Friday, February 25, 2022

2021 Live Action Short Film Oscar Nominees: The Reviews (Review #1577)


This year, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, as of this writing, will not present the winner/winners of seven categories on their live broadcast. I understand it is so they can give more airtime to Billie Eilish and the comedy of Amy Schumer & Wanda Sykes.

Be that as it may, I have decided to take advantage and see the five short films nominated for Best Live-Action Short Film. I will review them in the order screened, followed by my final analysis. They run from a mere 12 minutes to a reasonable 38 minutes. Three are in foreign languages (Danish, Polish and Kyrgyz) while the other nominees in English are from the United Kingdom and United States.

ON MY MIND (18 Minutes, in Danish)

Henrik (Rasmus Hammerich) walks into an empty bar, clearly distressed. Barmaid Louise (Camilla Bendix) is more welcoming, albeit disinterested to Henrik versus her crabby boss Preben (Ole Boisen) busy with his taxes. Henrik's had his whisky and is about to leave until he spots a karaoke machine. Henrik pays, begs and pleads to use the machine and record himself singing Always on My Mind. An irate Preben finally demands to know why Henrik is making such an issue over this. While we know Henrik is singing Always on My Mind for his wife Trine, it isn't until he tells them that she is being "turned off" that we know why he's so insistent. It is so that Trine, or her soul, can hear this song before he agrees to turn off the life support system. Even if she cannot literally hear the song, her soul can.

On My Mind says in eighteen minutes more than most films say about loss, grief, love and that sad mix of the three. The three primary performances of Hammerich, Bendix and Boisen are excellent. They have basically one trait (forlorn, respectably disinterested and short-tempered), but when Louise and Preben realize Henrik's dilemma, their shock registers so much. Hammerich's agony is heartbreaking to watch. His face and specifically his eyes reveal Henrik's grief but also his quiet belief that her soul will fly. On My Mind is not a film about faith, but a film about hope. Intentional or not, at the end when Henrik opens the window after Trine dies, we see the light from the sun reflect on him. 

I admit to getting emotional at On My Mind. I was deeply moved by the story and the performances. Beautiful, heartbreaking but curiously hopeful, I found On My Mind perfect as a film, short or otherwise.


PLEASE HOLD (19 Minutes, in English and Spanish)

Mateo Torres (Erick Lopez) is going about his business when a police drone informs him that he's being arrested. He is never told exactly what his crime is, but Correcticorp, the automated justice system corporation, will not let him go. Mateo goes through indignity after indignity in this automated jail hell. He does not have enough cash to so much as turn the lights off in his cell, let alone hire a remotely (and remote) lawyer. Phone calls to his disbelieving parents eventually get him the $10,000 he needs to hire attorney Guillermo Lima, but in all those months locked up he already has agreed to work for Handmade, making literal cents knitting and crocheting. Mateo, on the brink of insanity, barely holds on long enough to not accept a guilty plea to a lesser charge to get Lima. Lima takes one look at him and appears, almost irritatedly so, to see Mateo may be a case of mistaken identity. Released, Mateo picks up his personal property to find his life in shambles and Handmaid still offering him employment.

Please Hold is a brilliant, dark and cynical tale of the worst of two worlds. On one hand there is the various automated operating systems we all endure whenever we are desperate to get a living person on the line. On the other, a criminal justice system that has nothing to do with justice. Please Hold clearly takes inspiration from both Kafka (The Trial immediately coming to mind) and the dysfunctional criminal justice system. The film, in a clever way, blends the frustrations of enduring machines repeated telling us "I did not get that" with the sad option for detainees to accept plea deals that will give them reduced sentences for crimes they did not commit rather than endure lengthy jail stays, expensive trials and perhaps longer sentences. "We hope you enjoyed your stay. Please exit the room to begin the discharge process", the faceless machine cheerfully recites to an emotionally spent Mateo. Lopez is brilliant as Mateo, this poor average Joe who finds himself in this insane world and struggles against two horrors: the indifference of machines and the indifference of justice.   

In turns frightening and funny, Please Hold is one of the sharpest satires I have seen, though it is also frightening. Amazingly clever down to the smallest detail (such as how corporations can exploit prisoners perhaps even after their nightmare ends), Please Hold works on both the literal and symbolic level.  


THE DRESS (30 Minutes, in Polish)

Lonely chambermaid Julia (Anna Dzieduszycka) lives her life of quiet desperation, smoking and performing auto-erotic exercises. Julia's loneliness is compounded by the fact that she is below average height. Bitter cynicism masks emptiness, until truck driver Bogdan (Szymon Piotr Warszawski) catches her eye. To her surprise, Bogdan appears interested too. Promising to return from a run to Kyiv, Julia prepares herself for romance, love and hopefully her first sexual experience. Her best friend/coworker Renata (Dorota Pomykala) helps her by presenting her a dress from Renata's daughter. However, the Bogdan/Julia tryst does not end as she had hoped. At the end, Julia can only observe a beautiful nude average-height woman in bed, a sad echo of Julia's own lost dreams.

I found The Dress well-acted, particularly Dizeduszycka as Julia. Her monologue to Renata, in tears, telling her how she just wants to be someone, anyone else, is deeply moving. There is also a wonderful, melancholy scene where she disrobes and gets into an empty bed, clearly imagining a romantic moment with Bogdan. Masking her loneliness with cigarettes and sarcasm, we see the longing in Julia. In many ways, The Dress is not about those with dwarfism, but about all those lonely people to quote a song. For me, however, the melancholy and unhappy ending push the film down. A film does not have to be happy to be good, and The Dress is good. However, it was not quite my cup of tea.


THE LONG GOODBYE (12 Minutes, in English)

An average British family of Pakistani descent is going about their lives, preparing for a wedding, when a group of crazed white racists storm through the family's neighborhood. Forcing their way into the family's home, the racists men grab everyone in sight, separate the men from the women and children, and force the men down on their knees. One of the men (Riz Ahmed), attempts to flee but is shot in the back. He was lucky: the other men were shot in the head, with the British police helping the white thugs. Ahmed manages to get up and give us a spoken word/rap monologue, occasionally looking straight into the camera, about the racism all around him.

What the hell is this garbage? The Long Goodbye is not a movie. It's a mix of music video and diatribe, born of anger on how rampant racism is all around the world of Ahmed. It is no surprise that The Long Goodbye plays like a music video: Riz Ahmed is clearly rapping during the chaotic violence going on. We got only the tiniest glimpse of both the family and the rioters. This is not to say I want "the rioters side of the story", but what is the context of the extremism of their actions apart from Ahmed's worldview of how racism is all around him? Playing more like a promotional film for Ahmed's The Long Goodbye album than a real film, Ahmed does what for me is a bane of my film viewing: look straight into the camera to address us. I'm not one for lectures, and The Long Goodbye is just that. It is a film that thinks is insightful but which I found insipid. Pointless, smug, perhaps Ahmed might do well to make a film about a truly vile act of violence and racism: Partition. 


TAKE AND RUN (ALA KACHUU) (38 Minutes, in Kyrgyz)

Sezim (Alina Turdumamatova) has a chance to advance her life by scoring well on a university entrance exam, much to her very traditional mother's dismay. Sezim goes to the Kyrgyzstan capital Bishkek anyway, staying with her friend Aksana (Madina Talipbekova), who is shunned in their hometown as a "tramp". Sezim starts her new life: learning to drive, getting a job and waiting for her scores. One day, three customers come into the bakery asking for her colleague, frightening Sezim. To her horror, Sezim is abducted by these men and forced into marriage to one of them, Dayrbrek (Nurbek Essengazy Uulu). Sezim endures virtual slavery and rape, is horrified that her parents agree to this marriage, and finds the loss of her pet goat pushing her to deep depression. Fortunately, one day Dayrbrek's grandmother gives her some clothing to wash, one of them which contains car keys. She makes a break for it, stopping to quickly see her younger sister, and eventually runs out of gas. Sezim, despite no money, manages with some family heirlooms to pay for a bus back to Bishkek and hopefully safety.

Ala Kachuu is the given title, which refers to this little-known but still horrifying act of bridal abductions. The fact that anyone thinks any of this is rational is horrifying. What is surprising about Take and Run is that despite the monstrous situation they are not truly villainous. Sezim's mother-in-law is a nasty piece of work, but she is the general exception. Dayrbrek himself is not evil himself, and his grandmother has moments of kindness. However, we can't be blinded to how monstrous this system is and worse, how it is accepted. "We all came in tears, but our tears dried," the grandmother says, revealing that to them, this is how things are. This is a well-acted film, particularly Turdumamatova as Sezim, her optimism and horror revelatory. Take and Run ends with a note telling us thousands of women are abducted every year, a sobering thought. 



With one exception this year's Best Live-Action Short Film nominees manage to tell their stories with intelligence and entertainment. They tackle serious subjects, sometimes in a straightforward manner (Take and Run) and sometimes in dark humor (Please Hold). I was impressed with two of them, thought one of them was strong, one good but not to my tastes and one I found so much woke garbage. 

I think the big battle will be between the moving, somber On My Mind and the cynical and brilliant Please Hold. I would vote for On My Mind, though I expect that as one of the two English-language films Please Hold will win. I would not be unhappy if either won and should Take and Run pull off an upset I would likewise be pleased. The Long Goodbye is a waste of time: more a promotional video than a real film. If perhaps Ahmed had built a story around these characters, we might have had a film. Instead, we had nothing. I found the nominated films on the whole fine work. It's a terrible shame that they will not be recognized during the broadcast. 

Trust me: a few of them are much better than some of the feature films in major categories (looking at you, Spencer). 

My Rankings:

On My Mind

Please Hold

Take and Run

The Dress

The Long Goodbye

Thursday, February 24, 2022

An Open Letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences


TO: David Rubin, President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

CC: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors

Dear President Rubin and Academy Board Governors,

To misquote the Apostle Paul in his Letter to the Galatians, "Oh foolish Academy, who has bewitched you"? I note with great sadness how your organization, once the benchmark for film excellence, has devolved into a curious mixture of audience pandering and indifference to those creatives you claim to celebrate and acknowledge.

Last year, you altered your awards presentation in a bizarre hope that a posthumous nominee would win and thus end your awards presentation on a "cinematic" note. When a still-living nominee ended up winning, you ended up looking almost exploitive of both a dead man and a senior citizen. You stepped on both the winner's moment and the late nominee's memory. You shamefully attempted to use affection for an actor gone too soon for your own cynical motives. You also denigrated the work of the eventual winner by drawing attention away from his work and achievement in hopes of getting a viral moment for your own self-promotion.

This shameful ploy was preceded by the Academy's proposals in the past few years to segregate certain categories to commercial breaks and this year, to cut categories out of the live broadcast altogether. This was built on the theory that, due to the broadcast's length, larger audiences would tune in if the show ran shorter. Eliminating "obscure" categories, the theory went on to say, would somehow increase viewership. 

I do not subscribe to the theory that viewership is down because presenting the Documentary Short Film Academy Award takes up slightly more or less airtime than presenting the Documentary Feature Film Academy Award. I doubt viewers were irritated that Colette took some time away from My Octopus Teacher.  

The backlash was so great the first time you proposed excluding certain categories from the broadcast that you were forced to reverse course and have all the categories presented live. One would have thought you would have learned from the loud objections Academy members and the remaining viewers voiced to the idea of removing categories from the broadcast when last proposed. 

Evidently, you did not.

You next attempted to pander to viewing audiences with the suggestion of a new category: "Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film", as nebulous a category as has been proposed. How would you define "Popular Film"? What criteria would you use for nominations to this category: box office receipts, number of screens, length of time in first-run theaters? All of the above?

As "Best Popular Film" could also be nominated for Best Picture, would that mean that a Best Popular Film winner that lost Best Picture wasn't that good after all? If a Best Picture winner lost Best Popular Film, would that mean it wasn't that popular to begin with? 

I would love to hear the logic of how simultaneously removing categories from the broadcast while adding a whole new category to the broadcast would shorten your presentation's running time.

Now you reveal your indifference to the Arts & Sciences of Motion Pictures by essentially saying that "some nominees are less important than others". 

The decision to exclude certain categories from the broadcast is a shameful one, displaying a callous disrespect to the nominees and their colleagues. The nominees in these categories have worked hard in their various fields, some for decades, before receiving in some cases their first nominations. Many toil away silently, attempting to excel in their chosen crafts. They now with their nominations have achieved a major milestone in their careers and lives. 

However, as some had the misfortune to have their work recognized in the Animated Short Film category versus the Animated Feature Film category, they are to be excluded from having said milestone celebrated.

A single nomination may be the highlight of their career, a win a crowning achievement. The cliche may be "it is an honor just to be nominated" but for a small group of artisans, a nomination for an Academy Award is indeed an honor, an exceptional recognition of their work. In some cases, it may be a once-in-a-lifetime moment, an experience they will treasure for the rest of their lives. 

Your decision to deliberately exclude them from having their wins broadcast live has robbed these craftsmen of their moment. To see their one moment in time stolen from them and substituted in favor of the #OscarFanFavorite hashtag or to celebrate the cinematic contributions of Billie Eilish or Beyonce has to be seen as an insult to their work and themselves personally. These makeup artists, these short film directors, have done more work for film than a pop singer whose contribution to cinema is a song written primarily to reward him or her with an Oscar. 

The artists in these shunted categories more than likely do not aim specifically for Oscar recognition. Most aim to merely work in their chosen field to the best of their abilities. They may dream about Oscar wins, but for most if not all the nominees in these excluded fields, just working at all is a reward, with working at something they love a blessing.  

I imagine that winning an Academy Award, even in "obscure categories" is a singular moment for the winner/winners. If it is a great moment for those in "major" categories, imagine those whose only moment comes in these now-excluded fields.

Best Actor winner Charlton Heston approached his Ben-Hur director, William Wyler, and told him with regards to Wyler's Best Director win, "I guess this is old hat to you". Wyler, who had won Best Director twice before winning for Ben-Hur, replied "Chuck, it never gets old hat". 

Mr. Wyler, despite his past wins, still recognized the extraordinary thrill of being chosen by his peers as that year's best. He recognized the enormous honor an Academy Award was, that thrill of victory that comes to so few. For those in lesser-known categories, to be before millions of people and receive what was once the most prestigious film award would be something out of a beautiful dream.

Now, however, in a failed effort to pursue audiences that do not care about the categories, the nominees or even film itself, you have decided that these craftsmen do not merit even the briefest moments in the sun for achieving a great feat. Instead, they deserve in your eyes to be all but ignored for their hard work.   

I am but one of many who do care about Original Score, about Film Editing, about Production Design, about Sound, about Hair and Makeup. I do care about the Short Subject Categories of Documentary, Live-Action and Animated Films, though I admit I would care more if I had greater exposure to them. Do note, however, that I make every effort to see the nominated films in those categories whenever I can.

My disappointment in seeing a formerly august body publicly degrade itself to please advertisers is great. You have publicly disgraced yourselves. You have revealed that you do not care about the arts and sciences of filmmaking. Instead, you have revealed that your only interests in filmmaking are the financial rewards your organization hopes to reap.

Your continued efforts to alienate your loyal viewers in vain and vainglorious efforts to attract viewers who, unlike myself, do not care about the various technical categories is disheartening. You, like Charles Foster Kane, no longer subscribe to your own Declaration of Principles.

Therefore, I have come to a most painful decision. After years if not decades of watching your awards telecast, I have decided, most reluctantly, most painfully, to not watch this year's ceremony. I cannot support with my viewership an organization that has betrayed its self-proclaimed objectives of recognizing the best in film and the art of filmmaking. I will not be party to a shameful sham of a ceremony. 

Even if you were to once again reverse your decision on this matter, which I hope you do, I will not watch this year. Why should I bother? If you do not care about those you yourselves nominate for your awards, why are you asking me to? 

I am aware that my singular absence will not be noted by your organization and may not have any impact on the ratings for this year's ceremony. I have decided, however, that if you do not care about showing respect to those your organization has nominated for your awards due to misguided efforts at popularity, I am under no obligation to be part of this disgraceful spectacle.

I wish all the nominees for the 94th Annual Academy Awards well. I acknowledge the Academy's exceptional work at film preservation. I look forward to visiting your Academy Museum. I hope to see next year's ceremony with great pleasure. 

I, however, have decided that I can best show the excluded nominees my respect by not watching this year's ceremony.

Most Respectfully,

Rick Aragon

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Da Vinci's Demons: The Devil Review



The Devil is by no means a bad Da Vinci's Demons episode. However, even by the increasingly bonkers standards of this ahistorical fantasy series, it is hard not to chuckle at the thought of Leonardo da Vinci facing off against Dracula.

Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) now seeks out a cartographer who can help him decipher clues to the mysterious land where the Book of Leaves is hidden. Said cartographer, Solomon Ogbai or The Abyssinian (Shaun Parks) is being held prisoner by Vlad Tepes himself (Paul Rhys), better known as Vlad the Impaler or Vlad, Son of the Dragon.

It is Dracula himself with whom Leo and his friends Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin) and Nico (Eros Vlahos) must match wits with. Dracula, however, will not be so easily disposed of. As he has renounced God, offers toasts to Lucifer and lets his dogs devour prisoners of war, Leo will have to more than match wits with the potentially unholy undead.

Meanwhile, Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan) has his own issues to deal with. There is his pimping out of his brother Giuliano (Tom Bateman) to marry into the Pazzi family and forge an alliance with their bitter rivals. There is his negotiation with Federico, Duke of Urbino (Vincent Riotta) to join forces and push against Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner), who himself is plotting with the Pazzis against the Medici.

Guiliano for his part is investigating who the spy in the Medici household is, bringing him closer to unmasking his brother's mistress Lucrezia (Laura Haddock) as the spy. He also begins his own affair with ex-nun and current bar-wench Vanessa (Hera Hilmar). Sixtus is enraged over how in his eyes everyone around him has bungled things. His wrath spares no one, not even his nephew Riario (Blake Ritson). Lucrezia, no longer useful to Rome, is to be killed.

As for Leonardo, while he cannot save the Abyssinian this time, he does get the clues needed to begin his journey.

As I think on it, the title character in The Devil may not be Dracula himself. I never thought to write the phrase "naked homicidal Pope" but how else to describe His Holiness Pope Sixtus IV as he tries to drown his henchmen in his bath and beats Riario senseless? It is par for the course in the bonkers world of Da Vinci's Demons.

Dracula, however, is not, and while certain liberties can be taken on a show where past, present and future float about at will, Leonardo da Vinci fighting Dracula still looks a little loony even here. 

It is not helped by guest star Rhys' performance. I have to give some leeway into how camp the whole setup is, but Rhys seems to be not bothering to try and make this already crazed idea look remotely rational. Instead, he goes all-in on the cray-cray, camping it up to mad abandon. In fact, I think The Devil let everyone a chance to overact.

Again, "naked homicidal Popes".

The Devil almost delights in being opaque (and yes, I can see a double meaning in that phrase). Even Leonardo comments on this when seeing a vision of himself with Ogbai, wryly commenting that the Sons of Mithras never seem able to give a straightforward answer. 

Perhaps in retrospect, I should be more lenient towards The Devil (again, an odd turn of phrase). However, Leonardo da Vinci literally crossing swords with Dracula and naked homicidal Popes seem a bit much for me.

Next Episode: The Hierophant


Tuesday, February 22, 2022

The Apu Trilogy: The Conclusions

Image result for the apu trilogy

The Apu Trilogy is the greatest film trilogy ever made.

Apologies to The Godfather, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings series.

The three films that comprise the Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar, each in themselves are absolute masterpieces. Each film allows us to focus on one figure at three distinct points in his life: as a child, as a young adult and as a young man. In each of these points, Apu faces great personal loss: his sister, his parents, his wife and temporarily his son. Yet, he endures, aware of the sadness in life but also the joy in life. 

This is what makes the Apu Trilogy work so brilliantly: its universality. These are shared experiences that every single one of us will have. The loss of those we love is unavoidable. We see the evolution of Apu through these griefs as well as his resilience. Even in the darkest moments, there is still light. The final shots of Apu carrying his son to a new home inspires hope, inspires a sense that they will have a bright, joyful future.

That sense of quiet optimism grounds the films. In each of them, they end on a new journey, where new adventures await them. 

I am ashamed to think that I am making the Apu Trilogy a catalog of misery. Far from it: Satyajit Ray's films also show us the joy of life, of discovering ourselves. Apu finds joy in mischief and learning, in love and fatherhood. Apu is bright, inquisitive, and hopeful. Dreaming of a life far from that which might have been preordained, he pushes onwards. Rather than focus on the sadness of death, the Apu Trilogy highlights that spirit of perseverance, of acceptance and of the thrill of life.

We can see not just ourselves but our families in these films: the hopeful father, worried mother, loving spouse, wild child. As one watches the films, despite the distinctly Indian setting, there is not a character or situation that any person could not either have experienced or seen.

Collectively, the story of our title character is a moving, deep and powerful set chronicling the extraordinary life of an average man. The Apu Trilogy is a reminder that each life matters, that every single person born has value. Beyond the craftsmanship in the films, there is in them a simple truth: we, all of us, have a role in this world. 

We Are Valuable Because We Are.

There can be no greater lesson for all of us to learn about each other and ourselves.

Da Vinci's Demons: The Tower Review



What's a little sodomy amongst friends? The Tower tackles that most controversial of Leonardo da Vinci topics: his sexual orientation. With clever, shocking writing and some fine performances, The Tower moves quite well.

Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) is imprisoned for the crime of sodomy. This allegation could not have come at a worse time for the Medici, who want the royal patronage of Spanish monarchs Ferdinand (Philip Arditti) and Isabella (Lydia Leonard), along with their confessor, Torquemada (Peter Guinness). The prudish couple finds Florence a cesspool of decadence and debauchery. Therefore, why not entertain them with a performance of the raunchy Decameron? Lorenzo (Elliot Cowan) is horrified, but for once his brother Giuliano (Tom Bateman) wins this battle.

Struggling in his own battle is Leo, who appears to have gone bonkers in isolation. He finds that the charges have gone from mere sodomy to sorcery, and if convicted nothing will be able to save him. The kangaroo antics of the Magistrate outrage even Leo's disapproving father Piero (David Schofield), a stickler for the rule of law and proper order. How will Leonardo escape his prison? Even if he does (hint: he does), how will he escape the charges? 

Simple: by finding something that is worse than sodomy or sorcery. The Magistrate finds himself literally hog-tied, and with that, Leo lives to fight another day.

The Tower tacitly acknowledges what has been speculated but never fully confirmed: that Leonardo da Vinci had varied sexual tastes. Da Vinci's Demons has shown him many times getting hot and heavy with Lorenzo di Medici's mistress Lucrezia Donati (Laura Craddock), but this is the first episode where there is even a hint that Leo may be at the very least bicurious. We see this at the end when Jacobo Salterelli (Christopher Elson) a male model dragged into court over the sodomy charges shows Leo the drawings Leo did of him, drawings of a most erotic nature. Leo tells the model he will find someone else to love and they share a kiss. 

Whether da Vinci in real life was gay, bisexual, bicurious, asexual or all of the above only he knows. I think there was early criticism of Da Vinci's Demons because it did not delve into Leo's private life apart from his almost nymphomaniac humping of Lucrezia, but this is fantasy. As such, I don't see it as an issue, let alone a major one. The Tower, at the very least, leaves the door open for more same-sex schtupping, but that is not the focus of the episode.

Instead, it is on the inventive nature of da Vinci, and The Tower certainly shows a wild side to his inventiveness. Essentially, Leonardo da Vinci invented an early version of the Bat-Signal and photography. The scene where the Magistrate appears to be involved in bestiality may shock, but it does show that a mad (as in angry) Leo may not be far off from a mad (as in crazy) Leo.

The Tower has some fine bits of dialogue, ones that Tom Riley speaks with wild abandon. "I'm desperate, enraged and in need of a good meal, but I'm NOT mad!" he tells his friends when he's escaped. Asked later what he craves, he winkingly replies, "The Magistrate's ass". 

The Tower's dialogue also extends to the secondary plot of the Spanish monarchs visiting. Lorenzo explains to a surprised but interested Ferdinand how their patronage system works. Later on, Ferdinand admits he was forced to marry his unattractive cousin and finds the ability of ordinary people to speak to their leaders fascinating. 

The bawdy nature of the Decameron, and the Medici brothers literally fighting over it also make for good viewing. The sets, particularly the court where the case is being tried, are impressive.

We also see actors doing quite well. Schofield shows a slightly more caring side to Piero. He still disapproves of his son, but he equally disapproves of how the trial is clearly stacked against him. Whatever Piero's faults, he holds the law as sacrosanct, and is outraged at anyone being railroaded.

The Tower moves our story forward while standing on its own. It is a well-crafted, well-acted episode that had some issues (it made little use of Torquemada), but on the whole did well. 

Next Episode: The Devil


Monday, February 21, 2022

Uncharted: A Review



We are barely into 2022 yet I think Uncharted may be my Biggest Disappointment of the Year. I had never heard of the video game on which it is based on, but given how lackluster the entire film is, I am both not interested in playing the game or in seeing more films that Uncharted teases it will spawn.

Young bartender/petty thief Nathan Drake (Tom Holland) is recruited by shadowy fortune hunter Victor "Sully" Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg) to help him find a vast treasure hidden by the survivors of Ferdinand Magellan's crew. Sully thinks Nate can help him due to his past work with Nate's long-lost brother Sam. 

Going against them are the wealthy Moncada family who feel the treasure is their due and later on, Chole Frazer (Sophia Ali), Sully's frenemy who sometimes helps, sometimes hurts his search. Santiago Moncada (Antonio Banderas) has his own treasure hunter to help his cause: Braddock (Tati Gabrielle), who also has a past with Sully.

As the nearly clueless but remarkably agile Nathan goes from New York to Barcelona to the Philippines in search of the treasure, he continues his main mission of finding Sam. Everyone seems more than capable of betraying everyone else, but ultimately Nathan and Sully manage to get little bits of treasure despite major obstacles.

In two post-ending scenes, we find Sam is alive but imprisoned and Nate & Sully are on another treasure hunt, when just as they are about to escape with a map, they come upon another figure which I figure we would see in a sequel.

There are two ways to adapt something like Uncharted. You can go the straight route and make it a serious action/adventure where you take the time to introduce the characters, set up the story and handle things more seriously. You can, conversely, embrace the silliness of it all and make Uncharted fun and zippy, not taking itself seriously and being a bit of an escapist lark. Uncharted never decided which it would be, so it opted to throw everything and hope something would work. 

What you ended up with was a pretty boring film, where things move because they had to. Not only that, but things also moved in an expected way. You know Chloe can't be trusted. You know the various escapes will have complications. You know there will be quips between Sully and others. You know Sam is alive. The few things that are different do not appear to make any sense: a major character is killed off but with no logic apart from "Actor X, already cashing a paycheck to be in this rubbish, does not want to be around for any potential sequels". 

For an action/adventure film, Uncharted is so sluggish. There is a lethargy to everyone's performances that I wouldn't blame them if they had literally fallen asleep during a take. What should be fast paced seems to almost amble on. Take for example when Nate and Chloe are trapped in water. Their only rescue is Sully, but he's too busy fighting Braddock to attend quickly to Nate and Chloe. We should feel their lives are in danger, but somehow, everything played so slowly you feel nothing.

That sluggishness goes to the performances. Tom Holland showed great promise in The Impossible, but ever since he became our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, he's been coasting and slumming through his career. In the film's opening, we see Nate dangling from an airplane cargo and when he knocks someone to his death, Nate immediate shouts, "Oh my god, I'm SO SORRY!". Uncharted does not push him in the acting department, which he may have wanted. However, did he want to play a webless Peter Parker knockoff?

At one point, Nate asks Chloe when she wanted to be "Indiana Jones", and a bit of me was wondering if he was going to call it "a REALLY OLD MOVIE". Later, when Sully mocks Nathan for ordering a martini, I thought it was a waste to not have him say to make it shaken, not stirred. 

Wahlberg, to my mind, has never been an actor. He just parlayed his youthful physique into a successful film career where he plays the same type: snarky action star. He looks bored trying to sound clever and quippy, but to be fair he does manage to acknowledge being 50 years old (at one point he admits not being able to read something because he doesn't have his reading glasses). 

As a side note, Wahlberg is literally twice Holland's age, meaning that Nate's treasure-hunting partner is old enough to be his father! Whether or not Uncharted wanted to draw attention to this in their mostly forced interplay I cannot say. 

Banderas is there to cash a check and is relishing hamming it up for all his paycheck was worth. Ali and Gabrielle didn't so much phone it in as texted it in. It's a sad sign when you know someone of importance is making a cameo, but you have no idea who that person is or why we should care.

There are some good parts in Uncharted: the airplane sequence was well-done even if it was CGI. On occasion Wahlberg and Holland were able to bring some self-deprecating humor. When Sully tells Nate to make themselves small, "or in your case, smaller", Nate snaps back, "You're only an inch taller, tops!". If IMDB is correct, Nathan Drake is right: Tom Holland's 5' 7.5" is only a shade less than Mark Wahlberg's 5'8".

I wanted to like Uncharted, to embrace it as goofy fun. I could have forgiven how illogical it was (500-year-old wooden ships in perfect working order, how Sully spirited away a valuable cross with Nate able to also easily escape). What I could not forgive was how boring it all was. 

Worse, we get promises of sequels, an arrogant statement for something so dull as Uncharted. This Goonies/National Treasure/Indiana Jones mishmash has nothing going for it, and while I know audiences loved it, I do not want more of Drake's takes.     

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Dune: 1984 vs. 2021. An Early Comparison

DUNE: 1984 VS. 2021

It might be unfair to compare the David Lynch version of Frank Herbert's science fiction epic Dune to the Denis Villeneuve version insofar as Villeneuve will have a sequel attached to his while Lynch was forced to collapse the massive novel into one film. Despite the impending arrival of Dune: Part Two, I think we can work at having an early look at these two adaptations and draw some thoughts on how they stack up against one another.

For better or worse the Lynch version will always pale to the Villeneuve version. After all, the 1984 version didn't receive any Academy Award nominations, let alone the strong ten nods the 2021 version did. That the 2021 version is a serious albeit highly unlikely contender for Best Picture is a credit to how well-crafted the Villeneuve version is. 

I also understand that many fans of Dune dislike Lynch's version for a variety of reasons. It collapsed so much into one film that it made the final product almost unintelligible. It had an excessive amount of voiceover that became farcical. Characters came and went so quickly they had no chance to play a real role in the story. This is not an issue with the Villeneuve version, especially since he gets to make two films.

Still, I think the Lynch version has its own virtues. Yes, it may be rushed and at times nonsensical, but it is weirdly hypnotic, bizarrely fascinating. While it really is too soon to make a definite comparison, let us begin nonetheless.


Kenneth McMillan
Stellan Skarsgard 

Perhaps the dueling Barons can show why the 1984 version is such a bizarre enterprise while the 2021 version is a Best Picture contender. McMillian's Baron is an unhinged loon, one that is ripe for parody. Whether it is literally spitting out his dialogue or being comically evil, you cannot take him seriously as an antagonist. How else to react when he's referred to as "that floating fat man". McMillan seems to devour the scenery, his fellow actors, and even the camera whenever he's on screen.

Skarsgard has limited screentime as the Baron, but he was menacing, dark and unrepentantly evil. I think his longest scene was when he gloated over his archnemesis Duke Leto. Skarsgard's excellence in the role comes from how he uses his voice, the growl and brief statements displaying the darkness and lust for power. I understand Skarsgard and Villenueve drew heavily from Marlon Brando's performance in Apocalypse Now, and I can see that. 

Skarsgard's Baron is a menacing monster. McMillan's Baron is a loon. An entertaining loon, but a loon nonetheless.

It is interesting that the element that made McMillan so comical (the floating) works with Skarsgard.


Richard Jordan
Jason Momoa

As much as the name "Duncan Idaho" is mocked, it is a credit to Jason Momoa that he makes Duncan a strong, heroic, intelligent warrior. It is no slam on Jordan, but Jordan was frankly too posh and elegant to be seen as a fierce soldier. Jordan's Duncan comes across as more a courtier than a fighter. As I think on Jordan, I do not remember seeing him leading armies in major combat, let alone participating in them.  

I am reluctant to say Momoa is an actual actor versus an action star. However, that is what the role of Duncan Idaho called for, so this was right up his street. His imposing physicality and intense manner all shaped to make Momoa an ideal warrior. He also had a noble end, a true warrior to the end. Momoa also manages to bring in what little levity the 2021 Dune has, so that gives him an added plus.


Sian Phillips
Charlotte Rampling

Rampling is hampered by the fact that her role as the villainous Bene Gesserit mother is small, though I imagine Dune: Part II will give her a more prominent role. Rampling is an exceptional actress and I hope she does more. However, Phillips is also a strong actress, and there is something vaguely wild to almost camp about her take on the role. She made Reverend Mother Gaius Mother more theatrical, grand, almost crazed.

Rampling was not allowed to be large and operatic unlike Phillips. She tore into the role with almost crazed abandon, but unlike McMillan never went full-on bonkers. Phillips also gets points for her "GET OUT OF MY MIND!", and as much as Rampling may be required to say that I doubt she would top Phillips' take. Given how intertwined the line and Phillips are, I think Dune: Part II will either avoid the line altogether or require a different line reading.  


Sean Young

Here, I am waiting for the final product, though I am giving the slight edge to Emmy-winner Zendaya. Young is hampered by a major flaw in the 1984 version: the rushed manner to it. Young, like many actors in Lynch's Dune, was simply not given enough material or time to make a major impact.

Curiously, this hampers Zendaya's role in Villeneuve's Dune also. Like in 1984, 2021's Chani is a bit of a shadow, a mystery, a literal dream girl. However, even in her limited time Zendaya was a more proactive figure, a warrior princess more than the mere love interest that Young had to play. I confess to not being yet won over by Zendaya as an actress, though perhaps I am a bit unfair given that my main if not sole exposure to her has been through the MCU Spider-Man films. 

I think that she will play a larger role in Dune: Part II, but right now I do not see Young overtaking Zendaya in the role. 


Patrick Stewart
Josh Brolin

As with Jordan, Patrick Stewart came across as more a member of the Duke's Court than a soldier and military advisor. Brolin's Gurney, on the other hand, was all business, stern and strict. There was little to no levity or humor in Dune 2021, but even by that standard Brolin was the least jocular. I think that fit the role, so I think Brolin did the part right.

As much as Brolin's version towers over Stewart's version, there is something sweetly endearing in Stewart's take. I cannot help thinking that there's something both sweet and crazed about Gurney holding a pug while screaming "FOR DUKE LETO!" as he leads men into battle. I cannot for the life of me picture Josh Brolin's Gurney doing anything so flat-out bonkers. That Stewart did so and did it with a straight face earns mad props from me.   


Francesca Annis
Rebecca Ferguson

I think Annis was like so many in the Lynch version put in an impossible position: act with little to nothing to work with. Her Lady Jessica suffered greatly in that she was quite weak to where she made concubines look almost useless. It is curious that I think once she gave birth to Paul's sister, I cannot remember Annis in the film at all.

Ferguson however was given not just more to do but was also a more capable woman, strong, intelligent and a mistress in the arts of her former order, the Bene Gesserit. That she had an outside chance for a Supporting Actress nomination shows how strong an impression Ferguson left. She may still earn that nod for the sequel.


Jurgen Prochnow
Oscar Isaac

Outside of a dream/fantasy sequence we have sadly seen the last of Duke Leto Atreides. Therefore, here we can declare an outright winner: Oscar Isaac. 

It's a curious thing that an aspect that holds Prochnow down is of all things the look of Lynch's Dune. I will get back to this in a bit, but Prochnow does not appear to live in a real world. Rather, his stiff and formal manner make him appear artificial. Isaac, conversely, not only gives us the elegant and noble (in every meaning of the word) figure. He also shows the loving father behind the pomp and ceremony.

When Duke Leto is betrayed in the 1984 version, it comes across as slightly blank. In the 2021 version, there is genuine sadness and horror to the apparent fall of House Atreides. The differences between Prochnow and Isaac are best exemplified in Duke Leto's end. Isaac made his effort to destroy Baron Harkonnen a defiant act. I figure the same thing happened with Prochnow, but I cannot remember it at all. 


Kyle MacLachlan
Timothee Chalamet

Surprisingly, Chalamet is one year OLDER than MacLachlan was when the latter played Paul Atreides. However, Chalamet still looks a decade younger than his twenty-six years versus MacLachlan, who looks a decade older than his then-twenty-five years when he debuted in Dune 1984.

I think Chalamet's youthful looks help in his performance as the young man who has destiny thrust upon him. There is a greater hesitancy, a greater uncertainty to how Chalamet plays him than in how MacLachlan does. The doubt, the rage, the loss Paul feels seems deeper with Chalamet. MacLachlan seems almost too strong (and curiously too old) when he is Paul.

However, I think in the back of our minds we have to remember that MacLachlan was making his screen debut in Dune, while Chalamet had a large body of work by the time he was in Dune. Chalamet had already even received a Best Actor nomination before he took on the role. That is not to say MacLachlan is a bad actor or did not do a good job. It just means Chalamet had more experience than MacLachlan, only one factor as to why he did a better job.



It is a terrible misfortune that Lynch's version looks at times creaky. I think the visual effects at times were not only weak but comical. I remember when Dune 1984 first showed us the members of the Guild. My late friend Fidel Gomez, Jr., who was fond of Dune, referred to them as looking like "talking penises". There is no improvement as Dune 1984 keeps going.

The 1984 sandworms look mechanical to farcical, reflective of the film overall. The 2021 sandworms were conversely more authentic looking, as if they were real. That is the hallmark of true special effects: if it can suspend disbelief long enough for you to accept the clearly fictional world you are seeing.

A better example of how poorly the 1984 visual effects came across are in how the House Atreides army looks in their protective gear. They look like big boxes. Compare those to the smoother electric gear the 2021 version gave them. They are realistic for the film's setting, organic versus obvious.

There were also no talking penises in Villeneuve's Dune, so there's that too. 



One big point that separates the Lynch and Villeneuve versions is that the former could never get away from having Dune look like a series of sets, while the latter made Dune look like a real universe. Lynch's Dune was dominated by blacks and an almost industrial look where there was little to no difference between the planets Caladan and Giede Prime.

Villeneuve's Dune conversely made every world, every location look simultaneously ancient and futuristic. These worlds looked lived in, real, places you could go to. There is a wide difference between the lush water-filled Caladan, the dry Arrakis and the darkness of Giede Prime. Each set looks lived in, authentic. 



The 1984 Dune did not delve deep into the various worlds either in their set design or their costuming. As such, at times the actors looked like they were acting in plastic trash bags (Sting a very notable exception). There was a certain blandness, a certain sameness, to the 1984 version that pushed the production more.

2021 however, went the opposite route. Here, each world was showcased in various threads: the elegant, regal robes of House Atreides, the sinister dark wardrobe of House Harkonnen, the sensible desert gear of the Fremen on Arrakis, the grand nun-like ensemble of the Bene Gesserit. Even those who played small roles were fitted out in wardrobe that, again like the art direction, looked authentic to each world while still having an otherworldly look. 



The vistas for the 2021 version are spectacular, matching the epic nature of the film. The viewer is given a massive canvas to observe, swept into other worlds. 2021 understands that it is a large story, one that needs a large scope cinematically.

1984 simply cannot even begin to compete here.


Hans Zimmer

While I think Zimmer's score is brilliant (the various remixes to the Sardukar chant are fantastic), the Toto score for Lynch's version is still to my mind more haunting and otherworldly. It does what most if not all of Lynch's version failed to do: make Dune epic. Whatever the flaws Lynch's version has, I found the music thrilling and still memorable. It is one of the few highlights of the 1984 version.

Hans Zimmer, in my view, has a strong chance of winning Best Original Score. I loved the way he too created vast universes with his music (and bonus points for including both Mongolian throat singing AND bagpipes in this space epic). However, I simply have too strong an attachment for Toto's Dune score, with the Brian Eno-composed Prophesy Theme giving it that Music from the Hearts of Space feel. 


David Lynch
Denis Villeneuve

I think at heart Dune was not the right fit for someone as surreal as David Lynch. I think David Lynch is one of the true cinematic geniuses, a genuine craftsman and auteur extraordinaire. Having said that, Dune is outside his own considerable forte. I don't think his heart was in Dune: the space adventures, the complex and dense plot, the floating fat man, the talking penises. That is not to say he did not work hard to make as good a film as he could. It just means that asking David Lynch to make Dune is like asking Federico Fellini to make Schindler's List: the genre and the filmmaker simply not working well together.

Villeneuve is an old hand at science fiction having made both Arrival and Blade Runner 2049. I confess to not liking Blade Runner 2049, but I grudgingly give credit for Villeneuve making his own mark on a world already visited. He is well versed in world building, and also made sure that the acting never veered into camp or odd moments. The "floating fat man" in his Dune was menacing, in Lynch's Dune hilarious. 

Villeneuve did such a masterful job as director that his omission from Best Director was not only seen as a snub but almost a scandal. Most people had him as a certain lock for a nomination, though not a win. To think something as epic and grand as Dune could be thought of as almost "director-less" seems ludicrous. I do not know if Dune: Part II will get him the nomination I (and I think many others) think he was robbed of this year, but here's hoping.



On the whole, the 2021 version is if not the definite version of Dune at least a marked triumph that towers over its poorer predecessor. Massive, epic, it overwhelms viewers. I have been accused of becoming obsessed with Dune, and I think this is veering towards the truth. Dune is the only film I have seen more than once in theaters, and I might see it a third time.

I think a major reason for Dune 2021's success is that it takes the material seriously. The 1984 version could not help slipping into camp (talking penises! men leading armies while holding pugs! floating fat men!). However, it was seriously damaged by its screenplay, attempting to collapse a massive tome into one film. So much was lost, rushed through or inexplicable that it ended up being a mess. 

I remember watching an expanded opening where the filmmakers attempted to explain things. However, with the massive backstory taking up about ten to fifteen minutes, it became near-impossible to keep track of the various guilds and houses. Instead of making things clearer, this expanded opening ended up making things more confusing.

Dune 1984 attempted to fill in gaps with voiceover. While Virginia Madsen's efforts made some sense (even if her character served no purpose apart from being the de facto narrator), the endless voiceovers became so nutty it soon did not seem worth trying to sort out the plot. 

Dune 2021 however streamlined as much as it could. It is still massive, but at least it had enough sense to split the story into two films versus trying to ram everything into one. It perhaps was a bit too serious in tone, but it was not a major issue, at least for me.

As such, with a few exceptions, Dune 2021 towers over its predecessor. It will be seen for the grand epic it is. Dune 1984 will be seen more as a curiosity, odd, sometimes bonkers but still weirdly entertaining. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Da Vinci's Demons: The Magician Review



Just when you are sitting on top of the world, you are arrested for sodomy. Such is life, I suppose, and such is the case with The Magician. This Da Vinci's Demons episode builds on its mix of history and supernatural, entertaining while maintaining a strong amount of decadence.

Leonardo da Vinci (Tom Riley) continues to struggle with being the weapons maker for the Medici family. He sees that his weapons, while inventive and useful, will only increase war and death. That, fortunately, is what Rome wants. Pope Sixtus IV (James Faulkner) has allied himself with the Pazzi family, rivals to the Medici, in a secret bargain where the Vatican will use the Pazzi as bankers in exchange for bringing Florence under Rome's heel.

Lorenzo de Medici (Elliot Cowan), convinced that he has uncovered the traitor at Court, still hesitates in killing his old mentor Becchi (Michael Elwyn). Lorenzo's brother Guiliano (Tom Bateman) and even Lorenzo's mistress Lucrezia (Laura Haddock) also doubt Becchi's guilt. Lucrezia knows Becchi's innocent because she is Rome's spy, but she cannot unmask herself. She is a pawn in the hands of His Holiness' nephew Riario (Blake Ritson), who presents terms of surrender to Lorenzo. 

Lorenzo appears to have no alternative, especially when Leo destroys the armory. However, Leo has a few tricks up his own sleeve, saving Florence and with the bonus of humiliating Riario. At a feast to fete the artista, things appear to go Leo's way. He even starts cracking the mystery of the Book of Leaves thanks to clues hidden in plain sight: the painting of Lorenzo's grandfather Cosimo. However, the Officers of the Night, by means of a secret denunciation, arrest the arrogant artist for sodomy, a crime that while tolerated in Florence is still technically illegal.

The Magician gives its lead a chance to show a different, more thoughtful side to our genius. Riley still brings out da Vinci's arrogance and brash self-confidence. However, it allows him to think on the high cost of war. This episode makes Leonardo more contemplative, more aware that if he comes up with a better weapon, inevitably his rivals will find an answer to it. Seeing the cycle of war and ingenuity, Riley brings out a more conflicted man.

That isn't to say he still isn't cocky to the point in insanity. When interrupting Lorenzo's surrender, Leonardo delights in mocking Riario, the joy he has in making his rival look foolish almost uncontrollable. The addition of rain falling on them gives the scene a greater sense of delight.

The Magician also gets points for this bit of dialogue. As Lorenzo celebrates the glories of Florence and Florentine culture, he says that the city "will be remembered for centuries to come as a cynosure of innovation and artistry". Any time the word "cynosure" can be used at all, let alone as something as gleefully and nakedly bonkers as Da Vinci's Demons, should be commended.

For the record, "cynosure" means "a person or thing that is the center of attention or admiration", and yes, I did have to look it up.

There's much witty dialogue in The Magician. The Unholy Father if memory serves right quips at one point, "Resurrection requires death", meaning Florence must die for him to move on his own various agendas. We hear that "The Confraternity of Death are such vultures", again showing more elegance in turning phrases than most television shows. 

While these bits of dialogue are clever, The Magician still has at least one hang-up of Da Vinci's Demons as a whole: making the dialogue serve less as people speaking and more as infodumps to the goings-on. This is especially evident when Becchi is killed off: his final conversation with his assassin is more about giving audiences information about what has and will happen versus the words of a dying man.

To its credit, we do get strong performances from the cast. Of particular note is Bateman, who asks for Lucrezia's help in turning Lorenzo's heart back to Becchi. It shows a quietly desperate man, who knows he is not strong enough politically to go against his brother but who is still loyal to their old advisor. That isn't to say there aren't a few bumps: the scene between Lorenzo and Guiliano is a bit more theatrical than I would think well of, but it isn't terrible.

On the whole, The Magician moves the plot forward and gives us both the now-expected sight of Leonardo's genius but a more vulnerable Leo. That and "cynosure" push The Magician higher in success.

Next Episode: The Tower


Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Death on the Nile (2022): A Review (Review #1575)



After a series of delays due to everything to pandemics to allegations revolving around one cast member's alleged interest in cannibalism, the second of Sir Kenneth Branagh's Hercule Poirot films is finally before us. Death on the Nile is darker than most Agatha Christie adaptations, but despite some issues does entertain.

World War I veteran Hercule Poirot (Branagh) is now feted as the world's greatest detective, though he still has scars both physical and psychological. Ostensibly on holiday in Egypt, he runs into his old friend Bouc (Tom Bateman), whom he last encountered in the case on the Orient Express. Bouc, traveling with his mother Euphemia (Annette Benning), is part of a wedding party. The newlyweds are fabulously wealthy heiress Lynette Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) and penniless but hunky Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer). They are passionately in love, but there is a shadow to this happy honeymoon: Simon's jilted ex-fiancée Jacqueline de Bellfort (Emma Mackey). Jackie manages to find our lovebirds everywhere, forever silently taunting them.

The Doyles ask Poirot to intercede, but to no avail. They think they have escaped Jackie once and for all when they chart a ship down the Nile, but there is evil at work on the Karnak. Someone in the wedding party appears to want Lynette dead, one who has succeeded in this wicked act. Jackie is the likeliest suspect, especially since she shot Simon, but her alibi is solid when it comes to Lynette.
Therefore, whodunit? Is it Lynette's former love interest Dr. Windlesham (Russell Brand)? What about her Communist godmother Marie Van Schuyler (Jennifer Saunders) or Marie's nurse, Bowers (Dawn French), who holds a secret grudge against the Ridgeways? The suspect list even involves the entertainment: blues superstar Salome Otterbourne (Sophie Okonedo) and her niece, Rosalie (Leticia Wright), who is Lynette's friend. The loyal maid Louise (Rose Leslie) is a good suspect, as is Lynette's cousin/business manager Andrew Katchadourian (Ali Fazal). Even Mother and Son Bouc cannot be eliminated as suspects.

As bodies start piling up, Poirot finds himself facing off both a puzzling case and his own past demons. The ultimate revelation of who is behind three murders does not help Poirot heal his wounded heart, nor in a thwarted romance with a passenger. However, as six months pass from the Death on the Nile, there is still a faint glimmer of hope for our Belgian sleuth.

Death on the Nile is a surprisingly dark tale, made darker by Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green to turn Poirot into a more fleshed out figure. No longer just a man who uses his "little grey cells" and is mostly removed from affairs of the heart romantic or fraternal, this Poirot is a man who has seen friends and lovers die. I don't think we have seen a darker Poirot on film or television. It boggles the mind that the doofus clown from The Alphabet Murders would be a haunted man capable of enacting revenge.

In certain ways, Branagh's Poirot gave the actor a chance to show a more dramatic side. It's a deeper version than most Christie readers have seen, and I think he did well in the role. At the climax of his revelation, when he struggles in remembering one victim, we see the pain Poirot is in. We see this also when he sees the surviving passengers exit the Karnak, the last one especially hard for him.     

As an actor, Branagh did especially well. As a director, he indulged a bit too much in both visuals and performances. Death on the Nile has a rather lengthy dance scene that, to be fair introduces the love triangle, but makes one wonder if Branagh secretly wants to make a musicale erotique. The dry humping Simon did with both Jackie and Lynette bordered on the pornographic. It also lengthened the film unnecessarily. It took much longer than needed to get the ball rolling, and while it does pick up once the Karnak sails, it takes its pretty time getting there.

Death on the Nile also has some frightfully bad performances. Before he was shunted off for wanting to allegedly do his own version of Cannibal Holocaust, Armie Hammer showed himself to be just dreadful. His whole performance was just bad: his accent, the excessive manner, his accent, all made Hammer's hamminess horrendous. Mackey's Jackie was no better: too tight and obviously evil vs. wounded, she almost goaded you to hate rather than sympathize with her. Gadot was probably the best of the three here, but not by much: she too felt too forced as the pampered diva.

Much better were the supporting cast. Bateman surprised with his strong performance as the genial Bouc, the Watson to Poirot's Holmes. He had strong moments with Wright, Bouc's love interest in the film. Delightful throughout, he was a highlight of Death on the Nile. French and Saunders, normally a comedy duo, did very well as the more dramatic pair, and I genuinely don't understand the criticism of their roles. They did allow little moments of levity to come in (particularly when Saunders' Commie biddy brings up the issues of the proletariat while feasting on champagne), but they showed strong dramatic skills. 

Brand and Benning were somewhere in the middle: sometimes able to be dramatic, sometimes going a bit overboard.

The clear standouts were Okonedo and Wright, and here is a case of diverse casting done right. They played an American blues singer and niece/agent, allowing them to come in with a more plausible reason than just being there for diversity's sake. The racial issues the characters faced were addressed, but they also gave the other characters a chance to not be virulent racists. Okonedo's brassy yet strong Salome was not only nobody's fool, but a strong foil for our Belgian. Wright's American accent may have been a bit off, but she too more than held her own.  

Moreover, the interplay and flirtation between Salome and Hercule was delightful. It makes one not only long for a standalone Salome film but a chance for Salome to be the Irene Adler to Hercule's Sherlock Holmes. 

Death on the Nile also does well in its set design and costuming, though the green screen at times was so obviously fake you'd think it was done at an amusement park versus a major film. 

Still, on the whole I found Death on the Nile good while much longer than it should have been. More dramatic than the usual light entertainment most people think Agatha Christie adaptations are, apart from a few performances and its length this is a journey worth taking.