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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 1, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 35
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Uneven I Do not without its world-weary charms
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

I DO...UNTIL I DON'T
Now playing


Alice (Lake Bell) and Noah (Ed Helms) have been married just long enough for a sense of malaise to set it in. They own a small window blind business in Vero Beach, Florida that's struggling financially, mom and pop shops like theirs not doing well in the current economic climate. Meanwhile, Alice's free-spirited sister Fanny (Amber Heard) is in a pseudo-marriage with earthy artist Zander (Wyatt Cenac), the pair's open relationship one they frequently tout as helping fuel their happiness. Then there is Cybil (Mary Steenburgen) and Harvey (Paul Reiser). While they're not friends with either Alice or Fanny, the current state of their marriage will still impact both of the sisters and their respective relationships, all three couples having far more in common than they currently realize.

Why is that? It's all thanks to British documentarian Vivian (Dolly Wells). She's in Vero Beach casting her latest film, her new nonfiction opus all about marriage and how she feels it's an old fashioned construct ready for a modern upgrade. Vivian does not believe long-term monogamy is either possible or healthy. In fact, she thinks relationships should be entered into the same way people go into a business transaction, maybe turn it into a seven-year contract with an option for renewal as long as both parties agree it's in their mutual best interest to do so.

After knocking my socks clean off with her outstanding 2013 debut In a World..., I was eagerly excited to see what director/writer/star Bell had in store for me next with her superbly cast follow-up I Do...Until I Don't. While nothing close to a sophomore slump, this nice, pleasantly diverting relationship comedy is still something of a minor letdown as far as the filmmaker is concerned. It's slight, most of its observations about relationships, marriage, love and companionship obvious and routine. There's just not a lot in the way of pizzazz or anything resembling a modicum of extra depth, and as such it's hard not to walk away from Bell's latest somewhat disappointed.

Still, when taken on its own modest terms this little ensemble comedy isn't without its charms. The Cybil/Harvey storyline is particularly enjoyable, Steenburgen and Reiser displaying a worn, world-weary chemistry that fits their subplot nicely. The two seasoned pros appear to be having a wonderful time tossing off one-liners, getting underneath one another's skin and doing whatever sort of absurdity it might be Bell has tasked for them to accomplish. They're terrific, their meeting inside a rundown Florida diner for an impromptu dinner date giddily amusing for the pithy disdain and knowing indifference the two offhandedly toss back-and-forth. Yet, as unctuous and flat-out mean as their conversations can appear, thanks to Steenburgen and Reiser's dramatic and comedic gifts I could still sense the love they once shared to be present right underneath the surface, the question as to whether or not Cybil and Harvey would figure this out for themselves one I definitely wanted to learn the answer to.

I just wish the solution to this and to so many other queries that Bell posits weren't so obvious. It's never in doubt what is going to happen to any of these three couples, and before the film was a third over I pretty much had it pegged as to where things were going to end up. It does not help that Vivian is not a well-crafted character, and as hard as Wells might try she steadfastly remains a one-dimensional colander that originality and imagination flow through into the gutter far too easily. How everyone is going to eventually react towards her is a foregone conclusion, and the fact everyone but her seems to learn something important and meaningful about themselves is frankly annoying.

Yet Bell has talent, there's no question about that. She handles actors magnificently, getting the best out of them even when the material itself isn't always up to snuff. Bell is also unafraid to speak brutal, stark truths when the moment calls for them, finding humor in tragedy and pathos in merriment in ways that are continually inspiring. If I Do...Until I Don't isn't completely successful, that doesn't mean it still isn't without merit, and in the end it becomes the type of small-scale independent comedy I could easily see myself warming up to more and more as time goes by.


Sparse Wind River haunting in its agonizing sincerity
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

WIND RIVER - Now playing

Out tracking a mountain lion and her cubs in the forbidding snowy mountains of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, Department of Fish & Wildlife hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers the frozen body of Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Asbille). After alerting the Tribal Police Chief, Ben (Graham Greene), Cory waits for the F.B.I. to send an investigator back at his ex-wife Wilma's (Julia Jones) parent's house. He'd dropped their son Casey (Teo Briones) off there to visit his grandparents while he went off to hunt the lion, never expecting he'd stumble upon a killing far more brutal, and much closer to home, while out in the deadly cold performing his duty to the community.

When the F.B.I. agent finally arrives, it's rookie Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) the bureau has sent to investigate, the young woman ill-prepared for the case and the environment that will surround her investigation. Thankfully, she's well aware that she's out of her element, and Jane makes sure to stay on Ben's good side while also enlisting Cory's help as a tracker and as someone who knows the Native American community. Together, this trio puts the pieces together that determine who sent young Natalie to an icy grave, the truths they uncover as chilly and as barren as the desolate environment itself proves to be.'

After turning out nearly perfect scripts for Denis Villeneuve's Sicario and David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water, picking up a well-deserved Academy Award nomination for the latter effort, vaunted screenwriter Taylor Sheridan steps behind the camera for the icy thriller Wind River. While the film isn't quite as masterfully constructed or as unnervingly satisfying as those prior motion pictures, that does not make this feature any less impressive. Sheridan takes a rather simple story and spins it right on its head, crafting a saga about fatherhood, family, race, poverty, isolation, determination and life in America today that's as haunting as anything I've seen this year.

The film's setup is undeniably impressive. The introduction to Cory's character, which includes his relationship with his ex-wife, his resolve to maintain a close relationship with his son, and the brutal tragedy that haunts every interaction they all have with one another, is superb, the magnetic simplicity of this presentation striking. His reaction as he sets out after the lion only to find a trail of ragged tracks and random splotches of blood shattering the pristine white of the freshly fallen snow is palpably disquieting, while his attempts to maintain composure as he calls in the body's location after he realizes he knows who she is is emotionally haunting in its straightforward minimalism.

Sheridan's directorial debut includes a number of scenes just like this, ones where the characters and their reactions to all they are witnessing, learning and experiencing are the focal point of the drama, each clue revealing as much about Cory, Jane and Ben as it adds an additional insight into the mystery itself. Each snippet of dialogue is a window into a world where survival isn't a given, respect must be earned, and fairness has nothing to do with whether or not a person lives or dies, each choice a potential landmine waiting to be tripped, obliterating everything and everyone unlucky enough to step into its blast zone.

Renner is magnificent. This is his best performance since The Town, maybe since The Hurt Locker, the actor's washed-out, grizzled facial features masking a knowing internal concentration that will not dissipate or be put to rest until Natalie's killer is dealt with. Revealing so much when saying very little, I felt like there was never a second where I didn't know what was going on with Cory or why it was he was taking the actions he felt were necessary. Yet Renner doesn't make this hunter all iron, all fortitude. It's never in question that the experiences that lead to the dissolution of his marriage and that have turned him into a loner more at home hiding in the snow on the side of a mountain than in the company of friends and family are helping fuel his quest. Renner goes deep, the catharsis he does finally achieve still unable to quell the pain Cory will continue to feel for the remainder of his days.

At a certain point, the identity of Natalie's murderer must be revealed, and it is here where Sheridan stumbles. While these revelations do not feel forced or false, they are still much more contrived and coincidental than anything in either Sicario or Hell or High Water proved to be. It's almost as if the filmmaker wanted to show that he could film a crackerjack shootout as masterfully as the ones orchestrated by Villeneuve or Mackenzie in their respective features were. But he seems to forget these powerful jolts of violence in those films were born from the characters and their journeys and not because it was needed in order to add a visceral kick into the proceedings, and as such my emotional attachment to all that transpired was significantly diluted.

Still, Sheridan stages this moment magnificently, mixing in a key flashback that left me bruised and battered as the extent of all that Natalie had endured before she escaped into the frozen wasteland alone was finally revealed. It's a bravura sequence, magnificently edited by Gary D. Roach (American Sniper) and stunningly shot by Ben Richardson (Table 19). The intensity of it all is almost too much to take, the aridity left by the violence as the last shot echoed into the mountainous expanse encircling hero and villain alike jaw-dropping in its mesmeric scale.

Best of all, Sheridan ends his story brilliantly, the last ten minutes a startling display of emotional elasticity that left me flabbergasted. It all boils down to a conversation between Cory and Martin Hanson (a beautifully understated Gil Birmingham), two fathers sharing a painful bond that will never heal, their connection now going well beyond friendship in a way no parent anywhere should have to endure. It's an ethereal denouement that speaks volumes way beyond the solving of a murder mystery or the catching of a killer, Wind River achieving an agonizing sincerity I'll be thinking about for some time to come.


Well-engineered Unlocked an enjoyably routine thriller
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

UNLOCKED
Now playing


Alice Racine (Noomi Rapace) used to be one of the CIA's best and brightest. An intuitive and sharp interrogator who always seems to know how to get information out of a suspect, she's been living quietly in London for some time now, working undercover as a neighborhood caseworker trying to earn the trust and respect of various minority communities and no longer as a top flight agent out on the front lines. Alice has never been able to get over the fact she wasn't able to break one suspect in time to stop a devastating Paris bridge bombing. As such, she's now content to have quiet dinners with her handler Eric Lasch (Michael Douglas) and shuffle off any intelligence she does collect to British operative Emily Knowles (Toni Colette), her days stopping terrorists herself all but over.

Or so she thought. The CIA has captured a courier for international terrorist David Mercer (Michael Epp). With no other high-level integrators on-site, chief of European operations Bob Hunter (John Malkovich) is forced to turn to Alice for assistance. But nothing is as it seems, and even though she's been lying low these past months that doesn't mean the elite agent has lost her ability to smell out a trap. Between the CIA and British Intelligence, someone is leaking information to the bad guys, aiding Mercer in his plan to set off a viral bomb somewhere in London. On the run, having no idea who she can trust, hesitatingly joining forces with former British soldier Jack Alcott (Orlando Bloom) who is eager to protect his city, Alice once again finds herself racing against time to stop a terror attack, and no matter what it takes she's going to make certain history does not repeat itself.

There's nothing fresh or original about Unlocked. The movie is basically a ticking clock spy thriller that's equal parts a John le Carré novel and a female-driven Jason Bourne clone, things moving along at a rather decent clip as events build to just about the only logical conclusion open to a story like this. Thankfully, Peter O'Brien's script cares a bit more about its main character than it does throwing in random twists and turns just for the sake of keeping audiences on their toes. As routine as all this might be, Alice Racine is a wonderful heroine (for that matter so is Emily Knowles, and if anything, this movie could have used a little bit more of her), watching her put these pieces together while staying one step ahead of her pursuers proving to be decent enough fun.

It helps considerably that the film has veteran director Michael Apted at the helm. The man behind pictures as eclectic as Gorillas in the Mist, Coal Miner's Daughter, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the WWII spy thriller Enigma and an actual James Bond adventure in The World is Not Enough, not to mention documentaries 21 Up through56 Up and all the acclaimed entries in the series produced every seven years in-between is an accomplished craftsman who knows his stuff. In this case, things are handsomely produced, efficiently shot by George Richmond (Eddie the Eagle) and crisply edited by Andrew MacRitchie (Doomsday). Things move along with crackerjack precision, and while the climax to this tale is hardly shocking, it's still nicely choreographed [***add comma] which allows for at least a modicum of well-engineered tension to enter into the proceedings.

As nice as all that sounds it isn't like this effort isn't without its more annoying shortcomings. For someone who prides herself on staying one step ahead of her adversaries, Alice is laughably quick to trust a people who enter into her circle seemingly out of nowhere, one double-cross so obvious it might as well come with its own blinking neon-lit 'bad guy right here' sign. I also can't say I was blown away by Bloom, his performance so over-caffeinated I can't begin to say how happy I was that his time involved in the story was relatively short. As for Douglas, he's basically delivering a slight variation on a similar character he portrayed in Steven Soderbergh's Haywire, while Malkovich gets to playfully toy with a few choice one-liners while doing precious little else.

But Rapace is excellent as Alice, the original Lisbeth Salander bringing the same sort of energy, emotion and gravitas to this that she brought to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. There is a depth to her performance that's heartfelt and naturalistic, the enduring pain she feels from what she views as her failure in Paris authentically realized, her determination to ensure nothing like that happens again equally so. I loved watching Alice regain her form, re-find her bearings as an elite spy, Rapace finding layers inside the character O'Brien's script only seems to hint at but doesn't seem interested in exploring in any kind of detail. She's wonderful, and it's something of a pity that this film is barely getting a release because part of me would love to see her bring Alice back to the screen for a second adventure that's sadly never going to happen.

Colette is also first-rate, making the most of her severely limited screen time, even taking part in some of the bullet-riddled fireworks with a passionate fury that had me giggling in joyfully amused delight. I was also more than pleased with the film's epilogue, Apted and O'Brien bringing things full circle in a way that fit Alice perfectly while also adding an unexpected jolt of violent retribution I admittedly did not see coming. As for the rest of Unlocked, while far from the sharpest cerebral spy thriller I've ever seen, it's safe to say I still enjoyed watching things play themselves out to conclusion, this journey behind the espionage looking glass one I'm glad I took.


Well-intentioned Leap! a frustrating dance of disappointment
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

LEAP!
Now playing


Precocious orphan Félicie (voiced by Elle Fanning) has long dreamt of journeying to Paris and becoming a dancer. When the 11-year-old's best friend, the gregarious wannabe inventor Victor (Nat Wolff), shows her a picture of the world renowned Opera Ballet School, she becomes obsessed with escaping from the orphanage in order to go there and become a student. After a furious pursuit where they barely escape the clutches of wily handyman Luteau (Mel Brooks), the pair hop a train and make their way to this fabled City of Light, and now that they're here Félicie is all but certain she's destined to develop into the famous ballet star she's always fantasized of becoming.

Not so fast. After sneaking into the Opera Ballet School only to be summarily thrown out on her ear, Félicie is unexpectedly rescued by the stern if kindly maid Odette (Carly Rae Jepsen). She works for the demanding restaurateur Régine (Kate McKinnon), her own spoiled daughter Camille (Maddie Ziegler) waiting on a letter from the school offering her placement as a student. By sheer happenstance, Félicie intercepts this offer letter, and sensing an opportunity she decides to impersonate the selfish girl, taking her place in a class taught by the demanding Director of the Opera (Joe Sheridan) himself. But when her masquerade is discovered, the youngster finds herself in a direct battle with the real Camille in order to stay at the school, Odette taking it upon herself to help train Félicie in the finer nuances of ballet, and in the process both learn more about how to fill their lives with love, friendship and family than they ever imagined was possible.

The French animated adventure Leap! is at turns stupendous and insufferable, the film never showing enough faith in its audience in order for the lovely little scenario of resilience and fortitude at the heart of things to ever resonate as fully or as completely as I kept hoping it would. When it takes the time to slow down, during the moments where Félicie is learning the finer nuances of ballet or connecting with Odette on a deep, delicately emotional level, much like its heroine's aspirations, this effort soars. Whenever it gets loud, throws in a random pop song, pieces of modern slang or hyperactive bits of craziness designed to placate those with short attention spans, the whole thing falls to pieces, becoming less interesting the more oddly chaotic as things become.

All of which is too bad because there's so much about directors Éric Summer and Éric Warin's little fable that I liked to say the motion picture as a whole disappointed me to such a staggering degree makes me more than a bit unhappy. I honestly loved this movie anytime Félicie started learning more about the ballet, all of the sequences inside the school once she becomes a student planting a smile upon my face I never thought was going to disappear. Even better were the training segments where Odette becomes the girl's salvation, a beautiful sequence where she uses a tree branch, a bell and a small puddle of water to teach her student how to become as light on her feet as a feather harmlessly falling from the sky something special to be sure.

But the opening escape from the orphanage is insufferable, and as much as I wanted to like Victor as a character his hyperactive exuberance began to wear me out long before the film had reached its midpoint let alone by the time it entered the home stretch working towards its climax. Worse is a long, drawn out chase between Félicie and Régine as they perilously climb to the top of an unfinished Statue of Liberty, the whole scene feeling like it was lifted out of some third tier DreamWorks misfire that confused frenetic action with character development and unbelievable histrionics with subtly more than it did anything else.

It's all fairly unbalanced, and as much as I adored a number of key segments, the obnoxious stuff is so difficult to sit through I had trouble recollecting what I enjoyed about this animated effort not long after I left the theatre and started making my way back home. While the animation is solid, and while some of the vocal performances are superb, most notably those delivered by Fanning, Sheridan and especially an unrecognizable Jepsen, the bad stuff sat so poorly with me thinking back on it all now almost makes me angry. Leap! showcases loads of potential, and no question its female-driven story of accomplishment and resilience has plenty of value. But neither of those elements is enough to overcome all of the missteps, the resulting film a substandard dance of aggravation that I'm still moderately upset about.




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Uneven I Do not without its world-weary charms
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Sparse Wind River haunting in its agonizing sincerity
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Well-engineered Unlocked an enjoyably routine thriller
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Well-intentioned Leap! a frustrating dance of disappointment
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