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

Hellboy (2019) review

HELLBOY

Director: Neil Marshall
Cast : David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim, Thomas Haden Church, Penelope Mitchell, Brian Gleeson, Sophie Okonedo, Alastair Petrie
Genre : Action/Horror/Fantasy
Run Time : 2 hours
Opens : 11 April 2019
Rating : M18/PG13

           Last seen on the big screen in 2008’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, the antihero with the shorn-off horns returns from the fiery depths in this regrettable reboot.

Hellboy/Anung Un Rama (David Harbour) is a demon who came to earth as the result of a Nazi experiment in World War II and was adopted and raised by Trevor Bruttenholm (Ian McShane). Bruttenholm founded the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development (BPRD), a secretive agency that protects earth from supernatural threats. Hellboy, who was destined to bring about mankind’s destruction, fights to prevent it instead.

Vivienne Nimue (Milla Jovovich), the bloodthirsty sorceress defeated by King Arthur (Mark Stanley) and Merlin (Brian Gleeson), is resurrected with the help of the humanoid pig beast Gruagach (Stephen Graham). Nimue sets her sights on Hellboy, attempting to seduce him to join her side and turn against humanity. Hellboy is assisted in his quest by the clairvoyant Alice Monaghan (Sasha Lane) and BPRD agent Ben Daimio (Daniel Dae Kim), who suppresses his own horrific supernatural abilities.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army is one of this reviewer’s favourite comic book films. It is a pity that director Guillermo del Toro and star Ron Perlman were not given the opportunity to conclude that trilogy. Del Toro’s many gifts as a filmmaker include a meticulous visual sense, a knack for world-building and an emphasis on heart, all elements this reboot is sorely wanting for. There are enough superficial similarities with del Toro’s two Hellboy films to actively invite comparisons, none of which are favourable.

The Hellboy character was created by Mike Mignola, and this film purports to hew closer to the horror elements of the comics, taking inspiration from the arcs Darkness Calls, The Wild Hunt, and The Storm and the Fury. While this is certainly more violent and gorier than del Toro’s take on the material, that doesn’t make it any more interesting.

Director Neil Marshall seems like the natural candidate for the material, given his background in British horror films like The Descent, Dog Soldiers and Doomsday. While he seems to be aiming for a pulpy B-movie quality which comes through sporadically, there’s very little in Hellboy to really care about. Much of the story is told in reams of exposition, and flashbacks that establish each new character feel like distracting detours. There’s little mystique or creepiness to the occult elements of the story, such that suspension of disbelief isn’t earned.

In Singapore, the film is being released simultaneously in M18 and edited PG13 cuts. We saw the PG13 version, which is obviously and awkwardly hacked to pieces. If you’re watching this at all, do not watch the PG13 cut. It’s still gory and three uses of the F-word make it intact in the dialogue, which seems puzzling. We’re not sure how much better the M18 cut is, we’re willing to bet not much.

Guillermo del Toro’s deep love for movie monsters meant that there was something fascinating about each of the creatures seen in his movies, something in their design and the way they were brought to life by suit performers and special effects. This Hellboy movie gives us vampires, giants, fairies, zombies, pig-men, jaguar beasts and all assortment of monsters, but they rarely feel convincing and often come across as synthetic and goofy. There isn’t much scale to this movie even though it wants to be an epic, rollicking adventure, and what should be exciting is rendered frenetic instead. Baba Yaga (Troy James and Emma Tate) is a legitimately creepy monster, though, thanks mostly to the prosthetic makeup effects used to bring the crone to life.

David Harbour will be the target of much of the ire of fans who have grown attached to Ron Perlman’s take on Big Red, but this reviewer is hesitant to blame him. Harbour, known as Sheriff Hopper from Stranger Things, does the best with the material he’s given and overhauled his physique to play Hellboy. Despite the name “Hellboy”, the character is a grown man, and that’s the biggest issue with this take – the character comes across as whiny rather than conflicted about where his allegiances lie. The sweetness and likeability that should lie just beneath the crimson surface are all but absent.

One of the movie’s big missteps is in depicting the relationship between Hellboy and his adoptive father Bruttenholm. There is no tenderness or affection, only shouting and pointing fingers, such that it’s hard to believe Bruttenholm ever really loved Hellboy. The emotional core of the movie should be that a man decided to adopt a baby monster he was meant to kill. McShane brings gruffness and gravitas to the part, as is his wont, but there isn’t much in the relationship to get invested in.

The one thing in this movie that seemed most enticing was the prospect of Milla Jovovich as a villainess – while she tends to be stiff in action hero roles, Jovovich can be delightfully over-the-top as evil characters. There is a bit of that here, but Nimue is mostly flat and never registers as a truly powerful malevolent force.

Sasha Lane and Daniel Dae Kim attempt to inject personality into their supporting roles, but the things about their respective characters that are interesting are barely explored, while their back-stories are over-explained.

There was every chance that a Hellboy reboot could be done well, and there are tiny indications here of what could’ve been. There are still serviceable moments of action horror and while the jokes are more miss than hit, the general tone is fine. The bits of the film involving Lobster Johnson (Thomas Haden Church) are the most entertaining. Unfortunately, it adds up to a disappointing whole, such that the sequel-bait ending and post-credits scenes feel awfully over-confident.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Christopher Robin review

CHRISTOPHER ROBIN

Director : Marc Forster
Cast : Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings, Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo, Sara Sheen
Genre : Comedy/Drama/Fantasy
Run Time : 104 mins
Opens : 2 August 2018
Rating : PG

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things,” so wrote the Apostle Paul in the Book of Corinthians. In this live-action/animation hybrid comedy-drama, Christopher Robin (Ewan McGregor) has put away childish things, but the time has come for him to rediscover them.

As a child, Christopher played in what he called the Hundred-Acre Wood with his stuffed animal friends, including the honey-loving Winnie the Pooh (Jim Cummings), ebullient Tigger (also Cummings), despondent donkey Eeyore (Brad Garrett), worrywart Piglet (Nick Mohammed), fastidious Rabbit (Peter Capaldi), intelligent Owl (Toby Jones), warm Kanga (Sophie Okonedo) and her joey Roo (Sara Sheen). They had tea parties and grand adventures, but Christopher has bidden them farewell.

Now an adult, Christopher is married to Evelyn (Hayley Atwell) and they have a daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). Christopher is preoccupied with work at the luggage manufacturer Winslow Industries, and is treated poorly by his boss Giles Winslow (Mark Gatiss). When a crisis in the office pulls Christopher away from a weekend in the countryside with his wife and daughter, Pooh intervenes. Christopher is confused and unwilling, but eventually gets back in touch with the simple joys of his childhood, as the unexpected visit from his friends reorders his priorities.

This is an utterly devastating film that had this reviewer in tears almost from beginning to end. That is in no small part because it is emotionally manipulative, but just the premise is quite depressing: Christopher Robin has a mid-life crisis. This is not a movie meant for children, or at least primarily for children, judging by all the fidgeting kids in our screening. It’s a movie about what it’s like to lose and then regain a sense of wonderment and awe, and it’s something that’s readily relatable.

Last year, the biopic Goodbye Christopher Robin, about the toll that the success of the stories had on their author A. A. Milne and his family, especially his son Christopher Robin Milne, was released. That film was sad and poignant and might’ve ruined Winnie the Pooh for some, seeing how much pain that bear wound up costing its creator. Christopher Robin is sad and poignant in a different, perhaps more production line way.

Director Marc Forster revisits territory akin to that he covered in the 2004 film Finding Neverland, about the inspiration behind Peter Pan. Here, he works from a screenplay by Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy and Allison Schroeder, with Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson receiving a “story by” credit. The number of writers indicates a cluttered script, but there is a refreshing simplicity to Christopher Robin. At times, it comes off as too simple in straining to be twee and nostalgic, but it generally works.

The dreary post-WWII London setting is contrasted with the idyll of the woods in Surrey. Above and beyond the period details, the visual effects in bringing the cuddly denizens of Hundred-Acre Wood to life are key in making audiences buy into the premise. The character animation, mostly done by visual effects houses Framestore and Method, is pitch-perfect – the way each character moves, the texture of their fur, the subtle nuances in the facial expressions – Pooh and company are all brought to life so lovingly.

Ewan McGregor’s performance as Christopher is reasonably endearing, but all the human characters are quite thinly drawn. We see how much pressure Christopher is under and how he is intent on his young daughter going away to boarding school, against her wishes. Because the titular character is intended as a cipher for all adults, there’s not much that makes him distinctive, apart from how he’s friends with a bunch of sentient stuffed animals.

Hayley Atwell is underused in a sparely written role as ‘the wife’, while Bronte Carmichael does inject some personality into Madeline, but again, it’s not much more than “I don’t get to spend enough time with my dad”. The whole thing is very “cats in the cradle” – or “bears in the honey jar”, if you will. Meanwhile, Mark Gatiss relishes playing the cruel boss.

Veteran voice actor Jim Cummings, who has voiced Pooh since 1988 and Tigger since 1989, is such a joy to hear. His performance as Pooh sounds natural emanating from the fluffy three-dimensional rendering of the beloved bear. While the rest of the voice cast are not as closely associated with their respective characters as Cummings is, everyone does well – especially Brad Garrett as Eeyore, who gets some of the best lines.

Disney has been leaning extremely hard on nostalgia, and Christopher Robin puts a bit of a spin on that by commenting on the nature of adulthood and of maintaining a connection to childhood after we’ve crossed that threshold. The film doesn’t comment on this in the most insightful manner, but there are moments that are sweet as honey, and, if you’re as emotionally fragile as this reviewer, as sad as an empty honey jar.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong