Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

2017 #164
Kenneth Branagh | 114 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, UK, Malta, France, Canada & New Zealand / English, French & German | 12A / PG-13

Murder on the Orient Express

Did we need another version of Murder on the Orient Express? That seems to be the question that preoccupies many a review of the film, primarily with reference to the Oscar-winning 1974 version directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, alongside an all-star supporting cast. That’s not the only other adaptation of arguably detective fiction’s most famous novel, though there were fewer than I thought: a modernised TV movie starring Alfred Molina was made in 2001, and it was of course filmed as part of the David Suchet Poirot TV series in 2010, but that’s your lot (in English — the Germans and Japanese have both done it on TV). So, on the one hand, maybe we should be all set for screen versions; on the other, it’s not like it’s the only remake.

So, if you’ve not seen a version before, you’re spoilt for choice. If you want to know which I think you should pick… Well, I’ve not seen it, but I imagine we can discount that 2001 TV movie. Suchet is still the definitive screen interpretation of Poirot, but that particular episode is not the series’ finest hour, as I recall. And while I enjoyed the ’74 version a good deal, I wasn’t bowled over by it. Which brings us to this new one.

The star of the film: Branagh's moustache

Personally, I thought it was very good indeed. It’s a film of its genre and heritage — by which I mean it functions the way Christie-style murder mysteries always do, and it’s staged and shot mostly with a classical dignity — so if you have a dislike for that then this isn’t revisionist in a way that will win you over. But within those ‘constraints’ it’s very well done. The photography, in particular, is magnificent. Shot on 65mm, but without showing off about it in the way some other directors have recently, it has a richness, a grandeur, and an elegance that is most befitting.

Having mentioned the all-star cast of the previous film, it must be said that this version doesn’t skimp in that department either. The key roles are filled with a veritable who’s-who of acting talent, including big names (Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penélope Cruz), quality thesps (Olivia Colman, Willem Dafoe), people who’ve worked with Branagh before (many of the small roles), people who tick multiple of those boxes (Dame Judi Dench, Sir Derek Jacobi), and freshly-minted stars too (Star Wars‘ Daisy Ridley, Sing Street‘s Lucy Boynton; depending on your point of view, Beauty and the Beast‘s Josh Gad and Hamilton‘s Leslie Odom Jr as well). The size of the cast and style of the story means that even the most-featured only get a couple of scenes of their own (plus scattered lines in ensemble moments), but the talent involved imbues the roles with inherent character.

A dangerous liaison?

And then there’s Branagh himself as Monsieur Poirot. Most discussion of his performance has focused on the moustache, understandably. It’s certainly a magnificent feat. But Branagh is a very fine actor, of course, and he manages to make Poirot his own — an impressive job when there’s the spectre of David Suchet’s definitive performance looming. I wouldn’t say he’s surpassed Suchet in any way, but his take on the character is different enough to dodge too many direct comparisons, while not being so different that it no longer feels like Poirot, at least to me.

Frankly, I feel like an important element to enjoying the film is to approach it with an openness to it being its own thing — a courtesy I don’t believe it was afforded by some critics and viewers. Many reviews I’ve read had a tendency to compare it to the 1974 film, either in a specific “what I thought of each” sense or a broad “your opinions of that film may colour your view of this one”. I guess that’s a useful metric to some people, but it’s better to judge the film on its own merits, I feel. That said, I’ve also seen some call it too slow, others call it too fast; some say it’s too dull, others say it’s too full of action… No wonder it ended up with middling average scores: never mind not being able to please everyone, it seems like you can’t please anyone. Personally, I thought it largely hit the mark in all those respects.

Classical elegance

And it seems like the wider audience agreed: it ended up grossing $350 million worldwide, which places it in the top 30 releases of 2017. For a film of this type in the current box office climate, that’s an excellent achievement. For comparison, it’s just below the likes of Fifty Shades 2, Cars 3, and The Mummy Mk.III, and it also out-grossed films such as The LEGO Batman Movie, Blade Runner 2049, Split, Baby Driver, and even Get Out. I guess it appealed to a different audience than the one that routinely discusses movies online. It also means we’re getting a sequel, with Death on the Nile set for a 2019 release. Do we need another version of that too? Well, why not?

4 out of 5

Murder on the Orient Express was released on DVD, Blu-ray, and all the rest, in the UK this week.

Come Together (2016)

2016 #185a
Wes Anderson | 4 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English

Come TogetherChristmas adverts are all the rage these days, thanks to the likes of John Lewis and their beautifully affecting tributes to the holiday season / twee pieces of emotionally manipulative crap (delete as appropriate). This year clothes retailer H&M got in on the act by hiring everyone’s favourite go-to example of an idiosyncratically quirky director, Wes Anderson, to helm a short film-cum-advertisement — the first part of that equation being why I’m reviewing it here.

For me, Anderson pitches the tone just right. Rather than making a four-minute festival of sappiness that rots your brain with its generic sugary sentiment, or a music video for a slow breathy cover of a once-famous song, or a long build-up to a cheap punchline, Anderson instead brings his own familiar style to a brief narrative that comes to a surprisingly heartwarming conclusion. In the process, he’s made an advert that doesn’t feel like an advert — another reason to factor it in here.

I suppose for that same reason it almost fails — I’m no more or less likely to shop at H&M than I was before (in truth, I had to even double check they were a clothes retailer) — but as brand awareness goes, well, it doesn’t make me want to kick their teeth in until they go away and never bother me with one of their stupid adverts every again. Suck on that, John Lewis.

4 out of 5

Come Together can be watched on YouTube here.

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #7

They’ve saved the best trip for last…
But this time they may
have gone too far.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 118 minutes
BBFC: PG
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 25th May 1990 (USA)
UK Release: 11th July 1990
First Seen: VHS, c.1991

Stars
Michael J. Fox (Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, The American President)
Christopher Lloyd (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead)
Mary Steenburgen (Parenthood, Step Brothers)
Thomas F. Wilson (Back to the Future, Born to Be Wild)
Lea Thompson (SpaceCamp, Some Kind of Wonderful)

Director
Robert Zemeckis (Death Becomes Her, The Polar Express)

Screenwriter
Bob Gale (Used Cars, Back to the Future)

The Story
With Doc stuck in 1885, Marty McFly must travel back to save him before he’s killed by Biff Tannen’s ancestor, Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen. With the DeLorean damaged during his arrival in the past, they also have to come up with a plan to get back to their correct time…

Our Heroes
Marty McFly finally grows as a human being as he learns some stuff this time, while Michael J. Fox also gets to ham it up a little as his Irish ancestor, Seamus. Christopher Lloyd, meanwhile, is still the one and only Doc.

Our Villain
It’s Thomas F. Wilson again, this time as Biff’s trigger-happy Wild West ancestor, Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen. Who also gets covered in excrement.

Best Supporting Character
Mary Steenburgen is one of the few wholly original characters in either sequel, the love of Doc’s life, Clara Clayton. She’s also a confident, competent, and capable female character — a character type that’s only now ceasing to be a rarity in effects-y blockbusters, 25 years after this was made.

Memorable Quote
“Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one, both of you.” — Doc

Memorable Scene
Marty and Doc hijack a train in the hope of using it to get the DeLorean up to the required 88mph. As the looted locomotive heads towards a mighty fall off an unfinished bridge, it turns out Clara is on board too. Tension! Action! Excitement! What more do you want from a climax?

Truly Special Effect
With the DeLorean destroyed, the film ends with a reveal of Doc’s new time machine, and it’s awesome.

Making of
There are tonnes of lines, jokes, characters, locations, and even background details referenced back and forth across the whole trilogy, but only one actual scene appears in all three: the moment Marty travels from 1955 to 1985. It’s the climax to the first film, then appears at the end of Part II, and consequently is in the ‘recap’ at the start of Part III.

Previously on…
Part III indeed: this picks up exactly where the second film left off, and they were shot back-to-back. It’s fundamentally standalone other than that, mind.

Next time…
As mentioned on the first film, Back to the Future has continued in an animated series, theme park ride, video game, and a comic book that started last year. Plus Doc Brown turned up in A Million Ways to Die in the West, so… there’s that…

Awards
2 Saturn Awards (Supporting Actor (Thomas F. Wilson), Music)
4 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Director, Supporting Actress (Mary Steenburgen), Costumes)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
Back To The Future Part II teed off a lot of critics by not being a remake of the first film, and for daring to be a) complicated, b) very fast and c) heartless. Part III, which is slightly less fleet of foot, restores heart interest of the first film and has a satisfying complete storyline.” — Kim Newman, Empire

Score: 74%

What the Public Say
“One of the clearest indications of an excellent series is an ending is so satisfying you can’t even be mad the adventure is over. Part III delivers a happy ending so well-rounded […] there is no yearning for more story. I remember feeling quite content after seeing that movie for the first time; actually more like thrilled that the trilogy ended on such a great note.” — Avril Brown, Comics Waiting Room

Verdict

The consensus used to be that Part III was unquestionably the weakest part of the trilogy, a slightly bizarre Old West-set addendum to the first two. These days, I feel like an increasing number of people say it’s definitely better than Part II. Personally, I’ve always had a particular fondness for it. I’m not entirely sure why. Much like the second film, it can’t attain the perfection of the first movie, but it can be the next best thing — a fun and funny adventure with these great characters. And even as I say “they’re not as good as the first one”, I don’t wholly believe it: to me, Back to the Future never has and never will be just one film, or one film and its two sequels — it’s a trilogy; a three-parter. (So there.)

#8 will be… an alliterative origin.

The Lone Ranger (2013)

2015 #177
Gore Verbinski | 149 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Hated by Americans and loved (well, ok, “liked”) by everyone else (well, ok, “by lots, but by no means all, of people who reside outside America”), Disney’s attempt to pull a Pirates of the Caribbean on Western adventure IP The Lone Ranger is by no means as successful as the first instalment in their piratical franchise, but is at least the equal of its sequels — and, in some cases, their better.

The convoluted plot sees us arrive with John Reid (Armie Hammer) in the frontier town where he grew up, where his brother Dan (James Badge Dale) is now sheriff. Construction of the railroad is running by the town, spearheaded by Latham Cole (Tom Wilkinson), who letches after Dan’s wife (Ruth Wilson); but work is plagued by a band of outlaws led by Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner). Receiving information on his whereabouts, Dan rounds up a posse and heads out to tackle him, with John insisting on tagging along. Unfortunately it’s an ambush and they’re all slaughtered (oh dear)… except John just about survives, and is found and nursed back to life by a Native American, Tonto (Johnny Depp). He has his own grievances, and together they set out on a mission of revenge.

And if you’re wondering where Helena Bonham Carter is in all that: despite her prominence on many of the posters, her role is really just a cameo. That’s marketing, folks.

I know some people complain about simplistic stories that are used to just string action sequences together, and that’s a perfectly valid thing to get annoyed about, but The Lone Ranger swings to the other extreme and uses an over-complicated story to string together its action sequences. All it actually needs is a little streamlining, because the film is allowed to swing off into too many sideplots. This makes the middle of the film a slog, and you feel every minute of its excessive two-and-a-half-hour running time.

That slog is made worthwhile by what comes before and after said middle: a pair of train-based action sequences that are each truly fantastic. The second, in particular, is arguably amongst the grandest climaxes ever put on screen (providing you don’t feel it’s tipped too far into being overblown, of course). It’s inventively choreographed, fluidly shot, and perfectly scored with just an extended barnstorming version of the Lone Ranger’s theme music (aka the William Tell Overture). It’s an adrenaline-pumping action sequence that single-handedly justifies the entire film’s existence, if you’re into that kind of thing.

With multiple trains, horses, actors, guns, stunts, and copious CGI to tie it together, that sequence must’ve cost a bomb. Notoriously, the whole film was deemed too expensive and Disney insisted the budget be slashed, resulting in delays… and it still cost a fortune. That, quite apart from the negative critical response in the US, is a big part of why it flopped at the box office — a recurring problem for Disney at the minute. To be frank, I’m not convinced anyone made a truly concerted effort to stem the overspend. When a gaggle of CG rabbits hopped on screen, all I could think was, “who allowed this?!” You’ve got a massively over-budgeted film that the studio want cut back, and one reason for that is CG bunnies that have almost no bearing on anything whatsoever! The amount of time and effort that must’ve gone into creating those fairly-realistic rabbits for such a short amount of screen time… it cost millions, surely. Millions that could’ve been saved with a simple snip during the writing stage if only someone had said, “well, those bunnies don’t add anything and they’ll be bloody expensive, so let’s lose them.”

So criticism is not unfounded, but the film doesn’t deserve the level of vitriolic scorn poured on it by the US press and, consequently, public. Discussing this, the “critical response” section on the film’s Wikipedia page is interesting, and this part pretty much nails it:

Mark Hughes of Forbes, analyzing what he felt was a “flop-hungry” press desiring to “control the narrative and render the outcome they insisted was unavoidable” for a highly expensive movie with much-publicized production troubles, found the film “about a hundred times better than you think it is … [a] well-written, well-acted, superbly directed adventure story.”

I’m not quite as effusive as Hughes, but The Lone Ranger is worth the time of anyone who enjoys an action-adventure blockbuster. It’s a three-star adventure-comedy bookended by a pair of five-star railroad action sequences, which make the trudge through the film’s middle hour-or-so feel worthwhile. There was a better movie to be made here — one that was half-an-hour shorter, more focused, and probably several tens of millions of dollars cheaper to make — but that doesn’t mean the one we got is meritless.

4 out of 5

Terror by Night (1946)

2015 #140
Roy William Neill | 57 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

After the previous Basil Rathbones-starring Sherlock Holmes adventure set its tale almost entirely aboard a boat, this time we find ourselves in the confines of a train. It’s a sleeper travelling from London to Edinburgh, with Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson (Nigel Bruce) aboard because they’ve been hired to guard the Star of Rhodesia diamond after an attempt was made to steal it in London. In short order, their employer is murdered and the diamond is missing. The crime can only have been committed by one of the handful of other passengers in the same carriage, but which?

For what is the shortest film in the series, screenwriter Frank Gruber and regular director/producer Roy William Neill have constructed a contained, almost claustrophobic version of a Holmes tale. There are definite pros to this: it’s effectively a locked room mystery, with an element of howdunnit closely tied to the whodunnit. The supporting cast are fairly colourful, and there’s a spot of genuine mystery to be had in which of them is the culprit. Okay, one or two red herrings are glaringly obvious, but I don’t think the teapot-loving couple were ever meant to be serious contenders anyway. Elements of the canon are incorporated willy-nilly, not least some memorable parts from The Sign of Four, which adds flavour.

Rathbone and Bruce are on fine form as ever, with the latter getting a kind of sidekick of his own in the equally-portly form of Alan Mowbray as an old chum, Major Duncan-Bleek. He keeps Watson occupied so Holmes and Lestrade (series regular Dennis Hoey, in his last appearance) can go about their business, anyway. Sadly, the next most noteworthy cast member is Renee Godfrey, who is remarkably bad as the suspicious Vivian Vedder. Perhaps it’s just because she’s clearly struggling with an atrocious variable accent, the quality of which makes it rather distracting whenever she opens her mouth. Having used Moriarty plenty, the series finally accepts that he’s dead and moves on to his right-hand man, Col. Sebastian Moran. Considering the identity of the conniving colonel is a mystery for most of the movie, however, his involvement is perhaps no great shakes.

Terror by Night is good fun for the most part, with a decent array of suspects and clues to keep us guessing in its moderately atmospheric setting. For what it’s worth, I’d put it a step above most of the other films in the series that I’ve rated 3, but a step below those I’ve rated 4. That it’s one of the series’ lesser instalments but still so enjoyable is simply testament to their overall quality.

3 out of 5

Terror by Night is on TCM UK tonight at 7:50pm.

North West Frontier (1959)

aka Flame Over India / Empress of India

2015 #126
J. Lee Thompson | 125 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | U

British Army Captain Scott (Kenneth More) is charged with getting an Indian child prince and his American governess (Lauren Bacall) to safety as rebels attempt to murder him. With the palace under siege, their only hope is a barely-ready rust-bucket train engine, a single passenger carriage, and a long journey through enemy territory joined by a motley group of diplomats and hangers-on who’ve bargained their way on to this last train.

North West Frontier has been on BBC Two a couple of times in the last year or two (seven times in the last four years, to be precise), and on one of those showings I caught a few seconds and thought it looked fabulously shot — I confess, that’s the only reason I’d got hold of a copy. I’m so glad I did though, because it’s excellent stuff — a rollicking, action-packed, old-fashioned (in the good sense) adventure, full of peril, derring-do, chases and shoot-outs. In between all that there’s some great character stuff too. Judging from online reaction, some viewers seem to find these bits boring longueurs, but I thought they helped manage the pace and added to the whole feel.

In particular, it’s during those segments where you get to see that every cast member is excellent. More is surprisingly dashing as the heroic leader of this ragtag bunch on their ramshackle locomotive. Bacall is as feisty as you’d expect as the strong-willed, outspoken governess, creating an easy and perhaps-surprisingly plausible chemistry with More. For the rest of the cast, Herbert Lom seems to be channelling a little Peter Lorre as a critical Dutch journalist, Wilfrid Hyde-White is the perfect older English gent, I.S. Johar is fun as the train’s Indian driver, Ursula Jeans is redoubtable as the English lady forced to escape on the train by her governor husband, and Eugene Deckers is an arms dealer, who consequently no one likes but who remains unashamed of his trade. Through this prism there’s some discussion of the merits or otherwise of the British Empire and Indian independence, which some will judge to be extolling old-fashioned values, and others will take as little more than a (probably unnecessary) hat-tip in the direction of real politics.

And as for the reason I watched, success: it’s beautifully shot, in widescreen Eastmancolor by Geoffrey Unsworth, showing off stunning scenery lensed in India and Spain (with studio sequences shot at Pinewood, naturally). It may not be famed as a big-budget epic, but there’s nonetheless an impressively grand scale, with wide-open scenery, some extravagant locales, and hundreds of extras to fill out a few sweeping battle charges. They also come into play in one of the film’s most striking sequences, set at the scene of a horrid massacre, where a spread of blood-soaked bodies surely stretch the film’s U certificate. I’ve seen this part of the film described as unnecessarily dallied upon, but I think director J. Lee Thompson is more conveying the atrocity of such a tragic event.

In the US, the film was retitled Flame Over India (and Bacall was given top billing, as opposed to More in the UK), while in Australia it was named Empress of India, after the central train. That’s the best title, in my opinion. Flame Over India is pretty meaningless (Bacall didn’t like it either) and North West Frontier is a bit generic and bland, but Empress of India indicates the country and has meaning… though as it’s not about an Empress you could argue it’s misleading and sounds too romantic.

North West Frontier, on the other hand, sounds like a Western — which was perhaps the intention: the film’s structure and story style is fundamentally a fit for that genre, albeit British-made and geographically relocated. The storyline immediately brings to mind John Ford’s Stagecoach: a gaggle of mismatched strangers are thrown together as they cross hostile territory, interspersing conversations and arguments with adventurous survival challenges. In a review I otherwise pretty thoroughly disagree with, Glenn Erickson at DVD Talk makes the same comparison and offers this insightful point: “It may be a blatant reworking of Stagecoach as the original story was co-written by John Wayne’s son Patrick Wayne and Maureen O’Hara’s husband Will Price. The final screenplay [by Robin Estridge] was adapted from a script by screenwriter Frank S. Nugent, the writer of eleven Ford films.” Sounds pretty likely, doesn’t it?

North West Frontier is a film I would certainly have overlooked were it not for some whim of fate. Thank goodness for coincidence and chance, then, because it’s a cracking adventure; one made, I think, with pure entertainment in mind. I rather loved it.

5 out of 5

North West Frontier placed 15th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

This review is part of The Lauren Bacall Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

The General (1926)

2015 #29
Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman | 77 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / silent (English) | U

The GeneralPoorly reviewed and a box office flop on its release, Buster Keaton’s The General has undergone a stark re-evaluation since: the United States National Film Registry deemed it so “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” that it was added to the registry in its first year, alongside the likes of Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars; these days, it rates on both public-voted popular lists (the IMDb Top 250 at #133) and critics’ polls (34th on Sight & Sound’s 2012 poll). Does it live up to such a reputation?

Set at the outbreak of the American Civil War, Keaton plays a Southern train engineer who is refused permission to sign up for the army. When agents of the North hijack a train, he sets out to prove himself by giving chase. Hilarity ensues.

Believe it or not, The General is based on a real incident from the war… which was considerably grimmer than the farce presented here. Like the film, however, the South did win… except in real life the South were the bad guys (right?), so that’s no good. Anyway, such things shouldn’t trouble us here — this is a comedy, not a history lesson. That said, I must confess I didn’t laugh all that much — although some of it is quite funny — but, in spite of that, I rather loved it. Whatever the intention, it worked for me as a kind of comedic action-adventure (a genre we more often associate with more modern eras, I’d wager), rather than as an out-and-out comedy. Some of it is quite genuinely tense rather than purely amusing.

The GeneralIt was reportedly a very expensive film, and it looks it: there are tonnes of extras, not to mention elaborate choreography… of trains! Who knew old steam trains were so agile? There’s impressive physicality on display from Keaton, but the well-timed movements of those big old locomotives are quite extraordinary, especially for the era (I mean, for the past couple of decades you’ve been able to do pretty much anything thanks to a spot of computer-controlled what-have-you. Not much of that going on in the 1920s.)

Sometimes watching Classic Movies is almost a chore of noteworthiness or “good for its time” import; other times, they still offer pure enjoyment, however many decades later. I’m not sure a silent comedy is ever going to curry favour with all modern viewers, but The General is one that still has the power to transcend the (perceived) limitations of its era.

5 out of 5

The General was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

Last Passenger (2013)

2015 #6
Omid Nooshin | 93 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

Last PassengerIf you’ve ever found a late-night train commute dull, this single-location thriller may make you rethink any complaints. Half-a-dozen people travelling from London to Tunbridge Wells find their train speeding out of control. It’s up to them to discover what’s happening and how to stop it.

Starting as character-driven slow-burn, but building to suitable levels of adrenaline-generation, some of the characters may be a little generic, but then it’s a genre movie. Anyone after answers to why this is happening will be disappointed, but that’s not the point; indeed, it’s refreshing to leave the villain unexplored.

An effective thrillride (literally).

4 out of 5