IR Film Review: SXSW FILM FESTIVAL 2018 [Austin, TX]

The texture of many interviews in requisite Midnight and genre categories rendered the viewing of movies for review a little lighter than usual but two films squeezed in with a nature of inventiveness but also a throwback to genre for both.

Upgrade Director Leigh Whannell, know for the SAW films, takes a stab at science fiction under the Blumhouse model with surprising success. Speaking at the Q&A after the film, he acknowledged the texture of ‘The Terminator” as an influence but the inference moves with a much more complex fabric in terms of the human quotient. Owing more in certain terms to Schwarzenegger revenge movies though with more visual flair, the aspect of the lead character being a man not in control of his own body is an interesting existential dilemma. Simply because it was on Comet recently, “Monkey Shines” comes to mind because it involves the protagonist having to think of his life differently. Here after losing his wife in assassination hit and being paralyzed, Grey, an analog man in a near future world, is given a second chance through the aspect of an almost autistic scientist who injects with a thinking spine computer who can only be heard by Grey. The misdirection and notion of what we are seeing really makes it work especially in the action scenes which in the way they are done considering the physical structure of what is being presented is quite ingenious and undeniably brutal. The push forward again culminates in an existential dilemma that only a logical computer bent on survival could make. While there is inherent suspension of disbelief required at times, the pace and tone is pinpoint while allowing some black humor to shine through with exceptional results, especially on a budget.

Elizabeth Harvest This film pushes slightly on an adjacent part of the spectrum with nods to “Ex Machina” as well as the recent “Annihilation” and again it examines an existential journey but one where the person searching for their identity is not very clear on who they are anyways. It revolves around three major players: a newlywed (played by Abbey Lee from “Mad Max: Fury Road”), a significantly older Ciaran Hinds (as her scientist genius husband) and Carla Gugino (whose actual role changes throughout the film). The aspect of stillness and repetitiveness is approached for the necessity of invention and not in a “Groundhog Day” type of way. To reveal the twist is to reveal the movie but suffice to say the psychological element of imprisonment, either self imposed or self created encircles the entire proceedings. The essence of the focus and what it truly means beyond ego is done in a very simple yet complicated manner. The director is Sebastian Gutierrez who is known for writing the film “Gothika”, another film which was based on the misdirect of perceptions but also for directing films like “Electra Luxx” & “Women In Trouble” that subvert genre (along with frequent collaborator Carla Gugino). But like “Upgrade”, the reduced budget allows for simplicity of invention and not spoon-feeding the audience beyond essential and letting many of the characters motivations remain mysterious if unsolved.

By Tim Wassberg

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IR Film Review: PACIFIC RIM – UPRISING [Universal]

The essence of “Pacific Rim” in its original form lay in the otherworldlyness that always underscores a Guillermo Del Toro film. The fact that all the characters were just the slightest bit off without over-dramatizing the situation. The fact that they were slightly off center. The scenario in the first film was life or death…a world in fear that has to battle against the monsters from the deep. There was also an inherent darkness to the proceedings. Even in certain Godzillas movies and definitely Akira, the viewer got a sense that the world might actually end. That sense of dread or even consequence seems missing here..the human toll.

Granted this is a large robot movie but especially with a huge sequence towards the end the sheer destruction without perception of life including the pulling down of certain buildings lacks a certain depth. Even “Colossal” understood its texture in a larger space. John Boyega of recent Star Wars fame takes on the role of Idris Alba’s son here. Jake’s father Stacker Pentecost was lost during the Kaiju encounter and now Boyega’s character runs in the aftermath.

“Uprising” is a story about the redemption of a hero and granted here Boyega is more likable than as Finn in SW who always seems to be running away until he is caught red handed. The true heart comes though in the form of a teenage girl Amara who possesses technical know-how and a brazen personality but with a lack of social interaction. It is a perfect perception of youth today and her interaction with the Jaeger Academy works well as does her eventual authority.

The twist of the movie interceding with the villain tries to integrate the idea of Del Toro body horror in a way but it doesn’t quite work because the tone is off. Is the film fun in many ways…sure…but fulfilling in the world it creates…not so much. Even the perceived villain who dominates the business end of the film delivers only in the final minutes giving the climax a muted feeling in a way. What results is a spectacle with nacent stakes…or at least those felt in the gut.

D

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: RED SPARROW [20th Century Fox]

“Red Sparrow” is like some of the Cold War thrillers they made in the 90s but with higher resolution and a female lead. It takes to task the idea of power and uses it as a structure mechanism for Jennifer Lawrence’s Dominica, a Sparrow forced into duty at the hands of an ultimately paradoxical but conniving uncle played by Matthias Schoenaerts who is Deputy Director for the State Service in Russia. The movie has a classical beauty to it and understands the sides it is playing. It is new territory for Lawrence for certain, embracing the power of manipulation and sexuality in concert with the mind. But the inherent texture is that her character never loses sight in what she is doing by either manipulating the audience, her would-be captors or her would-be manipulators on either side. The essence ultimately is that she gets to live her life above suspicion but inherently lonely. There are essences of “La Femme Nikita” and even the more recent “The Villainess” at Cannes. However the pull of Dominica’s loyalties is never quite clear despite that this is part of the construct. Where does the innocence end and the manipulation begin? The genius at times of Lawrence in this movie is that she can switch in the midst of a scene from one side to another. There were brief glimpses of it in “XMen: First Class” but as she grows older it becomes more pronounced. She can never truly disappear, but like Sharon Stone before her, she can walk the line with inherent control.

“Red Sparrow” is ultimately not about resolution but survival in many ways and the bereft elements of character that betray those in the business of espionage who want more than their country will give. Joel Edgerton plays an American CIA officer who gives just enough emotional weight to believe that Dominica might be able to escape. But ultimately the grounded angle comes in the form of Jeremy Irons, an iconoclast of these multi tiered characters from “The Mission” to “Reversal Of Fortune” to “Dead Ringers” who allows just the right amount of plot support to make it work. The key essence of a spy in all elements is that you don’t know they are a spy even if they tell you so, whether you are seducing for information or telling a mark specifically what they want to hear. The music within the movie inherently beginning with the ballet at the beginning precludes the fall which is interestingly enough a parallel to “Black Swan” which was more bathed in metaphor. “Red Sparrow” is told with a straight forward texture while the murky nature of its characters snakes underneath with a taste of dread. It doesn’t rely on large car chases to make its point but in close contact with scenes that bite and allow for the understanding of characters that perhaps have no choice but one.

B-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: ANNIHILATION [Paramount]

The essence of “Annihilation” comes from the structure that we might be taken over or changed and have no concept of the texture of our transformation. Like “Ex Machina”, director Alex Garland examines the idea of the existential. What is interesting is that you don’t usually see it in a big budget movie. Having talked with Portman over the years, I can understand in many ways how come this idea appealed to her and especially with Garland coming off something like “Ex Machina”. The movie has its own pace to be sure and does take a while to move but that is somewhat the texture of its madness. It doesn’t want to explain which is why the paradox of the film structure and even the music can be misleading. Watching how the movie is told in an essence of flashback can almost be seen as lazy. Some of the dialogue too obvious. But the use of time (which in many essences could have been used to greater effect) has potential. Again “Ex Machina” was working in a more confined space where the darkness just lurks. Annihilation moves it a bit out in the open which might work against it. It is the ethereal and the notion of self that swells in the final moments and the metaphor it is showing that stays with the viewer. It is a trick of the mind in many ways.

 

Like “Mother”, it is a movie that is very true to its identity but a little out of sync with the current blockbuster mentality. You are watching Portman work her way through the dissolution of her character but within the canvas of “The Shimmer”. Make no mistake, it is wonderful to see her back in this kind of world. Like Jodie Foster before her, she imbues the struggle with intelligence, as if her instincts are fighting against it. Oscar Isaac, who did some great work in “Ex Machina”, knows the key here is moving like a wave past Portman which makes her performance swell. Great supporting actors like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson (more subdued and nuanced than her Ragnarok performance) and Gina Rodriguez offer a definite groundedness.

The fact that the female actors permeate the meat of this film as the team that we follow gives the pace a sense of introspection that would be missing if even one male was interspersed. A scene inside an abandoned house with a lost cry of a comrade is eerie in what it portends. That said, the film doesn’t include as many spine tingle moments as “Machina” did. Like “Machina” as well though, “Annihilation” will wander better the more it is watched, especially with the scenes involving The Lighthouse. It is a continual evolution of a filmmaker interested in bigger ideas with genre constructs that doesn’t need to convene to an idea of reality. It is more about where we are going versus where we have been.

B+

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: SANTA BARBARA INTL FILM FESTIVAL 2018 [Santa Barbara, California] – Part I

International structure in terms of dramatic tension and the sense of the sublime and the supernatural was an inherent theme in many of the films of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this year.

Maracaibo The texture of lives lost through arrogance or perhaps even lack of compassion or foresight in this Argentinean drama. Here a doctor is unable to process the death of his son but the personality trait that divided them. His life becomes undone because the notion of masculinity and understanding has changed in modern society yet old school values or perceptions especially in old world countries remain. While inherently melodramatic, the eventual resolution shows that there was no divide per se just misunderstanding. The role of the mother/wife definitely takes on an inherent device since her desires versus her idea of how her husband can and should react take on particular resonance in one kitchen scenes. An inherent psychological portrait without too many reveals or revelations yet serviceable.

Scary Mother This film out of Georgia in the Russian arena is an interesting perception of societal norms and intents against a seemingly Cold War backdrop even though it is modern time. A mother is in some circles an underground sensation with her obscene but profound writing. But her process by which to intercede her life and then makes it a build of darkness for her creativity is an interesting one. She is willing ti sacrifice her family to find that balance. Her use of her relationship with her father in terms of both his expectation and dominance is interesting since he almost paints the portrait of why the writing speaks to inherent ego, especially when he believes it is a man writing the prose. Her family provides an interesting funnel of maturity especially the daughter who looks at life in a tecture more practical than her mother while the reflexity of smart phones and how apps can make you look older seems to shun the mother almost as if she were reflecting as Medusa to her reflection. She speaks of mythological creatures and her writing space is bathed in red suggesting an almost purgatory. There are some interesting ideas in this tome, many of which don’t come to fruition while others linger with the audience.

Grand Cur The essence of Burgundy, where a close friend still owns a old house in the middle of town, is steeped in old world traditions. This documentary follows a man of wine who came over from Montreal and because one of the most renown winemakers in the region. The documentary observes the politics that intercede but alsoexplores the climate problems in a very matter of fact way that shows how unseen hail and a freeze on the vineyards completely can change the perspective of what the land can produce. The science, again in an unassuming way, is explored to show why that land creates such wine but also how any change of it can cause problems because the land value is so high, even compared to California. Ultimately it is a tale of trying to find art purely through the dirt but the details like the fact that this transferred wine maker is not of the country and the essence of the supreme value of the soil and how it has been built or maintained throughout the millennia gives the narrative due resonance.

The Mist & The Maiden This crime thriller from Spain set on the canary islands is part of festival’s crime subsection this year. The way it intersects intellect and lust interplays some of the best constructs in the genre, both Hollywood & otherwise. There is an uncanny beauty to the women and an inherent masculinity to the men so it harks to almost a different time. The very essence of Veronica Echequi as Ruth oozes both sensuality, practicality and ultimately a sense of manipulation, compassion and opportunity. It is her presence that both grounds and elevates the film. The necessity of not explaining everything and indeed laying certain elements of blame on the system works but inherently the essence of greed and human nature plays in. One specific scene on the deck between two investigators laid bare shows a texture of play and strategy that brings to mind the more edgy moments of “Basic Instinct”. No one is spared yet the lesson of consequence looms tragically in the sense of cause and effect or more effectively silence and hiding in plain sight.

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: SANTA BARBARA INTL FILM FESTIVAL 2018 [Santa Barbara, California] – Part II

Continuing on with the films experienced at Santa Barbara International Film Festival, international structure continues with a sense of character’s notion of purpose and the ideal of conscience versus survival of both the psyche and the physical in the modern world.

Holy Camp! The two ends of this sardonic and, at times, farcical musical balances the ideas of a changing world. In a way many musicals don’t it reflects the push and pull of young people in modern society, pretty or not, but especially the pretty ones…that sense of expectation but following other people’s intentions. This is true of all the characters but especially the two young women, troublemakers in their minds and others, as they are stuck at a religious camp over the summer. Now while the construct in flimsy, certain elements plain through. Now God singing Whitney Houston to this young girl who doesn’t understand English is an interesting paradox. Now while some people have certain connections to the songs, one that connects this writer is the song “I Have Nothing” which works here in the context of the story but I (as an extra) saw Whitney lip syncing it on the set of The Bodyguard at the Fountainbleu during an intimate theater scene more than 25 years ago. That day she was having some issues in terms of performing and Kevin Costner (one of the biggest movie stars at that time) talked to some of us and kept the mood up. In movie it is when Whitney is wearing what looks like blue tinsel in her hair. Since her death and obviously the underlying religious tones of some of her songs, it does have resonance. However in terms of this story, interestingly enough it is a nun who is questioning her commitment that connects the idea of God and the young girls through a coupling that bridges the scenes. The final redemption although campy as the title suggested is a hopeful one, albeit one a bit too cheery maybe for American audiences.

The Line [Ciara] Continuing the aspect of the crime sidebar, this entry from Slovakia/Ukraine angles more for the dark than the seductive. The idea of honor and “an eye for an eye” populates this idea of a mid level crime head who wants both the best for his family and maintaining the status quo without selling out in his mind. He runs tobacco over the border in what used to be the Communist Balkan States before the border was open. Everyone is seen as corrupt with various motivations informing their decisions whether it be a daughter getting pregnant with a boy that the father doesn’t approve of or a son being incarcerated for what would be considered a minimal offense. The story has working class “Godfather” underpinings but also with a matriarchal twist. Ultimately the triggered idea has to do more with the balance of loyalty, trust and fair play winning out over backhanded dealings which is ultimately true to life because one cannot maintain an empire unless there is a sense of order behind it in some way shape or form. The lead Adam as played by Tomas Mastalir has the right essence of darkness and compassion that both scars and redeems his leader despite setbacks with either comdemning or condoning his actions.

The White Orchid Having met both writer/director Steve Anderson and actress Olivia Thirlby at the Humphrey Bogart Film Festival in Key Largo, Florida when they were about to shoot this gives a better understanding of what an accomplishment this is. Bogart, as an artist, always keyed into these types of noirs and his son Stephen, whose mother was Lauren Bacall, understood this element as well. The movie is made underneath the element of Santana Films (Bogie’s company) along with Anderson. From what I remember, the texture is that it was in the style of Bogie’s films but not necessarily off a previous script. But if it was, the translation and structural set up works well. Thirlby’s transformation in the film is quite riveting but keeps with the old school ideas while understanding the new school liberalism of today’s movies. The film feels like an old film yet still very modern. It is very sexy but also without revealing too much of the characters but just enough. The backdrop of San Luis Obispo is an unusual one but harks to films like “Basic Instinct” but without the necessity of too much gore or nudity. The inherent psyche of Thirlby’s character moves back and forth in rhythm though at times her actual motivations are a bit muddled which is likely a conscious motion of the plot, especially when the reveal begins. The White Orchid remains a mystery while her impact continues. Much like Bogie’s legacy.

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2018 [Park City]

The texture of Sundance lies in its diversity. While not as independent as before with the likes of Amazon, IFC and Netflix permeating the ranks, the voices still ring true although maintaining the mystery takes a little more intention.

The Death Of Stalin The basis of the end of Stalin here finds its tone in the aspect of a comic book which gives the characters a heightened sense of style. Of course the aspect that the film is in English with English speaking actors is the first adjustment. Once that suspension is accepted, the farcical nature of the power struggles take on an almost sardonic tone. Steve Buscemi chews the scenery unlike recent memory with bald cap in full view. The language, which is again not period specific, turns the manipulation into a sarcastic ballad. Jeffrey Tambor uses his comedic relay to good foil as the Deputy Secretary. Michael Palin plays a subtly sharp member of the cabinet. Olga Kurylenko is underused as a piano player whose note causes a sense of unfolding in the ranks. However it is Simon Russell Beale as Berria, the largest manipulator of the bunch that gives the film a sense of groundedness and drama while furthering the comedy. Weirdly it is his misplaced or lack of compassion that makes his comeuppance work with a sense of the tragic and gives the film’s resolution its soul.

Wildlife Carey Mulligan has always been luminous but considering her penchant for period movies always can seen sometimes muted in her performances as a form of underplaying. Here it is brimming at the surface giving her performance a sense of both vivaciousness and dread. Her highs and downfall are beautifully tragic and poignant. The film, set in 1950s Montana but shot in Oklahoma, is directed by actor Paul Dano (“Little Miss Sunshine”, “There Will Be Blood”) and co-written by Dano and Zoe Kazan. That mixture truly makes both sides pop. Jake Gyllenhaal (also a producer), more rarely seen, gives the film completely to Mulligan, even though his trademark intensive nature comes to bear in some scenes. However this is Mulligan’s movie and one of her best to date (even considering “Mudbound”). Central to the story is the POV of Gyllenhaal & Mulligan’s son Joe (played by the exceptional Ed Oxenbould) as he watches the disintegration of an American family. The greatest aspect is that all the character’s actions seem organic if flawed…the feelings simple but complex.

Piercing As part of the Midnight selection, the twist or necessity of the concept is usually key. The concept of a serial killer in his mind, methodical and precise, predicates the idea of what is going on within this character’s head but there is something a bit more seductive going on here. Christopher Abbott plays killer Reed with the restrictive element of an obsessive compulsive ruled by voices. The reality is that you can’t tell if what is actually going on is real or in his head. Is the story a projection of what he wants to happen or simply an extension of that. As Jackie, Mia Wasikowska shows an innate darkness combined with a playfulness that keys to one of her first grown up roles. Like Elle Fanning in “Neon Demon”, the proof is in the layers and shows that an evolution is happening. The basis is a novel written by Ryu Murakami has certain fetishistic trappings for sure but the ideal is that these two adults may in fact want to do what they are doing and enjoy what is happening to them. Director Nicolas Pesce it seems sees this film in certain ways it like a Grindhouse movie though the edges are very slick and even the construct of the city is mired in artificiality. However the scene that sells it employs the 70s ballad “Bluer Than Blue” which more than speaks to the characters’ abject state of being.

Studio 54 While there have been movies made on the aspect of Studio 54. hearing it from one of the creators in Ian Schrager who along with Steve Rubell masterminded this “lightning in a bottle” club that still entrances NY to this day gives it much more credence. The music and certain club photos are unmistakeable but it is the rise and fall from power and the motivations, many of them are asked about head on of Shrager as well as of one of the silent partners that make this an interesting watch for fans of NY lore. The power structure and even the thinking, including the drug use and skimming, which is never fully admitted to on camera, hangs there in the ether. It was a time of excess where the idea of what 54 was seemingly got away from its creators. But in certain moments, despite anything behind the scenes, good or bad, there was a sense of euphoria. The small vintage interviews really define it…one being Rubell’s glee in hanging with two of the drag queens downstairs as well as an “Off The Wall” era Michael Jackson speaking candidly about being able to lose himself on the dance floor at 54. There was a genuine happiness and ease with Jackson in that moment which, considering his life, is a wonder to behold.

The Happy Prince Rupert Everett seemingly disappeared in many way from the screen after his late 90s surge including his films with Madonna and Julia Roberts. The immediate perception is that he sequestered away in Europe starring in theater but the effervescence in all he did is something missing from today’s character work…a balance of the comedic and the real. With “The Happy Prince” about the latter years of Oscar Wilde who was shamed because of his homosexual affairs and cast out of certain constructs of society because of his dalliance with a male royal, Everett, writing and directing as well, examines a man with a gentleness of heart who tried to deny the status quo. Everett’s Wilde is not a cautionary tale but merely a tale about someone with great talent wanting to live the life the way he wanted to without apologies. Again, the texture could be interpreted in that this is the way Wilde saw his life versus those he loved. Everett presents Wilde, warts and all, from singing on top of tables to his final moments telling stories painting ideas that only Wilde could. “The Happy Prince” is not a masterpiece but knows its subject through and through and tells his story with a generous amount of heart balanced with a layer of pain.

By Tim Wassberg