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

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

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 

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.”

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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 

Day Shift

Release: Friday, August 12, 2022 

👀 Netflix

Written by: Tyler Tice; Shay Hatten 

Directed by: J.J. Perry

Starring: Jamie Foxx; Dave Franco; Meagan Good; Natasha Liu Bordizzo; Eric Lange; Karla Souza; Snoop Dogg

Distributor: Netflix

 

 

**/*****

A stuntman of many years, J.J. Perry sinks teeth into his first directing effort with Day Shift, a fun but forgettable vampire-themed action/comedy. For the most part this cartoonishly violent send-up plays the way you would expect from someone whose experience lies more on the technical side of things. Day Shift is mostly style over substance with a few clever spins on vampire mythology thrown in.

The goofy story revolves around Bud Jablonski (Jamie Foxx), a cash-strapped family man who cleans pools in sun-drenched SoCal as a cover for his real job as a vampire hunter. A protracted and vicious fight sequence early on proves he’s highly skilled and capable of defending himself. But he also seems to prefer doing things his own way. His off-the-book methods have led to his dismissal from the Union, which operates by a strict code of conduct, and his odd hours and constant excuses have created a rift in his family. Ex-wife Jocelyn (Meagan Good) is giving him a week to come up with $10k to cover their daughter Paige (Zion Broadnax)’s private school tuition and braces or she is putting Bud in her rearview once and for all. 

Meanwhile Audrey (Karla Souza), a powerful vampire posing as a real estate agent, has infiltrated the local market with plans of restoring the balance of power between her fellow bloodsuckers and the humans who now hunt them for their fangs. Souza is a game participant, chewing the scenery as a hammy villain who laments how the mighty have fallen. Sadly the script reduces her grand ambition to a predictable and boring revenge plot. When Audrey gets a whiff that Bud’s recent kill is none other than her daughter, she makes it her life’s work to draw even.

Unsurprisingly, like the vampires in this brave new world, it is the stunts that rule the day as well as the night. Brutal confrontations come thick and fast, whether it’s a one-on-one beatdown with an elderly woman or a tag-team effort in bringing down a stronghold. However not all of the stunts pulled are over-the-top fight sequences in which the dead and the living alike are tossed across the room like rag dolls. Supporting characters are their own spectacles, be it Eric Lange adorned with the world’s worst wig as grouchy union boss Ralph Seeger or Snoop Dogg busting out the snakeskin boots as Big John Elliott, a vaunted union member whose get-up hints at a myth never fully explained.

The union is Bud’s best chance of making the money in time, and Big John has the kind of clout necessary in getting him reinstated. But of course there are caveats. The rogue cowboy will have to work the less profitable day shift while being chaperoned by union rep Seth (Dave Franco), who will report directly to Seeger any and all code violations his partner is sure to commit. If only the avid rule-abiding accountant can avoid developing a conscience and/or devolving into a mess of involuntary bodily functions when things get real.

The pairing of Foxx and Franco is a curious one but it is let down by the hackneyed script from Tyler Tice and Shay Hatten. The odd-couple dynamic feels forced and never allows the actors to build convincing chemistry together. Franco is sentenced to making a fool of himself while Foxx gets to look stoic and heroic busting heads (or severing them in this case). Though the ultimate gag may be the very idea of casting the notoriously intense alpha male actor in a movie this absurd. The guy who once portrayed Ray Charles to Oscar-winning effect may not get turned into a comedic punching bag, but he does at one point get to experience that unique sensation of being thrown up a flight of stairs.

Day Shift certainly is colorful, and in more ways than one. Toby Oliver’s cinematography bathes the San Fernando Valley in an exaggerated color palette and like Souza’s super-vamp and her sense of fashion it calls just a bit too much attention to itself. The action pops, as do various joints and limbs thanks to the radical new vampire concept — think street contortionists, not so much Dracula. I guess you have to appreciate the little things here. The milieu is whacky (I love the idea of a pawn shop trading in vampire teeth, and treasured character actor Peter Stormare being the guy behind the counter). In the end Perry’s vision has spurts of imagination but rarely at a storytelling level.

Please don’t get all bent out of shape but I have to re-kill you.

Moral of the Story: Knowingly silly, Day Shift plays up the vampire mythology to mildly entertaining effect but with a smarter script it could have been a Zombieland, which is already what it feels like it’s going for. It has that same kind of hyper energy. Unfortunately it lacks the strong characters that could have made it more memorable.

Rated: R

Running Time: 113 mins.

Quoted: “So you just gonna light your finger on fire, huh?”

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

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn

Release: Friday, November 19, 2021 (limited)

👀 Hulu

Written by: Radu Jude

Directed by: Radu Jude

Starring: Katia Pascariu; Olimpia Malai; Claudia Ieremia; Nicodim Ungureanu; Andi Vasluianu

 

 

 

****/*****

If you are someone trying hard to block out the noise of the last few years of heightened enmity, this confrontational tragicomedy out of Romania is not going to be your friend. I’m not sure it’s anyone’s friend; it’s more like a troll in movie form, designed to trigger and infuriate. Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is not always an easy watch but in getting under your skin, it’s one you are going to struggle to forget.

Yes, it’s a silly title — there’s some nuance lost in the translation from the original Romanian title into English — but the subject matter is serious and the atmosphere tense and uncomfortable. Set in the nation’s capital of Bucharest and filmed during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the award-winning Bad Luck Banging holds up a mirror to our current times. It harnesses all the emotions and energy that have been bottled up inside and directs almost all of it toward a lone woman, a history teacher named Emi (Katia Pascariu), whose sex tape that she makes with her husband ends up circulating around the internet and causes an uproar at the well-to-do secondary school where she works.

It isn’t just the subject matter that makes this a challenging and sometimes maddening experience. Writer/director Radu Jude plays with form in a way that’s both fascinating and frustrating. He deploys a familiar three-act structure but really this is a self-contained, day-in-the-life style narrative interrupted by an interminable middle section. Here, the filmmaker free-associates every single pertinent concept and symbol in a montage that distills humanity down to its base functions. Though not without purpose, the second act is so cynical it eventually becomes off-putting. There’s a lot of national identity and rage tied up in this sequence but the criticism of society is so encompassing it feels like an unfocused rant.

However what lies on either side of this creative intermission is a modern social satire with serious teeth. Marius Panduru’s camerawork plays a large part in shaping what and how much you feel as the story evolves. What begins as objective, an observation of a woman going about her day doing errands and trying to figure out how to get the video removed from a place it was never supposed to be in the first place, steadily grows more opinionated, more vicious, more ridiculous.

In the first segment Panduru follows the actor from a distance as Emi makes her way through the busy city toward the parent-teacher conference that will soon determine her fate. Moving like a tourist, or perhaps a child trying to make sense of the circus around them, the camera occasionally, and suggestively, comes to rest on the immovable and inescapable objects of a world where sex sells everything from books to Barbie dolls. 

Eventually though, and like her fellow educators who purport to be morally and intellectually upstanding (despite their liberal use of offensive epithets, particularly to women and ethnic Romani), the camera too turns on her and settles in with the hecklers. The climactic confrontation is a spectacle worth the wait. Indeed, it won’t be the eyebrow-raising opening scene that will have people talking — cleverly-placed graphics serve as a running gag throughout, the more racy content suited and tied under the guise of decency. Rather, it will be the combustible third act which chains Emi to the whipping pillar as the accusations and insults fly.

As humiliating as the scene is, it’s also galvanizing and weirdly thrilling. Without divulging all the gory details, there are yet more surprises in store in terms of the way Jude experiments with traditional narrative delivery and subverts your expectation of where things go from here. It’s not that any of the hateful rhetoric being thrown around is funny but as the animosity intensifies it becomes almost impossible not to let something slip out; a nervous chuckle does the same job as the Xanax Emi is denied in a drugstore. You need some relief from the stress.

Bad Luck Banging embraces taboo in a way that will draw only passionate responses, not just from those who endured it but from those who have only heard things about it and want to dismiss it out of hand. That’s understandable, but the movie doesn’t end up as exploitative as the title sounds. Some of the artistic choices annoyingly delay what could be a more streamlined narrative, but as the tension builds in the final stretch there appears to be a method to Jude’s class(-less) madness.

Yummy.

Moral of the Story: Not for the faint of heart, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn is caustic, bizarre and features elements so heavy you kind of wonder whether this even qualifies as comedy. This is my first experience watching a film from Romania (I think) and while it’s not one I will necessarily return to, it is a breath of fresh air away from Hollywood, a bold film barely able to contain its righteous anger. (Dialogue is in Romanian with English subtitles and captions.)

Rated: NR

Running Time: 106 mins.

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

Hustle

Release: Wednesday, June 8, 2022 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Taylor Materne; Will Fetters

Directed by: Jeremiah Zagar

Starring: Adam Sandler; Juancho Hernangómez; Ben Foster; Robert Duvall; Queen Latifah; half the NBA

 

 

 

****/*****

When you’re passionate about something it tends to show, and that’s what happens with Adam Sandler’s latest Netflix movie Hustle. The actor’s well-documented enthusiasm for the game of basketball bleeds over into his work here, which turns out to be some of the best of his career. Bobby Boucher and Happy Gilmore may have given us some good laughs, but Sandler is more compelling when he isn’t playing a cartoon.

In Hustle he shows that passion by bringing attention to the sidelines rather than center court. The behind-the-scenes role of the NBA scout is highlighted in a way that evokes the esoteric space of Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird (2019), which told the story of a sports agent navigating an NBA lockout. The emotional beats however hew closer to the traditional underdog narrative of perennial hardwood classic Hoosiers (1986). Sandler is a recognizable face but here he effortlessly blends into the crowd as a family man, a hard-working Philadelphian who loves this town, this game and being this close to it. His authentic portrayal is largely why something so familiar works so well.

A bloodshot-eyed, fast-food-slurping Sandler plays Stanley Sugerman, a top scout for the Philadelphia 76ers who has devoted years to traveling the world over in search of the next big talent. More familiar with airport terminals than the hallways of his own home, he’s looking for a promotion that will further challenge him and also keep him closer to his wife, Teresa (Queen Latifah) and aspiring filmmaker daughter Alex (Jordan Hull). Luckily his dedication and eye for detail have built a lot of credit with team owner Rex Merrick (Robert Duvall), who finally gives him a more active team role.

But then Rex unexpectedly passes away and, in a baffling development — one of a few head-scratching moments in Taylor Materne and Will Fetters’ screenplay, another being the weird decision to prop up the NBA Combine as if it has playoff implications — ownership is transferred not to his competent daughter Kat (Heidi Gardner) but rather to his inexperienced and vindictive son Vince (Ben Foster), who promptly 180s on his father’s decision and banishes Stanley back to the road. In Spain, he comes across a streetball game being dominated by a young phenom named Bo Cruz (NBA reserve Juancho Hernangómez) and immediately identifies him as a potential franchise-changer.

It’s already an uphill battle convincing the higher-ups to take an unknown as the #1 overall pick in the upcoming draft. It certainly doesn’t help when an emotional outburst during an exhibition game exposes Bo as a potential liability and triggers an unfortunate narrative in the media, one that Stanley has trouble getting in front of considering the omnipresence of Vince and his natural disdain for everything he does. The crux of the drama finds Stanley in damage control mode, trying to save his reputation while proving to his young prospect he actually cares about his future.

Hustle may shortchange the talented Ben Foster with a one-note corporate bozo role, but it’s the two leads whom we are here to see and they form a really likable team. Though each are impelled by love of family to compete at a high level, they couldn’t be more different in background and upbringing. The story doesn’t exactly shy away from sports drama tropes. Cue the obligatory training montage, where comparisons to Rocky are inescapable and feel almost intentional, and the evolution of a partnership into genuine friendship.

What helps offset the film’s many cliches is director Jeremiah Zagar’s commitment to world-building. Hustle has production design so authentic you might actually think Zagar snuck inside the Wells Fargo Center and filmed guerilla-style. Fans of the game will have a field day spotting all the names that come through the scene, with former and current players, coaches and front office staff all getting some camera time (while sneakily supplying the production with its quota of product placement). Yet it’s Anthony Edwards (of the Minnesota Timberwolves) who gets to actually leave an impression, stealing the show for a moment as a trash-talking hotshot who’s also a top candidate for the team. 

In the end, Hustle (and by extension, Sandler) isn’t trying to dazzle you with how much it knows about the X’s and O’s. It’s all about the game within the game, the psychological aspects that make pro sport so challenging. Don’t call it a classic, but the fourth quarter rally is very fun to watch. Because the performances are so earnest and believable, what’s routine ends up feeling rewarding.

“Look, I had this Rocky montage set up especially for you. Don’t blow it, kid.”

Moral of the Story: Perhaps more for NBA fans than casual viewers, Hustle is a modern-feeling sports drama that is also worth watching for another outstanding turn from the erstwhile King of Bad Comedy. (Do we start petitioning for Sandler to star in more basketball related movies? He seems to do those pretty well.) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “Guys in their 50’s don’t have dreams, they have nightmares . . . and eczema.”

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

The Gray Man

Release: Friday, July 15, 2022 (limited) 

👀 Netflix

Written by: Joe Russo; Christopher Markus; Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Anthony Russo; Joe Russo

Starring: Ryan Gosling; Chris Evans; Ana de Armas; Regé-Jean Page; Julia Butters; Billy Bob Thornton; Alfre Woodard; Jessica Henwick

 

 

***/*****

Thinking is a hazard to your health in the modern action movie. The good news is when something moves as stylishly and as quickly as The Gray Man you don’t have a lot of time to do that. Distractions are in abundance in the Russo brothers’ star-studded and action-packed extravaganza based on the 2009 novel of the same name by Mark Greaney.

Featuring the ensemble cast of an Ocean’s Eleven and the globetrotting scale of a James Bond installment, The Gray Man is one of Netflix’s most expensive and ambitious undertakings to date, costing the streamer a whopping $200 million — and that’s just for this first episode, with plans for a sequel and a spin-off announced immediately. Sadly the foundation (the first movie, that is) isn’t very strong to begin with, so it’s anyone’s guess as to what quality franchise we’ll get out of translating more of the thriller novelist’s work.

In the meantime, what will likely be most remembered from this near-breathless first installment is Chris Evans hamming it up big-time as the main antagonist, the sadistic Lloyd Hansen. I’m prioritizing the villain because the pleasure he takes in making others uncomfortable is something that makes him stand out in a movie that doesn’t have much to offer personality-wise. It’s a showy if overcompensating depiction of sociopathy that suggests Evans wants to be as far removed from Cap’s shield as Daniel Radcliffe wants to be from Hogwarts. If there’s something The Gray Man does well, it’s providing a bad guy you can’t wait to see brought to his knees.

Ironically the “good” guy is less compelling, even if he is played by the enigmatic Ryan Gosling. In 2003 Court Gentry, a convicted killer, is visited in prison by a CIA official named Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton) who tells him his sentence will be commuted in exchange for his cooperation with the agency in bringing down a national security threat. Court is to join the CIA’s clandestine Sierra program, where he will assume the code name ‘Six,’ because “007 was taken.” Years later, after a botched mission in Bangkok, Six comes into possession of a thumb drive which contains some secrets the CIA, namely the ambitious Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page), would rather not let loose. So he goes rogue, sending the file to Prague where a trusted source (Alfre Woodard) will be able to decrypt it, while coming into the crosshairs of a rampaging Lloyd Hansen who will do anything to get a job done.

This includes kidnapping Fitzroy’s teenage daughter Claire (Julia Butters) for leverage in forcing her father to give the go-ahead to eliminate Six, leading to one of The Gray Man‘s stand-out action scenes aboard a cargo plane. Though fully aware of his disposability, he discovers that maybe not everyone is out to get him when he crosses paths with Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas), a CIA agent who, along with Carmichael’s underling Suzanna Brewer (Jessica Henwick), is scrambling to salvage her career thanks to the trail of destruction that has followed Hansen and his willfully unethical methods.

Piling up casualties as quickly as Thanos can snap his fingers, The Gray Man is hardly ever dull. The plot is simple and the direction propulsive but because we don’t really get to know the characters beyond their skill sets and job titles it is also a fairly impersonal affair, feeling more like a series of things that happen rather than things you care about. Attempts to humanize Gosling’s emotionally frigid Court come in the form of perfunctory flashbacks to a bad childhood and an underdeveloped dynamic with Claire, to whom he is entrusted to protect. On that note, Butters is even less fortunate, her character bearing few attributes beyond the heart condition that makes her vulnerable and serves as a plot device.

If the action genre is defined now by cold indifference, The Gray Man should be viewed as a success. The Russos have put together an adrenaline-pumping ride that doesn’t demand anything from the viewer other than a Netflix subscription and a family-sized bucket of popcorn. It may not feature any extraterrestrial threat or super-powered beings, but this is a spectacle involving some balloons, a lot of bullets, and colored smoke for some reason. The Gray Man looks every bit the money that was spent on it, but huge sums of cash don’t directly translate into strong characters and intriguing moral situations. I’m probably thinking too much about it, but this cat-and-mouse game could have — should have — been better.

For the second review in a row, we have strong Mustache representation.

Moral of the Story: I’m giving this otherwise pretty bland action thriller a 3 instead of a 2 out of 5 stars simply because Chris Evans chews the scenery so much he enlivens the entire thing. Gosling is okay; he’s not doing anything radically different, and even though there is a lot of action — the Russos definitely deliver quantity — I’m not sure if any of the big set pieces have staying power. Honestly, it’s just another Saturday night action escape. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Normally at this point in the night, I wouldn’t be sticking around. With the house lights about to come on, I’d find a desperate, ugly chick to lick my wounds and split. But you have been a pebble in my shoe since the very beginning, and now I just don’t think I can walk away. Guess what I’m thinking right now . . .”

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