The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari

Release: Friday, December 9, 2022 (limited)

👀 Netflix

Directed by: Rory Kennedy

Starring: Mark Inman; Matt Urey; Lauren Urey; Jesse Langford; Geoff Hopkins; Kelsey Waghorn; Brian Depauw; Ngaroahiahi Patuwai Maangi; Tim Barrow; Mark Law; John Funnell

Distributor: Netflix

 

 

****/*****

The power of Mother Nature is not the only thing on display in Rory Kennedy’s latest documentary, a gripping account that takes viewers up close to the disaster that unfolded off the coast of New Zealand in December 2019 when White Island, an active volcano, erupted with several dozen tourists still on it. In covering the chaotic aftermath as well as the daring, multi-pronged rescue mission in response, The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari captures humanity in a spectacle that’s both inspiring and ugly.

Prior to the 2019 eruption White Island, known to the indigenous Maori as Whakaari, was a popular tourist destination, offering cruise line passengers and locals alike a rare opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with one of the planet’s most active volcanoes. Accessible by a 90-minute boat ride from the town of Whakatāne on New Zealand’s North Island, the martian environment ensconces the curious (and brave-footed) in alien greens and mustard yellows, crystalline streams of superheated water and gaseous pockets. That the vast majority of the volcano is submarine puts it all the more in reach — you could actually walk right up to the edge of the crater and peek into the acid lake (just be sure to wear your mask).

Kennedy is an Oscar-nominated documentarian whose experience dealing with raw and emotional human stories serves her well here. Inspired by an April 2020 article published in Outside Magazine, she depicts the catastrophic event with incredible urgency, grace and empathy, immersing the viewer in a minute-by-minute procedural, and in a place that goes from picturesque to pure hellscape in the blink of an eye. The visuals are both stunning and terrifying, a pulse-pounding mixture of cell phone footage and dramatic aerial shots.

The cinematography is but one element that gives you a sense of the scale and severity of the situation. Adding to that is the perspective offered by the far-flung pilots who dropped what they were doing to fly into a dangerous environment and against government protocol. But it’s hearing from those who lived through the explosion, such as American newlyweds Lauren and Matt Urey, who chose the spot for their honeymoon, that makes The Volcano a moving account of survival and perseverance — a testament to pain but also bravery and selflessness. For some, the decision to help others was a simple calculation.

Yet not everything is so black-and-white. The film becomes more complicated when addressing the bigger picture, the ethical debate surrounding who should be held accountable. The day-trip-turned-nightmare was an international tragedy in which 22 tourists lost their lives and another 25 sustained horrific burns. Availing herself to the expertise and experience of a variety of sources, from the tangata whenua to passionate tour guides, young helicopter pilots to first-aid responders, Kennedy allows the discussion to unfold from a number of perspectives, never inserting her own opinion or putting too fine a point on things.

Her work, as thrilling as it can be sickening, doesn’t need a scapegoat to be effective as a reminder of nature’s cruel indifference to our curiosity.

Moral of the Story: A thoroughly gripping documentary, full of emotional power and acts of bravery, and that can be hard to watch at times. Although director Rory Kennedy remains respectful by largely avoiding graphic imagery, the details shared in interviews are grisly and can be upsetting to hear. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins. 

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Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery

Release: Friday, November 23, 2022 (limited)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Rian Johnson

Directed by: Rian Johnson

Starring: Daniel Craig; Edward Norton; Janelle Monáe; Kathryn Hahn; Leslie Odom Jr; Dave Bautista; Kate Hudson; Jessica Henwick; Madelyn Cline

Distributor: Netflix

 

****/*****

The elite and entitled once again take it on the chin in Glass Onion, the sequel to Rian Johnson’s highly entertaining 2019 murder mystery Knives Out. Set in the era of COVID and inspired by the director’s own cabin fever during the lockdown period, this new installment, the first in a two-sequel Netflix deal worth upwards of $460 million, may not be as sharp as its predecessor but it still has the engaging characters and plot to make it a worthy follow-up.

With the exception of Daniel Craig reprising his role as the brilliant Detective Benoit Blanc, Glass Onion is a complete reset, luring a fresh cast of characters into a new, unrelated web of deception and backstabbing, and establishing a lavish, borderline Bezosian setting to match the more exotic ambition of Johnson and company. Thankfully what also returns is the crisp and dynamic pacing of Knives Out, returning editor Bob Ducsay sewing together the many moving parts to create another intricately designed puzzle that also happens to be narratively fleet-footed — even at two hours and twenty minutes in length the movie doesn’t overstay its welcome.

While everyone else is locked down, tech billionaire Miles Bron (Edward Norton) decides to open his doors to some of his closest friends — his fellow “disruptors” — by hosting a murder mystery party on his private Greek island. Apparently the gathering is an annual event but this year the vibes are a little different, for reasons that are obvious and some that are festering below the façade of pleasantries. The guest list includes Connecticut governor and aspiring Senator Claire Debella (Kathryn Hahn), cutting edge scientist Lionel Toussaint (Leslie Odom Jr.), controversial fashion designer Birdie Jay (Kate Hudson), men’s rights streamer Duke Cody (Dave Bautista) and Cassandra ‘Andi’ Brand (Janelle Monáe), the recently ousted co-founder of Miles’ company, Alpha.

While the latter’s attendance causes a stir amongst the other guests, and Monáe floats through her scenes with an aura of mystery that’s hard to ignore, it’s the presence of the world-famous detective that seems to throw things off balance from the get-go; unlike Birdie’s high-strung assistant Peg (Jessica Henwick) and Duke’s sidekick of a girlfriend Whiskey (Madelyn Cline) Benoit hasn’t actually been invited (despite passing through the same comical screening process all attendees must, including spending the time just trying to figure out how to open the invitation). But hey, the more the merrier for Miles’ evening theatrics, which of course don’t go to plan when someone actually ends up dead.

The ensuing chaos, exacerbated by a power outage as well as good, old-fashioned paranoia (not to mention the sudden disappearance of a loaded weapon), is nothing if not the product of a filmmaker who likes to take risks. If Johnson doesn’t quite manage to outsmart his previous whodunnit, he certainly gets bolder toying around with conventional wisdom — the already divisive writer/director pulling off a reveal that has no right to work as well as it does. Unlike Craig’s genteel detective, whose job is to distill the simple truth from the noise and nonsense, Johnson delights in obfuscation. His screenplay is a delicious layer cake that simultaneously props up genre conventions and subverts them with style and humor.

While the comedy may end up overriding the drama, and the tension never gets as high as it maybe should, the time is well-spent thanks to the efforts of a dedicated cast, some of whom really stand out in atypical roles: Bautista bros out hard and is counterintuitively entertaining with his caveman attitude, while Hudson is a hoot as a tone-deaf tweeting fashionista who can’t be trusted with her own phone. Norton, as per usual, brings his A-game and threatens to steal the show from everyone. Ah but wait, the cherry on top is another terrific turn from Craig, whose joy in not being burdened with the Bond role any longer is obvious, practically worn in his summer fabrics here.

Bigger, louder and flashier, Glass Onion turns out to be a sequel that’s more playful than substantial. Look no further than the curation of needle-drops and A-list cameo appearances throughout, or the title itself which contains layers of meaning (particularly if you know your Beatles lyrics). And it’s probably for the best Johnson takes broad swipes at COVID-era politics, and instead drills deeper into the interpersonal tension that unfolds between these hypocritical, self-absorbed buffoons. The collective thematic burn may not leave much of a scar, but in the moment Glass Onion, with all its attendant distractions, is undeniably good fun.

Whine and dine

Moral of the Story: Though I found it bizarre and a little frustrating the film only spent a week in theaters before heading to Netflix, Glass Onion is a movie that will probably reward repeat viewings, perhaps not as much as Knives Out, but there are surely little nuggets to be found a second (or more) time around. And what better way to peel back the layers of Johnson’s creative — and at times audacious — approach to the murder mystery thriller than by having it sitting right there in plain sight on a prominent streaming platform, begging to be watched and rewound. Probably multiple times over. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 139 mins. 

Quoted: “Buttress!”

“Yeah, I’m trying real hard to buttress, but this sounds nuts.” 

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30 for 30: Jeanette Lee Vs.

Release: Tuesday, December 13, 2022 (Vol. IV, Ep. 17)

👀 ESPN

Starring: Jeanette Lee; Sonja Lee; Doris Lee

Directed by: Ursula Liang

Distributor: ESPN Films

 

 

 

***/*****

Jeanette Lee is a Korean-American former professional pool player who (to use a Leeism here) took the sport by its balls in the mid-90s. She earned the nickname ‘The Black Widow’ for her ferocious competitive spirit. Jeanette Lee Vs. is a documentary from director Ursula Liang that offers a glimpse of the fire that drove Lee at a young age to win at the highest level and as well the cold water that tried to put her out as a woman trying to break into a male-dominated sport.

There’s an implied “Me Against the World” mentality about the seemingly incomplete title that makes sense once we’ve spent some time with the subject. It’s an allusion to the social dynamics Lee often found herself combatting, at least at first, positioned against just about everybody — certainly the men who leered, but also her female peers who weren’t entirely thrilled about the amount of attention Lee’s meteoric rise and TV coverage garnered. As the film evolves beyond competition, the playful nature of its title also takes on a much weightier significance. 

It’s not a particularly in-depth treatment but there’s enough to give the layperson a good sense of Lee’s mental fortitude and physical toughness, for the odds were stacked against her in ways beyond societal prejudice. While Lee reflects upon the emotional challenges of growing up as a child of Korean immigrants in Brooklyn, the documentary becomes more a testimony to corporeal suffering. Of all the things she has experienced in her life, from a father who walked out on the family when she was five, to being subjected to Jimmy Kimmel’s masturbatory enthusiasm on The Man Show, it’s her own body that’s been most unkind.

Scoliosis from when she was 13 left her feeling alienated and in constant pain. Yet discomfort was no match for her desire to move on from her directionless teen years and start beating the men at their own game in pool halls across the country. As a 50-year-old Lee describes to camera the myriad ailments it has also caused, her similarly numerous achievements seem all the less likely.

That she managed to not just be competitive at a high level — racking up more than 30 national and international titles over a career spanning 24 years — but came to dominate a sport that requires physical poise and intense mental focus, all the while helping to raise the profile of the women’s game, is an act of defiance as much as it has been a catalyst for inclusivity. 

In bringing us up to speed on her current battle with terminal cancer, the film takes a more emotional turn. Yet a pity party never materializes despite extensive, behind-the-curtains footage capturing Lee at her most vulnerable and introspective. Family members and former opponents alike contribute to a sense of communal support for ‘The Black Widow,’ but it is Lee the straight-shooting interviewee, especially as she speculates about the uncertainty of the future, that elevates this narrowly-focused documentary into the realm of general audience appeal. 

Click here to read more 30 for 30 reviews 

Nailed the look

Moral of the Story: On one well-manicured hand, it feels like director Ursula Liang could have gone into greater detail about Lee’s playing days, particularly the tension among members of the WPBA (Women’s Professional Billiards Association) as she came to prominence and took self-promotion to a whole new level. On the other hand, it is yet more proof of the range of stories 30 for 30 can cover. And it isn’t just the fact it’s a niche sport that makes it feel different. Available to stream on ESPN+. 

Rated: TV-G

Running Time: 51 mins.

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com  

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Release: Friday, November 4, 2022 

👀 The Roku Channel

Written by: Al Yankovic; Eric Appel

Directed by: Eric Appel

Starring: Daniel Radcliffe; Evan Rachel Wood; Diedrich Bader; Toby Huss; Julianne Nicholson; Rainn Wilson

Distributor: The Roku Channel

 

 

***/*****

Love him or just weirded out by him, there is no denying “Weird Al” Yankovic is a success story. Anyone who has survived four decades in the music business must be doing something right. The mop-topped accordion player who became famous for humorously rewriting other people’s lyrics has exploited a niche to the tune of five Grammy wins, six platinum records and well over 12 million albums sold — more than any comedic act in history.

Now there’s Weird: The Al Yankovic Story, an appropriately whacky and over-the-top comedy that pokes fun at fame and films (specifically the musical bio-pic) with almost reckless abandon. Rather than offering a straightforward account of what created and sustained Yankovic’s career as a song parodist, Eric Appel’s directorial début instead takes a satirical approach, producing a movie that, like its namesake, more often than not hits the sweet spot by being both ridiculous and clever.

Daniel Radcliffe continues to reinvent himself by stepping into the shoes and loud Hawaiian shirts of the “Weird One,” again taking to the eccentric like it’s his second language. Co-written by Yankovic, the story broadly deals with a creative person’s struggle to win the approval of his conformist parents. When Al’s love for polka is exposed one night at a party a major rift in the family opens up, prompting him to leave home as soon as he can. Weird embraces tropes like these and exaggerates them to comedic effect.

Living with his roommates Steve (Spencer Treat Clark), Jim (Jack Lancaster) and “Bermuda” (Tommy O’Brien) Al finds himself in a nurturing environment. Then the bologna sandwich scene happens, setting the stage for a wild and often very funny ride that sees Al ascending on one of the most unlikely trajectories in music history, becoming a hit sensation overnight and shooting up the Billboard charts. His rendition of The Arrows’ “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” (“I Love Rocky Road”) catches the attention of his childhood inspiration Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson).

His quick wit and extemporaneous style earn him a record deal with the Scotti brothers (portrayed by Will Forte and Yankovic in hilariously terrible wigs) but with greater success comes greater complication. In saunters a perfectly-cast Evan Rachel Wood as Madonna, a bubblegum-chewing diva who seduces and manipulates her way into Al’s heart and back to another career high. The filmmakers take the “Yankovic Bump,” a real phenomenon which saw renewed commercial enthusiasm for the original songs he parodied, and create a whole new paradigm wherein Al develops full-blown egomania, determined to make it even bigger by coming up with his own original tunes.

A tale of two halves, the first much stronger than the second, Weird is nothing if not a showcase of personality. As the production threatens to come off the rails late you can’t help but admire its go-for-broke attitude. Radcliffe’s sincere performance may be the only thing you can afford to take seriously, but the cumulative effect of the weird makes for an experience that’s easy to enjoy.

Great acoustics, terrible smell

Moral of the Story: Though it would undoubtedly help to find “Weird Al” entertaining, being a long time fan of his is not necessary, especially considering how little truth there is in the way the story is told. Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is a pastiche of the peculiar that falls in line with the likes of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and This is Spinal Tap — so if you like those movies, good chance Weird will be right up your alley. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 108 mins. 

Quoted: “You think you’re going to stop me from playing? You’ll see. One day I’m going to be the best. Well, perhaps not technically the best, but arguably the most famous accordion player in an extremely specific genre of music!”

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Slumberland

Release: Friday, November 11, 2022 (limited) 

👀 Netflix

Written by: David Guion; Michael Handelman 

Directed by: Francis Lawrence

Starring: Jason Momoa; Marlow Barkley; Chris O’Dowd; Weruche Opia; Kyle Chandler; India de Beaufort 

Distributor: Netflix

 

**/*****

Slumberland is another one of those adaptations where ignorance really is bliss. You could watch this entire spectacle of Look How Much Money Netflix Has and have no idea it is actually inspired by an early twentieth century comic strip created by famed American cartoonist Winsor McCay. That’s because this expensive-looking but cheaply told fantasy adventure merely uses the iconic weekly sketch as a springboard for Jason Momoa-related shenanigans and a whole boatload of pretty but vapid CGI.

Comparisons are almost rendered pointless given how little the Netflix original, directed by The Hunger Games helmer Francis Lawrence, actually resembles the comic. The latest attempt to adapt the property is a visual adventure that flits between wild dreamscapes and waking-world tediums. The premise is loosely based on the comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland and its protagonist’s penchant for drifting off into crazy adventures only to awaken in his own bed in the final panel of each strip. Here the vignettes are discarded in favor of a simple tale of a girl trying to reunite with her father in her dreams.

In a gender-swapped role newcomer Marlow Barkley inhabits the lead character of Nemo with natural confidence. She starts off the movie living an idyllic life just off the mainland in a lighthouse with her father Peter (Kyle Chandler), who regales her nightly with tales of his adventures at sea chasing after elusive magical pearls. This all comes crashing down when Peter one day does not return and Nemo is forced to move to the city with her socially awkward uncle Philip (Chris O’Dowd), a doorknob salesman. We come to learn Peter and Philip were once thick as thieves, having epic adventures as kids. But after a fall-out Philip retreated into himself and has since lived a dreary and robotic existence.

As a story about learning to deal with grief and accepting change Slumberland has the potential to be a real winner, especially when you have a good lead performance from Barkley that helps foster sympathy. There are a couple of poignant moments along the way but whatever sense of growth and maturity there is supposed to be takes such a backseat to the eye-popping landscape across which Nemo traverses — at first accompanied only by her plush toy pig, creatively named ‘Pig’ (parents should not be surprised to see this one pop up on Christmas lists this year) and, eventually, the colorful and buffoonish outlaw Flip (Momoa), who has been in Slumberland for so long he can’t remember who he is in reality.

Not that he seems to mind. In the dream world there are rules and Flip seems to have violated several of them simply by hanging around and crashing other people’s dreams. Agent Green (Weruche Opia), representing the Bureau of Subconscious Activities, is determined to lock him up once and for all, giving rise to a cat-and-mouse action caper inside a dream-state (something that sounds way more interesting written down). Momoa is clearly having a field day going full-blown Johnny Depp, his garish wardrobe a combination of Captain Jack Sparrow and something out of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. He brings an energy that may wear a little thin after two hours for the older-than-pre-teen crowd, but also makes such a routine plot feel somehow more exciting.

The world-building is undoubtedly picturesque, despite some awkward moments where you can actually see the actors standing on their marks on a big slab of concrete in a sound stage. Away from these, Slumberland unfolds into a vast network of surreal imagery and outlandish ideas in which nuns fantasize about being salsa dancers in rooms made entirely out of butterflies and Canadians are reduced to dreaming of geese the size of small airplanes. At its center, the Sea of Nightmares — a dark and forbidding region concealing the very pearls Nemo’s father had been describing. Pearls that give the possessor whatever they desire. And as we learn along the way, the alluring gems aren’t the only thing that actually exist in the real world.

Despite some genuinely nice moments, you can’t help but feel like Lawrence misses the opportunity to extract a more interesting plot out of such an idea-rich concept. To his credit he isn’t attempting to remain faithful to the comic. It just would have been nice if what he chose to do instead was something more inspired. As a visual director, it sort of makes sense what he does with Slumberland but his flashy approach doesn’t necessarily make for the strongest movie. 

Next-level waterbed

Moral of the Story: I would describe it as Inception for kids, but that might oversell the amount of thinking this movie requires. Elements of Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland combine with the modern slickness of Stranger Things. The selling point is not the comic strip (Winsor McCay doesn’t even get credited) but instead Jason Momoa, who gets along great with kid actors apparently. If nothing else it’s nice to see him playing to a younger audience. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Did you ever figure it out? What the lighthouse is for?”

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All Quiet on the Western Front

Release: Friday, October 28, 2022

👀 Netflix

Written by: Ian Stokell; Lesley Paterson; Edward Berger

Directed by: Edward Berger

Starring: Felix Kammerer; Albrecht Schuch; Daniel Brühl; Devid Striesow; Thibault de Montalembert 

Distributor: Netflix

 

****/*****

All Quiet on the Western Front is an intense experience, mostly by virtue of its realistic depictions of wartime violence. Based on the 1929 novel of the same name by Erich Maria Remarque, Edward Berger’s adaptation loses some of the detail found on the pages but nevertheless adopts the powerful anti-war stance of its source, a descent into hell experienced through the eyes of a young man during World War I. It’s not subtle with its messaging, nor should it be.

The material has of course been adapted before (in 1930 by Lewis Milestone, widely considered the definitive version, and for TV in 1979) but Berger has the distinction of directing the first German adaptation of the property. The result is a breathtaking and completely devastating account that follows 17-year-old foot soldier Paul Baümer (Felix Kammerer in an impressive big screen début) as his romantic notions of becoming a war hero are quickly broken once he’s exposed to the realities of the front line.

The grim opening is a masterclass, establishing tone and theme with machine-like efficiency. A teen-aged soldier named Heinrich is killed in action and the scene cuts to show his uniform being stripped from his corpse and sent to a cleaning facility where it will be sent back out for a new recruit to call his own. When Paul, who’s forged his parents’ signature so he can join his mates in the good fight, receives his uniform and notices Heinrich’s name tag still attached, he’s simply told the uniform was too small and that “this happens all the time.” The moment passes as an afterthought — the adrenaline in Paul, galvanized by the patriotic speech delivered by his school teacher, overriding whatever concerns he has.

That excitement passes just as quickly when Paul and his friends Albert (Aaron Hilmer), Franz (Moritz Klaus) and Ludwig (Adrian Grünewald) arrive at the water-logged, disease-riddled trenches near the northern French town of La Malmaison and their first night gives them a taste of what they were never told in the pamphlet. It’s not long before shell-shock takes hold, transforming exuberant boys into statues. With the emphasis on Paul, Kammerer’s gaunt and wide-eyed countenance makes for a powerful canvas upon which the loss of innocence plays out.

Meanwhile, in a radical but still impactful diversion from the book, a second plot thread follows the efforts of German official Matthias Erzberger (Daniel Brühl) as he scrambles to put a stop to the mounting casualties in what he and other top brass already know is a lost cause. News of the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II turns up the pressure to capitulate, yet Erzberger remains optimistic for productive discussions with the Allied forces. Brühl is very good portraying a pivotal historical figure, peaking with his high wire act of initiating peace talks with Supreme Allied Commander Ferdinand Foch (Thibault de Montalembert), who isn’t in a particularly merciful mood. The German Imperial Army has 72 hours to surrender, no negotiations.

From a standpoint of narrative flow the compromise here is apparent. The cuts back and forth sometimes feel disruptive, taking us away from what seems most urgent. However these pauses in the action are suffused with such tension and fatefulness they feel like essential inclusions, hinting toward the circumstances that fueled resentment and ultimately gave rise to a much darker period in German history. One of the most overt indications of where things are going is General Friedrichs (Devid Striesow), an overzealous power-monger who’s willing to sacrifice any number of faceless patriots in order to secure his own personal victory.

While the movie is extremely violent — there are a few sequences here that rival the opening stanza of Saving Private Ryan in terms of the disorienting, overwhelming pace and perversion of the situation — there is a bluntness about the presentation that disturbs even more. Throughout the camera remains a cold and objective observer while Ian Stokell and Lesley Paterson’s screenplay shares none of the idealism of its gung-ho protagonists who, on the cusp of manhood, are swayed by the idea of fighting for honor and courage for The Fatherland. In drawing attention to the endless cycle of death the narrative structure feels more like a machine itself.

All Quiet isn’t just intense; it’s exhausting and depressing. And that’s how it should be as well. A war film shouldn’t be easy to watch. Despite a final act that betrays logic (and history) somewhat, Berger’s approach is laudable for its brutal honesty and adherence to the spirit of the landmark source material.

Moral of the Story: Parts Dunkirk and 1917 with its immersive you-are-there POV, but more memorable for its Saving Private Ryan/We Were Soldiers-level of realistic violence, All Quiet on the Western Front is a war film that, as hard as it is to endure, might just be essential viewing. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 147 mins.

Quoted: “What is a soldier without war?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Tender Bar

Release: Friday, December 17, 2021 (limited)

👀 Amazon Prime

Written by: William Monahan

Directed by: George Clooney

Starring: Ben Affleck; Tye Sheridan; Daniel Ranieri; Lily Rabe; Max Martini; Christopher Lloyd; Briana Middleton

Distributor: Amazon Studios

 

 

**/*****

Movies about aspiring writers too often come across mawkish and cheesy. It’s almost a condition, something that just comes with the territory and which the likable but cliché The Tender Bar doesn’t do enough to defend against.

Orange County set on the East Coast, more specifically Long Island, The Tender Bar is a coming-of-age drama based on the memoir written by Pulitzer-prize winning novelist and journalist J.R. Moehringer. Filtered through thick accents and an unabashedly sentimental lens, it charts his path from humble upbringings to Yale University and a bit beyond, exploring the influence that his family had on shaping his dream. Yet for all its good intentions and stretches of excellent acting, it’s a strange feeling to sit through something as banal as what we get here, considering the talent both in front of and behind the camera and the Oscar-winning pedigree of screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed).

While it’s certainly not the latter’s best effort — the dialogue is often corny, most of it unfortunately spouted by Ron Livingston in his Wonder Years-like voice-over — this is more about George Clooney phoning it in as director, failing to girder Moehringer’s memoir with a compelling cinematic treatment. If this were your introduction to the subject (as it was for me) you might come away shrugging the whole thing off as inconsequential. Moehringer is an accomplished writer but the hackneyed presentation doesn’t make him seem very interesting.

About the only distinction The Tender Bar has is a terrific performance from Ben Affleck, who becomes the role model J.R.’s biological father never was interested in playing, particularly in his childhood. He plays Uncle Charlie, a stabilizing force in the chaotic house into which young J.R. (introducing Daniel Ranieri) and his mother (Lily Rabe) are flung at the movie’s open. He’s also the bartender at The Dickens, a little hole-in-the-wall where dozens of books line the shelves alongside the booze. It’s here where J.R. spends much of his time, sipping Coca-Cola and inhaling life advice from his sleeper-genius uncle, whose own murky career goals belie the clarity of his wisdom.

The movie’s other asset is Max Martini who provides the antithesis to Affleck’s charm and warmth. As J.R.’s father, a radio deejay only referred to as “The Voice,” he doesn’t appear for long but enough to leave a bruise. The inevitable confrontation between him and his upward-trending son (now Tye Sheridan — amiable if unremarkable), although patently predictable given Clooney’s strict adherence to formula, lends tension to a story where most obstacles are cleared without effort. And if not effortlessly cleared, needlessly repeated — Briana Middleton’s appearance as a love interest does nothing to advance the story, only to remind of the elitism that swirls at the Ivy League level.

The condescension J.R. experiences here is what we feel throughout much of the story. The Tender Bar is pleasant enough but also basic. Like its subject and his needing to know what his initials stand for, it’s constantly searching for an identity of its own.

You’re the greatest inspiration in my life, bar none

Moral of the Story: Though sometimes too schmaltzy, The Tender Bar has occasional moments of affecting character work, especially between Affleck and the young Ranieri. But he gets along famously with both actors, and it’s that dynamic I’d recommend more than anything else here. Without trying to sound snobby, it’s just not a particularly deep movie. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “I want to be a writer, but I suck.”

“Well, when you suck at writing, that’s when you become a journalist.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Black Adam

Release: Friday, October 21, 2022

👀 Theater

Written by: Adam Sztykiel; Rory Haines; Sohrab Noshirvani 

Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra 

Starring: Dwayne Johnson; Aldis Hodge; Pierce Brosnan; Noah Centineo; Quintessa Swindell; Sarah Shahi; Marwan Kenzari; Bodhi Sabongui; Mohammed Amer

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

 

***/*****

Justice-seeking takes another dark turn with the arrival of Black Adam, the latest chapter in the sprawling (some might say stumbling) DCEU, a franchise known for its less sunny outlook and that has at times suffered for a lack of humor. So it’s almost counterintuitive that things do not exactly lighten up with the introduction of Dwayne Johnson in the title role. However his somber performance really works and on the whole the movie does as well, despite some familiar issues.

Originally making a cameo appearance in 2019’s Shazam!, the oversized anti-hero now gets his own standalone film, one where concerns surrounding True Champions and fake heroes seem not too far removed from the D-grade scripts The Rock played up to cheesy perfection back in the day. But this grim tale finds him in much lower spirits, his attitude and temperament the product of a character who has suffered maybe more than his share of pain. Even if Johnson is morose and unsmiling, he’s also really good in an atypical role and it’s not as though Black Adam is devoid of humor. He’s surrounded by a number of fun characters who keep the tone from spiraling into a melodramatic bore.

Black Adam tells a simple tale of choice as the titular character (introduced as Teth-Adam) struggles within himself to become either a force for good or a tool of destruction. It’s a bit of a slow and wobbly start, but when do openers burdened with the responsibility of summarizing thousands of years’ worth of backstory ever come off convincing? In 2600 BC, in the fictional Middle Eastern country of Kahndaq, a young slave boy, endowed with the powers of the ancient wizards, ostensibly frees his people after slaying the despotic King Ahk-Ton, earning his accolades as the city’s heroic champion. 

Yet a present-day Kahndaq still faces oppression in the form of modern crime syndicate Intergang and the debate still rages over whether Adam’s actions were noble or vengeful. Adrianna Tomaz (Sarah Shahi), an archaeologist sympathetic to his legend, stumbles upon the tomb of Teth-Adam and, believing she’s freeing him from wrongful entombment, recites an incantation. But someone’s woken up on the wrong side of the sarcophagus, an enraged Adam laying waste to virtually all life in the vicinity in a hair-raising intro that stands among the DCEU’s best. 

The trio of screenwriters does well to keep the events of Black Adam contained within a fast-moving, action-packed narrative. Unlike other chapters, concessions to other stories and properties are downplayed in favor of the spectacle everyone has paid to see, and that’s undoubtedly Dwayne Johnson coming in to his own as a hero with a hardened edge. A rare connective tissue comes in the form of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, reprising her role as the world’s friendliest government agent) who is starkly against the idea of Adam roaming around in the world and so dispatches the Justice Society of America to subdue him.

Not to be confused with DC’s all-star ensemble which made its comics début as the Justice League a good two decades later, the Justice Society — Hawkman (Aldis Hodge), Atom Smasher (Noah Centineo), Cyclone (Quintessa Swindell) and Dr. Fate (Pierce Brosnan) — kick the excitement up a notch when they ask for peaceful cooperation but instead and predictably meet violent resistance. Somewhere between foe and friend, the Society, notably Brosnan’s stoic Kent Nelson and Hodge’s hot-headed Carter Hall, gives Black Adam a beating heart and a welcomed sense of humor.

Their collective abilities (my personal favorites being Atom Smasher’s lack of grace and the seemingly endless possibilities the Helmet of Fate provides) are eventually fully realized when the film’s “true threat” arises — a misnomer perhaps, given Black Adam‘s familiar failure to provide a villain commensurate in influence and/or intrigue. Either or would have been great. In this case, Sabbac (Marwan Kenzari), a feral beast who derives his bloodlust from Hell’s most powerful demons, pops up toward the end as if out of a Trey Parker/Matt Stone creation — the crude design not exactly doing favors for yet another generic power-monger. 

In culminating in a Pirates of the Caribbean-esque climax, a literal hell-on-earth sequence that sees legions of minions wreaking havoc on Kahndaq, Black Adam unfortunately hits a low point late, embracing the worst impulses of the superhero genre. However, the screen sludge that results is not enough to kill the joy of seeing Johnson rise to the occasion, nor the goodwill that the movie overall has built up to that point.

Nice threads

Moral of the Story: One of the better installments in the up-and-down DC Extended Universe, Black Adam mostly does its job with keeping the audience entertained with a lot of action and visual spectacle and balancing fun with some more serious themes of slavery and oppression. But unfortunately it is another superhero movie where the bad guy seems to be more or less forgotten about. Dwayne Johnson clearly takes his role seriously here, even if the portrayal (from what I understand) veers away from the comics version of the character. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 125 mins.

Quoted: “Yeah, Mom. Who do you want to teach me violence?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Gold (2022)

Release: Friday, March 11, 2022 (limited) 

👀 Hulu

Written by: Anthony Hayes; Polly Smyth

Directed by: Anthony Hayes

Starring: Zac Efron; Anthony Hayes; Susie Porter

Distributor: Screen Media Films

 

 

 

****/*****

Over the last few years, former Disney Channel star Zac Efron has been making some interesting moves, turning away from the eye candy roles that came to define him as a younger actor and embracing heavier dramatic material. His turn as Ted Bundy in 2019’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile proved he was eager to move beyond typecast and I’m not sure if there’s a more direct route to doing so than by playing a serial killer.

Indeed, if it were only the atrocity of Bundy that Efron had tapped into, maybe it would be easy to dismiss as gimmick — a desperate act of overcompensation. But when he commits himself in the way that he does in Gold, a viciously realistic survival thriller from Aussie director, writer and co-star Anthony Hayes, suddenly the days of High School Musical seem like prehistory. This is Efron operating on another level, evoking desperation and greed to stomach-churning effect. Sure, he benefits from Beth Halsted’s stunning make-up work, but he essentially holds the entire movie on his own and that’s no small feat.

Set sometime in the near future, Gold keeps the audience in the dark as far as the big picture is concerned. The script (by Hayes and his partner Polly Smyth) is as minimalist as the stripped-out coal mine that has become of the world. We’re post-apocalypse but we don’t know what caused humanity to be brought to its knees. A man named Virgil (Efron) train-hops his way to a remote outpost in the sprawling desert. Here he’s to catch a ride with another man, Keith (played in a gruff and world-weary manner by Hayes) who will take him to a mysterious place called The Compound, where Virgil hopes to find some stability doing hard labor. (Yeah, this movie is grim — imagine that for a happy ending.)

As the pair make their way in Keith’s weather-beaten truck we get drip fed little bits of their past and their musings on what is happening elsewhere. Not much is revealed, just enough to get an idea Virgil may be carrying around a little too much sensitivity in this place, while Keith appears/sounds the genuine article as a frontiersman. But the proof will be in the suffering when the pair make the incredible discovery of a massive chunk of gold and hatch a plan to extract it. Too big to move by hand or even truck, Virgil insists he stay behind to guard their riches while Keith will head back to get an excavator, a round trip of about five days or so.

Fine if you’re staying at the Ritz-Carlton, not so much if you’re hitching yourself to a lone, sun-parched tree with minimal food and water supplies. At least he has a satellite phone? High winds, reptiles, wild dogs — these are some of the amenities Virgil gets to enjoy as he goes full Aron Ralston in 127 even more desperate hours, squaring off against dehydration, starvation and paranoia as each passing sun and moon adds to the feeling of abandonment. It’s a startlingly authentic portrayal from Efron, who is a strong reason to see yet another movie titled Gold.

Though filmed in the Flinders Ranges of the Outback the movie is shot tightly, with a raw intimacy that never allows you to get comfortable. As director, Hayes uses the crunch of COVID-era restrictions to fashion a harrowing tale of obsession and survival where space is put to use in ways both creative and cruel. As screenwriter, his judgment of time elapsing is one of the most powerful driving forces, with a variety of cuts to Efron’s façade depicting a man utterly wasting away in the elements.

Gold is undeniably a familiar yarn, one where a carefully curated song at the end spells out the lesson learned in big letters. When a scavenger (played with sinister intent by Susie Porter) appears on the scene, the haggard signposting of where things go are as obvious as the glinting jewel. Still, the heaviness with which certain developments land is not to be discounted. Dismissing the saga as overly familiar does a disservice to the intensity and authenticity of the experience.

Gnarly and visceral, Gold is entertaining in that morbidly fascinating way movies about the corruptive power of wealth often are — it’s not full-blown Shadenfreude, but at some point sympathy drops away and yields to pity. Even with sparse personality, the technical aspects make everything feel real and hard to look away from, even when you want to.

5G coverage, my ass

Moral of the Story: 127 Hours meets The Treasure of the Sierra Madre meets The Martian (the latter, in a more painfully specific way I guess). Harsh and pretty conservative in terms of action, Gold won’t be everyone’s idea of a fun Saturday night but for those looking for proof of Zac Efron’s talent, look no further. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

Quoted: “I can handle it.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.screendaily.com 

All the Old Knives

Release: Friday, April 8, 2022 (limited)

👀 Amazon Prime

Written by: Olen Steinhauer 

Directed by: Janus Metz

Starring: Chris Pine; Thandiwe Newton; Laurence Fishburne; Jonathan Pryce; David Dawson; Corey Johnson

Distributor: Amazon Studios

 

 

 

***/*****

All the Old Knives finds stars Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton locked into one of the longest dinner scenes ever put to film. You can imagine the importance of the conversation when it requires the entire length of the movie for it to transpire. Indeed the stakes are higher than your average dinner date, and it’s this back-and-forth from which director Janus Metz manages to build out a familiar but consistently engaging spy thriller, one in which profession and passion blur together in dangerous ways.

The two respectively play Henry Pelham and Celia Harrison, a pair of CIA agents and ex-lovers brought back together at a luxurious restaurant where not even the spectacular Californian sunset can distract from the unpleasant business at hand. An old case, a 2012 hijacking of a Turkish Alliance passenger plane which ended in tragedy, has been reopened after new information comes to light there was a mole inside the Vienna station where Henry and Celia worked. Eight years later and Henry has been sent by station chief Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne) to sniff out the leak — a task that will require Henry to face his ex for the first time since she abruptly cut ties with him and the agency following the disaster.

All the Old Knives is a talky espionage thriller that feels more like a mystery with the way it plays with perspective and strategically slips in red herrings between the rounds of red wine. Set within a world more apropos of John le Carré than Ian Fleming, the story, written by Olen Steinhauer who adapts the material from his own novel, eschews foot chases and big shoot-outs and leans more into the cerebral. Avoiding the trap of creating a stagy and static experience, Metz opens up his single-room setting with a flashback-heavy structure, peeling the layers of the onion to get to the core truth (which may or may not wow you depending on your aptitude for guessing twists).

Celia’s recollection does a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of set-up, placing us amidst the chaotic scene at the Vienna branch. Yet as time progresses it becomes increasingly obvious we’re not getting the full picture. A group of four armed militants, led by Ilyas Shushani (Orli Shuka) whose backstory becomes a vital piece of the puzzle, has taken over a plane on the runway at Vienna International and is demanding the release of several of their allies from prison. Ahmed, a CIA courier, happens to be on board and feeds the team information, such as the fact the men have mounted a camera on the undercarriage of the plane and have begun using children as human shields.

Amid this walk down nightmare lane, another set of scenes fleshes out Henry’s point of view and what’s at stake for him personally and professionally. His itinerary takes him from Vienna to California by way of London where, at a pub, he corners a nervous and fidgety Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce), a senior agent who served as a mentor to Celia. Henry has reason to believe someone inside the team leaked information to the terrorists on board which prevented a successful rescue attempt from being carried out. And there’s some suspect circumstances surrounding Bill’s office phone that compels Henry to dig his claws in.

For all the well-trodden ground found in its exploration of trauma, loyalty and betrayal, All the Old Knives has a way of keeping you invested. A lot of that comes down to the performances, with the likes of Fishburne and Pryce elevating smaller parts with their considerable gravitas. However, most of the good stuff rides on the interplay between Pine and Newton, who frequently command the screen as each successive return to the table finds their Poker faces slowly morphing into something more pained. They make the guessing game entertaining as the perceived power dynamic shifts like water sloshing in a jug. 

However there are some things good acting and palpable tension can’t cover up, like the superfluous inclusion of a so-called supporting character — not exactly a deal-breaker, but an unfortunate misstep in an otherwise taut and efficient production. Taken all together, All the Old Knives may feature a number of tricks you’ve seen before, but Metz never allows the interest to wane or the layered storytelling to become convoluted. The Danish director braids together the complicated affairs of the heart and geopolitics in a way that makes for a constantly forward-ticking narrative even when the approach is decidedly slow burn.

If looks could kill

Moral of the Story: Despite popular misconception, this is not, in fact, a sequel to the 2019 whodunnit Knives Out. (That is actually going to be a movie called Glass Onion. Go figure.) This is a throwback thriller that moves at a deliberate pace and keeps the drama at street-level. A well-chosen cast makes the familiar elements more enticing and helps bring real humanity to slightly underwritten parts. All the Old Knives is the second feature-length film from Janus Metz. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “We cannot afford the embarrassment of a prosecution. I need to know the man I send can do what’s necessary.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.indiewire.com