Movie Review – Secret Scripture

Vanessa Redgrave and Rooney Mara deliver two very strong performances of one woman at two very different times in her life, and the horrific events that were designed to break her.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ½
Elle Cahill

The Secret Scripture, based on the novel of the same name by Sebastian Barry, focuses on the story of Rose McNulty (Vanessa Redgrave and Rooney Mara), a woman who has been institutionalised for over fifty years. When the institution she’s at has to relocate her, Dr Stephen Grene (Eric Bana) is requested to go and conduct a psych evaluation of her. As he proceeds to evaluate her, Dr Grene is drawn to her story and begins to realise she may not be the mentally deranged old lady that everyone makes her out to be.

The Secret Scripture is a beautifully shot film with a theme that seems highly relevant to the going-on’s of today. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman captures the beauty and severity of the Irish landscape with the same perceptive lens as he did in the 2014 Russian drama Leviathan. The wide shots of the Irish landscape are both beautiful but harsh, with a dangerous undertone, not unlike the town Sligo, where the film is set.

The situation Rose finds herself in is not too dissimilar to what a lot of females are currently speaking out against, making this film both extremely relevant, and, I fear, just as likely to be excluded from the awards season due to the current controversy plaguing Hollywood.

Redgrave plays the elderly Rose very well, convincing you at the beginning that she is genuinely mad, but its her gradual insistence about telling her story to Dr Grene that shows the strong resilience Rose has to just give up and give in to the situation she’s been put in. Mara plays the younger Rose, and is ethereal as always, with the younger Rose wearing her resilience and quick-wit as a shield to the unwanted attention she receives from the small, gossipy Irish village people. Her fall from a headstrong, confident young woman into the emotionally battered shell that she ends up becoming is heart breaking to watch, particularly as she doesn’t give up easily.

Another standout was Theo James, who has come a long way since his Divergent days, giving a convincing performance as Father Gaunt. He manages to charm the audience before revealing his darker intentions later in the piece. Bana also gets a honourable mention for playing Dr Grene with a certain delicacy, but his character’s story was really secondary to Rose’s so he didn’t get enough screen time to really make an impact.

The only let down in this whole film for me was the ending. The film moved at a pace which was steady, carefully breaking down and detailing the events that lead to Rose being committed. However, it then proceeded to wrap up the entire film in 15 minutes, which just wasn’t enough time to properly analyse the crucial points which led to the big reveal at the end. The clunky ending gave the feeling that director Jim Sheridan was cautious of time, but I would have much preferred for the film to go on that little bit longer so the pace was maintained and the ending felt much more rounded and complete.

Overall Sheridan has done another great job at exploring a character that is positioned on the fringe of society, and the destructive nature in which human beings deal with those who are slightly different or unwilling to conform. There are some stellar performances from the cast, and the story is one that gives hope, even if it means simply waiting for the right time.

Secret Scripture is available in Australian Cinemas December 7

Image courtesy of Transmission Films.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Movie Review – Only the Brave

Joseph Kosinski makes the bravest call of all as an action director – setting aside the combustion in favour of the human drama at the heart of it.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Corey Hogan

Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), head of the Prescott Fire Department, holds a deep passion for his job and crew, who are tasked with risking their lives regularly at the front line of stopping forest fires spreading and destroying all life in their path. Frustrated at being constantly overruled by Type 1 or “Hotshot” firefighting crews from out of state, he seeks new recruits in an attempt to create Prescott’s own Hotshot crew and takes a chance on anyone willing to put their life in danger – including former drug addict Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), who seeks a means of getting his life together upon learning he is a father. The men grow and become heroes over their years of service, but there strengths will be put to the ultimate life-threatening test by the insatiable Yarnell Hill Fire of 2013.

Joseph Kosinski may only have two features under his belt as a director (Tron: Legacy and Oblivion), but his name on a film alone is already enough to presume what you’re getting into with his work; a visually astounding but emotionally and narratively empty experience. Fortunately he shakes that up with his third feature, Only the Brave. Lightyears away from his muddled science-fiction efforts, Kosinski takes a leaf from Peter Berg’s book and grounds himself firmly back on earth with an intense true tale of human courage in the face of terrifying danger. Like Berg’s macho-machinations, it holds its fair share of flaws, but Kosinski can at least be commended making a valiant attempt at entering “serious filmmaker” territory.

It’s more often than not a ballsy move with adrenaline-pumping films like this to show restraint and focus on character building while holding off the true peril for the finale; here, it works in equal parts to both Kosinski’s strength and detriment. The men of the Prescott Fire Department are a gallant bunch easy to root for; the kind of macho men cinema loves to idolise since they can show their heroic smarts and wits in tough situations, as well as their softer sides for their wives and children. Yet most of them do become bogged down in cliché, particularly in the noble phrases they’re forced to shout, and some barely register beyond their stock-standard assortment of personal issues.

Josh Brolin is the gruff commander married to the job, much to the detriment of his cookie-cutter neglected wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), who loves him with all her heart, but is naturally frustrated by the amount of time he spends away from her, since she just wants to start a family. Taylor Kitsch does his bland, one-dimensional, just-kind-of-there Taylor Kitsch thing, again proving himself one of the least-memorable working actors as he gives the new recruit a hard time until he needs his help.

Miles Teller’s McDonough feels the freshest, even if he is stuck with the audience-surrogate getting shown the ropes newbie role. He captures the struggle of the rehabilitation and redemption of quitting the crack pipe and stepping up to the challenges of a heroic career, all in the name of proving himself a worthy father to his exes’ newborn girl. The tacked on mentor bond he shares with Brolin sits less comfortably, but it’s hard to complain too much about cliché in something based off an autobiographical account.

Though it does a decent job with its character building, the key element Only the Brave doesn’t truly deliver on is the sense of being in the thick of a pulse-pounding, life-or-death situation; it always feels as though it’s playing it safe and betraying a realistically deadly occupation, never showing true fear from any of its hardened players. This comes at odds with the climactic veer into tragedy, which, thanks to its proverbial trappings lacks the emotional impact it should have. Commendably though, Kosinski handles his tribute to the real fallen soldiers respectfully; combining this with his trademark visual spark, he’s at least on the right track to becoming the “serious filmmaker” he clearly wants to be accepted as.

Only the Brave is available in Australian Cinemas November 30

Image courtesy of Studio Canal PTY LTD.

Movie Review – The Man Who Invented Christmas

A stocking stuffed with quite a lot of wrapping paper, The Man Who Invented Christmas struggles to get through its own excess.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Michael Philp

The thing about The Man Who Invented Christmas (TMWIC) is that you’ve seen most of it before. A respectable chunk of the film is a straight adaptation of A Christmas Carol – the same story you’ve been hearing since you were a child. It’s nice, it’s heart-warming, it’s a classic, and it’s been adapted dozens of times, sometimes with more panache than on this occasion (A Muppet Christmas Carol remains a personal favourite). So the first knock against TMWIC is simply that its version of A Christmas Carol isn’t all that special. The second knock is that the other story it’s telling – how Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) came to write A Christmas Carol – is both overstuffed and dull. Not exactly a winning combination.

TMWIC opens to Dickens coming off the high of a tour of America. Cut to a year and two flops later: Dickens is broke and needs a hit to get through Christmas. His publishers laugh at him when he suggests a Christmas story. “It’s October, you haven’t written anything yet, and nobody cares about Christmas!” They say, being the savvy business people they are. Dickens stubbornly ignores them and decides to risk everything to self-publish the novel. In the process, characters such as Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) come alive through Dickens’ thoughts and begin tormenting him. To triumph, Dickens is forced to wrestle not only with his characters, but also the inner demons they represent.

Dan Stevens does solid work here. His Dickens is energetic and conflicted – pushed and pulled by both outer and inner forces, he is perpetually bouncing between problems – and Stevens does admirable work keeping everything centred. Likewise, Plummer is a reliable source of amusement and is devilishly delicious as Scrooge. Avoiding the temptation of passivity, Plummer keeps his Scrooge engaged in the act of torturing his creator. Plummer’s dynamic with Stevens is perhaps the film’s saving grace and is certainly its most well-developed aspect. If only the filmmakers had focused in on that, we might’ve had something recommendable.

Instead, we get an abundance of subplots that dull the film, like running a knife across a rock. Some of them – like William Makepeace Thackeray – just need snappier editing to liven things up. Others – like Dickens’ nephew, the inspiration for Tiny Tim – should be jokes instead of entire scenes. These would be minor quibbles if there weren’t so damn many of them. There are at least three different subplots that desperately need trimming, and one that needs to be deleted entirely. Those stories come at the expense of the main one, killing its momentum and making you wish the film would go back to the mediocre version of A Christmas Carol.

You can praise TMWIC’s production design (it’s quite lavish), and performances (universally solid), but you’ll find it hard to praise the film they’re in service of. Quite simply it doesn’t serve them back. Charles Dickens’ life should make for an entertaining film, but unfortunately, this Christmas story isn’t it.

The Man Who Invented Christmas is available in Australian Cinemas November 30

Image courtesy of Icon Film Distribution.

Movie Review – The Disaster Artist

One of the most anticipated comedies of the year; three Hooked on Film reviewers previewed James Franco’s new film The Disaster Artist, and this is what they thought.

 

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐  ½
Michael Philp

 The Disaster Artist is the true story behind the best worst movie known to man – The Room. Dubbed the “all-conquering cult leader of bad movies,” by our own Rhys Graeme-Drury, The Room is a film that has to be seen to be believed. Hilarious, insane, and awe-inspiring, you will think it can’t get crazier, immediately before it tops itself for the tenth time. Astonishingly, the story of its creation is even weirder.

The centrepiece of The Disaster Artist is undoubtedly Tommy Wiseau (James Franco) – the director of The Room and the world’s greatest source of unintentional comedy. A living, breathing rejected Men in Black design, Wiseau is a comedic gift from the heavens. If it weren’t for the pre-show interview, you’d swear he couldn’t be real. Franco is phenomenal in his dedication to the role, mining comedy from even the simplest of interactions. His brother, Dave Franco – playing straight-man Greg Sestero – is equally good, but is overshadowed by the sheer comedic force of Wiseau’s visage.

The Disaster Artist wrings comedy gold from Wiseau’s very existence. James Franco’s performance is a hysterical character study of a man who remains one of the greatest mysteries of our era. When a simple football kick can raise the house, you know you’re watching something special. The perfect follow up to a perfectly imperfect film, The Disaster Artist is easily one of the best comedies of the year.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐  ½
Rhys Graeme-Drury

The best thing about The Disaster Artist, I found, wasn’t that it is hilarious and ingeniously referential, which of course it is – it’s that the film melds elements of parody perfectly with shades of sincerity, in the process forming a well-rounded package that is captivating, strange, emotional and uplifting, sometimes all in the same scene.

 This isn’t just James Franco, his brother and some of their mates (Seth Rogen plays a script editor, Zac Efron makes an appearance) pointing and laughing at Wiseau and his abominable cult classic. No, there is authentic affection and earnestness ingrained in Franco’s film; a wholesome genuineness about it.

The prologue, which sees a host of famous faces including Kristen Bell, Adam Scott and J.J. Abrams, take time out of their schedule to gush about The Room, sets the scene perfectly; this isn’t mean-spirited or heckling Wiseau, it’s a sonnet overflowing with affection for everything from terrible cult cinema to those who chase their dreams and fall through the cracks. The screenplay, penned by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, preserves Wiseau’s eccentricities, keeps the narrative tight and ensures the focus remains firmly on his relationship with Sestero and their shared dream of making it big.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic

As the age-old expression goes, what else is there left to say that hasn’t been said already? The Disaster Artist is everything a great comedy does and everything that a sincerely heartfelt film can be. However, more importantly, it’s a film that ultimately acts as a tale and tool for inspiration.

Whilst you can laugh (as almost everyone has done so) at Wiseau’s foolish antics and absurd aspirations for his life, we are given a chance to respect his endless pursuit for his dreams amongst the numerous obstacles in his way. It can be as simple as making a pact, or rather a pinky promise, between a friend, and never failing to protect that asseveration.

It’s about following the path of enduring the pain, where everything around you is telling you you’re wrong and the courage to continue to following it. This is why Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sistero are beacons of hope. Life will not always turn out the way you planned it, but if you want it strongly enough, it will be exactly how you need it. So, fail spectacularly and become a global sensation: that is the story of The Disaster Artist

The Disaster Artist is available at Luna Cinemas from November 30, Australia wide December 7.

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 2017.

Movie review – Wonder

Refreshingly detailed, Wonder is a joy for both adults and pre-teens alike.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Michael Philp

It would be reasonable to be wary of Wonder. The trailers have sold it as two hours of Jacob Tremblay teaching the world to be nice – pure schmaltz, in other words. That’s a shame because the film goes out of its way to not be that. Admittedly, a large portion of it is still overly sweet, but it counterbalances that with a thoughtful approach to character and world-building. The world does not revolve around Tremblay’s August “Auggie” Pullman, and thankfully neither does Wonder.

Auggie is a ten-year-old boy living in New York with his family: his mother, Isabel (Julia Roberts), his father, Nate (Owen Wilson), and his sister, Olivia (Izabela Vidovic). Auggie suffers from Treacher-Collins Syndrome, which has left him with significant facial deformities. He is the kid you can’t look away from, and he knows it. When the film begins, Auggie is preparing for his first year of elementary school, having been home-schooled for most of his life. Wonder follows him through most of that year and all of the challenges it presents, like new friends, enemies and science lessons.

But, and this is key to the success of the whole thing, Wonder also follows Olivia through that year, giving her a fully realised character arc that’s probably as detailed as Auggie’s. From her perspective, Auggie is a sun that everyone else revolves around – an attention vacuum that threatens to swallow their family whole.

If you want to get meta, Auggie is the low-hanging fruit that these kinds of films get fixated on – easily marketable, designed from the ground up for emotional manipulation – at the expense of their other characters. Wonder is better than that. Rather than blind itself staring at Auggie, the film wisely decides to spend long stretches away from him and his problems. Wonder dedicates substantial screen-time to exploring the planets orbiting Auggie, and it has crafted every single one of them thoughtfully enough to make them worth that time.

At its core, Wonder is about perspective. Auggie’s favourite holiday is Halloween because it allows him complete control over how people see him – it is the one day of the year where he can be Boba Fett instead of “the plague,” as the bullies insist on labelling him. You’ll find these details both textually and sub-textually, and they exemplify the humanity at the centre of Wonder. Adults, keep an eye out for some of the more subtle ones; the film rewards you for doing so.

Not everything works though. Wonder’s quality noticeably dips with an unnecessary school trip to a nature reserve. The trip is an attempt to bring the bullies into the light, but by the time it arrives the film is already pushing its runtime. Worse still, there’s a concussion scare that instantly fizzles out, leaving a weird shadow over a scene that’s supposed to be positive.

You can’t call Wonder sugary – that implies an emptiness that the film works hard to avoid. Yes, it’s a sweet film, and it is a little on the nose sometimes, but it has a strong foundation. It cares about people and giving them the time they deserve. Because of that, the film is probably better suited to children of Olivia’s age rather than Auggie’s. They are the ones that will appreciate the depth of thought put into the characters, while younger ones might struggle with the run-time. Still, Wonder’s message of empathy will resonate with all ages, and for that, it deserves to be seen.

Wonder is available in Australian cinemas from November 30

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 2017.

Movie Review – Lucky

A fitting send-off for a fine veteran actor.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic

 

2017 has been an unfortunate reminder of how time slowly comes for us all, even for those actors whom we so dearly love to watch on screen that that to imagine a world without them would simply be too disheartening. Harry Dean Stanton was one of those deaths that came all too soon, and at the ripe old age of 91, his final film Lucky, serves as a fitting end and no doubt a grim personal reflection for the actor.

The film follows the life of Lucky, a 90-year-old atheist who struggles with the idea of his imminent death amongst those who appear more joyful and content at their old age. Immediately, such a storyline resonates with its lead actor in Stanton but whilst it appears to be a heavy hearted affair, Stanton manages to add enough humour to make it pleasant to watch. He’s even joined by life friend and longtime collaborator David Lynch, who plays his best friend and the chemistry the two share is worth a watch to say the least.

What Lucky does well is telling its message raw and upfront. There are moments where Stanton delivers a lamenting monologue with such unflinching delivery that it stands out as both a highlight of the film and him as an actor. He’s a stubborn, cynical old man who knows he’s going to depart soon and is afraid of what lies ahead. He’s scared shitless, as he says, and this is what makes him human. You sympathise for his plea instead of turning away from what could have been delivered as an arrogant atheist. It makes you appreciate the life you want to live out for yourself and in turn gain the respect to the elderly that you might have forgotten to hold.

Whilst these ideas are great and tell an important outlook on life, they’re not exactly very original. There are plenty of other movies that deal with the same subject but do so far better. Synecdoche, New York and Mary and Max ring a bell and unfortunately Lucky simply can’t compete with the best. Overall, it works simply as a nice slow burn of a movie with a deep-hearted message. Instances between Lynch and Stanton are great, and Lucky himself has a few witty moments and remarks that make you smile but aside from that, it’s not much else.

You know essentially what you’re getting yourself into when you come to watch the trailer, but this doesn’t have to detract from the experience. Lucky is still a well-made film. It’s acted to a tee, it’s executed with aplomb from a technical standpoint and it ultimately holds an important message. If only it’s storyline could have been more interesting with more going on, but perhaps that’s the point director John Carroll Lynch wants to show.

Lucky is available in Australian cinemas from November 16 (Perth- November 23).

Image courtesy of Umbrella Entertainment.

Movie Review – Goodbye Christopher Robin

Simon Curtis’ Goodbye Christopher Robin does its job but definitely arrived with the ambition to do more.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Zachary Cruz-Tan

Goodbye Christopher Robin assembles all the elements of a great historical drama, but somehow fails to fit them together. It’s never quite as cohesive as it’s meant to be. It’s touching and sad, supremely shot, beautiful to look at, but forgets the piece that completes the picture. And quite surprisingly, Margot Robbie turns in a high school performance that should’ve been eaten by her dog.

But the film raises interesting questions. We follow A. A. Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), who we know will create Winnie The Pooh, as he returns to London after fighting in the Great War, still haunted by nasty flashbacks that are triggered by innocuous balloon pops. He needs a sanctuary in which to continue his playwriting, so impulsively shifts his family to the countryside, where his young son Christopher Robin (Will Tilston), who prefers his nickname Billy Moon, frolics amongst the trees with his stuffed toys and his watchful nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald) is ordered to stay away from his busy father.

Naturally, circumstances arise that leave Billy alone with Milne. So the two begin to bond and before long Milne has created a children’s character based around his own son and his somewhat-imaginary friends. Seems harmless enough. But the fearsome genteel nature of the Milne’s makes them incapable of comprehending the impact of super stardom on a child who is not prepared for it. Billy is dressed to resemble the Christopher Robin of the Pooh books and is shoved into radio interviews and publicity photo shoots as the real thing. “He needs to grow up!”, asserts Olive. “He can’t do this!” “He seems to be doing it quite well actually”, replies his mother.

The film is written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce and Simon Vaughan, and the duo pay less attention to their dialogue than the relationship between father and son. Did Milne intend to hurt his son? Of course not. But then, looking at Milne, does he know what hurt is anymore? Yes, you could say the war shook him up real bad, but surely it’s the stoic Englishness of the time that ruined an otherwise beautiful relationship. In a household that doesn’t permit crying, how do you find out when someone’s in pain?

The irony of course is that tragedy had to happen for the world to be introduced to one of the happiest characters of all time. Winnie The Pooh charmed countless children across the world but had to break apart a family to do it. It’s this fractured logic that forms the centre of Goodbye Christopher Robin, and not the war, the countryside or Winnie The Pooh.

Later we get to see an older Billy Moon (played by Alex Lawther), after having been abused by schoolmates for his fame. He’s broken and resents his father for using him to create an empire, trotting off to fight in a war his father fought to prevent. It’s poetic how history is doomed to repeat itself.

These are all the parts of the movie that work, and I enjoyed the way young Tilston embodies all that is cheerful. Without him I suspect the movie would’ve been flat. As it is, it’s only moderately bumpy, not putting a foot wrong but not exactly sprinting down a tightrope.

Goodbye Christopher Robin is available in Australian cinemas from November 23.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox 2017.

Movie Review – The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Dark, twisted and hilarious. Yorgos Lanthimos continues to grow in strength with his disturbing latest film, The Killing of A Sacred Deer.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Josip Knezevic

It seems the pattern of disturbingly good films by Yorgos Lanthimos continues to increase in range. For those familiar with his films of Dogtooth and The Lobster, Lanthimos’s latest film, The Killing of A Sacred Deer, also explores a dark concept but with a twisted sense of humour. Once again, these two genres are balanced effortlessly throughout and the finish product is yet another masterclass from the director.

Colin Farrell stars in the lead role and is unfortunately placed into another caliginous scenario that sees him tested in different strengths. Without giving away the film’s main trick, Farrell plays a father of two with a loving wife, and is put to make an extremely difficult decision that will end up affecting the family dynamic forever.

Aside from watching the situation unfold as Farrell battles to resolve his dilemma, the entire universe Lanthimos creates is intriguing. From the very moment the film begins, you get the sense of unnatural behaviour just by the dialogue between two characters and this unease never leaves the screen.

It’s an almost like an entirely different world of humans, but they’re just not very human like. At least to what our society is used to. Great examples of this are the astute observations and over politeness each character exuberates. It’s just unnatural and purposefully executed as a subtle commentary on society. But moreover, it’s all awkwardly hilarious.

This is why I love Lanthimos’ films. Not only are they simply exploring a compelling dark concept, they’re quite funny at the same time. Most of these jokes comes from being in such unique situations that other films can’t make, because they’re simply not in the same position. Numerous times a character would say something in such an unusual but nonchalant way that it becomes hilarious to watch. And when it came moments of humour that were of the darker taste, these were executed flawlessly and without overstepping boundaries. Indeed, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a fine piece for showing that the art of black comedy in 2017 is alive and well.

My only gripe with the film is that it is a bit of a slow burn and it can feel particularly sluggish at times. Especially within the middle third, where you’ve been introduced to the setup and are simply waiting for it to hurry to the climax. Part of this feels like it could have been edited or reworked to have more going on to keep interest, like in The Lobster.

But again, this is a minor complaint. The film is acted perfectly, with veteran actors of Farrell and Nicole Kidman as his wife particular standouts. Though the cinematography isn’t of anything scenic or picturesque, it does well to capture the darkness and unnatural tone on characters that the film clearly aims towards.

For lovers of The Lobster and black comedy films with unique and interesting concepts, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a fantastic film and one sure to be on top ten lists for this year.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is available in Australian cinemas from November 16.

Image courtesy of Madman Entertainment 2017

Movie Review – Murder on the Orient Express

Hollywood once again recycles that which need not be recycled, in Kenneth Branagh’s take on Murder on the Orient Express.

⭐ ⭐ ½
Zachary Cruz-Tan

I see no other way to approach a review of a movie like this than to compare it to what’s come before. Its history is too deep. Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express has been adapted to radio; into a 1974 feature by Sidney Lumet starring Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot; a 2001 TV movie with Alfred Molina in the role; and of course as an episode of the distinguished ITV Poirot series. It has even been remade in Japan. Now comes another version, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, and I find myself simply incapable of finding the right words to recommend it.

This is an adaptation that works on the fundamental level, which means it has a sound plot, supreme technical prowess and performances that befit its ludicrously high-profile cast. It is a movie that can be seen and appreciated in about equal measure without being spectacular. Whether it holds up as a faithful Christie adaptation I will leave to her loyal fans and scholars to determine; as a gripping murder mystery, it is neither gripping nor very mysterious.

To discuss the plot would be to grind against the very grain of Christie. Her stories are designed to unfold chronologically, so that we pick up hints and clues and slowly piece together the unfathomable puzzle along with her great detectives. The less we know going in the better. Murder on the Orient Express remains her most famous probably because of its claustrophobic setting (the length of a snowbound train), its immense cast of characters and the degree to which misdirection is employed to keep us guessing.

But all these are assets of the original story, not of this film. Branagh is perhaps a finer actor than he is a director, and he puts on a brave face as Poirot, but his film lacks in ingenuity and freshness. I can’t think of a single reason to see his version and not the Lumet classic, which had Finney scuttling down the corridors of the train like a frenzied crab. Branagh’s Poirot is unusually calm and chipper, which might have been a fun new take on the part if he had buckled down and took it to the edge. Poirot, like Sherlock Holmes, is a character of extremes. A detective of unusual intelligence who is easier to admire than befriend. To play him as anything less than a feverish snob is to miss the point.

Around him is assembled a cast of veritable class, which includes but is not limited to Michelle Pfeiffer as an uppity American socialite; Willem Dafoe as an Austrian professor; Daisy Ridley as Miss Mary Debenham; Leslie Odom Jr as the handy doctor; Penélope Cruz as a faithful servant of the Lord; Judi Dench as the Princess Dragomiroff; Johnny Depp as the despicable businessman Ratchett; and Josh Gad and Derek Jacobi as his staff. Any more and I suspect the train would’ve toppled off the ridge.

Pity, then, that such great talent should go unchecked by a story as rich as this. Everyone plays their parts as if they know the end before the beginning. There is no thrill, no embracing the unexpected. It’s all just cogs turning in rhythm to the screenplay, which can be fatal for a mystery like this.

So I leave you rather nonplussed, unable to praise Orient Express enough to make you go see it, unable to exploit its weaknesses enough to turn you away. I don’t prefer it to some of the earlier iterations, but I suspect if you’ve never heard of Poirot and his impossible moustache, or perhaps even Christie, this movie might do the trick. But just barely.

Murder on the Orient Express is available in Australian cinemas from November 9.

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox 2017

Movie Review – Brad’s Status

Ben Stiller ponders his lot in life in Mike White’s quietly humorous and thoughtful new film. 

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Rhys Graeme-Drury

Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) is nearly 50 and has a lot of stuff going on in his melon. His not-for-profit business has stalled, his one and only child – Troy (Austin Abrams) – is heading off to college and his marriage to Melanie (Jenna Fischer) isn’t the excitable romp it once was.

As a result, Brad lies awake at night yearning for what could have been, for the lives he could have led. His mind wanders to those he aligned himself with during college (Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson), who have gone on to enjoy riches and success in the intervening years, forgetting and distancing themselves from Brad and his painfully mediocre existence in the process.

Adrift in suburban Sacramento and surrounded by cheerfully complacent “beta males”, a father/son trip to Boston to look at universities only serves to reinforce these internal inadequacies; Troy, a talented pianist, has a shot at getting into Harvard, a college that outstrips Brad’s own education across town at Tufts. Is that pride, Brad feels, or jealousy?

Written and directed by Mike White, Brad’s Status aligns itself with a familiar feeling deep inside all of us; the competition we feel with our peers and the desire for something greater. A lot of this concern is voiced internally by Stiller as he tosses and turns at night or stares out of a plane window. White’s film spends a lot of its time inside Stiller’s head, partaking in lengthy monologues about paths not taken or grudges left unaddressed.

As a result, Stiller is lumped with a lot of the lifting, as he furrows his brow and shifts in his seat, searching internally for some shred of solace. It’s an impressive performance amongst a collection of impressive performances; his meandering unspoken reveries work in opposition with the concise musings that are said aloud as well as the sulky grunts offered up by his son.

White’s writing is effective (if a little on-the-nose) but the cast make it work, taking the heightened divide between Brad and those he yearns to replicate and running with it. Particularly impressive is Abrams, who manages a level of angst and wisdom only a teenager can muster, and Sheen, as a charismatic contemporary man who has hit it big in Hollywood and married well.

The pacing is suitably slow for a film all about feeling adrift and aimless, but not so much that it lacks drive or structure. In keeping with its themes, Brad’s Status doesn’t offer a rousing finale or a gutful of catharsis; viewers will need to go in search of significance and satisfaction, rather than have it dumped at their feet in the third act. It’s an apt ending, but not one that all will find enjoyable.

Meditative and introspective, Brad’s Status is an exhaustive and achingly honest exploration of anxiety and self-doubt. While it may feel a little familiar, there is joy to be found in its wry humour.

 

Brad’s Status is available in Australian cinemas from November 9.

Image courtesy of Roadshow Films 2017.