Seobok: Project Clone


Ki Heon REALLY takes exception to being asked to wear a mask.

(2021) Science Fiction (Well Go USA) Park Bo-Gum, Gong Yoo, Jang Young-Nam, Woo-jin Jo, Byeong-eun Park, Maurice Turner Jr., Kwang-hoon Na, Mi-nam Jung, Eon-jeong Lee, Yang Hee-Woo, Andreas Fronk, Daniel Joey Albright, Han-ji Hyun, Leraldo Anzaldua, Edward Hong, Rebecca Jensen Uesugi, Shogo Miyakita, Erin Nicole Lundquist. Directed by Lee Yong-ju

 

=As our medical technology improves, we begin to approach areas of moral dilemmas that we might never have envisioned even a few years ago. Research on stem cells and human cloning promise breakthroughs in the not-so-distant future, but what will be the cost for developing these lines of science and medicine?

Ki Heon (Yoo) is a former secret service agent for South Korea who has been afflicted with a terminal brain tumor, hence the “former.” He is beset by guilt regarding some shady deeds in his past (which are never fully explored). And yet, his old boss Chief Ahn (Jo) calls to give him one last mission; to escort valuable research from a human cloning experiment to a safer place following the assassination of the American scientist who was involved in it.

Needing to feel useful again, Ki agrees and is surprised to discover that the research he’s escorting is actually a young man named Seobok (Bo-Gum) who is a successful, genetically engineered clone, but there’s more to him than meets the eye; his body manufactures stem cells that can cure any disease, which could render the human race virtually immortal. In addition, Seobok has developed astounding powers of telekinesis, as well as the ability to generate force waves from his body.

They don’t get very far before they are attacked by a group of mercenaries, working for a group that wants control of the clone for themselves. The two fight off the killers, and go on the run, trying to avoid various would-be kidnappers and killers while slowly beginning to develop a grudging bond. For Seobok who has lived his entire life in a lab, the road trip is nothing short of miraculous, whereas Ki realizes that the young man he is transporting holds the key to his own personal survival – assuming they don’t get shot to pieces first.

The filmmakers spend a great deal of time focusing on the moral dilemmas of this kind of scientific research, and there are some truly thought-provoking points brought up. There is an intelligence here that is sometimes hard to find in sci-fi films, especially those that have actions sequences, which this one does, although not so many as you might think. However, when there is action, it is done competently well. The special effects are also pretty nifty.

Yoo, one of Korea’s biggest stars, is best-known to American audiences for his work in Train to Busan. He does some stellar work here, giving Ki layers upon layers; when we first meet him, Ki is wallowing in self-pity and something of a jerk. As we get to know him better through Seobok, we begin to see the pain that has caused him to put up those walls, and understand him a little better as a man. It’s not Oscar-level work, but considering this is essentially meant to be a genre film, it is surprisingly strong.

As I mentioned earlier, there aren’t a lot of action sequences here and for the most part, the movie goes pretty slowly, focusing on the ethical questions. For cerebral science fiction fans, that might well be candy, but for those looking for a space opera-like hoot, they will find it to be a Sour Patch Kid of a film. For what it is, however, it is better than we have any right to expect and for those who like their science fiction to be truly speculative, this is one worth seeking out.

Just a quick note; the film is available both in dubbed and subtitled versions. Not every streaming service carries it in both formats, so be sure you know what you’re getting when you order. The DVD/Blu-Ray edition does contain both versions, so if you still go the physical media route, that might be your best bet.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly thoughtful for a genre film. Strong performances throughout, particularly by Yoo.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little slow-paced and heavy on the exposition.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The film was originally set to be an end-of-the-year tentpole release in 2020 for its Korean distributor, but the pandemic delayed release until April 2021, when it debuted simultaneously in theaters and on the Korean streaming service TVING.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Plus, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Never Let Me Go
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Slut in a Good Way

Uppercase Print


You will write “I will not post graffiti” in Romanian four thousand times on the wall.

(2020) Drama (Big World) Serban Lazarovici, Nicolae Ceausescu, Bogdan Zamfir, Ioana Iacob, Serban Pavlu, Alexandru Porocean, Silvian Vâlcu, Constantin Dogioiu, Doru Catanescu. Directed by Radu Jude

 

These days, the left rails against authoritarianism around the globe and frets that it is coming to the United States. The right often pooh-poohs such notions and, in some cases, embraces authoritarian leaders such as Viktor Orban or Vladimir Putin. But nobody really discusses what life in an authoritarian state looks like, and the consequences of such on individuals who live in them.

Romania in the 1980s under communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was such a state. In October 1981 in the city of Botosani, chalked statements calling for free trade unions such as the then-nascent Solidarity union that was rising in Poland, and expressing frustration at the scarcity of food and services for the general public began to appear on the walls of the Communist party headquarters and other government buildings around the city.

The Romanian secret police, the Securitate, went to work immediately, mobilizing an army of informants and agents to discover who was behind what they considered terrorist acts. The culprit was caught within a few weeks and turned out to be a 17-year-old high school student named Mugur Calinescu (Lazarovici). The boy was interrogated and eventually released without being jailed, but the consequences against him and his family were appalling.

Jude based the movie on a stage play by Gianina Carbunariu, what she called a “documentary play” (she also co-wrote the screenplay along with Jude). The dialogue was taken directly from the testimony and reports that was recorded by the Securitate around the incident. Actors playing various Securitate agents read their reports against stylized stage-like backgrounds, lit by bright and garish lights, with gigantic television screens, tape recorders and the symbol of the Securitate in the background. Interspersed with the testimony are excerpts from Romanian state television of the period, showing the propaganda that depicted Romania as a happy, prosperous place even though those making the television programs knew it wasn’t so (their fixed smiles betray them) and of course the people watching them knew better as well.

This results in an innovative and interesting narrative, but despite the subject matter, this is not a story of a brave young man standing up so much as it is about how easily those in an authoritarian nation turn on one another. The film continues through the suspicious death of Calinescu just four years later, apparently from leukemia, at the age of 21 (it wasn’t uncommon for the secret police to expose Romanian citizens to lethal radioactive isotopes in order to silence them without appearing to murder them, although it was, of course, the kind of state-sanctioned murder that continues in Putin’s Russia even now). The final act jumps ahead to modern days, where the unrepentant agents of the Securitate insist they worked for the good of the state and that they never harmed anyone.

The film takes an awful long time to get going, although as it continues through the saga the movie gets more and more intense. Jude might have benefitted from a judicious hand in the editing bay, perhaps cutting down on some of the testimony (and accompanying cheesy television clips) and tightened the storytelling just a hair.

What we’re left with is a chilling look at life in an authoritarian state, and the movie does end with a gut punch – monochromatic photos of the real Mugur and the chalk graffiti he left, which look terribly innocent by any standards, but especially given the tragic consequences those chalk writings created.

REASONS TO SEE: A unique method of telling the story. Somewhat surreal, although it may not be quite so much to those who lived in Romania at the time.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pacing is a bit slow for a two-hour movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes.
=TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2020 Berlin Film Festival, one of two films Jude debuted there that year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 01/23/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews; Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: V for Vendetta
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Laureate

The Invisible Man (2020)


Don’t look now…

(2020) Thriller (Universal) Elisabeth Moss, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Harriet Dyer, Aldis Hodge, Storm Reid, Michael Dorman, Benedict Hardie, Renee Lim, Brian Meegan, Nick Kici, Vivienne Greer, Nicholas Hope, Cleave Williams, Cardwell Lynch, Sam Smith, Zara Michales, Serag Mohammed, Nash Edgerton, Anthony Brandon Wong, Xavier Fernandez, Amali Golden. Directed by Leigh Whannell

 

One of the unexpected side effects of #MeToo is that women are beginning to take back horror. Until recently, they were cast mostly as victims waiting to be slaughtered by a monster or a human monster. Yes, the final girl thing was a bit of a sop, but it was clearly understood that putting women in jeopardy had a sexual element to it. Horror films were often an allegory for how women were perceived in our culture; virtuous and plucky (final girls were almost never sexual) or sexy and not too bright, or at least prone to panicking when the chips were down, playing right into the killer’s hands – often literally.

That’s changing, as yesterday’s horror review illustrated, and it’s even more true of this film, inspired VERY loosely by the 1897 novel of H.G. Wells. Cecilia Kass (Moss) is trapped in an abusive relationship by a controlling billionaire who keeps her under 24/7 surveillance. Pushed to her absolute limit, she plots her escape, aided by her sister Emily (Dyer) who picks her up when she flees from the high-tech home she shares with her domestic partner Adrian Griffin (Jackson-Cohen), just barely getting away. Emily drives her into San Francisco where she bunks with her good friend James (Hodge), who happens to be a cop, and his teenage daughter Sydney (Reid).

Then word reaches her that her ex has committed suicide, and his creepy brother Tom (Dorman) gives her the news that he left her a sizable inheritance, enough to help Sydney with her college plans and to give her some financial relief. Too good to be true, right?

Right. Soon strange things begin to happen, merely annoying at first and growing exponentially more disturbing. Cecilia gets the feeling she’s being watched, and her paranoia only increases. Soon she seems to be coming unhinged, unglued, or at the very least, having a complete breakdown. But WE know that there is something else going on. After all, we saw that knife floating around by itself. We saw the footprints in the carpet. Is it Adrian’s ghost, or something more tangible – and ultimately more terrifying?

As horror films go, this one is long on tension but short on scares. In fact, I think it would be justifiably be considered more of a thriller than an out-and-out horror film, although there are definitely some horrific elements – they are just few and far between.

Whannell seems more intent on making a point than creating a legitimately scary movie. Fortunately, he has one of the best in the world at playing emotionally fragile characters in Elisabeth Moss (who will always be Zoey Bartlet to me) and she gets to exercise that particular skill to near-perfection here. She is certain that something sinister is going on and tells her circle of friends so, but nobody believes her. It’s no accident that her last name is Kass…could be short for “Cassandra.”

She gets some good support from Hodge (who will always be Alec Hardison to me) as the kindly but skeptical cop and Reid (who will always be Meg Murry to me) as the savvy teen. Dorman (who will always be John Tavner to me) lends sufficient creepiness as the late tech billionaire’s brother.

Part of the problem is that we don’t get much of a sense of who Adrian is. He’s essentially brilliant, vindictive and cruel, but we never really get to know much more than that. I tend to like a little more depth to my villains, even if they are ostensibly dead for most of the movie. Plus, there are few scares and that is a bit of a letdown, considering Whannell’s pedigree (he has been involved with two major horror franchises) and the fact that this is using the title of a classic horror movie. The audience can’t help but expect a horror movie when they sit down to watch.

Jilted expectations aside, the movie does a fair job of making its points about how women are portrayed, and although at times Moss can get a bit shrill she still makes a decent enough heroine, particularly in the mega-satisfying denouement. However, I can’t honestly say that the movie made a connection with me and thus I can’t in good conscience give it anything more than a very slight recommendation which is being damned by faint praise indeed.

REASONS TO SEE: Nobody is better than Moss than getting women on the edge of hysteria.
REASONS TO AVOID: The villain was not really developed properly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some pretty intense violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This was originally intended to be part of the Dark Universe, Universal’s classic monster-oriented shared cinematic universe, but after the box office failure of The Mummy, the concept collapsed and Universal opted to go with individual stories rather than having a shared background.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Cinemax Go, DirecTV, Google Play, HBO Max, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hollow Man
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Continuing Adventures of Six Days of Darkness!

The Rental


Beware of dark shadows.

(2020) Horror (IFC Midnight) Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss, Anthony Molinari, Connie Wellman. Directed by Dave Franco

 

The Internet Age has given us, among many other ostensibly helpful programs, Air BnB; the ability to rent out our homes as vacation properties. Millions take advantage of the program, which is kind of a crap shoot; when it works out, you’ll find yourself in a much more comfortable environment than a hotel, and generally for a lot less. When it doesn’t, you can end up in an absolute dump – or with an owner who might not be altogether benevolent.

A pair of 30-something couples – start-up entrepreneur Charlie (Stevens), his hot-tempered and less successful little brother Josh (White), Charlie’s wife Michelle (Brie) and Josh’s girlfriend Mina (Vand), who also happens to be Charlie’s business partner. With a big project looming on the horizon, Charlie and Mina figure a weekend of R&R would be just the thing before several months of long hours and stressful deadlines become the norm for both of them. They find what looks like an ideal seaside home.

There are some issues; when Mina tries to rent the property, she’s turned down. When Charlies tries again an hour later, his rental is accepted. Mina, who has a Middle Eastern last name, cries racism and confronts the caretaker Taylor (Huss) with her accusations; he neither confirms nor denies them, but informs her that he isn’t the owner but the brother of the owner who is rarely home to use the property.

Although the property seems absolutely perfect, with a hot tub overlooking the ocean and all the modern amenities, there is a feeling that something is off. For one, Taylor comes off as kind of a racist creep. For another, there’s the locked door with an electronic lock which just smacks of “something to hide.” As the weekend wears on, the underlying tensions between the two couples begin to surface as the bickering and accusations start. When Mina discovers a closed circuit miniature camera in the shower head, she realizes that they are being watched, and that someone is getting their jollies watching the two couples take molly, fool around and bicker. There’s someone watching them and that generally isn’t a good thing.

Franco, who co-wrote the film with mumblecore legend Joe Swanberg, sets the film off as a slow burn, gradually building the tension until the climax, although that climax takes off in an unexpected direction, like an RC airplane with a faulty rudder. What starts off as an amazing psychological horror film and character study ends up during the last 20 minutes as a more traditional visceral horror film which is somewhat disappointing.

Disappointing because the movie shows the vulnerability of renting from a site like Air BnB; we put out trust in homeowners based on a few good ratings. If those owners turn out to be homicidal maniacs, we have no way of knowing or preparing and certainly no way of protecting ourselves. It’s a chilling thought and one the movie exploits early on before turning itself into a standard slasher film, complete with a too-long coda setting the film up as a potential franchise.

As an actor, Franco relates well to his cast and they do good work here. Most surprising was White, who gives Josh a nuanced character; unselfconfident after his violent temperament had landed him in trouble with the law earlier in life especially given his brother’s financial and personal success, he still has a hair-trigger temper which surfaces late in the film. Most of the rest of the way he seems like a genuinely sweet guy with difficulty believing in himself.

Slasher fans will find the movie a little too slow-developing for their tastes (unless they love psychological horror films that build gradually as well) and the frenetic ending will disappoint fans of psychological horror. Nevertheless this is a strong debut from Franco and while it isn’t likely to have the impact that his brother James’ debut did, it makes for some marvelous summertime genre viewing.

REASONS TO SEE: A true slow burn. The cast is terrific, but White is a real find.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is just too ludicrous to ignore.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is profanity, drug use, sexuality and graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alison Brie is married to Dave Franco, who is making his feature directing debut here.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews; Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crawlspace
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful

Tape (2020)


In 2020, vengeance requires surveillance.

(2020) Drama (Full Moon Films) Annarosa Mudd, Isabelle Fuhrman, Tarek Bishara, Isabella Pisacane, Eve Austin, Allison Winn, Kana Hatakeyama, Hye Yun Park, Brian Cade, German Alexander, Alexanna Brier, And Palladino, Celine Justice, Lollie Jensen, Mimi Jefferson, Ryan Matt, Sophia Oppenheim, Arisleyda Dilone.  Directed by Deborah Kampmeier

 

What men don’t understand about rape is that it’s not just a physical crime, although of course there are those elements that are part of it, the injuries that come with the violation. Rape is not just an attack on the physical body, it is an attack on the very essence of that person. It is, with all the ironic fury this implies, the gift that keeps on giving.

In the past few years, women have been standing up, speaking out and confronting those who have abused them – done so to this misogynistic society as a whole. Director Deborah Kampmeier – long before there was a #MeToo movement – was a crusader against rape culture, shining a light into the dark, foul recesses of misogyny. This is her most aggressive film yet.

We meet Rosa (Mud) in her dingy New York apartment as she essentially shaves her head to a buzzcut. She gives herself a homemade tongue piercing and then cuts her wrists just enough to bleed but not enough to be life-threatening. She attaches hidden cameras and microphones to her body, dons a pair of sunglasses with yet another hidden camera built in. She completes the look with black lipstick (to hide the blood on her lip) and a black trenchcoat that gives her a kind of Rose Byrne look if Byrne had been cast in The Matrix.

She heads to an audition, but she’s not auditioning. The casting call is being handled by Lux (Bishara), a slick producer. He takes a liking to Pearl (Fuhrman), a naive and eager-to-please aspiring actress who as we discover is struggling with bulimia. She’s just the kind of vulnerable sort that predators latch onto and Lux is a predator – Rosa should know because he raped her.

She is out to build a case against him, to catch him in the act. She tries to warn Pearl who is having none of it, and watches helplessly through artfully placed hidden cameras the same exact scenario playing out that happened to her earlier. This time, she’s going to catch the whole thing on tape and bring the bastard down.

There is a lot of rage in this film, and that’s okay – this is a topic that requires it. “Casting couch” has always been a cutesy phrase but this is a movie that shows the horrific reality behind it. The movie is buttressed by some powerful performances, by veteran child star Fuhrman who has turned into an accomplished actress, up-and-coming star Bishara who plays Lux with tons of charm and an abundance of aphorisms, like “Take your power” and “Own the room,” all the while setting the impressionable girl for the unthinkable. Best of all is Mudd, a screen newcomer (but a decorated off-Broadway performer) who mixes equal parts rage, creepiness, pain and heroism.

The failure in this film is behind the camera. The hidden cameras constantly move in and out of focus which I imagine is some sort of allegory but she uses it so much particularly during the first half of the film that it actually gets annoying, even to the point that I began to actually get a headache from it. The movie also is about twenty minutes too long, which blunts the powerful ending.

This is a story that needs to be told, but the problem here is not the story itself, but the way it is told. It’s a shame, really, because this should be an extremely important film and because Kampmeier decides to go uptown with it, it just comes off as more self-indulgent than it needed to be. Sometimes, when faced with a story of this importance, a wise director makes the film less about his or her skills as a director and more about the significance of a story that impacts a staggering, depressing percentage of our population.

REASONS TO SEE: An essential film for the MeToo era.
REASONS TO AVOID: This overly long film suffers from a bit too much avant garde.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some disturbing images, sexual situations, nudity and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The experiences depicted in the film are based on those of co-star/producer Annarosa Mudd, who was raped on-camera by an unscrupulous casting director after hours of coercion during the casting process.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Swan
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blow the Man Down

Bad Times at the El Royale


Evil can be sexy.

(2018) Thriller (20th Century FoxJeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan, Shea Whigham, Mark O’Brien, Charles Halford, Jim O’Heir, Gerry Nairn, Alvina August, London A. Morrison, Bethany Brown, Rebecca Toolan, Hannah Jane Zirke, Billy Wickman, William B. Davis, Tally Rodin. Directed by Drew Goddard

 

This was one of my favorite movies of 2018. Goddard hits it out of the park as a group of disparate characters gather at a rundown motel straddling the California-Nevada state line. It is 1969, and the El Royale lost its gaming license a year prior and has fallen on hard times ever since – once it was a playground for the rich and shameless.

Being checked in by whitebread clerk Miles Miller (Pullman) is Father Dan Flynn (Bridges), on the road to see his family; vacuum salesman Laramie Seymour Sullivan (Hamm) who has the patter and the smile to sell an Eskimo an ice cube; singer Darlene Sweet (Erivo) who is on her way to a gig in Reno and needs a cheap place to stay for the night; and young Emily Summerspring (Johnson) who just wants everyone to stay the hell away from her.

As it turns out, all four of the guests have secrets. As it turns out, the hotel has secrets too – one of which is revealed in the prologue. The story is told non-sequentially but we eventually learn why each of them is there. Emily, for example, has kidnapped her kid sister Rose (Spaeny) from a charismatic cult leader named Billy Lee (Hemsworth), who doesn’t take kindly to others stealing his property. It all ends up in a confrontation in the lobby of the El Royale.

I loved the complexity of the story, which Goddard tells non-sequentially, going from room to room to concentrate on each individual guest. There are some twists and turns – some of which are jaw-dropping – and plenty of sex and violence. Comparisons have been made to early Tarantino and the comparison isn’t out of line; in fact, at times, I think that this homage to the pop culture maestro is a little too strong but if one is going to imitate someone, Tarantino is a good one to emulate.

Goddard is aided by a tremendous cast, all of whom deliver strong performances. The real revelation is Tony award winner Erivo who absolutely kills it as Darlene Sweet (clearly based on Darlene Love), and she sings mighty nicely some soul classics from the early 60s. She also has a scene with Bridges that absolutely gave me the chills; I thought for sure she would have gotten a Best Supporting Actress nomination, but sadly she didn’t. She deserved it, though. Her strong work since then has shown that her performance here is no fluke; she is a talent who is going to be one of the biggest stars in Hollywood in short order.

Bridges adds heart to the proceedings and Hamm gives a sly performance. I also loved Hemsworth, who plays Billy Lee as a combination of Charles Manson and Jim Morrison. Dakota Johnson has never been sexier than she is here, which includes her 50 Shades films.

realize that this isn’t going to be a film that appeals to everyone. Some might find it overly violent – and it is. Some might find it overly self-indulgent – which it is. Others might think it’s too Tarantino-esque – guilty as charged. However, I personally look at those as strong points in this film. It’s one that I have watched several times since and it hasn’t lost its appeal. That’s my definition of a great film.

REASONS TO SEE: Extremely well-written and tied nicely together at the end. Strong performances throughout, particularly from Erivo. Places itself nicely in the era. Some of the twists are a bit unexpected.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels a little bit too much like a Tarantino film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly graphic violence, brief nudity and sexuality, some drug content and a copious amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The El Royale is based loosely on the CalNeva resort in Lake Tahoe. The hotel was once owned by Frank Sinatra.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabin in the Woods
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Hate U Give

Blue Iguana


The gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

(2018) Heist Comedy (Screen Media) Sam Rockwell, Phoebe Fox, Ben Schwartz, Peter Ferdinando, Simon Callow, Amanda Donohoe, Frances Barber, Al Weaver, Peter Polycarpou, Anton Saunders, Jenny Bede, Andre Flynn, Vic Waghorn, Glenn Wrage, Peter Singh, Pedro Lloyd Gardiner, Paul Chan, Danny Granger, Martin Muncaster, Jack Silver, Pamela Cook. Directed by Hadi Hajaig

 

Stephen Soderbergh is famous for depicting teams of con artists and thieves who are cool, competent and clever. Most times, criminals are anything but those three things. Generally, people go into crime because they don’t have the skills to make a living honestly nor any inclination to obtain any. They want to do things the easy way, not knowing that if you want to get away with a crime it takes some planning, foresight and knowledge.

Eddie (Rockwell) and his buddy Paul (Schwartz) are both ex-cons working in a New York diner while out on parole and trying to keep their noses clean. Into the diner walks a pushy English rose named Katherine Rookwood (Fox) who is the lawyer for an Eastern European businessman named Arkady (Polycarpou). She needs to use the two schlubs for a job in London which would be a clear parole violation but she’s got that all covered.

What she needs is for them to steal a gym bag at one of the museums. If she retrieves the bag, it will erase a crushing debt she’s been trying to work off to the businessman. However, things don’t go entirely to plan; it turns out that the two Americans are way over their heads. Arkady has in his employ a mullet-wearing thug named Deacon Bradshaw (Ferdinando) who has serious mommy issues particularly since his mom (Donohoe) is oversexed and abusive. There are also much bigger fish to fry, particularly after Eddie and Paul – and Katherine as well – are double-crossed by Deacon and his violent thugs.

They work out a plan to take back what they lost and maybe get a little bit more – ok a lot more – than they would have gotten out of the deal; that is if they can keep their butts out of the crossfire. Not necessarily an impossible task since nobody in either gang can shoot worth a damn.

The first thing that came to mind as I watched this was that it’s Soderbergh on a budget. It crosses British gangster films with American heist movies which is a natural mix but one that really hasn’t been tried often until now (other than by Danny Boyle to my knowledge). In addition, it has the always watchable Sam Rockwell leading the cast.

He’s watchable enough here but he’s not nearly as manic as he normally is. The movie could have used a little more energy from Rockwell surprising to say and at the end of the day it is Fox who commands most of the kudos for her performance here. Her character does a lot of eating and if anyone can look endearing with a blog of ketchup on her chin, it’s Fox.

There is a lot of quirky charm in the movie; I liked Ferdinando as the volatile thug Deacon. He goes on profanity-laced rants when his underlings mess up which is just about all the time. Few can curse as well as a Cockney and Ferdinando makes a running gag out of it; in fact, Rockwell makes a point of trying to learn how to do the Cockney accent although to judge how effective he is you’d have to ask a true Cockney. My guess is “not well.”

Towards the end things start getting increasingly violent and that’s where the movie shines. There are several demises that are extremely bloody (particularly the very last one) and Hajaig handles them with a deft comedic flair. There were some moments that left me chuckling (although none that left me doubled over with laughter) and a few moments where I thought they missed the mark, particularly early on. One of my favorite running jokes is that nobody in the film can shoot worth a damn; I’m talking couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a basketball from five feet away type of shooting.

I like these sorts of movie and while the reviews thus far have been pretty poor, I actually thought this was a solidly entertaining and often fun piece of work. Yeah, there are a lot of clichés – you know that Eddie and Katherine are going to get romantic and they do – but for the most part, the fast pace and the humor keep you from wanting to check your cell phone too much. You may think that’s faint praise but in 2018 that’s actually an accomplishment.

REASONS TO GO: Quirky but entertaining. There are some truly inventive moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Rockwell’s performance is oddly subdued.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good amount of profanity, violence and a smattering of gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The blue iguana is an actual breed of iguana that is indigenous to the Cayman Islands.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/25/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 30/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Logan Lucky
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
An L.A. Minute

Collateral Beauty


Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here...

Just sitting on a park bench chatting with Death; nothing crazy going on here…

(2016) Drama (New Line) Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Keira Knightley, Jacob Lattimore, Naomie Harris, Ann Dowd, Lisa Colón-Zayas, Natalie Gold, Kylie Rogers, Shirley Rumierk, Alyssa Cheatham, Benjamin Snyder, Mary Beth Peil, Andy Taylor, Michael Cumpsty, Jonathan Rivera Morales, Joseph Castillo-Midyett, Ella Monte-Brown. Directed by David Frankel

 

We all deal with grief in different ways. Some of us pour ourselves into our work; others lose all focus. Some of us rage against the universe; others try to find something constructive to do, such as create or work for a charity. Sooner or later however all of us must deal with the loss of a loved one.

Howard (Smith) is doing just that. His beloved daughter has passed away and now, two years later, the successful advertising agency he built is floundering, losing clients left and right because Howard, their main creative force, just doesn’t care anymore. His best friends all work at the company; Whit (Norton), who co-founded the company with him, Claire (Winslet) who has given up marriage and children to give her full focus on the company and Simon (Peña), the numbers man.

There is an offer on the table to buy the company but Howard won’t even consider it. All of the principals stand to lose everything if they can’t salvage the situation and the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. Whit, Claire and Simon, desperate to understand what’s going on with Howard, hire a private detective (Dowd) to figure out what their friend is doing. Nothing much; mainly building domino constructions, biking back and forth from work and writing letters.

The latter is kind of the peculiar part; they’re not letters to people but to things; concepts, really. He’s been writing to Love, Death and Time. The three partners hit upon an idea that, well, never would have occurred to me; to hire three unemployed actors that Whit has found who can play the parts of Love, Death and Time who will personally answer Howard’s letters. They’re not really hoping that this performance will bring Howard back but the detective can film Howard talking to them (yelling at them really) and then digitally remove the three actors so that Howard can be proven incompetent and the sale go through without him.

The actors that Whit recruits – Brigitte (Mirren) who plays Death, Amy (Knightley) who plays Love (now, that I can believe) and Raffi (Lattimore) who plays Time each begin to spend time with one of the partners – Brigitte with Simon, Amy with Whit and Raffi with Claire – and end up helping them with their own problems. In the meantime, Howard has started attending a support group for grieving parents run by the lovely Madeleine (Harris) and looks like he might finally be emerging from his shell. But will it be in time to save everything he’s built, including his friendships?

If the plot summary sounded implausible that’s pretty much because it is. I can’t imagine “friends” doing something that awful to a friend, and the movie portrays them as genuinely concerned for Howard’s well-being. I can’t really reconcile the actions of concocting an elaborate scam to prove their friend incompetent (which has other ramifications beyond the sale of his company) with all the mea culpa chest-beating about what a great guy Howard is and how much they “miss” the old Howard. I mean, friends just don’t do that.

The cast is one of the best you’ll see gathered in a single movie with a couple of Oscar winners and four nominees. None of them will be adding to their nomination total here but the performances are nonetheless solid. Peña caught my attention for a very emotional performance as a family man facing a terrible crisis of his own, and Smith who is the main performance in what is essentially an ensemble cast gets to keep everything in until the last scene in which he unleashes some of his best acting of his career.

That ending however contains a twist so unbelievable that at that point most people are just going to throw their hands up in the air and give up on the movie, and I can’t blame them. However, if you do as I do and just enjoy the ride rather than try to make sense of things, you’ll be far happier.

Now as you can tell the critical response has been harsh. Keep in mind however that most professional critics don’t like being emotionally manipulated and films that do that tend to get harsh scores. In that sense, critics can’t be trusted with films like this. You really have to go and experience it on your own and judge for yourself. You, after all, may not mind being having your emotions manipulated. Maybe you need it. I do, sometimes. Sometimes I need the release of a good cry. Catharsis makes us all emotionally healthier after all.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances throughout, particularly by Peña and Smith. The premise is at least intriguing.
REASONS TO STAY: Many of the plot twists are telegraphed. The ending is a bit preposterous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity but mostly the themes are pretty adult in nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Winslet, Mirren and Smith were all nominated for Oscars in 2007, although only Mirren was victorious.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 12% positive reviews. Metacritic: 24/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Meet Joe Black
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The True Memoirs of an International Assassin

Observance


Oh black water, keep on rolling...

Oh black water, keep on rolling…

(2015) Psychological Horror (Artsploitation) Lindsay Farris, Stephanie King, Brendan Cowell, John Jarratt, Benedict Hardie, Tom O’Sullivan, Roger Ward, Gabriel Dunn, Joseph Sims-Dennett, Ash Ricardo, Louisa Mignone. Directed by Joseph Sims-Dennett

 

Grief does some disturbing things to our perceptions. It changes how time reacts to us, making it stretch out interminably. It sometimes causes us to see things that aren’t there. It makes us feel as if we are dying ourselves – even though we aren’t. We just wish we were.

Parker (Farris) is a private detective, but he hasn’t been doing much detecting lately. His son passed away recently, and he has been devastated by it. His marriage has disintegrated because of it and he is deeply in debt due to his boy’s medical bills. He takes a surveillance job which involves staying in a derelict apartment, filled with garbage and barely inhabitable, and keeping an eye on Tenneal (King), a beautiful blonde girl who lives across the street. He taps her phone, sets up a camera pointing into her apartment (which she conveniently lives in without drapes) and sits back to observe.

At first things seem fairly normal but as the days go on it gets more sinister. Things begin to happen that Parker can’t explain. He becomes unnerved and contacts his employer (Cowell) to find out what to do if someone attacks the girl, but he is told to sit back and relax – just report what he sees. Parker agrees, but is getting more reluctant by the minute. If he didn’t need the money so badly, he’d be so out of there.

The visions begin to get worse. He finds animal corpses in disturbing places. A strange black fluid is leaking from just about everywhere, including from Parker himself. His dreams – or rather nightmares – are terrifying. He has a real fear that something terrible is about to happen, but he can’t bring himself to warn the girl – or leave. One way or another, things are going to play themselves out and when it’s all over, the results will not be pleasant.

This is a movie that plays with your perceptions. Unrelated images are inserted from time to time and the film shifts from black and white to color to a mixture of both seemingly at random. We’re meant to be getting into Parker’s mind and it is rapidly disintegrating. We see images of his child with the black goo pouring out of every orifice, and images of the sea pounding the shore – and of dead things in every nook and cranny. We’re never sure what’s real because he isn’t.

A movie like that requires a really strong lead and independent films, particularly micro-budgeted films like this one, can be really hit and miss with the actors that are available to them, but fortunately the filmmakers lucked out in Farris, who is a good find. Matinee idol handsome, he has a definite presence and while occasionally he errs on the side of scenery chewing for the most part he gives a subtle nuanced performance that bodes well for his big screen future.

There are some fairly disturbing images here and a few genuinely horrific ones but most of the horror will be inside your imagination and while that’s always a good thing for the most part, you may end up being somewhat perplexed at the barrage of images that seem to be there for their own sake rather than to serve the story or the film. Cinematic masturbation is what I call it, and there’s definitely some of that going on here.

This is an Aussie-made film which has to it’s advantage the reputation of Down Under as a hotbed for amazing horror film directors; this isn’t one of the better films to come out of there in recent years unless you like your horror on the surreal side. From that point of view, most mainstream horror movie fans aren’t going to like this much, and for that reason it’s getting a mediocre rating – but those who love cult films and don’t mind a little thought to go with their viscera will find this a worthy addition to their film library.

WHY RENT THIS: A movie that bears repeated viewings.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be a little too art house for the grindhouse crowd.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing and occasionally bloody images, brief foul language and some sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Released first in Australia, the movie is available there on iTunes. Exclusively available on Vimeo in the States (see below), it will expand to most VOD streaming platforms beginning in October.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The film is preceded by a three-minute preface.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
SITES TO SEE: iTunes, Vimeo
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rear Window
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Eye in the Sky


The final onscreen performance of Alan Rickman is a good one.

The final onscreen performance of Alan Rickman is a good one.

(2016) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Aaron Paul, Phoebe Fox, Bakhad Abdi, Jeremy Northam, Iain Glen, Richard McCabe, Monica Dolan, Kim Engelbrecht, Ebby Weyime, Babou Ceesay, Faisa Hassan, Aisha Takow, Armaan Haggio, Carl Beukes, Bob Chappell, Daniel Fox, Jessica Jones, Michael O’Keefe, Laila Robins, Lex King. Directed by Gavin Hood

Warfare is full of shades of grey. The morality of killing other people for political or economic purposes is shaky to begin with but in modern war, killing can be done with the touch of a button and with a change from armies facing each other in remote places into terrorists in urban places, war can come to the population. Of course, in the 20th century that had already taken place but now there is no place a military strike can’t take place, or at least very few places with the advent of drones.

A multi-national task force is tracking an English radicalized terrorist (King) with ties to Al Habaab in Kenya. In an operations center in Britain, Colonel Katherine Powell (Mirren) is coordinating with her superior, Lt. General Frank Benson (Rickman) as they observe her activities in a house in a terrorist-run part of the city. They have eyes on through the use of drones, piloted by American airman Steve Watts (Paul). On the ground in Kenya they have Jama Farah (Abdi) who is observing the house directly.

At first they think they hit paydirt when their target meets with some high-level terrorist officers, but their satisfaction turns to concern when they discover that a suicide bombing is being planned for and executed out of the house. That changes the color of the mission and frantic calls start going up the chain of command asking for and receiving an authorization to use a Hellfire missile to take out the terrorists. But things get further complicated when a little girl sets up a bread stand outside the terrorist house; the drone controller begins to have doubts and the calls up the ladder take a more urgent tone. Suddenly those who were eager to authorize the mission earlier are passing the buck, while time ticks away. Is the life of a single girl worth the dozens of lives that might be taken if the suicide bombers carry out their mission?

I don’t know that the movie really intends to answer that question; in fact, it can’t really be answered. From a strictly numbers viewpoint the answer is no – the people who might be killed by the suicide bomber are no less innocent and no less important than the life of a little girl. The question really is does knowingly ordering an airstrike that will be likely the death of a little girl more monstrous than allowing a bombing to take place when it could have been prevented. And that’s where the waters become a little bit murkier because we get into political territory then.

But that’s as may be. As a movie, Eye in the Sky does a credible job of keeping the tension high, although there are times when I thought they were being overly redundant in explaining that when you bring politicians into a military matter, things tend to get worse rather than better for while a soldier is more interested in accomplishing their particular mission, a politician is more concerned about covering their own derrieres.

And in conveying that message, Hood inserted some prestigious performers in key roles. Mirren is as gifted an actress as there is in the business, and her hawkish, shrill colonel is as stiff as a ramrod, as pitiless as a predator and as patient as a boiling teakettle. Colonel Powell is in many ways the epitome of a military mind, very centered and focused on completing the task at hand. Powell in and of herself is basically not very likable, but Mirren makes her human, a deceptively difficult job.

The late Alan Rickman, who passed away this past January and who will be much missed by this critic, never disappointed during his career and went out on a high note. In all honesty his General Benson is the epitome of a liaison, trying to balance the needs of the soldier with the needs of the politicians and having to stand on one leg while holding an umbrella over his back with a teacup balanced on the tip of his nose. Rickman gives the part some humanity as the one character who truly sees both sides of the argument.

Paul, who won three Emmys for Breaking Bad hasn’t really had a role in the movies that has utilized him as well as this one did. He is an airman with a conscience, one who doesn’t blindly follow orders but questions them when the orders appear to be morally ambiguous. In many ways, he had the most complicated role of the three main leads, but he shows that his award-winning performances were no fluke.

Is this manipulative? You bet it is. There is nothing more innocent than a little girl who is trying to help her family by selling the bread her mama baked to her neighbors going to market. That makes the moral issue a bit more focused, but it is a bit lazy – I don’t doubt that those in command of executing drone strikes find any civilian casualties wrenching, whether the victims are cute little girls or old alcoholic men. Taking the life of a non-combatant is not an easy thing for the military, as Rickman so eloquently expresses near the end of the film: “Don’t dare to presume that a military man doesn’t understand the cost of war.”

This is a movie that, if you’ll forgive an unintended pun, flew under the radar. However it is a crackerjack of a movie that should be sought out on VOD or in the near future, on home video. The performances here are scintillating and the questions raised timely and difficult. In many ways this is not only a thinking person’s war film, but a suspense film of the highest order.

Hood is not really trying to send a political message, or at least I don’t think he is. He is simply presenting the world as it is; that when killing comes down to the touch of a button, the morality of it becomes far murkier. And that’s a very powerful subject matter indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Edge of the seat suspense. Tremendous performances by most of the leads. Grapples with the morality of modern warfare.
REASONS TO STAY: Is guilty of being manipulative. Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Violent images, adult themes and rough language, as well as children in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rickman’s final on-screen appearance; he also lends his voice to Alice through the Looking Glass.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Good Kill
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Embers