Monthly Archives: May 2021

The Oregonian (2011)

*. Just don’t think about it. It’s not that kind of movie. Or, as the New York Times review put it, “let your brain off the hook and surrender to a sensual experience that’s the opposite of ingratiating.”
*. There’s no story to follow. Writer-director Calvin Lee Reeder is only tossing a visual salad with an annoying audio accompaniment. Though nominally a kind of road picture it doesn’t even have the narrative backbone of the picaresque journey. Godard’s Weekend, which I think might have been an influence, had more glue.
*. The main influences, though, seem to be the alternative realities of David Lynch and the art-house gonzo visual rhythms of Harmony Korine (I’m thinking of films like Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy). The images are surreal and they’re stitched together in a violently disjunctive editing style that doesn’t even bother with continuity. I think this is what the Times review meant by the “opposite of ingratiating.” It’s an ugly look, and alienating.
*. You’ll have guessed that I wasn’t too impressed by The Oregonian. I want to judge it on its own terms, but it doesn’t seem to me successful even so.  It also seems to me that an independent, experimental film should feel a little fresher than this.
*. Two items stand out. In the first place there is the fear of the natural world. The girl (Lindsay Pulsipher) wanders into the woods in the early going and it terrifies her. But there is actually nothing scary about the woods, as much as the camera tries to frighten us with jump shots of uprooted trees and shelf fungus.
*. This is standard American horror fare in some respects, where someone’s car breaks down in the boonies and they find themselves on the fringes of civilization. It reminded me of the movie Green Room (2015) where the Oregon woods are seen as a dangerous, backward place and not a Romantic environment of spiritual renewal. The problem here is that we are so embedded in a dream world that we can’t draw any connections to our own reality. Even when the girl leaves the forest she doesn’t return to civilization but to a post-industrial, post-apocalyptic wasteland. Meanwhile, the people she does meet are almost wholly inarticulate zombies.
*. The other interesting thing is the feminist message. The girl is escaping an abusive relationship and when she drives off with the old woman, who might as well be the Blair witch, there are echoes of Thelma & Louise. That said, I don’t think the movie is coherent enough to have a political or social message to it.
*. At the end of the day I thought there just needed to be more competence in the production for The Oregonian to work. The “weird” is a difficult aesthetic to manage, but it has to be put forward with both professionalism and sincerity for us to buy into its scrambled world and dream logic. The Oregonian comes across as sloppy and self-indulgent, and even the parts presumably meant to be shocking (like an omelette being dumped into a vaginal wound in the girl’s back while she’s being raped) didn’t register as anything but crude and silly. I couldn’t help thinking that Reeder saw the whole thing as a joke — and not a nice joke, but a crude, practical joke like the version of the Ludovico technique we see in his short film The Procedure. If he had a point to make I missed it.

Hoffa (1992)

*. Near the beginning of Hoffa there’s a scene where a “young” Jimmy Hoffa (Jack Nicholson, his character not looking any younger than he does forty years later) is organizing a strike at a produce distribution center. It was a moment that really gave me the feeling of stepping back in time. Not to 1935 but to the 1970s, when American unions were still seen as being great engines of social justice. Remember Norma Rae (1979)? But then came the Reagan Revolution and the firing of the air traffic controllers, followed by a long decline.
*. When David Thomson says of Hoffa that it’s “like a movie from the seventies” I don’t think he was referring to this, but rather to its being a fairly conventional epic biopic. In many ways I actually find it quite inventive, with director and co-star Danny DeVito adding a lot of style points with his imaginative transitions, long Steadicam takes, diopter shots, and fearless use of studio sets (get a load of that forest they go hunting in!). That said, I wish DeVito hadn’t introduced himself into the movie, or at least this much.

*. I understand having a character like Bobby Ciaro as a surrogate for the audience. But Bobby ends up being more a surrogate for DeVito in being someone who idolizes Hoffa. On the commentary track DeVito admits that Hoffa was “no saint,” but as we see him in this movie he’s awfully close. My eyes widened when I heard Gene Siskel compliment DeVito for “not romanticizing Hoffa too much.” Not too much? How could he have romanticized him any more? This is the sort of movie Bobby would have made (Ciaro, not Kennedy).
*. This isn’t because I have anything against Jimmy Hoffa. I do think he was dirty, but that came with the territory. The thing is though, I don’t think he was simply the heroic man of the people and friend of the working man he’s presented as here. I like Nicholson’s performance as much as the next guy, but the character is one-dimensional.
*. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, “It comes as a shock, about halfway through Hoffa, to discover that the Teamsters leader has a wife and daughter. They turn up during a crowd scene. But this film about Jimmy Hoffa has no time to show him meeting his wife, courting her, marrying her, setting up housekeeping, or fathering a child. That is almost as it should be. Hoffa shows a man who lives, breathes, wakes, sleeps and dies for the union.” Note that qualification: “almost as it should be.” I don’t believe in this Hoffa, and even if I did I don’t think I’d find him very interesting, but that’s all we’ve got here to work with.
*. The reason why it leaves out so much, since this is 140 minutes of biopic, is that we’re stuck seeing things from Bobby’s perspective. Hoffa’s story begins when he climbs into Bobby’s cab, and at the end they share the same fate. Bobby isn’t that interesting either, being basically Hoffa’s dog, but he’s a really big part of the movie.
*. Another problem with the Bobby character is that I believe he’s wholly fictional. This makes us wonder how faithful DeVito wanted to be to the historical record in the first place. I think for the most part he did try for accuracy, but his instincts as a storyteller and filmmaker led him in different directions.

*. Chief among these is the ending, which gives us the murder of Hoffa (and Bobby) in the parking lot of a roadhouse diner. This is, from what we know, not how it went down. Hoffa was apparently lured away and (presumably) killed somewhere else. Not only that, but the killing itself struck me as conspicuous and far-fetched in the extreme. I don’t think Frank Sheeran killed Hoffa either, but the presentation of the same events in Scorsese’s The Irishman was at least realistic.
*. Well produced. Good performances, or should I say casting? Everyone around Nicholson seems made to fit. Armand Assante as the mafia guy looks and sounds very much like a Hollywood mafia guy (that is to say, someone far more glamorous than any of Scorsese’s hoods). John C. Reilly as the weasel Petey looks and sounds very much like a Hollywood weasel. And DeVito as a flunky . . . you get the picture.
*. Screenplay by David Mamet, so you know it has good flow. Mamet is good with people talking. So even at this running time it all moves quite well and I can’t think of any part of it that dragged. At the same time, I didn’t think any part of it caught fire either. It’s a good movie, of the kind that we don’t see much anymore, and likely never will again. Even at the time it was a bit of a throwback.

The Irishman (2019)

*. I guess the way to begin is by backing up a few steps. In my notes on Casino I mentioned how it was seen as being the third part of a trilogy of mob movies made by Martin Scorsese, the first two being Mean Streets and Goodfellas, and that it showed a further development toward a “slick and glitzy” direction Scorsese was heading in with Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street. Well, now we have a tetralogy.
*. But in both Casino and The Wolf of Wall Street that glitziness made sense because those movies were dealing with a slick and glitzy world (casinos, high finance). My problem with The Irishman is that it has much the same feel, with less glamorous trappings. I think it’s also the case that The Irishman is the longest and most expensive of all the films I’ve mentioned, and the least accomplished.
*. “It is a landscape of the terminally ordinary, here made splendid,” writes Geoffrey O’Brien in his Criterion essay. The locations “are recreated with a loving care belying the ugliness of what transpires in them.” Yes, but should they be? Should they look splendid, or made to belie the ugliness of the action? Why? In Gene Siskel’s review of Hoffa his one complaint about the movie was that the historical parts were “too pretty.” I can only imagine what he would have thought of this.

*. Part of the recreation with loving care was the digital de-aging of the elderly leads by CGI. Reviews were mixed. I agree with the consensus that they did what they could to take out some wrinkles but they all still look like old men’s bodies with baby-pink faces. More than this, however, I’d complain about the miscasting. Since this may be Scorsese’s last rodeo I can see why he wanted this bunch of actors, but I think most of them are hopelessly miscast. Robert De Niro and Al Pacino don’t look remotely like Frank Sheeran or Jimmy Hoffa. Or Irish. The latter case was really the most egregious. I mean, this is just Pacino doing Pacino. He’s no Jimmy Hoffa. Or Jack Nicholson.

*. If Pacino is just being Pacino then Scorsese is just being Scorsese. This is a well produced film, that moves well enough until its final act, but it’s also a walk down memory lane. And not all of those memories are fond. Remember when I complained about the diner scene in Goodfellas where the action stops and we get a voiceover telling us what we’re seeing? It’s done exactly the same here (in what I think was the same diner even). Then the murder of Jimmy Hoffa is a repeat of the murder of Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas. Why?
*. I wanted to like him, but De Niro seemed to be mailing it in. Especially with the stuttering he develops later as a way of avoiding trying to show real emotion (which I suppose is kind of hard to do with a CGI face). Joe Pesci was the only actor I enjoyed watching and at one point I started wishing the movie had really been about his character. I’m pretty sure Russel Bufalino was a more interesting guy than Frank Sheeran. Anna Paquin and Harvey Keitel are faces in the crowd. Ray Romano felt out of place.
*. I mentioned how the movie moves well until the final act. Up till the murder of Hoffa it’s a pretty standard mob story of loyalty, betrayal, family, and business. We’ve been here before many times, but those parts always work. But then there’s half an hour more to run and nothing much happens. Was I suppose to care about Frank’s relationship with is daughter? Because I sure didn’t. I also didn’t understand the idea, suggested by many, that I was supposed to feel sympathy for Frank at the end.

*. Given that the historical basis for the film was Sheeran’s not-so-reliable book, I thought it might have been fun to have played with him suffering from dementia, making some of his memories into gangland fantasies (which they may well have been). This was suggested in Once Upon a Time in America, where the whole thing might have been an opium dream. But then I hated Once Upon a Time in America.
*. I did like Robbie Robertson’s score, the main line of which kept sounding like it was going to break into Led Zeppelin’s version of “When the Levee Breaks.” Aside from that, I found this to be sub-Sopranos, or any of the other really good cable shows that Scorsese seemed to be mainly drawing on. That The Irishman was released on Netflix only draws these connections closer together. Scott Marks, in the San Diego Reader, was even more damning in his review: “He [Scorsese] knew all along that the majority of viewers would come to the film on television, so he shot accordingly. A betting man would wager that well over half the picture was composed in TV-safe closeups and reverse angle shots of well-paid actors talking, the impact of which would not be lost on a flatscreen. I liked it better when Scorsese, not the medium, dictated shot size.”
*. Airbrushed actors, and a director, assembled for a polished homage to their own careers. Watchable, but in no way original or essential. It’s a movie you come to wanting to admire, but it seems to me like a small, slow backward step for everyone.

Goodfellas (1990)

*. Martin Scorsese on the edge. By which I mean not on the edge of visionary daring, but in terms of his career. I think his run of great movies ends here. There’d been Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. There’d also been The King of Comedy and After Hours. But Goodfellas, which I think is a great movie, marks a tipping point. Next up would be Cape Fear, a movie I also like but which clearly goes over the top in a lot of ways. Then an avalanche of excess. Indeed, excess became his theme and not (just) his style. Casino. Gangs of New York. The Aviator. The Departed. Shutter Island. The Wolf of Wall Street. The Irishman (a movie I really wish he hadn’t made). Weren’t these movies all too much? Expensive. Overlong. And all about going too far.
*. Like I say, for me Goodfellas marks a watershed, staying just this side of being too much. Still, there are a couple of places where I thought Scorsese was tipping his hand as to where he was going.
*. The first example I’d give is the famous entrance to the Copacabana Club. Scorsese has talked about this single long take as expressing how Henry Hill’s way into the gangster lifestyle has made everything easy for him, opening doors, and his entrance certainly conveys this. His path, and that of the camera, is lubricated by money. But while I appreciating it I couldn’t help thinking of how much it must have cost to set up a shot like that (and they did seven or eight takes). Just as Henry is flashing his cash, Scorsese is flashing his, in terms of budget. It’s a conscious display of excess for both of them.
*. The second example is something that bothered me the first time I saw the movie and still does today. It’s the scene near the end where Henry (Ray Liotta) meets Jimmy (Robert De Niro) at the diner and Jimmy asks Henry if he’ll go down to Florida and whack someone for him. This is just a way of getting rid of Henry out of state. Henry understands this because he’s never been asked to whack somebody before, so “that’s when I knew that I’d never come back from Florida alive.”
*. Why include the voiceover telling us this? And making things worse, why go to two freeze frames on the faces of Jimmy and Henry? I hated this. Why? Because it highlights, underlines, and prints in bold all caps what should have been done quietly, just with faces. Henry has figured out what’s going on, and by this point in the movie so have we. It actually echoes an earlier scene where Henry’s voiceover tells us “that’s when I knew Jimmy was going to whack Morrie.” So here there’s no need to tell us what could and I think should have just been shown. Did Scorsese not trust Liotta in being able to sell it? Or not trust his audience to be able to pick up what was happening?
*. I mention this because it’s part of the lack of subtlety that Scorsese’s filmmaking was increasingly being taken over by. And it upsets me because I think Scorsese is better than this.
*. He really likes setting up corpses as artistic tableaux. I lost count of how many there are here, with every blood spatter lovingly painted on the screen. But this is another place where I think less might have been more.

*. I still think Goodfellas a great movie though. It certainly moves well, at the tempo of Henry’s nervously intense narration. And Henry is a perfect surrogate, if not for the audience then for Scorsese, who has always seemed a gangster fanboy. I’ll bet as far back as he can remember he wanted to be one.
*. This is a point that really exercised David Thomson, who was disturbed by the “trembling, increasingly cocaine-dependent ambivalence” Scorsese presents when it comes to the evil of the wise guys. “Does this film have a secure attitude toward the lives of its guys, or is it giddy with its own ability to ride along in their slipstream?” he asks. “It’s as if Scorsese cannot bring himself to disown this demon, and movement, vitality, mad humor, music, and contempt for women are the ingredients of the lifestyle of the GoodFellas.”
*. I don’t agree with this. One of the things I like the most about the movie is the way the main characters aren’t charismatic in any way. Henry might want to be a gangster, but would anyone want to be Henry, as cool as he tries to make it sound? Tommy (Joe Pesci) is, of course, a psycho. Jimmy is a lying piece of dirt, and not even much of a player. Henry is only a sidekick. With his phoney laugh and obsequiousness he reminds me of no one so much as John Candy’s William B. Williams on The Sammy Maudlin Show. And even his wife Karen (Lorraine Bracco) is only a wannabe bad girl. She’ll be a gangster’s moll if the pay is good, and can be a bully as much as her husband, but she’ll fold at the slightest pressure. These aren’t villains of any stature but only snakes in the grass.
*. So is the gangster lifestyle as presented here seductive? I don’t think so. Even the signature catalogue of corpses revealed to Eric Clapton’s “Layla” is bathetic. The pink Cadillac. The meat truck. Just taking out the trash. And then there’s Henry’s envoi to the audience where he calls us “suckers”: our wasted lives spent among “those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day, and worried about their bills.” But that house in the ‘burbs looks so much nicer, certainly less vulgar and tacky, than any of the places we’ve seen in the rest of the movie. Henry is laying it on too thick here, trying to cheer himself up. He’s so easy to see through, so unconvincing. Not a real gangster at all, but still only wanting to be one.

Behind That Curtain (1929)

*. A movie that probably deserves to be forgotten entirely today, its one claim to minor fame being that it’s the earliest surviving appearance of the detective Charlie Chan on film (a couple of earlier silent Chan films are now lost).
*. Despite that billing, Charlie Chan doesn’t show up until the movie is nearly over, and even then plays a very minor role. The novel by Earl Derr Biggers is very freely adapted, making the Scotland Yard detective Sir Frederick Bruce the hero. So it’s not really a Charlie Chan movie despite its pedigree. It’s also about twenty minutes longer and a lot duller than the Warner Oland films. That said, there are a few points worth noticing.
*. In the first place, Charlie is played by a Korean-American actor named E. L. Park who looks like a bouncer. Not ethnically Chinese then, but Asian. Though this may also be why he was relegated to such a bit part and we have to make do with the boring old stick from Scotland Yard.
*. Also worth flagging is the presence of Boris Karloff, pre-Frankenstein, as Beetham’s manservant. Not a big role, but he does stand out, even if he doesn’t have many lines.

*. It’s 1929, and Iran is still called Persia and China has an emperor. Another world! It’s also a time when women were more worried about the scandal of divorce than about marrying a murderer. Frustrated passion leads to some poetry in the desert: “If you think it easy to be a man and to know that you, a woman like you, is in the next tent, looking out over the same desert, feeling the same loneliness, staring up at the same moon wandering, with only a bit of tent between us . . . ” Whew!
*. At one point, while interviewing a suspect, Sir Frederick stops to ties his shoes. I was amazed by this. I couldn’t think of another movie where I saw a character tying their shoes. I still can’t.
*. Kind of hard to get excited by this one. It’s not a Charlie Chan movie. It’s not a mystery since the killer can only be one of two people and we’re shown who the “bounder” is pretty early. The script sounds like a radio play. The direction is uninspired, begging for the various conversation scenes to be broken up with the odd one-shot or close-up. This never happens. Oh well, it was the early days of sound. Just hearing anything was novelty enough back then.

Sherlock Gnomes (2018)

*. Sometimes audiences get it right. Gnomeo and Juliet, a retelling of Shakespeare played by a bunch of lawn ornaments, chiefly garden gnomes, had been a big hit. So the call went out for a sequel. Many properties must have suggested themselves, and the movie even begins with a roll call: Game of Gnomes, The Gnome Ranger, The Twilight Gnome, and Spider-Man: Gnomecoming. But they settled on Sherlock Gnomes.
*. The box office, however, was disappointing. I think for the simple reason that it’s not as much fun. Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt) are back, and all but married, but Juliet has turned into a career woman and just takes Gnomeo for granted. Which would be a cliché but for the switching of gender roles. Meanwhile, Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are trying to unravel a plot that has Moriarty trying to steal all of London’s garden gnomes.
*. My first thought in seeing the interplay between Gnomes and Moriarty was how much it sounded like the bickering going on between Batman and The Joker in The Lego Batman Movie. Which made me wonder at how we are now getting infantilized versions of cultural products that have always been popular with kids. If we’re moving toward some kind of lowest common denominator then we haven’t got there yet.
*. A second thought: the gang is pretty much all back again. Including Michael Caine and Maggie Smith as the elder gnomes. But along with the addition of Depp and Ejiofor I had to wonder why an animated film would bother with celebrity voices anyway. They’re not that recognizable, and Jamie Demetriou, who I’d never heard of before, is perfectly fine as Moriarty. Perhaps it’s just a way of getting people’s attention, but is it worth the expense? I guess Mary J. Blige (playing the Irene Adler character) gets to sing a song, so that’s something.
*. Blige’s song, by the way, struck me as unnecessary, and just another patch in a totally patchwork plot. As with Gnomeo and Juliet, several Elton John songs are sampled for musical cues that don’t make any dramatic sense. As the rescuers are flushed through a sewer we get “I’m Still Standing.” Escaping from another tight spot we get “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting.” Why?
*. Mike McCahill in the Guardian: “after two films, this still looks and feels like a franchise driven more by commercial calculation than creative inspiration.” Hm. I wonder if there has ever been a franchise driven more by creative inspiration than commercial calculations. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any. So that’s sort of a dry point being made.
*. The lesson to be learned is that you should be nice to your friends. Sherlock is a jerk, but accepts a more equal partnership with Watson at the end, just as Juliet commits to being nicer to Gnomeo. That’s kind of thin, but even so the movie lets it down. As noted, Sherlock just isn’t a likeable, interesting, or funny character. Gnomeo and Juliet seem like add-ons to a plot that doesn’t need them to do anything. Nanette the frog is even more annoying than she was in the first movie. This is a movie that we didn’t need, and in the event few people wanted.

Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)

*. Shakespeare for the kids. Nothing wrong with that, and it’s something that has a history going back at least as far as Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare (1807).
*. And Romeo and Juliet has always had a special appeal for young people. This makes a kind of sense since Juliet is only 13. Kids can relate. It’s a story of puppy love and youth culture, as is evident in film adaptations running from West Side Story, through Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 movie, up to the punkish Romeo + Juliet and Tromeo and Juliet (both 1996). So . . . why not aim for an even younger audience?
*. A tiny garden gnome comes on stage to tell us that “The story you are about to see has been told before. A lot.” Then, midway through Shakespeare’s prologue, he gets the hook. Or is dumped through a trap door. Enough of that stuff. On to a backyard world where various lawn ornaments have taken on a life of their own and are re-enacting the old story for a new generation.
*. There’s not a lot of Shakespeare left, aside from the basic premise. In fact, that even becomes part of the storyline when Gnomeo (James McAvoy) meets up with the Bard himself (Patrick Stewart) and get into an argument over whether there should be a happy ending. Shakespeare holds out for tragedy, as Romeo and Juliet was designated in the First Folio, but Gnomeo, for obvious reasons, wants to turn it into a comedy, complete with a dance and multiple weddings at the end, where every Jack gets his Jill.
*. I came into this one with a lot of reservations, but overall I think the adaptation is handled very well. For the most part the story is re-jigged in dramatically satisfactory ways. This isn’t Shakespeare, but what it is works very well. The cast is star-struck, with McAvoy and Emily Blunt in the leads, Michael Caine and Maggie Smith as the respective heads of the red and blue gnome factions, Jason Statham as Tybalt, and cameos from the aforementioned Patrick Stewart, as well as Ozzy Osbourne, Dolly Parton, and Hulk Hogan. The music, a mix of classics and original songs, comes from Elton John, who was also executive producer. I’m afraid most of it doesn’t go very well with the rest of the movie. It’s not bad, but it just took me out of the movie and made me wonder why I was listening to “Crocodile Rock.”

*. As the classics come down to a younger demographic, movies for kids move up. The resulting no-grown-ups-land is sometimes referred to as “kidult,” and it’s something I despise. That said, I don’t think there’s that much of the knowing adult humour winkingly slipped in that defines this genre. This kind of thing really took off with the success of Toy Story and various Pixar movies that were “made for kids, but that parents will love too!” (Since then, kidult has gotten even dumber, to the point where it’s just assumed that parents like exactly the same things as their eight-year-old children.)
*. Sure there are some nods to the canon and some pop culture asides, but nothing like the usual fare for animated kidult movies of this period. I never got annoyed at the self-referential points being scored. I took it as a movie for kids and just enjoyed it as such.

*. There are other conventions that are becoming more tiring. Juliet is a feisty girl who resists being labeled “delicate” and being kept on a pedestal. She’s just as much into the rough and tumble stuff as Gnomeo. So there’s the “girl power” box checked. Which isn’t bad, but like I say, is tiring when it is a point made in such an obvious way.
*. A less politically correct convention is that of presenting comic supporting characters as ethnic subtypes. Think of Antonio Banderas as Puss In Boots, the Latin feline lover. Or, to borrow another animated creation, the Rastafarian Jar Jar Binks. In this movie Juliet’s Nurse has become a frog named Nanette, played with a broad Scottish accent by Ashley Jensen, while the Friar Laurence character is a pink flamingo named Featherstone with a thick Spanish accent (voiced by Jim Cummings). I’m not politically offended by these stereotypes, but they are clichés and you’d think that with a team of seven (!) credited screenwriters they could have come up with something more original.
*. I don’t talk about many children’s movies here because I’m not the target audience. I think Gnomeo and Juliet would probably appeal to kids though, and its box office success reflects that. (The attempt to turn the gnomes into a franchise with a sequel, Sherlock Gnomes, didn’t meet with as welcome a reception.) As an adult, I found it visually bright and sporadically amusing. As with a lot of cartoons, things didn’t hold together that well. Continuity is more something we look for in live-action. Animation tends to just introduce us to one thing and then another. Suggesting that making sense isn’t something we need to, or even should, think about too much.

Knives Out (2019)

*. The country-house murder mystery is such a familiar tradition that it’s gone from the novels of the golden age of crime writing to board games and dinner theatre. So familiar that anyone coming to it today has to either inject a note of irony or up their game considerably. After all, in Sleuth (1972) Anthony Shaffer had sent up the whole genre, with its “world of coldness and class hatred.” And that knowingness and self-referentiality hadn’t gone away, with Sleuth recast as Deathtrap in 1982, and Gosford Park being another kick at the same old can.
*. Knives Out makes no attempt to hide its debt to Sleuth. The appearance of the Jolly Jack Tarr mannequin is enough of a hint, if the idea of an old mystery writer being offed in his mansion wasn’t enough to clue you in.
*. I was on board with all of this. I’m a huge fan of traditional country-house mysteries, and I love their modern treatments, be they parodic (Murder by Death, Clue) or earnest and faithful. The thing is, I would put Knives Out very much in the latter category, which makes some of the response to it hard to understand.
*. To take a few representative examples, Dani di Placido in Forbes opined that writer-director Rian Johnson “finds a way to revitalise the concept” and so “makes murder mystery great again.” David Sims writing in The Atlantic says that Johnson has “turned the whodunit on its head.” And, Jake Coyle of the Associate Press says that Johnson “believes earnestly in the whodunit, but just wants to turn it inside out,” enlivening it with “densely-plotted deconstruction.”
*. These are lazy critical clichés. Knives Out does nothing strange or new with the mystery formula. The other movies I’ve mentioned all did more to explore and expand the genre. What’s more, when you get right down to it the mystery here is pretty pedestrian.
*. I don’t mean to sound all negative. I had a good time watching Knives Out. I’m a fan of the genre and this is a good straight-up, old-school murder mystery, nicely produced and with a great cast. But it’s not very . . . mysterious. I’m no Hercule Poirot, but I had the guilty party tagged right from the start. Even the dogs figured that out. Hell, the poster was enough of a giveaway for me. I don’t know how much more of a hint you’d need. And as far as these things go the plot itself is quite straightforward. There’s a nod to The Big Clock in Marta trying to frustrate the investigation she’s playing Watson on, what Johnson thought of as a Hitchcock thriller within the mystery, but that’s the only wrinkle. There’s nothing that I would call a twist, unless you count the Columbo-inspired early reveal of Thrombey’s death.
*. In short, it’s not a story that turns the genre on its head or inside-out, or deconstructs it through dense plotting. In fact, it doesn’t take an approach that I would describe as fresh or new at all. It’s basically just an episode of Murder, She Wrote, with a contemporary political angle thrown in.
*. The politics of the form, however, were already being challenged fifty years ago in Sleuth. And as David Edelstein (who also found the movie to always be “on the brink of being cleverer than it is”) noted, “I had a better time at the B version of this movie — this summer’s gory, supernatural hack-’em-up Ready or Not.” I hadn’t thought of the connection to Ready or Not, but I think Edelstein is on point with the class conflict expressed in both movies.
*. Just to stick with criticizing the critics for a while, I was surprised by the number of reviewers who made a big thing about this being a Rian Johnson movie. I’ll confess the name meant nothing to me. I’d seen Brick years ago and thought it an interesting little indie, but nothing more. I’d seen Looper and it hadn’t registered as much of anything at all. I would never have been able to name the director.
*. This made me think of the response to Baby Driver being a movie by Edgar Wright. I had no idea why anyone would have thought that was a big deal. Then I saw Baby Driver and I still didn’t know. It’s not that these are terrible movies. They’re OK. But they’re just OK. Or maybe good. If you’re going to try to sell me on Edgar Wright or Rian Johnson or Ben Wheatley or Ari Aster as being the future of cinema for the daring way they’re reinventing the form then we’re not speaking the same language. Or watching the same movies.
*. I’ll add here as an aside that Baby Driver gets a mention in the script here while Edgar Wright called Knives Out his favourite movie of 2019. Which might be thought of as logrolling among chums.
*. As is traditional in these kinds of movies there’s a glittering ensemble cast. So all the more credit goes to Ana de Armas for not only holding her own but basically carrying things. As for Daniel Craig, I think he’s terrific except when he opens his mouth and does his Shelby Foote drawl. I’m sorry, but that simply does not work at all. It’s terrible, and doesn’t sound remotely authentic. But then is he any more absurd than Albert Finney (or Kenneth Branagh) as Poirot in their adaptations of Murder on the Orient Express? Every great fictional detective has to be eccentric in some way . . . and so we have Benoit Blanc.
*. Nice atmosphere and design elements. They really get their money’s worth out of that fan of knives. The “dumbest car chase of all time” is fun. Marta’s regurgitative reaction to untruth is a good joke, well played. It’s a clever enough plot. Good performances and a nice pace throughout, even with all the clunky set pieces like the initial series of interviews and the reading of the will. I enjoyed it. But then the genre is all about having fun. Agatha Christie called her novels “entertainments,” and that’s all Knives Out has to be. Why make it into something more? I think it will appeal most to fans knowledgeable in the tradition, but those same fans are the ones least likely to find anything special about it.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

*. I really didn’t like this one.
*. You may guess from my saying this that I’m an Agatha Christie purist who doesn’t believe anyone has the right to go messing with the canon. David Suchet (and certainly not Albert Finney or Peter Ustinov) is Hercule Poirot and there’s an end of it.
*. Well, as a matter of fact I am a Christie fan, and I do like the ITV adaptations of her Poirot novels starring Suchet. But I don’t mind productions taking liberties either. I’d be happy seeing this story done on a space shuttle heading to Mars. What I don’t like is what’s done to it here.
*. Let’s start at the beginning, which gives us a quick intro to Poirot the famous detective as he solves the mystery of a stolen relic from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Why such a particular mystery I have no idea. It all seems very silly, is a complete waste of time, and doesn’t involve much (if anything) in the way of the exercise of Poirot’s little grey cells.
*. In fact, the intro’s only purpose is to give us a new Poirot, one who has little need of little grey cells. Instead, this Poirot is yet another iteration of the obsessive-compulsive superhero who sniffs out crime by way of his preternatural ability to discern when anything has upset the order of the universe.
*. This isn’t Christie’s Poirot. That’s fine (though, personally, I am tired of this new breed of heroes who are all located somewhere “on the spectrum”). The only problem with it is that we can’t relate to or play along with such a detective. Clues? These aren’t really essential, and indeed throughout this film they are almost entirely disposed of or merely glanced at. We never really follow Poirot thinking his way through from A to B. Instead he just detects a disturbance in the Force and goes with his gut.
*. Aside from this we have to also note that it looks lovely. Lovely and big, being shot with 65 mm cameras that Branagh found gave a lush and immersive feel to the proceedings. This they do, though I don’t know if it’s a look that really fits with the story that much. We seem to spend a lot of time looking at the scenery, which is very pretty, and less time explaining what is going on.
*. Also in this introductory material we get to see Count Andrenyi give a ninja spinning back kick to someone in a bar. No, we’re not in the world of Christie’s Poirot any more.

*. After that it’s all aboard a train full of star cameos, with a nice mix of old and new to keep us entertained. The cast are in fine form, but the script does them no favours as they have very little to do. Poirot is the star of the show, to the point where he is even given a lost love interest he can moon over. Instead of being a bubbly eccentric he is now a world-weary moralist. That’s not a transformation for the better.
*. Is that too much? I think it is because it takes away from the intricate mechanics of the plot itself. Put simply, This Murder on the Orient Express isn’t a mystery anymore. It’s a character piece with a lot of flashy, distracting camera work and stunning widescreen photography.
*. So maybe “flashy, distracting camera work” is a bit unfair. There is one incredible long take as Poirot boards the train that certainly draws attention to itself but is remarkably well executed. Most of the other stunts, however, had me rolling my eyes, even though on his commentary track Branagh does do a good job of justifying them. The overhead shots, for example, were apparently inspired by Dial M for Murder. As with the fantasy-postcard scenery, I think a lot of it was just done to sugar-coat a movie that is basically all talk. No matter how good the talk, few audiences today want to sit through that. So mission accomplished on that score.

*. One trick I really didn’t understand was presenting the flashbacks in black-and-white. This struck me as unnecessary since we know they’re flashbacks. I wanted them to be in colour.
*. This version of Poirot’s moustaches got a lot of notice, but that’s what the “facial furniture” (as Branagh refers to it) was for. It’s not a classic Poirot look but I thought it was one of the few changes that was enjoyable. I think Branagh liked it too, as he shows it off in lots of close-ups and profiles to give the full effect. Why Poirot should get so many close-ups has little other justification.
*. What really let me down, however, was how poorly the actual nuts and bolts of the mystery were handled. I think a lot of people would come to this movie either having read the book or seen one of its adaptations or at least being familiar in some way with the story. If they came to it cold I wonder if they would be able to follow it. I don’t think I would have been able to. None of the essential points or clues are given any context, and the timeline and mechanics of the murder plot are left terribly vague. This leaves the big explanation scene at the end for Poirot to pull all his rabbits out of a hat. Indeed, he doesn’t even try to tell the story of the murder but just tells us whodunit (or who the killers really are) and then turns to his tortured moral verdict. And the denouement goes on for nearly half an hour! The montages at the end of the Saw movies manage to do a better, fuller job of explaining their kinky plots in under a minute.
*. I’m not a huge fan of the 1974 film but it does have a place in my heart for personal reasons. It made me interested in reading Christie. I doubt this film will have the same effect, though the box office was good and a sequel was quickly announced (Death on the Nile, introduced in the final scene here). In other words, Poirot has become a franchise, again (or “cinematic universe” as the lingo has it these days). It will be a Poirot for our time. Or someone else’s time. Not mine.