Brian De Palma’s ‘Domino’ is Not One of His Best Movies, But Not One of his Worst Either

Domino 2019 movie poster

BRIAN DE PALMA HAS A NEW MOVIE OUT. Now that last sentence was capitalized because I’m fairly certain most of my friends do not know this, and they are big fans of De Palma’s work. His latest film is “Domino,” not to be confused the late Tony Scott’s 2005 film of the same name, and it is being released quietly in a few theaters and on VOD on May 31st. Because of the lack of any real fanfare, many are calling this film “lesser De Palma” even before they have had a chance to view it. Even De Palma doesn’t seem all too excited about its release and is instead more interested in talking about what a difficult and horrible production it was. Now this is not the way you want your movie to open.

Well, I agree that “Domino” belongs in the “lesser De Palma” category, but having seen it twice, it’s actually better than you might expect. Yes, this was an underfunded production, and the movie is a standard cop revenge one we have seen many times before, but it still contains moments which quickly reminded me of what a master filmmaker De Palma can be when he is given the freedom to unleash his cinematic magic.

Things start off in Copenhagen on June 20, 2020. Why this movie takes place in 2020 is never made clear, but anyway. We are introduced to police officers Christian Toft (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) and Lars Hansen (Soren Malling), and we quickly discover they have been partners for quite some time to where they see one another as family. Even Lars’ wife, Hanne (Paprika Steen), sees Christian as a son, and the closeness they all feel with one another is quite palpable.

But this partnership is brutally destroyed one night when Christian and Lars investigate a domestic disturbance which has them arresting suspected ISIS member Ezra Tarzi (Eriq Ebouaney). While Christian is checking out a crime scene, Ezra breaks free of his handcuffs, attacks Lars and slashes his throat in the process. Christian gives chase, but Ezra ends up being taken away by men who have other uses for his violent talents. Regardless, Christian vows to avenge the attack on Lars and promises to bring Ezra back to face justive.

Clearly this is a straightforward revenge flick, but other layers are added to the plot as we are introduced to duplicitous CIA agent Joe Martin (Guy Pearce) who intends to use Ezra for his own needs such as using him as a pawn to catch other ISIS members. Then there is another Copenhagen cop, Alex Boe (Carice van Houten), who is eager to bring down Ezra as well and for reasons which we will eventually become clear. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but here it comes with an endless set of complications which will lead to many, many lives being threatened.

The attack on Lars leaves Christian riddled with guilt as he made the mistake of leaving his gun behind at home, forcing him to borrow Lars’ and leaving his partner defenseless. I tell you, if this were an American cop, the gun would never have been forgotten or left behind. It would have been remembered because Americans are a little too much in love with their guns, you know? Perhaps the Danish are a bit more relaxed with guns or, better yet, they have better way of dealing with gun control policies than Americans do.

While “Domino” fails to have the same production values which are evident in De Palma’s best work, there are still moments which remind us of what a master filmmaker he can be and how brilliant he is in ratcheting up the suspense. This especially is the case in the movie’s climax in which Christian and Alex chase down a team of ISIS terrorists who are preparing to set off a bomb in an arena. As things escalate to an explosive conclusion, De Palma keeps us on the edge of our seats through some brilliant editing and the music of one of his favorite composers, Pino Donaggio.

De Palma also utilizes split screens here and there, particularly in a terrifying moment when a female suicide bomber lays waste to a red-carpet event with a machine gun. The thought of death terrifies her, but she is endlessly manipulated by ISIS leader Salah Al Din (Mohammed Azaay) who promises her a road to God no one else can give her. Of course, it’s quite telling how he is willing to let others meet God before he does, or maybe he is simply getting others to do things he doesn’t have the guts to do himself.

Some will be quick to point out how stereotypical the terrorists are in “Domino.” Granted, they do fit the stereotypes many people have of Middle East terrorists, but I personally don’t see how you can judge an entire race of people or an ethnicity just from the portrayal of a handful of them in a movie. Then again, this is not a movie eager to dig too deep into the politics or deeply held religious beliefs. It is simply a straightforward thriller eager to give us an exciting, if not altogether memorable, time at the movies or at home on television which is where “Domino” will likely find its biggest audience.

The acting for the most part is serviceable. Coster-Waldau is believable as a cop plagued with guilt, and he gives the movie the protagonist it needs. Ebouaney helps to make Ezra more than the typically stereotypical terrorist as his acts of violence serve a similar need for vengeance involving his own family. It’s always great to see Carice van Houten in anything, and she makes Alex a strong female cop and an interesting foil for Christian. But perhaps the most colorful performance in “Domino” comes from Guy Pearce as the corrupt CIA agent who thinks nothing of working with terrorists to get what he wants, or of the laws being broken in the process. Pearce is a delight to watch as he swiftly moves from one place to another with relative ease and without ever breaking a sweat.

Indeed, “Domino” will not go down as one of De Palma’s best works, but I am glad to see it is far from being one of his worst. It certainly fares much better than “Snake Eyes” which, despite an amazing opening shot, quickly turned into a hopelessly idiotic mystery thriller. It is taut, has a streamlined running time, and while its ending feels a bit too pat, it gets the job done. Although this movie is getting dumped alongside blockbusters such as “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and “Rocketman,” it is not the complete loss many have made it out to be.

In the documentary “De Palma,” the filmmaker talked about how he feels he can no longer make a studio movie. I thought “Domino” would be his ticket to escaping the shackles Hollywood executives are quick to put any filmmaker regardless of their long-standing reputation, but judging from the behind the scenes stories, it sounds like he didn’t quite break free of them. Regardless, this movie shows he still has his gifts. While many see him as being past his prime, I still believe he has a masterpiece or two left in him. I just hope whoever he works with next gives him the tools he needs instead of forcing him to make do with only what he has been given.

* * * out of * * * *

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‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Features Unforgettable Performances From its Female Leads

Mary Queen of Scots poster

Many people, particularly on the movie’s IMDB page, have been bashing “Mary Queen of Scots” for failing to be historically accurate. But like many motion pictures which say or imply they are “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events,” this is another one which is not obliged to be restricted in its storytelling by mere facts. Indeed, this movie has been listed by the filmmakers as historical fiction which I am perfectly fine with as deals with two queens from centuries ago who had a respect for each other, but were also frightened by the other’s ability to wield power, and both had a lot of power at their disposal.

Based on the biography “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy, this movie starts off by showing Mary’s eventual fate, something we really didn’t need to see right away. Not that it spoils anything, but it is so brief to where its brief inclusion feels unnecessary.

From there, we see Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), Queen of France, arriving in her native land of Scotland intent on reclaiming her throne there. But in this period of strife between Scotland and England, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) holds powerful reign over both countries and is not in a hurry to surrender her power to anyone. Mary, however, sees herself more than a ruler by name, and she asserts herself in a way which threatens Elizabeth’s sovereignty and brings about a hot cauldron of rebellion and betrayal. Both women have a defiant appearance about them, but they will eventually find it difficult to keep their heads held high as treachery undoes their legacies in a way which will never be easy to repair.

“Mary Queen of Scots” gets off to a very slow start, and I found myself almost falling asleep. It is as though director Josie Rourke, the first woman ever appointed Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, worked too hard to keep things from peaking at the story’s start. But once Ronan and Robbie make their presences known to us, this movie really hits its stride as both actresses inhabit their characters in ways both fearless and stunning as each proves they are more than ready to govern a country in a way Theresa May only thinks she can.

Ronan is exhilarating to watch throughout as she makes Mary Stuart into a bold ruler who will not suffer fools in the slightest, and seeing her stare down her most loyal servants, male and female, is truly a sight to behold. It’s like her eyes are spitting out daggers to where she has to say nothing in getting her point across. Just watch her scenes with Jack Lowden who plays Mary’s second husband, Lord Damley, who woos her in a way which would have earned this movie an NC-17 just a few years ago. But just as Lord Damley thinks he is the one in power, Mary emasculates him to where he is of little use other than impregnating her and giving an heir to the throne. Ronan stares Lowden down with what seems like little effort, and you have to give Lowden credit for playing a man who is so out of his depth in the monarchy.

Robbie came out of nowhere like a firebolt with her breakthrough performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and she continues to wow us with one great performance after another in movies like “I, Tonya.” In this movie, she has an especially big challenge as Queen Elizabeth I is a historical character who has been played by many actresses over the years in various movies. We could spend our time comparing her performance to those given by Cate Blanchet and Dame Judi Dench among others, but n the end she more than makes this role her own. Even as she shows the power Elizabeth has all those around her, the actress is unafraid to show us this queen’s vulnerabilities which do not end with an almost deadly bout with smallpox. Seeing all those pox marks on her face succeeded in bringing back a lot of bad memories for me, and I have to give the makeup artists high praise as a result.

In real life, Mary and Elizabeth never met face to face, but the thought of them in a room together is highly intriguing. What would they talk about? Can’t they relate to one another in a way they cannot with others? The ideas abound, and what results here is a riveting scene between Ronan and Robbie as their characters strive to assert a power they see as being given to them without question. These two actresses do some of their best work yet here, and seeing them face off and hold their own results in one of the strongest pieces of acting I have seen in a 2018 movie.

Both Mary and Elizabeth respected and were frightened by one another. It’s tragic they could not become better friends as they were one and the same; female leaders who ruled in a time when the thought of a woman commanding such a power was something were too easily frightened by. The level of testosterone surrounding them did not stop them in their tracks, but it is clear how one queen fared better than the other.

“Mary Queen of Scots” thrives on the performances of Ronan and Robbie. The story is at times a bit hard to follow as the politics of the time are not always made clear, but things do improve as the movie goes on. Rourke does a strong job of bringing you right back to the year 1569, and there’s an excellent film score composed by Max Richter which heightens the visceral emotions on display. It’s also great to see actors like Guy Pearce and David Tennant sink so deep into their roles to where they almost completely unrecognizable. Of course, a lot of that is due to an abundance of hair they have on their bodies. What results is not quite a masterpiece, but a powerful motion picture which showcases the amazing talents of its two female leads even as takes liberties with history.

It’s sad to see things have not changed over time. Even now, female politicians still get done in by innuendos (a.k.a. fake news) about their records and accomplishments. But coming out of this movie, I’m fairly certain neither Mary or Elizabeth would have made the mistake of using a private email server in the same way Ivanka Trump did. Again, a lot of that is due to Ronan’s and Robbie’s powerful work.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Iron Man 3’ Fares Better Than the Average Threequel

Iron Man 3 poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2013.

Robert Downey, Jr. is back as Tony Stark/Iron Man in “Iron Man 3” which finally made its way to movie theatres after an endless advertising blitz. Then again, it hasn’t been long since we last saw him as he was in “The Avengers” which came out last summer. It makes you wonder if Downey, Jr. might be getting a little sick of playing Tony Stark and his alter ego as this role has monopolized his time over the past few years. But in “Iron Man 3,” the actor finds a fresh way to portray this iconic comic book character as he becomes afflicted by something I know more about than I would ever care to: panic attacks.

That’s right, ever since his near-death experience in “The Avengers,” Stark has been having serious anxiety problems and is constantly worried he won’t be able to protect the love of his life, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). But there’s an even bigger problem on the horizon for him and it comes in the form of The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), an unrepentant terrorist who leads an international terrorist organization known as The Ten Rings. The Mandarin is out to punish America and its President, Ellis (William Sadler), for their crimes against humanity, and also for trying to adopt Chinese culture in such a ridiculously fake way.

In addition, Stark has to deal with his ex-flame Dr. Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a scientist he arrogantly rebuffed back in 1999. In the present, Killian has become a brilliant scientist who has developed the Extremis virus which cured him of his own physical disabilities, and we soon find it also gives those exposed to it superhuman strength and the power to generate extreme heat. Will it be used as a weapon for bad against good? Is this a superhero movie?

The big news about “Iron Man 3” is Jon Favreau who directed the last two installments has stepped out of the director’s chair, and in his place is Shane Black, the same man who wrote the screenplays for “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout,” “The Long Kiss Goodnight” and who eventually directed one of his screenplays with “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” Black seems like an unusual choice to helm a summer blockbuster, but the change in directors proves to be a good thing as Black focuses on character as much as he does on the spectacle. It’s a darker entry than the last two films, but Black still injects a lot of humor into the proceedings.

Now where “The Dark Knight Rises” was more about Bruce Wayne than it was about Batman, “Iron Man 3” is more about Tony Stark than his alter ego. In fact, we don’t see Iron Man in action as much as we did previously or in “The Avengers” for that matter. Some might see this as a serious flaw, but I think it benefits the story greatly. Being Iron Man has become a serious addiction for Stark to where he can’t sleep and function normally unless he’s working on one of his darn suits, and he’s never been the easiest guy to be around. Clark Kent and Peter Parker struggled greatly with their alter egos, but Stark’s position proves to be far more precarious.

Downey, Jr. could almost walk his way through this iconic role of his, but he still captures the different sides of Tony Stark beautifully. Even when he is a bit too dismissive to 10-year old Harley (Ty Simpkins), we still love the actor to death. Come to think of it, is there another actor in Hollywood who can make arrogance look sexier than Downey, Jr.? I think not.

Kingsley is the kind of actor who can play any role, and this has been the case for a long time. As The Mandarin, he creates an ominous presence in “Iron Man 3” which makes you believe he can be a nasty threat anywhere and everywhere. My only frustration with him was, even before I saw this sequel, I knew he wouldn’t be able to top the most malevolent prick he has ever brought to life in the movies: Don Logan from “Sexy Beast.” Then again, when “Iron Man 3” reaches a certain point, it becomes very clear why this is the case.

Pearce can go from playing a good guy to a bad guy with relative ease, but his last few movies have had him portraying the slimiest of villains (check out his performance in “Lawless”). He succeeds in making Aldrich Killian both an unfortunate victim and a selfish bastard all in one, and you have to give Black and his co-screenwriter Drew Pearce credit for giving us more than your one-dimensional baddie. Pearce always knows how to create a nemesis we just love to despise.

Paltrow gets her biggest role yet in the “Iron Man” franchise this time around, and I could tell you why but this would be giving away far too much. The important thing is she looks to be having a blast playing Pepper Potts this time around, and her fun is contagious.

Hall is, as always, a very appealing presence, and she is terrific as Dr. Maya Hansen. James Dale Badge makes Eric Savin, one of The Mandarin’s henchman, a ruthless bastard you want to see taken down ASAP. William Sadler seems like an unlikely choice to play the President of the United States after seeing him play the bad guy in “Die Hard 2” and the Grim Reaper in “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” but he sells himself in the role with no problems. And while I still miss Terence Howard as Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Don Cheadle still gives an excellent performance as that character.

Everyone who reads my reviews knows I usually expect the third movie in a trilogy to be the one which destroys a franchise, but “Iron Man 3” doesn’t do that. I liked it more than “Iron Man 2” which had far too much going on in it, and the change in directors serves this franchise well. Black has made an entertaining and compelling film which brings closure to this particular Marvel Studios trilogy. But then again, it’s highly unlikely this will be the last time we’ll see Downey, Jr. as Iron Man.

As always, be sure to stay through the end credits for the return of another Marvel Comics character.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Prometheus’ is Great and I Don’t Care What You Say

Prometheus movie poster

How sweet it is to have Ridley Scott return to sci-fi genre 30 years after giving us “Blade Runner.” His “Prometheus” is a stunning movie to watch and once again reminds us of what a stylistic perfectionist he is. While it is said to be a prequel to “Alien,” it is really separate from the 1979 classic as it deals with a different set of themes and ideas. While the original “Alien” dealt with corporate greed in trying to use the creature as a weapon, “Prometheus” is far more fascinated with the origins of humanity.

Noomi Rapace, Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish version of “The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo,” stars as Elizabeth Shaw, an archaeologist who, along with her boyfriend Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), discovers a star map in several unconnected ancient cultures on Earth. They come to interpret the map as an invitation from those who created humanity to discover the origins of life on a distant planet. A few years later they are on board the spaceship Prometheus which takes them and several engineers to that location.

When they land on the planet LV-223, not LV-426 from the first two “Alien” movies, they discover a species which appears to be extinct along with a monolithic statue of a humanoid head. In the structure they explore, they also find a large number of metal cylinders which soon start leaking black fluid. Soon after, everything goes wrong and the characters discover how their need to learn about humanity’s creators was a very big mistake.

The smartest thing Scott did with this particular prequel was to not make it the kind which ties up all the loose ends to the original movie that comes after it. This has been a big problem with prequels like “The Thing” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” as they get so concerned about getting the details right to where any suspense or drama gets completely drained, making for a far less effective movie going experience. “Prometheus,” however, takes place several decades before “Alien,” so the filmmakers don’t have to worry about this too much.

“Prometheus” uses the element of mystery to great effect as several characters appear to have ulterior motives they work to hide from others. Charlize Theron is especially effective as Weyland Corporation employee Meredith Vickers. Hiding discreetly in the shadows and coming off with a tough as nails attitude, she clearly has her own agenda as you would expect any member of this or any other, corporation to have.

The movie’s most fascinating character, as well as its most enigmatic, is David, an android designed to be indistinguishable from humans played by Michael Fassbender. We first see him looking over the ship while the rest of the crew is in hypersleep, and he models his behavior on Peter O’Toole’s performance from “Lawrence of Arabia.”

David is like Data from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” in that he is more human than the humans he works with. But the words of the Borg Queen from “Star Trek: First Contact” of how Data is “an imperfect being created by an imperfect being” kept echoing in my head as we see David gaining an ego to where he is fully aware of how superior he is to humans. With this ego comes a wealth of insecurities like envy and jealousy which wipe away the façade his infinitely polite behavior hides.

Idris Elba co-stars as the captain of Prometheus, Janek, who serves as the movie’s most realistic character. Sci-fi movies need a down to earth character like this because in the midst of all the technical mumbo jumbo, someone has to come out and say, “What the hell is going on?” Elba, so good on the BBC series “Luther,” is a strong addition to this cast even though I found his American accent a little weird at times. Couldn’t he have made Janek British like him? Anyway, he gives what may be seen as this movie’s most underrated performance.

But while much of the acting praise may go to Fassbender, I have to single out Rapace who gives a very strong performance as Elizabeth Shaw. Just watch her in the scene where another character yells right in her face that he wants to go back to the ship. Rapace doesn’t budge or blink at this raw anger, and she is as riveting in this movie as she is in that one scene.

Rapace also has the movie’s most unnerving scene as, upon finding that she has a “foreign organism” inside her body, gets into a robotic surgery device to have it removed. It’s a brilliantly icky scene which shakes up the audience in the same way watching Anthony Hopkins cut off a piece of Ray Liotta’s brain in “Hannibal” did. Rapace sells the scene completely and has you pinned in your seat as she goes through the kind of surgical procedure we’d rather be sedated through. On top of this, she does a practically flawless British accent which is more than I can say for many actors in American movies.

Among the other excellent performances comes from Sean Harris who plays the unhinged geologist Fitfield who never lets his mohawk hairdo upstage him, Guy Pearce who is almost unrecognizable under pounds of makeup as the CEO with a god complex Peter Weyland, Logan Marshall-Green as archeologist Charlie Holloway who goes to extremes in his work for better and for worse, and Rafe Spall as the all too friendly botanist Milburn.

“Prometheus” asks a lot of profound questions about who created us and why those same beings chose to abandon planet Earth. It deliberately doesn’t answer all of those questions, but while many consider this one of the movie’s biggest problems, I think it’s one of its many strengths. To answer all those questions would have weakened this movie tremendously and, as I said earlier, the element of mystery plays a strong part in its overall success.

There’s no real satisfying way to answer all the questions “Prometheus” presents as we have enough trouble answering them on our own. I think the movie’s main focus is on the struggle of faith as Rapace’s character thrives on it, and she spends the story seeing it severely tested. The lack of answers ends up reinforcing the faith she has in those who created human beings, and this keeps her faith from being killed off completely.

Scott gives us a visually sumptuous motion picture with extraordinary visuals and special effects which feel wonderfully unique to everything else out there. With cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, frequent music composer Marc Streitenfeld, editor Pietro Scalia, and writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, Scott gives this movie the look and feel the only he can pull off, and it all makes his eagerly awaited return to the sci-fi genre he so brilliantly transcended with “Alien” and “Blade Runner” all the more welcome.

While “Alien” was a masterful combination of the sci-fi and horror genres, “Prometheus” is more sci-fi than horror. “Prometheus” has its thrilling moments, but Scott is not out to scare the shit out of us the way he did back in 1979. He is more cerebral with this film, and it makes you eager to see a sequel to it sooner rather than later. I don’t care what anybody says, “Prometheus” was very much worth the wait and, despite whatever flaws it may have, it had me enthralled from beginning to end.

Actually, one thing you could say about the movie is how it may give ammunition to creationists who claim human life came about through the efforts of a supernatural being. Then again, the very last scene of “Prometheus,” before the end credits roll, features a somewhat familiar-looking creature making an appearance you can’t quite see coming. With that, you can safely say the filmmakers do firmly believe in the theory of evolution.

* * * * out of * * * *