Mute


Here’s a scene that could have used Harrison Ford.

(2018) Science Fiction (Netflix) Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Robert Sheehan, Daniel Fathers, Robert Kazinsky, Jannis Niewöhner, Dominic Monaghan, Melissa Holroyd, Levi Eisenblätter, Caroline Peters, Nikki Lamborn, Noel Clarke, Gilbert Owuor, Andrzej Blumenfeld, Michael Behrens, Mike Davies, Sam Rockwell, Anja Karmanski. Directed by Duncan Jones

 

Duncan Jones is one of the most inventive and admired genre directors out there. When Netflix picked up this film to display, it was considered a coup. A much-admired director at the top of his game in a fairly large-budget production, Netflix was undoubtedly hoping for a franchise.

That’s not necessarily what they got. They got a sci-fi noir story set in a 2050 Berlin very much based on the look of Blade Runner. Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, an Amish bartender (!) at a seedy dive in the underground of Berlin who has been mute since a childhood boating accident. His girlfriend Naadirah (Saleh) is a cocktail waitress (and as he later discovers, a part-time prostitute) who disappears after a couple of lowlifes make some untoward advances, causing the angry Amish (!) to beat the holy crap out of them.

No longer burdened with having to be a bartender after getting fired (even seedy dive owners get grumpy about employees beating up customers) Leo turns into gritty Amish detective (!) and searches the dodgy side of town in search of his lover who turns out to have a few secrets of her own, secrets that are connected to a couple of AWOL American military surgeons named Cactus Bill (Rudd) and Duck (Theroux) and perhaps Luba (Sheehan), a bisexual waiter and fellow prostitute who has a big time crush on Naadirah and big time contempt for Leo.

The visuals are nothing less than stunning, although you’ll get a sense that you’ve seen it all before; the nod to the Ridley Scott classic at times crosses the line from homage to rip-off. Skarsgård at least delivers a soulful performance as Leo, mainly having to emote using facial expressions and body language. However the conceit of making him Amish fails spectacularly – should any Amish have a Netflix subscription they no doubt will be scratching their beards and wondering to their mates “Does thee believe what thou are seeing?” The banter between Rudd and Theroux is fun, but it gets a bit creepy (Cactus Bill has a volcanic temper and Duck is a pederast) particularly towards the end of the film.

Critics absolutely hated this thing as you can see by their scores below, but they’re being a little harsh, maybe because Jones set his own bar so high. Yeah, the plot is muddled but if you stick with it for the two hours plus that the movie runs it all does come together. The film is genuinely inventive and I think most critics will agree that it’s like nothing you’ve seen before which I admit isn’t always a good thing. However, I was reasonably entertained and parts of the film have remained with me although parts have not – one of the most important plot points is explained at the end but I can’t for the life of me remember what that explanation is. Don’t let the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores dissuade you for deciding for yourself; I enjoyed it enough to recommend it although do take that with a note of caution; I’m pretty much alone in the critical community in that regard.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are breathtaking. Skarsgård delivers a soulful performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is more than a little bit muddled. Sheehan gives far too wooden a performance as Luba.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and sexuality herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David Hasselhoff appears on the currency.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner 2049
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Deadpool 2

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The Descendants


The Descendants

George Clooney may not get the joke but Shailene Woodley does.

(2011) Dramedy (Fox Searchlight) George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Beau Bridges, Robert Forster, Judy Greer, Matthew Lillard, Nick Krause, Amara Miller, Mary Birdsong, Rob Huebel, Patricia Hastie, Barbara L. Southern, Celia Kenney, Scott Michael Morgan. Directed by Alexander Payne

 

Most of us aspire to live in paradise. The problem with that is that we still have to live in paradise and living is a messy, complicated business.

Matt King (Clooney) is a wealthy lawyer descended from King Kamehameha I. His family was one of the first non-Hawaiian landowners in the islands, and the family trust, for which Matt is the sole trustee, owns 25,000 acres of virgin land in Kauai. The trust will expire in seven years and the family is eager to sell the land which is worth billions. For some family members who are experiencing financial hardships, the sale of this land will be a windfall that will allow them to live comfortably for the rest of their lives.

However, Matt’s focus is no longer on the sale. His wife Elizabeth (Hastie) has been in a serious boating accident, leaving her in a coma. Matt has always been more married to his work than to his wife; he is the self-described “back-up parent,” leaving Elizabeth to raise his two daughters – 10-year-old Scottie (Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Woodley). Scottie has taken to bullying, using profanities and flipping her father the bird when she doesn’t get her way.

Alex is also a mess, having quarreled with her mother shortly before leaving for boarding school and taking to using drugs and alcohol to salve her pain. She’s just getting her life back on track when Matt comes to fetch her to let her know the dire news the doctor has just given him; Elizabeth is not responding to treatment and the coma will be permanent. As per her living will, she will be unhooked from her life support and allowed to die with dignity. Matt chooses to keep Scottie in the dark about this for the time being.

Matt also learns unexpectedly that Elizabeth was having an affair at the time of the accident and was thinking about getting a divorce. The object of her affections was a realtor named Brian Speer (Lillard) who is currently on vacation in Kauai. Matt decides to confront Brian and with his daughters in tow, as well as Alex’s not-quite-boyfriend Sid (Krause) along for the ride, Matt goes about the business of getting closure, and allowing family members – such as Elizabeth’s crotchety dad (Forster) the same.

While there are some comedic elements, there is almost always something darker about them. For example, Matt’s awkward flip-flop run, oft-repeated in the trailer, to his neighbor’s house to confront them about what they know about Elizabeth’s affair – it’s certainly silly to watch out of context but when you know what prompted the ungainly sprint it is a different matter entirely. Sid’s near-epic insensitivity also prompts some guilty laughter, not to mention groans of dismay.

This is very much one of Clooney’s outstanding performances, destined to be one of the defining moments of his career I think. He is most certainly the Oscar frontrunner at this point, giving Matt a good deal of humanity yet never letting us forget that this is a man enduring some incredible pain at the moment – not only living with the knowledge that his wife was about to die, but having his world crumble further in that she no longer loved him and wanted another man. There is also unspoken guilt (which I would have loved to hear spoken) that he felt some kind of guilt in driving her to that place. That aspect of his pain is never explored and I think it might have added something had it been.

Woodley also is terrific as the daughter who has her own issues but as time goes by finally begins to understand her dad and even like him a little bit. That’s a big step for Alex, and Woodley gives the character depth. It doesn’t hurt that the character was written with some to begin with, instead of making her a typical Hollywood screen teen who knows better than her parents. Alex certainly doesn’t; she’s more like the teenagers I met than the ones I’ve seen onscreen.

Forster and Greer, both veteran character actors, have also elicited some supporting actor/actress Oscar buzz; Forster for the dad who is crusty and curmudgeonly, but at the center is deeply wounded and in despair that he is going to outlive his daughter. Greer has a very emotionally complex role that leads to an amazing scene with Clooney in Elizabeth’s hospital room near the end of the movie. It’s devastating and maybe the best single scene you’ll see in a movie this year.

I can’t imagine going through what Matt King goes through here. To be in a situation where one must not only mourn for someone he loves, but to feel acute betrayal as well at the same time – how horrible is that? I loved where the movie took us, and appreciated the journey that got us there. Some are going to look at this from the trailers as a comedy along the lines of the Coen Brothers movies, but this is definitely far from a feel-good kind of film. It has its quirks, but at the end of the day it is a very human film which is going to be making quite a few appearances on Academy ballots when all is said and done.

REASONS TO GO: Oscar-worthy performance by Clooney. A very moving and painful journey.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too painful and intense for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of swearing and some sexual references.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Woodley is best known for the TV show “The Secret Life of an American Teenager.” This is her first big screen role.

HOME OR THEATER: Although most of the film translates well to more intimate screens, the Hawaiian vistas are another matter and besides, it deserves some box office support.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

TOMORROW: The Infidel

Piranha 3D


Piranha 3D

Jerry O'Connell gets a little skinnier during his dip.

(2010) Horror (Dimension) Jerry O’Connell, Elizabeth Shue, Christopher Lloyd, Steven R. McQueen. Richard Dreyfuss, Ving Rhames, Jessica Szohr, Kelly Brook, Riley Steele, Adam Scott, Ricardo Chavira, Dina Meyer, Paul Scheer. Directed by Alexandre Aja

Some movies get remade so that their story can be reinterpreted. Others, as a means of homage to the original filmmakers. Still others are plain and simple a cash grab.

This one is one of the latter. French director Alexandre Aja directed the impressive High Tension in 2003, but has been exiled to remake land since coming to Hollywood. He already has remakes of The Hills Have Eyes and Mirrors to his credit and now he takes on Joe Dante’s 1978 schlock exploitation classic of the same name, only throwing in some after-the-fact 3D conversion to pull in the crowds.

The movie is only loosely based on the 1978 original, maintaining only the broad concept of prehistoric carnivorous fish attacking a beach resort. In a kind of tribute to the era (although not necessarily the original film which I admit I haven’t seen in about 20 years and remember very little of) Aja has amped up the blood and boob quotient, throwing in lots of bare-breasted and bikini clad babes to get their bare flesh consumed in a kind of orgy of adolescent boy fantasy frenzy.

Yes, there’s a plot but does it really matter? Jerry O’Connell is a sleazebag who shoots light porn vignettes a la “Girls Gone Wild” (whose Joe Francis has taken legal action against O’Connell and the producers for what he considers slanderous depictions of him as a drug-using, exploitative meathead for which I can only say if the shoe fits). He is visiting the spring break resort at Lake Victoria just as Spring Break festivities are getting underway.

There is a plucky sheriff (Shue), a crazed marine biologist (Lloyd) and of course the heroic sheriff’s son who disobeys not only her instructions but simple common sense as well. Dreyfuss is stunt cast as a fisherman who is the first victim (he gets about three minutes of screen time) whose name alludes to his character in Jaws. Most of the target audience however not only won’t get the reference, they won’t care much.

The camp factor is off the scale; definitely you have to watch this understanding that there is a tongue planted firmly in cheek, although you’re not necessarily sure whose tongue and whose cheek. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love naked breasts and gory fish food as much as the next guy (which is a lot) but I need more. Maybe not every adolescent boy who dreams of beautiful girls in bikinis needs a plot or characters who aren’t caricatures but while I can enjoy this on a visceral level (and I do), I simply can’t recommend it for discerning audiences.

WHY RENT THIS: Revels in its B movie-ness. Plenty of gore and boobs in a throwback to films of the era when the original was made.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little too over-the-top with the camp. The acting varies from atrocious to forgettable.

FAMILY VALUES: A surfeit of fish violence, blood and gore as well as lots of bare breasts and sexuality. The language is a bit rough too and there’s a scene of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set on Texas’ Lake Victoria, the movie was actually filmed at Arizona’s Lake Havasu. The tequila brand used on the boat is Havasu as a kind of sly tribute to the filming location.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $83.2M on a $24M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Immortals