CLUE – FROM BOARD GAME TO MOVIE TO STAGE – PLAYING THIS MONTH AT ACTS THEATRE

SHORT TAKE:

Mostly family friendly spoof on murder mysteries, based on the board game of the same name and translated from the eponymous movie, Clue, playing at ACTS Theatre for the next three weekends – October 11 – October 27, 2019 – get your tickets HERE.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Everyone. Aside from a little bit of mild profanity and some very light jabs at religion and alternative lifestyles, this is a family friendly show. There’s no sexual activity, no real violence and the murders are part of the buffoonery and played for healthy laughs. Older people will get the jokes and kids will enjoy the slapstick.

LONG TAKE:

In 1945 Anthony Pratt invented a family past time based upon the idea of a murder mystery. He called it Cluedo but we all know it as Clue. In the 1980’s John Landis (director of Trading Places, Oscar and National Lampoon’s Animal House) became possessed with the idea of making Clue into a film. Despite being star studded and wielding a $15 million budget it flopped hard at the box office but has since become a cult sensation boasting of: a novelization, its own fan club, Youtubes coming to its defense, an off-Broadway musical, a campaign to remake it with Ryan Reynolds in the lead, and a live theatrical version.

Landis’ Clue was the first of its kind, a movie made from a board game. It starred some of the most talented comedians of the time: Tim Curry, (who lists this along with Muppet Treasure Island as two of his own favorite movies in which he was cast), Madeline Kahn (Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein) whose now classic dry description of how much she hated one of the other characters “flames on the side of my face” left fellow cast mates struggling to maintain their professional composure during the scene and was the only ad lib allowed to stay in the tightly disciplined and rehearsed shooting schedule, Martin Mull (FM, Jingle all the Way and guest spots on a zillion TV shows), Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, and the classic TV show Taxi), Eileen Brennan (FM, The Sting, and another parody murder comedy Murder by Death), Leslie Ann Warren (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Victor/Victoria), and Michael McKean (Laverne and Shirley).

I mention all this to point out what big shoes the cast and crew for ACTS latest production of the theatrical Clue have to fill, and fill them they do.

The story concerns a group of strangers who gather at the summons of a mysterious stranger, aptly named Mr. Boddy, (no that is not a misspelling) to a spooky and isolated house on a stormy night for an evening of revelations. The guests get more than they bargained for. With characters named and colorfully costumed in keeping with the pieces in the Clue game, in a house laid out like the original Hasbro product, it becomes immediately apparent that there will be far more vaudeville than violence and more mugging than mayhem. Pratfalls and slapstick laughs are the coinage of the evening as fun is poked at the genre which has long been home to the likes of the far more austere Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes.

Stepping up to the plate for the inimitable Mr. Landis to direct is our own Clay Hebert, veteran of decades of productions all over Lake Charles from McNeese to ACTS to Lake Charles Little Theater and even Hollywood, for whom this play has been a two year dream project.

Clever use is made of the stage in which quick changes and even quicker stage hands move props on and off to represent the many rooms of the house and in the board game: hall, library, study, etc.

Wadsworth, the butler and audience liason, is played by Aaron Webster ( just having finished a similarly sinister role in Arsenic and Old Lace for ACTS). Mrs. White is Kelly Rowland (also from Arsenic) who can’t seem to resist roles of sweetly homicidal ladies. Dylan Conley is Colonel Mustard. Miss Scarlet is played by Taylor Novak-Tyler (Steel Magnolias and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels).  Robert Goodson (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Spamalot) lends his unique brand of physical comedy to liven up Mr. Green. Stacy Solak (recently in Bye Bye Birdie) is a scene stealing Mrs. Peacock, and does double duty as aide-de-camp to Clay in the offstage role of assistant director. Zac Hammons (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) is Professor Plum. Yvette, the maid – not a board game piece but a character from the movie – is played by Kaylen Peters. Similar to the way the Swiss Army Knife of performers who portrayed a multiplicity of characters was used in The 39 Steps, Lauren Manuel and Lewis Paxton fill in variously for: Mr. Boddy, the Cook, the Motorist, the Singing Telegram Girl, and Police Officers.

Lending their respective wifely supports as well as extraordinary talents  to this production in general and Aaron Webster and Clay Hebert in particular are Kris Webster and Markie Hebert who functioned as co-producers.

A brave Catheryn Fredericks helps wrangle this motley crew of comedians together as the stage manager.

MILD SPOILER

Sorry movie fans –      – there is only one ending.

So go join this humorously homicidal troupe as they give it their all to give you a ….. Clue.

TICKETS HERE.

BEYOND HERE BE POSSIBLE SPOILERS SO CONTINUE AT YOUR OWN RISK — OH WAIT THAT’S DIFFERENT BOARD GAME……

TERMINAL – BIZARRE FILM NOIR LOOSELY BASED UPON AN ALICE IN WONDERLAND TROPE

SHORT TAKE:

Macabre murder mystery of intrigue and betrayal set in a futuristic 1950's heavily referencing Alice falling down the rabbit hole.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

ONLY adults who have a strong stomach and a taste for true film noir

LONG TAKE:

"Terminal" (WITHOUT the article in front of the word, NOT THE Terminal which is a 2004 Tom Hanks dramedy about an immigrant stuck indefinitely in an airport terminal because of political turmoil in his home country) as the title of this 2018 movie, is a play on a number of aspects of the movie. Much of it takes place in and around an airport terminal – the obvious reference. One of the characters can be described adjectively as "terminal". And "terminal" is the final end to which many of the characters seem to be rushing for one reason and another either voluntarily or not.

The premise of the movie, written and directed by Vaughn Stein (who has been crew for such disparate movies as World War Z, the live action Beauty an the Beast and Les Mis) follows the machinations of Annie,  played by Margot Robbie who seems to be making a career of playing crazier and crazier women – Harlequin in Suicide Squad, Tonya Harding in I, TonyaMrs. Milne in Goodbye, Christopher Robin, and now this. Annie is a professional assassin whose bloody and coldblooded antics might have given even Harlequin a frowny pause.

A reference to the classic nihilistic play Waiting for Godot by  Samuel Beckett may seem like a non-sequitur at this point but bear with me. Waiting for Godot is a nihilistic play about two hoboes waiting for a third man who never shows up and in the end they hang themselves because nothing really matters. The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter harkens back to Waiting for Godot. The Dumb Waiter is about two gangsters waiting in a basement for orders on their next job and sinister unspoken messages that come through a pipe from an unseen manipulator. Both of those plays have an absurdist nature to them imparted in the characters willingness to wait in slavish patience for someone or something which may or may not be evilly playing with them.

I mention those plays because there is a certain element in the atmosphere common to them and to Terminal. There is even a prolonged and crucial scene in which two hit men (played by Dexter Fletcher and Max Irons) wait in a room for days for orders on their next kill from a client who no one has ever seen. This is more than a passing reference and feeds in to the physical and mental anarchy that pervades this creepy night-lit underground outing. Speaking of which, night and day light play important features too. Hiding in the dark. Things not what they appear to be but hiding in shadows. Frankly, I think the director missed a beat by not filming it entirely in black and white. But then we couldn't get the stark and almost shockingly red lips which precede Annie's entrance in almost every scene she's in.

This is a rough and thoughtful movie. But, alas, also a bit boring as its pace is too slow. Much like a walk which should have been taken at a jog, Terminal drags on with too many flashbacks and too much lingering on a single image, like viewing a stake out through the eyes of someone distracted by illness or grief. If it sounds like a depressing movie – well, it is. Not that that should dissuade anyone in and of itself. But there should be a purpose to enduring a movie like this. And satisfying a somewhat predictable series of surprise endings just is not enough.

Margot Robbie does her dead level best as a restrained psychopath. Simon Pegg (Shawn of the Dead, the last few Mission Impossibles, and the new Star Trek's new Scotty), performs the most serious role I've ever seen him in, as the terminally ill teacher. And Mike Myers (the voice of Shrek himself), who has not been in a feature length movie since  2009's Inglourious Basterds, is almost unrecognizable as a ubitquitous and mysterious janitor who seems to know way more than he should. (It's been so long snce Mr. Myers appeared in other than a voiced part that someone expressed surprise to me not just that he was in such a dark movie but that he was still ALIVE!)

While definitely not for everyone's taste and MOST definitely NOT for other than the older mature audience this is an intriguing movie which is mesmerizing in the same way that some National Geographic specials featuring insects devouring their kill are hard to watch but hard to look away from. There's a lot of profanity, a number of scenes of a sexual nature and some graphic violence as you might imagine in a movie about hit—people.

There are a number of references both subtle and overt to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, including outright quotes from his book. Thematically there is chaos, bizarreness, unpredictability, people being often both "bigger" and "smaller" than you might have thought they were in the beginning, and even the familiar and most obvious Alice in Wonderland trope of an actual hole in the ground. So I don't think it would be inappropriate, as Alice might have said, for my final words on this film to be …. curiouser and curiouser.

LOVING VINCENT – AN ANIMATED BIOGRAPHY IN VAN GOGH’S PAINTINGS

SHORT TAKE: Astonishing and beautiful, one of a kind film in which a reluctant messenger plays detective in an attempt to parse out the circumstances of Van Gogh's death, animated in the style of Van Gogh's paintings!

WHO SHOULD WATCH:  Anyone interested in classic art, though younger audience members might get bored. Adult themes of mental illness, prostitution, alcoholism and, of course, the death of Vincent Van Gogh – the main topic of the film – are points of discussion, though there is no graphic content of either a sexual or violent nature, and little or no prafane language.

UNFORTUNATELY, SCREENIT.COM HAS NO DETAILED CONTENT STATISTICS ON LOVING VINCENT YET.

LONG TAKE:

The word "unique" is too often blithely thrown around. If you go online you'll find "unique" hair styles and "unique" ice cream stores. "Unique," in fact means "being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else". And there are really only so many ways you can manipulate your hair before redundancy becomes an issue and I'm afraid a truly "unique" ice cream might not be edible. Even so, there are still a few things that genuinely qualify as "unique": Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, each and every individual human soul, Shakespeare's Hamlet, the Mona Lisa and….Loving Vincent.

Loving Vincent is a movie of which there is only one of its kind. Not just different or unusual, though it is that, but actually unique. Loving Vincent was animated by over 100 professional artists using 853 backdrops and over 66,000 paintings which, if laid out like a carpet would cover both the entire United Kingdom and the Island of Manhattan. 80 of the artists were chosen for their professional technique, facility with computers and ability to accurately recreate Van Gogh's style.

This technique has never before been used. The effect is mesmerizing, like watching one of Van Gogh's paintings come to life before your eyes.

The plot follows Armand Roulin, the son of Joseph Roulin, a postmaster who had been a friend of Vincent's. Armand is portrayed and captured as a facile youth who matures during the course of the movie by Douglas Booth who was Romeo in the 2013 Shakespeare film, Shem in Noah and Titus in Jupiter Rising. Booth carries the water of the narrative beautifully as we see the story unfold through his eyes like the petals of the irises featured in one of Van Gogh's paintings.

Joseph is captured using  Chris O'Dowd, a charming and gentle British comedian who has appeared in roles as varied as Thor: Dark World, the dark and theologically intriguing murder mystery Calvary, the most recent space oriented sci fi installment of the Cloverfield franchise called Cloverfield Paradox, and was in a quirky British comedy about time travel called FAQ About Time Travel.

Joseph tasks his drunken aimless son with transporting the last letter Vincent wrote to his brother Theo. This begins a journey for Armand which will change his perception of the world and himself for the better. Vincent has been dead for two years by the time Armand starts out and during the course of his travels Armand's adventures transform from a simple delivery to an inquiry into the master painter's life and mysterious circumstances surrounding his death. Armand finds out as much about himself as about those who knew Vincent well as he tries to uncover what truths he can concerning the premature demise of this, at that time, unappreciated genius.

This film would have been an achievement in storytelling had it been done live action and would have rivaled Immortal Beloved whose main protagonist sought the identity of the Immortal Beloved to whom he wished to deliver Beethoven's remaining post mortem letter. Or even the curiosity piquing Citizen Kane as one journalist interviews everyone who knew Kane to try to determine the identity of Rosebud. The script is written with sensitivity and three dimensional prose to tweak out the tangles of conflicting evidence amidst the testimonies of those whose only connection was their acquaintance with or love for Vincent. This, as a tale, would have been a great story by itself.  But to use the UNIQUE and brilliantly appropriate, though massively ambitious, technique of animating it with Van Gogh style paintings was itself, if you will excuse the intentional pun, a masterstroke by the writers/directors Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman and Jacek Dehnel. This is as different in its own way as the one take-one unbroken shot that Russian Ark was (see a previuos blog).

Armand seeks out and questions a number of others. Pere Tanguy (John Sessions) was a friend of Vincent's.   Dr. Gachet (played by Jerome Flynn), who appears in Portrait of Dr. Gachet, had cared for Vincent in his last few months and during the gunshot and subsequent infection that killed Vincent. Louise Chevalier, housekeeper to Dr. Gachet (Helen "Narcissa Malfoy" McCrory), who had no use for Vincent and his odd ways. Adeline Ravoux (played by Eleanor Tomlinson) was an innkeeper's daughter who ran the hotel Vincent last stayed in. Adeline was featured in Van Gogh's Portrait of Adeline Ravoux. Saoirse Ronan (Ladybird) portrays Marguerite. Marguerite Gachet was the daughter of Dr. Gachet, and is the girl in Van Gogh's painting Margueite Gachet at Piano. And Robert Gulaczyk, a Polish theater actor, plays Vincent himself and bears a more than passing resemblance to the shy, kind, sensitive and tormented painter. All the actors were chosen, not just for their acting (for the capture) and voice talents but for their resemblance to characters in the actual paintings by Van Gogh.

Even the title is creative, evocative and chosen with care. Your "Loving Vincent" is the way Vincent would sign his letters to his brother, Theo. Loving Vincent could refer to the way the painters are expressing their respect and affection for this great artist, as in – this is how we are "loving Vincent", by creating this beautiful movie about him. Or it could be a command to the audience as a demonstration of the way we could appreciate the man and his work – as in, if you watch this movie with the appreciation it deserves you will be "loving Vincent". Or it could simply be a description of the man himself. Loving –  as an adjective to describe the great, generous and open heartedness of the man who was the genius master craftsman of the easel – as in – he was a great, a creative, a brilliant but also a loving Vincent.

It is unfortunate and shortsighted by the Oscar committee that Loving Vincent has been selected to compete in the Oscars as "only" in the animated feature film category. There is precedent to allow animated features to compete in the "Best Picture" category – Beauty and the Beast, Up and Toy Story 3 all were accorded that respect. Loving Vincent MORE than deserves the acknowledgement to be included in the Best Picture category.   This is a serious film about the creative life and mysterious death of one of the world's most beloved master painters. It also only HAPPENS to also be an animated movie. We learn not just about the circumstances of his death but of the complex man whose life was cut far too short from those who knew him best and in conversations that appear deceptive or misleading at first, as in the style of an Agatha Christie novel, and all come together like some lovingly sculpted three dimensional puzzle.

Not only is this movie made WITH beautiful paintings, it IS one big gorgeous animated painting. This is a remarkable work of startlingly pure love – a love letter from these hundreds of artists and actors and seamstresses and animators, caterers and drivers, electricians and sound technicians, not to mention the writers and directors …… to Vincent Van Gogh

Watching this movie gave me a new appreciation for Van Gogh's paintings and has inspired me to seek out and learn more about this great man's work.

It also couldn't help but remind me of two other lovingly created items which focused on Vincent Van Gogh. The first is one of the most moving three and a half minutes of cinema I have ever seen.

It is near the end of the Dr. Who episode – Vincent. Dr Who and his companion Amy have traveled back in time to meet Vincent Van Gogh. They befriend him and come face to face with the mental and personal struggles of this gentle soul and decide to bring him forward in time to show him the Van Gogh exhibit at the Musee d'Orsay. Tony Curran, as Vincent, does a magnificent job as Van Gogh and the scene is touching, funny and deeply moving. .  Dr Who excerpt – Vincent at the Musee d'Orsay.

The other bit of Van Gogh fandom which occurred to me was Don McLean's song Vincent. McLean is probably best known for American Pie. The song Vincent came out in the same year, 1971, when I was twelve: "Starry Starry Night, paint your palette blue and gray…how you suffered for your sanity…flaming flowers that brightly blaze, swirling clouds in violet haze…and when no hope was left in sight on that starry starry night you took your life as lovers often do…." The melancholic and beautiful tune sums up the feel of this visually, emotionally, narratively and lyrically moving film. LISTEN TO VINCENT HERE: VINCENT by Don McLean

WARNING: I really have none except that the topic of suicide may upset the very young.

This film is a gorgeous masterpiece which I like to think that Van Gogh, himself, would have appreciated.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THIS AMAZING MOVIE AND ITS CREATION HERE: LOVING VINCENT WEBSITE

SEE IT ON AMAZON HERE: LOVING VINCENT

DEN OF THIEVES – KINETIC, EXPLOSIVE (LITERALLY), RED-BLOODED COPS AND ROBBERS

SHORT TAKE:

Octane fueled version of a good old fashioned cops and robbers movie structured like a football film.

LONG TAKE:

I love a good cops and robbers movie where you have the force of law in opposition to the practitioners of chaos. And there are about as many ways to tell a "cops and robbers" movie as there are imaginations to tell it: comedies like the old - itItalian Job, The Great Train Robbery and even Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; buddy movies like old - hbThe Hitman’s Bodyguard; movies seen from the perps point of view like old -BCButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and old - stingThe Sting; mysteries like old - usThe Usual Suspect; histories like The Pursuit of DB Cooper and old - serpicoSerpico; private eye flicks like old - mfThe Maltese Falcon; parable-like such as old - 3g3 Godfathers or Fargo; ensemble style such as old - ncThe New Centurions; pursuit movies like The Fugitive and The French Connection; even sci-fi like old - BRBlade Runner. Then you have combos. There’s comedy suspense like all the Die Hards; buddy dark comedy like Midnight Run; mystery private eye like Chinatown; sci fi mystery cautionary tale like old - mrMinority Report; dark dark comedy seen from the perp point of view like old - DDADog Day Afternoon; and sci fi comedy mystery like Demolition Man.

It is hard to find a variation that has not been done to death but Den of Thieves artfully manages to pull off a slightly different take. Seen evenly from both the robbers and the police point of view the movie spools out like a Mission: Impossible caper only planned by the bad guys.

The premise is that a group of professional and experienced criminals led by schreiberMerrimen (Pablo Schrieber who happens to be the half – brother of Liev "Wolverine’s brother" Schrieber) are planning to pull off the "perfect" heist – snatching the used and soon-to-be shredded hundred dollar bills from the Federal Reserve before they are missed. Schrieber manages this three dimensional anti-hero with the same confident skill with which he played a pure American hero in 13 hours13 Hours (about the Benghazi embassy terrorist attack).

I have no intention of giving any spoilers, but will assure you that despite what appear to be holes in the plot or preposterous amounts of informational prep in the possession of the crooks, it is a cleanly written and well thought out script.

On the side of the angels-with-dirty-faces is nick4Gerard Butler’s "Big Nick" who heads up an elite team of police with virtually free rein to keep check on the mayhem in this "Bank Robbery Capital of the World". Captions right after the credits point out that L.A. has a bank robbery every 48 minutes. (Remind me not to deposit money if I go visit my brother.) Butler’s Nick informs a would be snitch that they are far less likely to go to the paperwork trouble of arresting you than shooting you. I do not believe this is idle banter. More hound dog and hung over than Bogie, scruffier than Serpico and more heavily weaponized than Rick Deckard from Blade Runner, I suspect Nick would inspire Dirty Harry to run for cover.

Butler dives into his character with tremendous gusto. It’s a bit of a shock to remember that 14 years ago he had thesinging singing lead in imagesGHO8EMK2filmed version of Phantom of the Opera. And only Shakespeare afficianados will recall he and Fiennes co-starred in the cinematic Coriolanus. A very talented guy, he is as at home in the sappy romantic psPS I Love You as he is the unstoppable secret service agent in the

Olympus/London Has Fallen movies. It’s obvious why he has done this over the top popcorn movie – he just enjoys the heck out of chewing up scenery, dialogue, and bad guys as the over the top, over the edge centurion – holding the barbarians at bay.

Rounding out the core of the cast is jacksonDonnie played by O’Shea Jackson, Jr. Jackson is the son of rapper Ice Cube, and had the rare opportunity to play his own father in comptonimagesZYAOZ6J6Straight Outta Compton. Jackson does a marvelous job of portraying Donnie in Den, the sympathetic young driver of the gang of thieves.

A couple of things made this a stand out movie for me. The acting was quite good for this genre, the action scenes were exciting and well edited, all the characters were interesting – showing them personally and professionally in detail, and the caper was both intricate and believable. But one of the innovative items was the approach. The writer-director, Christian Gudegast, who also wrote and directed London Has Fallen, showed both the cops and the robbers often side by side. While showing the bad guys prepping for a heist, the cops are shown prepping for their interception. Merrimen and Nick are both well aware of each other and they not only play cop and robber but cat and mouse, laying tricks and traps along the way. While perhaps not a unique plan of attack, Gudegast carries the theme off in creative and surprising ways which were cinematically well executed.

I also appreciated the fact that while making the bad guys sympathetic in some ways by showing them protective of their children and schreibernot out to create unnecessary mayhem, schreiber2there is no doubt Merrimen's group are the bad guys.  And though the cops committed more than their share of vice, there is no question Nick's men are the ones who protect the innocent and even attempt to treat their dangerous quarry with dignity. So while endeavoring to show all parties as three dimensional, Gudegast does not try to lead us down a garden path of murky gray area as some films do, such as Dog Day Afternoon or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Despite the questionable behavior in many of the cops' personal lives, and the sometimes morally and legally questionable activities of our intrepid heroes of the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department, the first scene of rampant bloody destruction by the bad guys leaves us without doubt for whom we should be rooting.

I also enjoyed the parallels of professionalism – the simultaneous prep, the frequent meetings in "random" places – all had the feel of two teams gearing up to meet at the ultimate winner take all championship game. To emphasize this, Gudegast makes a number of references to the fact that several characters on both sides previously had experiences in both the military and on football teams.

So, unless the NFL players start to stand for the Star Spangled Banner, skip the Superbowl and go see Den of Thieves, where there is no doubt as to where your allegiances should lie.

NOT FOR CHILDREN, there is a good deal of profanity, naked women, morally wrong behavior by both "sides" and bloody violence.

BRANAGH’S MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS – The Perfect Movie

I have seen a lot of filmed murder mysteries from drama to slapstick: Thin Man series, China Town, Minority Report, The Usual Suspects, The Maltese Falcon, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Clue, Rear Window, Scoop, Murder by Death, even the occasional Dr Who and the TV shows Columbo, Grimm and Perry Mason. There’s something truly satisfying about solving a puzzle with the end result the protecting of the innocent and the meting out of justice. But my favorite has always been Murder on the Orient Express. A group of strangers stuck on a snow bound train with a murdered man and a famous detective and one of them a murderer. A bit like Christie's Ten Little Indians but, to me, Orient Express has more pinache.

I’ve seen the 1974 version many times. Knowing the ending does nothing to undermine the enjoyment of watching the mystery unfold like a beautifully formed rose bud – all the parts slowly falling into place. Who wouldn’t like it?! With the star studded cast including the likes of     Albert (Bourne franchise) Finney, Sean (James Bond) Connery, Lauren (Humphrey Bogart’s wife) Bacall, Ingrid (Casablanca) Bergman, SIR John Gielgud, Anthony (Psycho) Perkins. The list goes on – it is a BIG cast.

But as good as the 1974 version was, it is only the amusing movie hors d’oeuvre to the cinematic banquet that is Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 Murder on the Orient Express. Not only is this the best rendition of a murder mystery I have ever seen, it is one of those rarest of birds – a perfect movie. Branagh brings brilliance to anything he undertakes – from Thor to Cinderella to    Hamlet* (ALL of which he directed). He is one of those auteurs, like Orson Welles and Woody Allen who can both star and direct in the same movie and create masterpieces.

Prudence, by defintiion, is the virtue of knowing the right thing to do at any given time. When you are someone who sees the subtle imperfections of the world this virtue becomes an obsession. In a detective this can be a superpower…and a curse. Such is the struggle of Branagh's Hercule Poirot. This kind of complex personality overlay onto an already brilliant screenplay is an example of what makes Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express special. It could have been refilmed as another lovely remake with modern celebrities. The last theatrical version was in 1974, as I have said, so it is due for a remake. But true to his genius and his respect for his audience, Branagh is not content with merely revamping an already rich treasure of a story but like Gershwin's ability to create a timeless song from a simple catchy line of music, Branagh takes a classically fun tale and reworks it into a presentation worthy of a Shakespearean telling.

As in the original, the premise is that a murder takes place on a train, which locomotive is almost immediately and Providentially caught in an avalanche of snow. The manager of the train, a good friend of Poirot's, implores Poirot to solve the mystery for him before the train is freed and the killer has an opportunity to escape. As well as catching a killer, he also (by the way) wishes to avoid the shame of scandal to the Orient Express from an unresolved atrocity committed aboard this regal moving institution.

Of all the movies I have ever reviewed this is the one about which I would be most loathe to commit a spoiler ……. so will not.

But I will say there are a few minor tweaks to the story, re-imagined by Michael Green from, obviously, the Agatha Chtistie novel of the same name. These changes work well, and add depth of character and intrigue to even Christie's fascinating creation. One such contribution is Branagh's Poirot which, while I will not go into detail, is a brilliantly satisfying choice which makes the usually taciturn and ascerbic character more approachable and likeable, aware of his own shortcomings and has a character arc which dovetails beautifully with the theme and complexities of the story.

If you have not read the book or seen the 1974 movie, which  by the way is very good, and are then fortunate enough to be able to see this 2017 version with virgin eyes, do NOT watch any trailers, see any interviews, read any opinions but go straight to the movie with childlike delight. If you ARE familiar with the story then go to revel in the brilliant directing. Branagh stages the film like a fairy tale with all the exotic detail that was Stamboul (Old Istanbul) in 1934 and the extreme elegance of the Orient Express which in its day was host to Princesses and Counts. The colors are bright, the costumes splendid reflections of the complex suspects. And enjoy the sheer artistry of Branagh direction as he shoots with elegance equal to the time and place. He uses mirrors, windows and framing to fracture images hinting at characterizations; overhead shots to both reveal and hide clues at the same time. Dramatic events are bold and large as life; intimate scenes feel almost intrusive into private tensions and personal conflicts.   At turns I laughed out loud and was brought to tears.

And Branagh knows how to work an ensemble cast. From the musical rendition of Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost to the light comedy A Midwinter's Tale to Hamlet with its massive star studded cast, he knows when to shine and when to hold back and always gives every member of his cast ample opportunity to be memorably in the forefront.

Every one of the actors does a superlative job. Not suprising as any director who could inspire a good Shakesepearean performance out of Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing could get a good perfromance out of even a dust mop. But most of these guys do not need such inspiration as they are already accomplished actors.

It is my honor and delight to mention each of the main performers:

Kenneth Branagh, director and lead, plays Poirot himself. I have seen enough Branagh to know that if he thought someone else could have done a better job he would have hired him. I'll tell you this is the best Poirot or classic detective of this genre I have seen anywhere.

Johnny (Jack Sparrow) Depp plays Edward Ratchett, American gangster and suspicious ne'er-do-well who brings a frightening intensity to what otherwise could have been a cookie cutter stereotype.

Sir Derek Jacobi – friend and collaborator of Branagh in a number of previous outings from the aforementioned Hamlet to Henry V to Cinderella, plays Edward Henry Masterman, British manservant to Ratchett. Jacobi is a knighted Shakespearean thespian who lends a graceful sympathy to Masterman.

Josh (Beauty and the Beast) Gad plays Hector MacQueen, Ratchett's assistant, lends a surprisingly effective though odd combination of Bogart and Peter Lorre from Casablanca into this character of questionable motives.

Daisy (Rey from Star Wars) Ridley plays Mary Debenham, stepping away from her interstellar Jedi to bring a singular classy elegance to her role as governess.

Leslie Odom portrays Dr. Arbuthnot, a man of many surprsing talents with skill and credibility.

 Dame Judy Densch – M, Shakespearean actress of tremendous dignity and comportment – continues to demonstrate her command of her art in even one of the smaller roles as the elderly Princess Dragomiroff.

Willem Dafoe (Green Goblin from Spiderman, Platoon, Odd Thomas, voice of Gill in Finding Nemo) equally at home in comedy or drama, as villain or hero, brings his many talents to bare for  the German professor Gerhard Hardman.

 Olivia Coleman is solid as Princess  Dragomiroff's personal maid.

Manuel Garcia (Magnificent 7) Rulfo is charming as Biniamino Marquez the Italian born newly Americanized citizen car salesman.

Marwan Kenzari is Pierre Michel, the ubiquitous conductor.

Michele Pfeiffer redeems herself from her awful participation in the terrible Mother! as the wealthy manhunting widow, commanding and entertaining in every scene she's in.

Luc Boynton portrays the fragile ephermeal Countess.

Sergei Polunin is almost comic relief in his intensity as the tightly wound Count, protective and attentive husband of the Countess.

Tom Bateman plays Bouc, playboy, friend of Poirot and ultimately responsible representative of the owners of the Express with style and contagious enthusiasm.

Penelope (Pirates of the Caribbean, Nine) Cruz, in a surprising turn plays Pilar Estravados, the intense missionary with an unexpected tough streak.

So go see this masterpiece of film making. Whether you have never heard of Agatha Christie before or if you've got the story memorized from a previously favorite version, you will more than be rewarded for your time in viewing this crown jewel retelling of the ultimate murder mystery.

* Branagh's Hamlet is the most spectacularly filmed Hamlet ever to grace the screen and the ONLY filmed theatrical unabridged Hamlet so far in existence.