Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

I remember when Kenneth Branagh used to make serious awards-bothering films. I watched his four-hour version of Hamlet (1996). Twice. I even watched the two-hour cut as well, for some reason losts to the mists of time. I mean, that was almost 20 years ago now, and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore, very sensibly having re-focused his talents on fun, hammy roles. There was his wizard in the second Harry Potter film, or his Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn. It would probably be fair to add the Russian oligarch bad guy Viktor that he plays in this film to that list, though what with all his precise financial machinations, it’s a more underplayed role of brooding intensity and clears the way for Chris Pine’s action heroics.

In truth, though, no individual performance does end up dominating Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit — as far as the title goes, it’s more about the shadow than the recruit. Aside from Branagh, we have Kevin Costner playing the guy quietly running the show, while Keira Knightley is an afterthought of a girlfriend. Amongst all this, Chris Pine has his running-around-making-stuff-happen shtick down from the rebooted Star Trek series, but he’s a curiously inert presence. Part of that is do with the way the film downplays the heroics and the patriotic flag-waving. Sure, he’s trained as a Marine following 9/11 and ten years later, gets the chance to save the day in a frenetic sequence based more-or-less at Ground Zero NYC. Yet his character is more of a back office wonk, tracing financial transactions and trying to explain it to Kevin Costner’s Commander, who — no doubt on our behalf — gamely exhorts Jack to use simpler words. And the final confrontation is between the two men, Jack and Viktor, rather than really about global geopolitics or high finance. It makes for a more interesting central character, I think, but perhaps a less satisfying action movie.

Of course, the character is based on famous Cold War-era conservative Tom Clancy’s gung-ho patriotic spook of the same name, developed over a number of novels (and already adapted into a number of films). If some of the jingoism has been toned down by the British director, then we still get some gloriously old-school villains, what with our Soviet Russian baddie, meaning a large chunk of the plot takes place in a Moscow whose modern shiny glass-and-steel edifices jostle with the more picturesque charms the film is at pains to present.

No one’s going to try to argue this is a masterpiece, and it has its longueurs. But it does what it needs to do without too much fuss. The style is all fairly straightforward and unshowy. Pine does his stuff, Knightley scrubs up quite well as a (medical) doctor, and Costner broods effectively. And, like the director he is, Branagh plays a character who thinks he’s in control, but just maybe someone will come along and find a hole in his plotting.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit film posterCREDITS
Director Kenneth Branagh; Writers Adam Cozad and David Koepp (based on characters by Tom Clancy); Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos Χάρις Ζαμπαρλούκος; Starring Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 12 February 2014.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

I was a bit underwhelmed I suppose by the first film in this series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and though I can hardly say the second part has assuaged my concerns and brought me fully into Harry Potter fandom, I can at least report back that it is no worse than the first part. In fact, it generally extends it down into the lower depths of Hogwarts school, where some scary creatures (thus bigger challenges) are lurking. If the shadowy (and non-corporeal) Lord Voldemort was alluded to a number of times in the first film, this is his first appearance as the actual antagonist, which makes it generally a stronger outing.

As it’s a film aimed at children, that still leaves us with the preppy and perky young trio as the leads, whose appeal I am still trying to appreciate, but which may never be possible at my advanced age. Nevertheless, the filmmakers have cannily recruited further British acting talent, this time emphasising the hammy, but in the best possible ways. Most prominently, we now have Kenneth Branagh playing, as he is wont to do (such as in My Week with Marilyn), a heightened and caricatured version of himself — or at least the self I want to believe is Kenneth Branagh. His Gilderoy Lockhart is a preening self-regarding celebrity-obsessed author whose cheerful pomposity is merely a cover for a lack of talent. And then there’s the wonderful Jason Isaacs fantastically overacting as a devilishly calculating Lucius Malfoy, father to one of the more interesting (because morally ambiguous) children, Draco.

However, for the rest of this (even longer) instalment, there’s still plenty of running about, doing stuff, discovering secrets and generally getting into silly japery on the part of the children. If it’s uninspiring in its details (those I can remember), it’s also undemanding on the viewer, though there a few little details added into the mix, such as the incipient racism trumpeted by Draco Malfoy, who objects to Hermione and Harry on the basis of their mixed-blood ancestry (part-wizard, part-human, or ‘Muggles’ as non-magical humans are called here, hence the portmanteau slur “Mudblood”). This is added to the first film’s blatant classism against Ron, ensuring that our trio of questing magical adolescents have at least our sympathy as viewers. The Chamber of Secrets thus keeps the story alive and moving forward, if not adding any greater insight into the trio’s developing stories, or extending the filmmaking skills on show beyond the merely workmanlike.

Next: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets film posterCREDITS
Director Chris Columbus; Writer Steve Kloves (based on the novel by J.K. Rowling); Cinematographer Roger Pratt; Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Kenneth Branagh, Richard Harris; Length 160 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Saturday 21 December 2013.

My Week with Marilyn (2011)

There’s not a great deal to be said about this likeable piece of cinematic fluff, so I’ll keep this review short. It deals with events around the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) as seen through the eyes of its Third Assistant Director, Colin Clark, who released two books on this (undoubtedly to him) memorable period of his life. It hardly answers any questions the viewer may have about Marilyn Monroe’s life (she is an evanescent presence at the heart of the film), but affords Michelle Williams plenty of opportunity to craft a fine cinematic performance, as well as showcasing a wonderfully barking egotistical turn by Kenneth Branagh as Sir Laurence Olivier, a man surely close to his own actor-directorial heart.

Of course, the protagonist is Clark himself, played by an affable Eddie Redmayne, but he holds little real interest as a character. Clark is a young man born of wealth and privilege, who appears to have met Olivier at a family party (his father was the art historian Kenneth Clark), and is seen tenaciously going after a minor job on his latest production as the film opens. When My Week with Marilyn is focusing on Clark and his feelings — first toward costume assistant Lucy (the ever-lovely Emma Watson) and then Marilyn herself — it drags somewhat, despite Redmayne’s best efforts. It’s when Branagh or Williams are on screen that things liven up, not to mention Judi Dench as straight-talking veteran thesp Dame Sybil Thorndike.

These are not performances that expend any great effort at trying to look as authentic as possible — of course, Williams has Monroe’s peroxided blonde hair, but that seems to be as far as things go — but at capturing an essence of their spirit. In this, Williams seems to have done very well, modulating her voice to capture Marilyn’s on-screen breathiness, and the sequence of her doing a little dance in her showgirl character is delightful. Branagh goes for a self-important pompousness and gets some of the film’s biggest laughs as a result, showing Olivier to be breathlessly undiplomatic in his last directorial role. The rest of the cast is rounded out with a vast number of recognisable British character actors, ensuring as a result that the picture moves along nimbly. It’s never less than likeable and diverting, and in most moods — especially at the end of a long week, with a glass of wine in hand — that’s just fine by me.

My Week with Marilyn film posterCREDITS
Director Simon Curtis; Writer Adrian Hodges (based on the diaries The Prince, the Showgirl and Me and the memoir My Week with Marilyn by Colin Clark); Cinematographer Ben Smithard; Starring Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Watson, Judi Dench; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Friday 22 November 2013.