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Thursday, 22 October 2020

Review: The Honest Thief


There's a level of quality to Liam Neeson movies you just don't get with other aging action stars. It's not just gratitude that he hasn't gone totally off the rails like, say, Bruce Willis: even when a Neeson actioner seems like a fairly basic effort - which let's admit, The Honest Thief is - there's always a couple of scenes or twists that show that somebody somewhere along the line was looking to make a decent movie. And for a film like this, "decent" is pretty solid praise.

Tom Carter (Neeson) is a break-and-enter thief who's racked up a seven-figure haul from various banks over the last few years. Then he meets Annie (Kate Walsh) at the storage center she owns and runs, and despite a fairly average "meet cute" scene, he promptly falls head over heels in love. Time passes, he realises he can't go on living a lie with her, and so it's time for the so-called "In-and-Out Bandit" to give himself up. 

Not being a total sap, he tries to cut a deal with the FBI: he'll hand himself in and hand over the cash if they give him a short sentence in a nearby prison where Annie can visit. Agent Sam Baker (Robert Patrick) and his partner Tom Meyers (Jeffery Donovan) get a decent laugh out of this, and to be fair Carter does come off as a bit of a rube in these early scenes - this is a movie that gets better as it goes along and there is a halfway decent explanation for why Carter seems a little out of touch with the world of crime, but it's a bit of a bumpy ride early on.

Not convinced Carter (who's calling them from a secret location, AKA a hotel) is the In-and-Out Bandit, Sam passes the investigation onto junior agents John Nivens (Jai Courtney) and Ramon Hall (Anthony Ramos), which is when things start to get interesting. Carter sends them to his cash stash to prove he's the man, they find the money and figure "why not just keep the cash and say the guy's a nutcase?" and before you know it everything has gone wrong for everyone and it's car chases and gun battles on the streets of Boston.

Interestingly for this kind of film, it's the bad guys who start out as the smart ones. Niven's plan is a perfectly good one that only goes awry though bad luck (well, good luck for Carter), while Carter is kind of a chump until it's time to turn into Liam Neeson, action hero - and even then there's just enough to his character to give him a handful of scenes that aren't the usual run and gun stuff.

This is a little rough around the edges at times - there are some decent car chases and nice Boston location shooting; there are also a few sets that really look like sets - but there's enough polish on the script (co-written by director Mark Williams) to keep it from feeling completely generic. Character quirks are the kind of thing that add value to this kind of film but are too easily overlooked: whether it's Meyers stuck with his ex-wife's dog or Carter grousing about being dubbed "The In-and-Out Bandit", this has just enough sparkle away from the action to keep things interesting. 

Neeson's action career has largely kept ticking along because he's been willing to push things a little. Bouncing between films like A Walk Among the Tombstones, The Commuter and Cold Pursuit, he's managed to find ways to keep his formula relatively varied while still delivering what his fans are looking for. The Honest Thief is perfectly satisfying for what it is, which is the most generic action film he's made in a while; guess that's one way to keep bucking the trend.

- Anthony Morris


Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Review: On the Rocks

Laura (Rashida Jones) is a mother of two who, all things considered, is doing pretty well for herself. She’s got a nice apartment in New York, two adorable daughters who aren’t handfuls at all, and Dean (Marlon Wayans) a hard-working husband who’s caring and attentive. Sure, her daily routine seems to have hardened into a rut and she can’t find her way back into her writing (turns out having kids and being used to writing at night don’t mix), but things could always be worse. 
For example, she could start to suspect Dean of cheating on her just when her freewheeling father Felix (Bill Murray) lobs back into her life. 
Felix is an art dealer and ladies man who flirts with every woman he sees – and is charming enough to mostly get away with it. Even Laura knows he’s not someone she should be confessing her worries to, but where else can she turn? And once Felix is on the case, she finds herself drawn into what threatens to become a full-blown caper tailing her husband all across New York looking for proof of an affair that probably (possibly?) doesn’t exist.
Having writer / director Sophia Coppola back working with Murray again on their first feature since Lost in Translation defined (or in Murray's case, re-defined) their careers is clearly the big draw here. It's something of a surprise then that it’s the earlier scenes built around the rut Laura finds herself in that are this film’s strongest. Murray gives a thoroughly charming performance as a character that plays to all his strengths and he has great chemistry with the equally appealing Jones, but it’s hard not to feel that the film loses something when he’s on the scene, slipping down a notch into a lighter, less memorable mode.
Possibly it’s simply that the stakes dwindle once he arrives. Laura’s relationship is central to who she is; for Felix, much as women are to be adored, they remain essentially disposable. The clash between these views is meant to be one of the film’s core issues – which one of the duo is going through life the right way? – but it’s hard to get much drama out of trying to figure out if someone is cheating when one of the team of investigators thinks it doesn’t really matter because men are programmed to roam.
(Felix does express some minor outrage at the idea that someone would cheat on his little girl, but he can’t sustain it; an angry dad would make this a much less amusing film)
On the Rocks prizes a light touch in all things, but there’s a maturity under it all that makes it feel more like a wine night spent with one eye on the babysitter’s clock than a freewheeling romp through the city at night. The lack of Coppola’s usual swooning romanticism is keenly felt; Felix might live in a high-toned world of wheeling and dealing in a string of luxury apartments, but whatever the artworks on the walls they still feel down-to-earth (he is, after all, always doing business), while the New York they explore only rarely looks like anything more than a series of nicely shot locations. 
It's a consistently funny film, though the third act stumbles a little. The humour is rarely an end in itself; a scene where Felix charms his way out of a speeding ticket is both delightful and a pointed look at how a certain kind of white male can slip through life (though Murray's self-aware performance never lets Felix off the hook - he knows exactly how the world works). This grown-up mood is central to a film about a woman who may wonder how she got where she is, but she’s happy (mostly) with the result. 
This isn’t about escape, it’s about maintenance. The relationships here aren't idealised; there's no bloom of first attraction, just the ongoing struggle to make it work with people you (still, somehow) love. Lost in Translation was about feeling adrift in a life that had somehow appeared around you and embracing the chance to break out; On the Rocks is more about realising you should be be happy with the life you've worked hard to make for yourself. 
It's a perfectly reasonable message for this warm and charming film - though being a successful author with a New York apartment probably helps.

- Anthony Morris

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Review: Waves

Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is seventeen and has the world at his feet. A high school wrestler looking at getting into college on a scholarship, he has a loving girlfriend, Alexis (Alexa Demie), a well-off family, and a life in South Florida that's a whirlwind of cars, friends, training and hanging out. There's the occasional off note - his father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) is a self-made man who means well but pushes his son maybe a little too hard - but on the whole? Life is good.

And then it isn't, and while this family drama has more to say than simply "shit happens", the capricious nature of life and the way even the steadiest of good fortune can be revealed to be hanging by a thread is at the core of what's to come. A shoulder injury jeopardises his future; seeing it as a personal failure, he decides to keep it secret. Things get worse, and when Alexis reveals she's pregnant his life begins to spiral out of control. Disaster seems inevitable, and the fallout will shatter more lives than his own.

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults (It Comes at Night) is as interested in creating a sensory experience through film as he is in telling a story, though the story here definitely stands up. The early scenes with Tyler sees the camera constantly on the move through an at-times glowing, garish world, sliding and spinning through a life lived at precarious speed. Even before the wheels come off, there's a constant tension, a sense of things only seemingly under control.

In the back half of the film the focus shifts to Tyler's little sister Emily (Taylor Russell), an minor presence early on who turns out to have hidden depths of her own. Already quiet, she becomes almost withdrawn after Tyler's trainwreck and the film's visual energy settles down with her (the aspect ratio also shifts to 4:3 after the increasingly claustrophobic widescreen of Tyler's scenes; when her life once again opens up, so does the screen).

Emily finds a relationship of her own, even as her family struggles (and fails) to come to terms with what's happened. After the tension of the first half of the film, we're in the same situation as Emily, wary of new faces, always alert for the damage they could deal out. What follows is surprising in the way it confirms that life goes on, and can even be good; some of the moments would seem forced or melodramatic in a lesser film, but after what everyone's been through any moment of peace and insight rings true.

Often films that focus so firmly on visuals and sound as Waves earn tags like "lyrical", and it's well-deserved here. But there's a raft of outstanding performances as well, from a cast that moves effortlessly from big scenes to subtle character moments. Shults has created a living, breathing world; it's definitely worth a visit.

- Anthony Morris

Sunday, 31 May 2020

Review: Endings, Beginnings

Drake Doremus seems like the kind of director who doesn't seem all that interested in what his scripts are about so long as they give him the chance to create a particular mood. That's probably a little unfair: the kind of mood he's usually looking to create is one of romantic longing, so clearly he's not rushing to get hired for the next Bad Boys sequel (though if that franchise were to take a surprise twist, who knows...).

His most successful film to date remains Like Crazy, a romantic drama in which a young couple are put through the wringer because one of them decides to overstay his visa (to stay with his girlfriend, obviously), only to discover that's totally screwed over his chances of returning to the country to be with her.

Having a decent plot that justifies Doremus's fondness for arty shots of attractive young people looking sad is a large factor in its success; every film he's made since then (yes, even the one where Ewan McGregor falls in love with a robot) has had an increasingly slapdash feel to it.

In the case of Endings, Beginnings, that's kind of the point; largely improvised with the help of the cast, it's clearly more about being a free-wheeling character study of a young woman (Shallene Woodley) at a turning point in her life than it is about a gripping plot packed with twists. Which is exactly the kind of film you want Doremus to be making.

Daphne (Woodley) has just broken up with her seemingly perfect boyfriend for reasons even she can't seem to articulate and moved back into her sister's pool house. Her models for relationships aren't great: her sister's relation may be abusive, while her mother didn't exactly provide stability either. Then one night at one of her sister's parties she meets Jack (Jamie Dorman), a kindly Irish writer, and Frank (Sebastian Stan), a fiery bad boy. Who to choose? And they're also best friends!

It's a moderately interesting dilemma that holds few surprises. It's no spoiler to reveal that the moral of the story is that girls like the nice guys but they'll sleep with the bad boys, and this does contain a number of what counts as graphic sex scenes for an American film in 2020. But the focus is firmly on Daphne and her journey to a place where she can move forward with love in her life, and both men are really just ways for her to figure out what she really wants.

Doremus is a solid stylist in the underappreciated "films that look like an expensive car commercial" genre, and while that sounds like a cheap shot it's more a recognition of how advertising has colonised a certain strand of emotion-based film-making. Looked at a particular way, Terrance Malick's films also feel like expensive car commercials, and so while the story may occasionally feel like it's spinning its wheels. the visuals always do an impressive job of keeping the emotions we're meant to be feeling on solid ground.

The only real problem with all this is that Daphne herself isn't that interesting. Her dilemma is largely abstract, especially once it becomes clearer exactly why she left her ex. Even purely as fun wish fulfillment (which this clearly is to some extent) it's often not much more than eye candy; while she's torn between two hot guys that's not really a tough problem to have when both of them constantly make sure to respect her feelings and boundaries.

Like a lot of stories that are made up as they go along, it reaches a point where the drama just runs out.

- Anthony Morris

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

Out Now: Homecoming season one

Heidi (Julia Roberts) is a counselor at Homecoming, an organisation that helps returned soldiers transition back into civilian life. Or more accurately, she was: now she's a small town waitress, which is the kind of comedown that even the Department of Defense finds a little suspicious - especially as she now says she has no memory of ever having worked at Homecoming. This is a series full of mysteries, and over ten episodes the twists and turns just keep on coming.

On release Homecoming didn't get quite the attention it deserved - it stars Julia Roberts! It's directed by the Mr Robot guy! - which can largely be laid at the feet of Amazon, which at the time (and possibly even now) was seen as a streaming service that occasionally came up with the goods but wasn't a must-have addition to your viewing roster. That's a real shame: this is as enthralling a mystery series as any of the more high-profile efforts that have been buzzed about over the last few years.

It's a sign of how television has cheapened the mystery that the term "puzzle box" is pretty much standard for the genre now, but Homecoming is an old-fashioned mystery, one where the puzzle has been thoroughly worked out before the first clue is clear. So while there are plenty of twisty developments here, there's never a sense that things are happening simply for the sake of keeping you watching. It all adds up, which is exactly what you want to hear before making a five hour commitment.

Of course, it's totally possible you're here just to see Julia Roberts (who we don't seem to see enough of these days), and fans will have nothing to complain about with her small screen debut. Even those who might be on the fence after a decade or more of her blinding smile in rom-com roles will be won over by her reserved, nuanced performance here.

The rest of the cast provides solid support, whether it's Sissy Spacek as her small-town mother, Bobby Cannavale as Homecoming's blustery boss (just what is it that he wants Heidi to find out from her cases?) or Stephan James as Walter, a returned soldier who's struggling with survivor's guilt after his tour.

Director Sam Esmail brings his signature off-kilter visual style to what gradually develops into a story of a kind of corporate malfeasance (or is it?), giving almost every scene a lurching sense of subtle menace that amplifies the unease without becoming overwhelming.

The whole production is measured in a way that a good mystery should be, with everything working in balance to build a picture we want to see completed even as we come to dread what it will reveal.

Homecoming season one is out now on DVD through ViaVision

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Out Now: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Some movies feel bigger on the small screen, and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker - which came across as more than a little overstuffed plot-wise in cinemas - seems a much more expansive watch on the small screen. Perhaps that's merely an effect from seeing it a second time around. Maybe it has something to do with plot-heavy dramas being more suited to the small screen experience. Either way, a film that felt a little too breathless on the big screen comes off a lot better at home.

That's not to say the (extremely busy) plot doesn't still have its problems. Pulling in a brand new (yet extremely old) bad guy to round off this trilogy is still a shaky move even if it does tie this final trilogy tighter to the first two. The script's tendency to deliver what should be series-shaking developments (at least two central characters seemingly die) then walk them back within minutes is less than ideal too. And much as we all wanted to say goodbye to Carrie Fisher properly, her role here is little more than an extended goodbye that's more awkward than heart-warming.

But on the whole, this delivers what you want from a Star Wars film (as does the home release: the making of doco that's the big extra is an entertainingly extensive look behind-the-scenes). The core characters spend much of the film working as a team, while most of the new cast make a strong impression. The final act may lack the kind of rigorous logic  many want from science fiction, but Star Wars has always been closer to fantasy anyway. The whole final set-up feels dire, which is all it really needs to do to succeed.

Plus it's a Star Wars movie! it's a successful franchise for a reason, and a big part of that reason is that it's full of locations and characters and just general stuff that's fun to look at. George Lucas didn't invent the idea of a future that looked well-worn but the series he's created has pretty much come to own the concept as far as Hollywood's concerned (just look at the photos release for the upcoming Dune; it's clear the only other option left for Hollywood space opera is the exact same kind of technology only brand new, which is far less interesting to look at).

So even if you're someone who's had their fill of lightsabre battles - and if you are, it's surprising you've read this far - staging one on the wreck of a Death Star that's also in the middle of an ocean during a raging storm isn't really something you're going to see anywhere else. Where Star Wars goes from here (the past?) remains a mystery; for now, this remains a perfectly fitting send-off.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is available on DVD, blu-ray and 4K now.

- Anthony Morris

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Review: The Hunt

A group of people wake up in the middle of the countryside only to discover they’re being hunted for sport. It’s a remake of The Most Dangerous Game (or if you prefer, Hard Target), but there’s a twist; this time the rich evil hunters are rich left-wing evil hunters!  It's Go Woke Go Broke(n Neck) The Movie!

Okay, there’s a lot more twists than just the specific blather the wealthy murderers come out with; this is a film that prides itself on at least trying to keep you guessing, and the multiple surprises - combined with a tight 90 minute run time - makes this an entertainingly fast, if not exactly deep, B-movie. The kills are gory when required, discreet when not, and the fight scenes are decent enough to work as pay offs when the stalking scenes peter out.

That said, it’s the overtly political slant that's the big marketing hook here (as the story unfolds it turns out to be slightly more complex than merely a bunch of Hillary lefties hunting “deplorables”), especially considering a resulting tweetstorm from President Trump resulted in this being pulled from release schedules late last year. 

Now in 2020 scriptwriter David Lindelof and Nick Cuse’s deliberately controversial and intentionally superficial politics seem almost quaint, though many of the jokes still land thanks to director Craig Zobel’s jokey approach. The underlying moral is basically that rich people are dicks and loudmouths deserve what they get, which is something 99% of the audience can get behind, so the chances of anyone being authentically outraged by a collection of online buzzwords being deployed for comedy effect is fairly slim.

But the politics, like the action and the twists, are all part of a whole, and The Hunt moves quickly enough and darts enthusiastically enough from one to the other and back again to make the whole thing firmly entertaining as a kind of polished-up take on what would otherwise be a direct-to-obscurity slice of genre fun.

This isn't exactly the kind of film you watch for the performances, but Betty Gilpin as one of the more durable hunted is a clear stand-out, turning a fairly generic role into a star turn via a likable combination of wariness and world-weariness that's winning. Everybody else gets a flashy death.

- Anthony Morris