Fair Play a slow-burn drama, Flora and Son a crowd-pleaser, Creator an empty work

Now Streaming |Chuck Koplinski

Workplace politics the focus of Fair Play

Fierce and volatile, Chloe Domont's Fair Play is a slow-burn drama that examines how the relationship of two lovers is altered when one is promoted over the other. From the start, we're made quite aware that Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) is head over heels for Emily (Phoebe Dynevor). That they work at the same New York City investment firm comes as no surprise but the fact that are dating and living together despite the company's policy against fraternization does. This arrangement suddenly becomes awkward when Emily is given a promotion that was rumored to be going to Luke and while he says he's happy for her, subtle changes in his behavior belie this.

The way Emily is perceived by Luke and her co-workers once she's promoted changes quickly, and not for the better. Immediately, it is assumed she used her feminine wiles to get where she is, and resentment soon sinks in Emily finds herself in a boy's club where she constantly feels as though she has to prove herself. To celebrate an early success, she suggests they go to a high-class strip club, the usual locale for such occasions, going out of her way to buy private dances for her colleagues and even herself. She also takes unnecessary chances with clients and their investments in an effort to prove herself, an approach that takes a disastrous turn.

While what occurs in the workplace is not surprising, the relationship between the two principals and how it devolves is. While Emily promises to go out of her way to make sure Luke will be promoted to the next available spot, he recommends an investment to her that ultimately blows up in her face. The sincerity of each is called into question – is she being disingenuous with her promises? Did he purposely sabotage her with his advice? These ambiguities are intriguing and the best part of Domont's taut script.

Not only must credit be given for how well-written the characters are and the crispness of the dialogue, but also the work of the two leads. Ehrenreich is one of our most underrated screen actors, while Dynevor is a revelation. Neither shies away from the extremes Domont requires of them as their characters' behavior sinks to levels that would have been initially unthinkable to either. As such, Fair Play is not for the faint of heart. Though its third act will likely repel some viewers, it's necessary to take the story to its logical conclusion and, more importantly, prompt discussion that need to continue regarding gender roles in the workplace. Streaming on Netflix.

Carney, Hewson make Flora sing

An unabashed crowd-pleaser, John Carney's Flora and Son continues the filmmaker's examination of the connective and healing power of music. The setting is Dublin, and the titular single mom (Eve Hewson) is doing her best to make ends meet. Babysitting for a well-to-do family, she has no problem lifting cash from her employer's purse if she happens to leave it open and lying about. Truth be told, she really hasn't been herself since her husband, wayward musician Ian (Jack Reynor), left her. Without direction, she attempts to connect with her teenage son Max (Oren Kinlan), but he's not having it. On probation for past offenses, the teen is weary of any adult, as everyone he's trusted in the past has let him down. It comes as no surprise that he casts aside the guitar Flora has gotten him for his birthday; it's probably better he doesn't know she picked it out of a dumpster.

Yet, there's something about the instrument that draws Flora's attention and before you know it, she's looking online for guitar lessons. She finally connects with Jeff (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a laidback, California songwriter whose lack of pretension she finds appealing.

The best thing about Carney's films (Once, Swing Street) is his ability to write relatable characters and cast the perfect actor to bring them to life. Hewson has a sassiness about her that, while at times can be a bit much, you can’t help but be attracted to. More importantly, the hurt in her eyes tells us all we need to know about all she’s struggling with and that the brave face she wears is a fragile façade.

Much the same can be said for Kinlan as he wears Max's anger as it were a suit of sharp quills, keeping everyone who meets him at a distance. That he's able to convey the character's vulnerability with a subtle touch is surprising.

Thankfully, Carney defies expectations in the third act, wisely focusing on Flora and Max's relationship. The filmmaker leans into what he does best, namely showcasing his music, reminding the viewer of its expressive power and its ability to intimately convey emotion in a way mere words can't. Flora finds her voice on stage and in doing so becomes the strong woman she's wanted to be, and the dependable mother Max has needed. Flora may be predictable, but that doesn't rob it of its poignancy or power. Streaming on Apple TV+.

Loud and empty, Creator bludgeons the audience

Gareth Edwards' The Creator is being touted as a groundbreaking piece of science-fiction, the kind of genre entry that uses its tropes to make a profound social statement while being an exemplary example of the form. Ultimately, it reveals itself to be a big-budget version of The Emperor's New Clothes, a film that has the air of greatness about it before it exposes itself as a loud, empty piece of work.

The film gets off to a solid start, the fractured future of 2065 the setting. The focus is the timely issue of artificial intelligence. The nightmare scenario we fear has occurred as it's reached a point of dominance, having launched a nuclear strike on Los Angeles some 10 years earlier. The United States has vowed to wipe out any advanced AI they come across, diverting most of their forces towards New Asia, which has embraced this technology, developing it even further. Their intelligence has found they've developed a bomb that will destroy their massive warship, the Nomad, and that it must be found before it can be used. They recruit Joshua (John David Washington) to help with this mission as five years earlier, he'd been sent to the area where they think it is held. The problem is, there's a neat little plot twist – Joshua discovers this bomb has been rendered as a 10-year-old girl he dubs Alfie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), causing him to hesitate in terminating it.

The film turns into a road movie at this point. This ends up seeming like a very long trip as there's little to no chemistry between Washington and Voyles. It certainly isn't from lack of trying on both of their parts, but they simply don't mesh, their moments together are far too awkward and obvious to be effective. Meanwhile, Edwards is far too enamored with executing one battle sequence after another, all of which becomes repetitious and fails to move the plot.

It's hard to discern a theme amidst all the carnage. I suppose Edwards is saying that the attractive nature of the benefits of A.I. blind us to its hazards. If that's the extent of what he has to say, it's a rather simplistic, obvious conclusion to espouse with a hefty $80 million price tag. In the end, The Creator left me numb, longing for a time when big budget filmmakers would wow and move me at the same time. In theaters.

About The Author

Chuck Koplinski

Writing for Illinois Times since 1998, Chuck Koplinski is a member of the Critic's Choice Association, the Chicago Film Critics Association and a contributor to Rotten Tomatoes. He appears on WCIA-TV twice a week to review current releases and, no matter what anyone says, thinks Tom Cruise's version of The Mummy...

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