‘Dragged Across Concrete’ Film Review: Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson Are Dirty Cops in a Thriller That Might Be Trolling Us

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Overlong and indulgent but too often skillful to be dismissed outright, “Dragged Across Concrete” feels like an epic act of trolling for liberal audiences.

And I do mean epic: at two hours and 40 minutes, this Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn-starring story of two cops who decide to rob criminals after being suspended for police brutality exceeds any level of patience or tolerance for the poisonous, MAGA-friendly ideas that writer-director S. Craig Zahler (“Bone Tomahawk,” “Brawl in Cell Block 99”) refuses to acknowledge, much less take responsibility for in his film.

Gibson and Vaughn play Brett Ridgeman and Tony Lurasetti, seasoned detectives who break a fleeing suspect’s nose and belittle his half-naked girlfriend during a drug bust. A neighbor captures the injury on video, leading their superior Lt. Calvert (Don Johnson) to suspend them, just as Lurasetti is completing payments on an engagement ring for his girlfriend Denise (Tattiawna Jones) and Ridgeman’s daughter endures a humiliating assault on her way home from school. Eager to score some quick cash, Ridgeman decides to stake out a local safe house in the hopes that one of its inhabitants will lead to a drug deal he can interrupt, and Lurasetti reluctantly goes along for the ride.

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In the meantime, an ex-convict named Henry Johns (Tory Kittles, “Colony”) arrives home from prison to learn that his mother is not only using drugs but has also turned to prostitution to make ends meet for her and his wheelchair-bound little brother Ethan (Myles Truitt, “Kin”). Determined to lift them out of squalor, Henry teams up with a former associate named Biscuit (Michael Jai White) to drive the getaway vehicle for a group of criminals, led by the cutthroat Lorentz Vogelmann (Thomas Kretschmann), to rob a bank of its gold bullion. But when Ridgeman and Lurasetti’s stakeout leads them inevitably to Vogelmann’s crime, they are forced to reconsider the oath they swore as police to uphold the law, even as they encounter much more dangerous opposition than they ever expected.

Many great works of art have been made about — and by — reprehensible people, but thus far Zahler has largely declined to discuss the ideas within his films and especially the views they espouse, leaving audiences to figure out for themselves if this and “Brawl in Cell Block 99” are conservative screeds or just uncomfortably specific character studies for a certain white male point of view. Given their naturalistic, unhurried rhythms, the director’s films certainly owe a tremendous debt to a stream of consciousness disinterested in editing itself — for duration, much less content.

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But “Dragged Across Concrete” unfolds like a hard-working, blue-collar white man’s worst nightmare, and it never bothers to try and be anything else, from the talk-radio culture war talking points Ridgeman and Lurasetti regurgitate during meals or the treatment of the arrival of people of color in their onetime safe spaces as generally oppressive, be they the Mexican-American investigator codifying their brutality offense or the black kids that evidence Ridgeman’s notion that his neighborhood is going straight to hell.

The problem with that point of view is that there’s nothing new about it; even “Dirty Harry,” way back in 1971, had enough self-awareness to make Harry’s flinty relationship with his Latino partner a cheeky affectation. These characters are people who simply have not grown with the times, but the movie pulls a Principal Skinner and suggests that it’s really the world that’s gone wrong, not them. At the same time, Zahler’s filmmaking feels like the cinematic equivalent of “I’m not racist — my black friend says so,” filling in supporting roles with black and Latino actors who are either reduced to stereotypes or just plain mistreated. Sometimes both.

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A woman of color plays Lurasetti’s girlfriend, but ironically, theirs is the one relationship that does not get explored in real depth in the film; even Kittles’ Henry Johns, who proves honorable as he outsmarts cop and crook alike, doesn’t feel like a real person but rather a plot device designed to bring all of the film’s elaborately-explored threads together.

At the same time, it’s in those threads where Zahler does some occasionally fascinating, even exceptional work. Taking cues from movies like “Heat” that aspire to explore the interior lives of every character, no matter how insignificant, he allows the film to digress for minutes at a time to explore the masked henchmen acquiring the tools for the heist and, later, a bank teller (Jennifer Carpenter, “Dexter”) returning from maternity leave on the morning of the robbery.

These are more successful because they provide context and humanity for the deadly acts that are about to unfold. The ones that are less effective are the unbroken takes of Ridgeman and Lurasetti bickering during their stakeout, or the even longer shots of various drivers and passengers chugging from one location to the next in what sometimes feels like real time. That Zahler uses only diegetic music — and in particular, supremely terrible music that he himself composed for R&B luminaries The O’Jays to perform — feels like adding insult to injury.

Though much of the dialogue feels like it could have been crafted to comment obliquely on Gibson’s personal travails, Zahler mostly lets him off the hook while coaxing out a suitably unapologetic, grizzled performance from the onetime movie star. As a halfhearted moral compass to Gibson’s righteous certitude, Vaughn tackles the details of his character with enthusiasm and humanity, but even he can’t make lines like “Six people got punctuation” seem believable. Though he’s been working for almost two decades, Kittles feels like the big “discovery” of the film, but again, his purpose in the story feels more impactful than any sort of distinct personality that Zahler gives him.

Zahler’s wry humor as a scenarist and director wrings uncomfortable laughs from some virtually unimaginable scenarios, but given his fire hose-like creativity, it’s hard to know what was deliberate and what was accidental. Which is why ultimately, the director’s growing body of work may well resonate with exploitation fans as much as white nationalists; if you can’t peg down how much of it the filmmaker means, it’s easy to see it as outsider art and overlook the stuff that’s truly offensive. But at a certain point, not clarifying or taking responsibility for any of what’s in your films means you’re responsible for all of it, and Zahler is not unique, creative or talented enough to keep audiences guessing much longer.

“Dragged Across Concrete” is not a terrible movie, but it’s not so good that Zahler shouldn’t get dragged for it.



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‘The Kid’ Film Review: Vincent D’Onofrio’s All-Star Western Gets Mired in a Sinkhole of Clichés

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Commemorating an era of revisionist-revisionist Westerns (we’re now further away in time from the deconstructed ones than the ones that deconstructed them were from the originals), “The Kid” simultaneously wants to humanize and mythologize its cowboys — and neither effort works.

Yet another story about Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, this time presented from the viewpoint of an impressionable teenager witnessing the final days of their cat-and-mouse camaraderie, Vincent D’Onofrio’s film is a maudlin, violent affair that wants us both to admire and to understand the two Old West luminaries, but all it really does is remind us that famous people should seldom if ever be seen as role models.

Jake Schur plays Rio Cutler, a 14-year-old who intervenes in a fight between his mother Mirabel (Jenny Gabrielle, “Only the Brave”) and father Pete (Keith Jardine, “Logan”) and accidentally shoots him to death. Pete’s brother Grant (Chris Pratt) shows up full of grief and fury, but Rio stabs him and flees into the New Mexico wilderness with his sister Sara (Leila George, “Mortal Engines”). But before they can find safe haven, Rio and Sara find themselves in the same hideout as Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan), who unfortunately has Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke) and a fleet of deputies hot on his heels.

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Apprehended and brought to a nearby town for safekeeping, Sara manufactures a story to lower Pat’s suspicions and hopefully to score them a police escort to safer territory. But when members of local law enforcement uninterested in due process become determined to make Billy pay for his crimes, Rio and Sara are caught between Billy and Pat as the former plots an escape attempt and the latter hardens his resolve to bring Billy to justice. Grant arrives to further complicate matters, kidnapping Sara and forcing Rio to grow up a lot faster than he’s ready to as he sets out to rescue his sister from a fate worse than death.

Written by Andrew Lanham (“The Shack”), “The Kid” trots out every Western cliché in the book and sort of mashes them together in the hopes that audiences won’t notice there’s nothing original about its take on any of them. There’s the gregarious, guilt-stricken Billy, clinging to his last shred of humanity as he fumbles through mood swings with a combination of delusion and self-rationalization; rigid moralist Pat Garrett, who soon realizes that the “law of the west” possesses a few more shades of grey than the rules that he’s sworn to uphold; three groups of underlings and followers — Billy’s, Pat’s, and Grant’s — who exude obedience but largely exist to get in front of the bullets meant for their leaders; and Rio, a whiny, naive kid reckoning with the inhumanity and consequences of adulthood after absorbing the contradictory lessons of his would-be mentors.

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Together, it’s a tedious, noisy slog. DeHaan, seeming ever more like an actor who was promised a career primarily because he looks like a much more talented one, mistakes volume for charisma, and his manic-depressive shtick as Billy quickly grows tiresome. Hawke is shrewd enough to underplay Garrett’s world-weariness, but he’s repeatedly hamstrung by a sense of pacing that suggests that the priority was getting through each scene as quickly as possible. Consequently, the movie repeatedly alludes to their respective legends, but neither satisfactorily undercuts it with intriguing, relatable details, nor bolsters them with feats of glory, greatness or even street-level poetry. The movie searches for charm and melancholy in their tête-a-tête, but instead finds a pathetic kind of repetition — if we weren’t fighting, what else would we do? — that could have opened up a completely new direction had it been intentional.

And then there’s Rio, a blank slate upon which Billy and Pat project their worldviews. Their dialectic unfolds a bit like Elias, Barnes and Chris in “Platoon,” albeit thankfully without the overt religious metaphors. But Oliver Stone had a hellish plot tying those three men together, and each character in D’Onofrio’s film is in his own story. Perhaps more like Luke Skywalker scampering after Obi-Wan Kenobi, Rio admires these newfound father figures and yearns for their freedom and authority as much as he fears their adult world, but he lacks Hamill’s deliberate petulance, and rushes towards the movie’s eventual flip — he learns to be strong so that Sara can be weak — without earning the growth, much less understanding it.

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Cinematically, D’Onofrio shows tremendous improvement as a director making his first film since 2010’s “Don’t Go In The Woods,” an almost unwatchable mess of horror clichés. This is watchable, it’s just not very good. But if, in 2019, you’re going to make a Western, the medium’s oldest genre, then you need to figure out what you’re going to say, if only to avoid mixing a lot of conflicting messages and themes. Of course, I’m sure there’s a fresh approach to be taken with the history surrounding Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, be it one founded in the truth, pure legend, or even in metaphor.

“It doesn’t matter what’s true,” Garrett observes in the film. “What matters is the story they tell when you’re gone.” But that lesson is something that D’Onofrio failed to heed himself, which is why “The Kid” never tells a story, true or false, that matters.



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‘Paddleton’ Film Review: Ray Romano and Mark Duplass Face Mortality in Moving, Funny Bromance

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An unwieldy hybrid of “Step Brothers” and “50/50,” Alex Lehmann’s “Paddleton” offers a funny, surprisingly tender portrait of two arrested-development adult men coming to terms with a terminal illness. Ray Romano continues to offer new dimensions to the dumpy everyman characters he could at this point play in his sleep opposite Mark Duplass’ do-nothing cancer patient, while director and co-writer Lehmann (“Blue Jay”) mines a familiar kind of male bond for an understated, unexpectedly powerful payoff.

Duplass plays Michael, a copy-shop clerk with one friend, his upstairs neighbor Andy (Romano). Notwithstanding their separate apartments, the duo spends virtually every free minute together, mostly rewatching the same kung fu movie while eating frozen pizza, but occasionally venturing outside to play an invented sport called “paddleton” which involves hitting a racquetball off of the screen of an abandoned drive-in movie theater into a barrel.

After Michael’s cancer diagnosis proves inoperable, he decides to commit medically-assisted suicide and asks Andy to join him on the six-hour drive to the nearest pharmacy that will fill his prescription. But after the two of them acquire the pharmaceutical cocktail Michael needs in order to escape his increasing pain, Andy becomes less sure that he wants to watch his best friend kill himself and not-so-slyly begins a campaign to keep him from the medication he needs.

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As familiar as the concept may be of watching two awkward, maybe-not-so-smart adult men navigate a gently dysfunctional friendship, Lehmann, working from a script co-written by Duplass, manages to elevate what could have been an improvisational exercise or sophomoric retread into something delicate and substantial without leaning too heavily on the natural melodrama of his premise.

Michael and Andy are two lonely, average men without any real professional or social prospects, and the protective routine of their friendship rings with real human authenticity, especially after Andy begins to realize that he’s on the verge of losing the only person with whom he feels he can freely communicate. Michael, an admitted failure as a spouse and sibling, seems to embrace the occasionally puerile but mostly earnest interactions he shares with Andy, enjoying their simplicity together, their shared interests, and their unvarnished honesty — even when Andy is embellishing, or clearly lying.

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Romano has played a number of versions of this role in the past, but as the comedian edges further away from his sitcom days, he seems to find different ways to bring a guy like Andy to life. Here, he’s less affable but more realistic; a guy who hates small talk and daydreams about the inspirational halftime speech he intends to sell one day to some unlucky coach, he finds a soulmate in Michael via their mutual surrender to the challenges of more serious relationships or the outside world as a whole. Romano lets Andy be obnoxious, but the actor tenders those abrasive edges with an almost childlike commitment to his friend that manifests itself as often as true compassion as it does petulance or selfishness.

Duplass, meanwhile, seems to enjoy purely the rapport between Michael and Andy. Michael has clearly had a few more adult experiences than Andy, but Duplass never plays him as condescending or superior, instead just in a sort of constant admiration for his friend, even when he’s behaving like, well, a little kid. As co-screenwriter, he gives Romano’s character the more interesting journey, but as an actor it’s his character’s consistency — his appreciation and acceptance of Andy’s shortcomings — that facilitates his BFF’s incremental growth.

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Simultaneously, a small coterie of supporting performances, including Dendrie Taylor (“Saving Mr. Banks”) as a bohemian hotel clerk and Kadeem Hardison (“Black Monday”) as an empathetic pharmacist, subtly test Andy’s insular worldview and provide the duo with opportunities to showcase their sometimes-discordant chemistry.

Lehmann doesn’t offer much of a take on assisted suicide except for “if you’re going to commit suicide, make sure someone who truly cares assists you,” and it’s his subtle observations about the way the two characters know and understand one another that makes their final moments feel almost shockingly powerful. But as a snapshot of two guys with enough self-awareness to joke about being “weirdos,” or a vignette about that quiet neighbor (or couple) in your apartment complex who comes and goes without making an impression, “Paddleton” is quietly funny and full of compassion — the kind of movie that, much like its characters, feels likely to get overlooked or ignored but proves surprisingly rewarding once you make the effort to look past its surface.



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‘The Brink’ Film Review: Steve Bannon Doc Exposes the Rot of His Anti-Semitic Strategies

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Given his skill at manipulating the press, it’s totally understandable why Steve Bannon would agree to or even embrace being the subject of not just one but multiple documentaries. But where Errol Morris’ 2018 film “American Dharma” aimed to interrogate and deconstruct Bannon’s poisonous philosophies head on, “The Brink” embeds filmmaker Alison Klayman (“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”) in his daily life for months on end, observing his methods, and eventually, exposing the efficacy of tactics that have rhetorical foundations built on quicksand.

Following Bannon as he drifts both politically and professionally from the good graces of “reputable” Republicans while positing himself as a proponent and prognosticator of their increasingly divisive values, Klayman’s film showcases the qualities that make Stephen Bannon such an effective political strategist even as it suggests that its success is as likely to eat his own future alive as the future of democracy itself.

Picking up in the months after he helped Trump win the White House, Bannon became the president’s fall guy for the violence that erupted during the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia, after allegedly being the architect of his “both sides” comments. Unshackled by the veneer of propriety he was forced to maintain as a presidential staff member, Bannon re-entered politics as an advocate for Republican candidates who were considered insufficiently supportive of Trump’s policies.

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But the stinging defeat of many of those candidates — including Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore, whom he vocally endorsed despite numerous credible accusations of sexual misconduct — puts him on the outs with the higher-ups at the GOP, who question his judgment and see him as a liability. Consequently, Bannon turns to Europe, where he establishes a network of right-wing leaders across the continent who are only too eager for him to help plan their takeover and dismantling of their respective governments.

Under the guise of holding informal dinners with extremist leaders and re-branding right-wing and anti-Semitic language as “economic nationalism,” Bannon traverses Europe with a small team of supporters, while fielding interview requests, making public appearances, and hosting events designed to shore up the support of policies that seem transparently divisive. But even as he bends the ear of high-profile politicians like Nigel Farage and holds court with donors and supporters from the likes of financial superpowers like Goldman Sachs, Bannon’s tactics threaten to alienate him from friends and former allies who grow less and less sure how much of what he says is just talk and how much he actually believes — and regardless which it is, worry how much it could harm them professionally or politically.

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Shrewdly avoiding a biographical exploration of Bannon, Klayman and her producer, Marie Therese Guirgis (“On Her Shoulders”), become flies on the wall during his daily post-White House life, exposing his intellect and personality in ways both humanizing and alarming. Demanding, charismatic and unflappable, Bannon disarms his opponents with a measured combination of affability and maddening obstinacy, persisting in his use of dog-whistle language and policymaking that he unbelievably claims not to know is transparently racist.

From Klayman herself to the myriad journalists he sits with over the course of promoting “the Movement,” his name for the alt-right supergroup forming in Europe, Bannon is repeatedly challenged about using fascist, anti-Semitic rhetoric; his ability to deflect, and to insist he is unaware of the dual or “true” meaning of that language, would almost be admirable if its effects weren’t so dangerous.

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But what these filmmakers do particularly effectively is to highlight how that tactic works in a room of indoctrinated (or in many cases uneducated) acolytes, but in a broader context — and under the scrutiny of investigative journalists — it has made him increasingly radioactive to people would have happily used him just months or years earlier. Bannon can charm an audience at a Canadian symposium even as they groan at his fact-deficient, plainly inaccurate claims, but when it comes to being an advocate and policymaker, his circle of confidantes and his influence both continue to shrink. From Trump to Breitbart to the “axis” of countries rejecting his initiatives, Bannon is less relevant than ever, even if his playbook has metastasized in the bloodstream of American politics and, to a slightly lesser extent, the rest of the world.

What’s more chilling is how astutely Bannon understands this impact, and his persona, even if in some cases the most he’s trying to accomplish is stopping the bleeding on a flatlining program, candidate, or job opportunity. He has just enough sociopathic intellect to, in the film’s opening scene, admire the architectural perfection of Auschwitz, and later, promoting his own documentary “Trump @ War,” not only joke, “I always ask, ‘What would Leni Riefenstahl do?’” but also sincerely suggest that he believes that propaganda, which he admits his film is, is by definition “good.” Klayman, an increasingly skilled observer as a documentarian, occasionally succumbs to her own curiosity, or maybe incredulity, to ask him a question about these comments, or positions, but mostly, her quiet, unobtrusive gaze exposes his flaws without requiring interjection.

As more and more films and documentaries are produced about Bannon, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and a seemingly endless string of unscrupulous GOP strategists, there is an understandable worry that chronicling their words and deeds will provide a platform to the dangerous and divisive ideas they espouse. “The Brink” demonstrates that these films can document their beliefs without validating them, and instead expose the humanity — both good and bad — that drives their behavior and burnishes their so-called authority.

Steve Bannon doesn’t need to be dismantled or made a fool because he’s already accomplished that task, simply by receiving the attention that he seeks; his ideas are insincere, intellectually bankrupt and easily disproven, and Klayman’s film supplies just the right amount of sunlight to make sure they burn up before taking further root.

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‘American Chaos’ Film Review: Day-Late, Dollar-Short Doc Traces Trump’s Rise to the White House

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Were you aware that Donald Trump supporters made their choice because they believed that their needs — their identities — have gone too long unrecognized or disrespected by Democratic leaders? If somehow you weren’t, “American Chaos” might be the film that you need about the 2016 election.

Following in the footsteps of the fly-on-the-wall “11/8/16,” a dozen or more other big- and small-screen documentary works, and the ever-expanding library of print profiles chronicling the president’s base’s feelings of cultural and political disaffectedness, filmmaker James D. Stern delivers his own version of this now extremely familiar story, that of Trump’s ascendance through the eyes of a liberal voter, one who never thought in a million years that Hillary Clinton would lose when he compassionately decided to offer a platform for their views.

Stern, a film producer (“Snowden”) and documentarian (“Every Little Step”), puts himself in front of the camera as he canvasses Trump supporters across the U.S. for their feelings about what made him such a lightning rod for “ordinary Americans” in the days leading up to the 2016 election. The Chicago native makes his incredulity about Trump’s candidacy clear early on, but also suggests that liberals like himself have been too contemptuous, or dismissive, of the issues that have rallied Red-State voters to his side. Consequently, and with the expectation that Trump will not prevail, he decides to “not yell at them, but to just listen to them” in exactly the same way that The New York Times and many others have as the events of his presidency have unfolded.

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Occasionally adding his own perspective, alongside comments from a variety of experts in different fields (climate change, sociology, etc.), Stern attends viewing parties and watches from within rallies as Trump fires up his base with each new exaggeration or outright lie about Clinton’s compounding evil, virtually all of which has now become right-wing boilerplate. The individuals with whom he speaks range from conservative radio hosts to displaced West Virginia coal workers, each offering a slightly different answer but one sharing a common theme: They demand to be accommodated in an America where they do not need to accommodate anyone else. Gun control, coal production, border security, political corruption and xenophobia are among the issues that they consider important, but in almost all cases, their arguments are founded on a combination of specious information in terms both of the problem and its solution.

Meanwhile, the specter of Obama and his would-be successor Clinton is ever-present as a bogeyman to indoctrinate these simple small-town folk into a terrible, kinder, gentler world where they might have to acknowledge that the Great America they want re-made perhaps wasn’t for everyone quite the way they want to remember it.

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Particularly just two weeks after the release of “Active Measures,” an essential documentary that draws explicit lines between Putin’s rise to power and Trump’s evolution between the 1980s and today, the anecdotal approach of “American Chaos” feels positively quaint by comparison. Like many of its other well-intentioned brethren, including “11/8/16,” Stern’s film basically serves as a chronicle of one liberal’s disbelief and disillusionment as election night dashes all of his ideals about the progress he thought our country had made.

Almost two years later, though, who needs or wants to see that? For those people, the news cycle is a nonstop horror show of inhumanity, so a Ralph Wiggum-style freeze frame of the moment their hearts first broke is probably unwelcome. And as evidenced by a series of Skype conversations conducted post-election, his subjects feel validated and their support of Trump is stronger than ever, so who cares how their opponents feel?

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In which case, perhaps “American Chaos” — whose self-parodic title would fit in perfectly with the name of some fake movie by Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America” alter ego Dr. Nira Cain-N’Degeocello — should serve as an object lesson for liberal filmmakers, if not also liberals themselves. Maybe don’t wait for two years into Trump’s presidency to release your portrait of the people who put him in office; both you, and your viewers, know who they are now. Bank that footage and wait until after it’s over, whatever happens, and then go back and find your subjects and ask them how they feel about their candidate and his accomplishments in office in relation to their needs and priorities. Did he bring back your job as a coal worker? Has he secured the borders and made you feel safer? Has his rampant criminality undermined or made you question your support for Trump? Has he brought back the America you believe was great? Do you now feel heard and recognized?

Ultimately, “American Chaos” isn’t bad, it’s just kind of too late to do any real good. As Stern himself observes, Trump supporters “want to take America back to a time that no longer is viable,” but that’s basically what all of these films want as well: a time before Trump. And just like all of the others by liberals about the election, Stern’s film desperately yearns for a redemptive or hopeful conclusion for what amounts to them to a waking nightmare. But the only way to achieve that conclusion is, unfortunately, to wait for it and, where possible, take the steps of policy and strategy to make it happen.

Until then, what we probably need are fewer reflective post-mortems on history that’s already been decided, much less covered exhaustively in every available medium, and a little more holding of feet to the fire of truth — in which case, start with the soul-searching filmmakers, move on to their subjects, and then, try to make real progress from there.



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‘White Boy Rick’ Film Review: Real-Life Drug Saga Bolstered by Strong Performances

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

There are times when you watch a newcomer in a role and know, just know, that they’ll go on to tackle great, eclectic challenges; with “Call Me By Your Name” still in moviegoers’ rearview mirrors, Timothee Chalamet, for example, is already proving himself an enormous, versatile talent. But other times, such as with Richie Merritt, the star of “White Boy Rick,” you’re no less transfixed, but you wonder: Is this young actor simply perfect in this one role? Or can he countenance others with that beautifully, ordinarily dull expression? While there isn’t a single moment in his performance that doesn’t feel utterly believable, it also seems singularly engineered for this character and this one alone.

“White Boy Rick,” director Yann Demange’s account of the young, wasted life of real-life teen drug dealer and FBI informant Richard Wershe Jr., is punctuated by surprising verisimilitude that uplifts a latter-day “Scared Straight” premise beyond the boundaries of the A-list cast brought in to bolster its prestige. But it’s Merritt’s devastatingly authentic turn as a kid propelled by good intentions and naïve ambition to scuttle his own life in order to create a better one for his family that makes Demange’s follow-up to the critically-acclaimed “’71” a frequently indelible cinematic experience, charged with unique energy and impact even when its premise is overly familiar.

Wershe Jr.’s story begins at age 14, when he was hustling dealers at Michigan gun shows on behalf of his father, Richard Sr. (Matthew McConaughey), and then turning around to sell unregistered AK-47s to Detroit drug lords like Lil’ Man (Jonathan Majors) and his teenage lieutenants. It doesn’t take much time for the FBI to connect the dots between the source of the guns and the crimes committed with them, so Agents Snyder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Byrd (Rory Cochrane) offer Rick a deal in exchange for protection of his father: buy — and later sell — drugs so they and a local police officer (Brian Tyree Henry) can create a paper trail to nab the “real” crooks. He reluctantly agrees but winds up getting shot after Lil’ Man discovers that he’s working with the authorities.

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Rick’s gunshot injury waylays his decision to go back to school, where he’s considered too dangerous to be around other students. But after finding out that he’s inadvertently fathered a daughter with Brenda (Kyanna Simone Simpson), a former classmate, and that his sister Dawn (Bel Powley) is on skid row addicted to drugs, he convinces Rick Sr. to let him sell drugs in order to lift the Wershe family out of debt and give them an opportunity for some sense of normalcy. He soon discovers the very adult consequences of his actions when Snyder and Byrd arrest him and threaten a life sentence unless he helps once again — this time to catch a local politician they believe has underworld connections.

Written by Andy Weiss (“Punk’d”) and Logan and Noah Miller (“Sweetwater”), “White Boy Rick” is leavened with more humor than you might expect, and it’s a welcome flavor offered frequently enough in this tragic story that the whole thing doesn’t feel like an unrelenting downer; one imagines it’s hard to make drug addiction and poverty seem even occasionally amusing, but throw McConaughey and Powley in scene together, bickering over going out for frozen custard as a family, and there’s a funny, humanistic spark here that films like “Black Mass” seem to lack.

What’s further interesting about their approach to this true story is the matter-of-factness with which it’s told from this kid’s point of view: he’s neither a wholesome, corruptible innocent nor a calculating criminal in training, but a kid who’s watched his dad’s lifelong, feckless hustle, and learned how to survive — and occasionally, profit — from a perspective adjacent to and occasionally outside the law.

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Although Rick is driven by the desire to reunite his family, and he certainly enjoys the spoils of his particular vocation, the movie never belabors the Wershes’ financial straits nor preys upon them to make more grandiose observations about blue-collar desperation, Detroit (then or now) or more broadly, The Failure of The American Dream. Liberated from direct connections to those larger themes, Rick’s story seems like one of simple fallibility, the misguided notions of a kid who in some cases is misled, and others make actively dangerous choices because the struggle to keep his family together becomes too exasperating to bear.

That feels much more relatable and powerful than any sort of deliberate cultural commentary, especially amplified through the performances of Merritt and the rest of the cast. (At the same time, not one but two separate conversations make the observation it would be “better” if Rick killed someone than sold them drugs, because the criminal penalty would be lower, which is certainly something to think about in the justice system both of the 1980s, when this all happened, and right now.)

Acting can be a tricky thing, and sometimes it can just be a trick, but Merritt has the gift of naturalism, be it an act of design or accident, that cannot be taught. He literally never brings more to a moment than is needed, instead absorbing his surroundings much like Rick must have, processing what next step to take, and reacting with a combination of pragmatism and quiet, buried hope. McConaughey is sort of a perfect foil for this sort of performance (he gives a lot of showy energy), but it works here because it makes Rick seem like his whole life has been an act of observation, the receding background of his father’s flamboyant failures, finally come to bear in his son’s self-destructive choices. Powley further feels like an alchemic combination for this family unit, transcending drug-addict clichés to play a young woman able to turn her desperate need for help into a constant source of gallows humor.

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The movie’s sense of place, both geographic and cultural, is similarly specific, but it feels more like a mixtape of atmospheres than the encyclopedic jukebox of Scorsese or his imitators; a soundtrack of pre-hip-hop tracks (such as Bob James’ “Take Me To Mardi Gras”) and early rap classics (Eric B. and Rakim’s “Paid in Full”) provide more or less seamless interstitial music from one stage of his criminal career to the next. But again, what ultimately makes “White Boy Rick” so special is Merritt’s performance, and the promise, the hope that other filmmakers will find the right use for his brand of unforced realism in front of the camera, the sense that he’s not “acting” but actually is the character at his core.

All of which is why frightening future delinquents may be one of the sociocultural motives for this particular type of storytelling, but the artistic effect here is nothing short of inspiring; history has already been made, no matter what — including nothing — Merritt does next.



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‘Peppermint’ Film Review: Jennifer Garner Vengeance Saga Lacks Snap

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Since 1974, there have been dozens of riffs on “Death Wish” featuring men driven to violent acts of vengeance (including a tepid remake earlier this year), so there’s no reason there shouldn’t be one about a woman. But “Peppermint” is in such a hurry to deliver the payoff of watching an aggrieved mother exact her revenge on the drug lord who killed her husband and daughter that it completely ignores the much bigger and more interesting story of exactly how she prepared for that showdown.

The formidable Jennifer Garner has already shouldered her fair share of badass characters, so the toughness required of her character here is entirely believable. But a script that seems to have been assembled by algorithm, plus routine direction by “Taken” helmer Pierre Morel, hobbles what might have been a moderately rousing (if in no way original) transformation story.

Garner plays Riley North, a vigilante carving a path of destruction across southern California motivated by the deaths of her husband Chris (Jeff Hephner, NBC’s “Chicago Med”) and Carly (Cailey Fleming, Young Rey in “The Force Awakens”) five years earlier at the hands of drug lord Diego Garcia (Juan Pablo Raba, “Narcos”). Furious at the inactivity and indifference of a legal system unwilling to prosecute the men responsible, Riley targets not only the criminals but also the attorneys and judges whose delinquency enabled the killers to go free.

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Vanishing from her old life — from any activity that could identify her to authorities — Riley conspires to exact her own brand of justice, even as police detectives Stan Carmichael (John Gallagher Jr.) and Moises Beltran (John Ortiz) are reluctant to pin a series of brutal murders on a grieving housewife. But when FBI agent Lisa Inman (Annie Ilonzeh, “Person of Interest”) shows up with incontrovertible evidence of her ongoing vendetta, Carmichael and Beltran race to apprehend her before she kills again, even as a possible mole in the police force working for Garcia threatens to undermine their investigation.

The movie opens on the rooftop of a downtown Los Angeles parking deck where, through some clumsy misdirection, a brutal fight in a car between Riley and one of her family’s killers initially looks like a couple making love, complete with fogged-up windows. It’s not clear why this choice was made, but then again, it’s not especially clear why any of the ones in the script by Chad St. John (“London Has Fallen”) were. Everything — including the action sequences, flashbacks and even the twists — feels half-considered, like somebody thought they could make a dumb story smart, or was forced to do the opposite.

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Take Riley’s grease-monkey husband, for instance; it’s his potential involvement in a robbery that leads Garcia to their door, but after explicitly turning down the gig, exactly how and why does Garcia find out who he is to exact his retribution? Not to mention Riley’s entire journey from Devastated Mother to Expert Fighter, Shooter and Thief: that’s the movie to make, not one that focuses almost exclusively on the set-up of her vendetta, skips ahead five years and then haphazardly shuffles through some but not all of the people she blames for the crime and its irresolution.

Meanwhile, is it a good idea in 2018 for almost every one of the villains in the film to be written as and portrayed by Latinos? Probably not, but it’s easy. Of course, that could very easily be the guiding principle of the entire production, given that “Peppermint” glosses over everything that might actually be interesting about its central character and her journey to provide the quickest and most superficial gratification to audiences intrigued by its premise.

Morel, whose movies are brisk, stylish and mostly stupid, grafts late-era Tony Scott style onto Riley’s experiences (complete with double-exposure, speed-up-slow-down transitions) that lack his predecessor’s panache and, with the exception of a handful of hard-working performances, Scott’s compassionate eye behind the camera.

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Garner, of course, is the film’s anchor, and she slogs through its brutality with as much dignity as it ever might possess; Riley is predictably superhuman, but the actress’ instincts to pause occasionally for reflection in the midst of the mayhem — a glimmer of her character’s residual humanity — give the story a vestige of dimensionality. On the other hand, John Ortiz, a stalwart character actor deserving of better challenges than he’s given here, contributes a quite frankly remarkable performance in the face of insurmountable jaded-cop-roused-to-care boilerplate.

The irony of their genuinely good work is that I’d eagerly watch a prequel about either of these two characters — her hardening her resolve, him losing his idealism — but the present-day action of Morel’s film does neither of them justice. But that idea, good or bad, would probably be harder to pull off than to saddle them with routine fight choreography and cliché-laden dialogue, which is why, rather than a fresh, female-driven alternative to all of those “angry man seeks vengeance” movies, “Peppermint” ultimately possesses the stale predictability of an unwrapped candy discovered at the bottom of a purse.



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‘Kin’ Film Review: Genre Mashup About an Alien Weapon Shoots Itself in the Foot

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

On television, “Kin” could have been a successful backdoor pilot about two estranged brothers, two motorcycle-riding Daft Punk copycats, a heavily-tattooed James Franco, and the road trip that brings them all together.

On film, it has all of the weird, irresponsible potential of a “Boondock Saints” franchise, insisting that there’s something substantial, cultural climate be damned, in its punky adolescent fantasy about an orphaned black kid who finds a laser pistol. Featuring Dennis Quaid, Zoe Kravitz and Carrie Coon in roles that define “thankless” as Jack Reynor (“Sing Street”) and newcomer Miles Truitt (“Queen Sugar”) soldier bravely through misshapen rhythms of quasi-futuristic fraternal bonding, “Kin” feels like a level up for its co-directors from a short film that was too ambitiously envisioned as a franchise.

Truitt plays Elijah Solinski, the adopted son of Hal (Quaid) and brother of Jimmy (Reynor), an ex-con whose recent stint in prison racked up $60,000 in debt to Taylor Bolek (Franco), a local gun runner. Suspended from school for fighting, Elijah earns money stripping wiring from the walls of local buildings, where one day he finds what looks like a laser pistol, and only he seems to be able to operate it.

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Hal finds out and goes apoplectic; he doesn’t want his adopted son to follow Jimmy’s path, and he’s replaced tenderness and understanding with strict discipline in the wake of his wife’s death. But while doling out a life lesson to Elijah in the hopes of keeping him on the straight and narrow, Hal intercepts Jimmy and Taylor stealing from his safe, and in an ensuing firefight Jimmy, gets out — but Hal doesn’t.

With Taylor hot on their heels, Jimmy tells Elijah that they’re going on a family vacation, and Hal will join them later. Making off with his father’s money, the two of them head towards Lake Tahoe and begin to bond, simultaneously crossing paths with Milly (Kravitz), a stripper happy to liberate herself from an unhappy job. But as the authorities begin to investigate the robbery at Hal’s office, Jimmy grows less and less sure how to tell Elijah that their father is dead, especially given the fact that Taylor is determined to kill them even if they aren’t apprehended by police.

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But after Elijah uses the laser pistol to get the trio out of a jam, it alerts two mysterious leather-clad strangers to their location, leading to an intense confrontation — between the three fugitives, Taylor and his crew, the cops, and these new pursuers — that has ramifications far deeper than Jimmy, or especially Elijah, could ever imagine.

Notwithstanding the questionable optics of a 14-year-old black kid wielding (what looks like) a toy gun while cops chase him across the country, most of the race-related issues in “Kin” are either driven by naïveté or overshadowed by much more significant narrative or performance problems. Primarily, there’s the issue of an adopted kid, Elijah, whose birth parents he never knew, raised by an adoptive mother who died and a father who seems pathologically incapable of compassion, who them himself dies. Jimmy is one of those movie screw-ups where everything he does is really not so bad, uh, except for getting their father killed, and then deceiving his little brother about it for several days, not long after his mother died.

The movie at least acknowledges that this is big news, but first-time writer-directors Jonathan and Josh Baker scarcely seem aware of the larger psychological repercussions of either Elijah’s background or his current circumstances, and they handle Jimmy’s revelation in such a cowardly way that somehow, by comparison, Taylor is the only character in the ensemble who emerges with any dignity.

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After “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “Sing Street,” Reynor has peaked as an actor playing ne’er-do-well characters we’re supposed to love, and here he just seems like a complete a-hole: after being directly responsible for Hal’s death, he steals his money, spends it until he gets in trouble, steals some more, and shepherds Elijah through an odyssey of trouble for which he is not in any way ready, laser pistol or no.

Truitt demonstrates a quiet intensity that audiences will immediately identify with, and which promises terrific things from the young actor, but he’s forced to make believable a sequence of events that barely seem interconnected; the Baker brothers want this to be both a gritty family drama and a sci-fi-laced adventure, but through no fault of Triutt’s — and in fact, despite his admirable effort — the underlying emotions simply do not track. Meanwhile, there’s little else to do while Kravitz is on screen than wonder why someone as talented as she sought the role of a stripper-turned-babysitter whose biggest scene involves taking a personal inventory of abuse to bond with a teenager.

Then of course there’s the Daft Punk duo, mysterious individuals riding motorcycles like a couple of maniacs and whose involvement in Elijah’s journey hints at a wild and operatic future storyline should this first film be a success. But much like Carrie Coon, who shows up as the film is ending to provide one female character who isn’t either dead, a stripper or a junkie, the Bakers seem to have telegraphed their expectations of a bigger and more impressive ending without thinking enough about the journey to get there.

Ultimately, “Kin” probably could have worked as a straightforward drama about two troubled brothers and the parental deaths that bonded them, or maybe it would have succeeded as a “Flight of the Navigator”-style road trip that slowly and skillfully takes on mythic sci-fi proportions. But its chocolate-and-peanut-butter combination of the two feels disjointed and unsatisfying, mostly because it never feels complete or thought through enough, either as a story or more crucially, an emotional experience — which is exactly what audiences would need in order to want to see more.



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‘The Wife’ Film Review: Glenn Close Steps Out of a Famous Husband’s Shadow

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

From its deceptively dismissive title on down, director Bjorn Runge’s “The Wife” is much more than its premise suggests, anchored by not one but two performances that dimensionalize not just a marriage but a professional partnership that, as in real life, only seems comprehensible from the inside. Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce bring to volatile, vibrant life the accumulated regret and resentments, as well as generosity and love, of a discontented wife and her prize-winning novelist husband whose shared struggle both bonds them and forges a rift that’s unable to be healed.

Close stars as Joan, the ceaselessly patient wife of acclaimed novelist Joe Castleman (Pryce), whose work earns him a Nobel Prize for Literature. For her, a position even on the periphery of his spotlight is too much; she would rather plan Joe’s itinerary and organize his medication in complete anonymity than receive another syrupy compliment insisting that she’s the reason he writes so well.

Their son David (Max Irons), meanwhile, struggles to escape his father’s shadow, developing projects even as Joe treats his work dismissively, if he agrees to discuss it at all. So when the three of them travel to Stockholm for the Nobel ceremony, Joan tries to keep the peace and maintain harmonious outward appearances — including to Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater), a reporter determined to write Joe’s biography, with or without their help.

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Each new social event leading up to the ceremony seems to send Joan into a tailspin of self-reflection, recalling their younger days not only when they first met, but when her own dreams of being a novelist were met by the disinterest of a male-driven writing community.

Joe, meanwhile, relishes all of the attention he’s receiving, especially from a beautiful young photographer named Linnea (Karin Franz Korlof, “A Serious Game”) assigned by his publisher to document the event. But after Nathaniel Bone reveals that he intends to write Joe’s story, including details about his and Joan’s past — and present — that they might not want revealed, Joan is forced to take a long, hard look at their relationship, both personal and professional, and decide whether honoring her husband’s achievements is enough for her to feel fulfilled.

Close is already attracting awards buzz for her performance as Joan, and it’s well-deserved: in word and action, she actively defies the limitations of playing a “Great Man’s Wife,” while showcasing the skills that would enable such a woman to maintain that perfect, formulaic fiction to the rest of the world.

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Not just refined but wonderfully calculating, Joan avoids the spotlight not only so her husband can enjoy its spoils, but also to keep it from shining too brightly on the absence of her own accomplishments — a self-awareness that she studiously practices so that when the Nathaniel Bones of the world come snooping around Joe’s legacy, she can rebuff their efforts with the silver-tongued grace that her husband lacks.

What she realizes is that she is protecting her own identity, and her own role in Joe’s success, which too much attention would roundly spoil for both of them. That only the Nobel Prize could disturb her resentments shows how deeply and successfully she’s buried them.

But what’s interesting is how a parallel storyline, set in the late 1960s when she was a student and he a teacher, underscores the specificity of their relationship, and how effectively Close and Pryce cultivate that sense of intimacy that only exists after many, many years together. Then, she was a student, astute enough to recognize she was falling in love with her professor, while coming to terms with the fact that the world was not interested in hearing her voice. (Of the movie’s many subtleties, this is probably its least successful; the scene in which a gathering of male editors scoff at prose submitted by a woman, about a woman, feels especially broad.)

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Consequently, the implementation of those first steps together feel at once naïve and pragmatic, almost transactional; she desperately wants them to be together, but the way her encouragement of his writing gives her a voice becomes much-needed nourishment for her own creative instincts.

Together, even when their love is young and in bloom, they both seem pretentious and almost comically self-serious. But what we soon discover is that only she outgrows that impulse, or at least recognizes it between them, while it becomes his outward face as he quietly belittles David when he embarks on his career, or worse, in mixed company suggests that she has none at all.

Close’s Joan has spent a lifetime shining on these small indignities, while Joe feels as if he’s answered for them by making a spectacle of his love for her, except without properly attributing credit where it’s due. Pryce makes that condescension and oblivious truly feel lived in, a part of a relationship where it’s been occasionally rejoined but mostly ignored, allowing the two of them to move forward on paths that slightly diverge but only enough for one or both to notice at big moments — such as when one wins the Nobel Prize.

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Slater is suitably oily in his shamelessness, but in spite of his seeming compassion for Joan, one wishes Nathaniel was given as much nuance as the characters he’s effectively coming between. Irons, similarly, oozes dejectedness but seems to serve a narrative and thematic purpose more than to exist autonomously as a fully-realized person.

But what ultimately works most profoundly for the film is that its intimacy, its specificity, feels less like the culmination of Joan’s life experiences and more like an epiphany, or maybe an origin story, for what’s yet to come from her. As in any other context, “The Wife” is a title less descriptive than an individual deserves, but it serves a vital purpose for both Joan and the film, underscoring the fact that she ultimately learns how to be herself — and her best self — as a direct result of being defined by someone else’s reflection of her.

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‘Overboard’ Film Review: Flimsy Remake Lacks Buoyancy

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

To be filed under “not great but more charming than anyone might expect,” Rob Greenberg’s “Overboard” offers a bilingual, generally serviceable remake of the 1987 Goldie Hawn-Kurt Russell comedy of the same name.

Reversing idea of the original — she’s a struggling single parent, he’s a spoiled playboy — Anna Faris and Eugenio Derbez (“How to Be a Latin Lover”) lack the instant chemistry of their predecessors, but a game ensemble of supporting players bring the silly story to surprisingly vibrant life after stumbling awkwardly through a preposterous convergence of circumstances required for its premise to feel remotely believable.

Faris plays Kate, an Oregon widower preparing to be a nurse; she supports her three daughters by delivering pizzas and working for a cleaning service. Leonardo (Derbez), the irresponsible heir to a construction supply empire, lives out Hugh Hefner fantasies aboard his $60 million yacht while his sister Magdalena (Cecilia Suarez) tries to wrest control of the family business. After refusing to pay Kate for scrubbing his boat of evidence of his latest bacchanal, Leonardo falls overboard and washes up on the shores of her small seaside town with no memory of who he is or where (or how much money) he comes from.

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Frustrated at her ne’er-do-well brother, Magdalena pretends Leonardo is dead, leaving him in the hospital so she can claim their father’s company. Meanwhile, Kate discovers his plight when it’s reported in the local paper; she allows herself to be persuaded by best friend Theresa (Eva Longoria) to exact revenge on her pompous former employer by pretending Leonardo is her husband, enabling her to force him to cook, clean and tackle household chores while she’s busy studying.

With the help of her daughters and a community of friends and co-workers only too happy to lie for her, Kate convinces Leonardo to come home with her, and the two soon settle into an unexpectedly harmonious partnership as he begins to discover the meaning of real responsibility and to learn the value of a family bound together by love instead of money.

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Greenberg’s background is mostly in sitcoms (“Scrubs,” “How I Met Your Mother”), which may account for how broadly and clumsily the set-up portion of this story is handled. Without quite needing to consult actual reality, one might think that Greenberg and his co-screenwriter Bob Fisher (working from Leslie Dixon’s original concept) might have updated, or at least refined, some of the foundational ideas that were scarcely convincing three decades ago. In fact, acknowledging the previous movie as inspiration for the characters in this one might have been a better way to justify what sounds by any definition like a wildly inappropriate criminal act, even if Kate’s gaslighting of Leo feels vaguely like a subversive gesture in the #MeToo era.

The problem is that Kate is written far too appealingly, and Faris is just too loveable to pull off the kind of grand manipulation that might have turned this rom-com scenario into an act of political vengeance. Fundamentally — and I mean this as a compliment — Faris lacks the righteous anger required for this long-suffering blue-collar worker and single parent to perpetuate the kind of deception into which she settles so easily.

Similarly, Derbez throws himself into playing an insufferable prick in the first act, but it takes little more than a scene or two for him to recognize the challenges of manual laborers who use his company’s products and to begin to respect the efforts of the people who actually have to prepare food and clean up after themselves and others.

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That said, there is a truly magnetic couple in this film sidelined by all of this plot: Longoria’s Theresa and her husband Bobby, played by “Last Man on Earth” secret weapon Mel Rodriguez. Maybe it’s because they come to Kate’s aid so naturally, but they truly feel like a duo capable of the kind of manipulation required to yank a rich jerk out of his or her life and give him the kind of wake-up call to reality that would put him through ridiculous humiliating paces and make him grateful — and even fall in love — by the end of it.

Aside from casting the massively popular Mexican star Derbez, the movie additionally wears its multilingual intentions on its sleeve in multiple scenes where, delightfully, Leonardo’s family members speak to one another exclusively in subtitled Spanish, and later, his construction-worker colleagues make a few pointed jokes at the expense of the privileged white dudes who hire them to dig out their pools.

But even as a welcome offering to audiences from a broad variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds, “Overboard” ultimately feels like one of the dinners that Kate assigns Leo to cook for his newfound family — a good effort with a few new surprises to spice up a familiar dish, but nothing special enough to truly transform it into more than a routine meal.



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‘Active Measures’ Film Review: How Putin’s Tactics Stole Russia, and How They’re Corrupting the USA

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

If the constant onslaught of revelations about the Trump administration’s relationship with various foreign nationals doesn’t already give you grey hairs on a daily basis, try watching “Active Measures,” a damning concentration of allegations that will undoubtedly leave liberals pulling those hairs out in frustration.

A methodical look at Vladimir Putin’s rise to power and the latticework of criminality that has enveloped governments worldwide, Jack Bryan’s documentary enlists a who’s-who of high-profile experts and insiders — including Hillary Clinton, John Podesta and more — for a brutal dressing-down of worldwide, metastasized corruption that falls short in laying out straight its particularly slippery bag of snakes only by suggesting the solution is to cut off their tails, not their heads.

Opening with a brief but potent biography of Putin and winding through an abridged but detailed list of transgressions to which his administration is connected, Bryan’s film explores the often intangible but wildly destructive tactics hostile governments employ as “active measures,” including propaganda, cyberattacks and agents of influence. Murdering journalists, opponents and in some likely cases, allies and even innocent civilians, Putin consolidated power under Boris Yeltsin before claiming the mantle of leadership over post-Soviet Union Russia, developing strategies (that would later be used to undermine the U.S. election) against newly-liberated countries like Georgia.

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Bryan and his co-writer Marley Clements connect the dots with methodical precision, and minimal sensationalism, although they hardly need to overdramatize connections between Putin and notorious Russian mobster Semion Mogilevich, especially given the numerous flunkies (and their various criminal acts) who overlapped the pair’s Venn diagram of manipulation and malfeasance.

Putin and Mogilevich’s relationship to Trump’s mysteriously indefatigable gift for failing upward is easy to track, though the filmmakers possibly overemphasize the current president’s ability to foresee the many ways he was being manipulated, or maybe just the distance at which Putin and co. recognized he even could be a potential leader. Certainly, and with the added benefit of recent comments made by Forbes reporters about Trump’s obsession with their annual list of power players, the film makes an effective case for the abject corruption of Trump’s dealings in the 1980s, when Trump Towers served — in several cases, according to successful criminal prosecution — as “a money-laundering paradise” for shell companies to buy and sell condominiums without identifying themselves. Later, Deutsche Bank, a company with significant ties to Russia, supported many of Trump’s endeavors long after they imploded or otherwise failed.

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Most damning, though, is the sophisticated way that Bryan and Clements lay flat the history of technological attacks launched against oppositional regimes, and how brutally impactful they were because of attackers’ profound understanding of the psychologies of the sociocultural ecosystems into which they were released. Footage from a Cambridge Analytica presentation, paired with interviews from experts on Russia’s history of cyberattacks, elucidates the depths of attackers’ knowledge about the way that various cultures work, and in particular, how the unrelenting onslaught of fake sites and phony Facebook posts (among other disseminated stories) preyed upon our specific vulnerabilities as Americans to disseminate materials that would fundamentally undermine our trust in particular candidates, our government and the system as a whole.

(The extra chill comes when an interviewee points out that literally nothing has been done to slow the spread of this attack since Trump took office.)

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At 110 minutes, the film’s laserlike focus keeps its talking heads from droning on too long, but also from relaying some of the anecdotal details that are probably juicier than they are relevant. (One that makes the cut is Clinton’s observation that Putin likes to manspread, one of the very few instances where she digresses in any way from essential information.) But like with many other documentaries attempting to chronicle our turbulent recent history, we seem to have moved beyond an era when such thing as a clean or definitive ending exists; at the very least, we’re not yet at anything that resembles one.

Not that the film doesn’t try: Citing semi-successful examples in Georgia and Russia, the filmmakers end with a call to arms that suggests the divided electorate, the citizenry of the U.S., rise up and demand change, for our officials to hold themselves and their colleagues accountable and to do something to secure free and fair elections. If there’s anything that “Active Measures” does most effectively, it’s to demonstrate the depths and the breadth of the corruption, the criminality, the immorality operating in contemporary politics — and after seeing what we’re up against, the last thing people may want to do is to get more involved.



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‘Traffik’ Film Review: Paula Patton Overdoes It in Overwrought Thriller

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Not to be confused with Steven Soderbergh’s award-winning film or the acclaimed miniseries upon which it was based, “Traffik” is a thriller about human trafficking that mistakes an overwrought story for an important one.

Writer-director Deon Taylor (“Meet the Blacks”) touches upon some interesting and even occasionally relevant ideas in his film about an investigative reporter and the biker gang that will stop at nothing to protect its secrets, but even the fierce dedication of Paula Patton and Omar Epps doesn’t make those ideas coalesce into more than window dressing for the tawdry thriller they’re hung upon.

Patton plays Brea, an investigative reporter who learns on her birthday that the story she’s been working on for months was scooped by a fellow reporter at the behest of her editor, and subsequently she may soon lose her job. “Nothing takes months,” argues Mr. Waynewright (William Fichtner).

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John (Epps), her mechanic boyfriend, attempts to divert her attention by planning a weekend getaway at a palatial chateau in the mountains for the two of them, where he plans to propose. En route they stop at a gas station where Brea encounters a mysterious young woman named Cara (Dawn Olivieri, “Bright”) in the bathroom, while John has a violent encounter with some bikers that’s thankfully interrupted by the arrival of the local sheriff (Missi Pyle).

Shaken by their experiences but thrilled at the prospect of some alone time, Brea and John arrive at the house, and John plots the right moment to pop the question. But not long after christening the infinity pool, they’re joined by The Worst Friends In The World, Malia (Roselyn Sanchez, “Devious Maids”) and Darren (Laz Alonso), who crash their romantic getaway, and thanks to their own relationship problems, instigate a rift between the two lovers.

Before peace can be restored, however, Brea discovers a satellite phone in her bag containing dozens of photos of young women. Recognizing the images as evidence of human trafficking, Brea insists they call the authorities; but when Cara turns up at the front door of their house, backed by some of the bikers and asking for the phone, the vacationers are forced to work together to escape the clutches of their invaders before becoming the next victims in what they soon discover is a multifaceted network of criminal activities.

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It’s kind of hard to know where to begin with what’s wrong in “Traffik,” a movie where every scene takes about twice as long as it feels like it should, and the characters far too often make an escalating series of implausible and/or stupid decisions. Brea certainly wins audience (or at least reporters’) sympathies early by clashing with her editor over journalistic integrity at the possible cost of her job, but how then can she be so naïve, not to mention inert, when a very clearly drug-addled woman looks plaintively at her during a fleeting moment of privacy between them that gets interrupted by a menacing biker? “I didn’t want to butt in” is her later rationale, but the scene goes on far too long for it not to be abundantly clear what this poor woman needs, much less for her not to even ask, “Are you OK?”

Meanwhile, even if John feels like a perfectly understated partner for her, why in the hell are they friends — like, “go out together for Brea’s birthday dinner” friends — with Malia and especially Darren? In less than two minutes, he denigrates John’s job, almost spoils his surprise proposal, and defends openly ogling the waitress to John in front of his own wife.

And that’s before he shows up at their vacation house a day early, accuses Brea of wanting to report the phone to the authorities “to get a scoop,” and then inexplicably dredges up some old romantic business that occurred before she ever met John. Alonso is a charismatic actor, but there’s rakish and there’s just being an asshole, and as the unfortunate catalyst for a lot of superfluous drama, Darren is unmoored from anything remotely believable, or likable.

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Patton serves double duty as a producer on the film and it’s clear she believed in this story, or at least what telling it could do for her credibility as an actor. But evidenced both by her successes (“Déjà Vu,” “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”) and failures (“Baggage Claim”), she needs a strong director who will shape her deep feelings into something compelling and coherent, and Taylor seems either preoccupied by the importance of his story, or so wowed by the volume of what she is doing on screen that he never bothers to do more than sort of watch, astonished.

It isn’t that Patton doesn’t deliver something interesting, it’s that it’s assembled so clumsily that all of her shivering and hesitation dominates the moments of decisiveness and strength that should have made an impression.

Any good reporter knows not to come up with a thesis and then look for evidence to support it, but rather to follow a story and see where it leads you. Like Brea’s, Taylor’s heart is in the right place, but they both need to learn how to focus, and both could probably also use a better editor. But then again, who can blame Taylor for luxuriating in the dynamic, nightmarish images he captures with the help of the great cinematographer Dante Spinotti? The two of them work effectively together to create a sense of ominousness and vulnerability that lifts the film more than it deserves.

That said, those imaginative flourishes don’t always match with the performances, or the musical choices — including a gobsmacking use of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” during a scene of human trafficking — but Taylor definitely has an eye for intriguing juxtapositions. It’s just a shame that too many of them in “Traffik” are bad ones.



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‘The Miracle Season’ Film Review: Volleyball Drama Serves Few Dramatic Spikes

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Evidenced by closing-credits photographs and footage of the real athletes and adults involved, “The Miracle Season” could have worked powerfully as a documentary. But as a faith-based re-enactment of Iowa high school students rallying for a second championship volleyball season after suffering an unimaginable personal loss, Sean McNamara’s film barely qualifies as a story at all — except where dramatic license was conspicuously taken to make sure it adhered to almost every cliché in the sports-movie playbook.

Danika Yarosh (“Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”) plays Caroline “Line” Found, an effervescent, beloved, boundlessly energetic senior at Iowa City West High School. As captain of the women’s volleyball team, she led them to victory as a junior, and considers back-to-back championships an inevitable fulfillment of their athletic destiny, especially after dedicating their season to her ailing mother, Ellyn (Jillian Fargey, “Bates Motel”).

But when Line dies in a scooter accident the night after their first game, her best friend, Kelly (Erin Moriarty, “Captain Fantastic”), and the rest of the team are devastated, and not even Kathy “Coach Bres” Bresnahan (Helen Hunt), their stern, no-nonsense coach, can rekindle their love for the game.

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Coach Bres eventually tasks Kelly with the responsibility of rallying her teammates, despite Kelly’s reservations over whether she can fill Line’s shoes as team captain. But after scoring their first victory, the team decides to dedicate its season to her and to follow through with their tribute by overcoming those early losses to win another state championship on her behalf.

Movies like are typically so saccharine that audiences end up with a cavity by the final scene, but the only way in which “The Miracle Season” distinguishes itself is by being so clean-cut and wholesome that it makes a Noxzema commercial seem gritty by comparison. (It features possibly the only scene in movie history where a group of otherwise unsupervised teenagers are actively disappointed that the only attending parent, who was performing magic, no less, decides to turn in for the night.)

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McNamara, who directed “Soul Surfer,” exerts a light touch on the spiritual themes — worry not, those of ye who are uncertain whether Line’s father, Ernie, played effortlessly by William Hurt, will reconcile with God after losing his daughter and his wife within two weeks of one another — but in this case, that’s a bad thing: There are no other themes to replace them, leaving only the wheezing machinery of a sports underdog story in which the team is comprised of title-winning athletes.

Portraying a real-life teenager, much less such a revered one as Found, was no doubt a challenge for Yarosh, but I’m not fully sure her “more is more” approach to the role turns the character’s charm offensive into actual charm. Moriarty, on the other hand, wrestles with more emotion than her co-star, but despite the appealing balance of reluctance and determination she brings to Kelly, she occasionally seems adrift in the formulaic adversity thrown into her path to make their journey seem not quite as predestined from the first frame.

Meanwhile, Hunt throws her all into the coach who learns how to feel again by coaching these grieving young women to victory, but Midwest mannerisms (like repeatedly calling Line, and later Kelly, “cap’n”) disrupt what never seems to settle into a consistent take on the character. Does Bres struggle with literally any emotion? Did Line’s death specifically affect her? Or is there an additional or other back story, hinted at in her opening scene, that we don’t know about?

And as Ernie, Hurt supplies unsurprising volumes of gravitas and vulnerability, but the work is all so simple and surface-level for a guy capable of such powerful depths that none of it resonates particularly deeply.

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There’s also a love interest for Kelly, a hunky Anson Elgort type played by Burkely Duffield (“Warcraft”) who, in an almost refreshing reversal, has literally nothing to do except look good and blandly support his lady. But otherwise, the film isn’t interested in challenging conventional expectations, or much of anything else; last year’s nonfiction “Step,” by comparison, chronicled the adversity of a group of reigning champions with much more complexity, and consequently, emotional heft.

Ultimately, “The Miracle Season” mistakes an inspiring true story for one that needs or deserves to be told cinematically; it isn’t awful, but it’s not a film, it’s a tribute, and unfortunately, one to the memory of a young woman who would be better honored by people actually “living like Line” than watching a formulaic, fictionalized retelling of her community learning what that means.



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‘Unsane’ Film Review: Claire Foy Is or Isn’t Going Mad in Steven Soderbergh’s Thriller

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Although it may unfairly (and reductively) be described as “that movie Steven Soderbergh shot on an iPhone,” “Unsane” is a nerve-wracking, remarkably timely movie about the unwanted attention women receive from men, and the often-unpleasant consequences of trying to speak up about it.

Soderbergh, working fast and aggressive but perfectly in control, recruits “The Crown” star Claire Foy for an intimate, disturbing psychological thriller that deftly transcends its cheapie backstory and dingy look to explore the fortitude required to survive an insidious, traumatic encounter in a world that doesn’t believe, or understand, how much pain they can cause.

Foy plays Sawyer Valentin, a skilled but troubled businesswoman who makes no room — and has no time — for ambiguity, professionally or personally: at the office she earns top marks treating clients with ruthless honesty, and then utilizes dating apps at night to instigate hookups where she guarantees action but makes it absolutely clear there’s no romantic future.

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Realizing that she is still haunted by the face of David Strine (Joshua Leonard), a man who once stalked her, Sawyer investigates a nearby facility that offers support groups for victims like herself. But she inadvertently commits herself to their care after filling out what she thinks is routine paperwork, landing in a ward alongside Nate Hoffman (Jay Pharoah), Violet (Juno Temple) and others with more severe mental disabilities.

When Sawyer’s efforts to prove her mental well-being seem to be interpreted repeatedly as acts of hostility, she prevails upon Nate to call her mother Angela (Amy Irving) for help. But just as her mother shows up to seek her release, Sawyer is confronted by a vision of David inside the facility, working as a member of its staff. Desperate to leave the asylum as the faculty increasingly ignore her pleas for help, Sawyer plummets into a downward spiral of fear and self-doubt, further challenging her to question what about her experiences, and even her memories, is and is not real.

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There’s something sort of exhilarating about the epiphany that the movie arrives at, oh, halfway or so through regarding Sawyer’s treatment; whether or not it’s all in her head, co-writers Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer skillfully pinpoint the feeling that women must experience in dealing not just with harassment but also the institutions that are supposed to protect them from it, and then transpose that directly upon the audience. But rather than driving viewers mad with anticlimactic ambiguity, Bernstein and Greer resolve that central mystery so that the film can deal with her circumstances in a more direct and realistic, yet terrifying way.

(It bears noting that the writing here represents a giant leap forward from the team’s previous screenplays, including “Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector” and the Jackie Chan vehicle “The Spy Next Door.”)

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Unlike too many other times when filmmakers mistook a story’s narrative quandary for its message and its ultimate meaning, Soderbergh acknowledges the “is this happening or not” business as a necessary hook for trailers and general intrigue but discards it to look more deeply into a culture of toxicity with regards to the treatment of women by men.

What eventually unfolds is a dialectic, really, between a damaged but resilient woman and a world unable, or unwilling, to come to terms with her true pain. As Sawyer, Foy draws an astute distinction between rationally understanding herself and how her behavior comes across to others, most notably the staff at the institution, and the vulnerability of dealing with emotional injuries that do not and will not easily heal.

It’s her candor about what she deals with on a daily basis that lands Sawyer in the asylum, but the response by the staff is largely one of indifference; prescriptions and platitudes quickly take the place of deeper and more substantial investigation into her traumatic past. Not only are her more immediate claims about David in the asylum dismissed, their root causes — the events that initially drove her to seek help — are never investigated, metaphorically and literally reducing another woman’s feelings to sensationalistic hysteria.

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Suffice it to say that the “no duh”-ness of these ideas might make “Unsane” a more obviously unpleasant experience for some viewers, but even without those thematic underpinnings, Soderbergh crafts an unsettling, top-notch cat-and-mouse game from minimal elements, including, yes, the iPhone upon which he apparently shot the film. (Mileage may vary on the effectiveness of its murky, deep-focus cinematography, but it feels all of a piece with the subject matter and locations.)

Notwithstanding a possibly credulity-stretching lack of supervision by the asylum staff, the slow escalation of Sawyer trying to be heard, and getting ignored and abandoned to deal with one triggering event after another, becomes positively maddening the longer she spends among people who are ostensibly there to help her — and with or without David there to dredge up a terrifying experience she moved 450 miles to escape.

Foy brings a knowing precision to her performance, giving Sawyer the bluntness, and clarity, of a person who for her own sake cannot afford vagueness or, perhaps more accurately, a margin for error. Simultaneously mature and self-aware and desperately vulnerable, Foy’s performance recognizes the character’s need for help is sufficient that she unwittingly leads herself into a dangerous situation with the institution.

As David, meanwhile, Leonard oozes a homicidal creepiness that feels even ickier when he’s being nice; the actor seems to completely understand the character’s pathetic delusions about their relationship, and never sacrifices believability for the sake of emphasizing an unease that already exists simply by virtue of the persistence and intractability that Sawyer ascribes to him in her characterizations of the limited relationship they once shared.

This film follows “Magic Mike,” “Side Effects” and “Logan Lucky,” a chain of films by Soderbergh where he seems to alight on a genre, or an idea, but instead of just following it to a conventional end, resolves that hook early and then delves into the typically unexplored aftermath, or maybe just something more interesting. This is the closest that the filmmaker has thus far delved into horror, but his aptitude for building tension, and his sensitivity to characters too often defined by the world’s perception of them, has only appreciated with time, making it add up to something more than the component parts of any particular genre.

In which case, whether shot on an iPhone or just screened on one, “Unsane” effortlessly flexes Soderbergh’s skill as a storyteller and a technician, injecting the atmosphere and mechanics of a creepy scenario with a substance that deepens and elevates it to the stuff of a harrowing, intimate reality.



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‘Flower’ Film Review: Talented Cast Set Adrift in Disappointing Teen Satire

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

It’s hard to know whether Erica Vandross, the 17-year-old at the center of Max Winkler’s “Flower,” is meant to be an a-hole we unexpectedly like or a likeable person who sometimes behaves like an a-hole, but Zoey Deutch’s performance constitutes one of the most curious mis-applications of natural acting charisma I’ve ever seen.

Deutch, winning in a lot of films unworthy of her (“Why Him,” “Dirty Grandpa,” “Vampire Academy”), commands the screen as if the quandary doesn’t matter, while Winkler and co-screenwriters Alex McAulay and Matt Spicer construct a story that lurks somewhere between “Sixteen Candles,” “Palo Alto” and “Fish Tank” but without the humor, insight or poetry needed to match her fearless, irresistible talent.

Deutch plays Erica Vandross, a San Fernando Valley teenager trying to earn enough money to spring her estranged father from jail by seducing local sleazeballs and then shaking them down for cash. Though she’s stayed willfully oblivious to the relationship her frazzled bohemian mom Laurie (Kathryn Hahn) starts with a kind-hearted square named Bob (Tim Heidecker), Erica finds her life turned upside down after his troubled son Luke (Joey Morgan, “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) arrives fresh and vulnerable from rehab.

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At Laurie’s urging, Erica and Luke form a tenuous bond largely built on the few semi-friendly exchanges they share when she isn’t being mercilessly blunt. But after learning that much of Luke’s pain comes from an unresolved claim that he was sexually assaulted by Will (Adam Scott), a former teacher who still lives in their community, Erica recruits high school cohorts Kala (Dylan Gelula, “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) and Claudine (Maya Eshet, “Teen Wolf”) to avenge her future step-brother, unleashing a chain of events that forces them to deal with the very adult consequences of their teenage games whether they’re ready to or not.

The reason that so much of “Flower” works as well as it does is because it’s anchored so deeply by Deutch’s performance, which effortlessly dances on that razor’s edge between sympathetic and insufferable. There’s something identifiable and occasionally even charming about Erica, who is savvier and more streetwise than any of her adult counterparts, but she’s driven by a desperate absence of guidance — an almost clichéd need for some kind of structure or limitations — that leads her to suitably misguided choices.

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As a teen trying to navigate her way through not one but two fractured parental relationships, Deutch imbues Erica with an agency that feels at once wildly unseemly, perversely appealing and utterly believable, the precise sort of preternatural maturity that would ensnare susceptible men not just against their better judgment, but hers as well.

The remainder of the cast bring their characters to vivid, believable life, from Gelula and Eshet’s dopey, media-saturated teenage wokeness as Erica’s partners in crime to Hahn’s apologetic, perfectly scattered take on Laurie’s laissez-faire parenting. For a comedian exceptionally skilled at going broad, and weird, Tim Heidecker offers a skillfully understated take as the uncool suitor who wins Laurie’s heart (and shows her firebrand daughter uncommon, and largely undeserved, patience), while Adam Scott manages to be convincingly skeptical — if not quite heedless enough — in his dealings with Erica, particularly as a man living in the shadow of an appropriately insurmountable accusation.

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Unfortunately, Winkler and his co-screenwriters further muddy the intriguing moral complexity of Erica’s cycle of seduction and exploitation, as well as Luke’s molestation claims, first by interjecting her burgeoning feelings for Will into their pursuit of “justice,” and then by turning the story upside down with a series of events that feel increasingly implausible and “movie-ish,” maybe unless John Hughes was writing them three or more decades ago.

The nuanced character development of early scenes is replaced with a cartoonish sort of escalation of stakes, not to mention some improbable choices, including a disastrously-timed confession of feelings, that would have been rightfully, perhaps satisfyingly called out by the characters had they maintained the wry self-awareness that initially made them so complex, unique and interesting.

Further, and even without conversations in the zeitgeist providing an unflattering context for the events in the film, there’s a reasonable question whether, even if only incidentally, “Flower” devalues the claims of real victims by suggesting they’re lying, enticing perpetrators or otherwise complicit in the power dynamics that lead to assault and molestation. Certainly, the movie sides with the teens, and Winkler’s portrayal of these awful acts offers little sympathy for those who seem to need little encouragement to take advantage of others.

But using these crimes as little more than a plot device ultimately feels like a distraction, and a sleazy one, from the pain and loneliness that drives the teens on screen to try and reclaim their power in such wrongheaded, and eventually, much more destructive ways — at least, if the movie didn’t try to wrap everything up in a shockingly tidy, counterintuitive bow.

“Flower” marks Winkler’s second feature after the 2010 comedy “Ceremony,” which felt to Noah Baumbach what this film does to Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto,” or Sofia’s “Bling Ring”: a counterpart or alternative mining similar territory but trading substance for effervescence. With a different beginning, “Flower” could have paid cheerful tribute to the liberating powers of teenage romance; with a different ending, it could have captured the melancholy fragility of teen self-discovery.

Instead, audiences get a collection of great performances, led by a truly exceptional one, in search of a script that’s worthy of them in a movie with so much to offer that disappointingly, but bafflingly, seems determined to add up to less than the sum of its parts.



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‘Peter Rabbit’ Movie Review: Beatrix Potter’s Bunny Reduced to Flopsy Sweat

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Parents crossing their fingers for another sly all-ages delight after “Paddington 2” will likely have their hopes dashed with “Peter Rabbit,” Will Gluck’s noisy, woefully self-aware adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s leporine protagonist.

Suffering under a tirelessly “hip” script by Gluck (2014’s “Annie”) and Rob Lieber, not to mention James Corden’s typical desperation to please in the title role, poor Peter is only slightly less appealing than “The Simpsons”‘ focus-grouped pup Poochie, and destined for an imminent journey back to his home planet while human star Domhnall Gleeson recovers from an exhausting battery of “Itchy & Scratchy”-style abuse.

Narrated by Margot Robbie, who also plays the voice of Flopsy, “Peter Rabbit” follows the misadventures of Peter, his three siblings Flopsy, Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki) and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley) and their cousin Benjamin (Matt Lucas) as they try to steal vegetables from cranky old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill) without finding themselves cooked in a pie. After McGregor suffers a heart attack, he bequeaths his farm to his fussy nephew Thomas (Gleeson), who knows little about gardening but harbors aspirations to sell the land in order to raise money for his own toy store.

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Before Thomas can fully appraise the farm’s value, however, he finds himself waylaid: first by Peter and his animal friends, who feel entitled to share in the spoils of the McGregor garden, and then by Bea (Rose Byrne), a cheerful, slightly daft artist who lives next door, and encourages him to take a more bohemian approach with the local fauna. Soon, Thomas and Peter find themselves in a showdown for both the farm and for Bea — who the rabbit sees as a surrogate mother — turning the bucolic landscape of these two country homes into a battleground where the winner takes all, at all costs.

A big part of the appeal of Potter’s source material was that she anthropomorphized Peter and his kin with clothes and a humanlike home but still made them subject to their animal instincts; drawn from a ground-up perspective, there was an irresistible vulnerability that made them sympathetic even when getting into trouble. Gluck’s film wants to have its (carrot) cake and eat it too, classifying certain behaviors as naively animalistic (such as a rooster whose morning crow is, amusingly, a reflection of marveling at another new day) while transforming Peter and company into a willful, clumsy, obnoxious pack of mischief-makers.

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Whatever argument the film hopes to make about the coexistence of man and animal feels repeatedly undermined when the bunnies not only pillage McGregor’s land of its vegetables but also make a mess of Thomas’ house and, eventually, attack him in his own bedroom.

Unfortunately, Gluck and Lieber “update” Potter’s timeless, unassuming tale by acknowledging many — too many — of the conventions and storytelling devices they’re otherwise shamelessly exploiting in their adaptation, pausing repeatedly to point out character flaws one by one, or articulating the emotional stakes of a moment in ways that even children will find on the nose.

But in trying to think through, and verbalize, every objection an audience member might have (from not giving Peter pants to making fun of a blackberry allergy), they undercut anything that could actually make the movie interesting, kowtowing to the broadest possible appeal by being conspicuously bland and safe.

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There’s scarcely a moment that passes without the most obvious possible song playing, but Gluck goes the extra step and enlists everyone from Fort Minor to Vampire Weekend to re-record their lyrics to suit the characters, who sometimes sing their own story. The movie’s self-awareness eventually comes destructively full circle when the animals are called upon to actually communicate with the humans, and Gluck is either unsure or refuses to choose whether or not they can actually speak, further confusing the foundations of a story that really did not need to be this complicated.

As an actor, Corden has all of the appeal of late night’s least interesting talk show host — all enthusiasm, no nuance — and he delivers every one of Peter’s lines with the same energy and inflection: “Aren’t I as adorable as I think I am?” (He isn’t.) Much like with his “Carpool Karaoke” segments, where he makes the mistake of thinking he’s as interesting as the person in the passenger seat, he somehow steamrolls through each scene until his co-stars’ performances all run together, wasting the considerable charm and personality of three of Hollywood’s most gifted young actresses.

Only Byrne and (especially) Gleeson emerge with some sense of personality and dignity intact, owning Bea and Thomas’ one-dimensional quirks and turning their fledgling romance into a genuine emotional journey that becomes the film’s brightest spot.

Will Gluck isn’t a bad filmmaker, but by accident or design he seems to have catapulted himself into Hollywood’s family-filmmaker rotation with 2014’s “Annie” and cannot get himself unstuck. (At least he gives Byrne something to do this time, and finds her a co-star with some chemistry.) Beatrix Potter would likely have melted down at a version of her stories (and her hero) this crass and rambunctious, but the problem with Gluck’s adaptation is, ironically, that it’s too safe, splitting the difference between a loving tribute to a classic work of children’s literature and an irreverent piece of family-friendly entertainment.

“Peter Rabbit” feels obligated to point out all of the clichés that it’s rehashing, in the mistaken belief that doing so absolves itself from coming up with anything better to replace them.



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‘A Futile and Stupid Gesture’ Film Review: National Lampoon Biopic Gently Celebrates Anarchy

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It’s hard to overstate the impact of National Lampoon magazine, but director Douglas Tirola tried anyway in 2015 with “Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead,” a documentary examining its history and legacy.

As much as David Wain’s “A Futile And Stupid Gesture” (premiering on Netflix January 26) might feel like a retread of its buoyant history lesson, his adaptation of Josh Karp’s book of the same name focuses primarily on the exploits of Lampoon co-founder Douglas Kenney, filtering the publication’s incendiary accomplishments through his suitably troubled personal history while assembling an impressive cast of contemporary comedy stars to provide some occasionally wildly uneven but always fun-to-behold impersonations of their iconic predecessors.

Will Forte stars as Kenney, a Harvard Lampoon editor who teams up with writer Henry Beard (Domhnall Gleeson, cosplaying as Howard Stern) to write a “Lord of the Rings” parody, “Bored of the Rings,” before taking their alumni publication national. Recruiting an ever-expanding rogue’s gallery of iconoclasts and reprobates including Chevy Chase (Joel McHale), Michael O’Donoghue (Thomas Lennon), Tony Hendra (Matt Lucas), Anne Beatts (Natasha Lyonne) and Harold Ramis (Rick Glassman, “Undateable”), Kenney and Beard quickly create a multimedia empire in print, radio and on stage. But before long, Kenney’s overbearing work load, antiestablishment impulses and increasingly unhealthy drug habits begin to undermine any success they’re able to achieve.

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Hollywood eventually comes calling and Kenney turns his attention to writing “Animal House,” a comedy inspired by anecdotes from Lampoon contributors’ collegiate days. But the film’s success proves too much for Kenney, who first finds it difficult to craft a follow-up that’s worthy of the box office record breaker. Even when he does, Kenney then struggles to come to terms with the effects of his own drug-addled creativity upon colleagues, friends and finally, himself.

If there’s a perfect midpoint between Will Forte’s exhilarating, gonzo turn as MacGruber and the drily sweet role he played in “Nebraska,” Doug Kenney might be it, astutely juggling the responsibility of being extremely funny while showcasing how, and why, his real-life counterpart never quite captured as much of the spotlight as his colleagues. The fact that Forte is too old for the retelling of literally any part of Kenney’s life — he’s 47, Kenney died at 33 — feels like a tribute to the impertinent spirit of the Lampoon (which clowned its co-founder even posthumously), but Wain and screenwriters John Aboud and Michael Colton offer an affectionate portrait of his life and times that harness Forte’s natural skills as both a weirdo and a charmer.

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Meanwhile, even if the casting choices in portraying some of iconic talents in Kenney’s orbit are occasionally questionable — a detail the film gleefully acknowledges — there’s something delightful about watching actors known for comedy now try to capture the sound or energy of the performers who inspired them. McHale looks nothing like Chevy Chase, for example, but he eerily captures Chase’s deadpan delivery (no doubt a talent gleaned during their time working together on “Community”) while also infusing the performance with a slight soulfulness that probably wasn’t necessary but rounds it up from just being skillful mimicry.

Emmy Rossum, playing Kenney’s longtime companion Kathryn Walker, brings a ray of sunshine to the second half of the film without much evoking the real star of “Slap Shot” and “Neighbors” (if you remember her at all). Collectively, they establish the intoxicating, anarchic atmosphere in which Kenney first thrived, then became overwhelmed, as his own profile began to clash with not just the concentric circles of commercial and critical acclaimed garnered by his colleagues but also, as we learn, the desperate yearning for a certain kind of approval he never seemed to get from his parents.

Thankfully, most of the film’s dramatic pivots are either underplayed or sewn into the fabric of the story via recreations of famous Lampoon bits, such as when the deterioration of Kenney’s marriage is depicted via a photo comic like those that frequently appeared in the magazine. (Martin Mull also appears in the film as an older version of Kenney, who narrates the film and frequently dismantles its necessary diversions into the more conventional conflicts he has with his parents, friends and lovers.)

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But even if Kenney’s premature death at age 33 was a considerable loss for the world of film comedy (in addition to the magazine, he gave audiences both “Animal House” and “Caddyshack”), Wain and his collaborators are more eager to celebrate his influence than to belabor the tragedy of his absence. Indeed, it’s the only film I can ever remember culminating with a food fight at a funeral that’s equally funny and sad.

Whether or not it’s perhaps slightly superfluous after “Drunk Stoned,” “A Futile And Stupid Gesture” is, ultimately, anything but pointless, exploring an important moment in pop culture through the life of a man who captured its essence as well as the people who made him an institution while using his work to tear down so many others.



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‘Den of Thieves’ Film Review: Heist Caper Steals from ‘Heat,’ Pulls Off the Job

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

With its loose-cannon cops, ice-cold crooks and urban Los Angeles sprawl, “Den of Thieves” wants to be “Heat” very, very badly — and it comes a lot closer than you expect.

Director Christian Gudegast lacks the operatic, mid-’90s freedom than Michael Mann had, not to mention Mann’s peerless technique and moral complexity, but for a movie so conspicuously wearing its chief influence on its sleeve, the first-timer employs an appealing, restless energy that gives his homage its own life on screen. Meanwhile, Pablo Schreiber and O’Shea Jackson Jr. quietly command the screen opposite a suitably bloated, snarling Gerard Butler in a cat-and-mouse game that unfolds at an unwieldy length (140 minutes) but not without plenty of sublime, thrilling highlights.

Butler plays “Big Nick” O’Brien, a corrupt LAPD officer who heads the Regulators, an elite group of county sheriffs who evidently pursue criminals as though their training manual was, well, from 1980s and ’90s cop movies: after discovering a connection between a bartender named Donnie (Jackson, “Ingrid Goes West”) and Ray Merrimen (Schreiber, “American Gods”), the chief suspect in an armored-car heist, O’Brien’s men kidnap Donnie and beat him until he agrees to be an informant for them.

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Merrimen, an ex-soldier who stages elaborate heists with his partner Levi Enson (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), has his sights set on the Federal Reserve Bank in downtown Los Angeles, and needs Donnie as a getaway driver. Donnie soon finds himself in the middle of an extraordinarily difficult situation when both O’Brien and Merrimen uncover Donnie’s relationship with the other, and try to use him to set their respective plans in motion.

One of the many reasons that “Heat” works so well is because it clearly defines the code by which each of its two protagonists operates, and then builds the story, and the action, outward from there. Gudegast, making his feature directing debut after writing “A Man Apart” and “London Has Fallen,” seems to understand just enough about that element of Mann’s film to recreate some of its conflicts — both in terms of crime scenarios and the characters’ civilian lives — but lacks the discipline, or maybe skill, to lend them real emotional weight, much less originality.

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It almost seems as if every character in this movie is impersonating someone from Mann’s: You could easily imagine Merrimen watching “Heat” and trying to emulate Robert De Niro’s unflappable professionalism, while O’Brien feels like a guy who would love to style himself after the bombastic Al Pacino but can only pull off the noisy scenery-chewing and trainwreck personal-life stuff. Jackson, Jr.’s Donnie comes from another ’90s crime movie, but to reveal its title would likely spoil many of the film’s third-act surprises.

Otherwise, the film mostly fails to do more than run down a checklist of familiar crime-story tropes, up to and including a protracted speech about a place that’s virtually impenetrable that ends with “…and that’s why we’re going to rob it.” But even if the final heist is almost exciting enough to warrant the overlong wait to get to it, Gudegast’s staging is more interested in action than in storytelling; as exhilarating as Mann’s downtown showdown is, it’s leavened with real dramatic stakes and driven by clearly-defined motives, whereas “Den of Thieves” culminates in a shootout-chase that is being performed largely out of obligation — as in, fealty to the gods of squibs and deafening sound effects.

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There’s something additionally irresponsible about the fact that the cops initiate the standoff knowing that there are dozens of motorists in the line of fire, and seem fully indifferent to their harm as they exchange thousands of rounds of ammunition to apprehend five guys who took a bunch of money that no one will miss.

Since making his debut playing his father Ice Cube in “Straight Outta Compton,” Jackson, Jr. has quickly proven he’s capable of the same sly versatility as O’Shea Jackson Sr., and makes a skillful career move here playing the gazelle caught between two lions. As Merrimen, Schreiber exudes the reliability and toughness of actors like Frank Grillo and Jon Bernthal, but gives the character a poise, a sense of calm, that makes him quite frankly the kind of guy that O’Brien would become obsessed with catching.

Butler, lurching and ferocious, unfortunately isn’t quite equal to the task of playing O’Brien with the same sleight of hand as his co-stars; he gives the wrong kind of wild-card performance in a role that demands more vulnerability than he’s capable of giving (or willing to give), turning the character into a parody rather than portrait of a driven cop.

But even if it lacks Mann’s poetry, Gudegast’s take on “Heat” is still better than it has any right to be; even when they miss the mark, the actors are clearly enjoying being a part of his machine. This is the kind of film where the actors are given few lines of dialogue and lots to do — gunfights notwithstanding, they assemble doodads, get to use blowtorches and impersonate DWP employees — and everybody seems game to give themselves over to the filmmaker’s vision, derivative though it may be. Indeed, that energy from the cast is infectious enough to carry over to audiences, who haven’t seen a movie like this in a while, or at least one not so self-serious about aping an absolute classic.

Ultimately, “Den of Thieves” falls short of its goal, but it gets points for aiming high; there are worse things than trying to be the next Michael Mann when few others would dare try, especially if they lack the enthusiasm oozing out of every frame of your imitation.



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‘Bright’ Film Review: Will Smith Struggles in Astoundingly Bad New Sci-Fi Movie

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

There may be no more unexpected (or damning) faint praise for David Ayer’s new movie “Bright” than this: It made me wish I was watching “Suicide Squad” instead.

If this new Netflix production exemplifies Ayer’s creativity unfettered by major-studio interference, I’ll take a lousy DC movie over… whatever this is any day of the week. Astoundingly bad in virtually every way, “Bright” shares in common several of the shortcomings of Ayer’s previous film, including conspicuous evidence of desperate efforts to cobble its under-explained and yet somehow overcomplicated mythology into something coherent. It also snipes at the heels of sci-fi movies and miniseries like “V” and “Alien Nation” that explored race relations better literally decades ago.

Even Will Smith’s irrepressible charisma can’t compete with the unrelentingly muddy production design, the poorly-conceived characters and a profoundly stupid racial metaphor that somehow amplifies stereotypes of actual ethnic groups. The result is another genre disaster that’s only impressive in how arrogantly the filmmakers presume audiences will want it to be expanded into a franchise.

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Smith plays Daryl Ward, an LAPD officer in an alternate timeline where faeries, elves and, most importantly, orcs coexist semi-peacefully with humans. Recovering from a point-blank shotgun blast to the chest, Daryl rejoins the force mostly to protect his pension, but his resolve is tested when he is paired with Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), the first-ever orc cop, whose negligence resulted in his injury.

Meanwhile, Nick encounters resistance from his own colleagues, higher-ups and a very vocal public, who not only want him thrown off the force, but to end his tenure in disgrace.

During the routine investigation of a crime scene, Daryl and Nick stumble upon a secret lair where Tikka (Lucy Fry, “Vampire Academy”), an elf, is hiding after acquiring a magic wand that can only be wielded by special individuals, called “brights.”

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But their efforts to follow procedure soon deteriorate after several of their fellow officers, two members of a federal “Magic Task Force,” a local street gang and an evil elf named Leilah (Noomi Rapace) demand that they turn over the wand. Soon, Daryl, Nick and Tikka find themselves on the run as they attempt to come to terms with the power of the wand and the ramifications of what might happen — not just to them, but all of Earth’s coexisting species — if should end up in the wrong hands.

There is an interesting story in here somewhere, one that brings together reality and fantasy, explores the juxtaposition of downtown skyscrapers and swooping dragons and illuminates the daily practicalities of neighbors with magic powers or unusual abilities.

But “Bright” takes a bunch of gobbledygook from “The Lord of the Rings,” liquefies it in a blender and pours it liberally over the same “corrupt cop comes to a moral crossroads” blueprint that Ayer has been copying since “Training Day.”

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Worse, Max Landis’ script — supposedly rewritten heavily by Ayer — turns the whole mess into a parable of discrimination, clumsily evoking troubling moments in race relations both new (“Faerie lives don’t matter today”) and old (the Rodney King beating) to preach tolerance while somehow doubling down on stereotypes of Latinos and other people of color.

Even on a basic narrative level, few of Ayer’s choices make complete sense (or maintain a consistent tone), except to serve a half-baked sense of professional obligation, brotherhood or old school machismo that he seems to believe bonds his two central characters.

It’s easy to understand why no one wants to partner with Nick, but why doesn’t anybody like Daryl, as he is explicitly told? Are they truly the only two honest cops in all of this movie’s present-day Los Angeles? How is it possible that a “Magic Task Force” can refer to Tikka and Leilah exclusively on a first-name basis, possess recent photos of both, and yet have no idea where they are — and not be capable of tracking them down after South Central Los Angeles literally explodes with car chases and shootouts to acquire the wand?

And if everyone believes in the authenticity and power of a magic wand, why does nobody seem to know that only Brights can hold it? And why hadn’t anyone tried to steal it before?

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Smith seems lost here as Daryl, even as he retreads his wiseacre pose from films like “Independence Day” and especially “Men in Black.” And Edgerton, buried under some combination of prosthetics and CGI, struggles to convey his character’s humorless, earnest intentions — appearing naïve or hopelessly inexperienced instead.

As elves, meanwhile, Fry and Rapace are opposite sides of the same insufferable coin. Fry shivers and spouts gibberish from beneath stringy locks like a poor man’s impersonation of Milla Jovovich in “The Fifth Element,” while Rapace literally muscles through one meticulously choreographed fight scene after another en route to a climactic monologue in which she clearly and concisely lays out her entire villainous plan.

Worst of all, “Bright” is ugly to watch — dingy, poorly staged, taking place mostly at night and in torrential rain for no seeming reason than to cover up how badly its action is shot and edited. Every moment is either too long or not long enough, and even basic spatial and logistical geography makes no sense. The characters fight “Warriors”-style across the city, somehow getting in and out of one locked room, packed club or secret alcove after another without energy or suspense.

When so much of the plot relies upon impossible coincidence, arbitrary change or pure contrivance, perhaps the title is intended to be ironic.



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‘I, Tonya’ Film Review: Margot Robbie Dazzles in a Biopic That Freezes Up

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Tonya Harding was a controversial iconoclast within the world of professional figure skating, so it seems appropriate that the story of her life be told in a film replete with contradictory accounts, unreliable narrators, and a general devil-may-care attitude towards the truth. Bustling with manic energy, “I, Tonya” attempts to cobble together a variety of perspectives — including that of the filmmakers — to create a portrait of, and perhaps rejoinder to, history’s assessment of the record-breaking athlete as little more than a ’90s tabloid footnote.

Bolstered by dynamic, memorable performances by Margot Robbie, Alison Janney and Sebastian Stan, director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) creates his own dime-store “Goodfellas” with a fourth-wall-breaking true crime tale that effectively uses its subject’s own words to disprove the assertion there’s more to her than audiences think.

Robbie plays Harding, a prodigiously gifted skater who becomes a sensation despite (or, depending upon who you ask, because of) an impoverished upbringing under an absent father and abusive mother, the foul-mouthed LaVona (Janney). Succumbing to the charms of turtleneck-clad doofus Jeff Gillooly (Stan), Tonya struggles both financially and emotionally to balance her own blue-collar tastes and lifestyle with the posh femininity of the skating community. But after repeatedly fighting with judges for equal consideration, Tonya performs a triple axel, an unprecedented jump that forces them to recognize her talents.

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Catapulted onto the world stage, Tonya’s lifelong dreams to become an Olympic-level skater finally seem to be coming true. But when Jeff delegates a nasty little bit of psychological warfare against opponent Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver, “Rules Don’t Apply”) to his overachieving friend Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser, TV’s “Kingdom”), Tonya’s ambitions threaten to collapse as she finds herself caught up in their boneheaded schemes.

From the outset, the script by Steven Rogers (“Love the Coopers”) pretty aggressively disavows the prospect of there being one objective account of the events on screen, be they “the incident” in which Kerrigan got attacked, or Tonya’s abuse claims against her mother and later Gillooly. This has the unfortunate effect of desensitizing the audience to some (likely true) despicable behavior — especially from Gillooly, whom Harding filed restraining orders against — and turning the film, to many, into a Coen brothers-style comedy about dumb crooks and the yokels who love them.

(Composer Peter Nashel’s score oozes with the same kind of wry ominousness as music composed by longtime Coen collaborator Carter Burwell.)

See Photos: The Evolution of Margot Robbie, From ‘Neighbours’ to ‘I, Tonya’

But if you can get past the film’s invitation to laugh uneasily at domestic violence, “I, Tonya” actually has more to say about class warfare waged by the media, and the complex psychological motivations that seem horrible but also just might make some athletes great.

We’ll have to take LaVona’s word for whether or not she was deliberately employing a thankless strategy in pissing her daughter off so she could perform at her best; even Tonya seems mostly nonchalant about her mother’s cruelty in retrospect. But there’s no denying Harding’s very genuine talents, even if the gatekeepers of her chosen sport were determined to do so anyway, thanks to the depressing truth that she wasn’t as polished or graceful (or just conspicuously affluent) as her competitors.

The movie, for better or worse, leans into the characterizations created by the media during Harding’s heyday, but Rogers and Gillespie aren’t quite capable of slowing the momentum of that perception once Gillooly and Hauser begin dominating the story with their mindless criminal enterprises.

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Although the CGI used to graft Margot Robbie’s face onto bodies capable of Harding’s figure skating feats is, to put it mildly, distractingly inconsistent, Robbie otherwise plays the disgraced athlete with convincing fortitude and resilience. Watching the actress suck down cigarettes and womanspread her way through the interview segments, you get the sense she spent at least enough time with the real Harding to get a sense of her attitude and mannerisms. Robbie approaches her sincerely even when the movie dissociates from some of the most awful instances of abuse she suffers, lending her fight for professional and personal credibility an understated dignity.

Janney, meanwhile, is a force of nature as LaVona, but her performance lacks some small degree of humanity that might make her somewhat identifiable as anything other than a cruel, self-justifying monster. That said, interview footage that pops up at the end suggests her take on the woman is not far from reality. (The home video release promises to be a treasure trove of material to compare to the fictionalized performances in the film.)

Stan is suitably slight as Gillooly, and he is appropriately dwarfed by the twin suns of Robbie and Janney as women he could and would never possibly outshine. But Hauser is sort of a revelation as Eckhardt, perfectly mimicking his real-life counterpart’s lumbering, too-clever-by-half delusions of grandeur, threatening to steal the movie out from under his co-stars with an exasperating, willful obliviousness to everything up to and including the naked truth, even and especially when it’s thrown directly in his face.

Gillespie makes a half-successful stab at duplicating the dizzying momentum of filmmakers like Scorsese in an effort to give his pastiche of perspectives some cohesion, but it ultimately serves to undermine rather than enhance our identification with Tonya, even if it’s impossible not to feel at least somewhat sorry for her first for being dealt such an awful hand by life, and then by being vilified by the world for playing it the only way she knew how to.

Suffice it to say that if it was “only about the skating” — a request Tonya desperately makes at one point to a panel of judges who see only her frizzy bangs and tacky, homemade costume — there mightn’t be as interesting a film on screen. But as well-rendered and unflinching as is the work done by Gillespie, Robbie and their collaborators, the way that “I, Tonya” approaches Harding’s life virtually ensures that everything else other than what she did on the ice is what she’s remembered for.



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‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Review: Kenneth Branagh Only Has Eyes for Himself

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

“Murder on the Orient Express” suggests it’s possible that no director has ever loved his star more than Kenneth Branagh loves himself. Watching how lovingly Branagh dotes on every follicle of sculpted hair, every self-consciously idiosyncratic gesture of his own performance as Hercule Poirot, you’d think that the Oscar-nominated director was anointing an irresistible new ingénue to the pop culture firmament.

Unfortunately, Agatha Christie’s source material — famously adapted to the big screen in 1974, and again for television in 2001 — is an ensemble piece, not a star vehicle, which is perhaps why Branagh’s choices feel so misguided, reducing this murder mystery to a one-man show for the character whose journey is by far the least interesting.

Set in 1931, the film opens in Jerusalem, where Poirot is apparently keeping the entire city’s inhabitants waiting while he double-checks that his breakfast eggs are symmetrical. Handily solving a theft in which a rabbi, priest and imam are the chief suspects (don’t worry, he points out the comedic possibilities), Poirot is all set for a much-needed vacation when he receives a telegram about an outstanding case that requires his prompt return to London. The most expeditious route is via the Orient Express, for which his friend Bouc (Tom Bateman, “Snatched”) serves as director, so Poirot soon finds himself rubbing elbows with a cross-section of international passengers from various walks of life.

Watch Video: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ Trailer Packed With Stars and Twists

His companions include governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley), English physician Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.), an English physician, man-hungry widow Mrs. Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer), maid-turned-missionary Pilar (Penelope Cruz), German professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe) and Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a brutish American who attempts to hire Poirot to protect him.

Poirot declines — “I do not like your face,” he tells him plainly — and the next morning, the detective awakens to learn that Ratchett was murdered, even as the train gets stranded mid-journey by an avalanche. Bouc, desperate to protect the Express’ reputation, begs his friend to solve the case before local authorities can arrive, dig them out, and turn the crime scene into an international scandal.

But when one of the clues points to a crime from years ago that Poirot was unable to help solve, the legendary detective is forced to rethink his concept of justice as he tries to make sense of a murder that every one of his fellow passengers could be guilty of committing.

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Branagh clearly relishes the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of what is quite frankly an incredible list of actors who have played the iconic Poirot: Albert Finney, Peter Ustinov, Ian Holm and Orson Welles, to name but a few. Further, he embraces the character’s anachronistic facial hair and Belgian accent with a self-congratulatory enthusiasm that suggests he wants you to appreciate the fact he’s taking this silliness seriously. But this feels like one time when casting a younger actor in a role like this would have actually benefited the story, particularly since the script by Michael Green (“Blade Runner 2049”) wants Poirot to experience some sort of emotional journey, which Branagh’s seasoned, pompous certitude in the role undermines.

Behind the cameras, meanwhile, Branagh reserves the bulk of his creative energy for rich, detailed close-ups of himself and, when needed, gorgeous wide-angle shots of international locales, while routine montages of crisp linens and polished mahogany highlight the posh affluence of the Express. His efforts to inject the film with a handful of action-oriented sequences feel appropriately half-hearted, underscoring his blind spot as a director, not to mention performer, of action (“Thor” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” fans, don’t @ me), inadvertently emphasizing the smallness of a story he’s trying to make feel operatic.

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But the biggest crime Branagh commits is wasting one of the most impressive ensemble casts in recent history, reducing Poirot’s 12 suspects to one-dimensional background characters. Ridley seems destined for massive stardom — she commands the screen every time her character, Mary, spars with Poirot — but she, like virtually everybody else, frequently seems in search of something to do while Branagh is monologuing. Judi Dench won an Academy Award for one scene in “Shakespeare in Love,” but she barely registers at all as a snooty princess; ditto Olivia Colman, far too talented to play a handmaiden whose link to the murder is established tenuously at best.

That a tintype photograph of Poirot’s lost love gets as much screen time (and emotional weight) as some of these characters feels questionable, but when they’re played by the likes of Cruz, Dafoe, Odom and Pfeiffer, there’s just no excuse for their contributions to be so anemic.

Ultimately, “Murder on the Orient Express” isn’t necessarily awful; it’s just inert, a prestige pic that’s too busy looking handsome and respectable to evoke any real intrigue or emotional involvement. Despite its shortcomings, it’s the kind of movie we need more of, where stars ostensibly converge to play a juicy, small part in a bigger story, targeted at an audience as equipped to appreciate seasoned actors like Dench, Dafoe and Derek Jacobi as A-listers Depp and Daisy Ridley. Certainly in that regard, Branagh extends an impressive lineage of Agatha Christie adaptations populated by some of the best actors in the world.

But if the goal is to launch a franchise adapting the author’s iconic works for contemporary moviegoing audiences, it behooves Branagh going forward to remember there’s not much suspense in a whodunit if one person does so much that there’s nothing left for anybody else.

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