Mike at the Movies

The Promise (PG-13) *****

Never before has the Armenian Genocide been so vividly portrayed. The famed and, as far as Turkey is concerned, fictitious cleansing of the Armenian people as part of World War I is unashamedly portrayed through the lives of Mikael (Oscar Isaac), an Armenian intellectual who only wants to be a doctor, his true love Ana (Charlotte Le Bon), and American journalist for AP Chris Myers (Christian Bale).

Mikael has sold himself to Maral (Angela Saraafyan), a girl in his village whom he hardly knows, in order to pay tuition for medical school in Constantinople. While there he meets the glorious Ana Khesarian (Le Bon) and falls in love even though she is living with Chris (Bale). The Ana-Mikael affair begins after they both get caught in an attempted mugging by Turks. Ana fights them off with cabbages and does better than Mikael, who is not a fighter. They hide and have sex and off they go.

Chris, the reporter, wants to find out what’s going on with the Turks and the Germans and discovers a line of refugees, all Armenian, trudging away from home, pursued and eventually killed by Turks, not Germans. He reports this to Washington and notice is taken but no action follows against the Turks or Germans even though WWI has begun and Turks are being inducted into the army whether they wish to fight or not.

Mikael does not want to fight and tries to get a medical student exemption, which works out so well that he is soon fleeing to his home village where his parents, in order to save his life, marry him off to Maral and send them both to a farm to begin life there. From there on out, the story is one of Armenians trying to save themselves. Everything goes wrong for Mikael but he perseveres as long as he can and proves to be a good medical student, if a rotten, incapable fighter.

The film is beautifully shot, mostly on the Iberian Peninsula, and beautifully acted. I have long felt that the Armenian genocide has been under-exposed and, as one-sided as this film is, it gives a solid substance to the stories Armenians have told about it for over a hundred years. The acting is solid and realistic, and any film that has Le Bon in it starts ahead of the game. Good history, good film-making and crackerjack action sequences make this one a film to see.

Fate of the Fast and Furious (PG-13) ****

Fast, Furious and Funny. That’s the verdict on the latest entry in the F&F franchise. As usual, Vin Diesel leads the cast as Dom Toretto, but this time Dwayne Johnson co-stars as Hobbs and Jason Statham has a lot of minutes as Deckard, Hobbs’ mortal enemy. That they have to combine forces with Toretto is bittersweet for both of them, but Dom soon is off the track as an associate of the evil and gorgeous Charlene Therone as Cipher. Dom’s lover from another movie, Elsa Pataky (Elena), and his son, unknown to him, are both held hostage, and Dom is soon doing Cipher’s bidding in capturing secret codes and atomic bombs from the Russians, of course.

This is a large and beautiful cast—beautiful on both sides of the gender gap. For the ladies, we have Diesel and Johnson, Ludacris, Jason Statham and Tyrese Gibson (who steals the show with one-liners and his urban outlook and dialogue), along with Scott Eastwood and Luke Evans. For the guys, Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, Nathalie Emmanuel (Ramsey), and Pataky provide the glamour along with a very funny cameo by Helen Mirren as Magdalene Shaw, mother of Statham and his brother. And this movie is all about glamour and humor and family.

Yes, there are a few cars that get destroyed along the way in new and imaginative ways. A huge wrecking ball cleaning up New York streets is fun, as is a nuclear sub, but the cars themselves do a lot of destruction, as is the habit in this series. It is difficult to estimate the total number of vehicles wrecked or the exciting ways they are made into scrap.

Near the end of the film there are very funny scenes of Statham fighting bad guys with Dom’s baby in a carry-all. The whole theme of the movie, as Dom reminds us, is family, not fighting, so don’t worry about the baby—remind yourself that it’s only a movie.

This type of franchise is not my usual cup of tea, but there are too many good bits to ignore in this feature. Laugh away and embrace the preposterous action scenes.

The Lost City of Z (PG-13) ****

This is largely a “true story” film from Ireland with major stars—Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson plus a radiant Sienna Miller, but the biggest star becomes the Bolivian jungle (or actually, the Colombian jungle for film purposes). It is there that Percival Fawcett (Hunnam), Henry Costin (Pattinson) and a band of explorers begin their search for a lost city of great riches, known only in Indian lore and among explorers. Nobody in the party has seen the lost city, and Fawcett becomes convinced that there is such a place when he stumbles on artifacts while searching for the source of a river.

For an engrossing account of Fawcett’s life and death, Google “The Lost City of Z” and click on David Grann’s Sept. 19, 2005 article in The New Yorker. Though Fawcett’s skill as an amateur explorer was legend in his time, he could not convince the establishment that there was something worth pursuing after his 1910-1911 trip. In a scene from a meeting of the Royal Geography Society (RGS) recreated in the movie, Fawcett pleads for support and antagonizes most of the members who don’t believe his claims of a “lost city” and do not support his advocacy for the native Indians of the Amazon.

One RGS member who does believe Fawcett is James Murray, famed biologist and explorer of the Antarctic. Murray becomes so fascinated with Fawcett’s vision that he volunteers for the next big exploratory trip that Fawcett puts together. As the film indicates, that was a serious mistake as Murray was ill-equipped to deal with the jungle’s weather and conditions and soon began to fail. He turns into the film’s villain, attempting to sue Fawcett when the survivors make it back to the RGS.

Murray’s son Jack, unhappy that his father left his family often for other concerns, including the First World War, grows up and at 21 joins the 57-year-old Fawcett for their final exploration.

The film graphically presents the treks and the dangers of Amazonian exploration and creates an insightful portrait of Mrs. Fawcett, a fascinating woman who was forced to remain behind during her husband’s explorations because of the standards of the time in England.

This is excellent history that explores themes of human greed and obstinacy, and offers a successful “man against the establishment” lesson for all of us.

How to Be a Latin Lover (PG-13) ***

Eugenio Derbez, a power as an actor and director in Mexico, surrounds himself with a strong, albeit uneven cast in this formulaic comedy. As Maximo, Derbez is a habitual Latin lover who scores a 25-year-old marriage to an ancient Peggy (Renee Taylor) only to be cast aside for a younger man. Undaunted, Maximo strikes out after only slightly younger but richer Raquel Welch as Celeste. His attempts to seduce Celeste are doomed as he comes to terms with his basic failure as a human being.

Meanwhile, Rob Lowe, who has no screen name, plays out a fantasy life with Millicent (Linda Lavin), playing different roles each night in order to amuse and entice his beloved. Kirsten Bell plays Cindy, an ice cream saleslady and cat lover who is constantly being ripped up by her pets. Included in the large cast is Rob Riggle, an unnamed used car salesman, and Michael Cera as Maximo’s replacement in the life and bed of Peggy.

Most of the film concerns Maximo giving lessons in being a Latin lover to his nephew, Hugo, 10 years old and a science wizard. Hugo’s attempts to mirror his uncle meet with predictable failure, but Arden sees through his ineptitude in a series of charming scenes.

The first half of the film pokes along a bit and only hits its stride when Maximo and Lowe compete and fail at winning Welch. The level of comedy ratchets up and what was humdrum becomes almost enchanting. Derbez’s comic talents will increase as he gets accustomed to U.S. audiences, and he probably has better films ahead of him. This one is inoffensive, and young kids in the audience often laughed louder than their parents and older relatives.

Unforgettable (R) ***

Poor Rosario Dawson (Julia Banks). Newly engaged to Geoff Stults (David), she has to contend with a new relationship and an almost impossibly beautiful and perfect ex-wife, Tessa (Katherine Heigl). Here, at almost 40, Tessa is perhaps the scariest beauty ever to hit the screen. She haunts the relationship between Julia and David and uses her daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice), in every way, including cutting her lovely hair off when she disobeys her mother.

Tessa is soon plotting to destroy the relationship between Julia and David in every way she can, including creating a Facebook page for Julia (who doesn’t have one) in order to contact a former boyfriend of Julia’s who has just been released from prison for assaulting her. She does other stuff such as stealing David’s watch, Julia’s engagement ring and a pair of her panties, all of which will be used eventually to discredit Julia and bring Michael Vargas (Simon Kassianides) back into her life. Tessa, a sexual animal, even creates an image of David as the same, only real life cannot sustain that image for him.

The action ends with a terrific and long catfight between Julia and Tessa. This is not deep stuff but the stars are attractive, the settings luxurious, the kid cute as a button, the houses lovely and, even if you think you’ve seen it all before (and you probably have), it still ends up being a fun afternoon at the theater. NOT for kids!

The Circle (PG-13) ***

Emma Watson (Mae) earned a reputation as Hermione in the Harry Potter series. In my opinion, she depresses this film by her inability to become her character. Every gesture, line, movement and attitude seems rehearsed rather than natural. After some time waiting for her to break into character, that of a young girl getting a dream job by accident and accidentally becoming the darling of “The Circle,” I concluded that she never would.

When you are acting with Tom Hanks as Bailey, the CEO of The Circle, you must be able to do something more than take up space and recite some lines. Can the theme of the film—privacy vs. transparency—make up for the lack of talent at the top of the cast? Almost.

Bailey’s credo is: “Knowing is good; knowing everything is better.” He creates a program called See Change that can monitor everything through multiple cameras about as big as a large class ring, stuck all over everyplace. They pick up sound and HD video so they are very effective, especially allied with the hordes of cellphone movie producers who witness everything. Mae is saved from death in San Francisco Bay by helicopters that fight through a fog, swamping her kayak and dumping her out. She is saved because cameras on buoys at sea saw the whole thing. Thus converted, Mae becomes the poster child for Bailey’s electronic takeover of the world. The problem, one of several with the script, is that nowhere is Mae’s sudden philosophical depth explained. How is she suddenly so creative that she can contribute to Bailey’s master plan? Her sudden shift in perspective from “save the world” to “tell all” distances her from her more skeptical friends at The Circle, Ty (John Boyega) and Annie (Karen Gillan). Annie in particular is alienated from Mae’s enforced selfishness.

When a former close friend of Mae’s, Mercer, dies trying to escape the chase of people who have found him for one of The Circle’s social experiments, some at The Circle turn against her while many in the vast TV audience worldwide that has turned in to her “show” see through the lack of privacy and realize what killed Mercer. Mae continues her support of the program in a way by reasoning: “When everybody can be found, nobody can ever get lost.” Really?

Meanwhile, Mae has a family conflict. Her father (Bill Paxton in his last role before his death following heart surgery) has MS, and Mae’s Constant Camera accidentally catches him and her mother (Glenne Headly) making love. Disillusioned by everything that has been made of her social experiments and the expansion of them, Mae declares for total openness from everybody, including Bailey and his CFO Stenton (Patton Oswalt). Not a great idea. Lost in the shuffle is the fate of a move to limit openness by a U.S. congresswoman and lost is the focus on the main issue: Who should control the amount of privacy in our lives and the amount of public transparency?

There is also a subplot involving Ty who has discovered a plan to store all the data that will be found when The Circle becomes the catch-all for everything—for every individual on Earth from birth records to paying taxes, voting and getting a driver’s license. Sounds like a good idea for efficiency, right? Think again.

You may sense a lot of interesting concepts in this film, and they are there. But most of them are dealt with on the surface only or so baldly stated that reason is lost. I loved Watson in “Beauty and the Beast” where she was perfectly cast. I am afraid that this role demanded more weight and depth from her, and she failed to be in any way convincing. Other than a rough word or two, there is nothing inappropriate for kids in this one.

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