BAYWATCH

When Baywatch debuted on NBC in 1989, it was already antiquated. Constructed around a group of lifeguards saving swimmers from drowning while occasionally tracking down serial killers was thin at best, but with a gaggle of good-looking actors who took themselves too seriously, the ridiculous plots the writers came up with turned into television gold. How then to make a 21st century feature film reboot of the franchise ever more absurd and ridiculous? Answer: Hire a bunch of impossibly busty models, a couple of ripped hunks, let them ad-lib as much as possible, and hope for comedy.

The results are less than impressive. Starring Zac Efron as a more pathetic version of Olympic swimmer/screw-up Ryan Lochte, Dwayne Johnson as a gentler version of his Fast and Furious’ Hobbs character, Alexandra Daddario and Kelly Rohrbach as vacuous eye candy, and Jon Bass as the token fat kid with heart, Baywatch is an overly complicated bunch of nonsense stitched together by crappy CGI, a lackluster drug ring subplot, and Johnson’s character droning on about the importance of family. The tone jockeys back and forth between self-aware and self-serious, refusing to land anywhere in the vicinity of a silly summer comedy.

Baywatch is in wide release.

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THE LOVERS

Empty nesters Mary (Debra Winger) and Michael (Tracy Letts) have been married for twenty-plus years but they have probably only been happy for about five of them. Now they awkwardly stumble around each other, trying not to speak and trying harder not to upset each other. The look in their eyes says it all. They have been doing this dance for some time now, maybe a decade, maybe more. They’ve got to that part in their relationship where every question is a clarifying one because they didn’t bother listening the first time around. And they’re not listening now either. It’s hard to say when this all started, but when it did, silence fit their marriage as naturally as affection once did.

All things considered, it’s no surprise to learn that Michael is getting some action on the side from a dancer, Lucy (Melora Walters), and having a difficult time juggling the lies that come with an affair — including maintaining a semblance of a work-life. Mary is also struggling in the cheating department. Her beau is a writer, Robert (Aidan Gillen), who is patiently waiting for Mary to leave Michael while Mary’s co-workers are patiently waiting for her to get her act together and handle her part of the project.

Neither Michael nor Mary knows the other is stepping out on them, but they have their suspicions. One can only work late so many times before questions arise. But neither wants to be the one who lights the fire and invites speculation. Then again, maybe they enjoy this dance of deception; the spark in their marriage blew out long ago. Unfortunately, so did the spark of their affairs. Sex has once again grown routine. The only way to get it lit is to cheat once more, this time with each other.

Ironically titled The Lovers, Mary and Michael and Michael and Lucy and Mary and Robert are anything but. Instead, they are slowly suffocating themselves and everyone around them — especially their rage-prone son, Joel (Tyler Ross) — in their beige colored suburban misery. It’s a familiar story but if writer/director Azazel Jacobs has any insights as to why and what it all means, he isn’t in any hurry to reveal it.

Though The Lovers is an interesting look at a marriage 25 years in, watching it is such a slog that any revelations or insights dribble pass without notice. Instead, we feel the agony of awkward silences and the pain of feeling trapped. Though the runtime is only 94 minutes, it feels much longer. Painfully long. Miserably long. Watching it you might even want to step out on it and court a more interesting movie. Hopefully something with a spark. Maybe you ought to, I doubt The Lovers would blame you.

Debra Winger and Tracy Letts in The Lovers. Courtesy of A24.

Written and directed by Azazel Jacobs
Produced by Azazel Jacobs, Ben LeClair, Chris Stinson
Starring: Tracy Letts, Debra Winger, Melora Walters, Aidan Gillen, Tyler Ross, Jessica Sula
A24, Rated R, Running time 94 minutes, Opens May 19, 2017
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GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God? —Tyler Durden, Fight Club

When journalist Bill Moyers interviewed narratologist Joseph Campbell in 1988 he asked why hero stories could be found in every culture, every religion across the globe. Campbell’s reply was simply: “Because that’s what’s worth writing about.”

There is another component to the universality of the hero’s journey, the one between fathers and sons. Sometimes the son must vanquish the father, or some facsimile, other times the son saves the father from himself. These tropes, which rear their heads in the everyday psychologically, are not only universal, they’re eternal. No matter how long we’ve told the same story, or how long we’ll keep telling them, Atonement With the Father will persist.

That atonement, here between Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and his long-lost father, Ego (Kurt Russell), form the crux of the latest Marvel Studios release, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Released in 2014, the first Guardians brought together Star-Lord, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and everyone’s favorite sentient tree, Groot (Vin Diesel), into a rag-tag group of misfits. When Vol. 2 picks up, this makeshift family is solidly in their element as four of them battle a giant space squid with an endless array of teeth while super kawaii Baby Groot moves and grooves to the swinging sounds of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.”

With this opening, writer/director James Gunn announces that Vol. 2 will carry over the same components that made Guardians a success: a solid 70s soundtrack, irreverent and cartoonish violence, wise-cracks and the notion that togetherness and family are what matters most. The remainder of Vol. 2’s 136 minute runtime — which never once drags — will play out in similar fashion, with Gunn swiftly moving the story from one big bad, the golden and hoity-toity Sovereigns led by Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki), to the over-thrown Yondu (Michael Rooker) and his mutinous crew now led by Taserface (Chris Sullivan).

But these ancillary stories, including Gamora’s never-ending battle with her bitter sister, Nebula (Karen Gillian), and Yondu’s quest for redemption, are merely window dressing for Vol. 2’s main concern: Quill trying to put a little cat’s-in-the-cradle time in with Daddy. Ego, with a beaming, bearded face of Moses and a palace worthy of Zeus, is both a being and a planet; a “Celestial” and like Zeus, Ego took the form of a man to bed Quill’s mother — if any god wanted to seduce a woman in the 1980s, then the visage of Kurt Russell would surely have done the trick. That makes Quill half-man, half-god and Ego convinces Quill to help him in his never-ending quest to spread his seed, figuratively and literally, across the universe in hopes of bringing order to chaos.

Throw in a new character, Ego’s long-suffering assistant, Mantis (Pom Klementieff), whose comprehension of subtext and irony is as broad as Drax’s, neon-colored battle after battle, whiz-bang special effects, an emphasis on family, both nuclear and adopted, plenty of 70s classic rock — The Looking Glass’s “Brandy You’re a Fine Girl” becomes a strained metaphor but Jay & The American’s “Come a Little Bit Closer” provides the backdrop to a scene of giddy cartoonish carnage and visual poetry — and Vol. 2 proves to be a worthy sequel in a series of irreverent space operas.

Not all the pieces fit, particularly the climatic battle that exists somewhere between Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and Dragonball Z, but what doesn’t work never sticks around long enough to ruin the whole shebang. And there’s Baby Groot. That’s enough for some people to hand over their money by the fistful.

Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 ©Marvel Studios 2017

Written & Directed by James Gunn
Based on the Marvel comics by Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning
Based on characters created by Steve Englehart, Steve Gan, Jim Starlin, Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby, Bill Mantlo, Keith Giffen
Produced by Kevin Feige
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Sylvester Stallone, Kurt Russell, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 136 minutes, Opens May 5, 2016
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MY ENTIRE HIGH SCHOOL SINKING INTO THE SEA

When it comes to high drama, there probably isn’t any time in a person’s life that is as tumultuous and dramatic as high school. Well, combat maybe, but not everyone has to face the front lines. They do have to face first period, and when you’re in the shit, it can seem just as bad.

Many movies have mined high school histrionics for great effect (the 2000 Japanese dystopian film, Battle Royal, possibly being the greatest) and though the dynamics of class, race, gender and sexual orientation within the hallowed halls of secondary education are certainly well-plowed, fresh aesthetics can make the familiar seem new again. That newness is the exciting shot of energy imbuing Dash Shaw’s debut feature, My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.

One part high school drama, one part blockbuster satire and one part disaster movie, My Entire High School centers on the friendship of Dash (voiced by Jason Schwartzman) and Assaf (Reggie Watts), the self-imposed sophomore outcasts of Tide High. What Assaf lacks in assertiveness, Dash carries in spades: “This is going to be a big year for our hero and his faithful sidekick.” And while Dash lacks self-awareness, Assaf readily acknowledges that their outcast status might be because of other causes: “You think people don’t like you because of your acne. But the truth is, it might be more of a personality issue.”

Dash’s personality and pride aren’t going to get any better when he discovers Assaf is in a relationship with Verti (Maya Rudolph), their editor at the school newspaper. Feeling betrayed Dash lashes out in the school paper with a blatant and fabricated smear campaign. This lands Dash in hot water with the one-eyed Principle Grimm (Thomas Jay Ryan), who lost his eye in a freak pop-up book accident at a young age.

Not to be done in, Dash goes looking for a real scoop and inadvertently uncovers Grimm’s dirty secret: Tide High is built on a fault line. One so unstable, even the slightest earthquake would send the school sliding down the hill and into the drink, trapping all the students and faculty inside and tossing the insanity of high school drama like a disaster salad.

As the title suggestions, My Entire High School spends most of the movie in disaster mode with the students and staff — which include class president, Mary (Lena Dunham), and Lunch Lady Lorraine (Susan Sarandon, the movie’s best part) — overcoming obstacle after obstacle as they climb the school’s hierarchy, freshman are on the bottom and the seniors are literally on the top. To survive, they must avoid sharks, fire and a kangaroo court presided over by the school’s ace student and football star, Brent Daniels (John Mitchell Cameron).

All of this animated with simplistic character drawings that flicker and wiggle over bright, and sometimes psychedelic, backgrounds of acrylic paint on Bristol boards, enhanced with stroboscopic effects. The effect is charming and unusual and takes the sting off of visual material that might seem too unpleasant, too violent for the movies humorous tone.

Made over the span of six years (2010–2016), My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea recalls the cult/midnight air of Ralph Bakshi, Bill Plimpton, Robert Crumb (without the gratuitous nudity, if you can call a drawing “nude”) and Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. It’s not like anything that passes as animation these days and that’s perfect. High time some fresh air blew open those doors.

Courtesy of GKIDS

Written and directed by Dash Shaw
Produced by Kyle Martin and Craig Zobel
Lead animator: Jane Samborski
Vocal work: Jason Schwartzman, Reggie Watts, Lena Dunham, Maya Rudolph, Susan Sarandon, Thomas Jay Ryan, John Cameron Mitchell
GKIDS, Rated PG-13, Running time 75 minutes, Opens April 28, 2017
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GHOST IN THE SHELL

What stories will this generation tell the ones to come? If the latest output from Hollywood is any indication, they will tell and re-tell the stories of previous generations with slight variations that aren’t adapted but simply repackaged. Hell, if Hollywood was a bookstore, then the used section would be the executives’ favorite. Especially anything dog-eared and underlined. Why bother doing the work when you can piggyback off of someone else?

That is the main knock against the live-action Americanization of Masamune Shirow seminal 1989 manga, Ghost in the Shell. Set in the Japanese city of New Port City in 2029, Ghost in the Shell follows the special team task force Section 9 as they track down a mysterious and dangerous hacker known only as Kuze (Michael Pitt channeling Max Headroom a bit too much).

While Section 9 consist mainly of humans with cyborg enhancements, their point woman, Major (Scarlett Johansson), is fully robotic with a human brain implanted. She is the best of both worlds, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) proclaims. Where a robot can only follow orders, a human mind can lead. Or so Dr. Ouelet hopes.

It doesn’t take long for Section 9 to realize the fix is in for them and the shadowy world they must plunge into to find Kuze is going to lead to more questions than answers. But that won’t slow them in the slightest. Does it ever? Probably not. Worlds like these come prepackaged with a series of rules and like it or not, this is how you play the game.

When Shirow released Ghost in the Shell in 1989, and when it was brought to the big screen in anime form in 1995, New Port City, cyborg enhancements and an ever-growing communication network seemed like perfect science fiction. Nowadays, it seems like science inevitability. It doesn’t help that Ghost in the Shell was a major influence on sci-fi produced in the 1990s and 2000s, thus making a somewhat faithful 2017 adaptation of the manga feel more like a pastiche than anything base or original.

It also doesn’t help that director Rupert Sanders injects little to no energy into the material. Ghost in the Shell is populated with a plethora of pretty looking things, painterly frames and atmospheric touches with décor to match, but the camera does nothing to capture it with vim and vigor. This problem carries over to the editing, which lacks basic kinetics, giving the impression that the actors’ shoes are weighted and the result is a 107-minute movie that sluggishly reaches a familiar conclusion.

That’s not to say Ghost in the Shell isn’t without some merits: Takeshi Kitano’s performance as the Section 9 leader is easily the most pleasurable aspect of the movie. Not to mention that the movie’s subject matter, particularly an emphasis on consent, still rings true. Ghost just fails to do anything beyond what’s already on the page. Seems like a waste to take something and ultimately do nothing.

Scarlett Johansson as Major in Paramount’s Ghost in the Shell

Directed by Rupert Sanders
Screenplay by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler
Based on the comic by Masamune Shirow
Produced by Ari Arad, Michael Costigan, Steven Paul
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Michael Pitt, Pilou Asbæk, Chin Han, Lasarus Ratuere
Paramount Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 107 minutes, Opens March 31, 2017
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PERSONAL SHOPPER

Not everyone can shop for themselves. Some aren’t very good at it, some are too busy and others are too well known to walk into Cartier without TMZ hounding them out the door. For the high-class clientele, a personal shopper is a must and Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) fills that role for international actress and model, Kyra (Nora von Waldstätten).

Maureen’s relationship with Kyra isn’t great — Kyra treats Maureen like crap and Maureen reciprocates with animosity — but neither is her relationship with her boyfriend, Gary (Ty Olwin), a computer programmer working in another country. They communicate exclusively over Skype and only when Maureen feels like it and she really doesn’t feel like these days. She is too busy waiting. Waiting for her crappy job with Kyra to end, waiting for her art career to take off and waiting for her dead twin brother to contact her from beyond the grave.

Maureen’s brother, Lewis, died suddenly from a heart attack at the age of 27 due to a heart defect, which Maureen also possesses. She might live to see 90, but she doubts it and focuses her attention on the afterlife.

Lewis, who was a medium, had a pact with Maureen; if he died first he would reach out and contact her. Now Maureen waits in Paris, the city where Lewis died, hoping a sign. Part of this search requires her to offer her services as a medium for potential buyers of haunted proprieties. Maureen spends the night in the house trying to make contact so she can determine if the spirit is benevolent or malicious. In the meantime, she paints; infatuated with the works of Swedish abstract pioneer Hilma af Klint, a spiritualist who used séances to influence her work.

But these three plot threads — Maureen as a personal shopper, Maureen the aspiring painter and Maureen as a ghost hunter — are merely window dressings for Maureen trying desperately to reconnect with her deceased brother; a goal that can sometimes blind Maureen to what’s obviously at hand. Yes, there are ghosts in Personal Shopper, but they don’t pose the same threat that the living does. When Maureen starts receiving texts from an unknown number, she foolish, and a bit hopefully, attributes them to her brother. The audience knows better and writer/director Olivier Assayas uses this knowledge to ratchet up the tension.

A ghost story in ten or so dissolves; Personal Shopper is an unbelievably unsettling and enjoyable piece of work. Assayas’s use of empty space and off-center framing of Maureen constantly puts us on edge. As do the enormous close-ups of Maureen’s phone as the texts come in, with each ding, wipe, vibration and typing sound effect drawing us further into Maureen’s anxiety. As Robert Bresson once put it, “The soundtrack invented silence.” And Assayas wisely drops extraneous music cues in favor of Foleys to heighten that silence. Phones, creaking floorboards, locking latches, even the almost silent swoosh of a hotel lobby door opening and closing amps up Maureen’s ghost story.

There is one notable exception to Personal Shopper‘s use of soundtrack, the one where Assayas summons the ghosts of cinema past and uses Marlene Dietrich singing “Das Hobellied” for a moment of suspense, release and unease. Like Bresson, Assayas toys with the audience, but not without giving them what they want.

This is the second time Assayas and Stewart have collaborated — 2014’s The Clouds of Sils Maria was also impressive — and rarely have artists ever felt more in sync. Stewart’s performance is understated, emotional, raw, real and outstanding. In one scene she manages to portray fear, loss, sadness and hope in a matter of seconds. The distance Assayas’s camera keeps in this scene is both respectful and probing. He’s teasing her, but only a little. She knows and is okay with it. This is dress-up after all, and Stewart is comfortable in just about anything Assayas can toss at her. A match made in heaven.

Kristen Stewart in IFC Films’ Personal Shopper

Written and directed by Olivier Assayas
Produced by Charles Gillibert
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Lars Eidinger, Sigrid Bouaziz, Anders Danielsen Lie, Ty Olwin, Nora von Waldstätten
IFC Films, Rated R, Running time 105 minutes, Opens March 24, 2017

 

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THE SENSE OF AN ENDING

A man builds his life. He tells his story, he buries his secrets and he forgets his lies. Then he grows old and begins to wonder: Was I right? Was I wrong? Did I say too much? Not enough? Too bad he forgets to ask the one question that really matters: Does anyone care?

At least that’s what Tony Webster — known affectionately by his friends and family as “Mr. Webster” — should be asking himself. This curmudgeonly divorcé spends his days in a quiet and suffocating routine of running his boutique camera repair shop and not giving a good goddamn about the world around him. Then one day a letter from the past arrives and sends Mr. Webster into the throes of memories long forgotten. Of first love, friendship and betrayal.

This letter — from his first girlfriend’s estate after her mother died — prompts Mr. Webster to call up the ex-Mrs. Webster, Margaret (Harriet Walter), and recount for her in painstaking detail his first love, sexual frustration and crucial events that shaped his whole existence. This is the first time she has heard any of this, which makes the mind wonder: What exactly did they talk about for all those years? The more Mr. Webster prattles on, the more we see why he has a camera repair shop, why he loves the poems of Dylan Thomas, why he breaks his eggs when he cooks breakfast — did this simply not come up during their marriage? Or did he just not trust her with the truth?

While Mr. Webster deals with his three-quarter’s life crisis, his adult daughter (Michelle Dockery) is preparing for her first child. With no partner is in sight and the ex-Mrs. Webster on injured reserve, Mr. Webster has to step in and help out, which he does in between bouts of memory and stalking his long ago infatuation, Veronica (played by Charlotte Rampling in the present tense and by Freya Mavor in flashback). He’s nothing if not consistent.

The Sense of an Ending is a movie that is prim and proper, prettily photographed and entirely too boring. The story that Mr. Webster recounts covers many twists and turns, each one slightly darker. But the time it takes to get up to speed isn’t worth the payoff. Particularly because The Sense of an Ending is wholly and reductively infatuated with its male protagonist and not one of the women featured in Mr. Webster’s life. Not once does Mr. Webster allow them to interject during his stories or explanations. Do these women have opinions? Do their stories matter to him? Apparently not. When his daughter goes into labor, Mr. Webster drops a bombshell on her that would be better reserved for Sunday brunch. Timing, Mr. Webster. Timing.

But the problem of Mr. Webster might not be the character’s tone-deaf approach to his female relationships but the writer’s. Adapted from Julian Barnes’s novel of the same name, The Sense of an Ending neuters each female voice until they are an extension of Mr. Webster’s consciousness. The most egregious example of this is when an ancillary male character approaches Mr. Webster and asks him to leave Veronica and her family alone. Never mind that she asked him the same on multiple occasions. For some reason, her pleas never stuck. This time it does.

No wonder his first love ditched him for another man, his wife divorced him and his daughter has a distant relationship with him. There’s room in the world for Mr. Webster and Mr. Webster alone. Everything else is just clutter.

Charlotte Rampling and Jim Broadbent in The Sense of An Ending. Courtesy of CBS Films

Directed by Ritesh Batra
Screenplay by Nick Payne
Based on the novel by Julian Barnes
Produced by Ed Rubin, David M. Thompson
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Emily Mortimer, Billy Howle, Joe Alwyn
CBS Films, Rated PG-13, Running time 108 minutes, Opens March 17, 2017
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