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Films I Neglected To Review: Water Water Everywhere. . .
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Aquaela," "Gags the Clown," "Love, Antosha" and "Official Secrets."

If I were to tell you that one of the most visually stunning and viscerally exciting cinematic experiences of this year was a documentary about water, many of you would most likely think that I was either crazier than usual or just being willfully perverse. And yet, that is the case with "Aquarela," a work of incredible cinematic beauty that is both rapturous and terrifying in equal measure. Shooting at a 96 frames-per-second rate for extra clarity (with theaters projecting it at 48 fps instead of the standard 24), director Victor Kossakovsky strives to convey both the incredible beauty and vast power of water while illustrating that in the eternal struggle between man and nature--one that has increased in importance in recent years thanks to climate change--nature is always going to win and it is not known for taking prisoners. We see a group of Russian workers walking along a large swath of ice, occasionally poking it with poles--it soon turns out that they are searching for cars that plunged through the ice as the result of an early thaw. (At one point, we even see another car falling through and a rescue crew struggling to rescue the driver and passenger before all is lost.) There are also horrifying images of massive glaciers breaking apart and giant chunks of ice crashing into the ocean and later on, hurricanes and giant rainstorms begin to arrive with frightening regularity as well. And yet, while Kossakosky does an excellent job of reminding viewers of the awesome and ferocious power of nature, he also indulges in plenty of images that are just as stunning due to their intense beauty, none more so than the climactic shot of a rainbow appearing above the world’s tallest waterfall, Angel Falls. Definitely not the type of film that you want to wait to see until it hits home video (besides the visuals, the film also contains a stunning soundscape that requires the best possible sound system to do it full justice), "Aquarela" is a powerful work that is both one of the year's best documentaries and one of the best horror movies to boot.

Remember a couple of years ago when there were reports out of Wisconsin of someone dressed as a clown who would pop up from time to time and freak out locals just by his presence alone? As you may recall, it all turned out to be a promotional campaign for a short film about a malevolent clown and now that short has been expanded into the feature "Gags The Clown." Kicking off with actual news reports covering the original clown sightings to set up the premise that a mysterious clown, nicknamed Gags, has been turning up on the streets of Green Bay, the film utilizes a found-footage approach to follow four groups of people over the course of one long night. A news reporter (Lauren Ashley Carter) is sent out with a cameraman to cover the Gags beat, an assignment that looks dire at first but which she eventually believes could supply a much-needed career boost. A right-wing podcaster (Aaron Christensen), irrationally upset by the entire matter, decides to grab a few guns and take to the streets himself (also with a cameraman) to find the clown. A trio of bored kids, one of whom has his own clown costume, decide to scare people themselves, recording all of their pranks on their phones. Finally, a couple of cops patrol the streets, answering various clown-related complaints while trying to keep everything under control.

Although it is clearly being released now to tie in with the intense hype surrounding "It: Chapter Two," the film that "Gags The Clown" real seems indebted to, to the point of flat-out name-checking its legendary title at one moment, is the 1988 cult classic "Killer Klowns from Outer Space." That earlier film proved to be a little miracle of low-budget filmmaking in the sense that the screenplay was clever enough to show that the filmmakers actually developed its admittedly singular premise instead of just coasting on the basic idea, the special effects were actually kind of impressive (especially when you consider the low budget) and the mashup of genres was handled so deftly that it contained a number of big laughs as well as some genuinely creepy moments to boot. Here, director Adam Krause (who also co-wrote the screenplay with John Pata) is clearly aiming for the same effect but just doesn’t quite pull it off. The screenplay has a couple of big flaws in that none of the individual characters or storylines are particularly interesting and Gags himself is kept off the screen for so long that unless you go into the film with a fear of clowns, he doesn't really register as a figure of fear and malevolence. Likewise, the found-footage approach utilized here doesn't really bring anything of value to the proceedings. The combination of humor and horror never quite pans out either--other than a couple of amusing stray bits, the film is not particularly funny and it is never exactly scary either (again, unless you walk into it with a profound fear of anything clown-related). Oddly enough, the film actually starts to improve in the late innings and the last 10-15 minutes are interesting and impressive enough to make you wish that the rest of the film had been as good. As a late-night cable viewing, "Gags the Clown" might have a certain minor charm--especially if you can’t get your hands on a copy of "Killer Klowns"--but anyone paying a full ticket price to see it is going to come away from it feeling very foolish.

When rising star Anton Yelchin died in 2016 at the age of 27, the victim of a freak accident that left him pinned between his car and a gate, it seemed especially tragic because there was the sense that, because of his youth, that he had been taken too soon and had not been allowed to accomplish everything that he was capable of doing. That may be true but as the new documentary "Love, Antosha" reveals, he still managed to pack an amazing amount of life and impressed people around the world with his talents during that time. As the film reveals through a mixture of home video footage, film clips and talking head interview with friends, family and co-stars, Yelchin, the son of ice-skater parents who emigrated to the U.S. from Russia just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, he was a cheerful and precocious kid who caught the acting bug early and let nothing--not even the diagnosis of cystic fibrosis, a disease that leaves its victims with an average life span of about 30 years--get in his way. While keeping his illness to himself, he proceeded to embark on an acting career that saw him holding his own with top actors even as a child and impressing his co-workers not just with his dedication to his craft but with his all-encompassing attitude towards life. Watching those co-workers, including Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pine and Kristen Stewart, you can tell that they are not merely reciting platitudes about someone they once worked with for a few week for a camera crew--they were genuinely touched by their experiences with him and still feel the loss of his passing. (Stewart’s recollections are especially moving.) If you were a fan of Yelchin's, "Love, Antosha" is obviously a must-see, but even if you aren't familiar with him beyond his appearances as Chekov in the recent "Star Trek" movies, it will serve as a valuable reminder of his immense talents, both as an actor and as a person.

In 2003, Katherine Gun, a translator for the British Secret Service, came across a memo from the NSA outlining a potential joint US-UK spy operation designed to gather damaging information on members of the UN Security Council in order to gain their support for a resolution to go forward with the imminent invasion of Iraq. Outraged by this, she then leaked the email and wound up being prosecuted by the British government for violating the Official Secrets Act of 1989. That sounds like the basis for a potentially gripping true-life thriller--not to mention a needed corrective to the mild career rehabilitation the George W. Bush administration has received in recent years thanks to the current lunacy in the White House--but "Official Secrets" proves to be a curiously dull and dramatically inert retelling of the story. The key problem is that instead of focusing entirely on Katherine and how the case affects her personally--outside of a couple of scenes involving her marriage to a Muslim immigrant that soon falls under government scrutiny in an obvious act of retaliation--the screenplay by Gregory Bernstein, Sara Bernstein and Gavin Hood (the latter also serving as director) instead elects to split the narrative into three parts to show how the story was covered by the media, featuring Matt Smith as an anti-war reporter trying to cover the story against the wishes of his pro-war newspaper, and the trial that resulted with Ralph Fiennes taking center stage as Katherine’s attorney. Although undeniably ambitious in scope, this take doesn’t quite gel and too often leaves Katherine looking like a bystander in her own narrative and Keira Knightley delivering a performance that only allows her time to deliver the broadest character strokes and nothing more. The story of Katherine Gun and how the government tried to punish her for exposing some exceptionally dirty secrets is an undeniably compelling one but, unfortunately, "Official Secrets" is little more than an ultimately unfocused work that leaves you wishing for so much more.

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originally posted: 08/30/19 04:45:58
last updated: 08/30/19 09:12:57
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