Sunday, February 27, 2022
Wednesday, February 16, 2022
Tuesday, February 15, 2022
So the reboot of Agatha Christie stories by Kenneth Branagh continues with this elegant film that is being released almost two years later than planned. Murder on the Orient Express was reasonably successful adult mystery film a couple of years ago, so a follow-up seemed likely. The character of Hercule Poirot is a natural for a film series and the detective does not disappoint in this entry.
The film opens with a flashback scene that shows us young Poirot in WWI, already observant of the details surrounding him. Although we also get an origin story of his mustache, it's really about his detective skills and the sadness that will follow him the rest of his career. It is certainly not relevant the story but it adds character to our lead and makes the main story more interesting. This is one of the things that marks this as an improvement on the previous film, all the characters are going to be introduced slowly enough for us to have a sense of what is going on and who is who. The fact that they are not on the Nile in the first fifteen minutes does not detract from the story but rather adds to it.
The cast is elaborate and international, and they are all reasonably good. Gal Godot looks great but the scenes she appears in during the trailer had me worried about her performance. As it turns out, the over the top delivery in those clips is not typical and she is really much more solid. These films seem to have a curse on them to some degree, because one of the lead actors has gotten into a public relations nightmare. Johnny Depp is still trying to crawl out of the hole that lead many to boycott seeing him in "Murder", Armie Hammer now takes a turn at being the public figure with a dark cloud hanging over him and bringing it to the theater with him. His character is the most cliched in the film, so that undermines a little bit of the suspense. His best moments are a dance sequence with Emma Mackey who plays the fiancé that his character ditches for Godot. Their erotic dance suggests a relationship that is pretty powerful and may leave some suspense on the table as a result.
Frankly, the main attraction here is the look of the film. As elegant as "Murder" was, this doubles down on that. Once we get to Egypt, we have fantastic vistas, a romantic river (filled with crocodiles) and a boat to die for. The ship that the whole cast ends up on may be a CGI invention is some shots, but it is carried off well, and the actual sets that are the staterooms, dining room and main hall of the boat are all decorated lavishly with period colors, art work and deco designs. The clothes and the food will make you wish that you were taking the trip with this crew of suspects.
The main weakness of the film is the convoluted process by which the murders are carried out. It follows the same design as the 1978 version, so I assume that Christie is responsible for those plot points since they are identical for the most part. When we get to the solution, it feels a little bit like one of the three endings of the comedy "Clue" , where there is a lot of running around, actions that rush by, and the detective taking it all for granted that he has it correct. The side plot of the blues singer and her niece is a little spliced in, but it ends up working anyway.
All in all it is a very entertaining film and one of the most gorgeous pieces of cinematography you are likely to see this year. The score from Christopher Gunning is lush and evocative, and I thought it was superior in fitting the film than the work that was done in the 2017 "Murder". This is an adult film with a little mystery, a lot of drama and some great scenery. Why wouldn't you have a good time?
Saturday, February 12, 2022
I am getting ready this weekend for a Podcast on the LAMB, covering the 1995 Sam Rami film, "The Quick and the Dead". I have just watched it for maybe the thirtieth time and I am so excited to talk about the film again. The movie was one of eight that I submitted to be Movie of the Month on the Lambcast. As host, I get to select the films that the community votes for in my Birthday Month. While it is at least the fourth time I have submitted "The Man Who Would be King" as a MOTM option, I am perfectly happy with the results found here because I clearly love this film.
Let me point to the two biggest factors that draw me to this movie. First of all, it is a western, and they don't make them much any more. The early 90s saw a brief revival of the genre, lead in part by the fantastic Clint Eastwood film, "Unforgiven". At the time this was shot, there were a number of other westerns being made and reportedly, costumes became a little sparse. When I was growing up, most of the westerns being released were post modern critiques of the traditional genre. "The Man who Shot Liberty Vallance", "The Wild Bunch", and the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, focused on breaking down the myths of the western, and giving us anti-heroes as our protagonists. Of course there were television westerns all over the three major networks, and that saturation probably lead to the decline of the film genre. While some of those featured unconventional heroes, none of them that I remember were out right bad guys for us to root for. Leone and Sam Peckinpah turned shady characters into the stars of their films and ever since, there is a delicate morality to the movies.
The second major factor that keeps me hypnotized by this film is the performance of Gene Hackman. I have made no secret of the fact that Hackman is my favorite actor. He is not movie star handsome, he is not chiseled like a superhero, and unfortunately, he stopped working in movies in 2004. The thing that he is is talented. He seems to have an instinct for the characters he is playing and the everyman quality he brings to the screen, actually enhances both his roles as good guy and as villain. In "The Quick and the Dead", he is clearly the later. Unlike the brutal sheriff of Big Whiskey, that he won the Academy Award for best supporting actor in "Unforgiven", John Herod, the town of Redemptions usurper king, has no pretentions as to morality and justice. He is a self centered monster who rules with an iron sidearm and an iron fist. More about his performance in a bit.
When it comes to talent and charisma, the film does not run out of steam with the two leads. There are two actors billed after Hackman and Stone who will dominate the masculine acting roles for the next twenty five years. Russel Crowe is making his American film debut with this appearance and he quickly leans into Sam Rami's style and looks the heartthrob that he would become for a decade after.
|Cantrell in the background Ace up front.|
Momentarily I will get to the plot and it's connection to the Leone films of the 1960s, but one actor who appears in the flashback sequences should also be named. A year after his nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Forrest Gump, Gary Sinise, plays the long ago Marshall of the town of Redemption. His character is the catalyst for the revenge story that Sharon Stone is following. Even though his scene is broken up into bits for the brief flashbacks, he creates a sympathetic character that the audience can see as important to the story arc that Ellen (The Lady) is carrying out. Sinise does the whole scene balanced on a chair and choking. What happens creates a different kind of choking on the part of the audience.
"The Quick and the Dead" is Sam Rami's homage to the spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s. There are tense close ups in the build to each showdown. The eyes of the characters are doing so much of the acting in those scenes that we barely notice the rest of the surroundings. Rami cross cuts tightly and the images close in, just as Leone did in so many of his films. There is a scene in a gun shop in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where Eli Wallach's character Tuco, is examining the guns and clicking through the cylinders. Crowe does the same thing as Herod takes him to get armed for the contest in Fee's shop. Woody Strode, the athlete turned actor who supported John Wayne in Liberty Vallance, and tried to gun down Charles Bronson in "Once Upon a Time in the West" makes his final screen appearance in this film as the coffin maker and the movie is dedicated to him. The most obvious steal is the scene featuring Sinise. Sharon Stone is a much more attractive version of Charles Bronson's Harmonica from "Once Upon a Time in the West".
For every idea and stylistic flourish that Rami takes from Leone, he brings his own original style to the movie as well. The dolly zooms that he used so much in the Evil Dead films, fit perfectly in several spots in this movie. The gunfighters stand far apart from one another, but we can feel the tension ratchet up as the next shot zooms the opponent in at a weird Dutch angle.
All of these tricks are needed to help overcome the somewhat repetitive showdown in the street structure of the story. This is a quick draw contest, ultimately to the death, and there are 16 participants so there are going to be a lot of gunfights in the movie that are one on one in the main street of the town of Redemption. When I have seen negative reviews of this film, they often claim that the story is boring because the same event is reenacted over and over. Siskel and Ebert gave the movie Two Thumbs down for that very reason. What people are missing ate the innovative ways each of those gunfights is shot. There are also twists in several of the face offs that make the each contest unique. Additionally, the music themes play up different emotional beats for the fights. Sometimes the score is nearly whimsical and other times it is thunderous.
Two of Herod's fights demonstrate this. The showdown with Ace Hanlon is slow to develop and then like a whip, the first shot is cracked and then we get a villain's exposition from Hackman that is so condescending, the end is almost a relief to Ace. With Cantrell, we get two extra shots, one that spins his fancy sidearm around after the man has been shot and then the Coup de Grâce, a point of view shot that is disturbing and inventive and new to the genre. The TV critics down play it as grotesque, but let's face it, the deadly combat in and of itself is also morbid.
Back to Gene hackman for a few minutes. Herod is an egoist who wants everything to go his way. He demands the retorn of Cort to his town, just so he can lord over him the power that he has. He is dismissive of The Lady at first and then tries to manipulate her to his will. At the dinner scene, Ellen gets the drop on him with a small gun under the table, hidden from view. Herod hears the hammer being cocked and responds with a similar sound to dissuade her from shooting. After she blinks, he gives away the fact that he was bluffing with the hammercock sound he produced, using a metal matchbox. He smiles smugly in his victory over her as she retreats. Hackman does these kinds of smiles and small hand gestures throughout the picture. Before his gunfight with Cantrell, he meticulously files the hammer on his disassembled firearm, to insure it is working properly. Rami tags on a slow motion shot when Hackman is lighting his cigar during a showdown, which accentuates the moment but it is the deliberate manner he uses in a casual way that sells his total control of the situation. Just to add one more element to Hackman's complete command of the part, he looks elegant in all of his costumes, including the sidearms that go around his suit jacket in one scene.
Saturday, February 5, 2022