Friday, June 8, 2018

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Like the works of Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, "Murder on the Orient Express" is destined to be re-imagined by every new generation of filmmakers for centuries to come. Each interpretation will bring its own stamp of individuality to the project, as seen through the lens of the current culture. Whether an individual remake will survive the test of time remains to be seen, however, as long as it stays true to the timeless story, it should do well.

(This review is spoiler free. If you have not seen the film or read the book you may still safely proceed.)
20th Century Fox

The story's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness--the sheer size of the cast, each character of which matters intensely in the narrative tapestry. The twist hinges on the numbers, which means that a faithful adaptation cannot eliminate anyone from the cast, even though they can make changes to character specifics. The easiest way to solve the problem is also the most delightful--and the most lucrative: cast a name brand actor in every role.

The 1974 version of the film featured names that are still remembered greats today, including Lauren Bacall, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave and Ingrid Bergman. The 2018 cast is no less stunning, and even if our grandchildren won't recognize every name the way we do, they will still know a decent number (if only because Disney will market their properties to infinity and beyond.) Yet each actor on this list earns their place, imbuing each character with distinction and pathos worthy of remembrance. Michelle Pfeiffer, in particular, delivers a pitch-perfect performance.

Kenneth Branagh's Poirot, although grayer and thinner than typically imagined, is also well done. However Branagh deserves double kudos, as he not only delivers a good Poirot, but also a beautiful film, both visually and emotionally. Nearly every frame of the film looks like a portrait, and every possible angle of the train is utilized to support the narrative in a way that is interesting but not distracting. Without giving away the twist (for those of you who, like my husband, have not yet been spoiled), I will say that the ending lands soberly, leaving one with a great feeling on contemplation and reflection. Like Poirot, we don't feel we can judge, and yet it is an ending one cannot help needing to analyze.

Cultural lens is a phrase I used earlier, and I will say it is clear that this is a film of the present times. The film, like adaptations before it, must set up Poirot's genius for those who are not coming off of Christie's previous novels starring this detective. Michael Green, the screenwriter, chooses to set Poirot's entrance in Jerusalem, 1934, with a crime centered around a priest, a rabbi, and an iman. Poirot solves the puzzle with careful aplomb, and so does the rest of the film weave a diverse cast into the narrative without upsetting the historical accuracy of the period.

For those of you who have read the book, yes, there are a few changes to character backstories in a few places, and a few switches of motivations. Yet, going into this film as someone who knows the story very well, I felt each substitution was faithful to the intent of the original, while serving a more accessible purpose to modern film-goers. And, in a couple of cases, the motivations were actually nicely deepened.

We live in a culture that has put every possible twist on murder shows, setting them against every possible backdrop in every possible drama. While "Murder on the Orient Express" features a fantastic reveal, it nonetheless features an ending that brings us back to the sober truth--Murder is evil, and it ruins every life it touches. Justice may not bring peace, or closure, but it does make the world a safer place.

Whether you know nothing about Agatha Christie, or whether you have every one of her books on your shelf, if you love a good mystery, you need to check out this adaptation of "Murder on the Orient Express." And while I'll always encourage you to read the original book, this film is definitely a worthy way to experience the tale.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Once Upon a Time: The End and the Begininning

Almost seven years ago I wrote: "'Once Upon a Time' is exactly the show fairy tale fans have been waiting for. It's got princes, princesses, swordfights, evil witches, curses, prophecies, fairies, dwarves, mysteries, and yes, of course, true love." 

I hoped against hope that the show would go on to fulfill its promise, and indeed it did so (although at times it lost its way). There were moments, or even months when I felt nearly ready to give up on watching it, and then some twist, or good writing, or awesome costume, or beautiful character moment drew me back. It was a hot mess of emotions that made no sense at times, and it was a beautiful fairy tale that kept me coming back for more. It outlived its welcome for the final seasons, but even then, Season 7 had enough good stuff in it that I would recommend any fan finish watching to the end...even if you end up skipping parts of season 5 and 6.

(Spoilers for all seven seasons to follow)

My husband has seen most of the show with me, and ended up liking Season 4 the best (go figure) although we stopped watching again toward the end of the Camelot/Dark One arc in Season 5. I may just skip the rest of that season to show him the end of Season 6 -- I'm not sure. 

At the same time, the series finale brought back enough nostalgia for me to go back to the beginning again, to return to the days when Emma Swan was not a believer, and Regina was evil, and Snow and Charming were still looking for each other. For the days when Henry was tiny, and Ruby a regular, and nobody in a grave (for good). For the days when things were fresh with the beckoning of adventure. 

I love that we got this show, imperfect as it was. The costumes spurred my imagination and that of many fans who ended up giving me the chance to live my dream doing custom costume commissions (until ill health put that to rest). I loved getting to tune into fairy tales every week, retellings and old tellings. I loved the cast so very much and was happy to keep watching them even when things were mediocre. 

I didn't mind that everyone was related; I did mind that all of the decent men except Hook and Charming got killed. I came to accept the story they wanted to tell when they turned Peter Pan evil, and I went from hating Hook to loving him (although I still think some early issues were valid.) I wish we'd gotten more of Ruby and Dr. Whale and I will never stop mourning Baelfire. I loved some costumes, hated others, and couldn't figure a few of them out.  I think Mulan and Aurora got too little time on screen, but at the same time I'm sad that Anna and Elsa never came back (the Frozen arc wasn't perfect, but the actresses playing those women were). I still think Mob Boss Bo Peep was weird, the Wonderland spin-off crazy and wonderful, and have all the mixed emotions about Rumbelle. 

In short, like most of the fandom, there was no way they could make a show that pleased us all, yet they did make a show that, despite controversies and ranting, still elicited deep loyalty and love and made it through seven seasons. They even got a remarkable number of cast members back for the series finale, which I think goes a long way to show what kind of an environment this was for the actors and crew. 

I am really going to miss getting a regular dose of fairy tales on my screen. I'll miss the hope in the darkness, the costumes and the characters, and the flight of imagination we got to take every week. At the same time, we got not one but two serious closure finales, which I think is pretty fabulous. Although I wouldn't hate a spin-off show about certain side characters, I am fully at peace with the main story of the Charmings, Regina, and Rumplestiltskin being finished for good.

Thanks for the adventures, OUAT. I definitely will never forget you. And, if I'm ever blessed with kids, I'll be passing on your stories (or most of them) to a new generation of fairy tale lovers.