Murder on the Orient Express

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

If Sorcerer has been called by some ‘the greatest remake ever made’, this new Murder on the Orient Express must be one of the feeblest. Despite the big names, Kenneth Branagh’s tricky camerawork, and a most complex ever Poirot moustache, it’s strangely ponderous and no match for Sidney Lumet’s glamorous hokum of 1974.

The earlier film gave us the pure entertainment of the original novel, but here the stars appearing have so little to do – Judi Dench stomps around with a boot face and little dialogue, Olivia Colman has no material to make either a real or parodic fist of her drab companion. Michelle Pfeiffer looks good but doesn’t beguile us with steely glamour the way Lauren Bacall did. Johnny Depp’s dour Ratchett is a stock, un-menacing, racketeer. And of course there’s no Ingrid Bergman! Even the famously mysterious scarlet kimono looks more like a housecoat from M & S. And the train itself isn’t a patch on that magnificent gleaming machine that swung into action to the wonderful Richard Rodney Bennett score in 1974. When I devoured just about the entire Christie oeuvre in my early teens, it was all about the retro glamour of the settings and the addictive and highly satisfying mathematical clicking together of the puzzles. Poirot was merely one vital part of the composition, a clever and comical egotist whose function was to be slightly ridiculous, yet prevail by providing the unlocking of the mystery. He was an inherently simple character with basic rules, who would never, like this one, step willingly into dung (merely to demonstrate his obsession with balance), or casually declare his friend’s companion a prostitute (to show how cleverly he can read people?).

This Poirot wants to be complex. From the curious, overlong opening sequence in Jerusalem – just when you’re keen to be getting on with the train business you’ve actually come to watch – which is just plain daft, with the Belgian resolving a dispute more likely to lead to serious rioting than the crowd’s respectful attention to the exercising of ze leetle grey cells, this is all about Poirot as a deep character. It’s clearly aimed at establishing his anal fixations and belief in absolute balance, the black or whiteness of each situation, a view he is to come to revise in the course of the film. But Poirot is not a realistic creation. This is Agatha Christie, not P D James, and we don’t really care that much about his development, what we want is colourful characters, suspicion, jeopardy, and a satisfactory unravelling. Even the discovery of the murder is somehow down-beat, with Branagh’s strange choice of an overhead shot zooming us up and away from the closed-in atmosphere of the train to a god-like perspective whence we can’t really make it all out. What should be an increasing claustrophobia, the ultimate in the closed room mystery, never feels febrile enough, leading as it does to the decision to make the final ‘truth-uncovering’ scene take place not in the train at all but in a tunnel where the ill-lit travellers are ranged Last-Supperishly along the back of a table. Why?

It’s true that one should not embark on a remake unless one has something new to say about the material. My fear is that Kenneth Branagh has spent too long in the Wallender world of scandi noir and is trying to bring more of a psychological darkness to one of the most ruthlessly puzzle-based writers of the ‘Golden Age of Crime Fiction’. And paradoxically taken away much of the soul of the mystery.

Seen at the Tyneside Cinema, November 2017

 

 

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Sorcerer

Directed by William Friedkin

Shown as part of the current BFI’s Thriller series, this film, more or less a flop on its debut in 1977, is a revelation. Following the Friedkin glory days of The French Connection and The Exorcist, maybe its poor showing at the box office was the coincidence of the release of Star Wars, or its particularly oppressive dark and nihilistic tone. Or even the slow-burn, run-of-the-mill opening of the film as it sets the scene for its four protagonists and takes a while to let us get a hold on what it is all leading to. Friedkin tells of the gruelling filming, and like other somewhat maudit films made in overwhelmingly difficult conditions and locations, it takes its particular intensity from that physical tension.

Four, unconnected, fugitives from the law, a small-time American gangster, Jackie (Roy Scheider), a Palestinian terrorist, Kassem (Amidou) , a crooked French financier, Victor (Bruno Cremer) and a Mexican professional assassin, Nilo (Francisco Rabal) are holed up in a squalid village in Central America. We’ve seen the reasons for their situations in the four vignettes which start the film. There’s an ex-Nazi too. It’s Graham Greene territory (there’s probably a whiskey priest nursing his liquor in some corner of that seedy bar), where lonely single men with secrets sleep in sweaty flop houses, and the locals depend for employment on the American oilfield in the heart of the jungle, exchanging their labour for rags, thrown-up housing and utter filth for their children to play in. It’s on the edge.

When there’s an explosion at the oilfield, the resulting fire requires dynamiting to be extinguished. Problem is, the supplies of explosives they have, which need to be conveyed along 200 miles of rough jungle track to the fire, are unstable, and any slight jarring could set them off. Step forward three of our miscreants, ready to risk driving it there in return for residence permits and a large wad of money, escape from this non-existence. The fourth volunteer, the Nazi, is soon bumped off by Nilo, who takes his place, accompanying Jackie in one ancient truck, The Sorcerer, while Kassem and Victor take the other.

What follows is an engrossing nightmare of nail-biting suspense, as the jungle landscape throws up every kind of danger: collapsing bridges, violent storms, potholes, bogs, dangerously playful natives, a massive fallen tree and homegrown guerrillas – in the end even the battered trucks themselves. Fundamental suspicion and enmities between the men settle down into collaboration, as, rain lashed, shattered and exhausted they drive themselves on in a kind of fevered madness that seems to have forgotten what their final aim is. Only to carry on. But, as Friedkin said when asked what the film was about ‘No matter how you struggle, you get blown up’, and we know that not all will survive.

It’s Jackie whom we most identify with. Scheider’s always been an interesting actor. Never the full Hollywood leading man material with his bashed-looking boxer’s face (he actually was a successful boxer during his youth), that intriguing profile, reminiscent of Belmondo, has always given him a look that has more in common with European than American movie actors, and that’s maybe why this adaptation of Clouzot’s classic existential thriller The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur) is so suited to him. Apparently he was difficult on set, moody and argumentative, which maybe enhanced the pessimistic and doomed nature of his character.

The final astonishing sequences of his journey show him out of the jungle and into a dream-like landscape of rounded dry rock cliffs, reminiscent of the barren Anatolian landscapes of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, so suddenly different that you really suspect they are in his own mind, as he struggles through the dark towards the gleam of the burning oilfield.

And then afterwards, miraculously, Friedkin pulls off the perfect ending – a tender moment of melancholy sweetness in the middle of all the squalor of the village, to the sound of Charlie Parker’s ‘I’ll remember April’. Meanwhile fate awaits in the wings.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, November 2017

 

Dead Man’s Shoes

Directed by Shane Meadows

Showing as part of the Cinematic Juke Box season at The Prince Charles Cinema, one of the best British films of the Millennium. Don’t miss it! 

‘God will forgive them. He’ll forgive them and allow them into Heaven. I can’t live with that.’

After Once Upon A Time In The Midlands Shane Meadows once more takes on a western theme – this time the stranger riding back into town with vengeance on his mind. The notion of a moral and spiritual framework is set by the opening lines, above, and despite the film occasionally veering into pure laddish horror territory, is never really absent. Richard (the splendid Paddy Considine), fresh out of the army, is back with his brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) on a mission to avenge something terrible that happened to Anthony  some years earlier, the facts of which are gradually revealed to us in a series of grainy flashbacks. The perpetrators are a group of bullies, inadequates with bleak lives involved in the petty drug running of Sonny (Gary Stretch) the local lowlife boss. Few film-makers of recent years have captured in such demeaning detail the tawdriness and casual cruelties of life in washed up small towns of Britain today.

It’s an extremely disturbing film, using long periods of stillness punctuated with increasingly frequent bursts of violence and action that makes one perpetually uneasy. One of the most disquieting aspects is the juxtaposition of rough humour with intense seriousness. From painting the faces of sleeping drunks to savagery is only one jolting step, unexpected and shocking, so that we are guiltily caught with the smile dying on our lips. But stronger than the horror is an immense feeling of sadness. Part of the strength of the film, I think, is its power to make us aware of ourselves as observers by the use of still, framed shots – a country lane, the bare framework of a barn, Fordian vistas of the countryside through square openings. There is a brooding sense of place, the familiar mean streets and interiors of Britain, the castle watchful and full of menace, giving a bleak, monumental despair to what is at times a rather overwrought story. Paddy Considine’s performance is remarkable, his face unfathomable, all-powerful, and finally pitiable, but even more impressive is Toby Kebbell as Anthony in a heart-breaking performance which keeps the plot grounded in realism despite its sometimes over-melodramatic tendencies.

The devastating revelation of what really happened in the past is followed by a not entirely satisfactory resolution, but Meadows nearly pulls it off, as the final, beautiful, camera shot rises from the earth and wheels above the community – the souls of the dead free at last, our own relieved withdrawal from the action, or maybe the grieving eye of the God who really will forgive even the last enormity.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, September 2004

 

LFF 2017 Loveless (Nelyubov)

Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev

Possibly the best film I saw at LFF this year. In Loveless, Zvyagintsev leaves the epic, half-wild landscapes of 2014’s Leviathan for the small-scale but equally devastated and devastating domestic urban edge which he portrayed so effectively in his 2011 masterpiece Elena. It opens with a series of monochrome views of a snow-covered riverside, eventually settling on a fairly bleak (I apologise for the number of times this word will appear here) symmetrical building whose doors soon open to reveal it is a school at home-time. I for one felt a frisson of apprehension at the subliminal memory of the mysterious unknowable kids emerging at the end of Caché. But we see a pair peel off to wander along the edge of the river, apparently two normal lads, and perhaps their world will be OK after all. They separate and we follow one as he saunters along, pausing to twirl a length of old police tape around branches overhanging the river, then heads home. Where all is definitely not OK.

Alyosha (Matvey Novikov)’s parents are in the final stages of a very acrimonious divorce. His father Boris (Alexei Rozin) tries clumsily and unsuccessfully to be a good parent, his mother, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) frankly shows her utter detestation of him, as an ever-present symbol of their failed relationship. Both are preoccupied by new loves, he with an already pregnant younger woman, she with a kind and prosperous businessman who already has a daughter living away – the only pleasant and successful parent-child relationship we are to see. Alyosha overhears a bitter row that night between the two about what to do with him, clearly an unwanted spare part to be left behind as they go to their separate new lives.

Next morning he is gone. The process of trying to find him reveals the extent to which a missing child is a common problem in the country. And as the police declare themselves unable to help, a specially dedicated band of volunteers efficiently takes up the challenge of searching. The powerful and mournful call for silence to listen for signs of life rings out through bleak woodland and derelict spaces, long-gone signs of human activity now more attractive, seemingly, to children than the chill spaces of their own homes. To no avail.

As in Elena, glass plays a potent role: mirrors to echo the narcissistic preoccupations of the adults, window panes, often splashed with sleet like tears, less protecting from the elements than defining the limitations and barriers between people. The huge empty window spaces of the old factories and social centres have no glass, open to the elements, a wild and cold world.

Mothers come off worst in Zvyagintsev’s view of the human condition, and we might find a little sympathy for the unloving and self-centred Maryana when the searchers pay a visit to her unspeakable mother out in the pitch black country – she’s as menacing as a witch in a fairy tale. No mothering skills have been passed on there, and you can see why Maryana longs for security and love. Boris’s future new mother-in-law is his nightmare to come, rapacious and controlling. Alyosha remains a huge empty space in the centre of the film, and as we flash forward to the new lives of his parents, we see no joy has been achieved. As Maryana pedals away desperately on her exercise bike in her RUSSIA track suit, she’s the one excluded by the heartless glass from the warm and prosperous life inside that she aspired to with her new man. No end to the lovelessness. It’s Zvyagintsev’s bleakest view of life yet.

LFF 2017 – Call Me By Your Name

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

In a London Film Festival where so many films showed destroyed, deprived, mangled childhoods, it was a guilty pleasure to bask in a young person’s world of warm, sensual privilege, of understanding parents, of a life of ease, food, and sweet melancholy. This lotus land of perpetual afternoon is inhabited by the affluent academic multi-lingual family of teenager Elio (Timothée Chalamet) in their Italian country house, where there’s nothing much to do all summer but lounge, swim, wander the countryside, hang out with other beautiful young people, flirt, and eat the good food provide by adoring servants. And compose and play brilliant music – for Elio is a talented musician, another virtue of this almost too charismatic boy. All skinny legs and peach-like skin, his summer acquires a sharper edge with the arrival of American academic Oliver (Armie Hammer), some years older than him, classically beautiful, relaxed and essentially, well, nice, as a vacation assistant for Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg). Self assured and politely American, he adapts quickly to the louche European ways of the household, and it’s soon clear that an attraction of sorts is developing between the two young men, exacerbated by the fact that their rooms are semi-connected via a bathroom. A langorous series of encounters leads to what has clearly been inevitable from the outset, their relationship almost a manifestation of the lush summer itself, and with the always attendant melancholy that, like the summer, it is too beautiful not to end. Such sweet sorrow. The final sadness, when it comes, is made sense of by the wise words of Elio’s father about how even the most painful experiences and losses are to be welcomed as part of ourselves. While, for me, its sweetness is a little one-note and lacks the perfect, irrational joy of Guadagnino’s I Am Love (and certainly the humour and critical edge of A Bigger Splash), it’s a film to bask in, everyone’s lost summer of youth and total pleasure in being themselves. Indulgent, irrecoverable.

Brimstone

Directed by Martin Koolhoven

A bravura turn from Dakota Fanning and intensely beautiful cinematography give this film what merit it has, but in what becomes a pompous, self-important tale of evil, there’s a feeling of wallowing in over-the-top violence and cruelty and suffering that is laid on so thick it eventually begins to pall, and that half-sickening, half bored ‘Here we go again’ feeling kicks in.

The evil is mostly wrought by the almost pantomimic figure of ‘ The Reverend’, played with full-on glare by Guy Pearce. The Reverend stalks the simple settler communities of the West unchecked over many years, received into churches and revered without question, though he’s so loopy that some church elder would surely have rumbled him. Full of the idea that his tastes, sexual and physical, are  what God intends for him, he has a particularly nasty talent for violence.

He’s the sort of man who doesn’t just hack a man almost to death, he also half-throttles him with his own intestines. Not necessary.  Rape and every kind of murder are his stock in trade, and you sicken at the sight of yet more brain tissue and torn flesh, which would be almost funny in its excess were it not that its visions of cruelty perpetrated on the female body, culminating in the graphic lashing of a 5-year old girl, feel increasingly gratuitous.

It’s all beautifully shot and well-acted, despite an increasingly  ludicrous plot. But to present some kind of feminist fable, wrapped in gorgeous scenery and the fashionable minimalist look of settler Protestantism, alongside broken bodies and melodramatic dread is lamentable, and a waste of talent.

Seen at London Film Festival October 2016

Black Swan

 

Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Utterly bonkers? Embarrassingly simplistic hokum? Much as I  loved mother!, I didn’t like Aronofsky’s previous, 2010 offering one little bit!

 

This film is utterly bonkers. Never quite quick enough, smart enough or shocking enough to be the zany masterpiece it might have been, it’s still entertaining enough, if you let yourself go with it. Virginal ballet girl Nina (Natalie Portman), has the bedroom of a pre-teen, does what her (‘I gave my career up for you’) mother tells her, scratches herself till she bleeds, and believes that only technique, dedication and practice make perfect. Big bad Svengali-like choreographer Thomas (Vincent Cassel) wants her to be his next prima ballerina, after his previous ‘Little Princess’ Beth (Winona Ryder) is cast out as being too old, but something’s missing – something to do with that ‘virginal’ bit…

To be perfect in his new production of Swan Lake Nina must dance the part of both the (good) white and (evil) black swan – mirror images of each other, and don’t we know it, as mirrors are seldom absent from the screen. According to Thomas, she won’t bring true passion to the black version until she’s experienced the pleasures of sex (just with herself will do at a pinch – ouch), and abandoned her self control. Trouble is, though it seems to work for the part, this makes her go even more weird than she already is, and not in a good way. This funny idea, that a woman can only really find herself and thereby be a true artist through sex, and then when she’s done that it’s driven her mad, is not really acceptable these days, but you can’t really feel angry with Mr Aronofsky for it, as he presents it in such a charmingly nutty way. In fact it seems to run way beyond his control as the film progresses, mixing elements of Repulsion (young woman goes mad), Carrie (adolescent goes mad) The Red Shoes (dancer goes mad), Suspiria (everyone is mad) All About Eve (older performer pushed out by younger), and even 42nd Street (old hoofer breaks leg and gives way for younger – how refreshing it would have been if Thomas’s previous ‘Little Princess’ had hobbled along like the ghost at the feast to join in the fun backstage for the cataclysmic first night, just like Bebe Daniels did).

Ballet people seem to have in general taken against it, which is not surprising, though their gripe in many cases seems to be that a real dancer would have been better for the role than mere actress Natalie Portman– though what difference that would have made is difficult to grasp. More to the point might be that it presents a warped view of the world of ballet, deliriously piling on self-harm and anorexia, bitchy corps de ballet, arrested development, scheming rivals, lesbianism, egomaniac choreographers and loony mothers (though Barbara Hershey’s ma provides the only character I felt sympathy with –should I be worried by this?), and one can’t help but feel sorry for the cast as a whole, with a script full of terrible clichés to match. Poor old Cassel looks visibly harrowed by some of the awful lines he has to deliver. And yet it is never quite delirious enough to raise it to the mind-altering and mythic level of, say, Suspiria. Still, there’s enough to enjoy – just occasionally Aronovsky gets the hysteria right – the final transformation into evil swan is breathtaking – and Natalie Portman certainly goes through the mill to give her all in physical and emotional turmoil.

in many ways it’s a tremendous disappointment after the same director’s masterpiece of 2008 The Wrestler – the febrile world of performance, the physical punishment, are present in both, but while he pulled out of the seedy world of wrestling, against the odds, something noble and decent, strangely here he does the reverse – he reduces an admired art form to what is mostly almost embarrassingly simplistic hokum.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle, 26 January 2011