‘Crooked House’

crooked_house_v8With more twists than a slinky, Agatha Christie’s Crooked House leaves you guessing as to just who in the family murdered Aristide Leonides, the wealthy but controlling industrialist. Disillusioned and broke sons? The gold-digger of his second, much younger, wife? His sister-in-law? One of his grandchildren?

A lavish adaptation with something of a starry cast (Glenn Close, Terence Stamp, Gillian Anderson, Max Irons) holed up in the Leonides household does not, sadly, make up for this dull telling.

Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner (Sarah’s Key, Dark Places) flounders with the material, material that would benefit hugely from a contemporary fillip. Adaptations of Christie’s murder mysteries are too often too faithful to the source material. The result is 1930s/40s clipped dialogue along with white, English, bourgeois/aristocratic mores and manners. A pity as the reveal of Crooked House is unexpected.

Rating: 41%

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‘Breath’

Breath-New-Film-PosterA sensitive adaptation of Tim Winton’s prize-wining novel, debut feature director Simon Baker (The Devil Wears Prada, TV’s The Mentalist) captures beautifully the complexities of coming-of-age.

Quiet, twelve year-old Pikelet (newcomer Samson Coulter) and his best mate, the thrill-seeking Loonie (a superb debut from Ben Spence), discover the joys of surfing, mentored by one of the world’s best, Sando (Baker himself). But friendships become strained in the  search for danger.

A poetic love story (of friendship, of family, of oneself, of the ocean itself), Breath is a stunningly shot step back into the 1970s. Winton is a writer of intrinsically Australian stories with universal resonance – Breath is honest, nostalgic and visually beautiful.

Rating: 75%

‘Last Flag Flying’

Last_Flag_FlyingA road trip with a difference, Richard Linklater’s (Boyhood, Before Sunset) sincere latest is off by a beat throughout – its humour, its drama, its warmth, its camaraderie.

Thirty years after Vietnam, Doc (a quietly dignified Steve Carell – Foxcatcher, The 40 Year-Old Virgin) reunites with Bryan Cranston (Trumbo, Argo) and Laurence Fishburne (The Matrix, Man of Steel) to bury his son, killed in action in Iraq.

As they accompany the body across country, the men they were is slowly revealed through the patina of who they are now. But the connection between the three does not ring true and, as a result, the chamber-piece drama fails to ignite.

Rating: 54%

‘The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society’

guernsey_literary_and_potato_peel_pie_society_xlgIt may have an epic quality, so typical of British WWII period dramas, but the quirkily entitled The Guernsey & Potato Peel Pie Literary Society sadly fails to live up to expectations.

Overlong at 124 minutes, every passing moment is predictable – from the cloyingly annoying novelist Juliet Ashton (Lily James – Cinderella, Baby Driver) and her love affair with the fun but brash American, Glen Powell (Hidden Figures, The Expendables) through to her foray to Guernsey to find out more about the literary society and life under German occupation. And of course she meets her Heathcliff – the dark and broody Michiel Huisman (The Game of Thrones, The Age of Adaline).

It’s cosily well told (director Mike Newell – Four Weddings & a Funeral, Donnie Brasco) but a bit of passion and grubbiness would have been welcome (even the farm dirt looked as if it had been carefully applied).

Rating: 46%

‘Ready Player One’

readyplayeronePredominantly CGI, what it lacks in character development it more than makes up for in its upbeat, action-packed energy.

Unexpectedly immersive, Spielberg (Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark) lets his avatars play their quest to find the egg hidden in the reality game – and stop Ben Mendelssohn (Rogue One – A Star Wars Story, Darkest Hour) from creating a gaming monopoly in the real world.

It’s a visual spectacle, with enough grunge reality to provide respite as Tye Sheridan (Mud, X-Men Apocalypse) and Olivia Cooke (Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, The Limehouse Golem) find adventure and love. True, Spielberg avoids commentary on the darker elements of a world controlled by technocracy, but as a piece of escapist entertainment, there’s little faulting Ready Player One.

Rating: 66%

‘Red Sparrow’

red sparrowIt’s overlong (140 minutes), solid rather than thrilling but Red Sparrow is still an entertaining espionage story – particularly when Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook, The Hunger Games) is playing both the Russians and the Americans. She leaves you guessing.

As a ‘red sparrow’, operatives trained to use the art of seduction as a weapon, Lawrence is out to find the high-ranking Russian mole: the CIA player is Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby, Black Mass). It’s their chemistry together that keeps the film engaging if not exactly riveting.

Director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games, I Am Legend) has created an elegant adaptation of the novel, but less ‘Cold-War’ dialogue and a few more hawkish moments would have been welcome.

Rating: 60%

‘Annihilation’

annihilationAt once unsettling and at times ravishingly beautiful, director Alex Garland’s follow-up to the excellent Ex-Machina is something of a disappointment – a mishmash of visuals, science-fiction, existential ideas and a flat, tacked-on ending.

Biologist (and ex-military) Natalie Portman (Black Swan, Thor) teams up with three other female scientists (including an enjoyable Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful 8, Mrs Parker & the Vicious Circle) to enter The Shimmer – an area sealed off from the rest of the world and where the rules of nature no longer apply.

Survival in the jungle (or more specifically an ever-mutating Florida swamplands) is as key to understanding the source of The Shimmer and whilst Annihilation builds tension with cutaways to immediate past events, that ending just leaves too many questions unanswered.

Rating: 42%

‘Molly’s Game’

v1.bTsxMjU1NTM5NztqOzE3NjUwOzEyMDA7MTk0NDsyODgxA superior piece of storytelling based on the true story of a former Olympic-hopeful skier running the most exclusive LA and New York high stakes poker game.

As one would expect from scribe Aaron Sorkin (writer of The Social Network, Moneyball alongside TV’s West Wing and The Newsroom), the dialogue drives the narrative. There’s little cinematic gymnastics as Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty, The Help) engages us from the off as she hires Idris Elba (Thor, Beasts of No Nation) as her lawyer to protect her from the FBI witch hunt to name names.

Rating: 64%

‘Call Me By Your Name’

CallMeByYourName2017Languid telling, during a 1980s Tuscan summer, of first love where 17 year-old Elio (a gentle,  nuanced performance by Timothée Chalamet – Interstellar, Ladybird) falls for his father’s archealogical assistant, the over-confident Oliver (Armie Hammer – The Social Network, The Lone Ranger).

It’s a bumpy ride for Elio – and for the audience. At times beautiful, at times stretching credulity as the all-American bumptious Jock purportedly falls for the skinny, bookish waif. Chalamet is pitch-perfect as Elio but a towering Hammer is less convincing.

Director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) perfectly captures the nervousness of first love and its associated heartbreak but Elio’s relationship with his father, Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man, The Shape of Water) and peers highlights the shortcomings of the love affair.

Rating: 68%

‘Murder on the Orient Express’

v1.bTsxMjQxNTA3MjtqOzE3NTU4OzEyMDA7MTAwMDsxNDgwIndulgent telling of the Agatha Christie 1934 whodunnit, director Kenneth Branagh (Thor, Cinderella) is limited in any radicalised new version – the very point is that it all takes place within the confines of the train.

Like his 1974 predecessor, Sidney Lumet who filled the train with stars (Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Vanessa Redgrave), Branagh has opted for a stellar cast in the hope of skating over some of the shortfalls in the plot.

Branagh himself plays the famed Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot but even with support from the likes of Johnny Depp, Michele Pfeiffer and Judi Dench, the film never gets up enough emotional steam to thrill: it’s just a little too busy looking at its own sumptuous reflection to make sure it looks good.

Rating: 49%