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Grey Trace descends into a nightmare.

(2018) Science Fiction (Blumhouse) Logan Marshall-Green, Harrison Gilbertson, Melanie Vallejo, Steve Danielsen, Abby Craden (voice), Benedict Hardie, Richard Cawthorne, Christopher Kirby, Richard Anastasios, Kenny Low, Linda Cropper, Betty Gabriel, Emily Havea, Ming-Zhu Hii, Simon Maiden (voice), Stephanie Demkiw.  Directed by Leigh Whannell

 

When Grey Trace (Marshall-Green, doing his best Tom Hardy), an analogue man in a digital world, is shot and paralyzed and watches as his wife (Vallejo) is shot dead, he only wants to die. Enter bazillionaire Eron Keen (Gilbertson, doing his best Leonardo Di Caprio) who was a client of Grey’s auto restoring business, offers to set things right by implanting a spiffy new microchip in Grey’s spine, not only allowing him to walk again but giving him superhuman combat skills. Grey decides to use his new abilities to find his wife’s killers, all the while hiding his new found condition from the police detective (Gabriel, doing her best Betty Gabriel) investigating his wife’s murder.

While the plot is a mite hackneyed, this dystopian sci-fi action thriller has its own charm. Australian director Whannell – who as James Wan’s writing partner helped kickstart both the Saw and Insidious franchises – takes his cues from the Robocop franchise of Paul Verhoeven to comment on our own society, from the increasing loss of privacy to the over-reliance on technology most of us don’t understand.

Whannell does very well with the action sequences which are kinetic and fun, as well as the special effects which can be stomach-churning or glossy depending on the mood. There’s plenty of gore, enough that the sensitive should be warned, but not so much that the gore is the main component. Marshall-Green does a serviceable job in the lead and most of the cast of non-household names hits their marks well, even though most of the characters are fairly underdeveloped. For the most part this is a fun ride although it is sabotaged with a groaner of an ending.

REASONS TO GO: The effects and action sequences are well-done. There is some interesting commentary on a Big Brother-like society which with our online privacy disappearing seems to be the direction we are going in as a society..
REASONS TO STAY: The ending falls with a bit of a thud.
FAMILY VALUES: There is brutal violence and gore, some grisly images and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  During fight scenes, the camera follows Grey keeping him in the middle of the frame. This was done by secreting a smart phone on Marshall-Green and pairing the camera with the phone.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Robocop
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Chasing Coral

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Unfriended: Dark Web


Your computer is watching you and no, that’s NOT a good thing.

(2018) Horror/Thriller (BH Tilt) Colin Woodell, Stephanie Nogueras, Betty Gabriel, Rebecca Rittenhouse, Andrew Lees, Connor Del Rio, Savira Mindyani, Douglas Tait, Bryan Adrian, Chelsea Alden, Alexa Mansour, Rob Welsh, Alexander Ward, Kurt Carley, Chuck Lines, Eric Watson, Maya Nalli, Ashton Smiley, Kiara Beltran. Directed by Stephen Susco

The Internet is like landing on a brand new planet; there are all kinds of places to explore, from web comics to news sites to social media. You can spend hours browsing Wikipedia, Snapchat, Spotify, Amazon, eBay, iTunes and wherever else you want to be. There are some corners of the web however that are best left unexplored.

Matias (Woodell) has a brand new laptop. Well, new to him anyway…he purloined it from the lost and found of the coffee shop he works at. He needs a new one because his current one is unreliable and slow and he can’t afford a new one. He can’t even afford a used one. He desperately needs one because quite frankly he needs to get back in the good graces of his ex-girlfriend Amaya (Nogueras) who he is almost stalker-ish obsessed over.

It’s also game night for a bunch of his millennial friends and in true tech-dependent fashion, rather than meeting up in person they get on Skype to play Cards Against Humanity (isn’t there an app for that?). His friends include cute couple Nori (Gabriel) and Serena (Rittenhouse), conspiracy junkie AJ (Del Rio), British tech guru Damon (Lees) and YouTube-famous musician Lexx (Mindyani). If these descriptions sound like stereotypical clichés, it’s mainly because they are; little thought is given to supplying any depth to any of the parts.

Editorializing aside – there’ll be plenty more of that kind of thing later – it turns out that there are some hidden files on the laptop and those files enable connection to the dark web, the semi-mythical place on the Internet where dirty deeds are done dirt cheap and nearly any perversion can be had for the asking, including murder and torture. Some of the files on the laptop show gruesome scenes of snuff and torture as well as webcam footage of a local missing girl. And the owner of the laptop now knows that someone else has it and is logged in and they want it back and not tomorrow but right freaking now. To prove how serious he is, the owner kills one of their number on camera, warning the survivors if they go to the cops he’ll kill them. And naturally, their life expectancies has just taken a turn for the worse.

I don’t really know where to start here. The acting is mostly okay – the majority of the cast has served time doing teen-oriented TV shows like Teen Wolf and The Originals. You really can’t complain about the actors because they are given so little to work with and their characters are required by the script to make some unbelievably dopey decisions in order to move the generally unrealistic plot along.

All of the action is viewed through various apps and laptop/tablet/smart phone screens, which is the trope that was used in the original Unfriended and is essentially the only connection between the two movies. This isn’t so much a sequel as part of an anthology which I can understand, but might not have been the best idea but then again, the original wasn’t all that compelling and had no characters in it that you’d want to see in another movie. Just like this one.

At least the first film had a fairly original concept but since it came out in 2015 several other movies have utilized the same or a similar gimmick. The supernatural element of the first is gone but replaced by a nearly real-world tone which goes completely out the window when we discover that the owner of the laptop utilizes a special jacket that causes cameras to malfunction, allowing him to not be seen; sort of a Harry Potter Cloak of Invisibility for the Snapchat set.

And that brings up another problem – this movie essentially has built-in obsolescence. Any relevance it might have had (the first one at least had an anti-cyber bullying message) will be lost in the very pop culture/social media consciousness of the film. What’s cool in 2018 might not necessarily be in 2020. This is a film with a shelf life which means that buyers remorse will likely set in quickly once you realize that the movie is “so 2018.”

I was mildly entertained by this one – Rittenhouse and Gabriel make an appealing couple and Gabriel is actually a decent actress who needs some roles that will let her spread her wings a little. The scares aren’t terribly scary – clearly the producers were aiming for a PG-13 – the characters aren’t memorable and the plot is riddled with clichés like Swiss cheese is with holes. In an era where strong horror films are becoming more and more available, efforts like this which seem to be cash grabs capitalizing on a popular could-be franchise film aren’t really worth your time if you’re a horror gourmet. Of course if you’re ,more of a gourmand you might find this more suitable.

REASONS TO GO: There is some nice family bonding moments.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmakers are trying too hard to make it witty and cute.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of disturbing imagery, sexual references and profanity herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are two different endings in the theatrical version; also, the original title was to have been Unfriended: Game Night but the title was eventually changed to avoid confusion with the Jason Bateman comedy.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Searching
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness Day Two

Lowriders


Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha gonna do?

(2016) Drama (BH Tilt/Telemundo) Gabriel Chavarria, Demián Bichir, Theo Rossi, Tony Revolori, Melissa Benoist, Yvette Monreal, Eva Longoria, Montse Hernandez, Noel Gugliemi, Bryan Rubio, Cress Williams, Franck Khalfoun, Pepe Serna, Taishi Mizuno, David Fernandez Jr., Art Laboe, Damien Bray, Tiffany Gonzalez, Johanna Sol, Jamie Owen, Stacey Bender, Pandie Suicide. Directed by Ricardo de Montreuil

To outsiders, the car clubs of the predominantly Latino East Los Angeles must seem as foreign and mysterious as Shaolin temples. Those familiar with the Fast and Furious movie franchise might think they have car culture figured out, but it’s like watching an episode of Big Bang Theory and thinking you have nuclear physics figured out.

Danny Alvarez (Chavarria) is the youngest son of a Lowrider legend; Manuel Alvarez (Bichir). He basically grew up in his father’s garage and weathered the sorrow of his mom’s illness and death there. He admittedly didn’t get a whole lot of help from his dad, who was battling his own alcoholism even as his wife was dying. Manuel cleaned up his act enough to marry Gloria (Longoria) whom he met cruising; he has since fathered a daughter Isabel (Hernandez) who is preparing for her quinceañera. His big brother Francisco (Rossi) – upon whom Danny has bestowed the nickname of Ghost – is in prison after being caught and convicted of stealing auto parts to customize his own car.

Manuel has been working on a new car, a 1961 Chevy Impala that he’s named Green Poison (for the custom green fleck paint on the roof of the car) for the upcoming Elysian Car Show, one of the most prestigious of its kind. He would love to be working on it with his son Danny but the young man in question has been following a path of his own – street art. Danny is a talented and imaginative street artist where his graffiti shows up in a lot of unexpected places. His dad is worried that the illegal activity might get Danny arrested and the thought of both of his sons in the slammer is more than he can bear.

But Ghost has just gotten released from prison and he is reconnecting with his little brother in a big way. Ghost has a mad on because Manuel never visited him in prison, not once. He definitely has some Daddy issues and has gone so far as to join a rival car club that is a little bit rougher than Manuel’s old school Coasters car club. As Elysian approaches, Ghost and Manuel are on a collision course and Danny is caught in the middle. It looks for sure like a head-on is inevitable.

I have to admit, when I read the plot line for the movie in advance of seeing it I really didn’t expect much and in some ways I was correct not to. The plot is pretty hoary and has been done many times before onscreen dealing with old school dads and rebellious sons who are estranged but who reconcile their differences to achieve the impossible or at least the nearly so. Those familiar with those sorts of movies will find no surprises here.

The good news is that we really get what feels like an insider look at East L.A. Although de Montreuil is Peruvian by birth, he understands the Latin beat that drives the Eastside well. From the rhythms of speech to the thudding of loud music coming from outrageous speakers in outrageous cars, he captures the atmosphere of Baldwin Park so perfectly you can almost smell the carnitas simmering.

Bichir is one of the best actors working today; he has the gravitas of a young Edward James Olmos with a fatherly sensibility of a Tom Bosley. He anchors this movie in ways that the younger cast members can’t; he gives Manuel dignity, even when Manuel is frankly being a dick. He also gives him a certain amount of uncertainty; like all fathers, Manuel has no idea how to react to things outside of his experience. He just plows along doing the best he can which isn’t always good enough.

Rossi and Chavarria both exhibit a great deal of star power and both have virtually unlimited potential. In this day and age, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of matinee idol love for non-white actors and so that might stand in their way somewhat but they both deserve to be A-listers. Were I a Hollywood producer I’d have absolute confidence in either one of them to carry my picture.

The main problem here is that writers Elgin James and Cheo Hodari Coker have spent nearly all of their character depth on the men. The women in this film are of little consequence, either ornaments or child nurturers. While Gloria is characterized as someone who knows her way around an engine, she is given little chance to show it. Even Lorelei (Benoist) who is Danny’s photographer girlfriend is mainly just a hipster caricature. She essentially disappears from the film about 2/3 of the way through and other than a brief moment at the very end is never to be seen again. Maybe Supergirl can find her.

The ending is pretty rote but satisfying enough for me to give the movie a strong recommendation. I think De Montreuil is an up-and-coming talent to be reckoned with, considering he did so much with so little. If he can make a superior movie out of what is essentially a cliché script, imagine what he could do with something more substantial.

REASONS TO GO: We get an insight into East L.A. car culture and the amazing vehicles therein. The ending, although predictable, was satisfying. De Montreuil shows a great deal of promise.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is somewhat passé. I wish that the female characters had gotten a bit more depth to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, some violence, some sensuality and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lily Collins was initially cast but had to drop out due to scheduling difficulties. Melissa Benoist eventually took her part.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Better Life
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Life

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