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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.

Logan Lucky

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

Logan Lucky

Logan Lucky is a heist movie that takes us to places loved by some and detested by others: bars, jails, and the NASCAR culture. Director Steven Soderbergh’s story about a collection of losers unfolds at a dizzyingly rapid pace – and without scene connections. If you can unravel the details, the movie is a wonder of action. You will see good acting, dozens of oddball sights, and now and then you will laugh.

At the outset we watch Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) as he is fired from his job at NASCAR for having a limp that might be blamed on the company. When Jimmy slams his helmet into a garbage bin as he leaves we know instantly that he is not either weak or easy to like. He heads for the bar where we meet his bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver) who delights us with the delicacy and grace of the ballet he has made of mixing drinks with his one arm. They will become the team for the heist.

Jimmy’s plan unfolds in the underground confusion of the sinkholes and money tubes beneath the NASCAR track building. He spies his fortune in the transparent tubes that deliver all the money from above. Following the instruction list posted in his bedroom –Ten Rules for Robbing a Bank – he begins by recruiting Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), a simple minded jail prisoner with a gift for odd solutions to problems when no tools are available. The team of robbers is assembled.

The rest of the movie unfolds at speed beyond an ordinary ability to grasp. While the standard NASCAR culture of Memorial Day, women, flags, and alcohol unfolds upstairs, Jimmy, Joe, Clyde, and their other recruits handle the underground assignments.

The action shifts without explanation between the jail and the above and below of the racetrack. We even see Jimmy’s small daughter singing in a competition. Neither gestures nor dialogue tell us what’s happening. Everything happens too fast and without explanation. The whole thing is saved, or at least almost saved, by the sight of the good actors who decided for whatever reason to take on a heist movie propelled by a bunch of oddball rejects.

As odd as it may sound after saying that, the action is wrapped in the improbable fun of a band of losers applying their wits to a thoroughly complex, obviously impossible heist plan. The fine cast creates a group of excessively dim pals who weave their way through their multiple mistakes right in sight of the uninterested brass who ignore them because they are unimportant. Their inspired use of limited resources generates welcome laughter.

Watch a straight faced comic performance by Dwight Yoakam as the prison warden and one of comic delicacy by Hilary Swank as a deeply curious detective. And enjoy watching Daniel Craig’s simple minded crook who is smart enough to know how to break out of jail and break back in again. Your call.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Film Title : Logan Lucky
Word Count : 495
Running time : 1:52
Rating : PG-13
Date : September 3, 2017