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.

Alice Through the Looking Glass (Bobin; 2016)

It’s been six years since Alice (Mia Wasikowska) took her first live action adventure in Wonderland in Tim Burton’s foray which kicked off the now yearly live action versions of classic Disney animated films.  We find Alice is now a ship captain for some reason which isn’t really explained, that she’s made the ire of a wealthy sponsor named Hamish (Leo Bill) because she turned him down for marriage, and her mother (Lindsay Duncan) has put Alice in a precarious position by forcing Alice to trade her ship to this same sponsor so that they can keep their house for no reason that is explained past the fact that Alice’s mother feels being a ship’s captain is no job for a lady.

Enter Absalom (Alan Rickman) the once caterpillar, now butterfly, from Wonderland to show Alice that she can enter Wonderland again through the mirror in this sponsors home and that she needs to go, but again all for no reason.  When she arrives she quickly discovers that the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the person Alice is closest to in the whole world despite only meeting him once six years ago, is grumpy because he found a hat and that Alice needs to save him, though doing so could destroy the entire universe.   This is not an auspicious start to the movie.  I don’t expect logic and reason to be the defining factors in a Wonderland film, granted, but there still needs to be something that isn’t completely random to give the narrative an anchor of some kind, otherwise we’re just watching random things happen for random reasons, and that’s not acceptable even in a Wonderland story.

The questionable set up leads to a main story that is not quite so random, but is still based too largely on the opening elements that are.  For some reason, Alice and the Mad Hatter are the two most important people in the entire world, even though the Hatter doesn’t do anything but have tea parties and sulk, and Alice hasn’t been around in ages, but we have to run with this for the story to make any sense.

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I’m pretty damn important, too.  But, now I’m getting ahead of the review.

If you do decide you can run with it, though, there are some amazing set pieces and performances to be seen here.  The main plot involves time travel, which in conjunction with Wonderland really does have a lot of promise which was never entirely realized here, but Time is an actual person in Wonderland, and that person is played by Sacha Baron Cohen in a scene stealing performance.  Helena Bonham Carter also returns as Iracebeth a.k.a The Red Queen and both her performance and subplot end up being the most pleasantly surprising aspects of Alice Through the Looking Glass after all is said and done.

That “after all is said and done” is of utmost importance to this film.  After spending most the film rolling my eyes for fighting off drowsiness whenever Cohen or Carter weren’t on screen, the ending brought me back in.  It’s not that rare to find an otherwise good film that is ruined by a poor ending, but Alice Through the Looking Glass is that exceedingly rare case where an otherwise dull, awkward movie is nearly saved by an ending that elevates all of the material leading up to it.  While nothing that came earlier is any better explained as far as the plot is concerned, we find that everything that happened before was very important to the messages the movie is trying to pass on to us, and those messages are worthwhile, astute, and great lessons for the kids that are the target audience for this movie.

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Didn’t see that coming, did you?

While I ultimately can’t recommend Alice Through the Looking Glass wholeheartedly, especially not in the theater, it really is a good study on how the whole of a film is more important than the individual pieces, the individual pieces are what get you to the point where you can enjoy the whole.  As to whether kids would enjoy it, I think they will more than adults, but I saw the movie in a theater filled with children, and I didn’t hear one laugh or noise of any kind the entire time until the end credits started rolling and one little girl yelled loudly that she really had to go pee.

Rating:  4.8 out of 10