THE RHYTHM SECTION (2020)

January 30, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Kicking off a successful franchise that can sustain multiple sequels is the dream of most actors, writers, directors, and producers. When it clicks, a movie franchise can be a cash cow for many years. Unfortunately, it’s just not that easy to create characters that viewers will invest in, or story lines that will keep those viewers interested. Author Mark Burnell has already published four books in his Stephanie Patrick series, and director Reed Morano brings the first one to the big screen. By the time the end credits roll, we have little doubt that “franchise” was the goal.

An opening scene finds Stephanie Patrick (Blake Lively) pointing a gun at the head of a man who is unaware of her presence. A freeze frame shifts us to “8 months earlier.” Stephanie is a mess. She is supporting her heroin addiction through prostitution, all with the objective of numbing her pain. Three years earlier, her family was killed in a plane crash. It’s the kind of tragedy followed by a grief so devastating that Stephanie has basically given up on life.

Stephanie is jolted back to life when a journalist informs her that it was a bomb planted by a terrorist that brought down the plane her family was on. Now, Stephanie has a reason to exist … revenge. Clearly some suspension of disbelief is in order here. Actually everything about this story is a stretch from reality or even believability. Quick, name all of the heroin addicts who become world class assassins in 8 months. OK, that’s probably not a fair question since you likely don’t know many heroin addicts, and you hopefully don’t know many assassins. But you get the point.

The film plays like a brochure for a travel agent, as the story and Stephanie have stops in Tangier, England, Ireland, Madrid, New York, and Marseilles. Each stop is pretty brief – merely long enough for some killing. Of course most of the stops occur after former MI6 agent Ian Boyd (Jude Law) trains her on the finer points of being a contract killer. The training includes jogging uphill, a frigid lake swim, how to fight in the kitchen, how to get run off the road while driving, and the invaluable advice to shoot your victim twice (but your teacher only once). Oh yes, and she has to impersonate a presumed-dead assassin. Fortunately, Stephanie was top of her class at Oxford, so she is smart enough to make sense of all these things that make no sense to us.

And another thing … why do all these people have such perfect and complete files on their targets?  Photographs by Glamour Shots, map coordinates to hideouts, and an alphabetical list of known accomplices are all quite helpful when former MI6 and former CIA agents (Sterling K Brown) are trying to get a heroin addict to do their dirty work. Brown’s CIA agent turned ‘information broker’ is the oddest of many odd characters here. He lives in a stunning ultra-modern home and has no qualms about hitting on hot assassins that he knows only by reputation. Thanks to all those marvelously complete files, the only unknown here is the mysterious U17. Well, U17 seems to be mysterious to everyone except those watching the movie.

Blake Lively is a talented actress as evidenced by her work in THE TOWN, THE SHALLOWS, and A SIMPLE FAVOR. She is simply miscast here. Despite the “training” her Stephanie received from Ian, we never once believe she is ready to kill all the bad guys. This contributes heavily to the lack of believability presented by the film. It’s a serious story that is ultimately impossible to take seriously as a viewer.

There is a difference in believable and stylish, and director Reed Morano certainly serves up style. She is known mostly for her work as a cinematographer, though she did direct the first 3 episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Ms. Morano and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt hit us with some jarring camera work, and the musical inserts are just a tad too cutesy and obvious at their given time: “I’m Sorry”, “It’s Now or Never”, and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (a cover by Sleigh Bells).

Having author Mark Burnell adapt his own novel may have been a mistake, as there are far too many plot holes and ridiculous moments for this to work as any type of thriller. Here are three examples: we never know why Stephanie didn’t get on the flight with her family; it makes little sense that the journalist tracked her down; and is that supposed to be a twist or not? Given the inclusion of Bond producers (and half-siblings) Barbara Broccoli and Michael G Wilson (stepson of Cubby Broccoli), we can safely assume that the vision was to turn Mr. Burnell’s books into a franchise along the lines of James Bond and Jason Bourne – right down to the fight scenes and international settings. This film certainly sets things up for round two, and if that happens, let’s hope more attention is paid to the script … a crucial element if viewers are expected to buy in.

watch the trailer:


CAPTAIN MARVEL (2019)

March 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Girl Power! Not only does this serve as an origin story for Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, but Anna Boden becomes the first female director of a Marvel movie (she co-directed with Ryan Fleck, and they previously collaborated on IT”S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY, SUGAR, and HALF NELSON). It’s Marvel’s first solo female superhero movie, and even though it’s actually a prequel to what we’ve previously seen in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it clearly sets the table for AVENGERS: ENDGAME and the showdown with Thanos later this year.

Oscar winner Brie Larson (ROOM) stars as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel, and the film opens with her as Vers, a human-Kree hybrid and a soldier of Starforce being trained by Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) for a role in the Kree-Skrulls war. Part of the training includes regular reminders to keep her emotions under control … see, not only is Vers a woman but she also shoots sonic blasts from her fists. The filmmakers have not presented her story in chronological order, but have instead utilized flashbacks and memories to let us (and Carol) in on how she obtained her immense powers.

In Marvel tradition, the film uses much humor as it progresses. Proving that the action takes place in the 1990’s, the roof literally comes down on a Blockbuster video store (foreshadowing future financial events), as Vers crashes to earth. Soon she has met young agents Fury and Coulson, played by digitally de-aged Samuel L Jackson and Clark Gregg, respectively. This is of course pre-eye patch Fury, though we do get that origin story a bit later in the film. As Vers peruses the Blockbuster shelves, we get a tip of the cap to THE RIGHT STUFF and TRUE LIES, and soon thereafter, a nod to Radio Shack, pay phones, pinball machines, pagers, and 90’s era internet speed. The retro bits may be a bit overdone, but the millennial target audience will surely enjoy.

The always interesting Ben Mendelsohn plays Talos, the leader of the shape-shifting Krulls – who also sport the best make-up as they transform from pointy-eared green aliens into exact replicas of humans. Lee Pace returns as Ronan the Accuser, while Djimon Hounsou is Korath and Gemma Chan is Minn-Erva, both part of Starforce. Annette Bening plays the AI Supreme Intelligence, while Mckenna Grace appears as young Carol in flashbacks.

The glimpses of Carol Danvers as a US Air Force fighter pilot lead to the best dramatic scenes of the film – her reuniting with fellow pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and Maria’s daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). At first I was taken aback that Marvel dared cast a black actress in the role of stereotypical supportive sidekick, but then Ms. Lynch got her own impressive action chase sequence (similar to STAR WARS) and kicked some serious alien tail. Those familiar with the comics know that Maria Rambeau is the mother of Photon, a character likely to appear deeper in the universe.

The co-directors also co-wrote the script with Geneva Robertson-Dworet, and Nicole Perlman and Meg LeFauve contributed to the story. The strong female presence is impressive both on camera and off, as Pinar Toprak’s score complemented the heavy 1990’s rock music soundtrack. Again, nostalgia seems ever-present, as does the humor (Goose the cat/flerken) and good fun that existed in THOR: RAGNAROK and ANT-MAN AND THE WASP. Carol Danvers and her backstory also seem a bit more relatable than that of WONDER WOMAN.

Marvel offered up a nice tribute to the late Stan Lee by providing a new opening featuring his many cameos over the years. And yes, he was able to film his cameo for this one prior to his death in November 2018. So we have an origin story not just of Captain Marvel, but also of the Fury eye patch, the Avengers Initiative, and a prequel to all Marvel movies we’ve seen in the past few years. Two post-film stingers are included: one expected and necessary, while the other is good for a laugh. It’s an inspiring story of a young girl who repeatedly fell down and got up and brushed herself off every time – even before her fists and eye balls could shoot energy streams. It’s fitting and about time that young girls now have their own superhero to emulate.

watch the trailer:


FANTASTIC BEASTS: THE CRIMES OF GRINDEWALD (2018)

November 15, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been seven years since the final Harry Potter movie, and this is the second entry in the planned series of 5 prequels entitled FANTASTIC BEASTS, based on a (fictional) Hogwarts’ textbook written by Magizoologist Newt Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne). Of course the characters and stories are from the pen of J.K. Rowling, and who better to bring us the war pitting pure-blood wizards against Muggles?

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM was released in 2016, and it was mostly an introduction to these characters and to some of the cutest and oddest creatures we’d ever encountered on screen. This second entry is much darker and more sinister, and tries to develop quite a few characters … perhaps too many. On top of the roster of players, romantic complications abound, and a search for one’s roots/identity is yet another sub-plot. And then there’s that whole Nazi element – leaving us all a bit bewildered at trying to keep up (although, it is fun trying).

David Yates directed the last four Harry Potter movies, and now the first two Fantastic Beasts films. He kicks this one off with a spectacular action sequence featuring a black carriage being drawn by a team of majestic flying dragons during a driving rain storm … all part of a daring 1927 prison escape by the titular Grindewald (Johnny Depp with a bleach punk do). It’s a breathtaking sequence, and the best of many visual wonders throughout – including my favorite, a very cool statue effect and a fabulous kelp seahorse.

Most of the key players return from the first film, though, as previously mentioned, their stories are more elaborate. Eddie Redmayne returns as Newt, our main guide through this universe. Katherine Waterston is back as auror and fringy love interest Tina, Alison Sudol returns as Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie, and Dan Fogler resumes his comic relief duties as Jacob. Jude Law is Albus Dumbledore (yes, the first name is needed), and he is prevented from fighting Gindewald (Depp) due to some youthful “bonding” that occurred years prior. Zoe Kravitz is Leta Lestrange, Carmen Ejogo is Seraphina Picquery, and Ezra Miller is the lost soul Credence Barebone. Newly introduced characters include Claudia Kim as shapeshifter Nagini, Callum Turner as Newt’s brother Theseus, and Brontis Jodorowsky (son of renowned cult director Alejandro Jadorowsky, EL TOPO) as non-ghost Flamel. If that’s not enough characters to track, you should know the story skips from New York to London to Paris and back around again.

Expect some happy gasps from the audience as Hogwarts is revisited, but the darkness and similarities to Nazi beginnings may surprise those expecting two hours of cutesy creatures springing from Newt’s coat … although, those exist as well. We do learn that ‘salamander eyes’ are not to be used while flirting, and it will be quite interesting to see how these stories close in to the Harry Potter world over the next 3 prequel-sequels (scheduled through 2024). It should be a fun ride – though not as fun as riding that seahorse.

watch the trailer:


GENIUS (2016)

June 17, 2016

genius Greetings again from the darkness. Most biopics provide a look into the life of someone who had an impact. If after watching this film, you are confused about just who the main subject is, that’s understandable. It’s rare to find a biopic about two people … a duo biopic … but that’s what the film directorial debut of noted British theatre director Michael Grandage presents. Novelist Thomas Wolfe and editor Max Perkins are forever linked in history, and the screenplay by John Logan (Oscar nominated for Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo) shows us just how intertwined these two lives became. It’s based on A Scott Berg’s 1978 book “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius”.

It’s 1929 and writer Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) is tapping his foot as he smokes a cigarette while standing on the sidewalk staring at Scribner’s Sons Publishing building in New York City. A moment later he is bursting into an office whilst unleashing a rapid-fire blast of words to which our ears can barely keep pace. Taking in the verbal fireworks is an elegantly quiet and eternally hatted man behind the desk. With only the phrase “Mr. Wolfe, we intend to publish your book”, editor Max Perkins (Colin Firth) manages to silence the bombastic writer for a few stunned seconds … mostly the only time we witness this.

And so begins not so much a friendship as a professional dependency and surrogate father/son relationship. Thomas Wolfe was other-worldly prolific in his ability to craft words into stories. He was also an exceedingly creative workaholic and alcoholic who found his way to Perkins via North Carolina and Harvard. Yes, it’s the same Max Perkins who was editor to such literary luminaries as Ernest Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald.

Seen as personality polar opposites, we also get to witness the differences within the personal lives of the two gentlemen. Both have strong women at home. Mr. Perkins’ wife Louise is played by Laura Linney, and their 5 daughters are smitten with the outlandish behavior and stories of Mr. Wolfe as he visits for dinner. In an unusual twist for the times, an older married woman Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), was Wolfe’s lover and supporter … even through his carousing and endless nights of work with Perkins.

The red pencil of Perkins is as ever-present as the hat on his head, as he slashes and burns through paragraph after paragraph and page after page of Wolfe’s writing in order to fashion an end product that is “marketable”. The result was Wolfe’s first novel “Look Homeward, Angel” … even the title was changed by Perkins. The editing sequences and Perkins’ directive for “Big story, fewer words” have us (and Perkins himself) questioning the role of an editor. Do they make the story better or just different? Is marketable more important than the original words of the author? It’s a legitimate point of discussion, as it’s doubtful anyone told da Vinci that his Mona Lisa should have a bigger smile, or Mozart that The Magic Flute should have fewer notes. Are book editors underappreciated or overly critical?  In the case of the second Wolfe novel “Of Time and the River”, Perkins reduced the work by not hundreds, but rather thousands of pages … all for the goal of marketability. And it turned out to be Wolfe’s best-selling book.

The best scene in the film is also the most insightful. Wolfe drags the always dignified Perkins to a late night jazz club, and with the help of the band, displays in song how Wolfe’s brain kicks into writing mode. It’s a moment of enlightenment for Perkins, as well as us viewers. Law’s Wolfe is a whirlwind of words and prose and those in his path are simply overwhelmed by the enormity of his way. In what feels like a touch of name-dropping, the film tacks on a couple of scenes with Hemingway (Dominic West) and Fitzgerald ( ). Though the scenes are a bit heavy-handed, they do serve as a reminder of what terrific writing came from this era, as well as the impact of editor Perkins.

It’s a little disconcerting to see the leads in an America tale played by Brits and Aussies, but there is no denying the effectiveness of Firth, Law, et al. It’s truly a tale of two geniuses, and Aline was correct … after Wolfe, there was “a great hush”.

watch the trailer:

 


SPY (2015)

June 24, 2015

spy Greetings again from the darkness. Melissa McCarthy and writer/director Paul Feig are back together in hopes of recapturing their Bridesmaids comedy and box office magic. They are also re-teaming for next year’s all-female Ghostbusters remake.

This time it’s a parody of James Bond films … right down to the elaborate and creative opening credit sequence. Recognizing that combining action and comedy can be a bit challenging, Feig enlists the help of Jason Statham and Jude Law. Statham parodies his well known uber-intense characters with a running dialogue of his bravery and heroism, while Law is clearly having a blast as the ultra-smooth agent Bradley Fine (think Pierce Brosnan’s Bond).

In spite of the gentlemen, this is Ms. McCarthy’s film and she is believable as the frumpy CIA analyst who is the “voice in the ear” of super agent Fine (Law). He maneuvers the front line of dangerous assignments as she provides life-saving high-tech guidance from the relative safety of the vermin-infested basement CIA lab. Of course, we know McCarthy’s agent will end up in the field in her attempts to avenge a mission gone wrong.

It’s McCarthy in the field that will either make or break the film for you. Her scenes with Rose Byrne and Peter Serafinowicz worked best for me, while her Jackie Chan-style kitchen fight scene and her chase scenes were a bit more difficult to buy off on. It can be confusing as a viewer when we are constantly bombarded with PC rules, and then Feig and McCarthy don’t hesitate to use her heft for laughs.

Other supporting work is provided by British comedienne Miranda Hunt, another fish out of water agent; Morena Baccarin as a strutting super agent at the level of Statham; Bobby Cannavale as a would-be terrorist; and Allison Janney as the CIA Supervisor. While each have their moments, it’s McCarthy’s visit to the spy gadget department that provides the best laughs.

The Action-Comedy-Spy Thriller genre is pretty sparse, and as you may expect, comedy is the priority for most scenes. McCarthy does well in her first true film lead, though my prediction is that her value as an actress will ultimately come from playing characters who are more “real” – like her role in last year’s St. Vincent.


BLACK SEA (2015)

January 21, 2015

black sea Greetings again from the darkness. One of my first favorite TV shows as a little kid was “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”. Each week I sat wide-eyed in front of the tube (yes, it was actually a cathode ray tube back then) anxiously awaiting underwater adventure. It wasn’t until later that I discovered Irwin Allen’s 1961 movie of the same name, and more importantly, Jules Verne’s novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, which featured the wild exploits of Captain Nemo and the Nautilus.  Since then, count me in for just about any movie based aboard a submarine (Down Periscope being a rare exception).

Director Kevin MacDonald is best known for his excellent 2006 film The Last King of Scotland (with Forest Whitaker’s Oscar winning performance as Idi Amin). This time he works with a script from playwright Dennis Kelly to deliver a gritty, tense thriller that is lacking any traditional Hollywood fluff … it’s a down and dirty look at greed, desperation and the survival instinct.

Inherent to a story based aboard a submarine is the immediate and constant threat of claustrophobia and death. This one adds another element of danger by blending a crew of Russians and Brits with the goal of bringing back millions of dollars in gold locked away on a sunken German U-Boat in the Black Sea waters. Lest you think the Russians are just another group of southern California actors faking the accent, director MacDonald confirmed that he cast actual Russian actors – including Grigoriy Dobrygin (A Most Wanted Man), Konstantin Khabenskiy (one of the most popular actors in Russia), and three others named Sergey, which MacDonald acknowledged contributed to on-set confusion. This decision elevates the onboard tension between adversarial characters to an armrest-gripping level. Yet another slightly psychotic Ben Mendelsohn (Animal Kingdom) role doesn’t hurt, either.

Jude Law continues the second phase of his career – far removed from his pretty boy early films – as a tough, revenge-seeking sub captain fired by his long-time employer. Should you doubt Law’s acting range, I would recommend not just this film, but also last year’s Dom Hemingway (a raucous ride). Law’s performance here is very strong as he transforms from a p.o.’d former employee to an eye-on-the-prize, win-at-all-cost treasure seeker. The onboard tension mounts every time there is interaction between the Russians and Brits, and Law’s character attempts to mediate. The progression of this three-way dynamic is fascinating to watch as it unfolds.

To provide that true underwater feeling, MacDonald filmed some scenes onboard an old Soviet submarine that is moored in the River Medway in Kent (UK). We never have that feeling of Hollywood soundstage; instead we as viewers share in the tight space and constant dread. This combination of characters, setting and mission deliver an intense thriller that is sure to please, and feels uncommonly welcome this early in the year.

The pinnacle of submarine movies is Das Boot (1981), a must-see for any movie lover. Other popular sub films include Crimson Tide (1995), The Hunt for Red October (1990), and K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), and for those of us who are fascinated by life (and possible death) under the sea, we gladly welcome a new entry to the sub-genre, especially one as well made and tension-packed as Black Sea.

watch the trailer:

 


DOM HEMINGWAY (2014)

April 17, 2014

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (2014)

dom Greetings again from the darkness. Maybe I should apologize, but I won’t. This was hands-down my favorite from the Dallas International Film Festival. It was probably the least favorite of many others. With the most outlandish and uncomfortable opening scene in recent memory, the movie comes across a rough blend of early Guy Ritchie and The Wolf of Wall Street.

Given that description, no movie lover would expect Jude Law to be the star who dominates most every scene. Yes, pretty boy Jude Law has gone “ugly” the way fellow pretty boy Matthew McConaughey went “indie”. It’s a shock to see Mr. Law looking shaggy and paunchy … in his best moments! He holds nothing back in his portrayal of this vulgar, verbose ex-con so full of swagger.

Joining Dom is his old buddy Dickie, played by Richard E Grant – whose smooth comedic delivery is a terrific complement to the harshness of Dom. After serving 12 years in prison, Dom is on a mission to get the money he is due from a Russian mobster played by Demian Bichir (yes, Mr. Bichir is Mexican). Of course, nothing ever goes as planned in Dom’s life, so a coke-fueled night of celebration at a glamorous French château leads to one of the most startling cinematic car accidents, leaving Dom penniless.

The story now veers off the Dom’s attempt at redemption … reconciliation with his daughter played by “Game of ThronesEmilia Clarke. The bi-polar aspects of Dom’s persona comes through when comparing his “criminal” scenes and his “daughter” scenes. The contrast does provide relief from the relentless raucous dialogue delivered with the most extreme cockney accent possible. Still, the redemption story line takes away from what makes Dom such a force of nature and so much fun to watch on screen. Writer/director Richard Shepard gave a very enthusiastic and passionate Q&A after the screening, and it was quite obvious he “liked” this character, despite the flaws.  Mr. Shepard was responsible for one of my favorite little known gems, The Matador (2005).

This is a violent, vulgar character delivered in blaringly over-the-top mode by an actor that has previously shown no such tendencies. As with all comedy, and especially such raucous, irreverent black comedy, the audience will be divided by those who find this extremely entertaining and those who think it’s a waste of time and talent. Expect no guarantees from me on which camp you might fall into.

**NOTE: the movie contains quite striking primate art, as evidenced by the movie poster shown above

watch the trailer: