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.

Moana (Clements, Hall, Musker, and Williams; 2016)

Disney gives us its first Polynesian princess in the movie named for her, Moana, and quite the charming princess she is.  We first see her as a precocious infant, not afraid of the scary stories her grandmother tells the clan’s children, wanting to explore everywhere she can, and doing whatever she must to help others even at her own expense, even when she’s not old enough to be out of diapers, or swaddling clothes in this case.  This is typical of the modern era Disney princess, and while I’m among the many out there who are very glad to see that the modern Disney princess is very much a hero in her own right and doesn’t need a prince to rescue her, Moana shows that this formula is already starting to wear at least a little thin, and they really need to begin watching out for complacency in their story telling.

The major flaws in Moana, and what keeps it from being amongst the very best of this year’s crop of excellent animated features, are its very formulaic story telling technique, its very limited cast of characters, and its overly repetitive sense of humor.  The flaws really all go together, and negatively play off of one another.  The film really has only two major characters of any note, Moana herself (voice acted by Auli’i Cravalho) and the Hawaiian demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson).  Moana’s parents and grandmother do appear toward the beginning of the film and various villains are scattered here and there throughout, but the vast majority of the time we spend with these two and only these two.  This really limits the types of interaction which can be had, and while their relationship does, of course, develop and grow throughout the film, that is the whole point of the movie, it does so using the same methods over and over.  They argue about the same things again and again, find themselves dealing with obstacle the same way over and over, and while I love self referential humor perhaps a bit too much, they make so many jokes referencing the fact that they are animated characters singing to each other in yet another Disney princess movie that at a certain point I just wanted to yell at the screen, “Enough already!”

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We’re full time parents, full time chieftans, and full time formulaic stereotypes.

But, while the plot and humor in Moana may be far too formulaic and forced, the Polynesian setting and mythology of the movie makes for incredibly new and original settings and situations as well as some of the most glamorous animation to hit the screen in this, or any other, year, really rivaled only by Kubo and the Two Strings in how utterly beautiful it is.  Part of me wants to list some of the feats Moana and Maui have to perform throughout their heroes’ quest just to demonstrate how unusual and fascinating they are, but that would spoil one of the best parts of the film.  The feats are really just episodic events that don’t play into each other for the most part, and really could be shown to happen in any order whatsoever, but that can be forgiven as it seems the film’s authors are trying to give us as much Polynesian mythology as they possibly can in a limited amount of time, and the results are a lot of fun and a wonder to look at.

While they don’t make a big deal of it in their advertising, Moana is a musical.  I’m guessing the reason Disney doesn’t showcase this element of the movie in the marketing is because the music on display here is nothing particularly noteworthy.  Auli’i has more songs than anyone else in the film, and she is an excellent singer, it’s just that she is given very mundane, derivative music to work with.  Dwayne Johnson has perhaps the most catchy song in the film, and he was a far better singer than I ever would have expected, but a day after my viewing and I already am having a hard time remembering much of his song outside the chorus and lyrics.  Much like everything else in the film, the music is put together with talent, it’s just not anything we haven’t heard before time and time again.

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Just look at this little dude!  Look at him!

Moana is a film that, in a way, really deserves different critiques for different audiences.  This is a film that absolutely can be enjoyed by all ages, there was a very little girl who seemed to be just learning to speak and looked to be of Ploynesian descent who sat with her family directly behind me for my viewing of the film, and while she was very talkative leading up to the film, she was absolutely silent the entire time until the very end when she erupted in applause and cheers.  When I was leaving the theater I saw her posing for her parents with a cutout stand of Moana, a look of joy and excitement on her face that let me know this was one of those movies she will remember fondly for her entire life.  For older children, a grand time will still be had, and I have no doubt they will be bugging their parents for the Blu-Ray one day so they can watch it over and over again.  As for the adults in the audience, you will be entertained, particularly by the awe-inspriring animation, but you will recognize the story as one you’ve seen over and over again, it’s just the trappings that are new this time around, but those trappings are pretty damn neat, neat enough that you can forgive, if not entirely overlook, the films pretty large problems.

Rating:  6.5 out of 10