By Lynn Venhaus

Visually stunning, “Three Thousand Years of Longing” is wonder on a grand scale.

While attending a conference in Istanbul, Dr. Alithea Binnie (Tilda Swinton) happens to encounter a djinn, aka genie (Idris Elba), who offers her three wishes in exchange for his freedom. She is a scholar well-versed in mythology and storytelling, and is highly skeptical – after all, so much folklore involving genies turns into cautionary tales that end badly. He pleads his case by telling his fantastical life adventures, and she’s beguiled. What happens next surprises them both.

Far from his Fury Road, risk-taking director George Miller leads us on a less-traveled path. With his flair for the unusual, Miller charts new territory  – his “Mad Max: Fury Road” won six Academy Awards in 2016, so of course the film’s technical elements are superb.

While I am not the biggest fan of the fantasy genre, I can appreciate the technical skill and the amount of difficulty in making it look seamless.

The work of cinematographer John Seale, who came out of retirement for the second time to shoot this movie (the first being Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road”), is exquisite — the vibrancy of his framed shots is breathtaking.

The film unfolds like a novel. Miller collaborated on the screenplay with Augusta Gore, adapting A.S. Byatt’s short story, “The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye,” first published in the Paris Review in 1994. Like the British author Byatt, Miller puts familiar fairy-tale themes in a contemporary context, commenting on society along the way.

It borrows freely from “Arabian Nights,” that compendium featuring “One Thousand and One Nights,” which brought genies, or djinns, into the modern lexicon. Djinns in Islamic culture are often considered demons, but not here. There is a mystical charm to his powers.

Yet, the stories the Djinn weaves to plead his case are not as captivating as Elba and Swinton are. The pair is far more transfixing in bathrobes than the quixotic spectacles involving the Queen of Sheba and the Ottoman Empire, because those meander and such detours take us away from the film’s more interesting core relationship.

Oscar winner Swinton and Elba, who won multiple awards for his finest work in “Beasts of No Nation,” are endearing in their roles as lonely hearts whose solitary existence have led them to this crossroads. Elba could read my tax returns and I would be spellbound.

Alithea’s skepticism is relatable – it would be easy to dismiss it all as a mirage – but it’s not, and her new discovery is a joyful sojourn, particularly when she returns to her life in London. The two bigoted biddies who live next door are a hoot.

However, understand that the exotic panoply is necessary for the fanciful backstory. It’s just curiously not that engaging – a broad canvas of heroes, villains, royal protocol and expendables.

One thing about Miller, though, is that the guy always has a unique perspective – whether it’s a savage post-apocalyptic world of survival or a whimsical journey of a sweet little talking pig or dancing penquins. (After all, he won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature  for “Happy Feet” in 2006).

Swinton and Elba make us care about their characters’ outcome. Without them anchoring this film so skillfully, I would have checked out early. Still, it feels long even with its 1 hour, 48 minutes run time.

Come for the dazzling cinematic work, stay for the mesmerizing acting.

“Three Thousand Years of Longing” is a 2022 fantasy-drama-romance directed by George Miller and starring Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba. It is rated R for some sexual content, graphic nudity, and brief violence and runs 1 hour, 48 minutes. It opens in theaters Aug. 26. Lynn’s Grade: B.

By Lynn Venhaus

Even an actor as good as Idris Elba can’t save this overblown and half-baked adventure-thriller.

When poachers slaughter a pride of lions, ticking off a big cat who goes rogue and becomes a killing machine, this coincides with a doctor’s visit taking his two daughters to their mother’s homeland in South Africa for a getaway safari. But their dream vacation turns into a nightmare instead in yet another movie called “Beast.”

Dr. Nate Samuels (Idris Elba) was separated from his wife at the time of her death from cancer, and this has led to friction with the oldest grieving daughter, Meredith “Mere” (Iyana Halley). They are staying with the mom’s childhood friend, Martin (Sharlto Copley), who oversees an animal preserve, protecting all the creatures on the savanna.

While it starts out promisingly enough, with stunning scenic backdrops and sweeping shots of galloping giraffes, “Beast” quickly falls apart when it becomes “Cujo” and the ticked off apex predator hunts down all humans in sight – except when he/she doesn’t.

The maulings are intense and gruesome, obviously – did they not ever heed ‘it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature?’ and the cast illogically puts themselves in harm’s way.

Characters make a series of decisions that go from bad to worse, so that they seem as dense as people in slasher films. The youngest daughter, Norah (Leah Jeffries), has a penchant for wandering at the worst times. (But is it ever a good thing in unfamiliar territory?).

While I’m not skilled in the laws of the jungle, I’m pretty sure screenwriter Ryan Engle ignores most of them.

Engle takes a video game approach, just as he did in “Rampage” and run-of-the-mill Liam Neeson movies “Commuter” and “Non-Stop,” and the action doesn’t match the characters, who are poorly drawn in the broadest cliches. For a supposedly smart man, Elba’s Dr. Samuels has little common sense.

Then there are the standard tropes. We have the angry daughter lashing out at busy doctor dad who wasn’t around. Oh, that’s original. Scenes of unrealistic peril ensue, even for an animals-attack plot.

By the end, you just want everyone to be put out of their misery after what seems to be an interminable amount of pummeling. The film’s saving grace is its short runtime of 93 minutes — yet, the ending is ludicrous.

It’s not a good sign that the audience seemed to lose patience midway, and laughter grew. Would you willingly smash a walkie-talkie when that is your only lifeline?

As their friend Martin, Sharlto Copley does what he can with a role that mostly dispenses information as he gives them a tour, which goes horribly wrong. Copley, who showed so much promise in “District 9” in 2009, doesn’t have an opportunity here to stand out, and he’s better than the material..

Jeffries and Halley are natural enough as sisters. While paralyzed with fear, they still display survival skills and actually help dad when he needs it. Elba’s character owns up to his failings, so you expect the squabbles given the circumstances. But the end game is that they bond.

However, the characters are soon boxed in, and not just in the vehicle — and the conveniences become contrivances. Whatever goodwill we had for the characters evaporates and interest wanes, so that the conclusion seems anticlimactic.

Elba shows a physical side again, but this time as a flawed hero, not menacing like in “The Harder They Fall,” “Suicide Squad,” and his brief appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Heimdall. Dramatically, in film, he has yet to surpass his work in “Beasts of No Nation” in 2015, although he is best known for his television work in “Luther” and “The Wire.”

Director Baltasar Kormakur’s style is very busy, with quick cuts, and his longshots lack focus — especially as the characters’ overlapping dialogue becomes hard to understand, and it is more difficult than it should be to hear what the actors are saying.

While one can appreciate his intensity in man vs. nature conflicts, he fares better when it’s a war against the elements, unlike here, dealing with a hulking CGI beast of a lion. In “Adrift” in 2018, he gave a riveting account of Hurricane Raymond survivor Tami Oldman (Shailene Woodley) at sea, while in “Everest” he methodically delivered a procedural on the 1996 disaster on the world’s highest mountain that got bogged down with melodrama.

Still, “Beast” is a lot to unpack. Hampered by not only poor sound but also sloppy computer-generated graphic images that don’t seem realistic, the film becomes a merciless slog.

Disingenuous and dissatisfying, “Beast” is ultimately forgettable soon after exiting the theater.

Idris Elba, Sharlto Copley, Iyana Halley in “Beast”

“Beast” is an action-thriller directed by Baltasar Kormákur and stars Idris Elba, Sharlto Copley, Leah Jeffries and Iyana Halley. It’s rated R for violent content, bloody images and some language and run time is 1 hour, 33 minutes. It opens in theaters on Aug. 19. Lynn’s Grade: D.

By Lynn Venhaus
A good-looking film with a kicky soundtrack, “The Harder They Fall” comes across as a bloody western shot like a music video.

It’s no surprise, because first-time director Jeymes Samuel, a music producer and singer-songwriter known as The Bullitts, is a protégé of Jay-Z and worked with him on “The Great Gatsby” soundtrack for director Baz Luhrmann. Under his real name, Shawn Carter, Jay-Z is one of the film’s producers.

Samuel demonstrates an appealing slick style, but sadly the well-worn story lacks substance. Co-written by veteran screenwriter Boaz Yakin and Samuel as a tale of revenge and robbery, it’s merely ordinary – without much character development, squanders the talents of its extraordinary cast that includes solid-gold Idris Elba, Regina King and Delroy Lindo, with rising stars Jonathan Majors, Zazie Beetz and LaKeith Stanfield, who just gets better with every role.

The lethal shoot-outs and blood-spurting showdowns, an integral part of the western genre, are repetitive and do little to advance a gripping story. Overall, the plot is run-of-the-mill, mostly predictable, except for the third act revelation.

It’s unfortunate because you want to root for this type of new western that spotlights black cowboys. Supposedly, on the western frontier, one in four cowboys were black, and they haven’t been given proper due in America’s history on ‘go west’ and the great migration.

In the beginning, the director states that the story is fiction, but the people existed. Most of the action takes place in Redwood City, which was a primarily black community.

Faring well in this film are emerging stars Danielle Deadwyler as Cuffee, who identifies as him and would like a career in law enforcement, and Edi Gathegi as Bill Pickett, a young trigger-happy hotshot.

RJ Cyler has a solid turn as sharpshooter Jim Beckworth as does Deon Cole as Wiley Escoe, but it is Majors’ film. His outlaw Nat Love, no matter how many times he’s intimidated or dismissed, is driven and relentless.

Playing a man of few words who acts quickly, Elba’s physicality is felt throughout, a foreboding presence from the opening scene where he takes down a family, to breaking out of chains in prison stripes, and then as a feared frontier gang leader.

An interesting twist is how fierce the women are – Regina King as “Treacherous Trudy” and Zazie Beetz as Stagecoach Mary. They take the bullets out of their guns and use their fists and hand-held weapons for a rip-roaring knock-down drag-out brutal fight.

With its attractive production elements, the movie benefits from cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.            ‘s framing of these newly constructed towns, showcasing the period production design by Martin Whist, with editing by Tom Eagles. The violence is graphic – a blown-off arm here, an exploding head there.

Amid the dusty outdoors and bullet-ripped clothes, Antoinette Messam’s costume design features a wide range of interesting vintage hats and lived-in frontier wear, with a few striking dusters and coats adding to the characters’ stature. You can always pick out Nat Love because of his jaunty red kerchief.

Not to be confused with a 1956 movie of the same name starring Humphrey Bogart, “The Harder They Fall” unfortunately lacks staying power because it preferred style over substance.

“The Harder They Fall” is a 2021 western directed by Jaymes Samuel and stars Idris Elba, Jonathan Majors, Regina King, Zazie Beets, LaKeith Stanfield, Delroy Lindo and Danielle Deadwyler. Rated R for strong violence and language, the run time is 2 hours and 16 minutes. In theaters Oct. 22 and streaming on Netflix on Nov. 3. Lynn’s Grade: C+