Review: Similar to feeling aghast when a designer on Bravo’s Project Runway sends a model down the catwalk not entirely dressed for success, there’s little I like less than seeing a film with good actors stuck in flimsy material. You understand the desire to branch out and try for work that’s off the beaten path, different from the norm, but in that same vein it stands to reason the effort should also have point and purpose that make it worth your while. It’s especially strenuous when the actors involved are so good that they usurp the material and almost make something of it and sadly that’s where we have to put a film like the new movie arriving on Amazon Prime, Encounter.
Starring Oscar nominee Riz Ahmed and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, this is one of those movies harboring a twist that you sit through the whole movie wondering why it’s even being kept under wraps as long as it is. In the spirit of the nature of this site and also out of respect for the filmmakers, I’m not going to spoil it but if you can’t spot where Encounter is headed almost from the moment Ahmed’s PTSD-suffering ex-marine starts spraying himself with a can of bug repellant to ward off the insects that burrow into your skin and change you into mindless drones…you need to get out more.
There’s an impressive opening to Encounter and for at least those opening moments I was interested to see what director Michael Pearce, who got a big jump to his burgeoning career with the wildly wonderful chiller Beast in 2017, had in store for us. Watching a mosquito infect a human bloodstream with a creepy crawly organism absolutely made me start feeling itchy all over and so Pearce gets the audience into the appropriate mood but fails to keep us there for much longer, mostly because that’s the extent of the impressive ideas.
Once that concept is established that’s pretty much all there is to Encounter and so we’re just following Malik Khan (Ahmed, Sound of Metal) as he “saves” his two young sons Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada) from his ex-wife and her new husband who he believes have been infected by the organism. Of course, his ex and the authorities don’t see it so much as saving as child abduction. With the help of Hattie (Octavia Spencer, Thunder Force), Malik’s understanding parole officer and the one person he has reached out to, a determined lawman (Rory Cochrane, Antlers) sets out to find the three Khans before it’s too late.
The performances in Encounter are enough to recommend the movie, I think I can safely say that. Even though the film stretches on to nearly two hours, I do feel as if the work that’s being done by Ahmed and especially the two young actors playing his boys is well-formed enough to be worthy of keeping your attention. It’s just the flimsy, also-ran plot that might make you doze off at various points. If you’ve seen a movie like 2016’s Midnight Special, you might be aware of what you’re in for…just on a less ambitious narrative level.
Review: For years growing up I had that sweet Walkman with the fuzzy headphones that made listening to music great but let in a ton of outside noise. At the time, it didn’t matter to me because this was years before noise-cancelling headphones and earbuds so I’d wrap that easily warped wire around my larger than average head and let the sound flow right into my ears. I wanted it loud…loud enough to hear every word. When I did get my first set of headphones that went inside the ear, I’d press them so far in they acted like an ear plug because…I wanted it loud. I listened to the music in my car at max volume, the TV was cranked up, everything was loud loud loud…my poor parents, neighbors, and friends. Then I went to a concert at a small club for a popular band and for some reason at this venue the sound reverberated in a way that just threw me for a loop. I’d been to concerts before and heard seriously amplified sound…but nothing like this. My ears rang for weeksafter, blocking out voices and causing me to strain to hear anything. I started to learn to get good at reading lips because I was too embarrassed to admit to anyone that I couldn’t hear what they were saying. Miraculously, over time, my hearing returned but that was officially it for my flirting with loss of hearing and ever since then I’ve been overly cautious about how sound affects my environment.
The opening moments of Sound of Metal (from Amazon Studios, now available to stream via Prime Video) gave me real anxiety as I watched Reuben, a punk-metal drummer for rising band Blackgammon keeping up with lead singer/girlfriend Lou as she scream-sings her way through one of their crowd-pleasing metal anthems. The deafening music is nearly hypnotic, not in anything purposefully lyrical but in the way Reuben (Riz Ahmed, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) is following along and, eventually, in how we start to see small hints he’s noticing something slightly off in himself. Director Darius Marder spends the next two hours following Reuben on his journey of self-discovery, beginning with a diagnosis that could limit and watching him navigate roadblocks of his own making. Far from your typical ‘overcoming disability’ type feel-good film, Sound of Metal still has a tremendous amount of heart and deeply felt soul and its at its all-time best when no words are spoken at all.
When Reuben suddenly experiences a loss of hearing the morning after an intense Blackgammon gig, he leaves a note for Lou (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) in the RV they’re traveling on tour in and finds a local doctor that can see him. Told he has done irreparable damage to his hearing with less than 30% remaining, without expensive cochlear implants he will soon be completely deaf. Unable to make it through the next scheduled show, Reuben admits to Lou what’s going on and fearing her former-user boyfriend will relapse due to this debilitating news she helps him find a safe space to learn about being deaf in a controlled environment. Originally hesitant to be away from the only person that’s truly loved him, Reuben’s hand is eventually forced into joining a community of deaf recovering addicts run by Joe, a Vietnam vet and former alcoholic.
Played by Paul Raci, Joe’s tough love approach may not be anything new by the standards of this type of filmmaking but in Raci’s hands (literally) and through the script by Darius Marder and his brother Abraham (who also composed the music with sounds-designer Nicolas Becker) the role becomes the key puzzle piece that was missing in getting Reuben’s life back on track. Not just in terms of learning how to live as a member of the deaf community but in living a fuller life using his natural talents to bring out the good in others. Joe sees that in Reuben, fosters it, encourages it, and asks him to join the movement in helping it continue to grow. The crux of Sound of Metal is what Reuben chooses to do with this new world that waits for him and very much wants him to be a part of it. Does he want this new life in his community, a community that feels they are whole as they are…or does he feel like he needs his hearing to be “fixed” and rejoin Lou who has done some soul-seeking of her own after returning to France to live with her father (Mathieu Amalric, Quantum of Solace)?
This is a film of endless gifts, starting with the performances offered by the three leads. Ahmed’s work has consistently been strong but it’s at a totally different level, full of body and spirit. Training for six months on the drums as well as learning ASL, it’s hard to fathom the movie was shot in just four weeks. Even if her part is minor and acts as starkly contrasting bookends, Cooke too is an actor that never fails to bring something interesting to her appearances and whether she’s letting loose as a rock banshee or displaying a softer tone crooning en français with her dad, her energy is always vibrant and palpable. The chemistry between the leads might be a tad off, reading more like good friends and bandmates that soulmates but several of their interactions feel like good examples of character improv done right. The supporting players, a mixture of adults and children, are pulled from the deaf community and are impressively naturalistic in what is the screen debut of most.
Sound of Metal’s secret stealth weapon is Raci’s unforgettable performance as Joe. At first, you aren’t sure how much he’ll factor into the story but once he’s locked in place you recognize just what he’ll come to mean in the grand scheme of what Marder is going for. Raci delivers in each scene, showing a raw talent for off-the-cuff interaction that is refreshingly straightforward. Raci gives Joe could have been a simple repeat of so many other performances it resembles but there’s a lived-in quality and world-weariness in Raci’s eyes that you can’t fake. It’s almost as if Marder and the crew just happened to find the exact character they had written live in living color. Count on this performance, as well as Ahmed’s, getting to the very final talks when those end of the year award nominations start coming out – both are well deserved nominees.
There’s a bit of a full circle feeling behind the scenes with Sound of Metal. In 2012, Darius Marder had the original story idea for The Place Beyond the Pines and would go on to co-write the screenplay with the director of that film, Derek Cianfrance. Years later, Cianfrance was working on the idea for Sound of Metal but wound up abandoning the movie, eventually passing it to Marder who would write and direct it. From its incredible sound design (give Becker the Oscar right now, I mean, right now) to its unflinching way of showing the frustration and fear someone losing their hearing experiences, Sound of Metal excels in its sincerity and follows it through to the bitter (sweet) end. One of the true highlights of film-watching in 2020. Don’t you dare miss it.
Review: If there’s one thing really good about the recent revival and rethinking of the comic book movie, it’s that it’s giving me some new visibility to characters that aren’t necessarily who you would think about when you hear the word “superhero”. From Guardians of the Galaxy to Ant-Man to Doctor Strange, this comic-book novice is getting a taste of multiple crime fighters and super villains that don’t have familiar names like Superman or Batman. The latest deeper dive character to get his own movie is Venom, the alien symbiote that is the alter-ego of journalist Eddie Brock. Though Venom was introduced back in 2007 for Spider-Man 3, this is a resetting of the character and yet another origin story for audiences to trudge through. Origin stories done right are worth their weight in gold (hello, Black Panther) but if there isn’t any artistry to the endeavor why even tell the story to begin with?
That’s the main problem facing Venom in its release this fall season – there’s almost no creative energy in the re-launching of the anti-hero to a new generation of theater-goers. Not from the writers, not from director Ruben Fleischer (30 Minutes or Less), and surprisingly not from a stable of interesting supporting actors Fleischer has assembled. Good thing, then, that Venom/Eddie Brock is played by Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), a game actor willing to go the distance in his transformation. It’s Hardy’s bizarre but bizarrely perfect performance that gives the film it’s best bet to hold up on repeat viewings.
As the film begins, Eddie Brock is an investigative journalist given an assignment to interview Carlton Drake (Rix Ahmed, The Reluctant Fundamentalist), CEO of Life Foundation, a bioengineering corporation that has been experimenting with gene technology, often with deadly results. Though Brock doesn’t know it at the time, Drake has been exploring space in search of other worlds for habitation and located symbiotic lifeforms that he plans to transport back to earth. When the vessel carrying these organisms crashes and one escapes, Drake attempts to cover up the breach at all costs. Thanks to information about test subjects dying during clinical trials within Life Foundation he steals from the laptop of his lawyer girlfriend (Michelle Williams, All the Money in the World) Brock gets too close to the truth and finds himself dumped and fired on the same day.
The film cuts to half a year later when Brock is scrounging for any kind of work and is sought out by Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate, Zootopia), a colleague of Drake’s that has serious concerns over how her boss is conducting business. Skirth sneaks Brock into Life Foundation’s labs where he is infected by one of the alien lifeforms that Drake brought back from space. Thus, Venom is created and uses Brock’s body to roam Earth unnoticed, picking off anyone that interferes along the way. Venom is often just a voice in Brock’s head but makes the rare appearance as an extension of Brock’s appendages or as a full on CGI overlay on Hardy’s body. Reaching out to his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend (Reid Scott), Brock seeks their assistance in discovering what’s inside him and how to get rid of it before it eats him from within.
There’s a strange disconnect between the first and last hour of the film, with the early material playing like a boring retread of any number of failed early ‘90s comic back creations. It’s only when Venom takes over Brock’s body that the film begins to loosen up and inject some dark humor into the action. Working best when it’s just Hardy on screen talking to himself or tossing himself around the room during his internal struggles with Venom, the movie gets considerably less interesting almost every time another character is brought into the mix. That’s bad news for Ahmed who is regulated to the bland megalomaniac villain role and especially poison for Williams who never fully establishes herself as strong enough female presence…at least not until the film almost subconsciously remembers they have an Oscar-nominated actress that has shown herself willing to cross genres in search of a challenge. Too often Williams just stares wide eyed at what’s happening around her and chirps out her lines with less that full enthusiasm. I wish the writers had given her a better arc and kept her interesting.
With the success of films like Logan, Deadpool, and Deadpool 2, audiences have shown they’ll turn out for a R-rated comic-book film. While Deadpool and it’s sequel were a bit on the extreme side of the restricted rating, I feel like Venom could easily have eschewed it’s PG-13 bloodless existence for a more adult oriented adventure like Logan was bold enough to do. It feels like the film was severely cut to get the more family friendly (?) rating and it suffers from comings off like a watered down version of something with higher ambitions. I fully expect to hear interviews with Hardy, Fleischer, and others involved down the road bemoaning the confines of operating in a PG-13 world.
With two post credit stingers (both worth it and one surprisingly lengthy), Venom is 112 minutes from start to finish and, aside from it’s slow first hour, is a mostly entertaining re-introduction to an darker character I wanted to learn more about. As is often the case with the first outings, it fees like we’re obligated to wait until the sequel to get more of that character development…but will audiences create the type of box-office that will cement this supposed continuation?
Synopsis: Plot is unknown but is said to be based on not one but two comic book storylines: ‘Venom: Lethal Protector’ and ‘Planet of the Symbiotes.’
Release Date: October 5, 2018
Thoughts: Ok…so maybe there’s room for another superhero movie in 2018. While the upcoming year is packed with its share of Marvel entries (Black Panther, Ant-Man and The Wasp, Avengers: Infinity War), DC Comics yarns (Aquaman), and Fox properties (Deadpool 2, X-Men: Dark Phoenix), Oscar nominee Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) is set to suit up as Venom which looks to continue the trend of studios adapting comics with considerably darker tones. I’m all for something that feels different and I’m getting good vibes from this teaser trailer. Co-starring Michelle Williams (All the Money in the World), Riz Ahmed (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and Woody Harrelson (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).
Synopsis: Rebels set out on a mission to steal the plans for the Death Star.
Release Date: December 16, 2016
Thoughts: Not that it’s a very high bar, but this second trailer for December’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is better than most films we’ve seen so far this summer. Maybe even more than 2015’s Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, this spin-off prequel sends waves of nostalgia over the viewer. Director Gareth Edwards (Godzilla) seems to have created a movie made now that feels like it was lensed in the ‘70s and has cast it with a striking group of fresh faces creeping their way up into the A-List. I’m even more excited to see how this ties into the saga of films that it takes place before and it’s a given that the film will be a swell Christmas gift in just a few short months.Watch the first teaser here.
Review: I think we’ve been long overdue for a paranoid thriller with conspiracies at every corner and the threat of mortal danger with each new secret discovered so I was looking forward to the twisty feast that Closed Circuit purported to offer. Sadly, though the appetizer of the film was filling if lacking spice the main course was a flavorless Jell-O mold of stale red-herrings.
A bombing in a populous square in London leaves many dead and is described as the worst terrorist attack on record. A suspect is arrested and, due to issues of national security, given two lawyers for his defense. One will try the case in open court while the other is appointed as a Special Advocate, privy to private, classified information that the other lawyer can’t hear and will present in a closed session. It’s a strange situation and unlike any we’ve seen in most courtroom thrillers so the set-up is appealing…at the start.
Taking elements from any number of government conspiracy thrillers from the 70’s and 80’s, the film starts out sharp with a nicely tense opening sequence of the closed circuit cameras that pick up the moments leading up to the bombing. When the original lawyer assigned to the case takes his own life (a scenario no one seems to bat an eye at in a case we’re constantly reminded is the most important in British history), the job goes to Martin Rose (Eric Bana, Star Trek, Lone Survivor) who soon finds out that the Special Advocate assigned to the case is his former mistress Claudia (Rebecca Hall, Iron Man 3, The Awakening).
Now their past relationship should mean that one of them has to recuse themselves but, no, where would that leave us? The law states that the two are to have no contact so the audience is left to wonder two things. The first is why Martin and Claudia ever got together in the first place. There’s an obvious lack of chemistry between the actors and it’s tough to pinpoint who is more at fault, Bana’s cocky puffshirt of an attorney or Hall’s chilly take on her character. The second thing is how long it will be before Martin and Claudia break the rules and start talking about the case with each other.
As the movie follows Martin and Claudia conducting their own investigations into the bombing, a whole slew of extra characters are introduced and nearly all are written in solely to give information that moves the plot along. Julia Stiles’ (Silver Linings Playbook, Girl Most Likely) miniscule role is given such short shrift that her exit from the film might very well be missed if you look away. Jim Broadbent (Cloud Atlas), Riz Ahmed (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), and Ciarán Hinds (The Woman in Black, John Carter) get their jobs done efficiently, even if they are merely obviously placed roadblocks to Martin and Claudia getting at the truth of it all.
If the film is worth seeing it’s for a scene that I can’t even talk about because it would give the one interesting twist the movie has up its sleeve. I’ll just say that it involves Hall’s character cross-examining a witness that audiences won’t see coming (well, if you’ve seen the trailer you may…so take my advice and don’t watch it). That this scene crackles is thanks to the actor playing opposite Hall and it gives way nicely to several more scenery chewing moments.
Unfortunately, this scene a little over halfway through the movie can’t snap the film back onto the promising track it started off on. It winds up blowing totally off course as it struggles to find an ending that is suitable and winds up settling for a denouement that’s not very exciting or satisfying. Arriving at the tail end of the summer movie season, Closed Circuit seems out of place for this time of year and with so many other strong films arriving in the last few weeks, this isn’t one I’d make a serious effort to see. A fine rental for a rainy day but not worth the trip to the theater.
Synopsis: Martin and Claudia are lawyers — and ex-lovers — who find themselves put at risk after they join the defense team for an international terrorist’s trial.
Release Date: August 28, 2013
Thoughts: Though it does remind me of something moviegoers would have been treated to in the early 90’s, this UK thriller boasts a nicely low-key cast and a premise that may have some mileage in it. I’ve never been totally won over by either Rebecca Hall (The Awakening) or Eric Bana (Star Trek) but this movie intrigues me. I love a nice courtroom thriller and this seems to fit squarely into a John Grisham-y rhythm that could be worth investigating when it goes before the late summer film fan jury.
Synopsis: A young Pakistani man is chasing corporate success on Wall Street. He finds himself embroiled in a conflict between his American Dream, a hostage crisis, and the enduring call of his family’s homeland.
Stars: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, Om Puri, Martin Donovan, Shabana Azmi
Review: Every now and then a smaller movie rolls around that you feel like you should get a gold star for choosing to see over a more mainstream feature. There’s a certain sense of back-patting that goes on for plunking down your cash to see something more intelligent and timely than the latest 3D action adventure film playing on nineteen screens. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is one such movie, a film that feels very prescient in our world that is still reeling in a post 9/11 culture…but it’s also a movie that you exit feeling you should get at least two gold stars for sitting through.
Now let me say that I had high hopes for this one going in, though I’m weary of these types of international relations dramas I’m a fan of director Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake) and of many of the people involved with bringing this adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel to the screen. The end result of this collaboration, however, is a densely worded rehash of a plot that feels overly familiar and a little late to the party.
Not that Nair hasn’t delivered a decently oiled product for audience consumption because much of the film is rich with her trademark stylistic use of color and controlled narrative. Told in flashback between 2001 and 2011, the movie lives and dies with its lead performance and star Ahmed ably handles the role of a conflicted man torn between his ideal life in the US and possibly more important obligations at home. Ahmed is onscreen for nearly every frame and he fills up the space nicely.
As he moves from college campus to the offices of a Wall Street corporation, he develops a relationship with a troubled photographer and that’s where the film takes the first of its missteps. I generally like Hudson and though she has a dynamite scene late in the film, for most of her short time on screen she seems lost in the role and abandoned by her director. I don’t think Hudson is necessarily wrong in the role but she looks so washed out and idle that it’s hard to pinpoint what our lead character sees in her.
Schreiber’s character feels constructed to give Ahmed’s fundamentalist an outlet to spill his life story to and though we gradually see that there’s some complexity to the person Schreiber is portraying, the film never makes a case for why the two dialogue for so long with increasing unrest/danger outside their door. The best performance in the whole film is Sutherland as Ahmed’s superior, a bulldog of a businessman so tightly wound you can practically hear the gears grinding against each other when he walks. It’s through Sutherland’s scenes that the film has the biggest impact but sadly he’s not on screen as much as the audience wants him to be.
This is a talky film that requires a lot of your attention – and maybe it asked more of me than I was willing to give in the screening I saw at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. It’s not a film I’d choose to see again and not one I could recommend to anyone that doesn’t have more than a passing interest in political films of this nature. It could use a slick trim of excess scenes (mostly Hudson’s) and a more focused approach to some final act business that feels unresolved. Reluctantly, I say this was a disappointment.
Synopsis: A young Pakistani man is chasing corporate success on Wall Street. He finds himself embroiled in a conflict between his American Dream, a hostage crisis, and the enduring call of his family’s homeland.
Release Date: April 26, 2013
Thoughts: Director Mira Nair has given us some of the most visually sumptuous films in the last several decades; I loved the popular Monsoon Wedding and still wish that The Namesake had received more notice when it was released. Now comes The Reluctant Fundamentalist and its shows the director moving away from themes that involve family relations and on to more political overtones. Nair has assembled a surprising and diverse cast, couple that with an intriguing plot and you have a movie I won’t be fundamentally reluctant to see.