Murder on the Orient Express film review ****

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Murder on the Orient Express, 27th November 2017

Stage or film, acting, managing, directing or producing, Sir Kenneth Branagh always makes sure he is right at the centre of things. Always has done. I bet he even pops out to Starbucks when it is his turn to get the lattes in. He probably even organises the on-set Secret Santa. And why not. He is bloody good at what he does and he can get things done. I confess not everything he does is entertainment gold but you can’t argue with his record. In his last eponymous season at the Garrick, (move over Davey boy), in 2015 his Leontes was immense and his physical comedy in The Painkiller belied his 55 years. And you can take your pick of his proselytising Shakespeare leads, stage or screen, (we could do with a real life version his Henry V right now I reckon). The man loves Shakespeare so as far as I am concerned he can do no wrong. The thing is that Sir Ken is an almighty show-off, which, let’s face it, is no bad thing for an actor to be.

So why shouldn’t he have some fun with Agatha C’s arguably most ingenious whodunnit. Yes it has been done to death (tee, hee), and we all know how it ends, but who cares when it is this much fun. With a couple of exceptions, (Johnny Depp, quelle surprise, as pantomime villain, and, to a lesser extent, Michelle Pfeiffer, as a cougarish, femme fatale), the stellar cast he has assembled doesn’t have a lot of opportunity to start chewing the scenery, but it is good to have them along for the ride. And Branagh himself is so mannered as Poirot, complete with risible accent, ludicrous moustache, immaculate suit and, especially at the end, bouts of preposterous philosophising, that it makes up for the under-utilisation elsewhere. Penelope Cruz gets to do buttoned up, doom laden Catholic, (Spanish obviously not the character’s original Swedish though that might have been a fun accent), William Dafoe, a BOGOF routine, with a sinister, racist Austrian before reverting to type, Judi Dench a haughty, mittel-European grunt, Derek Jacobi an Ealing-style, gor-blimey butler and Daisy Ridley an incredulous toff. The talents of, in particular, Manuel Garcia-Rolfo and Olivia Colman get less of an airing, which is a shame, but blame AC for serving up her Last Supper of suspects (a motif that is mined by KB).

Sir Ken takes a similarly selfish approach to his directorial duties coming over all Orson Welles and Wes Anderson, with his mix of angles and shots, and his exquisite set and costume staging for the “action”. He shoves in a prologue in Cairo which I adored. to show just how clever Poirot is, like a vintage OCD Belgian Bond. The camera drones get a good workout and if you like trains, which I do, you are in for a treat. It might distract a bit from the “suspense” but when you know the outcome so what? It is shot on handsome 65mm which adds to the old skool feel. 

It seems once again that Sir Ken’s confidence, which rubs off on everyone around him, has paid off. Despite the muted critical response the box office receipts are rolling in to add to the unsubtle product placement. So we will be getting a Death on the Nile, and I predict, some time ahead of Christmas 2021, an And Then There Were None. Agents of the thespian great and good, get on the phone to Sir Ken now.

Mother! film review *****

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Mother! 28th September 2017

What the dickens was that all about.

My guess is that director Darren Aronofsky, as with his previous films, is not entirely sure himself. And that is no bad thing. Here is a chap who seems to have a happy knack of selling multi-layered, grand, quasi-surreal psycho-dramas (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan) to a willing public on a sufficient scale to please studios and backers and keep the critics happy. Nowhere near Polanski, Hitchcock or Bunuel as film-makers yet but a sort of bastard child of these masters. Except with all the modern technology. I have griped before about Hollywood’s chronic lack of ambition, with technical wizardry and fantasy burying story-telling and ideas, but this is a criticism you can’t level as Mr Aronofsky.

The classic tropes of home invasion and horror movies pervade Mother! but this is just the starting point on to which Mr Aronofsky grafts a hulking great parable on eco-catastrophe, the agony of childlessness, the collapse of privacy and manners, the rise of Messianic populists,, the tragedy of devotion and just about any thing else that takes his fancy. Despite its mythic qualities it is eminently watchable thanks to the performances and DA’s direction, allied to the cinematography of Matthew Libatique. And it is blackly comic.

The film begins and ends with a conflagration from which emerges a crystal which I guess symbolises life (we also get a beating heart at regular intervals). The remote house in which the stories takes place is a metaphor for planet Earth. It also couldn’t look more Amityville if it tried. Javier Bardem as Him (no names here) has a bad case of poet/writer’s block. His younger wife, Jennifer Lawrence, on whom the camera spends an inordinate  amount of time, has very tastefully rebuilt his home following the fire. She wants a child – but like the next book nothing is coming. Cue a knock on the door. Surgeon Ed Harris thought it was a guest-house. He is a “bit forward” as my aunt would say but he is a “fan” of Him’s work so he gets to say. Then the wife, MIchelle Pfeiffer, pitches up and properly “makes herself at home”. Like Jennifer Lawrence you want these people out of the house sharpish but Him can’t see the problem.

Then sh*t really happens. Let’s just say DA doesn’t hold back. It is an exhilarating, if claustrophobic, ride to the apocalyptic climax. Basically Mother has had enough. I haven’t see DA’s Noah but, on the basis of this, I need to as there are, I gather, multiple parallels to be enjoyed. There are certainly great big dollops of Old and New Testament fable mashed into the madness.

I was properly perturbed by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfieffer and Javier Bardem was as convincing as he could be as this bizarre beatific character. The Gleeson brothers chew up the fragile scenery just like their Dad does – why is it that Ireland produces the greatest actors and playwrights per capita. It’s the story-telling and the Guinness I suppose. Obviously though, given the story is told through her eyes, the film only works if Jennifer Lawrence convinces and she does. BD wouldn’t see the film with me as she has no time for JL BD is rarely wrong so I must savour this rare instance of her fallibility. For Ms Lawrence plays a blinder. Just to properly creep us out I gather DA and Ms Lawrence are now an item. Old Sigmund Freud would have a field day.

You probably should see this film. An utterly indulgent mess that explodes on to the screen. I will definitely watch it again.