The Films of Kenneth Branagh
Peter's Friends (February 8/08)
Though the film has been suffused with a number of overwrought and downright melodramatic elements, Peter's Friends nevertheless comes off as a surprisingly entertaining little flick that benefits substantially from the almost uniformly stellar performances (co-writer Rita Rudner is competent, certainly, but hardly at the level of her comparatively masterful castmates). The story follows a group of college friends who reunite for a weekend at Peter's (Stephen Fry) palatial estate, where past arguments and forgotten conflicts quickly bubble their way to the surface. Filmmaker Kenneth Branagh has infused Peter's Friends with a fluid visual sensibility that effectively prevents the proceedings from adopting the kind of static and stagy vibe that one sometimes associates with movies of this ilk, yet there's never a point at which Branagh's directorial choices take away from the character-driven, intimate nature of Rudner and Martin Bergmann's screenplay. It consequently goes without saying that some of these subplots are far more interesting than others, with the portrayal of jingle-writers Roger (Hugh Laurie) and Mary's (Imelda Staunton) crumbling marriage clear the most intriguing (and surprisingly heartfelt) aspect of the movie. And while it's impossible to deny the downright pat manner with which Rudner and Bergmann wrap up the various stories - each character seems to arrive at a life-changing revelation during the same 24-hour period - Peter's Friends generally remains an affable piece of work that's surely a must for fans of the assorted performers.
Much Ado About Nothing
A Midwinter's Tale
Love's Labor Lost
As You Like It
The Magic Flute
Click here for review.
Thor (May 11/11)
Based on the Marvel comic book series, Thor follows the title character (Chris Hemsworth) as he's exiled from his home planet of Asgard and sent plummeting to Earth - where he must team up with a scrappy scientist (Natalie Portman's Jane Foster) to inevitably save the universe. There's little doubt that Thor gets off to an almost astonishingly underwhelming start, as filmmaker Kenneth Branagh offers up a disastrous opening half hour, which is predominantly set on Asgard, that's simply not engaging in the slightest - with the majority of such scenes infused with an uncomfortably larger-than-life sensibility that's exacerbated by an overuse of computer-generated special effects. (There is, for example, a battle between our heroes and hordes of vicious creatures that's rendered incoherent by the quick editing and pervasive darkness in which it unfolds.) The less-than-enthralling atmosphere is compounded by the lack of wholeheartedly compelling characters, as scripters Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, and Don Payne have populated the proceedings with one-dimensional stereotypes that simply never become developed enough to engender the viewer's interest. (This is especially true of Thor's merry band of sidekicks, as each of these figures have been painted with oppressively broad strokes.) It's not until the action shifts to Earth that Thor improves slightly, with the initial emphasis on Thor's fish-out-of-water exploits infusing the proceedings with a breezy, inherently compelling sort of vibe. (it is, for example, impossible not to derive some enjoyment out of the scene in which Thor charges into a pet store and demands a horse or something big enough to ride.) But such moments prove to be short-lived, as Branagh destroys the movie's tenuous momentum by continually cutting back to the Shakespearean drama on Asgard - yet, despite the presence of solid performers like Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo, these scenes fall impossibly flat on an all-too-regular basis. (That most of this is unfolding on laughably chintzy sets certainly doesn't help matters.) By the time the overblown, frustratingly incoherent climax rolls around, Thor has certainly established itself as a missed opportunity of nigh epic proportions - with Hemsworth's admittedly charming work standing out as the film's one consistently agreeable attribute.
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (January 27/14)
The first Jack Ryan adventure to hit theaters since 2002's The Sum of All Fears, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit follows Tom Clancy's title figure as he arrives in Moscow to confront a nefarious villain (Kenneth Branagh's Viktor Cherevin) bent on crashing the United States' economy. Before it reaches that point, however, the film concerns itself primarily with Ryan's origin story, as the narrative zips from his college days to his stint as a Marine to his early endeavors as a CIA analyst. There is, as such, little doubt that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, in its deliberately-paced first half, possesses the feel of a rather generic spy thriller, with the movie's less-than-engrossing vibe compounded by a curious lack of action and an emphasis on the central character's inexperience as a field agent. Pine's charismatic performance certainly goes a long way towards alleviating the otherwise unspectacular atmosphere, with the actor's stirring turn matched by an eclectic supporting cast that includes Kevin Costner and Keira Knightley. (It's obvious, however, that Branagh's scenery-chewing work as the villain remains a clear highlight throughout.) It's not until the film rolls into its unexpectedly captivating midsection that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit begins living up to its potential, with the movie's turning point a spectacularly entertaining sequence detailing Ryan's efforts at surreptitiously breaking into Cherevin's secure office (which is subsequently followed by a better-than-average car chase). And although the whole thing does peter out to a slight degree in its anticlimactic final stretch - it doesn't help, certainly, that Branagh completely mishandles a hand-to-hand fight sequence - Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit stands as a promising new direction for Clancy's iconic character.