Kenneth Branagh is at it again, with a dialog-driven, murder mystery that in a lot of cases, didn't need to be re-made.
As a railfan and 70mm buff, this was a movie I've been anxious to watch for quite sometime.
Murder on the Orient Express is the very simple "who done it" with the twist of a seemingly random journey that puts one of the best detectives in the world, in the heart of a crime only he can solve. The Agatha Christie story has been modified heavily for this new venture, the writers taking some of the best elements of her writing and adding some new twists and turns in hopes to revitalize the story. It's clear from the first scene, Branagh's intentions were to make an "actor's" piece, rather than one of sheer entertainment. Where this film falls short is with it's characters, less it's casting choices. Unfortunately, whether due to time or financial constraints, even the most talkative characters feel very flat and missing important dynamics. Every time you want more from them, the filmmakers cut away. Every time the filmmakers show you more, it feels poorly written and doesn't make sense. I would make the assumption it was pretty long and it was substantially cut down. Furthermore, the lead character Hercule Poirot, has a heavy French accent and talks very fast. So much of the critical clever dialog can be missed with the blink of an eye. This is unfortunate because within the script, there are some good moments, it's just the translation from actor to audience, was weak.
In terms of the production, this was a massive undertaking because they couldn't afford to shoot on location, so the entire movie was made on the backlot. This includes the grand station at the beginning, nearly all of the train scenes and of course, the mountain cosway which is where most the film takes place. There is "some" real train footage in the movie, but only a few seconds here and there. Unfortunately as a consequence, there are a lot of visual effects shots. Mostly set extensions, but almost all of the wide shots of the train, is done in CG, which is unfortunate.
Branagh only works on film and he felt this movie deserved the "royal" treatment and would be entirely shot on 5 perf 65mm. He had worked with 65mm making 'Hamlet' and was excited to do it again. The cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, has worked with Branagh a few other times and was excited about working on large format. They shot most scenes with 2 cameras, and some of the bigger scenes that didn't have dialog, they used upwards of three cameras. This allowed them to shoot very fast and with a very experienced cast, it was easy to bang out scenes without much fuss or re-shooting. Since the film was being shot in the UK, they used Cinelab UK's 65mm processing machines and had overnight dailies, which was a perfectly acceptable workflow. The camera seems to be always in motion, either on a dolly, steadicam or jib/crane. This created a really nice look, along with some excellent lighting choices from Zambarloukos. Instead of using green screen outside the windows of the moving train, VER provided the world's largest LED display solution for a movie. Zambarloukos shot plates in New Zealand on a rail line up in the mountains. They shot with both 65mm and digital cameras and wound up only using the digital media for those plates. With that said, the 65mm format was so crisp, you could tell the background was projected, which was a real shame. Had it been shot on anamorphic 35mm, you may not have been able to tell.
I felt over-all cinematography wise, the film was made like a typical hollywood venture. Outside of a few cool shots, like the steadicam shot which goes through the entire train and shooting through some of the beautiful glasswork inside the coaches, there wasn't anything really outstanding to see. The production simply felt rushed and they weren't taking many risks, especially in the cinematography department. Much of the film is comprised of two shot dialog scenes, cutting between an A/B camera in a small room. This doesn't lend itself to very "exciting" cinematography unfortunately. Movies like 'Hateful Eight' suffer from similar maladies, struggling to mix creativity with story, timeframe and budget. I don't blame Zambarloukos at all, I simply think they didn't have the wherewithal to allow him to shine.
This leads me to the subject of 65mm and the travesty of post production. Due to the film being made/finished in the UK, they decided very early on to do post digitally. This was truly unfortunate because this movie like 'Hateful Eight' and 'Dunkirk' would have been really nice to see as a photochemical finish. Instead we got a very "digital" looking movie, even on 70mm prints. The post production was also done at 2.40:1 aspect ratio, so in the theaters it felt different than a normal 70mm movie. There were dozens of moments throughout the movie where the dynamics were substantially reduced, as if they were simply lasering out a DCI-P3 version of the film, which may have been the case. The black retention was decent however, I felt overall that was one of the positives. It was nice to see details in the rich deep blacks, something you rarely see digitally without them being lifted.
The print at Arclight Hollywood was a tiny bit dirty, but no scratches or sign of any other wear. Three trailers were included on the print and one of which was PT Andersons new movie; 'The Phantom Thread' which will be released on 70mm in December. Unfortunately, Arclight wasn't using their most calibrated projector so the brightness consistency across the screen was lacking. Registration was good and the image was bright, just not the most perfect presentation overall.
In summary, the production felt rushed, post felt rushed and even the printmaking and projection felt rushed. This left me semi-unsatisfied and at one point, I nearly dozed off because frankly, it just wasn't that interesting of a movie. There were a lot of great elements, but no glue to hold them together. Technically it wasn't anything to write home about either, which was disappointing. Even the score was very 2nd rate and lackluster, which was a real shame. There really wasn't any "redeeming" value to the movie and that's the biggest problem.
Worth the watch on home video, but now that the prints are about to be retracted, I wouldn't bother seeing on the big screen. Hopefully Fox makes some money off the prints and see's the value in perhaps striking more for future releases.