Movie Review ~ Death on the Nile (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot’s Egyptian vacation aboard a glamorous river steamer turns into a terrifying search for a murderer when a picture-perfect couple’s idyllic honeymoon is tragically cut short.
Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Ali Fazal, Dawn French, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Rose Leslie, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Jennifer Saunders, Letitia Wright
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 127 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  It’s probably a good idea to let you in on a little secret now, lest I be caught in a dramatic reveal later. In many ways, the original 1978 Death on the Nile, a sequel to the 1974 Oscar-winning Murder on the Orient Express, exceeds its predecessor. It’s got stunning visuals, a tight script with multiple zingers flying around when murder isn’t taking center stage, and delightful Oscar-winning costumes. If the cast doesn’t match the original as equally for all-out star wattage, they are absolutely enough heavy hitters to cover any shortage of incandescence. Of all the outings Peter Ustinov took on Agatha Christie’s famous Inspector Hercule Poirot (1982’s Evil Under the Sun, 1988’s Appointment with Death, and several made for television films), this is by far the most deluxe.

That’s why for as much as I enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s first excursion as Poirot in his 2017 remake of Murder on the Orient Express, I felt my heart flutter at the end when it was strongly implied the authorities needed Poirot in Egypt next. While it made no sense in terms of the plot of Death of the Nile, for fans hoping the Belgian detective could have a new mainstream life, this was a promising sign of confidence. Mere weeks after Murder on the Orient Express arrived in theaters around the globe, 20th Century Fox let it slip that indeed they were already planning to remake Death on the Nile and they hoped to release it by Christmas of 2019. 

With Branagh (Belfast)  back on board and another starry cast assembled, the film went through some rough waters during production and wasn’t even complete until the final days of 2019, eventually moved to an October 2020 release date. First the team had to battle back lousy press brought on by one of its leading men (Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name) and the eyebrow-raising allegations against him. Then with the pandemic remaining in full force, 20th Century Studios (now owned by Disney, so the Fox was dropped) had no choice but to continue to delay the release until early 2022. Death on the Nile is now dropping anchor in theaters a full two years after principal photography had completed and over a year since its original release date – and it sounds like moviegoers still aren’t sure if they want. It’s hard to wrap your mind around a movie filled with so many stars that began production with such promise could wind up arriving with such indecision.

All of this information we’ve gone over in the past three paragraphs would be sad news to report if Branagh’s sequel were a strong showing for him and his cast. Yet there’s an oddity to much of Death of the Nile which hangs over it like a gaseous cloud, often paralyzing the critical external parts of the story in favor of more internal moments that don’t work as well Branagh thinks that they do. I know that Branagh’s Poirot shouldn’t be expected to perform just like Ustinov, Albert Finney, or the incomparable David Suchet. He still should be consistent from scene to scene, though. While a prologue giving clues to Poirot’s origins (at least his mustache) is appreciated from a filmmaking standpoint, it perhaps tells us too much about a man that is in large part designed to be the aloof observer.

Always in the right place at the right time, Poirot is in a club to hear famous blues guitarist Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo, Hellboy) sing and catches the moment Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot, Red Notice) first meets Simon Doyle (Hammer) and they fall in love. Of course, Simon’s been introduced to Linnet by her friend and his girlfriend Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), and Jackie doesn’t take the rejection very well, eventually showing up at Linnet and Simon’s wedding celebration in Egypt, where Poirot happens to be vacationing. Attempting to get away from Jackie showing up when they least expect it, Linnet and Simon charter a steamer boat for their wedding party to spend a few days on. Of course, Hercule is invited…and of course, Jackie finds her way aboard the ship eventually as well.

Up until this point, screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) has gone ahead and given Christie’s 1937 novel a nice knuckle twist, removing characters or changing their professions to better fit into the narrative that chooses to focus on the romance of the situation more than the mystery. Pairing people off is usually the kiss of death in these thrillers because they could be going away with a murderer. Still, Branagh appears content to get people alone with one another, only to express their innermost thoughts. The vulnerability he begins to show as Poirot to Okonedo’s character gets off-putting; you don’t want to see Poirot this thrown off his game. Adding in Annette Bening (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) as the side-eye glancing mother of Tom Bateman’s (Snatched) returning character Bouc is a coup of casting, but because the characters weren’t in the original novel, it’s no wonder the lauded actress can often feel like an afterthought.

However, someone has to get killed for a case to get opened at a certain point. While I won’t reveal who that is (and, good for those editors, the trailers have done a great job concealing the person(s?) that don’t make it back to shore with their blood still circulating), at least when the mystery does take over Green doesn’t change the precision in which Christie plotted out the crime. I don’t think Branagh has a tight grasp on this one as he did Orient Express. However, the film is still an entertaining watch because of performances like Gadot (proving she can play something other than Wonder Woman) and especially Okonedo, who steals each scene she’s in. Okonedo understands the assignment and while I missed the character being a tipsy romance novelist, recasting her as a Sister Rosetta Tharpe-style performer is a good touch.

The bad news is that the filmmakers still had to deal with Hammer, and no amount of new camera angles or clever editing can fix that. You don’t see Hammer’s face full-on for a good ten minutes…and that’s weird when everyone else has had an establishing shot. I also feel there were other scenes he was in that were trimmed or cut out because he vanishes for significant stretches. The most unenviable task falls on comedy duo Jennifer Saunders (Isn’t It Romantic) and Dawn French playing a socialite and her nurse/companion, Bette Davis and Maggie Smith’s exact roles in the original. Davis and Smith were so riotously funny that anyone who follows could never match up, even with a storyline smoothed out to be less vague in one particular aspect.

As with most Christie yarns, even when the mystery is solved, it doesn’t mean that the suffering is over, and Branagh chooses to learn into that notion hard during Death on the Nile. That leaves the viewer in a cold spot as the film reaches the end of its voyage, in a place with far less hope than where we began or where we left off at the end of Orient Express. I’m not so sure we’ll see Branagh’s Poirot again. I hope we do because I want to see what he could handle next. I wish they’d resist the urge to change Poirot to fit a modern ideal, though. This Belgian operates in a specific time and place. 

Movie Review ~ Sing 2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Buster Moon and his friends must persuade reclusive rock star Clay Calloway to join them for the opening of a new show.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, Bobby Cannavale, Tori Kelly, Nick Kroll, Halsey, Letitia Wright, Bono, Jennifer Saunders, Chelsea Peretti, Nick Offerman

Director: Garth Jennings

Rated: PG

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: As animated films have developed into more sophisticated works over the last two decades, they’ve been praised for their efforts to include their adult audiences in on the fun just as much as their target audience.  The feeling from the studios seemed to be, “why not engage the grown-ups taking these kids to our movie at the same time.  It will likely attract more ticket-buyers who won’t mind taking their small ones to a particular title instead of the more mature content they might drag them to instead.”  (Truly, anything to keep an adult from bringing anyone under 14 into an R-Rated movie is absolutely fine by me!)  This attitude toward inclusion of all ages has led to a boon in business and writing that is more finely tuned, something I appreciated.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed that unspoken truce between studios and adults has waned more than a little bit and a number of animated films have become little more than ninety-minute noise machines, swirls of color that pass by without leaving any lasting impression on the viewer.  At least the reviewer that has a driver’s license, votes, and pays taxes.  I know I’m not the target audience for a movie like Sing 2 so ultimately all that matters is what a youngster comes out of the film feeling.  In that light, take my review as thoughts for the adults that may be considering this title over another to watch with their kids or even a solo trip based on their film preferences….because if you ask a child what they think about Sing 2 after all 112 minutes are up (yes, nearly two hours long), they’ll give it a guaranteed thumbs up. 

It’s been a minute since Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey, Serenity) rebuilt his decaying theater, saved by a kindly patron (Jennifer Saunders, Isn’t It Romantic) who witnessed the talent from a motley crew of animals with various hang-ups who participated in a singing competition.  Still selling out crowds, Moon wants to take the show to the next level, but a visit from a talent agent speaking on behalf of tycoon Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale, Annie) tells them they aren’t up to snuff.  Undeterred, Moon gathers his top talent (including Reese Witherspoon, Mud, as a mother pig with confidence issues) and heads to meet Crystal in person and in the process winds up pitching an over the top show starring a reclusive singer (Bono) without having the faintest idea of how to pull it all off. 

It’s simple to see how writer/director Garth Jennings plans to connect the dots from the start, so the best you can do is wait to see which songs Jennings chooses to use.  As in the first one, the voices on display from the cast are surprisingly strong from actors that aren’t (or weren’t at the time of the original) known for their singing.  Taron Egerton (Rocketman) performs a powerhouse version of Coldplays “A Sky Full of Stars” while Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) makes a loud entrance with “Heads Will Roll” by the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s.  Bono’s presence means a good supply of U2 songs are touched on and the band contributes an original song that isn’t half bad.  The bummer is that so many of these singing moments are brief snippets of songs.  Coming out so soon after West Side Story and tick, tick…BOOM! when we basked in the glow of full-scale musical numbers, this feels like a Cliff Notes version of what a musical should be.

I imagine the first film is one a number of parents will have on as background noise to keep their kids occupied while they wrap their presents, and it might be wise to wait until Sing 2 is available next Christmas to do the same.  It’s not worth the time (or cash) to travel to the theater for that family event, not when there are other titles with better lessons out there (Encanto springs quickly to mind, available soon on Disney+) hitting stronger notes.

The Silver Bullet ~ Death on the Nile (2020)

Synopsis: Detective Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a young heiress aboard a cruise ship on the Nile River.

Release Date:  October 23, 2020

Thoughts:  Only a few years back in the late summer of 2017 I was expressing my doubts that director Kenneth Branagh (Cinderella) was going to be able to remake Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and improve upon the sterling 1974 film.  Released in November of that year, it did solid business with audiences but left many critics feeling they had hopped on a slower ride than expected.  I quite enjoyed the update, actually, finding Branagh’s fussy Hercule Poirot cucumber cool fun and the rest of the starry cast more than up for the devious twists and turns Christie plotted out.  It was perfect winter weather viewing, the kind of film that deep armchairs and warm blankets were made for.  As viewers were already aware, that film ended with Poirot being called to Egypt to investigate a “death on the Nile” and come October the promise of a sequel is finally arriving.

Itself a remake of the 1978 follow-up the blockbuster smash of Orient Express, Death on the Nile is another opportunity for Branagh to gather an impressive crew of suspects and victims that board a cruise ship headed for doom.  With the sort of jaw-dropping but still believable plot machinations that only Christie truly perfected in her lifetime, some prefer the original sequel to its predecessor so I’ll be interested if Branagh can win over his original naysayers on this second round of whodunit.  This downright beautiful first look certainly bodes well for it being another tantalizing mix of A-list stars (Wonder Woman 1984’s Gal Gadot, Call Me by Your Names Armie Hammer, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’s Annette Bening) and up and comers (Emma Mackey of Netflix’s Sex Education, Letitia Wright from Black Panther, and Furious 7’s Ali Fazal) that come under suspicion when murder drops anchor.  I’m expecting another classy affair from Branagh and company…and who knows if by the end we won’t get a tease of where Poirot might be headed next.  The possibilities are endless…

Movie Review ~ Minions

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Minions Stuart, Kevin and Bob are recruited by Scarlet Overkill, a super-villain who, alongside her inventor husband Herb, hatches a plot to take over the world.

Stars: Michael Keaton, Steve Coogan, Allison Janney, Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Saunders, Pierre Coffin, Steve Carell

Director: Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin

Rated: PG

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  In my review of 2013’s Despicable Me 2, I mentioned that the filmmakers succeeded in making an enjoyable sequel because of their understanding of exactly what the audience wanted…more Minions.  After Despicable Me 2 broke big at the box office, a third film was set for release in 2017 but in the interim a spin-off animated adventure has been created that focuses solely on how the Minions came to serve their not-quite-so evil master Gru.  You’d think that the most enjoyable elements from the first two films would be a slam-dunk when given their own film…but it turns out that sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.

Look, I loved the Minions in the first two films and laughed at their gibberish language and love of bananas as much as the next easily pleased adult in the audience.  Heck, I even waited in line for a considerable time in a light drizzle for a spot on the Minion Mayhem ride at Universal Studios in Florida.  It’s clear, though, that these were characters that worked better in their featured supporting roles and aren’t quite ready for headlining their own film.

The opening credits show the genesis of the Minions as they emerge from a prehistoric ocean and start their quest to serve the baddest of bad guys throughout time.  Their bumbling winds up offing their masters throughout history, though, from a T-Rex to Dracula to Napoleon and eventually they find themselves exiled into a cave frozen over with ice where they languish without a villainous boss to serve.  Not content with just lying around any longer, during the ‘60s the resourceful Kevin recruits two of his compatriots (Stuart and Bob) to venture out in search of an evil genius they can attend to.

Starting out in New York before heading to Florida and then England, the film follows the three pals as they become involved with the first female supervillain, Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock, Gravity) as she plots to overthrow the British monarchy.  Owing a little bit of its plot to King Ralph, the final half of film has the Minions first trying to help Overkill steal The Crown Jewels and then staving her off as she goes mad with newfound power.

Like the previous two entries in the Despicable Me universe, Minions feels too long even at the relatively short 91 minutes.  I was checking my watch before it was half over, a bad omen for a film not lacking in color or 3D distraction. (Like its predecessors, this one is worth the 3D upcharge…but make sure to stay until the final credits have passed for some impressive 3D effects.)  Directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin (who also voices every last Minion…totaling almost 1,000!) seem to know they don’t have enough material for a full-length feature so there are more than a few pit stops along the way, such as Stuart leading some Royal Guards in a sing-a-long to, randomly, a selection from the musical Hair.

The voice talent also is disappointingly underwhelming.  I was looking forward to Bullock’s performance but didn’t get much from her.  Like Frozen, the voices never seemed to really match their animated counterparts so you have the voices of talented actors like Bullock, Michael Keaton (RoboCop), Allison Janney (The Way Way Back), Jon Hamm (Million Dollar Arm), and Steve Coogan (Philomena) coming awkwardly out of designs that don’t sound totally correct.

It’s in the final five minutes where the movie shows some signs of life, not surprisingly it’s the part that acts as a bridge between Minions and Despicable Me, by that time I was just ready to get up and go so it’s a credit to the film that it finished up strong.  Still, in a summer that’s shown that there’s a case to be made for successful sequels, Minions is an example of how a spin-off (even one with good intentions) isn’t always the wisest route to take.  I’m sure the film will rake in a buttload of cash, though, so I hope that Despicable Me 3 puts the Minions back to work at what they do best…support the action rather than lead it.