‘Pet Sematary’ Film Review: Stephen King Remake Digs Up Fresh New Scares

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For fans of Mary Lambert’s original 1989 adaptation of the beloved Stephen King book, the new remake of “Pet Sematary” is different enough to offer shock and surprises to even the most ardent of loyalists.

At its premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival, several audience members braced themselves for pivotal moments from the older movie, and then jumped or nervously laughed when their anticipation was met by a clever psych-outs by directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, whose previous film, “Starry Eyes” also played at SXSW.

The movie opens differently than its predecessor. This time, the family car door is open, and there are bloody handprints still fresh on the driver’s side window. A thick trail of blood leads from the house to outside, but there are no characters in the frame or much of a clue at what’s happened. The film then jumps back to the fateful day the Creed family moved from Boston to Ludlow, Maine, teasing the high-speed danger just outside their new home’s driveway. Behind their home is a macabre grave site the local kids have named a “pet sematary” for their deceased animals. Just beyond the borders of the area lies an even scarier plot of land.

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While many of the favorite characters remain almost intact from King’s book, there are a few tweaks by the actors in their performances to give this version some more twists. Louis (Jason Clarke), a sensitive doctor, seems more attuned to the needs of his family. He’s very playful and connected with his daughter and son, and his softened persona makes him a more tragic figure as the events start to turn dark.

His wife, Rachel (Amy Seimetz), feels more grounded than her predecessor. Seimetz displays her character’s childhood traumas on the surface, like a woman fighting down her demons from taking over. John Lithgow brings a much more sympathetic approach to older local Jud and his curiosity about the supernatural grounds. But the film’s breakout star is Jeté Laurence (“Sneaky Pete”), whose scary-good performance as the sweet and naturally curious 8-year-old Ellie recasts what could have been a silly part into something that’s genuinely creepy and heartbreaking.

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This “Pet Sematary” is notably different in pacing, starting off with a disturbing image and working quickly to retrace the steps that led to that moment. The movie is relatively on the bloody side of horror, including scenes like the film’s opening shot and the unfortunate family cat that gets a mangy makeover later in the movie. Cinematographer Laurie Rose (“Stan & Ollie”) casts much of the film in a pale blue pall, as though the sun never comes out in this part of Maine.

While the trailer unbelievably spoils one of the remake’s biggest plot twists, there’s still a lot of hidden references for people familiar to the story, like an updated cover version of The Ramones’ “Pet Sematary” over the credits. For those new to what happens, this remake will perhaps act as a gateway to checking out more adaptations of King’s stories or reading his books.

One of the most enduring aspects of the narrative is how it addresses grief, our inability to let go of loved ones when they die, and our fear about discussing mortality. Louis and Rachel fight over how to talk to Ellie about death, revealing an American cultural taboo around the subject. Rachel, traumatized by the early death of her sick sister, wants to shield her daughter from the harsh sting of losing a loved one for as long as she can. Louis disagrees, and there’s a sense that the movie sides with him, although it later shows that while he can talk about loss in the abstract, and try to fight against it as a doctor, he still does not know what it means to grieve for someone and to let them go.

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(When the directors and some members of the cast and crew took the stage after the screening, Widmyer described his “Pet Sematary” as “elevated horror.” There’s not an “elevated” thing about it. It’s not high-concept, paced like a slow-burn arthouse movie, or meant to shatter audiences’ expectations of what defines a horror movie. “Pet Sematary” is just a regular horror movie told with the directors’ style, and it’s not like this genre is short on stylish directors: Sam Raimi, George Romero, John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, to name just a few, scared audiences with their groundbreaking works, yet their movies may never be classified as “elevated horror.” It’s a false label that sneers at the history and conventions of the genre for the sake of filmmakers’ egos and, in a way, it diminishes what Lambert accomplished with her version of “Pet Sematary” in order to “elevate” their vision above hers.)

That Q&A aside, I quite enjoyed the thrills of the new “Pet Sematary,” much like I enjoyed the scares of the old movie. Its terrifying story about death still leaves audiences with much to think about long after the credits roll, and the twists that lead to a new ending are fun to follow. Thirty years after the original movie frightened audiences, its source material has given new life to one of the best Stephen King adaptations in the past decade.



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‘The Day Shall Come’ Film Review: ‘Four Lions’ Director Returns With Another Blistering Political Satire

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In Christopher Morris’ new satire, “The Day Shall Come,” the stories of many people in the United States are condensed into one bitterly funny but dark comedy about the shortcomings of our justice system.

On one side is a charismatic man with delusions of grandeur, Moses (newcomer Marchánt Davis). He oversees a peaceful sect based on a fairly convoluted belief system that references Black Islamist, Jewish and Christian traditions. Moses works with his wife, Venus (Danielle Brooks, “Orange Is the New Black”) on the farm, takes in former drug dealers off the streets, and preaches the gospel of nonviolence and communal living. However, his unorthodox prayers call out to the liberator of Haiti, Francois-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture, and to Black Santa. It’s erratic enough behavior to get on the FBI’s radar, who deem Moses and his Star of Six group a possible threat.

What follows is a “Veep”-like look at the behind-the-scenes fumblings of the FBI. Driven by careerist aspirations, the group puts their self-interests above the need to do what’s right. Kendra (Anna Kendrick) leads the charge with shaky intel, feeding her boss Andy (Denis O’Hare) the false hope of a good case on which to end his career. As the FBI tries to trap Moses and frame him for intent to commit terrorist attacks, he proves not to be a traditional target, giving both the FBI and the movie their fair share of surprises.

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Despite the serious subject, Morris gives “The Day Shall Come” a brisk and upbeat tone. Some situations are so silly, you can’t help but laugh. The movie excels at the snappy workplace back-and-forth dialogue between Kendra and her antagonistic all-male team, perhaps a beneficiary of Morris’ time as a director on “Veep.” The scenes of the FBI are mostly cast under the pall of fluorescent blue lights, contrasting against the bright warmth of the pink Miami home and rundown community farm where Moses and his followers work.

Morris struggles with how to approach Moses, an innocent yet strange victim. While it’s clear that he sympathizes with what the unfairly targeted man is going through, a number of the jokes are still at his expense. In treating everyone equally as fools, there’s a disparity in who can withstand that kind of lampooning and who gets maligned in the real world.

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Unfortunately, Kendrick is not on screen enough to build out a great performance, but Davis uses her short scenes to dig into the humanity of his outsized character. There’s a tragic element in the way that Moses doesn’t understand his betrayal, which makes the actions of the FBI seem even crueler. Like the bumbling jihadists of Morris’ previous film, “Four Lions,” Moses is nowhere near ready to become a terrorist, not that he’s trying to become one. It’s the government that villainizes him and his beliefs.

The one major fault in “The Day Shall Come” stems from treating everyone from the FBI to their poorly-sourced targets as buffoons, which absolves the FBI from the serious implications of its actions. In order to save their careers, the agents scramble to arrest someone more in need of psychiatric help than prison bars, undercutting the fact that not only did they upend the lives of four people — including Venus, who left before Moses fell to temptation —  but the FBI’s actions also affected their families, Venus and Moses’ daughter, and their Liberty City community.

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“The Day Shall Come” is greatest when skewering power and shining a light on grave legal overreach. That we can laugh about it is great, but it’s a sign of our own security, of how unlikely we feel that we would be targeted in the same way. For others, laughing at this movie may not be so easy.

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‘Captive State’ Film Review: Space Invaders Occupy Earth Without the Benefit of a Decent Script

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If near-future science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that humanity is irremediably doomed; either we succumb to rapacious technology or natural disasters of our own making, or an invasion by foes beyond our atmosphere wipes us out or enslaves us. Rupert Wyatt’s “Captive State” adheres to the latter variant but shows no intention of providing entertainment, just an unsatisfying potluck of quasi-relevant, frustration-inducing ideas.

Nine years after first contact, Earth’s governments have surrendered power to the alien overlords, whose spiny-looking leader is known as The Legislator. These creatures are benevolent in the way that a dictator is good to anyone: They’ve delivered stability in exchange for oppression. Up-close, the extraterrestrial enemies read as a crossbreed between a hairy tarantula and a lychee (yes, the tropical Asian fruit).

In response, the unimaginatively named insurgent group Phoenix has emerged and consistently carried out attacks on the “closed zones,” underground areas from which the villains run their resource-draining operation. That’s as much as can be gathered with certainty from the screenplay by Wyatt and Erica Beeney (“The Battle of Shaker Heights”). There may well be written text out there that explains the intricacies of the “Captive State” mythology, but none of it makes it onto the screen.

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John Goodman, in a phoned-in chore of a performance similar to others he’s cranked out with ease over the years, plays serious detective William Mulligan, the man tasked with stopping the Chicago cell of the humanist troublemakers. Together with Ashton Sanders (“Moonlight”) as teen rebel Gabriel Drummond, mourning his heroic brother, Goodman functions as the movie’s weak emotional anchor among plenty of even more thinly developed earthlings.

A stilted argument serves as Jonathan Majors’ most noteworthy contribution; Majors is a great actor elsewhere, who’ll get his time in the sun later this year when Sundance hit “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” arrives in theaters. Meanwhile, a wasted Vera Farmiga gets three scenes as a book-smart prostitute, while KiKi Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) makes a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. That concludes the list of folks with even a shred of narrative weight.

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Even after a full hour of tediously dry yet flagrant setup, the essential points of the film’s premise remain devoid of clarity. Make no mistake, just because a slew of nameless characters are introduced by the minute as if by revolving door, it doesn’t mean the plot gets any more enticing. People walk in and out of frame at such pace, one can only hope they are all wearing pedometers to register their futile efforts to rescue us not from destruction but boredom. Thrills are few, and they are all in the trailer.

It’s almost impressive the level of insufferable dourness that “Captive State” achieves, both in form and tone. Whatever existential conundrum or socio-political concern it pretends to be compelled by dissolves into a pool of convoluted sequences that pull our attention from the message (whatever that might be) in order to try to figure who is who and what is going on from one cut to the next. A grounded espionage thriller with otherworldly antagonists sounds truly gripping, but this isn’t it.

Wyatt could possibly be making a point about solidarity in the face of a common adversary, or how a committed few can enact change, or maybe even making connections with the current state of affairs, but if that’s the case, it’s all obscured behind dry speeches and mundane filmmaking. Its urban landscapes and washed-out colors do little to add aesthetic singularity or visual allure, although they do fit right in with the lo-fi approach. What’s carried over from other space-invaders chronicles are the primitive sounds that make up their foreign language and a score that reuses eerie audio cues that immediately ring of outer space.

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Delving into the purposeless particularities of this self-important snoozer could require an elaborate dissertation. That’s far beyond the attention it warrants. Still, some rather nonsensical quirks of note include the grotesque bugs implanted on mankind to track our every mode — A commentary on cell phones? Who knows. — a flammable and transparent organic substance that works in mysterious ways, and the curious notion that aliens hate how humans smell.

Following a major operation during a “unity rally,” where American leaders welcome an alien dignitary, a ridiculous brawl erupts that demonstrates that the movie couldn’t care less about its own rules. These hyper-intelligent alien entities, which we’ve earlier seen pulverize human bodies into bloody dust within seconds, are somehow defeated with a fire extinguisher and a quick strangulation session. Turns out they are no stronger than a regular henchman. (Fun fact: They also look like lychees on the inside.)

Lacking poignancy at every level, what could have been a moderately exciting, if unoriginal, occupation thriller instead becomes a muddled and dispirited disappointment from the director who once earned high praise for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”



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‘The Mustang’ Film Review: Matthias Schoenaerts Tames a Horse and Saves Himself in Prison Drama

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Horses and men have been mythic companions as long as movies have been around, so why does it feel as if within only the last couple of years, with “The Rider,” “Lean on Pete,” and now French filmmaker Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre’s touching drama “The Mustang,” have we gotten a fuller examination of this relationship?

Maybe because we’re finally seeing horses treated as flesh-and-blood characters and not simply beautiful accessories or four-legged extensions of the rider’s personality (or just vehicles for transport). Which is surely why de Clermont-Tonnerre was drawn to the stories coming out of prison programs around the world that utilized animals as therapy — living, breathing, loving creatures who could help re-socialize those coarsened by incarceration.

But “The Mustang” — which de Clermont-Tonnerre wrote with Mona Fastvold (“The Childhood of a Leader”) and Brock Norman Brock (“Yardie”), and which recently premiered at Sundance — isn’t just about what happens when a hardened prisoner (Matthias Schoenaerts) learns to tame a wild horse. We’ve all seen enough movies that we can say it together: he learns about himself, too. What’s uniquely resonant about her approach is that, by framing this rehabilitation story in the context of not just our treatment of the incarcerated but also the horses’ situation (wild mustangs rounded up en masse as a population control measure), her film is about a relationship forged in a give-and-take that treats beast and human as emotional equals.

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In fact, de Clermont-Tonnerre’s opening images are of freedom, captured explicitly from the perspective of the animals: a herd of mustangs at play, at rest, and roaming in a gorgeous mountain range, until the sound of whirring blades cuts through the sound of hooves, and a copter enters the wide frame to guide these horses into pens. Needless to say, the creatures don’t respond well, their every kick and exhortation thick with agitated aggression.

Just as significant in the filmmaker’s desire to link horse and human before they even meet, when the film cuts to a Nevada prison counselor (Connie Britton) evaluating a new transfer who’s off-camera, we only hear the prisoner’s animalistic, unresponsive snorting. This is our introduction to Schoenaerts’ Roman, a barrel-chested, menacing and tight-lipped convict of many years trying to get out of isolation and into gen pop again, except, as he grunts to Britton, “I’m not good with people.” He’s barely communicable even with his own pregnant teenage daughter (Gideon Adlon, “Blockers”), whose stone-faced visits suggest that whatever put Roman behind bars for 12 years (the horrific details of which we learn later), forgiveness has been difficult, and parenting non-existent.

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“Outdoor maintenance” is where Roman finds himself, shoveling horse manure, until the sound of a buckskin’s furious kicking against the door of its sunless pen draws his attention. Schoenaerts’ eyes, simultaneously curious and wary, say it all: Is this inmate angrier than I am? Once accepted into the prison’s horse-training program under crusty administrator Myles (a full-throttle Bruce Dern), and guided through the process by genial fellow inmate Henry (Jason Mitchell, “Mudbound”), Roman is forced to realize how much his unbridled rage prevents meaningful connection with others.

De Clermont-Tonnerre doesn’t shy from visually synching Roman’s breakthroughs with Marquis, the name he gives his ornery charge, with his own inner journey. After a lovely shot in which Marquis’s head silently, sensitively enters the frame to brush up against the dejected Roman — representing their first true bonding — she cuts to Roman inside the prison, at a window, the angle of which offers a reflection as bold as a mirror’s.

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The filmmaker is aware that she’s in Western territory, yet she judiciously deploys Ruben Impens’ (“The Broken Circle Breakdown”) textured cinematography, and the intimately boxy 1.66:1 aspect ratio, for classically mythic images only when they resonantly tweak the genre’s visual language: a line of men on horseback riding through a stunning landscape, for instance, accompanied only by a watchful prison vehicle.

And while she’s injected “The Mustang” with an appealingly non-judgmental depiction of penitentiary life, de Clermont-Tonnerre is less skillful breathing new life into certain prison-narrative tropes. The one vivid byproduct of a tepidly rendered subplot involving Roman’s threatening cellmate is that Schoenaerts, when required to unleash toxic masculine violence, is terrifyingly good at it. Thankfully he’s just a magnetic actor overall, keen to the ways the physicality of brutish men is sometimes made hopelessly awkward by the injection of emotional healing.

The horses magnificently do their part, too, as co-stars in this redemption saga, mostly because de Clermont-Tonnerre gives them plenty of screen time to be irritable, sad, manic, desperate, but also begrudging, friendly, spirited, and at peace. It says a lot about where “The Mustang” stands in the history of man-and-his-horse movies that when auction day arrives, and the camera pans across a line of changed prisoners sitting atop similarly becalmed, four-legged hardcases, I found myself scanning the horses’ faces to gauge what they were thinking.



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‘Yardie’ Film Review: Idris Elba Falls Short With Atmospheric Directorial Debut

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There’s something missing in “Yardie,” Idris Elba’s directorial debut, but I can’t quite place my finger on it. The acting is decent, the cinematography is well-executed, and the music is on point, but the delivery and the tone are completely mismatched. It feels as if the film itself is aching to say something more, but is ultimately muted by choices the freshman director withheld from making.

Based on the 1992 book by Victor Headley, the film opens in 1973 Kingston, Jamaica. There’s a gang war, and young D (Antwayne Eccleston) is being raised by his older brother, Jerry Dread (Everaldo Creary, “Better Mus Come”) while King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd) — a gang leader, don, and music producer — acts a sort of father figure to both. During a concert meant to unite rival gangs in Kingston, Jerry is gunned down, leaving D to be raised by King Fox.

Years later, adult D (Aml Ameen, “Sense 8”) is working for King Fox in whatever capacity he needs, which includes becoming a courier to London where he needs to deliver cocaine to local crime boss Rico (Stephen Graham, “Boardwalk Empire”). While in London, D attempts to reconnect with his childhood love, Yvonne (Shantol Jackson) and their young daughter, who he hasn’t seen since her infancy. The coke deal goes awry, and as D figures out his next step, he must choose between keeping his family safe or taking down the person he thinks killed his brother.

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Though the film offers solid performances from its ensemble, much of Ameen’s work is overshadowed by clumsy narration that weaves in and out at odd moments. Ameen is capable of carrying much of the film’s inner monologues in his own performance, which makes the narration extraneous and baffling.

Graham, a fine actor, does the best he can with the caricature of a drug lord he is given. The problem lies in the script by Brock Norman Brock (“Bronson”) and Martin Stellman (“Babylon”): Rico reads like a parody instead of the actual threat he may pose to D, which isn’t Graham’s fault, but the writers’ and director Elba’s indecisive choices.

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Having not read Headley’s novel, but knowing that it became a literary sensation by being sold outside concert halls and hair salons within the very community it discusses, it would appear that the source material has more to say about warring neighborhoods, and the rampant drugs and crime surrounding them. In the big-screen version of “Yardie,” these ideas are touched on superficially without going deep enough to provide true representation. The film’s tone wobbles between full-on crime drama and the book’s empathetic portrayal of a specific community.

Elba’s film reflects conflict through its soundtrack, relying solely on music supervisor Nick Angel’s choices, which exude both the joy of the Rastafarian lifestyle and the darkness of a country plagued by gang wars. There are moments when an adult D takes the mic and spouts verses that are beautiful, painful and poetic, but this B-story goes nowhere, thus ending any way of having the music save the choppiness of the film’s tone.

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Director of photography John Conroy (who worked with Elba on TV’s “Luther”) also tries to bridge the gaps in tone by allowing the audience a chance to see a side of Jamaica that isn’t typically seen. The country remains as beautiful as we’re used to seeing it, but Conroy makes the dark underbelly come alive in color, showing what a beautifully broken existence it is to live in a world with a stunning landscape surrounded by poverty and crime. On the flip side, however, London could have been presented a bit grittier — instead it feels tidy, despite the chaos Rico and his gang cause.

There’s no question that Elba is a talented actor, but his debut on the other side of the lens falls a bit short. Director need to make decisions to get a story across, and Elba appears to have been too shy or too reluctant to make them. “Yardie” suffers for it.



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‘The Hummingbird Project’ Film Review: Jesse Eisenberg Launches an Overly Ambitious Scheme, and Ultimately, So’s the Movie

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

One millisecond is a nearly infinitesimal fraction of time. Heck, it just took you about a thousand milliseconds to read the words: “one millisecond.” So telling a story about a high-stakes race to convey information one measly millisecond faster than anybody else sounds like an exercise in making a heck of a lot of ado over, quite literally, almost nothing.

Thankfully, Kim Nguyen’s “The Hummingbird Project” is in on the joke. It’s a dryly humorous caper about a pair of cousins, Vincent (Jesse Eisenberg) and Anton (Alexander Skarsgård), who scheme to build a fiberoptic pipeline from Kansas City to New Jersey under the nose of their wealthy ex-employer, Eva Torres (Salma Hayek). Once built, their connection to the stock exchange will be one millisecond faster than anyone else’s, and that’s all the time they need to make a fortune.

Yes, that’s it; that’s their whole plan. They may be somewhat unethical, but they’re hardly Lex Luthor and Eric Northman. Vincent and Anton pitch their idea to legitimate investors and then try to charm and (when necessary) drink the allegorical milkshakes of the various landowners who stand in the way of them digging a modest-width, albeit incredibly long, hole in the ground.

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Nguyen, director of the Oscar-nominated “War Witch,” plays most of “The Hummingbird Project” like an old-school heist movie, complete with fast-talking cons and schematics every which way. The cognitive disconnect between how serious Vincent and Anton take their mission and the mundanity of actually digging holes is inherently funny, and Nguyen milks that contrast for delicious irony and, eventually, some only partly-earned pathos.

“The Hummingbird Project” is the kind of film where Salma Hayek says, as she reaches out to a colleague, “You don’t have to hide behind this gimmicky neutrino-messaging bullsh*t,” as if she doesn’t sound like she’s reading stereo instructions. The playful score by Yves Gourmeur (“Méprises”) and sharp, serious cinematography by Nicolas Bolduc (“Enemy”) are also whimsically at odds with one another. It’s a film that owns its contrasts, that’s for certain.

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But although the story of “The Hummingbird Project” begins with a slick, Soderbergh-ian heist mentality, it gradually evolves into a rather sad tale about what a waste of time it is to try to steal a millisecond. As one of our protagonists wrestles with his mortality, and his decision to build the pipeline even if it literally kills him, the other expands his consciousness to acknowledge that all their effort to make a few insanely rich investors just a little bit richer does absolutely nothing to help the people working at the companies in which they’re actually investing.

That’s a thoughtful approach to a film like this but sadly, “The Hummingbird Project” doesn’t earn its enlightened conclusion. Most of the characters are eccentric, sometimes to the point of caricature; that, or they merely serve a function to the plot. Eisenberg seems to be playing a significantly less successful version of his Mark Zuckerberg character in “The Social Network,” with all the detachment and scheming but almost none of the skills to back up his bravado. Eisenberg is great at that, but it doesn’t do much to earn our empathy.

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Meanwhile, Skarsgård plays a genius whose behavior would seem to indicate that he’s on the spectrum, although that’s never directly addressed. The actor appears to relish playing a brainy character: It looks like he dove headfirst into the electric razor that gave him a huge receding hairline. And it’s exceedingly amusing, for those who relish hackneyed moments of inspiration in movies, to see him amble from one seemingly random moment to another, in search of the big “eureka” that will solve all his problems and finally buy them that extra millisecond. Will he find a way to skip junctions after he tries skipping stones? No. Will he realize that fiberoptic cables are affected by water after he picks up the frog? No. You’ll see what it is, and if you’re into meta-narratives, you’ll probably be happy with its banality.

But all this whimsy does little to address the film’s frustratingly simple conclusions about life, the universe and everything. One of the characters basically comes right out and says, like he’s the biggest genius of them all, that the real treasure was the friends they made along the way. At that point “The Hummingbird Project” goes from ironic to trite in — it seems — less than a millisecond.

“The Hummingbird Project” is most of a great movie. Amiable performances and a deft pace combine with high-contrast storytelling, and the results are generally engaging. Sometimes funny, sometimes smart, always watchable, but perhaps the film’s dedication to turning a clever tale into something profound was a miscalculation. Perhaps there were simply better ways to spend the time.



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