Murder on the Orient Express

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Based on the Agatha Christie novel, Murder on the Orient Express gave me all the feels of a late night crime show without the paranoia of having to check out my window every commercial break. I initially planned on watching the original 1974 version before this remake, but I decided I wanted to have zero expectations when watching this latest rendition and I’m so glad I did.

In a nutshell, Murder on the Orient Express is pretty much a real-life version of the game Clue. Hercule Poirot, played by Kenneth Branagh (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets), is one of the greatest and most respected detectives of the mid-1930s. While returning from a finished case, he finds himself smack in the middle of a murder that occurs during a train ride from Istanbul to London that was to begin his much needed vacation. Reluctantly, he attempts to solve the murder through mastermind interrogation and a process of elimination of the thirteen passengers and now suspects on board.

While watching, I found myself studying every detail on the screen as if hoping to catch a clue or recognition of who the murderer was. I love murder mysteries that take the audience on a journey of problem-solving with them but I have to say, Express could have done a better job of involving the audience for this one. Truthfully, there were a lot of moments that felt confusing because the story development wasn’t progressed by intuition or character unraveling but by some knowledge that the detective was miraculously privy to that the audience was not. Still, this didn’t make me love the movie any less because if anything, it just made me want to watch it again and read the novel to see what I might have missed. After all, Agatha Christie is known as the world’s best-selling mystery writer and the “Queen of Crime.”

I don’t know what the future holds for any other Agatha Christie novels turned movies (which often feature the same characters), but I do hope to see more with Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot. He is exactly what I would have envisioned for a peculiar and idealized detective (I mean, have you seen that mustache?). Next time though, as director, perhaps he can direct with the audience a little more in mind.

If you like crime shows, I highly suggest you go out and see this movie. But just remember to lock your doors when you get home.

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Murder on the Orient Express

The Florida Project

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Soon after watching The Florida Project, I spent some time in Orlando visiting my in-laws. Usually, we’ll eat at a fancy restaurant or spend a day or two at one of the many theme parks. But this time I saw everything differently, really looking out the window as we drove. At the twisted trees, so old and huge, but clearly battered survivors of countless hurricanes. At the shabby homes just beyond the mini-mansions, tucked away behind chain link fences. Income inequality in Florida, especially Orlando, is some of the worst in the entire nation.

Moonee (newcomer Brooklynn Prince) is 6 and she lives with her mom Halley (Instagrammer Bria Vinaite) in a bright purple hotel, a stone’s throw away from Disney World in Orlando. But she’s never been to Disney, and she probably never will.

The ambling, slow-paced narrative is told almost entirely from the perspective of Moonee and her pals. These kids are mischievous. They scamper around like the hotel is their own personal playground. The tenderness between their families at the Magic Castle hotel is familiar, sweet, and sometimes downright inspiring.

I was unprepared for how hard The Florida Project hit me. The way it perfectly captures kids in summer. The strange landscape of this most bizarre U.S. state. How beautifully and subtly it was able to paint a picture of an incredibly tragic, underprivileged group of families with hope and empathy, as well as grit and realism.

Here, so close to the “most magical place on earth,” are palm trees, and buildings shaped like oranges, ice cream, and wizards. Residents of the Magic Castle get their evening entertainment from a handful of TV channels, parking lot fights, and the occasional abandoned condo on the horizon which mysteriously catches fire.

The colors are bright and distinctly Floridian. The script is straightforward, real people talking the way they talk. Screenwriter Chris Bergoch and Writer/Director Sean Baker (Tangerine) are bold yet gentle as they present us with characters endearing, heartbreaking, and ruthless. There is a lot of community and love at the Magic Castle... but not much trust. Scarcity doesn’t breed trust.

Vinaite’s performance completely steals the show. She doesn’t exactly have a “mom” vibe: she’s super young, tattooed, and toes the line of negligence. But she is so incredibly loving and patient with her daughter – in a way I’ve almost never seen represented in a movie. Perhaps because she remembers so vividly what it’s like to be a child. Perhaps because she still is one in many ways.

One reason The Florida Project shook me so much is that I’d like to be a foster parent someday. You see, places like the Magic Castle are the breeding grounds for the dark, painful side of the U.S. foster care system. So often these families simply don’t have the resources and support systems they desperately need.

The Florida Project provides so many emotional sucker punches. Similar to 2016 Best Picture Oscar-winning Moonlight, it shows, rather than tells, the beautiful, real, and raw story of everyday Americans struggling against great obstacles for goodness and survival.

That kind of project is worth spending some time on. In fact, I’d give this project as homework to anyone who wants to learn to be a better, more empathetic human. (See me after class for tears and hugs.)

Mountain

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There have been a few times in my life when I have felt truly privileged to view the world in a particular way, once while deep sea diving and another time while paragliding. Wow, I thought, not many people get to see the world this way.

Mountain, by director Jennifer Peedom (Sherpa, Miracle on Everest), took me to that same place of wonder.

“The mountains we climb are made not only of rock and ice, but also of dreams and desire,” narrator Willem Dafoe crooned as my heart raced up a cliff-face, was dazzled by sunlight on crystal snowflakes, and shocked by the roar of avalanches. I was swept up in the majesty of mountains.

While Peedom’s 2015 BAFTA Award-nominated documentary Sherpa delves into the risks sherpa’s take for wealthy thrill-seekers on Everest, Mountain is more of a tribute to both mountains themselves, and the brave souls who feel the call to conquer them. This is a tone poem of grand proportions.

The documentary is a collaborative masterpiece. We are captivated by the extraordinary words written by Robert MacFarlane, the beautiful score by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) and the incredible footage compiled and shot by Peedom and cinematographer Renan Ozturk whose partnership began with Sherpa.  

In a Q&A session at the New Zealand International Film Festival, Peedom explained that it all started with the music. The ACO came to Peedom with the idea to do something with mountains. Richard Tognetti, the principal violinist and artistic director, was fascinated by mountaineers and by Ozturk’s mountain footage.

The project was originally designed as a concert work, with the ACO touring with it across Australia. But it was important to Peedom that the film stood as a stand-alone narrative piece.

During Peedom’s early years as a climbing camera operator, she had been captivated by the book Mountains of the Mind by Robert MacFarlane. It explored the revolution of our feelings towards mountains, where only 300 years ago climbing a mountain was thought lunacy. Peedom invited MacFarlane to collaborate on the film and the themes of his book became the overarching thesis of the documentary along with Peedom’s own experience. As someone who had felt the allure and siren song of the mountain, she wanted to express her experience as well.

About 30% of the film was shot with colleague Ozturk, supplemented by his own incredible library of footage, as well as that of other mountain cinematographers, resulting in over 2,000 hours of footage, across 15 countries. The technology utilized in this environment was cutting edge, with the cinematographers pushing the limits of what drones were able to do.

In the Q&A, Peedom explained that mountaineering is a “very blokey world.” She said that she kinda becomes one of the boys in that environment as she is usually one of the only women on expedition. But while it might be blokey, she says many of the mountaineering men are beautifully romantic souls, including Ozturk himself. In saying that, she did try to put as many women in the film as she could and she herself brought a feminine gaze to it as well.  

Mountain is an inspiring, soul-nourishing, and at times clench-butt-cheeks scary, sensory experience. If you’re lucky enough to see it with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, then you can count yourself very lucky. The rest of us will need to find the biggest screen we can in order to be fully absorbed into this magnificent treasure.