“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.

Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (2017) movie review

Prepare yourself for “a tale as old as time” that is ultimately better told through its animated counterpart. Director Bill Condon’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, the first animated film nominated for Best Picture at the (1992) Academy Awards, is an extravagant display of visual effects and digital imagery necessary to animate a live-action motion picture. Essentially, he took an animated movie, made it live-action, just to make it animated again. Sure, this new version of the “song as old as rhyme” can certainly stand on its own and is demonstrably well-directed, but 2017’s Beauty and the Beast largely comes across as unnecessary. In terms of the storytelling (or diegesis), the film’s effort to nearly shot-for-shot translate the most memorable parts of the film from animation to live-action pays off nicely! It’s when the film tries to be different that it falls short in its delivery. There are sufficient moments that beautifully recreate that which caused you to fall in love with this movie more than two decades ago; although, with this version, you may find yourself exhausted and over-stimulated by the constant waves of computer-animated figures in a live-action world. Oh yeah, you’ll likely miss hearing the legendary Angela Lansbury as the iconic Mrs. Potts. The film does its very best to justify its existence, but begs the question whether or not this was the movie for which you were waiting.

Belle (Emma Watson) is a young lady with a longing for adventure and a great big imagination, but she lives in a rather provincial French town. But, Belle is about to get more adventure than even she, in her wildest imagination could have dreamt. For through a series of strange circumstances, she finds herself trapped inside a dark foreboding castle, surrounded by a very odd collection of characters. It’s in this castle that she finds her father who she feared injured or dead imprisoned by a Beast (Dan Stevens). Against her father’s wishes, she reluctantly exchanges herself for her father’s release. After the Beast sets him free, Belle is to remain a permanent resident of the castle. Fearing the worst, Belle’s father seeks the help of the misogynistic village heartthrob Gaston (Luke Evans) and his band of goofs and thugs to rescue her. During this time, however, Belle begins to feel “something there that wasn’t there before” as she learns more about the Beast of the castle.

Can this film stand on its own? Sure. There is no question in that. Moreover, is it enjoyable and magical? That, it is. But when most of the campaign, leading up to the highly anticipated release, was primarily built upon how similar the live-action film would be to its animated counterpart, therein a problem arises. Because most people going into the movie will have seen the animated version, Broadway show, or even the show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (which, in full disclosure, is a show that I worked when I was a Cast Member at Walt Disney World), you are predisposed to looking for and eagerly awaiting the nostalgic references and memories. And there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I was looking forward to reliving the experience of when I first saw the animated movie. For the most part, if you are like me, then you will be pleased with the live-action translation–truly. However, it’s when the live-action version departs from or adds in material not found or referenced in the animated classic that you may be disappointed or simply ask “why?” You may find yourself wondering why was a live-action remake even necessary?

One of the most memorable elements of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) is the music! Still to this day, millions of people love hearing the classic music and lyrics by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman. Both the Beauty and the Beast and Be Our Guest can be heard as part of other shows at Walt Disney World and of course are included in the stage show at Hollywood Studios. Fortunately, the most iconic songs from the animated version are largely untouched; however, with a couple of the songs, there are breaks for diegetic dancing, fighting, or other material that essentially interrupts the organic flow of the music from the buildup to the climax and denouement. Again, the question “why” will likely pop into your head. We are introduced to a few new songs, and in and of themselves, are beautiful! Every note and lyric has that Disney magic that many of us have come to expect and appreciate. Unfortunately, the songs just don’t fit in with the original numbers in terms of pacing, lyrics, and score. Furthermore, here’s something quite interesting and odd: the song [To Be] Human Again was written for but deleted when it originally hit theatres in 1991. It was, however, added back in for the Broadway show and in the 2010 (and Diamond Edition) re-release of the movie. Although it was seen as important enough to include in the Broadway show and add back into the animated version, it is conspicuously missing from the live-action remake.

With the exception of Emma Thompson replacing the legendary Angela Lansbury, the cast was well-selected and demonstrated excellent chemistry between one another. Although Emma Watson is not a singer by trade, she was able to capture a Belle-like essence in her delivery of the various songs throughout the film. There was something uniquely organic in her voice that is seldom captured by other Disney “princesses” (note: Belle is not a princess). I greatly appreciate the dynamic range of characters that Watson has demonstrated that she can play over the years. Dan Stevens wows audiences with his vocal prowess especially in his solo number as we transition from the second to third acts. I appreciate how he stuck a fantastic balance between his human and beast sides respectively. Luke Evans was a perfect choice for Gaston, and his vocal talent matches his muscles–big, bold, and flawless. The rest of the cast, which includes some A-list talent itself, was ideally suited for the enchanted objects in the castle and the village.

Okay, now for the white elephant in the room: Josh Gad’s Lefou. Unless you have been completely disconnected from social media and the news, you’ve undoubtedly heard or read about the first ever Disney “gay moment” in this film. Suffice it to say, the whole thing has been blown way out of proportion. In fact, more attention is likely being paid to Lefou now than had the story never grown to the size of Gaston’s ego. For the most part, the subtext and subtitles of Lefou’s are largely just that–subtle–unless you are looking for them. But, in doing that, you may miss some of the more important and impressive parts of the movie. Moreover, there is nothing in Lefou’s actions that come across as offensive or obnoxious. Before audiences begin accusing Disney of pushing their ideals on those eager to attend this film, it is likely that the entertainment and media giant is simply delivering what audiences already expect or want. As a film and media professor, I can tell you that by in large, media simply delivers what audiences and investors are telling them to produce–not the other way around. Looking back at the animated film, it is pretty obvious that Lefou has a thing for Gaston anyway. Although most of the hints at his sexual orientation are more-or-less winks or nods at the audience (winks or nods that you have to be looking for), there is a moment that is a trifle more obvious at the end of the film. Diegetically, there is nothing bizarre about Lefou’s behavior and it suits his character well.

Prepare to be whisked away to an enchanted castle in a remote part of France. So remote is this province in France, that most everyone speaks with a British accent. Bill Condon’s film will take you back to when you first saw this magical tale of falling in love with someone based upon what’s on the inside and not allowing a beastly outward appearance to detract from the gentle soul. Relive the music that you may still listen to in the car or eagerly look forward to when visiting the Disney Parks and Resorts. Ultimately, this film may not capture the magic of the original for you, but there is a lot to enjoy! Looking for a great date movie this weekend, then this is definitely it! Hopefully a side effect of this film may remind producers and audiences that some stories are better suited for an animated motion picture.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead

“A Dog’s Purpose” movie review

adogspurposeYou’re going to need tissues! Ever wonder what your dog was thinking? You’ll find out in Universal, Amblin Entertainment, and Walden Media’s glorified Hallmark movie that follows the soul of a loving dog. As such, A Dog’s Purpose is one of those films that is so simple yet emotionally touching. Based on the novel written by W. Bruce Cameron, this movie will tug at even the toughest of hearts. Although the film does not follow a traditional diegetic arc, three-act structure, and is filled with constant verbal exposition in the form of a voiceover, it is still enjoyable and works as a great date movie. No critical thinking required. Still, the author’s tagline “a novel for humans” can be seen in the social commentary on primarily human relationship dynamics followed by the relationship between a pet and his or her owner. Filled with moments of laughter and tears, A Dog’s Purpose is a film that everyone who either has or has ever had a dog should see. If you’re a cat person like me, then there isn’t much here for you–sorry. However, I was moved to tears during a scene in which the focus was on a human romantic relationship getting rekindled. You will never look at your dog the same way again and will likely go home and hug him or her just as a friend of mine did after she screened the film with me.

A Dog’s Purpose is about a dog who discovers the purpose for his existence as he is reincarnated into different dogs over the course of his life. Finding himself part of different families–or as he likes to refer to them–as packs, Bailey does his best to affect humans by influencing their respective needs to laugh and love.

Despite the rather two dimensional nature of A Dog’s Purpose, there is a deeper theme within the mostly shallow story if you examine the film closely enough. Not shallow in that there lacks emotional appeal or enjoyment, but shallow in that there is very little that is complex and dynamic in the narrative. Although Bailey spends most of his on screen life with Ethan (K.J. Apa), Bailey’s soul finds itself in other dogs who are part of their own respective family. Doing a close reading of the film reveals that each family unit represents a different kind of relationship dynamic or lack thereof. I won’t spoil it by describing each type of relationship, but knowing that there is social commentary on human and pet relationships could likely increase the appeal and enjoyment of the film for those who prefer movies with a more cerebral plot. Interestingly, the movie includes families/human relationships that represent a good cross-section of the types of relationship dynamics that exist in our lives.

For those who typically enjoy Hallmark movies, then you’ll definitely enjoy this one. Last January we had glorified Lifetime movies and this year it must be Hallmark’s turn. As I have not read the novel, I cannot comment on differences between the book and the film adaptation.

Written by R.L. Terry

Edited by J.M. Wead