Luke Evans

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.

Beauty and the Beast (3-D)

First Hit:  Although sweet enough, this film is why I generally don’t like musicals.

Those that have read me for years know I’m particular about and generally not a fan of musicals. The songs have got to work, not take me out of the flow and feeling of the film, and make sense. Songs that are difficult to understand or take too much thought, or fail to help the film’s flow, are not worth singing or having in the film. This movie fails to meet my tolerance levels from the get go and therefore it was hard for me to sit through it.

In the prologue, prior to being introduced to the oddity of Beauty (aka Belle - Emma Watson) and the townsfolk, the film sets up the reason why we have the Beast (Dan Stevens). He’s full of himself and because he doesn’t care about anyone else, a spell is put on him by the Enchantress (“Agatha” - Hattie Moran) that damns him and others around him to a life of non-humanness unless he is loved by another. The Enchantress gives him until the last petal of a rose, encased in a glass cover, falls to find someone to love him. When the last petal falls, he dies and the others are doomed to a life as inanimate objects.

After the brief prologue, we segue back into the local town we have Belle prancing and walking through town with the townsfolk singing out how odd she is because she reads books. Because we’ve no other background, except knowing that her dad Maurice (Kevin Kline) is a tinkerer, lives with his daughter and her mother is long gone; were just suppose to believe she's odd. It was hard for me to believe this. The film story just wants us to believe this "oddity" story.

Belle is being wooed by Gaston (Luke Evans) who is all brawn (self-labeled) and no brains. Belle sees through Gaston and spurns him at every pass. Gaston’s man Friday LeFou (Gosh Gad), is one of the best parts of this film with fanfare, flair, and a jousting way, he quips through this role only to backtrack on them later.

One of the difficulties of listening to the songs was that Watson’s singing was overly processed and, at times, sounded like it was through a vocoder and unnatural. I’m not sure if this was done for effect or because Watson doesn’t have the kind of singing voice that worked for the character. This use of processing singing voices cropped up in multiple places throughout this film.

Although many of the characters were cute, Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), Madame de Gerderobe (Audra McDonald), Chip (Nathan Mack) and Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), I only found an occasional enjoyment watching their interaction with each other and with Beauty or the Beast.

For the most part, within fifteen seconds after a song started I wanted it to end as these songs were taking me out of story.

Watson was good and believable as Belle, although I really didn’t like what was done to her voice when singing. Her slight English accent and obvious intelligence was helpful in making this film seem enchanting. Kline was even keeled, believable and strong as Belle’s father. His character felt grounded. Stevens was OK as the Beast although the CG Beast was what the audience mostly experienced. Only in the beginning and end did we have Stevens as the Prince. Evans was good as the swashbuckling Gaston. Gad was the best part of this film. He was funny and was obviously committed to his role. The remaining of the actors were basically CG objects for most of the film which makes reviewing their work difficult. Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos were responsible for the screenplay. Given it is an established story, their modifications were OK. Bill Condon had a clear vision of what he wanted and for the most part it was executed well, however it just isn’t my cup of tea.

Overall:  My wife loved the film, and I was occasionally amused and mostly bored because the songs took away from the actual story.

The Girl on the Train

First Hit:  Although I was appropriately confused at the beginning, the story came together nicely at the end and Blunt’s acting was sublime.

I’ve said this before, I do not read fiction novels because if a film is made from it, I'm generally disappointed. Good books do a great job of creating images and flow inside the reader’s brain. Films from books are versions of the screenwriter's and directors (and sometimes producer’s) internal images. Film is a different medium and therefore telling a story has some limitations but almost unlimited visual options to tell the story. Failures of books I've read that totally disappointed me on the screen are Ayn Rand books and the Harry Potter books. The films based on Rand books were complete dogs. The Potter films failed in more ways than one compared to the books. This book, "The Girl on the Train", must have been enthralling because in 2015 it spent 13 weeks at the top of the national bestseller list. From what I saw in the film, I can see why they liked it. The screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson seemed very clear about how this story would unfold. Using multiple narrators, the director used captions to push the story back and forth in time, I was fascinated with Rachel’s (Emily Blunt - narrator) unraveling, the back and forth of being drunk and sober and then pulling it together revealing the truth. Rachel was married to Tom (Justin Theroux), she had a drinking problem and he divorced her for Anna (Rebecca Ferguson - narrator). On a daily basis Rachel use to look at her old house, now occupied by her former husband and Anna, from the train window. She also would see a couple whom she thought were the perfect couple a few houses down from her old home. This couple, Scott and Megan (respectively Luke Evans and Haley Bennett – narrator), would appear through the window of the train to always be happy and loving each other. However, the true story about Rachel, Anna, and Megan’s lives would reveal themselves to be different than the Rachel’s drunk, through the train's window, version. A murder happens and it’s up to Detective Riley (Allison Janney) to provide clues and pressure allowing Rachel to discover the truth about herself and what happened.

Blunt was amazingly sublime. She was perfect in her drunk and sober selves. The subtle transitions, movements and actions between these selves was true with my experience of alcohol abuse. I would not be surprised and actually expect her to be nominated for an Oscar. Theroux was good, however the depth to his characters’ intensity and darkness wasn’t fleshed out enough. Ferguson was an interesting character and I really liked how she was able to make her role work and also show more of Theroux’s character. Bennett was strong as a difficult character to like or understand. She did a great job of showing a troubled woman’s fight to open up and be authentic. Evans was very strong as the intense husband who was also an intense controlling type person. Janney was very good in her more minor role as a police detective trying to piece together a murder. Wilson wrote a strong script which appeared to be from a very complex book by Paula Hawkins. Tate Taylor had a very clear vision of what he wanted to see and to keep it paced to have this film work. I could have imagined this film to be really long given the complexity of the plot, but Taylor clearly didn’t want the audience to be bored and trusted that they would piece together the various story pieces he was presenting.

Overall:  This was a complex story and Blunt’s superb acting brought this story together.

Fast & Furious 6

First Hit:  It was fun however so many of the stunts were so far fetched that it made it unbelievable.

This is one film in a series of films that highlight fast cars, car chases and some sort of crime.

We begin with everyone who participated in the previous film having some portion of $100,000,000 on which they are living the good life. However they cannot return to the United States because they are wanted for robbery. Also in the last film, Dominic Toretto (played by Vin Diesel) lost his love Letty (played by Michelle Rodriguez) in a fiery explosion.

A government investigator Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is trying to track down an infiltrator named Shaw (Luke Evans) who is stealing items to make some unimaginable weapon (none of this is really clear because the film is more about the chases). Shaw needs only one more item and Hobbs is worried that he'll get it, so he makes a deal with Dom and his Fast & Furious warriors to stop Shaw.

The deal is that they will get absolute pardons for their previous crimes. But this isn’t the reason why they say yes, they say yes because they learn Letty is still alive and under Shaw's control. Tricks like jumping off a car, catching someone in mid-air and then landing on the windshield of another car moving the opposite way and not getting hurt? Right.... Or maybe it was the plane moving quickly down a runway that must have been 5 or more miles long before the plane even got 30 feed off the ground. Just isn't real - there is no such runway. Or maybe it was jumping from a plane and landing in/on a car some 30 feet below. Nope, not lined up like they were - just isn’t real.

I enjoyed the car chases and driving but that was it. “More” and “bigger” is not necessarily better.

Diesel is OK and I felt that the edge is gone and his ability to be believable has been diminished. Paul Walker as Brian is stronger here than he was in the previous films. Johnson was adequate as the government agent. Jordana Brewster as Mia (Brian’s wife) is good in a minor role. Rodriguez is OK but her interpretation of having no memory didn’t work for me. Tyrese Gibson as Roman was funny and enjoyable to watch. Sung Kang and Gal Gadot as Han and Gisele were good but didn't have enough screen time. Ludacris as Taj was funny as well and I liked the way he and Gibson played off each other. Chris Morgan wrote the screenplay and pushed it farther than needed. Justin Lin kept the film moving but some of the stunts were too unbelievable to buy in to.

Overall:  Action was fun, cars were great, but some of the stunts made it unbelievable and therefore I lost interest.

The Raven

First Hit:  At times tedious and slow, other times engaged and watchable.

This film had some possibilities but I’d be hard pressed to understand why it didn’t work when looked at as a whole film.

This story is basically about someone who decides to make real the stories of Edgar Allan Poe (played by John Cusack) as a way to get Poe to kill himself. This person determines that the way to do this is to hold Poe’s girlfriend Emily (played by Alice Eve) hostage.

Emily’s father Captain Hamilton (played by Brendan Gleeson) dislikes Poe because Poe is usually drunk and has little inspiration to write more great stories. He’s against Poe but there is little story line to give this some credence.

I didn’t see the chemistry or connection between Poe and Emily. Detective Fields (played by Luke Evans) is the guy investigating the crimes modeled after Poe’s stories but he allows Captain Hamilton to push him around too much. As this point the movie meanders, but it was nice to see aspects of Poe’s tales shown on the screen.

Cusack is intelligent enough to carry off being Poe. Eve was OK but I never saw much of a real connection with Poe to make it work that they would die for each other. Gleeson is righteously arrogant enough to carry off his role as protective father. Evans is good as the detective but there is little to validate his credentials as head detective. Ben Livingston and Hannah Shakespeare wrote the script which meandered at the beginning and tightened up in the end. James McTeigue directed this film. At times it seemed under control and with clear direction while at other times I was fully disengaged as I waited for the next relevant scene.

Overall:  Despite Cusack’s intelligent portrayal of Poe, this film didn’t have enough to make it very good.