‘Working Woman’ Film Review: Israeli Sexual-Harassment Drama Delivers Powerful Sting of Truth

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Israeli director Michal Aviad was inspired to make “Working Woman” after watching a range of films about sexual harassment in the workplace. Much to her surprise — and dismay — she discovered that most of them dismissed, demeaned, or even demonized the victims.

Aviad’s thoughtful response is a film that feels very contemporary, but will also resonate with generations of viewers who recognize the many small moments that lead up to and follow its quietly wrenching central experience.

The film opens as a smiling Orna (Liron Ben Shlush) leaves her first job interview in years. She’s the harried mother of three children, and her husband, Ofer (Oshri Cohen), has recently opened a small and still-struggling restaurant in Tel Aviv. Ofer is skeptical of the time his newly-employed wife will be spending away from home, but she’s approaching her return to the workplace with a mixture of practicality and excitement. Her family needs the money, and she thinks she might actually be good at the job, as assistant to a wealthy and powerful real estate developer.

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As it turns out, she’s great at this work. So much so, in fact, that she receives an immediate promotion to sales manager — which brings not only a raise, but also more and more attention from her boss, Benny (Israeli star Menashe Noy, “Gett”). Since we’ve got an outsider’s perspective, Benny’s increasingly intimate comments set off alarm bells immediately. But he has the smooth charm of innate entitlement and the confident narcissism of a master gaslighter. So Orna is left wondering whether he’s just trying to help her out with sales when he suggests she wear her hair down and buy more sophisticated clothes.

Though it becomes harder and harder for her to rationalize his comments — and, soon, his actions — Orna feels she has no choice. For one thing, she’s found a career she loves, as long as the boss isn’t around. But for another, the boss writes the paychecks on which her entire family now relies.

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Aviad knows there will be moments when audience members may be tempted to echo Ofer’s frustrated disbelief: why hasn’t Orna done this, or that, or anything else in the face of Benny’s clearly escalating misbehavior? But that’s where the film’s greatest strength kicks in, with painstaking answers for each instinctual or cynical question. Aviad has extensive experience as an award-winning documentarian (“The Woman Next Door,” “Jenny & Jenny”), and she and cinematographer Daniel Miller use long takes with a handheld camera to build a subtly effective sense of reality.

Thanks to committed performances and a meticulous script (by Aviad, Michal Vinik, and Sharon Azulay Eyal), Orna and Ofer feel like an actual couple, whose loving connection complicates both her confusion and his response to her pain. Their cramped and dark apartment also contrasts uncomfortably with the lavish and light-filled home where Benny and his wife Sari (Dorit Lev-Ari) live. But when Aviad brings them all together, we’re jarred both by the power that protects Benny and the knowledge that it’s merely muffling the ugly noise Sari hasn’t yet heard.

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“Working Woman” has the intent focus of a horror film: Aviad sets her characters on a path at the start, and never strays from the inevitable destination. This commitment falters only at the end, with a finale that lacks a similarly unsparing candor. Perhaps that’s because there can’t be a truly satisfying conclusion to this particular story, or because she hasn’t yet found what it might be. Regardless, every moment indicates deep compassion for Orna, and anyone else who might be driven to see a multi-layered message movie for the #MeToo era.



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‘Dumbo’ (2019) Film Review: Tim Burton Remake Trips Over Its Own Ears

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

There are a number of best-case scenarios involving Tim Burton directing a live-action “Dumbo” remake. He could give us a hero who is physically unusual on the outside but possessing the soul of a poet, like Edward Scissorhands. He could lean into the 1920s circus atmosphere and create another sinister but seductively designed world.

What we get instead feels more like a lesser 1970s Disney live-action comedy about an animal who can do an extraordinary thing, and the mean people who want to steal him. Burton and his collaborators took the beautiful and moving “Dumbo” and somehow managed to turn it into a throwaway kiddie adventure like “Gus” or “Million Dollar Duck.”

Granted, like many filmmakers who have tried to stretch, say, a lovely 20-page children’s book into a three-act cinematic structure, Burton and screenwriter Ehren Kruger are remaking a beloved film that’s a scant 64 minutes long. (Both movies are based on the book by Helen Aberson and Harold Pearl) And like many of the other recent Disney live-action remakes of its animated treasures — “Beauty and the Beast” being a notable exception — the new “Dumbo” leaves out most of the songs from the original.

Watch Video: ‘Dumbo’: You’ll Believe an Elephant Can Fly in First Trailer for Disney’s Live-Action Remake

The best number from the 1941 film is sung by a group of crows that are problematic racial representations, so out goes “When I See an Elephant Fly.” With about an hour or so of material, then, Burton and Kruger make the original movie’s big finale their act-one climax. And from there, they’ve come up with nowhere interesting to go.

Our human hero is Holt Farrier (Colin Farrell), who lost an arm to World War I and a wife back home to the influenza epidemic. He wants to resume his role as a circus-stunt rider (he and his wife had a double act before the war), but ringmaster Max Medici (Danny DeVito) instead puts Holt in charge of the elephants, including the pregnant Mrs. Jumbo, which Max has recently purchased. When she gives birth to a giant-eared baby elephant, everyone is horrified, with the notable exception of Holt’s grieving kids Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins), who quickly realize that the circus’ new addition can fly when made to sneeze with a feather.

Watch Video: ‘Dumbo’ Child Stars Call Out Colin Farrell for Filling Up ‘Swear Jar’ on Set

Once Dumbo’s talent is shown to the world, it attracts the attention of amusements magnate V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton) and his aerialist girlfriend, Colette Marchant (Eva Green), who buy Medici’s entire circus just to get their hands on Dumbo. But Vandevere, of course, has nefarious plans — that’s right, parents, you get to see Dumbo and his mom ripped apart not once but twice — and the plucky circus folk must band together to save themselves from this monstrous mogul. (Points to “Dumbo” for giving us a villain who resembles no one as much as Walt Disney himself, even if Keaton plays him with all the snarling excess of Keenan Wynn in “Herbie Rides Again.”)

There are some occasional visual flourishes that stand out, from Dumbo imagining a herd of flying elephants in some giant soap bubbles (a crafty way to weave the hallucinogenic “Pink Elephants on Parade” song from the original) to the art-deco Disneyland — er, Wonderland — that Vandevere oversees. And while the digital creation of Dumbo himself has real weight and tangibility, so many of the film’s digital effects (and there are so, so many of them) have that glossy, shiny neither-here-nor-there quality that so often turns contemporary movies into visual mush. Not even the circus atmosphere provides any kind of flair.

Watch Video: Arcade Fire Turn Lullaby ‘Baby Mine’ Into a Rock Ballad for Tim Burton’s ‘Dumbo’ Movie

The performances are mostly negligible, with the notable exceptions of Green, so often the rare highlight of a mediocre movie, and Parker, who resembles her mother Thandie Newton not only physically, but also in her charisma and gravitas. Farrell is mostly misused here, and DeVito and Keaton seem to be phoning in their “Batman Returns” reunion. (The front plate of the circus’ “Casey, Jr.” train also resembles that movie’s Schreck’s Department Store logo.)

And while I’ve never made it through the original movie’s “Baby Mine” sequence, where a chained-up Mrs. Jumbo rocks lonely Dumbo with her trunk, without sobbing, this version (performed this time around by Arcade Fire) left me thoroughly dry-eyed. Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” lacks the heart and innovation of Bonnie Raitt’s 1980s cover of “Baby Mine,” let alone the 1940s animated classic it seeks to recreate.



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‘Shazam!’ Film Review: DC Comics Gets a Bouncy Burst of Big-Screen Ebullience

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

If the “Wonder Woman” and “Aquaman” movies represented DC Comics’ first big-screen steps away from the austere color palette of the Zach Snyder movies, “Shazam!” takes us deeply into primary colors in a single bound. There’s still a touch of urban decay and kitchen-table warmth on display — this is by no means Warren Beatty’s “Dick Tracy” or a candy-colored Cartoon Network production — but this new DC entry has a lovely lightness, both in the visuals and in its tone.

Before the 1940s serials and the 1970s Saturday-morning TV show, “Shazam!” was born in a magazine called Whiz Comics, published by Fawcett and later acquired by the company that would be known as DC Comics. (Of course, the character used to be called Captain Marvel, but that’s a long story.) And to use a 1940s expression, there’s a gee-whiz ebullience to the movie that makes it stand out among the last several decades’ worth of caped crusaders.

Young Billy Batson (Asher Angel, “Andi Mack”) has spent most of his childhood escaping foster homes in the hopes of finding his mother (Caroline Palmer); as a 4-year-old, Billy got lost at a carnival and never found her again, although he’s sure she’s still looking for him. So when a new set of foster parents take him in, he’s got one eye on the door, even though everyone seems really nice, particularly Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer, “It”), a Superman fan who’s never without a quip or the crutch that helps him walk. (“You look at me and you think, ‘Why so dark? Disabled foster kid, you got it all.’”)

Watch Video: ‘Shazam!’ Trailer: Zachary Levi Leaps Tall Buildings in a Single Bound – Almost

Everything changes when the wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) summons Billy and gives him the power to transform into a superhero who will protect Earth against the Seven Deadly Sins. When Billy says, “Shazam!” he is transformed by a bolt of lightning, magically imbued with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. And while Billy and Freddy try to figure out how these powers work — even when he changes from little kid into strapping Zachary Levi, the new Shazam is still immature Billy inside, wisdom of Solomon or no — Shazam’s appearance stokes the fury of Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong).

Sivana, as a young boy, was himself summoned by Shazam to the Rock of Eternity before the wizard rejected him as unworthy, leading Sivana to spend his life trying to return. Over the years, Sivana realizes that Shazam turned away hundreds of candidates, only finally selecting Billy out of desperation. But since Sivana is greedy and venal, and burdened with daddy issues of his own, he’s easy pickings for those Seven Deadly Sins, who possess him and force him to do their bidding.

Confronted by Sivana, who wants the Shazam powers for himself, Billy/Shazam’s first instinct is to hide and run away. But when Sivana comes after his new foster family, will Billy figure out how to be a hero and also how to depend on others for love and support? The answer to these questions won’t shock you, but “Shazam!” does offer some surprises along the way. Critics on Twitter have compared this movie to both “Shoplifters” and “Meet the Robinsons,” and they aren’t wrong. The way that Billy resolves his own issues regarding family as well as the larger crisis of the end of the world makes sense in the context of the script (by Henry Gayden, “Earth to Echo,” from a story by Gayden and Darren Lemke, “Goosebumps”) while also honoring the original comics by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck, who very quickly gave Billy a cadre of co-heroes known as the Marvel Family.

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Fans of those comics might not recognize this Sivana, much taller and more handsome than the creepy mad scientist of the original, and even though “Shazam!” doesn’t give us any talking tigers, there are some hints that one of the series’ most ridiculous yet most beloved villains will be popping up in future installments. (As always for movies like this, it’s a good idea to stay through the credits.) What’s most important is that the movie does capture the original comics’ combination of breezy heroism and nutty plotting, transferred from the 1940s to the modern era with great skill.

An old hand at horror, director David F. Sandberg (“Annabelle: Creation,” “Lights Out”) does throw in a few scenes that are too dark for the otherwise amiable tone of “Shazam!” And when we finally see the Seven Deadly Sins, they look like the kind of bargain-basement CG creatures that you get when a game on your phone shows you an ad for a different game that you would never want to play. But neither of these problems inflicts much damage. The cast is consistently sharp, with Grazer in particular managing great chemistry with both versions of Billy. Levi’s body language is constantly inventive, as he plays a tween who still isn’t used to a grown man’s body, let alone a superhero’s. (And yes, Gayden even throws in a gag to acknowledge the fact that we’re all thinking about “Big.”)

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It’s worth highlighting Leah Butler’s costume design; her Shazam costume is great — on paper, the character had one of the weirdest capes in all the comics, but she’s managed to turn it into something more along the lines of a hoodie — while the family of foster kids all wear outfits that convey distinct personalities but still look appropriately like they’ve been curated with love and care at a Goodwill.

One of the delights of DC Comics over the years is that the unlikeliest characters can bump up against each other; you can stick Batman on the same page with The Phantom Stranger, Amethyst of Gemworld, the Doom Patrol and Rip Hunter, Time Master, and somehow they all fit. As the company’s films move in the same direction, it will be interesting to see how well “Shazam!” will play with his super-peers.



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‘Skid Row Marathon’ Film Review: Documentary Puts Homeless Runners in Soft Focus

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Los Angeles’ Skid Row is rarely a place filmmakers go looking for inspirational stories. It has been home to the city’s homeless population since the 1930s and has only grown in size thanks to the housing crisis. In “Skid Row Marathon,” director Mark Hayes decides to explore not Skid Row in particular, but a judge who has formed a running club with some Skid Row residents to train for marathons, and offers insights into this unique group of people who have struggled in life.

Though some of the stories are inspirational, Hayes takes on a “white savior” view too often, making the documentary feel misguided and detached.

It’s always a little bit strange for me to see how a writer or director who isn’t from L.A. or has only lived here a few years, takes on a subject that is very much an L.A. thing. Over the years, Skid Row has become the homeless capital of America. I can recall being about six years old and driving through Skid Row to get to my mom’s favorite seafood market and seeing sidewalks full of shopping carts, tents and cardboard boxes surrounding the Los Angeles Mission, as people came in and out of the mission, in dirty clothes, looking weary and heading to wherever they would be laying their heads for the night.

Watch Video: From Homeless to Film Composer, ‘Skid Row Marathon’ Charts Amazing Journey (Exclusive)

As a child, I was optimistic, thinking eventually everyone would get a home and a happy ending because there is no way we couldn’t help them, right? Instead, Skid Row has become a piece of pop culture: It’s been a location in music videos (like Michael Jackson’s “Beat It”) had a rock band named after it, and even inspiring a song in the New York-based musical “Little Shop of Horrors.” And yet, Skid Row itself remains covered in poverty and despair. That’s a bit what “Skid Row Marathon” feels like — just another addition to pop culture.

The central subject of the film is criminal court Judge Craig Mitchell, a man whose mother used to take him to Watts instead of Disneyland and who, at one point, was about to join the priesthood before deciding on a law career. A former defendant contacted him after his release from prison and asked the judge to meet him at the Midnight Mission homeless shelter, where he was living. Mitchell felt inspired to start a running club for some of its residents, which include a former gang member (Rafael Cabrera), a single mother (Rebecca Hayes), a musician (Ben Shirley), a painter (David Askew), and a former college athlete (Mody Diop).

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The film cuts to and from each runner’s story back to the judge’s, as well as to footage of the group running and their journeys to and from marathons in Ghana and Rome. It details each person’s struggle, largely with addiction, and does touch a bit on a darker moment when one of the runners relapses and returns to living on the streets. The footage, shot internationally by Hayes and cinematographer James Stolz, made those specific scenes feel like a travelogue and enhanced those particular stories, but when it comes to Skid Row, it all feels a bit light.

Wanting to be simply a positive story took away from the realism of what that area is and what it represents in one of the wealthiest cities in the United States, which strips away the elements of what would make this documentary feel more vital.

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The group of runners is diverse, but four out of the six are men of color, and the optics are uneven when deciding who is doing the actual work here: Is it the judge for putting together the club, or is it the group for working to overcome their individual struggles? I understand what the filmmakers were trying to do in returning to the judge, over and over, as he is the one who leads the club, but tonally, it feels as if the film were praising him for his efforts for giving this group a chance of redemption when it’s really the people in the group themselves who deserve that recognition.

“Skid Row Marathon” is a light-hearted attempt to show a softer side of a pressing issue. While the film will no doubt inspire some, it lacks an understanding of the real issues that exist in that environment. It becomes part of the system that proclaims that homelessness is a problem, but it does nothing to say why.



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

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

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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‘Out of Blue’ Film Review: Patricia Clarkson Tracks a Killer in Unwieldy Philosophical Whodunit

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Some murder mysteries begin with murders; some begin with Mamie Gummer giving a lecture on a rooftop, arguing that all life springs from death, all death springs from life, and 90% of matter is invisible. “You can tell a lot by looking,” she tells her students. But in the world of “Out of Blue,” it’s the telling that takes up most of the running time, and it’s a little monotonous, if we’re being honest.

Patricia Clarkson stars as Mike Hoolihan, a detective investigating the death of astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Gummer), who was shot in an observatory shortly after that opening lecture. Rockwell’s death is no ordinary murder. It looks suspiciously like the work of the never-captured but long since retired “.38 Caliber Killer.” And all of the suspects are spacey intellectuals who pontificate about highfalutin concepts like Schrödinger’s cat and alternate realities when they should be telling her what the heck their alibis are.

Mike’s investigation leads her from one starry-eyed scientist to another, and into the troubled Rockwell family, ruled by war-hero industrialist politician Col. Tom Rockwell (James Caan) and endured by his unhappy wife Miriam (Jacki Weaver). But more importantly, Mike finds herself noticing strange details that nobody else sees, like phantom bottles of hand cream, and eventually begins to question her sanity now that her head is full of lofty ideas about her place in the universe.

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“Out of Blue” has a lot on its mind, and it’s a shame that the audience isn’t one of them. Every piece of information seems tailor-made for Mike, but there’s very little to entice the viewer. The characters in writer-director Carol Morley’s film, adapted from the novel “Night Train” by Martin Amis, seem to exist solely for Mike’s benefit. They give her the information she needs, and they expand her horizons, but aside from generalized grief and the most existential of crises, their general experiences lack interests, motivation, humor, sensuality, jealousy, or any of the other human qualities that typically get stirred up when dead bodies enter our lives and detectives start poking around.

Clarkson, typically one of the finest actors working, brings a weariness to Mike that makes sense for “Out of Blue.” She’s been living an aggressively unexamined existence and admits that she either can’t remember or chooses never to think about her life before she joined the police department. She’s a smart and experienced person, but apparently she’s never heard of some relatively popular scientific concepts, like the aforementioned Schrödinger’s cat, which strains credulity. “Out of Blue” is a high-minded film full of lofty ideas. If this is anyone’s first exposure to science, they’re already in over their head, and that goes for the audience as well as the protagonist.

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Morley works with cinematographer Conrad W. Hall (“Olympus Has Fallen”), who seems eager to give “Out of Blue” a conventional detective movie aesthetic, only to subvert it with trippy astronomical imagery and absurdist imagery, like a woman in impeccable period attire gliding on a Segway. The cleverness of the film’s editing, by Alex Mackie (“Mary Shelley”), doesn’t reveal itself until later in the film, when the parallels finally close together. But the problem with holding everything back until the finale is that, before then, you’re holding everything back.

It’s hard to tell for much of “Out of Blue” just where this mystery is going, and repeated references to heady sci-fi ideas like doppelgängers might be a little too intriguing for the film’s own good. The mind swirls with all the endless possibilities inherent to the set-up, and instead the film trudges to a dour conclusion that explores the story’s baseline themes — the intimate connection between death and life and the destructive quality of observation — but still feels like a letdown, because we felt so very little getting there.

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“Out of Blue” is a detached motion picture, and it’s hard to get away with that clinical approach and still adhere to a thriller format. Morley’s film hits a lot of the familiar murder-mystery beats and comes close to subverting them, drawing parallels between police work and the scientific method, and in particular the quest for motive and the quest for meaning in a vast, amorphous and unfeeling universe. What an ambitious and fascinating starting point for a movie, but even the film doesn’t seem particularly passionate about it.

At its best, “Out of Blue” captures a slightly intoxicated “eureka” sensation, as the whole detective genre transforms elegantly into a philosophical awakening, and as the greatest threat comes not from a murderer but from our protagonist’s sense of self (or lack thereof). At its worst, which is most of the time, it’s a conventional detective story that resorts to lengthy scientific-namedropping when it probably should be getting on with it instead.



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‘Hotel Mumbai’ Film Review: Nervy Account of Terrorist Attack Keeps Exploitation in Check

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The worry regarding certain movies that recreate real-life nightmares is that the filmmaker sees the incident as a form of action-adventure tourism, a way to fake an experience so that genuine tragedy is reduced to an adrenaline boost. But the prevailing feeling watching Australian director Anthony Maras’ feature debut “Hotel Mumbai” is of heart-in-the-throat panic as it places us inside the Indian capital’s storied Taj Mahal Palace Hotel when it was besieged by a well-armed militia of Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorists on a citywide killing spree in November 2008.

The distinction — the thriller that terrifies, as opposed to the terror that thrills — is an important one when choosing to watch the unfolding of the worst situation imaginable, realizing that only some of the hostages you get to know are going to survive. (Of the 174 people killed throughout Mumbai, 31 died at the Taj over the three days.) In this age of regular mass shootings, when fear of being numbed to the steady drumbeat of such news might be as worrisome to our well-being as assuming that no place is safe anymore, any movie that sweats bullets to vividly portray what real bullets do is in its way a kind of grim act of artistic service to our violence-saturated culture.

The Paul Greengrass method of researched, you-are-there immediacy (“United 93” especially) filmmaking seems to have been an inspiration, since Maras and co-screenwriter John Collee (“Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World”) based their film on extensive interviews and time spent at the Taj. But they’re also not above time-tested disaster movie devices for threading in heart and tension: composite characters of varying nationalities and class representing the hotel’s breadth of clientele and employee; we’re-in-this-together dialogue intended to stir us; and cross-cut suspense set pieces (keep the baby from crying, the last-minute cell phone call, the killer’s around the corner) with the distinctive aroma of screenwriting invention, not reportage.

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These contrivances shouldn’t work, but somehow they do, probably because the general air of hellishness never dissipates in Nick Remy Matthews’ lived-in cinematography and Peter McNulty and Maras’ white-knuckle editing, so whenever old Hollywood intrudes, it’s a mostly welcome distraction.

The movie’s most serene images are arguably its earliest, when a boat coasts into a fishing village under a hazy sun carrying 10 grunge-attired Pakistanis with heavy bags, and a voice in their earpieces calmly assuring them “Paradise awaits.” At the same time, we meet kind-eyed Sikh husband and father Arjun (Dev Patel) as he readies himself for work at the Taj as a waiter in the chic restaurant of star chef Hemant Oberoi (Anupam Kher, “New Amsterdam”), a benevolent taskmaster who likes to remind his staff that the hotel’s motto is “Guest is God.”

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Personifying that hand-and-foot treatment are arriving A-list guests David (Armie Hammer) and Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi, “Counterpart”), wealthy marrieds who bring with them a newborn and a nanny (Tilda Cobham-Hervey, “52 Tuesdays”). Also checking in that day is a Russian playboy billionaire (Jason Isaacs) whose vibe I’m willing to bet was described in the script as “mysterious.”

Maras sets the stage for his no-frills depiction of violence with the gunmen’s initial attacks at a train station and a restaurant. The way two members of the group slip into the Taj makes for a chilling reveal. When the jihadists soon take over the Taj, driven by the drumbeat of class hatred from “Brother Bull” in their ear and shooting anything or anyone that moves, guests and staff are forced into hiding wherever they are. In a private VIP clubroom, chef Oberoi and Arjun take charge of the utensil-brandishing cooks and waiters who are willing to protect the guests they’ve herded there at all costs, while they wait for special forces to arrive from locations hours away.

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As the situation intensifies, one of the movie’s strengths emerges in the depiction of the homicidal extremists prowling the hotel; they aren’t mere faceless villains or cookie-cutter baddies. Maras’ methodical depiction of their behavior — calm when killing, crying when wounded, crafty one second, feverish the next — adds an unsettling depth to the movie’s portrait of young religious fanaticism. They’re simultaneously real and zombified. There are even strange attempts at humor in their naiveté, like one murderous zealot’s sudden skittishness at searching under a dead woman’s shirt. You may not laugh, but these pinpricks of humanity oddly never seem out of place.

Couple that with Maras’ refusal to turn any of his besieged characters into a standout action hero, preferring a range of survival choices from ill-advised and pointless to risky and brave, and you have what amounts to a resonant dramatization of our terrorist problem at large: one side is shallow and unrelenting, the other is scared and hardly unified about what to do. It grounds “Hotel Mumbai” in the human, even as it fractures our senses with gunfire, bombs, and blood. Maybe the best thing I can say about “Hotel Mumbai” is that I kept waiting for it to become “Die Hard,” and it thankfully never did.



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‘Penguins’ Film Review: Ed Helms Narrates a Plucky Pygoscelis in Disneynature’s Latest

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Although the name “Disney” has become roughly synonymous with a multi-tentacled corporate octopus over the years, latching onto every profitable pop culture phenomenon it can reach and then squeezing it dry — it’s important to remember that it’s also synonymous with “nature documentaries,” and that it has been ever since the Oscar-winning short “Seal Island” way back in 1948.

These nature docs have, over the decades, exposed audiences and particularly Disney’s target demo of wholesome family units to the wide-ranging world of animals in their various natural habitats. For the last 11 years, the Disneynature label has been keeping this torch aflame, and their latest documentary “Penguins” is another feather in the imprint’s cap.

Sumptuously photographed and narratively benign, “Penguins” explores the life of the Adélie penguin, which is smaller than its Emperor cousins and — arguably — even cuter. Ed Helms narrates and provides the voice for our Adélie protagonist, Steve, who embarks on his first quest to find a mate, care for their children amidst harsh Antarctic conditions, and protect his young from various natural predators.

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Steve is portrayed as nature’s ultimate underdog. He’s so tiny as a fully-grown adult that a baby Emperor penguin can, and does, beat him up. Helms voices Steve as a milquetoast everyman, the South Pole’s answer to Goofy’s hapless George Geef character from the 1950s, as he struggles with all the positivity he can muster to succeed in a world that seems (often literally) designed to destroy him.

It’s simply adorable to watch this small penguin collecting rocks and dropping them in his nest, only for his next door neighbor penguin to steal them the moment his back is turned, again and again and again. There seems to be an earnest undercurrent of pity in “Penguins.” Who hasn’t felt like they spent their whole lives trying to get by, only to repeatedly discover that all of their efforts were for naught?

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But that’s probably a more melancholic perspective than “Penguins” wants to impart. The majority of “Penguins” relies not on deeper meaning but on the seemingly unassailable argument that penguins are exceptionally cute and that the typical human being would happily spend 76 minutes watching them do just about anything.

It’s a safe bet, and it pays off; “Penguins” may not have the gravitas of “March of the Penguins,” but its particular blend of attractive nature photography and narrative schmaltz are a pleasing way to spend one’s time, even though the film relies too often on cheesy musical cues like REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore,” just in case you didn’t get that Steve had finally found his mate.

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And although “Penguins” mostly plays like an inoffensive tale of natural wonder, there are a few moments of genuine suspense. The predators who scour the Antarctic in search of delicious penguin meat range from nuisance level to, from a tiny penguin’s perspective, large and terrifying. The image of a Leopard Seal poking its giant, dragon-like head out of a crack in the ice floe, eyeing Steve’s brood like an unthinkable leviathan, could give more sensitive little kids nightmares. Or at least give them pause the next time they go ice-skating.

It’s tempting to give the penguins (and REO Speedwagon) all the credit for Disneynature’s latest, but films like this wouldn’t be possible without intrepid documentarians (working with director-producers Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson) collecting hundreds of hours of footage under extreme conditions. The images they’ve captured are, often, genuinely breathtaking and immersive. Images of penguins diving in and out of the water as their reflections give the shot perfect vertical symmetry are astounding to witness in a theatrical environment, and the narrative that Disneynature vet David Fowler has crafted from all these creatures big and small is clear and relatable.

A film like this is always a major accomplishment, so it feels like a cognitive disconnect when the actual story it tells seems so light and benign. But then, that might be the real message: We are all struggling in an imperfect world against threats of varying sizes, but in our hearts, we all feel like we’re underdogs. Like Steve the penguin, we are simply doing our best. And in the case of the makers of “Penguins,” our best can be very sweet.



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

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

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

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

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

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

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

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

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

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

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.

Watch Video: Idris Elba Insists He Wasn’t Thinking About Modern Race Issues With ’70s-Set ‘Yardie’

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

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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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‘Ash Is Purest White’ Film Review: Jia Zhangke Unveils Another Thoughtful Epic About China’s Transformation

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One of the ways Jia Zhangke has distinguished himself as both a leading Chinese filmmaker and a masterful director is that his images have the uncanny ability to encompass past, present, and future. Humanity fills his every frame, even if the most prominent visual element is a landscape. And when your subject is China — how a country and its people wrestle with massive shifts — it makes for a distinctly personal kind of epic, one that has put Jia in the front ranks of directors in the nearly 20 years since his youths-in-turmoil masterpiece, “Platform,” put him on the global stage.

That where we are/where we’ve been/where we’re going dynamic has, over his career, lent itself superbly to Jia’s fascination with triptych storytelling. With his latest film, the crime-romance “Ash Is Purest White” — once again spotlighting a superb performance by Zhao Tao, his longtime creative partner and wife  — Jia’s vision makes for a heady brew of love, loss, and loneliness over three-time frames that coincide with huge changes in China.

The movie opens with what appears to be documentary video footage of grim-faced citizens on a bus, and according to publicity materials, these are everyday moments Jia shot in the early 2000s that he says represent a past China. This video acts as a same-time prologue for our introduction to small-town gangster Bin (Liao Fan) and Qiao (Zhao), his cheerfully swaggering girlfriend. They’re the epitome of cool in their vice-flecked corner of traditional, provincial, coal-mining China — she shimmies in the club to “Y.M.C.A.” while he closes deals in the booth — until forces big (industrial change) and small (other hoodlums) threaten that bond, and their working-class community’s sense of cohesion.

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When Bin is attacked in the street by youthful rivals — a sequence Jia manages to make simultaneously real-world scary and John Woo-ecstatic — Qiao steps in to save him with a gun, but in doing so is arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. When she’s released, it is 2006, and what she discovers as she rides a ferry down the Yangtze River, along with the site of the impending Three Gorges Dam, are populations being displaced, and a changed, distant, callously adaptive Bin, a romantic gangster turned capitalist lackey.

Qiao, her features now hardened but her mindset no less canny or observant, enters survival mode, and Jia gets some breezy humor out of the ways she navigates the transformed society to her immediate benefit. (Her scam targeting wealthy men heading toward private rooms at a fancy restaurant is particularly delightful.) But we mostly sense that she’s adrift.

The world (in this case, China) is now seemingly larger and smaller to Qiao, with old desires being met under new systems, but that much more impersonal: the gambling hall replaced by a chamber of commerce, a mobster boyfriend’s loyalty morphed into empty ambition. Not that Qiao isn’t willing to give it all a shot. But when she encounters a traveler on the train with an entrepreneurial spiel about the new adventure tourism, the way their connection plays out is simultaneously funny, poignant, and heartbreaking.

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The last segment of “Ash Is Purest White” and its three-pointed saga brings Qiao to the present, back to her home province of Shanxi, and where she is reunited with Bin in the gambling hall that was once their stomping grounds. Now there’s a noticeable power shift and a harder edge to their relationship. This is Jia bringing all of his talents to bear as a chronicler of what looks familiar but is quite different, which is one way of saying that the cinematography by Eric Gautier (“Something In the Air”) is its own vivid asset in Jia’s quest to imbue each scene with a mindful sense of subtle, yet still undeniable change.

The director’s strength, however, is as always Zhao, whose face can share the frame with the vastness of a landscape, and still draws focus. She exquisitely articulates Qiao’s shift from connectedness to disillusionment and finally, alienation, with the effect so acute that you’d think “Ash Is Purest White” had been filmed across the same time 18-year period of its story.

It’s enough to leave a viewer thinking that her mesmerizing portrayals for Jia over the years are less like discrete character studies and more like chapters in the grandest composite portrait that cinema has yet seen of what it means to be human during a transformational epoch.



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‘Wonder Park’ Film Review: Original Animated Film Thrillingly Celebrates Youthful Imagination

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If there’s one thing kids like, it’s amusement parks. If there’s two things, it’s amusement parks and animated movies. And if there’s three things, it’s amusement parks, animated movies and a surprisingly mature message about not letting debilitating mental health issues get in the way of your creativity. At least, that’s what can be gleaned from “Wonder Park,” a clumsy but amiable kids movie with a streak of sincerity that stretches further than the Wonder Park itself.

“Wonder Park” stars Brianna Denski as June, a young girl who spends her off hours — which seems to be most hours — concocting an elaborate, fictional amusement park with her mom, voiced by Jennifer Garner. (Because, in movies, Jennifer Garner is practically everyone’s mom.) Their creation, Wonder Park, is a gigantic feast for the senses, with amusingly stomach-churning rides that literally toss you across the park, or come to life underneath you and fly around magically.

June and her mother fill the house with clockwork miniatures and complicated blueprints, but then her mom gets deathly ill and has to go away to a special hospital. (Never mind what she’s got, how curable it is, or how far away she’s going.) So June decides to put away all her amusing things and instead devote every waking minute to taking care of her dad (Matthew Broderick), because in her head he’s more accident-prone than Wile E. Coyote.

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Eventually, June is so far down this compulsive rabbit hole that she runs away from her summer camp to head back home and stop dad from (presumably) burning the whole house down, but along the way she wanders into the real-life Wonder Park, populated by all the mascots she invented with her mom, like responsible warthog Greta (Mila Kunis), safety inspector porcupine Steve (John Oliver), technician beavers Gus (Kenan Thompson) and Cooper (Ken Jeong), and sleepy greeter bear Boomer (Ken Hudson Campbell).

That’s a heck of a lot of legwork to get to the film’s core premise — a little girl wandering into her own fantasy land — only to find that it’s been overrun by her adult anxieties run amok. The whole park has been infested with Chimpanzombies who want to destroy every monument to June’s relationship with her mother, just like June wanted to throw Wonder Park away in a fit of maladaptive grief. Now it’s up to June and her animal friends to overcome their fears and to find a way to save the park and, by extension, June’s creative spirit.

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“Wonder Park” is hardly the first movie to explore the unfortunate side-effects that growing up can sometimes have on someone’s psyche, but it’s nowhere near as disturbing as “Return to Oz” nor nearly as trite as “Christopher Robin.” Because the story in “Wonder Park” is original, the filmmakers don’t need to subvert any beloved childhood icons in order to tell it. It takes longer to set up the characters and their world, but once we’re there, we can enjoy them without any cognitive disconnect. This is simply “Wonder Park,” and “Wonder Park” is an enjoyable kids flick with decent intentions and some delightful imagery.

Indeed, the park itself is a genuine treat. The various rides and lands, many of which would be physically impossible to re-create on even the most unlimited budget, are sure to fire up the imagination of young audiences. The filmmakers seem to have a genuine respect for the artists who spend their whole lives developing complex, richly themed attractions that excite the mind, and they certainly had fun coming up with wild new examples to surreptitiously enjoy on-screen.

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The characters are simplistic creations, mostly boiling down to simple character traits, but for the most part they’re all personified individual aspects of June’s own personality, so it’s hard to complain. In particular, Wonder Park’s lead designer Peanut (Norbert Leo Butz) hits close to home for June. He’s spent his whole career assuming that June’s mother’s voice was his voice of inspiration, and without it, he thinks he can never create again. To convince him to start creating again, June will have to convince herself to start creating again.

The world of “Wonder Park” is thrilling, and the message is unusual for a kids movie, but admirable. It’s the clutter that gets in the way of the movie’s excellence. The complicated first act stops more than it starts, and gets tiresome after a while, and the bizarrely complicated rules of Wonder Park itself — which involve a magic pen, magic whispers and a magic delegation of authority — distract from the film’s simple fantasy of visiting the best amusement park ever, and from the simple message about the importance of staying motivated in the wake of tragedy, depression, grief and loneliness.

Instead of an instant classic, we get a noble effort. We need more of those. This is a bright and earnest attempt to craft an on-screen fantasy for modern kids, with a practical moral that anyone could appreciate.



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‘Five Feet Apart’ Film Review: Terminal-Teen Tale Brings No New Ideas to Heartbreak Hospital

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The latest entry in the terminal-illness teen romance canon — shockingly, not based on a YA novel — “Five Feet Apart” is like a new strand of the same formulaic disease, only this time featuring a set of specific symptoms that make physical contact between the sick lovers literally fatal. (Call it “The Fault in Our Lungs.”)

Within this sub-genre of doomed adolescent relationships, “Five Feet Apart” is more John Green-generic than “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”-clever. What “Five Feet Apart” — the directorial debut of “Jane the Virgin” actor Justin Baldoni, from a screenplay by Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis — has going for it is how it uses the mechanics of the condition at its center as the basis for the plot, which saves it from being a copy-paste refurbishing of other, similar entries.

Hospital-bound Stella (Haley Lu Richardson), a spirited high-schooler born with cystic fibrosis (CF), devises her every step in relation to her low-life-expectancy respiratory affliction that causes her body to produce massive quantities of mucus in her lungs. Rearranging her pills on her medical cart daily is self-imposed standard protocol, as is sharing hopeful reassurance on her YouTube channel, à la Elsie Fisher’s character in “Eighth Grade.” Disruption soon comes in the form of handsomely cynical, artistically minded, flawlessly haired, CF-affected stud Will (Cole Sprouse, “Riverdale”).

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Interest is mutual, and what begins as a begrudging friendship for Stella to ensure Will follows the rules to keep himself alive (he’s a patient on clinical trials for a new treatment) evolves into a mawkish love affair with grand and uncalled-for displays of affection. The cruel caveat here is that CF patients can come into contact with anyone else but must remain six feet apart from each other to prevent catching lethal bacteria. Exchanging saliva would mean a non-metaphorical kiss of death. To be clear, the title is not a factual error but a reference to Stella’s subtle defiance in the last act of this unpleasantly lengthy tearjerker.

Cutting through the thick curtain of recycled lovey-dovey remarks and the proficiently dull craftsmanship of the production, Richardson’s radiant charisma acts as a lifeline. One would be hard-pressed to find a moment where she is not earnestly committed to the role’s convincingly bittersweet shtick.

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The young actress, whose best work to date is in Kogonada’s sublime indie drama “Columbus” and as an unwaveringly enthusiastic waitress in last year’s “Support the Girls,” gets her mainstream shot here and is as winsome as “Five Feet Apart” allows. Even when deep in the dark valley of tired platitudes and underdeveloped side plots about deceased relatives, Richardson is a star. Casting her in anything — even this — earns that project instant points for her likability and understated fragility.

Thanks to the sheer volume of movies where young people are condemned to untimely deaths, morbid humor is no longer a rarity that offsets their tone, but a commonplace ingredient eroded with every use. “Five Feet Apart” laughs at mortality just as much as its cinematic forebears, but that does little to elevate the unremarkable material that punches every beat with boldface sentimentality, demanding the viewers’ tears without doing much to earn them aside from sad-music montages. In Baldoni’s trope-heavy two-hour drama, humor doesn’t come from the “how funny we might die soon” gags, but via Colombian-American character actor Moisés Arias (recently seen in the Sundance-winner “Monos”), the one irreproachable delight in this ordeal.

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Arias’ character Poe, Stella’s Latino gay bestie also battling CF, is not only a scene-stealer (dashing off stereotypically sassy lines with genuine matter-of-factness) but also the only person who verbalizes the very real concern of how anyone can afford to pay for the prolonged hospital stays and copious amounts of medication needed from birth. His story is tremendously more in tune with the world as it is than the white lovebirds in the foreground. Stella is likely only his friend because they share a life-threatening ailment, not because they belong to the same socio-economic circles.

That brings to mind the evident truth that people of color tend to exist only in the periphery of romantic offerings. In this case, the only other non-white cast member with any discernible personality is Kimberly Hebert Gregory (“Vice Principals”) as Nurse Barb, who surely cares about the teens but is also probably afraid of losing her job if they have a killer make-out session. At least the film’s thematic cousin “Everything, Everything” had interracial sweethearts as tragic protagonists. If you are already following most other preconceived elements, why not infuse your take with diversity beyond the supporting roles?

Tactile-prohibitions between CF sufferers are exploited in “Five Feet Apart” for all their yearning potential, which is actually enhanced here with the availability of technology that enables communication from a distance. The concept of two lovers who can’t caress each other, experience sexual intimacy, or express affection physically is ripe for heartbreaking fiction, so a picture like this was bound to happen. Fortunately, the screenwriters don’t dilute the severity of the genetic disorder despite the high gloss of some moments. If nothing else, one hopes that real-life CF patients at least feel authentically represented on screen.



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‘Tremors’ Film Review: Guatemalan Drama Explores an Evangelical Dad’s Attempt to Come Out

Read on: TheWrapTheWrap.

Summoning nature’s earth-shaking forces — first volcanic eruptions, now earthquakes — to serve as resounding signifiers of instability, Guatemalan auteur Jayro Bustamante’s two features to date roar as sobering assessments of systematic marginalization in a society unwilling to broaden its viciously narrow status quo. First, “Ixcanul” objected to corrosive misogyny and racism; now homophobia is the target in his sophomore social drama “Tremors,” which had its North American premiere this week at the Miami Film Festival.

Bustamante’s social pariah, a white man from the upper crust of society, is far removed, at least in obvious parallels, from the teenage indigenous woman chastised by her community for an out-of-wedlock pregnancy in the director’s debut. Their personal hells, however, emanate from the same phallocentric well of hatred. In both instances, Bustamante lets his embattled protagonists unravel without the empty promise of a fortunate resolution.

A masculine fellow by all traditional parameters, Pablo (Juan Pablo Olyslager) has attained all the essential components for the construction of a convincing façade, one that upholds the patriarchal ideal of a pristine heterosexual life. It’s precisely because he’s excelled for years in the role of a middle-aged office worker with a wife and two kids that, when he’s outed as a gay man, his ultra-religious family reacts in outrage. The lie upon which his identity was built instantly crumbles, because the tremors are both literally seismic and metaphorically personal.

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As if running away from bright colors the way the film’s protagonist does so from his truth, DP Luis Armando Arteaga paints melancholically elegant frames in guilt and frustration, using oppressively drab lighting and subdued hues. The sanitized interiors of churches and affluent residences contrast with the disheveled locations as Pablo’s “clandestine” desires emerge. Outside, Guatemala City — dressed in gray skies and urban grittiness — ensures there is no room for exoticism.

Olyslager’s eyes project Pablo’s plea for compassion when facing his estranged spouse Isa (Diane Bathen), who has dangerously equated his sexual orientation with pedophilia to punish him professionally; his hopeless disbelief when his mother wishes destruction upon him so that he will repent; and the futile appearance of courage early on, when the assertive Francisco (Mauricio Armas) reassures him they can be together. Lightness only comes briefly with “Ixcanul” actress María Telón, present here as Pablo’s housekeeper and his only ally within his now off-limits house.

Emotionally repressed, Pablo wallows in fearful anguish, unable to cope with his loved ones’ cruel rejection guised as concern for his soul. Olyslager internalizes such discreet suffering and expresses it only in longing gazes and painful frowns, resulting in a magnificent performance that should elevate the actor’s stature internationally. Drowning in conflicting messaging and guided solely by his desire to see his children, Pablo is soon dragged away from any semblance of freedom and back into the claws of religious dogma.

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His mental state is not dissimilar to a broken vase whose pieces have been put back together. Even if the reassembling of his false code-abiding persona were achieved with the strongest of Christian adhesives, the cracks would still show. Pablo’s fragile standing in his role as a straight Evangelical won’t withstand the next inevitable tremor that rattles it and that terrifies him. Each time the ground rumbles, as does his conviction.

In the movie’s most upsetting sequences, Bustamante approaches conversion therapy with stark pragmatism, even during the most harrowing of humiliations. His take turns out distinctively more distressing than those in the recent American features “Boy Erased” and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post.”

This is the case not only as a result of the age gap, geographical specificity, or Pablo being a father, but thanks to first-time actress Sabrina De La Hoz, who plays a female pastor so convinced that her mission is righteous that she doesn’t hold back on degrading and dehumanizing the sinners under her command. It’s the type of villainous part Meryl Streep would get an Oscar for, but De La Hoz makes it truly her own with stern certitude.

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Tragically, Pablo’s inescapable closet is as big as his country and as dark as the inside of the buried coffin where his hopes for happiness lie dead. In that tenebrous space where light cannot penetrate, but where he’s conditionally allowed to exist, he begs for the acceptance of those who would rather see him perish than deviate from the norm. It’s devastating to witness as he stabs himself with an invisible, yet very hurtful, dagger laced in Bible verses misconstrued to condemn him.

To its very last moment, “Tremors” is a prodigiously gut-wrenching demand for change; the film isn’t kindly asking for tolerance but bluntly exposing the torment inflicted in the name of a prejudiced God. It’s a magnificently unflinching film from a master director in the making, whose thunderous strength will surely make waves in Bustamante’s Central American homeland and abroad.



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‘Triple Frontier’ Film Review: Oscar Isaac Leads All-Star Crew on Grim Heist

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Like many films before it, J.C. Chandor’s “Triple Frontier” features an all-star cast of macho badasses, wielding high-powered arsenals as confidently as if they were shooting bullets from their own limbs. They drink beer. They listen to Metallica. They use the skills they’ve developed over a lifetime of war to make a lot of money and look damn good doing it.

But unlike a lot of films before it, “Triple Frontier” seems completely disappointed in those badasses. The script, by Chandor (“A Most Violent Year”) and Mark Boal (“Zero Dark Thirty”), sends a group of grizzled veterans into a high-stakes heist situation which — as you can imagine — goes horribly wrong, but the tragedy isn’t that they might not get the money. The tragedy is that they tried.

Oscar Isaac stars as Santiago “Pope” Garcia, who has been working in South America to apprehend a powerful kingpin named Lorea. After an unexpectedly panic-inducing shootout at a disco, Garcia learns Lorea’s location from one of his informants and immediately begins assembling a team of tough guys he can trust to get the job done.

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There’s William “Ironhead” Miller (Charlie Hunnam), a veteran whose new job seems to consist entirely of giving de-motivational speeches to current soldiers, discouraging them from using their deadly skills in the private sector. There’s William’s brother Ben (Garrett Hedlund), who now makes a living getting pummeled in MMA fights. There’s the skilled pilot Francisco “Catfish” Morales (Pedro Pascal), who’s just had his pilot’s license suspended.

But most importantly, to these guys at least, there’s Tom “Redfly” Davis (Ben Affleck), whose heroism in the line of duty has been matched only by his lousy luck since leaving the military. Divorced, swimming in debt, and alienated from his daughter, Redfly doesn’t just need a job. He needs a purpose, and the purpose Pope gives him isn’t noble: It’s just money.

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Tilt your head a bit, and you can see the film that “Triple Frontier” almost was, a rousing thriller about action heroes getting pulled out of retirement for one last job. Cinematographer Roman Vasyanov (“Fury”) sure as heck films it like a sleek action thriller, with deadly warriors popping out of luscious green jungles and cold, calculated camera movements designed to make the gunplay look clear and natural.

No doubt about it: “Triple Frontier” looks and sounds exciting, but when Pope reveals that his real plan is to kill and rob Lorea and then take all the money for themselves, the air gets let out of the protagonists. What began as a potentially noble sacrifice has turned into a selfish act of violence, and the movie is all too eager to punish them for it. Not with a farcical hand of god, like in the Bill Murray classic “Quick Change,” but to the dour extent of an Henri-Georges Clouzot film.

Society has failed these men. Now all they can hope for is to take part in this cash grab. There’s a meta-narrative in there somewhere, condemning films like “Triple Frontier” for exploiting the violence of war for superficial ends, but Chandor doesn’t delve into self-analysis long enough to make a point about it. His characters are laser-focused soldiers who are, in some cases, monomaniacal about their mission. If their mission is morally and ethically compromised, then they are too.

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That approach makes “Triple Frontier” thoughtful but also morose. The second half of Chandor’s film is an increasingly arduous trek across South America with more cash than the Incredible Hulk could lift, and we watch as our would-be heroes turn on each other, and turn against baseline morality, as they do whatever they deem necessary to accomplish the mission. The further they go, the more lifeless their surroundings, to the extent that they’ve seemingly killed the living essence of the movie.

“Triple Frontier” may do too good a job of subverting our expectations, as the slings and arrows Chandor and Boal fling at these thieves are sometimes protracted and lacking suspense. They excellently make their point about the significance of responsible soldiering, but maybe they could have done it faster, or with a few more exclamation points, so the rest of us could stay transfixed with the movie instead of mentally checking out after we recognize the underlying message and nodding in general approval.

And it probably would have helped if the cast were given more to play with. So trapped are our heroes in their situational awareness that they barely have room for personal conflict. Even the character who goes too far and jeopardizes the mission out of greed (we’ve all seen heist movies, there’s usually at least one of them) doesn’t go far enough to drive a visible wedge within the group. They’re too professional for that, which unfortunately makes them — on occasion — too professional to be interesting characters.

“Triple Frontier” isn’t the high-octane thriller you might expect from the film’s explosive beginning, although if it were, it would be one of the best-looking and -sounding high-octane thrillers on the market. Instead it’s a morality tale, a noble endeavor, but one that gets sidetracked by its own sleek delivery. Chandor’s film isn’t malleable enough to fit into the moral grey zones into which it ventures; it’s too battle-hardened for that. But it’s an ambitious and absorbing above-average thriller with something deeper on its mind, making this sometimes somber journey worthwhile.



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‘Good Boys’ Film Review: Naughty Boys Need Love Too in Coming-of-Age Comedy

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When kids say the darnedest things, audiences laugh. There’s something inherently funny about children using adult language. Maybe it’s because many of us remember the scoldings we received from our parents and teachers about using forbidden words or that formative moment we first heard a curse word and didn’t know what it meant.

Young characters using age-inappropriate language is something that never seems to get old, and it’s a common joke setup for shows like “South Park” and “Family Guy.” Unlike animated shows where adults voice underage characters, your mileage may vary on a raunchy comedy starring real tweens saying dirty things.

In Gene Stupnitsky’s feature debut, “Good Boys,” three sixth-grade boys get into a day’s worth of misadventures when their curiosity leads them from an awkward situation to a few dangerous or traumatizing moments. Max (Jacob Tremblay, “Wonder”) is the de facto leader of the trio and just as he nurses his first big crush, Max receives his first invitation to a kissing party. He insists on bringing along his two best friends, Lucas (Keith L. Williams, “The Last Man on Earth”), a sensitive do-gooder who can’t keep secrets, and Thor (Brady Noon, “Boardwalk Empire”), an impulsive oddball with a love of musicals and an already embarrassing nickname of “Sippy Cup.” Neither of them helps Max’s plan to be accepted by the cool kids at their middle school.

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Tremblay, Williams and Noon are almost painfully cute in their characters’ cluelessness about sex, sex toys and what certain words actually mean. They meet their match in a pair of older girls next door who catch the boys spying on them, and the age differences between the two groups make for a hilarious showdown. A number of the movie’s jokes rely on the kids’ innocence about these grown-up words and matters. However, once the initial shock and giggles have worn off, the potty-mouthed punchlines can feel overdone. It’s a joke with diminishing returns; once you get used to them to cursing, it’s not as funny.

Stupnitsky and his writing partner Lee Eisenberg (“Bad Teacher”) keep things moving at a brisk pace with wild situations for kids who aren’t old enough to drive yet. The script smartly addresses how talking about and to girls is changing, and there are a few jokes about consent that aren’t entirely regressive. The boys dig out their parents’ sex toys, thinking them to be weapons, and in one cringe-worthy moment, use one of them as a gift for a girl in the boys’ grade.

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There’s a lot for the boys to misunderstand or not know about, and the movie doles out new objects for them to react to right up until the end of the film. These jokes set off roars of laughter at the film’s premiere at South-by-Southwest, so much so that some of the follow-up dialogue was drowned out.

“Good Boys” shares a few connections with some of the adult comedies also produced by longtime friends and producing partners Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen. There’s a common theme about deep friendships among men and boys in movies like “Superbad,” “The Interview” and “This is the End” and it’s that these kids are close friends united by their strange quirks, and they don’t readily fit in with everyone else.

Like the young couple envying the frat boys next door in “Neighbors” or the two best friends looking to live out one wild night in “Superbad,” the trio of “Good Boys” want to be accepted by their peers, and to be seen as cool as the cool kids. What’s different about this movie is that there is a sliver of reality reckoning with the perils of growing up and, potentially, growing apart.

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So while parents may squirm over the scenes where the kids are in physical danger, and a number of us might instead gag at the boys playing with (ahem, used) sex toys, there’s likely something relatable and potentially hilarious — like not feeling like you fit in middle school — to inspire many viewers to share a good laugh. “Good Boys” is a snappy comedy that pokes fun at those painful pubescent years and, by the credits, grows up into a somewhat mature comedy about friendship.



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‘Booksmart’ Film Review: Olivia Wilde Makes a Splashy Directorial Debut With Witty Coming-of-Age Comedy

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How do you begin describing the movie you have been unknowingly waiting for your entire life? Do I start by telling you how incredibly hilarious “Booksmart” is? Or do I tell you how first-time feature film director Olivia Wilde created a resoundingly smart, inclusive, modern and revolutionary film for today’s teens?

How about this: “Booksmart” is, by far, one of the most perfect coming-of-age comedies I have ever seen.

Ride-or-die best friends and academic overachievers Amy (Kaitlyn Dever) and Molly (Beanie Feldstein) are a day shy of their high school graduation. Molly belatedly discovers that while she and Amy solely focused on homework, studying, and getting a fake ID solely for the purposes of using an all-night college library throughout high school, her partying peers are somehow also heading to Ivy League schools. Determined to have one last blast of hedonism before high school ends, she convinces Amy to go out with her for a night they will never forget.

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Feldstein and Dever have a natural ease with each other that creates the kind of intimacy only two best friends can share. They are both extraordinarily talented, but their comedic balance and chemistry with each other are essential to the film’s success. There is no Molly without Amy, and they both own their roles while complementing the other. There’s a core honesty in their performances, even in the wildest and raunchiest of scenes.

Every member of the ensemble is remarkable, but the stand-out is Billie Lourd. Many might still know Lourd only as the late Carrie Fisher’s daughter, despite her own success on shows like “Scream Queens” and “American Horror Story.” It’s in “Booksmart” that she truly comes into her own. As Gigi, the eccentric, ethereal girl who is just a tad too extra but has a very loving and generous heart, Lourd steals every scene she’s in, which is hard to do in a cast packed with talented actors.

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The story suggests”Can’t Hardly Wait” meets “American Pie” and, yes, “Superbad,” which launched the career of Feldstein’s older brother Jonah Hill,  But where those previous films were mainly about boys coming of age, with the plot around getting the girl or losing their virginity — and, let’s face it, some pretty misogynistic attitudes towards women and sex — “Booksmart” is just as raunchy and fun while also exploring the unique closeness and depth of a female friendship. Thanks in a large part to the all-woman writing team — which includes writer-producer Katie Silberman (“Isn’t It Romantic”), Emily Halpern (“Trophy Wife”), Sarah Haskins (“Celeste and Jesse Forever”) and Susanna Fogel (“The Spy Who Dumped Me”) — the script nails how two young women who have shared practically everything together talk, relate and even fight with each other.

That might not sound like a huge feat, but the movies have largely missed or misconstrued what a best friend means to a young girl. Throughout cinematic history, female friendships are largely facetious, concentrating on talking about only a handful of things — namely men, relationships and shopping (e.g., “Sex and the City”) — and when they do focus on issues facing young girls, like bullying and toxic concepts of beauty (e.g., “Mean Girls”), the defining emotional connection is left out. Wilde’s understanding of that connection and vulnerability, through her own experiences as an actress and as a woman, really shines through in her vision. There’s some uneven pacing in the middle of the film that perhaps needed a light edit, but it in no way hinders the narrative.

Teenage sexuality has also had a somewhat complicated history on the big screen. Women, particularly young women, are often subjected to the male gaze, and sex and sensuality are only viewed through a straight male lens. Now that we’re in an era with an increased awareness regarding consent versus coercion, we’re more aware of the problematic nature of some classic depictions of teenage sex lives. (For example, when dream boy Jake offers up his drunk soon-to-be-ex girlfriend to the geek to do whatever he wants to her in the John Hughes classic “Sixteen Candles.”)

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But that doesn’t mean films can’t address young lust, flirtation, or seduction, and Wilde doesn’t shy away from exploring these sensitive yet very normal teenage topics. My heart leapt when I heard Molly and Amy talking about how Amy might make a move on a girl she is crushing on, and Molly addresses masturbation without any shyness, proclaiming, “You just do what you do to yourself, and flip it.” Young women in the movies rarely get to discuss masturbation, much less demonstrate it, and if they ever do, it’s in hushed or shameful tones. In “Booksmart,” these two young women are allowed to be open, funny and completely comfortable discussing it.

The fact that the characters include a variety of ethnicities, and as well as LGTBQ+ and gender non-conforming teens –simply existing as adolescents without having their identities be their main character arc — is a beautiful thing to observe. Today’s high-schoolers seem far more advanced on matters of inclusion than older generations, which is why it was so important that although everyone in the film identifies differently, those identities are merely one aspect of their character rather than the sole driving point of their existence.

“Booksmart” has transformed the coming-of-age movie for a new generation, and Wilde immediately establishes herself not as the “next” John Hughes, Cameron Crowe or Judd Apatow but the first Olivia Wilde, the director who gave quick-witted, nerdy teenage girls their chance to shine.

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