Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Hercule Poirot is on the job!

(2017) Mystery (20th Century Fox) Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Penélope Cruz, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton, Marwan Kenzan, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe, Phil Dunster, Miranda Raison, Rami Nasr, Hayat Kamille, Michael Rouse, Hadley Fraser, Kathryn Wilder. Directed by Kenneth Branagh


Train travel has a certain romance to it. Strangers trapped in a metal tube, rumbling across the countryside. Anything can happen; anything at all.

Many might be familiar with the classic Agatha Christie novel, one of the most famous mysteries ever written. Some might be familiar with the even more classic 1974 movie based on it which starred such legends as Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, John Gielgud, Sean Connery, Anthony Perkins and Richard Widmark. This new remake stars Kenneth Branagh (who also directed) as the famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Albert Finney in the original) who is returning to England following a grueling series of cases leading to a successful resolution in Istanbul – not Constantinople.

Taking the Orient Express back home, he is approached by Ratchett (Depp) who is looking for protection after receiving some threatening letters. Poirot, exhausted, turns down the case. The next morning, Ratchett turns up dead. The train is stuck after an avalanche buries the tracks. As crews arrive to dig the tracks out so the train might continue, Poirot must solve the case quickly but there are a number of suspects – everyone in the Calais coach had opportunity and some even had motive. Soon it becomes apparent that the murder has links to a famous unsolved crime of years past.

The Sidney Lumet-directed 1974 version to which this will inevitably be compared was a light-hearted romp with a Poirot who was quirky but undoubtedly a genius. This Poirot is more tortured than quirky, a man who realizes his own obsession with perfection will leave him perpetually disappointed in life and of course he is. This is a different Poirot than any we’ve ever seen onscreen, whether David Suchet of the excellent BBC series or Peter Ustinov of several all-star Christie cinematic adaptations which followed the success of Murder on the Orient Express. The tone here is certainly darker than we’re used to seeing from a Christie adaptation.

Michelle Pfeiffer turns in an extraordinary performance as the predatory divorcee Mrs. Hubbard, portrayed by Bacall back in 1974. While Bacall was loud-mouthed and brassy, Pfeiffer is intense and smart. Once again the characters are very different although there are some recognizable similarities. Pfeiffer twenty years ago was one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood which she remains; that beauty often overshadowed her acting talent which is considerable. Although not in the league of Meryl Streep (who is in a league of her own), she is one of the four or five best American actresses working in film today.

Most of the rest of the cast do at least adequate jobs. Depp is as restrained as he’s been in a decade, playing Ratchett as a thug more so than Widmark did in the same role. Dame Judi Dench is, well, Judi Dench. She brings dignity and a regal air to the role of Princess Dragomiroff. Penélope Cruz has a thanklessly un-glamorous role that she makes her own.

I should mention the cinematography. The 1974 film primarily took place aboard the train. Certainly the Orient Express is the star and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos takes great pains to present her from every angle conceivable. Occasionally he goes a bit overboard – an overhead shot in one of the train’s cars gives us an uncomfortably long view of the tops of the actors heads – but he also manages to make the snowy Yugoslavian countryside look positively idyllic.

Let me be plain; this film is not as good as the 1974 version and I don’t think Branagh had any illusions that it ever could be. However, it is different than that 1974 version and one that is just as valid. You may not love this film in the same way that you loved the original but there is a good chance you’ll at least respect it. You may even want to see it more than once.

REASONS TO GO: Fans of the 1974 version will find the approach here very different. Branagh and Pfeiffer are outstanding. The cinematography is gorgeous.
REASONS TO STAY: The tone here is much darker than the 1974 version. This isn’t nearly as good as the original which it will inevitably be compared to. You don’t get as good a sense of the era it is supposed to be set in.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence as well as violent thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The song played over the closing credits was sung by Michelle Pfeiffer and the lyrics written by Branagh.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100


Rebel in the Rye

Quiet please; author at work.

(2017) Biographical Drama (IFC) Nicholas Hoult, Kevin Spacey, Zoey Deutch, Victor Garber, Hope Davis, Sarah Paulson, Lucy Boynton, James Urbaniak, Amy Rutberg, Brian d’Arcy James, Eric Bogosian, Naian González Norvind, Evan Hall, Adam Busch, Celeste Arias, Bernard White, Kristine Froseth, David Berman, Will Rogers, Jefferson Mays, Caitlin Mehner. Directed by Danny Strong


Being an author is often a lonely pursuit. Writers live inside their heads more than most and for those who are true writers the act of writing is more of a compulsion than a calling. The talented ones often see that talent turn savagely on the wielder of that talent.

Jerome David Salinger (Hoult) was a teen who was bright but had difficulty dealing with authority. A caustic, sarcastic soul, he didn’t win points with school administrators by often ridiculing his professors in class. As 1939 is in full swing, he decides to attend Columbia University in New York City and study creative writing, much to the frustration of his staid stodgy father (Garber) but supported by his ever-patient mother (Davis).

At Columbia he comes under the wing of Whit Burnett (Spacey) who is a published author and a passionate teacher. Burnett, who also edits Story magazine on the side, has no time for fools or dilettantes but finds the kernel of something worthwhile in the young, insufferably arrogant student. In the meantime Jerry, as his friends and family call him, is busy wooing Oona O’Neil (Deutch) who happens to be the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neil.  Talk about a long day’s journey into night.

His pursuit of being a published author is interrupted by World War II and Salinger, who was part of the Normandy invasion as well as the Battle of the Bulge, was profoundly affected by his wartime service. He was present at the liberation of concentration camps and watched his friends die before his very eyes. He came home a changed man and although one of his psychiatrists called his PTSD “a phase,” it would as his literary agent Dorothy Olding (Paulson) said, “mess him up” for the rest of his life.

One of his constant companions during the war was Holden Caulfield, a character Salinger had invented for a short story he had submitted to The New Yorker before the war. Burnett had been particularly enamored of the character and had urged his young student to write a novel about him; Salinger had been reluctant to since he had primarily written short stories to that point but throughout the war Salinger continued to write about the character; much of what he came up with appeared in the seminal novel The Catcher in the Rye, which became a publishing phenomenon and catapulted Salinger to international fame.

However with that fame came stalkers, young people so inspired by the novel that they approached the author wearing the red hunting caps that were the preferred chapeau of Caulfield in the novel. Salinger, already a private person, felt constrained to leave New York City for rural New Hampshire where he built walls of privacy around himself and his second wife Claire Douglas (Boynton) who eventually found her husband, who wrote constantly, to be more and more distant. As time went by, she confessed to her husband that she was lonely. That didn’t seem to matter much to him.

Much of this material appears in the Kenneth Slawenski-penned biography J.D. Salinger: A Life on which this is mainly based and it certainly gets the facts about Salinger’s life right. However, we don’t really get the essence of Salinger here and maybe it isn’t possible to do so; the reclusive nature of the author makes it difficult to really get to know him now even more so than it was when he was alive (he died in 2010 at age 91).

Hoult does a credible job playing the author during the 15 year period that the story takes place. It was one of the heydays of literature in New York City but we don’t really get a sense of the vitality that suffused the literary scene that saw magazines like The New Yorker publishing some of the best work of American authors ever. The movie is in some ways lacking in that rhythm that made the Big Apple the most vital city on Earth at the time. Nevertheless, Hoult is a marvelous actor and while this isn’t the role that is going to get him to the next level, he at least does a good enough job here to continue his forward momentum.

Hoult though in many ways is overshadowed by Spacey as the charismatic Burnett. We see Burnett as a mentor, and then in later years as a man with little money who sees his magazine and publishing house slowly languishing into obscurity even as Salinger is becoming one of the most popular authors in the world. The two would have a falling out and we see that Burnett is stricken by it, while Salinger is remarkably cold. Spacey makes Burnett more memorable than Salinger himself and who knows, given his performance here and in Baby Driver we might see his name bandied about for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar during awards season.

I was never convinced of the time and place as I said earlier; the characters look and act like 21st century people rather than mid-20th century, other than the smoking. The dialogue is full of platitudes and doesn’t sound the way people of any era talk. This I found doubly surprising since Strong wrote two of HBO’s best films including Recount, one of my all-time favorite made-for-cable films.

This isn’t going to give any insight into Salinger or his work; in fact other than a few snippets, very little of the words that the author penned have made their way into the film. The best that one could hope for is that younger people, seeing this movie, might be moved to see what the fuss was about and read Catcher in the Rye for themselves. I suspect that will give frustrated viewers of this film much more insight into the mind of the author than any docudrama ever could.

REASONS TO GO: Spacey delivers a strong performance. Renewed interest in Salinger might be generated.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is littered with platitudes and the characters don’t act like people of that era.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some violence, a few sexual references and some disturbing wartime images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place in Wildwood, Cape May and other towns along the Jersey coast.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
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