Death on the Nile

Posted on February 10, 2022 at 5:39 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Murders, gun
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 11, 2022
Date Released to DVD: April 4, 2022
Copyright 20th Century 2021

Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel about a murder in Egypt has been sumptuously brought to screen by Sir Kenneth Branagh, who directed and stars as super-sleuth Hercule Poirot. (It was previously filmed with Peter Ustinov in 2009.)

For this version of “Death on the Nile,” Branagh worked again with his outstanding “Belfast” cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and production designer Jim Clay, and their work here is never less than breathtakingly exquisite, matched by the fabulous costumes designed by Paco Delgado and JobanJit Singh, worn by some of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars. It is beautiful to look at, and to listen to, with a superb soundtrack that includes sultry songs by a nightclub performer (Sophie Okonedo, the highlight of the film). But as with Branagh’s previous Poirot film, there are some confounding choices that distract us from the reason we’re there, which is to have just enough information and almost enough emotional involvement to enjoy the puzzle. For some inexplicable reason, Branagh and his screenwriter, Michael Green (“Logan”) think that we need to understand Poirot’s backstory, which Dame Agatha knew very well we did not. In 33 books, 2 plays, and more than 50 short stories, she wisely never told us more about Poirot than that he was proud of his “little gray cells,” his Belgian heritage (he is often mistaken for French), and his impressive mustache and that he sometimes spoke of retiring to plant vegetable marrows. This film begins with an un-Christie, un-canon flashback to Poirot’s WWI combat experience, and it (and the coda at the end) add nothing to the story.

The story has more than enough love, betrayal, melodrama, and yes, murder to fill a movie. In fact, to my recollection, it adds at least one murder to the Christie original for, again, no particular reason. This is a darker story than “Murder on the Orient Express,” but the tone of the film, and even the stunning images (people and settings) are off-kilter with the carnage of the story. There’s a reason that the stories by Christie and her imitators are called “cozies.” Unlike noir mysteries, they are comparatively neat and civilized. Noir is rotgut whiskey and bathtub gin. Cozies are afternoon tea with lemon curd and clotted cream.

It begins (after we get the flashback out of the way) with two devoted friends, both beautiful, high-spirited young women. Jacqueline (Emma Mackey) is poor and Linnet (Gal Gadot) is very wealthy. Jacqueline tells Linnet she is madly in love with Simon (Armie Hammer) but they need money to get married. Linnet immediately offers her whatever she needs as a wedding gift, but Jacqueline says that what she wants is a job for her fiancé. If Linnet will hire him as her estate manager, that’s all they need. Linnet agrees, Simon asks her to dance to celebrate and…in the next scene, it is Simon and Linnet who are married, celebrating in Egypt. Jacqueline, almost mad with jealousy, has followed them. To feel safe, Linnet invites a group to take a boat to see the famous tomb at Abu Simbal and other sights along the Nile. She tells Poirot that having money means it is impossible to trust anyone.

The other passengers include the blues singer and her accompanist/manager niece (Letitia Wright of “The Black Panther”), Poirot’s handsome young friend Bouc (Tom Bateman, returning in the same role he played in “Murder on the Orient Express”) and his protective mother (Annette Bening), two middle-aged British ladies (underused Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders), Linnet’s lawyer (Ali Fazal) and doctor (a sincere, melancholy, toned-down Russell Brand). Jacqueline joins the group as well. When someone is murdered, it turns out that many of the passengers may have had motive and/or opportunity. Poirot will have to ask questions and ultimately gather all of the surviving group in one room to tell them which of them is guilty.

Where will the next Branagh/Christie all-star mystery take place? Following a train and a boat, which conveniently limit inquiries to the people on board. Maybe an airplane? A submarine? Despite its shortcomings, I’ll be along for the ride.

Parents should know that this is a murder mystery with some grisly and disturbing images. There are also sexual references and characters use some strong language and drink alcohol.

Family discussion: Which clues did you miss? How do the songs relate to the story and characters?

If you like this, try: the original “Murder on the Orient Express,” “10 Little Indians,” and more Christie-based movies and television series as well as her books.

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Hotel Mumbai

Posted on March 21, 2019 at 5:43 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, intense terrorism violence with many characters injured and killed, disturbing and graphic images
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: March 22, 2019
Date Released to DVD: June 17, 2019
Copyright Bleeker Street 2019

“Look for the helpers.” That’s what Mr. Rogers told children to do when scary and terrible things happen. “You will always find people who are helping.” “Hotel Mumbai” is the story of the unspeakably sad and scary 2008 terrorist attack that lasted for four days in Mumbai, India, including a three-day attack at the luxurious Taj Palace and Tower hotel.

Inspired by the documentary “Surviving Mumbai,” director/co-screenwriter Anthony Maras did extensive research, including interviews with many of the survivors, to tell the story of the sacrifice, courage, and resilience of the helpers.

The Taj is a legendary hotel, “home to statesmen and celebrities for over a century.” It was opened by a wealthy Indian who was not allowed to stay in one of the British-run hotels. It operates at the highest level of service. We see the preparations for the arrival of a wealthy middle-Eastern woman named Zhara (Nazanin Boniadi) who is coming with her new American husband, David (Armie Hammer), their baby, and the nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Sally). Her rose-petal scented bath is heated to precisely 48 degrees celsius, just as she likes it. And he cautions the staff not to congratulate her on her wedding as it is a sensitive subject, since she was pregnant at the ceremony and her family does not approve. The slogan of the staff is “Guest is God.” Everything they do is for the comfort and enjoyment of the guests.

We see a staff member named Arjun (Dev Patel) adjust his Sikh turban precisely with a pin to make sure that each fold is perfectly aligned before leaving home. But when he gets to the hotel and puts on his impeccable uniform, he realizes that he does not have his shoes. Inspecting the staff before, chief chef Oberoi (Indian cinema star Anupam Kher) tells Arjun he is dismissed. He cannot appear before the guests in sandals, “looking like a beggar.” But then Oberoi relents, and tells Arjun he can wear Oberoi’s own shoes, which Arjun does, even though they are much too small.

Meanwhile, a group of terrorists from an extremist Islamic cult in Pakistan are arriving by boat, listening to a voice on their phones (all taken from real-life recordings from that day), telling them “You are calm…you are all like sons to me…I am with you…paradise awaits you.” Their backpacks are filled with guns and grenades, and their plan is to create chaos and terror at 12 different locations through Mumbai, which, as we will learn, has no special forces with the training or equipment to stop terrorist attacks.

Over the course of the film, three different characters make reassuring and completely dishonest phone calls to parents, telling them that despite what they see on television, everything is fine and they are safe. In another scene, a terrified hotel guest confronts another guest who has been speaking Farsi and says she is afraid of a staff member wearing a Sikh turban. The Sikh talks quietly to her, telling her that the turban is a symbol of honor, but he will remove it if it makes her more comfortable. He shows her a photograph of his family, reminding her of what all humans share, so she tells him to keep it on.

Everything terrible that happens in the film is caused by thinking of some people as “other.” The terrorists are led by a voice who constantly separates them from the rest of humanity. One of them kills a woman when told to by the voice in his ear, but when the voice tells him to reach into the dead woman’s bra to find her ID, he cannot. The voice says she was an infidel, so it doesn’t matter. But his faith is so essential to his identity that touching a woman’s breast is more forbidden than killing her. Throughout the story, as unthinkably horrific violence occurs, family keeps coming to the forefront as the essential connecting force.

Maras has a remarkable gift for a first-time director for giving us a sense of place. In the midst of chaos, we have a good idea of the various locations in the hotel and how they relate to each other. There is an action movie version of this movie where someone like Bruce Willis comes in and “Die Hards” it, but Maras keeps it soberingly, terrifyingly real, in part through tiny moments like the terrorists’ first look at a flush toilet (when they go into a bathroom to shoot an old lady), and when a hostage’s prayer shifts a shooter’s focus so that he is no longer able to make her an other, a moment of human connection that no amount of propaganda can cancel out. Maras wants us to see the helpers. But he wants this movie to help us be helpers ourselves.

Parents should know that this film includes horrific terrorism violence, though much of it is off-screen and not exploitively portrayed. Many characters are injured and killed and there are disturbing images. The film also includes some strong and bigoted language, alcohol, and sexual references and insults.

Family discussion: What do we learn from the three phone calls characters in the movie make to parents?  How did the characters determine what their loyalties were?

If you like this, try: “United 93” and the documentary “Surviving Mumbai”

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Sorry to Bother You

Posted on July 5, 2018 at 5:28 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexual content, graphic nudity, and drug use
Profanity: Very strong and crude language throughout
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drugs
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 6, 2018
Date Released to DVD: October 22, 2018
Copyright 2018 Annapurna Pictures

The title of “Sorry to Bother You” comes from the fake apology made by telemarketers. That’s the job the movie’s central character applies for in the first scene and finds himself unexpectedly good at, so good he gets a huge promotion as a “power seller.” This first film from musician Boots Riley shows Cash Green (short for Cassius, played by the limitlessly talented Lakieth Stanfield) literally crashing into the lives of the people he calls, showing us right away we are in the hands of a confident, provocative new filmmaker with a singular voice, and preparing us — almost — for a pointed journey into high social satire fueled by a sharp understanding of the politics of our time and the human nature of all times.

Cash and his artist girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson of “Annihilation” and “Thor: Ragnarok”) live in a garage. Cash’s uncle (Terry Crews) owns the house, for the time being at least. Money is tight and he may lose it. Cash applies for a job as a telemarketer, lying about his qualifications. The boss doesn’t mind; in fact, willingness to lie is a better qualification for sitting in a cubicle trying to get people to buy a lot of dumb stuff they don’t need. Cash puts on the headset, and starts crashing into people’s lives.

The guy in the next cubicle (Danny Glover) gives him some important advice: “Use your white voice. I’m not talking about Will Smith white.” He means the kind of white that conveys unquestioned and unquestioning privilege, the ones W.H. Auden described as “the homes I warm to,/though seldom wealthy,/ always convey a feeling of bills being promptly settled/with checks that don’t bounce.”

Cash finds his white voice (nasally supplied by David Cross), and is soon a “power caller,” invited upstairs and even to a debauched party at the home of the CEO, Mr. Lift (Armie Hammer). In the meantime, one of the other telemarketers (Steven Yeun as Squeeze) is organizing the employees into a union to get better working conditions. Cash is conflicted. He sympathizes with the workers, even as he moves up the ladder. But he likes being successful. He likes having better things. He likes the money.

And so he doesn’t look too hard at what is going on around him, particularly the omnipresent ads for something called WorryFree, a company that promised to solve all your problems by giving you a job, a place to live, and food, even your clothes. They hope you don’t notice that it is basically a prison, and that you will owe your soul to the company store.

Lift is still not entirely worry free, though. Those human beings are just so pesky, wanting justice and freedom, and all that. He has a solution and he wants Cash to be a part of it.

Riley’s visual flair and brash and bracing screenplay and superb performances by everyone, especially by Stanfield, Thompson, and Hammer, keep us so engaged that we are deep into the story before we realize how much it dares.

Ever since his extraordinary breakthrough in “Short Term 12,” Stanfield has brought a soulful gravity to a wide range of performances. His posture and eyes are deeply expressive, and he makes Cash the right Candide-like figure to take us through this story, always keeping an essential humanity in the midst of the heightened reality of the storytelling.

Thompson’s graceful Detroit is much more than the usual movie girlfriend. She is observant and thoughtful. She is really the stand-in for Riley because she makes everything around her art with a political message, from her earrings (all music lyrics) to the way she tosses the sign on the street corner for her day job.  We see her gallery show, including a performance art piece where she invites people to throw things at her. Her life, art, and politics are all one, yet she loves Cash because he is not a part of the art world, the part that she considers snobbish and commercial. She has views on honor and meaning, however, and there comes a point where she has to leave.

It gets so outrageous you may not realize until later how sneaky it is, delivering a powerful message about power, money, race, art, family, property, and having something that matters in your life. The film itself is its own answer — tell your story, make art, and don’t forget to “Épater la bourgeoisie.”

Parents should know that this film has very strong and crude language, explicit sexual references and situations with male and female nudity, alcohol, drugs, and peril and violence, including body horror.

Family discussion: Why would someone join WorryFree?  What companies are most like that?  Should Cash have stayed with the workers who were protesting?

If you like this, try: “School Daze” and “Downsizing”

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