I’ve been watching: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

  • There was a lot that was right with this latest rendition of Agatha Christie’s detective classic. For one, you couldn’t have assembled a better cast of talented, accomplished, beautiful actors to pull off this very illustrious cinematic adaptation. The assemblage of such names as Kenneth Branagh, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman and Daisy Ridley in the same cast list is a credit to this movie in itself, and the ministry of all the talents cast succeeded in holding up what I thought was a relatively unexceptional script.
  • It was slightly surreal, at first, seeing someone who isn’t David Suchet playing Hercule Poirot. Suchet has become so intimately associated with the character of Hercule Poirot that it was always going to be a very formidable challenge for any actor who subsequently took on the role. Kenneth Branagh didn’t quite match Suchet, but he certainly gave it a damn good shot, and performed much better in the role than anyone trying to play Poirot after David Suchet could be expected to, so much so that it was easy to forget, while watching Branagh’s Poirot, that David Suchet had played the iconic version of the character, and it wasn’t long into the film that you stopped comparing Branagh to Suchet. There were definitely affectionate nods to Suchet’s Poirot in Branagh’s performance, like in the accent, the personality and the mannerisms, and Branagh’s Poirot was broadly faithful to Suchet’s interpretation of the character, but it would be unfair to say that Branagh merely aped Suchet and didn’t put his own interpetation of the character into his performance.
  • Everything was really visually well done. Sumptuousness is de rigueur for cinematic period drama these days, and in that respect, at least, this film more than delivered its due. The costumes were beautiful, the scenery was exquisite, and touches like the bustling train station in Istanbul were very evocative of the period. More than anything, the Orient Express itself was appropriately decked out, and brought to life the miniature world, isolated from the rest of 1934, in which this story takes place.
  • But the writing. The script was fairly plodding and, at times, dull, held together largely by the collective exceptional talents of the all-star cast. I won’t go as far to say that the film didn’t do the story justice, but the intrigue and pace and irresistible mystery that makes this story of Agatha Christie’s so popular was conspicuously lacking compared to other adaptations I’ve seen, especially compared to the David Suchet version. Maybe it’s just that it didn’t do anything that hasn’t been done before, and done better, the point being that for a remake like this to justify its existence—and an admittedly phenomenal all-star cast doesn’t quite do it, unfortunately—it needs either to be better or different. This was neither.

I’ve been watching: Tomorrow When The War Began

  • An unlikely group of teenagers from an Australian country town go on a camping trip. It’s a blissful weekend spent immersed in the bush, disconnected from civilisation, with only each other for company. They bond, they grow closer to one another, and some of their number even find love. When they return to their hometown of Wirrawee, they find their homes abandoned and the town occupied by invading soldiers (which are heavily implied to be Chinese). After seeing the detention camps the people of the town, including their friends and family, are being kept in, and almost being captured themselves, they spend their time lying low in the abandoned town and avoiding capture. That is, until they decide to turn guerrilla and fight the invaders.
  • It’s a thrilling film with an attention-grabbing, high-concept plot. The sheer novelty of the idea of contemporary Australia, in peacetime, being invaded by Asian forces is wonderful. The scenes of the Wirrawee detention camp, flustered ordinary Australians being intimidated at gunpoint by black-booted, black-uniformed Asians, and the aerial battle the kids witness, give Australian as well as other Western viewers a very real and chilling sense of what a hostile invasion of our countries would look like. Those sequences were surreal, because a foreign occupation of the familiar scenes of Australian suburbia and Australian country towns sounds like such a surreal and far-fetched prospect. We believe it could never happen. Not here. Not to us. That kind of thing doesn’t happen to us. But maybe one day it will. And this is a chilling simulation of what it will look like if and when it does.
  • It was a good idea to tell the story through the eyes of a group of teenagers who, through fortuitous accident, happened to escape the occupation and detention of the population. The scenes of them panicking and flustering around as they return to a ghost town were some of the most suspenseful in the film. And, frankly, teenagers just make the best protagonists for these sorts of stories. Teenagers are angsty. They’re emotional. They’ve got overexcited hormones and they’re still learning what it means to be an adult, and not a child. They’re ingenuous idealists whose view of the world isn’t yet jaded by experience. They (mostly) haven’t developed the egos of adults yet. In short, a guerrilla band of hormonal Australian teenagers makes for a much more interesting story than a guerrilla band of rational, cynical and probably ego-absorbed Australian adults.
  • But the characters themselves brought a variety of dimensions to the story. It almost seems like they were chosen to be as varied and as unlikely a group of friends as possible, Robyn, the sweet, demure Catholic girl juxtaposed with Homer, the serial law-flouter who proudly sports his “Fuck the police” t-shirt. At points the characterisation was poor. Robyn, Kevin and especially Fiona felt a bit like caricatures who lacked any meaningful depth of characterisation, and Corrie was almost a complete nonentity as far as I was concerned. Fiona in particular was seemingly written as a stereotypical prissy stupid blonde, and the single attempt to add layer to her character was weak and unconvincing.
  • On the other hand, Ellie, Homer and Lee were wonderful characters, so it’s not all bad on that front, although I think I’d have liked to have become a bit more familiar with Lee, who by the end of the film was still a quiet, dark, interesting introvert, albeit one evidently with a big crush on Ellie. Ellie, of course, was the single best thing about this film. Her character was written brilliantly, and Caitlin Stasey proved herself equal to such a challenging character. The scene where Ellie vents at Chris for falling asleep on watch and turns the gun on him was utterly spellbinding.

I’ve been watching: Psychout for Murder (1969)

  • Sometimes known by its Italian name Salvare la Faccia. This is a slightly obscure (for anglophones) Italian giallo thriller film from 1969, a representative of the sex-horror genre that was popular at the time. It stars Adrienne La Russa as Licia, a young heiress to a wealthy and socially-conscious businessman. Her lover, Mario, tricks her into spending the night at a brothel with him, and he uses pictures taken of her from the night to blackmail her father. Her father subsequently consigns Licia to an asylum to avoid scandal. When she gets out, she pretends to be crazy and proceeds to take revenge on everyone she feels has wronged her in the unfortunate business – her father, her lover, her sister and brother-in-law.
  • Most of the film follows Licia carrying out her ploys and machinations designed to destroy her victims. She manipulates, seduces and deceives them – and generally succeeds in getting her way. She’s a cunning and tenacious assailant. She’s an incredibly bewitching one, too, in the way she uses her very considerable sex appeal as another dangerous weapon in her arsenal. She’s really quite captivating to watch, and Adrienne La Russia does a great job with the role—you can tell she’s having plenty of fun playing the crazy, vengeful, sexy Licia. It certainly looks like a really fun role.
  • I was prompted to watch this because I’ve been seeing screencaps from the film on Tumblr as aesthetic images. It’s easy to see why the film would be popular among certain sections of Tumblr’s #aesthetic bloggers — all the way through it’s moody and surreal and atmospheric, and the beautiful but unhinged Licia makes for striking imagery. That’s not to say that the directing and cinematography was great — on balance the directing was fairly unremarkable, and this film wasn’t trying to be ambitious in that respect — but certain sequences are undoubtedly very moody and artistic, and La Russia really elevates the quality of every scene she’s in by her compelling performance.

I’ve been watching: The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants

  • What can I say? Chick flicks are my guilty pleasure. Come on, everyone loves an engaging, well-written chick flick with great characters. This film definitely meets that criteria. It follows four best friends who spend their summer in different parts of the world, and the “magic” pair of jeans they pass between them that summer which miraculously happens to fit each of them perfectly. It’s not really about the jeans—the jeans are a symbol of the girls’ strong friendship—as much as about the personal challenges each of the girls face while they’re apart and what they do to overcome those challenges. It’s a bit of a Love Actually style film that follows four different stories at once. It works really well, and the culmination of the film when the four girls are reunited is a great emotional payoff.
  • I struggled to discern a unifying theme between the four girls’ stories such to justify the prominent motif of the “travelling pants”, although I suspect the stories might have been more thematically connected in the original novel. The only thing in common between the four stories was that each of the girls faced personal challenges, and, in facing those challenges, matured in some way. When the four girls reunited they had each grown to some extent in their own way since they parted. That works, and the whole format of the film works, although in fairness each of the individual stories seem like they might have been weak on their own.
  • The strongest of the stories was easily Tibby’s, who befriends a 12-year old girl named Bailey who, it is later revealed, has leukemia. The friendship between Tibby and Bailey is quite unique and engaging, and very well-written, as is Tibby’s character development as a result of her friendship with Bailey. Each of the girls experienced meaningful and satisfying character development, although the stories other than Tibby’s were each a bit weak and clichéd, at least on their own.
  • As far as teen chick-flick films go, this is one of the better ones. It’s refreshingly well-written and intelligent for a film whose genre is such an over-saturated market. I won’t overstate its qualities, but frankly, for low-key, lighthearted Friday night viewing, it’s all you could want: engaging characters, a great script, good acting, and it definitely has its moments that will make you laugh and smile and cry.

I’ve been watching: Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989)

  • Another Studio Ghibli anime film. This one is about Kiki, a 13-year old trainee witch who spends a year away from home in a new city, as is tradition for 13-year old witches-in-training. The film follows Kiki as she learns to support herself and live independently in a strange new place, utilising her unique talents as a young witch to start a flying delivery service. A central theme is Kiki’s own insecurity and vulnerability in being in a completely new environment, and the film follows the challenges Kiki faces both socially and economically: finding accommodation, starting and running a business, making friends, and adjusting emotionally to her new circumstances.
  • Kiki is a wonderful character, an exuberant and spirited young girl whose youthful joy and purity and passion won’t fail to warm your heart. I certainly found myself smiling the whole way through this film, just because Kiki positively radiated joy and love and warmth that I couldn’t help but smile along with her. She’s no one-note caricature though—she has her moments of melancholy, anger, sadness and insecurity, and those moments make the pure warmth she exudes at other times so much more gratifying. It’s another testament to Studio Ghibli’s ability to create fantastically engaging and sympathetic characters, one of their undoubted strengths.
  • Unlike the last Studio Ghibli film I watched, Only Yesterday, this film is a return to the storytelling style that I believe Studio Ghibli is so successful at. Because of its characters and its plot, it’s principally directed at a young audience, but at the same time the themes and dialogue are intelligent and resonate with a more grown-up audience. It has the same appeal that I’ve written about before of a film that’s ostensibly a children’s film that is capable at the same time of whetting adults’ more grown-up narrative tastes as well as bringing out the inner child in them.
  • It’s beautifully written and produced, and I think it’s a wonderful film. I chose it because of its reputation as one of Studio Ghibli’s better films (I’m basically just touring through their greatest hits at the moment), and, unlike last time, I wasn’t disappointed by any means.

I’ve been watching: Only Yesterday (1991)

  • The latest in my tour through Studio Ghibli’s anime films is Only Yesterday. It’s about Taeko, a 27-year old woman from Tokyo who spends a short holiday with her brother-in-law’s family in the countryside, in the course of which she experiences a series of reminiscences from when she was a ten-year old girl, causing her to reflect on her life and what she wants for herself. She befriends her brother-in-law’s brother, who helps her figure out how she feels and what she wants for herself.
  • I think this has been the Ghibli film I’ve liked least of the five-and-counting that I’ve watched so far. It’s not a bad film as such, it’s certainly excellently scripted and well-made in general, but it’s not really to my taste, and I can’t say I liked it. Which is weird because it’s supposed to be one of the most acclaimed of Studio Ghibli’s films.
  • Maybe it’s just that I don’t get it. Maybe I’m not old enough to get it—unlike Studio Ghibli’s typical output it’s targeted at an adult audience rather than a child audience. It deals with themes of nostalgia, wistfulness, modern alienation, insecurity—themes which I perhaps lack enough experience in life to properly be able to relate to yet. Certainly I didn’t get the ending at all because [SPOILERS] I can’t understand why anyone, especially someone of Taeko’s age, would want to give up a life in a city like Tokyo to be a farmer’s wife. It sounds perfectly dreary to me, I have to say. But then again, I’m from a big city and can’t imagine any other kind of life.
  • The parts of the film I enjoyed most were Taeko’s reminiscences of her 10-year old self, of childhood memories of growing up, puberty, childhood romance and the quaint frustrations a 10-year old experiences. Those sequences were very entertaining and 10-year old Taeko was a funny and charming child. Maybe I enjoyed those sequences most because I could actually relate to them, having once been a pubescent child myself, whereas I can’t (yet) relate to the peculiar anxieties and emotional concerns experienced by 27-year olds.