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 Snowman (Alfredson; 2017)

Jo Nesbo is a Norwegian crime novellist known the world over for revolutionizing modern crime fiction and has won a great many awards in addition to his popularity.  Tomas Alfredson is a Swedish film director known in the United States primarily for the Academy Award nominated Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy as well as the horror classic Let the Right One In.  You would think that putting these two gentlemen together along with the phenomenal acting talent of Michael Fassbender would guarantee a quality film just awaiting critical acclaim and the attention of the film awards circuit.  That, however, is not to be the fate of The Snowman, a film which despite the pedigree of its acting, writing, and directing talents went horribly wrong.

The film opens with a series of camera shots you would expect in a Bourne film fight scene with a series of quick close ups and zoom outs cut together so quickly you barely have a moment to make out what you are seeing on screen.  But, this isn’t an action scene.  It’s just following a man entering a house then sitting at a table.  It’s an interesting choice that the most mundane action possible is filmed via frantic camerawork, but this is only done once.  Shortly after this we have a strange zoom through the windshield of a car which is reminiscent of an effect someone would use to show a space ship going into faster than light travel in a science fiction film, but it’s used for someone who is just pulling out of their garage normally.  One shot of this drive uses a very obvious CGI close up of the back of the car so out of date it looks like it was created in 1992, but none of the rest of the drive uses CGI at all, and again, it’s for the most part just a normal drive through a snowy landscape.  No high speed chase, no stunt work.  Again, nothing like this is shown again in the movie.  It’s just a strange choice for no obvious reason.

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The acting choices made throughout the film are also odd, so odd that there were times if I wondered if anyone in the movie had ever actually met another human being before.  Two characters will stare meaningfully at one another as if they were sharing some dark secret silently that only they know, or perhaps one is warning the other that they know what the other is up to only to find in the very next scene seconds later that the two have never met and are now being introduced.  Fassbender’s Harry Hole at one point attacks a person doing repair work on his apartment, and chases the repair person into the street, and we never know why nor hear from the character of the repair person again.  In fact, stares, awkward silences, and two people seemingly having completely different conversations as they speak past one another seems more common in this film than normal, recognizable human interaction.

I think these strange choices all have a reason which was found out near the film’s end, but that reason is in itself so bizarre if I am correct that it just adds yet another strange choice to the myriad of others rather than clarify anything.  Without spoiling anything, one of the characters has a trait that is a major influence on the actions of another, and all this monkeying around with strange interactions and camera work seems to be a hint to the audience about this character trait.  The trouble is that not only could this trait have been far more easily shown in mere seconds than by hinting for an entire movie, but there also seems no reason whatsoever to keep that trait a secret from the audience.

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There are some gorgeous shots of the Norwegian landscape in The Snowman, as well as some excellent framing of the city of Oslo, though I have to wonder does every house in Norway have windows on the inside so people can see into living rooms and bedrooms and the like?  Even the film being set in Norway is odd since every character speaks in English, American English, for the entire film with no establishing that they are actually speaking in Norwegian but are being broadcast in English for the sake of ease.  In the end, there is no reason to have the film set in Norway over anywhere else in the world, so why not just relocate the film to a cold climate in the United States if they are speaking American English?  This is a nitpick more than a major complaint, but when added to everything else in the film, it is just one more strange, pointless decision added to the pile.

Add all these factors together, and the crime thriller element of The Snowman just does not work partially because you are so distracted by the amateurism on display and partially because you are too busy laughing and scratching your head to be engaged in the plot.  Michael Fassbender was once an actor who would get my excited for his next project, and was good enough that I was willing to give what seemed bad choices the benefit of the doubt, but with his last few films including X-Men: Apocalypse, Assassin’s Creed, Alien: Covenant, and now The Snowman I have to now label him as an excellent actor who makes horrible decisions as to which roles to play.

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Final verdict:  The Snowman is not quite so incompetently made as to be so bad it’s entertaining, but many of its scenes are and film as a whole only barely misses that mark.  Incomprehensible writing, acting, and directorial decisions add up to make a film which leaves the audience more concerned with the ineptitude of the film makers than with the actual story.  Unless a handful of good shots of snowy landscapes are enough to pique your interest, there is nothing of value in The Snowman to recommend.  While the story itself does make sense, nothing about the way that story is put together does.

 

 

Wind River (Sheridan; 2017)

The Western as a film genre pokes its head out every now and then every few years, but it’s been done as a regular Hollywood staple for roughly half a century.  For the past three years, however, Taylor Sheridan has been slyly bringing the genre back with a modern twist.  The Western takes on many forms, but it always takes place in the American West, of course, and it focuses on white men taming a frontier they are new to.  Once white civilization has taken over a territory, the film focusing on that place can no longer be called a Western.  Taylor Sheridan’s films all take place in rural Western communities, the twist being that these communities are in areas which have long since been tamed, but they are now largely overlooked.  In his film debut as a writer (Sheridan has been an actor for a long time) he gave us Sicario, the modern take on the Federales vs Banditos Western.  The next year he gave us Hell or High Water which is the modern retelling of the sheriff vs outlaws story.  Now, he writes and directs the classic cowboys and Indians Western, Wind River.

Wind River‘s central character is a Department of Fish, Game, and Wildlife agent named Cory Lambert played (Jeremy Renner).  He describes his job as hunting predators, and while doing his job hunting down a trio of mountain lions who killed one of his father-in-law’s cattle he comes across the body of a young girl from the nearby Wind River Reservation where his father-in-law lives.  After notifying the authorities, Cory finds himself working with the reservation’s Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) and young FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen, which means, yes, Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch are the two main characters in the film).  Jane is new enough to the FBI that she doesn’t really know how to handle the situation, but smart and self aware enough to realize this and convinces Cory to work the case with her by asking him to help her by doing his job and hunt down a predator.  It seems Cory has personal reasons to help, as well, and solving the murder mystery becomes the driving force of Wind River‘s plot, if not really the heart of its story.

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In Sicario Sheridan tells a story in which the law are just as corrupt as the criminals they are hunting, and the only difference between the two is who is pulling the organizational strings.  Hell or High Water shows us the banks being robbed are far more immoral and dangerous than the criminals doing the robbery, and even those on the side of the law are aware of this.  Wind River gives us a brutal metaphor which barely even counts as metaphor due to its lack of subtlety of how white civilization has treated the Native Americans since they were conquered and forced onto reservations.  He is intelligent enough to not make matters so black and white (no pun intended) than one side is completely sympathetic and the other completely despicable, but this modern cowboy and Indians story shows what affect 100 years plus of brutality and neglect by one group to another can have on the group on the receiving end of said neglect.

Sheridan’s script is up to his normal insanely high standards.  In addition to a plot which is gripping and meaningful he also serves up authentic but still engaging dialogue.  His metaphors will be a bit too much on the nose for some tastes, however, I don’t think the thematic elements of a story have to be subtle to be effective, and here Sheridan makes sure you can’t ignore his message.  The characters he creates are never stereotypes nor generalities, and that is still the case here as he gives us real three dimensional people with pasts which resonate strongly through their goals and actions, and he makes sure we understand why even the most despicable among them, and he gives us some of his most despicable characters to date in Wind River, act the way they do.

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The direction, however, is not up to the usual near perfection of a Taylor Sheridan film as Sheridan himself decided to direct this one and not hand off the reins to someone else, and while he is an excellent apparently natural talent, his lack of experience does show in a few areas.  The pacing is a bit off at times, showing that Sheridan most likely had a hard time editing himself, a very common mistake made by writer/directors.  The camera work, too, is on the basic side as conversations between people tend to devolve into scenes where the camera shoots whichever character is speaking at a mid-distance, then switches to the other person when they speak, and back and forth until the conversation ends.  Some of his shots of nature, however, can be quite spectacular, and the contrast between functional but dull and beautiful can actually add to the pacing problems felt from the not perfect editing.

The acting is also excellent for the most part, with most of the actors doing justice to the excellent script.  The minor roles, however, can be performed amateurishly breaking the story’s flow at times when a performance not quite up to the same snuff as the others stands out.  Still, if a character has a name, then the actor portraying that character is excellent, and this may in fact be the best performances of both Renner’s and Olsen’s careers.

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Final verdict:  Taylor Sheridan gave us one of the best films of 2015 and of 2016. and so far Wind River is absolutely one of the best films of 2017, though it is just a bit more flawed than his previous two efforts.  Sheridan has proven himself that he is one of the greatest working screen writers, and while it is only a matter of time before he wins an Oscar if he keeps going at this rate, this year will not be the one.  Wind River does not quite reach the must see status of Sicario and Hell or High Water, but it is still absolutely fantastic, and I will bump it up to must see status if you, like me, find great writing to be the best element of film making.  No matter your general tastes or inclinations, though, Wind River is an amazing film that should be seen, it just may be worth waiting until you can rent it to do so.