Movie Review ~ In the Earth

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: As the world searches for a cure to a disastrous virus, a scientist and park scout venture deep in the forest for a routine equipment run. Through the night, their journey becomes a terrifying voyage through the heart of darkness, the forest coming to life around them. 

Stars: Joel Fry, Ellora Torchia, Hayley Squires, Reece Shearsmith, John Hollingworth, Mark Monero 

Director: Ben Wheatley 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 107 minutes 

TMMM Score: (5/10) 

Review:  We’re officially over a year into this pandemic and while we’re marking a number of milestones in our own lives, we also look outside our own bubble for the lasting effects this global crisis has had on our previous normalcy.  If you’re reading this (and this review in particular), odds are you’re a movie fan that has felt the sting of not being able to go to the theater as much to see film and likely consumed a great deal of releases that were completed long before the lockdown began.  While we’ve already seen several movies filmed when the restrictions on the wide shut-downs were eased (Songbird, Malcolm & Marie), over the next few months we can expect to see a new crop of titles that were conceived, filmed, and released during the COVID-19 epidemic.  Some will have nothing to do with the virus or make mention of it at all while others, like writer/director Ben Wheatley’s new horror film In the Earth, will make it integral to their plot. 

I’ve definitely had my ups and downs with Wheatley over the years, with the early high points (2011’s unforgettably cruel Kill List) giving way to harder to take lower points (2015’s cuckoo High-Rise), which led to 2020’s par-baked remake of Rebecca on Netflix that I sort of liked but was mostly dismissed by everyone else.  Before he jumps into his first big blockbuster film (a sequel to The Meg for Warner Brothers), Wheatley took the time during lockdown to write In the Earth and then went ahead and gathered the crew and made the thing.  The result is another uneven effort from the always off-balance director who demonstrates again that he knows how to start a film that sinks its hooks into you with a fierce force but can’t maintain his grip on the plot, allowing the narrative to go totally slack by the end.    

During a fierce plague that continues to throttle England, research scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry, Yesterday) arrives at a deserted forest lodge serving as the gateway to a larger area of woodland that has been made available for scientific study.  Intending to bring new equipment to a colleague, he needs the assistance of a guide to help him navigate the trails and terrain he is unable to cross himself.  Setting out with Alma (Ellora Torchia, Midsommar), an observant ranger who gets the feeling there’s more to Martin’s story than he’s letting on, the two don’t make it too far into thick before they are attacked during the night by an unseen presence.  

Without supplies (or shoes), they continue on, eventually meeting up with Zach (Reece Shearsmith, The World’s End) who has entered the park illegally but offers to help them in exchange for their silence.  Forgetting what their mothers always told them about going anywhere with a stranger, Martin and Alma agree to go back to Zach’s camp and it’s about then that Wheatley’s promising beginning starts to unravel, slowly at first and then quickly as time wears on.  There’s more to Zach than meets the eye and the same goes for the forest, which Wheatley has filled with Celtic lore and rumors about Parnag Fegg, a spirit of the forest said conjure all sorts of spooky what-have-yous and no-thank-you-whatnots.  These Blair Witch-y elements are all fine and dandy, it just depends on how you use them and how Wheatley chooses to weave them into the back half of the movie makes for a dizzying experience. 

Fair warning for anyone with light sensitivities, the final third of In the Earth features lengthy sequences of strobe lights and other visually intense moments.  It’s a stylistic choice that works in some respects (there’s a dandy shiver-inducing shot involving Zach and an axe) but fails in most others because it feels like a punishment to watch.  Even I had to look down or look away for a few seconds just to give my eyes a rest.  The arrival of a fourth character, Dr. Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires, In Fabric), initially steers the film back to its mysterious origins with a lot of strangely welcome exposition (often a sign of script weakness but here actually a boon after an onslaught of obtuseness) but it isn’t long before we’ve drifted back to the not as engrossing side of Wheatley’s tale where it’s all shock and awe showmanship.  That kind of filmmaking seems a bit beneath the director at this point. 

This being a Wheatley film, you knew the violence isn’t going to shy away from gaping gashes, flayed flesh, or other various injuries incurred in this trek into terror.  Though he tries to temper some of the more extreme acts with some humor, it doesn’t necessarily break the tension of the moment because we always know that Wheately will see it through to the end anyway, somehow.  In that respect, the production design and special effects make-up is well done as is Clint Mansell’s (Noah) unsettling score that could almost be considered a fifth character lost in the woods.  While the camera work also helps in setting the mood, cinematographer Nick Gillespie (Stan & Ollie) allows it to get increasingly frenzied instead of the jarring which would be a more sophisticated approach and still in line with the attitude of the piece. Performances are generally solid, with Shearsmith achieving a tough to maintain balance of menace tempered with a fair dose of dark humor and Torchia proving a compelling lead. Only Squires feels out of place in the quartet, but she appears so late that her presence is meant to upset the balance so perhaps it’s all intentional. 

Horror speaks to people on many different levels so for you, In the Earth might be that nice mix of pandemic panic leading to horrors we never could have imagined.  Or, if you’re like me, you want more follow-through with your features and wish obviously talented people like Wheatley, who proves over and over again he can gather the right people and conceptualize an idea, would get out of their own way. While it has brief moments of flight at the outset, In the Earth mostly never leaves the ground to achieve something bigger. 

Movie Review ~ Villain (2020)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Released from prison, a man returns to his violent ways when a menacing drug lord threatens his indebted brother.

Stars: Craig Fairbrass, George Russo, Izuka Hoyle, Mark Monero, Tomi May, Eloise Lovell Anderson, Taz Skylar, Nicholas Aaron, Michael John Treanor, Marcus Onilude, Robert Glenister

Director: Philip Barantini

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Over here in America we think we’ve got the gangster movie nailed down and maybe we’ve had a good run but there’s something about the way our friends over in the UK do it that elevates it to another level.  Though Guy Ritchie is credited as revitalizing the crime thriller for a new generation with his slate of movies in the early 2000s which combined rough action and slick dialogue, it overly complicated what is ostensibly a simple genre.  All that flash may give the feature an interesting look but it’s the performances and plot that propel these hard-nosed titles forward into success.  While Ritchie made a play to regain some of that magic with The Gentlemen earlier this year, it still leaned a little too much on the side of style over substance…but it was on the right track.

Now we have Villain, a smaller title with no A-listers to amp up the star quality and it winds up running circles around The Gentlemen for the plain fact that it goes back to the original formula instead of designing from the next gen hybrid.  It’s a hard-nosed, bloody knuckle ride that feels like it was working from script that’s been around since the 70s.  That’s not a bad thing, either, because it keeps the world of our characters small and the attention focused, creating a cracking action package that also takes interesting dramatic turns.

Having served his time in prison, Eddie Franks (Craig Fairbrass, Cliffhanger) is headed home to take back the family pub from his ne’er-do-well brother Sean (George Russo, also a co-screenwriter) who has been keeping it afloat during his absence.  Though the watering hole continues to generate steady business from the locals, Sean has a side operation with a few ruddy drug runners that have set him up in a shady extortion plot.  With Sean’s life on the line and Eddie not wanting to go back to prison so soon for kicking the tar out of these men, the brothers offer to peaceably make good on the debt and let everyone be on their way but when the thugs push back it sets a chain of gruesome events into motion.  With his family on the line, Eddie has to come out of his good guy retirement to protect his brother, his business, and his estranged daughter (Izuka Hoyle, Mary Queen of Scots) that wants nothing to do with him.

Actor turned director Philip Barantini oversees his first feature film and it captures the feel of those 70s British gangster films while still retaining a modern sensibility.  It’s obvious Barantini has done his homework and while the movie doesn’t feel old-fashioned or overly reverential, you can see that it is definitely tipping its hat toward the films it was inspired by.  The same feeling is found in Russo and Greg Hall’s efficient script.  The characters are fairly well defined and we know as much as we need to about them so that their motivations make sense.  The introduction of Eddie’s daughter could have been a typical saccharine development but the way Fairbrass and Hoyle play it we know that a resolution won’t be wrapped up in a bow in the course of 97 minutes.

I wasn’t familiar with the work of Fairbrass before this but looking over his IMDb credits he’s amassed a lot of similar roles over the years.  He fits into that elder Jason Statham role and I wouldn’t be shocked to hear this was originally offered to Statham, which is meant as no disrespect to Fairbrass because I think he wound up being the better choice anyway.  He’s an intimidating presence but soft-spoken, you know he’s paying you respect by not slapping the hell out of you if you look at him sideways.  While the supporting cast is solid across the board, this movie belongs to Fairbrass and he’s a commanding (and affable) lead.

Though it starts to run out of steam and interesting places to go near the end, I wasn’t quite sure for the majority of the movie where Villain was headed.  For once, I could have imagined countless different solutions that would have been a satisfying finale and the one that was chosen likely makes the most sense dramatically.  As much as the movie is about settling up old scores and paying for actions, it shows that no one is above consequences, even purportedly minor ones.