Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets


If it looks like a duck…

(2017) Science Fiction (Europa/STX) Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Sam Spruell, Alain Chabat, Rutger Hauer, Peter Hudson, Xavier Giannoli, Louis Leterrier, Eric Rochant, Benoit Jacquot, Olivier Megaton, Gerald Krawczyk, Pierre Cachia, David Saada, Hippolyte Burkhart-Uhlen, Elizabeth Debicki (voice), Sasha Luss. Directed by Luc Besson

 

Luc Besson is often called a visionary filmmaker, mainly for his watershed 90s sci-fi epic The Fifth Element. Besson was heavily influenced by the French comic book Valerian and Laureline which also seems to have been influenced by the iconic French magazine Heavy Metal. He hasn’t attempted a sci-fi tale on the same grand scale up until now however.

Two agents – Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Delevingne) – are hard at work in the gigantic multi-species space station/city known as Alpha (which began life as the International Space Station – try to keep up). This intergalactic symbol of peaceful co-existence is being destroyed from the inside out and seems to be linked to the destruction of a paradise-like planet centuries earlier. Valerian and Laureline who have a nascent romance going (mostly in Valerian’s head) must navigate a variety of exotic alien races and cultures along with a conspiracy of far-reaching dimensions in order to save Alpha and quite possibly the universe.

Sounds like a simple enough movie but trust me this is only a bare scratching of the surface. The plot is somewhat convoluted and is confusing as all get out until late in the game. Because this is a two hour-plus movie lots of frustrated viewers will have ceased caring much by the time things become clear.

At least there will be some breathtaking visuals to keep them entertained through the confusion. Besson has always been a particularly visual director and he is in his (fifth) element here. The mainly computer-generated images are massive in scope and detail. Those who have seen the trailers for this thing and ended up plunking their hard-earned dollars at the box office were no doubt taken as I was by the gorgeous visuals.

But in all honesty there really is little beyond that to recommend the film. There is almost zero chemistry between Delevingne and DeHaan and both seem to be terribly unsuited for their roles. The comic book this is based on has Valerian as a raven-haired badass while Laureline is a buxom beauty with flowing, flaming red hair. Certainly I’m not against a filmmaker eschewing slavish devotion to source material visuals but the whole scope of the characters change from four color printed page to celluloid and that seems to be kind of a waste of good material.

This was one of the biggest disappointments of the past summer for me, and that’s saying something considering how many underwhelming blockbusters there were this year. I had high hopes that Besson would be able to shepherd this largely unknown in the U.S. source material into a big time franchise but alas it was not to be. Clunky dialogue and weak performances doomed this with critics and the lack of big names doomed it with American audiences. The movie so badly under-performed that it caused a major executive shake-up at the studio that made it. Considering that Valerian and Laureline have influenced a lot of the big budget sci-fi films of the past fifty years (including the original Star Wars) it’s a shame that it didn’t get a better movie to represent it.

REASONS TO GO: The special effects are amazing. There is a great deal of imagination displayed throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: There is little chemistry between DeHaan and Delevingne. The movie is a bit too convoluted and a little too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity as well as plenty of sci-fi violence and even a bit of slightly suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With a budget of $210 million U.S. this is the most expensive film ever made in France – to date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fifth Element
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Love and Saucers

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The Circle


It looks like Tom Hanks is trying to recapture his Cast Away look.

(2017) Thriller (STX) Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Ellar Coltrane, Glenne Headly, Bill Paxton, Karen Gillan, Beck, Nate Corddry, John Boyega, Patton Oswalt, Mamoudou Athie, Eve Gordon, Poorna Jagannathan, Elvy Yost, Ellen Wong, Lauren Baldwin, Nicola Bertram, Julian Von Nagel, Amie McCarthy-Winn, Regina Saldivar, Amir Tatai, Smith Cho. Directed by James Ponsoldt

 

There’s no doubt that the world is changing. Social media and the presence of cameras nearly everywhere have guaranteed that our concept of privacy will have to change radically. We must learn to live with the reality that everything we do is not only findable online but is subject to the scrutiny of trolls.

Mae (Watson) is a customer service drone in a dead end job she can’t stand. Coming to her rescue is Annie (Gillan) who works in management at The Circle, a sort of cross between Facebook, Google and Big Brother. Like all social media outlets, The Circle seems to be almost an obsession with its users who post the most mundane details of their day so that friends and strangers can pass judgment.

Mae’s dad (Paxton in his final role) has Multiple Sclerosis and her mom (Headly) has been worn ragged caring for him. Her ex-boyfriend Mercer (Coltrane) is suspicious of the ongoing loss of privacy and is retreating from the modern connected world, moving to a rustic artist retreat that is essentially off the grid.

Mae however has picked a grand time to join up with The Circle. Co-founder and CEO Eamon Bailey (Hanks) is releasing a new product – a miniaturized camera that people can wear all day long that utilizes facial recognition software to allow them to find friends nearby and of course post everything they do – literally every moment of their day – online. Mae, after a rough start, has become a convert “Circler” and is selected to be the first person to have total transparency online.

However with total transparency comes collateral damage – not everyone wants their every moment on display and it ends up causing friction with those Mae loves the most and leads to a tragedy nobody could have predicted. This leads her to do some digging and she soon finds out that not everything at the Circle – or everyone – necessarily has benevolent intentions.

This is based on a book by Dan Eggers who gets the Silicon Valley culture nicely. In some ways, the movie pokes fun a bit at the tech culture of “play hard, work harder” with Mae getting a visit from Circlers who are concerned she’s not participating in any groups – or working on weekends. In some ways the big problem with this poorly-reviewed movie is that it really doesn’t know what it wants to be – at times it feels like a corporate espionage thriller, other times a social commentary and still others a sci-fi cautionary tale.

The graphics are nifty and nicely extrapolate what our online experience is going to look like in maybe a decade or less. The film is also blessed with a marvelous cast. You literally can’t go wrong with Hanks who doesn’t play villains often and even this villain is less villainous than Oswalt’s corporate weasel who is more of a traditional villain. Bailey is charming and folksy, a cross between Steve Jobs and Garrison Keillor. And, of course he’s Tom Hanks, the modern Jimmy Stewart.

But then there’s Watson who is a marvelous actress and perhaps one of the most beloved actresses in the world. She was simply flat here, never really gathering my sympathy or attention. I was far more drawn to Hanks’ character which is not unexpected given Hanks ability and screen charm. But as she proved in Beauty and the Beast Watson is thoroughly capable of carrying a movie and here she simply doesn’t.

I liked the social media aspect which the movie seems to be on the cusp of exploring further but it never really does. It feels like the filmmakers were anxious not to offend millennials which they figured would be a large chunk of their target audience; unfortunately what that wound up doing was diluting the message and taking away much of the film’s bite. Overall it feels a bit like cinematic pablum.

That’s not to say that this is a complete waste of time. The movie does accurately portray our society’s obsession with celebrity and the growing importance of internet celebrity; it also makes points about our obsession with connection and the growing loss of privacy. These are all valid and salient points and I would have loved to see more exploration of them. Instead we end up with something of a generic thriller that ends up disappointing more than it excites. Circles, after all, have a tendency to end up where they start out – and so does The Circle.

REASONS TO GO: Hanks is a riveting quasi-villain. The graphics are nicely utilized.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a wasted opportunity in terms of sociopolitical commentary. Nothing here really impresses.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality, some drug use and a smattering of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Headly and Paxton who play Mae’s parents have both passed away since they filmed their roles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eagle Eye
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Unforgettable

Bad Moms


Party girls never die; they just put on mom jeans.

Party girls never die; they just put on mom jeans.

(2016) Comedy (STX) Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Christina Applegate, Jada Pinkett Smith, Annie Mumolo, Oona Laurence, Emjay Anthony, David Walton, Clark Duke, Jay Hernandez, Wendell Pierce, Leah McKendrick, Megan Ferguson, Lyle Brocato, Wanda Sykes, Cade Cooksey, J.J. Watt, Ann Mahoney, Samantha Beaulieu, Kelly Lind. Directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore

 

Motherhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be these days. The expectations that are put on the shoulders of moms are simply unrealistic. Not only do they have to keep their kids days filled with various activities, they have to balance a career, the needs of their husband, working out, bake sales and PTA meetings with the needs of their parents and siblings as well. Something has got to give in these cases and it’s usually the women trying to be all things to all people.

Amy Mitchell (Kunis) has about reached her breaking point. First of all, she’s caught her husband Mike (Walton) having an online affair. Her marriage has essentially been an empty shell for years so he doesn’t complain too much when she kicks his ass out. Now, however, she has to go the single mom route which is no easy task for a woman who is perpetually late to everything.

Her daughter Jane (Laurence) is stressing herself out trying to make the soccer team which looks good on the transcripts when applying to the Ivy League schools Jane so desperately wants to attend. The Queen Bee of the PTA and poster child for perfect moms, Gwendolyn (Applegate) gives her askance looks, directing passive aggressive taunts her way. And she can’t get any respect at work.

So Amy has a meltdown. Right in the middle of a PTA meeting, no less. After receiving an extensive list of things not to bring to the upcoming bake sale, Amy just loses it. She is done trying to be a good mom. It’s time to be a bad mom for once. She goes to a bar and is surprised to find a couple of her fellow moms there; single mom Carla (Hahn) who seems to be potentially coming on to anything male, and breathless put-upon Kiki (Bell) who is sweet but overwhelmed with a husband who treats her like a house cleaner. The three ladies bond and begin a campaign of their own.

At first it’s all fun and games; Amy goes out and begins to have a life again. She forces her kids to make their own breakfasts and do their own homework rather than doing it for them. She goes to movies and to brunches with her friends. She starts to see a hunky widower (Hernandez) that all the women in school are lusting after. She quits her job and it isn’t long before her boss (Duke) is begging her to come back.

But Gwendolyn and her Gwendo-lettes (Smith, Mumolo) take this as an affront, a challenge to Gwendolyn’s authority and absolute rule of the PTA. Gwendolyn begins to attack and she targets Amy’s daughter, who is high strung enough as it is. Mama bears don’t take kindly to having their cubs threatened and Amy decides to take on Gwendolyn where it would hurt the most; she runs against her for the PTA presidency.

This is a raunchy comedy from the folks that brought us The Hangover and its sequels. And yes, in some ways it’s a distaff version of that series but rather than male bonding which has been done to death and even female bonding, which has also had its share of movies made about it, this one is about the expectations piled onto the modern mom and there is certainly room for a movie on that subject. I do think we pile unreasonable demands on mothers these days and while this film focuses on upper middle class helicopter moms, similar demands are made on women from less comfortable economic strata.

For this movie to work, it needs to have some chemistry between the leads and to be honest, it isn’t quite as consistent as I would have liked. Hahn is a force of nature and absolutely dominates the movie; Kunis is an excellent actress but in a lot of ways she’s overwhelmed by Hahn’s personality. Bell is almost under the radar, her character too mousy and too innocuous to really make much of an impression.

At times the movie doesn’t really seem to address real life. For example, most of the moms that are in the film are stay at home moms and that just doesn’t jive with current stats; most moms are also in the workforce. It’s freakin’ expensive to raise a family and most families can’t do that on a single salary unless that salary is six figures or more. The helicopter mom phenomenon isn’t one solely limited to the upper classes.

By the same token, I don’t think it’s of particular shock value that women can be just as dirty in their behavior as men. Women, after all, do like and crave sex as well as men. Why this should be a shocking fact in 2016 is beyond me. There are those complaining that the movie doesn’t have to be raunchy, that woman can be funny without it. This is quite true but the same goes for men as well and serves to indicate that there is a double standard on both sides of the gender equation. Men and woman can both be raunchy or not; it makes no difference what the gender is. What matters is if you find the movie funny, or not. In my case, I found it funny enough to recommend as one of the better comedies this summer which frankly isn’t saying much, but hopefully this will also spawn a franchise. Lord knows that the ladies deserve one.

REASONS TO GO: The film addresses some real issues.  It’s really funny in a lot of different ways.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie isn’t as revolutionary as the filmmakers think it is. In some ways, it’s not very realistic.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a whole lot of profanity and sexuality, some full frontal nudity, as well as drug and alcohol content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The closing credits feature the main actresses having conversations about motherhood with their real life moms. All of those actresses are moms themselves.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daddy Day Care
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Suicide Squad

Free State of Jones


Matthew McConaughey demonstrates his idea of gun safety.

Matthew McConaughey demonstrates his idea of gun safety.

(2016) Historical Drama (STX) Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi, Brian Lee Franklin, Kerry Cahill, Joe Chrest, Jessica Collins, Donald Watkins, Jill Jane Clements, Dane Rhodes, Lawrence Turner, Troy Hogan, Liza J. Bennett. Directed by Gary Ross

 

Most of us have some fairly general knowledge of the American Civil War, but most of us are probably completely unaware (at least until this movie came out) that there were parts of the Confederacy that didn’t necessarily agree with the aims of the rebels and actually seceded from it during the War. Most of us are completely unaware of the name of Newton Knight.

Knight (McConaughey) is serving in the Confederate Army as a nurse/orderly. While he isn’t actively shooting at anybody, he is picking up the pieces of wounded men and transporting them to the medical tents once the shooting has stopped. His cousin Davis (Franklin) is a frightened teen who is terrified of what could happen to him. Newton volunteers to help get him through the coming battle, but a Union sniper makes hash of that plan.

The Army wants to bury Davis where he fell, but Knight wants him buried with his kin in Jones County, Mississippi and so he goes AWOL although the term at the time is “deserter.” Deserters are being hanged, but Knight doesn’t care; he’s sick of fighting a war so that the plantation owners can get richer, especially since slave owners had enacted legislation that exempted the sons of slave owners from service (one son for every twenty slaves owned). This doesn’t sit well with the mostly small farmers that are actually doing the fighting, most of whom don’t own slaves a’tall.

Once back home, Knight sees that the Confederate Army in the person of Lt. Elias Hood (Murphy) who enforces the laws that farms must provide a percentage of their harvest and meat animals to the Army. Of course under Hood’s auspices, the Army take far more than they are entitled to, leaving the citizens of Jones County in near-starvation. When Hood discovers the presence of Knight, a sympathetic Madam (Clements) helps Knight escape into the swamp, leaving his wife Serena (Russell) and son behind.

There he finds a group of escaped slaves, relatively safe in a place where the army’s horses cannot follow them. They are led by Moses (Ali), a charismatic slave who wears a horrible spiked collar and pines for his wife and child, sent to Texas by an uncaring master. As their numbers begin to swell with more runaways and deserters from the Confederate Army, Knight sees that they have enough numbers to make a difference on the home front. He begins to arrange to arm the slaves and soldiers, and starts training them. In the meantime, he begins to fall in love with Rachel (Mbatha-Raw), a house slave for the despised James Eakins (Chrest) plantation, who has risked her life to learn how to read and also to bring in supplies for the swamp dwellers.

As their numbers grow, the new army under Knight’s canny leadership begins to intercept food shipments that were taken from locals for the Confederate army and finally beats the small contingent of the Confederates, declaring that part of Mississippi a free state. But there isn’t much war left and eventually the South surrenders and Jones County rejoins the union, but their troubles are far from over. Just because the South lost doesn’t mean that the freed slaves are Americans…yet.

This is a sprawling, two and a half hour epic that covers Knight’s story from the tail end of the War through reconstruction, incomprehensibly adding flash forwards to the 20th century and a legal issue being waged by one of Knight’s descendents regarding interracial marriage. It is a means of hitting us over the head with the racial issue that I think everyone except for the extreme right knows continues to plague this nation. It’s a little bit overbearing.

Ross does a great job of summoning up the era, from the unwashed look of the people in it to the rotting teeth and tattered clothes. It was a hard life in the rural South back then (and continues to be) and the look of the film illustrates that nicely. These are people who lived in poverty and the film reflects that to the credit of the filmmakers and the actors.

McConaughey does a fine job; this is the kind of role he’s shown he can excel at. Better still is his supporting cast, particularly Ali (who shows he has the ability to be a leading man in major films with his performance here) and Mbatha-Raw who is rapidly becoming one of the most accomplished actresses working today.

There has been some complaining that this is yet another “white hero saving the day for the oppressed blacks” type of thing, and I can understand the criticism, but it’s kind of hard to ignore that Knight DID lead the revolt. Now, from what I understand this film paints a far kinder, more saintly portrait of Knight than may have been the actual case. Maybe the film should have focused on Rachel, who also was a real person, or Moses, who was not.

I do admire the filmmakers for trying to educate their audience, even though the real Newton Knight was much less admirable than the one portrayed here. I think they could have lost the whole flash forward subtext which was unnecessary, doesn’t show up until well into the film causing further confusion and adds nothing to the overall message that they couldn’t have added with a title card. The movie is long as it is and the extra footage just tends to make people check their watches and wondering when the school bell is going to ring.

Otherwise, this is a very worthwhile venture that entertains rather well and educates not quite as well, but at least it’s an effort. I’m curious as to why the studio thought this would make a good summer movie; it would have fared better, I think, if it had been released in the fall, but that’s just Monday morning quarterbacking. If you can still find it in a theater near you, it’s certainly better than most of the stuff out there.

REASONS TO GO: Covers a part of history that is murky to most Americans.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit too long.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence and some graphic images that might be too disturbing for the sensitive.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: To this day, the Jones County Sheriff’s Department has “Free State of Jones” on the doors of all their vehicles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 43% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cold Mountain
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Swiss Army Man

The Boy


Greta tries to get Brahms to give her a high five.

Greta tries to get Brahms to give her a high five.

(2016) Thriller (STX) Lauren Cohan, Rupert Evans, James Russell, Jim Norton, Diana Hardcastle, Ben Robson, Jett Klyne, Lily Pater, Matthew Walker, Stephanie Lemelin. Directed by William Brent Bell

When you hire someone to watch your children, you are in effect hiring a security guard for your most precious item. Sadly, we rarely think of it that way and so often we leave our children in the care of people who we know nothing about.

Greta Evans (Cohan) is one such person. She’s an American in a small English country town having applied to be a nanny for Brahms Heelshire (Klyne) who lives on an isolated estate for a mysterious reclusive family. Papa Heelshire (Norton) and his wife (Hardcastle) are leaving on a well-needed vacation and they need someone to look after Brahms.

Greta has a bit of a past; she is on the run from an abusive boyfriend (Robson) and is looking to start over someplace where she can make new memories and at first it seems this situation is perfect for her. Then she meets Brahms and discovers that Brahms is a little bit different than most boys; he’s a porcelain doll.

At first she thinks it’s a joke and then when she discovers from flirtatious grocery delivery man Malcolm (Evans) that Brahms died in a fire nearly two decades ago (there are flame marks on the facade of the mansion) she feels some sympathy for the Heelshire clan. But she is given a long list of rules to follow; she must play music loudly for the doll, read stories to it in a loud clear voice. She must dress it and undress it and kiss it goodnight when she puts it to bed.

At length the rules and the weirdness of the situation begin to get to her. She begins to willfully disobey the rules but then strange things start to happen. She hears noises in the night, and a childish voice seems to speak to her. Then she notices that the doll isn’t always in the same position that she left it and items of her clothing begin to disappear.

She begins to wonder to Malcolm whether or not she is going crazy. She wonders if her ex has been paying her a visit. She also wonders if It might not be that the doll is actually alive – and little Brahms is, as his father so eloquently put it – still with her.

This has been marketed as a horror film but that’s not quite accurate; this is more of a thriller with supernatural overtones. There is a twist near the end and while I admire the spunk of the writer for going that way, it doesn’t really suit the film especially after what transpires in the first hour. Bell has fashioned a kind of Gothic atmospheric ghost tale, with a spooky mansion, things that go bump in the night and inanimate objects that move by themselves. The creepy factor is sky high.

Also sky high is Lauren Cohan’s potential as a leading lady. The Walking Dead star plays a much different role here and fans that only know her as Maggie are going to be a little discombobulated by the change. Greta is a bit less self-sufficient, a little more timid. She is not the sort of woman who takes charge and kicks ass, although when backed into a corner she comes out fighting. I can’t think that this will be her last shot at movie stardom; she has what it takes to be a huge star.

There are a couple of scary moments but the end of the movie is pretty disappointing from the standpoint that as imaginative as the first half of the movie is, the ending just seems to have been purchased at a Hollywood screenwriter surplus store. Endings are a very hard thing to write but this one feels a bit forced to say the very least.

I don’t mind stories that lead you one way and then go another; those can be quite delightful but when the way they were leading is far better than the destination they end up at it can be a problem. The movie looks like it’s going in a supernatural ghost story direction – and the filmmakers are building up a lovely mood without going overt on the special effects scale – and then end up doing an abrupt right turn and going in a more visceral rather than atmospheric direction. I ended up feeling like I’d invested so much into the first half that I left the film feeling a little cheated.

REASONS TO GO: Cohan has serious lead actress potential.
REASONS TO STAY: Creepy rather than scary.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of terror, a little bit of violence and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the film’s exteriors were shot at Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, British Columbia.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Quiet Ones
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Diablo

Secret in Their Eyes


The eyes have it.

The eyes have it.

(2015) Mystery (STX) Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Alfred Molina, Dean Norris, Joe Cole, Michael Kelly, Zoe Graham, Patrick Davis, Eileen Fogarty, Lyndon Smith, Kim Yarbrough, Mark Famiglietti, Amir Malaklou, Niko Nicotera, David Israel, Dennis Keiffer, Don Harvey, Glenn Davis, Walter Tabayoyong, Michael Tennant, Ho Sung Pak, Saige Donaldson. Directed by Billy Ray

 

The line between justice and vengeance is often a fine one. There are those that say that you can have one or the other but never both; there are others that say they go hand in hand. Either way, both are exceedingly hard to attain and in the pursuit of one, often one has to settle for the other. When what attains is vengeance, we often have to kill a little piece of ourselves in order to find it.

In the aftermath of 9-11, an elite counter-terrorism task force has been established in Los Angeles by multiple law enforcement agencies. District Attorney Martin Morales (Molina) heads up the team, and among his agents are partners Ray (Ejiofor) from the FBI and Jess (Roberts) from the L.A. District Attorney’s investigative team. In their crosshairs is a downtown mosque which is said to harbor a cleric who had intentions of taking the jihadist fight to the City of Angels.

When a body is found in a dumpster next to the mosque, red flags are sent up and Ray and Jess are sent to investigate. However, the grisly discovery is of Jess’ 18-year-old daughter Carolyn (Graham), a vivacious soul who had been getting ready to go to college in the fall. The discovery devastates the team. New assistant D.A. Claire (Kidman) is assigned the case and a suspect is quickly located. However, dead end upon dead end frustrates the team and eventually Ray figures out who really did it – an informant within the mosque itself (Cole). But he is being protected by powerful forces and is set free, only to disappear.

Thirteen years later, Ray – now working as a security consultant for the New York Mets – comes to Claire – now the District Attorney – with the startling news that Ray has located the long-missing suspect. Claire and Jess (who still works for the office) are reluctant to reopen old wounds but Ray is particularly obsessed with the case and in bringing the man who killed Jess’ daughter in to pay for his crime. But even now, there are obstacles in the way of finding peace for Ray, Jess – and Claire.

This is based on the 2009 Oscar-winning film The Secret in Their Eyes, an Argentine film that won Best Foreign Language Film that year. While the plots are identical, some of the details have been changed which changes the dynamics of the newer film somewhat. Also you have three Oscar-caliber actors, all of whom who have won or at least been nominated, in the main parts.

Ejiofor is the central character and as he did in 12 Years a Slave he carries the movie on his broad shoulders. The scene in which he discovers the identity of the body in the dumpster is an incredible piece of work, although it is sadly unduplicated throughout the rest of the film. No, all three of the actors in the front deliver good, solid performances with moments of excellence. Roberts in particular has a haunted look that is most unlike any of her previous performances.

The problem here is that the low-key aspect of the film drains the energy from the audience. The pacing is extraordinarily slow and there were a number of scenes that I thought could have been trimmed if not excised. Ray also jumps in time between 2002 and 2015 and often the only way to tell what time period you’re observing is by the amount of gray in Ray’s hair. I occasionally found it confusing and hard to follow.

The overall atmosphere has a bit of a noir edge to it, just as the original did albeit with a Latin flavor. Transplanting the movie to Los Angeles robs it of that and indeed gives the movie an oddly generic quality – so many thrillers have been set in L.A. that there’s a been there-done that patina. That’s kind of disturbing and not in a good way.

While the ending is cathartic if a bit preposterous, it doesn’t save the audience from feeling that this is something they’ve seen before, even if you haven’t seen the original movie this is based on. Considering the abilities of the director and the talent of the cast, this is an extremely disappointing project that on paper should have been much better than it turned out to be. While it is still entertaining and I can recommend it solely on that basis, this is a movie that is haunted by the specter of what could have been.

REASONS TO GO: All three leads are fine actors. Cathartic. Noir-esque.
REASONS TO STAY: Surprisingly lethargic. Could have used some judicious editing. Time jumping can be confusing (keep an eye on the actors’ hair for clues).
FAMILY VALUES: Disturbing violence and sexual content, rape and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All three of the leads – Ejiofor, Kidman and Roberts – are left-handed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/8/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zodiac
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Second Mother

The Gift (2015)


Rebecca Hall investigates.

Rebecca Hall investigates.

(2015) Thriller (STX) Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Tim Griffin, Busy Phillipps, Adam Lazarre-White, Beau Knapp, Wendell Pierce, Mirrah Foulkes, Nash Edgerton, David Denman, Kate Aselton, David Joseph Craig, Susan May Pratt, P.J. Byrne, Felicity Price, Melinda Allen, Jyothsna Venkatesh, Laura Drake Mancini, DaNae West, Stacey Bender, Beth Crudele. Directed by Joel Edgerton

The past has a way of rearing its head, ugly or not, when we least expect it. Sometimes it can be a song or a scent that brings it flooding back, or a chance meeting in a retail store. We are tied to our past as surely as we are tired to our choices.

Things are looking good for Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall). They are happily married, Simon recently got a major promotion (and is closing in on another) and they’ve just purchased a beautiful home with amazing views from floor-to-ceiling glass windows. What those in thrillers fail to appreciate is that glass is two-way – you can look out of it sure, but so can others look in.

While shopping for furnishings the couple run into Gordo (Edgerton), a sad-sack sort that was a classmate of Simon’s in high school. Simon can barely remember him, and Robyn takes pity on him; he seems a nice enough guy if a bit socially awkward. She invites him to dinner.

When Gordo starts leaving little gifts; a bottle of wine, glass cleaner, Koi carp for their pond, at first it seems like a nice gesture but it begins to get a little creepy. Then there are intimations of some sort of incident in the past between Gordo and Simon that was less than savory. Robyn also has her own skeletons; a miscarriage sent her spiraling into depression and drug abuse. She has gotten better lately but Simon still worries about it.

Then again, Simon seems to have issues of his own. The more we get to know these people, the less we actually do, all of which descends to an inevitable confrontation which leads to a shocking revelation.

This is Edgerton’s first feature as a director and if this is any indication, he has a bright future ahead of him in that regard. The pacing here is damn near perfect, neither too hurried but definitely moves along at a good clip. The result is we’re constantly on the edge of our seats without feeling like we’re missing anything.

Edgerton as a writer is also amazing; all of the main characters are nicely developed and are allowed to be imperfect. The twist at the end is brilliant and shocking, a rare thing these days when we think we just can’t be shocked. This is proof that not only can we be, but we can be surprised as well. A good movie buff appreciates that more than you can imagine.

Bateman gets a rare serious role and plays it very nicely, never overplaying the dramatic aspects (which some comic actors tend to do) but not underplaying it either. He uses his nice guy persona as a bit of a tool, allowing us to settle in to a particular viewpoint of who the character is, then slowly tears down that viewpoint as the character turns out to be something different. It shows Bateman to be an actor of enormous range; I wouldn’t be surprised to see higher-profile dramatic roles coming his way because of his performance here.

Edgerton has long been someone that “everyone” knows can act, but hasn’t really ascended into the Hollywood elite yet. There’s a good chance he will now, showing himself to be a massive talent behind the camera, but a great one in front of the camera as well. Like Bateman, he uses his edgy persona to his advantage to create certain expectations for the audience and then slowly strips them away. I’ve always liked Edgerton as an actor; now I like him even more.

Hall’s character is more brittle and fragile, and in some ways more colorless. She is just beginning to get it together after essentially a breakdown but the goings on here put her back teetering on the edge. Hall doesn’t really hit it out of the park like her colleagues do, but she turns in a solid performance that is bound to get her some notice from casting agents.

The creepy factor is extra high here as we watch the events unfold. Certainly the tension through the last third of the movie is high, but this isn’t a roller coaster ride so much as a dark ride in a boat through some really terrible scenes. This movie has been pretty much universally praised and for good reason; don’t read that as being excessive however – this isn’t an essential movie, just a really well-crafted thriller that is well worth your while. And that is essential enough.

REASONS TO GO: Effectively creepy. Nice twist. Good casting.
REASONS TO STAY: The camera is a bit static. Hall’s character is a bit bland.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of foul language and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Because he wanted to focus on directing, Edgerton filmed all of his own scenes two weeks into shooting and had them completed in seven days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 77/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Oldboy
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Ricki and the Flash