Movie Review: “Murder on the Orient Express”

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Even if you’ve already read Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel and watched the 1974 film from Sidney Lumet, you’ll want to watch Kenneth Branagh’s $55 million remake of “Murder on the Orient Express.” This new film, released on November 10, features an amazing, all-star cast as well as new and interesting takes on this classic murder mystery. Clearly, Kenneth Branagh, who both directs and plays the role of legendary Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, is at the top of his game with “Murder on the Orient Express.”

“Murder on the Orient Express” features a world-class ensemble cast

Kenneth Branagh has assembled a veritable who’s who from Hollywood for this movie. There’s Johnny Depp, who plays the scandalous American businessman Samuel Ratchett, who is murdered while on the train. There’s Michelle Pfeiffer, who plays a very flamboyant Mrs. Hubbard. There’s Judi Dench, who plays the Princess Dragomiroff. There’s Penelope Cruz, who plays Pilar Estravados. And that’s just the beginning – there’s also Daisey Ridley (as the ingénue Mary Debenham), Josh Gad (as a whisky-drinking personal assistant to Ratchett), and Willem Dafoe (who plays a slightly off-kilter Austrian professor).

Thus, one good reason to go see this film is simply to see this all-star cast in action. Johnny Depp deserves special mention here, primarily because the drama in “Murder on the Orient Express” revolves around his mysterious murder. Clues seem to point everywhere – and nowhere – at the same time. And Depp, always up for eccentric and entertaining character roles, pulls off his Samuel Ratchett character with great dexterity. In this film, he is sporting scars and a thug-like accent, and it’s clear that his character has led a very checkered life. But is it enough to murder him? That’s for Hercule Poirot to figure out.

Of course, the inspiration for having such a talented ensemble cast comes from Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film. Lumet gathered together a similar set of Hollywood luminaries – Albert Finney, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery – to star in Agatha Christie’s acclaimed murder mystery. What makes this casting decision work, of course, is that nearly all the action takes place within the tight quarters of the train itself. Having all of these stars in such proximity while on screen is a real moviegoer’s delight.

We see a new kind of Hercule Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express”

For Agatha Christie fans, the character of Hercule Poirot has always been somewhat troublesome. His character is filled with so many tics and pet phrases that it’s hard to pull off this role on the big screen without making his character appear campy. And this is where Kenneth Branagh really succeeds – his character of Hercule Poirot is a new kind of Poirot that hasn’t been seen yet.

Yes, Poirot is still filled with odd little mannerisms and pet phrases, but the focus here is much more on his aversion to disorder. For Poirot, solving a mystery is all about bringing order to the world. And the film illustrates this is in the very beginning, when Poirot inadvertently steps into a pile of manure. For anyone else, the next step would be to furiously wash off all the manure and perhaps change into a new pair of trousers for good measure. But Poirot takes a different approach – he proceeds to step with his other foot right into the manure. Why? As he tells the audience, it’s all about bringing order to the world. If the left shoe is soiled, then the right shoe must be as well.

This insight into the mentality of Poirot is essential to the film – and not just an excuse to show the strange mannerisms of this beloved Belgian detective. When he is solving the murder mystery, it is this sense of “order” that dictates his thought process and how he eventually decides to deal with the case.

“Murder on the Orient Express” updates the classic murder mystery

Some critics have noted that this remake has nothing new to say that the first three adaptations of the book – including the 1974 film and the 2001 TV film – didn’t already cover. But that’s not entirely true. If anything, Branagh’s film provides a welcome update to the classic murder mystery.

Here’s just one example: in earlier versions of the story, Poirot assembles all the train passengers into a dining car on the train to tell them his final conclusion. In this film version, though, Poirot leads all the passengers out of the train and into a dark railroad tunnel.

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“Murder on the Orient Express” brilliantly integrates CGI effects

This new film also is noteworthy for the way it is filmed. First and foremost, it means providing some stunning visuals. Some critics, in fact, have gone so far as to describe the cinematography of the film as “opulent.” Part of this, no doubt, is the result of shooting the film with a 65mm camera. This is a camera usually reserved for epic, sweeping films – think “Lawrence of Arabia – but here the camera is deftly used to shoot the surrounding landscape of the moving train. It all adds up to making this film feel much “bigger” than one might assume. In short, this is not just a “train movie” – it feels much more cinematic and sweeping.

“Murder on the Orient Express” will keep you guessing until the very end

The hallmark of any great murder mystery, of course, is the ability to keep the suspense going until the very end. Usually, there are plenty of plot twists and assumptions laid bare along the way. And that’s why this new film from Kenneth Branagh is so extraordinary – even when you know the ending to the book – you’re kept guessing until the very end. You keep asking yourself: “Yes, but what if Branagh decides to mix things up a bit?”

In short, this is an excellent film: five stars out of five. It boasts an incredible, all-star ensemble cast, a talented director with a real vision for bringing classic stories to life, and first-rate cinematography. This is a film that will appeal to more than just Agatha Christie fans. In fact, it is quite likely that this film will help to create a whole new generation of Agatha Christie fans!

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Chris Hemsworth Shines in “Thor: Ragnarok”

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After a long and much-anticipated wait, “Thor: Ragnarok” is finally arriving in movie cinemas on November 3. This third installment in the “Thor” franchise is bigger and better than ever, and a key reason for that is Chris Hemsworth in the role of the mythical Thor. In this $180 million blockbuster from Marvel, Chris Hemsworth really shines.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is the funniest and most enjoyable Marvel film yet

The very best Marvel films are known for their superhero characters, the fantastic plot lines, and their wonderful CGI special effects. But one thing that they are not known for are their humor. In short, Marvel films have seemed to follow a very defined template, and a key part of that template has never been humor. That’s what makes “Thor: Ragnarok” so much fun and so enjoyable –it’s perhaps the funniest and most enjoyable Marvel film yet.

Critic after critic has praised “Thor: Ragnarok” as a “breath of fresh air in the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe]” and as “the funniest Marvel film so far by no small margin.” And a big reason for that is the comic prowess of Chris Hemsworth. If you are only thinking of him as a huge, hunky Thor figure, then you’re in for a real treat. It is Hemsworth who gets some of the funniest lines of the entire movie.

For example, there is one scene on the planet Sakaar, where the imprisoned Thor must fight to the death with a rival in a gladiatorial combat arena. When he finds out that his rival will be the Hulk, his longtime friend, he bursts out laughing with a huge “Yessss!” and delivers one of the funniest lines of the whole movie, “We know each other… we’re old friends from work.”

Chris Hemsworth shines in “Thor: Ragnarok” by giving us a fresh, new Thor

This is the third “Thor” film (and the fifth film in which the character Thor has appeared), so we’ve gotten pretty used to what to expect from the character. This character has flowing blond locks, a buff body, and a magical hammer. So Chris Hemsworth has decided to shake things up for this film – he’s cut off his hair, changed his costume and, oh yes, he’s lost the magical hammer that made him so powerful.

In interviews, Chris Hemsworth has commented on the new-look Thor. In collaboration with director Taika Waititi, Hemsworth decided that Thor needed to be freshened up for movie audiences. On “Good Morning America,” for example, he told a live studio audience that he wanted to “change things up.” And, oh boy, does it work for “Thor: Ragnarok.” This is a sequel and a franchise film, but it feels fresh and new. No wonder people are talking about Chris Hemsworth and his shining role in this new Marvel film.

Chris Hemsworth shines as the leader of a team trying to save Asgard from the Goddess of Death

“Thor: Ragnarok” is more than just a blockbuster film filled with lots of great action sequences – such as the gladiatorial “Contest of Champions” on the planet Sakaar – it’s also a quest movie in which a band of heroes – Thor, Loki, the Hulk and Valkyrie – must do battle with Hela, the Goddess of Death (played by Cate Blanchett).

And it’s here, with all the interactions between this group of heroes, that Chris Hemsworth as Thor really shines. First of all, there is a friendly, brotherly-like competition with his stepbrother Loki (played by Tom Hiddleston). There is real humor in there. And there is also Thor’s friendship with the Hulk (played by Mark Ruffalo), which allows Chris Hemsworth to become a lovable, hunky character who’s not-so-bright but charming. A generation ago, he’s what movie reviewers would have referred to as a “lovable lunk.”

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Chris Hemsworth has some of the best action scenes in a bold and outrageous action movie

What Marvel fans want, of course, is plenty of action and glorious CGI special effects, and it’s here that “Thor: Ragnarok” really delivers. There are scenes in which Thor wields his fabulous hammer, and others in which he wields equally awe-inspiring swords. There are plenty of action scenes of him flying through the air, and doing everything in his power to save his home planet Asgard from almost certain extinction.

The one action scene, by far, that is going to delight fans is the gladiator scene involving Chris Hemsworth (as Thor) and Mark Ruffalo (as the Hulk). This is big-time, over-the-top Marvel fun, and it’s all presided over by the Grandmaster (played by Jeff Goldblum)

And there are plenty more elements of this action quest movie that need to be mentioned – like Hela the Goddess of Death and her unbelievable powers of destruction. And don’t’ forget about Valkyrie (played by Tessa Thompson) or the Hulk – all by themselves, they are scene-stealers

Chris Hemsworth is the biggest star in an all-star cast

As you might have noticed by now, Chris Hemsworth is hardly alone as a big-name Hollywood movie star in this film. In addition, you have Mark Ruffalo, Cate Blanchett, Tessa Thompson, Tom Hiddleston, and Jeff Goldblum. And yet, despite the presence of all these Hollywood luminaries, the one star who shines brightest is Chris Hemsworth.

Whether he is traveling to the Nine Realms in search of the Infinity Stones, trapped on the planet Sakaar, or saving his home planet Asgard from near-certain destruction, Chris Hemsworth really shines. Before this movie, it appeared that the “Thor” movie franchise might be running its’ course, but now, a completely new narrative is emerging: “Thor” is one of the most dynamic franchises in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In short, we need more Thor, and we definitely need more Chris Hemsworth (preferably with his shirt off). Marvel took a big risk by bringing on the New Zealand director Taika Waititi, until now previously known mostly for small indie films and comedies, but it looks like this gamble really paid off. He’s injected some real humor into this film franchise, and Chris Hemsworth is a big reason why: he really shines in “Thor: Ragnarok.”

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What Amazon Gets Right With “Brad’s Status”

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It’s easy to mistake “Brad’s Status” as just another movie about a white, privileged male having a mid-life crisis. But this new film from Amazon Studios is far more than that – indie filmmaker Mike White has transformed a deceptively simple story – a father takes his son on a tour of East Coast colleges and begins to question every aspect of his own life – and transforms it into the story of an entire generation. Here’s what Amazon gets right with “Brad’s Status.”

Amazon absolutely nails Ben Stiller in the role of the neurotic Brad Sloan

Quick, name a 50-something male actor known for playing a neurotic navel-gazer or a lovable loser. You’d probably name Ben Stiller, and that’s why the choice of Ben Stiller to play the neurotic, navel-gazing Brad Sloan is perfect. In many ways, Brad Sloan seems to have made it – he’s happily married, he lives in California, he enjoys his job, and his 17-year-old son Troy (played by Austin Abrams) just might end up getting accepted by Harvard.

But when he starts comparing himself to others, that’s where the problems start. He’s essentially going through a mid-life crisis, all while being forced to endure the (perceived) humiliation that four of his college classmates are all fabulously wealthy and successful. Everything seems to come easy to these four (one is a hedge funder, one is a Hollywood film mogul, one is a political commentator and writer, and one is a tech entrepreneur) – but nothing comes easy for Brad. And that leads to him moping around for much of the film, trying to make sense of his life.

Amazon sets up a great father-son dynamic to drive the narrative forward

The focal point of the movie is the father-son tour of East Coast colleges, including a visit to Harvard. And it’s here that the movie really shines. Ben Stiller and Austin Abrams turn in remarkable performances, and their interplay is what moves this film forward. In many ways, Ben Stiller’s character begins to view his son as a mirror into his own life. And that, in turn, creates all kinds of complications – like when he finds himself falling for one of Troy’s new female friends. It also forces him to reassess how successful his life was, and how he should even begin to measure success.

In many ways, it’s hard not to think of another Amazon Studios movie – “Manchester By the Sea,” starring Casey Affleck as a washed-up loser tormented by deep memories of his past. Casey Affleck’s character only begins to put his life together when he becomes the guardian of his deceased brother’s teenage son, who also happens to have an attractive girlfriend as well as an affinity for music. And, in many ways, “Manchester By the Sea” was a similar kind of uncomfortable film in that it made you dig into the meaning of life and see that there are no easy answers.

“Brad’s Status” explores each generation’s fixation on status

Some film reviewers have rolled their eyeballs at the premise of this movie. They have noted that it focuses too much on “white male entitlement” and “white privilege.” After all, it’s hard to feel too sorry for someone who has a nice home, a nice job, and a loving family.

But there’s something very profound going on in America right now. It’s no longer expected that your kids will lead a better life than you did. It’s no longer a given that you will have a job for life, a nice home and plenty of career success. The world is much more complex right now – and it’s easy to see how the discontent felt throughout middle America is starting to seep its way to the two Coasts, where Brad Sloan and his wonderful friends hang out. For every tech boom, there’s a tech bust. For every bull market rally, there’s a profoundly shattering market crash.

Until recently, people who hadn’t “made it” (as Brad’s friends certainly have) kept it to themselves. Brad is continually humiliated when his friends can’t even remember what he does – they just call it his “little thing” – and leave it at that. For more than two decades, Brad has been able to keep his status to himself. He wasn’t forced to define it, or even think about it.

But in today’s digital era, your status follows you around constantly. As a result, “Brad’s Status” perfectly gets the current zeitgeist, where “status” is something that we broadcast every day on Facebook with status updates. What’s your status? Why aren’t your photos getting enough likes? You see, status is all around us – and it’s there for all to see.

As a result, it’s wrong to see “Brad’s Status” as merely a focus on the status of the older generation – it’s also a referendum of sorts on the current, millennial (and post-millennial) generation, If guys like Brad Sloan are having mid-life crises right now, just imagine what’s going to happen to their kids.

Amazon’s “Brad’s Status” shows us the complexities of real life

The reason why viewers will love “Brad’s Status” is because it will force them to re-assess and think about their own lives. It can be uncomfortable, and more than one film has referred to this film as “squirmy.” Yes, you’ll squirm in your seat as you watch it because, most likely, it will cut a little too close to your own life.

The film will make you consider: Are you living out your adult dreams through your children? How exactly are you dealing with the everyday envy you experience? For Brad, even boarding an airplane can become an issue, when he sees that others are enjoying first-class status and he’s not. The same is true when he goes to an upscale restaurant and is denied a seat.

In many ways, Brad Sloan is just like you or me, whether you choose to accept that fact. It’s easy to dismiss Brad Sloan as an egocentric, narcissistic, neurotic white guy – but all of us have to deal with the “unfairness” of life around us. Why are some promoted and others not? Why do some people get to live in huge McMansions and others don’t? Why are there still class divisions in America?

**

Brad’s Status” is just the latest evidence that Amazon is making its mark on Hollywood. In many ways, this film is cut from the same cloth as “Manchester By the Sea.” It has the feel of an indie film, but boasts an A-list actor like Ben Stiller. So don’t be surprised if people are talking about this film long after it has disappeared from the box office.

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Film Review: “The Dark Tower”

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“The Dark Tower” is the film adaptation of Stephen King’s series of 8 novels that fans have been long anticipating. The only question, though, was how any Hollywood director was going to take eight very dense and complicated novels and transform them into a seamless 90-minute movie experience. Unfortunately, this film adaptation of “The Dark Tower” from Danish director Nikolaj Arcel often fails to hit the mark.

“The Dark Tower” struggles with its adaptation of Stephen King

The problem, quite simple, is that you can’t satisfy both Stephen King fans – who obviously wanted a very faithful adaptation of the novels – and the typical summer moviegoer who wants plenty of action and adventure with a minimal amount of exposition. So Arcel did what he had to do – he combined several characters from King’s novels into composite characters. He tried to explain the whole back story of the Gunslinger and the Man in Black in a way that a popcorn movie audience could understand.

As a result, the film often comes off as a Cliff Notes version of “The Dark Tower.” Another review has referred to this film as “The Dark Tower for Dummies.” It’s almost as if a team of writers and directors quickly read through all of King’s novels and tried to pull out the most salient plot points and characters. But it sometimes feels like a strange mash-up of King’s work.

Moreover, the psychic child at the center of the film (Jake Chambers, played by Tom Taylor) seems to have the same kind of “shining” that’s famously the subject of the King novel and film “The Shining.” Still other reviewers have complained that the movie reminded them too much of Steven Spielberg, and not enough of Stephen King. The drawings of the Man in Black, the Dark Tower, and the Gunslinger might remind you of scenes from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” So purists are bound to be at least a little disappointed.

“The Dark Tower” is a gunslinger Western sci-fi fantasy with plenty of action

Where Arcel does succeed, though, is turning this film into a fun, sci-fi fantasy with a Western saga feel to it. The role of the Gunslinger, played by a world-weary Idris Elba, is one of the highlights of the movie. In his barren wasteland of the world, he comes off as a Western-style hero from the 1970s. He’s a loner and short on words – but he’s a master of his craft. He’s also full of aphorisms on how to shoot and kill.

And it’s these action sequences that give the film its life. At times, the Gunslinger must fend off the henchmen who have been sent by the Man in Black (played by Matthew McConaughey). At other times, he is pitted, head-to-head, with the Man in Black himself. According to mythical lore, the only person who can destroy the Man in Black is the Gunslinger. His gun has been forged from the same steel as King Arthur’s Excalibur. It’s no wonder, then, that the Man in Black wants the Gunslinger dead.

“The Dark Tower” is the ultimate story of good and evil

The basic plotline of “The Dark Tower” can be broken down into just a single sentence: The Gunslinger must prevent the Man in Black from destroying the Dark Tower and unleashing unspeakable evil and destruction on the universe. And it’s here where things get really complex, because there are at least two worlds involved here – the barren wasteland inhabited by the Gunslinger and then the modern, contemporary world of New York City. There are portals between worlds, and that sets up the final ending of the movie, in which the Gunslinger and Jake must find a way into the Dark Tower from these portals. If they fail to do so, the universe will basically come to an end, so there’s plenty of motivation.

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“The Dark Tower” squanders the talent of Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black

The Man in Black obviously is central to the whole film – he is seemingly hell-bent (literally) on destroying the Dark Tower, but it’s never completely clear why. At many points in the film, it seems like he is doing all this just to antagonize his historical rival, the Gunslinger. But aren’t there better ways of revenge than destroying the Dark Tower and bringing about the end of the universe?

Moreover, it often seems like Matthew McConaughey’s main role is to appear every now and then and utter a few throwaway bad guy lines. We want to believe in his utter villainy – and there’s one scene where he does his best to wish a dark fate upon everyone he encounters in New York City – but there’s something about his character that doesn’t ring true. If you’re not a “Dark Tower” fan, the whole idea of kidnapping psychic children and using them to bring down the tower will be confusing at best.

“The Dark Tower” is going to be the perfect movie to stream on Netflix

There are two types of movies these days. One is the epic blockbuster film that everyone is going to see and that is best enjoyed in the movie cinema. “Dunkirk” and “Wonder Woman” are great examples. The second is the type of movie that’s best for streaming on Netflix. And “The Dark Tower” is one of those movies.

It’s a movie that, in previous decades, would have been called a B-movie. It’s competent, well-directed and well-acted, but it just doesn’t measure up. There’s plenty of action, but the dialogue and exposition can weigh the film down at times. And some of the plot lines can be hard to follow, so it might be a movie that’s best viewed twice on your favorite streaming device.

Trying to adapt a Stephen King novel for the big screen has always been a challenging task. It’s hard to capture every nuance of his work and still make it something that’s worth paying for in the movie cinema. “The Dark Tower” will be talked about and may end up being a cult hit, but Stephen King fans are almost certain to be disappointed. “The Dark Tower” deserves more than 90 minutes – it would almost be better as a miniseries on Netflix that you could binge on over a weekend.

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Does “The House” Bring the Funny?

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Any time you bring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler together in a film, you’re going to have some laughs. The problem with “The House,” though, is that those laughs don’t come nearly as often as viewers would like. At some point, “The House” stops being a raunchy comedy and, instead, becomes a dark (and surprisingly bloody) commentary on the failed American middle class dream. It just doesn’t bring the funny.

#1: Even Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler can’t make “The House” funny

For most moviegoers, the idea of combining Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler together in one comedy is going to be worth the price of admission. And, for the first 20 minutes of the film, there’s the faint glimmer of hope that the two characters they play – the married couple of Scott and Kate Johansen – will turn this into a funny suburban farce. The two are desperate to raise enough money for their daughter’s college tuition, and have stumbled on the idea of running an underground casino in a neighbor’s house.

But then something happens – the film stops being a silly movie about suburban parents with first-world problems and careens wildly off the track. The whole premise of turning a giant suburban house into a casino is not funny in and of itself, so director Andrew Jay Cohen amps up this premise by turning this casino into a version of suburban hell. Moms in yoga pants face off in Fight Club-like duels. Dads start snorting cocaine. And, of course, there are the inevitable prostitutes and other hangers-on that you’d expect at any seedy casino.

And it all happens so fast – before you can blink, the whole house is outfitted with gambling tables and the action starts. Along the way, there are lame math jokes (you see, Will Ferrell is a smart, successful suburban dad but can’t do any math!) and jokes about living in the ‘burbs. But don’t blame Ferrell and Poehler – the material is weak, and even two gifted comics can’t turn this movie around.

#2: “The House” becomes a bleak, bloody ode to suburban rage

At some point in the movie, it’s almost as if director Andrew Jay Cohen had an epiphany – let’s make this film much darker and much bloodier. At some point, the two goofy suburban parents transform into hardened criminals – Amy Poehler has a dope habit and Will Ferrell becomes a mafia-style enforcer called “The Butcher.” As if to reinforce this point, theme music from “The Sopranos” plays in the background.

And it turns out that all the people who lived in this nice, genial suburban neighborhood (“Fox Hollow”) are actually a bunch of debauched libertines. At a moment’s notice, they turn into gambling, drug-using, sex-addled fiends. The local police seem, at best, inept. The local politicians are corrupt and untrustworthy. And normal, everyday people turn callous. Violence – and blood –seemingly courses through this version of suburbia.

Describing this dark turn in the movie, The New York Times called “The House” a “dark, startlingly bloody journey into the bitter, empty broken heart of the American middle class.” And that’s exactly what you have – a tale of social despair. This is what happens when the system no longer works. What once might have been just farce turns into dark, biting satire.

At which point, you have to ask: Is this really what director Andrew Jay Cohen had in mind? Presumably, people wanted to see a quirky, goofy movie with lots of laughs. They might not be prepared for this dark turn – and certainly not for Will Ferrell calling himself “The Butcher.”

#3: “The House” tries to wing it on acting talent alone

Of course, critics can be forgiven for going overboard on their negative assessment of the movie. After all, newspaper film critics are experiencing a bit of white-collar, suburban rage themselves these days. One day, they are world-renowned film critics, the next day, they are scrambling to get more likes on their film review website than some teenager writing about movies in his (or her) parent’s basement.

And, in this case, the film critics weren’t even invited to an initial screening. Thus, some critics were making some snide comments about the film being “sneaked” into cinemas, while others went into the film fully expecting a dumpster fire of a movie.

And, in some ways, the mainstream media critics are right. “The House” boasts some fine acting talent (including Jason Mantzoukas as Frank, the neighbor with both a gambling and porn addiction), but seems to lack everything else for box office success – like a script. The characters are never fully formed, to the point where you don’t even know their names.

There are a lot of different directions this film could have gone. It almost seems like it was rushed to the big screen, because many of the plot elements were never fully fleshed out.

For example, why exactly are Scott and Kate having so much trouble handling the college tuition when they seem to be living in a gigantic house? Just sell the house, pocket the money, and move somewhere cheaper. And how is it possible that two suburbanites just snap so completely – we’re never really given any narrative framework to understand how and why Scott and Kate turn into pot-smoking, violence-prone suburbanites.

Maybe it was all meant to be very, very funny in some twisted way. But here’s the thing: you can’t wing a movie on acting talent alone. The movie clocked in at less than 1 hour and 30 minutes, and even that time seemed stuffed with comic outtakes at the very end. There’s just very little here. Characters come and go, and we don’t really know why. It doesn’t matter, though, since it’s the composite picture that’s supposed to be funny, of suburban life gone very, very wrong.

What we do have is very dark – lust, greed, corruption, cocaine and brawls. “The House” will bring you face to face with the dark underbelly of American middle class life. Behind all the nice houses and all the fancy cars, there’s apparently a lot of suburban rage, just waiting to be let loose on the world. It’s safe to say that “The House” doesn’t bring the funny.

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Why “Transformers: The Last Knight” Got Terrible Reviews

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There some movie franchises that are seemingly critic-proof. The “Transformers” franchise is one of them. The latest “Transformers” film – the fifth in the series if you’re keeping track – was savaged by critics, but still turned in a fairly impressive box office showing, pulling down more than $450 million worldwide. So here’s why “Transformers: The Last Knight” got such terrible reviews, even though audiences seemed to love it.

#1: “Transformers: The Last Knight” was hollow and meaningless

Now at the helm of his fifth “Transformers” film, director Michael Bay seems to have little else to say as a filmmaker. This was simply a movie that was made because it could be made. As a result, critics have used terms like “unnecessary” and “unsatisfying” to describe the film.

At this point, it doesn’t seem to matter who’s fighting who, or which metal robots are fighting which other metal robots. It’s all just an excuse to have hours of CGI fun, watching big metal creatures do battle with each other on the big screen. As a result, everything about the film seems to be hollow and meaningless.

#2: “Transformers: The Last Knight” includes some ridiculous plotlines

Ok, you’re probably not expecting strong, dramatic storytelling with a “Transformers” movie. But at least treat the audience with a little bit of respect when it comes to developing the plotline!

Case in point: there’s a plotline in which Vivian Wembley (played by Laura Haddock) plays an Oxford professor. And it turns out that she’s more than just a professor – she’s also the last direct descendant of the magician Merlin. That means she is the only person capable of using the magical staff that Merlin had buried next to him in his coffin. At which point, you’re probably wondering, “What in the world does Merlin have to do with the Transformers?”

And you’d be right. Critics were quick to point out that this amounted to nothing more than “mystical medieval hokum.” It was almost as if the screenwriters were hunting and searching for something that would make the movie seem bigger and more important, and the idea of King Arthur and Merlin suddenly struck someone as a good idea. Other critics have said that this plot line essentially turned the film into a mash-up of “The Da Vinci Code” and “The Terminator.”

#3: The movie was too long and too hard to watch

“Transformers: The Last Knight” clocked in at an impressive 3 hours and 9 minutes. If you’re paying $20 for a movie ticket, you can say that you got your money’s worth, right? Not so fast. Those were an interminable 3 hours of non-stop explosions, chases and fights. The movie could have ended an hour earlier, and movie audiences wouldn’t have been disappointed.

Instead, it’s almost as if Michael Bay was determined to make this the biggest, baddest “Transformers” yet. And so he over-stuffed the movie with action. It was all so chaotic and messy, though. There were quick jump cuts and throwaway lines. No time for dialogue and meaningful plot development, when the goal is to create a massive, soaring CGI masterpiece!

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#4: “Transformers” squanders some top-quality actors and actresses

There was another miscalculation from the “Transformers” team, and that was replacing Shia LeBeouf with Mark Wahlberg (as Cade Yeager) as the new face of the franchise back in 2014. Granted, Wahlberg is the bigger star these days, but it also fundamentally changed the way that critics viewed the movie franchise.

In short, there could never be just another fun, robot-clanking movie that didn’t take itself too seriously. This was, after all, the film franchise that was founded back in 2007 on the basis of toy trucks created for 10-year-old boys. But when you add Wahlberg into the mix, it’s clear that “Transformers” wants to be more than a film for adolescent boys – it wants to be something that grownups will go see. Sorry Michael Bay, but Mark Wahlberg is no Shia LeBeouf.

Who, exactly, wants to see this kind of movie? It’s just explosions and battles, anyway. Even a legendary actor from Hollywood’s golden age couldn’t save this movie from itself. Better yet – why even include real actors, anyway? Just create some CGI-generated avatar and let them wreak havoc for a few hours.

And there’s a deeper problem here – “Transformers” squanders some great acting talent here. It’s almost as if these actors signed on for a big pay day, and then just mailed it in. They realized that nobody really cares about them, anyway, it’s all about the Decepticons and Autobots. Just check out some of the names involved with this film (in addition to Mark Wahlberg and Laura Haddock) — Anthony Hopkins, Stanley Tucci, Jerrod Carmichael and Josh Duhamel. There was obviously room to make this film more of a character-driven narrative, but that’s something that Michael Bay clearly had no intention of doing.

#5: What ever happened to Optimus Prime?

If there was one defining element that united all the “Transformers” movies, it was Optimus Prime. But the fundamental premise of this movie is that Optimus Prime is gone, leaving humans and robots to fight it out on Earth. There’s some back story involving a grand bargain that Optimus Made, essentially handing over Earth to the bad guys.

But here’s the thing – Optimus Prime finally returns to his old self in the movie, after about two and a half hours! After more than 150 minutes of robot vs. robot warfare, we’re finally spared. This was supposed to be the big dramatic moment in “Transformers” – the moment when audiences gasp with wonder and awe. But, instead, audiences just offer up a groan of approval: “Thank goodness, maybe this means this film is finally coming to an end…”

**

There’s one line from the studio trailer that now rings true. In it, there’s the voice of Anthony Hopkins asking, “Why do they keep coming here?” It’s a question very much on the minds of studio audiences with regard to these “Transformer” films. Why do they keep coming back? The only possible answer is that there’s money to be made, and this is all simply a ploy to get moviegoers to part with their hard-earned cash.

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Did “Rough Night” Hit the Comedy Mark?

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After nearly 40 years of “guys behaving badly” films, it’s now time to see how the opposite sex behaves when nobody is watching. Last year’s surprise comedy hit – “Bad Moms” – was just the beginning of a new type of film written for women who want to celebrate being women. The new film “Rough Night” takes what might be a throwaway storyline – a bunch of hard-partying girls go to Miami Beach – and turns it into something both funny and meaningful. Female director Lucia Aniello has hit the comedy mark on this one.

“Rough Night” is more than just a “Hangover” for women

In many ways, “Rough Night” heads down the same narrative road as the “Hangover” films. A bunch of college friends reunite for a bawdy adventure in a party town (usually Vegas, but now Miami Beach), and bad things proceed to happen at a dizzying pace. And, in between, there’s plenty of scenes of strippers (male, not female) and gratuitous drug use (cocaine, the hard stuff, not legalized marijuana).

But what makes this film so hilarious is that it’s completely directed with what some might call the “female gaze.” In other words, in the same way that Patty Jenkins changed what we thought superhero films could be by presenting “Wonder Woman” from a female point of view, Lucia Aniello has changed what we thought buddy-bonding movies could be by re-imagining everything from a female point of view.

In other words, this is not a male fantasy of what a woman’s “Hangover” film would look like. Yes, there’s gratuitous drug use, and lots of references to male anatomy – but it shows us what a role reversal can look like in the movies. As they say, the tables have been turned.

In “Rough Night,” it’s the women – played by Scarlett Johansson, Zoe Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, Jillian Bell and Kate McKinnon – who have the wild, bachelorette party while the guys settle for a very uninspiring wine-tasting party to celebrate the end of being a bachelor. And it’s the women who are sex-crazed and looking to party, not the men.

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“Rough Night” has hilarious comic nuances, thanks to Scarlett Johansson

The real shining star of “Rough Night” is Scarlett Johansson, who’s playing a very grown-up and respectable woman (Jess) who’s running for political office. But, back in the day, she enjoyed a good party, just like anyone else. And her friends back in the day were true partiers.

Who knew that Scarlett Johansson could do comedy? So it’s here that the particularly deft hand of director Lucia Aniello is felt. Just a few years ago, the only comic roles for women were those featuring larger-than-life personalities like Roseanne Barr or Melissa McCarthy. Serious actresses, we were told by the (male) Hollywood establishment, didn’t do goofy comedies.

And so the role of Scarlett Johansson, in many ways, is culturally and socially liberating. Here we have one of the most accomplished actresses in Hollywood, someone who has worked and played alongside the biggest names of the industry, and she’s “slumming it” in a female version of a frat party movie? Except that she’s not slumming it – she’s making a statement here about the types of roles that women get in Hollywood. If Robert De Niro can do comedy, then why not Scarlett Johansson? This is the new cultural zeitgeist, so get used to it.

“Rough Night” takes all the standard formulas, and gives them a twist

Yes, some critics have called “Rough Night” a bit “derivative” and “formulaic.” Yes, it’s easy just to label it a female “Hangover” or a female “Weekend at Bernie’s” and be done with it. But there are plenty of elements here that get a nice, comedic twist.

For example, it’s easy just to fall back on comic stereotypes for the roles of the college friends. But this film goes one step further. The LGBT rights activist is also a cokehead. The girl we thought was going to be so successful back in college turns out to be a drunk narcissist. And the person we thought was going to be our BFF throughout life turns out to be very needy, viewing the relationship in the most possessive manner possible. In short, these aren’t a bunch of stereotypes being tossed out there for viewer consumption.

And we should have expected as much. Lucia Aniello, with her co-writer Paul Downs, is also one of the creative forces behind the web series “Broad City,” which fully blossomed into a Comedy Central series starring Ilana Glazer. Guess what? She also stars in this film. And where “Broad City” was so powerful was in adapting a slightly off-kilter female humor dynamic for today’s web audience.

As a result, it sometimes feels in “Rough Night” that we’re experiencing more than just a formulaic comedy. Instead, we’re viewing a new type of webisode-inspired comedy that’s tailor-made to appear on “Comedy Central” at some later date. We can’t wait for this film to go straight-to-web.

“Rough Night” appeals to a wider audience than just women

Judging by the mixed reviews on IMDb (5.5 out of 10.0) and the 48% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it would be too easy to say that “Rough Night” missed the comedy mark. But that does not embrace the bigger idea here – that this movie is not a film about women for men, it is a film about women for women. And that’s why it’s so powerful.

Once you begin to see “Rough Night” as more than just a female romp for male consumption, you begin to appreciate all the comic nuances. Topics that were once only seen from a male perspective – such as what married life feels like at a certain age – are given a new filter and a new lens.

There are just so many funny lines of dialogue and sight gags in “Rough Night” that you’ll be laughing through the whole film. The first time you see Scarlett Johansson on screen – all serious-looking with short hair  — you might be tempted to ask yourself, “Does this girl really get it?” And she does.

It’s so great to see the likes of “ScarJo” dipping into the comedy genre, alongside comic veterans like Jillian Bell, Ilana Glazer, and Kate McKinnon. It’s proof that a female comedy doesn’t just have to be a derivative male version of a film. Instead, it can be something meaningful, fresh and new – and still deliver a bunch of laughs. So, yes, “Rough Night” did hit the comedy mark.

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