Agatha Christie: A Life in Pictures (2004) (TVM)

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In 1962 an elderly Agatha Christie (Anna Massey) is attending a party at the theatre for a decade of The Mousetrap. Questions from journalists spur memories of 25 years ago when as a younger woman (Olivia Williams) attending a psychiatrist (Stephen Boxer) she is hypnotised into recalling why she disappeared four months earlier spurring a police search … Richard Curson Smith’s docudrama is based on the intriguing real-life case of the famous author’s apparent fugue state when she was located at a spa in Harrogate, having signed in under the name of the mother of her husband’s mistress. The title alludes to the means by which the doctor engages with Christie to start the story: as a young girl (Bonnie Wright) whose father’s death changes the family dynamic, particularly when her older sister marries. She has been haunted for years by a mysterious character whom she calls The Gunman and many men of her acquaintance transform into this figure when she is under stress. Her marriage to soldier Archie Christie (Raymond Coulthard) is met with disapproval by her mother, who encourages her to write. Her time nursing wounded soldiers introduces her to Belgian refugees, one of whom inspires Hercule Poirot and her first novel. She has few memories of times when she is happy, the triggers for unhappiness make her focus on what may have occurred to prompt her flight – her discovery of her husband’s adultery with Nancy Neele, a secretary … The use of photos, pastiche photographic studios and fake home movies and newsreels gives this a patina of realism which is visually impressive. This is territory previously explored by the film Agatha and Kathleen Tynan’s book, and more recently in a faction novel by Andrew Wilson. Williams gets the lion’s share of the scenes, as a morose young woman who must confront her husband’s extra-marital liaison and his wish to end their union. Even her little daughter says it’s her mother that’s the problem. The older Christie is wiser and happier following a long marriage to a younger man, archaeologist Max Mallowan (Bertie Carvel) whose work on sites in Syria and Iraq literally takes Christie out of herself and England and also inspires some of her best books which she then produces annually. There’s a terrific scene when she comes up with the idea for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd which is the book that made her know she was good. There are some technical issues with the sound mixing (you can hardly hear Massey, and some dialogue is drowned out with incidental music) but it’s a thorough and thoughtful account of an episode that’s as mysterious as any of Christie’s novels, supplying psychology to the central character in a way that the Queen of Crime disdained.

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The Mummy (2017)

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People don’t realize that London is a giant graveland. A modern city built on centuries of death. Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a soldier of fortune who plunders ancient sites for timeless artifacts and sells them to the highest bidder. When Nick and his partner Chris (Jake Johnson) come under attack in the Middle East, the ensuing battle accidentally unearths Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) a betrayed Egyptian princess who was entombed under the desert for thousands of years. As her powers constantly evolve Morton has tostop the resurrected monster as she embarks on a furious rampage through the streets of London …  Hell hath no fury like an ancient princess scorned! This remake of the old Universe horror movie owes little to its origins (more’s the pity) and much to the contemporary taste for drained grayscale mindless action visuals (whose taste is the question – I want colour! Colour! Colour!) Beyond that there’s a bit of fun. Russell Crowe is the antagonist/expert Dr Henry Jekyll (get the name… this Dark Universe is crossing the protagonists and characters from film to film, literally making a monster mash) joining another heroic franchise (if it comes to pass); and Cruise is paired with another in a long line of terrifically feisty females, Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) this being a welcome staple character in his M: I series – not to mention a screeching harpie villainess who wants to get with him and rule the world. There ain’t a lot of chemistry here but it moves fairly quickly through some shonky sequences so you don’t care too much. This is not entirely the mess some reviews would have you believe but then I’m a sucker for all things archaeological and groovy destructive women!  The universe I’m concerned with is the previous remake  – the wonderful 1999 iteration starring Brendan Fraser which was tonally perfect (the other two, not so much) but like the subject matter here that’s a thing of the past. Screenplay by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman from a story by Jon Spaihts, director Alex Kurtzman & Jenny Lumet.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)

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It’s sort of weird being honored for the worst day of your life. A young Iraq war combat veteran (Joe Alwyn) and his Bravo Squad comrades are honoured at halftime during a football game home in Texas approaching Thanksgiving in 2004 . Parallel flashbacks (to the incident being honoured;  to a previous homecoming?!) are intercut with the game. The high point of the event is a song performed by Destiny’s Child (in reality some stand-ins shot over the shoulder) and this is intercut with the assault in Iraq in which Billy rescues his hurt commanding officer, the mystically minded Shroom (Vin Diesel). His dad’s in a wheelchair, Mom doesn’t want politics discussed at dinner, his sister (Kristen Stewart) is the reason he volunteered after he injured her boyfriend following a car crash that left her with a scarred face. She wants him to get an honorable discharge because she feels guilty. A film so lacking in dramatic impetus as to be almost entirely inert with a lousy structure that drains the very lifeblood from the narrative. There’s some old faff about the soldiers’ story being put onscreen and the deal is welshed on by team owner Steve Martin who is clearly having a laugh in a straight role. Garrett Hedlund, as the head of the squad, is the only actor to attempt anything resembling a performance. Adapted by Jean-Christophe Castelli from a book by Ben Fountain and shot at pointlessly high speeds by director Ang Lee who probably did it that way to stay awake. Mystifying to the point you’ll feel like you have PTSD afterwards.

War Dogs (2016)

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Comic auteur Todd (Hangover) Phillips doing a serious analysis of arms dealing in the Iraq conflict? Well … not so much. Arms and the Dudes was a Rolling Stone story about two supposedly clueless twentysomethings out of Miami who vacuumed up the crumbs of the US Army’s defence contracts and made a mint until their attempts to cover up ammo from China (literally – by rebagging them) caught them out when their Albanian contractor called the State Dept after their infighting left him without a payroll. Miles Teller is David, a college dropout with a pregnant girlfriend under pressure to earn more money than his private massages yield. Jonah Hill is his old friend and aspiring wheeler-dealer Efraim who needs help exploiting a gap in the defence market by the expedient of watching an Army provisions website. The story is set up like a comedy but with Scarface references (it’s the poster over Efraim’s desk and his drug intake is Montana-prodigious). There is a very funny sequence when they have to go to the Triangle of Death in Iraq to get their first delivery to its intended destination. This is expertly done with the amount of threat, humour and action you know Phillips delivers well. When they want to land a life-changing contract they head to Vegas (where else would arms dealers meet?) and encounter a very familiar figure (I was surprised, not having read any spoiler reviews) who can give them everything they need but he’s on a watchlist and they have to go to Albania to carry it through. The story is fatally wounded by David’s narration which is done as a serious commentary instead of a self-deprecating series of enlightening witticisms. (Teller was presumably cast to appeal to the youth market. Bad move. He’s about as funny as a funeral and his naif act is not a patch on Ray Liotta in Goodfellas.) His girlfriend is a wuss. The baby sentimentalises things too. So although this is a satisfying exercise in many ways we needed more fun, less moralising: when Efraim fires a machinegun in Albania like a gangster, that’s the real deal. And with this much money around and Efraim involved, you know there’s a stitch up on the cards. Jonah Hill is really good.  If this had had the courage of its convictions and weaponised the facts, it might have been great.

American Sniper (2014)

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Controversial military marksman Chris Kyle had the largest number of kills in American history (160 confirmed about of 255 claimed). The release of this film coincided with the trial of his murderer – a presumed Islamist convert veteran taking advantage of Kyle’s post-war work with the wounded. This is a remarkably humane and well-handled biopic of a man who got caught up in one of the biggest and most damaging wars undertaken in the Middle East. There have been several films about Iraq but none had the emotional impact of this and in fact was the biggest opening weekend Clint Eastwood ever experienced as a filmmaker – deservedly so. Expertly mounted, with extraordinarily good juxtapositions (eg Kyle’s pregnant wife calls him on his cellphone when he’s got a target in his crosshairs), backstory and scene-setting, it also illustrates star Cooper’s acting chops are no accident and he’s one of the producers too. Loosely adapted from Kyle’s memoir by Jason Hall, this got predictably bad reviews on this side of the Atlantic – especially from politicised Irish reviewers, as expected. It’s an exceptional piece of work. Go see.