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Updated: 2018-03-23T08:55:00-05:00


Pacific Rim Uprising


I'm writing this review in a hurry because every hour I wait makes it harder to remember "Pacific Rim Uprising."  On a craft level, this sequel to Guillermo del Toro's monsters-versus-biomechanical warriors saga "Pacific Rim" isn't terrible. At the very least, it doesn't stint on images of huge things crashing into other huge things, as well as collateral damage in the form of cratering streets, collapsing buildings, and panicked civilians (who are shown racing away from the mayhem but rarely being hurt or killed). Set ten years later, the movie showcases giant gundam, or jägers, fighting a new kind of kaiju (I won't go into details because it would spoil one of the film's only surprises) and, for variety, jägers battling other jägers. Younger kids might like it, and it's probably a safer bet for that age group than the "Transformers" films, which are strangely filled with racist and sexist images as well as a needlessly sleazy undertone. And the cast is filled with actors doing everything they can to make their characters as memorable as possible even when the script (credited to four people) isn't lending them the support they deserve. John Boyega, in particular, saves long stretches of the movie just by being his appealing self. Ever since "The Force Awakens," he's been honing a screen persona that owes a lot to the late James Garner—a funny, cynical survivor who makes a point of avoiding unnecessary fights and keeping one eye on the exit at all times, but who also has a buried streak of righteous honor that surfaces during dire moments. He's operating in that mode here, playing Jake Pentecost, the pilot-turned-scrapper son of the original film's inspirational warrior-guru Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). But there are two major problems, and the movie never manages to overcome either of them. One is that the whole sequel storyline feels like a sad afterthought to the original, which saw various two-person crews of misfit eccentrics overcoming their animosities and neuroses to become one mind, operate their machines, and bash, smash and burn giant beasts who'd slipped through a dimensional portal at the bottom of the sea. To its credit, this sequel from director Steven S. DeKnight (TV's "Spartacus") doesn't just decide, "Well, the portal that we thought we'd closed is open again, and there are more monsters, so everybody saddle up," because that would've been as lame as the plot of the  "Independence Day" sequel. But what the movie does come up with has been built out in a halfhearted, clumsy manner that underlines the cynical nature of the exercise: a plot involving the rush to deploy jäger drones overseen by the shadowy Shao Corporation, which has been getting a little too close to the jäger brains that its top secret research depends on. There are supporting turns by returning characters, including Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), the "Pacific Rim" pilot who subsequently became an important world leader, and oddball scientists Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Dr. Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day). The latter moves to the center of the story thanks to his kaiju mind-meld in the first film. Now he's the co-chief of the Shao Corporation's drone development program alongside Liwen Shao (Jing Tian of "Kong: Skull Island" and "The Great Wall"). While Day doesn't have the gravitas for what he's been asked to do here, his oddball intensity is a welcome contrast with the earnestness displayed elsewhere (Scott Eastwood's snarling pilot Nate Lambert being an especially one-note example). An orphaned street urchin turned juvenile pilot named Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) is also regrettably indistinct—essentially a retread of Mako Mori with a few years knocked off her age, ready-made for big brother-little sister or surrogate father-daughter bonding. It's not the actress' fault that the movie mistakes gritted teeth and cartoon spunk for a personality. Which brings us to the second problem: no Del Toro. Even at their liveliest, these performers can only do so much without the originator at the helm. Th[...]

Isle of Dogs


The dogs are very furry.  The look of the animal “actors” in “Isle of Dogs” is the film’s best feature. At times, it's hard to resist the urge to muss the imperfect fur that has been painstakingly rendered by director Wes Anderson’s animators. Especially if you’re a dog lover. As in “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” the stop-motion creatures take on the facial characteristics of the actors who play them, adding a comfortable layer of familiarity. Unlike that Roald Dahl adaptation, “Isle of Dogs” does not have a compelling story, and even worse, it has the most egregious examples of its director’s privilege since “The Darjeeling Limited.” This movie really pissed me off, and the only thing I found soothing while watching it was silently repeating to myself “the dogs are very furry.” Reminding myself of the film’s best asset kept me from walking out. Anderson has gone on record citing the influence of legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki on “Isle of Dogs.” Films like “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro” depict Miyazaki’s visions of Japan in ways that are both awe-inspiringly beautiful and terrifying. Even in his least successful ventures, the attention to world-building detail is staggering. You would think Anderson would be the perfect director to pay homage to this master of animation; no other director working today has a bigger compulsion for visuals than Anderson. But unlike the warm Miyazaki, Anderson is a very cold director. He keeps everything at an annoying hipster’s ironic distance, valuing aesthetics over meaning and context. This may work in the spaces of Anderson’s meticulously crafted universe of films like “Rushmore” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” but “Isle of Dogs” is set in an actual foreign country whose culture and traditions Anderson unwisely commandeers. The results are cringe-worthy. “Isle of Dogs” takes place in Anderson’s rather skewed interpretation of Japan. It’s a place where every explosion is rendered as a cutesy mushroom cloud and the public speeches always include haiku. It’s also a place where man’s best friend has been banished due to a dangerous outbreak of “dog flu,” which is apparently harmful to humankind. However, instead of being euthanized, each infected canine is dropped on a trash-filled island that evokes memories of “Wall-E.” As a show of solidarity with dismayed dog owners throughout the city of Megasaki, its mayor deports his own dog, Spots (voice of Liev Schreiber). Spots is the first of many dogs who will inhabit Trash Island, and he is the only one who’s privy to a rescue mission from the mainland. 12-year old Atari (voice of Koyu Rankin) is the mayor’s ward, an orphan whose parents were killed in a tragic accident. Spots was his companion and his security detail. He and Atari wore earpieces which served as a tracking device. Atari plans to use his earpiece to help him find his beloved pet. After crash landing his plane on the island, Atari meets the group of alpha dogs who serve as the film’s main characters. They’re a motley crew to say the least, and despite being born and raised in Japan, they don’t understand Japanese at all. There’s the leader Chief (voice of Bryan Cranston) who fancies himself the group’s leader despite the group’s reliance on democratically deciding every decision. (Chief always takes the only contrarian vote, rendering him powerless.) There’s also former sports mascot Boss (voice of Bill Murray), who is still wearing his team’s jersey, and mustachioed former dog food commercial star King (voice of Bob Balaban). Scarlett Johansson shows up in a thankless role as the only female dog to have any dialogue. Chief calls her a bitch at one point, which I suppose is accurate as far as Webster’s is concerned. Rounding out the alpha dog crew are Rex (voice of Edward Norton) and Duke (voice of Jeff Goldblum), who is so gossipy he puts Wendy Williams, Benita Butrell and TMZ to shame. When not getting information from a pug [...]



Steven Soderbergh’s “Unsane” opens from the perspective of a stalker. We hear in voiceover how the object of his affection made him see the world in a completely new way. And make no mistake. This woman is an “object” to this man, someone who does not have her own agency or reality outside of what she can do for him. We will later learn that the stalker is a man named David Strine (Joshua Leonard) and the woman is Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy), whom he met while she was caring for David’s father in his final days. He became obsessed with her because of the comfort she provided his father, and, by extension, David. In other words, she became an object that made him feel good and so he felt a truly one-sided connection, as they often are with stalkers. On the surface, “Unsane” is a potboiler, a routine stalker thriller. But it works because of how much there is going on within that familiar structure, courtesy of Jonathan Bernstein & James Greer’s smart script, Soderbergh’s claustrophobic direction, and Claire Foy’s committed lead performance. Sawyer has been traumatized by her experience with David, and it’s impacted her professional and personal life in a way that has made her seek treatment. She goes to a facility, tells her story, and fills out a few forms. Before she knows it, she’s being asked to hand over her personal belongings and asked to strip. She’s going to have to stay for at least 24 hours for observation. Of course, she freaks out, trying to get a hold of her mother (Amy Irving), and even calling the police. When she mistakes an orderly for her stalker and strikes him, her “sentence” is increased to seven days. She meets a threatening patient named Violet (Juno Temple) and a supportive one named Nate (Jay Pharoah), who tells her that she’s basically part of an insurance scam, in which hospitals like this one admit patients just to get money from their providers. As if all of this wouldn’t be nightmare enough, Sawyer is startled to see David handing out medication to the patients. At first, he claims to have no idea who Sawyer is, and her admissions of trauma allow those around her to easily disbelieve her claims that her stalker has infiltrated the hospital at which she’s staying. There’s a fascinating subtext that's woven through "Unsane" about listening to women when they tell you something wrong. The first doctor that Sawyer goes to in a panic when she realizes she has to stay doesn’t get off the phone right away to talk to her; an attorney that Sawyer’s mother calls for help hangs up without waiting for questions or even saying goodbye; and even the new role in which Sawyer may or may not be seeing David is that of a controlling male: someone literally drugging the people under his care so they’ll behave in the way they want him to. Without overplaying the gender dynamics in “Unsane,” Bernstein, Greer, and Soderbergh have something to say about controlling, unlistening, needy men. (And there’s another commentary on the failure of our healthcare system that ties this work to “Logan Lucky,” which also undeniably had that theme.) And they say it with a daring new visual style. “Unsane” was shot on an iPhone and has a crazy aspect ratio of 1.56:1. It’s somewhere in between an old-fashioned full-frame ratio and a traditional widescreen, creating a boxy look that perfectly suits a film about someone who’s essentially trapped. Once again, Soderbergh presents such a remarkable economy of visual language, as he does in almost all of his work. It doesn’t feel like there’s a wasted shot here. (If anything, it feels like a few scenes could have used a bit more material.) For the most part, “Unsane” is lean and mean, giving you just what you need to stick with it. And the visual style has an immediacy that adds to the intensity, especially in early scenes when confusion reigns and most of all in a fantastic sequence that has already been called “The Blue Ro[...]

Midnight Sun


“Midnight Sun” does what it means to do for the people it means to do it for—and that might just be enough. The 12-year-old girls who are the film’s target audience probably won’t realize what it’s derivative of: a little bit of John Hughes and a lot of “Love Story.” “Midnight Sun” also bears more than a slight resemblance to last summer’s Young Adult drama “Everything, Everything,” in which a rare disease supposedly spells doom for a blossoming teen romance. (Director Scott Speer’s film is actually based on a 2006 Japanese film of the same name.) Xeroderma pigmentosum—a one-in-a-million skin ailment that makes exposure to the sun’s rays potentially deadly—wouldn’t necessarily sound like the sexiest starting point for a life-changing love. But “Midnight Sun” has the benefit of photogenic, charismatic co-stars in Bella Thorne and Patrick Schwarzenegger, who have enough likability and chemistry to make this high school weepy more tolerable than it ought to be—for a while, at least, until it goes off the rails and turns unbearably schmaltzy in the third act. Both actors are gorgeous, of course, which heightens the romantic fantasy of it all, but there's also a naturalism to them that's appealing. Thorne brings her well-honed Disney Channel comic timing to the role of Katie Price, a bright and talented young woman whose condition—XP, for short—has kept her cooped up during the daytime for the vast majority of her 17 years. (The script from Eric Kirsten allows Katie to explain her situation quickly and efficiently in narration off the top.) Katie’s widower dad (Rob Riggle, solid in a rare dramatic role) has taken every precaution to protect her from sunlight, from heavy-duty tinted windows in the house and minivan to extra security on the front door. We learn in an early conversation between him and Katie’s doctor that it’s actually a miracle she’s lived this long. But out that fortified, second-floor bedroom window, Katie has spied on her neighbor, Charlie (Schwarzenegger in his first lead role), skateboarding down the street every day for as long as she can remember and adored him from afar. On high school graduation night—which Katie and her dad commemorate with their own home-school version—she and Charlie finally meet cute at the train station in their quiet suburb, where she’s allowed to sing and play guitar at night and he just happens to be passing by on the way home from a party. Understandably, she tries to keep her disease a secret from him over a series of nighttime dates, just to experience the joy of feeling like a normal person for once. This would be a good opportunity to stop and acknowledge how impossibly wholesome “Midnight Sun” is, but that’s also what makes it kinda refreshing. The movie exists in an alternate universe in which the hunkiest, most popular guy in school also happens to be smart and sensitive—and of course, he prefers the sweet, sheltered Katie to the beautiful, bitchy cheerleader who’s after him. He’s a modern-day Jake Ryan. All these characters ever do is share chaste kisses and—at most—go night swimming in their underwear. Even the obligatory raging kegger is shockingly bereft of house trashing and projectile vomiting. But taken to an extreme, that sweetness can be cringe-inducing, as in the scene in which Katie finally gets the guts to busk in front of a crowd when Charlie takes her out on a big-city date in Seattle. People of all ages and ethnicities suddenly appear, clapping and bopping and smiling at each other as she sings her peppy pop song. It was hard to look at it head-on—I almost needed one of those shoeboxes with a pinhole in it, like you’d use to view an eclipse. And that’s just a harbinger of things to come as Katie’s body deteriorates, but her magical powers of love and inspiration seem to grow exponentially by comparison. Having sai[...]

Sherlock Gnomes


Credit where credit is due, “Gnomeo and Juliet” got the job done, in terms of cutesy animated projects built around puns involving lawn trinkets. An irreverent and poppy take that admittedly did not end in double suicide, “Gnomeo and Juliet” volleyed cynicism by leaning into the cuteness that comes with such a title, and sprinkled in lots of dancing, Elton John songs, and cheesy puns. It even had a nice montage of a human marriage imploding, as witnessed by two flamingos (you know, for the adults). And when a Shakespeare statue (voiced by Patrick Stewart) told Gnomeo about the real ending of the story, it was kind of funny.  Believe it or not, “Sherlock Gnomes” does not share the integrity of its predecessor. It all starts, again, with how the pun is executed: this story imagines the famous detective as being too arrogant and selfish to his friend Watson and other gnomes. On top of this, this central character is brought to life with hoity-toity-ness by Johnny Depp, whose pretentiousness only seems like a joke when the script is intensely making fun of that attitude (as in “Mortdecai”). With little wit to its name, “Sherlock Gnomes” becomes far more tedious than playful.  After the contained backyard chaos of “Gnomeo and Juliet,” the now-franchise takes to the streets of London for a mystery that Sherlock Gnomes and his assistant Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) must solve. Someone has stolen all of the gnomes in London, with the trinkets vanishing randomly in the night. This includes gnomes like Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine), Lady Blueberry (Maggie Smith), Mrs. Montague (Julie Walters), a fawn voiced by Ozzy Osbourne, and more. Much of the main cast returns, especially Gnomeo (James McAvoy) and Juliet (Emily Blunt), who are now imagined as an seasoned married couple that have lost touch.  I should say at this point that I know that this movie was not made primarily for someone like me. So, I am pleased to report that the most consistent piece of amusement for the crowd I saw (of primary demographic) was the gnome who wears sunglasses and a pink bikini. A close-up shot of his butt got the biggest laugh.  Anywho, thinking that it’s his adversary Moriarty (now imagined as a puffy yellow pie mascot with a sharp-toothed grin and lame meta villain jokes, as voiced by Jamie Demetriou), the overly proud Holmes, his dutiful Watson and Gnomeo and Juliet venture around London, with 24 hours to find the gnomes before they are smashed. Despite these stakes, the story’s sense of adventure is weak, something that I bet kids will notice (or feel in their boredom). As they go from place to place, the script harps upon the tension within the two pairings, especially that of how cruel Holmes is to Watson, which makes for a tediously conveyed message about not taking for granted those who support you. Nonetheless, the greatest challenge for these gnomes seem to be humans noticing their sentience, but would it be so bad if the gnomes were noticed? Or would that bring about a gnome apocalypse?  While the humor is certainly for kiddies and the story can’t even muster a good twist in spite of its inspiration (there is even a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to Steven Moffat’s “Sherlock”), the animation is more than serviceable in bringing the figures to life. There’s an impressive detail to many of them, especially the shininess and the wear they individually have. It’s just a case of what they do with them, which in this case is put them in a dull adventure. Opening up this now-franchise to small figures navigating a whole city just shows its “Toy Story” roots more nakedly, but with forgettable characters dancing or fighting from one set-piece to the next. The wildest creative ideas here are the locations, including a teeth-gnashing visit to a Chinatown shop filled with maneki-nekos (the fortune cats that look like they’re waving),[...]

Game Over, Man!


The stoner comedy style refined by Anders Holm, Blake Anderson and Adam DeVine on the Comedy Central hit “Workaholics” for seven seasons has moved to Netflix and gotten even raunchier, crazier, and more defiantly crazy. “Workaholics” meets “Die Hard” in the comedy “Game Over, Man!,” an admirably stupid affair that amply displays the abilities of its comedic collaborators in a way that elevates it above many other Netflix original comedies but a movie that probably works better if you’re seriously drunk or high. It’s often clunky and often offensive, but there are moments that remind one how often “Workaholics” was pretty damn funny in the way it captured a certain kind of man-child who can’t leave the drunk/high/horny culture of college life behind even when they graduate to a cubicle. It will work best for those lamenting the cancellation of the Comedy Central hit that spawned it, but probably not much for anyone else. “Game Over, Man!” stars Holm, DeVine, and Anderson as three relatively interchangeable bros who work housekeeping at a fancy hotel. In their spare time, they work on a tech project called Skintendo, which is sort of a virtual reality thing, but they really use most of their time to get high and act like idiots (sort of like they did on “Workaholics”). Leaning into the personalities developed on that show, Holm is the de facto leader of the group, mostly due to his ego, and Anderson is the sweeter, smarter member of the trio. DeVine is the borderline lunatic once again, giving the actor the chance to show off his physical comedy chops, and his willingness to do absolutely anything to get a laugh. The action of the comedy takes place on the night of a major party at the rooftop bar of the hotel, hosted by the insanely popular and insanely wealthy Bey Awadi (Utkarsh Ambudkar). Just as the guys are mustering up the courage to present Bey with their tech startup idea “Shark Tank”-style, a group of high-powered assassins (led by Neal McDonough and Rhona Mitra) take over the party. They’re going to hold Bey and his party goers hostage, including a hotel employee played by Aya Cash of “You’re the Worst,” until they get millions of dollars transferred to their account. Our heroes stumble into a plan to stop them and save the hostages. To say that “Game Over, Man!” thrives on extreme comedy would be an understatement. Imagine the envelope-pushing humor of “Workaholics” with no concern about offending advertisers. A few of the more extreme sequences in “Game Over, Man!” feature autoerotic asphyxiation, attempts to torture Bey by making him toss another man’s salad, and a severed penis used as a prop. It’s the kind of thing that could send a conservative viewer to the hospital with cardiac arrest. I am far from a traditionally conservative viewer when it comes to comedy, but even I rolled my eyes at the ridiculousness of this whole enterprise a few times. On the one hand, there’s something admirable about being willing to do anything for a joke. On the other, extremity isn’t funny on its own unless you’re really high. More problematic is how often “Game Over, Man!” sabotages its best bits. There’s a funny, extreme beat in which DeVine’s character chooses to “hide” by pretending to have choked himself to death with his dick in his hand in a closet. But then that bit is followed up by some pretty extreme homophobia. The “Workaholics” brand of humor often pushes a joke past its breaking point—where it goes from funny to annoying. And that happens more than once in “Game Over, Man!” The best bits are often the quickest ones, including a scene with Shaggy that is undeniably funny, and the times when the comedians are just riffing off each other. And the movie gets markedly funnier as the pace picks up because of the plot. Early scenes that go on way too long—there’s [...]

Ismael's Ghosts


I’ve seen “Ismael’s Ghosts” twice, and both times I got the feeling that I was missing something. The film feels very personal, as if writer-director Arnaud Desplechin were sorting out his thoughts, processes and demons onscreen. This notion became even more apparent when, after initially playing at Cannes in a shorter cut, Desplechin felt compelled to present a longer, slightly reworked director’s cut for general release. I have not seen the Cannes cut, but I am told that this version is richer, deeper and more introspective. Regardless of the cut, one can more deeply understand “Ismael’s Ghosts” if one goes into it armed with firsthand knowledge of the director’s oeuvre.  This presented a slight dilemma for me, as I am not very familiar with Arnaud Desplechin. I’ve seen only two of his other works, neither of which lent much insight into cracking “Ismael’s Ghosts.” As your humble reviewer I felt a bit torn; on the one hand, there’s the question of how much did I know about the larger body of work to which this film occasionally refers, and when did I know it. On the other hand, this is a review, not a dissertation. My job is to assess this film, not its prerequisites. When you buy your ticket to “Ismael’s Ghosts,” all you’re getting is “Ismael’s Ghosts.” I’m not sure if my rating would be any different if I were an expert on Desplechin. In fact, I think it might have been lower, because being in the dark gave me a better connection to what I believe the director wanted me to feel.  “Ismael’s Ghosts” is about things that are missing, whether it’s a lost love or a creative idea perilously out of one’s reach due to writer’s block. Both of these present problems for director Ismael Vuillard (Mathieu Amalric). He is in the middle of creating his latest movie, a violent yarn about a spy named Ivan (Louis Garrel, whose father Phillipe also makes films that often reference one another). Ivan’s adventures occasionally take over the narrative—we see footage Ismael has shot as well as half-formed ideas that exist only in his head. Desplechin drops these moments in without warning, initially undercutting our grasp on the narrative. Ivan’s world is clearly not real, but it overlaps with Ismael’s reality, blurring the lines on what we should take at face value. We become purposefully aware that we are watching a movie. Once Desplechin has us focused on the theatricality of “Ismael’s Ghosts” he presents the aforementioned missing lost love. Ismael’s wife, Carlotta (Marion Cotillard, very good here), disappeared without warning twenty years ago. Since then, her mystery has haunted Ismael and driven her aging father, Henri (László Szabó) somewhat mad. Ismael maintains a relationship with Henri, presumably because the shared trauma of Carlotta’s disappearance forever binds them. Ismael has even declared Carlotta dead, filing paperwork in that regard with the records bureau. Henri blames Ismael for Carlotta’s absence, thinking, as most fathers would, that his daughter was an angel who could do no wrong. Unlike Ismael, he is blissfully unaware of his daughter’s constant philandering during her marriage. When Carlotta shows up, we think the movie might be playing tricks on us. Is this a figment of Ismael’s imagination? Then she speaks with Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), Ismael’s current girlfriend. Sylvia recognizes her from the large painting hanging in Ismael’s house, a painting that evokes old studio system-era gothic romantic mysteries like “Laura” and “Rebecca.” Carlotta nonchalantly tells Sylvia she has come back to claim what is rightfully hers, and plans to do so while completely ignoring the 20 years she has been gone. Sylvia brings Carlotta back to Ismael’s house, where her presence unleashes all manner of emotional and psychological hell. Ismael runs t[...]

Final Portrait



The writer James Lord was a chronicler of 20th century art who not infrequently befriended the artists he wrote about. In 1964, in Paris, the sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti asked Lord to sit for a portrait. What the artist had originally pitched as a day’s work wound up taking almost three weeks. Not an eternity by any stretch of the imagination, but an inconvenience, and a meaty experience, one out of which Lord forged a memoir entitled “A Giacometti Portrait.”

“Final Portrait” is an adaptation of that memoir written and directed by Stanley Tucci. Like a couple of other directorial efforts from Tucci, who’s primarily known as an actor, this is a picture about process. His 1996 “Big Night” is the story of the making of an epic meal; 2000’s “Joe Gould’s Secret” is a dual portrait of two writers with very different approaches to work (and very different results).

Giacometti, a self-described “Italian Swiss” now ensconced in a ramshackle mini-compound containing studio and living quarters in Paris, is played with shambolic gruffness by Geoffrey Rush. Armie Hammer’s straight-standing, composed James Lord seems the artist’s polar opposite, but the two have a kinship—Lord has a deep understanding of Giacometti’s artistic language.

Still, the artist’s relentless self-doubt puzzles Lord. Lord protests that Giacometti’s success ought to have erased that. Quite the contrary, the artist observes: “What better breeding ground for self-doubt than success?” The trappings of success mean little to him, either. He makes millions of francs in sales, but almost literally throws it away; what he doesn’t, he hides in various nook of his studio.

As Alberto begins, erases, and again begins the portrait, James interrogates not just the artist but his brother and assistant Diego (Tony Shalhoub), his dutiful, very drawn-looking wife Annette (Sylvie Testud). Another presence is Caroline (Clémence Poésy), a local prostitute with whom the artist is highly invested, to the point of buying her a sporty new BMW.

The movie is a minimally lovely treat to look at. Tucci and cinematographer Danny Cohen desaturate the colors at the beginning, giving the movie a black-and-slate-gray look from which blues and reds try to fight their way into the viewer’s perception. The evening scenes, many of them spent at Giacometti’s local, Café Adrien, have a golden warmth. The mobile camera, which on occasion becomes a trifle too shaky, negotiates the artist’s studio with a crafty curiosity.

This movie is a chamber piece, and even at its modest 90-minute running time, it gets a trifle repetitious—Alberto picks up the brush again, James sits down, the camera produces a series of extreme close-ups of James’ face (it’s the head that the artist has the most trouble with). It’s a nice face, with excellent pores, but, you know. Still, the depictions of artistic struggle and mania, the communication of the artist’s frequently painful bubble, are insightful and rewarding. The warts-and-all depiction of Giacometti, which establishes a credible explanation if not excuse for the many selfish acts he’s seen doing, winds up being an apt tribute to both the artist and art itself. 

The Workshop


Talk about eerie parallels. Waking up in the morning before writing this review, I look at the news and see the smiling face of one Mark Anthony Conditt, the 23-year-old suspected in the recent Austin, TX, bombings who blew himself up in a van as police closed in. What strikes me is how much resemblance he bears to Antoine (Matthieu Lucci), another troubled young white guy who’s at the center of the film I watched the night before, Laurent Cantet’s “The Workshop.” There are differences, of course. Where Conditt was an American in his early 20s, Antoine is French and in his late teens. Both were attracted to right-wing ideas and, it appears, drawn toward violence as a way of working out inchoate personal frustrations. Conditt, though, is smiling in the photo I saw in the news. Antoine never smiles. It takes a while for “The Workshop” to establish Antoine’s centrality to its story. When the film begins, he’s just one of several teenagers taking part in a summer creative writing workshop in the French Riviera port of La Ciotat. The workshop’s genesis is never explained but it appears to be a city social program that includes at least some teens who, like Antione, are unemployed. An established author, Olivia Dejazet (Marina Fois), has been brought in to lead the class, and the students privately joke about her hoity-toity Parisian accent and “pretentious” manner—criticisms which are mostly typical teenage and provincial backbiting. Olivia seems sincere and solicitous of her students, a multi-culti mix that’s very believable in this corner of France: there are a couple of Arabs, one black guy and whites who come from both working-class and middle-class backgrounds. The teacher’s aim is get the group to generate the material for a thriller, and initial scenes show them tentatively beginning to discuss the story’s parameters. Should it be set in the present or the past, or perhaps a combination of the two, connected by flashbacks? Using the past, when La Ciotat is supposed to be the setting, brings up the city’s history both as a successful commercial port that failed and as the setting for Communist-led labor strikes. The town now contains a posh marina housing the yachts of millionaires—another setting rife with dramatic potential. Will the bad guys be terrorists or criminals or maybe even a vengeful labor organizer? Such questions prompt mentions of “Bataclan” (nightclub) and “Nice”—sites of recent terrorist attacks in France. It’s here that political divisions in the teens begin to surface, but the film doesn’t really begin to reveal Antoine’s place in this dialectic until it follows him home, where we see that he’s alienated from his working-class parents and occupies himself exercising and flexing his muscles in front of a mirror. He also watches Internet videos of right-wing underground leaders spouting nativist rhetoric and rallying their (mostly) young, white male supporters. Interestingly, when the classroom political divisions escalate, Antoine doesn’t advance the idea of a violent fictional protagonist who’s motivated by political ideas. He says he’s interested in killers who are motivated only by a desire to kill. When Olivia finally gets some of the kids to put pen to paper, he brings in and reads a story that tells of just such a killer unleashing a bloodbath on the decks of a yacht. The teacher and the other students are equally stunned and offer only confused responses. Understandably, Olivia develops a special interest in Antoine and begins to investigate him on social media, where she finds images and videos of him in camouflage face paint and brandishing pistols with young friends. But Antoine also investigates his teacher and one day brings to class and reads from one of her novels. He offers a derisive critique of [...]

I Kill Giants



In the opening scene of this movie, a teenage girl walks around in a gray-blue forest, seeking something. She finds it—a clump of mushrooms growing at the foot of a thick tree. She gets out a pocket knife and scrapes some of the green mold off of its top. Uh-oh—have the children of America been watching “Phantom Thread” and adopting its heroine’s stratagems? Of course not. After putting the red mold into a plastic bottle filled with red liquid, she puts in a Gummi Bear as well. This concoction, we soon learn, is “Giant Bait.”

Barbara (Madison Wolfe), the teen girl and the heroine of this movie, adapted from a 2008 comic book that was subsequently anthologized into a graphic novel, lives in a house crowded by obnoxious videogame obsessed brothers and presided over by older sister Karen (Imogen Poots) at first registers to viewers as a particularly avid devotee of D&D-style role-playing games. Although she’s not particularly keen on sharing her enthusiasms. Approached on a nearby beach by Sophia (Sydney Wade), a transplant from Leeds, England, Barbara pays back curiosity with rudeness before allowing that Sophia has a pretty name.

But Barbara is more than an analog gamer: when she insists that her life’s work is killing giants, she’s not talking about a persona that she adopts in leisure time. The rabbit ears that she wears as a kind of crown do not constitute a fashion statement. She really believes that the ratty purse she clutches to herself as she navigates, or fails to navigate, the banal troubles waiting around the corner of every school corridor, actually contains a giant-smiting storm hammer.

Why is this? A sympathetic school psychologist, new to the gig, Mrs. Mollé, is making it her job to find out. And of course Sophia is curious too. And Karen, who’s running the family for reasons we don’t get until about two-thirds into the movie, will get beyond exasperated before Barbara stops acting out.

In the meantime, the giants appear to both Barbara and the audience. They are somewhat formidable but also a tad familiar. The same could be said for the movie itself. “I Kill Giants” is the feature debut of Anders Walter, who has a reasonably deft hand with both fantastic and realistic elements, although for the latter he tends to steep his frame in gray to the extent that it weakens his climactic sequence, which, of course, takes place during a seaside thunderstorm of immense ferocity. (The town in which Barbara and family live is never named, although a radio report late in the film locates the storm’s vicinity as “Long Island.”) The source material of this movie pre-dates the novel on which the recent picture “A Monster Calls” is based, and the similarities between the two storylines are expanded upon what I’ve already revealed as the movie progresses. That the perspective this time is from a girl’s point of view rather than a boy’s is significant. At least it is in theory. The scripter is Joe Kelly, who, along with J.M. Ken Nimura, created the comic. It’s not a knock to note that the main creative talents behind the camera are male—the women of the cast are clearly imbuing their characterizations with what they know. But there’s still something about “I Kill Giants” that feels projected, a work more informed by empathy than experience.