Monday, December 4, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Murder on the Orient Express (20th Century Fox, 2017) – Director: Kenneth Branagh. Writers: Michael Green (s/p), Agatha Christie (novel). Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Colman, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Josh Gad, Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton and Marwan Kenzari. Color, Rated PG-13, 114 minutes.

The scene is the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. The police clear a segment of it of people. Hercule Poirot (Branagh) steps up and jams his silver-headed cane into a crack in the wall. He calls forth a Rabbi, a Priest and an Imam to stand by the wall, remarking that it seems like the start of an old joke. A priceless religious artifact has been stolen. Poirot announces the thief to be the police chief. The thief runs, is cornered, reverses direction and is knocked unconscious when he runs right into the cane, still projecting from the wall. The artifact is retrieved.

From the 1974 original movie, to the made-for-television movie in 2001, to the documentary-style version in 2010, we all know how this story ends. The trick for the filmmaker is to keep our interest while trying to throw us off-guard. Indeed, this was accomplished. Even though all the clues were presented as Agatha Christie intended, my attention was repeatedly diverted from what I knew must be true.

Even though I picture the inimitable David Suchet whenever I think of Hercule Poirot, Kenneth Branagh brought a little more masculine depth to the character. Still the obsessive-compulsive who is only concerned about justice, one can see the fire of the chase in his eyes. This Poirot stands more to the foreground than his predecessor.

Hercule is looking forward to a vacation, but he travels to Istanbul and meets his friend Wolfgang Bouc (Bateman), director of the Orient Express, and is cajoled into going home to London via elegant train to Calais. From there, those who read the book or saw the previous versions know what comes next. Edward Ratchett (Depp) tries to enlist Poirot’s services as a bodyguard but is refused, and is brutally stabbed to death just before an avalanche hits the steam engine and derails it while the four cars are perilously perched on a bridge-like support between cliff faces.

Poirot and Bouc investigate the murder and repeatedly, the clues refer back to the kidnapping of Daisy Armstrong. Ratchett is revealed to be John Cassetti, the abductor and murderer of Daisy. Each passenger is interviewed in turn and the plot becomes more convoluted with each interview.

The stranded travelers played their roles masterfully. Michelle Pfeiffer’s portrayal of Caroline Hubbard almost harkened back to Lauren Bacall’s in 1974. Daisy Ridley was admirable as Miss Mary Debenham in her anger and grief. Leslie Odom Jr. was a surprise as Dr. Arbuthnot (Sean Connery’s role in 1974) in his acting as well as being the only African-American in the cast. It was good to see Derek Jacobi as Edward Henry Masterman and Lucy Boynton and Sergei Polunin as the Countess Elena and Count Rudolph Andrenyi. It’s always a delight to watch Judi Dench (Princess Dragomiroff) perform with Olivia Coleman as Hildegarde Schmidt, her traveling companion. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Penelope Cruz in smaller roles were perfect as Biniamino Marquez and Pilar Estravados. Kudos to Josh Gad though, who filled the shoes of Anthony Perkins (1974) admirably as Hector McQueen, Ratchett’s thieving lawyer. Lastly, excellent performances were done by Marwan Kenzari as conductor Pierre Michel and the amazing Willem Defoe as Gerhard Hardman. Willem had to drop his Austrian accent when caught in an error by Poirot.

I usually complain about movies over two hours long, but not this one. The parts were played well, the special effects were realistic, and the camera angles beautiful enough to be art. The cinematography helped to know when the film was nearing the end. At his boarding the Orient Express, Poirot is filmed moving through the four cars from outside the train. When he’s leaving the train, the camera catches him from inside the train.

As he leaves the train in Yugoslavia, Poirot is contacted with an urgent message to come to Egypt. There has been a murder on the Nile. So much for his vacation and we know the next movie.

Rating: 4 out of 5 martini glasses.

O’Reilly’s Bar and Kitchen
21 West 35th Street, New York

For a place with as large a bar as O’Reilly’s I thought they would stock my favorite gin. Nope. I wound up accepting a high-top because it came with a black leather quilted banquette, which was quite comfortable.

Even people prone to getting lost couldn’t miss O’Reilly’s. The name is displayed in big, bold letters on its marquee-style awning, over the front window, and in bright lights above the Irish flag on the second story. Inside, the décor is stereotypical, with dark wood bare-topped tables, bare wood floors, black cushions on the seats, and sports on every video screen. All it needs is sawdust or peanut shells.

I ordered a Cosmopolitan – Absolut Citron, Triple Sec, cranberry juice and a splash of lime – when the question of Beefeaters was answered with a “what’s that?” look from the server. It was serviceable and stronger than I expected, but not how I would make it at home. Rather than order a second I saw the Key Lime Martini – Stoli vanilla vodka, pineapple juice, Triple Sec and lime juice in a graham cracker-rimmed glass – on the menu and tried that. It was a bit more interesting and almost tasted like key lime pie.

With the limited entrées on the menu, I took my time to decide as not one, not two, but three young ladies visited my table looking to take my order. I was flattered and a bit harried, but eventually I told one about my three-course routine before settling on two appetizers and a main course. Fortunately I had decided on a wine before the menu was summarily swept away.

The 2014 Callia Alta Malbec from Valle de Tulum, Argentina was surprisingly good for a screw-top wine. I re-opened it to breathe when the server capped it and left. Deep red color, nice spices, full body.

My two appetizers arrived simultaneously, though I thought I specified to stretch things out in time. The Dublin Onion Stout Soup was really delicious, with a rich flavor of stout and tasty onions. I forgave them the fact that they used mozzarella cheese instead of Gruyere.

With the soup came the NY Soft Pretzel Bites, accompanied by spicy jalapeno cheese sauce and honey-dijon mustard dip. I love big soft pretzels and these were exactly like one-inch pieces broken off a whole one. They were warm, and the jalapeno cheese sauce easily outclassed the honey-dijon mustard in assertiveness.

It took some convincing for me to order the main course as I’m used to jambalaya over rice, not penne (my least favorite pasta). But O’Reilly’s Jambalaya had jumbo shrimp, chicken, andouille sausage and bell peppers tossed with penne “rigote" (should be rigate) in a Cajun garlic sauce. The three meats were all there and tender enough with the bell peppers showing up occasionally, but as far as “Cajun” or “garlic” goes, they were only words used to describe the dish. Nothing tingled my palate with spice and nothing shouted out to me. It was flavorful, but just not jambalaya. But what did I expect? I probably should have gone with the Irish comfort foods.

When a dessert list is not presented and merely spoken, what would you think of when you hear, butter tart? You think of a pastry shell with some kind of buttery, creamy filling. If they had added the word peanut, it would have helped. The cream-colored cylinder topped with chocolate fudge, blackberries and peanut butter drizzles was delightful, but I would have lost a bet as to its appearance. I decided to go for the obvious and ordered an Irish coffee to serve as both coffee and after dinner drink and (surprise, surprise!) it was perfect.

O’Reilly’s served its purpose as being very close to the movie theater on a particularly cold night in November. Would I go back? Maybe on a stormy night.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

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