Film Review: “Villains”

VILLAINS
Starring: Bill Skarsgård, Maika Monroe, Jeffrey Donovan & Kyra Sedgwick
Directed By: Dan Berk & Robert Olsen
Rated: R
Running Time: 89 minutes
ALTER

A pair of thieves with dreams of living it up in Florida make a couple of big mistakes during a gas station holdup sending them down a wildly different road in Dan Berk and Robert Olsen’s Villains. First, they swear this is their “last job!”—always a no no where movie characters are concerned—and second, they forget to,  you know,  pump their escape car with any of the station’s gas. Thus they find themselves stalled out on the road and scouring the nearest secluded home for anything to help them in their journey. The home they find just so happens to have a small girl shackled in the basement. Suddenly the mission isn’t just for gas for the car but an all out battle with the unsuspecting homeowners. As I said, it’s a much different path than Florida.

Villains grabs you quickly and easily thanks to the charisma of its two leads, Jules and Mickey (Maika Monroe and Bill Skarsgård, respectively). They’re goofy as all get out—we’re introduced to them fumbling through their robbery in rubber animal masks—but it’s so obvious they’re head over heels in love with each other that you just want to root for them. Of course Monroe (It Follows) and Skarsgard (It & It Chapter Two) are no strangers to the suspenseful or violent elements Villains throws at them eventually, but as these two crazy kids they both show off a genuine knack for comedy. I can’t imagine a better time to see Villains than if you’re in need for some comedic relief after a dose of Pennywise.

Now let’s get back to that girl chained up in the basement. Turns out she belongs to the equally tight couple of Gloria and George (Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Donovan), the homeowners who combat Jules and Mickey’s manic energy with nothing but civil hospitality. The thieves are ready to fight their way out of the house with the chained little girl, but George and Gloria disarm them long enough to chat about what’s going on. Donovan in particular revels in George’s southern salesman draaaaaaaaawl to calm everyone down. The unlikely clash of these couples is strongly supported by candy colored production design and a nifty musical score that keeps the proceedings tonally in sync until very near the end of the film. The resolution of the wildcard chained child isn’t quite as much fun as how we got there, but with a runtime just shy of 90 minutes, it’s hardly an issue.

The fun of this Villains is all down to the perfect casting. The couples are equally unhinged but operating by their own internal logic while being totally devoted to their partners. Mickey and Jules are like excitable puppies in their eagerness to please each other while George keeps up a veneer of civility even though it’s clear that Gloria is way out of touch with reality. Sedgwick too puts in a delightfully bonkers turn as Gloria that includes a striptease for Mickey. Everyone is chewing so much scenery it’s a wonder anyone has room for Gloria’s shepherd’s pie.

Film Review: “Official Secrets”

Starring: Keira Knightley, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and Ralph Fiennes
Directed By: Gavin Hood
Rated: R
Running Time: 112 minutes
IFC Films

At just 29 years old, British translator Katharine Gun became the center of UK headlines when she leaked a memo from her job at the Government Communications Headquarters to UK publication, The Observer. The memo detailed a plot between the US and UK to illegally strong arm smaller UN member countries into signing off on the ill-fated war in Iraq. When she admitted to as much, Gun spent nearly a year before being formally charged under the Official Secrets Act of 1989. Meanwhile the US and UK invaded Iraq despite lacking the support of the nations in the memo. The film adaptation of this case as directed by Gavin Hood is a well crafted political thriller driven by a top notch performance from Keira Knightley.

I had concerns going into this film that it would play out like so many Newspaper Movies (as brilliantly parodied by Seth Meyers and Co, in case you missed it) and I wasn’t entirely wrong. The hallmarks of that trope are all still here –Phone Acting, clandestine meetings on benches, the obstinate paper editor–fortunately they’re performed by a charismatic ensemble led by Matt Smith, Matthew Goode and a very shouty Rhys Ifans. As the film goes on it adds additional strong players to the field with the likes of Tamsin Grieg and Ralph Fiennes when the legal drama starts to ramp up.

More importantly though is that all those subplots and their cliches take a back seat to Keira Knightley’s tightly wound performance. As Gun, she is resolute but not without fear. Some of the most thrilling sequences of Hood’s film come as the enormity of Gun’s act bears down on the wide-eyed Knightley and she realizes how much she has at risk by forging ahead. Having an immigrant husband in Gun’s situation as she does, for example, truly raises the stakes when contending with the government. Often Hood makes some smart choices to elevate Gun’s bravery by highlighting that relationship. How easy it would have been for Katherine, as her barista husband suggests repeatedly, to just do her job and leave the consequences to her higher ups.

Gun had so much to lose but recognized an opportunity to avert a disastrous war and chose to act for her people rather than a lying government. Gavin Hood’s film adaptation of her story comes at a time when relations between the press and politics are arguably even more fraught than 2003, making her story well worth hearing. 

Film Review: “Angel of Mine”

Starring: Noomi Rapace, Yvonne Strahovski, Luke Evans, Richard Roxburgh
Directed by: Kim Farrant
Rated: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Lionsgate

Angel of Mine, based on the French 2008 film, L’Empreinte de L’ange, sees Noomi Rapace as a woman convinced that her neighbor’s daughter is actually her own long-dead child. It’s a thriller that drew me in with its strong cast but passes too far over into melodrama before the credits roll to warrant much interest. 

Rapace stars as Lizzie who drums up a tenuous relationship with the parents of one of her son’s friends (played by Yvonne Strahovski and Richard Roxburgh) for her own ulterior motives. Turns out the friend’s little sister Lola looks so much like her dead baby daughter to Lizzie that she is desperate to spend as much time around the child as possible. Lizzie’s obsession extends so far as her ingratiating herself with Lola’s parents by pretending to be interested in buying their newly listed house. This connection is already awkward but the film does not help itself by withholding the circumstances around Lizzie’s grief for so long in the film. Revelations over the loss of Lizzie’s daughter earlier in the film to the couple may have won some understandable sympathy points for allowing Lizzie around but as it is, it strains credulity as to why these parents would allow this random woman to have so many one-on-one interactions with their young child. Lizzie’s obsession with Lola is intriguing at first due to Rapace’s haunted intensity but without knowing much about her past, I found myself spinning off many different possibilities for where this could go and the ultimate resolution had me bored. Perhaps that’s on me for wanting something more outlandish or exciting while the film so wants to be grounded. It felt as though since director Kim Farrant wanted so much for Lizzie to be our sympathetic protagonist that they could not inject her obsession with a child with any sort of genuine menace. 

Still more irritating is that so much of the film’s run time is spent with husbands choosing to downplay their wives’ legitimate concerns. This goes for both Luke Evan’s Mike as Lizzie’s ex, shunning her where she clearly needs mental help in her grief, and infuriatingly Richard Roxburgh’s Bernard who is for some reason A-OK with a woman wanting to spend time with his seven year old while his own wife sees red flags all over. Why would he take Lizzie’s word over hers? How their story lines end up in relation to Lizzie and Lola after all this drama rings hollow–and also doesn’t seem legally feasible. 

I had been drawn in by the big name cast Farrant had assembled, particularly Yvonne Strahovski fresh off of her fantastic “Handmaid’s Tale” work (is there such a thing as ‘maternity battle’ typecasting?) but they’re working in service of a basic script that doesn’t throw anything more exciting at them than a Lifetime TV movie. 

Angel of Mine opens in limited release on August 30th

Film Review: “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch”

Starring the Voice of: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones and Kenan Thompson
Directed By: Scott Mosier and Yarrow Cheney
Rated: PG
Running Time: 90 minutes
Universal Pictures

“Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch” is a moderately safe viewing experience for children. I say this because the past several films churned out by Illumination have been less than stellar with questionable ethics, and they were more about selling toys than they were about telling a genuine story. Illumination has managed to create a crowd pleaser for kids new to the story. But while its super sugary goodness may satisfy kids, it’ll certainly give their parents a toothache.

“The Grinch” is fairly similar to the book and the television special that followed, give or take a few creative liberties that are equally distracting or amusing. Benedict Cumberbatch voices the furry green creature that loathes Christmas, and honestly does a spectacular job. He’s likeable, yet cruel, as well as casually dorky, yet firm with his voice. The rest of the voice talent, Kenan Thompson, Rashida Jones, and others, feel like they were only given a few hours to rehearse and read their lines.

When taking into account, the films based on Dr. Seuss’ work, “The Grinch” stands firmly near at the top by default. It’s not gross and obnoxious like the live-action “Cat in the Hat” or a complete misfire like “The Lorax,” another Illumination film. It’s possible the studio learned from those mistakes, catering towards fans of the original work while making sure they didn’t make it to obnoxiously modern with pop-culture references.

The criticisms of commercialism aren’t lost on the 2018 update on Dr. Seuss’ classic tale. “The Grinch” spends several moments touching upon how the title character is transfixed on the buying, receiving and gluttony of the holidays. It’s the viewpoint of a curmudgeon who’s spent his life loathing a holiday that’s beloved by all. You probably know the story by now about how the cynic softens and how his heart grows multiple sizes by the tales end. It’s hard to take that message at face value when Illumination’s only reason for retelling this tale is for financial reasons.

There are several attempts by the creative team to inject some original, unique ideas into the timeless tale, but only one seems to actually stick. The idea that the Grinch is an orphan, whose deep-seated dislike for Christmas stems from his parentless childhood and the PTSD that follows helps bring everything around in a more complete circle. Other subplots brought in to help the movie don’t resonate at all, like a group of kids in town plan on capturing Santa or Cindy Lou Who’s mom who’s in desperate need of some R&R.

Just like Ron Howard’s film in 2000, this film doesn’t hold a candle to the 1966 television classic. But with television sliding to the wayside with the rising of streaming services, “The Grinch” actually has a legitimate shot at replacing that hand drawn classic. “The Grinch” is bright, flashy and silly; a perfect combination for young children who’ve had their parents read them the Dr. Seuss’ book throughout their young life during the holidays. Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the kind of comment that could get a critic crucified in the domain of public opinion, but anytime Dr. Seuss’ works are adapted for TV or screen, it’s a cash grab regardless of how good and wholesome the final product is.

Film Review – “The Death of Stalin”

THE DEATH OF STALIN
Starring:  Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Palin, Andrea Risebourough, Rupert Friend and Jason Isaacs
Directed by:  Armando Iannucci
Rated:  R
Running time:  106 mins.

Our Score: 4 out of 5 stars

In the Soviet loop. Armando Iannucci brings his breakneck quips and futile power plays to Stalin’s final days in The Death of Stalin, a darkly hilarious take on a moment in history handled by a collection of top notch actors.

In 1953 Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) sits atop a well oiled oppression machine. He doles out hit lists to his gulags on a daily basis and even among his closest confidants he wields terrifying power. Steve Buscemi’s sycophantic Khrushchev takes personal notes on what jokes bombed in his company so as not to repeat his mistakes. Inconveniently Khrushchev and company find their leader face down and on death’s door in a puddle of his own piss. With no official recourse for succession, the jockeying for power—and chewing of the considerable scenery—begins.

Filling out this Stalin’s cabinet with Buscemi is a dream team lineup of Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin (my favorite Python!), Jeffrey Tambor and Jason Isaacs. To Iannucci’s credit none of the actors in this film are asked to adopt any sort of Russian or even any shared accent which only adds to the air of chaos in the party and likely is what frees up these actors to stay absolutely focused on the script’s fast and fierce comic timing. Additionally just when you’re getting the rhythm of this first set of yes-men, Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend are imported in as Stalin’s wayward offspring to inject even more manic energy into the proceedings. Friend in particular is a revelation as Vasily, a bellowing drunkard who arrives landing insults with surgical precision and more often than not, departs by being wrestled physically from the frame.

I had some hesitation going into this film being pretty much unaware of the specifics of this moment in history and wondered whether that would impact my experience however this turned out not to be the case. The themes of absolute power corrupting absolutely and the pettiness of men are always ripe for political farce especially from the likes of the man behind “Veep” and this spectacular cast.

Film Review: “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword”

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Astrid Berges-Frisbey and Jude Law
Directed By: Guy Ritchie
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 126 minutes
Warner Bros. Pictures

Our Score: 2 out of 5 Stars

For those who’ve read, studied, or are even fans of Arthurian legend, “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” isn’t for you. In fact, if you’re well versed in the British folklore, your confusion will quickly turn into anger a couple of minutes into the movie. While I’m not concerned about the mythology-to-book legitimacy of Guy Ritchie’s film, I’m more concerned about the emotional disconnect between its characters and the film’s unrepentant amount of murder.

Arthur (Hunnam), is born into royalty in Camelot, but not raised by his parents. His power hungry uncle, Vortigern (Law), murders his mom and dad, leaving Arthur orphaned and stranded in a boat. He’s picked up by some ladies of the night in Londinium, raised to become a compassionate and strong warrior. Arthur lives life ignorant to his royal and legendary bloodline, but he’s quickly thrust back into the bizarre world that he was born in. A sword in a stone has appeared and there are rumblings amongst the peasants about the return of England’s true king.

Anyone whose familiar with the works of authors like Geoffery of Monmouth and T.H. White, is surely wondering what the hell is going on with their beloved story. Guy Ritchie has pieced together one of the most disjointed and confounding action movies of the year. It’s really difficult to pinpoint blame on this one, but when he’s in the director’s chair and credited as one of the writers, the blame should fall at his feet.

Hunnam, is charming enough, but much of his allure feels forced. Maybe it’s because he’s much better suited as a tragic hero, which he played for six years on “Sons of Anarchy.” Law can’t suit up and play a compelling villain, and his character is inept and underdeveloped. Vortigern spends most of his time making empty threats and talking to an unnamed octopus woman in the dungeon of Camelot. By the way, the live-action Ursula gone-wrong, is just one of many unnamed and unexplained things, places, and people populating Ritchie’s vision.

Recognizable names, like Sir Lancelot or Sir Galahad, are on short supply as most run-of-the-mill fans will be struggling to remember or relate with characters like Back Lack or Mischief John. Merlin is mentioned, but the only mage Arthur ever comes into contact with is played by Astrid Berges-Frisbey. She’s never named in the movie, in the credits, or on the movie’s IMDB, yet she’s the only person of magic to interact with Arthur and help him tame his sword. You’d think an integral component of your plot would at least have a nickname.

There are inspired moments of “King Arthur,” but that’s only because of Ritchie’s visual flair and when his signature style is deployed, the use of narration over action sequences to condense exposition in an entertaining manner. The action is mostly digital; including a finale that feels like it was created with the video game engine from “Dark Souls.” It must be noted that this movie is excessively violent as we watch anonymous and unnamed civilians, usually helpless women, slaughtered. It makes the specific Arthur subplot that he lacks motivation to become king and save the day especially confounding.

If you were to take away the legend of King Arthur, as the film’s backdrop, it’s not an especially unique action film. It’s a mish mash of multi-national war dramas, “Lord of the Rings” and slow-motion CGI battles. While there’s rarely a dull moment, that void is filled with plenty of stupid moments. It may find an audience amongst connoisseurs and lovers of bad cinema; much like “Gods of Egypt” did last year.

“King Arthur” is certainly an attempt to kick start a franchise for Warner Bros., who’s still unwilling to admit their regret for hiring Zack Snyder to put together the DC universe. There was potential for “King Arthur” because Ritchie was in the pilot’s seat, but his talents are  overwhelmed by a messy script, bland characters, dimly lit settings, and an over indulgence in summer blockbuster movie tropes. If there’s a sequel, I’ll hope for the best, but expect the worst.

 

Related Content

Film Review “Deadpool

Review by Mike Smith
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Ed Skrein and Morena Baccarin
Directed by: Tim Miller
Rated: R
Running time: 1 hr 48 mins
20th Century Fox
Our Score: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Sometimes you know a few minutes into a film what the tone is going to be. Deadpool sets it almost immediately when, during the opening credits, the Producer is identified as: SOME ASSHAT! Thank you, Mr. AssHat, for making one hell of a film.

One of the lesser known (to me anyway) of the Marvel Comic characters (think Spider-man in red without the webs), Deadpool (Reynolds) is a foul-mouthed fool who enjoys his work a little too much. And when I say “foul-mouthed,” I’m talking filthy. He makes Hit Girl in Kick Ass look like Little Miss Sunshine. Known to his friends as Wade Wilson, he earns his money by taking down local bullies. Things are going well for Wade. He’s just found the perfect woman of his dreams (Baccarin) when he learns he has cancer. He is offered a chance for the cure if he becomes part of a mercenary team. Instead he is greatly disfigured by the treatments he receives and decides to just disappear from those that love him (“please don’t make the suit green or animated,” he tells his handlers, pointing fun at Reynold’s last attempt as a hero, “Green Lantern”). If smart-assed sarcasm is your cup of tea, then Deadpool will quench your thirst.

As a character, Deadpool is unlike any “hero” you’ve ever seen. He has no qualms with blowing a bad guys head off with his pair of nine-millimeter pistols or cutting them off with his twin katanas, he’s mixing it up with both the on-screen baddies and the audience. Between breaking the fourth wall and dropping little “inside” quips – when told he needs to go see Professor Charles Xavier he asks, “Stewart or McAvoy?” If I have to explain that comment to you, stop reading now. You don’t want to see this movie.

A superhero film is only as good as the actor playing him and, if ever an actor was meant to play Deadpool, it is Ryan Reynolds. Ever since “Van Wilder” he has spent his career trying to re-capture that “smart-ass” charm. He fits the bill here perfectly. He is surrounded by some strong co-stars, including Skrein as a fellow mercenary and Baccarin who is as tough as she is loving. And I’m sure Stan Lee will agree with me when I say this is his “best cameo EVER!” Throw in a couple of X-men and you’ve got a damn good escape for the weekend.