Chronically Metropolitan


Writing and hangovers go hand in hand.

(2016) Dramedy (Paladin) Shiloh Fernandez, Ashley Benson, Addison Timlin, Josh Peck, Chris Noth, Mary-Louise Parker, Chris Lowell, Sosie Bacon, Nasser Faris, Norm Golden, Rhys Coiro, Max Curnin, Craig Newman, Luca Surguladze, Whitney Vance, Al Thompson, Victor Cruz, Andres Arellano, Antoinette Kalaj, Alex Oliver, Meredith Travers, Ana Valdes. Directed by Xavier Manrique

 

Writers are an odd lot. We have wonderful powers of observation, very often able to discern truths about those we observe that they might not expect. We are also self-centered; writing is by its nature a solitary endeavor. All of us, every one, is ruled by the tyranny of the blank page.

Fenton (Fernandez) is the son of one such writer and professor who has been a leading light in the New York City literary world and a fixture on the Upper East Side. When Fenton’s dad (Noth) is involved in a car accident in which drugs and extramarital sex played a role, his whole family is put under an enormous microscope – the accident winds up front page material in the New York Post (“They never paid this much attention when I won my National Book Award” he grouses).

Fenton had been living in San Francisco the past year. A talented writer in his own right, he had gotten a story published in The New Yorker which his then-girlfriend Jessie (Benson) had assumed was about her and her family. It led to a nasty break-up and to Fenton’s exile, as he puts it. Now he’s back, trying to mend fences with Jessie who is on the eve of her wedding to Victor (Lowell), an art gallery owner whose family is stupid rich. Fenton’s dad assumes that’s why the nuptials are impending.

Fenton’s mom (Parker) has retreated into a marijuana-scented haze trying to dull the edges of her pain and embarrassment. His sister Layla (Addison Timlin) is basically angry at everybody and carrying on a hidden relationship with Fenton’s best buddy (and mom’s pot supplier) John (Peck). Fenton has a deal for a novel based on the success of his New Yorker story but when he sits down to write it that blank page stares back at him accusingly. He hasn’t been able to move on from all the upheaval and with his parents essentially on the verge of divorce, he is getting overwhelmed and acting out. Can he put his life back together under the microscope of New York literary society?

This is the kind of movie that plays to the prejudices of non-New Yorkers, characterizing them as pretentious self-centered spoiled rich pricks. Everyone in the movie and I do mean everyone has some sort of neuroses going on. As for actual New Yorkers, this is the kind of movie that sets their teeth on edge. Certainly there are people who behave this way – those prejudices had to start from somewhere – but it isn’t really true to life anymore.

For one thing, a story in the New Yorker isn’t going to have the catastrophic effect on families that it once did. In this day and age of social media, a family’s skeletons are likely to be aired on Facebook long before the dirty laundry is made into a short story or a novel. Regards to the New Yorker, a publication that is worthy of respect but while it continues to carry a lot of clout, I don’t think that it can cause that kind of personal chaos any longer. At least, that’s what I hear.

This feels like a movie cobbled together from a lot of different movies; Fenton wanting to stop the wedding of an ex-girlfriend, a family at each other’s throats due to a work of fiction that is thinly veiled autobiography, a philandering father who is a writer, a mother who is self-medicating, an angry sibling – I could go on but why bother? This is all fairly safe, fairly familiar territory and most of you who have watched more than a few indie films set in Manhattan are going to recognize it.

Noth channels Rip Torn here and does a fairly stellar job in a role of an utter S.O.B. which Torn used to essentially own. Noth, who generally plays nice guys, does an admirable job here. Parker, a terrific actress who doesn’t get nearly as much credit as she deserves, is wasted in a generic role. In fact, most of the women here have very little depth to their parts. This is certainly a case where the script could have used a woman’s touch.

Cinematographer Scott Miller does a bang-up job of using the city as a character; one gets the sense of the ebb and flow of New York. Despite the shallowness of most of the characters, one senses a genuine love for the city from all of the filmmakers. That does go a long way.

Sadly this is far too generic and far too cliché to really attract much notice. There are some good ideas here but for the most part the writing takes safe, established routes rather than blazing new trails. There’s nothing here that seems to have much of a voice – and that’s essential to a film like this. It’s okay as far as it goes, but I would have liked a lot more than okay.

REASONS TO GO: The film is skillfully shot and features New York City nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Indie clichés abound here.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of drug and alcohol use and some sex and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Parker, whose character here has developed a marijuana habit, also played a pot smoker in the TV series Weeds.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Landline

The Exception


Christopher Plummer is resplendent as Kaiser Wilhelm II

(2016) Historical Drama (A24) Jai Courtney, Lily James, Christopher Plummer, Janet McTeer, Ben Daniels, Mark Dexter, Kris Cuppens, Eddie Marsan, Anton Lesser, Aubeline Barbieux, Lois van Wijk, Stephanie Auberghen, Martin Swabey, Lucas Tavernier, Kurt Standaert, Martin Savage, Karen Leclercq, Frederik Lebeer, Stephanie Van Vyve, Daisy Bouliton, Verona Verbakel. Directed by David Leveaux

As the First World War drew to a close, it became painfully obvious to the German people and to those in power that their Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II had failed them as a wartime ruler and he was quietly forced to abdicate and fled the country for a life in rural Holland in a place called Huize Doorn. There he remained in exile for the remainder of his life, surrounded by a few loyal former military men, Dutch servants and his devoted second wife Hermine.

It is 1940 and the Second World War is in full swing. Germany is ruled now by the Nazi party and their military victories have been startling in their speed and ferocity. The former Kaiser (Plummer) keeps abreast of these with keen interest, expressing admiration for Hitler although not for the party. The Nazis get wind that there is a British spy operating in the area so they dispatch Captain Stefan Brandt (Courtney) to take command of the Kaiser’s personal guard.

He is assisted by Dietrich (Dexter), an SS officer who informs Brandt that transmissions had been intercepted by the SS and that all they needed to pin down the location of the transmissions was a truck able to triangulate the signal and pin down its location. He assures Brandt that one is on the way.

Brandt – who was wounded in the invasion of Poland – is something of a ladies’ man and his eye falls on the comely made Mieke (James). The two begin a torrid affair which is forbidden; discovery could get Lily fired and Brandt sent back to combat duty. Both of them are what you’d call damaged goods with horrors in their past; not exactly an easy place to build a relationship from.

When the announcement that Nazi bigwig Heinrich Himmler (Marsan) will be visiting, the entire household is in a tizzy. Hermine is certain that this means her husband will be summoned back to Berlin to take his rightful place in a restored monarchy (delusion can be beautiful in its own way). The Kaiser believes it too – but Himmler has other plans.

As the search for the spy begins to close the noose, Brandt begins to suspect that Mieke might be involved. He will have to choose between his love for her and his duty to his country. Given what his country has become that might not be a very hard choice at all.

This is a fictionalized account of the Kaiser in his final year of life and pretty much the history that it gets right is that there was a man named Wilhelm who was once Kaiser of Germany. Most of the rest is fiction so if you’re going to this movie thinking you’re going to get a history lesson, think again. The saving grace here is that Plummer inhabits the role so well, capturing Wilhelm’s ego and Prussian love for pomp but also the decent fellow that lay just beneath although most accounts of the Kaiser don’t reveal a whole lot of regard for anyone other than himself. Plummer however is just so magnetic that you can’t help but enjoy the performance even knowing it’s a bit of a sham.

Courtney has much of the burden for the film as he’s really the centerpiece (the title refers to him rather than the Kaiser) and that’s maybe not such a good thing. There are some things that Courtney does really well – he was one of the bright spots of Suicide Squad I thought – but this really isn’t the type of role that’s in his comfort zone and you can tell because his performance is far from assured. Part of the issue is that Courtney doesn’t really excel at expressing emotion non-verbally and we don’t get a sense of the struggle going on within the character; we just see him get into a situation where he’s having sex with a beautiful woman and we just assume it blossoms into love but the process is never apparent so when it comes time for him to choose between love and country we never get a sense that it is a struggle for him.

It also must be said that Courtney is far too buff for his role. We see him naked quite a bit and unfortunately Courtney had just finished filming Suicide Squad when he started up with this and he still had an action hero’s body which really doesn’t jive with a German officer’s body during World War II. There wasn’t a lot of pumping iron going on at that time.

There are some other things as well. The dialogue is occasionally clunky and even some of these seasoned performers deliver it like “this isn’t how people talk; how the hell am I supposed to say this?” is bouncing around their brain pan. The movie looks a bit stage-y in places which isn’t surprising since Leveaux has a Broadway background. Be assured though that the pluses outnumber the minuses by a comfortable margin. Plummer alone should be reason enough to make a point of seeing this. And quite frankly, the ending has a kind of grace to it that is all too rare in motion pictures. I won’t give you much detail on that score other than to say the ending does elevate the film.

 

So this is a strong recommend. It’s still playing in a few cities here and there (Orlando is one of them as of this writing) but if it isn’t anywhere near you or it’s been and gone, do check it out on VOD (Amazon Prime subscribers can see it for free). This isn’t going to be one of the best movies of the year but it’s better than the majority have been and will be – even if it is as fake as a three-dollar bill.

REASONS TO GO: Christopher Plummer is on a hot streak. The final scene is a nice touch.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, some nudity and plenty of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the filming took place at the Kaiser’s actual home at Huize Doorn.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Anthropoid
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Commune

A United Kingdom


A royal embrace.

(2016) True Life Drama (Fox Searchlight) David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton, Laura Carmichael, Terry Pheto, Jessica Oyelowo, Vusi Kunene, Nicholas Lyndhurst, Arnold Oceng, Anastasia Hille, Charlotte Hope, Theo Landey, Abena Ayivor, Jack Lowden, Zackary Momoh, Nicholas Rowe, Billy Boyle, Kevin Hand, Raymond Burnet, Sofia Fisher. Directed by Amma Assante

 

We often use fairy tales as a means of fantasizing about how our lives could be better; we could marry royalty, for example. However unless one is already of royal blood, that doesn’t often happen in the real world. It does, however, sometimes actually happen.

Ruth Williams (Pike) is a typist in the post-war London of 1947. While the city is still rebuilding after the Blitz, there is a sense of optimism that things are going to get better. Still, there isn’t a whole lot of things to do. Her sister Muriel (Carmichael) invites her to a dance given by the Missionary Society she belongs to and Ruth, a little bit reluctant at first, knows that at least she’ll get an opportunity to dance which is one of her favorite pastimes.

Also at this dance is Seretse Khama (Oyelowo) who is in the last months of studying for his law degree. He is from the tiny British protectorate of Bechuanaland (the present-day Botswana). He has a liking for jazz and like Ruth, he loves to dance. The two bond over these likes and Ruth’s charm as she apologizes for the British musicians’ watered down version of swing.

The two fall deeply in love and within a year Seretse knows she is The One. But it is 1947 and interracial marriages while not strictly illegal Just Aren’t Done. That Ruth is marrying a black man causes her father to refuse to speak to her for many years. There is another added twist however; Seretse is the King of Bechuanaland whose Uncle Tshekedi (Kunene) has been ruling there as regent while Seretse went to England to learn how to improve his poverty-stricken country. It is traditional that he must marry someone from his tribe who will act as Mother to the people, supervising their spiritual well-being. Tshekedi is certain that the tribe will never accept a white ruler particularly since the British treat them with at best condescension or at worst with outright contempt.

The couple doesn’t only have opposition from the inside. The protectorate is bordered by Rhodesia on one side and South Africa on another at a time when South Africa is implementing their apartheid policy. England needs the resources from their wartime ally to remain competitive in the Cold War – much of their Uranium comes from South Africa – so they are especially sensitive to that country’s complaints.

As Great Britain rules the territory, they forbid the union. When Ruth and Seretse defy them, Seretse is exiled from his homeland. While Ruth is pregnant she is alone in a country where she is not particularly loved and does not speak the language, Seretse whips up international indignation and condemnation against Britain’s heartless move. Will he be able to rule the country he loves or give up the woman he loves in order to do that?

This comes to us from Assante who previously directed the critically acclaimed Belle. She doesn’t have quite the touch she exhibited there this time; the movie overall comes off a little bit flat, although I must confess that Da Queen liked it a lot more than I did. That doesn’t mean I think this is a terrible movie however; let’s just say she thinks it’s a great movie and I think it’s a really good one.

First and foremost you have to start with the performances of Oyelowo (I’m referring to David here as there are two Oyelowos in the movie; his real life wife Jessica plays the snarky wife of one of the snarky British diplomats) and Pike. The two are two of the best actors in the UK at the moment and Oyelowo, who was denied an Oscar nomination that he should have gotten for Selma, is dominant here as Seretse. He is regal and smart like the real Seretse Khama, carrying himself with dignity and poise throughout a trying ordeal. Pike also has that working class aspect of her, a bright sunny English rose who is beautiful and far stronger than she seems. The one problem that I had is that the relationship between the two doesn’t feel real to me, at least not authentic.

Botswana has a distinct beauty to it, the kind that is easy to love but hard to endure. Cinematographer Sam McCurdy captures that nicely, giving us raw vistas and compelling close-ups. We also get a sense of Colonial Africa particularly in how the British treat the native culture with thorough disdain. While I’m sure that there were British colonists who loved the country equally and respected the culture that had been established there, none of them make an appearance in this movie.

Seretse Khama and his wife Ruth are both revered in Botswana today (their eldest son is President of that country as of this writing). Their story is less known outside of their home country or even in Ruth’s home country these days. It’s a good thing that their story is being told and the importance of their stand for justice – and for love – is clear. Perhaps this isn’t the movie they deserve but it’s a good one nonetheless

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Oyelowo and Pike are exemplary. The exterior shots of Botswana are truly lovely.
REASONS TO STAY: I might have wished for a little less Hollywood and a little more Botswana. The love story feels a bit more pedestrian than it should have been.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity including some racial slurs and a scene of sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The home that is used as the house that Ruth and Seretse live in is the one they actually lived in; also the hospital where Ruth actually gave birth is used for filming the birth scene here.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Crown
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Ottoman Lieutenant

Snowden


Edward Snowden in the military.

Edward Snowden in the military.

(2016) Biographical Drama (Open Road) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zachary Quinto, Melissa Leo, Shailene Woodley, Nicolas Cage, Rhys Ifans, Joely Richardson, Tom Wilkinson, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Ben Chaplin, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, Nicholas Rowe, Bhasker Patel, Patrick Joseph Bymes, Christy Meyer, Robert Firth, Edward Snowden. Directed by Oliver Stone

 

Edward Snowden remains one of the most controversial figures of our time. There are those who label him a hero while others loathe him as a traitor. He polarizes opinion like nobody else and there are those on both sides of the political aisle that would like to see him answer for his crimes of revealing the NSA’s program of secret surveillance of the American people.

The movie has had a bit of a checkered history; it has been delayed at least twice, once to complete some of the special effects and the other to avoid competition from the major blockbusters. Once the film was released, it got almost zero support from its distributor and came and went from the theaters with little fanfare. Did it deserve that kind of fate?

Edward Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) is an idealistic young man whose ideals are somewhat conservative. He joins the military, wanting to serve his country but a badly broken leg puts an end to his military service. Instead, he’s recruited by the CIA to write code and serve his country in a different way. His mentor at the CIA, Corbin O’Brien (Ifans) takes a healthy interest in the young man’s career.

He also meets Lindsay Mills (Woodley), a free-spirited college student who supports herself through exotic dancing. The unlikely couple form a close bond and soon have a budding relationship, even though she’s as liberal as they come and he’s a staunch rock-ribbed conservative. He ends up writing programs that help root out terrorists and keep America safe.

Then, as he switches to the more lucrative consulting position at the NSA, he begins to discover some disturbing things. For example, the phone surveillance program he wrote is now targeting everybody and is gathering so much data the NSA has to build huge facilities to store it all. So despite having a beautiful home in Hawaii, a lucrative job and a bright future, he decides to blow the whistle on all this patently illegal material.

He sets up a meet with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras (Leo) and journalist Glenn Greenwald (Quinto) in Hong Kong. He is clearly paranoid, expecting to be grabbed by NSA agents or the local police at any moment. But once Poitras and Greenwald have a chance to examine the documents, they realize they have the story of the century on their hands. It is just a matter of convincing their editors to allow them to tell it.

How you’re going to receive this film is going to depend an awful lot on how you view Edward Snowden. If you see him as a vile traitor giving state secrets to the media, then you’ll hate this movie. If you think he’s a heroic whistleblower who tried to put the brakes on what was clearly a morally heinous policy, you’re more likely to like this movie. Know going in that Stone is clearly in the latter camp and really doesn’t offer any sort of alternative viewpoint. It seemed to me that most reviews followed the political line; conservative movie critics tended to give it lower scores, more liberal critics higher ones.

So I’m trying to be as objective as I can, but it is difficult to filter out one’s own precepts. Gordon-Levitt I think does a very credible job as Snowden, capturing the cadences of his speech nicely although in a much deeper register than the real Snowden speaks in. Snowden is in many ways not the most charismatic of men so it’s hard to fault Gordon-Levitt for being a bit dry here, but he does seem to capture Snowden’s essential personality.

The rest of the cast is pretty strong – Ifans is virtually unrecognizable – but a lot of the big names are in for what are essentially cameos. Most of the film revolves around Snowden, Lindsey and the journalists. Basically, that’s enough to keep my interest.

I can understand some questioning that the movie makes Snowden to be something of a saint. I don’t think he is and I don’t think that he himself is above questioning by the filmmaker. Poitras, whose documentary on the events here CITIZENFOUR won an Oscar, painted a much more balanced picture of Snowden and in the process, made him more relatable. The Snowden here is a little bit less so because of that and I think it does the film a disservice to go that route.

There are some pretty good moments throughout the movie – Snowden’s initial meeting with the journalists, the events of his smuggling the data out of the NSA facility (a conjectural scene since Snowden has yet to and probably never will reveal how he actually did it) and the end scene when Snowden speaks to the TED conference via satellite – and Gordon-Levitt morphs into the real Edward Snowden, who gets the last word in the film fittingly enough.

It’s a well-made film – you would imagine Stone would at least produce that – but it’s more than just that. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on the state of things, whether the price of security is too high or whether liberty trumps that price. We’ve got a lot to think about as a society, much to demand from our leaders. Snowden reminds us that sometimes, doing the right thing isn’t doing the right thing.

REASONS TO GO: Gordon-Levitt really captures the cadences of Snowden’s speech. It has the taut atmosphere of a spy thriller.
REASONS TO STAY: The film lacks any counter-argument to make it seem more fair-minded.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gordon-Levitt’s second straight film based on an Oscar-winning documentary; the first was The Walk which was the dramatic account of the documentary Man on Wire.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: CITIZENFOUR
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

Child 44


You've got to admire that old Soviet fashion sense.

You’ve got to admire that old Soviet fashion sense.

(2015) Mystery (Summit) Tom Hardy, Joel Kinnaman, Noomi Rapace, Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, Paddy Considine, Fares Fares, Vincent Cassel, Agnieszka Grochowska, Mark Lewis Jones, Petr Vanek, Jana Strykova, Ursina Lardi, Michael Nardone, Lottie Steer, Zdenek Barinka, Ned Dennehy, Finbar Lynch, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Sam Spruell, Tara Fitzgerald, Lorraine Ashbourne. Directed by Daniel Espinosa

I wonder sometimes if the current American regime misses the Soviet Union. After all, they gave us someone to hate and an ideology to deride. Then again, I suppose that ISIS has given that to us as well.

But in the bad old days there was Stalin and the Russians but despite everything they couldn’t have been worse for us than they were for the Russians themselves. The country was rebuilding after suffering horribly during the Second World War but after having Hitler’s troops knocking on their doorstep they had somehow managed to push them all the way back to Berlin. Orphan Leo Demidov (Hardy) had distinguished himself during the war, taking the Reichstag and planting the Soviet flag, becoming a national hero in the process. Boyhood friends Alexei (Fares), a wild but loyal man, and Vasili (Kinnaman), a vicious coward, had been at his side (and in Vasili’s case, slightly behind him).

These days, instead of chasing the German army Leo is chasing Soviet traitors for the MGB along with Alexei and Vasili. Their latest case, a veterinarian named Brodsky (Clarke) had resulted in Vasili shooting a mother and a father who had harbored the fugitive before Leo stopped him and humiliated him in front of the men. This makes Leo Vasili’s sworn enemy, one who will plot and scheme Leo’s downfall.

But things are already in motion. For one, Alexei’s child is found dead by the railroad tracks. It is officially ruled an accident but Alexei knows better – he knows his child was murdered. However since Stalin declared that murder was a Western capitalist affliction, it wasn’t possible for murder to occur in the Soviet Union. “There are no murders in paradise” goes the refrain (and it is repeated more than once, usually ironically). When Alexei questions the official ruling, he runs afoul of the authorities who quickly force him to recant. Leo is in fact the one who warns his friend what is happening.

Leo should be watching his own back. His wife Raisa (Rapace), a schoolteacher, has been getting restless in her marriage to the driven Leo and has been having an affair. However, Vasili makes a case against Raisa for being a traitor because the man she is seeing, a fellow schoolteacher, seems to have non-communist (or at least non-Stalinist) sympathies. When Leo refuses to denounce Raisa, he is punished by being sent to a backwater town under the command of General Nesterov (Oldman), himself in disfavor with the current Soviet regime. Normally Leo would have been executed but being a hero of the Soviet Union has its perks.

But there have been a series of child deaths in the vicinity, all with similar wounds to what Alexei’s son had suffered. Leo realizes that there is a serial killer in their midst. And since murder doesn’t exist in the Soviet Union (much less serial killers), the official position is that these deaths are all accidents. However Leo realizes that in order to protect the children of the district he will have to risk everything – including his own life – to bring the killer to justice. In the meantime, Vasili, who sees the perfect opportunity to take Leo out permanently, is closing in.

I expected this to be not very good, given that it got almost no push from the studio and received pretty miserable reviews but this is one of those times I got to be pleasantly surprised. The setting of the old Soviet Union filmed mostly in the Czech Republic – the Russia of Putin found the movie to be insulting to their history and promptly banned it – is unusual for Hollywood thrillers. The depiction here is of a drab and paranoid world in which the only colors seem to be grey and red and the only way to survive is to assume that everyone is out to get you which it seems is pretty much the case.

Hardy has become one of my favorite actors at the moment. Poised to be Hollywood A-list royalty (and will probably achieve that status with Mad Max: Fury Road later this month) he is on a role in which he seems to be incapable of delivering an uninteresting performance. His Leo is like a pit bull in many ways, but an honorable one – he doesn’t attack indiscriminately but only to those who in his view deserve it, such as traitors to his motherland. He chooses not to question the corruption that is in plain sight all around him, merely accepting it as part of the Way Things Are and when he becomes a victim of it chooses not to complain but simply adapt.

The rest of the supporting cast is for the most part solid; Rapace seems oddly subdued but still remains a very underrated actress, one who underlines how few really well-written roles for women there are out there. She makes the best of a fairly undefined character. Oldman is also another one of those actors who seems to always elevate the part he’s in whether it’s well-written or not.

While based on an actual case, this fictionalized movie comes across as a fairly predictable thriller despite being based on an international best seller which was reportedly anything but (I haven’t read it as of yet). It is the first of a trio of novels and no doubt Summit was hoping for a franchise here initially but given that the movie has been given little push and has been a box office disappointment, the other two are unlikely to be filmed.

But that doesn’t mean this isn’t worth seeing. Now largely out of first release theaters with the first blockbusters of the summer season taking the lion’s share of screens, you can still catch it in second run theaters and likely soon on VOD. It’s actually a pretty interesting film and a well-made thriller worth taking the time to seek out. It isn’t perfect but I found it to be entertaining enough to overcome its flaws.

REASONS TO GO: Hardy continues to be a reason to go see a movie all by himself. Captures the paranoia and political infighting of Stalinist Soviet Russia.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit too rote in terms of plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, a few disturbing images, adult themes, some foul language and a scene involving sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The novel the movie is based on was inspired by the hunt for the real serial killer Andrei Chikatilo which was chronicled in the excellent HBO movie Citizen X.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Citizen X
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Misery Loves Comedy

The 13th Warrior


No puss, no boots.

No puss, no boots.

(1999) Adventure (Touchstone) Antonio Banderas, Diane Venora, Omar Sharif, Vladimir Kulich, Clive Russell, Richard Bremmer, Dennis Storhoi, Daniel Southern, Neil Maffin, John Desantis, Mischa Hausserman, Asbjorn Riis, Tony Curran, Albie Woodington, Erick Avari, Sven Wolter, Anders T. Andersen, Bjorn Ole Pedersen, Sven-Ole Thorsen, Maria Bonnevie, Kaaren de Zilva, Layla Alizada. Directed by John McTiernan

The late Michael Crichton’s books have had an uneven history on the screen, ranging from the classic (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain) to the mediocre (Sphere, The Terminal Man) to the downright awful (Congo).

The 13th Warrior, directed by John McTiernan and based on Crichton’s Eaters of the Dead, isn’t a classic. But the movie, which tanked at the box office when it was released in 1999, is a surprisingly good adventure flick and well worth some viewing time.

Ahmed Ibn Fahdlan (Banderas) is a poet living in 12th Century Baghdad who runs afoul of the local caliph when he has an eye-to-eye dalliance with another man’s wife. For his indiscretion, the impetuous Ahmed is sentenced to be ambassador to the barbarous Norsemen. Accompanied by his old friend Melchisidek (Sharif), he arrives in the encampment of the Norse king – just in time to witness the old king’s funeral.

The brooding new king Buliwyf (Kulich) accepts the new emissary into his camp albeit begrudgingly. However, all is upset by the arrival of a courier who brings a call for help from a neighboring king whose people are being slaughtered by mysterious, seemingly demonic killers. Buliwyf consults a seer, who tells him that only 13 warriors must go. Quickly, 13 strapping warriors, led by their king, volunteer for the quest; but the seer admonishes that the 13th warrior must not be from the Northlands.

So, Ahmed is volunteered. Along the way to the embattled kingdom, Ahmed goes from being the butt of the band’s jokes to being a respected member of the cadre; he even manages to learn their language by a means that is delivered to the screen in a particularly imaginative way.

Once they arrive at the beset city, they are confronted by seemingly bear-like creatures who turn out to be a tribe of men – bear cultists. The heroic band of fighters bond amongst themselves, fight their implacable foes and the political intrigue of the kingdom they have traveled to, and sow courage, sacrifice and honor – qualities rarely seen in the movies these days.

The scenery here is gorgeous; the mists and shadows of the North make for compelling cinematography. The acting is solid; the Vikings are hearty and likable much in the way they are stereotyped in our culture. Banderas’ Ahmed is cultured and debonair, but is also brave and lethal. He is referred to by his mates as “little brother” and he is indeed brother to the honest and open Norse. His strength isn’t just in his muscles but in his heart, which his commander recognizes is the place where strength counts the most.

Banderas, post-Zorro, was looking to settle into an action hero role but the movie’s box office failure scuttled that career for him essentially – while he has continued to do action roles off and on since then, he’s tended to do more dramas and romantic comedies than anything else which was a bit of a shame – I thought he had great potential to help revitalize the moribund action hero role. Sharif made a rare but welcome appearance in the film – it’s a crime that Hollywood never really utilized this marvelous and charismatic actor more often after the 60s.

The 13th Warrior is a throwback film in many ways. It honors virtues that moviegoers since the antihero days of the 1970s have tended to disdain. We look for our heroes to be flawed so we can relate to them, rather than role models who inspire us to be something better. Ahmed is the kind of hero worth aspiring to – not to mention a rare portrayal of an Arabic character that is positive and strong. Now that’s something I’m all for.

WHY RENT THIS: Throwback adventure film. Nice sets and costumes. Omar Sharif.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat muddled in places. Sluggish and slow-paced.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of battle scene carnage, and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: During test screenings of the film, the scores were so low that the film was deemed unwatchable; Crichton took over directing reshoots which nearly doubled the budget and delayed the movie by more than a year.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $61.7M on a $160M production budget.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Planes

The Tempest (2010)


The Tempest

Helen Mirren is one hot Prospera.

(2010) Fantasy (Miramax) Helen Mirren, Russell Brand, Reeve Carney, Felicity Jones, Ben Whishaw, David Strathairn, Djimon Honsou, Chris Cooper, Tom Conti, Alan Cumming, Alfred Molina, Jude Akuwudike, David Scott Klein, Bryan Webster, Kevin Cannon. Directed by Julie Taymor

 

William Shakespeare was a man who understood human nature perhaps better than any writer in history; certainly he understood his own and it isn’t far-fetched to theorize that when he wrote his play, The Tempest, he was fully aware that it would be his last and accordingly, gave himself leave to discourse on our own mortality which he did in a way that was beautiful and neither grim nor morbid. Visually acute director Julie Taymor has stated that it is the most visually beautiful of Shakespeare’s plays and she would certainly know – she has already directed a filmed version of Titus Andronicus (as Titus with Anthony Hopkins in the title role).

Prospera (Mirren), once the Grand Duchess of Milan, has been exiled to a barren Mediterranean island along with Miranda (Jones), her daughter. The machinations of her wicked brother Antonio (Cooper) are what landed her there; he longed for her political power and wealth. However while on the island Prospera has amassed power of a different sort – magical and so when King Alonso of Naples (Strathairn) – complicit in Antonio’s usurping of her position and subsequent placing in a raft to die – returns from the wedding of his daughter with Antonio along, she uses the opportunity to summon a great storm that wrecks their ship. The passengers of the vessel are washed onto the rocky shores of the island, separated by the magicks of Prospera and her fairy servant Ariel (Whishaw), whom she previously had rescued from a tree where he’d been imprisoned by the evil witch Sycorax who died long before Prospera’s arrival.

King Alonso, along with Antonio and Antonio’s co-conspirator Sebastian (Cumming) and Prospera’s former advisor (and Alonso’s current one) Gonzalo (Conti) find themselves beset by evil visions brought upon them by Ariel at Prospera’s command; drunkards Trinculo (Brand) and Stephano (Molina) have discovered the island’s sole other inhabitant, the horribly deformed Caliban (Honsou) who had been enslaved by Prospera after he attempted to rape Miranda years earlier; the three plot Prospera’s downfall and assassination while partaking of much liquid courage.

Finally there is Ferdinand (Carney), Alonso’s son who has fallen for Miranda and vice versa, a union Prospera is not opposed to. The three groups will make their way to Prospera’s home and laboratory where Prospera will be faced with an awful choice upon which the fate of most of the castaways hangs upon.

Taymor is one of the most visually innovative directors working today; her images in Across the Universe are nothing short of spectacular. She works her magic here as well, showing Prospera dissolving into a flock of crows, or Ariel morphing into a variety of forms, or Prospera’s Escher-esque home. The visuals are often beautiful and dazzling, sometimes changing the night sky into alchemic equations that spin around the actors like locusts.

The cast is impressive but none more so than Mirren. An Oscar winner and along with Meryl Streep perhaps the most respected film actress of the 21st century to date, Mirren infuses Prospera with wistfulness, rage, motherly concern ad political savvy. The casting of a woman in the role completely changes the dynamic of the relationship between Prospera/Prospero and Miranda from father/daughter to mother/daughter and as we all know, those relationships are a different kettle of fish entirely. Whishaw plays the ethereal Ariel as androgynous and otherworldly; it is a scene-stealing performance that often ends up as the visual center for Taymor’s imagination.

Strathairn and Cooper are magnificent actors, both Oscar-nominated and in Cooper’s case, an Oscar winner. Strathairn has done Shakespeare before onscreen (A Midsummer’s Night Dream) and both capture the essence of their characters nicely. Brand shows little affinity for Shakespeare, reciting his lines as if he is performing a stand-up routine. Honsou as well carries Caliban’s rage and torment to fruition, although he occasionally goes over the top.

“Over the top” often describes the visuals that Taymor inserts into the film. Some are wonder-inspiring but after awhile I found myself somewhat inured to them; some of the most beautiful dialogue in history is here in this play – “We are such stuff that dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded by sleep” being one of my favorite lines of dialogue ever spoken in any play, ever – and yet these exemplars of language take a back-seat to special effects. Taymor may as well have set the movie on Tatooine and been done with it.

However, the prose of Shakespeare is ultimately what makes this movie worthwhile. That and some of the fine performances using those words. Usually I’m all good with special effects eye candy but here it detracts more than it creates wonder and that is where the film has its greatest failing; Taymor fails to trust Shakespeare to carry the movie on its own merits. If you can’t trust the greatest playwright in history, who can you trust?

WHY RENT THIS: Some wonderful eye candy. Mirren, Cooper, Whishaw and Strathairn are tremendous actors and show why here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many visuals and not enough substance; after awhile the effects distract from Shakespeare’s beautiful prose.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a little bit of nudity, some scary content and images and a little bit of sexual innuendo.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The part of Prospero was originally written by Shakespeare to be a man. Taymor encountered Mirren at a party and the conversation turned to Shakespeare; Mirren mentioned that she had previously played Caliban in a stage version of the play and thought she might like to do Prospero as a woman. Taymor, who was thinking along the same lines, told Mirren so and the two essentially cemented Mirren’s participation right then and there.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is some rehearsal footage (one focusing on Russell Brand alone) as well as a music video of “O Mistress Mine” which runs over the closing credits.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $346,594 on a $20M production budget; the movie was a financial flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:Mongol