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Well, it was a talkie… (a no-spoilers Murder on the Orient Express review)

It’s been quite a while since I had to use the “well, I guess that technically qualifies as a movie” style of movie review. Well, it’s back. Stephanie and I went to see Murder on the Orient Express tonight and… well, i guess that technically qualifies as a movie. That’s about the highest praise I can give it. It wasn’t offensive or anything. But largely that’s because… well, it wasn’t much of anything. Is that a problem? Well, it’s hard to say.

Before I get into it, I want to point out that I’m not actually an Agatha Christie fan. My wife, Stephanie, is. While I was familiar with the basic concept and knew the twist ending just from living on planet Earth for the last few decades, I’ve never actually read the book and wasn’t familiar with the details. So in a lot of ways this was the reverse of when I drag her to a lot of superhero movies that she couldn’t give two shits about. I think this is worth mentioning because it really shines a light on the way I think when I review a film. When a bad superhero movie comes out (Batman v. Superman, I’m looking in your general direction) and I give it a bad review, I know that inevitably the defense from the comic book fanboys will be “you don’t understand, this is a movie for the fans.” I hate this response. If you’re a fan of the property, the one thing you should want more than anything else is for the movie to be good. It’s not like fans are going to suddenly hate something because it’s a good movie. They’re going to enjoy it no matter what. What you really want is for a movie to introduce non-fans to the property and make them care so that they love the same thing you do. What you don’t want is for the non-fans to watch the movie and say “why would anyone care about this exactly?”

Take the movie Daredevil. People make fun of it now, but they largely loved it when it came out because… well, there wasn’t a lot to choose from. Everyone was just happy to see a superhero on the screen. And unlike other superhero movies of the time, he was even wearing the costume. The thrill of the movie was “hey look. There’s Daredevil! He’s up there on screen, doing Daredevil stuff! Just like in that comic I love. Daredevil! Yay!” The fact that it wasn’t really very good was immaterial. It’s what we had.

Murder on the Orient Express is basically Daredevil. If you’re a lifelong fan Hercule Poirot novels, and you’ve watched the TV series and the 1974 movie, and you’ve always thought to yourself “if only someone would put a real budget behind this and put it on the screen so I can look at a guy being Poirot… well, that’s what you get here. If you wanted it to be GOOD… well…sorry. I mean, it’s not like it’s BAD. That’s something right? It’s just. Not much of anything. The failing of BvS isn’t so much that it is bad. I mean it is. But that isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that there are good superhero movies now. Lots of them. This isn’t 2003 when Daredevil came out. There’s movies with character and plot and reasons to care. So when a movie comes along that is just “well, that’s a guy in a batsuit, alright. And look, he’s punching a guy with an S on his chest. Batman vs. Superman! Yay!” it just seems kind of pointless and annoying and like noise. But at least there’s special effects and loud explosions to distract you with. But we’re living in a superhero renaissance… not a Hercule Poirot one. There just didn’t have to be much going on other than “it exists” to make this the best Hercule Poirot movie in four decades. And… there’s not.

For one thing, there’s a tone problem. The film isn’t sure what kind of movie it wants to be. It starts out very lighthearted. Poirot is finishing up some unrelated case. This is actually nice for a viewer not familiar with the character and story. We learn that Poirot is quirky and eccentric and appears to be suffering from OCD, but uses the meticulousness of his condition as an advantage when solving crimes. This feels like a passion project for Kenneth Branagh (who both stars in and directs the film). This feels like a character Branagh is a fan of and has been waiting his entire life to play. For a good ten minutes, we are somewhat engaged in who he is and how he behaves. Then the story starts… and forgets the tone of the world that has been built over the first ten minutes of the movie. It becomes slow and methodical. It loses its sense of joy. It is as though ten minutes in Branagh said “well, I’ve wanted to be Poirot all my life and now I have… now what?”

The problem here is that the plot of the film largely involves a lot of talking. Part of the intrigue of the story is that Poirot, the detective, is trapped on a train with a thirteen murder suspects. He must solve the crime before the train reaches its destination and the suspense comes from the fact that anyone could be the murderer and anyone could be murdered at any time. However, the flaw in the adaptation is that Poirot is a real detective. He largely solves his crimes by interviewing people and thinking. And since he is stuck on the train, he is very limited in sets that he can visit to do his talking and thinking in. There’s not much visual appeal. Which is a problem… because this is a movie. This is precisely the reason that other screen detectives (for instance, Robert Downey Jr.‘s recent Sherlock Holmes adaptations) have essentially become hardboiled action heroes. They simply need something visual to do. In an attempt to remain relatively faithful to the source material (I assume… again, I haven’t read it) Branagh neglects to do this. Instead he simply moves Poirot’s conversations to the big screen. And to distract the viewer from the fact that nothin is really happening he casts big name actors in all the roles.

For one of them, Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard, this kind of works out. She does her best to chew up whatever sparse scenery is available to her on the screen. But at least she’s something to watch. Everyone else was essentially budget bloat. The film poster proudly proclaims the Academy Award credentials of 6 of the films 9 big name stars(Branagh, Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, and Johnny Depp). Furthermore, while the poster doesn’t mention it, Leslie Odom Jr. has a Tony, Josh Gad has a Tony nomination, a Daisy Ridley is currently the star of Star Wars, the biggest film franchise in history. The all star cast makes it pretty clear where much of the budget went. But it isn’t clear why. They bring very little to the roles. If Ridley and Dench have more than a dozen lines each, I’d be amazed. It is often hard to keep the characters straight, not only because there are so many of them, but because they have very little to do, other than stand around and wait for Poirot to solve the mystery.

And since they’re largely just standing there, there isn’t much reason to care about any of them. Particularly if you know the twist ending (from living on the planet Earth) and know whodunnit, there just isn’t much “to do” while the film progresses. Since it gives up on its humor after the first ten minutes, it’s just hard to stay engaged. It doesn’t feel like there are really enough hints throughout for you to be able to solve the murder.., though it doesn’t matter, because everyone probably knows the secret anyway. At points it almost becomes boring — something that should never happen in any murder mystery.

But it is clearly Poirot. Onscreen. And if that’s what you’re looking for… well, that’s definitely what you’re going to get. Certainly nothing more… but not really anything less either. So this is about the most thumbs in the middle movie I can ever possibly think of. If it had anything visually interesting going on to distract from the monotony of their situation, that might have helped, If there were clues to follow or humor throughout or maybe even an explosion… something to grab on to. If any of the big named actors in what are essentially bit parts, had just really gone for it and made an Oscar play that might have really shown through. But instead, it’s just a movie… barely. The only real cinema innovation it really takes advantage of? Well, it’s a talkie. So if you’re not big into Agatha Christie this is probably not for you… But maybe this is just a movie……… “for the fans”

And somehow I have to sit though a Justice League movie next week.

★★½☆☆ (2.5 out of 5 stars)

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38 comments for “Well, it was a talkie… (a no-spoilers Murder on the Orient Express review)

  1. avatar
    November 11, 2017 at 2:49 am

    Apparently I have not lived on the planet Earth ever… huh

  2. avatar
    November 11, 2017 at 3:48 am

    Nice review. I largely agree with you. It does seem that they tried to make up for the lack of scenery on the train by the wider shots of the mountains the train was driving through. I thought that those were actually very pretty. And of course, there were a lot of pretty people on the train, too. I agree that Michelle Pfeiffer did a great job, probably the best acting performance in the movie. Kenneth Branagh did try to make the Pirout character more human toward the end of the movie. I guess I was supposed to feel happy about that (as an Agatha Christie fan), but I didn’t really care that much for some reason I can’t put my finger on.

    You’re right that in general there were very few clues to help lead you to the right conclusion. In fact, in the movie murder by death, which if you haven’t seen definitely check it out, they make fun of Agatha Christie for just that. If you know the ending, then in retrospect you realize they were at least supposed to be clues, but I think it would be impossible to do without knowing it in advance. However I guess like you said, pretty much everyone (with a couple exceptions noted above ? ), knows the ending so maybe the real task in this movie is to figure out what the clues are.

  3. avatar
    November 11, 2017 at 5:06 am

    Keith Bajura I was wondering if you’ve seen this movie yet, and if so what your thoughts are?

  4. avatar
    November 11, 2017 at 5:15 am

    I refuse to go so that. Where did they come up with that Hercule Poirot? Horrible! That’s not the correct look, sound, and attitude for him. It’s an atrocity!

    • avatar
      November 11, 2017 at 5:29 am

      I knew you’d have an opinion ?.

      Are there any on-screen representations of Poirot that you consider to be accurate?

    • avatar
      November 11, 2017 at 6:10 am

      David Suchet

    • avatar
      November 11, 2017 at 6:10 am

      That current guy it too tall.

    • avatar
      November 11, 2017 at 6:49 am

      This is sorta like complaining about Daniel Craig being James Bond because he’s blonde and blue eyed. Even though he makes an excellent version of 007, you get hung up on the fact that he’s not Sean Connery-ish enough. I felt Branagh did a very commendable version of Poirot. Very entertaining.

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 4:08 am

      Never mind that Craig is, to date, the best translation of the literary Bond.

      “I refuse to see this because he’s too tall”. That’s…wow.

  5. avatar
    November 11, 2017 at 6:51 am

    It’s definitely a throwback to the golden age of movies. The cinematography was excellent. The story was pretty good. If you like Hercule Poirot and his quirky ways, you’ll dig Kenneth Branagh’s version. You won’t be able to take your eyes off his ridiculous mustache, but that just adds to the character’s charm. I never saw the original, so I don’t know if the whodunit is the same, but it’s entertaining enough to keep you guessing. It’s a bit muddled with a few too many suspects, but not so much that you lose interest. I’d definitely watch it again. If Agatha Christie isn’t your thing, and it doesn’t sound like it’s yours, Mav, go ahead and wait for the dvd. This movie isn’t for everybody, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    • avatar
      November 11, 2017 at 6:55 am

      I think that’s fair. I was trying to make it clear that this isn’t “bad” per se…. it’s not offensive. It just doesn’t matter. it’s not good enough to demand spending $15 to see it on the big screen unless you REALLY just want to see someone play Poirot on the big screen. It doesn’t add much.

    • avatar
      November 11, 2017 at 7:07 am

      If you use your movie pass enough, you can whittle that ticket price down to 33¢. Haha.

      Most movies don’t matter, but they don’t have to. As long as they entertain, and I was entertained for almost all of the movie. I really enjoyed the landscape, the camera panning and those overhead shots. It was a nice break from everything blowing up and metropolis being destroyed for the billionth time.

      Maybe I’ll rent the original now and see the differences to understand how original or unoriginal this version is. As a stand alone for those who haven’t seen the original I thought it was great.

    • avatar
      November 11, 2017 at 7:42 am

      Oh, I did use Moviepass. And yeah, that makes it worth it for me. But we’re not normal. If most people see half a dozen films in a year, that’s a lot. So in order to get people into the seats (paying for a ticket, paying a babysitter, selling a kidney to afford a popcorn) there needs to be a reason, and unless you’re already a fan of the character, I really can’t say there is here. The cinematography was fine. But it wasn’t THAT good.

    • avatar
      November 11, 2017 at 11:28 am

      i think the star power alone would get the on the fence movie crowd to buy a ticket. And the cinematography was that good. It really was. Haha.

    • avatar
      November 11, 2017 at 11:46 am

      I think that was the idea. But the star power was largely wasted. I mean as I said, Dench and Ridley maybe had a dozen lines each. So you know, if people want to pay to watch them stand there, then great. But they don’t *bring* anything to it.

  6. avatar
    November 11, 2017 at 2:11 pm

    While I haven’t seen it, discovering this film was a bit like finding out Ben-Hur had been remade last year: those of us who care about Poirot already have a couple decent film versions of this novel and so don’t need it, whereas the presumed target audience (at least, what I think it is, based on the style of the trailer) wouldn’t be interested in Poirot.

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 3:45 am

      I’m pretty sure they think they’re targeting Agatha Christie fans more so than young moviegoers. It’s not really the kind of movie that screams blockbuster, despite the cast.

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 4:06 am

      I know! How dare they remake the 1959 film which was a remake of the 1925 film which was a remake of the1907 film?

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 4:08 am

      Not so much “how dare they?” — I don’t care what gets remade — and more “who did they think would care?”

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 4:10 am

      And thanks for the clarification, Mav. The trailer seemed a lot more action and spectacle oriented than I would have expected for this story, so I couldn’t tell.

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 4:11 am

      The one thing people seem to keep saying is “The story was just okay”.

      Well, blame Agatha Christie for that.

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 4:15 am

      Yeah. The trailer seems a lot more action oriented than it is because I think they’re trying to sell it. In that respect Mikey is right here. The story is what Christie made it. Largely a bunch of people talking in a train.

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 4:16 am

      That actually makes me more interested in seeing it, then.

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 4:21 am

      Yeah. I think it’s very much a movie for Christie fans. It is what it is.

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 5:36 pm

      Mark, go see it. You won’t regret it.

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 5:43 pm

      So I actually think he will regret it. Mark is even more of a film scholar than I am. And it’s not actually good.

      But I think he should see it just because I am curious as to whether he matches up to me or not. (And I expect he will)

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 5:44 pm

      But I never get out . . . 🙁

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 5:47 pm

      Yeah. And see, that’s the problem. I feel like you respect my opinion enough to be like “ok, from what he said there is no way this is worth tickets+gasoline+babysitter money.”

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 5:51 pm

      If you don’t have a movie pass and a full tank of gas and a babysitter at the ready, then yes, skip the movie. It’ll be on TNT in a few years and it’s at least worth tuning in and watching then.

  7. avatar
    November 12, 2017 at 3:40 am

    So… Depp doesn’t ruin it? That’s what I’m really concerned with here.

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 3:44 am

      Eh. He’s fine. I mean he’s not really “good” per se. but he’s also not in it very much so his schtick is kept to a minimum. It’s more that it’s another place where he couldn’t have been worth whatever they paid for him. It doesn’t matter that it’s him. They just wanted to use his name to sell the film.

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 4:17 am

      Depp absolutely does not ruin it.

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 4:21 am

      Miguel: yeah. I mean he’s fine for what he is. I was trying to be vague to avoid spoilers for the few people like Michael Strauss who might not know the story. But since I know Carol does… he plays Ratchett. So he does what Ratchett does. It’s fine.

  8. avatar
    November 12, 2017 at 5:07 am

    Ok. I am a Hercule Poirot snob. I admit it. My first car even had the license plate “POIROT” I know I would enjoy the movie because I would keep comparing it against other versions, other actors, etc. If you have never seen any of those, I guess it would be enjoyable. But for me, I am going to pass.

    • avatar
      November 12, 2017 at 5:48 pm

      That’s weird. I’m the same way about aquaman. Totally. I’m not going to watch this new justice league because aquaman isn’t the clean shaven orange shirt wearing blonde guy.

  9. avatar
    November 13, 2017 at 2:34 am

    I actually wanted to see this one too, damn. Branagh, seems to be an uneven director in general (cough, cough Thor) and he has only really received praise for his Shakespeare movies if I recall

  10. avatar
    November 13, 2017 at 2:47 am

    Just so it’s out there.. I HATED Daredevil. I was a fan of the property.. But, that movie was awful.

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