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Murder on the Orient Express

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It’s 1934 and a disparate cast of characters are traveling by train from Istanbul to Paris, among them famed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh). After the train is stopped by a rockslide on the tracks during a snowstorm, a fellow passenger, the shady Mr Ratchett (Johnny Depp), is found stabbed to death in his locked compartment, and Poirot is presented with the challenge of divining who the killer is. The truth is, of course, much stranger than he could anticipate.

Agatha Christie’s classic novel was famously filmed by Sidney Lumet back in ’74, and it’s kind of incredible that it has taken this long for another big screen version to be mounted. It’s a nigh-perfect basis for a film, offering a clear narrative goal, an interesting location, and – most importantly – a panoply of intriguing and eccentric roles just begging to be brought to life by a talented company of character actors.

Which is exactly what we get here, although the line between “character actor”, “rising star” and “dear God, it’s Johnny Depp” is blurry. What we do get is (deep breath) Michell Pfeiffer as a husband-hunting American widow, Judi Dench as an imperious Russian princess, Olivia Colman as her long-suffering maid, Josh Gad as the alcoholic secretary to the murdered man, Derek Jacobi as the victim’s valet, Penelope Cruz as a devout missionary, Daisy Ridley as a governess, Willem Dafoe as an Austrian professor, Leslie Odom Jr. as a doctor, and  more. They’re all uniformly great (yes, even Depp), and are clearly having a ball, embracing director Branagh’s heightened, theatrical take on the material.

Branagh is, of course, Poirot, and why not? He is, after all, the director’s favourite actor. If everyone present is having fun, Branagh is having the most fun as Christie’s famous and fastidious flatfoot, sporting one of the greatest mustaches in cinematic history giving full play to Poirot’s suite of tics and quirks. It’s such a great role, and Branagh manages the rather neat balancing act of making Poirot brilliant and heroic but at the same time fussy and funny, a strange little man driven to try and correct a world made imperfect by crime and carelessness.

As a director, Branagh revels in the sumptuous details and textures of his setting – the polished brass and rich, dark wood of the train carriages, gleaming in the lamplight; the clean, blinding white drifts of snow outside; the luxurious fabrics of the costumes; the hair, the make up and accessories of his characters. It’s the James Bond model in microcosm, cinema as luxury tourism, showing us an aspirational world we can’t really afford to visit except for a couple of hours at a time. Branagh also doesn’t let the location limit him too much in terms of his camerawork – our point of view is always on the move, tracking down carriages, swooping overhead, pushing in to highlight tangible details. Orient Express is absolutely worth catching on theatrical release; while it may not fit the current tentpole model, it is a timely reminder that it’s not just explosions and spectacle that benefit from the cinema.

Plus, it’s a really good time. For all that it deals with murder and (slight spoiler from an 80 year old book) conspiracy, there’s something quite cosy and comforting in Christie’s story, and that translates perfectly here. The solution to the mystery is pretty well known by this stage of the game, but we don’t necessarily go to these things to be surprised, any more than we go to see Hamlet expecting to be scared by the ghost of the King. Rather, the joy is in seeing how these familiar narrative forms are being re-interpreted by a new set of creatives. Branagh never colours outside of the lines on this one, and that’s fine – this is a respectful romp through one of literature’s most famous mysteries, and well worth your time.

Click here for nationwide movie times for Murder on the Orient Express

 

 
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mother!

Review, Theatrical, This Week 10 Comments

There will be spoilers. 

A woman’s face is wreathed in flame.

In a charred and desolate room, a man (Javier Bardem) places a rough-cut white jewel on a golden stand. Magically, the room begins to heal itself, spreading out from the stone – smoke damage fades, cracked and peeling paint runs smooth, broken furniture becomes whole.

Alone on a double bed, a woman (Jennifer Lawrence) awakens. “Baby?” she calls.

How telling. So too is the next thing we hear her say, when her husband (Bardem) surprises her on the porch of their rambling and beautiful country home: “You frightened me.”

mother! (small m, exclamation point) begins enigmatically, as you might expect from the little we’ve been able to glean from the marketing materials thus far. It’s a mystery, we’ve been told. Allusions have been made to classic horror – Rosemary’s Baby in particular. The promotional posters are cryptic, bloody, and disturbing.

The grainy film stock and handheld camera work employed by cinematographer Matthew Libatique reinforce the notion that we might be looking at writer and director Darren Aronofsky’s ode to the highbrow horrors of the ’60s and ’70s, and our introduction to the scenario is infused with a subtle sense of menace and foreboding. Bardem’s character – no names are ever given –  is a poet, struggling with writer’s block. His much younger wife (Lawrence) is devoted to him and determined to fix up the beautiful but somewhat dilapidated house they share. Their relative contentment is broken by the appearance of a traveler (Ed Harris) and his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). The poet invites the pair to stay, but the woman is disturbed by the intrusion.

As it transpires, the interlopers have arrived under false pretenses – the man is a fan of the poet and, dying, wished to meet him before the end. His wife, a sensuous creature, blunt and fond of drink, inserts herself into the household as though she owns it. The poet is glad of the attention and determined to be a good host, but the woman grows more discomfited. Who are these people? Why is her husband so enamoured of their attention? Why are they so familiar with each other? Why does she feel so alienated?

When the penny drops will vary from viewer to viewer. For us, it’s when Harris’ character’s bickering sons (Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) turn up, arguing over their inheritance, and one murders the other before fleeing. mother! is not a return to the psychological horrors of Black Swan, folks, but to the metaphysical ruminations of Noah! Aronofsky’s latest is nothing less than an allegorical retelling of all the better bits of the Old and New Testaments. And not the familiar, watered down King James version, but the crazy, apocrypha-riddled proto-Judaic stuff – how else could we get away with having Asherah, Yahweh’s consort, as our point of view character? The titular mother goddess, shoved aside by the patriarchal Abrahamic religions, is finally getting her due on the big screen. That’s sure to play well in the red states.

Yes, Aronofsky has cast Lawrence, his real-life girlfriend as the wife of God – which is an incredible and strangely admirable act of hubris, when you think about it. It’s a short leap to consider Bardem’s god-figure as a stand in for Aronofsky himself, obsessed with the act of creation, hopelessly susceptible to flattery and fawning, and more than a little dismissive of his husbandly duties. How could he not be? His house is soon thronging with people, friends and family of Adam and Eve (again never named, but we’re through the looking glass here) who have come for Abel’s wake, and who are all singing the poet’s praises, each in their own way.

A demand for passion ensues and is answered, and the woman is now pregnant. Her calling realised, her belly swells – surely this new life will heal the growing rift between them. Meanwhile, all this attention has gotten the poet’s creative juices flowing, and he’s begun to write again. Soon, more fans are arriving at the house, petitioning him for attention.

“I’ll get started on the apocalypse,” Lawrence’s character intones.

It all spins queasily, crazily out of control (and let us not forget that Aronofsky alluded to the possibility of early Middle Eastern monotheism being a mushroom cult in Noah) quite quickly, as the film stops pretending to pay lip service to narrative and psychological realism and cleaves only to its own systems of allegory and metaphor. Before long Stephen McHattie crops up as a raving zealot, and Kristen Wiig is – the Pharisees? The Catholic Church? At one point she’s executing people in the kitchen with a pistol, and by that stage we’re so steeped in spectacle, symbol, and oblique event after confounding, naggingly intriguing event, that it all becomes difficult to parse, at least on first taste. We do know where we’re going, though, as the gyre widens and mere anarchy is loosed upon the house. But are we pursuing an end or a new beginning?

It’s great.

It really is, and it’s great in a way that you know will divide audiences and send them barreling towards opposite ends of the opinion spectrum – it’s not a work that invites middling responses. Some will be angered by the irreducibly religious elements. Some will be scornful of Aronofsky’s pretension at mounting such a work (and make no mistake, art like this requires a certain level of pretension). Some will be annoyed at the seemingly countless unfathomable visual and narrative symbols and motifs (what’s the tonic that Lawrence’s character keeps taking for her pains? What’s with the toad? Is there a satan?). Some will claim they saw it all coming, and it’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is (and frankly, screw those guys).

But some will love it. We certainly do. It’s a dense, delirious, playful and serious work of capital A art, and easily the most ambitious film to come out of a major studio since… well, let’s just say it: since Kubrick died. It’s the most interesting and intellectually rigorous religious film since The Last Temptation of Christ, and easily the best film of Aronofsky’s career. The closest analogues that come to mind are Jodorowsky’s earlier works, especially The Holy Mountain, but it’s going to take time and several viewings to figure out if that’s a worthy comparison – that it comes to mind at all speaks volumes, though.

No matter what you think, or think you might think, about mother!, it certainly demands and deserves your attention. Go and see it. You haven’t seen anything like it since… well, you just haven’t seen anything like it.

 
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The Wizard of Lies

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In what could possibly be one the best performances Robert De Niro has given in this new century, he headlines veteran filmmaker Barry Levinson’s (Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam) dramatic reconstruction of the fall of Bernie Madoff, one of the most respected and highly regarded market traders that Wall Street has ever seen.

Bernie (De Niro) holds his family in high esteem, yet keeps them at arm’s length. His two sons Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andrew (House of Cards’ Nathan Darrow) beg him to reveal the inner workings of his business to them, Bernie insists they’re ‘not ready’. His wife Ruth (an excellent Michelle Pfeiffer) asks him to retire, but Bernie is adamant that the company needs his guidance. So as the film opens, the awful truth is revealed: Madoff has lost more than $65 billion dollars of his investors’ money and faces impending arrest: thousands of people’s life savings, pensions, retirement funds and company earnings, have all been vaporised. His decades long ‘Ponzi’ scheme fraud had grown to such extremes, he was incapable of reversing the damage. When clients requested several billion in returns so they can cash out, Bernie and his accountant Frank (Hank Azaria) only had $200 million in funds. When Bernie reveals the truth to his unsuspecting family, it has a cataclysmic effect. His sons’ promising careers disintegrate, Ruth becomes a social pariah. Family rifts develop as the media scrutiny becomes unbearable. The soul searching starts and so do the questions.

Madoff helped launch the Nasdaq stock market, he sat on the board of the National Association of Securities Dealers as well as advising the Securities and Exchange Commission on trading securities. For these reasons, his fraud went unnoticed.

As the stoic, virtually inert Madoff, De Niro is a picture of tightly wound conflict and constriction, his performance being more about what he doesn’t do, rather than what he does do. Pfeiffer is terrific as Ruth and Darrow and Nivola are particularly fine as his doomed sons. The scale of this family tragedy is staggering, how a man living in a bubble of obfuscation and denial, claims to love and care for them yet leaves them to shoulder the burden of media scrutiny and the harsh judgement of a public who believe them to be complicit in the fraud.