Tag Archives: kenneth branagh

Review: ‘Death on the Nile,’ Of Murder and Mustaches

I never expected to see a cinematic adaptation of an Agatha Christie murder mystery that begins with an origin story of Hercule Poirot’s mustache, but here we are. 

Stately, sumptuous and suspiciously clever, Kenneth Branagh’s Death on the Nile follows largely in the narrative pattern that the director and screenwriter Michael Green established in Murder on the Orient Express (2017): the sets are exquisitely detailed, the costuming is gloriously glamorous, and the hair is perfectly coifed. And the special effects are as good as they can possibly be, except that the entire production displays an air of unbelievable extravagance. 

I suspect that Agatha Christie aficionados and modern moviegoers have one thing in common: a willingness to suspend disbelief. Under that assumption, Death on the Nile is wonderfully entertaining, if a bit bleak in its depiction of humankind. 

Kenneth Branagh returns as the world-famous detective Hercule Poirot, now on vacation in the Middle East during the late 1930s, as war is brewing on the horizon. Known for his great powers of deductive intelligence, even as a young soldier in The Great War, Poirot has become celebrated for his investigatory skills in London, where six months previously, he bore witness to the birth of a love affair in public. 

 The love affair between the foppish Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer) and the wealthy Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) broke the heart of Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), who was both Simon’s intended bride and Linnet’s best friend. After a hasty courtship, the two have married, and wish to celebrate their love by inviting a motley group of people along on their honeymoon trip, cruising the Nile River. 

From the title, we know that murder will occur; from the presence of Hercule Poirot, we know that everyone is a suspect. It is only a question of who and when. 

Once the deadly deed is done late one night, the film plays out to the accompaniment of a ticking clock. As in Murder on the Orient Express, the crime must be solved before the large moving vessel can reach its destination when the sun rises. 

Rather than a cup of tea and warm milk, Death on the Nile serves up a large mug of hot coffee that gradually cools and is continually topped off with another cup of red herrings. The cast members, including Tom Bateman, Letitia Wright, Sophie Okonedo, Rose Leslie and Annette Bening, look fabulous as they swing in and out of the plot as Poirot investigates in dogged, logical, methodical fashion. 

As he appears to turn his sharp eye of insight on first one suspect, and then another, the busy backgrounds swiftly change, like colliding carousels in the night. Since I am not a detective, nor a writer of mysteries, the increasingly complicated motivations became difficult for me to follow until I gave up. 

Maybe the biggest lesson to learn from Death on the Nile is that you are not as smart as Hercule Poirot. And maybe he isn’t, either. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, February 11, via 20th Century Studios. For more information about the film, visit the official site

Review: ‘Belfast,’ Snapshots That Resonate 

Where did you grow up? Do you still live in your hometown? 

Many were born in this area and have never left. Others of us, including myself, moved here from other parts of the country, while still others fled unsafe regions of the world and have settled in North Texas. Whatever the case, we probably all still yearn to experience fond memories from our youth, to recall and reminisce. From my own experience, this is especially true as we grow older. 

Filmmaker Kenneth Branagh, rapidly approaching 61 years of age, has now turned his attention to his own youth. Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, he and his family fled to greener, safer pastures as ‘The Troubles’ in his native land reached a boiling point in 1969. 

Framed as a tribute, his latest film, Belfast, presents its story from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy in that tumultuous year. The beguiling Buddy (Jude Hill) happily wanders through his neighborhood on his way home; everyone knows everyone else in the tight-knit community, and shares similar values. 

Or so it would seem, except that The Troubles quickly come home and Buddy’s world is sent spinning. 

As a filmmaker, Kenneth Branagh has built a reputation based on his screen adaptations of stage plays by Shakespeare (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Love’s Labour’s Lost, As You Like It) or influenced by Shakespeare (A Midwinter’s Tale, All Is True), as well as plays and novels by other writers (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Sleuth, Murder on the Orient Express). His productions for major studios (Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Cinderella, Artemis Fowl) reflect the work of a journeyman, rather than an auteur. 

Shot by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, who has been working with Branagh since Sleuth, and presented in black and white, Belfast marks a fitting departure in style for the filmmaker, calling to mind some of his earlier films in the 1990s. By making a young boy the protagonist, and capturing the narrative from his perspective, Branagh allows the viewer’s knowledge and general assumptions about the period to fill in any blanks. Anything that is left vague and imprecise can be safely attributed to Buddy’s youth. 

From his vantage point, it’s easier to soak in the churning and chaotic atmosphere that is all that the boy has known all his life. It only becomes more important to him when he realizes that his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) and his parents (Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan), referred to only as Ma and Pa, are quite rightly anxious and concerned about the effect that The Troubles are having upon their children. 

Meanwhile, Buddy enjoys spending time with his loving grandparents (Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds) and his cousins. It’s all fun and games until someone gets a body part blown off, so to speak, prompting Buddy to snap to attention and come to the recognition that somehow, in some way, his entire world is about to shift on its axis. 

Until that point arrives, Belfast is a marvelously-accomplished, resonant snapshot of a moment in time that is gone forever, but not forgotten. Every immigrant will see something of themselves in the story. I imagine every native who has never left will see something familiar too. 

The film opens in Dallas, Fort Worth and surrounding cities on Friday, November 12, via Focus Features. For more information about the film, visit the official site.

Review: ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,’ A Safe and Reliable Action Vehicle

Chris Pine in 'Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit'
Chris Pine in ‘Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit’
A creaky plot vehicle is covered up with a shiny coat of paint in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which reboots Tom Clancy’s fictional, cold-war CIA analyst for the post-9/11 age of terrorism. The movie travels a familiar route at moderate speed; it never breaks any rules, but neither does it suffer a fatal crash.

The fifth installment in the series — after The Hunt for Red October (1990), Patriot Games (1992), Clear and Present Danger (1994),
and The Sum of All Fears (2002) — reboots Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) as a young man who quits college to enlist in the U.S. Marines after 9/11. On a military mission in Afghanistan, he suffers a broken back, which sidelines him for many months of physical therapy. His heroic actions on the mission catch the attention of high-ranking intelligence agent Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who recruits him to work undercover in the financial industry.

Fast-forward to the modern day, and Jack is working as a compliance officer at a Wall Street financial institution and notices something is not quite right. His suspicions lead him to Moscow, where he has a deadly encounter with a gun-wielding henchman and encounters wealthy Russian businessman Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh), who is the mastermind of a plot that will bring the Western world to its knees.

Cue loud “duh duh duh” music.

Yup, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit wants to have it both ways: to exist in the Cold War days, when Soviet villains with thick accents had huge, almost entirely empty offices with 40-foot vault ceilings and mult-level floors, and plotted world domination; and to tap into modern, primal fears of financial collapse and terrorist attacks that threaten millions. Rather than choosing one extreme or the other, the plot incoporates both narrative threads, which means that much of the movie is spent with one character explaining to another (and to the audience) what is happening and why it’s important.

To avoid telling and not showing, however, all this talking takes place while the characters are running or driving or chasing the bad guys, often in a variety of motorized vehicles, up or down stairs or from side to side, a kind of breathless chant that works very, very hard to push the pace of the film forward. As he proved with Thor, Kenneth Branagh, who directed in addition to playing the Cold War Russian heavy, does not have his own signature style for staging action sequences, so he’s content to adapt the modern action aesthetic of fast-cutting to approximate motion and excitement. It doesn’t suceeed, of course — it rarely does nowadays — but he occasionally includes close-ups of the individuals involved, so at least we have some idea whose life is ostensibly in danger.

All this hurly and burly means that the film is not particularly involving — it’s too busy running to the next plot point to pause and reflect on The Meaning Of It All or What The Heck Is This Guy’s True Motivation For Killing Millions Of People or Why Must Every Important Secret In Every Movie And TV Show In The 21st Century Be Downloaded To A USB Device — but the time passes painlessly, and it occasionally threatens to burst into credibility.

The key members of the cast contribute to the feeling of competence about the movie. Chris Pine brings warmth and conviction to the “new” Jack Ryan, while Kevin Costner well-embodies a mentor who is still extremely capable. Keira Knightley is perhaps over-qualified, but perfectly capable in “the girlfriend role,” and Branagh directs himself with panache

Getting back to automotive comparisons, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit provides a fair degree of value as a rental vehicle. It’s safe and comfortable, but it doesn’t stand out in the flow of traffic.

The film opens wide throughout Dallas and Ft. Worth on Friday, January 17.