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Non-Review Review: Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Murder on the Orient Express feels like a very conscious effort to disprove the notion that “they don’t make them like this any more.”

Lead actor and director Kenneth Branagh clearly relishes the opportunity to create a decidedly retro murder mystery. Murder on the Orient Express might contain a handful of action scenes and copious amounts of computer-generated imagery, but Branagh is very clearly channelling a more classical style of film making. Released in early November, Murder on the Orient Express has the look and the texture of an old-fashioned Christmas television treat; a fantastic ensemble reenacting a classic murder mystery on lavish sets with heightened melodrama.

Like a train in the night…
Or, you know, the day.

Branagh’s imitation is affectionate, but it is also laboured. Murder on the Orient Express feels like a nostalgic homage to the old ensemble-driven melodramas that were a dime-a-dozen, but there is something uncanny about it. Early in the film, the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot deduces that a fellow passenger is a dealer in forgeries, passing off unconvincing copies as historic artifacts. There is a sense that Branagh is attempting something similar, trying to construct something with the texture of a more classic piece of cinema, but without any of the spirit or the energy.

Murder on the Orient Express is charming and engaging, its enthusiasm for its premise and setting infectious in places. However, it also as lifeless as the corpse at the centre of the mystery.

Cold case.

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Non-Review Review: Cinderella (2015)

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2015.

Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella is probably the safest and most down-the-middle live action remake of a classic Disney cartoon. It is not as heavily stylised or esoteric as Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, but it is also not as deeply flawed as Maleficent. If anything, Cinderella suffers from a lack of its own identity or energy. It is a well-made and functional film that avoids any truly significant problems, but it also lacks any real edge that might help it stand out.

Cinderella looks lovely. Dante Ferretti’s production design and Sandy Powell’s costume designs are breathtakingly beautiful. Branagh’s direction is clean and crispy, avoiding excessive clutter and trusting the story to tell itself. The cast are great – with Cate Blanchett and Helena Bonham Carter doing wonderful work. Even the script does exactly what it needs to do, walking the line between traditional and self-aware with considerable grace. Cinderella does pretty much everything that you would expect a live action adaptation to do.

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At the same time, it lacks any real sense of cinematic ambition. It is nowhere near as iconoclastic as Alice in Wonderland or as ambitious as Maleficent. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – Alice in Wonderland attracted a lot of criticism for playing more as a Tim Burton movie than an Alice in Wonderland film, while Maleficent tripped over itself in its attempts to re-write the classing story of Sleeping Beauty as a feminist parable. Cinderella‘s problems are much less severe, but its accomplishments are also less noteworthy.

The result is probably the most solid and reliable live adaptation of a classic Disney cartoon, albeit one that never seems to have any real ambition or verve.

cinderella

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My 12 for ’13: Much Ado About Nothing & The Joy of a Shakespearean Sex Comedy…

This is my annual countdown of the 12 movies that really stuck with me this year. It only counts the movies released in Ireland in 2013, so quite a few of this year’s Oscar contenders aren’t eligible, though some of last year’s are.

This is number 10…

I feel a little sorry for Shakespeare. The guy wrote some of the most influential and iconic plays ever composed; invented countless turns of phrase and even words; became inexorable associated with theatre and stage work… and yet he’s still hated by just about every student forced to sift through Romeo & Juliet or Hamlet or Macbeth as part of their education. While Shakespeare is easy enough to read once you get a grip of it, or once you have enough experience, forcing kids to read those plays at school is one of the most effective ways to kill enthusiasm for the Bard.

The beauty of Shakespeare is that he isn’t just an “important” writer, that he isn’t just a key part of the evolution of world literature, a formative figure in the history of narrative. Not that any of those are minor accomplishments, mind you. The real beauty of Shakespeare is that he’s actually very good. Not with qualifications like “… for his time” or “… in context.” Shakespeare remains a great writer in the most fundamental “this is actually a pretty good story well told” sort of way.

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The best directors to adapt Shakespeare’s work to film realise this, and accept that Shakespeare is still a great storyteller; you just need to figure out how to translate his works properly to the screen, in the same way you’d translate a modern best-seller or a beloved cult comic book. Kenneth Branagh figured out how to do this, with his adaptations almost popping off the screen.

Much Ado About Nothing demonstrates that Joss Whedon has it pretty figured out as well.

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Non-Review Review: Walking With Dinosaurs – The 3D Movie

You never really grow up past the love of dinosaurs. Sure, you are probably never as relentlessly fascinated with the gigantic reptiles as you were when you were a kid, but those prehistoric creatures still garner affection from children of all ages. That was, after all, the basic premise of Jurassic Park, which got a high-profile 20th anniversary re-release this year. It was also the driving force behind Walking With Dinosaurs, the ground-breaking CGI documentary broadcast on the BBC in the UK and on Discovery in America.

So adapting the show to film seems like a logical step, and Walking With Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie is a bit of a no-brainer for a holiday family release, especially with families that have children too young to watch The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug or Anchorman: The Legend Continues and who have already seen Frozen. It’s a concept that really sells itself, which makes it incredibly frustrating that Walking With Dinosaurs: The 3D Movie goes out of its way to sabotage itself.

"It was a night like this, forty million years ago..."

“It was a night like this, forty million years ago…”

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Non-Review Review: Thor – The Dark World

Thor was a gem. I’d argue it remains the best of the Marvel Studios films, expertly and enthusiastically embracing the heightened melodrama of comic book storytelling and boiling it down to faux Shakespearean elegance. With Kenneth Branagh directing and a fantastic cast, the film hit on a lot of the old-fashioned comic book spectacle. Yes, it was sheer nonsense, but there’s something surprisingly affecting about hearing Anthony Hopkins intone Stan Lee’s decidedly corny dialogue. This is sheer unadulterated pop, filtered down and distilled.

A lot of that carries over to Thor: The Dark World. “Some believe that before the universe, there was nothing,” Hopkins’ Odin assured us in the trailer, in a narration omitted from the film. “They’re wrong. There was darkness…” Sure, physicists and scientist might weep at the suggestion, but Hopkins is able to imbue the ridiculous line with a surreal gravitas. “I like the way you explain things,” Jane tells Thor at one point, and the British accents lend the goofiness a strangely convincing air.

It doesn’t make any sense, and it’ll hurt your head too much if you think about it, but that’s entirely the point. This is a movie about a Norse god with an English accent and flying hammer.

It's... wait for it... hammer time!

It’s… wait for it… hammer time!

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Watch! New Thor: The Dark World Trailer!

I’m looking forward to Thor: The Dark World, if only because (somewhat controversially) I think that Kenneth Branagh’s Thor is the best of Marvel Studios’ films to date. Branagh isn’t back directing, but I’m always a sucker for high-concept fantasy and a wonderful cast. From the looks of it, Thor: The Dark World is really cashing in on this year’s hip new cinematic trend: destroying London. It joins Red 2, The Fast and the Furious 6, Star Trek: Into Darkness, among others, in laying waste to the capital.

The Dark World features returning performers Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba and Anthony Hopkins, which is reason enough to watch. Add in Christopher Eccleston and I’m intrigued.

Anyway, the traielr is below. Check it out.

Non-Review Review: The Wolverine

The Wolverine is pretty far from a perfect film. In the era following The Dark Knight, we’ve come to expect more ambition from our superhero blockbusters; tighter plots; well-drawn character arcs and motivations for more than just our heroes. In a summer where some have fallen just short of working within this new paradigm (Man of Steel) and others have succeeded (Iron Man 3), The Wolverine feels like a conscious throwback. It’s a nineties action movie masquerading as a superhero blockbuster. Had it been released in 2007, it would have been well-received.

And yet, there’s something quite fascinating and compelling about The Wolverine, despite the noticeable problems with the script’s third act. Director James Mangold struggles to keep things under control for as long as possible, Hugh Jackman still has a wonderful charm in the eponymous role, and The Wolverine has a fascinating thematic through-line and an approach to inter-movie continuity which is intriguing and strangely satisfying.

The Wolverine falls short of greatness, but it’s still a fun and enjoyable ride.

"You lookin' at me, bub?"

“You lookin’ at me, bub?”

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