Murder On the Orient Express (Kenneth Branagh, 2017)


It is perhaps only to be expected, considering the remarkable extent to which Murder On the Orient Express feels driven by product placement of one confectionery brand in particular, that its visual aesthetic at the level of mise-en-scène is 100% chocolate box. The entire film is The Polar Express, multiplied by the final shot in All That Heaven Allows. Accordingly, one expects the film to operate wholly on that level of the pleasure principle: a safe, comforting locked-room mystery, the culprit or culprits already known to the audience, who can thus sit back, relax and reminiscence with one another over which actor they saw previously and in what.

Accordingly, Murder On the Godiva Express‘ fascinating implementation of alternative camera techniques throws a spanner into the works of appeal-via-familiarity, in equal parts welcomely novel and unwelcomely jarring. The whole affair operates similarly in kind: I was grateful for several of the subtractions made to Christie’s original story, not least of all several of the unbelievable flubs made by suspects (one would hope that a princess, pretending to be a maid would indeed take more manipulation than “I hear you are a very good cook” before she lets slip “all my maids tell me so”), but sadly the film’s additions are less inspired. The insistence on adding aspects of action where absolutely none are required or truly justified soon become a chore, as, unfortunately, do many of the performances. Naturally, Judi Dench and Olivia Colman are effortless in evoking intense pathos, coming from a school that acknowledges the deepest human emotions will only respond to the most understated human performances; a memo missed by several other actors, including Lucy Boynton and Sergei Polunin, whose thankfully brief time onscreen is still absolute torture. It’s no secret that actors acting acting is no mean feat, but Godiva On the Godiva Express is defined by suspects pretending to be people they are not; indeed, this is true for most detective fiction.

Thankfully, all pretence eventually comes to an end, all masks slip off and Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer et al are allowed in the final 15-20 minutes or so to come into their own. However, these are good actors with long careers who should have been able to impress me – a fan of almost all of them – long before the end. For this, I suppose I must blame both the direction and the editing, which – for a film which implies the Swiss watch precision of a Wes Anderson feature, it often has stilted pauses, not unlike a sitcom with the canned laughter removed.

Ultimately, Godiva On the Godiva Godiva has shifted from Agatha Christie’s meditation on the compromising of moral imperatives in search of higher justice in lower places, into an enjoyable enough mixture of inviting familiarity and uncomfortable blunders which resolves itself to a better extent than I would have expected, but too late to salvage the film into a higher rating.


The Snowman (Tomas Alfredson, 2017)



Now I truly know what Freud meant by the unheimlich. I sat there, watching Michael Fassbender, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Toby Jones, Chlöe Sevigny and other people I know I’ve seen before, and yet the only reasonable explanation for The Snowman is that it was made by an entire cast and crew who not only have never made a film before, but have never encountered the very hypothetical concept of film before.

There is something bold, daring and courageous in the way that The Snowman genuinely never puts a foot right in its two glacial hours of disappointment. The acting is stilted and disjointed. The editing is ugly as sin. The characters are underdeveloped, their motivations at no point satisfactorily justified – least of all the killer’s – with a horrendous “nine years earlier” subplot, starring Val Kilmer impersonating Mark Kermode impersonating The Godfather, whose character was murdered by the killer for “getting too close to the truth,” not that the subplot is characterised or detailed in any way whatsoever for us to see that. Honestly, why don’t we just have the opening titles, followed by a note that says “some murders happened, but Michael Fassbender put a stop to the eventually,” if the film believes so strongly in telling, rather than showing?

Speaking of showing, the one thing a spectator might be able to hope for, considering the trailers which gleefully advertise a severed head, is some gratuitous violence, leading one to see the film in the hope of some tasteless fun – sadly, no such luck there, either. The murders are few and far between, and mostly all but completely obscured.

The Snowman, by employing an almost entirely British cast, decided that it would present an entirely British-accented Norway which, combined with the truly dreadful sound editing, gives the impression of a film awkwardly dubbed à la an unintentionally self-parodic 70s martial arts flick, but that tragically results in J.K Simmons, forcing himself into a British bourgeois accent, about as comfortably as he would force himself into Maggie Cheung’s outfit in Irma Vep. I want to blame the director or the producer, but a film this horribly put together should have encouraged riotous levels of resistance from every actor, every grip, every caterer and intern onset. Everyone involved should be held collectively responsible. feel somehow responsible. I could have, should have done more to stop this train wreck and, for that, I am truly sorry.



Mr. Brooks (Bruce A. Evans, 2007)


“Oh, poor Mr Costner; he tries so hard” – Lisa Simpson
Honestly, I think people are being really quite mean about Kevin Costner in this. I only believe he’s a serial killer slightly less than I believe Michael C. Hall is one and I watched, like, seven and a bit series of Dexter before finally giving up! Mr. Brooks is a strangely ambitious, if ultimately unsuccessful, film about the eponymous, admired philanthropic businessman (Costner), undergoing a relapse into his serial killing addiction, the voice and face of whom is portrayed by William Hurt. Blackmailed into allowing a tag-along, he begins to worry his daughter who may also be a killer… and then Demi Moore’s a millionaire cop, getting chased by an escaped serial killer… whilst getting divorced… honestly, there’s a lot of threads, none of them are all that satisfying.

The strange, unsuccessful, ambition mentioned above largely rests on the way Mr. (not going to lie, that unnecessary period is killing me) Brooks flip-flops stylistically between genres in a way that feels, rather than impressively postmodern, even more distracting than the way The Dark Knight Rises constantly flip-flopped between letterbox and IMAX. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the bulk of Mr. Brooks is a fairly standard David Fincher rip-off, with phlegmatic dolly shots, roaming stately homes of minimalist design, à la Panic Room and Gone Girl, but then someone will all of a sudden discover a dead body, presented as an almost carbon-copy of Se7en. Moore’s Detective Atwood at points encounters her escaped serial killer, at which point the entire film shifts uncomfortably from “psychological thriller” to pure, and frankly stupid, action film territory, not unlike one of the newer, regrettable, Die Hard sequels for a maximum of 2 minutes, before quietening down again. Her divorce, naturally, looks like what would happen if Joel Schumacher tried to direct The Squid and the Whale.

The film is not without merits – Costner and Hurt really are very good, and I do think that, much like Christine, Mr. Brooks makes a genuinely good go at using a horror/thriller format to represent the psychological and personal realities of addiction very well. What’s most interesting, though, it Mr. Brooks‘ ability somehow to be at once not very exciting at all, but still just engrossing enough to make you wonder what’s going to happen next. All in all, the film is an utter mess, but still, a slightly fun one.



Ransom (Ron Howard, 1996)


Rewatched 2nd July 2015


An actually very solid kidnapping thriller with some fantastic supporting cast, both in terms of the kidnappers, and the people trying to get the kid back. However, under the most basic level of class-based analysis, Ransom‘s moral fortitude crumples like tissue paper. I will never forget that reaction shot of the kid seeing the Lili Taylor character’s neck tattoo, and pulling this facial expression that just screams the moral of this film: “PEOPLE WITH TATTOOS ARE BAD NEWS. FEAR THE PROLETARIAT. IGNORE THEIR VERY REASONABLE CRITICISMS OF THIS MULTI-MILLIONAIRE’S ANTITRUST-DODGING CORRUPTION AND BELIEVE THE THROWAWAY LINE THAT IMPLIES ONLY RICH CHILDREN ARE KIDNAPPED AND DON’T THINK TOO HARD ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS TO ALL POOR CHILDREN WHO ARE KIDNAPPED BY PEOPLE WHO WANT SOMETHING MUCH WORSE THAN MONEY.” Seriously, like, when you think about Hollywood’s awful history of promoting Red Scare and doing business with the Mafia to physically assault union members who would exercise their right to strike and protest working conditions, you do start to realise what the underlying message is and what this film is all about.


Sea of Love (Harold Becker, 1989)


A real pleasant surprise of an erotic thriller, Sea of Love boasts a great soundtrack (based around the brilliant song that gives the film its name, which keeps getting creepier, every time it’s played), a perfectly neo-noir ambiance of psychosexual urban paranoia, and a refreshingly nuanced portrayal of female dominance and openness to regularly re-negotiated roles of gender and sexuality that I’ve rarely seen in a mainstream film before or since. Seriously, speaking as a trans girl, seeing Pacino’s protagonist Frank respond to the question “would you ever go for a babe with a dick?” with “it really depends on her personality,” joke or not, was a really nice experience, however fleeting.

What carries this film is the performance – Pacino and Ellen Barkin have onscreen chemistry that is rarely matched in a modern thriller. The uneasy combination of absolute lust, possible love, and deep-rooted suspicion recalls Hitchcock at his finest. (Side-note: I’m still trying to work out if it holds some significance that Barkin’s character’s first name is Helen, whilst Pacino’s surname is Keller, or if it’s just a happy coincidence.) John Goodman as the humorous partner who manages, through the force of his own acting, never to be simply relegated to the role of “comic relief sidekick” helps balance the film and retain interest in the police-procedural element.

Though Sea of Love does lose a star for the rather unsatisfactorily ad hoc revelation/resolution to the serial killer plotline, the choice to end the film with a genuinely pretty touching scene regarding Frank and Helen’s relationship was absolutely the right choice and shows the extent to which the film-makers had their priorities in order. However, Sea of Love, however good, is not Twin Peaks and thus I do slightly resent it turning the murder-mystery plot into quite such a macguffin.

What makes Sea of Love so interesting is the fact that it takes a very formulaic premise – recently divorced detective, who is one bourbon on the rocks away from becoming a full blown alcoholic, falls in love with his prime suspect, big whoop – and holds it up to the magnifying glass. It refuses to let us consistently take Frank’s side: he drinks majorly to excess and, unlike many other noir/thriller protagonists, it affects him. Not just his social life, but his work, too: a number of times, he is shown accidentally breaking character whilst undercover, drink in hand. Also, it is revealed how his plan for catching the killer (putting out a lonely hearts ad matching those of the vics’ and then going on multiple dates a night, collecting fingerprints as he does so) actually potentially hurts many of the women who respond. However, he is not some simple idiot for entering a relationship with a potential serial killer; it seems entirely clear that he sees this as the legitimate personification of his addiction (obsession-compulsion at its most self-destructive) and of his mental state. He would rather potentially die at the hands of Helen than retire – maybe than live at all. At the same time, through Helen, the classic femme fatale figure is explored and given depth few films bother to add.

Seriously, for what could have been yet another run of the mill thriller, Sea of Loveturned out to be something really pretty special. I can’t wait to put it on as a double-bill with Cruising – or maybe even So I Married an Axe Murderer – sometime soon!


Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan, 2014)


A sombre, disquieting and anxiety-ridden neo-neo-noir located in northern China in 1999 and 2004, Black Coal, Thin Ice manages simultaneously and deftly to make the spectator both engaged in the narrative and desensitised to the content. I must admit, the trailer did make me assume I would be watching something considerably more akin to the South Korean I Saw the Devil in nature, but Black Coal, Thin Ice operates more as a police procedural in line with Danish TV series The Killing than anything more fast-paced. Much like The Killing, this film’s main concern is the people investigating and surrounding the crime, albeit with its cards considerably closer to its chest as far as emotions are concerned.

Whilst the acting is impeccable all-round, combined with the notable average shot length and depth of focus to feel highly reminiscent of Italian Neo-Realism, the biggest star of all in this film is the camerawork and lighting. The use of colours in this film is breathtakingly beautiful, managing somehow to combine the intensity of Nicolas Winding Refn’s signature look with the soft, warm glow of cinematographer Agnès Godard. The latter comparison strikes me as particularly relevant, given this films willingness to linger on small details on the floor or in the snow, contributing an atmosphere of the haptic visuality we have come to expect from Claire Denis’ later works (and, notably, collaborations with Godard) like Vendredi Soir. Most telling of all, though, is the strange dance scene near the very of Black Coal, Thin Ice that seems to be a strong and direct reference to the ending of Denis’ film Beau Travail with, in my opinion, similar metaphorical implications. For those of you who have seen neither film, I’ll say no more.

Black Coal, Thin Ice is perhaps too slow a burner, but one should be able to let go and accept the murder and murderer’s identity as something of a mcguffin in the face of a stylised, yet intensely realist, tale of a desperate last-ditch attempt at redemption on the part of an alcoholic cop in a bleak survivalist part of the world he barely understands.


Filth (Jon S. Baird, 2013)


If you loved Bad Lieutenant, Trainspotting, The Libertine and Training Day, you’ll be… really kinda bored by Filth.

For a film that covers some of the most covered territory there is for a film cover, Filthcomes across as desperately pleased with itself, which – rather than the, frankly run of the mill “grittiness” – is the thing that actually makes this film so hard to like. The ending is decent but in its attempt to mix grungy bleak humour with pathos as is Irvine Welsh’s wont, Filth ends up somewhat undermining both. Shirley Henderson and Eddie Marsan are delightful to watch as ever and it’s nice to see Jim Broadbent in full Terry Gilliam mode but again: there’s nothing new going on here. James McAvoy plays the lead Bruce Robertson admirably, but he’s no Harvey Keitel; he’s not really Nicolas Cage.

The strongest element of Filth, however, is without a doubt Bruce’s ladder-climbing duplicity, saving the film by dragging it out of “British Bad Lieutenant” territory and into “Edinburgh House of Cards.” Even so, Bruce’s constant cheeky winks towards the permeable fourth wall soon get grating and, much like the film itself, lose all impressiveness quite rapidly. Fairly fun, but has little-to-no replay value in comparison to the list of far superior predecessors upon which it is so obviously based.



Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller, 2014)


(Originally posted in now-defunct student e-zine FourFrame, under the title “Sin City: a Misogyny to Pass On”)


As a comic book fan, I am not without gratitude to Frank Miller. When Batman was starting to dwindle in 1986, it was Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns that spring-boarded a reinvigoration of and new respect for the character that cannot be over-stressed. Sadly, he is also very much known for using comics – and more recently films – as platforms for his own ugly socio-political ideology. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is absolutely no exception.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For sets us in territory immediately familiar to watchers of the first film. Its multiple narrative structure shares characters between stories, in doing so making it difficult to follow for those who hadn’t seen the first film. The twisting chronology in fact made it rather difficult for me, someone who had. Frankly, I’m still not sure that a lot that happens in this sequel is physically possible, even within the limits of the Sin City universe: if Nancy (Jessica Alba)’s revenge narrative in this film is supposed to be set 4 years after the events of the first film, either Marv (Mickey Rourke)’s story from the first one must have spanned over four years or he has mysteriously come back to life after being sent to the electric chair… It usually helps when a film doesn’t distract me with such glaring narrative issues, and yet I had this thought stuck in my head for pretty much the whole 100 minutes. On perhaps a shallower note, I also refuse to acknowledge that back-alley plastic surgery would ever change Josh Brolin into Clive Owen. Plastic surgery has worked many a miracle, but as yet, it does not work magic.

Visually speaking, A Dame to Kill For is objectively impressive and, though I saw it in 2D, the depth of field was rich enough to make seeing it in 3D a worthwhile experience for someone who loves the film’s look. Personally, comic and noir fan as I am, I don’t care for the visuals of the Sin City franchise – the lack of rhyme and reason in terms of what gets colourized cheapens the effect whilst the digital sheen only detracts from the allegedly gritty ambiance: it becomes the rather telling embodiment of style over substance. I said it regarding the first film and I shall say it again now: frame-for-frame similarity with the source material is nothing to be proud of; this is a film, not a comic book, different media require different approaches.

The brief for: A Dame to Kill For was very clearly “like the first one, but more,” and certainly, the film strives to be more of everything: more violent, more sexual, and more black-and-white-film-with-random-things-colourized-for-no-discernible-reason. Whilst it certainly does achieve the third – very distractingly so – the most violent element of this film is its out-and-out misogyny. Granted, the original Sin Citywas hardly ever going to meet the approval of Molly Haskel, but its sexism was largely rooted in its constant “damsel in distress” tropes in the face of hyperbolised male chauvinism, and even the strongest of its female characters are viewed solely through an exaggerated male gaze. A Dame to Kill For moves away from traditionally sexist trivialisation of femininity to an abundant suspicion and hatred of it. Female characters are almost solely connected to images of manipulation and duplicity and, regularly, it seems only the female characters are the ones who will be punished for their dark ambition, regardless of it being a trait shared by literally everyone in the film. The most angering moment for me was in the final story, in which Nancy seems to symbolically shed her femininity in order to “man up” for her revenge plot by cutting her hair and then soon after cutting her face (the disfigurement of women is a common theme in the film). This would be bad enough, but it angers on yet another level as she then uses her new facial scars to manipulate Marv into doing most of the dirty work for her, anyway. In Miller’s mind, even the heroines are to be mistrusted by the heroes.

To give credit where credit’s due, the film is not let down by the performances – in particular the newcomers such as Eva Green and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are as good as one should expect of such fine actors. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s story (just like Jessica Alba’s) is completely new and takes direct cues from Casino Royale in working out how to make a poker game legitimately tense and atmospheric, though thankfully without the patronising narration explaining the rules. However, the notable absence of certain actors (Brittany Murphy and Michael Clarke Duncan both died between films, being respectively written out and replaced very capably with Dennis Haysbert) does make it apparent just how long it has been since the first Sin City film came out: nine years ago. I don’t remember anyone crying out for a sequel and, judging from how much it is currently struggling at the box office, it seems nobody was. At the end of the day, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For acts more as documentation for the steady increase of Frank Miller’s ultra-right-wing misogyny than any form of legitimate entertainment and, quite frankly, his article on Occupy Wall Street was more than enough documentation for me. Want to watch a noirish comic book movie? Watch Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns. Watch The Crow. Hell, watch The Shadow. At least the film that almost killed Alec Baldwin’s career understood the difference between showing guts and having guts.