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 Girl on the Train (Taylor; 2016)

Rachel (Emily Blunt), the titular character in The Girl on the Train, rides everyday past the houses of Megan (Haley Bennett) and Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and daydreams about the life of Megan and her husband while trying to avoid looking at the house of Anna and her husband.  We know all this from watching the opening scene of the movie, but just in case what we see in this opening scene isn’t enough to get this across to the audience, we also hear the voice of Rachel explaining exactly what it is she’s doing and every single feeling she’s having about doing it.  We then get to see scenes where people talk about their lives and feelings to their therapists, and to the police, and to their husbands, and their roommates, and voice-overs explaining exactly what we’re watching them do, in fact it’s about two thirds of the way through The Girl on the Train before we see that this movie is a thriller and a mystery and not just a movie about people explaining what we’re watching and exactly how they feel about that.

Even once we figure out what type of film we’re watching, we already have it all figured out.  For most of the running time I thought The Girl on the Train was just a very poorly written thriller, but after a certain event let me know that what I was watching was actually a mystery, I figured out at the exact same moment who the villain of the story was, because all the hamfisted exposition up to this point made it that obvious.  I have never read the novel The Girl on the Train, but I have to hope the writing in it was not this amateurish, as every single bit of writing in the film version ignores everything that can make dialogue exciting, exposition creative, and plotting intense.

While the writing is most certainly the most egregious element in The Girl on the Train, the acting is also an area of deficiency.  Emily Blunt does a decent job with her role considering what little she was given to work with, though even she has a tendency throughout much of the film to overact and give a hackneyed portrayal of Rachel, and Allison Janney makes the most of her little on screen time.  Every other actor in the film however, gives us an awkward, uninspired, and amateurish performance, whether that due to being unable to show any emotion at all or going so far over the top it’s clownish.

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We really are a loving, caring couple.  We’re just also really low key.

The cinematography in The Girl on the Train is proficient enough, but we still have the problem with lack of creativity.  Most of the time the camera is concerned with obscuring what exactly is going on so as to best create mystery in the worst possible way.  When it isn’t hiding which characters we are looking at or places they’re inhabiting, it’s making sure to catch all those pretty faces in the best lights and angles possible.  Whenever there is some trick pulled with our perspective, not only is it always a trick we’ve seen before, but it’s so telegraphed that it’s quite obvious the director wanted to make absolutely one hundred percent sure that we didn’t miss his moment of ingenuity.

The crux of all the myriad problems in The Girl on the Train really comes down to the fact that the creators of the film are trying to stretch out 15 minutes of actual story into an almost 2 hour run time, and very few of those involved were talented enough to do so even if this was a good idea.  There isn’t much story, so the script has to focus on character, the characters aren’t very deep, so they have to talk a lot, and since there isn’t much to talk about they drone on about themselves in the most angst ridden middle school way possible, if angst ridden middle schoolers were alcoholics and serial cheaters that is.

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Respect my angst!

Needless to say, The Girl on the Train is a film I recommend to very, very few.  There is a niche audience of self-loathing, but also man hating, women out there who will like it on some level as a form of fantasy and wish fulfillment, but I really can’t see that there would be many others who would enjoy this as anything other than an exercise in exactly how not to write a screenplay.  It tries for thrills, depth, import, and even pretentiousness and it manages to fail on every single level.  There are many better things you can do with 112 minutes without even trying.

Rating:  3.0 out of 10