Thursday, September 28, 2023

‘The Creator’ aims big, falls short


 I rooted for The Creator, hoping this latest futuristic extravaganza would be a major addition to the big-screen sci-fi canon. Although the movie comes close, it ultimately falls short.
 The subject -- a war between humans and AI -- couldn't be more topical but director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) gives his two-hour and 15-minute adventure a bric-a-brac feel that keeps the movie from gathering force.
   Edwards's movie evokes memories of bygone sci-fi -- notably AI: Artificial Intelligence (2001) and The Terminator (2024). You also may find yourself thinking about a variety of Vietnam movies that showed Asian populations being decimated by American military might. 
    That's because much of the story takes place in the fictional location of New Asia, the place where special forces warrior Joshua (John David Washington) is sent to forestall the extinction of humanity.
   The story begins with a jumble of action set in 2065, ten years after Los Angeles was destroyed by nukes, a catastrophic attack attributed to the AI on which humans had become too dependent. The US has outlawed AI, vowing never to let it strike again.
   Early on, we meet special forces warrior Washington's Joshua. A  needless raid by the US military blows Joshua's cover during a spy mission in New Asia. During the melee, Joshua's pregnant wife Mia (Gemma Chan) is killed. 
    Joshua was supposed to coax Mia into revealing the location of  Nirmata. a creator with that the power to program AI for maximum destruction. Still, Joshua loved her and thought he could work to benefit both humans and AI.
    The US's imperialist objectives are anything but subtle. The US military operates NOMAD, a Flying Fortress that hovers over the earth beaming destructive rays on designated targets. 
    Leave it to humans. When encountering a force with superior intellect, the response: Blow it up.
    General Andrews (Ralph Ineson), a one-note hard ass of a military man, presides over NOMAD. Allison Janey portrays Colonel Howell, an officer who tries to be more sympathetic toward the mistrustful Joshua.
    As if to signal a theme, Joshua comes equipped with prosthetic robotic limbs acquired after suffering terrible war wounds. He's part robot, suggesting that a blend of AI and humanity might be possible. 
    New Asia is enemy turf, but wait. Why are some bots in New Asia wearing Buddhist robes and acting as if they've mastered the art of cosmic serenity? Why do they have spinning gears in the back of their heads?
    These bots, by the way, have human skin -- or a simulated version of it -- and digital parts. Same goes for an achingly cute six-year-old girl Joshua dubs Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles). Alphie has powers that she's only learning to harness.
  To complicate matters, she might be the very creation that Joshua has been ordered to kill.
    A scattered story includes a predictable twist, concluding with a mega blast of emotion built around sacrifice and hope. Some may be moved but I didn't know whether to be inspired or go with the one-word question I wrote in my notebook, “risible?”
   I presume you know which way I leaned.
   We've seen worse movies than The Creator and Edwards deserves credit for creating an immersive look and nailing an intriguing final shot. But The Creator seldom scales the heights of imaginative writing that could have matched its visual accomplishments and outsized ambitions.


     

Music builds bridges in 'Flora and Son'

 


Director John Carney (Once, Sing Street) seems to make movies about the way he wishes the world were, a place where ordinary people communicate through song and where troubled souls  can be soothed with poetic lyrics. Carney’s Flora and Son doesn’t match Once but it has its charms and boasts a strong performance from Eve Hewson.  Hewson plays Flora, the tough Irish mother of a 14-year-old son (Oren Kinlan) with a penchant for trouble. Separated from her musician husband (Jack Reynor), Flora spends too much time drinking, clubbing, and having sex with strangers. Both Flora and her son Max need a touch of redemption. Carney's fans won’t find it surprising that growth comes through music. Flora begins an online guitar course with Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an American teacher.  Max turns to rap. The relationship between Flora and Jeff flirts with long-distance romance, but Carney isn't a romcom guy. He  uses music as a means for personal growth and connection. Although he travels in Dublin’s working-class milieu, he’s hardly a social realist. Carney qualifies as a musical fabulist operating in real-world settings. He flavors his fantasies with the stale smell of overpopulated pubs. Don’t be surprised if, at times, Hewson and Gordon-Levitt appear together, even though they're separated by more than 5,000 miles. Carney allows them to break their online chains as a way of suggesting that distance needn't preclude harmony. Flora and Son never quite achieves the jewel-like glow that Carney may have been after and the speed of Flora's musical development challenges credibility. That doesn't mean the movie isn't pleasant and rewarding. You may want to think of it as an easy-listening experience in a movie world dominated by harsh notes. Take that as a compliment.

 

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Deception looms large in ‘Origin of Evil’

 Origin of Evil, director Sebastien Marnier's twisted thriller, held me in its grip until the very end,  a harsh conclusion to a movie that had been running on juices thick with deception and betrayal. Some time after her mother's death, Stephanie (Laure Calamy) reconnects with the father she has never met. Turns out he's a wealthy restaurateur who lives in a mansion. Stephanie works in a cannery and has no prospects beyond a life of hard scrabble scrambling. Dad, as it turns out, has suffered a stroke and is being tyrannized by a daughter (Doria Tillier) who has taken charge of the family business and a wife (Dominique Blanc) who spends her time filling the house with needless junk she buys online. A sourpuss maid (Veronique Ruggia Saura) couldn't be less ingratiating. Stephanie slowly develops a relationship with her father, who sees her as an ally in the fight against the women who dominate his house. Stephanie also visits a former lover, a woman serving a prison sentence for murder. No fair telling more but Marnier keeps us guessing as he navigates treacherous familial terrain. As I said, I was with this one until the very end -- which I found to be a little too pat for a movie that, for most of its running time, has plenty of intriguingly perverse kick.


All's not fair in love and at the office


 Create a toxic workplace in which competitive juices aggressively flow. Add a romance between two employees who are vying for advancement and you've got the makings of a crisp movie. 
  If you didn't already think office romances were a bad idea, director Chloe Domont's Fair Play should seal the deal.
  Domont deals with an office relationship in which the male partner (Alden Ehrenreich) can't conceal his simmering resentment about a promotion awarded to his fiancee (Phoebe Dynevor), a financial whiz-kid who works at the same hedge fund. 
  By the end of the movie, Domont, who also wrote the screenplay,  can be accused of going over-the-top, but she deserves credit for not holding back. When she fires, she wants the bullet to hit.
  Defying a company policy forbidding inter-office romance, Dynevor's Emily and Ehrenreich's Luke live together with plans to marry. To avoid discovery, they arrive at the office separately and never act like anything but colleagues.
    At first, Luke insists he's proud of the advancement Emily has earned. He assures her that he fully supports her, a claim to which you may find yourself thinking, "Yeah, right." 
     The matter is further complicated because Luke, a financial analyst, will be working for Emily. She's now his fiancee and his boss, not the best arrangement for a satisfying happily-ever-after.
     Domont often treats sex between Luke and Emily as an act of aggression, perhaps because these two lovers can't hide their competitive egos under the covers. 
     In moves that may remind you of Neil LaBute's 1997 In the Company of Men, Domont shows that the atmosphere at Crest Capital reeks of faux bonhomie and real brutality. The boss (Eddie Marsan) makes no attempt to hide his fangs.  A low-key Marsan leaves no doubt that the firm's chief can go for the jugular. He's like a coiled snake.
     It would be difficult for a director to make this kind of movie without examining the heavy masculine vibe generated in the office. To show she's up to it, Emily joins her male colleagues at a bar where they watch pole dancers. She tries to prove that she can be as hard a drinker as her male companions.
     Initially, Emily tries to help Luke be promoted, presumably so that the two can be on equal footing again. When her attempts fail, Luke inadvisedly takes matters into his own hands. He embarrasses himself with a career-wrecking speech he makes to Marsan's character.
      We know that when things sour between Emily and Luke -- each well-played by Dynevor and Ehrenreich -- the resultant breakup won't be pretty. It's also not entirely believable, but Domont isn't playing around. Fair Play keeps us involved, even during the times when we wonder whether Domont might be pushing things too far.


     

Thursday, September 21, 2023

Little guys want to get rich, too

   

      Some subjects don’t lend themselves to movies. The GameStop stock craze might be one of them. 
      Dumb Money — a movie about the short squeeze that hit GameStop stock in 2021— doesn't always clarify its complexities. The result: A lot of conversations about financial matters that aren’t likely to find a place in anyone's encyclopedia of great movie dialogue.
     Paul Dano plays Keith Gill, an obscure financial analyst who turned buying GameStop stock into a cause. With help from his YouTube channel, Gill created a legion of acolytes who followed his lead.
      The movie's supporting characters divide into small investors and big-time market movers. 
       The small fry struggle to outwit the big money and are represented by America Ferrara, as a single mom and hard-working nurse; Myha’la Harold and Talia Ryder, as college students who took a gamble; and Anthony Ramos, as a worker at a GameStop store.
      Director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya and Cruella) sketches in several big-ticket investors: Vincent D’Onofrio plays hedge fund manager Steve Cohen; Nick Offerman appears as hedge fund manager Ken Griffin; and Seth Rogen portrays Gabe Plotkin, the financier who ran an investment company called Melvin Capital. 
     Sebastian Stan signs on as Vlad Tenev, a co-founder of  Robinhood, the trading app that became an important part of the saga.
     Gill comes closest to giving a scattered movie its center. We meet his wife (Shailene Woodley), his parents (Kate Burton and Clancy Brown) and his brother (Pete Davidson). Davidson provides comic flavor, adding a dose of cynicism and snark to the proceedings.
      Gillespie bolsters the movie’s authenticity with news clips, and uses graphics to show the net worth of each of the main characters perhaps to highlight major disparities between the rich and the wannabes.
        Dumb Money remains watchable, perhaps because it sweeps past us without worrying too much about dotting every "i'' and crossing every "t.'' You may want to do some googling about short squeezes or you simply can get the story's gist:  Based on their assessment that online purchases during a pandemic would push GameStop to the edge of bankruptcy, the Big Boys started short selling the stock. 
    The little guys kept buying, driving the stock price upward. Until trouble struck, the dumb money — Wall Street’s derogatory name for individual investors — seemed to be winning.
       Basing his movie on The Antisocial Network, a book by Ben Mezrich,  Gillespie gives the characters more quirks than depth.
         Gill calls himself Roaring Kitty and wraps a bandana around his forehead before positioning himself at his computer. He's also a compulsive runner.
       Cohen, who now owns the New York Mets, tosses food at the pet pig who shares his house, and Plotkin nervously juggles two homes while watching his investment company slide down the drain.
      But here’s the thing: These aren’t the most intriguing characters ever to reach the screen. The rich guys are pompous, callous and often avaricious. The little guys hope to better their lives. Everyone wants to emerge a winner.
        Sans an overriding  point of view, Dumb Money plays like a footnote to a larger story that's left untold. The movie asks us to root for the average folks without wondering why a nurse must struggle to pay her mortgage or why two college students at the University of Texas spend all their time thinking about money.
      Credit Dumb Money with generating a few laughs but the movie  doesn't leave us with much reason to invest additional thought in a story that rehashes yesterday's news.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Love isn't easy in life's last stages


Finnish director Klaus Härö's My Sailor, My Love tells the story of an aging sea captain who's given a last opportunity to find love. James Cosmo plays Howard, a retired sailor who lives in a poorly kept house on Ireland's Achill Island. Weighed down by Howard's need for care, his  daughter Grace (Catherine Walker) hires a housekeeper (Brid Brennan). Quickly (perhaps too quickly), the cantankerous Howard lowers his guard and develops a relationship with Brennan's Annie, an older widow. The relationship paves the way for another rare look at aging people who still need human contact and intimacy. The movie's piano score has a sentimental, soothing quality that works against a screenplay that tackles tough issues. A nurse by trade, Grace's over-commitment to her father's care estranges her from her husband (Aidan O'Hare) and eventually wrecks her marriage. For his part, Howard isn't totally honest with Annie nor was he a great husband to his late wife. Although Haro moves quietly through the story, he allows volatile complexities to simmer. Grace has been imprisoned by a caretaker image she can't relinquish. Genial when he begins to break through his isolation, Howard's loneliness isn't without an element of selfishness. Jealousy and recrimination surface as Grace becomes increasingly resentful of Annie's role. Haro's visual choices (shots of the rugged Irish coast serve as interludes between scenes) aren't always inspired and the movie's conclusion won't come as a surprise. Still, Haro's recognition of  double-edged emotions (love and need, for example) keep this well-acted movie from drowning in sentiment.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

He's gay in the world of Lucha Libre

   

     Never let it be said that the movies can't teach us things. How useful those things might be is another question. 
    Putting aside discussions about relevance, I should say that until I saw Cassandro, the story of a gay man who conquered the world of Lucha Libre, I didn't know that Mexican wrestling was a thing -- a very big thing. 
    I also didn't know that the word "exotico" refers to wrestlers who act in effeminate ways, donning garish costumes in defiance of the macho standards that dominate the ring. I'm not even interested in American wrestling, so it's hardly surprising that my ignorance extended to another country.
     Now I know a little bit.
       But about the movie:
       Gael García Bernal stars as Cassandro, a.k.a Saúl Armendáriz, a resident of El Paso who, from an early age, knew two things: He was gay and he wanted to be a professional wrestler. 
     As directed by Roger Ross Williams, the movie provides Saul with  motivation for his dream, something to do with impressing the severely religious father (Robert Salas) who rejected him for being gay. 
      Theatrical and unashamedly outlandish, Lucha Libre compares to the world of comic books; matches are replete with heroes and villains who elicit heavy vocal responses from avid audiences. 
     Sporting blonde hair, Bernal plays Saul without affectation. He's another movie guy with a dream -- only a very specialized one.
    The movie makes it clear that Cassandro is a kind of living fiction, a character Saul invents to distinguish himself from other "exoticos." Cassandro would become the first exotico who didn't automatically lose to macho opponents. He'd turn convention on its head and become a crowd favorite.
          That's pretty much the story.
          Two women play important roles in Saul's life.
         A strong Perla De La Rosa portrays Saul's mother. She accepts her son's gayness but cautions him about the dangers posed by a society in the grip of rigid definitions of manhood. She's part mother, part pal.
         Saul also develops a relationship with Sabrina (Roberta Colindrez), his trainer. Sabrina helps sharpen Saul's moves and watches as he realizes that he'll benefit from making the transition from a third-tier wrestler named El Topo to the flamboyant Cassandro, an altered version of a  name he got from watching a TV show.
      Saul's life as a gay man isn't neglected. He develops a romantic relationship with a wrestler called El Commandante (Raul Castillo). As a gay man who's married with children, Castillo's character lives a tormented dual life. He presents himself as straight in the wrestling ring. 
      Saul knows who he is and has no problems with it.
     Perhaps as an extension of Saul's clear-cut identity, Williams turns Cassandro into a role model for young gay men who might be hesitant about coming out.
     Audiences familiar with Lucha Libre may get more out of Cassandro than I did, but Williams's mixture of wrestling and kitchen-sink drama proves entertaining enough, a tribute to how people who seem incompatible can learn to appreciate one another.
     A footnote:  At the end of the movie, you'll see a photo of the real Cassandro. The wrestler's bulk made me wonder whether Bernal wasn't too slim for the role. You can decide for yourself.
 

Kenneth Branagh takes Poirot to Venice


 Kenneth Branagh continues his Agatha Christie preoccupation with A Haunting in Venice, his third in a series of films based on Christie novels. As is the case with much of Christie's work, Haunting  delays its big revelation until the end, allowing ace detective Hercule Poirot finally to disclose whodunit. 
  I won't do that with this review. Here's my take: Haunting is an adequate -- though hardly exhilarating -- thriller seasoned by supernatural suggestion that goes against the ultra-rational Poitrot grain.
  As a director, Branagh, who also plays Poirot, takes advantage of otherworldly possibilities, trying for a few jolts and a large helping of eeriness. But the film doesn't register as a superior slice of horror, if that's what Branagh had in mind.
    Christie purists will note that Branagh has based his film on the author's novel, Hallowe'en Party, and shifted its location from England to Italy. By confining most of the tale to the creepy confines of an old  palazzo, Branagh misses an opportunity. The labyrinthian alleys and byways of Venice could have augmented the movie's mystery and terror.
    The story begins in 1947 when Ariadne Oliver, a mystery writer played by Tina Fey, invites Poirot to a Halloween party. She wants the great sleuth to expose a psychic (Michelle Yeoh) who claims to communicate with the dead, one of whom happened to be the daughter of the palazzo's owner (Kelly Reilly). The girl, we learn, entered the realm of the departed after committing suicide.
    Not surprisingly, the mystery doesn't end when Poirot discover that the psychic is a fraud. The plot contrives to allow Poirot to do what he always does: hunt a killer. 
    The visual atmosphere ranges from dim to dark and Branagh also employs a charged angle about the palazzo's past. At one time, the place housed orphans who were abandoned to die. Their ghosts are said to have haunted the place ever since. 
    The supporting cast of characters -- or more precisely suspects  -- includes a visiting American (Kyle Allen), a psychologically damaged physician (Jamie Dornan), his precocious son (Jude Hill) and others who expand the list of red herrings.
     We're meant to wonder whether a stream of mysterious occurrences will shatter Poirot's commitment to reason, causing him to rethink his rejection of otherworldly claims. Let's just say that Poirot's skepticism, forged by many murder investigations, has deep roots.
      Earlier in this review, I called Haunting adequate,  hardly a ringing endorsement for a whodunit that generates too little concern about who  committed the dastardly deed.
     It's not so much that we figure things out early on; it's that we're not given enough reason to immerse in the gloomy game Poirot must play.
     

    

A story that takes flight -- in space


A Million Miles Away, the story of a migrant kid who dreams of  becoming an astronaut, touches nearly every base that normally turns me off. It can be simplistic and unabashedly inspirational. But director Alejandra Marquez Abella infuses her film with so much sincerity, it's difficult to resist. Michael Pena stars as real life astronaut Jose Hernandez. Hernandez's story serves as a tale about a persistent kid who works hard to realize his dream and as a celebration of hard scrapple ethnicity. Hernandez's background gives the story its flavor, turning the movie into a triumph not only for an extraordinarily determined young man but for people, who like him, haven't typically been associated with the space program. Once Hernandez becomes an  engineer, he and his wife Adela (Rosa Salazar) raise five children. Although he's successful,  Hernandez clings to his goal: He keeps applying to NASA. After 12 rejections, he's accepted into a NASA training program, and we see some of its challenges, learning to function under extreme pressure, for example. A Million Miles Away isn't deeply nuanced, but it clearly charts a life that went from a village in Michoacan, Mexico, to farm work near Stockton, Ca. to college. Hernandez eventually landed a job with a government-funded firm dealing with security issues. NASA awaits. It's quite a journey and A Million Miles Away, based on a memoir Hernandez wrote, does everything it can to honor it.