Seobok: Project Clone


Ki Heon REALLY takes exception to being asked to wear a mask.

(2021) Science Fiction (Well Go USA) Park Bo-Gum, Gong Yoo, Jang Young-Nam, Woo-jin Jo, Byeong-eun Park, Maurice Turner Jr., Kwang-hoon Na, Mi-nam Jung, Eon-jeong Lee, Yang Hee-Woo, Andreas Fronk, Daniel Joey Albright, Han-ji Hyun, Leraldo Anzaldua, Edward Hong, Rebecca Jensen Uesugi, Shogo Miyakita, Erin Nicole Lundquist. Directed by Lee Yong-ju

 

=As our medical technology improves, we begin to approach areas of moral dilemmas that we might never have envisioned even a few years ago. Research on stem cells and human cloning promise breakthroughs in the not-so-distant future, but what will be the cost for developing these lines of science and medicine?

Ki Heon (Yoo) is a former secret service agent for South Korea who has been afflicted with a terminal brain tumor, hence the “former.” He is beset by guilt regarding some shady deeds in his past (which are never fully explored). And yet, his old boss Chief Ahn (Jo) calls to give him one last mission; to escort valuable research from a human cloning experiment to a safer place following the assassination of the American scientist who was involved in it.

Needing to feel useful again, Ki agrees and is surprised to discover that the research he’s escorting is actually a young man named Seobok (Bo-Gum) who is a successful, genetically engineered clone, but there’s more to him than meets the eye; his body manufactures stem cells that can cure any disease, which could render the human race virtually immortal. In addition, Seobok has developed astounding powers of telekinesis, as well as the ability to generate force waves from his body.

They don’t get very far before they are attacked by a group of mercenaries, working for a group that wants control of the clone for themselves. The two fight off the killers, and go on the run, trying to avoid various would-be kidnappers and killers while slowly beginning to develop a grudging bond. For Seobok who has lived his entire life in a lab, the road trip is nothing short of miraculous, whereas Ki realizes that the young man he is transporting holds the key to his own personal survival – assuming they don’t get shot to pieces first.

The filmmakers spend a great deal of time focusing on the moral dilemmas of this kind of scientific research, and there are some truly thought-provoking points brought up. There is an intelligence here that is sometimes hard to find in sci-fi films, especially those that have actions sequences, which this one does, although not so many as you might think. However, when there is action, it is done competently well. The special effects are also pretty nifty.

Yoo, one of Korea’s biggest stars, is best-known to American audiences for his work in Train to Busan. He does some stellar work here, giving Ki layers upon layers; when we first meet him, Ki is wallowing in self-pity and something of a jerk. As we get to know him better through Seobok, we begin to see the pain that has caused him to put up those walls, and understand him a little better as a man. It’s not Oscar-level work, but considering this is essentially meant to be a genre film, it is surprisingly strong.

As I mentioned earlier, there aren’t a lot of action sequences here and for the most part, the movie goes pretty slowly, focusing on the ethical questions. For cerebral science fiction fans, that might well be candy, but for those looking for a space opera-like hoot, they will find it to be a Sour Patch Kid of a film. For what it is, however, it is better than we have any right to expect and for those who like their science fiction to be truly speculative, this is one worth seeking out.

Just a quick note; the film is available both in dubbed and subtitled versions. Not every streaming service carries it in both formats, so be sure you know what you’re getting when you order. The DVD/Blu-Ray edition does contain both versions, so if you still go the physical media route, that might be your best bet.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly thoughtful for a genre film. Strong performances throughout, particularly by Yoo.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little slow-paced and heavy on the exposition.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The film was originally set to be an end-of-the-year tentpole release in 2020 for its Korean distributor, but the pandemic delayed release until April 2021, when it debuted simultaneously in theaters and on the Korean streaming service TVING.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Plus, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Never Let Me Go
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Slut in a Good Way

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Kate


“That’s why I became an actress…for the glamour!”

(2021) Action (Netflix) Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Woody Harrelson, Miku Martineau, Tadanobu Asano, Jun Kunimura, Michel Huisman, Miyavi, Mari Yamamoto, Hirotaka Renge, Kazuya Tanabe, Cindy Sirinya Bishop, Amelia Crouch, Ava Caryofyllis, Gemma Brooke Allen, Hiroyuki Kobayashi, Koji Nishiyama, Kazuhiro Muroyama, Shinji Uchiyama, Miku Kobato. Directed by Cedric Nicolas-Troyan

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before; a badass super-competent assassin yearns to leave the business of turning people into worm food behind them, only to find out that their employers are unwilling to let them retire. Said badass super-competent assassin goes ballistic in an attempt to take revenge on those who have done them wrong. I noticed you haven’t stopped me.

Kate (Winstead) is a badass super-competent assassin, and has been raised to be such by her handler Varrick (Harrelson) since she was an orphaned child. But she wants out and a chance to live a relatively normal life and maybe even start a family. When her last assignment doesn’t work out as planned, she discovers that she’s been poisoned and has 24 agonizing hours to live.

As you might imagine, Kate doesn’t intend to go gently into that good night. Instead, she intends to rage, rage against the dying of the light and, more specifically, against those who poisoned her. Her investigation – which is done with guns and blades to cut down on time – leads her to a Yakuza clan chief named Kijima (Kunimura), but he is too well-guarded to go after directly. The way in is through his teenage niece Ani (Martineau) who at first is a kidnap victim but eventually begins to realize that she and Kate have a lot in common, and begins to access her own inner badass super-competent assassin.

This Japan-set Netflix extravaganza benefits from having the good folks at 87North, the production team responsible for the John Wick series, working with them and that particular franchise heavily influences the proceedings here. One of the things that is positive here is that the badass super-competent assassin here is female and that she develops a protégé relationship with a young woman, which is a nice gender-switch for this type of movie.

Winstead has done some decent action heroine work in the past, but she’s never been better than she is here. While the character of Kate doesn’t have a whole lot of emotional baggage – she’s been trained since childhood that way – Winstead still manages to imbue the character with humanity. Even as Kate’s body begins to betray her and the poison begins to reduce her reactions and bodily functionality into obstacles for her to overcome, Kate still carries herself with a lethal presence that is all Winstead. It’s a compelling action lead portrayal.

Martineau makes Ani much less annoying than the character might have been in less capable hands. A lot of time the teen protégé role tends to be a means for a younger audience to relate to the film and often most writers portray them as quipping, arrogant jerks who end up knowing more than the lead and saving the day. That kind of thing tends to make me want to gag.

Not that teens can’t be heroic; there are a whole lot of them out there who are, but there are plenty who are not. That’s true of all age groups, by the way. But I digress.

The Japanese-setting is neon-drenched, stylistically reminding of films like John Wick and Black Rain. I do think though that the movie missed an opportunity by making Japanese culture somewhat stereotypical; I would have preferred a deeper dive into the richness of it, a well waiting to be tapped, but alas, the filmmakers preferred to go the safer, easier route. Kate seems to be a modern samurai, or more accurately in this instance a ronin, but they don’t really explore that aspect at all, really. They should have.

Still, the movie is an entertaining if somewhat overly-familiar action movie that is executed reasonably well. With a little more care and love, this could have been something truly special rather than the decent diversion that it is.

REASONS TO SEE: Some really terrific action sequences, and Winstead makes a solid action heroine.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is going to feel a little bit familiar (a lot familiar, actually).
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and gore, plenty of profanity, and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marks the fourth occasion (and counting) that Winstead has portrayed a character named Kate.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/28/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews; Metacritic: 47/100.=
COMPARISON SHOPPING: D.O.A.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
La Soga: Salvation

The Magnificent Meyersons


Just a walk in the park.

(2021) Drama (Argot) Kate Mulgrew, Richard Kind, Ian Kahn, Jackie Burns, Daniel Eric Gold, Shoshannah Stern, Barbara Barrie, Lauren Ridloff, Melissa Errico, Greg Keller, Neal Huff, Lilly Stein, Kate MacCluggage, Ajay Naidu, Terrence Gray, Talia Oppenheimer, Sarah Nealis, Andrew Hovelson, Allyson Morgan, Bryan Fitzgerald, Anna Dale Robinson, Athan Sporek, Henny Russell. Directed by Evan Oppenheimer

 

Through thick and thin, we rely on our family to provide support and stability. Even when the family is beset by traumatic circumstances, we cling to those that we can be certain still love us. It is as a life raft on a stormy sea.

Dr. Terri Meyerson (Mulgrew) is a pediatric oncologist and the matriarch of the Meyerson family. She sometimes wonders why on earth she took a job that sometimes entails telling parents that their child is about to die, but she manages to take her role with as much grace and dignity as she can muster, both of which were once stripped from her when her husband, Morty (Kind), deserted the family to deal with a mental illness. At the time, he flippantly told her “see you in a few days” but has been gone for decades.

She has her mother Celeste (Barrie), an acerbic sharp-tongued octogenarian who loves her grandkids (and great-grandkids) but that doesn’t keep her from taking jabs at them. And of course, Terri has her kids; Roland (Kahn), the eldest, a successful businessman and a bit of a hypochondriac when it comes to his daughter Stefania (T. Oppenheimer); Daphne (Burns), a publisher married to Alan (Keller) who has just terminated her pregnancy without consulting her husband, a source of contention between them; Susie (Stern), a deaf real-estate agent who is in a relationship with Tammy (Ridloff), and finally Daniel (Gold), who is studying to be a rabbi and often gets into theological discussions with Catholic priest Father Joe (Duff).

It seems to be an ordinary day in New York City, but events turn it into an extraordinary one; the first affects all New Yorkers (heck, it affects everyone) and the second, just the Meyersons. Both seem to be unlikely, but both are events that all the Meyersons will have to deal with – in each his or her own way.

This is a movie very much influenced by New York City. The Meyersons are well-educated, literate and thoughtful, one and all. They talk about meaningful things and ask deep questions of one another. They are, in short, searching for answers to imponderable questions and understand deep down that they aren’t likely to get any. The dialogue they speak reflects that literacy, and may at times be too smart for its own good – the Meyersons can come off as pretentious from time to time, which let’s face it can be true of an awful lot of New Yorkers, but that’s what comes from living in a city like New York. They at least come by it honestly.

The ensemble cast is, as is normally the case with ensembles, dominated by the more experienced actors. The most delightful is Barrie, who has already been nominated for nearly every major acting award at one time or another. She is the scene-stealer here, and you end up looking forward to her every appearance. Mulgrew does nearly as well in her most Janeway-like role since Star Trek: Voyager ended. Terri is a little more vulnerable than the starship captain, however, although she covers it with a patina of competency that comes from her profession. I would have liked to have seen a bit more of that side of her though. Kind also does well here, being genuinely cuddly when he needs to be and somewhat lost and befudled when he has to be. He doesn’t overdo the pathos, which lesser actors might have done.

The actors playing the kids get the lions share of the screen time though, and while they all submit strong performances, none really stand out the way the other three do. They are given a lot of fairly lofty dialogue, discussing their place in the universe, relationships with God, with each other, and from time to time, the open wound that was left by their father leaving the family.

And I wish they had stuck to that story. The first “event” I referred to earlier – the one that affects “everyone,” seems terribly out of place in the movie. I understand the reason that they chose to do it, but it flat-out doesn’t work. It ends up being a massive distraction and strays away from the more important themes here – specifically, the ability to reconcile when one is wounded by someone beyond forgiveness, and whether those who stray from the family can find their way back again. Those are subjects far more in tune with the tone of the movie and had writer/director Evan Oppenheimer opted to stick with just that, he would have had a terrific film on his hands. He still does, but not quite as terrific as it might have been.

REASONS TO SEE: Smart dialogue gives hints of deep conversations. Strong performances by most of the ensemble, with Barbara Barrie emerging from the pack.
REASONS TO AVOID: The midpoint plot twist was regrettable and unnecessary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Mulgrew, who originated the role of Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager, will be reprising the role in the new children’s animated series Star Trek: Prodigy, debuting next month on Paramount Plus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/23/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Royal Tenenbaums
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt)

Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse


Attack a Navy SEALs family? Oh no, you didn’t…

(2021) Action (Paramount/Amazon) Michael B. Jordan, Jodie Turner-Smith, Jamie Bell, Guy Pearce, Lauren London, Jacob Scipio, Todd Lasance, Jack Kesy, Lucy Russell, Cam Gigandet, Luke Mitchell, Artjom Gilz, Brett Gelman, Merab Ninidze, Alexander Mercury, Colman Domingo, Rae Lim, Sumi Somaskanda, Zee Gunther, Jill Holwerda, Conor Boru, Bella Shaw. Directed by Stefano Sollima

 

It is a tried-and-true action cliché that you can mess with a Navy SEAL, but if you mess with a Navy SEAL’s family, you’re in deep doo-doo because not even God will help you. God knows better.

Navy SEAL John Kelly (Jordan) is part of a team led by Lt. Cmmdr. Karen Greer (Turner-Smith) that goes to Aleppo in civil war-torn Syria to rescue a CIA operative. It appears to have gone without a hitch but something about it feels wrong to Kelly and his suspicions soon prove to be true when it turns out that what they thought were Syrian soldiers were in fact Russians and boy, are they angry about the American operation. Once the SEALs go home, Russian operatives stalk the individual members of the team and kill them.

When they go after Kelly, he survives. Unfortunately, his pregnant wife Pam (London) doesn’t and if you thought the Russians were angry, Kelly is about to get medieval on some Russian tushies. He stalks a Russian diplomat and sets his car on fire, then leaps into the inferno with the diplomat and demands to know who carried out the assassinations. When he gets the name he needs, he exits the car but not before sending the Russian to join the Choir Invisible.

With the support of Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay (Pearce) and the more reluctant support of CIA agent Robert Ritter (Bell), Kelly joins a team that is headed into Mother Russia to track down the operative, Viktor Rykov (Gelman, a curious bit of casting) and exact his revenge but the plane is ambushed and shot down. It becomes clear that the Russians knew they were coming; but who told them and why?

Based on a novel by Tom Clancy in a spin-off from his hugely popular Jack Ryan series (the character of John Kelly, who will be known as John Clark for reasons explained later in the movie, appears in several of those books) has long been in gestation as a film project, but finally saw the light of day after nearly two decades of development – only to run smack dab into the pandemic. Ticketed for theatrical release in 2020, after several delays and postponements the property was finally sold to Amazon who have been having success with their own John Krasinski-led Jack Ryan series seemed to be a perfect fit.

This movie gets an enormous amount of star power from Jordan who has become one of the most charismatic stars in Hollywood. Even when he plays villainous roles, he turns in a performance that actually can be sympathetic. He has an enormous amount of screen presence and he actually elevates what is otherwise a mediocre film into something a little more.

Part of the problem here is that Clancy wrote with a Cold War-era worldview that is a bit off in the 2020s. It’s not that we don’t have an adversarial relationship with Russia these days – of course we do – but it’s a different kind of playing field altogether. Some of the geopolitical content feels a bit dated somehow.

A film like this is going to live and die on its action sequences and while most of them aren’t too bad, there are one or two that stretch believability and make you scratch your head a little bit and say “wouldn’t it be easier if he just…” and that’s never a good thing in an action movie. While action sequences should be breathtaking, there has to be an air of reality to it that viewers believe the derring-do is at least possible. It takes you right out of the movie when it feels implausible.

This isn’t a bad movie and Amazon Prime users get to watch it for no additional charge which makes it even more enticing. Could this have been a better experience in a movie theater? In all likelihood, yes, but it’s not a bad option if you want to watch something loud and that requires little thought on your part.

REASONS TO SEE: Jordan is one of the most watchable stars in Hollywood today.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks character development.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jordan is the third actor to play John Clark (John Kelly in this film); Willem Dafoe played him in A Clear and Present Danger and Liev Schreiber played him in The Sum of All Fears, both Jack Ryan films.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Clear and Present Danger
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Take Out Girl

Narco Soldiers


(2019) Crime (GravitasRafael Amaya, Carolina Guerra, Octavio Pizano, Ricardo Chavira, Ivo Canelas, Cody Kasch, Roger Cross, Carlos Naveo, Hector Anibal, Omar Patin, Axel Mansilla, Iban Marrero, Anika Lehmann. Directed by Felix Limardo

 

The world is often a strange place, particularly now. Movies reflect that, particularly now. How else do you explain Narco Soldiers? It is, in fact, a movie about how drug cartels can contribute to national pride.

Danny (Amaya) is a hired killer for a cartel run out of Puerto Rico by The Sarge (Cross). Now a free agent, he hooks up with Don Toribio (Chavira) to become a middle man in the Mexican and Colombian cartels. But Danny’s buddy Teo (Pizano), has a different idea; to create a cartel right there in the Dominican Republic. As his high-end girlfriend Marisela (Guerra) puts it, the Dominican has long been a place where other nations came to exploit with no benefit at all to the Dominicans. The cartels are just the latest in the long line.

As it turns out, Marisela is the brains behind the operation and she’s as ruthless as they come. Together, Teo, Marisela and Danny become a force to be reckoned with and build a cartel of their own. However, along the way they make enemies and you know what they say; the bigger you are, the harder you fall.

I like the Latin point of view here; most times, we get a more European look at the cartels, an American infiltrator or some such. Here, we see the bosses at the top. The problem is that they don’t really give them characters so much as roles; one is the muscle, one is the brains, one is the heart. We never get a sense of complete human beings behind the parts.

The script is also deeply predictable and even the action scenes don’t really add very much. That’s not to say that the action is done badly – it’s not – but there just isn’t anything that stands out. The plot is somewhat convoluted, but again, there’s a very “been there, done that” feeling to it. In fact, that could be the film’s epitaph; it’s okay, but nothing special. And it could have been.

REASONS TO SEE: Comes with a Latin point of view that is refreshing.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very basic and workmanlike.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence and profanity, drug references, sex and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Amaya is best known for his work in the Mexican TV show Lord of the Skies.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scarface (1983)
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Mothman Legacy

A Call to Spy


Virginia Hill wonders how come James Bond got a sports car and she got a bicycle?

(2019) War (IFCSarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Samuel Roukin, Andrew Richardson, Laila Robins, Marc Rissmann, Mathilde Olivier, Lola Pashalinski, David Schaal, Rob Heaps, Matt Salinger, Marceline Hugot, Cynthia Mace, Joe Doyle, Alistair Brammer, Helen Kennedy, Juliana Sass, Sigrid Owen, Gemma Massot. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher

V

When we think of the heroes of the Second World War, we often think of lantern-jawed white men, aw-shucks farm boys, daring partisans and clever Englishmen, often played by such as Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks. There were, however, many different kinds of heroes.

After France fell, there was a feeling of desperation in England, knowing that they were likely the next to feel the brunt of the Nazi war machine (America hadn’t entered the war at that time). Finding out what the Nazis were up to was paramount, and there were no reliable ways to get that information; spies were being discovered and executed by the SS almost as soon as the Strategic Operations Executive – the office of British intelligence during the early days of the war – could send them.

In desperation, Winston Churchill ordered that women be sent over to Occupied France. He reasoned that women might be able to move about more freely and attract less suspicion. Vera Atkins (Katic), a Jewish-Romanian immigrant and a secretary in the SOE office was tasked with recruiting women for the job by her boss, Maurice Buckmaster (Roche).

Atkins took the job seriously and went after women that the Nazis might not suspect of being spies. One of her recruits was Virginia Hall (Thomas), a secretary in the American embassy with aspirations to becoming a diplomat, although her wooden leg (she lost her leg in a hunting accident) seemed to be keeping her from achieving her goal. Another was Noor Inayat Khan (Apte), a Muslim-Pakistani of royal lineage who wanted to make a difference in the war for her adopted country.

It was obviously dangerous work; most of the women sent overseas never made it back home, but the work they did was invaluable. Buckmaster characterized it as “ungentlemanly warfare,” recruiting members of the resistance, relaying information back to England via wireless operators (like Khan) and committing acts of sabotage. They were surrounded by collaborators and counterspies, and many of the women were betrayed to the Nazis.

The movie, which was written by Thomas who also co-produced it, is largely the work of women behind the camera, which is to be celebrated. A story about women by women is something that cinema needs more of, particularly those about women whose accomplishments were largely lost to history. Thomas and director Lydia Dean Pilcher concentrate on the stories of Hill, Atkins and Khan. All three women were facing death at any moment – for Atkins, her citizenship was held up and she lived with the constant threat of being deported back to Romania, which was part of the Axis back then and almost certainly she would have been promptly executed had that happened. All three women were fighting against the preconceptions of men – Hill because of her disability, Khan because of her diminutive stature and nationality – as well as the Nazis.

The story is one worth telling, but that doesn’t mean that it is told particularly well here. The dialogue has a tendency to be eye-rolling and the movie takes on a Girl Power tone which, although understandable, was completely unnecessary; the accomplishments of all three women were impressive enough that they don’t need further “see what women can accomplish” hagiography. The movie would have benefitted from a simpler storytelling style.

The film is a bit muddled in terms of going back and forth between the three women, particularly in the second half of the film. It felt that there was so much to tell about these women’s lives that we got only the barest minimum to keep our interest; they would have been better served with a longer format which would have gotten us more insight to who they were, which would have allowed the audience to get more deeply invested in their stories.

That said, it isn’t often that a movie gets reamed for not being thorough enough, but that is the case here. I think the hearts of the filmmakers were in the right place, but taking on the project left them with a quandary; whose story do we tell, and how much of it? They chose three worthy women, but in the end, they should have concentrated on one or gone the miniseries route. I think the subjects deserved one or the other.

REASONS TO SEE: A rare look at some of the unsung heroes of the war.
REASONS TO AVOID: Probably should have been a miniseries.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of period smoking, some graphic violence and scenes of torture, and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During shooting, Thomas ruptured her Achilles tendon that required surgery once filming had been completed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Catcher Was a Spy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
American Murder: The Family Next Door

Nose to Tail


Cut off at the pass.

(2018) Drama (1091) Aaron Abrams, Lara Jean Chorostecki, Ennis Esmer, Salvatore Antonio, Brandon McKnight, Genevieve Kang, Caroline Bartczak, Lauren Collins, Jason Tome, Cody Black, Robert B. Kennedy, Brock Morgan, Rufio Luey. Directed by Jesse Zigelstein

 

In recent years, chefs have gone from being virtually unknown to becoming rock stars in their own right. A celebrity chef can pretty much write their own ticket, able to command the attention of foodies the world over who will walk across hot coals to get a table at their restaurant. For this, we sometimes excuse behavior we wouldn’t accept in our own workplace. If Gordon Ramsey were my boss, I’d be sitting him down in HR with a lawyer handy after one of his tirades.

Danny (Abrams) has gone from being the darling of hipster foodies, the hot young chef to being a dinosaur in his own bistro. His restaurant is hemorrhaging money and his past due bills are piling up; even though his restaurant is packed night after night, he is drowning in debt. The only life preserver on the horizon is his school chum Mark (Esmer) who has agreed to come to his restaurant for a meal with a group of potential investors who might prove to be the solution to his cash flow problems. He needs to wow the table or face the closure of a business he has spent ten years building.

The film chronicles the day of that dinner. Danny is already in hot water with Chloe (Chorostecki), his house manager and sometime lover who he stood up the night previous. He is perturbed because the new hot food truck with the new hip not chef (Tome) is parked cross the street from his eatery. His sommelier (Antonio) reports that none of his wine providers will extend any credit to him any longer. His landlord (Kennedy) has had it up to here with missed rental payments and bounced checks; he has to the end of the month to get caught up or Danny will be evicted.

To make matters worse, a supercilious food blogger (Collins) informs Danny that his talented sous chef Keith (McKnight) is jumping ship for the chance to become an executive chef in his own restaurant. And Danny has forgotten that his ex-wife (Bartczak) is bringing his son (Black) over because it is his day to watch him. Along the way, Danny will rant, scream, and berate his put-upon staff while pushing away the one person who seems to believe in him at all. As the night progresses, Danny seems to be falling apart. Can he pull it together to save his restaurant?

First-time feature director Zigelstein paints a realistic portrait of life in an upscale bistro, and of the challenges (that are sometimes insurmountable) that independent restaurants face. It is no secret that restaurants fail at a staggering rate; it is one of the toughest businesses to succeed at.

Abrams does strong work as Danny, a man whose own hubris is his own worst enemy. Danny believes that he is still the biggest and brightest star in Toronto; that belief has become increasingly delusional and everyone knows it except Danny. He’s not a pleasant person to be around and he’s certainly not a pleasant person to work for. He’s the stereotype of an asshole chef, the kind we see on TV and in the movies and whose behavior may be amusing from a distance, but if you are forced to deal with it day after day would no doubt provoke PTSD in a major way. Danny’s tirades and tantrums eventually grow wearying and by the time the movie comes to an end you may not give a ratatouille whether Danny saves his bistro or not.

That aside, the movie feels pretty authentic to me, but as I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen myself you might want to take that with a grain of salt. This is definitely not a film for Vegans (there’s a scene that is critical to the plot that involves the butchering of a hog, and it appears they use an actual hog carcass or at least a realistic facsimile of same) nor is it a film for those whose idea of a high class meal is the daily special at Appleby’s. Nonetheless, there’s enough here to merit a look-see and as the rental fee is extremely reasonable ($3.99 at most streaming services), you really can’t go wrong.

REASONS TO SEE: A realistic look at some of the obstacles restaurants face.
REASONS TO AVOID: There comes a point where the tantrums become tiresome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of profanity and some brief violence. There are also images of meat being butchered that may upset vegans or those sensitive to such scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Abrams and Chorostecki had supporting roles on the excellent but lamentably canceled Hannibal.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chef
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Made in Italy

Robert the Bruce


The once and future King.

(2019) Historical Drama (Screen Media)  Angus Macfadyen, Anna Hutchison, Zach McGowan, Gabriel Bateman, Talitha Bateman, Brandon Lessard, Diarmaid Murtagh, Emma Kenney, Patrick Fugit, Melora Walters, Shane Coffey, Daniel Portman, Seoras Wallace, Kevin McNally, Jared Harris, Nick Farnell, Gianni Capaldi, Mhairi Calvey.  Directed by Richard Gray

 

In Scotland Robert the Bruce is a national hero, able to do what William Wallace could not – give the Scots their freedom from English rule – but it didn’t come easy.

Some ten years after the execution of William Wallace, Robert the Bruce (Macfadyen) is King of Scotland, but uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. That’s because other Scottish nobles, particularly the clan of John Comyn (Harris), also are claimants to the throne of Scotland. After an ambush at Greyfriars’s Church leads to the death of Comyn, Scotland is in chaos. The English, with whom Comyn had allied, have put a price on Robert’s head of 50 gold pieces. The unceasing wars against the English have led to a divided country; some support their King who is promising freedom, other weary of war that has claimed so many husbands, sons and brothers.

Pretty Morag (Hutchison) has lost a husband to the wars and a brother as well. Raising her own son Scot (Bateman) as well as her nephew Carney (Lessard) and niece Iver (Bateman), they live on a remote farm in the mountains. Robert, hounded by foes on every side, is ready to give up. He dismisses his few loyal remaining men, including his best warrior James Douglas (Murtagh) who thinks it is folly for Robert to be without protection. He is soon proven right as Robert is attacked by three of his own men, including treacherous Will (Fugit) and badly wounded. Scot finds him in the woods and the family of Morag bring him to their farmhouse to tend to him, much to the displeasure of Scot who blames Robert for his father’s death.

They know they are risking death and their uncle Brandubh (McGowan) is sniffing around the farm – he is looking for Robert, who he has discovered is in the vicinity, but he is also hoping to woo Morag who had married his brother. Even as Robert gets better, the king knows he is in dire peril and dragging this good family in with him. Can he escape and take the family who saved his life to safety?

In all honesty, I don’t know how apocryphal the story is. It could be pure fiction, or based on folk tales, or based on fact. I honestly couldn’t tell you, but I do know Macfadyen – who played the role memorably in Braveheart previous to this and co-wrote the script – has been trying to get this movie made for more than a decade. The 56-year-old actor is playing the King in a period when he was in his mid-30s; this Robert is more world-weary than the one he played in Braveheart and less fiery-eyed. There are moments, particularly near the end of the film, where we see the old Robert the Bruce and thse moments are welcome.

The elephant in the room is Mel Gibson, and I’m sure he wouldn’t be too pleased to be called an elephant. One of the things that made Braveheart such a classic, beloved film was the presence of Gibson, who was at the time at the top of his game and one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and possessed of enormous charisma before later events derailed his career. Macfadyen is a terrific actor and he has plenty of screen presence, but I’m sure he’d be the first to tell you he’s no Mel Gibson and the movie feels the lack of that kind of star power.

It also feels a lack of Scotland in it. The movie was largely filmed in Montana which is a beautiful state, but it doesn’t have the same look as the Scottish Highlands. The largely American cast also has difficulty with the hard-to-master Scottish accent. Either it’s laid on too thick or not thick enough. Mostly, though, actors drop in and out of it willy-nilly.

That’s not to say there aren’t moments in this film that are worth waiting for. There isn’t a ton of action here in the two-hour film, and American audiences may have a hard time with that. It is not a fast-paced film either and American audiences will REALLY have a hard time with that. Still, if you are patient, there are some scenes that come close to recapturing the magic of the Oscar-winning Braveheart but it never quite does. This isn’t a sequel so much as a spin-off and it doesn’t have the budget to recapture the battle sequences of that film, so Robert the Bruce doesn’t have the epic scope of the previous movie. Still, the character is a big part of Scottish history and proud Scots will not want to miss this, nor will those who love that craggy land.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some moments that are pure magic.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little too slow-paced for this type of movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and mayhem.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mhairi Calvey, who played the wife of Robert the Bruce here, played a young Murron, the eventual wife of William Wallace, in Braveheart.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews: Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Braveheart
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
True History of the Kelly Gang

Bohemian Rhapsody


Freddy Mercury in his element.

(2018) Musical Biography (20th Century FoxRami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Aidan Gillen, Allen Leech, Tom Hollander, Mike Myers, Aaron McCusker, Meneka Das, Ace Bhatti, Priya Blackburn, Dermot Murphy, Dickie Beau, Tim Plester, Jack Roth, Max Bennett, Felipe Bejarano, Neil Fox-Roberts, Michelle Duncan. Directed by Bryan Singer

 

For an outsider, Freddie Mercury became symbolic to a lot of people. To people of my generation, he was a peerless rock star, perhaps the very embodiment of one. To music historians, he brought grand opera into rock and roll, with all the silliness and grandeur that implies. To the LGBTQ community, he was one of their own who made it big on his own terms. He was the voice of his generation.

Of course, to play such a bigger-than-life performer, you’re going to need a bigger-than-life performance and fortunately, that is delivered here. Rami Malek, best-known at the time for the TV series Mr. Robot, won the Oscar for his portrayal of Mercury and justifiably so – it was one of the best performances of the decade. Malek inhabits the role completely and gets every little nuance right. It is as close to having Freddy back as we’re likely to get.

That said, the movie isn’t without its problems. Like a lot of music industry biopics, it tends to focus on the sensational – the parties, the lifestyle, the drugs and the sex – and while not ignoring the creative process completely, at least gives it less attention than it deserves. It’s easy to be caught up in the excesses, and yes, the band was known for them, but that wasn’t all they were.

They were (and are) also extraordinary musicians and incredibly creative, as the music attests. The film uses the music of Queen to great effect. The re-creation of their triumphant Live-Aid performance in 1985 after an absence of several years opens and closes the film. Many believe that it was one of the best rock and roll performances of all time and they’re not wrong.

Queen is remembered for merging rock and roll and opera, with all the silliness and high drama that it entails, so perhaps the movie was destined to have its share of drama – director Bryan Singer was fired and the film was finished by an uncredited Dexter Fletcher late in the process – but for those who loved Queen (like Da Queen, for example) this is absolutely required viewing. The real challenge for any musical biopic is that it have appeal not just to the main fan base of the act, but also to casual fans as well. I believe even those who weren’t necessarily Queen devotees will get something out of this film, if nothing else Malek’s incredible performance.

REASONS TO SEE: Malek gives the performance of a lifetime. Uses the music of Queen magnificently.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sometimes, a little gossipy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of profanity, plenty of sexuality, adult thematic content and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malek wore a prosthetic device to re-create Mercury’s famous overbite. After shooting concluded, he kept the prosthetic and eventually had it cast in gold.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/20/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rocketman
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Church and State

Colette


A woman in a man’s world determined to succeed on her own terms.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Keira Knightley, Dominic West, Fiona Shaw, Robert Pugh, Sloan Thompson, Arabella Weir, Máté Haumann, Ray Panthaki, Al Weaver, Virág Bárány, Dickie Beau, Kylie Watt, Janine Harouni, Jake Graf, Joe Geary, Rebecca Root, Julian Wadham, Eleanor Tomlinson, Polina Litvak, István Gyurity, Karen Gagnon, Alexandra Szucs. Directed by Wash Westmoreland

 

Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who went by her last name as a pen name (Knightley), was one of the most successful women in the history of French literature. She emerged from La Belle Epoque as a virtual rock star, and her stubborn refusal to live on any other terms but her own remain an inspiration to women – and men – even today.

Colette, a simple girl from the Burgundy countryside, ends up marrying Parisian roustabout Henry Gauthier-Villars (West) who is better known to Parisian society as Willy. He is known for biting and acerbic theater reviews, essays and short stories but the problem is that he hasn’t written a word of any of that. He has an army of writers who supply hi with the material which he passes off as his own.

The most talented of these is his wife and her Claudine novels take Paris by storm. Relegated to a background role by her egotistical husband, at first she is content to write her novels but as Willy’s gambling debts and lavish lifestyle take a toll on their finances, he begins to resort to outrageous measures to force his wife to meet publishing deadlines, such as locking her in a room. His serial infidelity also begins to upset her; she responds by doing the same thing he does – sleep with other women. She also prefers to dress like a man, which was illegal in France at the time and was quite the scandal.

Eventually she manages to win her independence from Willy but it isn’t easy and it isn’t without pain. The real Colette was an admirable woman and this screen version can only scratch the surface of who she was, Knightley’s fine performance to the contrary. Her chemistry with West palpably sizzles, and the two make one of the best dysfunctional couples you’re likely to see on the screen for some time.

Westmoreland has a keen eye and fills the screen with sumptuous scenes of lush countrysides, lavish salons and decadent theaters. There is a lot of sex in the movie – ah, those lusty French! – which to be honest begin to get in the way of the story. It’s a bit on the long side and some of the decadence could surely have been cut out; we get the picture, after all.

This is a pretty decent biography, but it doesn’t do her justice at the end of the day. There are some fine biographies of her extant and you would do better to pick up one of those. It’s not really Westmoreland’s fault; a movie can only do so much justice to a life in just under two hours. Still, it is dazzling to look at and not just because of Knightley’s lustrous beauty.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot, both exteriors and interiors.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really do justice to the subject.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film to be directed solely by Westmoreland, who until then had always co-directed with his partner Richard Glatzer, who died of Charcot’s disease in 2015.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Kanopy, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Coco Before Chanel
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
A Star is Born (2018)