13 December 2017

Murder on the Orient Express


A competently directed and beautifully shot film by Kenneth Branagh that did not veer too much from Agatha Christie's source material. A refreshing take of a classic story that engages but never really hooked the audience. And if not for the strong ensemble of veteran thespians holding this film up, it would surely have not been as entertaining especially since the younger actors were general disappointments (with the exception of breakout actor Tom Bateman) as their obvious inexperience were starkly apparent when compared directly opposite the likes of Branagh, Dame Judi Dench, Olivia Coleman, Derek Jacobi, William Dafoe and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Branagh and writer Michael Green managed to inject some originality and freshness to this (mostly) familiar story but despite Branagh's eye for staging, blocking and mood, he never really managed to capture that elusive hook that made this improbable Christie's story so gripping in text. There was a lack of climatic excitement and the urgency of solving a murder which made the book such a page-turner.

Similarly, compared to superior 1974 version - which had an all round star-studded and competent actors - this version lacked the suspense and a genuine sense of whodunnit even despite knowing the source material.

Branagh managed to ensemble a great cast of named-stars both veterans and up-and-comers. However, as aforementioned, the younger cast members could not hold their own against these established, and academy award winners and nominees. Every actor has a scene whereby they are the focus and it was so stark the difference between how veterans like Dench, Dafoe, Coleman, Jacobi commanded the screen compared to the blatant acting of young ones like Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr, Lucy Boynton and Manuel Garcia-Rulfo. If only Branagh - and his odd accent - could have cast or directed these younglings better.

Kudos to cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and composer Patrick Doyle for providing excellent craft support that bolstered the film.

Now, as we wait for the sequel Death on the Nile, hopefully if Branagh returns to direct, he will have improved on the short-comings of this production.

9 December 2017

Coco


An absolute crowd-pleaser  for the whole family. Pixar has done it again with a four-quadrant winner that resonated across generations and culture. It may not be as (pseudo)-intellectual as Inside Out but it definitely pack a great emotional punch especially in its third act, with a strong story line on the evergreen theme of family vs self and obligation vs passions that never turned schmaltzy. Great voice work all around in particular Anthony Gonzalez and Gael Garcia Bernal, with great music and score from Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, the duo that gave us the hits from Frozen, and Michael Giacchino who is back - at last - with a mariachi-tinged score that delivered on the emotional journey.

Directed by Lee Unkrich, who also gave us the last real Pixar tearjerker, Toy Story 3Coco continued Pixar's animation technological supremacy. The film was gorgeous to behold and tiny nuances like the translucency of the skin, the glow of candle light and the luminosity of the alebrijes, especially Pepita's - oh Pepita! - are mesmerising. The animation is fluid and never distracting.

The main story itself was simple, and Unkrich told it efficiently but yet without ever holding back anything. At a brisk 109 minutes, the only letdown was the slightly draggy second act as well as the predictability (for an adult perhaps?) of the finale. However, the emotional sincerity of our lead character Miguel held steady throughout and helped to sell the story, predictability and all which led to very, very strong third act and finale that will surely tug at the heartstrings of even the meanest scrooge. And for most, tears will be inevitable. But the tears were well-earned.

Coco proved that Pixar (and to a smaller extent, Disney) can still create wondrous, original content instead of just money-making, merchandising-selling sequels. In addition, well-thought out characters that have rich, emotional depth will always connect with the audience.

Key to the success also laid in the music and the Lopez have definitely nailed it with the potential Best Song nominee Remember Me. Giacchino has also found his groove back with a great score, echoing the success he had back in his last collaboration with Pixar for Inside Out. Hope he can continue this collaborative streak in The Incredible 2.

Coco is definitely the animation to beat this year for the Best Animation Oscar. And I daresay it should even have a shot, albeit a very long one, in this year's wide-open Best Picture race if for nothing else but its optimistic outlook and attitude on love and acceptance - elements sorely lacking in the world these days.

Stephen King's Doctor Sleep

This was unexpectedly good. It was not Oscar-winning good, but it was a thoroughly entertaining horror-thriller. Kudos to writer/director...