Review: ‘Amsterdam’ (2022), starring Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy, Robert De Niro and Andrea Riseborough

October 7, 2022

by Carla Hay

Christian Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Mike Myers and Michael Shannon in “Amsterdam” (Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace/20th Century Studios)

“Amsterdam” (2022)

Directed by David O. Russell

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City and Amsterdam, from 1918 to 1933, the dramatic film “Amsterdam” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A medical doctor, his attorney best friend, and the attorney’s girlfriend get caught up in a murdery mystery involving wealthy and powerful people. 

Culture Audience: “Amsterdam” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the stars of the movie, which doesn’t offer much that’s compelling except for its star power.

Pictured clockwise, from left: Anya Taylor-Joy, Rami Malek, Christian Bale, Robert De Niro and Margot Robbie  in “Amsterdam” (Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace/20th Century Studios)

The frequently boring and muddled “Amsterdam” has many big-name stars, but this misguided drama just adds up to a lot of posturing and hot air. The filmmakers cared more about wrangling celebrities into the cast than crafting a story worthy of this talent. “Amsterdam” is a huge misfire from writer/director David O. Russell, who seems so enamored with the star power in the movie, he let the acting and tone of “Amsterdam” become scattershot and uneven.

“Amsterdam” veers in and out between voiceover narration of three characters: medical doctor Burt Berendsen (played by Christian Bale), his attorney best friend Harold Woodman (played by John David Washington), and Harold’s girlfriend Valerie Voze (played by Margot Robbie). Burt gets the most voiceover narration and is presented in the movie as the lead protagonist. The story, which takes place primarily in New York City and Amsterdam, jumps around in the timeline from 1918 to 1933, with several flashbacks within this time period.

As shown in a flashback, Burt (who has questionable medical ethics) and Harold (who is more sincere and staightforward), who are both from New York City, met each other in Europe in 1918, when they were soldiers in World War I. When they were both wounded in the war in France, they ended up in the care of Valerie, who pretended to be a French nurse named Valerie Vandenberg while living in France. It turns out (which was already revealed in the “Amsterdam” trailer), Valerie is really an American heiress who was estranged from her family and trying to start over with a new life in Europe.

While Burt and Harold healed from their wounds, the three of them went to Amsterdam, became close, and made a loyalty pact with each other. Harold and Valerie fell in love, while Burt remained ambivalent about his crumbling and unhappy marriage to heiress Beatrice Vandenheuvel (played by Andrea Riseborough), who pressured a reluctant Burt to enlist in the military so that he could become a war hero who would get medals of honor. The tight-knit trio of Burt, Harold and Valerie unraveled when Valerie suddenly left of her own choice and didn’t tell Harold and Burt where she was going.

Burt and Harold eventually returned to New York City, where they have been helping each other out by referring clients and patients to each other. The movie opens in 1933, when Burt is asked by heiress Liz Meekins (played by Taylor Swift) to do an autopsy of her father, General Bill Meekins (played by Ed Begley Jr.), who passed away unexpectedly. Liz believes that her father did not die of natural causes. The autopsy reveals that her father could have been poisoned. (Squeamish viewers be warned: The autopsy scene is very graphic.)

But before toxicology test results can be processed, Liz tells Burt and Harold that she wants to call off the investigation. While Liz, Harold and Burt are speaking outside on a street, a shady character named Taron Milfax (played by Timothy Olyphant) pushes Liz in front of a car in motion. She is run over by the car and killed instantly. Police are nearby, and Taron immediately says that Burt and Harold killed Liz by pushing her in front of the car.

Burt and Harold vehemently deny it, and then run away when it looks like the police don’t believe them. Burt and Harold become the prime suspects in the murder and do their own investigation to clear their names. During the course of this investigation, Burt and Harold find out that Valerie is really an American heiress who has been living in nearby New Jersey for several years. Valerie lives with her oddball brother Tom Voze (played by Rami Malek) and Tom’s domineering wife Libby Voze (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), who tries to control the lives of Valerie and Tom.

Harold, who was heartbroken over Valerie’s sudden departure from his life, eventually forgives her, and they resume their love affair. Burt’s love life isn’t going so well, since Burt’s wife Beatrice has asked him to move out of their apartment. Beatrice tells Burt that she’s unhappy in the marriage because he used to be “beautiful,” but his war scars (including his injured back) have made him “hideous,” and he’s an overall disappointment to her. Harold, Valerie and Burt eventually cross paths with General Gil Dillenbeck (played by Robert De Niro), “the most decorated military general in U.S. history,” who has power, influential connections and political aspirations.

“Amsterdam” is packed with a lot of undeveloped characters who don’t do much except show that the “Amsterdam” filmmakers could get well-known actors to play the roles of these characters. Chris Rock has the role of Milton King, a wisecracking former war buddy of Burt and Harold. Milton, who currently works for Harold, is supposed to be hilarious, but he’s not. Milton’s not-funny-at-all remarks include his obnoxiously racist comments about white people. Alessandro Nivola is Detective Hiltz, and Matthias Schoenaerts is Detective Lem Getweiler, the two generic police characters who are leading the Meekins murder investigation.

Zoe Saldaña has the role of Irma St. Clair, Burt’s strong-willed autopsy nurse, whose feelings for Burt might go beyond a work relationship. And, of course, any movie that involves war and international intrigue has to predictably have spies. In “Amsterdam,” they are Paul Canterbury (played by Michael Shannon) and Henry Norcross (played by Mike Myers), whose spy identities are shown as captions immediately when these characters are first seen on screen.

“Amsterdam” is made with the tone that audiences should automatically be impressed by all the celebrities who are in the cast. Unfortunately, “Amsterdam” has so much awful dialogue and messy plot developments, all that star power is wasted in a substandard movie. Bale, Washington and Robbie seem to be doing their best as the three central characters, but this three-way friendship looks awkward and fake on screen. Awkward and fake is how to describe “Amsterdam” overall—an example of how star power in front of the camera can’t save a bad movie.

20th Century Studios released “Amsterdam” in U.S. cinemas on October 7, 2022.

Review: ‘Bullet Train’ (2022), starring Brad Pitt

August 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Brad Pitt and Benito A Martínez Ocasio (also known as Bad Bunny) in “Bullet Train” (Photo by Scott Garfield/Columbia Pictures)

“Bullet Train” (2022)

Directed by David Leitch

Some language in Japanese, Spanish and Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Japan, the action film “Bullet Train” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, black, Asian and Latino) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A down-on-his luck American assassin has conflicts with international criminals during a ride on a fast-moving train traveling through Japan. 

Culture Audience: “Bullet Train” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Brad Pitt; the novel on which the movie is based; and movies that give more importance to loud violence instead of an interesting and innovative story.

Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in “Bullet Train” (Photo by Scott Garfield/Columbia Pictures)

The jumbled and repetitive “Bullet Train” is just a fast-moving train wreck. The movie has plenty of famous co-stars but ultimately has little substance or imagination as an action comedy. “Bullet Train” over-relies on too many similar gags until it all becomes very dull and obnoxious. After a while, the action starts to look stale and formulaic. With few exceptions, the movie’s characters are no better than soulless, computer-generated characters in a video game.

Directed by David Leitch and written by Zak Olkewicz, “Bullet Train” is based on Kōtarō Isaka’s 2010 Japanese novel “MariaBeetle,” which was translated in English and renamed “Bullet Train” in 2021. In the book, all the characters are Japanese. The “Bullet Train” movie has a cast of international characters, with characters from the United States and the United Kingdom getting most of the screen time. Characters from Japan, Russia and Mexico are secondary characters. “Bullet Train” takes place primarily in Japan but the movie was filmed at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, California.

Prior to directing “Bullet Train,” Leitch directed the action feature films “Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw” (released in 2019) “Deadpool 2” (released in 2018) and “Atomic Blonde,” released in 2017. What all of these movies have in common is that they bit off more than they can chew. They’re very energetic when it comes to action scenes, but they’re very cluttered with sloppily edited characters and plot tangents that don’t necessarily serve the story very well. “Bullet Train” follows that same pattern. A better director would bring more finesse and charm to these movies instead of trying to make audiences think that violent action scenes are enough to make a good action flick.

People don’t really need to read the “Bullet Train”/”MariaBeetle” novel before seeing the “Bullet Train” movie. In fact, people who don’t know anything about the novel might be less disappointed in the “Bullet Train” movie, which dumbs down a lot of things about the novel. The “Bullet Train” movie removes a lot of the intrigue and personality that can be found in the novel, and substitutes it with an emphasis on staging scenes that are supposed to be outrageously violent.

In the “Bullet Train” movie, seven people on board the Nippon Speedline train going from Tokyo to Kyoto find their lives colliding and interwined because of various criminal activities:

  • Ladybug (played by Brad Pitt) is a cynical and unlucky American assassin, whose current mission is to steal a briefcase full of ransom money.
  • Tangerine (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a smooth-talking British assassin who likes to wear suits and gold jewelry but sometimes loses his seemingly suave cool with his hair-trigger temper.
  • Lemon (played by Brian Tyree Henry) is Tangerine’s more even-tempered adoptive bother/partner in crime, who takes a more philosophical view of their assassin work and who is fixated on the children’s book/cartoon character Thomas the Tank Engine.
  • The Prince (played by Joey King) is a sociopathic killer who disguises her evil by looking like an innocent teenage schoolgirl. (The character of the Prince was male in the “Bullet Train” novel.)
  • Kimura (played by Andrew Koji) is a quiet, low-level criminal from Japan who’s out for revenge against the Prince for a heinous act committed against Kimura’s son.
  • The Hornet (played by Zazie Beetz) is a sneaky assassin who usually goes undercover in disguise.
  • The Wolf (played by Benito A Martínez Ocasio, also known as Bad Bunny) is a ruthless assassin/gang leader from Mexico.

Ladybug is in constant communication through earpieces with his no-nonsense boss/handler Maria (played by Sandra Bullock), who inexplicably seems to know and see everything on the train. (And no, Ladybug isn’t wearing a secret hidden camera.) Maria is ultimately a character that doesn’t add much to the story except to make Ladybug look even more bungling and foolish than he needed to be.

But in some ways, this odd-couple pairing of Maria and Ladybug would have made a better movie if focused on these two characters, because Bullock (in the limited time that she has in “Bullet Train”) brings a certain charisma to the role that “Bullet Train” lacks overall. Unfortunately, only Maria’s voice is heard for most of “Bullet Train,” which lessens the impact of Bullock’s talent for physical comedy (facial expressions and other body language) that would have benefited “Bullet Train.” It isn’t until toward the end of the movie that Maria appears on screen.

The only interesting trivia note about “Bullet Train” is that cast members Pitt, Bullock and Channing Tatum (who has a useless cameo in “Bullet Train”) were co-stars in another 2022 movie: the romantic comedy “The Lost City.” Neither movie is award-worthy, but at least the comedy in “The Lost City” was depicted in a more skillful way. “Bullet Train” has some sporadic moments where the jokes land as intended, but the rest of the comedy falls very flat. Tatum and “Deadpool” movie franchise star Ryan Reynolds have “Bullet Train” cameos that are quick and underwhelming.

The messy plot of “Bullet Train” involves the kidnapped, unnamed son (played by Logan Lerman) of a Russian mob boss called the White Death (played by Michael Shannon), with Tangerine and Lemon having the responsibility of guarding the son on the train and carrying a briefcase full of ransom money. Ladybug’s job is to steal the money. A running gag in the movie is that Ladybug has encountered some of these criminals before in assassin assignments that he botched, but he has forgotten about these experiences until he’s reminded of them.

Lots of shootouts, explosions, and bloody fights ensue. There’s also a recurring plot device involving snake poison and a Taiwanese Blue Beauty snake. Masi Oka (as the Conductor) and Karen Fukuhara (as Kayda Izumi Concession Girl) have utterly thankless and forgettable roles in this schlockfest.

Except for the wisecracking Ladybug and Kimura’s humble florist father The Elder (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), the characters in “Bullet Train” come across as very hollow, and viewers will have a hard time connecting with most of these characters. There’s no clever mystery in this story that will keep viewers guessing. “Bullet Train” certainly delivers if people want lackluster jokes and cartoonish violence, but it just adds up to a lot of mindless hot air.

Columbia Pictures will release “Bullet Train” in U.S. cinemas on August 5, 2022.

Review: ‘Abandoned’ (2022), starring Emma Roberts, John Gallagher Jr. and Michael Shannon

July 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

John Gallagher Jr., Emma Roberts and Marie May in “Abandoned” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Abandoned” (2022)

Directed by Spencer Squire

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional small town of Duboisville, North Carolina, the horror film “Abandoned” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A husband and a wife move into an isolated house that was abandoned for years, and then sinister things starts to happen. 

Culture Audience: “Abandoned” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Emma Roberts and to viewers who don’t mind watching shoddily made and monotonous horror movies.

Michael Shannon in “Abandoned” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Abandoned” is how to describe any hope that viewers might have that this dull and idiotic horror flick will be scary or interesting. It’s the type of derivative haunted house movie that’s just recycled trash. The terrible ending of “Abandoned” is just one of many examples of how this creatively bankrupt dud fails at even ripping off good horror movies.

Directed by Spencer Squire, “Abandoned” is so bad, it looks like the stars of the movie don’t really want to be there. Erik Patterson and Jessica Scott co-wrote the atrocious “Abandoned” screenplay, which tepidly regurgitates over-used plot devices that have been in dozens of movies about haunted houses.

There’s the family moving into a house that has a sinister history, but the family doesn’t know or doesn’t care. The house is usually in an isolated area. And there’s usually at least one young child in the house, in order for viewers to be more alarmed that any evil spirits lurking around could harm the child or children.

All of these clichés on their own or together don’t necessarily mean that a movie is going to be horrible. It’s when a movie does nothing compelling with these clichés that the filmmaking becomes lazy and irritating. “Abandoned” is an example of what not to do when making a movie about a haunted house.

“Abandoned” opens with an exterior scene of an isolated farmhouse in the fictional small town of Duboisville, North Carolina. (The movie was actually filmed in Smithfield, North Carolina.) An unseen young female can be heard screaming in the house: “You promised me I could keep one!” And then, gunshots are heard.

Forty years later, married couple Sara Davis (played by Emma Roberts) and Alex Davis (played by John Gallagher Jr.) are being given a tour of the house by a real-estate agent named Cindy (played by Kate Arrington), who is nervously eager to make this sale. Sara and Alex have brought their infant son Liam (played by Marie May) with them. Liam seems to get agitated as soon as they go inside the house, and he begins crying. Get used to hearing a baby shrieking and crying, because this movie overloads on these sound effects.

Of course, viewers can easily deduce from the opening scene that this house’s history includes at least one brutal murder. Unlike other haunted house movies where the new residents didn’t bother to get that background information, “Abandoned” has the house buyers getting that information before they purchase the house. Predictably, the house is being sold at a “too good to be true” bargain, but the house has been on the market for years.

Sara asks Cindy why the house has been for sale for such a long period of time. Alex quickly says, “I don’t want to know.” Sara responds in an insistent tone, “I want to know.” Cindy then reluctantly tells Sara and Alex that years ago, a teenager named Hannah Solomon shot her infant brother, her widowed father and herself in the house.

Cindy also hands Sara a legal-sized envelope with all the details. Later, when Sara opens the envelope, she sees news clippings about the killings and police photos of the dead bodies. How morbid. What kind of real-estate agent gives this gruesome file to a house buyer? Only a weird real-estate agent in a dumb horror movie like “Abandoned.”

Sara has this nonchalant reaction when stating that she still wants to buy the house: “We’ll take it. You know, I don’t mind a little haunting. Besides, it’s all in the past. We’re focused on the future.” Who talks like that? Only stupid house buyers in a terrible horror movie like “Abandoned.”

Alex is a veterinarian who plans to use the barn on the property as his veterinary clinic. However, the barn doesn’t have electricity. Alex expects farmers to be his main clients. However, the property is at least a one-hour drive away from the nearest farm. And so, with no electricity yet for his would-be veterinary clinic, and his potential clients living so far away, Alex has already set up major obstacles to get his veterinarian business started in this home.

Meanwhile, it’s soon revealed that Alex and Sara are moving out of an unnamed city to a rural area because Sara has been battling depression, and they want a calmer environment for her. Because the most logical place to go for more peace and quiet is a house that you think might be haunted. Who makes moronic decisions like this? Only the targets who put themselves in harm’s way in a mindless horror movie like “Abandoned.”

Soon after moving into the house, Sara notices that Liam refuses to breastfeed. And so, expect to see a lot of tedious whining from Sara about how she doesn’t like it that she has to bottle-feed milk to Liam. There are also time-wasting scenes of Alex visiting the nearest farmer to try to get some work for Alex’s fledgling veterinary business.

Sara likes to snap a rubber band that she wears around her wrist. Don’t expect the movie to explain why she has this odd habit. There’s a vague mention that Sara was getting medically treated for her depression. However, she stopped taking her medication because she was breastfeeding Liam. And now, Liam refuses to breastfeed. Sara still doesn’t want to take the medication in case Liam will start breastfeeding again.

But wait: “Abandoned” isn’t quite done using up all the over-used haunted house clichés. There’s also the creepy and secretive person who just shows up in the lives of the house’s new residents. In the case of “Abandoned,” it’s Chris Renner (played by Michael Shannon), a neighbor who wants people to call him Renner. And the way that Renner shows up is very rude and stalker-ish.

When Sara is in an upstairs bedroom, she turns around to find Renner in the room. He’s holding a case of beer as a housewarming gift, as if it’s perfectly normal to walk into a stranger’s home uninvited. During this conversation, where Sara doesn’t seem bothered at all that a stranger came into her house uninvited, Renner says that he knew the Solomon family that was killed in the murder-suicide. He also mentions that Sara looks like Hannah Solomon.

It isn’t long before Sara starts having nightmares, none of which looks very original or horrifying. In one of the nightmares, she’s surrounded by a swarm of flies. When she tells Alex about these nightmares that seem real to her, it just leads to yet another horror movie stereotype: the woman who is not believed and is then labeled as mentally ill.

Alex thinks that Sara’s depression is the reason for everything bad happening in their lives. And irresponsibly, he believes the depression will just go away because he thinks it’s post-partum depression that will disappear when Liam gets older. For someone who has a medical degree, Alex is certainly a dimwitted doctor.

Sara confesses to Alex how she feels about parenthood: “I thought it would be the best thing that would ever happen to me. It’s not.” Sara says of Liam: “I look at him, and I feel so uncomfortable, like he’s an intruder or something.” Alex’s response is the worst “in denial” medical advice ever when he tells Sara: “That’s just the depression. It’s not you. It’ll go away.”

Eventually, secrets are revealed about the house and the Solomon family. These secrets are not surprising at all and are foreshadowed very sloppily in “Abandoned.” In addition to having mediocre-to-bad performances from all of the cast members who mostly play witless characters, “Abandoned” is extremely lethargic and fails to deliver any truly terrifying scenes. Simply put: At any point in watching “Abandoned,” viewers are more likely to fall asleep in their seats rather than be at the edge of their seats.

Vertical Entertainment released “Abandoned” in select U.S. cinemas on June 17, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on June 24, 2022.

2019 Tony Awards: performers and presenters announced

June 3, 2019

The following is a press release from the Tony Awards:

Some of the world’s biggest stars from stage and screen will appear at the 73rd Annual Tony Awards. The list of names announced includes Darren Criss, Tina Fey, Sutton Foster, Samuel L. Jackson, Regina King, Laura Linney, Audra McDonald, Ben Platt, Billy Porter, Andrew Rannells, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Michael Shannon. More presenters will be announced soon.

The Tony Awards telecast will feature an incredible line up of celebrity presenters and musical performances for Broadway’s biggest night.
James Corden will return to host the American Theatre Wing’s 2019 Tony Awards, which will be broadcast live from Radio City Music Hall in New York City on CBS. The three-hour program will air on Sunday, June 9th 8:00 – 11:00 p.m. (ET/PT time delay). The Tony Awards are presented by The Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing.

You can also watch the Tony Awards online with CBS All Access. More info at cbs.com/all-access.

June 5, 2019 UPDATE: A second round of artists has been added to appear at THE 73rd ANNUAL TONY AWARDS(R), live from the historic Radio City Music Hall in New York City, Sunday, June 9 (8:00-11:00 PM, live ET/delayed PT) on the CBS Television Network. The star-studded lineup includes Sara Bareilles, Laura Benanti, Abigail Breslin, Danny Burstein, Kristin Chenoweth, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Josh Groban, Danai Gurira, Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Jackson, Shirley Jones, Jane Krakowski, Judith Light, Lucy Liu, Aasif Mandvi, Sienna Miller, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Catherine O’Hara, Kelli O’Hara, Karen Olivo, Anthony Ramos, Marisa Tomei, Aaron Tveit, Samira Wiley and BeBe Winans.

Emmy and Tony Award winner James Corden will host the 2019 Tony Awards for the second time. As previously announced, Darren Criss, Tina Fey, Sutton Foster, Samuel L. Jackson, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Regina King, Laura Linney, Audra McDonald, Ben Platt, Billy Porter, Andrew Rannells and Michael Shannon will also take part in Broadway’s biggest night.

The TONY Awards, which honors theater professionals for distinguished achievement on Broadway, has been broadcast on CBS since 1978. This year marks the 73rd anniversary of the TONY Awards, which were first held on April 6, 1947 at the Waldorf Astoria’s Grand Ballroom. The ceremony is presented by Tony Award Productions, which is a joint venture of the Broadway League and the American Theatre Wing, which founded the Tonys.

Ricky Kirshner and Glenn Weiss of White Cherry Entertainment will return as executive producers. Weiss will also serve as director for the 20th consecutive year. Ben Winston is a producer.

June 6, 2019 UPDATE:

Cynthia Erivo (Photo by Barry Brecheisen)

The Tony Awards telecast will feature performances by the casts of “Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations”; “Beetlejuice”; “The Cher Show”; “Choir Boy”; “Hadestown”; “Kiss Me, Kate”; “Oklahoma!”; “The Prom” and “Tootsie.” The evening will also feature a special performance by Tony Award winning-actress Cynthia Erivo.

Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins get caught up in an unusual love story in ‘The Shape of Water’

December 1, 2017

Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in "The Shape of Water" (Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in “The Shape of Water” (Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

From master storyteller, Guillermo del Toro, comes “The Shape of Water,” an other-worldly fable, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1962.  In the hidden high-security government laboratory where she works, lonely Elisa (played by Sally Hawkins) is trapped in a life of isolation.  Elisa’s life is changed forever when she and co-worker Zelda (played by Octavia Spencer) discover a secret classified experiment.  Rounding out the cast are Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg and Doug Jones.

Here are videos and photos from “The Shape of Water”:

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