Sunday, 12 November 2017

Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, 2017)

Branagh's remake of Sidney Lumet's 1974 adaptation of the Agatha Christie whodunit relies heavily on its star cameos for its pulling power, even if it doesn't actually cram in as many as the original film: Branagh himself as Poirot, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer, just to list the biggest guns. Each suspect gets their five minutes in the spotlight and it's fun to see their turns, even if the production design is the biggest star: it's a sumptuously mounted film, from Istanbul to the snowy mountains of the Balkans, and the lavish air of the train itself. That is at once its appeal and the problem: it's heavy on the gloss and, in sticking so closely to the source material, presents no surprises, unlike some versions over the years of And Then There Were None, which have played around much more with both the setting and the plot to good effect. Nevertheless, it's a diverting ride and Branagh fills the shoes of the anally retentive master sleuth with ease and some nice comic touches too.


Thursday, 9 November 2017

The Age of Adaline (Lee Toland Krieger, 2015)

In 1937, aged 29, a woman is hit by lightning and stops aging. In present-day San Francisco, she lives a self-imposed single life, having changed her identity every decade to avoid questions. Then romance enters her life for the first time in decades in the form of the perfect sensitive man.
This is hardly a new premise: the idea of eternal youth is a perennial fantasy and there will always be mileage in it. New spins on the idea therefore really have work hard to bring some twist to it, and The Age of Adaline doesn't make much of an effort to do so, settling instead for a sugar-coated romance. The chemistry between the two leads is an asset, and Blake Lively conveys well the sense of a woman who's at once afraid of the pain of any more commitment and also like someone who has stepped right out of the past, with her old-fashioned bearing and diction. In a supporting role, Harrison Ford is as magnetic as ever as an unexpected blast from her past, too. But it's all a bit too wet to have any real substance.


Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Nerve (Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman, 2016)

What starts out as a run-of-the-mill American high school film with its jocks and bitches wanders off course as the lead character, an insecure (but of course still pretty) girl gets sucked into a game played on the phone that involves increasingly large prizes for increasingly dubious and dangerous dares, which unsurprisingly then seriously cross the line. Made by the duo behind 2010's cautionary documentary about Facebook, Catfish, this time their target is social media as a bullying force, a breeding ground for a kind of faceless fascism, as the game's participants are goaded on by a horde of followers everywhere they go, and there is a valid point to it in that aspect, for teens at least. The rest of the plot, however, is purely and unambitiously lifted off The Hunger Games.


Focus (Glenn Ficarra & John Requa, 2015)

When someone burgles a pensioner's house, they're scum. When someone has refined tastes and robs the rich, they're Robin Hood. This is the bedrock of the smart con or heist genre, and feeds on the desire of the audience to bring those who have more than them down to earth. Thus the Ocean's Eleven series and countless others, such as this smoothly-executed but generic piece with Will Smith a shoe-in as a super-con artist who inevitably gets taken down a peg by losing his emotional focus when he gets emotionally attached to a sexy protege (Margot Robbie). It rolls along as slickly as you'd expect, with decent moments of tension when the games are played out, but ultimately loses its own focus too when too many twists and turns, the genre equivalent of explosion overkill in today's action films, are tacked on for the sake of bamboozling the viewer (read: mark) into thinking they've seen something far more clever and gripping.


Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Into the Wild (Sean Penn, 2007)

Based on the real-life story of Christopher McCandless, who turned his back on university, his family and the materialistic world to begin a trip without end through the vast open spaces of the States, Sean Penn's gravely earnest film captured numerous awards and the imagination of Americans with their idealisation of a lost frontier existence and the poetry of 'the road'. McCandless is essentially a fiercely idealistic, arrested adolescent with parent issues, who spouts pseudo-spiritual aphorisms constantly, and its clear that we're meant to not just indulge this but be drawn in my his single-minded vision, even if we know that he'll meet his end alone in the Alaskan wilderness.
The style is ponderous with lots of dwelling on animals and broad vistas, in the style of Malick, and you feel that if they could work in him swimming with dolphins too, they would. Meanwhile, the people he meets outside the cities are all salt-of-the-earth folk and kindly hippies, as you would expect of Penn with his usual putting of the 'common man' on a pedestal. To further underline the manly soulfulness of his quest, there's Eddie Vedder's dirge soundtrack seemingly stuck on a loop too.
Emile Hirsch's bright-eyed performance is a strong suit, as is the last chapter where he befriends Hal Holbrook's lonely widower. The character's end is also unexpectedly touching, despite his obvious stupidity at having brought it on inexorably. But the little fucker really could have perished at least an hour earlier, as far as I'm concerned.


What Happened to Monday (Tommy Wirkola, 2017)

It's future police state dystopia time again and here the premise is that, with the global population having become unsustainably large, the world has turned to a Chinese-style one-child policy, which is brutally enforced. What does make it a much higher-concept affair is that identical septuplets have lived together for thirty years masquerading as just one person, each living her life outside for one day a week. If this had been explored in more detail, the end result would potentially have been fascinating. However, the director is best known for the daft-as-a-brush Nazi zombie flick Dead Snow, so it's no surprise that it soon turns to bloody, OTT violence as the evil authorities try to erase the siblings from existence. It still works pretty well as an action thriller, and Noomi Rapace has a good go at giving each sister a distinct personality, even if that means that each one is somewhat of an archetype, but it could have been a lot more than that.


Saturday, 4 November 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

Thirty-five years it's taken, and the pressure that's created for it not be a cannibalisation of its iconic prequel has been quite substantial. It bodes well, of course, that even though the director has changed from Ridley Scott to the competent if less coherent Villeneuve, it has Scott's seal of approval and also the original screenwriter Hampton Fancher (albeit one that was dumped by Scott the first time around for penning something that concentrated too much on interior drama).
It's too much to expect that it could quite match the startling originality of the original, but it goes close enough. It's overlong, and while Ryan Gosling in laconic Drive mode occupies the screen comfortably as the replicant blade runner looking for the long-disappeared Harrison Ford and his own origins, he's also not allowed the acting licence Ford was due to the nature of the character. But my God, does it look stunning. The future is even more rain-lashed, toxic and grimy now. You'll be hard-pushed to find a film that captivates the eye so much in any genre. Also, unlike what the trailers would have led you to believe, it actually contains surprisingly little incessant action for a modern sci-fi sequel. This is also a good thing, because while they're sometimes fuzzily expressed, there's room for a lot of complex ideas about identity and purpose.
In short, it bombards you with mood for nearly three hours and then comes to a genuinely moving conclusion. A lot of questions are left open, even if some of the ones from the original film are also dealt with, so we'll just have to hope that the third instalment, when it comes, is handled with such panache.