|Films I Neglected To Review: She Loves Control
|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "Afterlife of the Party," "Cinderella," "Worth" and "Zone 414."
"Afterlife of the Party" is a tired stab at a fantasy-comedy hybrid comprised of elements that are so crushingly familiar that even the younger viewers that it is ostensibly aimed at will realize that they have pretty much seen all of it done before and, in most cases, better than here. Victoria Justice stars as Cassie, a mildly self-absorbed but ultimately sweet-natured party girl type whose eternal festivities come to an abrupt end when dies in a dumb accident on her 25th birthday. She is then whisked away to a celestial way station of sorts where she is informed by guardian angel Val (Robyn Scott) that her ultimate destination rests on her ability to somehow reconcile her relationships with her estranged best friend (Midori Francis) and her divorced parents (Timothy Renoulf and Gloria Garcia) from beyond the grave nearly a full year since her passing. Oh, and while we are informed that time has no meaning in the afterworld, Cassie has been granted only five days to complete her various tasks. The result is a one of those pieces of hard-sell whimsy that is never quite as charming or delightful as it thinks it is and one of the key reasons behind that is because it is almost impossible to care about any of it. Although Justice strives to make her as adorable and sympathetic as possible, the simple fact is that Cassie is so utterly nondescript of a character that we develop absolutely no interest in whether she achieves her task or not. (Of course, this is no great loss since the forms of reconciliation involved include playing matchmaker for her friend and reigning her dadís love of yoga.) Other than that, it is the usual melange of wacky hijinks, awkward stabs at pathos and montages aplenty. Feeling more like a busted sitcom pilot than anything else, "Afterlife of the Party" is just kind of a bore from start to finish that could well leave you feeling as if you have just spent an eternity in cinematic limbo.
As girl-power fantasies go, the latest iteration of "Cinderella" is marginally more acceptable than the likes of "Afterlife of the Party," I suppose, without ever quite getting around to justifying its existence. The film is yet another version of the classic fairy tale, this one a musical featuring a more satiric and socially progressive take on the well-worn narrative tropes from writer-director Kay Cannon in which Cinderella (Camilla Cabello) realizes that her happy-ever-after does not necessarily revolve around whether or not she marries the dopey-but-sweet prince (Nicholas Galitzine), her evil stepmother (Idina Menzel) is given a new backstory to make her character more sympathetic and her fairy godmother is played by Billy Porter. (Donít worry--fat people are still made to be a source of ridicule because why not?) Of course, revisionist takes on classic fairy tales are nothing new--they have more or less been staples since the good old days of "Fractured Fairy Tales"--and Cannon brings nothing new to the equation that hasn't already been seen before in other films of its kind, such as the delightful "Ella Enchanted" (2004), which not only spoofed gender and social issues in fairy tales more the 15 years ago but which also included a cast featuring Minnie Driver and a big musical number based around characters singing Queen's "Somebody to Love" long before this one's arrival. As for the musical numbers, the songs veer between largely forgettable new tunes and classics that are a little too on-the-nose in their selections (the evil stepmother admonishes her daughters to marry rich by singing "Material Girl," to name one especially subtle example) and their clunky insertions and indifferent stagings may well inspire terrifying flashbacks of "A Knight's Tale" in more sensitive viewers. For the most part, however, "Cinderella" is not so much a film as it is an extended screen test designed to test Cabello's potential for translating her musical stardom into a different medium and the results are mixed--while I cannot exactly see here doing a role that requires any heavy dramatic lifting anytime soon, she does demonstrate plenty of charm and good cheer and obviously acquits herself well with the musical material. Beyond the curiosity factor inspired by Cabello's presence and the mystery of whether co-star Pierce Brosnan (as the vain and self-absorbed king of the land) will once again demonstrate the less-than-dulcet tones he infamously presented in "Mama Mia," "Cinderella" is the kind of mindlessly frothyl cartoon that will most likely find its greatest favor among participants in junior high slumber parties while older viewers will come away from it with little more than a mild sense of relief that the utterly objectionable James Corden isn't in it that much after all.
"Worth" is a film that takes one of the most horrifying events of our time and uses it not as a excuse for cheap exploitation but as a gateway to contemplate a question that can be both intellectually fascinating and emotionally gut-wrenching, depending on who is asking it and who is being asked in the first place. Inspired by true events, the film stars Michael Keaton as Ken Feinberg, a high-powered lawyer and teacher at Georgetown who specializes in mediation that involves coming up with a dollar amount equalling the value of the life of someone who has been killed that will satisfy the bereaved family so that they will not engage in litigation with those perhaps responsible for the deaths. In an opening classroom scene, Feinberg lays out his approach in a calm, collected and emotionally dry matter that backs his belief that there is indeed a formula that can be invoked that will leave all parties satisfied. Then he and business partner Camille Biros (Amy Ryan) and their firm are charged by the U.S. government to help establish the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund, a plan meant to give money to the families of the victims to keep them from filing lawsuits against entities like the airlines that could potentially crater the American economy. Needing to pull off an 80% commitment rate among the families in just over two years for the program to work, Feinberg initially figures that this will be easy enough to accomplish with the application of his formula but soon finds that approach to be disastrous thanks to the rawness of the emotions involved, the cynicism and suspicions regarding the fund among those it is ostensibly designed to help and the number of very pressing questions that it fails to answer. (What happens to domestic partners in places where such are not legally recognized? Do the more financially successful people from top firms who perished deserve more money than someone who worked there as a janitor?) Duly chastened and facing pressure from those who would prefer individual lawsuits and a watchdog group critical of the entire process, Feinberg struggles against a rapidly dwindling clock to figure out a genuinely fair method of determining the worth of a life before all of his well-meaning efforts are for naught.
Although the timing of the release of "Worth" (which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival) may make it seem like just another film awkwardly trying to ride the coattails of the upcoming 20th anniversary of 9/11, the film proves to be more than the piece of cheap emotional exploitation that it seems to be at first glance. Although there are any number of gut-wrenching moments involving the survivors of victims talking about their lost loved ones to Feinberg and his associates, the screenplay by Max Borenstein largely avoids simply piling them for maximum melodrama. Instead, he and director Sara Colangelo use these events as a way of exploring potentially thorny issues involving class and social responsibility in a manner that comes across as clear and concise without losing any of the complexities of the situation. Like Feinberg's process as depicted here, the results are not always smooth--a subplot involving Laura Benanti as the widow of a firefighter who died with a secret plays more on the level of soap opera that jars with the restrained tone utilized elsewhere--but for the most part, they are presented in a smart, respectful and largely engrossing manner. The other impressive thing about the film is Keaton, who does an excellent job of charting Feinberg's evolution from a strict numbers guy into a more genuinely empathetic person without resorting to cheap showboating moments that are more concerned with attracting Oscar voters than in presenting the truth of the character. "Worth" may not be a lot of laughs and it may be a little too dry for viewers in search of something more conventionally cathartic but it still stands out as a refreshingly adult-oriented drama that approaches a familiar subject from an undeniably unique angle and the results are both fascinating and ultimately moving.
If the recent release of "Reminiscence" did not fully satisfy your urge to watch painfully dull and derivative sci-fi potboilers that presumably began their creative processes during that weird moment in time when people were under the delusion that "Blade Runner 2049" was going to be a massive box-office hit, "Zone 414" should effectively kill it off for good, if only by boring it to death. Set in the not-too-distant future, this noir/sci-fi hybrid begins as retired detective David (Guy Pearce) is hired by wealthy industrialist Marlon Veidt (Travis Fiimmel), who built his fortune by designing lifelike androids, to find his missing daughter. David accepts the case and heads off to Zone 414, the one location where humans and androids are allowed to freely interact--and since the vast majority of the later appear to be of the sexbot variety, you can easily figure out what that means--and a place where the daughter was known to frequent, allegedly posing as an android herself. With the aid of Jane (Matilda Ana Ingrid Lutz), a next-gen Veidt creation designed to simulate actual human emotions, David ends up learning more about the vast conspiracy at the center of Zone 414 and its connection to Veidt and his daughter. While the sheer shamelessness that screenwriter Bryan Edward Hill and director Andrew Baird demonstrate in their willingness to pilfer from more famous films in order to construct their "original" work is amusing for a few minutes, it, like practically every other aspect of the film, gets very tedious very quickly. The mystery proves to be anything but surprising and the performances run the gamut from Fimmel's bizarrely over-the-top turn to Lutz's near-somnambulistic work (which is all the more depressing when you recall the fierce energy that she brought to the brutally effective French thriller "Revenge") to Pearce's obvious disinterest with the proceedings. If it hadn't been so obsessed with trying to replicate the mysterious magic of "Blade Runner" and instead took its similar basic premise into different directions, "Zone 414" might have worked as an intriguing variation on a standard theme instead of coming across as the failed carbon copy that it ultimately is.
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originally posted: 09/03/21 11:17:22
last updated: 09/04/21 22:13:11