The Circle

Release: Friday, April 28, 2017

→Theater

Written by: James Ponsoldt; Dave Eggers

Directed by: James Ponsoldt 

I don’t know if “knowing everything is better” but I do know that The Circle is an experience I need not have again. I wish I never even had it. A parable about the dangers of being too plugged in to the digital world does little to justify both your time and its high-profile, talented cast.

Director James Ponsoldt, known for his sensitive character studies like The End of the Tour and The Spectacular Now, adapts the 2013 Dave Eggers novel of the same name. Seemingly having little faith in the material itself he overhauls what could have been another indie sleeper hit with a one-sheet of Hollywood names guaranteed to create a box office draw. (He wasn’t wrong; rather than bombing, his latest has gone on to become his highest-grossing effort internationally.)

Emma Watson stars as Mae Holland, a young go-getter who lands an entry job with a powerful tech conglomerate known as The Circle, run by the visionary Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks in a Mark Zuckerbergian capacity). The film traces Mae’s rise to prominence as she goes from Customer Service representative to the first Circler to go “fully transparent” — wearable cameras giving her followers access to her every waking moment. In the process it asks us where we draw the line between virtual popularity and physical privacy.

At the Circle, a Google-like campus where every amenity under the sun can be found, employees are encouraged to throw themselves headlong into their work. To get connected and not only stay engaged, but intensify that engagement in perpetuity. Everyone comes across passionate and friendly. Only the most motivated of millennials are able to thrive here. If you’ve ever seen a movie, you’ll see right through this front and recognize this idyllic community for the insidious, disingenuous construct that it is (a similar problem plagued Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness earlier this year).

Mae takes the job initially to help fund treatments for her father who suffers from multiple sclerosis (Bill Paxton in his final role) but it’s not long before that selfless nobility gives way to a more unhealthy obsession with her own status. Before she’s drunk on the same Kool Aid that all her colleagues have been binging on, most notably her obnoxious college friend (Karen Gillan) who helped her score that interview and with whom Mae’s inevitably thrust into direct competition. She soon realizes that the benefits of going transparent are too many to count, and wants her parents and even her friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), the latter notorious for staying off the grid, to adopt the technology and learn to become part of the Real World.

Mae’s meteoric rise is nurtured by Hanks’ unnaturally likable CEO, who sees great, scripted potential in his protégé. After catching her breaking the law via one of his recently installed SeeChange cameras — part of a new initiative to keep the entirety of humanity more accountable for their actions and behavior — Bailey decides to give her an opportunity to become her best self. Meanwhile, comedian Patton Oswalt is stuck delivering some spiel about how none of this will manifest as one giant middle finger in the face of national and international privacy rights. Like everyone else, he’s unconvincing.

The movie from here becomes such that I really wish Hanks had just fired Watson. The movie wouldn’t have made much sense but, critically, it would have been over sooner. Declining to actually do the unpleasantries is such a Tom Hanks thing to do, and he can’t even make reading the riot act to a disobedient employee an uncomfortable experience. He’s badly miscast, though no one in this movie comes out smelling like a rose. I think it’s this fact, how even Forrest Gump has been set up to look like a dope, that makes me more mad at The Circle than its obnoxious air of superiority or the way it turns relevant social commentary into a boring, predictable and downright condescending lecture.

Recommendation: On the grounds that this is the last movie featuring the great Bill Paxton, it pains me to tell people to avoid the movie. But avoid it. Avoid it like political commentary on social media. Avoid it like the comments section underneath actors’ profiles whenever they make a statement about something other than their chosen professions. Avoid it like you would avoid anyone who tells you they’re still active on MySpace. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 110 mins.

Quoted: “We’re so f**ked.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Assassin’s Creed

assassins-creed-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, December 21, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Michael Lesslie; Adam Cooper; Bill Collage

Directed by: Justin Kurzel

Assassin’s Creed is simply not interesting enough for those who never played the game. You might fairly ask me why I would choose to sit through a movie based on a video game I never played. Um, I was expecting the acting pedigree behind the film’s trio of stars to carry more weight. Or for acting to matter at all in the film. I was hoping I could use what I learned here as a springboard for me getting into the games later. Here’s the best advice I can offer to those in a similar position: don’t do that.

I DON’T HAVE A CREED, SORRY

Everything is going to be okay, despite what Rotten Tomatoes says (yikes). I wonder how seriously game enthusiasts take film critics when they review game adaptations. Like recent releases inspired by gaming phenomena — Warcraft, Resident EvilMortal Kombat — the film has a substantial enough built-in fan base that will ensure a sequel or three will get the green light. So if you actually use the tomatometer as a measuring stick for what you want to watch, you might take a close look at how audiences are responding instead of reading my list of grievances against a pretty dull film.

The film doesn’t completely alienate the outsider, but it hardly gives you a warm fuzzy. Director Justin Kurzel’s reverence for the game’s well-established, sophisticated lore is apparent. We are effortlessly transported to a quasi-romantic/dystopian universe, one split between 15th-Century Spain and an hyper-stylized approximation of the present day. The film’s gorgeous in its steely griminess, a wardrobe tailored to the actors’ shape while remaining faithful to the ornate designs of the source material’s costumes. Assassin’s Creed clings to this façade with desperation, a large portion of the footage dedicated to overemphasizing said wardrobe. And an onslaught of skywards shots of our heroes parkouring the hell out of a city is presumably intended to invoke the sensation of being involved in this mission.

The narrative draws upon the mythos established in the original game, now a decade old, but instead of retracing familiar steps for those who have long been in control of Desmond Miles’ destiny, it opts for an origins story involving a completely new avatar. And while much of the film succumbs to the same issue that plagues many a video game adaptation — a confused or uninteresting point of view that just leaves viewers cold — at least the action scenes, particularly the furious hand-to-hand combat sequences, make an attempt to include the  average paying customer (the APC*).

Assassin’s Creed introduces everyone to Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), a career criminal who at the start of the film is preparing to be executed. Then he “wakes up” in what seems to be . . . um, Heaven’s waiting room? No, that can’t be right; capital murderers don’t get a pass. So this is Hell’s foyer, then? Wrong again. This is actually a sterile room within a remote Abstergo Industries facility, a modern manifestation of an ancient underground society known as the Templar Order. Callum is first greeted by a scientist named Sophia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), the daughter of visionary Abstergo CEO Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), who proceeds to inundate Callum with a few orientation materials. Like letting him know that he no longer exists in the world. That he is about to be repurposed.

SOME PHILOSOPHICAL SHIT

In 2007 Ubisoft engineered a stealth adventure for the thinking gamer. I can appreciate their popularity as these games have been able to separate themselves by blending heady science fiction with historical settings and events. Unfortunately the complexities pose a problem from a cinematic storytelling perspective. The task falls upon Cotillard to shoulder an encyclopedia’s worth of exposition because, let’s face it: there’s just too much world-building to be done beyond the physical, and no one is going to sit through a three-hour long movie based on a video game. Cotillard does what she can, but there’s only so much a great actor can do with such clunky, uninspired writing.

Through one of Sophia’s many monotonous monologues he learns he has assassin’s blood in his veins, and that one of his ancestors was Aguilar de Nerha, a noted assassin during the Spanish Inquisition who had for years been in pursuit of the Apple of Eden. This apple is not so much a fruit as it is a piece of technology that contains man’s original sin. It also possesses the very fabric of free will itself. (The more I write the stupider it all sounds, which is the very phenomenon that occurs the more these people talk.) Across centuries these assassins have had to contend with the Templars who don’t share their views on the future of mankind. While the Templars believe global peace is achievable, albeit only through control, assassins hold that man’s free will is a gift that cannot be touched or tampered with. On paper, all of this sounds like some pretty fascinating, philosophical shit, doesn’t it?

On screen, however, very little of said philosophical shit translates enthusiastically. Or creatively. The film looks great but the whole thing concludes in the same numbing state in which it began. If you’ve made the mistake of coming to the picture for the acting, prepare yourself for Fassbender’s first on-screen performance following the lobotomy none of us knew he had. Yes the action scenes are good, but everything else is so disappointing it seems almost farcical.

Assassin’s Creed stunningly wastes an opportunity to present an intellectually stimulating, challenging cinematic excursion. There’s a fixation on the god complex that is just begging to be explored in greater depth. The assassins we see early in the film prove their unwavering test of devotion via blood sacrifice. Callum’s body being manipulated by The Animus — a giant mechanical contraption that has undergone some physical alterations so the film, supposedly, avoids comparisons to The Matrix‘s own psychosomatic technology — often finds the character in Christ-like poses as he soars into the air and flails around. The script also tends to harp on the phrase “man’s first disobedience.” And Rikkin’s ambitions of uniting mankind under his thumb, well. That’s pretty obvious.

For all of the obsession with sinning and human imperfection the irony of how Kurzel and company have themselves ended up committing one of filmmaking’s greatest sins by producing one of the year’s most disappointing and boring movies becomes painful. I don’t know. Maybe I just need some secret codes or something.

* Synonyms include (but are not limited to) ‘loser,’ ‘heathen’ and ‘deplorable.’ 

michael-fassbender-in-assassins-creed

2-5Recommendation: Disappointing video game adaptation squanders the massive talents of its leading trio in Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons. Of course, this film could have gotten by with some average performances if the story were presented more compellingly. The longer the film went on, the sillier it all seemed. Damn it, this should have been really good. I am so bummed out and I haven’t ever played the games. I still might, though. These universes are just too cool to ignore. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “We work in the dark to serve the light. We are assassins.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Arrival

arrival-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 11, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Eric Heisserer

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

I’m just going to say it: Arrival is magnificent. It’s also: 1) another grand gesture from the visionary Québécois Denis Villeneuve that’s both sophisticated and stylish; 2) a film that really “makes you think;” 3) the antidote to the last several days in which the world has been watching and weighing in as the “United” States of America may or may not have been tearing itself apart when Donald Trump went from real estate mogul to president-elect.

Of course, the film has no interest in making a political statement but it is interested in bringing us closer together as a global society. The one thing it is really good at is reminding us of our ability to empathize and cooperate with one another in times of hardship, even when there are competing interests, values and perspectives at play; that the way we communicate is as important as what we are communicating. Arrival, based upon the novella Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, promotes language as the ultimate tool and weapon mankind has and will ever have. It’s both our currency for clarifying all that is foreign and unfamiliar but just as easily it can create barriers if in no other way than when we use it to obscure what we really feel.

In some sense Arrival feels allegorical for a modern society wherein the furor of social media tends to bring out the worst in people. It uses an alien encounter to elucidate both the simplicity of the act of communicating and the infinitely more complex process of understanding and interpreting. The chronicle centers around an expert linguist, a Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), recruited by the U.S. military to decipher alien code they’ve received from a massive egg-shaped monolith in Montana, one of an apparent dozen that have suddenly appeared at seemingly random locations across the globe. The end game of course is to find out just what they are doing here, on this planet, but along the way we become privy to an altogether unexpected series of revelations.

Villeneuve’s latest is not merely a message film fitted into a pretty frame (although it very much is that). It offers a thrilling and profoundly personal adventure, one that more or less hits the ground running and remains comfortably paced throughout. An ambitious narrative is met with an appropriate sense of scale: Bradford Young’s panning cameras hint at the crippling notion that we may be alone in the universe, brilliantly reinforced by how deserted the college campus looks when it’s evacuated. Then there are the ships themselves — empyreal in their gently curving architecture. We call them ‘shells’ because labels are easier and they somehow feel comforting. Finally, news reports of mass riots and looting in poorer nations set the narrative against a backdrop of fear and panic. These bits serve as the most indicting evidence of what happens when we misconstrue things that are said, done or merely suggested.

Arrival feels grandiose even if the story sticks close to Dr. Banks as she is awoken from another troubled sleep by the surly Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) telling her the world needs her help. On the way to Montana, the sole American sighting, she meets theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), who will prove a calming presence in an otherwise chaotic and prejudiced environment. It is these characters, plus a few faceless soldiers, with whom Dr. Banks will enter the ship in an attempt to open a line of communication. Arrival might be at its most compelling when that first contact is established, when we are formally introduced to the Heptapods — serious out-of-towners with seven tentacle-like appendages from which they shoot a black inky substance. After a failed first trip, nerves eventually calm and Dr. Banks’ intuition proves extremely valuable as work begins in earnest.

Several weeks of sleepless nights and haunting visions of her deceased daughter begin weighing heavily on our ambassador. Making matters worse, China is demanding an ultimatum from our squid-like visitors after one particular translation (‘Use weapon’) incites worldwide panic. In a race against time, Dr. Banks must determine what connection, if any, her visions of Hannah has to what she is doing here in the present. The results prove to be both heartbreaking and galvanizing, the drama culminating in an Interstellar-esque reveal that’s altogether satisfying insofar as it is surprisingly coherent. And almost 100% convincing. Arrival risks devolving into abstraction but the genius lies within the screenplay, courtesy of Eric Heisserer [Lights Out; The Thing (2011)]. It engages intellectually while structurally providing enough of the tangibles — flashbacks become a motif — to support its lofty ambitions. And all-around terrific performances, most notably Adams and Renner, send us out of the theater on a major high.

In a way this film isn’t about an alien encounter at all — it’s certainly not an invasion, per se; rather, this is a forward-thinking, socially responsible drama that celebrates the best of humanity.

Recommendation: A movie for the thinking-man, undoubtedly, Arrival continues the ascension of one Denis Villenueve as it captures him working comfortably within the realm of psychobiological science fiction. It features stellar performances and a great alien presence. Regular collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson is on hand to bolster the atmospheric feel of the film with a cerebral and moody score, so if you’re needing any other reason to go see this you might see it for that, too. This is one of my favorites of 2016, absolutely. A very exciting film. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 116 mins.

Quoted: “Now that’s a proper introduction.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Inferno

inferno-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 28, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: David Koepp

Directed by: Ron Howard

Ron Howard is a fairly prolific filmmaker, having maintained a schedule of roughly a film every two years throughout a 40-plus-year long directorial career. He’s not quite Woody Allen but his oeuvre is extensive enough to suggest the guy just likes staying busy, and it certainly explains his involvement with fluffy B-movie action schlock like Inferno.

Howard’s third cinematic translation of Dan Brown’s popular thrillers is pretty much business as usual as it once again follows Tom Hanks‘ Professor Langdon on a globetrotting adventure in search of some historical artifact/macguffin that becomes a particular point of interest, stringing along a female companion who goes from being incidental to the plot to playing a significant role in the way the mystery unfolds. Inferno shares in its predecessors’ sense of reckless abandon, often falsifying or embellishing historical fact for the sake of advancing (or even resolving) the conflict the world’s most famous symbolist finds himself in.

Unlike in The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons our trusted Harvard prof starts off in between a rock and a hard place, waking up in a hospital bloodied and completely oblivious to the events of the last several days. Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) informs him that he has temporary amnesia as a result of a bullet grazing his head. While trying to make sense of the moment, a member of La Polizia Municipale shows up on the scene and it quickly becomes clear she’s not here for questioning. The pair manage to escape to the doctor’s apartment, where she immediately demands answers.

Dr. Brooks’ apartment is where our adventure begins in earnest. An unlikely starting point, but that’s part of what makes these films entertaining. Langdon remains an unreliable protagonist for much of the first half of the film, his inability to shake visions of what appears to be Hell on Earth making for a refreshing change of pace from the infallible history geek he usually is. It’s no coincidence that the film begins with a fire-and-brimstone lecture delivered by billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zubrist (Ben Foster) on the matter of mankind’s imminent demise. His extreme views — he essentially plans to halve the global population by releasing a virus, the Inferno virus, in a popular tourist location — position him as the film’s obvious antagonist, but the story takes an unexpected turn when he commits suicide.

Langdon finds himself caught in a race against time when he learns that the maniac has left a trail of breadcrumbs for someone else to follow. The clues begin with something Langdon finds on his person, a pocket-sized digital device that has the image of Dante’s Map of Hell stored inside. From there they bounce between the crowds of Florence and Istanbul, having to contend with the interests of other organizations like the World Health Organization and shady underground entities like Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan)’s Consortium, a private security firm. These people have their own, equally convoluted agendas. Double-crossers like Omar Sy’s Christopher Bouchard only serve to make matters more complicated.

Along the way the familiar beats are delivered: a few twists, some pulse-pounding chase sequences, a lot of conveniently timed revelations and of course an inconveniently timed betrayal. All of this would have resulted in some fairly entertaining viewing, but unfortunately Inferno becomes bogged down by a plethora of technical issues that consistently undermine the film’s raison d’être, which is to provide easily digestible, easily disposable entertainment. We haven’t witnessed a production so disorganized and incoherent since Howard attempted to mount a sophisticated kind of situational comedy in the baffling and underwhelming The Dilemma.

Here, Howard almost comes across amateurish: Inferno‘s direction is spastic and, well, directionless; action set pieces are rushed and largely forgettable while the fundamental reason we are all here — the fun in solving the puzzle (possibly well ahead of the characters) — is all but sidelined in favor of an obsession with style and adrenaline-spiking editing. It gets to the point where many of the scenes depicting Langdon’s mental anguish feel like they’re sampled from a tutorial in iMovie. Those flourishes also present far too often, disrupting whatever flow the narrative is able to build while Hans Zimmer’s score is little more than a collection of uninspired electronic sound samples whose cacophonous presence only compounds the headache.

Suspension of disbelief has always been requisite of this franchise, whether you’re turning pages or experiencing Howard’s interpretation of them. You usually have to take these pseudo-intellectual adventures with a grain of salt, but Inferno will demand you swallow the entire damn jar. Hanks’ predictably amiable performance and some fun supporting performances, namely Khan’s scenery chewing, almost — ALMOST — make that kind of dry mouth worth it, but not quite.

inferno

Recommendation: Inferno‘s slapdash construction gives the impression it was thrown together last-minute. Absolutely a lesser Ron Howard film and perhaps one of his worst. The things I can recommend about it are basically limited to Tom Hanks and Irrfan Khan. Maybe Felicity Jones. These three seem to give it their all but the story around them and some atrocious editing sadly let them down. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “The greatest sins in human history were committed in the name of love.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

London Has Fallen

london-has-fallen-movie-poster

Release: Friday, March 4, 2016

[Netflix]

Written by: Creighton Rothenberger; Katrin Benedikt; Christian Gudegast; Chad St. John

Directed by: Babak Najafi

London Has Fallen was a theatrical release I happened to miss out on and I am glad for having saved that money. Buying a bag of crack cocaine (which is what I did) would have been a better use of that money (and it was).

Gerard Butler reprises his role as Mike Banning, and he’s still President Asher (Aaron Eckhart)’s body guard. The two have now become homies, and you know this because you see Banning jogging backwards alongside the Prez on one of their many morning runs in DC. That’s a skill that’ll come in handy! (Actually that’s not even really sarcasm; the two dudes end up running a LOT in this movie, although you’d have to believe they don’t engage in too much running in reverse — that wouldn’t be practical, unlike driving in reverse.) For director Babak Najafi, apparently this is character development.

Despite the privilege of sharing dude-bro-isms with his Commander-in-Chief, Banning is considering resigning so he can spend time with his wife, with whom he is expecting his first child. But the nursery will have to wait because the British Prime Minister has passed and President Asher and his security detail must attend the funeral in London. Many world leaders show up to pay their respects, but before they can many of them are riddled with bullets when Najafi decides to dispense with the bullshit.

Then the rest of the movie happens, which is, ironically, even more bullshit than the bullshit that came before. Need I address it? Are you really curious for more? Sigh. Alright, well here’s this:

Just when it looks like the good guys are about to get away from what appears to be a developing war zone in the heart of London — ground zero being Westminster Abbey — their chopper is shot down by some assholes on some rooftops because hey, they shouldn’t be able to get away THAT easily. And so ensues 90 minutes of Call of Duty, the map manifesting as a smoldering metropolis castrated of its most famous landmarks. Brainless action sequences follow as do some of the worst lines of dialogue exchanged between actors playing supposedly important characters, men and women of prestige. But that doesn’t stop members in the Situation Room chatting about being partial to the Kardashians (I’m not kidding) as they prepare for what they think is going to be another normal day.

The main objective of the terrorists is to get revenge on the guy who wiped out some notorious Middle Eastern crime lord’s family and they plan to record the assassination live so it can be on YouTube. (I’m also not kidding.) The main objective of the Americans is to kill every last man with dark hair, dark skin and thick beards. The script, penned by four different idiots, is so xenophobic it makes my skin crawl. Unlike in the previous outing, there is zero tension between Banning and the President so ultimately there is no reward in seeing Butler macho his way through another terrible movie. All we really get that’s new is watching Eckhart sling a gun around awkwardly for 30 minutes as circumstances become increasingly dire and as the baddies make communication with friends across the globe extremely difficult.

The story is atrocious but the film’s attitude is so much more cavalier. London Has Fallen doesn’t give a shit about England. It’s more about the greatness that is America than it is about the character and prestige of one of her longest standing allies. What’s more embarrassing is that the basic premise doesn’t even hold up logically: the terrorists claim they are retaliating after Asher ordered a drone strike on a Pakistani fortress two years prior, and yet they make an attempt to eliminate every single leader who happens to be present in London. I guess just for shits and giggles? Meanwhile, Morgan Freeman gets paid to breathe.

This is quite simply one of the most pathetic action movies I have ever seen and if you are looking for logic in a movie like London Has Fallen, I’m afraid you may have made some deeper errors. Indeed, standards have fallen and they have fallen pretty far mate.

fuck-this-shit-man-what-a-stupid-movie

Recommendation: Terrible. And pointless. What’s next, Sydney Has Fallen?* Aside from a few fleeting moments of mindless, distracting action, and plus the fact I do like Gerard Butler and Aaron Eckhart (they’re easily the best part of this movie even though they both look like they were struggling to take this seriously), there’s absolutely nothing to recommend about London Has Fallen, a most unnecessary sequel made by a very xenophobic director that I’m not sure too many people asked for.

Rated: R

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “I was wondering when you were gonna come out of the closet.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Hurricane

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Release: Wednesday, August 31, 2016 (Vimeo)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Christiano Dias

Directed by: Christiano Dias


This short film review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. A tip of the hat to James, who runs the show over there.


Hurricane is the brand new film from Christiano Dias, an experienced short film director who has managed to fit 20 writer-director credits under his belt in the span of a decade. His latest puts a humorous spin on anti-Communist sentiments running rampant in 1950s America.

It tells a darkly comic tale of a couple, Oslo (Corey Page) and Eva Alduars (Lisa Roumain), experiencing some strange happenings during the course of dinner. A tense argument over the meal soon focuses on the radio they have playing in the background, which crackles in and out before eventually going silent. It reminds Oslo of a similar incident that apparently happened at a neighbor’s house, in which a man had discovered a wiretapping device inside his radio. Supposedly that same man had disappeared from the area not long after that. Oslo suspects the Commies got him.

Moments later, a knock at the door. A boy introduces himself as Benjamin Shaw (David Jay), and appears to be selling newspaper subscriptions. But something just doesn’t add up. Oslo begins to think the timing of these events is no coincidence. Meanwhile, a storm closes in on the house outside. Dias challenges us to consider all of the possibilities here, including what seems most unlikely.

What’s most apparent with Hurricane are the production values. Crisp colors and retro shapes and objects transport you back into the Cold War era, a physical sense of time and place conjured from wisely chosen props and set decor, not least of which is that pesky radio — virtually a character unto itself. Thick curtains drawn across large windows occupy considerable space within the frame, a not-so-subtle nod to the Red Scare.

It’s not just visual cues that tip us off, either. There’s a lot of strong eye-acting going on here, whether it’s an accusatory stare from over the top of Oslo’s glasses or the intense look of irritation, borderline anger, in Eva’s. Watch as the look turns from one of disgust to concern as she watches the man steadily come undone. The period details even is evident in the tones of voices used, the cadence with which the characters speak. Paying attention to these little nuances is more important than to the acting itself, which can be pretty shaky.

Those details add up to a unique and at times disconcerting experience that plays with notions of how paranoia and mistrust can lead us to make poor decisions and act irrationally. The set-up is simple but effective, making for a short film that I really kind of have to recommend.

Recommendation: An interesting take on the atmosphere of paranoia, fear and mistrust in the years leading up to and certainly including the Cold War. Juggles comedy with dramatic beats pretty effectively, even if the acting is at times a bit shaky. On the whole, though, these are 14 minutes very well spent. I enjoyed the strangeness of it all and this makes me really want to check out more of Dias’ work. An easy recommendation to make. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 14 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . .]

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.screencritix.com; http://www.vimeo.com

High-Rise

high-rise-movie-poster

Release: Friday, May 13, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Amy Jump

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Chaos reigns supreme in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, an adaptation of the 1975 novel penned by British author J.G. Ballard who envisioned a microcosm of society confined within a 40-story-tall luxury apartment building. After nearly four decades and several failed attempts at adapting material many considered ‘un-filmable,’ Ballard’s anarchical dreams have finally found a home on the big screen in 2016.

Despite several familiar trends, the 1970s-London-set High-Rise manages to differentiate itself by presenting an atypical dystopian society. Rather than prisoners of a faceless, nameless system, people are more often than not victims of their own circumstances, organized within the building according to their financial standing: the wealthy live on the top floors while the poor occupy lower levels. This isn’t a prison, for tenants haven’t been forced to abandon the conveniences of modern living nor have they been brainwashed into disassociating with the outside world. Rather, disaffection has occurred naturally, the conveniences of the building allowing those inside to gradually lose interest in anything it doesn’t provide. Additionally, and although it certainly feels like it at times, this isn’t a post-apocalyptic environment; the people who fill the frame represent only a fraction of society, those who we can safely assume actually wanted to come live here.

High-Rise is a movie of striking visual design, at times to a fault. Indeed, the building is a character unto itself, a looming entity with its upper five or ten floors precariously off-set from the rest. One look at this feat of civil engineering and you’re smitten. Even though it’s precisely the kind of physics-defying curiosity that has become old hat in these sorts of movies, the tower looks and feels right at home in our world. The cold, metal-gray interior features all the amenities you could imagine: shopping markets, gyms, pool-and-spa areas; there’s even a primary school. Parties are regularly thrown, often spilling over between floors, necessarily suggesting different economic classes still have the freedom to associate with whomever they so choose.

Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is our way into the building. A 25th-floor resident, Robert is a lecturer on physiology and commutes daily to and from the city. He allows himself some distance from other people until his upstairs neighbor, single mom Charlotte (Sienna Miller), makes her presence known. The two quickly fall into a romance that eventually allows Robert to get to know her young but strange son Toby (Louis Suc). The first third of the film establishes the world inside this place and sees him getting acquainted with a few other eccentrics, including the Wilders, a family whose station in life seems to be being stuck on the bottom floor. Richard (Luke Evans) is a documentarian with a screw loose and more than a few probing questions. His wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) is heavily pregnant and wishes Richard weren’t always out getting himself into trouble.

Robert soon finds himself summoned to the penthouse, where high rise architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his socialite wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) live. Well, flourish really. He’s brought up for an opportunity to get to know some of the building’s more prestigious fellows, a networking opportunity if you want to call it that. In some ways Hiddleston’s place within the narrative, especially with regards to his association with such characters, feels reminiscent of Jonathan Pine and his fraternization with dangerous types in the brilliant TV mini-series The Night Manager, a John le Carré adaptation in which a former British soldier is recruited by MI6 to infiltrate the ranks of a notorious international arms dealer in order to bring him down.

While a sense of impending doom is distinctly lacking with regards to Robert’s situation, part of the crux of this story does concern an evolving perception of who the doctor really is, particularly as he begins currying favor with some of the elites. (He even gets to play a game of squash with Mr. Royal!) It’s no coincidence his apartment is almost smack-dab in the middle of the building. The metaphor is almost too overt: Robert’s not like the rest, he plays as though the rules don’t apply and thus finds himself in the precarious position of not caring whether or not he improves his current life. His physical location within this building, like it does everyone else, says a lot about the opportunities he has been afforded.

This puzzling drama is an exercise in random visual stimulation, so it’s fitting that the central conflict arises haphazardly as well. It takes three months from the day Robert moves in for the social infrastructure to fail. Specifically what triggers the collapse isn’t made clear, but basic necessities are the first to go: electricity, clean water, food supplies, proper garbage disposal. A man throwing himself from the 39th floor onto the hood of a car is the most apparent indicator of things starting to go awry. And later: complete pandemonium as the irascible Richard Wilder stages a revolution to take down Royal, who he believes is the one responsible for things falling apart. More perceptive viewers will notice that, while all of this is going on, police are nowhere to be seen.

Lang isn’t exactly immune to the insanity, and it’s in his slow slide into a state of acceptance that maybe . . . just maybe, Royal’s plans aren’t completely sinister, that in some weird way society itself is what has failed him and failed the building. Wheatley ensures our perspective on the matter aligns with Robert’s, a tactic that allows us to remain as close to impartial as possible. And it’s not like Robert isn’t flawed himself. As the level of chaos increases we see his behavior change as well. A scene in the grocery store is particularly memorable, exhibiting a side of the doctor we haven’t yet seen: angry, desperate, and violent. He’s become overwhelmed by the survival instinct, protecting what matters most to him — in this case, a bucket of paint. At this point we are well beyond rules. Society is now left to fend for itself as Royal and his cronies continue to look for a way to improve the facilities.

High-Rise is an intensely visual piece that doesn’t quite resonate as the profound sociopolitical allegory it was clearly set on becoming and that the book has been heralded as. Nonetheless, it approaches a familiar subject with a gusto that allows us to overlook the fraying edges, offering up a hallucinatory experience that is as unpredictable as it is entertaining and thought-provoking.

tom-hiddleston-with-a-load-on-his-face

Recommendation: Fans of the weird and the dystopian need apply. High-Rise gets carried away with itself every now and then, with some sequences beginning and ending so sporadically you want to believe many of the transitions were done this way to add to the disorientation (and maybe this really was the thinking). Well-performed and even better shot. Cinematography is a high point, while Tom Hiddleston’s performance reminds us why this is an actor who should have more work. He’s too good. So is Jeremy Irons, but this is really Hiddleston’s movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “There’s no food left. Only the dogs. And Mrs. Hillman is refusing to clean unless I pay her what I apparently owe her. Like all poor people, she’s obsessed with money.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

War Dogs

'War Dogs' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 19, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Todd Phillips; Stephen Chin; Jason Smilovic

Directed by: Todd Phillips

The unbelievability factor really works in War Dogs‘ favor. It has given a director of outrageous comedies and indeterminate skill considerable leverage. It has given actors who like playing jackasses free range to be themselves and we would never know the difference because this true story is ridiculous to begin with. For blind devotees of Todd Phillips getting to know the actual truth is not as important as having an approximated version of it delivered in an amusing and crass way.

See, there’s one thing you kind of have to be in order to enjoy movies made by The Guy Who Brought You The Hangover: you have to be easy to please. You need to be unapologetically so. Take the guy who sat behind me and to my right, for example: this man(-child) laughed at damn well every line that came out of Jonah Hill’s mouth. To this satisfied customer, Phillips could not put a foot wrong. You need to be in that mindset if you are to get the intended amount of entertainment out of War Dogs, a dramatic comedy about how two dopes wind up landing a $300 million arms-dealing contract with the American government.

Despite much of the film being heavily fictionalized — the drive through The Triangle of Death and that pit-stop in Fallujah, yeah that never happened . . . although I bet that towel falling off that rich client’s ass did — this bumpy ride across foreign borders and into legal gray areas becomes a pretty good watch. I mean, a lot of this stuff really happened and you just can’t help but become curious as to how and when their ultimate downfall begins. Maybe it’s when they violated the American arms embargo against the Chinese by repackaging 100 million rounds of AK-47 ammunition — 42-year-old, substandard Chinese bullets to be more accurate. Maybe it’s the fact they forgot to get their boys paid for those efforts. Maybe it’s that both of them — high school buddies Efraim Diveroli (Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) — really were just money-hungry douchebags utterly deserving of the stigma attached to their line of work.

Yes, I think it’s that last one, a sense of fatalism, that makes War Dogs entertaining on any level. The peace of mind knowing that no matter what sequences of success-building and montages of money-stockpiling are put in front of us these unlikable, completely out-of-their-depth numbskulls are going to get their comeuppance. Phillips works pretty hard at steering us in another direction though, and yet there is a surprising amount of fun to be had while it lasts. Of course, the whole thing’s rigged with many of his unimaginative storytelling methods, like the lazy voiceover provided by Teller and highly interruptive chaptered segments with cutesy titles like ‘God Bless Dick Cheney’s America’ and ‘That Sounds Illegal.’

His film is based upon a Rolling Stone article later expanded for a novel based on the rise to prominence of Efraim’s start-up company AEY, which would eventually become a major weapons supplier for the Department of Defense. Ultimately AEY totalled $200 million in contracts dealing in ammunition and assault rifles, amongst other weapons, and its demise inspired the government to reevaluate how they would secure contracts for the future. (In other words, gone were the days of hiring stoners to do the dirty work. Fucking pot heads, man.)

Hill and Teller provide an easy repartee that won’t be difficult to find in other, albeit more traditional, stoner comedies. Even if Hill is now typically a decade older in real life than the characters he chooses, he’s still believable as a 21-year-old arms-dealer (or is that gun-runner?) because . . . well, that freedom to believe whatever you want rule as I mentioned above. Believe all of it or believe none of it (both of which would be too extreme of a reaction in my opinion). Teller has gone back to playing less interesting individuals. All he gets to do is set a bad example for husbands and new fathers everywhere. He becomes the guy who has to explain his lies to his wife when the story needs some tension.

Very little about War Dogs‘ presentation or execution strikes you as incendiary but the source material is so outlandish you’d be forgiven for thinking Phillips wanted to make this just for the opportunity to blow certain aspects out of proportion. Casting regular collaborator Bradley Cooper as a shady intermediary named Henry Girard counts as proof. We didn’t need another famous face in the mix but seeing Cooper appear in a war film that’s very, very un-American Sniper is more than a little amusing. I cackled like a hyena* when he states that he’s “not a bad man, but sometimes [he] asks [him]self what a bad man would do.” I’m not sure if I was supposed to, but I did. I felt like my friend in the row behind me there. It took me until the very end of the film, but finally I felt my money had been decently spent.

I guess what I’m saying is that despite my problems with Phillips’ generic brand — though it must be said generic isn’t the same as incompetent, lest we forget things like Old School and yes, The Hangover, two genuinely great comedies — if you give him the right material to run with anything is possible. You might have a really good time if you can let go of preconceived notions for long enough.

Jonah Hill and Miles Teller in 'War Dogs'

Recommendation: Further confirmation of Todd Phillips’ unspectacular vision as a filmmaker, War Dogs pursues an outrageous true story with the kind of attitude and conviction fans of his should expect. It’s a passable comedy made more intriguing by the facts, and another good, if loud and obnoxious, performance from Jonah Hill. Not a film you probably want to spend money on if righteous anti-war sentiment is what you seek. And I suppose that’s one more credit to the film: a lack of political lean grounds it somewhat close to neutral. Like Hill’s Efraim says, think of it not as pro- (or anti-) war, but pro-money-making.

Rated: R

Running Time: 114 mins.

Quoted: “We drive through all triangles . . . including your mom’s.” 

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Pod

'Pod' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 28, 2015

[Netflix]

Written by: Mickey Keating

Directed by: Mickey Keating

The tradeoff for watching a movie as pointless as Pod is it won’t be very taxing on your daily schedule. A scant hour-and-fifteen-minutes long, this half-baked story struggles to justify the full-length feature treatment and despite a few genuinely skin-crawling moments it fails to justify itself, period.

I resent sitting through something that ultimately makes me feel like I’ve wasted my time. Pod is one such film. Maybe it only seems that way because of its complete and utter disinterest in providing any depth whatsoever to any major cinematic component — characters, story, cinematography, not even the score resonates. And if you thought The Sopranos had a terrible ending, wait until you get a load of Pod. Even with the emotional stakes being considerably lower here than that of a six-season series, it speaks volumes how the concluding moments still leave you feeling like you’ve been slapped in the face with a dead fish.

Story concerns family drama amongst a trio of squabbling siblings who become victims of an alien presence that comes out of nowhere. Here’s my attempt at characterization: Ed (Dean Cates) is this douchey little psychiatrist who doesn’t have the greatest relationship with his younger sister Lyla (Lauren Ashley Carter). She’s drunk all the time and hanging out with coke heads. She does this presumably as a coping mechanism to deal with the loss of both her parents. Whatever. That’s their backstory over and done with. They have another brother, Martin (stuntman-cum-actor Brian Morvant) who has a history of severe mental illness and now has shut himself in at a lakeside house, claiming he has been attacked by some extraterrestrial being and blabbering on about some kind of government conspiracy. Martin says he has the proof trapped in the basement.

After receiving a disturbing message Ed decides it is time to stage an intervention and in so doing strings Lyla along with him, hoping for some extra emotional support. When they arrive Martin is more hostile and paranoid than ever. Ed doesn’t buy his story about aliens, despite everything he sees around him. Aluminum foil covers all doors and windows to the outside. Inside, doors are boarded up and mysterious scratch marks adorn the walls. Morvant proceeds to shout his lines at us for the next 20 minutes, time enough to spell out precisely what Pod plans to do and yet still not sufficient enough to make us give a care. It’s one of the most over-acted performances this blog will ever feature.

What follows is an utterly predictable series of events in which director Mickey Keating, who also penned the script, tries to throw the audience off-guard by diverting attention to the poor performances rather than on what should have been a genuinely unsettling, otherworldly presence. Instead of creating the world we just talk about it — evidence of a very restrictive budget I suppose but the dialogue isn’t compelling or convincing. We run around for awhile, we watch people die. Too many of them. A weird guy in a hat lurks around in the vicinity. This is Big Brother. Lyla nurses her flask of liquor . . . whenever she’s not screaming. Someone farts. (That might have been me.)

There’s something to be said about Keating’s . . . erm, curious . . . directorial choices and to leave much of the mystery unexplained. There’s a palpable tension generated in a few of the movie’s better scenes but in the end, and given the way the narrative comes to a screeching halt, he takes the cheap and easy way out. Look to Pod for an example of low-budget horror done wrong.

Brian Morvant in 'Pod'

Recommendation: Plays out like a bad episode of The X-Files, although it would be an insult to The X-Files to consider Pod in the same class. There are so many things that should have happened here that never eventuate. I would advise skipping Pod unless you’re just morbidly curious about something that promises a little and then ends up delivering nothing.

Rated: R

Running Time: 76 mins.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.hellhorror.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Invitation

'The Invitation' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 8, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Phil Hay; Matt Manfredi

Directed by: Karyn Kusama

Dinner parties tend to get awkward when guests start dropping dead.

Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body; Aeon Flux) invites you inside the strange goings-on of what was supposed to be a casual get-together among longtime friends, friends reuniting after a traumatic event. Paranoia and mistrust run rampant in The Invitation as painful memories from the past are dredged up and inauspicious developments in the present combine to form one of the most tension-rich environments you’re likely to get in a mystery thriller of its ilk.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to call Kusama’s latest film fairly predictable stuff. Even if you’re only half paying attention you’re likely going to make a good assumption as to how everything wraps up. The disastrous dinner party scenario isn’t played out per se but it is formulaic and there are certain limitations not even the likes of Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who share writing duties here, can overcome. Still, writing within limitations doesn’t mean you have to restrict your creativity — if anything it means just the opposite — and this deliciously suspenseful, utterly engaging and nerve-racking story is proof these writers enjoy embracing that challenge. The main beats you can feel coming well in advance but there’s a wealth of material in between that make The Invitation a plump cherry to savor.

The story is about a man returning to his former residence after he’s accepted an invitation to a dinner being thrown by his ex-wife and her new husband. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is on the way over with his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) when his distracted driving results in striking an animal in the middle of the road. So yeah, okay, maybe it’s not the subtlest way of foreshadowing what comes later but the moment succeeds in preempting tension that will rarely excuse itself from the narrative going forward.

That tension sets in in earnest when Will and Kira arrive and are greeted by friends they haven’t seen in some time. Things are definitely awkward, everyone needs a first drink. But everyone also seems a little . . . odd. Maybe that’s just the way Will is perceiving things. Bobby Shore’s camera sticks close by his side as he reacquaints himself with the house he once lived in. He’s quiet and stand-offish, resulting in a number of instances where friends come up to him and ask how he’s doing. Telling him they love him. Maybe it’s just the hosts that are off-putting. After all it can’t be easy listening to your ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) vehemently declaring how intent she is on living a life free of pain and grief now; how she wants a troubled past with Will to be forgotten and moved beyond.

Her husband David (Michiel Huisman) spouts the same gibberish, passionately reciting some bullshit philosophical utterances touted by a “grief support group” the two have recently joined. David even goes so far as to show everyone a video of what goes on during their “sessions.” (Yes, everything is now going to be in mystery quotes.) The contents are “fairly disturbing” to say the least. We continue to ride the night out from Will’s point of view, his mounting discomfort shedding the thin veil of subtlety it had earlier. He’s very suspicious of this David fella and not because he’s the guy his ex is now seeing.

To get everyone’s minds off of the weirdness he just subjected them to, David suggests they participate in an ice-breaking game called ‘I Want,’ a variation on ‘I Have Never,’ and the evening takes another interesting turn when Eden wants to kiss Ben (Jay Larson), the same guy she briefly became hostile towards for making a harmless joke moments ago. This is just one example of the woman’s erratic behavior. At this point we wish we could be Claire, a guest who has become so uncomfortable she just wants to leave, despite the hosts’ protests. Somewhere along the way an unexpected guest has arrived, an imposingly large man named Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch). He’s from the same support group. Meanwhile, the partiers are still awaiting the arrival of Choi (Karl Yune), a friend who promised to show up early.

A talented cast and crew help Kusama realize the potential in her cult-themed thriller. Marshall-Green brings a quiet intensity to his part as a conflicted Will but aside from him there are no particular standouts; rather, the ensemble of relative unknowns fails to register a false note in their emotional responses. Major spoiler-related actions notwithstanding, people behave in The Invitation as you would expect them to in real life. These aren’t people you ever really like, something that actually works in the film’s favor as it merely compounds the stress. The characters are each their own oddball, constantly demonstrating behavior that could prove to be their own undoing. Best of all, no one character is defined by a singular emotional outburst; they have names, not labels.

Throughout, Kusama’s direction remains disciplined and keenly focused on the biased perception of an unreliable protagonist. (Or is Will the only sane one in the room?) Kusama employs flashbacks that occasionally feel heavy-handed but contrasted against the vagaries of Will’s shifty demeanor they become vital. They help us appreciate why this get-together was never going to feel normal. It’s her work behind the camera that ensures The Invitation remains a consistently rewarding watch, and despite the third act gut-punch losing a bit of its edge due to some blatant foreshadowing earlier, everything winds up in a snap that’s just too good to resist.

Recommendation: Despite its predictability, The Invitation is simply too well-acted and executed to ignore. It’s claustrophobic and intimate and awkward and tense and pretty much everything that makes the formulaic dinner-party mystery thriller great. An able cast helps convince while strong work from behind the camera marks this as a project clearly everyone believed in. A very fun and rewarding watch, highly recommended. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “Forgiveness doesn’t have to wait. I’m free to forgive myself and so are you. It’s a beautiful thing. It really is.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com