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The Big Sick (2017)
Placebo for Serious Issues
Like most comedies, The Big Sick is a soft drama spiced up with some humorous moments. The characters and story possess some originality and relevance, but the film's effect might well have been more memorable if it hadn't focused principally on laughs. The actors deliver good to excellent performances, but their efforts can't lift the material above the level of frivolous entertainment.
The plot tells how a Pakistani-American stand-up comedian meets a blonde psychology student when she heckles him during one of his stage shows, and they begin an affair. After a while she discovers his family are pressing him to choose a Muslim bride for a traditional arranged marriage, and she breaks up with him for concealing this part of his life from her. A short time later, she suffers a serious infection, and while keeping vigil at her hospital bedside, he meets her parents and realizes he's still deeply attached to her. Despite the intense emotional content - love, mortality, family and cultural differences - the film never escapes the clutches of the light comedy genre.
Beatriz at Dinner (2017)
Dinner Party from Hell
Mike White enjoys setting up situations where outsiders are thrust into encounters with mismatched companions. In 'Beatriz at Dinner', Beatriz is a cash-strapped, alternative health practitioner whose car breaks down at the luxurious residence of a wealthy client. Stranded for the night in her employer's gated ghetto of privilege, Beatriz is invited to join a dinner party which is being held to celebrate a successful business deal with a rapacious property developer.
Having assembled his discordant ingredients, White seems short of ideas how to cook them up into a satisfying meal. Excruciating awkwardness combined with a threatening undercurrent doesn't add up to much more than melodrama. Beneath her know-it-all, holistic healer facade, Beatriz is depressed, isolated and unstable - and may also be a total fraud. Her interactions with the condescending money-obsessed guests vaporize her mask of serenity and amplify her alienation. The actors do what they can, but ultimately they're let down by the story's arc as the film's blackly comedic scenes play out in a repetitive manner. As the evening nears its conclusion, despite having several other options on the table, White serves up a dessert course which is out of character, histrionic and unbelievable.
Their Finest (2016)
Marooned in Mediocrity
'Their Finest' is neither fish nor fowl, never making up its mind whether it wants to be a satirical comedy, love story or feminist tract. In more skillful hands, perhaps it could have been all of these, but director Scherfig steers a muddled course from the beginning, and the project remains marooned in the doldrums throughout the proceedings.
The story tells how a British production team and film crew make a wartime movie about the Dunkirk evacuation which is intended to raise domestic spirits and impress Americans. As far as the comedic aspect is concerned, there are some scattered breezes of ho-hum humor, but they aren't sufficient to raise the entertainment barometer above the level of a mildly sophisticated sit-com. Meanwhile, the romantic element seems like a tacked-on afterthought, along with the sub-plot of female empowerment. Arterton, Nighy and the rest of the cast do their best with the material, but they are always fighting a losing battle against the soporific screenplay and dull direction.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
Blood and Boredom in Space
'Covenant' is an improvement after the debacle of 'Prometheus', but demonstrates yet again how the 'Alien' series has become creatively bankrupt. By now, most movie fans will be familiar with the obligatory arc of an 'Alien' screenplay - a group of bungling space travelers encounter a vicious drooling alien who dispatches most of them to gruesome deaths. In the old days, a resourceful female battled the beast, but now the heroines are reduced to sniveling and screaming at it.
'Covenant' doesn't disappoint these low-level expectations. Its characters are slightly less irritating and better developed than the collection of nincompoops floundering around in the underground labyrinth of 'Prometheus - but the latest batch of victims make equally foolish choices whenever they're presented with a decision to make. Besides repeating plot ideas, the franchise now shamelessly recycles scenes and characters. Among many other old tropes, "Covenant' revisits the treacherous android routine, and summons up another violent storm to isolate the unfortunate astronauts. The crew's grisly deaths come thick and fast, leaving little time to create tension, which made the original film so exceptional. Director Scott has lost any feel for this element as he hurries from one gory demise to the next, creating a production line of violence, panic and bloody entrails. The tale's major twist, which is also its feeble attempt at a deep philosophical idea, gets lost in the mayhem. When it's all over, the chief impression is of silliness and tedium.
Personal Shopper (2016)
Shopping for Belief
'Personal Shopper' begins with a young medium called Maureen checking out the country house of her recently deceased twin brother for malevolent spirits. After this opening sequence, she returns to Paris where she works as personal shopper for a spoiled socialite called Kyra. Maureen has the same heart condition which killed her sibling, and despite extra-sensory perception, the loss of her twin has left her with weakened faith in an afterlife. As a consequence, Maureen endures humiliation from Kyra and separation from her boyfriend because she believes the city where her brother had died is the most likely location for a visitation from the spirit world.
For a while the story proceeds at a leisurely pace with few of the usual melodramas of a ghost story. Tension gathers slowly with a background sense of unease until Maureen starts receiving ominous messages on her cellphone from an unknown source. This development increases the film's pace and danger, while also pushing it toward another genre. 'Personal Shopper' doesn't achieve greatness, but it does deliver some fairly sophisticated entertainment, a nice performance from Kristen Stewart and a satisfyingly ambiguous ending.
The Promise (2016)
Love amid Genocide
A love triangle set against the backdrop of the Armenian genocide in Turkey should deliver an intense experience, but in this case historical events overwhelm the romantic element and render it trivial. This imbalance dilutes the dramatic effect of 'The Promise', and transforms it into a propaganda exercise. The trio of lovers are Mickael, Chris and Ana - an Armenian medical student, an American journalist and a Franco-Armenian dance teacher, whose paths cross in Istanbul as Turkey enters the 1st World War. The two males with crucial professions are soon competing for the favors of the party-loving Parisian, and the three principals develop a tangled relationship.
The story somewhat resembles the epic sweep of Dr Zhivago, but its dual agenda skims over both political and amorous aspects as the action zigzags across Turkey. The screenplay consistently portrays the Armenians as noble and courageous, while the Turks are mostly depicted as bullies and murderers. It addresses the issues behind the genocide only superficially when a Turkish official dismisses the Armenian community as a cancer within the nation. The romantic intrigues are given similarly shallow treatment, as Ana flits from one man to the other and back again, shedding a few tears on the way. The Armenian holocaust and the suffering of its victims deserve something far better than this lightweight melodrama.
Out of the Furnace (2013)
Out of the Corn Factory
'Out of the Furnace' shows how fine acting can temporarily conceal serious shortcomings in a film. For about twenty minutes, Christian Bale's performance suggests this tale of brotherly love and Rust Belt revenge might have somewhere to go, but the story slides swiftly into cliché and sentimentality. The introduction depicts steelworker Russell slaving at the mill, tending his dying dad and murmuring sweet nothings into his girlfriend's ear. Meanwhile his unstable Iraq-vet sibling Rodney drinks, fights and gambles himself deeper into trouble and debt. The brothers act out their relationship with good-guy Russell constantly bailing out bad-boy Rodney, as a troop of low-life villains and blue collar stalwarts wait in the wings for their cues.
By the time Russell's saintly selflessness has cost him his sweetheart and a stretch in the slammer, this formulaic film has lost all credibility. While the long-suffering hero is locked up in the joint, Rodney gets out of his depth with some toothless meth-dealing hillbillies - and after Russell is released, he finds himself obliged to settle scores with the rural racketeers. After that set-up, any fool with Final Draft on his laptop could write the last half of this stale potboiler.
Phoenix Forgotten (2017)
The Blair Witch Copycat Project
In the literary world, plagiarism can end a career - in the movie industry, it's just another way to fleece the public. The makers of 'Phoenix Forgotten' show off their cynicism and creative bankruptcy by churning out an anemic Sci-Fi version of 'The Blair Witch Project' without offering a single moment of originality.
In this lifeless re-tread, three teenagers disappear when they go hunting for UFOs after some lights are seen in the Arizona skies. Twenty years later, a documentary film-maker discovers a video tape which suggests what happened to them. The Blair Witch copycatting is shameless - a trio of high-schoolers are substituted for three college students - invisible ETs in the Southwest desert stand in for an unseen poltergeist in rural Maryland - spooky aliens moan in the darkness instead of a malevolent backwoods spook. Apart from these minor variations, the two films' plots and climaxes are uncannily similar as both threesomes get lost, bicker and panic in identical fashion. The second-rate script, third-rate acting, fourth-rate direction and fifth-rate shaky camera fakery of 'Phoenix Forgotten' are all inferior imitations of the original. The movie runs for 80 minutes, but feels a lot longer - and should be avoided at all costs.
Life as a Poem
'Paterson' doesn't have a complicated plot - it simply observes a week in the work and leisure time of a NJ bus driver called Paterson who lives in the town of Paterson and writes poems as a hobby. Paterson's daily routine has few variations - he rises early, eats breakfast and walks through sunny streets to the bus garage. During the day he drives around the city, listening to passengers' exchanges, before returning home. After eating dinner with his wife Laura, he walks her dog to a local bar and engages in low-key conversations with the owner and other patrons.
Much of the credit for the film's success goes to the two lead actors, who portray a contrasting couple in a sweetly balanced relationship. Laura provides the love and magic in Paterson's life with her quirky passions for black-and-white interior design, cupcakes, music and his poetry. In return, he supplies patience, support and devotion. The minimalist narrative has the flavor of a Zen-like visual poem, an impression which is confirmed by Paterson's encounter with a Japanese poet near the end. The film reflects a tendency in contemporary poetry to focus on mundane details, which accumulate to produce an artful tapestry. Somehow these basic ingredients result in a satisfying flavorful dish.
Alien Out to Lunch
'Life' has state-of-the-art production values, but its sophomoric science and scientists would be sneered at by kindergartners. The story begins badly when a robot probe with a cargo of soil samples from Mars arrives at the International Space Station in absurdly melodramatic fashion. The follies continue inside the station's 'fail-safe' isolation lab, after a biologist revives a Martian organism which has been in suspended animation for the last 3 billion years. The tiny creature seems cute at first and is named Calvin, but he soon escapes with embarrassing ease from his orbiting Supermax prison. Like any toddler, Calvin starts to misbehave.
What follows is an 'Alien' copycat plot, except with generic characters, dull dialog and a total absence of original ideas. In a matter of hours, Calvin bulks up into a starfish-squid hybrid with the strength of a gorilla, the intelligence of a chess grand-master and the empathetic capacity of a cobra. He evades the hapless crew and begins doling out a varied menu of pain, panic and unpleasant death. After he shows off impregnable natural defenses and demonstrates his ability to scamper about the station's exterior in a vacuum, all the smart money should have been backing him against the dim-witted astronauts. By the end of the film, Darwin himself would have been cheering on Calvin's quest to reach planet Earth and make a luncheon buffet out of humanity.