Then Playing — The Ex-Mrs. Bradford; Death on the Nile; Moonfall

The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (Stephen Roberts, 1936). No one played a well-to-do gent dapperly cavorting through a murder mystery like William Powell. In between turns as Nick Charles, he plays Dr. Lawrence Bradford in this spiked trifle, reuniting with his ex-wife (Jean Arthur, sparkling with offhand charm) to get to the bottom of a jockey’s death during a race. The duo flirt and quarrel and generally make a dandy mess of things as the investigation plays our, initially against Dr. Bradford’s better judgment. The dialogue in Anthony Veiller’s screenplay isn’t quite up to Thin Man standards, but there’s enough of that nineteen-thirties snap to keep the jalopy rolling. Stephen Roberts directs the proceedings with keen professionalism and pinpoint timing. If The Ex-Mrs. Bradford doesn’t rise to the level of classic, it is further proof the even the mere diversions of Hollywood’s earliest eras often reverberated with a enviable levels of care and quality.

Death on the Nile (Kenneth Branagh, 2022). Kenneth Branagh continues in his intrepid mission to take the most famed titles in the teetering tower of Agatha Christie murder mysteries and render them for the screen as ossified pageants of largely indifferent celebrities, like The Love Boat with a body count. It doesn’t help Death on the Nile that the COVID-dictated extra time on the shelf curdled the cast, revealing a sex pest, an anti-vaccine loon, and an addled-brain conspiracy peddler, none of whom distinguish themselves through their acting in such a way as to shunt aside thoughts of their offscreen infractions. Only Annette Bening and Sophie Okonedo rise above the hum of mediocrity, mostly because, like Michelle Pfeiffer in Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express, they clearly realize sly overacting is the key to keeping their dignity afloat in this enterprise. Branagh would benefit from bringing some of that same spirit to his directing. Instead, his approach is ponderous and needlessly showy, unconcerned with developing energy when there’s another opportunity to shoot a scene through beveled glass.

Moonfall (Roland Emmerich, 2022). Roland Emmerich, the master of putting delightfully overblown disasters on screen for the amusement of those who consider popcorn a major good group, rivets together probably his loopiest concept yet, one that implicitly argues that those who stop their lunar-based conspiratorial conjecture at the notion that the moon landing was faked simply aren’t adventurous enough thinkers. In Emmerich’s latest film, the big sphere orbiting around Earth is a megastructure of unknown origin that is drifting toward the breakdown lane, thus imperiling humanity with jumungous tsunamis, buckshot blasts of debris, and other assorted mayhem. Before long, a ragtag crew is aboard a reconditioned space shuttle hurtling toward the moon where they find fresh dangers, wonders, and explanations steeped in quasi-scientific claptrap. This could be fun. This should be fun. Instead, Moonfall is messy without the wit or cheery embrace of its own absurdities that could compensate for its flaws. I will offer an admiring hat tip to Halle Berry, who has the inspired audacity to significantly underplay the moments when her character, an ex-astronaut and active NASA executive pressed into spacefaring service, is confronted with head-spinning secrets of the universe.

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