Colette


A woman in a man’s world determined to succeed on her own terms.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw, Robert Pugh, Sloan Thompson, Arabella Weir, Máté Haumann, Ray Panthaki, Al Weaver, Virág Bárány, Dickie Beau, Kylie Watt, Janine Harouni, Jake Graf, Joe Geary, Rebecca Root, Julian Wadham, Eleanor Tomlinson, Polina Litvak, István Gyurity, Karen Gagnon, Alexandra Szucs. Directed by Wash Westmoreland

 

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who went by her last name as a pen name (Knightley), was one of the most successful women in the history of French literature. She emerged from La Belle Epoque as a virtual rock star, and her stubborn refusal to live on any other terms but her own remain an inspiration to women – and men – even today.

Colette, a simple girl from the Burgundy countryside, ends up marrying Parisian roustabout Henry Gauthier-Villars (West) who is better known to Parisian society as Willy. He is known for biting and acerbic theater reviews, essays and short stories but the problem is that he hasn’t written a word of any of that. He has an army of writers who supply hi with the material which he passes off as his own.

The most talented of these is his wife and her Claudine novels take Paris by storm. Relegated to a background role by her egotistical husband, at first she is content to write her novels but as Willy’s gambling debts and lavish lifestyle take a toll on their finances, he begins to resort to outrageous measures to force his wife to meet publishing deadlines, such as locking her in a room. His serial infidelity also begins to upset her; she responds by doing the same thing he does – sleep with other women. She also prefers to dress like a man, which was illegal in France at the time and was quite the scandal.

Eventually she manages to win her independence from Willy but it isn’t easy and it isn’t without pain. The real Colette was an admirable woman and this screen version can only scratch the surface of who she was, Knightley’s fine performance to the contrary. Her chemistry with West palpably sizzles, and the two make one of the best dysfunctional couples you’re likely to see on the screen for some time.

Westmoreland has a keen eye and fills the screen with sumptuous scenes of lush countrysides, lavish salons and decadent theaters. There is a lot of sex in the movie – ah, those lusty French! – which to be honest begin to get in the way of the story. It’s a bit on the long side and some of the decadence could surely have been cut out; we get the picture, after all.

This is a pretty decent biography, but it doesn’t do her justice at the end of the day. There are some fine biographies of her extant and you would do better to pick up one of those. It’s not really Westmoreland’s fault; a movie can only do so much justice to a life in just under two hours. Still, it is dazzling to look at and not just because of Knightley’s lustrous beauty.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot, both exteriors and interiors.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really do justice to the subject.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film to be directed solely by Westmoreland, who until then had always co-directed with his partner Richard Glatzer, who died of Charcot’s disease in 2015.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coco Before Chanel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
A Star is Born (2018)

Papillon (2017)


A couple of cons on the beach.

(2017) Drama (Bleecker StreetCharlie Hunnam, Rami Malek, Eve Hewson, Yorick van Wageningen, Roland Møller, Andre Flynn, Antonio de la Cruz, Michael Adams, Louisa Pili, Brian Vernel, Mark Phelan, Luke Peros, Joel Basman, Nenad Herakovic, Michael Socha, Lorena Andrea, Poppy Mehendra, Demetri Goritsas, Juan-Leonardo Solari, Veronica Quilligan, Mirjana Novak. Directed by Michael Noer

The purported autobiography of French safecracker Henri Charriére was notable for its gritty adventure tone that made the man, who was nicknamed Papillon after the tattoo of a butterfly on his chest, an almost heroic figure. It was also notable for a laissez-faire attitude towards the facts; much of what Charriére described either didn’t happen to him or didn’t happen at all.

That didn’t stop a classic 1973 movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman from garnering acclaim and affection. This remake takes a grittier tone than the original; in many ways, the brutality of the French penal system is sanitized for audiences of that era. Here, we see bloody beatings, prison sexual assaults and people being gutted for the money they swallowed to help them survive prison.

Wrongfully convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, Charriére (Hunnam) is sentenced to life in the French penal colony in Guiana. Once there, he meets wealthy forger Louis Dega (Malek) and takes on the role of his protector, mainly to utilize the cash he brought in to finance his escape attempts to get back to his girlfriend (Hewson) and live the life the two of them dreamed of. Standing in the way is a brutal warden (van Wageningen) and deadly terrain.

It’s not a fair comparison to pit Hunnam and Malek up against McQueen and Hoffman, although Malek does an outstanding job and Hunnam a credible one. The friendship that develops between the two in the original becomes less conspicuous in the remake and the chemistry between Malek and Hunnam is less scintillating than that of McQueen and Hoffman.

As adventure tales go, this isn’t a bad one although I found it to be a bit of a drag near the middle and by the end, I was checking my watch. Definitely, of the two, I would strongly recommend the 1973 version which is a triumph of the human spirit but if you’re unwilling to check that one out, this isn’t a bad version of the story. It’s just not as good as the movie it is based on.

REASONS TO SEE: Very gritty and realistic.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t hold a candle to the original.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence including some bloody images, brief nudity, profanity and some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film is set in French Guiana (on the Northeast coast of South America), the entire movie was filmed in Europe.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Great Escape
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
A Simple Favor

Brian Banks


There is absolutely nothing like a mother’s love.

(2018) Sports Biography (Bleecker StreetAldis Hodge, Greg Kinnear, Sherri Shepherd, Morgan Freeman, Melanie Libaud, Dorian Missick, Tiffany Dupont, Matt Battaglia, Xosia Roquemore, Gina Vento, Mytie Smith, Rick Vyper, Edward Parker, Charles Alexandre, Dean Denton, Mary Faulkner, Jennifer Pierce Mathus, Kevin Yamada, Harrison Stone, Monique Grant, Elizabeth Donaldson. Directed by Tom Shadyac

 

There is little doubt that the American legal system is seriously broken. Justice seems to be the sole province of the wealthy and the white. Standards of proof seem to fluctuate depending on the color of one’s skin and the gender of the accuser.

Brian Banks (Hodge) is a 16-year-old kid with an incredible future before him. A star linebacker at Long Beach Poly high school, one of the premier high school football programs in the entire country, he has already been accepted to the University of Southern California and seems guaranteed to be on the fast track to NFL stardom.

That rosy future is interrupted by an accusation of kidnapping and rape by a fellow Poly student (Roquemore). Banks is arrested and indicted, then his ineffective lawyer convinces him to accept a plea agreement that turns out to be a raw deal for Banks, sending him to prison for five years which would be followed by probation for an additional five years – plus being labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life. Sounds pretty much like justice except for one thing; the rape never happened.

Banks struggles to prove his innocence, reaching out to Justin Barber (Kinnear), founder of the California Innocence Project who gently informs Banks that because he entered a no contest plea, the only way to get his conviction reversed is literally for his victim to recant her testimony.

Amazingly, Banks perseveres even though he is as much a prisoner on the outside as he was in prison. Nobody will hire a convicted sex offender and Banks isn’t allowed within a certain distance of public parks and schools. Every time it seems like Banks finds a ray of hope, some tough-on-crime politician rams through legislation that slams the door shut.

This is meant to be an uplifting, inspirational film about the power of perseverance and believing in one’s self and one’s dreams. Hodge delivers a star-making performance that carries the picture, holding his own nicely against stellar actors like Kinnear and Freeman (who plays a prison teacher whose platitudes help Banks find inner peace). While the true story is compelling enough, it is Hodge that most people will remember best after seeing this film.

Definitely the movie makes some commentary on the gulf in the justice system that exists between black and white. Had Banks been a white athlete, it’s likely that the accuser would not have been believed and even if the case went to trial, the perpetrator would have gotten a slap on the wrist if he did any time at all. Boys will be boys, but African-American boys will be criminals – at least that’s how our legal system apparently sees things.

In the #MeToo era there is a bit of tone deafness about this project. False rape accusations are relatively rare and more often than not, accusers are treated with disbelief and scorn, often being blamed for their own assault. Even though this is a true story, it’s not a typical one and the movie really doesn’t address that.

Still, Banks is an inspirational person and watching Hodge absolutely nail his performance is a treat. That the plot gets a bit maudlin especially in the last half of the film doesn’t help matters. The real Brian Banks couldn’t have asked for a better performance to capture his life; he certainly could have asked for a better movie to frame it.

REASONS TO SEE: Hodge delivers the performance of his career.
REASONS TO AVOID: The script gets a bit soapy in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a certain amount of profanity, as well as some adult thematic content and accompanying images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At least eight of Banks’ teammates on the Long Beach Poly team eventually played professional football either for the NFL or overseas.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Time to Kill
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Seaside

The Tomorrow Man (2019)


Tomorrow’s so bright they’ve gotta wear shades.

(2019) Romance (Bleecker StreetJohn Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Katie Aselton, Derek Cecil, Sophie Thatcher, Eve Harlow, Wendy Makkena, Isabelle Boni, Tyler Aser, Andrew Gonsalves, Anthony Lafornara, Naveen Havannavar, Jake Harrington, Jeff Moon, Shawn M. Essler, David Chen, Joe Napier, John Sindoni, Gloria J. Dancause, Liz Cameron, Danielle Smith. Directed by Noble Jones

As we get older, we tend to resist change. While the world keeps on turning, it is unsettling to those of us nearing our mortality at a faster clip than, say, Millennials. We want things to stay the way they are, the way we can at least make sense of life, the universe and everything. Sadly, things rarely stay the same for very long, relatively speaking.

Ed Hemsler (Lithgow) is a grumpy old man who thinks Fox News is way too soft. He is certain that our government is going to muck things up and then the end of civilization will occur. He’s been preparing for it, a so-called Doomsday Prepper, stockpiling non-perishables in a hidden bunker in the back of his house that contains a water filtration system and a generation which disposes of exhaust in an ingenious way.

Ed pretty much keeps to himself, hanging out in computer chat rooms with the like-minded, occasionally venturing out to his neighborhood grocery store to pick up supplies, most of which end up in the bunker. Other than those in his chat group, the only human he has any connection with is his son (Cecil) whom he berates for not being properly prepared for the coming End.

One day he spies in his grocery store a mousy woman buying the same sorts of things he does. He recognizes her as a “fellow traveler” as he puts it, not noting the irony; perhaps “kindred spirit” would have been less of a reach. She’s Ronnie (Danner) and after stalking her a bit, discovers she works in a local gift shop. He finally takes initiative by parking his truck next to hers so that she can’t get into her own car. He comes sailing to the rescue as she tries to negotiate the entry into her car, breezily apologizing. Despite the creepy beginning the two hit it off and when Ed asks her out to dinner, she accepts. She’s very private though; she won’t let him set foot in her house but she falls asleep on the couch at his place as they spend the night watching war documentaries, a particular passion of hers.

A romance eventually blooms as he slowly lets her in to his paranoid life and she accepts him for who he is. He even invites her along to Thanksgiving at his son’s house where his long-suffering daughter-in-law (Aselton) tries to make Ronnie feel welcome and Ed’s granddaughter (Thatcher) complains vociferously about her dad. This is a very middle American movie in a whole lot of ways.

Like most movie relationships, Ed and Ronnie have their ups and downs. When Ronnie reveals her own secret, it comes as a shock to both Ed and the rest of us; that part is well done. Sadly, the pacing lags a bit as Jones seems content to belabor point A before getting on to point B which he similarly belabors before moving on to point C. There is also an ending that comes out of nowhere and that you will either love or hate. I must admit I fell into the latter category.

The saving grace here are Danner and Lithgow. Their chemistry is very solid and their relationship after the kind of serial killer start is pretty believable. I don’t understand why Hollywood seems hell-bent on making all their elderly characters to be eccentric and/or demented. Why can’t they just be, y’know, people?

Lithgow has been one of my favorite actors for decades; with a plethora of memorable roles on his resume. He turns in a fine performance here. Ed is crochety, sure, but deep down he is wounded and a little tenderness is just what his heart needs. Danner does Diane Keaton better than anybody since…well, Diane Keaton. She hunches over like a pathologically shy person does, hoping she won’t be noticed. It seems odd that she works in a job in which she is face-to-face with people and she gets along with her fellow clerk Tina (Harlow) who is absolutely tickled that Ronnie has got herself a fella.

The film, which played the Florida Film Festival this past April, has a ton of sweetness but the ending reeks of cynicism and you get the feeling that the writers don’t hang out with people in their 70s much. There’s a message that you can’t focus so much on tomorrow that you forget all about what’s happening right in front of you today, but that you also need to have an eye to the future as well. It’s a balance and most of us learn it early on, at least to an acceptable degree. I would have rather that in making this romance the filmmakers had the courage to make the geriatric leads be believable and relatable instead of objects to be mocked but I suppose that ageism is the last acceptable prejudice (other than fat-shaming) left to Americans.

REASONS TO SEE: Individually, Lithgow and Danner are always entertaining and they have decent chemistry here. Has a very middle American sensibility.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a cop-out. Drags a little bit in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly salty but brief profanity as well as some sexual suggestiveness.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although ostensibly set in Mid-America, the film was shot in Rochester, NY and the store windows have area codes for Syracuse.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/7/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blast from the Past
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Wonders of the Sea

Teen Spirit (2018)


Who said pop stardom isn’t easy?

(2018) Musical (Bleecker Street/LD Entertainment) Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Rebecca Hall, Agnieszka Grochowska, Archie Madekwe, Millie Brady, Vivian Oparah, Marius de Vries, Elizabeth Berrington, Olive Gray, Andrew Ellis, Ruairi O’Connor, Jordan Stephens, Tamara Luz Ronchese, Clara Rugaard, Daisy Lowe, Ursula Holliday. Directed by Max Minghella

 

I think it’s fair to say (and I think that most teens and millennials would agree) that the world is constructed to kill dreams. Those that want to be creative, expressive or otherwise different are discouraged; laboring at some soul-killing task over and over again is what’s expected. Nobody in their right mind wants to do that for the rest of their lives; some really don’t have much of a choice. Those that have talent though, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time discouraging it.

Violet (Fanning) lives on the bucolic Isle of Wight off the coast of England, a place forever immortalized by the Beatles in ”When I’m Sixty-Four” thusly: “Every summer we could rent a cottage on the Isle of Wight (if it’s not too dear)” as well as a famous pop festival that took place there. Musically, that’s pretty much it for the Isle of Wight. It does possess a large Polish population of which Violet and her mother (Grochowska) are members of. Violet goes to school (she’s 17 years old), takes care of the horse that she rides whenever she can, works as a waitress in a pub after school and occasionally sings in a different pub; it is the last of these that mum disapproves of as being impractical so Violet has to do it on the sly. However, she does meet an alcoholic ex-opera singer who offers to be her manager so there’s that.

The family is in pretty dire financial straits; the horse gets repossessed because they can’t afford to pay for it any longer. Violet’s life is going exactly nowhere and she is frustrated as anyone would be. Then, a bit of excitement; the American Idol-like pop music competition show Teen Spirit is holding auditions in her town for the very first time and nearly everyone in school is trying out. Shy Violet decides to try out and to nobody’s surprise, she is selected for the local competition. To nobody else’s surprise, she ends up going to the finals in London which are televised. However, she needs a parent or guardian to sign off on her participation which her mother will never do so Violet remembers Vlad (Buric), the alcoholic ex-opera singer and puts him to work as her manager/instant guardian.

The rest of the movie you can pretty much figure out for yourself. There are a couple of swerves that aren’t particularly hard to see coming as well as some predictable moments of fame going to Violet’s head and a few heart-warming moments in between all the gaudily shot music videos of her performances, all bathed in pink and blue neon and looking like a New York art installation from the early 90s. That’s not bad in and of itself but it does kind of scream “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!”  in an unnecessarily loud cinematic voice.

Fanning is a talented performer as an actress and not a half-bad singer to boot but her character, who is supposed to be terribly shy and innocent (except when she’s not) is so passive and bland that it’s hard to figure out why she would want to stand up in front of a television audience and pour her heart out onstage. We never get a sense as to why Violet is motivated to become a singer other than she likes doing it.

The songs that Violet and her competition perform are mainly covers of iconic pop songs over the last 20 years, many of which have to do with female empowerment which is part of the ostensible thrust of the film, although one has to consider the fact that Violet and her mother struggle mightily on their own but once a man comes in to the picture for guidance success is theirs. It seems quite at odds with the musical message the film seems hell-bent on sending.

But even though Violet is more vanilla, the relationship between her and Vlad is at least genuine and comprises the heart and soul of the film. Even though Vlad is a polar opposite to Violet, his gruff exterior masks a teddy bear interior that genuinely cares for Violet and wants her to succeed not for his own aggrandizement but for hers.

The performance footage is mainly over-produced; it’s telling that the most genuine and affecting performance is when Violet dances and sings No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” in the privacy of her own bedroom; it’s raw and feels more authentic. That seems to be one of the few moments when we get a glimpse of who Violet truly is. We could have used more of them.

At the end of the day, this movie comes down to whether or not you like American Idol. If fresh-faced young people performing covers of familiar songs for the right to become a pop star in their own right is something that thrills you, chances are you’re going to love this film. If you find American Idol to be a cynical means of keeping potential pop stars as disposable product rather than genuine artists, you probably won’t care much for this film. Me, I tend to lean towards the latter but that doesn’t mean you won’t find something in the film to like.

REASONS TO SEE: The relationship between Violet and Vlad is believable and at the center of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story needs more fleshing out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive content as well as depictions of teen drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are parallels to the film Flashdance and the theme from that film is even used in this one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Dreamz
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Marching Forward

Arctic


The deadly desolation of the Arctic circle beckons a plane crash survivor.

(2018) Adventure (Bleecker Street) Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smáradóttir. Directed by Joe Penna

 

There is something magnificent and terrifying about the polar wastes. It is awesome in its desolation and yet beautiful, the endless vista of snow, ice and rock outcrops. Little survives here but polar bears and fish.

Also, the occasional plane crash survivor. Overgård is the sole survivor of a light plane crash above the Arctic Circle. His plane is done for; one wing twisted and the nose blackened after an engine fire. He goes about the business of survival methodically, tending to the grave of the co-pilot who didn’t make it, scraping snow down to the base rock to spell out “SOS” and fishing through ice holes. From time to time he comes across polar bear tracks which cause him to scan the horizon nervously. He also tries to get his radio to work without any success so he essentially waits for someone to come and rescue him.

Eventually someone does but that ends up in catastrophe, the helicopter losing power and buffeted by polar winds and crashing to the snow. As in his situation, one of the pilots doesn’t make it. The other (Smáradóttir) is seriously injured, falling in and out of consciousness. Overgård tends to his new charge, trying to get her to eat the raw fish he is able to catch. He scavenges what supplies he can from the downed helicopter and comes to a decision; the girl won’t survive if he can’t get her to safety. He decides that he will leave the shelter of the plane where he might have been able to hold out for weeks and constructing a makeshift sled, determines to transfer her to a seasonal camp on the detailed map that he found in the copter.

That’s a far more dangerous thing to do than it sounds; the way is through a mountain range where the weather is even worse than on the plain. The footing can be treacherous and there are crevasses hidden from view that he can fall into. He is more exposed to the weather as well as to roving polar bears who are as likely to make a meal of him and his defenseless charge. Can he get her to safety or will they be just two more frozen bodies awaiting discovery in the Arctic?

First time feature director and YouTube veteran Penna crafts a pretty strong debut. The movie was filmed in Iceland and the natural surroundings are put to good use. While the desolation is well-represented, the peril of the Arctic really doesn’t come to the fore until the second half of the movie while Overgård is on the move. There are long stretches of time in between where there is little in the way of action but that doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t carry its own fascination.

What this movie really has going for it is Mikkelsen. He has long been an actor who has always garnered my attention and he rarely delivers anything less than a solid performance. He does much better than that here, showing alternately quiet resolve and overwhelming despair. His character’s name is a bit of a giveaway; Overgård guards over his patient. There are also other unexpected Easter eggs in the film; I’ll leave it to you to find them.

This is not as compelling a film as it might have been. While I think it is a good idea that Penna doesn’t reveal too much about the characters or the circumstances focusing entirely on the survival aspect, there are times it feels like we’re watching parts of movies we’ve already seen. Some of the mechanics of survival become a little bit overdone; while I understand that the fishing lines are necessary, we don’t need to see him checking them as much as we do. A little cinematic shorthand might have been nice.

In some ways it might have been better had this movie come out later in the year. Mikkelsen’s performance might have had an outside shot at Oscar consideration then; in February he has virtually no chance barring an aggressive marketing campaign by Bleecker Street. However, seeing as many of us are in Oscar mode with the ceremony coming up the weekend this is being released in Orlando, it might get some folks who love great performances to check this out. However, some readers in Northern climes may not be too eager to see a movie given the recent Polar Vortex that reminds them of the weather outside their door.

REASONS TO SEE: Mikkelsen doesn’t need dialogue to deliver a scintillating performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: There are stretches where the film feels like it’s caught up in itself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as a couple of bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The picture on Overgård’s ID badge is the same one that was used for Mikkelsen to show a younger Hannibal Lecter in the TV show Hannibal.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/23/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Grey
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
We Are the Heat

Beirut


It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad in the desert.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Jonny Coyne, Leila Bekhti, Kate Fleetwood, Alon Aboutboul, Larry Pine, Sonia Okacha, Mohamed Zouaoui, Ben Affran, Ian Porter, Idir Chender, Nora Garrett, Mohamed Attougui, Anton Obeid, Jay Potter, Brahim Rachiki, Max Kleinveld. Directed by Brad Anderson

 

Lebanon has a history of being a cosmopolitan, beautiful country. Beirut was once described as the Paris of the Middle East. There were sizable Christian and Muslim communities but in the 1970s with an influx of Palestinian refugees Beirut became a powderkeg that exploded into Civil War that by the 1980s left Beirut the usual analogy for dangerous, hostile places.

Mason Skiles (Hamm) in 1972 was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. A disciple of Henry Kissinger, he was the fair-haired boy in the State Department, on his way to an ambassadorship of his own and at the very least becoming a major player in the diplomatic corps. Then, a terrible tragedy leaves his career in tatters and Skiles personally broken.

Fast-forward ahead ten years and Skiles works as an arbitrator in labor negotiations and not a very good one at that. Maybe it’s due to the fact that Skiles has fallen into the bottle and shows no signs of emerging. However, he is summoned to Beirut – the last place on Earth he wants to go – ostensibly to lecture at the American University there but in reality he is savvy enough to know that’s only a cover.

In fact, his good friend Cal (Pellegrino) has been kidnapped by a PLO splinter group and they will only negotiate with Cal for reasons that will become readily apparent. The problem is that Cal, who works for the CIA, knows enough to make life uncomfortable for the agency in the Middle East. Mason soon discovers that everyone in the American embassy seems to have an agenda of their own; nobody is trustworthy, not even the assistant/handler Sandy (Pike) who has been assigned to Mason. Getting Cal back alive will be no easy matter, not will it be easy for Mason to stay that way as well.

Veteran movie fans will note that Tony Gilroy wrote the script and won’t be surprised at the often convoluted plot – nor will it be surprising that the story is interesting throughout. Anderson is a strong director who keeps the pace brisk without going too fast and glossing over things. Despite having a plot that requires some concentration to follow, this is nonetheless an easy movie to watch.

.Hamm has been on my radar ever since he starred in Mad Men and I’ve always thought that he was going to one day be a big movie star; he’s just one good role away. This is the closest he’s come to that role; despite his character being deeply flawed, Hamm makes him sympathetic. He shows a great deal of charisma and onscreen charm from start to finish. In short, he’s the best thing about the movie which is saying something in a movie with Rosamund Pike in it.

The dialogue can be a bit noir-ish (which can be a bad thing) and the flashbacks can be jarring. Most negatively, there are sequences in which handheld cameras are used that are literally jarring. Those are all minuses to be sure but the pluses just edge them out enough to make this worth a shot.

REASONS TO GO: Hamm continues to show off star quality. The pacing is very crisp.
REASONS TO STAY: There are some unnecessary handheld camera sequences. The ending is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and a brief image of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hodge and Hamm have appeared on the Netflix series Black Mirror.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Feels