Johnny Depp

Murder on the Orient Express

I’ve always loved a good mystery. When I was a kid I used to read Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew and the like. I marveled at the mental dexterity and nearly prescient reasoning those young sleuths displayed. Moreover, there’s just something about a good mystery that feels comforting, yet thrilling. Couple my affinity for mystery with an enjoyment of ensemble films, and there was no way I’d miss Murder on the Orient Express. It was a treat to watch our charming protagonist, the affably eccentric Hercule Poirot in action, extracting information from suspects both willing and unwilling.

Although some viewers may be familiar with Poirot (Kenneth Branagh, Dunkirk), the film begins with an effective introduction to the genteel gumshoe, as he solves a theft by uncovering the smallest, most inconspicuous clue. Watching Poirot is like a master class in crime solving. His reputation precedes him, and those being interrogated often police themselves, dispensing with lies without bothering to try to stump the ever-observant Poirot. When our vaunted detective finds himself aboard the Orient Express, the stage is set. Poirot is headed to London to consult on a homicide, but not before meeting a colorful cast of characters aboard the train, one of whom will become a victim themselves.

Most notable among the passengers are Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales), a seedy underworld type running from a mysterious foe, along with Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his companion Mary (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), two acquaintances who are curiously pretending to be strangers, and Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer, Mother!) a saucy older woman looking for a good time. Rounding out the bunch are an assortment of other passengers, including a wealthy grand dame (Judi Dench, Victoria and Abdul), a religious domestic worker (Penelope Cruz, Zoolander 2), and Mr. Ratchett’s assistant Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad, Beauty and the Beast).

Quite simply, the crux of the movie is the murder of one of the dozen or so passengers. The ambience of the confined space and the proximity of the guests to one another make for a taut and suspenseful journey. I found myself trying to think as Poirot, to observe as he did. Nothing was what it appeared to be, and the storyline kept me in suspense without being intellectually dishonest. While the pacing and emphasis on dialogue won’t appeal to everyone, I never lost interest thanks in large part to Kenneth Branagh’s jovial turn. He seemed to relish the role, and it was fun to watch him be the smartest person in the room. Or in this case, on the train.

Murder on the Orient Express will appeal more to grandmothers than millennials, due to its slow pace and the genteel nature of its protagonist. It wasn’t an action-packed nonstop thrill ride; it was a quiet, enjoyable film for those who enjoy a good mystery. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if the trailer piqued your curiosity at all, I think you’ll be pleased.

Grade: B+

The Rum Diary

I didn’t know what to think of The Rum Diary when I first saw the trailer, but I was intrigued.  It’s based on the semi-autobiographical (but fictional) novel of the same name by famed author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson.  Thompson is a pop culture icon, known for his ardent rejection of conformity and for pioneering “gonzo” journalism.

Johnny Depp (Alice in Wonderland) is always a potential draw for me, though I don’t usually find his quirkiness appealing.  In The Rum Diary he portrays journalist Paul Kemp with a relatable quality not found in most of his roles.  Kemp is in 1960’s Puerto Rico to write for a fledgling newspaper.  He wants to comment on the political turmoil in San Juan, but his editor wants fluff pieces to appease their readership.  Kemp decides to take what he can get, and initially he’s hired for the mundane task of writing horoscopes.

The Rum Diary was patterned after Hunter S. Thompson’s brief time in Puerto Rico when he applied (and was rejected) for a job at a newspaper, but still made friends and acclimated himself to the local area.  Puerto Rico plays like a town where the rum runs freely and following the rules is optional. When Kemp meets a former newspaper employee turned hotshot named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart, The Dark Knight), he gets a chance to line his pockets and keep his editor at bay.  Sanderson and some other influential but corrupt locals want to develop untouched Puerto Rican soil and need Kemp to insert certain viewpoints in his articles to soften up the public when they hear about the increased taxes they will have to pay to fund the project.  In addition to trying to bridge the gap between his personal and professional spheres, Kemp’s life is complicated by his attraction to Sanderson’s girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard, Drive Angry), a fetching blonde he meets by chance only to find out later that she belongs to another.

Again, Paul Kemp is loosely patterned after Hunter S. Thompson.  To that end, he’s a raging alcoholic, but quite an endearing chap. Depp is very good as the hapless but earnest journalist trying to do relevant work without selling out.  His time in Puerto Rico is one misadventure after another, as his friendship and arrangement with Sanderson begins to unravel when his affinity for Chenault leads to trouble.  Everyone needs a trusty sidekick, and Kemp’s is a fellow journalist named Sala.  Together they drink and stumble their way through the streets of San Juan, and it doesn’t seem like these reporters ever do much writing.

I don’t really know what to make of The Rum Diary.  I enjoyed it because it was entertaining, and Puerto Rico was an inviting setting tailor made for debauchery.  It was a fun and interesting movie, as I wondered what would become of Chenault and Kemp and whether the newspaper would eventually fold.  However, there was an unmistakable lull in the film, where the viewer wondered just what the hell was going on.  One scene in particular was very trippy, as Kemp and Sala endure a drug-induced stupor.

It’s hard to encapsulate just what this film was all about.  It played like a very interesting “day in the life” of so-and-so type of movie, but I’m not sure if there was a larger point to be made.  I haven’t read the book, but I’ll bet it was a page-turner, if the movie was any indication.  I’m just not sure everyone will like it or “get” it.  From a visual standpoint I thought it was cool and funny at times, but it wasn’t too deep or meaningful.  Fans of the late Thompson may appreciate the manic, boozy feel of Kemp’s tale – but everyone else may be a little ho hum about it.  If you’re a fan of Depp or Thompson or you just want to leer at Amber Heard, check it out.  Otherwise, this will make a nice little flick to catch on HBO in a few months.

This article first appeared at http://poptimal.com/2011/11/the-rum-diary-review-a-boozy-joyride/ and was reprinted with permission.