AMSTERDAM (2022) – Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington Lead All-Star Cast in David O. Russell’s Lighthearted Murder Mystery Period Piece

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AMSTERDAM (2022), director/writer David O. Russell’s first film since JOY (2015), is loosely based on a true story, a political conspiracy in 1933 known as the Business Plot, where wealthy businessmen and bankers plotted a behind-the-scenes coup d’├ętat to overthrow Franklin D. Roosevelt and replace him with a military general.

With its all-star cast, led by the triumvirate of Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington, combined with its artful cinematography capturing 1933 New York and its impactful and hopping screenplay by David O. Russell, AMSTERDAM largely entertains for all of its two hour and fourteen-minute running time.

The movie gets off to a lively start as we meet Burt Berendsen (Christian Bale) in 1933 New York. Berendsen is a doctor and World War I veteran who treats his fellow veterans who returned from the Great War with unspeakable scars, injuries, and pain. So much pain. Berendsen is always looking for more powerful drugs to help his patients deal with the pain, and he himself lost an eye during the war, and his back is terribly scarred and twisted, so much so he has to constantly wear a back brace. Bale with his character’s glass eye and odd manner of speaking channels a lot of Peter Falk throughout his performance. When they are later trying to solve the mystery, it was easy to imagine Columbo on the case.

Burt and his fellow veteran and best friend from the war Harold Woodman (John David Washington), an attorney, are hired by Liz Meekins (Taylor Swift), the daughter of their former commanding officer, to look into her father’s death, which she believes is the result of foul play. And when Liz is pushed in front of an oncoming vehicle and murdered right in front of their eyes, they realize something big is going on.

Burt, who narrates the movie, then says it’s time for some background information, and the film jumps back in time to 1918 where he and Harold are cared for in army hospital by a nurse Valerie Voze (Margot Robbie). The three become inseparable, and their friendship blossoms as they spend a magical period shut off from the rest of the world in Amsterdam. But they pledged to always be there for each other. And so eventually when the action returns to 1933 New York, Valerie re-enters their lives as they, in the process of investigating their former commanding officer’s death, uncover a vast conspiracy against the United States government.

All of this sounds serious, and some of it is, but the screenplay is anything but a straight drama. It’s quirky and humorous, generating enough clever laughs to keep this one lighthearted throughout.

The biggest story with AMSTERDAM is its cast, both its three main players and the supporting cast of actors. Anytime you have Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, and John David Washington sharing ample screen time in your movie, chances are things are going to be purdy darn good. And they are.

Christian Bale is a phenomenal actor, and his performance as broken Burt Berendsen drives the entire movie forward. With his quirky Peter Falk-style delivery, Bale is watchable throughout. The same goes for Margot Robbie and John David Washington. The three of them deliver throughout this movie.

The supporting players also make their mark. Probably the two best supporting performances belong to Rami Malek as Valerie’s manipulative brother Tom, and Anya Taylor-Joy, who other than Bale, delivers hands down the best performance in the movie, as Tom’s eccentric wife Libby.

It was fun to see Mike Myers back on screen again, playing a British intelligence officer named Paul Canterbury, in a role which would have been perfectly suitable for Michael York a few years back. Myers and Michael Shannon, who plays Canterbury’s American intelligence counterpart, share lots of scenes together and seem to be having a great time as the two men who steer Burt and his friends towards uncovering the conspiracy plot.

Chris Rock in limited screen time gets some genuine laugh out loud moments as Milton King, one of the other soldiers in Burt’s and Harold’s platoon. Timothy Olyphant is also memorable under heavy face-altering prosthetics as Taron Milfax, a villainous henchman and murderer. And Zoe Saldana is enjoyable as a beautiful coroner who has eyes for Burt.

By the time Rober De Niro shows up as the level-headed general who refutes the coup, the film has lost a lot of its energy and pizzaz. While it remains entertaining throughout, the first two thirds of AMSTERDAM are much more energetic than its third act, which slows down as all the answers are revealed.

And David O. Russell’s screenplay keeps things simple. When De Niro’s General Dillenbeck delivers his much-anticipated speech, the words he uses to explain the evil that these men plan to do sounds like he’s speaking to a room of first graders. I suppose this is better than an explanation that is unclear and cryptic, but things are explained in straightforward simplistic black and white terms, in language that definitely calls to mind current events and what was attempted in the United States on January 6, 2021.

Overall, I enjoyed AMSTERDAM quite a bit, and I liked it better than Russell’s previous two movies, JOY and AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013). My two favorite Russell movies remain THE FIGHTER (2010) and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012), but AMSTERDAM is right up there with them.

The 1933 New York sets, costumes, and cinematography were so authentic, I half expected to see King Kong rampaging through the streets on his way to the Empire State Building.

AMSTERDAM covers more than just its murder/coup plot, as it touches upon love, relationships, race, and art. At the end of the movie when Valerie and Harold have to leave the country, because they know their mixed-race relationship will not be allowed in the United States, it’s a powerful point that not many movies have felt comfortable making, and when Burt vows to work towards changing things, so his friends can return and live in this country freely, it’s a bittersweet moment because while we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go.

But the overall feel of this drama/comedy period piece is definitely on the lighter side, and the film provides plenty of humorous moments and laughter, most of it of the quirky variety, and it all works, even if the final third of the film slows down somewhat.

AMSTERDAM is well worth the visit.

I give it three stars.

—END–

RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

NO TIME TO DIE (2021) – It’s No Time to Miss Daniel Craig’s Last Bond Movie

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I finally caught up with NO TIME TO DIE (2021), the fifth and final Daniel Craig James Bond film.

Released in November theatrically, it then made its way to OnDemand/streaming services for a rental price of $19.99, and now you can rent it for a more welcoming price of $5.99. Anyway, one of the drawbacks of seeing a film a while after its initial release is word of mouth is out there and so you hear an awful lot, and what I was hearing about NO TIME TO DIE was how good a movie it was. So, there were some expectations here.

Anyway, I’ll cut to the chase. I’m happy to say that the word of mouth was accurate. NO TIME TO DIE is an excellent James Bond movie. I loved it. It’s the perfect send-off for Daniel Craig’s take on the character.

NO TIME TO DIE opens with a scene right out of a horror movie, with a young girl and her mom being terrorized by a man with a mask. The action jumps ahead to events following the last movie, as we find James Bond (Daniel Craig) and the new love of his life Madeleine (Lea Seydoux) enjoying a new life together, having survived the ending of SPECTRE (2016).

Now, the Daniel Craig Bond films tell an ongoing narrative, and the movies have all been connected in terms of plot, which is something that the previous James Bond movies really did not do. I’ve always like this, as it added some freshness to the series. However, SPECTRE is my least favorite Craig Bond movie, and so I can’t say I was excited to be sitting down to watch more of the story between Bond and Madeleine.

Anyway, as you might imagine, their new life is short-lived, as the bad guys show up to put a stop to it. Worse yet, Bond suspects Madeleine of leading the bad guys to them, decides he doesn’t trust her anymore, and puts her on a train telling her she will never see him again. Then it’s time for the opening credits. Yup, nearly thirty minutes pass before we even get to those opening credits. Sometimes these James Bond movies just need an editor! Although truth be told, in spite of the overlong prologue sequence and a total running time of two hours and forty-three minutes, NO TIME TO DIE is paced rather well, has a decent story to tell, and for me passed by quickly and didn’t feel at all like it was nearly three hours.

Back to those opening credits. NO TIME TO DIE has a theme song sung by Billie Eilish, a song that hasn’t really been shown much love. But I like it, and the lyrics definitely tie into the events shown in the movie’s pre-credit sequence.

As for the rest of the plot, it all does come together and makes sense (even the bizarre opening bit with the masked killer!), bringing closure to events from all the previous movies. Even though Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) is in prison, he and his SPECTRE henchmen are still trying to kill Bond, but a new bad guy is in town, Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek)…. the name sounds like Lucifer Satan with a lisp….who hates Blofeld even more than Bond does. Safin has developed an incredibly dangerous biological weapon which uses people’s DNA, and he uses it to wipe out SPECTRE, but since he can also use it to wipe out anyone he wants with ease, he’s caught the attention of MI6. M (Ralph Fiennes) is personally interested because MI6 was secretly working with this biological formula, but Safin stole it from them and weaponized it. So, M sends the new 007, a female agent named Nomi (Lashana Lynch), and Bond himself once he returns to active service, to find and stop Safin.

Which makes for strange bedfellows. As Bond tells Blofeld, if Blofeld gives him the information he needs, he will actually have to use it to save Blofeld’s life, to which of course Blofeld shrugs him off. Madeleine is also brought back into the story because she has ties to both Blofeld and Safin, and so once more Bond has to deal with his feelings for her.

At the end of day, all of these story elements work, making for a story that remains strong throughout the movie. And there are more plot points which I have not mentioned here. Overall, it is an excellent screenplay by a bunch of people: Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Cary Joji Fukunaga, who directed, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Where does NO TIME TO DIE rank with the other Craig Bond movies? The best remains the first, CASINO ROYALE (2006). Most folks love the third film SKYFALL (2012), but for me the first two thirds of this movie are exceptional, but the third act drops off dramatically and just doesn’t work for me. I actually prefer the second film in the series QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) over SKYFALL. The weakest of the serious was the previous installment, SPECTRE (2015) with writing and a story that didn’t make much sense.

The other reason the previous two Bond films didn’t work for me was due largely in part to Daniel Craig’s lackluster performance as Bond in both those movies. In both those films, SKYFALL and SPECTRE, it seemed as if he had mailed it in. Gone were his sharp cold killer instincts from the first two movies. In their place was indifference. He seemed bored with the role.

Here in NO TIME TO DIE, Daniel Craig is back at the top of his game, turning in his best performance as Bond since CASINO ROYALE. It also helps that the character is placed in some new situations, and Craig is more than up to the task of taking Bond in new directions. As such, getting back to ranking, I would rank NO TIME TO DIE as the second best of the Craig Bond films, coming in right behind CASINO ROYALE.

And a large part of this is Daniel Craig’s performance. He’s an older Bond here, he’s in love, he’s bitter over what he believes is a betrayal of love, and later when he takes on the villain it’s with a deep sense of understanding of the world. In short, James Bond has learned a lot over the years, and he uses this knowledge to take down a lesser experienced villain.

I enjoyed Lea Seydoux more as Madeleine this time around than I did when she played the character in SPECTRE. Again, the writing here helps. She’s in a much more interesting and compelling storyline. In SPECTRE, she just seemed too young for Bond. But here, due largely to her performance and the writing, that thought didn’t cross my mind at all.

Lashana Lynch caught some well-deserved buzz for playing Nomi, the first female 007. She’s really good here.

I’m a big fan of Ana de Armas, and she has a small role as another agent, Paloma. She’s excellent, and the brief action sequence she gets to share with Bond is one of the best in the movie. I really wish she had been in this one more.

Rami Malek is fine as main villain Safin, although he’s not in the movie a whole lot, and so he’s not really a game changer. But when he is onscreen, he’s very good. As is Christoph Waltz as Blofeld, reprising the role from SPECTRE, although he’s in the film less than Malek.

I really enjoy Ralph Fiennes as M, and he’s every bit as good here as he always is. Jeffrey Wright returns for the third time as CIA agent and Bond buddy Felix Leiter, and like Bond in this one, gets a dramatic memorable send-off.

And Naomie Harris is back as Moneypenny, and Ben Whishaw is back as Q. It was also good to see Rory Kinnear back as Tanner.

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga does a nice job with this one, and there are plenty of exciting action sequences, as you would expect to find in a James Bond movie. Car chases, thrilling fight scenes, assaults on buildings, and a very intense conclusion all contribute to A+ action sequences from start to finish.

The music also utilized the main theme from the George Lazenby James Bond movie ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (1969). The most memorable part of that movie, other than of course it was the first Bond film not to star Sean Connery as Bond, was that James Bond gets married, and his wife is shot dead by Blofeld in the film’s final reel. Every time that theme played here in NO TIME TO DIE, it served as deadly foreshadowing that the love story here with Bond and Madeleine was doomed to a tragic ending, and while the ending here differs greatly from the one in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, the foreshadowing is real.

And strangely for a James Bond movie, it was the love story here between Bond and Madeleine that works the best and really drives this movie along. It gives Bond motivations above and beyond what audiences are used to and shows a side of the character we rarely get to see. And it’s also realistically told from both characters’ perspectives.

NO TIME TO DIE is an excellent James Bond movie. The action sequences are second to none, and even better, the story works on a much deeper level than most Bond films, its main love story is really good, and Daniel Craig delivers one of his best Bond performances ever.

In short, it’s no time to miss NO TIME TO DIE.

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Worst Movies of 2021

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Welcome back! As promised, here is my list of the Top 10 Worst Movies of 2021.

As I did with my Best Movies List, I’m placing an asterisk next to this one, as once again, the pandemic has prevented trips to the movie theaters from being a safe activity, and so with this in mind, I know we haven’t all seen the same movies since we are not all heading out to the movie theaters to see the same national releases. I know there are plenty of movies I missed this year.

Okay, let’s get on with it. Without further hesitation, here is my list of the Top 10 Worst Movies of 2021:

10. CRY MACHO – probably the dullest movie I watched all year. Clint Eastwood directs and stars in this tale of a former rodeo star (Eastwood) who goes to Mexico to bring back his boss’s teenage son to the States, and along the way, the two form a bond in this underwhelming buddy movie. While I am in awe of Clint Eastwood, who at 91 years old, is still making quality movies, the story here in CRY MACHO doesn’t do him any favors. The storytelling is muddled, and Eastwood seems to be playing a character who is much younger than 91, although the script never makes this clear. Not much to like about this one, even for Eastwood fans.

9. FEAR STREET: PART TWO – 1978 – Yeah, I know. For a lot of folks, this second installment in the Netflix FEAR STREET horror movie trilogy was the best of the lot, but for me, it was the worst. Each part served as an homage to a particular horror movie genre, and here in FEAR STREET: PART TWO – 1978 that genre is the FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH movies. I’m going to ruffle more feathers here as well when I say honestly that I’ve never liked the FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH movies and have found them all to be particularly bad. FEAR STREET: PART TWO does a nice job capturing the feel of these movies, but at the end of the day, it’s yet another variation of teenagers at a summer camp being slaughtered in the most unrealistically gruesome of ways. If that’s your cup of tea, you probably love this movie. But it’s not mine. I prefer intelligence in my horror.

8. GODZILLA VS. KONG – Again, this is one that a lot of people really liked, but for me, even as a fan of giant monster movies, especially King Kong movies, and Godzilla movies as well, this one was simply bad. I find it difficult to understand why this movie has so many fans when its script is so weak. The human characters are all forgettable, the situations unrealistic and uninspiring, and the dialogue is pretty poor. So, all you have left are the giant monsters in combat. And even those scenes didn’t do much for me. I know the argument is out there that that’s how the old Toho Godzilla movies all were. That’s a fair argument, up to a point. What always saved the Toho films was that Godzilla and his friends all had personality. The monsters in these modern-day versions do not. Plus, movies like KING KONG (1933) and THEM! (1954) did have superior scripts. These new giant monster movies do not. Instead, the modern-day giant monster movie (mostly Godzilla and Kong these days) has been reduced to special effects only, without any interest in creating any kind of a story worth telling.

7. COMING 2 AMERICA – the original COMING TO AMERICA (1988) starring Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall was very funny. This sequel, in spite of the return of Murphy and Hall, is not. Next movie…

6. TYGER TYGER – this was a movie that I fully expected to like, because it was so different and quirky, with a sense of style that I thought would make it a winner. But this tale of a pair of selfless robbers who kidnap a drug addict before they all find themselves hiding out in a bizarre psychedelic city is probably better enjoyed when you’re high! Seriously! The longer this one went on, the less sense it made, and by the time it was all over, it largely had become a wasted opportunity. No pun intended!

5. THE LITTLE THINGS – in spite of the presence of Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto this one just doesn’t work. Washington plays a former detective who’s called in to help with a serial killer case, and the character he plays is known for spotting the little things others miss in these cases. Trouble is, the script barely shows him doing this. Malek plays the hotshot detective who calls in Washington for help, but the choices he makes throughout the movie make him seen anything but a hotshot detective. And Leto plays the man they suspect is the serial killer. This one should have been awesome. Instead, it’s a muddled meandering tale that gets worse as it goes along with a particularly weak ending.

4. WITHOUT REMORSE- With a script by one of my favorite screenwriters, Taylor Sheridan, I fully expected to like this adaptation of a Tom Clancy novel, but instead it proved to be Sheridan’s first real misfire. Michael B. Jordan plays an elite Navy Seal who’s gone rogue to solve the murder of his wife, only to find— of course— that it’s all part of a larger conspiracy. What. A. Surprise. Yawn.

And now, the drum roll please. Here are my Top 3 Worst Movies from 2021:

3. SWEET GIRL -Hands down, the worst action movie of the year. Jason Momoa plays a man who vows revenge against a pharmaceutical company after its “business decision” pulled a drug from the market which could have saved his terminally ill wife. So, hubby goes insane and plots to kill the heads of this company, who, while they are undesirable, probably don’t deserve to be killed. So, there’s that initial problem. But wait, there’s more! There’s a larger conspiracy! Of course, there always is. Plus, Momoa’s character against his better judgement is constantly bringing his teenage daughter with him and training her to protect herself and be an assassin vigilante like him… and then, thanks to a bizarre plot twist, his character disappears from the second half of the movie. So, yes, you have an action film headlined by Jason Momoa, that halfway through ditches its star. Ugh.

2. MADRES – the worst horror movie of the year. This tale of a Mexican American couple who move to a new community in 1970s California that seems to have a weird sinister secret involving pregnant women, doesn’t know how to get out of its own way. The film aims for a ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968) and THE STEPFORD WIVES (1975) vibe but fails on both counts. This one is based on true events, and its reveal at the end is actually very good, but the problem is the film tries so hard to hide this reveal with a supernatural tale that is so lame it makes the movie completely ineffective. Had the filmmakers chosen to focus on what this film is ultimately about, it would have been a far darker, more memorable movie.

And now, drum roll please, the Worst Movie of 2021:

1. THUNDER FORCE – by far, the worst comedy of the year. Melissa McCarthy plays a woman who inherits superpowers thanks to her scientist friend played by Octavia Spencer. They then take on the world’s supervillains. Should have been funny. But it’s not. Jason Bateman fares the best as a supervillain known as The Crab. Written and directed by McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone.

And there you have it. My picks for the Top 10 Worst Movies of 2021. Now, let’s move on to 2022.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

THE LITTLE THINGS (2021) – Denzel Washington Thriller In Need of Some Big Things

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THE LITTLE THINGS (2021), a new serial killer thriller by writer/director John Lee Hancock, and starring the impressive trio of Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto, stresses that it’s the little things that matter, the small details that even the most careful killers will miss. It’s those things that investigators have to find in order to nab their guy. In short, you gotta pay attention to the little things.

Too bad the movie didn’t take its own advice.

THE LITTLE THINGS takes place in California in 1990 and follows the story of former homicide detective Joe “Deke” Deacon (Denzel Washington). Deke worked so hard on his last case, trying to track down a serial killer, that it nearly killed him, and he was forced to move on to another position as a sheriff’s deputy. But when current homicide detective Jim Baxter (Rami Malek) is at his wit’s end trying to track down a serial killer of his own, he turns to Deke for help, and since Deke notices similarities between this case and the one he had been working on, he is only too happy to oblige. Deke is known for being able to find the “little things” which killers miss.

Deke and Baxter settle upon a person of interest, Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), and when Sparma doesn’t disappoint, the game of cat and mouse begins.

THE LITTLE THINGS takes place in 1990, pretty much for no other reason than that’s when John Lee Hancock first wrote the screenplay. Neither the year nor the decade adds anything of relevance to the story. And while you can tell it’s the 1990s by the cars being driven and the fact that no one has a wireless device of any kind, the movie isn’t exactly steeped in 1990s atmosphere.

The other noticeable thing about this having been written in 1990, which is especially noticeable here in 2021, is that there isn’t any major female characters in this story. None whatsoever. All the women here have smaller supporting roles. The fact that this is so noticeable in the here and now is a good thing. Let’s not return to the days of yesteryear, thank you very much!

It’s kind of strange script by Hancock. For starters, the time in the story just seems off. At first, it appears as if Deke has been off the job as a homicide detective for a long time, but as the story goes along, it’s revealed that it wasn’t that long at all. Which is weird because it plays better had Deke been off the force for years.

I enjoyed the story early on. The serial killer plot was interesting, as was Deke’s character, and the way he worked the case. But once prime suspect Albert Sparma shows up, things change, and it has little to do with Sparma, who is a creepy character and interesting to watch. No, it’s the characters of Deke and Baxter who become head scratchers, especially Baxter. He is supposed to be this hotshot police detective, but time and time again, the decisions he makes are rather stupid, especially towards the end. Speaking of which, the ending to this film is a huge letdown. The story doesn’t really build to a climax, and the ending is very flat.

This one also has a rather strange subtext. It stresses that the little things are important, but we barely see Deke take advantage of that, at least in the solving of a case. Instead, the message seems to be what the little things are important for are so that you can cover your tracks when you mess up, as these guys continually do in this movie. Ultimately, the story didn’t work at all for me.

John Lee Hancock also wrote and directed THE BLIND SIDE (2009) and directed SAVING MR. BANKS (2013). Prior to THE LITTLE THINGS, Hancock directed the Netflix movie THE HIGHWAYMEN (2019), starring Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the men who successfully hunted down Bonnie and Clyde. It was a film I was only lukewarm to. One of my favorite Hancock-directed movies is THE FOUNDER (2016), a film in which Michael Keaton delivered a knockout performance as the controversial McDonalds “founder” Ray Kroc, and Hancock brilliantly captured the look and feel of the time period. So Hancock is a talented director, but his work here as both a director and writer on THE LITTLE THINGS isn’t his best.

The best thing about THE LITTLE THINGS is its cast. I can watch Denzel Washington all day, and as you would expect, he is excellent once again in the role of Deke, the homicide detective with the knack for finding the little things. The only problem is we don’t see this knack on display all that much.

Rami Malek is good as Detective Baxter, althought ultimately he proves to be a rather dumb character. He’s certainly not a worthy enough character for an actor like Malek, who won an Oscar for playing Freddie Mercury in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2019).

I really enjoyed Jared Leto as creepy suspect Albert Sparma. Leto’s performance is every bit as good as Denzel Washington’s. He makes Sparma one very unsettling dude.

There are some fine supporting performances as well, especially Michael Hyatt as coroner Flo Dunigan. She has a special connection to Deke.

Ultimately, THE LITTLE THINGS is a mediocre thriller. It enjoys a stronger first half than its second, which strangely fails to generate much suspense or excitement. It does have strong acting, with Denzel Washington, Rami Malek, and Jared Leto leading the way, but when all was said and done, it just wasn’t a film that I was all that excited about.

While it may be all about the little things, in this movie the little things hardly seemed to matter at all.

Perhaps what it really should have been focusing on were some big things.

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