Monday, November 13, 2017


My name is Adam Riske and I am probably the greatest brand manager in the world.

Adam: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Adam Riske. Rob DiCristino is off this week. He has been listening to Taylor Swift’s “Reputation” since Friday morning.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017) is actor-director Kenneth Branagh’s update on the 1934 mystery novel of the same name written by Agatha Christie. It tells the story of a murder on a long-distance passenger train where everyone is a suspect, including characters played by Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley and Michelle Pfeiffer. Also factoring into the plot are a businessman (Johnny Depp) and legendary detective Hercule Poirot (played by Branagh), whose break from work is interrupted by this mysterious case. I found Murder on the Orient Express involving in the early going. It’s a gorgeous movie to look at on a big screen, with more lavish cinematography, production design, art direction and costuming then we’re used to seeing in most films these days. It reminded me of big productions from the early 1990s like Hook or Bram Stoker’s Dracula. If you are in one of the markets playing this film in 70mm, I am jealous of you.

I had seen one previous take on the story before (the 1974 film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as Poirot) and I much prefer Branagh’s version, which is more souped up and less staid. I think that approach benefits this story, which is leisurely paced. Did I fall asleep during Murder on the Orient Express (2017)? Yes I did, but that was more because of the fireplace demo atmosphere of the film than it being boring (it’s a little boring). To be fair, I saw it with Mark Ahn, who also fell asleep and I dropped my popcorn on him by accident at one point, providing 4DX level thrills to his viewing experience. Also, JB and Jan were in theater, too, and we didn’t know until after the movie was over! They both liked Murder on the Orient Express (2017). So, the viewing experience was just as star-studded as the picture itself. Speaking of stars, one of the drawbacks of both Orient Express film versions I’ve seen is that the actors don’t have a lot to do, which is disappointing for a cast of this caliber. You expect the film to be an acting showcase, but most of the performers have one or two scenes with less dialogue than you would expect. It’s a case where the material being classic attracts star power, but Branagh’s Poirot is (as JB once noted wonderfully about actor Daniel Day Lewis) the diamond and everyone else is the setting.
Of the supporting cast, the standouts are probably Michelle Pfeiffer and Josh Gad, but unfortunately some of my favorites like Daisy Ridley and Willem Dafoe aren’t given as much to do as I wanted. Depp is fine, but it’s interesting how I just shut off when he’s on-screen these days. It’s like he’s not even there. I kept thinking when I saw him and Branagh share a scene early in the film how just a few years ago Depp would have probably been the actor playing Poirot. Don’t you think? As for Branagh, he’s really good. He nails Poirot’s playful nature in the beginning of the film, which makes his character arc pay off in the third act as he becomes more conflicted and less invulnerable. So, a Mark Ahn from me for Murder on the Orient Express (2017).
The next film which ended up being a Willem Dafoe double feature is The Florida Project. It’s one of my absolute favorite movies of the year. Apart from the last minute of the movie, which is weird and incongruous with the rest, Sean Baker’s follow-up to his indie hit Tangerine is nearly perfect. If you are a fan of Fish Tank or American Honey, you should like this one. The Florida Project tells the story of an extended stay hotel called Magic Castle that’s just outside the Disney World property in Kissimmee, Florida, and populated with many families living just above the poverty line who must move out for a day each month to avoid being considered residents. The hotel is run by Bobby (played by Dafoe is an amazing performance I hope wins him a much-deserved Oscar), a compassionate and fair man who looks after his guests but is not above losing his shit when they do something hazardous to his business or themselves. His most trying residents are a young mother named Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her grade-school daughter Moonee (played by a complete natural named Brooklynn Prince). Their relationship is more akin to college roommates than mother-daughter, as Halley leaves Moonee to run off with her other friends in the Magic Castle and nearby hotels, getting in trouble and mouthing off to adults.
The Florida Project sets up a world not unlike Rear Window, where the residency takes on a personality so specific that you forget about the world outside of it. It’s sort of like an inverse of the Disney properties, which I feel are like bubbles sequestering you from the real world when you stay at them. Whereas the Disney hotels are all about luxury and leisure, the Magic Castle is the side most parents would shield their children from. It’s the harsh real world most park attendees will never now and only hear about in the news. The movie is also brilliant at allowing the viewer to empathize with characters who do terrible things, but lets us see why that behavior makes sense to them. I appreciated how Sean Baker took a realistic, grounded look at this situation without judging or romanticizing it. It doesn’t treat poverty as this magical experience like in Beasts of the Southern Wild (a movie I don’t appreciate much), nor as an altogether harrowing experience. There are joyful moments like when Hallee, Moonee and one of Moonee’s friends watch fireworks going off from the nearby Disney Parks, or when the power is restored after going out temporarily and the residents of the building cheer for Dafoe’s character like he is their hero. His reply of yelling back “I love you too” is so touching (because he does look after these people most of whom desperately need someone to do so) that I almost cried. It’s a movie that made me nearly tear up multiple times; sometimes during moments of joy and other times of heartbreaking sadness. Not to throw shade at indie filmmakers, but sometimes you see one like Sean Baker who makes a cinematic looking masterpiece with limited resources (this film’s budget was $2M) and you just believe again in the power of a great filmmaker. Some people are just born with it and others are not. I love The Florida Project and give it a huge Mark Ahn.

We’ll be back next week with a new review and Rob’s return. Join us then! Until next time…these seats are reserved.


  1. I adored the Florida Project. I agree with what you wrote regarding Baker's view of poverty. It is easy to show "poverty porn" as just a series worse and worse situations that poor individuals find themselves in. I think it is much harder to show these people on the fringes of society (in this case a very specific society) and make them relatable. A wonder film.

    1. I love this movie so much. I'm just annoyed that final minute is so terrible imo. I know exactly how it should end but I don't see there ever being an Adam Riske cut.

    2. i'm curious now about Florida Project. how and ending can screw up (for lack of better words) a whole movie. i loved Tangerine and i've been waiting for this one for a while.

    3. Suffice to say, Mr Riske isn't the only one with an issue with the ending. It didn't both me as much and I don't think it severely hurts all the wonderfulness that comes before it. Would the film be stronger without it? Yes.

    4. The ending doesn't ruin the movie but it sure as hell does leave a weird lasting impression I wish it didn't.