Wednesday, February 28, 2018

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS: 4K Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox, 2017) Fox Home Video

Kenneth Branagh’s retread of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (2017) is funereal and not altogether a successful affair. Okay, we will try to forgive Branagh his transformation of Christie’s beloved – though hardly ‘lovable’ – Belgian super sleuth, Hercules Poirot into a rather austere fusspot suffering from bouts of manic/depressive clairvoyance. With his absurdly overgrown handlebar moustache, Branagh, appears far more the clumsy knock-off of Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp in 1993’s Tombstone than the embodiment of Christie’s fastidious crime solver, still better represented by Albert Finney in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 movie adaptation of this ensconced and time-honored Christie literary classic, and, best of all, via David Suchet’s monumental shouldering of the role in ITV’s long-running/Brit-born television series – Poirot (1989-2013).
It becomes more of a challenge to digest Branagh’s departures from Christie’s carefully concocted ‘puzzle’ drama. Evidently, Branagh believed the creakiness of the old ‘locked room’ mystery template needed ‘opening up’ and a dash of Hollywood’s PC-friendly liberalism to fire its creative pistons.  So, we get a dramatically staged foot chase across a windswept trestle, a gunfight in a cargo hold, a dramatic avalanche tumbling from a stormy mountaintop, and, Broadway’s ‘Hamilton’ alumni, Leslie Odom Jr. grotesquely miscast as Dr. Arbuthnot. In Christie’s novel, Arbuthnot is a Caucasian snooty Englishman, formerly of her Majesty’s Guard and deserving only of the rank of Colonel while valiantly serving the Empire with his regiment in India. But no, this re-incarnation of Arbuthnot is black and bellicose.  I am still trying to unravel the wisdom in this; also, in rewriting the character of Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) as a ‘fight club’ hot head kickboxer whose one big scene is a bar room brawl where he hastily dispatches the paparazzi with his Jackie Chan-styled moves, before being subdued by slinky paramour, Countess Helena (Lucy Boynton).  
Having jettisoned Christie’s prologue, describing the abduction of Daisy Armstrong (Christie’s homage to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and untimely murder), actually the crux for all that will follow, Branagh instead concentrates the beginning of his movie on another episode excised from Christie’s novel, only briefly mentioned therein, but herein, elevated into an almost James Bond mini-adventure set against the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, circa 1934. Screenwriter, Michael Green’s contrivances inveigle Poirot in the theft of a Holy relic from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – Branagh using the occasion to evoke a ‘bad joke’ about a Priest (David Annen), a Rabbi (Elliot Levey) and an Imam (Joseph Long) – each wrongfully suspected of the crime; the episode apparently meant as a preamble to whet the audiences’ appetite for Poirot’s superior intellect and methodical deconstruction of an unrelated crime to have otherwise baffled everyone else.  Christie’s novel began with Poirot boarding the Taurus Express for Istanbul (nee, Stamboul at the time Christie wrote her novel) while Lumet’s 1974 film created a tabloid-esque preamble, depicting Daisy’s untimely disappearance before picking up the story on a ferry crossing to the European side of the city, and, where Poirot observes Arbuthnot (then, played by Sean Connery) with his paramour, Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave).  
It is rather pointless to go on with comparisons between Christie’s literary triumph and the various big and small screen adaptations to have endeavored invariably to do it justice.  Suffice it to say, Branagh’s latest stab plays with only marginal flashes of fidelity to its source material. Taking a tip from the ’74 Lumet classic (still MIA in region 1 on Blu-ray…what a sham!) Branagh has jam-packed his roster of ‘usual suspects’ with some marquee-grabbing talent; albeit, none capable enough to eclipse the memory of their predecessors; especially when Green’s screenplay makes short-shrift of each of their more detailed contributions fleshed out in Christie’s novel, cut down in Lumet’s version to satisfy time constraints, but herein remade as mere cardboard cutouts to satisfy Branagh’s verve for making Poirot the self-indulgent focus of the piece instead of the case. 
So, Arbuthnot gets heavily rewritten to satisfy Hollywood’s need for ‘the token minority’ in a story that does not warrant such an inclusion. Necessary aside: it is neither racist nor ethnocentric to point out that some stories were conceived from a period when racial diversity was not considered a part of the collective heritage. Accepting such tales at their face value as cultural artifacts from a ‘perhaps’ less enlightened period in human evolution is the way to go here. Amending the record is to bastardize the period, taint the chronicle with an untruth, but also to deny history itself under a misguided pretense the past either did not exist or to promote it now as radically different.  Badly done and enough said. Redgrave’s Mary also gets a rewrite (ineffectually played by Daisy Ridley herein, teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and, pity the doe-eyed and fragile little flower – yuck!). Josh Gad gives Hector McQueen a spin (a role originally played with more frenetic finesse by Anthony ‘Psycho’ Perkins); Michelle Pfeiffer (Caroline Hubbard, contractedly cruelty, compared to Lauren Bacall’s gum-chewing and talkative prig in ’74); Judi Dench (Princess Dragomiroff, beady-eyed but less frosty than the caustic rum pot played by Wendy Hiller), and, Johnny Depp (Samuel Ratchett, envisioned with less crass pomposity, though far greater menace by Richard Widmark).  
Branagh elects to increasingly interrupt his main story with inserted B&W flashbacks depicting the Armstrong abduction and its tragic fallout. Director Sidney Lumet’s more succinct summation of these same events at the beginning of his version does this far more effectively however, and all at once; allowing the audience to wholeheartedly invest in a more linear timeline thereafter, as well as the crime of murder, and, Poirot’s fastidious deconstruction of the facts as they unfold. Even if we set aside these alterations to Branagh’s artistic license, the one inexcusable oversight is his shifted emphasis away from the crime, incidental to Poirot – the man; his obsessive/compulsive tendencies (Poirot’s hard-boiled eggs must be perfectly sized, his instruction to any gentleman is to straighten an offset tie, etc. et al) and Poirot’s briefest reflections on a previous romantic dalliance with a woman known only to us as ‘Katherine’; superficially referenced by Poirot, carrying her pocket-sized head shot in a decorative silver frame, shattered during the train’s derailment. These episodic glimpses into Hercules Poirot neither ingratiate us to his idiosyncratic behaviors nor draw us deeper into the central narrative. Furthermore, Agatha Christie remained rather circumspect throughout Poirot’s entire literary reign, divulging as little as possible about his past and/or personal character, beyond the obvious super-intelligence burrowing within all those ‘little grey cells’. So, why bother? Christie’s Poirot remained an enigma. This was, in fact, part – if not all of his ‘charm’.
For all its flaws, this version of Murder on the Orient Express remains a rather stylish affair, Branagh showing off Jim Clay’s cut glass and mahogany production design in the train’s interiors, contrasted with dramatic CGI depictions of the bleak winter landscape just beyond its frosty windows, all of it lensed by Director of Photography, Haris Zambarloukos, and, set to Patrick Doyle’s occasionally intrusive – though largely effective – musical underscore. We get some histrionic and un-selective crane shots of the train pulling out of station, racing through the cluttered streets of Istanbul (an almost James Cameron Titanic-inspired departure with cheering crowds gathered on all sides), followed by as comparatively breathtaking vistas of the Alps as our ill-fated sleeper winds its way between some steep and snowy inclines, heading higher and higher into the mountains. It all looks quite good, in a Polar Express sort of way – yes. The point is, or rather ought to have been, it’s all rather pointless: filler shots to distract and take the audience out of these otherwise claustrophobic surroundings. Anyone who has traveled by train for more than a day can attest to the uncanny ‘cabin feverish’ quality of the experience. Herein, however, it gets repeatedly – and needlessly – diluted.
Ditto for Branagh’s brief digressions into ‘action’ set pieces – the avalanche, the gun and fist fight between Poirot and Arbuthnot, his trestle chase after the oafish McQueen, etc. Branagh is, in fact, at his best and most at home with Poirot’s two penultimate bits of soliloquizing. These effectively reveal far more about the character’s world-weariness with humanity and, not surprisingly given Branagh’s theatrical background, take on an almost Shakespearean tone. We know Branagh is a great actor. This is a given. His sad-eyed summations are the stuff of riveting theater. He can – and does – completely hold an audience spellbound without any further manipulations. But Agatha Christie was such a clever authoress. She knew where to draw the line and end an already ‘good’ scene. By contrast, Branagh’s actor’s instinct here is to gild the lily with even more great words orated into the ether. He almost seems to be wary Christie’s reputation can still stand on its own merit in an age where the definition of entertainment itself has morphed into the sort of ‘in your face’ assault on the senses. This, I suspect, Christie would have found appalling; Branagh, pandering to today’s impatient popcorn munchers, eager only for either a good car chase or sex scene to juice things up. As neither is likely forthcoming in a movie set aboard a train and decidedly about seemingly disparate strangers sleeping in separate compartments, Branagh’s decision to ‘liven’ the show with some rather obnoxious ‘hurly-burly’ moments, further attenuates the picture’s whodunit nucleus. We get fitful vignettes inserted into an otherwise old-fashioned goulash that never build, much less bottle a distinguished head of steam.
This Murder on the Orient Express begins with the aforementioned ‘bad joke’ caper at the Wailing Wall. Having exposed the real culprit responsible for the theft of a priceless religious artifact, Branagh’s compulsive crime solver next boards a ferry for Istanbul; encountering former governess, Mary Debenham and Dr. Arbuthnot, each pretending to keep their love affair a secret. We segue to the Hotel Tokatlian; witness Count Andrenyi’s quick-tempered dispatch of the paparazzi, the arrival of the spurious Edward Ratchett with his entourage; errand boy/number cruncher, McQueen and personal valet, Edward Henry Masterman (Derek Jacobi – a Branagh favorite in a part originally played by Sir John Gielgud in the 1974 movie). In the hotel’s kitchen, Branagh’s Poirot is reunited with M. Bouc (Tom Bateman, rewritten in ‘74 as Signor Bianchi and played by Martin Balsam). Bouc is an old friend and the Director of the line. He arranges for Poirot’s passage on the Orient Express after his vacation plans are cut short by an urgent telegram from London.
The slightly disheveled Bouc, emerging from a backroom, is toting a young woman (Kathryn Wilder) whom Poirot wisely reasons to be a prostitute. She openly admits it too in a scene rather adorably played out strictly for laughs. Alas, it seems all available first-class births are accounted for on the train, leaving Bouc to pull rank and demand the porter, Pierre Michel (Marwan Kenzari) make temporary accommodations for Poirot to bunk with Mr. McQueen. At the station, we also meet the rest of our suspects, including feisty missionary, Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz, in a part originally scripted as Greta Ohlsson and played with Oscar-winning perfection by Ingrid Bergman in the ’74 movie). Unlike Bergman’s backward religious frump, Cruz’s hot-blooded Pilar is not above beating off a potential pickpocket at the depot. And so, our journey begins; Michael Green’s screenplay wasting little time in allowing each of the principals one or two lines, presumably to establish their characters for the audience. The Princess Dragomiroff instructs her lady-in-waiting, Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman) on what to order for dinner, as example. On board, we barely glimpse Willem Dafoe, masquerading as racist German prof, Gerhard Hardman (a role with no counterpoint in Christie’s novel or the ’74 version). He refuses to sit with Arbuthnot because he is black. We also find Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as Biniamino Marquez (a part so inconsequential it barely bears mentioning). After Ratchett’s murder has been committed, Green’s screenplay makes its flimsiest stab at political correctness yet; Bouc insisting Poirot take the case, despite his reservations, for the local constabulary will surely convict either Marquez or Arbuthnot based solely on racial profiling.
Next, we are introduced to boorish ‘businessman’ Edward Ratchett – an art dealer (Johnny Depp, channeling his inner Al Capone). Ratchett offers Poirot a position as his personal bodyguard during their three-day journey. Earlier, Ratchett received a death threat, confronting Masterman as to its origins, but to no avail. Independently wealthy, Poirot refuses the offer and calls out Ratchett for being a man of spurious means and talents. Sometime later, as Poirot prepares for slumber he hears strange noises coming from Ratchett’s compartment. Peeking into the hallway, Poirot is assured by Michel there is no need for concern. But only a few moments thereafter, another noise in the passageway causes Poirot to open his door yet again, this time, witnessing the back of a woman in a red kimono darting down the crewman’s passage. At this juncture, Branagh cuts to some high angle exteriors (all CGI) of an electrical storm triggering an avalanche. The rush of cascading snow derails the engine, leaving the passengers stranded in the middle of nowhere on a precarious trestle.
The next morning, Masterman is unable to stir his employer. Suspecting foul play, Poirot breaks the lock on Ratchett’s compartment with his silver-tipped cane and discovers him maliciously stabbed multiple times in the chest while he lay in bed. The positioning of the wounds confounds Poirot, more so when Arbuthnot confirms each appears to have been inflicted by either a right or left-handed assailant. At this point, Caroline Hubbard admits to ‘a man’ in her compartment the night before; Poirot remembering the previous day Hubbard and Ratchett had flirted. As Bouc assures his passengers nothing can be done until the rescue party from Brod arrives to dig them out, Poirot next unearths a partially burnt note that ties Ratchett to the kidnapping of Daisy Armstrong. Ratchett is, in fact, John Cassetti, the abductor/murderer of Colonel John (Phil Dunster) and Sonia Armstrong’s (Miranda Raison) baby girl, blackmailing the couple for ransom. Not long thereafter, Daisy’s body is discovered strangled in a field. As a result, Sonia gave birth to a stillborn before dying from grief on the operating table. John committed suicide and the family’s devoted nursemaid, Susanne (Hayat Kamille) was wrongfully accused of the crime, hanging herself while in police custody. 
Poirot unearths more evidence; a bloodstained handkerchief lying near Ratchett’s body and a button from a conductor’s uniform in Mrs. Hubbard’s compartment. Helena insists she saw another conductor – other than Michel – in the crewman’s passage the night before. As Poirot knows there is no ‘other’ conductor aboard the train, he now reasons a more sinister deception is underway. Conducting a search of all the compartments, Poirot finds both the uniform with the missing button and the red kimono neatly tucked into his own belongings. The killer is mocking him. Now, Poirot really puts on his thinking cap. He deduces many of the passengers aboard the Orient Express have direct ties to the Armstrong family. Before he can begin to piece together the events, Mrs. Hubbard is stabbed in the back – the wound, superficial.  Poirot elects to interview each suspect. Deflecting his plans, Mr. McQueen makes a clumsy break for the trestle, slipping from its rickety wooden platform and tumbling to the ground far below, mercifully – unharmed. Brought back aboard, McQueen sheepishly admits he managed his employer’s books as part of Ratchett’s scene to defraud his buyers: selling worthless goods at a premium to fatten his coffers. Alas, while interrogating Mary in the luggage hold, Poirot is shot by Arbuthnot in the shoulder. Arbuthnot makes the most erroneous claim: that Poirot is the murderer. But he is prevented, presumably from finishing the job, by Bouc. Now, Poirot takes stock. Arbuthnot, a former army sniper, would surely not have missed. He never really meant to kill Poirot. 
Poirot gathers everyone in the nearby tunnel as the Brod rescue crew arrives to free the derailed locomotive. He offers the curious gathering two alternate theories of the crime. The first is straight-forward: someone, disguised as a conductor, secretly boarded the train and murdered Ratchett as he slept before escaping into the night after the derailment. Alas, this scenario is a little too neat and tidy for Poirot. His second hypothesis is far more complex. Virtually everyone aboard had cause to murder Ratchett. Mrs. Hubbard is exposed as Linda Arden – a former stage actress who is, in fact, the late Sonia’s mother; the Princess Dragomiroff, little Daisy’s godmother; Arbuthnot, Colonel Armstrong’s wingman during his years of army service. Hardman (whose real name is Cyrus Bethman) is an ex-P.I. and Suzanne’s lover, powerless to prevent her wrongful conviction, though instrumental in her later exoneration – too late to stop her from suicide. Linda confesses. She planned the revenge killing and hired the others to partake in the execution; each, stabbing Ratchett with the same dagger to avenge the original crime. Pierre stabbed Ratchett because the wrongfully accused Susanne was his sister. Arbuthnot deliberately wounded Mrs. Hubbard to convince Poirot of his ‘lone killer’ theory.
Placing Ratchett’s revolver before the group, Poirot insists he must turn them in once they arrive at their destination, suggesting their only escape now is for one among them to shoot him dead. Bouc, after all, can – and will – lie. But not Poirot. His entire life has been slavishly devoted to order and justice. Mrs. Hubbard seizes the gun. But she aims its barrel at her own head and pulls the trigger. Having anticipated as much, Poirot has emptied the bullets beforehand. The trigger snaps back, leaving Caroline reduced to tears. With the train back on track, Poirot pointedly concludes justice has already been served. For his unspeakable act, Ratchett deserved death. Poirot will have to live with a lie, solemnly declaring “There are no killers here.” Disembarking at Brod, Poirot informs the Yugoslavian police of his ‘lone assassin’ theory, suggesting the suspect escaped on foot into the mountains. The Orient Express departs, Poirot observing the blank faces of the others staring back at him from the windows, their futures quite uncertain. If justice has been served, the victory is moot and unfulfilling. For little Daisy Armstrong’s murder continues to haunt these wounded souls.  Suddenly, Poirot is approached by a British military officer (Tom Hanson), whose instructions are to accompany him immediately to Egypt. There has been a death on the Nile…hint, hint, and sequel in the works.
Murder on the Orient Express is a timeless literary masterpiece, five-times removed from its source material with Branagh’s latest adaptation. Personally, I prefer the 1974 version for its blindingly all-star characterizations and its overall fidelity to Agatha Christie’s novel. Sean Connery vs. Leslie Oden Jr. Vanessa Redgrave vs. Daisy Ridley. Michelle Pfeiffer vs. Lauren Bacall. Anthony Perkins vs. Josh Gad. Ingrid Berman vs. Penelope Cruz. You get the picture. The former contained a roster of iconic legends appearing in memorable cameos. This latest incarnation merely stuffs the Christie’s candy box with serviceable actors on the downswing. The one exception to this rule is, of course, Kenneth Branagh. Though he presents us with a Hercules Poirot unlike any to endear us to Christie’s, and light years removed from Albert Finney’s superb evocation in Sidney Lumet’s movie, it is nevertheless Branagh’s chops as an actor that salvage this Poirot from an otherwise largely mediocre movie. Soliloquizing Poirot as a man of anguished confidences and vexed dark spots, kept mostly hidden under his Teflon-coated persona as a peerless crusader for the truth, Branagh gently peels back several layers of rawer human emotion (a quality Christie’s Poirot lacks). And Branagh, as both star and director, evolves Christie’s story into a far more fascinating character study of the man behind the crime-solving; perhaps, even more efficiently than Christie herself ever managed in all of Hercules’ 66 novelized adventures. 
Murder on the Orient Express was originally slated to go into production in 2013. For one reason or another, delays occurred until June, 2015 when it was formally announced Kenneth Branagh had agreed to partake both in front of and behind the camera. Branagh’s shift from a dandified Poirot to a man obsessed with order is not seismic, but it bodes well for yet another interpretation on this time-honored character we only thought we knew. Indeed, and apart from this role, Branagh has emerged as one of the latter-day 20th century’s consummate pros; legendary for his cinematic Shakespearean outings (his best, likely Hamlet, 1996 – an extraordinary experience). Branagh is also famous for his stormy marriage to actress, Emma Thompson (who left him for Greg Wise, her costar in Sense & Sensibility). Yet, perhaps Branagh’s greatest gift to the movies has been his ability to understand the language of cinema from both ends of the house; his prowess as an actor effortlessly married to a mastery of his camera eye, once seated in the director’s chair. Though not the first to assume these dual responsibilities, Branagh is nevertheless one of the premiere advocates living and working in movies today whose films, though arguably unevenly ranked, continue to unearth something genuinely fascinating about the creative talent behind them.
Fox Home Video’s 4K debut of Murder on the Orient Express is truly a cause for celebration. This combo pack comes with a Blu-ray version. And while the Blu-ray offers stunning image quality, and several choice extras to be discussed herein in just a moment, the real revelation here is the 4K edition, yielding unparalleled crystal clarity to the nth degree. As stated earlier, Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography – shot on 65mm film – achieves a mostly somber mood, thanks to its subdued color palette and low lighting conditions. On the 1080p Blu-ray these virtues are nicely resolved in a way that, while pleasing, absolutely pale to the 4K edition’s ability to resolve minute textures and ever-so-slight tonal variations in deep and enveloping greys, browns and blacks. As Zambarloukos’ has used a rather muted palette, the exposure of such subtleties becomes even more obvious and impressive in 4K. Flesh tones appear quite natural regardless of the version.  
The 4K release also bests the Blu-ray with a Dolby Atmos 7.1 multi-dimensional soundtrack. I have read too many articles criticizing Atmos as just another home video fad and/or ‘gimmick’ (a la 3D), and destined, quite soon, to cool in its popularity to the point of obsolescence. Perhaps. Only time will tell. For certain, there are, as yet, not enough of us out there who have retooled our home set-ups to take full advantage of its perks. For this, I turned to a close friend and early adopter whose system is ‘state of the art’ (at present), and afterward, immediately went home to re-watch the movie again on my more modest 5.1. What a difference; the ambient acoustic touches of grinding pistons, howling wind and echoing ambient noise during crowd scenes. Superb! Utterly and completely. Now, I will say this: had I not experienced Murder on the Orient Express first in Atmos, the 5.1 DTS track would have sufficed just fine.
Extras include featurettes on Agatha Christie, the making (or rather re-making of this property), deleted scenes and an audio commentary from Branagh and Michael Green. Only this final extra is included on the 4K edition. The rest are housed exclusively on the Blu-ray. These junkets are quite adequate, if generally unremarkable. Bottom line: for Christie completionists, this version of Murder on the Orient Express will likely garner mixed reviews. It possesses a visual eloquence the 1974 movie could only guess at, but lacks the spell-binding array of artisans that illuminated the Lumet classic. In the end, it’s a loss: the sacrifice leading to plenty of gloss, but lacking one collective soul from its disparate participants. They act a lot, emote too little, and wind up in support of Branagh’s inquisitively unique take on Hercules Poirot. While I cannot in good conscience state I enjoyed this version more than Lumet’s, it was a largely enjoyable outing. The 4K rendering is absolutely perfect. The Blu-ray will also impress for those yet to have switched to a 4K setup. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)
3.5
VIDEO/AUDIO
4K – 5+
Blu-ray – 4.5
EXTRAS

3.5

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