Tag Archives: Helen Mirren

John Cena’s In This One

F9: The Fast Saga

by George Wolf

So if this is the ninth installment, that means all laws of physics went out the window 7.5 Fast films ago. Just remember that when there’s a Plymouth Fiero in space for reelz.

Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) have been trying to live a quiet life in the country with little Brian, but they’re going to need a sitter.

Seems Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) sent the gang an S.O.S. not long after he captured Cipher (Charlize Theron). Now Mr. N. is missing, Cipher’s on the loose, and everybody’s trying to get their hands on both halves of a device that, when made whole, will take control of every weapons system in the world.

And you know who already has one half? Dom’s bigger little brother Jacob (John Cena). We haven’t heard about Jacob until now because the boys have serious beef about who was to blame for their father’s death in a 1989 stock car race.

So Dom’s ad nauseam mantra of “family” has its limits.

Lighten up, right? Don’t take it so seriously, this franchise is about the action! I get it, and when the tone is right (like it was with director James Wan in Furious 7) I’m right there with you.

But this film takes itself waaay too seriously. Director/co-writer Justin Lin is back for his fifth go ’round, and after an opening filled with the usual auto gymnastics, settles into a story surprisingly heavy on the spy game.

Cena gets no chance to flash his charismatic mischievous side, as he and Diesel seem intent on making steely stares and jaw clenching an Olympic sport. Roman and Tej (Tyrese Gibson and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) try to fill the playful void left by Hobbs and Shaw, but their hi-jinx seldom rise above silly wise cracking.

Plenty of familiar franchise faces return (Lucas Black, Shad Moss, Helen Mirren, Jordana Brewster and Sung Kang), often bringing with them a good amount of exposition explaining what their characters have been doing or why they aren’t really dead.

There’s so much nostalgia, you’d think they were actually trying to put a bow on this whole thing if the film wasn’t simultaneously inventing new threads. And as the running time keeps running, it all starts to feel pretty tedious.

But if you want your flying cars and electro-magnet explosions on the biggest screen possible, F9 will eventually give that to you (even in IMAX where available). Just don’t expect the self-awareness to realize how close they are to self-parody.

Also, hang through the credits and you’ll get a stinger with a big clue about what’s coming in the tenth round: a Prius on top of Mt. Everest.

Not really. But at this point, why not?

This Year’s Model

Anna

by George Wolf

After films such as La Femme Nikita and Lucy, writer/director Luc Besson is no stranger to the “beautiful killing machine” genre, but it seems the sexual treachery of Red Sparrow and the ass-kickery of Atomic Blonde have inspired him to get back in that familiar saddle.

His Anna is built on the same sexy Russian assassin blueprint, then adds layers of confusing time shifts, obvious fake outs, and misguided feminist ambitions, all wrapped in a constantly leering camera gaze.

Anna (Sasha Luss, back with Besson after Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) is plucked from Russian poverty by agent Alex (Luke Evans) and groomed for the spy game by the humorless Olga (Helen Mirren).

Anna’s cover is her job as a high fashion model, and guess what is this season’s hottest accessory?

Big silencers, slowly screwed on big guns that are framed just so against Anna’s lingerie-clad pelvic region. Subtle.

Check that, it really is, next to the roommate (Lera Abova) whose only purpose is to ask Anna for girl on girl action, and the CIA agent (Cillian Murphy) whose code name must be Dog in Heat.

And yet through all the bad writing and contrivance, Anna’s true ambition never wavers. She asks only for a freedom she has never known, freedom from a world that only uses and objectifies her at every turn.

And then pot and kettle lived happily ever after.

Cracking Nuts and Taking Names

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

by Hope Madden

Let’s say your birthday falls in December and as a lovely gesture your family took you to The Nutcracker Suite every year to celebrate, and every year you remembered again that you had no idea what the hell the ballet was about. Suppose, then, that Disney decided to make it into a movie and you thought that maybe now, with some narrative, you could figure this shit out.

Well, you would be disappointed. But if you went to see the ballet and thought, damn, there is too much dancing here, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms might be for you.

Mackenzie Foy is Clara, a young lady who dreads enduring the first Christmas without her mother. She doesn’t even want to go to the big party thrown by her godfather, Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman in a really bad wig). But her dad (Matthew Macfadyen) drags her, along with her brother and sister.

After that, things begin to feel familiar, although they rarely feel like The Nutcracker. The film becomes an inverted exploration of childhood and adolescence. Like Alice in Wonderland meets The Wizard of Oz meets Hunger Games.

Helen Mirren plays lord of this disused amusement park overrun by rats and clowns, though, and that is hella cool. Meanwhile, Keira Knightly shamelessly steals scenes as Sugarplum. Both are fun in a film that desperately needs a bit more of it.

Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) and Lasse Hallstrom co-direct. That checks out. Johnston brings a rather workmanlike attitude for spectacle, while Hallstrom—whose credits range from the Oscar-winning Cider House Rules to the unwatchable A Dog’s Purpose—brings an eye for manicured beauty and an utter lack of whimsy.

Do you remember watching the ballet as a child? The spooky, eye-patched uncle? The 7-headed rat? It is seriously creepy, and at the same time, there is wonder in every dance whether you understand the storyline or you don’t.

There are lovely moments peppered through this visually elegant picture, but there is no passion, no danger and no excitement.

And weirdly enough, very little Tchaikovsky almost no dancing.





Life is a Highway

The Leisure Seeker

by George Wolf

Pairing up Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland is a welcome idea with exciting potential. Much of that potential is left unexplored by The Leisure Seeker in favor of embarrassing schtick and cheap sentiment.

The veteran actors star as Ella and John Spencer, a senior couple in Massachusetts who bust out their old RV and run from the concerned grasp of their kids for a bucket list trip. John is a retired literature professor who has long idolized Hemingway, so Ella decides it’s time to visit the Hemingway House in Key West before John’s memory fades away completely.

This road trip setup, from the novel by Michael Zadoorian, is more organically sound than most, but soon gets exploited with easy pickings from two crops of low-hanging fruit.

Director and co-writer Paolo Virzi (Like Crazy) strings together the random, disconnected hijinx this genre seemingly demands, while also poking cliched fun at old people riding motorcycles, talking sex or packing heat. This laziness comes much too frequently, with punchlines based on age not action, bringing a stale odor to the goodwill earned from putting these two endlessly likable stars at the forefront.

Mirren and Sutherland are worth a better investment, and both end up working much too hard selling these warmed-over tropes, but the missed opportunities extend beyond the cast list.

Some worthy issues on aging come into view, only to be passed by or, worse yet, made light of, all in service of a maudlin conclusion you could see coming in the dark with no headlights. Expecting every film on senior issues to carry the magnificence of, say,  Amour, would be unrealistic, but The Leisure Seeker hardly wanders beyond the Going in Style end of the pool.

Bad trip, man.

 





The Spirit Rooms

Winchester

by George Wolf

Helen Mirren in a haunted house? Could be fun.

But let’s be honest, Helen Mirren in a bouncy house sounds fun, too, but we come to Winchester looking for some solid frights as well. Instead, we get a mostly nonsensical mishmash of jump scares and music stabs.

Directors/co-writers the Spierig Brothers (Daybreakers, Jigsaw) dive into the legend of the Winchester house, the mysterious mansion in California with endless oddities and rumors of spirits restless after meeting death at the barrel of a Winchester rifle.

Mirren is family matriarch Sarah Winchester, still grieving from the losses of her husband and child in 1906. She orders constant construction on the house, building room after room for the wandering spirits, and the Winchester company board sees an opening.

Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), battling demons of his own, is hired to stay at the mansion and evaluate Sarah’s sanity, hopefully returning a verdict that would force her out.

Bumps in the night ensue.

Mirren and Clarke both rise above the material, which is pretty weak. The Spierigs can build no simmering tension or creepy atmospherics on the order of say, The Woman in Black (a very effective PG-13 haunter). Winchester is built only from standard “boo!s” and lazy red herrings.

Boo indeed.





Fate of the Furiosa

The Fate of the Furious

by Matt Weiner

Maybe it was when it rained cars down on 7th Avenue in New York. Maybe it was the shootout on a plane with a baby. Or maybe—just maybe—it was when the gang attacked a nuclear submarine with sports cars gliding across a tundra.

However naturally each absurd setup manages to segue within the operatic universe of the franchise, the totality of The Fate of the Furious finally answers the question: how much is too much Fast and the Furious?

In the eighth installment of the series, the gang goes up against one of their own: Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) breaks bad to abet a criminal hacker (Charlize Theron) in mass genocide, and only Dom’s makeshift family of gearheads and misfits can save the day.

(If you need to review how Dom’s crew went from outlaw street racers to extralegal super-spies over the last 15 years, there’s Wikipedia—or there’s the fact that it doesn’t make sense and it doesn’t matter, you’ve either bought into these movies by now or you haven’t.)

To help take down Dom, the gang has to work together with a former foe, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). It’s not an original twist, but the chemistry between Statham and Dwayne Johnson is the most pitch-perfect sendup of action movie homoeroticism since Hot Fuzz—maybe more so, given how truly gifted the two men are at contrasting their action figure physiques with deadpan comedy.

If the film has one glaring weak spot besides a wanton disregard for physics, it’s that Cipher is a too-aptly-named villain. Charlize Theron does her best to inject some genuine fear and malice into the character, but all the effort in the world can’t change a flimsy backstory and the fact that she’s basically just there as the catalyst for Dom vs. Everyone Else.

When the film sticks to that hook, director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton. The Italian Job) delightfully serves up the best and worst of the franchise. There’s more excess, more teenage boy wish fulfillment, more glib treatment of women, more stereotypical wisecracking—and since more is more, there’s over two hours of it.

Which brings up the question: has the series gone too far? The Fate of the Furious without a doubt sacrifices some of the franchise’s ramshackle charm in order to deliver a smorgasbord of winking action comedy.

But it would be unwise to accuse this franchise of jumping the shark. Really, it would be unwise to mention sharks anywhere near these movies. If the crew ever does come across a shark, they’re just as likely to punch it in the face, strap sticks of dynamite to it, launch it at some larger, angrier target and keep moving without missing a beat. Isn’t it comforting to have a family you can rely on?

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 





Grief, Lies and Videotape

Collateral Beauty

by Hope Madden

It’s December. That means many things to many people – to Will Smith, it means Oscar bait season.

The Legend of Bagger Vance. Ali. The Pursuit of Happyness. Seven Pounds. Concussion. Collateral Beauty.

One of those movies is pretty good. It isn’t this one.

In Collateral Beauty, Smith plays Howard, a charismatic ad exec whose daughter died three years ago. Since then, he’s been a zombie, rarely eating, riding his bicycle dangerously and spending his work days building elaborate domino structures just to watch them collapse.

Oh, the symbolism!

In a fit of grief one night, he writes three letters: one to death, one to time, and one to love.

In an audacious contrivance, wheels turn in the minds of his friends and colleagues – played by Kate Winslet, Ed Norton and Michael Pena – and the next thing you know, those letters are returned to sender, by hand, by the recipient.

Death – played with panache by Helen Mirren, has lessons to share, as do Love (Keira Knightly) and Time (Jacob Latimore).

Grief is a tough topic. It’s easy to be emotionally manipulative. It’s easy to be patronizing. Director David Frankel and writer Allan Loeb like easy.

Loeb tackled the same theme with his first feature, Things We Lost in the Fire – a well-cast effort that seeks to provide resolution to the grieving. From there, he’s mostly written bad comedies, often starring Kevin James.

Smith stares, tears up and rarely speaks in this cloying, predictable piece of pseudo-enlightened garbage – a film that offers telegraphed twists and jaw-dropping self-satisfaction.

One person’s grief is really nobody else’s damn business. It’s not a learning opportunity for those around, and there are no easy resolutions. Collateral Beauty does not empathize with the grieving. It empathizes with those uncomfortable with grief.

This is selfish. And yet, selfishness is applauded in this film, reframed as confused acts of love.

Verdict-1-5-Stars





Startlingly Relevant

Trumbo

by Hope Madden

“We are going to have to do some things that we never did before, and some people are going to get upset about it. But I think that now, everybody is feeling that security is going to rule.”

Those are Donald Trump’s words as to why he’d consider warrantless searches, Muslim databases, and closing or surveilling mosques – a fear-monger-fueled attack on civil liberties and basic humanity. What’s scary is the idea that he’d consider doing things “we never did before,” because, as Trumbo points out, we’ve done some pretty nasty things in the name of xenophobia.

Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) had been the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood before the blacklist. He and nine others chose to stand up for their first amendment rights, finding themselves in contempt of Congress and facing jail time. What you may not know, and the film hopes to point out, is that Trumbo was at the center of the shameful period of history from its opening to its close.

As fascinating a history lesson as Trumbo is, too much competes for your attention.

Though the cast is lousy with talent, that almost becomes its weakness. There are so many people to draw your consideration, with few characters feeling as if they serve the larger story as much as they require attention of their own.

Elle Fanning is wonderful, as usual, as Trumbo’s eldest daughter – a social activist like her father. Helen Mirren is delightfully wicked as Hedda Hopper, gossip columnist and anti-Communist instigator. Louis C.K. offers perhaps the most naturalistic performance in the film, which, while quite solid on its own, actually emphasizes the sometimes stilted performances around him. Meanwhile, Diane Lane is utterly wasted in the conflicted but supportive wife role.

Even smaller roles sometimes rob focus from the central character and story. John Goodman and Stephen Root liven things up as Schlockmeisters Frank and Hymie King, and Christian Berkel is a scene-stealing scream as Otto Preminger.

Cranston’s central figure should be the undisputed star, though, and the fact that so many others pull for your attention is a shame, because the Breaking Bad star tosses off droll one-liners like an old pro, and his chemistry with every other actor onscreen is wonderful. He epitomizes the writer’s inherent yin and yang with effortless humor and skill.

There is an expression of weary panic on his face as he sees the direction his beloved country is taking – one of ignorance, fear, and hatred. It’s a look we can probably all recognize about now.

Verdict-3-0-Stars





Five More Remakes in Need of an All Female Cast

Rumors of an all-female Ghostbusting team got us A) excited for the reboot, and B) thinking of other movies we’d love to see reimagined with women in the lead. Here are the 5 films we think could benefit from some gender-retooling, along with our dream casts.

Jaws

Steven Spielberg’s 1975 great white classic benefitted from one of the best buddy trios in cinema with Roy Scheider’s reluctant shipmate Sheriff Brody, Richard Dreyfuss’s on-board scientist, and salty sea dog Quint played to perfection by Robert Shaw.

Who has the gravy to run nails down a chalkboard, frighten the locals and bark that she’ll find the shark for $3000, but “catch him, and kill him, for 10”? Nobody but Jessica Lange. We’d flank her with Anne Hathaway as the transplanted cop who wants a bigger boat and Emily Blunt as the oceanographer willing to take the risk when the cage goes in the water.

Easy Rider

How fun would this be? Let’s rework the classic American outlaw motorcycle ride! Who’s the laid back badass looking for an unsoiled America? We’d put the great Viola Davis in Peter Fonda’s role. For the thoughtful square up for an adventure, we swap Amy Adams in for Jack Nicholson. And who could fill legendary wacko Dennis Hopper’s motorcycle boots? We want Melissa McCarthy. (Come to think of it, she’d give Blue Velvet an interesting new take as well.)

Glengarry Glen Ross

Who on this earth could take the place of Alec Baldwin with perhaps the greatest venomous monologue in film history? Jennifer Lawrence – can you see it? We really, really want to see a movie with JLaw chewing up and spitting out this much perfectly penned hatred.

“Put that coffee down!”

And at whom should she spew? The wondrous Meryl Streep should take Jack Lemmon’s spot as loser Shelley Levine. We’d put Kate Winslet in Pacino’s slick winner Ricky Roma role and Kristin Scott Thomas in Ed Harris’s shadowy Dave Moss spot. Then we’d pull it all together with the magnificent Tilda Swinton in the weasely role worn so well by Kevin Spacey.

Predator

We knew we needed an action film, but who could be the new Schwarzenegger? Our vote: Michelle Rodriguez. We then put the ever formidable Helen Mirren in the Carl Weathers boss role. Obviously. The ragtag group of soldiers sent to, one by one, to be skinned alive? Scarlett Johansson, Kerry Washington and Gina Carano. Done.

Reservoir Dogs

Picture it:

Ms. Orange (Tim Roth): Rosamund Pike

Ms. White (Harvey Keitel): Julianne Moore

Ms. Blond (Michael Madsen): Charlize Theron (Cannot wait to see her get her crazy on.)

Ms. Pink (Steve Buscemi): Lupita Nyongo

Ms. Brown (Tarantino): Shailene Woodley

Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn): Cate Blanchett

Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney): Kathy Bates

 

All right, Hollywood. We’ve done the hard part. Now get on it! All we ask is executive producer status and points on the back end.





Frothy Summer Concoction

The Hundred-Foot Journey

by Hope Madden

I did not have high hopes for this movie about a young Indian cook and his family, who open a restaurant 100 feet from a famous bastion of French cuisine.

Director Lasse Hallstrom’s output has primarily offered superficial romance, trite drama and cheesecloth since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. And the media blitz about producers Oprah Winfrey and Steven Spielberg says “sledgehammer of sentimentality” to me. Plus, it’s made by Disney, who Slumdogged it up earlier this summer with the tastefully offensive Million Dollar Arm.

But there are two glimmers of hope.

Writer Steven Knight is not faultless, but when he’s on, he is brilliant. (Please see Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things, Locke. Seriously, please see them.) So there’s that.

And any script can be made better when it falls into the hands of the incomparable Helen Mirren. You saw RED, right?

And basically, The Hundred-Foot Journey is an exact sum of its parts. The frothy concoction offers seductive visuals, feel-good cultural blending, trite drama, a script that sneaks in some subtle but bright jabs at France’s recent history of violent racism as well as the high octane competition of haute cuisine, and a gem of a performance by Mirren.

Watching young Hassan (Manish Dayal) struggle with his natural cooking instincts, the culture clash his life has become, and his romantic interest in a rival sous chef pales when compared to the boisterous, enchanting battle of wills between Mirren’s Madame Mallory and Hassan’s father (Om Puri). These two acting veterans are as flavorful and tempting as any of the dishes simmering onscreen, and the film weakens whenever the story pulls away from them.

Hassan’s romantic subplot fails to deliver any heat, and when the film follows him out of town, you can’t help but feel you’re biding your time until your next visit to Pop and M. Mallory.

It’s being called Slumdog Millionaire meets Ratatouille, which isn’t far from the mark. Adapted from Richard Morias’s charming summer read, the film is as sweet as it is harmless. For foodies and folks looking for the cinematic version of a poolside paperback, The Hundred-Foot Journey delivers. If you’re seeking something with a little artistic nutrition, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

Verdict-2-5-Stars