Undercover Punch and Gun


Philip Ng is feeling boxed in.

(2019) Crime (Well Go USA) Philip Ng, Vanness Wu, Andy On, Nicholas Tse, Joyce Wenjuan Feng, Luxia Jiang, Aka Chio, Shuai Chi, Jia Meng, Aaron Aziz, Suet Lam, Carrie Ng, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw. Directed by Koon-Nam Lui and Frankie Tam

 

One of the biggest criticisms of action movies in general is that they often seem to be little more than excuses to go from one big action set piece to another. Plot and character development often go by the wayside, leaving the audience to marvel at the stunts, special effects and so on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – great action sequences can often be their own catharsis, but I also can’t blame critics who would like to see actioin movies be better. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to develop the plot a little more, or give the characters some depth besides a few cheeky one-liners spouted at the end of a particularly grueling fight scene.

Xiao Wu (P. Ng) is an enforcer for a drug ring but what he REALLY is, as it turns out, is an undercover cop. During a drug deal that goes south, gunfire erupts between rival gangs of cops and gangsters. During the chaos, the boss (Lam) is killed and Wu ends up in charge. He is tasked to take down Ha (On), a smuggler who not only imports drugs but dabbles in the human trafficking trade – about as much as Apple dabbles in computers. Ha is as ruthless as they come, and Wu along with his buddy Tiger (Wu) are definitely in over their heads.

The producers for the film apparently never heard the old aphorism “too many cooks spoil the broth.” There are no less than two directors and seven writers credited on this film, and it shows. There is an inconsistency in tone that is maddening as the movie goes from slam-bam action to slapstick comedy to dark social drama often within the same scene. I get that Asian cuisine often has a multitude of layered flavors, but that doesn’t always work for movies.

The characters don’t always act as you’d expect which can be refreshing so long as there’s a logic to it. When Wu’s girlfriend is kidnapped, one wonders about the girl; she isn’t in much of the movie until the end where she basically exists in order to be rescued. The saving grace here is that the action sequences, particularly the fights, are really, REALLY good. Ng, who doubled as fight choreographer, is a natural and could well be the next big international action star to come out of the Far East. He has a brooding presence, but doesn’t handle the comedy quite as well.

Then again, the comedy here is mainly of the low-brow variety and often brings the movie to a screeching halt. The comedy is largely centered around Tiger and while Asian audiences tend to appreciate a broader sense of humor than American audiences do, the jokes here are largely painfully unfunny, as when the baddie wips out his cell phone and tells the hero “There! I unfriended you!” Take that.

Sometimes the action sequences are all you really need to make a movie worthwhile, but the sometimes-painful comedy breaks really do bring the movie down overall. There is also a jazzy score that is wildly inappropriate for the film; the movie just isn’t noir enough for it. Action fans, particularly those who love the martial arts films of Asia, are going to flip for it. Also, keep an eye our for Ng – he could be a household name a few years from now.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some nifty action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The wild shifts in tone (particularly the generally unsuccessful attempts at comedy) drag the film down overall.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of martial arts violence, as well as some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally released under the title Undercover vs. Undercover.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Hi-Yah, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Infernal Affairs
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Bullied

Deliver Us From Evil (Daman akeseo guhasoseo)


It is twilight for a professional killer.

(2020) Crime (Well Go USA) Jun-min Hwang, Jung-jae Lee, Jung-min Park, Moon Choi, Hakuryu, Park Myeong-hoon, Dae-hwan Oh, Tomonori Mizuno, Young-chang Song, Kosuke Toyohara, Hiroaki Hirakawa, Ito Keitoku, Ken Kurahara, Atsundo Maruyama, So-yi Park. Directed by Won-Chan Hong

 

For an action film to be successful, it doesn’t have to be particularly original, although that certainly helps. When an action movie is well-thought-out, well-choreographed and well-paced, a lack of imagination can be forgiven.

In-nam (Hwang) is a contract killer who used to be a cop. He has just finished his last job before retiring to Panama to live on a quiet beach, but that is not to be. For one thing, the last man he killed, a yakuza named Goreda (Toyohara) has a vengeful brother named Ray, who is better known as Ray the Butcher (Lee). You really don’t want someone named “The Butcher” mad at you, particularly when that person is muscle for the yakuza.

Worse still, it turns out that an ex-girlfriend (Choi) has died and her young daughter Yoo-min (S-y Park) has been kidnapped by human traffickers and taken to Bangkok. In-nam is not helping out because he’s a particularly good guy; he is about as stone cold as they get, but he does have some skin in that particular game. With raving lunatic Ray chasing the ice-cold In-nam, you can imagine that sparks will fly when the two meet.

And sparks do fly. Action fans will be pleased to know that this is as gripping an action movie as you’re likely to see this year, with well-staged martial arts fights and some spectacular action sequences that would do a Hollywood big-budget summer tentpole film proud. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t lack for entertainment.

It also doesn’t lack for action stars. Hwang and Lee are two of South Korea’s biggest stars; they haven’t been in a movie together in eight years, but their chemistry is undeniable. They work really well together, and Hwang does the taciturn, brooding killing machine about as well as anybody, although in the Bangkok heat the man sweats like a politician in front of a grand jury.

Where the movie is lacking is in plot. There is nothing here in terms of story that you haven’t seen before, and sometimes in better movies. How many retiring hit man movies have we seen even this year, where the retiree is drawn back into the business unwillingly? One place where the movie is a little different is that there is a transgender character, Yoo-Yi (J-m Park) who plays In-nam’s translater and girl Friday in Bangkok, where she hopes to make enough money for her gender reassignment surgery. While she’s mostly there for comic relief, surprisingly she is played as more sympathetic than you’d expect, and who ends up being the most likable character in the movie with the possible exception of the utterly adorable Yoo-min.

The movie was one of the top grossing films in Korea last year, having just finished production before the pandemic hit and was one of the few major releases in that country in 2020. With big budget Hollywood movies beginning to peek out from out of their quarantine, this might end up being lost in the shuffle which would be a shame; it is actually quite entertaining and a must for action fans who like their movies at break-neck speed.

REASONS TO SEE: Some spectacular action sequences. Hwang has the surly action hero thing down pat.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat unoriginal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a truck full of violence and gore (much of it brutal) and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time that Hwang and Lee have appeared in the same action film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taken
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
An Amityville Poltergeist

Capernaum


The love of a child is a wonderful thing.

(2018) Drama (Sony ClassicsZain Al Raffea, Yordanos Shiferaw, Boluwatife Treasure Bankole, Kawsar Al Haddad, Fadi Kamel Yousef, Cedra Izzam, Alaa Chouchnieh, Elias Khoury, Mohammad Al Abdallah, Faten Asmar, Lama Begaum, Mohammad Chabouri, Samira Chalhoub, Nour El Husseini, Mohammad Hammoud, Farah Hasno, Tamer Ibrahim, Nadine Labaki. Directed by Nadine Labaki

 

Some movies are meant to be light entertainment. Others are meant to be a punch to the gut. This film is of the latter persuasion.

This Lebanese film – winner of the Jury Award at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival where it debuted, and also nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2019 Oscars – introduces us to Zain (Al Raffea), a young refugee boy living in Beirut with his parents and many siblings. He is closest to 11-year-old Sahar (Izzam) who periodically joins him on the streets, trying to raise money by selling cups of tomato juice. When his hapless parents – bleary-eyed father (Yousef) and overwhelmed mother (Al Haddad) – sell Sahar to a pedophilic shop owner (El Husseini) for a bunch of chickens, he realizes that he cannot live in that house anymore and runs away.

On the streets he finds Rahil (Shiferaw), an undocumented refugee from Ethiopia with a cute little toddler son Yonas (Boluwatife) who gives Zain shelter and food. In return, Zain watches little Yonas while Rahil goes to work, trying to earn enough to buy forged work permits from Aspro (Chouchnieh) who would be willing to exchange the forged papers in exchange for her son, which she absolutely refuses to do. When Rahil doesn’t show up back home from work one night, Zain is forced to try and get food and money any way that he can. Then, he receives word of a tragedy that will change the trajectory of his life and put him in jail, where he decides to sue his parents for having given him life.

The movie alternates between courtroom drama and social realist drama, with the latter taking the bulk of the film and with good reason for it is much more fascinating than the legal drama. Labaki tells the story mostly in flashbacks from the courtroom proceedings, which while packing some emotional punch do not compare to the almost matter-of-fact way that Labaki displays everyday horrors that confront the impoverished in Lebanon.

As with her other films (this is her third feature), Labaki casts mostly non-professionals in roles that parallel their own lives. The actors were encouraged to react to various events as they would in real life, giving the film a raw you-are-there quality. There are no punches pulled here nor does Labaki offer apologies for the way Zain and his parents act; they are desperate people doing whatever it takes to survive, but at least Zain is able to find humanity within his heart through caring for Yonas. His parents never do.

The movie, at two hours long, is overwhelming in a lot of ways and should not be undertaken lightly. Still, if you need to understand that there are people who have it worse than you do – a lot worse – this is the film to see. It is also the film to see for the cutest toddler performance ever, which is counterbalanced by the blazing performance given by Zain who swears like a sailor throughout and although he’s 12 or 13 (his parents aren’t precisely sure and there’s no paperwork to prove that Zain even exists) he is wise well beyond his years. In any case, lovers of movies shouldn’t pass up this gem.

REASONS TO SEE: A fascinating mix of courtroom drama and slice of life. Realistic, raw performances throughout. Never pulls punches.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: The boy who played Zain has since been relocated with his family to Norway where he is learning to read and write.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Yonas is portrayed in the movie as a male toddler, the baby playing him is actually female.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV,  Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Sling TV,  Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9//20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Separation
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
The Mindfulness Movement

Nona


See no evil.

(2017) Drama (Rock Salt) Kate Bosworth, Sulem Calderon, Jesy McKinney, Diana Cabuto, Jasper Polish, Giancarlo Ruiz, Brittney Bell, Mildraide Lazarre, Lily Melgar, Chris Arellano, Ramsay Phelps, Jonathan Contreras, Billy Helmers, Mariana Cabrera Orozco. Directed by Michael Polish

 

Illegal immigration is a hot button topic these days and while some may chafe at the label “human rights crisis” that is in fact a more-than-adequate description of what’s going on at our southern border. Poverty and violence in Central and South American nations has led to a wave of refugees trying to make it to the United States and what has to be a better life than the one they are faced with.

Nona (Calderon) works in a small Honduran city “painting the dead”; that is, putting make-up on corpses at a local funeral home to make them funeral-ready. She is essentially alone; her father was gunned down on the way home from the local grocery to purchase a bag of chips, her brother knifed by a criminal gang, and her mother fled to America. Nona wants to join her but neither Nona nor her mother can afford the cost of getting her there.

Enter Hecho (McKinney), a bowler-wearing hipster with a free spirit and breezy attitude that belies his broken heart. He’s headed for Mexico – specifically Tijuana – and is willing to take Nona along for the company. She can pay him back for the expenses later. Although Nona is a smart and worldly sort, she finds the charm that Hecho exudes irresistible and agrees to go with him.

At first it seems like a great idea. Hecho seems to be in no particular hurry as they take various buses through the Honduras, Guatemala and into Mexico, sometimes taking boats and on one occasion, a yacht. Sometimes they just hoof it but Hecho seems to have plenty of money to buy food, and occasionally party in bars and discos. The difficult and dangerous journey to the border is portrayed essentially as a stroll in the park. But when Nona reaches the border and Hecho turns her over to a coyote who will get her into the country, the parting of ways hides a dark truth that will shatter Nona’s life.

The movie makes a very jarring turn about two thirds of the way in and it is completely unexpected. I toyed with the idea of revealing what that turn is but decided not to reveal it to give that turn greater impact. Suffice to say it reflects a problem that is all too prevalent in the immigration equation.

The first two thirds of the movie could well be a travelogue with the attractive couple of Nona and Hecho sampling the culture along the way. The cinematography is idyllic and the pace somewhat languid. There is no romantic relationship between Hecho and Nona and little sexual tension so any thoughts of romance through the first part of the movie is best left put on the back-burner.

I don’t have a problem with tonal shifts in films, even ones as completely opposite as the tone of the last half hour is to the first hour. The problem is that the first hour of the movie doesn’t really set up the last 30 minutes adequately; it feels like the filmmakers wanted to give the audience a sense of how Nona must have felt when confronted by her situation which changed radically in a matter of moments. It almost feels like two different films and maybe it is. I think Polish would have benefited by spending more time on the second half of the film and less on the first.

Polish is a veteran director who has an impressively diverse filmography, although none of his films to date have really blown me away. I think this one was meant to but at the end of the day, while it is timely and even borderline essential, it is a disappointing treatment of a subject that deserves better.

REASONS TO SEE: The chemistry between the leads is strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: The abrupt shift in narrative is jarring and not adequately set up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some strong sexual situations, rape, profanity, violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Bosworth, who is also a producer on the film, is married to Michael Polish; Polish also frequently collaborates with his brother Mark although Mark isn’t involved with this specific film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes:60% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trafficked
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Echo in the Canyon

Princess of the Row


A splendid springtime father/daughter stroll down the promenade.

(2019) Drama (Big Boss Creative) Tayler Buck, Edi Gathegi, Ana Ortiz, Martin Sheen, Jacob Vargas, Blake Michael, Jenny Gago, Tim Abell, Tabitha Brown, Anthony Jansen, Karim Diane, William Guirola, Braxton Davis, Danielle Dotson, Destiny Toliver, Sarah-Jayne Bedford, Monique Chachere, Pam Levin, Tori Griffith, Kelly Hancock. Directed by Van Maximilian Carlson

There is, unfortunately, no shortage of homeless people in this country today. Most of them are people who have fallen through the cracks, unable to support themselves due to mental illness, drug abuse or just plain bad luck. A staggering percentage of those living on the streets are children.

One such is Alisha (Buck), a street-savvy 12-year-old girl whose dad refers to her as Princess – that is, when he remembers who she is. For the most part, Iraq war vet Sgt. Beaumont “Bo” Willis (Gathegi) is caught up in a waking nightmare of mental illness, reliving terrible moments from his time in country. Willis was injured by a roadside bomb and his periods of lucidity are getting fewer and farther between. Alisha’s mother has long since split, a victim of her own nightmares generated by drug abuse. Father and daughter survive on the streets of L.A.’s Skid Row.

Alisha doesn’t have to live on the street. She has a caring social worker named Magdalene (Ortiz) who genuinely wants to see her safe and sound but time and time again, she refuses or runs away, preferring to be with her dad who has nobody to take care of him but Alisha. Her dad’s paranoid delusions preclude him from accepting any sort of help. Most of the time he is docile, going wherever Alisha leads him but occasionally something triggers him and he gets violent.

Alisha has become entirely suspicious of the motives of most adults, Magdalene’s obvious example aside she has dealt with far too many people who don’t have her best interests at heart. Even Magdalene doesn’t seem to understand how devoted she is to her dad nor is Magdalene able to act on it even if she did. Even genuinely good people like prospective foster parent John Austin (Sheen) who, like Alisha, is a talented writer is met with stony silence and suspicion.

Things begin to spiral from bad to worse as Alisha falls into the clutches of a human trafficker and briefly considers selling herself to get her dad and her out of L.A. and away to somewhere where they can both be safe. However, her dad’s demons surface at the most inopportune time and Alisha is left facing a nearly impossible decision.

In many ways this is a very powerful film and much of the reason for that is the performances. Buck does an impossibly mature job playing young Alisha and bears the burden of carrying the film on her back with dignity and grace. From time to time a child actor comes along that you know instinctively has enormous talent, talent enough to move on and become a big star in his or her own right. Buck is just such an actress; there isn’t one false note in her entire performance here and she pulls it off in a way that would make a whole lot of adult actresses green with envy.

Gathegi also gives a standout performance. Yes, I know he mostly has to stare straight ahead with a blank expression but you try doing that for a long length of time and see how difficult it is to do. In rare moments of lucidity, Bo is fully aware that he is an anchor dragging his daughter down into his own private hell and he whispers to her gently that it is all right for her to let him go. We never know if he heard him until the very end of the film. The chemistry between Buck and Gathegi is natural and alive; the two work seamlessly off one another. The performances aren’t the problem here.

In many ways this is a very cliché film and Carlson like many indie filmmakers seems loathe to make the kind of deep cuts during the editing process (Carlson is an editor by trade and the hardest thing in that line of work to do is to edit your own footage objectively) that the film needed. As a result, it feels at times that the plot is running in place and not getting anywhere. Not only is the movie on the long side, the plot has a whole lot of clichés; the well-meaning social worker with an overwhelming case load and constraints laid on her by an unfeeling bureaucracy; a war veteran with psychological (or in this case physical issues causing the psychological) issues, a seemingly nice guy offering salvation but delivering damnation.

It’s a shame because I think there are a lot of good ideas here. In the interest of transparency however, I should point out that of my circle of friends who have seen the film, I am very much in the minority – Da Queen in fact has proclaimed this as her favorite film of the Festival so far. I can see where she would like it – the father-daughter relationship is very powerful here and I think a lot of people are going to be swept up by it and that’s not a bad thing. Still, those who look beyond the best feature of the film might see a few imperfections in the overall work.

REASONS TO SEE: Buck delivers a strong performance and has good chemistry with Gathegi.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie wanders a bit and could have been a little shorter.
FAMILY VALUES: The is a fair amount of profanity, some violence and a scene of sexuality and child peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carlson is best known for his 2011 award-winning documentary Bhopali.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Most Dangerous Year

Mute


Here’s a scene that could have used Harrison Ford.

(2018) Science Fiction (Netflix) Alexander Skarsgård, Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, Seyneb Saleh, Robert Sheehan, Daniel Fathers, Robert Kazinsky, Jannis Niewöhner, Dominic Monaghan, Melissa Holroyd, Levi Eisenblätter, Caroline Peters, Nikki Lamborn, Noel Clarke, Gilbert Owuor, Andrzej Blumenfeld, Michael Behrens, Mike Davies, Sam Rockwell, Anja Karmanski. Directed by Duncan Jones

 

Duncan Jones is one of the most inventive and admired genre directors out there. When Netflix picked up this film to display, it was considered a coup. A much-admired director at the top of his game in a fairly large-budget production, Netflix was undoubtedly hoping for a franchise.

That’s not necessarily what they got. They got a sci-fi noir story set in a 2050 Berlin very much based on the look of Blade Runner. Alexander Skarsgård plays Leo, an Amish bartender (!) at a seedy dive in the underground of Berlin who has been mute since a childhood boating accident. His girlfriend Naadirah (Saleh) is a cocktail waitress (and as he later discovers, a part-time prostitute) who disappears after a couple of lowlifes make some untoward advances, causing the angry Amish (!) to beat the holy crap out of them.

No longer burdened with having to be a bartender after getting fired (even seedy dive owners get grumpy about employees beating up customers) Leo turns into gritty Amish detective (!) and searches the dodgy side of town in search of his lover who turns out to have a few secrets of her own, secrets that are connected to a couple of AWOL American military surgeons named Cactus Bill (Rudd) and Duck (Theroux) and perhaps Luba (Sheehan), a bisexual waiter and fellow prostitute who has a big time crush on Naadirah and big time contempt for Leo.

The visuals are nothing less than stunning, although you’ll get a sense that you’ve seen it all before; the nod to the Ridley Scott classic at times crosses the line from homage to rip-off. Skarsgård at least delivers a soulful performance as Leo, mainly having to emote using facial expressions and body language. However the conceit of making him Amish fails spectacularly – should any Amish have a Netflix subscription they no doubt will be scratching their beards and wondering to their mates “Does thee believe what thou are seeing?” The banter between Rudd and Theroux is fun, but it gets a bit creepy (Cactus Bill has a volcanic temper and Duck is a pederast) particularly towards the end of the film.

Critics absolutely hated this thing as you can see by their scores below, but they’re being a little harsh, maybe because Jones set his own bar so high. Yeah, the plot is muddled but if you stick with it for the two hours plus that the movie runs it all does come together. The film is genuinely inventive and I think most critics will agree that it’s like nothing you’ve seen before which I admit isn’t always a good thing. However, I was reasonably entertained and parts of the film have remained with me although parts have not – one of the most important plot points is explained at the end but I can’t for the life of me remember what that explanation is. Don’t let the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic scores dissuade you for deciding for yourself; I enjoyed it enough to recommend it although do take that with a note of caution; I’m pretty much alone in the critical community in that regard.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are breathtaking. Skarsgård delivers a soulful performance.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is more than a little bit muddled. Sheehan gives far too wooden a performance as Luba.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and sexuality herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David Hasselhoff appears on the currency.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 35/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner 2049
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Deadpool 2

Cargo (2017)


Floating in the big blue.

(2017) Drama (Best Ever Film) Warren Brown, Gessica Geneus, Omar J. Dorsey, Persia White, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Jamie Donnelly, Sky Nicole Grey, Jason Elwood Hanna, Dana J. Ferguson. Directed by Kareem Mortimer

Film production is pretty much global these days and that’s a welcome development. Points of view vary from place to place and it is always wonderful to get the perspective of people who live in different places. Cargo is the most ambitious film to come out of the Bahamas and it made it’s world premiere right here in Florida at the Miami Film Festival.

In the movie, Kevin (Brown) is an American ex-pat living in the islands after leaving the States under somewhat dark and mysterious circumstances – and if you’re going to flee a dark past, the Bahamas are an excellent place to do that. However, no matter how far you run from your problems, you generally bring the cause of them – yourself – with you and even in this island paradise Kevin, a gambling addict, has found it difficult to make a new start.

His wife Berneice (White) has essentially given up on him. She’s tired of the promises and the excuses as to why things aren’t working out. Kevin has enrolled their son in an expensive private school which he can’t afford. Berneice has also been taking care of Kevin’s mom who has severe dementia and sometimes smears her own excrement on the walls.

Kevin needs an immediate infusion of cash and gets it as he uses his boat to smuggle desperate Haitian workers to the Bahamas who will from there be taken by another boat to Miami. At first, it works out. Kevin hires a caretaker to take the burden off of Berneice. The new hire is Celianne (Geneus) who is herself an illegal immigrant from Jamaica. Also, being who he is, he embarks on an extramarital affair with a waitress at his favorite café just as things are starting to get better with his wife. There’s a storm brewing on the horizon however and things aren’t going to remain good for very much longer.

It is good seeing a slice of Bahamian life onscreen. Usually we see the island as tourists see it – a Caribbean paradise with beautiful beaches, casinos and women in skimpy bikinis. We don’t see the life that ordinary Bahamians lead and for giving us that glimpse the filmmakers are to be commended.

In many ways this is an ambitious film as Mortimer is not only looking at the effects of human smuggling but on the effects of immigration in the Bahamas as well and in many ways that muddles up the story. I think he would have been better served to focus more on Kevin and the effects of human smuggling on the smuggler – that is a storyline not often seen in the movies and would have made for a much more riveting experience, but adding subplots and extraneous characters only serves to bloat the film unnecessarily.

The acting is not up to the standards of a Hollywood film in many ways. Brown as Kevin is occasionally a bit flat; what the character is feeling is not conveyed as effectively as it might be. Kevin is always saying “I’m going to fix this,” to the point that it becomes kind of a mantra that even he doesn’t really believe; it’s more a way of deflecting Berniece’s constant nagging and condescending, cutting remarks. It is the curse of men to believe that everything can actually be fixed.

The movie is visually beautiful. There are few places on Earth so visually congenial as the Bahamas and the filmmakers make full use of that congeniality. There is something of the timeless in the Bahamas; often you will hear the phrase “island time” in connection with the Caribbean islands. It is a declaration that nothing is so important that it must be seen to immediately. Things happen at their own pace in the islands and there is a certain style in that. You get that the film is on island time in many ways and those who are less patient will have a hard time with this film.

This is definitely the product of people who are making a first stab at things. That gives this film a bit more of a pass than I would give to a Hollywood film that carries the same issues. I hope that Mortimer makes more films and that they improve with each one. I hope that he and others like him kickstarts a vibrant Bahamian film industry. As far as I’m concerned, the world can use that.

REASONS TO GO: There are some beautiful images. Nice to see a slice of Bahamian life onscreen.
REASONS TO STAY: Too many characters and too much story; some of the plotlines should have been eliminated. The acting is on the wooden side. The movie feels like it’s going on too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity and sexuality as well as a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mortimer’s interest in human smuggling came when he was a boy and news footage of Haitian migrants trying to make it to Florida whose bodies washed up on shore in the Bahamas stayed with him. He recreated the scene for the opening of the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/12/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Better Life
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Sleepless

The Transporter Refueled


A handgun romance.

A handgun romance.

(2015) Action (EuropaCorp) Ed Skrein, Ray Stevenson, Loan Chabanol, Gabriella Wright, Tatiana Pajkovic, Wenxia Yu, Radivoje Bukvic, Noémie Lenoir, Yuri Kolokonikov, Lenn Kudrjawizki, Samir Guesmi, Anatole Taubman, Robbie Nock, Michael Morris, Nash Novcic, Jochen Hägele, Cédric Chevalme, Jerome Zybala, Stephanie Moreno-Carpio. Directed by Camille Delamarre

Getting from point A to point B is no easy thing. Sometimes it requires someone who knows what they’re doing; a transporter, if you will. And in the cases of some cargo, only the best in the business will do.

The best in the business happens to be Frank Martin (Skrein). He is a former Special Ops mercenary sort who got out of that game and now makes a living as an expensive transporter of packages, both living and otherwise. He has made it a policy to ask no questions, to make no excuses and to never, ever be caught. He drives a luxury Audi with a few minor modifications.

He is spending some time with his recently retired Dad, Frank Sr. (Stevenson) who is an Evian salesman nudge nudge wink wink. In reality, Frank Sr. is something of a spy but not a James Bond sort – more like a fixer of things that need fixing, be it a government that needs toppling, a dictator who needs killing, that sort of thing.  Junior gets some of his fastidiousness from dad, who is a stickler for being on time.

While entertaining his Pater, Frank gets a job from a mysterious femme fatale named Anna (Chabanol). She wears a bleached blonde wig and the package turns out to be three other women wearing identical wigs – Gina (Wright), Maria (Pajkovic) and Qiao (Yu). It turns out they’ve robbed a bank and not just any bank – the one that holds a safety deposit box belonging to vicious Russian mobster Arkady Karasov (Bukvic). It turns out that Arkady and Frank have a history, having been mercenaries in the same company prior. It also turns out that Arkady and the girls have a history; they were all sold into prostitution to him by their families.

Normally Frank wouldn’t care one way or the other but the girls have kidnapped his father and given him poison; Frank has 24 hours to finish the job which is to get to the mobster’s partners and set them against their boss or else dear old Dad will expire. And when Arkady finds out what’s going on, it is going to be certain that all Hell will break loose.

This is a reboot of the Transporter franchise which starred Jason Statham, who passed on reprising his role mainly because he was too expensive for the producers at this stage in his career. Instead, they got Game of Thrones cast member Skrein who is also playing Ajax in the upcoming Deadpool movie which is likely to enhance his profile further. In all honesty, Statham was much better suited to the urbane, taciturn Martin than Skrein who is a bit stiffer than Statham; Statham’s martial arts expertise was also more fluid than Skrein’s. However, the film retains producer Luc Besson who had a hand in writing and producing the film.

A movie like this needs spectacular action sequences to pull in an audience and while the action sequences are all right, they aren’t anything particularly to write home about. Delamarre is competent at filming them at least and we don’t see the jerky quick cuts that some action directors have resorted to of late. Delamarre also has a good eye for the South of France scenery as well as the eye candy that are the girls. The testosterone will definitely be flowing for male moviegoers.

Where the film truly succeeds is in the banter between Stevenson and Skrein which are the movie’s highlights. Stevenson, who most people know as the Punisher in Punisher: War Zone, looks to be having more fun than anyone. He’s delightful and has a few butt-kicking moments of his own here. I am sure I’m not the only one who wished they had recast Stevenson in the lead role but he may be a bit too rumpled for the part. In any case, his work with Skrein is what is best about The Transporter Refueled.

This is supposed to be the first movie in a proposed trilogy and quite frankly while the movie is mindless entertainment (which isn’t a bad thing), it’s a bit too mindless. There’s nothing here that is really memorable enough that you’ll remember it an hour or two after you’ve left the theater (or more likely, switched off the TV) but in all honesty, will suffice to kill some time if you’re of an action bent.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful women, beautiful scenery. Banter between Skrein and Stevenson.
REASONS TO STAY: The action sequences aren’t anything special. Skrein a bit too low key to be interesting here. Misses Statham’s presence.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and action sequences, some foul language, a bit of sexuality, drug references and adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally Relatively Media was set to distribute this as producers EuropaCorp and Relativity had a distribution contract. However when Relativity went bankrupt, EuropaCorp retained distribution rights to all their properties set to be distributed by Relativity. The Transporter Refueled is the first film to be distributed by EuropaCorp in the United States.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 16% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Getaway
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Visit

Redemption (Hummingbird)


Don't keep Jason Statham waiting for his drink.

Don’t keep Jason Statham waiting for his drink.

(2013) Action (Roadside Attractions) Jason Statham, Agata Buzek, Vicki McClure, Benedict Wong, Ger Ryan, Youssef Kerkour, Anthony Morris, Victoria Bewick, Christian Brassington, Danny Webb, Sang Lui, Bruce Want, Dai Bradley, Siobhan Hewlett, Steven Beard, Ian Pirie, Lillie Buttery, Macey Chipping, Emily Lue Fong, Michelle Lee. Directed by Steven Knight

We all do things we’re not proud of. It’s just a part of living and learning. Sometimes we do and say things we wish we could take back. Sometimes we make decisions that upon reflection were unwise or thoughtless. Other times we do things out of self-interest that end up having unintended consequences. Still other times we do things we know are wrong but we do them anyway. The ramifications of the latter can be devastating.

Joseph Smith (Statham) – not the Mormon leader – is a British soldier in Afghanistan. He has deserted from the army and lives on the streets of London, a homeless alcoholic. He’s also suffering from major PTSD, often seeing hallucinations of hummingbirds. He shares a cardboard box with Isabel (Bewick), a drug-addicted prostitute who’s also homeless. The two are set upon one night by thugs who snatch Isabel and chase Joseph off. He finds his way into a very snazzy flat – one in which the wealthy owner will be leaving conveniently vacant for 8 months, returning on October 1st as Joseph discovers on the answering machine.

Rather than wallow in the new found luxury, Joseph decides to change his life around. He shaves, puts on a new suit and with the help of a conveniently left credit card reinvents his image. He becomes Joseph Jones and even gets a job washing dishes in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. When some rowdy customers need to be evicted, Joseph evicts them none too gently, catching the eye of his employer Choy (Wong) who is impressed and makes Joseph his driver/enforcer. Now known as Crazy Joey, Joseph spends a lot of his new salary on feeding the homeless, and thanking the comely Sister Cristina (Buzek) who runs the soup kitchen that fed him while he was on the streets. The two strike up one of those more-than-friendship things. He even has enough to help out the wife (McClure) and kids he left behind.

Then he finds out that Isabel was beaten to death and dumped in the Thames. Once he gets over his grief, he knows that his time in the flat is running out and Sister Cristina is off to do missionary work in Sierra Leone – coincidentally, on the same day. He has one more job to do before he returns to his homeless, drunk existence – revenge before redemption.

This is the directorial debut of Knight, best known for writing the gritty David Cronenberg film Eastern Promises and there’s a similar vibe here. The seedy side of London is filmed unapologetically and without accusation – this is just the way things are, that’s all. No pointing fingers, no sermonizing. Everyone has their story and Joseph has his (and yes, we do find out what happened in Afghanistan to drive him AWOL and to the streets of London).

Statham is the premiere action star going, even more so than Liam Neeson in that Statham is more bred for the type of role than Neeson who had a thriving dramatic career and an Oscar to his credit before changing paths into the ass-kicking one. But, like Neeson, Statham has some acting chops – perhaps not quite to the degree of Neeson – but there nonetheless. The main complaint about Statham is that he doesn’t seem to portray a lot of emotions other than anger, bonhomie and cheerfulness. It’s a fair enough criticism, but it can’t be made here as we see Statham at his most emotionally vulnerable maybe ever. He also kicks plenty of butt however, so no worries on that score.

Knight, who co-wrote the movie, gets the benefit of cinematographer Chris Menges who gives us plenty of neon-lit images, some of which are pretty scintillating. However, the thing that kind of puzzles me is that Knight, who is quite a good writer judging on his resume, put so many frankly unbelievable coincidences in the script. For example, who would leave an expensive flat vacant for eight months without someone checking on it at least periodically, or without a security system installed?

Statham’s performance thankfully elevates the movie beyond its writing flaws. This isn’t going to be the movie that elevates him beyond the typical action roles he gets, but it’s certainly another brick in that particular wall. In the meantime, we can enjoy him at his butt-kicking best.

WHY RENT THIS: Statham is always entertaining. Some pretty nifty fight scenes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Requires too much stretching of the imagination. Been there done that plot.
FAMILY VALUES: Brutal violence, graphic nudity and lots of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed almost entirely at night in environs in London where homeless people hang out; several also served as extras in the film.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $12.7M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD rental/Streaming), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Safe
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Search for General Tso

Trade


Human trafficking is no victimless crime.

Human trafficking is no victimless crime.

(2010) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Kevin Kline, Cesar Ramos, Alicja Bachleda, Paulina Gaitan, Kate del Castillo, Marco Perez, Linda Emond, Zack Ward, Tim Reid, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Natalia Traven, Guillermo Ivan, Christian Vazquez, Jose Sefami, Leland Pascual, Jorge Angel Toriello, Luz Itzel, Eren Zumaya, Norma Angelica, Kathleen Gati. Directed by Marco Kreuzpaintner

Like most things, human trafficking to a large extent has much to do about sex. Most human trafficking is for sex slaves and most of the victims are women. It is at epidemic proportions and is a problem that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

In Mexico City young Adriana (Gaitan) has been given a bicycle as a gift from her brother Jorge (Ramos) and despite warnings not to ride it because it is too dangerous, Adriana decides to do so anyway and of course manages to run into members of the Russian Mafia who kidnap her off her bike. Jorge, feeling responsible, does some digging and discovers that she’s about to be shipped off to New Jersey and arrives at the house where she’s being held moments too late, witnessing her being loaded into a truck along with several other girls.

He manages to follow them to a border town where he hooks up with Ray (Kline), a Texas Ranger who has been searching for his own daughter for a decade who has been similarly kidnapped. He agrees to help Jorge and drives him to New Jersey, the last stop for Adriana before being put up for auction on the Internet. Is rescue in the cards for Adriana? Is redemption in the cards for Ray?

Human trafficking is a major law enforcement issue worldwide and has become a billion dollar industry for organized crime. There is certainly a good movie to be made on the subject. The issue is that the filmmakers who tackle it tend to go for titillation ahead of content and that is the case here. There are plenty of scenes of sexuality and rape but very little that looks at the impact on families of losing loved ones, or the challenges of law enforcement in tackling this epidemic.

Kline can always capture the decency of a character but while this particular character is a Texas Ranger, Kline doesn’t really radiate the toughness that those law enforcement officials seem to be infused with on a cellular level. While Ray’s strong force of will is in evidence, you never get the sense that he’d be capable of kicking anyone’s ass. Still, Kline makes the character sufficiently compelling that he’s worth watching. His chemistry with Ramos seems pretty genuine.

Cinematographer Daniel Gottschalk offers some magnificent views of rural Mexico as well as urban Mexico City scenes as well as bucolic suburban New Jersey shots. There is definitely some interesting procedural suppositions about how the human trafficking industry works and it is handled in a very un-sentimental way, despite the prurient content. Some of the scenes engender legitimate suspense.

That is undercut by the overuse of shaky hand-held cameras which have become epidemic in cinema, sadly. As someone who has issues with vertigo to begin with, I am extra-susceptible to the nausea that comes with the use of that technique so I might be forgiven if I’m a little overly sensitive about the subject. Even if you don’t mind that so much, you’re bound to notice the plot points that strain credibility and the way the movie meanders from time to time and loses plot focus.

Affection for Kevin Kline can only  take you so far and sadly the flaws outweigh the strengths in this particular film. That’s a shame because the subject matter deserves a really good movie; this just isn’t it.

WHY RENT THIS: Kline is always reliable. Some nice cinematography. Un-sentimental and occasionally gripping.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too much shaky-cam. Plot proceeds with impossible coincidences. Loses narrative structure at points. Too titillating for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of sexuality, much of it involving minors as well as a fairly graphic rape. There is also lots of violence and foul language not to mention some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Based on a 2004 article in the New York Times Magazine.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on the original news article that inspired the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.5M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD only), Amazon (rent/buy), Vudu (rent/buy),  iTunes (rent/buy), Flixster (rent/buy), Target Ticket (rent/buy)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eden
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Dracula Untold