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


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 *****)



Dunkirk (*****): They know where you were


Dunkirk – 2017

Written and Directed by Christopher Nolan
Starring  Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

There’s not much can be said about this film that hasn’t already been mentioned. It’s a great film. An apolitical film. It is a patriotic film. It is a smart film. It is anonymous. It is deeply personal.

Taking place by land, by sea and by air over three different time periods, Dunkirk covers the escape attempt of over 400,000 soldiers from the shores of France early in World War II. The Nazis are faceless. We barely see even one. But they are a looming presence. The film starts off with the starling noise of gunfire. 5 out of 6 soldiers never make it over the fence to safety. And that’s just the start of it.

The film documents each of the stories in an overlapping but still cohesive manner. We don’t know exactly how things are lining up, but we do know that everyone ends up on the shores of Dunkirk eventually. It’s a masterwork of timeline manipulation by a filmmaker who’s already shown the propensity to cleanly slice up time in Inception. Everything pieces together in a tense bundle.

We feel the desperation of young soldiers (Whitehead, Barnard and Styles) looking for a way onto a boat that might survive the trip off shore. We get to experience the urgent need of a pleasure boat owner (Rylance) who quickly joins his fellow boat owners in a pursuit against time to make sure the boys get a ride home. We see two pilots (Lowden and Hardy) who take their chances against waves of German Luftwaffe planes as they try to protect the boats from the air.

Watching this film made me feel like I was living history. It is a gorgeous, horrible masterpiece that shows what the British Army of WWII had more pluck than luck. More guts than glory. This feels like the loss that turned everything around.

Is there a better director right now than Nolan?  No one seems to be able to handle grand scale on such a personal level. To tell a story that everyone can relate to without one bit of preaching. His voice is very human and there is nary a scene so obvious as a red coat in a black and white background.

Sure, he has his tells, but they are truly more mesmerizing than others. Like the man walking into the sea in the middle of the story. The soldiers just look on. Like us, they can do nothing but watch and keep looking for opportunities to survive.

The lack of gore while still capturing the horror is an achievement as well. There is no need to fill in the gaps. Our minds can do this and still resonate to the truth of the situation.

The best thing Nolan does with Dunkirk is to never lose focus. He is the mariner, Mr. Dawson, and we play the part of Peter. He knows the plane just by the sound, but he still lets us see it so we can remember too. Feeling like it might be hopeless, one might be tempted to speechify and let us know the significance of it all. He just moves towards the battle, but picks up one life at a time.

In the end, we know where they were. And now we know why it mattered.

If this film doesn’t win any awards, it’s still the best film of the year.

(***** out of *****)

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit needs to retire


Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – 2014

Director Kenneth Branagh
Starring Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley
Screenplay Adam Cozad, David Koepp based on characters created by Tom Clancy

Once upon a time, this was a good series looking to become great.  About the moment Harrison Ford offered up a check from the U.S. Government to purchase a used Helicopter, it didn’t seem like Jack Ryan could get any cooler.  That was 1994.  Then, they released The Sum of All Fears.  Jack Ryan was younger, dumber (Affleck) and could not keep a dirty bomb from going off in the U.S.  That should have killed the franchise.

Twelve years later Jack Ryan is even younger (Pine), and supposedly smarter.  He’s some sort of financial guru now.  He’s done a tour in Afghanistan and a decade on Wall Street.  He can recognize interesting flight patterns as well as unnamed Russian bank accounts.  Thomas Harper (Costner) recognized his greatness though, and recruits him to join the CIA, and go to Russia to confront some bad guy (Branagh)  who is a Russian patriot.  Add to this Cathy Muller (Knightley), a “brilliant” doctor who fell for Ryan Florence Nightingale style and us there mainly to be a distraction in the second and third act.

Elements of all the spy junk is present here.  Sleeper cells, financial terrorism, Russians, bombs, Napoleon’s Waterloo and well intentioned but clueless agents.  There is only one person who will save the day, of course.

When The Hunt for Red October came out, there was pretty much James Bond and Jack McClane.  Since then, we’ve had too many more heroes to count.  Bond and McLane are still making films, but so are Bourne, Ethan Hunt, and even Agent Cody Banks got 2 films.  At the point where it takes several re-writes and there is no original source material to go off of, perhaps it’s time to retire the character.

There is nothing technically wrong with Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.  Branagh directs this film with a minimal amount of flair, no doubt a natural reaction to his last film, Thor.  Whereas that film had the benefit of a magnificent turn by Tom Hiddleston as the bad guy, Branagh himself adds very little to the proceedings as an antagonist.  There would seem ample motivation for his character, but it’s hard to feel on the screen.

Costner and Pine are pretty low key in their roles as mentor and recruit.  There is a minimal amount of screen time dedicated to what his specialty is, and even less time dedicated to explaining what they are trying to prevent.  You know they’ve given up when they spend the last 20 minutes trying to prevent something from going “boom.”

The saddest part about the Ryanverse is that there was never a concerted effort to keep the same guy playing the character.  Even though his films were the best of the series, they backed themselves into a corner when they replaced Baldwin with Harrison Ford.  They were backed into a corner at that point, age wise.  When they moved the series from Ford to Affleck, it was like the raising of  a white flag.

This film just feels like they are waving the flag a little.

(*** out of *****)

My Week With Marilyn is good, if you buy the story

My Week With Marilyn – 2011

Directed by Simon Curtis
Starring Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Williams, Judi Dench, Eddie Redmayne, Dominic Cooper, Dougray Scott, Toby Jones, Emma Watson, Julia Ormond
Screenplay by Adrian Hodges based on the books by Colin Clark

When I was in 5th Grade, this kid name Jim Kennedy moved onto my block.  He was unkempt, kind of smelly, and not all that bright, but he was someone to hang around with, so, we became friendly acquaintances.   Invariably, as boys do in 5th Grade, we talked about girls that we liked.  Mostly at that age that’s as far as it goes, but Jim, who was a year older than me, presumably took it a bit farther.  He told me, with all the confidence in the world, that he had acquired and kept a girlfriend the previous summer while on a trip up north in Canada.  I was fascinated and somewhat jealous that someone so obviously sloppy and without any sort of hygiene had gone to the extremes he had.

Jim’s family life was such that within 8 months, he had moved on.  Curiously, in the house next door to Jim, another boy, David Lieske moved in.  He and was nicer, more presentable and cleaner than was Jim, and we became better friends.  Our conversations about girls went to the point where we discovered that we liked the same girl at school.  This was a bummer for me, because as with Jim, I found that the previous summer, David Lieske had spent some vacation time in Canada.  While there, he also had acquired and kept a girlfriend.

It wasn’t until I had gone with my family to Canada that I conceived the idea that perhaps all they had really done is go to Butchart Gardens, The Empress Hotel and perhaps the wax museum.

Watching My Week with Marilyn gives me the same sort of feeling.  Sure, one can conceive that a young Colin Clark may well have served as the 3rd Assistant Director to “Larry” Olivier’s attempt at becoming a movie star.  One even might find believable that he experienced some unique events during that time.  The first part of the film is filled with events like this.  In particular the scenes early in filming when Olivier (played with an easy brilliance by Branagh) and Sybil Thorndike (by the world’s best actress, Dench) find varying ways to pass the time.  Olivier moves from genius to insanity while Thorndike takes time to show everyone how lucky they all are.

Even better, when Monroe (played with forlorn grace by Williams) is messing up in every way possible, Thorndike gently makes herself the one who needs help.  She then convinces Marilyn to help her out by practicing her line readings.  We also get to see wonderful examples of the “communist” side of filmmaking: unions.  There is a scene involving the placement of a prop chair which is amusingly ridiculous.

The film starts to go awry the moment that Clark’s character seemingly catches Monroe’s eye.  As it was, Clark had started a nice romance with the wardrobe girl, played in an accessible and beautiful Emma Watson.  Just when things seem to be heading in the right direction, Monroe’s husband, Arthur Miller heads back to New York to be with his kids.  Or perhaps to be away from Monroe and her drug fueled eccentricities.  Either way, now she has free time on her hands.  Who better to spend this free time than with our young protagonist?

Monroe is played with an appropriate amount of mystery by Williams.  This is intended to give in to viewers desire to see her with an air of intrigue that it is quite possible she lacked in her real life.  Olivier, it  is claimed by his wife, Vivien Leigh, in a moment of candor seemingly common only to our protagonist, lusted after Monroe.  So strong was his ardor that she flew her over to be in this movie.  Her role, in the place of his wife, who had played it countless times on stage.  The name of the film (or play) is really not that important. Like many movies Marilyn was in, it’s not that good.  Ormond’s winsome, but older version of Leigh is played with a wan sadness.  Their marriage, cordial as it is, stands weakly on its last legs.  They won’t make it past an astonishing 20 years.

As Clark, Redmayne is blameless to all the films shortcomings.  He plays it straight, with an proper amount of reverence and astonishment.  After all, it is not he who is making the astonishing claims of a week in the life, intertwined with the most famous woman in the world.  He, along with all the players in the film, play their parts quite believably.  It’s just that, with the tattered legacy of Marilyn Monroe, this tale feels a little too tall to be true.  Even if it were true, a true gentleman would leave her in peace by showing more respect than this.

Much of the last part of the film centers around on Monroe’s obsession with having someone “on her side.”  It makes an all to clear delineation that she wasn’t so wise as to what it meant to have someone on her side.  Redmayne’s Clark is honest with her, up to a point, but eventually he just becomes another sycophant.  She is tired, drugged and a little desperate.  She is not that girlfriend from Canada for me.  Not attractive at all.  Just sadly beautiful.

(*** out of *****)