Talking Movies

November 20, 2019

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXII

As the title suggests, so forth.

star-wars-episode-9-confirmed-cast-and-returning-characters.jpg

“There are now seven different drafts of the speech. The President likes none of them”

With apologies to The West Wing… It’s been pretty entertaining hearing about apparently unbridled panic in private at Disney as they try to fix Star Wars without ever admitting in public that they broke it. Reshoots continuing until within six weeks of release, test screenings of five different cuts of three entirely different endings: these are the rumours, and great fun they are if you checked out of this asinine cash-grab when Han went for coffee; and was never seen again as he got into a lively debate with some patrons of the Westeros Starbucks about whether he or Greedo shot first. A particularly entertaining rumour has people shouting abuse at the screen as they attempted to walk out of a test screening after a bold artistic decision. Said bold artistic decision synching up with everything that has gone wrong so far it seems almost plausible. And yet… I half wonder if Disney faked footage of a finale so mind-blowingly awful that when by contrast a merely bad finale arrives people will be relieved, and forgiving. Call it the old Prince Hal gambit. If this bold artistic decision is actually real, and in the final cut, it constitutes a piece of cultural vandalism that puts one in mind of Thomas Bowdler correcting Shakespeare by giving King Lear the rom-com ending it so clearly always needed.

Very poor choice of words

I was minding my own business in Dundrum Town Centre the other day when suddenly a large screen started cycling thru shots from the new Charlie’s Angels, before ending with the misguided tagline – ‘Unseen. Undivided. Unstoppable.’ As the Joker aptly put it, very poor choice of words, as indeed Americans have left the movie monumentally unseen. There are a lot of reasons you could proffer about why, but let’s start with the poster. Elizabeth Banks’ name appears THREE TIMES. From Director Elizabeth Banks. Screenplay by Elizabeth Banks. Directed by Elizabeth Banks. ‘From Director…’ usually is accompanied by old hits, like Fincher being dogged by Seven until The Social Network, but not in the case of Banks, for obvious reasons. This is her first credit on a screenplay. This is her second feature as a director. The first was Pitch Perfect 2. Perhaps easing back on the Banks angle might have been wise. Maybe it would have been even wiser to have realised the problem isn’t just her name over and over on the poster, it’s the three people pictured on it. Kristen Stewart and… two other actresses. Think of the combined star power of Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu in the year 2000 when their Charlie’s Angels was 12th at the North American Box Office for the year. Now look at this poster again, and think of the combined star power of Kristen Stewart and effectively two British television actresses. Things get even worse when you see the awful trailer and it presents Stewart, the star, as effectively being the quirky comic relief to two nobodies. This film needed a poster with Stewart flanked by Emma Stone and Maggie Q to even get to the same starting gate as the Barrymore-Diaz-Liu effort.

Terminator 6 or 24: Day 5?

Terminator: Dark Fate has bombed at the box office, and hopefully this third failed attempt to launch a new trilogy will be the end of that nonsense for the foreseeable future. By the grace of God I did not have to review it, but I would have had no compunction in mentioning its opening shock while doing so. One of the frustrations of reviewing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was that the ending by dint of being the ending was considered unmentionable by good manners, even though it was an ending which made pigswill of much of the entire movie (and history) and it seemed Tarantino was deliberately taking advantage of such good manners in an act of tremendous bad faith. However, Terminator 6 in the opening minutes made an artistic decision that, once I had heard it as a rumour, struck me as entirely plausible given its similarity to the equally obnoxious opening of 24: Day 5. Denis Haysbert famously refused to return as President Palmer just to be killed off after mere seconds in the opening scene as a shock to launch the season until he was guilt-tripped into it by being told the entire season had been written around it. In retrospect he says he should have held out. That decision, to kill Palmer, was indicative of how Day 5 was going to lose its way to the point that I simply stopped watching; abandoning a show I had loved from its first episode on BBC 2 in 2002. The end of 24: Day 4, with Jack walking away into a hopeful sunrise after a phone call of mutual respect with President Palmer, was the perfect ending, for both those characters and for the show. But then the show had to keep going because money, so those character arcs were ruined, and, indeed, Day 1 of 24 (saving Palmer from assassination) became a complete and utter waste of time, and all emotional investment in his character over subsequent seasons was also a waste of time. Bringing back young Edward Furlong in CGI just to kill him off in the opening minutes of Terminator 6 was equally bone-headed. Suddenly the first two Terminator movies, the classics, were now a complete and utter waste of time. The last minutes of Terminator 2, which must rank among the greatest endings in cinema, were old hat to the eejits behind Terminator 6. If you want to make a mark on something you’re new to, it’s inadvisable to wildly antagonise all the fans who are the reason there is something for you to be a new writer or director to in the first place. If you want to create new and exciting characters, you have to write new and exciting characters, not just kill off important and beloved characters as if that magically and automatically made your new ciphers equally important and beloved. Tim Miller and Manny Coto. Sometimes it’s hard to tell them apart.

Music based on themes originally whistled by… Elizabeth Banks

To return to the catastrophic egomania of Elizabeth Banks you wonder if the situation was always doomed with her as director/producer or if a decent screenplay that she couldn’t have screwed up too badly could have been wrung from her pitch had she not donned that hat too, taking it upon herself to rewrite the shooting screenplay as her first ever screenwriting credit. The upcoming Birds of Prey is a paragon of the in vogue but absurd idea that only women can truly write for women. (As a corollary Agatha Christie and Dorothy L Sayers would no doubt be surprised to find their creations Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey cancelled for the sake of consistency.) But, even if you grant the absurd premise that only women can write for women, it doesn’t follow that only this woman can write Charlie’s Angels. Off the top of my head I can think of seven screenwriters whose work I have enjoyed greatly over the years that might have done a splendid job had actress/writer/director/producer Banks stopped hiring herself for every job: Marti Noxon, Jane Espenson, Amy Sherman-Palladino, Moira Kirland, Melissa Rosenberg, Stephanie Savage, Diane Ruggiero. It might be objected that their collective writing experience is largely for the small screen. Yes, it is. But then Banks had no writing credits on any screen.

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.

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

Blog at WordPress.com.