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.

mother! (Aronofsky; 2017)

If Eugene Ionesco or Samuel Beckett, your surrealist playwright of choice, were alive and working in Hollywood today I imagine the fever dream which is mother! is the sort of thing they’d come up with.  mother! is the latest offering from Darren Aronofsky the writer/director who gave us Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream, and The Fountain, among quite a few others.  mother! combines his obsession with the artistic process with his proficiency for creating images which are at once disturbing and beautiful and his penchant for creating an experience for the movie viewer more so than telling a story.

The prominent cast members of mother! are Jennifer Lawrence as mother, Javier Bardem as Him, Ed Harris as man, and Michelle Pfeiffer as woman.  The cast is impressive, and they do an excellent job for the most part, but what I wanted to point out here is the fact that no one in mother! has a name.  It’s one of many factors which make the film such a dreamlike experience, one of the many factors which make for an experience which is always on the border of being familiar, but never comes close to being intimate.

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mother! is a nearly impossible film to discuss on anything but a sheerly technical level without giving away spoilers, so past this I’m not really going to try, but it’s a film that is steeped in metaphor and in which the story such as it is is really only there to rope you in and give you a framework to start you on your journey into the nightmare which the movie ultimately ends up being.  No one has a name, yet you know who everyone is.  Everyone but you and Jennifer Lawrence seem to understand perfectly what is happening, but you and your anchor in this world are lost, scared, and confused.  It’s more dream than movie, and like a dream, mother!‘s purpose is to send you a message which is anything but obvious.

The performances in mother! aren’t going to win any awards, but they are what we’ve come to expect from a crew of veterans, and its especially nice to see Jennifer Lawrence return to form after the dreck she gave us in 2016.   Michelle Pfeiffer is the real standout among the main cast, in my opinion, giving us a performance brave enough that I’d wished she’d been playing roles like this for more of her career.  Javier Bardem and Ed Harris are more foils and excuses to move the action along than actual characters, but both perform this job admirably enough that you don’t notice that fact at all while the story is unfolding.

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The true draw for this movie, though, is the combination of sights and sounds which are at once gorgeous and disturbing, breathtaking and mundane.  The camera frames each shot in a way which is both practical and artistic, making the feel of a dream which Aronofsky so obviously is striving for making sure we are looking exactly where he wants us to be, but still unsure of exactly what it is what we’re seeing except that whatever it is is fascinating.  The combination of sounds and art direction add so much the proceedings and transform the house all the action takes place within into another character, and a character that in many ways is more important and more developed than the people living inside of it.

So, what kind of movie is mother! aside from an artsy one?  It’s closest to a horror film in that it is disturbing, creepy, and bewildering, but it’s goal is to unsettle more so than to scare.  What it primarily is, is a message to unravel, a puzzle to take apart.  It’s unclear if Aronofsky had one theme in mind, but I saw messages about immigration, fame, the process of creating art, environmental concerns, and others.  mother! is an art house film that somehow got a major release, and I really hope it gets the audience it deserves.

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Final verdict:  mother! is a difficult film, but it’s one worth unraveling.   It’s the act of unraveling, in fact, which makes mother! so fascinating.  To anyone who thinks dream interpretation is a good time, you will love mother!  To others, mother! is a hard movie to recommend, not that I don’t recommend, just that what you get out of mother! is going to depend an awful lot on what you’re willing to put into it.  If you want to turn off your brain, relax, and just let entertainment come to you when you see a film, avoid mother! like the plague.  If you want to actively engage with a film, sifting through its sights and sounds for meaning like a detective ferreting out clues at a crime scene, and if you don’t mind or even enjoy more a film which practically demands more than one viewing to take everything in, than mother! is exactly what you’ve been looking for.  I know I definitely plan on taking it again when I can.