Denzel Day #6 : “Out of Time” (2003)

TIMEposterOver a span of two months each Wednesday will be Denzel Day at Keith & the Movies. This silly little bit of ceremony offers me a chance to celebrate the movies of a truly great modern day actor – Denzel Washington.

Alfred Hitchcock was fascinated with the idea of innocent men trying to clear their names of an assortment of offenses they didn’t commit. It’s a theme he revisited numerous times often adding his own twist to the scenario. Innocence, guilt, mistaken identity – all elements Hitchcock loved to explore. You can’t help but see that influence in director Carl Franklin’s “Out of Time”.

Franklin and screenwriter David Collard tell a story thick with Hitchcockian flavor and more twists than a classic 1940’s noir. In their film Denzel Washington plays the man with the deck stacked against him but with a small caveat. He’s not what you would call a squeaky clean victim with a spotless moral record.

Washington plays Matt Whitlock, police chief of the sleepy little town of Banyan Key which is nestled about an hour’s drive from Miami. This easy going Florida Keys community of around 1,300 people is rocked when a suspicious house fire takes the life of a local husband and wife Chris and Anne Harrison. The fire chief rules it to be arson and a homicide investigation begins.

Now enter the twists. Matt has been having an affair with Anne (Sanaa Lathan), an old flame from high school, and the abusive Chris (Dean Cain) is suspicious. Things get more complicated when a cancer diagnosis, a life insurance policy, and $485,000 in seized drug money all come into play. Oh, and toss in Matt’s estranged wife Alex (Eva Mendes), recently promoted to detective and brought in to assist with the case.

Matt finds himself doing everything he can to hide his connections to the case while also carrying out a secret investigation of his own. Collard’s script has a field day putting the character through the ringer as he constantly heads off new evidence to keep the police off his trail only to avoid being caught by the skin of his teeth. The sheer lack of plausibility would make it easy to dismiss if not for Franklin’s swift pacing which never allows us too much time to dwell on any of it.

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Of course it helps to have Denzel Washington as your lead. Despite the ramped up tension (especially in the second half) Washington gives what you could call a laid-back performance. Aside from a few beads of sweat and a couple of concerned looks, Washington and his character maneuvers through the many twists and turns confidently and relaxed yet (as always) with plenty of charisma. It’s only at the very end that we see Matt lose the control he has held (though at times precariously) through the entire film.

Washington and Franklin previously worked together in the exceptional 1995 neo-noir “Devil in a Blue Dress”, a film I hold in high regard. “Out of Time” doesn’t quite reach that level but it’s a much different movie despite sharing some of the same elements. It works best as a sugar-rush thriller, light and undeniably absurd. But to be honest that’s a big part of what makes it so much fun.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

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You can say this about Quentin Tarantino – he’s consistent. His settings and timelines may change, but regardless of the movie you still see a filmmaker unshakably devoted to his style. It’s so pronounced that you’ll hardly see him step outside of his self-defined box or sway too far from his brand. Take his recent conversations about making a Star Trek movie. Right off the bat he confirmed to Empire magazine that his version would be replete with profanity, a needless addition but a glaring Tarantino trademark.

I doubt any of that will be a problem for die-hard Q.T. fans and I can understand why. But as someone who feels his stories are often smothered by his style, it makes it easy for me to keep my expectations in check whenever a new Tarantino movie arrives. His 9th film (10th by release, but whatever) comes in the form of a retro la-la land fairytale set in the waning days of Hollywood’s Golden Age and our country’s perception of innocence. It’s a movie full of surprises, none bigger than this – I kinda love it. And let me get this out of the way – I think it is his best film.

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“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” walks in several of Tarantino’s familiar footprints. It’s set within an alternate timeline, it’s a compendium of the filmmaker’s favorite classic cinema pastiches, and it sports a fascinating array of unique and often eye-popping characters. It isn’t much interested in plot. Instead Tarantino’s focus is on these characters and recreating 1969 Los Angeles with an obsessive level of detail.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as fading TV star Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt plays his reliable stunt double and best friend Cliff Booth. The two are drawn from an era where actor and stuntman worked closely together both on and off screen. If Rick loses an acting gig so does Cliff. And Cliff not only takes Rick’s lumps on camera but he’s his chauffeur, gopher and overall handyman.

Television westerns were Rick’s ticket to stardom (Tarantino’s flashbacks to Rick’s former hit show “Bounty Law” are spot-on and so much fun). But as Hollywood transitions to a new era, Rick senses the industry leaving him behind. Instead of adapting he spends much of his time boozing and feeling sorry for himself. Enter the easygoing Cliff, a good listener and even better encourager.

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As with other Tarantino films, “Once Upon a Time” routinely sees fiction intersecting with fact. An example, Rick lives in a nice house at the end of Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. Many will remember that street name from the horrific Manson Family murders. Rick’s new neighbors are indeed filmmaker Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and his wife, rising Hollywood star Sharon Tate (played with an effervescent beauty by Margot Robbie).

Much has been made of Robbie’s lack of dialogue, but her portrayal of Sharon Tate has a very unique role to play. In many ways she stands as a symbol as much as a character. She represents innocence, goodness, and compassion. Tate is a constant ray of light and Tarantino shoots her with an ever-present glow. That’s why we’re hit with a looming sense of dread when we get those few glimpses of Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) or when Cliff gives a young hippie hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) a ride to Spahn’s Movie Ranch. We know what history says and where things are heading.

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As for the leads, “Once Upon a Time” is a very character-driven movie and Tarantino gives his two biggest stars plenty of meaty material to chew on. DiCaprio goes wild in a role that’s big and showy in the same way many Tarantino roles are. Still there are layers of sadness and insecurity that DiCaprio absolutely nails. But it’s Pitt who steals the show. Not only does he look the part with his sun-bleached hair and leathery good looks, but he’s tempered, laid-back, and easy for us to connect with (despite a few potential skeletons in his character’s closet).

The film does feature some of the same Tarantino vices that we seem to get in all of his pictures. For example he has this weird fascination with profanity. He doesn’t use it for realism or emotional effect. It’s something woven so tightly into the fabric of his style and he can’t seem to break away from it. Because of that many the characters across his movies often talk alike and sound alike.

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Tarantino does indulge himself a little too much specifically during a long sequence on the set of Rick’s new western. Admittedly, it’s kind of fascinating watching Tarantino essentially shoot a TV show within his movie. It’s also a segment that features several good moments including Luke Perry’s final appearance and a fabulous performance from 10-year-old Julia Butters (she’s a revelation). But it still feels detached from the film’s other moving parts.

It’s hard to imagine a better looking film in Tarantino’s catalog (bold statement, I know). Every scene gives you an image worth setting your eyes on or a detail that in some way calls back to 1969. You get his nostalgic visual splurges often rooted in his pop-culture fluency. Whether it’s a Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos comic on a coffee table or DiCaprio’s Rick grafted into a scene from “The Great Escape”. And of course there is the sheer technique seen throughout the entire movie. My favorite may be Tarantino’s knack for tracking shots best seen in a neon-bathed nighttime drive down the Sunset Strip and a subtly unnerving pan of Spahn’s Ranch.

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So much else could be said about the rip-roaring soundtrack filled with songs of the period that haven’t been played to death in other films. About Tarantino’s surprising restraint even among such nostalgic excess and the unexpected splash of maturity seen most in his treatment of his characters. And how about the plethora of great cameos from Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, and Zoe Bell just to name a few. We could even talk about how Tarantino’s ending (in its own twisted way) offers us something his films rarely give – a glimmer of hope.

I can see “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” getting criticized from both sides. Tarantino stalwarts who come to the movie hungry for his traditional pomp and shock may be disappointed in how little they get. Those looking for a more traditional narrative may find the movie too messy and light on plot. Me, I love how this film manages to avoid many of Tarantino’s self-induced trappings while still being unlike anything else you’ll see in the theater this year. And while I still grumble at some of his style choices, I can’t deny being completely absorbed in this crazy yet magnificent cinematic concoction.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Overlord”

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One of the coolest things about the J.J. Abrams produced “Overlord” is that with the slightest of tweaks it could work as a gritty and visceral World War II Picture or a fun old-school horror gorefest. It settles on being a crazy genre mashup full of far more surprises than you would ever expect.

The film begins with a high-powered opening sequence set in the night skies over France. It’s the evening before the D-Day invasion and a paratrooper squad is set to drop behind enemy lines to destroy a German radio jamming tower strategically placed atop an old village church. Director Julius Avery’s camera hones in on Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) whose wringing hands, bouncing knee, and sweat-soaked forehead give away his  nervousness.

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German AA guns begin pounding the skies and bullets rip through the hull of the plane killing many of the young troops. Boyce is pushed out into the dark war-torn sky and parachutes to the Nazi-occupied countryside just south of the village. This entire sequence is exhilarating and chaotic, full of striking visual touches and some truly intense sound design. It definitely gets things off on the right foot.

On the ground Boyce is reunited with the small handful of soldiers who survived the drop. Among them is the hard-nosed Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell) and the obnoxious chatterbox Private Tibbet (John Magaro). They cross paths with a French Resistance fighter named Chloe (a very good Mathilde Ollivier) who reluctantly agrees to sneak them into the village where they’ll put together a game plan to take out the tower.

So far everything could pass for a thrilling WW2 film in the vein of “Saving Private Ryan”. But oh how things change when we discover what’s going on in and underneath the church. This will only speak to gamers, but “Overlord” becomes something that would be right at home in the “Wolfenstein” video game universe. I’ll let you discover it for yourself but let’s just say the horror elements you see in the trailer are only the tip of the iceberg. The film has much crazier (and gorier) things up its cinematic sleeve.

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“Overlord” is best taken as straight-forward, unbridled entertainment. It doesn’t shoot for much more than that. We see this most in its handling of the characters which we learn practically nothing about. It’s not particularly necessary for the story, but it is one thing that could have given the movie a little more depth. Still the characters manage to have their own unique contributions to the story. For example Boyce serves is the film’s conscience. Ford is the grit. Chloe is the heart. Tibbet is the humor.

While the trailers scream horror, “Overlord” packs just as much period war-time action and suspense. In fact, one of the most welcoming things is how deliberate Avery and co-writers Billy Ray and Mark L. Smith are with unleashing the horror elements. When they do come it changes the movie significantly and that’s not a bad thing. I gotta say I enjoyed the second half’s blood-soaked nuttiness and its commitment to seeing its crazy concept through to the finish line.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Operation Finale” (2018)

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Otto Adolf Eichmann was a high-ranking Nazi SS officer and one of the key architects of Hitler’s “Final Solution”. Decorated and revered among the Nazi hierarchy, Eichmann’s fingerprints were all over the Holocaust. He would organize and oversee the mass deportation of Jewish communities to extermination camps across Eastern Europe during World War II. The hunt and subsequent capture of Eichmann is a fascinating story to behold.

After World War II Adolf Eichmann escaped custody and hid throughout Europe before settling in Buenos Aires. “Operation Finale” from director Chris Weitz spotlights the Israeli intelligence team who located Eichmann and were tasked with bringing him back to Jerusalem to stand trial before the nation.

Oscar Isaac stars as Peter Malkin, a secret agent from the more aggressive wing of the Mossad. In 1960 the intelligence agency initially ignores a lead claiming Eichmann had been spotted in Argentina. But fearing public outcry, Malkin and his team are sent to South America to covertly extract Eichmann under the noses of an unhelpful local government and a rising Nazi sentiment. Ben Kingsley plays the enigmatic Eichmann, a queasy mixture of family man and outright monster.

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First time screenwriter Matthew Orton covers a lot of ground in the film’s two-hour running time. A good chunk is spent peeling back the layers of Eichmann and revealing an unexpected touch of humanity. It’s a tough juggling act particularly for Kingsley who is both unsettling and convincing. His portrayal hides Eichmann’s heinous beliefs behind a veil of good manners and fatherly devotion giving form to what historian Hannah Arendt referred to as “the banality of evil”.

Then you have the Jewish intelligence team whose pain-driven impulses for revenge routinely clash with their sense of duty. It is especially true for Peter who still finds himself haunted by flashbacks of the German atrocities. This adds another level of stress to the already demanding mission. Some good performances fill out the rest of the team – Lior Raz, Nick Kroll, and the always good French actress Mélanie Laurent. She plays a doctor and Peter’s former love interest although their relationship isn’t given a lot of detail.

An integral side story features one of my favorite young actresses Haley Lu Richardson (“Columbus”, “The Edge of Seventeen”). She plays Sylvia, the daughter of Lothar Hermann (Peter Strauss) who secretly feeds information to the Israelis regarding Eichmann’s whereabouts. But her budding relationship with Eichmann’s Nazi-sympathizing son (Joe Alwyn) puts her in a precarious position. It’s an interesting story angle but unfortunately Richardson’s character gets lost in the third act as the film crunches the timeline and focuses more on the extraction.

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The film’s slow boil may push away those looking for a snappier or more action-oriented thriller. But I appreciated its deliberate pacing and attention to character. As I said about Richardson, not everyone gets the fullest treatment, but there are some fabulous character-driven moments specifically between Isaac and Kingsley. They offer some great exchanges amid two top form performances.

Producers Fred Berger and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones have stated that there is far more truth to their story than dramatic license. That’s one reason you won’t find “Operation Finale” leaning too heavily on routine tropes and gimmicks to amp up the tension. They want it to come from a more authentic place. That gives this film a different feel – patient, even methodical to a point. It wouldn’t appear to be the easiest sell, but a strong backing from MGM Studios ensured its production.

It has been said that as the end of the war drew close Eichmann declared he could “leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” It’s that deep-seated wickedness and unspeakable callousness mixed with their own personal losses that drove the Mossad throughout this incredible mission. “Operation Finale” shines a light on their efforts and does so with reverence, patience and with the help of one stellar cast.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Only the Brave”

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If you aren’t familiar with the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots but plan on seeing “Only the Brave”, do yourself a favor and don’t read up on their story before seeing the movie. It’s worth it just to experience the fullness of the emotional gut punch this film packs. I had not heard of  these brave men who fought wildfires on the frontlines. I’m certain that’s why this movie provoked such a powerful response from me.

“Only the Brave” could have been several things under that familiar guise of “based on a true story”. It could have been some big studio action movie with more CGI than human element. It could have been a cliché-riddled buddy survival-thriller that Hollywood has produced by the dozens. To be honest I was expecting a bit of all that. What I got was a movie far more interested in its characters than I expected it to be. It isn’t perfect, but when focused on the right stuff (which is more often than not) it reveals a depth that will surprise a lot of people (including me).

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Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) heads a team of firefighters in Prescott, Arizona. They are a top-notch group who find themselves constantly brushed aside by higher ranked elites. Sick of the federal bureaucracy and lack of progress for his crew, Eric seeks the help of mentor and former firefighter Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges). Because of Duane’s pull a portion of the film deals with the team earning their elite certification and becoming the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

The reason this is even the slightest bit interesting is because of the characters. The writing team of Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer put the bulk of their focus on two of the firefighters, Brolin’s Eric and Brendan “Donut” McDonough played by a very convincing Miles Teller. Donut is a stoner looking to turn his life around following the birth of his daughter. Eric sees him as a kindred spirit of sorts hinting at some baggage looming from his past. Team-wise there is some strong supporting work James Badge Dale who plays Eric’s reliable second-in-command and Taylor Kitsch, a bit of a flake but a good-hearted one and always dependable in the field. The other firemen aren’t given much attention yet they still feel integral and important.

A lot of time is given to the team chemistry both in the field and away from it. There are plenty of good scenes that show the camaraderie of this tight-knit unit. At the same time the writers occasionally overdo it with some of their banter which I think is meant to be stereotypical “guy talk”. At times it gets a bit silly and perhaps even offensive (depending on your perspective).

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But we really see these characters open up in the scenes where these men step away from their firefighting. Eric’s story is especially compelling because we get Jennifer Connelly who is excellent playing his wife Amanda. She spends more time with the horses she nurses back to health than her husband who is always away on duty. Over time we begin to sense the stress it has on their relationship. Connelly shrewdly maneuvers through Amanda’s slowly shifting emotions never hitting a false note. She’s so good in the scenes she is given and has a great chemistry with Brolin.

All of this relationship building and character development fuels the final act which, despite some predictable narrative setup, has a profound dramatic kick. Director Joseph Kosinski needs no manipulation or gimmickry because by this point his characters are in a good place and he has the emotional heft of the true events to carry his ending. And by the end I not only knew about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, but I had an intense respect for them and their loved ones. 

VERDICT – 

REVIEW: “The Other Woman”

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I suppose there was a chance, albeit a small chance, that “The Other Woman” could be a funny and spirited revenge movie for women. The concept, while admittedly dopey and trite, could be entertaining if placed in smart and creative hands. Well let me say not one single smart or creative hand touched any part this film. “The Other Woman” is unquestionably one of the most brainless and insipid attempts at comedy I have seen in a while. Not only is it offensive to intelligent women everywhere, it’s also offensive to any halfway discerning movie fan.

I’m not certain what screenwriter Melissa Stack is going for, but she definitely didn’t hit her mark. The film isn’t remotely funny. There isn’t an ounce of originality in the attempted humor. The characters are obnoxious, shallow, and brain-dead. I didn’t like anyone in this movie nor did I care about their situations. Basically the film trashes every bit of its women’s empowerment and independence potential.

Cameron Diaz gives yet another silly performance playing a New York lawyer named Carly. She has fallen for suave and debonair guy named Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). Things look good for them until she finds out he is married to the teeth-grindingly annoying Kate (Leslie Mann). The two develop an unusual friendship which only strengthens when they find out that Mark is also cheating with a third woman, an air-headed supermodel named Amber (Kate Upton). The three scorned ladies join forces to enact the ultimate revenge on the two-timing (or is it three-timing) Mark?

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Stark and director Nick Cassavetes give us an annoying and inept mess of a movie. It doesn’t have an original thought or an shred of ambition. It seems to be copying things we’ve seen in other films. It’s so poorly made from its idiotic fecal jokes to its pretentious use of Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”. And the performances don’t help. Bad performances from Cameron Diaz have become commonplace and it’s no different here. Mann is probably the most annoying of the cast and that’s saying something. Upton, well she is no actress and she makes that crystal clear.

I read that “The Other Woman” pulled in $200 million at the box office. I can’t tell you how perplexing that is. We all sometimes like a silly, dumb movie as long as it doesn’t insult us and it offers some semblance of filmmaking intelligence. “The Other Woman” has none of that yet it raked in a ton of money. I would love to watch a good comedy featuring the empowerment of women at the expense of a slimy disgraceful guy. “The Other Woman” is certainly not it.

VERDICT – 1 STAR