Bethlehem Press

Friday, January 18, 2019

Movie Review: ‘Express’

Friday, November 24, 2017 by Paul Willistein in Focus

“Murder On The Orient Express” isn’t exactly murder to watch, but it is painful.

While boasting a bravura turn as Hercule Poirot by Kenneth Branagh, who directs the star-studded extravaganza, the remake of the 1974 movie that was directed by Sidney Lumet, which is also based on the 1934 novel by Agatha Christie, is pretty much of a train wreck, literally and figuratively.

The latest film’s premise is that the legendary train has derailed, rather than being stuck in the snow, from an avalanche that has covered the tracks. On board, a murder has occurred. Poirot must identify the murderer before another murder takes place.

The derailment strains the credulity of the movie-goer in what is otherwise a realism-based movie because: A. There seems to be no railroad crane car dispatched to place the locomotive back on the track and, B. The passenger cars, dining cars and sleeper cars seem to be well-lit and warm despite there being no electricity and heat generated by the stuck locomotive.

That said, “Murder On The Orient Express” is a handsome-looking movie, with impressive scenes of the Orient Express chugging along the track, the train stuck atop a huge wooden trestle, backdrops of mountains and sunset skies, and lovely wood, leather and brass interiors of the train.

Branagh seems intent on getting the most out of the cinematography with uncanny overhead shots of the characters in the railroad car interior, closeups of the actors, and interesting locations for the dialogue scenes (One exterior scene, where Poirot interrogates a train passenger, seems gimmicky and unbelievable, given the snow-covered landscape and cold temperature).

Lumet’s 1974 film had a star-studded cast: Albert Finney (Hercule Poirot), Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, and Michael York.

Branagh’s 2017 has a star-studded cast: Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot), Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, and Daisy Ridley.

Branagh’s turn is notable for his, as he’s called it, “facial furniture,” a bizarrely big double-twirl mustache that dominates Poirot’s face like a nesting squirrel, rivaling the combined mustaches of the Super Mario Bros. The bad news is that it obscures any expressive contributions by Branagh’s mouth and lips to his performance. This is not altogether bad because, at times, Branagh’s Poirot sounds suspiciously like Peter Sellers’ Inspector Clouseau from the “Pink Panther” movies. Even so, Branagh saves the day with a wrap-up voiceover and concluding monologue that is magnificent and nearly gets the “Orient Express” back on track.

Michelle Pfeiffer is the other standout performer, getting into the spirit of the melodrama with refined, sharp and convincing gusto.

The rest of the actors seem, ahem, along for the ride.

The problem with the latest “Orient Express” is structure. Branagh interviews each passenger one by one, a rather tedious choice, and punctuates their recounting with black and white flashbacks, which are difficult to clearly see.

Furthermore, Branagh as the director (“Cinderella,” 2014; “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” 2014; “Thor,” 2011; “As You Like It,” 2006; “Dead Again,” 1991; “Henry V,” 1989) and screenwriter Michael Green (“Blade Runner 2049,” 2017; “Logan,” 2017) don’t give the characters enough business to work with.

Moreover, the screenplay lacks the connect-the-dots brevity of classic Hollywood and British suspense-thrillers, where motivation is mined, personality is celebrated, and twists are plotted. Instead, this “Orient Express” gets, shall we say, derailed by the details.

A prologue, set at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem in 1934, which serves to verify the sleuthing expertise, as well as the quirky personality, of Poirot, is one of the more effective sequences in the movie. Otherwise, it has little to do with the main plot, which also takes place in 1934 aboard the storied luxury train journey from Paris to Istanbul (there were many other routes from 1883- 2009).

“Murder On The Orient Express” will be of chief interest to fans of Agatha Christie. Even they might be disappointed. Better yet, get on board with the 1974 Sidney Lumet version, or read the book.

Still, Agatha Christie fans shouldn’t despair. There’s an indication at the film’s conclusion that Poirot may be headed next for “Death on the Nile.”

“Murder On The Orient Express,”MPAA Rated PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. Parents are urged to be cautious. Some material may be inappropriate for pre-teenagers.) for violence and thematic elements; Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery Run time: 1 hr., 54 mins.; Distributed by 20th Century Fox.

Credit Readers Anonymous:Michelle Pfeiffer sings a lovely song, “Never Forget,” with music by Patrick Doyle and lyrics by Kenneth Branagh, over the end credits for “Murder On The Orient Express,” filmed in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Malta, and New Zealand.

Box Office:Nov. 17 weekend box office results were unavailable because of the early Focus deadline for the Thanksgiving Day holiday.

Unreel,Nov. 24:

“Darkest Hour,”PG-13: Joe Wright directs Gary Oldman, Lily James, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Ben Mendelsohn in the Biography Drama. During the early days of World War II, newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill must decide whether to negotiate with Hitler, or fight on.

“The Man Who Invented Christmas,”PG: Bharat Nalluri directs Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, and Simon Callow in the Biography Drama. The creation of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is told.

“Bombshell:The Hedy Lamarr Story,” Alexandra Dean directs Nino Amareno, Charles Amirkhanian, Jeanine Basinger, and Bill Birnes in the Documentary. The world’s most beautiful woman was the secret inventor of what would become Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS communications.

Two Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes