Hercule Poirot, Kenneth Branagh, and ‘Murder on the Orient Express’

When it comes to detective novels and murder mysteries, Agatha Christie is perhaps best known for her detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. The first movie edition of Murder on the Orient Express (1974) was received warmly by critics and audiences alike. The recent remake, Murder on the Orient Express (2017), received less warmth from critics and audiences.

Murder on the Orient Express 2 - Kenneth Branagh(Kenneth Branagh as Hercule Poirot)

Kenneth Branagh directed and starred as Hercule Poirot in the 2017 rendition of Murder on the Orient Express. A star-studded cast joined Branagh, including Michelle Pfeiffer as Caroline Hubbard, Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff, Willem Dafoe as Gerhard Hardman, Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados, and Johnny Depp as Edward Ratchett. Many others joined in the story.

Murder on the Orient Express 3 - Michelle Pfeiffer(Michelle Pfiefer as Caroline Hubbard)

This version of the movie maintains the larger framework of the book written by Agatha Christie while looking to bring in a contemporary moralizing and sensibility from a book written in 1934. If written today, the more likely means of locomotion would be an ocean cruise at sea for 2-3 days or a transcontinental flight meant to be in the air for a good long time with delays built in.

Murder on the Orient Express 4 - Judi Dench(Judi Dench as Princess Dragomiroff)

The movie begins as an extravagant train ride through Europe that, on the surface is a vacation for Hercule Poirot and the guests alike. The keen detective that is Poirot has his antenna up from the beginning when, quickly into the tale, the suspense and thrills of murder, clues, and detection begin.

Murder on the Orient Express 5 - Willem Dafoe(WIllem Dafoe as Gerhard Hardman)

Everyone seemingly has a motive for murder. The really baffling quality of the mystery here is that one lead after another after another leads to apparent dead end. The clear culprit defies the straightforward explanation that one would expect. Is the murderer Caroline Hubbard or Princess Dragomiroff? Might it have been Gerhard Hardman or Pilar Estravados? Many have plausible motives for murder, though not one of these suspects lends themselves to a satisfactory answer to the question who committed the murder?

Murder on the Orient Express 6 - Penelope Cruz(Penelope Cruz as Pilar Estravados)

My goal here is to give you a sense of the suspense. The discovery of the answer is one that I recommend you determine through reading the book or watching one of the movies.

Murder on the Orient Express 7 - Johnny Depp(Johnny Depp as Edward Ratchett)

The critics consensus for this version of this movie, as shared on Rotten Tomatoes, is this:

“Stylish production and an all-star ensemble keep this Murder on the Orient Express from running off the rails, even if it never quite builds up to its classic predecessor’s illustrious head of steam.”

The critics consensus for the 1974 version, from Rotten Tomatoes, is more generous:

“Murder, intrigue, and a star-studded cast make this stylish production of Murder on the Orient Express one of the best Agatha Christie adaptations to see the silver screen.”

I personally enjoyed the 2017 version of the movie. That there were clues to unravel, multiple folks whose guilt was in question, and the underlying cleverness of an Agatha Christie murder mystery to outsmart were all there. For the very astute watcher, the solution to the crime is detectable. Regardless of the above stated critical reception, this basic quality was present in the movie.

The new Murder on the Orient Express is worth stream through Amazon Prime, HBO, or any other service of choice. Rent a copy from the library if you must. I’ve read the book. I am interested to see the 1974 version all the more for the glowing review above. My recommendation is to choose your path and immerse yourself in the mystery.

Matt – Monday, September 17, 2018

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Film review for a winner of four Academy Awards, ‘Platoon’

Director Oliver Stone and Producer Arnold Kopelson first released Platoon on a limited basis in movie theater’s in December 1986. The movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning for Best Picture, Film Editing, Sound, and Direction. To underscore that this movie was well received by the academy would be a disservice to the film.

Platoon 8(Oliver Stone in cameo in Platoon)

While arguably first a movie with an ensemble cast set in the Vietnam War circa 1967, the story of the movie is a tale of idealism and innocence lost in the jungle of Vietnam as seen through the eyes of Chris Taylor (as played by Charlie Sheen) and others. The character of Chris Taylor volunteers for service after dropping out from college with little worldly experience, which in my opinion serves as a metaphor for much of how the United States viewed itself at the time.

Platoon 3(Charlie Sheen)

While the enemy that the United States was fighting in Vietnam was the communist ideal and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the argument offered in the movie was that there was an internal struggle within America for the fight. The movie wasn’t aiming to argue those politics, though the internal American struggle was viewed through the lens of youthful innocence and some degree of rich versus poor.

Platoon 2(Willem Dafoe, left, and Tom Berenger, right)

Sargent Barnes as played by Tom Berenger serves as the jaded by war experience and morally corrupted platoon leader. Barnes has a quite unsympathetic and unfeeling attitude toward the Vietnam natives in country, and takes ruthless and criminal actions against the people of a farming village that the platoon in the movie comes upon. Sheen’s Taylor finds sympathy with the platoon faction lining up behind the more sympathetic Sargent Elias, who is played by Willem Dafoe.

The characters of Elias and Taylor take illicit drugs during the course of the movie. Barnes does not take that step, receives praise for his toughness within members of the platoon, and is shown for moments of leadership fallibility and moral turpitude, especially amongst the Vietnamese farming villagers as well as in the fate of Sargent Elias.

Platoon 5(Forest Whitaker)

In underscoring some of the military policy of integrating the military that was part of the legacy of the Vietnam War, the notion of the larger ensemble cast also sharing in the taking of sides between Sargent’s Barnes and Elias was clear. Big Harold, as played by Forest Whitaker, gave voice to the same inner turmoil that Chris Taylor (Sheen) was experiencing. This was communicated most strongly, perhaps, after the Vietnamese village was raised and farmers were killed.

Platoon 4(Keith David)

In the role as King, Keith David was a voice of moralizing that helped the character of Chris Taylor come to his own sense of moral clarity within the film. David’s initial role was in taking stock of the character that Taylor was as well as helping guide the change that Taylor would experience by the end of the movie. The character of Rhah, as played by Francesco Quinn, was another strong voice for the audience and Taylor in speaking for the directorial messages of immediacy and vision that I heard in the film.

Platoon 6(Francesco Quinn)

There is no question that Platoon lands firmly in the camp of war movie. The scenes of war action were real and intense for their day, though later surpassed by some of the film quality of a picture like Saving Private Ryan. Similar in ensemble quality to Saving Private Ryan, I would be remiss if I were to not point out that Johnny Depp also served as Private Gator Lerner in Platoon.

Platoon 7(Johnny Depp)

Part of the larger power of the movie that worked so well as a war movie is that the experience offered was that of the platoon level combatant. The notion of Taylor losing the ability to write home, and his platoon mates asking him about it were quite real. The notion of staying morally forthright while facing many opportunities to lose innocence and idealism were also fair, gritty, and in ways unpleasantly real. The depictions of combat, of corrupted leadership and the counterpoint rectitude, and the coping with having thoughts on each while feeling powerless to affect the course were strong and cogent messages.

With all these things said, the reason that I watched Platoon without Lynn reflect the same reason that I watched Dunkirk, reviewed here, without Lynn. The violence and sensibility of war that were parts of Platoon and Dunkirk were not things that Lynn would enjoy. Quite easily put, there was nothing to be gained by subjecting her to an experience that she would not enjoy.

Platoon, still, was worthy of Academy Award attention.

Matt – Sunday, March 18, 2018