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 *****)



The Family: Not everything’s alright


The Family – 2013

Director Luc Besson
Starring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, Tommy Lee Jones, John D’Leo
Writers Besson and Michael Caleo

Fading are the days in which Robert DeNiro commanded the screen.  The script of The Family goes so far as to describe his use of the “F”-word at the expense of actually seeing him use it.  He does use it, of course, but not as compellingly as one would hear Dianna Agron tell it to us.  We get to see many moments of quick violence in The Family.  DeNiro’s Giovanni Manzoni is muted by his existence as a former mob boss and current witness for the state, so most of the violence we see him inflict is solely within his mind.  It happens too many time to be amusing.  The stuff he does for real does not match the effectiveness of seeing what the rest of his family can do.

Pfeiffer, as Manzoni’s wife Maggie, has a penchant for grocery stores.   Their daughter and son- Belle and Warren (Agron and D’Leo) – have their own challenges, handled in a somewhat logical, yet more likely pathological manner.  It’s difficult to imagine them learning the art of beating their enemies down in a healthy family environment.  Then, with so many ways to express with foul language, maybe I am missing something.  They all seem to communicate well and they never miss a meal…until one of them decides to run away and the other plays out a doomed love scenario.

It’s been a long time since Luc Besson made the classic action film Leon: The Professional.  I have been anxious for him to follow it up.  He’s been happy instead to push other, younger directors, writing their stories producing their franchises.  He’s also made a few animated films and there was The Fifth Element.  Nothing like Leon ever again graced the screen.  It still hasn’t.

Agron and D’Leo are immensely enjoyable as amiable siblings.  They appreciate more than they, perhaps love one another.  They understand that their goals are similar. While inconvenienced by their circumstances, they also appreciate what they have learned from their parents.  It’s no coincidence that they have the best moments in the story.  Their talents carry most of the load for The Family.

Pfeiffer would have been added to the list of load carriers had she not had an inexplicable breakdown in the 3rd act. The behaviour just did not suit the character as we have come to know her by then.  Perhaps it is something of the wish to show range, but even I would not have lain down for that fat guy in the last act.

There is a straightforward nature to The Family that is enjoyable, if unspectacular.  Besson has never been one for an over reliance on gloss.  So far, his career arc has not been what I have expected, but even so, he’s doing alright.  This film came out slightly ahead.  If he’s comfortable making comfortable films, it makes him a little like DeNiro’s character doing a Q&A about  Goodfellas.  It’s a reminder of what used to be, and what can be enjoyed again whenever one pushes play.

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

People Like Us is not quite like us, but it is getting there.

People Like Us – 2012

Director Alex Kurtzman
Starring Chris Pine, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jon Favreau, Philip Baker Hall, Michael Hall D’Addario, Mark Duplass
Screenplay Roberto Orci, Bobby Cohen, Clayton Townshend

There is a scene near the beginning of People Like Us when we find out about the father of  Sam (Pine) for the first time.  His father, a pioneering producer who missed it big, has been stingy with his affection, his money and his time throughout Sam’s young life.  Now, in a diner, the lawyer for his father gives the son that which does not seem to be right compensation.

“I let your father borrow the suit he was married in,” said the lawyer with the typical low-key brilliance that Philip Baker Hall, “I never saw that suit again.  Then I got the bill for the catering.”

Great, I thought, just like my friend Joey.  Cheap begets cheap, though, and his son, who is running out of money fast, feels a slight relief when he finds rolls of cash inside of a shaving back that he was given in his will.  This relief is offset almost by a note that the money is for a relative he never knew he had.  He meets the mother of this relative, finds that she is on the ledge of alcoholism.  Even so, he might just keep the money.  The movie’s drama is built on that “might.”

Pine tries to put the fun in “messed up,” and I do realize that’s not the right word for the phrase.  His character comes across as a less intense Tom Cruise circa late ’80’s.  He is a smooth operator, but not that smooth.  He practices lying on his mom, which must have been a habit he learned when he was much younger with his Dad.  She never buys it of course, and hardly anyone else does either.  Now he’s being forced to learn, grow, and…eventually hug, I am sure.

He enters the life of his half-sister and nephew peripherally at first.  This is, of course, so he can learn they are wonderful, they can learn he is wonderful, and then everyone can be offended later for a false crisis.  Then the hug, I am sure.

The film treats addiction like a plot point, as there are scenes where one character talks about the struggles and then in later scenes we see another character get hammered, and then, if that were not enough, spend time smoking a “J” with his mother.  This is so the two can get into the deeper levels of communication, which involves more yelling.

Elizabeth Banks’ performance as the sister is slightly more nuanced.  She seems every bit the part of a busy single mom, struggling to control the effects of her past on her present and future. Since her discovery in The 40 Year Old Virgin, her workload has been steady and has improved just as steadily.  The performance is not necessarily Oscar worthy, but she is heading in that direction.

The contrast portrayed between Pine and Banks has a sort of resonance.  One can see the joy that Sam is bringing into the lives of Frankie and her son, but when the gift you bring into a situation is deception, there is not much to build on.  While it is a predictable avenue, Pine, and in particular Bank’s performance give it more heft than one would expect.

As his girlfriend, Hannah, Wilde provides a Greek Chorus type of voice to the person she knows best.  Her moves in the film in the film are a tad unusual for the plot, but more effective than the normal harping one would see in a film like this.

Pfeiffer has a real, ragged look to her.  It’s a look I appreciate.  She is in a new phase of a career which, in the tradition of Searching for Debra Winger, might well be over by now.  I hope she continues to seek out these smaller roles, because even in one ridden with cliche as this one could be, she adds a strength and frailty to them which can only be shown with life experience.  It’s time to have a female Clint Eastwood.

So why did this film tank?  With all the acting prowess of Banks, and to a lesser extent, Pine and Pfeiffer, the creative combination of Orci and Kurtzman, two men behind much of J.J. Abrams best work and a soundtrack by A. R. Rahman that ekes along, gently moving the story at a pace that gives it a subtle strength?  All of this is good, but not great. And a little slow, according to my wife.  It’s as simple as that.

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

Dark Shadows: Tim Burton is strange, but still knows how to cash in

Dark Shadows – 2012

Director Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Eva Green, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, Johnny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz, Bella Heathcote, Gulliver McGrath, Alice Cooper, Christopher Lee
Screenplay Seth Grahame-Smith based on the TV show by Dan Curtis

Anyone who’s seen Beetlejuice will instantly recognize a family dynamic demonstrated in the early part of Dark Shadows.  That dynamic is the reckless and aloof daughter played first by Winona Rider and this time around by Moretz.  It’s her job to roll her eyes as our other fantastic and daft characters do wacky things.  In employing this method, Burton won over many a misunderstood teenage girl  They, along with many of the audience in Tim Burton films, understand that the moody teenage girl is much more centered than the other goofs.  She is hipper, she is misunderstood, but we know that she is the one that the others will learn from if they want to accomplish anything.

Barnabas Collins (Depp) is one such student in Dark Shadows.  His last 196 years have been spent in a casket because of a woman scorned.  The woman who put him there, Angie (Green), is still there.  She rules the town of Collinsport now, but she never has taken over his home of Collinwood.  Even now, on its last legs, it is held by two of his distant cousins, Elisabeth (Pfeiffer) and Roger (Miller), hold residence as merely place keepers.  Elisabeth’s daughter, Carolyn (Moretz) is grouchy and likes playing T-Rex, like everyone else in movies that cover that time.  I think of him as the Van Morrison of early 70’s scripts.  Rider came to prominence in both Beetlejuice and Heathers, but never was able to build much in the way of momentum.  Moretz has already made several better films in her short career than Rider ever made.  In that way, it is a shame to see her so limited here.

This is not to say that Dark Shadows is a bad film.  In fact, it is very amusing.  The Burton quirks, especially those expressed with the dry humor that Depp excels at, are all present.  The emotions presented are almost surgically sterile.  The key feeling expressed is one of vengeance, and even that runs a little cold.  It really does not matter how one evaluates Depp at this point.  You either swoon or you don’t…or you sit back and try to smirk once in a while.

One can appreciate the story as presented, and I really appreciated the chance to see Pfeiffer looking so alluring after so many years off-screen.  Jackie Earle Haley is quite fun as Caretaker Loomis.  Eva Green has been a lot more appealing, but then she is several hundred years old.  Seeing Lt. Gorman from Aliens fire a couple of shots into Depp’s back was cool.

By the time the credits roll, we get the same feeling from this film as we do most of Burton’s retreads.  There is no fire, and most of the laughs are forced, in that ever so subtle Burton way.  There will likely be no sequel, but that is okay. This already feels like one.  Sure, Pfeiffer will be disappointed, but not so much as those of us who get the privilege of seeing him place his quirky stamp all over some other film property we really care about.

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