Movie reviews: Air of deja vu hangs over 'Spark: A Space Tail'
Hilary Swank and Jace Norman in Spark: A Space Tail (2016). (ToonBox Entertainment)
Published Friday, April 28, 2017 6:30AM EDT
SPARK: A SPACE TAIL: 1 STAR
I hate puns and I especially hate punny titles. Imagine taking the time to read “the Long Quiche Goodbye: A Cheese Shop Mystery” or a thriller called “Doppelgangster.” The mind reels. As such, my expectations for the animated outer space monkey movie “Spark: A Space Tail” were not high. Sadly, my expectations were met.
Once the prince of a planet of the apes called Bana (banana without the “na”), Spark (voice of Jace Norman) is a teenage chimp living on a tiny slice of his former planet, one of many blown into space 13 years ago following a coup by the Napoleon-esque Zhong (voice of Alan C. Peterson). Spark lives with robot caretaker Bananny (voice of Susan Sarandon) and former royal guard members, Vix (voice of Jessica Biel) and Chunk (voice of Rob deLeeuw), warriors whose job is to protect, train and prepare Spark for his destiny—the recapture of the kingdom. Key to Zhong’s defeat is the Galactic Kraken, a beast whose harnessed power may be the most powerful weapon history has ever known.
An air of déjà vu hangs heavy over “Spark: A Space Tail.” Anyone over the age of four will immediately recognize story elements lightly lifted from “Star Wars,” “WALL-E” and just about any other adolescent in space movie that came before. Most of the borrowed concepts were good ideas the first, second or even third time around but feel a bit been-there-done-that here.
But it’s not just the story that feels shopworn. Space underdog stories will always find some kind of audience but other than a couple of effective scenes of interplanetary dodge ball the animation here is as unattractive as it gets. Not only is “Spark: A Space Tail” saddled with a story that would have been quite at home in an early nineties direct to video release, but it has animation to match. The a-lister cast—including Sarandon, Patrick Stewart and Hilary Swank among others—cannot compensate for visuals that redefine the word generic.
Unfortunately the punny title may be the best thing about “Spark: A Space Tail.”
THE CIRCLE: 2 STARS
There’s an old saying that says a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. “The Circle,” a new Emma Watson, Tom Hanks’ thriller updates the message for the cyber age. "Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better," is the chilling message.
Based on the Dave Eggers bestseller of the same name, “The Circle” stars Emma Watson as Mae Holland, a young woman who lands a gig at The Circle, a social media company with the influence of Apple and Facebook combined. It’s high tech glamour with a human touch, the chaos of the web made elegant. When Mae’s father falls ill her health coverage is extended to include her extended family. “You are a valued member of the Circle,” says the Zuckerbergesque company head and co-founder Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks). “We care about everybody you care about.”
As she moves up the ranks Bailey convinces her to take part in a radical test. “Mae,” he asks, “do you think you behave better or worse when you are being watched?” It is a grand social experiment that sees her observed on-line every minute of the day via a new, lightweight, wireless portable camera. On the surface it’s a utopian idea, a way to make people better—“When we are our best selves,” says Bailey, “there isn’t a problem we can’t solve.”—that soon has some unexpected consequences.
When her co-worker Ty (John Boyega) warns her that “all the information, everything broadcast, recorded and seen is stored there and they can use it however they want,” she realizes the possibilities of a surveillance culture.
“The Circle” is a snapshot not of today but of two years ago. It’s almost impossible to tell a dystopian or cautionary cyber tale when Russian hackers are throwing American elections and your laptop is already spying on you and likely has been for years. The film feels as current as it's musical guest star Beck, a musician old enough to be Watson's father.
It does raise questions about the usage of personal data for the gain of personal wealth, the role of technology in government—“The government needs us more than we need them,” snarls The Circle’s COO (Patton Oswalt)—and the nature and importance of privacy in the wild west of the internet but it doesn’t add much to the conversation. The messages are earnest, but Watson’s Mae is a passive player, a shallow character too gullible and easily influenced to maintain our interest. The solution to her moral quandary feels better suited to a Facebook post than the climax to a movie.
While it is a pleasure to see Bill Paxton in his last big screen performance, “The Circle” often feels like an Exposition-A-Thon, a message in search of a story.
NORMAN: 3 STARS
To play the title character in “Norman,” a strategist, a consultant who sometimes consults with consultants, Richard Gere dimmed his matinee idol looks with a bad haircut and thick glasses. It’s his best role in years, a character study that gives him the chance to go deep in a movie that isn’t as deep as it thinks it is.
Gere is Norman Oppenheimer, a down-at-the-heels New York City wannabe wheeler-dealer. He’s a connector, a facilitator who brings people together. In conversation he repeats, "I'd be very happy to introduce you," like a mantra, seven words that could unlock the mysteries of the universe.
Everybody who’s anybody knows who he is but nobody knows anything about him. He’s a cipher who lives on his cell phone, has no office but does have nerve and something to prove. He’s so keen to impress Micha Eshelan (Lior Ashkenazi), up-and-coming Israeli politician he buys him a very expensive gift just minutes after meeting him. “I bought him a pair of shoes,” he says. “The most expensive pair of shoes in all of New York. Best investment I ever made.”
His investment pays off years later when Eshelan becomes the Prime Minister of Israel. Norman’s stock rises considerably but is his relationship with the world leader illegal and corrupt? Is Norman simply a delusional name-dropper or is he the one virtuous man in a den of wolves?
When we first meet Norman he is the living, breathing embodiment of disappointment. A man who rides a razors edge of failure every time he picks up his cell phone. He swallows his pride at every turn, trying to maintain dignity even as he is thrown out of a wealthy man’s home. He’s a goodhearted weasel who lies and cheats in his quest to do the right thing and Gere plays him as a man desperate to matter, to experience the kind of recognition that would come with the right connections.
It feels like he has tasted the good life and, as Eshelan says, “once you have been up, way up, you can't settle for anything less.” Norman wants more but it’s never exactly sure what that means to him. He’s a fascinating, annoying character and Gere brings him to life.
There’s also interesting work from Ashkenazi, Charlotte Gainsbourg as a crusading lawyer and Steve Buscemi as a rabbi but the film feels cluttered, as though director Joseph Cedar was so fascinated by Norman’s ever spreading web of obligations, he couldn’t stop adding to it.
“Norman” is an in-depth look at a superficial man, a movie that works best when it focuses on Gere and not baroque political intrigue.
AN AMERICAN DREAM: 2 ½ STARS
In his new film satirist Ken Finkleman casts his net to include everything from gun toting evangelicals and reality TV stars to government paranoia and corporate shenanigans. By the time the final credits roll though one question remains, Can you parody a culture that has already fallen into self-parody?
“An American Dream” looks to “Candide,” a French satire first published in 1759 by Voltaire, as a basis for its jaundiced look at life. Like the character Candide, when we first meet William Bowman (Jake Croker) he’s living a sheltered life. William is a college football star thrust into adulthood, and all the hardships that entails, after a concussion sidelines his athletic career.
He lands on his feet at a high-flying Wall Street company, only to be knocked down when his investment firm is taken over. Next up, he becomes a travelling salesman, selling religious books door to door to churches and libraries. When that implodes in a hail of gunfire he sets off on a journey that sees him involved in a public execution, a government cover-up and a fugitive as the star of a reality show called “Dead Man Running.”
Like “Candide” “An American Dream” pokes the bear, taking shots at religion, government and the military industrial complex. It’s an erratic, fantastical ride presented in Finkleman’s trademarked matter-of-fact style. When the going gets gonzo the director keeps a steady pace, punting William from one escapade to the next. The sheer volume of allegory and adventure is head spinning but when broken down into individual elements are eerie and timely. A snarky millennial newscaster puts us in the mind of Tomi Lahren while a televised execution feels like an episode of “Fear Factor” gone wild.
In our Fake News/Post Truth Era, however, these satirical components feel less tongue-in-cheek and more like a scary peek into the near future. It’s hard to know if Finkleman has made a movie that serves as a warning or as a comment on where we are today. This timeliness and familiarity blunts some of the film’s impact. Call it post-satire. Call it whatever you like, but in an age where former right-wing messiah Alex Jones can keep a straight face and claim his messages weren’t real, that they were just performance art, a movie like “An American Dream” feels less game-changing than it needs to be.