New Travel Agent Wanted

Beckett

by George Wolf

The jury may still be out on the level of acting chops passed from Denzel to John David Washington, but Beckett proves once again JDW can handle a physically taxing role as well as anybody in the business.

He’s taxed early and often as the titular man on the run in Netflix’s Beckett, a moderately satisfying throwback to political thrillers of the 1970s.

While on a “get far, far away from it all” vacation in the mountains of Greece with girlfriend April (Alicia Vikander), Beckett loses control of their car on a steep curve. Crashing through the door of a remote home below, Beckett catches a glimpse of something he’s not meant to, and the threats on his life soon begin.

The local police tell Beckett that April is dead, but they won’t let him see her body, which is the least lethal reason he quickly realizes these cops can’t be trusted. The U.S. embassy in Athens is hours away even by car, but Beckett sets out on foot to beg, borrow and fight his way to safety – and the answer to why he’s a marked man.

As capably as Washington handles the action, he’s never quite able to get Beckett’s frantic paranoia to a level that rings true. And once he gets help from a determined activist (Vicky Krieps), the bad guys become easier to spot and the lack of overall intensity brings a sluggish feel.

Director/co-writer Ferdinando Cito Filomarino delivers some picturesque and well-staged set pieces, but the political conspiracy that’s brewing underneath wears thin despite worthy intentions. The point about how easily anyone can become a marginalized pawn in the game becomes a bit frayed, lost in workmanlike global thriller threads.

Gonna Shout It Everyday

The Glorias

by Hope Madden

“The path up is always a jagged line.”

Gloria Steinem always could articulate the struggle toward progress. Filmmaker Julie Taymor certainly understands that sometimes the best way forward is not straight ahead. The daring filmmaker (Across the Universe, Frida, Titus) puts four Glorias on a bus heading nowhere and everywhere to help us see Gloria Steinem, backward and forward.

The Steinem we best recognize—trailblazing feminist and human rights advocate of the 60s, 70s and onward—is played by the always excellent Julianne Moore. Wise and just a little weary, Moore’s version brings Steinem’s warm soul to the screen.

She’s joined in the role by Alicia Vikander, who plays Steinem in her 20s and 30s; Lulu Wilson as teenaged Gloria; and Ryan Kiera Armstrong, portraying Steinem as a child. Though Vikander stumbles with the flat Ohio accent, each performance establishes something that grows from one era to the next: resolve, openness, vulnerability, courage.

Timothy Hutton shines as Steinem’s father, Leo, and Bette Midler commits outright larceny in her scenes as Bella Abzug. A host of minor roles—Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monae), Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero), Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez) and more—fill out a picture of early feminism far more vibrant than history sometimes remembers.

Taymor’s characteristic flourishes sometimes work well to enrich a tale fit for a legend. At other times, they seem like filler in a film that’s far broader than it is deep.

It is exhilarating to watch these pioneering advocates spar and support, dodge and demand, and most of all, speak up. It’s heartbreaking, too. There’s exhausting tragedy in all that promise left unfulfilled, and real terror in the face of what we now stand to actually lose.

But a cameo from the legend herself may be enough to reaffirm anyone’s resolve. As she says, “The constitution does not begin with ‘I the President.’ It begins with ‘We the people.’”

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.





Baby Onboard

The Light Between Oceans

by George Wolf

Can stellar performances, skilled direction, pristine cinematography and an evocative score elevate a story built on weepy schmaltz?

Well….yes.

The Light Between Oceans is definitely a melodramatic weeper, but one saved from outright embarrassment by the sheer force of the talent assembled to bring it to the screen. Writer/director Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines) adapts M.L. Stedman’s best-selling novel with a determined earnestness and a rock solid cast.

Michael Fassbender is Tom, a WWI veteran haunted by memories of combat who takes a job as lighthouse keeper off the coast of Australia in 1918. Before heading back out to his post, a picnic with Isabel (Alicia Vikander) leads to multiple letters full of romantic longing between the two, and then to marriage. Years at the island lighthouse go by without an addition to the family, when suddenly an old rowboat washes ashore…with a crying baby inside.

The child obviously needs them, and no one will ever be the wiser, right?

Waves of guilt begin crashing at the baby’s christening, when Tom learns about Hannah (Rachel Weisz), a wealthy town resident who still grieves for the husband and child who were lost at sea.

The plot turns that follow seem born from a unholy union of Sparks and Dickens, as contrived circumstance begets impossible choice, painful sacrifice, and a search for absolution through that far, far better thing to do.

Cianfrance wraps it all in the majestic, windswept landscapes necessary to recall classic period romances, with sharp instincts for knowing when to let Alexandre Desplat’s music swell with power, and when to let silence fuel the sense of isolation.

Fassbender and Weisz are customarily nuanced and splendid, while Vikander is simply wonderful, making Isabel’s arc from youthful naivete to world-weary grief feel as authentic as material this emotionally manipulative possibly could.

The Light Between Oceans amounts to a two-hour struggle between talent and substance. One side brought the varsity squad.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

 

 





Bourne This Way

Jason Bourne

by George Wolf

If you’ve got some asses that need kicking, Christmas comes early this year. Jason Bourne is back, with a sack full of fuzzy memories and furious fists.

Star Matt Damon and director/co-writer Paul Greengrass return to the franchise after nearly ten years, trading some of the emotional depth of the previous films for a stab at new relevancy and two of the most effective action sequences of the entire series.

Since we left him at the end of Ultimatum, Bourne has basically been wandering the Earth like a violent Caine, grabbing cash in back alley fights across the globe. Old friend Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) tracks Bourne down to deliver more clues about his past, with CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), cyber division chief Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and the agency’s favorite assassin (Vincent Cassel) close behind.

Bourne’s search for his identity gave us a connection to the character that is now largely gone, and this film is anchored instead with what it calls “the great question of our time:” personal rights vs. public safety. Dewey’s new black ops program promises total cyber surveillance of the populace, even as he’s reminded that “computer privacy is freedom – you should think about defending it.”

Timely? You bet, but this layer isn’t explored as deeply as it could be, even as Bourne catches up with a whistleblower who is “worse than Snowden.” As it moves on to the next fistfight, the film sometimes feels like its running in place, content to feed the formula without a large chunk of the human element that drove it.

Still, this director/star tandem can run pretty well.

Damon’s brooding-yet-vulnerable intensity makes Bourne an effective anti-hero who’s easy to root for, and Greengrass is still a master of shaky cam tension. An early sniper showdown delivers sharp, hold-your-breath action, and the climactic car chase through the packed streets of Vegas is over-the-top spectacular, with a well-placed sign for self-parking becoming the exhale-inducing coup de grace.

It’s repetitive in spots, a bit ridiculous in others and slightly overlong, but Jason Bourne reclaims its legacy with a keen eye toward landing one last thrill before the theme park of summer shuts down.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





Great Dane

The Danish Girl

by Hope Madden

Tom Hooper is a proven director. He followed an Oscar for The King’s Speech with an impeccable reimagining – perfectly theatrical and cinematic – of Les Miserables. He now turns his attention to the true life tale of what is likely the world’s first transgender surgery.

The Danish Girl is the gorgeously appointed, elegantly acted portrait of artist Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne – proving himself a chameleon of the same caliber as Tom Hardy or Tilda Swinton). His wife Gerda (a remarkable Alicia Vikander), an artist of less fame, needs a favor: her model has cancelled.

What begins as a favor – some silk stockings and fancy shoes – turns into a game for Gerda, but something else entirely for Einar.

The film works best as a study of marriage in turmoil, as Gerda’s riot of conflicting emotions is beautifully articulated by Vikander. Hers is an authentically tumultuous, tender and human performance.

Redmayne – Oscar winner for last year’s The Theory of Everything – is a fierce and nimble talent, no question. His graceful turn here is filled with vulnerability and longing. But The Danish Girl – and Redmayne’s performance, in particular – may be too restrained, too dignified for its own good.

Vikander’s character is fascinating from the beginning, and her fiery yet tender performance drives the film. But that’s kind of the problem. It’s Lili, the woman Einar is determined to become, that we should care for more, learn more about. The Danish Girl should be her story, but it really isn’t.

The fault is hardly Redmayne’s. He evolves slowly from a passionate if delicate husband to an even more delicate yet burgeoning woman, but he never invites us into Lili’s head. She’s an enigma.

The film never truly belongs to Gerda’s story, either, and the lack of true focus leaves the lovely film feeling superficial.

The story itself is astonishing, bordering on unbelievable. Lili Elbe was pioneering and tragic, fragile but fearless in a time when her journey was utterly unimaginable. The Danish Girl has a lot to offer, but it needed quite a bit more of Lili’s spirit if it was to leave a lasting impression.

Verdict-3-5-Stars





Ms. Roboto

Ex Machina

by George Wolf

What an irresistible treat Ex Machina is – smart, seductive and wickedly funny, boasting glorious visuals, stirring performances and big ideas guaranteed to linger like a dream you just can’t shake.

It is the directorial debut from veteran writer Alex Garland, and instantly marks him as one of the most promising dual threats in film.

Computer whiz Caleb (Domhnall Gleason) gets congrats all around after word gets out that he’s “won” a contest at work. The firm’s founder, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), has picked Caleb as the lucky one who will get a look inside the reclusive genius’s world and assist on a top secret project.

The wide-eyed Caleb is still adjusting to the wonders of Nathan’s ultra secure compound when he learns just why he’s there. Nathan has reached a critical point in his quest to create artificial intelligence, and he needs Caleb to decide if the enchanting machine named Ava (Alicia Vikander) can truly pass for a human.

The ever-versatile Isaac is mesmerizing as Nathan, crafting him as a walking, talking, drinking God complex in bare feet. You know from their first meeting that Nathan has more in store for Caleb than he is letting on, but Isaac never lets that knowledge detract from your curiosity about his character. The slow reveal of his tour de force performance dares you to look away.

Gleason gives Caleb a perfect mix of naïveté and good intentions, while Vikander (A Royal Affair) is a true wonder as Ava. Living in the space between woman and machine, Vikander pulls it off with nary a hint of caricature.

Garland, as he did with 28 Days Later and Sunshine, creates an intelligent, thought-provoking science fiction tale, steeped in classic themes but freshly painted from a modern perspective. You’ll be reminded of the classics Frankenstein, Eyes Without a Face and Blade Runner, as well as recent entries such as The Skin I Live In and Under the Skin, while never doubting that Garland’s is an original voice.

In many ways, he’s expanding on his script adaptation for the underrated Never Let Me Go, continuing to explore just what it is that makes us human, but not ignoring the large, complicated part that sexuality plays in that equation.

Sci Fi and horror films have long provided glimpses into a particular generation through the fears and anxieties that manifest on screen. Anchored in science, sex and creation (sound familiar?), Ex Machina is an insightful, deliciously fun time capsule we need to open right now.

 

Verdict-4-0-Stars