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: 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

IR Film Review: 31 [Sundance 2016]

31_8054The aspect of horror and how spectacle fits into the undeniable formula is the thought process that Rob Zombie can always skew but play with. With the new structure of the studios, it is harder and harder to make the film you want. It either has to be huge, undeniably indie or have an angel investor. Or you can do the crowdfunding approach. It worked for Zach Braff…and it definitely takes you back to your roots but it begs the question: what do the investors get in return? Usually with a lot of these approaches, there is a ton of gimmicks in playing to the crowd. You got to have a hook. What “31” has to its strength is a blessing of characters (more on the villain side) that keep it moving. The problem is that the backing superstructure is pretty weak. Now granted, most of the people seeing this film are not going to be looking at that. The one thing that Zombie can definitely do is set a scene. The ending of “Devil’s Rejects” optimizing the song “Freebird” is over the top and exhilarating on many levels. Here, both the beginning and ending have bookends that really set tone, both with music and editing. Zombie’s use of freeze frame is an art and always harkens his films back to the Grindhouse circuit. After the screening, he did make reference to growing up in carnivals among the carnies so that notion of a gypsy existence very much rings true here. Sheri Moon Zombie gets the female vigilante role and busts it out, going for gold. You know she feels safe to do whatever is necessary and she goes for it. The dialogue is what it is since it is working towards an end game. It is more for the theatricality of it then anything else. The revelation of the movie is Richard Brake who plays Doom31_5313head. You’ve seen him in a ton of films and music videos as well as “Game Of Thrones”. He is the movie. His character has little motivation but his sheer presence, intelligence and physicality simply pummels off the screen. This character is doing a job, albeit a violent one, but he loves it. Every time he is on screen, nothing else can dominate it. You can build a new horror franchise off this character. No masks. Pure and simple. The weak spot is the meaning per se of the game itself. Malcolm McDowell, a longtime favorite of Zombie’s, takes on a maniacal role but the chemistry on it is not quite right. He gambles with two older ladies on the results of the game but their inclusion seems neither motivated or essential. The sequences essentially take you out of the movie. The other villain including a murderous midget dressed up like Hitler, two maniacal brothers with chainsaws and a girl/boy team that is all about beauty and the beast by way of a maniacal mix of “The Munsters” and the nihilists from ” The Big Lebowski” is interesting but despite an inkling doesn’t make a story connection. There is a small one with “beauty” but it is never really optimized. Again, the movie doesn’t necessarily need to be that deep. On one side you have a powerful villain presence and some good style but on the other side a fairly weak backbone in terms of concept. But the element of it balances a bit and ending is still pretty bad ass.

C+

By Tim Wassberg

 

IR Film Review: SISTERS [Universal]

Going up against “Star Wars” is a monumental task but what allows a great functionality within “Sisters” at times is that it knows what it is. Like a more mature version of “Superbad”, it is ultimately about two best friends in real life [Tina Fey & Amy Poehler] (playing sisters here) and how they anticipate each other. The best parts of this comedy is just when these two are riffing in a scene and not trying too hard to sell the story. The story arch has to move along of course but it is during the more non-forced scenes you get a sense of what still makes these two so effective. They are aging and it is apparent but their enthusiasm and love of the work is still there. But first the story to set it up. Amy Poehler plays Maura who is a the straight laced always responsible sister who never got to let loose. Tina Fey is Katie, the happy go lucky one who had more sex than she could count accordingly to her diary in high school. This is a little bit more of a role reversal for the two and it is great at the beginning watching Fey fly her freak flag. The woman has a bent of sexuality that is just hiding beneath that surface that she doesn’t let peak out too often. When she uses it, it is very palatable with her type of comedy because it is tongue-in-cheek but she is also getting a kick out of it.

Unlike the way “Baby Mama” functioned, their bantering like when Fey is trying to get Poehler to ask a cute neighbor to the party feels just right, especially when Fey is making hand signals just away from where Poehler can see. The best part is when they are trying on clothes wearing them the wrong way on purpose because the physical comedy is really  dead on. When it actually gets to the party, the set up almost undermines it and what should be the blow out seems more anticlimactic. The all stars come in with Maya Rudolph, Rachel Dratch and the overplayed (who believes he’s channeling Belushi) Bobby Moynihan keeping the party moving as Poehler attacks her pent up issues with her guy and Fey plays the party mom without going nuts. The side quips with drug and alcohol peddling bits by John Lequizamo and John Cena help because they are supposed to be the grounding force but the bits are too disjointed. The big build up to Poehler’s bound-to-go-wrong sex scene works and gets the laugh but in many ways, the movie (despite its verbal vulgarity) never quite hits extreme physical gags say of “Bridemaids”.

SISTERS

Jason Moore, famous for “Avenue Q” on Broadway and the first “Pitch Perfect”, keeps the pace moving and lets his girls run amuck but it still feels in the safe zone. The mother/father/daughters/granddaughter subplot and the losing of jobs is handled almost too hamhanded with the ending pretty much petering out in the essence of a happy ending. That is all fine but if you are doing a fairly hard R, there is more to be done. The supporting players actually get to do most of the questionable bits to varying degrees of success. You can see the Animal House just wanting to come out. The drugs are there but it seems like…safe. The two leads as talented as they are, are great to watch but you seem to get a feeling that they are playing nice, when all you want them to be is bad. But then again, they still have to clean it all up in the morning.

C

By Tim Wassberg