Category Archives: 2010s

Richard II (2012)

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*. This isn’t a play that gets produced that often today, outside of the tetralogy of which it is the first part (the other parts being 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V). Historically, however, the four plays weren’t packaged together until relatively recently. It’s that group package that was on tap here though, as this film kicked off a miniseries that went under the name “The Hollow Crown” (the reference is taken from one of Richard II’s lines). They might have called it A Game of Thrones but that was already taken.
*. It’s a shame the play isn’t better known, as it’s always been a personal favourite of mine. A lot of it is overwritten and too clever (it’s early and Shakespeare hadn’t quite hit his stride), but that fits with the subject matter. Richard is too fond of talking, and too self-regarding in everything he has to say. He indulges in verbal preening almost as much as he likes inspecting himself in a mirror.
*. It’s also a weird play in terms of its dramatic arc. It’s all falling action. The entire play is a series of let-downs and disappointments. The aborted joust. The battle between Richard and Bolingbroke that is over before it gets started because Richard’s side doesn’t show up. The two big deposition scenes where Bolingbroke literally does nothing while Richard self-destructs. There is no real climax. Indeed, quite the opposite.
*. Still, I like the play, and I wasn’t expecting to like this film version as much as I did. It’s always nice to be pleasantly surprised.
*. What makes it so good? In the first place the cast. And especially the youngsters. Ben Whishaw owns the role of Richard: cultivated, pretty, vain, and slim. It will be hard to replace this performance as definitive in my mind.

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*. There were other options available. Richard can be played as more of a bitchy drama queen than a blubberpuss, someone nastier and more dangerous, but the decision here taken by director Rupert Goold was to have him be a cross between Christ (the Christian iconography comes close to being overdone, down to the final appearance of Richard as Man of Sorrows or St. Sebastian) and . . . Michael Jackson. Because isn’t the pop star-celebrity a kind of modern-day royalty? One whose rise and fall we groundlings love to follow? Whishaw set out to channel Jackson’s eccentricity, otherworldliness, and love of spectacle, not to mention his ambiguous sexuality and monkey Bubbles. It’s a magical, mystery brew.
*. Then there’s Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke, a role that is as much about reserve as Richard’s is at overacting. Much of the time he simply has to be an audience to Richard’s self-destruction, but there are deep currents running below the surface. I love the scene where Richard descends to the base court and talks of giving up the crown to the blank Kinnear, which leads to his (Bolingbroke’s) dawning sense of what is now possible. Look at his face as Richard walks away from him at the end of that scene. You can see him thinking to himself about what might be, about the power that is now about to be placed in his hand. And yet he can’t overplay such a moment. He can’t show the kind of exasperation that David Morrissey’s Northumberland, for example, responds to Richard with. That wouldn’t be politic.
*. The old guard are on hand too — Patrick Stewart as Gaunt and David Suchet as York — and they’re fine. But really this play belongs to the next generation, and they are terrific.

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*. The other reason I like this version is that it is a movie. Goold didn’t want to just produce a filmed play. Instead he makes use of locations and various cinematic techniques throughout, and does so quite effectively. It’s by no means a lavish production, but it works.
*. As an example of film vs. theatre, note how often the big speeches — not just the big scenes but individual speeches and soliloquies — are broken up through editing. This is very much the idiom of film. Even as film-savvy a director of Shakespeare as Kenneth Branagh likes the long take, keeping the camera in motion but letting his actors play a scene uninterrupted. But here even the short speeches are cut into pieces. Look at Richard addressing his usurpers in his golden armour and note the number of cuts Goolds makes and the use of giant close-ups to different locations on his Oz-like head. Or Richard’s final soliloquy in prison. I think most directors would let an actor play that part straight through, but here again it’s cut into film units, defying the stage.

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*. Another part of making this more a movie than a filmed play are the cuts they make to the text. Overall they’re pretty faithful, though some parts have been streamlined. There are, for example, no references made to the death/murder of Gloucester. And the role of Exton in killing Richard is taken over by Aumerle. This is probably the biggest liberty taken, but it’s been done before (at least on stage) and it makes a kind of sense while making the story a little tighter. With a running time of two and a half hours they can then afford to allow other parts of the play more room to develop.
*. It seems every generation has to have its own Shakespeare. Not just in terms, to take the most common example, of a new political emphasis given the plays, but in every technical aspect of their production. Fifty years ago I don’t think audiences would have cared much for this Richard II, or would have entirely understood it. He belongs to our century.

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The Girl with All the Gifts (2016)

*. I think it would have been hard, in 2016, to find a genre more thoroughly exhausted, both as popular entertainment and as metaphor, than the zombie film. That The Girl with All the Gifts doesn’t reinvent anything but still manages to be a zombie film with enough that’s new to hold one’s attention throughout is no small accomplishment.
*. A note on funding, given that we are talking about a zombie movie. Half of the film’s modest £4 million budget came from the partnership of the BFI Film Fund and Creative England, which made it a huge investment for both bodies. These are basically sources of public funding (though Creative England is both publicly and privately funded), and one may question their involvement.
*. It’s argued by some that government funding of the arts (not just film but publishing, theatre, dance, etc.) should go toward projects that can’t be expected to make money because they are more experimental or just non-commercial. Others find this wrongheaded, saying that work that cannot find an audience shouldn’t be supported by public money. I can see where this latter argument is coming from, but on the other hand I wonder how much government support needs to or should be directed toward producing what are purely commercial ventures. I mean, if you can’t get private funding for a zombie flick either you haven’t knocked on enough doors or there’s something about the project that’s not right.
*. That said, I’m glad that someone came through with the money to make The Girl with All the Gifts as it’s really very good. As with most such successful genre pieces it takes the basic formula and gives it just a bit of a tweak to make it somewhat new. The main tweak here is that the zombie apocalypse is brought on by a variation of the cordyceps fungus that, watchers of BBC nature docs will know, turns ants into “zombies.” David Attenborough was my source for knowledge of this fungus, and the filmmakers credit the same inspiration. Gamers, however, were quick to point out that it’s also used in the video game The Last of Us (2013), so it wasn’t entirely new even in the zombie genre. Still, it’s something I hadn’t seen on screen before, and the mannequin zombies waiting to be triggered felt new to me.
*. The cities returning to nature in the video game also seem to have been drawn on in the creation of the urban locations here, though the look wasn’t entirely new (director Colm McCarthy said he was borrowing from Gareth Edwards’s Monsters). In any event, the production design look terrific. Art departments have really got “ruin porn” (the label used by McCarthy) down pat. Some shots were actually taken by a drone unit sent to Pripyat in Ukraine, a city deserted since the Chernobyl disaster. Apparently it mixed in really well with stuff shot in the English Midlands, including a hospital that had been left deserted for over ten years. I’m thinking there may be a deeper social-political message in that.

*. I also wonder if there was any political message in the idea of having the girl Melanie (Sennia Nanua) be Black. In the book she’s apparently blonde and blue-eyed and it’s Miss Justineau (Gemma Arterton) who is Black. The political point being that Melanie represents a possible new race of inheritors who will “replace” the last of us. If that is the political point, I’m not sure it’s very progressive. It seems more like they stepped into a mess, sort of like the way the anti-vaccine movement would be accidentally valorized in The Invasion.
*. The zombie basics stay the same, even if they don’t make much sense. The infected are Hungries who only eat human flesh. Why? Not sure. I’m also not sure why it’s only shots to the head that bring them down. Given the high-powered assault rifles the soldiers are armed with, they should be killing the Hungries easily with body shots, but that only seems to slow them down momentarily.
*. The British army doesn’t give a very good account of itself, does it? The base gets overrun and wiped out pretty easily. The gang in The Walking Dead did better defending their prison keep. And what was the army’s bug-out plan? Did they even have one?
*. I’m sure I’m missing something, but I can’t understand the title. Yes, the myth of Pandora is introduced, rather crudely I thought, early on. So we’re meant to read Melanie as Pandora. I get that. But what’s the connection? In what sense is she Pandora? What gifts does she bring humankind? The release of more fungus spores? I can’t think of any gift she’s responsible for, much less “all” of them. How does she represent a punishment sent from the gods? What is her box? What does the connection between Melanie and Pandora mean?
*. The script isn’t great. Meaning that when the action slows down and people start to talk, usually just to introduce some necessary exposition, things stop dead. But the cast works really well. Glenn Close is the cold villainess of a certain age that she seems to be a natural for (the next year she’d play a similar role in Seven Sisters). Gemma Arterton is down-to-earth and relatable. Paddy Considine didn’t strike me as much of a soldier, but then I think he was just a bloke from the reserves. Sennia Nanua is great, but perhaps too likeable, too cute. I couldn’t follow her quick swings from resourceful little kid to stone cold killer and back again.
*. But you can still put me down as satisfied. Looking over some of my notes on the genre, this is probably my favorite zombie movie of the past ten years. The genre has definitely been stuck in a long slide since we hit peak zombie, which I previously reckoned as 2007. The 2010s were awful, giving us such low-grade, high-budget, parodic stuff as World War Z, Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, The Dead Don’t Die, and Zombieland: Double Tap. I don’t think The Girl with All the Gifts reinvents the zombie film or does anything to revive the genre, but it does stand out as being one of the few solid entries from the past decade. Thanks England!

Creswick (2017)

*. A decent horror short, probably of most interest because it was the basis for writer-director Natalie Erika James’s subsequent feature debut Relic (2020). But it’s an interesting enough movie in its own right.
*. The basic idea is that a woman visiting her father discovers that he is slipping into dementia. The old family home is “haunted” in a way that is all the more disturbing for feeling so domestic. The father knows something is not quite right. He is also turning into something strange: something scary and, at first blush, monstrous.
*. The main difference between this film and Relic is that the father’s dementia takes a weirdly expressive form. He’s a carpenter and has a commission to make chairs in his shop. What the daughter discovers, however, is that the chairs are becoming stranger.
*. What I found interesting about this is that the chairs are quite creative, like insect skeletons or the kind of furniture David Cronenberg might have dreamt up. I’d far rather buy one of them and keep it just as a conversation piece than have one of his normal chairs that seem to just be made to a standard pattern. I’ve had friends who turned out chairs like that. Nice, but nothing special. Those dementia chairs, however, are works of art.
*. There is a link that’s often made between madness and art, though I’ve never heard of dementia expressing itself in this way. The mother in Relic works on her own crafts (handmade candles), but they aren’t as visually arresting, or as important to the story as the chairs are here.
*. Most short films tend to come with a punchline, and often I wonder if they’re worth expanding on. The short and feature-length versions of Lights Out offer a good example. I like Relic, but watching Creswick made me think about whether James really added that much that was essential. In retrospect, much of it seems like standard horror padding. That said, even in ten minutes here there’s more to think about than in most full-length films. It may just be an impression, but while we have plenty of (overly) complicated plots these days, our movies seem to be about less and less.

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.

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.

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.

The Raven (2012)

*. The 1935 Universal horror film The Raven starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff had little to do with the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Nor did Roger Corman’s 1963 movie with the same title. In fact, most movies “based on” or “inspired by” Poe, as with movies based on H. P. Lovecraft’s work, have little to do with their authors.
*. The Raven doesn’t have much to do with “The Raven” either, but that’s because it goes in a different direction. The premise here has it that the historical Edgar Allan Poe, played by John Cusack, is being stalked by a serial killer who is using Poe’s stories as inspiration. Cutting his victims in two with giant pendulums, burying them alive, that sort of thing.
*. This made me think of a couple of movies not Poe related. The first is Theater of Blood (1971), where Vincent Price plays a Shakespearean actor who kills off his critics in ways borrowed from the Bard’s plays. The second is Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka (1991), which has Jeremy Irons playing Franz Kafka getting caught up in a Kafkaesque adventure.
*. Unfortunately, it isn’t as good as either of those pictures. Perhaps it was the paradoxical way that Poe’s tales of the weird and uncanny are made to fit into an altogether more predictable twenty-first century horror plot, complete with a kidnapped love interest and background police procedural. Even the locations have a familiar feel to them, and I don’t mean Baltimore. It was shot in Budapest and Belgrade, Eastern Europe being a place where it’s always sometime before 1900.
*. The big problem with The Raven though is that the killer turns out to be a total yawn. In most movies like this the killer isn’t a large role. He may only have a few lines, or none at all. But he has to be a larger-than-life presence, or at least be of some interest. Here he’s an anonymous figure of a clichéd type without any motivation that feels compelling enough to explain his crimes. The thing is, we’ve been down this road so many times before with the thematic and theatrical serial killer — from modern exemplars like Se7en and Saw, all the way back to The Abominable Dr. Phibes or even Agatha Christies And Then There Were None — that any movie wanting to go here again has its work cut out for it. The Raven isn’t up to the task.
*. Add to this a downbeat ending — these are the final days of Poe’s life — and you have a movie that didn’t satisfy critics or audiences. Cusack is actually quite good, but this is one that just left me wondering why they even bothered when they had so little that was new to bring to the table.