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 ~ 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)

Movie Review ~ Zoolander 2

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Derek and Hansel are modelling again when an opposing company attempts to take them out from the business.

Stars: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Billy Zane, Fred Armisen, Christine Taylor, Cyrus Arnold, Justin Bieber, Kyle Mooney

Director: Ben Stiller

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review:  I guess I just need to start this review by owning up to the hard truth that before doing my homework for Zoolander 2 by re-watching the original, I’d only seen Zoolander once, back on the day it opened three weeks after September 11 in 2001.  Arriving at time when audiences needed a brainless piece of fluff to distract them for a minor amount of time, the comedy was 89 minutes of funny, if perplexing, moments.  For each solid laugh there were a dozen groans and while it did a fair job skewering the easy target of male models and fashionistas, it never left a lasting impression on me.  In the years since it’s evolved into a bit of a cult hit (it did better business on video than it did in theaters), but I never felt the need to revisit it until the sequel came creaking along.

Now, no one is going to accuse director/writer/star Ben Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) of missing the boat on cashing in on a sequel to a popular title from his canon.  With Meet the Parents, Madagascar, and Night of the Museum now trilogies, Stiller likely was running through his IMDb page and landed on Zoolander as the target of his next trip to the Stiller well (we should be thankful he didn’t set his sights on Starsky & Hutch or Dodgeball…oh wait, a sequel to Dodgeball is already in development).

A whopping 15 years after the original was released, Zoolander 2 is ready to strut its stuff on a catwalk near you and while overall it’s better made than its predecessor, it suffers from the same chronic forgetability.  Though Stiller and co-star Owen Wilson (Inherent Vice) look remarkably, um, “refreshed”, the jokes and comic foibles of the two dunderhead models start to feel musty halfway through the smorgasbord of cameo appearances and off-the-wall tangents.

A freak accident a decade ago sent former male model Derek Zoolander (Stiller) into exile in Northern New Jersey and split his family apart.  When he’s called out of retirement by Billy Zane bearing an invitation to model in Italy, Derek agrees as a way to show he can be a fit parent and provide for his son.  Meanwhile, Hansel (Wilson) has been hiding out in Malibu, ashamed of a disfigurement that ended his career.  He’s also visited by Zane with the same offer of redemption and in an attempt to find out who he really is, agrees to put his shallow pride to the side and take to the runway.  Soon after their arrival, Derek and Hansel are in the middle of a conspiracy within the fashion world involving a legend that’s part The Da Vinci Code and part acid trip which threatens to end their careers (and lives) for good.

Upping the ante from the original film, the cameos that Stiller has secured are plentiful.  Running the gamut from Susan Boyle to Anna Wintour, Stiller isn’t messing around when it comes to stacking the deck with famous faces even though it’s clear many of them filmed in front of a blue screen and were digitally input into the scenes.  Without question, the majority of the fun derived from revisiting Stiller’s brainless model is picking out the stars that pass through the frame.  And the film earned a full two stars from me in its opening moments when it blessedly offs an annoying pop star that definitely had it coming.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its moments, because it does have some sequences that are so absurd you can’t help but laugh at the insanity of it all.  To their credit, Stiller and fellow screenwriters Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg insert joke upon joke upon joke so if four are duds there’s sure to be one solid laugh coming right on their heels.  The film gets its best results with Will Ferrell (Daddy’s Home) reprising his role as a megalomaniac designer and Kristen Wiig (The Martian) made up to the high heavens as a European fashion maven modeled after Donatella Verasce.  When Ferrell and Wiig are involved, you just have to let the camera roll and they’ll do the work for you.  The biggest surprise of the film is how high Penelope Cruz flies.  The Oscar winner hasn’t been this free for years and she seems to relish the opportunity to play with broad strokes.

Yet overall the film feels as hollow as the fashion world itself.  It’s all fun on the surface and in the moment but it leaves no lasting impression on the viewer.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have an overall positive reaction during the screening, I laughed at the most absurd passages (be prepared to let Fred Armisen haunt your dreams as a…well…I shan’t spoil the remarkable vision for you) and enjoyed myself sporadically, but upon reflection it’s simply a well packaged bag of potato chips…more stale air than actual food.

The Silver Bullet ~ Zoolander 2

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Synopsis: Derek and Hansel are modelling again when an opposing company attempts to take them out from the business.

Release Date: February 12, 2016

Thoughts: In a case of striking while the iron is ice cold, Ben Stiller is resurrecting his dunderhead model character from the 2001 sleeper hit. Released two weeks after the September 11 attacks, the original film represented the first chance for audiences to laugh again with the skewering satire of the model industry that doesn’t exactly (in my mind at least) hold up on repeat viewings. Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) isn’t wanting for directing/acting opportunities or franchise endeavors so I’m curious to see why 2016 was the right time to bring back Derek Zoolander. This teaser is a little on the obnoxious side but with Tropic Thunder screenwriter Justin Theroux (Wanderlust) providing the script, maybe there’s hope for something worth the 15 year wait.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Counselor

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Synopsis: A lawyer finds himself in over his head when he gets involved in drug trafficking.

Release Date:  October 25, 2013

Thoughts: Three time Oscar nominated director Ridley Scott (Prometheus, Thelma & Louise, Alien) is one of my most trusted directors not because he’s been involved with some of my favorite films but because he’s never been one to be locked in a box.  Comfortable with drama as much as he is with muscle-y bravado action films he’s willing to take risks with material usually to strong results.  In The Counselor, he’s assembled a truly A-List cast to bring prolific author Cormac McCarthy’s first screenplay to life.  McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men inspired a truly haunting film that deservedly won Best Picture in 2008.  I’m not sure The Counselor will be going after that big prize but with a cast this impressive teaming up with Scott and McCarthy…this is a movie to get excited for.