Monthly Archives: October 2014

Brutal Bedtime Story

Nicole Kidman’s an amnesiac damsel in distress

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Before I Go To Sleep

Starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong

Directed by Rowan Joffè

Rated R

 

“Who are you?” asks Nicole Kidman’s character, Christine, in the opening scene to the man she’s just woken up next to in the bed.

It’s not a particularly unique movie situation—a lot of characters have found themselves in hazy morning-after scenarios. But in Christine’s case, she really, truly has no idea: She has a form of amnesia that makes her wake up every day totally blank about everything that happened the day before—and every day before that.

“You store up information for a day, and when you wake up in the morning, it’s all gone,” her husband of 14 years, Ben (Colin Firth) explains to her, and to us. We also learn, through Ben, that Christine’s memory loss was due to the head trauma of a terrible automobile accident, 10 years ago.

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Christine (Nicole Kidman) wakes up each day not recognizing the man who repeatedly explains to her he’s her husband (Colin Firth).

But was it? That’s only one of the questions that soon begin to pile up in director Rowan Joffè’s adaptation of British author S.J. Watson’s bestselling psychological thriller. Why doesn’t Christine trust Ben? Why does she have flashbacks of an airport hotel room, a violent assault by a man with a scar, and a woman named Claire? Why does her psychologist, Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), insist on seeing her without Ben’s knowledge, often in his parked car in a damp, underground garage?

Each morning, Christine receives a call from Dr. Nasch, instructing her to retrieve a digital camera from its hiding place in her closet. She watches the recording(s) she’s made on it previously, as her memories painfully, partially begin to rebuild again bit by bit every day. Suspicions mount, secrets are revealed, and things turn out to be different from what they seem—and from what Christine has been led to believe.

To say more would spoil the surprises (although probably not to anyone who’s read the book). But fans of contemporary mystery-suspense thrillers will get a kick out of following the twists and turns, and of cheering on Christine as she struggles to piece together her life from the scattered, shattered shards of her past—not to mention the even greater, bloodier struggle she faces in the movie’s final act.

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Mark Strong plays Christine’s psychologist, Dr. Naish

Kidman has become quite adept in roles that suggest a certain physical frailty and vulnerability, especially when it can be stoked into wounded fury and ferocity. She evokes the audience’s total sympathies as Christine, not only operating in a memory vacuum, starting every day from scratch, but also seemingly being manipulated by those she’s come to trust. Firth and Strong, two terrific actors, only have one brief scene and one snippet of dialogue together, but they weave the tangled, mangled web of dramatic tension from which the entire movie is suspended.

Released just as Hollywood prepares to launch a barrage of box-office fall and winter heavy hitters, Before I Go To Sleep will likely get lost in the shuffle of bigger, flashier movies. It’s a little slow to get going, it sags and drags it bit in the middle, and its heavy-handed ending seems stitched on from a hammy, leftover Nicholas Sparks project. But for anyone who wants a stylish, somewhat brutal, Brit-centric bedtime story about deception, danger and Nicole Kidman in distress, well, sleep tight!

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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‘Wick’-ed, Dude!

Slam-bang revenge thriller puts Keanu Reeves back in action

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John Wick

Starring Keanu Reeves

Rated R

He became a star in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Speed and The Matrix. But as the years clicked by and Hollywood kept churning out newer stars, Reeves—and his best movies—came to feel more and more like relics of a bygone era.

But not anymore, as the 50-year old actor stages one of the year’s most robust comebacks in a movie that defies many of Hollywood’s most basic conventions while covering some of its most familiar ground. In the action-packed John Wick, he plays a retired assassin drawn back into the underworld, where his lethal skills once struck fear into everyone unwise—or unfortunate—enough to cross his path.

TMN_8943.NEFAfter Wick, recovering from the death of his wife, is assailed by a group of young Russian mobsters, it reawakens his dormant killer instincts. What the thugs do his adorable new puppy and his ’69 Mustang has a lot to do with it, too.

Although the revenge/assassin plotline is a very familiar one, what makes John Wick feel so refreshingly original is how directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, and writer Derek Kolsatad, handle it. Stahelski, making his directorial debut after serving as Reeve’s stunt double on all the Matrix movies, funnels all his rough-and-tumble experience into a powerful, sometimes astonishing display of artfully orchestrated, staccato violence—close-rang shooting, grappling, kickboxing, punching, biting, bashing and stabbing. (Kudos as well to cinematographer Jonathan Sela, a veteran of Law Abiding Citizen, Die Hard, Max Payne and other adrenaline-fueled flicks.) It’s an all-out action junkie’s buffet, served up with the finessed intensity of a master chef. You’d never guess the director had never been “behind” a camera before.

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Adrianne Palicki

Writer Kolstad’s story, although following a somewhat traditional trajectory, reveals some colorful original flourishes, especially the “world” of the movie: a teeming contemporary metropolis populated entirely by crooks, mobsters, hit men and those who provide them goods and services—a pulpy Sin City of hip nightclubs, elegant hotels and dens of iniquity fronting as churches, all of them stylishly, slavishly corrupt, although operating within a “code of honor.” It’s a place that the movie brings vividly, originally to life, with a supporting cast of Willem Dafoe, Alfie Allen (from Game of Thrones), Dean Winters, Ian McShane, Adrianne Palicki and Michael Nyqvist.

And Reeves—wow. For a man squarely at the mid-century mark, he’s amazingly athletic, and he absolutely “sells” every punch, blow, thud, slam, stab, wham and bam. He’s never been the most expressive of actors, but this role suits just him fine—mysterious, brooding, silent, sullen and super-cool, but capable of releasing an unstoppable torrent of deadly force in an instant.

_1JW7056.NEFAt one point, Wick is warned about continuing his spree of vengeance, one that takes him deeper into his former life with at every turn. “You dip so much as a pinkie back into this pond,” he’s cautioned, “you might find something reaches out to drag you back down into the depths.”

But in he goes, and it’s quite a dive. Like a lot of action movies these days, this one ends in a way that suggests another might follow. That’s OK: I’d gladly return to John Wick’s (under)world for another adventure with an actor who’s obviously so ready, rejuvenated and rarin’ to go. It was a blast!

—Neil Pond, Parade & American Profile Magazines

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Tanked

Gutsy, grimy war flick drives home the horrors & haunts of combat

Brad Pitt;Shia LaBeouf;Logan Lerman;Michael Pena;Jon Bernthal

Fury

Starring Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman & Shia LeBeouf

Directed by David Ayer

Rated R

War is hell, and this gripping WWII battle drama brings you about as close to the angry, anguished flames as anyone would ever want to get.

Brad Pitt stars as Sherman tank commander “Wardaddy” Collier, leading his battle-weary crew across Germany to finish off Hitler’s forces in early 1945. Wardaddy’s tank is nicknamed “Fury,” with its name written in white paint along its barrel.

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Brad Pitt is the commander of the Sherman tank nicknamed “Fury.”

Even though the war is almost over, the Nazis are desperate and determined to fight to the end, they greatly outnumber the Yanks, and their tanks are bigger, heavier and better fortified.

“Why don’t they just quit?” wonders an exhausted senior officer, who’s just learned of the slaughter of his men by a pocket of heavily fortified, entrenched Germans, who mowed them down in an open field. “Would you?” responds Wardaddy.

Indeed, the “would you?” question hangs heavy over much of the movie, as Wardaddy and his crew confront situations that force them to make instantaneous life-or-death, kill-or-be-killed decisions, and mounting atrocities become everyday occurrences. “This ain’t pretty,” explains grizzled Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) to the tank’s newest team member, wide-eyed Norman (Logan Lerman), who’d never seen combat until assigned to Wardaddy’s command. “This is what we do.”

Lerman’s character becomes the audience’s surrogate, as we share his shock, his revulsion and his reluctance to relent to what seems like madness. We wonder how much we could see before it starts to “do” something to us. We wonder what we’d do with our finger on the trigger of a turret-mounted machine gun, if we could kill other people on sight, without question, without pausing to think about who they are, what they might be planning to do, or what’s right and what’s wrong.

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Michael Peña plays “Gordo” Garcia.

Wardaddy’s crew also includes Mexican-American “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) and Scripture-quoting “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf), who sings hymns to pass time and prods his tank mates to think if “Jesus loves Hitler.”

Writer-director David Ayer, whose other work includes Training Day and End of Watch, makes us feel every cramped, claustrophobic inch of Fury’s crowded interior space, a dreary metal dome where Wardaddy’s crew barely has room to move—or breathe, or bleed. The landscapes are all mud and muck; faces are dirty and grim; violence is intense; fear is everywhere.

We’ve seen other war movies, certainly—they’ve been a Hollywood staple for decades. But I can’t remember another movie—and certainly not another contemporary one—that’s taken such a hard, gritty, gutsy look at World War II tank warfare. There’s nothing glamorous or glorious about the battles, or the war, depicted in Fury. It’s tough, rough stuff, hard going, and—indeed—it “ain’t pretty.”

But it’s raw, it’s powerful and it sticks with you, especially in a scene when the crew rolls into a German town square, where a little bit of everything occurs. That square becomes a microcosm of war itself, and how it compresses and contorts the world, like a busted telescope with a smudged, shattered lens: life, death, love, hate, past, present, future—they’re all there, and then they’re not, gone in an instant, goodbye.

You won’t be cheering when Fury ends. But you’ll be thinking.

—Neil Pond, American Profile and Parade Magazines

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Bat Man

Dracula Untold

Misguided Dracula mash-up has few teeth, even less bite

Dracula Untold

Starring Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper & Sarah Gadon

Directed by Gary Shore

PG-13

Dracula, the world’s most famous vampire, has spread all across the pop-cultural spectrum, from Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic horror novel and actor Bela Lugosi, to goofball cartoons and the inspiration for chocolate breakfast cereal. Historically, he’s been linked—at least in name—to the 15th century Romanian ruler Vlad III, “the Impaler,” whose grotesque signature touch was decorating the Balkan countryside with the writhing bodies of his enemies stuck on poles.

This misguided monster mash of a movie tries to bring the two legends together, in a tale that seems like a 90-minute episode of TV’s Game of Thrones garnished with lots of computer-generated bats.

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Luke Evans and Sarah Gadon

We meet Vlad (Luke Evans, a “days of yore” veteran of two Hobbit movies, Immortals, Clash of the Titans and The Three Musketeers, plus Fast and Furious 6) after his “impaling” days are over and he’s settled down as a benevolent monarch, carving out a kingdom and making peace with the neighboring Turks that were once his favorite Pinterest subjects. But when pushed again toward an unjust war, he makes a desperate deal to protect his castle, his people, his wife and his son.

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Charles Dance from TV’s ‘Game of Thrones’ places an ancient vampire.

That “deal” is the back story of how Vlad became count Dracula, and it involves an encounter in a bat-filled cave with an ancient über-vampire (Charles Dance from Game of Thrones), who offers him a “test drive” of supernatural powers—with a devil of a catch-22. If Vlad can last three days without feeding on human blood, all is well. If not, he’ll become an undead bloodsucker for eternity.

Vlad’s new powers include super-strength, super-speed, super-hearing, super-sight, and the ability to summon bats, control bats, become a swarm of bats, or un-become a swarm of bats.

One of the movie’s major misfires is trying to meld “historical” Vlad into “mythical” Dracula. It just doesn’t work—the handsome Evans makes his character seem way too nice to ever be convincing as someone who terrorizes his opponents by putting them up on pikes by the thousands. First-time director Gary Shore never finds the right tone—be it frightful, funny, funky, horrifying, shocking or sexy—that viewers would expect from a modern flick about the most neck-fetish-ed, nocturnal daddy-o of them all. The whole production looks pieced together from murky videogame graphics, cable-TV soundstage sets and leftover Lord of the Rings costumes.

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The mostly British cast also includes Dominic Cooper (from Captain America: The First Avenger), Zach McGowan (TV’s Black Sails), Sarah Gadon, and young Art Parkinson (another import from Game of Thrones). The movie ends with a couple of jarring leaps, one of them into what’s reportedly intended to be the beginning of a new modernized “monster squad” franchise based on the iconic beasties of Universal Studios, which also includes the Wolf Man, the Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster.

“Sometimes the world no longer needs a hero,” says Vlad. “Sometime it needs a monster.” And sometimes it needs a monster movie—hopefully one with a bit more bite than this one.

 —Neil Pond, Parade and American Profile Magazines

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Gone But Not Forgotten

Best-selling novel comes to screen with creepy, cold precision

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Gone Girl

Starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike

Directed by David Fincher

 One of the most anticipated movies of the year opens with a close-up shot of Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) running the blonde hair of his wife, Amy (Rosamund Pike) through his fingers and musing, “What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What have we done to each other?”

Those three questions set the stage for almost everything else that follows, as director David Fincher brings author Gillian Flynn’s wildly successful 2009 best-seller, a shocking mystery sizzler about one marriage’s dark descent into mayhem and madness, to the screen.

Gone Girl begins with Amy’s disappearance, on the morning of her and Nick’s fifth wedding anniversary, in what looks like a home invasion and abduction. But was it? Nick quickly becomes the prime suspect, clues begin to pile up, suspicions mount, secrets are revealed—and things start to feel like they’re not what they seem to be.

DF-05063_05054_COMP5_rgbFincher unspools the mystery with the same cool narrative precision he demonstrated in Fight Club, The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. He toggles back and forth between past and present, and presents he-said/she-said versions of Nick and Amy’s story through flashbacks and cutaways to Amy writing in her journal—which later becomes a key piece of evidence, and another strand in the plot’s tangled web.

The casting is first-rate. Affleck adeptly balances Nick’s jock-ish “homecoming king” likeability with the deep, troubling doubts that swirl around his character and his motives. Although she’s appeared in numerous other movies, this is absolutely Pike’s breakthrough; Amy is a complex, complicated character, one that you’ll remember long after the movie is over—and so will, in all likelihood, voters for next year’s Academy Awards. Tyler Perry is terrific as the big-city, top-dollar defense attorney Nick hires to take his case. TV and Broadway actress Carrie Coon brings both heat and heart to the role of Nick’s twin sister, drawn into the vortex of small-town news gone national. Neil Patrick Harris and Scoot McNairy appear as two of Amy’s old flames, both of whom may have gotten a little too close to the fire. Sela Ward and Missi Pyle play TV mavens who fan the media feeding frenzy.

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Tyler Perry is terrific as a top-dollar defense attorney.

The tone of the movie—the look, the pace and the music (by Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor) mirrors the material: Dark, creepy, ominous, unsettling, cold. If you’re one of the six million people who’ve read Flynn’s book, you’ll know where everything’s headed (mostly) before it gets there. But if you haven’t, you’ll be swept away in the masterfully crafted brew of mind-bending misdirection, outright lies, psychotic scheming, and detailed criminal procedural that will keep you guessing right up until the end.

This isn’t a snuggle-up movie by a long shot, and its bleak view of marriage—and what might be going on beneath its seemingly placid surface—won’t send date-night couples home feeling warm and fuzzy. In an early scene, Nick and his sister play an old board game from their childhood, The Game of Life, as they discuss Nick’s upcoming anniversary—which, as he’s about to discover, won’t play out quite the way he’s planned.

In Gone Girl’s game of life, there aren’t any winners, only players playing each other in a toxic, brilliantly twisted endurance match from which no one emerges unscathed.

-Neil Pond, Parade & American Profile magazines

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Bloody Balancing Act

Denzel Washington is avenging angel in re-do of ‘80s TV show

Denzel Washington

The Equalizer

Starring Denzel Washington, Chloë Grace Moretz & Marton Csokas

Directed by Antoine Fuqua

Rated R

A quote from Mark Twain gives a stately, dignified opening to this avenging-angel saga before Denzel Washington gets down to business with some serious lethal skills.

“The two most important days in your life are the day were born and the day you find out why,” reads the words of the great American man of letters, setting the stage for the epiphany that will put Washington’s character, Robert McCall, on a path of bloody retribution after a young teenage prostitute he has kindly befriended (Chloë Grace Moretz) is beaten to a pulp by members of a vicious Russian mob.

Chloe Grace Moretz

Chloë Grace Moretz

Former music-video director Antoine Fuqua, who also steered Training Day and Olympus Has Fallen, continues a “literary” thread throughout the film. Washington’s character is working his way through 100 books “every American should read,” like The Old Man and the Sea and Don Quixote. The chief Russian baddie is named Vladimir Puskin, a mashup of Vladimir Putin, the current Russian president, and Alexander Puskin, one of that country’s iconic authors and poets of yore.

But that’s just a bunch of blah-blah-blah when it comes down to what this movie’s really about, which is Denzel Washington snappin’ necks, slicin’ veins and takin’ names as he unravels a web of crime and corruption that spreads high, low, deep and wide. Some viewers may recall the TV show from the late ’80s, starring British actor Edward Woodward. The flick takes some liberties, but keeps the concept basically the same: When big, bad guys start pushing little, good guys around, someone has to step in and stabilize—“equalize”—things.

And usually, those “things” get violent—and messy. Washington is a fine actor, as he’s demonstrated many times before, but The Equalizer doesn’t gives his character any real depth or dimension as he stoically, sternly navigates the muddy, bloody moral ground of revenge and reprisal. And his “numbness” only adds to the movie’s feel of “dumbness,” of a story that’s punctuated with moments of gory, hyper-stylized action but hollowed out of anything smart, meaningful, purposeful or original.

For her star billing, Morenz has little actual screen time. Melissa Leto and Bill Pullman make late appearances as acquaintances of McCall’s that help explain how such an ordinary-looking guy honed such extraordinary fighting chops. Marton Csokas plays a particularly nasty Russian “fixer”—ladies, believe me, you never want him behind you, purring into your ear, telling you how beautiful you are, slowly wrapping your head in his hands. And roly-poly Johnny Skourtis becomes an audience favorite as one of McCall’s coworkers (at a “big box” home-improvement store) who later comes through in a pinch.

Denzel WashingtonThat “pinch” is the movie’s big climatic showdown between McCall and the Russian mobsters, set in the store, which provides not only a dramatic setting—with long corridors, deep shadows and high ceilings—but also an arsenal of weaponry, including a cordless drill, barbed wire, a tree pruner and a nail gun, for McCall to even the score

Some viewers may cheer the new Equalizer in all his “valiant” violence, at a time and on a planet spinning seemingly out of control with mayhem, madmen and monsters. But I’m willing to bet Mark Twain would probably be aghast at all the angry blood spilled and smeared over his homespun affirmation about coming into this world, and simply finding out what you’re supposed to do now that you’re here.

—Neil Pond, American Profile and Parade magazines

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