“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.

“Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” movie review

missperegrinneSurprisingly exciting! Twentieth Century Fox brings another YA novel to the screen. Tim Burton’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (from here on out noted at Miss Peregrine) is both a fish out of water story combined with a magical adventure that mildly comments on the human condition. Of all the YA movies that have been produced over the last few years, this one provides a much more dynamic experience than many of the others. Burton delights audiences with the classic Burton style that many of us have grown up with. In more recent years, I have often commented that he is essentially a parody of himself–a.k.a. Burt Porn (as coined by my friend Leon in Germany)–not true with Miss Peregrine. Get ready for a return to the class Burton that brought us timeless movies such as A Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissorhands. The great cast is supported by the appearances of Samuel L Jackson and Dame Judi Dench. From Florida to Wales, this movie is sure to whisk you away to daring adventures requiring rather peculiar abilities to defeat those who would seek to take what isn’t theirs to have.

All Jake (Asa Butterfield) knew was his ordinary life. He had a rather blah home life, an eccentric grandfather, and a job that he hated. Until one day, something peculiar happened. In his grandfather’s dying breath he told Jake to find the island. With his parents finding his sports of what he saw at his grandmother’s death to be quite bizarre, they forced hi to visit a psychiatrist. Upon finding a mysterious letter, Jake is determined to find the home in which his grandfather grew up. Accompanied by his cynical father, Jake returns to the island where his grandfather grew up. Only he could never have expected the adventure and run of this life that he will soon find himself. Stumbling across the children’s home ran by Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), Jake teams up with the most unusual but fascinating people who are in a rush against time to defeat those who are out to destroy them.

If I had to name one takeaway from this film, it would be that it reminds me of the 1980s/90s Tim Burton before he “went down the rabbit hole.” It combines his surreal and gothic filmmaking style juxtaposed against his flare for the colorful and bizarre. Although it is not an original concept by any means, if you’re a fan of Fox’s film adaptations of or the animated series X-Men, then you will likely enjoy this movie! Not having read the book, I cannot comment on the film’s alignment and commitment to the literary work written by Ransom Riggs; but, from what I have read online–even the author himself–is pleased with Burton’s translation from page to screen. Very few directors would have been so successful at bringing this story to life more than Burton.  Despite an apparent successful translation from book to movie, the film suffers from an overload of mythology, exposition through dialog, and lacks the thrills to completely balance out the former two elements. Although this movie may feel like one that you have seen before, it does offer a glimpse into Burton’s prime years and perhaps offers a hope that the acclaimed visionary director can once again impress us with his fantastical but highly effective cinematic storytelling.

One of the most successful elements to the X-Men’s plight as individuals born with peculiar abilities is the fact that they are human. They hold onto their humanity (the good guys anyway). Miss Peregrine’s children do not appear to offer the same level of humanity as their X-Men counterparts. The impact of the X-Men’s abilities is felt not only by the X-Men themselves but by the community at large. For the most part, Miss Peregrine’s children’s abilities largely leaves no impact upon themselves or others. Almost plays off more as a convenient plot device than character attributes. Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield’s fake American accent does not really suit his character of Jake. In a world of fantastical dynamics and depth, he plays off as a boring, flat character. In screenwriting, it is vitally important for the writer to cause the reader/audience to love the protagonist and/or love to hate the antagonist. I found it hard to love Jake or truly hate Barron (Jackson).

So, the movie may not have the amazing principle cast that we are accustomed to in a Burton movie; but, it does still contain Burton magic and some exciting and beautiful visuals. It is also a lot of fun to watch! In addition to being fun to watch, it contains some rather disturbing imagery and cringeworthy moments. But that’s par for the course with classic Burton. One of my favorite parts in the movie is the action-packed climactic sequence accompanied by dark humor. It’s a great combination of humor and visceral conflict. If you’re looking for a fun movie to watch this weekend, then this one is a solid pick! Furthermore, if you desire to get a glimpse into a more classical Burton film, then you’ll find utter delight in this one as well.

“007: SPECTRE” movie review

SpectreA brilliant Bond film and excellent followup to the wildly popular Skyfall. Director Sam Mendes pulls out all the stops in MGM and Columbia’s Spectre the 24th official title in the Bond 007 franchise. After the soaring success of the previous chapter in the Bond anthology, who would have known that this final appearance of Daniel Craig as the heartthrob MI6 “paid assassin” would be just as thrilling! Just the opening sequence of the movie will have you on the edge of your seat, and the many throwbacks to past Bond film plots or characters will capture your attention for the two and a half-hour runtime. Even Blofeld, the original Bond villain, and his fluffy white cat appear in this epic Bond story. The jaw-dropping action will satisfy even the most ardent and long-time James Bond fans. Whether you’re an old-school or new 007 fan, you are definitely in for a treat. Some of the most refreshing and getting-back-to-authentic Bond elements, of the Craig chapters in the series, is the lack of over-the-top and at times absurd gadgetry, and a return to the very essence of what makes this franchise stand the test of time.

After the tragic events at Skyfall and the destruction of MI6’s massive facility on the Thames, James Bond 007 (Craig) is following a lead in Mexico City thanks to a cryptic posthumous message from the former Agent M (Judi Dench). When the actions in Mexico City draw the attention of the UK’s new head of security and Agent M (Ralph Fiennes), 007 is both grounded and puts the very existence of MI6 in jeopardy. After an unauthorized mission to northern Africa, 007 learns of the sinister crime syndicate known as SPECTRE. Coming face-to-face with the leader of Spectre, 007 learns of a chilling connection between the leader and himself. From northern Africa to the Austrian Alps, 007 must race against the clock to stop a big surveillance data collection organization from being the eyes of the world, and take out the leader of Spectre before he has his hands in the security pockets of several countries around the world.

This final chapter in the Craig Bond series has it all: action, romance, espionage, intrigue, and car chases. But probably the best elements of the movie are connected to  getting back to the very core of what has kept this franchise alive for over 50 years and 24 official titles. Despite the success and popularity of the 90s Brosnan 007 movies, they tended to place a lot of significance on the futuristic and ultimately impossible gadgets. Understandable, because the 90s were a time of massive personal electronic device innovation and the dot com boom. However, this emphasis on the gadgets took away from the plot and character development. Still, those era of Bond movies were exciting and still popular today amongst mostly the newer Bond fans. Returning to the very essence of what make Bond the 007 that fans adore is what makes the Craig films unique and exciting–especially in Skyfall and Spectre where 007 truly comes into his own. We still get some gadgets and the famous Bond film cars, but there is a degree of believability and realism that exists in these films that did not exist in the 90s Bonds. Even though these are still high concept films that have over-the-top action packed sequences, these movies still have a sense of old-school espionage class about them. An interesting side note: there is definitely a hint of the plot from Tomorrow Never Dies in this current installment.

No 007 movie would be complete without an original song that is eerie, romantic, and mysterious all at the same time. The title song from Skyfall performed by the incomparable Adele was an outstanding work of music and lyrics. It truly embodied the film itself and cemented her career as a master of soul/jazz. I cannot say the same for Sam Smith’s performance of “The Writing’s on the Wall.” I was not all that impressed with his performance and I thought the song itself paled in comparison to 2012’s “Skyfall.” Despite the fact that I didn’t personally care for Sam Smith performance or the song, it definitely still had that Bond theme flare about it. Between the graphics and editing, you still knew that you were watching a 007 movie without needing to see the poster or title. Looking to the next vocal artist, I’d like to see Elle King perform the next Bond theme song after her very Bond-ish sounding “Under the Influence.” Regarding the film score, Thomas Newman shines as he so often does with his remarkable talent for capturing the soul of a film in the score that accompanies it.

Facing the popularity of Skyfall, it was definitely a monumental task for Mendes to direct this Bond film. And although I do not feel that Spectre is better than Skyfall and at times I felt that I enjoyed the previous one more, I still thoroughly enjoyed this present installment of the anthology. And to my pleasant surprise, Dame Judi Dench makes a small cameo appearance as the M we’ve had for nearly 20 years. In respect to the characters in and of themselves and their personal/interpersonal relationships with one another, I really felt that the chemistry between M, Q, 007, Money Penny, and Blofeld was right on the ‘money.’ There really isn’t much in the way of traditional or conventional character development but that is commonplace in high-concept films. However, the glimmer of development in both M and 007 was enough to show that these characters and actors were almost made for each other. It was never awkward or boring to watch their interactions with one another.

Ready for an actual spy movie filled with assassins, intrigue, espionage and romance–especially after having sat through Bridge of Spies??? Then definitely watch the next chapter in the Bond, James Bond 007 anthology SPECTRE! Prepare yourself for over two hours of excitement, explosions, and dynamic car chases. Return to old school Bond! Watch as many plot elements through the years and even the villain who started it all make it full-circle.