REVIEW: “The Gift” (2015)

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At first glance “The Gift” looked like another movie about a creepy guy with a secret who dupes and then terrorizes a naïve family. We’ve seen this before, even last year with “The Guest”. But looks can be deceiving and just like the naïve families in these films, I was expecting one thing but what I got was surprisingly different – a mesmerizing swirl of twists, turns, and revelations that consistently subverted every expectation I had.

I’ve been a big fan of Joel Edgerton since he grabbed my attention in 2010’s “Animal Kingdom”. “The Gift” is clearly his movie where he serves as co-star, co-producer, writer, and director. Edgerton has received several past writing credits but this original work may be his best. Even more impressive, the film marks Edgerton’s directorial debut and it doesn’t take long to realize he knows his way behind a camera. GIFT1  There is an undeniable harmony between Edgerton’s writing and direction. Both fluidly combine to reveal his keen sense of storytelling which transcends any limitations such as the film’s meager $5 million budget. Edgerton is completely in tune with his characters and the tone that he is going for. Perhaps most importantly the story doesn’t dumb itself down or lazily rely on overused clichés. It certainly hits some of the normal genre ticks, but you almost sense that it’s doing it to set the audience up in order to pull the rug out from under them later on.

Jason Bateman is perfectly cast to play the confident and controlling Simon. He and his wife Robyn (played equally well by Rebecca Hall) have just moved to Los Angeles from Chicago after he gets a swanky new job at a large security firm. Their move was also influenced by hopes of leaving some difficulties behind and starting a new chapter in their relationship. It begins with them buying a stylish new home in an upperclass neighborhood.

One day while accessory shopping for their new home they run into Gordo (Edgerton), a timid and mousy former classmate of Simon’s. The chance meeting leads to a series of awkward encounters. Gordo begins leaving them house gifts and popping up during the day while Simon is at work. Simon is leery and uncomfortable around Gordo while Robyn is a bit more sympathetic and curious. This leads to the film’s key focus – three characters confronted with truth, consequences, and sins from the past. To tell any more would be doing a disservice. Gift2

The three central performances are vital. Bateman often relegates himself to lame raunchy comedies, but here he shows an extraordinary natural bend that tops anything he has done to date. Rebecca Hall continues to be one of our most earnest and expressive actresses, delivering superb work while tackling the most emotionally complex character of the three. But Edgerton’s performance may be the key. It would be easy for him to fall into conventional traps but he steers clear of that. Instead he gives us a character so thoroughly cryptic. One minute he has us challenging our sympathies and the next we are squirming in your seats.

Edgerton listed Hitchcock and Haneke among his influences for the film and you can sense it. A stealthy and tense Hitchcockian vibe flows from the title screen to the end credits. Edgerton has given us a crafty thriller made with an impeccable sense of pacing. It is deceptively smart, hypnotically intense, and most importantly it never tips its hand. This is one of the more impressive directorial debuts and Joel Edgerton has exposed himself to be a gifted filmmaker and storyteller. Here’s hoping we get a lot more from him in the future.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Transcendence”

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On paper “Transcendence” sounded like a sure thing. It had an intriguing science fiction premise. It had a fabulous cast featuring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, and Cillian Murphy. It was the directorial debut from one of my favorite cinematographers Wally Pfister. But as with anything you can have some great pieces but that does automatically equal a great whole. That’s certainly the case with “Transcendence”.

Without question “Transcendence” is a film with loads of ambition and some good things to say. It gets off to a good start and lays an interesting foundation. Dr. Will Caster (Depp) is a renowned scientist working on the creation of a sentient artificial intelligence. His devoted wife Evelyn (Hall) is a strong supporter and organizes the funding for his research. His best friend Max (Bettany) is a fellow scientist and an important contributor to Will’s work.

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After speaking at a science and technology convention Will is shot by an anti-technology extremist. The act is part of a series of attacks by a terrorist group known as R.I.F.T. That stands for “Revolutionary Independence From Technology” and if you need something else to make you laugh, one of their weapons of choice is a poisonous birthday cake. Oh, and the bullet used on Will is radioactive. It poisons his blood and with no cure available he is given a month to live.

Desperate to hang onto her husband, Evelyn uploads Will’s consciousness to a super computer. He soon dies but is revived within the computer. Hunted down by R.I.F.T. and their dogged leader Bree (Kate Mara), Evelyn uploads Will to the internet giving him freedom and access to all the web’s information. As with any A.I. (or so we’re told) they survive by getting more information. With Evelyn’s help Will grows more powerful and soon crowds the line between helping the world and overtaking it.

This collision between mankind and technology does provide for some good conversation. There is also a compelling unconventional love story buried within this material. Unfortunately to get much of either you have to navigate through a litany of cavernous plot holes and inconceivable stretches of our imagination. As the movie moves forward we are constantly asked to overlook numerous gaps in logic and in the story itself. The film ends up smothering all of the interesting elements with one narrative blunder after another.

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It also doesn’t help that some of the film’s plot machinations are so incredibly preposterous and implausible. This is frustrating because once again it overshadows the intriguing concepts that do have a lot of promise. We just can’t buy into it all and at times it looks like the cast doesn’t either. I wouldn’t say that they are phoning in their performances. There are moments where they are trying to salvage something from the ramshackle script, especially Hall and Bettany. But no one feels thoroughly engaged or convinced in the material.

Again, “Transcendence” looked good on paper but not in execution. It has so much going for it but it lacks one vital component – a competent script. There is a good story to be found here and I got just enough to be annoyed by the mishandling of it. It did engage me at first and I really liked what the film was going for with its ending. It’s the rocky road in between that makes this a tough movie to recommend. And that’s a shame because this should have and could have been better.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Iron Man 3”

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Marvel Studies’ wildly successful 2012 film “The Avengers” confirmed several things. First, the amazing interconnected universe experiment that started all the way back in the first Iron Man film worked brilliantly. Another thing it did was establish Robert Downey Jr. and his Tony Stark character as the biggest draw of the group. Well now Downey Jr. returns for his third individual Iron Man flick in what’s sure to be another mammoth blockbuster hit. And while hordes of moviegoers and fanboys are sure to flock to it, can “Iron Man 3” continue to build on its already successful formula?

Let me say I loved “Iron Man” from 2008. And while its sequel “Iron Man 2” had its shortcomings, it was still a fun and entertaining entry into Marvel’s cinematic universe and a cool link into the Avengers project. I was really hoping that “Iron Man 3” would more closely resemble the franchise’s first film – a movie that I still think is one of the best superhero films period. But for me it more closely resembled the second picture, perhaps better but only slightly.

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Gwyneth Paltrow in “Iron Man 3”

This is the first Marvel Studios film since “The Avengers” and we do get a few cool references to what took place in New York City. But by and large this is a separate story focused on Tony Stark more so than his metal man persona. The movie starts with a flashback to 1999 where Tony (Downey Jr.) and his best friend Happy (Jon Favreau) are partying it up at a science conference in Switzerland on New Years Eve. Tony, ever the womanizer back in the day, hooks up with a brilliant botanist named Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall). At the party Tony pompously brushes off the wormy Aldrich Killian (Guy Pierce) who approaches Stark with an invitation to join his think tank Advanced Idea Mechanics (comic fans will most certainly recognize A.I.M.). This brief prologue introduces the beautiful Maya and the scorned Killian into the movie’s landscape.

From there the film moves to present day where Tony has found himself a nervous wreck since the alien invasion of New York City (ala “The Avengers”). Battling panic attacks and insomnia, he finds refuge in building Iron Man suits. Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), the cure to Tony’s past life of excess and carousing, begins to feel the effects of Tony’s emotional state. Aside from his personal troubles a Bin Laden-esque terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has claimed responsibility for a series of deadly bombings. When Happy is seriously injured in one of those attacks an infuriated Tony calls The Mandarin out publicly. What follows leaves Tony alone, armorless, and presumed dead with only his brains, wits, and deductive skills to find The Mandarin and stop him.

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Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark

Shane Black directs and co-writes the story that tosses a lot at the audience. Killian pops back into picture in a much better physical condition than when we first see him. We also see Maya again and even though its a pretty small role she holds some rather important bits of information. Don Cheadle gets plenty of screen time as “Rhodey” who dons the more politically sensitive Iron Patriot armor. But everything comes back to Tony Stark and the movie really focuses on the man outside of the Iron Man suit. To some degree I enjoyed that and many have responded to the movie because it tries to look more at the man than the superhero. He’s forced to resort more to his inventive ingenuity much like in the early scenes of the first film.

But if I’m honest I have to say that I don’t know if that’s what I want from an Iron Man superhero movie. Don’t misunderstand me, I love the idea of giving the character some depth. The first film did that well. But considering how much time is spent with Tony outside of the armor, I didn’t feel his character was expanded that much. Downey Jr. certainly gives us another solid performance and I love him in this role. And while the more desperate tone did lessen the number of quick quips and smart-alecky jests, he still pulls in some good laughs especially when partnering with a precocious young boy (Ty Simpkins) who otherwise serves no other purpose than to play his cliched temporary sidekick.

The film does have strong moments and it delivers some pretty hefty payoffs. The tension surrounding The Mandarin really works for most of the movie and there are some big time action sequences that visually blew my socks off. I also loved the work of Guy Pearce in a performance that he himself viewed as “experimental” in a sense. Rebecca Hall was also very good and she had me craving more screen time for her. In fact, the entire cast gives us some really good performances and even when the dialogue occasionally trips over itself they still impress.

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Ben Kingsley as The Mandarin

But I keep coming back to one thing, something stemming from a conscious choice of Shane Black. I wanted to see more of Iron Man in his armor and while the buddy cop elements with Rhodey and the super sleuth angle in small town Tennessee didn’t equal bad cinema, it did leave me anxious for a superhero film that I’m not sure ever came. I don’t want to leave the impression that we never see the armor, but even then many of those moments aren’t Tony Stark at all (I’ll leave it at that). Even with the number of wild explosions and hair-raising action scenes which I thoroughly enjoyed, the movie still didn’t feel quite like the second phase of Marvel’s movie universe.

And I can’t help myself, I have to mention another thing. This film takes Tony Stark and his Iron Man story far away from its comic book source material, farther than either of the other films. For many this is a non-issue, but for a fanboy who sees the original material as better, well let’s just say it’s a shame. And it’s not just the Tony Stark character who is altered. There’s a huge reveal in the second half of the film that obliterates a major part of Iron Man’s history. It’s pushed by some pretty lame attempts at comedy and it drains the film of one of its strongest story angles. Frankly, it didn’t work for me. Black and co-writer Drew Pearce’s choice for a twist combined with several plot holes and the typical maniacal world domination story was a surprising letdown.

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Yes, that’s Pepper Potts

I’m still conflicted about “Iron Man 3” and it’s a film I think I need to rewatch before I can truly cement my overall rating. But I don’t want my gripes to overshadow the fact that I had a lot of fun with the movie. The performances are wonderful and I’m surprised to say that they are what kept me enthralled more so than the action or drama. But the action sequences are for the most part outstanding. There are a few cheesy effects but there are also some of the most jaw-dropping visual sequences yet to come out of Marvel Studios.

So is this just a case of enormous expectations or was I expecting a different movie altogether? Well, a little of both I think. In the end “Iron Man 3” does deliver but it’s certainly not the ‘blow you away’ flick both the fanboy and superhero fan in me was hoping for. Black had a decent vision for this film and he certainly had a wonderful cast. But his overall story direction is lacking and his shredding of key source material took away from what he did right. I’m afraid that’s what is keeping me from fully embracing this movie. It’s certainly a fun time, but in a way it was a little disappointing.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”

Many critics touted “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” as Woody Allen’s return to quality filmmaking after a few clear misses. I have to say I was with them, at least for the first half of the film. But that’s when Allen’s story started to undo everything I had bought into. His sharp locational eye beautifully captures the Spanish architecture and countryside and his good-looking characters lay the groundwork for a promising story. But the movie is never as funny or as clever as it tries to be and it ultimately falls apart in its nonsensical third act.

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a romantic comedy that takes a rather cynical look at romance. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and her friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are spending the summer in Barcelona. Vicky holds what you might call a more traditional look at relationships. She is grounded, sure of what she wants, and engaged to a preppy young business man back home. Cristina is somewhat of a free spirit, prone to dive into love and life headfirst regardless of the consequences. One of the more compelling things about the friends is that they are so opposite at first. Hall and Johansson have some great moments together bouncing their own perspectives and idiosyncrasies off each other. They start off as genuinely interesting and believable best friends.

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Their summer takes an interesting turn when they meet Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem), a struggling artist who invites the girls to spend the weekend with him in the city of Oviedo. Vicky is against the idea but Cristina sees it as intriguing. The stronger spirit wins out and the three take off. Over the weekend the relationships between the three grow more complex. But things go from complex to nutty when Juan Antonio’s neurotic ex-wife María Elena (Penelope Cruz) enters the picture. All four of the main stars are fantastic. Cruz, who won the Best Supporting Actress for the role, gives the movie some energy just as it was starting to lag. But even she is undermined by Allen’s off-the-wall final act which seems to make everything earlier feel disingenuous.

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For me the biggest casualty of Allen’s uneven story is the unique difference between Vicky and Cristina. By the end of the film I didn’t feel that were that unique at all. Even when Cristina becomes involved in an absurd love triangle, the Vicky character, who I thought was more grounded and level-headed, responds in a way that seemed inconsistent with who she has been. Some may attribute that to an evolution of her character but I think the movie goes on to show that she isn’t as deep of a character as she appears to be at first. I also didn’t find the film nearly as funny as others. Sure it has a few dry quirky moments, but it’s real attempt at humor falls flat particularly in the second half of the film. This truly is a tale of two movies in one.

Some have felt the movie promotes the pursuit of love and happiness and the idea that romance may be fleeting but it’s worth the effort. I feel it looks at love through a very pessimistic and sometimes skewed lens. There’s no denying that “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a beautiful movie. The gorgeous Barcelona sights and sounds and the attention to the culture creates the perfect environment for what could have been. For me “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” wasn’t the summer to remember. Although it might have been if the second half of the film was as good as the first.

VERDICT – 2 STARS