REVIEW: “All the Old Knives” (2022)

I’ve always had a soft spot for dense talky thrillers. When done well they highlight good screenwriting while giving actors the dramatic material to burrow deep into their characters. And when combined with the right director, able actors, and strong script, a simple conversation in a restaurant can be as tense and engrossing as any well-done nail-biting action sequence.

Based on the book by Olen Steinhauer, “All the Old Knives” delivers that kind of dialogue-heavy experience but with a strong romantic underpinning that sets it apart. Steinhauer, who also wrote the screenplay, teams with director Janus Metz and a lights-out cast to craft a heady and intelligent cloak-and-dagger mystery steeped in governmental intrigue, deep-rooted espionage, and betrayal.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The movie opens up in 2012 Vienna, with a room of stunned CIA agents getting word that hijackers have killed every passenger and crew member aboard Turkish Alliance flight 127. A shocking 120 men, woman, and children murdered inside the plane as it sat on the tarmac of Vienna’s international airport. The events of Flight 127 loom over the rest of the story like a dark ominous cloud.

Jump ahead eight years. Langley has reopened the investigation into flight 127 following the capture of a terrorist who was involved in the planning of the hijacking. He’s made a claim that the terrorists had help from inside the CIA’s Vienna station. CIA Chief Vick Wallinger (Laurence Fishburne), who was head of the CIA operation in Vienna, is tasked with combing over his old team to find out if they had a mole in their midst. He calls in case officer Henry Pelham (Chris Pine), a trusted agent who was also in Vienna eight years earlier. Vick sends Henry to discover the truth so they can finally close the books on Flight 127.

Before anything else, there are two former colleagues Henry will need to rule out first. Bill Compton (Jonathan Pryce), the Vienna station’s second in command now residing in London. And Celia Harrison (Thandiwe Newton), a wife and mother of two and Henry’s former lover. Both were key members of the Vienna team and both are potential suspects. From there the movie follows Henry’s meetings with Bill and Celia, hopping back and forth on the timeline as they each try and recall the events of that traumatic day.

Image Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The movie looks like a spy thriller, sounds like a spy thriller, and mostly plays like a spy thriller. But when it comes to mystery and truth-digging, it’s just as much about the core relationship between Pine’s Henry and Newton’s Celia. As the truth about Flight 127 is slowly unearthed, so are the details of their steamy romance which all but ended the day of the massacre. Metz and Steinhauer do a stellar job weaving together both threads of their story while bouncing back-and-forth from the past to present day. And pacing is everything in a slow-boil like this. “All the Old Knives” is definitely slow, but Pedersen keeps it at a steady boil.

Overall this is a fun and engrossing throwback thriller that’s a far cry from the more action-packed showy side of spy movies. It mines it’s tension from the emotions and intensity of its characters which lets the performances really shine. The cast sinks their teeth into this cerebral and tightly wound story which keeps us guessing right up to its solid payoff. It might not play as well for the more action-hungry crowd. But any fan of rich, layered, dialogue-driven thrillers will enjoy what “All the Old Knives” has to offer. “All the Old Knives” is streaming now on Amazon Prime.


REVIEW: “At Midnight” (2023)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Directed by Jonah Feingold, “At Midnight” can never quite break out of its rom-com mold. It employs nearly every genre trope in the book and ends exactly where and how you expect it to. But that’s not to say there isn’t some enjoyment to be had. Feingold does a good job tapping into the chemistry between his two leads. And the script (written by Feingold, Maria Hinojos, and Giovanni M. Porta) takes some light but effective jabs at Hollywood politics. And its lead, Monica Barbaro (“Top Gun Maverick”) should be a star on the rise and she makes it easier to look past some of the film’s more frustrating shortcomings.

Barbaro plays Sophie Wilder, an actress preparing to shoot the third film in the popular superhero trilogy “Super Society”. But things get complicated after she walks in on her obtuse co-star and boyfriend Adam (Anders Holm) cheating on her. Sophie’s antsy manager Chris (Casey Thomas Brown) and her outspoken agent Margot (Whitney Cummings) push her to keep the scandal under wraps, fearing the sudden breakup of Hollywood’s ‘it’ couple would be a publicity nightmare for their upcoming film. Needless to say it adds a little stress to the scheduled press tour.

Image Courtesy of Paramount+

Soon Sophie is off to shoot the movie in Mexico, accompanied by her free-spirited comic relief best friend Rachel (because most rom-com best friends have to be free-spirited comic relief). She’s played by comedian Catherine Cohen who delivers a handful of good laughs despite being handcuffed by an all-too-familiar stock character archetype. Upon arriving at their deluxe hotel, Sophie meets Alejandro (Diego Boneta) in the most rom-com of ways (you’ll know what I mean when you see it). He’s a good-looking junior manager working in guest relations with big dreams of opening up his own hotel.

I doubt it’ll surprise you where things go from there. Sophie and Alejandro start off at odds with each other only to soon fall in love. But of course there has to be some tension. For Sophie it’s the studio’s wish to hide her split with the buffoonish Adam. For Alejandro it’s the hotel’s strict rules against employees hooking up with guests. It all leads to some late-night sneaking around and some comic close-calls. To Feingold’s credit he never overdoes the hijinks. What humor we get doesn’t always land, but at least we aren’t drowned in it.

Things inevitably get a little syrupy at the end which should surprise no one. But in a way it’s hard to hold that against Feingold and his film. While I may wish it had something more original to offer, there’s a specific crowd expectation that comes with a movie like this. Feingold and company set out to meet that expectation, and I’m betting there’s a very specific audience who will leave “At Midnight” plenty satisfied. It also serves as another highlight for Monica Barbaro who is good throughout and routinely elevates the material she’s given. “At Midnight” is now streaming on Parmount+.


REVIEW: “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (2023)

How long has Kevin Feige and the massive entity known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe been introducing us to the Multiverse? It seems like forever. Yet here we are again with “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania”, the first big Marvel production of the year and the 31st film in the MCU. Director Peyton Reed returns for his third Ant-Man film, although this one is more ambitious and has a significantly larger scope. Unfortunately that alone doesn’t equal a great movie.

I guess it depends on who you talk to, but ever since 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame”, the MCU has been a frustrating and at times rudderless mess. It has nowhere near the flow or baked-in excitement since Thanos was defeated. Instead, Feige and company have over-extended into television, repackaged classic old characters, brought in a humdrum selection of new characters, and has spent more time introducing storylines than exploring them. Perhaps success has gone to their heads. Or maybe they’ve forgotten what made the early run so great.

Admittedly, out of the early MCU, the Ant-Man films were among the weakest for me. I liked their smaller and more intimate scale. But neither the stories or the storytelling left much of an impression. “Quantumania” has much more on its plate. It’s supposedly the start of Phase 5 of the MCU although I quit trying to understand their “phases” years ago. Most of the cast returns including Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Michael Douglas. I say “most” of the cast because for some reason Feige recast Cassie Lang (Emma Fuhrmann was dropped and replaced by Kathryn Newton).

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

This time the villain is Kang the Conqueror (Jonathan Majors), a classic baddie in the comics who is still waiting to be adequately defined in the MCU. Those who watch Marvel’s assembly line of Disney+ shows first saw Kang in the first season of “Loki”. I was hoping “Quantumania” would give us a deep dive into the character, but sadly it doesn’t. Yes he gets some good screen time and we get to see him in action. Otherwise he only gives us vague allusions to grand ambitions and of “what’s to come”.

As for Scott Lang (Rudd), aka Ant-Man, he’s been spending his post-Endgame days basking in the glory of his days as an Avenger. Hope (Lilly) is running things at the Pym van Dyne Foundation. Cassie is an activist who keeps winding up in jail. Janet (Pfeiffer) is holding onto secrets from the 30 years she spent trapped in the Quantum Realm. And Hank (Douglas) basically tags along and talks to ants.

Scott and his family are sucked into the Quantum Realm after one of his daughter’s experiments goes haywire. The Quantum Realm is a CGI world full of wacky creatures, sentient walking buildings, and Bill Murray running around playing himself. It’s also a realm on the brink war as a rather bland tribe of freedom fighters led by Jentorra (Katy M. O’Brian) are rising up to fight the mighty Kang who has amassed a mighty techno-army. Scott just wants to get his family home. But Cassie believes they should get in the fight. So we get some manufactured tension between a conqueror and the people, and (on a smaller scale) between a father and his daughter.

But it’s hard to get too invested mainly because the movie barely goes skin deep. So much feels left out or underdeveloped. Kang is the best example. This should have been where we learned the most about him. Instead he just wants to leave the Quantum Realm. That’s it. He’s not into quelling the uprising. He barely seems aware they exist. He just wants to leave. His “powers” are never really explained, and even fans of the comics will have a hard time making sense of some of the things he does. And while the movie tries to make him menacing (in an almost Shakespearean way thanks to Majors), it lacks the edge to pull it off.

Many of the problems can be traced back to screenwriter Jeff Loveness’ script. Taking on something this massive and expansive as your first feature film screenplay is a big ask, especially coming from writing for “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and doing a handful of “Rick and Morty” episodes. His story lacks depth, detail, emotion, and even laughs (the scattered attempts at humor fall flat). The dialogue goes from stiff to hammy, and all the quantumumbo-jumbo is never as interesting as it should be.

Image Courtesy of Marvel Studios

But the biggest problem with “Quantumania” is that it just doesn’t move the needle in the MCU. Nothing about it feels special or even significant. And it certainly doesn’t feel as though it moves things forward. But it’s also short of its own personality and charm. The entire thing feels processed and churned out by the Marvel machine rather than creative minds.

I’ve came down pretty hard on the movie as if it’s terrible. It has a great cast, some of the visuals are actually quite striking. And then there’s M.O.D.O.K., a character I’ve always loved in the comics. The MCU’s origin of M.O.D.O.K. is utterly ridiculous. But once I got past that disappointment, he was actually one of my favorite things in the movie. Not because he’s a great character. But because he looks so hilariously bizarre, sometimes by design and sometimes due to crappy CGI.

But while “Quantumania” may not be terrible, it’s not memorable either. Kinda like the entire MCU since “Endgame”. This is another entry that fails to muster excitement or move things forward in a meaningful way. It just exists – a gear in a moneymaking machine that is starting to lose its steam. “Quantumania” will still make money. But even the most rabid loyalists are noticing the dips in quality and letting their voices be heard. And if the MCU loses them….. .


REVIEW: “Amigos” (2023)

Doppelgänger [noun] – an apparition or double of a living person. That’s a fitting and essential definition to keep in mind as you watch “Amigos”, the new Teluga-language thriller written and directed by Rajendra Reddy. It’s a slow-starting two-sided movie that takes some time to gain its footing. But once it does, Reddy and his hard-working star Nandamuri Kalyan Ram put together a tensely entertaining second half that ultimately ends up saving the day.

While the very core of its premise is undeniably silly, that doesn’t mean there isn’t fun to be had. Reddy goes all-in with his doppelgänger idea which (to be fair) is the only way to tell a story like this. There are a lot of things that don’t make sense, and there are just as many questions it’s best not to ask. But as the story uncoils and the reveals stack up, those things become easier to look past.

Ram plays Siddharth, a regular Joe who lives with his tight-knit family in Hyderabad. He’s smitten with a local DJ named Ishika (played by Ashika Ranganath). The problem is she’ll only marry a man who can pass her very specific (and seemingly impossible) test. Reddy devotes much of the first half of his movie to Siddharth’s playful (and sometimes downright silly) pursuit of the girl of his dreams.

Siddharth gets wind of a popular new social website ( of course) that connects people with their doppelgängers from around the world. Siddharth is immediately matched with Manjunath, a meek and kind-hearted computer programmer from Bengaluru. Just as the two are planning to meet, the website finds another match – the quieter, more stoic Michael from Kolkata. The three have a meet-up in Goa and hit it off. Soon Manjunath and Michael are helping Siddharth win the heart of Ishika.

The story’s big twist kicks off a second half that gives the proceedings a welcomed burst of energy. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say Michael isn’t quite who he claims to be. His real name is Bipin Roy and he’s a notorious gun runner and arms dealer who’s wanted by the NIA (National Investigation Agency). And he didn’t come to Hyderabad just to meet his two lookalikes. His motivations are much more sinister, and Reddy reveals them while steadily ratcheting up the tension.

The shift from the light and playful first half of the movie to the grittier and more violent second isn’t seamless, and it takes some adjusting. And not just in terms of tone, but also with the characters (most notably Michael). But Reddy does a good job building up to his big finish, to the point that we don’t have a lot of time to think about the sometimes corny first half antics. The bursts of stylish yet fittingly brutal action help too, although some of the style choices (like the occasional dizzying frame rate stutter or the vehicles zipping around at 1.5X speed) can be more distracting than exciting.

As for Ram and his wild three-headed performance, he certainly seems to be having a good time playing the everyday guy Siddharth, the nerdy bespectacled Manjunath, and the moodier Michael. Of the three, he really sinks his teeth into Michael who is by far the most fun and interesting. “An Indian Pablo Escobar,” he’s called and the film is at its best when we’re watching him live up to that title. It helps us to get past some of the shakier moments. “Amigos” is now showing in select theaters.


REVIEW: “Alice, Darling” (2022)

The new film “Alice, Darling” sets out to shine an honest and earnest light on the issue of psychological and emotional abuse. In her feature directorial debut, Mary Nighy takes this undeniable potent subject matter and examines it from a distance, yet with remarkable clarity. Along the way, she also looks at the bond of friendship and the importance of having supportive people in your life who you can trust unconditionally outside of your partner.

Written by Alanna Francis, “Alice, Darling” takes a strategic and ultimately impactful approach to its central subject. Rather than concentrating on the actual abuse and showing it as it happens, the film reveals more through its effects, namely on a young woman named Alice. The crippling anxiety, the loss of all self-confidence, the physical self-harm – just some of the signs shown that paint a vivid picture of what a victim may sometimes endure. It’s tricky material, but Nighy handles it well by showing restraint and (mostly) avoiding the dramatics.

The film stars Anna Kendrick, a steady hard worker who has put out at least one movie a year for most of her 20-year career. She’s an interesting actress who often plays somewhat similar characters despite the kind of movie she’s in. And while much of her work has been related to comedy, she has taken on some more serious roles, mostly in supporting turns (she received an Oscar nomination for 2009’s “Up in the Air”).

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Here, Kendrick is given her heftiest dramatic role playing Alice, a psychologically battered young woman who tries her best to mask the emotional distress brought on by her relationship with her obsessive and controlling boyfriend, Simon (Charlie Carrick). He’s an up and coming artist whose entire world revolves around his wants and needs. He puts on a good show, but he’s a much different person when not hobnobbing with potential backers.

Simon’s abuse isn’t the out-and-open kind. It’s hidden under a veil of sincerity. He tells Alice how much she means to him. He buys her nice things. He proudly introduces her to all his art world friends. In some ways Simon is self-deluded enough to think those things alone make him a good partner. But as the movie progresses, we get a better sense of his unbridled self-absorption and smothering control. He routinely shames and manipulates Alice, exploiting her vulnerability and stripping her of all self-esteem. And we see it taking its toll.

It all comes to a head after Alice is invited to join her friends Sophie (Wunmi Mosaku) and Tess (Kaniehtiio Horn) for a week-long lake house getaway. Rather than tell Simon where she’s going, Alice makes up a fake business trip story and heads off with her pals. She puts on a good face and keeps the ruse hidden. But she can’t fully hide her troubled state of mind. Her friends suspect something is wrong and try to get her to open up. But Alice keeps everything bottled up to the point where she starts to unravel.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Nighy does a good job exploring the dynamic between Alice and her friends. Sophie and Tess can see through Alice’s front, and it’s easy to tell she’s not the same person she used to be. They attempt to break through to her, pointing out her disconnection and questioning the obsessive way Simon texts her and tries to guilt her into coming home. Overall it’s an eye-opening look at friendships; more specifically the supportive systems often found within them. And Nighy uses the dramatically different personalities of Sophie and Tess to show the different sides of such vital relationships.

But so much comes back to Kendrick and her performance which feels rooted in a personal lived experience (In fact it was. Kendrick recently revealed to PEOPLE magazine that she was inspired to do the movie following her own experience in an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship). It’s a surprisingly subtle portrayal of a woman crumbling, with Kendrick never overplaying it yet vividly conveying the lasting impact of abuse.

While the story starts to come unglued in the final 15 minutes, the most notable misstep is a needless tacked-on subplot involving a missing girl. The metaphor is glaringly obvious, but it’s the idea of using a missing girl that is problematic. It’s not the most tasteful choice. It certainly doesn’t undermine what is otherwise an honest and insightful drama. But it does routinely pull us away from the many things the movie does well. “Alice, Darling” is now showing in select theaters.


SUNDANCE REVIEW: “A Little Prayer” (2023)

The always terrific David Strathairn stars in the equally terrific “A Little Prayer”, a low-key Southern melodrama that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before being picked up by Sony Pictures Classics. This delightful and warm-hearted ensemble film is a beautifully sketched family portrait that doesn’t gloss over the imperfections that make us human. In fact, writer-director Angus MacLachlan (who penned 2005’s “Junebug”) embraces those imperfections and the results are honest and deeply affecting.

Set and shot in his hometown of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, “A Little Prayer” is clearly a personal endeavor for MacLachlin. His affections, sensibilities, and experiences can be seen and felt in every frame, character, and story turn. His story revolves around a seemingly average Southern family who live in a cozy and quiet neighborhood accented by tweeting songbirds and tall oak trees. But once you get past the idyllic charms, MacLachlin reveals a troubled family and a patriarch’s well-meaning attempts to hold it together.

Strathairn plays Bill Brass, the owner of a local sheet metal company which he runs with his son David (Will Pullen). Both are war vets (Bill served in Vietnam; David in Afghanistan), a detail that subtly plays into the story later on. Bill finds himself more and more preoccupied with the problems of his two adult children. David is an alcoholic and all signs point to him having an affair with their company’s bookkeeper Narcedalia (Dascha Polanco). Bill’s crude deadbeat daughter Patti (Anna Camp) shows up unannounced with her daughter Hadley (Billie Roy) needing a place to stay after leaving her opioid-addicted boyfriend for the umpteenth time.

You can tell Bill’s concern for his kids is weighing on him. But a ray of light comes in his relationship with his daughter-in-law Tammy (a sublime Jane Levy). The two are kindred spirits from different generations, and there’s such warmth and trust in the connection they share. Like a father, Bill sees Tammy as one of his own and he relishes their closeness – something he doesn’t have with his own kids. For Tammy, Bill is a tender father figure – something she lacked in her abusive childhood household in Kentucky.

One of my favorite touches involves a mysterious reoccurring voice that pierces the otherwise peaceful morning air. It’s the voice of a woman singing old gospel hymns in the distance. Bill and Tammy find it soothing and are enchanted by it. They even go out one morning to see which neighborhood house it’s coming from. Certain others in the family mock the heartfelt spirituals and find it obnoxious. The different reactions tell us a lot, as does the voice’s sudden absence at very specific points in the film.

While Strathairn and Levy have an exquisite father-in-law and daughter-in-law chemistry, other characters add a richness to MacLachlin’s story. None are better than the endearing Celia Weston as Bill’s wife, Venida. Weston steals scene after scene playing a straight-shooting but tender-hearted Southern woman who will have you laughing out loud in one scene and breaking your heart in another. Polanco shines in a crucial scene that breaks her character out of the typical side-dish mold. And Camp nails Patti, a veritable whirlwind of irreverent and self-destructive chaos.

As individual secrets are brought into the light, Bill comes to the painful realization that he can’t mend every fence or control every outcome. And no matter how much it hurts, there’s a point where he may have to let go. Meanwhile, we learn that there’s a quiet strength underneath Tammy’s meek and modest exterior. She knows more than she shares, and she’s willing to make difficult choices – some that could weigh on her for the rest of her life.

While pulling back the many layers of family drama, MacLachlan keeps things fittingly understated throughout. Some of the reveals could have easily sent the film spiraling. But MacLachlan maintains a remarkable and steady control, never allowing his story to cross over into soapy sentiment. It’s obvious he trusts his script, and it doesn’t hurt to have such a top-to-bottom terrific ensemble led by David Strathairn. He could make combing his hair in front of a mirror compelling. And he brings that signature authenticity to a character and a movie that I was in tune with from its open frame to the closing credits.