Movie Review ~ Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: A lavish train ride unfolds into a stylish & suspenseful mystery. From the novel by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express tells of thirteen stranded strangers & one man’s race to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Coleman, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, Lucy Boynton, Sir Derek Jacobi, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Sergei Polunin, Willem Dafoe

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In my limited experience with Amtrak, I’ve come to the conclusion travel by train through the Midwest can be the most exciting way to be bored. There’s a rush of fun and thrill to board, find your seat, and sit back as the chugging engine moves you past the fields of wheat and country roads. Then that first half hour is over and you realize you have seven more to go until you reach your destination. I’ll admit that there were times when I wish there was something more exciting to do aside from looking forward to your time in the dining car. Not saying that murder would be a welcome addition to riding the rails but…it could spice things up a bit.

Maybe that’s why I was always such a fan of Agatha Christie’s sparkling 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express and its various incarnations on film and television over the years. I have a particular fondness for Sidney Lumet’s star-studded 1974 film that featured Albert Finney as Christie’s famed moustachioed detective, Hercule Poirot. Though too young for the role and padded enough to make him look like a Belgian Humpty Dumpty, Finney won me over (even if Christie didn’t care for him) and the ensemble cast of A-listers made solving the mystery Christie cooked up that much more fun. Poirot has ridden the Orient Express again in two more adaptations for television but he’s back onscreen under the guidance of director/star Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and the results are similarly old-fashioned and quite fun.

Many are going to have a problem with the relative cool tone of the film and it’s aloof star player. This is a movie that unspools slowly and with precision, taking care to present grand elegance instead of common luxury and nuanced performances in place of star cameos. I’m not saying it all works but, for me, it was the ride I was hoping for.

On his way back to London to help with a case, Poirot finds himself on the famed Orient Express on a three day journey back from Istanbul. The train is unusually crowded at this late winter date so all compartments are occupied. En route, Poirot’s careful eye sees an unusual familiarity between two supposed strangers (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.) and a sadness in a deeply religious missionary (Penelope Cruz, Zoolander 2).  He spots a divide in the working relationship between an art dealer (Johnny Depp, Tusk) and his two employees (Derek Jacobi, Cinderella, and Josh Gad, Beauty & the Beast) and observes a brusque chill from a Russian Princess (Judi Dench, Skyfall) traveling with her maid (Olivia Colman, Hyde Park on Hudson).  There’s also a strange German doctor (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project) and a brash man-eater (Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!) keeping him occupied and, at the very least, entertained.

It’s when the train derails in the middle of the night and one of the passengers ends up dead that Poirot’s brief bid for rest gets interrupted. There’s a killer onboard and the longer Poirot interrogates each passenger the more he begins to realize there are multiple suspects with the same motivation.  Can he detect who done the deed before the rescue crews arrive and the train makes its way to its final stop?  The solution to this one is a corker and those who know it won’t be surprised but Branagh and company want you to remember it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.

This is a handsome looking film and Branagh has captured it nicely in 65mm, preserving the lushness of the setting and maintaining the classic grain of a celluloid experience while keeping things crisp. The landscapes are almost entirely CGI (didn’t think Dench was going to get snowbound in the middle of nowhere did you?) but the period details are all practical and perfect.  Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Thor)works with Branagh to find interesting angles, such as the discovery of the body filmed from above which makes the audience feel like we’re watching rats in a maze.  There are nice long takes as the camera moves throughout the train and everyone is framed to look their absolute best.

Branagh will likely catch some heat for making the thrust of the film rely a bit too much on him. The magic of the previous movie was how well balanced Finney was with the rest of the actors; Ingrid Bergman even won an Oscar for her small role which is played here by Cruz.  The interrogation scenes felt more intimate and personal there whereas under Branagh’s watch the interviews are brief and blunt.  There’s a crime from the past that mysteriously links everyone on board and because it weighs so heavily into the solution there could have been better steps taken by screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) to lay the groundwork throughout the first ¾ of the film.

I didn’t mind Branagh’s screen time, nor did I think twice about his crazy facial hair or thick Belgian accent. I liked his persnickety ways and it plays nicely off the rest of the cast who are allowed to be a bit more broad.  The film ends with a hint that we might get more Poirot (Death on the Nile, from the sound of it) and I’d be up for another adventure with Branagh.  Dench, as always, makes the most out of her role, easily nailing all of her character’s grand snooty comebacks.  Gad and Depp are usually pain points for me but they play a good game here, both actors are restrained without feeling constrained.  Ridely, Odom Jr., and Cruz might be far less memorable than previous actors that have played these roles but they acquit themselves nicely the more we get to know them.  Lovely Pfeiffer is having a grand time playing a loudmouth widow, she looks gorgeous and Branagh even got her to sing a lullaby over the closing credits.  Pfeiffer has a sweet, if thin, voice but it works for the song and the character.

I always enjoyed watching the original film during the winter months on a cold day. It’s good timing this new version is coming out just as the temperature is dropping and snow is on the horizon.  It’s a perfect film for a lazy day or sophisticated night out.  The deliberate pace and overall conservation of energy might bore audiences that just paid to see the brain smashing Thor: Ragnorok last weekend, but I’d encourage you to book passage on Murder on the Orient Express for another type of adventure.

The Silver Bullet ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Trailer #2)

Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Release Date: December 15, 2017

Thoughts:

The Silver Bullet ~ Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Synopsis: A lavish train ride through Europe quickly unfolds into the thrilling mystery of thirteen strangers stranded on a train, where everyone’s a suspect. One man must race against time to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

Release Date: November 10, 2017

Thoughts: Oh boy does this one look fun.  Based on Agatha Christie’s twist-filled 1934 novel, audiences have traveled on the Orient Express already in a BBC adaptation and the 1974 star-studded spectacle which remains one of my all time favorite films.  I admit I grimaced a bit when I heard a new version was in the works but as the cast came together for director/star Kenneth Branagh’s remake I began to soften a little.  This first trailer hints at the high level of class the filmmakers are employing for this murder mystery and though I’m guessing movie-goers may chuckle a bit at Branagh’s grandiose Poirot mustache I’d be willing to bet they’ll be intrigued enough to hop on board when it’s released in November. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer (Grease 2), Judi Dench (Skyfall), Johnny Depp (Dark Shadows), Penelope Cruz (Zoolander 2), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Willem Dafoe (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and, regrettably, Josh Gad (Frozen)

The Silver Bullet ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Release Date: December 15, 2017

Thoughts: Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, OMG, Amazing, Laura Dern, December Get Here Soon!, Why are you still reading my thoughts…watch the first teaser trailer now!

Movie Review ~ Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A continuation of the saga created by George Lucas and set thirty years after Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.

Stars: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Max von Sydow, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Crystal Clarke, Pip Anderson, Christina Chong, Miltos Yerolemou

Director: J.J. Abrams

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Hey all you spoiler-phobic Star Wars fans…you’ve come to the right place!  Have no fear, I’m not going to reveal any major plot points or ruin any of the surprises that director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness) has in store for you.  So I’m going to give you two reviews…one that is as spoiler-free as can be and another that will be slightly more descriptive (but still without any key points you aren’t already aware of).  Are you ready?  OK!

Totally spoiler-free review:

The wait was worth it and Star Wars fans finally have the sequel they’ve been waiting for since 1983’s Return of the Jedi.  The effects are marvelous, the script tight, and the score by John Williams returns the sound of the series back to its grandly epic origins.  In short, it’s a film that knows where it came from and has a vision for the future.

Now…for some more descriptive musings on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

There’s a moment in the silent moments before Star Wars: The Force Awakens begins when my heart started to beat a little faster, my breath started catching a bit.  After all this time, a direct sequel to the original trilogy of the operatic space odyssey created by George Lucas was waiting mere frames away.  The time to hold grudges against the weak prequels vanished when those familiar words came up on screen… “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…” and then…the logo, the music, the opening crawl that lays out what’s been going on since we last saw Luke, Leia, Han Solo, and other creatures great, small, or mechanical.  I gotta admit, I had goosebumps from the tips of my toes to the top of my head.

With the Sith destroyed and the Empire fallen, a new enemy has surfaced that threatens the peace the Resistance has tried to bring to the galaxy.  The First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire with a new leader (Supreme Leader Snoke, Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), a new General (Hux, Domhnall Gleeson, About Time), and a new commander (Kylo Ren, Adam Driver, Frances Ha) strong with the force with ties to Darth Vader.  The First Order is searching for a warrior gone missing, tracking an ace pilot for the Resistance (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) to a planet where he’s meeting with an elder (Max Von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredible Close) who holds a key to the warrior’s whereabouts.

In a nice tip of the hat to the original Star Wars, this important piece of information is hidden within a droid and soon finds itself in the hands of Rey (newcomer Daisy Ridley), an otherwise ordinary civilian that must travel from her planet via a familiar ship long since left for junk.  Accompanied by defecting Storm Trooper Finn (John Boyega) before being joined by Han Solo (Harrison Ford, The Expendables 3) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), all are thrust into an adventure that hops planets and light years.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm Ltd (thereby acquiring the rights to the Star Wars franchise) for a cool $4 billion there was a general discomfort that the House of Mouse wouldn’t do right by the characters.  But Disney has delivered, and delivered in a big way.  The $200-million-dollar film looks amazing with top-notch special effects seamlessly blending with live action to create 135 minutes of thrilling sequence after thrilling sequence.  Not all thrills come from special effects though; just try to stave off the chills of hearing John Williams stirring score or deflect the rousing excitement of Han Solo reuniting with Princess (now General) Leia (a marvelously sanguine Carrie Fisher).  When Ford and Fisher are on screen together the decades absolutely melt away and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, and J.J. Abrams have wisely kept their banter appropriately campy and fun.  Ford in particular looks like he’s having more fun on screen then he’s had in years, reminding us why he’s a movie star.

Speaking of stars, Abrams has impeccably cast the film’s two leads with Ridley being the clear stand-out.  Reminding me of a younger Keira Knightly, Ridley ably handles the range of her arc which puts her in numerous precarious situations.  Boyega, too, is a welcome presence and while early on the actor tries a bit too hard, he’s redeemed by the end once he relaxes into the role.  Both actors bring an energetic vibrancy to the screen, we’ve just met them yet we’re on their side from the beginning.  They mesh nicely with the returning cast members and other new faces (including 12 Years a Slave Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o as a kind of next-gen Yoda), making this an easily accessible film for longtime fans or those new to the franchise.

If I had one gripe, it’s a small-ish one and it has to do with the Serkis’ realization of Snoke.  The one effect that comes off as too CGI, I wished that the larger than life baddie was introduced on a more practical level instead of being motion-captured to the high heavens into a shadowy evil from the Dark Side.  Still, it’s a small complaint for a film that’s overwhelmingly enjoyable.

Before seeing this seventh episode of the Star Wars saga, I was planning on re-watching all of the films (which I hadn’t seen in, gulp, nearly a decade) to bone up on the story up until this point.  Time constraints made that impossible and in a way I’m glad that I hadn’t inundated myself with previous installments because it helped me take in The Force Awakens for what it was, the beginning of the next chapter of Star Wars.  And what an impressive beginning it is.

The Silver Bullet ~ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

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Synopsis: A continuation of the saga created by George Lucas set thirty years after The Return of the Jedi.

Release Date:  December 18, 2015

Thoughts: If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time you’ll know that I love a good, old-fashioned teaser trailer.  Lately, a “teaser trailer” has been more along the lines of a 2:30 (or longer) appetizer to share rather than the kind of amuse-bouche executed so skillfully during the late 80s/early 90s.
Blessedly, our first look at the hotly anticipated next chapter in the Star Wars franchise harkens back to those fondly remembered days of yore when brief glimpses whet the whistle of movie audiences everywhere.

Directed by J.J. Abrams (who successfully rebooted another Star franchise with Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness) and co-written by Lawrence Kasdan (continuing his long history with the franchise after scripting The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) it’s an understatement to say that whatever countdown fans have had for a new outer space adventure has officially started now that this satisfying peak has been released.  My only concern as of now is that with Abrams on board it will look similar to the Star Trek films and rely too much on the director’s flare for the, well, solar flare camera work he’s become infamous for.

Grumble grumble quibble quibble…right?  When all is said this, along with Jurassic World, are two of my most anticipated films of 2015.