Friday 17 November 2017

Justice League

Rating: 2/5

After what seems like an eternity of hype and expectation, Zack Snyder's Justice League, the latest chapter in the DC Extended Universe, has finally arrived to challenge the Avengers' dominance in the superhero super-group stakes.

DC's previous offerings have, at best, been a mixed bag. The Snyder-directed Man of Steel carried producer Christopher Nolan's scrubbed sheen, though it went unloved, for all its beauty and weighty themes. Last year's entries, Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, did little to garnish a franchise in need of some pep. The former was a mess, deeply unlikable and smugly (read: wrongly) convinced of its own brilliance. The latter (which also featured Snyder at the helm) was loud and bold, though a glowering tone rendered it a dull, uninspiring watch.

Only Wonder Woman can be judged an undisputed success. Patty Jenkins succeeded where Snyder and Suicide Squad's David Ayer fell down: She and star Gal Gadot turned out a fun product. It ably balanced spectacle and comedy, injecting it all with a healthy dose of female empowerment.

Like its Marvel rival, whose next ensemble piece arrives in May, Justice League deploys a coterie of do-gooders, some recognisable, others less so, to battle (as ever) a threat of world-ending proportions, namely Ciarán Hinds's arch villain, Steppenwolf, whose dastardly plot involves invading and ransacking Earth in order to locate a trio of powerful devices known as Mother Boxes. Aided by an army of demonic bugs, his ultimate goal, such as it is, involves conjoining the three cubes, thus bringing on a dystopian hellscape to rival Brexit.

Leading the fight is Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), still mourning Superman's (Henry Cavill) gesture of self-sacrifice at the conclusion of Dawn of Justice and determined to gather together crusaders for the purpose of countering Steppenwolf, whose hordes feed on the creeping anarchy induced by Kal-El's departure. 

Quite how he is aware of the impending apocalypse is somewhat unclear, but with "I'm rich" being his essential superpower, that superior knowledge is simply accepted. 

Nonetheless, alongside Gadot's Amazon princess, Wayne recruits seafaring badass Aquaman (Jason Momoa, set for his own movie in 2018), bio-mechanical genius Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and the Flash (Ezra Miller), whose sarcasm and geeky charm are matched by an ability to move as quickly as the lightning that powers him.

Together they make for an impressive crew, each boasting a particular set of skills. Unfortunately, however, Justice League lacks the harmony so inherent to the Avengers franchise, which benefits, it has to be said, merely from getting there first. Outside of the positives brought to bear by the troupe's interplay and a welcome charge of humour, Snyder's work is ultimately an empty vessel, a mere exercise in world-building. 

To its credit, this is not a movie lacking colourful personalities. Wonder Woman remains the best thing on screen and her one-person-war-machine act is provided ample room to breathe. Gadot's exquisite appearance continues to garner laughs, but obvious athleticism and power, married with a glare that surely defines righteous certitude, are the keys to her allure.

Elsewhere, Miller and Momoa bring impressive comedy chops to bear: the younger man mixes geeky and awkward without ever becoming an irritant; Momoa's cynical, sarcastic take on things is just as welcome – one gag involving Wonder Woman's Lasso of Truth is brilliantly executed. 

Unfortunately for Batman and Cyborg, the results are less favourable. While Fisher embraces his tortured soul, convincing to an extent as the brains of the operation, his backstory is bland and confusing; he never feels truly heroic. 

Affleck, too, is largely forgettable. In spite of that lantern jaw and matinee idol visage, his Wayne is little more than a pale, if expensive, imitation of Christian Bale's iconic Dark Knight. This is an older, jaded, less athletic Batman by design, far removed from the lean bleakness of Nolan's peerless triptych, but Affleck just looks bored. 

Plot wise, Justice League fails to present anything new. Multiple (not to mention disparate) supporting names from throughout the DC ecosystem crowd into the two-hour running time. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) pine for the departed Superman; urbane Alfred Pennyworth (Jeremy Irons) puts his feet up and keeps Batman straight; even the Amazons of Themyscira pop up, providing the backdrop for one early, utterly unhinged chase scene involving Steppenwolf and Connie Nielsen's Queen Hippolyta.

Few of them add a great deal. In attempting to fashion a broader mythology, Snyder, alongside screenwriters Chris Terrio and Marvel stalwart Joss Whedon, is too quick to step away from the dynamics of his central band. He crowds them with extraneous exposition, attempting to pass it off as crucial context. Aquaman's backstory is blink-and-miss-it brief and the Flash is trying to get his old man out of the joint. Or something. 

The most rounded characterisation is afforded to Superman, reanimated to lend a crucial hand, with Clark Kent's appreciation for the human spirit doing just enough to sustain a sense of emotional resonance. 

That said, it's little wonder there's so much chaff, given the slight core narrative. Steppenwolf has grim designs for humanity, though his plans are realised so easily, one wonders why he waited millennia to pull the trigger on them. Ultimately, he is a forgettable adversary, a pound-shop stand-in for James Spader's Ultron in the second Avengers instalment. 

On the one hand, there is no doubting the visual delights on display and Snyder ably draws a distinction in tone between the worlds of Gotham and Metropolis. He also piles on the action, blitzing the screen with destruction and mayhem.

Yet, slick effects are surely now taken as read. A diverting shtick in its own right, the trope that sees big things exploding in style is currently as common as comic book adaptations themselves. More is needed. Unfortunately, it's not to be found here. 

Monday 6 November 2017

Murder on the Orient Express

Rating: 3/5

In the annals of cinematic moustaches, a number have truly stood out. John Neville’s whiskers decorated The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, while Daniel Day Lewis rode his towards fortune, lunacy and an Oscar for There Will Be Blood. Clarke Gable (Gone with the Wind) and Sam Elliot (The Big Lebowski) both made solid plays for posterity, of course, and anything Tom Selleck has ever appeared in is largely remembered for the hair sprouting from his upper lip.

It is possible, however, that the bar has been reset with the arrival of Sir Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot, the Belgian sleuth conjured from the imagination of mystery maven Agatha Christie. Played with particular élan by David Suchet during his 70-episode run on ITV, Poirot’s latest big-screen outing, Murder on the Orient Express, is garnished by a moustache of quite magnificent scope, vigour and daring. Like a mighty grey wave rippling across his face, this effort can't be undersold. 

Poirot’s appearance is, fortunately, far from the film’s only distinguishing mark. This is a pleasingly rendered slow-burning thriller, which benefits as much from its regard for vintage Hollywood tropes as it does from the sure hand at the controls. Both director and star, Branagh’s gifts in the two disciplines are on show as he marshals a cast bristling with star power, becalming them in snow drifts and creeping suspicion. 

Orient Express is the first Poirot feature since 1988 and the fourth adaptation of this particular tale. In it, the world-famous detective, finds himself travelling at short notice on the titular locomotive with a coterie of colourful characters including corrupt art dealer Ratchett (Johnny Depp); Ratchett's flunkey, MacQueen (Josh Gad), and valet, Masterman (Derek Jacobi); Teutonic academic Hardman (Willem Dafoe); fading siren Mrs Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer); sober missionary Estravados (Penélope Cruz); haughty aristocrat Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench); watchful governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley); fragile Russian count Andrenyi (Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin); and English doctor Arbuthnot (Broadway fixture Leslie Odom Jr.).

When one of the passengers approaches Poirot to engage the great man as a bodyguard, he refuses, only to see an inexplicable murder and an avalanche in the Yugoslavian mountains waylay the Express. Having been begged for help by his friend, the service’s dissolute overseer, Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot resolves to divine the facts.

In style, Orient Express boasts reassuring confidence and, while its plot is well worn, Branagh imbues his picture with fresh impetus. He remains a superb film-maker, as comfortable with mega-budget mainstream fare (ThorJack Ryan: Shadow RecruitCinderella) as he is staging Shakespeare.

He revels in the 1930s milieu envisioned by Christie and moulds a world laced with intrigue and elegance. The sets make bold statements of old-world luxury and class, paeans to the art deco sensibilities of a lost, gilded age. 

The framing is just as accomplished. One early exterior tracking shot watches Poirot as he progresses through the carriages, avoiding, entertaining and observing his fellow travellers as he goes. Later, with only the actors' voices and body language to convey horror or surprise, the discovery of an unseen corpse is viewed entirely from above in the narrow confines of a plush gangway. Before the end, when the identity of the malefactor slides into view, Poirot is confronted by a line-up of suspects seated before him, arranged as if in a tableau, the last supper of truth and justice.  

As with Cinderella, regular Branagh collaborator Haris Zambarloukos’s cinematography soars. From its rich colour scheme – dazzling flourishes and sunsets meld with warm, oak-panelled hues and wintry shades – to an occasionally epic sense of scale, Orient Express’s complex riddle is painted on a genuinely beautiful canvas. As compelling as the central quandary might be, the glorious vistas of Jerusalem, Istanbul and Europe’s eastern reaches remind us of the silver screen’s ability to transport its viewers to destinations far beyond their own borders.

In the lead, Branagh is impossible to dislike. His iteration of Poirot constitutes a man of depth and contradictions. So extreme a perfectionist that he would rather two shoes be soiled by manure than one alone, his faintly comic air is propped up by unbending politeness and natty sartorial grace. This urbane, worldly multi-linguist spends his time giggling at the musings of Dickens and flitting between continental destinations, savouring local culture along the way. It's the stuff of Brexiter nightmares.

However, beneath that serene veneer lie nerves of steel and unimpeachable morals, attributes that come increasingly to the fore in the latter stages, as the initially frivolous atmosphere gives way to something darker. Poirot’s razor-edged intellect is stretched to breaking point in pursuit of answers that lie somewhere in the dusting of clues sprinkled throughout but it is his soul, and the idea of himself, that ultimately requires attention. 

Far from flawless, Orient Express arguably ends to soon and even imposes a vacuous, clumsy lost romance on its hero. The latter element is particularly silly, reducing Poirot to someone who seeks guidance from old photographs of people none of us know. The cast, too, sees its individual arcs unevenly served. Not one person is weak, indeed most are as watchable as one would imagine (Jacobi, in particular, excels) but a lean running time and dense narrative leave little room for memorable moments. 

Nevertheless, there is a great deal here to savour. Be it the stunning backdrops or the powerful final reveal, these strands utterly fail to disappoint. In truth, with Branagh as conductor, this train keeps to the right track.

This review was also published on Culture Northern Ireland.