The Belko Experiment


Things are getting a little heated back at the office.

(2016) Horror (BH Tilt/High Top/Orion) John Gallagher Jr., Adria Arjona, Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley, Melonie Diaz, Owain Yeoman, Sean Gunn, Brent Sexton, Josh Brener, David Dastmalchian, David Del Rio, Gregg Henry, Michael Rooker, Rusty Schwimmer, Gail Bean, James Earl, Abraham Benrubi, Valentine Miele, Steven Blackehart, Benjamin Byron Davis, Silvia de Dios. Directed by Greg McLean

 

There’s no doubt that the corporate environment in 2017 is as cutthroat as it’s ever been. Ambitious office drones plot their way to promotions that bring them out of the environment of living paycheck to paycheck and into management where they can make some real money; others plot to preserve their place in the pecking order. Either way, the office is no place for the faint of heart.

Belko Corporation is described as a non-profit that helps large companies recruit American workers to South American locations. They have a large tower located outside of Bogota, Colombia – well outside of Bogota. Mike Milch (Gallagher) is a fairly humdrum middle management type who is involved in a clandestine romance with co-worker Leandra Florez (Arjona) as that sort of thing is discouraged by Belko, who somewhat appropriately incorporate the figure of an eye into their corporate logo. It is not stretching things to say that most of the people who work in the building have no clue what they do for the company.

One unremarkable morning Mike drives into work to discover an increased security presence and that all the local Colombian workers are being turned away from work. He thinks nothing of it – until a disembodied voice comes on the PA system to announce that the 80 or so workers remaining in the building must select two among their number to murder – or else double that number would be selected at random. Everyone thinks it’s a practical joke in poor taste – until the heads of four people suddenly explode.

At first believing the carnage to be the work of a random sniper, there is panic as people try to get under cover. That’s when large blowtorch-proof metal doors and shutters encase the building in a steel cocoon. There is no leaving and as the voice informs them that they’ll need to find 20 workers to dispatch to the choir invisible or once again double that number would be random victims.

Quickly the social order begins to devolve. The company’s COO Barry Norris (Goldwyn) tries to preach calm and order until he becomes convinced that the only way to buy time is to do what the voice commands, especially when it becomes apparent that every move they make is being observed (remember the eye?) by the disembodied voice. Joining him are a number of management types who want to maintain control of the situation, including Wendell Dukes (McGinley), the kind of manager nobody ever wants to work under. Mike is trying to keep from having anyone die but his voice is not getting heard in the increasing panic. Before too long things fall completely apart and everyone starts looking out for their own ass if they are to survive the worst workday ever.

The movie was penned by current fan favorite James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) as a bit of a passion project but it has languished on the shelf while Gunn has been shepherding the two Marvel space operas to money-printing status. He left the property however in the capable hands of Aussie director McLean (Wolf Creek) who does a yeoman job bringing the script to life.

Most of the actors are better known by face than by name and while there is a black comedy element to the proceedings it never gets to the point of silliness which often happens with horror comedies. Of course, this is as allegorical as it gets to what corporate culture has become in terms of treating employees as disposable resources in which salary and benefits are necessary evils and when the need for those workers dissipates, so do the workers.

Rooker, who has become one of Gunn’s go-to guys, excels as a building engineer as does Goldwyn as a boss who is friendly and supportive on the outside but loses any semblance of concern for his employees when the rubber hits the road. Gallagher and Arjona are okay in the lead roles but aren’t particularly memorable. James’ brother Sean is memorable as a stoner and Schwimmer as the office mother hen is strong.

There are a lot of heads exploding here (having to do with a tracking chip that American workers receive in countries where kidnappings are common) and many gruesome deaths by axe to the face or stapler to the skull. I might have wished for a little more variety to the murders – I would imagine in an office environment there would be plenty of supplies that could do some real damage. A little more imagination in this department would have been welcome. It also should be said that those sensitive to gore and carnage will likely have a rough time with The Belko Experiment.

The movie loses momentum in the second half which is basically a survivalist epic and the denouement is a bit disappointing although there are some pop culture references of the blink and you’ll miss them variety that add some richness to the last moments of the movie. I was hoping for a little bit more from the film but to be honest it is solidly entertaining and horror fans looking for something a little bit different could do a lot worse than to look in this direction.

REASONS TO GO: The film is clever, particularly in the first half. Some fine actors turn in strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: The gore might be a little bit too extreme for some. The film loses steam in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: Oh my, there’s plenty of gore and violence, profanity, some drug use and brief sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James Gunn was originally set to direct this from his own screenplay but felt that the violence was not what he needed in his life as he was going through a painful divorce, plus he was also hard at work on Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle Royale
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: New Chefs on the Block

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The Finest Hours


Romance by storm.

Romance by storm.

(2016) True Life Drama (Disney) Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Holliday Grainger, Ben Foster, Eric Bana, John Ortiz, Kyle Gallner, John Magaro, Graham McTavish, Michael Raymond-James, Beau Knapp, Josh Stewart, Abraham Benrubi, Keiynan Lonsdale, Rachel Brosnahan, Benjamin Koldyke, Matthew Maher, Jesse Gabbard, Alexander Cook, Danny Connelly, Angela Hope Smith. Directed by Craig Gillespie

The men and women of the Coast Guard have a thankless job. In many ways they are the most overlooked of the armed forces, but they put their lives on the line every day to protect our shores from smugglers and pirates, and to rescue sea craft that are in trouble. They have been doing that since America was brand new.

In 1952 there is a Coast Guard installation in Chatham, Massachusetts. Barney Webber (Pine) is a Boatswain’s Mate First Class for the Coast Guard, a quiet and perhaps a bit socially awkward man who is liked but warily; during an attempted rescue mission years before, he had been unsuccessful in navigating the infamous Chatham Bar during a storm and a local fisherman had died because of it. People think he isn’t a bad guy, but there’s that distance between the town and Barney.

One townie who doesn’t feel that way is Miriam (Grainger), a feisty beautiful woman who meets Ray and instantly falls for him. The two begin going out and end up falling in love. But that last step is lacking and the forward Miriam finally asks Ray to marry her. At first he is very reluctant – what he does is dangerous and he doesn’t want to leave a widow behind. Eventually he relents and the two become engaged pending the approval of the Coast Guard.

On February 18, 1952, a massive Nor’easter slams into the New England coast. The S.S. Pendleton, an oil tanker, is on its way in when the old ship breaks in half. The aft section sinks almost immediately, leaving 33 survivors in the stern section with Chief Engineer Ray Sybert (Affleck) in charge.

Station chief Daniel Cluff (Bana) orders Webber to go an effect a rescue. Most of the Coast Guard’s bigger boats are in the midst of rescuing another tanker that had broken in half, the S.S. Mercer. All Barney is left with is a 36-foot motor lifeboat to go out into a squall that is producing 60 foot waves and high winds. With a small crew including Seamen Richard Livesey (Foster) and Ervin Maske (Magaro), he heads out resolutely into Chatham Bay to affect a mission that is almost surely suicide. With the compass wrecked and little or no navigation equipment, it seems like an impossible task, but little does anyone know that he is setting out into history.

Gillespie is a reliable director for Disney who has done movies based on fact before. This story because of how long ago it took place is essentially unknown today although there are those in New England who are thoroughly familiar with it. Most of the participants have since passed on (although Miriam is still alive apparently) so it is well that Disney is making this film now. While the tag lines tell us that it was one of the most daring small boat rescues in Coast Guard history tells us that because it is a rescue, we can assume that Webber is successful, we don’t know mainly how many got rescued and whether Webber himself made it home alive. We therefore have a sense of suspense as we watch the movie, not knowing what’s going to happen next.

The storm sequences are harrowing; if what the real crew went through was half as rough as this, it’s a wonder anyone made it home alive. Both the crew of the Pendleton and the rescue boat were heroic in extreme circumstances. It’s truly an inspiring story from that aspect. The CGI is impressive albeit not groundbreaking. Certainly it is enough to make that an integral part of the movie experience.

Pine is usually a lot more affable of a character than the one he plays here. Both Webber and Casey Affleck’s Sybert are a little bit socially awkward, somewhat reserved and not at all the types of characters we’re used to seeing from those actors and both do very well with them. I’ve seen it said elsewhere that Holliday Grainger already looks like she’s from that era and she does; the period dress and make-up only make her look more natural.

Because Barney is so awkward, the romance doesn’t have a lot of sparks. I don’t think it’s an issue of Pine and Grainger so much as how the characters are written. In many ways Miriam is forced to be the aggressor in the relationship which I don’t object to in and of itself but it just feels like there’s no chemistry, even though both actors are capable.

In fact in many ways that’s pretty much indicative of the film overall; it’s not anything that’s going to set the world on fire but it accomplishes what it needs to quietly and without fanfare. The story is certainly inspiring enough; however, you won’t go home thinking you’ve just seen a cinematic masterpiece.

REASONS TO GO: Keeps you on the edge of your seat. Mind-blowing storm scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Solid but not spectacular. The romance lacks fire.
FAMILY VALUES: There are scenes of storm-related peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The boat the real Bernie Webber used in the rescue still exists and is maintained in pristine condition at the Rock Harbor in Orleans, Massachusetts – not far from Chatham.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Perfect Storm
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Hotel Transylvania 2

Big Hero 6


Hiro and Baymax get stealthy.

Hiro and Baymax get stealthy.

(2014) Animated Feature (Disney/Marvel) Starring the voices of Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Daniel Henney, T.J. Miller, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, James Cromwell, Alan Tudyk, Maya Rudolph, Abraham Benrubi, Katie Lowes, Billy Bush, Daniel Gerson, Paul Briggs, Charlotte Gulezian, David Shaughnessy, Terri Douglas. Directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams

We are not a one of us who knows what we’re truly capable of until we test ourselves. Whatever motivates us – ego, greed, tragedy, desire, altruism – it remains for us to see what we can do.

Hiro (Potter) is a robotics genius. In the alternate world of San Fransokyo where Japanese immigrants rebuilt the city after the 1905 earthquake and meshed the architecture of Occidental and the Land of the Rising Sun to create a more quake-resistant city. The San Francisco Institute of Technology is one of the finest cutting-edge schools in the nation and the city is a jewel of natural beauty married to technological advances.

Hiro’s brother Tadashi (Henney) is, like Hiro, a genius at robotics. Whereas Hiro is out for financial gain in underground street Robobattles, Tadashi is creating a robot that will genuinely make the world a better place. Tadashi attends SF Tech with his friends Honey Lemon (Rodriguez), Go-Go (Chung), Wasabi (Wayans) and Fred (Miller) under the tutelage of Professor Robert Callaghan (Cromwell) who is respected and admired by his students. Tadashi is urging Hiro to come join him at the school after Hiro graduates high school but Hiro is none too eager to join up with, as he terms it, Nerd Tech. However, he grudgingly agrees to sign up after Tadashi pesters him enough.

Then tragedy strikes and Hiro discovers that there is something terrible going on, something involving his own invention – mini-bots that can be controlled by brain waves – and a kabuki-masked villain. Using Baymax (Adsit), a robot that Tadashi was working on, Hiro and his friends will have to develop armor with different powers in order to stop a catastrophe from happening and to bring the bad guy to justice.

 

This is the third straight fall release from Disney Animation to hit a home run (Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen preceded it) and quite frankly after a less-than-satisfactory year for animated entertainment at the box office, trust Disney to set things right in that regard. This is a natural, with cuddly soft robots resembling the love child between Gigantor and the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, both references likely to fly right over the head of most younger readers.

While the cast isn’t particularly well-known – no Tom Hanks or Paul Newman or Billy Crystal here – it is pretty solid and a bit younger and hipper than the voice cast that Pixar generally uses. T.J. Miller as Fred is especially fun; reportedly he ad-libbed a lot of his dialogue. The main roles of the brothers are less well-known voice actors and come off as fairly bland typical animated prince guys.

The city of San Fransokyo while not dazzling visually is inventive, clever and looks like it could be a real place. Sure some San Franciscans may take umbrage at the liberties the animators took with their home town but as an ex-resident I have to say that I’m delighted to see The City by the Bay portrayed both in an animated feature and a Marvel comic. It is after all one of the most charming big cities in the country.

 

While this is definitely more Disney than Marvel, there is plenty here to keep those who aren’t still drinking out of juice boxes plenty to cheer about. The humor can be dry and acerbic as well as broad enough to land a 747 on. Kids will laugh, their parents will too. It’s a win-win.

There are some moments that actually brought a tear to my eye which is something in the animated feature world had previously been reserved only for Pixar films. This isn’t a movie that’s talking down to anyone and at the same time isn’t afraid to tackle issues that most kidflicks shy away from. That’s pretty refreshing and while it deals with some pretty tough subjects it doesn’t turn maudlin nor does it pander. What we end up with is a way in to conversations that some kids sadly are forced to have when they are far too young. You’ll get what I mean when you see the movie.

This is the first Marvel property to be developed by Disney as an animated feature. While it isn’t a part of the cinematic universe that the House of Ideas has created (for one thing, characters in the comic include Silver Samurai and Sunfire, are actually part of the X-Men universe and unavailable for Disney) it does have a fresh four-color look all its own. However, those coming to the theater expecting an animated Guardians of the Galaxy will leave disappointed; this is clearly separate from anything else Marvel has done. Which is, in my book, a good thing.

REASONS TO GO: Inventive and fun. Surprisingly moving in places.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t retain the Marvel “feel.”
FAMILY VALUES: There is some action and peril, a bit of rude humor and some thematic elements that may be too much for the littlest of tots.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the third consecutive non-Pixar and non-Studio Ghibli animated film that Alan Tudyk has voiced, making him the John Ratzenberger of Disney.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Iron Giant
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Whiplash

Open Range


Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall are home on the range.

Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall are home on the range.

(2003) Western (Touchstone) Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner, Annette Benning, Michael Gambon, Michael Jeter, Diego Luna, James Russo, Abraham Benrubi, Dean McDermott, Kim Coates, Herb Kohler, Peter MacNeill, Cliff Saunders, Patricia Stutz. Directed by Kevin Costner

Kevin Costner returns to the American West, a setting which has seen his greatest triumph to date in Dances With Wolves. Like that Oscar-winning classic, Costner directs as well as stars and once again proves effective in both roles.

Charlie Waite (Costner) is a former gunslinger who earns his keep these days as a free-grazing cattleman, along with his partner, Boss Spearman (Duvall). They are grazing their cattle on what appears to be an uninhabited meadow near a town; one of their hands, an easy-going doofus named Mose (Benrubi) gets into a fight in town and eventually has to be brought back to the range by his employers. The cattle baron who runs the town, Denton (Gambon) can’t abide the thought of free grazers in his territory, and he orders his thugs to take them out, while the law turns a blind eye.

Mose is killed, and Button (Luna), a young man that the partners have essentially raised, is gravely wounded. Of course, Waite and Spearman can’t just let this go by, and they return to town, aided by a comely physician (Benning), to take justice as best they can.

This blends the best of modern Westerns, including the easygoing relationship between Waite and Spearman, which is straight out of Lonesome Dove (it’s no accident that Duvall starred in both), as well as the division between town and prairie, with the town representing corruption and violence as opposed to the freedom of the range. This is a theme that recurs in Clint Eastwood’s best movies, especially The Unforgiven and Pale Rider.

Costner is a better director than he is often given credit for; he has had his share of bombs (Waterworld, The Postman) but he knows when to show us a pretty picture and when to show us an ugly one. He juxtaposes the openness of the West with the confines of the town, and makes the hard, relentless life of a free grazer almost desirable. He is also appealing as the lead here, and that is what makes Open Range so good. Charlie Waite is a wounded soul, suffering from the demons of his own guilt seeking to forget his past in the vastness that was the West. Boss, his truest friend, is a rascal, yes, but a fair one. The two have a compelling chemistry.

Costner as an actor has an affinity for Westerns. He gets the rhythms and the flow of them. Now, he doesn’t necessarily sound like someone from the Old West in the sense that he uses the same style of speechifyin’ but I’m talking about Westerns. He has the laconic delivery of a Gary Cooper with the innate honesty of a John Wayne and the rugged chiseled good looks of a young Eastwood. Costner captures the essence of a Western hero and by extension, of American men in general. We all aspire to those values that made Westerns the king of movies during an era when arguably America was at its most prosperous. We also yearn for a simpler time when life was hard but our prospects were unlimited. The West meant freedom and a man could make a fresh start out there, get a second chance in some cases. It is the most American of aspirations.

The gunfights are often at the center of traditional Western, and there is a mighty good one here. You should be warned that the gun battle is extremely loud; those who are sensitive that way may want to think twice before seeing this in a state-of-the-art home theater with Dolby sound and all the bells and whistles. Otherwise, this is a sprawling, wide-open movie with a terrific human story at its heart, aided and abetted by some fine performances in the lead roles. Even those who are not particularly fond of Westerns, such as my spouse, Da Queen, will give this a rousing thumbs up as she did.

WHY RENT THIS: A throwback to classic Westerns. Costner is at his finest. A human story on an epic scale.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly loud in places. Cliche in other places.

FAMILY MATTERS: Can be loud and violent.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Tig is not only the name of the dog in the movie but also the name of Costner’s production company. It’s taken from his grandmother’s nickname.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There’s a 12 minute documentary about the history of the open range and free-grazing as well as a music video. It should be noted that the making-of featurette is unusually candid, dealing with the problems the film had obtaining financing (Costner and producers Jake Eberts and David Valdes put up about half of the budget from their own money) which weighed heavily on Costner during filming when there were no distributors lined up. Near the end of production, Costner was also working through severe abdominal pain which turned out to be appendicitis.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68.3m on a $22M production budget; the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lonesome Dove

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Nice Guy Johnny