On its surface, advance word on the new film reboot of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery “Murder on the Orient Express” made me cringe. As much as I hate the current cinema climate in which umpteen sequels are pumped out to mindless dreck like the “Transformers” series, this edition of “Murder” seemed to signal millions of dollars being poured out to tell a story we’ve all seen before, way too many times.
Aside from the Christie novel, “Murder” had a predecessor in a 1974 film that scored major box office earnings and garnered six Oscar nominations, including wins for Ingrid Bergman as Best Supporting Actress and a Best Actor trophy for Albert Finney as Poirot. It would seem wise to leave that classic untouched, but director Kenneth Branagh has stepped up to deliver a film that pairs vivid performances by an all-star cast with stunning imagery, and a magnificent score with a screenplay by Michael Green (“Logan”) that attains an emotional resonance far too often lacking in major studio fare.
Best of all, this “Murder” has been shot with the option of being displayed in the full, now-rare glory of the 70mm format. The result is a dazzling work of art that is alternately fun to watch and hard to shake; the very definition of must-see filmmaking and worth every penny viewers pay at today’s excessive prices.
Branagh holds the screen magnetically with his lead performance as Inspector Hercule Poirot, a man whose ace deductive skills have made him famous across Europe. After an amusing Jerusalem-set opening sequence in which he reveals that it’s a corrupt police officer — rather than the priest, rabbi and imam who are about to be executed publicly — who committed a heinous crime, Poirot declares his need for a vacation.
While the inspector sports an impressive handlebar mustache and a showman’s panache, he is secretly saddened by the loss of his wife. A friend takes pity on his loneliness and offers him the chance to head to Istanbul and hop a luxury passenger train called the Orient Express for some rest and relaxation.
Poirot quickly notices a string of odd behavior and quirks from a dozen of his fellow passengers, including an actress who is suffering the pains of fading glory (Michelle Pfeiffer) , a doctor with an attitude (Leslie Odom Jr.) and an uptight missionary (Penelope Cruz). He’s forced to deal with them head-on when the train is trapped by an avalanche while traveling through mountains, and especially when the train’s chief (Johnny Depp) is found stabbed to death in his cabin.
As Poirot tries to unravel the mystery of who killed the chief, he discovers that no one is exactly as they seem — including the victim himself. Trying to deduce the twisting motivations across so many fellow passengers leads to a delicious array of twists that pay off with a walloping surprise.
Certainly, some viewers may have seen the original film, but Branagh and Green manage to give this “Orient” an impressively deep moral sense. As the discovery of how the murder occurred is revealed, the lush score by Patrick Doyle (“Hamlet,” “Sense and Sensibility”) attains a tragic undertone that helps attain the rare feat of portraying even a righteously vengeful murder in a light that makes viewers feel every anguished moment of taking a human life, no matter how evil.
Haris Zambarloukos, who also brought Branagh’s film version of “Cinderella” to vibrant life, creates scenescapes here that look like Thomas Kincaid paintings come to life. The overall result is a masterpiece that deserves to win numerous Oscars this coming February as well.
I’d like to add one point about how I score films. There is clearly no real comparison between a movie like “Bad Moms Christmas” and one like “Murder” on an artistic level. But in assigning the letter grades I attach to films, I judge each one by how well it achieved its goals and purpose: did it make the audience laugh if it was comedy, move them if it was a drama, or keep them on the edge of their seats in a drama or thriller?
“Murder” and last week’s two vastly different new films all attain their goal at a terrific level and thus earn top-notch grades. Here’s hoping the trend continues. Grade: A
DADDY’S HOME 2
Stars: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, John Lithgow
Length: 100 minutes
Directed by: Sean Anders
This sequel to the 2015 smash follows Ferrell and Wahlberg as a father and stepfather who overcame their comical competition for their kids’ attention. This time, they’re ridiculously close friends, but the arrival of Wahlberg’s macho monster dad (Gibson) and Ferrell’s touchy-feely father (Lithgow) creates new, fairly hilarious complications. A lot of great subtle commentaries on the state of families and our obsession with cellphones amid the slapstick.
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston
Length: 130 minutes
Directed by: Taika Waititi
The third in the “Thor” trilogy is an utter blast, cranking up the action and laugh lines to nonstop entertaining levels that make this better than the first two combined. Star Chris Hemsworth should be an interantional superstar, period, but this is a showcase of swaggering movie stardom at its finest. Cate Blanchett adds fun evil to the mix as the sister he has to team up with brother Loki to bring down.
BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS
Stars: Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Christine Baranski
Length: 104 minutes
Directed by: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore
This sequel to the surprise 2016 hit about suburban moms who decided to rebel against the demands of perfection tones some of the original’s excessive raunch down while adding some heartfelt moments. The arrivals of ace veterans Baranski, Cheryl Hines and Susan Sarandon as the moms they have conflicts with elevates this to make it one of the funniest movies of the year. Grade: A
HAPPY DEATH DAY
Stars: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Rudy Modine
Length: 96 minutes
Directed by: Christopher Landon
This funny twist on slasher films is best described as “Scream” meets “Groundhog Day,” with Rothe in a breakout role as a self-absorbed sorority girl who keeps waking up to find that she’s reliving the day in which someone keeps trying to kill her, and has to become a better person in order to stay alive. Loads of fun and highly recommended. Grade: B
THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Stars: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto
Length: 115 minutes
Directed by: Sean Baker
This Sundance Film Fest favorite follows an aimless summer in the lives of a group of young kids in Orlando who live in a cheap motel without much supervision except from the motel manager, played by Dafoe in an amiably winning performance. A ramshackle slice of life that shows you a side of American society rarely depicted in films. Grade: B