SERENITY (2019)

January 24, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. A seamless zoom shot through a young boy’s eye, a plunge into the deep blue sea, and up across the ocean onto a boat … that’s the very cool opening to writer-director Steven Knight’s latest film. It can be described as a 1990’s style noirish, murder-for-hire drama with a contemporary twist, and it features a terrific cast. Unfortunately, all of that somehow adds up to a film that never really clicks.

This is Mr. Knight’s first time in the director’s chair since the excellent LOCKE in 2013. He’s best known for his writing in such projects as “Peaky Blinders”, EASTERN PROMISES, and his Oscar nominated DIRTY PRETTY THINGS. A resume like that lends itself to certain expectations; something that makes the messiness of this one all the more surprising.

Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey stars as Baker Dill, a boat captain who runs a charter fishing business at the edge of the world – a sleepy little remote tropic village called Plymouth Island. We learn pretty quickly that Mr. Dill is a few pickles short of a jar. With customers aboard, he gets the hook in the unicorn he’s been chasing – a giant tuna he’s named Justice. It’s a frantic obsession that the locals call the fish that lives in his head. On a boat named Serenity, Captain Dill’s less appealing side is exposed as he and his first mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou) fail to reel in the mighty fish.

With the significant exception of his money woes, Dill leads a pretty calm and under the radar life on Plymouth Island. He drinks at the local bar, lives in a makeshift cliff side container by the sea, and enjoys periodic frolicking with Constance, a local beauty played by Diane Lane. We soon learn that Justice the Tuna is just the first of two things that rock the serenity of Dill’s world. The other is his ex-wife Karen (Anne Hathaway) who magically appears one night next to the bar stool he is planted on. It turns out she has tracked him down for the sole purpose of paying Dill to kill her abusive and filthy rich and thoroughly obnoxious husband Frank (Jason Clarke). It’s also during this time that Dill is being chased down by Reid Miller, a nerdy and suspicious little salesman played by Jeremy Strong.

Karen’s plot would stand no chance if not for the son they share. Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) is an odd kid whom we only see writing code at lightning speed from his home computer. It’s the Reid Miller character who clues us in on the twist; but rather than shift the movie into a higher gear, it feels like the air goes shooting out of the proverbial balloon. As shaky as the film, characters, and dialogue were, this twist turns it into a convoluted mess that changes everything we have watched to this point.

Murder for hire/love films have been done many times and in many ways. Some of the best include Hitchcock’s classic STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece DOUBLE INDEMNITY, and Lawrence Kasdan’s steamy BODY HEAT from 1981. This film should never again be mentioned with those. Although the premise is interesting, this terrific cast certainly deserved better material. Filmed on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the little scenery we see are the film’s highlights. Apparently all that Mr. Knight wishes to tell us is that life is a game … and it might not end well. Not exactly breaking news.

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ALLIED (2016)

November 22, 2016

allied Greetings again from the darkness. Every writer, director and actor dreams of being part of the next Casablanca … a timeless movie beloved by so many. It’s rare to see such a blatant homage to that classic, but director Robert Zemeckis (Oscar winner for Forrest Gump) and writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) deliver their version with an identical setting, nearly identical costumes, and the re-use of a song (“La Marseillaise”) which played such a crucial role.

Spy movies typically fall into one of three categories: action (Bourne), flashy/stylish (Bond), or detailed and twisty (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). This one has offers a dose of each blended with some romance and a vital “is she or isn’t she” plot. The “she” in that last part is French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour played by Marion Cotillard. Her introduction here is a thing of beauty, as she floats across the room thrilled to be reuniting with her husband Max Vatan. Of course the catch is that Max (Brad Pitt) is really a Canadian Agent and their marriage is a cover for their mission to assassinate a key Nazi. Yes, it’s 1942 in Morocco.

The two agents work well together and it’s no surprise when this escalates to a real romance between two beautiful and secretive people. It seems only natural that after killing Nazi’s and making love in a car during a ferocious sandstorm that the next steps would be marriage, a move to London, and having a kid. It’s at this point where viewers will be divided. Those loving the action-spy approach will find the London segment slows the movie to a crawl. Those who prefer intelligence gathering and intrigue may very well enjoy the second half more.

What if your assignment was to kill your beloved wife if she were deemed to be a double-agent? Max finds himself in this predicament, and since no one ever says what they mean in the community of spies, he isn’t sure if the evidence is legit or if it’s really a game to test his own loyalty. This second half loses sight of the larger picture of war, and narrows the focus on whether Max can prove the innocence of Marianne … of course without letting her know he knows something – or might know something.

Marion Cotillard is stellar in her role. She flashes a warm and beautiful smile that expertly masks her true persona. The nuance and subtlety of her performance is quite impressive. Mr. Pitt does a nice job as the desperate husband hiding his desperation, but his role doesn’t require the intricacies of hers. Supporting work comes via Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, August Diehl, Marion Bailey, Simon McBurney, and Matthew Goode.

The Zemeckis team is all in fine form here: Cinematographer Don Burgess captures the feel of the era, Composer Alan Silvestri never tries to overpower a scene, and Costume Designer Joanna Johnston is likely headed for an Oscar nomination. For a spy movie, the story is actually pretty simple and the tension is never over-bearing like we might expect. While watching the performance of Ms. Cotillard, keep in mind her most telling line of dialogue: “I keep the emotions real.” It’s a strategy that is a bit unusual in her world. How effective it is will be determined by the end of the movie.

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BURNT (2015)

October 30, 2015

burnt Greetings again from the darkness. This one is not just for all you foodies out there – though there is plenty to digest for those who fancy themselves as some hoity-toity chef to the rich and famous. Don’t go in expecting a “How to Cook” seminar. Instead, simmer down and prep yourself for a serving of massive ego topped with arrogance and a side of narcissism. Blend those ingredients into one character, and this chef somehow remains likable … when played by Bradley Cooper.

Enough with the cooking terms, but let’s heap more praise on Mr. Cooper. When first we meet his character Adam Jones, he is readying himself to bounce back after self-destructing his career as a two-star Michelin chef in Paris. He simply walks out the door of the Louisiana diner where he has been serving his self-imposed penance … shelling 1 million raw oysters, each one recorded in his pocket notebook. This provides our first glimpse into the obsessive-compulsive personality of Adam, and helps explain how he has managed to kick his drug, alcohol, and women addictions. Feeling refreshed and on a mission to garner that rarified third Michelin star, Adam begins assembling his team in London and encouraging his old co-worker Tony (Daniel Bruhl, Rush) to entrust him with his restaurant.

We can’t actually taste the magnificent food that’s served on screen, but the colors and textures are a kaleidoscope to our eyes. The movie is beautiful to look at. The restaurant dining rooms are showplaces, the kitchens are pristine, and the customers are mostly dressed like runway models. On top of that, Bradley Cooper and Alicia Vikander (in a small role) are two of the grand champions in the gene pool sweepstakes. All of that beauty is balanced out by the quest for perfection and lack of interpersonal skills displayed by Chef Adam. It’s not until his star pupil Helene (Sienna Miller) shows him another way, does Adam even start to resemble a human being.

Drug dealers, old flames, a therapist (Emma Thompson), an arch rival (Matthew Rhys, “The Americans”), an unrequited one-way love, a deceased mentor, a ridiculously cute kid (Lexi Benbow-Hart, sporting hair that would make Julia Roberts envious), and a wronged co-worker (Omar Sy) combine to add plenty of action. Even the quick cut shots in the kitchen manage to make grilling onions and carving a fish interesting.

Never digging too deep, director John Wells (August: Osage County) delivers an entertaining movie with wide appeal, and a message of teamwork and family. The story is from Michael Kalesniko and the script from Steven Knight (who also wrote last year’s Michelin star-centered The Hundred-Foot Journey). The dialogue is sharp enough to deliver some laughs, though the element of danger doesn’t really work, and a couple of times it teeters on gooey melodrama. It doesn’t reach the level of Mostly Martha (2002), and is a tick behind last year’s Chef (Jon Favreau), but it may offer the most creative lesson yet in how best to serve a dish of revenge. It’s a tasty enough treat for those in the mood for an entertaining movie and an endless stream of pretty things to look at.

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PAWN SACRIFICE (2015)

September 17, 2015

pawn sacrifice Greetings again from the darkness. Being such a fan of the expert documentary film Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011), I found it a bit challenging to clear my head and accept a dramatized approach to the story. This was after all, one of the most fascinating reluctant public figure during one of the most energizing signature events of the Cold War between Russia and the United States … it was even described as World War III on a chess board.

Director Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond) and writer Steven Knight (Locke, “Peaky Blinders”) wisely focus the story on the infamous World Chess Championship match in 1972 between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky. This was 8 years prior to the “Miracle on Ice” when the USA Olympic hockey team upset the powerhouse Russian hockey team, but this chess match caused every bit as much media frenzy and national pride as that day in Lake Placid. This international attention is as important to the story as the psychological state of Bobby Fischer and his genius-level chess skill. And it’s the media and citizenry reactions that provide the contemporary comparison to what we see too often these days thanks to social media … icons are born, chewed up, and forgotten.

Tobey Maguire plays Fischer, and despite lacking the height and physical presence of the real chess champion, he expertly conveys the paranoia, fear, and arrogance that burdened the man and created even more suspense for those of us keeping a watchful eye at the time. Liev Schreiber (“Ray Donovan”) plays Boris Spassky, and even speaks his lines in Russian. Schreiber captures the iciness for which the Russians were known, but also interjects subtle personality and insight in a story where his adversary is constantly over-the-top. Chess strategy isn’t so much the story here, as are these two men from different worlds forced together on a stage in Iceland – with the full attention of the world.

Supporting work is varied, but exceptionally strong. Robin Weigert plays Bobby’s mother, and we get glimpses of why he later suffered from Mommy issues – in no small part to her intimate gatherings of Communist friends. Lily Rabe is touching as Bobby’s sister and possibly the only person who ever had his best interest at heart. However, the real intrigue comes in the form of Peter Sarsgaard as Father Bill Lombardy, and Michael Stuhlbarg as Paul Marshall. Lombardy was Fischer’s coach and confidant, and seemed to be the only one who grasped the severity of Bobby’s mental state. Marshall, a well known attorney in the Music industry, is a shady fellow who seems connected to the government, and is really the driving force behind getting Fischer to play Spassky. More background and the motivation for these two gentlemen would have been welcome and filled a gap. The soundtrack of the era compliments the tone and is used smartly throughout.

The story of the tortured genius always makes entertaining fodder – think Van Gogh, Mozart, and John Nash. Bobby Fischer certainly fits that description, but his story is frustrating because we just don’t understand the mental issues that caused him to evolve from teenage chess prodigy to World Champion to literal anti-social outcast spewing hateful words (watch the end credit film clips). This film is a worthy primer for the man and the times, and a reminder that we are always searching for the next hero … the next person to hoist up on the pedestal, only to be replaced soon after with another, and then another. Perhaps the film says as much as about us as a people, as it does about Bobby Fischer as a person.

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SEVENTH SON (2014)

February 5, 2015

seventh son Greetings again from the darkness. Fantasy adventure films based on popular novels have certainly posted a track record of box office success … sometimes in record-setting style. However, not every entry into this genre need be a Goliath like the “Harry Potter” or “The Lord of the Rings” franchises. There is always room for simpler and still-creative movie-making like The NeverEnding Story or Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. Based on Joseph Delancey’s “The Wardstone Chronicles” (17 novels), this latest from Russian director Sergey Bodrov strives to be something special. Though it falls short of such a lofty goal, it still provides an entertaining onslaught to the senses.

A release date delayed by two years is rarely a good sign for a movie, though the official word blames it on legal issues between studio and distributor. No matter to us viewers, as what we care about is seeing something new and exciting. The steady stream of 3D special effects have their moments, but it’s impossible not to notice the out-of-focus issues that abound in post-production 3D. Still the swooping camera work through the mountains, Grand Canyon, bodies of water, and very cool looking temples and walled cities, provide the “epic” look a film like this must offer. An extremely heavy dose of CGI must have kept quite a few programmers employed, and the effects bounce between quite impressive and totally flat. Personally, I never get tired of seeing angry dragons … even if it happens 3 or 4 times in the same movie.

Let’s talk about Jeff Bridges as Master Gregory, the town spook (creature hunter). Evidently Mr Bridges only accepts roles these days that don’t require a haircut … or even a shower. But what’s with that voice? The first time Master Gregory opens his mouth, I immediately thought it sounded like his Rooster Cogburn in True Grit taking a big swig of bourbon and, before swallowing, delivering his lines of dialogue. This voice is a creative choice that crashes and burns. Dialogue is of little use if the audience can’t understand. As challenging as it was for me, it’s expected that most of the target market will be totally lost in Gregory’s exchanges with his apprentice or his sidekick or any of the wicked witches.

The obvious attempt to set up a franchise, or at least a sequel, suffers from another fatal error. Asking Ben Barnes (playing apprentice Tom Ward) to carry the torch is just not reasonable. His wooden approach in The Chronicles of Narnia reminded of Orlando Bloom (that’s not a compliment), and this outing just reinforces that original impression. The hulking sidekick Tusk is played by John DeSantis, and rather than stress his loyalty, we get a few lame jokes at his expense. Julianne Moore takes on the role of the powerful witch Mother Malkin, and though she gives it a shot, the role is simply underwritten and fizzles rather than sizzles. Other support work comes from Alicia Vikander (A Royal Affair) as a young witch smitten with the apprentice, Olivia Williams as the mother-with-a-secret to the apprentice, while Jason Scott Lee and Djimon Hounsou each play talented, other worldly creatures.

It’s a bit surprising that the story isn’t more complex and the characters better developed given the screen writing team of Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond) and Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Locke, “Peaky Blinders“). We just never get a chance to understand the legacy of Master Gregory and his spurned girlfriend-witch Mother Malkin. We also are expected to take a huge leap of faith when the apprentice can’t accurately throw a knife in one scene, and shortly he is battling assassins, witches and other creatures. Perhaps the only explanation needed is that he is a “son of a witch”.

Fans of The Big Lebowski will get a kick out of seeing Jeff Bridges and Julianne Moore reunited on screen, even if we wish their battles were fiercer. And while it’s nice to learn that four arms can really improve one’s swordplay, it’s a bit disappointing to miss out on the true power of a Blood Moon. Enjoy the visuals, duck from the dragons, and strain to understand the words coming out of the mouth of Master Gregory … there is some entertainment value here.

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THE HUNDRED-FOOT JOURNEY (2014)

August 13, 2014

hundred foot journey Greetings again from the darkness. Comfort food gets its name from the level of familiarity and satisfaction it brings us. It’s the opposite of “Innovation. Innovation. Innovation” that plays a conflicting role in this story as we follow the culinary advancement of the young chef Hassan. Director Lasse Hallstrom long ago mastered the art of tapping into the emotional heart strings of viewers (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, An Unfinished Life, Chocolat), so his films can easily be viewed as the movie version of comfort food … they deliver what’s promised with no unnecessary surprises.

From the novel by Richard C Morais, the screenplay by Steven Knight (Locke) serves up exactly what we expect and satisfies our taste for slick and sweet entertainment, with characters who are both likable and learn their life lessons quickly. Even the backstory of tragedy that brings Kadan family from India is told in a near painless (and improbable) flashback manner as the family goes through airport customs.

While their travels and heartbreak could have been the story, we instead are front row for the cultural battlefield of a snooty French provencial restaurant vs friendly Indian family home-cooking … 100 feet apart. A snooty French restaurant with a Michelin star requires the ever-present condescending high society Madame Mallory as the movie’s “villain”. Of course, when played by Helen Mirren, we know immediately that bad will soon enough turn to good. The driving force behind her transformation is Papa, played superbly by Om Puri. Stereotypes abound, but at least there is some humor blended so as not to be overcooked.

The real basis for the movie is the extraordinarily talented young chef Hassan (played by Manish Dayal). His skill in the kitchen folded in with his overall niceness make it impossible for Madame Mallory or her sous-chef Margueritte (Charlotte Le Bon) to avoid taking notice in their own ways.

The cultural differences certainly could have been played up and further examined (Indian market vs French market), as could the backstory of all involved – the Indian family and Madame Mallory. An added level of depth and mystery could have been added if, say Catherine Deneuve had been cast in the Helen Mirren role (box office draw was obviously key to her casting). More detail could have been provided for Hassan’s time in Paris as well as what occurs with his Papa while he is away.

This is new Disney following the traditional Disney template.  The movie and the story go exactly where we expect it to go, providing the level of enjoyment and satisfaction that we demand from our comfort food. And there’s nothing wrong with a big serving of that from time to time.

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LOCKE (2014)

April 15, 2014

DALLAS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (2014)

locke Greetings again from the darkness. Most movies that take place within a confined space are outright thrillers that usually take full advantage of helpless and claustrophobic feelings and desperate actions. Think back to Duel, Phone Booth and Buried. A ticking clock and lack of a safe escape route had us sweating bullets with Dennis Weaver, Colin Farrell and Ryan Reynolds. This entry from the Dallas International Film Festival takes a much different approach.

Noted British writer Steven Knight also directs this one, and rather than nail-biting tension, we get a pretty interesting character study. Mr. Knight has written some impressive screenplays: Dirty Pretty Things, Amazing Grace, and Eastern Promises. Utilizing every ounce of his writing expertise, he keeps us connected to Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) as he drives on the freeway with intermittent rain being his biggest physical obstacle. There are no high speed chases. No stunts. No weapons. Ivan is not being followed by a spy, a hit man or anyone else. He is merely driving and talking on the phone via Bluetooth.

In what could be considered the ultimate film gimmick, Tom Hardy is the only actor to appear on screen. His Ivan Locke is not just the only major character. He is the ONLY one. All supporting work and conflict is provided by a multitude of voices on the other end of a phone call. There is no need for me to delve into the story or the plot, but you should know that the situation Ivan finds himself in is not some creative web of criminal deceit … instead it’s his penance for one poor decision. That poor decision has him in a tough spot with very poor timing.

For those that wonder if Bane from The Dark Knight Rises has the acting chops to hold our attention, a reminder of Tom Hardy’s fine and varied work should alleviate concerns: Warrior, Inception, Lawless, Bronson, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He can act and he can make a character his own, just as he does with Ivan Locke.

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