Once loaded with connections to exoticism and movie-star glamor, “Ava” now ranks annually among the most popular girls’ names throughout the U.S., and it seems its ubiquity is extending to the film world: Tate Taylor’s female-starring shoot-’em-up Ava is the third film bearing that title to be released in the past few years. It, too, has the air of something that may once have been unusual in conception only to emerge as rather generic. Built around Jessica Chastain as an icy, globe-trotting assassin facing a tangle of personal and professional challenges when she returns home to Boston, the film provides a hacky showcase for its star to throw herself into the grounds of being an action hero. She shows potential, but its Matthew Newton’s skimpy, trite screenplay that makes the whole enterprise feel more like a blah TV pilot than a major star vehicle.
Opening with a prologue that introduces a blonde-wigged Ava (Chastain) as she clinically deceives and dispatches a corrupt British businessman (Ioan Gruffudd), Ava soon dives into a credit sequence that serves up her entire backstory in convenient montage mode. A gifted student who went off the rails following a DUI incident at college, she beats her drug addiction and alcoholism by joining the army — after which she was drafted into a hazily defined black ops organization, becoming its most ruthless assassin under the caustically paternal mentorship of Duke (John Malkovich). Ava is given no sense of what her targets have done to merit their fate, which gnaws away at her carefully concealed conscience; for the equally uninformed audience, meanwhile, this absence of context given the film’s many forgettable fight scenes an air of hollow detachment. Instead, the script invites us to focus on a variety of crises involving her estranged, dysfunctional family, with whom she’s reunited after a botched high-stakes operation in Riyadh puts the heat on her, and she heads home to Beantown to cool off. Her prickly, hospitalized mother (Geena Davis) and resentful sister Jude (Jess Weixler), who believe she’s been working as a U.N. administrator in Europe for the past eight years, aren’t exactly welcoming: Their reserve is faintly explained by a soupy mess of daddy issues, as well as a love triangle pivoting on Jude’s seemingly stand-up boyfriend Michael (Common). Yet getting us emotionally invested in the personal problems of a professional cypher is a trick that Ava never comes close to pulling off.
Ava takes an equally carless attitude to the imminent threat posed by Simon (Colin Farrell), another protégé of Duke’s who wants her dead for reasons that might be clearer if we knew anything about the organization they all work for, beyond the simple fact that they just work for it. This inattention to detail comes across the board in Newton’s script, filled with a half-dozen subplots vying for dominance, and no central one: Lots of things happen in Ava, but what it’s actually about isn’t immediately clear. As it is, the film counts heavily on the steely presence of Chastain to galvanize things with the sheer set of her jaw. She’s locked-in, but isn’t given much in return. Taylor doesn’t help much either, not really bringing any particular style; keeping things with a bright metallic lipgloss look that’s so digital it can be difficult to look at. Deep down there’s a stranger, spikier, more unnerving film to be pulled from the sleek genre space of Ava, a film less interested in what makes a contract killer tick than in the bland regularities of the genre. Dormant and flat to the point of banality, Ava is build entirely on cliché and half-hearted genericity; so derivative and weak-limbed that it can hardly crawl to the finish line.
Ava will be released in Select Theaters and available on VOD on September 25th
It’s hard to believe that there’s yet another Sherlock Holmes spinoff/ripoff. But here is Sherlock’s little-known rebellious kid sister Enola, invented in 2006 by YA author Nancy Springer. Adapting the first novel in the novel the series is screenwriter Jack Thorne and director Harry Bradbeer, who both bring Enola Holmes as a charmer of fine enough quality. Millie Bobby Brown stars as the imaginative, brilliant, and quirky young titular character. Enola has grown up alone in the country with her enigmatic widowed mother, Eudoria (Helena Bonham Carter), who has homeschooled her in science, literature, and martial arts — this all having happened after Enola’s older brothers, Sherlock (Henry Cavill) and Mycroft (Sam Claflin), have left home. But, one day, when Eudoira herself suddenly disappears, leaving brief clues for Enola as to why, Enola becomes trapped with her grumpy brother Mycroft, who insists on putting her in a stuffy boarding school run by Dickensian headmistress Miss Harrison (Fiona Shaw). It’s from there where Enola decides she must escape, solve the mystery of her missing mother and come to London, thwarting a reactionary conspiracy to kidnap a young aristocrat (Louis Partridge) who has a crush on Enola.
While the film’s slew of hijinks go somewhat slack near the middle (its overall mystery is filled with a mixed-bag of fake-outs, but there’s still a surprise to two), Enola Holmes rattles along charming enough. The movie is the kind of all-star production that might once have been made by the BBC and put out during Christmas; meaning that it delivers some smirks here and there, but also feels fleeting and forgettable in its genericity. Brown’s lead performance has a nice, spontaneity to it, cheekily outpacing her famous brother Sherlock at times and often doing fourth-wall breaks to play with the audience. The movie’s puppy dog romance falls pretty flat; its feminist twist is solid, but its that kind of up and down, give and take in quality that Enola Holmes often runs into. Amiable with dashes of forgettability, Enola Holmes pushes the lively and frothy to the front, dashing through its struggles with mixed results.
Enola Holmes is available to stream on Netflix