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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The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2


Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart eavesdrop on their accountants discussing future earnings.

Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart eavesdrop on their accountants discussing future earnings.

(2012) Romance (Summit) Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Peter Facinelli, Elizabeth Reaser, Ashley Greene, Jackson Rathbone, Kellan Lutz, Nikki Reed, Billy Burke, Chaske Spencer, Mackenzie Foy, Michael Sheen, Maggie Grace, Jamie Campbell Bower, Christopher Heyerdahl, Lateef Crowder, Lee Pace, Omar Metwally, Dakota Fanning. Directed by Bill Condon

Our Film Library 2015

All things come to an end – even the Earth one day will flicker out of existence, the victim of our sun’s own demise. For fans of the Twilight Saga, the approach of the final movie in the franchise was met with a bittersweet mixture of anticipation and sadness, knowing that once the movie was viewed that the series would be done forever and yet looking forward to seeing the climactic chapters in the book come to life.

Following the conversion of Bella Swan (Stewart) to vampirism by her new husband Edward Cullen (Pattinson) in order to save Bella’s life while giving birth to their new daughter Renesmee (Foy and ten other actresses not to mention CGI babies) life has resumed normalcy in the vampire household of the Cullens but it won’t stay that way for long. The vampire ruling class, the Morituri, have been informed of Renesmee’s birth and have decided that the child is an abomination that will never age, will become exceedingly powerful and dangerous and must be destroyed. They don’t like her name much, either. Then again, nobody does.

So leader Aro (Sheen) and an army of vampires from throughout the world come to Forks to do battle. Meanwhile, werewolf Jacob (Lautner) has been imprinted upon by baby Renesmee, which means that the two are destined to be lovers which is kind of creepy when you think about it. The feud between Jacob and Edward is more or less resolved, although neither Bella nor Edward are all that keen on having a werewolf as a future son-in-law. However, with Jacob imprinted by the vampire Jacob’s wolf clan reluctantly agrees to aid clan Cullen in the coming fight, which they know about because Alice Cullen (Greene) is, as everyone knows, psychic. Convenient, that is.

Anyway, it’s all going to culminate in one big battle in the snow with vampires and werewolves alike getting their heads torn off like so many cheap action figures. Bella, however, is now one mother of a badass and no longer needs to be the weakling relying on the protection of Edward and his family. Can the Cullens defeat the numerically superior Morituri clan or will the Morituri succeed in destroying the Cullens and the new baby once and for all?

Well, I’m sure you can figure out the answer to that one even if you aren’t familiar with the series. I have to admit that I actually enjoyed the first movie in the series but they’ve gotten progressively worse as the series has gone along. The fifth and final cinematic opus in the saga is unfortunately the very worst of the lot.

The cast is as a whole excruciating to watch. Even eminently watchable actors like Sheen and Dakota Fanning overact so shamelessly that the union might have considered revoking their membership. Worse still are the special effects, which for a movie with a $75 million production budget are unforgivably bad. More on that in a minute.

Despite their poor performances, I do feel for the cast because quite frankly, there are no actors good enough to elevate the script which contains dialogue that doesn’t sound like real people talking. Mostly you get the sense that the producers wanted the cast members (particularly the main characters) to look cool to the tween audience and their moms that make up the core of the Twihard nation. Tweens and moms are generally not the most trustworthy arbiters when it comes to cool.

Even so, I can even feel for the screenwriter because the little of the Twilight books I’ve read have been uniformly poorly written. They are a soap opera on a page, a lily white telenovela that shamelessly pushes buttons but doesn’t have the grace of self-awareness. Everything that happens in this movie lands with a mind-numbing dull thud.

I will say this, however. The movies have as rabid a fanbase as any in the history of books and movies. Those who love this franchise do so with all of their heart and soul and their loyalty is kind of touching. They don’t care whether the books are great literature. They don’t care that Pattinson and Stewart are spouting dialogue that sounds like it was written by an alien who has never spoken with an actual human being ever. They don’t care if the CGI wolves move like wolves, or if the decapitations look realistic, or if the wire work of the actors is graceful.

None of that matters to them. What they care about is the fantasy that the love story gives them, and it certainly appeals to the target audience without question. One thing you can say about author Stephanie Meyer – she truly understands what the audience she’s writing for wants and gives it to them. Many authors would kill for that kind of knack and I can’t really condemn her for doing what many writers dream of doing – connecting to her audience in a meaningful way.

I really can’t recommend the movie to general audiences, but that’s okay. This is a movie made for a specific niche audience and at the end of the day, it serves them well. I look at the Twilight series much the same way I look at rap; it’s not written for me, I was never meant to relate to it and it’s okay if someone else relates to it and it’s certainly not a bad thing. At the end of the day, it’s a good thing to feel a strong connection to something, whether it be to a book, a rap song, or a movie. Saying merely that something sucks is to not only to judge the book/song/movie in question but also the person who connects with it deeply and doing so betrays a certain amount of arrogance. Certainly I can be critical of the cinematic missteps that I found here in the movie and I have to be true to myself when I say I can’t encourage anyone who isn’t a fan of the series already to go see it. That doesn’t mean that I hate this movie or what it represents; clearly there are people who are truly inspired by the Twilight books and films. Even if I don’t share that connection, I can’t deny that it exists nor can I entirely say that the series is unsuccessful because clearly it has not only made the filmmakers and the author a whole lot of money but a whole lot of fans as well and who am I to object to that?

WHY RENT THIS: Twihards will want to see this again and again.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Horrible special effects, bad acting, worse writing and a sense that the studio just punched this out without support or care in order to make as much money as possible.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent battle sequences, some disturbing images, a little sensuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Had the highest budget of any of the films in the series, and also was the only film in the series that had a complete opening credits sequence.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray contains a feature that allows you to jump to either Edward or Jacob-centric scenes. The making of feature is surprisingly good and Condon proves to be an interesting subject as he talks about the pressures of meeting fan expectations and staying true to the book while remaining cinematically viable. It’s really a lot better than most of these. There’s also an interesting featurette on the logistical issues that came from shooting two movies simultaneously.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $829.7M on a $75M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Romeo + Juliet
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Our Film Library concludes!

The Deep (1977)


Nick Nolte, Robert Shaw and Jacqueline Bisset in drier clothes.

Nick Nolte, Robert Shaw and Jacqueline Bisset in drier clothes.

(1977) Adventure (Columbia) Jacqueline Bisset, Nick Nolte, Dick Anthony Williams, Robert Shaw, Earl Maynard, Bob Minor, Louis Gossett Jr., Eli Wallach, Robert Tessier, Lee McClain, Teddy Tucker, Peter Benchley, Colin Shaw, Peter Wallach. Directed by Peter Yates

Our Film Library 2015

The sea guards its secrets jealously. The ships and men that go down into its deadly embrace can carry with them treasures untold; retrieving those treasures can be as deadly above the water as below.

David Sanders (Nolte) and Gail Berke (Bisset) are vacationing in Bermuda, taking up a hobby that the both of them share – scuba diving. They come upon a wreck and pull up a gold coin as well as an ampule of an amber liquid. The latter seems to be anachronistic when combined with the former.

The couple take the finds to Romer Treece (Nolte), a reclusive treasure hunter who lives in a luxuriously appointed converted lighthouse. He deduces that the ampule is from the Goliath, a ship carrying medical supplies and munitions to Europe during the Second World War but because of the presence of the ammo has been marked off-limits to divers because of the danger involved. He also figures out that the wreck of the Goliath sits upon the wreck of a much older ship which may be carrying priceless treasure.

The fellow they purchase diving equipment from, Adam Coffin (Wallach) happens to be the only living survivor from the wreck of the Goliath. In addition, the ampule has caught the attention of Henri Cloche (Gossett), the local Haitian crime lord (doesn’t every island have one?) who wants the ampules which turn out to be morphine. He agrees to let Treece and Sanders pull the morphine out of the wreck in exchange for a million dollars. Of course, Cloche has no intention of letting them just walk away from the wreck knowing that he has just come into millions of ampules of medical morphine and employs thugs, intimidation – and even voodoo – to get what he wants.

This was in many ways a follow-up to Jaws which at the time had redefined Hollywood from simply pumping out whatever movies suited them to one oriented to blockbusters. It was also released during the summer of Star Wars which had been packing in massive audiences since late May and still managed to do decent box office business.

That was because it had one special effect that Star Wars couldn’t muster – Jackie Bisset in a wet t-shirt. The movie notoriously featured the nubile young actress throughout the first part of the film in a wet t-shirt which was of course heavily marketed and paved the way for wet t-shirt in bars and spring break events across the country. I can hear my female readers shaking their heads now and saying “Men…!”

The movie, like Jaws, was based on a novel by Peter Benchley, who also penned the screenplay of his own novel here (and makes a cameo appearance as a U-Boat crewman in the film’s opening sequence). Sadly, neither the book nor the movie was as well-written as Jaws was, with plenty of irritating lapses in logic that defied common sense even of people who knew absolutely nothing about scuba diving.

Nolte was one of the top young leading men in Hollywood and does a fine job here as the intrepid David but these days few people even remember he was in the movie. That’s because Bisset, who could have easily phoned in a part which was clearly exploitative in many ways, actually imbues her character with strength and character. If you remember anything from the movie (other than the t-shirts) it is Gail, who is more of a modern heroine rather than the damsel in distress which she seems to have been written to be.

The underwater photography is some of the best that has ever been captured in a Hollywood film. Shooting in actual wrecks in the Caribbean, the actors had to get scuba certified before filming began and the producers got not only the best underwater cameramen in the business at the time but added consultants who knew a lot about the actual technical obstacles to working a wreck like this one. Unlike many underwater scenes from films of that era and earlier, The Deep doesn’t look murky or muddled; the clarity is amazing even by modern standards.

As adventure flicks go, this one is pretty fun and although extremely dated in some ways (the mostly black thugs are a tip of the hat to the blaxploitation flicks that were popular at the time) it remains a fun ride even for modern audiences. Benchley as a writer was always able to spin a good yarn and while he is mostly remembered for Jaws the book this is based on is his second-best known work, although for many his novel The Girl of the Sea of Cortez is his best-written work. The Deep benefited from attractive stars and titillation but remains a movie that should be better remembered for bringing the audience right under the waves and into the action.

WHY RENT THIS: An engaging adventure flick that is a product of its era. Some of the best underwater scenes ever filmed. Bisset in a wet t-shirt.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Laughable plot that defies logic. Some of the special effects and racial attitudes are dated.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some violence, some sexuality and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The younger version of Treece and Coffin were played by the sons of actors Robert Shaw and Eli Wallach respectively.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The movie was broadcast on American TV as a two night event miniseries with nearly an hour of additional footage. While the expanded version has never been released on home video, several of the scenes from that additional footage are included in the Blu-Ray edition, as is Robert Shaw’s diving primer.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $47.5M on a $9M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (purchase only), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: For Your Eyes Only
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Our Film Library continues!

1408


John Cusack waits for housekeeping to take care of his room.

John Cusack waits for housekeeping to take care of his room.

(2007) Horror (Dimension/MGM) John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson, Tony Shalhoub, Mary McCormack, Len Cariou, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Jasmine Jessica Anthony, Kevin Dobson, Paul Kasey, Benny Urquidez, Gil Cohen-Alloro, Drew Powell, Noah Lee Margetts, Jules de Jongh (voice), William Armstrong, Emily Harvey, Alexandra Silber, Kim Thomson. Directed by Mikael Håfström

Our Film Library 2015

There are places that have a presence in them, a kind of echo from the past. There are other places that have a feeling in them, one that tells of contented lives – or contorted ones. Then there are places that are just effin’ evil.

If Mike Enslin (Cusack) seems bitter it is with good reason. His career as an author has all but faded into oblivion and the death of his daughter Katie (Anthony) has split he and his wife Lily (McCormack) even further apart. He is intent on doing a sequel to one of his most successful books, Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Houses with a new conceit, Ten Nights in Ten Haunted Hotel Rooms. However, the cynical Mike doesn’t believe in the paranormal. He really doesn’t believe in anything.

He gets a mysterious postcard from the Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan with the cryptic message “Don’t Go in 1408.” He takes this as a personal challenge and heads promptly for the Dolphin. He demands to be given room 1408 to stay in but Olin (Jackson), the manager of the hotel, is reluctant. Mike invokes a New York state law that requires the hotel to rent the room to him so long as it is up to standards. Olin responds that 56 people have died in that room in 95 years and nobody has lasted more than an hour. Mike thinks that Olin is trying to create a mystique that will attract people to the hotel and dismisses his claims. Reluctantly, Olin allows Mike to rent the room.

At first, the room seems like any other room in any other hotel. Then, little things start to happen; the clock radio begins playing “We’ve Only Just Begun” by the Carpenters for no reason. Strange calls from the front desk about food Mike hasn’t ordered. Then, he begins to see spectral visions of past inhabitants of the room and the clock radio begins a countdown from 60:00.

The visions begin to grow more terrifying and his dead daughter appears on the hotel TV set. Mike’s attempts to leave the room are fruitless, the door knob breaking off in his hand. An attempt to leave through the air conditioning ducts gets him attacked by a mummified former guest.

Soon it becomes apparent to Mike that the room isn’t just interested in him; it wants his estranged wife to come to the hotel and enter room 1408. Knowing that he was wrong about the room, that it is indeed an evil place, he must somehow prevent the room from claiming the last vestige of his family.

This adaptation of a Stephen King short story is one of the finest adaptations of his works ever, right up there with The Mist and the first Carrie. Some have compared it (favorably and not) to King’s other haunted hotel story, The Shining although like King himself, I never warmed to Kubrick’s version of the novel and never found it particularly scary. Not so for this one.

Cusack was at his best here, playing an embittered man and failed novelist (a favored protagonist of King’s) who still deep down has love in his heart, particularly when he is forced to confront his deepest pain. Cusack has a knack of making guys like Mike Enslin relatable and even admirable, despite being not the easiest guys to get along with in the world. While you can clearly see why Lily would have given up on their marriage, you still end up rooting for Enslin to survive.

This isn’t as effects-driven as other movies based on King’s works nor does it use as much CGI as popular horror movies. Much of the effects here are psychological and Håfström goes out of his way to implant seeds of doubt that everything happening is occurring in Mike’s head, which leaves you with a sense of not being able to trust what you see which is deliciously disorienting to the viewer.

There are false endings here – scenes that make it appear as if Mike’s ordeal is over but then something else happens and horror movies have had a tendency lately to go to that particular well a bit too often. It works okay here but it did make me grumble a bit, curmudgeonly critic that I am. You may not find it quite as annoying as I did depending on how many horror movies you watch.

Once this gets rolling it is quite a ride, although it takes a good long time to get going as Olin attempts to dissuade Mike from entering the room. Hey, if Samuel L. Jackson is scared of a room, I would certainly think twice about going inside. Of course, if Mike didn’t, we wouldn’t have had much of a movie.

WHY RENT THIS: Leaves us questioning reality throughout. One of Cusack’s best performances ever.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might have gone to the false ending too often.
FAMILY VALUES: Some very disturbing images of violence and terror as well as some adult themes and horror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The axe wielded by the fireman late in the film is the same one Jack Nicholson used in The Shining.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There is an extended director’s cut with an ending different than the theatrical version (which is also included here). There are a couple of brief webisodes here as well.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $132.0M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental/Streaming), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Amityville Horror (1979)
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Our Film Library continues

Our Film Library 2015


Our Film Library 2015For the second year, Cinema365 is presenting a mini-series of four reviews based on films with a literary background. Movies based on books have been a Hollywood staple since back in the silent era and while the types of movies that come from books can be as varied as literature itself, so too can the quality. Here, we have a classic mystery, a horror story from a master of terror, an adventure novel with an oceanic bent and the conclusion to one of the most popular book series’ of all time.

It’s a varied bunch and like most books, they may connect with you or not but all of them may well take you to places you’ve never been and in the process may teach you something about life, or about yourself. A book can do that; so can a good movie.

So as you pull our first editions off the library shelf, do indulge in a quick read of my words describing the movies based on their words. Hopefully you’ll be moved to see the movie or even read the book. Reading is essential in firing up our imagination and rounding us out as people. I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the words of William Shakespeare, Stephen King, Robert A. Heinlein, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, J.R.R. Tolkein, James Michener and an endless list of others who have transported me to strange worlds, shown me my own world in a different light, stirred my heart, tickled my funny bone and given me insight into the human condition.

We all need a break from life once in awhile and a book can provide that for you. So whether you read on a Kindle or a dog-eared used paperback scrounged from a used bookstore, take a few moments out of your day to exercise your brain and imagination with a book. It’s good for the soul.