Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Thanks, But No Thanks UPDATE!

A couple weeks ago I posted that Saudi Arabia had finally decided to open its movie theaters again, after a thirty year ban. The move was made by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in an effort to try and drag the backward country into the 21st Century.

I then made a joke saying the first American movies allowed into the country would be such recent "hits" as The Bye Bye ManKing Arthur: Legend Of The SwordThe MummyThe Dark Tower,  The Snowman and Geostorm.

I said that seeing these horrible, horrible selections on the big screen would immediately prompt the Saudi government to ban movies again for another thirty years. Com-O-Dee!

Welp, turns out my little joke wasn't too far off!

The first two American films to be shown in Saudi Arabia in thirty years will be The Emoji Movie and Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie. Incredibly this is NOT a joke this time, but the bizarre and amazing truth.

Look for the real-life ban to commence in 3, 2, 1...

Thursday, January 11, 2018

It Came From The Cineplex: The Disaster Artist

Sorry it took so long to review this film, but it just now started playing here in my backward redneck town. Honestly I'm surprised it came here at all, considering a certain big budget space opera is currently occupying forty eight of the city's sixty available screens.

The Disaster Artist was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, and directed by James Franco.

Neustadter and Weber are working partners, who previously wrote (500) Days Of Summer, The Pink Panther 2 (?), The Spectacular Now, The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns.

Franco is a prolific actor and occasional writer/director. He previously directed twenty or so small films that you've never heard of that I'm not gonna bother to list. Google him if you wanna see what he's done.

The film's based on the book The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, The Greatest Bad Film Ever Made, by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell. Jesus, could the title be any longer?

The Disaster Artist tells the true-life story of the relationship between model/actor Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau, the writer and director of The Room, which is widely considered to be one of the worst movies ever made.

I loved this movie! It's the best thing I've seen in the cineplex in a long time. A lonnnnnng time. This was the first time in... I can't remember when that I actually enjoyed watching a movie in the theater!

The Disaster Artist is very much like Ed Wood, which is one of my all-time favorite movies. Both tell very similar stories of delusional filmmakers who had absolutely no talent, yet somehow managed to make their own movies. That said, Ed Wood seems to have a lot more heart and affection for its main character, while The Disaster Artist feels a bit more cold and clinical. I'm not sure whether that's due to the subject matter or the difference between the directors.

There's something very meta about the idea of James Franco playing Tommy Wiseau. He's starring in and directing a film about a man who starred in and directed in his own film! Franco's also directed a couple dozen small, 
independent and little-seen movies, seemingly for his own amusement. Wiseau did pretty much the same thing with The Room.

You don't need to have seen The Room in order to enjoy The Disaster Artist, as the movie's less about that film and more about the relationship between Greg Sestero and the enigma that is Tommy Wiseau. If you have seen The Room, you'll definitely pick up on various plot points and Easter eggs though. You'll also begin to realize the fact that Tommy wrote his Johnny character as an idealized version of himself, and as the way he wishes his life was— filled with friends who unconditionally adore him.

The film's pretty accurate as biopics go, but naturally it leaves out a few real-life incidents. It also sugarcoats many of Wiseau's darker traits and outbursts that were present in the book. I suppose that's to be expected, since the film had to be made with Wiseau's approval, and there was no way he'd sign off on something that made him look like a total asshole. That's not to say the film completely sanitizes him though, as it actually portrays him as a raving tyrant on set, arbitrarily firing crew members while having little or no respect for his actors. So kudos for allowing a little of his mania to show through.

So far the film's grossed $23 million worldwide against its tiny $10 million budget, which makes it a very, very modest hit. For some reason the film had a very limited release, as its premiere was delayed by at least a month in many areas of the country (like mine!). That's too bad, as it's a good movie that deserves better.


The Plot:

In 1998 San Francisco, nineteen year old Greg Sestero (played by Dave Franco) takes an acting class taught by famed method actress Jean Shelton (played briefly by an unrecognizable Melanie Griffith). Unfortunately Greg's a terrible actor, unable to cut loose and bare his soul onstage. 

A mysterious fellow student named Tommy Wiseau (played by James Franco) then volunteers to do a scene. He takes the stage and performs a bizarre rendition of Stanley Kowalski from A Streetcar Named Desire, writing on the floor and bleating "STELLAAAAAA!" over and over in a thick European accent. 

Shelton isn't impressed, but Greg is captivated by Tommy's fearlessness onstage. After class, he approaches Tommy and asks for pointers. Tommy agrees, and the next day shows up at Greg's house in a brand new Mercedes. Curious, Greg asks Tommy what he does for a living. He deflects the question, refusing to divulge where he gets his money, his age or even where he's from.

They have lunch in a diner, where Tommy insists they do a scene together. Greg's embarrassed to perform in front of the other patrons, but Tommy urges him on. Greg eventually lets down his guard a bit, and bellows his lines loudly, to the amusement and puzzlement of the other diners. Later Tommy takes Greg to a park, saying he's eager to "play the football." It's instantly obvious that Tommy's never even seen a football, much less thrown one, but Greg goes along with it.

The two then form an odd and unlikely friendship. One night they visit the death site of James Dean, their favorite actor. They "pinky swear" to both someday become actors, always support one another and never give up on their dreams. 

Later Tommy says they'll never become actors in San Francisco, and suggests they move to LA. Greg says he'd love to, but can't afford it. Tommy says, "No problem," and offers to let Greg stay at another apartment he rents in LA. 

Greg's mother is suitably horrified, fearing her son's fallen victim to a much older sexual predator. Greg deflects her concerns and moves to LA with Tommy. Greg, who's a former model, instantly signs with the Iris Burton talent agency. Tommy has a harder time of it, facing constant rejection due to his "malevolent looks" and thick, often impenetrable accent. When Greg hooks up with a bartender named Amber (played by Alison Brie), Tommy becomes jealous, afraid of being abandoned.

Greg's enthusiasm wanes when his agent won't return his calls. Tommy's depressed as well, as he hasn't found acting work either. The two stand on the roof of their building, staring out at the sprawling lights of LA in the distance, ready to pack it in and return home. Greg offhandedly says he wishes they could just make their own movie. This sparks something in Tommy, who takes the idea seriously.

Tommy then begins writing the script for his masterpiece The Room, a drama he compares to the works of Tennessee Williams. The script concerns Johnny (to be played by Tommy himself), an impossibly generous man who's beloved by everyone around him. Unfortunately Johnny's finance Lisa cheats on him with his best friend Mark, which causes Johnny to ultimately commit suicide. 

Tommy presents the script to Greg, who finds it incomprehensible, but encourages him anyway. Tommy offers Greg the role of Mark in the film, as well as the associate producer role. Greg's reluctant to accept, until Tommy offers him a huge sum of money.

The two visit the Birns & Sawyer, a production house in North Hollywood. Tommy shocks the owners by insisting on buying their prohibitively expensive cameras instead of renting them, a move which makes no financial sense. He also demands to shoot on both 35mm film and HD digital at the same time, which is just as nonsensical. The owners confer with one another, and eventually agree to sell Tommy the equipment if he shoots his film in their studio.

Birns & Sawyer hire a crew for Tommy, including cinematographer Raphael Smajda (played by Paul Scheer) and script supervisor Sandy Schklair (played by Seth Rogen). Sandy's puzzled when Tommy won't let him see the screenplay, which is sort of a necessity for a script supervisor. Tommy and Mark then begin the casting process.

On the first day of filming, Tommy gives a rousing speech to his assembled cast and crew, filling them all with hope and confidence. That feeling quickly evaporates though, as the production rapidly goes south. Tommy's late every day, he lashes out at the cast and crew, and worst of all, he's a terrible, terrible actor, unable to remember the simplest lines (which he himself wrote!) or understand his own character's motivations.

He also engages in flat out bizarre behavior, spending thousands to construct a private toilet surrounded by curtains, even though there's a perfectly good bathroom with an actual door on it several feet away. He also insists on building an expensive but fake looking alley set, when there's an actual alley just outside the studio.

Tension begins growing on the set when Tommy refuses to pay for air conditioning or provide water, causing older actress Carolyn Minnott (who plays Claudette in the film) to pass out from heat exhaustion. Greg winces through these trials, embarrassed by Tommy's bizarre behavior, but apparently unwilling to quit the film.

During lunch one day, the cast ask Greg about Tommy and his bizarre script. They're puzzled by how he's financing the film himself, and wonder where his seemingly endless supply of cash is coming from. Greg has no answers for them, as even he doesn't know.

Tempers reach their boiling point when Tommy flips out because his love interest Juliette Daniel (who plays Lisa in The Room) has a few small blemishes on her skin. He screams about her "disgusting body," humiliating her in front of the entire cast. This causes Raphael to threaten Tommy, who fires him (but later rehires him). Tommy then reveals he's been secretly filming the entire crew and knows what they've been saying about him behind his back. He even accuses Greg of not believing in him and his grand vision for the movie.

Later Greg and Amber go out for coffee and run into actor Bryan Cranston (played by... Bryan Cranston). Amber knows Cranston from their pilates class, and introduces him to Greg. Cranston says he's about to direct an episode of his series Malcolm In The Middle, and points out that Greg, with his full beard, would be perfect for the part of a lumberjack. Greg eagerly accepts the offer.

Unfortunately, Greg remembers The Room script features a scene in which the Mark character shaves his beard. Greg begs Tommy to postpone the scene until after the Malcolm episode as a personal favor. Tommy refuses, saying he has to choose between "movie and Malcolm." Greg reluctantly backs down, which disgusts Amber and causes her to break up with him.

On the last day of shooting, Tommy shows up with an all new crew, having fired Raphael and Sandy. He takes Greg and this new crew all the way to San Francisco, where he tries to recreate the time they played football in the park.

Greg's finally had enough, and calls out Tommy for being an asshole to him as well as the cast and crew. He once again asks Tommy his age, background and source of income, saying they're all simple questions. When Tommy still refuses to answer, Greg walks off in disgust.

Eight months later, Greg, who's now acting in a Tennessee Williams play (!), receives an invitation to the premiere of The Room. He shakes his head and throws the invite in the trash. Later on, Greg exits the theater and sees Tommy waiting for him. Tommy apologizes as best he can, and invites him to the premiere in person. Greg sighs heavily and accepts.

Tommy picks up Greg in a stretch limo, and the two arrive at the premiere in style. Tommy even splurged for searchlights to advertise his film! Greg's surprised to see the entire cast and crew there, including Raphael and Sandy. Tommy takes the stage and welcomes the audience, fumbling through an awkward introduction. The film then begins.

As the movie plays out, the audience experiences a wide range of emotions, including shock, horror, curiosity and ultimately puzzlement. As the film becomes more and more incomprehensible, they begin to snicker. Eventually their giggles turn into fits of outright laughter. 

Horrified, Tommy flees the theater. Greg follows him into the lobby, where he sees him banging his head against a pillar. Tommy's understandably upset that the audience is ridiculing his opus. Greg says it may not be the reaction he wanted, but the audience is obviously loving the film. Amazingly Tommy accepts this, and as The Room ends, he takes the stage and says he's glad everyone enjoyed his "comedic" movie. 

Title cards then explain that in its initial release, The Room grossed just $1,800 dollars against its $6 million budget (which was all financed by Tommy). Incredibly, he paid to keep it in theaters for two weeks so it would qualify for an Oscar. Since then it's become a profitable cult film, earning back its cost and more. 

Tommy and Greg remain friends, and still speak every day. Tommy's age, origin and source of income are still a mystery. 

There's also a post credit scene in which the real Tommy Wiseau cameos as a waiter who badgers movie Tommy.

• My least favorite part of The Disaster Artist is the very beginning. For some reason, the movie starts with shots of various celebrities like Kristen Bell, Ike Barinholtz, Kevin Smith, Keegan-Michael Key, Adam Scott, Danny McBride, Lizzy Caplan and JJ Abrams waxing fondly about The Room.

These scenes seem pointless, and I have no idea why these people are trying so hard to sell the audience on The Room. I'm aware of the film, guys! That's why I'm in the theater watching a movie about the making of it. I don't care how much James Franco's celebrity friends love The Room, and this film would have been even better without these scenes.

Supposedly early test audiences were apparently unfamiliar with Tommy Wiseau and The Room, and refused to believe The Disaster Artist was based on a true story. Maybe these talking heads were inserted afterwards to assure audiences that The Room is an actual film, and the story we're about to see is true (more or less)?

• As a general rule I'm not a fan of biopics, as they're usually highly inaccurate and filled with fabrications to make the story more cinematic. The popcorn-munching general public doesn't know that of course, and takes these often misleading films as pure fact. (I'm lookin' at you, Hidden Figures). 

Amazingly, The Disaster Artist is one of the more accurate biopics I've seen. It's difficult to believe, but virtually everything in the film actually happened!

— Greg and Tommy really did meet in acting class and ran lines together in a restaurant. 

— The two really formed an unlikely friendship. They were both obsessed with James Dean and really did visit his death site.

— Tommy offered to let Greg stay at his LA apartment. Although in real life Tommy didn't move to LA until a few months after Greg did. And Tommy charged him a much-reduced rent.

— Greg's mother really did think Tommy was a sexual predator who was after her son. In real life though, Greg's mother was French and spoke with an accent.

— Tommy really did decide to make his own movie after no one would cast him in anything.

— Amazingly, Tommy really did buy all the expensive film equipment for The Room, rather than just renting it. Plus he really did shoot on film AND digital at the same time, for some inexplicable reason. This necessitated the invention of a special rig that could hold both cameras at the same time.

— Tommy really was proud of his lumpy physique, and insisted on playing his numerous love scenes nude. He also had an obsession with perfect bodies, and really was put off by Juliette Danielle's "disgusting" pimples and moles (which in reality were barely visible blemishes that everyone has).

— Tommy really did arrive late to set every day of filming of The Room. He'd often be up to four hours late, which greatly angered the cast and crew, who were always on time. After a while they began arriving late as well, knowing it was a wast of time to be there bright and early. Tommy also insisted that the entire cast be on set every day, even if they weren't in any scenes!

— Tommy really had sets constructed for scenes that could have easily been filmed in actual locations, because he thought that's how "Big American Movies" were made. And he really constructed his own private toilet in the middle of the set, even though the studio had a perfectly adequate and clean restroom facility several feet away.

— Sandy Schklair really did take his paycheck from Tommy to the bank, convinced it would bounce, and was honestly gobsmacked when it cleared. And the teller really did tell him in confidence that Tommy's account was like "a bottomless pit."

— Tommy really did become paranoid and evasive whenever anyone asked him details about himself, and would fly into a rage if any personal info was divulged.

— Tommy really did have terrible trouble remembering his lines during the making of The Room. Lines that he himself wrote. 

It actually took him thirty two takes to get his infamous and iconic "I did not hit her! It's not true! It's bullsh*t! I did not hit her! I did nahhht! Oh, hi, Mark!" line right (the film exaggerates this a bit though, claiming it took sixty eight takes).

— In the film, Mark tells Johnny about a cheating girl whose boyfriend beat her so badly she ended up in the hospital. Tommy really did punctuate this tale by laughing and saying, "Ha ha! What a story, Mark!" Even when Sandy Schklair pointed out that this was a totally inappropriate reaction to the serious story, Tommy kept on performing like Mark had told a joke.

— Tommy really did wear two belts, one of which was usually slung under his butt. He claimed he wore it like that because it made his butt look "amazing."

• Ninety nine percent of the elements in the movie are from the book. However, not everything in the book is in the film. The Disaster Artist actually leaves out a few of the more outlandish elements of the story— probably because the audience would never believe them. A few examples:

— For example, Greg was hired as a line producer on The Room, and was never meant to star in it. An actor named Dan (who Tommy constantly referred to as "Don") was hired to play the part of Mark. The night before shooting began, Tommy decided Greg would be a much better Mark, and offered him the part. Greg declined, since they'd already hired Dan/Don, and it wouldn't be fair to fire him. Tommy then made Greg a monetary offer he literally couldn't refuse, and he accepted.

Instead of just firing Dan/Don, Tommy came up with a cunning plan. He explained to the cast and crew that "The Producers" wanted to see some audition footage of Greg, so he was going to film him doing "a few" of Mark's scenes. Amazingly, the cast and crew including Dan/Don bought this.

So Tommy would film Greg performing as Mark. When that was done, he'd then shoot Dan/Don as Mark, but secretly didn't turn on the cameras! So there was never any actual footage of Dan/Don filmed!

Incredibly, it took Dan/Don a week to figure out what was going on, before he confronted Tommy and was fired!

— Tommy wanted his Johnny character to have a flying car (!). And to possibly be a vampire, which would have been revealed as a big plot twist (!!).

— Tommy has a bizarre hatred of farting. During the filming of The Room, he flipped out when a crewmember farted, calling him out in front of the entire cast.

He also refuses to let any valets park his car, terrified that they might fart on his seat (?). 

— In the film, Tommy tells Greg about the time he was in a near fatal car accident caused by a drunk driver, which resulted in him spending several weeks in the hospital.

This is true, but there was another earlier accident involving Tommy, his friend and two women. The friend was driving and wanted to impress the gals, so he started speeding along a curvy road. He lost control of the car, which flipped over and landed in a lake.

The car filled with water and began sinking, as the girls screamed their heads off. Tommy couldn't get the door open, and legitimately thought they were all going to die. He finally wrenched open the door and they all swam to shore.

These incidents probably explain why to this day Tommy constantly drives twenty or thirty miles UNDER the speed limit at all times even on the California freeways!

• If I had one complaint about The Disaster Artist, it's that the film doesn't really delve into the friendship between Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau.

In the aforementioned film Ed Wood, the focus is less on the making of Plan 9 From Outer Space and more about the relationship between Wood and Bela Lugosi. The Disaster Artist flips this, concentrating more on the behind the scenes trials of making the film.

As a result, we never really find out why Greg became friends with Tommy. It's not hard to figure out Tommy's side of the relationship— he was a lonely, damaged weirdo without any friends, so when he finally made one in Greg, he hung on like grim death.

But why is Greg friends with Tommy? What does he get out of their relationship? He seemed constantly embarrassed by Tommy's antics and frustrated with his lack of talent. It's almost like he thinks of Tommy as a giant albatross around his neck. So why does he stick around? Is it genuine affection, or does he have some sort of misguided sense of obligation because of their "pinky swear?"

If the film could have devoted a bit more time into the reasons behind their friendship, it would have been nearly perfect.

• There's a definite homoerotic undercurrent in the film, particularly in the fact that Tommy constantly refers to Greg as "Babyface." Not to mention the fact that once Greg begins seeing Amber, Tommy becomes petulant and insanely jealous. I could definitely see certain audience members thinking that Tommy's physically attracted to Greg. 

I honestly don't think that was the case though. Tommy definitely had a man-crush on Greg, that much is obvious. But I 
think Tommy was actually envious of Greg, who was young, handsome and more talented (relatively speaking). Everything that Tommy was not

I saw it more as Tommy trying to live vicariously through Greg, rather than being in love with him. Or a damaged and wounded soul finally finding a friend after a long time, and not wanting to share him with anyone.

• Amazingly, Tommy supposedly worked on the script for The Room for a whopping THREE YEARS! This isn't evident in the film, as he writes the screenplay in a matter of seconds through the power of a montage.

Wow, just think about that. Three years and it still came out the way it did!

• In real life, Tommy rented a billboard on Highland Avenue in LA to tout The Room. Amazingly he kept the billboard up for five years straight, for a reported $5,000 a month! I'm not too good at math, but by my calculations, that works out to $300,000!

The movie recreated the billboard, with slightly altered text and a picture of James Franco as Tommy.

Then in a final twist, Franco rented the exact same billboard and used it to promote The Disaster Artist, complete with an ad that mimicked the original The Room layout! Cool!

• I was very surprised when I realized that Johnny's infamous, overwrought cry of "You're tearing me apart, Lisa!" in The Room was inspired by James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause. Such is the power of Tommy's acting, I guess.

And just to prove art imitates life or something like that, James Franco actually played James Dean in a 2001 TV movie!

• According to Greg Sestero, Tommy Wiseau said there were only two people who could play him in The Disaster Artist— James Franco or Johnny Depp. Let's all take a moment of silence to thank the Movie Gods that Depp wasn't cast.

• Keeping It In The Family: In the film Alison Brie plays Amber, Greg Sestero's girlfriend. Brie is the real life wife of Dave Franco, who plays Greg in the film!

This is also the first time the Franco brothers have worked together in the same film.

• Although Tommy Wiseau now really does insist that he intentionally made The Room as a comedy, I have a feeling this attitudinal change didn't happen instantly, as shown in the film. It was a face-saving move he adopted long after The Room gained a cult following as one of the worst movies ever made.

• The film ends with a title card stating, "To this day no one knows... Where Tommy is from. Or where he made his money. Or how old he is."

Ehhh... that's a nice little coda, but it's not true. By all accounts he was born in Poznan, Poland. As for his fortune, he bought up several retail properties in San Francisco and LA for cheap and began renting them out, providing him with an endless source of cash. Whether this was a shrewd financial investment on his part or an accidentally brilliant move is unclear. Lastly, he was born 
in 1955, which would have made him forty eight at the time The Room was filmed. 

• According to James Franco, he recreated about twenty five minutes of The Room for The Disaster Artist. These scenes are nearly identical, right down to the camera angles and line delivery. Many of these recreations were used in the big premiere scene in the third act.

We get to see several of these scenes side-by-side the real thing during the end credits. It's kind of fun to see how much work went into staging and filming these recreations of The Room's most iconic scenes.

The Disaster Artist is a fun and enjoyable film about friendship, failure and success, and one of the best times I've had at the cineplex in many months. It's similar to Ed Wood, and despite its bizarre subject, is one of the most accurate biopics I've ever seen. If I had one gripe, it's that the film concentrates too much on the making of The Room and not enough on the relationship between Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau. Other than that, it's darned near perfect. I give it an enthusiastic B+.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Straw

Many of you have probably been wondering if I've Star Wars: The Last Jedi yet, and if so, when the hell am I going to get around to reviewing it?

Yeah, I've seen it. In fact I went the day it opened, way back on December 15th. I wasn't in any particular hurry to see it, but the internet had become a spoiler-filled minefield that week, so I went before I accidentally read an important plot point online.

As to when I'm gonna review it... Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

I dunno. I'm honestly having trouble summoning up the energy to write about the thing. Sadly, I'm finding I just don't care about Star Wars anymore. Well, scratch that. I still love the Original Trilogy, warts and all. Those films are among my all-time favorites, and I doubt that'll ever change.

I hated the lackluster Prequels though, and I think they're responsible for killing my love for Star Wars, and the reason for my current ennui regarding the franchise.

Sadly, this New Trilogy isn't doing much for me either. Sure, they look amazing, but there's something hollow and unsatisfying about them that I just can't explain. My feelings for them can best be summed up by this actual screenshot of Han Solo from the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special

So I may get around to reviewing The Last Jedi, or I may not. There's so many other better films out there to talk about. Time will tell.

In the meantime, please enjoy these horrifying shots from The Last Jedi's most infamous scene. You know, the one in which the elderly Luke Skywalker (for no reason) graphically milks the disturbingly realistic and pendulous teats of an enormous, seven foot tall space walrus and then drinks its blue (or was it green?) milk.

It was one of the most appalling and off-putting things I've seen in a film in a long time. And I sat through The Human Centipede! 

It Came From The Cineplex: Murder On The Orient Express

As regular readers of my blog may have noticed, I am woefully behind on my movie reviews this year. That's why I've decided to do some short mini-reviews of films I have nothing of note to discuss, in a valiant effort to catch up. How's that for a sentence!

Murder On The Orient Express was written by Michael Green and directed by Kenneth Branagh (who also stars as super detective Hercule Poirot).

Green is a very uneven screenwriter, who previously penned Green Lantern (yikes!), Logan (great), Alien: Covenant (meh) and Blade Runner 2049 (very good).

Brannagh is a modern day Renaissance Man who's a talented writer, producer, actor and director. He's got a pretty eclectic directorial resume, as he previously helmed Henry V, Dead Again, Peter's Friends, Much Ado About Nothing, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, A Midwinter's Tale, Hamlet, Love's Labour's Lost, As You Like It, The Magic Flute, Sleuth, Thor (!), Macbeth, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and the live action Cinderella (!!).

The film's based on Agatha Christie's beloved mystery novel of the same name. This is the fourth adaptation of Murder On The Orient Express, following the 1974 film, a 2001 TV movie and a 2010 episode of Agatha Christie's Poirot

The casting is the real star here, as the film features over a dozen big name actors, including the aforementioned Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Defoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer and Daisy Ridley.

Unfortunately the majority of these gifted actors are given little or nothing to do, as Branagh's Poirot dominates the screen for most of the run time. That's a real shame, and makes me wonder why Branagh cast so many famous actors in what are basically cameos.

To be fair, Poirot is the star here or course, so it's only natural that he be front and center. It's just too bad Branagh couldn't find a way to use his talented cast more.

The film definitely looks amazing, as it's stuffed with period details and costumes. Sadly the plot stalls around the same time as the train, as it devolves into a series of static interviews with the numerous suspects. Branagh seems to realize this, and tries to spice things up with some added assaults, shootouts and even a chase scene on a railroad trestle, but it doesn't help.

The plot is also needlessly convoluted, and Poirot's exposition and explanation go by so fast you'll find yourself reflexively reaching for the rewind button on your nonexistent remote in the theater, just so you can try and figure out what's happening.

The film is a massive box office success, grossing a whopping $326 million worldwide against its meager $55 million budget. I am absolutely gobsmacked by this, as I didn't think the general public could look up from their phones long enough to watch a slow, deliberately paced mystery like this.

This unexpected success pretty much guarantees we'll see the Poirot sequel Death On The Nile in a couple of years.


The Plot: 

Surely you're familiar with the plot by now, but just in case you've not seen it, here's a brief rundown.

In 1930s Jerusalem, famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot solves a perplexing case. Poirot is an eccentric and fussy man, whose idiosyncrasies border on OCD. Once the case is solved, Poirot takes a boat to Istanbul, where he looks forward to some much needed R & R.

Unfortunately his vacation is interrupted by a telegram from London, where another case demands his immediate attention. He meets with his friend Bouc, who offers him a berth on the Orient Express, which is leaving on a three day trip to France. Unfortunately when Poirot boards the train, he sees all the compartments have been booked, and he's forced to share one for the three day trip.

Once the train's underway, we're introduced to the rogue's gallery of other passengers:

Governess Mary Debenham (played by Daisy Ridley)

Dr. Arbuthnot (played by Leslie Odom Jr.)
Samuel Ratchett, a crooked American art dealer (played by Johnny Depp)
Edward Masterman, Ratchett's valet (played by Derek Jacobi)
Hector MacQueen, Ratchett's secretary (played by Josh Gad)
Gerhard Hardman, an Austrian professor (played by Willem Defoe)
Mrs. Hubbard, an American socialite (played by Michelle Pfeiffer)
Beniamino Marquez, an Italian car salesman (played by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo)
Princess Dragoiroff (played by Judi Dench)
Hildegarde Schmidt, Dragoiroff's assistant (played by Olivia Colman)
Pilar Estravados, a missionary (played by Penelope Cruz)
Count Andrenyi (played by Sergei Polunin)
Countess Andrenyi (played by Lucy Boynton)

Poirot's unhappy to have to share a room with MacQueen. The vile and unpleasant Ratchett approaches Poirot, and tells he's been receiving threatening letters from clients he cheated. He offers the famed detective large amounts of cash to serve as his bodyguard. Poirot politely declines, which enrages Ratchett.

That night Poirot's awakened by odd noises from inside the train. He pokes his head out the door to investigate, and sees a figure in a red kimono running down the hall. Just then an avalanche stops the train in its tracks, leaving everyone stranded in the middle of the frozen mountains.

Everyone gathers in the dining car except for Ratchett. Poirot goes to Ratchett's locked room to investigate, and finds him dead— stabbed twelve times (Hmm... nothin' suspicious about that number!). Bouc begs Poirot to solve the case before the tracks are cleared and the train reaches France. Poirot reluctantly agrees.

Over the course of the film Poirot determines that everyone onboard is supposed to be there, and no one entered or left Ratchett's compartment. He also discovers that Ratchett was actually Lanfranco Cassetti, an infamous criminal who kidnapped and murdered a young girl and got away with it due to a technicality. He interviews each of the passengers, and quickly comes to the conclusion that the whole damned bunch of them are suspects, as they all had a motive for killing Cassetti. 

A rescue team arrives and starts digging the train from the snow. Poirot orders all the passengers to assemble in a nearby tunnel, so he can present his solution to them, in true murder mystery fashion. He says there are only two possibilities. The first is that one of Cassetti's many enemies sneaked onboard the train, killed him and fled. The second is much more outlandish, but fits the facts— EVERYONE killed him (!). He claims they all entered Cassetti's cabin one by one and took turns stabbing him, so none of them would know which actually killed him.

The passengers of course dismiss this idea, but Mrs. Hubbard, whose real name is Linda Arden, admits Poirot's right, and says she's the one who came up with the plan. Poirot says he's the only person who can expose them, and challenges one of the twelve to shoot him. Arden picks up a gun, but uses it to try and shoot herself. She collapses into tears when she sees the gun isn't loaded. 

The train is freed and continues to France. The passengers then ask Poirot what he plans to do, and what will happen to them. After thinking about it, he says the twelve of them have already suffered greatly from Cassetti's crime, and he was an evil man who deserved what happened to him. In order for justice to prevail, he'll have to accept the fact that he's letting twelve people get away with murder.

When the train reaches France, Poirot tells the authorities his first theory— that an enemy of Ratchett boarded the train, killed him and escaped. The police believe the famed detective, and the twelve passengers are free to go.

Poirot's then approached by a messenger, who tells him he's needed in Egypt right away. Apparently there's been "a death on the Nile." Wakka wakka!


• The film begins in Jerusalem, where Poirot accidentally steps in a manure patty while out walking. He looks down, notes what's happened, and then calmly steps into the manure with the other foot, in order to preserve the "balance" in his life. 

It's a funny scene, and it's meant to demonstrate just what a perfectionist Poirot is. But it inadvertently makes him look insane, rather than like a control freak.

• Kenneth Branagh is the fifteenth actor to play Hercule Poirot onscreen.

Albert Finney's portrayal of Poirot in the 1974 version of Murder On The Orient Express is probably the most iconic and well known version of the character. Supposedly some Agatha Christie fans aren't happy with Branagh's version of the detective, claiming his trademark mustache is all wrong.

I can see their point. Finney's fussy little Dali-esque mustache fits the character perfectly. Branagh's sprawling and preposterous facial hair makes him look more like Wild Bill Hickok than the world's most famous Belgian detective. 

In the end it shouldn't matter though, as Poirot's facial hair has varied wildly over the years. In fact at least one actor played the character without any mustache at all! Sacrilege!

• Angelina Jolie was originally cast as Mrs. Hubbard, but was dismissed by fox after she demanded significant script changes to beef up her part. Charlize Theron was also considered, before the role ultimately went to Michelle Pfeiffer.

• All films are products of their time, and this one's no exception. Because this version of Murder On The Orient Express was made here in socially conscious 2017, it's REQUIRED to have an ethnically diverse cast. Even though it's a period piece and such a thing makes no sense.

Case in point, black actor Leslie Odom Jr. plays Dr. Arbuthnot in the film. His character is secretly dating Mary Debenham, who's played by the incredibly white Daisy Ridley.

Their relationship took me completely out of the movie, because it was so unlikely for the time. Even in Europe, where the film takes place. The public wouldn't bat an eye at a couple like this in 2017, but the film takes place in 1934. Back then an interracial relationship would have caused a HUGE scandal. Debenham would have been ostracized from society while Arbuthnot would have likely been lynched. It's an ugly truth, but a truth nonetheless.

Despite how it sounds, I have nothing against diversity— when it's appropriate. Ignoring historical accuracy in the name of diversity is just plain wrong. There was a big stink about this recently in 2017's Dunkirk, as many SJWs criticized the film for its lack of "soldiers of color." Yeah, that's because there were none in the Battle Of Dunkirk! The movie didn't deliberately snub any minorities, it just accurately depicted actual events!

By the way, as you might imagine, there's no interracial relationship in the novel, and in the 1974 film Arbuthnot and Debenham are played by Sean Connery and Vanessa Redgrave!

• The novel was inspired by an actual incident in 1929, in which the real-life Orient Express was trapped in a blizzard in Turkey, where it was stranded for six days (!). Two years later Agatha Christie herself was traveling on the Orient Express, when it was stopped for some time due to flooding which washed away part of the track.

• The kidnapping part of the plot was loosely based on the famous Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932. In the case, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh's infant son was abducted from his home in Highfields, New Jersey. The boy's body was discovered nearby a couple of months later.

• There's a pretty cool visual effect in the film, as in many scenes, Brannagh shoots his characters through the leaded glass windows of the train's interior. This results in their faces refracting into multiple images, so it literally looks like they have two (and sometimes even three) faces when they're lying.

• Since Murder On The Orient Express is arguably the most famous whodunnit of all time, I assumed everyone was familiar with the big twist ending by now. Apparently not! During my screening, when Poirot announces the identity of the murderers, a woman in my aisle gasped and said, "WOW!"

• At the end of the movie, a messenger approaches Poirot and says there's been a death on the Nile. This is a not very subtle nod to one of Poirot's other adventures, not surprisingly called Death On The Nile.

There are forty Poirot novels in the series. Murder On The Orient Express is the tenth, while Death On The Nile is the seventeenth.

Murder On The Orient Express is an unnecessary remake that starts out promisingly, but stalls halfway through— much like the titular vehicle. Director/star Kenneth Branagh stuffs his film with world class actors, but sadly gives them little or nothing to do. He also attempts to update the period tale with modern sensibilities, which fails spectacularly. You'll need to devote your full attention to the convoluted plot, but you'll likely still be lost toward the end. But hey, at least it looks good! I give it a B-.

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