Hoping for Unicorns

Zone 414

by Hope Madden

“Do you know what rich people want? Everything.”

True enough. And in lesser hands, that line might feel trite, but Andrew Baird’s SciFi neo-noir Zone 414 boasts a very solid ensemble. Mostly.

The actor delivering that line, the always formidable Olwen Fouéré (The Survivalist), joins reliable character actors including Jonathan Aris, Ned Dennehy, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Antonia Campbell-Hughes and Fionnula Flanagan (The Others) to populate this low-rent Blade Runner.

Which Blade Runner? Either one — although the beauty in a wig with blue bangs suggests Baird leans more recent. She’s Jane (Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz, Revenge), a sexual synthetic living in the upscale seedy utopia Zone 414, where meat (humans) pay lots of money to spend time doing whatever they want with the likes of Jane.

But that’s not why David Carmichael (Guy Pearce) is in the zone. The super-wealthy mad hatter who designs these high-end toys, Marlon Veidt (Travis Fimmel), hired Carmichael to find his runaway teenager. Veidt’s daughter wishes to be synthetic so she doesn’t have to feel anything.

Yes, all the neo-noir tropes. None missing.

What Bryan Edward Hill’s script lacks in originality, Baird tries to make up for with world-building. It works to a degree and is aided immeasurably by the committed turns from his supporting players. Pearce is as reliable as always, but that doesn’t necessarily mean much. He turns down about as many roles as Bruce Willis or Nicolas Cage. Zone 414 is not one of his best.

It’s not one of his worst, either, but he does have a couple of problems. One is that his big, dramatic scenes tend to pair him not with the exceptional supporting talent, but the weaker leads. Lutz carries off the superficial damsel in distress well enough, but when the film asks her to get a little Ex Machina on us, she flails.

Worse still is Fimmel’s mad genius. That make-up and fat suit don’t help. I’m sure he’s not meant to be comic relief, but it’s hard to see him any other way.

Much of this is redeemed by a few intriguing scenes, but the writing fails Baird a few times too often.

Zone 414 tries really hard. It often fails. But not always.

Soldiering On

Bloodshot

by George Wolf

“Nobody wants to make any real decisions. They just want to feel like they have.”

For a movie that couldn’t have seen shutdown weekend coming, that’s one line in Bloodshot that feels pretty damn timely.

So whether or not there’s anyone in the theater to greet him, Vin Diesel brings the latest comic book hero to the big screen in a visual effects throwdown searching for any other resonant thread.

If, like me, you’re not familiar with one of the most popular characters in the Valiant comic universe, Ray Garrison (Diesel) is a battle-scarred soldier forced to watch his wife’s murder before he eats a bullet himself.

Waking up in lab of RST industries, Ray hears some hard truths from the brilliant Dr. Harding (Guy Pearce).

He died from that bullet, but he’s back now as the prototype “enhanced soldier” Project Bloodshot has been aiming for. Any injury Ray suffers will repair itself almost instantly, so he can soldier on for war and profit.

Does Ray have trouble accepting his reality? Not enough, which works in a way because the realities keep changing. While Ray only wants to track down his wife’s killer, the vast computer program that keeps Ray upright has surprises in store.

Bloodshot is director David S.F. Wilson’s debut feature after a ton of video game visual effects credits, which is probably why it looks like a giant video game drunk with budget allowances. And though that budget does buy some slick sequences, the film’s Matrix-type mainframe device leans too much on the buzzkill that is the computer keyboard.

Diesel’s guttural emoting is on auto-pilot, while Pearce gets to ham it up a bit and Baby Driver’s Elia Gonzales gets hung out to dry. As a fellow enhanced soldier, her superpowers seem limited to posing, pouting, and squeezing into the tightest wardrobe imaginable.

The screenplay, from the team of Jeff Wardlow and Eric Heisserer, does manage some needed self-aware humor about movie cliches, even as it’s serving them up alongside heavy doses of stilted, expository dialog.

By all means, support your local theater this weekend. And if you’re a fan of the Bloodshot comic, your decision to catch this big screen version will most likely be a good one.

Otherwise, there’s not really enough here to make you feel like it was.

The Other Queen Movie

Mary Queen of Scots

by Rachel Willis

From a technical perspective, everything about director Josie Rourke’s film, Mary Queen of Scots is nearly perfectly realized.

Saoirse Ronan is resplendent as Mary, the rightful queen of Scotland and contested heir to the throne of England. Margot Robbie is equally enlivening as Mary’s cousin, better known as Elizabeth I.

The film begins with Mary’s return to Scotland at the age of 18 following the death of her husband, the Dauphin of France. As she assumes her rightful throne from her half-brother, she is quickly met with opposition. John Knox (David Tennant), a Protestant minister – and also one of the leader’s of Scotland’s Reformation – immediately dismisses her rule as she is both Catholic and a woman.

From Knox’s initial dissent, more threats emerge, primarily from the English queen, Elizabeth I.

Dual narratives tell the story of Mary and Elizabeth’s rivalry. Through letters, the queens express solidarity, but behind the scenes, Elizabeth worries. Her most loyal advisor, William Cecil (Guy Pearce) stokes those fears. But his genuine affection for Elizabeth is a glaring contrast to Mary, who frequently stands alone.

Much history is condensed in the two hour running time. Because of this, the movie flows smoothly, but history is glossed over, changed, or omitted entirely. While this works, it’s also misleading. Mary’s trusted advisor, David Rizzio, is reduced to a minstrel who is more handmaiden than advisor.

It’s not unusual for a fictional film to mold history to fit a story, but the most disappointing aspect is the portrayal of Mary. The film asserts that Mary was a good queen with a good heart who was an innocent victim of the people around her. This begs the question: Was Mary truly an innocent – a pawn at the mercy of scheming men? Or was she a ruler like any other? One who made mistakes, bad choices, and whose ambition was outmatched by another’s power?

The history surrounding Mary has always been controversial – it’s impossible to know exactly what she knew and what she plotted. But by portraying Mary as a victim, the film reduces her to a caricature rather than a woman – a queen – with agency.

It’s a disappointing decision in an otherwise stunning film.





Take Me Out to the Spy Game

The Catcher Was a Spy

by George Wolf

The Catcher Was a Spy features a surprisingly impressive lead performance from Paul Rudd. It’s not his talent that surprises, but rather the role as enigmatic baseball player turned wartime spy.

This isn’t what we’ve come to expect from the always welcome Rudd, which makes him that much more appealing for branching out.

Dammit, Rudd, you likable rogue!

He stars as true life legend Moe Berg, who spent fifteen years as a Major Leaguer in the years before WWII. Though never a superstar, he was a well-respected and durable catcher with many other talents that proved useful.

A Princeton grad with multiple degrees, Berg spoke several languages and was fiercely private. With his playing career over and a war raging, Berg’s intellect, discretion and communication skills were valued at the O.S.S., where he was trained as a spy and tasked with assassinating the German physicist (Mark Strong) getting dangerously close to developing a nuclear bomb.

Woah.

Director Ben Lewin (The Sessions) fills his throwback yarn with the requisite newsreel voiceovers and shadowy set pieces for a satisfactory spy thriller, but makes more of a mark through the intimate workings of Rudd and the supporting cast.

We’re told Berg is an enigma, but Rudd makes us feel it. From his blunt honesty to his sexual history, Berg’s nature always seems a bit out of step with the crowd, and Rudd provides the humanity to get us on his side while he stokes our curiosity.

Supporting players, including Jeff Daniels, Sienna Miller, Paul Giamatti and Guy Pearce, are equally strong, cementing the relationships that elevate the adapted script from writer Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan).

As a spy drama, The Catcher remains fairly routine. Its power comes from its intimacy, getting just close enough to a mysterious, fascinating figure without disrespecting that figure’s commitment to mystery.

 





Love at the Stairmaster

Results

by George Wolf

You get the feeling filmmaker Andrew Bujalski might have had a few sessions with a personal trainer, or maybe spent some time with a Crossfit WOD when inspiration hit for Results.

Who are these people, and why are they so eager to convince you they can change your life? What about them? How’d they get so perfect?

They’re not, of course, and Bujalski utilizes some charmingly offbeat characters and dark humor to remind us there’s more to being fit than just buns of steel.

Trevor (Guy Pearce) and Kat (Cobie Smulders) are trainers at an Austin, Texas gym, and have no troubles in the physique department. In fact, their hot bodies get together every now and then, but neither of them can pin down quite where the relationship stands.

Enter Danny (Kevin Corrigan), a mysterious, disheveled shlub who wanders into the gym one day and decides he needs to get in shape. Danny is recently divorced, and even more recently very rich, which leads him to offer people $200 to do random things, like set up his TV or bring him over a cat.

Danny wants private sessions at his home gym, and after a few with Kat, wouldn’t mind more than just a business relationship. That doesn’t sit well with Trevor, and elicits some surprising reactions that tangle them all in quite an unusual triangle.

Sure, a romantic comedy about people searching for something real is old hat, but writer/director Bujalski (Computer Chess) gives us interesting characters in unique situations to breathe some fun new life into the genre.

Bujalksi may be moving to more mainstream projects, but he’s not dumbing anything down. The humor still bites, and his eye for observational detail remains keen. He crafts subtle parallels between the quests for love and fitness, and draws fine performances from his cast to make them stick.

Pearce is customarily solid, it’s nice to see Corrigan getting bigger parts, and both Giovanni Ribisi and Anthony Michael Hall chip in memorable cameos, but Smulders makes the biggest impression here. In giving Kat some unexpected depth, Smulders shows she’s ready to move beyond sitcoms and superhero support with a breakout performance.

Playful, smart, and unhurried, Results is among the most charming adult fare this summer.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 





Gritty Aussie Imports For Your Queue

Aussie filmmaker David Michod proves his mettle with his second effort, The Rover, releasing today for home viewing. A spare, brutal, deliberately paced dystopian adventure, the film marks another in a string of fine performances from Guy Pearce, and more interestingly, a worthwhile turn from Robert Pattinson. Michod knows how to get under your skin, how to make the desolate landscape work, and apparently, how to draw strong performances.

An excellent pairing would be Michod’s phenomenal first effort, Animal Kingdom. This 2010 export follows a newly orphaned teen welcomed into his estranged grandmother’s criminal family. Unsettlingly naturalistic, boasting exceptional performances all around – including the Oscar nominated Jacki Weaver – and impeccably written, it’s a gem worth seeking.

 





Not Max, But Plenty Mad

 

The Rover

by George Wolf

 

Make it 2 for 2 for Australia’s David Michod, and I’m not talking World Cup penalty kicks.

Four years ago, Michod served up Animal Kingdom, an utterly compelling feature-length debut as writer and director.

The Rover is his follow up, and much like its predecessor, it takes a measured approach to getting under your skin.

The setting is an Australian wasteland, ten years after a “collapse.” We assume it’s a financial one, as we see Eric (Guy Pearce) angrily tell a man selling gasoline that “it’s just paper..money doesn’t mean anything anymore!”

When three men, fleeing from some sort of bloody incident, wreck their car, they steal Eric’s, which will not do. Though he quickly gets their stalled car running again, Eric’s not interested in a straight-up trade. He wants his car back. Badly.

One of the fleeing men, Henry, has left something behind:  his “dim-witted” brother Rey (Robert Pattinson). When Rey crosses paths with Eric, one brother is soon forced to hunt the other across the barren, desolate miles.

Don’t let the quick cuts in the trailer fool you, the story often feels as empty as the strikingly- filmed landscape. But Michod’s deliberate pace slowly sets in your bones, fueled by the two lead performances.

Pearce is mesmerizing, sketching the intense edges of a mysterious traveler. Where was he going in the first place, and why is he so deadly accurate with that rifle? What’s so important about his car?

Pattinson slams the door on all those “Team Edward” jokes with a breakout performance. Reaching depths of nuance he’s never before displayed, Pattinson brings heartbreak to Rey’s conflicting allegiances without ever copping out to melodrama.

Michod also peppers the trip with indelible vignettes, as smaller, unique characters float in and out of the tale to fully portray a brutal, desperate world that feels shockingly possible.

In many ways, The Rover is a throwback to classic Westerns, with a nearly anonymous figure on a bloody, single- minded mission for revenge. You may scoff at the simplicity of the finale, but I’m betting you’ll find yourself thinking about it long afterward.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

 

 





Definitely Likeship

Hateship Loveship

by  Hope Madden

Ohio native Liza Johnson continues her impressive evolution as a filmmaker with her latest independent drama, Hateship Loveship. In it, Johnson balances plot threads and character arcs, giving each just the depth necessary to keep the action moving. Her tale itself just can’t quite keep up.

What’s most interesting about the film is that it announces Kristin Wiig as a dramatic performer. She plays Johanna, an observant but almost invisible creature raised on responsibility, hard work and solitude. She’s hired by the McCauleys to keep house and, ostensibly, keep an eye on the teenaged Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). But when Sabitha and her best friend Edith (Sami Gayle – perfectly pitched mean girl) play a cruel prank, things get complicated.

Wiig mostly impresses in her first entirely dramatic role. She carries a lot of screen time and carves out an unusual but believable character. Johanna is a bit of an enigma, but Wiig finds a true center that makes her feel real. It’s a reserved, understated turn, but at times her performance can be blunt when nuance is called for.

Wiig’s blessed and cursed with a talented supporting cast. Blessed in that each actor brings vulnerable authenticity to the role; cursed because her performance feels sometimes less than natural in comparison.

The often underrated Guy Pearce does well with a role that could easily have become clichéd. Because his Ken is so likeable, even when his actions are not, emotions and tensions run uncomfortably high during the film’s most dramatic segments.

Steinfeld, saddled with a smattering of forgettable characters since her standout performance in 2010’s True Grit, finally gets the chance to shine again. She and Gayle articulate the emotional and moral roller coaster that is adolescence without ever feeling trite or predictable.

Nick Nolte also graces the screen as the benevolent curmudgeon, and the film is certainly the better for it.

Mark Poirnier’s screenplay adapts a short from Alice Munro. Their work understands the unpredictable resilience humans sometimes find, and when the focus is on the unraveling of the cruel joke, Johanna’s story is almost unbearably fascinating. But in drawing out the tale to a feature length running time, it begins to feel like a pile up of contrivances.

There’s a lot to like about Hateship Loveship, though, including performances that will help you overlook the flaws.

 

Verdict-3-5-Stars

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdI8RCyhhYg