movie reviews March 2018

midnightersA wrinkle in Time a Fantastic Womanthe partytomb raider

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

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Tomb Raider
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Lara Croft has always been a contradictory icon, simultaneously embodying female empowerment and male objectification. Angelina Jolie's cinematic incarnation, while true to its video game source, largely provided pubescent fanboys a living, breathing embodiment of their fantasy girl,

Recasting the larger-than-life Croft as something approaching a flesh-and-blood female makes for a more palatable heroine (certainly in the cultural moment of the #MeToo movement) and provides viewers the possibility for an emotional connection with the character.

To that end, the casting of Alicia Vikander, Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actress for The Danish Girl, makes perfect sense. Not yet the Tomb Raider (the signature guns don't appear until the end), Vikander's Croft is less Jolie-style Amazon than scrappy street fighter. Early on, we see her take a beat-down in the boxing ring where she's training and outruns an entire peloton of her fellow bike couriers as the fox in a two-wheeled "fox hunt" that barrels through the streets (and alleys and sidewalks and stairways) of London. In fact, these early action scenes are among the film's most engaging as we can see in her eyes her struggle and determination.

Once Lara leaves London in search of her long-lost millionaire father, however, the action and the character begin feeling much more like standard Tomb Raider fare. The screenplay by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons strands Croft on an uncharted island where she faces a series of familiar video game challenges: yawning chasms to cross, indistinguishable baddies to kill, puzzles to solve, and a series of booby traps deep within an ancient tomb to outsmart. Rendered in obvious CG effects, any sense of real danger quickly evaporates.

The best moments on the island are brief reprieves from director Roar Uthaug's (The Wave) relentless action sequences. In one scene, Croft slips silently down a lush hillside into the enemy camp, muscles taught and bow drawn, eyes scanning all directions as guards pass, at one point even slipping into the tent of evil archeologist Mathias (a scenery chewing Walton Goggins) to avoid detection. Later, after fighting an opponent to the death, Vikander's Croft, neither flippant nor triumphant; simply stares blankly, stunned by what she's done.

By the film's end, one can only begin to wonder at the many missed opportunities. Why cast Dominic West (Jimmy McNulty on TV's The Wire) as Lara's father if he's only going to emerge (of course, he's alive on the island) as a doddering Ben Gunn-style castaway? Why pay for actors the caliber of Kristin Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi only to relegate them to brief book-ending cameos?

And why make a film based on a game, in the first place, then painstakingly remove its main ingredient — fun? (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 03/21/18)

The Party
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

English director and screenwriter Sally Potter (Orlando, Ginger & Rosa) continues her unpretentious experiments in film, choosing, along with cinematographer and frequent collaborator Alexey Rodionov, to shoot her latest in black and white. But even before the canapés can be served in this drawing-room comedy, the drama comes to a spumy boil and stays there, getting acrider by the minute.

The movie begins at the ending: a slow flash-forward reveals an agitated Kristin Scott Thomas opening the door and aiming a gun at the person on her doorstep. Who is the target of this inhospitable greeting? For now, it's us, the viewers. But before we can wonder what we did to deserve such a hostile welcome, the movie switches to a calmer but not much happier time.

Janet, played by Scott Thomas, is preparing a small dinner party to celebrate her appointment as the country's health minister. Her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), already stewed, leaves his chair in the living room, where he sits almost comatose, only to clumsily and obsessively change the record on his turntable. Their guests, cherry-picked bourgeois caricatures, include Janet's cynical best friend April (Patricia Clarkson) and a cliché-spouting pseudo-philosopher and her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), along with lesbian couple Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer), newly pregnant with triplets. Last to arrive is the sweaty, coked-up banker Tom (Cillian Murphy) who keeps changing his mind about shooting Bill.

These seven, embroiled in a hot mess of two ill-timed confessions (inopportune for both the dinner party and the structure of the film), make up the entire cast. Two off-screen characters, an illicit lover represented by a burner phone hidden in Janet's bosom and Tom's wife, who is also Bill's cohort, complicate these relationships somewhat, though the former, overshadowed by the onscreen theatrics, is easily forgotten.

In an already small space fraught with tension, Potter divides her small cast into twos and threes and shuttles them into even more claustrophobic spots — the bathroom, the kitchen, the backdoor alleyway near the garbage cans. There isn't a single person onscreen who's not engaged in an argument or worked up into a homicidal rage. So much of this is unnecessary, though, such as the tension between Martha and Jinny over Martha's lack of maternal excitement, which just feels like overkill.

Comparisons to the 1972 Luis Buñuel film The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie are inevitable. Potter's party guests, too, never get to the dinner part of the dinner party. But unlike Buñuel's film, where a series of dreamy, spectral interruptions keep the guests from sating their appetites, those at Potter's party only get in their own way. They know the dinner is in the bin and the party has devolved into a version of hell. Yet, nobody leaves. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 03/21/18)

A Fantastic Woman
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Singer Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega) and her inamorato Orlando Onetto (Francisco Reyes) have much to celebrate. It's Marina's birthday, and they're both giddy about their May-December romance. In a few weeks Orlando plans to whisk Marina away to a romantic getaway at Iguazu Falls on the Argentine-Brazilian border, though he's misplaced the tickets sometime during his day, which included a stop at a Scandinavian sauna located in downtown Santiago, Chile.

After a night of dinner, dancing and sex, Orlando wakes up not feeling well. In a rush to get him to the hospital, Marina forgets the keys to the apartment and leaves Orlando in the hallway near the elevator. Confused, Orlando heads for the stairwell and falls down a flight of stairs. Later, in surgery at the hospital, Orlando dies.

Such is the traumatic opening of Una Mujer Fantástica, the Oscar-winning film from Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio (Gloria), who co-wrote the script with frequent collaborator Gonzalo Maza, and it only gets worse before it gets better.

In her very first onscreen role, Vega portrays the grieving Marina with a steely vulnerability. She's devastated, heartbroken and concerned about propriety in her new status. Without legal standing, Marina calls Orlando’s brother, Gapo (Luis Gnecco), to handle Orlando's affairs, but it's Orlando’s ex-wife (Aline Kuppenheim) and adult son (Nicolás Saavedra) who are rabid to take over his affairs, desiring to expunge Marina from not only his high-rise apartment but also the memory of his life.

In their respective bereavement, Marina and the newly widowed Jackie Kennedy (Pablo Larraín, director of 2016's Jackie, is listed as a producer) have this purgatory in common, except Marina literally embodies a further complication: she's transgender.

Subsequently, everyone Marina encounters — from the hospital staff who insist on calling her "sir" to the supposedly sympathetic policewoman called in because she fears the bruises on Orlando's body may indicate he was abusing Marina — pile on micro aggressions, mistaken accusations and outright hostility. Her existence is regarded as perversion, and accordingly the relationship with her beloved Orlando comes under suspicion; the only imaginable possibilities being abuse or sex work.

Bucking the trend of casting “cisgender” actors in trans roles, newcomer Vega, too, is transgender. She's charged with battling the very misperceptions that film, for years, has planted in our collective unconscious. Whether villain or victim, the most common parts, they're rarely taken seriously. Marina's greatest challenge is having her grief recognized.

As this goes on, the story ventures into didacticism. “We were a couple,” Marina is forced to explain. “It was a healthy, consensual relationship between two adults.”

It's terrible dialogue, but then speaking isn't Marina's strength; her power comes from music and singing, which Lelio expresses in whimsical fantasy scenes that give Marina a much-needed reprieve from her grief, an escape from the hostile world and the fortification to move on. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 03/13/2018)

A Wrinkle in Time
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Ava DuVernay's film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 children’s novel A Wrinkle in Time makes its intentions clear in virtually every image, word of dialogue, and note of its soundtrack. Being the first African-American woman to be handed the reigns of a major studio project, DuVernay seems to have been determined to deliver the quintessential validating, empowering cinematic experience for a modern audience of young black girls.

Key to that experience is providing a cast that reflects, that represents, the audience. In 2018, the family at the center of this story is no longer of an unspecified racial (but presumably white) background. Meg Murray (Storm Reid), the film's 14-year-old heroine who is struggling with self-image and identity as well as the mysterious disappearance of her father, is also bi-racial and a member of a multi-racial family: white physicist father Alex Murray (Chris Pine), black scientist mother Kate Murry (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and adopted Hispanic younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe).

When a trio of magical beings from another dimension appears to help Meg find her dad, they, too, manifest in multi-cultural, multi-racial, and disappointingly familiar human form: Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, and a colossal, two-story Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, respectively, offering inspirational quotes from the likes of Rumi and Winston Churchill, and exhorting timid Meg to "Be a Warrior!"

Those exhortations are reinforced throughout by a multicultural collection of soundtrack artists. Chloe x Halle echo Oprah's command with their soundtrack contribution, "Warrior": I could be a warrior /Yes, I am a warrior, and DJ Khaled and Demi Levato invoke a kind of aspirational mantra, repeating, I can, I can, I will, I will/I am, I am, no fear, no fear.

Even the sets, at least in the early earthbound scenes, are packed with images — photos, posters — of inspirational African American figures, including Maya Angelou and James Baldwin (used to comic visual effect when Charles Wallace visits the principal's office).

The message seems to be that a woman, young or ancient, of any color, can save the world, even the universe, by believing in herself.

It's undeniably a worthy message, but its relentless reiteration threatens to eclipse the film's other elements, including plot (visits to other dimensions feel more like sight-seeing than sortie) and characterization (Mrs. Murray and Meg's fellow traveler Calvin O'Keefe barely make an impression).

In the film, as in the novel, Meg's father has been imprisoned by the source of all evil, something known only as IT, located on a planet in another dimension, Camazotz, over which it wields complete control and from which it is relentlessly extending its dark influence throughout all planes of existence, including Earth. DuVernay's film offers a relatively faithful glimpse of Camazotz, as described in L’Engle’s novel. Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O'Keefe (Levi Miller) descend to what looks like a suburban cul-de-sac filled with tract homes, pruned trees, and children bouncing balls in clean, uncluttered drives. They, the visitors, notice that the balls all bounce in sync to a rhythm emanating from IT until blank-faced children are called in to dinner simultaneously by nearly identical mothers.

DuVernay abandons the scene abruptly as Meg and Co. is ushered on to other, more threatening scenes.

For L’Engle, however, this scene is the threat, the relentless, insinuating influence of the powerful in determining what is best for the rest of us. In the novel, IT posits that such uniformity and conformity will put an end to all war and suffering.

One can't help but be haunted by this scene as Meg and her companions, as well as the audience, are subjected to wave upon wave of the best-intentioned, well-meaning indoctrination.

All of this insistent encouragement begins to feel a bit like coercion, leaving Storm Reid's Meg little to do but passively follow on a journey which should be hers. It's a puzzling and dispiriting consequence for a movie so laudably devoted to liberating young viewers. (PG) Rating: 2 (Posted on 03/13/2018)

Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Treading, as it does, in neo-noir territory and credited to sibling writer-director duo The Ramsay Brothers, Midnighters is likely to invite unfavorable comparisons with the Coen Brothers' cinematic debut Blood Simple. Like Blood Simple (and Danny Boyle's directorial debut Shallow Grave, and Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan) Midnighters follows as the consequences of bad decisions and greed spiral out of control.

In this case, driving home from the company New Year's Eve party, the less-than-happily married Lindsey (Alex Essoe) and Jeff Pitman (Dylan McTee) run down a stranger walking on the road out in the middle of the New England woods. Lack of cell phone service and the realization that they might face breath analyzer tests at a hospital or police station topple the first domino in this story as the couple decides to take the victim to their home until their BAC falls a bit.

Discovering their address on a scrap of paper in the stranger's wallet is a twist worthy of Hitchcock and, by itself, might have provided sufficient suspense for the proceedings. Screenwriter Alston Ramsay (former speechwriter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and General David Petraeus), however, overly concerned with keeping audiences guessing, loads on the twists and turns.

Lindsay's mooching younger sister Hannah (Perla Haney-Jardine), who has been staying at the house, returns from her own New Year's celebration. Beat cops arrive, having found the Pitman’s' license plate at the site, not far from an abandoned car. But when Detective Smith (Ward Horton) shows up at the door, grinning like a maniac from an episode of “Criminal Minds,” it becomes clear that the plot has careened into slasher film territory.

Nothing wrong with that except Lindsey and Jeff's motivation also shifts abruptly from protecting their already-shaky family unit to simple greed and vengeance. For characters that have been introduced as an honest working-class couple, the facile embrace of betrayal and violence feels contrived. Faring even worse, Hannah never coalesces into a character, remaining a mere plot device to connect all the players.

With no one left to care about, the film contents itself with hide-and-seek in the unfinished house, with occasional bursts of gruesome violence (including a more prolonged take on Blood Simple's nail-in-the-hand).

Even the locale remains undeveloped and unexplained. Why New England?

The Texas heat and desolation informed the characters and action of Blood Simple, just as the snow-covered expanses of rural Minnesota provided a suitably desolate backdrop for the morality play that unfolds in A Simple Plan. Midnighters's few exterior scenes feature dimly lit woods and country two-lanes, but it could just as well be the Ozarks as this nebulous "New England."

With neither characters nor location to anchor the proceedings, Director Julius Ramsay's game attempts to develop suspense are ultimately undermined by a script that substitutes plot contortion for character. (R)
Rating: 2 (Posted on 03/11/18)

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