Girl (2020)


Axe her no questions…

(2020) Thriller (Screen MediaBella Thorne, Mickey Rourke, Chad Faust, Lanette Ware, Glen Gould, Elizabeth Saunders, Michael Lipka, Tia Lavallee, Paolo Mancini, John Clifford Talbot, Rasneet Kaur, Emma-Leigh Cullum. Directed by Chad Faust

 

There’s a famous saying that when you go out for revenge, first dig two graves. That is particularly true when your vengeance is aimed at a blood elative.

This Bella Thorne-starring vehicle by Chad Faust seems to be intentionally vague. The characters are not given names – Thorne, in the lead, is only known as Girl – which seems to be fitting given the lack of depth in developing the story, which is a bit strange because it seems like a good deal of the dialogue is spent on exposition, which makes it feel like the characters are explaining things to us.

And we need the explanation. Girl heads back to the Pacific Northwestern town she was born in, but left along with her Mama (Saunders) after her abusive father (Talbot) kicked them both to the curb – in Mama’s case, quite literally, as a vicious beating left her with severe back injuries that have rendered her barely able to walk. Dear old dad has failed to provide any child support over the years and Mama, who desperately needs the money, has written him requesting that he pay his share.

Dad has written back, apparently telling Mama where to stick her child support but also proclaiming a desire to kill both mother and daughter. So Bella is on her way to Golden, a town that has seen prosperity pass it by, to do unto Daddy before he does unto her.

Except that someone has beaten her to it. Her father has been viciously beaten to death. You would think that Girl, given that her dirty work has been done for her, would turn around and head back home, but she is curious and angry; who would rob her of her vengeance? What was her dad mixed up in that led to such a brutal end?

As with many small towns in the Pacific Northwest (at least as Hollywood paints it), oddball characters of varying degrees of sinisterness walk the streets. There’s the aptly named Charmer (Faust), a flirtatious sort who meets Girl in a laundromat; there’s the hooker with a heart of gold (Ware), the bartender who may or may not be helpful (Gould) and of course, the town sheriff (Rourke) who just upon sight looks like the sort of guy you’d not want to go to when you need help. And your first impressions would be correct.

Faust seems to be going for a kind of Southern gothic vibe set in the Pacific Northwest – think of it as Twin Peaks had it been written by Shirley Jackson (and if that combination appeals to you, you’re my kind of people). Faust casts the movie well and in particular the title role. Thorne, who cut her teeth on Disney Channel family fare, has long since moved into adult roles, but this is by far her most compelling performance, not unlike that of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone. She captures the barely suppressed rage of the character, while expressing a kind of dangerous side like a coiled rattlesnake (Girl is handy with an ax, as it turns out). Thorne is particularly outstanding in her scenes with Rourke and Saunders at the end of the film.

Other than the climax which is well-done, the movie devolves into standard thriller clichés in the last half. Worse still, the film score is intrusive and more than a little obnoxious; if ever a score sabotaged its film, it is this one.

There’s a lot going for the film, mainly in the performances and particularly Bella Thorne’s. Faust, who also wrote the film, needs to work on his dialogue a bit and focus on developing his ideas, which are strong but he doesn’t seem to trust them and ends up taking the easy way out. Still, this is fairly strong B-Movie fare and if you like yourself a good revenge film, this might be what you’re looking for.

REASONS TO SEE: Thorne gives a career-changing performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The score is obnoxious and intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some violence and an attempted rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth film Thorne has appeared in so far this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ravage
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
To Your Last Death

A Call to Spy


Virginia Hill wonders how come James Bond got a sports car and she got a bicycle?

(2019) War (IFCSarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland, Samuel Roukin, Andrew Richardson, Laila Robins, Marc Rissmann, Mathilde Olivier, Lola Pashalinski, David Schaal, Rob Heaps, Matt Salinger, Marceline Hugot, Cynthia Mace, Joe Doyle, Alistair Brammer, Helen Kennedy, Juliana Sass, Sigrid Owen, Gemma Massot. Directed by Lydia Dean Pilcher

V

When we think of the heroes of the Second World War, we often think of lantern-jawed white men, aw-shucks farm boys, daring partisans and clever Englishmen, often played by such as Gary Cooper, Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks. There were, however, many different kinds of heroes.

After France fell, there was a feeling of desperation in England, knowing that they were likely the next to feel the brunt of the Nazi war machine (America hadn’t entered the war at that time). Finding out what the Nazis were up to was paramount, and there were no reliable ways to get that information; spies were being discovered and executed by the SS almost as soon as the Strategic Operations Executive – the office of British intelligence during the early days of the war – could send them.

In desperation, Winston Churchill ordered that women be sent over to Occupied France. He reasoned that women might be able to move about more freely and attract less suspicion. Vera Atkins (Katic), a Jewish-Romanian immigrant and a secretary in the SOE office was tasked with recruiting women for the job by her boss, Maurice Buckmaster (Roche).

Atkins took the job seriously and went after women that the Nazis might not suspect of being spies. One of her recruits was Virginia Hall (Thomas), a secretary in the American embassy with aspirations to becoming a diplomat, although her wooden leg (she lost her leg in a hunting accident) seemed to be keeping her from achieving her goal. Another was Noor Inayat Khan (Apte), a Muslim-Pakistani of royal lineage who wanted to make a difference in the war for her adopted country.

It was obviously dangerous work; most of the women sent overseas never made it back home, but the work they did was invaluable. Buckmaster characterized it as “ungentlemanly warfare,” recruiting members of the resistance, relaying information back to England via wireless operators (like Khan) and committing acts of sabotage. They were surrounded by collaborators and counterspies, and many of the women were betrayed to the Nazis.

The movie, which was written by Thomas who also co-produced it, is largely the work of women behind the camera, which is to be celebrated. A story about women by women is something that cinema needs more of, particularly those about women whose accomplishments were largely lost to history. Thomas and director Lydia Dean Pilcher concentrate on the stories of Hill, Atkins and Khan. All three women were facing death at any moment – for Atkins, her citizenship was held up and she lived with the constant threat of being deported back to Romania, which was part of the Axis back then and almost certainly she would have been promptly executed had that happened. All three women were fighting against the preconceptions of men – Hill because of her disability, Khan because of her diminutive stature and nationality – as well as the Nazis.

The story is one worth telling, but that doesn’t mean that it is told particularly well here. The dialogue has a tendency to be eye-rolling and the movie takes on a Girl Power tone which, although understandable, was completely unnecessary; the accomplishments of all three women were impressive enough that they don’t need further “see what women can accomplish” hagiography. The movie would have benefitted from a simpler storytelling style.

The film is a bit muddled in terms of going back and forth between the three women, particularly in the second half of the film. It felt that there was so much to tell about these women’s lives that we got only the barest minimum to keep our interest; they would have been better served with a longer format which would have gotten us more insight to who they were, which would have allowed the audience to get more deeply invested in their stories.

That said, it isn’t often that a movie gets reamed for not being thorough enough, but that is the case here. I think the hearts of the filmmakers were in the right place, but taking on the project left them with a quandary; whose story do we tell, and how much of it? They chose three worthy women, but in the end, they should have concentrated on one or gone the miniseries route. I think the subjects deserved one or the other.

REASONS TO SEE: A rare look at some of the unsung heroes of the war.
REASONS TO AVOID: Probably should have been a miniseries.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of period smoking, some graphic violence and scenes of torture, and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: During shooting, Thomas ruptured her Achilles tendon that required surgery once filming had been completed.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/3/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 76% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Catcher Was a Spy
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
American Murder: The Family Next Door

Where Sleeping Dogs Lie (2019)


Thick as thieves.

 (2019) Crime Drama (1091Jesse Janzen, Dustin Miller, Tommy Koponen, David J. Espinosa, Jillian Rohrbach, Brett Rickaby, Atim Udoffia, D. Brad St. Cyr, Jeanne Young, Bobby Real, Courtney Conklin, Stacey Hall, Tyler McDaniel, Doug O’Neill, DeeDee Avert, Brian Barnes, Robyn Colburn, David Jon Foster, Christa Hewitt, Michelle Kuret, Melinda Rayne, Bunny Stewart. Directed by Josh Pierson

 

They say crime doesn’t pay, but you couldn’t prove that from the movies. For every Dog Day Afternoon there’s a The Sting. No, if you are a movie buff, the message you’re likely to get is that when in need of quick cash your most effective option is a criminal act.

Jeff (Janzen) finds himself in just that position. He owes the local crime boss – incongruously named Bunny (Udoffia) – more than 100 grand, and having just gotten out of the joint, he doesn’t have that kind of scratch on him. However, he’s been boinking the sexy blonde wife (Rohrbach) of a crooked land developer named Bob (Espinosa, the poor man’s Dennis Farina) and the two are in the process of divorcing. Tracy (the said sexy blonde soon-to-be ex-wife) is positive that Bob has hidden some of his assets – a half a million dollars’ worth – in the house in cash so that he doesn’t have to pay it to Tracy. Jeff hits upon the idea of robbing Bob and paying off his debt.

He enlists the help of his brother Barry (Miller) and best friend Tim (Koponen), convincing them that the job will be an easy one, in and out and nobody getting hurt. Of course, you know that’s not going to happen. Bob turns out to be home unexpectedly and the cash? Nowhere to be found. Now it turns into a test of will; how badly does Jeff want the money and how far is he willing to go to get it. For Bob, it’s how much is he willing to take to keep it. Which one will emerge on top?

This is one of those movies where the director wears his heart on his sleeve. You can tell what kind of movie he wants to make – a smart, sexy caper comedy with snappy dialogue and humor that doesn’t lie in one-liners but in bizarre and outlandish situations. He wants this to be high octane with not much time spent on exposition, so much of that is done via flashback.

The problem with inserting flashbacks into a film is flow. Caper comedies, particularly, need good flow and that’s not easy to achieve. The problem here could be in editing, but I don’t think it was – I think it was in preparation. You need to know what your film looks like before you shoot it and if you’re ambitious enough to want to do a movie that relies as heavily on timing as this kind of movie does, you’d better know the timing down to the second. Unfortunately, we end up with a movie that’s rather choppy and goes into a flashback just as we’re getting into the story.

The performances are mainly okay although not dazzling. Janzen, who reminds me of a young Kevin Bacon crossed with an Entourage-era Kevin Dillon, shows the most potential as the sad-sack loser who is not nearly as brilliant a criminal mastermind as he thinks. He alone gets the sense of pacing in the dialogue.

There are a few plot holes – if this was supposed to be an “in and out job” where nobody gets hurt, why bring guns? Also, it’s never clear why Tracy tells Jeff about the cash stash. Still, those are minor issues that more experience behind the typewriter will help eliminate.

You get a sense that this film could have been better than it was. Hopefully, we can chalk it up to being a learning experience for Pierson because he does show some potential here. I think with a little more seasoning, he is certainly capable of making some memorable films. Unfortunately, this isn’t one.

REASONS TO SEE: Janzen reminds me of a cross between Kevin Bacon and C. Thomas Howell.
REASONS TO AVOID: The film has the pacing of an engine in need of a tune-up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of profanity, violence (some of it unintentional) and sex.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature-length film for writer-director Pierson after having made eight short films.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
What Men Want

A Twelve-Year Night (La noche de 12 anos)


The level of a society’s degree of civilization is measured by the contents of its prisons.

(2018) True Life Drama (Netflix) Antonio de la Torre, Chinese Darin, Alfonso Tort, Cesar Troncoso Soledad Villamil, Silvia Pérez Cruz, César Bordón, Mirella Pascual, Nidia Telles, Eduardo Recabarren, Sofia Gravina, Bianca Gravina, Ana Baltar Peretz, Ilay Kurelovic, Lisandro Fiks, Kornel Dornan, Gustavo Saffores, Juan José Caiella, Luciano Ciaglia, Luis Cao, Luis Mottola, Soledad Gilmet. Directed by Álvaro Brechner

 

The human spirit can withstand just about anything, so long as there is hope. The human spirit is also capable of cruelty that can be staggering in its depths, but even this can be endured – with hope.

In 1972, Uruguay was in the process of losing its democracy to a military junta. A left-wing group known as the Tupamaros were mounting increasingly violent protests against the government. The military chose to eradicate them in brutal fashion, capturing some, killing many.

Three of those captured (there were a total of nine involved but for the purposes of this film they are only concentrating on three) – Jose “Pepe” Mujica (de la Torre), Mauricio Rosencof (Darin) and Eleuterio Fernández Huldobro (Tort) – are put into solitary confinement, not allowed to speak to each other or to their guards. They are occasionally subjected to torture and are often moved around, being used as pawns in a political game. They would endure this situation for twelve years, denied even basic human interaction and often, sunlight. And to think we Americans are about ready to mount an armed revolt after only two months – at home.

This intense film has a difficult task set to it; making an interesting film about men confined to small cells with nothing to do. And damned if Brechner doesn’t do just that. We get a sense of the deprivations that the men lived under and the strength of character it took for them to emerge on the other side of their ordeal with all their marbles intact.

The movie kind of plunges us into the ordeal, starting with the prisoners being carted off to prison without so much as a trial. We don’t really get any sense of who these men were before they ere captured or of their personalities. We know that Mujica had a strong relationship with his mama (Cruz), that Rosencof was an outstanding writer (he became one of Uruguay’s leading poets and playwrights after his release which he remains to this day) and that Huldobro had a love for soccer. It isn’t until near the end of the two-hour film that we really have any sort of handle on these men and their personalities, so be prepared to exhibit a little patience when viewing this.

The movie’s conclusion is powerful and moving; I found myself hard-pressed to stem the flow of tears. It is doubly remarkable to consider that Mujica would go on to become President of Uruguay from 2010-2015. It is an inspiring story and one that is worth the trouble to seek out and take in.

REASONS TO SEE: Very much reminiscent of a Costa-Gavras political thriller. Extremely moving in places. Some of the scenes are remarkably intense.
REASONS TO AVOID: There really isn’t a lot of context as to the various lead characters, especially early on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is both violence and profanity as well as some brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was Uruguay’s official submission for the 2019 Academy Awards Best Foreign Language Film award.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Papillon
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Mnemophrenia

Resistance (2020)


The path of least resistance.

(2020) Biographical Drama (IFCJesse Eisenberg, Ed Harris, Edgar Ramirez, Clémence Poésy, Matthias Schweighöfer, Bella Ramsey, Géza Röhrig, Karl Marcovics, Félix Moati, Alicia von Rittberg, Vica Kerekes, Tobias Gareth Elman, Kue Lawrence, Christian Clarke, Aurélie Bancilhon, Karina Beuthe Orr, Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey, Ryan Hadaller, Phillip Lenkowsky, Louise Morell. Directed by Jonathan Jakubowicz

 

Marcel Marceau is a name that likely many Americans under the age of 40 are unfamiliar with, other than perhaps in broad, general terms. He is considered perhaps the greatest mime who ever lived; certainly, the greatest of the 20th century. Few Americans – myself included – know much more than that. But did you know he was also a war hero?

Marcel (Eisenberg) is an aspiring actor working in a cabaret. His disapproving father (Marcovics) would prefer that his young son follow him in his trade – a Kosher butcher. However, both their plans are put into disarray with the Nazi invasion of France. Dad gets shipped off to Auschwitz while his son joins the French underground, mainly in order to protect a group of Jewish orphans but also to stay close to the comely Emma (Poésy), but also because the charismatic Georges (Röhrig) insists on it.

Opposing them will be Klaus Barbie (Schweighöfer), one of the most vicious and sadistic Nazis in history. Moving the orphans from occupied France to neutral Switzerland will take heroic measures – and the mime, who has heretofore not been too fond of children until recently and has served mainly as a forger, will find reserves of strength he didn’t know he had.

Eisenberg is kind of an odd choice to play Marceau, although his eternal boyish looks stood him in good stead when he was playing the 16-year-old Marcel. His French accent was kind of an on-again, off-again affair which was fairly annoying after a while. Still, Eisenberg manages to churn out perhaps his most likable characterization ever. He’s always played guys with a bit of a neurotic edge, but this is much more of a straightforward portrayal. Besides, I think the entire French nation would have risen up in protest had Eisenberg played him neurotic.

The last third is more in the suspense genre and Jakubowicz does a good job with maintaining a bit of an edge-of-the-seat tone, although to be honest since we know Marceau would go on to be an entertainer for another sixty years after the war, it is a bit anti-climactic – we know he’ll survive. Sadly, the movie is a good 20 minutes too long and terribly uneven; there are some good moments, as we’ve mentioned but there are nearly as many that don’t work. Jakubowicz makes some odd choices like having Ed Harris as General George S. Patton (!) show up in the beginning, and the end. While it’s true that Marceau did work as a liaison to Patton at the conclusion of the war, the insertion of the colorful general (who is subdued here) seemed a bit like name-dropping and didn’t particularly add anything to the story. Besides, even Harris would admit that nobody is ever going to equal George C. Scott’s performance as Patton.

This is a story that needed to be told, but it also needed to be told better. Marceau was undoubtedly a hero and few people outside of France are aware of it. The movie is sadly uneven and a bit self-indulgent but the heart is in the right place. Those willing to take a chance on it will be treated to a movie that’s worth the effort to seek out.

REASONS TO SEE: Eisenberg is at his most likable. The suspense elements work well.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit of a slow-moving jumble.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough violence to garner a restricted rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the film takes place in Strasbourg, France, it was largely filmed in Prague.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews, Metacritic: 56/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hotel Terminus
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Clover

The Spy Who Dumped Me


Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon shouldn’t need to crawl for anybody.

(2018) Spy Comedy (LionsgateMila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Justin Theroux, Gillian Anderson, Hassan Minhaj, Ivanna Sakhno, Sam Heughan, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Fred Melamed, Justine Wachsberger, Dustin Demri-Burns, Kev Adams, Mirjam Novak, Jane Curtin, Paul Reiser, James Fleet, Carolyn Pickles, Tom Stourton, Lolly Adefope, Ruby Kammer. Directed by Susanna Fogel

 

Getting dumped is a bummer. Then again, getting shot at by assassins who are after your ex because he’s really a spy – something that apparently didn’t come up in conversation. Then, having to complete his last mission by flying to Vienna with a plastic trophy to give to some mysterious figure…not cool.

But that’s what happens to Audrey (Kunis) whose boyfriend (Theroux) had already 86ed her by the time the movie starts. Audrey’s less-than-responsible friend Morgan (McKinnon) tries to cheer Audrey up to no avail but when the rubber hits the road – and the bullets start to fly – she’s got her bestie’s back.

Buddy spy movies have been done both on the big screen and small over the years although distaff versions are rare indeed, so writer-director Fogel gets points for that. She also gets points for casting Kunis, a gifted comedic actress who takes a fairly colorless character and makes her relatable, no easy task. However, she completely wastes McKinnon, so effective on Saturday Night Live who hasn’t really found a role on the big screen that really captures her talents well. Here, Morgan is extremely overbearing but not in a funny way and in fact so much so that we end up wondering why Audrey would want to hang out with her.

Then again, Morgan is at least a loyal friend and that’s not always an easy trait to find, so there’s that. There are some halfway decent action sequences – some which are unusually bloody for this genre. Sadly, the plot is kinda predictable too. The relationship between Morgan and Audrey, as well as Kunis’ screen charm are what save this film. Otherwise it’s one of those you might well see only if you’re bored and stoned out of your mind.

REASONS TO SEE: Kunis does her best considering the material
REASONS TO AVOID: McKinnon is overbearing
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, some crude sexual material, graphic nudity and pervasive profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McKinnon once won a Halloween costume contest by dressing up as Scully, Gillian Anderson’s character from The X-Files.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews: Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spy
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Overlord

The Report


Going through millions of pages in government reports could turn anybody into Kylo Ren.

(2019) True Life Drama (AmazonAdam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Ted Levine, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, Corey Stoll, Linda Powell, John Rothman, Victor Slezak, Guy Boyd, Alexander Chaplin, Joanne Tucker, Ian Blackman, Tim Blake Nelson, Fajer Kaisi, Scott Shepherd, Jennifer Morrison, Matthew Rhys, Kate Beahan, April Rogalski. Directed by Scott Z. Burns

 

As Americans, we have always held ourselves to certain standards. We are strong, true and follow the law. We do the right thing. There came a time though, that our self-image took a pounding.

Young Daniel Jones (Driver) is ambitious, ready to keep America safe after 9/11. He was anxious to make a difference the best way he could – behind the scenes as a Congressional aide. When Senator Diane Feinstein (Bening) asks him to look into recordings of interrogations that the CIA had reportedly destroyed, he uncovered something terrible; evidence that the CIA was torturing prisoners for information.

Calling the effort “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” or EIT, the program was put in place by a pair of contractors with backgrounds in psychology and the military. Nobody seemed to be bothered by the fact that the two men had never conducted an interrogation before, or that evidence was strong that torture almost never yielded any actionable intelligence. The program went on and keeping it covered up seemed to be the main focus.

Jones and a small team of researchers worked in a basement office in a CIA satellite office for five years, working crazy hours going through more than six million pages of documents. Despite reluctance by the CIA and certain segments of Congress, Jones pressed and pressed until he uncovered the shocking truth.

The story is an important one, one that is especially relevant these days. Not every important story makes a good movie, however; much of what happened involved researchers sitting in front of a computer screen in a jail cell-like atmosphere. The dramatic tension here is not very strong. It doesn’t help that Burns doesn’t really develop Jones much as a character; we never see much of his personality except for that he’s driven and almost obsessive. He’s passionate about what he’s looking for and sometimes gets frustrated when others don’t share his outrage.

Bening and Driver are both outstanding actors and they don’t disappoint here. Driver is definitely in a much more different kind of role than we’re used to from him and it’s a good fit. I’m impressed by his versatility as an actor and he really stretches himself here. Bening is an actress who doesn’t always get the due she deserves; she probably won’t get a ton of accolades for her performance here but she really brings Feinstein’s personality to the forefront; that’s not surprising considering the two are friends in real life. Good casting is important in any cinematic endeavor.

I can see where those who are politically conservative might not like this much; the Conservatives don’t come up covered in glory here. Still, it’s an important story about how easy it is for the way to be lost, and how wanting to preserve our security can sometimes lead to compromising our soul. It’s a chilling tale and one that needs to be committed to memory.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story chilling in its implications. Strong performances by Driver and Bening.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overall the movie is a bit more underwhelming than the story deserves.
FAMILY VALUES: There are disturbing depictions of torture, violence, plenty of profanity and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Daniel J. Jones attended the film’s world premiere at Sundance and received a standing ovation from the audience.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zero Dark Thirty
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Last Color

Apostle


The fire whisperer.

(2018) Horror (Netflix) Dan Stevens, Michael Sheen, Lucy Boynton, Mark Lewis Jones, Kristine Froseth, Sharon Morgan, Sebastian McCheyne, Gareth John Bale, Elen Rhys, Richard Elfyn, Paul Higgins, Bill Milner, Catrin Aron, Gareth Pierce, Rhys Meredith, John Norton, Ioan Hefin, Rhian Morgan, Owain Gwynn, Annes Elwy, Helena Dennis. Directed by Gareth Evans

 

Thomas Richardson (Stevens) is the scion of a wealthy family who has been through hell and has the laudanum addiction to prove it. When his beloved sister Jennifer (Rhys) is kidnapped, he is sent to pay the ransom. Not to a London-based criminal but to a bizarre cult living on a remote Welsh island. There he finds that the followers of the dumpy cult leader Malcolm Howe (Sheen) are hiding a secret that is more terrifying than he could have imagined. Probably not more terrifying than you or I could imagine, however; we’ve got pretty sick minds, after all.

The 1905 setting gives the film a kind of period unease present in films like The Wind or The Nightingale. The isolation of the island further contributes to the air of unease. Evans, veteran director of the two Raid films, opts for a tone that is creepy rather than outright scary. There aren’t really many outright frights although most of the real nasty stuff is man’s own inhumanity to man; the cultist, led by a rather brutal right-hand man to Howe named Quinn (Jones), has all manner of tortures available for those who disobey the rules which are many.

Stevens proves to be an adept leading man, able to be the brooding hunk one moment and a man of action the next. I would have preferred that the jumps between the two weren’t quite so jarring but I think that his use of violence was meant to be shocking but years of seeing too many horror and action movies has inured me to that kind of surprise.

The filmmakers make good use of their environment, from the creepy woods of the island to the homespun charm of the town which is a billboard ad for “Life isn’t easy ‘round these parts” and that it isn’t. There is a supernatural element that the film builds to but still feels as if it could have used more fleshing out; it’s more confusing than scary. Still, if you are in need of an atmospheric horror film set in the past that has elements of dangerous cults and a touch of torture porn to it, Netflix has the right film for you.

REASONS TO SEE: The cinematography is gorgeous. Dan Stevens is an excellent leading man.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit too long for the kind of film that it is.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and some disturbing horrific images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Thomas shares a name with an apostle who like the cinematic Thomas has doubts; the Thomas here in his faith, the apostle Thomas in the resurrection of Christ.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Midsommar
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Cajun Navy

Bilal: A New Breed of Hero


A future warrior at play as a child.

(2015) Animated Feature (Vertical) Starring the voices of Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ian McShane, China Anne McClain, Thomas Ian Nicholas, Michael Gross, Cynthia K. McWilliams, Jacob Latimore, Fred Tatasciore, Jon Curry, Mick Wingert, Dave B. Mitchell, Al Rodrigo, Andre Robinson, Sage Ryan, Quinton Flynn, Mark Rolston, John Eric Bentley, Keythe Farley, Sherrie Jackson. Directed by Khurram H. Alavi and Ayman Jamal

 

Dubai’s first foray into animated feature films is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, it boasts some truly glorious animation. On the other hand, the human characters are almost without expression throughout. It also focuses on a character from the very early days of the Islamic faith, of a figure who was part of the Prophet’s inner circle, although that is only tangentially referred to in the film and of course Muhammad isn’t depicted at all in keeping with their faith.

The movie is (very) loosely based on the life of Bilal ibn Rabah, a 7th century African man who in childhood was taken as a slave and became one of the first followers of the prophet Muhammad. He is in Islamic culture credited with being the first muezzin who calls the faithful to prayer reputedly because of his beautiful voice.

In the film, we see Bilal (Robinson) and his sister Shufaira (Robinson) watch horrified from a closet as their mother is murdered. The two children are taken as slaves and sold to the cruel idol-seller Umayya (McShane) whose son Safwan (Ryan) may be just a little bit crueler than his dad, although more cowardly.

Bilal grows into a man (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who is prized for his singing voice by his master. Run-ins with Safwan to protect his sister has left Bilal discouraged and essentially accepting his fate as a slave, flying in the face of the wisdom his mother taught him as a child. However, there are others in Mecca who disagree with the idol-worshiping money-grubbing slave-oriented economy and atmosphere of the city. Hamza (Mitchell), a noted warrior and the Master of the Market (Gross) both see greatness in Bilal and gradually win him over to monotheism and freedom. However, despite Bilal leaning towards pacifism, they will have to fight for that freedom – in a place called Badr.

This is a very different kettle of fish for animated features. For one thing, it is a story of a Muslim hero and portrays the religion in a very different light than it is generally portrayed in the West. Few will remember this from their history but at one time the Muslims accepted Jewish refugees driven out of Europe and under Arabic rule they thrived and often worked in the great centers of learning established in the Arabic world.

Sadly, a lot of American viewers won’t be able to look past the rhetoric and will see this as Muslim propaganda and while it certainly leans towards a positive vision of Islam, it is no more propaganda than Christian faith-based stories and animations. Americans are sadly notorious for turning away from the unfamiliar.

As mentioned earlier, the animation is a bit uneven but when it’s good, it’s really good. Strangely though, there is an awful lot of violence and cruelty depicted in the film, much more so than in the average children’s animated film which might give some parents pause. However, those parents who wish to teach tolerance as a lesson should certainly high-tail it to their local VOD site of choice or their local DVD/Blu-Ray dealer because that lesson is certainly honed in on. Sure, the dialogue is a bit clunky (the characters rarely use contractions and end up all sounding like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation) and full of aphorisms which may drive the average adult batty but it is meant sincerely. I also question the title a little bit; how is a 7th century figure a “new” breed of hero?

The movie got a brief theatrical release in February, more than three years after it had been released elsewhere globally. Likewise, it is only now showing up on home video. This is a pretty solid animated feature which although flawed shows some potential for the studio that the directors established in order to make this film. Although perhaps Americans may continue to resist features that give the colorful and often brilliant history of the Islamic faith, I hope the studio continues to produce them. Learning more about the culture of Islam is the first step in learning not to fear it but rather coexist with it.

REASONS TO GO: The animation is occasionally breathtaking. The story is interesting.
REASONS TO STAY: This is much too long for younger kids. The English dialogue is a bit stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some surprisingly intense violence, child peril, some disturbing images as well as thematic issues.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the depiction of the Battle of Badr, animators brought to life 5,000 human characters and 1,000 horses – more than took place at the actual battle which involved 1,300 warriors and 270 horses.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Up and Away
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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Write When You Get Work

Trauma (2017)


Evil can be transcendent.

(2017) Horror (Artsploitation) Catalina Martin, Macarena Carrere, Ximena del Solar, Dominga Bofill, Daniel Antivilo, Eduardo Paxeco, Felipe Rios, Claudio Riveros, Florencia Heredia, Alejandro Trejo, Claudia Aravena, Mauricio Rojas, Max Torres, Felipe Eluti, Catalina Bianchi, Nicolas Rojas, Jose Calderon, Cristian Ramos, Nicolas Platovsky, Faby Zamora. Directed by Lucio A. Rojas

I’m not one to post warnings before I start my review, but this movie demands one. It is absolutely not for everybody. There are graphic depictions of rape, torture and worse. Those who are sensitive to such things should definitely NOT view this movie under any circumstances whatsoever. In fact, you probably shouldn’t read the rest of the review either. Those who think they can manage, read on…

During the height of the reign of Chilean despot Augustin Pinochet, a woman watches her husband be executed in front of her – this after she has been brutally raped by her interrogators. Then, her son (Torres) is brought in. She screams and cries and begs her son to be calm. The lead interrogator injects the boy with some kind of rudimentary Viagra and then the boy is forced to rape his own mother. He continues to rut with her even after she’s been shot dead by the interrogator, who then raises the boy as her own.

In present day Chile, four friends in metropolitan Santiago  – Andrea (Martin), her sister Camila (Carrere), their cousin Magdalena (Bofill) and Magdalena’s girlfriend Julia (del Solar) head out into the country for a girl’s weekend. They end up getting lost and find a bar in the small village which turns out to be a very unfriendly place, but a local named Juan (Antivilo) defuses the situation and gives the girls directions to the hacienda they are renting.

Later on that night, Juan appears at their rental with his son Pedro (Rios) and the two locals beat and rape the girls savagely. In the morning, the two leave but only after one last act of violence. The police soon arrive and the girls are able to describe their attackers. When the cops go to arrest Juan and his son, they are ambushed and only one cop survives. Knowing that there is no getting out except through the sadistic Juan, the women decide to join forces with the cops and beat Juan and Pedro at their own game.

Yes, Juan is the grown-up young boy from the opening scene and much of what Trauma is about is the cycle of violence perpetuated by abuse. This can be applied not only to the brutal abuse of a tyrannical regime but also domestic abuse, although the filmmakers don’t come out and say so. However, the trail markers are very much evident.

Antivilo is magnificent here. His smug smile and sadistic ways make him one of the most memorable movie villains I’ve seen this year Even though he doesn’t snap his finger and make half the population of the universe disappear (although one suspects he would if he could), he clearly enjoys his work so much that he can’t hide his glee at his awfulness. If this were an American film, he’d be getting comparisons to Robert Mitchum in Cape Fear.

The violence here is graphic and unapologetic. Reportedly based on an actual incident, the movie pulls no punches including during the rapes. The actresses reportedly told Rojas that they wanted the actors to be as brutal as possible and the sense of savagery that courses through the scene seems genuine enough. While there are a few digital effects, for the main the effects here are practical.

The movie is a bit long; the build-up to the attack is slow-moving and there are scenes, such as when the four women are dancing in what they think is the privacy of their rented hacienda, that should have been trimmed severely. Also towards the end the movie essentially becomes a standard revenge film; no points for that.

But again, this is a movie that is likely to trigger women who have survived sexual assault and those who are sensitive to such depictions. The rape scenes are hard to watch even if you aren’t triggered. Although the women are beautiful and the nudity is graphic, there is nothing sexy about what happens to these women. The rape scenes can be juxtaposed with scenes of consensual sex which are shot in softer focus and are beautiful to watch; the rape scenes by comparison are in sharper focus and the soundtrack is absent of music during the scene. It’s very stark and effective in that regard.

The question to ask is whether the extreme violence here justifies the message of the movie. There will be some who will call it gratuitous and exploitative and I can’t deny there is a point there. I don’t know if I have an answer to that question; I suppose it will depend on the individual. For myself, I would not think of censoring this nor denying the film’s right to exist. I also think the point could have been made without resorting to the level of depravity the film stoops to. At a certain point, one gets numb to the horrors shown on-screen – but maybe that’s what Rojas intended all along. Maybe that’s ultimately his point.

REASONS TO GO: There is certainly a political point being made here and a valid one at that. Daniel Antivilo is one of the best movie villains this year.
REASONS TO STAY: The violence is brutal and trigger opportunities abound. Some scenes could have used some trimming.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of graphic violence, much of it of a sexual nature. There are also portrayals of rape, torture, and various sex acts with plenty of nudity and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Artsploitation reportedly didn’t submit the film to be distributed by iTunes because they were concerned that all their films might end up being banned from the site.
BEYOND THE THEATERS:  Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I Spit on Your Grave
FINAL RATING: 6/10
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Six Days of Darkness Day Five