Body (2015)


Pretty little liar.

Pretty little liar.

(2015) Thriller (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Helen Rogers, Alexandra Turshen, Lauren Molina, Larry Fessenden, Adam Cornelius, Dan Brennan, Kimberly Flynn, Ian Robinson, Jack Brenner, Mike Keller. Directed by Dan Berk and Robert Olsen

Florida Film Festival 2015

We all make mistakes in life but some can’t be taken back. When you make a really awful mistake, sometimes one bad decision can lead to a cascade of them.

It is the holidays and Holly (Rogers), Cali (Turshen) and Mel (Molina) are bored. They’ve been at Mel’s house having a holiday feast and have been playing Scrabble. Like most young college-age women, they want to do something fun and smoking weed with Mel’s younger brother (Robinson) just isn’t it.

Cali then manages to convince her friends to move the party to her Uncle’s house which turns out to be a McMansion of the cavernous sort. The girls continue drinking, play vintage arcade games and horse around. However as Holly explores the house, it becomes clear that the family that lives there is Asian and Cali is most decidedly a blonde and blue-eyed Caucasian. When confronted, Cali admits that the house doesn’t really belong to her Uncle so much as to a family she used to babysit for.

The girls then decide to put an end to their festivities and leave but before they can get out, the groundskeeper (Fessenden) surprises them. A struggle ensues and Holly accidentally sends the hapless man tumbling down the staircase to the bottom where he lands with a sickening crack.

Now the girls have done something that can’t be undone. Cali becomes the alpha female and convinces her friends that while what happened was bad, it need not destroy their lives. They cook up elaborate plans to hide the body but before they do they discover that, in the immortal words of Monty Python, he’s “not quite dead yet.” Now faced with a moral dilemma, they find their moral compass is spinning like a top.

Berk and Olsen, who also co-wrote the movie, have the three girls representing Freud’s concepts of the id, the ego and the superego. Cali is a shoot first and ask questions later kinda gal, whose only instinct is for self-preservation. Holly is the voice of reason, often drowned out by Cali’s hysterics. Mel basically floats in the breeze, going in whichever direction seems to be convenient at the moment. The dynamics between the three change with Holly or Cali asserting dominance and Mel’s support going to whoever seems to be in charge at the moment. It leads to some pretty gruesome acts by the ladies, complete with primal screams in case the Freudian overtones weren’t enough.

The girls are all fine actresses, veterans of a variety of indie projects. They do pretty well here, as does Fessenden who is one of indie cinema’s most recognizable names and faces. Some of the supporting cast doesn’t do as well, with one actor whom I won’t embarrass doing a noticeably awful job.

As thrillers go, the suspense level isn’t super high, but I think that the changing dynamics of the three leads is more the point than creating an edge of your seats thrill ride. This is more of a cerebral thriller although there are visceral elements to it (as when Helen tries to manufacture elements that a sexual assault occurred) which may be squirm inducing for some.

It’s a fairly short film, so the action is compact. The filmmakers do a lot with a little and that’s heartening. As first features go, this isn’t half bad but what bothers me is that there really isn’t anything terribly new or original here, although this kind of movie is generally done with male leads for which I give the filmmakers points. However, the plot is definitely something you’ll have seen before.

REASONS TO GO: Gender roles are a bit different than is the norm for this type of film. Love the Freudian aspects.
REASONS TO STAY: Not all of the acting is stellar. The escalating violence is a bit disturbing.
FAMILY VALUES: Bloody violence, teen drinking and drug use and a surfeit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Premiered at this year’s Slamdance.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Stuck
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Imperial Dreams

Mad Max: Fury Road


You don't want to make Max mad.

You don’t want to make Max mad.

(2015) Action (Warner Brothers) Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, John Howard, Richard Carter, Iota, Angus Sampson, Jennifer Hagan, Megan Gale, Melissa Jaffer, Merita Jurisic, Gillian Jones, Joy Smithers, Antoinette Kellermann, Christina Koch. Directed by George Miller

The future famously isn’t what it used to be. However, in the minds of some visionaries, it’s exactly what it used to be – only more of it.

Max Rockatansky (Hardy) is a loner living in a post-Apocalyptic world where petroleum has become scarce, clean water even more scarce and chaos reigns. Governments have fallen in the nuclear fallout of the last desperate grasp of nations trying to assert control where none was possible. Max is haunted by visions of a daughter and wife he couldn’t save.

Captured by the War Boys of Immortan Joe (Keays-Byrne), his fate is to be used as a human blood bag for War Boy Nux (Hoult), who like most of the inhabitants of Joe’s Citadel, is poisoned by radioactivity. Joe asserts control in two ways; by controlling the only clean water in the area, and by asserting an almost messianic mythology over the War Boys, who believe fervently that if they die in battle for their Immortan that they will enter Valhalla and live once again in paradise. Sounds a little bit like a jihadist, no?

Imperator Furiosa (Theron), a one-armed exceptional warrior who has earned Joe’s trust, is sent on a supply run to get gas and armaments in a world of dwindling resources. She is driving an 18-wheel war wagon, a tricked out tractor trailer that is bristling with armaments and carries water for the masters of the Bullet Farm and Gastown.

However, Furiosa has plans of her own and it means deviating off course into a dangerous world beyond the Citadel and their allies. When Joe discovers that she is carrying stolen goods – his wives, women who haven’t fallen prey to radiation poisoning – he gathers the troops to get his precious cargo back. Through a violent set of circumstances, a suspicious Max ends up throwing in his lot with the women and the chase is truly underway.

Some critics have sniffed that the movie is essentially one two hour chase sequence and they aren’t wrong. However, there isn’t a moment in the movie where you’ll be bored unless of course you don’t like action movies to begin with (and some people don’t). This is innovative, tense stuff here and the testosterone will flow.

Hardy took his cues from original Mad Max Mel Gibson and broods pretty much non-stop, clearly ill-at-ease with people in general and suspicious of them in particular. He’s taciturn and doesn’t speak much unless necessary. However, deep down he has a good heart and can’t turn away from good people in trouble. He is well aware that there are precious few good people left since the crazies have already slaughtered most of them.

Theron, an Oscar-winning actress, does a bang-up job here. Although reportedly she had difficulties getting along with both Hardy and Miller, she delivers a performance as good as any she’s ever given. You can see the pain of her hard and brutal life in her eyes but she hasn’t quite lost hope yet. She’s fighting to make a future that isn’t as ugly as her past, and she’s inspired the various brides, who are clad in diaphanous white garments that leave little to the imagination.

The post-Armageddon landscape that George Miller has imagined is not over-exposed and oversaturated but vivid and colorful. Thank cinematographer John Seale for making a dusty, lifeless desert still appear to be anything but beautiful. It may be post-apocalyptic but that doesn’t mean it has to look ugly.

The vehicles and characters here are all wonderful and innovative. The vehicles all bristle with spikes or men on long poles dropping bombs, or gigantic drums or a dude with an electric guitar that spits flames. It may be post-apocalyptic but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have to be fun. As for the characters, they are powder-white, or covered with pustules, or chrome lips or bullets instead of teeth. This isn’t the Mad Max milieu of Beyond Thunderdome or The Road Warrior; it clearly is evolved from them however.

The non-stop violence may turn some off but for my tastes, this is purely unadulterated summer entertainment. The stunt work here is amazing and that Miller has chosen to use practical effects as much as possible (save for an impressive CGI sandstorm) is admirable.

There has been a lot of discussion whether this movie is pro-feminist or anti-feminist. I will say this; if civilization ends, feminism will be trumped by Darwinism. I don’t think Miller is making a comment on feminism here at all; sometimes we need to turn off our sensitivities and just enjoy the ride.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible stunts. Imaginative vehicles and characters. Absolutely made for summer viewing.
REASONS TO STAY: Relentless violence..
FAMILY VALUES: Intense violence throughout, some disturbing images and a scene of mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hardy had lunch with Mel Gibson to discuss taking over what many consider his signature role; Gibson was not only fine with it, he apparently was enthusiastic that the role was being taken over by an actor of Hardy’s stature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Furious 7
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Body

Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound


Cowboy elegance.

Cowboy elegance.

(2014) Music Documentary (Old City) Billy Mize, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Dave Alvin, Ray Price, Buddy Neal, Maxine Crofford, Buddy Mize, Rose Vegas Waters, Gerald Haslam, Tommy Hays, Red Simpson, Cliff Crofford, Martha Mize, Karen Mize, Jimmy Phillips, Scott B. Bomar, Ray Urquhart, Bobby Durham, Monty Byrom, Dr. Diane Kendall, Dr. Jay Rosenbek, Dr. Ricardo Gonzalez, Leslie Gonzalez-Rothi. Directed by William J. Saunders

Florida Film Festival 2015

Even for country music fans, the name of Billy Mize isn’t necessarily a familiar one. One of the progenitors of the Bakersfield Sound, which came to rival that of Nashville on the country music scene in the 50s (and continues to be a huge influence on modern country music even today), he helped launch the careers of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, both of whom made their television debuts on television shows in the Los Angeles-area that Mize hosted.

Mize had all the tools to be huge himself; good looks, a self-effacing downhome attitude, legitimate talent both in musicianship and songwriting and a silky smooth voice. However, he made a choice early on to forego touring and concentrate on television as a means of promotion in order to stay close to his family. It’s not easy to say whether Mize was aware of the cost of that decision, but certainly it did contribute to him not achieving the status he should have had.

His life wasn’t one of glamour and prestige although he lived comfortably enough; it was one that had a great deal of heartache. He performed until he was 59 years old, when a massive stroke robbed him of his voice. I can’t imagine a hell any more terrible for a singer than to be without a voice.

Yet he still manages today, performing on guitar at local clubs in the Bakersfield area where he continues to live. His ex-wife Martha remains a loyal friend, sitting next to him during interviews for this film in which he speaks haltingly but displays a great deal of humor.

Most of the film revolves around an impending tribute concert at Buck Owen’s theater in Bakersfield on the occasion of his 80th birthday. He had been continuing speech therapy in an effort to sing again and was hoping to sing for the first time onstage in more than 20 years at the concert as a kind of birthday present to himself, his fans and his colleagues.

It should be said that the music here is mostly Mize although we do get some performances of other artists performing Mize’s songs. This kind of country music may not be your cup of tea – it isn’t mine – but I found myself appreciating it more than I expected. Part of the attraction, I think, is knowing that this is some of the finest music of the Bakersfield variety that has ever been performed.

Buck Owens is, for many, the mainstay of the Bakersfield scene and he certainly brought the sound into the mainstream, but he isn’t as well-regarded within the community as either Mize or Merle Haggard. I found that interesting to say the least. It should also be said that there are plenty of performers outside of Bakersfield who appreciate and are influenced by Mize .

Mize is regarded with affection by many in the country music community, particularly those who are based on the West Coast. As an influence, the man looms large in Bakersfield and beyond. As they illustrate in the movie, the Bakersfield sound originated in honky-tonks more than in recording studios and the music was built for people to dance. While the movie relies a bit overly much on standard documentary format and too much on talking head interviews, it certainly will motivate even those (like myself) who aren’t particular fans of country music to get up and dance for a man whose story deserves celebration.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling story about a performer many have forgotten. Surprisingly relevant music.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies too much on talking heads. Those who hate country music will likely not find a reason to watch this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Saunders is actually the grandson of Billy Mize.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Muscle Shoals
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mad Max: Fury Road

3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets


How many more lives must be lost before we learn to live with one another?

How many more lives must be lost before we learn to live with one another?

(2015) Documentary (Participant) Ron Davis, Leland Brunson, Tommie Stornes, Tevin Thompson, Lucia McBath, John Guy, Cory Strolla, Vic Micolucci, Angela B. Corey, Russell Healey, Alia Harris. Directed by Marc Silver

Florida Film Festival 2015

The United States has never really been able to have peace between different racial groups, particularly the white European segment and the African-American segment. In places like Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore and New York City, there have been massive protests about the murders of young unarmed African-American men by white European-American men, mainly police officers.

In Jacksonville, Florida on November 23, 2012 – ironically, Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving – four young African-American boys pulled into a gas station to pick up some sundries at the convenience store on the premises. They’d just come from the local mall where Jordan Davis’ girlfriend worked and had plans to enjoy the rest of the holiday weekend. Like young men of any color often do, they had the music on way too loud. The driver, Tommie Stornes, went inside to make his purchases.

Into the spot next to them pulled in Michael D. Dunn and his girlfriend Rhonda Rouer. They had just come from his son’s wedding and had enjoyed several cocktails; they were looking forward to continuing the party in their hotel room before driving home to Brevard County. While Rouer went inside to buy wine and chips, Dunn asked the boys to turn the music down.

Initially Tevin Thompson complied but this apparently upset Davis who turned the music back on, exclaiming that he didn’t want anyone telling him what to do. This led to a verbal confrontation between Davis and Dunn. According to Dunn, Davis threatened to kill him and when Dunn saw the boy pull a shotgun out and point it at him, he pulled his own gun from the glove compartment and fired into the vehicle. Stornes, who had returned to the vehicle by this time, pulled out of the parking space and Dunn left the vehicle, continuing to fire – ten shots in all. Rouer returned to the parking lot shortly after, and Dunn calmly left, returned to his hotel room and ordered pizza.

Three of the shots had hit Davis however, and when Stornes stopped the car a short distance away, they noticed Davis gasping for air. He’d been struck in the leg, the lungs and in the aorta. They made a frantic 911 call but it was too late. Davis would die from his injuries. Dunn never called the police, never took any responsibility for his actions. He was arrested later because an eyewitness got the license plate number from his car. Police searched the boys’ vehicle and no weapon of any kind was found.

This powerful documentary doesn’t really concentrate much on the actual shooting, although there is a poignant sequence in which the last moments of Davis’ life are described while home video footage of him as a baby is displayed on the screen. Mostly, this is about the aftermath – the devastation on his parents, Ron Davis and Lucia McBath (they had separated when Jordan was young and his mom had since remarried), his friends and his girlfriend.

They cover the trial, following the awful ordeal of reliving the death of their son, the demonizing of the four boys that the defense used to try and apply Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law. The movie is an indictment of that law as well as the mentality surrounding it. A mentality that has led to open season on young black men, that has led to massive racial tensions in a country that is supposed to be far too enlightened for them.

It’s hard to watch this movie and not feel angry. The pain and suffering of Jordan Davis’ parents and friends is palpable. The arrogance and self-delusion of Dunn is chilling. And even as his parents were dealing with the trial of their son’s murderer, off-camera other African-American boys were getting shot down. Given the circumstances that America has found itself in over the past year and a half, it’s hard not to put this film in that context.

However, that context has to be done by the viewer; the filmmakers make little note of them, although surely they had to be aware of what was happening elsewhere. While the movie overall is incredibly moving and emotionally wrenching, one thing was missing: Jordan Davis. We never really got a sense of who this 17-year-old young man was, or what his plans for the future were other than they probably didn’t include the NBA (his friends joke regularly about what a lousy basketball player he was). At the Q&A following the Florida Film Festival screening of the film (one of the best I’ve ever attended, by the way), his father described him as hoping to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps after he graduated. He wanted to serve his country. Sadly, he never got the chance. In any case, I would have liked to have seen more of Jordan in his own story. He was more than just his murder and I think the movie would have been even more effective had we gotten to know him a little bit better.

This is the kind of tragedy that is far too common in our society. It is a senseless waste of human life. These four boys weren’t ghetto kids; they were from middle class families and had never been in trouble with the law. Even if they had been from a poor neighborhood, that still didn’t warrant what happened to them. Davis might have lost his temper and said some intemperate things, but that wasn’t worthy of a death sentence.

I don’t know that Dunn would have reacted differently had not the Stand Your Ground law been in effect. I think it’s impossible to know whether he would have or not. Chances are, the law wasn’t on his mind when he drew his weapon. What  was on his mind was anger and fear. Anger that these boys stood up to him; perhaps fear that they were guilty of being young and black. Which in his mind, did carry a death sentence.

REASONS TO GO: Absolutely riveting.  Couldn’t be more timely. Nonpartisan.
REASONS TO STAY: Could have explored the underlying issues more thoroughly. Would have liked to have known more about the victim.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes. Some disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Made its debut at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It was initially titled 3 1/2 Minutes but has since added the 10 Bullets to the title.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 15 to Life: Kenneth’s Story
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Billy Mize and the Bakersfield Sound

Lambert & Stamp


The debonair Chris Stamp.

The debonair Chris Stamp.

(2014) Musical Documentary (Sony Classics) Chris Stamp, Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Hemming, Terence Stamp, Kit Lambert (archival footage), Heather Daltrey, Irish Jack, Richard Barnes, Robert Fearnley-Whittingstallt6. Directed by James D. Cooper

Few bands have had the impact that The Who have had in their career. It can be argued that of all the bands in rock and roll, only the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys have had the kind of influence on the medium that they have had. Guitarist and principle songwriter Pete Townshend is considered one of the best songwriters in the history of rock and their rock operas Tommy and Quadrophenia expanded the art form and of course their songs continue to be staples of classic rock radio even now.

Once upon a time, though, they were a scruffy band playing in dingy clubs to crowds of diffident Mods. There, they were discovered by nascent filmmakers Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, who met as assistant directors at Shepperton Studios. Both were devotees of French New Wave cinema in general and Jean-Luc Godard in particular and both aspired to become great directors in their own right. They hit upon the idea of filming in London’s rocking underground club scene and focusing on a single group, which after seeing their wild performances they hit upon a band called the High Numbers.

The film never came to pass but the band so impressed the two filmmakers that they were inspired to become their managers and  this fortuitous encounter would lead to some of the most potent rock and roll in history. Lambert, an Oxford-educated homosexual (in an era where it was illegal in England to be one) and Stamp, a rough and tumble Cockney who was a ladies’ man couldn’t have been more different if they’d tried but somehow they meshed together well; Lambert furnished Townshend with classical recordings to help his songwriting form while Stamp helped their stage show become one of the more talked about of its time.

All the elements are here for a documentary film that should have been absolute amazing; the film taken by Lambert and Stamp of the band in their High Numbers days alone would be enough to recommend the movie. Sadly, though, the film is overloaded with talking heads. Stamp, who passed in 2012 after his interviews were recorded, is a pleasant enough raconteur (and looks the part, dressed in a tux for Townshend and Daltrey’s Kennedy Center Honors) but just watching him talk is not in and of itself compelling enough.

Most of the interview time goes to Stamp, Townshend and Daltrey – Lambert died in 1981 after years of drug problems which would lead to the pair being fired as manager and an extended estrangement between the band and their former managers. Strangely, Lambert’s death is implied through the interviews and nothing concrete is really said about his death or its effect on Stamp or the band. Even Keith Moon’s untimely death was only mentioned in passing as reference to a legal meeting between the Who and their former managers. Considering the importance of Moon and bassist John Entwhistle to the sound of the band, it is kind of odd that they get very little attention in the documentary.

Given the richness of the source material and some of the really amazing archival footage, this is a disappointment. The movie is at its best when delving down into the creative process of the band, and when we got to know them (and their managers) more personally; Stamp talks about a notorious fistfight between Daltrey and Moon onstage that nearly splintered the band early in their career and how he intervened in getting Daltrey to find other ways to resolve conflicts rather than using his fists. We also get a sense of how wounded Stamp was when the band chose Ken Russell to direct a film version of Tommy, once again frustrating his dream of being a film director (he and Lambert assumed they would get the job). There is also footage of a young Townshend playing an acoustic version of “Glittering Girl” for Lambert and Stamp, both nodding approval as he plays.

Don’t get me wrong; there are some wonderful anecdotes, like friend John Hemming joking that chain-smoking Lambert only used one match in his entire life – the one that lit his first cigarette. Moments like that are swamped by endless discussion of minutiae that will only be of interest to diehard Who fans, who admittedly are going to love this movie a lot more than those viewers who aren’t into the band as much, which is a shame because there’s a whole generation that would benefit from discovering their music, which is some of the best rock and roll ever made. When the interviewees talk facts and figures, you’ll find yourself nodding off. When the interviewees open up, so does the movie. Sadly though that doesn’t happen enough to make this a memorable film.

REASONS TO GO: Wonderful subject. Some great archival performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Unforgivably boring. Too many talking heads.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rough language, a bit of drug content and one scene of brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chris Stamp is the younger brother of actor Terence Stamp.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75 /100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kids are Alright
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets

Infini


Not the peep show Daniel MacPherson was looking for.

Not the peep show Daniel MacPherson was looking for.

(2015) Science Fiction (Vertical) Daniel MacPherson, Grace Huang, Luke Hemsworth, Bren Foster, Luke Ford, Dwaine Stevenson, Louisa Mignone, Tess Haubrich, Harry Pavildis, Kevin Copeland, Andy Rodoreda, Paul Winchester, Brendan Clearkin, Matt Minto, Belinda Gosbee, Goran D. Kleut, Aileen Beale, Laura Beverley, Louise Dodge. Directed by Shane Abbess

In space, no-one can hear you scream. On a mining station in deep space, everybody can hear you scream. Sometimes, the vacuum of space is preferable to the atmosphere of a mining installation.

By the turn of the 23rd century, Earth’s resources are pretty much gone. Unemployment is rampant and most of the jobs available are service jobs that pay very little. What does pay are the highly dangerous off-planet jobs. Fortunately, a technology has been developed called the Slipstream in which human beings are essentially digitized and sent instantaneously through space to locations all over the galaxy (the science here is a little bit wonky as even if the digital stream traveled at the speed of light, it would still take years and even centuries for the data to arrive). Unfortunately, the fatality rate by using this method of travel is high as the data stream can easily be corrupted.

Whit Carmichael (MacPherson) wants very much to support his wife Lisa (Haubrich) and the child that she is pregnant with. His first day on the job though goes horribly wrong; an infected subject comes through the Slipstream in the West Coast Command Center. In order to escape, Whit is forced to go to Infini, the location of an abandoned mining company which remains the worst deep space disaster in history where over 1,600 miners died while mining a volatile substance.

An elite rescue team is sent to retrieve him (there’s another subplot here but it’s baffling and not really germane and doesn’t get explored much so I’ll abstain from describing it). What they find on Infini is terrible, much worse than they could have ever expected. It appears that the miners all went berserk and killed each other off, brutally and sadistically. Worse yet, there may be an alien presence involved.

This is Aussie director Abbess’ second feature film. He’s been on Hollywood’s radar for seven years and has been attached to some fairly high profile projects in one form or another, few of which actually came to pass (and none with Abbess on board). He proves adept at doing a lot with a little, creating an industrial-looking aesthetic that reminds strongly of the Nostromo from Alien – lots of ducts, pipes and vents. Like that ill-fated vessel, this future looks lived-in.

Although the plot sounds like a standard “bug hunt” sci-fi action feature, there is a little bit more thought put behind it, musing about the human survival instinct and what elements of human behavior would make an impression on alien beings. Whit Carmichael is also not the action hero you might expect; he chooses flight over fight and while discretion is generally the better part of valor, Whit spends a lot of this movie hiding from everyone else.

There is a flood of testosterone coloring this movie; most of the dialogue is shouted or yelled, and often it is some cast member yelling “WHITTTTT!!!!” into the empty hallways of the mining facility. This is a noisy, often abrasive film. Abbess also uses quick cuts to distraction; we are constantly jumping around in point of view. This is the kind of camera move that is best used sparingly and it gets mighty annoying after awhile.

More importantly, Abbess is all over the place with his story. Much of what happens early in the movie (which starts out as a flash forward and then without any sort of explanation the movie shifts to a flash back) is without explanation of any sort until later on in the film and quite frankly you’re often left scratching your head as a viewer and wondering what the heck is going on. You don’t always get answers on that score, either.

Despite all that, the movie has some strong points. It is a good-looking movie and well-lit; often movies of this sort go the underlit route in order to increase the suspense of things jumping out of shadows. Most of the time, we see whatever is attacking coming. That’s actually kind of refreshing.

So what we have here is a movie that has good intentions but not quite the execution. It starts out as thoughtful science fiction but eventually degenerates into horror action sci-fi that blends Aliens with The Thing – not too shabby to be compared to those movies I grant you, but it fails to live up to either of them…or its own promise.

REASONS TO GO: Thoughtful premise. Nice cinematography.
REASONS TO STAY: Often confusing and incomprehensible story. Way too much shouting and testosterone.
FAMILY VALUES: Extreme, bloody violence and plenty of rough language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: MacPherson is the host of Australia’s version of Dancing With the Stars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/18/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pandorum
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Lambert and Stamp

My Life in China


Father knows best.

Father knows best.

(2014) Documentary (Killer Bunny) Yau King Eng, Kenneth Eng. Directed by Kenneth Eng

Florida Film Festival 2015

Everyone comes from somewhere and nowhere is that more true than the United States. Even the Native Americans migrated over the land bridge from Asia to get here. All of us have a history that begins somewhere else.

Yau King Eng’s story began in China where he grew up under a repressive communist regime. In 1966, he made the decision to leave his impoverished village, his beloved family and everything familiar in his life to make a new and better life for himself in America. The journey was a dangerous one, involving a swim from the mainland to Macau and avoiding Chinese soldiers who weren’t above killing anyone who had the gall to want to leave.

But leave he did and to Boston he did go. At first, finding work was difficult but like many Chinese immigrants he found work in Chinese restaurants, washing dishes and sweeping floors. He worked two and sometimes more jobs, trying to make a better life for his family, eventually saving up enough to buy  a restaurant of his own.

Unfortunately, the American dream didn’t work out the way he thought it would. The restaurant business is a capricious one and a difficult one to find success in. He didn’t find that success, and the restaurant went bankrupt. To this day he continues to work for others in the restaurant business, but deep down he considers himself a failure because his restaurant didn’t make it.

In the meantime, China has prospered and the economic situation there is in many ways better than it is here. Yau decided that he would live the rest of his life out in the land where he was born, but first he would pay it a visit to make sure that this decision was a sound one. His visit back home, to the places that mattered to him, would be chronicled by his son Kenneth, a documentary filmmaker. The two of them together would experience modern China – Kenneth through fresh eyes, his father through the eyes of 1966. Their varying perspectives don’t really constitute the subject here; rather, it is more a journey of discovery for Kenneth as the tales of his father’s struggles in his homeland come to life and he develops a new perspective – and a new respect – for his dad.

Some of the film is quite heartwarming as we witness father and son develop new and stronger bonds between them. Some of the film is a bit harrowing as we are treated to the story of Yau King Eng’s defection and the courage and perseverance it took for him to make the journey. Much of the film, however, is a bit like watching home movies as we see relatives and friends gather, some of whom have found success and even wealth at home, another dagger in the heart of the prodigal son who left. The old men, smoking in kitchens while the women prepare feasts of welcoming, the elders reminiscing about times gone by. In short, very much what happens in YOUR living room when an out-of-town relative visits.

The home movie feel I think is deliberate as Eng not only makes his father’s story an individual one, but connects his family’s story with our own. Yes, ostensibly Eng is trying to tell a singular story but what makes this film successful is that he is able to relate much of it to our own situations, our own families, our own lives.

This isn’t the kind of movie that trumpets thunderous anthems from mountaintops (although the music in the film is quite beautiful), but rather quietly works its way into our hearts and finds the common ground that binds us all. Every family has stories; watching this movie prompting me to ask my mom about hers. Yes, I’m a child of immigrants as well so the movie hit home a lot closer than it might those who are farther removed from their own family’s immigrant experience. Even so, it is the stories of our mothers and fathers that are part of our own stories; understanding those stories help us understand who we are and where we’re from. For that alone, this is must-see viewing. While the movie is just starting to show up on the festival circuit, hopefully it’ll soon play at a film festival near you, or eventually make it onto a broadcast medium. I sure hope so; I’d love to see this movie again.

REASONS TO GO: Nicely illustrates the dichotomy of culture in China. Tells a moving and compelling story. Heartwarming.
REASONS TO STAY: Has a bit of a home movie feel to it, although I think that’s appropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: Suitable for all members of the family.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eng’s last feature-length film, Kokoyaku: High School Baseball received an airing on PBS’ POV series.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/17/15: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Romantico
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Infini