Wetlands (2017)


The secret to life is simply fishing.

(2017) Drama (Abramorama) Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Heather Graham, Reyna de Courcy, Christopher McDonald, Jennifer Ehle, Louis Mustillo, Barry Markowitz, Sean Ringgold, Rob Morgan, Lauren LaVera, Tyler Elliot Burke, Pamela Dunlap, Melissa Goodwin, Quinn Fucci, Celeste O’Connor, Lou Morey, Jim Fitzpatrick, Natalie Paige Bentley, Dana Kreitz, Donna DeGregorio. Directed by Emanuele Della Valle

 

There comes a time in some lives where we have to start from scratch. Circumstances, bad decisions, bad luck; whatever the case may be, a new beginning becomes necessary once we hit rock bottom. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but it does happen.

Babel “Babs” Johnson (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), the son of an alcoholic religious fanatic and an absent father, has returned to the Jersey shore town outside of Atlantic City where he grew up. It’s in a bleak area of dilapidated homes, empty storefronts and swampy shore known as the Wetlands. He was once a narcotics detective in Philadelphia but a crippling heroin addiction and a heinous act sent him to rehab. He left behind Savannah (Graham), his embittered wife once a trust fund baby but now taking up with Surfer Girl (de Courcy), a surfboard maker who dreams of moving to Hawaii and starting her own business, but has taken to being a drug courier for Jimmy Coconuts (Mustillo) and in a not-too-smart move, skimming some of the drugs and selling them herself.

Babs doesn’t care about any of that. What he’s worried about is his daughter Amy (O’Connor) who despises him for leaving her with her mother and her lover, both of whom are too wrapped up in their own problems to pay much attention to Amy. For now, he’s on the police force of a small town, partnered with Paddy Sheehan (McDonald), a garrulous hard-drinking roustabout who is in debt up to his eyeballs to the local drug lord known as Lollipop (Markowitz) due to his taste in confections and who also happens to be the boss of Jimmy Coconuts. Paddy is married to Kate (Ehle), a newscaster reporting on the pending arrival of a late season hurricane which threatens to cause all sorts of havoc.

If the plot sounds a little bit scattershot, that’s only because it is. Fashionista and first-time director Della Valle seems torn between doing a noir-laced crime thriller and a drama about a broken man trying to start over; either one would have been an interesting movie on its own and if Della Valle had managed to fuse the two together he could have had an indie classic on his hands. Sadly however the two tales don’t mesh very well and we’re left with a choppy, uneven movie that doesn’t have any sort of flow to it. There is a murder in the movie that seems to be the crux of matters but it doesn’t occur until only about 15 minutes are left in the film which gives that last bit an almost rushed feel.

Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who has had numerous supporting roles in a variety of films as well as memorable turns on TV’s Oz and Lost steps out into a much overdue lead role here and he does okay for himself, although he’s not given a very interesting character to work with. Sure, Babs has a lot of baggage and in the hands of a more capable writer could have been unforgettable but we are mainly left with a lot of clichés and backstory that is hinted at throughout the movie (told in black and white flashbacks) until near the end when the big reveal turns out to be not too difficult to predict.

The supporting cast isn’t too bad. McDonald takes the role and runs with it, giving a pretty slimy character a sheen of bonhomie. Ehle gets a role that gives her an opportunity to be sophisticated and sexy and she nails both of those aspects. Graham, who I’ve adored as an actress since her breakout role in Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me gets to do a role that might bring back memories of her performance in Boogie Nights although the movie isn’t up to the latter’s standard.

There are some really terrific images here, like a roller coaster post-hurricane standing in water but even the hurricane is somewhat anti-climactic. There are a lot of decent threads here but the overall whole is pretty disappointing; everything feels like it’s all build-up and no pay-off. In this town, that kind of thing can get you bumped off.

REASONS TO GO: There are some phenomenal images here.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is a little bit disjointed and the flow is uneven.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a goodly amount of profanity, drug content, sexuality, some nudity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filming took place in Wildwood, Cape May and other towns along the Jersey coast.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 36% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blue Ruin
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Rebel in the Rye

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Office (O piseu)


You never know what lies beneath the surface of an office drone.

You never know what lies beneath the surface of an office drone.

(2015) Suspense (Little Big Pictures) Ah-Sung Ko, Sung-Woong Park, Sung-Woo Bae, Eui-Sung Kim, Hyoun-Kyoung Ryoo, Soo-Hyun Son, Chae-Eun Lee, Dae-Hwan Oh, Chang-Yong Lee, Jung-Min Park, Sung-Chan Son. Directed by Won-Chan Hong

If there is a more cut-throat environment than the modern corporate office, I can’t think of one. Office politics are as savage a human undertaking as any lion hunt. The backstabbing and venal office gossip can not only destroy careers but also lives.

&Byung-Guk Kim (Bae), a sad-eyed sales manager for Cheil, a huge food and beverage distributor, returns home after a long, rough day at the office. Taking the train home from work, his almost zombie-like expression is troubling, but when he comes home to wife and son all seems well…until he picks up a hammer.

The next day, Kim’s sales team intern Mi-Rae Lee (Ko) hurries into work, late again. She arrives there to find the police questioning the team about Mr. Kim, whose family has been brutally murdered. Her manager warns her to not divulge anything that would place the company under a negative light, but still under the questioning of Detective Jong-Hoon (S-W Park) she admits that Kim had been under intense pressure and was desperately unhappy.

It turns out he had plenty of reason to be. Sales director Sang-Gyu Kim (Kim) runs sales meetings like the Spanish Inquisition, berating his team with profanity and belittlement. Setting unreasonable sales goals, he mocks even those on his team who meet those goals for not having done it soon enough, or in the manner that was expected of them. The drones, terrified for their jobs, work brutal hours, haunting the office well after dark, ghosts shuffling in the hallways as hard drives whir and printers vomit out ream after ream of sales figures.

As the police investigate, it is determined by reviewing surveillance footage from the company’s security system that the murderer returned to the office after committing his crimes and that none of the security cameras recorded him leaving. Jong-Hoon is convinced that the killer is hiding in the building itself. When bodies start turning up on Sales Team 2,  his worst suspicions are confirmed – but not in the way he thinks.

We mostly see this movie through the eyes of the intern Mi-Rae. Ko turns in a magnificent performance as the put-upon intern. Through her perpetually hunched body language, we see physically her subservient demeanor and through her often panicked eyes we see how desperate she is to be promoted to full-time. When a pretty, foreign-educated new intern (S-H. Son) is hired for the team, her anxieties increase. She is well past the time when most interns are hired on the company. She has a lot going against her – she’s a country girl rather than a Seoul sophisticate, and she can’t understand why her hard work seems to get derision rather than praise.

First-time director Hong has crafted a wonderful thriller here. While some have characterized this as a horror film, there really isn’t enough gore or other horrific elements to really fit the bill. The first murders of Kim’s family are done in a Hitchcockian style, in which the viewer appears to see more than they do; the hammer he uses to massacre his family falls, we see blood spattering the walls but never the hammer connecting with flesh. That contrasts with a later murder of a bitchy assistant manager who is stabbed repeatedly until she falls into a heap to the floor and even that is relatively bloodless, although not blood-free.

Hong utilizes the bland environment of a modern office nicely, creating a creepy atmosphere that heightens the tension as the late night silence of a bustling office becomes threatening and frightening. The electronic score heightens the tension nicely, and most viewers should find themselves perched resolutely on the edge of their seats.

As much a satire of the corporate culture of Korea as it is a thriller, this Office is a solid although not spectacular suspense film. There are a few twists and turns but the main twist should be easily picked up by most veteran movie buffs. The pacing is a bit slow and the film at nearly two hours probably a good 20 minutes longer than it should be. Still, for those looking for something a bit different, this Korean film which has yet to acquire U.S. distribution should be one to look out for on the festival circuit and hopefully on streaming sources sometime next year. It was the opening night film at the New York Korean Film Festival.

REASONS TO GO: Hitchcockian suspense. Terrific performance by Ko. Utilizes environment to perfection.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit too long. Pacing could have picked up a little.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence, some of it bloody, a bit of profanity as well as a surfeit of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Debuted at Cannes as part of their Midnight Madness series, and made it’s American debut at Fantastic Fest in Austin October 1st.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Bridge of Spies

Sleepy Hollow


Christopher Walken really needs a new dental plan.

Christopher Walken really needs a new dental plan.

(1999) Supernatural Horror (Paramount) Johnny Depp, Christina Ricci, Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Casper Van Dien, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, Christopher Walken, Marc Pickering, Lisa Marie, Steven Waddington, Claire Skinner, Christopher Lee, Alun Armstrong, Mark Spalding, Jessica Oyelowo. Directed by Tim Burton

Whenever Tim Burton concocts a new movie, critics everywhere go into a lather coming up with new hosannas in praise of his stuff. Generally, they’re right. By the time his interpretation of the Washington Irving classic came out the paroxysms of praise had become almost scary in their effusiveness. Which was – and is – fine by me.

Sleepy Hollow, after all, is supposed to be scary. However, those bookish moviegoers who have actually read the Washington Irving story and still remember it may find the liberties taken here with the source material a bit off-putting.

Ichabod Crane (Crane) is a foppish New York City constable who has been a bit of a gadfly in the NYPD of 1799. While the judges of the period are content with brute force and intimidation to solve their crimes, Crane is all for using scientific method and deductive reasoning to come to the truth. For his troubles, he is exiled to a small Dutch community in the Hudson Valley called Sleepy Hollow to solve a trio of ghoulish murders.

It seems that several prominent citizens of the Hollow have lost their heads. The trouble is their quite dead torsos are rather upsetting to those townspeople who stumble upon them. When Crane arrives, he encounters the plucky young daughter (Ricci) of a local farmer (Gambon), who imparts the story of the Headless Horseman: A somewhat rabid, bloodthirsty Hessian mercenary (Walken in essentially a cameo but still perfectly cast role) meets a bitter end in the woods near Sleepy Hollow, betrayed by a pair of wood-gathering little girls. The townspeople, who include a self-righteous priest (Jones), a timid notary (Gough), a lusty doctor (McDiarmid), a brave and burly farmer (Van Dien) and a corpulent burgomaster (Griffith) are all of the belief that the Horseman is responsible for the unspeakable crimes. Crane, of course, believes that the murderer is flesh and blood.

The game changes when Crane personally witnesses a murder, sending his faith in science and reason spinning into doubt. Unfortunately for the movie, he resolves this rather quickly; I thought it would have made for an interesting subplot to see Crane struggling between the evidence of his senses and his own rationality. Instead,  Crane and the plucky young farmer’s daughter go on a ghoul hunt, with all the violence, gore and spookiness that goes with it.

There are a lot of fairly impressive names behind the camera including Francis Ford Coppola, Larry Franco, Scott Rudin and Kevin Yagher, with Danny Elfman producing a suitably spooky score. While many of Burton’s key personnel are also in place, this seems less of a typical Tim Burton movie and more of a mainstream action/horror flick. There are a lot of missed opportunities here to bring some credible subplots into play that wouldn’t burden the plot as much as the ones that writers Kevin Yagher and Andrew Kevin Walker decided to leave in.

Burton is wise enough to leave enough atmosphere in to make for some genuinely creepy moments, but his leitmotif of announcing the Horseman’s presence with lightning and thunder effects is a bit over-the-top. Depp makes an interesting Crane, retaining much of the bumbling fright of Irving’s Crane while giving him a heroic bent for the modern moviegoing audience to identify with. Ricci is lustrous in her ingénue role.

There’s some great work in Sleepy Hollow, enough that you’ll be talking about it well after the final credits have concluded. However, with a bit more of Burton and a bit less of Hollywood, this would have been a much more hellacious ride.

WHY RENT THIS: Tim Burton loveliness. Deep and Ricci make a fine couple. Genuinely spooky.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A bit more mainstream than we’re used to with Burton. Over-the-top in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: The horror, gore and violence is fairly graphic. There’s some sexuality as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was one of the last two films released on Laser Disc (the other was Bringing Out the Dead).

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $206.1M on a $100M production budget; the movie broke even during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Beetlejuice

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: World War Z

Snakes on a Plane


Snakes on a Plane

Rachel Blanchard reacts to the news that she's been cast in Snakes on a Plane.

(New Line) Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Margulies, Nathan Phillips, Rachel Blanchard, David Koechner, Bobby Cannavale, Todd Louiso, Byron Lawson, Flex Alexander, Kenan Thompson, Keith “Blackman” Dallas, Lin Shaye, Bruce James, Sunny Mabrey, Terry Chen, Emily Holmes. Directed by David Ellis.

I’ve got two words for ya – guilty pleasure. That’s all you need know about Snakes On a Plane. The internet buzz on this was incredible as fans or would-be fans design trailers, posters and merchandise in perhaps the most interactive marketing campaign in the history of movies. All the hype has really kind of obscured the fact that there is a movie behind it.

Young Hawaiian surfer dude Sean (Phillips) has witnessed a murder and not just any murder. He watched crime boss Eddie Kim (Lawson) use a baseball bat to bludgeon the district attorney that is prosecuting his case. You know that’s gonna leave a mark.

Unfortunately, Fast Eddie and his generic thugs realize that there was a witness and go to do unpleasant things to him. However, he is saved by the unfortunately-named FBI agent Nelville Flynn (Jackson), a curmudgeonly all-business kind of guy. Hey, if I was named Nelville Flynn I’d probably be in a perpetually bad mood too. Nelville convinces Sean to fly back to Los Angeles from Hawaii to testify against Kim and put him away for good.

However, the nefarious crime lord has arranged a little surprise. He has managed to smuggle a load of poisonous snakes into the cargo hold of the flight that the FBI agent and his witness are taking, and not even ordinary poisonous snakes. No, he has arranged for the deadliest snakes from around the world to be the special guests aboard the flight (but he’s so cheap he makes them fly coach). These are the exotic snakes for which the anti-venom is terribly rare and hard to find in the States.

Basically that’s all the plot you need to know. The rest of the movie is made up of the terrified passengers and crew trying to keep the plane aloft while they get snakes attacking any and every orifice on the human body, not to mention every bit of genitalia they can find. Admittedly most of the human cast members are walking, talking cliches – the plucky stewardess (Margulies), the spoiled rich girl (Blanchard), the quirky rapper (Alexander) and his bodyguards – the big one (Dallas) and the video game-obsessed one (Thompson). Then there’s the matronly mentor stewardess (Shaye), the effeminate steward (James), the oversexed nymphet (Holmes), the slimy co-pilot (Koechner), the kick-ass FBI agent (Cannavale) and the nerdy snake expert (Louiso). The fun comes in trying to figure out which ones will still be vertical at the end of the movie.

Don’t think too hard about anything onscreen or your head will just explode, and who wants to see blood and grey matter on the couch? This is all concept and no plot, and logic takes a backseat to pacing. Once the snakes get loose, it’s a rollercoaster and the best thing to do is just sit back, enjoy the ride and ask no questions. How did Nelville know to rescue Sean at his apartment when he hadn’t reported the murder to the police? Don’t even think about it. You can feel the C-4 in your head beginning to burst if you do.

This is Jackson’s movie to carry and he does so with panache. He does the movie straight which is actually a good thing. Too much of that grin and wink stuff and the movie turns into self-parody and suffers because of it. Instead, he’s just serious enough to keep the movie in the realm of semi-serious. Most of the humor comes in the over-the-top approach the filmmakers and effects crew take. Why film a dozen snakes when you can film 450, and why have snakes chow down on human adults when they can swallow them whole. Are you questioning it? I can smell the smoke coming out of your ears all the way from here. Not worth it man. Just go with it.

This is pure empty-headed fun, the kind of thing that you watch, enjoy and forget about 15 minutes later. There was never a possibility of any Oscars for Snakes on a Plane unless they started handing them out for marketing campaigns, which they didn’t, but that’s okay by me. This is the kind of summer movie fun that wears it’s intentions on its sleeves and let’s face it; there is nothing wrong with a bit of harmless brainless visceral pleasure.

WHY RENT THIS: Pure empty-headed fun that never tries to reach beyond it’s grasp. Perhaps the walking talking poster boy for guilty pleasures. This is the ultimate Samuel L. Jackson movie with his ultimate line – “Get those motherbleepin’ snakes off my motherbleepin’ plane!”

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Anyone who requires a dose of logic with their plot will find themselves banging their heads against the living room wall after seeing this.

FAMILY VALUES: To put it succinctly, no family has these kinds of values but let’s face it – it’s all in fun. Older teens will think it a bit dated (despite only being four years old) but enjoyable; just about anyone younger than that will have nightmares over the snakes, the drug use, the language, the sex, the violence and the acting.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s title originated at an after-work get-together at a local watering hole by several studio employees who played a game where each tried to come up with the worst possible pitch; the winner was Craig Berenson, who then worked at DreamWorks and eventually served as producer on the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Some of the fan films that helped fan the initial internet hype are included here.  There is also a gag reel, a music video of Cobra Starship’s title song and a making-of featurette of the music video.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $62M on a $33M production budget; the film broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Wendy and Lucy