MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence and Thematic Elements

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Written by: Michael Green

(based on the novel MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Agatha Christie)

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton & Marwan Kenzari

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is arguably Agatha Christie’s most popular mystery novel (with AND THEN THERE WERE NONE being the only possible exception). Christie’s book has been adapted onto the big screen, the radio, and the small screen (three different times). ORIENT EXPRESS’s most recent adaptation has come loaded with big talent and recognizable faces. Though this film isn’t perfect and I wouldn’t rank it as the best Agatha Christie adaptation that I’ve sat through (that honor actually belongs to the miniseries adaptation of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE), MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS should provide classy entertainment for mature audiences.

In the 1930s, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is famous for solving seemingly unsolvable cases. Poirot seems determined to put a stop to all crime, but he also needs occasional vacation time. In an effort to get away from his stressful line of work, this mustachioed crime-solver has booked passage on the Orient Express in the dead of winter. Poirot’s holiday is cut short by the sudden murder of shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp). To make matters even worse, an avalanche has derailed the train. With a train full of suspects and an increasingly tense atmosphere, Poirot must uncover the killer’s identity before another life is lost.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS benefits from high production values and a cast/crew who clearly cared about putting their all into this project. Kenneth Branagh shot this film on 65mm cameras and the resulting visuals are gorgeous to behold. Most of MURDER’s plot doesn’t necessarily rely on effects (other than shots of the train and its snowy location), instead playing out as a tense thriller between its contained cast of characters. There are a couple of confrontations and suspenseful chases, but this film mostly builds its tension from conversations and flashbacks within those conversations (that reveal further clues about a possible motive and the killer’s identity).

Having not read the source material, I had the pleasure of not knowing a thing about MURDER’s conclusion. Though thrilling, unexpected and oddly moving, I have to imagine that ORIENT EXPRESS will likely lose some of its impact on repeated viewings. Still, the film benefits from the sheer entertainment of Kenneth Branagh in the leading role as Hercule Poirot. This over-the-top Belgian detective is quirky to the extreme and noticeably obsessive-compulsive, as opposed to being a borderline sociopathic detective (ala Sherlock Holmes). Besides driving the plot forward and cleverly piecing together clues for the viewer, Branagh’s Poirot also provides enjoyable comic relief. The tonal mix of almost cartoonish humor and straight-faced seriousness never once dissuaded my love for this strange protagonist.

As far as the supporting cast goes, ORIENT EXPRESS contains quite the impressive gathering of A-listers and emerging talent among its passengers/suspects. Johnny Depp gets some mileage out of his scumbag victim because he actually gets to flex his acting muscles in this role. Penelope Cruz is a standout as a suspicious missionary, while Willem Dafoe plays an oddball professor. Judi Dench fits well into the role of a creepy princess. The usually comedic Josh Gad plays a far darker character than his usual light-hearted fare. Michelle Pfeiffer is a hysterical (though possibly deceptive) passenger, while Daisy Ridley is a charming (though possibly homicidal) woman hiding secrets. Meanwhile, Leslie Odom Jr. is good enough as the charismatic (but possibly murderous) doctor.

On the non-suspect side of things, Tom Bateman is also a lot of fun as Poirot’s best friend (and the Orient Express’s director) Bouc. ORIENT EXPRESS’s only noticeably bad performances come from Lucy Boynton as a reclusive countess and Sergei Polunin as her ill-tempered count husband. Boynton is bland in her role and doesn’t get enough screen time to leave much of a positive impression at all. Meanwhile, Polunin is laughably over-the-top in the scenes where he switches from a calm 0 to a furiously enraged 100 in a matter of seconds. His violent temper just feels unbelievably forced. One confrontation involving this character comes out of nowhere and is almost laughably bad due to Polunin’s unconvincing line delivery. Still, both of these performers don’t receive too much screen time.

The beauty of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is that its seemingly simple murder-mystery that gets drastically more complex as the list of possible suspects and motives continues to grow. Clues and red herrings run rampant. The viewer’s emotions are thrown into a borderline distressed state as you try to figure out who the killer is…much like protagonist Poirot. As I mentioned before, I don’t think this film will hold up nearly as well upon a second viewing. Once the cat has been let out of the bag, the film’s surprise and novelty is pretty much gone. However, Branagh’s Poirot, the visuals, and performances from a talented cast make a viewing worthwhile. If you’re into murder mysteries and enjoy classy slow-burn storytelling, then you’ll likely dig MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.

Grade: B

DUNKIRK (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 46 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense War Experience and some Language

Directed by: Christopher Nolan

Written by: Christopher Nolan

Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance & Tom Hardy

Christopher Nolan is easily one of the best filmmakers working today and he seems to be constantly moving through different genres. Besides knocking viewers’ socks off with non-linear thrillers (MEMENTO, THE PRESTIGE), Nolan also crafted arguably the best superhero trilogy ever (THE DARK KNIGHT) and made an effort to play with heady science fiction (INCEPTION, INTERSTELLAR). Nolan’s latest film is a World War II drama that’s crafted in an experimental way, but throws the viewer on an intense ride. DUNKIRK hardly wastes a moment of its fast-paced running time or its three interwoven narratives (land, sea, and air). In my usual format of anthology reviews, I’ll be covering each of these three narratives on their own merits and then grading the film as a whole…

THE MOLE (One Week): The first narrative takes place over the course of a week and follows young British soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) as he attempts to escape from the beaches of Dunkirk. As the situation grows grimmer with each passing second, Tommy finds himself trying to escape through desperate measures that threaten to strip him and his fellow soldiers of their humanity. This narrative is easily DUNKIRK’s most powerful storyline. The dialogue is kept to a surprising minimum as Nolan lets the sheer intensity of hopeless situations combined with believable visuals, powerful non-spoken acting, and Hans Zimmer’s score speak for itself. This storyline also has something to say about the disconnect that comes from two differing perspectives (e.g. one soldier’s reaction to a blind guy handing out blankets at a pier). A+

THE SEA (One Day): The second narrative follows elderly citizen Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his teenage son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and their young hand George (Barry Keoghan) as they take their recreational sail boat to the beaches of Dunkirk to rescue stranded soldiers. This storyline really showcased how everyday heroism and good deeds can make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things. Rylance’s performance is especially powerful as he faces severe emotional stress from escalating situations and difficulties onboard his boat, while Cillian Murphy shows up as a shell-shocked soldier. This narrative also intersects with the Land and Air plotlines in cool ways, ala a more serious WWII version of PULP FICTION. A

THE AIR (One Hour): While I truly admire what Nolan did with his land and sea storylines, DUNKIRK seems somewhat lacking in its third plotline. Taking place over the course of a single hour, we follow three Spitfire pilots (mainly Tom Hardy) as they attempt to thwart enemy planes from bombarding rescue boats and ships. This plotline starts off intense as we get high-altitude combat and (literal) high stakes. Tom Hardy does a phenomenal job in his role, especially because he’s acting purely through his eyes when he wears the flight mask and goggles. However, this storyline seems a bit too simple and nothing too remarkable occurs by its climax. Especially when compared to the DUNKIRK’s other two narratives, this third storyline is a slight step down in quality. B

DUNKIRK weaves its three narratives across each other in a similar fashion to the Wachowski siblings’ CLOUD ATLAS. This makes for a piece of interesting experimental filmmaking combined with a very intense WWII drama. Don’t expect deep character development or set-up as Nolan immediately thrusts you into the action of the three plotlines, but somehow makes it gripping from the first frame of each narrative. Though one of the narratives is considerably weaker and less impactful than its two counterparts, DUNKIRK is a war epic that’s well worth watching and serves as a nice return to stellar quality for Nolan after his good-but-not-great INTERSTELLAR.

Grade: A-

HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Scary Moments, some Creature Violence and mild Language

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Directed by: Chris Columbus

Written by: Steve Kloves

(based on the novel HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS by J.K. Rowling)

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Jason Isaacs, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith & Tom Felton

Warner Brothers was confident that HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE would be a hit. How confident were they? Well, they believed in the film enough to begin production on a sequel three days after the first movie hit theaters. This sequel brought back director Chris Columbus, who opted for different filmmaking techniques this time around that greatly benefitted the film, and is a faithful-to-a-fault adaptation of the second novel in the HARRY POTTER book series. CHAMBER OF SECRETS is one of those rare sequels that not only lives up to its predecessor, but easily surpasses it.

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Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is spending a rather depressing summer at his abusive uncle’s home, but things liven up in a bad way when masochistic house elf Dobby gives Harry a messy warning not to return to school. The second year at Hogwarts is off to a rocky start as it seems someone has it out for Harry (sabotaging the Hogwarts Express gateway, tampering with a Quidditch equipment), but those are the least of his problems. Something ancient and deadly has been unleashed in Hogwarts. It’s literally petrifying victims who see it and may kill someone very soon. Harry, Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson) must get to the bottom of another mystery before Hogwarts is forced to close its doors for good.

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Though it still has a child-friendly attitude and is significantly more light-hearted than later entries in the series, CHAMBER OF SECRETS is darker than SORCERER’S STONE. There’s still a fantasy-mystery at the center of this film, but the stakes are higher in that people are actually being petrified and there’s a strange beast stalking the students. There a few scenes that are bound to give little kids nightmares yet again (especially those who are afraid of spiders or snakes).

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With only a year’s worth of extra experience, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson all improved greatly in natural line delivery and believable emotions. Seeing the reunion of Harry (a hero worth rooting for), Ron (great comic relief and a solid sidekick) and Hermione (bringing smarts and exposition) is akin to watching real-life friends meet up. Tom Felton also gets a lot more to do this time around as cocky rival Draco Malfoy. The returning adult cast receives noticeably less screen time, though Alan Rickman is still phenomenal as Snape, Richard Harris is perfect as Dumbledore, and Robbie Coltrane steals his scenes as the lovable Hagrid.

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New characters and fresh faces include: aforementioned CGI monstrosity Dobby, cocky incompetent professor Gilderoy Lockhart (Kenneth Branagh), weeping ghost Moaning Myrtle (Shirley Henderson), and menacing Lucius Malfoy (Jason Isaacs). Much more time is also spent with the charming Weasley family. The best new addition is easily Kenneth Branagh’s headstrong Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, who provides a lot of comic relief and frustrating plot developments in equal measure. Moaning Myrtle gets a couple of grim laughs, while Jason Isaacs is great as Draco’s threatening father.

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The worst character is easily Dobby. I know he might be a fan favorite in certain circles and he certainly plays a significant role in this film’s plot (and in later films), but I see Dobby as HARRY POTTER’s Jar-Jar Binks. He’s annoying, his humor mostly falls flat and I found myself taken out of the film every time he popped up. His final scene also contains a big plot hole pertaining to a certain curse that another character is trying to cast. It opens up a big gap in the series’ logic that makes no sense when you eventually find out about that specific spell in the fourth film.

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CHAMBER’s pacing moves quickly and the script pretty much captures every major scene from the novel. It’s faithful to a fault in that exposition is somewhat too fast and convenient, but that’s the result of filmmakers trying to cram 341 heavily detailed pages into less than three hours. I feel they succeeded, but some of the plot details are a bit heavy-handed. One element that is welcomed is the prejudice between “pure blood” wizards and “mud-bloods” (Muggle-born wizards and witches). This is a remarkably mature element in a PG-rated fantasy.

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HARRY POTTER AND THE CHAMBER OF SECRETS is bigger, funnier, darker, faster, and all around better than the first film. It’s slightly grim shift in tone signaled the maturity that later films in the series would follow. Though it’s not without a couple of complaints (which could be considered to be minor gripes), CHAMBER OF SECRETS is an exciting fantasy-adventure that outdoes its predecessor in every conceivable way.

Grade: A-

CINDERELLA (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for mild Thematic Elements

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Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Written by: Chris Weitz

Starring: Lily James, Richard Madden, Cate Blanchett, Helena Bonham Carter, Stellan Skarsgard, Derek Jacobi, Holliday Grainger & Sophie McShera

With the technological wonders and impressive effects that exist behind the camera these days, Disney has taken on a movement to reinvent their animated classics into live-action films. With a dark take on Sleeping Beauty of the way in MALEFICENT, their next animated classic to be transformed is CINDERELLA. Seeing as the folk tale of Cinderella has been around for centuries and spread worldwide, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t have a clue about the general plot of this movie. In a lot of ways, the 1950 animated version has major shortcomings and they are fixed up in Kenneth Branagh’s take on this fairy tale that’s equally aimed for adults as it is for children (though some might argue it’s made more for adults).

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Ella is a genuinely good person who’s been struck with tragic circumstances. Both of her parents are dead and she’s been saddled with the role of being a servant for her wicked stepmother and cruel stepsisters. Life isn’t going well and that doesn’t look to be changing any time soon. To add insult to injury, she’s recently been renamed Cinderella. Cinder Ella, get it? She had ashes on her face and they won’t let her live it down. While on a stroll through the woods, Cinderella meets the handsome Prince Kit who immediate takes a liking to her. Through some magic and kindness, Cinderella might yet get out of her bad situation and wind up with her true love. You know this story. Why am I giving you the premise? It’s probably for that one person who’s somehow never heard of/completely forgotten this fairy tale. Rest assured, this live action take on CINDERELLA is a great experience that we’ve come to expect from Disney.

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To those who might be worried that this version of CINDERELLA deviates or puts a spin on their beloved fairy tale, you can rest at ease. There are minimal additions to this well-known, crowd-pleasing story. The character of Cinderella is appropriately lovable and the viewer isn’t forced into feeling false sympathy for her out of obligation. I genuinely cared about Cinderella, played by a remarkable Lily James, and felt like cheering when life was looking up for her. Cate Blanchett plays the evil stepmother as a wickedly manipulative and hate-filled person almost to the point where female viewers will probably feel like leaping through the screen to give this villainess a slap across the face. The wicked stepsisters aren’t allowed too much room to develop and mainly serve as comic relief that mostly works. The prince is also given a personality this time around, which was sorely lacking in the 1950 animated version. Played by Richard Madden, Kit is actually a fleshed-out prince who gets lines, scenes and character development. Gasp!

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Though it has solid acting across the board from almost everybody (including Stellan Skarsgard as the corrupt Grand Duke), Helena Bonham Carter sticks out like a sore thumb. She’s just plain annoying as the fairy godmother and goes too far over-the-top. Her scenes seem like they’re from a completely different film and her comic relief is poorly executed. The whole sequence in which mice turn into horses and a pumpkin turns into a carriage would have been stunning if Bonham Carter hadn’t been mugging for the camera the entire time. There’s also unnecessary narration that can be a bit much (which was also a problem that I had with MALEFICENT), but doesn’t detract too much from the film.

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The production design is absolutely stunning. It’s very apparent that love, care and attention to the most minute of details was put into the making of this film. The costumes are gorgeous. The sets are elegant. The music is beautiful and enchanting. There’s actually a fleshed-out, believable romance between Cinderella and Prince Kit that feels more genuine than the usual Disney fairy tale. That’s exactly how this movie feels too, like a fairy tale come to life in cinematic form. This is also aided by a just under two-hour running time moving at a perfect pace that will leave you wondering where the time went.

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CINDERELLA should entertain both adults and children in equal measure, though I have a feeling that more adults are going to appreciate the serious treatment than kids (who will enjoy the antics of the mice, Helena Bonham Carter’s annoying godmother, and the simple story). Though there is a distinct sequence that would have been fantastic without the addition of one-liners and over-the-top humor, CINDERELLA is a cinematically mature take on a well-known fairy tale. It’s as if Kenneth Branagh has lensed his Shakespearean style of filmmaking to this live-action Disney film and it pays off in spades. CINDERELLA is a magical romance that will delight all ages.

Grade: B+

OTHELLO (1995)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Sexuality

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Directed by: Oliver Parker

Written by: Oliver Parker

(based on the play OTHELLO by William Shakespeare)

Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Irene Jacob, Kenneth Branagh, Nathaniel Parker, Michael Maloney & Anna Patrick

OTHELLO is by-the-numbers Shakespeare tragedy in many ways. There’s the naïve protagonist with no idea of the sadness that the future holds for him, the diabolical villain who breaks the fourth wall to explain his deeds to the audience, those unlucky victims who get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, and acts of bloody revenge. When held next to most other Shakespeare tragedies, OTHELLO pales in comparison. This makes this 1995 film adaptation that much more impressive in turning a lesser tragedy into a good movie that’s enjoyable for those who might not necessarily care for the play.

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Othello is a Moorish general known for his great deeds in the battlefield. Though the color of his skin brings prejudice from the very country that he’s fighting for, Othello has fallen in love with a Senator’s daughter, Desdemona, and the two secretly wed. This development pisses off Rodrigo, a gentleman who also desired Desdemona, and opens the door for revenge from the villainous Iago. Iago was passed up on a promotion from Othello for another man named Cassio. Thus, Iago manipulates everyone around him to his advantage and convinces Othello that Desdemona might be unfaithful. These ideas planted in Othello’s head and Iago’s need to keep his true intentions secret can only lead to a depressing demise for nearly everyone involved.

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There are two main performances that stand out in OTHELLO. The first being a young Laurence Fishburne as the title character. Infusing a bit of an accent and never once faltering from professional delivery, Fishburne proves himself to be an exceptional Shakespearean level actor. His performance as the inherently good, but easily misled Othello is of such high quality that it makes me wonder how he might have played Aaron the Moor (a villain) in TITUS ANDRONICUS. The best actor/character of the entire film is given to Kenneth Branagh as Iago. At this point in his career, Branagh had directed and performed in multiple Shakespeare productions. In OTHELLO, he’s strictly performing and milks the wickedness of Iago for everything that it’s worth. His villain can fake any kind, worried, or nervous emotions as needed for his sinister desires. Every other cast member and side character is absolutely forgettable though. This sadly includes Desdemona, Othello’s wife, who the viewer should feel some shred of sympathy for. Irene Jacob is just plain bland in her role.

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Given the iffy source material, director/writer Oliver Parker adapts OTHELLO with style. While one of his choices doesn’t necessarily work (more on that in a moment), the production values are high. The soundtrack also provides enough momentum to enhance the feeling of the more exciting scenes. Certain pieces of dialogue are incorporated by Iago looking into the camera (at the viewer) or a voice over going through his head as an event plays out in front of him. One interesting addition is that this doesn’t exclusively stay on the character of Iago. As his plan moves forward, a paranoid Othello also addresses the audience and develops an inner monologue as well.

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The biggest problems with OTHELLO come from the original play and in Parker’s choice to use excessive sexuality. The plot is predictable, way too predictable. Shakespeare usually threw some sort of irony or twist into his work, whether they be tragedies, comedies, romances or even histories. This is not the case with OTHELLO. It plays out in the most straight-forward and simple sense possible. You know where things are heading from the very start and this makes a longer running time seem like a tad too much! We need to sit through Acts I-IV in which Iago uses those around him and a couple of people die in order to receive the so-so payoff in Act V. Parker tries to spice things up with a handful of sex scenes. These became way too excessive as well and play as an excuse for a quick flash of nudity, including one laughable dream sequence to hammer in a point that every capable viewer should already know.

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The plot of OTHELLO is alright at best, but that’s true of the original play as well. The sex scenes are upped to a silly degree and most of the characters are completely forgettable. This being said, Laurence Fishburne is more than capable as Othello and Kenneth Branagh kills it (literally in a couple of scenes) as Iago. The fourth wall breaking and inner monologues are a nice creative touch, especially when Branagh is mugging in front of the camera. Production values are solid as well. Altogether, the good qualities far outweigh the bad. OTHELLO is a good adaptation of Shakespeare’s phoned-in tragedy.

Grade: B

JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Violence and Intense Action, and brief Strong Language

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Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Written by: Adam Cozad & David Koepp

Starring: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh & Colm Feore

The last time Jack Ryan appeared on the big screen he was being played by Ben Affleck in 2002’s THE SUM OF ALL FEARS. Over a decade has passed since that film was a box office hit. For some reason, the studio didn’t see a reason in bringing back the CIA agent to the movie theater until this year. JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT is clearly Paramount’s attempt to jump-start a new franchise featuring Tom Clancy’s CIA agent character. Though the film has been a success worldwide, it didn’t even make its budget back domestically and opened to the underwhelming position of #4 at the box office in its first weekend. This all being said, it’s uncertain if we’ll ever see Chris Pine play Jack Ryan ever again and even more unlikely that the studio would even bother with a new Jack Ryan film for at least another decade. As far as the quality of SHADOW RECRUIT goes, it’s an average spy thriller with some fun to be had.

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Jack Ryan is a young man eager to serve his country. After being badly injured in the line of duty, Jack winds up the rehab center of a military hospital overcoming cracked vertebrae and learning to walk again. The story then introduces Cathy, Jack’s nurse quickly turned into Jack’s girlfriend, and Thomas Harper, a mysterious stranger who hopes to recruit Jack into the CIA as an analyst. Cut to 2012, Jack is now covertly working as an analyst in a big company and has come across some suspicious activity from a massive Russian corporation. In order to stop a master plan to topple the US economy, Jack travels to Moscow to take down a Russian terrorist and juggling the affections of the unaware (though suspicious) Cathy.

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As far as spy thrillers go, SHADOW RECRUIT is familiar in many ways. There’s obligatory action scenes throughout and a dangerous villain complete with an accent (in this case: Russian). The damsel in distress trope is also used at one point. There’s a ticking clock before all hell breaks loose. You get the idea pretty fast of how everything will play out. For the most part, it does paint by the numbers on the viewer’s expectations. However, there’s quite a bit of entertainment value to be had, despite the been-there-done-that nature of the plot.

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The pacing is mostly fast, but feels too rushed in places. The prologue is needlessly complicated with unnecessary details. The director didn’t need to open with Jack Ryan in a college witnessing the 9/11 attacks on TV. They could have passed this bit over in one sentence of dialogue and considering that we see two other time periods before the title even appears on-screen (about 10 minutes into the movie, mind you), this bit could have easily been cut out. Most of the cinematography looks slick and the locations in Moscow are beautiful. Branagh is a capable director, as seen in THOR and FRANKENSTEIN. He seems to botch up a few scenes into messy incoherence though. The helicopter crash near the beginning is so laced with quick editing and shaky-cam that it was a jumbled mess of a scene. There is also a stabbing later on in the film that looks a tad off in the way it was shot. With all these flaws taken into consideration, the film still retains a big dumb fun factor to it.

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The cast of SHADOW RECRUIT features some familiar faces. As the title character, Chris Pine emulates his performance of Kirk from the new STAR TREK series. It may as well have been titled CAPTAIN KIRK: SHADOW RECRUIT, because it’s the exact same performance. He’s serviceable enough as Jack Ryan, but there’s nothing particularly special that separates this character from all the other secret agents we’ve seen in film history. Keira Knightley is wooden as Cathy. I didn’t see a single bit of chemistry between her and Chris Pine, which is never a good thing. Luckily, she’s not in much of the film and entirely in the story for a damsel in distress car chase scene (which admittedly is pretty intense). Kevin Costner is good as Thomas Harper. I could see this character going on to become Costner’s assassin character in 3 DAYS TO KILL (coincidentally released a few weeks after this film). Then there’s Kenneth Branagh pulling double-duty as director and Russian villain. Branagh gives the best performance in the film and does scenery-chewing evil so well!

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JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT is far from perfect and might not even be considered a very “good” movie, but it’s entertaining enough and builds to an exciting action-packed finale. The film can be downright chaotic in places, due to some shaky scenes or a pace that feels like it’s on fast-forward here and there. The action scenes are well done, as well as the suspense throughout. It’s definitely your average CIA thriller with a clichéd and overly familiar plot, but there’s some fun to be had throughout. It may wind up as more of a guilty pleasure, but JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT isn’t a bad way to kill some time.

Grade: C+

FRANKENSTEIN (1994)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Horrific Images

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Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Written by: Steph Lady, Frank Darabont

(based on the novel FRANKENSTEIN by Mary Shelley)

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Robert De Niro, Helena Bonham Carter, Tom Hulce, Ian Holm, John Cleese, Aidan Quinn, Richard Briers

Without a doubt one of the greatest and most influential horror stories of all-time, FRANKENSTEIN has been adapted in countless ways. Produced on 45 million by Francis Ford Coppola (who had directed DRACULA a mere two years before), this version of FRANKENSTEIN was considered by many to be overblown. It wasn’t nearly as financially or critically successful as DRACULA. However, as time has gone on, the film has been noted as one of the most faithful-to-the-novel versions of the story (the widely acclaimed 2004 miniseries went on to hold the number one title in that department). While some have said that it’s style over substance and is lacking in certain respects, I completely disagree. I have yet to see the 2004 miniseries, but this 1994 film is my favorite FRANKENSTEIN story thus far.

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For those who are completely out of the loop, Victor Frankenstein is a wealthy young aristocratic genius. His mother tragically dies in childbirth and it’s an experience that deeply affects Victor. So he vows that nobody will ever have to die again (overpopulation be damned) and so it’s off to a prestigious college in Germany. Victor finds himself constantly bickering with his hoity-toity professors and their so-called scientific ways. He wants to create life, which as they say “is not only impossible, but immoral.” With the help of fellow scientist, Victor slowly learns the possibilities of life and gives this gift to a creation of his own…with disastrous results.

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That’s about all you need to know about the plot, especially if you haven’t read the novel and don’t know how things play out. Rest assured, this is far different than the 1931 Boris Karloff classic. As great as that monster movie is, it’s essentially the dumbed down concept of the novel (much like the 1933 version of THE INVISIBLE MAN). FRANKENSTEIN is a far more complex story than just a creature feature. There’s philosophical questions that are raised. How far does science need to go before it’s considered morally wrong? What makes us human? These kind of concepts are covered in an intelligent way through a story of a scientist and his monstrous creation.

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This is classical horror and the production designs make it seem epic in scale. Every shot is carefully chosen. The set design is fantastic. As for the actors themselves, Kenneth Branagh doubles as both director and Victor Frankenstein. He knows exactly how the character should be portrayed. While he begins as a heartless man doing despicable things for the sake of the science, he regains his humanity later on, but it’s far too late when the creature seeks a calculated revenge.

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There have been many performers given the role of Frankenstein’s Monster. These range from Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee to Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch. Robert De Niro isn’t the first name one thinks of when Frankenstein’s monster is brought up. It cannot be denied that De Niro gives the creature a certain amount of pure emotion that was needed for the role. One moment is downright heartbreaking to watch and in others, his anger is fierce beyond compare.

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Like all the film adaptations, certain liberties were taken with the material. This isn’t detrimental to the film at all though. Beautifully shot and well-told, FRANKENSTEIN deserves to be right up there with Bram Stoker’s DRACULA. It’s a pity that the trend of reviving classic horror tales ended here. Sure we have Universal’s silly new WOLFMAN (which stripped all the elements of character that the original had) and a rumored upcoming CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON remake, but I want to see H.G. Well’s THE INVISIBLE MAN and Robert Lewis Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE. Horror has roots in the classical period of storytelling and when a film like FRANKENSTEIN comes out, it must be celebrated. This is a mature and adult telling of a story that was serious to begin with. I consider this version of FRANKENSTEIN to be essential viewing for horror fans!

Grade: A+

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