Tag: kenneth branagh

Artemis Fowl


Artemis Fowl (2020)
★ / ★★★★

“I’m Artemis Fowl. And I’m a criminal mastermind,” declares the twelve-year-old at the end of the movie. I was stunned because although nearly ninety minutes had passed, we learned nothing of value about the titular character, such as why he’s interesting or why he’s worth following, nor do we learn how he became a criminal mastermind after one so-called adventure. I never read Eoin Colfer’s young adult fantasy novel of the same name, and this movie made me not want to.

The film suffers from basic screenplay and direction problems. Although the target audience is between six-year-olds to pre-teens, there is no reason for such lazy and reductive dialogue. It makes the mistake of assuming that kids are not smart enough to wade through subtleties and deep emotions; subplots and timing; intricacies and complex motivations. And so notice how lines are often descriptive, flat, expository. Take away the actors reading lines in their own unique ways and note how all the characters sound the same. For a story involving humans, fairies, dwarves, goblins, and trolls, there is a painful lack of imagination, drive, and entertainment. This is no replacement for the “Harry Potter” series.

The direction by Kenneth Branagh is rushed to the point where the story becomes nearly incomprehensible. There is a skeletal plot: Artemis Jr. (Ferdia Shaw) hopes to rescue his father (Colin Farrell) from an evil fairy (voiced by Hong Chau), but doing so requires retrieving an artifact called the Aculos, the fairies’ most powerful weapon, and exchanging the item for Artemis Sr. Conveniently, the good fairies have lost the Aculos. Commander Root (Judi Dench) leads the search party. Just by reading this description, you will have an idea of how things will unfold. I bet even you can come up with more creative ways to unfurl the plot. It offers no surprises, no thrills, no magic—it works as an anesthetic because by the end you feel nothing other than unadulterated boredom.

It is simply a showcase of special and visual effects, noise, and set decoration. I liked the palatial home of the Fowls. Inside is a feast for the eyes: a massive kitchen, a chic library, loads of stylish staircases, and Artemis Jr.’s bedroom is very modern yet still childlike. I enjoyed that the mansion has its own lighthouse. I wanted to visit to look through books and curious collectibles, sunbathe and surf, examine plants and bugs around the vicinity. I didn’t care for how the fairies looked, how they moved or flew, or how pointy their ears looked. The “giant” dwarf (Josh Gad—who also provides irritating narration) is obviously a nod to Hagrid from the “Harry Potter” franchise only without the charm. And speaking of “Harry Potter,” the troll in “Sorcerer’s Stone,” which was released in 2001, looks so much more enchanting than it does here. The troll therein causes all sorts of chaos and destruction, but it has no personality.

By the end of the of picture, Artemis Jr. has formed a team composed of six individuals. Of course, it promises a sequel. But a big problem: Take any one character and choose another—these two have not shared one convincing moment in which the two find commonalities and connect in a meaningful way. The writing and direction are so busy and rushed that character development is not even a footnote. The work is such a miscalculation that it even has the bravado to show a death only to bring that character back to life after a few seconds. Then a joke is made about playing with the viewers’ emotions. I just found it to be sick and disgusting. This project should have been aborted because there is nothing worth following through here.

Murder on the Orient Express


Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

“Murder on the Orient Express,” directed by Kenneth Branagh, is such a stylish-looking picture that certain scenes emit yellowish glow and it is filled to the brim with performers of recognizable faces. However, one gets the impression that it might have been a stronger work had it been three hours long, thus paving the opportunity for the audience to get into every possible suspect’s psychology. Instead, what results is a mildly interesting mystery with some superficially curious exchanges, but certainly not a film that commands first-rate tension and urgency. It is passable as a late-night or rainy day cable movie.

Branagh plays Hercule Poirot, a renowned detective with an obsession for detail. The material makes a point that this case is of a particular challenge for the supremely observant detective since he is someone who believes there is only right and wrong. Branagh makes a potentially insular character into someone accessible by expanding upon the more humorous lines through carefully calibrated facial expressions meant to nudge the viewers that there is more to Poirot than solving puzzles and a strict sense of morality. In less capable hands, the protagonist would likely have become one-dimensional.

There are nearly a dozen suspects and some of them are more intriguing than others. Michelle Pfeiffer is a standout as a widow who knows exactly what she wants. She commands attention in just about every scene she is in, mixing sensuality and sexuality with seeming ease. Her performance is exactly right especially when her character must come face-to-face with a detective of extreme logic. Another solid performance is by Daisy Ridley who plays a governess involved in a relationship that she feels she must keep under wraps. Although she does not have as much many lines Pfeiffer, Ridley is able to communicate a level of desperation, mixed with fear, especially when her character is challenged by seemingly straightforward questions.

The rest of the suspects, however, require more time to be thoroughly engaging. While nuggets of mystery are teased, especially by Penélope Cruz and Willem Dafoe as a Spanish missionary and a racist Austrian professor, respectively, these characters do not get the opportunity to shine because the script requires a constant forward momentum. The problem is, although the movie moves at a constant pace, it is not exactly fast-paced. The exposition will likely test the patience of some viewers who crave action almost immediately.

Detective stories thrive on sneaky suspicions and heart-pounding uncertainties. This interpretation of “Murder on the Orient Express” fails to create a level of claustrophobia that functions as a pressure cooker. Notice there are numerous overhead shots of the train and the snowy terrain—beautiful but these do not contribute in establishing the correct tone and mood. Perhaps the director ought to have chosen a more humble route.

Cinderella


Cinderella (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

To have courage and to be kind: traits that young Ella promised to embody during her mother’s final moments. Years after giving her word, Ella’s father (Ben Chaplin) remarries a widow (Cate Blanchett) and she, as expected, moves into the house eventually, along with her two despicable daughters (Sophie McShera, Holliday Grainger). To give one’s word is one thing but to keep it is another beast entirely. Ella (Lily James), a dreamer who speaks to and befriends animals that live in her home, must endure her awful stepmother and stepsisters while father is away.

Based on the screenplay by Chris Weitz and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Cinderella” is a loyal retelling of an animated film classic but it is one that can be enjoyed even by those who are very familiar with the story. The reason is because the material takes its time with the details, whether it be in terms of costume designs and how they complement each other or the finer details of its characters, even though they still remain archetypes, as to avoid one-dimensional stereotypes. I was surprised that there were moments when I felt humanity emanating from the cruel stepmother.

The casting proves to be a key ingredient. Blanchett, a consummate performer, manages to do a lot with few lines that might have been dismissed or downplayed in less experienced hands. Even though her character appears to have a black heart when we solely look at the stepmother’s actions, notice that Blanchett imbues pain or sadness in those eyes. The director has enough sense to allow the camera to linger a little bit during those small but rich moments. I admired that Blanchett did not play the character as a complete ice queen. It would have been easier, certainly, but less interesting.

James is Blanchett’s equal. She commands a different kind of beauty—soft, delicate, approachable. This role, too, could have been boring if played like a wooden plank. In this Cinderella, I sensed an intelligence and fire without relying on quirks. She knows she is being mistreated but that awareness is communicated not through yelling, complaining, or glares. Instead, it is told through the eyes, the pity she feels toward the women who have it all and yet have nothing. At least nothing of substance or value.

I believed the story’s universe because a significant effort put into how certain things should look without relying on CGI overload. For instance, the costumes are appropriately bright, kid-friendly, and have a lot of eye-catching patterns. Instead of the clothes looking like they are simply hanging onto the actors, the materials are allowed to move and breathe. We notice their textures, we wonder what they are made from, if certain bits are computerized and to what extent. Observe the scene when Cinderella and the prince (Richard Madden) are dancing. It commands so much energy not only because James and Madden appear to be having fun or that the camera seems to be dancing with them, but it is also because the blue dress is alive instead of a bright but static thing.

There is one casting choice that can be considered a miscalculation. Helena Bonham Carter plays the Fairy Godmother. Although the pivotal scene involving the transformation of a pumpkin, mice, and lizards is executed well, Carter, in my opinion, looks and acts too quirky to be a non-distracting fairy godmother. I think that in order to get around this, a lot of makeup was applied on her face. It made the actress look like she had botox or had undergone surgery that went awry. Looking at the character’s face closely made me feel very uncomfortable.

“Cinderella” is a lot of fun even though it does not break any new ground. There is chemistry between Cinderella and the prince, played wonderfully by James and Madden, and so we root for them to be together… despite the fact that we know they will. In Disney movies that involve some kind of romance, most of the time I find them to be syrupy and repetitive. Here, I actually wanted to see the lead characters to talk more, to touch each other more. There were times when I felt like I was watching just another story, not a Cinderella story—which is a compliment because it is a sign that the material has gone beyond what is expected.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit


Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
★★ / ★★★★

When Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) was a Ph.D. student in London, he witnessed the 9/11 attacks on television. This inspired him to join the Marines two years later but a missile aimed at the helicopter he was riding sent him to the hospital for eight months. There, a man who works for the CIA, Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), approaches him, clearly impressed by Jack’s background, and insists that he finishes his doctorate because upon doing so, an undercover financial analyst position will be waiting for him.

Criticisms that the picture comes off bland as a whole, especially since the protagonist is based on a character created by the highly respected novelist Tom Clancy, are not entirely unsound. While it is comprised of familiar elements from variety of espionage thrillers, it remains somewhat enjoyable nonetheless because it exercises restraint for the most part: It is not one of those techno-thrillers where the gadgets and booming soundtrack eclipse the thrills. Although computers are used, the material is old-fashioned in that the script tries to get us to care about Jack as a person first and a government agent second. Note, however, that the key word is “tries.”

Part of the problem when it comes to presenting Jack’s personal life is the casting. I was not convinced that Keira Knightley, Jack’s girlfriend for more or less a decade, exudes enough warmth for us to see why the title character is in love with her. While Knightley is convincing in playing a brilliant doctor, whenever she tries to be soft or accessible, the soft voice combined with a look of nagging desperation is too much of a performance. I did not see a character; I saw an actress trying to play a role that is not a good fit for her. Also, Pine and Knightley look very appealing on their own but when their characters are together, especially when expressing how much they care for one another, there is no sensuality or sexuality that radiates.

An avenue that should have been explored more is the relationship between Jack and the CIA specialist that gave the former a chance to become somebody. Scenes where Harper protects Jack from a distance might have held more weight if we felt as though Harper is preventing harm to someone he feels close to rather than just another agent who had to be protected because it is his job. Costner is a good actor and I wished that the material had given him more to do other than to look stern and patriotic.

I liked the Jack Ryan in the first half. The first major hand-to-hand combat takes place in a posh hotel and we are able to see quite clearly that our protagonist is not a fighter—at least not like Ethan Hunt in the “Mission: Impossible” series. Jack can fight physically because of his stint in the Marines but his inexperience shows. His intelligence is the first weapon of choice. The director, Kenneth Branagh, who also has a key role in the film, is wise to include shots of our hero’s face during the kinetic mano y mano because it shows him thinking what he might to do next to overcome his sizable opponent.

When the second half comes around, however, Jack Ryan becomes an action star. The car chase across Moscow and the motorcycle sequence in New York City do not work because what is front and center is not consistent with the man that we have come to know. One gets the impression that the writers, Adam Cozad and David Koepp, did not have enough inspiration to have concocted a more believable way to present the climax and resulting denouements.

“Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” offers some good entertainment but it does not leave any sort of lasting impression. With so many movies of its type that are coming out and have come out, it is important to stand above most of them and show to the audience why this story is special and ultimately worth telling.

Celebrity


Celebrity (1998)
★★ / ★★★★

A journalist (Kenneth Branagh) divorced his wife (Judy Davis) because he wanted to be with other women–women who were some type of a celebrity, like a supermodel (Charlize Theron), an actress (Melanie Griffith), or a very successful book editor (Famke Janssen). One of his main reasons for divorcing his wife was, as he claimed, he was unhappy with the way she was in bed. The insecure wife, on the other hand, met a seemingly perfect television producer (Joe Mantegna). She could not believe the fact that she had met someone who was willing to devote everything to her. She suspected there must be something wrong with him and so she waited for the relationship to go haywire. Throughout the film, the journalist became unhappier while the ex-wife’s luck turned for the better. Directed by Woody Allen, “Celebrity” was ultimately a disappointment despite its interesting subject matter. I think it is more relevant than it was more than ten years ago because of the recent surge in technology that allows us to get “closer” to our celebrities. Unfortunately, I thought the humor was too broad. Did it soley want to be a showbiz satire, a marriage drama, or a character study? It attempted to be all of the above but it didn’t work because the protagonists lacked an ounce of likability. The journalist was desperate in getting into women’s pants while the ex-wife pitied herself so much that it was impossible to root for her. Their evolution and the lessons they learned (or failed to learn) were superficial at best. Instead, I found myself focusing on the many interesting and vibrant side characters. For instance, I loved Theron’s obsession with her health as well as her outer appearance. It was interesting to see her and the journalist interact because I constantly wondered what she saw in him. As the night when on, layers were revealed as to why while some details were best remain as implications. Leonardo DiCaprio as the very spoiled young actor was great to watch as well. His arrival on screen was perfect because it was at the point where the script was starting to feel lazy. The characters had no idea what they wanted or what they wanted to say. DiCaprio’s character was invigorating to have on screen because he wanted everything but at the same time his wants lacked some sort of meaning. Even though the spoiled actor and the journalist did not get along well, they were more similar than they would like to believe. While cameos were abound such as the surprising appearance of Donald Trump, I wish the filmmakers trimmed the extra fat in order to make a leaner film with astringent wit. It had some great moments but they were followed by mindless sophomoric jabber (uncharacteristically not charming considering it’s a Woody Allen film) that quickly wore out their welcome.

Thor


Thor (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

Powerful ruler Odin (Anthony Hopkins) had two sons, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston), with two very different personalities. Thor couldn’t wait to be king of Asgard. Wielding absolute power, in a symbol of a throne, was at the top of his priorities. Loki, on the other hand, was the quiet one. His actions were preceded by thorough thinking. However, there was brewing jealousy from his end. When Thor and his friends (Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander) had unwisely broken a truce and caused a new war against the Frost Giants, Odin banished Thor to Earth to learn about humility and what it meant to be a great leader. Directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Thor” was unexpectedly comedic. I actually enjoyed the comedy, especially when sarcastic Darcy (Kat Dennings) was on screen, more than the action scenes themselves. Watching the action sequences, although supported by grand special and visual effects, failed to get me to become emotionally invested. I believe it had something to do with the fact that Thor’s evolution from a bellicose warrior to a more controlled leader wasn’t fully convincing. What did being romantically involved have to do with becoming an effective king? From what I gathered, he simply grew weak in the knees whenever he was next to Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a fellow researcher of Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), one of the three people Thor met when he landed on Earth. And given that love was the answer to everything, I failed to understand why she would be attracted to him other than the fact that he had a nice set of abs and biceps. She was supposedly smart but her intelligence was thrown out the window the moment he took off his shirt. It was insulting. The director didn’t take enough time, other than one or two short scenes, to explore the relationship between the two lovers. Jane was supposed to be our conduit so that we would ultimately care about about the title character. As for Thor’s friends in Asgard, I wondered how they could stand him. Surely being a prince wasn’t enough to earn their loyalties. After leading them to a suicide mission and narrowly escaping, none of them questioned Thor’s ability to make smart decisions. Didn’t they have minds of their own? Instead of weighing the complexities of the somewhat cheesy story, I found myself focusing more on spotting other Avengers characters like Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and references to the Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man.” What “Thor” lacked was the crucial journey designed to win us over. When he was on Earth, he didn’t learn what it meant to be human. He just developed a crush. It’s a bad sign when we find ourselves feeling nothing when Thor faced incredible danger.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) had not received any letters from his best friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) all summer and it was beginning to get to him until a house-elf showed up at the Dursleys to warn Harry not to return to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and stir a bit of trouble. In this installment, bad luck seemed to infect like the plague. Platform Nine and Three Quarters had been disabled so Ron and Harry failed to catch the train to Hogwarts, they were almost killed by the Whomping Willow, and, most importantly, the students saw Harry as the main suspect for the recent dark happenings involving blood being written on walls and students ending up petrified like statues. What hindered this film from being great was the heavy first half that had little to do with the main mystery and the case of trying too hard to impress. It only picked up toward the middle when Harry finally stumbled over a diary that belonged to Tom Riddle (Christian Coulson), a student in Hogwarts 50 years ago. It was easy to notice that the first half tried to tell jokes but most were hit-and-miss (with the exception of Gilderoy Lockhart, played to perfection by Kenneth Branagh, one of the most laughably incompetent professors Hogwarts had the unfortunate luck to hire). Another element that did not work were some of the techniques typically employed in horror pictures. For instance, when Harry would hear voices that claimed to crave for blood, the camera would move from afar and rush toward the classic terrified facial expression. Such horror camera movements and angles were frustrating because they took away some of the magic and humor that the first half desperately needed. I felt as though the filmmakers forced the material to be darker than it should have been instead of letting the storylines fall naturally into place. However, the scenes were bearable sit through because the special and visual effects were much more impressive, particularly when Ron, Harry, and Hermione transformed after drinking the disgusting Polyjuice Potion. And who could forget their visit to Aragog, the giant spider? What I found most disappointing and frustrating was the camera cutting to certain individuals’ facial expressions when the characters would speak of the identity of the person committing the crimes. Perhaps it was because I read J.K. Rowling’s books, but I believe that if I hadn’t, it would have been entirely predictable. “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” directed by Chris Columbus, was an awkward transition toward more impressive storylines and more confident direction. However, it was a necessary installment because of the importance of certain artifacts directly related to Voldemort’s endgame and some character development involving why Harry ultimately ended up in Gryffindor House instead of Slytherin.

Pirate Radio


Pirate Radio (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

British rock and pop music had very little exposure on the airwaves despite their undeniable popularily so the colorful crew members (Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Chris O’Dowd, Nick Frost, Tom Brooke, Tom Wisdom, Rhys Darby, Katherine Parkinson) on a ship decided to broadcast songs every hour of every day. Back in the mainland, England’s minister (Kenneth Branagh), along with his minions, tried to come up with ways to make such broadcasts illegal. Watching this movie was strange because I thought the plot was somewhat weak and unfocused. However, I couldn’t help but love it because the characters were interesting even though some of them were more like caricatures, the humor had a healthy dose of rudeness and crudeness but was never truly offensive, it consistently inspired me to guess what random event would transpire next and, best of all, it showcased my favorite type of music. Essentially, the picture made me want to live in 1960s England so I could be around wicked fashion, freewheeling individuals willing to experiment, and great music that fully defined a generation. Since I felt like the movie was a tribute to people who grew up in the 60s and younger generations who wished they lived in the 60s, I hoped that, despite the movie simply wanting to have fun, the film focused more on Tom Sturridge’s character. He was a rebel (he got kicked out of school for drugs) yet we could not help but love him (he’s still a virgin but lacking experience with girls since he attended an all-boys school) because he was more sensitive and reserved than he let on. I wanted more scenes of him interacting with his neglectful mother (played brilliantly by Emma Thompson) and his supposed to love interest (Talulah Riley). Furthermore, I wanted to see more of his struggles concerning a lack of a father figure. The elements that could contribute to being alienated–and therefore turning to rock and roll–were present but the movie failed to look beneath the surface and offer insight that could surprise or even us. I believe that if “Pirate Radio,” written and directed by Richard Curtis, had a more defined emotional core, it would have been stronger because the risks it had taken would have had stronger payoffs. A movie about sex, drugs and music will fail to grow beyond the obvious if it does not have the heart and the energy to construct three-dimensional characters and storylines. It is particularly difficult for ensemble films but Curtis managed to be successful in “Love Actually” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” Nevertheless, I’m giving “Pirate Radio” a recommendation because I appreciated its gesture to fans of British pop and rock and roll. The film was a nice escape because nowadays I can’t even turn on the radio without wanting to bash my head against the wall.

Valkyrie


Valkyrie (2008)
★★★ / ★★★★

I think a lot of people are unfairly harsh on this movie because of the fact that it stars Tom Cruise as Colonel Claus von Satuffenberg, one of the men that tries to assassinate Adolf Hitler. For some reason, people find it difficult to find a divide between an actor’s personal life and repertoire (like with Lindsay Lohan). We all know how it’s going to end so being predictable is not a valid reason on why one should not see this movie. (Assuming that the person knows the basics about World War II.) I’m here to say that this is a solid thriller because Bryan Singer, the director of other good films like “The Usual Suspects,” “Apt Pupil” and “X2: X-Men United,” was able to successfully build suspense up until the last twenty minutes. I enjoyed watching what Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Tom Cruise have to put on the table. Although the film is fast-paced, it gets really exciting whether these top-tier actors speak to each other as we find out where their loyalties lie. They made me believe that what they were trying to do was important and I eventually found myself hoping that things would turn out differently than it did in reality. I was impressed with the soundtrack because it supported the suspense instead of becoming the driving force. In most less successful thrillers, the latter is the case so it was a nice surprise to not find that here. I was also blown away by the visuals. Everything looks so grand: the architectures, the weaponries, the automobiles, down to the characters’ wardrobes. It was easy to tell that a lot of effort was put into this film. I wish the last twenty minutes could’ve been stronger. I felt like the suspense was sucked out of the film so I found myself not caring. I think those last few scenes were crucial because the filmmakers were supposed to convince the audience that those who tried to kill Hitler were honorable men and women. Instead, the message was lost and we saw one scene of pandemonium on top of one another. It’s a pretty strong movie as a whole; it just needed to deliver all the way through and, unfortunately, the film failed to do that.