Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Let me open by saying that I am a die hard Agatha Christie fan. But I have never read this book. I have no idea why but there it is. I have read and re-read upwards of thirty of her novels without ever reading this one but I can be happy about that because it made the movie a pleasant surprise. Being familiar with Christie's plots and heroes (mainly Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot), I can't say I was really shocked by the story's signature 'twist', but it was nevertheless a wonderful ride. Christie adds such depth and strength of character to each of her players that the climax is really not the best part of her tales. It's the culmination of that climax following a slow-like-honey narrative which really makes the journey all the more satisfying.
Lumet really tried hard to bring Christie's style and cynicism to the screen. I just bought the book and haven't read it yet but I got the impression that he stayed quite faithful to the original story. After all, Agatha was noted as hating all film versions of her books excepting this one-which she felt was perfectly constructed. And how do you question that?
Hercule Poirot (Christie's recurring eccentric Belgian detective) is traveling on the Orient Express when a large snowfall slows the train's journey. Along the way, he becomes aquainted with many of the passengers, including a high-profile American businessman-Mr Ratchett. Ratchett confides to Poirot that he has been threatened due to his large bankroll and asks for his protection but Poirot, not accustomed to this type of responsibility, politely declines. The next morning, Ratchett is found brutally murdered in his train compartment and virtually every passenger on the train is found to have a motive. As Poirot questions each passenger, we become familiar with, not only their individual histories, but their strange and twisted connection with each other.
The opening sequence of this movie really surprised me. It's a bit abrupt and disturbing, using stark newspaper headlines and stills to outline a grisly crime. The crime is very quickly left behind as Poirot boards the train along with the other passengers and we almost forget it until it comes back full force during his interrogation. I felt that one of the movie's only weaknesses was the connection the detective was able to make between his suspects and this crime using very 'Macguyver-ish' means. I'm hoping the book sheds some light on this point.
The acting by everyone involved is, quite expectedly, brilliant. Albert Finney gained a large ammount of weight and a very delightful , over-the-top accent for the role. He portrays Poirot with the same understated wit that the books do, while adding a slight effluence of character for the sake of entertainment. A certain scene in which he is preparing for bed truly drives his eccentricities home while at the same time irrevocably displaying his humanity-thus endearing him to us. It's a great moment. Ingrid Bergman as introvert Greta Ohlsson is also extremely memorable and may provide us with one of the greatest performances of her career. The slight fading of her once distracting beauty works in her favor here since it allows us to truly see the brave actress that she is. With so many great great thespians in one movie, its hard to focus on individual performances. Suffice it say that each and every one of them shines in their respective roles. So much so that the wonderful ending, which I won't give away of course, is a great relief to the viewer.
There are very few great 'whodunits' anymore. They seem to have faded away with animatronics and gentle heroes. But this one was a great standard setter for the genre and hopefully more of today's directors will reaquaint themselves with it and allow it to influence their future projects. I think they'd find a very large and grateful audience.
My rating: 9/10

Thursday, December 14, 2006



STARRING: JUDY GARLAND (and a long red wig)
It had been a few years since I'd seen this movie so, courtesy my dvr, I caught it again. Everyone knows me as an avid fan of musicals and this one meets most of my requirements. It's got songs, gorgeous costumes, and vivid technicolor that is hard to beat. It also has a credible lead in Judy Garland and her outrageous pipes. But it has its weakneses too.
The 'story' is really more of a 'tableau', if you will. A random segmentation of pretty family moments and mishaps. The Smith family is an All-American family with a strong attachment to each other and their city, Saint Louis. Leon Ames and Mary Astor play the Patriarch and Matriarch of this modern family and they do it well. The father is stereotypically gruff and the mother, quite predictably, dotes upon him. There is also a wise old grandfather, a snippety maid, and some youngsters of various heights. Tootie is the youngest. Agnes is her slight elder. Alonzo Jr is a grown son mooching off the folks (well, he IS) and the two oldest daughters, Rose and Esther, seem to be the veritable 'glue' of the clan. Rose is pining for a distant love and Ester for the boy next door. That's about it. Nothing really happens to this family and that's okay. We don't really want anything to marr the Norman Rockwell world they live in. But neither does it make for the most exhiliarating of films.
Judy Garland was considered a tour de force of American entertainment and I guess she was. I'm personally not that big a fan. Her skinny ankles get on my nerves (probably because they remind me of my own) and I find her pretty unattractive. Also, her voice-while undeniably powerful-doesnt strike me as particularly pretty. That said, the long wig and pretty clothes definitely show her off her to her best advantage and 'The Trolley Song' is one of the great musical moments of film-one song that truly works w/ her type of vocal. However, I believe that Margaret O'Brien was one of the best child actors and its her performance as michievous and death-obsessed Tootie that stands out in this movie. She actually outshines all of her adult co-stars, hamming it up while at the same time not visibly attempting to do so. There's a darling little number where she and Garland sing together that is especially memorable , if for no other reason than that voluminous nightgown that O'Brien gives an entity of its own. The performance is so charming that one almost forgets how deserving the kid is of a good spanking most of the time. I mean come ON. What parents are going to fawn like that over a child that has just caused a major trolly accident by playing a prank? .
The rest of the cast just kind of lays there. Tom Drake as the elusive John Truett-boy next door extroardinaire- is hardly the intellectual match for our heroine. Esther's infatuation with him is purely physical, if you ask me. But that's her business. Harry Davenport and Marjorie Main are always a joy but little is done w/ their characters to elaborate on this point. They're just kind of there to add some spunk and sass to this bluntly traditional family.
Minelli did a lovely job w/ the direction. It has the look of the era while remaining 'modern' somehow and the colors, as I said before, are fantastic. It makes the movie fun to watch even thru the insipid songs and bland performances. Actually, though I saw the movie yesterday, the only song I still find hummable is 'The Trolley Song' so that says alot, I think.
I gathered this viewing that there is a reason it is billed as a heartwarming Christmas Movie. Judy Garland singing 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas' is very pretty and of course the resolution of family difficulties in the midst of this 'most holy' of holidays is going to make a bold impact on the celebrating public. For me, it just came off as a bit forced and schmaltzy. But happy endings don't always have to be perfect to be satisfying. And it was still that.
My rating: 7/10