Tag Archives: film reviews

Whack a Mole

All the Old Knives

by George Wolf

Blending a modern worldview with a slow-burn vibe, All the Old Knives reveals itself as a well-constructed thriller that often recalls those classic espionage yarns from the 70s.

The underrated Chris Pine gives another standout performance as Henry Pelham, a CIA vet who’s directed by his boss (Laurence Fishburne) to reopen a painful case from the past.

Back in 2012, they both were stationed in Vienna when counter-terrorism efforts to thwart a hijacking went tragically wrong. But new information has emerged that suggests the terrorists had help from a fellow agent, so Henry must revisit members of the team – including his old flame Celia (Thandiwe Newton) – to root out the mole.

Based on the best seller by Olen Steinhauer (who also pens the script), the film is admittedly heavy on dialog, but director Janus Metz (Borg vs. McEnroe, True Directive, Armadillo) proves masterfully adept at fleshing out important contrasts in past and present.

His camera remains purposefully static for the modern settings, while a more free-flowing approach to the flashbacks helps to offset all the descriptive recollections by pulling us into crisply detailed reenactments.

The ensemble (which also includes the great Jonathan Pryce) is top notch. Each actor digs in to the intelligent wordplay, picturesque locales and shadows of doubt on the way to crafting complex humans with something to lose.

The third act may bog down just a touch, with a hand that’s tipped perhaps a beat or two early, but none of that keeps the film from sticking its landing. There’s plenty of blame to go around in the often nasty business of global politics, and All the Old Knives makes that history lesson personal.

Livin’ on the Hedge

Sonic the Hedgehog 2

by George Wolf

I apologize in advance if I slip and call him Crash Bandicoot. I know it’s Sonic – Sonic the Hedgehog, but I’ve got limited first hand experience with any game after Frogger and sometimes get careless.

I do have experience with the first Sonic the Hedgehog movie from two years ago, so more of that same broadly-drawn, kid-friendly eye candy was not a surprise. What I wasn’t expecting was so much more of it, and those 30 extra minutes turn a harmlessly forgettable romp into a real test of patience.

Most of the gang returns from part one, including Ben Schwartz as the voice of Sonic, that speedy little alien who runs around Seattle looking for opportunities to earn the heroic moniker of “Blue Justice!”

But his human “dad” Tom (James Marsden) cautions Sonic of the need to grow up and remember that the moments that make a hero are not for him to choose.

Sonic will get those chances to prove himself, thanks to the return Dr. Robotnik aka “Eggman” (Jim Carrey) and a new, not blue meanie from space.

The ginger-maned Knuckles (voiced by Idris Elba) is a skilled Echidna warrior with an old score to settle against the hedgehog. That means Sonic and his buttcopter-powered pal Tails (voiced by Colleen O’Shaughnessey) will have to fight harder than ever to make sure the all-powerful Master Emerald does not fall into evil hands.

Director Jeff Fowler again shows a good feel for letting the effects department do some flexing, and the mixing of live action with animation is admittedly impressive.

But like the first film, the storytelling here is so exaggerated that even Carrey’s cartoonish mugging doesn’t seem that much over the top. Screenwriters Pat Casey and Josh Miller get an assist this time from John Whittington (The Lego Batman Movie), but are still committed to putting big, obvious eyebrows on nearly everything.

The welcome exception is Knuckles, and Elba’s perfectly authoritative delivery makes his character’s humorless interactions that much more humorous. It’s the one aspect of the film that doesn’t seem geared to keep the attention of easily distracted children.

But hey, kids, how do you like dance offs? Sonic 2 sets the needle drop and move busting level to unnecessary, pushing the run time to nearly two hours, even before the obligatory mid-credits peek at part three.

And all this time I thought speed was Sonic’s superpower.

Or maybe that’s Crash.

Dr. Feelbad

Morbius

by George Wolf

For a movie about a guy with a serious taste for blood, Morbius shows hardly any of it being spilled. That’s just one of the reasons the film feels hamstrung from what it wants to be.

What Dr. Michael Morbius (Jared Leto) wants to be is healthy. Born with a strange DNA abnormality that paired a genius mind with a broken body, Michael put “Dr.” in front of Morbius at age 19 on the way to becoming the foremost expert on blood borne diseases.

And now, his research with vampire bats from Costa Rica has yielded a breakthrough…with a catch. He gets super human, downright monstrous powers, but they wear off without more servings of blood. And while he’s getting by with the artificial variety for now, Morbius knows the time is coming when only human blood will do.

So the clock is ticking, and not just for Morbius. His colleague Martine (Adria Arjona) is feeling the heat, while Milo (Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith, who seems to enjoy hamming it up), Michael’s childhood friend who suffers from the same DNA abnormality, is eager for the cure – and fine with the consequences.

Director Daniel Espinosa (Life, Safe House) has plenty of fun with the CGI, and while the facial morphing is mighty impressive, the increased battle sequences end up trending more toward soulless, Van Helsing-style gymnastics.

Abrupt editing does Espinosa no favors, either, and the pace that initially feels nicely brisk leads to a narrative that just seems impatient. Many of the themes at work here are common to comic book adaptations, but just checking off the boxes is no substitute for development.

Screenwriters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless (the duo behind Gods Of Egypt, The Last Witch Hunter and Dracula Untold – all dreadful) try to inject some humor via a pair of detectives (Tyrese Gibson and Al Madrigal) hunting the “vampire killer,” but what the script needs most of all is to take Milo’s advice.

Embrace what you are!

This Morbius seems too desperate to sit at the cool Spider-Man table right now, skirting the commitment to a more fully formed, standalone character that would only reap dividends down the road. And yes, sit tight during the credits for two extra peeks in that direction.

But come on, this is vampire stuff, right? Throw off those PG-13 shackles and really dig in! Go for the jugular, if you will. Man, that could have been a rush.

This isn’t.

Brother’s Keeper

The Devil You Know

by George Wolf

A morality play rooted in family bonds, The Devil You Know looks to carve a modern-day Cain and Abel allegory from the ripples of a brutal murder.

Marcus (Omar Epps) is an ex-con who finally has a handle on sobriety and is hopeful for the future. He has a solid new job as an L.A. bus driver, a promising relationship with new girl Eva (Erica Tazel), and an extended family always ready to offer support.

But at the big family party in his honor, Marcus stumbles across something that appears to link his wayward brother Drew (William Catlett) to the home invasion killings that are dominating the news.

Should Marcus tell detective McDonald (Michael Ealy) what he knows? Or should Marcus keep quiet, covering for his brother and hoping that the local hoods Drew runs with (B.J. Britt and Theo Rossi) don’t eye him any more suspiciously than they already do?

Writer/director Charles Murray (TV’s Luke Cage and Sons of Anarchy) layers a compelling crisis of conscience through family strife that feels authentic thanks to a fine ensemble including veterans Glynn Turman and Vanessa Bell Calloway. It takes more than just stoically reciting the word “family” into the camera multiple times to reveal strength in conflict, and Murray has a good feel for this nuance.

Less successful are the TV and news reports of the murders (like old-age makeup, these continue to be a conundrum for filmmakers) and the tendency of Murray’s script to retrace some of the moral terrain it’s traveling. As a result, you start to feel the nearly two-hour run time as the pace develops some unmistakable drag.

But Murray seems like a TV vet with potential for compelling features. There is a thoughtful and effective thriller at the heart of The Devil You Know, and it’s often glimpsed through the moments of bloat that hold it back.

Love Bites

Let the Wrong One In

by George Wolf

First off, someone has earned a victory lap for that title, Let the Wrong One In. It’s perfect. Five words, and we instantly expect this film to be about vampires, and we expect it to be silly.

Done and done.

Writer/director Conor McMahon, the Irish goof behind Stiches and Dead Meat, brings his trademark nuttiness and thick, sometimes caption-worthy brogues to a story of love among the bloodsuckers.

Bachelorette Sheila (Mary Murray) is bitten during her hen party (in Transylvania, no less). Sheila comes home to the Emerald Isle and bites Deco (Eoin Duffy), whose sudden aversion to sunlight and garlic french fries doesn’t go unnoticed by his brother Derek (Jordan Lennon).

“You’re a vampire!”

“What are you insinuating?”

After calling in Dr. Henry (Anthony Head from TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the boys discover that the doc is also a vampire hunter (and train enthusiast) on the trail of his fiance Sheila and her gang of vamps.

There’s a showdown looming between the living and the undead, with McMahon and crew leaving a blood and guts-splattered trail along the way. The effects are low-rent and cheesy, the gags often obvious but always affable, and the nods to Kubrick and Edgar Wright unmistakable.

And if you’re thinking What We Do in the Shadows, this is a slightly different neighborhood. Let the Wrong One In is more working class, unbridled and often scattershot in its delivery.

But it does end up delivering on the promise of that title, with just enough zany bite to make the lifeless stretches easier to bury.

Polar Express

Compartment No. 6

by George Wolf

She’s a Finnish archeology student on the way to study some ancient cave paintings in remote northern Russia. He’s a blue collar Russian just traveling to where the work is. They share tight quarters in Compartment No. 6, a measured and often beguiling look at the mysteries of human connection.

Laura (Seidi Haarla) thought she’d be taking this trip with her girlfriend Irina (Dinara Drukarova). Instead, she’s solo on the train to Murmansk, and her first impression of roommate Ljoha (Yuriy Borisov) is not a good one.

He’s drunk and crude. She’s quiet and introspective. So the air in their little compartment might just get as bleak and cold as the view outside the train’s sterile, fogged up window.

Adapting the source novel by Rosa Liksom, director/co-writer Juho Kuosmanen draws effective contrasts between the two environments, especially when one of them begins to thaw. Buoyed by the two excellent lead performances and moments of dark humor in the script, Kuosmanen leans into the 1990’s setting to evoke a world that seems adrift in time and space.

Last year’s Grand Prix winner at Cannes, the film often feels like a slow journey for us as well, but don’t mistake the unhurried pace for aimlessness. Be patient and take the ride. Compartment No. 6 has a warm fuzzy feeling at the last stop.

Queen of the Mountain

Infinite Storm

by George Wolf

Just last month, The Desperate Hour showcased Naomi Watts in an almost one woman show. Infinite Storm adds a few more cast members, and this time Watts isn’t just figuratively carrying a film on her back, she’s literally carrying another human.

Based on the true life adventure that found search and rescue climber Pam Bales trying to descend New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington before a storm hits, the film leans heavily on Watts to make a rescue infinitely more emotional.

On her way down the mountain in Oct. 2010, Bales encountered a lone climber she called “John” (Billy Howle) immobile and unprepared for the bitter cold and biting, 50 mph winds. Risking her own life, Bales’s extensive training was often rebuffed by the uncooperative John as she tried to get them both safely home.

First-time screenwriter Joshua Rollins adapts Ty Gagne’s New Hampshire Union Leader article with added layers of sympathy designed to quicken our emotional attachment. Pam’s chosen to ignore the weather forecast and climb because it’s the anniversary of something traumatic in her life, and climbing “is cheaper than therapy.”

This isn’t a documentary, so bulking up the narrative is a smart play by Rollins and director Malgorzata Szumowska (whose excellent The Other Lamb was woefully underseen). Szumowska employs onscreen digital timekeeping to keep the pressure on, while deftly weaving Pam’s flashbacks into the harrowing, well-crafted set pieces filmed in the Slovenian Alps (cheaper than N.H.). Yes, we do eventually get to the source of Pam’s trauma, but the reveal is just slightly askew from what we’re expecting, which is welcome.

Watts again proves she’s more than capable of handling a film’s heavy lifting. She’s rugged throughout the physicality that’s required, and effortlessly human within the ordeal. Pam may not understand why John is acting the way he is, but her commitment never feels false or convenient.

And even if John is sometimes unresponsive, Watts has someone to talk to this time, helping Pam’s expressed inner thoughts feel more organic.

The common challenge for adventure films like this is to make an individual experience speak in universal terms. Watts pushes Infinite Storm past some by-the-numbers moments for a worthy reflection on struggle and healing.

Not to mention the value of a dry pair of socks.

The Baker Bunch

Cheaper by the Dozen

by George Wolf

By now, you’re probably pretty familiar with the premise of Cheaper by the Dozen. But really, the best way for adults to enjoy this new Disney version is by using it as a way to gently introduce small children to more grown up issues.

Otherwise, it’s pretty insufferable.

This time, the heads of the blended brood are Zoey and Paul Baker (Gabrielle Union and Zach Braff), who first meet cute at the L.A. breakfast joint he owns. Their marriage and eventual offspring create a blended family full of diverse and seriously precocious siblings, step-siblings, and later a wayward cousin in need of some guidance. Throw in two ex-spouses (Erika Christensen and Timon Kyle Durrett) who are never far from the shenanigans, and that’s the way they become the Baker bunch.

Director Gail Lerner and the writing team of Kenya Barris, Jenifer Rice-Genzuk and Craig Titley all have extensive credits in series television, which would be a good reason why everything about this film screams “TV sitcom.”

Plot points are hastily introduced and heavily contrived, while any conflicts are soft-peddled and quickly worked through with barely a bad mood or sass mouth in sight. One thing you will see is some surprisingly modest set design (especially for those high school basketball games, yikes) that too often seems fit for an afterschool special.

The Bakers get a corporate offer to franchise the diner and market Paul’s special cooking sauce, so the gang moves on up to a sprawling house in Calabasas that requires just one afternoon to completely move into.

But settling into a new home brings some challenges for everyone. There’s bullying, peer pressure, and dating drama for the kids, while the parents face bless-your-heart prejudices and questions about mixed-race parenting.

Union and Braff are both likable actors, and that’s all they are asked to be, because no one in the film comes anywhere close to resembling a real person. And much like these characters, all the worthy issues raised are treated with a “we got 23 minutes minus commercials” mindset and wedged in between telegraphed attempts at humor and constant mugging.

The PG rating is a bit surprising, because despite the warning of “thematic elements, suggestive material, and language,” everything here is as sanitized as a freshly minted urinal cake.

Cheaper by the Dozen, yes. And you get what you pay for.

Clothes Make the Man

The Outfit

by George Wolf

The opening minutes of The Outfit give us a master tailor named Leonard (Mark Rylance) describing his process. We see him measuring fabric, cutting and sewing while he outlines his skill in sizing up customers to give them what they most deserve.

Wait..is he still talking about suits?

Maybe, maybe not.

The setting is Chicago in 1956, where Leonard and his dreaming-of-a-better-life secretary Mable (Zoey Deutch) conduct business while local mobsters use Leonard’s shop to retrieve messages from a nationwide crime syndicate known as the Outfit.

One night after a shootout with a rival mob, gangsters Richie (Dylan O’Brien) and Francis (Johnny Flynn) barge into the shop in need of help and refuge. Richie, the son of local boss Roy (Simon Russel Beale) has been shot, and soon most everyone involved will have to fight to survive the long night.

Oscar-winning screenwriter Graham Moore (The Imitation Game) adds directing duties this time as well, for a nifty big screen debut that often homages early Kubrick and classic Hitchcock.

Essentially a two-room chamber piece, the film leans on a terrific ensemble to roll out a steady stream of delicious twists, relishing the nimble noir wordplay and skillfully keeping Moore’s sleight-of-hand from tipping its hand too early.

Fellow Oscar-winner Rylance (Bridge of Spies) is the perfect choice to bring Leonard to life, displaying a seemingly casual excellence right in line with who Leonard seems to be. Will underestimating the quiet shopkeeper prove to be a deadly mistake? Or is it Leonard who will learn a painful lesson tonight?

Rylance peels back the layers slowly, and Moore has good instincts for the pacing that allows for maximum fun. Deutch proves again that she’s a natural, making the most of a more limited role that still boasts an impressive ratio of secrets-to-screen time.

Despite getting a little too cute for the room come finale time, The Outfit is a solid directing debut for an acclaimed screenwriter. And while you can’t help feeling that this salute to the brainy introvert may be a personal one for Moore, it’s artful and engaging enough to rope in anyone who loves untangling a well-fitted suit of clues.

Love Is a Battlefield

Deep Water

by George Wolf

Adrian Lyne hasn’t directed a movie in twenty years. It’s been twice that long since the 1957 source novel by Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) has been adapted for the big screen.

They’re both back with a new vision for Deep Water, a sometimes frustrating erotic thriller that can never fully capitalize on all of its possibilities to be either erotic or thrilling.

Vic and Melinda Van Allen (Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas) are living a life of luxury in New Orleans with their young daughter Trixie (the incredibly cute Grace Jenkins). Vic developed a computer chip used for drone warfare, so his days of early retirement are mainly filled with watching Melinda openly flaunt her affairs at parties.

When one of Melinda’s past lovers turns up dead, Vic lets her latest boy toy (Brendan Miller) know that he’s the murderer. But Vic is only trying to scare the kid away, right? Neighbor Don (Tracy Letts with another standout supporting turn) is suspicious early on, and when another of Melinda’s lovers (Euphoria‘s Jacob Elordi) drowns at a pool party, plenty of others are looking at Vic as the prime suspect.

Screenwriters Zach Helm and Sam Levinson provide Lyne with undercurrents of subtext that are never fully explored. We assume Vic doesn’t want to subject Trixie or his finances to a messy divorce, but the deeper we dig, it’s clear this marital arrangement is feeding some need for both parties and fostering a concerning worldview for their child. Lyne showcases the aimless privilege of their daily lives to hint at a lesson on the rot of wealth, then pivots, often to Vic’s creepy but uneventful hobby of raising snails.

And though Lyne has made his name on the steamy sexual politics of 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful, there’s more smoke here than fire. And water, water everywhere.

You won’t notice grand chemistry between Affleck and de Armas, which is a credit to both. This is a marriage of psychological warfare, and it is Vic and Melinda’s contrasting plans of attack that keep us invested, especially in the early going. De Armas embodies the cruelly uninhibited as well as Affleck brings the condescending and calculated, which is a major reason the major twist to Highsmith’s original ending works as well as it does.

For these two, it feels right.

But only for a moment, because strangely, Lyne doesn’t let it linger. Instead, he quickly cuts from the credits to a performance from the adorable Jenkins singing along to a cheery pop ditty from the 1970s.

If it’s an attempt at chilling humor, it falls hard, becoming another anchor weighing down Deep Water just when it starts cruising.