Murder on the Orient Express

Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Writer: Michael Green

Dame Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Without those two names you don’t get the classic whodunit as we know it today. Christie’s work is now so iconic that you don’t even have to have read a single word of her writing to recognise the formula. There’s been a murder, everyone’s a suspect, a top detective is brought in to solve the crime and the audience sees if they can crack the case before the big reveal. It’s a formula that we’ve seen in movies time and time again from the classic Hollywood film noirs and Clair’s adaptation of Christie’s And Then There Were None to more recent examples like Clue and The Hateful Eight. Murder on the Orient Express is perhaps the most famous single story Christie ever wrote and it has been adapted numerous times, most notably in 1974 with Albert Finney and in 2010 with David Suchet. This time it’s Branagh, sporting a hideous moustache, who steps into the shoes of Christie’s iconic detective in what he hoped would be a dynamic retelling of the classic mystery.

It is 1934 and we are introduced to world-famous detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh and his ridiculous moustache) as he solves a case in Jerusalem. He must then immediately return to London for another case and is offered passage on the Orient Express by his good friend Bouc (Tom Bateman). Soon after the train departs Poirot receives an offer from the shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp) to protect him from harm for the three-day journey after receiving an anonymous threatening letter, an offer which Poirot declines. The next morning Ratchett is discovered dead in his compartment and an avalanche stops the train in its tracks. A note is discovered connecting Ratchett’s murder to the infamous case of a murdered little girl in the USA and Poirot resolves to discover who among the other passengers killed him. His suspects include the governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), the missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz), Count Rudolph (Segei Polunin) and Countess Helena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton), the butler Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi), the widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe), the deceased’s assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad), and Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.).

For me the biggest reservation I had going into this film was Kenneth Branagh as Poirot. Not because I dislike Branagh as an actor (I don’t) or because of that inhuman abomination to both man and God that he calls a moustache, but because David Suchet embodied the famous detective so perfectly on the ITV series that all other incarnations of the character, including the Oscar-nominated Finney and the Bafta-nominated Ustinov, will forever be fighting for second place. Still Branagh puts on the gross eyesore that occupies his upper lip and he has a go at Christie’s most famous character, playing him as an inflexible control-freak who cannot tolerate imperfections in the world, whether they be the physical imperfections of two uneven boiled eggs or the moral imperfections of human beings. Branagh is a good enough actor that he is able to play the atrociously-moustached Poirot with the sufficient flash and gravitas while also scoring some laughs with his one-liners, but his decision to attribute Poirot’s meticulousness as obsessive-compulsive tendencies made for what I found to be a far less interesting character than the altogether more eloquently-moustached Suchet, whose perfectionism as Poirot came from a steadfast, unyielding belief in the absolute virtue of the law, God, and decency.

Still, Branagh the actor didn’t bother me as much as Branagh the director did. He makes a strong attempt to make the Christie mystery feel cinematic, which is an effort that I do admire but don’t think ultimately worked. When we see Poirot boarding the Orient Express in a single, sweeping tracking shot or when we witness the discovery of Ratchett’s body with a static overhead shot that leaves the corpse just out of frame, the style of these shots called so much attention to themselves that they struck me as self-indulgent flourishes rather than as creative cinematic storytelling techniques. It’s the same kind of self-indulgence that I imagine inspired Branagh to feature Poirot and his ghastly facial fur at centre stage throughout the whole film at the detriment of the all-star ensemble at his disposal. Some actors do manage to give out a great deal with the little they’re dealt, most notably Pfeiffer as the glamorous and wealthy widow in search of her next husband, but other characters, including those played by the enormously talented likes of Olivia Colman and Derek Jacobi, simply do not get enough time to dance in their acting shoes. All are side-lined and are mainly there to sit and look astonished so the film can spend as much time as it can focusing on how incredibly impressive Poirot and his egregious display of horrendous facial hair are.

I saw the film with two friends who did not know the ending and, while the final twist did seem to take them by surprise, they left feeling overall underwhelmed. The movie just doesn’t have that edge-of-your-seat momentum that a great whodunit should have. The private interrogations that Poirot conducts with each of the passengers do not have that captivating sense of intrigue and feeling of inquisitiveness because Branagh is much more interested in showcasing the deductive brilliance of Poirot and his abominable whiskers than in fleshing out all these secretive characters and getting to the heart of the mystery. The movie is so desperate for tension that it resorts to a cheap, generic Hollywood chase scene along the exterior of the train. Even the big reveal fails to impress as it relies too much on style and not enough on substance, even going so far as to arrange all the characters into an impractical pose that evokes The Last Supper (I guess making Poirot Da Vinci because that’s how much of a genius he is). As with the later seasons of Sherlock, this is a case of an artist getting so carried away with showing everyone how brilliantly brilliant his brilliant character and brilliant style are that all else gets swept aside and the story suffers because of it. Murder on the Orient Express is a stylish but empty remake that did not need to be made. Also I didn’t like the moustache.



Beauty and the Beast

Cast: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson

Director: Bill Condon

Writers: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos

Another year, another Disney remake. For the most part I’m not against the idea of updating and modernising Disney films in principle, but in practice I think the result has been mixed at best. Cinderella for example did a lot that worked better than in the original animation, but did just as much that did not. Meanwhile I felt that The Jungle Book did a lot that was different to the 1967 film, but little that I felt was better or worse. In both cases however I was open to the idea of the remake because I felt that both of the animations, while classics in their own rights, left something to be desired. In this, Beauty and the Beast is different. Beauty and the Beast, as far as I’m concerned, is as perfect as Disney gets. Not only is it a marvellous fairy tale with wonderful characters, fantastic music and beautiful animation, it’s also one of the few Disney films that actually gets better as I get older. It may be bias on my part, but I just couldn’t see what Disney hoped to accomplish by remaking this film.

In an 18th-century French provincial town lives Belle (Emma Watson), a solitary bookworm who dreams of excitement and adventure. She lives with her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) and spends her days reading, thinking and rejecting the advances of the oafish Gaston (Luke Evans). When Maurice gets lost venturing through the forest, he seeks refuge in a castle where he is taken prisoner by the Beast (Dan Stevens). Belle comes to the castle in search of her father and offers herself as a prisoner in his place. The Beast, cursed by an enchantress to live as a horrific monster unless he should learn to love another and be loved in return, agrees. Also living in the castle are the Beast’s servants who, thanks to the curse, have taken the form of animate objects. These included Lumiere the candelabra (Ewan MacGregor), Cogsworth the clock (Ian McKellen), and Mrs. Potts the teapot (Emma Thompson). With their help the Beast hopes to win Belle’s heart and break the curse.

Now, while I haven’t been a terribly big fan of the Disney remakes overall, I do appreciate how many of them have at least tried to do something different with the stories that we all know so well. This is why I found this new Beauty and the Beast to be so aggravating. This film, rather than trying something different, is almost as much of a shot-for-shot remake as Gus Van Sant’s Psycho. It’s actually a bit of a paradox really. This film is exactly like the 1991 film, and yet somehow nothing like it. It copies everything the original did but it lacks all of the magic and humanity that made the film work as well as it did. None of the movie’s events occur because they are motivated by the story or its characters, they occur because they’re following what happened in the original. The ballroom dance for example, by far the animation’s most iconic scene, is not built up to in any way. There’s no romantic dinner, no exchange of nervous glances, no playful sense of spontaneity; the film just cuts straight from the couple meeting at the staircase to them dancing in the ballroom. Why are they dancing? Because that’s what they did in the original movie.

I know that I shouldn’t be dwelling so much on how much better the 1991 classic is and comparing it with the remake, but this movie has brought it on itself. It spends so much time trying to recreate the original that I couldn’t help but be reminded of how wonderful and magical these moments felt when they took place in the animation as opposed to how empty and lifeless they felt here. When the film does vary, it’s to the story’s detriment. There are some additional scenes, such as when Gaston and Le Fou (Josh Gad) venture into the woods with Maurice to search for Belle, which only serve to pad the runtime. Occasionally there are some interesting ideas, one being the idea of Belle and the Beast bonding when they learn that both of their mothers died when they were young, but the film never goes anywhere with them. Then there are some elements like the magical teleporting book and the inclusion of a character called Agathe (Hattie Morahan) that are just plain stupid. The film’s greatest accomplishment is that it looks like Beauty and the Beast, which I think is the secret to the movie’s success. The sets, costumes and visual effects in this movie are so evocative of the original that it can sometimes be quite easy to fall for the illusion and think that you actually are watching Beauty and the Beast.

That illusion however is just as easily broken by the missteps the film takes in its direction. The casting of Emma Watson as Belle for example was a great idea on paper but not in practice. Not only is Watson a subpar singer whose voice lacks both power and expression, she’s also quite a limited actress. Her performance as Hermione worked because she was able to build that character very much in line with her own personality, but as Belle the limits of her acting ability became all too apparent. Her facial expressions rarely varied, her line deliveries lacked range and her body language felt forced. The rest of the cast meanwhile varies from bland to passable (with the exception of McGregor’s indefinable accent). Some of the CGI characters do pretty well and Gad gets an occasional laugh (despite his role as Disney’s first openly gay character being grossly overblown. I’m all for inclusivity but I’ve seen gayer characters in The Lord of the Rings!). Watson was the only one who struck me as out of her depth here.

I’d be lying if I said that I went into this movie with a completely open mind. Even putting aside my mixed on feelings on the Disney remakes I had already seen, this was a movie I already felt sceptical towards. After the trailer made it clear to me that this was very much going to be the same movie as the animation rather than a different take, I couldn’t understand why Disney would want to recreate what was already perfect (creatively I mean. The real rea$on Di$ney made thi$ film wa$ obviou$). I would have liked to be wrong. Nothing would have pleased me more than to be moved and enchanted by this film the same way I was by the original Beauty and the Beast. I wouldn’t exactly categorise this movie along with the worse of the Disney remakes. In fact, all things considered, it’s not even that bad a film. It was never as inane as Maleficent or as dire as Alice in Wonderland. On the other hand though, those two movies at least tried to take their stories into new directions. Thus, while Beauty and the Beast may not be the worst of these films, it is, for me, the most pointless.

The Angry Birds Movie

Cast: (voiced by) Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Kate McKinnon, Sean Penn, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Bill Hader, Peter Dinklage

Directors: Clay Kaytis, Fergal Reilly

Writer: Jon Vitti

I’m not really one for mobile games. I do sometimes play Minesweeper on my phone, but that’s about it. I’ve therefore never played a single game of Angry Birds in my life and knew little about it beyond its basic concept. I can certainly remember a time when Angry Birds was the biggest app in the world and can only imagine how popular this film might have been if it came out five years ago. I doubt I know a single person who still plays Angry Birds today. However, since The Lego Movie proved in 2014 that a blatant commercial could still be a smart and entertaining movie, maybe now really is the right time for mobile apps to start making the leap to the big screen. I hope this means that there is a Minesweeper movie in development somewhere. Anyway, whatever the level of popularity it holds today, The Angry Birds Movie is the film we got.

The film takes place on Bird Island, home to a wide variety of flightless birds. One of them, Red, lives in isolation from the rest of the community due to his anger issues. After an incident sends him over the edge Red is ordered to attend a series of anger management meetings held by Matilda. The other attendees are Chuck, a swift and zippy yellow bird, Bomb, a well-meaning black bird with a tendency to explode (literally), and Terrence, a giant, intimidating red bird with an apparently sadistic temperament. One of their sessions is then suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a boat carrying green pigs. Leonard, the leader of the pigs, claims his intentions are peaceful and wins the birds over with his offerings of friendship. Red however is not convinced. He enlists Chuck and Bomb to help him discover the pigs’ true intent and uncovers a heinous plot that will doubtless already be known to the millions of viewers familiar with the game.

The Angry Birds Movie is a harmless film with some nice animation and a few laughs, but that’s about it. It has very little of the creativity, imagination and dynamism that made The Lego Movie such a smash hit. The plot is pretty banal and safe, the characters are distinctive but mostly forgettable and the comedy consists almost entirely of bird or pig related puns and slapstick. There are enough bright colours and movement on screen to hold young children’s attention and distract them for a while but not enough character, story or inventiveness to engage them. The theme of the resentful, solitary loner learning to open himself up to others and become a part of the community is a familiar one we’ve all seen in a hundred better movies and there isn’t much that the film does to present it in a different or fresher light. I suppose the film does kind of distinguish itself by engaging with anger and concluding that there is actually a time and a place to allow yourself to become angry but it isn’t nearly as profound as what Inside Out did with sadness.

Red is the protagonist and the titular angry bird of this film but there isn’t a lot that can be said about him. The film does give him a backstory that provides an explanation for his anger but even then he isn’t particularly interesting, funny or entertaining as a character. The majority of the side characters are hardly worth mentioning. You can work out their quirks and traits within two seconds of meeting them and whatever amusing characteristics they have get worn out very quickly. The weakest character for me was probably Mighty Eagle, a revered figure who turns out to not be as mighty as the tales held him to be. Our introduction to him consists of a feeble, lowbrow joke that isn’t nearly as funny as the filmmakers think it is. I did however enjoy Terrence, a daunting behemoth who only ever communicates in grunts, a characteristic I appreciated all the more at the end when I found out who voiced him. For me he was probably the only consistently funny character in the movie.

The film does pick up at the climax when the birds are finally allowed to be the Angry Birds from the game. Here the film has some fun with its characters and their singular abilities and allows things to get a little creative and chaotic for a while. I’m not sure it was worth the wait though. There are a lot of lame jokes, stale character moments and clichéd plot developments that have to be endured before you can reach that point. The animation is nice enough and the characters are variable enough that your five-year-old won’t be bored while watching it but there isn’t much to be taken away from this film. Maybe if they’d gone the same route as The Lego Movie and just allowed themselves to go crazy they might have made something funnier, more entertaining and more memorable. Instead they played it safe and the result is a cute but forgettable movie.