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Monday, November 13, 2017

In Theaters: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)



MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
(US - 2017)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Written by Michael Green. Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Lucy Boynton, Olivia Colman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Marwan Kenzari, Sergei Polunin, Gerald Horan, Phil Dunster, Miranda Raison, Hayat Kamille. (PG-13, 114 mins)

The first big-screen Hercule Poirot mystery since Peter Ustinov starred in Cannon's little-seen APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH way back in 1988, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS gives a mustache attached to the face of Kenneth Branagh the opportunity to play Agatha Christie's legendary detective. David Suchet enjoyed much success as Poirot in a series of PBS productions, including an ORIENT EXPRESS in 2010. The novel was also turned into a 2001 CBS TV-movie with Alfred Molina as a present-day Poirot. Suchet is often cited as the best Poirot, but the standard--at least as far as cinema is concerned--remains Albert Finney's Oscar-nominated turn as the fussy Belgian sleuth in Sidney Lumet's classic 1974 film version. While Christie adaptations were frequent (Margaret Rutherford played Miss Marple in several 1960s films, TEN LITTLE INDIANS was a big hit in 1965, and Tony Randall portrayed Poirot in 1966's THE ALPHABET MURDERS), it was the all-star MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS that got the ball rolling on a star-studded, big-screen Christie renaissance that lasted into the 1980s, including a 1974 remake of TEN LITTLE INDIANS, rushed into production by Harry Alan Towers to compete with Lumet's film; Ustinov starring as Poirot in 1978's DEATH ON THE NILE, 1982's EVIL UNDER THE SUN, the aforementioned latecomer APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH; and Angela Lansbury as Miss Marple in 1980's THE MIRROR CRACK'D, giving the actress an old-school test run before her long-running TV series MURDER, SHE WROTE.





All of this leads to the inevitable question: why does this 2017 remake of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS exist? It brings nothing new to the table story-wise, with the mystery's solution being common knowledge to any older moviegoer who's seen the 1974 version and anyone who watched Suchet's run on PBS. Is it to give students something newer to stream when they want to skip the reading and have no idea who Albert Finney is and the quiz is tomorrow? Is that why Imagine Dragons' "Believer" was so prominently featured in the trailer? It's really just an excuse for director Kenneth Branagh to give star Kenneth Branagh some very wide latitude to ham it up. Boarding the Orient Express in Istanbul bound for Western Europe, Poirot makes the acquaintance of a diverse group of passengers: much-divorced, man-hunting Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer); secret lovers Miss Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr); missionary Pilar Estravados (Penelope Cruz); Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman); Count Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his drug-addicted wife Countess Elena (Lucy Boynton); Nazi sympathizing Austrian professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe); Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a car salesman; Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a sinister American "businessman" in the art forgery game; Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), Ratchett's nervous, hard-drinking secretary; and Masterman (Derek Jacobi), Ratchett's long-suffering butler. Poirot turns down an offer to work as Ratchett's eyes and ears on the journey, as the corrupt entrepreneur has been receiving threatening letters and is aware that people are after him over his shady dealings. The second day of the journey, the train is stopped by an avalanche and left precariously stranded on a bridge in the mountains. But it gets worse when Ratchett's dead body is discovered in his compartment, with twelve random knife wounds over his torso and neck area.


Christie's novel and its adaptations thus far have arguably the most famous and well-known reveal of any whodunit. Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green (who's had a busy 2017 with LOGAN, ALIEN: COVENANT, and BLADE RUNNER 2049, plus his work on the Starz series AMERICAN GODS) don't change anything about the structure of the story or its final result, instead adding some ethnic diversity and some racial tension with Hardman not hesitating to air his true feelings about Arbuthnot, who fears that his being a black man instantly makes him a suspect (also the case for "Spaniard" Marquez). It's a lavishly-mounted production that allows Branagh to show off--perhaps too much--some directorial flair, with an overuse of overhead shots, Dutch angles, and beveled reflections. There's a CGI avalanche that looks like something out of an Asylum production, and one really badly-edited foot chase outside the derailed train. When we're shown the "how" part of the whodunit--one of the most memorable scenes in Lumet's 1974 version--Branagh bungles badly, staging the murder of Ratchett as a quick, shaky-cam, black & white cutaway that looks like something out of a cheap horror movie. And when he solves the mystery and confronts the passengers, the action is taken out of the tense, claustrophobic confines of the train car and moved to an improbably long table set up in a tunnel outside the train, with the suspects all seated Last Supper-style, out in the freezing cold with no visible breath. It's one thing to make a straight remake that gets a bunch of A-listers together to have a good time with a classic story, but the few changes that are offered are, if not worse, then at least dumber. Why do they have to go to the trouble of finding a long table and a bunch of chairs to sit outside? And if you're gonna do that, at least make it look cold.


Even with Pfeiffer, Depp, Dench, and Dafoe onboard, the whole point of something like this is the blinding shine of star power. In comparison to Lumet's film, Daisy Ridley is no Vanessa Redgrave, Leslie Odom Jr is no Sean Connery, Tom Bateman (as railroad official and Poirot pal Bouc, who assists in the investigation) is no Martin Balsam, and Josh Gad is no Anthony Perkins. In the end, ORIENT EXPRESS '17 is another in a long line of pointless remakes (2013's CARRIE, 2014's ROBOCOP, etc) that's not terrible but does nothing to justify its existence. It comes perilously close to being a Kenneth Branagh vanity project, with his Poirot making snide comments, laughing uproariously as he reads Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities, and often coming across like a Larry David version of the legendary detective, letting the mustache--presumably a spare MORTDECAI prop loaned to him by Depp or a tribute to Sam Elliott in THE BIG LEBOWSKI--do most of the acting for him. And of course, since everything has to be a franchise now, the film ends with Poirot being summoned to Egypt because, "there's been a death on the Nile!"



2 comments:

  1. "James's doctor" is actually grammatically correct - forget the ridiculous "new AP style." It's "Congress's vote" and "Bess's doll." Why every single Internet writer has fallen prey to this incorrect "writing style," I do not know. Not every proper noun ending in an "s," requires only an apostrophe for the possessive. It is "CBS's schedule." Lunacy.

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