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 ~ Belfast

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Buddy is a young boy on the cusp of adolescence, whose life is filled with familial love, childhood hijinks, and a blossoming romance. Yet, with his beloved hometown caught up in increasing turmoil, his family faces a momentous choice: hope the conflict will pass or leave everything they know behind for a new life.

Stars: Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Lara McDonnell

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If they haven’t yet, the Belfast tourist board should consider asking writer/director Kenneth Branagh to film their next tourism campaign.  The opening and closing shots of Belfast, his semi-autobiographical film, show a modern-day Belfast that remembers its history and the working-class people that built it with pride.  These full color moments are fleeting, and soon we’ll be taken into the black and white past to experience a brief moment in time through the eyes of a child during a period of change.  For his family, for his neighborhood, for his country.  At the beginning, you immediately get the impression the story you are about to see is going to be something special.  At the end, you know it was.

It’s the tail end of 1969 and all Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) knows is his small community in Belfast.  At the opening of the film, the neighborhood is besieged by a mob involved with the Troubles, the decades long conflict between Protestants and Catholics which led to much violence and bloodshed.  This attack leaves the area scarred and scared and we get the impression it’s the first time the young boy has seen the idyllic idealism of his youth interfered with in such a massive way.  With his father (Jamie Dornan, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar) often off in England to provide for his family, his mother (Caitriona Balfe, Ford v Ferrari) rules the roost and does so with a strong arm but loving heart. 

Guided by his grandfather (Ciarán Hinds, The Woman in Black) and grandmother (Judi Dench, Skyfall) when his parents can’t be there, Buddy navigates the absence of his father by applying himself in school to impress a girl he likes and reveling in the time his dad is there. These reunions are clearly the biggest memories and some of the most cherished to recreate. While their marriage is strained by the distance, the couple bonds over their affection for their family and wanting to do what’s best.  As the violence increases and the taking of sides is demanded, choices have to be made about the future and what ultimately makes a home.  Is it where you grew up or where you rest your head at night? 

Branagh’s film is, like many autobiographical and semi-autobiographical works, episodic in nature because that’s often how our memories feel.  He’s smartly placed Buddy in a number of scenes as an observer to adult conversations, allowing his knowledge of important decisions and discussions to make sense.  It’s in that way the film comes off feeling entirely authentic yet dream-like at the same time.  Perhaps it’s Haris Zambarloukos’s (Eye in the Sky) gorgeous black and white photography but at times it does feel like we’re tooling around in someone’s stored memories, their half-remembered dreams of how they recollect certain events.

Having directed a number of films from Shakespeare drama to comedies to action and fairy tales, Branagh understands the magnitude of cinema and uses that scale for maximum impact in Belfast.  I mentioned the opening and closing are in color, but he chooses a few other moments of color to punctuate a point. I won’t give away what those are, but it’s used so well, mostly because it’s exactly the type of thing a child would remember in full, vivid color.  His screenplay is both tender-hearted, wise, and, at times, deeply funny.  For every scene that tugs at the heartstrings (like Balfe’s wondrous monologue to her husband about why she prefers to stay in Belfast) there are lovely, well-tuned moments of comedy that don’t feel shoehorned in for laughs.

Casting is essential and I’m sure it wasn’t a cakewalk having to think about what are pretty much stand-ins for your real life loved ones but Branagh (All is True) has assembled an excellent cast from top to bottom.  Aside from the impressive Hill who so ably carries the film on his small but mighty shoulders, we have Balfe and Dornan doing career-best work as his parents.  The two work believably well as a couple and as parents to Hill and the boy playing his brother.  There’s an easiness to how they act with one another and their brief musical moment where Dornan sings and Balfe dances is sure to be one of my favorite moments of 2021.  Can you ever say a word against Dench?  Speaking or not speaking, Dench is always right there in the scene and completely takes you into the world.  I think my favorite performance might be from Hinds, though, and surprisingly he’s the one that I feel has been talked about the least.  This is the one more people should be looking at because it’s secretly the heart and soul of the movie…and I think Branagh might agree because he’s clearly written in that way.

Winner of the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival and already on track for a slew of Oscar nominations, this is what you’d call a “contender” and a sure-fire crowd pleaser.  It’s the perfect length and pitched just right to stir your emotions to the balanced mix of comedy and drama.   One of the very best movies I’ve seen in 2021, take this trip to Belfast and a look back into history for Branagh’s special story of growing up in a specific time and place.  Really a joyous experience that fills your cup to overflowing.

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…

The Silver Bullet ~ Tenet

Synopsis: An action epic revolving around international espionage, time travel, and evolution.

Release Date:  July 17, 2020

Thoughts: Shrouded in mystery, if you’ve been to the movies the last few months you may have caught a super exclusive theatrical-only preview for Tenet, the new thriller from Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk, Interstellar) but the time has finally come for a full trailer to be released.  Starring John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) and Robert Pattinson (The Rover), little is known what exactly is up Nolan’s tricky tricky sleeves and this first look appears to leave viewers with even more questions.  In other words, it’s a pretty fantastic way to get people excited for the July release – here’s hoping Nolan can maintain that secrecy until it opens.

Movie Review ~ All is True


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A look at the final days in the life of renown playwright William Shakespeare.

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Kathryn Wilder, Lydia Wilson, Jack Colgrave Hirst

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: We’ve all seen Shakespeare when he was in love but what about when Shakespeare was in despair? That’s what seems to be on the mind of producer, director, and star Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Ben Elton when they decided to film All is True without much fanfare. If anything, All is True is a nice reminder that it’s possible to make a movie with three quite respected stars and not have anyone know about it until it’s ready to be released. It wasn’t until 2018 was nearly finished that people were aware this even existed and there was even a very brief discussion that Branagh would be a late addition to the Best Actor Oscar pool. Then people started seeing Branagh’s Bard picture and the buzz cooled considerably…and I can see why.

Look, I’m a Shakespeare fan but not a Shakespeare snob so I’m ok with filmmakers playing a little fast and loose with the Bard. I get a chuckle anytime a play or musical adds him as a character that can poke fun at his persona and I think the man himself would get a huge kick out of the many ways his works have been re-envisioned over the hundreds of years his plays have been in the lexicon. I’m wondering, though, how he’d feel about certain elements of his personal life being examined onscreen and conclusions being drawn from pure conjecture. Would he still be laughing at particular truths being leveled toward him and his family?

Branagh is clearly a fan of the man as well, having starred in and directed countless Shakespeare works over the years. He’s one of the foremost experts on the playwright and based on the performance he gives he’s well suited for playing Shakespeare and for directing the film. Yet there’s something to be said about being too reverential to your subject and getting too close to the work. You run the risk of becoming myopic to what constitutes engaging entertainment and what others would want to see. Before you know it, you’ve produced a chamber piece that has limited appeal – and that’s what winds up happening with the respectable but stodgy All is True.

William Shakespeare (Branagh, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) has returned to his home in Stratford after his Globe Theatre burns down in 1613. Frequently absent after the death of his only son in 1596, his arrival isn’t exactly met with excitement from his wife Anne Hathaway (Dench, Skyfall) or his daughters Susanna (Lydia Wilson, About Time) and Judith (Kathryn Wilder, Murder on the Orient Express). Still consumed with unresolved grief from the loss of his son, Shakespeare spends his days building a garden in honor of his only boy, stopping only to quote verse, converse with his family, or speak with an array of visitors that seek some form of council.

The film feels like a series of brief one acts involving Shakespeare and his family being involved with events around town. Instead of Elton’s script just focusing on Shakespeare working through his heartache with the help of his family, we get introduced to several Puritan members of the church and townspeople that pass through their lives. One daughter is accused of infidelity, another must overcome her own sense of self-loathing in order to move on in her blossoming relationship with the town lothario, then Shakesapre’s own sexuality comes into question when the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen, Beauty and the Beast) comes to visit. The only family member that seems to get the short end of the stick is Anne, though Dench, always true to form, makes the most of every frame she’s in and every line she’s given.

The whole movie plays out with some truly lovely cinematography from Zac Nicholson (Les Misérables) that’s often filmed in one long take or on stationary cameras. People sit and deliver most of their lines with very little movement necessary, creating the effect you’re watching a play instead of a movie. Using candle-light in the evenings and natural light during the day, Nicholson captures the realistic world that Shakespeare would have lived in during that time…and also the mundanity of it as well.  Much like a Sunday matinee, don’t be shocked if you find yourself resisting the urge to nod off on several occasions.

I can’t say All is True is an entertaining picture or even one that I enjoyed when all was said and done. Though admirably performed (Dench, in particular, is grand) there’s just a casual sameness to the film after a while. Much of the running time follows people in highly distressed, unhappy stages of their lives and it’s only when some inkling of happiness is introduced the film finds a lightness and snaps out of its dirge-like funereal march toward the end credits. It’s brief…but it’s welcome.

Movie Review ~ Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: A lavish train ride unfolds into a stylish & suspenseful mystery. From the novel by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express tells of thirteen stranded strangers & one man’s race to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Coleman, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, Lucy Boynton, Sir Derek Jacobi, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Sergei Polunin, Willem Dafoe

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In my limited experience with Amtrak, I’ve come to the conclusion travel by train through the Midwest can be the most exciting way to be bored. There’s a rush of fun and thrill to board, find your seat, and sit back as the chugging engine moves you past the fields of wheat and country roads. Then that first half hour is over and you realize you have seven more to go until you reach your destination. I’ll admit that there were times when I wish there was something more exciting to do aside from looking forward to your time in the dining car. Not saying that murder would be a welcome addition to riding the rails but…it could spice things up a bit.

Maybe that’s why I was always such a fan of Agatha Christie’s sparkling 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express and its various incarnations on film and television over the years. I have a particular fondness for Sidney Lumet’s star-studded 1974 film that featured Albert Finney as Christie’s famed moustachioed detective, Hercule Poirot. Though too young for the role and padded enough to make him look like a Belgian Humpty Dumpty, Finney won me over (even if Christie didn’t care for him) and the ensemble cast of A-listers made solving the mystery Christie cooked up that much more fun. Poirot has ridden the Orient Express again in two more adaptations for television but he’s back onscreen under the guidance of director/star Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and the results are similarly old-fashioned and quite fun.

Many are going to have a problem with the relative cool tone of the film and it’s aloof star player. This is a movie that unspools slowly and with precision, taking care to present grand elegance instead of common luxury and nuanced performances in place of star cameos. I’m not saying it all works but, for me, it was the ride I was hoping for.

On his way back to London to help with a case, Poirot finds himself on the famed Orient Express on a three day journey back from Istanbul. The train is unusually crowded at this late winter date so all compartments are occupied. En route, Poirot’s careful eye sees an unusual familiarity between two supposed strangers (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.) and a sadness in a deeply religious missionary (Penelope Cruz, Zoolander 2).  He spots a divide in the working relationship between an art dealer (Johnny Depp, Tusk) and his two employees (Derek Jacobi, Cinderella, and Josh Gad, Beauty & the Beast) and observes a brusque chill from a Russian Princess (Judi Dench, Skyfall) traveling with her maid (Olivia Colman, Hyde Park on Hudson).  There’s also a strange German doctor (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project) and a brash man-eater (Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!) keeping him occupied and, at the very least, entertained.

It’s when the train derails in the middle of the night and one of the passengers ends up dead that Poirot’s brief bid for rest gets interrupted. There’s a killer onboard and the longer Poirot interrogates each passenger the more he begins to realize there are multiple suspects with the same motivation.  Can he detect who done the deed before the rescue crews arrive and the train makes its way to its final stop?  The solution to this one is a corker and those who know it won’t be surprised but Branagh and company want you to remember it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.

This is a handsome looking film and Branagh has captured it nicely in 65mm, preserving the lushness of the setting and maintaining the classic grain of a celluloid experience while keeping things crisp. The landscapes are almost entirely CGI (didn’t think Dench was going to get snowbound in the middle of nowhere did you?) but the period details are all practical and perfect.  Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Thor)works with Branagh to find interesting angles, such as the discovery of the body filmed from above which makes the audience feel like we’re watching rats in a maze.  There are nice long takes as the camera moves throughout the train and everyone is framed to look their absolute best.

Branagh will likely catch some heat for making the thrust of the film rely a bit too much on him. The magic of the previous movie was how well balanced Finney was with the rest of the actors; Ingrid Bergman even won an Oscar for her small role which is played here by Cruz.  The interrogation scenes felt more intimate and personal there whereas under Branagh’s watch the interviews are brief and blunt.  There’s a crime from the past that mysteriously links everyone on board and because it weighs so heavily into the solution there could have been better steps taken by screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) to lay the groundwork throughout the first ¾ of the film.

I didn’t mind Branagh’s screen time, nor did I think twice about his crazy facial hair or thick Belgian accent. I liked his persnickety ways and it plays nicely off the rest of the cast who are allowed to be a bit more broad.  The film ends with a hint that we might get more Poirot (Death on the Nile, from the sound of it) and I’d be up for another adventure with Branagh.  Dench, as always, makes the most out of her role, easily nailing all of her character’s grand snooty comebacks.  Gad and Depp are usually pain points for me but they play a good game here, both actors are restrained without feeling constrained.  Ridely, Odom Jr., and Cruz might be far less memorable than previous actors that have played these roles but they acquit themselves nicely the more we get to know them.  Lovely Pfeiffer is having a grand time playing a loudmouth widow, she looks gorgeous and Branagh even got her to sing a lullaby over the closing credits.  Pfeiffer has a sweet, if thin, voice but it works for the song and the character.

I always enjoyed watching the original film during the winter months on a cold day. It’s good timing this new version is coming out just as the temperature is dropping and snow is on the horizon.  It’s a perfect film for a lazy day or sophisticated night out.  The deliberate pace and overall conservation of energy might bore audiences that just paid to see the brain smashing Thor: Ragnorok last weekend, but I’d encourage you to book passage on Murder on the Orient Express for another type of adventure.

Movie Review ~ Dunkirk

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.

Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Director: Christopher Nolan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Coming off of the enormous success of The Dark Knight trilogy, director Christopher Nolan stumbled a bit with his next film, Interstellar.  Though far from a complete miss, the movie was a little too smart for its own good and is one of the rare Nolan films to get less interesting with subsequent viewings.  Three years later, Nolan is back in a big way with the release of Dunkirk, a superbly structured World War II adventure that almost assures a long overdue Best Director nomination is headed his way.

Instead of giving you the same old review, I’ve compiled a list of Dunkirk Do’s and Don’ts.

Do bring earplugs.  Nolan has continued his use of IMAX technology to film select scenes and with that comes a sound design that’s positively ear splitting.  Looking around the audience in several key moments I saw numerous movie-goers with their fingers in their ears yet still enraptured with the film.  Bullets whiz by with sharp zings and fighter planes streak across the sky with a sonic boom.  Your teeth will be rattling by the time the credits roll.

Don’t be late.  I’ve had some bad luck with technical problems plaguing screenings lately and the showing of Dunkirk I attended was delayed by almost a half hour due to sound issues.  When we were told that it would be another five or ten minutes before the screening would resume, many audience members (including my guests) headed for the bathroom only to have the movie start up the moment they were out the door.  That left their movie mates to quickly explain to them in loud whispers what was happening when they returned because Nolan’s script doesn’t repeat itself or explain the setting other than short title cards as the movie opens.

Do pay attention. Dunkirk is typically Nolan-esque with multiple overlapping storylines that take place at different times.  There’s three ‘pieces’ to Nolan’s puzzle, each capturing a specific stretch of time during the evacuation of British and French soldiers from a beach in Northern France.  The Mole covers a week stretch, following several young soldiers as they desperately try to escape the sand in any way possible.  The action in The Sea unspools over a day while merely an hour is the length of time The Air covers.  All three start and end at different places/times and if you aren’t fully paying attention you’ll miss the point at which they all convene.

Don’t look for star turns.  While Nolan has cast dependable actors like Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express), Mark Rylance (The BFG), Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins), and Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), the real stars are the young unknowns that make up the soldiers and civilians that played a part in the withdrawal of the armies from Dunkirk.  Even singer Harry Styles turns up as a tightly wound army man and acquits himself nicely as no mere bit of stunt casting.  Only Hardy could be considered a leading player as his ace airman eventually takes center stage in his storyline.  It’s unfortunate that Nolan didn’t learn from his critics in The Dark Knight Rises that bemoaned not being able to understand Hardy behind Bane’s mask.  Once again, much of Hardy’s performance in covered by an air mask, obstructing his words from coming through clearly.  The good news is that Nolan’s script is fat-free, never too speechy or preachy. So even though you can’t always understand Hardy, you aren’t missing  ton of exposition.

Do bring some kind of stress ball and clip your nails judiciously before the movie starts.  This was one of the tensest movies I’ve seen in some time…and it begins almost as soon as the first images appear onscreen.  With Hans Zimmer’s score switching back and forth between graceful and pulse-racing, the music is almost another character.  Even when nothing of note is happening, the score is always present to remind you that no one is truly safe.

Don’t miss this one on the biggest screen possible.  Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her) has lensed a staggeringly beautiful film with its overwhelming wide aerial shots of fighter pilots in action and smaller moments between soldiers hoping for a miracle trapped in the hull of a grounded boat.  Another name to mention is editor Lee Smith (The Dark Knight) who has cut Nolan’s film into a lean example of cinematic efficiency.  At 106 minutes, it’s Nolan’s shortest film to date and were it any longer it would lose valuable steam.

Do read up on the real-life story that inspired Nolan’s fictionalized screenplay.  While not a huge WWII buff, even I know that the events that happened on Dunkirk aren’t always mentioned in the same breath as other acts of heroism.  Nolan affords time to take on the perils of war but tops it all off with a message of sincerity and hope that feels justly earned by the characters and audience, considering all we’ve been through together.

In summary…Do go, Don’t delay.

The Silver Bullet ~ Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Synopsis: A lavish train ride through Europe quickly unfolds into the thrilling mystery of thirteen strangers stranded on a train, where everyone’s a suspect. One man must race against time to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

Release Date: November 10, 2017

Thoughts: Oh boy does this one look fun.  Based on Agatha Christie’s twist-filled 1934 novel, audiences have traveled on the Orient Express already in a BBC adaptation and the 1974 star-studded spectacle which remains one of my all time favorite films.  I admit I grimaced a bit when I heard a new version was in the works but as the cast came together for director/star Kenneth Branagh’s remake I began to soften a little.  This first trailer hints at the high level of class the filmmakers are employing for this murder mystery and though I’m guessing movie-goers may chuckle a bit at Branagh’s grandiose Poirot mustache I’d be willing to bet they’ll be intrigued enough to hop on board when it’s released in November. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer (Grease 2), Judi Dench (Skyfall), Johnny Depp (Dark Shadows), Penelope Cruz (Zoolander 2), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Willem Dafoe (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and, regrettably, Josh Gad (Frozen)

Movie Review ~ Cinderella (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When her father unexpectedly passes away, young Ella finds herself at the mercy of her cruel stepmother and her daughters. Never one to give up hope, Ella’s fortunes begin to change after meeting a dashing stranger in the woods.

Stars: Lily James, Helena Bonham Carter, Cate Blanchett, Stellan Skarsgård, Derek Jacobi, Nonso Anozie, Holliday Grainger, Richard Madden, Sophie McShera

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I remember being none too plussed when it was announced that Walt Disney Pictures would be giving their timeless classic Cinderella the live-action treatment. Could you really blame a fella for worrying that the studio that turned their lovely Alice in Wonderland into a madcap mind meld that wasn’t even interesting to look at (it’s one of the few films in recent memory that lulled me to sleep behind my 3D glasses) would muck it all up again by sending another valued animated classic into the live-action void just in time for its 65th anniversary?

Turns out that the studio saw the error of their ways (even though an Alice sequel is in the works…shudder shudder) and took a very traditional approach to bringing the tale of the orphaned girl that slept in the cinders who gets to go to a ball courtesy of a fairy godmother to the screen. Well, traditional isn’t really the right word because that suggests something perhaps more serviceable than memorable…and this Cinderella might just be a classic all its own.

With a script from Chris Weitz (A Better Life) that hits all the proper beats of Charles Perrault’s pristine fairy tale, this Cinderella is a gossamer gown of a film that beats with a heart that’s true. It’s so rare these days to be able to describe a film as celebrating goodness without passing out an airsick bag to anyone that’s listening but even at its most saccharine (and it does get ever so close to diabetic-shock inducing sweetness) there’s something so totally winning and, yes, enchanting to be found in every frame.

The look and feel that director Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) brings to the screen can be attributed to Branagh’s classy Shakespearean roots, as well as Haris Zambarloukos’s (Thor) unobtrusive cinematography, Dante Ferretti’s (Hugo) striking production design, and Sandy Powell’s (The Wolf of Wall Street) gorgeous costumes. All of these production elements work in harmony to create a world of fantasy that doesn’t seem so hard to believe in.

Branagh has assembled a cast that are across the board perfect for their roles. Though she’s playing a damsel in need of a Prince’s salvation (which could be enough to make any grrrl power supporter raise an eyebrow or two), Lily James never lets her Cinderella be pitied. Though suffering through the tragic loss of her beloved parents and forced into servitude to a wicked trio of women, she never loses the goodness inside her or the search for the goodness she believes is in everyone else. She’s matched well by Richard Madden’s restless Prince, handsome and quite dashing is the name of Madden’s game. James and Madden create some palpably chaste chemistry, so by the time the two meet when James makes the kind of entrance usually reserved for a Broadway stage, we long to see them kiss more than anything else.

Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) has a devil of a fun time as the wicked stepmother and is wise enough to understand that she’s in a sophisticated re-thinking of Cinderella, resisting the urge to camp it up. Hers is a porcelain doll of a performance, never showing the cracks underneath until very near the end when some believable rationale for her treatment of her stepdaughter is revealed. Blanchett gets to wear Powell’s most gorgeous frocks and the actress revels in every moment onscreen.

Wicked stepsisters Holliday Grainger (Anna Karenina) and Sophie McShera may not be as comical as their animated counterparts, but they balance it nicely by being such refreshingly clueless dingbats. Derek Jacobi has several wise scenes as the King and Nonso Anozie (The Grey) is particularly impressive as the Prince’s trusted right-hand man. I could have done without a largely unnecessary political subplot involving Stellan Skarsgård, it’s the one weak spot in an otherwise rock-solid film.

Oh yes…let’s talk about Helena Bonham-Carter’s (The Lone Ranger) daffy Fairy Godmother. Sporting some interesting veneers, the actress is a looney treat as she bibbity bobbity boo’s her way through her short appearance onscreen. Her transformation of Cinderella, several four-legged friends, and one pumpkin into a troupe fit for a palace ball is, of course, a highlight.

This is one of those movie-going experiences I call a 1-101. It’s perfect for any age and moves briskly enough to hold your attention…not that you’d be bored with the sumptuous costumes and shimmering magic on display. I rarely see movies twice in the theater but this is one I’m looking forward to experiencing on the big screen again. Don’t forget to stay until the end for some familiar tunes!

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Cinderella is great entertainment on its own…but the good feelings start even before the credits roll because Disney is also releasing a new Frozen short before the film and it’s nearly worth the price of admission itself.

Picking up shortly after the events of Frozen, Frozen Fever finds ice princess Elsa planning the perfect birthday party for her sister Anna. Things don’t go quite as planned as Elsa comes down with a…wait for it…cold. With sneezes that produce mini snowmen (Disney’s attempt to Minion-ize their cash cow of a franchise), Elsa sings her way through her party plans while Olaf and Kristoff help out in their own way. The song featured here is no Let It Go (parents, you’ll be glad!) but it displays the same playful fun that won the same songwriters an Oscar a year ago.

It’s a truly delightful 7 minutes, so don’t be late!

Movie Review ~ Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Jack Ryan, as a young covert CIA analyst, uncovers a Russian plot to crash the U.S. economy with a terrorist attack.

Stars: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Peter Andersson, Kenneth Branagh, David Paymer, Colm Feore

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: The only thing Hollywood seems to love more than a remake is a reboot and we’ve certainly had our fair share of those in the last several years….some good (Batman Begins), some iffy (The Bourne Legacy) and some disappointing (Man of Steel).  Then you have reboots like The Amazing Spider-Man, which are more puzzling than anything else.  Why kickstart something new if you don’t have anything remarkable to add?

You can toss Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to the garbage pile though because it’s a disappointing waste of time, talent, and resources.  A character that was brought to life on the pages of Tom Clancy’s bestselling novels and in four previous film outings has been reduced to a standard grade action hero that’s light on the action and questionable on the hero.

First appearing in 1990’s The Hunt For Red October (and played by Alec Baldwin), Ryan played second fiddle to Sean Connery’s defecting Russian sub commander.  When Baldwin wasn’t available for 1992’s Patriot Games, producers nabbed their original first choice Harrison Ford to take over as the CIA analyst in a film that was a slickly made bona fide commercial affair.  Returning in 1994 for Clear and Present Danger, Ford’s second outing was a more somber picture, almost the polar opposite of the tight packaging of its predecessor.  A half-hearted attempt to re-launch the franchise was made in 2002’s The Sum of All Fears with Ben Affleck not totally able to bear the weight of it all.

Instead of  remaking a previous Jack Ryan film or delving into the other five novels Clancy included him in, the studio went the Muppet Babies approach and just chose to turn back time and start over again with Ryan now injured in a post 9-11 Afghanistan rather than during a routine exercise.  Even worse is that they repurposed an existing script for a generic action film and just plugged in Ryan and a few others familiar to fans of the novels and tried to make a go at it.  What we’re left with is a script barely better than a failed NBC pilot and thrilling action sequences that are missing any sort of thrills.

I knew we were in trouble even before the title came up when the first shot of Chris Pine’s Jack Ryan involved a badly coiffed wig.  Pine has found great success in outer space (Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness) but has struggled with films of the earthy variety (though I liked it, People Like Us, was a bomb).   While Pine may have the requisite All American boy scout looks like would go well with any vision of Jack Ryan one may have, the script affords him no favors with wooden dialogue and a plot involving financial ruin that would makes sense only if you weren’t really paying attention.

As his quasi-mentor, Kevin Costner (Draft Day, who would have made a great Jack Ryan back in the day) doesn’t work up much of a sweat since I’m almost positive there are no shots of him doing anything but standing still or sitting down.  Costner seems as bored as we are and I find myself missing his early days when he could deliver a line with a sly sideways glance and make even the most cornball of situations amusing.

Keira Knightley (Anna Karenina, A Dangerous Method) doesn’t close her mouth the entire film, opting to let it just hang open whenever she doesn’t have much to do…which is the majority of the time.  Though the film tries to put her in the middle of the action late in the game her ship has sailed by then and she just gets in the way – until she suddenly becomes useful when the film needs her most.

Actually, there are several of these moments in the movie where a heretofore useless character magically becomes the expert in a field they know nothing about.  Take Ryan himself for instance; the entirety of the movie has Pine saying things like “I’m not cut out for this” and “I can’t do that”, only to gloriously rise up to astounding heights at the opportune moment.  If it was a result of the character finding some inner strength or deeper knowledge that’s one thing but it’s almost as if lines meant for someone else were accidentally spoken by a different character and no one noticed.

Someone should have noticed though and some of that falls on Kenneth Branagh who seems to gain a new mole for each movie he directs as well as stars in.  As a Russian businessman with plans to throw the economy into ruin through a seriously dated (and tremendously gauche) terror attack, he gets the accent down but follows through on little else.  Like his directorial duties in Thor, Branagh shows a strange lack of a big picture view…almost forgetting that he’s in charge of a huge movie.

I wouldn’t say that I exactly had high hopes for the film but I was at least looking forward to something entertaining.  The shortest Ryan film at less than 105 minutes, the film feels hours longer mostly because Branagh has a plethora of shots with people just staring at each other and not speaking like some Ingmar Bergman flick.  The film had my sympathy when it was bumped from its primo holiday spot by Paramount when The Wolf of Wall Street ironed out its kinks…but Paramount clearly knew that it was better to give Wolf a go and leave Jack to wallow in the shadows.

Please…leave Jack Ryan alone.