All the Old Knives Review

I’ve watched sharper spy games than All the Old Knives, but it’s a durable diversionary thriller with a solid spark between its two leads. From Danish filmmaker Janus Metz Pedersen, Chris Pine and Thandiwe Newton are coworkers and lovers who break up over a seized flight (that old chestnut).

Some explanation is warranted. In 2012, CIA officer Henry Pelham (Pine) is in an office romance with analyst Celia Harrison (Newton). Stationed in scenic Vienna (this a lovely looking picture), the seizure and tragic ending of the hijack leads to suspicions that someone on the team leaked intel to the terrorists. Perhaps it’s Harry or maybe it’s Celia. There’s also higher ups played by Laurence Fishburne and Jonathan Pryce.

In 2020, Harry’s got a few more gray hairs while Celia is married with kids in California. She’s far removed from government employment while her ex is still investigating the near decade old case. This brings the pair together in a near deserted fancy restaurant for an interrogation or a bubbly fueled rekindling… or both.

Knives slashes back and forth between these events as twists fill up as frequently as the former couple’s wine glasses. Surprisingly light on action, the screenplay might get drowned out if there wasn’t adequate chemistry between the stars. Luckily there is and it was enough to keep me guessing. Pine missed the mark once as a better known CIA agent in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. This one hits the target more often.

*** (out of four)

 

Uncharted Review

One of the big fights in Uncharted takes place at a Papa John’s in Barcelona. We know this because Mark Wahlberg announces he’s in a Papa John’s with more emotion than 90% of his other line deliveries. I’m sorry to say that a bored looking Wahlberg, a Tom Holland without quality Spidey material, and a screenplay borrowing heavily from superior franchises are not the better ingredients to make this a better slice of entertainment.

Directed by Ruben Fleischer (Venom), Uncharted raids the Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean, and National Treasure pics as did the PlayStation games it is based on. I won’t pretend to be an expert on its source material as I’ve never played it. I read that Holland and Wahlberg wouldn’t be the casting choices of its fanbase majority. All I can say is that their chemistry is rather nonexistent. The film only bails itself out a little in the third act with some impressive set pieces.

Nathan Drake (Holland) works nights bartending in New York City while pickpocketing his unsuspecting imbibers. 15 years prior (as we witness in the prologue), he and his brother Sam attempted to steal a map purportedly leading to Magellan’s 16th century gold. Sam gets kicked out of the orphanage they inhabit with a vow to Nathan to return. A decade and a half later, that hasn’t occurred but little bro does get an occasional postcard. Enter Sully (Wahlberg), a treasure seeker who enlists Nathan’s assistance when he reveals Sam is missing. The two team up to find fortune and family and are soon globetrotting along with Chloe (Sophie Ali), Sully’s distrustful colleague and potential love interest to Nathan.

The trio aren’t the only ones looking for Magellan’s ships filled with shiny bars. There’s Moncada (Antonio Banderas), whose lineage stems from the famed explorer’s funders. He believes the gold is his birthright and he’s got ruthless henchwoman Braddock (Tati Gabrielle) helping.

The treasure seeking brings us to Barcelona where key clues are buried beneath that aforementioned pizza franchise and its mediocre at best pizza with decent enough breadsticks if you get a double order of cheese sauce (that’s my P.J. review). It’s not until we reach the Philippines towards the final act that Uncharted‘s pulse is detected. The action sequences in that region and on the plane getting there (a definite standout) are well choreographed and offer more excitement than anything in the first two-thirds.

There’s not really a performance that stands out, but I will reiterate that Wahlberg doesn’t seem much into the mission or movie. You have to wade through a lot of dusty material to find scenes worth keeping in Uncharted. In Papa John’s terms, there’s not enough cheese sauce to go around.

** (out of four)

Spencer Review

Approximately a decade into their marriage, the union of Diana and Charles is as decayed as the floorboards in her abandoned childhood home and there seems to be nowhere to go but down. That early 90s mindset is where we find Kristen Stewart as the People’s Princess in Spencer from Pablo Larrain. Set at Christmas, it’s an unexpectedly claustrophobic mood piece punctuated by jazz beats and occasional moments of joy (mostly courtesy of young William and Harry). They’re weighed down by Diana’s loveless connection to her husband and in-laws.

Focused on someone who strained to follow royal patterns, it seems appropriate that Spencer refuses to follow ones in the biopic genre. That makes it unique and sometimes haunting – a bit like the title character. In 1991, Diana is well aware of the Prince’s other relationship. So are the paparazzi and they force curtains to be sewn shut as the Royals holiday at their Norfolk estate. Sewing the Princess’s garments are Maggie (Sally Hawkins), one of the few subjects that Diana can talk to. The same cannot be said for Major Gregory (Timothy Spall), who runs the home with the same military precision as the cooks preparing their meals.

In her room that she appears not to share with Charles, the reading list is suggestive. A novel about Anne Boleyn (a 16th century Queen executed by her King) leads to Diana having strange visions of the long beheaded branch of the complicated family tree.

Spencer is not concerned with historical accuracy as much as how history affected the former Miss Spencer’s psyche. She longs to break free as evidenced by an excursion to her former residence. The dialogue between her and Charles (Jack Farthing) or the Queen (Stella Gonet) is curt and strained. There are no pearls of wisdom found in their interactions.

With a stirring score from Jonny Greenwood and masterful cinematography by Claire Mathon, this is a gorgeously rendered production. Stewart has shown her considerable talents post Twilight before – particularly in Personal Shopper. While she may not closely resemble Diana, her mannerisms do and her vulnerability is often something to marvel at. Those looking for a traditional experience may not gel with Spencer. I found myself not being able to look away.

***1/2 (out of four)

Deep Water Review

After giving us well-regarded erotic thrillers in the 1980s (9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction), 90s (Indecent Proposal), and 00s (Unfaithful), Adrian Lyne is back in genre form after 22 years with Deep Water. Unfortunately it’s often as lifeless as the marriage it portrays and even when its central relationship gathers steam in the third act, I still found myself mostly unsatisfied.

Based on a 1957 by Patricia Highsmith (who wrote the novels that became Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley), Water is certainly a cinematic step-down from those pictures. Vic Van Allen (Ben Affleck) doesn’t have much to do in his sleepy small Louisiana town. He’s an early retiree after inventing a chip that powers drones. The political ramifications of his former occupation are glossed over though it seems like the screenwriters wanted to explore it further. He spends his days tending to his pet snails and his precocious daughter (adorably played by Grace Jenkins who gives the most memorable performance).

Her mom is Melinda (Ana de Armas), who is not content being a soccer mom. Vic and Melinda spend their evenings at endless gatherings of their well to do neighbors that include Lil Rel Howery and his muted comic relief and Don (Tracy Letts), a screenwriter looking for inspiration. He may have found it with the Van Allens. Melinda is not shy about flaunting her flirtations and likely sexual dalliances with a string of hunks like the surfer looking Joel (Brendan C. Miller) and ivory tickling Charlie (Jacob Elordi). A previous hookup turned up dead and the townspeople whisper about Vic’s possible involvement. The chatter intensifies when Melinda’s latest conquests follow similar fates.

There’s perhaps some deeper meaning to glean about the nature of suburban marriages and jealousy and my hunch is that it’s found in Highsmith’s source material. It generally isn’t on the screen (or stream in this case since it’s a Hulu release). Instead we get a film where’s little joy in the repetition. Deep Water never quite finds the balance of being a kooky guilty pleasure and an engrossing sexual nail-biter. Occasionally it comes close with the former as Vic bizarrely explains the nutritional dangers of those snails.

Part of the problem is that the leads aren’t given compelling characters to play. Affleck does portray his general malaise with the desired effect while de Armas is saddled with a one-note femme fatale. If she’s supposed to be sympathetic, the writers failed to accomplish that mission. There is a cute moment when their adorable offspring belts out Leo Sayer’s mid 70s tune “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing”. As for Deep Water, it made me feel wistful of an era when these types of exercises were better. Lyne made some of them and this recent proposal falls short of being a decent one.

** (out of four)

Licorice Pizza Review

I’ve been grooving to the beat of Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic vibes for a quarter century. There was the magnificent Boogie Nights in 1997 and the iconic Daniel Day-Lewis milkshake monologue in There Will Be Blood ten years later. A decade after that, my PTA appetite was satiated by Phantom Thread. 

His latest is Licorice Pizza and it’s his most laid back experience. This coming-of-age slice of life takes place in the Valley circa 1973. It feels lived in and authentic and personal. There’s individual scenes where the filmmaker’s brilliance is on full display. Like all of his efforts, there’s memorable performances. And unlike most of his catalogue, this Almost Famous feeling flick has flaws I couldn’t overlook. It’s almost joyous and almost worth the viewing and ultimately more problematic than rewarding.

Loosely based on the teen years of former child actor Gary Goetzman (now a highly successful producing partner of Tom Hanks), Cooper Hoffman is 15-year-old Gary Valentine. He’s costarred in movies and commercials and is far more confident than anyone his age has a right to be. That self-assured nature is evident when he asks 25-year-old photographer’s assistant Alana Kane (Alana Haim) out on a date. She rebuffs his advances at first but ends up meeting him out. The two strike up a friendship and the benefit for us is watching Hoffman and Haim shine in their acting debuts. The son of Anderson’s late frequent collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman and one third of a well-known rock band, Hoffman and Haim are naturals. The drawback is an age difference I couldn’t overlook… so let’s go there.

This is where the sunny tone of Pizza conflicted with their borderline (perhaps over borderline) inappropriate coupling. It’s not overtly sexual and Alana is well aware that hanging with the decade younger Gary is far from normal. Yet there’s enough of a leftover distasteful feeling that it hindered the entertainment value for me. One could argue Gary is more mature than Alana and perhaps that justifies some of what happens. That’s a tough needle to thread and I just couldn’t get there.

Pizza has a lazy hangout atmosphere that recalls Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Like that picture, it’s steeped in exploring a different showbiz era and the technical aspects we expect from PTA (production design, cinematography, costumes, and more) are top notch.

The episodic nature is hit or miss. Pizza‘s best course involves Bradley Cooper as hairdresser turned producer Jon Peters. His segment moves at a thrilling clip as Gary’s failing waterbed business and the 70s era gasoline shortage play important roles. I can’t say the same for Sean Penn’s bit as an aging movie star (based on William Holden) and his motorcycle exploits. By the time we arrive at Alana trying a new career as a campaign worker for conflicted mayoral candidate Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie), the pic was starting to run on fumes.

When a director of immense capabilities makes an almost misfire, there’s no denying it’s more of a letdown. That’s where I stand with Licorice Pizza and it brings me no joy to deliver that news.

**1/2 (out of four)

Scream (2022) Review

Landline phones are looked upon by the new kids of Scream like they’re phonographs, but some things never change with this fourth sequel to the 1996 original. Unlike other horror franchises, I would say there hasn’t been a bad Scream follow-up nor has one come close to approaching the quality of the first. My reception for parts II-IV are fairly similar – passably entertaining and ultimately forgettable. Part V – call it Scream if you want but it’s Scream 5 – is no different and a tad more underwhelming since its new characters add little.

When the ’96 version of Scream came out, Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson deftly satirized the slasher genre while also making a scary movie. It’s why Scary Movie four years later didn’t work for me – it was trying to parody something that had already cleverly done it. The rest of the Scream efforts have struggled with the mix as it continually invents new family connections to reveal new Ghostface killers.

In this Scream, Sam (Melissa Barrera) fled the town of Woodsboro five years ago. She makes a hasty return when her high school age sister Tara (Jenna Ortega) is attacked by the now iconic villain. With Sam’s boyfriend Richie (Jack Quaid) and Tara’s student clique as potential suspects, we soon see familiar faces besides Ghostface. Dewey (David Arquette) is divorced from Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) and no longer the sheriff in town. He reluctantly accepts Sam’s offer to get involved. Sidney (Neve Campbell) has no desire for a hometown return but we know that won’t last.

Sam’s genealogy allows for some slightly more surprising cameos as we try to deduce who the killer(s) are this time around. Some of Tara’s schoolmates fill the Scream bingo card. There’s the Jock, the Movie Buff, and the Virgin. Some of the roles are given a modern update (one of the guys is given the potentially fatal shower scene).

Of course, these characters talk endlessly about sequels and reboots and “requels”. This was a pretty fresh concept a quarter century ago (even if Craven had mined similar territory in New Nightmare). Now there’s precious little more meta to mine. Like the sequels, there’s also the fact that this Scream just isn’t a very scary movie.

Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett take over the reigns as Craven passed in 2015. They clearly have reverence for the series and especially part one. That’s understandable. So did the other ones. Some of them landed their plot points with more precision (Scream 4 managed to have a decent killer reveal and fun third act). All of them were duller cuts and this one strains to properly explain its reason for being despite endless attempts.

** (out of four)

House of Gucci Review

I wouldn’t necessarily say I totally bought into Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, but it’s a lively and garish world to play in for much of the duration. There were also moments where I just stared blankly at its bewildering tonal swings, not wanting to purchase this overblown product anymore. All the money and Oscar nominees and winners and well placed pop banger needle drops in the world can’t completely save it. Yet it’s hard to look away from.

We meet Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga) in the late 1970s. A receptionist at her dad’s trucking business in Italy, she meets Maurizio (Adam Driver) at a nightspot where they awkwardly interact until she hears his last name. Gucci. Her demeanor changes and the awkward interaction turns to awkward flirtation. Maurizio is fickle when it comes to involving himself in the legendary upscale family fashion business. Patrizia is laser focused on inserting herself. Soon to be father-in-law Rodolfo (Jeremy Irons), an ailing former screen star, doesn’t think she’s up to snuff. His brother Aldo (Al Pacino) takes to her and eventually the couple jet from their native country to New York armed with a 50% interest in the corporation.

From the moment back in the club where Patrizia meets her eventual hubby, she takes his surname and schemes with it. No one appears safe from her calculations. That includes Aldo and his – I guess we’ll say eccentric – son Paolo (Jared Leto). Unrecognizable under a balding wig, a fat suit,  and a mound of makeup, Leto is alternately hilarious and dumbfounding. I struggle how to describe this performance. During the first hour, Leto seems right at home with the campy vibe. By the time the company intrigue grows more serious, Paolo’s appearances are equivalent to a highly insecure Muppet crashing a serious conversation. Pacino, surprisingly, is far more toned down (though he does get a chance to yell late in the proceedings).

Driver’s character (and in turn his performance as a whole) is more of a blank slate. There’s a bit of a Michael Corleone arc happening with Maurizio. He starts out wishing to be on the outside looking in but can’t escape all the trappings of the business and is soon consumed by it. Unlike Corleone, that shift seems sudden and without much context. And that’s where The Godfather comparisons will and should end.

Patrizia wants to be consumed it all. Gaga is terrific as the wily outsider who  outfoxes her new clan. She’ll do anything to get ahead including consorting with a crime minded psychic (Salma Hayek). After impressing with her vulnerability in A Star Is Born, she’s a force of nature as she never stops maneuvering. That’s until she’s reminded that being born with the Gucci name has more advantages than marrying into it.

Gucci‘s final act gets bogged down in boardroom shenanigans that aren’t as frothy like the early portions that have a guilty pleasure soapy appeal. This will not be remembered highly atop Ridley Scott’s filmography and he made a far better picture (The Last Duel) that was out a month prior. This is more of a curiosity and a well-tailored one (expect for when Jared Leto lumbers in to do whatever the filmmakers somehow allowed him to do).

*** (out of four)

Spider-Man: No Way Home Review

Spider-Man’s neighborhood grows exponentially in No Way Home, our third iteration of Tom Holland’s web slinger adventures with Jon Watts back directing. Not all the visitors he encounters are of the friendly sort. As you may recall, the conclusion of predecessor Far From Home had the scheming Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) reveal Peter Parker’s identity to the masses. That has serious repercussions as Peter/Spidey’s anonymity is gone and the Daily Bugle and others paint him as a bad guy.

It might be easier to erase that divulgence so Peter visits his old avenging buddy Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to cast a spell to accomplish that. It doesn’t go as planned and it opens to a portal to a multiverse of characters who knew of Spider-Man’s alter ego. THIS IS WHERE WE GO INTO SPOILERS SO CONSIDER YOURSELF WARNED.

Crashing into this trilogy are the antagonists from Spider-tales of old. As in the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield entries that we witnessed from 2002-2014. The sinister company consists of the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx), Lizard (Rhys Ifans), and Sandman (Thomas Haden Church).

With the great power of the Marvel Cinematic Universe comes a responsibility to tap into our nostalgic leanings and No Way Home does it in heavy doses. Seeing Dafoe’s maniacal Goblin and Molina’s Doc from the first two Maguire installments is a kick. As for the rest, they came from lesser pics (Maguire’s last and both Garfield excursions). That said, Foxx’s characterization is a lot more fun than what we saw in The Amazing Spider-Man 2.

My reviews of Homecoming and Far From Home concentrated on the best moments being the most grounded. Holland (the most effective Spidey in my view) and his interactions with love interest MJ (Zendaya), Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), and bestie Ned (Jacob Batalon) were highlights. That holds true here, but No Way Home is anything but grounded. The third go-round is bigger in every sense.

In many ways, it’s the most satisfying since Maguire’s original double feature. Is it gimmicky? Absolutely and there’s an overload of exposition to plow through in the first act. Yet it also reminds us how unique Spider-Man is in the realm of superheroes. It’s also a plus that the villains in this series are complicated ones (for the genre at least) whose motivations are varied and often understandable.

I could go even further down spoiler territory and it’s fair to say the most amazing moments are ones I won’t delve into. No Way Home does provide humorous retribution for one hero in particular (you’ll know when you see it). This is grand entertainment that occasionally approaches the scale of the wars and endgame of Spider-Man’s former team. He’s got a fresh troupe of buddies to collaborate with to save humanity in this trilogy capper. The teamwork provide multiple thrills.

*** (out of four)

Lamb Review

In cartoons and comedies, we’ve grown accustomed to watching animals with human qualities and it doesn’t phase us one bit. Same goes for horror movies and it’s usually played for laughs or with cartoonish violence. That is surely not the vibe of Valdamir Johannson’s fable Lamb, which treats its baby sheep and real baby hybrid with total tonal sincerity. It’s not the first movie to do it (though not with that combo). It’s jarring nonetheless.

Maria (Noomi Rapace) and Ingvar (Hilmir Snaer Guonason) are remote farmers who tend to their flock amidst the scenic mountains of Iceland. Their rather mundane days are given a jolt when the couple deliver a creature with anthropoid qualities.

The blended family scenario provides immediate joy to the parents who suffered a previous tragedy in their conception attempts. A disconcerting aspect of the screenplay is how normally their situation is treated. That’s until Ingvar’s deadbeat brother Pétur (Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson) drops in and his reaction mirrors the WTFery of the viewer.

While Maria and Ingvar stubbornly adhere to maintaining the new routine, Ada (and the dog) sense an outside presence lurking. Mom and Dad aren’t questioning how this mythical being came to be. The animal instincts of others are on alert.

A24 specializes in artsy horror flicks though I struggle to say Lamb is of that genre. It’s not scary. Eerie, including its picturesque though foreboding atmosphere, is a better word for it. This is prime example of either buying the concept or wanting to run for the hills. For a while, I was intrigued by its bizarre nature. Rapace’s committed performance (I’m tempted to say she really has the chops) helps.

When some of the mysteries are clarified in the third act, it felt a bit sudden and anticlimactic. The presentation is certainly unique but the overriding theme of grief is recognizable. That’s not to say there aren’t genuine surprises that occur. The shock value seems a little diluted after watching this sweater clad wooly oddity assisting with breakfast.

**1/2 (out of four)

Swan Song Review

Benjamin Cleary’s Swan Song is told through the eyes of two characters in a near future setting. In years approaching, it seems that our contact lenses serve as cameras allowing remote bystanders to witness the interactions of others. This comes into play with a tale of clones and impending loss.

Cameron Turner (Mahershala Ali) is facing a quandary that’s slightly less believable than his disposable camcorders. Diagnosed with a terminal illness, he struggles with how to tell his wife Poppy (Ali’s Moonlight costar Naomie Harris in another fine performance). With a young child and another on the way, an alternative solution is presented. Kindly Dr. Scott (Glenn Close) can make an exact copy of him. Cameron would face his final days at a lush and remote medical facility. Poppy and the rest of the family would have no idea.

At Dr. Scott’s locale, he meets patient #2 Kate (Awkwafina). He would be third. Away from it, Cameron is introduced to her engineered doppelgänger. That interaction helps push him to the yes column. Yet when he meets the clone called Jack (also played by Ali, naturally) – doubts are cast.

Song features plenty of flashbacks showing Cameron’s existence in healthier days. This includes his meet cute with Poppy involving a candy bar. It gets more dramatic when his eventual spouse is dealt a devastating loss.

The new technology would prevent that from happening and Cleary’s screenplay mostly succeeds in navigating the sticky wicket ethical issues presented. A two-time Oscar winner given his first sole leading role, Ali is excellent. He has the assignment of playing two characters. They may be the same person, but they have different motivations at various times. That’s not an easy feat to pull off and Ali passes the test impressively with subtle grace.

Swan Song is indeed with a tearjerker that manages to earn them with much credit to its lead(s). Cleary is not overly clear about how this enterprise of Xeroxing yourself came to be. It actually works in the picture’s favor. I’m not sure those explorations could have been more revelatory from those we’ve seen in other sci-fi tales with similar themes. Instead we are presented with Cameron’s predicament in real time and with the understandable conflicts he undergoes as his decision clock winds down before our eyes.

***1/2 (out of four)