15 Nov 2017

At The Movies for 15 November 2017

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 15 November 2017

Simon Morris gets on board a well-known train, discovers that social media can lead to narcissism and is reminded real-life heroism isn’t, in itself, particularly dramatic.

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 Murder on the Orient Express Photo: supplied

Not so very long ago, movies were popular culture, and all the rest – TV, pop music, books and theatre - all had to have a certain wide-screen cinematic quality if they didn’t want to look hopelessly old hat.

Now it’s the movies themselves that are looking decidedly flat-footed – either copying old hits of the past, or trying desperately to look as if they’re up with social media, TV trends and of course these days, gaudy comic-books.

Woe betide you if you suggest that these aren’t important cultural icons these days. Superhero movies are one of the very few guaranteed successes out there.

But that doesn’t stop the studios looking for another trend to cash in on.  And once again, they’ve turned to Britain who gave us the movies James Bond, Harry Potter and Jane Austen.

Actually, the English equivalent of the comic-book superhero is none of these. It’s the detective story - that cosy mainstay of prime-time television over the years. 

Only two names in the British whodunit universe have really ever translated to the big screen - the fictional Sherlock Holmes and the legendary author, Agatha Christie.

Agatha Christie was a phenomenon by any measurement – 2 billion books sold, translated into over 100 languages. 

The secret of her success is her ruthless daring. In her novels, literally anyone could have done it. I’ve read Christie novels where Doctor Watson, the hero’s best friend, did it, where the dead body himself did it, where even the great detective did it.  

So what happens when one of the best-known stories gets filmed? Once, say, Murder on the Orient Express is turned into an all-star movie – as happened back in 1974 – then the secret is out, surely. 

And the secret – the question “Whodunit?” – is what all Agatha Christie novels are selling.

I suppose Kenneth Brannagh’s new version assumes we missed all those replays on the telly…

Meanwhile, Hollywood has other hit-making ploys, like trying to keep up with the kids these days.

Hence a film called Ingrid Goes West, which satirizes shallow social media, and the endless desperation for approval.

And another popular genre is the real-life story of heroism, captured in Only The Brave.

The activities of an Arizona firefighting crew are undoubtedly heroic…

Heroic or not, I’m not convinced it adds up to much of a story, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. Unlike Murder on the Orient Express, in which the story is surely all that matters.

We may not remember the outcome of all the many Agatha Christie novels – for some reason, I always think of them in piles, brought out during wet weekends by elderly relations – but that of Murder on the Orient Express was rather memorable.  

Other villains may get confused in our memories, but this one was a knockout when we first heard it.

Apart from the clever punchline, some of the appeal of the book, and of subsequent versions on film and TV, is the setting – the exotic and luxurious Orient Express at the height of its allure in the 1930s.

And it’s always fun to see an all-star cast in a confined space – a staple of Agatha Christie adaptations ever since the Sydney Lumet version back in the 1970s.

I was certainly intrigued to find out who played who in Kenneth Brannagh’s glittering remake.

The Ingrid Bergman role is now played by Penelope Cruz, John Gielgud is played – rather better – by Derek Jacobi, and the likeable Mary Debenham – Vanessa Redgrave the first time – is now star-on-the-rise Daisy Ridley.

But who could possibly take over from Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, the fussy Belgian detective?  

Why, no other than director Kenneth Brannagh himself, behind the biggest moustache this side of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Seeing this ill-advised lip-badger is confirmation that television’s David Suchet was wise to go a little more minimal with his own neat little moustache. 

The film opens on Poirot solving a crime in Egypt.  No detective-work seems to have been involved, just a simple point at the culprit.

When he decides to catch the Orient Express back to London, he does display some traditional sleuthing for Daisy Ridley.

Photograph this moment, it’s the last bit of actual – if unconvincing – deduction that takes place, on or off the train.   From now on it’s mostly inspired guesswork.

The next ten minutes sees the all-star cast, dressed to the nines, but going aboard in twos, like a school production of Noah’s Ark.   Dame Judi Dench and Olivia Colman.   Comedian Josh Gad and Johnny Depp.  And the always welcome Michelle Pfeiffer.

The cast is undeniably fun – if perhaps a little predictable - the costumes and sets are wildly expensive, and the whole thing reeks of the sort of Ye Olde England Event Movie you associate with Hollywood’s attempts at Jane Austen, Shakespeare and the Royal Family.

But then that’s Ken for you.  It’s certainly not the first time he’s taken on a project that had already, you’d think, been done to death.

Most of Brannagh’s directing career seems to have been remakes. He’s covered Laurence Olivier classics – from Henry the Fifth to Sleuth.  He remade the Disney Cinderella virtually scene for scene. And it’s not as if he’s bringing much new to them.

One of his better directing efforts was when he imaginatively treated the first Thor movie as minor Shakespeare. 

Maybe this Murder on the Orient Express might have worked better if he’d reimagined it as a comic book or something.

As it stands, it’s an undemanding relic from another age, and its minor pleasures are reduced to watching some well-loved performers parade before us in turn.

We can only echo the Robert Altman quote from his classic Gosford Park.  “Who did it?” asks the breathless housemaid. The valet shrugs. “I don’t care,” he says.

Films based on current, ephemeral trends risk missing the boat when they finally come out.  Like a would-be hip adult trying to prove he’s down with the kids, by the time he’s picked up the latest thing, the younger set have already moved on to the next one.

Case in point, a little indie film called Ingrid Goes West.

Ingrid Goes West takes on that modern bogey - social media and smart-phone dependence - and suggests that this desperate obsession with being liked by thousands of total strangers may not actually be A Good Thing.

To which I can only say– well, duh!  Who’s surprised here?

I’m sure that even the keenest, least questioning users of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter may occasionally wonder if it’s actually doing anyone much good. 

But the makers of Ingrid Goes West – a couple of thirty-somethings called Matt Spicer and David Branson Smith –  obviously thought this idea was new, fresh and gripping.

The film opens on Ingrid – played by deadpan comedienne Aubrey Plaza – glued to her pink cell-phone, and desperately Twittering and hashtagging as if her life depended on it.

She’s confused “being friended” on social media with actually being a friend.  This makes her snap when she’s not invited to someone’s wedding.

Attacking a Facebook friend at her wedding is diagnosed as “a call for help”, so Ingrid is sent for counselling to a secure institute, and later released to start stalking somebody else.

She locks onto a social media star or “influencer” called Taylor – what else? – played at full pout by Elizabeth Olsen.

Who knows the pitfalls of popular culture celebrity better than the smarter sister of the once omnipresent twins Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen.  

Somehow, Elizabeth managed to run away from that particular circus and turned into a respected actress. I suspect in real life, Olsen’s rather steered clear of social media.

Well, you don’t need to be Hercule Poirot to deduce that I’m not a big social media consumer myself – certainly not as enthusiastic as the Kardashians, or Donald Trump, or Ingrid and Taylor in this film.  

Frankly, Ingrid Goes West is telling my generation nothing we didn’t know already – Hashtag: Hell in a Handcart.

But it’s increasingly hard to see exactly what point is being made here.  It’s black comedy, obviously, but one with an eventual soft centre.   And we’re obviously meant to sympathize with loser-stalker Ingrid – without actually being given any reason to.

Ingrid’s an obsessive nut-bar, Taylor’s an airhead and making a fortune out of it – certainly more than any of the more sensible characters.

In fac, the only people who can see through the whole fake “influencer” thing are in their own way even more dislikable than Ingrid.

Ingrid goes West reminded me of another, even darker comedy, Young Adult, written by Diablo Cody, and starring a downright scary Charlize Theron. 

But the Charlize character couldn’t give a damn whether you loved her or not.  This film, like Ingrid, is desperate to be liked.  And ironically, given the subject matter, that’s what’s wrong with it.

An American film called Only the Brave – based on real-life events, as they say – snuck in this week with a bare minimum of hoopla. 

The heroic acts of a group of firefighters from Granite Mountain, Arizona are clearly rather better known in the States than they are here.  The original title was going to be simply “Granite Mountain” before Head Office changed it to something more generic

In fact the new title – Only the brave – sums up the short-comings of the film.  What does it actually mean?  Only the brave can understand this sort of heroism? Only the brave should be allowed to see this film?  

It sounds like a quote from something, but not one you can immediately put your finger on.

And we’ve become a little gun-shy about that opening warning “based on real-life events”. How closely based? 

Was the character of Brendon McDonough – another whiney bit from actor Miles Teller – really an ex-junkie in real life?  Were, indeed, the whole crew, including boss Eric, played by Josh Brolin?

There were other bits of plot, suspiciously similar to other movies, liberally sprinkled over Only the brave, but the gist of the drama is clearly factual.  “Clearly” because I couldn’t quite follow it. 

It seems the Granite Mountain firefighters are permanently relegated to subordinate status because they haven’t been “certified” yet.

Apparently, once certified, the crew become officially “Hot Shots” - the firefighters allowed to get their hands dirty and burnt.  

I was quite interested seeing how they do it – often with no water, in one of the hottest places in the States.

These firefighters show what’s meant by the expression “fight fire with fire”.  They literally do use controlled flames to create fire-breaks in the path of a raging brush-fire.

But this kind of detail is all very well in a TV documentary. Is there a story here?

That’s the trouble with a real-life, apparently dramatic event like that covered in Only the brave.  It’s certainly big and terrifying.  But it’s also over quickly.  

A story needs to build up to it for an hour or so.

If you’re not Kathryn Bigelow – the current past mistress of reducing real life to its bare, dramatic essentials – you’re going to struggle adding that first hour without resorting to clichés. 

And I’m sorry, director Joseph Kosinski.  You’re no Kathryn Bigelow.

The story dips, almost apologetically, into the home lives of Eric and Brendon – wasting the talents of Jennifer Connolly and Andie McDowell while doing it.  

But the story stands and falls on “man versus fire” – or as the Josh Brolin character calls it, “the bitch”.

The action scenes are well enough done, I suppose, but we’re becoming a bit jaded after years of dazzling special effects and seamless digital miracles.

Look, there’s a bear on fire!  Really? What else have you got?

Only The Brave follows a familiar path – right up to the inspiring black and white photographs of the actual crew behind the final credits.

And it makes you wonder if sometimes real life should be left alone.  Adding a Hollywood story only diminishes it.