Movie Review: Red Notice (2021)

TL;DR – art heist flick with plenty of sparkle but not much substance.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Where to start? So a ‘red notice’ is issued by Interpol to law enforcement around the world of a criminal or fugitive. When said criminal seeks to evade justice in one country by fleeing to another country, Interpol can issue a ‘red notice’ requesting law enforcement to provisionally arrest that criminal pending extradition.

International art thief, Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds), is seeking to be the most wanted art thief in the world. The reason he seeks to be number one on Interpol’s list is because of daddy issues, but this is background filler that is a lame excuse for the life he has chosen (not at all believable, so don’t even bother).

Seeking to capture Nolan is FBI criminal profiler, John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson) who is assisting Interpol though has not been granted any jurisdiction or powers outside the United States. Interpol has somehow bought into Hartley’s credentials and doesn’t do any background check on him (cue turning off one’s brain at the absence of logic). Hartley is a criminal profiler but is a brick house of an agent (because it’s Dwayne Johnson) and has undercover and thieving skills (yes, he can pick pocket like a pro… suspicious much?) that rival Booth and thus makes no sense and is even less believable. It makes sense at the end because of the twist, but if you question initial scenes, you will see the twist coming.

Last but not least, we have Sarah Black a.k.a. “The Bishop” (Gal Gadot), the current number one art thief in the world. She always appears on the scene without explanation and with an ease that makes me think she has superhuman powers (or at least the power to wander into places invisible without anyone noticing). Given this is Gal Gadot we are talking about, how she manages this is the least believable. But we shouldn’t question this. After all she is the number one art thief in the world.

The film opens with a history lesson about three jewelled eggs gifted to Cleopatra by Marc Antony. These priceless artefacts are now worth a fortune. One is held in a museum in Rome, another is owned by an infamous arms dealer, and the third has never been recovered.

Booth steals the first egg, successfully escapes, returns to his hideout in Bali only to discover Hartley and Interpol are waiting, and gets arrested. The egg is secured briefly only to be swapped out by Black disguised as an Interpol agent. Framed by Black, Hartley becomes the prime suspect and winds up in prison with Booth. The pair are then confronted by Black who reveals that she knows that Booth has uncovered the location of the third egg. She offers Booth a cut of ten percent if he tells her where the third egg is. Booth declines her offer.

After Black’s departure, Hartley convinces Booth to work together to capture Black. The incentive for Booth being 1) to bust out of prison, 2) to acquire the eggs, and 3) to usurp Black as the number one art thief in the world. Hartley’s motive is simply to clear his name and arrest both Booth and Black in the act.

There are so many plot holes in this story that I don’t know where to begin. For starters, how does Hartley know Booth’s hideout is in Bali and its exact location? The explanation is that Hartley’s profile skills allowed him to figure this out. It’s a throw away one liner that is farcical. Next, how is Black able to masquerade as an Interpol agent? Surely, Interpol would know the exact number of people on this mission to Bali, and who each agent is that has been assigned to retrieve the first egg and arrest Booth. Next, how does Black know that Booth has knowledge of where the third egg is located? She has a voice recording of Booth saying he knows, but how she came to have this recording? Who knows?

The above is a sample of the gaps that require you to suspend all belief. At least Ocean’s Eleven explained how they were going to rob the casino. There is no attempt to provide clever explanation in Red Notice.

This film is all about the interactions between the three main leads and action sequences. Admittedly the camerawork on the action is well done, and while Ryan Reynolds is now typecast in his character (i.e. guy with smart mouth) along with Dwayne John who is also typecast in his character (i.e. guy who kicks ass), the banter between the pair does bring out a chuckle here and there. Gal Gadot’s character is meant to be the foil between the two, manipulating the strings to achieve her own goals.

It is not so much a heist flick as it is a wannabe “Indiana Jones” adventure (even at one point, Booth starts whistling the theme song from the Indiana Jones movies) as the trio travel around the world to acquire the three eggs. The final twist leaving the film open for a sequel. I don’t think the film is trying too hard to be clever, which is a good thing. This is not Money Heist or seeks to create a massive reveal like The Usual Suspects. It’s an action comedy where a good-looking cast gets to do good-looking action. Accept that and you’ll enjoy the movie.

5 out of 10

Movie Review: The Many Saints of Newark (2021)

TL;DR – Prequel story to the HBO crime drama “The Sopranos” following a young Tony Soprano and his uncle, Dickie Moltisanti during the 1967 Newark riots. Enjoyable for fans of the highly successful TV series.

Review (warning: spoilers)

From 1999 to 2007, viewers were gifted with one of the greatest TV series to hit our screens. The Sopranos followed the tumultuous life of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), father and head of a New Jersey-based Italian mafia. Gandolfini’s iconic role was so convincing, I believed that the actor had mafia ties. The HBO produced series was nominated and won so many awards that the list takes up its own Wikipedia page. From the cast, to the direction, to the camera work, to the costume design, to sound and music composition, The Sopranos set a platinum standard when it came to TV entertainment and demonstrated that small screen “cinema” could be as gripping, engaging and thoroughly engrossing as a feature length film on the big screen. But The Sopranos would be nothing without a story created and written (primarily) by David Chase. It is the writing that elevates The Sopranos into legendary status among the upper echelon of great TV drama.

Having watched all six seasons of The Sopranos, I almost fell off my chair when I read that David Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner had penned a screenplay about a prequel. Directed by Alan Taylor, The Many Saints of Newark focuses on a young Tony Soprano’s childhood against the backdrop of the 1967 Newark riots that were sparked when a black taxi driver was arrested, beaten and killed by white police officers.

Played initially by William Ludwig and later by Michael Gandolfini, a young Tony Soprano tries to navigate his childhood and teenage years surrounded by a father, Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal), uncle Junior Soprano (Corey Stoll) and the rest of the DiMeo mafia family all involved in criminal activity. However, it is his mentor, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), that he has the greatest respect and admiration, and the story primarily follows the pair.

The story shows that Tony never really stood a chance at choosing a life on the straight and narrow. At key points, Dickie attempts to get Tony to follow the rules and not get swallowed into a life with the mafia. But the things that Tony witnesses and the bond that comes being part of the mobster family burn indelible images into his brain and you know it is only a matter of time before Tony wants to learn the ropes to the “family” business.

By contrast, we follow Dickie and the life of a mobster and all the highs and lows that such a life entails. Dicke’s life reflects and prophesies what Tony’s life will be when we watch him in The Sopranos TV series. Dickie’s actions result in profound consequences that impact his conscience. Yes, he’s a mobster and thus you would think that his conscience would have been long ago seared to the point of no return, but there lies the complexity and horrifying beauty of the story. It is the fact that somewhere deep down (likely buried six feet under) is a piece of Dickie’s soul that still feels guilt and knows right from wrong. This manifests itself when he visits his uncle Sally (Ray Liotta) in prison. Sally also happens to be identical twins with Dickie’s father, and did I mention earlier in the film, Dickie kills his father? I didn’t? Well, this review did say spoilers.

Sally is the ‘therapist’ to Dickie’s conscience and is prophetic in nature because Sally comes to realise the blood on Dickie’s hands and tells him that he needs to stay out of Tony’s life (lest Tony gets sucked into a life of crime also). It is not coincidence that the first episode of The Sopranos has Tony talking to a psychiatrist.

These linkages are key to truly appreciating The Many Saints of Newark. Thus, if you haven’t watched the TV series, you will likely miss out on many of the connections with the prequel. The fun is in identifying all the characters in the prequel with those in the TV series and getting a glimpse into how they become who they become.

The final scene where Tony is at Dickie’s wake (yes, another spoiler, Dickie does not make it out alive in this film) and the camera focuses on young Tony, you can see in his eyes that his destiny is now set. This is confirmed when the song – “Woke up this morning” by Alabama 3 – starts playing. This song is as iconic as Tony because it is the opening credits song to The Sopranos. I honestly got goose bumps when that deep baritone voice and drum beat started playing.

8 out of 10

Movie Review: The Harder They Fall (2021)

TL;DR – a stylistic western revenge flick with a killer soundtrack that tells more of the story than the dialogue and visuals.

Review (warning: spoilers)

A husband, his wife and their son sit down at the table for supper. The husband says grace, thanking the Lord for their meal, but they are interrupted by a knock at the door. When the husband sees who it is, he whispers, ‘No.’

The husband backs away, looks longingly at the rifle perched on the wall out of reach. The stranger enters, spits on the floor and sits down at the table taking out two gold plated revolvers and puts them on the table. The husband sits down and asks the stranger to leave his husband and son out of this. He expresses that the quarrel is with him not with his family. The stranger calmly raises his two guns and points one each at the wife and son. The husband pleads to leave them alone. The stranger points both guns at the wife and fires killing her instantly. He then turns and shoots the husband. The son screams seeing his parents murdered before him. The stranger takes a razor out of his pocket and proceeds to cut the boy’s forehead while he continues to beg and scream. Thus is the opening of The Harder They Fall, a film by Jeymus Samuel in his directional debut.

Samuel is a singer-songwriter and music producer and clearly uses this strength in adding story-telling and atmosphere through the choice of songs (most of them original) designed for this film. A mix of reggae and religious sounds that is used extensively and, at times, compensates for lack of story.

After the opening violence, we fast forward and are introduced to Nat Love (Jonathan Majors), outlaw and leader of the ‘Nat Love Gang’ who rob from other outlaw gangs who rob from banks. Make sense? Basically, a robber who robs from robbers. But that is not his primary drive. His primary drive is hunting down the Buck Gang led by Rufus Buck (Idris Elba) who was responsible for killing Nat’s parents (yes, Nat is the boy we see screaming in the opening scene and has a cross cut into his forehead by Rufus’s razor blade).

Nat’s gang comprises of sharpshooter Bill Pickett (Edi Gathegi) and quick draw Jim Beckwourth (RJ Cyler) along with Mary Fields (Zazie Beets), Nat’s previous love who left him because she couldn’t bare not knowing if Nat would come back alive from each of his revenge kills.

The last one alive on Nat’s mission of revenge is, of course, Rufus Buck himself and the story that unfolds is largely linear with the mandatory twist in the final scenes. When a large number of bodies are scattered on the ground and Nat faces off against Rufus, it is then we finally get to see Rufus’s motive for killing Nat’s parents. In short, Nat’s father had a previous life as a violent outlaw who was married and had a son. That son was Rufus. Seems Nat’s father had the dark past of beating his first wife and son leading to one day killing Rufus’s mother who was trying to defend him. The father leaves and starts a new life as an honest man, remarries to another woman and has Nat.

So the twist is a revenge within a revenge or rather a cycle of revenge. Rufus didn’t kill his half brother, Nat, because he knew that Nat would want revenge and become an outlaw himself. To Rufus, it was the ultimate revenge on his father who killed his mother and left him to rot.

Another interesting mechanic used by Director Samuel is that while the story is entirely fictional, the characters are based on real people. And practically all these historical figures are of African American or Indian descent. But this is not a film about race. There’s only one scene where race is played out when Nat and his gang robs a bank in a town whose population is all white, but there is no particular narrative or message being said.

More subtly, Rufus has created a town called Redwood, which has a black population and there is inference that Rufus seeks to create a mecca or sanctuary for black people. However, again, this is just a by-product that is not examined in any significant detail. The story is simply about revenge and how revenge spawns more revenge (yes, there is a final shot where Nat having achieved his revenge rides off with his love, Mary, but we see the arm of someone holding a hat looking down on them from a cliff and if you’ve been following you will know that it belongs to a character named Trudy (Regina King) who was Rufus’s right-hand woman…) So, sequel perhaps?

Overall, I couldn’t help feel that the film was more style over substance. The reliance on the soundtrack and the solid cast unable to hide its flaws in the story. For example, Mary talks Nat into letting her “scout” Redwood, which doesn’t make much sense especially when she ends up simply trotting into town on her horse and trying to make a deal with Rufus (who does the logical thing of capturing her and using her as bait to flush out Nat). Bizarre move on both Nat and Mary’s part. At some points, I also felt the film was more about showcasing songs that fit into the narrative rather than the story standing on its own two feet with support from the soundtrack. By the end, there is not much to savour as all the shooting and killing feels templated and Rufus’s revelation (which admittedly is delivered with as much gravitas as Idris Elba can muster) is anti-climatic.

A case of buy the soundtrack but not the movie.

6 out of 10

Movie Review: Official Secrets (2019)

TL;DR – This is the story of British translator Katharine Gun who worked for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) and blew the whistle on her own government and the United States for attempting to blackmail UN diplomats of other nations to vote with the UK and US on the invasion of Iraq.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Anyone who has followed the events leading up to the 9/11 World Trade Centre terrorist attacks and the political aftermath will be aware of British whistle blower Katharine Gun, who in 2003 leaked a top secret memo in relation to an illegal operation between British and American intelligence services to spy on UN diplomats. The UN Security Council were looking to vote on a resolution supporting the invasion of Iraq. This operation sought to spy on those nations that could swing the vote to the US and UK’s favour by obtaining information they could use to blackmail those diplomats.

US President George W. Bush declared a war on terror after the 9/11 attacks. Bush together with UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, sought to convince the rest of the world that Saddam Hussein held weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Other countries opposed the invasion and held the position that there was insufficient evidence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. This in turn led to worldwide protests against the Iraq War.

Official Secrets is a no-frills drama of the conflict within the UK between anti-war advocates and government agencies waging war on terror. Katharine Gun (Kiera Knightley) is driven to act when she sees news reports regarding the US and UK government pushing to invade Iraq based on ‘intelligence’ she knows is not backed by solid evidence. It also looks into the machinations of the British newspaper, The Observer, and journalist, Martin Bright (Matt Smith) as he receives the top secret memo through a middle person who knows Katharine and seeks to authenticate the information.

In the film, the key scene is when Katharine sits down with Scotland Yard detective, TinTin (Peter Guiness) and is interviewed:

“What were you employed to do?” asks TinTin.
“Well, I can’t be specific,” responds Katharine.
“Be general then.”
“I translated signals intelligence and I report anything I thought might be of interest to my clients.”
“Your clients?”
“The Foreign Office. The Ministry of Defence.”
“So, you work for the British government.”
“No, not really.”
“No?”
“Governments change. I work for the British people. I gather intelligence so that the government can protect the British people. I do not gather intelligence so that the government can lie to the British people.”

Detective TinTin then drills down on Katharine that her work involves being a spy and as a spy it is her job to eavesdrop on private conversations regardless of who they may be (including UN diplomats).

Katharine’s response is calm and measured as she says, “I don’t object to being asked to collect information that could help prevent a terror attack. What I object to is being asked to gather intelligence to help fix a vote at the UN and deceive the world into going to war.”

What follows is the British Government charges her for breaching the Official Secrets Act and the pressure exerted on her to plead guilty in order to receive a more lenient sentence. Katharine hires lawyer, Ben Emmerson (Ralph Fiennes) to represent her and after going through the charges and the likely prosecutor’s case, they do their own research and discover that the Attorney-General Peter Goldsmith had written an advisory document stating that it would not be lawful to use force (and instigate a war on Iraq) without a new Security Council resolution. Further this document existed at the same time the GCHQ were emailed a memo to spy on UN diplomats. Goldsmith later reversed his position after going to Washington stating that the UN’s resolution of the 1991 Gulf War could be reactivated to legitimise a new war with Iraq (which the film depicts as a ‘fringe view’ at best).

Ben Emmerson then proceeds to try and put the legality of the Iraq War on trial and requests documents from the government. In a remarkable final scene, the prosecution drops all charges on Katherine as the documents in question would have shown that the government had deceived the British people into entering a war on Iraq.

Words are then shown on screen indicating in 2010, Goldsmith’s advice to Tony Blair was made public indicating it would be illegal to go to war without a Security Council resolution and this coincided with when Katharine leaked the memo. Statistics are then shown of the number of Iraqis killed and wounded during the four years of war, along with the number of US and UK soldiers that died. Real life footage at the end shows Katharine being mobbed by the press and being asked whether she would do it again and she indicated she would.

Overall, Official Secrets depicts another example of why people distrust and are disillusioned by politicians and governments. Sadly, the film does not attempt to show anything of the other side (other than news footage of Bush, Blair and Colin Powell urging the UN to vote for the invasion into Iraq). The 9/11 terrorist attacks created an atmosphere of global fear that still echoes on today and generated a need for governments to be perceived to be acting against terror threats. A time when emotions were so high that the need to act (even if those acts involved violation of human rights and privacy) was unbearable. It was an impossible time for political leaders, but arguably a time when political leaders needed to rise above the emotion and be the voice of calm.

If you want to learn what happened leading up to 9/11 and the events after, I recommend watching Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, a docuseries that shows much of humanity’s failings and the destruction caused by war and hate.

The cast of Official Secrets are all spot on especially Kiera Knightley and Adam Bakri who plays Katharine’s husband, Yasar Gun. Director Gavin Hood delivers a tight film that is worth the watch even if it doesn’t delve into the complexities of a time when the political climate was at a tumultuous high. In truth, if Hood decided to lump all that in as well you would have a running time over three hours. Better off watching the docuseries I mentioned above.

7.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Hypnotic (2021)

TL;DR – A psychiatrist uses hypnosis to take control of women who look like his late wife. A drivel of a film lacking any substance.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Hypnotic opens with a female security guard being asked over the intercom by some male security guard to go ahead and do her rounds and he will come and cover the desk. It is late in the evening and the place is largely empty. The desk has a single monitor with CCTV coverage of various areas of the building. The camera then shifts to inside the building to an office with the name ‘Andrea B’ on the glass door and a woman peeks through the blinds from within. The woman is Andrea Bowen (Stephanie Cudmore), she’s scared and nervous as she makes a call to a Detective Wade Rollins (Dulé Hill) from the Portland PD and leaves a message saying she believes ‘he’ is still watching him. With eyes, red-rimmed and tearful, she walks to the elevator which takes her down from the 18th floor to ground, as the numbers count down, she receives a phone call from ‘Unknown Caller’ and thinks it is the detective.

Cue strange man’s voice who says, “Andrea, this is how the world ends.” The elevator stops suddenly, Andrea starts screaming as the walls of the elevator start closing in… literally. Trapped in a vice, the scene fades as Andrea is crushed.

Without having read anything about this film, given this opening scene and movie title, I’m guessing there’s a psychopathic psychiatrist who uses hypnosis on his patients and when using a key word or sentence such as “this is how the world ends”, triggers the patient to mentally believe they will die even if part of their brain says, “I’m in an elevator and elevator walls do not suddenly start moving in to crush me like a garbage compactor”.

We now meet Jenn Tompson (Kate Siegel) who arrives at a party with a pot plant that has seen better days. At the front door, she is greeted by her friend, Gina Kelman (Lucie Guest), and Jenn confesses she bought a bottle of wine to bring to the party but already drank it and instead brought a plant that she now notices is dead. Gina doesn’t care about the plant and says she tried calling her to tell her ‘Brian’ is here. Jenn’s expression is all you need to know that her and Brian were once a thing but they are now not a thing anymore. Jenn decides to brave the party anyway and asks for a glass of wine. Clearly, alcohol being the only thing getting her through life at this moment.

During the party Jenn is introduced by Gina to Dr Collin Meade (Jason O’Mara). Gina speaks glowingly of the assistance and therapy Collin has given her and attributes her recent promotion up the career ladder to him. For all the alcohol consumed, Jenn is still astute enough to say to Collin that she didn’t know that therapists could hang out with their patients. To which, Collin replies bashfully that he follows the rules 99% of the time then lowers it to 95%, which gets a giggle out of Jenn.

She excuses herself when she sees Brian (Jaime M. Callica) and ends up in a four-way conversation with him, Gina and Gina’s husband, Scotty (Luc Roderique). Collin inserts himself into the conversation by asking what Jenn does and discovers she is a software engineer like Brian. We also find out that Brian has a severe sesame seed allergy requiring an epi-pen to be carried around with him. I’m already guessing Brian is not going to make it to the end of the film and will consume sesame seed unknowingly with no epi-pen in sight. Collin leaves his business card for Jenn before the party ends.

Sessions ensue involving hypnotherapy and three months pass with Jenn turning her life around. She invites Brian over for dinner (at the suggestion of the good doctor). To prepare, she is at a grocery store when she receives a phone call from an ‘Unknown Caller’ and she freezes. She then awakens sitting down in her house with dinner laid out on the table, she doesn’t remember any of this (and has lost a passage of time) and hears someone choking in the bathroom. Sure enough, it’s Brian having an allergic reaction. She manages to find an epi-pen and calls the ambulance, but Brian ends up in a coma (so, I was close, he doesn’t die but almost).

The rest of the film follows the path of psychological thrillers where Jenn tries to figure out what is happening to her, and the good doctor espouses ‘therapy’ that talks about not letting fear win and allowing her to trust him when we know he is said psychopath. It’s a by-the-numbers affair which delivers style over substance and thus falls short of any thrills.

I cannot stress strongly enough that this film takes great liberties surrounding what it portrays as ‘therapy’. The idea of just being happy and not letting fear win is not something any proper psychiatrist would seek to instil in their patient. Part of who we are is feeling the spectrum of emotions that comes from being human and that includes happiness, joy, sadness and fear. Suffice to say, however, that even if I turn my mind off and treat the idea of hypnosis as mind-control purely as a story mechanic designed to bring tension, it still falls flat. That Collin uses hypnosis to control women who look like his late wife is both contrived and cliché. Any attempt at twists or shocks failing miserably due to a plot that has nothing going for it.

Hypnotic is truly a boring affair.

1 out of 10

Movie Review: The Last Duel (2021)

TL;DR – Officially the last trial by combat held in France. The judicial duel between Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris was triggered when Carrogues’s wife, Marguerite, claimed that Le Gris raped her. The winner was said to be the one who told the truth (through God’s will making him victorious), the other condemned to death.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Based on the book of the same name written by Eric Jager, The Last Duel depicts the harsh and ruthless time of medieval France when war raged constantly between the French and English. The story centres on three individuals. Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon), his wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer) and Jacques Le Gris (Adam Driver).

Jean and Jacques are friends who have fought together in many battles, but their friendship becomes strained when Jacques earns the favour of Count Pierre d’Alençon (Ben Affleck). Jacques starts earning land and riches over Jean even though both have bled for their country and fought bravely. When Jean marries Marguerite, he was meant to receive a rich piece of land as part of her dowry, but instead Jacques seizes the land as payment of tax owed to the Count. The Count, in turn, having his financial affairs sorted by Jacques, gifts this land to Jacques.

When Jean attempts to sue the Count for the land he deems rightfully his, the King throws out the lawsuit. Adding insult to injury, the Count then appoints Jacques the captaincy of a fort that has been held and run for generations by Jean’s family.

After a period of time, Jean and Jacques attempt to bury the hatchet but the truce is temporary as it becomes clear that Jacques has eyes for Jean’s wife, Marguerite. When Jean leaves for a campaign to fight in Scotland, and Jean’s mother and her servants depart for the day, Marguerite finds herself alone in the castle. Jacques visits and tricks her into letting him in. He confesses his love for her and believes that Marguerite feels the same, but when she tells him to leave and he does not, she attempts to flee to her bedroom to lock the door. Jacques chases her down and rapes her.

When Jean returns from his campaign, Marguerite tells her what happened leading to Jean challenging Jacques to a duel even though he denies having raped Marguerite. The accusations are presented to the King who sanctions that duel and leaving it to God to show who is in the right.

Director Ridley Scott delivers an impactful film that captures the brutality of medieval times and how men held the power and the women were largely powerless. There are many strengths to the film. When I watched it in the cinema, the sound immediately grabbed me; every galloping horse, clashing sword, battle cry, and dying soldier reverberated through my entire body. The choreography was stunning as scenes were shot in both France and Ireland, and the dirt roads and castles made me feel how hard life would have been during that time. The costumes, both male and female, are elaborate, and the way knights are suited up in armour is captured in pain staking detail.

All these audio and visual elements are combined in a story told in three chapters. Chapter one is told from the perspective of Jean, chapter two from Jacques, and chapter three from Marguerite. Scenes are replayed in each chapter with both subtle and striking differences. These differences bring significant impact on how the viewer is presented the events leading up to the last duel.

Ridley Scott and company depict the truth as being Marguerite’s chapter. However, I have read that historians have long debated the innocence and guilt (and truth) of all three of these individuals.

Regardless, the final trial by combat had me shaking in my chair as both fighters (who were once friends) bloodied each other before the King’s audience and Marguerite who is standing alone in a wooden tower, chained to the floor, watching with heart in mouth. Marguerite did not know until too late that if her husband loses the duel then it would be viewed that God declared Jacques as telling the truth and that she lied about being raped. The penalty for her would be being tortured and burned at the stake.

Having read nothing about the historical events, I had no idea who would triumph. However, given the way the film unfolds, and it is the events of chapter three that is shown as the truth, I was relieved when Jean comes away triumphant and Marguerite is released from her chains and allowed to reunite with her husband. There is interesting ambiguity as the camera focuses on Marguerite as she rides silently several paces back from her husband who basks in his triumph and is being mobbed by the masses. It is an expression that speaks of how women were treated at that time, an expression that shows the crime of rape takes a backseat to a knight’s honour, and how women are cast in shadow, fit only to give birth to heirs.

Overall the film is engrossing. The only thing that I struggled with was the casting. More specifically, the casting of Matt Damon as Jean de Carrouges. The rest of the cast are excellent, especially Comer and Driver. However, while Damon puts everything into his performance, I was not convinced. His speech and accent were mixed at best, and I felt the role would have been better suited with another actor (dare I say, an actual French actor or an actor who can speak French may have been a better fit? Tahar Rahim comes to mind). Still I enjoyed The Last Duel and the fact I want to pick up the book and read it says a lot to how effective the film is.

8.5 out of 10

Movie Review: The Tomorrow War (2021)

TL;DR – Soldiers from the future travel 30 years back in time seeking to recruit the help of humanity to fight against aliens. Dan, ex-military soldier come scientist, is drafted to take the perilous journey into the future. There he discovers his daughter, grown-up and also a scientist. Together can they come up with a way to stop the aliens killing every last human being on earth?

Review (warning: spoilers)

Dan Forester (Chris Pratt) drives home while talking on the phone for what appears to be an interview for some science job in a lab. He mentions he has leadership experience from doing military tours and running two combat missions in Iraq. He is in the final round and desperately wants to be chosen even if it means missing out on watching the game with his daughter and abandoning his wife to a house full of guests because they are hosting a Christmas party. It is December 2022 but there will be no early presents for Dan as the selection panel informs him that they have gone with someone else. Dan takes out his disappointment on a rubbish bin knocking it over.

Entering the house dejected, and in no mood for partying, it is his daughter, Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong), who comforts him by saying she wants to be the best like he is the best at science. He then tells her daughter that to be the best you have to say, “I will do what nobody else is willing to do.”

The game on television is a World Cup soccer game, and it is at this moment that everything changes as (play ominous background music) a portal opens in the middle of the field and a bunch of soldiers emerge. Lieutenant Hart (Jasmine Matthews) taps into the stadium speakers (using some sort of advanced sci-fi tech) and announces to everyone at the stadium and all the viewers watching the game around the world that they are from the future. Thirty years to be exact. She announces that she comes from a future where humans are fighting a war against aliens called Whitespikes and they are losing. She has come back in time to recruit people to take back to fight the war and concludes, “You are our last hope”.

Thus, the introduction to Tomorrow War completes. Soldiers in 2022-23 start making the jump into the future but the casualties are high and most do not make it back. This leads to two things: 1) the global announcement for a worldwide draft involving civilians that will be sent to fight the future war and 2) rise of anti-war protests across the globe.

Dan is found teaching biology in high school and all his students have lost hope. They do not see the point in going to school and learning if they all wind up dead in thirty years time. Dan says there is still hope, but it will require scientists to come up with a solution and to continue to innovate to find a way to defeat the aliens.

He is then called to a building where he undergoes tests for conscription. By shoving his arm into a device that scans his DNA and shows his future, he is told that he will die in seven years time. You find out later that to avoid some sort of time travel paradox, people who go that far into the future are already dead and those from the future who travel to the past are not already born (thus avoiding the situation of oneself meeting oneself in another time). The machine then fuses a metal band, that reminded me of those gladiator wrist bands, to his arm that allows the government to track him wherever he is and perform the portal jump (he is also informed that any attempt to tamper with the band or evade the draft will result in his imprisonment or his spouse or his dependent of legal age taking his place). Happy days…

Things do not go as planned when he makes the jump into the future along with an army of other civilians-turned-soldiers. Dan manages to survive the jump out of sheer luck along with a small group of others and is contacted by Colonel Muri Forester (Yvonne Strahovski) over comms. Yes, little Muri is now all grown up and a Colonel battling the Whitespikes though Dan does not know this yet. Muri orders Dan and his makeshift group of soldiers on a rescue mission to save a group of scientists and retrieve a dozen vials of some sort of blue liquid. Suffice to say, by the time, Dan and his crew find the scientists they are not alive, but he does manage to get the dozen vials.

The action sequences are pretty impressive and the Whitespikes are suitably monster-like and ruthless. Where the film struggles is the idea of civilians who receive little to no combat training are thrown into the future against aliens that are very good at killing. Why the government and the people from the future think that throwing more humans into the meat grinder is a good idea is beyond me. But plot hole aside, and with the body count rising exponentially, Dan manages to survive his first encounter with the Whitespikes and meets Colonel Muri.

The emotional pull in the film is meant to be between father and daughter. A now adult Muri, tells her father that by the time she turns twelve, he separates from her mother, then at fourteen he files for divorce and then on her sixteenth, he was in a car accident and died in hospital. This revelation is met with confusion and disbelief. Dan is adamant he would never leave her and her mother. That is pretty much all that gets revealed. Muri does not explain why he leaves the family other than to indicate that he was never happy. The inference is that he was driven more by his career but never achieved success in this space and thus Muri and her mother suffered as a result.

Queue more alien swarms, big explosions and endless gunfire. The rest of the film has Muri coming up with a toxin that can wipe out the Whitespikes and when she succeeds she tells Dan he needs to go back in time with the toxin and mass produce the stuff. Dan says he will but will come back to this future to wipe out the Whitespikes and save her, but the good Colonel Muri is swarmed by aliens as he teleports back to his own time.

The helicopter views of the alien swarms are impressive. The closer quarter fight scenes between Dan and company and the Whitespikes are more mixed; some sequences are well done such as when they capture the “mother” alien, other sequences like when they are trying to escape from the Whitespikes is not so effective because watching civilians act like soldiers beggars belief. The film is not helped by the premise that the entire world in 2022 agrees to send as many people as they can into the future to fight a war they do not know actually happens. Governments suddenly all get along and unite to send soldiers (and then later civilians) into the future war. This happens as a series of news clips in a space of a couple of minutes at the beginning, so you have to suspend all belief in quick time because the director thinks you are not interested in any exposition, and you just want to see aliens being blown up and humans having their bodies dismembered.

Sadly, action does not equal plot.

6 out of 10

Movie Review: Onward (2020)

TL;DR – In a magical world where magic has been largely forgotten, two elven brothers seek to find their way in life. They believe the key will be resurrecting their dead father for one day. When the magic they cast goes sideways, they set off on a quest to complete the spell and in the process discover that their growth can come from each other.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Onward sets the premise of a world where magic exists but no one can be bothered to learn it because technological advancements supplant the need to conjure spells. Before if you wanted to illuminate a dark room, you cast a spell to create a ball of light, now you simply use a lightbulb and switch it on.

While magic has faded away, replaced by technology, the varied creatures in this world still exist. Elves, trolls, centaurs, fairies, mermaids etc. co-exist in a world that now has smartphones, televisions and indoor plumbing.

On his sixteenth birthday, we meet Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), a teenage elf going through confidence issues. His mother, Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) gives him a gift from his late father, Wilden (Kyle Bornheimer) who passed away before Ian was born. The gift is a wizard staff, a phoenix gem, and a letter that contains a spell that will allow Ian to resurrect his father for one day.

Ian has an older brother, Barley (Chris Pratt) who loves role-playing games and has an enthusiasm for the mystic arts that tends to mess things up at the wrong time. It is somewhat amusing seeing an elf obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons (or in this case, the “Quests of Yore” (QoY) role-playing game) in a world filled with fantasy creatures. I am sure there is some deeper meaning about imagining a mystical world within a mystical world, but I digress.

QoY-loving Barley goes bananas over Ian’s gift and seizes the staff, gem and spell to try and cast it but without success. Later that evening, Ian laments that the magic didn’t work as he wants nothing more than to meet his dad. He reads over the letter and whispers the words of the spell and presto, the staff and gem activate. Ian grabs the staff, magic coursing through it, and slowly his father begins to emerge. Starting with his feet in purple socks and leather shoes and moving upwards. Barley appears at Ian’s bedroom door and sees Ian is struggling to maintain control of the staff, he rushes in saying he can help only for the spell to be interrupted, shattering the phoenix gem. The brothers discover that Wilden has only been partially resurrected, up to his waist.

This is Pixar in true form. The process of a half-resurrected Wilden and his ability to communicate to his sons given his top half is missing (along with their sons being able to communicate to him) is cleverly done through drumming his feet. It also opens up for any number of comic moments as Wilden’s lower half fumbles his way along with his sons in search of another phoenix gem to resurrect the rest of him.

For all of its action and adventure, however, Onward is at its heart a coming-of-age film that examines the importance of reflecting on the past, looking to the future, while living in the present. For Ian, he creates a list of the things he wants to do with his dad – “play catch”, “take a walk”, “have a heart to heart”, “laugh together”, “driving lesson” and “share my life with him”. By the end, he discovers he has achieved all these things with his brother. He realises the most important thing (that he has taken for granted, or indeed treated with contempt) is the bond he has with Barley.

The film is also just as much about Barley’s growth as it is Ian’s coming-of-age. Barley’s exuberance, optimism and boundless energy masks are deep pain. A pain of regret over not being able to say goodbye to his dying father due to fear even though he was afforded the opportunity. Ian gifts his older brother the opportunity to say goodbye and Barley is able to finally move forward also.

Onward is a slice of Pixar magic worthy of repeat viewing.

8 out of 10

Movie Review: Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

TL;DR – As per the title, get ready for 80s music, fashion and the ageless Wonder Woman seeking to stop a man who has become a genie that can grant wishes for himself by granting wishes to others.

Review (warning: spoilers)

Wonder Woman 1984 opens with a tournament on Themyscira where a very young, Diana Prince, competes against older Amazons in a race involving obstacles, horse riding, and archery. It is a splendid opening act against a mythical backdrop, with Diana almost winning the race except she cheats and is thus disqualified.

Moral lesson is then imparted by Antiope who says, “You took the short path. You cheated, Diana. That is the truth. That is the only truth and truth is all there is… You cannot be the winner, because you are not ready to win, and there is no shame in that. Only in knowing the truth in your heart and not accepting it, no true hero is born from lies.”

This is a long-winded way of saying that anything that is worth obtaining is done so honestly and with no shortcuts. This is the theme that runs through the rest of the film.

Fast forward to 1984 and we see Diana (Gal Gadot) swinging into action as Wonder Woman and saving people at a shopping centre where a robbery is occurring. When she is not doing the hero-schtick, she works at the Smithsonian Institution and lives a pretty lonely existence. She does not allow herself to connect with anyone and is still heartbroken from losing Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), the army pilot who sacrificed himself in the prequel Wonder Woman movie.

The two primary antagonists are then introduced into the film. First, we have Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), an awkward, shy geologist and cryptozoologist who just started working at the Smithsonian. Barbara has confidence issues and is largely ignored and forgotten by anyone she interacts with. That is until she meets Diana, who treats her with respect and dignity.

Next, we meet Maxwell Lorenzano (Pedro Pascal), a man striving to be at the top by creating a Ponzi scheme involving buying up land to drill for oil (only to discover there is no oil). People who have invested and trusted in him are now pulling the plug, and he is on the brink of bankruptcy.

When Barbara shows Diana an artefact known as the ‘Dreamstone’ and Diana reads an inscription on it that says it will grant the holder one wish, you know things are going to go sideways. Remember the only things worth obtaining are done so honestly and with no shortcuts. The fine print on the Dreamstone is that it will grant your wish but you have to pay a price unless you renounce the wish.

Both Diana and Barbara (inadvertently) and Maxwell (intentionally) make wishes. Diana wishes Steve was back; Barbara wishes she was like Diana; and Maxwell wishes to be the Dreamstone.

Steve comes back to life in another man’s body. It is an unintentionally funny moment which reminded me of the movie Ghost where Patrick Swayze’s character goes into Whoopi Goldberg’s character so Demi Moore can see him. The price Diana pays is she slowly loses her powers.

Barbara starts gaining strength and beauty like Diana. The price she pays is she slowly loses her humanity.

Maxwell becomes the genie and can grant anyone’s wish while at the same time being able to fulfil his own wishes. The price he pays is that his body starts shutting down.

Like the first film, power that corrupts is found from the gods. The DC comics showed that Wonder Woman’s powers came from the Greek gods. In the first film, Wonder Woman faced off against Ares, the god of war, in this film, she indirectly faces off against Molos, the god of mischief who created the Dreamstone.

As Wonder Woman gets weaker, and Barbara and Maxwell get more powerful, none seek to renounce their wishes even though they see the cost is not just impacting on them but the world over. Eventually, Wonder Woman does the right thing and lets Steve go. Meanwhile, Barbara turns into the villain, Cheetah, and Maxwell uses satellites to beam his message across the world telling people to make a wish and in turn he wishes for their lifeforce as payment (thus staving off his own mortality).

Wonder Woman saves the day not through brute strength but by appealing to the world’s humanity and revealing the truth. The fact that part of life is suffering but there is also goodness and hope. And that truth is all that matters. Through her lasso, she communicates through Maxwell and pleads for everyone to be a hero by renouncing their wish, to see the chaos they have unleashed, and making them realise this is the truth in order to save the earth.

While the message is noble, I found the film did not quite deliver. Maxwell is more misguided than villain. The scene where he gets the US president to make a wish is comical rather than gripping (and what the president wishes for is not ‘world peace’ but ‘more nuclear weapons’… who voted for this guy?) Barbara, on the other hand, is a character whose transformation is well done if not for the fact that Kristen Wiig cannot hope to make herself look awkward and invisible to others by merely wearing glasses and baggy clothing. And bringing back Steve via inhabiting another human being… the moral implications of that do not get explored at all.

There’s also some real holes in the plot. For example, when Maxwell beams his face all around the world and gets people to make wishes, his son Alistair wishes simply for his dad to return to him. But nothing happens, Maxwell continues on his megalomaniac wish consumption ways and Alistair is left wandering through a city that has erupted into chaos. I guess he didn’t wish loud enough?

Another example is where Steve and Diana steal a plane. Forget the fact they simply walk into a hangar and jump into a ready fuelled airplane, Steve also happens to choose a fighter jet and somehow fumbles his way to knowing how to start and fly it when his training as a pilot involved flying planes in 1918 (not 1984). Maybe the body he got resurrected into is a modern day pilot?

The film’s action sequences also come up short. The first Wonder Woman film’s scene where Diana charges across ‘No Man’s Land’ to capture an enemy trench is masterful, beautifully cinematic and adrenaline pumping. There is nothing like that in Wonder Woman 1984 and what action there is looks a bit silly; one particular sequence where Diana saves two children by lassoing a missile and then a windmill to then swing down is so blatantly green screen that you will think you are watching an old Tarzan movie. Unfortunate.

5 out of 10

Movie Review: The Guilty (2021)

TL;DR – Joe Baylor receives a 911 call from a woman claiming she has been abducted, and it becomes a race against time to find her. But when all the information you get is via audio only, can you trust everything you’re hearing?

Review (warning: spoilers)

The Guilty opens with a bible quote, “And the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). It then dives into a Los Angeles on fire. Wildfires spread through the region causing chaos everywhere.

Asthmatic Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) works at a 911 call centre. He receives a call on his personal mobile from a journalist, Katherine Harbor, of the LA Times seeking to get “Joe’s side of the story”. From the get go, it is clear Joe is dealing with personal issues across the entire gauntlet of being human – physical, emotional and mental. And he is trying to deal with these issues while also working in a high stress environment where emergency callers are phoning in ranging from a guy needing an ambulance because he’s taken drugs to a businessman who has been robbed in his car by a prostitute. Joe does his best to remain calm throughout and handles all the calls professionally even when he’s getting verbally abused. But unlike the callers phoning in, we can see he is one nudge away from bursting a vein.

The personal issues surround the fact that he is actually a police officer who has been assigned duty on the 911 calls while he awaits a court hearing tomorrow involving the shooting death of a 19-year old man. We also discover he has a daughter named Paige and a wife, Jess, that he has been separated now for six months even though he still wears his wedding ring. As the movie unfolds, it becomes clear that Joe is under investigation and his partner, Rick, is to testify as a witness to the shooting. You pick up pretty quickly that this may be a case of excessive police brutality resulting in a death that should not have occurred.

Joe then receives a 911 call from Emily Lighton (Riley Keough). Emily sounds distressed but does not clearly articulate why she has called 911. Joe initially thinks she’s drunk, but he then hears a man’s voice in the background and he deduces she has been taken against her will. He proceeds to ask yes and no questions and pieces together she’s been abducted.

The movie’s strength and delivery of thrills comes from its lead actor, the fact that virtually all scenes are from the confines of the 911 call centre and the voices from the people on the other end of the phone.

Joe goes above and beyond to piece together what has happened and he concludes the following: 1) Emily has been abducted by her husband, Henry Fisher (who has served time previously for a DUI), 2) They have a daughter, Abby, and a baby son, Oliver, who has been left home alone, and 3) Oliver has been killed by Henry.

As the film progresses, you can see Joe is unravelling. He starts breaking protocols and doing things that you would not be allowed to do when working in a 911 call centre. For example, he is able to get Henry’s phone number and calls him directly, unleashing a diatribe of anger, yelling at Henry to give himself up and return Emily unharmed. Another example involves him calling his sergeant, Bill Miller (Ethan Hawke) to get an officer to go to Henry’s place and “kick down his door”. Joe’s emotional entanglement in Emily’s fate is driven by the one thing that he has refused to acknowledge.

That he is guilty of manslaughter, killing a 19-year old man in the line of duty, when he didn’t need to.

His desperation for redemption is through saving Emily. But the twist comes when he discovers, to his horror, that Emily is the one responsible for hurting Oliver, her son. Turns out that she suffers from a mental disorder, took a knife to her crying baby boy because she thought he was in pain with snakes in his belly. This is done all over the phone, so you don’t see any of this, but from the audio alone, you feel the horror that Joe feels. Henry is actually trying to take Emily to a psychiatric hospital. There’s flaws in all of this because Henry should have called the ambulance and the police. The fact he tries to whisk Emily away to a psychiatric hospital leaving Abby and Oliver by themselves is illogical (all the more so because he would have found that Emily had hurt Oliver). That aside, Joe realises his mistake. When he eventually is able to get a hold of Emily, she’s standing on an overpass overlooking the freeway and you know she is contemplating suicide. Joe pleads with her saying the Abby and Henry needs her, but it is only when he confesses to the shooting of the 19-year old man that Emily pauses.

By confessing his guilt, he saves Emily and later finds out that Oliver has not been killed but is in intensive care. The film ends with Joe calling Rick and telling him to testify to the truth and recant his original statement, which assumes that Joe did everything by the book in the shooting. Joe then calls Katherine Harbor and tells her he’s going to plead guilty to manslaughter.

The pressure valve is released. Though Joe knows he will serve years in prison and not see his daughter, he knows he has taken the correct course and will not be eaten away by guilt.

And thus, the truth has made him free.

Gyllenhaal is in fine form throughout the film. I was unaware at the time that The Guilty is an American remake of a Danish film of the same name. From what I can gather, the Danish original is far superior, but having not seen it, I am free to view the American remake without bias. Through those lens, I enjoyed the thrills this movie delivered.

7.5 out of 10