Movie Review ~ The Killing of a Sacred Deer


The Facts
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Synopsis: A teenager’s attempts to bring a brilliant surgeon into his dysfunctional family takes an unexpected turn.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Barry Keoghan, Alicia Silverstone, Raffey Cassidy, Bill Camp

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  We’re moving into a busy time for movies and that means a packed screening schedule. On these plum-full days this part-time critic has to get creative with his multi-tasking if doesn’t want to go hungry between movies. That’s how I found myself unwrapping and justa bout to sink my teeth into a sandwich when Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer began. Lanthimos opens the film with a graphic (and real) shot of open heart surgery, his camera lovingly lingering on the organ coming back to life and pulsing with blood. It’s an arresting image and one that pretty much demands your attention, as does the rest of the movie. Clearly, my sandwich was going to have to wait.

Surgeon Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks) has it all.  A successful career, a beautiful house, a loving wife (Nicole Kidman, Stoker), and two children that haven’t yet met their trouble-making days.  He’s also taken a young boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk) under his wing for reasons not entirely clear as the movie begins.  All we can tell is that Murphy obviously feels paternal toward the boy, a boy that has a strange way about him.  Actually, everyone in Lanthimos’s parable on suburbia and privilege has a strange way about them.  Murphy and his wife play out some kinky fantasy with her lying prone on the bed as if under general anesthesia, their daughter (Raffey Cassidy, Tomorrowland) is on the cusp of womanhood and awkwardly makes her first steps into her femininity with Martin as her fellow traveler, and Murphy and his wife speak about family matters in public with little regard for privacy.  There’s a staid, robotic-like quality to the line delivery and it’s not unintentional in the slightest.

For the first half of the movie we’re just getting our feet wet with these people and trying to figure out why Martin’s actions feel so odd and what his game plan could be.  When it’s revealed why he’s getting so close to Murphy and his family the movie almost instantly gets a bit less interesting in plot but not necessarily in character.  Martin makes a proposition, an impossible request, to Murphy and the rest of the movie is about how Murphy chooses to respond.  One by one Murphy’s family members start to come down with a mysterious, near-supernatural illness that Martin seems to have control over…or is the other way around?  Lanthimos and his co-writer Efthymis Filippou leave audiences with little concrete answers and we’re never quite sure who the man (or woman) behind the curtain is.

While the plot tends towards the formulaic in its skeleton, it’s the sinews of muscle and tissue that the cast brings to this that make it one that has nagged at me almost daily since I saw it.  The movie can be seen as a twisted take on suburban perfection and personal responsibility or as an outright Fatal Attraction-like potboiler where no one is a winner by the time the credits roll.  Having worked with Lanthimos on his previous film (the equally mind-bending The Lobster), Farrell is aces as a flawed man asked to take action no father or husband should ever be tasked with and Kidman continues her streak of finding the deepest complexities in a seemingly straight-forward role.  Keoghan is a bundle of nerves and energy, presenting a character obviously on some sort of spectrum that feels just in his actions so has no fear of judgement.  That frees him to express himself openly and unfiltered, a refreshing presentation to be sure but unsettling all the same in our current climate of niceties above all else.  Alicia Silverstone (Clueless) has a brief but memorable scene as Martin’s mother, grieving the loss of her husband (whom Murphy operated on) and following her son’s lead on a plan to unite the two families in his twisted imagination.

As you’ve probably guessed, The Killing of a Sacred Deer isn’t easy viewing and the ending is sure to prove problematic.  Lanthimos doesn’t let anyone off easy and that includes the viewer.  Still, it’s a handsomely made, eerie film and even when you know where it’s headed it still has one or two twists to keep you alert.  Darker than The Lobster but just as interested in social norms and providing commentary on justice, The Killing of a Sacred Deer might not be the hunt you thought you’d be going on but it’s worth the journey.

Movie Review ~ Secret in Their Eyes

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A tight-knit team of rising investigators, along with their supervisor, is suddenly torn apart when they discover that one of their own teenage daughters has been brutally murdered.

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris, Alfred Molina, Joe Cole, Michael Kelly

Director: Billy Ray

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s always a funny thing to me when a well-respected foreign film gets remade for US audiences.  The US versions are frequently inferior, often lacking the risk taking afforded by films produced outside of the Hollywood system that’s more concerned with overall mass marketability than transferring the themes and ideas of its inspiration to American audiences.

So it’s no big shock that this North American remake of the South American thriller El Secreto de sus ojos doesn’t quite hit the same kind of riveting bullseye that propelled the original to be a surprise Best Foreign Film winner at the 2009 Academy Awards.  Based on a Spanish novel, the original film was a dark tale taking place in two different time periods with the same brutal murder the central focus of each.

Originally intended to feature Denzel Washington, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Julia Roberts when the remake took shape back in 2011, it would be another four years for Secret in their Eyes to finally see the light of day and by the time cameras were ready to roll Washington and Paltrow were out and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman were in.  In some ways, the extra time and casting shake-up might have helped the film overall because by putting some distance between the original and altering the structure of its trio of leads (not to mention changing the gender completely of one character) I felt the movie was able to stand on its own quite capably.

In present day 2015, Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) is a former cop now working in private security for a NY baseball team that’s been haunted by a murder investigation involving his former partner (Robets, August: Osage County) 13 years earlier.  Thinking he’s stumbled upon a fresh lead for the case long since considered closed, he returns to California in hopes that his ally in the justice system (Kidman, Stoker) will re-open the case based on the new evidence.

All three players reunite early on and though they’ve taken different paths in the ensuing years, the lasting effect of this case clearly still holds something over them.  Roberts’ only child was the murder victim, found in a dumpster next to a mosque under investigation by the counter-terrorist unit she and Ejiofor are assigned to. Kidman was the young District Attorney supervisor new to her job that quickly gets in over her head with her colleagues when she strays too close to slicing through some political red tape involving her boss (a smarmy Alfred Molina, Monsters University).

Writer/director Billy Ray (Oscar nominated for his script for Captain Phillips and a helluva long way from his first script, the lurid Color of Night from 1994) adds some interesting hints of police corruption, but then again the past storyline is set in 2002 when the country was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks and law enforcement officials were tasked with getting answers no matter the cost.  At first, I felt that complexity took away some of the forward momentum of the case but Ray manages to tie it together nicely.

This seems like a passion project for Roberts (her husband was the cinematographer) and to her credit she dives head first into the mix as a woman preoccupied by the death of her daughter, riding the fine line between wanting justice and wanting vengeance…something the film makes very clear are two different things.  One character describes Roberts as looking “a million years old” and without a stich of make-up on Roberts is far away from the glamorous beauty that graces magazine covers.  Yet it never feels false, like she’s trying to be something she doesn’t have somewhere deep inside.  Roberts has to go to some dark places and she’s never anything but totally convincing with her pursed lips and tightly wound demeanor.

Ejiofor and Kidman have a trickier road to travel, nimbly working with the overt hints at a brewing romance rekindled as they work together to piece together the clues that might lead them to a killer.  Ejiofor favors overzealous reactions that feel showy but gets grounded when opposite Kidman with whom he has intriguing chemistry.  Kidman has the grace and poise to pull off the character and perhaps more than anyone feels like a wholly changed person in the present day sequences.

Viewers are advised to pay close attention to the time shifts because they can be confusing.  The best advice I can offer is to keep your eye on Kidman’s hair which is long in the past and short in the present.  The movie doesn’t always make it clear when action is taking place and at my screening several people were confused at the timeline of events.

The Spanish film had a whopper of a sequence set in a soccer stadium that starts as an approaching aerial shot then journeying into the stands before following a breathless chase between officer and suspect.  Seemingly captured in one long shot (it’s likely impossible but I can’t tell where the cuts happen) it alone was Oscar worthy in its execution.  Changing the sport from soccer to baseball, the remake doesn’t even try to attempt to recreate this, but the edge-of-your-seat chase still gets the job done.

It’s a tough film for all the right reasons.  I won’t reveal if the real killer is ever identified or how it wraps itself up but I had forgotten some of the details of how the original film ended, leaving me to discover the fine finale all over again.  I still think remakes are ill-advised, but once in a while one slips through that’s able to capitalize on why its inspiration was worthy of a Hollywood effort.

The Silver Bullet ~ Secret in Their Eyes (2015)

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Synopsis: A tight-knit team of FBI investigators, along with their District Attorney supervisor, is suddenly torn apart when they discover that one of their own teenage daughters has been brutally murdered.

Release Date:  October 23, 2015

Thoughts: Before we talk about this American remake I want you to track down the Spanish language original.  Click here for more information.  Not only is it a damn fine example of a beautifully layered mystery that unfolds over several decades, it rightfully took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 2010.  I still remember the incredible (and now infamous) tracking shot that starts as an aerial view of a soccer stadium and seamlessly moves to a handheld chase sequence, implying everything was done in one spectacular take.

Anyway, I have some strange feelings about this US remake, mostly because I’m iffy on the casting.  Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) teams with Oscar winners Julia Roberts (August: Osage County) and Nicole Kidman (Stoker) for this and while that seems like a slam-dunk where star wattage is concerned, I’m nervous that the actors will overshadow the material.  Roberts (in a role originally written as male) gets put through the emotional ringer and it will be interesting to see how well she tackles it.  The film strangely hides the fact that Roberts and Kidman are really in the back-seat with Ejiofor driving the car…at least that’s how it is in the foreign original.  It seems like some changes have been made for the American-ized version and I’m hoping too much tinkering hasn’t been done…the original is gripping and near perfect in the way it unfolds.

Movie Review ~ Paddington (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young Peruvian bear travels to London in search of a home. Finding himself lost and alone at Paddington Station, he meets the kindly Brown family, who offer him a temporary haven

Stars: Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Jim Broadbent, Nicole Kidman, Ben Whishaw, Peter Capaldi, Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon

Director: Paul King

Rated: PG

Running Length: 94 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I wouldn’t hold it against you if you took one look at the above poster for Paddington and wanted to run for the exit – with it’s on the nose tagline and been-there-seen-that antics you may write off this big screen adaptation of Michael Bond’s beloved literary bear as a kids-only affair.  That would be a mistake.

My history with Paddington goes way back to a local theater company in Minnesota.  My first theatrical experience was seeing a stage production of Paddington at the Children’s Theater Company and ever since then I’ve had an overwhelming fondness for the bear from darkest Peru that arrives in London looking for a family that will take him in.  As lovable as that other popular children’s bear, Winnie-The-Pooh, but faced with bigger city adventures, Paddington was a true bear of the world.

As this is (surprisingly) Paddington’s big-screen debut, we’re treated to a streamlined origin story that shows how our hero moves from living the wilds of Peru with his aunt and uncle (Imelda Staunton, Maleficent, and Michael Gambon) to modern day London where he’s taken in by the Brown family.  When his arrival catches the eye of a sinister taxidermist (Nicole Kidman, Stoker), it’s up to Paddington and the Browns to outwit her and avoid getting stuffed.

Had Paddington been an American production, this whole set-up might have played like the also-ran story it is.  Under the helm of a British team, however, the movie is positively charming from its spirited performances to a colorfully gorgeous (not gaudy) production design.  Populated with richly strong primary colors that ground the movie in a kind of whimsical reality instead of the pure fantasy it actually is, there’s interesting detail around every corner.

Director Peter King keeps things moving at a brisk pace, never letting the 94 minutes feel slack.  True, that does mean some slight overuse of slapstick humor but it’s a good natured fun that’s well-mannered and veddy veddy British.

Though originally voiced by Colin Firth, the voice of Paddington comes courtesy of Ben Whishaw (Skyfall) and it’s easy to see why Firth and the filmmakers parted ways.  Firth’s voice was perhaps too mature for the impish bear and Whishaw gives him a youth that rings true.  Hugh Bonneville (The Monuments Men) and Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) are nicely paired as the head of the Brown family.  She’s a free spirit and he’s a button-ed down businessman overly protective of their two children which leads to a nice subplot about the Browns that blends nicely with Paddington’s tale.

Even saddled with a platinum bob that appears to have gone through several iterations during filmmaking, Kidman is razor sharp as the villainess of the picture.  Even when she’s popping up in slight films, Kidman keeps things interesting so while her role may veer to the “too scary for young kids” side (you decide if you want to explain taxidermy to your youngins) she’s a statuesque ice queen that’s nicely menacing.

A true unexpected delight, it’s a shame the film wasn’t released in its original Christmas slot to attract the kind of family crowds it deserves but it was quite a busy time for holiday releases.  The humor may not be crass enough to keep U.S. audiences used to fart jokes appeased but I was downright charmed by the movie.  It’s sweet, quite funny, and exceedingly well made…did I mention the visual effects deserve a round of applause?  Paddington has taken a long time to get from Peru to movie screens…and the journey was worth the wait.

The Silver Bullet ~ Before I Go To Sleep

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Synopsis: A woman wakes up every day, remembering nothing as a result of a traumatic accident in her past. One day, new terrifying truths emerge that force her to question everyone around her.

Release Date: September 12, 2014

Release Date: October 31, 2014

Thoughts: Were it not for co-star Colin Firth dropping out as the voice of the holiday release Paddington, Before I Go to Sleep would be the third movie the actor appeared in with Nicole Kidman in less than a year. After teaming on The Railway Man, Kidman (Stoker) and Firth (Magic in the Moonlight) are featured in this thriller adapted from a novel that feels like the female answer to Memento. As much as I love a good suspense film, too much of the preview hints at the twists and turns in store for audiences, never a good sign for a genre that benefits from genuine surprise. Still…even though she makes some strange choices in projects I can’t help but enjoy Kidman and no one does wide-eyed terror/confusion quite like she does.

The Silver Bullet ~ Paddington

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=olf4StiBnmY

Synopsis: PADDINGTON follows the comic misadventures of a young Peruvian bear with a passion for all things British, who travels to London in search of a home.

Release Date:  December 14, 2014

Thoughts: It seems a true miracle that it has taken so long for literature’s favorite bear to make his big screen debut. Arriving in 1958 and appearing in 20 books and several animated TV series, the bear from darkest Peru will be popping up for a Christmas-timed origin story. Voiced by Colin Firth (), I’m hoping that Paddington keeps its British sensibilities firmly in tact because that happens to be what has drawn me to the books over the years. I’d hate to see the polite bear of my youth be upended/updated to attract modern audiences. In addition to Firth, Nicole Kidman (Stoker), Hugh Bonneville (The Monuments Men), Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Julie Walters (Billy Elliot), and Jim Broadbent (Closed Circuit) will all be on hand to usher in Paddington’s first trip to the cinema.

The Silver Bullet ~ Grace of Monaco

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFYmYWa348c

Synopsis: The story of former Hollywood star Grace Kelly’s crisis of marriage and identity, during a political dispute between Monaco’s Prince Rainier III and France’s Charles De Gaulle, and a looming French invasion of Monaco in the early 1960s

Release Date:  TBA 2014

Thoughts: One of several high profile films that were originally scheduled for the busy final months of 2013 but bumped into a TBA status for 2014, Grace of Monaco was seemingly dealt a worse blow when its studio (The Weinstein Company) moved it off their schedule entirely.  Barely a day later we found out why…the film was set to open the prestigious 2014 Cannes Film Festival which could significantly alter where and when it will see a final release date.  Even so, the film sounds like it could be in trouble with director Oliver Dahan and studio head Harvey Weinstein battling over the final cut of the film.  Weinstein has long known to demand major trims to films under his umbrella and 22 minutes of Grace of Monaco are apparently on his chopping block.  Star Nicole Kidman (Stoker, Far & Away) looks radiant as Princess Grace but at this point the film looks to be headed to a similar fate as her best friend Naomi Watts’ biopic Diana which was pretty much tossed to the sharks by its studio. 

The Silver Bullet ~ Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

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Synopsis: With the 70s behind him, San Diego’s top rated newsman, Ron Burgundy, returns to take New York’s first 24-hour news channel by storm.

Release Date:  December 20, 2013

Thoughts: Well, the second trailer for the sequel to 2004’s Anchorman has arrived and, like the first preview, I’m left cold.  Though I know the first film has achieved a high position on the list of cult favorites over the years, I’ve never been a big fan of what’s essentially an overlong comedy routine from Will Ferrell and his gang.  Now I think all of these men are funny individually but I’ve yet to be swayed that as a group they’re the laugh riot they think they are.  I barely cracked a smile during this…and that doesn’t bode well for my enjoyment of the finished product.  I realize I’m in the minority here and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is poised to be a huge holiday box-office hit, but man-child humor has to work extra hard to get a laugh out of me and so far I’m unimpressed.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Far and Away

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young man leaves Ireland with his landlord’s daughter, dreaming of owning land at the big giveaway in 1893 Oklahoma.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Thomas Gibson, Robert Prosky, Barbara Babcock, Colm Meaney

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 140 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Though director Ron Howard was already a proven commodity in Hollywood by the time Far and Away rolled around in 1992, the filmmaker had yet to direct a true epic which most seasoned directors attempt at one point in their career.  Coming off another success with Backdraft, Howard (Splash, Parenthood, Gung Ho, The Paper) sidled up with two hot stars for a film intended to be sweeping and grandiose…the type of film that Hollywood didn’t make anymore.

The final product wasn’t received with the same vigor of old Hollywood epics like Gone With the Wind but it was a moderate success…fueled on by the star power at play and the audiences that were starved for an old-fashioned large scale romance (they’d only have to wait five years until Titanic came along though).

I vividly remember seeing Far and Away in the theaters in its opening weekend at a theater that was projecting it in 70mm…a high-resolution film that fits perfectly with a movie as ambitious as Far and Away.  Though many theaters are only able to show films in 35mm, several theaters in my town were showing it the way it was shot and meant to be seen…and it truly was an impressively immersive experience.  Howard and cinematographer Mikael Salomon (The Abyss) capture the time period with great attention to detail and provide the audience with awe-inspiring visuals of the climatic and treacherous final act detailing the Oklahoma Land Rush.

Though Cruise (Oblivion, Rock of Ages, Jack Reacher) and Kidman (Stoker) have the kind of chemistry that comes along once in a blue moon, there’s precious little true heat that develops during the lengthy running time.  Individually they deliver but it’s curious that so many of their scenes together fall a little flat.  Maybe it’s knowing that their marriage would eventually sour that doesn’t allow the audience to truly buy into what they create onscreen…or maybe it’s that the script from Howard and Bob Dolman doesn’t give them much to work with aside from a fairly standard set-up.

Kudos do go to Howard and his team for attempting to mount a project of this size and stature.  Thankfully avoiding becoming a rancid vanity project for the lead couple, the movie is far and away not the best work of anyone involved but still impresses with the skilled contributions behind the scenes.

Movie Review ~ Stoker

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After India’s father dies, her Uncle Charlie, who she never knew existed, comes to live with her and her unstable mother. She comes to suspect this mysterious, charming man has ulterior motives and becomes increasingly infatuated with him.

Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode, Dermot Mulroney, Jacki Weaver, Nicole Kidman

Director: Park Chan-wook

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s rather interesting that the American film debut of Korean director Park Chan-Wook (Oldboy) would be a film that’s so European in its composition.  On the other hand, Chan-Wook is known for his rich visuals that tie into a narrative structure so it could just have been his destiny to be matched up with the script for Stoker, a corker of a thriller that makes no apologies for favoring style over substance.

That’s not to say that Prison Break star Wentworth Miller’s script doesn’t have a lot going for it; the tale of a fractured family with several skeletons in its closet provides some nice opportunities for its cast to go the distance while gleefully coloring outside the lines of character development.  Still, stepping back from my initial reaction to the film I must admit that the overall plot developments do feel very mannered and ordinary.  There’s nothing in the story department that hasn’t been done before in any number of potboiler films concerning unknown relatives with hidden agendas.

What I keep going back to with fondness is the way the film has a devil-may-care attitude as it plays tricks with our perception of what’s really going on.  That’s mostly thanks to Chan-Wook’s constantly moving camera and his clever employment of old-hat film techniques like freeze frames and close-ups. From frame one its clear the movie is ready for action and maintains that level of awareness throughout.

A movie so heavy on technique would only be moderately interesting without an equally dynamic cast to use it on.  Wasikowska plays dour like the best of ‘em and here she’s a sour puss child mourning her deceased father and avoiding her chilly mother (Kidman) at all costs.  Though the preview implies Kidman’s character is a bit shadier, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that this lady is more nuanced than that.  Goode is a UK actor that doesn’t rely on his All American looks to sell his All American Uncle who shows up and moves in before his brother’s body is cold.  Oscar nominee Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) pops in for a curious cameo as a Stoker aunt, Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures) is a school acquaintance of Wasikowska, and Phyllis Somerville gets some solid (if brief) mileage as a sage housekeeper.

Soon, Wasikowska and Goode are finding a familial bond exists between them like Wasikowska had with her father…something that begins to drive a wedge further between mother and daughter.  Kidman is rarely without a glass of wine in her hand or glaze over her eyes and I was reminded of the mother in Lolita…so clueless as to what was happening around her.  It’s too late to go back once some truths are finally revealed and more than a few bodies start to pile up around the estate house where the movie runs its course.

The way I see it, Stoker could have gone one of two ways: it could have been an overheated gothic melodrama or a simmering fever dream of excess.  Thankfully it’s the latter and fans of stylishly made thrillers should get a kick out of Stoker’s richly weird performances that balance nicely with its cruel violence.  I can see where the film may be too stylized for some, but give this one strong consideration if you respond well to confidently made films.