“Murder on the Orient Express” remake: Why are all these specific diverse characters on the same train?

A couple Sundays after president Clinton took office in 1993 (as the debate over gays in the military heated up) I drove 30 miles East to Annapolis to attend a regular church service at the Naval Academy. The pastor was a female (who at the time was by definition supposed to be straight) and her sermon had an interesting title: “Come and see.  Why are you here?”

The second question was one that Chris Hansen would pose to hapless visitors caught in his TV sting about a decade later (“To Catch a Predator”).

But the star and rich-people assemblage in the remake of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” posed the same kind of question.  Why were they on this particular train?  How probable is it, really, that every single passenger could be a reasonable suspect (or “person of interest”, at least) and possibly wind up complicit in the murder of an organized crime figure Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), after the train is stalled by an avalanche in the Carpathian mountains, or maybe it is the Alps.  (The word “orient” seems overused).  All this is in 1934, at the end of the Great Depression, before a lot of people see the Winds of War.

Kenneth Branagh, so proud of his work on Shakespeare in the past (along with the Mahler-ish score by Patrick Doyle) plays himself, so to speak, as the self-indulgent detective Hercule Poirot, who opens the movie obsessed with the symmetry of two boiled eggs at a continental breakfast. He politely refuses Ratchett’s job offer, and then that evening, after the train is derailed and stopped, we actually see a clown (Stephen King style, out of everybody’s sight line) racing away from Ratchett’s cabin.

There are better films set on trains.  First of all, how about Hitchcock’s own “Strangers on a Train” (1951).  I’ve seen Trans-Siberian, The Cassandra Crossing (1977, where a plague has to be contained on a train), Silver Streak, The Great Locomotive Chase (Disney, 1955), and, particularly, Snowpiercer (which was very political).

I remember one train ride a little like one of these movies. In the spring of 1999, I took a night train East from Berlin to Krakow, to visit Auschwitz the next day.  My novel “Angel’s Brother” starts with a meeting of two young men at the site, who had seen each other on the train, and wonder why they are both there.

I saw the 1974 film by Sidney Lumet shortly after I had moved into New York City.

Vinkovci, Croatia station (in the book), wiki.

Name:  “Murder on the Orient Express”
Director, writer:  Kenneth Branagh
Released:  2017/11/10
Format:  2.35:1   some backstories are in black and white
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, afternoon 2017/11/10, good crowd
Length:  115
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  20th Century Fox
Link:  Fox

(Posted: Friday, Nov. 10, 2017 at 10:30 PM EST)

“The Book of Henry”: the legacy of a gifted child who was grown at 12

The Book of Henry”, directed by Colin Trevorrow and written by Gregg Hurwitz, is layered, in the sense that the plot is partially driven by the contents of a handwritten notebook authored by the charismatic Henry (think “Nocturnal Animals”) and it is also Biblical, in that the 12 year old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) is almost like a Christ figure (think Danny in “Judas Kiss”) who really could save us, so his book is like a Gospel.

Unfortunately, Henry has an unusual, opportunistic brain tumor.  It starts with headaches, and a seizure, and he dies in his mother’s arms, looking at the sky. It’s a horrific tragedy. It is sudden, like Lee Atwater’s in 1989. Why would this happen.  Was he born with HIV?  His single mom (Naomi Watts) also has a younger son Peter (Jacob Tremblay, from “Room”) whom we also hope will grow up to be a genius.

Henry and Peter have built a tree house with all kinds of perpetual motion gadgets. Mom likes to play video games on TV, but the movie has the look of the early 90s (in upstate New York).  Mom (Susan) works in a diner as a waitress even though it’s not clear  she has to. (The source of the money is not quite clear.)  She often covers for goofball comedian Sheila (Sarah Silverman).

There are twelve year old’s who understand the adult world.  I’ve met a few in my life, as a substitute teacher, and at local churches.  It’s gratifying to see the same 12 year old a decade ago at 22 today out of college.  (Maybe the Washington Nationals could use him as a closer, but I’ll stop there.)  But Henry won’t go to M.I.T., Stanford, or UNC.  His days are numbered, and he knows it, and he has to take care of his family.

Henry talks fast, often in rich metaphors (“our legacy is not how many commas we have after our name”).

Henry has Jesus’s moral sense.  Before his illness, he gets after his mom not intervening in an abusive situation in a supermarket.  He says that if everybody minded just their own business, people who can’t take care of themselves would be left to die.  Remember the parable of the Rich Young Ruler, who has too much to lose?

Henry, playing “Rear Window”, has spotted the possible abuse of a female classmate by her stepfather, a politically powerful police chief, through the window, in the next door house.  He wants mom to intervene but he figures out that politically Child Protective Services won’t help.  So his authored book provides the blueprint for what mom must do to stop the stepdad once Henry is gone.

Susan (the mom) puts her comic plan into action to trap the police chief while Sheila leads a talent show at the school.  At the end, she burns the Book and the 80s-style minitapes.  But the DVD for this movie will need to include a PDF of the Book, with all of Henry’s Da Vinci-like drawings.  The Book itself needs ti be published.

The style of the movie is almost that of comedy, despite its tragic middle. The look of it reminds me of “Moonrise Kingdom”.

There is a NatGeo film “The Gospel of Judas” (2006).

Name: “The Book of Henry”
Director, writer:  Colin Trevorrow, Gregg Hurwitz
Released:  2017
Format: 2.00:1
When and how viewed:  Cinema Arts, Fairfax, 2017/6/20
Length:  106
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Sidney Kimmel, Focus Features
Link:  official

(Posted on Wednesday, June 21, 2017 at 11 PM EDT)

“It Comes at Night”: Doomsday prepper thriller mixes horror with family morality play

It Comes at Night”, written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, puts it all together:  frightening horror in a suddenly primitive Catskills forest environment off the grid, family loyalty, radical hospitality, doomsday-prepper survivalism, and personal moral karma.  Even if the premise is different, I’m remembered of classics like “The Blair Witch Project” and “The Last Broadcast”.

The background premise is a little bit open to interpretation.  A horrible pandemic has suddenly stopped the civilized world, rather like the super-flu in Stephen King’s “The Stand”.  Symptoms include vomiting black blood (yellow fever).  But rather than multiple road trips, this film presents a home stand.  A former history teacher Paul (Joel Edgerton), open minded enough for an interracial family with wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teen son Travis (Kevin Harrison, Jr.) holes up in the woods in an ample house (a kind of “Cabin in the Woods“), hoping to become the next Noah.  One night a young man Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks into the house looking for food and water.  Paul keeps him bound and quarantined outside but eventually the men start to trust each other.  Each has a family, and that’s very important/ Paul drives Will back into the woods, escaping one ambush, and eventually brings Will’s wife and young son (Riley Keough and Griffin Faulkner) to the house.

They set up a little commune with house rules, rather like an intentional community (like a miniature Twin Oaks).  But when the dog detects a menace outside and disappears, the trust between the two families, who have to behave according to certain norms if they can get a mini-civilization restarted at all.

The presentation of the dank insides of the home in the film is quite chilling. The force intimacy within each family — including the family bed — is something I could never deal with. This leads to an eventual catastrophic confrontation between the two adult fathers. I could not function in this kind of world.  You have to be want just remain alive enough for your own genetic progeny to function this way, like a wild animal with just the remnant of civilization to restart.

The dog’s fate does pose a real question about where this threat came from.

Name: “It Comes at Night”
Director, writer:  Trey Edward Shults
Released: 2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2017/6/14, ample crowd on a weekday night
Length:  91
Rating:  R
Companies: A24
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, June 14, 2017 at 11 PM EDT)

“The Strange Ones”: a man and a boy present a mystery as they travel through a wilderness

The Strange Ones”, directed by Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein, based on Wolkstein’ s short story, is another road gay mystery film, a little bit like yesterday’s.  It is actually based on a 2011 14-minute short film by the same name centered around the mysterious couple’s stay at a motel and around a swimming pool (same directors and writers, different actors).  The film has a moody, enigmatic presentation (underscored by the brooding music score by Rob Lowry) that reminds one of Jorge Ameer and even sometimes David Lynch.

The film introduces a muscular, bearded 20-something man Nick (Alex Pettyfer, from “Magic Mike”) taking a middle-school aged (maybe 13) boy Sam (James Freedson-Jackson) on a road trip around the Catskills in upstate New York.  Nick claims they are brothers, but as the film progresses we begin to suspect that this is an abusive, legally inappropriate relationship.  There are some off hints of the supernatural: Sam always takes on the first name (telepathically) of people he meets in new situations, and Nick seems to be able to make objects (like cups of black coffee) disappear.

They meet Kelly (Emily Althaus) at the motel, before going camping.  Nick tries to teach Nick how to use a rifle before a tragic encounter with other hunters and a cave ensues.  Sam escapes and winds up stumbling into a rehab camp for male juvenile delinquents.

The movie has lots of flashbacks as to what happened in Sam’s family, and it isn’t good.  The flashbacks aren’t always clearly delineated and can confuse the narrative (which, in a couple of police and hospital scenes, becomes quite explicit and disturbing).  Only the black tabby cat in the original family home really knows what happened, and when she sets out into the country to look for Sam (which a cat might do) the threads of story come together.  The cat turns out to be an important character. If only animals could testify in court.

Nick is indeed troubling.  His forearm tattoos are genuinely disfiguring.  Sam is remarkable for his articulations.  He can tell Kelly that his “brother” (who at one time had been a “babysitter”) doesn’t “get hard” with women and that makes him  “gay”.  But otherwise he is so macho, so cis.  The old man (Gne Jones) in charge of the juvenile camp is frank, and several more responsible teens (Tobias Campbelll) seem to be running the place.

2011 Short trailer

QA

I took the liberty of using my own 2012 picture form Whiteface (actually in the Adirondacks) for art work for the review.

Name:  “The Strange Ones”
Director, writer:  Christopher Radcliff, Lauren Wolkstein
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Baltimore Film Festival, MICA Brown Hall, 2017/5/6
Length: 81  (short film in 2011 was 14)
Rating:  NA (would be R)
Companies:  Adastra, Stay Gold
Link:  FB

(Posted: Saturday, May 6, 2017 at 11:15 AM EDT

“Boyfriend Killer”: in lower Florida, a psychopathic young femme fatale, right out of the soap opera world

Here’s the first official movie of 2017, labeled as such on imdb, “Boyfriend Killer” (directed Alyn Darnay) on Lifetime TV, which aired Saturday night at 10:03 PM (2 hours minus commercials, about 100 minutes).

The film presents a divorced woman Sandra (Barbie Castro) who suddenly learns of the motorcycle accident death of her star-hero 22 -year-old son Preston (Michael Uribe, in flashbacks).  Her ex-husband (Patrick Muldoom) flies home, presenting her with his alcohol problem.  Soon her encounters with Preston’s ex girlfriend Krystal (Kate Mansi) make her suspicious.  She finds out that Krystal had “moved in” with her boyfriend and shared computers, Internet, and social media accounts.  She gets other college age kids to help her hack into the accounts, and becomes even more suspicious, especially when another ex-boyfriend, a 20-something millionaire, is found dead.

Krystal, who also has a strained relationship with her rich and immigrant father, turns out to be a psychopath, like Theresa Donovan on “Days of our Lives”.  Or maybe a future black widow.

The material about shared computers is interesting to me because of downstream liability concerns, that can happen with houseguests and minor kids and dependents, for not only computer use but Internet connection abuse (another posting ).

The film seems to have been shot around Fort Lauderdale, FL.

Lifetime movies seem very formulaic, written in soap opera style, but often have intriguing characters in dangerous situations.

Lifetime has actually entered two movies at the same time on the Xfinity schedule, the other “Her Dark Past” (2016), about a woman who wakes up from a coma, being shot, and doesn’t remember who she is or that she has murdered people.  The premise is intriguing because of the way my own screenplay “Epiphany” begins.

Name:  “Boyfriend Killer
Director, writer:  Alyn Darnay
Released: 2017
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Lifetime, 2017/1/14
Length:  100 approx
Rating: NA (fits PG-13)
Companies: Lifetime
Link:  official

Wikipedia picture of Fort Lauderdale,  Included picture is from Disney Orlando  Epcot lagoon, my visit, 2015.

(Posted: Sunday, January 15, 2017 at 11 AM EST)

“Careful What You Wish For”: Nick Jonas uses street smarts in another mini “Body Heat”

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Name: “Careful What You Wish For”
Director, writer: Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum
Released: 2016
Format: 2.35:1
When and how viewed: 2016/12/8, Netflix DVD
Length 91
Rating R
Companies: Starz, Anchor Bay, Image
Link: official site

Careful What You Wish For” (directed by Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum, story by Chris Frisnia) sounds like a nice conservative aphorism for a genre mystery set in the North Carolina Blue Ridge, at a lake resort.

Nick Jonas plays Doug Martin, working as a waiter at a lake resort, well raised by wealthy parents (mom (Kiki Harris) is a lawyer, conveniently). His best friend is Carson (Graham Rogers), who probably aspires for more than waiting for rich people himself.

One day, an investment banker Elliot Harper (Dermot Mulroney) and his Playboy wife Lena (Isabel Lucas) rent the house for the summer, and Elliot quickly hires Doug to maintain his boat. Quickly, Elliot demonstrates his authoritarian (like Donald Trump) personality, getting ahead with dealing and manipulating people. Lena is just as “bad” (eg, she his is “process piece”) and soon seduces Doug by playing on the duties of his masculinity. People used to try that with me – back in 1980, a female coworker in Dallas said that men should be able to change tires for women – it’s that kind of thing. What follows is a but of a reenactment of the 1980 thriller “Body Heat”, even with chimes.

Exactly half way through the movie, Elliot turns up dead. Lena claims to Doug that Elliot attacked her. But, predictably, the sheriff and an insurance investigator (Kandsye McClure) come into the movie and Doug is the prime suspect.

Doug has to use his street smarts and wits to survive this legally, in a typical thriller fashiom. But the very ending is a bit of a copout. Doug’s opening line is, “When you’re a kid, you don’t think about consequences.” As Dr. Phil says, the teen brain doesn’t see around corners.

But the movie can make you ponder why some people see everything through being able to manipulate others, as if that were the only virtue.

Nick Jonas certain looks good in the film. He had suddenly to deal with juvenile diabetes as a teen.

(The DVD came with English subtitles and all the screenplay parenthetical actions, even though the film is in English. I’ve never seen this before.)

(Posted: Thursday, December 8, 2016 at 12 Noon RST)

“Allied” has the plot of a WWII Hitchcock mystery, and plays on real world identity theft

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Name: Allied
Director, writer:  Robert Zemeckis, Steven Knight
Released:  2016/11/23
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  2016/11/26, Regal Ballston Common, evening, large auditorium, nearly sold out
Length 124
Rating R
Companies: GK, Image Movers, Paramount
Link: official

Allied”, directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Steven Knight (the story seems original), has the plot devices of a 1940s Hitchcock thriller, dealing with spies, deception and stolen identities. The movie could also be called “Casablanca II”.

Brad Pitt plays Max Vatan, an intelligence officer working in occupied North Africa in 1942, and the opening scene of the film reminds one of “Babel”.  Soon he meets apparent French resistance leader Marianne (Marion Cotillard).  They fall in love.  Marion leads him to a party for the German ambassador, complete with swastika, and Max and Marriane stage a violent attack.

Sometime later they are man and wife in London and have a child.  But British intelligence calls him in one day and confronts him with the theory that his wife is a spy with a fake identity.  Max has married and given his body into sexual passion with what seems to be identity theft, pre-Internet. A complicated ruse follows to discover the truth, and it is not guaranteed to end well.

There is an interesting scene where Marianne is challenge to play a particular piece on a piano in a bar they have broken into.  It’s the piece from “Casalanca” and set to hymn by Hector Berlioz.

While the suspense is quite real and recalls the master director, the setting looks a little hokey.

The plot of this movie starts about the time I was conceived.

(Posted: Sunday, Nov. 27, 2016 at 9:45 AM EST)

 

“Kiss Me, Kill Me” gay noir mystery comedy, with some borrowed plot twists

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Name: “Kiss Me, Kill Me”
Director, writer:  Casper Andreas
Released:  2015
Format:  2.35:1 (imdb is wrong)
When and how viewed:  private vimeo screener
Length 100
Rating NA (R)
Companies: Spellbound, Breaking Glass (?)
Link: official

Kiss Me, Kill Me”, directed by Casper Andreas and written by David Michael Barrett, is a gay “neo-noir” comic murder mystery which actually builds on the wrongful conviction concerns of recent documentary film directors and producers (like Andrew Jenks and Ryan Ferguson).

The “hero” is Dustin (Van Hansis), a soap star, and companion to producer Stephen (Gale Harold).  Dusty becomes more likable and charismatic as the film progresses.  Stephen throws a big party at his West Hollywood pad, with a transgender magician providing entertainment.  When Stephen and Dusty go to a convenience store, “The Pink Dot”, afterwards, the store is robbed while they are there and Stephen and the store attendant are shot dead.  Dusty wakes up after a concussion and soon finds the persistent LAPD officers (Yolinda Ross and Jai Rodriquez) think he staged the robbery to get rid of a partner with a life insurance policy.

Later the officers will try go get him to plea bargain, trying to fake him out, before the DA drops the charges.  But that’s only an interlude.

Its all pretty cynical.  You wonder how Dusty has so much freedom when out on bail, to solve his own mystery, with the help of a rogue psychiatrist (Craig Robert Young) who hypnotizes him.  Another boyfriend Graigery (Matthew Ludwinski), who bears that “Liquid Sky” look at first looks unsavory but turns out the be a redeemed Shane.

The underlying situation is serious enough: that somebody could get framed for a convenience store robbery-hit-murder that seems random.  The comic style of the film, with the noir jazz music, undermines the horrible tragedy that is possible (which is what filmmaker Jenks works on in his documentaries).

At this point, the plot becomes like a Clue game, and more bodies pile up, and the plot takes on some ideas from other movies and shows, including Jenks’s “Dream.Killer”, the use of hypnosis in “Days of our Lives”, and the mystery wills of “The Dark Place”.  But because the movie wants to have a comedy and “40s” look, it seems less engaging.  I didn’t fund myself caring about the characters in this film as in some stronger dramatic gay films in the past (like “Judas Kiss”).

The condo in my picture above is visible along the 405 from the Angelino Hotel in which I stayed in 2012; I thought I spotted it in the film.  The West Hollywood disco scene is quite well done technically.  I remember that in West Hollywood  there is no street parking, but you pay a flat $10 a weekend night to park at the library.  That’s how all bar parking should work.  My favorite bar was the Abbey; not sure if that is the bar in the movie.

(Posted: Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016 at 11:45 PM EST)

“Bernie” (not Sanders): black comedy about a “stereotyped Q” mortician who does it for the money, Hitchcock style, and then sobs when caught

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Name: Bernie
Director, writer:  Richard Linklater, Skip Hollandsworth (Texas Monthly article about a true story; recently updated)
Released: 2011
Format: 1.85:1
When and how viewed: Netflix DVD
Length 99
Rating PG-13
Companies: Castle Rock, Millennium
Link: TV Guide

Bernie” is light on the loafers, somewhat a “stereotyped” queer and popular mortician working in Carthage, Texas, in the rural piney woods of the eastern part of the state, in the old state.  “Bernie” (2011) is also a black comedy (based on an article in Texas Monthly) from Richard Linklater (“Boyhood”), and it tends to bring back my own period of living in Dallas in the 1980s.

Bernie Tiede is played by Jack Black.  He’s fat (not quite as fat as Chris Christie) and his mustache draws attention away from his fem body.  Yes, this comedy will emit feelings of body fascism.

The style of the film is almost docudrama, with Bernie talking about closing the eyes of a corpse for good (no peeking on the world he is departing) to the audience.  Various other townspeople talk about Bernie, including DA Danny Buck  (ironically named after a northern Virginia realtor), played by Matthew McConaughey, who brings some masculinity back to the movie.

The trouble with Bernie is money.  He gets drawn into the life of a prissy female companion Marjorie Nugent (Shirley McClaine).  It gets pretty intimate, as he does her toenails and other stuff, and she starts demanding more and more attention, one time locking a gate so he can’t get out.  It all starts going into Hitchcock territory when she teaches him to use a rifle to shoot an armadillo.  Guess what, he uses it on her (it sounds like a cap gun) and he buries the body in the freezer.

He’s tearful when he’s caught, like a child; he says he has a lot to live for in prison.  I can guess what.

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I used to have a charcoal black suit, which I would wear to work on Halloween (especially when living in Dallas in the 1980s) as the “mortician”.

By Billy HathornOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Posted: Friday, Nov. 18, 2016 at 12 noon EST

“King Cobra”: James Franco acts creepy in a gay murder mystery involving a porn business dispute

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Name: King Cobra
Director, writer:  Justin Kelly, book by Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway; James Franco produced
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Amazon Prime instant video ($6.99 HD rent) was at Reel Affirmations closing night in DC; may have limited theatrical release
Length 92
Rating Not given, but would probably be NC-17; a legitimate art film and dramatic issue-oriented narrative for grown ups.
Companies: IFC
Link: official site


King Cobra”, directed and written by Justin Kelly, is a true story based on the book “Cobra Killer: Gay Porn Murder and the Manhunt to Bring the Killers to Justice” by Andrew E. Stoner and Peter A. Conway.

The true story is controversial because it eventually provides a biography of actor Sean Paul Lockhart, who played the rule “Chris” in “Judas Kiss” (2011), and Sean’s tangential or accidental involvement in a bizarre murder over a rivalry in the gay porn business.

Partly because I am probably just two degrees of separation from the actor personally, I have to stick to facts, which are well summarized on imdb here.   Harlow (played by Keegan Allen) and Joe (played by James Franco, in probably his creepiest role ever) are serving life terms in Pennsylvania for the murder of rival producer Stephen (Christian Slater), which the film shows near the end, as happening when Harlow visits Stephen and feints seducing Stephen.  That’s the way to die, when your last memory is erotic.  The murder scene actually seems a little bit motivated by Hitchcock, especially “Psycho”.  Lockhart, to the best of anyone’s knowledge, had no prior knowledge of the murder plot and, although held by police briefly, was never charged and helped convict the other two men (as in imdb story).  The movie ends happily for Sean as his adult film career resumes.

The story involves a couple of interesting legal points.  When Stephen grooms Sean into the porn industry, he gives Sean the stage name of Brent Corrigan, and then trademarks the name. When Sean wants to go out and work on his own, Stephen litigates for trademark infringement.  Yes, in some industries “stage name” of a performer is very important for the business model to work, and performers and artists need to know this.  Sean, however, threatens to tell everyone that Stephen had filmed him slightly before Seann turned 18.  In addition, there’s already a nosey neighbor suspicious of the speculative possibility of child pornography next door.

Sean and Stephen seem about to reconcile, when two other producers (whose story is shown in parallel in the early part of the movie), Joe and Harlow, want to hire Sean as “Brent Corrigan”, setting up the rivalry that provides a motive for murder.

The film is now available on Amazon Instant video.  I missed it at the Reel Affirmations film festival last weekend because of a schedule conflict with a piano concert.

Sean does not play himself; rather Garrett Clayton takes the lead rule with a lot of charisma (but he is just too smooth, even his legs, in the opening scene, hinting at one of the plot twists).

The film should not be confused with a 1999 horror film of the same name about a real snake from Lionsgate/Trademark (which I saw in Minnesota).