“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

 

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” (2017) Review

When news of Twentieth Century Fox releasing its own version of Agatha Christie’s 1934 novel, “Murder on the Orient Express”, many people groaned. In a way, I could understand their reaction. This new movie would mark the fifth adaptation of the novel – the second theatrical version. However, being a major fan of Christie’s story about a murder aboard the famed trans-European train, I was among those who did not groan. 

Directed by Kenneth Branaugh, who also starred as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” begins in Jerusalem 1934, where Poirot has been asked to solve the theft of a valuable artifact from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. After achieving his goal, Poirot boards a boat that conveys him to Istanbul in Turkey. Among his fellow passengers is a British governess named Mary Debenham and a Afro-British former-Army soldier-turned-physician named Dr. John Abuthnot. Poirot plans to remain in Istanbul for a few days of rest. But he receives a telegram, summoning him to London to solve another case. Monsieur Bouc, a young friend of his who happens to serve as a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, manages to acquire a berth in one of the second-class compartments in the Calais coach of the Orient Express.

Both Poirot and Bouc are surprised to discover that the Calais coach is unusually full for the winter season. A day following the train’s departure from Istanbul, one of the passengers – an American “businessman” named Samuel Rachett – informs Poirot that he had received death threats and wants to hire the Belgian detective to serve as his bodyguard. Due to his instinctive dislike of Rachett, Poirot refuses the offer. During the second night of the train’s journey, the Orient Express becomes stranded somewhere between Vinkovci and Brod, thanks to an avalanche. The following morning, Rachett’s dead body is discovered with a dozen stab wounds. Bouc asks Poirot to discover the killer’s identity. Since each train car was locked at night, Poirot has focused his suspicions on those who were inside the Calais coach:

*Mary Debenham
*Dr. John Abuthnot
*Hector McQueen, Rachett’s secretary
*Edward Masterman, Rachett’s English valet
*Mrs. Caroline Hubbard, a middle-aged American tourist
*Pilar Estravados, a Spanish-born missionary
*Princess Dragomiroff, an exiled Russian princess
*Hildegarde Schmidt, Princess Dragomiroff’s German maid
*Biniamino Marquez, a Spanish-born automobile salesman
*Count Rudolph Andrenyi, a Hungarian aristocrat/acclaimed dancer
*Countess Helena Andrenyi, Count Andrenyi’s German-born wife
*Gerhard Hardman, a German scholar
*Pierre Michel, the Calais coach’s car attendant

Not long after he begins his investigation, Poirot discovers Rachett’s true identity – a gangster named Lanfranco Cassetti, who had kidnapped a three year-old heiress named Daisy Armstrong two years earlier. After Daisy’s parents had paid the ransom, Cassetti killed young Daisy and fled the United States. It becomes up to Poirot to discover which Calais coach passengers have connections to the Armstrong kidnapping case and find the killer.

What can I say about this adaptation of Christie’s 1934 novel? Of the five versions of “Murder on the Orient Express”, I have only seen four. But I am not here to discuss the other three versions I have seen . . . only this new adaptation.

“MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” was not a perfect movie. Well to be honest, I have yet to see a perfect adaptation of Christie’s novel. But there were a few aspects of this film that I did not like. Most of those aspects had a lot to do with camera shots. I did not like how Branaugh had allowed his passengers to board through the dining car at the end of the train. Honestly? I did not care for that tracking shot of Poirot making his way through the train . . . with the camera focused on him through the windows. I found it rather distracting and slightly confusing. Nor did I care for how Branaugh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos shot the scene featuring the discovery of Rachett’s body. From the moment when the victim’s valet discovered the body to Dr. Abuthnot examined it and conveyed his prognosis, Branaugh and Zambarloukos did the entire scene from a high angle shot from above in which I could barely, if at all, see the victim’s body. I found it very frustrating to watch. And rather unnecessary. I have one last complaint and it concerned a character. Namely . . . Count Rudolph Andrenyi. In Christie’s novel, Count Andrenyi was described as a hot-blooded Hungarian and a diplomat. In “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”, the Count remained a hot-blooded Hungarian. But for some reason, Branaugh and screenwriter Michael Green had decided to change his profession from a diplomat to a professional dancer. Why? Other than showing Count Andrenyi in a fight with two men at the Sirkeci train station, I saw no earthly reason to change the character’s profession. Worse, while being questioned by Poirot, the latter brought up the matter of a diplomatic passport. Why would Poirot bring up this matter to a man who was a professional dancer?

Thankfully, I managed to enjoy “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” a great deal, despite its flaws. Thanks to Branaugh and a first-rate crew, the movie radiated a sharp rich elegance that struck me as different as the previous adaptations. And I have to give credit to cinematographer Zambarloukos for this look. There were others who had contributed to the film’s look and style. I especially have to commend production designer Jim Clay for his re-creation of the Orient Express – along with the help of the art direction team led by Dominic Masters and set decorator Rebecca Alleway:

murder_on_the_orient_express_production_design_1_embed murder_on_the_orient_express_production_design_2_embed

I doubt that the film’s re-creation of the famous luxury train at Longcross Studios was completely accurate. But I must admit that I was more than impressed by how people like Clay, Masters and Alleway still managed to re-create the style and ambiance of the famous train. My admiration for their work at Longcross also extends to their re-creation of the famous Sirkeci railway station. I found it rich in detail and atmosphere . . . and if I must be honest, slightly mind blowing:

murder_on_the_orient_express_production_design_3_embed

I suspect that none of crewmen who worked on “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS” will receive any recognition from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their work. Pity. As for Patrick Doyle’s score, I must be honest and admit that I did not find it particularly memorable. In fact, I found Doyle’s occasional use of 1930s tunes more memorable than his original work.

How did I feel about Branaugh and screenwriter Michael Green’s treatment of Christie’s novel? Aside from my nitpick about the Count Rudolph Andrenyi character, I had no problems with it. Yes, I realize that both Branaugh and Green had made some changes to Christie’s story. But you know what? So did the other versions I have seen. And there were no real changes to the plot, aside from allowing the Daisy Armstrong kidnapping to occur two years previously, instead of more. Most of the changes were made to some of the characters, instead of the plot. For instance:

*Although Hector McQueen had remained Rachett’s secretary, he was discovered to be embezzling from the latter.
*John Abuthnot is portrayed as an Afro-British doctor, who is also a former Army sniper, instead of a British Army colonel stationed in India
*Swedish-born missionary Greta Ohlsson becomes the Spanish-born missionary Pilar Estravados, whose name was borrowed from Christie’s 1938 novel, “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas”
*Italian-born car salesman Antonio Foscarelli becomes the Spanish-born salesman Biniamino Marquez
*Monsieur Bouc is portrayed as a much younger man, who profession is dependent upon family connections

As one can see, the changes in characterizations is based upon changes in ethnicity and nationality. Hell, I had more of a problem with the changes made by the Count Andrenyi character than I did with the above changes. And if I must be honest, I found the changes made to the John Abuthnot character rather impressive and interesting. Despite these changes, he remained intensely in love with Mary Debenham and protective of her. Another change I noticed is that Branaugh and Green had allowed Poirot to question the suspects in different parts of either the Calais coach, the dining car, the Pullman lounge car and various spots outside of the stranded train. I must admit that I found this variation in minor locations around the train rather refreshing. Watching Poirot question most of the suspects (with the exception of Princess Dragonmiroff and Hildegarde Schmidt) inside the Pullman coach had struck me as a bit repetitive in the 1974 and 2010 versions.

I would not be surprised if certain Christie fans and film critics had accused Branaugh of political correctness. Not only did the screenplay pointed out Dr. Abuthnot’s race via characters like Gerhard Hardman, but also Biniamino Marquez’s ethnicity via Hector McQueen. Considering that the movie is set in 1934, I did not mind. More importantly, it would have been odd if someone had not commented on Dr. Abuthnot’s race or Senor Marquez’s nationality. In fact, in Christie’s original novel, some characters made a big deal over the nationalities of the other suspects.

The important thing is that despite these changes, Michael Green’s screenplay more or less adhered to Christie’s novel. And he did so with style and a good deal of pathos in the film’s last half hour that I found more than satisfying. I was especially surprised by how the film treated Poirot’s character in the end. In the novel and previous adaptations, Poirot had remained on the train after solving the murder. Not in this adaptation. After exposing the crime and reporting his findings to the police in Brod, Poirot left the train. And I was thrilled. As I have stated numerous times, if I had been Poirot, I would have left that train myself.

I must admit that I had experienced a few qualms when I learned that Kenneth Branaugh had cast himself as the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. The large moustache he had utilized for his performance did not comfort me, until I realized that it matched the description of the literary Poirot’s moustache. I have stated in the past that I believe that British actors with a Continental background – like Peter Ustinov, Alfred Molina and David Suchet – tend to give more believable portrayals of Poirot than English speaking actors. Branaugh ended up proving me wrong. He gave a very charming and energetic performance as Poirot, without wallowing in the occasional moments of hammy acting. I also enjoyed how he portrayed Poirot’s development in the story from a charming and intelligent man seeking a little peace before his next case to the slightly outraged man who found himself conflicted over how to handle the consequences of Rachett’s murder.

There were other performances that I found very interesting. One came from Johnny Depp, who gave an effectively slimy portrayal of the former kidnapper-turned-murder victim. His performance really impressed me, especially in one particular scene in which Rachett requested Poirot’s services as a bodyguard. Depp displayed his versatility as an actor by conveying his character’s attempt at friendliness and a sinister form of intimidation. I also appreciated Michelle Pfieffer’s portrayal of the extroverted Caroline Hubbard, which I found both humorous and sexy. And yet, Pfieffer’s finest moment came near the film’s end, when Poirot exposed her character’s deep secret. She gave a very emotional and effective performance. Leslie Odom Jr. and Daisy Ridley portrayed the two suspects that Poirot had first encountered – namely Dr. John Abuthnot and Mary Debenham. It is interesting that the literary versions of this pair proved to be more hostile (and bigoted) toward Poirot than the other passengers. In this version, both are more friendlier toward Poirot, yet both maintained a subtle wariness toward his presence. I also enjoyed how Odom and Ridley managed to convey more complexity into their performances, when confronted with their lies by Poirot and their willingness to fiercely protect each other.

I never thought I would say this, but I thought Josh Gad gave the most complex performance as Rachett’s secretary, Hector McQueen I have ever seen on screen. Thanks to Gad’s first-rate performance, his McQueen literally oozed with moral ambiguity – especially in the film’s second half. Another interesting performance came from Derek Jacobi, who portrayed Rachett’s English valet, Edward Masterman. I was particularly impressed at how Jacobi conveyed his character’s nervousness in being caught in a slip of character by Poirot. And there was Penelope Cruz’s performance as the Spanish missionary, Pilar Estravados. Cruz’s portrayal of the missionary was a far cry from the literary character by portraying her not only as intensely religious, but also intense and slightly intimidating. I found her performance very interesting. Judi Dench gave a very imperious and entertaining performance as the elderly Princess Dragonmiroff. The movie also featured first-rate performances from the rest of the cast that included Olivia Colman, Tom Bateman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Willem Dafoe, Marwan Kenzari, Lucy Boynton and yes, Sergei Polunin. I may not have liked the change made to the Count Andrenyi character, but I cannot deny that Poluin gave an effective performance.

I recently learned that 20th Century Fox given approval for a sequel to “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”. It may not have been a major box office hit, but it was financially successful. Personally, I am glad. I really enjoyed this new take on Christie’s 1934 novel. And I was not only impressed by the cast’s excellent performances in this film, but also by Kenneth Branaugh’s direction and his superb portrayal of the Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. If a sequel is being planned, I cannot wait to see him reprise his portrayal of the famous literary sleuth.

 

Advertisements

“MARSHALL” (2017) Review

 

“MARSHALL” (2017) Review

I have a confession. I had no interest in seeing the recent movie, “MARSHALL”, when I first heard about it. I thought it would turn out to be one of those solemn biography flicks about some “great man in history” and his struggles to become successful in his endeavors. But when I learned about the movie’s plot, I changed my mind and decided to see it. 

Directed by Reginald Hudlin, “MARSHALL” was about a “great man in history” – none other than the first African-American to be an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall. However, this film focused on his position as a defense counselor for and director of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and his role in the 1941 case of “the State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell”.

Following the successful end of a case in Oklahoma in 1941, NAACP defense attorney Thurgood Marshall returns to New York City for a rest. However, his rest and reunion with his wife, Vivien “Buster” Burey, is short-lived when NAACP Director Walter Francis White sends him to Bridgeport, Connecticut to defend Joseph Spell, a chauffeur accused of rape by his white employer, Eleanor Strubing. In order to get Marshall admitted to the local bar and defend Spell, a local member of the Bridgeport NAACP office tries to recruit an insurance attorney named Sam Friedman to help. However, Friedman is more interested in keeping his distance from the controversial case, until his brother Irwin coerces him into getting involved. Judge Foster a family friend of prosecutor Lorin Willis, agrees to admit Marshall to the local bar. But he forbids Marshall from speaking during the trial. This act forces Friedman to act as Spell’s lead counsel, while Marshall guides the former through the jury selection process and the actual trial. Judge Foster’s refusal to allow Marshall to speak proves to be the first of several stumbling blocks in his and Friedman’s efforts to defend Spell.

Despite the movie’s narrative, “MARSHALL” could have remained one of those stately biopics that usually ends up boring me senseless. Thanks to Reginald Hudlin’s direction and the screenplay written by Michael and Jacob Koskoff, the movie proved to be a lot different. Instead, “MARSHALL” proved to be a very interesting re-creation of the 1941 controversial case in which a black man is accused of raping a white woman. Stories or real life incidents involving interracial rape – especially that of white women – have been around for decades. Stories about racism in the U.S. South have been around for a long time, as well. However, I have also noticed that in recent years, Hollywood has turned its eye upon Northern racism, especially in the Northeast. In its portrayal of the “the State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell” case, “MARSHALL”turned out to be one of those movies that exposed Northern racism.

I was also impressed by how the Koskoff brothers treated the Spell case as a legal mystery. Ironically, the movie did not begin with scenes that led to Joseph Spell’s arrest. I must admit that I had expected “MARSHALL” to begin with a sequence featuring vague details of the crime. Instead, it began with Thurgood Marshall finishing a case in Oklahoma. The audience learned about the Spell case around the same time Walter White assigned him to defend Joseph Spell. This led me to realize that the entire movie was told from the viewpoint of two people – Marshall and Sam Friedman. Some have criticized the movie for including Friedman as a leading character in the film. They believed this situation robbed the Thurgood Marshall character some of his agency as the film’s leading character, by having Friedman as a co-lead. Personally, I did not mind occasionally watching the film from Friedman’s point-of-view. I found it interesting. And to be honest, history itself set up this situation, due to the trial’s presiding judge refusing to recognize Marshall as Spell’s primary attorney.

However, dealing with a potentially hostile judge and a patronizing prosecutor, and being regulated to secondary attorney for the defense seemed to be a walk in the park for Marshall. He also has to deal with Bridgeport’s racially hostile citizens; pressure from the N.A.A.C.P. to successfully defend Spell; and Friedman, who turned out to be a reluctant and wary co-defender, worried about how his defense of Spell would affect his practice. Marshall also has to deal with Friedman’s lack of experience in criminal law. But the biggest roadblock proves to be Marshall’s growing suspicion that his client is lying about the latter’s relationship with the alleged victim. And I thought the movie did an excellent job keeping these aspects of the story balance, due to the Koskoffs’ screenplay and Hudlin’s direction.

I have a minor quibble regarding the movie. Although the movie made it plain that the N.A.A.C.P. regarded Marshall’s successful defense of Spell as a means to lure more donations for the agency, I believed that it ignored an even more important topic. A part of me wished that the movie had also touched upon Northern blacks’ feelings of being ignored by the agency and the latter’s illusion that most of American racism was focused in the South. Another reason why a “not guilty” for Spell was so important was to convey the message that confronting racism from the North and other parts of the country was just as important as confronting as Southern racism. But I get the feeling that the movie’s producers, writers and director were wary of approaching, let alone exploring this topic.

Considering that “MARSHALL” is not what one would consider a large budget film, I was impressed by its production values. Now I cannot say that any of the film’s technical details blew my mind. Well . . . perhaps two of them did. I found Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography colorful, sharp and lovely to look at. This seemed especially apparent in the film’s exterior shots. I also enjoyed Ruth E. Carter’s costume designs. Not only did I find them to be a close representation of fashion for both men and women in 1941, but they also seemed to be good representations of the major characters’ economic class. As for Richard Hoover’s production designs, Kara Lindstrom’s set decorations and Jeff Schoen’s art direction; I found satisfying, but not particularly memorable.

“MARSHALL” featured solid performances from supporting cast members like Jeffrey DeMunn, John Magaro, Zanete Shadwick, Derrick Baskin, Barrett Doss, Keesha Sharp, Rozanda Sharp, and Jeremy Bobb. Jussie Smollett gave a brief, yet subtle performance as the famous poet, Langston Hughes. And Roger Guenveur Smith was effectively commanding as N.A.A.C.P. director Walter White. Dan Stevens did an excellent job in conveying the patronizing and self-privileged prosecutor Loren Willis. James Cromwell gave a very interesting performance as Judge Foster. Although Cromwell managed to convey his character’s obvious bigotry, it seemed that some of his character’s decisions – including a willingness to allow Marshall to act as second chair for the defense – seemed to express the latter’s unwillingness to put Northern racism on display for the world to see. Kate Hudson’s portrayal of the alleged victim, Eleanor Strubing struck me as effectively ambiguous. Hudson did an excellent job in conveying mixed signals over her character. I felt anger over her character’s charges of rape against the defendant. Yet at the same time, I felt pity toward the character being an obvious victim of spousal abuse. Ironically, Sterling K. Brown also managed to effectively convey the ambiguity of his character, the defendant Joseph Spell. Now, one might wonder why I would regard Spell as an ambiguous character. Brown did an excellent job in expressing his character’s innocence. And yet, the actor also managed to convey the air that his character was lying to Marshall on a certain level.

I have seen Chadwick Boseman in three other films before “MARSHALL”. And I was impressed. But I felt a lot more impressed by his portrayal of Thurgood Marshall in this film. The actor did a superb job in conveying the different aspects of Marshall’s personality – his charisma, witty sense of humor, intelligence and more importantly, a slight perverse streak in his nature. Boseman was very subtle in expressing Marshall’s arrogance and slight tendency of needling . . . especially with Langston Hughes and Sam Friedman. Another first-rate performance came from Josh Gad, who portrayed Friedman, the man forced to act as Spell’s primary defender. I noticed that although Friedman seemed friendly with the head of Bridgeport’s N.A.A.C.P. office, he seemed very wary of helping Marshall with defending Spell. I understood this. He was worried how his participation in the case would look with his own clients and Bridgeport’s Jewish community. But I realized that if Friedman had truly been that racially tolerant at the time, he would not care . . . like his brother. This is why I found it very satisfying to watch Gad develop into that openly tolerant man who no longer cared about how others would regard his views on race and especially African-Americans.

I would never regard “MARSHALL” as one of the best movies of 2017. To be honest, I do not believe in any “best movies of the year” list. But I enjoyed “MARSHALL” so much that in the end, it became one of my favorite movies of that year. And I can thank director Reginald Hudlin, screenwriters Jacob and Michael Koskoff and an excellent cast led by the always talented Chadwick Boseman for making this film so enjoyable and fascinating for me.