Kenneth Branagh in Death on the Nile


I haven't spent New Year's Eve with my parents in ages. But my sister and her family have, and for more than a decade now, the arrival of December 31 means that Sis and her kids take two hours to join Dad in viewing one of his all-time favorite movies: John Guillermin's 1978 take on Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile. This means that my father, my sister, and her children may be the only people alive who've seen this murder mystery more times than I have, and I've seen it a lot.

Consequently, as with his adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express – another Christie title whose plotting (thanks mostly to Sidney Lumet's 1974 version) I have committed to memory – no guesswork was required to figure out “Whodunit?” in director/star Kenneth Branagh's latest 1930s yarn featuring famed detective Hercule Poirot, an “all-star” cast of suspects, and a climactic reveal at least 90-percent faithful to its author's. Just like his underrated 2017 effort, however, what Branagh's Death on the Nile lacks in narrative shockers is easily made up for in terms of performance, or at least presence, as well as both minor and major tinkerings with the source material that kept me invested even when the movie was helplessly echoing Guillermin's. I have no idea how easy/difficult it might be for a newbie to correctly predict how Christie's (and screenwriter Michael Green's) puzzle pieces will inevitably fit. Yet even if you've read the author's 1937 novel more than once – or have instant recall of the peerlessly eccentric 1978 readings of Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, Bette Davis, and company – there's still an awful lot here to enjoy.

Sadly, my praise doesn't necessarily extend to the new film's opening 10 minutes: a largely unnecessary World War I prelude that manages to baldly suggest Sam Mendes' 1917 (in its foxhole locale and tracking shots) and Branagh's own Belfast (in its black-and-white presentation) while really only being, as my brother astutely observed, an origin story for Poirot's mustache. After that, however, events get livelier, and deadlier. With Branagh's Belgian sleuth resting his little gray cells on a purported holiday in Egypt, Death on the Nile's ensemble gradually reveals itself, starting with Gal Gadot as heiress Linnet Ridgeway, Emma Mackey as Linnet's childhood pal Jacqueline de Bellefort, and Armie Hammer as Jacqueline's handsome, jobless fiancé Simon Doyle. (Those surprised by the appearance of Hammer, Hollywood's current poster child for personae non grata, should know that the film's release has been consistently delayed since December of 2019 for reasons both production- and pandemic-related.) One hot night on the dance floor, though, leads to Simon eventually marrying Linnet instead, making Jacqueline the immediate chief suspect should anything untoward happen to either her former lover or former friend.

But this is an Agatha Christie, dammit – we demand more potential killers! And we certainly get them. There's Tom Bateman (reprising his role from Orient Express) as a charming ne'er-do-well and Annette Bening as his artist mother. Sophie Okonedo as a sultry jazz-blues singer and Letitia Wright as her niece and manager. Jennifer Saunders as Linnet's godmother, who travels with a devoted assistant played by Dawn French. Russell Brand as the doctor who was Linnet's previous fiancé. Ali Fazal as Linnet's cousin and lawyer. Rose Leslie as Linnet's maid. And if you're noticing a theme developing regarding which character might link all these disparate figures, you may not be able to guess the “who” in this whodunit, but you've probably at least figured out the “who” in “who gets it.” (It's to Christie's immense credit that Nile gives us more than one murder victim – killings that couldn't possibly have been perpetrated by the same person – for us to contend with.)

Gal Gadot, Emma Mackey, and Armie Hammer in Death on the Nile

Not all of these luxury-liner travelers down the Egyptian river, I should add, show up in Christie's novel, nor in the original movie, for which this particular Death on the Nile admirer was incredibly grateful. Without drastically altering either the tale's progression or its central and incidental mysteries, and there are quite a few of them, Green's script does a first-rate job of subverting expectations and making the familiar fresh by blending or dovetailing character arcs. (Perhaps because she was so remarkably vivid in the 1978 rendition, it now takes two performers to effectively replicate Angela Lansbury's function in the Guillermin film.) And even when Branagh's actors generally follow their predecessors' storyline paths to the letter, as Fazal and Leslie do, they and their screenwriter color the characterizations with intriguingly cagey, individualized grace notes. While I fondly remember everything Mia Farrow's unbalanced Jacqueline did 40-plus years ago, I was dazzled by Mackey's ability to similarly yet distinctively navigate the role's tricky combination of neediness, poignancy, and rage. (Mackey is sensational, but given that she looks uncannily like Branagh's 1990s girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter back in the day, the director's decision to cast her as Jacqueline is a subject perhaps best left to a therapist.)

It's unfortunate that the movie itself doesn't match its more effective performers or Green's design of their roles, especially in terms of the visuals. As in Branagh's 2017 murder mystery, the obvious matte work and green-screen effects are routinely cheesy, and their deliberately artificial, off-putting storybook quality doesn't fit the nastiness of Christie's plotting; there's no train in sight this time around, and the movie still resembles The Polar Express. The CGI that's employed for various snakes, gators, and fish, meanwhile, is utterly tacky, and I was relieved that the 1978 scene of Poirot encountering a loose cobra in his bedroom was abandoned for this adaptation, as the cartoon reptile that jumped the screen for a meaningless “Boo!” moment was already more than enough.

Yet the cast alone makes this Death on the Nile well worth a watch. Most of the cast, at any rate. Beyond being reliably beautiful, Gadot and Hammer don't do much to enliven the party, and Brand seems awkwardly suppressed of personality, maybe because this is his first time on-screen in which he's been denied a single joke. All told, Branagh's and Green's re-imagining is a decidedly more somber affair than Guillermin's, and even the reunion for French and Saunders – co-stars on a long-running British sketch-comedy series naturally titled French & Saunders – doesn't yield much, or really anything, in the way of laughs. But they're still terrific together, and Bateman, Bening, and Wright are absolutely superb, and Okonedo came closest to stealing the film for me, suggesting what Lansbury might have accomplished in the part if she were ever cast as Josephine Baker.

Plus, while I could have done without the prologue and (admittedly touching) epilogue apparently added to flesh out Christie's inscrutable crime solver, it's nearly always a pleasure when Branagh stops doing cameos as stoic sea captains or heavily accented Russian gangsters and remembers that he can actually act. He's still, at best, fourth in line among classic Poirots on big and small screens. But Branagh's detective is amusing, empathetic, and subtly emotional, and after this movie and Orient Express, I'd be more than happy to see him return to the role yet again – though hopefully not in a Christie so many movie and mystery fans are already well-acquainted with. The late, great Dame wrote dozens of these things. Next time around, can Branagh and Green collaborate on one whose previous film version didn't win an Oscar?

Owen Wilson and Jennifer Lopez in Marry Me


At this point in her celebrity, it's probably impossible for Jennifer Lopez to be believably cast as anyone other than a Jennifer Lopez type. That's the absolute best thing about director Kat Coiro's Marry Me, a fitfully funny, unexpectedly endearing romantic comedy that benefits hugely from J. Lo's unmistakable J. Lo-ness. By design, the set-ups to most Hollywood rom-coms make you roll your eyes, and my eyes rarely roll harder than when I'm expected to buy Lopez as, say, a lovelorn maid, or a lovelorn advertising executive, or whatever other career an achingly beautiful, unlucky-in-relationships gal with pitifully low self-esteem and rock-hard stomach muscles might find herself in. Yet the diva and her trademark, perhaps contractually obligated lip gloss are in marvelous form here, their combined screen presence allowing you to cheerfully gobble down this Valentine's Weekend morsel with only the slightest pangs of guilt.

In truth, the only true guilt I felt came from agreeing to fall for the movie's ridiculous premise, one that finds Lopez's pop superstar Kat Valdez ready to wed her pop-superstar fiancé Bastian (chart-topping Colombian singer Maluma) in front of a global audience, discovering his infidelity minutes before their vows, and deciding to instead marry the milquetoast single father (Owen Wilson's Charlie Gilbert) who catches Kat's eye at her wedding concert. (The less said about the lead-up to this scenario, the better ... though I did chuckle when we were informed that Kat's and Bastian's nuptials would be viewed “in front of the whole world – 20 million people!” I guess the film takes place right after Thanos snapped his finger.) You get zero points for correctly anticipating what happens after chanteuse Kat and middle-school math teacher Charlie are legally married on-stage: social media goes into meltdown mode; the former strangers tentatively get to know each other; Charlie agrees to attend chic galas while Kat agrees to go bowling; obstacles, as they must, arise; love, as it must, blossoms. There's also the requisite bit in which the sheltered, moneyed heroine demonstrates how far-removed from normal life she is by making a smoothie without putting the lid on the blender. In the history of time, has anyone who wasn't already too drunk or high to stand actually attempted this?

Yet even when Marry Me is simply going through the motions and following its genre blueprint with unnerving faithfulness, which it does roughly 99 percent of the time, Coiro and her trio of screenwriters provide welcome surprises. Yes, there's a frenzied race to the airport. But I didn't expect to grin quite so hard when the person doing the racing did so in stilettos and red-leather pants while screaming an offer to buy someone's plane ticket off them – and being shocked to discover that such an offer is illegal. Yes, there's a de rigueur Gay Best Friend. But I didn't foresee that rom-com cliché being played by Sarah Silverman, whose occasional diversions from the script deliver the few out-loud laughs the movie provides. (Scooting Charlie's dog back inside after being hounded by paparazzi, Silverman's Parker explains, “He can only take a shit if no one's watching. I, however, can only take a shit if someone's watching. So if you're feeling lucky … !”)

And even though Lopez's and Wilson's roles position them squarely in their comfort zones and don't mess with their established styles one iota, the stars are terrifically relaxed and genial around one another; there's nothing remotely resembling heat, but “modestly horny friendliness” turns out to be a fine temperature for 110 mindless minutes of entertainment. Hard as it is to fathom, almost everything works here. The film's numerous original songs are catchy. Kat's costumes, excepting the one that makes her look like she was dipped in coconut, are divine. John Bradley offers a disarmingly sensitive portrayal of Kat's manager. (I hadn't seen the onetime Samwell Tarly in anything since Game of Thrones ended, and between this and the currently-in-release Moonfall, we now can't get rid of the guy.) Marry Me may be an age-old recipe, but its ingredients are delicious.

Liam Neeson and Taylor John Smith in Blacklight


I wouldn't cast him in Marry Me. But no actor alive is more in need of a sweetly dopey rom-com than Liam Neeson, who has instead opted to give us his gazillionth rendition of a pissed-off, gun-toting loner in Blacklight, writer/director Mark Williams' tale of an FBI fixer who discovers that his boss – dun dun du-u-u-un!!! – may not be the salt-of-the-earth civil servant he always presumed. Of course, there's an estranged daughter and an adorable granddaughter in the mix, and there are shoot-outs and high-speed chases and booby traps by the truckload, and the American flag, as in all latter-day Neeson vehicles, makes so many appearances that it could instantly qualify for a SAG card. (Somewhere, the national flag of Ireland is weeping.)

But even in brief, I don't want to talk about how predictably terrible Blacklight is. I want to talk about how unsatisfying it is. Because in a movie that takes great pains to establish Neeson's character as suffering from OCD – arranging his nicknacks just so, only performing tasks (securing his deadbolt, high-fiving his grandkid) in odd-numbered sequences – it turns out that his malady is absolutely inessential to his subsequent acts of vengeance, making the movie's only remotely interesting aspect nothing more than a quickly abandoned quirk. Williams' action thriller isn't as abjectly worthless as many of its star's recent offerings: the assassination of a politician clearly modeled after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez makes for an appallingly intriguing opener; Emmy Raver-Lampman is engaging and resourceful as an intrepid indie journalist; it's fun to see a now-silver-haired Aidan Quinn as the hateful FBI director; there's a killer, clearly improvised bit involving a dog's dinnertime routine. But this unspeakably rote offering totally squanders whatever goodwill its potential fans – as well as those of us praying it'll at least be an improvement on the norm – bring to it. Watching Blacklight is like watching a distractingly violent Monk episode in which Tony Shalhoub leaves after the second commercial break.

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