Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (Ye wen wai zhuan: Zhang tian zhi)


Jin Zhang and Michelle Yeoh have a tete a tete.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Jin Zhang, Dave Bautista, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Jaa, Patrick Tam, Xing Yu, Naason, Chrissie Chau, Yan Liu, Henry Zhang, Brian Thomas Burrell, Kevin Chang, Adam Pak, Yuen Wah, Adel Ali Mohamed, Mathieu Jaquet. Directed by Woo-Ping Yuen

 

The Ip Man series of films (currently at seven and counting – another one is set for American distribution in July) have yielded big box office success in China and Hong Kong over the years. The series revolves around Ip Man, the revered and legendary martial arts master whose claim to fame in the West is that he mentored Bruce Lee. Most of the Ip Man movies revolve around the master defending the citizens of Hong Kong from the excesses of the corrupt British colonialists and deadly local criminal gangs. Although highly fictionalized accounts of the master’s life, the popularity of the series in Asia is undeniable.  It was inevitable that a spin-off would be created. Does it deliver on the action goods as the original series did?

Wing chun master and formerly the head of a prestigious school Cheung Tin-chi (J. Zhang) lost a closed-door match to Ip Man (the only connection to Ip Man and an outrageously tenuous one at that) and has been reduced to beating up people for a low-life criminal (Wah). Disillusioned by the way his life has turned out, Cheung elects to walk away from fighting. He opens up a tiny grocery store and sets about raising his rambunctious yet precocious young son Fung (H. Zhang) himself.

Nana (Chau) is hooked on drugs and is deeply in debt to local crimelord Kit (Chang). He is the hot-headed younger brother of Cheung Lok matriarch Kwan (Yeoh) who yearns to take her criminal enterprise legitimate, much to the consternation of Kit and her underlings who in the words of one, only know crime. Nana’s soon-to-be sister-in-law Julia (Liu) pays off Nana’s debt. She is the sister of Fu (Naason), one of the leaders on Hong Kong’s notorious garish Bar Street. He owns the successful Gold Bar, where Nana – his fiancée – works as a waitress and Julia sings. Kit though is not satisfied with the principle being paid off; he ants the interest too and refuses to release Nana. The feisty Julia manages to yank Nana away and the two women flee don an alleyway trailed by a pack of Kit’s goons here they run into Cheung making a delivery.

The goons are no match for Cheung, who now finds himself having acquired the enmity of Kit who firebombs Cheung’s store in retaliation. Cheung and his son, who lived above the store, have no place to go so the compassionate Julia puts them up and Cheung gets a job as a waiter at the Gold Bar. Still, Kit isn’t finished with them and when he goes too far leading to tragedy, Cheung knows he won’t get justice through the corrupt police ho are in the pockets of Kwan and Kit. Justice must be acquired the old-fashioned way.

The thing about most martial arts films is that the plot is pretty generic, the acting over-the-top and the characters barely developed at all and this is true of Master Z. However, Jin Zhang (also known as Max Zhang) is a charismatic lead who could appeal to audiences in much the same way as Ip Man’s Donnie Yen does. It doesn’t hurt to have Yeoh, easily one of the most accomplished actresses in the globe and a terrific martial artist in her own right, on the marquee. Tony Jaa, the spectacular fighter from the Thai series Ong Bak cameos as a mysterious assassin employed by various factions in the Hong Kong criminal underground, as well as former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista as a vicious racist restaurateur who is the drug supplier for Kit. Bautista’s British accent is a mite unconvincing though.

The real stars here are the production design and the fight scenes. Bar Street which in its day was a garish cross of Times Square and the Vegas strip. Recreated on a sound stage, it is a fantasy land of light and motion and a perfect place to stage spectacular fight scenes. The film is set in the early 60s judging from the costumes and the hair style of the women (lots of beehives and bouffants). While the era is inexact in some ways, the look is undeniable eye candy.

Despite having one of the greatest martial arts fight choreographers in history in the director’s chair, the fights are curiously uneven. The first in which Cheung encounters Kit’s goons in the alleyway is surprisingly tame; the next one, among the neon signs of Bar Street, is spectacular. Yeoh and Zhang have some nifty fights including one with a whiskey glass which they endeavor to pass from one to the other without spilling a drop. However, the climactic fight between Bautista and Zhang is once again not as thrilling as it might have been. When the fight scenes are at their best, though, they are stupendous.

There is certainly potential for sequels to Master Z and it did quite well at the box office when it was released in China earlier this year. In all fairness despite the star power in the cast (and behind the camera) the movie doesn’t really add much to the genre but it is entertaining in its own right and that’s enough for the martial arts enthusiast like me.

REASONS TO SEE: The production design is dazzling. Michelle Yeoh is always worth the price of admission.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the fight sequences (like the first one) don’t measure up to the show stoppers. The plot is pretty generic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts violence, some mild profanity as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the character of Ip Man (played in the series by Donnie Yen) doesn’t appear in the film, Yen remains on as a producer for it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ip Man 2
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Ramen Shop

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Shadow (Ying)


Here comes the rain again.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Chao Deng, Li Sun, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang, Jingchun Wang, Jun Hu, Xiaotong Guan, Lei Wu, Bai Feng. Directed by Yimou Zhang

Perhaps the most acclaimed film director to come out of China is Yimou Zhang, whose wuxia classics Hero and The House of Flying Daggers have thrilled art house moviegoers for more than a decade. However more recently, missteps like his anglicized The Great Wall failed to connect with mass audiences. However, his latest is a return to form. Garnering massive critical acclaim from its debut at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the movie is once again familiar territory for the great action director, set during the Three Kingdoms period in China.

Commander Yu (Deng) is the beloved general of the Pei Kingdom’s armies who was gravely wounded in battle with the nearly invulnerable General Yang (Hu). However, he appears to be well on the mend and his somewhat prevaricating King (Zheng) is surprised to discover that his impetuous Commander has picked a fight with the man who recently wounded him with the city of Jing, which had been lost to the invaders of Yang Kingdom, going to the winner.

However, the King doesn’t want these events to lead to war so he instead offers his sister (Guan) as concubine to Yang’s son (Wu). What the King doesn’t know is that the Commander isn’t who he appears to be; he is a commoner named Jing (also Deng) who is serving as the real Yu’s shadow, or impostor. Yu has schemed to use the fake Yu as a diversion while a handpicked army of renegades retakes the city. Knowing that this will not only embarrass the king but also lose him what political capital he might have with the nobles, Yu expects to take the throne for himself. Complicit in the dealings is Madame (Sun), Yu’s devious wife. The machinations are almost Machiavellian – some would say Shakespearean.

Zhang as a director is known for his extravagant use of color but he goes in entirely the opposite direction here. Greys and whites and blacks make up the majority of his palate, giving the film an almost black and white look to the point that at times I wondered if he hadn’t shot the film in black and white. Extraordinarily, he did not – everything here is about production design and costuming. In itself it’s an incredible achievement. However, it does get distracting at times. There is also an awful lot of dialogue which isn’t of itself a bad thing but it forces us to be reading the subtitles rather than taking in the marvelous visuals. I’m not often an advocate for dubbing but here is an example where it might have gone better had they gone in that direction.

There is a good deal of gore here but the martial arts sequences are elegantly staged, often using the ubiquitous rainfall as an ally – Yimou even posits umbrellas being used as a weapon, giving the battles an almost feminine grace and a touch of whimsy – a group of battle-hardened warriors slide down a city street in overturned umbrellas in a kind of martial arts waterslide effect. In all, this is a return to form for Yimou and a must-see for any fan of Asian cinema, particularly of the wuxia variety. While it is for the moment on the Festival circuit, it is expected to be in limited theatrical release in May and through the summer. Start bugging your local art house programmer to book this one now.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is epic in scope. The ending is full of twists and turns and has a fair amount of gore for those who love that. The zither duel is absolutely spellbinding.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie lacks color particularly in the palace scenes, a bit of a switch for Yimou.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts and war violence and some brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The black and white tones that most of the film is shot in is meant not only to emphasize the relationship between light and shadow but to also follow in the style of Chinese ink wash paintings.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The House of Flying Daggers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Bring Me an Avocado

Burning (Beoning)


That which reminds us of things we can’t bear to look at must sometimes be burned.

(2018) Mystery (Well Go USA) Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jun, Soo-kyung Kim, Seung-ho Choi, Seong-kun Mun, Bok-gi Min, Soo-Jeong Lee, Hye-ra Ban, Mi-Kyung Cha, Bong-ryeon Lee, Wonhyeong Jang, Seok-chan Jeon, Joong-ok Lee, Ja-Yeon Ok. Directed by Chang-dong Lee

 

Human relationships are by their very nature complex, particularly when sexuality is part of the equation. Sometimes we find someone who we can’t believe could possibly be interested in us; other times we see things in someone that they don’t see in themselves. All the while, our desires burn brightly within us.

Jong-su Lee (Yoo) is a country bumpkin living in Seoul. Hailing from the farming community of Paju, near the DMZ that borders North and South Korea – so close in fact that the propaganda broadcasts from the North can clearly be heard in Paju – Jong-su has managed to get himself an education and yearns to be a writer, admiring American authors like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

To make ends meet while he writes his novel, Jong-su works as a delivery boy. One day he accidentally encounters Hae-mi Shin (Jun) who grew up with him in Paju although he scarcely remembers her. Where he is colorless, she is vibrant; where he is taciturn she is outgoing and she is energetic where he is lethargic. She is everything he’s not and everything he wants. To his surprise they strike up a friendship which turns into something more. She is getting ready to go on a previously planned trip to Africa and needs him to watch her pet cat; he agrees.

While she is gone, he haunts her apartment, missing her presence and her sexual energy. There is some evidence of a cat – a litter box that fills with poop, a bowl that he fills with food which is empty when he comes back – however he never actually sees the cat whom she names Boil on account of that she found him in a boiler room.

Jong-su has had to move back to Paju in the meantime – his father has been arrested for assaulting a government official and eventually is convicted and sent to prison. Jong-su must take care of the family farm. When he receives a phone call from Hae-mi that she needs to pick her up at the airport, he is overjoyed – until she materializes with a new boyfriend, the wealthy Ben (Yeun) in tow. Ben is a handsome, charming, and charismatic sort and Jong-su is certainly aware that Ben is more attractive as a boyfriend in every way conceivable. Ben seems to enjoy Jong-su’s company and often invites Jong-su to parties and on dinner dates with him and Hae-mi.

Outwardly Jong-su seems okay with this arrangement but inwardly he is seething and when he boils over and yells at Hae-mi, she breaks off communication with him. After a few days of frantic calling, Jong-su begins to realize that nobody has seen Hae-mi since then. He begins to get an uneasy feeling, particularly when Ben confesses while high that he likes to burn down abandoned greenhouses for kicks. Suddenly Jong-su is beginning to wonder if there isn’t more to Ben than meets the eye.

Chang-dong Lee is considered one of South Korea’s most gifted and respected directors. His films tend to be deeply layered, very complex and sublimely nuanced. In many ways, Burning is his most accessible work to date. Still, there is as with all his works much more than meets the eye which is saying something given the often breathtaking cinematography.

The triangle at the forefront of the movie has some delicious performances. Yoo has the rubber-faced expression of a comedian but rarely varies it beyond befuddlement and bewilderment. He is a child-man in a fast-paced world of naked consumerism; he is the Nick Carraway to Ben’s Jay Gatsby (the film even references the book directly), fascinated and yet envious. Jong-su becomes obsessed with Ben, first as Hae-mi’s new paramour and later in a different way after the girl’s disappearance.

Yeun, who most American viewers will remember as the good-hearted Glen from The Walking Dead has a very different role here. He is part of the one-percent and has all the arrogance that you would expect from those used to getting everything they want. He also can be cruel, sometimes inadvertently but one has to wonder if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. Ben is, after all, a very bright young man. Yeun does a bang-up job here.

Jun leaves the most indelible impression. Hae-mi is both desperately lonely and wonderfully outgoing. She is very sexual but very naive at the same time. She is a hot mess from a personal standpoint and she breaks the heart of Jong-su who in their last scene together throws it back in her face. She is an enigma, never more so when she disappears and one wonders if she, like her cat, was not real to begin with.

The movie takes a definite turn after Hae-mi goes missing; it goes from a romantic Dramedy to a mystery which seems to be the crux of the film. When a friend who had previously seen the movie asked me what I thought of it, I responded “It’s like getting two movies for the price of one” and so it is but this isn’t such a wide turn that the audience is left with whiplash. Rather, it is an organic change that allows the viewer to go along for the ride without getting too uncomfortable.

This was South Korea’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscars this year and while it didn’t make the shortlist – despite being a favorite to do so – it certainly deserved to do so. There is a purity to this work that transcends cultural lines; I do believe that one can feel the truth in it regardless if you are Korean, American or from anywhere else. Some truths are universal after all.

REASONS TO GO: It’s like getting two films for the price of one. The filmmakers wisely leave a lot of aspects to the imagination. The audience is never 100% sure of what took place in the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The first third of the film is a bit of a slog.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity as well as sex and nudity and some shocking violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to be directed by Chang-dong Lee since Shi in 2010.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Girl on the Train
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Dolphin Kick

Jonathan


You’re never alone when you’re a schizophrenic.

(2018) Science Fiction (Well Go USA) Ansel Elgort, Suki Waterhouse, Patricia Clarkson, Matt Bomer, Douglas Hodge, Souleymane Sy Savane, Shunori Ramanathan, Joe Egender, Ian Unterman, Alok Tewari, Jeff Kim, Alaska M. McFadden, Ramses Torres, Teo Rapp-Olsson, Julie Mickelson.  Directed by Bill Oliver

 

Most people have facets to their personalities. They aren’t just one thing; not just a party animal, not just a career person, not just a mama’s boy (or girl). We are most of us several different people whose varied personalities make up our one personality. What would it be like if the different personality traits turned out to be different and separate consciousnesses, battling one another for control?

That is the situation Jonathan (Elgort) is in. By day he is a ramrod-straight, obsessive draftsman for an architectural firm where he is just on the cusp of breaking into an important role. By night, he is a laid-back physical guy who drinks, hangs out with friends and is messy. Essentially, Jonathan and his other self John are twin brothers inhabiting the same body. They have been cared for nearly all their lives by the wise and maternal Dr. Mina Nariman (Clarkson) who often acts as a kind of mediator between the two brothers.

There are rules they must follow, mainly because they don’t want their secret discovered although to be honest I was never clear as to why they couldn’t let anybody know what they were going through. The boys each dictate a video diary which the other one reads when they “wake up” before recording their own diary when they go “to sleep.” That way, both brothers are prepared for the reactions neighbors and acquaintances might have for them.

The problems begin when John falls for a pretty barmaid/cocktail waitress named Elena (Waterhouse) and doesn’t tell Jonathan about it. When Jonathan finds clues that there’s something that may be going on, he hires a private investigator (Bomer) to figure out what’s going on. When he discovers the truth, he is furious and insists that John end the relationship. John refuses and so Jonathan takes it upon himself to do it for him by telling her the truth. She naturally thinks John is schizophrenic and breaks things up, which causes a rift between the brothers, a rift that only deepens when Jonathan finds himself falling in love with Elena himself.

The brothers’ 12 hour control “shifts” (John gets 7pm through 7am to be conscious, Jonathan from 7am to 7pm) is regulated by a doohickey which is where the science fiction element comes in. While this is set in a recognizable present day, the cold and sterile environs of the office Jonathan works in, the apartment he lives in, and the doctor’s office he visits weekly give an almost dystopian THX-1138 feel to the movie. In fact, the visuals are so antiseptic at times the movie feels nearly colorless and emotion-free. That’s a reflection of Jonathan’s cold and calculating personality, and it is through his eyes we primarily see the events of the movie.

Elgort has mainly been cast in teen heartthrob roles although from time to time he has shown glimpses of raw talent. This is his best performance – or performances – to date. The two twins are definitely separate personalities and Elgort looks comfortable and believable in both of them. Waterhouse has to react to both halves of the Jonathan whole and she does so admirably although fairly colorlessly. She isn’t given much personality to work with and mainly exists in the film as a fulcrum to spark the dissension between the two personalities.

For the most part the script is smart, refusing to take shortcuts and in fact nicely mapping out the rules of the world Jonathan exists in. Yes, there may be a sci-fi doohickey involved but it’s more of a MacGuffin than a focal point. That keeps the tech from getting too distracting.

This is definitely aimed at those who prefer thought-provoking science fiction over space operas. Critic Warren Cantrell of The Playlist even discusses the Freudian implications of the two separate Johns (you can read his analysis here) which is a fascinating interpretation and not wrong at all. As things start to break down for Jonathan, the color palate for the film grows more diverse – more food for thought.

In short (too late), this is a well-developed well-considered movie of the type we don’t get enough of these days. It’s a solid feature debut for Oliver and while some may find the sterility of Jonathan a bit off-putting, those who like to exercise their grey matter may find this film a decent workout.

REASONS TO GO: Elgort pulls off a difficult task. The script is intelligent and well-thought out.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this too sterile and intellectual.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a brief picture of blisters that may be a bit disturbing for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the third time Elgort and Waterhouse have appeared together – they were also both in Insurgent and Billionaire Boys Club.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daniel
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
See Know Evil

Operation Red Sea (Hong hai xing dong)


The Sea Dragons are here to kick ass and slurp noodles and they’re all out of noodles.

(2018) War (Well Go USA) Yi Zhang, Johnny Huang, Hai-Quing, Jiang Du, Luxia Xiang, Sanâa Alaoui, Fang Yin, Yutian Wang, Guo Yubin, Henry Mai, Yu Dawei, Fenfen Huang, Nisrine Adam, Faical Elkihel, Ren Dahua, Hanyu Zhang, Noureddine Aberdine, Cai Jie, Qiang Wang, Bing Bai, Siyan Huo. Directed by Dante Lam

For awhile there it felt like the good ol’ US of A had the market cornered on chest-thumping military action films. Well, move over Uncle Sam; China has earned themselves a seat at that particular table with this big budget modern day warfare look at an elite squad (not unlike Seal Team 6) in the Chinese Navy.

The movie starts out with them rescuing a Chinese merchant vessel from Somali pirates. Captain Phillips much? In any case, no sooner have they mopped up that operation when they are urgently diverted to the North African (fictional) country of Yewaire which is suffering through a revolution being orchestrated by a terrorist organization called Zaka. Sure they want to set up their own intolerant theocracy there but there is a much more sinister motive; they’re trying to get at a supply of yellowcake, a type of weapons-grade Uranium. With that, they would be able to make a terrifying number of dirty bombs that could potentially wipe dozens of cities from the face of the map.

But then they take some Chinese civilians hostage and anyone will tell you that’s a really bad idea. The squad – called Sea Dragons – is sent in and put to work rescuing their citizens, preventing the terrorists from getting the yellowcake and in general saving the day while looking pretty dang good at it.

Like Hollywood hits 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, American Sniper and Lone Survivor, Operation Red Sea is as much entertainment as it is recruitment video – some might say propaganda (and they wouldn’t be far wrong). The military, in this case the Chinese military, is portrayed in a totally badass light with plenty of macho testosterone-laden one-liners meant to portray just how badass they are although the dialogue “Tom Yi: Give ‘em Hell!” is as cringe-inducing as a similar line from a World War II war flick is today. Kind of makes you want to slap a dame on the butt and give the Krauts what for although the Krauts here are the 21st all-purpose villain Arab terrorists.

There is a significant difference between this film and American versions however; for one thing, the Sea Dragons aren’t really given much individual character. For them and apparently the Chinese military in general as well, it’s all about the team and not the individual. The snipers here aren’t getting into one-on-one battles with their opposites pretty much although there is a little bit of that; the whole “Army of One” campaign that the US Army ran a few years back would have never played in China. Individualism is Western weakness; sacrificing for the good of society is much more desirable and that really sums up our societies in a nutshell.

Consequently there really aren’t a lot of standout performances here although the Chinese actors on display here are much more restrained than we normally see from Chinese films. One place they’ve definitely improved are on the battle sequences; utilizing Korean effects houses (the best at these kinds of effects in the business) the battles look realistic and terrifying. There’s a boatload of gore and I’m talking about an aircraft carrier, not a dinghy. Fingers are blown off, jaws are unhinged, people are perforated, stabbed, shot, burned and eviscerated and from time to time, heads are lopped off. The carnage can be pretty intense so be mindful of that if you are sensitive to such things.

This is going to feel a lot like movies you’ve seen before if you’re an American although if you’re Chinese chances are this will be much more unfamiliar ground. If the flag-waving and chest-thumping may be a little bit too bizarre for you coming from a Chinese film, it might be understandable. Not that long ago a movie like this would never have been picked up for American distribution; the Chinese military would not carry much of a resonant rooting interest for American audiences – the fact that not one Chinese civilian gets killed in this film is no accident. The message is that Chinese citizens are perfectly safe while the military is around which is some powerful stuff if you’re a citizen of the People’s Republic.

The entertainment value is pretty strong though and even though it is a bit of a different attitude than similarly themed American films there’s still the visceral enjoyment. To quote the legendary Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, a good many things get blowed up real good. This film, playing this week at the New York Asian Film Festival, had a limited theatrical release this past February and will be available on various streaming services as well as on home video effective July 24th. If you like your war movies with all the gore and none of the angst, this one is for you.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are well-plotted. The movie is entertaining throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: It may be a little too long for some American audiences. It feels like a fairly standard American military action B-movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as strong and often bloody violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the evacuation of Chinese citizens from the port town of Aden during the Yemen Civil War of March 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Navy SEALs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Respeto

Buster’s Mal Heart


Fear the beard.

(2016) Drama (Well Go USA) Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil, Sukha Belle Potter, Toby Huss, Lin Shaye, Mark Kelly, Bruce Bundy, Teresa Yenque, Jared Larson, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Nicholas Pryor, RJ Burns, Gabriel Clark, Lily Gladstone, Chris Toma, Shi Ne Nielson, Ricky Hartung, Tom Cordingley, Dr. Franklin Ruehl, Kate Berlant (voice), Jenny Leonhardt. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith

Florida-film-festival-2017

For most of us, there comes a time in our lives when we strongly suspect that there’s something terribly wrong with the system. I’m not talking about capitalism, communism or anything like that; I mean there’s something terribly wrong with the system of life. There’s a glitch in God’s software, in other words. A patch is sorely needed.

Jonah (Malek) is a concierge at a budget hotel in a Montana resort area. He works the graveyard shift, and although his title is fancy his job is not. He works the front desk and does all sorts of odd jobs around the hotel; throwing linens into an industrial laundry machine, putting dishes through a washer, fishing out slices of pizza from the hotel’s indoor swimming pool and vacuuming carpets endlessly. When he’s not doing these things, he’s bored almost to tears; religious programming plays on the TV set endlessly and on the hotel’s handball court he tosses a rubber ball in a desultory way at the wall.

At home, he plays with his daughter Roxy (Potter) and is affectionate with his wife Marty (Sheil) but is less friendly with her parents, particularly the venomous Pauline (Shaye) who is hypercritical of everything he does. It is, after all, her house they live in, Jonah pulling in a paltry sum from the hotel. He and Marty dream of one day owning their own parcel of land where they can bring up their daughter the way they want to. He has chronic insomnia, unable to sleep during the day.

One night a strange drifter (Qualls) comes into the hotel, looking for a room for the night. He has no identification and refuses to pay with anything but cash. Corporate policy requires ID and a credit card but Jonah lets him stay anyway. The two strike up a conversation and the drifter has some fairly interesting viewpoints. He is apparently a computer software engineer, trying to insure that Y2K won’t bring the world’s economy to a grinding halt. He also talks about an event called The Inversion, when life on Earth will be irrevocably changed and only a leap into the sphincter-like opening of a wormhole will save those who believe in the Inversion from annihilation. In Jonah’s sleep-deprived state, the ramblings of the drifter make a whole lot of sense; there is, after all, a bug in the system.

Buster (Malek) is the name locals use for a bearded mountain man who survives the harsh Montana winters by breaking into expensive vacation homes and living off the food stored therein. He makes incoherent calls to radio talk shows, babbling about an event called The Inversion. He is harmless, really; he meticulously cleans the homes he squats in and leaves them as he found them except for two quirky things; he turns the photographs hanging on the walls of the homes he stays in upside down and once in awhile, he takes a dump in a cooking pot and leaves it on the dining room table. He is clearly not operating with a full deck.

He is essentially harmless but the local Deputy Winston (Huss) has vowed to capture Buster despite the fact that he has never harmed a fly. However, when an elderly couple surprise Buster inside their home, he takes them hostage, treating them politely and even cooking them dinner but then locking them in a closet and refusing to speak to them. Things change rapidly after that.

A man (Malek) floats in a rowboat in the middle of a vast body of water There may or may not be another man with him; we can’t be sure. The man has a long and unkempt beard and hair. He gets his sustenance by fishing and from time to time rages at the heavens. He is tired of this life and of the pain and suffering and only wants to die.

These three – Jonah, Buster and the Man in the Boat – could all be the same man. Then again, they may not be although it is very likely that Jonah and Buster are indeed the same guy. If so, what happened to change Jonah from a rational, loving father and husband to a wild and unstable mountain man?

Second-time director Smith who also wrote the movie has come up with an interesting and somewhat cerebral quasi-science fiction outing that doesn’t always state its case clearly. Much of what is happening onscreen defies explanation and the audience is left to come up with their own answers which is a highly dangerous endeavor these days; most audiences would much rather have the answers handed to them.

Malek, the Emmy-winning star of Mr. Robot, takes on his first feature lead role and shows that he is not only capable of handling it but of shining while doing it. He reminds me strongly of a young John Malkovich both physically and in his performance. While the movie bounces around from time to time, Malek truly holds it together. He is never anything less than mesmerizing.

The movie is long on ideas but a bit short on developing them. There is a kind of vagueness although some things seem pretty clear; it’s just you need to connect the dots somewhat and that can be a bit tiring for those not used to it. The sense of things being not quite right is prevalent throughout the movie; it leads you to mistrust what you’re seeing onscreen and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Smith clearly takes the old saw of “the road not taken” literally to heart and we are left to wonder if the high road was necessarily the right one in this case. The grief of Buster doesn’t necessarily come to the forefront but it’s there and although we may not realize it at the time, we are watching the actions of a man in unimaginable pain. Whether or not that man is still sane – or even still human – is up to you to decide.

REASONS TO GO: You are definitely going to need your brain in full gear for this one. Malek is a natural lead actor.
REASONS TO STAY: This may be a bit too confusing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult thematic elements, some violence and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malek was already cast while the film was still in development before breaking out in Mr. Robot.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Ghost in the Shell

Mine (2016)


Armie Hammer considers his options.

(2016) War (Well Go USA) Armie Hammer, Annabelle Wallis, Tom Cullen, Clint Dyer, Geoff Bell, Juliet Aubrey, Inés Piñar Mille, Luka Peros, Daniel Sandoval, Agustin Rodriguez, Yesarela Arzumendi, Manuel Medero, David Kirk Taylor (voice), Edoardo Purgatori (voice). Directed by Fabio Guaglione and Fabio Resinaro

 

Our adventures in the Middle East have put the United States in a Gordian knot of a predicament. We cannot withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan without creating chaos and yet if we stay we seem to become more tightly ensnared. We cannot stay put and yet we cannot step away.

Mike (Hammer) is a U.S. Marine sniper on a mission to take out a high-ranking terrorist. Intel has put him in a remote part of the desert far from anywhere, accompanied by his spotter Tommy (Cullen). Mike has the suspect in his sights but it turns out that he is there not to plan mayhem with his fellow terrorists but to see his son married. Mike hesitates and inadvertently gives away their position. The mission is officially FUBAR.

He and Tommy are forced to flee across the unforgiving desert. Sand storms have grounded the helicopters that would normally pick them up so they’re going to have to hoof it to a village six kilometers across the desert. With limited supplies, it will not be an easy journey but given their military training they should be able to make it. That is, until they walk dead into a minefield.

Mike ends up stepping on a mine but is able to stop himself from lifting his foot and detonating it. Tommy isn’t so lucky. He blows himself in half and leaves Mike to fend for himself. Using a little bit of improvising, he is able to contact his handlers and tell them of his predicament; they still can’t get their helicopters off the ground and with their assets deployed elsewhere it will be 52 long hours before someone can get to a lone Marine standing on a land mine.

As Mike is baked in the desert sun and runs out of water, he meets a friendly Berber (Dyer) who urges him to take a chance, step off the mine and free himself but Mike can’t do it. He begins to hallucinate and flashes back to a beautiful girlfriend (Wallis) he can’t quite commit to (but definitely should), an abusive alcoholic father (Bell) who called Mike’s spine into question and a mother (Aubrey) whose recent bout with cancer has left Mike shaken to the core and running away rather than facing what has befallen him at home.

With thirst, wild dogs, vengeful terrorists and sand storms besetting him, it is a test of Mike’s will in order to survive. Can he survive with one foot planted on the mine or will he take a leap of faith and free himself from his situation?

The movie is very much a metaphor for the American involvement in the Middle East, but that’s not really what drew me to this film. It isn’t easy to make a movie about a man locked in place in the middle of nowhere interesting and engaging and I wasn’t sure if the Italian duo known as Fabio and Fabio could pull it off but pull it off they did.

Much of the reason they did is that Hammer delivers a performance that improves and grows as the movie goes on. Initially he’s a ramrod-straight Marine with not just a stick up his butt but a dang Redwood up there, but as he starts to face his past so close to death, he becomes much more relatable. Hammer is extremely likable as an actor but the Lone Ranger debacle effectively derailed his career for big budget franchise films. This is the kind of movie that can put him back in the running for those sorts of roles.

There are some lapses in logic here; for one thing, a Marine sniper team never sets out into the desert all by their lonesome. There is going to be a support crew and a backup plan in case the sniper can’t get a shot at his target – and anyway a drone strike would have been far more effective in that situation. Also, standing with your weight on one foot for more than two days would have physiological effects on his muscles; there should have been some sort of reference to that in the movie. Even a Marine can’t prevent his body from doing what it is meant to do. Finally, a sand storm the size and magnitude of what was depicted in the film is not going to just leave a few cupfuls of sand on someone caught in it; it’s going to just about bury him and likely either suffocate him or at the very least blow him off of the land mine. The winds in one of those things are not that far from hurricane force.

All those unwelcome plot points aside, the movie still worked for me although I can understand why there was some eye-rolling in critical circles. I found that Hammer’s performance made up for the writing deficiencies and while the broken home-abusive father-commitment phobia subplots were a bit clichéd Hammer gave his character enough depth and dignity to put some real bite into those old tropes. I might have wished that Wallis had been given more than a generic “awesome girlfriend” character to work with – I would have liked to see what made Mike fall in love with her in the first place – and I might have wished that the Berber hadn’t been so much the “Magic Negro” trope of the sort that made The Legend of Bagger Vance so annoying. But as far as gripping premises go, I certainly got more than I wished.

REASONS TO GO: An intriguing concept that is pulled off nicely. Hammer gives a performance that gets stronger as the movie goes on.
REASONS TO STAY: Loses points for logical lapses and plot holes.. .
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity as well as some gruesome images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although set in the Middle East, the movie was filmed in the Canary Island substituting for the desert. The sandstorms were added digitally.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 19% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buried
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Get Out