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Movie Reviews: New Releases for July 1

Minions: The Rise of Gru, The Forgiven, Mr. Malcolm's List, Official Competition and more

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Minions: The Rise of Gru - ILLUMINATION ENTERTAINMENT
  • Illumination Entertainment
  • Minions: The Rise of Gru
The Forgiven ***1/2
It doesn’t take a huge artistic choice to throw a viewer just a bit off-center, just something like the way John Michael McDonagh opens his movie with the closing credits, and the cast listed in reverse order; it feels like we’re being forced to read a cinematic language we don’t quite understand. And that’s absolutely fitting for McDonagh’s adaptation of Lawrence Osborne’s 2012 novel, dealing with the aftermath of an accident in which a Western couple—British physician David (Ralph Fiennes) and his American wife Jo (Jessica Chastain)—driving to a party at a remote Moroccan estate, hit and kill a local teenager. Most of the narrative splits in two, as David returns with the boy’s father (Ismael Kanater) to their home and Jo remains with her hosts (Matt Smith and Caleb Landry Jones) and a flirtatious fellow guest (Christopher Abbott), and it’s clear that the tale has thoughtful things to say about the impact of Western attitudes on the Arab world. But instead of offering a lecture, McDonagh employs both his typically mordant sense of humor and a terrific performance by Fiennes as a casually racist prick who only comprehends the magnitude of what he’s done when absolutely forced to. “Everything must be faced” goes one crucial bit of dialogue, although The Forgiven emphasizes a privileged world in which plenty of people make a very deliberate choice not to face things. Available July 1 at Broadway Centre Cinemas. (R)

Minions: The Rise of Gru **
The Despicable Me franchise long ago surrendered itself to the appeal of the yellow, gibberish-babbling caplets of chaos, even when Gru (Steve Carell) was nominally the main character. Now, they’re not even pretending that anything matters beyond Minion-based slapstick. This prequel adventure is set in 1976, before an 11-year-old Gru … well, Gru up, as he gets caught in the middle of a conflict between a team of super-villains and their double-crossed founder—Gru’s role model in villainy, Wild Knuckles (Alan Arkin)—over a powerful relic. The filmmakers don’t really do much with the flashback setting besides make disco jokes—and you know there’s nothing kids love more than a good disco joke—nor are they really interested in what a pre-adolescent megalomaniac-in-waiting might be like. Instead, whenever the focus isn’t on big action set pieces, it’s on the Minions (all voiced by Pierre Coffin) trying to help their “mini-boss,” including learning kung fu from a mysterious master (Michelle Yeoh, who really deserves better), flying a passenger plane and so forth. It’s understandable why the Minions are a delight for grade-schoolers, what with their childlike goofiness and affection for fart humor, but for an adult, a little of them goes a long way. Now that these movies are mostly about them, that long way is starting to feel incredibly long indeed. Available July 1 in theaters. (PG)

Freida Pinto and Sope Dirisu in Mr. Malcom's List - BLEECKER STREET MEDIA
  • Bleecker Street Media
  • Freida Pinto and Sope Dirisu in Mr. Malcom's List
Mr. Malcolm’s List **1/2
It’s certainly noteworthy that director Emma Holly Jones and writer Suzanne Allain—adapting Allain’s 2020 novel by way of a 2019 short-film collaboration—have applied race-blind casting to an Austen-esque Regency-era romance; it would be a lot better if it had much else to recommend it. In 1818 England, Julia Thistlewaite (Zawe Ashton) finds herself humiliated when wealthy gentleman Jeremy Malcolm (Sope Dirisu) finds her wanting compared to his list of traits for a desirable mate. Julia then calls upon her childhood friend, Selina (Freida Pinto), to woo Mr. Malcolm and set him up for a similar comeuppance. Allain’s script does a fine job of setting up all of the necessary types, including Julia’s foppish cousin (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and an honorable soldier (Theo James), with Dirisu in particular hitting all the right notes as the arrogant-but-secretly-sensitive Mr. Darcy surrogate. There’s just a flatness to Jones’ direction, with scenes that lack the crisp pacing or relationship chemistry to make the formula sing, while tying up every relationship complication too neatly and quickly. And it doesn’t help that she also leans into nudging comic relief like servants rolling their eyes visibly at the wealthy folks’ foolishness. This kind of story absolutely can work when all the faces aren’t white, but that doesn’t mean it inevitably will work. Available July 1 in theaters. (PG)

Neptune Frost **1/2
“Maybe you’re asking yourself WTF is this,” a voice-over intones at one point, and it’s like Saul Williams and Anisia Uzeyman were reading my mind as I made my way through their ambitious, earnest, messy and kind of frustrating science-fiction allegory. Two narrative threads set in Africa—one involving a man named Matalusa (Bertrand Ninteretse) fleeing his mining job after an overseer kills his brother, and another involving a character called Neptune who changes from male (Elvis Ngabo) to female (Cheryl Isheja)—converge in a dream dimension where they and other refugees from oppression begin hacking into digital information streams. If that’s a lot to absorb already, consider also that this is a musical, and a story where characters are given such allegorical names as Technology, Memory and Psychology. Multi-hyphenate artist Williams has a facility with language that manifests in Matalusa’s name being a play on both “Martin Luther” and “martyr loser,” and an instantly indelible metaphor involving swallowing a whole coconut. But while Williams and Uzeyman are clearly attacking oppressive structures of all kinds—from capitalist exploitation of Africa to fears of gender nonconformity—the lyrics start to get really repetitive and pedantic, especially during the drawn-out second act. Some stunning costuming and makeup concepts and Uzeyman’s terrific cinematography make this a great film to look at; its mix of righteousness and abstraction keeps getting in the way of making it as interesting to think about. Available July 1 at Broadway Centre Cinemas. (NR)

Official Competition **1/2
See feature review. Available July 1 in theaters. (R)

The Princess **
The premise of this swords-and-fists yarn is expected to do a lot of heavy lifting, but what it’s trying to carry feels far too bland far too much of the time. In a long-ago kingdom, a would-be usurper to the crown (Dominic Cooper) plans to gain legitimacy through a forced marriage to the king’s daughter (Joey King)—but his plans don’t include the fact that the princess has trained as a badass warrior, and has plenty of tricks up her sleeve for escaping the castle tower. What follows is kind of like a distaff version of The Raid, built almost entirely on the unnamed heroine proving to be a more dangerous adversary than her increasingly-shredded white dress would suggest. Unfortunately, a concept like this requires some inventive carnage in order not to become tedious quickly, and while Vietnamese-born director Le-Van Kiet has at least one other martial-arts picture under his belt, there’s just no zing to the fight sequences. King strikes a nice balance between ferocity over always being underestimated, and tension at being truly tested for the first time, which gives her quite a leg up on Cooper’s one-note villain. Whatever well-intentioned messages there may be here—about smashing the patriarchy, and fighting back against leaders who think bullying equals strength—it’s still fundamentally an action movie where the action just doesn’t cut it. Available July 1 via Hulu. (R)

Rubikon ***
Good science-fiction has always wrestled with moral and ethical questions; this one keeps getting more surprisingly complex as it goes along. In a near future ruled by corporation-states, the inhabitants of the space station Rubikon—soldier/commander Hannah Wagner (Julia Franz Richter) and scientists Gavin Abbott (George Blagden) and Dmitri Krylow (Mark Ivanir)—find themselves potentially marooned in space when a toxic fog sweeps across the majority of the earth. Initially, it seems like director Magdelena Lauritsch and her co-writer Jessica Lind have a The Martian scenario in mind, built on the Rubikon crew having to MacGyver the shit out of their situation. But that turns out to be a bit of a feint, as the story pivots on the choices these characters are forced to make with potentially irreversible consequences (hence the appropriateness of the station’s and movie’s name): If their algae-based oxygen system requires the CO2 output of all three people, does anyone have the luxury of autonomous choice? Do the needs of the many always outweigh the needs of the few, even when those many caused the problem in the first place? The performances and character interactions maintain a low-key believability, with just enough forward action momentum that it’s not entirely based on abstract debates. While Rubikon might be too restrained to be truly extraordinary, we need more thoughtful genre stuff like this. Available July 1 in theaters and via VOD. (NR)