Stillwater Review

Let me finish this page.

It’s a line uttered in a humorous way early on in Tom McCarthy’s Stillwater to Bill Baker (Matt Damon) by his mother-in-law trying to read her novel. He’s an Oklahoma oil rig worker living a mundane existence punctuated by extraordinary overseas excursions. Bill’s family circumstances are high-profile for such a low-profile man. Daughter Allison (Abigail Breslin) is in a French prison for the murder of her lover and roommate. Mom is tragically no longer in the picture. Mom-in-law seems to be footing most of the bill for Allison’s defense which appears hopeless after half a decade.

Bill is a stranger in a strange land each time he visits Allison, who steadfastly maintains her innocence. He’s searching for answers to free her and he has very few of them. They’re certainly not in French. Part of the struggle is his unwillingness to learn the language across the pond. Yet he also cannot seem to communicate well with his captive daughter and they both speak perfect English.

Stillwater attempts to be many things in its 140 minutes. It works best as a character study for Bill as he becomes more accustomed to his surroundings. This is especially true when he meets theater actress Virginie (Camille Cottin) and her adorable daughter Maya (Lilou Siauvaud). His relationship with Maya gives him a chance to be the father figure that he wasn’t before.

The screenplay makes a wise decision by presenting Bill as a deeply flawed, but determined seeker of truth. The unwise decisions that strained his relationship with Allison don’t stop in America. This isn’t Liam Neeson pulverizing European henchman on his way to saving the day. The script here has taken a far different route.

Where the picture occasionally struggles is with the thriller aspects. For a solid portion of the runtime, the case of Allison is an interesting enough one. There are obviously shades of the Amanda Knox international trial and imprisonment. Plot contrivances, especially in the third act, arise and they are familiar language for the genre. They serve somewhat as a barrier to Stillwater‘s overall success. Not every little twist and turn feels necessary. Perhaps some pages in this screenplay didn’t need to be finished.

Damon’s sturdy performance as Bill slowly moving towards a meaningful life keep this afloat – even if the procedural aspects of finding the real killers feels almost incidental.

*** (out of four)

Shadow in the Cloud Review

During the skyward journey of the World War II bomber plane Fool’s Errand, the fact that it’s under constant fire by Japanese fighters is about the third biggest emergency facing it. That tells you something about Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud, a brief and batty bit of pulp science fiction. This is a movie where it’s easier to admire its sheer brazenness as opposed to ultimately enjoying it.

Taking place in 1943, Maude Garrett (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a flight officer who turns up on the Fool’s Errand with a bag not to be opened under any circumstances. She tells the crew it is Top Secret material. In this era, females weren’t the top of their professions at really anything and she is greeted derisively by nearly all of the all-male soldiers. The sympathetic Staff Sgt. Quaid (John Taylor Smith) is the primary exception.

Confined to the aircraft’s Sperry, the ride gets bumpier for Maude. And how. In addition to the aforementioned enemy attacks, there’s a gremlin terrorizing the crew as well. However, the biggest complication arrives midway through the 83 minutes runtime when the contents of Maude’s baggage is revealed. Whether you go along with it might determine your eventual verdict. I would just say that a kitschy 1940s paperback telling the same tale would probably insert the same twist.

Saying more would enter spoiler territory. Cloud‘s screenplay was originally penned by Max Landis and he still shares writing credit with the director. The script was reworked after Landis got into serious hot water with accusations of sexual misconduct. Not knowing how draft one read, Liang has fashioned Maude into a feminist badass who’s usually a step ahead of the grunts onboard. There’s shades of Ripley from the Alien series given the genre and other plot points I won’t speak of. Believe it or not, the comparisons in terms of quality are rather far apart.

Moretz receives plenty of camera attention alone in the Sperry as chaos erupts around her. The budget prevents a full viewing of the action and the actress’s facial expressions do a commendable job of conveying the litany of emotions she must go through. Cloud delivers limited thrills in terms of actual screen time and moments that stick. It’s as if there’s not enough minutes to truly embrace its sheer B movie absurdity.

**1/2 (out of four)

Space Jam Review

For reasons I cannot really explain, I never saw 1996’s Space Jam until yesterday. Followers of my blog know I’m a bit of a movie lover (hence the blog). Yet there’s plenty of films I haven’t watched. Gone with the Wind springs to mind. I still haven’t caught up with Demi Moore’s take on The Scarlet Letter and it came out a year before this one.

However, I was 17 when Michael Jordan’s collaboration with the Looney Tunes was released in theaters and it was a huge hit. I’m also a massive basketball fan and was an ardent admirer of #23 (who had just won his fourth NBA Championship in the months prior to Jam‘s release). Hell, I even had the soundtrack on CD. It featured Seal’s cover of “Fly Like an Eagle”. There was also “Hit ‘Em High” and it featured the divine hop hop quintet of B-Real, Coolio, Method Man, LL Cool J, and Busta Rhymes. The biggest hit causes some trepidation nowadays as the picture opens with the crooning of R. Kelly and “I Believe I Can Fly”.

It seems a bit silly to recount the plot all this time later, but here goes. Space Jam takes place in that strange time known as Michael Jordan’s first retirement. That’s when the superstar chose to play baseball and ended up in the Minor Leagues. That aforementioned first scene set to Kelly’s syrupy ballad is actually a touching one that features MJ as a young tyke on the court with his father. Followers of Jordan know why the sequence likely had some emotional resonance with him.

The comedy begins in another animated realm where Mr. Swackhammer (voiced by Danny DeVito) lords over his minions in a place titled Moron Mountain. That locale is part of an amusement park in need of more sizzling attractions. Swackhammer decides he wants to recruit the Looney Tunes characters (against their will) to join the party. When Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Sylvester, Tweety Bird, the Tasmanian Devil and others are given the proposition – they challenge the newly formed Monstars to a basketball game. If they win, they’re free to go and resume their normal cartoon hijinks.

Swackhammer won’t go down without some creative team building so he steals the bodies of NBA stalwarts like Charles Barkley, Muggy Bogues, and Patrick Ewing to join his squad. Bugs and company have an ace up their sleeve, however, with the greatest of all time.

The blend of animation and live-action still holds up quite well from the mid 90s. At the time, it was quite cutting edge. This Jam runs just 88 minutes and mostly flies by. Jordan isn’t asked to do Shakespeare here. He plays a version of himself and does it well. The screenplay even has some fun with his many corporate connections by name dropping his many commercial brands (from Hanes to McDonald’s) at one point. Wayne Knight (fresh off being decimated by Dinos in Jurassic Park) plays MJ’s pushy but good-hearted publicist. Jordan’s family (Theresa Randle is his wife) appear intermittently but aren’t really a focus. MJ has a game to win after all and he takes it personally.

Having the Looney Tunes posse allows for plenty of humorous moments. No, this isn’t them at the height of their glory, but they still deliver. Interestingly enough, I found myself wanting the script to delve more into certain subplots. Having been a viewer of Inside the NBA for many years, I have no doubt that Charles Barkley could have been utilized to better effect (the dude’s hilarious).

My overall reaction to Space Jam is that I totally get why it’s become so appreciated. Is it a classic? No. Does it take its limited premise and make it amusing? Yes. In 2021, Lebron James has become the face of his league and that’s warranted the just out sequel. I won’t wait 25 years to watch it and my review of A New Legacy is coming to the blog soon.

Not everything has changed in the last quarter century by the way. Bill Murray shows up out of nowhere at a couple of key times. You’re a Google search away from reading stories about the legendary actor doing that all over the world. Google may not have been a thing 25 years ago, but Mr. Murray popping up unexpectedly to make things better is timeless.

*** (out of four)

Black Widow Review

The Marvel movies have become as American as apple pie. Or “American Pie” since that Don McLean ditty is featured prominently in Black Widow, a stand-alone feature designed to fill some backstory of Scarlett Johansson’s OG Avenger. Is it necessary? That’s debatable. However, the unexpected COVID layoff of nearly two years between MCU titles and some solid performances makes this a welcome addition to the franchise.

I guess I should say SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t taken in the rest of the cinematic universe so there’s your warning. Avengers: Endgame marked the demise of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow as she went out in self sacrificial fashion. Her previous sacrifices for a darker cause are explored here. The film opens in 1995 Ohio with Natasha and her little sister Yelena being raised by parents Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz). It’s all a front, though, as mom and dad aren’t really their folks. They are Russian spies on a mission for General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and once the Midwest job is completed, the fake family unit is broken apart.

Natasha, of course, grows up to be the fighter we have seen in numerous other blockbusters beginning with Iron Man 2 and so on. Yelena grows up to take the form of Florence Pugh and she gets her training as well through Dreykov along with numerous other orphaned girls turned assassins. As far as timeline purposes go, Black Widow happens between the actions of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. That’s when The Avengers were experiencing their roughest patch with Tony Stark and Captain America at odds and the others being forced to choose sides.

Since Natasha is a wanted woman by the U.S. Government, she reunites with her long lost “sister” and “parents” in Budapest (remember to pronounce the SH sound in the word) in an effort to stop Dreykov’s mind control of his female army. Unlike other MCU pics, this truly is a stand-alone piece. None of the other Avengers are present and that gives time for new secondary characters to shine. Foremost among them is Yelena and the winning performance given by Pugh. She makes enough of an impression that I hope for her future involvement in other chapters. Harbour is good for a few comedic highlights as he reminisces about his time as Red Guardian (when he apparently had some battles with Captain America).

The MCU always comes down to bloodline dynamics and it is in abundant supply here. If Black Widow previously felt like a slightly underdeveloped character, there’s enough familiar familial dynamics to check off some boxes. Where Black Widow is weakest is not in the action sequences. They’re as first-rate as you’d expect. Cate Shortland makes her first contribution to the series in the director’s chair and she and the tech team certainly get a passing grade. The film’s liability is the villain Dreykov who doesn’t make much of an impression in the fairly short amount of screen time he’s given. This is not a unique flaw in the MCU. For every Loki or Thanos, there seems to be a handful of forgettable baddies.

We already said bye-bye to Johansson’s Black Widow once, but this callback to a time before her heroic departure proves the levee isn’t dry when it comes to her entertainment value. And it also shows she leaves behind previously unknown associates that could provide more highlights.

*** (out of four)

The Ice Road Review

Liam Neeson’s The Ice Road finds its inspiration from two classic pictures in 1953’s The Wages of Fear and 1977’s Sorcerer. The plots are similar by placing truck drivers in dangerous situations with nearly impossible odds to succeed. In Wages and its remake, it regarded the transportation of finnicky nitroglycerin over rough terrain. Though explosives are involved here, Road mostly pertains to what lies beneath. This is where ears of fans for the History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers may perk up.

A mining disaster in Manitoba traps 26 workers. The only way in reaching the remote locale to rescue them is hauling hefty rigs over the frozen tundra. Signing up for the job is Neeson’s toothpick chomping Mike McCann and brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas), an ex-Vet suffering from PTSD and aphasia, a condition which limits his ability to communicate. Others along for the ride due to their particular sets of skills are Laurence Fishburne as a seasoned driver and Tantoo (Amber Midthunder), a rebel with a cause whose brother is among those closed in and about to run out of oxygen. There’s also Tom (Benjamin Walker), a company man supposedly there to assess insurance risk.

The Ice Road volleys back and forth between the motorists on their slick mission, the captive workers making life or death decisions as their breathing slows, and the corporate overlords more concerned with not ruining their profits. Neeson has, of course, made his own profitable second career with these mostly generic action thrillers. With Jonathan Hensleigh (writer of Die Hard with a Vengeance and Armageddon) behind the directorial wheel, we have another middling entry for the Taken lead.

As the credits rolled, it struck me how little real action or visual thrills there are here. Some of this could be budget related. When the ground cracks and mayhem occurs, we never see below the surface and that might have been cool (pun intended). Neeson doesn’t sleepwalk through the role nor does Midthunder. As for brother Gurty, he does have a pet mouse that comes in handy at one point. Ultimately this tale of ice and anonymous ski goggled henchmen is primarily stuck in mediocrity.

** (out of four)

The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It Review

Remember those Brady Bunch episodes when they went to Hawaii and Bobby found the evil tiki that ruined part of their vacation? Similar happenings occur in The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It to the Warren bunch – our happily married demonologists Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga). It involves a satanic totem that wreaks even more havoc than Greg wiping out while surfing or Alice throwing her back out during a hula lesson. The latest Conjuring franchise pic delves deeper into the occult than previous entries and it is again based loosely on a true story.

This centers on the 1981 case of Arne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), who was the first American to claim demonic possession as a defense during trial. As we learn in the pretty effective opening sequence, his curse was passed like a hot potato from 8-year-old David Glatzel (Julian Hilliard). That little boy is exorcised by the Warrens and church officials in a body twisting procedure, but his malady is transferred to his sister’s boyfriend. That results in Arne returning home from work and his dogs are barking. His feet are fine. Arne works in a boarding kennel and those pups know something is off with him. The rest of Connecticut figures it out shortly after when he brutally stabs his boss.

Ed and Lorraine are naturally sympathetic to Arne’s forthcoming legal proceedings and seek to discover the backstory of how this came to be. Lorraine’s clairvoyant abilities unveils a tale of witchcraft. Meanwhile, Ed is hampered by heart problems. In fact, he experiences more ticker palpitations than you might as a viewer.

In 2013, the original Conjuring emerged as one of the finest horror pics in recent years. None of the official sequels or spinoffs have come too close to matching it and that holds. Michael Chaves takes over directorial duties from James Wan. Like the first two, this is well-made and doesn’t suffer from the cheap knockoff vibe that, say, Annabelle had. To be fair, even the Annabelle follow-ups improved. The last time we saw the Warrens was in 2019’s Annabelle Comes Home and I would say it had more pure entertainment value than this.

That’s not to say Devil is bad. It’s just another so-so example of creaking sound effects and jump scares that intermittently possesses a genuine scare. This even gets a little gooey towards the conclusion with its love conquers all theme. You can’t blame the filmmakers. Ed and Lorraine, in real life apparently and certainly on screen, have been through a lot. It’s too bad they weren’t in Hawaii back in the seventies. Maybe Alice would have had a far more pleasant hula lesson.

**1/2 (out of four)

The Woman in the Window Review

The deeply troubled agoraphobic Anna Fox (Amy Adams) has a habit of avoiding reality in The Woman in the Window by chugging a bottle of wine and distracting herself with classic old movies. This is her way of not dealing with the story unfolding around her. There are times where I could relate as those vintage pictures would provide a better escape than what happens here for the most part.

Directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, Darkest Hour), Window is based on a 2018 novel by A.J. Finn. It features quite a list of Oscar winners (Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore) and actors you may think have won them (Adams, Jennifer Jason Leigh). The screenwriter Tracy Letts is a Pulitzer winning playwright. With that  level of talent involved, one would think Window would rise above the histrionic Hitchcockian “homage” that it is. Mentioning Mr. Hitchcock might be too complimentary. This shares many similar plot points to 2016’s The Girl on the Train, which was also based on a book meant to be read on an airplane or the beach you rush to after the flight. You could easily call this The Girl on the Painkillers.

Dr. Fox is a child psychologist whose condition has kept her confined to her Manhattan apartment. In addition to her binge drinking/movie watching, she spends most of her day spying on neighbors. The new ones across the street are the Russell family – businessman Alistair (Oldman), wife Jane (Moore), and teen son Ethan (Fred Hechinger). Or maybe not. After the wife and boy visit her, Anna suspects some abuse is occurring in the household. The mystery deepens when Jennifer Jason Leigh shows up as Alistair’s spouse. Maybe the abundance of Anna’s medication is causing hallucinations. Our voyeur tries to enlist the NYPD, led by Brian Tyree’s Henry detective, and her basement tenant (Wyatt Russell) to assist with her amateur sleuthing. There’s also the matter of Anna’s only family. She’s separated from her husband (Anthony Mackie) and they have a young daughter. They turn up in flashback form and saying much more would enter spoiler territory.

The Woman in the Window contains plenty of twists that might have worked in paperback form. The treatment by Wright and Letts is a tonally frantic one. This is primarily a melodrama that begs to be taken seriously from time to time. Some of the performers seem in on it as Oldman, Moore, and Hechinger got the memo to overact wildly. Yet this never reaches its apparent goal of being a genuine guilty pleasure. That’s too bad because the behind the camera personnel and cast in front of it deserved better. Many of those examples are contained in Anna’s cinematic collection in her brownstone where less spellbinding developments are transpiring.

** (out of four)

Those Who Wish Me Dead Review

Taylor Sheridan’s Those Who Wish Me Dead is the second recent Warner Bros/HBO Max venture that would have felt more common as a mid 90s release. Take an Oscar winner/nominee and put them in a generic thriller where you’re saving a kid from generic assassins or solving the crimes of a demented mass murderer. Let the guilty pleasures commerce. In the serial killer genre, we saw it early this year with Denzel Washington and The Little Things. This one reminds me of titles like The Client with Susan Sarandon or The River Wild with Meryl Streep (the latter especially since it deals with forces of nature).

I’ll confess that I’ve developed a soft spot for material like this. It takes me back to a simpler time a quarter century ago where blockbusters didn’t primarily involve CG spectacles. And, yes, when movies like this took up whole shelves at Blockbuster and were rated R for non-gimmicky reasons.

Hannah (Angelina Jolie) is a smokejumper in Montana assigned to desk duty due to a wildfire that ended in tragedy. That demotion places her in a lookout tower with gorgeous natural settings that clash with her unnatural hair extensions. The monotony of her assignment takes a turn when she comes across Connor (Finn Little). The preteen is on the run from assassins (Nicholas Hoult and Aiden Gillen) who offed his forensic accountant dad. Why did his father meet his demise? The screenplay doesn’t much delve into that, but you might be interested to know that Tyler Perry has something to do with the dirty deed.

As Hannah attempts to bond with Connor, the killers frantically try to find them. Jon Bernthal is Ethan, a local sheriff with ties to the boy and he happens to be Hannah’s ex-boyfriend. He helps run a survivalist school with his expectant wife Allison (Medina Senghore) and they make it tricky for the bad guys to complete their business. This is an example of where Sheridan’s screenplay (with Michael Kortya and Charles Leavitt) hints at more compelling directions it might have gone in. When Allison gets to show her abilities while in danger and quite pregnant and on horseback, I couldn’t help but think a script about her handling these thugs would have been more rewarding.

With Jolie, she doesn’t have much of a character to work with. Her backstory involving past career missteps is thin. Her rapport with Little (in a solid performance) does have some highlights. Sheridan has created far more memorable moments in his previous written and directed works like Sicario and Hell or High Water. He’s continually shown an ability to make his scouted locations a gripping participant. That holds true with the Montana wilderness and the fire that eventually rips through it.

With Those Who Wish Me Dead, this is where words like serviceable get overused. It is, however, accurate. I found myself reasonably entertained during its brisk 100 minutes and the 90s throwback feeling makes it easier to forgive lapses in logic. This is hardly a towering achievement, but the inferno didn’t bore.

*** (out of four)

News of the World Review

In the filmography of Tom Hanks that intersects with Paul Greengrass, he was the Captain then and he is the Captain now in their collaborations. The first was 2013’s Captain Phillips and I still harbor a grudge that the multiple Oscar winner and nominee didn’t pick up another nod for it. His final scene in Phillips as he’s in shock over the real life events in which he barely survived was reason enough for further awards consideration. That movie left me floored. News of the World left me satisfied as Hanks once again gives a commanding performance with a newcomer costar who is his equal.

This time around, Hanks is Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd. Set in 1870 amidst gorgeous Western scenery, Kidd is a former Confederate soldier traveling the American South. He earns his living schlepping from town to town and reading the latest newspaper stories to an attentive crowd. The happenings of Washington D.C. (led by President Ulysses S. Grant who Southerners aren’t exactly fond of) are hundreds of miles away. Yet 150 years now, they might as well be on Mars. The film doesn’t dwell on these struggling towns digging their way out of the Civil War, but that history is always present underneath the surface.

Kidd’s solo journey is interrupted when he happens upon a young girl Johanna (Helena Zengel). Her blonde hair and blue eyes indicates her German heritage, but her Native American garb tells a different background. She speaks the language of a tribe and it is revealed that her original family and those who raised her after their demise have perished as well. A double orphan, Kidd reluctantly accepts the responsibility of returning Johanna to her surviving family that she’s never met. Kidd’s own familial history is gradually revealed.

Thus begins an episodic quest where the language barrier between the two leads isn’t the only complication. There are also ex-soldiers who try to purchase Johanna and that leads to Kidd entering into battle a half decade after the war’s end. There are rough stops on the speaking tour that put the wild in the west. And, being that it’s Tom Hanks leading the horse drawn wagon, there’s a fundamental decency in his interactions with his copilot and a paternal instinct that kicks in.

News of the World is, quite simply, a rock solid picture. We know Hanks will turn in exemplary work and he does. The performance of Zengel is the surprise and is one of the best child performances in recent memory. She says more with an expression than plenty of actors do in a monologue. It has become cliche to call Hanks the Jimmy Stewart of his time, but it’s so true. There are times when I could imagine Stewart playing this part in something from the 1950s or 60s. That old fashioned vibe is a contrast to Greengrass’s earlier catalogue that includes the Bourne franchise, United 93, and Captain Phillips. Those pictures had a fierce urgency to them. World is more laid back, but with frequent reminders of the violent atmosphere permeating the post War era.

Hanks could read the phonebook and it would draw interest. Telephones didn’t come around until 1876 so his tales off the printed page do just fine. He also has a worthy partner in Zengel and top notch work from his director and crew.

***1/2 (out of four)

City of Lies Review

Brad Furman’s City of Lies, originally scheduled for 2018, was delayed and the reason why depends on what you read. It could be because the LAPD didn’t want it to come out based on their bad behavior with the case it involves. Or it could be due to recent bad behavior of its own leading man. City of Lies itself isn’t a bad movie. It just doesn’t doesn’t add a whole lot to a well covered story told in other mediums.

The film recounts the still unsolved homicide investigation of The Notorious B.I.G. thru the lens of Detective Russell Poole (Johnny Depp) and journalist Jack (Forest Whitaker). When the murder occurred in the spring of 1997 in Los Angeles, this was in the aftermath of the 1992 riots and the O.J. Simpson trial. It was also, of course, mere months following the killing of another rap superstar Tupac Shakur.

Based on Randall Sullivan’s book LAbyrinth, the picture puts forth the theory that LAPD officers were deeply involved in the plot to take out Brooklyn’s legendary rapper in conjunction with Death Row Records and its founder Suge Knight. Yet with the aforementioned events in Southern California, Detective Poole’s efforts to expose the corruption was buried.

For those with an interest in this nearly 25-year-old unsolved mystery, none of this is new information. It’s been told in various documentaries and novels. The two lead characters collaborate some 18 years after Biggie’s death. Poole’s earlier investigation (seen in flashbacks) has led to the downfall of his career and family life. Jack’s previous journalistic writings on the case posited mostly discounted speculation that Biggie ordered Tupac’s fateful ride on Las Vegas Boulevard. He’s preparing a 20 year retrospective of the murders and Poole’s hypotheses are increasing in their validity (despite the LAPD’s continued obstruction).

Depp and Whitaker are two actors who can chew scenery. Both of their performances here are more on the subtle side and they’re both solid. City of Lies, unfortunately too often, is a subdued record of an urgent subject. Late in the proceedings, there’s a scene where Biggie’s mother Voletta Wallace plays herself. It’s quite well-done and is a brief and powerful reminder of her unending search for answers. Had the individuals involved not been named Biggie and Tupac and Suge Knight, the pic would mostly feel no different than a typical episode of a police procedural. Ms. Wallace’s late appearance keeps us mindful of the real cost involved with justice delayed.

**1/2 (out of four)