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Self/Less Loses Itself 

Minions: just stealing from families

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Ever since The Cell (2000), I've been among the crowd waiting and hoping for director Tarsem Singh (sometimes credited as Tarsem, sometimes as Tarsem Singh Dhandwar) to bring us something revelatory, to follow through on the promise of that early work. Granted, my opinion of that movie is by now mostly held together with nostalgia and fond, if troubling, memories, but it still exhibits a distinct, original visual sense and narrative sensibility. It was the beginning of the end of the heady days of the '90s cinema boom and we were all full of hope.

Singh dropped off the box office radar for a while following The Cell, apparently having gone back to plying his trade directing commercials and music videos. Within a few years, though, there were rumblings that he was at work on a major new project. Using his own hand-picked crew, he was filming a few scenes at a time all over the world, snatching what precious minutes he could away from his paying gigs to capitalize on their exotic locations. Plot details were sketchy at best, at least in the early going, but it was enough to cultivate an air of mystery and excitement around the project. Eventually the swirl of rumor cohered into The Fall (2006), an aesthetically stunning passion project that, while a suitable follow-up to Singh's debut, failed to create much excitement with audiences. It also reinforced a niggling idea suggested by The Cell: this guy might be better with images than he is with stories. For an intensely visual movie about the dark power of imagination, The Fall followed a pretty safe, conventional plotline that held precious few surprises.

Years again went by before Singh resurfaced, appearing unexpectedly at the helm of Immortals (2011). This gratuitously violent but exquisitely photographed sword and sandal thing did the business it needed to, apparently, as he was back the following year with Mirror Mirror, a take on Snow White that, for whatever reason, I haven't seen. I'm sure it's very good looking. And now Singh returns with Self/less, which seems to indicate that he's become a Hollywood director for hire and maybe abandoned some of his grander ambitions.

Manhattan real estate mogul Damian Hale (Ben Kingsley) is a hard-charger with an estranged adult daughter, an opulently baroque penthouse apartment and a pretty bad case of cancer. He follows an anonymous tip to an underground biotech firm, headed up by the mysterious, vaguely sinister Albright (Matthew Goode). Albright promises to install Hale's consciousness in a healthy new body and relocate him in New Orleans to start anew; no muss, no fuss and all for the low, low price of $250 million. The procedure goes to plan, and Hale wakes up in the body of Ryan Reynolds. Nice surprise. (Well, it's Reynolds playing a character they've called Edward Hale, but still). The re-embodied Hale, after a suitable rehabilitation period and under a strict drug regimen, begins to enjoy the pleasures his lithe new frame allows. One day, after he misses a dose and starts seeing things, he starts asking Albright some questions about the body into which he has moved. This leads, of course, to a journey of uncomfortable discovery and questions about medical ethics. I won't reveal all the turns, but I'm not doing much of a favor: The ending is pretty well telegraphed from the beginning.

There are flashes here of Singh's visionary style, particularly in a farmhouse shootout backlit by a flamethrower, and featuring a frantic stallion. On balance, though, the movie is visually pretty tame. The narrative could hold some surprises if executed properly, I suppose, but none of those moments of potential really land. It is well-acted, to be sure, though we only get Kingsley for the brief first act. The hand-to-hand combat sequences are exciting and impactful, if relatively few. Going in to Self/less, I guess I was still carrying a torch for Singh, for some grand return to his initial promise. This experience didn't entirely extinguish that flame, but it most certainly put a damper on it. PG13. 116m.

I like fun; cartoons are fun, right? Yes, of course they are; cartoons are perhaps the most liberated, imaginative genre of cinema and television. They are unlimited by the constraints of reality, a testament to the power and joy of visual storytelling. So why is it that so many of them are boring nowadays?

Minions posits that the little yellow guys, as a species, predate humanity. They've been wandering the Earth for millennia, unsuccessfully searching for a despicable villain to be their boss. (There's a bit of a disconnect here, as the Minions seem like pretty sweet guys. I guess the idea is that we shouldn't judge others by their actions, i.e. villains are people too, but it still seems thematically messy).

Eventually, the tribe holes up in an ice cave and reluctantly settles in until, one bright day in 1968, Bob, Stuart and Kevin venture out to find a new boss. Before long, the three ingratiate themselves to the dastardly Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock) and her rail-thin inventor husband, Herb (Jon Hamm). Eventually they find themselves at cross purposes with their employer and are forced to save the world.

The titular characters are cute, with their amorphous forms and denim overalls and pidgin Esperanto, but that's about all they have to offer. The plot is minimal, the characterizations essentially nil and the whole thing feels like a poor excuse to take ticket money from families. PG. 91m.


ANT MAN. Teensy, weensy con-man Paul Rudd plots a heist to save the world. PG13. 117m.

PIXELS. Adam Sandler stars in this interplanetary war pic featuring classic arcade game characters. Spoiler alert: Pacman's kind of a jerk. PG13. 105m.

TRAINWRECK. Judd Apatow directs and Amy Shumer writes and stars in this comedic exploration of monogamy, co-starring Bill Hader and LeBron James. R. 125m.

— Thadeus Greenson


THE GALLOWS. Alums return to the revival of a school play that ended in tragedy. Supernatural drama ensues. R. 81m.

I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS. Blythe Danner as a retired singer looking for her second act at karaoke and flirting with Sam Elliot. PG13. 92m.

INSIDE OUT. Pixar renders our inner lives and the tumult of growing up with poignancy and humor through the personified emotions of a girl named Riley. With Amy Poehler. PG. 94m.

JURASSIC WORLD. Fun, well-executed dinosaur action thrills without convoluted plot. Like star Chris Pratt, it doesn't take itself too seriously. PG13. 124m.

LOVE & MERCY. John Cusack, Paul Dano and Elizabeth Banks shine in this Brian Wilson biopic about his struggle for creativity and sanity. PG13. 121m.

MAGIC MIKE XXL. A lighter, road-comedy version of the original stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold story, starring not quite enough of Channing Tatum's abs. R. 115m.

MAX. A Marine's military dog returns from Afghanistan and bonds with the dead soldier's family. Commence bawling now. PG. 111m.

ME & EARL & THE DYING GIRL. Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler and Olivia Cooke star in a quirky, clever teen drama about the vagaries of growing up. PG13. 105m.

SPY. A clever, big-budget take on the spy comedy buoyed by the charisma and timing of Melissa McCarthy as a CIA pencil pusher out in the field. R. 120m.

TED 2. Despite laughs, the tired premise of the talking bro-bear and awkward pacing make for a furry mess. R. 115m.

TERMINATOR GENISYS. So we're doing this again, with the robot assassins and the time travel and trying to stave off the apocalypse. Now with Arnold-on-Arnold violence. PG13. 125m.

— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill and Thadeus Greenson


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About The Author

John J. Bennett

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