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Films I Neglected To Review: Beyond And Blecch
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of [i]Equals,[/i] [i]Star Trek: Beyond,[/i] [i]Train to Busan[/i] and [i]The Witness.[/i]

Say what you will about the possibility of living in a futuristic world in which all emotions have been eradicated as a way of achieving peace and harmony—one thing in their favor is that they have probably also eradicated repetitive cinematic about two people who challenge the very foundations of their futuristic world in which all emotions have been eradicated by committing the rebellious act of falling in love. By the time the fatally bland and unimaginative Equals comes to an end, most viewers will be longing for this kind of dystopia in the way that denizens of Chicago yearn for the Bahamas around the middle of January. In the monochromatic not-too-distant future presented here, emotions have largely been thwarted from the populace and those that still possess them are said to suffer from Switched On Syndrome (check the acronym to discover the level of subtlety on display here) and encouraged to commit suicide for the good of society. Our star-crossed lovers this time are Nia (Kristen Stewart), who is trying to hide that she suffers from the disease (despite the Ben Foster-like twitchiness she displays upon witnessing the suicide of a colleague) and Silas (Nicholas Hoult), who figures out her secret and then finds himself getting twitchy when he is around her. And since merely knocking off THX 1138 is apparently no longer enough these days, screenwriter Nathan Parker spends the second half of the story borrowing the more melodramatic elements of Romeo & Juliet in a desperate bid for audience sympathy. Alas, neither he nor director Drake Doremus (whose Like Crazy was equally dreadful) are able to make any of it seem remotely plausible or compelling and not even Stewart (who has otherwise had a hell of a run for the last couple of years) nor Hoult (whose last appearance in a a film set in a grim dystopian future, Fury Road, was slightly more successful) can do much of anything to say it. Unless you are suffering from withdrawal following the Republican convention and crave another glimpse at a grim, forbidding and pretty much all-white society where love and compassion have been outlawed, there is no reason to sit through Equals since you have almost certainly seen it all before and done much better to boot.

Whether you like Star Trek: Beyond or not will depend to a large extent on what it is that you are looking for in a Star Trek movie these days. If all that you are looking for is a lot of razzle-dazzle filled with flashy special effects and elaborate (though sometimes incoherent) action set-pieces chock-full of phasers, explosions and punches, then the film—in which the crew of the Enterprise travels into a nebula on a rescue mission that quickly goes wrong and unleashes a madman with the power to threaten the entire Federation—may do it for you. It is certainly the best of the rebooted series and contains some amusing moments (including one based around the use of, of all things, the Beastie Boys classic “Sabotage”) as well as a brief but heartfelt tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy and his beloved Spock character. (There is also a tribute in the end credits to the late Anton Yelchin, who played Chekov and who was recently killed in a freak auto accident.) In addition, the actors—including Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Karl Urban (McCoy), Simon Pegg (who not only plays Scotty but co-wrote the script), Zoe Saldana (Uhura) and Jon Cho (Sulu)—finally coalesce into a convincing group dynamic, which is ironic since they wind up spending a good chunk of the film separated. However, if you are like me and believe that the thing that separated Star Trek from most other sci-fi narratives was that, more often than not, it was more interested in offering up stories that presented ideas, philosophical concerns and social commentary than in all the elaborate hardware, you will be disappointed to discover that director Justin Lin has followed the path of the previous films by emphasizing the action elements. The results may be adequate as these things go—though a clearer story and a more memorable villain might have helped—but anyone hoping for a film that would pay real tribute to the long and groundbreaking legacy of “Star Trek” is going to be a bit disappointed.

If you thought that your normal morning commute is already a nightmare that puts most horror films to shame, imagine being stuck on a crowded high-speed bullet train where the passengers are quickly being transformed into zombies. That is the premise of Train to Busan, a ridiculously entertaining action-horror hybrid from South Korean writer-director Sang-ho Yeun. In it, a self-absorbed fund manager (Yoo Gong) is inveigled to take his young daughter (Kim Soo-Ahn) on the train so that she can visit her mother. As they are about to leave, strange things are going on but no one notices that a woman obviously infected with something made it aboard just before leaving the station. She quickly dies and just as quickly comes back as a zombie and soon the train is swarming with zombies while a few of the uninfected, including the father and daughter, a couple expecting their first child, a pair of teenaged lovers and a corporate fatcat so self-centered that he makes Dad seem wildly altruistic by comparison. You might think that the zombies-on-a-train premise might wear thin after a bit but Sang-ho (a anime specialist making his live-action feature debut) does an excellent job of finding an endless number of entertaining variations on that concept. The results may not necessarily be “scary” per se but they are thrilling and gloriously gruesome and there is one setpiece—in which the survivors disembark at a train station that turns out to be not quite as deserted as it initially seems—that is worth the price of admission all by itself. It bogs down a bit in the midsection, I suppose, but for horehounds and those looking for a couple of hours of breakneck excitement, Train to Busan is a ride that you will definitely want to take.

As most people of a certain age know, Kitty Genovese was a young New York City woman who was stabbed to death outside her apartment in 1964—what made this particular crime so infamous were reports in the New York Times that there were 38 witnesses, mostly neighbors, who apparently heard her screams during the half-hour of attacks by her assailant, but did nothing. The case became a cultural benchmark that symbolized urban apathy and inspired some good works (such as the development of the 911 phone alert system) but in 2004, the Times reexamined their influential coverage and questioned the veracity of much of their reporting, specifically involving the apathetic response of those 38 witnesses. One person especially shaken by the reporting was Kitty’s younger brother, William, who was inspired by the loss of his sister to volunteer to serve in Vietnam as a way of doing something in the world and lost both of his legs as a result. On the basis of that report, William began his own exploration into the case as a way of getting to the bottom of what really happened that night and to better understand that he knows more as a symbol than as his sister. The Witness chronicles his efforts and the results, while undeniably effective from an emotional perspective, are somewhat uneven as cinema.

As William delves deeper into the case, he becomes more and more consumed—to the point where his own family thinks that he is taking things too far—but neither he nor director James D. Solomon seem willing to grapple with his increasingly obsessed attitude towards the case. (At the end of the film, William even hires an actress to recreate the crime so that he can sit on the street in his wheelchair and bear witness to it, a scene that wants to be cathartic but instead comes across as kind of creepy.) At the same time, the film itself is so consumed with the details of the crime and William’s later investigation that the attempts to present Kitty as a person seem like little more than perfunctory filler. Perhaps giving the case and William’s reexamination a more extensive treatment in the manner of the recent documentary projects about OJ Simpson and Robert Durst might have led to a more satisfying look at the case and its enduring historical and emotional legacy. As is, however, The Witness is an occasionally fascinating but too often frustrating work that shines some new light on the subject but not enough to quite make it work as a film.

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originally posted: 07/23/16 08:09:34
last updated: 07/23/16 08:38:41
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