In ‘The Good Liar,’ Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren Bring Their Own Violent Spin to the Con Artist Game

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter

Director: Bill Condon

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for Shocking Old Person-on-Old Person Violence and a Quick Walk Through a Strip Club

Release Date: November 15, 2019

As Ian McKellen meets up with Helen Mirren for a first date and they complain about the “computer service” and its supposed reputation for “mismatching the delusional with the hopeless,” it’s a good bet that The Good Liar isn’t just a simple septua/octogenarian rom-com. Even if you didn’t know going in that this was a thriller, the smoking hot, fine-tuned wit would tip you off that something deeper and more sinister, is going on. And sure enough, as Ray Courtnay (McKellen) and Betty McLeish (Mirren) continue going out together, Ray is also busy with his business partner Vincent (Jim Carter) on a grift worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. You very quickly get the sense that pretty much everyone in Ray’s life is a target of his cons, and each act in the film gives a new clue of the lifelong layers of his false identities. All of this should seemingly have us very worried for Betty.

But if you are like me, you were never seriously concerned that she would be the ultimate victim, considering that she is played by the indomitable Helen Mirren and con artist films so often turn on a reversal of fortune. So the fact that Betty pulls one over on the most frighteningly masterful deceiver should come as no shock. The joy is in the details of beholding her playing her part so perfectly and the final revelation of just why she is the one who would want to turn the tables (a date to see Inglourious Basterds is an early hint). No punches are pulled as we learn the truth, which transcends just Ray and Betty’s story and touches upon all of Europe reckoning with its violent past. Ray is the kind of man who doesn’t think twice about killing someone to protect himself and then slip away undetected. Betty’s story is about ensuring that all-too-common terrible legacy finally catches up to him.

And as one last important note, I must mention the tablets that Ray and Vincent use to transfer funds in the deployment of their grifts. These things are hilariously bulky, looking more like giant calculators (with conveniently large-print text for the senior set) instead of any familiar twenty-first century gizmo. Perhaps these really are what people with bank accounts worth millions of dollars actually do use to make convenient transfers at home and on the go. And it’s not like there was ever any way to make pushing buttons on these tablets look particularly cinematic. Honestly, though, I’m not complaining. It’s not like these moments demand to be visually seamless. These tablets certainly aren’t part of the mental picture I have for big-time con artists, but I often enjoy it when my expectations are confounded.

The Good Liar is Recommended If You Like: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, The Remains of the Day, The Debt

Grade: 3.75 out of 5 False Identities

Movie Review: ‘Hobbs & Shaw’ is Surprisingly Goofy, Unsurprisingly Family-Oriented, and Annoyingly Convoluted

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CREDIT: Frank Masi/Universal Pictures

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Idris Elba, Vanessa Kirby, Eddie Marsan, Eiza González, Helen Mirren

Director: David Leitch

Running Time: 136 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Big Vehicles and Big Egos Slamming Into Each Other

Release Date: August 2, 2019

Spin-offs should offer something that the original couldn’t. Hobbs & Shaw immediately feels off in that regard, considering that Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) have already been a couple of the biggest characters in the last few Fast & Furious movies. Although, they aren’t quite members of the core family, so that leaves them enough wiggle room to break out on their own. But it can’t be too different! This franchise has a sterling stunt reputation it needs to maintain, and while director David Leitch and company do not try to be as relentlessly mind-blowing as Fast Five or Furious 7, there is at least one memorable moment when a motorcycle slinks between some truck tires.

The separation, then, mostly comes in Hobbs & Shaw being at its core an odd couple buddy comedy, and in this case, that means a few celebrity cameos who inject their own particular brands of impishness. These moments feel out of place in this world, but they might also be the best parts? Their charms cannot be denied. Honestly, though, I think we would have been better off spending more time with Hobbs’ daughter (Eliana Sua), as her scenes are both delightful AND internally consistent.

As wonderfully corny as Hobbs & Shaw is willing to be, it can’t change the fact that most of the plot is convoluted high-tech, globetrotting nonsense. Idris Elba is the cybernetically enhanced big bad, and we get a few genuinely disturbing shots of how he is becoming a superhuman or something beyond human. There is a hint of a larger conspiracy at play here, but only a hint. Meanwhile Vanessa Kirby plays Deckard’s sister Hattie, an MI6 agent who has been infected with a virus that’s going to kill her and apparently everyone around her also. The explanation for how the virus is supposed to spread is either glossed over or not emphasized enough, which is a problem because the race to cure Hattie is what drives most of the action.

Thankfully, the reward for dithering through all that is a surefire demonstration that we must, in true F&F fashion, celebrate the importance of family. It’s not as flat-out heartwarming as the series proper, but Hobbs takes us all along to Samoa to meet his mom and brothers, and Helen Mirren totally rocks her prison jumpsuit in her return as Mama Shaw. I could do without all the derivative action flick gobbledygook, but I’m grateful for the good vibes.

Hobbs & Shaw is Recommended If You Like: James Bond, but with a goofy postmodern (though not quite parody) sensibility

Grade: 3 out of 5 Friendy Insults

Wild and Crazy Movie Review: Anna

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CREDIT: Shanna Besson

Luc Besson’s Anna features the most time-establishing title cards I have ever seen in one movie. We jump five years ahead only to ten minutes later skip back three years back (i.e., two years after when we began.) Do you think we skipped something important by shooting forward six months? It turns out you’re right, so let’s return to three months ago. This at first feels like self-parody (possibly intentional, possibly not), but it ultimately all slots everything into place and becomes the jigsaw puzzle construction that ensures this film’s modest pleasures come into focus. We needed some sort of experimentation to liven up this otherwise straightforward take on yet another “poor Soviet village girl self-actualizes by becoming a KGB spy/double agent/triple agent,” which there probably aren’t that many examples of, although it feels like there’s a ton. It’s that whirligig approach that makes Anna fun enough. Also, it features montages set to “Pump Up the Jam” and “Need You Tonight,” which is hardly groundbreaking but plenty welcome.

I give Anna 30 Helen Mirren Cigarette Drags out of 50 Helen Mirren Russian-Accented Sick Burns.

This Is a Movie Review: I Have No Idea How to Make Sense of ‘The Nutcracker and the Four Realms,’ But At Least It’s Vaguely Enjoyable

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CREDIT: Laurie Sparham/Disney Enterprises

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Mackenzie Foy, Keira Knightley, Matthew Macfadyen, Eugenio Derbez, Richard E. Grant, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman, Misty Copeland

Directors: Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: PG for Mildly Scary Rodents

Release Date: November 2, 2018

In The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, Mr. Stahlbaum’s (Matthew Macfayden) wife has recently passed away, so now he wants to make sure that he and his children are able to keep it together. What does he believe is the best way to do so? Why, dancing, of course! They head off to a Christmas ball, where he insists to his headstrong daughter Clara (Mackenzie Foy) that she must save one dance for him. When they arrive, she has no interest in dancing, but by the end, the entire Stahlbaum family is dancing together. How does she end up changing her mind? I guess it must have something to do with her impromptu journey through a magical, Narnia-like realm, but I’m not sure show. This movie resembles a hero’s journey in which lessons are learned, but it is not particularly clear what those lessons are, beyond the simple “be brave” and “appearances can be deceiving.” But regardless, Mr. Stahlbaum’s wish for dancing is fulfilled, so … mission accomplished?

Beyond Clara’s internal fortitude, the main potential attraction in the Four Realms is Keira Knightley’s weirdly affected performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy. As one of the leaders of the realms, she sounds like a body snatcher doing an impression of a ditzy supermodel. She speaks in baby-talk neologisms that make her sound like a character from Rugrats. The way she says “Oh, poo” is transcendent.

Basically, what it boils down to is this: I have no idea how closely this film resembles the original 1816 short story, and I do not care to look it up. (I’m guessing the plot doesn’t matter all that much in the ballet.) The Nutcracker and the Four Realms lacks a sense of of clear purpose and meaning and comes with a psychedelic edge that often goes along with misbegotten fantasy family movies. I would not expect such a surreal flavor from either of its co-directors (Lasse Hallström and Joe Johnston), but accidental surrealism is often the best surrealism.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is Recommended If You Like: I have absolutely no clue.

Grade: 3 out of 5 Mice

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Winchester’ Fails to Explore Its Premise by Visiting Very Few Rooms in Its Vast Haunted Mansion

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CREDIT: Ben King/CBS Films

This review was originally posted on News Cult in February 2018.

Starring: Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, Finn Scicluna O’Prey, Angus Sampson, Eamon Farren

Directors: Peter and Michael Spierig

Running Time: 99 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Gunfire, Creepy Contact Lenses, and a Very PG-13 Moment of Nighttime Companionship

Release Date: February 2, 2018

When a truly original idea arrives in horror, you’ve got to hold on to it tight. Winchester has quite a unique and intriguing premise, but you would not be able to tell from the execution. Inspired by true events, it is a haunted house tale that takes place in, as one character adroitly puts it, “a house under neverending construction built on the orders of a grieving widow.” But the film never takes full advantage of all that lurks within the title abode.

Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren, fully embodying gothic haute couture) is the heiress to her late husband’s eponymous arms company, and Winchester’s plot is set in motion when Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) is asked to evaluate her mental fitness and therefore capability to continue overseeing the company. Her fellow executives and shareholders have their doubts because of her obsession with endlessly adding more rooms to her mansion, which she is doing to contain the spirits of the many haunted souls who have been killed by Winchester firearms.

There is a perfect opportunity with this setup for a face-off between skepticism and belief in the supernatural. But instead, the existence of the ghosts is pretty much never in question, and no character expresses significant skepticism (nor indeed do they have any reason to). That is not necessarily a big loss, though, as the house itself allows plenty of opportunities no matter what the status of the ghosts. With construction having no master plan or endpoint, the mansion could be the most disorienting maze ever. But the film barely takes advantage of that spatial horror.

I do not mean to tell Winchester what sort of film it must be, but I do mean to express disappointment when what it chooses to be is so indistinct. Forgoing the more challenging haunts that it hints at, it instead is a run-of-the-mill possession and revenge story, with Sarah’s great nephew (Finn Scicluna O’Prey) doing his best creepy kid performance, rendering “Beautiful Dreamer” the stuff of nightmares. He is being influenced by the ghost of a Civil War veteran (Eamon Farren) who is predictably defeated in a final standoff, and then everyone moves on with their lives, the evil contained, for now at least.

Directors Michael and Peter Spierig (who previously worked with Winchester’s Sarah Snook on the twisty, heady Robert Heinlein adaptation Predestination) have a few tricks up their sleeve, holding on a shot just long enough for it to be unnerving when an arm suddenly bursts through a previously hidden opening. But overall they never develop a firm grasp on the jump scares or the slow burns, and they do not seem to be particularly committed to either. Plus, the underlying message of what constitutes terror in this story – something about fear being only in the mind – does not jibe with what is actually happening.

Winchester is Recommended If You Like: The Woman in Black, Helen Mirren in Period Clothing

Grade: 2 out of 5 Rifles