Movie Review ~ Dual

The Facts:

Synopsis: Upon receiving a terminal diagnosis, Sarah opts for a cloning procedure to ease her loss on her friends and family. When she makes a sudden and miraculous recovery, her attempts to have her clone decommissioned fail and lead to a court-mandated duel to the death. Now she has one year to train her body and mind for the fight of her life.
Stars: Karen Gillan, Aaron Paul, Beulah Koale, Theo James, Maija Paunio, June Hyde
Director: Riley Stearns
Rated: R
Running Length: 94 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: It’s always tough to be second.  I’m not talking about the First Runner up for Miss Universe or those who finish mere tenths of a breath behind the top racer in the Daytona 500.  What I mean is arriving at a Halloween party wearing a costume you toiled over for days only to enter right after someone in a store-bought ready-to-wear ensemble that puts your handmade one to shame.  It’s the same way for movies.  No matter how good a movie might be if it’s similar in plot to one that has recently come out, the act of comparison alone could be enough to sink the flick before it even has a chance to make its impression on audiences.

We have a bit of a funny situation with Dual, the new thriller with science fiction elements from director Riley Stearns.  The story of a woman being told she’s dying and being offered the chance to clone herself to ease the pain of the loss for her family and friends bears a striking resemblance to December’s Swan Song, an AppleTV+ release.  That Mahershala Ali and Glenn Close drama was decidedly excellent but flew so low under the radar it failed to catch on in key end-of-year discussions when it desperately needed to gain traction.  Despite it being much deserving of an Oscar nomination for Ali, it only managed a BAFTA and Critics Choice nom and a handful of outer circle critical nods. 

That wound up being good news for Dual. While many critics were fond of Swan Song (i.e., those who had the opportunity to have it practically delivered to their doorstep), it’s a mostly unknown entity, so Dual’s cloning plot could skate by without suffering much in comparison.  The two films couldn’t be more different in their style, not to mention tone and overall entertainment.  Where Swan Song walked through some deeply emotional territory and used its running time to take audiences on a moving journey of loss and acceptance, Dual is the opposite.  Chilly and aloof, it’s overly methodical and leads to a plodding pace that makes the action feel so very much longer than it is.  Darkly satirical in its best moments and artfully inert at its worst, Stearns and his cast spend the film in a frustrating dance with the audience, always leading with too much force and never on beat with the natural rhythm of language.

The briefest of prologues show a man (Theo James, Archive, a far more exciting sci-fi thriller) doing his best to avoid death by crossbow from an assailant we can’t see.  One of the men eventually overtakes the other, attempting to outmaneuver his opponent in front of a somber crowd of spectators. A supposed secret is revealed that anyone who watched the trailer or read the synopsis will already know.  Shifting focus over to Sarah (Karen Gillan, Oculus), we get only fringe information at the outset on the woman, mostly about secret indulgence in vices while her boyfriend (Beulah Koale, Shadow in the Cloud) is gone on an extended business trip. 

When Sarah begins coughing up blood and is told she has a terminal stomach disease, she reacts quite the opposite one might expect.  You feel Sarah has been written (or is being played by Gillan) as slightly on the spectrum. While that gives the character some engaging angles when confronting the serious situations she’s about to face, it’s perhaps a bit too mannered a demeanor overall.  By the time she meets her clone (given blue eyes by mistake, and thus a 10% discount), the two are as alike in robotic responses as they are in looks.  As the compliant clone gets to know Sarah and the loved ones who don’t seem to like the original much, what was meant to be a balm for their sorrow turns into the accessible girlfriend/daughter they had always wanted.

This shift of gears to the clone being more appreciated than her inspiration is when the movie began to get interesting, especially on the heels of Sarah figuring out her terminal diagnosis was false and now she’d be forced to fight her clone to the death.  Unskilled in defense, she turns to a cheap trainer (Aaron Paul, Need for Speed) who walks her through everything she needs to know to be as prepared for the ultimate battle of self.

There are flashes of the fun black comedy Dual wants to be at various times throughout the 94-minute film, but too much of it runs on a stilted stutter.  Sarah’s interactions with a riotously blank doctor (June Hyde) are golden, as are many scenes that find her loosening up with Paul and learning to love letting her guard down.  Stearns doesn’t seem to feel the same way because we’re quickly back to monotone back and forth between the Sarahs with the original suffering one injustice after another.  Ostensibly taking place in the future but blessedly free from looking futuristic, it’s a low-key production that lets the script do the work and actors pull up the slack.  As stated above, Gillan’s choices for the role are intriguing but make it hard to get near enough to the character to find compassion.  Capped by an ending amounting to a significant shoulder shrug and heavy sigh, Dual needed to feel more singular to stand out.

Movie Review ~ Archive

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two and a half years into a three-year research contract, George Almore is on the verge of a breakthrough working on a model of a true human-equivalent android. His prototype is almost complete. But this most sensitive phase of his work is also the riskiest.

Stars: Theo James, Stacy Martin, Rhona Mitra, Peter Ferdinando, Richard Glover, Lia Williams, Toby Jones

Director: Gavin Rothery

Rated: NR

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Remember how we’re always told not to judge a book by its cover?  The saying that just because something looks a certain way at first glance it may hold something completely different if you dig deeper?  How we’re supposed to look inside for what makes it special?  All that applies to movies as well.  Used to be that it was just the poster/video box that you could loan that tried and trusty saying to, then it applied to previews when an early trailer would give the impression a movie looked particularly bad, and now it’s graduated to those thumbnails we see when scrolling through streaming content.  These quick glimpses have to catch the eye of a potential viewer and entice them not just to explore more, but to commit the time to see what’s inside.

Your first impression of Archive (as was mine) could be that it looks an awful lot like 2014’s Ex Machina, the Oscar-winning sci-fi flick that gave Alicia Vikander an extra boost of star-power.  It wouldn’t be totally off-base to say the two films share some small similarities.  Both deal with chilly inventors creating lifelike robots that just happen to look like beautiful models.  That’s where the similarities end, though, because Archive has less of the slick thriller elements that made up the bulk of Ex Machina’s final act and more of its heady dive into the wonders and dangers of advancements in artificial intelligence.

Taking place in a future not so far removed from our current time, scientist George Almore (Theo James, Divergent) is working at a decommissioned science lab in the mountains of Japan to develop the next generation of robotics.  After three years living in near solitary confinement with no one but his earlier less refined models to keep him company, he’s come to a critical phase of his research that must be handled delicately. His boss (Rhona Mitra, Hollow Man) wants faster results but George is holding back giving her the full details for personal reasons that will become clearer as writer/director Gavin Rothery’s sparse but impactful plot develops.

By the time J3 (Stacy Martin, All the Money in the World) comes online, George is already at odds with the J2 model that begins to exhibit signs of jealously toward the upgraded machine replacing her as well as the man that created them both.  The more attention George pays to J3, the more willful J2 becomes which leads the film in unexpected directions finding strangely effective emotions along the way.  Throughout, we piece together the life George led before he arrived at the testing site, the pain he has been carrying for years, and how he intends to use boundary pushing technology to make his family whole again.

It should come as no surprise that Rothery was in the art department as a conceptual designer for 2009’s Moon, a moody mostly one-man show that had similar themes of solitude as a substitute for grief.  He’s made his film in familiar territory and for a first time director I think that’s a wise decision.  Sticking with what he’s comfortable with allows him to ease up on overthinking the plot and overdesigning the laboratory.  Not that the visuals and special effects aren’t handsomely rendered and the story doesn’t have some heft to it – it’s that they don’t feel so overbaked with the earnestness of a novice filmmaker.

I haven’t had the chance to take much note of James up until this point but he turns in a level performance as a man looking to science to help him through an emotional journey.  He’s equally good working with straight-up humans (Toby Jones, The Snowman, shows up in a typically wormy cameo) as he is sharing the screen with different robotic co-stars.  Tasked with the hardest job is likely Martin who has to sell quite a lot of looks to the audience throughout, starting with a full body robotic suit that viewed close up exposes the budget limitations the film was working with.  Yet Martin achieves high marks for keeping us engaged and convinced that she’s a well-oiled machine.

A rare film that maintains it’s energy and suspense until the very end, Archive is one of those films you’d stumble over by accident and then recommend to your friends as a nice surprise.  It’s not going to make a huge mark like Ex Machina did because aside from its achievements in finding root emotions in unlikely places, it doesn’t have anything that stands out and above the rest.  What it does have going for it is a consistency of tone and more emotional weight explored than many of its genre sisters and brothers.

Movie Review ~ The Divergent Series: Allegiant

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After the earth-shattering revelations of Insurgent, Tris must escape with Four beyond the wall that encircles Chicago to finally discover the shocking truth of what lies behind it.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Jeff Daniels, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Keiynan Lonsdale, Jonny Weston, Mekhi Phifer, Daniel Dae Kim, Nadia Hilker, Bill Skarsgård

Director: Robert Schwentke

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  When Divergent was released in 2014, the hope was that it would be Summit Entertainment’s answer to The Hunger Games gauntlet thrown down by Lionsgate, a rival studio.  It wasn’t.  Actually, Divergent was so airless that when its sequel (Insurgent) rolled out a year later I didn’t even bother to see it.  What’s the point of continuing on with a series if the audience doesn’t really care about characters played by actors that don’t seem to care themselves about anything more than their paychecks and the perks of an international press tour.

In preparing for Allegiant, I went back and re-watched Divergent to see if my original feelings held up.  Boy, did they ever.  I still find Divergent to be a major bore, peppered with blank performances, spotty special effects, and a plot so convolutedly serpentine that it winds up feeling like it’s being made up on the fly and not adapted from the first in a series of bestsellers by Veronica Roth.  I continue to have a major problem with the violence towards women, grimacing each time the film finds our heroine getting beaten about the head and face by a male peer.

Since I’m never one to skimp on my homework, I gave Insurgent an overdue spin and to my surprise found it more than marginally better than its predecessor.  It’s still hopelessly devoid of point and general interest but with a new director (Robert Schwentke) and better special effects, the overall feeling of the series as a whole was that it was finding its footing (though I don’t feel like a series should ever need to take an entire first chapter to work out the kinks).

So going into Allegiant I was ready to see it improve upon the previous entry.  With the same director returning along with its cast made up of representatives of young Hollywood supported by several Oscar nominated/winning veterans there was surely hope to be had.

Wrong.  So very wrong.

First off is that Allegiant continues the unfortunate trend of studios with dollar-signs in their eyes and opting to split the final installment into two movies.  It worked for Harry Potter, it kinda worked for Twilight, and it definitely worked for The Hunger Games…but Allegiant is not destined to be put into any marginally successfully category because it’s actually the worst entry yet.  Instead of besting Insurgent, it falls far behind Divergent thanks to uninspired performances, downright lousy special effects, and the cold hard truth that the whole series is not about anything.

If you haven’t seen Insurgent yet, you best stop reading now because it’s impossible to discuss this one without letting a few spoilers slide by.

Jeanine is dead.  And Kate Winslet must have been so happy she wasn’t contractually obligated (like Ashley Judd seems to be) to appear in installments after her character was shot down by Evelyn (Naomi Watts, The Impossible, acting like her life depended on it in a brunette wig).  The message received at the end of Insurgent suggests that outside the wall that surrounds Chicago is a population waiting for the divergents to appear.  With the faction system breaking down and naysayers unlawfully executed, it’s more important than ever to scale the massive wall and hope that what’s outside is better than what’s inside.

When her brother (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars) is lined up to be next on the chopping block, Tris (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants) and Four (Theo James) escape with him and their friends (Zoe Kravitz, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now, and Maggie Q), literally walking up the wall through an electrified fence.  Before going over the wall, the screenwriters trim the escapees by one in a most unceremonious fashion…losing one of the more interesting characters is a bummer for us but good for them because they’re spared from what happens next.

Outside the wall is a wasteland, a fleshy red landscape irrigated by a red rain.  Why?  The film never says…probably because it just looks good and goes with the costume design. Salvation comes when the group is rescued and brought to what used to be Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, though it’s been redesigned to look like the first pass of architectural model by a grade school student with no eye for functionality.  Ruled by David (Jeff Daniels, The Martian, with sad eyes that tells us he can see his career fading) who’s focused on separating the “pure” from the “damaged”, a divide arises between Tris and her friends that will call into question their, um, allegiance.

To say more would be giving the wafer thin plot more time than it deserves.  It’s just a bridge between Insurgent and 2017’s Ascendant so really what’s the point of catching this one in the theaters?  It’s a waste of time and everyone onboard seems to know it.  Schwentke is coasting in his director’s chair…so much so that he decided to jump ship and not come back to finish the series.  The special effects look like they were from a computer game you’d play between commercial breaks of a new episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the acting is absolutely dreadful.

Woodley has been someone I’ve kept an eye on for a while now but instead of getting more acclimated to her heroine role, she seems more uncomfortable than ever.  A solid dramatic actress she may be but an action star she’s not and never will be.  With her huge saucer eyes and dirty blond bob, she doesn’t even look the part.  James fares better as her love interest and brawn of the group, but the two have precious chemistry to suggest that we should care whether they wind up together or not.  Watts, Daniels, and Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station) feign attentiveness while Teller hams it up with one-liners that rarely drew much of a reaction from the nearly 500 audience members I saw this with.  And I can’t even go there with the dreadful extras that have been assembled.  All of them look like they’ve been recruited from a pep rally in a juvenile detention center.

As I was leaving the theater I was walking behind a major fan of the series that was shaking her head and exclaiming that the filmmakers totally ruined the series with this one…so you don’t just have to take my non-fan word for it that Allegiant is a lousy waste of space.

Movie Review ~ Divergent

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents, Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoё Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Kate Winslet

Director: Neil Burger

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  I knew from the early previews of Divergent that it was going to be derivative of several other films released in the past few years.  And hey, I get it, studios have been scouring the bookshelves of young adults for the next big thing and Veronica Roth’s bestselling trio of futuristic novels was a tantalizing treat that could capture males and females in that prime target market studios gnash their teeth for.

Trouble is, the film that’s been made out of Roth’s first novel winds up being so cobbled together from other, better, books/films that by the end of the numbing 139 minute running length audiences may feel like they’ve been barreled over by this Frankenstein of a film.  Considering the caliber of the cast and the impressively mammoth production design, that’s pretty depressing because had director Neil Burger and screenwriters Vanessa Taylor and Evan Daugherty trimmed some of the fat, a true franchise starter could have emerged.

You know the drill… a futuristic society that appears utopian really hides dystopian tendencies that threaten the lives of everyone.  The good are really bad and those considered bad are really good.  The opening narration from Beatrice (the usually stellar but oddly uncomfortable Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now, The Descendants) lets us know this world is divided into five factions and the time draws near for her to choose which group she wants to belong to.  Does she stay with the good Samaritan faction her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) raised her in, does she go with the one a never fully realized loopy test assigns her to, or does she choose her own path?

Without spoiling too much, Beatrice (soon to be just Tris, if you’re nasty) finds herself in a tribe that will challenge everything she knows to be true while putting her life at risk from the very people she thinks are her friends.  It’s a tricky set-up and the exposition of such is handled well…but it all seems to be in service to future films not yet greenlit.  That leaves newcomers to Roth’s world in a paint-by-the-numbers environment where everyone is exactly who they appear to be, though the film would have you think its throwing you off the scent at every corner.

Like Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games and its sequel, Tris is a symbol of heroism for young girls/women but unfortunately lacks the overall growth that made Everdeen such a relatable character that could cross gender lines.  Tris never seems to overcome her weaknesses and hang-ups, not helped by Woodley’s awkward approach.  I’m a big fan of Woodley and can’t quite decide if it’s her performance that I didn’t care for or the milquetoast character she’s bravely tackling.

Alarming in its violence, especially toward women, I never could figure out what kind of film Divergent was aiming for.  Equal parts Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Host, Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, it never breaks away from the pack to blaze its own trail.  Though a huge bulk of the film centers around Tris being brutally trained by faction leadership, there’s never a decisive moment when Tris takes her life into her own hands.  Though the make-up team ably shows the bruises and effects of her training, Woodley’s flowing locks seem straight out of a Pantene ad.

Rounding out the cast are Theo James, a Franco family look alike that is a surprisingly strong leading man for Woodley, Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher) as a tattooed ruffian keen on taking Tris down, Miles Teller (That Awkward Moment) as a classroom foe, and Ansel Elgort (Carrie) as Tris’s brother who makes an equally tough decision on his future.

Then there’s Kate Winslet (Labor Day) and here’s where I’m treading lightly.  You see, I’m a huge Winslet fan so saying anything bad about her is tantamount to breaking my own heart.  However, in her first attempt at villainy I found her wanting.  As a politicized blonde ice queen she’s not benign enough to share the bad with others and she’s never evil enough to justify our needing to see her taken down spectacularly.  I don’t think it’s necessarily her fault but Winslet has the star power to tailor the role to her talents.  Go bad or go home, I say.  Pregnant while filming, she’s almost always shown with a large notebook in front of her stomach and one close-up scene clearly is a reshoot with her hair and make-up not matching shots before and after.

As the intended start to a major franchise, Divergent doesn’t make the case for a sequel.  When the film was winding toward its conclusion, I realized that I had no investment in what happens next.  If the second book is adapted into a film, I’m hoping for a new team behind the scenes that will help move the film into an event that leaves audiences excited.  The cast is ready and willing…now the material just needs to be there.

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