Tag Archives: Jamie Dornan

Spirits in the Material World

A Haunting in Venice

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

If we’re going to congratulate Rian Johnson for reviving the murder mystery, save a backslap for Kenneth Branagh. His Murder on the Orient Express came two years before 2019’s Knives Out, and though Branagh may be adapting decades-old Agatha Christie classics, he’s proven adept at giving them a stylish and star-studded new sheen.

Branagh also stars again as Hercule Poirot, the legendary Belgian detective who showed a friskier side (probably thanks to Johnson’s sublime Benoit Blanc character) in last year’s Death on the Nile. Now for the third in their mystery series, Branagh and screenwriter Michael Green embrace the season with a gorgeous and frequently engaging update of Christie’s 1969 novel “Halloween Party.”

It is 1947, when the now-retired and war weary Poirot meets up with his old friend Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) in Venice. Oliver is a famous writer who considers herself quite the smarty, but she needs Poirot’s help to debunk the work of Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), a medium whose talks with the dead are pretty damn convincing.

The setting is a Gothic manor with a disturbing past, where Poirot agrees to attend a seance on Halloween night. There, after a children’s party, Mrs. Reynolds will attempt to give Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) the answers she seeks about the murder of her daughter, Alicia (Rowan Robinson).

But another murder soon steals the show, with even Poirot himself questioning his own eyes as things in the night go plenty bumpy.

Branagh again teams with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Belfast, Death on the Nile), enveloping the film in a haunted house vibe that is wonderfully foreboding. The camera explores the confines of the manor via angles that are often extreme and disorienting, while lingering on cloaks, masks and other various other articles of creep.

Poirot is a changed man since last we met. He’s seen too much evil, and believes in “no God, no ghosts,” as a cloud of trauma and grief that fits the film’s mood hangs over him. Branagh and his stellar ensemble (including Jamie Dornan, Camille Cottin and Belfast‘s Jude Hill) work their character edges well, making sure no one is ever quite above suspicion.

And those suspicions are easier to play with when the source material isn’t as well known. But while revamping a deeper cut is welcome, the chance for creepy surprise does come at a price.

The core mystery just isn’t as compelling. Branagh and Green make alterations that prolong the chill factor, but result in moments that seem more like a Christie disguise than the face of the master herself.

A Haunting in Venice‘s lingering impression is as a slice of well-dressed fun. It’s a Spooky Season movie for those who don’t like things too scary, and an Agatha Christie tale for those who’d rather not think so hard.

The Pipes Are Calling


by Hope Madden & George Wolf

As an actor, Kenneth Branagh can be very ALL CAPS. As a director, he’s harder to pin down. The one thing you can point to, whether his directorial efforts work or do not, is that they are theatrical.

I mean that in a good way, usually. For his latest, the bittersweetly semi-autobiographical Belfast, I mean it in a good way specifically.

Branagh has yet to make a film with such precise visual purpose or style. Every black and white frame, every movement or lack of movement from the camera carries the vision of the film. Belfast is a man’s reminiscence of his own childhood, informed by the movies and songs that bleed together with memory and saturated in the wonder of youth.

Set the whole thing to a steady beat of Van Morrison tunes (natch!), and just listen to those pipes start calling.

It is sentimental. It is nostalgic. It is unapologetically sincere. But by taking the perspective of a 9-year-old boy trying to make sense of a suddenly and profoundly confusing and frightening world, the film gets away with it.

That boy, young Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill, stunning), has to wade through a crush on a smarter, taller, Catholic girl as well as his beloved grandfather’s failing health, his parents’ bickering over money, and, of course, the Troubles. (That is to say, the civil unrest in Northern Ireland that erupted around the time Buddy turned 9.)

Branagh surrounds his young star with talent in every direction, some of it a bit of a surprise. Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench delight as Buddy’s grandparents, while Jamie Dornan impresses with a tender, earnest turn as his father.

Caitriona Balfe shines nearly as brightly as Hill, playing his fierce mother. Balfe benefits from the story’s greatest arc and most of its heaviest emotional scenes, carrying the film’s weight with grace.

Young Hill charms in every scene, though that’s something Branagh’s film has to spare. The script he penned of his memories sweeps you into an idealized, meticulously crafted yarn so lyrical it could be nothing other than Irish.

Yes, the film’s brushstrokes get fairly wide, but take that as an invitation to let Branagh’s memories spur your own – of parents and grandparents, close knit neighborhoods and days where wonder could be found most anywhere.

Is Belfast too precious? It comes close, but between a truly game cast and sheer filmmaking craftsmanship, the vision is hard to deny — as is the opinion that this is Kenneth Branagh’s finest film.

Shimmer Time

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar

by George Wolf

Remember that opening of Napoleon Dynamite, where Napoleon was tossing a green plastic Army man on a string out of the school bus window? If you didn’t think that was funny, it was an early sign you were gonna have a bad time.

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar opens with its own litmus test, as a kid on a bicycle is delivering papers while singing “Guilty” along with the Streisand and Gibb in his headphones.

If that makes you laugh, stick around, you’ll laugh more.

Things have been better for the always perky, cullotte-loving Barb and Star (co-writers Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig). They’ve lost their husbands, their spot in weekly “talking club,” and their jobs at the hottest furniture store in Soft Rock, Nebraska (not a real place, but it should be).

With mid-lifers in tube tops, a 24 hour CVS and a parade of guys in Tommy Bahama, Vista Del Mar, Florida promises a vacation paradise perfect for “finding their shimmer.” Plus, it’s the home of the annual Seafood Jam (“where the crowd’s on the older side!”).

After a Disney-on-Viagra greeting at the hotel, it isn’t long before the BFFs’ rock solid bond is threatened by the handsome Edgar (Jamie Dornan) and the chance to rent a banana boat.

Will the girls’ friendship survive all the fibs and sneaking around? And how long can Edgar hide his part in the nefarious plan by an evil genius (also Kristen Wiig) to kill everyone on the island with poisonous mosquitoes?

I’m sorry, what was that second thing?

Just know director Josh Greenbaum keeps a loose grip on a film that’s ridiculous at every turn but still full of good-natured, garish fun and about as many laugh out loud moments as dry patches. Even though Barb and Star are new to us, they feel like characters the two stars have been privately honing for years, and it’s the chemistry of Mumolo and Wiig (who also co-wrote Bridesmaids) that allows a bit about the name “Trish” to continue beyond all limits of good sense until you give in to the hilarity.

You’ll also recognize plenty of faces in the supporting cast, highlighted by Mark Jonathan Davis doing his Richard Cheese lounge singer persona and Damon Wayans, Jr. as a spy with a bad habit of spilling his personal info (“dammit!”).

Expect some goofy outtakes over the credits, and waves of silliness that just won’t rest until your frown is turned upside down! It may not be dynamite, but Barb and Star brings enough laughs to make spending time with them a pleasure.

Just don’t call it guilty.

Full ‘O Shenanigans

Wild Mountain Thyme

by Hope Madden

“Welcome to Ireland! My name is Tony Reilly and I’m dead.”

So begins Wild Mountain Thyme, a romantic comedy so cartoonishly Irish you’ll expect the Lucky Charm leprechaun to drop by for a Guinness.

Writer/director John Patrick Shanley can be very good, especially when he’s working from his own plays. Shanley won an Oscar for penning Moonstruck, and drew a nomination when he adapted his stage play Doubt for the screen.

He also directed the latter, a film that soared thanks to a quartet of nearly perfect performances (Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams—each the most exquisite piece of casting imaginable).

Though considerably lighter, Shanley’s latest boasts an impressive cast as well. Not Doubt impressive, but what is?

Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan anchor the film as two unreasonably attractive and weirdly single neighbors in rural County Mayo. Rosemary and Anthony have known each other all their lives, and even though many (including Anthony’s father Tony, played by Christopher Walken) have given up on the union, Rosemary will have her beloved Anthony one day.

Let’s stop a sec on Walken. He’s a great actor, a beloved icon, a cool dude. What he is not is Irish. Does that really matter—Walken’s accent isn’t exactly American, right? It’s just, well, Walken.

The point is that Shanley couldn’t be less interested in authentic Irishness. Wild Mountain Thyme’s authenticity rivals that of Darby O’Gill and the Little People.

Oh the whimsy! The blarney! The third act reveal that outshines any act of nonsense you are likely to find on screen this year. How much Jameson’s did Shanley down before committing this to film?

It’s beautiful, don’t misunderstand. The verdant farms as well as the cast (Jon Hamm joins Blunt and Dornan as the Yank looking for an Irish farm and an Irish lass). It’s just so Irish-Spring-ad ridiculous.

It’s nice, though. Its belabored whimsy kind of clubs you into a stupor by around the third or fourth rainstorm (what, no rainbow?!). The story meanders. The symbolism serves only to further confuse things. The magic Shanley weaves can’t transcend the film’s lunacy long enough to give Wild Mountain Thyme the fairy tale quality it desperately wants.

Still, Blunt and Dornan are engaging and you have to give the film credit for sheer shamrock audacity.

A Connecting Principle


by Hope Madden

Has it really been three years since filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead took us on the UFO death cult head trip that was The Endless?

It’s hard to tell with these guys. They really like to play with time.

Another riff on the same theme, Synchronic is a sci-fi fantasy about parallel dimensions and time travel—plus bath salts.

Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) are best friends and NOLA paramedics, each facing his own existential crisis. Dennis can’t seem to move past the fear that he’s settled: for his wife, his job, his life. Meanwhile, Steve—whose existence of work, drink and women long ago ceased to have meaning—gets a medical diagnosis that has him rethinking everything.

So far so ordinary, but if you’ve seen anything these filmmakers have done (and you should see everything), you know something seriously weird is coming.

The film’s conceit is a fascinating one, and every grisly crime scene offers a curious clue that may eventually help Steve solve a mystery that gives him purpose and redirects his bestie. Benson, who writes and co-directs, offers plenty of opportunity for mind-bending action and wild set pieces.

He and co-director/cinematographer Moorhead cut back and forth through time to keep you guessing as to the mystery developing, but what’s left underdeveloped are the characters.

Two of the filmmakers’ previous three efforts focused on a pair of men linked through time and experience to the other—best friends in Resolution, brothers in The Endless. This kind of relationship has proven a beautiful anchor for their trippy plots, but Synchronic doesn’t invest enough time or attention to Steve and Dennis’s characters.

Both Mackie and Dornan are solid enough, but their chemistry is weak. The time-worn friendship is more discussed than exposed. Worse, Synchronic is the first of the filmmakers’ movies to lack a robust sense of humor. And it is missed.

The result is a sometimes dour though mainly melancholy effort that feels far less original than it really is. Synchronic is clever, to be sure, and at times quite touching. But for filmmakers who’ve until now positively dripped with inspiration, it feels like a step backward.

Three’s Company

Endings, Beginnings

by George Wolf

When does the guise of self discovery collapse under the reality of self absorption? Endings, Beginnings unwittingly toes that line for most of its running time, ultimately rescued by the sheer earnestness of its lead performance.

Shailene Woodley shines as Daphne, an aspiring artist who’s living in her sister’s LA pool house after quitting her job and longtime boyfriend to go find herself.

But first, she finds Frank (Sebastian Stan) and Jack (Jamie Dornan), two good friends who don’t try very hard not to let Daphne come between them. Frank’s the impulsive bad boy and Jack’s the reliable good guy, with Daphne bouncing between them while the film pretends it’s because the two men see her differently.

It’s Daphne who sees herself differently, and her inability to choose is just one of the ways Daphne’s newly-stated goal of doing good for others rings with as much authenticity as her winning the claw game at the arcade (really, she wins!).

Don’t get me wrong, an unlikeable protagonist can be more than okay, it can be a bold and challenging narrative choice. But here, director/co-writer Drake Doremus (Like Crazy) is desperate to sell us personal growth and “music to suffer to” playlists when all we keep seeing are excuses for selfishness.

The always reliable Woodley still manages to make Daphne an interesting train wreck. Her vulnerability and confusion at facing this premature midlife crisis does feel real, and Woodley elevates the film by making sure Daphne – likable or not – is a complex personality forgotten by a litany of romance fantasies.

The chemistry between Woodley, Stan and Dornan is solid, seemingly bolstered by improvisational trust amid Doremus’s abrupt cuts and flashback sketches.

Endings, Beginnings has all the parts of a consistently competent and watchable affair. But the resonant character study it aspires to be – much like the character itself – slips away simply from pretending to be something it’s not.


You Can’t Punish in Here. This is the Red Room of Pain!

Fifty Shades Freed

by Matt Weiner

Boiling down the Fifty Shades movies into a capsule summary has always felt a bit like playing Mad Libs with a head injury, and Fifty Shades Freed gleefully continues the trend.

Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey (Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan, each blinking out Morse code to their agents throughout the franchise) are now married. Christian’s dominant side causes fresh problems for Ana at work, but not as much as her ex-boss (Eric Johnson) returning to stalk the entire Grey family for reasons both mysterious and incredibly obvious.

Having watched the entire series, it’s hard not to feel like additional complaining is punching down, so here are some nice things about Fifty Shades Freed:

• This is the first film in the franchise that earns intentional laughs, an incredible improvement all on its own.
• All the shots, while filmed so perfunctorily that you forget what you’ve just seen nearly in real-time, are in focus.
• There is what amounts to a five-minute Audi commercial, which is helpful if you are considering buying or leasing a new Audi.
• According to the credits, Marcia Gay Harden and Danny Elfman received paychecks from this, and although you can hardly feel their presence on screen or in the score, I cherish them both and I hope they buy nice houses from this because they deserve it.

But the other major improvement in the franchise can’t be separated from the movie’s biggest flaw. The good news: with Ana and Christian having settled into betrothed BDSM bliss, the film (written by Niall Leonard and directed by James Foley) devotes less time to their tepid romance and more time allowing the characters to simply be themselves as they get caught up in a sordid thriller.

Here’s the bad news. Allowing these characters to be themselves suffers from one crucial flaw: every single character in the series is boring to an extent that’s almost an achievement in its own right.

And just like in the first two films, the sexual chemistry between Ana and Christian never clicks on screen. Although since Freed revolves more around the couple’s marital gamesmanship than their “erotic” courtship, the tension occasionally works this time. And even produces some real laughs.

While the movie wraps things up neatly for Ana and Christian—albeit in a comically abrupt way I guess is a clever callback to the bizarre pacing of the previous films—it doesn’t answer the question of exactly who this movie is for.

There’s plenty of nudity, but it’s clinically divorced from any recognizable human emotion. Such short shrift is given to character development that I can’t imagine fans of the lengthy books have been satisfied. There’s a mystery plot, sort of, but nothing you couldn’t get from a made-for-TV movie and save the cash.

But if you’ve made it this far through the series, Fifty Shades Freed is the most competent of the bunch. And at least this one can be watched with a clear conscience knowing that the actors are as freed from contractual obligations as their characters are rid of emotional baggage.



Sloppy Seconds

Fifty Shades Darker

by Matt Weiner

The latest installment in the Fifty Shades trilogy, to its credit, could very well be an ingenious meta-joke on the audience regarding punishment and masochism.

And that’s the kindest thing to be said about Fifty Shades Darker, the follow-up to 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey (based on the wildly popular book series by E. L. James—insert joke about how it was wise to use a pen name, except with those book sales the joke is on all of us).

The sequel has a new director (James Foley) and new hastily sketched roadblocks—er, characters—on the path to bound-up bliss, but in nearly every other way the film doubles down on everything torturous about the first one.

Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan are back as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. They brought some new toys this time around (pro tip: don’t Google “spreader” at work), but there is no amount of light bondage that can distract from the obvious lack of chemistry between the two leads.

Johnson makes the best of a bad situation, and at times her portrayal of Ana flirts with acknowledging how absurd the entire enterprise is. Dornan, however, is impenetrable. Although in his defense, Grey only has three modes to choose from: having sex, being tortured by a mysterious past or impersonating a brick.

A boring relationship between the two leads of an erotic romance series should be a glaring red flag, but just in case the movie also outdoes the original when it comes to mind-blowingly bizarre plotting and pacing.

The film kicks off as a creepy thriller, and tries to wind things up the same way, save the 90 minutes in between that have nothing to do with the main story. Instead the film props up supporting characters as a teaser for the final movie. (Kim Basinger could be a great femme fatale as Elena, Grey’s mentor and original seductress. But if the pattern holds, it’ll be hard for anyone to rise above the source material.)

The script was written by Niall Leonard, who is E. L. James’s husband. This helps the film only insofar as it means Christian and Ana no longer deserve to be the most loathed couple involved in the production.

The LEGO Batman Movie also opens this weekend. It’s a movie full of computer-generated plastic people. Go see that instead: you won’t feel guilty laughing at the dialogue, and the characters do a better job at impersonating humans.




Got Wood?

Fifty Shades of Grey

by Christie Robb

Let’s face it, Fifty Shades of Grey is probably not going to be nominated for an Oscar. It’s not the movie you watch for its subtle complexities of character development. It’s a chance to watch two hotties take a naughty little ride to bone town and maybe get some inspiration along the way.

Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele delivers, giving the role a bubbly charm that provides the occasional (and much needed) comic relief. However, her costar Jamie Dornan leaves something to be desired. As aloof billionaire Christian Grey, Dornan claims people find him heartless. I found him dull. I’ve seen marital aids with more personality.

And the film desperately needs the chemistry between the two. The plot—nerdy English major battling for the heart of a bachelor CEO while being initiated into the ways of light S&M—is as thin as Christian’s silk tie. This is a story about yearning and longing (and spanking). You gotta have passion.

And what’s with the R rating? There’re surprisingly few sex scenes and a lot of naked Dakota Johnson, but no sign of Dornan’s Johnson. When adapting erotic fiction popular with the ladies, you’d think we’d get to see something more titillating than a butt and a pair of low-slung jeans. Maybe I’m spoiled by premium cable.