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Films I Neglected To Review: A "Rebel" Without A Clue
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Against the Night," "American Assassin," "Because of Garcia," "Rebel in the Rye" and "The Villainess."

When it comes to clunky plot twists in your utterly disposable Z-movie fodder, do you prefer the ones that are so crashingly obvious that you can see them coming from several reels away or do you prefer the ones that are so ridiculous that all you can do is sit there and laugh at their sheer preposterousness? If you cannot easily decide, have no fear because the ultra-dopey horror/locked-room mystery hybrid ''Against the Night'' offers examples of both. In it, an obnoxious would-be filmmaker--the kind of guy who films his friends having sex and then shows them and their friends the footage while joking about it--decides to jump-start his career by convincing his pals to help him break into a nearby abandoned prison and aid him in filming a fake ghost hunting program that he is convinced will be his ticket to fame and glory. As the dopes spread out through the grimy, run-down prison grounds to put down cameras, they begin disappearing one by one. Are the disappearances fakes designed by the director to freak out the others? Is someone else inside the prison who is picking them off one by one? Could it be something else entirely? While waiting for the answers to those questions, writer-director Brian Cavallaro offers up a painfully familiar story filled with shallow and largely unlikable characters acting like idiots while being messily dispatched before arriving at a conclusion that somehow manages to be both batshit crazy and incredibly lame and contrived at the same time. To give the film a little bit of credit, however, the prison location for the bulk of the film is appropriately seedy and creepy--I don't know if Cavallaro was lucky enough to stumble upon real locations or had them dummied up but it is an effective bit of production design that is unworthy of the craptacular to which it has been consigned.

If "American Assassin" were any more formulaic of a film, it would almost need to issue lab coats with every ticket purchase.After watching his newly minted fiancee get gunned down on a vacation resort beach by either terrorists or ''The Fury'' cosplayers, brooding hunk Mitch Rapp (Dylan O'Brien) decides that he is going to single-handedly track down and infiltrate the terrorist cell responsible and kill them all. Inevitably, his actions attract the attentions of a CIA bigwig (Sanaa Lathan) who thinks that this undisciplined, rage-filled lone wolf is just the breath of fresh air that the agency requires and recommends that he be placed in a super-secret and super-elite program run by grizzled veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). At first, Hurley wants nothing to do with this attractive-but-edgy stud despite all of his obvious skills but before long, he has picked him to help stop a terrorist ring from getting its hands on some stolen uranium and committing some heinous act with it. Complicating matters is the arrival of someone known only as The Ghost (Taylor Kitsch), a rogue agent who plays by his own set of rules, is beholden to no one, lives to cause chaos and has some unresolved issues with Hurley, who trained him back in the day and who was forced to leave him for dead after another mission went south. Will Mitch manage to figure out a way to work as a team player--while still retaining his incredible skill set and lustrous hair--and save the day in the nick of time? Mmmmmm (Spoiler Alert!). . . could be.

Based on one of the Mitch Rapp novels by the late Vince Flynn--the kind of pulp nonsense seemingly constructed to be read and possibly written on long plane flights--''American Assassin'' is one of those films that appears to be jerry-built entirely out of elements cadged from better movies and director Michael Cuesta seems content to just let them play out along those lines without ever finding a new angle from which to approach them. The film might have still worked on some level as a meat-and-potatoes action thriller but it is further sunk by the thoroughly uninspiring choices for the hero and the main villain of the piece--O'Brien comes across as a callow twit throughout and his uselessness is matched throughout by the equally lame and unthreatening Kitsch. (If these guys are meant to be the contemporary version of the ''MTV-IA'' joked about in ''Hudson Hawk,'' then both of these guys are chlamydia.) The only person who comes out of this one largely unscathed is Michael Keaton--his character may be completely constructed out of cliches but he at least has enough sheer personality to make his scenes work on some basic level, even though they probably won't turn up in any Lifetime Achievement highlight reels. Even in the big scene in which he is being gruesomely tortured, he lends enough manic intensity to the tired material--he comes across as crazier than his torturer--that you genuinely believe that he will survive all the nail-pulling and electrocutions none the worse for wear. Too bad I cannot offer the same guarantee of survival for anyone stuck watching this film.

''Because of Gracia'' is a Christian-themed romantic drama in which former ''American Idol'' contestant Moriah Peters plays Garcia, a kind and good-hearted teenager who, as the story opens, transfers to a new school and captures the fumbling attentions of Chase (Chris Massoglia), a guy who is more comfortable with standing on the sidelines than in making an overt commitment to anything. The quietly but deeply devout Gracia soon turns the entire school on its head by encouraging classmates and teachers to stand up for what they truly believe in and accept their mistakes as stepping stones that will help lead them to make the right decisions in life. The film is a bit above the usual claptrap aimed at the Christian market--the ''God's Not Dead'' saga and the various Kirk Cameron joints, to name but a couple--because it does not take a hard sell approach in regards to the religious aspect and when it does preach, it is more about inclusiveness and love than smiting those who don't happen to have any strong eschatological leanings to speak of. The film does have plenty of flaws to it but they are mostly of the typical cinematic variety--the pacing is a little too pokey, Massoglia pretty much comes across as a tool throughout, even after he learns to become a better person, and a subplot involving another classmate (Masey McLain) who winds up getting pregnant is actually more interesting than the main storyline. The best thing about the film is Peters, who has a warm and sunny presence throughout and who manages to keep her character from ever becoming too cloying or saccharine. Despite her efforts, I cannot really recommend ''Because of Gracia'' in general but I will say that Christian-centric audiences could do worse than this film and I can pretty much guarantee that they have already done that many times before.

As I believe I have confessed before, the works of J.D. Salinger have never done much for me--I liked a couple of the stories about the Glass family but ''The Catcher in the Rye'' has always struck me as obnoxious hooey--and the cult of personality that sprung up around him and continued to thrive even as he retreated entirely from public view and publishing has always baffled me. And yet, despite my misgivings about him as a whole, even I think that he deserves much better than the cinematic treatments of his life that have been foisted upon the curious public. A couple of years ago, there was ''Salinger,'' a dreadful and wildly exploitative documentary that promised audiences any number of startling and important revelations but failed to deliver on them in the rush to toss in tawdry gossip while staking out the guy’s home in the hopes of getting him on film. Now comes ''Rebel in the Rye,'' a dramatic look at his life up until his disappearance from the spotlight and it might actually be worse than its predecessor. In this incredibly shallow take on the standard writer biopic template, we watch J.D. Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) grow from a snide, sullen and obnoxious kid who wants to break from the control of his butcher father (Victor Garber) to a snide, sullen and obnoxious student taken under the wing of writing professor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey) to a snide, sullen and obnoxious man wants everyone to leave him alone so that he can bear the burden of genius by himself. (Sadly, we are not treated to a reenactment of his reaction to Jerry Lewis’s alleged pitch to direct the film version of ''The Catcher in the Rye.''

Beginning with its singularly irritating title, practically everything about ''Rebel in the Rye'' is a misfire. The screenplay by Danny Strong, who also makes his directorial debut, seems singularly uncurious about what made Salinger tick as a person, beyond the surface involving his various parental and romantic conflicts, or as a writer. (Outside of the usual platitudes, there is precious little analysis of why ''Rye'' resonated so deeply with so many people over the decades.) Strong’s directorial style is equally plodding--thanks to the stiff stagings throughout, the film at times feels more like a series of excessively sterile and insight-free dioramas than anything else. There are a bunch of good actors here--the cast also includes Sarah Paulson, Hope Davis and Eric Bogosian--but they are not tasked with doing much more than wearing period costumes and occasionally raising their voices at key dramatic moments. (Kevin Spacey’s preparation for his role seems to have consisted entirely of going to a not-quite-top-of-the-line wigmaker and asking for the E.G. Marshall.) Devotees of Salinger and his works will be appalled by the shallow and slipshod treatment that both have received here. As for myself, I would almost rather read ''The Catcher in the Rye'' again than endure another viewing of this snoozefest.

Whatever else one might say about the South Korean import ''The Villainess,'' it cannot be denied that it starts off like a shot--not to mention a stab, a strangle, a choke and so on. In what is meant to look like a single unbroken seven-minute-long shot as seen from the first-person perspective, an unknown character decimates dozens of gangsters before being revealed as. . . Gasp!. . . a girl!. As it turns out, the mysterious dealer of mayhem, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-Bin) had a perfectly good reason for the slaughter she committed and plenty of specialized fighting skills to back it up. Before long, she is recruited into a clandestine part of the Korean Intelligence Agency to work as a sleeper agent while outwardly posing as a stage actress. With her young daughter--she was pregnant when she went into the agency--she begins to build a new life and begins a tentative romance with the nice guy living next door. Sook-hee may be through with her past but, as the man once said, the past ain’t through with us and when certain secrets about her past and present situations are revealed, she once again goes into kickass mode with a vengeance.

After watching the astonishingly kinetic opening sequence, most viewers will be asking themselves either ''This isn't going to be another one of those ''Hardcore Harry'' deals with the first-person perspective and the ultra violence and such, is it?'' or ''Can this film possibly keep up the pace and intensity for the next two hours?'' As it turns out, the answer to both questions is ''No,'' a blessed relief in the case of the former but not so much in regards to the latter. Yes, the fight scenes are fairly spectacular throughout with their orgies of swooping camera moves and cheerfully over-the-top CGI effects and stonework. The trouble is that writer-director Jung Byung-gil has elected to convey Sook-hee’s already convoluted backstory via a complicated flashback structure that renders the narrative all but impenetrable. (At one point, when a character who is supposed to be dead makes a surprising return to the narrative, it took me a moment to figure out where the hell I was in terms of the timeline.) Moviegoers who are looking for a shot of pure cinematic adrenaline may dig ''The Villainessii and its relentless pursuit of thrills.On the other hand, those of prefer even their madcap action blockbusters to have a little bit of coherence or meaning amidst the carnage may prefer to give this one a pass.

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originally posted: 09/15/17 06:52:41
last updated: 09/16/17 11:38:02
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