Film

Divergent Series: Allegiant, Eye in the Sky, Creative Control, The Bronze, Chimes at Midnight

DIVERGENT SERIES: ALLEGIANT

TCR-Steve-at-the-Movies-v3Most science fiction works on multiple levels, and the best of it cares equally about telling both its character-driven story and crafting its social commentary. My issues with the Divergent films to date (Divergent and Insurgent) is that they are so focused on hammering their messages about the dangers of dividing citizens into factions that the characters turn into narrowly realized types in the process, which I guess enters the realm of irony. Every character is trying to out-badass the others, or out-hippie the other smart characters. What results is a film populated by people who are nearly impossible to care much about, despite the filmmakers’ desperate attempts to wedge love stories and other emotionally based relationships into the franchise.

I’ll give the latest film in the series, Allegiant, some credit for not being afraid to expand outside of its crumbling Chicago-of-the-future setting. In this story, the characters make it all the way out to O’Hare Airport, or at least a highly advanced society that lives where O’Hare used to be. Having defeated Kate Winslet’s cold-hearted Jeanine in the last film, the seemingly united factions of Chicago are now bent on trying and executing her minions for war crimes, turning what should be a better world into a chaotic nightmare. The divergent heroine, Tris (Shailene Woodley), and her tight-knit group decide to go beyond the walls that surround Chicago and into the unknown, convinced there are others out there.

Along with her love interest Four (Theo James) and friends Christina (Zoe Kravitz), Peter (Miles Teller) and Tris’ brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), whom they had to break out of prison for aligning himself with the previous leadership, Tris finds a toxic world that is barely survivable. They are quickly discovered by residents of the pristine Bureau of Genetic Welfare (built on the remains of O’Hare), led by David (Jeff Daniels), whose main purpose seems to be to breed and raise perfect humans and wait for a divergent to enter its environment to show them the way. They seem like a peaceful and righteous bunch, which of course means they’ll become horrible before long. Also true to form, some of the Bureau’s residents don’t agree with its practices and help Tris and her group stay on the path toward equality and not allowing the powers in and out of Chicago to kill any more humans.

We’re introduced to a host of new characters, but they’re ultimately just variations of ones we’ve already met and dealt with for the previous two films. Outside of Tris, these are sketches of people, with one or two defining traits and little else. Everyone tries to be cooler and less affected by the dire nature of the world around them, but they usually come across as poseurs with fancy laser guns. The film practically uses a megaphone to broadcast that something about the Bureau and David isn’t quite right, but apparently everyone is just so happy to be there; they turn a blind eye to the warning signs. David isolates Tris from the rest of her group with the promise of bigger work ahead in getting back into Chicago and fixing what’s broken, and for a while, it works, which again makes no damn sense because Tris is a natural skeptic who would demand action over words.

We also get updates from what’s going on in Chicago, now under Evelyn’s (Naomi Watts) unsteady leadership. The Bureau is able to spy on Chicago using highly sophisticated surveillance equipment, which opens up a whole new folder of questions about why they didn’t interfere sooner to pull Tris out, if they needed her so desperately. Nothing about the revelations made about this new group’s abilities really makes sense in the context of the new film. Plot points are nothing more than that—a means to keep the story moving forward without much regard for what has come before. But the bigger flaw in Allegiant is that it’s strangely lifeless and stagnant. Its message of equality is certainly timely and important, but they’re also handled clumsily and with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.

The film parades a few familiar faces before us, mostly in cameos or small supporting roles, such as Octavia Spenser returning as Johanna. Spenser, Watts and others seem about as enthused with the idea of returning to this franchise once again as you’d imagine. They certainly convinced me they were as excited to be there as I was to watch them. Some of the production design and CG work in Allegiant is solid, but without a compelling story or characters to fill in the foreground, we’re left with dead-eyed science fiction, and an unexpectedly brutal take on author Veronica Roth’s book series. I’ve mostly been on board with this franchise up until this point. Directed by returning helmer Robert Schwentke (who also did Flightplan, The Time Traveler’s Wife and RED) Allegiant is a wandering, lost movie trying to find its way home and not quite getting there.

EYE IN THE SKY

Few recent deaths in the acting world have stung quite as much as the passing of Alan Rickman. And inevitably when an untimely death like his occurs, we revisit the best of what he had to offer and we wait and see what is still left of his work to see. Not including some voice work in the upcoming Alice Through the Looking Glass, Rickman’s final on-screen performance is as a part of the ensemble of director Gavin (Tsotsi, Rendition, Ender’s Game) Hood’s darkly comic and sometimes searing film. Rickman plays a high-ranking British military adviser stuck in a room of bureaucratic ninnies whose efforts to spare as many lives as possible during a drone attack might actually end up killing far more. Just describing the scenario makes me smile because no one loved to roll their eyes at ridiculous people more than Rickman, and the disdain his character visibly feels for these indecisive cowards is priceless.

The actual focal point of Eye in the Sky is Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren, in a role written for a man, but few men command a room as authoritatively as Mirren). Powell is in charge of a UK surveillance team that includes a U.S. drone pilot (Aaron Paul) and is searching an area of Nairobi trying to track down a traitorous UK citizen (Lex King) who is now a member of a particularly destructive terrorist outfit. The mission is about finding a target and sending in a team to extract her, and the spy tactics and devices used during the mission seem more like science fiction, but in fact are used every day (including spy cameras that look like insects or birds). The mission is going smoothly, but when they find their target they also discover a dwelling in which two locals are being actively prepped and readied to perform as suicide bombers. This changes the mission to an actual drone strike, and the colonel makes the call to wipe out all in the building.

But Paul’s Steve Watts notices a 9-year-old girl selling bread right next to the target and does everything he can to delay the strike until she is clear of the blast zone. What follows is a symphony of red tape, checking and rechecking, fudging the numbers, looking up the legalities of the scenario, and of course, checking in with their American counterparts. No one wants to make the call, and those that do need 18 levels of clearance before they can drop this bomb. And as ridiculous as this situation is, it’s a fascinating debate that examines the political, moral and propagandistic elements of such a target and its collateral damage. One dead child could be used by the enemy in terrorist recruitment videos, whereas allowing the suicide bomber to go gives the Western world the sympathetic advantage.

There is an underlying pitch-black humor to Eye in the Sky that does a terrific job making sense of the senseless. If so many of the possible outcomes weren’t so tragic on some level, this might be considered a low-grade Dr. Strangelove. Screenwriter Guy Hibbert has pieced together a comedy of errors, while never forgetting the human cost of the decisions being tossed around like a political hot potato. I especially liked seeing Barkhad Abdi (the Oscar-nominated Captain Phillips actor) as an undercover spy monitoring the target from the ground and controlling the spy cameras that go into the dwelling.

But it’s the steadfast Mirren who holds this work together, with Rickman backing her every play. They are never in a room together, but their working dynamic is clear, and we know they are watching each others’ backs. They also never waver in their belief that the target needs to be destroyed at any cost. Hood may be juggling a few too many things in this slightly crowded story, and a few of the happenings on the way to a decision seem somewhat far-fetched or done strictly for a laugh (for example, the gag about the UK Foreign Secretary—Iain Glen—dealing with this situation and a nasty bit of food poisoning).

When it sticks to attempting to be authentic, Eye in the Sky manages to be a powerful statement about the consequences of how we wage war today. But primarily, it’s about great acting, a morally tricky story, and saying a final farewell to one of the greats in Alan Rickman. He’s quite good in this, and I love getting one last reminder of how he elevated every role he took. The film opens today in Chicago at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

CREATIVE CONTROL

Writer-director Benjamin Dickinson (First Winter) takes a unique and intelligent look at a near future with Creative Control, in which our worst fears about the distancing aspects of technology seem to be coming to fruition, even as we attempt to use them to bridge the distances between us. The film deservedly won a Special Jury Prize for Visual Excellence at last year’s SXSW Film Festival, and it’s one of those thrilling independent film that finds a perfect balance of impressive (but not overwhelming) special effects and telling a story that dives deep into the psychology and motivations of its characters.

Dickinson casts himself as David, an advertising executive growing frustrated with his job until he lands the account of a lifetime, Augmenta, glasses that augment reality. They essentially place a layer of virtual reality over the real world to enhance what we see and how we live. If the concept is a bit difficult to grasp, then things probably won’t get less confusing when you find out that the agency wants to hire late night band leader-comic Reggie Watts (playing himself) as their pitch man. With the glasses, the user can see a control panel, use their fingers in the air to adjust the reality, creating pretty much anything they want.

For David, what he wants is his photographer best friend Wim’s (Dan Gill) girlfriend Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen). Wim is constantly cheating on Sophie with any number of models that he works with regularly, and David has a girlfriend himself, Juliette (Nora Zehetner), but their lives seem to be spiraling off in difference directions, especially since David landed this dream account and started using the glasses. The fact that David literally has the world at his fingertips but decides to use the Augmenta to create a Sophie avatar for sexual purposes is one of the film’s many examples of knowing humor, which Dickinson uses liberally throughout Creative Control.

For budding futurists, the film is loaded with subtle but still noticeable adjustments to the everyday reality of New York City. The technology used by everyone is believably advanced versions of devices we use today. At the same time, there are characters—in particular Juliette—who strive to find ways to maintain the human connection in day-to-day life. She’s a big yoga practitioner and teacher, but even that very centered endeavor fails to keep her grounded.

Not unexpectedly, Creative Control builds to an emotional and technological head that is beautifully realized (as is the entire film) and cinematically fulfilling. David has so convinced himself that his VR relationship with Sophie is viable that he becomes bold enough to test the waters in real life. There’s a boldness to this conceit and to the film that is undeniably appealing, without being preachy about the dangers of living behind devices. The film braids a classic, streamlined look of ’60s European arthouse flair (black-and-white look included) with a future-modern aesthetic that keeps us rooted in what is to come. It’s a thinking person’s relationship drama with a few of the bells and whistles of science fiction. It’s a great little movie that I hope finds its way to you in the coming weeks. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

Writer-director-star Benjamin Dickinson will take part in Q&As after screenings at the Music Box Theatre today, after the 7:15pm showing, and tomorrow/Saturday at 5pm. He’ll also introduce screenings at 9:45pm today and 7:15pm tomorrow. To purchase tickets in advance, go to Music Box Theatre.

BRONZE

 I don’t watch “The Big Bang Theory,” so I went into the dark, absurdly raunchy comedy The Bronze with no clue who Melissa Rauch was, which provided me with just the right mindset to believe she was some newly discovered actress who was hired for her ability to say the nastiest, rudest and most manipulative things with a straight face and a mind-blowing amount of uncut venom. She’s a destructive force of nature here that’s impossible to like for most of the film, and even in the end-of-film moments where she softens—just an iota—she’s still pretty abrasive by normal human standards.

Rauch plays Hope Annabelle Greggory, a former gymnastics wunderkind whose competitive dreams are cut short after a brutal injury and failed attempts at a comeback. (The film can’t actually say she won a bronze in the “Olympics,” but you get the picture.) In the 10 or so years since her accident, Hope has milked what little fame she achieved in her small Ohio hometown for all that it’s worth. She’s run up tabs all over town, treats those around her like utter shit, had sex with pretty much every man in town (or those passing through), and has earned the distrust of even her loving father, Stan (Gary Cole).

When her former coach commits suicide, Hope receives a letter in the mail from her that turns out to be a suicide note/challenge to Hope to see the error of her ways and make something of her life in exchange for all of the coach’s remaining money, $500,000. All she has to do is take over training another Olympic hopeful named Maggie Townsend (relative newcomer Haley Lu Richardson) and get her to her competitive trials with the help of the training facility’s owner Ben (Thomas Middleditch of “Silicon Valley”), who has had a crush on Hope since there were in primary school together.

It turns out that Hope is actually a natural at coaching, and after some trial and error, she actually gets Maggie to the qualifying trials, where she runs into an old flame and former gymnast, Lance Tucker (Sebastian Stan—yes, the Winter Soldier himself), whom Hope lost her virginity to all those years ago, but now the two loathe each other.

I’ll admit, most of the very few times I laughed at The Bronze were the result of Rauch just cutting loose on someone. Her face clenches up, her perfect bangs shake ever so slightly, and a hint of steam trickles from her ears. It should come as no surprise that her tirades were carefully crafted by the star and husband William Rauch. First-time feature director Bryan Buckley adds very little by way of style, but there are a few key moments of observational humor about small-town life that are nice touches.

The problem with The Bronze is that so many of the jokes fall as flat as a gymnast tripping on the balance beam and landing face first. And they result in about the same laughs. Rauch is working so hard to make Hope so aggressively unlikable that I admired the determination, but in the end, everyone is playing their roles in varying degrees of exaggeration, and this lack of believability kept distracting me. And yes, a film with this ludicrous story does rise or fall in large part on its lack of authenticity, although the actual gymnastic routines are perfectly executed.

I genuinely like the idea for The Bronze. It’s a commentary on Americans’ desperation and willingness to become flash-in-the-pan celebrities, but even that message gets lost early on. For a film that is so forcefully nasty, it also hedges its bets far too often. There is one great moment, however: a sex scene involving Hope that is basically a full-on gymnastics routine of fucking. I don’t care how much you might not like the film up to that point, that sequence will make your jaw (and maybe your pants) drop.

But the film as a whole is just a succession of comedy near misses and absolute failures that ultimately made me so frustrated that I was longing for it to end. The version of The Bronze that is opening in theaters is a tighter cut than the one I saw over a year ago at Sundance, so my original complaint about the end dragging on forever isn’t really valid any longer. I could see so much potential in this one, but in the end, The Bronze can’t stick the landing.

CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT

Some of my absolute favorite Shakespeare film adaptations come from director Orson Welles, who only did a small handful (including 1948’s Macbeth and Othello from 1952). With all of them, he boils the stories down to their most essential elements. But in 1965, Welles did something rather extraordinary with the Bard’s work in Chimes at Midnight (at various points in history, it was also titled Falstaff), which, in a sense, pieces together an entirely new Shakespeare story out of interconnected storylines from more familiar work, including both Henry IV plays and The Merry Wives of Windsor (in all three of which the character of Sir John Falstaff appears) as well as Richard II and Henry V.

Falstaff (played appropriately by Welles as the drunken, jovial and quite obese man as described by Shakespeare) is best known as the fictional character who was a childhood friend to the young Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), son of King Henry IV (John Gielgud). Falstaff is a master troublemaker, who borrows money he will never pay back, is a first-rate coward on the battlefield, and whose ego is so great, it can almost never be defeated. He’s a disaster of a human being and usually leads the debaucherous charges that get Prince Hal in hot water with his father quite often.

Chimes at Midnight tells the parallel-life stories of Falstaff, which would be sad and tragic if he wasn’t such an ass, and Hal, who would sober up and fly right to become the new king, Henry V, and abandon those that knew him in his lesser moments quite cruelly. Stylistically, the film retains many of Welles’ early trademarks, including many camera angles revealing exquisitely built ceilings, and shot compositions that are breathtaking. The work is not only Welles’ finest Shakespeare adaptation; it’s one of the director’s best overall movies, especially from his later period.

The film is perhaps best known for an extended, violent and elaborately staged battle sequence, which still holds up as one of the most brutal depictions of war you’ll ever see. The black-and-white photography masks the worst of the bloodshed, and Welles certainly doesn’t dwell in the gory details, but you get the point with emphasis.

I was fortunate enough to see Chimes at Midnight on the big screen a few years back at a film festival, and the print was fairly clean, but left a lot of detail to be desired. The version that is steadily opening across the county now is a stunningly restored version that does the justice to this exceptional film that it richly deserves.

As much as it’s clear that Welles fully embraces the eccentricities that go along with playing Falstaff, he’s also making it clear that Sir John’s fall mirrors a certain carefree era in England. Characters are adrift and only seem to come ashore when they rid their lives of their many vices. There is a deep sense of loneliness within both kings; they accept their leadership roles, even if it means abandoning the camaraderie and trust they once felt for their closest friends. It’s as much a film about the end of a way of life as it is the end of a single life. Chimes at Midnight finds a way to chill and warm the heart alternately, and it marks an example of Welles doing some of his best work. The film opens in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.

As part of the returning “Music Box Theatre Talks” series with the Chicago Film Critics Association, I will lead a post-screening discussion tomorrow/Saturday, after the 7pm showing of Chimes at Midnight. Hosted by the CFCA and the Music Box Theatre, MBT Talks are led by various CFCA members to further support the theatrical releases of art-house, independent, foreign and classic cinema in the theater’s fun and creative atmosphere. To purchase tickets in advance, go to the Music Box Theatre.

Categories: Film, Screens

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