Minisode 31: Murder on the Orient Express

In this minisode we discuss Agatha Christie’s often adapted book to film, Murder on the Orient Express, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, along with Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Leslie Odom Jr., Willem Dafoe, and a handful of other people potentially accused of murder. This story is special for a reason and we enjoy talking about the ethics and morality at play, while also gushing over a beautiful visual aesthetic in the film.

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MOVIE REVIEW: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

GOING IN

In all my years of devouring classic literature, I never read a single Agatha Christie novel. A travesty, I know. Arguably her most famous work, Murder on the Orient Express features the famous reoccurring detective Hercule Poirot. The story tells of thirteen stranded strangers on a luxurious train ride, one of them a murderer who Poirot must discover and stop before they kill again. As intriguing as the story is, I’ve intentionally avoided reading the novel or seeing the 1974 film that came before, and therefore will be able to go into this mystery spoiler-free. Branagh’s work is never short on panache and the all-star cast assembled points to an exciting cinematic game of whodunit, reminiscent of the board game Clue.


COMING OUT

For me, the success of movie mysteries is largely measured by the answer to two questions: “was it entertaining” and “did it keep me guessing until the end? ” Unexpectedly, the film is very much not a thriller. The style is theatrical in nature, which should be no surprise with Branagh directing, combined with some modern stylish cinematography. It felt very much like Branagh’s tone in Cinderella and made for a weird experience, which to be honest, did not always work for me. At many times I expected the energy of the film to increase as suspects were considered and the investigation grew nearer to resolution, but aside from one or two scenes this felt more like a stage play minus the heightened drama. And that leads into question number two, because despite not knowing the story and end result, I was certainly not guessing until the end. I’ll admit that I did not know every detail until Poirot’s classic reveal speech, but the clues were easy enough to read that it felt more like I was watching to discover how the detective would deal with the outcome versus whether he would learn the truth or not. The “whodunit” simply wasn’t filmed in such a way that lived up to my expectations for an exciting mystery and at times was downright boring.

So far, by my standards, Murder on the Orient Express does not succeed. What saved the experience for me, however, was the story itself. Though I don’t feel like this is a great adaptation, I was definitely intrigued by the moral implications that arose once the killer’s identity was revealed. The questions about justice, and what is right versus wrong, were compelling and it is easy to see why this is one of Agatha Christie’s most beloved stories. Talking through the implications of the ending on the drive home with my 14-year old made for great conversation.

With regards to the stellar cast, I feel a bit cheated. We simply don’t get enough time with each of the many characters to establish much of a connection. The acting is fine, although I’m quite tired of Johnny Depp as a gangster at this point, but no one really stands out because all of the characters are equal and overshadowed by the hero detective. Branagh really just can’t help himself here and his camera keeps Poirot in focus in almost nearly every scene. Those he isn’t in are filmed from his perspective.  There are so many closeups and monologues that the film starts to feel much more about him and less about the mystery. Branagh is no doubt a stellar actor and his presence serves the character well,  but his direction creates an unevenness to the style in Murder on the Orient Express that makes it feel awkward.

Verdict

I’m glad that I now know the story of Murder on the Orient Express. Christie’s tale is fantastic and is a unique scenario in murder mysteries. It brings up questions about justice, judgment, and forgiveness. Branagh’s adaptation is good, and I don’t regret seeing it, but instead of wanting to re-watch it, I am more compelled to seek out the source material and previous adaptations. Murder on the Orient Express is just an okay film. You can see better, but you could also see a whole lot worse.

Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.

Episode 079: Blade Runner 2049

For the second week in a row we’ve got replicant fever and are trying to answer that nagging question, “Do androids dream of electric sheep?” Blade Runner 2049 inspires us to honor its epic length with some extended conversation of our own. There is plenty to discuss in the incredible new film from Denis Villeneuve so join us for an in-depth journey as we explore the film’s emotional and philosophical impact on us.

What We’ve Been Up To – 0:02:14

(Aaron – My Little Pony: The Movie)
(Patrick – Clue)

Blade Runner 2049 Review – 0:19:05

The Connecting Point – 1:34:45

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Intro/Outro Music – “Air Hockey Saloon” by Chris Zabriskie

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MOVIE REVIEW: Blade Runner 2049

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)



GOING IN

Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner holds a special place in my heart. Over countless viewings the film has continued to evoke emotional and intellectual responses from me, often times new and unexpected. It is the film that ushered in my love of a good artificial intelligence story, a sub-genre that today I consider my favorite. The ideas it brings forth and leads us to consider are hefty ones. It is brilliant in most every way and is firmly placed in my Top 5 favorite films of all-time. And now we have a sequel…

To be honest, I wasn’t excited when this film was announced. Part of what makes Blade Runner so fascinating is the ambiguity. Will a sequel ruin all of that, and could it even lower my enjoyment of the original? These are very real fears for me. Over time, though, I’ve grown more excited about this project. Director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins have the vision and style to make them a perfect artistic fit.  The casting of Ryan Gosling and Jared Leto entice me, as does the return of Harrison Ford. This film couldn’t be in better hands. But the skeptic in me remains, and Blade Runner 2049 meeting my expectations may prove a difficult task.



COMING OUT

For once, Hollywood got it right. The studios worked very hard to encourage no spoilers be released from early Blade Runner 2049 screenings and that decision will result in a much better experience for filmgoers. The story being told is intriguing and provocative, a believable next step in the evolution of replicants that continues the original film’s exploration of what it means to be alive. As it should be expected, the question of who is and isn’t human lingers and gives rise to doubt. The concept of love and what role it plays in having a soul is also examined. A particular relationship between characters, one of whom is a holographic A.I., was among my favorite parts of the film and provided an emotional center that resonated with me.

That same A.I. is one of several new technological advancements that the world has seen in its 30 years since the original Blade Runner took place. Police Department cruisers are considerably cooler and now have enhancements like a detachable drone and weaponry. Synthetic farming is briefly shown and looks fascinating. Other new tech includes things like a portable replicant scanner and what serves as an upgraded Voight-Kampff machine that helps humans keep replicants operating between the lines.

When it comes to visuals, Roger Deakins’ cinematography is incredible. This is not the hard-boiled Blade Runner of the past that was filmed almost entirely in darkness. Everything here is shiny and futuristic. It is a gorgeous film to behold and I’ll be extremely surprised if Deakins isn’t raising a golden Oscar statue at the 2018 Academy Awards. It’s clear that he and Villeueve have a passion for the material and their artistic genius is without question.

But…

Thought-provoking as it may be, I had an incredibly hard time connecting emotionally with the primary plot. The themes were not deepened in a way that moved me and the entire world felt very cold. Numerous recreations of moments from the original film seemed cheap and were distracting. This is a long film and it feels long. Many will likely be bored, and though I wouldn’t count myself among them, I definitely felt many scenes could have been shorter without losing any of their impact. When I saw Blade Runner 2049‘s running time I expected much more in-depth world-building than actually exists.

VERDICT

Admittedly, I had high expectations for Blade Runner 2049 and in some ways those were met. This is a visually stunning film and for a while it was nice exploring new, but familiar, themes in this universe. Harrison Ford’s return was wonderful and most of the performances were perfectly fine. But what I didn’t find Blade Runner 2049 to be is particularly inspired. Villeneuve shockingly plays it safe and doesn’t expand on the world in any meaningful ways. Sure, there may be some meaning for a few characters, but larger implications are left completely unexplored and some plot lines just dropped as suddenly as if the film had run out of reel and nothing could be added. While I find the original Blade Runner to be infinitely re-watchable, as of this writing I don’t see myself desiring to revisit the long slog of Blade Runner 2049 again. When graded against science fiction films in general, Blade Runner 2049 is an above average entry. But this feels now more than ever like a sequel that we didn’t need, and when graded against its compelling and great source material, it sadly falls very short.

Rating:


UPDATE

Having now seen the film a second time, I feel it is important to update this review. Upon repeat viewing, divorced from expectations of what I thought the sequel should be, I was able to enjoy the film completely for what it actually is. Instead of finding the film cold and emotionless, I experienced quite a few moments of deep connection to different characters. The unique thing about Blade Runner 2049 is that it will not draw your attention to these moments through the use of manipulative music or exposition. You have to be paying attention, and if you are, the payoff is a powerful and moving one. I also had far less problems with the thematic content of the film. The new direction that Villeneuve has chosen to take this series is a logical step forward and though questions are once again left unanswered, they made me crave and yearn for more details, not less. Yes, the runtime is exceptionally long and it’s understandable that some viewers were yawning in my theater, but I was entranced and could have easily lived inside this world for another hour plus.

Sometimes expectations can thoroughly derail a filmgoing experience and I believe that is what happened to me. Discussing both that topic and the many emotional/philosophical story beats of Blade Runner 2049 on our podcast helped me to realize just how much I appreciate and adore this film. I love it. I cannot wait to see it again, and again, and again. I want more from Villeneuve. I want resolutions and new characters and new mysteries. Blade Runner 2049 is an exceptional work of art and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.

New Rating:


Aaron White is a Seattle-based film critic and co-creator/co-host of the Feelin’ Film Podcast. He is also a member of the Seattle Film Critics Society. He writes reviews with a focus on how his expectations influenced his experience. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter to be notified when new content is posted.