Saturday, November 11, 2017

Cold Case: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS



I’d love an all-star murder mystery, which makes it hurt all the worse that Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express isn’t a good one. He takes Agatha Christie’s classic novel (to both direct and star as the persnickety, mustachioed, world-famous detective Poirot) and runs it through the handsome, high-gloss, literary-toned approach that served him so well in the past. He has treated familiar stories from Hamlet to Cinderella with the same tone of high-minded, playfully gorgeous, deliciously melodramatic classicism. They’re reverent, but impassioned, heavy and light in the same moment. But somehow the translation to screen for this latest adaptation is stuffy and slow, every emotion muted, every turn and twist of the whodunnit plot bungled and stumbled in a ham-fisted clumsiness that never lets the puzzle pieces click together with pleasing precision. Instead, amid the fastidious production design of a luxury train lovingly photographed in 65mm and cramped tracking shots of beveled glass and ornate d├ęcor, he somehow never gets a good sense of the space. The characters are indifferently introduced; the investigation develops in fits and starts; the space is inelegantly portrayed – a jumble of close cuts and overhead shots that hardly gives us a window into the layout. The lumbering film neglects good mystery development at every turn. 

The story deals with a mystery of a murdered man on a snowbound train full of trapped suspects (including the likes of luminaries Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman, Michelle Pfeiffer, and on and on). Branagh never gets around to cluing us into who is in which compartment, the order of the cars, the timeline of the night in question. Part of the pleasure in a story such as this – understood by Christie and the best of her imitators and adapters – is to follow the clues as they stack up, then hold the big picture in our own heads as the detective tests theories and develops new leads. Here, the screenplay by Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049, a better expensive Hollywood detective story) simply asserts and accrues its mystery’s complications rather than presenting them in a more aesthetically or investigatively satisfying process. I barely had a sense of who the suspects were, let alone where there are on the train or with whom they trade meaningful red herrings. The cast is under-utilized, their star power and screen presence used to substitute or shorthand characterization, the film’s dull crackles of wit and tension carried over as best they can manage as little as they’re allowed. Why such a delicious intrigue is left to fizzle is beyond me. Branagh doesn’t even allow his Poirot more than a somnambulant personality. This prime place for some showboating (and, boy, is he one of our best showboats) is given over to soft, dry cracks and sleepy mumbling. There’s no spark of energy or life here, the big, fancy, unmoving train left stuck in the snow slowly turning away from any inherent suspense and into its own conspicuous metaphor.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

A Tale of Summer: PRINCESS CYD



They have great tragedy in their pasts, but it does not define them. They have clear differences in personality and perspective, yet they reach out in earnest yearning for connection anyway. They are in tremulous liminal spaces, where routine softly slides into a momentary emotional and intellectual softening, where relationships are forged and life’s joys can be, however fleetingly, shared. This is Stephen Cone’s Princess Cyd, a movie about a 16-year-old soccer player from South Carolina (Jessica Pinnick, sunnily inhabiting a particularly adolescent ability to be shy and confident in the same moment) who uses her summer to visit the Chicago home of her novelist aunt (Rebecca Spence, easily into the rhythms of a person who spends most of her time with her own thoughts). Cone, whose previous feature was the similarly lovely indie Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, crafts an intimate, sensitive dual portrait of these women as they enter into a dialogue, both spoken and unspoken, with each other over the course of their weeks together. His screenplay marries an open and engaged discourse – the sort of flowing, beautifully ordinary and rigorously intelligent language of a fine playwright – with a soft and supple eye for detail – the kind of attuned observation you’d find in the most perceptive and subtle of short stories. There’s a sense that these are real people in a film that never stoops to reduce them to easily digestible didactic drama.

This gives the film not only a literary quality that matches the author character who holds half of its interest, but bolsters the contrasts between the women. When they first meet, hesitant family defrosting after nearly a decade apart, they hardly know where to begin. “How are books and stuff?” the teenager asks. When her aunt begins to tell her about her latest novel, then catches herself from divulging too much lest she spoil it, her niece casually – unknowingly cruelly – cuts in with an “oh, I won’t read it.” The older woman is in her head, living with literature and ideas, while the younger one lives embodied in her physicality, exercised, athletic, curious about what she can make her body do and feel. They have different approaches to pleasure and to their sense of self, and so too does the film. Cone holds this tension in the screenplay’s deft turns and in cinematographer Zoe White’s frames of sunny beauty, catching with deliberate off-handedness the features of their faces, bodies, clothes, neighborhood, friends and interests. There’s a touch of Rohmer in this beautifully contained, yet rich and full, meeting, of small ordinary shifts in perception, subtle moves between individuals pushing and pulling, closing gaps of empathy and opening new wounds. This is a movie so humane it’s full to the brim with compassion for its characters. It realizes a person is a work in progress, and watches lovingly as two very different women are changed in some small measure by their encounter with the other. They do not have lessons to learn, so much as they end the film with the small possibility of new, positive growth.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Norsing Around: THOR: RAGNAROK



There’s not a lick of suspense to be found in Thor: Ragnarok, as weightless and mild-mannered as a superhero space epic can be. It’s partially because of its dedication to being a breezy lark. But it’s mostly due to its position as yet another widget dropping into the Marvel Cinematic Universe machine, every interlocking franchise entry continuing the pattern of containing endless forward momentum with little actual progress. The whole endeavor, diverting though it may be, is always moving to the next one, and the next and the next, with no time to shape its characters’ or settings’ development into anything more than whatever is convenient to serve up the latest flavors of fun lightshow action and design. That is how you end up with a movie that places beloved Norse God Avenger Thor in direct confrontation with the end of his home kingdom Asgard, an apocalyptic vision of Ragnarok coming true, and yet it feels like nothing is at stake. A people, a realm, a dazzling digital vista, might burn up into nothingness and there’s no danger. It’s too busy staging striking electric-day-glo Jack Kirby-styled CG adventure and lovingly holding on eccentric character actors in scene-stealing supporting roles. There’s plenty of fun to be had, but it adds up to the usual fleeting charms tied together with a climactic conflagration cliffhanger.

Like all the best of the MCU movies, the filmmakers behind Ragnarok make sure the production design is aesthetically pleasing in color and scale and the typical quipping script is handled with the peppy fizz of comic timing. The story features Thor knocking about space in lengthy sequences that team him up with a variety of lovable rouges and charming weirdos. It’s a nesting doll of buddy movies, director Taika Waititi taking the same loose, sweet, half-mumbled, aw-shucks delivery of his What We Do in the Shadows and tying it to the bombastic fish-out-of-water silly contrasts that are the Thor movies' stock in trade. It hardly matters that the plot’s engine is the God of Thunder’s long-lost older sister (Cate Blanchett) kicking him out of the family home, causing him to wander the cosmos in exile collecting a team that can take her down. What it really is up to is providing an excuse for colorful, half-funny/half-exciting set-pieces. That’s entertaining enough. He pals around with his slick trickster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston); he gets his feathers ruffled by Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch); he gets captured by an alcoholic swaggering-cool bounty hunter (Tessa Thompson, who should have her own spinoff); he is forced into gladiatorial combat by a trash-planet’s loopy ruler (Jeff Goldblum, delightful with every word); he befriends a soft-spoken rock monster (Waititi); he is knocked about by Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). It’s all fun and games, Thor so elastically invincible he can slam through walls and bounce back swinging, yet so mellowed by his many heroic deeds in the past that he now rides a chill pleasant vibe. He's in on the joke.

There’s a knockabout slapstick tone to the action that integrates the massive IMAX-sized spectacle and the little filigrees of personality allowed to the players involved. Waititi is given the space to build a massive painterly slow-mo vision of warriors atop winged horses diving toward a storm of arrows, and also let Thompson’s Valkyrie sparkle with a twinkle in her eye and a soft sway in her step. It has an enormous battle on a rainbow bridge for the fate of Asgard, and the soft splat of a body hitting the ground with a pratfall plunk. It has a concussive battle between a God and a monster – friends turned foe for the amusement of a rascally side-villain – and enough room to let Goldblum bring down the house with an arc of his eyebrow or a self-amused stammering surprise delivery of a wry line. (He confronts a captive with a seeming reprieve with a line bearing a stinging tail: the good news he’ll be spared…“from life.”) It’s all of a pleasant diverting piece, from the gleaming fake vistas – though why, in a movie with convincing mythological kingdoms and neon-landfill planets, a field in Norway is the phoniest setting is beyond me – to the likably bantering leads and every slick glowing digital swooping adventure sequence in between. There may be precious little there there, but at least the frivolity is enough for an entertaining couple of hours of shiny pictures, charming people, and a synthy noodling Mark Mothersbaugh score. Though it's fleeting and disposable, it's a successfully playful and tossed-off version of ingratiating Marvel bombast.
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