“Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) Film Review

The classic Hollywood style mystery successfully pulls into the station. Grab your ticket from the box office and board the legendary Orient Express with this all-star cast. Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the timeless Agatha Christie novel is as bold and elaborate as Hercule Poirot’s famous mustache. Feel as though you are traveling aboard the famous transcontinental train as you attempt to put all the pieces together to solve the mystery right along with “quite possibly the greatest detective in the world.” Hollywood style movie mysteries are nearly a thing of the past, but Branagh stokes the fire in the engine of the once popular genre and conducts an exciting journey through the classic whodunit plot. The film’s namesake is a novel that has inspired so many mystery novelists, and hopefully this film inspires a new generation of filmmakers to create their own movie mysteries fit for the big screen. Because the 1974 version including a cast ranging from Ingrid Bergman to Anthony Perkins to Sean Connery has not stood the test of time as well as it was thought to have done, this cleared the tracks for Branagh’s adaptation of Christie’s most famous novel.

After he successfully solves the mystery of the theft of precious religious artifact from the Wailing Wall area of Jerusalem, Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is beseeched to head back east to solve another mystery. Over the years, Poirot has made many friends, and one of these friends is the son of the railroad tycoon who owns the opulent Orient Express. When a passenger doesn’t show, Poirot is given his seat and boards the transcontinental train bound for western Europe. Although Poirot was promised a rail journey free of crime, a nice break, and to be pampered during his travels, he finds himself solving the most peculiar of mysteries–a most gruesome murder. The victim: an unscrupulous man with many enemies. When a freak avalanche forces the Orient Express to stop on a breathtaking, precarious stretch of track, Poirot finds the time to interview each and every one of the suspects—confined to the twelve first and second-class passengers who might have had access to the victim’s cabin. When each piece of evidence opens one Pandora’s Box after another, and the web of lies and connections between the passengers grows to Poirot’s mustache proportions, Poirot faces a complex mystery that prompts him to call his very approach to crime solving into question.

Nevermind the solution to the tentpole mystery novel is one of the worst-kept secrets in British literature history, Branagh crafts a cinematic mystery full of intrigue, revenge, lies, deceit, and the central murder. The plot revolves around a seemingly perfect crime committed on a railcar with no access to the outside, and only the passengers and crew on board the suspects. But even Poirot is stumped at the who, how, and why. Whether you know the ending or not, this film provides an excellent example of a genre that harkens back to Hollywood’s golden era. There was once a time that mysteries and musicals were a staple of the industry, but times change. Still, Branagh shows audiences that the timelessness of an old fashioned whodunit cannot be overstated. Since the ending of the mystery is known by so many people, Branagh was challenged with providing the audiences with something different, something that creates a new take on a well-known story. He accomplishes this by throwing in some additional subplots, character connections, and evidence that suggests that the solution may turn other otherwise than it does in the novel. The changes he brings to the story are organic and fit in well. The end result is a fantastic film that keeps your attention from beginning to end, even for those who know–or think they know–the solution to the mystery.

From the sweeping landscape shots of the Alps to the wide variety of shots to bring the audience onto the train with the rest of the passengers, the production design is excellent. The attention to the detail and visual elegance of the story are treated with creative precision, just as the Christie plot is woven together. Production designer Jim Clay’s meticulously recreated Orient Express is truly something to behold. Unfortunately, despite Branagh’s decision to shoot on 65mm film, there are times that the train set feels almost too perfect–a little artificial–similar to The Polar Express. Although there are times that the production design is not being showcased to the degree that it should to increasingly immerse the audience into the world of Poirot, there are plenty of beautiful shots that serve as a testament to the opulence of rail travel that once was. Of the few weak areas of this film, the cinematography is the weakest because it could have been used to truly create a visually stunning film and not fall victim to surrealism. Patrick Doyle’s score complements the film by feeling like an extension of the plot itself, in time and space. The combination of big band, jazz, and orchestral music immerses the audience into this world. All the technical elements work effectively to transport you from your seat to a compartment on the legendary train.

Branagh’s screen adaptation of Christie’s characters is brilliantly entertaining and developed well. Each character represents a different type of person, a different walk of life. No two characters are alike, which makes great for interjecting some social commentary into the mystery. From a professor spouting pro-Nazi sentiments to a nurse turned missionary, you will find the characters intriguing in and of themselves, never mind how they may be connected to the victim. Alexandra Byrne’s costumes are perfect appointed extensions of the characters that wear the authentic period clothing. Each costume was designed to be as much a part of the respective character as the accents, hairstyles, and backstories. Josh Gadd proves that we can successfully play a serious role, which will prove to bolster his career, Willem Dafoe is perfect as the professor, Dench portrays the princess in only a way that she could so successfully accomplish, and the rest of the cast are all excellent. Coming in a close second to Branagh’s screen time, as the iconic inspector Poirot, is the beautifully talented Michelle Pfeiffer as the widowed heiress Mrs. Hubbard (Lauren Bacall’s character in the original). She truly showcases her talent for adding depth to the characters she plays in order to make them complex and memorable. The diverse cast of characters is incredible to watch and couldn’t have been deleted better for this highly anticipated film.

Climb aboard The Orient Express for the whodunit that started it all. Branagh’s fresh take on the classic tale would satisfy even the harshest of critics Agatha Christie herself. He treats the source material with the respect it deserve, all the while, adding in new material to craft a new experience for those tho have read the novel and/or seen the original film adaptation of this story. Do yourself a favor and don’t ask anyone whodunit, because you need to experience the solution for yourself. Perhaps you can solve it more quickly than Poirot. Don’t let the train leave the station before you pack your bags and travel back to a time when trains went full-steam ahead into adventure and intrigue.

“Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens” movie review

Star Wars VIIThe force awakens…then realizes it’s done this all before and should’ve stayed in bed. Return to that time long ago in a galaxy far, far away. Relive that first moment you saw Star Wars IV and fell in love with the franchise, because you are pretty much getting a plot so similar that you may wonder if the rest of this new trilogy will just continue to rehash and polish what’s all been said and done before. A more appropriate title for this visually stunning film would have been Star Wars: DejaVu or Star Wars: Revisited. No doubt that this film will indeed perform well this weekend; but that has a lot to do with the fact that so many people will view this film through an augmented reality and perceive it to be better than it actually is. The Big D can do no wrong, right??? All that being said, J.J. Abrams once again proves that he is a master at visual storytelling and his films are of a high caliber from a technical achievement perspective. The cinematography and editing are nearly flawless and really help to mesmerize the audience and impress even those who are generally not impressed by visual graphics and sound design. Watching the screen as familiar faces reprise the roles that cemented them in cinema history is nostalgic and heartwarming. Unfortunately, the writers should have spent more time developing a NEW story versus relying upon nostalgia.

With Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in hiding, the Resistance, which has birthed out of the old rebellion, needs to find him in order to defeat the The First Order, a new world empire developed out of the ashes of the old Empire. In an effort to avoid capture, BB8 meets Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Through a series of events, this small band of rebels encounters the legendary general and smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Form). Working together, they need to get the information in this BB unit to the resistance so that The First Order may be stopped. Leading The First Order is Kylo Ren, a masked, dark, and menacing Sith under the direction of the Supreme Leader. Follow familiar and new faces on a journey through the galaxies to stop this new empire from destroying all that is good.

Put simply, this film relies too heavily on the previous movies, thus prohibiting a new story to “awaken.” It was made known early on that Abrams desired to create a new old-school Star Wars sequel to the original trilogy. And in many ways, he did just that. The problem is that it is way too old school and forgets that this movie was also responsible for relaunching the dormant (as far as theatrically released movies) franchise and introducing something truly new. He was so concerned with pleasing everyone–old fans and new ones alike–that he ended up not pleasing anyone who is willing to step back and actually examine the film as a film. All this film did was reuse past plots and forget to give the eager audience and fanbase something legitimately new after waiting so long. The overall plot, locations, and characters lack anything newly appealing. The movie even begins on a desert planet and ends with the destruction of a “not” Death Star–but it basically is–just larger.

With more than half of the movie consisting of space travel and battle sequences, you will wonder if you are actually playing Star Wars: Battlefront. Why? Because it looks and feels very similar to a highly developed video game that includes film sequences to transition to the different chapters or levels. Just pick one of the characters in the film and you can almost feel yourself moving them with your controller. One of the most memorable elements to the original trilogy is the nearly unparalleled cinematic villain–and the one who many try to be but fail–Darth Vader. Don’t worry, “there is another” as Yoda put it in Empire Strikes Back. However, this new “Vader” will leave you wondering how the writers thought he (Kylo Ren) could even come close to filling Vader’s boots and mask. From the mask to the red lightsaber, Kylo Ren appears to be just as menacing as Lord Vader. And there was some promise there. Unfortunately, the writers took any potential of a comparable sinister villain and essentially emasculated him when he removes his mask to reveal a guy in his 30s with luscious wavy hair. After that, it is impossible to take Kylo Ren seriously as a villain for the remainder of the movie.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the writing in general was poorly developed and executed, just wait a moment. Actually, the writing includes some comedic relief, moderately intense moments, with some pretty decent rushed character development, and sufficient exposition. The problem with the writing lies in the overly used plot elements and past Star Wars tropes. The script essentially lives in the past even though there are parts of it that want to live in the present. Leaving the audience thinking that they’ve seen this all before, the writers fail to include anything new and interesting. Instead of coming across as a much-needed sequel or revival, the film plays out as a reboot. There isn’t anything innately wrong with reboots of old, beloved franchises; but Disney and Abrams indirectly promised the sequel that never was but should have been after Return of the Jedi. Sequels are required to advance the story, introduce significantly new material, and move the plot along. The Force Awakens can easily be interpreted as 3/4 reboot and 1/4 sequel.

Visually, the film is cinematically brilliant! The sound design is also incredibly well executed. Even the score is beautiful. What one can appreciate about the score is that there is familiar music wrapped in a completely new score. Too bad the plot didn’t takes notes from John Williams on how to include the old but advance the new. There is no doubt that this movie will be nominated, if not win the Academy Awards in the technical achievement areas–and it deserves them. Honestly, I think some of the editing and graphics team from this movie should work on improving the graphics in the next Jurassic installment. Abrams promised that he would go back to practical effects and merely enhance them with digital effects, and he did just that. The combination played out very well and impressed me. He may not have delivered the movie that Star Wars fans wanted to see, but he did keep his promise to not rely on cheap digital effects as a large part of the design.

If you want to relive the first time you saw A New Hope, then here is your opportunity. It’s basically the same movie, but looks way more impressive. For those who wanted an actual sequel to resurrect this piece of Americana, then you may be disappointed. I really hope the next installment will give me something new. At the end of the day, the movie is certainly entertaining; and seeing Carrie Fischer, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, C3PO, and R2D2 on screen again, in their most iconic roles, is just plain cool and heartwarming. The nostalgia will certainly bring some to tears. And I also want to point out that this IS a fantastic film for a family, whether diehard fans or not, to spend some time together over the holidays at the movies.