Monday, December 18, 2017
Movie Reviews
Movie Reviews

The Thousand Faces of Dunjia The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (2017) Movie ReviewCourtesy of Well Go USA

Martial arts legends Yuen Wo Ping and Tsui Hark step away from their roots for an effects-heavy fantasy adventure.

Members of an ancient clan of do-gooders must retrieve an all-powerful magic orb in order to restore peace and order to the — well, you know the drill — in The Thousand Faces of Dunjia, a lively if very familiar-feeling fantasy adventure from writer/producer Tsui Hark and director Yuen  Wo Ping. Those two names will ensure attention in the West to this aspiring franchise-starter; but Americans who know Yuen for his thrilling fight work in Kill Bill, The Grandmaster, Drunken Master and countless other films will not see his signature here. Viewers with a high tolerance for computer-generated fantasy are the target this time, and may well enjoy the ride.

Hong Kong pop star Aarif Lee plays Dao, an enthusiastic rookie constable who is being hazed by his elders — sent throughout the countryside pursuing villains who don’t exist — when he encounters a real challenge: a magic, three-eyed fish that can swell to the size of a man and appears to be part of some evil conspiracy.

The ensuing fight introduces him to a mysterious woman called Dragonfly (Ni Ni, of Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War), a member of the Wuyin clan. Despite her efforts to avoid him, the two continue to cross paths, and when a monster chops an arm and a leg off Dao, Dragonfly is forced to introduce him to her brother Zhuge and the rest of the Wuyin team. (Tsui’s screenplay invests little in this motley handful of associates; aside from Zhuge and Dragonfly and the leader Big Brother, the warriors get little to do.)

As it expands on the hunt for the eponymous Dunjia, your typical Orb Of Infinite Power, the film makes extensive use of its CGI departments. Three main baddies are pure CG creations, and the powerful leaders of rival clans are distinguished solely by their various video game-like powers. (One creates infernos, one whooshes vast streams of water around, and so on.) Action choreography by Yuen Cheung Yan and Yuen Shun Yi, therefore, consists largely of moving the humans around a green screen; the chopsocky or swordplay we might expect from Yuen Wo Ping is not to be found.

Opening action sequences project a cartoony comic flavor that has promise, but that peters out as the battles grow increasingly cosmic. Instead, the pic starts milking mild double-entendres for comic relief and focusing on gags involving an adolescent girl, called Circle, who may be destined to become the Wuyin clan’s new leader. More than once, the action contrives to have her fall, topless, onto the prone Zhuge, and her clinginess to the adult who has rescued her is a little uncomfortable in this season of revelations about grown men with a taste for young girls. With luck, Circle will be an adult before filmmakers get around to the sequel they promise in closing scenes.

thousand faces of dunjia The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (2017) Movie ReviewProduction companies: Flagship Entertainment Group, Gravity Pictures, Heyi Pictures
Distributor: Well Go USA Entertainment
Cast: Aarif Lee, Da Peng, Dongyu Zhou, Ni Ni
Director: Yuen Wo Ping
Screenwriter: Tsui Hark
Producers: Tsui Hark, Nansun Shi, Wei Junzi, Jiang Wei, Anthony Wong
Executive producers:
Director of photography: Choi Sung Fai
Production designer: Wu Ming
Costume designer: Shirley Chan
Editors: Li Lin, Tsui Hark
Composers: Li Ye, Tsui Hark

In Mandarin
112 minutes

permanent 1 Permanent (2017) Movie ReviewCourtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Patricia Arquette and Rainn Wilson star in Colette Burson’s comedy centering on a young girl dealing with bad hair issues.

It may be presumptuous to assume, but it seems a safe bet that writer/director Colette Burson once got a really, really bad haircut when she was a teenager. At least, that’s the impression one gets from her new comedy starring Patricia Arquette, Rainn Wilson and Kira McLean in a breakout performance as a young girl who suffers a disastrous perm. While it doesn’t break any new ground and strains too hard for quirkiness, Permanent didn’t deserve its fate of opening theatrically without being screened for critics.

Set in 1982 in a Virginia suburb, the story concerns 13-year-old Aurelie (McLean), whose name practically invites ridicule from her classmates, and her financially struggling parents Jim (Wilson) and Jeanne (Arquette). Jim has recently lost his job serving as a steward serving on Air Force One (he has the signed autographs from several U.S. presidents to prove it) and is attempting to start over by going back to university to get a medical degree. Jeanne supports the family by waitressing at a fried chicken joint, spending so many hours on her feet that she’s desperate for a foot massage when she comes home at night. Neither that desire nor her sexual needs are being met by her husband.

Desperate to fit in at her new school, Aurelie begs her parents to let her get a permanent. When her parents take her to a “beauty school” to save money, the results are a disaster. “Her hair looks like it had a stroke,” the owner whispers to the stylist who made Aurelie resemble the Bride of Frankenstein. Her father tries to comfort her by assuring her that her hair will soon “relax.” When her classmates see Aurelie’s new hairdo, they mock her for having an “Afro.”

Jim has hair issues of his own, since he religiously wears a lavish toupee to cover his bald pate. His vanity threatens to derail his future when he’s informed that he’ll have to take a swimming course as part of his university curriculum and he tries to pass it by doing the breast stroke.

Other subplots include Jeanne’s flirtation with an eccentric neighbor (Michael Greene) who at night plays recordings of the sounds of mating whales and is eventually revealed to be a family therapist, and Aurelie’s growing friendship with a young black girl at school (Nena Daniels) who has been relegated to a special needs classroom simply because of her race.

Writer/director Burson, who co-created HBO’s Hung, doesn’t fully succeed in navigating her more outlandish plot elements. Many of the would-be comic bits, especially those involving the kooky neighbor, fall flat, and the storyline goes in too many directions at once. But the film displays genuine heart in its quieter moments exploring the strains in Jim and Jeanne’s marriage and Aurelie’s insecurities and desperation to fit in with the kids at school who respond by bullying her.

The performances are another plus. Arquette is charmingly endearing as the frustrated Jeanne, Wilson movingly conveys his character’s vulnerability as well as his bluster and McLean is terrific as the beleaguered young girl desperate to have a mane like Farrah Fawcett’s

permanent 2 Permanent (2017) Movie Review

Production: Magnolia Pictures, 2929 Productions, Park Pictures, Washington Square Films Productions
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Cast: Patricia Arquette, Rainn Wilson, Kira McLean, Michael Greene, Nena Daniels
Director/screenwriter: Colette Burson

Producers: Mary Ann Marino, Haroula Rose, Sam Bisbee, Joshua Blum
Executive producers: Ben Cosgrove, Mark Cuban, Todd Wagner, Jackie Bisbee, Lane Acord, Danielle Renfrew Behrens

Director of photography: Paula Huidobro
Production designer: Christian Kastner

Editor: Chris Plummer
Costume designer: Sasha Long

Composers: Craig Wedren, Joe Wong
Casting Erica Arvold

Rated PG-13, 94 min.

Beyond Skyline Beyond Skyline (2017) Movie Review

Frank Grillo leads a band of humans fighting off alien invasion in Liam O’Donnell’s sci-fi actioner.

With strong effects work belying what was surely a tiny budget, Liam O’Donnell’s Beyond Skyline finds the first-time director relying on his experience in VFX departments of much bigger Hollywood productions. While O’Donnell would have been smart to hire a screenwriter instead of doing double-duty behind the scenes, the fanboy crowd won’t complain too loudly with one of their favorite character actors, Frank Grillo, kicking extraterrestrial ass in a space opera that could plausibly launch a very niche franchise.

Grillo (who had a more three-dimensional toplining role in Netflix’s recent Wheelman) plays Mark, an LAPD cop on leave after his wife’s death. Mark and son Trent (Jonny Weston) are trapped on the Metro when a giant alien mothership attacks the city, hypnotizing Angelenos with some kind of blue ray and sucking them up into the sky. There, we soon learn, their brains are harvested to somehow animate the bodies of individual soldiers in the alien army.

Soon, the two men and a few fellow train riders (including Bojana Novakovic’s Audrey, the train conductor) have escaped the tunnels only to be hauled up into the mothership themselves. Here, they learn a bit about the otherworldly beings. (Using man-in-suit tech and practical effects along with CGI, the design team offers some pretty geek-pleasing visions.) Not only do they find that the human brains inside the beasties can sometimes remember their past selves, but they see the aliens’ effect on pregnant humans: Mark has to deliver a baby who is somehow growing so quickly she’ll be a teenager in a matter of days.

Before Mark has to worry about the infant’s sullen, rebellious phase, though, the movie takes quite a left turn: The humans escape the ship and find themselves in Laos, where they team with an impromptu rebel army bunkered beneath centuries-old Angkor-style temples. Their main new ally is Sua (Iko Uwais of The Raid), who introduces some hardcore Southeast Asian martial arts to the mix. Uwais is Indonesian, not Laotian, but some practical inconsistencies will be overlooked by action fans who are excited to see Uwais leap at aliens with knives in both hands.

Less forgivable is the pic’s unimaginative screenplay, whose biggest attempts at humor are lame zingers that appear to have been added in postproduction after someone realized how dull the dialogue was. Sadly, lines like “Hola, puta” and “Bring it on, bitch” don’t scratch that “Hasta la vista, baby” itch.

O’Donnell also winds up devising one of the lazier “I’ve found their weakness!” eureka moments in recent memory, suggesting that a drug dealer can make himself an expert on alien immune systems after a few minutes with a microscope. But viewers who push through this silliness will be rewarded with an action climax that, while just about as ludicrous, is at least enjoyable. If a sequel does in fact materialize, here’s hoping O’Donnell has the modesty to step out of the writer’s chair and focus on the action.

 

beyond skyline Beyond Skyline (2017) Movie Review

Production companies: Hydrae Entertainment, M45 Entertainment, XYZ Films
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Frank Grillo, Bojana Novakovic, Iko Uwais, Callan Mulvey, Pamelyn Chee, Antonio Fargas, Lindsey Morgan, Jonny Weston
Director-screenwriter: Liam O’Donnell
Producers: Matthew E. Chausse, Colin Strause, Greg Strause
Executive producers: Maguy R. Cohen, Allen Dam, Phil Hunt, Roman Kopelevich, Joe Listhaus, Allen Liu, Emilio Mauro, Li Kitty Rong, Compton Ross, Mike Wiluan
Director of photography: Christopher Probst
Production designers: Ian Bailie, Lauren Fitzsimmons
Costume designers: Anastasia Magoutas, Tania Soeprapto
Editors: Sean Albertson, Banner Gwin
Composer: Nathan Whitehead
Casting director: John McAlary

Rated R, 106 minutes

the last jedi 1 Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) Movie Review

Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac return for the Rian Johnson-directed second film in the ‘Star Wars’ sequel trilogy.

There are a handful of truly spectacular moments in The Last Jedi—some as visually sumptuous and others as emotionally poignant and raw as anything in the intergalactic ring cycle so far: The sight of Rebel X-wing fighters emerging from light speed and skidding to a halt; a kamikaze crash rendered in giddy, gasp-inducing super slo-motion; a vertiginous, ground-scraping dogfight on a salt-mining planet that kicks up plumes of velvet-cake red dust. These, along with a few touching reunions and farewells from beloved characters that some of us have known like family for 40 years, will go down as instant classics that will be catnip for fans young and old. That said, I’d stop short of calling director Rian Johnson’s undeniably impressive initiation into the Star Wars fold the masterpiece that some desperately want it to be. The film simply drags too much in the middle. Somewhere in the film’s 152-minute running time is an amazing 90-minute movie.

When Hollywood’s greatest sci-fi franchise (sorry, Star Trek fans) was resurrected two years ago with The Force Awakens, a lot of people including myself, groused that while J.J. Abrams captured the spirit and tone of the original trilogy, he played it too safe. That the film was a deja-vu carbon copy of A New Hope, albeit with a welcome dose of diversity in its casting. Some argued that it felt more like Star Wars Greatest Hits than an album full of fresh material. That may have been a necessary evil. That after the lame prequels we needed to be reminded what it was we first fell in love with. Abrams accomplished that not-insignificant task, leaving off on a note-perfect cliffhanger ending between Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Mark Hamill’s shaggy, haunted Jedi hermit Luke Skywalker in self-imposed exile. It was a reminder of the Saturday-afternoon to-be-continued serials that George Lucas was originally inspired by. But there was also a hope that the next film in the series would take more chances and spin off into its own new thing. The Last Jedi does take chances. And many of them pay off beautifully. But Johnson (who also wrote the script) seems to subscribe to the theory of ‘Why make a point once when you can make it three or four times?’

Even though it’s only been two short years since The Force Awakens, Lucas’ franchise is so iconic, so mythically ingrained in the deepest nostalgia pleasure centers of our brains that you have to be a churl not to feel goosebumps raise on your arms when the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” first appear on screen and John Williams’ triumphant clarion-call to adventure strikes up. The opening crawl that follows informs us that the evil First Order is ascendant. Supreme Leader Snoke and his Dark Side apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and bureaucratic bully boy General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) have culled the resistance down to a few hundred ragtag insurgents. Things are looking bleak for the rebels. But under the wise and steady hand of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), they fight on. Martyrs to the cause, underdog champions of capital-G Good. Leia’s last hope of rallying the downtrodden is to convince the reluctant Jedi Master Luke (now more an idea of revolution than a one-man savior) to return from hiding.

In a way, we’ve been here before. The rebels are against the ropes just as they were at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Thankfully, this time, they have their three newly-minted Next Generation heroes—Oscar Isaac’s hotshot and hotheaded fighter pilot Poe Dameron, John Boyega’s conscience-stricken stormtrooper-turned-resistance folk hero Finn, and Ridley’s Rey, a gung-ho young heroine whose innate powers she’s just beginning to understand. The chemistry and interplay between these three new faces was so electric and promising the last time we saw them that it’s a bit of a shame that the trio is separated for most of the new film. They’re all cast off in separate parts of the same grand mission. While Isaac’s Poe grows impatient about the play-it-safe approach charted by Leia and her purple-haired second in command (the always welcome Laura Dern), Boyega’s Finn teams up with a Resistance mechanic named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to track down a a codebreaking scoundrel (Benicio Del Toro) to sabotage the First Order’s new ability to follow the rebel ships in and out of light speed, preventing their safe evacuation to a new hideout where they can reteam and rebuild. Meanwhile, Rey is just where we left her—on the remote Jedi temple island of Ahch-To, hounding Luke not only return to action, but also to tutor her in the ways of the Force the way Yoda once taught him on Degobah. This last strand of the three has the most pay off by far. Not just because the push-pull, master-apprentice dynamic between Ridley and Hamill is so crackling it nearly sets off sparks, but because we know that this is the crux of the story. That this is where the torch (or lightsaber) will be passed.

Johnson toggles back and forth between these three narrative yarns well enough as the stakes grow more desperate. But after the first third of the film, when the table is set, the second act gets a little bloated and unwieldy. There’s a lengthy diversion to the casino planet of Canto Bight (a ritzy Monaco for the galaxy’s one percent that’s like Mos Eisley with tuxedos and baccarat) that feels pointless and tacked on just for the sake of giving us a cool new corner of the galaxy to feast our eyes on. Meanwhile Driver’s Kylo Ren and Ridley’s Rey have formed a telepathic connection that plays out like a slightly cheesy sci-fi version of Ghost. Each in their own way is trying to woo the other to their side. Is it romantic? A manipulative power play? Maybe both? Either way, Isaac and Boyega seem to be sidelined or stuck in idle for long stretches. Unfortunately for the future of the franchise, it’s the old faces that provide the most poignant moments. We know that The Last Jedi will be Fisher’s final film, and we savor every moment with her like we’re saying goodbye to a loved one. And Hamill, who once created one of cinema’s most iconic characters but would never be considered by anyone to be a great actor, gives the single best acting performance of his career. When he first enters the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and first reunites with his old friend Artoo, you might even get choked up.

Despite the flabby mid-section of the film and its menagerie of new alien creatures that are a mixed bag (Yay, Porgs with their squat guinea pig bodies and sad Anime saucer eyes; boo to the others that look like exiles from The Neverending Story), Johnson really delivers with the third and final act. The climactic last 45 minutes of the film is as thrilling and spectacular as anything Star Wars has ever given us. There are cool, mythic hand-to-hand battles, breathtaking aerial sequences, and one mano a mano showdown that’s as epic as anything Sergio Leone ever dreamed up. And again, the film ends on a note that feels…just…right.

The Last Jedi is a triumph with flaws. But through those flaws, it leaves us with a message as old as time. Our heroes don’t live forever. Death is inevitable. But their battle, if passed down to the right hands, will continue along with their memories. Both in front of and behind the camera, Star Wars has been passed to the right hands. The Force will live on. In these troubled, angry, and divisive times, that message of resistance isn’t just the stuff of innocuous tentpole diversions, it’s the closest thing we have to A New Hope.star wars the last jedi ver11 Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) Movie Review

Production company: Lucasfilm
Distributor: Disney
Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro
Director-screenwriter: Rian Johnson, based on characters created by George Lucas
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Ram Bergman
Executive producers: J.J. Abrams, Tom Karnowski, Jason D. McGatlin
Director of photography: Steve Yedlin
Production designer: Rick Heinrichs
Costume designer: Michael Kaplan
Editor: Bob Ducsay
Music: John Williams
Casting: Nina Gold, Milivoj Mestrovic, Mary Vernieu

Rated PG-13, 162 minutes

Jumanji Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) Movie Review

An enjoyable modernization of Chris Van Allsburg’s storybook source material.

High school nerd Alex Wolff transforms into The Rock in Jake Kasdan’s action-fantasy sequel.

Stepping far enough away from Chris Van Allsburg’s 1981 children’s book Jumanji to appeal to older kids while remaining just connected enough to justify keeping the name, Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle reimagines the book’s magic-board-game conceit for the era of video games. By transforming its teen heroes into adult avatars, this outing both gets beyond the discomfort of throwing small kids into peril (a complaint some critics made against Joe Johnston’s 1995 adaptation starring Robin Williams) and finds a way to milk a talented crew of A-list grownups — toplined by Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart — for comic value. Young audiences should enjoy the body-swap adventure, which has a few dopey moments but in general is funny enough for their parents to enjoy as well.

Modernization only goes so far here. Instead of making Jumanji, say, an augmented-reality smartphone app — a promising way to have fantasy and the mundane world collide — the screenwriting team reimagines it as a 1990s-style gaming console. In a prologue, a lone teenager stumbles across the game in 1996, turns it on, and is immediately transported from his bedroom into some world we do not see.

Cut to the present day, as Spencer (Alex Wolff) squirts some sanitizer on his hands, packs his EpiPen, and heads into the germ-filled world of high school. After a brisk sequence of events, he winds up stuck in detention alongside football player Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), narcissistic Bethany (Madison Iseman), and the introverted Martha (Morgan Turner). They’re supposed to be cleaning up the school’s vast storage closet as punishment for their assorted transgressions. But when they find this relic of a videogame among the detritus (who knows how it got to school from that kid’s bedroom), the four decide to try it out. They, too, get sucked into another dimension.

Thrown into a dense jungle, each kid is transformed into the character he or she selected, Mortal Kombat-style, when they fired the game up. Luckily for the film’s comic side, each unwittingly chose someone very unlike himself: Scrawny and skittish Spencer becomes The Rock’s Smolder Bravestone, the expedition leader. The jock is now a diminutive zoologist, Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart), and is none too pleased about it. Mousy Martha is kick-ass Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, Doctor Who‘s Amy Pond), and immediately complains about her dumb Lara Croft-like wardrobe of exposed midriff and breast-hugging shoulder holsters. And Instagram-addicted Bethany, so proud of her hotness, has turned into a tubby, balding middle-aged man, Jack Black’s Professor Shelly Oberon.

The script winks at videogame conventions as it explains its heroes’ strengths and weaknesses, gives them a mission, and reveals that each has three lives to expend before it’s Game Over for real. They’re supposed to find a magical “jewel of the jungle” and return it to a giant statue’s eye socket. But that stone is also hunted by a villain (Bobby Cannavale) who has somehow become one with the jungle’s beasts, making his body a skin-crawling home for millipedes and scorpions.

Structuring its challenges in the level-by-level mode familiar to gamers, the movie’s action has a much more ordinary feel than that of the earlier picture. But while each stage of their quest seems like it would make for a pretty easy-to-beat video game, the action suffices in big-screen terms.

The film’s main appeal is in watching familiar actors pretend to be ordinary kids grappling with their new selves. Johnson is predictably charming, imagining himself as a kid suddenly blessed not just with a spectacular physique but a superpower defined as “smoldering intensity.” And Jack Black gets the expected kind of laughs as he mimics the voice and gestures of a mean girl who recoils at being stuck in this unbangable bod but is then, I don’t know, kind of fascinated to have a penis? Gillan and Hart more than hold up their end of things, and while the choice of music could be much better, Ruby Roundhouse’s demonstrations of her “dance fighting” skills are crowd-pleasing.

Occasional character-development interludes reek of group screenwriting sessions: “Guys, how can we use the fewest possible lines to get across the idea that these kids are learning important lessons about themselves?” But a shy romance between Spencer/Bravestone and Martha/Roundhouse charmingly exploits some of these choose-who-you’ll-be-in-life notions, and an encounter with a stranger who has also been trapped in the game gives even Bethany a credible shot at redemption.

jumanji welcome to the jungle ver18 Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017) Movie Review

Production companies: Matt Tolmach Productions, Seven Bucks Productions, Columbia Pictures
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Bobby Cannavale, Nick Jonas, Rhys Darby, Alex Wolff, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner
Director: Jake Kasdan
Screenwriters: Chris McKenna, Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, Erik Sommers
Producers: Ted Field, William Teitler, Matt Tolmach, Mike Weber
Executive producers: Dany Garcya, David B. Householter, Jake Kasdan
Director of photography: Gyula Pados
Production designer: Owen Paterson
Costume designer: Laura Jean Shannon
Editors: Steve Edwards, Mark Helfrich
Composer: Henry Jackman
Casting directors: Nicole Abellera,Jeanne McCarthy
PG-13, 118 minutes

 

just getting started Just Getting Started (2017) Movie Review

Courtesy of Broad Green Pictures

Oscar winners Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones play rivals who must join forces to fend off a mob hit in Ron Shelton’s action comedy.

A film that is not screened in advance for the press is not likely to be an undiscovered masterpiece. But it is not necessarily going to be as bad as such neglect suggests. Just Getting Started, the first feature written and directed by Ron Shelton in more than a decade, is sneaking into theaters without much attention.  Shelton, the filmmaker behind such hits as Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump and Tin Cup, hasn’t matched those movies with his new comedy, but given his track record and the cast he’s assembled, headed by Oscar winners Morgan Freeman and Tommy Lee Jones, he deserved a better break.

The faltering studio behind the film, Broad Green Pictures, has rightly positioned the movie as a holiday release, aimed squarely at older audiences. It’s set in a retirement community in Palm Springs over the Christmas holidays, and Shelton finds humor in the incongruity between the sunlit desert and the ostentatious Christmas decorations. (Most of the film was actually shot in New Mexico, with just a few establishing shots of the California enclave.) Duke (Freeman) is top dog in the community, with a number of women vying for his sexual attention and a few cronies who are happy to act as lapdogs. But his position is threatened by a mysterious new arrival, Leo (Jones), who challenges him on the golf course and in the boudoir.

Duke also faces a more serious threat in the form of a criminal boss lady (Jane Seymour) who sees him on a TV promo for the resort and sends her son to dispatch him for his testimony against her family some years earlier. Duke has been hiding in a witness protection program until inadvertently unmasked. Leo proves to have the lethal skills that Duke needs to survive a mob hit, and the two are forced into an uneasy partnership.

The first problem with the movie is that it’s a little too jaunty ever to generate any real sense of jeopardy for our hero. A scene with a rattlesnake in a golf bag does offer a nifty jolt, but the suspense in the rest of the film is decidedly low-key. Our two villains are too bumbling to represent much of a threat, and this makes the film lag, even though it’s tightly edited by veteran Paul Seydor.

The humorous interludes in the picture are also of varying quality. Freeman seems to have enjoyed the rare opportunity to play a frivolous role, but he’s sometimes too broad in straining for seductiveness. Jones, on the other hand, demonstrates his expertise without ever breaking a sweat. He worked with Shelton on Cobb, and he underplays most effectively here, bantering smoothly when that’s required, but also convincing us that he’s a force to be reckoned with. Rene Russo (the co-star of Shelton’s Tin Cup) also gives a satisfying performance as a woman mistakenly underestimated by both Duke and Leo.

Less successful are the three ladies trailing after Duke. This is no fault of the three actresses — Elizabeth Ashley (in a rare screen appearance), Sheryl Lee Ralph, and the late Glenne Headly. All of them are a pleasure to watch, but their roles as breathless acolytes desperate to bed Duke seem a bit squirm-inducing at this particular moment in history.

The film is ingratiating enough, but its main value is to make us eager for another, more substantial Shelton movie long before another decade has slipped by.

just getting started ver2 Just Getting Started (2017) Movie Review

Cast:  Morgan Freeman, Tommy Lee Jones, Rene Russo, Glenne Headly, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Elizabeth Ashley, Joe Pantoliano, Jane Seymour

Director-screenwriter:  Ron Shelton

Producers:  Bill Gerber, Steve Richards

Executive producers:  John Mass, Alan Simpson

Director of photography:  Barry Peterson

Production designer:  Guy Barnes

Costume designer:  Carol Oditz

Editor:  Paul Seydor

Music: Alex Wurman

PG-13, 91 minutes

The Pirates of Somalia The Pirates of Somalia (2017) Movie Review

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Evan Peters plays an untrained journalist who went where pros wouldn’t in Bryan Buckley’s true-story adventure.

The story of how an aspiring reporter with no journalism training became a leading authority on a subject few Western news outlets dared to cover, Bryan Buckley’s The Pirates of Somalia entertainingly adapts the nonfiction book of the same title by Jay Badahur. Though the world’s attention has moved on to other geopolitical hotspots and to domestic issues more terrifying than kidnappings off the Horn of Africa, this stranger-in-a-strange-land adventure has enough appeal to sustain its limited theatrical release, where the popularity of star Evan Peters (of American Horror Story) should help compensate for a seemingly miniscule promotional campaign.

Peters plays Badahur, a politically conscious Toronto resident who has the misfortune of graduating from college in 2007. Consigned by the Great Recession to his parents’ basement while he does marketing research for a napkin manufacturer, he sends out a stream of story pitches, all rejected, in hopes of breaking into magazine reporting.

Then he meets an elderly writer whose work he admires, and gets pointed in the right direction. As Seymour Tolbin, Al Pacino functions a bit as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs did in Almost Famous — giving viewers a colorful performance while doling out quick life lessons to our naive hero. Tolbin encourages Badahur to “go somewhere crazy” if he wants to make his name, and gives him the number of a CBC producer who might help him get published. Upon hearing about pirate attacks in Somalia, a country he once wrote a research paper about, Badahur scrounges together some cash and heads to Africa, where he hopes to dig beneath the sensationalism and understand the socio-economic context of this piracy.

In Puntland, Somalia’s northeast region, the Canadian is received warmly by the country’s president and his journalist son, who both hope he’ll write a book disabusing the West of its preconceptions. (The film takes pains to note Somalia’s steps toward peaceful democratic operations.) They set him up with a translator and fixer, Abdi (Barkhad Abdi, almost as valuable here as in Captain Phillips and Eye in the Sky), who will prove a good friend as the months pass.

Badahur’s status as the only Westerner in these parts may be slightly overstated — another Canadian reporter was kidnapped before he arrived, though that was near far-off Mogadishu — but the film is enjoyable in its depiction of his precarious status. On one hand, he’s a quick study with bits of language and history; on the other, he doesn’t take local dangers as seriously as he should.

He’s especially foolhardy in trying to befriend a dealer of the drug khat who also happens to be a wife of the region’s biggest pirate. Sabrina Hassan Abdulle is sly and intelligent as Maryan, who surprises Jay with her knowledge of Hollywood movies.

We learn about piracy alongside Badahur, meeting two men who separately command teams of hundreds of nothing-to-lose pirate. They see themselves as “saviors of the sea,” who are simply collecting taxes the government is too weak to impose on foreigners. One says he was happy to be a lobster diver until foreign interests came in and destroyed his livelihood.

In the film’s somewhat simplified account, all of Badahur’s professional hopes boil down to an attempt to board a foreign ship while it is held by pirates, getting video footage of the hostages that he can sell to CBS. That attempt isn’t as exciting here as it might have been in a fictional adaptation, but it lets our hero’s story intersect slightly with that of the 2009 Maersk Alabama hijacking, later recounted in Paul Greengrass’ Captain Phillips. That high-profile event changed things in the region and seems, both on screen and off, to have launched Badahur into exactly the career he hoped to have.

pirates of somalia The Pirates of Somalia (2017) Movie ReviewProduction company: Hungry Man Productions
Distributor: Echo Bridge
Cast: Evan Peters, Barkhad Abdi, Sabrina Hassan Abdulle, Mohamed Barre, Mohamed Abdikadir, Al Pacino, Melanie Griffith
Director-Screenwriter: Bryan Buckley
Producers: Mino Jarjoura, Matt Lefebrve, Claude Dal Farra, Irfaan Fredericks
Executive producers: Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Hilary Davis, Stephen Kelliher, Peter Pastorelli, Jane Rosenthal, Michael S. Murphey, Robin Shenfield, Hank Perlman, Kevin Byrne, Bryan Buckley, Phil Crowe
Director of photography: Scott Henriksen
Production designer: David Skinner
Editor: Jay Nelson
Composers: Andrew Feltenstein, John Nau
Casting directors: Henry Russell Bergstein, Allison Estrin, Bonnie Lee Bouman

In English and Somali
R, 117 minutes

perfectos strangers Perfect Strangers (Perfectos desconocidos) (2017)

Courtesy of TeleCinco Cinema

Alex de la Iglesia remakes Paolo Genovese’s 2015 Italian hit, a dark dinner-table comedy about how our digital devices threaten our relationships.

“Everybody has three lives,” said Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “public, private, and secret.” Like the Paolo Genovese original which it pretty faithfully copies, Perfect Strangers explores to comic effect the capacity of cellphone technology to blur the limits between our different existences, as a group of friends agree to listen to one another’s messages and calls as they come in during a dinner party. It’s a clever plot device, but one whose ramifications both Genovese and de la Iglesia are happy to skate over the surface of. So although it’s enjoyable to make the acquaintance of the well-played, crowd-pleasing Strangers, the encounter is quickly forgotten.

The canny commercial eye of Telecinco Cinema has found the sweet spot this time, with de la Iglesia’s fourteenth feature jumping straight to the top of the box office, Spaniards turning out in droves to nervously giggle as their techno-fears play out onscreen. The Weinstein Company has optioned the English language rights, suggesting that this one is destined primarily for Spanish-language territories.

Events unspool on the night of an eclipse — conveniently, eclipses are where people go a little crazy, and tonight will be no exception. Spiky psychotherapist Eva (Belen Rueda) and plastic surgeon hubby Alfonso (Eduard Fernandez) are a little older and perhaps wiser than the dinner guests at their central Madrid apartment: a couple in crisis, slimy Antonio (Ernesto Alterio) and brash Ana (Juana Costa), badmouthing each other from the start (and also a couple in real life); taxi driver Lothario Eduardo (Eduardo Noriega) and wide-eyed Blanca (Dafne Fernandez), a newcomer to the group, very much in love; and unemployed Pepe (Pepon Nieto, similarly tubby and hirsute to Giuseppe Battiston in the Italian original), who much to everyone’s annoyance turns up late and without the new girlfriend everyone’s anxious to meet.

Early scenes feature much off-putting machista talk from the men, which will make them pretty repellent from the start to some audiences. With the idea of spicing things up, and safe in the knowledge that her relationship with Eduardo is secure, Blanca suggests that everyone lay their cellphone on the table so that the others can hear and read their calls and messages: After all, such old friends surely cannot be hiding anything from one another?

But after a prank call from Alfonso, Antonio confides to Pepe that he’s having an affair. He asks Pepe to swap phones for the evening, and the lid comes off. By the end of the evening, after an extended stretch of comedy which is traditionally homophobic in its assumptions and which any English-language remake will have to tackle, all of the characters except one will have heard their damaging secrets aired.

Strangers hits the comic sweet spot more often than it misses, and the face-offs between Alterio and Nieto have terrific moments. The characters are all familiar and relatable, and in trad farce style events play out at a slightly frenzied pitch, but the performances go beyond the slick mechanisms and are strong enough to bring something individual to the table.

Standouts are Nieto, who delivers a fine little monologue on tech’s threats to relationships, and Fernandez who, in a telephone conversation with his 17 year-old daughter Sofia (Beatriz Olivares), delivers the film’s quietest and most memorable scene, a superbly-filmed, pin-drop counterpoint to all the farcical hi-jinx that precede and follow it. (Alfonso is the only properly grown-up character, which is a bonus, since in most Spanish comedies there are none to be found.)

Towards the end, there’s a fifteen-minute stretch where the farce gives way to something darker, where the characters seem really to be suffering. But the script abandons that line pretty quickly. Ultimately, Perfect Strangers is completely traditional material, albeit one with a clever new twist.

De la Iglesia handles it all with elegance and a sharp, practiced eye, Angel Amoros’ camera sometimes sweeping dizzyingly around the apartment, sometimes honing in on tell-tale details, all the time skillfully obliging the viewer to forget that essentially we’re watching a single-location movie. (Once all the remakes are out, expect theatrical adaptations.)

Occasionally we move outside onto the terrace to look at the eclipse which will provide the film with its hard-to explain twist ending. Emotionally upbeat but dramatically unjustifiable, it at least has the virtue of ensuring that Strangers concludes as expected on the requisite pre-Christmas happy note — an ending that, which given all the screaming angst that has preceded it, might be the film’s biggest lie of all.

perfectos desconocidos Perfect Strangers (Perfectos desconocidos) (2017)

Production companies: Telecinco Cinema, Nadie es Perfecto, Pokeepsie Films
Cast: Belen Rueda, Eduardo Fernandez, Juana Acosta, Dafne Fernandez, Eduard Fernandez, Pepon Nieto, Ernesto Alterio, Beatriz Olivares
Director: Alex de la Iglesia
Screenwriter: Jorge Guerricaechevarria, based on the film by Paolo Genovese
Producers: Alvaro Agustin, Ghislain Barrios, Kiko Martinez
Executive producers: Carolina Bang, Paloma Molina
Director of photography: Angel Amoros
Art Director: Jose Luis Arrizabalaga, Biaffra
Costume designer: Paola Torres
Editor: Domingo Gonzalez
Composer: Victor Reyes
Casting director: Carmen Utrilla
Sales: Telecinco Cinema

97 minutes

November Criminals November Criminals (2017) Movie Review

Seacia Pavao/Stage 6 Films

Chloë Grace Moretz and Ansel Elgort play high school seniors whose classmate is murdered in Sacha Gervasi’s adaption of a novel by Sam Munson.

A privileged teen ventures onto the wrong side of the tracks, and a would-be murder mystery veers into ever-more-faux dramatic territory in November Criminals, the third film by Sacha Gervasi (Anvil: The Story of Anvil, Hitchcock). The starry chemistry of leads Ansel Elgort and Chloë Grace Moretz injects a modicum of energy into the coming-of-age drama, whose elements of romance, crime and smart-kid angst never coalesce.

Beyond the movie’s missing sense of urgency, it strands David Strathairn and especially Catherine Keener on the sidelines of the narrative clutter. The feature was released to digital streaming outlets in advance of a theatrical run that’s sure to be brief.

Elgort and Moretz portray Addison and Phoebe, students at a public high school in Washington, D.C. — a setting that’s played by Rhode Island and whose particular social resonance is hinted at but goes largely unmined. On the afternoon that they lose their virginity to each other — a practical project instigated by Phoebe, who’s eager to “get it over with” before she heads to Yale — Addison’s friend Kevin (Jared Kemp), a fellow literature geek, is shot dead at the café where he works as a barista.

Addison becomes obsessed with solving the case, especially after the police and the press seem to shrug it off as gang-related. Everyone around him, including Phoebe and their earnest principal (Terry Kinney), interprets his fixation as an expression of repressed grief over the recent death of his mother. That he conflates the two unexpected losses is clear, and his adolescent railing against the injustice of the universe rings true. But on the worldly plane, as opposed to the philosophical one, the film futilely raises the question of another injustice.

Kevin was black, and the screenplay, credited to Gervasi and Steven Knight (Locke), suggests that the self-appointed boy detective might uncover a racially based cover-up or case of systematic indifference surrounding his friend’s murder. Then the movie turns into a flat, after-school whodunit, complete with a clumsily directed visit to the dead boy’s parents (Victor Williams, Opal Alladin). Addison follows leads to a strung-out former classmate (Danny Flaherty) and a scary drug dealer (Cory Hardrict), and with each headlong plunge into danger, his mission grows more contrived.

The economic realities that underlie the story are under-explored, though Gervasi uses them for straightforward character shading. Phoebe’s single mother (Keener) is a lobbyist whose financial success is evident, if not her area of interest; it’s a thinly conceived role that even the gifted Keener can’t lend dimension. Given a bit more room as Addison’s father, Strathairn quietly conveys the widower’s grief, and his general sense of struggle and resilience. Since losing his newspaper job, he and his family have fallen from a certain level of comfort, moving out of their posh neighborhood. It’s unclear whether Addison’s use of such old-school tech as a pager and an old camcorder is a matter of cost-cutting or an affectation.

Elgort and Moretz, on the heels of high-profile turns in films that were, respectively, widely seen (Baby Driver) and never released (I Love You, Daddy), deliver the requisite self-conscious smarts and sexual curiosity. With her cool poise, Phoebe is a convincing foil for the flailing Addison. But while Elgort suggests an awkward sincerity beneath the uncharming cockiness, the film finally feels as pointless as the video diary that his sleuthing character insists on making.

november criminals November Criminals (2017) Movie Review

Distributor: Sony/Stage 6 Films, Vertical Entertainment
Production companies: Lotus Entertainment, Black Bicycle Entertainment, Ingenious Media Services, Olfactory Productions, Pictures, Treetop Pictures, B.I.G. Inc.
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Chloë Grace Moretz, David Strathairn, Catherine Keener, Terry Kinney, Cory Hardrict, Philip Ettinger, Danny Flaherty, Victor Williams, Opal Alladin, Tessa Albertson, Adrian Mompoint, Karina Deyko, Jared Kemp, Samuel Ray Gates
Director: Sacha Gervasi
Screenwriters: Steven Knight, Sacha Gervasi
Based on the novel by Sam Munson
Producers: Beth O’Neil, Erika Olde, Ara Keshishian, Bill Johnson, Jim Seibel, Marc Bienstock
Executive producers: Angus Sutherland, Tanja Tawadjoh, Malindi Fickle, Teri Moretz, Trevor Duke-Moretz, Jessica de Rothschild
Director of photography: Mihai Malaimare Jr.
Production designer: Curt Beech
Costume designer: Julie Weiss
Editor: Martin Pensa
Composer: David Norland
Casting directors: Douglas Aibel, Henry Russell Bergstein

Rated PG-13, 86 minutes

Hollow in the Land Hollow in the Land (2017) Movie Review

Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Dianna Agron plays a woman desperately trying to clear her younger brother of murder in Scooter Corkle’s thriller.

Never mind the inner cities. The backwoods of Canada are far more dangerous and violence-strewn, if Scooter Corkle’s debut feature is to be believed. Starring Dianna Agron as a young woman desperately searching for her missing younger brother accused of murder, Hollow in the Land traffics in familiar rural thriller territory, but it features an excellent performance from its lead actress and a strong atmosphere of moody tension courtesy of its writer/director.

Agron plays Alison, who makes a hardscrabble living working at a pulp mill, the town’s main industry. She’s raising her trouble-prone teenage brother Braydon (Jared Abrahamson) herself, since their mother abandoned them years earlier and their father is in prison after killing the mill owner’s son in a drunk-driving incident.

The day after Alison picks up Braydon when he’s been arrested for participating in a drunken brawl, his girlfriend’s father winds up murdered. His body is discovered in a trailer park not long after he walked in on Braydon having sex with his daughter (Sarah Dugdale) and a fight ensued. Braydon, who inevitably become the chief suspect, promptly disappears, leaving Alison to search for him while attempting to discover who else might have committed the crime. Her investigation attracts the ire of the hostile local sheriff (Michael Rogers) as well as the townspeople, several of whom also wind up dead under mysterious circumstances. As a result of her hard-headed approach, Alison winds up as a murder suspect herself.

The film’s complex, conspiracy-strewn narrative proves less interesting than its characterizations, including Alison’s supportive police officer friend (Shawn Ashmore) and her female lover Charlene (Rachelle Lefevre), who happens to be the mother of Braydon’s girlfriend and the murder victim’s ex-wife. Alison’s lesbian relationship, which doesn’t endear her to her small-town neighbors, is depicted in casual but frank fashion. The film features strong female characters in general, including several women who wind up assisting Alison in her investigation. Agron, who has made admirably adventurous screen choices (Bare, Novitiate) since her breakout role on TV’s Glee, delivers a compellingly gritty performance as the determined, emotionally damaged heroine.

Hollow in the Land further benefits from its rustic British Columbia locations, superbly captured for maximum bleak effect by cinematographer Norm Li.

hollow in the land 1 Hollow in the Land (2017) Movie Review

Production company: Savath Pictures
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Dianna Agron, Shawn Ashmroe, Rachelle Lefevre, Jared Abrahamson, Michael Rogers, Brent Stait, Sarah Dugdale, Jessica McLeod, Glynis Davies
Director-screenwriter: Scooter Corkle
Producers: Marlaina Mah, Jesse Savath
Executive producers: Chris Ferguson, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Daniel Levin, Al Sebag
Director of photography: Norm Li
Production designer: Danny Vermette
Editor: Aynsley Bald
Costume designer: Ariana Preece

100 minutes

ferdinand ver3 Ferdinand (2017) Movie Review

John Cena makes for a formidable Ferdinand in this CG take on the not-so-cocky bull story.

It’s no Coco, but Ferdinand, a CG-animated adaptation of the classic 1936 Munro Leaf and Robert Lawson book about a flower-loving bull who’d rather sniff than fight, manages to squeak by with enough charming set-pieces and amusing sight gags to compensate for a stalling storyline.

Nimbly choreographed by Carlos Saldanha, marking the seventh Blue Sky feature he has either directed or co-directed, with John Cena agreeably voicing the role of the “peace-a-bull” protagonist, the Fox release should handily hit the bullseye with targeted holiday family audiences when it charges into theaters next weekend.

Although the Leaf book, featuring Lawson’s whimsical ink drawings, has been translated into more than 60 languages, many will also be familiar with the seven-minute 1938 Disney adaptation, Ferdinand the Bull, which would take home the Oscar for best short subject (cartoons).

Stretching the subject matter onto a feature-length canvas, the production kicks off in Casa del Toros, a bull training camp in rural Spain from which young Ferdinand bolts upon learning his dad never returned from a trip to that Madrid arena. He finds idyllic refuge on a farm belonging to Juan (singer Juanes), whose daughter Nina (Lily Day) makes a pet out of the docile creature until he grows to an enormous, threatening size (cue Mr. Cena) and is subsequently seized by the authorities and delivered back to Casa del Toros, where a bull becomes either a fighter or meat.

Not fond of either of those options, and with the famous bullfighter El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre) eyeing him for his farewell appearance, Ferdinand plots an escape with the assistance of Lupe, a decidedly hyper calming goat (the always dependable Kate McKinnon), and a trio of hedgehogs named Uno, Dos and Cuartro (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias) who prefer not to speak of the absent Tres.

There are moments of comic delight to be found here, like a literal “bull in a china shop” sequence, as well as the foppish antics of a trio of Lipizzaner horses (voiced by Boris Kodjoe, Flula Borg and Sally Phillips). But the plotting — the script is credited to Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland — admittedly takes a while to find its footing, and even when it does, the stop-start momentum never quite rises to the occasion.

The visual renderings, including those pastoral vistas, with all the bright green rolling hills and sunny azure skies, are certainly pleasing to the eye, and the characters, particularly the formidable Ferdinand, inhabit those vibrant spaces with a lithe grace.

The voice work is similarly nimble, but although Cena and McKinnon are terrific, it might have been nice to have heard Hispanic actors in the lead roles rather than just the supporting ones.

Likewise, a golden opportunity seems to have been missed with the soundtrack, where, of the three original songs, two are performed by Nick Jonas, reserving the third for Juanes. In a year when Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” smashed chart records the world over, it might have been a better plan to hear how Ferdinand and company would do it down in Madrid or Toledo.

Production companies: Fox Animation, Blue Sky Studios, Davis Entertainment
Distributor: Fox
Cast: John Cena, Kate McKinnon, David Tennant, Gina Rodriguez, Peyton Manning, Bobby Cannavale, Anthony Anderson, Jerrod Carmichael, Flula Borg, Daveed Diggs, Jeremy Sisto, Raul Esparza, Sally Phillips, Boris Kodjoe, Gabriel Iglesias, Miguel Angel Silvestre.
Director: Carlos Saldanha
Screenwriters: Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle, Brad Copeland
Producers: John Davis, Lori Forte, Bruce Anderson
Executive producer: Chris Wedge
Director of photography: Renato Falcao
Editor: Harry Hitner
Music: John Powell C
Casting director: Christian Kaplan

Rated PG, 107 minutes

the strange ones The Strange Ones (2018) Movie Review

A camping trip is not what it seems in a psychological suspense drama starring Alex Pettyfer and James Freedson-Jackson.

With their first feature, the ambitious and exceptionally well-crafted The Strange Ones, directors Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein demonstrate an undeniable mastery of mood. The atmosphere of disquiet that they drum up casts a spell, without question, but one that serves the story only to a point. However nuanced and artful, the nightmarish unease is laid on so thick that, in combination with the cryptic narrative, it gradually turns to murk.

The film’s expressionistic exploration of trauma and identity centers on a teen boy who’s either a runaway or an abductee, and whose traveling companion might or might not be his older brother. Some will be intrigued by the head-trip mystery, others irritated by the drama’s pile-up of feints and elisions.

The indie will follow its Oscar-qualifying run with a Dec. 7 bow on DirecTV, and is scheduled for an early-2018 theatrical release, when its inclusion on John Waters’ top 10 list for 2017 could boost box office.

Expanding the directors’ 2011 short film of the same name, Radcliff’s screenplay essentially splits the story into two halves. The first revolves around a road trip; the second, more elliptical section, deals with its repercussions. A sense of dread and emergency dominates from the get-go, drawing the viewer in but also setting a baseline that ultimately defuses the movie’s intended jolts.

At the wheel of the station wagon is a scruffy, intense twentysomething (Alex Pettyfer). Riding shotgun, when he’s not sleeping in the backseat, is a shell-shocked teen, Sam (James Freedson-Jackson, of Cop Car). In the rearview mirror is a fatal house fire. When the boy introduces himself to strangers as Jeremiah, the lie is obvious. Just as blatantly false is the duo’s assertion that they’re brothers heading to the woods for a leisurely camping trip. Though the exact nature of their relationship isn’t clear for much of the story, the idea that something is very, very off is all but spelled out in neon.

As the film shifts time and place, filtered through Sam’s perspective, Freedson-Jackson shifts from vulnerable to shockingly precocious, and back again to a childish naïveté. His largely flat-affect performance, which received a special jury citation at SXSW, is unsettling, a combination of astutely played moments, merely blank ones and an excess of close-ups.

With more seasoned deftness and restraint — and a sometimes wobbly American accent — Pettyfer (Elvis & Nixon) exudes a disturbing mix of violence, tenderness, sexual menace and allure. A sickening wariness infects the two main characters’ every exchange, and in the early going there’s a mildly gripping uncertainty over who’s in control and who’s manipulating whom. But however strong the cinematic ambience, the suspense factor dwindles precipitously as the storyline fragments.

Even while the narrative falters, cinematographer Todd Banhazi’s masterful compositions distill an affecting essence from the rural New York state locations. Beyond the woods and the country roads, the drama delves into such unexpected locales as an off-season motel and a work camp for teens. The former is run by a flirtatious young woman, the latter by an affably no-nonsense older man — well played, respectively, by Emily Althaus (Orange Is the New Black) and character actor Gene Jones (No Country for Old Men).

The directors use both sequences to heighten elements of doubt and imbalance. But the mystery over what’s happening to Sam and how much of it he understands loses its hold — first as the plot enters an explanatory phase, and then as it doubles down, unpersuasively, on its skewed, subjective angle.

Addressing such serious matters as abuse and mental health, Radcliff and Wolkstein deliver effective moments of horror and, to a lesser extent, insight. A crucial ingredient in realizing the feature’s dark spiral of a dream state is the haunting score by Brian McOmber (Krisha, It Comes at Night), one of the best composers working in film today. His flute-forward theme quotes motifs from Gene Moore’s music for the immortal B movie Carnival of Souls, in certain ways an apt point of reference.

Yet as assured as the filmmaking is, and as much as it announces a talented helming duo, its mode of emphatic understatement makes for an overly arduous viewing experience, and one with diminishing returns. After stripping away all the low-key mannerisms and would-be frissons, a viewer is likely to respond with a shrug of agreement when Freedson-Jackson’s character complains that he “can’t tell if it’s, like, real or a dream. Or whatever.”

strange ones The Strange Ones (2018) Movie Review

Production companies: Stay Gold Features, Adastra Films, Relic Pictures, Archer Gray, Gamechanger Films, Storyboard Entertainment
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Alex Pettyfer, James Freedson-Jackson, Emily Althaus, Gene Jones, Melanie Nicholls-King, Olivia Wang, Owen Campbell, Tobias Campbell, Birgit Huppuch, Will Blomker
Directors: Lauren Wolkstein, Christopher Radcliff
Screenwriter: Christopher Radcliff

Story by: Christopher Radcliff, Lauren Wolkstein
Producers: Sebastien Aubert, Michael Prall, Eric Schultz, Shani Geva, Daniela Taplin Lundberg
Executive producers: Anne Carey, Paul Finkel, Ozo Jaculewicz, Mynette Louie, Jason Potash
Director of photography: Todd Banhazi
Production designer: Danica Pantic
Costume designer: Mitchell Travers
Editors: Christopher Radcliff, Lauren Wolkstein
Composer: Brian McOmber
Casting director: Jessica Daniels

Rated R, 82 minutes