Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Unsane Review (2018)

Grade: B-

Prolific chameleon director Steven Soderbergh’s latest feature, “Unsane” is a wild, ambitious and altogether delirious ride. Writers Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer manage to pack a lot into a tight pulpy genre movie mold while Soderbergh (acting as his own director of photography) captures the mayhem with only an IPhone--alternating between gritty “shot-on-the-fly” style coverage and more impressionistic, hypnotic horror movie shots. “Unsane” is at once a disturbing, absurdist indictment of institutional corruption and abuse and an unabashedly sleazy old school slasher movie. It doesn’t entirely work but there’s rarely an anxiety free moment.

“Unsane” is at its most unsettling within the first thirty minutes. Without disclosing too much plot, the action revolves around Sawyer Valentini, (Claire Foy, assured and fiercely determined) a young woman trying to move on from past trauma. She goes to a nearby mental hospital, only looking for someone to talk to. However, the hospital won’t let her leave and through a little coercion disguised as run-of-the-mill paper work, Sawyer is involuntarily committed.

This sequence of events left me in a state of unshakable anxiety. I felt trapped and powerless along with Sawyer. The film unfolds like an absurd, deadpan nightmare. There’s a bland feel to the proceedings overall. The actors who play the hospital employees give stilted, awkward performances. But this banality is precisely what makes the film so scary and twisted. The hospital is so mundane and the employees handle Sawyer’s questions and pleas for freedom with such a cold professionalism, as if keeping people here involuntarily is the norm.

Sawyer’s predicament is further complicated by the fact that she’s a woman. In many ways “Unsane” is a horror movie very directly about the violation of consent and the way reports of abuse are mishandled and belittled by institutions that are supposed to care. Sawyer is manipulated and eventually left powerless by the people who she went to for aid. Her inquires and protests are met with a chilling, hostile indifference. They don’t listen to her. They don’t want to listen. And at times Sawyer even starts to believe their diagnosis and vague responses to her questions, which is absolutely terrifying. In the context of the #MeToo movement, “Unsane” is unexpectedly timely.

Otherwise, “Unsane” unfolds like a mix of Samuel Fuller’s angry, “in-your-face” mental hospital exposé “Shock Corridor” and a grindhouse style horror movie. Someone from Sawyer’s past comes back to haunt her, taking things down a deeply unpleasant and nasty path. While the film’s commentary on institutional corruption (how capitalism infects and rots the field of medicine) is convincingly rendered the grindhouse stuff gets tedious after a while.

The mechanics of the plot start to break down. In fact the last fifteen minutes are chaotic and sometimes flat out incoherent. In the moment it’s still viscerally involving (like the rest of the movie) but afterwards you’ll find yourself trying to plug up a litany of plot holes. Additionally, in a rushed attempt to bring everything to a neatly satisfying conclusion, (in an old fashioned genre movie sort of way) the ending is underwhelming.  The rest of “Unsane” is strong enough to warrant an easy recommendation even if Soderbergh ultimately loses control of his ambitious project.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Tomb Raider Review (2018)

Grade: C+

Roar Uthaug’s “Tomb Raider” (based on the popular videogame series) is a reboot; an origin story for archeologist/ treasure seeker/athlete/badass Lara Croft. That sounds like a good idea. After all, we like to learn how our superheroes came to be. Unfortunately, Uthaug’s film is remarkably simple and breezy--often generic but light on its feet and never flat out wretched. The action is occasionally gripping. For being just under two hours it goes by very quickly. Overall, Tomb Raider” plays like a thoroughly mediocre (with splashes of fun) one off action flick.

That sounds like a mild compliment rather than a criticism but “Tomb Raider” also has the burden of setting up a new film franchise/ character. In that context, it feels like a hectic, forgettable warm up rather than a substantial origin story.
“Tomb Raider” moves along at a snappy pace. The action begins in London with our heroine in the making Lara (Alicia Vikander) as a young and intelligent but misguided woman, working as a bike riding food deliverer and practicing Mixed Martial Arts on the side. She holds out hope that one day she will reconnect with her explorer/billionaire father, (played by Dominic West) who went missing searching for an ancient Japanese Queen’s tomb.

That day comes fast. Lara uncovers her father’s research and races across stormy Pacific waters to an uninhabited island to find him. There, an expedition, sponsored by a shadowy organization called Trinity and lead by a deranged archeologist named Mathias (Walton Goggins, effortlessly menacing) is taking place to recover the contents of the tomb.

And well, that’s pretty much it. “Tomb Raider” is thin on substance; Mathias is underdeveloped as a villain while the central mystery involving the Japanese Princess is vague and not all that compelling or elaborate. The script by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons doesn’t devote much time to archeological work or clue hunting outside of a few dull montages of Lara furiously digging through her father’s research. I get that she’s a novice but you’d think that the first mystery (the mystery that gives her her life’s calling) would be just a little more intricately wound and fleshed out.

The vagueness of the Japanese Queen mystery is partly intentional so that the movie can drop a twist on us during the climax, set in The Queen’s booby-trapped tomb. But this twist is rote and not worth the build up. Even worse, in its primary goal of setting up a new franchise, the picture ends with another uninspired twist and one of those cheap “our-hero-will-return” cliffhangers that made me roll my eyes.

Of course, the father-daughter relationship is more the focal point here than the Japanese Queen stuff and that dynamic is gently touching. (West and Vikander share a few strong moments onscreen). But like the rest of the film, their relationship is rushed and not all that deep. Too often it settles for skin deep, saccharine flashbacks featuring Lara as a girl.

Vikander is quite good, playing Lara with an engrossing combination of toughness and vulnerability. She’s incredibly intelligent and resourceful but expectedly inexperienced. During the action sequences, (one of which involves her floating down mighty rapids and hanging on to a rusty airplane wreck over a massive waterfall) she proves to be strong and feisty but also reckless and unrefined. She gets hurt and sometimes cries out into pain. Lara is not the seasoned badass yet.

The film’s combination of comedy and dark drama (Mathias relies on slave labor for his expedition) doesn’t always cohere tonally. In fact most of the attempts at humor feel forced; an extended scene featuring Nick Frost as a cheeky pawnshop owner is tedious from the get go. Meanwhile, all of the witty banter between Lara and supporting characters falls flat.

In the end, “Tomb Raider” does its job in setting up a new franchise (that may or many not continue) and does so in lightly pleasing but mostly mediocre fashion.