices are captivating, and there is an amusing contrast between his attention to every detail of camera placement, editing, production design, and dialog and the convoluted storyline and druggy fog surrounding the characters.  I’m not sure what it was that I watched, but I have to admit I enjoyed watching it.

Parents should know that this film has just about everything we consider “adult content,” including constant very strong, explicit, and crude language, nudity and very explicit sexual references and situations including prostitution and adultery, drinking, drugs of all kinds and drug dealing, and violence including guns.

Family discussion: Why did Doc help Shasta? Why did he help Coy? Why is Doc a detective?

If you like this, try: “Boogie Nights” and “There Will Be Blood” by the same director and the book by Thomas Pynchon

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Based on a book Crime Drama Movies Mystery

Veronica Mars

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MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexuality including references, drug content, violence and some strong language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, references to teen drinking and drug use and drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Murders and attempted murders, guns, car crash, peril and scary surprises
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: March 14, 2014
Date Released to DVD: May 5, 2014
Amazon.com ASIN: B00HEQOAQ8

NOTE: I can’t pretend any objectivity here — I am a fan of the television series, a Kickstarter supporter of the film, and a friend of one of the producers.  I think I would have been capable of writing a bad review if the film was a disappointment, but thankfully it was even better than I hoped.  With that caveat, on to the review:

“Veronica Mars” manages the near-impossible in exceeding the hopes of three different audiences: passionate fans of the three-year television series about a teen-aged detective who wanted more of the same, passionate fans of the television series who wanted to see what happened when the characters grew up, and the much bigger group — people who had never seen the series and did not even remember that there was one.Veronica_Mars_Film_Poster

Writer/director Rob Thomas created the Veronica Mars television series, starring Kristen Bell (“Frozen”) as a teenager whose father was the sheriff of Neptune, California, until he was pushed out of office by a corrupt alliance between government and the local business.  He became a private investigator, and Veronica began investigating, too, from the murder of her best friend and a school bus crash to hectoring and blackmail via social media.  Like its better-known contemporary “Buffy,” the lead character was a smart, tough, capable teenaged girl coping with the intensity of adolescent traumas externalized as major, life-threatening events, all approached with equal resolve, equanimity, steadfast friends, a love triangle, and quippy dialogue.  And it has a surprisingly sharp and astute portrayal of social and economic divisions.  A large part of the appeal of the series was in watching Bell deliver a continuous stream of mots juste, with a “Gilmore Girls” depth of immersion in pop culture and understated wit.  Fans included Stephen King, who described the series as, “Nancy Drew meets Philip Marlowe, and the result is pure nitro. Why is Veronica Mars so good? It bears little resemblance to life as I know it, but I can’t take my eyes off the damn thing.” A Kickstarter campaign for this film intended to raise $2 million raised $5 million and the results are likely to resonate throughout Hollywood, creating a powerful alternative to the current system for greenlighting film projects.

A two-minute recap brings us up to date.  Veronica now lives in New York, a recent law school graduate, living happily with Piz (Chris Lowell), one of her love interests back on the show, who has moved on from a high school radio job to working at NPR (“This American Life’s” Ira Glass shows up for one of several star cameos).  She is interviewing at prestigious New York law firms and happy to be creating a new life for herself.  And then she is called back to Neptune.  Her other former love interest, Logan (Jason Dohring) is suspected of murdering his girlfriend, their high school classmate, who had become a pop star.  She promises Piz she will just go back long enough to get Logan a lawyer, but keeps extending her stay as she gets caught up, first in finding that “plausible alternative” to present to the jury, and then in finding out who really did it.

The mystery is absorbing, but it is the depth of characters and richness of the relationships that makes this movie so effective.  Bell knows this character so well and inhabits her so fully that it lends depth to the bigger mystery — who will Veronica decide to be?  Series co-stars like Enrico Colantoni as Veronica’s father, Tina Majorino  and Francis Capra as old friends, and Ryan Hansen and Ken Marino as old frenemies are stand-outs, there are quick cameos from Bell’s real-life husband Dax Shepard and Justin Long, and James Franco contributes a very funny meta-moment as himself (stay past the credits for more).  But the star here is Thomas, who has a sure hand in blending the drama, mystery, romance, and wit.  Fifteen minutes in, I was a marshmallow.

Parents should know that this film includes brutal murders and attempted murders, guns, drowning, car crashes, some scary surprises and disturbing images, references to teen partying including drugs, sexual references and situation, and some strong and crude language.

Family discussion: Which character changed the most in ten years?  What television series would you like to see brought back via Kickstarter?

If you like this, try: the “Veronica Mars” television series and the classic “Thin Man” movies

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Based on a television show Crime Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Pick of the Week Mystery Romance Series/Sequel

Two Film Noir Classics Now Free Streaming

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“Film Noir” (“black films”) usually refers to the stylized dark crime films of the 1940’s, usually made by German directors who came to the United States to escape the Nazis.  Their cynicism, sense of dread and loss, and themes of betrayal, obsession, and sin gave their stories of crime and mystery an archetypal feeling.  Two of the best can now be seen for free.

A neglected gem from Orson Welles, “The Stranger” is the story of an investigator (Edward G. Robinson) who is tracking down a Nazi war criminal (Welles), now living a quiet life as a professor and married to a woman (Loretta Young) who knows nothing of his past.  The climax in a church belfry tower is brilliantly staged.

Edward G. Robinson also appears in the less characteristic role of a mild-mannered professor who gets caught up in a web of deception and betrayal in “The Woman in the Window.”  The ending is a disappointment, but the direction by Fritz Lang is a masterpiece of noir mood.

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