April Movie Reviews

By Steve Warren

THE BOSS BABY (PG)
***
With his career reaching new peaks thanks to his SNL appearances, Alec Baldwin is the boss, baby – er, The Boss Baby. (That shows the importance of correct comma placement.) Why act your age when animation lets you voice a newborn? The story is told from the perspective of Tim, a seven-year-old with an “overactive imagination,” who ceases to be the center of his parents’ (Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow) attention when a new baby arrives. (“Where babies come from” is shown graphically – a heavenly assembly line, of course, much like in last year’s Storks but without the storks.) It turns out Boss Baby isn’t a real baby at all – in case you couldn’t tell from his business suit, briefcase and Baldwin’s voice. He’s a spy sent by BabyCorp to keep Tim’s parents’ employers, PuppyCo, from introducing a new model that will shift a large segment of the world’s affection from babies to puppies. Most of the wit is in the first half, before things get too literal and action takes over in an extended climax at the PuppyCo convention in Las Vegas. Still there’s enough good stuff – and a message about kids sharing love with siblings (and maybe puppies) to make The Boss Baby recommended for family viewing.
–Steve Warren

GHOST IN THE SHELL (PG-13)
**1/2
If I ever read the original manga or saw animated versions of Ghost in the Shell a generation ago, I’ve long since forgotten them; so I’ll just review the new live-action version as a standalone movie. As such it’s too comic book-ish in its plot, which may once have been original but seems tired after many superior iterations and variations. In a Blade Runner-ish future world, an Asian city where most of the major players are Caucasian, many people have artificial body parts. The next step is to implant a human brain in a totally synthetic body for the best of both worlds – especially when the body is that of Scarlett Johansson, often clad in a nude body suit for no apparent reason but to sell tickets. She plays Major, who is told by Dr. Juliette Binoche she’s the first of her kind of hybrid. She’s told a lot of lies, including that her foggy memory is her own, when in fact her mind has been programmed as carefully as her body. She’s designed to be a weapon and she’s a good one, kicking and shooting plenty of butt, though whose and why are not always clear. And those darn human feelings keep getting in the way, making Major question what she’s doing and sometimes go rogue. There’s some originality in the impressive visuals, which 3D doesn’t enhance much; but the plot is same-old same-old – or since it’s set in the future, same-new same-new.
–Steve Warren

THE ASSIGNMENT (R)
**1/2
Walter Hill made some good action movies in the ‘80s but has done little of note since. He’s turned some of his attention to writing graphic novels, a trilogy of which were the source for this violent novelty. It takes a different, politically incorrect approach to the hot topic of transgenderism. Michelle Rodriguez plays hitman Frank Kitchen, who is knocked out and wakes to find his – er, her – body has been surgically altered while he/she was unconscious. It’s the work of unlicensed plastic surgeon (former Dr.) Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), who is getting revenge for her brother’s murder but also, in a noble spirit of forgiveness, giving Frank a chance to make a fresh start. Kay is being held in a mental hospital until she’s judged fit for trial. In a textbook example of bad writing, exposition is presented by the doctor (Tony Shalhoub) who’s giving her a psych evaluation by telling her everything she already knows but the audience doesn’t. Later Frank, who never changes her name, presents her side in a lengthy video soliloquy. It’s too bad Hill, who has worked as a script doctor, didn’t hire one to rewrite his screenplay, because the story has its good points and the shootouts are serviceable. Weaver is not at her best. Rodriguez does some good work but a beard and a man’s body can’t overcome her feminine voice in the pre-surgical scenes. The Assignment is diverting trash that could have been much better with a few changes.
–Steve Warren

LIFE (R)
**1/2
Life moved its opening up from Memorial Day Weekend to avoid direct competition with Alien: Covenant, but that didn’t stop snarky critics from saying it should have been called Alien: Wannabe. Though technically well made, this killer-lifeform-in-space thriller is full of scenes that look vaguely familiar, mostly from the Alien series. It doesn’t help that the screenplay strands us with a crew of six unmemorable characters. Ryan Reynolds cracks wise like Deadpool in Space; veteran Jake Gyllenhaal would rather be in orbit than on wartorn Earth; the Japanese dude’s wife just gave birth back on Earth. Then there’s a black guy and two women. The organism retrieved from a Mars lander and dubbed “Calvin” is made up of single cells, each performing all the functions of a complete being. After tolerating a few experiments it starts fighting back, rapidly growing bigger, faster and fiercer. When the small human cast don’t all make it through the first hour, we know no one is safe – including those of us on Earth, because there’s not that much space between us and our Calvin. Even if we cared about the underdeveloped characters we wouldn’t have much hope for them, and where there’s no hope there’s no Life.
–Steve Warren

PERSONAL SHOPPER (R)
**
French writer-director Olivier Assayas helped Kristen Stewart get taken seriously as an actress with Clouds of Sils Maria, in which she played the personal assistant to a film star. Now he helps Stewart stretch by casting her in the title role of Personal Shopper. (Yes, this time it’s personal...again.) They’re telling a ghost story. At least there’s a lot of talk about ghosts, some lovely images of ghostly figures, and unexplained bump-in-the-night sounds; but in the end most of our questions go unanswered. Maureen (Stewart) is a Paris-based employee of a famous Frenchwoman (about whom we learn almost nothing, including why she’d hire an American for the job). Maureen’s twin brother, a spiritualist, died recently, after making a pact with her that whichever went first would send the other a sign from the afterlife. Though agnostic herself, Maureen spends a lot of time in dark, spooky houses waiting to hear from him. Then she starts getting texts from a manipulative cyberstalker – or is it her twin? We eventually learn who sent the texts but not why. The dialogue is almost all in English, though the actress who plays the brother’s widow has such a thick accent she should have subtitles. The plot needs translation too, because too little of it makes sense. Stewart is good at looking depressed and frightened, but after an hour of that it’s almost a relief to have the screen turned over to text conversations; but the ones on your own phone may be more interesting.
–Steve Warren

RAW (R)
***
What happens to Justine (Garance Marillier, in what should be a starmaking role) during her first week at veterinary school shouldn’t happen to a dog – or cat or any of the horses or cattle they practice on. Now that we’ve scared off our vegetarian readers (who would have hated the movie) we can also exclude anyone who’s offended by absolutely anything. Aside from a few pervs, that leaves high school and college students, and it may motivate the former to go to college for the wrong reasons. College grads will be envious that they didn’t have as much fun in school as the students in this movie – apart from the horror elements, that is. I’m rambling to avoid revealing those horror elements, which don’t come into focus until the film’s midpoint, although you’ve probably seen or heard spoilers elsewhere. Justine has quite a week, coming of age quickly and traumatically, at the school her parents attended and where her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is a sophomore. She arrives as a wide-eyed innocent and her awakening is more than just sexual as she’s shocked by one thing after another: wild parties, being assigned a gay man (Rabah Naït Oufella as Adrien) as a roommate, freshman hazing rituals including being forced to eat a raw rabbit kidney and being drenched in red liquid like Carrie at the prom; and a heavy course load that includes getting to know large animals inside and out. The screenplay by director Julia Ducournau, making her first feature, establishes a few characters and elements for no reason, but overall she does an excellent job. Based on what I said earlier, I’ll have to qualify myself as one of the pervs, because Raw is my favorite Belgian horror film since Daughters of Darkness.
–Steve Warren

THE ZOOKEEPER’S WIFE (PG-13)
**1/2
The Zookeeper’s Wife doesn’t come close to passing Schindler’s on a List of the best movies based on true stories of Europeans who sheltered Jews during the Holocaust. His wife Antonina (Jessica Chastain) may be more marketable (hence the title) but zookeeper Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh) is the primary decision-maker in the family. They’re running a zoo in Warsaw in 1939, where a typical day may include performing CPR on a newborn elephant; but things are about to change. Soon the Nazis have taken over the city, the zoo is closed and partly destroyed. Antonina has already met Lutz Heck (Daniel Brühl), Hitler’s head zoologist. He offers to move their surviving animals to Germany for sanctuary, and accepts her request to turn the zoo into a pig farm to feed the occupying soldiers. Lutz also wants to use it as a breeding ground for a master race of oxen. He’s unaware that the zoo also becomes a stop on the underground railroad smuggling Jews to safety. Jan tells Antonina she may have to serve as a distraction for Lutz but resents it when she does. It’s not clear what they do and when because we’re spared details of sex as well as violence against people and animals. Director Niki Caro, whose breakout film was Whale Rider, makes the animals more interesting than the people; and most of them disappear for most of the movie, except for a rabbit unfortunately named Piotr. The situation keeps things somewhat tense throughout, but the story could use more seriously suspenseful moments. Chastain is fine, speaking in a consistent accent without going full Streep. The period visuals are good but you have to bring your own knowledge of the Holocaust with you, and you won’t learn anything new.
–Steve Warren

AFTER THE STORM (NR)
***
My encouraging takeaway from After the Storm is that if writing doesn’t work out as a career, I can always become a detective. (Maybe that’s what friends have been implying when they call me a dick.) That’s probably not what writer-director-editor Hirokazu Kore-eda had in mind. On paper his protagonist, Ryota (Hiroshi Abe), is a total reprobate, more despicable than Gru. Divorced, he gets to see his son once a month but is behind in child support payments, not to mention rent and other bills. He wrote an award-winning novel 15 years ago but can’t seem to start another one. He supports his gambling habit by begging, borrowing and stealing from friends and family, and cheating clients of the detective agency where he works. But he loves his recently-widowed mother (Kilin Kiki) and his son, and still hopes to reconcile with his ex-wife; and as played by Abe, who resembles a younger Al Pacino, he seems a lot more decent than his actions indicate. The storm of the title, the 24th typhoon of a tumultuous year in Japan, is not a metaphor. Emotions are kept at a very Japanese level of politeness, whatever may be happening beneath the surface. This will rule out most Americans as potential viewers, which is too bad because we get enough bad melodrama in real life. Kore-eda even buries nuggets of wisdom in the middle of long conversations, so you have to listen and – God forbid! – think. Now that I’ve scared off all but the handful of you who are looking for sensitive, well-made, low-key dramas, I’ll turn to the classifieds and see if any detective agencies are hiring.
–Steve Warren

ALL THESE SLEEPLESS NIGHTS (R)
*1/2
Krzysztof Bagi?ski is at a stage in his life – perhaps early 20s - when it’s natural to be self-absorbed. That doesn’t mean we have to find him interesting, and I didn’t. Filmmaker Micha? Marczak obviously did, because he followed Krzys around Warsaw for a year recording his life and cut it down to an hour and three-quarters that feels like a year. Notes about the film suggest it could be a scripted documentary, an improvised drama or some other kind of hybrid. Marczak refuses to clarify: “It’s hard to say how much is staged and how much is real. It’s a question I can’t really answer and one that I don’t think I have to.” I’ll agree that it’s what’s on the screen that counts, and pan the film on that level. Krzys expresses himself through narration in addition to conversations that seem deeply philosophical to him and his friends when they’re drunk or on drugs. His closest friend, Micha? Huszcza becomes his roommate for a time, until Krzys decides he wants to live alone. In the beginning Krzys is pining over Monika, a lost love. Later he hooks up with Eva, an ex of Micha?’s, for a time. There’s no mention of Krzys being in school or having a job, so perhaps he worked full-time on this film for a year. We only see him partying, dancing, smoking cigarettes and talking about his shallow feelings. What’s the Polish word for douche? Nanette Burstein’s sadly overlooked 2008 film American Teen showed what this might have been, but All These Sleepless Nights deserves to be overlooked.
–Steve Warren

CEZANNE ET MOI (R)
** ½
Cézanne et Moi is a lush book of a movie, one you won’t want to put down but will want to savor at your own pace. Alas, that is not an option. This story of the bromance between artist Paul Cézanne (Guillaume Gallienne) and writer Emile Zola (Guillaume Canet) spans 1852-1899 – most of their lives – with stops in about a dozen other years, not always sequentially. If you have to read the English translation of the often rapid-fire dialogue – as full of heavy philosophy as idle chit-chat – as well as notations of time and place, you’ll have no time to enjoy the visuals; and even if you know Monet from Manet you’ll find it intimidating when half a dozen major 19th-century French arts figures are introduced at once. While most art films are paced too slowly for my taste, this one felt more like a videogame, constantly challenging me to keep up, let alone survive. The protagonists meet in sixth-grade in Aix-en-Provence, when Cézanne defends Zola, the son of a dead Italian immigrant, against bullies. The shy Zola would eventually marry one of womanizing Cézanne’s former conquests, and Cézanne would marry his own longtime mistress. Zola’s writing earns him fame and fortune. Cézanne’s wealthy father keeps him on a meager allowance when the establishment refuses to endorse his art and the young man refuses to give it up. Only late in life does he begin to sell paintings and move toward the recognition he enjoys today. Speaking of recognition, the film doesn’t show enough of his painting for the casual viewer to recognize his work if it’s hanging in the theater lobby when they leave. Watching Cézanne et Moi is like being pushed through the line at a buffet where you couldn’t possibly enjoy all the delicacies in front of you. It’s like watching paint dry – in a microwave!
–Steve Warren

IN SEARCH OF ISRAELI CUISINE (NR)
***
You couldn’t introduce someone to “American cuisine” without taking them to restaurants that serve Italian and Chinese food, among many other ethnicities – unless you were such a purist you stuck to (German-named) hamburgers. That gives you an idea of the situation documentarian Roger Sherman created for himself trying to explain the food of Israel, a much smaller (“the size of New Jersey”) but no less diverse, literal “melting pot.” Fortunately he found the perfect guide in Israeli-born, American-raised Michael Solomonov, owner of Philadelphia’s Zahav restaurant. Even if you try to ignore the native Palestinians and their Muslim traditions and focus on “Jewish food,” you’re talking about traditions brought from over 150 countries in less than 70 years. Most food is locally grown in the country where cherry tomatoes were developed, olive oil was stolen by the Romans but brought back with a bang, and wine was forbidden by Muslims for more than a millennium but has had a rebirth as an industry. How local? A woman tells how she didn’t serve seafood at first because the coast is a 45-minute drive from her restaurant! Though the film largely avoids politics, the union of a Jewish woman and Muslim man who run a restaurant together and married after 18 years of couplehood shows how the world could be if we focused on the things that unite us rather than divide us. (OK, I shed a tear.) It’s opening too late to give you ideas for this year’s seder, but In Search... leaves you plenty of food for thought.
–Steve Warren

TRUMAN (NR)
***
If John Wick or Jack Reacher kills a hundred people in a movie, it’s entertainment. If a mov—-er, film—-is all about one death, it’s Art. If you’ve recovered from the loss of Shirley MacLaine in The Last Word, here’s another death watch for you; one that’s intentionally less amusing. Julián (Ricardo Darin) is an Argentine actor living in Madrid. After fighting lung cancer for a year he’s decided to stop fighting and let the disease run its course. He’s so rational and resolute, those closest to him find it hard to argue that he should try to hang on a little longer. That includes his longtime friend Tomás (Javier Cámara), who “came from Canada to say goodbye.” His four-day visit makes up the story. They walk, talk, eat – even make a side trip to Amsterdam to visit Julián’s son. Truman (the title character is Julián’s dog) may be instructive, even cathartic, for viewers dealing with similar situations in real life; but it may be too real for those who don’t have to think about such things. It’s well made, except for too many coughs in the beginning to establish that Julián is ill (a good director can do it with one) and a gratuitous sex scene near the end; but it’s hard to see how it rated five major Goyas (Spain’s Oscars).
–Steve Warren

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