By Marc S. Sanders

Kenneth Branagh is inventive director.  Arguably, his most uncelebrated film is the noir inspired mystery, Dead Again, which features himself and his wife at the time, Emma Thompson, in the leading roles. 

Branagh and Thompson do double duty, playing multiple parts in two different time periods.  In a 1940s post war Los Angeles, they are Roman and Margaret Strauss.  Roman is a composer.  Margaret is a musician in his company.  They quickly fall in love and live in the limelight of glitz and glamour amid the gossip magazines of the time.  Their life together only becomes juicier when Roman is sentenced to death for the murder of Margaret.  The weapon of choice, a pair of scissors.

In present day 1991, Branagh portrays a private detective named Mike Church who ends up being responsible for an amnesiac, Thompson, who can’t even speak when she’s found.  The woman has unexplainable dreams that recall moments of Roman and Margaret’s life together only to end up as terrible nightmares.  A curious hypnotist (Derek Jacobi) enters the story to lend aid to Mr. Church and the woman.  He serves as a guide, bringing her back to the times of the celebrity couple, helping her to find clues that perhaps could lead to her true identity and uncover exactly why she is haunted by these dreams.

Additional characters enter the storyline as well.  There’s Wayne Knight as a humorous sidekick for Church.  In the flashback 1940s, there’s Andy Garcia as a handsome Pulitzer winning journalist who follows the escapades of Roman and Margaret.

Dead Again is not a long movie, and that lends to how good a film it is.  It’s a lean picture that sets up its clues the moment it starts.  Branagh gives you a background tutorial with newspaper headlines that flash up within the opening credits.  The two time periods are separated with the 1940s shown in gorgeous black and white, while the modern scenes are presented in color.  Branagh puts on a German accent for Roman.  Thompson is English for Margaret.  In the present day, they are Americans.  Of course, it is acknowledged that the respective characters look alike and that allows for possibilities of reincarnation, karma and past lives to enter the frame. 

The screenplay from Scott Frank gets you curious.  What connection could these two wildly different couples have with one another?  What don’t we know about the murder of Margaret at the hands of her husband, Roman?  Who really is the woman that Thompson is portraying in modern times?  How is it possible that a private dick like Mike would coincidentally end up with this “Margaret lookalike” amnesiac?

The cast is having a lot of fun with the puzzle, particularly Derek Jacobi.  His old English mannerisms offer a relaxing storyteller’s narrative to the film.  It feels as if his hypnotist carried over from an Alfred Hitchcock film.  I also appreciate how far apart the respective characters that Branagh and Thompson play.  Not only am I watching a thrilling mystery, but I’m looking at skilled, well-trained actors demonstrating a wide range of performance work.  At times, it’s as if I’m watching two different movies.  How exactly are they going to intersect, though?

I originally saw Dead Again in theatres and was taken with it immediately.  I did not see the end coming and when the veil was lifted, my eyes went wide open.  It has a terrific plot twist.  Branagh, known at the time as a celebrated Shakespearean actor/director, introduced a sweeping, mystery yarn that relishes in fun escapism like Hitchcock or Orson Wells would apply to film noir.  It only makes sense, looking back over thirty years later, why the director opted to turn his craft towards rejuvenating the classic Agatha Christie stories (Murder On The Orient Express, Death On The Nile) for film.  We are better for his contributions.

Now, Dead Again is a film that deserves the attention from a new generation of movie lovers.


By Marc S. Sanders

Why can’t Disney adapt a good book anymore? They massacred A Wrinkle In Time. Now they’ve taken a hatchet to Artemis Fowl, a Disney + byproduct that was shamelessly shelled out during the height of the pandemic.

There had to have been a more fleshed out, extended film here. Scenes are taped together with no bridge. All I can imagine is some suit insisted on cutting the guts out of director Kenneth Branagh’s film to ensure that its target kid audience would sit still, at least for 95 minutes. The same line of thinking had to have been applied to Ava Duvernay’s A Wrinkle In Time. Both films introduce characters that serve no purpose or make no sense. One character here shows up just to shout “Artemis!”

Speaking of the title character, what is he really? We are told by the narrator known as Mulch Diggums (Josh Gad) that Artemis Jr (an uninteresting kid actor named Ferdia Shaw who must’ve gotten the part cuz he looks good with sunglasses) is one of the greatest twelve-year-old geniuses of all time. He literally has an answer for any question that comes his way. So we’re told! Fact is, all this kid does is shoot a laser gun and wear a black Tarantino suit and tie. Never once in this film did I see Artemis Fowl demonstrate any of his genius, mind bending abilities. He surfs in the ocean outside his Ireland mansion. Does that merit the aptitude of a genius?

Artemis Sr (Colin Farrell) is apparently believed to be a thief of rare, priceless collectibles. After telling his son about some tale involving fairies that live in an underworld, he is soon kidnapped. It is now up to Junior with his trusty butler (Nonso Anosi) to rescue him. This butler doesn’t measure up to Batman’s Alfred. All this butler does is introduce young Artemis to a basement he was never aware of. Mulch also explains that if you call him Butler, he’ll snap you in two. Too bad we never got to see that. (Why tell us, dammit????) Then….AND I AM GOING TO SPOIL THIS SURPRISE….he dies. Tears must flow of course, but all I ever thought of was that gee, I hardly knew this guy.

Artemis Jr must recover a MacGuffin called the “Auculus.” How many times must I hear the word Auculus in a span of an hour and a half? The Auculus. The Auculus. THE AUCULUS!!!!!! Enough already. The filmmakers must believe that the more you say it, well then the more important the Auculus must be. My question: WHAT IN THE HELL DOES THIS AUCULUS EVEN DO?????

Judi Dench is here but only for the purpose of wearing a green leather trench coat that appears to weigh her down and doing what I think is likely a terrible enunciation of an elderly Irish lady’s accent. She plays the General of the fairy army. Dench is awful in this role and appears as lost in the effects as I was. Half the time I didn’t know what was going on. All of the time Judi Dench didn’t know what was going on.

The one main fairy is Holly Short (Lara McDonald) sent on a mission to go to Artemis’ mansion. Once she gets there, I truly lost track of why she was there to begin with. However, she seemed to have more activities to do than the title character is ever given. Once again, the super genius Artemis just shoots a gun. Holly at least gets to fly around with her motorized wings; yes, this is a fairy with an engine to activate her wings.

Artemis Fowl is a gorgeous looking picture. The special CGI effects are truly dazzling to look at with incredible color, but only if I’m watching a fireworks display at Magic Kingdom. Within a story, I have no clue what purpose any of the visuals serve or what possible results could come of anything. Nothing is explained here; much like this Auculus I talked about earlier.

The culture of the film is a failure as well. We are shown that this story is rooted out of Ireland. Where’s the Irish inspiration though? There’s no sense of inspiring traditions to learn from or appreciate. The soundtrack is hardly Celtic. Truly criminal is casting a Jewish Josh Gad and an English Judi Dench. For authencity’s sake, couldn’t actual Irish talent have been used instead of terrible dialects from marquee names?

There had to be a better film here. I’m talking a 2 1/2 hour film with solid, interesting exposition with mystery and questions like the first Harry Potter film. Nothing is of any consequence or comprehension here. How could I be so lost with this film?

This is a pattern for Disney of late. They acquire the rights to some wonderful children’s stories and then just mix some kind of slop in a slow cooker. A Wrinkle In Time, John Carter, and now this dreck. I don’t understand though. If the studio is so committed to packing so much into Avengers and Star Wars movies then why can’t they do the same with its other properties? I promise that kids will sit engaged with a longer film if it’s constructed with care. I know it.

Artemis Fowl is a squandered opportunity. They had the beloved novel by Eoin Colfer to springboard off of, and I know, without even reading the book, that they disregarded almost everything that made this story so special. It couldn’t be more apparent.

Artemis Fowl is a textbook example of when Hollywood does a complete disservice to its author as well as its target audience. It’s a criminal adaptation. It’s a betrayal of the intelligence that kids really come equipped with. It’s a terrible violation of culture and it’s an awful, awful, awful film.


By Marc S. Sanders

Within the first three minutes of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, there is impactful transition that goes reverse in time.  Van Morrison supplies the music to the film and it opens in bright color capturing glimpses of the thriving city.  There are well paved highways with ongoing traffic.  Fresh painted construction cranes stand in front of a blue sky with a warm sun.  Buildings have beautiful architecture.  There are pieces of eye-popping art within the city.  It looks like the most gorgeous vacation destination.  Even the opening credits are stenciled in nice gold font.  Then Branagh’s camera lifts up over a wall and the screen reverses back in time to August, 1969 where it’s depicted in black and white.  A sweet blond-haired boy named Buddy (Jude Hill) is holding a stick and a trash can lid as he slays an imaginary dragon, but then reality dawns upon him and violent riots erupt on the street he lives on. Cars are set on fire, windows are smashed, bricks are thrown, and Molotov cocktails burst into flames.  What we see as prosperity now, had a history at one time, and history is not always something to embrace.  Belfast reminds us that it was ugly before it got better.

Belfast, Ireland in the late 60s/early 70s is shown through the eyes of Buddy.  Branagh never has Buddy be forced to grow up so fast, despite the inflamed conflicts between Protestants and Catholics living in Ireland.  He plays in the park.  He watches Star Trek on TV.  He does his math homework with his Pop (Ciaran Hinds). He’s a little bit of a troublemaker as he pockets chocolate from the local candy store.  He also escorts his grandmother (Judi Dench) to the movies and live theater.  He’s a happy little kid, but he’s also wise to the new world thrust upon his doorstep.  It’s hard not to see the make shift barrier walls of junk at the end of the block and the sometimes-questioning policemen.

His Pa (Jamie Dornan) leaves for two-week trips for work, but when he’s home, Buddy eyes upon his Pa’s childhood friend intimidating him to join the cause to rid the area of Catholicism.  His Pa is put into an “either you’re for us or you’re against us” dilemma.  Pa does not sway so easily. 

His Ma (Catriona Balfe) tries to keep things as normal as possible.  A surprising moment occurs when Buddy gets swept up in looting a grocery store with the rioters.  He runs home with a box of laundry detergent.  Ma will not stand for that and escorts him back to the store to return the item.  Ma gets a full account at this moment of what’s become of their hometown when all she wants to do is properly discipline and raise her child.

As tensions rise over the coming months, Ma debates with Pa about whether to leave Belfast for a new life in the United Kingdom.  I think this becomes more traumatic for Buddy than the random violence he periodically witnesses.  He’d have to leave his grandparents and his school and his friends.  As well, he’s been working so hard to keep his grades up so that he can sit at the front of class, next to the young girl he pines for.  They are working on a science project that recounts the historic first trip to the moon.

Belfast is a rather short film, but Branagh’s script offers much.  It focuses on a piece of mid-twentieth century European history that I was never familiar with.  The film gives you the minimum details through conversations and sound bites from news broadcasts.  That’s fine, but my attention span was waning at times.  It’s not fair for me to criticize the picture this way.  I just couldn’t relate to the culture of the community, and so I just was not engaged on this one and only viewing.

It’s clearly well-made, and Branagh presents a convincing depiction primarily of this one residential block that this family lives on.  While Buddy’s exploits are endearing and there are especially good performances all around, the riot violence is scary with harsh sound editing of screams and shattering window panes.  The cinematography is strong, especially when it contrasts with color.  The choice is made to depict a live performance of A Christmas Carol in color while the seated audience with Buddy and his grandmother stays in black and white.  Branagh does a cool effect by having bright orange stage lights reflect in Dench’s eye glasses which remain in monochrome.  When the family goes to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the movie screen is in color like the film they are watching.  The characters of Belfast remain in black and white, though.  This family and others like them, remember these tumultuous times in a dull, gray perspective.  It was a non-celebratory and often harsh way to live.  The escapism they partake will always be preserved in promising and welcome colors, however.  This is a fantastic storytelling device.

As Kenneth Branagh wrote and directed the piece, it’s clear that he strove for his exact vision and he has a personal achievement he should be proud of.  There doesn’t appear to be any compromise to his picture.  It’s very well directed with its cast performances, the town extras and the technical choices made.  Yet, the film never grabbed me emotionally.  Belfast exists to simply to show how this family survived day to day with turmoil surrounding them.  If anything, at least I learned something new within the confines of Ireland from fifty years ago.


By Marc S. Sanders

It’s time for the murder mystery to maintain an ongoing trend in modern films.  They’re just fun to watch and play with and deduce.  Why do you think the board game Clue has lasted so long in so many households?  Films like Rian Johnson’s Knives Out and a recent retelling of Murder On The Orient Express have already whetted our appetites for the “who done it?” tales.  Endless variations of Sherlock Holmes continue to appear.  Even Steve Martin and Martin Short have gotten in on the mystery circuit.  Adam Sandler with Jennifer Aniston, too.  Kenneth Branagh’s second time as Hercule Poirot (following …Orient Express), in an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death On The Nile, is proof positive that the sleuth is the next super hero that movie goers should follow.

Branagh returns to direct his detective character in Egypt, aboard a privately rented boat occupied by the newly engaged couple, Lynette Ridgeway and Simon Doyle (Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer).  As the luxurious yacht makes its way down the majestic river Nile, the couple suspects that someone, particularly Simon’s recent ex-fiancée, Jacqueline (Emma Mackey), is determined to cause harm or even murder towards them.  They ask for the sleuth’s services in uncovering who is scheming against them.  Poirot is on vacation, however, and tells them his services cannot be made available as no crime has been committed.  Yet, he accepts their invitation to board the boat and attempt to relax and recline. 

Naturally, a murder will eventually occur.

Hercule Poirot was not even a character in Agatha Christie’s original novel.  Yet, Branagh seamlessly weaves the detective into an elegant page turner on screen, with a script from Michael Green.  Branagh is a skillful actor/director. 

As this is a murder mystery, there are a wealth of characters with possible motives and red herrings to keep the journey down the Nile tense and engaging.  There’s the doctor (Russell Brand), an aunt (Annette Benning), a nephew (Tom Bateman, returning from Orient Express), Lynette’s housemaid (Jennifer Saunders), a speakeasy blues singer and her niece (Sophie Okonedo, Letitia Wright), as well as Lynette, Simon and Jacqueline, and on and on.  Branagh wisely moves his camera repeatedly at times across the boat panning over the faces of the cast, as if to the remind the viewer of who are the suspects.  There’s a wealth of information to take in, but this is not going to feel like you are cramming for a final exam the next morning. 

Because everyone could have a motive and/or a background with the murder victim, each actor within the colorful cast has various moments to shine.  There are some great acting scenes going on here that the players share with Branagh, and they don’t come off with similar formulas from one moment to the next.  Each character actor is thankfully unique in both appearance and personality.  It’s not hard to keep up, and while I may have known the ending before seeing the film (having read the book and seen stage adaptations over the years), I don’t believe it’s easy to deduce and solve as a viewer.  Different characters and moments that never occurred in the source material turn up.  There might even be few unexpected deaths along the way.  Branagh also keeps the picture alive with outstanding blues numbers that begin in an underground speakeasy bar in Paris and then play over transitional moments throughout the film.  This picture has a great period soundtrack.

Beyond the well diversified mystery, Branagh treats the viewers to gorgeous scenery aboard the boat, but even beneath the surface of the river and within the pyramids and sphinxes of Egypt.  There are spectacular starry night skies and breathtaking sunrises and sunsets to take in with palm trees and wildlife in the desert frames.  Sure, I imagine most of it is CGI, but it’s well done and nothing looks artificial.  Costume work is also magnificent as they lend to the distinctiveness of the suspects.  Whether it is evening wear, or casual garb for post-World War I, each character looks so intriguingly lively and different.

Michael Green’s script even delves further into the Poirot character.  There’s a background to that infamous mustache and tiny goatee.  I recall how people responded to the outrageously grotesque facial hair that Branagh donned in his first film as Poirot.  I appreciated it, however.  His appearance was as unforgettable as the red and yellow “S” on Superman’s chest.  Yet, why go to such great lengths, even if this is the early 1900’s amid an exaggeratingly glamourous murder mystery, to grow a mustache like that? Thankfully, there’s reason given here that draws out a dimension to Hercule Poirot both within a ten-minute prologue, and then implied periodically during the course of the film and wrapping up in a bluesy epilogue before the credits roll.  All I’ll say is that absurd mustache delivers a humanity to the film’s protagonist.

Death On The Nile has already suffered from negative publicity involving controversy with some of its cast members.  Its release was also postponed a number of times due to the pandemic.  Finally, it has arrived in theatres and what a refreshing experience it is to see on a big screen.  It opened to a modest box office response in its first weekend, though it finished at number one.  Normally, I don’t care about rankings at the box office.  How much money a film makes does not lend to the merits or faults of a piece.  However, for this film, I think I do care a little.  I hope it becomes a profitable success only to allow more films of the mystery genre to appear on screen in the future.  I’d certainly welcome another gripping yarn from Agatha, out of service from Kenneth Branagh.  Could And Then There Were None… be next?  That’s the real mystery.


By Marc S. Sanders

Chris Hemsworth is the God of Thunder who must learn to grow up if he is to inherit the throne over the land of Asgard from his father Odin (a welcome Anthony Hopkins), and more importantly become worthy of lifting his mighty hammer. Hemsworth is great; full of cocksure assuredness, humor and heroics. Chris Hemsworth makes you believe he’s the only guy who could play Thor.

Thor’s adversary is the God of Mischief, Loki played by one of Marvel’s best actors, Tom Hiddleston. This is a guy who plays so many different levels. If one didn’t know the story of Thor and Loki, I’d argue they might be shocked at some of the turn of events Hiddleston masterfully orchestrates with simple facial expressions and passiveness that progressively switch over to madness, obsession, jealousy, envy and deceit. Hiddleston effectively spins all the plates perfectly.

Natalie Portman plays the love interest carrying the torch of least significance that Liv Tyler and Gwenyth Paltrow held in prior Marvel films. That’s a pattern the Marvel films will begin to improve upon with the next film in line.

Director Kenneth Branagh is the right guy for this movie. Inspired Shakespearean settings and dialogue overlap with modern day America. Branagh brings a nice balance to it, and he also directs his actors well. A great exchange of dialogue and performance occurs midway through between Hiddleston and Hemsworth. Branagh gets good close ups of both actors as the conniving villain manipulates the naive hero. The camera angles move at a slant almost evoking a necessary confusion between what is true and what is a lie. Moments like this allow Thor to be more than just an action film. There are nice opportunities for acting as well, and because of that Hiddleston especially has become quite treasured among loyal fans.

Compliments must also go towards the setting of Asgard. I normally frown on immersive CGI normally. Not here though. Asgard is as regal as anything Peter Jackson offered in his Tolkien films, complete with a striking rainbow bridge and towering structures. I want to tour through that whole land. It’s that spectacular. Characters also work well with the CGI, especially the fire breathing, metallic Destroyer.

Thor is a great introduction to the legendary comics character. The film offers a character arc of change much like what was captured with Tony Stark in the first Iron Man. The character must grow and learn about his identity over the course of the film in order to have legs for future installments. This film accomplishes that feat, and thus Chris Hemsworth has become a box office draw while his most popular character to date has become a screen favorite.