Wednesday, 22 November 2017

300 Words on "Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri" (2017)

Martin McDonagh is an acquired taste for sure.

I am no expert, but his stories are nearly always filled with characters that inhabit the greyest zone of moral ambiguity, and though his stories touch upon the most taboo of topics, there is an alarming lightness in his tone. McDonagh’s writing is snappy, fast, and laced with profanity. And his hallmarks are in evidence yet again in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

As both writer and director, McDonagh revels in his pitch-black piece of Americana; Three Billboards being a brilliant showcase of the kind of dark undercurrent which can run through even the smallest and most wayward of American towns. As such, when the film begins, all of the central characters are just out of reach of being likable, but we are given little choice but to follow them and, miraculously, by the end of the film, the hard shell which each had been encased in slowly begins to crack. Three Billboards is built on these performances – Frances McDormand rightfully getting Oscar buzz already for her performance as a vengeful, grieving mother. McDormand is captivating all the way through, and we feel her pain in each second that she is on screen. Sam Rockwell matches her note-for-note, however, and his redemptive arc – the much-needed light in the bleak world created by the movie – is beautifully played.

Narratively, there isn’t much to Three Billboards – in fact the story almost seems to lose its way by its second act – but by the finale, the end product has certainly justified the sum of its parts. Like the other Martin McDonagh work to which I have been exposed, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri gets inside your head and lingers long after the final images have faded from the screen.

Yes, an acquired taste, but one which urges you to sample it again. 

Friday, 10 November 2017

Thoughts on "Murder on the Orient Express" (2017)

(Possible Spoilers)

I could not simply confine myself to a finite number of words for this review. Murder on the Orient Express was my most anticipated film of year and, therefore, required room. Lots of room…


I think the only way to properly set the stage when discussing Kenneth Branagh’s new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s game-changing mystery is to briefly discuss my relationship with the two most notable screen iterations of the tale. The 1974 adaptation starring Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, and a host of others under the direction of Sidney Lumet, is a brilliant film. It’s presentation of the central mystery is engaging; the film’s suspects are beautifully-characterized; and it feels lavish and opulent in the best way possible. The 2010 TV adaptation for Agatha Christie’s Poirot, on the other hand, is a grave disappointment. Despite featuring a moving performance from David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, the made-for-television movie feels incredibly rushed, and its focus on the moral implications of Christie’s mystery feels lackluster.

With all of these thoughts firmly in mind, I went into this latest outing perhaps more excited than I ought to have been. But, why shouldn’t I be excited? Kenneth Branagh is one of my favorite actors. He’s also one of my favorite directors. Agatha Christie is my favorite author and Murder on the Orient Express I consider one of her best. The assembled cast – Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp, Leslie Odom Jr., Judi Dench, et. al. – was the very definition of top-notch. Despite these things, the final product did not match my preconceived notions nor did it match the brilliance of the ’74 original. HOWEVER, Murder on the Orient Express still emerges as both an entertaining and engaging mystery and a finely-crafted film.

Arguably the weakest part of Murder on the Orient Express is its screenplay. While parts of it shine – which I’ll come back to in a minute – its handling of the mystery felt half-baked. I understand that a more swiftly-moving storyline is just the way movies are told nowadays, but the script gave few of the characters the chance to really shine. Whereas in the ’74 original, each suspect had the opportunity to tackle a scene themselves. There were characters in this version who we barely got to meet or interact with at all. Even the handful of pointless changes to the narrative did not bother me as much as the lack of connection the script had with its characters.

Conversely, the screenplay created a beautiful character arc for Branagh’s Poirot. At the outset of the film, Poirot tells us that he sees the world only in black and white; moral ambiguity simply does not exist to him. By the end of the film, however, Poirot is forced to reconsider his stringent worldview. The 2010 adaptation attempted something very similar but the writing herein feels much more genuine. And, as a result, Hercule Poirot feels much more like an actual human being.

The acting across the board was excellent. Michelle Pfeiffer was perfect as the loud American widow accused of husband-hunting abroad. Josh Gad blew me away as the alcoholic Macqueen, secretary to Johnny Depp’s former gangster. Depp himself turned in an intriguing performance making the most of his limited screen-time. Whenever Depp was on screen, I couldn’t help but have my eye drawn to him.

Without doubt, though, the finest performance in the film was delivered by Kenneth Branagh. While David Suchet had 13 seasons to flesh out his portrayal of the Belgian sleuth and I am endeared to Albert Finney from years of watching his performance in the 1974 original, I can objectively say that Branagh turned in one of his best performances, and certainly one of the best as Christie’s detective. Branagh was simply a powerhouse in the film – his Poirot starting out as little more than a caricature and slowing being endowed with more and more humility and depth. Poirot’s transformation, therefore, could perhaps be viewed as the real heart of the movie.

Branagh proved himself just as adept behind the camera too. Of course, confined to the train itself for much of the movie’s runtime called for innovative camerawork, and the use of overhead shots, POV shots, and long-takes made for an incredibly visually stimulating movie. Having chosen to shoot on 65mm and utilizing the most select tools from a cinematographer’s bag of tricks, Branagh made his claustrophobic story feel grand.

Despite what I may have hoped going in, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express is not a perfect film. It did not usurp the hallowed 1974 version in my mind, but then again, I probably never thought it would. Branagh’s movie emerges as an engaging mystery/thriller of a kind which movie audiences probably have not seen much of in many years. In a movie market which is today flooded with cookie-cutter action films and superhero knock-offs, one can only hope that Murder on the Orient Express can prove that this type of storytelling is not dead: a movie which challenges its audience and encourages them to put their own little grey cells to work.

Monday, 2 October 2017

300 Words on "Kingsman: The Golden Circle" (2017)

(Possible Mild Spoilers)

I loved the first Kingsman. It’s loud, brassy, and irreverent tone made for a fun send-up of the spy movie genre while its over-the-top action made still made for an enthralling and spirited viewing experience. So, going into its sequel, The Golden Circle, I was cautiously optimistic. I so wanted it to be the follow-up that the first film deserved. In short, it proved to be a decent successor.

While Kingsman: The Golden Circle will probably not supersede the original in anyone’s opinion, judged on its own merits the sequel has a lot to offer.  The entire film seems to take the bigger-is-better approach to film sequels; the action set-pieces having been amped up considerably. In places, the action scenes bleed one right into the next leaving the viewing in a state of breathlessness. This does not apply to the movie as a whole, though. In fact, The Golden Circle is a slower, darker, and more cynical story than its predecessor.

And if there was just a single flaw with the movie than it would be its more serious nature. The original Kingsman never took itself too seriously allowing one to revel in each and every absurd detail. The Golden Circle doubles-down on the absurdity (see Elton John’s extended cameo), but it feels at odds with this film’s moments of darker introspection.

The cast – everyone from the returning Colin Firth and Taron Egerton to newcomers Halle Berry and Julianne Moore – were incredibly fun to watch. Moore is especially enjoyable as the film’s villain and there were a few moments where she was genuinely chilling as the deranged (and aptly named) Poppy.

If one is hoping to spend two and a half hours watching a fun film, than he or she could do a lot worse than choosing Kingsman: The Golden Circle. It is the very definition of an entertaining film, but it simply cannot top the even more unashamedly fun original. 

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

300 Words on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." (2015)

As a movie reviewer, it feels wrong to simply call a movie cool. Yet, when it comes to Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the cult ‘60s spy series, few words could be more apt. From its opening escape from East Berlin (showcasing the finest use of a zipline in film ever), to the witty banter exchanged at an Italian raceway, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. constantly leaves one with a twinkle in their eye and a smile on their face.

The film is one desperately in need of reevaluation. Upon its release, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. garnered only lukewarm notices, and while reviews which highlighted the film’s style-over-substance nature are correct, that is all part of the movie’s fun. The stylish costumes and 1960s aesthetic are part of what the movie so enjoyable and a veritable feast for the eyes. Performances from Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, and Elizabeth Debicki – as the film’s principal villain – are all slick and sophisticated, and each of their central characters feel authentic; as though they stepped from the filmstock of some ‘60s spy adventure.

It seems – from my experience, at least – that the reevaluation of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has already begun; the movie attaining something of a cult status in the few years since its release. Put out the same year as Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and Spectre (a fine film and a decent one respectively), The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is the one which most people seem to remember and talk about the most today. In short, its timeless feel gives it staying power, and the movie’s desire not to take itself too seriously leaves it open for new audiences to discover for years to come. No masterpiece, but a diamond in the rough all-the-same: an exciting, fun, immensely entertaining film. 

In other words, a really cool movie

Sunday, 10 September 2017

602 Words on "IT" (2017)

(Possible Mild Spoilers)

Going to the movie theater to see a film can be something of a gamble, especially with a film garnering such a following as IT, the adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel. The theater I was in was sold out; attendants having to direct people to available seats as they filed in. As the movie began, my fears were soon realized as I had to contend with the hushed murmurs from the row behind me, the occasional blinding light from a cell phone screen, or the man on the other side of the aisle who checked twice to watch a football game on his own phone. And yet, there were moments when the movie managed to grab everyone’s attention and, for a few moments, the sound of a pin dropping in that darkened theater would have sounded like a rumble of thunder.

Putting King’s titanic 1,138-page novel on the screen was no simple task and, I think it would be safe to say that IT proves to be more of a reinterpretation of the book than a straight adaptation. There are a number of scenes which play out just as they were written in the novel, but this film proves very much to be an IT movie for the twenty-first century. While it may have been fun to read about Pennywise assuming the personas of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and the Wolf Man in the book, seeing the B-movie monsters of old on screen today would have been laughable. IT employs physiological horror beautifully and emerges as a scarier product because of it. And, let it be known: this can be scary movie. While I seldom felt scared per se while watching, from the very beginning the movie put me on edge and unnerved me to no end. IT gets under your skin and never relents.

While the scares themselves worked on a technical level, the real lifeblood of the film is its acting. The ensemble of kids who dub themselves The Losers Club and who vow to destroy It were cast and acted to perfection. Jaeden Lieberher, as the group’s leader Bill, was excellent handling the dark, grown-up material perfectly, but it was Sophia Lillis as Bev, the only female member of the Losers Club, who perhaps walked away with top honors amongst the child stars. Finn Wolfhard, one of the stars of Netflix’s King-inspired Stranger Things, provided some hilarious (and much needed) comic relief as the group’s resident clown, Richie.

But, any discussion of IT would be incomplete without mention of Bill Skarsgard as Pennywise, the evil entity and titular creature. Skarsgard was brilliant in the monstrous role and, added with some truly frightening makeup, managed to be a truly creepy Pennywise. I feared that audiences might laugh at the frankly absurd notion of a child-eating, evil clown, but no laughs met this Pennywise when he appeared on screen. In fact, on the few occasions when I can say that IT scared me, it was Skarsgard’s Pennywise doing the scaring. In particular, the scene with the kids and a slide projector had me jumping in my seat.

IT is not a perfect film, but it emerges as not only an excellent adaptation of Stephen King, but as a good horror movie. Today, as the market is flooded with sub-par horror films, IT proves that Hollywood can still do horror right. There, in that darkened movie theater, IT held me and so many others collectively in its grasp; the outside world forgotten for a while; our knuckles white against the seats until only a scream could break us from our trance. 

Thursday, 24 August 2017

The Other Fella - "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" (1969)

There is a moment in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the sixth James Bond film, released in 1969, which is by now quite infamous. After saving Diana Rigg from a suicide attempt and fighting off two attackers on an unpopulated beach, George Lazenby’s Bond breaks the fourth wall, looks into camera and says that “this never happened to the other fella” referring to Sean Connery’s Bond. It’s true, Connery’s Bond never found himself in a similar scenario, but Lazenby’s 007 would never find himself facing a similar trial – or any other situation – ever again.

Bond fans the world over know the series of circumstances which lead up to Lazenby’s casting as Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (henceforth abbreviated to OHMSS for the sake of brevity), but for the sake of catching-up the less-informed, things played out something like this. Sean Connery, who rose to international fame after taking on the role of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, became disenfranchised with the part and the behind-the-scenes tribulations which went into making each installment of the series. Following the fifth Bond film, You Only Live Twice, Connery announced that he was stepping away from the part. The hunt was on for an actor to fill the secret agent’s shoulder holster and actors such as Michael Gambon, Jeremy Brett, and John Gavin were all considered for the role. The ultimate successor to Connery was Australian-native George Lazenby, a former car salesman turned male model. Lazenby won over Bond producers Albert R. Broccoli and Harry Saltzman and joined Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas to headline the latest Bond film. He had international fame and fortune almost overnight.

And then he gave it all up.

To this day, OHMSS is something of an oddity in the Bond franchise and, for many years, oftentimes languished towards the bottom of lists ranking the Bond films. It has begun to gain renewed recognition, however, and some hold that it is in fact one of the best of the franchise. Some fans are even willing to say that OHMSS is the pinnacle of the series’ run. I, for one, fall into the former camp, and the film sits very comfortably in my top five Bond films. It is one which I have returned to many times and I tend to find something new whenever I do. So, today, I wish to dig a little deeper in what is probably the most sidelined film in the James Bond franchise.

I think it is safe to say that the weakest part of OHMSS is George Lazenby. Very simply, he lacks charisma. When the script calls for Lazenby’s Bond to be suave and debonair, Lazenby instead comes off as wooden and unconvincing. He may look good in a tailored suit, but he’s simply just a guy in a nice suit. He never feels like James Bond. However, in the more humane moments, Lazenby does succeed. His tender scene with Diana Rigg’s Tracy in which he proposes marriage is thoroughly convincing. Lazenby also fares well in the action department. The fight scene in his hotel room early in the film (not to mention the cold open described above) both display a true physical prowess. Later, during the assault on Ernst Stravro Blofeld’s lair, Lazenby’s Bond slides down an icy walkway on his stomach whilst firing a machine gun. Again, the effect is thoroughly convincing.

To be perfectly fair, George Lazenby was not an actor. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was, in fact, his first feature film (a few commercial appearances not withstanding). For that, he should certainly be applauded, because I think few first-time actors could step in front of a camera and be James Bond. Lazenby gave the role his best shot, consciously never mirroring Sean Connery too much and giving his own interpretation, and that too is commendable. And, surely, the task of following in the footsteps of Sean Connery was an unenviable and daunting task to say the least; the specter of legions of Bond fans hanging over Lazenby could have helped matters any. Contemporary reviewers naturally compared Lazenby to Connery and the comparison was an unfavorable one. Like Bond in the film, Lazenby didn’t emerge totally unscathed.

Mrs. Peel turned Mrs. Bond
Of course, a weak Bond is a big strike against any Bond film, but OHMSS is not mired by this fact. In fact, it seems to compensate in almost every other respect. The cast is one of the strongest in any Bond film starting with Diana Rigg’s “Bond girl” Tracy di Vicenzo who, by the end of the film, has become Bond’s wife. Dame Diana was by 1969 already internationally famous for her role in the endearing spy television series, The Avengers, starring as leather-cat-suit-wearing Emma Peel opposite Patrick Macnee’s bowler-wearing, umbrella-toting John Steed. Rigg brings some of the same feistiness and charisma which marked Mrs. Peel to Tracy. She’s a free-spirited, independent woman and still remains one of the best – if not the very best – “Bond girl” in the entire series. Her tragic end is genuinely moving.

Then, there’s Telly Savalas as Blofeld, Bond’s arch-nemesis and mastermind behind the criminal empire SPECTRE. Throughout the early Connery films, Blofeld was only hinted at (appearing as a mysterious figure seen only as a pair of hands stroking a white cat) and finally appeared in the flesh played by Donald Pleasance in You Only Live Twice. Yet, Savalas manages to make more of an impact than both the creepy Pleasance and the campy Charles Gray who turned up as Blofeld in OHMSS’s follow-up Diamonds Are Forever. Savalas may come off more as a thug than a real criminal mastermind, but he is so watchable and convincing as someone who loves to be on the wrong side of the law.

Gabriele Ferzetti as Tracy’s father, Draco, and Ilse Steppat as Blofeld’s right-hand woman, Irma Bunt, round out the central players, and Lois Maxwell, Bernard Lee, and Desmond Llewellyn reprise their usual roles as Miss Moneypenny, M, and Q respectively. Lee’s M, more brusque and curmudgeonly than usual, is especially memorable in this outing.

Bond and the "Angels of Death"
(A word should also be said about Blofeld’s “Angels of Death”; the assembled young women who will unwittingly carry out his plan for world domination. Beyond adding a little eye-candy and modeling some perfectly ridiculous outfits to ‘60s audiences, a number deliver good performances especially Angela Scoular as Ruby. Eagle-eyed fans will also notice famed English starlet Joanna Lumley amongst the group as well.)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service features one of the better scripts in the Bond series as well. Adapted by Richard Maibaum from Ian Fleming’s novel, the screenplay stays remarkably faithful to the source material; something of an oddity for the time as it was at this point in the Bond series’ history that fidelity to Fleming was going by the wayside and in some cases, nothing was retained from the originals but a title.

The screenplay also allows for some fine action set-pieces. The attack on Blofeld’s lair, Piz Gloria, was probably meant to be the real standout, but the skiing scenes are where OHMSS really shines. James Bond would return to the slopes a few more times over the years (including the pretty much unmatchable ski jump stunt from The Spy Who Loved Me), but the ski scenes in OHMSS, choreographed and photographed by Willy Bogner, are truly remarkable. The skiing set-pieces are fluid and beautiful to watch. It’s worth mentioning that the Blu ray release of OHMSS showcases these scenes beautifully. Truly, of all the Bond films restored to higher definition Blu ray, OHMSS is surely one of the best-looking of the lot.

Lastly, any discussion of OHMSS is incomplete without mention of John Barry’s remarkable score. The instrumental piece-of-music used as the film’s main theme has become just as synonymous with the series as the Bond theme, and it is just as exciting a piece to listen to as well. To those who say that the score is Barry’s best truly are not far off the mark.

So, even if OHMSS may lack a charismatic James Bond, it manages to make up for it in so many other ways. The constituent parts which make up the film, when analyzed, are excellent on their own and, when added up, are very nearly perfect. As I mentioned above, OHMSS resides near the very top of my list of favorite Bond films and, if I may be so bold (and with apologies to From Russia with Love, Thunderball, and even Goldfinger) I think it is the best Bond film of the 1960s.

As mentioned above, OHMSS opened to lukewarm reviews upon its initial release; critics invariably comparing George Lazenby to Sean Connery. Even as the film went into release, Lazenby had already declared that he was not going to pursue the role of Bond further. Having become just as disenfranchised with the Bond franchise as Connery before him, Lazenby left the movies behind, only later in life suggesting that he regretted not doing another film thus forever becoming known as the guy who was only Bond once. Of course, what came next is well known: with the relative flop of OHMSS, producers Broccoli and Saltzman scrambled to restore the franchise to its former glory. They approached Connery to return to the series and, enticing him with a then astronomical $1.25 million paycheck, Connery was lured back for Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Tonally, the campy, bouncy Diamonds could not be further from the downbeat OHMSS and, if watched back-to-back, the viewer is liable to suffer from whiplash.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service may still be considered the oddball Bond film, but its status is not necessarily a negative moniker. In a franchise which has lasted over fifty years, its unique presentation makes it a really one-of-a-kind Bond movie.

And, for all of the other accolades and praise which one can heap onto many of the other Bond films, none of the other fellas to have played James Bond can say that they appeared, like George Lazenby, in a film has enduringly unique as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

300 Words on "Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte" (1964)

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane and its follow-up, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte are very similar films. Both were directed by Robert Aldrich. Both feature Bette Davis presiding over a large, creepy mansion. Both feature former starlets of Hollywood’s Golden Age either suffering or tormenting Ms. Davis – in Baby Jane it’s Joan Crawford on the receiving-end of the abuse and in Charlotte it’s Olivia de Havilland supplying it. Both movies feature character actor Victor Buono chewing the scenery like few others could in the 1960s, and both films feature extended prologues set many years in the past which set up the central mystery and conflict.

However, to say that Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte surpasses its predecessor would be a difficult statement to defend. Charlotte is a much slower paced film and, though it does supply a handful of gaudy moments of pure Grand Guignol horror, they are few and far between. And, while Bette Davis’ child-like act worked in Baby Jane, there are times when her performance as the titular Charlotte can become rather grating.

Criticisms aside, however, there is a good deal to like about Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte. It’s a more focused film than Baby Jane and feels less frantic in its story-telling. Its sense of foreboding doom-and-gloom is also stronger, and Davis and Buono are able to share the scenery-chewing duties with Joseph Cotten and Agnes Moorehead who both seem to be having a whale of a time.

Though Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte was conceived as the companion piece to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, its only when the two films are separated that it can be judged on its own merits. Its unique story – a cross between Streetcar Named Desire and Gaslight – is engaging and proves that Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte can easily stand on its own.