Tag Archives: Sebastian Stan

Women of the World

The 355

by George Wolf

Apparently, Jessica Chastain pitched the idea of an all-female Bond/Bourne hybrid to director Simon Kinberg while they were making Dark Phoenix together.

Now three years later The 355 is here, and while it’s more memorable than their X-Men installment, the project can never give the duo’s ambitious vision its own identity.

Chastain is “Mace,” a CIA agent sent to Paris with her partner (and maybe more?) Nick (Sebastian Stan). The job is to get their hands on a new cyber weapon that serves as an untraceable master key – and instant entry into any closed system on the planet.

But surprise, Mace and Nick aren’t the only agents hot for that drive, so after 45 minutes of chases and exposition, Germany’s Maria (Diane Kruger), MI6’s Khadijah (Lupita Nyong’o) and Columbia’s Graciela (Penelope Cruz) agree to team up and fight for the future. Then after another 15 minutes or so, China’s Lin Mi Sheng (Bingbing Fan) joins the world party.

Actually, Gracie’s a reluctant guest, as she’s really a psychologist and not trained for combat. So while her secret agent sisters do get to be the impressive badasses, it’s Cruz who brings the film some welcome fish-out-of-water levity.

Kinberg, who also co-wrote the script, pushes all the buttons you’d expect from a mixtape full of Bond’s high-style sexy, Bourne’s lethal brooding, and some Danny Ocean misdirection. And most of it – from Chastain in this role to the cybercrime stakes to the moments of telegraphed action and even the girl power makeover – feels pretty familiar, and that familiarity breeds discontent with the two-hour run time.

Events finally escalate in the third act, and as the globe-trotting and the double-crosses mount, Kinberg does deliver one nicely orchestrated set-piece that truly grabs your attention with tension and bloodshed.

Is it enough to merit that next adventure the finale hints at? Not really, but it’s just enough to make one three-year-old conversation worthwhile.

Save a Prayer

The Devil All the Time

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

“Lord knows where a person who ain’t saved might end up.”

Indeed. The constant fight to overcome the worst in ourselves lies at the heart of The Devil All the Time, director Antonio Campos’s darkly riveting realization of Donald Ray Pollock’s best-selling novel.

Bookended by the close of World War II and the escalation in Vietnam, the film connects the fates of various characters living in the small rural towns of Southern Ohio and West Virginia.

Arvin (Tom Holland), the son of a disturbed WWII vet (Bill Skarsgård), fights to protect his sister (Eliza Scanlen) while he ponders his future. Husband and wife serial killers (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough) look for hitchhikers to degrade, photograph and murder. A new small town preacher (Robert Pattinson) displays a special interest in the young girls of his congregation.

It’s a star studded affair—Mia Wasikowska, Haley Bennett and Sebastian Stan joining as well—but every actor blends into the woodsy atmosphere with a sense of unease that permeates the air. No stars here, all character actors in service of the film’s unsettling calling.

Pollock’s prose created a dizzyingly bleak landscape where Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy might meet to quietly ponder man’s inhumanity to man. Campos unlocks that world courtesy of Pollock himself, who narrates the film’s depravity with a backwoods folksiness that makes it all the more chilling.

As rays of light are constantly snuffed out by darkness, Campos (who also co-wrote the screenplay) uses Pollock’s voice and contrasting soundtrack song choices to create a perverse air of comfort.

Redemption is a slippery aim in and around Knockemstiff, Ohio, and grace is even harder to come by. With a heavier hand, this film would have been a savage beating or a backwoods horror of the most grotesque kind. Campos and his formidable ensemble deliver Pollock’s tale with enough understatement and integrity to cut deeply, unnerving your soul and leaving a well-earned scar.

Three’s Company

Endings, Beginnings

by George Wolf

When does the guise of self discovery collapse under the reality of self absorption? Endings, Beginnings unwittingly toes that line for most of its running time, ultimately rescued by the sheer earnestness of its lead performance.

Shailene Woodley shines as Daphne, an aspiring artist who’s living in her sister’s LA pool house after quitting her job and longtime boyfriend to go find herself.

But first, she finds Frank (Sebastian Stan) and Jack (Jamie Dornan), two good friends who don’t try very hard not to let Daphne come between them. Frank’s the impulsive bad boy and Jack’s the reliable good guy, with Daphne bouncing between them while the film pretends it’s because the two men see her differently.

It’s Daphne who sees herself differently, and her inability to choose is just one of the ways Daphne’s newly-stated goal of doing good for others rings with as much authenticity as her winning the claw game at the arcade (really, she wins!).

Don’t get me wrong, an unlikeable protagonist can be more than okay, it can be a bold and challenging narrative choice. But here, director/co-writer Drake Doremus (Like Crazy) is desperate to sell us personal growth and “music to suffer to” playlists when all we keep seeing are excuses for selfishness.

The always reliable Woodley still manages to make Daphne an interesting train wreck. Her vulnerability and confusion at facing this premature midlife crisis does feel real, and Woodley elevates the film by making sure Daphne – likable or not – is a complex personality forgotten by a litany of romance fantasies.

The chemistry between Woodley, Stan and Dornan is solid, seemingly bolstered by improvisational trust amid Doremus’s abrupt cuts and flashback sketches.

Endings, Beginnings has all the parts of a consistently competent and watchable affair. But the resonant character study it aspires to be – much like the character itself – slips away simply from pretending to be something it’s not.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zY1Jzq7h64Q

Visions of the Past

I’m Not Here

by Brandon Thomas

Loss, regret and redemption permeate people’s lives. We all have those things we wish we could “do over” — a life mulligan, if you will. It’s a universal fantasy that binds us together as human beings. This idea of redemption, or at least the understanding of one’s mistakes, is right at the muddled heart of I’m Not Here.

Steven (J.K. Simmons) is a shell of a man. He drinks too much, lives in squalor and has distanced himself from his remaining family. Through a rotating series of flashbacks, we’re introduced to Steven as a boy dealing with the complexities of his parents’ divorce, and also as a young man (Sebastian Stan) who has just started to make his own life-altering missteps. For present-day Steven, a phone call delivering upsetting news brings all of his past trauma to the surface.

I’m Not Here is frustrating. Its cast is more than capable of knocking this kind of material out of the park, but they are hobbled by a poor script and weak direction. Simmons fares best as his segments are solo and allow him to channel the intensity that’s he’s so well known for. The rest of the cast, including Stan, Maika Monroe and Mandy Moore, get bogged down by the cliche-ridden script. The lack of subtlety, especially in the flashback segments, undermines the emotional wallop of grief and loss that director Michelle Schumacher is trying to convey.

Schumacher’s handling of the material is scattershot. The present day scenes involving Simmons show a confidence that isn’t replicated in the flashbacks. The present day material has a more natural flow that lets the audience settle into Steven’s world of loneliness and self-pity. The darkness of his home mirrors the darkness of his life. On the other hand, the flashbacks offer hazy, overlit scenes that wouldn’t be out of place on CBS’s prime time schedule.

Casting Steven as the ultimate Unreliable Narrator is perhaps I’m Not Here’s greatest strength. His unwillingness to come to terms with his choices have clouded his memories with excuses. Steven’s memories cast him as a victim with only slivers of truth peeking through.

I’m Not Here has the foundation for a complex look at how tragedy and grief shape us, but it doesn’t have the follow-through. This one is not worth remembering.

https://youtu.be/sYDwdCdXCOM





Case Closed

Destroyer

by George Wolf

Nicole Kidman got no Oscar love this year, which gives you some clue as to how many great performances we saw from women in 2018.

Her nuanced supporting turn in Boy Erased was certainly worthy, but Destroyer, released in select cities early enough for consideration, served up a menu that seemed more tailor-made for selection. She’s a major star playing way against type, she goes full anti-glamour and yep, she’s damn good.

Kidman is Erin Bell, a police detective who looks, and acts, like death warmed over. When Erin and her hangover crash the crime scene of a newly discovered dead body, the local cops can mask their condescension with only the thinnest veil of respect.

But Erin knows more than they do about how this guy got dead, and director Karyn Kusama plays a gritty hand juggling the shifting timelines that will lead to Erin’s connection with the stiff, and to the roots of her frayed psyche.

Fans of HBO’s True Detective will feel right at home. Screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who both teamed with Kusama for The Invitation and Aeon Flux, alternate between past and present to slowly reveal the details of an old case that led to Erin’s breakdown. She and partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) were deep undercover with a gang of bank thieves led by the slimy Silas (Toby Kebbell), and as Erin and Chris mixed business with pleasure, the lines separating their realities began to blur.

Kusama keeps up a knowingly effective pace, dropping just enough breadcrumbs to keep you interested until the twist reveal she’s sitting on. Of course, she’s also got Kidman’s range to lean on, occasionally forgetting it doesn’t need that much help getting noticed.

Kidman, with help from extensive makeup artistry, takes Erin from fresh faced ambition to grizzled hopelessness. Scattershot attempts to reconcile with her reckless daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) add emotional layers, and it’s only when Kusama pushes the melodramatic envelope that Destroyer seems overly desperate for us to appreciate its anti-heroine.

She doesn’t need that push. The film delivers a satisfying payoff to its slow burn, and Oscar nomination or not, Kidman crafts a transformative character arc that’s worth your attention.





Ice Queen

I, Tonya

by George Wolf

“There’s no such thing as truth. Everyone has their own truth.”

That snappy piece of dialog is just one of the sharp edges I, Tonya uses to place a decades-old scandal right at the heart of an American cultural shift that feels mighty familiar.

Director Craig Gillespie, armed with a whip-smart script and a stellar ensemble, comes at the Tonya Harding 1994 Olympic soap opera from the perfect side: all of them.

The screenplay, a new career high for Steven Rogers (Hope Floats, Love the Coopers), breaks the fourth wall early and often, priming us for an array of “totally contradictory” testimony from these trailer-park super geniuses constantly pointing fingers at each other.

As Harding, Margot Robbie is electric, relishing the chance at a meaty lead role and proving worthy of every second she’s onscreen. We come to this film with any number of preconceived notions about Harding, so Robbie has to break through them and find the sympathetic layers.

She does, playing Harding as an unapologetic fighter, clinging to a sport that doesn’t want her while battling a cruel mother (certain Oscar nominee Allison Janney), an abusive husband in Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), an idiotic “bodyguard” with 007 delusions (Paul Walter Hauser) and eventually, a rabid public.

Or, maybe she was an ungrateful daughter and a scheming wife, in on the plan to hobble rival Nancy Kerrigan and eager to play the victim at her first opportunity.

Gillespie makes it a fascinating and darkly funny ride, with an undercurrent of bittersweet naivete. As the 1994 Winter Olympics get underway, we see Tonya’s drama play out alongside the birth of reality television, the rise of tabloid journalism and the start of the O.J.Simpson tragedy.

We would never be the same.

I, Tonya embraces the surreal nature of this tale but never mocks or condescends, even in its most comical moments. There’s poignancy here, too, plus tragedy nearly Greek in nature and a damn fine mix of real skating and visual trickery.

Never mind that East German judge. I, Tonya deserves the podium.

 

 

 





Hillbilly Heist

Logan Lucky

by George Wolf

You’re not long into director Steven Soderbergh’s latest before you expect to see Brad Pitt standing around eating something.

Why?

Because Logan Lucky is essentially Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 with hillbillies, which had to intrigue Soderbergh when he first read the script from Rebecca Blunt. If that is her real name.

No, seriously, Blunt is rumored to be a pseudonym for the actual writer, who should just ‘fess up and take credit for this hoot of a heist homage.

Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) gets laid off from his job fixing sinkholes underneath Charlotte Motor Speedway, so he puts together a 10-point plan for his next career move. Two of those points are labeled “shit happens.”

The rest is simple.

Jimmy, his one-armed brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and their sister Mellie (Riley Keough), will bust redneck robber Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) out of jail to help them rob the speedway during the biggest NASCAR race of the year, and then have Joe back in the slam before anyone is the wiser.

Soderbergh structures everything to parallel his Ocean‘s films so closely that when he finally addresses that elephant outright, the only surprise is how often the rubes draw a better hand than the Vegas pretty boys.

Logan serves up indelible characters, fun suspense, finely tuned plotting and solid humor, including a hilarious bit with a prison warden (Dwight Yoakam) explaining to some rioting inmates why the next Games of Thrones novel isn’t available yet.

As Bang, Craig is a flat out riot, doing fine justice to the best character name since Chest Rockwell, and standing out in an ensemble (also including Katie Holmes, Seth MacFarlane, Katherine Waterston, Hilary Swank and Sebastian Stan) that shines from top to toe.

Assembled as precisely as a letter-perfect grift, Logan Lucky has smarts, charm and some downright weirdness. It’s a late August blast with more than enough fun to beat our summertime blues.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

 





Captain Fantastic

 

Captain America:  The Winter Soldier

by George Wolf

 

Robert Redford’s appearance as S.H.I.E.L.D director Alexander Pierce not only brings a boost of legendary star power to Captain America:  The Winter Soldier, but also provides a direct link to thrillers of old that the film recalls.

The new Captain adventure has its feet firmly planted in the world of spies and political intrigue. Think Redford classics such as Three Days of the Condor or All the President’s Men with a healthy dose of Avenging, and you’re getting warm.

Much of what made Captain America:  The First Avenger work was the way it fully embraced the bygone era and dogged earnestness of Captain Steve Rogers. This time out, First Avenger screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely return to successfully bring their hero into the present while casting a knowing eye toward the future. The tandem also wrote Thor:  The Dark World, and they clearly have impressive instincts for how to foster superpowers.

Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans, effortlessly charming) is adjusting to his new time period, partly by embracing the internet and keeping a notebook of things he missed that deserve attention (like the birth of Apple and classic Marvin Gaye).  After an exciting rescue of high seas hostages, murderous events lead Cap, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, effortlessly sexy) and Nick Fury (Sam Jackson, effortlessly badass) to realize someone is dirty in the land of S.H.I.E.L.D, and they have a secret weapon of their own.

He’s the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) an assassin with a familiar backstory and an ambitious target list:  Cap and his crew, including new superfriend Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie).

The Winter Soldier is witty and clever (be sure to read that gravestone) but it may also be the most cerebral of the Marvel movies. It respects the past while confronting the complexities of modern life and wondering what they mean for our future.

For some of the youngest audience members, that may mean some stretches of restlessness. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo do provide impressive and well-paced action sequences, but it’s what comes between the fisticuffs that gives The Winter Soldier a weighty, dare I say realistic relevance.

And, per the Marvel way, stay in your seat for some extra shawarma midway through the credits, and another serving at the very end.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars