Helen Mirren

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.

The Leisure Seeker

First Hit: This film is, at times, funny, sad, and depressing, and well acted.

Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren are two very strong actors and I’d be hard pressed to find two other actors capable of pulling these characters off as well as they do.

Donald plays John Spencer a former literary professor who loves the writing of Ernest Hemingway. He’s losing his memory but can remember long passages of Hemingway’s writings. He often forgets much of his past life including the names of his grown children. But his wife Ella (Mirren) remembers almost everything, likes to talk to strangers freely but has cancer and it’s taking over her body.

The film opens with son Will (Christian McKay) coming by John and Ella’s house with a cake for John’s birthday. He finds no one home. He calls his sister Jane (Janel Moloney) who is on her way over for the party asking her if she knows where their parents are.

Not discovering anything, they look in a covered storage area next to the house only to find their Winnebago Indian, they call the Leisure Seeker, gone. This thing is old and hasn’t been driven for years.

The audience catches up the John and Ella as they tool down the highway, Ella navigating and John behind the wheel.

Many of the scenes and dialogue while they are in the Leisure Seeker and during their stops, allows the audience to learn about their histories, current foibles, and mostly how they really adore each other.

There are some very funny scenes, like when they visit Ella’s first boyfriend. The ending is apropos in that, they do not want to be a burden to each other or their children.

Sutherland did an excellent job of being lucid in sparse moments. The color of his life were added in these moments showed why he was a good man. Mirren was excellent at putting up with having to be John’s memory as well as keeping herself together. The character liked to talk and would talk with anyone, and she did this extremely well. Her flowing segues were perfect. Moloney was wonderful as the daughter. When John shares his pride of her, her reaction was perfect. McKay was good as the son who was more lost in life and used his parent’s challenges for his martyrdom. Stephen Amidon wrote a smart script as it had a wide range of emotions. Paolo Virzi did a great job of putting enough of these wide-ranging emotions to us.

Overall: Although most critics didn’t give this film much regard, my own experience tells me the writers had some real life experience to draw upon.

Winchester

First Hit:  This film needed to be taken out back and shot with a Winchester rifle.

I’ve been to the Winchester mansion in San Jose. It is a very interesting structure and although currently it is large, 4 stories in some sections, it was once much larger at seven stories high in places. But after the 1906 earthquake, also a plot device in the film, it got reduced in size.

The basic story about the house is that Sarah built this house to capture and confuse the ghosts resulting from people who died by her husband’s rifles. She was told by a medium, that she needed to amend for her husbands invention of the repeating rifle. This film takes the bent that because she owned a huge portion of her deceased husband's company, Winchester Repeating Arms Company, the board of directors thought she was crazy to be building this house, and wanted a negative evaluation of Sarah Winchester’s (Helen Mirren) mental capabilities to take back control of the company.

The directors hire Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke) who’s imbibing Laudanum to ease the pain of losing his wife who killed herself with a Winchester Rifle after wounding him with the same rifle, to analyze Sarah and report back to the board.

They pressure him to determine that Sarah is crazy. He arrives at Winchester’s house and has dealings with staff, niece Marion Marriot (Sarah Snook), her son, and ghosts. Because Sarah is driven to house and appease all the ghosts, building rooms onto the house goes on 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. People are always working on the house.

The film tries to make a compelling ghost and horror story about Sarah, Marion’s son, and Eric and how, together, they fight to kill one rambunctious ghost, Ben Block (Eamon Farren).

I cannot tell you anything I liked about this film. It was shot way to darkly (in color) and they showed very little of the peculiarities of the house itself. Winchester House is interesting and fascinating and this film does nothing with this, they just made a poorly constructed and contrived ghost story.

Mirren was OK in a role and script that didn’t become her abilities. Clarke was poor. His choices, as directed in the film’s script, were poorly done and not well thought out. The story of his demise felt contrived. Snook tired to be sincere but it was the role and script that failed her. Peter and Michael Spierig wrote and directed this mess. I’m not sure how they got funding for this, and my guess is that they will be hard pressed to get funding for a future project.

Overall:  This film is a waste of any money used to go see it, let alone make it.

Collateral Beauty

First Hit:  Wonderful concept, wonderful cast, mediocre execution.

The idea that someone could talk with Love, Time and Death is interesting. Having a cast with Will Smith (as Howard), Edward Norton (as Whit), Kate Winslet (as Claire), Michael Pena (as Simon), Helen Mirren (as Brigitte and Death), Keira Knightly (as Amy and Love), Jacob Latimore (as Raffi and Time), and Naomie Harris (as Madeleine) all in one film is amazing. However, there was something about the script and way it was directed that had this film fall short of its potential.

The title “Collateral Beauty” was also at fault in some ways. Normally when we hear the word “collateral” we hear it with the word “damage”. This term is used in the movie as a lesson or mantra that Madeleine hears after the loss of her child. When she was in the hospital, just prior to her daughter’s death, an old woman sitting next to her outside her dying child’s room said, do not be so taken by grief that you forget to see the collateral beauty. The movie does nothing to really show what this means.

The focus of the film is that Howard, who is a brilliant advertising creative executive, loses his young 6-year old daughter to a disease. The company he’s built with Whit, Claire and Simon begins to suffer and is now losing clients because of his disengagement with work. He spends his days building domino trails then knocking them down, or riding his bike at night through the streets of New York City. To save their company and investments Whit, Claire and Simon arrange to have Amy, Raffi and Brigitte pretend to be Love, Time and Death respectively in hopes of communicating with Howard to bring him out of his deep sorrow.

Although this is done with some seriousness, the constructs and building of the story is weak. When the words and concept of "Collateral Beauty" are passed from Madeleine to Howard, the failure to engage the audience and Howard are palpable. It is at this point I realized that this film, regardless of how it finishes, would be lack luster.

Smith was OK as the once engaging advertising company creator, leader and grieving father. Norton was slightly better as Howard’s business partner. Winslet was fine as the morally caring business partner. Pena was very good as the ill business executive who cares about his family. Knightly was good as Love. Mirren was very good as Death, her style brought strength to the film. Latimore was strong as Time. Harris was very strong as the grieving mother. Allan Loeb wrote a weak screenplay in that the characters lacked depth and the story never grew. Direction by David Frankel was weak in that he never saw the failings of the story to find ways to make it have more depth. The film never really shared the beauty of a child’s depth which, in this case, was supposed to be collateral.

Overall:  Although somewhat engaging at the beginning, it fails to fulfill any beauty collateral or not.

Eye in the Sky

First Hit:  A complex film giving a really multifacited view of how fighting wars remotely, through cameras and armed drones, is changing the face and mental complexities of war.

Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) is in charge of a mission to capture a British woman who is, with her Arabic husband, helping Islamic revolutionaries with suicide attacks. Powell has been tracking this person for 6 years from England through the use spies, informants and remote tracking devices.

At the time, her remote surveillance is provided for by the US using drone pilots located in a USAF unit stationed in Las Vegas, Nevada. For the first time she has a chance to capture this person in Nairobi, Kenya along with two other people who have become radicalized, one a US citizen and the other a British citizen.

Also working with her is the Kenyan army who are ready to apprehend this group when the opportunity arises. Watching her and the surveillance feeds remotely from another part of England is General Benson (Alan Rickman), who is with others from the British Government including the Attorney General.

This group is viewing the remote feeds to ensure the actions the Colonel takes are legal. However, the radicals move to an area where the government army cannot go, therefore the capture is off and now it is about finding a way to take out this group by using rockets from the drone.

There is a lot of discussion about doing this, including the amount of possible collateral damage. When they “Eye in the Sky” a drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) sees a 9-year-old girl named Alia (Aisha Takow) near the target area he asks for a re-assessment of the collateral damage area. While this is being assessed, Col. Powell is pressing for the attack, British Government sitting with the General are mixed in their assessment of weather to attack or not.

The US Government, which comes up in two different calls, states clearly they want the attack regardless of the collateral damage, and the Pilot and his co-pilot Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox) will do what they are ordered while showing the extreme signs of the stress and difficulty of the situation.

Mirren is really strong as the obsessed Colonel that will do almost anything to meet her objective. Rickman (in probably his final film) was really good using his typical droll and intelligent way of communicating. Paul was excellent as the drone pilot that was participating in his first use of deadly force. Takow was wonderful as the Kenyan girl causing all the questions. Fox was very good as the new inexperienced co-pilot. Barkhad Adbi was superb as the Kenyan undercover agent using miniature drone camera devices and finding ways to help minimize the collateral damage. Guy Hibbert wrote an exceptional screenplay. It was complex, filled with great dialogue and fully explored the dilemma afforded by fighting war with technology and remote abilities. Gavin Hood did an excellent job of creating the intimacy of each remote area and the wholeness of how remote wars are being fought.

Overall:  This film was excellent in so many ways and did a great job of bringing in both the political and military aspects of this type warfare to light.