Talking Movies

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

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September 17, 2014

Wish I Was Here

Zach Braff finally follows up Garden State, but his second film as director suggests he needed Kickstarter money for reasons other than control of casting…

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Braff plays Aidan Bloom, an actor who hasn’t worked for quite some time. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) supports his dream financially with her boring job, and his disappointed father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) pays the tuition to send Aidan’s children Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and Grace (Joey King) to a private school. The catch is it’s a Hebrew private school, leading to a religious divide between the three generations with Aidan and Sarah out in the non-kosher cold. When Gabe’s cancer returns Aidan is forced to attempt to simultaneously home-school his children to save money, reconcile his equally underachieving brother Noah (Josh Gad) with Gabe while there’s time, defend his wife against her sleazy co-worker Jerry (Michael Weston), defeat rival actor Paul (Jim Parsons) for a lucrative role, and deal with the infuriating Rabbis Twersky (Allan Rich) and Rosenberg (Alexander Chaplin)…

It’s been nine and a half years since Garden State was released here, but all those skills are still there. The indie musical cues, the deadpan comedy, the unexpected drama – all stand present and correct, but the novelty and charm are gone. Braff’s script with his brother Adam is terribly muddled. Wish I Was Here, despite an unlikely Othello gag, isn’t very funny, and some sequences (Braff pretending to be an old Hispanic…) are just uncomfortable, because, shockingly, Braff’s not very likeable. There’s a crudity to these Brothers Bloom, and even Noah’s crush Janine (an unrecognisable Ashley Greene), that is quite off-putting; and which makes the sub-plot with Jerry problematic, despite a delightfully unexpected touch, because it needs more context for us to understand why only his ribaldry is unacceptable. In fact everything feels like it needs more context, but the film already feels far longer than its 106 minutes; it is that unenviable paradox – both too short and too long. And it also rehashes scenes we’ve seen done better in Studio 60 (the unexpected positive result of a disinterested mitzvah) and Modern Family (the underprepared casual adult teacher being supplanted at the blackboard by his smarter driven student relative).

Wish I Was Here attempts to deal with heavy themes, but Gabe’s terminal illness is terribly manipulative, to the point that you’d reject Aidan and Noah reconciling with him as a mere plot contrivance, because it doesn’t feel earned. Braff is no Michael Chabon when it comes to scrutinising American Jewish identity. The glibly sarcastic agnosticism of Braff and Hudson’s characters is largely the reason they’re acted off the screen by Patinkin and King. Braff seems unaware that proudly reminiscing to the sincere and kindly Rabbi Rosenberg about how he had a double bacon cheeseburger right after his Bar Miztvah is more likely to make us sympathise with Gabe’s disappointment than cheer on Aidan. Aidan and Sarah admit they have no identity, no advice, no metaphysical certainty; all Tucker has learnt is Aidan’s flip attitude. Gabe has bequeathed Grace the Jewish faith, language, and cultural identity. Aidan belatedly ripostes by reciting ‘Mending Wall’ by Robert Frost and ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ by TS Eliot… Joyce wanted applause for his Jewish hero in Ulysses, but his Bloom ate a pork kidney because Joyce, like Braff, lacked the imaginative empathy to create a hero who took his faith seriously.

Garden State was an unexpected gem, but Wish I Was Here suggests that Braff has actually emotionally regressed as a writer since even as his ambition has soared ahead.

2/5

October 4, 2013

Thanks for Sharing

The Ruffalo stars as a sex addict attempting to end 5 years of celibacy by romancing Gwyneth Paltrow– but can he stay ‘sober’? And will she want such damaged goods?

Thanks For Sharing (2013) Mark Ruffalo and Gwyneth Paltrow

Adam (Ruffalo) works on corporate greening projects, but his main project is keeping himself celibate. No TV, no internet, no subways: avoiding occasions of sin as the Church would put it, but this is the world of the vaguely defined Higher Power. Mike (Tim Robbins) is the high priest, handing out sobriety badges and brutally taunting lascivious ER doctor Neil (Josh Gad) to take the programme seriously. Adam decides to try and maintain a committed relationship with Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow), but, just when he needs his sponsor most, Mike’s drug-addict son Danny (Patrick Fugit) is welcomed home by Mike’s long-suffering wife Katie (Joely Richardson) – and his independently achieved sobriety challenges Mike’s AA self-righteousness. Mike’s inability to mentor also comes at a bad time for new programme member Dede (Pink), who bizarrely picks the recently fired Neil to be her sponsor…

Did you watch Shame and think that this subject matter would work better as a rom-com? Apparently writer/director Stuart Blumberg did… Edward Norton’s presence as executive producer reminds us that Blumberg also wrote the unloved ‘a priest and a rabbi walk into Jenna Elfman’ joke that was Keeping the Faith, and this is equally uncomfortable viewing. The abiding rom-com cliché occurs, Phoebe tells Adam she would never date another addict, and he assures that he is not an … alcoholic, will she forgive him when she discovers this lie? This film is rather like Love Happens, a deeply irreconcilable split between inane rom-com and deeply serious drama in which many actors are doing only one or other side of that equation. It’s tempting to suggest that character actor and co-writer Matt Winston is thus responsible for the compelling drama scenes.

Robbins’ self-righteous alcoholic who can mentor everyone but his own son is matched by Fugit’s rage and Richardson’s despair. Neil’s deeply inappropriate relationship with his mother (Carol Kane) seems to suggest, like Shame, that sexual addiction comes from sexual abuse in childhood. But then you have to contrast alcoholic Charles (Isiah Whitlock Jr) traumatically falling off the wagon with Adam relapsing with a prostitute in exactly the explicit joyous manner that Shame chose to make elliptic. The scene in which Adam and Becky (Emily Meade) then enact the creepiest role-play imaginable alienates us, because she’s so young she must have been a teenager when they were previously together, and it’s not clear that Blumberg meant for us to be disgusted rather than empathic. Neil and Dede’s story is endemic of this movie’s flaws: it’s structurally a romance, but it’s played as a friendship – form and content conflict.

There’s too many capable actors doing their best to dismiss this as rubbish, but it’s wildly misjudged.

2/5

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