The Snowman

Perhaps appropriate considering the wintry Scandinavian backdrop, The Snowman remains emotionally chilly.

Yet that aloofness only serves to further muddle a lurid thriller that’s clearly riding the noir coattails of the English-language version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, except this wannabe becomes lost in translation.

Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is an Oslo detective who teams with young police investigator Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson) on a case involving a serial killer whose targets are young mothers. The crimes are punctuated with snowmen left at the scene.

Their efforts become complicated when personal turmoil interferes, especially for the selfish Harry, whose ex-wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and teenage stepson become involved due in part to his unhealthy vices. Meanwhile, Katrine might have ulterior motives that further hinder a resolution.

What’s especially alarming is how the film squanders talent on both sides of the camera. A trio of talented screenwriters adapted the novel by Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo, and Swedish director Tomas Alfredson (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) seems like an ideal match for the material. The film’s cinematographer, Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha), and editor, Thelma Schoonmaker (Raging Bull) have each won Oscars. Martin Scorsese was originally attached to direct (and remains an executive producer).

Their combined efforts resulted in a bleak film that’s often visually striking — there’s a certain beauty in seeing red blood on white snow — but also curiously hollow, despite some intriguing if formulaic source material. Nesbo’s book is one of about a dozen in an internationally acclaimed series following the Hole character, although the prospects for a big-screen franchise seem iffy.

At any rate, the film never seems fully committed either to a character study about a detective with personal demons, including alcoholism and a troubled past. Nor does it generate sufficient tension in its central murder mystery, for which the narrative misdirection and abundant red herrings don’t disguise much.

An odd cameo featuring a disheveled Val Kilmer during a handful of flashback sequences appears to be awkwardly dubbed. And the supporting cast including J.K. Simmons, Toby Jones, and Chloe Sevigny doesn’t add much depth or complexity.

Despite some instances of brutal violence, The Snowman is tedious and uninvolving. As an exercise in style over substance, it eventually melts into cinematic slush.

 

Rated R, 119 minutes.

Only the Brave

Sometimes in saluting the courage and bravery of our military troops, or first responders, or whoever, the specifics of the heroes and their accomplishments tend to get lost in the shuffle.

Only the Brave conveys authenticity by recognizing everyday heroism in terms of what its true-life subjects do in the face of great danger, but also what it means behind the scenes.

More of a character-based drama than a traditional disaster flick, the film takes a familiar approach yet offers a timely tribute by putting a human face on those who combat rural wildfires.

Specifically, it chronicles the Granite Mountain Hotshots, based in Prescott, Arizona, a team whose expertise lies specifically in large-scale outdoor fires. Eric (Josh Brolin) is their demanding and strong-willed leader trying to get more resources for his ragtag unit. His efforts are backed by both his wife (Jennifer Connelly) and the county fire chief (Jeff Bridges).

Eventually, they earn respect through hard work and sometimes unconventional strategy. Then their skill and resilience, and their willingness to potentially make the ultimate sacrifice, are tested during the Yarnell Hill Fire, a 2013 inferno that became one of the most deadly in recent American history.

The film not only captures its setting in the harsh Arizona summer, but also gives context to the role of a hotshot team in preserving the landscape. The screenplay focuses much of its attention on the macho camaraderie of the firefighters, the physical and tactical preparation required, or the strain such a job places on young families.

Indeed, the exposition tends to go overboard, and the film is formulaic in some of its broad characterizations, which is what happens when you try to condense the stories of more than a dozen crew members into a single feature.

Although it lacks diversity, the talented ensemble cast — including Miles Teller, James Badge Dale and Taylor Kitsch — helps to bring context to the flawed but fiercely loyal characters and their motives. Even if we aren’t convinced about why they do it, we certainly know how, thanks to a well-researched script that knows the lingo.

As directed by Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy), the action sequences capture both the beauty and spectacle of these large-scale fires, as well as the inherent wide-ranging dangers.

Only the Brave should resonate with moviegoers in wildfire hotbeds while providing some powerful insight for the rest of us.

 

Rated PG-13, 133 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Oct. 20

The Bachelors

Some fine performances bolster this otherwise predictable melodrama about grief and recovery that follows a math teacher named Bill (J.K. Simmons) and his teenage son (Josh Wiggins) both trying to cope with the recent and sudden death of Bill’s wife. They relocate and try to restart their lives, but discover new obstacles when they each meet potential new romantic interests — Bill with a French teacher (Julie Delpy) and his son with a vulnerable classmate (Odeya Rush). The well-intentioned film generates some powerful moments and intriguing character dynamics, yet the emotional authenticity in the screenplay by director Kurt Voelker is compromised by familiarity and contrived catharsis. (Not rated, 99 minutes).

 

BPM

With a title standing for Beats Per Minute, this ambitious and captivating drama from French director Robin Campillo (Eastern Boys) covers familiar territory in a fresh way. It takes place in the early 1990s, following a group of grassroots activists in Paris trying to combat public and bureaucratic indifference with regard to the AIDS epidemic, for which potential pharmaceutical remedies are being sidetracked by sociopolitical obstacles. Inspired by true events, the stylish and heartfelt film — although it tends to meander through a bloated running time — is both an incisive history lesson and a powerful glimpse into the power of protest that carries contemporary resonance. (Not rated, 143 minutes).

 

The Departure

How do you spend every day talking about death without becoming depressed? That’s a challenge handled better by this modestly ambitious documentary than by its subject, Ittetsu Nemoto, a Buddhist monk in Japan who holds retreats at his temple for suicidal visitors while dealing with health challenges that force him to confront his own will to live. Credit director Lana Wilson (After Tiller) for dealing profoundly with matters of literal life-or-death urgency in a way that doesn’t wallow in suffering, but also finds hope in Nemoto’s mission and his abilities. Deliberately paced but rewarding patience, the contemplative film is quietly powerful and appropriately life-affirming. (Not rated, 87 minutes).

 

Jungle

Yossi Ghinsberg’s true-life survival story is filled with harrowing twists and near-death turns, yet this chronicle of his experiences from director Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) never sufficiently captures the depth of his perilous plight. Yossi (Daniel Radcliffe) is a former Israeli soldier who convinces two friends, plus a guide, to join him on an ill-fated mission in 1981 to explore the Bolivian jungle. Among other problems, Yossi becomes lost in the elements as his provisions are depleted and his hopes for rescue dwindle. Despite Radcliffe’s committed portrayal, the film becomes muddled in the second half, meandering into flashbacks and hallucinations that don’t add much suspense. (Rated R, 115 minutes).

 

Killing Gunther

Arnold Schwarzenegger provides a jolt of energy to the final half-hour of this otherwise lackluster satire about bickering hitmen, as he sends up his image and action tropes in general with freewheeling bravado. The problem is you have to sit through the first hour, a labored set-up following Blake (Taran Killam), a fledgling assassin who’s jealous that the elusive Gunther is stealing all of the high-profile headlines. So he assembles a ragtag team of fellow killers to find and eliminate him. The screenplay by “Saturday Night Live” alum Killam, who also directed, features some amusing quirks and non sequiturs, but most of the gags fall flat. (Rated R, 93 minutes).

 

Kills on Wheels

There are plenty of differences to celebrate in this modestly amusing and heartfelt comedic thriller from Hungary, which puts both actors and characters with disabilities in the spotlight. It centers on three wheelchair-bound men—a young comic aficionado (Zoltan Fenyvesi) and his friend (Adam Fekete), along with a hitman (Szabolcs Thuroczy) who takes them under his wing. All three see the partnership as a chance not only to earn money for medical reasons, but also to speak out against perceptions and disability laws. The screenplay by director Attila Till unfolds in mostly contrived fashion, yet capably juggles tones between dark crime saga and lighthearted poignancy. (Not rated, 103 minutes).

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

The recent Wonder Woman put the pioneering feminism of its heroine on full display. But did you know the character was conceived from a bisexual S&M fantasy?

That’s the primary takeaway from Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a mildly intriguing true-life origin story that’s more than just a simple making-of featurette but unlikely to achieve the same blockbuster status. The period drama seems overall too polished and safe, considering the scandalous and provocative subject matter.

It follows William Marston (Luke Evans) a psychologist and New England college professor during the 1920s who helped develop technology for the lie-detector test among his other innovations.

His theories about relationships and personalities involve studying inducement and submission, which he saw as a method of empowerment and challenging traditional female archetypes. Marston subsequently starts a polyamorous sexual relationship involving one of his subjects, a student named Olive (Bella Heathcote), and his outspoken wife (Rebecca Hall).

They wind up living together and starting a family, which causes plenty of outside turmoil. Almost out of desperation, Marston decides to combine his psychological work with his views on feminist liberation in a comic book, using a pseudonym — except that early versions of Wonder Woman became notorious for their lewdness as much as they were lauded for her heroism.

The film captures the visual look of the period, even if it lacks context with regard to cultural and social norms. There’s talk of perversion and public outrage but little supporting evidence.

The three primary actors help to elevate the material. Yet it’s unfortunate that director Angela Robinson (Herbie: Fully Loaded), who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t exhibit the same level of subversive audacity as her subjects.

Instead, we’re mostly left with a sentimental melodrama — with some moderate laughs sprinkled throughout — about three emotionally fragile characters whose courage might be admirable, but whose behavior seems more reckless and self-destructive than sympathetic.

Although Marston’s inspiration is clear, some of the moral complexity becomes muddled in the process. For example, were his motives desperately opportunistic or a genuine attempt to redefine mainstream sexual politics?

At any rate, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is best in its more playful moments, rather than those trying to position its protagonist as the real superhero for his progressive stance on gender roles. In this case, fiction is preferable to fact.

 

Rated R, 108 minutes.

Marshall

Contrary to its title, Marshall isn’t really a biopic about the first black justice in the United States Supreme Court.

We don’t learn much about Thurgood Marshall’s upbringing or his influences. There aren’t many scenes of him directly overcoming oppression or fighting for civil rights. And it doesn’t even delve much into his marriage or his background in law.

Rather, the film focuses almost exclusively on a rather obscure court case — one in which he’s not even the lead defense counsel — to represent Marshall’s passion, intelligence, fairness, and tenacity. And while such an approach might lack a broader examination of Marshall’s influence, it succeeds as a taut and evocative legal thriller.

The film takes place in the early 1940s, when Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) was a diligent NAACP attorney summoned to Connecticut to help defend a black chauffeur (Sterling K. Brown) accused of sexual assault by his wealthy white employer (Kate Hudson).

He works alongside an inexperienced Jewish defense attorney (Josh Gad) dealing with some prejudices of his own, which helps to deepen their bond. As Marshall’s keen intellect brings clarity to the case in light of inconsistent testimony, his hectic schedule causes some ups and downs in his personal life.

It’s probably not fair to scrutinize Marshall as a comprehensive treatment, even if invited by the title. However, Boseman — who’s also played James Brown and Jackie Robinson in his promising young career — brings depth and complexity that transcend the screenplay’s procedural trappings.

As directed by Reginald Hudlin (House Party), the film portrays Marshall as someone who didn’t relish the spotlight, but rather worked tirelessly behind the scenes. He speaks infrequently yet commands attention when he does. He puts the welfare of others ahead of his own self-interests.

Indeed, the film conveys through its narrow chronology the qualities that eventually led Marshall to bigger and better things, which is likely the intention. So it’s easier to forgive the predictable nature of the courtroom drama, the obvious embellishments and revisionist historical touches, and the lack of surprises along the way.

Despite its flaws, the film winds up doing justice to its true-life subject in a low-key and unassuming manner that Marshall himself would have probably appreciated.

 

Rated PG-13, 118 minutes.

The Foreigner

It hints at the past legacy of the Irish “troubles” and at contemporary threats by terrorists, but The Foreigner is really all about the action.

Some mild intrigue is sidelined by a convoluted plot of political conspiracies and personal redemption in this mediocre cat-and-mouse thriller that forgets to include a compelling mystery alongside its abundant mayhem.

The film opens with a harrowing explosion outside a London bank that kills some bystanders including the daughter of Quan (Jackie Chan), a restaurateur whose family has already endured plenty of past tragedies.

Almost deliriously overcome with grief, Quan becomes obsessed with vengeance. Since a rogue offshoot of the defunct Irish Republican Army claims credit for the blast — apparently seeking pardons for the perpetrators of past crimes — Quan contacts Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a government minister in Northern Ireland with past IRA ties.

While Quan pushes for the names of the attackers, he backs up his persistence with skills learned in his Chinese-born military past, such the ability to manufacture homemade bombs and pummel random thugs. Meanwhile, Hennessy tries to balance the re-emergence of figures from his violent past with his determination to maintain peace in the present.

At 63, Chan proves that he’s still capable of handling the physical demands of an action-hero role, although not with the volume of stunts he staged in his chop-socky classics of yesteryear. Fortunately, he’s also believable in quieter moments of paternal mourning or resilient determination.

Likewise, Brosnan brings depth and complexity to a character still dealing with residual conflicts from his past, both internal and external — his constant yelling conceals a palpable frustration. As the film progresses, it curiously focuses more on Hennessy than Quan.

Veteran director Martin Campbell (Casino Royale) enlivens the proceedings with capable lensing of the film’s requisite fights and chase sequences, and incorporates some landmarks to authentically capture the setting.

However, the screenplay by David Marconi (Enemy of the State) — based on a 1992 novel by British author Stephen Leather — updates the narrative framework yet fails to capitalize on the timeliness of its political backdrop.

The film strains credibility as it stumbles toward a conclusion that lacks subtlety and surprise, while struggling to reconcile its disparate elements into an emotionally resonant package. From page to screen, The Foreigner doesn’t translate.

 

Rated R, 114 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Oct. 13

Human Flow

The latest documentary from masterful Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is commendable as much for its exhaustive scope as for its thought-provoking message. His topic is contemporary human migration, which he examines through stories of immigration and refugee crises around the world — as he points out, millions worldwide are being displaced because of famine, war, climate change and other factors both unfortunate and infuriating. While that might not be surprising, the film is both persuasive and beautiful in the way it blends dynamic visuals with even-handed compassion for victims. Taking a big-picture approach, the result is perhaps too long, ambitious, and episodic. But it’s also impactful. (Rated PG-13, 140 minutes).

 

The Secret Scripture

A solid cast is squandered in this handsomely mounted period piece from venerable director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) that begins with a psychiatrist (Eric Bana) trying to untangle the cryptic diaries of a longtime Dublin asylum patient Rose (Vanessa Redgrave) still haunted by her past. We learn through flashbacks of doomed relationships that the younger Rose (Rooney Mara) endured decades earlier, which were influenced by Ireland’s involvement in World War II and rigid Catholic attitudes toward gender roles. As the mystery unfolds, the film gradually strains credibility and becomes more formulaic in structure — not without its powerful moments, but lacking consistent intrigue or suspense. (Rated PG-13, 108 minutes).

 

6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain

As the title suggests, the outcome isn’t in doubt in this lackluster survival drama from director Scott Waugh (Need for Speed) that chronicles the true-life story of Eric LeMarque (Josh Hartnett), a drug addict who becomes lost during a blizzard while snowboarding in the Sierra Nevada mountains. He tries to survive several harrowing days in subzero temperatures awaiting an unlikely rescue. Hartnett’s committed performance forces him to act by himself for much of the film. He brings more authenticity to the material than the wobbly screenplay, which makes heavy-handed pleas for sympathy but lacks conviction while portraying Eric’s path to personal redemption and spiritual transformation. (Rated PG-13, 98 minutes).

 

Tom of Finland

Even if you’re familiar with the work of the titular Finnish illustrator who became a gay icon, this biopic provides an intriguing glimpse into the relationship between art and commerce, set against a backdrop of cultural repression and restraint. Tom (Pekka Strang) is really Touko Laaksonen, who begins exploring his homosexual tendencies after fighting in World War II. He must draw and market his erotic, hyper-masculine sketches in secret because of sodomy laws at the time, but develops an underground following. Strang is terrific, and Dome Karukoski’s direction is visually striking, even if the film overall is more safe than provocative, considering the subject matter. (Not rated, 115 minutes).

Blade Runner 2049

© 2017 ALCON ENTERTAINMENT, LLC

RYAN GOSLING as K in Alcon Entertainment’s action thriller “BLADE RUNNER 2049,” a Warner Bros. Pictures and Sony Pictures Entertainment release, domestic distribution by Warner Bros. Pictures and international distribution by Sony Pictures.

This review contains spoilers, as do most reviews or op-eds of any intellectual value for that matter.

Roger Ebert described PEARL HARBOR as, “a two hour movie squeezed into three hours.”  That is precisely how Denis Villeneuve’s BLADE RUNNER 2049 plays.  While the 163-minute sequel to Ridley Scott’s rather loose adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, succeeds in more complex world building, it doesn’t achieve a depth of story that couldn’t have been told in half the running time.

In a future where synthetically-engineered humans called Replicants were banned and purged from Earth, a police unit of so-called Blade Runners is tasked with hunting down and “retiring” them.  K (Ryan Gosling) is assigned to this unit.

While pursuing one, Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista featured too briefly in a role that showcases a real talent for subtle acting), K unearths a corpse of particular novelty, the discovery of which sets off his boss, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), and attracts intense interest from Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the blind, eccentric founder of Wallace Corporation, which acquired the assets of Tyrell Corporation.  Inventors of the replicants, Tyrell Corp fell into bankruptcy after the death of Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel), a more believable corporate profiteer who saw himself as more engineer than demigod.  Real villains never see themselves as the villain.

Wallace sends a lieutenant of his own, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), to follow K and acquire the corpse.  I feel like Hoeks has something to say, but it’s muddled by the writers’ tendency to relegate her to glowering looks and lots of leather-clad Bad Girl/Fighting Fuck Toy high kicks.  In the end, she’s still a servant, just like Joshi, but Villeneuve and writer Hampton Fancher have little, if anything, to say about it.

In spite of daily “baseline resets”, a mantra designed to clear the mind of emotional disturbances (think of the Mentats in DUNE), K sets upon a journey to find Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the old-school Blade Runner who supposedly holds the key to this mystery.  His partner in this journey is… a sexbot named Joi (Ana de Armas).  And this is where the problems begin.

Betwixt a technocratic allegory to Ancient Egypt and the Let’s Go Find Harrison Ford plot, there’s so much dead space.   It isn’t used, however, to establish any sort of social commentary about the enslavement of females save for a couple tears shed by Luv.

See how meticulously the scene compositions of BLADE RUNNER 2049 are crafted:  Inside the catacombs and chambers of what appear to be the leftover Ziggurats of the defunct Tyrell Corp., golden light dances and follows Luv and Niander, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere.  Roger Deakins, who famously commented that films today tend to be overlit, gorgeously captures the fantastic textures of character actors like Bautista with barely anything but a rim light curling around his cheek.  Gosling’s face, bruised and beaten, the cobalt light turns the blood and dirt black—similar to the look of a Day-for-Night scene in MAD MAX FURY ROAD.  But this too is child’s play for Deakins.  Recall the glowing lanterns in SKYFALL.

Especially at a time when geek and film culture is beset by scandal after scandal, one would hope that filmmakers take as conscientious an approach to character and story design as the lighting and cinematography.  Gosling’s K evokes a familiar everyman, whose troubles are assuaged by his holographic sexbot.  That the entirety of her personality can be contained on a device the size of an Amazon Fire stick says as much about technological advancement as it does about female disenfranchisement.  But to the average viewer this will merely come off as a plot convenience.  There’s no deeper commentary on K’s dependency on a mindlessly-devoted, sexy female companion to define and enrich his humanity.

Let’s count:  The Macguffin is a dead woman.  The protagonist has a generic sexbot.  The mustache-twirling villain has a generic Fighting Fuck Toy, and a penchant for unnecessarily murdering his disposable women.  Mackenzie Davis (HALT AND CATCH FIRE) is completely wasted as a hooker.  The police Lieutenant seems to be written as a man cast as a woman—where either they have femininity or they are leaders, but can’t have both.  If you marvel at the casting but not the story, consider that all the casting directors are women and the creative team all men.

Even with its many locales in and around a future Los Angeles, the film is surprisingly shallow on diversity unlike its predecessor.  As I noted in my review of Ridley Scott’s original BLADE RUNNER, street scenes show us a hodgepodge of races, many speaking a sort of hybrid language similar to Esperanto.  Rain-soaked streets and alleyways are bustling with people like Osaka at night.

Yes, BLADE RUNNER 2049 alludes to environmental chaos sown by overpopulation, but are we to believe it only wiped out all the nonwhite people?

Intelligent storytelling would have more deeply examined the nature of the differences between male and female enslavement, rather than conveying them nakedly (literally in one case).  On message boards and in discussions about Hans Zimmer’s rushed score replacing Jóhann Jóhannsson’s, many readers remain transfixed on Vangelis’ vaunted accompaniment to Rutger Hauer’s brilliant Tears in Rain soliloquy.  One of the most iconic scenes in science fiction, and reportedly improvised on set by Hauer himself, it shows a male slave resigning to his fate, almost naked, clutching a dove.

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.  Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.  I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.  All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain…

Regard that image for a moment.  Think about its femininity, its vulnerability, its defiant transcendence.  Then watch the mindlessly physical work of the male slaves in this film from beginning to violent end—its slapdash coda constructed as afterthought.

In the 35 years since BLADE RUNNER opened, I can think of one instance alone that reminds me of this scene.  In Spielberg’s massively underrated film, A.I: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE—arguably his masterpiece—Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), when taken away by police, exclaims, “I AM.  I was!”  Just shy of utter brilliance, the scene plays in the safe space of heteronormativity rather than taking a more subversive route, yet Steven Spielberg remains one of the few, if only, directors who gave the sexbot the humanity the protagonist couldn’t find.

 

The Mountain Between Us

Even as the snow intensifies, the temperature drops, and the provisions become scarce, you never get much sense that the protagonists in The Mountain Between Us are in much real danger.

That’s the primary issue with this survival drama in which a pair of committed performances become lost amid a series of improbable twists and chilly contrivances.

The film begins at an Idaho airport, where a snowstorm cancels an evening flight for both a bride-to-be Alex (Kate Winslet) and brain surgeon Ben (Idris Elba), who each have pressing business the following morning. They meet over Alex’s idea to split the cost of chartering a private plane through a pilot (Beau Bridges) willing to take the risk.

Then the plane goes down in the Rockies, killing the pilot but sparing both passengers, along with the pilot’s loyal dog. Ben and Alex try to balance the initial panic with clear-eyed resolve in the face of deteriorating weather, limited amounts of food and clothing, and no means of communication with the outside world.

As hours turn into days and then weeks, their desperation increases as the likelihood of a rescue dwindles. Their relationship deepens as much out of necessity as any mutual attraction.

Israeli director Hany Abu-Asad (The Idol), making his English-language debut, contributes some visual highlights. The tense plane-crash sequence in a snowstorm isn’t for uneasy fliers, and the scenic mountain landscapes are frequently breathtaking.

Elba and Winslet, relying heavily on body language and facial expressions given the sparse dialogue, establish a reasonable chemistry in the wintry conditions, playing characters who demonstrate resilience and resourcefulness under the most harrowing of circumstances.

However, the deliberately paced screenplay — based on a novel by Charles Martin — struggles to maintain its suspense in the snowcapped peaks. The central premise feels overly calculated, even if it stems from common fears and frustrations related to air travel. At least the film tries to steer clear of clichés about wilderness survival.

The Mountain Between Us rarely feels authentic in either words or actions. As its characters become more reliant upon one another and share personal secrets, it only leads to eye-rolling melodrama. Emotionally, the result freezes us out.

 

Rated PG-13, 109 minutes.