Seeing the magnificent cast list may draw you in. Enjoying a classic mystery, even when you know who dun it, may draw you in. But after watching Murder on the Orient Express, you may feel discounted, for the Kenneth Branagh production has all the oomph of an airless whoopee cushion.

The cast is, indeed, remarkable. The movie, updated from the 1974 version, is based on an Agatha Christie novel. The 13 people in the line-up include Dame Judi Dench as the countess and Daisy Ridley as Miss Mary. Leslie Odom Jr. stars as Dr. Arbuthnot and Penélope Cruz is Pilar, Derek Jacobi is the valet, Josh Gad is the secretary MacQueen, and Johnny Depp is his boss, Mr. Ratchett. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the cougar, Caroline Hubbard. Willem Dafoe as somebody or other. Branagh rises from the director's chair to play Hercule Poirot, his signature mustache a facial wonder.

What is not a wonder is Branagh's acting, flaccid at best. He is not bested by the supporting cast, each of whom phones in her or his performance on nothing more modern than a flip phone. 

Worth watching, since the perps are well known to most, is the photography directed by Haris Zambarioukos. Overhead shots inside the train, Dafoe shot through beveled glass, views of snowy mountains from above and beside, actors framed by rounded arches, including the tunnel that gathers all together for Poirot to conclude -- these are all worth looking at.

Unless you're a major fan of Christie, you won't know if Michael Green's script expands on or quotes her words, but the plot itself with its veritable riot of clues is a bit of a mystery. Murder on the Orient Express drags, which is good if you need a nap, but not so good if you seek excitement and mystery.

 

True to his unique, uncommon muse, director Todd Haynes presents his latest film Wonderstruck as an intriguing challenge to dialogue-dependent narratives. This homage to silent films illustrates through its design what silence means for deaf people, as Haynes explained at Telluride where I first saw his film. Two stories run on parallel tracks, each ingeniously commenting on the other. 

The chronologically earlier 1927 tale, second in appearance, belongs to deaf, twelve-year-old Rose, living in Hoboken, New Jersey. Though she doesn't speak, she communicates magnificently with music interpreting her moods and situations. The second story, set 50 years later in 1977, focuses on twelve-year-old Ben, in Minnesota, struck deaf by lightning. Rose and Ben, seeking ways to cope with their alienation, flee to New York seeking lost parents. Both feel inexplicably drawn to the Museum of Natural History where they are captivated by dioramas, in particular one with wolves that came to life in Ben's introductory, terrifying nightmare. Cross-cutting between stories, they eventually converge.  

Based on Brian Selznick's novel and adapted by him, the minimal dialogue directs attention to the slightest nonverbal gesture, including the smallest facial movement. We can't rely, as we so often do, on dialogue to carry the film. Haynes demands a challenging shift in focus and rewards those who can open themselves to his silent-film aesthetic, more exaggerated for Rose's 1927 melodramatic acting style, more subdued for Ben whose anxiety is more internalized. 

The visual look achieved by award-winning cinematographer Ed Lachman is equally important in making Wonderstruck work. Rose's story, shot in gorgeous black and white, accentuates the silent film ambience. Ben's sections have their own distinct style, several scenes unfolding on Manhattan's 1977 streets and evoking that time period.  

In terms of the acting, as Haynes was pleased to note at Telluride with Simmonds in attendance, casting deaf, 12-year-old Millicent Simmonds as Rose brought truth and insight to the role. As Ben, Oakes Fegley, recently in Pete's Dragon, emotionally interprets his crisis. Julianne Moore unites the individuals and events in a remarkable scene. Wonderstruck is an atypical cinematic experience, a refreshingly engaging one. At a Landmark Theatre. 

 

The 26th Annual Whitaker Saint Louis International Film Festival continues through Sunday, November 12, with more tough choices for cinema lovers. In addition to literally hundreds of feature and short films, two master classes will be held on Saturday, November 11. They are Reconstructing Reality and Suspense with a Camera, both hosted by Webster University. 

The New Filmmakers Forum offers another special event on Sunday, November 12. At 11:00 a.m. at the Tivoli the five participating directors will discuss their feature films, describing the production experiences they encountered. Also on Sunday at Webster University the Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra will play at 7:30 p.m. for legendary director Lois Weber's The Blot. Making over 400 short films from 1913 until the end of the silent era, Weber was a pioneering filmmaker in terms of her amazing technical elements as well as her social critiques. Here in The Blot (1921, silent) she takes on poverty and social inequality. 

For anyone whose taste inclines to the offbeat, two screenings of Lost in Paris offer the chance for a truly quirky film abandoning reality for a riotous indulgence in fantasy. Oscar buzz already accompanies The Darkest Hour, an immersion in Churchill's problematic decision to fight or negotiate in the early days of WWII. As Churchill, Gary Oldman gives a dazzling performance, as do Ben Mendelsohn and Kristin Scott Thomas. The relevant, topical documentary Whose Streets? on Ferguson and racial issues screens as well as "The Light of the Moon" dramatizing sexual predation (three screenings).

I'm out of room to acknowledge the wonderful lineup of documentaries, shorts, and features. This feast of films concludes on Sunday, November 12, with a closing night party beginning at 8:00 p.m. at the urban Chestnut Grove Brewery and Bierhall with several awards presentations. All foreign-language films have English subtitles. Venues include Landmark's Plaza Frontenac and Tivoli Cinemas, Webster University and Washington University, the Stage at KDHX, the Missouri History Museum, and more. Go to CinemaStLouis.org or call 314-289-4150 for a full schedule and event details.

 

What made Bad Moms delightful was the attention to truth: those moms weren't bad so much as they were exhausted. The moms in the sequel are shown to be exhausted, too, but by trying to make Christmas perfect -- the perfect tree, perfect gifts, perfect parties. They are their mothers' daughters.

The film could be called "Meet the Mothers," for here are the women who formed the characters who became the so-called "bad moms." Kiki's mother smothers her, right down to PJs with her daughter's head printed helter-skelter on the flannel. Amy's mother is a perfectionist with a mannequin's stud up her backside. Carla suffers an absentee mother, one who shows up asking for money and then gambles it.

It's more than the young mothers can bear. So they turn to drink and therapy and cursing. Their F-bombs are never followed by la-la-la-la-la-la-la. They struggle with their mothers as, it turns out, their mothers wrestled with theirs, too. It's matrilineal.

Mila Kunis and Kristen Bell bring Amy and Kiki to life, funnily enough, but it is Kathryn Hahn who stands out as Carla, now working in a spa as a waxer. When she is presented with the private parts of a male stripper, Hahn waxes eloquently, facially and vocally. As would any red-blooded American heterosexual woman. And, still, no complete male nudity, only reaction shots -- oh, and one especially funny sound effect. The mothers are portrayed to a fare-thee-well by Cheryl Hines, Susan Sarandon, and Christine Baranski as they, too, find a new path for themselves away from the perfect Christmas.

Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, who wrote and directed Bad Moms and The Hangover, know their audience, and in A Bad Moms Christmas, they balance the nasty with the poignant. Almost. 

 

The 26th Annual Whitaker Saint Louis International Film Festival kicks off Thursday night, November 2, and runs through Sunday, November 12. As always, the Festival presents an overwhelming feast of 372 films with 82 narrative features, 63 documentary ones, and 227 short films. What's particularly exciting is that the selections represent 64 countries.

Of particular note, four outstanding individuals will receive awards. They are: Pam Grier accepting a Women in Film Award at a tribute to her before a screening of Jackie Brown on Friday, November 3. She stars in Bad Grandmas, shot in St. Louis, which will open the festival Thursday, November 2, with a reception before the screening. 

Represented by Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me and ACORN and the Firestorm, Sam Pollard receives the Lifetime Achievement Award.

Marco Williams with Tell Them We Are Rising accepts the Contemporary Cinema Award and Dan Mirvish of Bernard and Huey the Charles Guggenheim Cinema St. Louis Award. All these awards and screenings of the awardees' films make the first weekend an exceptional one with incredible talent on display in person and on the screen. 

The first Sunday, I must recognize a sure-fire Academy Award contender I saw at Telluride's film festival: Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool. In a performance that merits an Oscar, Annette Bening plays Hollywood film noir star Gloria Grahame in her final days, with Jamie Bell in a marvelous supporting role and Julie Walters and Vanessa Redgrave. And there isn't a bad entry in the handful of documentary films I've also seen. 

To help with difficult choices, the schedule includes a listing of films in Chinese, Animation, American Indie, Human Rights, Women in Film, and Music categories. There's also a breakout calendar for Asian, Environmental, Eastern European, Middle Eastern, French, Spanish, and Italian films, among other categories such as Oscar contenders, the Interfaith competition, and master classes held during the festival as well. 

All foreign-language films have English subtitles. Venues include Landmark's Plaza Frontenac and Tivoli Cinemas, Webster University and Washington University, the Stage at KDHX, the Missouri History Museum, and more. Go to CinemaStLouis.org or call 314-289-4150 for a full schedule and event details.

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