Beirut


It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad in the desert.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Jonny Coyne, Leila Bekhti, Kate Fleetwood, Alon Aboutboul, Larry Pine, Sonia Okacha, Mohamed Zouaoui, Ben Affran, Ian Porter, Idir Chender, Nora Garrett, Mohamed Attougui, Anton Obeid, Jay Potter, Brahim Rachiki, Max Kleinveld. Directed by Brad Anderson

 

Lebanon has a history of being a cosmopolitan, beautiful country. Beirut was once described as the Paris of the Middle East. There were sizable Christian and Muslim communities but in the 1970s with an influx of Palestinian refugees Beirut became a powderkeg that exploded into Civil War that by the 1980s left Beirut the usual analogy for dangerous, hostile places.

Mason Skiles (Hamm) in 1972 was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. A disciple of Henry Kissinger, he was the fair-haired boy in the State Department, on his way to an ambassadorship of his own and at the very least becoming a major player in the diplomatic corps. Then, a terrible tragedy leaves his career in tatters and Skiles personally broken.

Fast-forward ahead ten years and Skiles works as an arbitrator in labor negotiations and not a very good one at that. Maybe it’s due to the fact that Skiles has fallen into the bottle and shows no signs of emerging. However, he is summoned to Beirut – the last place on Earth he wants to go – ostensibly to lecture at the American University there but in reality he is savvy enough to know that’s only a cover.

In fact, his good friend Cal (Pellegrino) has been kidnapped by a PLO splinter group and they will only negotiate with Cal for reasons that will become readily apparent. The problem is that Cal, who works for the CIA, knows enough to make life uncomfortable for the agency in the Middle East. Mason soon discovers that everyone in the American embassy seems to have an agenda of their own; nobody is trustworthy, not even the assistant/handler Sandy (Pike) who has been assigned to Mason. Getting Cal back alive will be no easy matter, not will it be easy for Mason to stay that way as well.

Veteran movie fans will note that Tony Gilroy wrote the script and won’t be surprised at the often convoluted plot – nor will it be surprising that the story is interesting throughout. Anderson is a strong director who keeps the pace brisk without going too fast and glossing over things. Despite having a plot that requires some concentration to follow, this is nonetheless an easy movie to watch.

.Hamm has been on my radar ever since he starred in Mad Men and I’ve always thought that he was going to one day be a big movie star; he’s just one good role away. This is the closest he’s come to that role; despite his character being deeply flawed, Hamm makes him sympathetic. He shows a great deal of charisma and onscreen charm from start to finish. In short, he’s the best thing about the movie which is saying something in a movie with Rosamund Pike in it.

The dialogue can be a bit noir-ish (which can be a bad thing) and the flashbacks can be jarring. Most negatively, there are sequences in which handheld cameras are used that are literally jarring. Those are all minuses to be sure but the pluses just edge them out enough to make this worth a shot.

REASONS TO GO: Hamm continues to show off star quality. The pacing is very crisp.
REASONS TO STAY: There are some unnecessary handheld camera sequences. The ending is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and a brief image of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hodge and Hamm have appeared on the Netflix series Black Mirror.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Feels

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

The Divergent Series: Insurgent


In the future there will be no chairs.

In the future there will be no chairs.

(2015) Science Fiction (Summit) Kate Winslet, Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Jai Courtney, Mekhi Phifer, Octavia Spencer, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Ray Stevenson, Naomi Watts, Jonny Weston, Daniel Dae Kim, Maggie Q, Suki Waterhouse, Rosa Salazar, Zoe Kravitz, Janet McTeer, Lyndsi LaRose. Directed by Robert Schwentke

These days, dystopian futures seem to be all the rage. No longer does one need to wear shades when viewing the future; we can look forward to darkness, pain, despair and hopelessness. I suppose how we see the future tells us a lot about how we view the present.

For those who don’t remember Divergent or the book series it was based on, the world has been beset by some sort of apocalyptic event and the population has been herded into Chicago and divided into factions according to their gifts – Erudite (intelligence), Amity (peace), Candor (truth), Dauntless (military) and Abignation (service), the latter of which was essentially wiped out at the end of the last movie. There are those who display none of the five qualities; those are called Factionless and live in abject poverty on the edge of society. There are also those who contain two or more qualities – they are called Divergents. Our heroine is one of these.

Speaking of our heroine, now that Tris (Woodley) and her lover Four (James) have foiled the plans of Jeanine (Winslet), the power-mad evil leader of the Erudite faction, they have taken refuge with the pastoral Amity along with Tris’ none-too-brave brother Caleb (Elgort) and the snarky Peter (Teller) who seems to live to push buttons. As for Amity, their leader Johanna (Spencer) is providing them shelter although she’s not entirely happy about it. Jeanine wants to round up the last of the rebellious Dauntless group that has split from the main group that is now commanded by the evil Eric (Courtney) but she seems far more obsessed with a metal box found in the wreckage of the home of Tris’ parents Andrew (Goldwyn) and Natalie (Judd) who both bit the big one in the first film.

That box contains symbols for all five of the factions and seems sealed with even the technology of Erudite unable to penetrate its secrets. Jeanine believes that the box contains a message from the Founders, one which will confirm her campaign to eliminate the Divergents although, ironically enough, it seems that only a Divergent can open the box by passing the simulations of all five of the factions. Naturally Four and Tris are pretty certain that Jeanine must not find out what’s in the box. In the meantime, Jeanine is having Eric and his Dauntless minions shoot nasty little tracking devices that can also allow Jeanine to control the subjects to the point of forcing them to commit suicide.

The odds against Tris and her remaining allies are formidable although she receives an unexpected ally in Factionless who are now being led by, of all people, Four’s mother Evelyn (Watts) who everyone belied was dead and had in fact faked her own death for reasons that are unbelievably flimsy. However, in order to save the Divergents who are being hunted down and forced to undergo the ordeal of the simulations which is killing them off in short order, Tris will have to go to the heart of the beast and face down Jeanine herself.

Somewhat ironically, Insurgent apparently diverges from Victoria Roth’s source novel fairly radically. Being as I’m not familiar with the books, I can’t say whether that’s necessarily a bad thing or not but I can say that the illogical world of the Divergent book series is so full of lapses and plot holes that it’s hard to believe that anyone buys any of this. Any rudimentary student of human nature knows that we are not just one thing; we are many, and to think that keeping all people with a common trait in a society is not a sure way to eliminate conflict. If anything, people with like ways of thinking tend to get in a lot more conflict

The action sequences are pretty good and the special effects are even better, particularly in the sim sequences. There’s definitely plenty of eye candy, particularly for young pre-teen and teen girls who will find young hunks James, Elgort, Teller, Courtney and Phifer making their hearts beat faster than the adrenaline-fueled action scenes.

Unfortunately, one of the movie’s main drawbacks is Woodley. She’s a fine actress as she’s shown in The Descendents but here…I don’t know. She’s supposed to be a strong female role model but she’s stubborn, makes really illogical and foolish choices that put those she’s close to in danger, she wallows in self-pity and she is known to panic occasionally. There are some that will defend her character as being admirable for overcoming her own human frailties and I have to acknowledge that as a salient point, but even so I never really admire Tris so much as feel dismayed by her. Woodley isn’t responsible for the way the character is written but she comes off as shrill here, which is not how Jennifer Lawrence comes off as Katness Everdeen, a female role model who is beset by self-doubt and fear just as much as Tris.

While some of the supporting characters have some depth to them – particularly Spencer and Kim as the leaders of their respective factions Amity and Candor, and Courtney as the deliciously evil Eric – the acting here tends to the scene chewing sort. I can live with that though ahead of the movie’s two most egregious sins; first, that in order for audiences to make sense of this movie you need to either be familiar with the first film or the book series. Those who aren’t are going to have a very hard time following this, so it doesn’t stand on its own very well. Secondly and perhaps more damning is that the movie follows the young adult franchise formula to the “T” – a plucky heroine of strong will is reluctantly put into a heroic role while deeply in love with hunky hero who steps aside to be second banana to his girlfriend who saves the day with her self-sacrifice and love for her man, not to mention wicked fighting skills.

Yeah, you’ve seen it all before and done better than this. This is definitely a step backwards from the more entertaining first film. I really can’t recommend it other than to those who really liked the first movie and are eager to see the franchise played out to its conclusion which, true to recent young adult book series form, will see the final book in the trilogy split into two movies. After this debacle, I’m not sure I want to see either of them.

REASONS TO GO: Some very intense action sequences. Some decent supporting performances by Courtney, Spencer and Kim.
REASONS TO STAY: A lot of over-acting. Requires that you either are familiar with the books or saw the first movie. Too much like other young adult franchises.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action violence, some foul language and thematic elements and brief sensuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the first movie was filmed mostly in Chicago (where the action is set), the sequel was mostly filmed in Atlanta.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 31% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Host (2013)
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: People Like Us

Divergent


Theo James has caught Shailene Woodley in his net.

Theo James has caught Shailene Woodley in his net.

(2014) Science Fiction (Summit) Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Jai Courtney, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Miles Teller, Zoe Kravitz, Maggie Q, Ray Stevenson, Mekhi Phifer, Ansel Elgort, Ben Lloyd-Hughes, Christian Madsen, Amy Newbold, Ben Lamb, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Clara Burger, Anthony Fleming, Ryan Carr, Alex Hashioka, Will Blagrove, Rotimi, Justine Wachsberger. Directed by Neil Burger

We have a tendency to slot people into boxes. This one is a hothead, that one is a braniac, this one is a stoner, that one is a loser. It is easier for us to compartmentalize people but it doesn’t begin to tell the whole story about someone.

In the dystopian future projected here, this has been taken to the ultimate level. After war has devastated the United States leaving Chicago one of the few inhabitable cities (and that just barely), the surviving population has been divided into five factions centered around a characteristic considered to be a virtue; Abnegation (selflessness), Dauntless (bravery), Candor (honesty), Amity (kindness) and Erudite (intelligent). On Choosing Day, 18 year old citizens must choose one of these factions to belong to. Once the choosing is made, there’s no turning back.

Aiding the candidates is a test which tells them which faction they are best suited for. However when Beatrice (Woodley) who grew up in Abnegation takes the test, she is shocked to discover that her test was inconclusive – she isn’t suited for any one faction. What is more puzzling is the reaction of Tori (Q), the administrator of the test – she is fearful, warning Beatrice to tell no-one of her test results.

On the day of the Choosing Beatrice chooses Dauntless, much to the disappointment of her mom (Judd) and dad (Goldwyn), who are doubly disappointed because Beatrice’s brother Caleb (Elgort) chose Erudite. Beatrice, now going by Tris, is surprised to discover that she and her new friends Christina (Kravitz), Al (Madsen), Will (Lloyd-Hughes) and to a lesser extent the mouthy Candor transfer Peter (Teller) aren’t in yet – Dauntless only takes a percentage of its recruits; the rest are rendered Factionless with nowhere to go.

In charge of their training is the brutal and sadistic Eric (Courtney) who seems to have an immediate dislike of Tris and Four (James), a taciturn trainer who seems far more capable than Eric. Tris, raised among the Amish-like Abnegation, has trouble with the physical requirements but battles as hard as she can. In the meantime she hides her test results, labeling her as Divergent and apparently a threat to the Erudite faction who are actively hunting Divergent citizens down.

As Tris becomes closer and more attracted to Four, she discovers that there are some odd things going on in Dauntless. For one, secret visits by Jeanine (Winslet), leader of the Erudite faction, to Max (Phifer), leader of the Dauntless, and things that don’t add up are going on. Tris quickly realizes she’s involved in a very dangerous game and she doesn’t know the rules. When things go South, Tris discovers a horrifying plot by the Erudite that will take all of her bravery, compassion, honesty, intelligence and kindness to overcome.

Based on a bestselling young adult sci-fi trilogy by Veronica Roth, Summit is eager for this to become their next young adult franchise. Like previous franchises Twilight and The Hunger Games, Divergent is led by a female protagonist who, like Katness Everdeen in the latter series is strong and forced into becoming something of a symbol. Woodley is going to inevitably be compared to Jennifer Lawrence whose Katness has become somewhat iconic. Unfortunately, her performance doesn’t hold up.

It’s not for lack of talent or lack of trying. This simply isn’t the right kind of role for her. Woodley spends most of the movie looking befuddled because her character is largely in the dark about what’s going on around her. There is a gun battle scene near the end of the film when Tris essentially gets hysterical (and to be fair for good reason) but it’s disconcerting to see your lead character and role model fly into a tizzy.

Winslet is likewise wasted in a role in which she is cast as an icy blonde bitch who just wants to rule the world. She is a formidable actress who would have made an equally formidable villain but she’s not really given anything to work with as the focus is more on the young ‘uns. She only gets to let loose in villainous glee late in the film and by then the audience has essentially lost all interest in the character.

Only James really fares well among the lead. He is hunky handsome (or so say some of my younger female friends) and has a good deal of brooding presence. He may well emerge from this film the big star that Woodley should have been although time will tell on that score.

I’m not sure what Roth’s political views are or if she has any but I have to say that the story reads a bit like a wet dream of the far right; the villains of the story are the educated who want to take the freedom of everyone away and take control over every aspect of life because they know better than the rest of us. The military faction are the most free-spirited, running joyfully through the streets of Chicago with big mother-effin’ grins on their faces. I’m sure most military sorts will tell you how much running makes them smile. I could be reading too much into it (and I probably am) but I couldn’t help make the observation.

The old familiar theme of teens feeling like outcasts are also explored. Those who refuse to be pigeonholed are persecuted while those who conform are considered virtuous. Just like high school except on a more global scale.

The effects are pretty decent and there are some nifty action sequences but this is definitely a movie targeted for young adult audiences, particularly the female persuasion. I suspect male audiences will find this less palatable than The Hunger Games. This isn’t a bad movie despite all its shortcomings – I will say I was entertained and most of the audience I saw it with was too – but it didn’t generate in me the excitement that the Jennifer Lawrence series did from the get go. I suspect it will have enough inertia to get the proposed two sequels made but I doubt very much it will become the cultural phenomenon that THG became.

REASONS TO GO: Complex background explained well. Some fine action and effects sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Woodley a bit of a misstep casting-wise.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a bit of action, some of it intense. There’s also some more adult thematic elements along with implied sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Teller and Woodley are close friends in real life and Woodley had a very hard time during their fight sequences to be aggressive and antagonistic towards him requiring Teller to pull her aside and have a conversation with his former The Spectacular Now co-star.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Host

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Shuttle