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Posts Tagged ‘mystery’

Episode four of the second season of The Avengers is another Eric Paice script entitled Bullseye, although it has nothing to do with sweeties or speedboats. Once again it has a very different style and structure from the other episodes so far, in both the shape of the story and how it handles the regulars.

It opens with a secretary at Andersons, a successful London company, discovering her employer dead in his office, apparently by his own hand. Not surprisingly, ructions ensue at a meeting of the shareholders, because of both this and an attempt to buy the company by a venture capitalist named Cade (Ronald Radd, an actor perhaps best known for playing the Rook in the Checkmate episode of The Prisoner) – the management and senior shareholders have vowed to fight Cade’s takeover. The motion is made, and carried, that another major shareholder should replace the dead man on the board to find out just what kind of state the company is in. This just happens to be Mrs Gale, whose stake in the firm has obligingly been bought for her by Steed.

Steed’s interest is that someone is running guns into a volatile region of Africa, and Andersons is a small-arms manufacturer – very possibly the firm that made the guns in question. But how is Cade involved in all this? One by one the other major shareholders start turning up dead in highly suspicious circumstances – is he really that determined to get control of the company? As the stock she owns grows more and more vital to the resolution of the take-over, the pressure on Cathy to solve the mystery becomes both intense and personal…

This is a solid enough episode, much more of a conventional murder-mystery than you might expect from The Avengers. There are some decent plot twists and the revelations as to what’s really been going on are quite difficult to guess, probably. Nice performance from Radd, and also from Bernard Kay, who makes the most of a relatively small role. The really distinctive thing about the episode, for me, is that this is only Honor Blackman’s third episode – in broadcast order, anyway – and it’s a very Cathy-centric story. Steed is only in a handful of scenes (all of which Patrick Macnee proceeds to steal, naturally); his role (other than contemplating the stock-market – you can tell Steed is the kind of man on first-name terms with his broker) is to provide exposition and a little light comic relief as, essentially, Cathy’s handler.

Mrs Gale herself gets to overpower another man in a fight, show off her sharpshooting prowess, hold her own with hard-headed businessmen and basically dominate the episode. As I say, it’s sound enough, provided you excuse the kind of technical flubs which many of these videotaped episodes contain, but just a little bit too conventional to really qualify as an example of The Avengers at its best. Still, one must be patient: there are many episodes yet to come, so room aplenty for outrageous quirkiness.

On we go to the next one, which is Mission to Montreal, written by Lester Powell. I believe I may have slightly facetiously given the impression that this one sees our heroes rocking up in Canada, but this is not quite the case: the story spends virtually all its time on the way to ‘the lynchpin of the English-speaking world’ (S. Holmes, 1944) but never actually gets there. It opens on the set of what looks like a slightly schlocky Gothic horror movie, where the stand-in for the leading lady is murdered by a sinister cove with a goatee and an eye-patch.

The leading lady herself (Patricia English) responds badly to this, as you might expect, and flees straight back home to, well, Canada – I say ‘straight back’, but what she actually does is get on a ship which is, through the wonders of stock footage, making the voyage. The actress in question is named Carla Berotti, and she is what you might call high-maintenance, a self-confessed hypochondriac amongst other things, making endless demands of the ship’s doctor – at least until he falls ill, at which point another of the passengers steps in: Dr Martin King (Jon Rollason), who may as well be called Dr Bland for all the charisma Rollason displays in the role.

Berotti lays a lot of lumpy character-exposition dialogue on the doc, concerning her various issues and dependencies, and I believe we are supposed to appreciate there is some sort of chemistry between the duo. Hmmm, well. Eventually King takes his leave and the ship calls in at Le Havre for supplies and additional personnel. One of whom is Steed, thank God: we are almost at the first ad break and yet still have virtually no idea of what’s going on or why we should care.

It all turns out to be about stolen microfilm which Berotti is suspected of carrying from Britain to Canada – but who are the enemy agents who have forced her to do so? Will she meet the same fate as her stand-in when her usefulness is at an end? With Dr King essentially in place as her personal physician, and Steed working undercover as a steward on the ship, at least they are well-placed should anything develop.

It’s Steed pouring his partner some champagne, but not as we know it.

I know The Decapod has a bad reputation but for me this is the first genuine dud of the second series. Roger Marshall, a key writer for the second and third series, has written very critically about the quality of the earlier scripts and this is the kind of episode that makes you think he may have had a point. It’s not just that a couple of hours after watching it you’ve forgotten most of the plot, it’s that it’s very difficult to force yourself to pay attention even while it’s on in front of you – you’re given no reason to care about anything that happens until Steed turns up, nearly a third of the way into the story.

Things are not helped by the fact that this is clearly a first-season-style script, with Steed very secondary to the doctor’s character. My understanding is that after Ian Hendry left, they still had a handful of scripts on the shelf wherein David Keel’s medical background was a crucial plot point – hence the creation of Martin King, to appear in just these stories. It can’t just be hindsight that makes Martin King and Venus Smith seem hopelessly flat and weak compared to the other regular characters of the series, although Jon Rollason really receives no favours from the manner of his introduction here. Anyway, we need not concern ourselves with this one any more. Next!

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I don’t want things to get too confessional around here, especially so soon after I owned up (again) to not being that big a fan of Blade Runner (probably best not to mention I’ve always been fairly lukewarm about Goodfellas, too), but: I’ve never entirely seen what all the fuss is about when it comes to Agatha Christie, either. I know, I know: two billion sales, translated into over a hundred languages, author of the best crime novel ever, apparently – words like massive and enduring don’t begin to do justice to her appeal. She is the kind of writer, it seems, that other people don’t just read and enjoy, they read and enjoy and want to have a go themselves – a friend of mine writes Christie pastiches as a hobby. (This isn’t just limited to her particular brand of suspense, of course; another friend has half a dozen Scandi noir mysteries for sale on Amazon.)

Oh well, I suppose I will just have to get used to being in the minority about this, along with everything else. Someone else in the Christie fan club is the writer-director Rian Johnson, whose new movie Knives Out is the purest example of knocked-off Agatha I can remember seeing on the big screen in a very long time. Johnson is best known for work in a different genre – he made the superior SF movie Looper a few years back, and was then responsible for the last main-sequence stellar conflict movie (apparently the worst movie ever to make $1.3 billion, if you believe the voices of the internet) – but if you dig down into his career he clearly has a fondness for the mystery genre. One of the good things about your last film making $1.3 billion, is that – regardless of how derided it is – you can basically write your own ticket for a while, and Johnson has made wise use of this.

The plot of Knives Out is, not surprisingly, twisty-turny stuff, but the basic set-up goes a little something like this. Famous and successful mystery author Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is found dead, the morning after his eighty-fifth birthday party, apparently by his own hand. The police make the necessary enquiries, interviewing his various children and their partners (Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson and Toni Collette amongst them); it soon becomes apparent that nearly everyone in the family had a reason for wanting the old man dead – but they also all have alibis for the time of his demise, and there is no forensic evidence of any foul play. The cops are inclined to list the whole thing as a suicide and go about their business, but also on the scene is renowned private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig, deploying an accent as outrageously thick as his pay packet for the next Bond movie), who is convinced there is more going on (not least because some unknown individual has retained him to consult on the case). He confides all this to Harlan’s former nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who has her own insights into the family’s somewhat unusual internal dynamics – and, from Blanc’s point of view, the useful psychological quirk that she is incapable of telling a lie without experiencing an alarming degree of projectile emesis. Can Blanc and Marta crack the case? Is there even a case to be cracked?

As you can perhaps discern, all the essential elements of the classic country house murder mystery are present, making this a recreation of a form which was probably creaking a bit even before the Second World War. In those terms it probably sounds like a bemusing folly, the continuing popularity of the genre notwithstanding, but Johnson is smart enough to be aware of this and deftly update the form for a modern audience. Part of his response is to ground the film firmly in the present day: there are jokes about the alt-right and snowflakes, and references to the modern political situation in the US; if you look hard enough, there is a sardonic subtext about the tension between established, entitled American citizens and the immigrant workers they are so reliant on. Of course, this may mean the film is liable to date rather quickly, but I suspect this is incidental enough to the plot for it not to be a major problem.

The other notable thing about Knives Out is how knowing it is: the film isn’t desperately ironic, but it is fully aware of how camply absurd Christie-style plotting is, and makes it work by embedding it in a film with its film firmly in its cheek. This borders on being a full-blown comedy thriller, with a lot of very funny moments mixed in with the detective work and exposition. The family are a collection of comic grotesques, while Craig turns in one of the biggest performances of his career so far. Just how much fun he is having playing Blanc is palpably clear, and one could easily imagine a post-Bond career where he swaggers his way through another film like this every few years; rumour has it that talks regarding a follow-up are already taking place. Craig pitches it just a bit too big to be credible, but big enough to be so entertaining you don’t really care; Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael J Shannon, Toni Collette, Don Johnson and Chris Evans follow his lead. That some of the other participants turn in much more naturalistic performances without the film collapsing into a mess of jarring styles is also to Johnson’s credit.

It seems that you can still make this kind of story work for a modern audience: the trick is not to try and make it terribly relevent to contemporary concerns, but to embrace the confected nature of the form and run with it, concentrating above all else on simple entertainment value. It sounds simple, but this is a ferociously clever, witty film, both in its mechanics and in terms of the sly games it plays with the audience. Fingers crossed that it connects with cinema-goers to the extent that it deserves to; the early signs are good. As noted, I am agnostic about Agatha Christie and that whole subgenre of mystery fiction, but I still had a whale of a time watching Knives Out; I imagine most people will have a similar experience.

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‘Allo everybodee! Do not paneek. Your regulair correspondent is busy writeeng ze tradeetional awfool novel as part of somezing called ze Nanowrimo, and so I, ze great Hercule Poirot, ‘ave been asked to feel in for ‘im. Ze timeeng is, ‘ow you say, fortuitous, for zees allows me to investigate ze strange case of ze new movie of one of ma most celebrated casees, Kenneth Brannair’s Murder on the Orient Express, based on ze novel by ma old choom Agathair Christie (or ‘Aggie’, as I always used to call ‘er).

Murder-on-the-Orient-Express-New-Film-Poster

Why ‘ave zey decided to do anuzzair version of zis, ‘ow you say, old chestnut? What is ze appeal? Well, I suppose zere is always ze fact that Aggie’s books steel sell by ze truckload, so zere is kind of ze built-in audience, to say nothing of ze marquee value in ze Murder on the Orient Express name. So it is ze safe bet for ze big box office, maybe.

Playing me, ze great Poirot, is M. Brannair ‘imself (we shall come back to zees). At ze start of ze movie he is sorteeng out some nonsense in Jerusalem, which I do not recall telleeng Aggie about, leadeeng me to deduce that ze scriptwriter ‘as made it all oop for some reason. I suppose it is to do wiz subtext or whatevair.

Anyhow, soon enough ze Brannair-Poirot is summoned back to Britain, which requires ‘im to travel on ze famous Orient Express. On ze train with ‘im are a right boonch of dodgy characters, ‘oo are played by what you call ze all-star cast. Zere are the much-loved acteeng veterans (Judi Dench and Derek Jacobi), ze big-name ‘Ollywood stars (Johnny Dipp and Michelle P-fiffer), and a few oop and comeeng new stars. ‘Ere, for instance, is Daisy Ridley, possibly because ze studio would like to see if she can ‘ave any kind of career beyond what I am apparently obliged to refer to as ze ‘stellair conflict franchise’ (your regular correspondent is a very odd and rathair silly fellow, n’est-ce pas?).

Well, I ‘ave to say we are quite a long way into Murder on the Orient Express before zere is actually a murder on ze Orient Express, but soon enough ze Brannair-Poirot is on the case, findeeng ‘e as to contend with a baffling multiplicity of evidence. Can ze Brannair-Poirot breeng ze killair to joostice? Or ‘as ‘e bloondered into somewhat deepair philosophical watairs?

Hmmm. Ze first thing I ‘ave to say about M. Brannair’s movie is zat I was not at first terribly impressed by his performance as me. ‘E ‘as given ‘imself a moostash which makes it look like some minkeys are ‘ideeng oop ‘is nuzz, and ‘e plays me as if I ‘ave ze OCD. It almost makes me zink M. Brannair is takeeng ze mickey out of ze great Poirot. It is ze very big and broad performance.

Zen again, zis is ze fairly big and broad movie, made on ze laveesh scale wiz plenty of ze CGI, which if nuzzink else means it does not look like ze Sunday night telly, a trap into which many of zese period movies fall. On ze othair ‘and, it does ze tradeetional period movie zing where all ze production value and set designs are carefully stook oop on ze screen. Zere are many shots of people foldeeng ze napkins and so on; it often looks more like a big commaircial for ze train ‘oliday zan ze actual murdair-mystery.

Ze sense that M. Brannair is once again playeeng it all rathair safe as a director is confirmed as ze movie goes on, for zis seems very much like ze Christie movie done by ze numbairs. Zere is, as I ‘ave mentioned, ze all-star cast; later on zere is ze bit where I, ze great Poirot, assemble all ze suspects and reveal ‘oo it was that actually dunnit. Of course zees is modern ‘Ollywood and so there is some fisticuffs and shooteng which I do not recall actually ‘appening at ze time, but c’est la vie, especially if you are a fictional detective.

Zis is of course ze very famoos story, and I am willeeng to bet that many people who ‘ave nevair read Aggie’s book already know this story and ze somewhat unusual tweest in ze tale. ‘Owever, ze actual mechanics of ze mystery seem to get a leetle bit lost beneath all ze gloss and ze big performances (I ‘ave to say I did warm oop to ze Brannair-Poirot once I ‘ad got used to ze ridiculous moostash). Certainly I get ze sense that the actual ‘oodunnit is fighteeng for prominence alongside everything else in ze movie.

I did ask your regular correspondent what ‘e thought of ze story, which ‘e apparently read in one sitting on a dull day in Bishkek some years ago. ‘E said ‘e thought it was okay, but was left a little morally queasy by ze conclusion of ze tale (I cannot say more wizzout it being a spoiler alert). Well, if zere is one thing to be said for M. Brannair’s take on ze movie it is that it does not shy away from the moral ambiguity at ze ‘eart of ze story, and indeed elevates it to a rathair central position in proceedeengs. Maybe zees makes me, ze great Poirot, look a bit lackeeng in moral authority, but frankly this is less worrying for me than zat stupid moostash which M. Brannair ‘as insisted on wearing.

Well, in ze end, I suppose zees movie will do okay: it looks nice, it ‘as ze good cast giving ze crowd-pleaseeng performances, and ze ‘ole zing works very ‘ard to give off ze touch of class in every department. All I will say is zat ze studio seem to think zey are making a jolly, cosy, tradeetional murdair-mystery film, while M. Brannair sometimes appears to be under ze impression he is making ze very serious film about ze absence of ze moral absolutes and ze wounding of ze soul which can be caused by guilt and grief. Wiz a very big moostash. If zese two things do not go together perfectly, zen that explain why ze new version of Murder on the Orient Express sometimes feels like a train with an engine at each end, pulleeng it in more than one direction at a time. Maybe as a result it doesn’t really end up goeeng anywhere much, but at least ze scenery is nice dureeng ze trip.

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There is surely something slightly ironic about the fact that the main film released as counter-programming to the new version of The Mummy, in the UK at least, was Roger Michell’s My Cousin Rachel, with Rachel Weisz in the title role – because for some of us it doesn’t seem like all that many years since Weisz herself was starring as the female lead in The Mummy, and launching her career in the process. It’s turned out to be a pretty good career, too, all things considered, and she’s continuing to churn out the movies, although this may be because her significant other always seems to be on the verge of retiring, if I understand the newspapers correctly.

Anyway, My Cousin Rachel is based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, a romantic mystery set in Cornwall (not that you’d particularly notice from anyone’s accent). Sam Claflin plays Philip, an orphaned young man taken in by his elder cousin Ambrose, a country gentleman of sorts. Ambrose leads a rough and ready lifestyle and has little time for women, and so Philip is a little surprised when Ambrose, while on a trip to Italy on doctor’s orders, reports that he is very much enjoying the company of his cousin Rachel (Weisz), who is of course Philip’s cousin too. Word reaches them that Ambrose and Rachel have married, quickly followed by some rather disturbing but vaguely-worded messages from Ambrose indicating Rachel may have sinister designs upon him. Eventually, they learn that Ambrose has died.

Philip naturally places the blame for this entirely on Rachel, despite the doctor’s report that Ambrose died of a brain tumour. He is the sole heir to Ambrose’s estate, the will not having been updated, although he will not inherit until his twenty-fifth birthday, still a short while away. Then he learns that Rachel has returned to England and will be coming to visit the estate. His plans to be thoroughly brusque and unpleasant to her do not survive his realisation that she seems to be a thoroughly pleasant, thoughtful, and appealing woman, and he finds himself increasingly thinking of her in a manner not normally associated with a cousin (well, except in some remote parts of Norfolk and Alabama, anyway). But others in the community have heard ominous rumours about Rachel’s Italian past – could Philip have been right in the first place, and now be on the verge of making a potentially lethal mistake…?

Yeah, so, another Daphne du Maurier adaptation – and therefore a film with some expectations upon it, when you consider that we’re talking about a lineage containing the likes of Rebecca, The Birds, and Don’t Look Now. Based on those, you’d expect taut suspense, simmering passion, an involving mystery – the makings of a superior movie in most departments, really.

Unfortunately what you get in My Cousin Rachel is really none of those things, as it feels like a pretty bog-standard costume drama somewhat lifted by a very engaging performance from Rachel Weisz. I can’t fault the production values or the cinematography of the film, for these are very impressive – many lovely shots of the countryside of Cornwall and Italy – but in other respects, this doesn’t feel much different to your average Sunday night costume show, and you wouldn’t lose much by waiting to watch it on TV.

Watching it, I couldn’t help but compare it to Lady Macbeth, another costume drama I caught recently. The two films have quite a bit in common, being set in remote and windy spots, and being concerned with dangerous, out of control infatuations, and the place of a woman in 19th century society. For one thing, My Cousin Rachel is always a bit too demure to let its infatuation spring to life – there’s a spot of alfresco nookie but you never really feel the fire, with the result that Philip seems foolish, instead of a man letting his feelings run away with him. Less concentration on good manners and a little more oomph would have made things a bit less BBC1 and potentially rather more engaging and cinematic.

It’s also inevitably the case that central to My Cousin Rachel is the idea that the main female character is mysterious, ambivalent, potentially untrustworthy, possibly a murderous predator on the male protagonist. She is always seen through the eyes of others (mainly Philip’s) rather than as a character in her own right. Our perception of her is partly shaped by rumours of her ‘uncontrollable appetites’ (of which there is no on-screen corroboration, by the way). Needless to say none of the men in the film are subject to the same kind of treatment, and it’s not actually made clear why Rachel is followed around by this swirl of faint scandal, other than simply to stir the pot and keep the story interesting: there’s more than a faint whiff of melodrama about My Cousin Rachel as it progresses.

I’m not saying that all of this makes My Cousin Rachel a necessarily bad film, but it is one which functions in quite traditional terms in some of its gender politics. This is true of the book, too, for all that it was written by a woman, so it’s not like it’s all down to Michell. And it may be the case that a lot of the target audience for this film won’t have a problem with any of this – but I couldn’t help thinking that there might be different ways of telling this kind of story now.

In any case, for all the decent performances and strong supporting cast (Iain Glen is Philip’s legal guardian, Holliday Grainger the girl he initially has an understanding with, Simon Russell Beale the family lawyer), the story never quite convinces – Philip is just bit too earnest and dim, and the conclusion is somewhat abrupt and underpowered, not quite striking the note of resonant ambiguity which it is clearly aiming for. The result is a film which constantly feels like it’s playing things very safe in every department, and is, as a result, just a tiny bit boring.

 

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