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Films I Neglected To Review: Campaigners
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Boys State," "Endless," "Kat and the Band," "Project Power," "Represent," "Spree" and "Sputnik."

If you are still able to muster up some form of optimism for the future of American politics in this day and age, the alternately riveting and terrifying documentary "Boys State" should quickly disabuse you of those particular notions. The subject of Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss's film is the 2018 Texas iteration of American Legion's Boys and Girls State programs, which are week-long programs in which a thousand or so students, divided by gender, are brought together from all over the state, split randomly into two ersatz political parties and form party platforms and slate candidates for the climactic mock elections at the end of the gathering. Sounds noble enough but while ostensibly non-partisan in nature, most of the participants here keen towards white conservative types who look with suspicion at anyone who doesn’t fit that particular mold. As anyone who has ever been around a large gathering of young men can attest, the members who are louder and more aggressive tend to dominate the proceedings, running roughshod over those who are trying to behave in a responsible and respectful manner while taking things seriously. Of course, as quickly realize, this is an environment where such obnoxious behavior tends to be amply rewarded, just one of the many appalling lessons that the participants wind up taking away from the program.

The week is seen primarily through the eyes of four participants. Rene Otero is a black liberal from Chicago who faces barely disguised racism at every turn. Steven Garza is a soft-spoken Bernie Sanders fan who is pleasant and friendly but doesn't really seem to stand for much of anything specific--when he does stick his neck out on one topic, his opponents immediately and ruthlessly use it against him. Ben Feinstein is a Reagan-adoring twerp who has overcome much adversity in his life but demonstrates precious little empathy for anyone else who is suffering. Rob Macdougall is a brash alpha male type who turns out to have some surprising personal convictions that he nevertheless refuses to publicly acknowledge so as not to hurt his chances as a candidate. The most frightening thing about the film, which McBaine and Moss lay out in a straightforward manner while keeping any ironic commentary to a minimum, is that the Boys State program doesn't seem to so much instill such cynical behavior amongst the participants as it does hone the instincts that they have already developed. "Boys State" is fascinating and depressing autopsy of our political future that will leave most viewers either feeling unspeakably bummed out afterwards or intensely curious as to what was happening at Girls State, where I suspect they were actually getting things done.

"Endless" centers around a pair of seemingly mismatched teenagers who are In Love--Riley (Alexandria Shipp) is a straight-A student who has her whole life planned out already and Chris (Nicholas Hamilton) is a non-threatening bad boy who drives a motorcycle and thinks that Riley should follow her heart by drawing comic books instead of working for the man as a lawyer, neither of which especially endear him to her parents. On the night when Riley learns she has been accepted to her dream college, they attend a party where Chris pouts and gets drunk. Riley borrows a car to drive them home and there is a terrible accident in which Chris is killed. Heartbroken and feeling guilty over her belief that the accident was her fault, Riley begins to sense Chris's presence everywhere. Turns out she isn't completely wrong because his soul has remained on Earth and he is able to make contact with her. This is great for a while but eventually it begins to dawn on Chris that his presence is not only preventing her from moving on with her life but is causing her to contemplate ways in which they can truly be together again.

"Endless" is essentially what "Ghost" might have been like if it had been placed in the hand of the legendary George "Shadow" Morton, a notion that sounds amusing in print but never quite comes alive on the screen. The plotting is as gloppy as can be, there are long stretches where not much of anything happens--many of them involving Chris's unconvincing friendship with Jordan (DeRon Horton), a fellow wandering spirit who teaches him the rules of limbo--and the one potentially intriguing addition to the mix--the possibility that Riley was responsible for the accident--is handled in such an insultingly perfunctory manner that it makes you wonder why the screenplay even bothered to bring it up in the first place. Director Scott Speer, perhaps best known for that silly movie where Bella Thorne played the lovelorn teen who could not be out in the daylight, lays on the bathos so heavily throughout, to the point where even those with a fondness for this particular style of filmmaking may find it to be a bit much. The one aspect of this "Endless" that those who have passed their sophomore year of high school will find tolerable is Shipp, who has shown in films like "Straight Outta Compton" and "Tragedy Girls" (and okay, perhaps a superhero-related jaunt or two) that she has far more talent than nonsense like this really deserves. Nevertheless, she fully commits to it and while her efforts on behalf of "Endless" are ultimately for naught, they will make you want to see her in another, and hopefully better, film as soon as possible.

On the other hand, the British import "Kat and the Band" is just as filled with teen movie cliches as "Endless"--the difference is that they are applied with a infinitely lighter touch and pulled off with a respectable amount of energy and good cheer. As the film opens, Kat Malone (Ella Hunt) bluffs her way through the long line at a music club to get in to see struggling band Dollar Days and impulsively pitches herself to serve as the band's new and desperately needed road manager. The twist is that Kat is actually a music-mad 17-year-old schoolgirl who, after getting hired by the group, has to try to juggle her school responsibilities and college plans with her new job of booking gigs and traveling with the group without letting anything slip to her mother, teachers or the band members. The film is essentially a flimsy musical fantasy (kids, do not try this at home) in which every plot detail can be seen coming from a mile away and never even tries to do anything deeper in the way that a film like "Almost Famous," which also involved high schoolers getting a pass into the adult world of making music, did. However, director E.E. Hegarty does give the material a certain frothy charm that overrides the familiarity of the material and the music is decent enough to listen to. What really sells the film is Hunt, whom you hopefully saw in the kinda brilliant Christmas-themed zombie musical-comedy "Anna and the Apocalypse." This film is not nearly as good as that one but her performance is, always finding a way to make something out of even the silliest or most cliched moments on display. If nothing else, "Kat and the Band" is worth seeing because once Hunt gets the big breakthrough role that is all but imminent, you can casually brag, like a true music fan, that you were into her before she became popular.

I was not much of a fan of "The Old Guard," Netflix's recent stab at getting into the big-budget action-fantasy franchise business--it had an undeniably interesting premise but then failed to do anything much with it--but I will admit that it was just good enough to make me think that a followup film might be worth looking forward to down the line. If nothing else, I certainly prefer it to "Project Power," Netflix's latest and far more uneven attempt at blockbuster-style filmmaking. As the film opens, a mysterious drug has just hit the streets but instead of giving users a quick high, it endows them with superpowers for five-minute stretches. The trick is that users do not know what power will be unleashed until they take it for the first time--you could gain super-speed or super-strength, hulk out into a giant monster or simply explode into a gooey mess. Although forced to stand down by his superiors, apparently on orders from high above, dedicated cop Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is determined to get the pills off the street, though he is not above taking them himself in order to level the playing field. He and his dealer, a teenage named Robin (Dominique Fishback) who is only selling the pills to raise money for an operation for her sickly mother, wind up crossing paths with Art (Jamie Foxx), a mysterious man who is currently killing his way up the drug chain in order to track down the people in charge for reasons that prove to be more personal than a mere takeover.

"Project Power" sounds like it could be goofy fun--sort of a souped-up version of the old "Popeye" cartoons where you would be waiting to see what outrageous things would occur as soon as Popeye ate his spinach--but it just never takes off. Mattson Tomlin's screenplay, much like the pill at the center of it, turns out to be an amalgamation of elements culled from many sources but, unlike the pill, the results are eminently predictable throughout. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the guys behind "Catfish," a couple of the lesser "Paranormal Activity" movies and that "Nerve" nonsense from a few years ago, handle the material in a slick but ultimately soulless visual style that seems to go out of its way to be as pedestrian as possible during the action scenes that are the theoretical selling point. Although Fishback is fun and engaging, breathing fresh air into her cliched role, Foxx and Gordon-Levitt are content to merely go through their paces with just enough enthusiasm to earn their paychecks by nothing more than that. Like the drug that everyone is chasing after, "Project Power" fizzles out after five minutes--the trouble is that when that happens here, it still has 106 more to go.

Produced by Chicago's celebrated Kartemquin Films, Hillary Bachelder's documentary "Represent" follows three women as they set about campaigning for local elections. Myya Jones is a 22-year-old Black woman who is running for the position of mayor of Detroit and hopes to galvanize the African-American community into supporting her campaign but finds that is not as easy as she hopes. Bryn Bird is a woman who wants to be elected to the male-dominated board of trustees of her small Ohio town, even though her campaign, if successful, would dislodge the only woman currently on the board. Finally, Julie Cho is a Korean-American Republican running for state representative in the liberal-leaning Chicago suburb of Evanston. Unlike last year's "Knock Down the House," which followed four women as they ran for congress in 2018 and hit the jackpot when one of its subjects turned out to be Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, none of the subject here are especially interesting or unique as individual cases (though it is amusing to see Cho interacting with potential voters who cannot believe that she is not a Democrat). However, Bacheldor is more interested in the process of politicking and the additional hurdles that female candidates are expected to jump over in order to succeed, a notion that now takes on additional relevance at a time when women politicians are still being critiqued for being too ambitious and competent for their own good. Bachelder's film illustrates in piercing detail that attitudes towards women running for office need to change and while it may not offer any clear-cut ideas as to how to go about that, it does provide viewers with plenty of food for thought and, If nothing else, should serve as an adequate palate cleanser for anyone who witnesses the horrors on display in "Boys State."

"Spree" is a film that means to act as a sardonic commentary on the shallowness of the new form of celebrity culture spawned by social media but winds up succumbing to the very conditions that it is ostensibly critiquing. Essentially a gig economy version of "Taxi Driver" and "The King of Comedy," the film stars "Stranger Things" co-star Joe Keery is Kurt Kunkle, an overly affable dweeb who has been trying to make his mark as a Internet influencer for well over a decade but still cannot muster any audience for his videos or livestreams. Now working for a ride share app called Spree, he hits upon a genius idea for increasing his viewership--he will live-stream himself on the job as he murders his passengers with poisoned bottles of water. Even that fails to boost his viewership and so he ups the ante with increasingly gruesome killings over the course of one night. The one thing that distracts hi from his murder spree comes when he gives a ride to Jessie (Sasheer Zamata), a rising comedian who has everything that Kurt craves--primarily a large online audience--and becomes fixated on getting the hashtag of approval from her that will help boost his presence in the online world.

"Spree" is presented as a sort of advanced version of a found footage film in which everything we see is presented as if it is from the multiple camera in Kurt's car, cellphone footage, security cameras or various livestreams, complete with scrolling commentary from viewers debating whether Kurt's kills are real or fakes. Although this presentation is intriguing at first--especially when viewed on a tablet or computer--it becomes as tedious and boring as its central character after a while and feels more like an affectation to distract from the hollowness of the whole enterprise. Instead of coming up with any real insights into social media culture or how the desire to be liked has mutated in the new technological age, director/co-writer Eugene Kotlyaenko, like his central character, is more concerned with presenting his increasingly grisly murders than anything else. (He also tries to make the material more palatable by making sure that the passengers that he kills just happen to be demonstrably terrible people like a white supremacist, a creepy bro type and assorted obnoxious social media types, leaving his killings of underserving people safely off screen.) A number of semi-famous faces pop up along the way, including David Arquette, Mischa Barton, Kyle Mooney, but the only one who makes an impact is Zamata, who gets to offer up the only real moments of insight before being reduced to a pawn in the increasingly ludicrous final act. "Spree" is essentially a low-rent version of those Blumhouse exploitation films like "The Purge" and "The Hunt" that profess to serve as social commentary but which are ultimately only interested in spewing gore--the only thing remotely scary or unnerving about it is the thought that some deluded soul out there might actually think that it was saying something profound.

Over the years, I have seen more than my fair share of films that owe a considerable debt to Ridley Scott's 1979 classic "Alien," ranging from its officials sequels, prequels and spinoffs to ripoffs running the gamut from cheesy-but-gory Italian imports to cheesy-but-bland studio efforts like this year's "Underwater." Therefore, when I say that debuting filmmaker Egon Abramenko's "Sputnik" is one of the more impressive "Alien" knockoffs that I have seen in a while, I can assure you that I know what I am asking about. Set in 1983, this Russian import begin as a morale-boosting space mission ends badly with one of the two cosmonauts in a coma and the other, the dedicated Konstantin Veshnykpv (Pyotr Fyodorov), suffering from amnesia. The landing is covered up and Konstantin is held in a top secret bunker as scientists, working under the orders of Semiradov (Fedor Bondarchuck), try to unlock his memory to piece together what happened. Frustrated at the lack of progress, Semiradov brings in Tatyana Klimova (Oksana Akinshina), a doctor who has ruffled one too many feathers with her unorthodox methods for curing patients, to see if she can get to the bottom of what happened to Konstantin. What happens next is something that I will leave for you to find out but my guess is that few of you will be shocked to discover that when they returned, Konstantin and his partner brought back something of a strange--one might say "alien"--nature.

The best part of "Sputnik" is the early section in which Abramenko sets up his story and introduces his characters with just the right combination of mystery and eeriness, not to mention a nice sense of the Cold War period being depicted, before delivering the big twist regarding what is really happening with Konstantin. Even after that reveal, Abramenko manages to keep the suspense going and finds time to give more development to the central characters than one might readily expect from this kind of film. Yes, the middle section does go on a little longer than necessary and the final stretch drops all aspirations towards complexity in order to let the splatter spew but even there, he handles this stuff in a manner that is just stylish enough to keep you from resenting the familiarity. He also gets very good performances from Akinshina and Fyodorov--both bring enough genuine humanity to their roles to keep them from being the usual cardboard figures. "Sputnik" may not be brimming with originality but it has style and atmosphere to spare as some nicely creepy and decidedly icky moments and is good enough to make you curious to see what Abramenko does for his next project.

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originally posted: 08/14/20 23:00:25
last updated: 08/15/20 03:57:40
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