Talking Movies

June 28, 2018

From the Archives: The Mist

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archives reveals director Frank Darabont’s final Stephen King adaptation The Mist, where once again just everything goes wrong for poor old Sam Witwer.

Frank Darabont adapts and directs a Stephen King story…again. Darabont has only directed 4 films since his 1994 debut The Shawshank Redemption and three of them have been adaptations of the horror maestro’s work. I think it’s time to stop going back to that particular well…

This is Darabont’s first film since he took a critical pasting for 2001’s misfiring 1950s piece The Majestic. Since then Darabont has only directed 2 episodes for television and wrote a version of Indiana Jones 4 which was rejected. You will think of Indy 4 when watching his frenetic establishing sequence here. The Mist has a startlingly good opening, it really is very efficient at setting up a huge ensemble of characters in a very short space of time, but it sets a standard which the rest of the film fails to match.

Dreamcatcher star Thomas Jane plays David Drayton who heads in to town with his young son to get supplies after a storm batters their lakeside house. The mist that rolls over the lake soon envelops the town and people take refuge in the huge hardware store after reports of their neighbours being attacked by mysterious creatures hidden in the fog. The holed-up survivors include a newly arrived teacher Amanda (Laurie Holden), store supervisor Ollie (Toby Jones) and local psychotic Christian fundamentalist Mrs Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden).  King’s original story was oddly like a George Romero zombie movie in its message that people turning on each other in crisis situations are the scariest monsters. The roving camerawork by veterans of The Shield ensure that the tensions of this growing mob mentality are acutely felt.

The hidden monsters are first glimpsed in a superbly suspenseful sequence where a tentacle, belonging presumably to a mutated creature from the lake, tries to snare people from the loading shed. After that though the CGI ramps up and the monsters become less plausible and less scary as a result, despite some quality gore. This leaves Mrs Carmody’s growing influence as the chief source of terror. Harden is painfully over the top though and so her witch-hunting actions are shocking but not nearly as traumatic as they could be.

The sci-fi maguffin Darabont has to throw in really doesn’t work. Indeed the mixing of genres late in the film is just as disastrous as that featured in the finale of Indy 4. While Darabont deserves plaudits for not toning down the shock ending from King’s novella (it is truly horrific) it’s horror of such a different type from what has gone before that its power is reduced somewhat. The Mist does an awful lot right but in truth a looser less reverential adaptation of King’s novella would probably have achieved better cinematic results. Darabont needs to find a new source to get his cinematic groove on again.

2/5

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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…

September 8, 2016

Anthropoid

Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan star in a brutally compelling take on the cost of assassinating the Butcher of Prague at the height of WWII.

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Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) parachute into Czechoslovakia after years in exile. They quickly discover how deep the occupying Nazis’ regime of fear and infiltration has gone in their attempts to make contact with the Resistance. But with the help of Uncle Hajsky (Toby Jones) and Marie Moravec (Alena Mihulova) they begin a life of deep cover in Prague. Fake girlfriends Marie Kovarnikova (Charlotte Le Bon) and Lenka Fafkova (Anna Geislerova) help to deflect suspicion at these two loitering unemployed men, but it also raises the question of the nature of their mission. Josef is at peace that he has signed up for suicide, but Jan is eager for an escape plan after the assassination. And the assassination attempt itself raises moral questions; articulated by Resistance chief and Doubting Thomas Ladislav Vanek (Marcin Dorocinski).

If killing Reinhard Heydrich, Hitler’s third-in-command after Himmler and a chief architect of the Final Solution, would lead to the reprisal execution of 30,000 Czechs, is it morally justifiable to do so? At what point does informing on a handful of men to save thousands of men become morally defensible, or is it ever so when faced against an evil like the Nazis? Sean Ellis and co-writer Anthony Frewin don’t have any answers to these knotty questions, but allowing the characters to raise them elevate this film from gung-ho heroics. The deepening attachments between Josef and Lenka and Jan and Marie could become stock, but that the philosophical divide between the two men is amplified by the women; Lenka in particular is a breakout performance by Anna Geislerova as a soldier in the shadows of formidable steeliness who, like Josef, regards their death warrants as signed.

Ellis acts as his own cinematographer with a noticeably grainy aesthetic, almost a homage to Zapruder’s JFK footage. This is not a sumptuous recreation of occupied Prague, it is focused on the details of espionage, weapons manufacture, and assassination, and invites comparison with Jason Bourne for extended wordless sequences of practical spy-craft. Oddly enough the timing of the assassination places this structurally beside The Dark Knight, but building towards a climax of historically accurate honourable heroism that is as alien to Hollywood storytelling tropes as (the previously fantastical) 47 Ronin‘s finale. If there is one quibble it is that Bill Milner’s At’a Moravec is so ostentatiously introduced as a violinist, at which point your stomach knots that the ability to play will be taken from him; because sadistic cruelty is the modus vivendi of the Gestapo.

Anthropoid is not a tale of derring-do, but a muted study in suicidal bravery, which will leave an audience saddened beyond measure but glad to have seen such heroism.

3.5/5

June 14, 2012

Red Lights

Buried director Rodrigo Cortes is in more expansive form with this supernatural thriller in which a quest to debunk a fake psychic leads to unnerving discoveries.

Cillian Murphy stars as Tom Buckley, a physicist working as an assistant to Sigourney Weaver’s medium-busting professor Margaret Matheson in Columbus, Ohio. Armed with an array of scientific measuring equipment and a healthy scepticism about the supernatural they expose fake haunting and teach a college course on parapsychology. The loving bond between Buckley and Matheson, which sees him almost standing in for her comatose son, is the best thing about this film and once the film focuses on Buckley ignoring her advice and going out on his own it loses a good deal of its humanity. The object of Buckley’s solo run is the world’s most famous psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), returning to the fray after 30 years in retirement following the death of his greatest doubter at a performance. Buckley becomes consumed with refuting Silver’s apparently real powers.

Red Lights regrettably takes its place alongside Prometheus in what appears to be a regular parade of films all taking a bite at the poisoned apple of the relationship between faith and science. A poisoned apple because these films bring clichés and handwringing to the party and dump them there undeveloped and then expect a round of applause for tackling the topic. Buckley and Matheson represent empirical logic and cold disbelief, Silver and Matheson’s department rival Dr. Shackleton (Toby Jones) represent the uncanny and the will to believe, while Sally Owen (Elizabeth Olsen) is the student who, like Fox Mulder, wants to believe but falls in love with Buckley and so becomes his apprentice in the dark arts of detecting the hocus pocus of charlatan psychics. Olsen, so magnificent in Martha Marcy May Marlene, is tragically underused in this cipher role.

Cortes, shooting in Barcelona and Toronto, creates an impressively subdued winter atmosphere. The first confrontation between Buckley and Silver in which Buckley is scared out of his mind by Silver’s apparent telekinesis is very impressively staged, as are a number of very tense sequences of apparent menacing by Silver, while Murphy delivers the line “Ignore that, it’s just a dead bird” with wonderful aplomb as his character acclimatises to the uncanny hindering his debunking of Silver’s acing of Shackleton’s scientific tests of ESP abilities. Red Lights is a film with two intercut endings, one of which is delightful and clever, and one of which is truly terrible and inane. Cortes is a consummate actor’s director, and, unlike the immensely frustrating Buried, he also wrote this script but it fails when it prioritises paranormal pyrotechnics over compelling character development.

Red Lights is engaging for most of its running time, but it disintegrates utterly when it starts teeing up a revelatory conclusion even M Night Shyamalan would disavow.

2/5

September 21, 2009

Creation

A biopic of Charles Darwin that a creationist and Dawkins could go see and both happily leave halfway thru, agreeing that something so boring and utterly wretched wasn’t worth arguing over.

Creation opens with a caption proclaiming Darwin’s idea to be the single greatest in the history of thought, and then, for 109 minutes, casts doubt on whether cinema can communicate ideas at all. Creation is the worst of a biopic sub-genre (Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind) where great works are reduced to inanity by focusing not on the work, but, to paraphrase Creation’s captions, how the person came to write that work. You would think Darwin came to write his work by years of painstaking research, the formulation of a revolutionary hypothesis, and then months of hard graft writing up his findings by hand – but no! Darwin wrote his work addled on laudanum and guided by conversations with his dead daughter.  This conceit, like the flashbacks to his daughter’s life, is at first preposterous, then annoying, and finally unbearable.

The always capable Paul Bettany, bald but eschewing the beard of popular imagination, seems to be playing his own greatest hits. Darwin is a laudanum fiend and naturalist, like Bettany’s character in Master & Commander, who writes his great idea due to conversations with people who aren’t there, just as Bettany inspired Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Jennifer Connelly as Darwin’s religious wife is under-served by the script, although she and Bettany shine in the best scene of the film when they finally confront the possibility that their daughter’s poor health was because they married, despite being first cousins. Connelly’s character though is under-served because she is religious and this is a fatal weakness.

If you want true dramatic conflict you must give each character in an argument the possibility of winning or the scene is predetermined and therefore pointless. This holds even ethically – witness the astonishing scene in Sophie Scholl where Sophie is questioned for her anti-Nazia propagandising by a Gestapo officer in an intellectual debate in which every point Sophie makes is eloquently contradicted by him, and he makes points she can’t refute: the scene positively hums with dramatic tension even though he represents genocidal evil. In Creation poor Jeremy Northam as Reverend Innes is given dialogue which is comically bone-headed – his preaching on Genesis’ most absurd passages drives Darwin to walk out of service, while his approach to bereavement counselling for the Darwins involves endless references to God’s wise plan. This loading of the dice dramatically makes these scenes deeply idiotic, and matters are not helped by TH Huxley (Toby Jones appearing for five minutes) being more Dawkins than Huxley in his startling belligerence. Indeed his effect on Darwin in the film leads Innes to deliver his only good line, “I had always regarded you as one of those rare mortals with whom it is possible to disagree without a shade of animosity. I see that is no longer true”.

Evolution is, as Thomas Jefferson might have put it, a self-evident truth, but writers John Collee and Jon Amiel seem to think it so specious that they need a straw-man construction of religion. Ignore this bizarre farrago and instead try to watch the two BBC documentaries Darwin by David Attenborough and Did Darwin Kill God?

1/5

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