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.”

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

Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado

Release: Friday, June 29, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: Stefano Sollima

I need to file a complaint. Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado is an eyesore of a title. It is an awkward concession, the plasticine product of a marketing scheme designed to put the movie in “the best position to succeed.” Really though, it’s just poised to confuse. Elsewhere (outside of North America, that is) you’ll find the same film operating under various guises, such as Sicario 2, Soldado and Sicario without Emily Blunt.  

Good. Now that that resolved something, maybe now we can talk about the movie itself.

And what a vicious movie it is. Fortunately, at least with regards to quality, the content is not the title. Italian-born director Stefano Sollima confidently carries the torch passed to him in what appears to be a bonafide crime saga anthology in the making. While Soldado indeed navigates the same ethical and tactical morasses Villeneuve established in his instant classic from 2015, it’ll be remembered more for its even bloodier, soul-bruising action bent. And yet, in the spirit of its predecessor and despite the absence of an audience surrogate like Blunt’s Special Agent Kate Macer, Soldado effects the thrill of privileged access to things we should not be witnessing.

In 2018 the game has changed and so have the rules. The war against the ruthless Mexican drug cartels has taken an even more nefarious turn. Rather than the smuggling of illicit drugs, the focus has shifted to the prevention of human trafficking — specifically the transporting of bomb-making desperadoes across the line. An opening salvo details in gut-wrenching fashion precisely what CIA black ops agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and the enigmatic hitman Alejandro Gillick (Benecio Del Toro) are up against this time. We experience first-hand in Kansas City the callousness with which the bad guys are able to dispatch with the innocent.

Graver, who specializes in getting his hands dirty, is called in by U.S. Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine) for an assignment seemingly tailor-made just for him. Given such rampant violence, the American government has reclassified these gangs officially as terrorist organizations. Their objective now is to exacerbate tensions between the factions to the point where they simply wipe each other out. Victory by way of escalation, not extradition.

To get things rolling, Graver enlists his friend to carry out a ballsy false-flag operation involving the kidnapping of Isabel Reyes (a crushingly good Isabela Moner), daughter of the sadistic kingpin Carlos Reyes. The mission gets a bit more complicated/spoiler-rich but suffice it to say it doesn’t all go off without a hitch. Double-crosses and unexpected escapes crop up along the way, and it isn’t long before Graver and Gillick themselves question just what it is they are trying to accomplish. (And, as an aside, this is the coldest and most ruthless I have ever seen Catherine Keener. Consider me now a big fan.)

Crucially, Taylor Sheridan returns for this loosely-connected sequel. Once again his screenplay masterfully simplifies a lot of technical jargon without diluting the essence of the conversation. The gifted screenwriter is of course blessed with acting talent to match. Bad-boy Brolin feels at home in his über-niched role as a sandals-wearing DoD enforcer, while the aforementioned Keener and Modine lend incredible weight with their government agents standing at a safe distance. Del Toro may never have been quite this interesting (or this blood-caked). Meanwhile, the child actors — yes, absolutely Moner, but also introducing Elijah Rodriguez as the wayward Miguel — commit to their emotional load-bearing roles as consummate professionals.

Sheridan’s world-building also impresses. What else is new? He presents the labyrinthian network of black market dealers and uneasy relationships among different levels and loyalties of law enforcement as an ever-shifting landscape of personal vendetta and evolving objectivity. A lot of traveling is required and to exotic locations such as Djibouti and the Gulf of Somalia, and we hop back and forth across the border enough times to get dizzy. The director has to temporarily suspend reality in a few places to accommodate character arcs, but even with a few cut corners the main flow of the narrative rarely, if ever, exceeds our grasp — even while we shield our eyes from the more gory details.

Soldado isn’t as sophisticated a drama as what came before. This movie is more of a blunt instrument than a think piece, and it has no interest in being anyone’s friend. In almost any other production it would take some effort to justify this level of bloodshed. No, Soldado doesn’t exactly champion humanity, but it is a reflection of it. And yes, it should upset you. It should make you cringe, if not for Alejandro and friends then for the next generation caught in the crossfire.

Recommendation: Savage confrontations and a dearth of feel-good moments characterize this action thriller of above-average intelligence (poor titles notwithstanding). Soldado should satisfy fans of the original with its continuation of the same blood-soaked moral quandary established three years prior, even if a lot of nuance is lost in the transition. And the way this second chapter leaves you — left me, anyway — is nothing short of morbidly fascinating. I can’t wait for a third installment. 

Rated: hard R

Running Time: 122 mins.

Quoted: “You’re gonna help us start a war.”

“With who?”

“Everyone.”

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

The Foreigner

Release: Friday, October 13, 2017

→Theater 

Written by: David Marconi

Directed by: Martin Campbell

Martin Campbell has been behind two of my all-time favorite Bond movies, Casino Royale and Goldeneye (incidentally two films that also saw a changing of the guard amongst the ranks of the 00 elite), and now he’s responsible for one of my favorite Jackie Chan movies ever. The Legend is back, and as The Foreigner he’s kicking ass and taking names in ways we haven’t seen before.

Before going any further, before my bias toward the Kiwi’s new movie renders me a totally unreliable resource, I should point out that this is the same director who made Vertical Limit, the face-palming result of woefully apparent and inadequate research that turned the rock climbing community into the laughingstock of audiences everywhere. The critical and commercial failure that was Green Lantern in 2011 further sullied the good Campbell name. Fortunately those are stains that have come out in the wash. The Foreigner is his first theatrical release since then, and it’s one of his best.

The New Zealand-born filmmaker is arguably an entertainer first and a director second, as not even his lesser output — Vertical frikkin’ Limit included — fail to provide at least some degree of escapism. The Foreigner offers something a little different in that regard. Though the movie does at some point become farcical, the viewer can’t afford to completely detach, much less get comfortable, for it is the gnarly landscape of our present reality over which the narrative cautiously treads. Steeped in the world of dastardly complex politics in an age of global terrorism, the story tells of a retired Vietnam War special forces op named Quan (Chan) who seeks justice for his daughter who is killed in a London department store bombing.

Hong Kong’s biggest action star subverts roughly 30 years of expectation by portraying a father pushed to the brink of sanity, a man who tiptoes the line of morality in his quest to expose the identities of the culprits — a group who call themselves “The Authentic IRA.” In The Foreigner, Chan goes full-on Liam Neeson, a brute force awakened from slumber whose very particular set of skills, shaped by his survival of Vietnamese internment camps as well as a life overflowing with personal tragedy, are called upon when he finally loses everything. So, yeah. Rush Hour this ain’t. Reportedly Campbell had to make two separate trips to China in order to convince Chan this is a role he should take.

Not everything is unfamiliar. At 63, and in post-Lifetime Achievement Award territory, Chan is still risking life and limb for the sake of bona fide performance art. The stunts aren’t as spectacular as they once were, that’s true, but I’ll run that number by you again. He’s 63 and still jumping out of second-floor windows, narrowly avoiding death like a parkour expert in their early 20s. It’s as if death wishes are part of some non-negotiable clause in Chan’s career contract. Separating this role from most, however, is that added edge of emotion that sees that mischievous grin of his traded in for a face twisted in grief and pain.

Chan’s not the only one turning in a surprisingly impactful performance. Quan’s queries, which in the language of these familiar action movies become obsessions, eventually lead him into the office of Irish deputy minister Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan). He’s an intimidating man with a dark history to match, one made public by his own admission but the true extent to which it remains relevant becomes a mystery only Quan seems prepared (or desperate enough) to investigate. Aging suits Brosnan well, particularly in a more complex role like this where he appears to be bad at keeping the peace — let all The Troubles be forgot — but better at playing the sadistic puppeteer.

As the story unfolds it relies increasingly on these performances. Throughout we become bombarded with subplots detailing the total lack of trust between the Irish and the British, where acts of terrorism are perpetrated in the name of government favors and special interests. There’s a lot of orchestration going on behind the scenes, most memorably highlighted in an intensely heated exchange between Hennessy and a rogue IRA member played by Dermot Crowley. In the end, it’s the cat-and-mouse game between the film’s two stars that gives us reason to invest. The politics may become a bit silly, but these guys really aren’t fucking around. I enjoyed The Foreigner probably more than I should have, for that reason alone.

Recommendation: Fans of The Legend and the James Bond that M once lovingly called “a relic of the Cold War” should have a lot of time for a movie like The Foreigner. As a story it’s familiar, but Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan challenge the assertion that a cliché movie is a bad movie.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “Politicians and terrorists, they are just two ends of the same snake. What’s the difference?”

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

The Fate of the Furious

Release: Friday, April 14, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Chris Morgan

Directed by: F. Gary Gray

Sometimes I find myself asking how we have managed to get to the point where women and children are being threatened by cyber terrorists in a franchise built around car racing. I find myself wondering if things have gotten a little too out-of-hand. Of course, with each passing installment it has become increasingly clear this isn’t car porn anymore. Sadly, the narrative can no longer concern itself with the thawing of a once bitter rivalry between a street racer and an undercover cop either.

Out of necessity The Fast and the Furious have had to evolve, and though they have definitely become less furious they haven’t become any less fun to watch as each new chapter has placed them in some situation more ridiculously physics-defying than the last. And The Fate of the Furious is absolutely the most far-fetched demonstration of their newfound collective purpose yet. I suppose how we have arrived here isn’t that much of a mystery. They say formulaic writing can only get you so far, but it actually has netted Universal at least eight films and well over $5 billion.

The — let’s call it natural, even though that’s stretching the term — evolution of the family and Dom Toretto in particular finds us wading into legitimately dramatic territory in The Fate of the Furious. F. Gary Gray’s first time behind the wheel steers the story in an altogether more somber direction, pitting the star with a type of gasoline as a last name against his loyal compadres after being manipulated by cunning cyber terrorist Cipher, played with true menace by Charlize Theron.

For better and for worse, Chris Morgan’s screenplay remains as knowingly outrageous (and clunky) as those he has penned before. That this ragtag bunch of car enthusiasts could be the difference between World War III happening or not happening is pushing it, even for this franchise. Though Dom’s relatively unique trajectory is going to generate most of the post-viewing discussion, the specifics of the plot are as reliant as ever upon his crew’s mutually beneficial relationship with Kurt Russell‘s government agent Mr. Nobody. (And on that note, can someone please enlighten me as to why we needed Scott Eastwood’s Little Nobody? Also: how someone born of Eastwood blood can be so bad at acting.)

Fate succeeds in cementing its familial themes by way of finding redemption for characters hitherto on the periphery. In the wake of Dom’s theft of an EMP device at the behest of Cipher, Special Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) finds himself having to set aside past differences with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) as they work to take down a common enemy. After what happened to his brother, Deckard is eager to settle the score, even if that means working alongside a team who had once pooled their resources into eliminating him.

Gray’s film finds plenty of surprises along the way, like Dame Helen Mirren making a brief appearance as matriarch Magdalene Shaw, clad in leather jacket and brass knuckles (well, those are more or less implied). The character may be more plot device than person but Mirren’s quietly simmering intensity doesn’t allow her to be quite as dispensable as the script would like her to be. There’s also something vaguely amusing about seeing an actor of her stature in a film like this. (Ditto that the first time Kurt Russell appeared.)

With the integration of more Shaw’s into the narrative, you can think of Fate as one big, bullet-riddled family reunion. With nuclear submarines and Game of Thrones-sized enemies thrown in for good measure. Given the situation, you would think forgiveness would be a particularly high virtue to which these characters aspire, especially in a movie where the bonds of family are being “tested as never before.” It’s disappointing that that aspect is more convincingly framed through Hobbs’ and Deckard’s banter than it is through the evolution of Dom and Letty’s relationship.

While it’s heartwarming to see former enemies arrive at a place of mutual respect — after all, maturity is one of those tenets this multi-billion-dollar franchise has been built on — the lack of weight attached to the final, obligatorily dinner-table-set scene proves a major step backward for a film that otherwise was able to convince me that this was indeed the most serious situation our exonerated heroes have yet faced.

Recommendation: The Fate of the Furious offers more of the same. A lot more. Two-plus-hours more. In the absence of Paul Walker, it’s a testament to the comfort we have with the others that not much feels “different,” although certainly his absence is noted. Fate succeeds far more in elevating the action stakes than the emotional ones. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “. . .it’s neon orange. The International Space Station will see it coming.”

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 

Patriots Day

patriots-day-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 13, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Peter Berg; Matt Cook; Joshua Zetumer 

Directed by: Peter Berg

The latest in Peter Berg’s identikit tributes to American heroes deals with the events and aftermath of the April 15, 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that resulted in three deaths and the injury of at least 280 others when two separate explosions occurred at the finish line. The end result is a harrowing, emotional saga that provides audiences ground floor access to what has been widely considered the worst act of terror committed on American soil since September 11, 2001.

The film, so named after the Massachusetts state holiday that commemorates the anniversary of the first battles of the American Revolution, finds Berg once again channeling his own reverence for the stars and stripes through the universally adored Boston-born Mark Wahlberg, who plays an amalgam of real BPD personnel in Sergeant Tommy Saunders. It is an action thriller of masculine construction and appropriate intonations — even if Berg is occasionally overbearing in the way he stresses the importance of honoring the resilience of communities like Boston who have responded to acts of hatred with gestures of love and compassion and unity.

Patriots Day is as adept at championing the human spirit as it is timely. I could have sworn only yesterday this was a trending topic. Few actors feel more of the zeitgeist than Marky-Mark. It’s also no accident we have a police commissioner portrayed by the reliable but distractingly famous John Goodman and an FBI special agent played by Kevin “Serious Face” Bacon. Michelle Monaghan (arguably less visible than every one of her co-stars) plays Wahlberg’s equally fictional wife. Even the humble Watertown sarge who gets his five minutes of fame is physicalized by the likes of J.K. Simmons. There’s a lot of heavy air and the script’s clunky, yet several of Hollywood’s heavyweights do not disappoint.

But out of the bunch, only Wahlberg seems truly connected to the material, as reflected in a performance that ranks among his most emotional. But, and somewhat ironically, in order to actually justify the existence of the character/to give the actor something more to do than simply stand around Looking Official, Berg crowbars in a redemptive arc for the recently disgraced Tommy Saunders. Facing punishment having demonstrated insubordination towards his superiors he finds himself working crowd control at the finish line. By the end of the exhaustive, citywide manhunt that consumes much of the film’s second half, he will have played a substantial role in bringing the bad guys to justice. The invention is almost shamelessly predictable.

Wahlberg’s not always the focus, even if he seems to be at just the right place at every critical moment. Several threads develop to varying degrees of success throughout. A young couple who start the day happy wind up in different area hospitals simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time; a father standing feet away from the blast becomes desperate having been separated from his infant son. A Watertown police sergeant becomes the proverbial last sheriff standing in the way of the outlaw Tsarneav brothers, while an Asian MIT student lives to tell about the night he was carjacked at gunpoint. An interrogator feigns Muslim beliefs to get a suspect to talk. Each of these harrowing stories carry weight, however they invariably take a backseat to Saunders’ improbable ubiquity.

Those called upon to bear the burden of portraying terrorists deserve unique recognition. The Georgia-born Themo Melikidze portrays the older and nastier Tamerlan Tsarnaev as an extremist who cannot be reasoned with. He is a problem. The actor fully embodies evil and often dishes the most punishing sequences of discomfort Patriots Day offers up. Meanwhile Melissa Benoist challenges herself in the role of Katherine Russell, a white woman thought to have been radicalized by Tamerlan, her husband. (As of the publication of this review no charges have been brought against Russell, who apparently now lives a quiet life in New Jersey.)

Patriots Day is often confronting stuff. Adrenaline spikes frequently arise throughout this potent recreation of a dark day in American history. It’s also nothing if not familiar, as the ‘Bergs’ at this point now feel like a package deal. The director’s tribute to the people of Boston is his third consecutive tribute to bravery and resiliency and it is probably his most cohesive and balanced. Though I can’t help but feel the looming shadow of Hollywood distracts a little too much from the reality of what it means to be Boston Strong.

patriots-day

3-5Recommendation: Sincere, intense and passionately acted, Patriots Day is a certifiable crowd-pleaser that serves as Peter Berg’s most solidly crafted tribute to human resilience in several outings. Mark Wahlberg’s great performance makes the watch worthwhile as do a number of convincing turns by famous people playing less famous Bostonians. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “We got multiple explosions. We need help down here!” 

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

London Has Fallen

london-has-fallen-movie-poster

Release: Friday, March 4, 2016

[Netflix]

Written by: Creighton Rothenberger; Katrin Benedikt; Christian Gudegast; Chad St. John

Directed by: Babak Najafi

London Has Fallen was a theatrical release I happened to miss out on and I am glad for having saved that money. Buying a bag of crack cocaine (which is what I did) would have been a better use of that money (and it was).

Gerard Butler reprises his role as Mike Banning, and he’s still President Asher (Aaron Eckhart)’s body guard. The two have now become homies, and you know this because you see Banning jogging backwards alongside the Prez on one of their many morning runs in DC. That’s a skill that’ll come in handy! (Actually that’s not even really sarcasm; the two dudes end up running a LOT in this movie, although you’d have to believe they don’t engage in too much running in reverse — that wouldn’t be practical, unlike driving in reverse.) For director Babak Najafi, apparently this is character development.

Despite the privilege of sharing dude-bro-isms with his Commander-in-Chief, Banning is considering resigning so he can spend time with his wife, with whom he is expecting his first child. But the nursery will have to wait because the British Prime Minister has passed and President Asher and his security detail must attend the funeral in London. Many world leaders show up to pay their respects, but before they can many of them are riddled with bullets when Najafi decides to dispense with the bullshit.

Then the rest of the movie happens, which is, ironically, even more bullshit than the bullshit that came before. Need I address it? Are you really curious for more? Sigh. Alright, well here’s this:

Just when it looks like the good guys are about to get away from what appears to be a developing war zone in the heart of London — ground zero being Westminster Abbey — their chopper is shot down by some assholes on some rooftops because hey, they shouldn’t be able to get away THAT easily. And so ensues 90 minutes of Call of Duty, the map manifesting as a smoldering metropolis castrated of its most famous landmarks. Brainless action sequences follow as do some of the worst lines of dialogue exchanged between actors playing supposedly important characters, men and women of prestige. But that doesn’t stop members in the Situation Room chatting about being partial to the Kardashians (I’m not kidding) as they prepare for what they think is going to be another normal day.

The main objective of the terrorists is to get revenge on the guy who wiped out some notorious Middle Eastern crime lord’s family and they plan to record the assassination live so it can be on YouTube. (I’m also not kidding.) The main objective of the Americans is to kill every last man with dark hair, dark skin and thick beards. The script, penned by four different idiots, is so xenophobic it makes my skin crawl. Unlike in the previous outing, there is zero tension between Banning and the President so ultimately there is no reward in seeing Butler macho his way through another terrible movie. All we really get that’s new is watching Eckhart sling a gun around awkwardly for 30 minutes as circumstances become increasingly dire and as the baddies make communication with friends across the globe extremely difficult.

The story is atrocious but the film’s attitude is so much more cavalier. London Has Fallen doesn’t give a shit about England. It’s more about the greatness that is America than it is about the character and prestige of one of her longest standing allies. What’s more embarrassing is that the basic premise doesn’t even hold up logically: the terrorists claim they are retaliating after Asher ordered a drone strike on a Pakistani fortress two years prior, and yet they make an attempt to eliminate every single leader who happens to be present in London. I guess just for shits and giggles? Meanwhile, Morgan Freeman gets paid to breathe.

This is quite simply one of the most pathetic action movies I have ever seen and if you are looking for logic in a movie like London Has Fallen, I’m afraid you may have made some deeper errors. Indeed, standards have fallen and they have fallen pretty far mate.

fuck-this-shit-man-what-a-stupid-movie

Recommendation: Terrible. And pointless. What’s next, Sydney Has Fallen?* Aside from a few fleeting moments of mindless, distracting action, and plus the fact I do like Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart (they’re easily the best part of this movie even though they both look like they were struggling to take this seriously), there’s absolutely nothing to recommend about London Has Fallen, a most unnecessary sequel made by a very xenophobic director that I’m not sure too many people asked for.

Rated: R

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “I was wondering when you were gonna come out of the closet.” 

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

Snowden

snowden-movie-poster

Release: Friday, September 16, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Oliver Stone; Kieran Fitzgerald

Directed by: Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone tackles one of the most elusive and polarizing figures of the 21st Century in his Edward Snowden biopic, a match made in cinematic heaven given Stone’s penchant for courting controversy with the material he works with. So why doesn’t it work?

Snowden is kind of a snooze when it should have been a gripping, poignant drama. The character is portrayed confidently by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, no spoiler alert there, but the movie that surrounds him feels more like a college lecture on national security rather than a dramatization that could have shown us specifically what made the ideologue’s pursuit of government secrets — namely, the NSA’s tracking and collecting of mass amounts of user data by tapping into cell phones — so disturbing. Or,  interpreted another, more liberal way — so important. Stone has never been one to keep politics out of the equation, and he’d be a fool to do so this time.

Indeed, Snowden sits pretty far out there on the left wing but that’s not one of the film’s weaknesses unless you consider yourself a fastidious conservative. What’s more problematic is how insipid the study of a life less ordinary really is. I shouldn’t be using such words to describe anything related to Edward Snowden, and combined with the almost purely expository nature of the narrative I’m having déjà vu here: wasn’t this the same thing that plagued the Julian Assange picture? Stone’s new film concerns the period between 2004 and 2013 in which Edward Snowden rose meteorically from computer geek to national security asset (and later, threat). It also chronicles his romantic affair with Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley) and suggests an alternative life for him, one that never quite eventuates.

We begin in the present tense, where a documentary crew is rendezvousing with Snowden in the upscale hotel The Mira Hong Kong. Over the next several days director Laura Poitras (here portrayed by Melissa Leo but whose work can be seen in the 2014 documentary Citizenfour), along with journalists from The Guardian — Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson) — are given unprecedented access to what Snowden knows. But before all that good stuff can happen we must first go back to where it all began.

Clunky transitions (“here’s what I did back in this time”) jettison us back to the early 2000s where we get the skinny on Snowden’s young adult life: his brief time in the military, two stints with the CIA and one with the NSA — an impressive résumé if there ever were one. A lack of backstory in terms of what his upbringing was like and who his parents were leaves us with the impression that Snowden was a lone wolf long before he truly became one. We gain access inside top-secret facilities as he makes an immediate impression on fictional CIA recruiter Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans), a relationship that eventually sours as Snowden’s awareness of shady government activity increases. There are more innocuous exchanges as well, like the friendship he strikes up with the jaded Hank Forrester (a much calmer, more effective Nicolas Cage) who has been with the agency for too long and an NSA employee played by Ben Schnetzer.

Snowden is another prestige biopic that tentatively skirts around the fraying edge of sanity. Snowden’s romantic life manifests as the framework within which we can compare his  particular stresses to those we mere mortals go through on a daily basis — Lindsay is a free-spirited girl with a flair for photography who understandably tires of his weird work hours, amongst other things. The drama just comes across as obligatory and unearned, a perfectly good performance from Woodley gone to waste thanks to a sloppy, contrived and manipulative storyline. Stone also shoehorns in a sex scene that feels totally out of place. We have all come to the movie to see how well Snowden performs in bed, right?

The intimacy is not necessarily gratuitous but it’s symptomatic of the film’s major issue. It’s perfunctory and sex in and of itself isn’t the best way to add depth to your human characters. It’s a good way to add sex. Snowden owed it to the subject (and to us, natch) to ask tougher questions and to deliver more passion. There should be more outrage, more urgency. Where’s the intrigue here? And what are we getting in this film that we can’t find out on Wikipedia? The answer is absolutely nothing.

snowden

Recommendation: I can’t say this frustratingly routine, safe docudrama is something you have to see unless you can’t be bothered to skim a Wikipedia page on the guy. Or unless you are a diehard Oliver Stone fan. Personally, I’m disappointed with the way this came out even with no particular expectations coming in to it. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “The modern battlefield is everywhere.” 

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

Eye in the Sky

'Eye in the Sky' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 1, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Guy Hibbert

Directed by: Gavin Hood

Eye in the Sky presents an intriguing, if not familiar moral conundrum as a British Army Colonel weighs the pros and cons of pulling the trigger on a drone missile strike that could eliminate top terrorist targets sheltered in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi. In the end the results aren’t entirely surprising, so why such a rewarding experience when all is said and done?

Even though it’s Helen Mirren’s intense stare that threatens to burn a hole in the official release poster, Peter Travers is so right: this is one hell of a way for the late Alan Rickman to bow out. Not that Mirren isn’t worth mentioning (she definitely is), but Rickman’s last on-screen performance is so stoic it’s uncanny. It’s almost as if he was trying to make this one count. His Lt. General Frank Benson isn’t the focal point of Gavin Hood’s seventh feature film but the images I’ve taken home with me are those of his face, twisted into a look of total disgust as he awaits critical decisions to be made at higher levels — the whole bureaucratic chess game he finds himself caught in while precious time ticks away taking an obvious toll.

It’s like he’s waging his own private battle with his female co-star to see who can emote more intensely, evoking all of the anguish perhaps a real-life general or colonel might not necessarily publicize in the interest of keeping their underlings as calm, cool and collected as possible. Still, Eye in the Sky‘s script is incredibly stressful and part of the reason the film is so brilliant is we understand precisely why our leaders become so exasperated at times.

The mission in question is to take out three terrorist suspects who rank #3, #4 and #5 on the British government’s list of most valuable assets, and Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) hasn’t been this close to capturing them in six years. They have a vantage point from 20,000 feet, a drone plane piloted by relative veteran Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and newbie Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), both stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. They also have ground control in the form of Barkhad Abdi‘s Jama Farah, who is put into a particularly precarious position remote-controlling a camera built to resemble an insect. He is to infiltrate the house and verify the identities of those inside. The footage he is able to get is chilling: the suspects appear to be donning vests rigged with explosive devices and it also appears that they will attempt to detonate the bombs in a public setting.

Making matters worse is a child who appears on the scene hoping to sell bread for her family. It’s the same child we happen to be introduced to from the outset, a sweet girl named Alia (Aisha Takow) who is being privately educated by her parents and learning to hula-hoop in her backyard, out of sight of the patrolling ISIS guardsmen who have been imposing Sharia Law upon the land. In Colonel Powell’s eyes the mission status, which has changed from ‘capture’ to ‘kill’ since the new intel provided by the bug camera, cannot be aborted simply because of one potential collateral damage concern. While a high-ranking American government official agrees via Skype, others don’t see it the same way.

What makes Eye in the Sky such gripping viewing manifests as a truly collaborative effort between writer and director. Guy Hibbert’s script is provocative, emotional and convincing, but it would mean little without Hood’s ability to attract a diverse cast of international talent and to play to each of his actor’s strengths. There’s no one perspective that dominates; an impressive mix of strong roles and comparable screen time given to each lends the film a relatively comprehensive bird’s eye view rather than attempting to encourage controversy. How are governments able to justify civilian casualties as a byproduct of eliminating terrorist suspects, or, more broadly (and hence less novel an idea): is losing one life worth the price of many? When actions are taken the judgment is left up to us; this was never going to be a win-win situation, but ultimately was the right call made?

Dame Hellen Mirren is front-and-center when it comes to asking that question: is it worth it? As the commanding, intense Colonel Powell Mirren might never have been better. She exudes strength as a woman put into a hell of a position on this day. But support comes from unexpected places, such as Paul’s emotionally conflicted pilot who at one point feels it is in his best interest to challenge his superior when it comes to reevaluating the situation once the girl sets up on this street corner. Consider Steve Watts his finest hour as a performer as he frequently shoulders the emotional burden of having a finger on the trigger. It’s his vulnerability that’s just as frequently in the cross hairs.

Then, of course, is Rickman, seated in the situation room somewhere in London, far removed from the dangers themselves but visibly perturbed by the action — or lack thereof — taken in assuring the British armed forces are legally OK to pull that trigger. On his plate are the repercussions of British-American relations, given that one of the targets is an American who radicalized years ago. That’s to go along with the aforementioned unwanted publicity following a potential killing of an innocent youth. Things become messy alarmingly quickly; the grimace he bears suggesting much about the limits of his own considerable power.

Eye in the Sky works as a taut political thriller as well as a compelling ethics debate. Again, and generally speaking, this isn’t a debate we’re having for the first time but it suits the times we live in, particularly as technology plays a larger role in the armed forces and how nations perceive the character of others as they decide to fire (or not fire, in some cases) on their targets. I may never have been taken by surprise by how things played out, but that doesn’t mean the film failed to earn my empathy. This is a smart, engaging and intense drama whose incisive commentary on the matter is provided by a cast and crew that remind us why they’re getting paid to do what they do.

Screen Shot 2016-04-10 at 2.04.30 AM

Recommendation: A strong cast and a strong(er) script make Eye in the Sky a worthwhile drama seeing unfold on the big screen. I recommend most strongly to fans of Dame Helen Mirren, or those wanting to see Alan Rickman in his final performance — either or works. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.”

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

Blackhat

blackhat-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Morgan Davis Foehl

Directed by: Michael Mann

Even with an hilariously miscast Chris Hemsworth, Blackhat is utterly forgettable.

Something that’s less forgettable is its horrendous opening weekend performance. Set against a budget of $70 million, Michael Mann’s cybercrime would-be-thriller brought in a grand total of $1.7 million in its debut, necessarily deeming Blackhat one of the biggest box office bombs in cinematic history given its wide release status.

At best, the pairing of a Hollywood hunk with a predominantly international cast is amusing if for the opportunity to count all the ways in which the film panders to a global audience. If that wasn’t enough, the lack of chemistry between the towering Brit and his computer hacking buddies — Leehom Wang’s Chen Dawai, and Wei Tang’s Chen Lien, who are brother and sister in the film — are the glitches that bring this story to its knees.

Mr. Mann captures some compelling action sequences but the stunt work goes to waste when we’re having trouble even believing the actors in roles that have them staring at computer screens for most of the time. Hemsworth plays Nick Hathaway, a computer hacker serving prison time because he’s a real bastard behind keyboard and mouse. His direct involvement isn’t made clear right away, but two major events occur at the film’s open that we’re meant to pay attention to (but can’t because they’re somewhat trivialized by a confusing series of shots detailing the inner workings of computers): a nuclear reactor in Hong Kong experiences a catastrophic coolant malfunction, while the Mercantile Trade Exchange based in Chicago gets hacked.

Whoever’s clever enough to hack these systems is going to have to answer for the damage, or so say some stern-looking Chinese government officials. They enlist the help of the FBI, in the form of Agent Carol (Viola Davis in an ironic performance; her voice is so monotonous she sounds more of a computer hacker than anyone else) in bringing those responsible to justice. At first, everyone believes these attacks to be the work of Thor. They may as well be. Hemsworth-as-hacker is about as out of place as his demigod was on Earth.

Hathaway’s asked to help solve the crimes together with Dawai and the FBI in tow, but his condition is that his prison sentence be commuted and that he gets to have the cute girl in the end.  Though he does not make the second request, you know this is happening regardless. And how. Talk about some majorly underdeveloped character arcs. The team are soon bouncing all over the globe in an effort to track down the cyber terrorists, who are now aiming to take out more nuclear reactors in order to flood an expansive tin mine in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The terrorists’ goals aren’t exactly revelatory but they work well enough to assume a threat. But in a movie like Blackhat, where more time is spent deciphering code and, apparently, studying the inner workings of hard drives, the real world doesn’t take center stage. Or when the threat finally becomes truly palpable, any audience member not in possession of a degree in computer science has long since tuned out. An error message reads on the front of their foreheads: this does not compute. This does not compel.

The director should be credited for his commitment to getting things right. The focus on the technical aspects, even if excruciatingly boring at times, is impressive. Unfortunately computer screens and staring at endless code sequences — unless we’re in the Matrix — do not on their own make for an interesting product. Then, when we get to the action sequences they’re too short-lived to make much of an impression. I suppose I could keep going here, but the review might get a little mean-spirited. I’m no blackhat critic, out for malicious intent. Out for revenge upon the world just because.

I just happen to think this movie vastly underserves both its audience — on either side of the Atlantic — and its particularly timely themes.

This. A whole lot of this.

This. A whole lot of this. Exciting, right?

1-5Recommendation: Blackhat has grand aspirations but it squanders them in a navel-gazing screenplay that is more interested in getting underneath the keyboard instead of into the minds of some high-profile cyber-terrorists. Fans of Chris Hemsworth will also be wise to stay clear of this one, this isn’t his best effort. I’m not even sure if I can recommend this one to the geekiest of computer geeks.

Rated: R

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “You are no longer in control. . .”

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

American Sniper

american-sniper-poster
Release: Friday, January 16, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jason Hall

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

In Dirty Harry’s return to slightly more confident filmmaking, Bradley Cooper is one bad man. I mean, his Chris Kyle is a good man, but a bad . . . ah, never mind.

The Odessa, Texas native is the center of attention in a biopic entrusted to one of the biggest names in the business, but somehow the math just doesn’t add up. Cooper may never have been better, Eastwood never more patriotic, yet American Sniper is a slog and somewhat this. Somehow, following along with Chris as he leaves his family on four separate occasions to go fight against insurgents in Iraq between 1999 and 2008 feels less inspired as it does repetitive. Eastwood’s style here may suit the subject but perhaps it’s the subject that doesn’t really lend itself to major blockbuster filmmaking. Why do I smell a missed opportunity for a heartbreaking documentary here?

There’s another issue at play, one that isn’t necessarily the film’s fault, but absolutely is worth mentioning. American Sniper falls victim to its trailer, a tense two minutes that can’t help but fess up to Eastwood’s most sincere depictions of the kind of pressure that rides on snipers as they determine whether or not to take that shot. I do understand it’s not really fair to judge the film proper on a particularly revealing piece of marketing; after all, one could theoretically ruin their Interstellar experience by watching those clips of Gargantua too many times. But it’s so easy to do just that here, even if there aren’t any black holes in the Middle East. Far be it from me to tell you how to consume your entertainment but if you’ve watched the trailer for American Sniper then you are privy to virtually as much information as those slapping down $10-12 for tickets at the box office.

Eastwood’s directorial touch doesn’t help matters as he provides only a cursory look into the domestic life of an increasingly despondent soldier. A thoroughly masculine figure to begin with, Chris’s former life as a cowboy is halted abruptly by his interest in contributing muscle to the American cause after seeing a story about recent terrorist activity in the Middle East on T.V. He is motivated to the point of signing up for the Navy SEALs, though he is initially rejected. Some indeterminate time later he comes across a gorgeous brunette at a bar. Jason Hall’s script affords a modicum of humanity to this soon-to-be relationship, a level that is somewhat respectable. Sienna Miller would be compelling as housewife Taya but the switching back and forth between Chris’s duties in Iraq and her location in sunny Texas leaves a lot to be desired.

What’s more concerning is that Eastwood’s lazy construction makes mundane the soldier’s return(s) to Iraq. Aside from what’s easily observable — the escalation of violence during each subsequent visit, and the fact that a bounty is put on the head of the most deadly sniper in American history — Tour One looks just like Tour Four. Perhaps that’s how it really is. I have never served; I cannot talk at any great length about that. And I want to be careful in describing how I feel about these sequences as I don’t want to give the impression I don’t respect what multiple tours mean to those who have undergone them. From strictly a creative standpoint, American Sniper wears out its welcome and begins firing blanks much too soon.

Scenes built entirely out of fist-clenching tension, however, do not wear out theirs. And as a corollary, the violence Chris is perpetually surrounded by — and that which understandably upsets Taya the most — is an element Eastwood appears comfortable handling. I guess such is his duty. Reduced in intensity as they may be thanks to the trailers, the hair-raising shoot outs play a large part in defining Chris as a sniper, as a soldier, as a human being. More importantly it gives the film’s version of Chris an obstacle to get over, an enemy if there ever were one. Widely regarded as the “legend” of the Iraq War, his estimated 160 kills via sniping from obscure rooftops function in the film as not simply a plot device but this character’s responsibility to country and to his fellow soldiers. The film does a wonderful job of emphasizing the sniper’s compassion in a time and place where such a quality is rare if existent at all.

It’s the kind of reverence you can easily tie in with Eastwood’s emphasis on fatherhood and the paternal instinct, both evident in his prolific career as a filmmaker in both acting and directorial capacities. It doesn’t factor into American Sniper as much, though the opening scenes featuring Chris with his father together hunting deer in a forest tinged golden from the low angles of the sun’s rays suggest he is still concerned about constructing a layered character study. It’s yet another interesting angle overshadowed by the director’s predilection for predictable story structure.

There’s nothing offensive about the way Clint Eastwood, himself a legend, has put this story together. American Sniper is just not the most interesting version that could have been told, nor is it the most original. Like Sienna Miller in that black nightgown of hers, we wish we could have been shown more. The more testosterone-filled among us anyway.

sammy-sheik-in-american-sniper

3-0Recommendation: Clint Eastwood wears his patriotism on his sleeves and Brad Cooper wears Extra-Large in American Sniper, a very average war film centered around a not-so-average American finding his life’s calling. Between Cooper’s dedication to his character and Eastwood’s devotion to exemplifying courage and obsession in equal measure, the film is not something you should miss if you have served any amount of time overseas (or at home — just not in prison, of course). For everyone else, this is going to be one of the best uses of Redbox/Netflix you’ll have in a while.

Rated: R

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “I’m ready. I’m ready to come home. I’m ready to come home, baby!”

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