REVIEW: Their Finest

14 04 2017

“Authenticity informed by optimism” – that was the motto of Britain’s wartime Ministry of Information when it comes to creating films, according to Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest.” Around the time that “keep calm and carry on” came into common parlance through Tube posters, the government was also hard at work shaping the national consciousness through the medium of cinema. In 1940, filmmakers came together to convey the seriousness of the war effort while also inspiring confidence and patriotism.

“Their Finest” specifically follows the course of one picture shoot about the sacrifices made at Dunkirk (luckily Scherfig got this out before Christopher Nolan’s epic). Welsh screenwriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) approaches the evacuation with a creative, novel approach to a story whose validity and heroism do not immediately signal the traditional Hollywood ending. Her job gets even harder when the government hijacks the film to subtly goad the United States into helping the war effort – primarily through the addition of American actor Carl Lundbeck, a  blonde bombshell of machismo played with spunk by Jake Lacy. Before WikiLeaks, this was how covert influence worked. (I like this way a lot more.)

Gabby Chiape’s screenplay balances more than just a straightforward tale of film production in wartime. “Their Finest” also includes a significant feminist slant concerning women’s contribution to the war effort and their mounting preemptive fears about men relegating them back to the home as soon as combat ceases. That tension plays out in the dimly lit government buildings where Catrin toils over a typewriter with the charming curmudgeon Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) as well as at home with her husband Ellis (Jack Huston), a disabled veteran whose “brutal and dispiriting” paintings don’t exactly jive with the national mood. This central tenet of the film bobs back and forth between serving as subject and subtext, and after nearly two hours, Chiape and Scherfig never quite figure out where it belongs. Between that and an enjoyable B-plot featuring Billy Nighy’s washed-up character actor Ambrose Hilliard, “Their Finest” simply fights on one too many fronts to come out on top. B-

REVIEW: The Girl with All the Gifts

21 02 2017

the-girl-with-all-the-giftsFantastic Fest

As much as I strive to provide as close to objectivity as possible, some subjective factors do sometimes get in the way and exert an outsized pull on my response to a film. “The Girl with All the Gifts” was the sixth film in a marathon day of binge moviegoing at 2016’s Fantastic Fest. Colm McCarthy’s film had to contend for my attention with the perennial reigning champion of sleep.

This zombie flick mostly managed to hold my attention, though its contention with some high-quality shut eye led me to nitpick away at its flaws and banalities. Glenn Close’s near-constant regurgitation of exposition would be bad enough. But her shaky British accent made nearly every line she spoke like nails on a chalkboard. (Also, Gemma Arterton kind of looks like she could be related to Mads Mikkelsen. Look for it.)

“The Girl with All the Gifts” is not going to move the needle in its genre of horror. Mike Carey’s screenplay, adapted from his own novel, brings one interesting feature to the flesh-eating creatures. A group of young children can live with the fungus that creates zombies but maintain basic functions of a sentient human. They are sequestered away from the rest of the plague-infested earth by military personnel, although new developments involving the particularly gifted “hungry” Melanie forces a coalition out into ravaged areas of Britain to do … something. I’m not entirely sure, and that lack of certainty stems both from my own tiredness watching the film as well as unclear character motivations. Stick around for the ending if you can endure the familiar feeling of the rising action. B2halfstars

REVIEW: The Voices

9 02 2015

The VoicesThe Voices” takes a protagonist plagued by mental illness, as in “Silver Linings Playbook,” and combines him with the unsuspecting, mild-mannered murderer like in “Bernie.”  The film’s Jerry, as played by Ryan Reynolds, is an outwardly cheery factory worker whose schizophrenia makes him subject to violent impulses.  He can mostly suppress these urges, yet the invented voices of his cat and dog begin to lure him into violence against the women of his company’s accounting department.

As he knocks off characters played by Gemma Arterton and Anna Kendrick, director Marjane Sartrapi aims for a tone of black comedy that never really sticks.  Sartrapi showed with her Oscar-nominated “Persepolis” that she can make a character with only two dimensions feel as whole as any actual human, so the film’s lack of depth feels especially disappointing.  She does not deserve all the blame, though; Michael R. Perry’s rather bland, unfunny script does not set the stage for her and the cast to succeed.

Not to mention, the humor of “The Voices” also falls victim to forces outside the movie.  Sartrapi obviously does not condone murder, but placing a character who commits them at the center of a story does make identification and sympathy much simpler.  By making Jerry the protagonist, the film does glorify his exploits to some small extent.  In a time where mentally disturbed people come unhinged and tear holes in communities like Aurora and Newtown, serving as a party to their crimes just feels inappropriate.  Laughing at them seemed downright wrong.  C+2stars

REVIEW: The Disappearance of Alice Creed

7 08 2010

In “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” two kidnappers (Eddie Marsan and Martin Compston) hold the daughter of a rich businessman hostage for a hefty ransom.  It goes all according to plan in the first stage, but it all seems to go wrong after that due to a series of blunders.

Funny enough, our reaction to the movie echoes all the plot developments.  The movie is gripping for the first thirty minutes, particularly as we watch the kidnappers set up for the abduction and the period following.  There’s something very chilling about how meticulously organized their process is, and it’s made even more eerie by their silence.

In typical minimalist indie fashion, we don’t see the actual kidnapping, but the aftermath is just as scary.  They bring Alice Creed (Gemma Arterton) into a soundproofed apartment where they quickly strip her, gag her, and tie her to a chained-down bed.  And once they have her securely in their grip, the movie starts to lose its grip on plausibility.  The respect that we had built up for it slowly begins to diminish for the next hour until the thriller practically devolves into a comedy.

Just when we expect the movie to wow us with originality, it takes a series of bizarrely typical twists of the genre.  There are all sorts of hackneyed gimmicks designed for a quick thrill.  The situations are robbed of any suspense because we’ve seen it done a million times, and the ultimate unintended result is laughter at their predictability.  In a summer where laughs have been hard to come by, I’ll take them where I can get them.

Really, the unexpected relationships between the characters are the only things unique about the movie.  There are literally three people in it, no extras, no voices on the telephone, no random people in the background.  Just Marsan doing the same old cantankerous villain, Arterton baring it all while getting away from her 2010 tentpole action movies, and Compston making a blip for the first time on my radar.  These aren’t three random people, as we find out.  But for the same of keeping the atmosphere of a thriller in “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” maybe they should have been.  B /

REVIEW: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

31 05 2010

We’ve all come up with our laundry list of complaints about summer blockbusters.  They all seem to fall into the same predictable pattern of making the same mistakes.  Every once in a while, a big summer popcorn flick surprises us by redressing these grievances and win us over by avoiding the normal pratfalls.  They really don’t have to be great in their own right.

However, Jerry Bruckheimer has found success in making ones that are.  He first struck gold with “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” a smart swashbuckling action movie with the most unlikely of sources – a theme park ride.  His latest summer tentpole release, the video game adaptation “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” seemed more likely to tread the path of summer disasters.  But by addressing every problem on our laundry list, it becomes undeniable moviegoing fun and could wind up being one of the highlights of the summer movie season.

We hate having nothing but action.  Director Mike Newell seems to find the perfect balance between sprawling battle sequences and downtime for character and plot development.  And he also finds impeccable timing for the shifts; as soon as we begin to grow bored of one or thirst for the other, we get it.

We hate being insulted by terrible plots.  Much to my surprise, “Prince of Persia” actually sports an incredibly engaging storyline that grabs you from the get-go.  Unlike most video game movies, it does not concede and let the action tell the story.  To say it is intelligent may be a stretch, but it’s only a few rungs below it and certainly much smarter than your average summer popcorn flick.  It skillfully weaves fantasy into an otherwise very real world, and it ties the beginning and end together in a very gratifying way.  But perhaps most impressive, it actually seems to understand the concepts of destiny and fate.

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