Bro-Reviews: Murder on the Orient Express

Well-groomed but not the smoothest ride.

As I’ve stated before, adapting treasured literature into a film is always a tall order. The studio and filmmakers want to make a movie that will not only satisfy fans of the work, but will also appeal to mainstream audiences. This seems nearly impossible for the works of Agatha Christie, as Christie purists are notoriously snobbish in regards to adapting her work. If there were ever a person who could do it, however, it would be celebrated actor and director Sir Kenneth Branagh. Surely a knighted man could faithfully adapt one of Christie’s most famous novels and remake the classic 1974 critically acclaimed film, Murder on the Orient Express, right?

Murder on the Orient Express sees famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) traveling from Israel after for his upcoming holiday after expertly solving another case. He does so aboard the Orient Express, a luxurious but overcrowded train holding a wide array of passengers. One night after the train is derailed due to a snow storm, a passenger is discovered dead. Believed to be murdered, Poirot takes the case to solve the murder on the Orient Express.

The first quality of the film that must be noted is its grand settings and slick look. Shots of the city of Israel, the main train station, the snowy mountains, and the sets of the train cabins are nothing short of award worthy. They transport you to the film’s setting in the 1930s, and Branagh’s excellent staging makes you too feel as if you are a passenger aboard this claustrophobic train. There’s not doubt the film is beautiful to look at, and is the epitome of stylish to say the very least.

The all star ensemble cast delivers when necessary, but it’s Daisy Ridley and Michelle Pfeiffer as Mary Debenham and Caroline Hubbard respectively who make the most of their limited screen time. Ridley proves there’s a future for her beyond Star Wars, and Pfeiffer continues her career renaissance with her performance. Though the film’s advertising highlights Johnny Depp as one of the main characters in the film, he’s hardly in it. But he too shines as the gangster Samuel Ratchett in the film, showing that somewhere buried deep within him there is still a man who can deliver an excellent performance.

Of course, the main star of the film other than his trademark mustache is Branagh as Poirot. Branagh is one of our finest actors living today, and does a splendid job as the famed detective. He is able to deliver scenes of intensity and scenes highlighting Poirot’s unique intricacies with ease, showcasing both his dramatic and comedic range. Branagh is also able to put the audience in Poirort’s shoes as he tries to uncover the mystery, and you too have as difficult a time piecing all of the evidence together, which also shows Poirot as vulnerable for the first time in his life despite his reputation.

While I stated earlier that the ensemble cast does their job, some members of the cast do feel underused. Penélope Cruz seems to fall victim the most to this as a missionary aboard the train, and feels as if she was cast to sell the movie despite not putting her academy award winning talent to much use. Dame Judi Dench also feels under utilized in the film, as her role as a snobbish Princess doesn’t quite resonate the way Judi Dench should resonate as we have grown accustomed to.

Having never read the book nor seen the 1974 Sidney Lumet directed version, I cannot necessarily say Agatha Christie fans will be pleased with every aspect of the film, but that is to be expected whenever adapting famed literature into a mainstream film. However, I would love to ask readers of the novel and Christie purists if the twists and reveal of who committed the crime pay off better in the book, as those reveals don’t payoff as much as they should upon being revealed. I felt I should’ve been shocked or at the very least felt a gut punch in the film’s climatic discoveries, but that unfortunately did not happen.

Overall, Murder on the Orient Express is a solid re-make and adaptation. It’s a glossy, well-groomed whodunit that doesn’t have the climax one anticipates after watching the film. Murder on the Orient Express may not be the smoothest ride, but its solid ensemble cast, terrific lead performance, and elaborate visuals and sets more than make up for its underwhelming final outcome.

Rating: 2.5/4 Stars. Pay Matinée Price.

Murder on the Orient Express stars Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley. It is in theaters November 10th.

 

 

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Bro-Reviews: Dunkirk

Dud-kirk.

Christopher Nolan is undoubtedly one of the most masterful directors working today, but the case could also be made he’s one of the greatest directors of all time. From small budgeted independent films like Memento, to original triumphs like Inception, all the way to the Dark Knight trilogy, Nolan has proven himself to be a true auteur. However, many would agree Nolan may have lost a step with the release of the bloated and cheesy Interstellar in 2014, a major disappointment in the eyes of many. Three years later, Nolan has created another epic film being hailed as a masterpiece based on the true story of the Battle of Dunkirk during the half of World War II America always ignores, Dunkirk.

In Dunkirk, the Nazi Germany army has surrounded the British and French armies, forcing them to retreat to the beaches of Dunkirk. It is there where the soldiers await and pray for the arrival of help whilst being under constant attack by the Nazis. We follow a couple of foot soldiers attempting to escape Dunkirk within a span of a week, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Alex (Harry Styles), a father (Mark Rylance) and son (Tom Glynn-Carney) sailing to Dunkirk to rescue the stranded soldiers in a span of a day, and Royal Air Force Pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) fighting off Nazi bomber planes in the span of an hour.

As I stated earlier, Nolan has full control of the films he makes at this point in his career. Dunkirk is another example of Nolan’s stranglehold on his projects, as the film is beautifully shot while retaining an apocalyptic, doomed atmosphere much like the battle itself. On top of that, the battle sequences put you in the middle of the action, making you jump at every sound of a gun shot to the point that you too want to spring from your seat in the theater and run for cover. From a technical standpoint, Dunkirk might be Christopher Nolan’s most masterful work yet.

However, what prevents Dunkirk from rising to being a great film and one of the most powerful war films ever is the utter lack of characterization in the film. To put it bluntly, Dunkirk doesn’t have characters, it has people. Even though I listed the characters’ names in the synopsis, you cannot recall their names without looking at a cast of “characters” list, that’s how expendable and unmemorable they are. Sure, the whole feeling of dread and wanting to escape is present, but other than wanting to survive/ make it home, we don’t empathize with these people. As an audience member, I wanted to know what specifically these people would miss out on should they perish. Are they trying to escape because they have families back home? Are they sailing to danger because they have an overwhelming feeling of nationalism and want to serve their country? Heck, we don’t even get the cliche’ of a solider pulling out a picture of his girlfriend and saying he can’t wait to see her again.

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As I stated earlier, Nolan more than likely has final cut and other overreaching decision making powers whenever he wants to make a project. It’s important to point this out, as Nolan not only directed this film, he also wrote it. This is nothing new as it pertains to Nolan, as he has a writing credit for every single film he’s made with the exception of being uncredited as a writer for 2002’s Insomnia. One of the major criticisms of Interstellar was the writing in the film, and Dunkirk marks Nolan’s second straight misfire in the writing department. A writer’s job is to make the audience empathize and feel for the protagonists, to make them want to get up and cheer once they have accomplished their goal. To make the people that appear on screen human. That feeling never arises in Dunkirk. Sure, there are moments when the performers on screen are in peril or dire circumstances, but the only investment you have in these situations is the uncertainty of what is going to happen. You couldn’t care less whether or not these “characters” survive, and that fault should be placed squarely on the shoulders of Nolan.

With such underwritten characters present and lack of dialogue in the film, it’s hard to judge the performances Dunkirk. Every teenybopper’s dream boat of the moment and One Direction member Harry Styles makes his much anticipated acting debut in the film, but one can hardly judge his acting capabilities since he gets lost in the shuffle of all of the indispensable soldiers in the film. At this point, it seems like Christopher Nolan is determined to turn Tom Hardy into Batman supervillain Bane, as he is muffled by a plane mask throughout the film, a total waste of Mr. Hardy’s many talents. Veteran actors Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance (who might as well be wearing a tee shirt with the inscription I AM THE SPIRIT OF THE FILM) come across as the best performers, but with such minimal dialogue, Dunkirk might have been the easiest acting job they’ve had in their lengthy careers.

With all of the power Nolan has over his projects now, it’s as if no one bothers to give him notes, or as if he believes he is above them. Someone should’ve met with Nolan and said while his behind the camera craftsmanship is tremendous, the people in his movie are lifeless, inconsequential pawns lacking humanity. Had this occurred, there’s the possibility Nolan would’ve gone back to the drawing board and fleshed these people out further other than bunching them all into the theme of survival. However, maybe Nolan rules with an iron fist and no longer listens to such constructive criticism, opting to instead make his films his way. One can hardly blame him due to his impeccable resume, but one can only live off of their reputation for so long.

Do not make the mistake of thinking Dunkirk is a bad movie. From a technical standpoint, Dunkirk is nothing short of masterful. From a writing and emotional investment perspective, Dunkirk is one of the most underwritten films in a long time. While I’m sure everyone will ridicule me and say “You just don’t get it.”, and maybe I truly don’t, I will not allow a great filmmaker such as Nolan off the hook for woefully underwriting the people in this film. Someone needs to stand up to him and tell him his writing abilities have woefully diminished over his last two films, but maybe I’ll be the only one to do so. Dunkirk is nothing to marvel at and laud, if anything, don’t believe the hype.

Rating: 2/4 Stars. Rent it.