Mini Reviews (May 2017)
Unforgettable, Becoming Bond, Ghost in the Shell, The Blood Lands, Hidden, The Boss Baby, Risk, 5-25-77
Unforgettable (May 12/17)
A decidedly underwhelming (yet somewhat watchable) thriller, Unforgettable follows Rosario Dawson’s Julia Banks as she picks up stakes and moves in with her boyfriend (Geoff Stults’ David Connover) – with problems ensuing as David’s ex-wife (Katherine Heigl’s Tessa) reacts poorly to the cohabitation (to put it mildly). It’s a fairly salacious premise that’s employed to head-scratchingly subdued effect by first-time filmmaker Denise Di Novi, as the director imbues the proceedings with a deliberateness that often highlights the deficiencies in Christina Hodson and David Leslie Johnson’s script – which takes an oddly (and incongruously) low-key approach to a situation that could hardly be more broad. It is, as such, fairly distressing to note that Hodson and Johnson fail to come through with some of the expected tropes of the genre, with, for example, the lack of a satisfactory resolution for Julia’s wisecracking friend (Whitney Cummings) certainly indicative of everything wrong with the all-too-tame screenplay. And yet, Unforgettable does boast a handful of positive attributes that ultimately compensate for its less-than-competent elements – with the effectiveness of the leads’ work and the sporadic inclusion of appreciatively trashy moments buoying one’s interest on an ongoing basis. The long-awaited shift to full-tilt sleaze in the movie’s final stretch certainly ensures that Unforgettable ends on a somewhat positive note, and yet it is, given the potential afforded by the setup, hard not to feel a twinge of disappointment at the film's predominantly lackluster atmosphere.
A bizarre hybrid of documentary and feature, Becoming Bond follows George Lazenby (Josh Lawson) as he progresses through a series of careers to eventually succeed Sean Connery as James Bond – with the movie essentially operating as a series of reenactments triggered by an extensive interview with Lazenby himself (ie it's Drunk History: The Movie). It’s an unusual structure that, for the most part, works pretty well, with filmmaker Josh Greenbaum’s pervasively light touch paving the way for a perfectly palatable (if somewhat erratic) narrative – with Greenbaum, interestingly enough, stressing Lazenby’s love life over his work in film. There is, as such, a heavy emphasis on the protagonist’s on-again-off-again relationship with Kassandra Clementi’s Belinda, and although both Lawson and Clementi are quite good in their respective roles, the pairing ultimately never quite becomes engrossing enough to warrant so much screen time. The ensuing hit-and-miss atmosphere proves problematic, to say the least, and yet Becoming Bond does manage to sustain one’s interest thanks to a continuing smattering of compelling sequences (eg Lazenby’s dealings with Jeff Garlin’s snarling Harry Saltzman). Greenbaum’s decision to give short shrift to Lazenby’s stint as 007 is disappointing, to say the least, and it’s consequently (and ultimately) clear that Becoming Bond isn’t entirely successful as either a documentary or a piece of fiction - which is a shame, certainly, given the almost inherently fascinating nature of its setup and subject.
Ghost in the Shell
Based on a Japanese comic book and set in a distant future, Ghost in the Shell follows Scarlett Johansson’s cybernetically-enhanced Major as she becomes increasingly disenfranchised with her status as an elite soldier and eventually embarks on a journey of self-discovery. It’s clear immediately that filmmaker Rupert Sanders isn’t looking to deliver just another run-of-the-mill Hollywood sci-fi epic, as Ghost in the Shell boasts an incredibly ambitious visual sensibility that remains a consistent highlight within the otherwise subpar proceedings (ie the movie, if nothing else, presents an impressively singular vision of the future). The trouble, however, lies in Sanders’ refusal (or inability) to provide an entry point for the viewer into this expansive world, with the hands-off atmosphere compounded by a one-dimensional protagonist that couldn’t possibly be less interesting or compelling. (It’s an issue that’s exacerbated by Johansson’s disastrously charisma-free performance.) There is, as such, little doubt that Ghost in the Shell’s style-over-substance vibe grows more and more problematic as time progresses, as the movie, for the most part, feels like a series of sci-fi-oriented short films loosely strung together by a common central character. And although Sanders eventually does attempt to ground things by stressing Major’s identity issues, Ghost in the Shell has long-since alienated the viewer and established itself as a handsome-looking but entirely empty comic-book adaptation.
The Blood Lands
An often excessively familiar horror effort, The Blood Lands follows couple Sarah (Pollyanna McIntosh) and Ed (Lee Williams) as they decide to move into a remote farmhouse deep within Scotland’s countryside – with the pair’s first night in their new home taking a decidedly sinister turn almost immediately. It’s a setup that treads well-worn ground, to be sure, and yet it’s clear that The Blood Lands, at the outset, fares better than one might’ve expected – as filmmaker Simeon Halligan effectively establishes the narrative’s isolated environment and the affable central characters. (The chemistry between McIntosh and Williams’ respective figures only heightens the strength of the latter, to be sure.) The movie’s downward spiral, then, is triggered by a midsection that grows more and more uninvolving as it progresses, with Ed’s eye-rolling unwillingness to buy into Sarah’s justifiable unease paving the way for a second half rife with tiresome, excessively hackneyed plot developments. Halligan’s decision to stress the characters’ cat-and-mouse shenanigans is lamentable, to say the least, and although the director includes a handful of welcome bursts of violence, The Blood Lands’ brief running time is ultimately dominated by dimly-lit sequences in which heroes run and hide and antagonists clumsily attempt to track them down. The final straw comes with an admittedly unpredictable finale that’s both unsatisfying and laughably unconvincing (eg wouldn’t those characters be worried about an arrest?), and it’s finally impossible to label The Blood Lands as anything more than a once-promising endeavor that eventually goes flying off the rails.
Written and directed by Matt and Ross Duffer, Hidden follows Ray (Alexander Skarsgard) and Claire (Andrea Riseborough) as they attempt to make a life for their daughter (Emily Alyn Lind’s Zoe) deep within the bunker in which they live – with the mysterious threat from up above, stemming from a scenario that’s revealed slowly, encroaching nearer and nearer as time progresses. It’s clear fairly early on that Hidden benefits substantially from the Duffer brothers’ patient, methodical approach to their spare screenplay, as the movie, which transpires entirely from the perspective of the aforementioned protagonists, doles out its information on a piecemeal basis and, as a result, boasts a first half devoted almost entirely to developing the characters and their relationships to one another. The slow-burn vibe works surprisingly well and there’s little doubt, too, that the Duffers have peppered the first half with impressively riveting sequences, with, for example, a drawn-out scene in which the characters venture outside packing a far more potent (and electrifying) punch than one might’ve anticipated. Skarsgard and Riseborough’s typically strong work often elevates the material above its SyFy-friendly atmosphere, while the movie’s revelation-heavy third act, replete with a fairly unexpected plot twist, ensures that the whole thing concludes on a distinctly positive note – which, in the end, confirms Hidden’s place as an above-average effort that runs a refreshingly brisk (and thoroughly appropriate) 84 minutes.
The Boss Baby
The Boss Baby follows seven-year-old Tim (Miles Bakshi) as he becomes convinced his new baby brother (Alec Baldwin) is more than just a run-of-the-mill infant, with the film detailing the pair’s eventual efforts at preventing an megalomaniacal CEO (Steve Buscemi’s Francis Francis) from executing a dastardly plan. Though it opens with some promise, The Boss Baby eventually establishes itself as a fairly bottom-of-the-barrel kids film that boasts few elements designed to appeal to older viewers – although, to be fair, the movie does hold a fair degree of promise in its early scenes. It’s clear that Baldwin’s energetic vocal performance, coupled with his willingness to poke fun at past roles (“cookies are for closers!”), plays a substantial role in the movie’s first-act success, with the sporadic inclusion throughout of funny comedic bits and parodies offering all-too-brief glances at what could have been (eg a fairly hilarious riff on Raiders of the Lost Ark). The problem, though, is scripter Michael McCullers’ growing emphasis on excessively silly instances of over-the-top humor (eg the protagonists must outwit an idiotic thug), which, along with an expected reliance on loud, broadly-conceived action set-pieces, ensures that The Boss Baby becomes more and more interminable in the buildup to its ineffective (and predictably melodramatic) final stretch. It’s ultimately rather apparent that the movie could only have worked as a five-minute short before a different animated film, as the limited nature of the material paves the way for a haphazard narrative that spins its wheels to an almost absurd extent.
Directed by Laura Poitras, Risk documents WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s self-imposed exile within a foreign consulate to avoid arrest in the United Kingdom. The film, prior to its focus on the aforementioned exile, comes off as a fairly engaging behind-the-scenes look at Assange’s day-to-day exploits (as well as the exploits of his various associates), with Poitras decision to employ a distinctly episodic structure paving the way for a first half rife with fascinating scenes and sequences (eg Assange attempts to get Hillary Clinton on the phone to warn her of an impending leak, an Assange subordinate takes control at a town-hall meeting in post-Arab Spring Egypt, etc). It’s a shame, then, that Risk takes a steep nosedive once it becomes preoccupied with Assange’s consulate-set shenanigans, which, for the most part, seem to involve the beleaguered journalist plotting his next steps and waiting around for something to happen. And although Poitras peppers this stretch with a small handful of compelling interludes – eg a very bored-looking Lady Gaga interviews Assange – Risk fizzles out considerably in the buildup to its almost comically abrupt conclusion and ultimately feels like a short that’s been clumsily expanded to feature length. (In fairness, the movie does capture the tedium one assumes Assange faces on a daily basis now, so on that level it’s hard to deny that Poitras has succeeded.)
Though filmed over a decade ago, 5-25-77 is only seeing (a very limited) release now and it’s ultimately clear that, despite a wealth of positive attributes, the movie’s overall success is hindered by an overlong, egregiously rough-around-the-edges feel – with the movie, for the most part, coming off as a first cut that desperately needed a few more passes through the editing bay. The incredibly earnest story, which follows circa 1970s movie dork Pat Johnson (John Francis Daley) as he discovers Star Wars and falls in love for the first time, boasts a compelling (and impressively stylish) opening stretch that holds a great deal of promise, as writer/director Patrick Read Johnson does a stellar job of establishing the central character and his suburban, mid-‘70s environs – with the appealing atmosphere heightened by Pat’s continuing efforts at completing a series of no-budget short films. Johnson’s obvious affection for the autobiographical material certainly plays a key role in cementing 5-25-77’s mild success, while Daley’s tremendously appealing and charming turn as the affable protagonist perpetuates the pleasantly easygoing vibe (ie he’s just so darn likeable). And although Johnson delivers an impressively enthralling stretch detailing Pat’s trip to Hollywood (where he meets Steven Spielberg and views a rough cut of Star Wars), 5-25-77’s progressively erratic execution paves the way for a second half that’s ultimately (and distressingly) more miss than hit – with, especially, the buildup to the titular date (which represents the release for George Lucas’ seminal sci-fi adventure) suffering from a spinning-its-wheels feel that ensures the whole thing fizzles out quite dramatically. The end result is a heartfelt drama that just doesn’t quite work, ultimately, and yet it's difficult to entirely discount the proceedings due to a myriad of engaging elements sprinkled throughout.