Murder on the Orient Express (***1/2) – It’s never about whodonit

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Murder on the Orient Express – 2017

Director Kenneth Branagh
Screenplay Michael Green based on the novel by Agatha Christie
Starring Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman

“Lies – and again lies. It amazes me, the amount of lies we had told to us this morning.” (said Bouc)

“There are more still to discover,” said Poirot cheerfully.

“You think so?”

“I shall be very disappointed if it is not so.”

The Poirot of Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on The Orient Express is much more tired than the Albert Finney version of my extreme youth. Finney seemed ready to jump into the fray, whereas Branagh’s version always seems to remind people he’s on his way to retirement. On his way, but not quite yet.

This time, after solving the case of the missing religious artifact with the prime suspects being a priest, a rabbi and a cleric, he is asked to head to London for an impending case. The quickest route has to be the train line of the title, taking off from Istanbul the next morning. He gets on.

The mystery of the title happens the second night on the train. Someone is murdered. Then the train is stopped by landslide. The director of the train line, Bouc (Bateman) presses his friend, Poirot to solve the case quickly before the train gets moving again and gets to the next stop.

From this point, the interviews are fast and furious. If you think you’ve solved it or if you have seen or read previous incarnations, this train is still worth the ride. The point of Branagh’s take is not really to show a neat collection of clues and piecing the puzzle together. That said, it should be easy enough to surmise that there is more than one motive and suspect.

Where Branagh succeeds in this take of the story is in his realization that there must be a reason to watch a film more than once. The things going against that in any mystery is once you’ve seen it, the mystery is solved. It also doesn’t help to have such exaggerated vamp performances.

For these reasons, Branagh has included some carefully laden clues, gorgeous scenery, a humble soundtrack and some more subtle acting to reward repeat viewing. In short, he’s made a movie that draws you in while it pulls you down the track.

First of all there are very few scenes that come across as cheesy. Everyone is playing straight with no chaser. Even Derek Jacobi, who seems the very essence of a flaunt, has a muffle on it for once. In fact, only Poirot comes across as any sort of flamboyant, and like I said, he’s pretty subdued. And he’s rather polite, too. We just know that he has a big mustache and can’t turn down a good mystery.

The shots of the train and the environment it ambles through are excellent, for the most part. There are a couple of CGI moments, but those are forgivable in an age where a warm den with a computer outweighs any shot in inclement weather. We can definitely tell, in scenes like Poirot’s interrogation of Debenham (Ridley) and the final reveal, these people are not comfortable and for more reasons than their guilt or innocence.

Of the passengers, all of the performances are good, and a few of them great. Pfeiffer hasn’t chewed this much scenery since Dangerous Liaisons. Ridley’s counter to Poirot’s inquiries is fun, as she gives no quarter, nor does she expect any. My favorite is Bateman’s Bouc, in what should have been a throwaway role. His frank honesty adds an innocence that is required to give Poirot a sounding board off which to bounce his findings.

Most interesting is the scenery that Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos use for many of the shots. There are many shots from differing vantages and through angled windows and mirrors that add another dimension to what could have been a boring and repetitive venture of questions and answers.

This is not necessary viewing, to be sure. It’s a matter of preference and whether or not you have a Sunday afternoon with nothing planned. It’s not necessarily the kind of film that will leave one puzzled. In truth, one would hold little chance to fully resolve the film based on the fact that evidence mostly comes to light for us in an orderly fashion throughout the last two acts.

It’s a good film though,. And it deserves a space for those who like to see a good story told well. Not well enough for awards, but definitely well enough for someone with nothing much to do.

(***1/2 out of *****)

 

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (***1/2) There’s always another weapon

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Director J.J. Abrams
Starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie
Screenplay by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt

Everyone wants Star Wars to succeed. Heck if I had never seen the first film (Episode IV) at age 7, this blog wouldn’t exist. That would only cause the small ripple in the force. Really tiny. Teeniny. In one fell swoop George Lucas blew the doors off of theaters and changed the landscape of our cinematic future. This, like the rest of his journey, is part of the cultural fabric of the world, even if each film after The Empire Strikes Back lessened its impact. None of this being news, the history stops here.

The future began today. It is hopeful, bright, awkward, and full of good intentions. That it fails almost a third of the time is of little effect to the power of that other two-thirds. The best thing possible arrives in this new package, and that is the hope of new and unfamiliar faces in a familiar, lived in world.

The film makes a bold statement by giving us no one we recognize for the first 30+ minutes. The Stormtroopers are new, their commanders are new. The hotshot pilot (Isaac) and his cute little robot is new. Two other new heroes emerge from the events.

Finn (Boyega) is a Stormtrooper who, in the midst of action, finds his conscience. This does not go unnoticed by Kylo Renn (Driver) and Captain Phasma (Christie). Their suspicions are not acted on quickly enough, though, and soon he is on the run with some valuable cargo.

Something even more precious, BB8, comes across a young scavenger named Rey (Ridley). It takes a while, but the two become aware of one another when Finn recognizes the droid, just before a good portion of The New Order (read: “Nazis…I hate those guys…”) comes down to the planet Jakku and forces them to fly off in garbage.

This is as far as I go in this spoiler free review. From here I will discuss the intent, execution and effect of the film on this lifelong fan.

The point of this film is to re-establish a universe familiar to most people past voting age. I could go earlier, but that depends on your parenting style. The purpose of this story is to open doors that our mind has wanted to see ever since the last Ewok sacrificed his life to bring down the Empire. In this, the filmmakers succeed.

The worlds – even the new ones – are all comfortably familiar, and it’s inhabitants seem to feel the weight of gravity. This is an important touch overlooked in the prequels and it does much in the way of restoring the viewer’s sense of the world of Luke, Leia and Han. The new characters have talent, power and they have flaws. They start here, but we have the sense that they are going to grow…fast.

We need the older cast to act as a bit of a salve to smooth over the rougher, unfamiliar parts. Think of it as Bill Shatner in Star Trek Generations. Maybe with a little less horseback riding and wood chopping.

The biggest success of The Force Awakens comes in the form of the characters of Rey and Finn. Both have big questions in their background that the film wisely avoids lingering on. We get it, there is something more. Both actors feel raw, but are deceptively polished. For the first time since A New Hope, we have an infusion of energy.

Ridley is an absolute find. Her character Rey is given the best storyline and she acts the hell out of it. As a father of two girls, I am overjoyed that there is a heroine for them to rally behind in this story. She completely captures the wonder, the despair and the sense of duty with an absolute minimum of cheese. Star Wars at its best has always been about true hearts and they found one here. She is not without her complexity, however. There are some delightfully big gaps in her history. For no other reason than this, The Force Awakens succeeds.Rey

There is another reason: John Boyega as Finn. The thought of bringing one of the guys out from the daunting white suits and making him human is an inspired one, and they got his reasoning behind it right, for the most part. The way he plays off of the original cast feels much like the way anyone could imagine when working with a legend. He provides intensity and a klutziness that works with the best traditions of the franchise. Finn is buoyant, terrified and bold all at once. That he knows what type of enemy they are facing is a benefit, even if they use that point to create unnecessary drama later. The chemistry between Rey and Finn is palpable and I hope the friendship blooms.

Finn

Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is a nice, if somewhat underdeveloped character. He is given some good one liners that are not wasted. It would have been nice to see more of him, even if he’s not on the main stage with the kids. An actor the level of  Oscar Isaac deserves some more scenery to chew, and they are wasting him if they don’t do this in the next film.

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His droid, BB8, is an absolute wonder and something very identifiable for all of those that need a parent to accompany them to the movie. The execution of the character as well as the practical application of effects for many of its scenes is remarkable. For those who never thought R2 could be replaced, they are right. C3P-O sure can be, though.

Not as easy is the handling of Kylo Ren (Driver). We want menace, but end up with something bordering on petulant and whiny. He aspires to be Darth Vader, but ends up somewhere below Anakin. Perhaps it would be more effective were he to show a level of competence to approach that of his rage. It’s is understood that he is lacking skill, but his training in the force seems to be at about the level of, let’s say Tom Cruise in Risky Business.  There is a reason for this that is alluded to in the story. In all, Driver has one or two very effective moments. There are more moments to make one wonder if anyone on either side takes him seriously. This is not a good thing for the main villain.

Kylo

Behind the scenes we have the looming figure of Admiral Snoke. His size is distorted by the fact that he is a hologram. He is intended to give us the feeling of menace on the level of Palpatine in Episode I. Not really sure if it works, but at least they leave enough out that there is something to build towards. My personal hope is that he ends up being Darth Plagueis reborn afterall.

The rest of the cast is represented in a sadly predictable way. What have they done after 30+ years of trying to tie the Republic back together? They’ve all gone their separate ways of course. This ties up the “what should we do with these guys?” part of the story by just bringing them back together.

Han is doing what he does best…smuggling and wandering with Chewie. Then, whenever someone needs something, well, Han knows someone…

Seeing Han and Chewie back together is a thrill when one doesn’t get the sense that they haven’t much seen one another lately. There are several moments involving Han’s discovery of his partner’s Bowcaster that make one wonder. How is it after all of this time, this hasn’t happened before? A little too much force applied in the search for a joke.

For his part, Chewie is funny as usual. His timing is sublime and his heart is our heart when it comes to caring for the characters. If all of his moments are not perfect, it doesn’t matter. Chewie will always be there.

Han is not the elder statesman, but he is a vehicle for exposition, and he does this well enough. His interplay with Rey is unique and somewhat thrilling. The time he spends with Finn is not wasted either. The best line about the force happens here. There is one more relationship that is pretty underdeveloped. The lack of chemistry shows and hurts the effort at poignancy.

As Leia, Carrie Fisher is the film’s biggest weakness. She and Ford show almost no believable affection towards each other. Her character, sadly, is essentially the same as we saw in the latter half of A New Hope. When one sees her (try to) act, it’s a wonder she had that many lines. Her ability to show sarcasm and intensity is gone, replaced by a look of weariness. She literally has no range of expression and this really hurts during key moments. Admiral Ackbar shows more range than she can at this point. I can’t see them using her even this much in the subsequent films if they want to keep the mood from approaching moroseness.

Artoo and Threepio don’t add much, and really they don’t need to with BB8 around. The reasoning behind having less Threepio is understandable, and the lines they fed him are more groan inducing than funny. It would have been nice to have the R2-D2 around more and it’s kind of an insult the way they treat him. His utility far exceeded most of the characters in the first 6 films, and it’s apparent that this was forgotten.

This all goes to exemplifying the biggest frustration: the script. What a shame after all of the years they had to make an Episode VII, once Disney got their hands on the property, they didn’t do more to develop the story. They get several elements right, especially when it comes to developing side characters like Maz Kanata (Nyong’o). The story comes off as more a landing pad than an intentional point A to point B thing.

When original writer Michael Arndt told Disney he needed 18 months to develop something, they called it creative differences and put him to the side. They should have kept him. For all the waxing poetic about Kasdan and his magical ability, he and Abrams didn’t do anything special at all with this story except leave some questions to be answered, hopefully by better writing. Kasdan is spoken of like some lost Jedi writer, but if you’ve seen his career since Grand Canyon, you’d think we have Luke Skywalker, the Vegas years. If you don’t believe me, try watching The Bodyguard. Heck, try French Kiss. Just try to get through Darling Companion. I dare you.

Abrams, for his part, shows that his hot streak was definitely over at Star Trek Into Darkness. What he brings to this universe is the same thing he brought to that film: incredible style. His propensity to use practical effects is a definite win for fans of the original series. His intention to give us back the bright, but still lived in Star Wars universe works where his and Kasdan’s ability to rework original ideas into old characters and plotlines fail.

Fans of his first Star Trek reboot will recognize elements of the big weapon here. Fans of the original trilogy will react about the same way Han Solo does when he learns about it. This is not a good thing. Why does there always have to be a big weapon? As bad as the prequels were, at least they didn’t go that route.

The last act of the film really writes itself, Griffin Mill style. It makes all of the effort to build something at the outset feel insincere, even with the last image we see.

Star Wars is back. This is a good thing. That there is room to improve can also be seen as a positive. A new director and new writers for each successive film is a good thing too. I just hope they eventually find time to fully develop a story worthy of the characters.

(***1/2 out of *****)