Thriller

Anna

First Hit: I was surprised that I liked and enjoyed this film as much as I did.

The film starts with a bunch of assassinations by the KGB of what appears to be CIA agents, all at the same time, in Russia. We’re given little context to these opening scenes, and have to trust that the story will make sense in the end.

Then, we are introduced to Anna (Sasha Luss), a mistreated Russian young woman, who is abused at the hands of her live-in boyfriend Vlad (Nikita Pavlenko). Vlad is a scamming bum who spends his time drinking, thieving and blaming Anna for their miserable life. Walking home one evening Vlad, driving a Mercedes, picks Anna up and drives to an ATM. Vlad opens the trunk, yanks out an old man, and uses his AMEX card and pin to try and extract money from the prisoner’s bank account. Just as they are doing this the police drive by and soon there is a shootout and a car chase.

Lucky to escape the chase, Anna and Vlad arrive home to be greeted by an agent of the KGB. The agent, Alex Tchenkov (Luke Evans), is not interested in discussing anything with Vlad, shoots him as a matter of fact, and begins speaking with Anna. He knows a lot about her; that her parents died when she was young and that she’s smart and appears to have a real will to survive. Alex offers her an opportunity to be free of all this, become a KGB agent, and in five years be free of everything, even the agency.

This is the setup.

However, when Anna' meets his boss, Olga (Helen Mirren), it’s clear that Anna must impress Olga because Olga is not impressed with her background. Quick thinking and acting under pressure are critical in the agency, and in this brief interview, Anna does this by reciting quotes by famous Russian authors.

Before you know it, Anna, Olga, and Alex are in front of the head of the KGB Vassiliev (Eric Gordon) who makes it quite clear that being part of the KGB is for life. And this hits a negative tone for Anna’s primary goal in life — freedom.

She’s been controlled and managed her whole life by her parents, the state, her boyfriend, and now the KGB. As an audience member, I hoped that her freedom was where the film would lead.

How the story is told to the moviegoer, is through numerous flashbacks and flashforwards. The audience has to soon learn that each scene may not be as it appears at first, that a flashback may subsequently give more information. An example was the scene when Anna is recruited as a model.

This form of filmmaking sometimes works, and other times becomes a distraction. Here director Luc Besson almost misses the mark as it is a slight distraction early on, but then becomes the primary vehicle for understanding the choices Anna is making along the way.

These choices include being a model, KGB agent, being a lesbian, and being recruited as a CIA agent by Lenny Miller (Cillian Murphy). Miller explains, at one point, that the loss of the agents at the beginning of the film was his responsibility and he wants to right this wrong, and she can help him. Does she become a CIA agent, a double agent, where is Anna’s allegiance, or does she just disappear?

The jobs Anna is sent on by Olga are numerous and horrifying. The first assassination job teaches her to check her equipment and be ready for anything – it’s quite a battle, one single woman agent against 15 – 20 thugs. The choreography of this scene was excellent as it was easy to follow and worked.

Anyway, the film was filled with action, risks, and questions about who is Anna, and what does she want?

Luss is excellent as Anna. Her look and physical movement work for this role as a model and also being entirely in control of her body. Murphy was strong as the CIA agent wanting to make amends for losing a bunch of agents. Mirren was exquisite as Anna’s boss at the KGB. Her disapproving looks and vocal tone exemplified what we might picture as a high-level woman KGB agent. Evans was equally strong as Anna’s recruiting agent. Gordon was perfect as the head of the KGB, cold and calculating. Lera Abova, as Anna’s roommate Maud, was very good as a model, friend and Anna’s lesbian lover. Besson wrote an engaging script which, at times, bordered on losing control and engagingly entertaining. As a director, it was obvious what he wanted in the end, and I think he got it.

Overall: I was glad I saw this film because each flashback gave new context to the story.

Ma

First Hit: Moderately thrilling at times.

This is a story about someone who was bullied as a high school student and finally having the opportunity to go overboard and get back at what was done to her.

Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer) picks up the nickname “Ma” from a bunch of high school kids for whom she buys liquor because they are too young to buy it themselves. “Ma” also offers these kids a place to party and drink the alcohol she obtains for them.

Maggie (Diana Silvers) and her mom Erica (Juliette Lewis) have just moved from San Diego to her mom’s hometown in Ohio. Erica has taken a job as a cocktail waitress while training to be a card dealer at a casino.

Attending high school on her first day, Maggie meets up with Haley (McKaley Miller) who convinces her to join her and a few friends for a drinking party just outside of town. One of Haley’s friends and someone who smiled and said “hi” to Maggie is Andy (Cory Fogelmanis). Maggie joins them on this adventure, especially because Andy will be there.

Standing outside the liquor store, Maggie gets Sue Ann to buy some liquor. Sue Ann convinces the kids to follow her to her house where they can party, and she can keep tabs on them.

The word spreads around school that “Ma” will not only get them booze but let the kids drink and have fun in her basement. But there is something suspicious about “Ma” and Maggie suspects there is an underlying current of weirdness.

We learn that “Ma” went to school with Maggie’s mom and Andy’s dad Ben (Luke Evans) because the story cuts back and forth through time showing these adults as kids in high school and the mean trick they played on Sue Ann.

It is in this context that Sue Ann decides she’s going to get revenge on the people that embarrassed and humiliated her. She does this through their kids, the ones coming to her house to party.

Secrets are revealed, and the and the sick pain “Ma” feels about what was done to her expresses itself in several horrific scenes.

Spencer is rather good as the kind veterinarian assistant and the off the charts psychotic revenge focused woman in her hometown. She did a great job of changing her look as needed. Lewis is always interesting to watch on screen. She always makes me think she’s just hanging out on edge. Silvers is excellent as the somewhat shy, yet intelligent young girl. Miller is keen as the friend who creates excitement around herself. Fogelmanis is very good as the young man who cares about Maggie. Evans is terrific as the man who is the primary subject of Ma’s vengeance. Scotty Landes wrote this script that attempts to tell the darkest side of what happens to people who are bullied. Tate Taylor got strong performances from the young cast and Spencer.

Overall: It was fun to watch Spencer change her expressions from light-hearted and helpful to dark and revengeful.

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

First Hit: Entertaining, full of unbelievable action, and an excellent setup for Chapter 4.

One can only enter the theater knowing you're going to see lots of shooting, hand to hand combat and knife fighting. This film doesn’t fail at delivering this.

When we last saw Mr. Wick (Keanu Reeves) in Chapter 2, John had broken the rules of the Continental Hotel and Winston (Ian McShane), proprietor, was ready to put out a contract on Wick’s life.

This is where Chapter 3 opens. John is running through New York City, looking for a place to hide from the assassins that are ready to kill him for the $14M that is being offered for his extermination.

There is a countdown, and when the 6:00 PM execution time happens, the world seems to be after Wick. In this world, assassins are everywhere. Yes, I only gave glancing thought to this real-world possibility because this is an unreal world story, and even your neighbor is an assassin.

The ludicrousness of many of the fights Wick gets into and wins was out loud laughable (which I and others did) but no less engaging. Yes, some of the choreography was a little stiff with people hesitating for the next lunge, thrust or throw but it was delightful.

That, for me, is the point of this series of films. It is full of entertainment, has little basis in reality and is not presented to make a point. These films make Wick a voice of a man who was drawn back into the violent life, he left for a woman and subsequently a dog (“it’s not just a puppy.”) and now is fighting for his survival.

All the scenes are shot in dark tones, there are few daylight scenes. This aside, I liked many of the sets, from Bowery King’s (Laurence Fishburne) building basement and pigeon coops to the elegance of the Continental Hotel, and all are sets in darkened tones.

Reeves was fun to watch, but as I watched him run, especially at the beginning of the film, I found his running labored and slightly awkward. However, his quips along the way were great, and he only continues to develop and mine this character for pure entertainment. Halle Berry, as Sofia, was fun as the person who owed Wick a favor. Her dogs were a fun part of her scenes. McShane was perfect as the Continental’s proprietor. His role was expanded for this film and will be an integral part of the next. Fishbourne as the elegant Bowery King was memorable. His presence is critical here and will be in the next chapter. Mark Dacascos as Zero, the assassin the High Table uses as the principle assassin to take down Wick, was excellent. Asia Kate Dillon as the High Table’s Adjudicator was good. There wasn’t enough background of her to give me the impression she held all the cards she projected she held. This meant she had to build credibility in this role with her actions, dialogue, and screen presence, and she pulled it off. There’s an authority in her look that makes this role work. Lance Reddick (as Charon, the hotel’s desk man) expanded his previous role to become an excellent protector of the hotel, Winston, and Wick. Derek Kolstad and Shay Hatten wrote an action-oriented script that brought out more of the principal characters. Chad Stahelski directed this film in a way that kept the story and feel of the past films while propelling it into the future.

Overall: This film is a world of its own, and it works as entertainment.

Woman at War

First Hit: A quirky and compelling story about one woman’s fight against the destruction of her homeland, Iceland.

Halla (Halldora Geirharosdottir) is a music choir teacher, and she conducts her choir group in singing native Icelandic songs of joy. However, she’s also a deeply committed activist who is willing to put her life on the line to stop Rio Tinto aluminum plant from producing products that harm the environment.

This plant is located in the rugged highlands of her native country and to stop its production Halla finds ways of shorting out the electric power grid used to run the plant.

This is how the film opens: Halla using a bow and arrow to short the high voltage electrical lines feeding the plant. Then we follow her escape and evade the government’s helicopters which are searching for the person or group of people destroying the factory’s electrical power source.

Then she shows up, well-dressed and out of her rugged clothing, to teach her choir students light-hearted songs. One of the choir member’s Baldvin (Jorundur Ragnarsson) is a member of the government, and he is working closely with Halla to fight the intrusion of this Chinese company into their Icelandic culture. They are cautious when they speak together, as noted by how they put their cell phones in the refrigerator each time they meet to talk strategy of Hella’s next actions.

During an escape from the government helicopters, Hella finds herself on the farm of Sveinbjorn (Johann Siguroarson). He lives alone and calls his dog “Woman.” Sizing up Hella, he decides to help her escape the agents that are looking for her.

Sveinbjorn and Hella develop a trust and friendship which is developed throughout the remaining part of the film. This is a lovely part of the story. Hella also has a sister, Asa (also played by Geirharosdottir), who teaches meditation and yoga.

Four years earlier, both Asa and Hella had applied to become adoptive parents. And just when Hella’s activist events are becoming more involved, she gets a letter and telephone call that there is a young Ukrainian girl ready for her to adopt.

The rest of the film takes us on the conflicted ride of Hella the activist versus Hella the soon to be a mother and letting us see how she attempts to reconcile the difficulties of doing both. It is a wonderful ride, as all the players have an active influence in her next steps.

The quirkiness of the story is added to by a three-piece band that arrives and is staged prominently in particular scenes to add an odd emphasis to each scene. Additionally, there is a three-girl chorus dressed in traditional clothing, that pop-up in scenes to give flavor to the scene’s importance. However, it is the odd interjection of Juan Camillo (Juan Camillo Roman Estrada) a Spanish man traveling through Iceland on his bicycle that brings both unusual enjoyment and how it doesn’t always pay to be in a particular place at a specific time.

I loved seeing the stark ruggedness of the Icelandic countryside, and it was beautifully shot by the cinematographer. The story was wonderfully paced, and the point of one person having an impact was clearly made.

Geirharosdottir was fantastic as both Hella and Asa. She embodied the strength and determination of Hella’s character and the more subtle spiritual aspect of Asa. Ragnarsson was excellent of the partially paranoid government operative who wanted to support Hella’s war against the aluminum company. Siguroarson was amazing. I loved his character and presence in the film. He embodied the single well-entrenched farmer who loved the land he worked as well as the compassion for Hella’s mission. Estrada was wonderful in his role as a sort of an accidental tourist. Olafur Egilsson and Benedikt Erlingsson wrote a very original screenplay. Erlingsson directed this quirky film with aplomb, and the ending was perfect to the cause.

Overall: This film will stay with me as it was both enjoyable and pointedly purposeful.

Hotel Mumbai

First Hit: It was interesting enough from a historical perspective but didn’t engage because it was a predictable and a known story.

When this attack happened, India was caught off guard. The real-life consequences of not having the type of policing or counterterrorism task force required to deal with the this coordinated assault was that it caused at least 174 deaths.

In November of 2008, ten members of Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group executed a coordinated attack on Hindus in twelve locations throughout Mumbai, the financial center of India. The attack lasted four days. This film shows brief scenes of the shootings from some of the other locations, however the main target was The Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This is a five-star hotel where the guest is king, and this is where most of scenes are filmed.

The terrorists are coaxed on, and being guided by, a voice on the phone through the headsets worn by the men. He encourages them to kill anyone they see without mercy. However, he’s also looking for these men to take western prisoners for “negotiating purposes.” The audience knows there won’t be real negotiations and the captured will die.

Among the captured are David (Armie Hammer) who is married to Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi). The are traveling with their young baby who’s being taken care of by their nanny, Sally (Tilda Cobham-Hervey).

The film makes an emphatic point of the ruthlessness of the machine gun armed terrorists by having them coldly shoot anyone they see. They attempt kill anyone who moves, except for the few they want to capture and hold to gain additional publicity because they are prominent or wealthy figures.

One of the captured is Vasili (Jason Isaacs) who is a former Russian special forces specialist. His redeeming scene is when he ferociously bites the achilleas of one of the terrorists.

However, the main star of this film is Arjun (Dev Patel) who works in the hotel as a waiter. He’s a Sikh which comes into play later in the story. He and the head chef Oberol (Anupam Kher) attempt to save some of the hotel’s guest from being killed by hiding them in a exclusive room with only one public way in. The story is about how these people were saved.

Overall, Patel was good in this role. One outstanding scene was the way he explained his Sikh hair covering to one of the concerned and ill-informed guests. Kher was excellent as the Head Chef in holding to his belief that the hotel’s “guests are god.” Hammer was good as the American who was married to a Muslim woman. His desire to protect his family was spot on. Boniadi was wonderful as Hammer’s wife. When she starts saying prayers in front of the terrorists, it becomes very tense — one of the best scenes in the film. Cobham-Hervey was outstanding as the nanny. She felt very genuine in her desire to protect the child from harm. Isaacs was very good as the overindulgent selfish Russian operative who finally does something for someone else. The entire cadre of actors playing the terrorists did a sublime job of making sure they were cold hearted and unrelenting in their role of killing people for a golden ticket to heaven. John Collee and Anthony Maras wrote a interesting script. Maras directed this film which included actual scenes from the actual attack.

Overall: I wasn’t as captured or engaged as I thought I might be.