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Films I Neglected To Review: Another Day, Another Cage Match
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Luz," "The Operative" and "A Score to Settle."

The new German horror film "Luz" only clocks in at a mere 65 minutes or so before the end credits kick in, but it is so densely packed with idea and ambitions that trying to adequate sum up the plot in a couple of sentences is a near-impossibility. Over at IMDb, for example, it is described thusly: "Luz, a young cabdriver, drags herself into the brightly lit entrance of a run-down police station. A demonic entity follows her, determined to finally be close to the woman it loves." Now there is nothing inherently inaccurate with that description but it only takes a few minutes to realize that this is not the boilerplate genre exercise that it might suggest. In fact, it goes off in strange and unexpected directions that will have viewers pondering and debating what they have just witnessed for a long time after it ends. In terms of building and sustaining tension, not to mention putting a fresh new spin on familiar elements, writer-director Tilman Singer does a masterful job throughout and it is therefore astonishing to learn that not only is this film his debut feature, it was actually produced as a thesis project for a film studies class. Besides showing a keen eye for the mechanic of filmmaking, he also demonstrates a keen ability for handling actors as well, getting strong and striking performances from Luana Velia as the title character, Jan Blurhardt (who seems to have been genetically designed to play the roles that Klaus Kinski might have taken if he were still alive) as the psychotherapist brought in to interrogate Luz via hypnosis (which proves to be an inspired lead-in for the necessary narrative flashbacks), and Julia Riedler as a strange woman with certain connections to both Luz and the doctor. By the time it comes to its haunting final images (and the abbreviated running time proves to be just right for the material), you may not be able to fully explain everything that you have just seen but you will almost certainly realize that you have just witnessed the best and most fascinating horror film of the season, bar none.

Although "The Operative" comes billed as an espionage thriller, those going into it expecting the kind of outrageous thrills and spills seen in the James Bond franchise are liable to be disappointed since it is more interested in the kind of low-fi and infinitely more realistic approach to the world of spying employed by the likes of John le Carre. Unfortunately, those who are actually in the mood for that kind of approach are likely to be just as disappointed with this listless and utterly generic take on the genre that not only offers viewers nothing that they havenít already seen before but which seems at times to almost be going out of its way to alienate them in the process. A year after mysteriously vanishing following an extended period in Iran on a mission involving the country's nuclear program, Mossad operative Rachel (Diane Kruger) briefly makes contact with her one-time handler, Thomas (Martin Freeman). Thomas is then brought back in to undergo an extended debriefing by agents wondering why she would suddenly reappear and this framing device leads to a series of extended flashbacks in which we see Rachel becoming an agent, establishing a cover identity as an English teacher and making contact with Farhad (Cas Anvar) the head of an electronics company with key connections to the nuclear program, leading to a relationship that blurs the lines between the personal and professional that makes things complicated for all involved.

Having not read the 2016 novel by Yiftach Reicher Atir that it is based on, I cannot say whether "The Operative" deviates wildly from its source material or not or if the clunky narrative was there from the start. What I can say is that writer-director Yuval Adler never finds a way to bring the material to life. For starters, the whole flashback structure proves to be a big mistake--although I assume it was structured that way to make Rachel come across as deeply enigmatic right from the start, it keeps her at such a distance from the audience that there is never a real point of connection. The rest of the story is equally messy in the way that it jams together implausible characters, major plot holes (Rachel is given the cover of being an English teacher in Iran despite not being able to speak any Farsi, which would seem to be a glaring handicap) and unnecessary narrative detours (including an ugly and borderline gratuitous sequence when Rachel is pressed into service in a dangerous border mission that ends up with her being raped) in a frustratingly plodding style. Kruger and Freeman are both good actors, of course, but they are given so little to do here that watching them go through their predictable paces is fairly dispiriting. Failing both as a character drama and as a taut espionage drama, "The Operative" is a film as generic and uninspiring as its title that even fans of the genre will find wanting.

Throughout the course of his long and increasingly inexplicable career, Nicolas Cage has delivered plenty of performances where one could accuse him of essentially sleepwalking through his roles. That is certainly the case with his latest effort, "A Score to Settle," but to give him a little bit of credit, that approach at least fits in with the job description this time around. Cage plays Frank, a none--too-bright mob goon who agrees to do a short stint in prison to take a murder rap for his boss, only to wind up doing more than 20 years before attaining release because he is evidently dying of an incurable form of insomnia. After getting out, he reunites with his estranged son Joey (Noah Le Gros) and tries to make amends with him with the help of a hidden $100,000 that he retrieves. However, while hanging out in a luxury hotel and trying to bond with both his son and the house hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold (Karolina Wyada), Frank is nevertheless compelled to look up his old associates and murder them to avenge their betrayal of him.

On the bright side, "A Score to Settle" is not the kind of weirdo spectacle that Cage has largely drifted towards in recent years--until the last 20 minutes or so, which encompass a bizarre plot twist, a laughably executed gun battle outside of a nursing home and the sure-to-be-memed sight of Cage taking the word "beef" and making a full-course meal out of it, the film as a whole is largely subdued. The trouble here is that while the screenplay by John Stuart Newman does not bring the weirdness, neither he nor director Shawn Ku have brought much of anything else to fill the void. The story is a literally tired collection of cliches that never goes anywhere, the characters are mostly paper-thin and overly familiar (if you can think of a cliche involving a friendly hooker, it is most likely on display here) and the performances are mostly indifferent across the board. Working in a lower gear than usual, Cage at least makes a little bit of an effort but since the film gives him nothing to play off of, those efforts are mostly in vein and after a while, you find yourself hoping that Crazy Cage will finally kick in and give the proceedings a little bit of juice. That does happen to some extent towards the end but by that point, most viewers will have written off "A Score to Settle" as just another soon-to-be-forgotten entry in one of the most inexplicable filmographies of our time.

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originally posted: 08/03/19 00:33:23
last updated: 08/03/19 01:22:45
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