(On Cable TV, January 2019) As much as it may displease some purists, there are times where the remake improves upon the original film, and my feeling after watching the original Murder on the Orient Express is that this may be one of those pairs. Oh, I liked it well enough—there’s something just delicious about seeing a gifted detective stuck in a remote location (here: a train immobilized by snow) as a murder has been committed and everyone is a suspect. Agatha Christie wrote strong material in her original novel, and it’s up to the filmmakers to do it justice. Under Sydney Lumet’s direction, the atmosphere is quite nice, and the editing is surprisingly modern with a number of flashback cuts. The ensemble cast is remarkable, with names such as Lauren Bacall (who looks fantastic), Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, Jacqueline Bisset and Anthony Perkins in various roles –some of them with very little time as the story goes from one interrogation sequence to another. Still, as absorbing as it can be, it’s probably worth watching the original before the remake, as the cinematic polish of the later Kenneth Branagh version is far better controlled, and so is the take on Poirot: Here, Albert Finney plays him far too broadly as a farce character, whereas the remake wisely makes sure that behind whatever eccentricity shown by the detective is a conscious veneer soon exposed. The Murder on the Orient Express remake doesn’t necessarily strip the original of anything worthwhile, but it does make it feel slightly less impressive.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) There are many reasons why I should like Tom Jones. It’s a comedy, set in convincing period setting, with twists and turns and quite a bit of naughtiness. It won the Big Oscar. It features Albert Finney as a simple-minded lad irresistible to the surrounding women, and it frequently breaks the fourth wall, begging the audience to acknowledge how silly it is. The opening sequence even takes on silent movie airs for laughs. It plays some dramatic sequences as comedy and some uplifting sequences for discomfort (such as the hunting sequence). But strangely enough, I had a hard time convincing myself to pay attention to the film. It feels lifeless, clunky, at times trying too hard and at others holding back on some of its potential. It’s unfortunate that I constantly ended up comparing it to the somewhat-similar Barry Lyndon (which is almost as funny despite being, well, a Kubrick drama) In some ways, I think that Tom Jones may have been made five or ten years too early: A lot of what it has to say (in libidinous terms, for instance, or in how to integrate comedy with period pieces) would be done more successfully in the late sixties, or in films such as Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975). As it is, it’s mildly naughty without being truly free to deliver on its promises and not quite sure where to push the comic envelope. It still won that year’s Best Picture Oscar, though, so what do I know?
(On TV, August 2017) I think that Miller’s Crossing is the last film in the Coen Brothers’ filmography that I hadn’t yet seen, and it’s quite a treat. A self-conscious take on Prohibition-era noir movies, it plays gleefully with the elements of the genre in a dense and complex feat of plotting. A young Gabriel Byrne stars as a criminal advisor who ends up trying to manipulate multiple factions when a mob war shakes the city and his own relationships. The characters rarely stop talking, and much of the rapid-fire dialogue is highly entertaining (although you may need subtitles given the pacing and accents—the closed captioning had trouble keeping up!) Albert Finney is also remarkable as a crime boss, but perhaps the most striking performance comes from Marcia Gay Hayden, whose sexy femme fatale character here is completely at odds with her contemporary persona as a matronly shrew (e.g.; The Mist). Otherwise, it’s tommy guns, crooked cops, beatdowns, faked deaths and double-crossing fun galore in a warm bath of genre elements. I suspect that Miller’s Crossing is more fun the more you know and like noir films, but even casual fans of the genre will find a lot to like here. I have, over the past few months, had an unfortunate tendency to multitask while watching (some) movies, but Miller’s Crossing hooked me back in the moment I tried to take my attention elsewhere. Now that’s viewing pleasure.