REVIEW: “Pathaan” (2023)

Bursting at the seams with high-caliber action and loads of panache, “Pathaan” is an off-the-charts, full-throttle Bollywood blockbuster in every sense. Furiously directed by Siddharth Anand, this fourth installment in the YRF Spy Universe flaunts the star power of Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone, and John Abraham. It’s somewhat of a comeback role for the screen veteran Khan, who after a four-year hiatus shows he still has the grit and charisma to fuel this fun and fast-paced Hindi-language action thriller.

Written by Shridhar Raghavan and Abbas Tyrewala from a story conceived by Anand, “Pathaan” follows a RAW field agent on a mission to stop a rogue agent with a serious ax to grind with his home country. That probably sounds strikingly similar to the previous film in the universe, 2019’s stellar “War”. But “Pathaan” has its own twists, turns, and angles while still capturing the spirit of its predecessor. And the potential it teases for the future is pretty exciting.

Much like “War”, Anand once again spans the globe, making stops at eye-catching vistas in India, France, Russia, Afghanistan, and Spain among other places. Along with DP Satchith Paulose, Anand uses his locations to soak us in the size and scope of the story. Not only are they beautiful to look at, but they also set the stage for some incredible set pieces which are ultimately the movie’s bread and butter.

The story itself has all the marks of a classic spy picture, from the fist-pumping thrills to the undeniable silliness. In 2019, the Indian government’s decision to revoke Article 370 of its constitution enrages a cancer-stricken Pakistani general named Qadir (Manish Wadhwa). Not trusting his own government to handle things to his liking, the embittered Qadir reaches out to the leader of a privately funded terrorist outfit called “Outfit X” who goes by the name of Jim (Abraham).

As it turns out, Jim is an ex-RAW agent believed to be dead by the Indian government. He too wants India to pay but for reasons entirely his own. He takes Qadir’s offer and begins hatching a plan to bring his former country to its knees. When RAW gets wind that Jim is very much alive and up to something big, senior officer Nandini (a terrific Dimple Kapadia) summons field agent Pathaan (Khan) to head the new “Joint Operation and Covert Research” unit (aka JOCR). Their first order of business – head to Dubai to stop the assassination of India’s president by Outfit X.

Along the way Pathaan learns that a former ISI agent named Rubina Mohsin (Padukone) is involved, although figuring out whose side she’s on proves difficult. Like a classic Bond girl, Padukone adds some spice and brings an air of mystery to the story, all while sharing some good chemistry with Khan. Unfortunately she sometimes gets lost in the plot’s breakneck maneuvering which is too bad considering the energy she brings to several of her scenes.

But it all comes down to Khan and Abraham, and the cat and mouse game between the film’s hero and villain. Anand knows what he has in them, and he really leans into what they bring to the screen. Khan shows he has the chops to be a full-blown action star while Abraham brings plenty of swagger, making him a diverting antagonist. And regardless of the story’s tendency to veer off into the preposterous, the two stars, along with the eye-popping visual spectacle, the kinetic pacing, a cracking score, and one very exciting cameo, keep things fun. It’s popcorn pleasure at its finest.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Pale Blue Eye” (2022)

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

Christian Bale investigates a series of gruesome murders in 1830 Hudson Valley, New York in Scott Cooper’s “The Pale Blue Eye”, an adaptation of Louis Bayard’s 2003 novel of the same name. It’s a film based on some really good material, that takes place in an intriguing setting, and that sports a terrific cast who all click right into place. Yet despite the many things it has going for it, “The Pale Blue Eye” can never quite get out of second gear.

Bale plays Detective Augustus Landor, a seasoned detective who knows his share of heartache. When we first meet him, it has been three years since his beloved wife died. To make matters worse, his daughter Mattie (Hadley Robinson) has ran off, leaving Augustus alone with his sorrow. Aside from drinking at a nearby tavern ran by Charlotte Gainsbourg’s warm but underwritten Patsy, he copes by losing himself in his work, which leads to him being summoned to the West Point Military Academy by Superintendent Sylvanus Thayer (played by Timothy Spall who wears a well-carved stoic expression better than anyone).

Image Courtesy of Netflix

We learn there has been a tragic death at the esteemed institution – a suicide by hanging of one of their cadets, a young man named Fry (Matt Heim). Superintendent Thayer wants Augustus to investigate. But it turns out he isn’t nearly as interested in finding out the truth as he is in protecting the honor and reputation of the country’s premier military academy. Augustus accepts, setting up the mystery that drives the rest of the movie.

Upon beginning his investigation several disturbing truths are revealed. Augustus meets with the medical examiner, Dr. Daniel Marquis (Toby Jones) who informs him that the young cadet’s heart was cut out of his body postmortem, apparently while it was in the Academy’s morgue. To add an extra layer, while examining the body Augustus discovers evidence indicating this may not be a suicide but a ritualistic murder. His suspicions are later confirmed after the body of another cadet is found, it too with its heart removed.

To help with his investigation, Augustus secretly recruits an eccentric yet brilliant cadet named Edgar Allen Poe (Harry Melling). Poe serves as his eyes and ears around West Point, and the two develop a strange but compelling partnership. Both characters have their own interesting angles. Bale’s scruffy and tired-looking Augustus is haunted by ghosts from a past he keeps tightly bottled up inside of him. Melling’s Poe is somewhat of an outcast at the Academy but a keen observer. A future poet himself, Poe begins to see the case through his own unique lens. He also falls for Lea (Lucy Boynton), the sickly daughter of Dr. Marquis which is one place where the story starts to show some cracks.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Unfortunately the mystery itself never quite comes to a boil the way you might hope. Despite its hearty premise and good setup, it feels like something was lost between paper and screen. Even its impressive cast (which also features Gillian Anderson, Simon McBurney, and Robert Duvall) can’t quite make this overlong and overly staid story hum. It isn’t until the actual mystery is solved, and we get an interesting (though not altogether convincing) final act character shift, that the movie really starts to simmer.

While the story has a tough time finding its footing, the setting is nicely realized starting with Stefania Cella’s production design and Kasia Walicka-Maimone’s costumes. The chilly blues and grays of Cooper regular Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography create a gothic atmosphere fitting for a Poe-like short story. It all makes for a handsomely made period piece with a visual presentation that almost makes you look past the borderline sluggish storytelling. “The Pale Blue Eye” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Plane” (2023)

(CHECK OUT my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

One thing you can say about Gerard Butler – he’s certainly found his comfort zone. And these days it’s rare to see the 53-year-old Scotsman step outside of it. Much like Liam Neeson, Butler has settled into making easy to digest action-heavy thrillers. To his credit, his movies tend to come with a slightly higher budget, with Butler often serving as his own co-producer.

Following last year’s thrill-free thriller “Last Seen Alive”, Butler returns with the generically titled but surprisingly propulsive “Plane”. This time around he plays a commercial pilot named Brodie Torrance (that’s such a Gerry Butler character name). While it may not sport the most inspired title, “Plane” turns out to be a lot of fun. And it lands at a good time, as many of us have been (and in some cases still are) cramming a steady diet of prestige films and awards contenders. It was kinda nice to sit back and take in a straightforward no-frills action flick.

“Plane” is directed by Jean-François Richet working from a script by screenwriter J.P. Davis and spy novelist Charles Cumming. Their story offers up a hearty helping of old-school action with some light survival-thriller elements thrown in. Its framework may be pretty standard-issue, but it’s well shot and especially well-paced. Richet keeps his story and his audience steadily moving forward, spending just enough time on the details to keep us onboard. And Butler makes for a sturdy and believable lead.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

On New Years Eve, Captain Brodie Torrance is set to fly Trailblazer 119 and its 14 passengers from Singapore to Tokyo. After the six hour and thirty minute flight, it’s off to Maui where he’ll spend a few days with his daughter Daniella (Haleigh Hekking). Once onboard Brodie meets his co-pilot for the flight (Yoson An) and the head flight attendant Bonnie (Daniella Pineda) and begins preparing for takeoff.

The only concern is a heavy patch of storms over the South China Sea which Brodie recommends flying around. But the higher-ups would rather save fuel than add another hour to such a small flight. So they urge Brodie to push through the weather. Adding yet another wrinkle, just as they are about to start boarding passengers, a federal marshal escorts Louis Gaspare (Mike Colter) onto the plane. He’s a fugitive who was apprehended in Bali and is being extradited to the States for a homicide committed 15 years ago.

After a smooth takeoff, they hit the storm while flying over the Philippines. Brodie attempts to climb to 40,000 feet to clear the weather, but the plane is struck by lightning and loses power, forcing him to make a daring emergency landing. Once on the ground, Brodie realizes he has landed on Jolo, a volatile island controlled by anti-government militias and separatists. In a snap, his job goes from getting his passengers safely on the ground to getting them safely off the island. But to pull it off he’ll need help from an unexpected source – Louis Gaspare.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Meanwhile, back at Trailblazer headquarters in New York, a no-nonsense crisis manager named David Scarsdale (a really good Tony Goldwyn) is called in to find the downed plane and extract the survivors before they’re captured and killed by a ruthless and eruptive militia commander (Evan Dane Taylor). And so the table is set.

Richet never stays in one place very long, and the action quickly moves from a simmer to a boil. It can get a little brutal, especially in its bullet-riddled finale. But Richet never goes overboard. Outside of Butler’s Brody and Colter’s Gaspare (to a degree), everyone else are basically well-acted stock characters. But that’s okay in a movie like this. Some do get lost in the chaos. But most play their parts and fill their roles well.

Outside of some shaky CGI effects and its one-dimensional (yet admittedly menacing) villains, “Plane” is every bit the movie it sets out to be. For action fans, it’ll be right up their alley. For Butler loyalists (I’m assuming they exist), this is one of their man’s better movies. For those who simply want to kick back, unplug, and unwind, Butler and company have just what you’re looking for. Sure, movies like this are a dime a dozen. But when they’re done this well, you can’t help but have a good time. “Plane” lands in theater today (January 13th).

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Poker Face” (2022)

Russell Crowe directs, writes, and stars in the new feature “Poker Face”, a puzzling movie built around a puzzling premise and hampered by puzzling execution. It’s a movie I’m still trying to wrap my mind around. It’s one that had me onboard with its early teases of some strange and knotty thriller. But then it plays out, and you quickly realize there’s not much to this unremarkable and frustratingly shallow endeavor.

The seasoned Crowe is too good not to give it his all, and he does that here. The Oscar winner has proven to be a great actor and his sadly underseen “The Water Diviner” from 2014 was a solid directorial debut. But here he handcuffs himself with a script full of gaping holes and head-scratching shortcuts. He writes a good enough setup – one that allows him to portray a character much different than most he’s played throughout his over 30-year career. But the lack of focus in his writing, particularly in the second half, is too much for his directing to overcome.

Image Courtesy of Screen Media Films

Crowe plays a billionaire tech mogul and high-stakes gambler named Jake Foley. Following a beautifully shot yet rather fruitless intro, we meet Jake solemnly admiring a painting at an art gallery. He’s approached by a young woman named Alyra who wants to paint his portrait for the Archibald Portrait Prize. He gives her his consent and she snaps his picture. “Maybe if I make the short list I will see you at the exhibition,” she hopefully comments. “No you won’t” he replies with an exasperated half-smile and walks away.

We learn the 57-year-old widower has just gotten a bad medical diagnosis and he hasn’t long to live. From there it’s on to a strange sequence as Jake drives his fancy Rolls-Royce deep into the country where he consults with a grizzled old shaman (played by character actor Jack Thompson). The mystic gives Jake some drug-induced peace of mind and sends him home with a prescription. With his newfound clarity, Jake begins getting things in order with the help of his lawyer and personal right-hand man, Sam (Daniel MacPherson). One of his first orders of business – a poker night with friends.

That may sound shallow and frivolous, but Jake actually has deeper intentions. Seeing beyond the facade of success, Jake has come face-to-face with his mortality. It has caused him to self-evaluate and reflect. It’s also led him to examine his old relationships, namely those with his childhood chums Michael (Liam Hemsworth) a struggling alcoholic; Alex (Aden Young) a published author; Paul (Steve Bastoni), a politician; and his business partner and best friend, Drew (RZA). Each have their own unflattering secrets that Jake wants to root out.

So Jake sets up an elaborate plan under the guise of the ultimate poker night. He sends a message for his old friends to gather at a fancy hotel. There they meet Sam who gives them keys to luxury cars and GPS coordinates to Jake’s swanky, state of the art, oceanside home. When they arrive they’re greeted by Jake who offers them an intriguing choice. They can keep the luxury car they drove, no strings attached, or they can trade it in for $5 million in chips and a spot at a high stakes game of Texas hold ‘em (winner take all, of course).

Image Courtesy of Screen Media Films

Most of us would probably keep the car and sell it. But these guys all turn it their keys and collect their chips. Now you might be thinking this is where we get the poker in “Poker Face”. Well, technically yes. But there’s only about five minutes of actual card playing. Michael, Alex, and Paul quickly discover that their old pal Jake has something else up his sleeve. It all sounds goofy yet kinda cool, but the suspense is squandered when a goon named Victor (Paul Tassone) shows up with his armed henchmen to rob the place. What unfolds is a tensionless and woefully underdeveloped final act that guts the movie of any remaining potential.

To Crowe’s credit, he throws out some clever ideas and opens up a number of compelling themes. And his restrained, lived-in performance is a nice plus. But his storytelling never quite matches his ambition. Too often the movie bolts from one place the another, leaving out what feels like critical details and skipping over opportunities to flesh out its story more. And the practically non-existent character development in some cases really hurts, making it hard to invest in anyone or anything we say. It’s a shame because Crowe can handle himself behind the camera. His script here just doesn’t give him the room to really show it. “Poker Face” is out now in select theaters.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Prey for the Devil” (2022)

2022 has been a pretty lackluster year for the horror genre. It’s been a year where “big swings” by filmmakers have become more important than good stories or (dare I say it) actual scares. It’s been a year where several old franchise favorites have returned in what amounted to pretty dreadful reboots. Thankfully there have been a few welcomed exceptions such as “Pearl”, “Smile”, “Fresh”, and “Orphan: First Kill”. Otherwise it has been pretty unremarkable.

New to the fold is “Prey for the Devil”, a supernatural horror film from director Daniel Stamm and screenwriter Robert Zappia. Arriving just in time for Halloween, “Prey” doesn’t do much to change the course of the 2022 horror movie year. And while it might grab itself an audience who are hungry for some holiday frights, it’s unlikely to stick with you for very long afterwards. That’s because it plows some very familiar ground, and it doesn’t give us much that we haven’t seen before. Yet it has a few things going for it that helps make it fairly entertaining.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Jacqueline Byers plays Sister Ann, an ambitious young nun with a troubled past who finds herself face-to-face with a malevolent demon that’s had its eye on her since she was a child. Sister Ann grew up in a troubled home with an abusive mother (Konya Ruseva in flashbacks) who was diagnosed with depression and schizophrenia. But Ann loved her mother and was convinced there was something else wrong. That belief and her childhood trauma led her to become a nun where she began learning about possession.

Noting a sudden increase in possessions around the globe, the Vatican decides to reinstitute exorcism training. Sister Ann has an immediate interest, but women are prohibited from performing the rite of exorcism. But she finds an advocate in Father Quinn (a solid Colin Salmon) who admires her eagerness and recognizes her special gifts. He agrees to let her sit in as an observer as he trains a group of young priests. This doesn’t sit well with the stern Sister Euphemia (Lisa Palfrey) or the skeptical psychiatrist Dr. Peters (Virginia Madsen). But Father Quinn sees something in our protagonist.

As expected, their training quickly turns into something much more sinister after Father Quinn and his group of exorcists-to-be encounter a 10-year-old girl named Natalie (Posy Taylor). Her family believes she may be possessed (I suppose sudden scars all over her body, the snarling voice, and ability to climb walls like Spider-man can lead to such suspicions). As the evil spirit starts manifesting itself in more violent ways, Sister Ann begins to suspect it’s the same demon that tormented her late mother. With the help of her friend and fellow trainee Father Dante (Christian Navarro), Sister Ann covertly bends a few church rules to prepare for what’s to come. It leads to an inevitable supernatural showdown that unfortunately fizzles rather than frightens.

Surprisingly, the movie’s strongest moments aren’t the one-on-ones with the demon. Those scenes are pretty by-the-book and come packaged with many of the usual tricks – milky eyes, gnarly body contortions, super-human strength, etc. Instead it’s the more serious-minded procedural aspect of the training, the church politics, the internal discussions over the Vatican’s process of handling “terminal” possession cases. There’s also an interesting consideration of the psychological versus the supernatural. Sure, all of these things could have been explored more. But they add some unique and compelling layers to the story.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

There are also things to appreciate about Stamm’s direction, such as his use of silence which leads to some legitimate edge-of-your-seat tension. And there’s a couple of good jump scares that actually don’t feel annoyingly cheap. Stamm also gets some fitting atmosphere from his Sofia, Bulgaria shooting locations. On a sad note, the brilliant Ben Cross who plays Cardinal Matthews passed away only ten days after finishing his scenes. This marks the final feature film for the talented English actor.

Interesting bits aside, “Prey for the Devil” still can’t quite get over the hurdle of familiarity. There’s just too much that feels rehashed from countless other films. And it’s not helped by a rather unsatisfying ending that doesn’t exactly provide the payoff the film needs. It’s a visually dark and murky climax by choice that, rather than adding atmosphere, just makes it tougher to decipher than it needs to be. Together, these frustrations are simply too pronounced, and the movie doesn’t have enough ingenuity of its own to overcome them. “Prey for the Devil” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Pearl” (2022)

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

I had reasonably high expectations for “X”, an unashamed ode to slasher movies and grindhouse sleaze that released earlier this year. Sadly, it ended up feeling more like a trashy knockoff than anything remotely fresh. But then a prequel was announced titled “Pearl”, and its trailer offered a stylish and delightfully brutal blast of technicolor-soaked horror. I was instantly intrigued.

Because of “X”, I entered “Pearl” with a fair amount of caution. After seeing it, I left the film mostly impressed by what West had put together. “Pearl” is impossible to put into a single box. It’s an origin story, a rural horror movie, a psychological thriller, a pitch-black comedy, a gonzo exploitation flick. And while not all of it fits together seamlessly, West’s focus is tighter and he doesn’t stray off course or get bogged down in as much nonsense this time around.

“Pearl” truly is West’s baby. He directs, edits, co-writes, and co-produces. But most people will leave the film talking about its star, Mia Goth (who’s also credited as co-writer). The British actress pulls out her thick Southern accent and steps back into the skin of Pearl, a troubled young woman with a twisted imagination and big dreams of becoming a movie star. Goth played an elderly Pearl in “X”, but here she gets to put aside the heavy prosthetics to play a younger Pearl at a crucial point in her life.

Image Courtesy of A24

The movie’s sumptuous opening puts us right back on the farm from “X”. West starts us in the barn, swinging open its large double doors to reveal a sun-bathed yellow farmhouse surrounded by bright green grass. It’s almost Rockwellian in its presentation. Yet before the opening credits are done, West and Goth give us a jolt just to let us know there’s nothing idyllic about the world we’ve entered. And from that moment there’s a lingering sense of unease which West maintains to the film’s eerie final frame.

I can’t overstate how essential that uneasy feeling is to the movie’s success. West wants us to know from the start that Pearl is unwell. Sure, people who have seen “X” already have a good idea. But for those who haven’t, West makes it clear in the opening moments. With that understanding comes anticipation. We know bad things are coming. We know she’s going to break. The question becomes when and how? What drives her? How far does she go? West has us in the palm of his hand. It’s just up to him to deliver the payoff. For the most part he does.

While the ever-present simmer of dread is vital, Goth’s performance is the centerpiece. Aside from the hints of theatrics in a few scenes, Goth really sells us her damaged character. But what stands out most is her ability to make Pearl uncomfortably deranged while earning our empathy. Some of it is due to West’s script which gives Pearl room to develop and her circumstances time to metastasize. But most comes from Goth who captures every twisted facet of her character.

“Pearl” takes place as World War I and the equally deadly Spanish Flu were nearing their ends, yet the reverberations of both were still being felt across the globe. With her husband Howard away at war, Pearl is left to tend to her parents’ farm and help her stern German-born mother (Tandi Wright) take care of her wheelchair bound father (Matthew Sutherland). But Pearl’s heart is elsewhere. She has an unhealthy obsession with being a movie star. She sees it as her ticket off the farm, much to the chagrin of her cynical mother.

Image Courtesy of A24

ThAfter developing its setting and her circumstances, the movie simply follows Pearl over the next several days as she encounters people and situations that will ultimately play into her inevitable breakdown. Among the key players is a hunky bohemian theater projectionist (David Corenswet) who shows Pearl a stag film he picked up while in Europe (a lazy, wedged-in attempt at linking to “X” and the upcoming third film). And there’s Mitzy (Emma Jenkins-Purro), Pearl’s sister-in-law who accompanies her to a church-sponsored dance troupe audition.

This simple yet effective approach paints us a rich and detailed portrait of Pearl – one that grows more unsettling by the minute. Along the way, West uses his story to comment on quarantine life, pandemic era paranoia, and the damaging effects of isolation. There’s also a brilliantly layered examination of family dysfunction that shows how deep-seated pain can fester into something toxic and destructive.

“Pearl” is a deliciously unhinged slice of period horror that’ll have you chuckling one minute and squirming in your seat the next. It improves on “X” in nearly every perceivable way, yet it’s very much its own movie that feels plucked out of time. The visual craft, the ingenious score from Tyler Bates and Tim Williams, and of course Mia Goth’s next-level performance are all crucial to realizing West’s vision. And while there are reasons to be leery of the teased third film, it doesn’t hinder the enjoyment of “Pearl” which is plenty able to stand on its own. “Pearl” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 4 STARS