Wednesday, January 10, 2018

It Came From The Cineplex: Murder On The Orient Express

As regular readers of my blog may have noticed, I am woefully behind on my movie reviews this year. That's why I've decided to do some short mini-reviews of films I have nothing of note to discuss, in a valiant effort to catch up. How's that for a sentence!

Murder On The Orient Express was written by Michael Green and directed by Kenneth Branagh (who also stars as super detective Hercule Poirot).

Green is a very uneven screenwriter, who previously penned Green Lantern (yikes!), Logan (great), Alien: Covenant (meh) and Blade Runner 2049 (very good).

Brannagh is a modern day Renaissance Man who's a talented writer, producer, actor and director. He's got a pretty eclectic directorial resume, as he previously helmed Henry V, Dead Again, Peter's Friends, Much Ado About Nothing, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, A Midwinter's Tale, Hamlet, Love's Labour's Lost, As You Like It, The Magic Flute, Sleuth, Thor (!), Macbeth, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and the live action Cinderella (!!).

The film's based on Agatha Christie's beloved mystery novel of the same name. This is the fourth adaptation of Murder On The Orient Express, following the 1974 film, a 2001 TV movie and a 2010 episode of Agatha Christie's Poirot

The casting is the real star here, as the film features over a dozen big name actors, including the aforementioned Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Defoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer and Daisy Ridley.

Unfortunately the majority of these gifted actors are given little or nothing to do, as Branagh's Poirot dominates the screen for most of the run time. That's a real shame, and makes me wonder why Branagh cast so many famous actors in what are basically cameos.

To be fair, Poirot is the star here or course, so it's only natural that he be front and center. It's just too bad Branagh couldn't find a way to use his talented cast more.

The film definitely looks amazing, as it's stuffed with period details and costumes. Sadly the plot stalls around the same time as the train, as it devolves into a series of static interviews with the numerous suspects. Branagh seems to realize this, and tries to spice things up with some added assaults, shootouts and even a chase scene on a railroad trestle, but it doesn't help.

The plot is also needlessly convoluted, and Poirot's exposition and explanation go by so fast you'll find yourself reflexively reaching for the rewind button on your nonexistent remote in the theater, just so you can try and figure out what's happening.

The film is a massive box office success, grossing a whopping $326 million worldwide against its meager $55 million budget. I am absolutely gobsmacked by this, as I didn't think the general public could look up from their phones long enough to watch a slow, deliberately paced mystery like this.

This unexpected success pretty much guarantees we'll see the Poirot sequel Death On The Nile in a couple of years.


The Plot: 

Surely you're familiar with the plot by now, but just in case you've not seen it, here's a brief rundown.

In 1930s Jerusalem, famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot solves a perplexing case. Poirot is an eccentric and fussy man, whose idiosyncrasies border on OCD. Once the case is solved, Poirot takes a boat to Istanbul, where he looks forward to some much needed R & R.

Unfortunately his vacation is interrupted by a telegram from London, where another case demands his immediate attention. He meets with his friend Bouc, who offers him a berth on the Orient Express, which is leaving on a three day trip to France. Unfortunately when Poirot boards the train, he sees all the compartments have been booked, and he's forced to share one for the three day trip.

Once the train's underway, we're introduced to the rogue's gallery of other passengers:

Governess Mary Debenham (played by Daisy Ridley)

Dr. Arbuthnot (played by Leslie Odom Jr.)
Samuel Ratchett, a crooked American art dealer (played by Johnny Depp)
Edward Masterman, Ratchett's valet (played by Derek Jacobi)
Hector MacQueen, Ratchett's secretary (played by Josh Gad)
Gerhard Hardman, an Austrian professor (played by Willem Defoe)
Mrs. Hubbard, an American socialite (played by Michelle Pfeiffer)
Beniamino Marquez, an Italian car salesman (played by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo)
Princess Dragoiroff (played by Judi Dench)
Hildegarde Schmidt, Dragoiroff's assistant (played by Olivia Colman)
Pilar Estravados, a missionary (played by Penelope Cruz)
Count Andrenyi (played by Sergei Polunin)
Countess Andrenyi (played by Lucy Boynton)

Poirot's unhappy to have to share a room with MacQueen. The vile and unpleasant Ratchett approaches Poirot, and tells he's been receiving threatening letters from clients he cheated. He offers the famed detective large amounts of cash to serve as his bodyguard. Poirot politely declines, which enrages Ratchett.

That night Poirot's awakened by odd noises from inside the train. He pokes his head out the door to investigate, and sees a figure in a red kimono running down the hall. Just then an avalanche stops the train in its tracks, leaving everyone stranded in the middle of the frozen mountains.

Everyone gathers in the dining car except for Ratchett. Poirot goes to Ratchett's locked room to investigate, and finds him dead— stabbed twelve times (Hmm... nothin' suspicious about that number!). Bouc begs Poirot to solve the case before the tracks are cleared and the train reaches France. Poirot reluctantly agrees.

Over the course of the film Poirot determines that everyone onboard is supposed to be there, and no one entered or left Ratchett's compartment. He also discovers that Ratchett was actually Lanfranco Cassetti, an infamous criminal who kidnapped and murdered a young girl and got away with it due to a technicality. He interviews each of the passengers, and quickly comes to the conclusion that the whole damned bunch of them are suspects, as they all had a motive for killing Cassetti. 

A rescue team arrives and starts digging the train from the snow. Poirot orders all the passengers to assemble in a nearby tunnel, so he can present his solution to them, in true murder mystery fashion. He says there are only two possibilities. The first is that one of Cassetti's many enemies sneaked onboard the train, killed him and fled. The second is much more outlandish, but fits the facts— EVERYONE killed him (!). He claims they all entered Cassetti's cabin one by one and took turns stabbing him, so none of them would know which actually killed him.

The passengers of course dismiss this idea, but Mrs. Hubbard, whose real name is Linda Arden, admits Poirot's right, and says she's the one who came up with the plan. Poirot says he's the only person who can expose them, and challenges one of the twelve to shoot him. Arden picks up a gun, but uses it to try and shoot herself. She collapses into tears when she sees the gun isn't loaded. 

The train is freed and continues to France. The passengers then ask Poirot what he plans to do, and what will happen to them. After thinking about it, he says the twelve of them have already suffered greatly from Cassetti's crime, and he was an evil man who deserved what happened to him. In order for justice to prevail, he'll have to accept the fact that he's letting twelve people get away with murder.

When the train reaches France, Poirot tells the authorities his first theory— that an enemy of Ratchett boarded the train, killed him and escaped. The police believe the famed detective, and the twelve passengers are free to go.

Poirot's then approached by a messenger, who tells him he's needed in Egypt right away. Apparently there's been "a death on the Nile." Wakka wakka!


• The film begins in Jerusalem, where Poirot accidentally steps in a manure patty while out walking. He looks down, notes what's happened, and then calmly steps into the manure with the other foot, in order to preserve the "balance" in his life. 

It's a funny scene, and it's meant to demonstrate just what a perfectionist Poirot is. But it inadvertently makes him look insane, rather than like a control freak.

• Kenneth Branagh is the fifteenth actor to play Hercule Poirot onscreen.

Albert Finney's portrayal of Poirot in the 1974 version of Murder On The Orient Express is probably the most iconic and well known version of the character. Supposedly some Agatha Christie fans aren't happy with Branagh's version of the detective, claiming his trademark mustache is all wrong.

I can see their point. Finney's fussy little Dali-esque mustache fits the character perfectly. Branagh's sprawling and preposterous facial hair makes him look more like Wild Bill Hickok than the world's most famous Belgian detective. 

In the end it shouldn't matter though, as Poirot's facial hair has varied wildly over the years. In fact at least one actor played the character without any mustache at all! Sacrilege!

• Angelina Jolie was originally cast as Mrs. Hubbard, but was dismissed by fox after she demanded significant script changes to beef up her part. Charlize Theron was also considered, before the role ultimately went to Michelle Pfeiffer.

• All films are products of their time, and this one's no exception. Because this version of Murder On The Orient Express was made here in socially conscious 2017, it's REQUIRED to have an ethnically diverse cast. Even though it's a period piece and such a thing makes no sense.

Case in point, black actor Leslie Odom Jr. plays Dr. Arbuthnot in the film. His character is secretly dating Mary Debenham, who's played by the incredibly white Daisy Ridley.

Their relationship took me completely out of the movie, because it was so unlikely for the time. Even in Europe, where the film takes place. The public wouldn't bat an eye at a couple like this in 2017, but the film takes place in 1934. Back then an interracial relationship would have caused a HUGE scandal. Debenham would have been ostracized from society while Arbuthnot would have likely been lynched. It's an ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless.

Despite how it sounds, I have nothing against diversity— when it's appropriate. Ignoring historical accuracy in the name of diversity is just plain wrong. There was a big stink about this recently in 2017's Dunkirk, as many SJWs criticized the film for its lack of "soldiers of color." Yeah, that's because there were none in the Battle Of Dunkirk! The movie didn't deliberately snub any minorities, it just accurately depicted actual events!

By the way, as you might imagine, there's no interracial relationship in the novel, and in the 1974 film Arbuthnot and Debenham are played by Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave!

• The novel was inspired by an actual incident in 1929, in which the real-life Orient Express was trapped in a blizzard in Turkey, where it was stranded for six days (!). Two years later Agatha Christie herself was traveling on the Orient Express, when it was stopped for some time due to flooding which washed away part of the track.

• The kidnapping part of the plot was loosely based on the famous Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932. In the case, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh's infant son was abducted from his home in Highfields, New Jersey. The boy's body was discovered nearby a couple of months later.

• There's a pretty cool visual effect in the film, as in many scenes, Brannagh shoots his characters through the leaded glass windows of the train's interior. This results in their faces refracting into multiple images, so it literally looks like they have two (and sometimes even three) faces when they're lying.

• Since Murder On The Orient Express is arguably the most famous whodunnit of all time, I assumed everyone was familiar with the big twist ending by now. Apparently not! During my screening, when Poirot announces the identity of the murderers, a woman in my aisle gasped and said, "WOW!"

• At the end of the movie, a messenger approaches Poirot and says there's been a death on the Nile. This is a not very subtle nod to one of Poirot's other adventures, not surprisingly called Death On The Nile.

There are forty Poirot novels in the series. Murder On The Orient Express is the tenth, while Death On The Nile is the seventeenth.

Murder On The Orient Express is an unnecessary remake that starts out promisingly, but stalls halfway through— much like the titular vehicle. Director/star Kenneth Branagh stuffs his film with world class actors, but sadly gives them little or nothing to do. He also attempts to update the period tale with modern sensibilities, which fails spectacularly. You'll need to devote your full attention to the convoluted plot, but you'll likely still be lost toward the end. But hey, at least it looks good! I give it a B-.

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