Amber’s Descent


Amber is having a really bad day.

(2020) Horror (Breaking Glass) Kayla Stanton, Michael Mitton, Don Knodel, Nathaniel Vossen, Dione Russell, Colm Hill, Destiny Millins, Kirsten Khorsand, Sheron Russell, Jayden Shannon, Craig Paynton, Graham Daley, Sarah Seibert. Directed by Michael Bafaro

 

Trauma can do strange things not just to the body but also to the mind. It can affect us in ways we can’t predict and maybe not even understand.

Amber Waltz (Stanton), who is aptly named due to her profession as a concert pianist and classical music composer, has lived through a severe trauma, having survived being stabbed by her ex Mark (Vossen) who then slit his own throat while she watched, horrified. Understandably, she had a bit of a breakdown after that and decided to leave Seattle where she was living and moves to an isolated farmhouse somewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

The house is lovely and secluded although it needs a lot of work, which is why she hires handyman Jim (Mitton) to fix things up. Soft-spoken and eager to please, he is a bit of a comforting presence for her, particularly since she starts to hear odd, unexplained noises while doors open and shut by themselves. At first she can chalk these things up to the uirks of an old house, but as she begins to see little girls where little girls shouldn’t be, and then has a highly erotic encounter with a bigger girl, and her symphony seems to be magically writing itself, Amber begins to wonder if the house is haunted. Then she wonders if she’s losing her mind. Finally, she wonders if something far more sinister – and deadly – is befalling her.

Early on, the movie has a lot of haunted house tropes that might lead one to believe that they are watching just another ghost movie, but the movie actually surprised me with the direction that it eventually went, whichis an accomplishment in and of itself. Those who stick around for the end (and I won’t kid you, it’s a bit of a slog getting there) may well congratulate themselves on having the fortitude to hang in there and those that do will be rewarded with a nifty ending, although I will say that Balfaro chooses to show you how the film arrived there in case you couldn’t figure it out – underestimating the intelligence of your audience is generally a bad thing. However, good endings are a lot more uncommon than you might think, so it’s always a big plus when you get one.

Balfaro does do a good job of establishing a tense atmosphere and generally resists using jump scares, although there are a couple because you almost have to have at least a few these days. However, the movie is torpedoed by two things: the dialogue, which sounds unnatural, and the acting which is by and large somewhat flat. The movie lacks energy and inertia, which is generally provided by the actors but whether they were struggling with dialogue which I can understand because it often sounds like stringing words together in ways normal people don’t, or they just didn’t feel motivated. Some of that can be laid at the feet of the director, but good actors will give memorable performances without the encouragement of a director. There is accountability to go around here.

And it really is a shame because there are a lot of good elements here, including some lovely cinematography and the unfailing politeness of the characters, although when you discover that this is a Canadian production, a light bulb might suddenly switch on, as it did for me. Sometimes, the right crew and actors coalesce to make magic happen, but sometimes just the opposite happens and this is, sadly, one of those occasions.

REASONS TO SEE: The ending is pretty inventive.
REASONS TO AVOID: Stiff and flat, rarely arouses any sort of feeling in the viewer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, sexuality and nudity, horrific images and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stanton is no stranger to genre work, having appeared in the TV shows Supernatural and Lucifer.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, <a Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kindred
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
ThunderForce

Green Book


Driving Mister Daisy.

(2018) Drama (DreamWorksViggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Sebastian Maniscalco, Dimeter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton, P.J. Byrne, Joe Cortese, Maggie Nixon, Von Lewis, Don Stark, Brian Stepanek, Geraldine Singer, Iqbal Theba, David Kallaway, Tom Virtue, Paul Sloan, Quinn Duffy, Seth Hurwitz, Anthony Mangano, Don DiPetta, Jenna Laurenzo, Suehyla El-Attar. Directed by Peter Farrelly

 

Few Oscar Best Picture winners have gotten the backlash this film has. Directed by Peter Farrelly, stepping away from the comedies he’s known for (co-directed with his brother Bobby), this is an account of a business and personal relationship between concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) and his Italian-American driver Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen), so named because of his penchant for chatter.

Set in 1962, the street-wise bouncer Tony applies for a job driving the fastidious Shirley through a Southern concert tour in the winter of 1962. At first possessed of the casual racism common in the era (he throws out a glass that black workers drank out of in his home), Tony soon sees for himself firsthand the ugly realities of racism. He also grows to admire the cultured kindness of Shirley who helps him with his diction and with writing letters home to his wife Dolores (Cardellini).

For Don’s part, he is brought out of his self-imposed shell to appreciate the uncouth but honest life lived by Tony. It’s all so very Driving Miss Daisy but the relationship between Don and Tony, as interpreted by two of the better actors working in this part of the 21st century, makes the movie magic required to elevate this above the sometimes generic parable on racial relations that the movie can sink into from time to time.

There are a few cringe-inducing scenes (including one where Tony introduces Don to the joys of fried chicken, and another where Tony exclaims “I’m blacker than you are!” when Don confesses he’s not familiar with the music of Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, Chubby Checker and Otis Redding) but there are also plenty of scenes with genuine warmth.

The film focuses mostly on Tony which is unsurprising since it was co-written by Tony’s son Nick; the Shirley family has also complained that the relationship between the two was purely employer-employee, a claim that was proven false when an audio interview with Shirley surfaced in which he specifically said it was not.

One of my favorite scenes is where Shirley faces a crisis of the soul. A gay man when that fact alone would be enough to end his career, uncomfortable with his fellow African-Americans and unaccepted by the white society that acknowledges his talent as a pianist, he cries out “I’m not black! I’m not white! I’m not a man; what am I?” If you want to see Ali at his best, that’s the scene to watch.

I realize that woke readers for whom this movie doesn’t pass the purity test will likely take exception with this review; certainly, those folks are entitled to their opinion. I do agree that there are some tone-deaf moments that don’t reflect well on the film overall, and quite frankly I tend to agree with those who thought that the film was a little too flawed to be named Best Picture. Still, there’s enough here to make for worthwhile viewing and that should be acknowledged as well.

REASONS TO SEE: Great chemistry between Mortensen and Ali.
REASONS TO AVOID: Less than fully factual.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity including racial slurs, adult thematic content, some violence and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mortensen gained weight for the picture mainly on a diet of Italian food – pizzas, pastas and the like. He did so much on-screen eating that he never utilized the on-set catering.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fubo, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Showtime, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews, Metacritic: 69/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Driving Miss Daisy
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li


Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li

What martial arts videogame adaptation would be complete without its zen moment?

(20th Century Fox) Kristin Kreuk, Michael Clarke Duncan, Neal McDonough, Robin Shou, Chris Klein, Taboo, Moon Bloodgood, Edmund Chen, Chung Pei Pei. Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak

Capcom’s Street Fighter franchise is one of the most beloved and popular videogames in history. A live-action version starring Jean-Claude van Damme was made in 1994. How would this stack up?

Chun Li (Kreuk) is a concert pianist who has been through a great deal in her young life. Trained in the martial arts as a child by her father (Chen), she watches in horror as he is kidnapped by the villainous industrialist Bison (McDonough) and his gigantic flunky Balrog (Duncan).

After her mom passes away, Chun Li receives a mysterious scroll that may hold the key to finding her father and restoring justice. It directs her to seek out Gen (Shou), a mysterious martial arts master who alone can complete her training and prepare her for the most important mission of her life.

Also on Bison’s trail is are a pair of Interpol agents; Nash (Klein), a brash American and Maya (Bloodgood), a hottie of indeterminate nationality. As the paths of those who pursue Bison converge, it is discovered that he is buying up large parcels of land in Bangkok with the intent of introducing an upsurge in crime to drive the property values down in order for him to get the largest amount of profit when he erects condos and high rises in the bustling harborside neighborhood.

Bison has an army of private henchmen at his disposal and he’s ruthless when it comes to getting what he wants. Chun Li must go beyond her own capabilities if she is to survive and rescue her father.

The plot summary is somewhat sparse, but really, what can you expect from a videogame adaptation? The point of the movie is to generate action sequences and eye candy set to a throbbing rock score that will give the target audience of pimply-faced gamers a chubby just thinking about it. I don’t know that the movie succeeds on that level.

For one thing, I don’t understand why you would make a movie adaptation of a videogame and then make subtle and unnecessary changes in the game’s mythos that is sure to alienate your target audience. I don’t mind artistic license and when adapting something out of any medium you have to expect changes to be made, but those should be changes that enhance the storytelling process or reflect the technology available to recreate the action, not changes that are seemingly out of the writer’s ego to place their own stamp on a franchise that was doing just fine before they decided to make a movie based on it.

The fight sequences, to be fair, are pretty well done at least to my admittedly untrained eye. I’m sure martial arts purists were shuddering at some of the moves executed by the actors; at times even I could tell that the actors weren’t hitting the moves correctly. That’s a definite problem for a movie so rooted in martial arts. Also to the good, Bartkowiak has created a look as far as the Bangkok backstreets are concerned that is stylish and fun. The visual aspect of the film is solid.

Duncan is having a marvelous time as Balrog. When he grins, you get the impression that he’s thinking “I’m getting paid for this?” His work makes the movie watchable. Sadly, some of the other actors don’t fair as well. Klein, whose previous career highlight was the American Pie films, is probably not the right guy for the role of Nash which might have benefitted from someone along the lines of a Taylor Kitsch or a Chris Hemsworth. Also McDonough’s accent slips from a standard American to a pseudo-Irish oddly; it winds up being a distraction.

There are also some strange plot devices; for example, when Chun Li announces that she needs to do further research into Bison’s criminal enterprise, the first place she goes is Google. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Gambino family had a website?

This is meant to be disposable, easily digestible action fare and to a large extent it is. The movie is seriously flawed, however, which may give those looking for superior action films pause. There is enough to like here that I can give it a slight recommendation, but be aware that even those who love the videogame may have some problems with the movie version.

WHY RENT THIS: Bartkowiak has a distinctive visual style and most of the fight scenes are impressive to the layman. Duncan seems to be having a great time and attacks his role with gusto.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Standard videogame adaptation fare with not a whole lot of plot to speak of.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of martial arts violence, but nothing that would bother the average teen. If you think it’s okay for your child to play the videogame, chances are the movie will be fine too.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robin Shou has also appeared in the Mortal Kombat movies, making him the only cast member to date to have appeared in other movies based on videogames.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray and Special Edition DVD include an animated comic book called Street Fighter: Round One – Fight! which should appeal to fans of the videogame series, as well as some features on the training the actors went through to become onscreen martial arts masters. The Blu-Ray contains a trivia track (a favorite feature of Da Queen).

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: From Paris With Love