The Bad In Every Man

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It’s been a banner year for spectacle films, with Dunkirk delivering on the war picture, Beauty and the Beast an unquestionable musical smash hit, Thor: Ragnarok undoubtedly the best blockbuster of the year, and a litany of independent critical darlings peppered throughout. Often overlooked in trade papers and festival buzz was the resurrection of the whodunnit mystery, in the form of Murder on the Orient Express. A paragon in Agatha Christie’s repertoire and another daring project from Kenneth Branagh (he of 1993’s full-text version of Hamlet), the film is simply amazing, but like its famous detective, we must go further into the who, what, when, where and why.

After an impressive case in Jerusalem, and now in Istanbul, renowned private detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) seeks a holiday away from the crime scene. Already travelling back home, he is persuaded by a close friend of his, Mr. Bouc (Tom Bateman, Da Vinci’s Demons) to travel with him by rail on the Orient Express — first class, all expenses paid! Quickly, the lush scenery and amenities do not justify the means when duplicitous passenger Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp, Black Mass) is found dead in his cabin, and so, for the greater good, Poirot must discern a killer from a motley crew of passengers-cum-suspects — among them, governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), Doctor Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom, Jr., Red Tails), automotive dealer Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, The Magnificent Seven) missionary Pílar Estravados (Penelope Cruz, Volver), Professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project), widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer, Dark Shadows) and the butler (Derek Jacobi, Anonymous) and bookkeeper (Josh Gad, Beauty and the Beast) of the recently deceased.

Star-studded this may be, but this film does not get lost in starpower like so many ensemble pieces do over the years — everyone gets their moment in the spotlight, and not one suffocates the other, not even Poirot himself! This is also firmly grounded as a murder mystery, first and foremost, and you will be shocked with how things play out — I’ve never read the book on which this is based, but by all accounts, there are numerous differences between the book, Sidney Lumet’s adaptation and Branagh’s, and that has drawn much ire and anger from critics and authors alike; I regard that as a great thing, because in a day and age when anyone can look up spoilers from classic novels via a smartphone, turning one such novel on its end only helps to surprise filmgoers and book-lovers. Rest assured, this film has a twist, and it is the most daring I’ve seen in a long, long time.

Branagh’s regular cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukis (Cinderella), returns for this film, and masterfully shoots it — on 70MM film, no less! Using the last four Panavision-made 70MM film cameras, the film’s native 8K image shines, even on a digital screen as I saw it. Despite the bulk of 70MM cameras and close quarters of a train cabin set, Zambarloukis manages to impress a wide viewing area, making the viewer feel that terror can come from anywhere, not unlike a horror film. My only gripe with said cinematography is that 20th Century Fox, the film’s distributor, opted for a Los Angeles/New York-only 70MM release, which I feel was stupid, given the amount of money Dunkirk made exclusively from said film showings. Still, it’s been a great year for movies photographed on film, and here’s looking to more!

Another returning Branagh regular is composer Patrick Doyle (Thor), bringing the requisite suspense and awe to a mystery picture, but also great moments of humility and drama at the appropriate times. He also co-composed an end credits song, with Branagh providing the lyrics (as they did on Cinderella), that is sung by co-star Michelle Pfeiffer, who carries the ballad with grace and heart.

In a cover story for Entertainment Weekly, the producers of Murder on the Orient Express spoke of sequels based on other Poirot mysteries if the film did well. The film has already outdone expectations at the box office — third place is nothing to sneeze at for a film like this — and I only hope that Kenneth Branagh and Company will be able to top the absolute perfection they have done with this film. As Poirot says, “there is good, and there is bad… and then, there is you.” We’ll see you at the Oscars, Monsieur.

Rating: 5/5

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Guns of the Patriots

Love it or hate it, someday, your favorite film will be remade, and if it sucks, you’ll always have the original to look back on. That being said, every now and then comes a remake that, while not necessarily justified in existence, packs one hell of a punch and brings the story, in some way, into a modern context. Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) has done just that with his take on John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, but his is no copy-paste remake of either’s vision.

Relocating the setting to the California Territory in the late 1800s, the people of Rose Creek are at their wit’s end, as ruthless Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, Elegy) is taking their land and lives by force, and all for his own personal gain. One such a townsperson who has lost her home and her husband is Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, Hardcore Henry). Traveling the near cities looking for help to stand up to Bogue and his men, she finds Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington, Antwone Fisher), a warrant officer who joins her cause almost on the spot. Fighting at Chisholm’s side are noted boozer Joshua Farraday (Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy), ex-Confederate sniper Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke, Sinister), assassin Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee, G.I. Joe: Retaliation), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Cake), lone Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier, Lilin’s Brood) and hunter Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio, The Judge). Together, they set out to help the townspeople take back what is theirs… and settle a few personal scores.

Those who complain about this remake existing should take into account what could have been — At the project’s inception, Tom Cruise was set to star, but he dropped out over salary issues, and thus we have Fuqua’s vision, brilliantly written by Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and diversely cast in a day and age when many are decrying Hollywood movies for a lack of such casts. However, diversity does not solely make this cast succeed, and having the cool and collected Washington lead this team is a brilliant choice — he is the perfect successor to Yul Brynner. Pratt, channelling his inner Star-Lord is charming, but not suffocating, as the womanizing Farraday, something between Victor Mature’s Doc Holliday in My Darling Clementine with elements of Taylor Kitsch’s Gambit in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

Something the surprised me was that Hawke’s character, Robicheaux, is written as having owed his life to Chisholm, in spite of the fact that the former’s character was a Confederate — it’s good to see redemption of a villain in a big-budget film. Lee and Sensmeier are silently fierce as their respective characters (and it’s refreshing to see an American Indian play a role that matches his ethnicity), but it’s D’Onofrio who steals the show, channelling the best of Andy Devine with the solemnity of a child at prayer. These being said, a story is rarely complete without a great villain, and Sarsgaard is terrific as the lawless lord of the land. Bogue exudes all the menace of a serial killer, filling the viewer with silent fear, as if cornered by a cobra.

More important than all of this, however, is that Fuqua never feels the need to call out the fact of his cast’s diversity  — the N-bomb, or any blatant slur, is not to be found in this film (take note, Tarantino), and on the opposite side, there is no deification of any one member of the seven above the other. Further, unlike the original film, there is no romantic subplot involving one of the seven, and that’s exactly how it should be — this is a tale of frontier justice; there’s little time to smooch while bullets fly over your head.

I do have a couple of misgivings about the film — nothing that drags it down considerably, but still, Haley Bennett’s Emma, while far from being a damsel in distress, is rarely seen with a smile on her face. Granted, things go horribly for her in the first scene and she may well go down with her village, but even when the town is partaking in minor pleasantries, she is still solemn. Still, I’ve never been in such a situation, so who am I to talk? Lastly, the montage of the seven training the townsfolk in weaponry goes over too fast — it comes off as somewhat hard to believe they became good marksmen so fast.

Even so, I say praise be Antoine Fuqua, because he has done what few others could — remaking a classic is no walk in the park, but he does so with tact and poignancy, and perfect for the age we live in. After all, if we can’t defend ourselves against tyranny, what good are we?

Rating: 4.5/5