A CROOKED SOMEBODY (2018)

October 4, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. The lust for fame is really just a plea for acceptance. In director Trevor White’s film, the lead character, Michael Vaughn, wreaks of desperation for acceptance … from the public, from his associate, and mostly from his Pastor-Dad. Unfortunately, the path Vaughn chooses is simply the first of many bad decisions. In fact, the film is really a chronicle of the downward spiral of Michael Vaughn’s bad decisions.

Rich Sommer (Harry Crane in “Mad Men”) plays Michael Vaughn, a psychic who tours the country peddling his book and his “act”. And yes, it’s an act. It’s such an act, that it could be considered a scam. However, Michael focuses on connecting the living with their beloved dead ones, so his (sparse) audience is filled with those who want to believe he is legitimate. His assistant-associate-accomplice-would be and one time lover is played by Joanne Froggatt. Her job is to prevent Michael from becoming despondent over the lack of book sales, and also to be his audience-plant when a session gets stalled.

The bulk of the story revolves around Nathan (Clifton Collins, Jr), a man who believes Vaughn has connected to a man Nathan killed. In trying to clear his conscience, Nathan wants Vaughn to use his talents to help Stacy (Amanda Crew), the now-grown daughter of the man Nathan killed. Instead of focusing on “helping” those involved, Vaughn seizes the opportunity to put himself in the spotlight … gaining notoriety as the psychic who helped solve a long-ago murder case. And no, this isn’t the final bad decision Vaughn makes. He manages to make things much worse.

Real life married couple Ed Harris and Amy Madigan play Vaughn’s parents – the one’s he so wants to win respect from. The script from writer Andrew Zilch offers some pretty decent on screen tension, though it strains a bit too much in places – even with a worthy and relatable central idea. It’s human nature to desire acceptance (especially from loved ones) … though it takes a flawed personality to strive for fame and celebrity (especially at the cost of core values). Here’s hoping you don’t see too much of yourself in Michael Vaughn.

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THE LITTLE STRANGER (2018)

August 31, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s follow up to his stellar film ROOM (Oscar nominated for Best Picture and Best Director) is based on Sarah Waters graphic novel, and adapted for the screen by Lucinda Coxon (THE DANISH GIRL). Very early on, the film succeeds in giving viewers that “I have a bad feeling” sensation … usually a very good sign for films in this genre.

The always excellent Domhnall Gleeson stars as Faraday, the local town doctor called out to check on the lone remaining housekeeper at Hundreds Hall. For a couple hundred years, it’s been the Ayres family home, and though, in its past, a glorious fixture among Britain’s elite, the home, grounds and family themselves are all now little more than a distant memory of their once great selves. When he was a mere lad, Faraday’s mum had served on staff, and his memories of the grand palace are jolted by the sight of its current dilapidated state.

The Ayres family now consists of Charlotte Rampling as the matriarch who has yet to move past the death of her beloved daughter Susan so many years ago; Will Poulter as Roderick, the son who was disfigured and maimed during the war; and Ruth Wilson as surviving daughter Caroline, who seems to have surrendered any semblance of life in order to care for her mother, brother, and home … each in various stages of ill-repair.

This is a strange family who mostly keep to themselves, well, except for Faraday who seems drawn to the family … or is it the house? Even his romantic interest in Caroline could be seen as an excuse to regularly return to the house. His flashbacks to childhood and a festival held on the estate grounds provide glimpses of his connection, but with Gleeson’s mostly reserved façade, we never really know what’s going on in his head.

Part haunted house, part ghost story, and part psychological thriller; however, it’s really not fully any of these. There seems to be a missing link – something for us to grab hold of as viewers. The film is wonderfully cloaked in dread and looks fabulous – replete with ominous music and a creepy old mansion. Unfortunately those things are accompanied by the slowest build up in cinematic history. “A snail’s pace” is too kind as a description. The film is very well acted, but horror films and thrillers need more than atmosphere, otherwise frustration sets in with the viewer. There is little doubt this played much better on the pages of Ms. Waters’ book.

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OPERATION FINALE (2018)

August 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Historical dramas, by definition, carry added depth and weight to stories that sometimes seem almost beyond belief. Such is the true story of the 1960 Mossad mission to capture Adolph Eichmann, the noted architect of the Final Solution, who was hiding in plain sight in Argentina. You might think there have already been enough Holocaust movies, but director Chris Weitz (ABOUT A BOY) hones in on the personal aspects of loss and anger, and the need for justice.

Matthew Orton’s first screenplay benefits greatly from a terrific cast, especially the two main characters played by Ben Kingsley (Adolph Eichmann) and Oscar Isaac (Mossad agent Peter Malkin). Sir Ben is notably restrained in his performance of the last surviving mastermind of the Holocaust, and one of the most despised men on the planet. His subdued performance aligns perfectly with the “ordinary” man of which we’ve since read. Mr. Isaac adds the element of psychology in his “good cop” approach to getting Eichmann to crack.

Playing much like a heist movie, we see the team assembled and the quite convoluted plan devised. The high risk strategy underscores the desperation so many felt in their need to see Eichmann pay for his atrocities. The manhunt required some political tip-toeing, and we even gain a history lesson on the role of the Catholic Church. A tip from a “secret” Jewish daughter (Haley Lu Richardson) and her father (Peter Strauss) set things in motion. Sylvia (Ms. Richardson) actually dates Klaus Eichmann (played by Joe Alwyn), who is a picture-perfect Aryan carrying on the horrid Nazi tradition of hatred.

Of course, Klaus is the son of Adolph, and the one who spills the beans about his father being “a big deal” in the war … thereby ruining the quiet and mostly unassuming life they have been living with Adolph’s wife (a nearly unrecognizable Greta Scacchi). Sylvia and Klaus meet at a movie when she shushes him and his friends. Director Weitz even includes a clip of IMITATION OF LIFE (1959), a film that not coincidentally stars his mother, Susan Kohner. It’s a nice touch.

Much of the film takes place in the safe house where Adolph Eichmann is blindfolded and spoon-fed. It’s here that the psychological games and political maneuverings begin. Supporting actors who add strength to the film include team members Melanie Laurent (Hanna), Michael Aranov (chief negotiator Zvi), Lior Raz (as the demanding team director), Nick Kroll, and Simon Russell Beale (as Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion). There is a history of bumpy romance between Hanna and Peter, though it adds little to the story.

Alexandre Desplat’s score is terrific, especially during a creative and informative opening credit sequence. “Who did you lose?” is a recurring question throughout, as it’s 1960 and everyone involved lost someone – a driving force behind their persistence and commitment to the cause. The film is focused on the mission to capture, not the details of the subsequent trial; however it does close with archival photos of the actual trial – adding historical relevance to this fine dramatization.

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MILE 22 (2018)

August 16, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. I like secrets too!  By definition, information is scarce on these teams, so Secret Ops units are perfect fodder for intrigue, espionage, and geopolitical action flicks. A fictional account of an elite paramilitary unit chasing down Russian spies is not only timely, but also timeless. Director Peter Berg and actor Mark Wahlberg are back for their 4th testosterone-laced collaboration. Their previous work included PATRIOTS DAY, DEEPWATER HORIZON, and LONE SURVIVOR, each with an element of truth to their story. Not so with their latest … at least we hope not.

Mark Wahlberg stars as Mark Wahlberg, er… James Silva, a child prodigy with anger issues who has grown into a military intelligence prodigy with anger issues and a rubber band. Silva snaps the rubber band on his wrist when his impatience bubbles up as those around him can’t keep up with his rapid-fire thinking. The only thing that works faster than Silva’s brain is his motor-mouth filled with cryptic cuts and curses. Lest you think this is another men’s only club, writers Lea Carpenter and Graham Roland have blessed us with two female action figures. One is played by MMA star Ronda Rousey. She is given little to do here. The other is Lauren Cohan (“The Walking Dead”) who, as team member Alice Kerr, has much to do – even beyond the absentee-mommy guilt burdening her.

Carlo Alban plays another member of the elite squad, while John Malkovich plays “Mother”, the flat-top toupeed control center leader … you knew there had to be an ultra-high-tech lair staffed with computer nerds. Since Wahlberg spends most of the movie yelling, and Cohan battles her estranged husband (Peter Berg cameo) over Skype, the most interesting character is Li Noor, played by Iko Uwais (THE RAID). Uwais brings a Bruce Lee quality to the film with an incredible hospital room fight scene, as well as a few other sequences that will have you marvel at his abilities.

Intensity and tension and violence and gun play and fighting and chase scenes are jam-packed into a relatively short run time, but the opening sequence is the closest thing we get to something that fits into a well-written espionage thriller. The team sets up a raid on a Russian FSB suburban safe house. Things get twisted, and the final kill ends with “you’re making a mistake”. The film then jumps ahead two years to the Overwatch team reassembling in Southeast Asia for a mission to transport Li Noor to an airfield 22 miles away. See, he holds the information regarding dirty bombs that can either save or cost thousands of lives.

The film features a framing device with Silva being debriefed after the mission. He is explaining why they do the important work they do and why they did the important work they did and why it’s important that we understand the work is important. There is government bashing and military cheerleading, but mostly the interview acts as a respite between violent action sequences. The film plays so much like a video game that each ticket should come with a joystick. If after watching this, you need more, you’ll be pleased to know there’s a cheesy line at the end that tees up the sequel … and don’t worry, director Berg and Mr. Wahlberg are already in pre-production for their fifth film.

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DISTORTED (2018)

August 11, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Being startled awake by a nightmare is disconcerting for all of us. When that dream is strobe-like with flashes to a personal tragedy, the horrifying images carryover into daily life, impacting one’s mental stability.  Such is the new-norm for Lauren (played by Christina Ricci) as she attempts to recover from a disaster of which we are only provided glimpses and hints until later in the film (although it’s pretty obvious). Lauren admits to being scared to rejoin the world – she hasn’t even been able to resume putting her art on canvas.

Director Rob W King (HUNGRY HILLS, 2009) teams with writer Arne Olsen (whose work in the 1990’s included COP AND A ½, RED SCORPION, MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS: THE MOVIE) in an attempt to deliver a high-tech psychological thriller … a sub-genre that has yet to be successfully conquered, cinematically speaking. Lauren and her husband, played by Brendan Fletcher, decide the best move for her sanity and their marriage is to move from the city to the suburbs. They choose The Pinnacle, a luxury condo with ultra high-tech and modern amenities so extreme it’s known as “the smart building”.

Typically having a building be the villain doesn’t work out so well from a story-telling perspective, so of course, paranoia and conspiracy theories are dwelled upon. An obvious choice of the “Beautiful Dreamer” song is repeatedly slipped into scenes to cause Lauren further queasiness. As she becomes increasingly suspicious, and convinced evil is afoot, she crosses paths with a mysterious dark web figure played by John Cusack – a character so predictable that he whispers in conversations, wears a black hoodie, and works in a secret computer lair. As others try to convince Lauren her medications for depression are either too much or too little, Cusack feeds her the age old line … you aren’t paranoid if they are watching you.

Christina Ricci has been acting since she was 10 years old, and here she performs admirably in a film that, bottom line, doesn’t deliver. The movie has the vibe of a cheesy TV show, kind of a rip-off of “Westworld” or “I, Robot”, though it does tease us with the possibilities of electronic hypnosis and manipulation through subliminal images. Our ever-increasingly digital world, and the dangers that come with such power, are a real world problem that, for whatever reason, just hasn’t transferred well to the big screen yet.

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MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE – FALLOUT

July 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome back Ethan Hunt, and the other members of IMF. This is the 6th film in the franchise born (not Bourne) from the classic TV series (1966-73) created by Bruce Geller (credited in each film). Writer/director Christopher McQuarrie returns for this companion piece to his 2015 MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE ROGUE NATION, as of course does mega-star Tom Cruise as the aforementioned Ethan Hunt.

Hunt’s team of Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) returns, as does really really bad guy Solomon Lane (a glowering Sean Hayes), and MI6 agent Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson). New to the scene is Agent August Walker (Henry Cavill, MAN OF STEEL), a hulking hunk of a man who doesn’t share Ethan’s belief in brainy strategy. Speaking of strategy, I was a bit tricky in inviting a friend to the screening who is in the midst of a years long boycott of Alec Baldwin movies. Although I felt a fleeting twinge of guilt, I believe the payoff was such that it lessened the impact of deception. Also appearing are Angela Bassett as a CIA toughie, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley, and Vanessa Kirby (“The Crown”) as White Widow.

Most fans of this franchise have likely accepted that the stories are overly intricate – this one is unnecessarily jumbled – and they just enjoy the clamorous ride to an ending that typically has something to do with a bomb and saving the world. It’s the action and stunts that drive ticket sales, and this one has the most extreme and over-the-top action sequences we’ve seen yet. Even though there is a familiarity to some, the stunts are still quite impressive; and yes, Mr. Cruise, now in his mid-50’s, still performs his own stunts. This includes the leap between buildings where he actually suffered a broken ankle, shutting down production for a few months. The jump where he was injured is included in the film. And fear not, the Cruise Sprint is in full force on numerous occasions. Sadly, there is also a quick shot of a Ving Rhames jog – nothing but painful to watch.

The film opens with a wedding day nightmare, but quickly moves to what the fans want – globetrotting, chase scenes, slick advanced technology and wacky stunts. The streets, bridges and landmarks of Paris are on full and spectacular display, while the chase scenes occur on foot, on motorcycle, in cars, and in helicopters. Crazy stunts include HALO jumping, rock climbing and dangling from an elevator shaft. There is a relentless brawl scene in a men’s room where Hunt gets face planted into a porcelain sink and thrown through a wall … and thanks to the magic of Hollywood, five minutes later, he has nary a scratch and looks as debonair as James Bond ever has. However, it’s the final helicopter sequence through the mountains and cliffs of Kashmir that provide the signature moments of the film. Even with the nod to JURASSIC PARK, it’s a breathtaking scene.

Running nearly 2 ½ hours, this is the longest of the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films, and Ethan Hunt remains, along with Maverick in TOP GUN (sequel filming now), the best fit for Tom Cruise the actor and celebrity. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Henry Cavill. He’s blessed with extraordinary genes – just not the thespian types. Filled with double and triple and quad crossings, whether you can follow the story or not, only the most stoic would claim you will find this anything less than an adrenaline rush … should you decide to accept. Plus, it still features one of the best theme songs ever – especially powerful with today’s phenomenal theatre sound systems. Thanks Lalo Schifrin.

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JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM (2018)

June 29, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. While I will never tire of seeing really cool dinosaurs on the big screen, I’ll probably never avoid frustration from a poorly written and poorly acted film. On the bright side, I got to see this at the Grand Opening of the beautiful new Alamo Drafthouse in Denton, Texas. A 66 foot curved screen with the best available sound system made the dinosaurs that much more impressive, while simultaneously exposing the acting for the disappointment it is … especially the almost impossible to watch Bryce Dallas Howard.

J.A. Bayona directs this follow up to the 2015 JURASSIC WORLD, but he’s saddled with a subpar script from the writers and director of that previous entry, Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow. The creatures of the late, great Michael Crichton deserve better. In addition to the aforementioned Ms. Howard (as Claire Dearing), Chris Pratt also returns as the smirking Owen Grady, and this time he flashes some fighting skills that would make Jean-Claude Van Damme proud. Not sure how his experience training baby dinosaurs and building a cabin in the mountains prepared him to single handedly take on an army of armed mercenaries, but such things are possible in a cartoon … which is exactly what this plays like: a live action cartoon with high dollar special effects.

We have a spoof of a villain in Eli Mills, played by an over-the-top Rafe Spall, a quivering techie played by Justice Smith (PAPER TOWNS), a tough Paleo vet in Daniela Pineda (MR ROOSEVELT), a dying billionaire former partner of John Hammond played by James Cromwell, a greedy capitalist who should be twirling a mustache in Toby Jones, a big-gun toting badass by Ted Levine, and a good-hearted housekeeper played by Geraldine Chaplin. Mr. Cromwell and Ms. Chaplin add a touch of class in their all too brief scenes. BD Wong is back doing things with dino DNA, and sadly, Jeff Goldblum probably filmed his two courtroom scenes in a couple of hours. One nice addition is young Isabella Sermon, in her screen debut. She is part of the only decent twist in the story.

Despite the disappointments, it remains awe-inspiring to see the dinosaurs on screen. If only those moments weren’t ruined by such superfluous bits such as a close up of Ms. Howard’s footwear to prove that she’s not wearing high heels in the jungle this time. Director Bayona has three very fine movies under his belt: THE ORPHANAGE (2007), THE IMPOSSIBLE (2012), and A MONSTER CALLS (2016). He’s likely to make more good films during his career, and this will surely be a box office smash because people love seeing the dinosaurs, and are willing to overlook the people. As a frequent movie goer, I’m just unable to cut slack to a mega-budget film that expects us to overlook shoddy writing and laughable acting. We don’t expect to recapture the (25 years ago) magic of Steven Spielberg and composer John Williams in the stunning JURASSIC PARK, but we do expect a better effort than this.

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