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Films I Neglected To Review: The Hands Of Fete
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Monos," "Running With the Devil" and "Villains."

Set in a remote mountain area in the Colombian jungle, "Monos" starts off by introducing us to a group of kids, ranging in age from pre-adolescence to late teens, as they are playing soccer blindfolded. This is amusing enough but it soon transpires that they are actually child soldiers, with nicknames like Bigfoot, Wolf and Rambo, who are charged by the representative of the group they are fighting for (known only as "The Organization') with looking after two prized acquisitions--a conscripted milk cow named Shakira and, almost as important, a kidnapped American woman they have dubbed "Doctora" (Julianne Nicholson). As anyone who has ever spent time among a group of teenagers for any amount of time can surmise, things do not go particularly smoothly and before long, both the most responsible member of the group and the all-important cow are out of the picture and the hotheaded Bigfoot is put in charge. After a military attack forces them to find a new location in the jungle to set up camp, the group decides to go it alone and ignore all contact and commands from higher-ups. Predictably, this doesn’t go well as the group dynamic quickly falls apart, a development that Doctora tries to use to her advantage by attempting to escape.

Child soldiers are a real thing, of course, but writer-director Alejandro Landes is not especially interested in examining this problem in any real or substantial manner--we never get any sense of who these kids are, where they came from, how they ended up where they are and if they have any real feelings for the cause that they are fighting for or if it is all just a game to them, at least until someone gets hurt. Instead, Landes has developed the story to serve as an allegory but the trouble is that there is never any clear idea of what he is trying to say when it is all said and done. Instead, the story is an occasionally awkward amalgamation that owes a lot to "Lord of the Flies," not to mention such art-house favorites as "Beau Travail,' "Nocturna" and any number of Werner Herzog joints but never generates any of the power of those works. Another problem is that the kids, played by a mixture of professional and non-professional actors, never get a chance to stand out i a way that might help viewers develop some kind of sympathy or understanding for them--there are times in the latter half where they come across more like participants in an outre fashion spread than anything else--the only performer who does stand out is Nicholson, who spends the film looking and acting as if she genuinely has been held captive in the jungle for an extended period of time. "Monos" has some things going for it--the photography is often stunning and the score by Mica Levi is equally striking—but in the end, it just proves to be a stylish but shallow exploration of a subject deserving of a much deeper treatment.

The conceit behind "Running With the Devil" is to follow the path that a shipment cocaine takes from the forests of Colombia to the bathrooms of trendy nightclubs, right down to the price bumps that it incurs along the way. The gimmick is that after discovering that his recent shipments have been altered along the way with fatal results, the drug kingpin overseeing everything (Barry Pepper) sends one of his Seattle-based distributors (Nicolas Cage) off to Colombia to follow along with a new shipment in order to discover what the problem is. When he and the drugs get back to Seattle, he hooks up with another distributor (Laurence FIshburne) to sneak them over the border into Vancouver. Unfortunately for Cage, Fishburne is the one doctoring the drugs (which we discover about ten minutes into the movie) and his partner (Adam Goldberg) has been squealing to an FBI agent (Leslie Bibb), whose own sister and brother-in-law were victims of the doctored drugs. From there, the film comes to a conclusion of sorts with the usual array of double-crosses, shocking revelations, sudden violence and climactic surprises.

The idea of a "Traffic"-like expose of the mechanics of the farm-to-mirror cocaine industry sounds fascinating but it quickly becomes apparent that writer-director Jason Cabell is not up to the task. There are plenty of details on display but Cabell never figures out how to make them work in dramatic terms and instead relies far too heavily on scenes that lean on cliches or seriously distracting weirdness. (if you ever wanted to see a film with multiple scenes revolving around the kinky sex life of a character played by Laurence Fishburne, this is your chance.) While watching the film, you never get a sense that you are actually learning anything--the characters are more caricatures than anything (they haven’t even been granted proper names, only nicknames like "The Cook" or "The Agent"), the story turns become increasingly implausible as the film progresses and by the end, it is less "Breaking Bad" than it is merely bad. Even collectors of crazy Nicolas Cage performances will come away disappointed--other than one amusing moment when he admonishes someone from smoking in his kitchen, his performance is as lackluster and forgettable as the rest of the film.

When we first meet the two central characters of "Villains"--a pair of relatively sweet-natured dopes, Jules (Malika Monroe) and Mickey (Bill Skarsgard), as they bumble their way through a gas station robbery meant to finance the start of their new life in Florida--they hardly seem worthy of the film's title, especially when they fail to gas up before the robbery and wind up on empty in the middle of nowhere. Things take a decidedly darker turn, however, when they break into the one house in the area in the hopes of stealing a car or some gas and stumble upon a little girl (Blake Baumgartner) chained up in the basement. While they are trying to figure out what to do with the kid, the married couple that actually lives there, George (Jeffrey Donovan) and Gloria (Kyra Sedgwick), arrive home and while they appear almost hyper-normal on the surface, their courtly manners only barely mask the fact that they are both complete psychopaths. Obviously, George and Gloria cannot simply kill the intruders--the movie would be over too quickly if they did—and this sets off a cat-and-mouse game in which Jules and Mickey try to figure out a way to free themselves and save the girl while George and Gloria manage to stymie nearly all of their attempts.

The notion of "Villains" sounds amusing enough but the problem is that the writer-director duo of Dan Berk and Robert Olsen never quite find a way of making the material work. Although there are a couple of icky moments here and there, the film leans more toward black comedy but doesn’t know how to make it work. The story is very nonsensical, the attempts to make things darker and edgier (such as Gloria's pronounced mental issues and some nastiness with a tongue stud) seem like desperate bids for attention and even the decor of the house, which appears to be straight out of a catalogue shoot from 1977, seems just a little too forced to be believed. The film also has a good cast of actors but most of them wind up delivering performances that are too overblown and unconvincing for their own good--Donovan seems to be doing a busted impersonation of John Waters, Skarsgard overplays his amiable schnook role and Sedgwick delivers a rare unconvincing performance as the collection of tics that is Gloria. The only one who comes off well here is Monroe, whose funny and focused performance only further confirms that she is one of the bright lights of contemporary genre filmmaking. Alas, not even her work can save "Villains" from coming across as slightly less entertaining than spending 90 minutes sitting in a basement.

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originally posted: 09/20/19 05:39:33
last updated: 09/20/19 06:02:56
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