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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Belfast

Posted on November 11, 2021 at 5:53 pm

A-
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-3 for strong language and some violence
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Peril and violence, mobs, sad death of a family member
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 1, 2021
Date Released to DVD: February 28, 2022
Copyright 2021 Focus

“Buddy! Buddy!” A boy is outside playing with his friends when he hears his mother is calling him home for dinner. He does not think anything of it except perhaps that it’s too bad the game has to stop or that he is hungry, but it is the kind of moment he will look back on as an adult as a moment of perfect safety and comfort, a time of feeling completely at home, supported by the family and the community, a feeling that the world makes sense. It is the kind of memory we come back to when we miss those feelings very much.

Sir Kenneth Branagh came back to those last golden moments of childhood, as many people did, during the Great Pause of the pandemic, when so many of us, even well past childhood, felt a new sense of uncertainty. And so he wrote and directed “Belfast,” based on those moments in his own life, when he was nine, and began to understand for the first time that the world can be a dangerous place.

He hears “Buddy! BUDDY!!” again, but this is not a “come home, where dinner is ready invitation from his mother. This is a sound of pure terror. Nine-year-old Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) lives on what was once a peaceful street in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but it has. become a center for unrest and violence due to The Troubles, the struggle between the Catholics and Protestants.

Branagh skillfully shows us the world through Buddy’s eyes, though we understand more than he does. Sometimes that is amusing. Sometimes it is heart-wrenching. Buddy’s parents are almost impossibly glamorous and beautiful, as we see through his idealized perspective, and because they are played by the gorgeous (and Irish) Jamie Dornan (Pa) and Caitriona Baize (Ma). Also in the family are grandparents played with asperity and a twinkle in the eye by Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds.

Gorgeous black and white cinematography gives the film the quality of a timeless memory and there are flashes of color when the family sees some Hollywood movies like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Another film we get a glimpse of is more to the point, “High Noon.” Buddy’s family loves their home. But The Troubles are forcing everyone to take sides. Pa, whose travel for business has added to the strain has been offered a much better-paying job in England.

Branagh expertly mingles humor and drama, shooting us what Buddy sees but does not fully understand and the way that he gives equal curiosity and weight to all of the new information he is learning and all of the new emotions that he is feeling, including some romantic sentiments about a pretty classmate. The very gifted Hill conveys the purity of these first-time experiences with great simplicity and open-heartedness. Buddy’s story (and Branagh’s) is of a very specific place and time but the bittersweet end of childhood and beginning of deeper understandings is universal and told here with tenderness and compassion.

Parents should know that this movie includes scenes of mob violence with peril and injuries and the very sad death of a family member. Characters drink and smoke and use strong language.

Family discussion: Did the family make the right decision? If you made a movie about your childhood, what story would you tell?

If you like this, try: “The Journey,” about the two men who negotiated a resolution of The Troubles and “The Commitments,” about young Irish musicians forming a music group

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Tenet

Posted on August 31, 2020 at 8:00 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for violence and intense action
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended, intense peril and violence, characters injured and killed, guns, chases, explosions, weapons of mass and total destruction, torture
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: September 4, 2020
Copyright Warner Brothers 2020

Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” is like a three-dimensional chess game. The storyline is mind-bendingly intricate, with thought-provoking fantasy and juicy twists. But the characters are never more than one-dimensional, like the pawns, rooks, and bishops on the chess board, their sole defining characteristics are the way they look and move. The brilliantly-staged action sequences punctuate a muddled story-line with under-written characters and — its biggest failing, a boring bad guy.

The story’s leading man does not have a name. In the most eye-rolling cognomen since M. Night Shyamalan dubbed his muse-like character in “Lady in the Water” “Story,” our hero is known only as Protagonist. He even insists, “I am the protagonist!” a couple of times, so it seems to be more than a name. Fortunately for the movie and the audience, Protagonist is played by the infinitely engaging John David Washington (“BlackKklansman”) who brings so much grace and charm to the role we forget how under-written his character is. He conveys with a gleam in his eye and a shift of his shoulders more than any line of dialogue in the script.

The opening scene is a stunner. We are brought into the most civilized of environments, a concert hall, with an audience rustling in anticipation of a symphony orchestra performance. And then suddenly, it turns into the most uncivilized of situations, with terrorists breaking in to, well, we do not know exactly what, except that they are clearly combat-trained and equipped and ruthless. They carry an assortment of international law enforcement patches so they can select whichever one is right for the moment. Nolan expertly conveys the contrast between the control of the terrorists and the chaos they create.

Protagonist is one of the guys in combat gear, and he seems to be, maybe, a good guy? There to extract some dignitary? Anyway, he is soon put in a position where he must decide whether to allow himself to be tortured into giving up information or commit suicide with a cyanide capsule. He chooses the capsule, and wakes up in a hospital room. It was a test of whether he was all in. He passed.

And now he has a new assignment, the darkest of dark ops, and the direst of end-of-times consequences if he does not succeed. Even if I wanted to spoil it, I really couldn’t, as it is pretty murky, but basically someone has figured out how to make time go backward and that is very, very bad, especially if — say it with me — it gets into the wrong hands. He gets some help from Michael Caine, with one brief scene keeping his record of appearing in Christopher Nolan films going. And he gets some more from a charmingly raffish guy named Neil (Robert Pattinson), who always seems to be smiling about some delicious secret. (SPOILER ALERT: He is.) Note: compliments to costume designer Jeffrey Kurland for gorgeous suits, in the words of Dorothy L. Sayers, “tailored to the swooning point.”

Enter the bad guy, who seems to be a character from another movie, like a shlocky Bond rip-off. Kenneth Branagh plays Andrei Sator, an expat Russian oligarch, international arms dealer, and all-around sadist. His estranged wife is the elegant art dealer Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). And if that isn’t an overused enough character sketch, there’s this: he enjoys blackmailing and manipulating her by threatening to keep her away from their young son. Protagonist is just the kind of cowboy to want to save the day for her while he’s saving the world.

There’s a highway chase with some vehicles going forward in time and some backward that is a wow and a half. But it is a combination of too much (nearly 2 1/2 hours long, with so many McGuffins to retrieve I thought I was back with Harry Potter and the horcruxes), too little (I’m not sure the backwards time thing all fits together — maybe there will be some charts online from fans who are willing to sit through it four or five times to figure it out), and the complete mess that is the Sator character, who not only is an under-imagined cliche but on top of everything else not only suffers from explaining bad guy syndrome but actually is so committed to going into detail about what he is doing that he actually gets on the phone to make sure he provides even more. Murky as it all is, it gets even murkier because of some muffled sound when people are speaking, especially when part of the whole backwards time thing for some reason have to have oxygen masks over their faces.

“Don’t try to understand it,” one character tells another. The best way to enjoy this movie is to follow that advice.

Parents should know that this film includes extended and occasionally graphic peril and violence with international arms dealers, guns, bombs, explosions, chases, torture, and terrorism. There is some strong language.

Family discussion: Why does the main character insist that he is the protagonist? Which twist surprised you most? Were there clues you missed?

If you like this, try: “Edge of Tomorrow”

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Drama Movies -- format

Trailer: Dunkirk

Posted on April 4, 2017 at 8:00 am

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GEUsilurA3w

Harry Styles, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, and Mark Rylance star in the WWII story “Dunkirk,” the story of one of the greatest rescue operations in military history, when the Allied forces were beat back to the coast by the Germans and 338,226 men escaped, including 139,997 French, Polish, and Belgian troops, together with a small number of Dutch soldiers, aboard 861 vessels (of which 243 were sunk during the operation). Winston Churchill called it “the miracle of deliverance.” The rescue and its depiction as a morale-booster is also featured in the spring release, “Their Finest.”

Some background:

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Trailers, Previews, and Clips

Cinderella

Posted on March 12, 2015 at 5:58 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: All Ages
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for mild thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Fantasy violence, tense confrontations
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: March 13, 2015
Date Released to DVD: September 14, 2015
Amazon.com ASIN: B00UI5CTE2
Copyright Disney 2015
Copyright Disney 2015

Here’s what’s magical — a fairy tale told in 2015 that is true to the spirit of the classic story by Charles Perrault but is still fresh and real despite the dozens of re-imaginings and the seismic shifts in culture in more than a century since it was first published.

Director Sir Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz have done just that, and the result is enchanting. Recent post-modern versions like Drew Barrymore’s “Ever After” and Anne Hathaway’s “Ella Enchanted,” deftly took on the question of why Cinderella stayed in a home that had become abusive and added a bit of “Shrek”-style post-modern air quotes. But as its title suggests, this version of “Cinderella” is fundamentally traditional, neither po- nor mo-, and entirely comfortable as a fairy tale.

They get a lot of help from the design team including triple-Oscar winners Sandy Powell on costumes and Dante Ferretti on the sets and overall look of the film. This is Disney at its Disney-rific best, a magical setting so arrestingly imaginative and comprehensively envisioned that it is easy to imagine that it is a peek into a gloriously gorgeous world that really exists, if we could just find out way to it. And Ella herself is a winning heroine, kind and wise.

For a fairy tale, though, the actual magic is pretty limited. In the early scenes, magic would be superfluous, as Ella lives a real-life happier and more filled with love than any wish could grant. Her doting parents (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin) make her feel cherished and understood. Her natural sweetness is enchantment enough, and the world around her seems safe and understandable.

But her mother becomes ill, and has just time to give Ella one piece of advice before she is gone: kindness and courage will bring her anything she needs. It is her natural generosity and her wish to obey her mother as well as her longing for family that lead her to stay with her wicked stepmother, Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett), and simpering, mean girl stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger), after her father’s death.

We get a brief glimpse of what is behind Lady Tremaine’s misery and why she takes it out on Ella, but this is no revisionist “Maleficent.” Lady Tremaine may be more angry and desperate than evil but she is all villain here as she insults and humiliates Ella and forces her to wait on her spoiled, arrogant stepsisters.

When her kindness is met with cruelty, Ella does not know what to do. And then, just when she is utterly devastated at being left behind on the night of the prince’s ball, her mother’s dress torn to shreds. Her fairy godmother (Helena Bonham-Carter) appears just in time to transform the servant girl into a radiant princess. The special effects for the transformation are dazzling, especially the pumpkin coach and the lizards and mice who become her human attendants. No more magic is needed after that. She’s on the way to happily ever after.

Be sure to arrive on time as before the film there is a seven-minute mini-sequel to “Frozen,” complete with new song, and it is pure joy. I won’t spoil it; I’ll just say that when Elsa gets a cold, she has very funny frozen sneezes.

Parents should know that this film includes sad parental deaths and an abusive stepmother.

Family discussion: Why did Ella allow her stepmother to treat her so badly? Why didn’t Ella’s fairy godmother come back to help her again? How can you show courage and kindness?

If you like this, try: other versions of the story including Disney’s animated “Cinderella,” “Ella Enchanted,” and “Ever After”

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