Review: Branagh’s throwback mystery a perfect pre-Halloween treat

Kenneth Branagh in A Haunting in Venice (20th Century Studios)

The third time is the charm for director/actor Kenneth Branagh in his latest film featuring the Agatha Christie sleuth Hercule Poirot.

Branagh turns in a spooky, thought-provoking winner in “A Haunting in Venice,” a somewhat slack adaptation of Christie’s “Hallowe’en Party” from 1969 that is as much an ode to the filmmaking of Orson Wells’ and other filmmakers of the late 1940s as it is a classic who-done-it.

The movie is gorgeously shot with stunningly rich cinematography by Harris Zambarloukos, featuring dutch tilts, close-ups, odd angles, and lush travelogue shots of Venice in all its rain-sodden glory. It’s just a pleasure to bathe in the film’s lush atmosphere.

The script by Michael Green deviates a good deal from its source material, which is OK. Unlike “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Murder on the Nile,” “Hallowe’en Party” is one of Christie’s lesser works, and by not sticking exactly to her story, I didn’t feel as compelled to compare the film to the written work, offering a sort of freedom to follow where Branagh takes us.

Michelle Yeoh in A Haunting in Venice (20th Century Studios)

Branagh’ Poirot is struggling with retirement as well as the bitterness and angst that can come with it when he drawn back into game by mystery writer Ariande Oliver (Tina Fey), who fancies herself a sleuth in her own right. Oliver has written Poirot into her works as a character, and in an effort to stoke her creativity, she aims to lure the no-nonsense Poirot into the world of the super-natural by inviting him to a seance.

Medium Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) is attempting to connect opera star Rowena Drake (Mary Reilly) to her dead daughter. Even the highly rational Poirot begins to question himself as the super-natural occurrences begin to intrude on this loose locked-room mystery set in a gorgeous Italian palazzo.

The movie’s pace is more leisurely than most modern fare, but in taking its time, the tension builds for a rousing resolution that makes this the best of Branagh’ trio of Poirot films.

The cast is strong. Fey might be a bit out of step with the rest of the cast, but her wry comments throughout gives the film a jolt. Reilly shows her chops in a role a world away from her day job as Beth Dutton on “Yellowstone.” It took a moment for me to recognize her. Yeoh is spellbinding as the medium, and young Jude Hill as Leopold really hits with the creepy kid vibes.

The movie might not be for everyone, but if you enjoy classic films from Hollywood’s golden age, you just might find “A Haunting in Venice” to be a pleasing early Halloween treat.

(PG-13) 1 hr. 43 min.
Grade: B

New in Local Theaters – Sept. 15, 2023

  • A Haunting in Venice (PG-13) 1 hr. 43 min. (trailer)
    (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight)
  • The Retirement Plan (R) 1 hr. 43 min. (trailer)
    (AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Razorback)
  • Camp Hideout (PG) 1 hr. 40 min. (trailer)
    (Malco Razorback, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight)
  • Satanic Hispanics (R) 1 hr. 47 min. (trailer)
    (Malco Pinnacle)

Classic Corner – Batman Day Movie Marathon

DC Entertainment has declared this Saturday to be Batman Day, and to add some impact to the celebration, the three Christopher Nolan-directed Batman films with Christian Bale as the Dark Knight will be brought back to theaters locally at the AMC Fiesta Square.

“Batman Begins” plays at 3:10 p.m., “The Dark Knight” at 6:30 p.m., and “The Dark Knight Returns” at 10:05 p.m. at the $5 Fan Faves price. This is a great opportunity to see these films on the big screen once again or for the first time for a decent price.

Batman Begins (2005)
Nolan’s first foray into super-heroes tells the Batman’s origin from young Bruce Wayne being terrorized by bats after falling into an underground cave to that fateful night when his parents were murdered in a Gotham City alley to his world travels to train to be a crime-fighter and a champion for the oppressed.

Nolan, who wrote the screenplay from a story by David S. Goyer, weaves decades of storylines, spanning the entire 60-plus year publishing history of Batman in 2005, into a cohesive story that works incredibly smoothly.

Christian Bale is arguably the best of the various Batmen with excellent support from Michael Cain as Alfred, Liam Neesan as Ducard/Ras al Ghul, Gary Oldman as Detective Jim Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Lucious Fox. The film has solid action and a great twist.

The Dark Knight (2008)
This movie is a masterpiece or as close as any comic-book movie has gotten. Director Nolan picks up where he left off with “Batman Begins” and crafts a thrilling, exhilarating super-hero crime drama that hits on all cylinders.

Just as Batman (Bale), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), and district attorney Harvey Dent/Two Face (Aaron Eckhart) opt to form a bond to end to organized crime in Gotham City, an even worse blight on the city emerges as the Joker (Heath Ledger) begins wiping out crime bosses left and right to consolidate power under him.

As great as Jack Nicholson was as the Joker the 1989 “Batman,” Ledger topped him and won a posthumous Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his efforts.

The Joker’s madness and rage against Gotham and his citizenry isn’t about accruing wealth. Joker proves that by lighting a 20-foot high stack of stolen cash on fire. He’s furious with society, and he wants to watch it burn. Ledger’s Joker is a menace perhaps created by the Batman’s war on crime, but he’s a threat that only Batman can possibly handle.

Batman is a force attempting to do good, but the movie questions if he does more harm if his vigilante crusade against crime begets evil like the Joker?

In the end, Batman triumphs over Joker barely, but in the process he loses his his beloved Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and his friend Dent, whom the Joker corrupted. To cover up Dent’s malignancy and to create a hero the city can rally around, Batman takes the fall for Two-Face’s crimes to allow Dent to be a martyr to the public. The movie works on every level with a gripping and heart-rending conclusion.

Nolan tips his hat to great movies of the past such as “Angels With Dirty Faces,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “The Man Who Laughs,” and likely several others. To me the film is a close to perfect as any super-hero film has come.

The Dark Knight Returns (2012)
Nolan is truly a directorial genius. He is undoubtably of the best at his craft currently working today. Nolan delivered two excellent Batman films that will stand the test of time, but this isn’t one of them.

“The Dark Knight Returns” is just a good Batman movie because Nolan crammed too much into the film. From Bane to Talia al Ghul to Catwoman to Robin to a nuclear explosion, the film is so packed that it gets weighted down.

There’s just too much. It’s all decent, but maybe Nolan should have made two or three movies out of those ideas instead of just one. It’s “The Godfather Part III” of super-hero movies.