Science and Trickery

Sleight

by Hope Madden

Bo (Jacob Latimore) is the world’s most wholesome drug dealer. And that’s fine, because apparently, dealing drugs in LA mainly means picking up harmless partygoers and throwing some stash to a club manager with a demanding clientele.

But Bo doesn’t want to be a dealer at all. He’s really a magician and a huge science buff who could have gone to college on scholarship (science, not magic). But when his mom died unexpectedly, he needed to take care of his little sister. And that meant making more than you can pull in by entertaining tourists with – literally the most spectacular set of street magic tricks you’ll ever see.

He’d definitely have a show by now – good looking kid like him, performing feats like these? He’d at least be making enough in tips to cover rent.

Just as things take off with a new girlfriend, ol’ drug kingpin Angelo (a seriously miscast Dulé Hill) pushes Bo into more dangerous territory, things escalate, there’s this electromagnet in his arm – wait, what?

Yes, Bo has fitted himself with an electromagnet. It’s a little like that cool glowy thing in Iron Man’s chest, except it’s more like a festering, infected thing in Bo’s shoulder.

Sleight is basically a superhero’s origin story wrapped inside a toothless crime drama bubble-wrapped with magic.

Co-writer/director JD Dillard has his hands full trying to pull that trick off. The pace is too slow for action, the characters too one-dimensional and (aside from this one meat cleaver scene) innocuous for a crime thriller.

And that whole magic thing – well, the movie’s a bit of a mess.

Plot holes, missed opportunities and a toothless approach to conflict leave you wondering whether this could have been – it certainly should have been – a stronger film.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

Delete Your Account

The Circle

by George Wolf

Warning: your uploads could have a downside. The cloud? Might get dark and stormy.

Despite noble intentions of The Circle, it’s often this obvious and cheesy in its quest to alert us to the growing invasion of our privacy.

Mae Holland (Emma Watson) is thrilled when her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) get her a foot in the door at The Circle, the gold standard of tech companies. After the most hip of hipster interviews, Mae joins The Circle in an entry level position and is positively starry-eyed to be so close to Circle guru Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks, GD national treasure) and COO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt).

But, in one of the film’s most painfully forced scenes, two Circle employees stop by to tell Mae that even though her work is fine, their records show she’s not taking advantage of the ‘social” aspects of The Circle, and she won’t be a true member of the “community” until she gets with the super happy program!

Do you think she does?

Director James Ponsoldt has impressed with The End of the Tour and Smashed, while writer Dave Eggars, adapting his own novel with help from Ponsoldt, penned Where the Wild Things Are and Away We Go. Those are fine resumes, but The Circle is crafted more like a young adult re-imagining of 1984.

Mae’s specialness is realized right away, and as she rises quickly through the ranks, her previously peppy and pretty friend Annie starts showing up to meetings looking like a zombie in sweats. Subtle. And who’s this new friend Ty (John Boyega)? Apparently all the cameras and data crunchers on campus weren’t alarmed by his constantly suspicious lurking, but one look at Mae, and of course Ty knows he can trust her with his secrets.

Hanks is perfect as the Steve Jobs-like figure Bailey, affably spouting mantras such as “secrets are lies” and “privacy is theft,” with a disarmingly inviting malevolence. Watson, after a solid turn in Beauty and the Beast, is just over-matched to the point where pained faces stand in for real emoting.

While the film takes on a serious and credible subject, it only seems interested in diving surface deep. Altering the book’s original ending doesn’t help, and The Circle feels like a cop out, downplaying any aspect that could have given it more urgency and settling for melodrama that already feels outdated.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

Hieronymus Bosch High

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea

by Matt Weiner

There’s a paradox running through teen movies. While they’re often most enjoyable when first discovered as a kid relatively close to the characters’ ages—if not the actors’ ages (I’m looking at you, Spader… and every other 1980s actor)—they so rarely capture what it feels like in the moment during those chaotic and vulnerable years.

Instead there’s almost a prolonged sense of l’esprit de l’escalier powering the plots: an entire industry of outcast writers getting their just deserts, without reality getting in the way this time.

What’s so refreshing about My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea is that not only does writer-director and comics artist Dash Shaw avoid that paradox, he does it through some of the most inventive and absurd art to be seen in any recent animated film, with a tactile humanity that can hold its own against Pixar.

Shaw keeps the action tight and focused with a quick setup that lets the comic stars riff while the world around them falls apart: best friends Dash (Jason Schwartzman) and Assaf (Reggie Watts) start their sophomore year at Tides High School looking to make a big splash writing for the school newspaper.

Fellow classmate and editor at the paper Verti (Maya Rudolph) is looking for more than just news copy from Assaf, and this tension fractures the trio just as an earthquake threatens to plunge the poorly built school into the sea.

The dialogue is cute, with lots of throwaway non-sequiturs helping to keep the movie surprisingly cheerful for what’s basically a mass casualty event with children. And the Verti-Assaf courtship will ring particularly true for any extracurricular misfits in love.

But more than anything else, it’s the artwork that takes the movie from good to great. Shaw uses deceptively simple figures for the characters, which lends a sharp contrast to the lush and ever-changing backgrounds.

As Dash, Assaf and Verti battle external and internal forces to make their way out of the sinking school, the scenery rapidly veers from Impressionistic canvas to disjointed scrawls—and with textures that feel more alive than the 3D in any superhero movie.

The chaos of the set pieces ebb and flow with the trio’s journey of self-discovery, and Shaw delights in creating kaleidoscopic homages to 1970s disaster movies. At heart, though, it’s also a teen movie—with an unsubtle reminder for adults that the bar for what feels like the end of the world is very different but no less serious when you’re a kid just trying to find your way in the world.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

Milo and Orlok

The Transfiguration

by Hope Madden

Milo likes vampire movies.

So, it would seem, does writer/director Michael O’Shea, whose confident feature debut shows us the relationship between the folklore and the life of a forlorn high school outcast.

Eric Ruffin plays Milo, a friendless teen who believes he is a vampire. What he is really is a lonely child who finds solace in the romantic idea of this cursed, lone predator. But he’s committed to his misguided belief.

The film opens in a public men’s room. A man washing his hands overhears what he believes to be a sex act underway in a nearby stall. In fact, Milo is sucking the life out of a middle aged business man, then pocketing his cash and heading silently back to the rundown NY apartment he shares with his older brother.

All this changes when Milo meets Sophie (Chloe Levine), another outsider and the only white face in Milo’s building. The two strike up a friendship and sweet courtship, despite the fact that Sophie prefers the glittery Twilight saga, while Milo’s interests (like, presumably, O’Shea’s) are more “realistic.”

O’Shea’s film borrows ideas from George Romero’s Martin, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, and openly gushes over Murnau’s Nosferatu.

So does Milo. It’s a way the filmmaker authenticates the teen’s self-determined transformation. Inside and out, the film draws on the best in vampire cinema to help Milo deal with a world in which he is a freak no matter what he decides to do.

A profound loneliness haunts this film, and the believably awkward behavior of both Ruffin and Levine is as charming as it is heartbreaking.

Ruffin’s performance borders on impenetrable, which often works in the film’s favor, but as often does not. His big eyes and expressionless face depict a lost soul, his demeanor simultaneously sympathetic and menacing. But there’s too little arc.

The Transfiguration is a character study as much as a horror film, and the underwritten lead, slow burn and somewhat tidy resolution undercut both efforts.

Still, there’s an awful lot going for this gritty, soft-spoken new image of a teenage beast.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Girlhood

All This Panic

by Rachel Willis

Director Jenny Gage’s documentary offers its audience an unflinching look at the behavior of American teenagers.

Gage spent three years following a few girls in Brooklyn, including Lena, Ginger, Dusty and Sage. On the cusp of leaving high school for college, the girls are in some ways remarkably mature and in other ways, still very much children.

They snipe at each other over shared memories, bicker with their parents, and talk to each other about boys, school and the future. As the girls enter their first years in college, they mature in leaps and bounds. Their friendships deepen, they enter into relationships, and they can talk about themselves with insight that many adults lack.

They also have parties – with alcohol and a lack of parents – that those of us who are older likely recognize from our own high school days.

At one point, Lena talks of “hooking up” with a boy in her room during a party, though her definition of hooking up seems to be restricted to kissing. It’s the kind of naivety that is touching to see.

As they age, the parties have more alcohol, drugs come into play, and “hook ups” mean sex. It sometimes feels that kids these days grow up too fast, but the reality, as seen through the camera’s lens, seems a lot like it always has been: kids have the same hopes, fears, and goals that they’ve always had.

Watching All This Panic is like reading a diary. The girls are open, raw, and familiar. The film is crafted so it feels that the young women are speaking directly to you. You are on this path with them: a friend and confidant. It’s a technique that works well, and Gage knows how to draw the audience into this world.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

What About Above Her Neck?

Below Her Mouth

by Hope Madden

In a world where thin, beautiful, braless women look hot at work, stare longingly at each other and writhe sensually across the screen, are we supposed to see art where art is not just because Below Her Mouth is a film made by and (ostensibly) for women?

Writer Stephanie Fabrizi and director April Mullen – with an entirely female crew – bring to life the threadbare tale of an uptight good girl whose wild side is ignited by a chance encounter with a bad boy.

The fact that the bad boy is female is beside the point.

No, unfortunately, it is the only point.

Dallas and Jasmine – I swear to God, those are their names – are stiffly played by Erika Linder and Natalie Krill, respectively. Both cut impressive figures and are clearly comfortable with nudity.

Their chemistry is forced and inauthentic, their dialog weak, their storyline nearly nonexistent. What little plot there is – straight, engaged Jasmine indulges her fantasy with Bowie-esque roofer Dallas while her beau is out of town – feels more like porn than like a real movie.

There’s a reason for that.

Below Her Mouth is bound to garner comparisons to Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue Is the Warmest Color – to its terminal detriment. Though Blue has its flaws, it tells a powerful story very well and boasts utterly brilliant performances. And, like Alain Guiraudie’s equally sexually graphic Stranger by the Lake, Blue’s vivid – almost exhausting- carnality supports the narrative.

Below Her Mouth strings together almost enough narrative to frame a dozen or two sex scenes.

Is there something to be said for taking that oh-so-heterosexual film structure (good girl/bad boy, not porn) and upending it? Shouldn’t Mullen be praised for subverting ideas of sexual objectification – if that’s what she’s doing? (We can objectify us just as much as you can – is that the theme at work here?)

Should she be applauded for bringing an entirely female-made film to our theaters?

No. Because the movie sucks.

Verdict-1-5-Stars

Smells Fishy

The Lure

by Hope Madden

Who’s up for Polish vampire mermaids?

You do not have to ask me twice!

Gold (Michalina Olszanska) and Silver (Marta Mazurek) are not your typical movie mermaids, and director Agnieszka Smoczynska’s feature debut The Lure is not your typical – well, anything.

The musical fable offers a vivid mix of fairy tale, socio-political commentary, whimsy and throat tearing. But it’s not as bizarre a combination as you might thing.

The Little Mermaid is actually a heartbreaking story. Not Disney’s crustacean song-stravaganza, but Hans Christian Andersen’s bleak meditation on the catastrophic consequences of sacrificing who you are for someone undeserving. It’s a cautionary tale for young girls, really, and Lure writer Robert Bolesto remains true to that theme.

The biggest differences between Bolesto’s story and Andersen’s: 80s synth pop, striptease and teeth. At its heart, The Lure is a story about Poland – its self-determination and identity in the Eighties. That’s where Andersen’s work is so poignantly fitting.

Not that you’ll spend too much time in the history books. The context serves the purpose of grounding the wildly imaginative mix of seediness, hope and danger on display.

The film opens with a trio of musicians enjoying themselves on a Warsaw waterfront before hearing a siren song. Cut to screaming, and then to a deeply bizarre nightclub where a kind of Eastern European burlesque show welcomes its two newest performers – mermaids.

From there we explore a changing Warsaw from the perspective of a very fringe family. Mystical creatures play nice – and sometimes not-so-nice – among the city’s thrill seekers and the finned sisters need to decide whether they want to belong or whether they are who they are.

But that’s really too tidy a description for a film that wriggles in disorienting directions every few minutes. There are slyly feminist observations made about objectification, but that’s never the point. Expect other lurid side turns, fetishistic explorations, dissonant musical numbers and a host of other vaguely defined sea creatures to color the fable.

In fact, Olszanska’s film is strongest when it veers away from its fairy tale roots and indulges in its own weirdness.

Whatever its faults, The Lure will hook you immediately and change the way you think of mermaids.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

Confessions of a Loud Guy

by George Wolf

Sunday was a good day to be loud.

I’ve been loud all my life, and not every day caters to us loudies, but Sunday my volume came in pretty handy.

Seems there was some sort of power outage at church, and when the power came back, the sound system would offer nothing but feedback. And so priests, deacons, and the lectors (such as myself) would have to project a bit more so everyone could hear the good word. Somewhere in the pews my wife smiled, amused by the thought of someone suggesting I turn me up. 

Hey, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

This time, though, I had plenty of witnesses that the equipment failed before I got to it, which isn’t always the case.

A few years back I was guesting on a local radio talk show, reviewing the big summer movies soon to come. All was fine during the host’s intro, but when I jumped into the conversation the engineer was suddenly flailing around like Scotty during a full-on Klingon invasion.

“I’m backing it down as much as I can, Captain, but I can’t hold her…it’s gonna blow!”

I didn’t get backboard-endangering height, I got tweeter-endangering vocals, all thanks to Grandpa.

My grandfather had a big, booming voice and, much to my grandmother’s chagrin, he wasn’t shy about using it in public.

“Shut the door!” he’d bark to some random person loitering too long in a restaurant entrance, as my brother and I would giggle and Grandma would fire up another cigarette.

“Thank you!” was Grandpa’s equally loud follow-up, as the bewildered door holder tried to recover from the sudden audio beat down.

So I have Grandpa to thank – but not to blame – because angry parents at the next table don’t care about your family tree when your sports cheering just made their baby cry in terror.

Yes, this has happened.

Fine, more than once. But that doesn’t change the fact that the real issue here is good parenting.

Kids, the correct response is “I-O!”

I’m not saying we voluminous people can’t come in handy. Like the kindly tall folks who hand you that last box of Cocoa Pebbles that’s been mocking you from the top shelf, we can be downright useful.

Emergency at my niece’s wedding reception – no DJ for music or mic for announcements? Ta-da! It’s Loud Uncle George and his iPod, dropping fresh beats from the bar.

So “Me and Mrs. Jones” might have been an unusual choice for the father/daughter dance, but the point is not all heroes wear capes.

Some might even be sitting right next to you at, say…a Springsteen show.

And maybe there’s a bootleg CD of that entire concert that I didn’t record but may have a copy of, and maybe if I gave it to you you would clearly hear a certain someone say “yeah!” as the Boss began a favorite song.

And you might say, hey, I know that guy! I was sitting next to him. He’s pretty cool!

You damn right. And pretty loud.

Peace be with you.

I’m a Monster

Colossal

by George Wolf

Ten years ago, writer/director Nacho Vigalondo made his feature debut with Timecrimes, a wonderfully ironic and wacked-out bit of time travel head gaming.

Nacho is back with Colossal, bringing irony that’s a little sharper, comedy that’s a good bit darker…and a great big scary monster.

Anne Hathaway is fantastic as Gloria, a frequently drunk party girl in New York who loses her job, doesn’t get the wake up call and does gets the boot from her live-in boyfriend. Moving back to her hometown, she reconnects with Oscar (a solid Jason Sudeikis), a childhood friend who happens to own a bar where Gloria is welcome to work part-time.

Wait a minute – what’s this in the headlines? A giant monster has appeared in downtown Seoul, Korea, and after watching all the viral videos of the beast in action, Gloria realizes that she alone is controlling its carnage or, in some cases, its awkward dance moves.

Colossal could also describe the height of Vigalondo’s latest concept, but despite some shaky interludes, it’s one worth the investment. Hathaway and Sudeikis make a compelling pair, and as secrets of the monster’s history are revealed, Vigalondo lands some solid satirical blows about self-absorption and personal demons.

Perhaps best of all is how Colossal works out of the conceptual corner it backs into. Much like the Koreans who keep coming downtown no matter how often the monster appears, Vigalondo is committed to the end, delivering a strange but satisfying in-the-moment fable.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Pandamonium

Born in China

by George Wolf

Baby Pandas here!  Yawning, sleeping, rolling down a hill!

Disney could put that on the marquee and probably score a box office winner, but they chose a more subtle approach for their latest Earth Day release: Born in China.

China? So…Pandas, then?

Oh yes, plus plenty of other baby animal cuteness to sell a very family-oriented lesson in the circle of life. And while this emphasis on the youngest of the litter extends to the film’s approach to its audience, director Chaun Lu and a team of wonderful cinematographers capture truly stunning images that take us inside habitats still unknown to most humans.

But more than perhaps any other release from DisneyNature, Born in China undercuts the brilliance of its pictures with overly simplistic, often manipulative storytelling.

Alongside the pandas, we follow a snow leopard struggling to feed her cubs, a young monkey feeling jealous of his new baby sister, and a giant herd of migrating antelope. The film’s 75-minute running time feels even more hurried through Lu’s impatience with the very world he is unveiling. Cheesy reaction shots are often spliced in for comic effect, while some dramatic sequences seem manufactured through very selective editing, such as when a baby monkey is under attack from a swooping bird of prey.

John Krasinski’s narration too often carries more annoyance than charm, due mainly to writing that is shallow and forced. The animals aren’t just given names for our benefit, they’re given imagined thoughts and motivations, blurring the actual drama of this rarely seen world. There are natural wonders here, but Born in China reduces its stars to glorified cartoon characters waiting to be marketed alongside Dory and Buzz Lightyear.

It is worth staying through the credits, as some behind-the-scenes footage gives glimpses of what it took to grab such unforgettable footage. By the time you get there, though, you’re wondering how much more powerful the pictures could have been without words getting in the way.

Verdict-3-0-Stars