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
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Death on the Nile
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wonder

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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

From Russia, With Love


Much better than a mint on your pillow.

Much better than a mint on your pillow.

(1963) Spy Thriller (United Artists) Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendariz, Lotte Lenya, Robert Shaw, Bernard Lee, Eunice Gayson, Walter Gotell, Francis de Wolf, George Pastell, Nadja Regin, Lois Maxwell, Aliza Gur, Martine Beswick, Vladek Sheybal, Anthony Dawson, Lisa “Leila” Guiraut, Hasan Ceylan, Peter Bayliss, Desmond Llewelyn. Directed by Terence Young

While most people remember the first James Bond movie (Dr. No) and the third (Goldfinger) the casual moviegoer probably doesn’t remember the second. It was a box office smash, particularly in Britain where it set a box office record in only 82 days of release. Still, it doesn’t get a lot of the love that other Bond films over the years has attained.

James Bond (Connery), MI-6 agent 007 has irritated SPECTRE, a criminal organization set on world domination led by a mysterious Number One (Dawson) who pets a white cat constantly. Planning mastermind Kronsteen (Sheybal) has come up with a plan to steal a Lekter cryptographic device from the Soviet Union and sell it back to them, while exacting revenge on Bond for killing Dr. No in the previous movie. Number One engages Number Three, Rosa Klebb (Lenya) to run the operation. She in turn utilizes SPECTRE agent Red Grant (Shaw) as her primary field operative.

However, the way to get to Bond is to use a beautiful woman and the way to get to the Lekter is to use Tatiana Romanova (Bianchi) to lure in bond with the promise of a Lekter. Of course M (Lee) and Bond know it’s a trap but if they can get their hands on a Lekter, that would be a considerable coup. Bond goes to Istanbul where station chief Ali Kerim Bey (Armendariz) meets him. Grant follows Bond around, wreaking havoc and pitting the Soviets against the Turks and Brits. Romanova rendezvous with Bond and in keeping with – and adding to – a Bond movie tradition, falls head over heels in love with the British spy.

However, SPECTRE is dogging their every move, keeping Bond alive until he can literally deliver the Lekter into their hands. Romanova, who thought she was acting on behalf of the Soviet’s in-house SMERSH agency, is now ready to defect for real. There’ll be Murder on the Orient Express and a thrilling boat chase and of course face-to-face confrontations with both Klebb and Grant before all is said and done. And I could tell you how the movie ends but you don’t have to be a genius to figure out what it’s going to be.

Young was going for a more realistic atmosphere  this time around. While there are gadgets including a fairly useful briefcase and the Lekter itself, this is mostly straight-up action as opposed to later Bond movies. Connery cemented his stardom as it was very apparent that this was a franchise that was going to have staying power – this even before Goldfinger would make it a cultural phenomenon. He’s in so many ways the ultimate male circa 1963. He’s ruggedly handsome, tough as nails, absolute catnip to women and knowledgeable as well as cultured. We mere mortal males couldn’t possibly compete against all that and there were more than a few wives at the time who, seeing this, eyed their husbands with a critical expression. They’re still doing that today, if Da Queen is any indication.

Bianchi is one of the most physically beautiful of the Bond girls, although the former Miss Italy didn’t really have the charisma of the best of them – Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Ursula Andress and Halle Berry come to mind immediately. She’s usually lumped in with Lois Chiles and Olivia D’Abo as one of the less popular girls of the series. I don’t know that it’s fair but she certainly is easy on the eyes.

Llewellyn makes his first appearance as Q, although the head of Q branch is identified by his character’s real name, Major Boothroyd here. Istanbul makes a lovely and exotic backdrop for most of the movie and of course who can go wrong with the most romantic journey in the world, the Orient Express. The winning formula of exotic locations, jaw-dropping beautiful women and clever gadgets really got its start here.

The movie is extremely dated in a lot of ways, particularly in its attitudes towards women who are mostly portrayed as either besotted creatures whose place is in the bedroom and are in need of a manly slap once in awhile, or femme fatales who are out to emasculate if not outright murder any men who come across their path. Even the wise-cracking Moneypenny (Maxwell) really doesn’t get much respect.

Armendariz, who was terminally ill when he made the movie leading Young to film most of his scenes first, is one of the more charming Bond allies and sets the bar for those that would follow. Lenya, best known as the star of her husband Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera and an Oscar nominee for The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone is a shrill but deadly efficient killer whose fight with Bond is one of the biggest kicks in the movie. Shaw, who went on to greater fame as Captain Quint in Jaws shows off washboard abs and a sardonic wit. Grant is a brilliant agent provocateur that creates a good deal of havoc here and it’s fun watching him work.

Having recently re-watched the movie, I get the sense that while it often gets short shrift among all of the Bond movies, there is reason for it. The movie doesn’t jell as well as most of the Connery Bond films and while Klebb and Grant are fine antagonists, they lack the over-the-top panache of classic Bond villains Goldfinger, Blofeld and Largo.

Those things aside and despite being terribly dated in many ways the movie still remains a terrific piece of entertainment. Certainly those tired of seeing the same three or four Bond films over and over again could do worse than to use this one as a change of pace.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the more reality-based Bonds. Armendariz is charming and Lenya and Shaw both formidable foes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: One of the more dated Bond movies.
FAMILY VALUES: Some era-appropriate sensuality and era-appropriate violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Daniela Bianchi’s voice was dubbed by Barbara Jefford due to Bianchi’s heavily Italian-accented English. This was also the final Bond film that Ian Fleming got to see as he passed away shortly after it was released.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Ultimate Blu-Ray edition is loaded with a plethora of extras that should satisfy most Bond fans, including a gallery of still images, radio and TV promos, featurettes on the late Harry Saltzman, the exotic filming locations (some of which weren’t quite so exotic), a comparison between Fleming and Raymond Chandler and an interview with Fleming by the CBC.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $78.9M on a $2M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental/streaming), Amazon (streaming only), Vudu (purchase only),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Man Flint
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Top Five

Knight and Day


Knight and Day

Club Med, this ain't.

(20th Century Fox) Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Maggie Grace, Marc Blucas, Jordi Molla, Falk Hentschel, Lennie Loftin, Dale Dye, Rich Manley, Celia Weston, Gal Gadot. Directed by James Mangold

Although I can’t prove it, I do believe that all women dream of a dark, handsome man who’ll whisk them away on the adventure of a lifetime. Most every woman I’ve ever asked has said that’s a fantasy of theirs. As they say, be careful what you wish for.

June Havens (Diaz) is returning home to Boston after scouring junkyards in Wichita for car parts for the GTO she’s rebuilding for her sister’s wedding gift. In the airport she literally bumps into Roy Miller (Cruise), a handsome, nice man who seems genuinely polite. June is immediately attracted to him but as usual dithers about doing anything about it. Her problem is that she’s been burned by the skeletons in the closets of the men she chooses too many times. Of course, there are skeletons and then there are SKELETONS…

Roy has a doozy. He’s a field agent for the CIA who has stolen a battery from an agency lab, along with its inventor, whiz kid Simon Feck (Dano). It’s not just any Duracell, either; it’s a perpetual energy battery that can indefinitely power, say, a small city. Obviously this is something a lot of people want to get their hands on, not the least of which is Roy’s partner Fitzgerald (Sarsgaard), his boss Agency Director George (Davis) and Spanish arms dealer Antonio (Molla).

Fitzgerald sends some agents on the plane from Wichita to Boston to try and apprehend Miller, but they fail. Unfortunately, both of the pilots get caught in the crossfire and the plane goes down in a field. Roy and June are the only survivors.

June wakes up (after Roy drugs her, a repeated theme throughout the movie) in her own bed and wonders if it was a dream. However, the post-it notes Roy left for her throughout her house advising her not to get in a vehicle with anyone claiming to be from an agency, to deny all knowledge of Roy and to get as far away from any agent as possible who tells her that she’s going somewhere safe and secure as this is code for “we’re going to execute you.” She tries to explain all this to her would-be boyfriend, fireman Rodney (Blucas) but they are interrupted by Roy who takes June hostage.

They get away and try to find Simon but Roy is late getting there and the understandably nervous Simon has fled for Austria. Right about then the Spanish gunmen arrive…

The plot here is really secondary to two things; the action and Tom Cruise. Mangold has crafted a fairly competent action movie with some nice stunts, although nothing terribly elaborate by say James Bond standards. The attraction here is Cruise. He is in full-on movie star mode.

Back in the day, there were movie stars like Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen who mesmerized you just by being onscreen. They had an indefinable charisma, something you can’t really explain but certainly can feel. You’re drawn in. There are very few of them left today. Tom Hanks is one, Julia Roberts is another. Cruise is like that, too.

He is no longer the young guy in his tighty whities sliding across the floor to Bob Seger, but he still has that incandescent smile and that self-confidence that makes him so irresistible to women, even if he has developed some middle age jowls. Whenever he’s onscreen (which is nearly the entire movie), the screen sparkles.

You have to feel for Cameron Diaz. She’s a fine actress in her own right and quite pretty, but she doesn’t have the kind of screen presence that Cruise possesses. That’s not a bad thing – it’s a pretty rare commodity – but it does make her almost an afterthought when you remember the movie, even after just having seen it.

There’s a pretty fine support cast, including the urbane Sarsgaard doing his best villainy, and Davis who resembles facially and vocally a young Alfre Woodward here. Dano is nearly unrecognizable as the Hall and Oates-loving genius who is perpetually in a state of shattered nerves.

That Hall and Oates thing is what lies at the heart of the flaws that the movie possesses. I know teenaged geniuses can be quirky but loving Hall and Oates music? Doesn’t seem realistic to me; I would have thought it better if the kid was into Lady Gaga or something a little more contemporary. Also, Paul Dano didn’t look like a young teenager or even a college student; that also took me out of the film’s world a little bit.

The conceit of drugging June constantly so that Roy can rescue her got a bit wearisome and kind of smacked of lazy writing – that way we didn’t get to see Roy get them out of the sticky situations they were in. It was bang, he knocked her out, there were a few brief moments where she faded into consciousness at various stages of the operation, and then bang, she’s awake in some totally different locale. Yes, we get that Roy is very, very good at what he does – it wouldn’t have hurt to see a bit more proof of that onscreen. The writers make a half-hearted attempt to put some doubt as to Roy’s motivations, but we know he’s a good guy from the beginning; this is a non-twist and these are the kinds of things that tend to distract viewers from a movie’s better nature.

Otherwise, this is a pretty good movie, not great. Certainly it kept me entertained the entire time and I enjoyed myself while I was watching it. It’s not as bad as I heard it was, nor is it as good as I hoped it was. It’s a standard action comedy, elevated by Cruise to something better. That’s good enough for me.

REASONS TO GO: Tom Cruise is at the top of his game. The movie is fun and lively.

REASONS TO STAY: Again, nothing particularly new or cutting-edge here and the CGI is a bit atrocious in places. A little too Looney Tunes for my taste at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence (action style) throughout and a little bit of bad language. Perfectly suitable for all teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The script was originally titled All New Enemies and the movie was shot under the title Wichita before changing its name to the current title.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the action sequences look to need a larger screen, by and large this one is perfectly adequate at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Land of the Lost