Murder on the Orient Express


The moment of truth.

The moment of truth.

(1974) Mystery (Paramount) Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Martin Balsam, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, Michael York, Colin Blakely, George Coulouris, Denis Quilley, Vernon Dobtcheff, Jeremy Lloyd, John Moffatt. Directed by Sidney Lumet

Our Film Library 2015

One of the more delightful movie subgenres is the whodunit, which the more sophisticated tend to call “drawing room mysteries.” They became popular during the 1930s in the midst of the depression thanks in large part to authors like Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers and Ellery Queen. These murder mysteries usually have a long list of suspects, take place in a swanky environment like an English estate or a seacoast resort.

Few, if any, reached the heights of Murder on the Orient Express, the work that would eventually become Christie’s best-known work and arguably the greatest mystery novel ever written. When master director Sidney Lumet took on this daunting work, it was with the understanding that star power was going to sell it, and he would assemble what could well be the best cast ever put together for a single movie.

And what a movie! Internationally famous detective Hercule Poirot (Finney) has solved a crime in India and is in Istanbul, preparing to return home to Belgium on the Orient Express, then the most luxurious mode of overland travel in the world. Because the train is booked solid, director of the line Signor Bianchi (Balsam), a personal friend of Poirot, gets the famed sleuth a berth on the Calais Coach.

At dinner, Poirot is approached by Ratchett (Widmark), a wealthy American businessman who believes that his life is in danger and who attempts to engage Poirot’s services as a bodyguard but Poirot refuses, uninterested in the case. Later that night, Ratchett is murdered, stabbed to death in his bed.

Bianchi pleads with Poirot to solve the crime, hoping to avoid a scandal. Poirot agrees and begins interrogating the passengers on the Calais coach who are the main suspects; Pierre-Paul Michel (Cassel), the conductor; Mrs. Harriet Hubbard (Bacall), a loud brash American housewife; Beddoes (Gielgud), Ratchett’s butler; Greta Ohlsson (Bergman), a Swedish missionary; Count Rudolf Andrenyi (York), a Hungarian aristocrat and diplomat; Elena Grunwald Andrenyi (Bisset), his new bride; Colonel Arbuthnot (Connery), a British Officer in the British Indian army returning to England on leave; Mary Debenham (Redgrave), a British teacher also returning home to England; Princess Natalia Dragomiroff (Hiller), an elderly Russian royal; Hildegarde Schmidt (Roberts), the Princess’ personal maid; Hector McQueen (Perkins), Ratchett’s personal secretary; Gino Foscarelli (Quilley), a car salesman of Italian extraction from Chicago, and finally Cyrus Hardman (Blakely), a Pinkerton detective.

To Poirot’s surprise, he discovers that most of the people on the Calais coach aren’t who they appear to be, with the victim himself involved with a particularly heinous crime – the kidnapping and murder of baby Daisy Armstrong, a notorious case (based on the real Lindbergh baby kidnapping) that had ended with the baby murdered leading to her mother giving premature birth to a stillborn child and dying in the process, the father killing himself out of grief, a wrongly accused maid leaping to her death from a window and the maid’s mother dying of grief. Not only that, all of the passengers on the Calais coach had a personal connection with the Armstrong family. This will prove to be the most challenging case of Poirot’s career, not just in terms of solving the mystery but whether or not justice would be served by solving it.

The movie would be nominated for six Academy Awards and won one, for Bergman’s performance in a supporting role. In 1974 it was very much an anachronism, given the bleak anti-hero types of movies that were prevalent at the time. Murder on the Orient Express was very much a throwback to an earlier era in moviemaking and maybe that’s why it resonates so much with audiences then and now. It has a timeless quality that makes it enjoyable to all audiences since it was made, and will likely to delight audiences far into the future.

There’s the cast of course, with some of Hollywood’s elite in the credits. I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t a weak performance in the bunch and Finney, who endured hours of make-up to make him resemble the fastidious middle-aged Belgian (Finney was 37 when this was filmed) more than he did in real life (Christie herself seemed to have been fine with his portrayal but was disappointed over his moustache). While David Suchet has made quite the career for himself as Poirot on TV, I still prefer the more flamboyant version Finney gave us.

The movie is just pure fun. It nicely recreates the decadence of the era as well as giving us moments of the screaming meemies at times. While the book is much darker than the movie is, the movie remains one of my favorites, a fun ride that I still enjoy even though I’ve seen it dozens of times.

WHY RENT THIS: True movie magic. A cast the likes of which we will never see again. Perhaps Christie’s best mystery. Beautiful period setting.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too light and fluffy for true mystery aficionados.
FAMILY VALUES: A scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the only film adaptation of her work that Agatha Christie was ever truly satisfied with. She attended the premiere in 1974 and would die 14 months later in 1976.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The DVD contained a biography of Christie hosted by her son. Sadly, the movie has never gotten the home video treatment that a film this beloved should have.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $28.2M on a $2.3M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental), Amazon (not available), Vudu (not available),  iTunes (not available), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Death on the Nile
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Chappie

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Ernest & Celestine (Ernest et Célestine)


Celestine shares a secret with Ernest.

Celestine shares a secret with Ernest.

(2012) Animated Feature (GKIDS) Starring the voices of Forest Whitaker, Mackenzie Foy, Lauren Bacall, Paul Giamatti, William H. Macy, Megan Mullally, Nick Offerman, Jeffrey Wright, David Boat, Ethan DiSalvio, Delphina Belle, Gary Littman, Maggie Villard, Joe Ochman, Ashley Brooke, Marsha Clark, Ashley Earnest, Cameron Dickson. Directed by Stephane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner

Florida Film Festival 2014

Childhood was a magical time. It was a time of perfect summer days, running around outdoors in the fresh air and finding places where there were meadows, greenery, fresh water or a lovely beach – places we would find we could play in and let our imaginations run wild. It was a time of cold winter nights, tucked into our warm beds after a cup of hot cocoa and a story. It’s not like that anymore.

These days it is a time of video games and day care, a time when overworked parents working harder and longer hours just to make ends not quite meet spend less and less time with their kids. It’s a time of fear and paranoia, of worrying about all the lunatics out there who want to hurt our children. It’s also a time of plopping the kids in front of the TV, computer screen or videogame console just to get them out of our hair for an hour or two.

Ernest & Celestine, a French animated feature based on a series of classic children’s books by Belgian author Gabrielle Vincent, is a welcome return to that feeling of warm comfort that only comes in childhood. There is a hand-drawn feel that is simple but not in the way of the excremental Cartoon Network crap that passes for animation these days – there’s a pastel watercolor beauty to the film that shows why animation is art first and foremost. That it was nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar at the most recent Academy Awards is no accident.

In an underground city of mice, Celestine (Foy) is an orphan who is obliged to go out in the above-ground city of bears to steal discarded teeth so that the school of orthodontics can practice (apparently all mice want to be dentists) as well as scraps of food so that they can, you know, eat. The mice orphans are regaled with tales of the Big Bad Bear who will eat misbehaving mice by The Grey One (Bacall) at the orphanage. It is definitely the bedtime story from Hell.

One night a mishap occurs while Celestine is trying to steal teeth and she is obliged to spend the night in a trashcan in the Bear Town. Ernest (Whitaker), a down on his luck bear, has just awakened from his winter hibernation and man, is he starved! With nothing in the house, he busks around the town square as a one man band, getting hassled by the police. Desperate, he starts foraging in trash cans and finds the sleeping form of Celestine. About to eat her, the quick-witted mouse manages to convince him not to and shows him a way to get into the candy store. Delighted with this turn of luck, Ernest gorges himself on candy until he is discovered. Celestine hides him in the Mouse city and soon, a friendship of necessity is born as both mouse and bear become wanted as fugitives.

This is a simple tale of friendship and of getting past preconceptions, although it must be said that children are much better at it than adults are to begin with. Still, as this is most certainly geared towards younger children, it is a lesson that bears reinforcement.

I’m told that the original French version is superior to this (and it was originally shown in the U.S. in that form) but I have to say – Forest Whitaker was born to be a bear. He captures the essence of bruin vocally, gruff and growly but with a big heart. The look of Ernest is just perfect too, rumpled and disreputable – a bear whose every move should be accompanied by the sound of a mournful oboe. It is also nice to hear Bacall’s distinctive voice once again.

This is a fairly short film so it won’t tax the attention span of the very young. While the attitude and vibe is very French, American kids will love this – it’s as charming as can be and waaaay better than the stuff they see on cable and the humor is kind of Looney Tunes style so adults will get a kick out of it too. As far as this adult is concerned however, the best part was feeling that warm fuzzy feeling of being cared for that one gets as a child – that’s a priceless commodity these days that makes the effort of seeking this out worth every bit of it.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful animation. Heartwarming and not boring for adults. Whitaker was born to be a bear. Perfect for toddlers and very young children.

REASONS TO STAY: Older kids may find this unpalatable.

FAMILY VALUES:  Perfectly suitable for all family members.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first animated movie to win Best Film at the Magritte Awards, the Belgian equivalent of the Oscars.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Charlotte’s Web

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Druid Peak

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff


An aging cameraman can still appreciate the timeless beauty of a young Audrey Hepburn.

An aging cameraman can still appreciate the timeless beauty of a young Audrey Hepburn.

(2010) Documentary (Strand) Jack Cardiff, Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall, Kim Hunter, John Mills, Alan Parker, Thelma Schoonmaker, Freddie Francis, Rafaella de Laurentiis, Richard Fleischer, Peter Yates, Kathleen Byron, Orson Welles. Directed by Craig McCall

The golden age of Hollywood was marked by larger than life stars and beautifully photographed films in gorgeous black and white or later, in epic Technicolor. Part of the reason those movies looked so good were men like Jack Cardiff – not that there were many like him.

Cardiff has worked with some of the greatest names in Hollywood – from the stars (Marlene Dietrich, John Wayne, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn) to the directors (Alfred Hitchcock, King Vidor, Michael Powell). He came out of the British cinema working with the director-writer team of Powell and Emeric Pressburger which was better known as “The Archers” and with them was responsible for such classics as The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus (for which he won the Oscar) and A Matter of Life and Death.

He would go on to work on other movies including The African Queen, The Vikings, The Barefoot Contessa, War and Peace, The Prince and the Showgirl (the Laurence Olivier/Marilyn Monroe film chronicled in My Week With Marilyn), Death on the Nile, Ghost Story and Rambo: First Blood Part II. He was active until 2007 but would pass away in 2009 while this film was in post-production.

Cardiff was known for his expertise with the then-nascent Technicolor process. Many cinematographers, used to black and white, had trouble when it came to color. You would think not since we all see in color but the fact is that the use of color can be a tricky thing when it comes to art and cinema. Cardiff always knew how to use color both subtly and epically.

McCall utilizes both archival footage and recent interviews with Cardiff and some of the people he’s worked with over the years. The segments featuring Cardiff are the most fascinating; he’s got a lot of interesting stories and his home movies on the set feature the stars letting down their hair somewhat are fascinating.

We don’t get a lot of background about Cardiff’s personal life. In fact, none at all that I can remember. I would have appreciated a bit of insight into who he was personally but that’s not really what this film is about – it’s about his professional life. That’s why his profession is the title of the movie and comes before his name although it might have been more accurately subtitled The Work and Not So Much the Life of Jack Cardiff.

There are a few too many talking heads mostly all saying essentially the same things. I thought the movie could have done with more examples of Cardiff’s work and more of Cardiff himself and less of people saying what a legend he is. But the movie serves to remind us of how glorious that age was and how much modern cinema owes to Cardiff. It makes you want to run right out and rent a copy of Black Narcissus and that can’t be a bad thing.

WHY RENT THIS: A look back at one of the greatest and most influential cinematographers ever. A reminder of Hollywood’s glamour.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many talking heads. Tells us next to nothing about the man himself.

FAMILY VALUES: A few mildly bad words here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cardiff is to date the only cinematographer to be honored with a special Oscar (in 2001).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some additional home movies Cardiff shot on the sets of his classic films as well as an examination of the three-strip Technicolor process that was one of his trademarks.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $20,840 on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking this probably lost a few bucks.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Black Death

Top 5 Starfests


One of the big draws of The Expendables (see review) is the star power; many of the biggest stars in the action genre of the last 20 years make an appearance in the movie. Loading up a movie with as many stars as you can fit in is nearly as old as Hollywood is itself; having multiple stars draws across various fanbases and give the movie a wider potential audience to draw from. Some movies exist for little reason beyond just getting those self-same stars into the same movie; how many people would have seen Heat for example had it not had both Pacino and De Niro in it? At their best, Starfests can be a romp allowing big stars to shine in small little-more-than-cameo roles. These are my favorites.

HONORABLE MENTION

There are several movies that didn’t make the top five but were worthy of mentioning here. Robin and the Seven Hoods (1962) was ostensibly a Rat Pack movie with Sinatra, Deano and Sammy, it also boasted Bing Crosby, Peter Falk, Barbara Rush, Victor Buono, Tony Randall and Edward G. Robinson, along with a number of Borscht Belt comics of the day. The Towering Inferno (1974) followed the tried and true disaster film formula of throwing a bunch of stars into a disaster situation and then have the audience watch to see who survives. Not only did it pair up Steve McQueen and Paul Newman for the first time, the stellar cast included William Holden, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Robert Vaughn and OJ. Yes, that OJ. Clue (1985) was based on the popular board game and had the gimmick of shooting three different endings which varied depending on which theater you saw the movie in. The cast of characters included Madeline Kahn, Martin Mull, Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean and Lesley Ann Warren. Finally, Mars Attacks! (1996) was director Tim Burton’s homage to a series of collectable cards issued in the 1950s that depicted all sorts of gruesome killings perpetrated by rampaging Martians. Here, he set up a spectacular cast only to kill them off in some horrible way, including Jack Nicholson, Pierce Brosnan, Michael J. Fox, Danny De Vito, Annette Bening, Rod Steiger, Jim Brown, Glenn Close, Sylvia Sidney, Pam Grier, Joe Don Baker, Paul Winfield and Martin Short. Also cast in early roles were Jack Black and Natalie Portman before they were famous. 

5. THE GREAT RACE (1965)

 The Great Race

This Blake Edwards-directed ode to the daredevil motorists of the early1900s relied heavily on silent cinema conventions and star power to motor it along. The race from New York to Paris featured Jack Lemmon as the Dastardly Professor Fate, whose car contained among other inventions, a smoke machine, a cannon and a scissor lift. Tony Randall  Curtis was the Great Leslie, whose eyes and teeth twinkled and gleamed like the Northern Star, sure to set all sorts of female hearts a-flutter at the time. Along for the ride was an impressive cast including Natalie Wood, Dorothy Provine, Ross Martin, Keenan Wynn, Peter Falk, Arthur O’Connell, Larry Storch, Vivian Vance and Denver Pyle. It can be seen regularly on broadcast television and is usually not that hard to find at your local video retailer.

4. THE LONGEST DAY (1962)

 The Longest Day

The story of D-Day is an epic canvas in and of itself, and Hollywood just about outdid itself when it rolled out the red carpet for the stars who played both front line soldiers and officers behind the scenes where the invasion of Normandy was planned. John Wayne headlined the she-bang, but among those who were also involved including (deep breath now) Henry Fonda, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Red Buttons, Robert Mitchum, Roddy McDowell, Curt Jurgens, Robert Ryan, George Segal, Edmund O’Brien, Sal Mineo, Fabian, Mel Ferrer, Robert Wagner, Stuart Whitman, Rod Steiger, Eddie Albert and Gert Frobe. It may not have been the longest day but it might have been the longest cast. It periodically shows up on broadcast television or basic cable; it can be difficult to find at video retailers, but as a classic is most certainly worth seeking out.

3. OCEANS 11 (2001)

Oceans Eleven 

George Clooney got together with his buddy Steven Soderbergh and decided to remake the Rat Pack classic of the same name, albeit much modernized but with the same jazzy sense of style. The two of them called a bunch of A-list friends to make a new Rat Pack for the 21st century and an impressive list of talent it is; Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Elliott Gould, Carl Reiner, Andy Garcia, Scott Caan and Casey Affleck. You got the feeling that robbing the casino was not so much the point as was having a three-month long party in Vegas. Fortunately, what happened in Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas – it was a smash hit and inspired two sequels and there might have been more but for the untimely passing of Bernie Mac. Currently, it plays cable TV regularly and occasionally shows up on TBS and it’s ilk. If you don’t want to wait for it to show up on TV, you can easily find it at most rental outlets or retail stores if you want to add it to your own library.

2. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express

A classic Agatha Christie mystery became a box office smash and Oscar winner in the capable hands of director Sidney Lumet. Albert Finney starred as the natty Belgian detective Hercule Poirot faced with a vicious murder on a train that as he investigates, he determines it has something to do with an infamous kidnapping that was obviously based on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. In this gorgeous period piece, everyone’s a suspect and when you have a cast like Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Richard Widmark, Ingmar Bergman, Sean Connery, Michael York, John Gielgud, Martin Balsam, Wendy Hiller, Jacqueline Bisset, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts and Jean-Pierre Cassel, it doesn’t really matter who done it. This is one train ride I don’t mind taking over and over again and you certainly can; it makes regular appearances both on premium cable and basic cable. It is also fairly easy to find at video rental places, although generally you’re much more apt to be able to buy it online than you are in brick and mortar retailers.

1. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956)

Around the World in 80 Days

Producer Michael Todd’s epic version of the Jules Verne novel was beyond scale or scope. One of the most honored films of all time with five Oscars (including Best Picture), the movie starred the urbane David Niven as Phineas Fogg, with the Mexican comedian Cantinflas as the loyal manservant Passepartout, the cast included most of the biggest stars of the day, with Shirley MacLaine as the lovely Princess Aouda, but also in varying roles from cameos to featured roles, Frank Sinatra, Robert Morley, Noel Coward, John Gielgud, Charles Boyer, Cesar Romero, Cedric Hardwicke, Ronald Coleman, Robert Newton, Peter Lorre, George Raft, Red Skelton, Marlene Dietrich, John Carradine, Buster Keaton, Joe E. Brown, Andy Devine, Hermione Gingold, Edward R. Murrow and Trevor Howard. This remains one of the most entertaining movies ever made. It used to be a broadcast staple, but rarely shows up on cable these days; you’re probably better off renting it or buying it from your favorite retailer.