Murder On the Orient Express

November 15, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

Agatha Christie is the definition of who-dun-it crime stories. Anytime you think of murder mystery, her name immediately comes to mind–and for good reason. One of her most popular stories, “Murder On the Orient Express”, had been adapted a few times before this 2017 version. Its’ most notable is the 1974 version with Albert Finney as the famous detective Hercule Poirot. The story follows a train carrying a load of passengers, seemingly unfamiliar with each other but all recognize Poirot. After the murder of one of the patrons, Poirot has to solve the crime, while the train pushes through the chilly landscape of Eurasia.

The film begins with Poirot solving a robbery case in Jerusalem. Thinking this is his last case before a well deserved break, he decides to go to Istanbul–but he receives a telegram telling him he must go to London to solve another case. So, he is booked on the unusually booked Orient Express, with the help of a friend–the director of the Express–Bouc (Tom Bateman). Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is somewhat dismayed, but tries to put on a happy face (beneath a very studious mustache), as he joins a very eclectic group of people ranging from aristocrats to the lower class, on their way.

He is nearly immediately approached by a gruff individual, Sam Ratchett (Johnny Depp), to be his bodyguard, and provide him safe travel until they depart. Ratchett, an unsavory businessman, promises to pay Poirot a handsome figure to help him. Poirot refuses, saying there’s something about his face he doesn’t like. Ratchett is incensed, but lets it go. Poirot retires to his bunk, trying to enjoy reading Charles Dickens, and forlorn over a past presence in his life, until he hears commotion, as the train gets hit by an avalanche, derailing it and stranding the passengers.

That’s not the only problem, however, as it turns out the next day that there has been a murder. Every passenger on board is a suspect, and Poirot must use his world-class techniques in order to solve the case. Not only is everyone a suspect, but they all act in suspect ways: there is a great cast here. Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley) seem to be a secret couple, and have shifty antics that lead Poirot to mistrust them when he interviews them. There’s Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), a racist German–but actually undercover detective–and Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench), who has as an annoying dog and is quite indignant about being questioned. Ratchett’s right-hand man, Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), is also under suspicion, as he might know more than he lets on. There’s also Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz), who at first you would think would have nothing to do with such a “sin” as murder.

The story unfolds in a way that I can’t let on too much without revealing more than I should. After all, this is a murder mystery. The less you know, the better off you are in enjoying this lark. And for the most part, it is entertaining. Branagh chews scenery like he normally does–and he’s likable enough. The cast does a great job of tying the whole thing together–and the payoff, of course, is very satisfying. But not completely predictable, unless you’re already familiar with the story itself.

Poirot is eccentric, and he is fun as the focal point. I do think Branagh could have spent a little more time with the rest of the characters, getting to know their pasts in a way that isn’t in direct connection to the murder plot–just backgrounds on them or more personality would have been very welcome.

As it is, however, it is a good enough film and stands on its own–not as memorable perhaps as the 1974 adaptation–but certainly worthy of Christie’s work. Some of the filming is stagy, as Branagh is a big “theater” person; but there are some nice cinematic touches as well. And besides the obvious CGI, the train itself is a personality, and an intriguing one at that.

My rating: :-)

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

December 23, 2015 by  
Filed under Movies

“Star Wars” has become less a film franchise and more a cultural phenomenon in the past decade, and a new film–the first not to be helmed by George Lucas–seems almost moot when it comes to critiquing its merits as a film. We know what to expect at this point. Episodes IV, V, and VI all told the story of the Rebellion versus the Galactic Empire. Small fry versus big guy. David vs. Goliath. It was a story we all could relate to; we all wanted to be like Han Solo, but were probably more like Luke. The Force, the Jedi, the Dark Side, were all defining storytelling elements that made that trilogy a classic. Next, Lucas wanted to go back and tell the story of Luke’s father Anakin with episodes I, II, and III. He attempted to tell a backstory that really fell flat, and didn’t create very engaging characters. He certainly managed to create some really annoying ones, though. Through the years, the vitriol for the prequels has abated, and now–for better or worse–they are a part of the “Star Wars” film canon. There’s even a DVD release that puts them in order so you can watch I-VI, as George Lucas, er, intended (if you really want to believe that).

Episode VII resembles the first trilogy (that is, the middle episodes). It begins with action and ends with action, and in between we have a very predictable story arc that is plucked right out of “A New Hope”. We are introduced to a few new characters: a disgruntled Stormtrooper (cloning went out of style) named FN-2187 (well played by John Boyega) opts out of the program and joins a new rebellion called the Resistance to overcome the First Order, which are the remnants of the old Galactic Empire. FN is paired with Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, in an appealing role) who nicknames him “Finn”. The big driving story is that Luke, the last of the Jedi, has gone missing and both the Resistance and the First Order are trying to find him. The Resistance obviously wants him to help their cause; the First Order wants to vanquish him. The map to Luke’s whereabouts is given to a cute little droid named BB-8, and that map becomes an obvious MacGuffin very quickly. Meanwhile, a girl, Rey (Daisy Ridley), comes into contact with the droid, and also Finn after his ship crashes on the planet she’s on, presumably killing Poe. Finn, Rey, and BB-8 stumble upon the Millennium Falcon, and we are soon reacquainted with two familiar and very welcomed faces: Han Solo (Harrison Ford, always a pleasure), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Solo is back to being a smuggler, but he has left a little legacy behind: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) who just happens to be a part of this First Order, taking orders from a mysterious leader, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) that looks a little bit like a middle earth reject from “Lord of the Rings”. It’s fitting Serkis would play him. Ren has the Force, because his mother happens to be Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), a General with the new Resistance. Ren obviously is torn by two worlds, in a way that Darth Vader was. Ren also wears a mask and has his voice modulated–but here it’s by choice, rather than because of being disfigured and dismembered. Ren is younger, and more unsure of who he really wants to be. It’s a good choice for a character arc, as we know Ren will most likely be the focal villain who we want to like a whole lot more than we wanted to like Darth Vader. But Kylo Ren is capable of some pretty horrible things as well, including dispatching a very well liked character. I still think it was a mistake to be rid of this particular character. But J.J. Abrams, the director, must have wanted to shake things up early.

He does a very good job of balancing the action with the character narrative, and the film’s pace is snappy. Like the original trilogy, the film never feels as long as it actually is. There’s even some good humor peppered in, something that was severely lacking in the prequels, and something that really added to the entertainment value of the film.

And as a film, it does work quite well. As a sci-fi yarn you do have to suspend disbelief at times. But there’s never a point where I felt “out” of this movie. I was sold, from the first moments of the opening crawl, and the film never let me go as an invested viewer. Of course, it ends on a cliffhanger, and so it’s hard to judge how this will all work out in the end.

But it certainly is a very strong start to hopefully a redeeming trilogy, one that can stand the test of time that the original has. It has a lot of pressure riding on it, but I think Abrams & Co. are up to the task.

My rating::-)