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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Hitman: Agent 47


Shoot first and and don't bother to ask questions later.

Shoot first and and don’t bother to ask questions later.

(2015) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciaran Hinds, Thomas Kretschmann, Jurgen Prochnow, Rolf Kanies, Sebastian Hulk, Jerry Hoffman, Dan Bakkedahl, Emilio Rivera, Helena Pieske, Johannes Suhm, Angelababy, Tom Jester, Charlene Beck, Jesse Hergt, Daniel Stockhorst, Mona Pirzad. Directed by Aleksander Bach

Videogames are a multi-billion dollar business. There are tens – perhaps hundreds – of millions of gamers in the United States and around the world. Why, then, are movies based on videogames so bad and why have none been embraced by the gaming community? One theory is that gaming is an interactive medium whereas watching movies is a passive undertaking. Gamers prefer to influence their games, make decisions, determine the shape of the story. They can’t do that in a movie.

Which is horse hockey. Sure, gamers prefer an interactive medium, but that pre-supposes that gaming is the only medium they subscribe to. In fact evidence points to gamers also being readers as well as moviegoers. The reason that gamers can’t get behind movies based on games is because the studios, notorious for not understanding games or gamers, put what can only be described as a cursory (no pun intended) effort behind the film adaptations and the results are movies that aren’t just bad videogame adaptations but just bad period.

Take Hitman: Agent 47 for example. Games are by their nature cinematic and one gets the sense that Bach actually understands this; the movie is beautifully rendered, mainly lensed in Singapore (which is a city of fantastic architecture) and Berlin. The look of the movie is sleek and futuristic. There are some shots of a bikini-wearing woman slowly entering an infinity pool at the top of an exclusive Singapore hotel at dusk; cobalt blues, neon reds and greens blend to give the scene a surreal urban glow. However, this shot is also a microcosm for what’s wrong with the movie; the shot only exists for us to see Hannah Ware in a bikini. She has no reason to be swimming at that moment and it’s not germane to the plot.

The plot consists of Agent 47 (Friend), a genetically engineered assassin who is smarter, faster and stronger than the average human. He is on the hunt for Katia (Ware), a young woman who has shall we say hidden talents. What he’s really after is her father Dr. Litvenko (Hinds), who originated the Agent program. Many have tried to duplicate his work without success; one multinational corporation – known only by the obviously non-sinister nomenclature of The Syndicate, really wants an Agent. An army of them, in fact and their director, the Belgian Le Clerq (Kretschmann, a German) has sent a genetically modified assassin, John Smith (Quinto) to fetch the girl and find out what she knows. However 47, with a barcode tattooed on the back of his bald head, has his own agenda.

The story is weak and cliche and to be honest, I think that the studios really believe that the gaming community has to be pandered to rather than giving them stories that have depth and innovation. It hasn’t occurred to them that gamers are used to vast universes with complex back stories and games that not only challenge the gamer to think but require him/her to. Videogames are not all shoot-em-ups or football simulations.

This is a beautiful looking film, with lovely cityscapes and urban environments. The syndicate’s headquarters is all glass and fiberglass, with computer terminals the size of desks and cubicles that look like they were designed by the same person who does the W Hotel chain.  The film is well-lit for a change, which means that the movie isn’t murky throughout like a lot of action movies seem to be these days.

There are also some nifty action sequences with Syndicate goons going after 47 and Katia, or vice versa. Generally the movie is at it’s best when the action takes center stage. Friend is fairly limber which is necessary when making some of the moves 47 does, pirouetting and tumbling about like a demented gymnast in a suit. The choreography, while not up to some of the great Hong Kong action films, is nonetheless superior to most Hollywood action movies.

Friend goes through the movie essentially trying to play a Vulcan, which he could have gotten pointers from Quinto on. He mostly speaks in a monotone which really isn’t the way to go and from time to time I get the feel that the actor is frustrated with his role. Quinto is a good deal of fun when he’s onscreen, the reliable Hinds does what he can in a standard aging mad scientist role and Ware is pretty much wasted in a role that could have been a strong feminine heroine but isn’t.

This is like a supermodel with a lobotomy; great to look at but really nothing inside which is a shame; there’s a lot of potential in the franchise but the producers and the studio bungled it in a depressing way. The studios will probably go on thinking that the gamer market should be dumbed down to and will pour money into all the wrong things when it comes to videogame adaptations and audiences and critics alike will continue to go on thinking that the studios don’t have a clue what to do with these franchises, which is a frustrating situation for those who’d love to see some really good movies come out of these great video game franchises. Why is it that Hollywood can make great movies out of comic books but not of video games? I think that someone like Blizzard or Square Enix will have to do what Marvel did – create their own film division – before we see that happen.

REASONS TO GO: Visually impressive. Quinto is fun to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Inane plot. Wasted potential.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paul Walker was set to play the title role until his untimely death.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 7% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Kingsman: The Secret Service
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Meru