Saturday, April 29, 2017

Review: The Circle

Image courtesy of EuraCorp USA.
The ingredients for a good film are all there in "The Circle." The picture was directed by James Ponsoldt, whose "The Spectacular Now" was in my top 10 a few years ago, while his previous picture, "The End of the Tour," also drew critical acclaim. The film's cast includes Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Ellar Coltrane (of "Boyhood"), John Boyega (of the new "Star Wars" films), the late Bill Paxton, the funny Patton Oswalt and a rare appearance by Glenne Headly.

And yet "The Circle" is an absolute mess. When its characters aren't spouting expository dialogue or taking part in unbelievable heart-to-hearts, they're finding themselves tangled up in a contrived and far fetched conspiracy thriller plot.

In the film, Emma Watson's Mae works a dead-end job performing customer service over the phone. She lives with her parents - a father with multiple sclerosis (Paxton) and mother played by Headly - and has an ex-boyfriend (Coltrane) who apparently spends much of his time carving items out of wood (don't ask) and, unfortunately, finds himself delivering some of the film's worst lines, which is saying something.

One of Watson's friends (Karen Gillan) lands her an interview at the titular company, a cult-like media outfit in the Bay Area that has a mission to make everything transparent, which involves placing cameras everywhere and knowing what everyone is up to at all times. How do we know this? Because the film makes sure to spell this out for us over and over again during the course of the picture. It's one of those films in which characters say things that sound creepy and unconscionable, but do so with a big smile plastered on their faces, so that we know that Something Is Very Wrong.

Mae starts at the company with some nebulous type of sales position - by the way, what type of sales gig requires you to live in a compound with all of your fellow employees? - and, seemingly within a few weeks, graduates to being one of the company's top minds with a level of autonomy that only exists in movie workplaces.

Mae agrees to take part in a program at The Circle that involves complete transparency - in other words, people watching her every move and listening to whatever comes out of her mouth. She becomes a web sensation in a plot thread that feels ripped right out of "The Truman Show," that is, until she begins to realize that the whole endeavor is sorta ghoulish.

If "The Circle" gets anything right, it does a decent job of capturing the cult-like aura of some modern new media and technology companies. Everyone working at The Circle is just - as Chris Farley once said, so excited! - to be there.

At the same time, this is yet another movie in which the world wide web is the villain - the other two heavies being Oswalt's glowering second in command and Hanks' Steve Jobs-type character, who is slightly unnerving since the actor plays him with the same level of good naturedness that you'd expect from him.

Other than that, the picture is a bit of a disaster. One character's accent is barely recognizable and later laid on thick, seemingly for no reason. A death scene involving a supporting character is completely ludicrous and its aftermath - or lack thereof - is laughably inept. Ponsoldt's previous films were character driven dramas with naturalistic dialogue, but the writing in "The Circle" feels flat. And even the end is hazy in terms of the direction in which Mae points her talents and whether it's a good or bad thing. A lot of talented people worked on this film, so it's astounding that it turned out to be such a misfire.


Image courtesy of High Top Releasing.
J.D. Dillard's "Sleight" is a low budget coming of age thriller for which the advertising gives off the impression that it's some sort of comic book movie in a minor key. Thankfully, it's a little more subtle than that and features an impressive lead performance and some genre elements amid a bildungsroman story that focuses on the concept of self improvement.

As the film opens, Bo (Jacob Latimore) is a street magician from a bad neighborhood in Los Angeles whose parents are both dead. Bo is in charge of taking care of his younger sister, so not only does he collect some pocket change from the impressive magic tricks that he performs on the street, but he's also a low level drug dealer for a guy named Angelo (Dule Hill), a man who tries to play the role of a big brother, but is actually ruthless and sadistic.

Bo meets a young woman named Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), who works at a bakery, and he tells her how he plans to save up enough money from drug dealing and then flee L.A. with his baby sister. The film begins with a former science teacher of Bo's reading a recommendation for the young man and there's an odd, infected-looking gash on his arm that we know is there for some reason, but we don't find out until late in the film. In other words, there is more than meets the eye to the film's protagonist.

"Sleight" works both as a coming of age drama and thriller. Latimore gives an impressive performance and we come to care for Bo, his sister and Holly, all of whom - as one character puts it - deserve better. The film is also tense, at times, especially during a sequence in which a character is kept in the trunk of a car. Another scene, in which a man who angered Angelo is punished, is pretty harrowing.

Although Bo displays his difficult-to-explain tricks throughout the film, it's not until the end that he puts his powers to maximum use. However, the special effects during the finale are scarce, which is a relief. Anything else might have felt out of character with the picture's low budget aura.

"Sleight" is an example of a well-made origin story, although I'd hope that the filmmakers wouldn't cheapen the experience by turning it into a franchise - that is, assuming that it makes enough money to warrant one. The film's final scene hints that more could be in store for these characters. If so, I'd hope that its creator would keep any future installments low budget and as personal as this one.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review: Free Fire

Image courtesy of A24.
There are too many cooks and virtually no broth in Ben Wheatley's "Free Fire," a crime drama mostly set in a warehouse in Boston circa 1978 that liberally pilfers Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," from the setting and elements of the plot to the use of 1970s musical nuggets and a copycat finale.

Wheatley's work, thus far, has involved dabbling in various genres. "Down Terrace" was a gangster film that occasionally felt like a horror movie, "Kill List" was a crime movie that eventually becomes a horror film, "Sightseers" was a horror movie that thought it was funny (but wasn't), "High Rise" adapted a classic science fiction novel and "A Field in England," well, let's just leave that one as unclassifiable.

But "Free Fire" wears its influences - or, rather, influence- on its sleeve. The filmmakers are either hoping for an audience who loved "Reservoir Dogs" and wants to see a film that mimics it or an audience who doesn't know that Tarantino's film exits and, therefore, hopes to be mistaken for something original.

To give credit where it's due: Wheatley has assembled a great cast of supporting actors - Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor, who was charming in last year's "Sing Street." The bad news is that most of them are left to mumble dialogue that is often barely audible.

While Tarantino's characters pontificated on Madonna's "Like a Virgin" or argue over the colors representing their aliases, Wheatley's creations merely shout back and forth that they've been shot. One character apparently has a great John Denver story, but he is killed before he's able to tell it.

The film's setup is - shall we say - minimalist. A group of criminals converge on an abandoned warehouse where a weapons deal is supposed to go down. However, a beef between two characters - Riley's sleazy Stevo and Reynor's Harry - sets a series of shootouts into motion. And that's pretty much it. Much of the rest of the picture involves characters crawling on their bellies across the warehouse's dirty floor and either firing or receiving bullets.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker and screenwriter, "Reservoir Dogs" could have also been a bust. But what made that film magical was Tarantino's gift for gab, brilliant direction and the fact that nothing quite like that movie had ever been seen before. Whereas, not only has "Free Fire" been done before - right down to the location, the semi-ironic use of a 1970s AM radio classic (in this case, Denver's "Annie's Song," which seemingly fails to comment on the action, while "Stuck in the Middle with You" did in Tarantino's film) and the nobody-gets-out-alive ending - and done much better by others.

Wheatley is talented and has a pretty firm handle on genre. "Down Terrace" was an unsettling film and "Kill List" is the type of picture that can blindside you if you go into it with little knowledge of what it's about. But "Free Fire" is merely a pastiche and - I'm sorry to say - not a particularly good one.

Review: Unforgettable

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Not campy enough to recommend nor adequately creepy to work as a straight-out thriller, "Unforgettable" is mostly a showcase for the series of absurd catfights that take place between Rosario Dawson and an obviously vamping Katherine Heigl.

The picture is one in a long line of thrillers in which a woman becomes romantically involved with a man only to find out that his ex-wife (or girlfriend) is an insane stalker who can set you up and make your life miserable. At the film's beginning, Dawson's Julia is leaving her nebulous office job as an online editor for some type of publication to move to small town California, where she plans on marrying the affably bland David (Geoff Stults), the founder of a brewing company.

David has a young daughter and an ex-wife named Tessa (Heigl), who is seemingly lurking around every corner to spoil the fun for the two lovebirds. Nearly every time we spot her with a glass of wine in hand, we know she's up to no good. This typically occurs when she's stalking Julia online, setting up a Facebook account in her name and luring the abusive ex-boyfriend against whom Julia has a restraining order to the home that she shares with David. You know, as such things are done.

This is one of those films in which Julia begins to look like the crazy one because - as chance would have it - literally everything works against her - David's daughter briefly goes missing at a carnival, Tessa falls down some stairs - to make her look bad.

The film's best scene follows a meeting between Julia and Tessa, during which the latter tells the former that she and David used to have sex in public places, giving Julia the idea to pull David into a private room during a meeting regarding his brewing company. All the while, Tessa hilariously masturbates while having an online conversation with Julia's abusive ex. The two scenes edited together make for one of the most ridiculous sequences since Cameron Diaz had sex with a windshield in "The Counselor."

Dawson has the more thankless job of portraying the relatively normal Julia, while Heigl gets to have all the funny as Tessa, who is one of the most over-the-top villains of recent memory. She's an absurd character, but Heigl is clearly enjoying herself.

Regardless, it's pretty easy to see where the story is going. Julia will have to face her ex-boyfriend again. Tessa will go off the deep end and put everyone in danger. And there's a hilarious finale that I saw coming from a mile away, but it still managed to be preposterously amusing. "Unforgettable" has an accurate title - but not for the reasons it likely intends.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Review: A Quiet Passion

Image courtesy of Music Box Films.
Few filmmakers are as capable of portraying the past - mostly that of England, but on at least two occasions, the U.S. - as Britain's Terence Davies, whose films also typically chronicle the stories of strong women who struggle against the times in which they exist. For those unfamiliar with Davies' work, I'd urge you to check out his two gorgeous post World War II elegies "The Long Day Closes" and "Distant Voices, Still Lives," although his powerful "The Deep Blue Sea," adaptation of "The House of Mirth" and last year's terrific "Sunset Song" are equally worth seeing.

His only previous journey to America was 1995's "The Neon Bible," but his latest - "A Quiet Passion" - tells the story of one of the nation's most iconic literary figures, the great Emily Dickinson. In the picture, the poet is portrayed by Cynthia Nixon in a career changing performance, but when we first meet Emily, she is played by Emma Bell as a schoolgirl who clashes with the strict religious teachings at the private school she attends in New England.

It's not that Emily doesn't believe in God - she just has different views on his relationship with human beings than do her teachers, who fixate more on doctrine than independent thought. It's that word - independence - that is both liberating and a lifelong crutch for Emily, who spends her entire life at home with her family - a father (Keith Carradine) who entertains her anti-authority tendencies with a smile, shy mother (Joanna Bacon), caddish brother (Duncan Duff) and sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), who doubles as her best friend. The only person with whom Emily regularly socializes is Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a bawdy young woman who is the polar opposite of the reclusive poet.

In the first half of the picture, the mood is mostly light as Emily, her sister and Vryling trade wry quips and witticisms. Emily's father also appears to take some amusement in his daughter's behavior, most notably during a scene in which he notices a dirty spot on a plate that she proceeds to smash on the table and then continue eating.

But the film's second half, as Emily becomes more reclusive to the point that she hardly leaves her room and only communicates with guests by shouting down from the landing, is significantly bleaker. For those familiar with Dickinson's poetry, it's this second half that will seem more in tune with the work she produced - poems that were hardly recognized until after her death.

History passes the family by. The Civil War breaks out, but it is referenced as if it were taking place a world away, much like how Americans likely speak of Syria today. Some family dramas ensue - Emily has a falling out with her brother after she catches him cheating on his wife, who is Emily's friend, with a society woman - and Emily eventually begins to succumb to disease. As she withers, Emily starts to lash out at those close to her, but it appears that - and her sister recognizes this - she is also turning her own anger inward, most likely for the sacrifices that she imposed on herself.

Due to Nixon's strong performance and the near-chamber piece style of the film, "A Quiet Passion" is a unique entry into the biopic genre. It doesn't quite tell the full story of Emily Dickinson that one might expect, but it provides a view into how the viewer can corroborate the poet's lauded - and often hauntingly morose - work with the life she led. The film is well worth seeing.

Review: The Lost City Of Z

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street Media.
Rigorously old fashioned, James Gray's visually gorgeous "The Lost City of Z" tells the story - in semi-Herzogian fashion - of Col. Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British explorer who disappeared in the Amazon in the 1920s while searching for a supposed lost city. Gray's previous film, "The Immigrant," was also a stunning period piece but, this time, he really breaks out of his comfort zone - his pictures are typically set in New York - both in terms of setting and tone and the result is a hypnotic and occasionally mysterious epic.

Fawcett is a military man at the turn of the 20th century who has been stationed in Ireland, but his career is seemingly going nowhere. One of his superiors suggests his taking a trip to the Amazon for mapmaking purposes but, once there, Fawcett becomes fascinated with a rumored lost civilization in the jungle that he comes to call Zed. During his first trip, he finds some ancient pottery that he believes is a clue to finding the city. For much of the rest of his life, he keeps returning to seek out the lost city, much to the chagrin of his wife (Sienna Miller) and three children whom he hardly knows.

"The Lost City of Z" tells the story of an obsessive's quest, much like Herzog's "Aguirre: The Wrath of God." The older he gets, the more determined Fawcett is to realize his dream of discovering Zed, which he intends to use as proof to the British society from which he hails that the Amazon has a culture as unique, ancient and complex as his own. His companion in travel is Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), who shares Fawcett's obsession - at least, up to a point.

On his second quest into the heart of the jungle, Fawcett finds a nemesis in James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), who formerly took part in one of Ernest Shackleton's expeditions to the North Pole. Murray's pomposity and foolish behavior near destroys Fawcett's second expedition and their quarrel is later revived after their return to England.

Gray's films meticulously provide a sense of place, whether it's in New York milieus of the 21st ("Two Lovers") or early 19th century ("The Immigrant"), and "The Lost City of Z" is equally as immersive. During Fawcett's travels, there is always a sense of unease - the jungle is, after all, a place that can eat you alive - but the filmmakers don't make the mistake of portraying the story of a pious white man amid the savages. For all purposes, Fawcett abandons his family for his explorations, while Murray and his ilk are near insufferable and care little for the natives through whose land they travel.

"The Lost City of Z" is often spellbinding and it ends on a mysterious and slightly open ended note. It's often visually breathtaking and Hunnam's performance here is easily his best to date. Pattinson also continues to prove that he appears more at ease in independent films than in big budget Hollywood extravaganzas and he disappears into his role. Gray's film is an old fashioned - and I mean that as a compliment - story of the type that is rarely made these days. It's not a film for short attention spans, but those who give themselves over to it will be duly rewarded.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review: Salt and Fire

Image courtesy of XLrator Media.
Seemingly concocted while filming his volcano documentary, "Into the Inferno," Werner Herzog's "Salt and Fire" is the rare misfire from the great - and prolific - filmmaker. That's not to say that the picture isn't intermittently interesting - it is Herzogian in every way.

The film bears some similarity to the director's other narrative features of recent years - namely, "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" and "My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done?" - although it's not as successful as the former or as macabre as the latter. However, it is as batshit insane as both.

Clearly not aiming for anything resembling realism, "Salt and Fire" concerns a group of scientists, including a German scientist (Veronica Ferres) who has been summoned with several others in her field - including a short, apparently kung fu-trained German colleague and an Italian (Gael Garcia Bernal, not aiming to be Italian in the least) with roving hands - to travel to Bolivia, where they are expected to examine an active volcano.

Instead, they are kidnapped by a group of men led by Michael Shannon, whose bon mots include such truisms as "the noblest place for a man to die is the place he dies the deadest." In the meantime, one of his kidnapping colleagues pontificates about alien abductions, Bernal suffers through "the mother of all diarrhea" episodes and Ferres is left alone in the salt flats with two partially blind children, with whom she plays games. You got all that?

"Salt and Fire" ranks high on the scale of weirdness, even for a Herzog film, although it comes nowhere near the delirium of "Bad Lieutenant," which was also significantly better. And although it features a man versus nature theme that we've come to expect from the director, it doesn't hold a candle to such masterpieces as "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" or "Grizzly Man," which both explored that concept to much better effect.

The picture's strangeness and clearly stilted dialogue held me in thrall - to an extent, at least - for the first half of film, but by the time Ferres has been left alone with the two aforementioned children, it was pretty clear that "Salt and Fire" had lost its way.

Herzog is a master filmmaker - one of the best in the world - and his resume is a long list of remarkable fiction and documentary movies. Unfortunately, this isn't one of them. The picture has its moments - a few of which are particularly bonkers - but it's a minor work from a major artist.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Review: Ghost In The Shell

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
The live action film of "Ghost in the Shell" combines some dazzling visuals with a moody electronic soundtrack that led me to believe that director Rupert Sanders has been watching "Blade Runner" lately. However, while the picture follows the story of a body - part woman, part machine - with a soul trapped inside it, the film has the opposite conundrum. Its soul is lost somewhere in the matrix.

Based on the manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow, but also the 1995 anime film of the same name by Mamoru Oshii, the story takes place in the near future where a cyborg with a soul known as Major (Scarlett Johansson) tracks down criminals and eliminates them. She works with a team that includes a scientist (Juliette Binoche), cop partner (Pilou Asbaek) and commander played by the great 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano.

For much of the film, Major is chasing a terrorist, Kuze (Michael Pitt), who warns her that the way in which she came to be in her present body - that is, how her brain became embedded in the half-robotic, half-human form it inhabits - was, perhaps, not by way of consent. This is the simplest way to describe the plot of "Ghost in the Shell," which goes out of its way to make itself appear complex, but isn't particularly.

There are some visual wonders to behold in the film. Gigantic holographic advertisements float through the futuristic Japanese air, a geisha turns into a robotic spider and climbs backwards up a wall and slow motion shootouts are presented in the typical balletic form we've come to expect in these types of pictures. In other words, "Ghost in the Shell" often looks great when, in fact, there's very little actually going on.

Most of the cast appear to be - at least, at times - bored. Then again, many of them are cyborgs and aren't likely to emote too much. Sanders' previous film, "Snow White and the Huntsman," had a similar problem in that its impressive visual effects were bogged down by the ho hum storytelling and that description is just as apt here.

In fact, the cast is a smorgasbord of great indie actors - with the exception, of course, of Johansson, who is no stranger to big budget action filmmaking - but they are given little to do. The only memorable trait among any of the characters is that Asbaek's Batou likes to feed stray dogs.

Johansson has, of recent, been involved with films that have explored challenging terrain involving otherworldly or futuristic stories about characters who are not exactly human - such as the marvelous "Her" and "Under the Skin" - so, "Ghost in the Shell" would seem to be an obvious fit for her. But her character is merely one in a long line of action heroes who are dedicated to work, with little personality outside of it.

Also, while remaking a film provides creative license to its filmmakers to take the story where they see fit, this live action update is mostly a routine action film, dropping much of the complexity - and storyline - from the original comic book and film. For a movie that ponders what it means to have a soul - or ghost, if you will - this one feels more robotic than human.

Review: The Zookeeper's Wife

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Based on the incredible story of Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), Niki Caro's "The Zookeeper's Wife" is a well-made and powerful Holocaust drama, even if it relies on World War II movie cliches on a few occasions and omits some of the most pertinent details - for example, Jan's involvement in the Polish Underground is only briefly, and slightly haphazardly, referenced here - from Diane Ackerman's book that is based on the lives of this brave couple.

Antonina, Jan and their son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford and, later, Val Maloku), live a happy life as caretakers for the Warsaw Zoo in late 1930s Poland. Antonina impresses guests at a dinner party by her hands-on work with the zoo's animals, especially when she saves the life of a baby elephant near the film's beginning. At one point later in the picture, she tells a young woman who has fled the Nazis that she loves animals because you can "look into their eyes and see what's in their hearts."

But the Zabinskis' tranquility is interrupted when Germany invades Poland and, in one of the film's most heartbreaking scenes, the zoo is bombed, killing or setting free a majority of the animals. Antonina meets Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the owner of a Berlin zoo who has been made a chief zoologist by Adolf Hitler, and the two enter into a forced friendship, one that makes Antonina clearly uncomfortable.

When Lutz tells the zookeepers that he will take their prize stock and "protect" them in Berlin, the couple knows that they have no choice. However, Antonina and Jan devise a plan to raise pigs for meat for the German Army at the zoo, but this is merely a distraction as the couple begins to sneak Jews into the zoo via Jan's truck and then help them to escape. Among those hidden at the zoo include an old friend of Jan's with an insect collection and a feral young woman who has been raped by Nazis.

The film, although a moving Holocaust drama, also plays as a fairly intense thriller. Will Jan and Antonina get caught? And will she have to consummate her friendship with Lutz in order to protect those who are hiding in the zoo?

In fact, the film is at its best when it plays like a thriller. A scene during which the animals at the zoo can sense that something bad is about to happen - which is followed by the animals roaming free on the streets of Warsaw, much to the shock of its denizens - is particularly well done as are the scenes when Jan smuggles people out of the ghetto. The film's most powerful moment is when Jan is asked to lend a hand by hoisting young children onto a train that is most surely headed to an extermination camp.

And although too much attention is, perhaps, focused on Lutz's appearances at the Zalinski's home and Jan's jealousy driven by a misunderstanding regarding Antonina and Lutz's relationship, "The Zookeeper's Wife" is, on the whole, a solid addition to the canon of Holocaust films. It's the type of picture for which some reviews could - and have - made a decent case that it's a Hollywoodized version of the Holocaust, but its strong performances and unique story make it one worth watching.