Movie Review ~ The Good Liar


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Career con artist Roy Courtnay can hardly believe his luck when he meets well-to-do widow Betty McLeish online. As Betty opens her home and life to him, Roy is surprised to find himself caring about her, turning what should be a cut-and-dry swindle into the most treacherous tightrope walk of his life.

Stars: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter, Mark Lewis Jones, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson

Director: Bill Condon

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  When you know you’re in good hands, it’s easy to settle back in your seat at a movie theater.  That’s why looking over the cast and crew of The Good Liar the other day I was able to get comfortable early on because I just had an inkling this would be one I didn’t have to fret much over.  Two iconic actors starring in a movie for a Oscar-winning director based on an international bestselling thriller adapted by a MN-connected screenwriter I quite like – you are speaking my cinematic language with perfect pronunciation.  Add in my general craving for something sophisticated and, y’know, adult and I was primed for a sly con movie that would have the usual twists and turns that came with the genre.

Now I’ve seen the trailer for The Good Liar several times over the past few months and more than a few key moments have been shown already so I’d advise you not to take another look before seeing this or avert your eyes if it comes on the telly before you get to the theater.  What’s nice to report is that, for once, the marketing team has elected to omit a key piece of the puzzle and that’s what makes The Good Liar such a fine treat to receive in the middle of a shaky November at the movies.  Instead of telegraphing what audiences should expect to see, they’ve left it for you to find out if you choose to venture into this adaptation of Nicholas Searle’s acclaimed debut novel from 2016.  If you do, you’ll be in for a fine ride featuring excellent performances in a movie that comes with crisp edges and is cool to the touch.

After meeting on a dating website for seniors, Ray (Ian McKellen, All Is True) and Betty (Helen Mirren, Woman in Gold) hit it off right away at their first dinner and strike up a friendship.  She’s looking for companionship after losing her husband the year before and he’s looking for…something different.  Well, not at first.  At first he seems genuinely a little interested in her as a potential love interest, but once he finds out Betty is sitting on a hefty nest egg, he moves in for the con and brings along his partner (Jim Carter, Downton Abbey) with plans to swindle his new friend.  As Ray and Betty’s friendship deepens, so does his ability to charm her and it’s to the script’s great credit that it doesn’t immediately turn Ray into an obvious money-hungry sociopath that Betty should be able to see right through.

That’s not the extent of Ray’s criminal dealings though, as he’s also involved with another scheme involving businessmen investing in a fake real estate corporation.  Opting to lay low until that blows over, he moves in with Betty, under the disapproving eye of her increasingly suspicious grandson (Russell Tovey, Muppets Most Wanted) who knows something is off about Ray but can’t put his finger on exactly what.  Driving a sly wedge between grandmother and grandson, Ray starts to separate Betty from her resources of safety until he’s practically all she has to rely on.  As Ray grows closer to Betty and gains her trust, his plan starts to come together…but when the time comes will he be able to go through with it and wipe her bank account clean?   Will his feelings get the best of him?  Or is there another player in the game that no one is yet aware of?

The answers to all these questions and more are laid out cleanly in the graceful screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher (Mr. Holmes) which is generous to both Mirren and McKellen in the way it allows them to play each scene without rushing.  The same goes for director Bill Condon (Beauty and the Beast) who takes his time setting the film up in its first hour as we are introduced to Ray’s duality as a slick (and surprisingly nasty) crook one moment and a fragile aged elder leaning on Betty’s compassion in another.  There’s a tendency to let the victim of these stories look like a of fool for not seeing through this ruse but you get the sense in Mirren’s performance she knows Ray’s not always telling the whole truth but also that she has maybe emerged from a marriage where certain things went unsaid as well.

The final act of The Good Liar contains a few satisfyingly head-turning game changers and I didn’t see all of them coming…at least not the exact direction they were coming from.  You may have an inkling what corner the movie is about to go around but with Hatcher keeping Searle’s secrets so well he easily throws you off the scent, and that’s where the movie becomes less of a thriller and more of a cat and mouse drama that Mirren and McKellen revel in.  Both are playing against their perceived type here, he less as the warm-hearted gentlemen he appears to be and she far removed from the ballsy dame we know she is.  That’s fun to watch and seems like it was fun for them to perform.

If there’s one thing I’d change about The Good Liar is that it didn’t need to be quite so hard of a film.  Certain elements I’d agree have to play out against a backdrop of vicious crimes for specific plot tricks to work but there are parts of the movie that take place in strip clubs for no real purpose and key scenes of brutality that feel out of place.  While it contributes some element of surprise, it didn’t feel like an overall value add to the story Condon and company set out to tell.  Thankfully, any inclination to turn a pivotal moment into a bloody mess was avoided and the film as a whole retained its level of maturity when it very well could have sold its soul for cheap shock value.

There are certain actors some people would pay to hear read the telephone book and I honestly don’t think I’d be happy just watching Mirren or McKellen be stationary going through the alphabet.  What they’ve shown in The Good Liar is that they’re keen on taking on roles that require them to take action and get their hands dirty, not remain sedentary and stodgy.  Using their bodies as well as their trained voices, they’re actors that are fascinating to watch teamed in a project that holds your attention with ease.  If only more movies were made with this amount of class, patience, and trust in the audience.

Movie Review ~ Alpha


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After a hunting expedition during the Upper Paleolithic period goes awry, a young man struggles against the elements to find his way home, all the while developing a friendship with a gray wolf. This forges the tentative first bond between man and canine.

Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Leonor Varela, Natassia Malthe, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Priya Rajaratnam, Mercedes de la Zerda, Jens Hultén

Director: Albert Hughes

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Release dates are tricky things when it comes to movies. Studios look at a calendar and date films for release hoping that no other similar flicks lock in the same/near date to avoid major competition.  Place your movie on the wrong date and what was supposed to be a financial hit turns into a movie that appears at your local Redbox that much faster. Alpha has been through several release dates, pushing the film back almost an entire year from its originally intended 2017 debut.

Usually, a fluctuating release date spells trouble for the film, as the studio doesn’t know how to market it or has little faith in it but in the case of Alpha I can see why timing was everything for it to see the light of day. It’s not really a summer blockbuster or an end of the year awards contender, and its price tag would suggest that it wasn’t one that could just be dumped into theaters with little fanfare. So Sony has decided to set Alpha free at the tail end of the summer when most of the big dogs have come and gone and hope for some scraps from audience members. A late-breaking controversy in the past few weeks from PETA regarding some questionable animal handling hasn’t helped the film and that’s a shame because Alpha is a surprisingly moving bit of filmmaking with breathtaking scenery and its heart squarely in the right place.

The first thing you should know, and which trailers have played incredibly coy about, is the entirety of the dialogue in Alpha is spoken in an ancient language and subtitled in English, translating the words spoken by a primitive tribe in Europe over 20,000 years ago. It would have been much easier for director Albert Hughes and screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt to nudge this into familiar territory and have everyone speak in English with a vague British accent but everyone goes full out here and the result gives the film its first dose of authenticity. It also could alienate families bringing in young children on the premise this is going to be a routine boy and his dog tale…it’s anything but.

Alpha is first and foremost a tale of survival against the elements, an intense journey of self-discovery for a boy just becoming a man. The son of a chief, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee, X-Men: Apocalypse) is a sensitive soul that struggles with taking the steps toward adulthood that are expected of him. His father (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Atomic Blonde) wants to protect his only son but e recognizes he must educate him as well. Taking his son on their seasonal bison hunt hundreds of miles away from their home, he hopes to teach him the ways of his ancestors and give him greater strength. When an accident separates Keda from his tribe, he is forced to grow up fast as he fights the elemtents (both natural and animal) to make his way home. Along the way he befriends a gray wolf and develops a bond that will set the stage for future generations.

There’s nothing monumentally deep to the story that Alpha seeks to tell and the film reminded on more than one occasion of the type of adventure film Disney might have released in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Attempts to somehow tie the tale to the “origin of man’s best friend” aren’t as successful because the movie isn’t solely about that connection. It’s Keda’s story through and through and though Alpha (the name he gives the dog) becomes an important piece of that tale it’s ultimately about an internal maturity that develops within the boy as he treks across land and rapidly changing seasons to reunite with his family.

What pushes the film into recommended territory is the filmmaking and performances. Hughes and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (Goodnight Mommy) go for an epic scale and the achievements are breathtaking. I saw the film in IMAX 3D and Alpha makes one of the strongest cases in recent memory to shell out the extra money for this premium experience. The vistas are rendered through a mix of CGI and natural scenery from locations in British Columbia and the unobtrusive 3D provides a wonderful depth that actually enhances the visuals ten-fold.

Smit-McPhee has had numerous successes on screen in his ten year career but this is a definite high point. Tasked with carrying much of the movie along with his canine co-star (also a mix of CGI and real dog), Smit-McPhee doesn’t say much throughout the film but conveys much emotion with his physicality. As the film progresses and the expedition gets more difficult, the young actor helps to relate the desperation and doubt his character begins to feel as more and more roadblocks emerge to prevent his safe arrival. As Keda’s father, Jóhannesson gives great emotional weight to a role that could just as easily have been a staid macho Neanderthal.

Chances are Alpha is going to get lost in the hustle and bustle of these waning summer weeks. If it’s showing in your neck of the woods in IMAX, in 3D, or better yet in IMAX 3D I’d strongly encourage you making the effort to see it. My advice would be to leave young kids at home but anyone older than 11 would be a good companion for this one – it’s worth your time.

Movie Review ~ Atomic Blonde


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An undercover MI6 agent is sent to Berlin during the Cold War to investigate the murder of a fellow agent and recover a missing list of double agents.

Stars: Charlize Theron, James McAvoy, John Goodman, Til Schweiger, Eddie Marsan, Sofia Boutella, Toby Jones, Attila Árpa, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson

Director: David Leitch

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Pity the fool that crosses MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton and pity any audience member that second guesses the Oscar winner that plays her.  Producer and star Charlize Theron (Prometheus) has fashioned a whopper of a role for herself and assembled a crack team of players to go along for the arse-kicking adrenaline-fueled ride.  Even if Atomic Blonde doesn’t necessarily turn the Cold War spy thriller on its head, it sure gives it a helluva decent set of stylish somersaults.

Based on The Coldest City, a 2012 graphic novel written by Anthony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart, Atomic Blonde is set in November 1989 during the days leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall.  This is no history lesson, though, as is pointed out at the beginning of the pretzel-like plot in the center of the action film.  A MI6 agent stationed in Germany has been tasked with retrieving a watch with a list of double agents that could out several spies.  When he’s killed in action, his old flame/colleague (Theron) is been sent behind enemy lines to finish the job and find a double agent plaguing the agency.

Lorraine is barely out of the airport before she’s battling KGB agents aiming to take her out, sparring with a MI6 superior (James McAvoy, Split) who may be harboring rogue notions, and rendezvous-ing with a French beauty (Sofia Boutella, The Mummy) with secrets of her own.  All is not what is seems, however, as the twists start to come fast and furious during the final half of the picture.  Told in flashback by a battered and bruised Lorraine to two high-ranking officials (Toby Jones, Muppets Most Wanted and John Goodman, Patriots Day), Kurt Johnstad’s screenplay sometimes zigs when it should zag but overall it packs the requisite punch.

Speaking of punches…whoa.  Theron’s action sequences are of the intensely old-school rock ‘em and sock ‘em variety and they are downright thrilling.  Early toussels in a car winding through a tunnel, an apartment complex, and a stylishly cinematic brawl staged in a, well, a cinema are mere appetizing morsels for the extended battle royale grand feast.  Following Lorraine as she attempts to keep a key witness alive, director David Leitch (John Wick) makes the rumble in the East Berlin jungle  look like it was shot in one long take by cleverly disguising his cuts.  It’s not a showcase only for the filmmaker, though, as Theron smashingly bashes her way through a bunch of hapless goons down staircases and through abandoned rooms to a pulsing soundtrack of mid to late ‘80s classics.  Taking her licking, she keeps on ticking and gets believably shell-shocked, bloodied, and winded along the way.  Theron trained intensely for this role and it shows with every punch landed and every powerful kick to the chest she delivers, so much so that it’s hard to see when her stunt double steps in.

Were Theron not a producer of Atomic Blonde, I may have questioned some of the more risqué elements to the film as a product of some male ADHD fantasy featuring women in low cut blouses, high cut lingerie, or nothing at all.  However, it doesn’t feel wholly exploitative but likely in line with the source material and period setting…but on the other hand a little Theron on Boutella action has an sizable erotic charge in even its most chaste moments.

While we’re on the subject, poor Boutella is in her second summer film of 2017 that fails to capitalize on her engaging appeal.  After her mummy character played second banana to Tom Cruise in June she ends July without getting much to do but bed Theron and provide some necessary expository dialogue.  I kept waiting for her to pop in to help Theron out but, alas, the only one that seems to show up is McAvoy and his over-the-top shenanigans.

In films such as these where it’s essential for key plot points to be manipulated throughout so the twists, when revealed, have a greater “gotcha” vibe there never seems to be a satisfying resolution.  Thankfully, though Atomic Blonde has two endings too many the one it does close up shop on is a solid rounding off of any rough edges that remained.  A prequel graphic novel was released in 2016 so should this one detonate positively with audiences, it’s possible we’ll see Theron back in action in no time.  I’d welcome the return sooner rather than later.