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Murder on the Orient Express

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Murder on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh has remade the iconic Murder on the Orient Express with mediocre results. Agatha Christie’s 1934 book has rafts of loyalists who are usually skeptical when books, movies, and now TV shows are patterned on it. This time, they’re right, but most of us will go anyway.

The plot is irresistible for writers, filmmakers, and movie lovers. What’s more fun than legendary detective Hercule Poirot on a train as he tries to discover who among thirteen strangers has killed a man in their car? Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The sight of it is rivetingly beautiful. The train leaves the station in light snow that grows heavier as it moves into the storm. We are treated to prolonged shots of the silver sleeper plowing through the white snowdrifts until an avalanche knocks a car off the track. Cinematographer Hans Zambarloukos delivers the beauty of the train roaring through the blizzard.

The magic of any train is its movement; that’s what they do and it’s why they are loved. The movement of the Orient Express seems to wrap the train in the mystery that is unfolding inside as Poirot questions the murder suspects. The derailment in this version stops not only the train but turns the questioning into something bordering on job interviews in a cramped space. The magic is gone. Suspense is absent.

Poirot questions the tangle of strangers deftly but what they reveal about themselves has a dull feel. We watch as a fine cast is fed dialogue which they deliver in contemporary accents that undercut the atmosphere and the story. We want this to be 1934 when trains were the apex of travel. Don’t modernize it.

We watch Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacoby, Lucy Boynton Judi Dench, and other good actors as they struggle to become characters against the odds director Branagh has laid on them. The stilted questioning in the silent train seems in the stillness like a narrow hotel corridor. They try, but this part of this story is doomed.

In a welcome exception, Branagh, the actor, creates an interesting Poirot. Anyone who plays this famous fictional guy is welcome to create a new portrait of him as long as it includes the detective’s passion for truth along with his vain, intuitive, stylish, tough self. It is always fun to watch Poirot as he sifts through the lies that surround him. And the new moustache is Branagh’s personal quirk. He continues a fine tradition of bringing his own version of Poirot alive from Agatha Christie’s pages.

Is anything as romantic as a train moving through the snow? No, but beautiful filming doesn’t make up for the oddly dull search for the murderer. There is one perfect solution: go see it and thrill to the sight of the train moving through the blizzard. When the train is stuck, just leave. Go out for dinner and discuss the beautiful first hour.

Atomic Blonde

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Atomic Blonde

Two odd but interesting things have happened in an otherwise grim summer for movies. Wonder Woman, the summer’s biggest hit, gave women the comic book version of the hero they have wanted for so long. And now Atomic Blonde has given them their own action hero. Together, they are an announcement that women have arrived.

Charlize Theron doesn’t kid around. Her action figure, Lorraine Broughton, uses every part of her body to kill enemies and when that’s not quite enough she uses whatever happens to be at hand. In grand collusion with director David Leitch, she levels the field.

Theron has trained herself to such a state of fitness and strength that the movie becomes a flaming announcement that women in movies can now say, “Don’t mess with me!” They no longer have to express rage just by being mean. The only problem here is that the action is so overwhelming it’s hard to track the plot. But does that matter? No.

It is 1989. Lorraine Broughton is an MI6 agent with a new assignment: head for Berlin and recover a list of secrets hidden in a wrist watch that has been stolen. The plot, along with its various alliances, is secondary to the wallop of the sight of Lorraine dispatching every man who tries to kill her.

Three characters stand out. James McAvoy as her primary problem, Eddie Marson as a bundle of brilliance who she must protect because he has memorized the list, and Sofia Boutella, another spy, who joins Lorraine in a red hot sexual encounter that plays out in prolonged detail. Through Lorraine, Charlize Theron is eyeing the decades of female roles screened by men and with a big smile is saying “Take this, you guys.”

The bulk of the film unfolds in absolutely brutal physical violence. What is it then that lifts it to high style? It’s Lorraine who we first see bruised and battered before learning why. All during the why of it, we have the abiding pleasure of watching her stride in perfect stern grace through the city in a different outfit for every scene.

Though brutalized by fists and weapons, short minutes later she is striding across Berlin in clothes of superb simplicity – no adornments. Almost always in stark black and white, then suddenly a bright red coat – all covering perfect posture atop bright red heels that become, when required , weapons. She is looking ahead as if she weren’t in full time danger. And then in moments she will be plummeting down a staircase, hit from behind by an enemy.

In two terrific symbolic performances this year, Wonder Woman’s Gal Gadot gave us a fighter for moral rectitude and Charlize Theron shows us a battler against all odds. In grand exaggeration, they have handed women the recognition they want as they fight to transcend the supporting role that has been their lot for centuries. Comic book symbols? You bet. Earned, deserved, and delivered in style.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Atomic Blonde
Word Count : 502
Running time : 1:55
Rating : R
Date : 6 August 2017