Talking Movies

February 23, 2019

Any Other Business: Part XXV

What is one to do with thoughts that are far too long for Twitter but not nearly long enough for a blog post proper? Why round them up and turn them into a twenty-fifth pormanteau post on matters of course!

Reruns receiving runaround

I’ve previously lamented the attitude of millenials who veritably trashed a screening of Halloween in the Lighthouse with their stunning contempt for anything dating from before last Tuesday never mind anything dating from before they were born. I had a sudden realisation the other day; perhaps their attitude is born of ignorance in more ways than one – to wit, they were never exposed to anything from the past when they were children. The rise of reality TV has filled acres of airtime with witless trash in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings. (And night too sometimes). Look at the location location location of someone coming to dine in an escape to a new home abroad while flogging antiques on an Alaskan trip from a survivalist farm to the lobster pots. All those hours used to be filled with reruns. That is where as a child I soaked up the culture of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s: The Phil Silvers Show, The Twilight Zone, Rawhide, Hogan’s Heroes, Star Trek, The Man from UNCLE, The Champions, The Avengers, Land of the Giants, The Prisoner, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, Batman, Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie, The Munsters, My Favourite Martian, Lost in Space, The Addams Family, The Brady Bunch, Flipper, Mission: Impossible, The Flinstones, The Invaders, The Time Tunnel, Gentle Ben, Thunderbirds, Joe 90, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the MysteronsThe Fugitive, Dad’s ArmyColumbo, The Incredible Hulk, Happy Days, Fawlty Towers, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em, The Two Ronnies, Shoestring, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, Minder, Benny Hill, Citizen Smith, Three’s Company, The Bionic Woman, Mork and Mindy, Battlestar GalacticaDiff’rent Strokes, Grizzly AdamsThe New Avengers, Doctor Who, Blake’s SevenThe Dukes of Hazzard, The Muppets, Tales of the UnexpectedWonder Woman, and later Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son, The Prisoner, The Rockford Files, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, SykesKojak, and Starsky and Hutch. By the contemptible logic of ‘Ugh, I wasn’t born then’ I shouldn’t have bothered watching any of those shows. But those shows informed me to a huge degree: I remained aloof from general hysteria about The X-Files because I saw Mulder and Scully investigating bizarre murders as an American reworking with less suavity and more seriousness of Steed and Mrs Peel investigating bizarre murders. And I don’t think possessing a mite of historical objectivity to avoid passing moments of total hysteria is a bad thing to absorb from TV.

What ho, Clive Exton!

Well knock me down with a feather but I’ve just discovered that Clive Exton more or less decided what I was going to read for a good chunk of the 1990s and I never even knew. It turns out this Exton chappie was not only the scribbler who adapted PG Wodehouse all by his lonesome for all 23 spiffing episodes of Jeeves & Wooster starring Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, but before that he also was the main writer for David Suchet’s celebrated Poirot. Blimey! I mean once one knows the connections jump at one, don’t you know? The absurd moments of physical comedy with Hastings, the mischievous poking fun at Poirot’s vanity, above all the double act of the man about town who hasn’t a clue and the fussy man behind him who knows everything. You could almost view some of the funnier episodes of Hastings being a nitwit while Poirot solves everything as a dry run for Exton’s next series. And I lapped up both those shows as they ran simultaneously, without ever noticing it was the same Johnnie behind them both! Well, I mean to say, what? I might as well have taken Exton’s correspondence course on what to read for five years as just plunge in to Christie and Wodehouse as I did.

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April 10, 2018

What becomes a Christie most?

Can the melancholic approach taken in Murder on the Orient Express work for a proposed Death on the Nile sequel?

I was quite surprised by the melancholic tone of Branagh’s first Poirot outing, but that, more than anything else, even his energetic performance as an exacting, physical Poirot, was what made the film work. And with a 350 million return on a 55 million budget it is inevitable that the sequel set up in its final scene will happen – Death on the Nile. Discussing this prospect with occasional co-writer Friedrich Bagel (which I still strongly suspect of being an assumed name) he opined that it would be better to go for a Christie mystery that has not been filmed, like The Mysterious Affair at Styles or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Sadly, I opined right back, two things stand in the way of that – people would riot in their cinemas at the finale of Ackroyd, and marketers would riot in their boardrooms at the prospect of actually having to do their job rather than utilise the name recognition of already beloved properties. Alors, Nile

One hopes that someone in Burbank isn’t thus scrolling through Peter Ustinov’s IMDb profile. Ticking off Evil Under the Sun and Appointment with Death as the final entries in the Branagh Poirot quadrilogy, sneakily noting Thirteen at Dinner, Dead Man’s Folly, and Murder in Three Acts as potential TV specials to cross the street with to HBO if the Branagh Poirots hit a wall at the box office, or God help us looking about for young Branaghs for a potential prequel Mysterious Affair at Styles. We know that Michael Green will again be adapting Christie’s novel for Branagh to star and direct. Reviewing Murder on the Orient Express back in November I noted that Green redeemed himself from the double whammy disasters of Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049 with his melancholic interpretation, which saw Branagh and composer Patrick Doyle render the murder almost as a mourning ritual. But that card can only be played once, leaving an obvious possibility that will annoy the purists.

That card is the trump that left the London Times spitting blood this Easter weekend when the BBC changed the identity of the killer in Ordeal by Innocence. It’s impossible to change the killer in Murder on the Orient Express, and one would think the same applies to Death on the Nile, but a severe rewrite (in the order of the tortures visited upon Stoker for Laurence Olivier’s Dracula) could yield anything. It is disconcerting when screenwriters assume they know better than the Queen of Crime who done it, but then there is a general tendency to sniff at Christie’s writing as being mere three-card-trick-plotting, overlooking some wonderful sly comedy as well as much darker effects of suspense, paranoia, and cynicism in The Hollow and And Then There Were None. No, if Green were to change the identity of the killer in Death on the Nile it wouldn’t be totally inadmissible, but it would be a hefty task of rewriting to keep Christie’s logic intact.

It is a matter of opinion that the melancholic card can only be played once. Green’s invented character arc for Poirot, where he admits shades of grey into a Manichean worldview is similar to the moral agony endured by Suchet’s Poirot on the same case. But Suchet’s crisis was explicitly Catholic while Branagh’s was, predictably for Hollywood, a crisis in the secular Markwellian ethics of consistency; allied to the writing of Poirot’s OCD as the scrupulosity of consistency in all things. (Although I vigorously object to the tendency to dub any and all devotion to precision as OCD, rather than, say, a devotion to precision.) I hold that the senseless murder of a kidnapped child naturally occasions a melancholic atmosphere in a way that a twisted love triangle climaxing in slaughter does not, but as Green threw out large chunks of plotting and minutiae to focus on a mood, it would not be outrageous to think he could do much the same thing for Nile.

Bagel took me to task for harping on Branagh as a physical Poirot, declaiming that Poirot was a policeman so he should be able to chase people, and that Christie herself admitted she’d blundered with his age, being retired in 1920 he would be 105 when solving crimes in 1960s Chelsea; a mistake akin to PG Wodehouse initially locating Blandings Castle damnably far from London for later plotting purposes. I retorted that Branagh’s physicality distinguishes his interpretation. Peter Ustinov naturally brought a raconteurish quality, and his bumbling was a play on how Christie made Poirot exaggerate his foreignness to trick villains into complacency. Suchet, lacking that flaneuring spirit, emphasised Poirot’s prim and proper sedentary use of the little grey cells; more true to the retired from active duty to pure consultation of Christie’s first forays with the detective. Branagh takes some of the fire from Suchet’s Poirot, indignant at evildoers expecting to get away scot-free, and makes his Belgian less retiree, more Fury at large.

To end where we began Herr Bagel wrung his hands that there is no decent actor who can play Hastings, the Watson to Poirot’s Sherlock, without being ‘annoying’. Hugh Fraser was perfect in the part for ITV, and, by indirect associations; he had previously played a villain in Edge of Darkness, he was tall where Suchet was small; I led myself to the only candidate (sic) for the part – Toby Jones. Who, by good fortune, was recently in Witness for the Prosecution for the BBC, and previously played opposite the great David Suchet on ITV’s Murder on the Orient Express. Branagh is Poirot, Jones is Hastings, the sun is high, the Nile water deceptively calm…

November 3, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

The great Kenneth Branagh double-jobs again as director and star for a new adaptation of the Queen of Crime Agatha Christie’s most famous murder mystery.

Hercule Poirot (Branagh) needs a holiday. But a new case always beckons, and so his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) insinuates him onto the fully booked Orient Express travelling from Istanbul to Dover. Among his travelling companions are his previous shipmates to Istanbul Miss Debenham (Daisy Ridley) and Dr Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr). There’s also a missionary (Penelope Cruz), a car-dealer tycoon (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a man-eating widow (Michelle Pfeiffer), some highly strung and strung out (respectively) aristocrats (Sergei Polunin, Lucy Boynton), a Nazi professor (Willem Dafoe), a Russian princess and servant (Judi Dench, Olivia Colman), and the thoroughly obnoxious Ratchett party – shady oligarch (Johnny Depp), his butler (Derek Jacobi), and secretary (Josh Gad). As they run into a snowdrift a murder is discovered, and, before the police arrive, the world’s greatest detective must solve a baffling mystery replete with red herrings.

Branagh as director doesn’t allow himself many stylistic flourishes apart from a sustained track through the dining carriage as Poirot announces that he will be investigating the murder, and a startling use of a rigid overhead viewpoint for Poirot’s discovery and examination of the body. As actor he allows himself to sport a truly outrageous moustache, for an energetic interpretation of Poirot purposefully far away from David Suchet’s sustained and definitive ITV performance. This story previously made it to the big screen in 1974 with an all-star cast under the direction of Sidney Lumet. Branagh makes a better Poirot than Albert Finney’s splenetic turn there, and this screenplay is far less faithful to Christie’s source material than that adaptation. This is a Poirot investigation unconcerned with checking alibis against each other, and making lists of timelines, clues, and sleeping arrangements.

Instead Michael Green’s screenplay is more concerned with the mounting moral turmoil within Poirot as he finds more and more coincidences leading back to a horrific child murder case. If there is a word to sum up this film it would be a surprising one – melancholic. Regular Branagh composer Patrick Doyle’s piano theme for black and white footage of the titular crime lends the gory act an air of ritual rather than revenge. Poirot himself articulates the cost of the child murder not just in the innocent life ended, but in the lives destroyed of all those affected by the kidnapping and murder. And so, predictably, the detective who announced in the opening scene that there was right and wrong and nothing in between finds himself rattling his own sense of self by admitting shades of grey into his worldview.

Green redeems himself from the double whammy disasters of Alien: Covenant and Blade Runner 2049 with an adaptation that whets the appetite for Branagh in Death on the Nile.

3.5/5

August 5, 2014

God’s Pocket

John Slattery, aka Mad Men’s existentialist hero Roger Sterling, makes his directorial debut with an only intermittently successful black comedy.

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God’s Pocket, New York City is a close-knit working-class community where everyone is one step away from a mobster, even the elderly florist. Blow-in Mickey Scarpato (Philip Seymour Hoffman) helps out fellow butcher Arthur ‘Bird’ Capezio (John Turturro) in stealing some frozen meat to help pay off Bird’s 20k debt to local kingpin Sal Cappi (Domenick Lombardozzi). However, marriage to the lovely Jeanie (Christina Hendricks) comes at the price of Mickey being lumbered with her crazy son Leon (Caleb Landry-Jones). When Leon dies in a ‘workplace accident’, Jeanie insists that Mickey investigate who killed him, undertaker Smilin’ Jack Moran (Eddie Marsan) refuses to bury him unless he gets 5k in cash up-front, and a bad decision on horse-racing with the money from a whip-around puts Mickey on thin ice when celebrated newspaper columnist Richard Shelburn (Richard Jenkins) starts courting Jeanie.

God’s Pocket is a period film that doesn’t bother to tell you that it’s a period film. Apparently it’s set in 1978. The only way you’d know that it’s not set right now is that everyone physically reads and reveres newspaper columnist Shelburn. But even in 1978 it plays as pure fantasy that Sophia Takal’s attractive college journalism major would sleep with Shelburn so that she could watch as he writes his column. Director Slattery co-wrote this adaptation of Pete (The Paperboy) Dexter’s novel, but its tone is deeply uncertain. There is an eye-gouging of Mountain & Viper calibre, and yet it leads directly to a scene of deliriously deadpan black comedy; whose laughs feel gimmicky because this film is not light enough on its feet or dry enough to truly be a black comedy. Instead it’s half a drama.

The best example of how black comedy is deflated by a striving for bogus dramatic weightiness is a scene where Leon’s dead body is accidentally hijacked. Slattery emulates Spielberg’s wildly misguided Munich finale, with a juxtaposition of Mickey being cuckolded and Mickey falling and failing in his attempt to redeem himself. My interest turned to how Slattery had thrown a dragnet over TV bit-players for his casting (the guy who shot Bell in Elementary, the psychiatrist from Bionic Woman, the S&M cop from Bored to Death). And it has to be regretfully noted that Landry-Jones follows his awful, mannered turn in Byzantium with a performance so deranged that you can’t believe Leon would ever be hired anywhere for the simplest job; he is simply the character from an Agatha Christie novel who repulses and alienates everyone before getting bumped off.

God’s Pocket sees Hoffman and Turturro do their best with a confused script, but it’s hard to know what exactly Slattery was trying to do – make a rambunctious black comedy or a gritty drama?

2.5/5

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