Murder on the Orient Express (Branagh; 2017)

Agatha Christie’s classic story “Murder on the Orient Express” has been filmed for either the cinema or television screen five times since 1974 including this latest version directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh.  While there is a reason classics have attained the status they have, there is also a downside to being a classic which is that the book, or movie, or song, or piece of art will forever after be copied and imitated until the very thing which made a work a classic has been so overdone that people are inured to it.  When you tell someone the camera techniques in Citizen Kane were revolutionary at the time you can still very much respect it, but since those techniques have been copied by cinematographers for going on 80 years now audiences simply cannot have the same reaction to it as when the film was new.  Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express fortunately does not try to overly modernize Christie’s story, but unfortunately, this makes the film’s story overly familiar even to those who have never read the novel nor seen any of its adaptations.

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Murder on the Orient Express has one hell of an impressive cast.  Kenneth Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, Christie’s famous Belgian OCD-ridden detective, and he works alongside Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Olivia Colman, and Willem DaFoe.  Every single one of these performers throws themself into their role, and while most of the characters give the actors little to work with, they show to a person why they have been sought after by studios as the ensemble definitely elevates the very one-dimensional roles they have been given through their charisma, charm, and passion.

It’s also a gorgeous movie to look at, though its visuals were inconsistent.  The art direction and costuming are top notch, to the level of possible award-winning especially for the costumes, and the CGI is also excellent, but so stylized it seems as if it comes from a different film. specifically The Polar Express.  It’s understandable that you’d want to show the train moving from an outside perspective in a film about a murder on a long train ride, but when those scenes are shown using CGI rather than actual footage of a train and that CGI is either very dated or very stylized it calls attention to itself in a bad way.

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The writing is also a bit on the inconsistent side.  It captures the story and the era Agatha Christie originally penned perfectly.  Thus, the movie has a nostalgic flavor to it more reminiscent of a stage play than a movie.  It gives the fun of a mystery which doesn’t overly rely on cheap tricks and hidden information to keep the audience from solving it, but since it is made in an older stagey style it relies on characters which have no real personality outside of what the mystery needs so they can be living clues, and the mystery is quite easy to solve.  I had never seen nor read any version of “Murder on the Orient Express” before this one and I had the mystery solved while there was a good half an hour to forty-five minutes to go before the film revealed the answer.

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Final verdict:  Murder on the Orient Express is a well-made movie.  Every actor obviously had fun with their performance and put their hearts and souls into their part.  The visuals are also detailed and lovely with only the mismatched style of the CGI being the only poor decision here.  But, it’s a story we’ve seen so many times before it’s more than just familiar, it’s dated.  If you don’t care about actually solving the mystery and just want to see a turn of the last century style murder mystery for pure nostalgia’s sake, then Murder on the Orient Express will definitely fit that bill.  But, with paper-thin characters and a mystery which lacks any kind of an actual mystery to modern audiences, most will probably leave the theater not necessarily hating the movie, but definitely feeling a bit disappointed.

The Nice Guys (Black; 2016)

There are a lot of big names attached to The Nice Guys.  Russel Crowe (as tough guy, Jackson Healy) and Ryan Gosling (as alcoholic P.I., Holland March) are the two most obvious, but writer and director Shane Black is also someone whose work you may recognize.  His first script as a writer was Lethal Weapon, you’ve probably heard of it, and he’s written and directed quite a number of major films including Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang and Iron Man 3.  One of Russel Crowe’s co-stars from L.A. Confidential also makes an appearance here, but I won’t ruin the surprise by saying who as their involvement in the film hasn’t been widely promoted.  With so many big names, and all of those names doing a fantastic job, it’s not lightly that I say the biggest and best surprise in this movie is that everyone is shown up by a 14 year-old, Angourie Rice (as Holly March).

So far this year, we’ve seen a number of films featuring child actors, and for the most part it’s been a so-so crop with performances that have been eclipsed by the people and special effects around them.  Angourie Rice, however, gives a performance by a child actor the like we haven’t seen in years.  Ryan Gosling and Russel Crowe do not just coast by on their performances in The Nice Guys.  It would be exaggerating a bit to say they are at the top of their game here, but they are very good, showing that they can deliver the funny nearly as well as they can deliver intensity and action.  Despite this, Rice steals every single scene she is in right out from under them, and she has quite a large role, appearing in nearly as many scenes as the older, male stars are.  I really hope she manages to avoid the curse of child actors, because watching this film I know I have witnessed a potential multiple Oscar winning actress.  I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to see her get a Supporting Actress nod for this part, in fact.

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She taught me a thing or two.  The girl’s got chops.

Rice is hardly the only actor that deserves praise for her work in The Nice Guys, however.  Every single performer here from the stars to the quickest of cameos give absolutely solid performances.  The chemistry between Crowe and Gosling is of particular note here (and, of course, their chemistry with Rice) as their playful banter and surprising vulnerabilities are what makes the audience fall in love with these characters, though it’s the alcoholism, grit, and thoughtlessness that makes them three dimensional.

The Nice Guy‘s script is very slick, as Black’s scripts are wont to be, crammed with quotable lines and snappy dialogue, but unfortunately, the script is also the film’s one, but major, weakness.  Every word is chosen wisely, and the pacing is very taut, and the writing is so well done in most every way that you can almost not notice that nearly every single major plot point in the film is brought about by sheer dumb luck.  It’s possible that Black was trying to write a modern Greek play, and his giving us one deus ex machina after another was an intentional parody, but I somehow doubt it.  It seems far more likely that he had a fantastic idea for a group of characters and a situation, but had no idea how to logically have them interact so he just wrote a script relying on coincidence after coincidence, and it is more than a little disappointing to reach the end of what is in every other way a top notch film and realize that the main characters really did almost nothing and the plot would have moved along no matter who had been in those roles, so long as they had just been in the same locations.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the ’70s era setting of The Nice Guys.  It’s a detail that is essential to the plot, and they certainly had some fun with the styles and mores of the period, but the time period never really takes on the role of an essential “character” like in many period pieces.  It is something that is handled well for the most part (I do think I spotted an anachronism here or there, but nothing too glaring), but if it weren’t for one major piece to the mystery. which I will not indulge, the story really could have been set in any number of modern time periods where the porn industry could be a major player.  Though, if it was set outside the 70’s I doubt Misty Mountains would have been a character name, and that would be a shame.

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Almost as much of a shame as not seeing this wallpaper.

If you’re looking for a very adult, in more ways than one, mystery, action, comedy flick, and I can’t think of why you wouldn’t, The Nice Guys admirably will fit the bill for you.  While it does have one heck of an Achilles Heel, it just has so much energy and charm that I think even the biggest of cynics can overlook its flaw and get lost in some top notch performances and unforgettable wit.

Rating:  7.6 out of 10