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Film Review

New films: Too many for one title!

This week presents a true mixed bag of films, from the big budget to the partially crowd-sourced. Here’s a quick moviebrief roundup of five films opening in the Sacramento area.

A Most Wanted Man
Directed by Anton Corbijn

Cutting directly to the chase, the best film of the week in terms of acting, storytelling, and production quality (you know, important stuff) is “A Most Wanted Man.” That’s hardly surprising given that it stars the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his final roles, it’s based on a novel by master spy-story-teller John le Carré (“Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”), and it’s directed by Anton Corbijn who has a short but noteworthy feature film resumé (“The American,” “Control”).

The story is set in Hamburg, a city so concerned about possible terrorist attacks that it’s in a constant state of high alert. Within that framework, multiple local, state and international agencies attempt to uncover people and information, often competing with each other in the process, rather than combining resources. This constant sense of urgency raises concerns about whether or not justice can actually be achieved in an often unjust system.

I’ll avoid writing about who plays whom and their respective places in the various hierarchies, as much of the beauty of the film exists in discovering those very elements. Suffice to say that the story structure is as excellent as one might expect and the acting from the strong ensemble cast is without any obvious weak links. I was so captivated by the film that I actually sat worrying that something would happen to break the spell, especially given high expectations which are often a curse, but it remained excellent throughout. Put simply, it’s a phenomenal film and a sad reminder of the talent we lost when Hoffman died.

Showtimes + Trailer


Wish I Was Here
Directed by Zach Braff

Zach Braff spent years trying to get this project off the ground, hamstrung by a system that no longer rushes to reward modest successes. And so this well known actor (and writer/director) turned to the crowdfunding website kickstarter.com to help fund the project. This led to a barrage of criticism from those who felt that a celebrity shouldn’t have been stepping on the toes of even more independent and student filmmakers, and other artists, many of whom have no other means of support.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’ll point out that I supported the project, but I was actually intrigued by the way Braff designed the campaign. I’ve watched and participated in campaigns such as these since they began and Braff tapped into his fanbase in a manner that probably had very little effect on anybody else. He very simply and effectively gave his own fans opportunities they cared about, such as tickets to screenings of the finished film that he would attend and simple gimmicks like personally recorded answering service messages. And tens of thousands of them responded. Rather than breaking kickstarter, he demonstrated a viable alternative approach to utilizing a service that is continually reinventing itself more than many people realize.

So what of the film?

“Wish I Was Here” is a modestly-sized, comedic family drama that follows two brothers, and those around them, as they cope with the imminent death of their father. Braff plays Aiden Bloom, family man and unsuccessful actor. Aiden’s long career-codependent wife (Kate Hudson) somewhat reluctantly supports his ambitions until their financial circumstances and tenuous hold on life change. Josh Gad plays Aiden’s anti-social, nerd brother and Mandy Patinkin plays their stern and overbearing, terminally ill father.

The outcome is surprisingly touching and is at its best when it’s being dramatic. Some of the comedic content isn’t quite as consistently successful, but there are certainly many genuine chuckles along the way. Put simply, it’s a good film if not great, delivering well on modest resources. It captures a struggling family dynamic that will probably be all too familiar to many in the audience and it’s worth your consideration.

Showtimes + Trailer

 

and so it goesAnd So It Goes
Directed by Rob Reiner

“And So It Goes” brings another power grouping in the form of director Rob Reiner, and leads Michael Douglas and Diane Keaton – enough to reassure audience members that the outcome should be fairly reliable, at least. And it is, but it’s not as good as that team would seem to be capable of.

In the midst of summery action films and raunchy comedies, “And So It Goes” is a romantic comedy for adults, and older adults. Douglas plays a retiring realtor who has one last major house to sell, and who finds himself living temporarily in closer quarters than he’s used to, next to a widowed and overly-emotional lounge singer played by Keaton. It’s a somewhat unstable situation, made more so by the sudden arrival of a granddaughter he didn’t even know he had.

If that sounds cutesy, it is – and it’s a comedy fueled more by acerbic comments of mismatched neighbors and the small oddities of life than by anything that might approach belly laughs. Overall, it has a lightweight air to it, with some rather sudden jumps in the story that give it the feeling of having been edited for length in an attempt to keep it moving swiftly along. And at just 94 minutes, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, providing some pleasant enough giggles for those who aren’t seeking comicbook superheroes and explosions.

Showtimes + Trailer


Hercules
Directed by Brett Ratner
&
Lucy
Directed by Luc Besson

Which leaves the two biggest releases of the week – and the two worst. “Hercules” and “Lucy” are also both quite short, at 98 and 90 minutes respectively, although in these instances the correct term would seem to be “mercifully brief.”

I’m often annoyed by trailers for films that seem to be advertising a different film entirely and both of these qualify in that regard. However, I find myself sympathizing with the editors of both trailers as they appear to have been attempting to make trailers for imaginary, far better films. The outcome of which is that the trailers for each of these films are more satisfying and tell better tales than the films themselves.

For example, the trailer for “Hercules” leads one to expect to see a film about the 12 labors that gave rise to the term “Herculean task.” We’ve had other related films focusing on romance, and a pithy adventure yarn about great deeds of courage and strength actually seemed quite appealing. Instead, this iteration of a story that has been told for thousands of years is all about Hercules (Dwayne Johnson) and his band of merry outlaws, fighting as mercenaries and training an army for battle. It’s like some odd amalgam of “Seven Samurai”/”The Magnificent Seven,” “Robin Hood,” and some weird Greek version of “The Expendables.”

(Showtimes + Trailer for Hercules)

Meanwhile, “Lucy” is not a story about Morgan Freeman introducing a superhuman (Scarlett Johansson) to the world, as the trailer’s cunning editing suggests. He knows nothing about her. She’s an ordinary woman dragged into an ugly world of smuggling, and exposed to a synthetic version of a human hormone that causes her brain to function at extraordinary levels. For a while this is quite fun, as she outsmarts and outfights the folks around her. But it’s a film that would remain better in one’s memory if you fell asleep half way through, as it just gets increasingly silly as it continues (achieving the almost impossible in making “Transcendence” look better). There’s something oddly ironic about a film that seems to suggest we, humans, are arrogant about our place in the world and then suggests that if we unlocked our full potential we would have full control of electricity, solid objects, space, time…everything.

(Showtimes + Trailer for Lucy)

This is a week in which the small films win and win big. If you want bigger summer films, find a screening of “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” or wait a week for a far more fun space adventure (to be named later…).

 

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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