The Screening Room: Monster Issues

Join us in the Screening Room this week to talk through the pros and cons of Pacific Rim: Uprising, Unsane, Death of Stalin, Loveless and all that’s new in home entertainment.

Listen to the podcast HERE.

Jaeger Bomb

Pacific Rim: Uprising

by George Wolf

I like to think it went down this way…

After hours, in a dimly lit Hollywood bar, the makers of Pacific Rim: Uprising met up with Michael Bay and his crew (let’s call them the Bay-o-nettes) for a good old-fashioned excess-off. As the final challenge was accepted, Uprising director/co-writer Steven S. DeKnight had agreed to break the record for use of the phrase “save the world,” AND include a bit of the “Trololo” viral video guy.

Done and done. And there’s some Transformer-type robot fighting.

This unnecessary sequel to Guillermo Del Toro’s lackluster original picks up 10 years after the invading kaiju were defeated by giant Jaeger robots and their skilled pilots. Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) died cancelling that apocalypse and now Stacker’s son Jake (John Boyega) and his frenemy Nate (Scott Eastwood) must whip a rag-tag bunch of new recruits into shape just in time to battle a brand new threat and …pause for close up and crescendo…save the world (ding!)

After a number of TV projects, Uprising marks DeKnight’s feature debut, and it shows. Most every frame succumbs to an invasion of empty dialogue and the cliche of least resistance. The actors pose more than they move, and even the cheapest of attempts at emotional manipulation seem too much for this film to handle.

But hey, who cares, we’re here for the robot throwdown, amirite?

Probably, but even that, minus Del Toro’s stylish pizzazz, becomes a confusing and repetitious snooze. Seriously, the guy down the row from me at the screening was snoring (which was confusing at first and then repetitive).

Too bad, he totally missed the part when Pikachu showed up and slaughtered everybody.

Okay, that didn’t happen.

Dammit.

 

Unsafe House

Unsane

by Hope Madden

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) is living your worst nightmare.

Having recently moved 400 miles from Boston to suburban Pennsylvania to escape her stalker, she begins seeing him everywhere. Shaken and without a support network, she visits an insurance-approved therapist in a nearby clinic.

She’s grateful for the ear, but upon completing her paperwork Sawyer finds that, due to the therapist’s diagnosis that Sawyer is a danger to herself or others, she is held involuntarily for 24 hours.

After punching an orderly she mistakes for her stalker, that 24 hours turns into one week. And now she’s convinced that the new orderly George is, in fact, her stalker David (Joshua Leonard—you know, doomed Josh from The Blair Witch Project!).

There a number of factors hard at work in Unsane‘s brisk 98-minute ride. Director Steven Soderbergh, by way of Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s script, lays bare some terrifying facts about our privatized mental health industry.

Seriously and deeply alarming.

He structures this critique with a somewhat traditional is-she-or-isn’t-she-crazy storyline. Anyone who watches much horror will recognize that uneasy line: you may be here against your will, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be here.

And the seasoned director of misdirection knows how to toy with that notion, how to employ Sawyer’s very real damage, touch on her raw nerve of struggling to remain in control of her own life only to have another’s will forced upon her.

Part of the film’s success is Soderbergh’s ability to put you in Sawyer’s headspace, which he does primarily through the use of iPhone 7. He claims to have filmed entirely on these phones, and whether or not that’s true, the shallow, oversaturated aesthetic creates the sense of delusion.

Foy’s performance is refreshingly unpleasant. Sawyer is tough to like, but she’s damaged and savvy in a way that feels authentic.

Leonard’s cloying neediness and bursts of violence match Foy’s formidable if brittle performance and a strong supporting cast including Juno Temple, SNL’s Jay Pharoah, Amy Irving and a spot-on Polly McKie.

Soderbergh relies on familiar tropes to say something relevant and in doing so creates a tidy, satisfying thriller.

Dead Body Politic

The Death of Stalin

by George Wolf

Opening with a madcap “musical emergency” and closing with a blood-stained political coup, The Death of Stalin infuses its factual base with coal back humor of the most delicious and absurd variety.

The film cements director/co-writer Armando Iannucci (Veep, In the Loop) as a premier satirist, as it plays so giddily with history while constantly poking you with a timeliness that should be shocking but sadly is not.

So many feels are here, none better than the sheer joy of watching this film unfold.

It is Moscow in the 1950s and we meet Josef Stalin and his ruling committee, with nary an actor even attempting a Russian accent. Those British and American dialects set a wonderfully off-kilter vibe.

Iannucci has a confident grip on his vision, and the impeccable cast to see it through,

Who else would play Nikita Khrushchev but Steve Busemi? Then there’s Jeffrey Tambor and Simon Russell Beale as committee members jockeying for power after Stalin’s death, Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend as Stalin’s manically desperate kids, and Jason Isaacs arriving late to nearly steal the whole show as the uber-manly head of the Russian army.

As enemies lists are updated (“new list!”) and constant assassinations whirl, the hilarious barbs keep coming in dizzying succession, each delivered with bullseye precision by lead actors and walk-ons alike. Monty Python vet Michael Palin is a fitting face in the ensemble, with Iannucci structuring a few bits (like Buscemi and Tambor trying to slyly switch places at Stalin’s funeral-classic) that recall some of the finest Python zaniness.

It all flows so fast and furiously funny, it’s easy to forget how hard it is to pull off such effective satire. We end up laughing through a dark and brutal time in history, while Iannuci speaks truth to those currently in power with a sharp and savage brand of mockery.

Stalin is still dead.

Long live The Death of Stalin!

 

All You Need

Loveless

by Hope Madden

There is a deep and deeply Russian melancholy to the films of Andrey Zvyagintsev.

Loveless opens on a sweet-faced boy meandering playfully through the woods between school and home. Once home, Alexey (Matvey Novikov) stares blankly out his bedroom window while his hostile mother (Maryana Spivak) shows the apartment to two prospective buyers.

Alexey’s parents are divorcing. Each has gone on to another relationship, each indulges images of future comfort and bliss, each bristles at the company of the other, and neither has any interest in bringing Alexey into their perfect futures.

So complete is their self-absorption that it takes more than a day before either realizes 12-year-old Alexey hasn’t been home.

Zvyagintsev’s films depict absence as much as presence. His dilapidated buildings become emblematic characters, as do his busily detailed living quarters. They appear to represent a fractured image of Russia, whose past haunts its present as clearly as these abandoned buildings mar the urban landscape where Alexey and his parents live.

TV and radio newsbreaks setting the film’s present day in 2012 concern political upheaval and war in Ukraine. They sometimes tip the film toward obviousness, Zvyagintsev’s allegory to the moral blindness of his countrymen becoming a little stifling.

Alexey’s parents Zhenya and Boris—thankless roles played exquisitely by Spivak and Aleksey Rozin—border on parody in their remarkable self-obsession. But this is a tension Zvyagintsev builds intentionally, and it is thanks to the stunning performances as well as the director’s slow, open visual style that his film never abandons its human drama in favor of its larger themes.

Like the filmmaker’s 2015 Oscar nominee Leviathan, another poetic dip into Russian misery, Loveless does offer small reasons for optimism. The volunteers—led by a dedicated Ivan (Aleksey Fateev), who has no time for bickering parents—brighten an otherwise exhaustingly grim look at familial disintegration.

Loveless doesn’t balance intimacy and allegory as well as Leviathan did, and its opinion of the Russian people feels more like finger wagging this time around, but Zvyagintsev remains a storyteller like few other. His latest is a visually stunning gut punch.

I Don’t Want to Go Out—Week of March 19

You know the best cure for a St. Patrick’s Day hangover? The Rock. That’s what he told me, anyway, and who am I to argue? His better-than-expected Jumanji comes out this week, as does the better-than-you-heard Downsizing and the worse-the-third-time Pitch Perfect 3. Let us help you choose.

Click the film title for a full review.

Downsizing

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Pitch Perfect 3

The Screening Room: Raiders New and Old

This week in the Screening Room we hash out the good and the bac: Tomb Raider, Love, Simon, 7 Days in Entebbe plus everything out this week in home entertainment.

Listen to the full podcast HERE.

It’s (Not) a Fair Court

I Am Not a Witch

by Christie Robb

Zambian-born Welsh writer/director Rungano Nyoni’s first feature film is like Monty Python’s witch trial scene shot through lenses of patriarchy and economic exploitation.

It centers on a displaced young girl named Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), accused of witchcraft by members of her community.

Found guilty, she’s turned over to a government-run witch zoo filled with old women tied by ribbons to enormous spools who are by turns photographed by tourists and rented out as agricultural laborers. Thrilled to have a “young and fresh” witch in town, the Boss (Henry B.J. Phiri) selects her for choice assignments. Shula functions as a judge of sorts in a small claims court and takes a stab at predicting the weather before Boss brings her on national television as a mascot for an egg-selling scheme.

At first, Shula seems to try to make the best of it. After she successfully outs a thief, the Boss takes her home for a taste of the good life. Shula sees bougie furniture, nice clothes, an electric chandelier, and the Boss’s Wife—a former witch. Wife tells Shula that if she does everything she’s told, Shula might end up just like her and achieve “respectability.”

But, as it turns out, a wedding ring and a veneer of dignity aren’t all they are cracked up to be.

Satirical and quietly devastating, I Am Not a Witch is a fairy tale rooted in the dust.

Hell Week

7 Days in Entebbe

by George Wolf

A film that sells the importance of negotiation while it details a harrowing plan of action, 7 Days in Entebbe gets caught in the awkward space between show and tell.

In July of 1976, Israeli Defense Forces invaded Uganda’s Entebbe airport for a daring rescue of hostages from a hijacked jetliner out of Tel Aviv. Bolstered by the support of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, the terrorists were seeking the release of 40 Palestinian militants – as well as 13 other prisoners around the world.

As Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) weighed his options, Defense Minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) led the chorus calling for military intervention.

Director Jose Padilha (Elite Squad/the Robocop reboot) assembles the drama with precision, beginning with the motivations of German hijackers Wilfried Bose (Daniel Bruhl) and Brigitte Kuhlmann (Rosamund Pike). Padilha’s approach is detailed and informative, but often prone to favoring exposition over illustration.

Leading an outstanding ensemble cast, Bruhl and Pike both give terrific performances, letting us glimpse the early commitment of their characters and a growing disillusionment when the ordeal drags on. As the weight of the hijackers’ German heritage grows heavy amid their Jewish captives, the pair deal with their guilt in different ways, both finding an effective authenticity thanks to Pike and Bruhl.

Gregory Burke’s script has moments of bite (“You’re here because you hate your country. I’m here because I love mine.”) but retraces its steps too often, and the film feels like it’s running in place. Even more problematic is a curious approach to the actual rescue, when tension is undercut by the need to draw parallels with a well-rehearsed dance performance.

The payoff the film needs to resonate as more than a well-produced history lesson never materializes, and it leaves shrugging its shoulders at the elusive nature of peace.

All Rivers End in Waterfalls

Tomb Raider

by Cat McAlpine

Halfway through the new Tomb Raider, I thought to myself: “Well, you can’t have this kind of movie without those archetypes.” You know the ones: reluctant hero, loyal sidekick, irredeemable bad guy, henchmen with machine guns.

And then I second guessed myself, “Can you?”

That’s Tomb Raider’s most damning feature—it’s so familiar that it’s forgettable.

It’s not that Tomb Raider ISN’T fun (it is) or exciting (bike races, waterfalls, and bringing a bow to a gunfight, oh my!). It’s just that the relentless action is tired. The few connections between characters are forced or thrown away.

Alicia Vikander (Ex-Machina, The Danish Girl) gets few genuine moments to act, and she crushes it, but director Roar Uthaug seems afraid of the intimacy between Vikander and the camera. Every time she connects with a real emotion, the camera cuts away to a wide shot.

The exposition and key plot points are repeatedly spoon-fed to the audience. Lara Croft (Vikander) has to repeat each clue out loud as she discovers the answer to a riddle. Ugh.

And I’ve never seen a flashback that couldn’t be replaced with better writing. Tomb Raider has a lot of flashbacks.

“But Cat!” You say. “You’re a notorious hater. Didn’t you like anything?”

I’m so glad you asked.

When I sat down in the theatre, I wrote down a few primer questions, betraying my predictions for the film. They were these:

Is the male gaze present? Are the fight scenes realistic or stylized? Does it accurately echo the video game? How is the dialogue? Is there romance or just action? Are there other women in the film? People of color? Is there comedy? Is it predictable?

Good news: the male gaze is noticeably absent and Lara Croft is a genuine badass.

All the hand-to-hand combat feels realistic though many feats are delightfully improbable. Those improbable feats crisply reflect the basic mechanics of a video game: swinging from a hanging rope, traveling hand over hand along a railing, moving quietly through an encampment unnoticed.

There are other women and more diversity than expected, but not enough. A story that starts out vibrantly quickly narrows focus to a bunch of white people (plus sidekicks) fighting over a mystery of the Orient, while laborers (POC) who don’t speak English are gunned down for dramatic effect. #yikes

While I was glad that Lara got to kick ass without any romantic entanglements, I was genuinely disappointed that there wasn’t any real tension between her and Lu Ren (Daniel Wu, a great addition).

In summation, if someone wants to go to the movies this weekend, Tomb Raider is a fine pick. There’s a badass heroine, a handful of chuckles, and enough action to numb your brain for an hour and a half.

But it doesn’t redeem nearly as many sins of its genre as it repeats. It’s a predictable action adventure. No more, no less.