Mini Reviews (May 2018)
Misconduct, ABCs of Death 2, They Look Like People, Traffik, Kusama: Infinity, The Seagull, Book Club, Dixieland
Misconduct (May 3/18)
An astonishingly atrocious piece of work, Misconduct follows ambitious lawyer Ben Cahill (Josh Duhamel) as he attempts to compile a case against a ruthless pharmaceutical executive (Anthony Hopkins' Arthur Denning) - with Ben's less-than-legitimate methods ultimately raining down a whole host of complications upon his head. It's clear immediately that something's gone seriously awry in terms of Misconduct's production and execution, as the movie, directed by Shintaro Shimosawa, comes off as a dull, terminally flat exercise in pointless virtually from beginning to end - with the far-from-engrossing vibe perpetuated by a whole host of half-baked and underwhelming attributes (including a series of lazy, phoned-in performances from an unusually talented cast). The often impossibly tedious narrative is compounded by stilted dialogue that rarely sounds authentic or even plausible (ie it's as if everything's been translated into English directly from another language), while the total lack of tension ensures that the movie's second half, ostensibly designed to operate as a suspenseful thriller, feels even more aimless and irrelevant than anything preceding it. Scripters Simon Boyes and Adam Mason attempt to liven things up by sprinkling the proceedings with distinctly oddball subplots, including an assassin dying of a terminal illness, but, like everything else contained in this mess of a screenplay, such digressions wind up going absolutely nowhere (ie there's no satisfactory payoff for anything here). The end result is an entirely ill-advised production that simply doesn't work on any real level, and it is, quite frankly, astonishing that this many strong actors agreed to appear in such a pervasively disastrous trainwreck.
ABCs of Death 2 (May 4/18)
Though it gets off to a relatively promising start, ABCs of Death 2 is, like its predecessor, riddled with pointless and somewhat interminable short films that slowly-but-surely drain one's enthusiasm - which is a shame, certainly, given that the movie does boast a very small handful of effective entries. The picture's downfall is especially disappointing given the decidedly positive nature of the first few segments, as ABCs of Death 2 kicks off with what just may be the best short contained within both installments - with E.L. Katz’s superb "A is for Amateur," which tells the amusing story of a fairly inept assassin, setting an impossibly high standard for everything that follows. And although the next couple of films fare surprisingly well - Julian Barratt's "B is for Badger" is brisk and funny - ABCs of Death 2, perhaps predictably, segues into a midsection that's been jam-packed with shorts of a decidedly irrelevant and flat-out worthless nature. (Todd Rohal's "P is for P-P-P-P SCARY!" ultimately stands as the nadir of the entire series, which is certainly no small feat.) The hit-and-miss atmosphere only grows more prevalent as time progresses, to be sure, and the movie's proliferation of incompetent segments eventually lends the whole thing a palpably unwatchable feel. The inclusion of a few strong entries within the movie's final stretch (eg Jerome Sable's "V is for Vacation") can't alleviate what's become a seriously interminable endeavor, and it does seem that perhaps cramming 26 shorts into one film is simply an idea that's doomed to fail.
They Look Like People (May 9/18)
An intriguing if not-entirely-successful horror effort, They Look Like People follows MacLeod Andrews' troubled Wyatt as he appears suddenly on the doorstep of old friend Christian (Evan Dumouchel) - with the narrative detailing Wyatt's growing conviction that evil creatures are slowly taking control of the planet. Filmmaker Perry Blackshear, clearly working from a miniscule budget here, does an effective job of infusing They Look Like People with an impressively cinematic feel, with the movie's striking visual sensibilities often compensating for a storyline that is, particularly in the second act, just a little too meandering for its own good. The sporadic inclusion of decidedly ominous elements - eg Wyatt's recurring exploits in Christian's basement - proves effective at perpetuating the somewhat uneasy atmosphere, and yet it's equally clear that Blackshear's lackadaisical approach, coupled with his less-than-eventful screenplay, results in an increasingly hit-and-miss vibe that prevents one from wholeheartedly connecting to the material. It's a shame, really, given that there's plenty within They Look Like People to enjoy and admire, with the solid work from both Andrews and Dumouchel certainly ranking high on the picture's list of agreeable elements (eg the actors effortlessly transform their respective characters into believable, sympathetic figures). By the time the surprisingly tense final few minutes roll around, They Look Like People has confirmed its place as an erratic (yet generally rewarding) debut effort that bodes well for Blackshear's future endeavors behind the camera.
Traffik (May 9/18)
Traffik stars Paula Patton as Brea, an investigative reporter who runs afoul of a vicious biker gang while on vacation with her boyfriend (Omar Epps' John) - with the picture detailing the characters' efforts at staying one step ahead of their sex-trafficking pursuers. There's little doubt that Traffik gets off to a decidedly (and palpably) underwhelming start, as director Deon Taylor delivers an unconvincing, low-rent first act that's compounded by a terminally on-the-nose screenplay - although, to be fair, the filmmaker has peppered the early part of the proceedings with a small handful of tense interludes (eg Brea and John's initial run-in with the aforementioned bikers). Such moments are increasingly lost beneath a narrative suffused with far-fetched and downright incompetent elements, with, for example, the characters' penchant for making terrible decisions straining the limits of credibility well beyond the breaking point. Taylor's heavy-handed approach (eg one could easily lose track of the number of slow-motion montages set to sad music) ensures that Traffik runs out of steam long before the anticlimactic final stretch rolls around, while eye-rollingly earnest factoid cards, presented just before the end credits roll, ultimately confirm the movie's place as a lamentably wrong-headed piece of work.
Kusama: Infinity (May 10/18)
Sporadically interesting but mostly tedious, Kusama: Infinity explores the life and times of artist Yayoi Kusama - from her extremely humble beginnings in Japan to her current status as a world-renown superstar of the art world. Filmmaker Heather Lenz does a superb job of initially drawing the viewer into the deliberately-paced proceedings, as Kusama: Infinity boasts an opening half hour that's been suffused with a number of fascinating stories and tidbits - including the revelation that Kusama, early in her career, became good friends with noted American painter Georgia O'Keeffe. (There's also a fairly fascinating digression detailing Kusama's unconventional relationship with a 26-years-her-senior reclusive artist named Joseph Cornell.) It's disappointing to note, then, that the picture slowly-but-surely begins to lose its grip on the viewer, with Lenz's growing emphasis on the process and creation of Kusama's admittedly avant-garde artwork contributing heavily to the movie's progressively arms-length vibe (ie the minutia of Kusama's methods just isn't as compelling as Lenz obviously believes it to be). And although the latter half of the film boasts a handful of intriguing interludes - eg Kusama organizes one of the first public gay weddings in the 1960s - Kusama: Infinity is ultimately a for-fans-only endeavor that rarely transcends the inherent limitations of its material (ie the movie's unlikely to win the interest of art-world neophytes).
The Seagull (May 11/18)
Based on the play by Anton Chekhov, The Seagull follows several characters as they gather at a country estate and engage in a series of long conversations about art and life. Filmmaker Michael Mayer delivers a slow-moving and hopelessly theatrical adaptation of Chekhov's best-known production, and it's clear that the decidedly affected atmosphere prevents the viewer from connecting to the material on an ongoing basis - with the total lack of interesting, fleshed-out characters certainly exacerbating the movie's often aggressively arms-length vibe. And although scripter Stephen Karam has peppered the proceedings with sparse instances of much-needed emotion - eg a character declares her frustratingly unrequited love for another - The Seagull's dominated by a series of hopelessly pointless interludes and encounters that rarely add up to anything intriguing (although, to be fair, the film does fare relatively well when focused purely on the relationships between certain characters). The predictable lack of momentum ensures that the picture grows less and less compelling as time slowly progresses, and there's little doubt, surely, that film runs out of steam long before reaching its somewhat tedious final stretch - which is a shame, really, given that Mayer has elicited strong performances from an almost uniformly impressive cast. (Billy Howle, cast as the tempestuous Konstantin, offers up egregiously over-the-top work that stands as an obvious exception to this.) It's ultimately apparent that The Seagull has lost whatever relevance it may have once possessed, as the movie primarily comes off as an antiquated misfire devoid of elements designed to capture and sustain one's continuing interest.
Book Club (May 18/18)
Book Club follows four lifelong friends (Diane Keaton's Diane, Jane Fonda's Vivian, Candice Bergen's Sharon, and Mary Steenburgen's Carol) as they decide to spice up their monthly get-together by reading E.L. James' 50 Shades of Grey, with the erotic novel prompting the characters to make a series of changes to their respective love lives (eg Vivian ponders giving up her promiscuous ways, Sharon decides to plunge back into the dating world, etc, etc). There's little doubt that Book Club delivers exactly the sort of experience one might've anticipated based on the premise, no more and certainly no less, and it's immediately (and thoroughly) clear that the picture has been designed to appeal to a very specific demographic (ie older women) - as scripters Bill Holderman and Erin Simms have suffused the movie with a series of almost eye-rollingly obvious sex jokes and comedic set-pieces. (This is, after all, the sort of film that believes the height of hilarity is, for example, Sharon accidentally creating a dating-site profile picture of herself with a green face mask.) The film, then, benefits substantially from the affable work of its four effortlessly charming leads, as the always-reliable performers manage to elevate the decidedly stale material on an ongoing basis (and it's obvious, too, that the rich supporting cast, which includes Craig T. Nelson and Andy Garcia, helps perpetuate this vibe). The end result is an almost-watchable comedy that's ultimately just too hackneyed and by-the-numbers for its own good, which is a shame, certainly, given the refreshingly grown-up nature of the movie's premise and roster of actors.
Dixieland (May 23/18)
Dixieland casts Chris Zylka as Kermit, a recently-paroled inmate who wastes little time in resuming his criminal ways once on the outside - with the movie also detailing Kermit's tentative relationship with next-door-neighbor Rachel (Riley Keough). It's an often excessively familiar setup that's employ to progressively underwhelming effect by writer/director Hank Bedford, although, to be fair, the movie does get off to a somewhat promising start as Bedford delivers a comparatively engaging opening stretch - with the film especially benefiting from an ongoing inclusion of real-life interviews with Mississippi residents (ie these figures are often more interesting and complex than any of the film's actual characters). And although the picture immediately segues into a slow-moving and by-the-numbers narrative, Dixieland doesn't entirely become an interminable experience until somewhere around the halfway mark - after which point Bedford's inability to introduce any unexpected or surprising elements grows more and more problematic (ie it just feels like paint-by-numbers filmmaking after a while). The less-than-compelling vibe is compounded by a hopelessly unsympathetic protagonist and a downright interminable final stretch, and it is, in the end, impossible to determine exactly why Bedford thought this was a story worth telling (and it's ultimately apparent that the film, based on the aforementioned interviews, probably would've better off had it been a full-fledged documentary).