South Mountain


The happy family in twilight.

(2019) Drama (Breaking GlassTalia Balsam, Scott Cohen, Andrus Nichols, Michael Oberholtzer, Nala Gonzalez Norvind, Macaulee Cassaday, Guthrie Mass, Midori Francis, Violet Rea, Isis Masoud. Directed by Hilary Brougher

 

The stillness of a mountain retreat can sometimes hide the sounds of hearts breaking. This impressive film of a woman evolving after a major blow to her self-worth raises a question: why isn’t Hilary Brougher not getting the kind of attention that is usually reserved for can’t-miss phenoms – because she is certainly that.

Lila (Balsam) lives in a pleasant home in the Catskills. She is an art teacher and her husband Edgar (Cohen) writes screenplays. At a barbecue attended by friends, including her bestie Gigi (Nichols) who is battling breast cancer has come over for an early summer barbecue, as Lila and Edgar’s daughters Dara (Norvind) and Sam (Cassaday) – from Sam’s previous marriage – are getting set to leave Dodge for the summer. In the midst of this, Edgar takes a business phone call in the couple’s bedroom. Lila is a bit put out by this.

You can only imagine how put out she’d be if she knew the real reason for the call; Edgar has been having an affair with Emme (Francis) who is at that moment giving birth to their son. Shortly thereafter, Edgar informs Lila that he’s started a new family and he’s moving out.

We discover this isn’t the first time that Edgar has messed around on Lila. It isn’t even the first time he’s fooled around with Emme. We are informed that the last time Lila found out about Edgar’s peccadillos, she had something of a nervous breakdown and attempted suicide. Lila assures Gigi that she’s fine, and then shortly after when Edgar arrives to move out some of his stuff, Lila allows her rage to manifest in an unexpected way.

For the most part, Lila is fairly reserved but she has her moments when she boils over and her true feelings come to the fore. She ends up having an affair with Jonah (Oberholtzer) – a very handsome young man who looks like he could be a lost Skarsgård brother – which ends almost as quickly as it begins. Eventually Lila realizes that she needs to pull herself up by the bootstraps and figure out who she is, who she wants to be and how she’s going to get there. For the first time, her focus is strictly on her own needs.

Brougher benefits from some beautiful cinematography courtesy of her husband, Ethan Mass which shows off the idyllic Catskills during a languid summer season. There is also a familiarity about the family home; it belongs to Brougher’s mother and the actors playing two of the children in the movie are her own.  All of this adds up to making the movie feel especially intimate.

Balsam is not normally a lead actress, although she has had a fine career making the most of smaller roles. She does look a little awkward in the scene where her and Jonah feel the sparks fly but other than that her performance is spot-on and raises some legitimacy for the idea that she should be getting larger roles. She is certainly the glue that holds together the picture here.

If I have a beef with the movie, it’s that it occasionally feels like it’s cheating a bit, sinking into clichés regarding Lila’s sexual life. I get that women react to this kind of blow in different ways but there are a couple of moves that Lila makes that seem out of character for her but I suppose that if my wife left me after multiple infidelities I’d probably act a little bit out of character also.

The movie is coming out on VOD at the perfect time. We’re headed into the summer and the heat and the sweet summer wind are perfect backgrounds for this film. Also, given that people are being forced to look for entertainment a little bit harder right now while the quarantine is still pretty much in effect, perhaps that will lead to people discovering this gem who ordinarily would not have. That can’t be a bad thing, as far as I’m concerned.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is impressive.
REASONS TO AVOID: Descends into occasional predictability.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of sexuality, some brief nudity, profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Balsam is the daughter of legendary actor Martin Balsam and actress Joyce van Patten.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/6/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Queen of Hearts
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Postcards From London

Clover


A couple of idiots walk into a bar…oh, you’ve heard that one?

(2020) Crime Comedy (FreestyleMark Webber, Nicole Elizabeth Berger, Jon Abrahams, Erika Christensen, Chazz Palminteri, Ron Perlman, Julia Jones, Jake Webber, Jessica Szohr, Michael Godere, Tichina Arnold, Johnny Messner, Louis Lombardi, Val Lauren, Brian Goodman, Ari Barkan, Martin Abrahams, Peter Johnson, J.J. Alfieri, Giovanni Reda, Kathryn Schneider. Directed by Jon Abrahams

 

The trouble with borrowing money from mobsters is that sooner or later they’re going to want it back. If you don’t have it, it could lead to some pretty awkward conversations: “Where’s my money?” “AUUUUGH! OWWWWWW! OOOOOOO GOD!!!!” *whimper, whimper* *bleed, bleed*

That’s the situation that Irish brothers Jackie (M. Webber) and Mickey (Abrahams) Callaghan find themselves in, especially after Jackie foolishly gambles away their payment the night before it’s due. Then again, Jackie isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

They are given one chance to redeem themselves: said mob boss Tony (Palminteri) sends the two screw-ups along with his vicious son Joey (Godere) to collect from another deadbeat. Of course, you figure that the two numbskulls are being set up and they are, but after Joey kills the deadbeat, he himself is shot – by the deadbeat’s 13-year-old daughter Clover (Berger).

Realizing that nobody is going to believe they weren’t responsible, Mickey and Jackie go on the run, dragging Clover in tow. They try to find help from a rogue’s gallery of family and friends, including Jackie’s bitter ex-girlfriend Angie (Szohr), family friend and cop Stevie (Messner), local fix-it lady Pat (Arnold) and their demented uncle Terry (J. Webber) who has a thing about poisons. Can they keep themselves alive as well as protect an innocent little girl who may not necessarily be as innocent as she looks?

Abrahams and writer Michael Testone are trying to work out the Troy Duffy playbook, but neither is quite as clever nor as skilled with punchy dialogue as Duffy is, and the movie needed a whole lot of cleverness and snappy dialogue. It’s the kind of movie that I really could easily like, but it let me down in so many ways.

Before we get to that, there are some good points to keep in mind; the chemistry between Abrahams and Mark Webber is spot-on; they get on just like brothers who most of the time want to kill each other but deep down they would kill for each other if needed. Berger is a revelation; she reminded me strongly of Chloë Grace Moretz in Kick Ass and that’s a good thing. She’s both pretty and tough, yet shows vulnerability when she has to.

You also have Palminteri doing Palminteri which is always worth the price of the rental by itself. But you also have some pacing issues; at times the action comes thick and fast but at other times it drags. There needed to be more consistency there. Also, the score is about as annoying as can be. It sounded like someone paid ten bucks for a generic thriller score for student films. It is telling that nobody is credited with the score. This is where a decent budget could have netted them a few songs from the 70s to go with some of the obvious influences. I even thought I caught a whiff of blaxploitation in the mix.

There was some real potential here but it ends up being just a mediocre film, which is a shame. Elements of it work really nicely, particularly the three leads (and Palminteri) but a lack of good dialogue, a soundtrack that probably shouldn’t have been added on, and some issues with pacing doom the movie to being a must only for Palminteri completists.

REASONS TO SEE: A really nice twist at the end.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks bite and snappy pacing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and lots of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the debut feature film for Zonana.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Boondock Saints
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Streetlight Harmonies

The Anatomy of Monsters


A tete-a-tete among sociopaths.

A tete-a-tete among sociopaths.

(2014) Thriller (Artsploitation) Tabitha Bastien, Jesse Lee Keeter, Conner Marx, Keiko Green, Satori Marill, Tori McDonough, Lauren Brooks-Wilson, Andrew Tribolini, Asher Vast, Natalie Miller, Nick Frank, Tammy Miller, Ken Miller, Andre Kirkman, Roxanne Nihiline, E. J. Bastien, Dave Shecter, Simone Leorin, Alex Upton, Meredith Binder. Directed by Byron C. Miller

 

How can you tell who the monsters are? They don’t come with fangs and claws, after all. That handsome, clean-cut guy on the blind date could be a sadistic rapist; the beautiful, sweet girl-next-door sort could take great pleasure in destroying the lives of others. You just never know who is going to turn out to be a sociopath.

Andrew (Keeter) looks like a frat guy at first glance, like the preppy from Connecticut slumming down in the city…or in Seattle, as the case is here. He gets dressed and heads out to the bars to find that just right girl. And it appears he’s found her in Sarah (T. Bastien) who is obviously interested and carries her sexual hunger like a Vera Wang handbag. She even has a pair of handcuffs, which she obligingly puts on in the hotel room she’s rented for the two of them. That’s when he pulls out a wicked-looking knife.

But Sarah has some secrets of her own, starting when she was just a kid who found her jollies in killing her pet kitties, moving through her teen years when she maimed a romantic rival right through when she was an adult when she discovered the joys of taking down bigger prey – the two legged variety. Which one of these two is the predator and which is the prey? Don’t think that the answer is a simple one.

I like this concept immensely and it could have made for a chilling, thrilling good time. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn’t have the experience to pull this off effectively. The pacing is all over the board; some scenes feel like the writer just couldn’t wait to get to the end of the scene and move on to more weighty matters; other scenes are excruciatingly drawn out. While it’s possible the filmmakers were going for an effect of putting the viewer off-balance, it just came off to this viewer as undisciplined and poorly edited.

Also gaining some negative points is the score; quite frankly, the soundtrack is intrusive and ineffective at establishing a mood. It sounded like the composer was trying too hard to set a mood, using menacing organ riffs to establish tension, and a bouncy soft rock background when Sarah and her boyfriend Nick (Marx) are together. A good soundtrack doesn’t create the mood; it enhances it and that’s something composer Paul Morgan needs to learn.

Tabitha Bastien (not to be confused with E.J. who plays a one-night stand for Sarah) takes control of the movie early on as we realize that the original focus on Andrew has shifted to Sarah. That’s not altogether a bad thing; Tabitha certainly has the screen charisma to carry the film. Although at times she’s given some really florid dialogue to mouth, most of the time the dialogue is well-written and sounds the way people talk, or at least the way I’d think a pair of serial killers might talk if they were to have a conversation; ‘Hey Ted Bundy.’ ‘Hey Jeffrey Dahmer.’ ‘Rough day at the office?’ “It was murder.’

One of the biggest mood killers is that the murders themselves are unconvincing. At one point a baseball bat is taken to a sleeping father, but the blows look like bunts rather than grand slams. There’s no force behind them and it absolutely takes the viewer out of the picture. I get that the filmmakers were operating on a minuscule budget but at least they can get the actors to slam the bat into a pillow and add the sound effects in post. If you want to do a realistic look at serial killers, you had better make everything realistic or else it just won’t fly.

This was a movie that sounds better on the printed page then it unspools on the screen. It’s available free for Amazon Prime users and if you are a lover of all things slasher you might give it a try if you have that service available. Otherwise, you need to be a very patient and understanding viewer, knowing that this is the work of relatively new filmmakers. There is certainly room for improvement but if they can keep the good concepts coming their execution will catch up to their imagination eventually.

WHY RENT THIS: The concept is intriguing. Tabitha Bastien makes a compelling lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the murder sequences were unconvincing. The film felt a little bit rushed in places and overly drawn out in others.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find some gore, violence, adult themes, sexual content and some profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title of the film was The Witching Hour but was dropped in favor of its current title.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon Prime, Vimeo, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Trick ‘r Treat


Four princesses discuss the Halloween tradition of slutty costumes.

Four princesses discuss the Halloween tradition of slutty costumes.

(2007) Horror (Warner Brothers) Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin, Brian Cox, Leslie Bibb, Quinn Lord, Rochelle Aytes, Lauren Lee Smith, Monica Delain, Tahmoh Penikett, Samm Todd, Jean-Luc Bilodeau, Gerald Paetz, Connor Levins, Patrick Gilmore, T-Roy Kozuki, Britt McKillipp, Brett Kelly, Isabelle Deluce, Alberto Ghisi, Barbara Kottmeier, Laura Mennell, Amy Esterle. Directed by Michael Dougherty

6 Days of Darkness 2015

Halloween has become a revered American holiday with many traditions and tales. Some are more or less universal (at least here in America) and some are regional but all are important as part of the holiday that signals the approaching end of the year and the beginning of the holiday season.

This anthology sat on the shelf at Warners for two years before getting an excuse me release and heading straight to the purgatory of home video. Usually that’s what happens to movies that are just plain lousy. Was that the case here?

Trick ‘r Treat is an anthology horror movie in the tradition of Tales of the Crypt with interconnected stories all connected by a diminutive linking device. The movie opens with a young couple, Henry (Penikett) who loves Halloween and Emma (Bibb) who clearly doesn’t returning home after a Halloween party. Emma’s distaste for the Halloween ends up having some fairly nasty consequences for her.

Their neighbor Steven Wilkins (Baker) the high school principal, catches a young teen stealing candy from his yard which leads to a lecture – and the revelation of the principal’s dark secret which doesn’t turn out so well for the teen. It does however lead to an interesting jack-o-lantern carving session with his boy Billy (Levins). Then we move on to four teens – who had visited the Wilkins home earlier – who head out to the local quarry where according to local legend a school bus full of mentally and emotionally challenged kids were driven into the lake by the school bus driver while chained to their seats and drowned – supposedly at the behest of their ashamed parents. As one of the teens – bullied Rhonda (Todd) – discovers, some urban legends should remain just that.

Another quartet of teens including virtuous Laurie (Paquin) go to the town’s annual Halloween party on the square, hoping to find Laurie’s “first.” However, it’s not the “first” you’re probably thinking of. Finally, the town curmudgeon (Cox) who hates Halloween with an absolute passion finds that one little trick or treater named Sam (Lord) in a filthy pair of orange pajama footies with a burlap sack wrapped around his head will give him a Halloween he will never forget.

All of the stories are connected together mainly by Sam who appears in one way or another in each one. Some of the connections are a bit of a stretch but by the end of the movie it all makes sense. A tip of the hat for the writing which is rock solid.

There is a pretty decent cast here with several veterans like Cox, Paquin, Bibb and Baker who have turned in a number of solid performances over the years and all are just as solid here. Most of the supporting cast is more or less unknown but there aren’t any false notes in the acting which is impressive. Todd as a matter of fact distinguishes herself as the put-upon teen who ends up in an urban legend of her own.

The stories themselves aren’t particularly gory or innovative but they get the job done. While modern horror movies tend to rely on gore and/or special effects, these are more story-driven and in some ways are throwbacks. For old school horror fans, this should be welcome news as this really is the kind of horror that isn’t done very often these days – although in the last 18 months or so I’ve noticed that there has been more of a movement in that direction with certain individual tales in anthologies and a movie or two.

Throughout the movie we do see children and teens put in jeopardy – while the latter is no biggie as far as Hollywood is concerned, the former is a major no-no and was likely the reason the movie stayed shelved so long. The major studios are a bit squeamish about children in jeopardy, Jurassic Park notwithstanding, especially when said children are not only in peril but don’t always survive. For horror fans, that’s a big deal as we usually see kids saved in unrealistic ways or have movies watered down so the kids can survive. It’s refreshing to see that taboo bridged somewhat.

So this is one of those movies that didn’t get the release it was expected to receive nor the attention it deserved (although critics generally praised it). The horror film fan community however is well aware of the movie and has generally embraced it – so much so that a sequel has been planned (although not yet come to fruition). In any case, if you’re looking for a hidden gem to watch this Halloween, here is one for your consideration.

WHY RENT THIS: Really good scares coupled with genuinely funny moments. Pretty solid cast.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kids in peril may be too uncomfortable for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and some gore, some sexuality and nudity and a fair amount of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sam takes his name from Samhain, the Celtic festival of the dead.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An animated short prequel detailing the story of the demonic Sam is included on all editions, while the Blu-Ray also has a short history of the holiday and a look at the special effects used in the school bus scene.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not applicable.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Creepshow
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Six Days of Darkness continues!

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

The East


All signs point to The East.

All signs point to The East.

(2013) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgard, Ellen Page, Patricia Clarkson, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Aldis Hodge, Danielle Macdonald, Hilary Baack, Jason Ritter, Julia Ormond, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Magnussen, Wilbur Fitzgerald, John Neisler, Pamela Roylance, Ryan Grego, Ava Bogle, Nick Fuhrmann, Patricia French. Directed by Zal Batmanglij

How difficult is it to uphold the law when the law protects the strong and harms the weak? Are you doing the right thing then by enforcing the law – or are you part of a system that preys on those who don’t have the cash?

Jane (Marling) is a former FBI agent now working for the private security intelligence firm Hiller Brood, hired by corporate clients to protect their executives from harm. Of late, a radical eco-terrorist group calling itself The East has been targeting bigwigs at Big Oil, flooding the home of an oil company CEO with crude oil after his company flooded the gulf with the same stuff.

Sharon (Clarkson), her steely boss, picks Jane to go undercover and infiltrate The East to discover who their targets are and what they plan to do with them. Adopting the name of Sarah, she goes cross-country hanging out with free spirits and counterculture types, engaging in freeganism (the practice of eating discarded food, what some call dumpster diving). She hops trains with a group of them including one suspect she thinks might have ties to the organization but he turns out to be a red herring. However, a different member of that group – Luca (Fernandez) turns out to be the real deal and after Sarah is injured protecting him from railroad bulls he takes her to the safe house of his group to let Doc (Kebbell) take a look at her.

Doc isn’t what he used to be – an adverse reaction to a drug meant to protect him and his sister, both working for a Doctors Without Borders-like organization, from dysentery has left him prone to seizures and extreme muscle tremors. Despite the suspicions of Izzy (Page), one of the other members, she is accepted into the group and captures the eye of Benji (Skarsgard), the de facto leader of a group which claims to have no leaders – call him the first among equals then.

As the group continues to exact revenge on corporate bigwigs whose crimes have gone unpunished by the justice system, Jane/Sarah begins to become conflicted and questions whether she’s batting for the right team.

I really like the moral ambiguity here. This is a film that asks the question does the ends justify the means when the system is broken? That’s a question that’s deceptively difficult to answer. In a system rigged to prevent justice when the super-wealthy are involved, how does one achieve justice particularly when you’re a part of the system? There are no easy answers.

Kudos to Marling and Batmanglij who don’t give the audience any easy outs. Benji and his brood have their own issues and motivations and they aren’t the “pure-at-heart” anarchists that liberal Hollywood sometimes likes to parade as heroes taking on the evil capitalists, nor do all of the CEOs here come off as money-grubbing monsters who are willing to trade human lives for an extra billion they couldn’t possibly spend. Obviously their hearts lie with the anarchists but some of the actions they take are troubling.

Marling, a cool blonde who 60 years ago would have made a perfect Hitchcock female lead, is rapidly becoming one of the independent scene’s best actresses. She’s smart and takes smart roles. Her character undergoes a metamorphosis – from a Christian rock, prayerful and ambitious security agent to a radical leftist spouting freeganism and anarchy. Now, I’m not saying such a change isn’t possible but it does seem to be a rather extreme conversion. Skarsgard, who has become a heartthrob on True Blood, shows that he will make an easy transition to the big screen when that series ends if he chooses to.

On the minus side, there are some plot holes. For example, considering how secretive the group is, Jane/Sarah finds them awfully quickly. One would think if it were that easy to find them, some law enforcement agency would have located them first. Secondly, if the dysentery inoculation caused such serious side effects for such a great percentage of those who took it, a) someone would have noticed and pulled the drug from the marketplace, b) the company that was marketing it would likely never have put it in the marketplace to begin with fearing the class action lawsuits that would surely have followed and c), the Pentagon wouldn’t have signed a contract to give their soldiers a drug that would have debilitated them to the point where they were not only no longer useful as fighting men and women but also would require extensive care for the rest of their lives.

However, these things aside, the writing is pretty dang smart and keeps the tension level high throughout. Certainly one’s political leanings will color your appreciation of the film; liberal sorts will applaud the idea of those perpetrating injustices upon the environment and people getting a taste of their own medicine while conservatives might see this as a self-righteous throwback hippie Che Guevara-fest from the ’60s. Neither viewpoint is wrong, by the way.

REASONS TO GO: Raises some timely questions. Taut and suspenseful.

REASONS TO STAY: Politically self-righteous. A few plot holes.

FAMILY VALUES:  Most of the themes here are pretty adult in nature. There is some violence, some sexuality, quite a bit of foul language and some partial nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Marling and Batmanglij, who co-wrote the screenplay, based it on their experiences in the summer of 2009 practicing freeganism and joining an anarchist collective.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100; this one got some pretty solid reviews.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Battle in Seattle

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: R.I.P.D.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Di Renjie zhi tongtian diguo)


Detective Dee don't need no steenkeen captions!

Detective Dee don’t need no steenkeen captions!

(2010) Adventure (Indomina) Andy Lau, Bingbing Li, Carina Lau, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Chao Deng, Jean-Michel Casanova, Yan Qin, Jinshan Liu, Aaron Shang, Deshun Wang, Lu Yao, Jialu Zhang, Yonggang Huang, Richard Ng, Teddy Robin, Xiao Chen. Directed by Tsui Hark

One of the things I most like about Tsui Hark’s films is that often they contain everything but the kitchen sink (and sometimes, that too) – adventure, outrageous plots, lush settings, fantasy, action, a kind of Peckinpah-ish loner hero, breathtaking martial arts and beautiful heroines. They don’t always make sense to Western eyes (and I suspect quite a few Eastern ones) but they are always pure entertainment. It’s nice to see that some things haven’t changed.

In seventh century China, the coronation for Empress Wu Zetian (C. Lau) approaches. She will be the first female empress in the history of China, so it’s a pretty big deal – and not everyone is happy about it. To placate her opponents (and perhaps as a monument to her own ego which was said to be considerable) she builds a gigantic Buddha statue with her own face. During an inspection, one of the architects bursts into flames unaccountably and perishes.

Police officer Pei Donglai (Deng) investigates, his suspicions turning to the surviving builder Shatuo (Leung) who lost a hand while imprisoned for taking part in a rebellion eight years prior. When Pei’s superior bursts into flame in front of the empress with Shatuo nowhere nearby, the empress consults the Chaplain, who communicates through a magic stag. The stag informs her that she needs to release Detective Dee (A. Lau) from prison, where he has been languishing in prison for leading the rebellion Shatuo was also jailed because of, for the past eight years.

The empress sends her attendant Shangguan Jing’er (Li) to fetch Dee from prison but shortly after leaving they are attacked by assassins. Later, while staying at an inn, she attempts to seduce Dee on the orders of the Empress but their coitus is interruptus, once again by assassins. Some guys just can’t catch a break.

When Dee sees a bird struck by one of the assassins arrows burst into flame when it comes into contact with sunlight, he examines the arrows and discovers they are coated in an unknown poison that does that very thing. After some research, he discovers that the poison is the extract of a rare fire beetle that was once used for medicinal purposes.

That sets Dee and his associates Jing’er and Pei – neither one of which he fully trusts – into a web of corruption, deceit and murder with the very throne of China at stake. The further Dee investigates, the fewer people he can trust and when he finally discovers the spider at the center of the web he will not just be fighting for his own life but the lives of thousands.

Like many Tsui Hark films (which include such Hong Kong classics as Once Upon a Time in China and Chinese Ghost Story) this has a mish-mash of genres that go flying at you like a storm of shuriken in a samurai movie. This isn’t as frenetically paced as some of his other films but when the action sequences come they come straight for your throat.

Andy Lau, one of the most popular action heroes in China, is at the core of this movie and he carries it with a mixture of CSI and wu xiu moves. Dee is a combination of Wong Kar Fei (a legendary Chinese martial artist) and Sherlock Holmes, his powers of deduction proving to be as formidable as his martial arts moves. Lau makes both sides of the character blend together and be believable – as believable as lead characters in a Tsui Hark movie get at any rate.

Carina Lau (no relation that I’m aware of) is positively regal as the empress, giving her a Queen Victoria-like “We are NOT amused” mien but with an exceedingly clever and politically savvy mind below the pomp and circumstance. She is quite capable of anything and could well be a terrible tyrant that will ruin China for centuries to come.  Lau carries off the part nicely, all the more impressive as this is her first feature role in four years.

There is a lot of CGI – a lot – and not all of it is top of the line which can be irritating to audiences used to much more of a blend between the real and the digital. The practical sets are magnificent however and breathtaking at times. While for the most part the film moves along, it also drags occasionally and might have benefitted from some further trimming although to be fair American audiences tend to be less patient with longer films than audiences elsewhere in the world.

This is entertainment with a capital E and most people except for real movie buffs don’t know a thing about it or Tsui Hark. While this isn’t his best work ever, it is certainly very representative of his style and you could do worse than using it as a starting point. Certainly if you’re looking for something different but not necessarily requiring a lot of brain power to enjoy this would be right up your alley. Give it a try – I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

WHY RENT THIS: Andy Lau is at his best, bringing gravitas and kickass martial arts moves. Carina Lau is regal. Production values are something truly to behold.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: CGI is weak in places. Could have been trimmed about 20 minutes off of the film and still have been okay.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few disturbing images and plenty of martial arts and fantasy violence, with some hints of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Detective Dee is based on a real Chinese folk hero, Di Renjie who lived during the Tang dynasty (approximately the 7th century) who became popularized in the West in a series of novels by Robert van Gulik where he was known as Judge Dee.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $51.7M on a $20M production budget; this was a huge hit in China and elsewhere in Asia.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cast a Deadly Spell

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Zero Dark Thirty