Notwithstanding its title, “The Rhythm Section” drags about a half beat behind where it could have been.
The film opening Friday stars Blake Lively as Stephanie Patrick, an Oxford student whose entire family died in a plane crash three years prior. Now using heroin and working as a prostitute, she receives a visit from a reporter (Raza Jaffrey), who informs her that it was not a crash; it was a terrorist attack.
Obsessed with revenge, she tracks down the reporter’s source, a former MI6 agent (Jude Law), who gives her the requisite “training” sequences wherein she gets beat up a lot. Then it’s down a complicated path to catch not only the bomber, but also the mastermind behind it all.
Unfortunately, Stephanie is not a very good assassin, and it’s not much fun to watch her trying to work, bungling her assignments and getting beat up several times more.
But neither is she a terribly three-dimensional character, rooted almost entirely in grief and vengeance with little else to provide an entry point.
Based on the first in a series of novels written by Mark Burnell, who also adapted the screenplay, the movie has enough to get a sense that there might have been quite a bit more.
Directed by veteran cinematographer Reed Morano, “The Rhythm Section” isn’t terrible, but it has a serious, dreary tone and a grayish look, with Lively dumped into a series of baggy, oversized outfits.
Oddly, it was produced by some of the folks behind the James Bond films. If there are to be any more Stephanie Patrick movies, she could use some pointers from 007.
The lack of lightness continues. While Tom and Jerry, Looney Tunes, the Pink Panther and Disney cartoons were once Oscar winners — and even the late Kobe Bryant won for his gorgeous “Dear Basketball” — this year’s batch of nominees for Best Animated Short are far from cute ‘n’ funny or warm ‘n’ fuzzy.
The downright downer collections “Oscar Nominated Short Films 2020: Animation” and “Live Action” both open Friday.
In the cartoon category, Daria Kashcheeva’s “Daughter” (15 minutes), from the Czech Republic, may be the first animated film shot with nausea-inducing shaky-cam. In this wordless film, which uses rough-looking puppets and stop-motion along with incredibly soulful character eyes, a daughter visits her father on his deathbed and experiences sad memories.
Siqi Song’s “Sister” (7 minutes), a heartfelt, strange stop-motion short from China using what looks to be felt cloth figures, could be a companion piece to the powerful (non-nominated) documentary “One Child Nation.” A man narrates, telling the story of a troublesome, pesky, but imaginative younger sister.
In Bruno Collet’s “Memorable” (12 minutes), from France, a painter begins to experience something like dementia, forgetting what objects are, and even who his loving wife is. The entire stop-motion film, with its exquisite design — deliberately imperfect, yet highly detailed — is told from his point of view, showing his strange visions, lapses of time, and flights of fancy.
“Kitbull” (9 minutes), also available to stream on Disney+, is a unique hand-drawn film from Pixar. It’s a heart-wrenching yet undeniably sweet tale of a homeless kitten that encounters an abused pit bull, a victim of a dogfighting ring, and their euphoric escape.
But the top pick here has to be “Hair Love” (7 minutes). Distributed by Sony, but sporting the look and feel of a bright, smooth Disney cartoon, Matthew A. Cherry, Everett Downing Jr. and Bruce W. Smith’s 2D animated short is a delight, and one of the few places wherein viewers can see some black faces at the Oscars this year. In it, a little girl and her clueless father attempt to style her enormous head of hair on a very special day.
Additional animated shorts, “The Bird and the Whale,” “Hors Piste,” “Henrietta Bulkowski” and “Maestro,” will be screened to stretch the program’s overall running time.
The Best Live Action Short category is equally depressing, but nevertheless offers some good entries.
Meryam Joobeur’s “Brotherhood” (25 minutes) tells the story of a family of Tunisian sheep farmers, a father, mother and two red-headed, freckle-faced sons. An older brother suddenly returns home from Syria. He has brought a new, pregnant bride — a young Syrian woman entirely covered in a traditional niqab — sending the father into fits of suspicion and indignation.
Despite its troubling subject, Joobeur keeps “Brotherhood” simple, focusing on scenes of home life (having a meal, sleeping, frolicking at the beach). Her camera sometimes thoughtfully blurs over the image in the foreground, gazing out in the distance instead. Yet her storytelling remains tense, and her ending packs a wallop.
Based on a true story, Bryan Buckley’s “Saria” (22 minutes) takes place in a Guatemalan orphanage, where teen girls are tormented by their abusive keepers. Buckley devises some powerful moments, such as a tracking shot of a cockroach scuttling down a hallway next to a keeper’s clunking boots and clanking keys, or a secret peephole to the outside world. But he also resorts to overt seriousness and shaky-cam to really drive his points home.
In “The Neighbors’ Window” (20 minutes), an exhausted husband and wife (with three kids) are dismayed to discover a young, sexy couple in the building across the way, partying and making love in plain view. A fiction debut by Oscar-nominated documentarian Marshall Curry, it seems long, and is likewise a tad heavy-handed, but winds up with a genuinely moving turnaround.
Like so many short films, Yves Piat’s “Nefta Football Club” (17 minutes) depends on an O. Henry-style twist ending, and it has a great one, but unfortunately, it bungles the setup, explaining the central joke — a donkey wearing headphones and transporting cocaine — before it even has a chance to be a joke.
Finally, Delphine Girard’s “A Sister (Une Soeur)” (17 minutes) is a little thriller about a woman (Veerle Baetens) working at emergency call center, contacted by a woman who seems to have been kidnapped. It’s similar to the excellent 2018 Danish feature film “The Guilty,” although, even with a shorter running time, it still feels less focused, less tense.
Additionally, the “Oscar Nominated Short Films 2020: Documentary” opens Friday; the 160-minute program includes “In the Absence,” “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone,” “Life Overtakes Me,” “St. Louis Superman” and “Walk Run Cha-Cha.”
Oscar Nominated Short Films 2020: Animation & Live Action
Directed by: Bryan Buckley, Marshall Curry, Delphine Girard, Meryam Joobeur and Yves Piat (live action); Matthew A. Cherry, Everett Downing Jr., Bruce W. Smith, Bruno Collet, Daria Kashcheeva, Siqi Song and Rosana Sullivan (animated)
Running time: 104 minutes (live action); 83 minutes (animated)