But that’s exactly what Director and Screenwriter Eugene Kotlyarenko (along with Co-Screenwriter Gene McHugh) manage to pull off in a film that is as provocative as it is shockingly comedic. If the test of a dark comedy is the extent to which you feel slightly ashamed and a little bit guilty at what you just found funny, then Spree is definitely on the right track.
Joe Keery (you’ll probably recognise him as Steve, Nancy Wheeler’s baseball bat wielding boyfriend from Stranger Things) is Kurt Kunkle, a loser who’s terminally envious of Bobby (Josh Ovalle) the kid he used to babysit, who now is ‘killing it’ in the popularity stakes on social media. Kurt comes up with a plan to go viral by livestreaming his #thelesson about how to get followers on the internet. Unfortunately, Kurt’s idea of ‘killing it’ is a little more literal that Bobby’s. Kurt decks out his ‘Spree’ vehicle with multiple cameras and sets off on the killing spree that gives the film’s title its pun. As he picks up ridesharers and dispatches them faster than Sweeny Todd, he becomes frustrated at the lack of response and the tendency of his few followers to doubt the authenticity of the murders they are witnessing. Then Kurt sees an opportunity - one of his passengers is streaming sensation Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata) but she totally snubs his attempts to ingratiate himself into her online world.
It’s moments like this and others along the way, that continually remind us of Kunkle’s total lack of cool, especially in the scenes that involve his slightly creepy and equally no-hoper, DJ dad Kris Kunkle (David Arquette) who takes Kurt along to a club where his son’s desperation for fame prompts him to do almost anything for just one selfie with influencer uNo (Sunny Kim). But it’s here that things start to go seriously wrong (not that they were ever really right) and before long we’ve circled back to Jessie Adams and the film’s most interesting moment as she reflects on the emptiness and futility of her online persona, vowing to walk away from it all only to find that Kurt, inadvertently presents her with a horrifying opportunity that proves too good to refuse. Like any addict, her resolve to quit is no match for the promise of the endorphin rush that comes from the likes and emojis on those little blue screens. Whilst its observations and commentary on the dangers of extreme behaviours and experiences on the internet may not go much deeper than the surface, it still manages to make a point without its ‘message’ being a buzzkill.
Spree is not the first movie to delve into the lure of manufactured mass popularity and its power over susceptible personalities that allow their jealousy of the faux adoration achieved by others to drive them past the bounds of acceptability. Before the internet, it was the kind of media coverage afforded a character like Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). More recently, we’ve seen similar ideas tackled in films like Ariel Schulman & Henry Joost’s Nerve (2016) or Matt Spicer’s Ingrid Goes West (2017) or even Todd Phillips’ Joker (2019). The difference here is Kotlyarenko’s reworking of the found-footage genre to deliver the bulk of his story in imagery from the online environment. It makes for a busy screen with multiple images and constant alerts and messaging that gives the eye-brain connection a bit of a workout. But it’s worth the effort and owes a lot to great work by Cinematographer Jeff Leeds Cohn and Editor Benjamin Moses Smith.
On the downside, though, the engagement with the storytelling eventually suffers (as is often the case in found- footage films) from the limitations of the dominant camera-point-of-view and the sameness of visual information, albeit rapid and loud and colourful, that eventually creates a kind of weariness in the viewer (at least it does for me). There are also limitations of another kind, in the performance by Keery which is spot on in his capturing of the loser but falls a little short of the mark in achieving the manic edge of desperation needed to do what Kurt does with no remorse. (it’s the kind of terrifying, grinning energy that Joaquin Phoenix brings to Joker that Keery doesn’t quite reach).
What it gets really right, though (as I’m informed by my teenage son) is the live streaming, social media, meme- obsessed culture. Allowing for the fact that the content of this world goes out of style far quicker than you can make a feature film (meaning that some of the online and social media references are already out-of-date before the movie’s even released) it authentically captures that screen world and the inanity of the relentless, mindless communication that goes along with it.
So, some minor misgivings aside, (and if you’ll excuse the pun) this film is a ride that’s well worth taking. Just be warned, if your Uber has GoPro’s trained on you from every angle, then don’t drink the free water.
The Bonded Vault heist is among the largest in US history, with $30 million USD worth of valuables (equivalent to over $140 million today) stolen from safe deposit boxes used by the Rhode Island mafia. As previously mentioned, VAULT is a loose retelling of the background and aftermath of the heist, centred on the friendship between Deuce (Theo Rossi) and Chucky (Clive Standen), two childhood friends turned small-time criminals suddenly out of their depth.
Rossi is the film’s true lead, which I was pleasantly surprised to see given his film roles haven’t yet provided as strong a showcase as his TV work. Look no further than Ghosts of War, a film I just reviewed but can barely remember him being in. Deuce isn’t a very good character name and hearing it constantly got on my nerves, but Rossi’s affected swagger and charm throughout the first and second acts are nevertheless a huge part of why VAULT worked for me. There’s a reason the heist begins with him walking in alone, calmly and confidently making his demands: it exemplifies the film’s ethos of avoiding a gritty look at the crime and just doing what looks cool.
Similarly, from what I’ve read it appears that the script greatly expands on the relationship between Deuce and Karyn (Samira Wiley), a victim of one of the former’s earlier robberies. It doesn’t really make sense that Karyn would agree to a date with him afterwards, but Wiley is so good at cutting through Deuce’s posturing that it’s once again simply fun to see more of the character. In addition, when the third act undergoes a significant tonal shift from 70s indulgence to claustrophobic drama, the newfound tension greatly benefits from Wiley’s presence. While Rossi aptly portrays Deuce’s paranoid mindset as his savings dwindle and drug use increases, this wouldn’t be as interesting without Karyn telling him to get his shit together.
Building up the Deuce and Karyn relationship is overall a solid choice by the writers, though I’d also blame it for the lack of development in other characters. The biggest casualty is Gerry Ouimette (Don Johnson, also an executive producer), who has three scenes but is suggested to be a bigger player than depicted due to Chucky constantly name-dropping him. Gerry was in fact a high-ranking member of the Rhode Island mafia; VAULT speculates that a lack of respect from his boss led him to contract Chucky and Deuce for the heist. However, too much of this is left off-screen, including the specifics of Gerry’s initial pitch for the heist and agreement with Chucky, who subsequently enlists Deuce. This leaves Chucky with little to no apparent motivation, making it hard for me to be invested in him, and frustrated when his plan affects the characters I actually care about.
Where VAULT succeeds, it does so by recognising that heist films should be fun and committing to that tone. The 70s aesthetic does wonders for this, with some excellent costumes, hairstyling and set design ensuring there’s always a reminder of the era on-screen. I wish that the script had taken more time to flesh out its take on an interesting true story, but what it does provide was enough to keep me hooked.
Alien was a masterwork, no doubt, but it has been so emulated and parodied that the edge I found so terrifying that first time around felt dulled and its pace seemed much more plodding than it was in my memory. Consequently, it was with some trepidation that I popped my corn and took a seat on my lockdown-couch to watch a new Russian Sci-Fi-Horror flick that seemed like it could so easily be yet another Alien wannabe. Shame on me for being a Doubting-Thomas. Despite sharing some common ground with its forbear, SPUTNIK (which roughly translates as ‘traveling companion’) is a highly original, tensely compelling and surprisingly intelligent addition to the genre and is all the more remarkable an achievement for being the first time out for feature director Egor Abramenko.
The screenplay, written by Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotare, is set in 1983 towards the end of the Cold War era (the Cold War hadn’t quite cooled down yet as was evidenced a year after this film is set when American President Ronald Reagan made his infamous gaff during a microphone check for a radio interview. He accidentally sent the following message around the world - “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.”) It’s against this political landscape that the Russian space agency (or is it the Russian military – it’s hard to tell the difference) attempt to conceal an incident in space that has resulted in the crash landing of the capsule, the death of one Cosmonaut and the quarantining of the mission’s Commander, Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov) at a secret base in the middle of nowhere. The base is under the command of Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) a seemingly urbane and reasonable officer who just wants to get to the truth about what happened out there. To help him achieve this he travels to Moscow to enlist the services of Tatyana Yuryevna Klimova (Oksana Akinshina) a neurophysiologist who’s in the process of being chewed out for her unconventional clinical practices. But, of course, these are exactly the skills that Semiradov needs.
When Tatyana arrives at the base, Semiradov is charming and welcoming in the way he gives her free reign of, as he puts it, ‘90% of the facility’. Are warning bells sounding? What’s the deal with that other 10%?
While the public media campaign is praising Konstantin as a national hero who will soon be paraded before the adoring crowds, the story back at the base is quite different. True to the title of the film, Konstantin has brought back a ‘traveling companion’ – a sleek, lithe deceptively cute looking creature that has taken up residence in the Cosmonaut’s oesophagus. Unlike Ridley Scott’s Chestburster, this creature has developed a symbiotic relationship with its host, able to come and go from its host’s body as it pleases. It’s this relationship that Tatyana wants to get to the bottom of and, in the process, starts to develop her own relationship with Konstantin. Is it real, or is it a strategy to get what she wants?
I’ve seen this film promoted as ‘gory and nailbiting’ and as ‘one of the most suspenseful science fiction films in years’. Yes, it may be all those things – it has moments of horror that are well crafted and it creates them without resorting to an abundance of hokey old ‘scare tactics’, and its heartpounding score by Oleg Karpachev enhances the narrative in often chilling ways - but in the end SPUTNIK is much more than the sum of its horror-movie parts.. For me it succeeds much more as a psychological thriller. In many ways, it’s a three hander, exploring the tension between Tatyana, Konstantin and Semiradov. Each character is well drawn, complex and beautifully performed and the dynamic between the buttoned-up, duplicitous colonel, the loose-cannon, empathetic doctor and the arrogant but naïve cosmonaut is a volatile emotional cocktail.
But let’s not forget the creature. It may look cute from certain aspects, but its motivations are anything but. It’s much more than just a monster; a remarkable visual achievement designed by both the director and the team at the Russian visual effects studio, Main Road Post.
But the creature is not the only visual triumph. Mariya Slavina’s cold war production design perfectly sets the tone and Maxim Zhukov’s cinematography captures the mood and tantalises us with glimpses and hints of the creature in the early stages of the film but resists the temptation of going all ‘Godzilla’ on us when this alien visitor gets its moment in the frame. In fact, this kind of restraint through the film is what allows the characters and their psychology to be as much, if not more of our focus than the more traditional scary elements. But it’s not a film without its weaknesses. There’s a mysterious intercut story about an orphan child (Vitalya Korniyenko) that provides a counterpoint to Tatyana’s insistence on probing Konstantin’s emotional guilt about the boy he’s left behind while he pursues his heroic deeds. Obviously, these cutaways serve as a bit of a circuit breaker to the tension at the base, and the child’s story is compelling in tis own right, but it carries us to a kind of twist at the end that is unnecessarily ambiguous and doesn’t quite hit the note that it should. Nevertheless, this is an exciting debut for Abramenko made with skill and confidence and a clear vision for the telling of its story. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
2018 | DIR: ANDREW HECKLER | STARRING: GARRETT HEDLUND, ANDREA RISEBOROUGH, FOREST WHITAKER, TOM WILKINSON, TESS HARPER, USHER RAYMOND, CRYSTAL FOX, DEXTER DARDEN, TAYLOR GREGORY | REVIEW BY CHRIS THOMPSON
Spearheading this white supremacist enterprise is local KKK leader Tom Griffin (Tom Wilkinson) who also happens to be the adopted father of up-and-coming KKK member Mike Burden (Garrett Hedlund) and the one, we come to understand, who Tom sees as his likely successor. Outrage and opposition to the Redneck Store comes, unsurprisingly, from the local black community headed up by the Reverend David Kennedy (Forest Whitaker) who, despite having had an uncle lynched by the Klan, espouses the Martin Luther King doctrine of non-violent protest and the idea that love will conquer all. When Mike meets and falls for local single mother, Judy and her son Franklin (Andrea Riseborough and Taylor Gregory) he soon finds that he has to choose between his ‘Klan’ family and the new family he’s creating with Judy and her son. Faced with this choice, Mike turns his back on Tom, his fellow Klansmen and the Redneck Store and when they seek revenge on him, he finds unexpected refuge in the home of Reverend Kennedy, despite the tensions it causes with Kennedy’s wife Janice (Crystal Fox) and especially his son Kelvin (Dexter Darden).
You could choose to tell this story as a clash of beliefs and ideals as embodied in the characters of Griffin and Kennedy played by Wilkinson and Whittaker, two very fine character actors. Head to head, they’d promise some mighty scenes of conflict and outstanding acting. But this version of the story doesn’t go that way. In fact, these two powerhouse actors hardly have more than a couple of lacklustre scenes with each other.
You could choose to tell this story through the lens of the generational conflict between a father and a son, as David and Kelvin grapple with two opposing views of how to tackle racism and terrorism – the Reverend believing in pacifist love, and his son believing in more direct and forceful action. Those elements are there, but not at the heart of this telling.
You could choose to tell this story through the internal conflict of Mike Burden whose almost forgotten childhood friendship with Judy’s African-American friend Clarence Brooks (Usher Raymond) is now reflected through the friendship between Franklin and Brook’s son and could so easily have caused Burden to rethink the white doctrine that his adopted father has taught him. But, despite Mike Burden being the centre of the telling of this version of the story, it’s not a revelation about racism that makes him question and repudiate his allegiance to the Klan; it’s the fact that Judy makes him choose. In other words, there is no revelation that what the KKK stands for and what he’s supported all his life does not provide a path to equality and a better humanity. He leaves the Klan for the love of a white woman.
In some regards, this is a very timely story given the world wide focus on Black Lives Matter that has coincided with its release (although it was first seen at Sundance a couple of years ago, it’s only now seeing the more general-public light of day). But the timeliness of the story is undermined by its telling being focused through the lens of a young white man whose spurious denial of his racist roots somehow saves the black community from the indignity of the KKK’s intent. The dominance of white culture overwhelms what could so easily have been a ‘black lives matter’ story.
And things aren’t helped by the highly mannered and mostly hollow performance of Hedlund. He’s all loose limbs, attitude and muttered dialogue that seems more concerned with his accent work than with connecting his lines to either his body or the story. The screenplay, by first-time writer/director Andrew Heckler, tries to add some depth to the character of Mike Burden through the childhood memory of a hunting trip with his real father and the tired old trope of the ‘first kill making a man of the boy’. It doesn’t do much to help the character other than make the story even more about him, and the revisiting of this motif at the end of the film seems awkward and contrived.
By contrast, Riseborough is terrific as Judy as are Fox and Darden as Kennedy’s wife and son. But the standout (for me. At least) is Usher who turns in a warm and compelling performance that has all the depth and subtlety that’s lacking in Hedlund’s role. This, together with the underused talents of Whitaker and Wilkinson and the level to which Tess Harper (as Griffin’s wife Hazel) is almost entirely ignored, compounds the seemingly wasted opportunity that arises from the choices Heckler has made in how he’s written the screenplay. Instead of inspiring me with hope for how the black and white communities might come together for a better world, it leaves me frustrated at being able to see the movie that could have been through the disappointment of the movie that is.
In 1843 the Fourth Street Methodist Church and the Brookes Street Methodist Church in Louisville Kentucky, each donated seven and a half acres of land to establish the Methodist Burial Grounds which, by 1854, had become the Eastern Cemetery Company. Over the years, the Eastern Cemetery acquired two ‘sister’ cemeteries; Greenwood (which had been a cemetery devoted to the internment of African Americans) and Shardein. From as early as the late 1800’s, the Eastern Cemetery regularly made use of graves for more than one (often several) burials with no regard for the owners or the occupants of the sites or their families. This practice continued until 1989 when a whistle-blower brought the practice to the attention of the Kentucky Attorney General. The subsequent investigation by FBI undercover agent Jim Caldwell resulted in a court case and a liability for the cemetery of millions of dollars. Unable to pay, the trustees walked away. The abandoned cemetery sat in disrepair until Andy Harpole brought together a volunteer group now known as the Friends of Eastern Cemetery to try and repair and restore some of the damage, if not the reputation.
This amazing story is ghoulish and gruesome and, at times, unbelievable. And yet, all these bizarre things are true and are revealed in Tommy Baker’s documentary by numerous talking heads (many from the Friends of Eastern Cemetery) but predominantly by four key figures who provide expert and fascinating perspectives.
Andy Harpole is the founder of the Friends of Eastern Cemetery and has spearheaded the task to restore the grounds. Phil DiBlasi was Professor of Archaeology at the University of Louisville (now retired) and was asked by the courts to conduct an audit on the graves. In a cemetery comprising 29.6 acres where the industry standard was to bury between a thousand and eleven hundred bodies per acre, DiBlasi discovered in excess of 138,000 burials. Bob Allen was a gravedigger at the site and continued working there right up until the end of operations in 1989. Beth Caldwell worked in administration and saw firsthand the impact of these shoddy business practices. Between the four of them (and the others) they (literally) dig up the dirt on what has been described as the most over-buried cemetery in America. The dire state of Eastern Cemetery is vividly brought home in a terrific aerial image of shabby disgrace of the Eastern Cemetery compared to the beautifully cared for Cave Hill Veteran’s Cemetery which shares a boundary and is separated by a long red brick wall.
In addition to the talking heads, factual, historical information is delivered by narrator Francis Whitaker. There’s a LOT of information here and many misdemeanours to be revealed. At times, the abundance of names and dates and goings on is so much that the story becomes overwhelming in its detail. What is never unclear, though, is that the scale of the disservice the cemetery did to its clients is staggering in its enormity.
As astounding as the story is, though, the quality of the documentary varies remarkably throughout. Much of the trial footage that provides an insight into the court case that considered the sixty charges laid against the trustees is rapidly degrading old videotape with difficult to read subtitles. The ‘talking head’ interviews provide compelling information but are shot in a haphazard and unengaging style with no consistency from interview to interview and little or no thought to the setting in which the individuals speak. Overall, the quality of the sound, lighting and camerawork is poor but, despite the doco being overlong and a bit repetitive, the information is undeniably fascinating and the final sequence that focuses on the Friends of Eastern Cemetery ensures that the film avoids becoming overtaken by the bleak stain its own dark and dismal history.
This can be a hard doco to watch, partly on a technical level but mostly due to its sad and at times horrifying content. But, in the end, that fact that it’s not from some warped screenwriter’s mind but from some very dark pages of history makes this well researched and informative tale hard not to watch.
Prior to viewing the film, I felt that the premise was intriguing and full of potential, which is most fully achieved when the war and horror elements work in unison. For instance, Bress heightens the sense of paranoia and tension during initial scenes in the mansion by establishing the simultaneous threats of unseen enemy soldiers outside, and the supernatural forces within. There’s plenty of nervous glances, sudden loud noises, and shots revealing dangers just outside of the characters’ view; tropes - which in my opinion - feel equally at home in both the war and horror genres.
This sense of dread crescendoes in an impressive sequence during which the NAZIS storm the mansion, while the ghosts of the murdered former residents choose the same moment to reveal themselves. I won’t spoil how the latter is depicted, except to say that it’s just as mesmerising and disturbing as good horror should be. GHOSTS OF WAR does offer up too much explanation, but following this scene you’re left wondering what the hell just happened, and it is immensely satisfying.
Unfortunately, the film’s focus on atmosphere results the entire ensemble being underdeveloped; the five soldiers aren’t so much characters as they are blank canvases for scary stuff to happen around. This problem is exacerbated by incongruous casting choices, particularly Brenton Thwaites. Thwaites plays Chris, ostensibly the leader of the troop, yet he is the youngest and most baby-faced of the actors. Although he is perhaps capable of providing a commanding screen presence elsewhere; I wasn’t even sure of Chris’ rank until the third act. Similarly, I’ve seen Skylar Astin in too many musicals and rom-coms to fully suspend my disbelief when watching him here (but that's on me).
Bress’ script also runs out of steam in the third act, as the soldiers begin to confront the ghosts directly. Evidently faced with nowhere else to go, GHOSTS OF WAR attempts a twist ending that is absurd, convoluted, and takes a full twenty minutes to establish. Being so trop-filled the film feels is a little insulting, which ultimately dampened my impression of the film.
With the conclusion aside, conversely, GHOSTS OF WAR’s simple scope and well-executed thrills make it an easy recommendation for horror fans. After such a long hiatus, it’s reassuring to see that Eric Bress still has a solid understanding of the genre which brought him initial success.
Suffice it to say, any new submarine film is going to have to come up with something pretty good to distinguish itself in such esteemed company and Wolf’s Call, whilst it may not reach the top of that list, certainly earns itself a place on it. The clever thing that this movie comes up with is the ‘golden ear’ of sonar operator ‘Socks’ (Francois Civil) whose expertise in underwater acoustics enables him the ‘see’ what’s out there in a way that most others can’t. In particular, during a close encounter with an unidentified, possibly enemy submarine, Socks identifies that it’s powered by four propellers not three which is so unusual that it sets in motion a sequence of events that discredits Socks and brings France and Russia to the brink of nuclear war. Of course Socks is our hero so there must be a way that he can redeem himself and much of that comes down to the question of whether his ‘golden ear’ is attuned enough to identify that a missile sounds ‘light’ because it probably doesn’t have its nuclear payload. Or does it?
The other clever thing The Wolf’s Call does is give itself a ‘breather’ (pun intended) with a sequence of the story that happens on land between missions. It’s here that Socks (the character’s real name is Chanteraide) meets Diane (Paula Beer) which gives us something that most submarine movies don’t have; a sweet and engaging love story that is not just a diversion from the tension below the waves, but delivers us both a deeper level of character for Chanteraide as well as a smart ending with a nice little twist.
In addition to Civil and Beer’s strong performances, the film also boasts a cast of French heavy hitters including Omar Cy, Mathieu Kassovitz, Reda Kateb and Jean-Yves Berteloot. They suffer at times from the way the cramped quarters require them to stand around and look heroic rather than pursuing heroic actions, but their acting chops and a pretty good screenplay mitigate the stasis the environment imposes on them. The film’s writer-director is Antonin Baudry whose rare combination of skills as a diplomat and comic book author meet his screenwriting and directorial abilities in a way that allows him to pull together a pretty neat thriller with some strong political undertones, some nice comic touches and enough suspense to keep us glued to the screen. Baudry’s most recent movie was the political farce-comedy The French Minister (2013) which seemed to tickle a lot of movie-goers’ funny bones but somehow didn’t reach mine. Here’ though’ he feels to be on top of his game knowing when to hit the accelerator and when to hit the brake.
The Wolf’s Call is hardly an original story. It owes a lot to movies like its fellow submarine flick, The Crimson Tide as well as Sidney Lumet’s 1964 political thriller, Fail Safe and even has a touch of Lewis Gilbert’s 1977 James Bond outing The Spy Who Loved Me (mercifully without Roger Moore’s cod acting). What these movies all have in common is that element of the blind leading the blind; stories that rest on the decision makers being unable to verify that what their technology is telling them might not be true, and facing the dilemma of whether to believe the human element in the equation or not. Often that’s an argument based on reason and logic, but here the dilemma is whether the human element (Sock’s ear) is superior in its ability to the technology that protocols dictate should determine the fate of the world.
PS: Curiously, as the only film in this year’s French Film Festival to already have been released on Netflix, it ended up being the only film in the programme to make it through to the advertised final date of the festival after the FFF had to be truncated due to the Covid19 emergency.
2018 | DIR: BEN LEWIN | STARRING: PAUL RUDD, MARK STRONG, TOM WILKINSON, CONNIE NIELSEN, JEFF DANIELS, GUY PEARCE, PAUL GIAMATTI, SIENNA MILLER, PIERFRANCESCO FAVINO, GIANCARLO GIANINI, HIROYUKI SANADA, SHEA WHIGAM | REVIEW BY CHRIS THOMPSON
And so, Moe Berg leaves behind his very odd relationship with Estella Huni (Sienna Miller) and with the aid of intelligence from science boffin Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giamatti) and the support of a gung ho army officer, Captain Furman (Guy Pearce) he is smuggled into Switzerland via war torn Italy and convinces Heisenberg’s colleague, Paul Scherrer (Tom Wilkinson) to arrange a meeting after Heisenberg’s lecture there. Berg’s moral dilemma that sits at the heart of this story is whether or not Heisenberg might actually be sympathetic to the American cause and, if he is, should Berg ignore his mission and let him live.
See what I mean?
Hands down, this is a great story with a cracker of a cast, a solid director in Australian ex-pat Ben Lewin (Paperback Romance, The Sessions, Please Stand By) and a seasoned screenwriter in Robert Rodat (Fly Away Home, Saving Private Ryan, The Patriot) working from Nicholas Dawdidoff’s biography of Moe Berg.
So why isn’t it a truly great movie?
That's certainly something that perplexed me as I watched this film. It has an intriguing premise with a provocative quandary at its core, some very good performances (most notably from Rudd and Strong), and some quite suspenseful scenes (the battle sequence in Italy where Furman must get Berg past the German squad defending the town where their contact Professor Amaldi (Giancarlo Giannini) lives is gripping and expertly staged). So why does this movie come off feeling somewhat less than the sum of its parts?
Perhaps it’s the string of high-profile cameos that is ultimately frustrating in the way it tantalises us with some great actors who are there and gone on the blink of an eye. Perhaps it’s the fragmented story that precedes the main game of the confrontation between Berg and Heisenberg that undermines the potential for a more powerful, cohesive through-line. Perhaps it’s that Ben Lewin’s television background that seems to tame the telling of the story so that feels more like a telemovie than a feature (Lewin’s feature film career has been punctuated with stints on the mini-series The Dunera Boys and series-TV like Rafferty’s Rules, Sea Change and even Ally McBeal).
Or, perhaps the answer lies in the impenetrable character of Moe Berg. He’s a bit of an enigma, depicted here as bordering on genius, bisexual (something that’s been disputed), uncomfortable with intimacy, capable of sudden acts of violence, and a well-known, if not celebrated, baseball player. There’s a lovely scene where, during his spy training, he’s drawn into a friendly baseball game with a group of soldiers and is eventually recognised and feted by them for being part of the great American pastime. But even in this most human of moments, we still don’t get
to see inside his character and so, despite Rudd’s best efforts, the enigma of his character is never revealed enough to us to fully warm to him and that’s a problem when he’s the engine of the story.
The film is nicely shot by Andrij Parekh, has great production design by Luciana Arrighi and a Howard Shore score to boot, which should all come together to be the icing on the cake. But it doesn’t. In the end, the most frustrating thing about this film (to me, at least) is that there is no single reason that serves an as impediment to it rising above the pack and yet, it remains an entertaining, informative but not entirely satisfying experience. I’m not sorry to have seen it. I’m really happy to know this fascinating story that I’d never heard before. I just wish I felt like recommending it more forcefully. I guess sometimes, despite having great ingredients, the cake just fails to rise.
2019 | DIR: BRETT & DREW PIERCE | STARRING: JOHN-PAUL HOWARD, PIPER CURDA, BIANE CROCKARELL, JAMISON JONES, ZARAH MAHLER, KEFIN BIGLEY, MADELYNN STUENKEL| REVIEW BY CHRIS THOMPSON
The prologue in The Wretched is an example of the latter: it’s 1985 and hapless babysitter Megan (Sydne Mikelle) arrives to a seemingly empty house until she realises that the ‘Wretch’ is in the basement feeding on the kid. Say goodnight, Megan. There’s no origin story here and no information that will improve the telling of the main narrative. It might deliver a good fright and introduce a nicely designed creature but, really, it’s just a dress rehearsal for what we’ll see happen later in the movie when we jump forward to the present day. It also introduces us to a symbol carved on the door jamb – something that looks a bit like an upside down ‘A’ or anarchy symbol. It tells us that there’s some spooky woodlands pagan stuff going on here, but despite its reappearance at various points throughout the film (presumably carved by one of the Wretch’s nasty looking claws), it never really amounts to anything more than texture.
The present-day story sees Ben (John-Paul Howard) arriving at a seaside town to spend a bit of time with his divorced dad Liam (Jamison Jones). Turns out that Liam lives in the same house we saw in the prologue - a house with a lovely weirdness to it, dwarfed by the big house next door and with the impression that it's hiding behind a huge tree. But this isn’t a haunted house story, so the connection to the prologue has no real purpose. That big house next door, however, is where Abbie (Zarah Mahler) and Ty (Kevin Bigley) live with their son Dillon (Biane Crockarell) and baby Sam (Owen Thomas Pierce). When Abbie arrives home with a road-kill deer strapped to the hood of her car and proceeds to gut it in the driveway, we discover that the Wretch (Madelynn Stuenkel) has been hibernating inside the poor creature. Released into the world it possesses Abbie and bad things follow.
Meanwhile, Liam gives Ben a job at the boat franchise he runs on the local harbour and it’s here that Ben meets Mallory (Piper Curda), a wise-cracking, no-nonsense, older-than-her-years kinda gal who gives Ben a run for his money. There’s also the obligatory rich-kids-on-daddy’s-boat who humiliate Ben and, of course, the discovery that Liam has moved on since the divorce and has taken up with Sara (Azie Tesfai) all of which contribute to tensions between Liam and Ben who increasingly comes to depend on his growing friendship (relationship?) with Mallory.
I realise that all this sounds pretty negative and probably gives the impression that I didn’t much care for the movie. Not true. Once I set aside my predisposition to not being a fan of the prologue, this film really grew on me but maybe not for the reasons that a horror film should. For me, it’s in the relationship between Ben and Mallory where the film comes alive; it’s fresh and lively and, whilst the film isn’t a teen romance, their story certainly has elements of that. Howard is really endearing as Ben but it’s Curda’s performance as Mallory that drives things. It didn’t even bother me that the film isn’t really that scary. Admittedly, that’s a problem if it’s a straight up horror film you’re looking for. In that respect, it tends to travel along a pretty well-worn trope-ish path and I never feel like we get a handle on this woodland Wretch. Where has it come from? Why has it reappeared now? What’s its relationship with the human world? Are people just food, or is there something more malevolent, more evil at its heart? Why does it seem to possess adults but steal away children? These ideas are never really explored in any depth. However, there is one very effective idea associated with this creature: when the children are taken by it, they cease to exist in memory. This all adds to Ben’s frustration as he comes to realise that there’s a dark force visiting the town. After Abbie is possessed, the Wretch steals baby Sam and when Ben tries to make Ty understand that something terrible has happened to his infant son, Ty denies that the child ever existed. It’s the strongest element of the film and sets us up for a nice little twist at the end.
The irony of this film, for me, is that it has a really strong retro feel to it – touches of Richard Donner’s Goonies (1985) or Steven Spielberg’s ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) where the kids must deal with the strange or otherworldly occurrences with little or no help from the grown-ups – and if it had stayed in the 1980s setting of the prologue, everything about this film would have resonated so much more. That being said, there’s an enjoyable time to be had with The Wretched as long as you’re prepared to focus on the human stories it has to tell and let the supernatural world stay largely unexplained and in the background.
2020 | DIR. JONATHAN JAKUBOWICZ | STARRING, JESSE EISENBERG, CLEMANCE POSEY, MATTHIAS SCHWEIGHOFER, ED HARRIS | REVIEW BY NADINE WHITNEY
RESISTANCE presents a story that could in the right hands have carried the gravity of Spielberg’s film, but is sadly lacking despite having a fascinating premise and being based on the remarkable true story of the war time Resistance activities of world-famous mime artist and actor Marcel Marceau.
Beginning in 1938 the film shows a Jewish family in Germany discussing the rise of fascism in the country. The audience is introduced to one of the strongest emotional linchpins in the piece Bella Ramsey’s (from Game of Thrones) Elsbeth. Elsbeth is one of the hundreds of Jewish orphans that Marceau with other members of his family including his brother Alain (Félix Moati) and cousin Georges (Géza Röhrig) as well as the sisters Emma (Clémence Poésy) and Mila (Vica Kerekes) will attempt to shelter and shepherd to safety away from the ethnic cleansing of the Nazis. As Elsbeth is put to bed by her parents she asks them why the Nazis hate the Jews; this allows for at least one of four pieces of exposition in the film trying to explain why the Jewish people are considered an outsider threat to dominant forces. After her father reassures her that things will be settled once employment is better and post war reparations paid, the Jewish people will once again be valued as workers. In a stroke that is somewhat typical of how heavy handed the film can be, Elsbeth’s family are at that moment dragged outside and shot by the Nazis. Elsbeth is the orphan that the audience will identify with throughout the film.
Using the technique of framing Marceau’s exploits via General Patton (Ed Harris) addressing his troops at the liberation of Paris, writer and director Jonathan Jakubowicz, who is Argentinian and of Polish Jewish background, attempts to encapsulate the period starting just pre-war in 1938 with Marceau acting in the local cabaret in the border town of Strasbourg in France doing Charlie Chaplin impersonations and finishes with Marceau’s first major public performance which is for the American soldiers.
Putting aside the fact that the real Marceau (born Marcel Mangel) was sixteen at the outbreak of the war, and not a man in his mid-thirties as Jesse Eisenberg is, the film’s major flaw seems to be that Eisenberg doesn’t ever fully dissolve enough into Marceau to be believable. At all times the audience is aware they are watching Eisenberg whose tic and tricks seems to be pale imitations of what one would imagine the young actor would have been like. Marcel’s story begins in a somewhat confusing manner as we are introduced to him being a selfish “artist” who only works at his family’s charcuterie to please his father. His younger brother Alain, who looks like he’s at least in his late 20s, spends most of his time philosophising about the spread of fascism and resents his brother for not doing more to stand up against the oncoming tide.
However, it takes only one conversation with his cousin Georges for him to become established in the movement to help the German and other refugee Jewish children via a scouting troop and later, when Strasbourg was evacuated and he moves with his family to Limoges, he quickly became part of the Organisation Juive de Combat- OJC – which worked with the French Resistance to move Jewish children to safety. Much of Marceau’s abrupt change of heart seems to come from the fact the children find him a charming presence, but also because his love interest Emma is heavily involved in the organisation. A key cell is put together containing Marcel, his brother Alain, Emma and her sister Mila. Along with Georges they find funding to care for the orphans, feed them, train them in how to avoid Nazi detection and find as many safe spaces as possible for them to hide. If Jakubowicz had limited his vision to the acts of bravery that were involved with the young men and women doing just that much he would perhaps have made a successful film – however he extended himself to try to include so much more, including the introduction of The Butcher of Lyon, the infamous Nazi Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighöfer).
It seems unnecessary ground to consistently reiterate that someone like Barbie was a monster. Yet the film lingers in giving him a role that is over the top in its violence and menace. Matthias Schweighöfer truly is chilling as Barbie, and the scenes he is in are incredibly tense, but for the most part they are also narratively unlikely. As much as he was known as the man who crushed the French Resistance in the south of France, how much of that would have been done with him personally brandishing razors and guns is questionable.
So much of the film is sadly filler that tries to create a dramatic tension that should already be implicit in the story itself. The fact one of the world’s greatest mimes and actors was a part of a Jewish network of resistance is grist enough for a great story; but Jakubowicz also wants to throw in comedic scenes, fast paced action scenes, a doomed romance, an ineluctable and seemingly inescapable enemy and the personal and artistic growth of Marceau into the mix. Because Eisenberg doesn’t really carry the film via his performance, the narrative shortcomings are all to obvious. Powerful performances by Bella Ramsey and especially Clémence Poésy can’t compensate for the lack of subtlety in the writing and direction. The only moment that one can believe that Eisenberg is Marceau is in the final scene where he is in make-up for the first time and plays the tragedy of losing a loved one to the killing machine of war. Although Marceau did indeed perform for the troops and was awarded recognition from the Allies for his work in the Resistance, even that ultimate expression of Marceau’s journey seems somewhat contrived. The audience through the familiar white face of the mime sees Marceau but because Eisenberg has given the us little to connect with up until that point there is an emptiness to the performance.
RESISTANCE is ultimately a frustratingly insipid piece. It has all the markers of a film that should be competent even if it isn’t great, but it doesn’t really even reach that mark. There are moments that work and are shocking, tense or sometimes surprisingly touching, but they are few and far between in what is a mostly ineffectual production that could have wrought something more poignant and unforgettable to the screen.
The story is pretty straight forward. Tyler Rake (Chris Hemsworth) is a mercenary with a death wish who can’t get over the death of his son from lymphoma. In the midst of a drinking binge not unlike the one Martin Sheen went on at the beginning of Apocalypse Now, Tyler’s partner, Nik Khan (Golshifteh Farahani) helicopters in to offer him the job he desperately needs. The teenage son of an imprisoned Bangladeshi drug lord (Pankaj Tripathi) has been kidnapped by rival drug lord, Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli) and his father wants him back. The boy in question is Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal) and was meant to be in the care of Saju Rav (Randeep Hooda) but something went wrong. Next thing you know, Tyler is in Bagladesh and the body count starts to climb as he rescues Ovi and sets out for the extraction point. But, wouldn’t you know it, there’s a double-cross and things go south and suddenly Tyler and Ovi are ducking bullets as they desperately try to make it to the alternative extraction point and safety.
When every man and his dog is out to kill John Wick while he’s trying to get from point A to point B, Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stahelski’s tongues are so firmly in their cheeks that we’re pretty happy to go along for the ultraviolent ride. But here, first time director Sam Hargrave, backed up by Hollywood heavyweights, the Russo Brothers (it’s written by Joe from Ande Parks’ graphic novel Ciuldad and produced by Joe and Anthony) seem to want us to take it all very seriously and that makes the violence quite a different thing. There’s no parody and no edge to it which makes Tyler a ruthless and indiscriminate killer for fortune rather than an otherwise good guy having a bad day.
Don’t get me wrong... I don’t have an aversion to violence in films. I love a good action-thriller, and I don’t mind a big body count if it’s a consequence of a good story rather than the story itself. Plus, I prefer it when the story’s originality and surprises means I’m playing catch up with the screenplay; but here, it’s the other way around.
On the positive side, the chaos of the streets of Bangladesh is breathtakingly and claustrophobically recreated on screen but the fights themselves seem stagey and overly choreographed. Hemsworth makes a good fist (literally) of trying to make Tyler a well-rounded character but it’s just not there in the writing. Jaiswal comes out better in his portrayal of a protected child who finds himself unexpectedly in the maelstrom of the reality of his father’s world but the ‘surrogate father and son’ tropes of his relationship with Tyler are predictable and ham fisted. Even David Harbour who pops up (in the nick of time) as Gaspar, Tyler’s old black-ops buddy, gets tarred with the same cliched brush.
It feels like Extraction aspires to share the company of superior hostage movies like Taylor Hackford’s Proof of Life (2000) or its even closer cousin Tony Scott’s Man on Fire (2004), but its much more akin to movies like Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet (1977) and Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks (2006) both of which underpin their ‘impossible odds’, ‘armed to the teeth’ obstacles with more compelling characters and stories.
But it’s the end of this movie that feels most cynical. I don’t want to give anything away, other than to say there’s a logical ending to this story which, by all reports, was what Joe Russo originally wrote. But this is Hollywood and Netflix, so endings are the province of test audiences and producer’s investments, rather than the sole responsibility of the storytellers. In this case, the final image of the film seems a complete contrivance and, to me, makes very little sense. But what do I know? The number of eyeballs glued to this movie and glazed over in anticipation of its sequel would tend to disagree.