Tuesday’s Reviews – Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

film blogging, film reviews, films, Johnny Depp, Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, review, reviewing, reviews

When I first heard about Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of the classic Agatha Christie novel Murder on the Orient Express I was super excited. I mean why wouldn’t I be? I adore Agatha Christie, love Hercule Poirot, and will watch anything starring the legend that is Kenny B. Then I saw the first picture of him as the Belgian detective and my excitement started to wane somewhat. That fucking moustache man! It looked like it had to been drawn on his face with soft-serve ice cream. I’m all for new interpretations of familiar characters but David Suchet’s moustache is a classic. So slick and proud. I agree that Poirot’s moustache needs to be an impressive statement but I don’t think he’d have made the statement that Branagh appears to be making. Still, it wasn’t enough to put me off wanting to see it. What put me off more was the casting of Johnny Depp. I realise we’ll never know the true story of what happened with him and Amber Heard but I still think Hollywood have brushed it aside too quickly. I think it’s bullshit that such a highly paid actor can be accused of abusing his wife yet still land high profile work in this and the Fantastic Beasts franchise. I’m all for inncocent until proven guilty but Johnny Depp is proper suss. I’d have preferred him to get a bit of down time after the accusations… just to let him know he’s not infallible. So I wasn’t really in a rush to see it anyway but then I heard cavalcade of negative reviews. Although, I knew I couldn’t resist the lure of Kenny B for ever though.

TBT – Goldeneye (1995)

Bond, Judi Dench, Pierce Brosnan, spy, TBT

On Monday I’m finally going to get to see Spectre. I know there have been a few dodgy reviews but I always love a Bond film. It comes back to those lazy weekends as a kid where I had nothing to do but watch Roger Moore on his hover-gondola. Younger me loved James Bond because it was silly and camp. Twenty years ago this week the James Bond franchise changed completely. Pierce Brosnan stepped into the role and helped create one of the best bond films of all fucking time. That’s quite a bold statement and part of me does worry my love of the game is clouding my judgement. However, there is no denying that Goldeneye took the womanising, drunk spy in a more modern direction. Without it we wouldn’t have ever met Daniel Craig’s brooding and parkour-ing 007.

If nothing else, Goldeneye starts with a bang and doesn’t let up until the end credits role. We first see Bond as he traverses down a dam and uses a laser to cut his way in to a Russian munitions factory. Literally catching the enemy with their pants down, James reappears in a toilet cubical where he takes out a henchmen with as many raised eyebrows and sassy quips that you’d expect. This is Bond as you know him but just bigger.

Goldeneye’s plot involves a mysterious entity, Janus, taking control of a weapon that emits a deadly electromagnetic pulse onto any chosen target. In order to get to Janus, James must battle his deadly female sidekick, Xenia Onatopp, with thighs that are more than capable of crushing a man to death. Of course it’s not that simple: turns out the mission has a deeper personal meaning for James as a Russian Colonel who is mixed up in the scheme was responsible for killing a fellow agent 15 years earlier.

There are all the trappings of classic Bond here despite the fact that this is the first script written completely independently from Ian Fleming’s novels. The gadgets come into play in a timely fashion, the girls are still creepily obsessed with the creepy lothario, the baddies take part in an overly complicated plan, and plenty of people die. It’ll keep everyone who knows the formula happy enough. Just keep ticking off that checklist.

Goldeneye, however, appears to be in on the joke this time though. The whole affair is very tongue-in-cheek and every line is said with a knowing wink. The script is littered with subtle references to the Bond tropes that have become famous. The franchise helped Roger Ebert create the term Talking Killer but he is only visible here in a throwaway line about “proper sinister interrogation”. Goldeneye is aware of where it came from but it’s going to make damn sure you know it’s understands how silly things were getting.

So when Bond changed faces he also changed attitudes. Still the incessant womaniser but one with some amount of emotional depth. The scene where James and his latest squeeze have some quiet thinking time on a beach in the Carribbean is one of the cheesiest things you’ll ever see but it’s also not the kind of thing you’d see in pre-Bronhom Bond. He kills people for a living but don’t think for one second that he’s not fucking upset about it.

Our 1995 Bond also gets a bit more resistance from the female population. There have always been attempts to give James a strong female cohort but it wasn’t until Judi Dench stepped into the role of M that things got fucking serious. M wastes no time in telling Bond that exactly what she thinks of him and that his bullshit won’t wash with her. Judi Dench is by far the greatest fucking thing that happened to this franchise. I’m still recovering from her Skyfall departure.

M’s first encounter with Bond on screen shows her telling him he’s “a sexist, misogynist dinosaur”. That was becoming painfully clear by 1989’s Licence to Kill. Goldeneye went some way towards rebranding the man without losing any of what made him so compelling in the first place. I have no shame in admitting that Bronhom is my favourite Bond because he has the most fun with it. He knows what he has to do and just goes with it. I also have no trouble admitting that he’s nowhere near being the best.

Goldeneye is a great spectacle but it’s not necessarily a great film. It gives you everything you need from a spy film and all the traditions you need for a 007 film. The stunts are as spectacular as you’d want and the plot as outrageous as possible. This film holds an important place in James Bond history. And that’s not just because of the fucking awesome tank chase through St. Petersburg.

Philomena (2013)

heartbreaking, Jeff Pope, Judi Dench, review, Stephen Frears, Steve Coogan

So whilst I’m planning a romantic valentine’s day with vampire Tom Hiddleston, a friend of mine is arranging to take her fiancé to watch the significantly unromantic Philomena: the adaptation of Martin Sixsmith’s book about an elderly woman’s journey to find the son she was forced to give up as a teenager. Not a terrible film but hardly the kind of film you’d consider for a romantic night out.

Philomena is a story that sheds light onto the despicable hypocrisy and cruelty that was tainting parts of the Irish Catholic Church. It is a heartbreaking tale but one that focuses its attention on one woman. This isn’t a hard-hitting exposé (see 2002’s The Magdalene Sisters) but is a film that highlights the human angle. Translating a deeply personal film in such a way that everyone who watches is can take something from it. Of course, there is always a danger when telling a human interest story that it could end up falling on the wrong side of schmaltz and trash but screenwriters, Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, and director, Stephen Frears, handle it perfectly.

It is adapted from the true story of an Irish nurse (Dench) who turns to ex-journalist and disgraced Labour spin-doctor Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to help track down her missing child. In the 1950s the teenage Philomena became pregnant and was forced to take refuge at the convent of Roscrea. After the birth of her child the young girl (Sophie Kennedy Clarke) spent her days slaving away in the laundry room in exchange for a meagre one hour with her son. Until the day he was sold to a wealthy American couple and lost to her forever. Hearing the tale from Philomena’s daughter, Sixsmith picks up on the opportunity to heal his reputation and return to his journalistic career by writing a human interest story about the tragic tale. Their investigation takes them from the convent in County Tipperary, to the United States and back again.
The largest section of the film plays out like an odd-couple narrative where the endearing, working-class Philomena jars with the cynical middle-class man. He must bite his tongue every time Philomena rejoices about the simple pleasures she is exposed to and she can never quite work out when he is joking. There is a great deal of humour to be found within Coogan’s deadpan delivery and Dench’s adorable but slightly kooky performance as the leading lady. The finest comic sequence of the film is a beautifully delivered exchange revolving around her fondness for romance novels and Sixsmith’s disdain for the genre. Dench’s comic timing is spot-on and she easily ensures that Philomena doesn’t end up as a pathetic caricature.
The pair has great chemistry on screen but there always remains a distance between them. The film explores issues of faith and forgiveness throughout Philomena’s search: with Sixsmith adamantly pronouncing himself an atheist and Philomena sticking with her deep-seated faith despite everything she’s been though. Thankfully though, the script never moves into the dodgy territory of showing that the union changes Sixsmith’s life or vice versa. There is no attempt to have the holy woman leading the lost journalist back to the flock nor does Sixsmith try and push his religious anger onto his travel companion: they simply come to an unspoken mutual agreement to disagree.
Judi Dench is on fine form with her portrayal of Philomena. There is great depth behind the slightly delicate exterior. She is the kind of character that has served Dench well in the past: a quiet and composed exterior hiding the unseen trouble underneath. After hiding her shame and guilt for 50 years, Philomena approaches her search with a certain amount of trepidation but never loses her high-spirits or courage. It is a sophisticated and careful performance by Dench that has rightfully won her plenty of nominations this award season.
Coogan’s performance is more held-back but no less impressive. He is refined and restrained throughout. Whilst Sixsmith is never allowed redemption, mainly because he never believes he needs it, the journalist does find his voice. It is obvious that Coogan is a talented actor but he makes the decision to step back here. He keeps everything fairly low key and, even in Martin’s most emotional moments, never lets his anger spin out of control. Rightly, the moral and emotional focus here is Philomena and, under the steady hand of Frears direction, Dench pulls it off beautifully.

Philomena is a well-judged and well-balanced film that tells an upsetting story that is still light-hearted.It doesn’t shy away from revealing the harsh truths but ensures that there is always a pinch of humour to lighten the emotional blows that eventually hit you. It is a sophisticated and intelligent drama that will warm your heart despite its content. 

Skyfall (2012)

Ben Wishaw, Bond, Daniel Craig, England, fucking beautiful, Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, review, Sam Mendes, spy

Daniel Craig’s time as James Bond has certainly had its ups and downs since the announcement that he would take over from previous incarnation Pierce Brosnan. Although, I think it’s safe to say that, despite what you may have thought about Quantum, Craig has shown that he has more than enough skill to take on the challenge of such a renowned figure. This was a Bond for the modern age; a Bond who takes on the physical challenges expected of a super spy whilst still looking every part the traditional English gent. That was the greatest thing about Casino Royale, we had a film that took a character rooted in the British tradition of stiff upper lipped patriotism and turned him into a gritty action hero with just enough heart. Casino Royale changed the rules for 007 and remains the best film of the series. This has, of course, meant that all future films will be compared to it. Something that didn’t go well for the disappointing and much criticised Quantum of Solace and something that will mean that Skyfall won’t get the full appreciation that it deserves. It is no Casino Royale but the latest offering is the perfect celebration of 50 years of Ian Fleming’s literary construction.

For this is the ultimate purpose of Skyfall; respecting the past whilst accepting that times have changed and Mr Bond has had to move with them. The film makes several key nods to the Bonds of the past whilst maintaining that he is still the same, dark, moody and damaged super spy that we are used to nowadays. In keeping with the current craze of Nolanesque sensitive and broody heroes, Bond has a certain amount soul searching to do in between the Jason Bourne style stunts. Forget Connery, Moore and co., this is the James Bond for the 21st century. The storyline itself shows a deeper awareness of current events as it leads us through strands based around cyber-terrorism, the theft of sensitive data and government inquires. Providing the perfect opportunity to introduce the 007 to his new quartermaster and techno wizkid, played by the always brilliant Ben Whisaw. Gone are the amazing but nevertheless rather quaint gadgets of old; no more exploding pens, jet packs and submarine cars for our slick, modern spy. No, we find ourselves in a simpler, more realistic world where it is computer hacking, a personalised gun and a radio that will save the day.

Despite this focus on a more stately, up-to-date action man, Mendes goes through the motions and offers the audience all of the traits that we have come to expect from a half-decent Bond film. The director obediently ensures that the credits sequence, the sexy ladies, the cars, the exotic locations, the gadgets and the ruthless villain all get their moment. Unfortunately a lot of it is done rather half-heartedly and simply to keep the fans  happy. Particularly in regards to the token Bond girls, namely Eve (Naomie Harris) Bond’s flirty MI6 colleague and femme fatale Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe), who come across as underwhelming and pretty unnecessary. I don’t want to find myself in a feminist anti-Bond girl rant because, frankly, I feel like a Bond film without at least one sexy foil slightly misses the point of Fleming’s original creation. However, in this film it seems that there should only have been one leading lady in Bond’s adventure. For the past seven Bond films, Judi Dench’s M has been standing on the outskirts disapproving of the eponymous spy’s trigger-happy behaviour and his eye for the ladies. It was about time that she got her moment in the spotlight and given the chance to show what she could be. Forget the scantily clad ladies that have graced our screens and James’ bed for the past 50 years, it is M who is the quintessential Bond girl. She is the feisty, strong and ruthless matriarch with a string of men eager to lay down their lives at her say so. Quite simply, M is the Queen of the Bond girls.

Once the necessities are out of the way the film is able to really get going. Skyfall is the first Bond film to really make use of home soil and the set pieces in London and the Scottish highlands are a wonder. It is all very familiar and shows the real concerns for 007. In Silva’s plot for revenge it is the innocent London commuters that get caught up in the action. Bond must save the country he has spent 50 years serving whilst his boss must justify the department she heads up. Writers Neal Purvic, Robert Wade and John Logan provide us with all of the in-jokes and references that you would expect from this celebratory production but present us with a fresh and engrossing story that shows us the franchise still has something to offer its fans.

Although, there is a sense that the film has been too influenced by the new breed of superhero and the latest Hollywood trend of exploring the emotional damage at the heart of every half decent struggle with evil. I must admit that my heart sank when there was mention of the tragedy surrounding Bond’s parents as I was sure a Nolanesque tale of a damaged orphan dealing with his loneliness was looming. Thankfully these references are short-lived and don’t distract from the most important feature. Skyfall flirts with a more introspective and emotional attitude but there is no doubt that this is an all action flick. Sam Mendes was brought in to bring back a certain amount of credibility to the franchise after the much criticised Quantum of Solace and in the pre-credits sequence he certainly proves that when you place a train-top fist-fight in his lap he can deal with it. Mendes plays down the Bourne style action that created such disappointment in Quantum but still provides us with several memorable sequences of high-octane drama. I’m sure that pretty much every review you may have read about Skyfall will have made at least a passing reference to the amazingly talented cinematographer, Roger Deakins. After their previous collaborations on Jarhead and Revolutionary Road, Mendes and Deakins join forces once more and offer the audience some of the best visuals of the entire series. Skyfall is, quite simply, a feast for the eyes. You need only take another look at the moments in China to see how good these two are; scenes such as the one that takes place in an office building where a gorgeous light show accompanies an assassination, show us that action films can also be beautiful films.

Of course, the film isn’t just a success thanks to the two key figures behind the scenes. It is thanks to the awesome trio that lead the plot and their great interactions that really make Skyfall such a triumph. We are presented with an obviously older and more careworn 007 who has clearly been through quite a lot since his double 0 debut in Casino Royale. Craig’s Bond is as harried, stern and deadly as ever and he leads us through Bond’s beardy, physically and emotionally damaged period better than Bronhom ever did in Die Another Day. He has something to prove to himself and, most importantly, to his superiors. He not only has to save everyone but show that his boss’ continued faith in his skills isn’t as ill-advised at it may seem. It was about time that more weight was given to the turbulent relationship between Bond and M and Judi Dench and Daniel Craig have such a great chemistry that it’s a shame that they couldn’t have shared even more screen time. The relationship has been one of respect, loyalty, subtextual (and fairly oedipal) eroticism, and, to steal a phrase from Peter Bradshaw, “smouldering resentment”. M demands everything from her agents but is more than happy to risk their safety and their lives to succeed. It is something that Bond has, so far, not questioned and has enabled him to enjoy pushing their bond to its limits. That is until a rather terrifying face from M’s past returns to force her into atoning for her sins.

That face belongs to a blonde and creepily eccentric Javier Bardem who presents us with one of the most dangerous yet enigmatic Bond villains of all time. In line with the rest of the film’s visuals, Silva is a sight to behold. I have seen comparisons with Julian Assange, Larry Grayson and Jimmy Saville. Whatever you’re view, there is no denying that Silva looks unsettling thanks to his intensely blond appearance. Silva is the Mr Hyde to Bond’s Dr Jekyl; they both share the skills of a super spy and share a rollercoaster relationship with M. Bardem’s villain is sensational. From his utterly captivating entrance, spouting his parable about rats in a barrel, onwards he gets under Bond’s skin and forces him to question the foundations of his whole life. Even his love of women thanks to an eerily flirty encounter whilst Bond is tied to a chair. It is the interactions of these three figures and an excellent supporting cast that drive the action and intense storyline of the 23rd outing of Fleming’s hero.

There is little doubt that Skyfall is a great Bond film; it more than makes up for the previous film and allows both old and new fans to see how, important, enjoyable and exciting the last 50 years have been. It is not perfect but Mendes does a remarkable job to mix the old with the new and make a bloody good film at the same time. His turn is sombre, thoughtful and incredibly brash all at the same time. It takes some time to get going but once the obligatory Bond guidelines have been adhered to the film really opens up. We are taken on a wild adventure through Turkey, China and London and end up in an explosive finale in the remote Scottish Highlands. The lead actors and their supporting cast (with a vital but short appearance from the outstanding Albert Finney) we have a Bond film worthy of the character and the fans. With its slight emotional core adding to, and not distracting from, the action, Skyfall just goes to show there is still a place for the likes of James Bond in our society.

Jane Eyre (2011)

Bronte, drama, Judi Dench, Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, review

(Feel I should point out this contains spoilers but doesn’t everyone know the story of Jane Eyre even if they haven’t read the book? Maybe not. SPOILERS!)

For a reason that remains unknown to me, Edward Rochester is the most popular romantic literary character ever. Rochester is not the kind of man you fall in love with. He is creepy, possessive and, generally, just a bit of a dick. Oh, but all he needs is a hug, a cup of tea and your love, right ladies? So he’s a tortured soul, who made a mistake in his youth but that really doesn’t justify psychologically torturing the young Jane. Although, maybe it is every girl’s dream to meet a man who loves her so much he is willing to convince her he is marrying another woman and break her heart before revealing that it was all a plot to make her jealous? What? In the words of renowned fashion designer Jacobim Mugatu, “I FEEL LIKE I’M TAKING CRAZY PILLS!” Rochester is a man who is bitter about ruining his life by marrying a woman he not only didn’t love but who turned out to be mad. This does not give him to right to play games with an innocent, young woman, fresh out of school, who is stupid enough to fall in love with him. I don’t get it and I never will.

This mindless rant isn’t quite as off topic as it may seem at first. My main issue with the film is the characterisation and casting of Rochester. No sane woman would fall Mr Rochester at first sight (I still maintain that after that it would be difficult but I have to get on with this). On the other hand, very few women would be able to stop themselves falling for Michael Fassbender at first sight. Fassbender cuts an attractive but brooding figure against the backdrop of the wild moors (much more akin to Heathcliff than Rochester). Within this setting, a truly complex man and this turbulent relationship is transformed into a stock character from a romantic comedy. This is not Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre this is When Harry Met Sally in breeches.

The awful and cruel Rochester of the book, who enjoys playing games with Jane’s emotions, has been replaced with a slightly offhand and bored man. For the most part, Jane is treated like his pet, used for his entertainment until, all of a sudden, he is wildly and obsessively in love with her. It is an even more nonsensical relationship than the one within the book (even taking into account that the moment where he disguises himself as a gypsy has been taken out). The intense feeling that is represented within the book never quite translates onto the screen.

The novel has remained a favourite literary work because its heroine represented a great improvement in the representation of gender politics and feminine power. Jane as a character is plain but, most importantly, she is passionate, intelligent and strong. Mia Wasikowska doesn’t stand up to the brutish Rochester and instead comes off as dull, rather pathetic and stiff. She sits opposite Fassbender’s Rochester and barely makes an impression. It is no wonder that the romance never really takes off within the film when the two lovers are as worn-out and dull as this pair.

I’m in desperate need of something positive to say about Cary Joji Fukunaga’s adaptation or this will turn into a review that beats Rochester in the broody and annoyed stakes. Clutching at straws here: I was rather impressed with Wasikowska’s Northern accent. As a proud Northerner myself, I found that my ears were not bleeding in response to her performance, as they indeed were post-viewing of One Day (Anne Hathaway has probably been ridiculed for this enough but casting her in that role is a representation of everything that is wrong with the film industry today. Why pick the best person for a role when you can pick the person who appears in the most magazines? Sorry, still bitter.)

At the same time, Judi Dench is as wonderful to watch as ever but her time onscreen is limited and there is very little she can do to improve the overall quality of the film. Her elderly housekeeper Mrs Fairfax is undeniably rather hammy but she is the only character that it is possible to have any real connection with. She is the only figure that I ended up caring about in the long run. Her happiness at having Jane in the house and their lovely reunion at the end of the film brings a much needed dose of emotion and life into the dusty Thornfield Hall.

However, I was thoroughly disappointed with the portrayal of Bertha as the gothic presence within the film. Having written my post-graduate dissertation on gothic fiction which I’m fairly sure now makes me an expert on the subject (hell if, Jamie Cullum can describe himself as an “expert on Shakespeare” thanks to his degree in literature then I can be a fucking expert on this.) The mysterious screams, the talk of dark figures walking around at night and secret passages are either forgotten or given such little emphasis that there seems little point that the discovery of the secret wife was included at all. They should probably have just fully descended into the world of romantic comedy and had Jane catch Rochester in bed with Judi Dench. Bertha, who is seen for all of 2 minutes, is reduced to the mysterious figure who sets fire to a bed, stabs her brother and give Rochester a well-deserved slap. In the novel, she is feral and very dangerous; within the film she is just an annoyance that prevents Rochester from getting it on with his employees.

Whatever the film lacks in figurative darkness it certainly makes up for in literal darkness. As far as cinematography goes, it was an interesting choice to use as few lights as possible during filming. I realise we are meant to believe that we are witnessing events within the past but that I would have thought it was prudent to allow the audience the chance to see the magnificent sets and Yorkshire backdrop. Of course, this could just be a clever cinematographic attempt to represent the darkness within Thornfield and the unseen gothic feeling that was such an important part of the novel but wouldn’t dare accuse this film of something so clever/pretentious. I

Although, for what you can see of it, the film is visually stunning. Great use is made, during the opening scene, of the wild moors that surround Thornfield. The costumes are stunning and Dario Marianelli’s score is beautiful. In terms of artistic merit Jane Eyre really does deserve the amount of praise it received following its release. Fukunaga’s style is simplistic and understated. He lets the materials that he has at his fingertips do the work for him and it is beautiful. It is just a shame that  the main event, the love story, does not deserve it.

I guess, all in all, Jane Eyre is a decent enough film. The main actors both do commendable jobs that, had it not been for the fact that this is one of many adaptations, would have been satisfying. As it is indeed one in a vast ocean of similar works, this film fails to live up to the reputation of either the original material or the many others that have come before it. The main characters have been so greatly diminished that their love story doesn’t really stand out from the crowd. The film pretty much collapses under the weight of the reputation of its beloved and well-known characters. The ending (expertly mirrored in this review) is rushed and doesn’t offer an adequate resolution for the audience.