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.

Dunkirk (Nolan; 2017)

In May of 1940 German forces had driven the French, Belgian, and British Armies onto a small beach beside the town of Dunkirk.  The German forces stopped their advance on Dunkirk and instead fortified themselves around and in the town to prevent Allied soldiers from escaping by land as German planes picked the soldiers off on the beach and German U-boats with help from German bombers kept the British Navy at bay.   This film is about the action which evacuated 330,000 Allied troops from that beach, essentially saving the bulk of the British Army and preventing Germany from forcing a conditional surrender of the United Kingdom the consequences of which would almost certainly mean an entirely different Europe and world today.

Christopher Nolan is a very intellectual film maker.  It’s that very intellect that often creates the largest plot holes in his films, but his focus on thought over emotion, realism over spectacle, and precision over artistry is his trademark and the thing which makes his films stand out as singularly his.  Dunkirk is a bit different from standard Nolan fare in that there are no gimmicks on display here, no watching a story backwards, no dream levels, no men in costumes, there is just a beach, men, and weapons of war.  This is most definitely a Nolan film, though, as this is a film which very much intellectualizes the evacuation of Dunkirk practically documentarian in its style.  Quite a few of the major characters aren’t given names, Cillian Murphy plays “Shivering Soldier” for example, and Will Attenborough is simply “Second Lieutenant”, and not a single German character is shown for Dunkirk’s entirety.  This isn’t a John Wayne film which glorifies battle and makes heroes of soldiers, it’s not Apocalypse Now showing us war’s horror and madness, nor is it an Oliver Stone war film making a political statement, Dunkirk is simply a very thoughtful, almost clinical, look at one of the most important events of World War II.

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That is not to say there is no emotion in Dunkirk, just that emotion is not its focus.  Dunkirk very ably gets across to the viewers the feelings of dread, hopelessness, and inevitability those men on the beach must have been feeling, along with the feelings of determination in those attempting to rescue them, but the goal is to show what the men were going through, not to make us feel one way or another about it.   That is what is going to make or break Dunkirk for most people.  It’s style is one we rarely see in anything outside of a documentary, let alone a war film, and that makes for a truly original experience – something much needed in a genre as worn out as World War II films – however, that very same style is going to leave a great many people feeling like something was missing if they are seeking something inspirational or horrifying.

One thing that will not be debated about Dunkirk, however, is the quality of its cinematography.  The look of this movie is one that is normally saved for year’s end so that it will be fresh in the mind of the Oscar voters.  Despite the barren landscapes of beach and sea (English Channel, anyway) we are treated from beginning to end with visual spectacle in the form of wide sweeping shots, points of view that put us in the mindset of the soldiers as they sit in silent panic and confusion, and aerial views and battles that will have you gasping on several occasions – I got a look when I let out an audible “Wow” at one point.

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The score by Hans Zimmer is also worthy of mention.  The music starts before the visuals do, and it never stops at all during the film’s running time.  It rarely crescendos and is more of an omnipresent undertone of strings and horns undercutting everything happening on screen, but while it never stands out to the point it is distracting, it adds so much to the film’s tone and I can’t see Dunkirk working as well as it does without it.

The ensemble cast is excellent, though Kenneth Brannagh and Mark Rylance are two of the only actors given very much to say.  The film has many branching story lines and many puzzle pieces to cover and much of this is done in silence, with one major character in particular having only one word to say in the entire film, but for the most part they manage to show us very different yet realistic people going through a hopeless situation.  I do admit, that due to the lack of dialogue and names, I had a hard time keeping some of the young dark haired actors and characters apart, keeping this element of the film from becoming fantastic, but that is a fault more due to casting than on the part of any particular performance.  Tom Hardy, by the way, wears a face mask the entire film not removing it until the very end.  What is it with him and face coverings?

Photographer: Anders Rosqvist, www.rosqvist.photo

Final verdict:  If you didn’t tell me that Dunkirk was a Christopher Nolan film before I’d seen it, I’m not sure I would have immediately recognized it as one of his, however, after seeing it if you were to tell me Christopher Nolan had directed it you would get the knowing nod and smile which says “Of course.”  Dunkirk is a fantastic movie, one that will almost surely get Oscar buzz, but it is not a movie for everyone.   It is not a war movie so much as a very astute look at people staring death right in the face and knowing that either their fate is out of their hands, or that the fate of thousands are placed directly in their hands.  If you need glory or horror in your war films, you may find yourself disappointed in Dunkirk.  If realism (though, realism without a ton of blood and gore which is oddly lacking in this movie) and introspection are terms that appeal to you, however, Dunkirk will most likely be right up your alley.  No matter which camp you fall into, you are almost sure to love the music and visuals, though.