Film Reviews: New Releases for Aug. 11 | Buzz Blog

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Film Reviews: New Releases for Aug. 11

Last Voyage of the Demeter, Heart of Stone, Lakota Nation vs. United States, Jules and more

Posted By on August 10, 2023, 7:00 PM

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click to enlarge Last Voyage of the Demeter - UNIVERSAL PICTURES
  • Universal Pictures
  • Last Voyage of the Demeter
Afire ***
For most of the past decade, Christian Petzold has created movies designed to make us feel uneasy; so what does it look like when he decides to make a fairly straightforward character study build around that time-honored trope, The Portrait of the Artist as a Complete Asshole? The fellow in question is Leon (Thomas Schubert), a writer who has come to the Baltic Sea beach house of his friend Felix (Langston Uibel) to finish his latest novel. But they discover that Felix’s mom has double-booked the house with another guest, Nadja (Paula Beer), sending Leon into a spiral of anxiety, amplified by nearby forest fires. For approximately the first 90 minutes, Petzold and his cast build a story that’s low-key terrifically entertaining, with Schubert’s performance wonderfully evoking Leon’s fragile ego and constant state of agitation, emphasized by a sound design that turns up the sound of insects buzzing around the house. It’s on the way to being an absolute knockout—until some of the third-act plot developments make it feel like kind of a desperate attempt to redeem Leon and give him a happy ending. Another viewing may suggest Petzold is playing ironically with those ideas, and that he’s offering the kind of ambiguous ending he generally favors. It just feels like Afire is much better when Leon is a mess than when Petzold is trying to tidy him up. Available Aug. 11 at Broadway Centre Cinemas. (NR)

Heart of Stone **
In the era of streaming services trying to become a home for big, dumb action spectacle, the one thing they’ve been missing is the kind of movie with a ham-fistedly descriptive title like Ace’s High, which would inevitably involve a hero named Ace either being a pilot, or an addict, or more likely both. Heart of Stone stars Gal Gadot as Rachel Stone, who at first appears to be the mild-mannered hacker member of a Mission: Impossible-style team of MI6 operatives, also including a field agent played by Jamie Dornan. But wait! Stone is actually an agent code-named Nine of Hearts, working undercover for a covert non-governmental organization of do-gooders called The Charter, whose super-advanced AI technology has been targeted by bad guys. It’s hard to avoid beginning with the observation that Gadot is incredibly miscast—not so much as a badass super-spy, but as someone trying to deceive others that she’s not a badass super-spy. The screenplay, credited to Greg Rucka (The Old Guard) and Allison Schroeder (Hidden Figures), also doesn’t do a particularly good job of explaining why the undercover ruse is necessary in the first place if The Charter is, theoretically, so much better at all this stuff than conventional espionage outfits. What’s left is a few bits of fun action spread out over two hours, clumsily dabbling in ideas like how to use great power and the dehumanizing effect of algorithms as though this were a movie about ideas, when I mean, come on … the title is Heart of Stone. Available Aug. 11 via Netflix. (PG-13)

Jules **
It really gives you an appreciation for what a unicorn of a movie E.T. was when you see a fumbling attempt to try to capture the same magic. In this genial science-fiction drama, septuagenarian widower Milton Robinson (Ben Kingsley) lives in a small Pennsylvania town, occupying his time with airing petty grievances at the city council meetings. Then a flying saucer crash-lands in Milton’s backyard, with the alien pilot—a creature he begins to refer to as Jules (veteran stunt performer Jade Quon)—becoming an unexpected houseguest. Screenwriter Gavin Steckler actually finds a somewhat ingenious angle on his alien-visitation story, with Milton and his two senior-citizen friends (Jane Curtin and Harriet Sansom Harris) turning the expressionless Jules into a stand-in for the other human contact missing from their lonely lives, in much the same way E.T. became a stand-in for Elliott’s absent father. But while Harris does get a heartbreaking moment of vulnerability, Kingsley delivers far too remote a performance to provide an emotional connection, as though the confusion of Milton’s early-stages dementia were his only defining personality trait. And then there are the rushed, half-hearted efforts to include a government conspiracy into the mix, distracting from the central ideas. It’s a disappointing execution of the idea that a space explorer could remind people how much they just want those they care about to phone home. Available Aug. 11 in theaters. (PG-13)

Lakota Nation vs. United States ***
See feature review. Available Aug. 11 at Broadway Centre Cinemas. (NR)

The Last Voyage of the Demeter **1/2
Director André Øvredal tries to walk the knife’s edge between satisfying multiplex horror flick and faithful adaptation of a usually-omitted chapter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the result isn’t quite effective enough at either one. It’s the story of the Russian schooner chartered in 1897 to bring some strange cargo from Romania to England—Spoiler alert: It’s the crate containing a certain iconic vampire—as told from the perspective of the newly-arrived ship’s physician, Clemens (Corey Hawkins). Øvredal oversaw one of the best confined-space horror movies of recent years in 2016’s The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and here he makes effective use of the ship’s shadowy corners and storm-tossed decks as hiding places for his scuttling, bat-winged version of Dracula (Javier Botet), while not skimping on the R-rating-earning gore and carnage. But the screenwriting team also wants to craft something serious and doom-laden, mixing the racism faced by Clemens as an educated Black man and a Romani woman’s (Aisling Franciosi) experience as a victim of Dracula with almost absurdly portentous stuff like the ship’s captain (Liam Cunningham) announcing that he’s retiring after this voyage. At a certain point, it might have been wiser for everyone involved to decide, “Yeah, sure, this is based on a literary classic, but let’s just make a cool monster movie.” Available Aug. 11 in theaters. (R)

The Pod Generation **
The thing about satire is that it helps a lot if you have a solid sense of what, specifically, is being satirized. That’s not easy to identify in writer/director Sophie Barthes science-fiction tale, which posits a futuristic New York where married couple Rachel (Emilia Clarke) and Alvy (Chiwetel Ejiofor) decide to opt for a new, exclusive procedure whereby a fetus can gestate fully to term in a plastic external pod. It’s clear that technological convenience is at least partially Barthes’ target, as AI helpers like the couple’s Alexa-esque home assistant and Rachel’s virtual therapist develop oddball personality traits. Yet there’s also the subtext of Alvy’s job as an academic focused on botany, and losing track of the natural world, along with a small hint of technological licensing limiting the extent to which we actually “own” the things we think we own. It all just seems to get jumbled together in the search for punch lines, with a soundtrack and editing rhythms that make it feel like it’s vaguely imitating a Woody Allen film, and thereby evoking Sleeper (and the character name “Alvy” certainly adds to the Woody-ism). Entertaining moments bubble up periodically, particularly through Ejiofor’s performance as the reluctant would-be father who finds himself in the position of primary caretaker for the pod, and a sequence where a technician narrates their artificial insemination like a sports play-by-play announcer. There’s just never a sense of payoff, or the realization that The Pod Generation has found anything incisive to say about modern living, or future living. Available Aug. 11 in theaters. (PG-13)

About The Author

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw

Scott Renshaw has been a City Weekly staff member since 1999, including assuming the role of primary film critic in 2001 and Arts & Entertainment Editor in 2003. Scott has covered the Sundance Film Festival for 25 years, and provided coverage of local arts including theater, pop-culture conventions, comedy, literature,... more

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