Talking Movies

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…

March 7, 2013

Robot and Frank

Frank Langella and the voice of Peter Sarsgaard as his personal robot make  for a most unlikely criminal duo in this compact caper movie set in the quite  near future.

01 (27)

Frank Langella plays Frank (how that naming decision must have taxed the  makers), a retired cat-burglar shambling forgetfully around a small town in  upstate New York. Concerned that Frank’s visits to a long closed restaurant for  his meals are getting too frequent his son Hunter (James Marsden) foists upon  him a personal robot (Peter Sarsgaard) programmed to attend to his healthcare  needs. Robot will cook Frank proper meals at regular intervals, harass him into  taking his medicines when he should, and force him to start gardening to sharpen  his memory skills. Frank pleads with his technophobic daughter Madison (Liv  Tyler) to get rid of the android, until he realises that Robot can be cajoled  into breaking locks. And his beloved local library just happens to have  something worth stealing for librarian Jennifer (Susan Sarandon) before the  books are shipped out…

Robot and Frank is a deeply odd  movie. It is at heart a caper flick. And like all capers there’s a lot of fun to  be had in preparing for the heist, plotting it out, dealing with the unforeseen  disasters that occur, and playing bluff with the long arm of the law. Jeremy  Strong is sensationally obnoxious as the patronising yuppie Jake, intent on  replacing the library with a hipster hangout because printed material is  obsolete. Jeremy Sisto is also good value as the sheriff who half suspects Frank  is up to his old tricks, but mostly is just harassing him to placate the rich  Jake. Peter Sarsgaard is obviously enjoying himself as the robot given to  ineffectually shouting “Warning –do not molest me!” at strangers who poke at  him, but this movie is really all about Langella’s disquieting lead.

Can you address a topic as serious as dementia in the middle of an amusing  crime caper? I don’t think so. Frank’s memory noticeably improves as he plots  his heist with Robot, but that feels a bit off. This is a future with technology  not too far advanced from ours, bar the (child in a space-suit) titular robot,  but the sci-fi leaves little trace on your memory compared to how a casual line  of dialogue turns out to have a devastating relevance later. As the children  dealing with their ailing father Marsden is thoroughly underused and made  needlessly unsympathetic, while Tyler is given more screen-time but her  character’s motivations are not probed as searchingly they cried out to be.  Sarandon brings far more charm to this role than last week’s Arbitrage, but this part is even more of a  cipher.

Robot and Frank is amusing, but it  feels like a film about dementia had a sci-fi heist written around it to secure  it financing.

3/5

October 6, 2010

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

‘Is Greed Good?’ is the new more reflective mantra of Michael Douglas’ corporate monster Gordon Gekko who returns after 23 years for a sequel dissecting the Great Recession.

I’ve previously dubbed Wall Street the film that summed up the 1980s. Its sequel aspires to sum up what the hell just happened to the global economy and largely achieves it. The film opens with an amusing prologue in which Gekko is released from prison in 2001 before fast-forwarding to Wall Street during the early summer of 2008. A flashy dizzying climb up the skyscrapers of NYC after young trader Jacob (Shia LaBeouf) parks his motorbike is reminiscent of David Fincher at his most expansive and signals that Oliver Stone has got his directorial mojo working again. The early scenes of this film, especially a Federal Reserve emergency meeting, are wonderfully crisp and while it doesn’t fulfil that early promise this is undoubtedly Stone’s best film since Nixon. The sense that he’s rejuvenated by revisiting one of his greatest achievements is heightened by his use of David Byrne & Brian Eno, down to reprising at the end Wall Street‘s closing credits song ‘This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)’ by Byrne’s band Talking Heads. Nostalgia also delivers an unexpected and great cameo, although on reflection it seems to reverse the message of Wall Street.

Jacob is our new Bud Fox. He receives an unexpected bonus-cheque from his mentor, Frank Langella in a wonderfully desperate performance, but fails to see the writing on the wall – Langella knows that his venerable investment bank is about to go under as a result of exposure to risky financial instruments that he didn’t really understand. This Lehman Brothers style collapse is connived at by his banking nemesis Bretton James, a wonderfully callous Josh Brolin, and leaves Jacob out for revenge. He is aided in his quest to hold Bretton accountable for the damage caused by his financial manoeuvrings by his prospective father-in-law Gekko. Gekko has returned to the limelight with his book ‘Is Greed Good?’ and has a history with Bretton. He would only have got a year for the insider trading Bud Fox implicated him in but Bretton sold him out on securities fraud and so he got sent down for eight years. This strand of the story is the film’s strong point with Gekko as prophet of doom, delivering a barnstorming lecture dissecting the credit crunch before it happens that is a devastating critique of modern high finance.

The emotional arc of Jacob becoming corrupted as he starts to work for Bretton even as he tries to get his fiancé Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan) to reconcile with her father, who she maintains cannot be trusted, is weaker. This is not the fault of Mulligan, who has one crackling scene of recriminations with Douglas over the death of her brother, but the over-extended screenplay. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is far too long and too cluttered compared to the straightforward morality play of the original. Stone maintains the importance of working at a real job producing tangible results, espoused by Martin Sheen in the original and here applied to Susan Sarandon as Jacob’s deluded mother – stung by the implosion of a real-estate bubble in Florida. Things all work out a bit too neatly here, but if a real job is defined by producing tangible results then Stone has produced an interesting companion piece that is well worth seeing.

3/5

January 22, 2010

Top 10 Films of 2009

(10) Crank 2 Jason Statham rampages thru the streets fighting mobsters, electrocuting himself, humiliating Amy Smart and generally incarnating lunacy in celluloid form. I saw it in a ‘private screening’ in Tallaght UCI and my brain is still slowly recovering.

(9) Star Trek I still have issues with the intellectual con-job involved in its in-camera ret-conning plot, and its poor villain, but this was a truly exuberant romp that rejuvenated the Trek franchise with great joy and reverence, down to the old familiar alarm siren, even if Spock (both versions) did act new Kirk off the screen. Here’s to the sequels.

(8) Mesrine 1 & 2 A brassy, bold piece of film-making, this French two-parter about the life of infamous bank-robber Jacques Mesrine saw Vincent Cassell in sensational form aided by a supporting cast of current Gallic cinematic royalty. Sure, this was too long and had flaws, but it had twice the spark of its efficient but autopiloted cousin Public Enemies.

(7) Moon Playing like a faithful adaptation of an Isaac Asimov tale this low-budget sci-fi proved that a clever concept and good execution will always win out over empty special effects and bombast as this tale of a badly injured worker having an identity crisis in a deserted moon-base was both intellectually and emotionally satisfying.

(5) (500) Days of Summer It’s not a riotous comedy, but it is always charming, it is tough emotionally when it needs to be and its systematic deconstruction of the rom-com is of great importance, as, bar The Devil Wears Prada, Definitely Maybe and The Jane Austen Book Club, that genre produces only bad films and is moribund, hypocritical and, yes, damaging.

(5) Frost/Nixon It was hard to shake the wish that you had seen the crackling tension of the stage production but this is still wonderfully satisfying drama. Sheen and Langella are both on top form in their real-life roles, backed by a solid supporting cast, and the probing of the psyches of both men, especially their midnight phone call, was impeccable.

(3) Inglourious Basterds Tarantino roars back with his best script since 1994. Historical inaccuracy has never been so joyfully euphoric in granting Jewish revenge on the Nazis, QT’s theatrical propensities have never been better than the first extended scene with the Jew-hunter and the French farmer, the flair for language is once again devoted to uproarious comedy, and the ability to create minor characters of great brilliance has returned.

(3) The Private Lives of Pippa Lee An intimate female-centred film this was a refreshing joy to stumble on during the summer and, powered by great turns from Robin Wright and Blake Lively, this was an always absorbing tale of a woman looking back at a life lived in an extremely bizarre fashion. Rebecca Miller inserted a great message of hope for the possibility of renewing yourself if you could only endure in an ending that averted sentimentality.

(2) Milk For my money a far more important landmark than Brokeback Mountain as Gus Van Sant, directing with more focus and great verve than he has shown for years, melded a convincing portrait of gay relationships with an enthralling and inspirational account of the politics of equal rights advocator and ‘Mayor of Castro’, the slain Harvey Milk.

(1) Encounters at the End of the World After a slow start Werner Herzog’s stunning documentary melds breathtaking landscape and underwater photography and a warning on the dangers of global warming with a typically Herzogian journey into madness whether it be an insane penguin or the eccentric oddballs and scientists who live in Antarctica’s bases.

December 1, 2009

The Box

Donnie Darko writer/director Richard Kelly ends his rollercoaster decade with an attempt to edge back towards the mainstream by aping I Am Legend and releasing a Christmas horror based on a Richard Matheson story. Kelly succeeds, to an extent, as his third film as director is closer in feel to his sublime Donnie Darko than to his vey muddled sophomore effort Southland Tales which was delayed for years before being given a notional distribution. But getting more coherent doesn’t mean getting better…

The Box opens promisingly, speedily establishing the lives of happily married couple James Marsden and Cameron Diaz and their twelve year old son living in Washington DC in an acutely observed 1976. The Viking exploration of Mars dominates the TV news, and this family, as Marsden’s NASA scientist and aspiring astronaut designed its camera system. A series of unfortunate events (including an incredibly odd scene featuring a creepy pupil disrupting teacher Diaz’s class) serve notice that this is one of those many, many films in which things will not go well for James Marsden. And sure enough into their money worries comes a mysterious box with a button under a glass dome, left on their doorstep with a card from Arlington Steward. Frank Langella is wonderfully sinister as Steward who visits them to explain the function of the button: if pressed two things will happen, someone they do not know will die instantly, and he will pay them 1 million dollars…

Langella is a fine actor yet Kelly does a very unsettling Two-Face style CGI make-up job on him to communicate otherness, though it is so effective it makes the plonky 1950s B-movie music that accompanies him seem scary. The 1950s B movie vibe ramps up as paranoia sets in that Mr Steward wants more from the couple than just a simple decision on whether or not to push the button and that he might not be working alone. Coincidences, a baby-sitter with a secret, an inexplicable killing by another NASA employee and a punch up at a wedding rehearsal dinner all broaden the terror of the story efficiently but then Invasion of the Bodysnatchers intrudes too obviously and our heroes start reading books explaining the plot. You are now leaving Darkoland, welcome to Southland. Cue embarrassingly bad special effects involving water, mutterings of conspiracies and aliens and alien conspiracies, and half-explained sub-plots involving time-travel, moral tests and free will.

Marsden is nicely sympathetic as the hero, infinitely more effective than Diaz whose now fading looks highlight her feeble acting skills, but the script’s convolutions defeat his best efforts while Langella’s villain is over-explained out of existence. There is much to like here but Kelly’s persistent concern with elaborate conspiracies suggests only low budgets which restrain his imagination can inspire him to succinct brilliance. Paradoxically, avoiding The Box could improve his work.

2/5

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.