Thursday, December 07, 2017

Murder on the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh)

Death on the rail 

There's arguably not a lot to Agatha Christie's mysteries. She writes functional prose, sketches serviceable characters, delivers the occasional clever aphorism ("The impossible could not have happened, therefore the impossible must be possible in spite of appearances"--which when you think about it sounds suspiciously like Arthur Conan Doyle). 

But the plots were amazing: Rube Goldberg devices that whirred furiously intricately, accelerating till all fall away to finally reveal a beautiful simplicity ("I'd never have guessed!" is the common reaction, though a slap of the forehead will suffice). Christie's plots take to the theater stage (The Mousetrap, Witness for the Prosecution) and the big screen (Rene Clair's And Then There Were None--easily my favorite; and Sidney Lumet's 1974 Murder on the Orient Express) as if to the manner born; there's something about the spare (some would say 'thin') elegance of her fiction that renders it ready-made for translation to other media.

Now Branagh's version of Christie's murder masterpiece, about a retired Belgian detective named Hercule Poirot (played by the director himself: "Are kool Poirot--I do not slay ze lions mademoiselle") trapped on a snowbound train with over a dozen other suspicious types, played by an international cast of stars.  

Friday, December 01, 2017

Lolita (Stanley Kubrick, 1962)


(Warning: novel and film's overall story and narrative twists discussed in close detail)
Nabokov's Lolita--about a middle-aged college professor's obsession for a 12-year-old girl--is something of a Venus Flytrap: bright colors alluring scents attract the unwary reader and before he knows it (woops!) he's lost in a fabulist wonderland of American kitsch and grotesquerie, booby-trapped with hidden caches of pain suffering death.

Kubrick's film kept the more puritanical American moviegoing (as opposed to bookreading) audience in mind (the novel had been controversial but a bestseller) when it dropped the erotic tone and with the first scene plunged us straight into Nabokovian surrealism: a disintegrating mansion haunted by a bespectacled ogre (Peter Sellers as Clare Quilty) hunted in turn by noble Humbert Humbert (James Mason) with a (What else in guncrazy America?) revolver. Only--think about it--Humbert is the child molester, Quilty her rescuer. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, 2016)

The premature burial 

Attempt something often enough and sooner or later you get it right. Attempt the biopic often enough and someone was bound to hit the bullseye sometime, not so much telling a subject's story with reasonable accuracy as using said subject's life as grist to express the filmmaker's obsessions on his own stylistic terms--thinking Wong Kar Wai's lush narratively wayward The Grandmaster or Jane Campion's austere Bright Star with its focus on the female protagonist (John Keat's great love Fanny Brawne). Terence Davies' A Quiet Passion does something as interesting if not more so: cast Emily Dickinson--one of America's greatest poets--in what essentially reads as a horror film.

Thursday, November 09, 2017

Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)

Ghost story

(Warning: plot details and narrative twists discussed in explicit detail)

Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moon and Rain 1953) based on a collection of Ueda Akinari short stories of the same title (in particular "The House in the Thicket" and "The Lust of the White Serpent")--plus a bit of short fiction by Guy de Maupassant ("Decore!" or "How He Got the Legion of Honor")--is often considered the director's finest work, the supreme achievement of not just Japanese but world cinema.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

Begotten (E. Elias Merhige, 1990)


E. Elias Merhige's Begotten has sprouted a few legends since it emerged in 1990--how the writer / director / producer / cinematographer / special effect-and-sound designer spent three years of his life and an estimated $33,000 to make it; how he conducted extensive experiments including running the unexposed negative through sandpaper and building his own optical printer to fabricate the special effects (most of the details can be found in a 9/20/10 interview he did for The results have since been considered one of the most (if not the most) disturbing films ever made.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008)


(Warning: plot and narrative twists discussed in explicit detail)

Pascal Laugier's 2008 horror film deserves respect for taking the challenge presented by American torture porn (The Devil's Rejects, Hostel 1 and Hostel 2, the remake of I Spit In Your Grave) and upping the ante considerably.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Blade Runner vs. Blade Runner 2049

Does Deckard dream of synthetic sheep?

(Warning: narratives of Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? discussed in close detail)

Ridley Scott's science fiction epic Blade Runner opened back in 1982 to poor boxoffice and middling-to-hostile reviews (including a memorable slam by Pauline Kael).

And then--like a launching police spinner or Roy Batty's level of empathy--the film's reputation rose. From cult classic to cultural touchstone to a place in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry pantheon, Scott's possible masterpiece is now widely considered one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.

The film print went through its own odyssey from seven differently edited versions (including a Director's Cut that doesn't have the director's full participation or approval and a Final Cut that does) VHS releases laserdisc releases DVD releases Blu-Ray releases lord knows how many re-issues and retrospectives and finally--after thirty-five long years--a sequel.

How is the picture? Lemme put it this way: