Movie reviews: ‘Emily the Criminal’ and more

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EMILY THE CRIMINAL: 4 STARS

“Emily the Criminal,” a new crime drama, now playing in theatres, and starring Aubrey Plaza, uses ripped-from-the-headlines topics—student debt, the terrible job market and the gig economy—to fuel a story on a search for liberation.

Plaza plays Emily, a young woman whose criminal record — although minor — and short temper, makes it difficult for her to advance up the job ladder. Stuck in a dead-end restaurant job, she barely scrapes by, let alone put a dent in her $70,000 student debt.

Desperate, she takes a job working with the slick-talking, black-market thief Youcef (Theo Rossi). The scam is simple. She’ll be a “dummy shopper,” someone who buys merchandise with stolen and forged credit cards. A quick $200 payoff later, her cool and calm demeanor impresses Youcef who offers her a bigger, though more dangerous job for the next day.

Seduced by the money, she goes into business, personally and professionally, with Youcef. She begins earning good money, and, as their relationship blossoms, finds love. But when she gets sloppy, scamming the same store more than once in a week, she learns the easy money can disappear as quickly as it appeared. Unless she does something about it.

“Emily the Criminal” is a hard-boiled look at the intersection of desperation and opportunity.

Director John Patton Ford and Plaza craft a portrait of Emily, a millennial fighting for her piece of the American Dream, even though it remains just out of her reach. She is a complex character, edgy yet sympathetic, messy but focused. Plaza gives voice to Emily’s frustration of being forever punished for a mistake, but never panders to the audience in an attempt to be likable. She has lost faith in the polite society that hasn’t afforded her opportunity, so she steps outside it, and doesn’t look back. We may not make the same decisions as she, but her motivations, under the weight of a future filled with student debt and crappy jobs, come off as understandable. That is a credit to Plaza’s performance that reveals both Emily’s vulnerability and her steeliness.

Thanks to Plaza, “Emily the Criminal” is a fascinating character study, but the crime aspects of the story are just as compelling. Like its main character, the movie is a mix of elements. Social commentary, crime drama, a hint of romance and character work, whose sum fit together like puzzle pieces.

FALL: 3 STARS

Fall

If the name “Vertigo” wasn’t already taken by a classic movie, it could very well have been the title of the new fear-of-heights thriller “Fall,” now playing in theatres. Mostly set on a tiny platform high above the Earth, it is a dizzying experience.

“Fall” begins with thrill seekers Becky (Grace Fulton) and husband Dan (Mason Gooding) clinging to the side of a mountain. When tragedy strikes, Becky is left alone and traumatized. Off the mountain she lives in fear, and her father (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) is convinced she is medicating herself with alcohol.

Her adrenaline junkie friend Hunter (Virginia Gardner) thinks Becky needs to get back up on the horse, put fear aside and pay tribute to Dan by climbing an abandoned 2,000-foot radio tower in the middle of nowhere. They’ll scale the structure, spread his ashes and bring closure to Becky’s suffering.

The expert climbers scale the tower with the aid of a rickety old ladder, which falls apart as they rise. At the top, they perch on a small platform, but their elation is fleeting. With the ladder in pieces, getting down to ground level is going to test not only their skills as mountaineers, but the bond of their friendship.

The pleasure of “Fall,” I suppose, is voyeuristic. We can watch Becky and Hunter try and figure their way back to safety, while not actually being nibbled on by vultures ourselves. It’s a relief. We’re glad we’re not them, and that gives us the thrill, the dopamine rush we want, as we remain safe in an earthbound theatre.

Like “Open Water,” “47 Meters Down” or “27 Hours,” and other endurance dramas that place a person or persons in untenable situations of their own making, “Fall” is a cautionary tale. The old saying may be that, “the biggest risk is taking no risk at all,” but that, I think, applies more to the stock market than it does to climbing 2,000-foot poles in the middle of nowhere. Becky and Hunter take unnecessary risks to make themselves feel alive and, whoops, end up endangering their own lives.

It’s hard to conjure up a great deal of sympathy for their ridiculous situation, particularly since neither are particularly well-rounded characters, but nonetheless “Fall” is a visceral experience. It’s a mix-and-match of hopelessness, frustration and resilience, captured, despite some dodgy CGI, with some impressive high-flying photography by director Scott Mann and cinematographer MacGregor.

“Fall” is a simple film with a simple premise. It lags in the middle and overstays its welcome by 15 or 20 minutes, but as a story of survival against insurmountable odds, it delivers the vertigo inducing goods.

RESURRECTION: 3 STARS

Resurrection

The long-term effects of abuse and control are detailed to vivid and violent effect in “Resurrection,” a new psychological thriller starring Rebecca Hall and now playing in theatres.

Hall is biotech executive Margaret, a confident mentor and leader at work; a loving single mother to daughter Abbie (Grace Kaufman) at home. Her off hours are occupied by feverish physical training and a fling with married co-worker Peter (Michael Esper).

Into her carefully constructed and compartmentalized life comes David (Tim Roth), an unwelcome visitor from the past. At first, his presence exists only in the periphery. He attends a conference, almost unnoticed, sitting several rows in front of Margaret. Later, she sees him at a department store, and confronts him as he reads a newspaper in a park.

Turns out, David wants to rekindle their relationship, an abusive situation Margaret ended 22 years ago by fleeing, changing her name and rebooting her life. But, two decades later, the scars of their time together remain. Margaret is instantly flooded with memories of his physical punishments, which he paradoxically calls “kindnesses,” and the disappearance of their son Benjamin.

Fearing for Abbie’s safety, as well as her own, Margaret slowly unravels as David attempts to reassert his control over her.

“Resurrection” is a tough movie to describe without giving away salient plot points. It is the story of the lengths a person will go in defence of their loved ones and sanity. The more outlandish aspects of the story—no spoilers here!—only dig their hooks in because of the power of the performances.

Margaret’s turn from self-confidence to dazed-and-confused is expertly handled. From discipline to desperation, Hall’s change is complete. Her transformation is most effective in its subtlest moments, when her shifts in mind set are telegraphed by the twitch of an eye or a faint change in posture. A seven-minute monologue that reveals the nature of Margaret and David’s history is played out in one long, unedited close-up and is a master class in how to present exposition that hits all the right emotional notes.

Roth has less to do, but brings an air of menace to every frame of film he appears in.

“Resurrection” culminates with a horrifying scene that throws everything that came before into question. It confronts the audience with a gory scene that asks, how much of what we’ve just seen is real, and how much is fantasy? It is an unforgettable scene in the style of Ari Aster or David Cronenberg, but overpowers the film’s interesting look at female trauma, gaslighting and repression.

AINBO: SPIRIT OF THE AMAZON: 2 ½ STARS

Ainbo: Spirit of the Amazon

“Ainbo: Spirit of the Amazon,” a new animated film from Peru for kids and now playing in theatres, has a lot going for it. There’s a very kid-friendly run time of just over 80 minutes, some cool creatures and an Indigenous perspective. It’s a shame that much of that goodwill is undone by generic animation and storytelling.

The Amazonian village of Candamo is home to brave teen Ainbo (Lola Raie) and her best friend, the soon-to-be-crowned Princess Zumi (Naomi Serrano). The town, and its elders, like Atok (Rene Mujica), have grave concerns about the future of the home. It is a lush, beautiful world, but it is endangered by exploitive developers and a failing ecosystem.

When two spirit animals, an armadillo named Dillo (Dino Andrade) and a tapir called Vaca (Joe Hernandez) visit Ainbo, they tell her the evil jungle spirits the Yacaruna and their curse, can be defeated with a special root found only in the rainforest. The information sets her off on a quest to save the only home she’s ever known. Her friends may have given up on the traditional ways, but her belief in the Yacaruna keeps her moving forward.

You may get a slight sense of déjà vu while watching “Ainbo: Spirit of the Amazon.” The spirited animated movie owes a debt to “The Lion King” with an homage to “FernGully: The Last Rainforest” thrown in for good measure.

Action packed with a plucky female lead, the adventures are sometimes too frenetic and the messages that drive the action are perplexing—what is the biggest threat to the village: man, myth or a worsening ecosystem?—but while it may be familiar thematically, the movie’s good-natured feel makes it feel less like a knock-off or direct-to-DVD flick.

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