movie reviews June 2017

wonder womanthe mummy it comes at nightparis can waitmy cousin rachel

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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My Cousin Rachel
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Among cinema's many lessons — carried over from film's highbrow relatives literature and theater — is one newly revived: beware of seemingly kind women serving tea and sympathy. In Get Out, a masterpiece of subversion, Jordan Peele used the feminine trope, most likely a remnant from accusations of witchcraft, for both mood and means. But the drink itself is irrelevant for Catherine Keener's soporific hypnotist, whose insidious intent is fulfilled by the mere clinking of cutlery on china.

This isn't the case for Rachel, played with her signature wide-eyed flatness by namesake Rachel Weisz, who, in writer-director Roger Michell's (Notting Hill, Le Week-End) adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel, is obsessed with creating herbal tinctures, which she refers to as tizana (not to be confused with the ubiquitous tea shop Teavana), to eradicate what ails those around her.


And for whom does Rachel brew her potions? This English-Italian enchantress first puts her cousin Ambrose (Sam Claflin), sent to Italy to bake a tumor out of his brain, under her spell. After Ambrose’s suspicious death, Rachel then visits his ward and nephew Philip, also played by Sam Claflin, on Ambrose’s estate near the cliffs of Cornwall.

Despite Philip’s intentions to treat Rachel cruelly as payback for his uncle’s tortured death and warnings about her unnaturally libidinous nature, she too quickly and easily charms him. After much effort to safeguard his uncle’s estate, Philip ends up signing it over to her without much of an investigation into the unsavory leads about her past. But then immediately regrets it.

If Philip’s motives seem contradictory and erratic, it’s because they are. Du Maurier terrorizes not with narrative but with mood and atmosphere. Doubt and paranoia are her favorite weapons, and under the direction of Hitchcock (Rebecca, The Birds) and Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), her stories have become the source of nightmares, if not recognized phobias.

However, Michell hasn’t cast enough suspicion on Rachel to create the necessary doubt to maintain the sense of Gothic suspense. For all the black veils, musty rooms and eroding cliffs, the emotion here has been limited to Philip’s anger after Rachel rebuffs him. Even the girl next door (Holliday Grainger), purposely set up to be the opposite of Rachel and to want her to be the villain, understands that Philip is acting from selfish lust. This makes Philip just another nice guy mad that he hasn’t gotten what he’s owed after making the grand gesture. And it’s that, and not Rachel’s tea, that will leave a bitter taste in your mouth. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 06/16/17)


Paris Can Wait
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

The French do it better is the lesson writer/director Eleanor Coppla wants viewers to take away from her feature debut. However, what exactly they're supposed to do better is the question. Enjoying life, I suppose, is what the octogenarian and wife of director Francis Ford Coppola is positing. Dressing, eating, touring are other possible answers. But in the 90 minutes Coppola offers as evidence, it seems as if the true skills for a Frenchman are bellyaching, mansplaining and slobbering unsolicited over Diane Lane.

When Lane was 18, she costarred in Rumble Fish and The Outsiders for Coppola’s husband. Now in her 50s, she's every bit as lively and thoughtful but seems to be experiencing the same trouble finding good roles as most actors of a certain age and gender combination. And it's rare the film that can showcase Lane's darker side that makes B-fare such as Every Secret Thing or Unfaithful so watchable.

Keeping in mind Lane's magnetism, it's understandable that Coppola would have wanted to create a vehicle for her. But even more so it seems Coppola may have desired to finally plunder the depths of her own experience and feelings. After all, Lane portrays Anne, the wife of a famous movie producer and neglectful husband (Alec Baldwin). This could explain why Lane's embodiment of the character doesn't feel as unwavering as usual. She stammers through her dialog as if she doesn't quite believe what she's saying.

But all biographical speculation aside, this disconnect could also be the result of the contradictions in Anne's character. For a slick producer's wife, she's pathetically provincial. The problem may be that Coppola herself doesn't know the character, either. Anne's claim toward the end of the movie that she and her husband spend time in their friend's apartment in Paris conflicts with the entirety of the performance that just came before, in which Anne, reluctantly obliging, is tutored in the French way of life by Jacques (Arnaud Viard), her husband's business partner and an absolute boor.

Having pretended to be chivalrous by offering the ailing and exhausted Anne a ride from Cannes to Paris, Jacques alternates between wining and dining, and chiding and insulting her. It's as if he desires to winkle his way into Anne's most private thoughts and insecurities with that tiny pointed escargot fork of his just so he can manipulate her into sleeping with him. Anne endures the prodding, as well as the frequent stops and side trips with gritted teeth, eventually even suggests a few off-path destinations of her own. But make no mistake, this isn't romance. It's kidnapping. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 06/16/17)


It Comes at Night
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Trey Shults's first film, 2016's deservedly celebrated Krisha, painted rather a dim portrait of human nature and blood ties as a family's simmering dynamics gradually erupt over the course of a Thanksgiving reunion. Although presenting as a post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi inflected horror film, the follow-up goes a bit deeper and a whole lot darker in its exploration of familial bonds and how they fall apart. With It Comes at Night, writer-director Shults masterfully manipulates darkness and light, silence and sound, stillness and action to unnerving effect as he portrays a family swallowed by loss and grief.

The film abruptly drops us into the midst of a post-apocalyptic nightmare. An undefined illness has wiped out a large portion of the population, and survivors are doing their best to eke a living from the soil and what's left of civilization. Viewers anticipating hordes of roaming zombies or some top-secret CDC installation, however, will be disappointed.

The action revolves around a small nuclear family. Former history teacher Paul (Joel Edgerton), wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and dog, Stanley, have taken up residence in a rambling house deep within a dense forest.

Outside lurks danger and death.

To keep it out, this family has become a well-oiled and dispassionate survivalist unit. Gas masks are kept close at hand, routines are observed, a curfew is in effect, and doors and windows have been barricaded, with one exception: a rudimentary air-lock at the entrance, consisting of an exterior door and an ominous red door leading into the living space.

As the film opens, Sara's father, riddled with infection, is gently carried outside, carefully placed in a wheelbarrow, then shot, dumped, and burned. Their existence is rational, regimented, and essentially joyless. When Will (Christopher Abbott) shows up seeking shelter for his family in exchange for supplies, Paul only reluctantly agrees.

Will, wife Kim (Riley Keough) and infant son Andrew hold a mirror held up to Paul's family, similar in so many ways, yet possessed of a joy long missing from this house. And although both men strive to do right by their kin, close quarters and growing paranoia begin to infect even their best intentions.

Travis offers the viewpoint from which we watch events unfold. Lonely, grieving his grandfather's death, relegated to permanent child status by his own dad, and overflowing with hormones, Travis is sensitive to everything that occurs in the house, silently watching and, by night, listening to the muffled conversations below through the attic floorboards.

Harrison mesmerizes with a largely wordless performance that manages to convey a wide range of emotional responses. A flirtatious late-night conversation with Kim in the kitchen leaves both embarrassed when Travis admits he has yet to kiss a girl — suddenly and uncomfortably aware of his opportunities at this point.

For the most part, Shults studiously avoids standard jump-scare imagery. Shults generates most of the film's scares through carefully controlled sights and sounds. Lit solely by natural sources of lanterns and flashlights, Drew Daniels's camera creeps down narrow corridors and pans walls, allowing glimpses of family portraits, possessions, and harrowing Breughel artwork. Because so much is filmed in silence, Kris Fenske’s detailed sound design and Brian McOmber’s ominous score add to the unnerving effect.

While Shults never specifically identifies the “it” of the title, by film’s end, one realizes that it may not come solely at night and may never have been “out there” in the first place. (R) Rating: 4 stars (Posted 06/16/17)


The Mummy
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

I don’t envy Comcast shareholders right now.

When Universal, a Comcast subsidiary, announced that it was releasing a series of movies themed around the classic monsters who practically built the studio during the reign of Carl Laemmle, there might have been reason for hope, or in this case captivating dread. During the 1920s and ‘30s when most studios were offering escapist fare, Universal gave the world The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, The Wolf Man, The Invisible Man and legions of other dark delights.

Recalling the work of people like directors James Whale and Tod Browning, actors Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Elsa Lanchester, and camera innovator Karl Freund could help build a fresh market for the classic movies and inspire new movies that honor their formidably creepy legacy.

Eager to capitalize on a property like Disney’s Marvel Universe and Warner Bros. DC Extended Universe, it must have made shareholders imagine all the cross marketing opportunities like toys, games and tie-in books.

While visions of dollar signs ran through their heads, nobody involved, except for the actors, bothered to read what passed for a script for Universal’s Dark Universe debut, The Mummy.

Despite the involvement of talented screenwriters like David Koepp (The Trigger Effect, Jurassic Park) and Oscar-winner Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects), The Mummy plays less like it was written and more as if it were assembled out of spare parts like Frankenstein’s monster.

The film plays as if director Alex Kurtzman has been attempting a type of post-modern narrative where anything that resembles a storyline is buried under nonsensical eye candy. Unlike King Tut’s burial chamber, there is no treasure to be found here.

The movie leaps across continents without bothering to explain how characters got from A to B or why doing so even matters other than to introduce some character who might be important in another installment. As a sort of mad British scientist with a security clearance from MI5, Russell Crowe gets to deliver lots of somber sounding exposition.

Kurtzman and company practically advertise who their “mystery man” is. If you’ve read any book or seen a lot of movies, you won’t have to guess which classic character Crowe has decided to play. Because his identity is so obvious, there’s no payoff when Crowe mumbles his name.

Tom Cruise is the actual star of the film, and it’s bizarre to see him cast not as the world’s shortest man of action, but as a bumbler who has two risky jobs, neither of which he does well. At the beginning, or after Crowe’s endless opening monologue, Cruise plays Sgt. Nick Morton, who supplements his meager pay for serving in Iraq by looting Mesopotamian antiquities before ISIS destroys them.

 That in itself might have made an interesting movie, but any of the charisma Cruise has demonstrated in his past roles is missing here. He seems like a bystander in his own film and makes a lot of awkward, telegraphed gestures.

It probably doesn’t help that Nick is less interesting than the title character. Algerian actress Sofia Boutella is the resurrected Egyptian princess Ahmanet, who wants to seduce Nick into becoming her undead boy toy.

While Boutella is shorter than Cruise, in movies like Star Trek Beyond and Kingsmen: The Secret Service, she’s specialized in playing exotic, dangerous women that protagonists would be foolish to cross. She effortlessly switches from being seductive to threatening and is far more fun to watch than her bewildered leading man. Whether she’s sporting tattoos of hieroglyphics or merely the face for a shambling corpse, she gives The Mummy its only sense of urgency or purpose.

The rest of the supporting cast realizes this is just a paycheck, and it’s easy to understand their indifference. Annabelle Wallis, for example, comes off more like an undergraduate who has been cramming for a pop quiz than an archeologist.

Kurtzman has a budget in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but a typical Prince of Persia X-Box game has better-looking graphics.

If you really want to honor the artists who built Universal Studios, borrow or stream The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein or Dracula. The people made these movies were hoping to make a buck as well, but they had the decency of offering viewers something worthy of the ticket price. Nobody wants to buy into a franchise if the merchandise is worthless. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 06/09/17)

Haiku
The Mummy (2017)

Tom Cruise should have checked
his e-meter before he signed
for this embalmed dud.


Wonder Woman
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

With Wonder Woman, the DC Extended Universe finally looks like it might drag itself out of the dark, dire funk it has dwelt in since Christopher Nolan's Batman movies.

Yes, it's another origin story. And yes, it pits super heroine against super villain in a super battle of superpowers, the finale of which is laboriously protracted. Yet, with a woman behind and in front of the camera, Wonder Woman surprises and elates by tapping into something that has been missing from its DC predecessors: heart.

After the briefest of prologues to provide continuity with last year's Batman v Superman, the film flashes back to introduce a young Diana (Lilly Aspell, then Emily Carey), growing up on Themyscira, an island inhabited solely by women which has been magically enshrouded from the outside world, what the Amazons call “the world of men,” for ages.

Yet even in this utopian society, familiar conflicts arise. Although her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), an accomplished warrior, forbids young Diana to develop battle skills, her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), general of the Amazonian forces, trains her in private.

When an emissary from the world of men, American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes a plane just off the island, Diana (now portrayed by Israeli model/actress Gal Gadot) is faced with a dilemma that echoes the current global political climate: After hearing of the horrors of trench warfare and poison gas wrought by The Great War, should she embrace an interventionist viewpoint and follow Trevor into the world of men or, as her mother urges, simply leave humans to their own devices (Make Themyscira Great Again)? Believing that men could not be innately evil, Diana concludes that the war must be the work of the god Ares, and hence, the responsibility of an Amazon to resolve.

When Diana leaves Themyscira, the film truly comes into its own, allowing Gadot and director Patty Jenkins (Monster) to develop Diana into a (relatively) complex character, not just an icon. A trip to 1918 London allows for some fish-out-water moments as Diana experiences not just a confounding revolving door, motorcars, and the pleasures of ice cream, but a culture in which women are routinely dismissed, regardless of their knowledge or abilities. She also kindles a budding romance with Trevor that is both humorous and sweet.

Jenkins consistently resists the urge to define female power in purely male terms — as simply a hot woman kicking butt. Sure, Diana kicks butt (too often in the now-familiar slo-mo, comic-book-panel style of most other superhero films), but Jenkins, working from a screenplay by Allan Heinberg, grounds the Amazon warrior in a clearly pacifist perspective.

Unlike her Marvel counterpart Captain America (both first appearing in the comics in 1941), Diana is neither pro-America nor pro-combat. The film establishes a relatively terrifying threat: ruthless German General Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and facially disfigured female mad scientist Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) are on the threshold of unleashing a new and more virulent chemical weapon. Diana, however, is moved to action only after witnessing firsthand, in some harrowing (though PG-13) scenes, the war’s effects on civilians.

In fact, the film’s first true stand-up-and-cheer-goose-bumps moment occurs when Diana, down in the trenches with the Allied troops, abandons Captain Trevor’s assignment for a more humanitarian (and dangerous) act. Having spotted a group of civilians trapped in No Man’s Land, Diana is told by Trevor that she can’t save them, that she must stick to the mission of finding and destroying Maru’s laboratory. To assuage her conscience, he weakly assures her that other men will come.

Striding out of the trench and onto the battlefield, Diana announces, “I am the men who came.”

Gadot may not be a great actress (yet), but her expressive face clearly reflects the character’s wonder and horror at this strange new world as she transforms from idealistic warrior to true hero, one aware that those she defends, though not perfect, merit her protection.

Unfortunately, Diana’s suspicions about the war turn out to be correct, leading to a climactic yet thunderously dull battle with Ares (David Thewliss), indistinguishable from those that conclude either chapter of Marvel’s Thor saga: full of thunderbolts and flying bodies, signifying nothing. A shame, too, because when it sticks to the world of men, Wonder Woman shines. PG-13 Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 06/06/17)

 

 


 



Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Mike Ireland can be contacted at mike.e.ireland@gmail.com


 

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