Tag Archives: Annette Bening

Murder Was Again the Case

Death on the Nile

by George Wolf

“He accuses everyone of murder!”

“It is a problem, I admit.”

This playful admission by legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is one of the ways Death on the Nile has some winking fun with the often used, often parodied Agatha Christie formula.

And since Christie’s source novel is one of the works that perfected that formula, it’s smart to acknowledge some inherent campiness while you’re trying to honor the genius of the original construction.

After his successful revival of Murder on the Orient Express in 2017, Branagh is back to again star, direct, and team with screenwriter Michael Green for another star-studded, claustrophobic whodunit.

This time we’re aboard a lavish cruise down the Nile in the late 1930s. Wealthy heiress Linnet Ridgeway (Gal Gadot) has just married the dashing Simon Doyle (Armie Hammer), and they’ve invited a group of friends and family (including Annette Bening, Sophie Okonedo, Russell Brand, Jennifer Saunders, Letitia Wright and no-that’s-not-Margot- Robbie-it’s Emma Mackey) to help them celebrate.

Ah, but love and money bring “conflicting lies and jealousies,” and soon Linnet proves wise in putting the world’s greatest detective on the guest list. Murder is again the case!

And when Hercule Poirot is on it – which takes a while – Branagh and Green craft a capable reminder of what makes this formula so sturdy. From the discovery of clues to the requisite red-herring accusations, it’s just fun to feel part of Poirot’s deductive process.

But while Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos expertly utilize the confines of the ship to their advantage, the surrounding locales smack of outdated CGI and land as a disappointing stand-in for the eye-popping wonder of Orient Express.

Branagh and Green also try valiantly to weave a layer of love through the mystery. Opening with a prologue that introduces a decades-old pining (along with Poirot’s keen eye for detail and a dubious inspiration for that mustache), the film’s ambitions for this added narrative weight are worthy, but ultimately add more running time than substance.

The epilogue that checks in with Poirot six months after the cruise lets us know Branagh may have more Christie mysteries on his itinerary, and that’s not a bad thing. Death on the Nile proves that a trusty return to glamour and intrigue can still overcome some excess baggage.

Redacted

The Report

by Hope Madden

Admit it. Own up to it. Hold yourself accountable. Then our country can move on.

Oh right, also, I saw The Report this week.

For his clear-eyed reminder of what post 9/11 America was like, writer/director Scott Z. Burns takes a page from Adam McKay’s book of outrage, leaving both tongue and cheek behind.

Daniel Jones (Adam Driver, who is having one hell of a year) is a Senate staffer working for Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening, eerily good). He’s been tasked with investigating the CIA’s post 9/11 “enhanced interrogation” tactics.

Among the heads of the CIA are Thomas Eastman (Michael C. Hall) and John Brennan (Ted Levine).

That Burns cast two actors known best for playing serial killers as CIA leaders is slyly hilarious and indicative of the contempt the filmmaker has for those responsible for this shameful page in US history.

The Report brims with rage, justifiably so, but Burns never stoops to melodrama, rarely even preaches. Much of his ire is delivered via Driver’s sullen stare. Driver is characteristically amazing. Though his performance is largely internal, it spills over with the ache and anger of a citizen who loves his country and cannot believe what he sees happening.

The entire cast—and it’s a big one—impresses, from bewildered CIA staff to opportunists looking to cash in, from battered inmates to White House Chief of Staff. With limited screen time, each performer establishes a character, not a cardboard villain or hero, and the contribution elevates the entire film.

Burns’s script stumbles periodically over exposition, but given the sheer volume of information he covers, it’s a fault that’s easy to forgive. Somehow he manages to contain in just under two hours what Daniels himself couldn’t fit inside 7000 pages.

Importantly, though the film does look to enlighten us on the corruption, greed and fearmongering that led the US to such sadistic measures, Burns wisely leans more heavily on a larger theme of admission and oversight as the only steps toward regaining self-respect and the respect of the world.

Timely.

Just a Girl

Captain Marvel

by MaddWolf

We had very high expectations for Captain Marvel.

Because showcasing this historic, female Marvel hero offers the chance to see everything from a new lens?

That’s awesome, but no.

Because Oscar-winner Brie Larson is always a kick and we could not wait to see what she could do with such a big movie?

True, but no.

We were pumped because writers/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are amazing filmmakers and we always, always have high expectations for their work. Who cares that it‘s a superhero movie? True, they’ve made their names with indie standouts (Half Nelson, Sugar), but we were betting they could move the setting to “blockbuster” and keep their character-based storytelling instincts.

After a wobbly start, that bet pays off.

So does Larson. She commands the screen—not to mention earthlings and aliens alike—and is a flat-out gas as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. Even better is the way Boden and Fleck address sexism with a character who’s basically just always pissed off.

Agent Fury (Sam Jackson – hilarious) is right: the “grunge thing” suits her.

Grunge is a thing because Captain Marvel wallows gleefully in all things 90s – especially the tunes. A glorious action sequence set to Gwen Stefani’s “Just a Girl” is a high point, and could’ve rivaled Kingsman‘s “Free Bird” segment if given a Skynyrd-level running time (lighters down, please). A needle-on-turntable shot seems a bit out of place, but hey, that Nirvana tune that follows goes down just fine.

The throwback vibe entertains and the clever soundtrack kicks all manner of ass—as does Marvel. The humor feels mostly right, the galactic tensions carry greater weight as the film progresses, and both the mid and end credits stingers are winners.

Boden and Fleck (with co-writer Geneva Robertson-Dworet) streamline Danvers’s comic book history effectively, but as is often the case with these origin stories, act 1 still sputters, betraying a lack of intergalactic vision (or too much of a fondness for cheap-ass Star Trek movies). Once Vers (The Captain’s pre-metamorphosis name) hits earth and some deeper themes are woven into the fun, Captain Marvel finds its groove.

Much of that is thanks to Jackson, whose chemistry with everyone is his trademark in films, and his screen time with Larson is always a sparkling, witty treat. Because of its time stamp, the film can also craft an engaging origin story for Fury, Coulson (Clark Gregg) and the entire Avengers project, aided by continually amazing advancements in digital fountains of youth.

Jude Law, Annette Bening and Lashana Lynch sparkle in a supporting cast buoyed by Ben Mendelsohn’s welcome presence. Playing sometimes with, and sometimes against type, he reminds Big Box Office audiences that he’s so much more than his scenery-chewing villains of late. (Boden and Fleck, who cast him in their amazing poker flick Mississippi Grind, already knew this.)

So, over 20 films and DC’s Wonder Woman success later, the MCU offers its first female lead, a fact certainly not lost on Boden and Fleck. They pull no punches when it comes to the idea of heroism: question authority, don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can’t accomplish, fuck mansplaining. Oh, and heroes rescue refugees, they don’t cause them more suffering.

And as much as Wonder Woman earned its acclaim, Marvel manages to one-up DC yet again. Captain Marvel is anchored by even more unabashed girl power, and stands strong on its own while whetting your appetite for what comes next.

 





Love Stinks

The Seagull

by George Wolf

You love her, but she loves him, and he loves somebody else…

J. Geils may have rocked it up, but Russian playwright Anton Chekov was singing that tune in 1895 with The Seagull. Darker shades pepper the comedic take on unrequited love, and director Michael Mayer is the latest to bring that balancing act to the big screen.

He’s blessed with a wonderful cast. Saoirse Ronan shines again as Nina, a starry-eyed young woman who longs for a life on the stage. Nina’s boyfriend Konstantin (Billy Howle) dreams of writing plays for her, but things get complicated when the couple meets up with family, friends and servants at a country estate in the early 20th century.

Annette Bening, Elisabeth Moss, Corey Stoll, Brain Dennehy and Mare Winngham are customarily wonderful. There’s no denying everyone here is committed, but Mayer and writer Stephen Karam (adapting Chekov) can’t find the balance between comedy and drama, or stage and screen.

The setting is perfectly lush, and the material has certainly lost little of its relevance over the many years, but all the worthy parts are never assembled into anything more than serviceable.

The comedic barbs early on seem too restrained, and the later tragedies too melodramatic. Some staging seems lifted straight from a stage production, while other set pieces breath with more freedom.

Give the relatively inexperienced writer/director team credit for taking on The Seagull. Getting the competing themes to work in unison is no easy feat, and this latest film version is a well-intentioned testament to that very challenge.

 

 





Mothers and Son

20th Century Women

by Hope Madden

Has it been six years since Mike Mills explored father/son relationships and the coming of middle age with Beginners? Insightful, emotionally complex and kind, the film marked Mills as not only a director of substance, but a writer with integrity and wit.

Not that it could have predicted 20th Century Women.

What a joyous conundrum this film is. Set in 1979, the film looks on as Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) maneuvers the troubles of adolescence, societal sea change and his loving if enigmatic mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening).

Too practical and pragmatic for the women of 1979, too independent and wise for her own generation, Dorothea is a woman without a timestamp. It gives her a gravitational pull, drawing the fierce and the unusual to her like satellites.

Those in her orbit – besides her pubescent son – are punk artist Abbie (Greta Gerwig), troubled teen Julie (Elle Fanning), and misplaced hippie William (Billy Crudup).

The cast is uniformly terrific, but Bening is a spectacle. A collector of friends, she’s still a solitary figure, one who looks on the relationships and complications in her life with a strange remove – almost like an anthropologist.

Dorothea is, from her son’s point of view, unknowable. Bening more than manages to embody that frustrating reality of a parent whose behavior seems entirely natural and yet almost alien. And she does it with such charm and humor.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in 20th Century Women is the humor – the film, like life, is peppered with laugh out loud moments that help make even the barely endurable pain of adolescence enjoyable.

Mills falls back at times on a punk rock undercurrent that creates a wonderful energy as well as a thoughtful theme for the time in history and in Jamie’s life. As Abbie puts it, the chaos of punk is comforting because it’s about, “When your passion is bigger than the tools you have to deal with it.”

It’s a line that’s almost too perfect, as this cast is almost too perfect. This seems to be the quiet wonder of Mike Mills: he puts his own complicated, insightful and emotionally generous writing into the hands of genuine talent.

Good call.

Verdict-4-0-Stars





Who Wants a Cocktail?

The Face of Love

by Hope Madden

We owe a lot to alcohol. Just one example of the gifts booze gives graces our multiplexes and independent cinemas weekly, because nearly every movie theater now contains a bar. This means that audiences who would not spend money on traditional concessions – that is, an older crowd – are more apt to spend their leisure time at the movies. This, in turn, creates more demand for grown up fare onscreen. Not just more character driven or dramatic storytelling, either. Older crowds want to see stories that relate to them, performed by grown-ups, and the financial success of films like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel only guarantees the trend will continue.

This isn’t always a good thing. For every Amour there’s a Grudge Match, but at least we get to see an extension on the careers of really talented actors, like Annette Bening and Ed Harris, portraying star-crossed lovers in The Face of Love.

Bening plays Nikki, five years widowed from her beloved husband Garrett (Harris). Her needy, also-widowed neighbor Roger (Robin Williams) hopes to woo her, but she only has eyes for Garrett. Luckily enough, she runs into his doppelganger at an art gallery.

Yes, Garrett’s exact duplicate also lives in LA, visits the same museum, is single and lonely, and falls for Nikki.

The love of your life dies and you meet an exact replica. What do you do?

Is it a universal question or a ridiculous contrivance?

The latter, it turns out, but thanks to the sheer force of talent both Harris and Bening bring to the project, it is hard to turn away.

Harris breaks your heart as the good guy who falls for this mysterious new lady in his life. He’s lucky, though, because his character – a nice guy in for a heartache – is a little easier to play.

Bening’s drawn the shorter straw, but she handles the entire task quite well regardless of the lacking character development on the page. Her uneasy joy, repressed emotion, and fragile calm all help to make the character and her actions feel almost real.

What’s utterly and irredeemably unreal is the plot, co-written by director Arie Posin, along with Matthew McDuffie. But if you drink enough while you’re at the theater, you’ll hardly notice.

 

Verdict-2-5-Stars