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Films I Neglected To Review: ''There Were A Lot Of Explosions For Two People Blending In.''
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of '''Salt and Fire,'' ''The Transfiguration,'' ''The Ticket'' and ''Your Name,'' along with a look at the Blu-ray of a little art film called ''Rogue One.''

With its blend of screw-loose storytelling and obtuse philosophizing, ''Salt and Fire'' feels less like an actual movie and more like a failed attempt by a filmmaker to present a bizarrely straight-faced parody of a Werner Herzog film. The problem is that the film was written and directed by Herzog himself and the end result is easily one of the most utterly baffling--and not in the good way--works of his long and usually great career. As the film opens, scientist Laura Somerfeld (Veronica Ferres) has been sent to an unnamed country (a.k.a. Bolivia) as part of a three-person delegation to investigate the CEO of a company whose chemical waste has transformed a one-time lake into a salt flat that is expanding at a terrifying rate. When she arrives, she and her colleagues (Gael Garcia Bernal and Volker Michalowski) are grabbed by a group of masked abductors that turns out to be led by none other than the mysterious CEO, Matt Riley (Michael Shannon) himself. For a while, the two wander through the latter's palatial estate talking in metaphysics until Riley takes it up a notch by driving out to the middle of the salt flats (where there is also a volcano that is possibly ready to erupt with potentially cataclysmic results) and stranding her there with only a week’s worth of rations and two young children who have gone blind as a result of Riley’s chemical waste.

As I said, Herzog has made some of the most fascinating and essentially unknowable films that I have ever seen but I am at a loss to understand what he was hoping to achieve here. Never a director with much interest in the concerns of basic narrative, the first third of the film is hampered by some of the clumsiest expository dialogue ever written. The next section is almost as bad as Ferres and Shannon engage in the equivalent of a college bull session that is especially heavy on the bull and is further undermined by the sight of the usually reliable Shannon portraying absolutely no one’s idea of a plausible CEO and delivering lines such as ''Truth is the only daughter of time.'' The final section of the film, featuring the doctor and the two kids struggling to survive in their new environment, is an improvement--it is the only time that Ferres's performance even begins to work and some of the visuals of the blasted-out landscape (which in real life is both a tourist attraction and a breeding ground for pink flamingoes) achieve the kind of weirdo beauty that make you wish that Herzog would have looked at them through his documentarian eye. Alas, even this portion is fatally undermined by a last-minute reveal that is so ludicrous that it almost--but not quite--needs to be seen to be believed. ''Salt and Fire'' is an absolute failure but considering the number of great films that Werner Herzog has made over the years, I guess even he is allowed the occasional misstep--even one as big as this one.

Like a lot of teenagers, Milo (Eric Ruffin), the protagonist of ''The Transfiguration,'' has a fascination with vampires--he has stacks of them stashed away in his bedroom that he obsessively rewatches with an eye for determining which ones are more ''realistic'' than others. (The George Romero classic ''Martin'' gets high marks in this regard while he has no love for the likes of ''Twilight.'') The difference between him and other kids his age is that a couple of times a month, he goes out to find someone so that he can stab them in the throat with a pocket knife and drink their blood as they lay dying. Living in the projects in Brooklyn with his older brother, Milo tries to keep his secret under wraps while sating his bloodlust but things become complicated when Sophie (Chloe Levine), a white girl his age, moves into his building to live with her abusive grandfather. The two bond over their shared sense of loneliness and alienation--both lost their parents under terrible circumstances--and a shy sort of romance tentatively begins to develop between them, even despite Sophie’s insistence that ''Twilight'' is actually really good. As a result, Milo finds himself at last beginning to contemplate the horrors that he has been perpetrating as part of his delusion but that may not be enough when the pressures of the outside world begin to bear down upon him and Sophie begins to uncover his gruesome secret.

Written and directed by Michael O'Shea, ''The Transfiguration'' is a bit of a mixed bag as a film. O'Shea is clearly a student of vampire cinema but there are times when he is just a little too determined to demonstrate that love by name-checking any number of films (I will buy Milo going off to catch a screening of the original ''Nosferatu'' but not so much the sight of the indie obscurity ''Nadja'' having a place of prominence in his collection) or by bringing in cameos from such familiar genre faces as Lloyd Kaufmann and Larry Fesseden. There is also a subplot involving some local gang members who regularly bully and torment Milo that seems trucked in from another movie and flirts just a little too closely with becoming a series of questionable racial stereotypes. Far more interesting--enough to make the film as a whole worth checking out--is the on-screen relationship that develops between the two leads. Both Ruffin and Levine are quite good in their roles and they play off of each other beautifully in charting a touching relationship that is forged in a shared sense of loneliness that you can’t help rooting for even though you can pretty much rest assure that things will not necessarily end up happily ever after for them. Although not nearly as effective as such recent instant horror classics as ''Get Out'' and ''Raw,'' ''The Transfiguartion,'' despite its flaws, is an intriguing meditation on isolation, young love and vampire mythology that genre fans and those with strong stomachs will want to check out.

As '''The Ticket'' opens, James (Dan Stevens) is a man who has been blind since childhood because of a pituitary tumor but has still managed to build a fulfilling life for himself that includes a beautiful wife (Malin Akerman), a son and a job making cold calls for a real estate firm. One morning, a miracle happens and the tumor shrinks enough to allow James to see once again. After the initial euphoria is gone, however, James finds himself increasingly dissatisfied with the life he was once pleased with--he realizes the myriad ways in which his wife has been controlling his life (ranging from the decorating of their home to concealing the fact that their son has been bullied at school) and clamors to do more at work than just be a phone jockey. Before long, he has shed his wife for a hottie co-worker (Kerry Bishe) and starts rising up the corporate ladder by taking point in a deeply dubious debt management program designed to line his pockets while costing poor suckers their homes. Eventually, all of his superficial desires are satisfied and he becomes the kind of successful douchebag that people base beer commercials around--lucky for him, there is not a possibility that his condition could reverse once again and cause him to lose all of his glittery new possessions in the process. Right?

The early scenes of “The''Ticket'' are the most interesting one as director/co-writer Ido Fluk sets up his undeniably intriguing premise while staying away from the mawkishness that one might ordinarily expect from such a scenario. The performances are good as well--Stevens is convincing as a man struggling to adapt to his wildly changed circumstances and Akerman is quite good as the wife who may not be quite as sweet and angelic as she might seem to those who aren't really looking. Unfortunately, once James shifts into jerk mode, the story gets increasingly more predictable as it heads towards a denouement that even a blind person could see coming a mile away. This is a shame because the idea is strong and the performers are good but at a certain point, this indictment on how even the best and most idealistic of people can be blinded to what is important in life by flashy trinkets ends up being just as shallow and superficial as its main character.

The five films that were recently in competition for this year’s Oscar for Best Animated Feature was an unusually strong one--the eventual winner, ''Zootopia,'' was actually really good and even the least of the bunch, ''Moana,'' was still reasonably worthwhile. As it turns out, the best of the two dozen or so films that initially qualified for the prize did not make it to the final five and is only now appearing in American theaters. That would be the Japanese import ''Your Name,'' which recently surpassed the classic''Spirited Away'' as the highest-grossing anime film worldwide of all time and which might have become a success in there parts as well if it were not only being released in a handful of theaters throughout the country. It focuses on two Japanese teenagers who have never had any contact with each other--Mitshua is the headstrong daughter of the mayor of a remote mountain town determined to live life on her own terms and Taki is a boy in Tokyo who dreams of being an architect and of the pretty co-worker at the Italian restaurant where he works as a waiter. For no apparent reason, the two begin waking up in each other's bodies and spending the day adjusting their lives to their new circumstances. This begins to happen on a regular, if random, basis and before long, the two begin to get a handle of the situation--leaving each other notes and messages explaining what they did to avoid surprises--and a connection begins to develop between the two. Eventually, they try to figure out a way by which they can somehow meet each other but as they soon find out, not only is it not that simple, circumstances may be conspiring to keep them apart permanently.

Simply put, this film is an utterly beguiling delight from start to finish. I went into this one knowing practically nothing about it going in and found myself increasingly enraptured by every aspect of it. Writer-director Makoto Shinkai deftly blends together elements of the coming-of-age genre with more fantastical concepts in such a way that the two seemingly disparate genres wind up melding together beautifully in a storyline that does not proceed in the expected ways (which is why I am being cagey with a lot of the details aside from the most basic explanation of the set-up).. The characters of Mitshua and Taki are also wonderfully drawn and fascinating to watch develop as they go from being just a couple of silly kids who react to their peculiar situation in the expected ways (they each inspect certain body parts of their host bodies) to the more serious-minded people they are now destined to become to be. Even when the story starts heading towards a more action-packed finale, it still never loses the human element at its core and as a result, we have an actual rooting interest in what is happening and how it will affect the lives of Mitshua and Taki. As I said, ''Your Name'' is unfortunately not playing in a ton of theaters in this country even though it is being presented with both its original Japanese soundtrack an an English-language dub (meanwhile, the atrocious American remake of ''Ghost in the Shell'' is still in multiplexes everywhere despite being a monumental flop) but if it does happen to be showing in your general area, do not hesitate to run out and see it. Not only will you be seeing one of the best animated films of recent years but you will be on the ground floor when it comes time for its own unnecessary and almost certainly inferior American remake.

For those of you are unable to get out to a theater this weekend or whose multiplex is currently clogged with the likes of ''The Smurfs,'' ''Going in Style'' and ''The Boss Baby,'' a recent indie film of note has hit Blu-Ray by the name of ''Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (Walt Disney Home Entertainment. $29.95). As I will assume that you have seen the film--it was the most popular release of 2016--I will not waste time detailing the plot except to say that this stand-alone tale, a semi-prequel to the original ''Star Wars'' detailing the efforts of a group of rebels to steal the plans for the super-weapon known as the Death Star and get them to the Alliance before it becomes operational. Although it is certainly steeped in the mythology of the series, this is actually the first one since that original film that can be enjoyed equally by fans and those who have somehow never seen a ''Star Wars'' film before--the story is slick and compelling, the characters--especially fugitive rebel Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) are engaging, the special effects do an excellent job of filling in the details of the alien worlds on display without overwhelming the proceedings and director Garth Edwards (whose previous effort was the better-than-expected ''Godzilla'' reboot) keeps everything going in an efficient manner while still displaying enough of a distinct personal touch to keep it from simply becoming the world’s most expensive fan film. As for the Blu-ray, it is loaded with all the expected goodies, including featurettes covering virtually every aspect of the production ranging from the development of the story to the CGI magic utilized to bring viewers “performances” from the long-dead Peter Cushing and a 1977-era version of Carrie Fisher. This disc comes highly recommended but who am I kidding--you have almost certainly rushed out and picked up your own copy by now.

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originally posted: 04/08/17 05:24:22
last updated: 04/08/17 05:41:15
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