Uncle Bardie’s Movie Spotlight: A Murder Needs A-solvin’

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. This week’s Spotlight Movie is “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017): 

“A passenger has died,” the brilliant detective, Hercule Poirot announces to the other passengers on the Orient Express. “He was murdered…So let us catch a killer.” Indeed. What would a movie, or for that matter a novel, with the word “murder” in the title be if there wasn’t a murder?

We’ve seen this movie before. In 1974, to be exact. Albert Finney was Sidney Lumet’s Hercule. Lumet gave us an adequate “Murder”, but there wasn’t any thing inspiring about Albert Finney. Other than the scenery and the costumes and a few famous actors going over the top with their caricatures of a performance, there wasn’t much to entertain.

When I saw that Kenneth Branagh, yes that Branagh. You know the one. The guy who played Hamlet in what may very well be the longest version of “Hamlet” ever, and directed it besides. He made sure he got all the words in which made me one of the few folks who sat through the whole darn thing. Well, Branagh directs this remake as well. And he plays the famous detective too.

The previews gave me some nice cinematography but that didn’t seem to be enough to make me give up an hour and fifty-four minutes of my time. I knew it wasn’t bad but I was pretty darn sure it wasn’t good either.

Boy, was I wrong.

Upon a recommendation from a friend, I gave this one a try. Branagh gives us a true entertainment in the best tradition of the word. Yes, there is a murder in this one. And, yes, Poirot is not happy about having to solve it. But what can he do? He’s the only brilliant detective on the Orient Express.

Just in case you didn’t know. This takes place in the 1930s and the Orient Express goes from Paris to Istanbul. And it’s going at a leisurely pace. In other words, slowly.

Poirot has just finished solving a crime in Jerusalem. He’s tired and needs a little me time. Little does he know he’s not going to get it when he steps onto that train in Istanbul. During his sojourn, a rich American approaches him. That American is Johnny Depp, being his most Johnny-Depp-ing. He’s become very a-Depp at that in the last few years. I think his portrayals of Tonto and Jack Sparrow have gone to his head.

Johnny Depp’s Edward Ratchett offers to purchase Poirot’s services. He has been threatened and he needs protection. Unfortunately, Poirot only works for people after they have been murdered. There’s just no way he’s going to be caught dead, protecting someone from getting dead. Once Edward Ratchett is dead, it’s a completely different story.

The piece de resistance of Branagh’s film is the third act. Here we see the humanity in a Poirot that others have only shown as a calculator. Here we are shown the impact of murder on its victim. Not only is the murdered a victim. All who knew and loved the victim have become the killer’s victims. Branagh and his Poirot has managed to pull the true import out of what many would consider a cliche and turn this entertainment into something wonderful. I’m sure Agatha Christie would be pleased.


Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Movie: Memories of Mother

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. In honor of Mother’s Day, this week’s Spotlight is the movie, “My Mother’s Castle” (1990):

A man looks back to the days of his youth in the early days of the twentieth century. The man is Marcel Pagnol. A boy and his family spends the holidays in Provence. Marcel is 13 or 14 years old. He goes there with his mother, Augustine, and his father, Joseph, a school teacher, his younger brother, Paul, and his baby sister. There they have a glorious time.

There the family relaxes with Oncle Jules and Tante Rose. Marcel runs free in the hills and meets a local boy, Lili. Lili’s family is poor and he traps animals to help feed his family. They become friends.

One holiday, he has his first encounter with love.He meets a young girl, Isabelle, who is a bit stuck on herself. They play “I’m the Queen and you’re the Knight”. She plays the piano. Eventually he becomes disillusioned with the girl. And that breaks his heart.

The family falls so much in love with the place they decide to return on weekends, not just on holiday. It is a four hour walk from public transportation. One afternoon they encounter one of Joseph’s former students. He is a canal worker. He offers to show the family a pathway by the canals. This will cut their walk down to a half hour.

The film may focus on Marcel and his adventures and the troubles the father may or may not have. But it is the mother who holds the family together as mothers often do.

Directed by Yves Robert, “My Mother’s Castle” is a wonderful tribute to family and our memories of some of the best days of our lives. When we were young and our parents were the center of our universe. Watch “My Mother’s Castle” and soak it up. You too will fall in love with this wonderful family.

And if you love “My Mother’s Castle”, you will want to see “My Father’s Glory”, which precedes it.

So enjoy.

Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Creator: Gregg Toland, Cinematographer

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. This week’s Spotlight Creator is the Cinematographer Gregg Toland:

Orson Welles was not one to share credit. But he shared end credit with the cinematographer, Gregg Toland, on “Citizen Kane”. It was his only way of expressing the important contribution Toland had made to the film.

Last year I spent some time studying “Citizen Kane” to figure out why it is still considered, if not the greatest film of all time, one of the greatest. In addition to the sound achievement by Welles and his team, Gregg Toland did things in that film that makes the film so important, things like deep focus and transitions.

I’ve always watched movies for the story. Studying “Citizen Kane” the way I did, listening to critic Roger Ebert’s commentary, made me realize that the film medium is indeed the cameraman’s medium. No director, no actor, no set designer, no producer has more impact on this visual medium than the director of photography. Now I watch movies I like, trying to get at what the cinematographer did to impact the story. It has impacted not only my viewing pleasure but the way I look at story. Gregg Toland taught me that.

Gregg Toland and the Tools of Immersion.

Nominated for six Oscars, he won once for “Wuthering Heights”. In addition to “Citizen Kane”, he was the cameraman for sixty-six films. These included “The Long Voyage Home”, “The Grapes of Wrath”, “The Bishop’s Wife” and “The Best Years of Our Lives”. Unfortunately, he died at the young age of forty-four in 1948. What a loss.

Uncle Bardie’s Spotlight Movie: The Editor and His Author

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. To celebrate April as National Poetry Month, this week’s Movie Spotlight is “Genius” (2016):

Novelists have a dream. To find the perfect editor. And not just any perfect editor. We want Maxwell Perkins.

Maxwell Perkins was an editor at Scribner’s during the first half of the twentieth century. His impact on an American literature in the twentieth century cannot be overestimated. It was Perkins who edited Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and James Jones. Not only was he their editors, he developed strong personal relationships with his authors, relationships that were invaluable to the writers.

“Genius” is the story of his relationship with one of his most difficult writers, Thomas Wolfe. Based on the biography by Scott Berg, Director Michael Grandage gives the viewer a portrait of a friendship between two enormously talented individuals. No matter how difficult Wolfe (Judd Law) became, Perkins (Colin Firth) was able to grasp the potential of a great American writer and work with him to form his prose into the magnificent books they became.

With his performance as Max Perkins, I must say that Colin Firth is now my favorite English actor. And this is the kind of film that makes you want to read the book.

There’s only two more things I could ask  for: a movie of Perkin’s relationship with Fitzgerald and one of his relationship with Hemingway. Now wouldn’t that make a great trilogy? Oh, what the hell. Why not do an HBO series on the life, times and work of Maxwell Perkins? Do it for one season. What a great series that could be.

Uncle Bardie’s Movie Spotlight: Much Ado About Jane

Once a week on Friday, Uncle Bardie celebrates the creativity in others by shining a Spotlight on a movie, a song or a creator. To celebrate Women’s History Month, this week’s Spotlight Movie is “Becoming Jane” (2007):

Jane Austen’s books become more and more popular every year. Her popularity seems to be overtaking Charles Dickens as the Great English Novelist. Yet her books are not about war or power or any of the other themes we expect in a great novelist. Instead her novels focus on small town English society and the pursuit of a husband by the heroines. Seems like a trivial subject, doesn’t it?

In the hands of Jane Austen, it isn’t. It is the perfection of her writing, the creation of wonderful characters, and a story world that is so specific to a time and a place that make her that most universal of writers. Like another great female writer, Emily Dickinson, Austen made the details of an obscure life into great art.

We don’t know if the story in “Becoming Jane” is true. It portrays a young Jane (Anne Hathaway) swept off her feet by a lawyer acquaintance, Thomas Lefroy (James McAvoy). The director Julian Jarrold, and the screenwriters have made educated guesses which may not be true but they could be.

Hathaway and McAvoy are supported with the wonderful performances of Julie Waters and James Cromwell as Jane’s parents, and Maggie Smith as Lady Gresham. Though the film did not get high marks from the critics, I find it endearing and I liked the film score very much. One could do a lot worse than watching this film for an evening’s entertainment.

And who knows? It might encourage you to jump in and read one of her wonderful novels. I know it has me.