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Schultz reviews: 'Radioactive' and 'If I Stay'

Schultz reviews: 'Radioactive' and 'If I Stay'

Carl Schultz  “Radioactive”   Distributed by StudioCanal, 110 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released July 24, 2020: “Radioactive” is almost precisely what you’d expect from a comic book version of the life and career of Marie and Pierre Curie, if the comic book were adapted into a movie.  Told from the perspective of the 67-year-old Marie as she lies dying in a Paris hospital in 1934 and recalls significant moments in her life, the picture moves with a breathtaking pace, just like a comic book.  Unfortunately, it moves with that breathtaking pace in too many directions simultaneously. Adapted by British screenwriter and dramatist Jack Thorne from Lauren Redniss’ graphic novel “Radioactive:  A Tale of Love and Fallout” and directed by Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian-born French illustrator and cartoonist known for the 2003 comic book “Persepolis” and the 2007 animated feature based on it, “Radioactive” depicts the life and work of the Polish-born scientist Marie Sklodowska (Rosamund Pike) and her romance and partnership with colleague Pierre Curie (Sam Riley). Interwoven with scenes depicting the eventual and frequently destructive future impact of their pioneering research in the field of physics, the film dramatizes the life and career of the Curies--their whirlwind romance and marriage, their discovery of radium and polonium, and the worldwide shifts in science and popular culture which occurred as a result. Despite the elaborate trappings, a reported $20 million-plus budget, some fine performances--especially from Rosamund Pike and Sam Riley--and international collaboration between Great Britain, France, Hungary, China, and the United States, “Radioactive” is decidedly not a sum of its parts.  The picture actually contains very little information you didn’t already know from fourth grade history...and possibly even less than you learned in eleventh grade chemistry. Events are recounted with a shallowness familiar to anyone who’s ever read a comic book, and often framed by filmmaker Satrapi with a sort of barely-controlled creative hysteria that feels more appropriate to a Mad Magazine parody of an ostentatious biographical picture.  Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s dark and almost colorless photography is sometimes reminiscent of the works of Rembrandt, but also renders the City of Light in dark, damp, and dirty tones--conspicuously unromantic especially during the scenes depicting the Curies’ romance and honeymoon. Because of the flashback structure of “Radioactive,” the narrative frequently becomes disjointed, and sometimes almost kaleidoscopic.  Dramatizations of the Curies’ scientific breakthroughs are juxtaposed with sequences illustrating the often destructive uses of their discoveries half a century later.  Pierre Curie’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1903, for example, is intercut with the 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima.  That the Hiroshima sequence is among the most harrowing nuclear attack depictions committed to film since 1983’s “The Day After” is beside the point--the film’s juxtaposition of the images serves only to minimize the historical impact of both events.   Worse, some of the cross-cutting, scene-switching, and epoch-jumping is illogical, and even nonsensical.  A scene showing Marie Curie cooking cereal for her daughters is intercut with a sequence depicting a nuclear test in the Nevada desert in 1960, juxtaposed in such a way that the viewer has to wonder whether Madame Curie is feeding her kids cobalt for breakfast. The most unfortunate casualty of director Satrapi’s piecemeal structure of “Radioactive” is Rosamund Pike’s performance as Marie Curie.  We see only relatively brief flashes of a performance that in a more traditional narrative might’ve been a full-bodied and full-blooded, sympathetic, and even brilliant characterization.  Unfortunately, what little we’re given is about 90% unsympathetic.  Arrogance is one component of Curie’s personality, but it’s the component Satrapi leads with--one part of a performance that’s chopped up and served as a course on a buffet rather than as an entree. A militant feminist a full century before the era of #MeToo, Rosamund Pike as Marie Curie has no illusions or pretenses about her brilliance--her only problem is persuading others to accept it.  Even when the Curies are nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1903, the nomination is in Pierre’s name only...an omission which causes friction in their marriage, although Pierre is quick to inform the Nobel Committee, “If we won, we won it together.”  Still, as Marie notes to Pierre, “You have one of the finest minds I’ve ever met--it just so happens that mine is finer.” Almost defiantly unconventional in her choices of film roles, eschewing the trappings of a traditional contemporary movie star, Rosamund Pike is at her best in character roles which showcase her skills as an actress rather than her beauty...although her biggest and most financial successful films--”Jack Reacher” in 2012 is one, and 2014’s ”Gone Girl”--have emphasized both.  Pike was nominated for both Golden Globe and Director’s Guild Awards for her unglamorous role as real-life photojournalist Marie Colvin in 2018’s “A Private War”...but began her movie career as James Bond’s comely nemesis in the 2002 adventure “Die Another Day.” Unfortunately, what survives of Pike’s characterization in “Radioactive” predominantly unlikable, a fault multiplied when husband Pierre is trampled to death by a horse-drawn carriage in 1906 and Marie no longer can rely on his charm to smooth over her more abrupt impulses.  So aggressively egocentric that she perceives hostility where none exists, Marie when offered a position at the prestigious Sorbonne university in Paris after Pierre’s death snaps at the trustees, “If you wish to give it to me as pity, don’t--It is not a job I want, but it is a job I will take.” You have to give her points for confidence.  But admiring Pike’s performance in the context of “Radioactive” is a little like admiring lettuce in the context of a Big Mac--one healthy ingredient is not going to redeem the entire sandwich.  Unfocused, scattered, and sometimes almost laughably pretentious, “Radioactive” is one movie you might want to skip in favor of just reading the source material again...even if the source material is a comic book. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, disturbing images, brief nudity (Marie and Pierre indulge in a little skinny-dipping during their honeymoon), and a scene of sensuality, “Radioactive” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.   “If I Stay”   Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures, 106 Minutes, Rated PG-13, Released August 22, 2014: “If I Stay” is without shame, remorse, or apology a picture aimed straight at your tear ducts, presumably in the belief that a good crying spell is therapeutic and therefore cathartic for the spirit. And the picture mostly works hard to earn its tears honestly: The characters are attractive and appealing, and likable, and the actors playing the characters also are attractive, and appealing, and likable.  This is the rare picture which features no bad guys.  Everybody’s a good guy. Based on Gayle Forman’s 2009 young adult novel of the same name, ‘If I Stay” chronicles the emotional experience of buttoned-up 17-year-old cello prodigy Mia Hall and her worlds-colliding romance with a free-spirited, up-and-coming young rock-and-roll guitarist named Adam.  That both Mia and Adam are on the cusp of professional breakthroughs in their budding musical careers accounts for most of the ups and downs in their relationship. Unfortunately, their romance is in the middle of one of its downs when Mia and her family are involved in a catastrophic auto accident, casting Mia into an out-of-body experience a la “Between Two Worlds,” in which she can observe the people she loves but not communicate with them, or interfere with their actions.  In this way, Mia’s able to view her life from a more objective perspective, and see the impact of her possible death on those she loves most. Adapted from Forman’s novel by Shauna Cross and directed by R.J. Cutler, “If I Stay” is a picture that gives you the same kind of satisfaction you get from following your doctor's orders, eating your vegetables, taking your vitamins, or getting a flu shot:  You might rather be watching “The Avengers” or one of the Star Wars pictures, but you suspect that a movie with this much cello music in it just has to be good for you. And it is fairly good.  Young Mia has wonderful support from her parents, a set of amiably loopy former rockers played appealingly by Mirielle Enos and Joshua Leonard.  Mia’s Love Generation folks grew up and embraced responsibility when it became apparent to them that the late nights and party lights of a rock ‘n roll lifestyle did not blend well with parenthood…an epiphany which makes even more perplexing their almost pushing young Mia out the door to be with her rocker boyfriend. As Mia’s rock guitarist boyfriend, Jamie Blackley somehow manages to be sullen without being pouty, simultaneously withdrawn and inarticulate about romance yet strong-willed and verbose about music.  You can see why Mia’s attracted to Adam, although if you’re the parent of a teenager you might be more than a little conflicted about the two youngsters falling into bed quite so quickly. Unfortunately at some point about an hour into the movie the narrative becomes sticky and manipulative, almost maudlin, and the picture begins to rely on broad characterizations, familiar stereotypes, and the ghosts of movies past to sort of swindle the tears from the audience. And that's too bad, because by that point you might have decided you enjoy the picture, and are unprepared to modify your opinion.  That the scene which begins the manipulation features a showcase moment for veteran actor Stacy Keach as Mia’s crusty and lovable old Grandpa makes the cheat seem that much more unexpected.  Keach, much like the late Robert Loggia, always seems to be such an honest and dependable actor. Having said that, about 80% of the success of “If I Stay” belongs to young Chloe Grace Moretz in the central role as Mia.  Moretz is earnest enough in her craft to make us care about young Mia even through her most puzzling and selfish interludes.  Since beginning her career as the reluctant (and foul-mouthed) pint-size grade school superhero in 2010’s “Kick-Ass” and its 2013 sequel, young Moretz has matured into a charismatic and talented performer who always seems to be on the very cusp of a stellar career as a major star of motion pictures.  You might just enjoy “If I Stay.”  Check it out. “If I Stay” is rated PG-13 for thematic elements and some sexual material.  The movie is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.  For a limited time, the DVD can also be found for a buck in the video dump bins at local Dollar Tree stores.

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