Death on the Nile (2022) review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast : Kenneth Branagh, Tom Bateman, Annette Bening, Russell Brand, Ali Faizal, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Gal Gadot, Armie Hammer, Emma Mackey, Sophie Okonedo, Letitia Wright, Rose Leslie
Genre: Mystery/Thriller
Run Time : 127 min
Opens : 10 February 2022
Rating : PG13

For a while there, it seemed the great detective Hercule Poirot had met a conundrum even he couldn’t solve: delays brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. After at least five changes in release date, Kenneth Branagh’s follow-up to 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express finally sails into cinemas.

Death on the Nile is based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name. Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) happens to meet his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman) at the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. Bouc invites Poirot along for the elaborate wedding party of heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer). Linnet has booked the luxury steam paddler Karnak for a pleasure cruise down the Nile. She is wary of all the guests to some extent – these include her maid Louise (Rose Leslie), her cousin and attorney Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Faizal), her godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) and Van Schuyler’s nurse Mrs Bowers (Dawn French), doctor and Linnet’s former beau Linus Windlesham (Russell Brand), jazz singer Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okondeo) and Salome’s niece/manager Rosalie (Letitia Wright), and Bouc’s mother Euphemia (Annette Bening). Matters are complicated by the sudden arrival of Jacqueline de Bellefort (Emma Mackey), Simon’s former fiancé who is angry at Linnet for stealing him away from her. When one of the passengers is murdered, Poirot must solve the mystery before more members of the party get picked off.

The movie largely retains the style and feel of Murder on the Orient Express, that of a glamorous, old-fashioned mystery. Where that film suffered somewhat from seemed to be Branagh’s infatuation with his own performance, he is less showy here. That’s not to say Poirot isn’t still the centre of attention, but Death on the Nile humanises the character and shows us cracks in the façade by giving him more personal involvement in the mystery. Screenwriter Michael Green performs a largely clever adaptation, with several of the changes serving to add more continuity with the preceding film. The movie is gorgeous to behold, with cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos, production designer Jim Clay and costume designer Paco Delgado among other crew making things look postcard perfect. The painterly visuals of Murder on the Orient Express are pushed even further here.

Unfortunately, the movie’s look could also create a sense of artifice. It looks like there was more green screen used here than on Disney’s Jungle Cruise, and there are weirdly also almost as many computer-generated animals. It doesn’t feel like the cast ever stepped foot in Egypt, and indeed most of the production took place in Longcross Studios in Surrey and in Morocco. The digital oil painting look creates some distance between the audience and the story. The way everything is deliberately staged and choreographed lends the movie a certain aesthetic, but also reminds audiences of the artifice. Some critics have also taken issue with how long the movie takes to get to the titular murder. In addition to the necessary set-up establishing all our characters, there is a prologue set during the First World War, depicting Poirot’s time in the Belgian army.

At first glance, this movie’s cast isn’t quite as starry as that of Murder on the Orient Express, but it’s still nothing to sniff at. Branagh has settled into playing Poirot – it’s still a faintly ridiculous performance, but also a comfortably enjoyable one.

Gal Gadot is suitably glamorous as Linnet Ridgeway, while Armie Hammer plays exactly the kind of role one would cast him in while he was still able to get cast in things.

One of the major changes from the book is that Salome Otterbourne is a jazz musician instead of a romance novelist. This allows the movie to cut loose in several musical sequences, and making Salome and Rosie Black amidst mostly white characters further adds to the tension. The movie is never too heavy-handed about this, and both Sophie Okonedo and Letitia Wright are lively presences.

Sex Education star Emma Mackey is an appropriately dramatic spurned lover. One thing that is distracting is that Mackey, Gadot and Wright are playing characters who are meant to be around the same age, when Gadot is ten years older than Mackey and eight years older than Wright.

It’s a great deal of fun seeing comedy duo French and Saunders show up, even if their presence runs the risk of making the movie feel a bit like a comedy sketch. Annette Bening is having a great time playing the snarky, overbearing mother.

As in most whodunits, there are many characters to keep track of, but like previous adaptations of Death on the Nile, this movie has already cut the roster down by a bit and amalgamated certain characters.

Summary: While Death on the Nile is a little too self-conscious and mannered, it is still an entertaining, lavishly produced murder mystery. Director/star Kenneth Branagh’s second go-round as Hercule Poirot is a little less silly than before, and he has an eclectic, watchable cast in tow. While perhaps a little too synthetic, the scenery is still lovely to look at. It’s not quite worth all the fuss brought about by the repeated shuffling of its release dates but is far from a wash.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Cars 3

For F*** Magazine

CARS 3

Director : Brian Fee
Cast : Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Armie Hammer, Bonnie Hunt, Chris Cooper, Kerry Washington, Lea DeLaria, Tony Shalhoub, Katherine Helmond, Cheech Marin, Paul Dooley, Larry the Cable Guy, Paul Newman
Genre : Animation/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 49m
Opens : 31 August 2017
Rating : PG

Lightning McQueen (Wilson) was once the fastest car alive, but his days at the top of the heap are numbered. In the third instalment of Pixar’s Cars series, Lightning’s status as a seven-time Piston Cup champ is threatened by newcomer Jackson Storm (Hammer), a high-tech, hothead next generation racer. Lightning’s Rust-eze team has been sold by owners Rusty (Ray Magliozzi) and Dusty (Tom Magliozzi) to the wealthy Sterling (Fillion), who has constructed a state-of-the-art training facility. Sterling assigns trainer Cruz Ramirez (Alonso) to Lightning, who resents the implication that he is old and on the brink of retirement. While initially dismissive of Cruz, the two eventually bond as they go in search of Smokey (Cooper), the former mechanic and crew chief of Lightning’s late mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman). With his girlfriend Sally (Hunt) and his friends Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), Guido (Guido Quaroni) and Mack (Ratzenberger) in his corner, Lightning gathers the courage to regain the title and beat Jackson.

The Cars series is not viewed as one of Pixar’s crowning achievements, with 2011’s Cars 2 often viewed as the studio’s worst film. Cars 3 is a definite improvement on the second entry, often sincere and never aggressively obnoxious. However, it’s still difficult to get swept up in the story: the basic plot structure of an aging champion threatened by a rookie competitor brings films like Rocky Balboa to mind. It’s no surprise that co-writer Mike Rich is primarily known for penning sports films, including The Rookie, Miracle and Secretariat.

Lightning’s arc in this film isn’t exactly the easiest for kids to readily relate to. The themes of re-evaluating one’s purpose after getting a wake-up call in the form of a younger, faster rival might not resonate as well with the film’s young target audience as Pixar hopes. There’s also a great deal of sentimentality, with the impact that Doc Hudson had on Lightning, and Lightning’s search for inspiration in his late mentor’s wisdom being a crucial plot point. The adults might get a touch misty-eyed, but this might be lost on most kids.

As expected from Pixar, the animation is top-notch. The Cars are easy to buy as actual characters, and the way the characters shift their weight from one wheel to another is amusingly expressive. We get some gorgeously-rendered backgrounds and realistic atmospheric effects such as sparks and dust. However, Cars 3 lacks memorable set pieces. A Demolition Derby sequence is the most exciting the film gets, and even that falls a good distance short of the creatively conceived set pieces in other Pixar films. The bulk of the movie is spent chronicling Lightning’s training, which is good for character development, but isn’t all that exciting.

Wilson’s easy-going charm makes Lightning likeable even when the character gets caught up on his own success. The biggest thing Cars 3 gets right is the new character Cruz Ramirez. Alonso lends the character an upbeat eagerness and she’s set up to be annoying because she’s standing in Lightning’s way, but the character’s motivations are gradually revealed and the relationship between her and Lightning evolves organically. The dynamic between the two characters is sufficiently different from what we usually see in animated films, and to make another comparison to a boxing movie, is a little Million Dollar Baby-esque.

Thankfully, Mater takes a back seat in this one – arguably the biggest mistake the second film made was elevating him to a leading role. Fillion’s performance as billionaire Sterling is coolly sophisticated and just the right amount of condescending. Unused recordings of Newman from the first film are used for the flashbacks featuring Doc, displaying significance reverence for the legendary actor. Orange is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria has plenty of fun as the sadistic monster schoolbus Miss Fritter. As in the previous instalments, real-life racing drivers and sports commentators making vocal cameos: listen out for Lewis Hamilton, Bob Costas, Darrell Waltrip, Junior Johnson, Daniel Suárez and others.

While Cars 3 has its heart (or engine, as it were) in the right place, it’s far from impressive enough to justify its own existence. It surpasses the low expectations generated by its disappointing sequel and showcases surprising depth, but instead of sending heart rates racing, Cars 3 mostly coasts along.

As is customary for Pixar films, Cars 3 is preceded by an animated short. This one is Lou, directed by Dave Mullins, and about a loveable creature who lives in the lost and found box at an elementary school playground. Built on a charming, simple premise and packing a whole lot of emotion into its six minutes, Lou is a fine example of the storytelling power can summon.

Summary: Despite a story that most kids might find challenging to connect to and a dearth of memorable set pieces, there’s enough amiable sweetness to Cars 3, making it a marked improvement on its immediate predecessor.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Nocturnal Animals

For F*** Magazine

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS 

Director : Tom Ford
Cast : Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 57min
Opens : 1 December 2016
Rating : M18 (Nudity)

nocturnal-animals-posterTom Ford shows off his night moves in his second directorial effort, a neo-noir psychological thriller. Susan Morrow (Adams) is a wealthy L.A. art gallery owner, whose relationship with her second husband Hutton (Armie) has soured. Susan receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal), titled ‘Nocturnal Animals’ after Edward’s nickname for Susan and dedicated to her. The novel centres on Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), a mild-mannered man whose wife Laura (Fisher) and daughter India (Bamber) are abducted after a violent encounter with local ruffians during a road trip through Texas. Detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) helps Tony track down the culprit, handyman Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson), in the hopes of finding Laura and India. The brutality and rawness of the story shocks Susan, who reflects on the circumstances that led to the dissolution of her marriage with Edward. With Edward back in town and Hutton away on business, old wounds are reopened as Susan plans to meet with Edward for the first time in years.

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Nocturnal Animals is based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan. In addition to directing, Ford adapted the novel for the screen and produced the movie, meaning that his stamp is all over the film. Ford’s directorial debut A Single Man was critically acclaimed and netted star Colin Firth and Oscar nomination. Critics and audiences were curious to see what Ford would follow the period piece with. While it is reductive to say that Nocturnal Animals is a case of “style over substance”, that’s essentially true. Ford has a distinct vision, but much of the imagery can’t help but come off as pretentious. We realise we’ve dug ourselves a hole by trucking out the ‘p’ word, but bear with us. Nocturnal Animals is at once subtle and overwrought, and we have a feeling that this was intentional. Ford appears to enjoy toying with the form and the ‘story within a story’ structure, but it’s difficult to get at what the film really is about.

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Two stories sit side-by-side and gradually intertwine. The ‘real world’ is cold and manicured, while the world of the novel is earthy, gritty and raw. The transitions which jolt us out of the book’s narrative and back into Susan’s reality are effective, and there are moments of intensity which reel the viewer in. However, the larger approach seems designed to hold the audience at arm’s length, and there’s the sense that Ford is playing a game of pushing us away then pulling us close as he pleases. Individually and stripped of the atmospherics provided by Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography, neither of the two stories is all that riveting. There’s some satisfaction to be derived in seeing how they fit together, but one can almost feel Ford dancing about behind the camera, shouting “isn’t this all very artsy? Isn’t that delightful?”

As Nocturnal Animals parcels out information about Susan and Edward’s marriage, there are heart-rending scenes and the film approaches being relatable. In a flashback, Susan’s obnoxious mother Anne (Linney) haughtily cautions against marrying Edward. Anne warns her daughter that as a writer, Edward won’t be able to make a stable living, and the qualities she’s drawn to will soon be the things she hates most about him. This is a scene straight out of this reviewer’s nightmares. The film conveys the tumult of the creative process, how difficult it is to make a living as an artist and the price one has to pay for falling in love with a creative type. Its portrayal of heartbreak rings true, but this is buried beneath layers of posturing and overblown metaphors.

The performances contain glimmers of shattering power, but many scenes are also stilted and over-directed. Adams has proven herself to be an actress of considerable depth, getting across the war that roils within Susan without resorting to histrionics. Clad in Arianne Phillips-designed costumes, Adams is the picture of glamour – this is, of course, a façade.

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Gyllenhaal plays both Edward and the author’s surrogate within his novel, Tony. The violent revenge tale set against the dusty, desolate west Texas landscape is reminiscent of True Detective or Justified, and Gyllenhaal does enough to differentiate Edward and Tony. Tony is the physical manifestation of Edward’s angst, a vehicle for the author’s catharsis. It’s a moving turn from Gyllenhaal, but it can also be perceived as a romanticising of the “tortured artist” archetype.

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Shannon is at his best when he gets to be nuanced, since he is often typecast as blustery villains. Bob Andes is the archetypical crusty small-town sheriff helping the stranded outsider, a southern-fried seeker of justice. Shannon brings what could have been a cartoon character to three-dimensional life. In the meantime, Taylor-Johnson’s Ray is equal parts pathetic and menacing, though he does have trouble with the accent.

The aloof, handsome and ultimately unfaithful husband, Hammer’s Hutton Morrow is a walking plot device. Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen and Jena Malone all show up for one scene each, filling out Susan’s social and professional circle. Ford has some fun in casting with a metafictional eye – Adams and Fisher are often called looklikes, and Fisher plays Adams’ surrogate in the story-in-a-story. In Tony and Susan, Tony and Laura’s daughter was named Helen. In the film, Helen is renamed ‘India’. Susan’s adult daughter Samantha is played by India Menuez. It was fun tid-bit to discover.

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Like the contemporary art that fills Susan’s gallery, some will laud Nocturnal Animals as deep and wise, while others will dismiss it as showy and hollow. The striking visuals and impactful vignettes make this worth a look, but the film’s refusal to arrive at a point and its flights of arthouse fancy are often alienating.

Summary: If you’re prone to using “artsy-fartsy” as a dismissive term, Tom Ford’s sophomore work as a filmmaker will leave you cold. However, there are moving performances and heart-rending statements about love and art that resonate.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

For F*** Magazine

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

Director : Guy Ritchie
Cast : Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris, Luca Calvani
Genre : Action/Adventure
Run Time : 117 mins
Opens : 3 September 2015
Rating : PG-13 (Brief Nudity and Some Violence)
While superheroes do most of the world-saving on the big and small screen these days, back in the ‘60s, that was primarily the domain of the superspy. In this reboot of the classic TV show, we are transported back to 1963, at the height of the Cold War. When nuclear scientist Udo Teller (Christian Berkel) goes missing, American and Soviet intelligence agencies form an uneasy alliance to track him down. CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Cavill) and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Hammer) must go undercover to find Teller, with Kuryakin posing as the fiancé of Teller’s daughter, Gabby (Vikander). Gabby’s uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) works for an Italian shipping company run by Alexander (Luca Calvani) and Victoria (Debicki) Vinciguerra, a couple in cahoots with former Nazis and with deadly designs on cutting-edge nuclear technology. Solo and Kuryakin have to work through their obvious differences while secretly pursuing their own agendas as the world stands on the brink of an all-out nuclear calamity. The seeds for a new agency, the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (U.N.C.L.E.) are thus sown. 
A cinematic Man from U.N.C.L.E. reboot has been in the works at Warner Bros. for over a decade, with a multitude of writers and a laundry list of directors including Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh and Matthew Vaughn attached at some point or another. Practically every Hollywood male A-lister, from Christian Bale to Michael Fassbender to Tom Cruise, was considered for the lead role of Napoleon Solo. The film finally arrives with director Guy Ritchie at the helm and the Superman of the hour, Henry Cavill, playing Solo. Ritchie has obviously set out to make a throwback that stops a safe distance short of being a parody, seeing as this genre and this time period does lend itself so well to being lampooned. “Groovy, baby” anyone? Or maybe “LANAAAA!”? The end result is a bog-standard espionage thriller which Ritchie tries his best to spice up. 
This is very much a case of style over substance, as it has been with most of Ritchie’s movies. Editor James Herbert employs funky transitions and split-screen effects and the subtitles are rendered in an old-timey font with yellow lettering. Composer Daniel Pemberton’s jazz flute-heavy retro score is an aural treat and a refreshing change from the same-old same-old Hans Zimmer-style action movie music audiences have become accustomed to. “You Work for Me”, performed by Laura Mvula, is a wonderful homage to the Shirley Bassey-sung Bond themes of yore. There are also a few clever uses of cinematic sleight of hand, where the characters reveal something to each other but the audience is left in the dark until an opportune moment. 
Unfortunately, most of what’s interesting about this is purely superficial. The screenplay is heavy on both unwieldly exposition and double entendres that just aren’t quite witty enough. The pacing is patchy at best, with noticeable talky stretches in between the action. While there are several fun set pieces, including a boat chase as seen from a unique point of view, the film never achieves genuine edge-of-your seat thrills. Part of the climax includes a dune buggy chase which is somewhat incoherently shot. The comparisons to the recent Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation are unavoidable, and that film certainly outclasses The Man from U.N.C.L.E. when it comes to exhilarating stunts. 
Henry Cavill, stepping into the role originated by Robert Vaughn, is appropriately debonair and old school chic, reminding audiences that he was only narrowly beaten to the James Bond role by Daniel Craig. Cavill is not the most arresting actor in the world and the cadence he affects sounds a little off at times, but he’s got his classically handsome features to fall back on. Armie Hammer, succeeding David McCallum, fares little better in the accent department, but he looks like he’s in on the joke as the brawny, stoic Kuryakin and he manages to be funny while playing the unfunny character. The scenes of comic one-upmanship and hints of bromance tend to hit their marks, even if this is far from the most memorable action hero buddy pairing we’ve seen. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Cavill’s or Hammer’s performances per se, but they can’t help but feel like the third or fourth choices for the roles. 
Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who broke through with a mesmerizing turn in the sci-fi thriller Ex Machina, possesses the requisite slinky mystique as the leading lady here. The character is a mechanic and a skilled driver, with Vikander valiantly attempting to keep Gabby from coming off as a third wheel. Vikander also gets to display her comedic chops, goofily dancing to Solomon Burke’s “Cry to Me” in an attempt to get Kuryakin to loosen up. Once again however, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation trumps this film in the female lead department, with fellow Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson getting a meatier role in the proceedings. Elizabeth Debicki has fun as the femme fatale, but doesn’t go as deliciously dastardly as she needs to be an outstanding villainess. Hugh Grant balances out the charming and authoritative sides of Solo and Kuryakin’s boss Waverly, but he’s in this for a very short time. 
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a watchable if unremarkable serving of spy-fi nostalgia. It’s sporadically entertaining and its leads are definitely very easy on the eye, but it’s lukewarm rather than sizzling, with all snazziness strictly on the surface. While Warner Bros. actively pursued a Man from U.N.C.L.E. reboot for quite a while, it doesn’t seem like something audiences in general were clamouring for. It has its moments, but not quite enough of them for it to be worth getting excited about. 
Summary: Moderately stylish, moderately sexy and moderately entertaining – The Man from U.N.C.L.E. doesn’t reach any particular heights, but it’s a decent spy-fi throwback.  
RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars 
Jedd Jong

The Man from Krypton meets the Man from U.N.C.L.E.