THE GRAY MAN (2022)

July 15, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. You’ve likely heard, and maybe used, the old adage, “everything but the kitchen sink.” It’s typically meant to emphasize the inclusion of many unrelated and often unnecessary elements into a conversation or event. It also provides a description of the strategy filmmaking brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo have taken with the action sequences in the highest budget Netflix original movie to date. Of course the Russo brothers have directed numerous Marvel movies, including AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), so subtlety is never anticipated in their films. If you are curious to know what kind of kitchen sink you get for $200 million, Anthony and Joe show us: lots of guns, a global trek to various countries, more big guns, plenty of characters – some relevant, some not, even larger guns and weapons, lots of rayon, and the destruction of a town square in Prague.

Fans of turbo-charged action films such as the John Wick and Jason Bourne films will likely be quite satisfied with the set pieces, stunts, and manic gun fights and fist fights that are packed into a two-hour run time. There is so much bouncing around the globe that it’s kind of difficult to keep up – especially since there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for all of the globetrotting (well, other than it’s pretty unusual). I couldn’t keep track of every locale, but we definitely visited Bangkok, Austria, Croatia, and Czechoslovakia. And that’s beyond Washington, D.C., and Langley, where we spend time in dark offices.

Co-director Joe Russo co-wrote the screenplay with frequent Russo Brothers collaborators Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and it was adapted from Mark Greany’s novel (the first in a series). Ryan Gosling stars as Court Gentry, codename Sierra Six, a CIA black ops hit man recruited directly from prison by veteran CIA agent Donald Fitzroy (Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton). This is Gosling’s first movie in 4 years (FIRST MAN, 2018) and it’s nice to have him back in a role that will recertify his ‘man card’ before next year’s BARBIE movie. As you might expect, Gosling’s Six is cool as a cucumber, popping off quips, and stoic in the face of adversity. In fact, much is made of his character’s ‘street cred’, despite most every scene involving colossal mistakes, should-be death encounters, and enough mayhem to make Allstate jealous. Six is so cool that he has less reaction to being shot or stabbed than I have when I stub my toe on the leg of the bed.

When Six’s mission goes awry due to his human compassion, three things happen. First, Agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas) bails him out (the first of a few). Second, his target gives him advice and the always mysterious thumb drive with incriminating evidence; and third, his corrupt station chief, Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page, “Bridgerton”) throws a tantrum and hires a psychopath to track down Six and eliminate him. The psychopath is Lloyd Hansen played by Chris Evans, sporting an evil mustache and resort casual attire. It seems Mr. Evans is having fun with the villainous role that he hopes will put distance between his career and the Captain America role he has embodied for more than a decade. The argument could be made that he overplays his hand here, but he does get to spout the already infamous line, “If you want to make an omelet, you gotta kill some people”.

Other players here include the always terrific Alfre Woodard as a former station chief, Jessica Henwick (Bugs from THE MATRIX RESURRECTIONS), Dhanush as yet another hired assassin, Shea Whigham in flashbacks, and Julia Butters as the ‘damsel in distress’. You might recall Ms. Butters’ scene-stealing turn as the precocious child actor in Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD. This film’s title is derived from the term for a CIA operative who effectively moves around without being noticed or remembered (the opposite of a Kardashian). The ironic thing is that Gosling’s Six is almost never undetected. He is frequently in fights, shootouts, car chases, and either causing or escaping explosions. Even the Russo’s “gray” lacks subtlety! It makes perfect sense that the film’s cinematographer, Stephen F Windon, is best known for his work on multiple entries in “The Fast and the Furious” franchise. Here he employs some supersonic drone shots in order to add further hyper-activity to the proceedings. Again, this one is for extreme action fans, not those looking for a brainy spy-thriller.

Opens in theaters on July 15, 2022 and on Netflix beginning July 22, 2022

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DEEP WATER (2022)

March 17, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Based on his work, arguments can be made on both sides. Director Adrian Lyne is either a staunch believer in monogamous marriages, or he enjoys mocking the concept altogether. Surprisingly, this is his first film in 20 years since UNFAITHFUL (2002). To refresh your memory, he’s also the force behind 9 ½ WEEKS (1986), FATAL ATTRACTION (1987), and INDECENT PROPOSAL (1993). Co-writers Zach Helm and Sam Levinson have adapted the script from the 1957 novel by Patricia Highsmith, who also wrote “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Strangers on a Train”.

Do you know I love you?” When one spouse feels the need to ask about love rather than declare it, you know it’s an unusual marriage. And in the category of unusual marriages, you’d be hard-pressed to find an arrangement more bizarre than the one between Vic (Ben Affleck) and Melinda (Ana de Armas). Thanks to real life public drama for Will Smith and Jada Pinkett, we all know that “open marriages” are a thing. But this with Vic and Melinda is neither fully “open” nor fully a marriage. Vic invented and sold a computer chip used in drones (mostly for warfare) and he’s so rich, that he’d rather watch his free-spirited wife drag home new boy-toys than give her an expensive divorce. But that’s as much explanation as we receive for what seems like a lose-lose-lose scenario. That third lose is for Melinda’s gentlemen friends who seem to mysteriously disappear once Vic becomes aware of them. One is gone before the movie even starts, and he’s followed by Jacob Elordi, Brandan Miller, and Finn Wittrock.

Perhaps the biggest mystery here is in deciding who displays more charisma, Affleck in this role or the snails that his character Vic breeds. We’ve joked about actors sleepwalking through roles before, but there are scenes here where that may actually be happening. Affleck mostly just dead-eyes Melinda and her men, though we are supposed to interpret his lack of expression as a combination of anger, jealousy, and lust. Fortunately, we have Ana de Armas to liven things up. She’s a full-grown party girl going through various stages of designer dress and un-dress. The supporting cast is comprised of Dash Mihok, Lil Rey Howery (who is in every movie these days), Kristen Connolly, Grace Jenkins as the smarter-than-parents kid to Vic and Melinda, and Tracy Letts as a curious novelist constantly side-eyeing Vic as research for a new book.

Is it cheesy? Yes. Is it sleazy? Yes. Despite twenty years of no movies, director Lyne delivers another high-gloss, play-pretend trashy erotic thriller that will fit perfectly in the streaming world. Affleck disappoints here after strong turns in THE TENDER BAR (2021) and THE WAY BACK (2020), and Ms. de Armas will next appear as Marilyn Monroe in BLONDE. Ben and Ana had their tabloid moment as a romantic couple after filming, but she is now the gone girl, and he has since reunited with JoLo. There are too many gaps in the story and characters for this to be considered a serious movie, but it’s sure to be entertaining enough for many.

Premiers on HULU beginning March 18, 2022

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NO TIME TO DIE (2021)

October 10, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Bond 25 is here, and it’s quite a curtain call for actor Daniel Craig. The film’s release has been postponed numerous times since September 2019, which has caused expectations and anxiety to build amongst Bond fans. It’s been almost six years since SPECTRE (2015), and this is Daniel Craig’s fifth and final turn as 007. This production faced challenges even before the pandemic hit. Cary Joji Fukunaga (best known for “True Detective” and BEASTS OF NO NATION, 2015) was hired to direct after Danny Boyle stepped down (or whatever happened), and Phoebe Waller-Bridge was brought in to spice up the dialogue on the script from Fukunaga, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade (the latter two having been involved in writing all five Bond movies for Craig). Of course, it’s Ian Fleming to whom we stand eternally grateful for the original characters.

For those accustomed to the James Bond cinematic formula, you’ll notice quite a few differences – beginning with the opening scenes. Traditionally, breathtaking action kicks off the film; but this time a shift in tone and style serves up a tension-filled opening that occurs a few years prior to the rest of the story. It takes a few minutes before we get the first true action sequence. Of course, we must keep in mind that we are dealing with a “retired” James Bond (don’t worry, it’s not like “fat Thor”) … in fact, there’s already a replacement 007 and she (Lashana Lynch, CAPTAIN MARVEL, 2019) packs quite an attitude and skill set.

It’s his old CIA buddy, Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright), who draws Bond back into the espionage game, and of course, the reason is to save the world (what else could it be?). This year’s world-domination-seeking villain is the cleverly named Lyutsifer Safin, and he’s played by Oscar winner Rami Malek (BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY, 2018). Safin is a low-key baddie whose weapon is a DNA-altering chemical that’s probably a bit overly complex for a Bond movie, and it’s also a bit strange that Safin/Malek only has a few substantive scenes. For those who saw SPECTRE, you’ll recognize many of the faces, including Lea Seydoux as Madeleine Swann, Ralph Fiennes as M, Ben Whishaw as Q, Rory Kinnear as Tanner, and Naomie Harris as Moneypenny. Also back for a terrific scene is Oscar winner Christoph Waltz as Blofield. The new faces include the aforementioned Lashana Lynch as Nomi, Billy Magnusson as Logan Ash, and Craig’s KNIVES OUT co-star Ana de Armas as Paloma. Ms. de Armas brings a jolt of energy and some smiles to the proceedings, and it’s a shame her appearance is so short.

It’s unusual for a Bond song to win its Grammy before the movie is ever released, but that’s exactly what happened for Billie Eilish’s achingly somber title song. Oscar winner Hans Zimmer (THE LION KIING) delivers a wonderful score in his first Bond outing (you’ll hear how he incorporates the Eilish song), and the cinematography from Oscar winner Linus Sandgren (LA LA LAND) is everything we could hope for in the action sequences (there is no shortage of bombs), as well as the quiet moments.

Speaking of the quiet moments, this is undoubtedly the most sentimental and emotional of all Bond films. Sure, we get the amazing set pieces, the crazy stunts, the awesome Aston Martin (until it isn’t), the cool gadgets, the wisecracks, and the shootouts – but we also get Bond at his most reflective and personal. There is a line in the film, “Letting go is hard.” And it is … both for Bond and for us. So welcome back and adieu, Mr. Bond. Craig. Daniel Craig.

The film opens in U.S. theaters on October 8, 2021

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KNIVES OUT (2019)

November 27, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. “I suspect ‘fow-uhl’ play.” So states the renowned and poetically named private detective, Benoit Blanc. Of course when mega-wealthy, best-selling author Harlan Thrombey supposedly commits suicide after his 85th birthday party by slashing his own throat with a knife, something more sinister (you know, like … murder) must be considered. The violin playing over the opening shots of the palatial Thrombey manor teases us with thoughts of most any year from the past 75. These nostalgic thoughts fade quickly as we begin to meet the players.

Detective Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (a quite funny Noah Segan) seem merely to be crossing their T’s in the suicide investigation as they dutifully meet with each family member for a statement. It’s this progression of questioning that introduces us to the year’s most colorful ensemble cast. Patriarch Thrombey’s (Christopher Plummer) scheming heirs-in-waiting include: his daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), happy to remind you of her success as a self-made businessperson; Linda’s smarmy husband Richard (Don Johnson); their renegade son Ransom (Chris Evans) who arrives a bit later; Harlan’s son Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) who ‘runs’ the family publishing business; Harlan’s ex-daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), a self-help guru who has a secret side gig; grandkids Meg (Katherine Langford), preppy social media troll Jacob (Jaeden Martell), and Donna (Riki Lindhome of “Garfunkel and Oates”); and Harlan’s mother Greatnana (Dallas’ own K Callan). Two key non-family members are the housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) who finds Harlan’s body, and nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan’s friend and only real confidante.

Writer-director Rian Johnson has put together a diverse career with such films as indie breakout BRICK (2005), science fiction hit LOOPER (2012) and of course, STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI (2018). With this latest, he shows a real flair with a rare comedic whodunit, and manages to perfectly execute his twisted script of twisted personalities. Think of this as Agatha Christie meets CLUE via THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. The overall mangled morality of this entitled family becomes crystal clear as we get to know each. Johnson presents many familiar elements for fans of the mystery genre (the dark mansion, the creepy line-up of hangers-on, the red-herring clues and missteps), and most impressively, he blends those with many creative and surprising moments … some that will have you believing you have it figured out. But even if you do, the long and winding road is an utter blast.

Even with that deep and talented cast, it’s Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc and Ana de Armas as Marta who stand out. They have the most screen time and neither waste a moment. Mr. Craig’s purposefully comedic southern drawl completes the film’s most memorable character, in fact, one of the year’s most memorable characters. Ms. de Armas finally finds a role to take advantage of her skill. Nurse Marta has a lie-detecting reflux gag that is not just valuable to the case, but also vital to the loudest audience reaction during the film. Mr. Craig and Ms. de Armas will also appear together in the upcoming Bond film NO TIME TO DIE.

During the reading of the will, director Johnson brings in STAR WARS stalwart Frank Oz (best known as Yoda) to play the family attorney, while another scene features one of the all-time great character actors (and Roger Ebert favorite) M. Emmet Walsh (BLOOD SIMPLE). Mr. Johnson also offers a unique spin on classism and the 1%, including a running gag about Marta’s nation of origin.

Johnson’s regular team is in top form here: Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, Film Editor Bob Ducsay, and composer Nathan Johnson (Rian’s cousin). Another deserving of mention is Costume Designer Jenny Eagan, who matches threads with personality about as effectively as we’ve seen, and Production Designer David Crank who creates the ideal mansion of secrets. This film is wickedly clever and barrels of fun. There may not have been a more purely entertaining movie this year … and it’s been a terrific year for movies. Just remember: ‘My house. My rules. My coffee.”

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BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017)

October 4, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ridley Scott’s original film was released in 1982 and based in 2019. The highly anticipated sequel from Denis Villenueve is being released in 2017 and based in 2049. So we have 35 years between films, and 30 years between story settings. Expect that to be the most complicated part of this review since we were mandated by the studio to follow many rules – write this, don’t write that. Such rules would normally be frowned upon (and even ignored by many), but in fact, this film does such a masterful job of paying homage to the first, while enhancing the characters and story, that we are eager for every viewer to experience it with fresh eyes and clear mind … no matter how tempting it is to talk about!

Obviously, the massive fan base that has grown over the years (the original was not an initial box office hit) will be filling the theatres the first weekend – even those who are ambivalent towards, or adamantly against, the idea of a sequel. The big question was whether screenwriters Hampton Fancher (maybe every writer should begin as a flamenco dancer) and Michael Green would be able to create a script that would attract new viewers while honoring the original film and source Philip K Dick novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The answer is not only a resounding yes, but it’s likely even those who usually shy away from science-fiction may find themselves thoroughly enjoying the nearly 2 hours and 43 minute run time (it doesn’t seem too long).

The cast is deep and perfectly matched, and there are even a few surprises (no spoilers here). Ryan Gosling is fun to watch as the reserved K, an expert Blade Runner who tracks and “retires” old model replicants – the Nexus 8’s have been replaced by the more-controllable Nexus 9’s. An early sequence has K in combat mode against a protein farmer named Morton (played by the massive Dave Bautista). With all that is going on in these few scenes, director Villenueve is training us to lock in and pay attention, lest we miss the key to the rest of the movie and K’s motivation for most everything he does from this point on. Robin Wright plays K’s icy Lieutenant Joshi, who administers “baseline” tests to him after every successful mission – just to make certain he is still under her control.

Jared Leto delivers an understated and mesmerizing performance as the God-like Wallace who not only managed to solve global hunger, but also is a genetic engineer creating new beings. Somehow, this is one of Leto’s most normal roles (which makes quite a statement about his career) and yet his character is so intriguing, it could warrant a spin-off standalone film. Wallace’s trusted assistant is the ruthless bulldog mis-named Luv, played by Sylvia Hoeks. Her scene with Robin Wright is one of the best onscreen female duels we’ve seen in awhile. One of the more unusual characters (and that’s saying a lot) is Joi (Ana de Armas), the Artificial Intelligence/hologram companion to K, whose presence is cued by Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf notes. Other support work to notice comes in brief but crucial roles by Hiam Abbas, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Barkhad Abdi and Lennie James.

Who is not listed above? Of course it’s Harrison Ford (as seen in the trailer), who reprises his Deckard role from the original. All these years later, he’s a grizzled recluse who doesn’t take kindly to home visitations. Mr. Ford offers up proof that he still possesses the acting ability that made him a movie star (even if his best piloting days have passed him by). It’s such a thrill to see him flash the screen presence that’s been missing for many years. And yes, fans of the first film will mourn the absence of the great Rutger Hauer, yet there is no need to dwell on one of the few negatives.

The story leans heavily on philosophical and metaphysical questions … just like every great sci-fi film. What makes us human, or better yet, is there a difference between humans and machines that can think and feel? Can memories be trusted, or can they be implanted or influenced over time? These are some of the post-movie discussion points, which are surely to also include the cutting edge cinematography and use of lighting from the always-great Roger Deakins, and the production design from Dennis Gassner that somehow fits the tone, mood and texture of both the first film and this sequel. The set pieces are stunning and sometimes indistinguishable from the visual effects – a rarity these days. My theatre did feature the “shaky seats” that work in conjunction with the sound design … a gimmick I found distracting and more in line with what kids might find appealing.

There was some unwelcome drama a couple of months ago as noted composer Johann Johannsson dropped out and was replaced with Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The resulting score complements the film without mimicking the original. Ridley Scott, who directed the original BLADE RUNNER (and its numerous versions over the years), was involved as Executive Producer, and to put things in perspective, the first film was released the same year as TOOTSIE and TRON. Denis Villenueve was Oscar nominated for directing ARRIVAL, and he has proven himself to be a superb and dependable filmmaker with SICARIO, PRISONERS, and INCENDIES. He deserves recognition and respect for his nods to the original (Pan Am, Atari) and ability to mold a sequel that stands on its own … and in my opinion, is better than the first. Hopefully stating that is not against the Warner Bros rules.

watch the trailer: