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Movie review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is first-class ride

VIDEO: See Tim’s review of “Murder on the Orient Express” with Zachary Lashway on KARE-TV (NBC)

“Murder on the Orient Express” (PG-13)

Don’t hesitate to climb aboard “Murder on the Orient Express,” filmmaker Kenneth Branagh’s lavishly produced and expertly directed adaptation of legendary author Agatha Christie’s classic novel. Loaded with a brilliant ensemble cast, lush set pieces, inventive cinematography and gorgeous settings, “Murder on the Orient Express” is a welcome throwback to the classic whodunnit murder mysteries of yesteryear, told passionately though the Branagh’s lens.

Branagh does double duty by playing famed literary detective Hercule Poirot, one of world’s best investigators who thinks he’s in for a three-day break for on a train trip across 1930s Europe when the locomotive is waylaid on a mountainside by an avalanche. The train is occupied by people of all different backgrounds, including Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a notorious mobster whose “occupation” as art dealer has made him a lot of enemies.

On the first night aboard the stranded train, Ratchett is violently murdered, and with no one else in the proximity of the crime scene for miles, Poirot quickly concludes that one of 13 passengers is responsible for Ratchett’s death. Through his meticulous investigation, Poirot tries to whittle down a suspect, leading to a stunning conclusion that people new to the story simply won’t see coming.

While many people are fond of Christie’s original novel or the 1974 adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as Poirot, perhaps the film fans who will enjoy “Murder on the Express” the most are the people who come into the film cold. Yes, there are slight character changes in the film, but there is virtually no wiggle room for the film’s meticulously-constructed narrative.

That’s a big plus for newbies, yet leaves potential room for disappointment for fans who already know how the story ends . Luckily, the film’s sprawling, fascinating narrative, stunning vistas and first-class performances by the likes of Branagh, Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Olivia Colman, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad and Willem Dafoe make the ride well-worthwhile.

Lammometer: 8 (out of 10)

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AUDIO: Hear Tim review “Murder on the Orient Express” with Tom Barnard on “The KQ Morning Show” (segments begins 9 minutes in).

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Movie review: ‘Dunkirk’

Hear Tim’s review of “Dunkirk” on KQ92 with Tom Barnard.

“Dunkirk” (PG-13)

Acclaimed filmmaker Christopher Nolan continues to amaze with “Dunkirk,” a World War II epic that is spectacular from filmmaking standpoint yet strains itself with the way the narrative unfolds.

A story most certainly unknown to most American audiences, “Dunkirk” isn’t so much a war film than it is a harrowing tale of survival. Set in May 1940, the film recounts the miracle evacuation of more than 300,000 Allied troops on the beaches of Dunkirk, France, where German forces have the soldiers trapped. With Allied ground forces unable to penetrate the enemy’s stronghold, fighter planes attempt to ward off the enemy while every naval and civilian vessel available attempt to cross the English channel to reach the soldiers before they meet a most certain cruel demise.

“Dunkirk” is told from three points of view — by land, by sea and by air, in three different time frames in a non-linear manner. And while it’s fascinating in the way the film eventually comes together, “Dunkirk” will no doubt confuse audiences if they’re not paying rapt attention.

While the film features stellar performances by Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance, there’s no real star in “Dunkirk” – in fact the attention is more focused on the plight of the ground soldiers, including newcomers Fionn Whitehead and One Direction singer Harry Styles (a great move by Nolan that will surely get younger audiences interested

who would have ignored the film otherwise).

An ensemble film with far less dialogue than Nolan’s previous efforts, “Dunkirk” feels more like a docudrama than a narrative feature; so despite the extraordinary story that inspired it, the film ultimately doesn’t have nearly as much emotion as last year’s true-life World War II drama “Hacksaw Ridge.” Faults aside, you still have to applaud a filmmaker with as much clout as Nolan to inform audiences of important stories like “Dunkirk” that have been buried in history, especially smack-dab in the middle of the summer movie-going season that’s generally packed with mindless drivel.

Copyright 2017 DirectConversations.com.

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At the movies: Top 10 in 2015

Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

By Tim Lammers

There surely will be some disagreements, but here are 10 of the films that made movie-going worthwhile in 2015.

10. “The Walk” – Robert Zemeckis’ direction is at its jaw-dropping best with this stunning recreation of French performer Phillipe Petit’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) “artistic coup” – a death-defying wire walk between the void of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. The point-of-view shots on the wire were among the most, if not the most, intense scenes on the big screen this year.

9. “The Martian” – Director Ridley Scott returns to space once again – sans any alien life forms — with one of the most entertaining films of the year in this tale about an astronaut (Matt Damon) who was presumed dead after a vicious storm hits his team’s Mars expedition. True, it’s mostly a one-man show for Damon, but in between, the talented ensemble including Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Michael Pena, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig and Sean Bean help create an engaging rescue mission filled with as many laughs as there are thrills. It’s a real blast (off).

 8. “

Legend” – Tom Hardy flawlessly demonstrates why he’s one of the best actors today with a dual performance as twins Ron and Reggie Kray, a pair of brutal gangsters who ruled the East end of London in the 1960s. Nearly identical in appearance, Hardy immediately establishes the distinct personalities of the Krays, making you quickly forget that what you’re watching are essentially impressive camera tricks. Proceeded by his kick-ass turn in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and followed by his frightening turn in “The Revenant,” 2015 was the year of Tom Hardy.

 7. “The Big Short” – Four groups of Wall Street outsiders stick it to the big banks during the housing meltdown of 2008, which feels great until you realize that even after the financial Armageddon, nothing really changes. Director Adam McKay makes an impressive transition from comedy to satire and drama with a film so slickly executed that it hearkens the greatness of Martin Scorsese. Christian Bale is the best of the film’s winning ensemble cast.

 6. “Inside Out” – Pixar’s “Up” Oscar-winner Pete Docter is back with this ingenious tale of how five emotions become mixed when an 11-year-old girl struggles with her family’s relocation from Minnesota to San Francisco. Like “Toy Story 3,” “Inside Out” is as much an emotional roller coaster for adults as it is a visual wonder filled with laughs for kids.

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 5. “Steve Jobs” – Michael Fassbender gives a career performance as the complex, socially-inept co-founder of Apple Computers, ingeniously played out during three pivotal moments of his career. Director Danny Boyle realizes his vision more like a stage play through Aaron Sorkin’s whip smart dialogue, where Jobs’ embattled colleagues (expertly played by Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg and to a lesser degree, Seth Rogen) wrack their brains trying to figure the prickly computer pioneer out.

 4.”Cinderella” – Far and away the most beautiful piece of cinema in 2015, this Kenneth Branagh-directed gem is one of the few films this year to deliver on all levels. Sometimes emotional, sometimes funny, and always full of heart, “Cinderella” has everything from stunning performances, awe-inspiring sets, gorgeous costumes, an emotional score and the recalibration of a classic character to reflect the modern age without damaging the classic tale’s integrity. Most of all, the film’s important message, “Have courage and be kind,” is one that will resonate for ages.

3. “Spotlight” – The film’s subject matter is depressing as all hell, but this film about The Boston Globe’s uncovering of the Boston Archdiocese’s priest sex abuse scandal in the early 2000s is so compelling that you can’t help but be gripped by it from beginning to end. The film not only recalls the greatness of “All the President’s Men,” but also serves as a reminder of today’s sad state of investigative journalism (if not journalism as a whole), which has been shot to hell by the Wild West Internet landscape where every media outlet has to have the story first, even if the facts aren’t completely right.

2. “Mad Max: Fury Road” – Writer-director George Miller finally gets the opportunity to make the “Mad Max” film he’s always wanted to make with this hyperkinetic road opus that can’t be described as anything but “batshit crazy.” Tom Hardy wipes the memory slate clean of Mel Gibson with his brooding performance as the title character, and Charlize Theron gives a furious performance of the aptly-titled character Furiosa.

 1. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” – Sure, it’s not perfect, but how often can a film match the tone of the original 37 years after its release, and the monstrous expectations that go with it? The Force is back in a big way thanks to the ever-burgeoning creativity of writer-director J.J. Abrams, and this seventh episode in the “Star Wars” saga serves as a big reminder why we love movies in the first place. “Episode VII” can’t come soon enough.

 10 honorable mentions: “Ex Machina,” “Black Mass,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “The Revenant,” “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” “Ant-Man,” “Creed,” “The Good Dinosaur,” “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “The Peanuts Movie.”

Worst film of 2015: “Sisters” – Tina Fey and Amy Poehler force an uncharacteristic brand of raunchy comedy down our throats that’s dreadfully unfunny and downright embarrassing. How this film got the greenlight to begin with, is one of the great mysteries of 2015. The “Saturday Night Live” alums must know where some bodies are buried.

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Reviews: ‘Cinderella,’ ‘Frozen Fever,’ ‘Run All Night’

Lily James and Cate Blanchett in Cinderella

By Tim Lammers

“Cinderella” (PG) 4 stars (out of four)

Filmmaker Kenneth Branagh masterfully directs an instant classic with “Cinderella,” Walt Disney Pictures’ latest animated great-turned live-action fairy tale. Preceded by the 2010 blockbuster “Alice in Wonderland” and the 2014  summer hit “Maleficent” (the “Sleeping Beauty” tale told from the villainess’ point-of-view), “Cinderella” emerges as the best of the three re-imagined tales so far – mainly by  sticking with the narrative fairy tale fans know and love while making subtle yet strong changes where it counts the most.

Lily James stars as Ella, who as a child loses her mother (Hayley Atwell) and gains a cruel stepmother (the deliciously evil Cate Blanchett) and two stepsisters (Holliday Grainger and Sophie McShera) when her father (Ben Chaplin) remarries. Trapped as a servant to her stepmother and stepsisters after her father dies, Ella – who is dubbed “Cinderella” by one of the stepsisters – sees a glimmer of hope through a chance meeting with the handsome Kit (Richard Madden), who keeps secret from the young woman that he’s really a prince who will soon inherit a kingdom.

Interview: Helena Bonham Carter (U.S. exclusive)

Interview: Kenneth Branagh

“Cinderella” works on every level, from using real landscape complimented by lavish castle set pieces and costumes; to stellar acting, a mystical atmosphere, Patrick Doyle’s moving score and the perfect mix of humor and heart.

The movie is also very emotional, especially in times of loss, but not necessarily depressing. It effectively helps build the character of Cinderella, who while taught by her dying mother to “have courage and be kind” – shuttering the damsel in the distress characterization from earlier interpretations of the tale.  Cinderella is now a strong and independent young woman who is an equal, essentially, to the prince, even while their social status couldn’t be any further apart.

Naturally, “Cinderella” wouldn’t be “Cinderella” with all of its classic elements: there’s the pumpkin that turns into the carriage, the mice that transform into horses and of course, the iconic glass slippers; but even those elements feel fresh and vibrant thanks to the wondrous performance of Helena Bonham Carter as Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother.

And while Bonham Carter is only in the film for about 10 minutes (first, as an unrecognizable beggar lady who tests Cinderella’s will to be kind, only to transform into the giddy, Bibbidi-Bobbidi white-gowned magician who creates the girl’s transportation to the beautifully staged Castle Ball) – she makes the most out of every second she’s on-screen. Thankfully, Branagh puts his talented star to good use by making her the narrator of the film, and even has her sing the iconic song “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” during the end credits.

Despite the smattering of talent that surrounds her, James’ glowing performance as Cinderella helps the “Downtown Abbey” star carry the film with relative ease on her delicate shoulders. She’s the perfect choice to play the time-honored character with a sweet smile, an air of innocence and steady charisma and charm that makes you root for her from start to finish. True, we all know how the tale ends, but what an exciting, freshly mowed path through the gorgeous forestland “Cinderella” takes us on to get there. It’s a brilliant movie suited for girls and boys, and women and men of all ages.

Playing before “Cinderella” is the new “Frozen” short film “Frozen Fever,” a delightful seven-minute tale about a sniffling Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel), who’s trying to arrange a birthday party for her sister, Anna (Kristen Bell) despite a nasty cold. Elsa’s under-the-weather for the entire short, but her condition helps produce clever additions to the world of “Frozen” and the loveable goofball snowman Olaf (Josh Gad).

Most importantly, parents may find their children letting go of the Oscar-winning “Frozen” song “Let it Go,” as “Frozen Fever” debuts a memorable new song, “Making Today a Perfect Day.” It’s a perfect song for a perfect mini-sequel of sorts, since it takes place after the events of the first film.

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“Run All Night” (R) 3 stars (out of four)

Liam Neeson is back with a particular set of skills – although time does appear to be catching up with him, finally – with “Run All Night,” a gritty, fast-paced crime thriller that boasts a terrific cast to help the film rise above its convoluted storyline.

Neeson stars as Jimmy Conlon, a broken-down former hit man for his longtime friend/powerful New York City mob boss Sean Maguire (Ed Harris). In an unfortunate set of circumstances, Jimmy shoots and kills Sean’s only son, Danny (Boyd Holbrook) who was a hair-trigger away from his shooting Jimmy’s son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), for witnessing a murder.

Despite their long history together, Sean orders a hit on Mike so Jimmy can suffer the same pain of losing a child. But Jimmy’s not going to give in easy, and devises a plan to stay on the run throughout the night with his estranged son, in an effort to try to make things right with his former crime confidant.

Neeson seems only to be playing a variation of the “Taken”-like character that’s dominated the action crime genre in the past few years, and it appears now that he’s just on this side of being unbelievable. Neeson’s a big man at 6 feet 4 inches and is no doubt fit for a man of 62, but given the physical and mental toll his life of crime has taken on him (he’s executed dozens of people, with some of the hits closer to home than he’d like to remember), and it’s a wonder how he disarms and beats people (or shoots them with skilled precision) for a guy who walks with a limp and was falling-down drunk just hours before.

Harris, meanwhile, is chilling as the ruthless crime boss, while Kinnaman – who rose to prominence in the brilliant AMC-turned-Netflix-series “The Killing,” is excellent as the moral compass of the film. He’s about the only main character that you can root for, given Jimmy’s and Sean’s menacing pasts. Vincent D’Onofrio also shines as the film’s only straight cop in a city otherwise owned by Sean’s power, while Common is wicked as a hit man hired to complete the job that his crew can’t seem to get done.

In the end, fans of shoot ’em ups with high body counts will no doubt be satisfied by “Run All Night,” despite the film’s obvious faults. And while “Run All Night” leaves more to be desired, it’s at least a major improvement over Neeson’s lackluster third film in the “Taken” franchise.

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