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Showing posts from November, 2019

The guy practically lives in a Clue board.

Knives Out (2019)
(SPOILERS) “If Agatha Christie were writing today, she’d have a character who’s an Internet troll.” There’s a slew of ifs and buts in that assertion, but it tells you a lot about where Rian Johnson is coming from with Knives Out. As in, Christie might – I mean, who can really say? – but it’s fair to suggest she wouldn’t be angling her material the way Johnson does, who for all his pronouncement that “This isn’t a message movie” is very clearly making one. He probably warrants a hesitant pass on that statement, though, to the extent that Knives Out’s commentary doesn’t ultimately overpower the whodunnit side of the plot. On the other hand, when Daniel Craig’s eccentrically accented sleuth Benoit Blanc is asked “You’re not much of a detective, are you?” the only fair response is vigorous agreement.

Do forgive me for butting in, but I have a bet with my daughter that you are Hercules Porridge, the famous French sleuth.

Death on the Nile (1978)
(SPOILERS) Peak movie Poirot, as the peerless Peter Ustinov takes over duties from Albert Finney, who variously was unavailable for Death on the Nile, didn’t want to repeat himself or didn’t fancy suffering through all that make up in the desert heat. Ustinov, like Rutherford, is never the professional Christie fan’s favourite incarnation, but he’s surely the most approachable and engaging. Because, well, he’s Peter Ustinov. And if some of his later appearances were of the budget-conscious, TV movie variety (or of the Michael Winner variety), here we get to luxuriate in a sumptuously cast, glossy extravaganza.

I have brought you here to charge you with the following crimes.

Ten Little Indians aka And Then There Were None (1974)
(SPOILERS) In respect of the novel, the latter title, And Then There Were None, didn’t become the UK standard until the mid-1980s, having been taken off the bat by the US in preference to the original UK title, Ten Little N*****s; Ten Little Indians was used for the US paperback, making it curious that a title changed due to its racist language was replaced by one also likely to cause offence (the novel’s original title was also used for the film in some territories, per some of posters viewable on IMDB). It’s both Agatha Christie’s best-selling novel and the best-selling crime novel of all time (and the sixth best-selling novel of all time). Impressive credentials, and Ten Little Indians has duly been adapted many times and with various degrees of fidelity (commonly bearing the more upbeat ending of the stage play version). This is the film version I’m most familiar with, and commonly the most derided, it seems. Perhaps because I cam…

I am constantly surprised that women’s hats do not provoke more murders.

Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
(SPOILERS) Was Joe Eszterhas a big fan of Witness for the Prosecution? He was surely a big fan of any courtroom drama turning on a “Did the accused actually do it?” only for it to turn out they did, since he repeatedly used it as a template. Interviewed about his Agatha Christie adaptation (of the 1925 play), writer-director Billy Wilder said of the author that “She constructs like an angel, but her language is flat; no dialogue, no people”. It’s not an uncommon charge, one her devotees may take issue with, that her characters are mere pieces to be moved around a chess board, rather than offering any emotional or empathetic interest to the viewer. It’s curious then that, while Wilder is able to remedy the people and dialogue, doing so rather draws attention to a plot that, on this occasion, turns on a rather too daft ruse.

If I was going to kill my wife, that’s the way I’d do it.

Jagged Edge (1985)
(SPOILERS) You might argue the only necessary tester of the Joel Eszterhas “Did-they-do-it?” is the immediate response. Once you know, it’s never going to have the same impact again. Obviously, such a reasoning would, in theory, negate rereading Sherlock Holmes or Agatha Christie. There, however, the pleasure is as much from a well-thumbed mystery well told. In contrast, Jagged Edge’s merits and failings are very much those of Eszterhas’ milieu; he provides enough slickness to attract a good cast, but they’re the ones who have to carry it through its more OTT and showy theatrics and plot extravagances.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

That’s courtesy of Philology 101.

Call Me by Your Name (2017)
(SPOILERS) Critically lauded but curiously unaffecting endeavour on the parts of director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter James Ivory. Call Me by Your Name, an '80s Italy-set summer romance was surely intended to captivate through making us privy to the passions between Timothee Chalamet’s seventeen-year-old Elio and Armie Hammer’s 24-year-old Oliver, a grad student working with Elio’s father (Michael Stuhlbarg). But the relationship is singularly devoid of chemistry and intensity, leaving actors going through the motions of infatuation.

Well, he hasn’t actually written a word of it yet. But he says, it’s the non-fiction book of the decade.

Capote (2005)
(SPOILERS) Another (relatively) recent Best Picture Oscar nominee I missed first time round, and then subsequently didn’t really feel very compelled to chase up. Perhaps it was the vying Truman Capote pics (I’ve also yet to see Infamous) putting me off, or possibly just being underwhelmed by everything Oscar that year (which hasn’t changed). I can certainly see why the late Philip Seymour Hoffman received the Best Actor award for Capote, though, since the eccentrically mannered title character is precisely the kind of studied, showy performance the Academy laps up.

Looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane.

The Blind Side (2009)
(SPOILERS) I’ve found my way to seeing most Best Picture Oscar nominees of the last four decades or so, but failing to get round to see The Blind Side never seemed like a particularly glaring blind spot. Nominated during the first year of the Academy’s (re-)expanded slate, this aspirational sports drama was commonly seen as filler to make up numbers for the ten slots (and commonly cited a couple of years later as a reason ten was then pegged as a maximum rather than a quota). If I say it’s a John Lee Hancock film, that should tell you all you need to know about how essential it is, provided you even know who John Lee Hancock is.

You must be new to the world, sir.

Doctor Who Season 19 – Worst to Best
Christopher Bidmead’s guiding hand as a script editor – and Barry Letts looking over producer John Nathan-Turner’s shoulder – had ensured the final Tom Baker season was high on distinctiveness and quality, even if only about half the previous year’s audience had shown up to witness it. But salvation was at hand, ever so briefly. Peter Davison and a twice-weekly slot garnered a burst of publicity and renewed interest in the show. Ratings soared. Unfortunately, the content was less spectacular, with temporary script editor Anthony Root and then permanent replacement Eric Saward scrabbling about in their attempts to knock Bidmead offcuts and rejects into shape until a firmer footing was established. The consequence is that Season 19 rather yoyos in quality, tone and style, not helped any by a frequently burdensome complement of fresh-faced companions. It’s a year that finds its footing sporadically, but not enough to convince viewers, two million of wh…

That calls for a nice cup of tea.

Le Mans '66 aka Ford v Ferrari (2019)
(SPOILERS) I didn’t have any great expectations for this one, partly because motor-related movies tend to be merely serviceable, by dint of marrying the grinding metal to elementary melodrama (to frequent audience apathy). Partly because James Mangold has never truly risen above the status of a competent journeyman. Yes, I know he gets all those raves for Logan, but Wolverine’s last round struck me as both overly derivative and in need of a couple more rewrites. Or maybe a couple less. Le Mans '66 might be his most satisfying movie, however, which isn’t to say it’s some kind of automotive miracle, but it successfully flourishes the biographical movie card in never less than immersive, kinetic fashion – even when it’s all talk – and at times even musters a veneer of the visually poetic, of the sort that brings to mind the best of Michael Mann (who gets a producer credit, and had been scheduled to direct a version of the film, inspired by AJ Ba…

I don’t think I could list all my objections in four hours. I think I'd need more like eight hours.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967)
(SPOILERS) The Best Picture Oscar nominee of 1967 dealing with racial tensions and starring Sidney Poitier that didn’t win, but had enough impact on the cultural lexicon that its title has taken on meaning beyond the film itself (and indeed, informed the recent Get Out). Most conversations regarding Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? are compelled to address that it hasn’t aged all that well, which in many respects it hasn’t, but it’s debatable that it appeared especially boundary pushing at the time; compared to fellow nominees Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, it seems like the product of a different era.

Not only am I ain’t building no shapel, I’m taking off.

Lilies of the Field (1963)
(SPOILERS) Watching a string of Best Picture nominees in succession, the proportion of sweetly good-natured films, ones designed to appeal to the Academy’s sentimental and nostalgic side (even if not necessarily nostalgic for a prior time period, but rather for an impossible-to-realise state of being), can be striking. You couldn’t exactly accuse Lilies of the Field of being custom fitted for such a purpose, since director Ralph Nelson was forced to put up his house as collateral to get it made, but taken on face value, it would be easy to assume otherwise.

Man, I didn’t pull you out. I kept you from pulling me in.

The Defiant Ones (1958)
(SPOILERS) The progenitor of the buddy movie – most notably, 48Hrs took the template and freshened it up, with laughs rather than social commentary emphasising the racial divide – The Defiant Ones certainly couldn’t be called subtle in its conceit. But that upfront quality is key to its success… and Best Picture Oscar nomination; the Academy still loves to be led by the nose with regard to issue-based material.

It’s like being smothered in beige.

The Good Liar (2019)
(SPOILERS) I probably ought to have twigged, based on the specific setting of The Good Liar that World War II would be involved – ten years ago, rather than the present day, so making the involvement of Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren just about believable – but I really wish it hadn’t been. Jeffrey Hatcher’s screenplay, adapting Nicholas Searle’s 2016 novel, offers a nifty little conning-the-conman tale that would work much, much better without the ungainly backstory and motivation that impose themselves about halfway through and then get paid off with equal lack of finesse.

The sooner we are seamen again, the better.

The Bounty (1984)
(SPOILERS) How different might David Lean’s late career have been if Ryan’s Daughter hadn’t been so eviscerated, and his confidence with it? Certainly, we know about his post-A Passage to India projects (Empire of the Sun, Nostromo), but there were fourteen intervening years during which he surely might have squeezed out two or three additional features. The notable one that got away was, like Empire of the Sun, actually made: The Bounty. But by Roger Donaldson, after Lean eventually dropped out. And the resulting picture is, as you might expect, merely okay, notable for a fine Anthony Hopkins performance as Bligh (Lean’s choice), but lacking any of the visual poetry that comes from a master of the craft.

And my father was a real ugly man.

Marty (1955)
(SPOILERS) It might be the very unexceptional good-naturedness of Marty that explains its Best Picture Oscar success. Ernest Borgnine’s Best Actor win is perhaps more immediately understandable, a badge of recognition for versatility, having previously attracted attention for playing iron-wrought bastards. But Marty also took the Palme d’Or, and it’s curious that its artistically-inclined jury fell so heavily for its charms (it was the first American picture to win the award; Lost Weekend won the Grand Prix when that was still the top award).

There’s nothing stock about a stock car.

Days of Thunder (1990)
(SPOILERS) The summer of 1990 was beset with box office underperformers. Sure-thing sequels – Another 48Hrs, Robocop 2, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Exorcist III, even Back to the Future Part III – either belly flopped or failed to hit the hoped for highs, while franchise hopefuls – Dick Tracy, Arachnophobia – most certainly did not ascend to the stratospheric levels of the previous year’s Batman. Even the big hitters, Total Recall and Die Hard 2: Die Harder, were somewhat offset by costing a fortune in the first place. Price-tag-wise, Days of Thunder, a thematic sequel to the phenomenon that was Top Gun, was in their category. Business-wise, it was definitely in the former. Tom Cruise didn’t quite suffer his first misfire since Legend – he’d made charmed choices ever since playing Maverick – but it was a close-run thing.

This is very cruel, Oskar. You're giving them hope. You shouldn't do that.

Schindler’s List (1993)
(SPOILERS) Such is the status of Schindler’s List, it all but defies criticism; it’s the worthiest of all the many worthy Best Picture Oscar winners, a film noble of purpose and sensitive in the treatment and depiction of the Holocaust as the backdrop to one man’s redemption. There is much to admire in Steven Spielberg’s film. But it is still a Steven Spielberg film. From a director whose driving impulse is the manufacture of popcorn entertainments, not intellectual introspection. Which means it’s a film that, for all its commendable features, is made to manipulate its audience in the manner of any of his “lesser” genre offerings. One’s mileage doubtless varies on this, but for me there are times during this, his crowning achievement, where the berg gets in the way of telling the most respectful version of this story by simple dint of being the berg. But then, to a great or lesser extent, this is true of almost all, if not all, his prestige pictures.

We’re Americans. We read your emails.

Domino (2019)
(SPOILERS) Brian De Palma essentially appears to have disowned his unhappy latest motion picture encounter (“I never experienced such a horrible movie set”). He opined that he came in on a script that wasn’t of his own devising (by Petter Skavlan of Kon-Tiki) and did his failing best to apply his unique vision to it. And you can see that vision, occasionally, but more than that you can see unaccustomed cheapness and lacklustre material that likely wouldn’t play no matter how much cash was thrown at it.

We have the skills and the right to acquire proper compensation.

Dragged Across Concrete (2018)
(SPOILERS) Craig S Zahler’s response to controversy surrounding his – unstated, but people draw their own conclusions from his cumulative body of work – politics is to double down. He casts Mel Gibson as a good-guy-really racist cop and has his characters, sometimes with extreme lack of finesse, espouse his own thoughts on having a freedom to traverse such rocky terrain. You might argue he’s trolling his audience, and you’d have some degree of justification there. Dragged Across Concrete shows once again that he’s a very talented filmmaker – if over-indulgent and offputtingly exploitation cinema-indebted – but it becomes increasingly difficult to give him the benefit of the doubt in the scenarios he sets up.

There’s a wolf in the henhouse. We let him in!

The Founder (2017)
(SPOILERS) I’d had this on my watchlist for an age, balancing the positive of a Michael Keaton showcase against the vanilla prospects of a John Lee Hancock joint. I should have been less cautious, as The Founder, the tale of the rise of Ray Kroc and his wresting control of McDonalds from the brothers who started it, is hugely engrossing. It may even be that Hancock’s inconspicuous directorial presence benefits the material on this occasion, allowing Robert Siegel’s screenplay and Keaton’s performance to be exactly as persuasive as they should.

The world is one big hospice with fresh air.

Doctor Sleep (2019)
(SPOILERS) Doctor Sleep is a much better movie than it probably ought to be. Which is to say, it’s an adaption of a 2013 novel that, by most accounts, was a bit of a dud. That novel was a sequel to The Shining, one of Stephen King’s most beloved works, made into a film that diverged heavily, and in King’s view detrimentally, from the source material. Accordingly, Mike Flanagan’s Doctor Sleep also operates as a follow up to the legendary Kubrick film. In which regard, it doesn’t even come close. And yet, judged as its own thing, which can at times be difficult due to the overt referencing, it’s an affecting and often effective tale of personal redemption and facing the – in this case literal – ghosts of one’s past.