Movie Review ~ Beckett

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Following a tragic car accident in Greece, Beckett, an American tourist, finds himself at the center of a dangerous political conspiracy and on the run for his life.

Stars: John David Washington, Alicia Vikander, Vicky Krieps, Boyd Holbrook, Lena Kitsopoulou, Maria Votti, Daphne Alexander, Panos Koronis

Director: Ferdinando Cito Filomarino

Rated: NR

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  The first movie I saw in theaters after the pandemic started was Tenet, the highly anticipated Christopher Nolan film that kept getting bounced around the schedule at Warner Brothers.  Nolan was determined to release it and theaters were desperate to show it to attract audiences back so they could continue to operate.  After much delay, the film was released in September 2020 to moderate reviews and even more moderate business.  Considering Nolan’s stature, his track record with blockbusters, and the hype leading up to the movie, this was an eye-opening gut-punch to the film industry that movie-going was not going to bounce back like they thought it would.  We all know how things went after that.  Theaters closed again and would open and re-open sporadically for the next several months until a vaccination was in place (Side note: get vaccinated) and some stability could be regulated.  During that time, Tenet was all but forgotten.

You know what?  It sort of should have been.  It wasn’t that great and represented a filmmaker not reaching further than he should have but deliberately going to places that alienated audiences.  For what?  Purposely misdirecting, employing a horrible sound technique, and careening through a serpentine plot that required several large whiteboards to map out, the film was a mess and audiences told Nolan and the studio so with their attendance at the film.  That robbed stars John David Washington and Elizabeth Debicki, both poised to break big with Tenet, from reaching that high level and while both will bounce back nicely (Debicki is playing Princess Diana in the upcoming season of The Crown) you can blame Nolan for that delay.

Watching the Netflix action film Beckett, I was struck by how much it was exactly the kind of breathless, twist-filled experience I wanted Tenet to be.  An international mystery starring Washington and a cadre of interesting actors both familiar and not, it was willing to take risks but not blow off the audience in doing so.  It might be frighteningly pedestrian at times (some of the reveals of the villainous “twists” are so obvious from the start the actors might as well be wearing a sign around their neck saying Bad Person) but the thrills it drums up are real and the situations it puts our central character in have the authenticity that lead you to believe it could happen to you as well if you didn’t play your cards right. 

In the film written by Kevin A. Rice and director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, Washington (Malcolm & Marie) plays the titular character, who has arrived in Greece with his girlfriend April (Alicia Vikander, Tomb Raider).  When a political upheaval near their hotel gets too unruly, they retreat to the country for a few days to let things simmer down and that’s where a tragic car accident leaves Beckett alone and eventually on the run for his life when he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Seeing something he shouldn’t have but doesn’t understand, he’s pursued by a horde of unrelenting hunters who will stop at nothing to keep him silent. 

The simple set-up leaves Filomarino a wide berth to stage a number of impressively tense sequences as Washington narrowly evades being caught and takes drastic measures to extricate himself from the situation.  When it becomes clear that no one in authority is trustworthy, he decides to put trust only in himself and the people his gut tells him to follow, including an activist (Vicky Krieps, The Phantom Thread) whose own cause might just have a crossover with the danger Beckett is hoping to escape from. 

Impressively filmed, edited, and performed, I liked this one all the way through to its closing credit sequence.  Obviously made for a more big screen exhibition, Filomarino fills each frame of Beckett with a gorgeous shot of Greece, even though much of the movie isn’t exactly a thumbs up for Greek tourism.  Destined to be but a blip on rising-star Washington’s acting career, I hope more people discover this one as the winter months are approaching and well-constructed action films like Beckett become harder to find in theaters.

Movie Review ~ Old

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A family on a tropical holiday discovers that the secluded beach where they are staying is somehow causing them to age rapidly, reducing their entire lives into a single day.

Stars: Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Ken Leung, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Abbey Lee, Aaron Pierre, Kathleen Chalfant, Alexa Swinton, Nolan River, Kylie Begley, Embeth Davidtz, Eliza Scanlen, Alex Wolff, Emun Elliott, Thomasin McKenzie

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Looking back over the director credits for M. Night Shyamalan, I’m wondering if we weren’t the ones that ultimately set him on his shaky trajectory in the late 2000’s after the cool reception that greeted 2004’s The Village.  Yes, I know viewers still bristle at the mere mention of Shyamalan’s sixth feature film and first to break his major winning streak of uniformly positive reception from critics and audiences alike.  The “big twist” everyone had come to expect felt like something overly orchestrated by a director wanting to be appreciated for rug pulling than for what came before and after and ticket-buyers weren’t having it. 

This led to a downward spiral for the Oscar-nominee who broke so big with The Sixth Sense in 1999 and his two follow-ups after The Village, The Lady in the Water in 2006 and The Happening in 2008, were dull flop-a-roos.  Several more disasters would be released and a so-so TV series on FOX would come before Shyamalan would bounce back quite nicely with 2015’s The Visit with Split coming out just a year later in 2016.  Nicely tying into 2000’s Unbreakable, he used Split’s success to complete a trilogy with Glass in 2019 and parlayed that film’s moderate success into a new deal with Universal for two additional films he would direct. (This is above and beyond Servant, the creepy under the radar half-hour series that’s been renewed for a third season on AppleTV+). 

The first film to meet that new deal is Old and, surprisingly, it’s not based on one of Shyamalan’s original ideas.  Instead, it’s inspired by Sandcastle, a graphic novel by Swiss artists Pierre Oscar Levy and Frederik Peeters.  Given to him as a gift by his daughters, Shyamalan responded to the illustrated tome’s themes Levy and Peeters dabble into when they weren’t revealing how a secluded beach in paradise becomes a nightmare for a group of vacationing tourists.  Reviewing what types of family-based stories Shyamalan has been compelled to tell in the past, it’s not hard to see why he felt a kinship with the creators of Sandcastle or why he thought he’d like to bring those ideas to life on screen.  For a while, Old even feels like something new.  Then…some tired tricks resurface.

Arriving with their two children at a luxe resort in an unnamed tropical utopia (the movie was filmed in the Dominican Republic), Prisca (Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) and Guy (Gael García Bernal, Coco) are hoping for one last relaxing vacation before reality sets in.  Already planning to separate before the trip was set into motion, life-changing medical news has arrived for one of them which suggests this might be the final time the four of them can spend together as a family.  At least they are truly being waited on hand and foot, thanks to Prisca stumbling on the hotel on the internet and getting a great deal for the week.  The kindly hotel manager suggests a day trip to a private beach that is sure to impress and the foursome, wanting to kick back, swim, and sun, only need to be pointed in the right direction.

Dropped off at the beach by their driver (Shyamalan, popping up in his usual cameo) along with a doctor (Rufus Sewell, Judy), his trophy wife (Abbey Lee, The Neon Demon), their 6-year-old daughter, and his mother, they make the short walk to the beach through a towering rock wall, and it is indeed the private haven the manager promised it would be.  There is already someone there though, a famous artist (Aaron Pierre) Prisca’s daughter instantly recognizes and who soon becomes the first clue that something isn’t quite right at the beach.  Before we know more, a third couple (Nikki Amuka-Bird and Ken Leung) shows up and our beach party seems to be complete.  Then…the first dead body is found.

In the interest of your own enjoyment of Old, I’ll leave the rest to your imagination and say that up until that point, Shyamalan had done a solid job of carefully gathering a bunch of strings together he could ably pull taught.  Though featuring a lot of stock characters (the doctor is a controlling bore, the trophy wife is a looks obsessed snob), he’s cast the film with enough interesting actors that you are curious to see where their beach journey to The Twilight Zone will lead them.  Even the first few developments where they figure out something supernatural (or otherwise) is taking control over them and preventing them from leaving, Shyamalan maintains a great deal of tension while we fret right alongside the characters in true peril.

It’s only when we start to get long gaps in between events do you see how flimsy the structure of the piece actually is, how repetitive the attempts to leave are, and how helpless the characters act when they could be taking fuller charge of the situation.  The worst thing about it is that up until this point, many of these people were portrayed as independently minded, intelligent beings but somehow once they get a little sand in their swimsuit, they don’t put up much of a defense when challenged.  That’s why nearly the entire midsection of the film is simply a series of false starts and fake outs, never gaining any momentum until the end when secrets are revealed, giving the story more of its purpose and creating a renewed interest in what’s been happening.

To his credit, I think Shyamalan is going for exactly the movie Old is.  He wanted these pauses when families could talk about growing older and reflecting on watching parents age as their children experience life that has begun to move at a rapid pace all around us.  It’s an odd construct for a horror film of this nature and doesn’t always feel in harmony with everything else going on but…I do see where he’s coming from.  Perhaps part of the problem I had with it all is that I never believed Krieps and Bernal had breathed the same air for more than two hours before we first see them, much less been married for over a decade.  There’s just no chemistry there so attempts to create dramatic sequences for the two of them don’t have anywhere to go.  The most successful couple in the film is probably Amuka-Bird (The Personal History of David Copperfield) and Leung (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) who manage to create some kind of connection in the little amount of downtime they are afforded.  I also have to say that while Lee has to play some silly scenes in the first half of the film, Shyamalan certainly gives her a few memorable bits in the latter sections.

I wouldn’t recommend you keep your distance from Old because as jumbled up as the middle section gets, the bookends do manage to redeem it on pure curiosity alone.  You can’t help but be drawn into the world Shyamalan has created and that’s a gift he’s always maintained.  He’s the type of writer/director that easily ensnares you into the theater with an intriguing story, only to leave you slightly disappointed the tale isn’t quite as he originally described it.  He thinks it’s better than what he promised.  You wish it were better than what you got.  That’s nothing new. 

Movie Review ~ The Girl in the Spider’s Web

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Young computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist find themselves caught in a web of spies, cybercriminals and corrupt government officials.

Stars: Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, Lakeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Cameron Britton, Stephen Merchant, Claes Bang, Christopher Convery, Synnøve Macody Lund, Vicky Krieps

Director: Fede Alvarez

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: When 2011’s U.S. remake of the 2009 Swedish phenomenon The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo failed to bring in the kind of audience Columbia Pictures and MGM was hoping for, the two planned sequels were put on an indefinite hold.  What a pity.  Though the remake had its share of detractors, it was a compelling mystery and expertly made film that took its time to explore the characters and wasn’t afraid to wallow in some dark material.  Director David Fincher is a master at what he does and the look and feel of the movie, not to mention the fantastic performances from Rooney Mara (who received an Oscar nom for her work) and Daniel Craig, has helped to keep the film a singular experience.

Deciding to skip the two direct sequels and start over with a new novel released in 2015 brought a challenge. With Fincher, Craig, and Mara all released from their contracts and on to different projects, when the time came to bring the franchise back to life for The Girl in the Spider’s Web the studio had to go back to the drawing board and find a new director and star.  Bringing on rising director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) and hiring Claire Foy (Breathe) as the titular character were impressive gambles that don’t completely pay off.  The resulting film works fine as a standard thriller if you didn’t have any previous knowledge of the characters but as a continuation of what Fincher started back in 2011 (and what really began with the original film trilogy in 2009) it misses the mark by a longshot.

It’s been three years since the events of The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander has become a not-so-secret vigilante of sorts in Stockholm, coming to the aid of women wronged by men.  The opening of the film (spoiled, like much of the movie, by trailers that have given away far too many key plot points) finds Salander giving a wife beater a bit of sweet vengeance.  Foy plays the exchange like she’s buying carpet for her rec room at IKEA, it’s fine to be emotionally removed from these abusers but her monotone delivery suggests boredom rather than detachment.

Salander’s ally Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) hasn’t seen her since her wrote an exposé centered on her family.  Though his editor and sometime lover Erika (a sadly underused Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) urges him to move on, he can’t forget the troubled girl. Much like Fincher’s film, Alvarez keeps Lisbeth and Mikael apart for a good half of the film but unlike the previous entry when they do share screen time there’s next to no spark between the two.  That’s partly because the dynamic in this movie feels like it’s shifted and Mikael is now more of a second banana to Lisbeth’s main character.

When Lisbeth is asked to retrieve a computer program that becomes a threat to the national security of America and Sweden, she’s thrown into a conspiracy that will bring her back to painful memories (and people) of her childhood.  If you’ve read the book The Girl in the Spider’s Web is based off of, be prepared for major changes.  For fun, after the screening I read the plot synopsis of the novel and was amazed at the liberties screenwriters Alvarez, Jay Basu, and Steven Knight took with David Lagercrantz’s original text, rendering it almost wholly new.  For what it’s worth, the novel sounded far more muddled and complicated, something that wouldn’t have translated easily to the screen.

That leaves Alvarez to cut his own course with the material, leaving out the connective tissue that helped make The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo such an intriguing mystery.  There’s no real thought process from anyone in the movie, they either just “know” the answer to a perplexing puzzle or whatever methods they use to figure things out happen offscreen.  One example is a character in the U.S. who is trying to locate a hacker by tracing their location.  The location is narrowed down to Stockholm, at which time the character grabs his coat and runs directly to the airport…because Stockholm is so specific. Part of what makes these kind of films fun is playing detective alongside our lead characters but here we are so far removed that it’s like someone is reading us a story instead of inviting us to follow along.

The screenwriters also make a giant leap in turning Lisbeth into more of a superhero than a heroine.  She takes a licking and keeps on ticking, bouncing back from explosions and beatings needing little to no recovery time.  One moment Lisbeth has been drugged and the next she’s snorted some crushed opioids and is driving a car in pursuit of cybercriminals.  She also has a curious knack for knowing the right way out of dead end.

I’ve enjoyed Foy in her films so far in 2018.  She was great in the paranoid thriller Unsane and good in October’s First Man.  Here she’s merely OK and it’s mostly due to her being miscast as an edgy character lacking bite.  Mara and her Swedish counterpart Noomi Rapace played Lisbeth as damaged goods, alternately withdrawn and feral which led to her being unpredictable.  Foy isn’t afforded much in the way of surprise so we’re just tagging along for what is largely an unremarkable ride for the actress.

As a jumpy NSA agent on Salander’s trail, Lakeith Stanfield is even more of an enigma.  There’s no backstory to his character by way of an introduction nor do we get any blanks filled in along the way.  We get a sense he’s good at his job but how spectacular can he be if he’s constantly bested by Salander and the thugs on her trail?  By the time he’s somehow called on to be an expert marksman in an admittedly nicely constructed action scene, I sort of stopped asking questions.

The best performance in the whole film is Sylvia Hoeks as a ice blonde specter from Lisbeth’s past.  Dressed head to toe in red and never speaking above a child-like purr, she’s intimidating without even raising a finger.  It does veer toward campy Bond villainess at times (the whole film feels like a gender-bending Bond romp, actually) but Hoeks knows exactly what film she’s in and sinks her teeth into every bit of scenery she can get her hands on.  Much like she did with her unsettling character in Blade Runner 2049, she becomes the focal point of any scene she’s in.

Alvarez shows off some style in his eye for imaginative camera angles with the help of cinematographer Pedro Luque (Don’t Breathe) and slightly macabre visuals but he is far more restrained than he was in previous films.  Aside from one rather ghastly sight of a man missing a key piece of his face it’s relatively tame.  I appreciated that he included a brief title sequence, nicely echoing the unforgettable pulse-pounding nightmare credit sequence of the first film.  The music by Roque Baños (In the Heart of the Sea) helps to set the mood, even if that mood too often requires Baños to veer into action movie histrionics.

I’m not sure what the impetus was for the studios to revive this franchise again in 2018 (were they about to lose the rights?) but they’ve given us another chapter in the Dragon Tattoo collection that doesn’t even feel like it’s in the same universe as what’s come before.  The characters deserve better, the actors deserve better, we deserve better.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Synopsis: Young computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist find themselves caught in a web of spies, cybercriminals and corrupt government officials.

Release Date: November 9, 2018

Thoughts: Though 2011’s American remake of the Swedish sensation The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was well received by critics (earning an Oscar nomination for star Rooney Mara in the process), it didn’t do the kind of box office numbers that inspired Sony Pictures to keep the franchise going.  When a continuation of the original trilogy of novels was released, the interest in resurrecting the computer hacker heroine grew which is why we’re now getting an all-new take on Lisbeth Salander in The Girl in the Spider’s Web.  With Claire Foy (Breathe) taking over for Mara and Fede Alvaraz (Don’t Breathe) assuming directing duties from David Fincher, this first look suggests the same dark vibe as the previous entry.  Foy looks to have morphed nicely into the rough and tumble Salander and I’m excited for Blade Runner 2049 breakout Sylvia Hoeks to be featured briefly in this teaser. 

Movie Review ~ Phantom Thread


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set in 1950’s London, Reynolds Woodcock is a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by a young, strong-willed woman, Alma, who becomes his muse and lover.

Stars: Daniel Day-Lewis, Lesley Manville, Vicky Krieps

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review: I have to say, for a few years there I was worried that Paul Thomas Anderson and I were going to have to part ways. The director of the stellar Boogie Nights, Magnolia, and There Will Be Blood had released the frustrating puzzlement that was The Master and then capped it all off with the dreadfully gauche Inherent Vice. Our relationship was on the rocks, no question. When it was announced that PTA was reuniting again with Oscar-winner Daniel Day-Lewis for an untitled tale set in the world of 1950’s fashion, I gotta say I was pretty intrigued.

Then, the worry set in. Oh no, another too serious contemplation on life that cine-snobs would drool over like the last slice of chocolate cake and the rest of us would scratch our heads at. PTA had taken filmgoers to some great places over his career but I didn’t get much out of the last two rides. Then the stakes were raised even higher when Day-Lewis (Lincoln) indicated Phantom Thread would be his last onscreen performance and he would retire from acting. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a movie. Not only does it have to be a nice bell for Day-Lewis to ring on his way out the door but it has to also hold up to the scrutiny of critics left wanting from PTA’s last efforts.

Almost immediately, my initial fears faded as Phantom Thread unspooled.

The House of Woodcock is a renowned couture house in London’s posh fashion district. With his intricate designs and supernatural attention to detail, Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) has created a life and thriving business for himself and his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville, Maleficent) who runs the business side of things. A ‘confirmed bachelor’, Reynolds is a complicated man that has remained unchallenged for most of his adult life. Occasionally haunted by the ghost of his adored mother (literally and figuratively), he sees lasting female companionship as less important than finding inspiration in the fleeting beauty of the women that enter his place of business.

Still, there are women in his life and as the film opens his latest live-in lover/muse has come to the end of her tenure and is silently dispatched by Cyril while Reynolds enjoys a weekend getaway. It’s in the restaurant of a seaside village that he meets Alma (Vicky Krieps), a ruddy-faced lass that captivates him the moment she shows up to take his order. Acting on impulse, he invites her to dinner and, eventually, into his life. Alma’s arrival into The House of Woodcock creates a ripple effect that threatens to upset the balance of power between brother and sister as well as artist and muse.

In typical PTA fashion, an unspoken darkness begins to envelop the picture as it goes along and we’re never quite sure where these characters are going to end up. Following Alma as she acclimates to her new role as a kept woman who pushes the boundaries of her power, we’re treated to an inside view of the inner-workings of a high fashion house and their celebrity clientele. Royalty get the red carpet treatment from the House of Woodcock and, in an amusing episode, an aging boozy bride to be (Harriet Sansom Harris) pays a price for her very public drunken misuse of her one of a kind hand-made garment.

There is something so calming about the way PTA and Day-Lewis have constructed this multi-leveled central character. Reynolds is part mystery and part petulant child, always determined to get his way no matter who he has to bulldoze over. That attitude makes most people roll over for his every whim but not Cyril who, in one thrilling scene, takes her brother to task between sips of her morning tea. Day-Lewis and Manville work together like gangbusters, the closeness between siblings and their troubling co-dependency is evident, made even more complicated when other people enter the equation.

Krieps is a real find, going toe-to-toe with Day-Lewis (and, to a lesser extent, Manville) and keeping in step with her famously method screen partner. The final act of Phantom Thread calls on Krieps to scale a seemingly insurmountable mountain of a character flaw but climb it she does. Through audiences may be put off by some of her actions and attitude as she struggles to keep Reynolds close, there’s an oddball charm to her methods.  The dynamic between Alma and Cyril could have been explored just a smidge bit more, if only to have a few more scenes to showcase the terrific talents of Krieps and Manville.

PTA’s script is often terrifically witty when it’s not outright funny. This feels like his most accessible movie in ages and while I wouldn’t call it ‘audience pleasing’ it’s surely not the alienating watch some of his films have been over the last few years. Acting as his own cinematographer, the director captures the vibrancy of the era excellently displayed in Mark Tildesley’s (Trance) production design and Mark Bridges (Silver Linings Playbook) stunning period costumes. Special mention must also be made to Johnny Greenwood’s gorgeous score. Setting the mood of the film just as effectively as the writing and performances, it isn’t getting the attention it deserves considering the contribution it’s making.

Time will tell if Phantom Thread is truly the last time we’ll see Daniel Day-Lewis on the big screen. While I hope he’ll be enticed back if the part and process is right, if this is his swan song, it’s an amazing piece of farewell music to a career with few flaws. With its premium performances, well-constructed screenplay, patient direction, and sublime technical elements, Phantom Thread is one of the finest films of the year.