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Films I Neglected To Review: Will Dystopia Ever End?
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Allegiant," "Chimes at Midnight," "Creative Control," "Eye in the Sky," "My Golden Days" and "Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday." One of them is one of the greatest films ever made. Hint—it isn’t "Allegiant."

Considering how much I disliked both of its predecessors, "Divergent" and "Insurgent," I cannot say that I exactly went into "Allegiant" with any great illusions regarding its potential quality but the screen adaptation of the first half of the final book in the best-selling YA saga about an exceptionally queer dystopian future is so crummy that even hardcore fans of the series will find it difficult to embrace. With the old factions dissolved and new leader Evelyn (Naomi Watts) heading down the same quasi-fascist route as her predecessors, spunky heroine Tris (Shailene Woodley), accompanied by hunky boyfriend Four (Theo James), former turncoat brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort), best pal Christina (Zoe Kravitz) and eternal pain-in-the-ass Peter (Miles Teller), go beyond the walls of post-apocalyptic Chicago and are taken to a hi-tech community whose slick and easy-going leader (Jeff Daniels) is making plans to use Tris's genetic gifts to help bring peace to everyone. Of course, his patter is too good to be true (as a rule, if you are in a post-apocalyptic world, never trust anyone whose living room has matching furniture) and Tris and Four struggle to bring the warring factions of Chicago back together to stave off their potential destruction or something along those lines.

Say what you will about such long-running franchises as the Harry Potter and "Hunger Games" films - at least the actors managed to keep their energy and enthusiasm up over the long period of time that they spent making those films. (Of course, the fact that those films were uncommonly good might have had a little something to do with it.) By comparison, all of the actors here seem bored and resentful over the fact that they are still doing this nonsense--and with one more still to go - and it is kind of hard to get involved with the plights of characters played by people who, to judge by the looks of things, barely want to be there themselves. The sense of listlessness extends behind the camera as well--every scene, whether an all-out action sequence or a more dramatic moment, is staged in the most perfunctory manner possible and the cinematography is so dark and muddy throughout that I keep reaching for my 3-D glasses to take them off, only to realize that it wasn't actually in the process in the first place. Throw in a storyline that goes absolutely nowhere and is completely devoid of even a trace of a sense of humor (except for some of the unintentionally hilarious dialogue on display) and you have a film that is as close to an entertainment dead zone as you can imagine. Sure, there is only one more film in the series left but "Allegiant" is so awful that I cannot imagine that many people will be all that eager to stick around for the bitter, though entirely welcome, end.

Unless the legal obstacles preventing the completion and release of "The Other Side of the Wind" or any of the other projects that he left unfinished over the years are finally overcome, we will, of course, never see a new film from the late Orson Welles but with the re-release of "Chimes at Midnight," we get the next best thing--the return of an authentic Welles classic that largely fell into obscurity, at least in the U.S., with only rare theatrical screenings and no official home video distribution in the near half-century since it debuted. Comprised of elements taken from Shakespeare's "Henry IV, Part 1," "Henry IV, Part 2," "Richard II," "Henry V" and "The Merry Wives of Windsor," the film centers on the Bard's recurring character of Falstaff (Welles), the gluttonous former knight who now spends his days carousing around with Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), the rebellious son of King Henry IV (John Gielgud). Even as they go about drinking and wenching with abandon, Hal recognizes that at some point, he will most likely accept his birthright and reject Falstaff and his current lifestyle for good. Unable to see past the immediate good times, Falstaff pays this no mind but following the Battle of Shrewsbury - where Hal acquits himself nobly while Falstaff spends most of his time hiding in the bushes - and Hal's eventual coronation, making him Henry V, he winds up suffering his greatest betrayal at the hands of the person he thought was his greatest friend and ally.

When it first came out in America in 1967, "Chimes at Midnight" was cooly received by critics who griped about the poor sound recording and the rapid-fire editing than Welles employed to cover up the piecemeal manner in which it was shot that found co-stars like Gielgud, Jeanne Moreau and Margaret Rutherford only working for a few days at time (and when they weren't available, he resorted to using over-the-shoulder shots of stand-ins to get the necessary shots--he claims that in one scene using seven key players, none of the real actors were actually there), not to mention cheap shots about how Welles was the first actor in history too heavy to play the mountainous Falstaff. Times have certainly changed because seen today, it is easily the best of Welles's cinematic Shakespeare adaptations and belongs right up there with "Citizen Kane," "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "Touch of Evil" as one of his greatest works. Now that the soundtrack has been cleaned of its clutter, one can get a much better appreciation of performances from the uniformly excellent cast (though the sight of Jeanne Moreau as one of the aforementioned wenches is a bit disconcerting) and while the quick-cut editing patterns must have seemed disconcerting back then, they turned out to be ahead of their time and give the film a vibrant and modern edge without going overboard into mere clutter. (The Battle of Shrewsbury, in which the fast cutting was utilized to mask the lack of extras, is one of the most striking battle sequences in film history and has served as a key inspiration for any number of subsequent films.) As for Welles, his Falstaff in one of the richest and most powerful performances in a career filled with them - the scene in which Hal rejects Falstaff may be the single best scene that he ever played in a film. Whether you are a follower of Welles and/or Shakespeare or want to experience a true cinematic classic that most people haven't actually seen, "Chimes at Midnight" is an essential work and cannot be recommended more highly.

Set in the not-too-distant future, "Creative Control" opens as hot-shot advertising genius David (writer-director Benjamin Dickinson) is put in charge of the account for Augmenta, a new virtual reality system not unlike that Google Glass nonsense from a couple of years ago. As most guys do when confronted with world-shaking technological advances, he transforms the device into a newfangled sex toy by using its features to create a life-size version of co-worker crush Sophie (Alexia Rasmussen) that he can nail every time he puts the glasses on. This is a little more complicated than it sounds because Sophie is also the girlfriend of his best pal, Wim (Dan Gill), and David himself already has a lover in sometimes yoga instructor Juliette (Norah Zehetner). Inevitably, David becomes obsessed with the virtual Sophie and allows his personal and professional lives to crumble around him to the point where he has trouble discerning between the real world and the one generated by Augmenta.

In other words, "Creative Control" is pretty much a riff on "Her"--augmented with bits from everything from "Ex Machina" (though this is presumably coincidental since they both premiered at roughly the same time last year) to "After Hours" to those irritating commercials that try to flatter consumers by knowingly pointing out the old advertising cliches even as they deploy the new ones just the fame--and if it accomplishes nothing else (Spoiler Alert! It doesn't), it makes you appreciate the accomplishments of that film all the more by suggesting just how bad it could have turned out in lesser hands. There isn't a single original or unique thought on display here, the satirical aspects ring hollow throughout, the characters are all ciphers who are either boorish, boring or a combination of the two and even from a technical standpoint, it comes up short--while beautifully photographed in black-and-white by Adam Newport-Berra, the glimpses of future technologies we are treated to are distinctly unimpressive. Worst of all, Dickinson has taken a story that is theoretically meant to mock the alpha-male tendencies of its central characters but does it in such a half-hearted manner that it feels more like an embrace of all he stands for rather than a critique. Little more than the cinematic equivalent of a 404 message, "Creative Control" displays neither creativity nor control and can be dropped from our cultural hard drive without hesitation.

Another film contemplating the eternal conflict between mankind and technology, "Eye in the Sky" stars Helen Mirren as a British-based colonel in charge of tracking down and arresting terrorist suspects in Kenya utilizing drone technology. When two of her biggest targets turn up unexpectedly and appear to be preparing a major suicide bombing, the order shifts from arrest to kill but just as the American-based drone pilots (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) are about to fire, a little girl enters the kill zone to sell some bread. Since they cannot easily chase the girl away to safety without alerting the bad guys to their presence, the questions of whether the mission can proceed and whether the possible death of one girl outweighs that certain deaths of dozens if the bombs go off are bounced through the highest corridors of the U.S. and British governments while the colonel desperately tries to massage the kill zone estimates to a low enough number to allow her to proceed even if the girl is still there.

Essentially a college classroom discussion acted out by a number of familiar faces (including the late, great Alan Rickman in one of his final performances as Mirren's superior), "Eye in the Sky" is at its best when it is working as a slick yet refreshingly low-tech thriller laced with occasional bits of dark humor in the manner of the great "Dr. Strangelove." The trouble is that when it comes to the battle between technology and humanity as shown here, the human aspect ends up getting lost amidst all the hardware and techno-jargon and the attempts to forge by director Gavin Hood to form a connection with the human side, ranging from closeups of that unwitting little girl to an overblown soundtrack, are clumsy at best and a little insulting at worst. It is not necessarily a bad movie by any means but when you go to something like this, regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, you should come out of it shaken and ready to engage in further discussions of the issues it raises. Here, you just come out missing Alan Rickman and trying to think of somewhere to eat.

French filmmaker Arnaud Desplechin made his big breakthrough with his 1996 film "My Sex Life. . .Or How I Got Into An Argument" and with his latest work, the sprawling drama "My Golden Days," he takes the central character from that narrative, Paul Dedalus (with a few changes here and there), and finds him as an adult (played by Mathieu Amalric (who played the role in the previous film) preparing to return home to France after working for years as an anthropologist in Tajikistan and reflecting on his life in the form of three episodes that take up most of the film. In the first, set during his childhood (where he is played by Antoine Bui), he tries to protect his younger sister from a crazed and violent mother and deeply depressed father, even as the pressures force him to leave home and live with an aunt and her female lover. In the second, a teenaged Paul (Quentin Dolmaire) is on a class trip to the USSR when he helps to smuggle things to local dissidents and winds up giving one of them his own ID paper--a decision that will have unexpected repercussions decades down the line. In the third and longest section, Paul is off at college and is dealing with his relationships with his sister, his friends and Esther (Lou Roy-Lecollinet), the beautiful classmate who becomes the one true love of his life--at least for a while. (She is another character who has been transplanted from "My Sex Life. . . ")

Arnaud Desplechin is, for those keeping track of such things, one of the leading lights of the contemporary French film scene but while I certainly admire his films to a great degree--they are all smart, impeccably crafted and filled with strong performances--there has always been something about them that has kept me at enough of a distance to prevent me from embracing them completely. That is once again the case here as I admire the film as much as I can--it is impeccably directed, beautiful to look at and filled with good performances (with Lou Roy-Lecollinet, who essentially dominates the second half with her inspired turn)--but it never quite managed to grab me in the way that it probably should have. The episodic nature is also a bit of a stumble--the stuff involving the youngest version of Paul is too brief to make much of an impact, the sojourn to the USSR seems to have come in from another movie altogether and while the youngest iteration of Paul is a decent match for Amalric's distinctive looks, Quentin Dolmaire looks so little like him that it becomes distracting. Nevertheless, "My Golden Days" is still worth checking out when all is said and done, especially for fans of Desplechin's previous films.

It may have been more than 28 years since Pee-Wee Herman's last big-screen adventure but from the first moment that the eternally goofy man-child in the tight grey suit appears in his latest effort, "Pee-Wee's Big Holiday"" it certainly appears as though time has stood still in his case--he looks so much like he did back in his Eighties heyday (admittedly with the help of plenty of makeup and lighting tricks) that the effect is downright disconcerting. The film is also a bit of a throwback as well to a time when a comedy could revolve around such an endearingly oddball personality instead of simply assaulting viewers with gross-out gags and snarkiness. In it--and I fear that I must be somewhat vague, lest I violate the agreement I signed and incur the wrath of Netflix (where the film is premiering--it will also be opening in a few theaters nationwide as well)--Pee-Wee is living a fine life in the small town of Fairville, so fine that he has never in his life ventured outside of its borders. (I know what you are thinking but other than a few in-jokes here and there, there is no connection between this film and "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure.") That all changes when Joe Manganiello--playing a goofy variation of himself--and he and Pee-Wee hit it off so well that he invites him to his birthday party in five days. Alas, the shindig is in New York City, so Pee-Wee screws up his courage and sets off on his journey. Suffice it to say, things get a little weird as he encounters such oddities as a weird snake farm, an Amish community and a trio of bad girls who seem to have dropped in straight out of a Russ Meyer film.

Watching people trying to dust off their old comic personas decades after their heyday can be a dispiriting sight, as anyone who saw "Blues Brothers 2000" and "Dumb and Dumber To" can attest, so it comes as a relief to report that "Pee-Wee's Big Holiday" is a pretty funny film that should more than satisfy fans of the character. No, it doesn't come close to topping the subversive wit and visual style of the cult classic "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" but there are still plenty of funny moments to be had here--my favorite is the brilliantly silly extended bit in which our hero demonstrates a trick involving a balloon to some Amish people he comes across--and even when a joke doesn't quite work, another one comes up quickly enough so that you hardly register the lull. As his famous alter ego, Paul Reubens is hilarious as he goes about his endearingly wacky way without ever tipping over into childishness or cynicism. I cannot quite imagine what people who were not even alive when Pee-Wee Herman was at the peak of his popularity will make of all this but at least for those of us old enough to remember those days, "Pee-Wee's Big Holiday" is pretty much worth the trip.

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originally posted: 03/18/16 15:54:53
last updated: 03/21/16 15:33:42
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