HBO Max's new movie 'Reminiscence' is a noir, mediocre 'Inception'

HBO Max’s new movie ‘Reminiscence’ is a noir, mediocre ‘Inception’

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“Reminiscence” is the latest film to debut simultaneously in theaters and on streaming, arriving on HBO Max this weekend. The film, a would-be mystery thriller twisted up in other people’s memories, is 1930s Hollywood noir reimagined for the 21st century. Sadly, nothing ever really gels, making “Reminiscence” more a collection of ideas in search of cohesion then a good movie.

On paper, Warner Bros. Pictures’ choice to pick up “Reminiscence” for distribution seems like a no-brainer for our vertically integrated media landscape

On paper, Warner Bros. Pictures’ choice to pick up “Reminiscence” for distribution seems like a no-brainer for our vertically integrated media landscape. It’s written and directed by Lisa Joy and produced by Jonathan Nolan, the team behind HBO’s hit series “Westworld.” (HBO and Warner Bros. are owned by the same parent company, Warner Media.) It stars Hugh Jackman, a franchise film action hero who was recently lauded for the HBO film “Bad Education”; Rebecca Ferguson, who is about to hit it big in Warner’s upcoming “Dune”; and Thandiwe Newton, one of the stars of “Westworld.”

“Reminiscence” is a post-apocalyptic science fiction film, with “Inception” overtones. And “Inception” was written by Christopher Nolan, Jonathan’s brother and a regular Warner Bros. director.

The concept also feels like it should be a winner. Jackman stars as Nick Bannister, a hard-boiled Bogartesque hero who the film literally calls a “private investigator,” though it’s not really accurate. In truth, he makes a living running a virtual reality memory projection service, where clients relive happy memories of the beforetimes: before the waters rose to semi-apocalyptic levels (the film is set in a Venice-like reimagining of Miami) and before a series of endless wars. Some of those memories are smaller and more personal — before he left, before the baby died. But no matter the magnitude of the memory, Bannister, assisted by Watts (Newton), gives his clients a chance to go back to that happy moment, quietly making a buck off their addiction to the past.

Like all good noirs, this story starts when a glamorous woman, Mae (Ferguson), walks into Bannister’s life (her excuse is she lost her keys and needs him to search her memory for them). But this femme fatale is more complex than meets the eye. There’s a love affair, a disappearance and a desperate search to find her after she suddenly turns up in someone else’s memory bank. Before long the dealer Bannister is dipping into his own stash, trying to figure out if Mae ever loved him, or if it was all a con from the start.

But the film never delivers on its inherent promise of a surrealist trip investigating the memories of others. The film’s conceit — of digging through hazy unreliable recollections, chasing a woman who may or may not even be alive anymore — should leave audiences dizzily wondering what’s real and what’s not. But the memory device, a sensory deprivation chamber-like tub with headset, accidentally undermines the mystery. The film treats the memory journeys like guided meditation, with someone on a headset talking the person through their dreams. That constant voiceover works great as an excuse for Jackman to keep up a constant “Bladerunner”-like narration throughout the film. But it also means the audience is all too aware of where the line between dreams and reality resides.

“Reminiscence” lumbers around, at best a workman-like thriller, hitting all the overly familiar beats familiar to any fan of black and white films from the 1940s.

Instead, “Reminiscence” lumbers around, at best a workman-like thriller, hitting all the overly familiar beats familiar to any fan of black and white films from the 1940s. Perhaps worst of all, it creates a genuinely fascinating world build in its slightly sunken Miami milieu, but never does anything with it other than pan and sweep across a landscape littered with endless water-taxis.

The cast does everything they can to keep the soggy story above water. Jackman is exemplary, as always, channeling his best futuristic Sam Spade, and Ferguson is a delight as Mae, the old school sultry siren who may or may not be betraying our hero at any moment. And Newton makes a full meal out of Watts, showing off the action skills she’s honed over her career.

When Warner Bros. Pictures announced last December it would move its entire 2021 theatrical slate to simultaneously premiere day-and-date on HBO Max, there were howls from all corners of Hollywood. This was yet another “death knell” for movies, directors wailed, including from Christopher Nolan. But “Reminiscence” is one film that may benefit from being regarded as an HBO Max film, especially with viewers who regularly don’t differentiate between the streamer and HBO proper. As a feature film in theaters, it’s a mess not worth your time. As a streaming bit of fluff filled with actors you already recognize, it’s a movie no one will be clamoring to have resurface in their memories. But it’s probably worth a stream.

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