Johnny English Strikes Again – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

In a spoof of the James Bond film Skyfall (2012), this third installment of the Johnny English franchise brings back retired secret agent, Johnny English (Rowan Atkinson), after a mysterious cyber-attack exposes all currently employed undercover British agents working for M17.

Rowan Atkinson stars in Johnny English Strikes Again. Photo copyright 2018 Universal Pictures.

English has been working at a private school as a geography teacher while simultaneously training his young students as junior spies using his questionable skills and knowledge. Against her better judgment, the Prime Minister (Emma Thompson) enlists English to find out who launched the attack and restore order back to London, which is in complete chaos. An old-fashioned technophobe, English finds his former partner, Bough (Ben Miller) who’s slightly more tech-savvy, and plans his mission to locate and neutralize the mastermind.

A Billionaire Computer Genius

Dismissing high-tech weaponry, state-of-the-art vehicles, and new communication devices, English selects a basic gun and an Aston Martin. Not able to operate a cell phone, he stops at hard-to-find pay phones along the road to make calls. Much of the humor is based on his analogue sensibilities pitted against modern-day machinery. The villainous Jason Volta (Jake Lacy), a young billionaire computer genius with celebrity status, naturally wants to take over the world by manipulating its technology.

English’s physicality (especially delightful in an extended virtual reality scene) likewise competes against Volta’s intellect. There’s also a wild card among these two mismatched rivals: Volta’s Russian girlfriend (Olga Kurylenko [a former Bond girl in Quantum of Solace]) isn’t exactly who she pretends to be. Curiously, she’s better with weapons and more physically fit than English, and seemingly more intelligent – at least in terms of common sense and survival skills – than Volta.

Rowan Atkinson’s Physical Comedy

The laughs are few, but the chuckles are many. Atkinson delivers some memorable comedic scenes during a carjacking, while at a nightclub dancing, and hiding inside a coat of armor. The script (by screenwriter William Davies) is humorous, but Atkinson’s physical comedy and interactions with Miller offer the film’s greatest highlights. Lacy’s villain is as generic as Kurylenko is exotic.

It’s fun to watch some of the creative set-ups for future gags. Rather than random non-sequiturs, much of the humor relies on callbacks from people, places, and things mentioned in the movie. Bond aficionados may enjoy the many references to Skyfall, and of James Bond films in general.

Johnny English Strikes Again

  • A dim-witted technophobic former British spy is brought back from retirement after a cyber-attack reveals the identities of all current undercover British agents working for M17.
  • Stars: Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson, Ben Miller, Olga Kurylenko, Jake Lacy
  • Director: David Kerr
  • Genre: Action Comedy
  • Run Time: 88 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for action violence, rude humor, language, and brief rear nudity)

Reviews of other recent movies about crime:

American Animals

BlacKKKlansman

The Death of Stalin

The Old Man & the Gun

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

The Old Man & the Gun – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Addictions to drugs, alcohol, and sex don’t usually make the news unless the addicts are already famous. In this true story based on a New Yorker article by David Grann, a man named Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) has a life-long addiction to politely robbing banks with a smile (and a gun) that make him newsworthy and notorious.

The Old Man & the Gun stars Robert Redford and Sissy Spacek. Photo copyright 2018 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Even in his later years when he teams with two other elderly men for his robbery sprees – the early 1980’s are the years covered in this film – Tucker wears a nice suit, tie, and boots while “on the job.” Although he carries a concealed gun and shows it to threaten bank tellers and managers, he’s non-violent and likely never used the gun for anything other than show. Likewise, the other two members of the so-called “Over the Hill Gang” (Danny Glover and Tom Waits) drive, haul the money, and carry out their respective tasks without causing any unnecessary disruption or fear throughout the bank.

A Sweet-Talking Bank Robber

Sometimes no one even knows the bank had been robbed except for the employee who’d been involved. Such is the case when burned-out police detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck) takes his two children with him to the bank for a quick transaction. He’s as shocked as everyone else when the branch manager announces they’d just been robbed. Suddenly, Hunt becomes intrigued by this sweet-talking elderly bank robber, and the case renews his enthusiasm for his job. It isn’t long before Hunt notices similar crimes across Texas and other nearby states – all with the same descriptions of a suave bank robber.

For his part, Tucker shows little signs of slowing down or changing his patterns. He robs banks, eventually gets caught and incarcerated (18 times), and then breaks out of prison most of those times. Other than one brief marriage as a young man, crime is his way of life. He says for him robbing banks isn’t about making a living, but about living. That is, until he meets Jewel (Sissy Spacek), an honest, earthy woman with a horse farm…and lots of integrity. How can these two opposites possibly work out a relationship unless one of them is willing to change?

The Hunt and the Jewel

The romantic relationship is secondary to the main story, however, which is the cat-and-mouse game between Tucker and Hunt. Both men seem to enjoy the challenge, and thrive on playing their roles (as do the actors Redford and Affleck who portray these characters). Acting is outstanding among the central characters: Redford (in his announced final role) oozes charm whether he’s robbing a bank, stealing jewelry, lying to his girlfriend, or taunting a police detective; Affleck’s character gradually evolves throughout the film and revives professionally and personally through the biggest “hunt” of his life; and Spacek’s character, Jewel, sparkles so brightly men of any age or chosen career path could fall in love with her. The cars, set design, costumes, and music are a flashback to the early 1980’s that help bring the story alive without much contrivance (although there’s a major continuity error involving a photograph).

Make no mistake. Forrest Tucker is a criminal, not a hero and definitely not a family man. The fact that his house faces a cemetery reveals more truth about this adrenaline junkie than his softly spoken lies, assurances, and compliments ever could.

The Old Man & the Gun

  • Based on a true story, this film focuses on the later years of The Over the Hill Gang, three senior men who rob banks more for fun than profit, led by career criminal Forrest Tucker.
  • Stars: Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Tika Sumpter, Elisabeth Moss
  • Director: David Lowery
  • Genre: Crime Drama
  • Run Time: 93 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)
  • Click here to watch a trailer for The Old Man & the Gun.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

 

 

The Oath – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

As if the holidays weren’t stressful enough with extra expenses, travel arrangements, snarled traffic, and sibling rivalry, try adding diverse political views into the Thanksgiving mix. That’s what happens in The Oath, a dark action comedy written and directed by Ike Barinholtz (Suicide Squad and The Mindy Project), who also stars in the film.

The Oath stars Ike Barinholtz, who also wrote and directed the film. Photo copyright 2018 Roadside Attractions.

Barinholtz portrays Chris, a liberal white man happily married to his equally liberal black wife, Kai, (Tiffany Haddish). They live with their two children in a beautiful suburban neighborhood. They watch in disbelief as a White House spokeswoman announces on television that all U.S. citizens are requested to sign a Patriot’s Oath (a loyalty waiver to the President). Americans have nearly a year – until the day after Thanksgiving – to sign the oath. Although not required by law, the Government offers tax benefits and other perks for signing…and perhaps a visit from the Citizens Protection Unit (CPU) for those who refuse to sign.

Nationwide Frenzy

Chris, a social media addict, observes the nationwide frenzy of increasing violence, strange disappearances of non-signers (including Seth Rogen), and home invasions by the CPU as Thanksgiving Day approaches. His conservative family is coming to their house for the holiday and his parents (Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis) have issued a no-political discussions rule, which Chris immediately discards upon their arrival. His ultra-conservative brother (real-life brother Jon Barinholtz) and his girlfriend (Meredith Hagner) wage an ongoing verbal battle with the hosting family. His sister (Carrie Brownstein) and her ailing husband (Jay Duplass) offer a more neutral stance.

Just when it seems like things can’t get worse, two officers from the CPU (Billy Magnussen and John Cho) arrive at the house to question Chris about not signing the oath. Utilizing the traditional good cop/bad cop roles, the CPU officers escalate an already tense environment. Tension leads to panic, and panic leads to violence. Soon the scene is out of control. Who reported Chris? Where will the violence lead?

Dark Political Comedy

Although this may not sound like the basis for a comedy, this dark film is comical throughout. These ordinary people are thrust into an extraordinary circumstance that isn’t likely to have a happy ending. The actors play for laughs, but there’s also a darker subtext about angry, close-minded extremists taking on the traits they despise in the other. This is Barinholtz’s directorial debut, and while the humor occasionally misses the mark, the timely cautionary tale might prompt more peaceful political discussions around Thanksgiving dinner tables this year.

The Oath

  • Reflecting the political divisiveness going on in the country, a family’s Thanksgiving celebration turns violent when opposing views derail the holiday.
  • Stars: Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, John Cho, Billy Magnussen, Jon Barinholtz, Nora Dunn, Chris Ellis, Carrie Brownstein, Jay Duplass, Max Greenfield
  • Writer-Director: Ike Barinholtz
  • Genre: Romantic Action Comedy
  • Run Time: 93 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout and some drug use)
  • Click here to watch a trailer for The Oath.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

The Little Stranger – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

It’s difficult to determine which takes precedence in this supernatural thriller – the creepiness or the creakiness. Set in a crumbling old mansion on the English countryside, the film provides the house with its own monologues consisting of mysterious knocking, thumping, ringing, banging, and lots of creaking.

Domhnall Gleeson stars in The Little Stranger. Photo copyright 2018 Focus Features.

The story concerns Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson), a caring country doctor, who has maintained a lifelong fascination for Hundreds House and its wealthy inhabitants, the Ayres family. His mother worked there as a maid in his youth, and she later took on multiple jobs to support his desire for a medical education. She died an early death from overwork, and the good doctor now seeks a family of his own.

The Mystery of Hundreds Hall

It’s 1948, and Dr. Faraday is now working with an established doctor in the area and receives a call from someone at Hundreds Hall regarding an ailing young maid (Liv Hill) who suffers from an unknown malady. While there, he encounters the Ayres family again, the secretive mother (Charlotte Rampling), the shell-shocked and horribly disfigured war veteran son, Roderick (Will Poulter), and the chronically depressed grown daughter, Caroline (Ruth Wilson).

While treating the patient and later returning to try electro-stimulation on Roderick’s burns, and eventually to court Caroline (who appears to prefer women to men), Dr. Faraday has frequent flashbacks recounting his one visit to Hundreds Hall for a festive party in the mansion’s glorious heyday back in 1919. He remembers another Ayres daughter being at the party, a pretty young girl who died while still a child. He also relives his other experiences of that day, including eating with other maids in the kitchen and breaking off a stone acorn from one of the elaborate wall fixtures.

A Slow-Moving Thriller

Now creaky, dilapidated, and possibly haunted, the sprawling three story mansion still represents an elusive lifestyle to Dr. Faraday. By proposing marriage to Caroline, he thinks he can help her family with their health problems, ease his own loneliness, and finally gain full access to the house he has always admired. Surrounded by secrets, lies, delusions, dysfunction, and supernatural forces, what could possibly go wrong with his plans?

This slow-moving thriller (based on the Gothic novel of the same name by Sarah Waters) offers no concrete explanations, but presents an interesting twist on the typical ghost story and haunted house scenario. The oppressive atmosphere within the house grows steadily as the movie progresses, shifting from uncomfortable at the beginning to terrifying at the end. The sound effects team must have thoroughly enjoyed themselves giving the house its own distinctive “voice.”

As in the 2017 period piece, Goodbye Christopher Robin, Gleeson delivers a solid performance as a man struggling with inner turmoil while attempting to retain an outer calm. As a man of science, he’s the last to admit that something supernatural is going on at Hundreds Hall. The mystery isn’t revealed until the final moments of the film, but even then – like any good horror story – questions and doubts will remain in the mind of the viewer.

The Little Stranger

  • In 1948, a young country doctor attends to a strange family living in an old mansion that appears to be haunted.
  • Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Josh Dylan, Charlotte Rampling, Will Poulter, Liv Hill
  • Director: Lenny Abrahamson
  • Genre: Mystery/Horror
  • Run Time: 111 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for some disturbing bloody images)

Juliet, Naked – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Let’s begin with a clarification: The movie’s title is not what you think. There’s no Juliet and no nudity. “Juliet, Naked” refers to the title of a long-lost acoustic demo song that was never released on obscure American singer Tucker Crowe’s (Ethan Hawke) first record album.

Juliet Naked stars Rose Byrne and Ethan Hawke. Photo copyright 2018 Roadside Attractions.

The legend of Tucker Crowe – which includes that first album, his music, his fans, his family, and his mysterious disappearance from the limelight – is the central energy around which everything else vibrates in this film. There’s his obsessive fan base in England, headed by a middle-aged professor named Duncan (Chris O’Dowd) who runs a website and video podcast devoted to the reclusive singer he’s never met. There’s Duncan’s longtime girlfriend, Annie (Rose Byrne), a museum curator whose growing unhappiness in their relationship is due to Duncan’s selfish focus on his idol, instead of on her need to settle down and have children.

A Disjointed Family

Tucker’s large disjointed family of ex-wives, ex-lovers, and ignored children view him in an entirely different light. They’re angry at his lack of commitment, lack of interest, and abandonment of family. The only exception is Jackson (Azhy Robertson), his youngest son. As far removed from the public eye as possible for the past 25 years, Tucker currently lives on his latest ex-wife’s property so he can do a better job parenting Jackson than he did with his other children.

Annie’s disdain for the unreleased Tucker demo (recently discovered by the recording studio) places the final wedge between her and Duncan, and coincidentally provides the link needed  for a new romantic relationship to develop. After she posts a negative review of “Juliet, Naked,” Tucker sends her an email saying she “nailed it.” From there, they begin online communication that leads to a face-to-face meeting. Unfortunately that meeting ends up being in a hospital after Tucker suffers a heart attack. Their potential romance seems possible, but there’s plenty of baggage from the past for both to overcome.

Book by Nick Hornby

Based on the book of the same name by Nick Hornby, the story examines the need for family, the search for meaning in life, and the power of forgiveness. The film contains plenty of humor as well, with Annie’s insecurities, Tucker’s humility, and Duncan’s absurdities. Shot on location in England, Juliet Naked comes alive through the three main actors — Byrne, Hawke, and O’Dowd, who beautifully portray their multi-dimensional characters.

Even though Annie and Tucker have significant flaws, there’s something to admire in both of them. When Annie finally wakes up to reality and learns to speak her truth, she boldly goes forward, inspired in part by an elderly woman who attends an opening at the little museum she inherited. Tucker tries repeatedly in multiple ways to make amends for his earlier drinking, promiscuity, and irresponsibility, despite resistance from his family.

Duncan (whose ridiculous Tucker Crowe web show provides the opening and closing framework for the film) is generally more pitiable than admirable as an academic who lives vicariously through the music, film, and television that he researches. Even so, by the end of this fresh romantic comedy, Duncan undergoes some change. He appears to have replaced one passion for another – a horizontal progression at least.

Juliet, Naked

  • A lonely British woman begins dating the music idol of her former boyfriend.
  • Stars: Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd, Lily Newmark, Azhy Robertson, Ayoola Smart
  • Director: Jesse Peretz
  • Genre: Romantic Comedy
  • Run Time: 105 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language)
  • Other books by Nick Hornby: About a Boy  and  High Fidelity.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of 200 Love Lessons from the Movies and the newly released Scantily Clad Truths.