MDMA (Angie X, Cardinal X)


Annie Q knows you can never truly relax when you’re a drug kingpin.

(2017) Crime Drama (Shout! Factory) Annie Q, Francesca Eastwood, Pierson Fode, Scott Teiji Takeda, Joseph John Schirle, Ron Yuan, Noah Segan, Yetide Badaki, Henry Zaga, Elisa Donovan, Allyrah Caldwell, Angie Wang, Devon Libran, Kyle Zingler, Zoe Winter, Ed Moy, Shoyi Cheng, Dexter Masland, Cooper Chow, Jason J. Lai, Jackie Dallas. Directed by Angie Wang

 

In the mid-80s, “Just say no” was the kind of thing knowing club kids used as a kind of electronic irony. Just say no? Why on earth would anybody do that? Drugs were profitable (for dealers and their suppliers) and moreover, drugs felt amazing. And yeah, so long as you didn’t get hooked on something like heroin they were essentially harmless, right?

Angie Wang (Q) is a young sparkling-eyed freshman going off to college at an expensive private school in California (think: Stanford). Her father (Yuan), who works at a Chinese restaurant in New Jersey, can’t afford the tuition, but lets his daughter go anyway. Once there she befriends her roommate Jeanine (Eastwood), a blonde and pretty debutante sort whose life is much more messed up than it appears to be on the surface, with an alcoholic and judgmental mother who seems hell-bent on putting down her daughter about as far as she can go. Angie’s mother left with her little brother when Angie was a little girl, enduring an abusive husband until she couldn’t.

It turns out that Angie is no stereotype, no prim and proper Asian princess. She parties hardy and has sex whenever and with whoever she chooses. A swimmer with Olympic aspirations turns her on to Ecstasy, then a legal recreational drug (the title is based on its scientific name which is abbreviated as MDMA). Supplies are extremely limited as its only manufactured by a single lab in Germany; chemistry major Angie thinks she can synthesize it in the chem. Lab all by herself. As a result she becomes the leading supplier of the drug on the West Coast, referred to in the clubs as “Cardinal X.”

The money allows her to pay her tuition and live a lifestyle more to her liking. She joins the big sister program and becomes a mentor to Bree (Caldwell), the daughter of a crack mom (Badaki) more concerned with having beer and smokes readily available than seeing that her daughter wasn’t hungry. Her lab partner Tommy (Takeda) urges her to get out of the drug dealing although he doesn’t report her; he’s crazy in love with her after all, and hopes that he can save her from herself. However, it’s already way too late for that and soon things spiral out of control.

Wang called this “a dramatic telling” of her life story, which means that likely some events were fudged, embellished and/or compressed somewhat. She recalls the club scene of the mid-80s (what I can remember of it) pretty accurately, other than if they were Bay Area clubs there should have been a larger presence of gay men than there are in the movie.

Annie Q is a former child actress whom readers might recognize from the TV show The Leftovers. She gives Angie a good deal of strength and sass without reverting to Hollywood Asian stereotypes. The movies definitely need more characters like Angie in them – not necessarily as role models for young Asian girls since Angie does a lot of really bad shit in the movie – but simply to show Asian women in a more realistic light.

Some of the plot points feel a bit overdone with the final third of the movie feeling like every one of the main characters are constantly in tears. The dialogue sometimes sounds a little awkward as well. Still as first efforts go, this is a mighty fine one. The soundtrack is full of 80s goodness and Wang wisely keeps things simple, not trying to show off unusual camera angles to attract attention to herself. She lets the story take center stage which some new directors forget to do. Wang may not necessarily be proud of her past but she can be proud of her movie.

REASONS TO GO: Annie Q gives the story a strong Asian woman lead, something not seen often.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a little overwrought in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of drug use and references, violence, profanity, sex and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Wang, who wrote and directed the film (and also appears in a cameo role), based the movie on her own life experiences.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, ITunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/18/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: White Boy Rick
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
A Greater Society

Children of Men


Clive Owen isn't a swinger anymore.

Clive Owen isn’t a swinger anymore.

(2006) Science Fiction (Universal) Clive Owen, Julianne Moore, Michael Caine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Danny Huston, Charlie Hunnam, Maria McErlane, Michael Haughey, Paul Sharma, Philippa Urquhart, Tehmina Sunny, Michael Klesic, Martina Messing, Peter Mullan, Pam Ferris, Clare-Hope Ashitey, Gary Hoptrough, Maurice Lee, Dhafer L’Abidine, Bruno Ouvard, Denise Mack, Jacek Koman, Joy Richardson. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

]If the world is indeed going to hell in a handbasket, it follows that it will end with a whimper rather than a bang. Worse than everything ending in a moment is the thought that humanity will die a slow, lingering death.

In 2027, that seems to be the case. It has been 19 years since a human baby has been born and the world teeters on the edge of anarchy and chaos. Only England has a functioning government and it is barely holding on with its fingernails, resorting to a brutal totalitarian government that has banned any immigrants from entering the country, a chilling thought that resonates even more in 2015 than it did when this was made.

Theo (Owen) works at the Ministry of Energy in a London that is beset by terrorist attacks and open revolt. Immigrants are captured by draconian police, put in cages and forcibly deported. Plagues and famine have made things even worse. One morning he barely escapes a bombing in a cafe that shakes him to the core. He is then kidnapped by the Fishes, a radical Immigrant’s rights group that is led by Julian (Moore), Theo’s ex-wife from whom he separated when their child died 20 years previously.

She offers him a large sum of money to use his connections to get transit papers for Kee (Ashitey), a refugee. He obtains these from his cousin Nigel (Huston) but the papers require someone to accompany her, so Theo is paid to do this. Accompanied by Kee, Julian and her right hand man Luke (Ejiofor), they head for the coast but are attacked. In the chaos, Theo gets Kee to the home of his old friend Jasper (Caine), a former political cartoonist living out his days in isolation, caring for his wife who was left catatonic by government torture.

Pursued by both terrorist forces and the government, Theo and Kee must make their way to the coast and meet a ship from a group of scientists calling themselves the Human Project who would take Kee to safety. Getting there, they must run a gauntlet of hatred as armed conflict breaks out between the government and the refugees with Kee and Theo both caught in the crossfire. Kee however carries a secret that may mean the revival of hope, something that has been thought completely lost.

While the movie was an unabashed critical success (many ranking it on their ten best lists that year), it only received three Oscar nominations mainly for the technical end. That’s a shame, because Owen gave what is to date the best performance of his career. Far from being a typical action hero, he careens from situation to situation, often frightened by what was happening to him, trying to survive by his wits in a situation that was rapidly disintegrating. It is to be noted that while bullets fly in the movie, Owen never even touches a gun.

Moore, a perennial contender for Oscar gold, showed why she continually is in the mix for Best Actress or Supporting Actress. Julian is a strong leader with an iron will, not above manipulating someone she once cared about for the greater good of her cause. Still, the movie does reveal a softer side to the character and Moore plays both well. Caine gets a meaty role as a hippie-like character who smokes a lot of strawberry-flavored pot and has removed himself from society, yet brims with wisdom. It’s as charming a role as Caine has ever played and he’s played some good ones.

The tone here is almost uniformly grim, although the movie really is about hope. Its absence is what plunged the world into chaos; the merest glimmer that it might reappear leads people to sacrifice everything. The ending is open-ended and leaves the viewers to decide whether the ending is bleak or the opposite; I suppose that how you interpret it will largely depend on whether your outlook tends towards optimism or pessimism.

The production design is one of decay, crumbling buildings and streets of fear. There isn’t a lot of gleaming, futuristic set design here; this is a world that is falling apart and the sets show it. The fact that it looks real and familiar is a testament to the production design team and Cuaron. Also, some of the action sequences here are absolutely scintillating, particular the attack on the car alluded to earlier and a final battle between the government and the rebels. They are realistic and for the most part shot with a single camera, lending even more of a “you are there” feel to the film, which many have described as a documentary of things that have yet to happen. There is definitely that kind of feel here.

This is not a masterpiece in my opinion; the mood can get oppressive and considering the state of the world, it can truly make you question whether humanity is worth saving. But questions like that are important to ask, even if we all agree the answer is “yes” (which most of us, I would hope, do). This is a truly impressive movie that may not necessarily be the sort of thing you’ll want to watch as light entertainment, but it’s one that will give you pause. Movies like this are what make science fiction a compelling genre, particularly when it rises above space battles and monsters. Here, the only monster is ourselves.

WHY RENT THIS: Smart and chilling. Fine performances by Owen, Moore and Caine. Extraordinary action sequences.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too dark and dystopian for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, brief nudity, some drug use and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: P.D. James, author of the book the movie is based on, makes a cameo as the old woman in the cafe with Theo in the opening scene.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek on the questions raised by the movie, some of which also appears in the featurette The Possibility of Hope which examines how the current global situation (circa 2007) was leading to the future of Children of Men.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $70.0M on a $76M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Chaperone

The Way Back


The Way Back

Jim Sturgess wonders if there's anybody behind him. Unfortunately, nobody is.

(2011) Adventure (Newmarket) Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoise Ronan, Mark Strong, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Sally Edwards, Gustaf Skarsgard, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Zahary Baharov. Directed by Peter Weir

It’s not the destination, I’ve been known to opine, but the journey. Never has that been more true than in this movie.

Janusz is a Polish cavalry office in occupied Poland. Part of the country is run by the Nazis, the other by Soviet Russia. Janusz is in the latter portion. He is accused of criticizing the Stalinist regime. His wife (Edwards) is forced to testify against him and he is sent to a Siberian gulag.

Here he meets Khabarov (Strong), an actor thrown in the Gulag for portraying a Russian aristocrat too well. He claims to have an escape plan, but later turns out to be a fraud that preys on the hopes of others. However, his information sets in motion a daring escape.

Participating are Kazhik (Urzendowsky), Tomasz (Potocean) and Voss (Skarsgard), fellow Poles as well as Valka (Farrell), a Russian mobster and Mr. Smith (Harris), a taciturn American. The lot of them travels into the harsh Siberian wilderness, picking up an orphan named Irena (Ronan) along the route.

They are pushed to the limits, often without food or water as they pass into Mongolia, cross the Gobi desert into Tibet and then at last must cross the Himalayas into India to finally find freedom. It is an amazing journey that not all of them will survive.

This is inspired by a book by a Polish soldier that is reputedly a true story, although the veracity of it has been called into question recently. While some claim that the author took events that happened to other people and claimed them for his own, there is also a fairly sizable contingent who believe he made up events out of whole cloth. It is nearly certain that Slavomir Rawicz did not make the journey he depicted in the book; recent documents unearthed in Russia confirm this, including some authored by Rawicz himself.

Still, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. There is certainly an epic sweep to the story, a grandeur that populates most grand adventures, and the sort that are rarely undertaken anymore. These men (and one lady) are pushed to walk 4,000 km because they have to. Could it have happened? Yes.

Director Peter Weir has some movies on his resume that will withstand the test of time (The Year of Living Dangerously, Picnic at Hanging Rock) but this is his first movie in seven years (Master and Commandeer: The Far Side of the World was the last movie that saw him in the director’s chair) which is nothing new; he only made three movies during the ‘90s and only one in the decade that followed. He may not be prolific but the quality is usually there.

 He undertakes to make a movie that is both epic in scope and personal in nature, but only succeeds in the former aspect.  The cinematography from landscapes in Bulgaria, Morocco and India is nothing short of breathtaking thanks to cinematographer Russell Boyd. They travel through extremes of heat and cold, with issues of hunger and thirst thrown in; and even a wolf attack to boot. This isn’t a stroll through meadows.

Sturgess makes an appealing hero. His optimism and determination fuels the entire journey. He is in many ways the most human but he is also the most distant. That determination which is in him isn’t fully explained until near the end, and even then he never seems to connect emotionally to anyone. That makes it harder for the audience to connect to him.

Farrell does an impressive job as Valka, the Russian criminal with the knife he calls Wolf but who turns out to be a bit of a blowhard. Janusz is often warned that Valka is the devil and he can’t be trusted but you never get a sense that he’s untrustworthy. It’s an interesting performance that captures a very complex man.

The character that stayed with me the most is Mr. Smith, Harris’ American. He is a bit of a loner, suffering from guilt and loss. He tries to keep the world at bay but his own inner humanity keeps getting in the way. Harris is the kind of actor that brings a certain human touch to his every performance, makin his characters accessible and relatable. Smith begins to display fatherly tendencies towards both Janusz and Irena; the character really blossoms then. Ronan has such ethereal features she looks almost other-worldly. This is a difficult role but she makes it look easy – I get the sense that she is about to break into major stardom.

However, we have to keep in mind that this is essentially a movie about a long walk. There’s only so much you can do with that. Yes, they are walking through desolate places that have their own beauty in their emptiness, but after awhile even beautiful images aren’t enough. They’re supposed to be chased by the Soviets and are trying to avoid contact with the villagers because they know there’s a bounty on their heads, but you never get a sense of danger of imminent re-capture.

No, the danger is that starvation and exposure will do them in and Weir concentrates on that. The imagery is pretty stark and graphic, and not for the squeamish. The exposure to sunstroke is portrayed in a very direct manner, and some may find this unsettling. Still, without the tension of being hunted the movie is harrowing, but not exciting. It’s well made, well acted (despite having a cast of interchangeable bearded Poles) and good looking but ultimately it didn’t move me the way it should have. When you consider this is supposed to be a movie about the triumph of the human spirit, you would think I would feel uplifted but rather, I just felt like I’d endured a long, grueling walk.

REASONS TO GO: Beautifully photographed, excellent work by Sturgess, Harris and Farrell. Ronan is ethereal and looks ready to break out career-wise.

REASONS TO STAY: Movie drags and could have been shortened a good 15-20 minutes.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, images of hardship and ordeal, other disturbing images of death and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ronan turned 16 during filming. 

HOME OR THEATER: The big vistas of desert, mountain and forest should be seen on a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Edge of Darkness

Hunger


Hunger

Bobby Sands seeks counsel from a priest in the most compelling scene from Hunger.

(IFC) Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Helena Bereen, Liam Cunningham, Dennis McCambridge, Liam McMahan, Laine Megaw. Directed by Steve McQueen

Change doesn’t always come through discussion and negotiation. Sometimes, when all else fails, one must risk everything to effect meaningful change.

Bobby Sands (Fassbender) is a member of the Irish Republican Army who was imprisoned in Long Kesh, the prison the British used primarily to house members of the IRA. He and his fellow Irishmen in the prison are protesting prison conditions by refusing to shave or bathe. They yearn to be recognized as political prisoners, which they consider themselves to be, by the British government of Margaret Thatcher, who considers them nothing more than common criminals.

The prisoners are brutally beaten and forced to shave, particularly by Lohan, a guard (Graham) who seems conflicted by his duties. It is clear their tactics aren’t working. Sands decides to go on a hunger strike, a massive one involving all the prisoners until their cause is recognized. There had been a previous hunger strike that had been unsuccessful but Sands felt it was because the strikers had never been prepared to actually take that strike to its logical conclusion; it was more of a protest than a negotiation tactic.

He argues the point with a particularly level-headed Catholic Priest (Cunningham), a realist with a world view that is remarkably logical. The priest argues the ineffectiveness of the tactic as opposed to its morality; never once does he mention the word “sin.” It’s a compelling scene, shot in one, continuous take, 17 minutes worth. It is one of the longest continuous shots in the history of film and is a masterpiece of filmmaking.

Sands would refuse food for 66 days and suffered horrifying physical debilitation; kidney failure, ulcerating sores, weakness. He eventually died and became a martyr to the Irish Republican cause, a position he continues to occupy 28 years after the events of the strike.

McQueen is careful not to over-politicize the movie but it is clear his sympathies lie more with the prisoners than the Thatcher government. McQueen concentrates on prison conditions rather than on the actions that got the prisoners there in the first place which tends to make the men more sympathetic than they might have been. Nonetheless it is a compelling story, a story of will and absolute belief in a cause.

McQueen doesn’t tell this story in a conventional manner. Sands hardly appears at all until nearly halfway through the film when he decides to initiate the strike. I don’t necessarily have a problem with this – it’s clear McQueen is a gifted filmmaker. My only issue is that he has a tendency to use imagery as an end rather than a means; flocks of birds which quite obviously symbolize freedom appear often. I don’t mind a symbol; I just object to being hit in the face with it as if I couldn’t figure it out on my own.

The acting is very solid, but Fassbender and Cunningham elevate. Their scene together may be one of the best I’ve seen this year. Most of the cast aren’t well-known here in the States, but they do some very credible work in difficult circumstances.

Sands is implacable in his dedication to his cause, as fanatics are. He is willing to lead his fellow prisoners to death in order to get his point across, as indeed he did. Did he get the concessions he wanted? History tells us for the most part he did. Although the prisoners of Long Kesh were never formally recognized by the Thatcher government as political prisoners, they were in fact treated that way. In the end, the Sinn Fein would be recognized as a legitimate political entity and Ireland would eventually see peace.

The figure of Bobby Sands still looms large in the Irish psyche and to a certain extent, as a polarizing force. Some see him as a hero and a martyr while others see him as a criminal and a coward. McQueen clearly sees him as the former. For my part, I admire his dedication to the cause. However, that is tempered by my discomfort with the tactics of the IRA, who used bombs and guns to get their point across, often on innocent people. I simply can’t condone it, although there are many who feel that they were fully justified in what they did. I don’t know how I would have felt living a Catholic in Belfast in that time; perhaps I would have seen things differently. Still, this is a story that should be told and here, it is told tolerably well. While I don’t ever get the impression that I knew who the man Bobby Sands was from watching this film, I at least get a sense of what he went through at the end of his life.

WHY RENT THIS: A no punches pulled, no holds barred look at the final six weeks of IRA hunger strike organizer Bobby Sands’ life. The scene between Fassbender and Cunningham is the highlight of the movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: McQueen’s gratuitous use of flocking birds got to be annoying and unnecessary. “Look Ma, I’m directing.” McQueen’s sympathies clearly lie with the IRA, which may be difficult for some to accept.

FAMILY VALUES: A lot of male frontal nudity, depictions of graphic prison brutality as well as the effects of starvation. Not for the squeamish in any way, shape or form.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Liam Cunningham roomed with Michael Fassbender prior to filming in order to practice their 17 minute scene together, knowing it would be filmed in one continuous shot. Even though they often practiced the scene five to ten times a day for weeks, it still took four takes to get the scene right.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Prestige