Friday, December 24, 2021

Short Takes: December VI - Films

Reviews: The King's Man, The Tender Bar, Encounter

The King's Man (c) 20th Century Studios

Film: The King’s Man 
In Cinemas 

Just in time to fill the hole left by Daniel Craig’s farewell to the James Bond franchise comes the best movie in the Kingsman franchise. That it’s a prequel is probably what gave Matthew Vaughn a license to rethink the series, and did he ever. This, as well as “No Time to Die,” are the best action movies of the year. While I certainly admired a lot of the first Kingsman film, the excessive style on screen couldn’t hide the plot holes or character motives. It was only exacerbated in the sequel which took the action to even more unbelievable extremes. And while “The King’s Man” does have outrageous set pieces, it all feels grounded in its World War I milieu. Ralph Fiennes is perfect as the pacifist at the center of the film, but the supporting characters are the real stars. Rhys Ifans is doing what Jared Leto has been trying to perfect in his recent whacked–out roles – that is to be over-the-top while still living in the world of the film, and so he does with his Rasputin, which is just madcap fun. I liked Harris Dickinson (in his best role since “Beach Rats”) as Fiennes’ son, who at one point becomes a hilarious thirst trap to further the plot, and Gemma Arterton and Djimon Hounsou, who have more to do than their servant roles would have you believe. The only disappointment is the villain, who, unlike Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore in the previous films, is left a mystery, but if you do the math, it’s very easy to figure out their identity. But it’s the script, which is full of wit and pathos and some ingenious plot twists, that makes this movie work so well. The action sequences, including ones involving a ram, a biplane and run through No Man’s Land, are as violent as anything as Vaughn directed, but feel germane to the plot this time around. A perfect diversion for families that need something to fill up time during the holidays. Just leave the kids at home. 

The Tender Bar (c) Prime Video

Film: The Tender Bar 
In Cinemas and Prime Video (on January 7) 

George Clooney’s track record as a director has been spotty with only “Good Night, and Good Luck” being his triumph. Except for “Suburbicon,” which is the only real dud, most are in the middle area of that “that was ok, what’s for dinner” category. “The Tender Bar” fits snuggly in the latter, with maybe a bit more heart than usual. Comparisons to J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” are inevitable as both are true stories about poor, white initialed boys who grew out of their circumstances to become writers. “Elegy” had a smug attitude to it, giving us poverty porn as well as many examples of how the rich look down on the poor. “The Tender Bar” just wants to tell its rags-to-writer story of J.R. (Tye Sheridan), who we see as a young boy, living in his grandfather’s (Christopher Lloyd) Manhasset, NY home with the rest of his mother’s (Lily Rabe) extended family, idolizing his absent father (Max Martini) and being taken under the wing of his caring Uncle Charlie (Ben Affleck). Charlie owns a bar called the Dickens and starts J.R. on the road to loving to read. J.R.’s big dream is to get into Yale and become a writer. Clooney has a gentle easy touch to his direction, telling the story in episodic form from J.R.’s perspective, be it as a kid disappointed that his loser father forgot to take him to a Mets game or a college student who can’t seem to break up with the girl he shouldn’t be with. Unfortunately, however well the stories are told, nothing really stands that we haven’t seen elsewhere. But like Uncle Charlie’s car, it’s a smooth ride nonetheless and Affleck gives his best performance since “Shakespeare in Love.” His Uncle Charlie is probably only a few shades better than J.R.’s father, but those shades encourage the kid and that may be all it takes to make J.R. Moehringer, whose book this movie is based, into the Pulitzer Prize winning features writer he became. 

Encounter (c) Prime Video

Film: Encounter 
In Cinemas and Prime Video 

Riz Ahmed got his first Oscar nomination last year for “Sound of Metal,” and he is equally dynamic in his latest film, “Encounter,” although the movie itself sort of strands his character at the end with no place to go. Ahmed plays a troubled U.S. Marine named Malik who seems to uncover classified intel that the world is about to be infested with a parasite spread by bugs. He arrives at his ex-wife’s home and takes his two young sons on a roadtrip to a safe base, trying to make it a game so as to not scare them. But people are taking notice including the police and his parole officer (Octavia Spencer), who volunteers to help when Malik calls her desperate to save his sons. Ahmed has to play two versions of Malik: the guy who believes there’s an impending apocalypse and the guy who is playing a game of “don’t trust anyone” with his kids. The most intense scene happens when a cop stops them on an empty stretch of a Nevada desert highway, but after a while, director Michael Pearce tries too hard to ramp up the drama, especially when the parole officer enters the picture. It left me uninterested in where the plot ultimately ended up. That said, Ahmed and Lucian-River Chauhan as Jay, his eldest son, have some great moments together as things start to deteriorate, and Malik tries to get him to grow up faster and take more responsibility, especially for his younger brother. I certainly enjoyed the paranoid mood of the first half more than the police procedural of the second.

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