Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Review: The Belko Experiment

The Belko ExperimentYou’d be forgiven for thinking the premise of The Belko Experiment sounds familiar. Following a group of American employees at a Colombian office building, a typical day at work quickly becomes a sadistic social experiment when the workers are instructed to start killing one another in order to avoid being killed. It’s a little bit of The Hunger Games, Lord of the Flies, and Funny Games rolled together, all somehow set inside an off-kilter workplace comedy.

Director Greg McLean (Wolf Creek) begins the proceedings by sardonically showing us the sanitized office setting of Belko Industries, but don’t let the film’s mild set-up fool you. Once the office building goes into lockdown, the pleasantries quickly vanish, making way for the bloodshed and exploding heads. There’s no other way to say it: The Belko Experiment is very violent. However, for those who aren’t too squeamish, there’s a decidedly tongue-in-cheek approach to the film that does help ease some of the brutality of what’s being depicted on screen. It’s more camp than torture porn; decide for yourself if that’s a good thing.

The Belko Experiment seems like a bit of a surprising choice to get a major release, having gotten its start on the festival circuit and featuring no A-list names. It doesn’t aspire to be much more than a high-concept, low-budget cult film, and it seems like it’ll have far better longevity on Netflix than it will at the box office. I suspect a lot of its pumped-up profile has to do with the involvement of James Gunn (best known for directing the Guardians of the Galaxy films), who takes on writing and producing duties here.

The irony of that, of course, is that the script is easily the film’s weakest element, never quite finding the balance between schlock and social commentary. The set-up features the sort of cardboard characters and snarky one-liners that we come to expect from this grade of horror flick, and then once the shit starts to hit the fan, Gunn never pushes the “moral dilemma” aspect hard enough, which should be at the film’s core. It instead becomes a matter of who’s going to turn into the big, bad villain that everyone else has to defeat. There’s a smart film buried within Belko that we get hints of, with its wry commentary on corporate life, and it would have been nice to see more of that, rather than a reliance on overworked clichés.

One aspect of The Belko Experiment that works both for and against it is the cast, which is huge. Clearly Gunn gave some of his friends a ring, because there’s no other explanation for how the film manages to land a character actor trifecta of John C. McGinley, Tony Goldwyn, and Michael Rooker. (Google it if the names don’t sound familiar – you’ll know all their faces.) All three of their characters are written to varying degrees of ridiculousness but are very fun to watch.

John Gallagher Jr. (The Newsroom, 10 Cloverfield Lane), meanwhile, might seem like a weird choice for the lead role but perfectly balances the everyman aspect of his thinly-written character with the badass “action” direction he has to go, all the while bringing a bit of genuine emotional heft to the proceedings. Most of the other actors are in the film too briefly to make much of an impression, and at least half a dozen of them could have been trimmed without anyone really noticing. It’s just another example of how Belko largely squanders its potential, settling for low-brow pulp when it had all the goods to be something more.

That’s not to say that there aren’t aspects of Belko that work. McLean has a firm handle on the direction and carries the viewer through smoothly, even as the plot becomes outlandishly chaotic. And while the film fails to deliver on its premise in terms of the explanation provided for why the “experiment” is happening, it does manage a gut-punch of an ending. (It’s also a suspiciously sequel-friendly one, but I guess we can’t begrudge them that.)

Gunn has talked about how long The Belko Experiment percolated in his mind before getting made, and it does end up feeling overworked, never quite hitting any of the marks it seems to want to. However, the ride is still a mildly fun one – assuming your idea of a good time is at least a little bit twisted.

Review: Brimstone

Brimstone

Somewhere within Martin Koolhoven’s Brimstone is a film with a fiercely feminist slant. Set in front of a fairly typical 19th century western backdrop, the film follows Liz (Dakota Fanning), a young mother being terrorized by a sinister preacher (Guy Pearce) who has his sights set on her. Throughout its ample 148-minute runtime, Brimstone shows the injustice and abuse that women face, as well as the ways they seek revenge. But while that may sound interesting or even empowering in theory, where Brimstone flies woefully off the rails is in the leering, exploitative way it presents its presumably well-intentioned message.

This isn’t to say that a film can’t be shocking while still making its points. And indeed, in one way I respect Koolhoven’s commitment to brutality; his hand is unflinching and his vision clear. The problem, though, comes from the fact that his vision happens to be so unrelentingly nasty that Brimstone becomes a complete slog by the time it wheezes to the end of its four-chapter structure. The shock value wears off early on, leaving the viewer with a sort of grimness set at the same pitch throughout, rarely evolving after the film’s first half hour or so.

Some of the brutality comes with a side helping of Koolhoven’s pitch-black sense of humour, and it’s easy to see that a lot of Brimstone’s most debauched moments are meant to be very darkly satirical. However, it seems that satire serves no real purpose other than to slightly lessen the blow of the twisted things Koolhoven is presenting on screen. Some viewers will be offended by the crimes that are fairly graphically inflicted on women, children, and animals throughout the film. Others, like myself, will find them trying so hard to be “edgy” that they lose all impact.

Koolhoven is clearly going for an in-your-face brashness (as evidenced even by the film’s title card, which declares it “Koolhoven’s Brimstone”) and his style is not without its merits. Resting in some ethereal realm between arthouse and schlock, there’s an elegant griminess to Brimstone that there just might be a gap in the market for. Despite largely really disliking this film, I still wouldn’t be opposed to checking out what Koolhoven makes next.

Dakota Fanning makes the most of things, delivering a powerful, measured lead performance despite the lack of character development included in the script. As the film settles in and you start calculating exactly how many minutes are left in the runtime, she and the film’s moody, burnished cinematography become two bright spots amid the mire. It would be unfair to expect that to be enough to carry the whole bloated beast, but it does kind of justify the film’s existence, and that’s not nothing.

It’s unclear if the world really needed the creation of a “Dutch psychosexual western” film subgenre, but it’s probably safe to say that Koolhoven has now cornered the market. Unfortunately, Brimstone just never follows through on its sweeping vision. Koolhoven clearly has the visual flair and attitude to pull it off, but it’s yet to be seen if he has it in him to find the restraint and narrative thrust necessary to really get a bizarre film like Brimstone off the ground. It seems unlikely he’ll stop trying, though.

Review: Logan

Logan

We all know that the concept of the “gritty reboot” is a little played out. (As soon as the internet starts meme-ing something, it’s never a good sign.) However, if ever there was a cinematic character who warranted some rougher and tougher reconsideration, it’s probably Wolverine. Enter: Logan.

Of course, Logan isn’t actually a reboot, considering Hugh Jackman has now been donning his Wolverine scowl for well over a decade and Logan marks director James Mangold’s second time tackling the character. But while some audience members may be growing fatigued by the Wolverine tale and have lost count of how many different X-Men-related films we’ve now seen him in, it’s also difficult to claim that Logan doesn’t feel like something quite different within the franchise. And when you’re bringing Wolverine-level familiarity to the already well-worn superhero genre, the fact that Logan can actually be described as “fresh” feels like a small miracle in and of itself.

Part of this does have to do with the film’s much-discussed R-rating, which Mangold and co. take full advantage of when it comes to the violence. However, while it’s fun to hear Wolverine drop a few well-placed f-bombs and the brutal fight scenes are stunningly directed, I’d argue that the film doesn’t really need its R. The film is otherwise rather understated and actually features a lot of downtime, so in one sense I can understand why Mangold wanted to throw in a few spirited beheadings to keep restless audience members alert, but the result is that it ends up feeling a bit inconsistent in tone.

Rather, the thing that truly sets Logan apart is its focus on character. Logan and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) get fully-formed arcs, and Mangold and his fellow screenwriters leave room to show the toll that time has taken on their characters. It’s a melancholy, often pessimistic meditation on morality, tackling themes of regret and vulnerability. Most superhero movies don’t even try to wade into anything with a bit of emotional heft, or when they do, it just feels woefully cursory. (Here’s looking at you, Captain America: Civil War.) By contrast, Logan revels both in its meditative tendencies, and the considerable emotional range of its pair of lead actors, who have never been better within the X-Men franchise.

However, even Jackman and Stewart can’t completely smooth over the film’s flaws, which aren’t massive but do prevent the film from truly transcending superhero tropes. To start with, Mangold can’t seem to resist throwing in a hammy, undeveloped villain who this time around comes in the form of Boyd Holbrook’s Pierce. (If you want to see Holbrook do some truly fantastic work in a gritty, small-town America cinematic setting, check out 2015’s underrated indie Little Accidents. But he’s sadly all scenery chewing and “quirk” here, ultimately amounting to a character of no substance.) And while there’s something to be said for a deliberate pace, this movie does feel overly long at 135 minutes; by the time we reach the end it feels fairly inevitable (though still affecting), and I think the film would be all the stronger if we could have gotten there 20 minutes sooner.

Ultimately, it’s difficult not to get sucked in by the surprising pathos of Logan in spite of its flaws, and while it may not be entirely revolutionary, it is a refreshing detour. Hopefully it’s a sign of the direction more franchises will start to take.

Review: O.J.: Made in America

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Prior to watching O.J.: Made in America, I believed I had a general understanding of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. I was a very young child when it all played out, so I hadn’t experienced it as it was happening, but I’d since gleaned the necessary information through pop culture and references that came up in conversation. Or so I thought.

As I quickly found out after starting Ezra Edelman’s nearly 8-hour documentary, I knew only the very faintest outline of the major events surrounding the case. And every time I’d heard the trial and verdict mentioned, it was usually cloaked in the assumption that O.J. was guilty. Now, after completing O.J.: Made in America, I do still believe that he committed the murder. However, the path that I took to come to that conclusion is now both far better-informed and a hell of a lot murkier.

So that’s where I was at going in to O.J. Admittedly, I think my ignorance on the subject made the viewing experience more “exciting”. For someone who knows the ins and outs of the case or who followed the trial through its excruciatingly long duration, there obviously aren’t going to be as many surprises. Yet, I found that the most interesting part of O.J. was not following every twist and turn in the narrative (and, indeed, I’m sure everyone watching at the very least knows the ultimate outcome of the story) but in discovering the context that surrounded it all and contributed to the result.

Edelman does a fantastic job of providing background both in regards to O.J.’s life and to the social climate in Los Angeles at the time. The murder isn’t even addressed until a full three hours into the movie, and Edelman spends the time leading up to that essentially setting the scene for how and why things happened like they did He delves into the extreme racial tension plaguing L.A., which was still fresh off the heels of Rodney King and questions of ongoing police brutality. And while much of this might not be new information to the viewer, it is illuminating to see it all laid out at once, and it makes the ultimate trajectory of the trial a lot more comprehensible.

The film’s rich cast of interview subjects also greatly enhance the story, providing perspective from just about every angle imaginable. Yes, there are a few key players missing – most notably, Simpson himself – but Edelman more than makes up for that by speaking at length to the people who knew the ultimately unknowable O.J. the best; childhood friends, teammates, business associates, reporters, prosecutors, defense lawyers, jurors, and family members of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman all weigh in. Their responses to O.J. are as diverse as the public’s, ultimately offering no easy answers but making the story all the more fascinating and complex. And Edelman clearly has a knack for interviews, highlighting the more colourful side of more than a few of his subjects and drawing out a few tidbits in regards to O.J. that are truly damning, if true. (Which, as the film silently suggests throughout, sometimes may not actually be the case.)

Among the film’s many other rich themes, that question of truth and obfuscation permeates the narrative at every turn. In seamlessly pieced-together archival footage, we see many different sides of O.J., some of them downright charming. The whole first segment of the film (if you choose to watch it in its more easily digestible five-part format) presents O.J.’s college days and his early pro football career, and it’s easy to get swept up in that story and almost completely forget what is to come.

To that end, Edelman brings such a sense of empathy to the film that none of the subjects are portrayed as truly unlikeable or unsympathetic, even as some of them seem to uncontrollably offer up questionable views or speak of their involvement in the more unsavoury aspects of O.J.’s past. For example, O.J.’s longtime agent, Mike Gilbert (one of the film’s most fascinating and candid subjects), provides information that paints himself in questionable light as much as it does O.J. At one point, somewhat bafflingly, Gilbert admits that he always thought O.J. was guilty yet remained close with him. He seems to suggest that he would have been fine with the idea of O.J. committing second-degree murder, but his realization that it may have been premeditated was apparently the thing that was a bridge too far. It’s revelations like this – all tied into people’s murky motivations, self-interest, and damage – that complicate the story, even if you’re operating under the assumption that O.J. is indeed guilty.

Edelman knows how to craft a documentary that rises far above standard true crime fare, weaving in endless nuance to subject matter that you’d expect to be too well-worn to offer much interest. 467 minutes may sound long, but rather than feeling drawn-out, O.J.: Made in America feels like the perfect length for Edelman’s expansive scope. As the title suggests, Simpson was indeed the product of that fabled “American dream”, and without ever feeling heavy-handed, Edelman understatedly crafts perhaps a truly perfect argument to why that promised “dream” may ultimately be false.

Review: Blue Jay

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Blue Jay is, in some ways, a very simple film. With just two actors on screen for almost the entire runtime, a black-and-white colour palette, and an almost non-existent narrative, it’s a masterclass in barebones cinema. Think of a quiet, low-budget indie film. Now think of a film even more stripped down than that, and you have something approximating Blue Jay.

However, it’s also a film that is a bit difficult to describe. The plot is simple – two former high school sweethearts, Jim and Amanda, unexpectedly meet again 20 years later and spend a day catching up – but the reason it’s actually interesting is much more complicated to define.

A big part of the reason is lead actors Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson, who imbue their performances with such lived-in believability that you never question Jim and Amanda’s past together, or why they’d be intrigued at the prospect of hanging out again. There is an immediate tenderness to the pair’s chemistry that allows the viewer to buy in to their shared past and also nicely lends credence to some later plot reveals about why the pair’s teenage romance fell apart in the first place.

Another thing the film certainly has going for it is the Duplass touch. Blue Jay is the first of four films that Mark Duplass and his brother Jay are producing for Netflix, and Mark also wrote the script. It has the same micro-melancholy feel of other Duplass brother joints, such as 2012’s Jeff Who Lives at Home and 2011’s Cyrus. But while the brothers directed those other two films themselves, Blue Jay is actually the debut narrative directorial effort from cinematographer Alex Lehmann. By the Duplasses handing over the directing duties to someone who, frankly, has a much stronger eye for composition and cinematography than they do, Blue Jay has a visual beauty that their other films have lacked. The black-and-white cinematography is clean and surprisingly unobtrusive, lending the film a bit of extra, albeit gentle, emotional heft.

Blue Jay has an emotional core that feels genuinely melancholy without ever being melodramatic or self-pitying. It’s the little character touches – for example, Jim’s tendency to cry at nearly anything versus Amanda’s unshakable reserve – that make them feel like real people with a full life’s worth of history, rather than characters created solely for the purpose of a self-contained film. The filmmakers tap into something authentic and intimate in a way that is rarely captured on screen.

The film bound to draw comparisons to Linklater’s Before Sunrise series, and there is a “walk and talk” quality to Blue Jay that makes the comparison apt, as does the film’s limited timeframe. However, while Linklater’s trilogy is full of acerbic dialogue between its two notably articulate protagonists, Blue Jay revels in its own regularity. The conversations between Jim and Amanda feel like discussions anyone could have. That’s not to say that they’re banal, but the film’s emphasis on improvisation allows Duplass and Paulson to explore in a way that feels very natural. The result is something that feels a little less polished, but perhaps all the more emotionally raw because of it.

The old “I laughed, I cried” cliché has maybe never been more true for me than it was with Blue Jay. It’s a film rich in universal truths and an almost indescribable sadness, despite the fact that it comes in such a charming package, courtesy of Duplass and Paulson’s on-screen chemistry. It’s a small film, but don’t let it pass you by.