Red Sparrow


Misogyny? Wellllll….

(2018) Espionage Thriller (20th Century Fox) Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Jeremy Irons, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Thekla Reuten, Douglas Hodge, Sakina Jaffrey, Sergei Polunin, Sasha Frolova, Sebastian  Hulk, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Nicole O’Neill, Kristof Konrad, Hugh Quarshie, Kinscö Pethö. Directed by Francis Lawrence

While this is set in recent years, Red Sparrow could very easily be mistaken for a Cold War-era spy thriller by John Le Carré or those of his ilk. At the center is Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika, a former Russian ballerina who has had to move on to other career choices when her ballet career is cut brutally short. She is sent by a well-meaning but corrupt relative slash government official to a school for spies, which she disdainfully calls “whore school.” There she’s taught to use her sexuality as a weapon and the rest of her body as well. Her assignment is to make contact with American agent Nate Nash (Edgerton) but whether or not she is following orders remains to be seen.

This doesn’t particularly add anything to the espionage thriller genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot, enough so that the studio sent an e-mail pleading with critics to reveal as little about the plot as possible which in this case is justified – the less you know about what actually happens, the better your enjoyment will be of the film.

The surprising thing about the movie is star Jennifer Lawrence. She has been for several years now one of the most reliable and talented actresses in Hollywood, but this one she falls quite a bit short. Her Russian accent is unbelievable and it slips throughout the movie. Lawrence is a lot of things but she is not a ballet dancer; she doesn’t move like one and any woman who has been through the kind of training that lands you a spot on the Bolshoi is going to have a certain elegance and grace in her every movement.

This is pretty much standard spy stuff, although granted with a surfeit of graphic mayhem, torture and yes, rape. I think some women, particularly those who are sensitive to how women are portrayed as sex objects, are going to have some serious problems with this. It’s not quite misogynistic but it’s close. This is one well worth skipping which is a first in J-Law’s otherwise glittering career. I guess she’s just due for a misstep.

REASONS TO GO: Fans of Cold War-era espionage thrillers will love this. Rampling and Irons deliver swell performances.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s too much rape and torture – there’s too much of everything (it’s too long). J-Law’s Russian accent keeps slipping.
FAMILY VALUES: There is severe violence, torture, rape, sexual content, profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Deer Tick was originally formed in Providence, Rhode Island. They are currently based in New York.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Atomic Blonde
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tomb Raider

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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

Black Panther


King T’Challa surveys the kingdom of Wakanda that the world sees.

(2018) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown, Andy Serkis, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, David S. Lee, Nayibah Be, Isaach De Bankolé, Connie Chiume, Dorothy Steele, Danny Sapani, Sydelle Noel. Directed by Ryan Coogler

 

It is not accidental that Black Panther was released during Black History Month. It is a movie that has gone on to make history and brought huge crossover appeal to the segment of African-American audiences who aren’t necessarily going out to see superhero movies – although obviously a large chunk of them are. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this is Shaft in spandex though – this is a superhero movie that is going to set the bar for superhero films that follow it.

T’Challa (Boseman), King of the African nation of Wakanda, also carries the mantle of the Black Panther, the protector of his country who is mystically endowed with superpowers. He inherits a country that is technologically advanced but has chosen to hide its true nature so that they don’t become targets. Their isolationism is a sticking point with Erik Killmonger (Jordan), nephew of the recently deceased King, who was raised in America after the murder of his father. He sees things from a much more global point of view and thinks Wakanda should be sharing their technology – particularly their weapons – to help oppressed people of color to rise up and throw off the yoke of colonialism.

There’s a lot more to the film than that but this is a short review. Sure, it’s got the eye candy and jaw-dropping action sequences we come to expect in a superhero film – and they are well done here, make no mistake about it – but also, they are not the be-all and end-all of Black Panther. Rather, they are a jumping off point to discuss more weighty matters – racial relations, colonialism, turning a blind eye to suffering, sexism – things not normally a part of the superhero film equation. It should also be mentioned that the Dora Milaje – the King’s army – are all women and  are the most badass fighting force to turn up in a superhero film ever, even more so than the Amazons of Wonder Woman.

It should also be mentioned that this might be the most talented ensemble ever in a superhero film. The crème de la crème of African-American actors do their thing on this film and none of them turn in anything less than their best. Gurira from The Walking Dead brings the badassery of Michonne and bringing onto the big screen and giving it an African twist. Nyong’o plays a spy and the ex of T’Challa and she plays a fine love interest. Whitaker lends gravitas to his role as T’Challa’s mentor. Best of all though is Wright as the king’s kid sister – a scientific genius responsible for many of the gadgets used in the film. She steals nearly every scene she’s in.

All in all, this is a movie that lives up to the hype and re-confirms that the superhero genre is not just for fanboys but for fans of all sorts. Just for the record, Black Panther isn’t a great superhero film because it has an African-American hero – it would be a great superhero film no matter who the lead was. Come to think of it, Black Panther isn’t just a great superhero film – it’s a great film period.

REASONS TO GO: This is a benchmark for all superhero films. Jordan and Boseman are both terrific in their roles. Coogler hits the director’s A list with his big and bold vision.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the CGI doesn’t quite work.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence, superhero and otherwise, as well as a rude gesture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jordan has appeared in all three of the feature films directed by Coogler to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Lear
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Workshop

The 101-Year-Old Man Who Skipped Out on His Bill and Disappeared (Hundraettåringen som smet från notan och försvann)


101-year-old men stand out in any crowd.

(2016) Comedy (Netflix) Robert Gustafsson, Daniel Steiner, Caroline Boulton, Jens Hultén, David Wilberg, Shima Niavarani, Jay Simpson, Ralph Carlsson, Iwar Wiklander, Georg NIkoloff, Guhn Andersson, David Shackleton, Erni Mangold, Svetlana Rodina Ljungkvist, Eric Stern, Colin McFarlane, Cory Peterson, Shin-Fei Chen, Crystal the Monkey. Directed by Felix Herngren and Måns Herngren

 

Back in 2013, a Swedish cinematic adaptation of a bestselling novel The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared became a massive hit in Sweden, enough so that it was brought to America a couple of years later (and played the Florida Film Festival to boot). It was one of my favorite films from 2015 and is still one I watch periodically.

Now comes a sequel which while not getting a theatrical release here in the States is available on Netflix. The streaming giant hasn’t really promoted the film much, so much so that almost no major publication has reviewed it and it has gotten almost no advertising. Is it worth checking out?

The movie takes place a year after the first one; it’s Alan Karlsson’s (Gustafsson) 101st birthday. He is celebrating with his pals Julius (Wiklander) and Benny (Hultén). As they celebrate they drink a Soviet soft drink that puts a little more pep in their step. Realizing that there are no bottles left of the confection and that the formula could make them a mint, they go on an extended road trip to rediscover the formula. On the way they are chased by the CIA, Karlsson gets a job as a soft drink company executive and a monkey makes their lives miserable. Also the biker gang from the first film continues to chase them for the missing money.

While director Felix Herngren returns as does much of the cast, the sequel doesn’t hold a candle to the original. There continue to be Gump-like flashbacks to Karlsson’s colorful past (including meetings with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger) and Bennie continues to be the world’s most indecisive man – a shtick which is getting old at this point – but to the bad the make-up on Gustafsson is strangely less convincing than it was in the first film. Also the humor is a lot more pedestrian; it’s like the writers were trying to play it much safer than the first one. Maybe because this one is an original script rather than based on an existing property there’s a little less cohesion to the story.

For those looking for a good comedy to stream, standing on its own this isn’t bad entertainment. Fans of the first film however are going to be sorely disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: The characters are all nicely developed from the first film. Gustafsson is a gem.
REASONS TO STAY: This isn’t nearly as good as the first film. The humor is pedestrian and the monkey is annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, brief nudity and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The films that Crystal the Monkey has appeared in have a combined worldwide gross of more than $2.5 billion; this is her first Swedish-language film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Man Called Ove
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Goodbye Christopher Robin

American Made


Tom Cruise wonders if he can call his agent collect.

(2017) Biographical Dramedy (Universal) Tom Cruise, Domhnall Gleeson, Sarah Wright, Jesse Plemmons, Caleb Landry Jones, Lola Kirke, Jayma Mays, Alejandro Edda, Benito Martinez, E. Roger Mitchell, Jed Rees, Fredy Yate Escobar, Mauricio Mejia, Robert Farrior, Morgan Hinkleman, Alberto Ospino, Daniel Lugo, Felipe Bernedette, Jayson Warner Smith, April Billingsley. Directed by Doug Liman

 

Some stories are too out there to be believed. Some stories are truths that are stranger than fiction. Some stories could only be made in America.

Barry Seal (Cruise) was one such story. A one-time TWA pilot bored with his commuter plane career, he smuggled Cuban cigars into the country to make a little extra cash, bringing him to the attention of the CIA. Not to prosecute him; to recruit him as it turned out. His handler, Monty Schafer (Gleeson) – not his real name as it turns out – wants him to take pictures of Leftist commando units in Central and South America from the air. Barry, ever the adrenaline junkie at heart, gets the best pictures imaginable.

He begins another smuggling sideline; this time bringing drugs into the country for guys like Manuel Noriega (Ospino) and Pablo Escobar (Mejia). Soon, Barry has more cash than he knows what to do with. His wife Lucy (Wright) – suspicious at first – turns a blind eye when she gets all the material goods that she ever dreamed of.

Stories like this rarely end well and Barry’s doesn’t either but while the ride is going on it’s entertaining. Liman seems to know how to get the best out of Cruise who still has that youthful smile but is beginning to show signs of middle age. Nonetheless Cruise again shows his star appeal by being likable while working for some pretty terrible people; well, onscreen anyway.

Liman gives us an almost Steven Soderbergh-like film; brash and full of itself. There is certainly a good deal of entertainment value here but in some ways it’s a cookie cutter movie. It doesn’t really rise above similar stories and nothing happens that the audience can’t see coming a mile away. Still in all, you won’t go wrong renting this puppy although I might think twice about buying it. It’s one of those movies that you see once, enjoy it at the time and promptly forget about it afterwards.

REASONS TO GO: There is an almost Soderbergh-like feel to the film.
REASONS TO STAY: This is a bit too formulaic for my own taste.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots and lots of profanity as well as some sexuality and a bit of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The plane that Seal used in real life was featured in the movie; tragically, it crashed on the final day of filming, causing two fatalities.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Air America
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Django

Atomic Blonde


This is what a femme fatale looks like.

(2017) Action (Focus) Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, Eddie Marsan, John Goodman, Toby Jones, James Faulkner, Roland Møller, Sofia Boutella, Bill Skarsgård, Sam Hargrave, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Til Schweiger, Barbara Sukowa, Attila Arpa, Martin Angerbauer, Lili Gessler, Declan Hannigan, Daniel Bernhardt, Sara Natasa Szonda. Directed by David Leitch

 

Hitchcock famously had a thing about icy blondes; along comes a film that may have the best one yet. For one thing, Charlize Theron isn’t just a master manipulator – she can kick quantum ass. Here, set to a pulsing and throbbing soundtrack and a cornucopia of mayhem she becomes the coolest and sexiest assassin of them all – drinking, smoking and seducing her way to Bond’s title.

Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI-6 agent in Berlin days before the Wall fell in November 1989 to retrieve a list of double agents that, should the Soviets get their hands on it, would mean the end of a goodly number of high-value assets, to use spy film terminology. Broughton, who also has an agenda of her own, is assisted by the none-too-trustworthy station chief who in the dry words of her MI-6 handler (Jones) “has gone native.” Basically she goes looking for the list and every step of the way she gets attacked by goons and beats the snot out of them while getting her share of lumps as well.

There are some amazing action sequences here, particularly one set in an abandoned apartment building that is as brutal and as realistic a fight as you’re ever going to see. Lorraine dishes out the pain but gets her own share of it as well and even though this is set up in many ways as a distaff Bond film, this feels more in tune with the real world. The soundtrack of mainly Euro-New Wave (heavy on the Depeche Mode, Nena and Siouxsie and the Banshees) will bring a smile to the face of anyone who was young during that era i.e. people my age.

The film, based on the graphic novel The Coldest City gets more convoluted as the film wears on but the pace is always frenetic and you’re never more than two or three minutes away from another breathtaking action scene. 2017 has been the year of the renaissance of action movies (and of horror movies as well but that’s for another review) and this one is right up there among the best of a year that brought us Baby Driver, Logan Lucky and The Hitman’s Bodyguard among others. That’s some fine company to be included in.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are stunning. The 80s soundtrack is perfectly matched to the action. Theron takes an unforgettable character and runs with it. As spy films go, this one is much more realistic.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot gets a bit convoluted and the ending is not unexpected.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and violence as well as some graphic sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Charlize Theron cracked two teeth during the course of filming the action sequences for this film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Verizon, Vudu, Xfinity, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knight and Day
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Shape of Water

The True Memoirs of an International Assassin


Kevin James, badass!

Kevin James, badass!

(2016) Action Comedy (Netflix) Kevin James, Andy Garcia, Zulay Henao, Kim Coates, Ron Rifkin, Maurice Compte, Rob Riggle, Leonard Earl Howze, Yul Vazquez, Andrew Howard, P.J. Byrne, Kelen Coleman, Jeff Chase, Katie Couric, G-Rod, Daniel Zacapa, Al Hamacher, Jordi Caballero, Lauren Shaw, Emilie Ullerup. Directed by Jeff Wadlow

 

Some things in life are less likely than others; Donald Trump having an extramarital affair, for example – with Rosie O’Donnell. Or PETA opening up a barbecue restaurant.

Right up there with those is Kevin James morphing into an action hero, although he has done a few action films in his time. The portly sitcom star is actually fairly fit for a man his size, but he certainly doesn’t fit the mold of a classic action hero.

Still, he has a very likable screen persona and plenty of charisma on both the big screen and small. He hasn’t always gotten great movies and good roles but he has always been a trooper and does his best even when the material is less than scintillating. Here he plays Sam Larson, a cubicle cowboy who dreams of being a bestselling author, but unlike most of us with such ambitions he’s actually doing something about it. He’s writing a James Bond-meets-Die Hard spy story in which the hero, Mason Carver a.k.a. The Ghost is his own alter ego. Sometimes when Sam gets stuck for inspiration, Mason Carver and the other characters in the scene stand around, twiddling their thumbs and waiting expectantly for direction – which may be a metaphor for what the actors in this film were doing.

His energetic and somewhat conniving E-Publisher (Coleman) thinks she’s got a winner on her hands when he submits the manuscript and promises not to change a word. In fact, she doesn’t – she adds one to the title though, changing The Memoirs of an International Assassin to The True Memoirs of an International Assassin and marketing it as biographical.

This infuriates not only Sam but his buddy Amos (Rifkin) who has been advising him on some of the finer points of international espionage and had urged him not to print certain aspects of Mason Carver’s exploits. During an interview with Katie Couric (herself) on Yahoo, Sam gets cold feet and runs out of the studio – and straight into the arms of kidnappers who turn out to be agents of El Toro (Garcia), a Venezuelan revolutionary. He wants the Venezuelan president (Coates) dead, and essentially tells Sam – who he believes is really The Ghost – that if the president isn’t murdered, Sam will be.

Of course, Sam gets arrested and brought before the President who also believes Sam is The Ghost – and urges him to kill drug kingpin Anton Masovich (Howard) who then kidnaps Sam and suggests he murders El Toro. Maybe Sam should just nuke Venezuela and be done with it, no? Well, that wouldn’t make for a very long movie so Sam, with the help of comely DEA agent Rosa Bolivar (Henao) he figures out a way to get out of this with his skin more or less intact but not everything here is on the up and up.

Incomprehensibly, this script ended up on the Black List of unproduced screenplays a couple of years ago, which leads me to believe that either this was extensively rewritten or the standards for quality of Black List screenplays has taken a serious hit. The plot is pretty pedestrian and has been done before and better in other films; in fact, this feels throughout like you’re watching a sitcom in which the Fonz plays an international spy. Or Ray Romano. Or Doug Heffernan (James’ character in King of Queens) for that matter.

The movie also suffers from really poor CGI throughout, from the explosion to the blood splatters. It all looks fake. To make matters worse, there are several running jokes – like various characters musing “Maybe he really is The Ghost” about Sam, or in the third act for some incomprehensible reason the filmmakers chose to pepper the soundtrack with Spanish language version of pop hits from the 70s, 80s and 90s. Once or twice is okay but it was a good five or six occasions. Brevity is the soul of wit; repetition doesn’t make a joke any funnier in general. Just sayin’.

Don’t get me wrong – there is some entertainment value here but it’s mainly due to James’ work. And let’s face it; compared to the Adam Sandler comedies that Netflix has released thus far, this is Mel Brooks-level work (and believe it or not, Sandler’s production company Happy Madison had nothing to do with this which was surprising to me considering how close Sandler and James are). Still, this is little more than a 90 minute time-killer that will have little more value than that to you. Me, I’d recommend that you wait for a movie that is more worthy of Mr. James’ talents.

REASONS TO GO: Kevin James is always engaging and likable.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a sitcom-like feel to this and some of the running jokes are pretty damn annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence and some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is a remake of the 1973 French action film Le Magnifique.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spy
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Passengers