DEATH ON THE NILE (2022)

February 8, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. For us Agatha Christie fans, a certain amount of trepidation exists every time a new movie or TV version of her work hits. Stress level was reduced a bit this time since director-actor Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green are back following their collaboration on Christie’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017). Although the star power this time isn’t quite at the level of ‘Orient’, it seems Mr. Branagh has grown quite fond and confident of his own Hercule Poirot, the Belgian super-sleuth.

Director Branagh takes an unusual approach with a black and white Prologue from 1914 as a young Poirot shows flashes of his intellect as a soldier in WWI. The real purpose of this segment is to show Poirot was once a young man in love, and then a wounded soldier in love, and then a broken-hearted wounded man who would go on to become the world’s greatest detective. The prologue also provides backstory on the infamous mustache that is so much a part of Poirot.

We then flash forward to a 1937 London speakeasy where a fastidious Poirot fusses over dessert while watching the formation of a shaky love triangle unfold on the dance floor as Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo, with singing vocals from Sister Rosetta Tharpe) belts out her bluesy tunes on stage. Initially it’s Jacqueline de Bellefort (relative newcomer Emma Mackey) in the throes of lustful dance moves with her fiancé Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer in the last gasp of a once skyrocketing career). Things change quickly when Jacqui’s former schoolmate, Linnete Ridgeway (Gal Gadot), makes her show-stopping appearance in a glittery metallic gown. Flash forward again, this time 6 weeks, and its Linnete and Simon tying the knot at the picturesque Cataract Hotel in Aswan on the River Nile. See, Linnete is an heiress to her less-than-scrupulous father’s fortune, and Simon had no trouble trading up. Jacqui, on the other hand, doesn’t take it so well.

Of course the fun part of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries involves getting to know the players and watching as the clues reveal themselves, and then how Poirot handles the big reveal. This film’s only real weakness is the character development of everyone not named Hercule Poirot. We only skim the surface of Euphemia Buoc (Annette Bening) as Buoc’s (a returning Tom Bateman) disapproving mother, Dr. Windlesham (an unusually reserved Russell Brand), Linnete’s chambermaid Louise (Rose Leslie), Linette’s Godmother and her “nurse” (Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, respectively), family attorney Andrew (Ali Fazal), and Salome’s niece and manager, Rosalie (Letitia Wright), the proverbial sharpest knife in the drawer.

So what do we get? Well, first and foremost, a fully formed Poirot. Branagh seems to have embraced the character and the mustache, having a blast with his scenes. We also get stunning work from cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos, as he films the beautiful people, the beautiful wardrobes, and such sites as the Pyramids of Giza, the Sphinx, Ramses statues of Abu Simbel, and the excellent set piece known as the Karnak luxury steamer. There are some metaphorical effects inserted that periodically startle us, and seem unnecessary, but then over-the-top moments are not unusual in film presentations of Christie’s writing. She passed away in 1976, and now there are almost 200 film and TV projects associated with her work.

Love and betrayal are key elements here, and for fans of the original book and the 1978 film version, comparisons are unavoidable. Ms. Mackey’s jilted lover stalker is a marked improvement over Mia Farrow’s character, while Salome and Rosalie and terrific additions. Ms. Saunders and Ms. French follow in the footsteps of cinematic heavyweights Bette Davis and Maggie Smith, and your choice of Branagh or Peter Ustinov as Poirot is one left up to you. It’s tough to beat ‘whodunnit escapism’, though it’s a personal choice on which of Christie’s stories serve up the best puzzle pieces on the big screen.

Opens in theaters on February 11, 2022

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WONDER WOMAN 1984

December 26, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Some of the key elements that make Wonder Woman appealing is that she’s smart, she’s nice, she’s dedicated to doing good, she’s grounded in her history, and her use of her powers makes sense (in a comic book kind of way). Most of that holds true in filmmaker Patty Jenkins’ sequel to her 2017 blockbuster WONDER WOMAN. So why did that one work so well, while this one falls short? It’s not an easy question to answer, though it could be as simple as having the wrong target.

Gal Gadot returns as Diana Prince, and this time she’s plopped into 1984 (the year, not the novel). This creates a cornucopia of opportunity for social commentary and satire from Ms. Jenkins and her co-writers Geoff Johns and Dave Callaham. After all, it was the era of atrocious popular music, outlandish fashion, and a relentless pursuit of greed by the “me” generation. The film pounces on each of these by using the return of Diana’s main squeeze, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), as a device for highlighting the absurdity of belly bags and pastel tank tops for men. In the first movie, the WWI pilot wakes up in Themyscira, and this time, he just kind of materializes in the year of GHOSTBUSTERS, shopping malls, and President Ronald Reagan. While this certainly qualifies as extreme culture shock, the parade of outfits and Steve’s wide-eyed tour through the city are over-the-top, even for their attempted comedic effect.

Over-the-top also describes the film’s two main villains. Pedro Pascal (“Game of Thrones”) plays TV hypester and con man Maxwell Lord. He’s a greedy, self-centered man willing to do anything to get “more”. Kristen Wiig is Barbara Minerva, a bumbling, forgettable klutz who works at the same museum as Diana. She simply wants to be cool like Diana and have people acknowledge her existence. Things shift quickly thanks to the Dreamstone sitting in Barbara’s in-box waiting for research. What follows is more than two hours of seeing the fallout of people having their wishes come true. If you’ve learned anything about human nature during this pandemic year, then you won’t be surprised at how people react to gaining power.

Maxwell Lord is not dissimilar to Lex Luthor in SUPERMAN (1978), as his goal is ultimate power and control – though to what end, he’s not sure. Barbara Minerva was never really power hungry, but a taste of it was much to her liking, and she transitions to The Cheetah for Wonder Woman’s biggest fight scene. There is also a message about what one sacrifices to have their wishes come true. This aspect of the film could be psychoanalyzed were one so inclined. Lord’s relationship with his son is convoluted, and the early Barbara is a mess … making their “sacrifices” a bit less obvious than that of Diana.

The opening sequence is the one this viewer most enjoyed. Spectacular camera work takes us to a competition on Themyscira, as a very young Diana (Lilly Aspell returns) goes against the grown warriors, while Antiope (Robin Wright) and Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) look on and teach hard life lessons. Not only do these actors return, but most of Ms. Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN crew is back, including cinematographer Matthew Jensen. The changes include Film Editor Richard Pearson and Hans Zimmer provides the new score. Some of the dialogue is tough to take. As an example, Diana says “I don’t know what to think, Steve. I only hope I’m wrong.” And later, Steve explains, “Flying is easy. It’s only wind and air.” Dialogue like this makes us want to renounce our own wishes. It may be one film later than it should have been, but Ms. Jenkins does deliver a much-appreciated cameo at film’s end, and if nothing else, it leaves us wondering, ‘what would you give up for a wish?’

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KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES (2016)

October 20, 2016

keeping-up-with-the-joneses Greetings again from the darkness. Dozens of movies through the years make up the Spy Action-Comedy segment. Most of these lean heavily on either action (Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Red, Knight and Day) or comedy (Austin Powers, Get Smart, Date Night). The latest entry from director Greg Mottola and writer Michael LeSieur offers a more balanced approach while being somewhat grounded in familiar suburbia. Perfect casting certainly helps.

Comedies are the toughest genre to review because the only thing that matters … does it cause you to laugh? … depends on the sense of humor of each viewer and even their frame of mind while watching. So what I can report is that the full theatre at my screening was filled with enthusiastic laughter multiple times, along with a pretty steady stream of chuckles and giggling. This will undoubtedly vary from the accounts of uppity film critics who will discount the basic plot and obvious laughs (which is the whole point).

A James Bond-type opening credit sequence sets the tone as we abruptly shift to watching Jeff and Karen Gaffney (Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher) sending off their two sons to summer camp before returning home to their idealistic cul-de-sac suburban home. Things pick up when the new neighbors, Tim and Natalie Jones, arrive … a seemingly perfect couple played by Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot. They are the type of couple who are beautiful to look at, stylishly dressed, and even show up with a blown-glass sculpture as a gift for their new neighbors.

Of course, this perfect couple is really married spies seeking information from the military weapons contractor where Jeff works as a Human Resources associate. It’s Karen who senses something is off about the perfect couple, which leads to her stalking Natalie all the way to a dressing room where she is comically intimidated by Wonder Woman in black lingerie. On a side note, Ms. Fisher does have a later sequence where she proves to be anything but a homely housewife, despite how that dressing room scene is presented.

The men head off for some male bonding – at a highly unusual specialty restaurant, leading to one of the more manic sequences in the movie. The four leads are all excellent, but it’s Gal Gadot who is the real surprise … and her scenes with Ms. Fisher are the film’s best. Both are allowed to shine, while the men are a bit more one dimensional. Galifianakis is the all-trusting good guy just happy to have some excitement in his life, while Hamm is the super cool spy (who wishes he wasn’t). Both men seem to enjoy the chance to make friends, while the women are a bit more focused on tasks at hand.

Director Mottola is known for his films Adventureland and Superbad, and writer LeSieur is best known for Me, You and Dupree. The impressive thing about this latest is that the comedy mostly derives from character and situational interactions, and the expected steady stream of punchlines never materializes. There is even some insight into marriages that have become a bit too predictable, and the challenges of making new friends when all available energy is devoted to parenting and making ends meet.

In addition to the four leads, there are some funny moments for Maribeth Monroe, Matt Walsh and Kevin Dunn. The brilliant Patton Oswalt is cast as the self-nicknamed villain, and is responsible for one of the film’s biggest laughs.

Of course, this is not subtle or high-brow humor, and the story line is predictable throughout. The laughs stem from the contrast of a subdued, comfy suburban life versus the sophisticated, over-accomplished jet-setting couple … laughs clearly enhanced by the talented leads. So while this seems like the kind of movie I would usually ignore, perhaps it arrives at a time when laughing is simply preferable to the daily grind of an embarrassing and humiliating Presidential race. So go ahead and give laughter a chance … it works even better than a stress ball.

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