A Simple Favor


Cocktails and besties, the perfect combination.

(2018) Suspense (Lionsgate) Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Eric Johnson, Jean Smart, Sarah Baker, Gia Sandhu, Kelly McCormack, Glenda Braganza, Linda Cardellini, Andrew Rannells, Rupert Friend, Joshua Satine, Ian Ho, Glenda Braganza, Danielle Bourgon, Andrew Moodie, Bashir Salahuddin, Aparna Nancheria, Gia Sandhu, Katherine Cullen. Directed by Paul Feig

Da Queen will tell you that I love a good whodunit. Da Queen will also tell you I despise a lazy one. A Simple Favor falls somewhere in between; I don’t love it but I don’t hate it either.

Stephanie (Kendrick) is a suburban supermom who has a mommy vlog full of life hacks for moms and so on. Her son (Satine) is a school chum of the son (Ho) of Emily (Lively), a high-powered public relations VP for a high-powered New York fashion firm led by the aptly named Dennis Nylon (Friend) who never met a wardrobe he couldn’t insult, especially if it didn’t involve his own clothing line.

Stephanie and Emily bond over martinis and quickly become besties, sharing their deep dirty secrets – Emily’s marriage to struggling writer Sean (Golding) is crumbling. Emily’s job is demanding more and more of her time and Stephanie is only too happy to pick up both boys from school, but then one night, Emily doesn’t come to pick up her boy – nor does she show up the next day. Stephanie fears the worst.

But Stephanie is a bit of an amateur sleuth and when the police don’t seem to have any leads on the whereabouts of Emily, Stephanie takes over looking for the lost item as any proper mom would. And what she finds…isn’t what she expects.

Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids, isn’t afraid to inject some humor – okay, a lot of humor – into the neo-noir thriller. Sometimes, the movie seems almost schizophrenic at times. The tone varies from light to dark and sometimes in between. The chemistry between Lively and Kendrick absolutely works; they both look like polar opposites but it isn’t hard to see what draws the two characters together. The humor works well, but surprisingly it’s the thriller portion that’s less successful; the denouement isn’t hard to figure out in advance and the movie definitely loses narrative steam during the last third. Still, the things that work in A Simple Favor work very well; the things that don’t can be overlooked.

REASONS TO SEE: Kendrick and Lively have excellent chemistry.
REASONS TO AVOID: More or less mindless entertainment, appearances to the contrary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexual content and some graphic nudity, drug use, violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the character of Emily is a heavy drinker, Blake Lively (who plays her) has been a teetotaler all her life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Vudu. YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone Girl
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Searching

Upgrade


Grey Trace descends into a nightmare.

(2018) Science Fiction (Blumhouse) Logan Marshall-Green, Harrison Gilbertson, Melanie Vallejo, Steve Danielsen, Abby Craden (voice), Benedict Hardie, Richard Cawthorne, Christopher Kirby, Richard Anastasios, Kenny Low, Linda Cropper, Betty Gabriel, Emily Havea, Ming-Zhu Hii, Simon Maiden (voice), Stephanie Demkiw.  Directed by Leigh Whannell

 

When Grey Trace (Marshall-Green, doing his best Tom Hardy), an analogue man in a digital world, is shot and paralyzed and watches as his wife (Vallejo) is shot dead, he only wants to die. Enter bazillionaire Eron Keen (Gilbertson, doing his best Leonardo Di Caprio) who was a client of Grey’s auto restoring business, offers to set things right by implanting a spiffy new microchip in Grey’s spine, not only allowing him to walk again but giving him superhuman combat skills. Grey decides to use his new abilities to find his wife’s killers, all the while hiding his new found condition from the police detective (Gabriel, doing her best Betty Gabriel) investigating his wife’s murder.

While the plot is a mite hackneyed, this dystopian sci-fi action thriller has its own charm. Australian director Whannell – who as James Wan’s writing partner helped kickstart both the Saw and Insidious franchises – takes his cues from the Robocop franchise of Paul Verhoeven to comment on our own society, from the increasing loss of privacy to the over-reliance on technology most of us don’t understand.

Whannell does very well with the action sequences which are kinetic and fun, as well as the special effects which can be stomach-churning or glossy depending on the mood. There’s plenty of gore, enough that the sensitive should be warned, but not so much that the gore is the main component. Marshall-Green does a serviceable job in the lead and most of the cast of non-household names hits their marks well, even though most of the characters are fairly underdeveloped. For the most part this is a fun ride although it is sabotaged with a groaner of an ending.

REASONS TO GO: The effects and action sequences are well-done. There is some interesting commentary on a Big Brother-like society which with our online privacy disappearing seems to be the direction we are going in as a society..
REASONS TO STAY: The ending falls with a bit of a thud.
FAMILY VALUES: There is brutal violence and gore, some grisly images and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  During fight scenes, the camera follows Grey keeping him in the middle of the frame. This was done by secreting a smart phone on Marshall-Green and pairing the camera with the phone.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Robocop
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Chasing Coral

The Family


Introducing the children of the corn.

(2016) Documentary (Starz) Sung Yun Cho, Jordan Fraser-Trumble, Anne Hamilton-Byrne, Bill Hamilton-Byrne, Roland Whitaker, Elizabeth Jean Whitaker, Anouree, Nick, Rebecca, Anthony John Lee, Peter Spence, Marie Mohr, Leeanne, Michael Stevenson-Helmer, Fran Parker, Barbara Kibby, Dave Whitaker, Lex de Man, Philippe de Montignie, Raynor Johnson, John MacKay, Margaret Brown. Directed by Rosie Jones

 

The rise of quasi-religious cults in the 1960s and 1970s was a worldwide phenomenon. In Australia, one of the most notorious of these was a Melbourne-based cult known as The Family. Founded by psychologist Raynor Johnson as a means to a healthier lifestyle, he soon fell under the spell of former yoga teacher Anne Hamilton-Byrne, a beautiful and charismatic blonde who had a way of charming everyone around her.

Her idea of family was a literal one; dozens of children were adopted through dodgy means and born to existing members. Hamilton-Byrne preached that she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ and that there was a holocaust coming; the kids would rise as the leaders of a post-apocalyptic civilization. She was obviously a wack job but as cults go that doesn’t seem to be too terribly different.

In 1987 the cult’s Ferny Creek compound was raided and six of the children were removed and placed in protective custody and soon the horrifying truth began to emerge. The children had been physically abused, manipulated, and lived in a state of constant fear. Forced to dress alike and have their hair dyed blonde (as Hamilton-Byrne’s was) they were robbed of their individual identities. They were given LSD often without their knowledge or consent and they were often starved as a means of punishment.

One of the officers who was on the raid, Detective Sgt. Lex de Man, was clearly haunted by what he saw and observed. He acts somewhat as a narrative guide but also was a consultant on the documentary. Some of the stories told by the now-adult former cultists are heartbreaking and/or hair-raising. Many of the kids required therapy once removed from the clutches of the cult.

Jones is something of an Errol Morris disciple in terms of her style. There are plenty of interviews buttressed with home movies (which are chilling) and recreations of certain events. Rather than as a typical documentary, she gives it a kind of a 48 Hours spin, presenting the events as an unfolding mystery. For American audiences, it truly is – although the story was huge in Oz back in the late 80s and early 90s, it scarcely made a ripple on various American news sources. The film is slickly made with a brilliant atmospheric score and while the ending doesn’t have the smooth pacing of the rest of the film, there is at least a satisfactory wrapping up although to be fair the issues that the survivors have is ongoing. Believe it or not, the cult still exists today and Jones does speak with a current member for perspective.

The documentary has won awards at Australian film festivals and received a limited theatrical release there last year. Here in the States, it’s available on Starz and on their companion streaming app although for how long is anyone’s guess. It is certainly worth looking into, particularly if you’re into true crime documentaries.

REASONS TO GO: A chilling story of the horrors perpetrated on children within a notorious cult.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit choppy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult content including some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The score was composed by Amanda Brown, a former member of the wonderful Australian band The Go-Betweens.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Prophet’s Prey
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Winchester

A Fantastic Woman (Una mujer fantástica)


Daniela Vega delivers an intense performance in A Fantastic Woman.

(2017) Drama (Sony Classics) Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Kuppenheim, Nicolás Saavedra, Amparo Noguera, Trinidad González, Néstor Catellana, Alejandro Goic, Sergio Hernández, Antonia Zegers, Roberto Farias, Christian Chaparro, Diana Cassis, Eduardo Paxeco, Paola Lattus, Felipe Zambrano, Erto Pantoja, Loreto Leonvendagar, Fabiola Zamora. Directed by Sebastián Lelio

 

It is hard enough to mourn the loss of a loved one. When we lose someone close to us, we want to be surrounded by others grieving that person. We need the comfort of the company of like-minded individuals, people who are willing to reach out and comfort us in our time of need.

Marina Vidal (Vega) finds herself in that situation. She has just moved into her boyfriend’s house. Orlando Ortillo (Reyes) owns a textile mill in Santiago. He left his wife Sonia (Kuppenheim) to be with Marina who is a waitress and a part-time lounge singer who specializes in salsa and other Latin dance music. After Orlando takes Marina out for a night on the town, he wakes up in the middle of the night complaining of a headache and feeling ill. Concerned, she means to take him to the hospital but he falls down a flight of stairs on the way to the car. The doctors determine he has suffered an aneurysm but he dies on the operating table.

But that’s just the beginning of the pain. Suspicious of the bruises and wounds on his body, the police question Marina about the incident. Eventually they assign a sex crimes detective (Noguera) to investigate, forcing Marina to submit to a humiliating interview and medical exam. Worse yet is Orlando’s family.

Sophia’s initial civility is quickly stripped away as she becomes a vicious, vengeful harpy who forbids Marina from attending the funeral and services for Orlando. Worse yet is her son Bruno (Saavedra) who sneers at and degrades Marina and wants her out of the apartment so he can move in. Marina doesn’t have any legal standing, but to make matters worse, she’s a transgender. In Latin America, that is no easy thing to live with. Through all the humiliations both petty and major, Marina tries to keep her calm, cool demeanor and if she plays things close to the vest, who can blame her?

Finally enough is enough – all she wants to do is mourn her dead lover so she can move on. She sees him, a kindly ghost haunting her wherever she goes. The more she is discriminated against however, the more her blood boils. The time is coming when she will stand up for herself against those who persecute her. What form will that take though?

This is a movie that tackles what is a controversial subject even here in the States – transgenders. Although our legislators seem to take a great interest in which bathrooms they use, there is little interest in dealing with the treatment they receive and the way they are perceived. They are often confused with cross-dressers and are often the targets of violence. It is especially more brutal in Latin America where the culture of machismo flourishes. That Lelio would even take on the subject is to be seriously commended.

One of the reasons this movie works as well as it does is the performance of Vega. At times she seems pensive, like all her thoughts are turned inward. She seems brittle and fragile and even a little bit intellectual. Then she is hot and passionate, her anger manifesting in a propensity for punching inanimate objects. Her frustration and grief are mostly kept to herself, even when her tormentors take her beloved dog Diabla from her. It’s only when she gets tired of being treated as a non-person that she finally shows her defiance and yes, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

There are elements of fantasy here – sightings of the ghost of Orlando, strange winds that force Marina to bend nearly parallel to the ground, a trip to a disco in which individuals dancing turns into a choreographed chorus line with Marina in an amazing glittery outfit. Is this all in Marina’s imagination or are they hallucinations? Lelio doesn’t explain, leaving it up to the audience to decide which.

The disco scene actually went on for way too long unfortunately – because I liked what Lelio was trying to do. However the strobe lights became so intrusive, so overwhelming that my vertigo was triggered. Anyone who has epilepsy should be well-advised to take a bathroom break once the disco scene begins. I do like the color palate that Lelio uses; every scene is full of bright greens, reds and blues that suffuse the film in a kind of neon glow.

Da Queen and I checked this out the night before it would win the Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, so the timing couldn’t have been better. Given the subject matter, this isn’t a movie that is going to pull in crowds of people at the box office; I suspect that we as a nation are still too intolerant for that to happen although one lives in hope that we will grow up eventually and realize that love is love, no matter what the genders are of the two people involved. This is a movie that is at once heartbreaking and soul-stirring and while it makes its case for the drum it is beating, it doesn’t necessarily hit you in the face with bromides and broadsides. Strictly put, this is a film that is deceptively quiet and small-budgeted but it nonetheless packs an emotional wallop and gives voice to those who rarely get to use theirs. Definitely one to see when you get the chance.

REASONS TO GO: The film confronts dead-on the issues faced by transgenders not only in Latin America but globally. Vega gives an intense performance that should make her an instant international star.
REASONS TO STAY: The disco scene with the strobe light went on way too long and actually provoked a vertigo attack in this viewer.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content, some violence, plenty of profanity and lots of adult thematic material
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vega was the first transgender to present at the Oscars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Laurence Anyways
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT:
Mom and Dad

The Light of the Moon


Sometimes you can only hold each other in the dead of the night.

(2017) Drama (Imagination Worldwide) Stephanie Beatriz, Michael Stahl-David, Conrad Ricamora, Catherine Curtin, Cindy Cheung, Susan Heyward, Jessica M. Thompson, Olga Merediz, Craig Walker, Heather Simms, Cara Loften, Christine Spang, Patricia Noonan, Christian Barber, Mike Ivers, Michael Cuomo, Nelly Savinon, Sarah Dacey-Charles, Jennifer Bareilles, Ashley Van Egeren. Directed by Jessica M. Thompson

 

In the wake of revelations about celebrity sexual predators (i.e. Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Kevin Spacey) along with a commander-in-chief who thinks it’s perfectly okay to grab the genitals of a woman uninvited, there is no doubt that we have a culture predisposed to rape. To be a woman in 2017 means that she has to be absolutely aware of her surroundings at all times; she doesn’t have the freedom to walk alone at night, to accept drinks from strangers that she hasn’t  watched the bartender pour, to be subjected to the icy predatory stares of men checking her out, the condescending remarks and to be judged more on how she looks than who she is. Being a woman in 2017 to be frank is scary, and to raise a daughter in this time is heartbreaking, knowing what she is likely to experience before she is even old enough to vote.

Bonnie (Beatriz) is an architect working for a firm that is a rising star in the field. She’s been given a major project to lead and she’s putting in a lot of hours, wanting to make a big splash. She lives in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn only a few blocks from where she works. Her boyfriend Matt (Stahl-David) also has a career that demands a lot of time from him; he was supposed to meet Bonnie and some of her work friends for after-work drinks but had to blow her off to entertain a client.

Bonnie has been through the drill before though and she and her friends Priya (Loften) and Jack (Ricamora) drink heavily, dance like there’s no tomorrow and generally have the kind of good time that New Yorkers seem to instinctively know how to have. As her friends scatter, Bonnie refuses Jack’s offer to share a cab and decides to walk the few blocks home.

Intoxicated and wearing headphones, she doesn’t hear her attacker until it’s much too late. She is dragged into an alley and raped. It isn’t a long, drawn-out attack but to Bonnie it musts have seemed interminable. Her attacker, having done what he wanted to do, leaves her to pull her panties up, gather herself together, wipe herself off with tissue paper and stagger back home. Matt hasn’t arrived yet so she puts her panties and the tissue paper she wiped herself off with and when Matt arrives home and sees the black eye and nasty cut on her forehead, accompanies her to the Emergency Room. Led to believe it was only a mugging, she confesses in a small child-like voice that she was raped.

Matt is devastated, guilty that he wasn’t there to protect her as she should have been. Bonnie wants as few people to know as possible – she tells her colleagues at work that she was mugged but neglects to mention the sexual assault. She also refuses to tell her family that she was raped, leaving Matt, the detectives working her case and the DA who is prosecuting it the only ones who know.

At first Matt is overly attentive, fixing her breakfast, coming home early and cooking dinner. Bonnie wonders why he wasn’t giving her this much TLC before she was raped. She seems to be in a place where she just wants to move on and put it behind her but Matt worries that she’s not really dealing with the trauma. When he suggests she join a support group, Bonnie snarls “I don’t want to join the Sisterhood of Rape Victims.”

Intimacy between Matt and Bonnie becomes a minefield. He is concerned about hurting her; she wants the sex to be as raw and as rough as it was before the incident. Gradually the two begin to move inexorably apart; Matt desperately wants to do the right thing but doesn’t understand what Bonnie needs. Bonnie herself just wants to put her ordeal behind her but everybody who know about her rape treats her like she’s made of glass. When Matt tries to explain “This happened to us” he doesn’t realize how that must sound to Bonnie; nor does Bonnie understand that there is an element of truth in that Matt is affected by her trauma.

I wasn’t sure that this movie was going to be anything but a glossy Lifetime movie version of a serious topic but my fears on that subject turned out to be groundless. This is a powerful, sometimes raw and sometimes very hard to watch look at the aftermath of one of the worst things that can happen to a woman. Survivors of sexual assault may end up being triggered by the movie; although the rape scene itself isn’t very graphic (there is no skin and the scene is mostly dark and a close-up of Bonnie’s face) it is still very realistic and may not be suitable for those sensitive to depictions of sexual assault. You should decide for yourself if you are up for viewing the movie on that basis.

That said it is an educational look at the aftermath which is something that often gets short shrift in the discussion of rape. Bonnie finds that people look at her differently as a sexual assault victim; she becomes an object of pity, one to be handled delicately. Bonnie doesn’t want to be handled; she knows she’s strong, she knows she is a survivor and she simply wants to move on. Society wants her to deal with the trauma and she simply doesn’t want to. Is her approach a healthy one? Most would say no, but who’s to say what’s healthy for one individual may not be for another?

Beatriz gives us a searing performance; Bonnie can be both brittle and fragile, or tough and strident. There aren’t a lot of histrionics here but there are a lot of powerful emotions handled with empathy and with dignity. Beatriz, who is known most for her role on Brooklyn Nine Nine is a star in the making. Performances like this can move her right up to the next level.

There are some things that I wish first-time feature filmmaker Thompson would have done a little differently; the indie trope of the young professionals living in an amazing book-filled apartment in New York City (at a rent that would likely cost them the GNP of a small country in real life) and the overuse of Bonnie going into a dissociative trance with the sound getting muddied like the microphone is underwater. Other than that, this is truly a rich story well told and well acted and tackling a subject that is often taboo but is something that we SHOULD be talking about.

With all the focus on how much sexual assault, molestation and harassment that goes on today it is time that we had a conversation about the real trauma of rape and this movie helps to initiate that conversation. In that sense it is as timely a film as it possibly could be but then again this is a conversation long overdue. Again, some survivors may have a hard time with this and should be aware of what their tolerance for this kind of realism I going to be. Beyond that, this is a movie everybody should see.

REASONS TO GO: The acting performances are strong throughout and Beatriz is absolutely extraordinary. A timely arrival in the wake of the Facebook “Me Too” campaign. A realistic relationship and the effects of sexual assault on that relationship are portrayed.
REASONS TO STAY: There are a few indie clichés in the mix.
FAMILY VALUES: There is an intense depiction of a rape, sexual content, profanity, violence and it goes without saying, adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the crew including the director, writer, cinematographer and editor are either women or minorities.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/5/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Accused
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
ADDicted

Lady Macbeth


Here comes the bride.

(2016) Drama (Roadside Attractions) Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton, Naomi Ackie, Christopher Fairbank, Golda Rosheuvel, Anton Palmer, Rebecca Manley, Fleur Houdjik, Cliff Burnett, David Kirkbride, Bill Fellows, Nicholas Lumley, Raymond Finn, Ian Conningham, Finn Burridge, Jack Robertson, Kima Sikazwe, Elliott Sinclair, Andrew Davis, Alan Billingham, Joseph Teague. Directed by William Oldroyd

 

In A Chorus Line, Cassie warbles “Can’t forget, won’t regret what I did for love.” The sentiment strikes a chord in most of us; we mostly will do just about anything for love. If all is fair in love and war as the saying goes, some of us will do unspeakable things for love.

Katherine (Pugh) really doesn’t know what love is and she wants someone to show her. The daughter of hard economic times, her family essentially sold her to wealthy Alexander (Hilton) and more to the point, his cold and demanding father Boris (Fairbank). She is treated pretty much like chattel, ordered to stay indoors – fresh air apparently being anathema to both father and son, although I suspect it is more of a control thing than a health thing.

When both Alexander and Boris are called away from the chilly, drafty home in the north of England on business, Katherine asserts herself as the lady of the manor, going out on long walks on the moor. Her Anglo-African maid Anna (Ackie), who is mostly mute, is witness to her transgressions but seems sympathetic. One afternoon she rescues a nude Anna from the abuse of the stable staff, particularly from Sebastian (Jarvis), an arrogant groomer. He later creeps into her room, presumably to rape her but she ends up seducing him and the two begin a torrid affair. It doesn’t go unnoticed.

When Boris returns home, he is nearly apoplectic and Katherine realizes that while her father-in-law and husband (who hasn’t consummated their marriage yet – to date all he’s done is masturbate while she stands naked facing the wall) live, she can never be with Sebastian. She therefore embarks on a course that is born out of equal parts desperation and terrible resolve.

Oldroyd – whose name sounds like a Jane Austen character – is known mostly for his stage direction, but you’d never know it here. Even though much of the action is limited to the fairly large house, the film never feels stagey although it is occasionally claustrophobic – purposely so, as no doubt Katherine is feeling restrained.

Initially, this feels like an adaptation of an Austen novel – I was surprised to discover that it’s actually an adaptation of a Russian novel – but as the movie wears on the feel changes. During the course of the movie Katherine does increasingly terrible things to the point where it becomes hard to have any sort of rooting interest in her. I began to think of the film as Quentin Tarantino’s Jane Austen – this is very much how I would imagine that Tarantino would direct an Austen-like thriller.

The pacing is pretty stately; at times it seems like the storyline is barely moving at all. There are endless scenes of Katherine sitting in boredom watching the clock on the wall or falling asleep. The point is made, Mr. Oldroyd. There are also elements of the story that are rather bewildering; Katherine, for example, being sexually attracted to a man who is obviously an utter bastard; how quickly she turns upon people who she supposedly cares about. At the end of the day, she ends up being an utter sociopath and because of her social status, society assumes that her claims are true and those of her servants are lies.

This is very much a class-conscious film and given that Sebastian is of mixed ancestry and that Anna is fully of African descent adds the race card in addition to the class card.. The most sympathy is reserved for Anna who really gets the shaft at the end of the film – something that African-American audiences know only too well. We even end up with some sympathy for Sebastian although once you think about what a rotten human being he is at the beginning of the film, that sympathy is somewhat tempered.

The acting here is actually quite swell and this may very well be a breakout role for Pugh. She has to play a role that is both sympathetic and not; at first, she is treated like a possession, little more than a slave to her husband and father-in-law and an ornament who is  meant to shine brightly without making much noise. However as her evil deeds begin to multiply it is difficult to see her as anything but an amoral sociopath. We question if she does all this for love of another, or for her own freedom. You get your answer to that by film’s end.

It should be noted there is a scene in which a horse is shot. The plot point is necessary to the film but the scene is done with particular brutality and is rather graphic. Those sensitive to animal suffering should be forewarned before going to see this. I found it unnerving myself although it is I must admit effectively staged, giving the audience an idea just how cold-blooded Katherine and Sebastian have become to that point.

That end is nothing like what you’ll expect. I don’t know how close it is to the ending of the original Nikolai Leskov story having never read it myself but certainly this didn’t go the way I expected. It’s certainly a lesson on class distinctions (and nobody understood that better than the citizens of Imperial Russia) but it is also a look at the effects of love as a kind of madness. As the Russians are wont to do, it is a bit of a downer but it also is a fascinating character study.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are uniformly solid. The story doesn’t go in the direction you expect it to.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is extremely slow and the plot is occasionally bewildering.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of nudity, sex and sexuality; there’s also a scene of animal abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in England during the Regency era, the movie is actually based on a Russian novel, Lady Macbeth of Mtensk by Nikolai Leskov.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mansfield Park
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Brave New Jersey

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