Film Fan

The first movie I remember really loving was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), which I must have been taken to when I was quite young, followed closely by What’s Up, Doc? (1972). (Paul Newman and Katharine Ross riding a bike around a farm to the strains of “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” seemed to my four- or five-year-old self the perfect way to conduct a courtship.) A lifelong fascination with films (and, more recently, television, as the quality has improved dramatically in the past 10 to 15 years) ensued. For some reason, I was rarely drawn to movies aimed at children (although I do remember loving Escape to Witch Mountain) and never became a Disneyphile. Go figure.

In the course of getting my theatre degree, I took several film courses, and I’ve seen countless movies over the years; both of these things have equipped me to become a fairly opinionated — and definitely self-appointed — film and TV critic. Some of you reading this have expressed fondness for the movie and TV recommendations I’ve included in our family holiday letter each year, so you have only yourselves to blame for the existence of this blog — that’s what you get for encouraging me.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy.

See you at the movies,

Alyssa

P.S. Yes, that is me in the header photo, hiding behind a pillow as I watch a good and scary ghost story on PBS called Remember Me, starring Michael Palin of Monty Python fame. He is very good in it.

“Let’s you and me jump in that river.” — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

jake-hills-194864 resized

Why I Think You Should Watch the Original ‘Murder on the Orient Express’

It’s been a few months since Kenneth Branagh’s version of Murder on the Orient Express (based on the novel by Agatha Christie) was released, but I hadn’t started this blog yet, so I wasn’t able to fulminate in written form about the many things that film got wrong, and advocate for seeing the original instead, except to a few lucky friends and colleagues. So now’s my chance! Grab a cup of tea and settle in.

My mother and sisters took me to see the original Murder on the Orient Express (1974) at the venerable Century Theatres in South Salt Lake — not the new cinema, but the old ones, the goofy space-age-inspired dome theaters. (I love that the photo below has It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World on the marquee. I remember being taken to see that wacky little gem as a kid as well, although since it came out in 1963 — before I was born — it must have been in re-release.)

Century Theatres dome

The original Murder was directed by the masterful Sidney Lumet, and it featured what the DVD case’s tagline accurately calls “the Who’s Who in the Whodunnit”: Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, and more. In the role of Hercule Poirot is the surprising choice of Albert Finney: surprising because he was a slim chap in his 30s and had to be padded and made up to look like the older, more rotund Poirot. It’s an amazing transformation, and a mesmerizing performance. He is still the definitive Poirot in my book (closely followed by the excellent David Suchet on PBS).

Which brings us to Kenneth Branagh. I often like his work, both as an actor and a director, and he wears both hats for his 2017 version of Murder. I’m still not sure what he was thinking with this portrayal of Christie’s famous Belgian detective. He looks nothing like Poirot: he is slim where he should be portly, silver-haired where he should be dark, and sports a gigantic mustache that seems to be unprecedented in the annals of male grooming. He does nail the accent, of course, as any actor trained in the rigorous English tradition would. But he can’t help but suffer in comparison to Finney. Finney’s Poirot is self-confident without being a show-off, fastidious without being effete. Branagh’s Poirot is smart, but also pretentious, sentimental, and much too athletic. (Poirot in a foot chase with a suspect? Seriously?)

The tone of Branagh’s film is needlessly dark and self-important. The original film is delightfully light and even funny, with the exception of the opening sequence, an eerie montage laying out the kidnapping case that forms the crux of the story. I found the sequence frightening as a child, and I realized later that was in large part because of the effectively chilling music. The score for the entire film is wonderful, and the composer, Richard Rodney Bennett, was rightfully nominated for an Academy Award. (The movie was nominated for six Oscars; one was won, by Ingrid Bergman for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. I feel it would have won more if it hadn’t been up against things like The Godfather Part II and Chinatown.)

A digression: here’s one of my favorite examples of how fundamental music and editing are to filmmaking. It’s a happy version of the trailer for The Shining.

Anyway, there you have it. I admit to having a sentimental attachment to this version of Murder on the Orient Express; it was a favorite of my parents, and I have fond memories of watching it with them on our huge, clunky Betamax video machine (my dad was always an early adopter when it came to technology). Please seek it out and watch it if you like mysteries.

Foscarelli: Hey, what are you reading, Mister Beddoes?

Beddoes: I am reading “Love’s Captive,” by Mrs. Arabella Richardson.

Foscarelli: Is it about sex?

Beddoes: No, it’s about 10:30, Mister Foscarelli.

— Murder on the Orient Express

Phantom Thread

Leaving a screening of Phantom Thread recently, I couldn’t help wondering what the point had been. It’s lovely to look at, with gorgeous costumes (Daniel Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a British fashion designer creating haute couture for the moneyed and titled in 1950s London). The cast are all wonderful — Day-Lewis vanishes into his character as remarkably as ever; Lesley Manville is superb as Woodcock’s long-suffering sister; and Vicky Krieps is natural and engaging as Alma, Woodcock’s paramour.

Why should I expect there to be a reason, some sort of moral lesson, for this film to exist? I don’t require that of a genre film — the pleasure of a good story, well told, is enough for me when it comes to a mystery, or a thriller, or a superhero yarn. To me, a movie like Phantom Thread is like literary fiction; I expect there to be some larger reason for the story being told. Unreasonable, perhaps, but there you have it. Phantom Thread is a beautiful film about two people involved in a massively dysfunctional relationship. If you’re a Day-Lewis fan (and who isn’t?), then do go see this marvelous performance in what he says will be his last role.

“It’s comforting to think the dead are watching over the living. I don’t find that spooky at all.” — Phantom Thread