Films I Neglected To Review: Independents Day

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/02/20 03:10:47

Please enjoy short reviews of "2067," "The Boys in the Band," "A Call to Spy," "Death of Me," "Eternal Beauty," "The Glorias," "Let's Scare Julie," "Once Upon a River," "Possessor" and "Save Yourselves."

In the not-too-distant future posited by the Australian sci-fi thriller "2067," all plant life has been eradicated by climate change and humans have been reduced to breathing an artificial oxygen synthesis that is causing an illness that is slowly killing them off. In this world, Ethan Whyte (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a technician working as many shifts maintaining the last city's dangerously unstable nuclear reactor, in order to purchase higher-quality faux oxygen for his dying wife (Sana'a Shaik), when he and loyal best friend Jude (Ryan Kwanten) are summoned to the headquarters of Chronicorp, the makers of the oxygen and the place where his late scientist father (Aaron Glenane)used to work. It seems that they may have created a possible solution to the world’s problem that, if successful, could indeed save humanity. There are only two hitches. For unexplained reasons, Ethan is the only person who can use the device and once he does, there is no guarantee that he will be able to come back or ever see his wife again.

That is all that I am going to say about the story, partly to preserve the numerous surprise that writer/director Seth Larney has in store and partly because I am not entirely sure that I could pass a quiz about many of the plot specifics with the proverbial gun to my head. Suffice it to say, with its heady blend of environmental themes, abstract thinking and issues revolving around the time-space continuum, there are times when it feels as if Larney is attempting to pull off his own variation of "Interstellar" (with a healthy chunk of "Donnie Darko" thrown in for good measure) utilizing what I presume was only a sliver of the budget that Christopher Nolan had at his disposal. The results are admittedly wobbly at times--the characters are never quite as interesting as the situations that they find themselves in--but the film is so wildly ambitious that its missteps can be mostly tolerated (though I could have used maybe two fewer scenes featuring Ethan breaking down into sobs). Visually, the film is very impressive--Larney has worked as a visual effects supervisor and clearly knows how to get the most bang for his buck--and even if the story doesn't quite add up in the end (which is almost inevitably the case once the issue of possible time travel is added to the mix), it is engrossing enough to keep you going along with it until the end without getting bogged down in the minutiae of the plot details. Those looking for standard genre thrills and spills may grow frustrated with the more contemplative aspects of "2067" but those who prefer their science fiction to be on the trippier and more cerebral part of the spectrum--the kind that one might have tripped out to at a midnight show back in the day--should find it intriguing.

Set over the course of a birthday party celebrated by seven pre-Stonewall gay New York men that quickly degenerates into an alcohol-fueled series of tearful recriminations, denials and revelations of long-hidden feelings thanks to the arrival of an unexpected guest and an especially cruel "game," Mart Crowley's 1968 play "The Boys in the Band" became an instant landmark for being one of the first major American plays to deal openly and seriously (albeit with plenty of bitchy quips) with the gay experience but had already been come to be seen by many as a dated relic by the time William Friedkin brought it to the screen less than two years later. And yet, that earlier film version seems absolutely cutting-edge when compared to the new film version, based on a successful 2018 Broadway revival that now positioned it as a period piece and which featured a cast comprised entirely of out actors, now playing on Netflix. By the time the first film had come out, the play began to feel like a dated collection of snippy comments and camp behavior that suggested that the life of a gay man was filled with nothing but bitterness, regret, self-loathing and abject terror at the thought of growing old and, to put it bluntly, an additional half-century of historical baggage has not exactly done the material any favors. The film retains the same cast as the Broadway revival--Jim Parsons as the self-loathing party host, Zachary Quinto as the acerbic guest of honor, Matt Bomer as a neurotic friend from out of town, Robin de Jesus as the flamboyantly campy interior decorator, Charlie Carver as the dopey rent boy he brings as a birthday gift, Tuc Watkins and Andrew Rannells as the couple constantly bickering about fidelity, Michael Benjamin Washington as the one black member of the group and Brian Hutchinson as the host's former college roommate who has unexpectedly turned up with something clearly on his mind--but the stylized performances that they gave on stage come across on film as campy overacting that only serves to highlight the inherently artificial nature of the original material. (If anything, the dramatic structure is even more dated than the attitudes on display.) This was also the key problem with the Friedkin film but at least he and his actors (who played the same roles during the initial off-Broadway run)brought a certain snap to the material that helped to make it work in spots. Here, director Joe Mantello cannot say the same thing as the whole enterprise just drags on and on like the dated museum piece that it ultimately is. Thanks to the casting concept, this iteration of "The Boys in the Band" may be of interest to some but for the most part, I wish that all involved could have gotten together to do a project that spoke to audiences today instead of shrieking their way through this inexplicable revival of a theatrical artifact that has clearly lost all of whatever zing it might have once fleetingly possessed.

"A Call to Spy" tells the relatively unknown story of the Special Operations Executive, a secret branch of British intelligence that, on the orders of Churchill, began recruiting and training female agents to be sent to France to perform dangerous espionage work against the Nazis during World War II. Although 39 women would serve in this capacity, the film trains its focus almost entirely on two particular agents--American Virginia Hall (Sarah Megan Thomas, who also wrote the screenplay), whose dreams of becoming a diplomat have been thwarted by the wooden leg she received as the result of a hunting accident, and Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), a British Muslim who is determined to do her part--as well as Vera Atkins (Stana Katic), the Romanian Jewish immigrant in charge of recruiting the female spies. This is fascinating stuff in theory but the end result is curiously limp throughout. The film tries to juggle its focus between the three women--even creating a friendship between Virginia and Noor despite the fact that the two reportedly never met in real life--but ends up concentrating on Virginia's more overtly exciting adventures, a move that give the others short shrift (which is especially frustrating when the film seems ready to explore the sexism and anti-Semitism Vera faced on the home front, only to essentially abandon it) while dissipating the tension of Virginia's story whenever it cuts to one of the other narratives. The performances are okay--Katic's accent is a tad dubious--but none of the actresses are quite able to convey ideas about who their characters are or why they found themselves compelled to serve and fight despite the overwhelming odds against them. "A Call to Spy" is not necessarily a bad movie, just a slightly dull and underwhelming treatment of a group of brave and resourceful people who deserved a film as extraordinary as they and their achievements were in real life.

If you are working under the impression that "Fantasy Island" would clearly be the worst movie to emerge in this deeply weird year in which Maggie Q played a character whose seemingly ideal vacation at a remote island locale transformed into an allegedly terrifying and increasingly inane nightmare, wait up because "Death of Me" would like you to hold its umbrella drink for 94 excruciating minutes as it makes that previous disaster seem borderline watchable by comparison. Bringing together elements cadged willy-nilly from the likes of such horrifying sagas as "Rosemary's Baby," "The Wicker Man" and "The Hangover" along with a splash of xenophobia and topped off with the presence of a lesser Hemsworth brother, the film opens on Christine and Neil (Q and Luke Hemsworth) as they wake up after their last night of vacation on a remote Thai island to massive hangovers and a trashed room. After missing the last ferry back to the mainland, they try to piece together what happened the night before and find a cell phone video that starts with them drinking in a bar and end with Neil apparently murdering Christine outside their bungalow and burying her in a shallow grave. Although this explains why Christine woke up covered in dirt, it raises certain other questions about what happened that they are compelled to find answers to, only to discover too late that nothing is as it seems and no one can be trusted--perhaps not even the incredibly helpful American-born resident (Alex Esso) who talks at length about the so-called "island magic"--as they come closer and closer to one of the less startling "surprise" endings you will see anytime soon. The screenplay is as contrived as can be and the direction by Darren Lynn Bousman (director of several "Saw" sequels and films even worse than those) is as listless and suspense-free as can be. The oddest thing about it is that even though the film all but announces itself as listless garbage from the get-go, Q actually tries to take things seriously by delivering the closest thing here to a committed performance but not even her efforts can help matters much and even she pretty much gives up as well by the end, long after everyone else, including those in the audience, has thrown in the towel. Silly where it should be scary, illogical where it should be taut with tension and with a view of foreign cultures that makes one almost long for the enlightened views presented by the "Hostel" films, "Death of Me" is a scare-free embarrassment that even undiscriminating horror junkies will find remarkably easy to pass up.

Inspired in part by a relative of his, Craig Roberts' "Eternal Beauty" paints a portrait of schizophrenia that is undeniably far more nuanced and sympathetic than one usually sees in a movie, though whether it works from a purely dramatic standpoint is up for discussion. The great Sally Hawkins stars as Jane, a woman who has suffered from paranoid schizophrenia all her life and undergone numerous hospitalizations but is making an undeniably shaky go of it with the help of medication and visits to a not-entirely-helpful psychiatrist. As the film is seen entirely though her perspective, we can never be entirely sure as to how much of what we see--from cruel flashbacks to especially mortifying events from her path to her relationships with her horrid mother (Penelope Wilton) and her equally loathsome younger sister (Billie Piper)--is real and what is not, a feeling that grows exponentially when she begins a romantic relationship with aspiring musician Mike (David Thewlis) and is inspired to stop taking her medication. Hawkins is good--that is certainly nothing new--and the rest of the cast (which also includes Alice Lowe as the sister who proves to be the only sympathetic member of her family and the increasingly ubiquitous Morfydd Clark as a younger version of Jane) is strong as well, even if some of their parts are a little undercooked. (Thewlis's character is the sort that he has played many times before and the film hints at issues with the Piper character's own mental stability without actually dealing with them.) Where the film falters is in the ways that it attempts to put us in Jane's particular mindset via the increasingly dreamlike atmosphere and shifts in tone that Roberts is not quite able to successfully pull off. Still, "Eternal Beauty" is ambitious, personally felt and filled with enough good performances to help it overcome the storytelling stumbles and make it worth seeing.

Whatever one might say about "The Glorias," Julie Taymor's sprawling biopic of writer and feminist activist Gloria Steinem, "formulaic" is not a word that is likely to come up. Eschewing the traditional biopic structure, Taymor’s adaptation of Steinem's 2015 memoir "My Life on the Road" is a wildly ambitious and aggressively postmodern look at Steinem's life and work that employs four actresses to play her at various stages of her life--Ryan Kiera Armstrong plays her as a little girl growing up in the thrall of her cheerfully irresponsible father (Timothy Hutton), Lulu Wilson embodies her teenage years as she finds herself caring for her sickly mother (Enid Graham), Alicia Vikander essays her during her days traveling in India to study women's issues and later getting into the journalism business, winning notoriety for her infamous article chronicling her undercover stint as a Playboy bunny while battling sexism from all fronts, and Julianne Moore plays the iconic version that we all know from her days starting up Ms. magazine and campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment to her willingness to continue to fight the good fight even today--in a narrative that goes back and forth in time and which even features all four incarnations riding together on a metaphorical bus journey looking back and forth on their life and contemplating their actions. Both on stage (where she did "The Lion King") and on film (in such efforts as "Titus," "Frida" and "Across the Universe"), Taymor is a director who always likes to swing for the fences in her work and "The Glorias" is certainly no exception. The trouble her is that Steinem's life and work is so fascinating and important in its own right that all the visual flourishes and surreal touches (including a weird "Wizard of Oz"-themed interlude) come across more like distractions than anything else. Another problem is that while the screenplay by Taymor and Sarah Ruhl tries to cover as much of Steinem’s life into its 139 minute running time, it doesn't really go into any sort of depth in its depictions in ways that would allow us to get a better sense of who she is and why she connected so strongly with people. And yet, while "The Glorias" is kind of a mess, it is not an entirely uninteresting one--the performances by Moore and Vikander are good (even if the latter's accent is a tad shaky at times) and Bette Midler turns up in the second half as the famously flamboyant Bella Abzug and pretty much steals every frame that she is in--and the final moments, showing the real Steinem speaking at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C., are indeed inspiring. The trouble is that while the film has a lot of ideas and talent behind it as well as a number of strong individual scenes, it never quite finds the kind of grand unifying idea that might have pulled them all together into a satisfying whole.

Striving to go down in history as the "1917" of slumber party-themed horror films, "Let's Scare Julie" breaks out the gimmick of telling its entire story in one continuous and unbroken shot (the filmmakers evidently shot the whole thing several times)--an ironic move, considering the fact that someone involved probably should have called "Cut!" early on during the screenwriting process. After a family tragedy, teenager Emma (Troy Leigh-Anne Johnson) is sent, along with her younger sister, to live with her cousin Taylor (Isabel May). One night, Taylor’s obnoxious friends, Madison (Odessa A’zion), Paige (Jessica Sarah Flaum) and Jess (Brooke Sorenson), sneak in during the middle of the night to haze her with a nasty prank that they plan to post online. Talk soon drifts to the supposedly haunted house just across the street and Julie, the strange new girl who lives there with her father. While Emma stays behind, Taylor and the others decide to sneak into that house and give the aforementioned Julie a scare. Alas, only two of the girls return and while Emma at first assumes that they are all pulling another joke on her, it becomes apparent that something much darker is going on. Alas, there are two fundamental problems with this effort from writer-director Jud Cremata that prevent the film from working. First, by making Emma, the character who doesn’t go across to the house, the focus of a narrative designed so that there can be no cutaways to other events, it means that it takes forever before anything actually happens that we can see--not a problem if you are an expert in ratcheting up tension but kind of a problem if you aren't, as is the case with Cremata. The other key error is that all of the girls are so annoying and unlikable throughout--even Emma proves to be less than sympathetic for a good chunk of the time--that it is impossible to generate any sort of rooting interest in any of them. Perhaps recognizing this, Cremata tries to truck in an anti-bullying message to give his weak narrative some import but it is to no avail. From a technical standpoint, "Let's Scare Julie" is nothing to sneeze at but considering the lameness of the finished product, anyone who actually makes it to the end will be left with nothing other than the question of why those involved made all that considerable effort for something so undeserving of it.

Based on the 2011 novel by Bonnie Jo Campbell, "Once Upon a River" is a 1977-set coming-of-age tale centered on Margo Crane (Kendi DelaCerna), a 15-year-old girl being raised by her Native American father (Tatanka Means) in a cabin near the woods of western Michigan after her white mother abandoned them. She is a crack shot and skilled hunter who idolizes Annie Oakley but her relatively idyllic world is shattered when the big man in the area (Coburn Goss), who also happens to be her father's half-brother, takes a disturbing shine to her, instigating a horrifying series of events that force her to grab a boat and head down river in an effort to find and reconnect with her mother. Along the way, she has encounters with such people as a sweet loner (Ajuawak Kapashesit) that she falls for and a dying musician (John Ashton) who takes her in for a bit and treats her almost like a daughter. From a dramatic standpoint, the film, adapted and directed by Haroula Rose, is a bit shaky in parts and there are times when the amount of coincidences needed to propel the story along becomes a little too much to swallow. However, what gives the movie its real juice is the performance from newcomer DelaCerna as Margo, who is a real find and who helps keep the story grounded when it threatens to turn into a soap opera. In a larger and gentler role than he usually gets, Ashton (probably best known to many of you as Marvin, the bumbling bounty hunter in “Midnight Run”) takes his potentially cliched character and gets something real and genuine out of it. Their work is enough to make "Once Upon a River" worth checking out despite its other flaws.

"Possessor" revolves around a clandestine organization headed by Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has developed a form of brain-implant technology that allows trained killers to inhabit the bodies of unsuspecting people and use them to commit high-priced murders for hire, pulling out of their hosts just before they either kill themselves or are gunned down by the police. Girder's best agent is Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough), a woman can expertly take over someone else's body but is so ill at ease in her own that she needs to rehearse pieces of conversation before returning home to see her estranged husband and child. For her latest assignment, she is to leap into the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), a former drug dealer who is now dating the daughter (Tuppence Middleton) of the rich and powerful head of a massive data-mining operation (Sean Bean)--the plan is for "Colin" to kill the man and his daughter, allowing another family member to inherit the whole operation. This time, however, something goes wrong during the process as Colin's consciousness ends up putting up a fight that leaves Tasya unable to escape after the job is through, leading to an increasingly bizarre and bloody struggle as he tries to figure out what is going on within him and she tries to figure out how to get out before she is trapped outside of her own body forever.

With its wild basic premise, chilly mood and preponderance of gruesome imagery, "Possessor" may remind some viewers of the early films of David Cronenberg. In this case, that comparison is apt as the film was written and directed by his son, Brandon Cronenberg, and, as was the case with his previous film, "Antiviral" (2012), he definitely proves himself to be his father's son throughout. This is not to say that he is merely following in his dad’s footsteps, which was sort of the case with his earlier film. This time around, he balances the grisly violence and jet-black humor with a genuine sense of emotional grounding that allows us to actually care about the fates of Tasya and Colin despite the fact that neither one is especially heroic. He also knows how to put together a standout set piece as well--the opening sequence, in which we see one of Tasya's job being carried out before knowing the details of what is happening, is absolutely spellbinding (thanks in no small part to the brief performance by Gabrielle Graham as Tasya's unsuspecting host). I suspect that if one were to go back and parse all of the story elements of "Possessor," they probably would not all add up in the end. However, if you sit back and just let its array of heady ideas and bold imagery swish around in your head for a couple of hours, it will leave you with a suitably blown mind and curiosity about what Cronenberg will have to offer with his next project.

As the indie comedy "Save Yourselves" opens, millennial couple Jack (John Reynolds) and Su (Sunita Mani) decide to bust out of their personal and professional ruts by leaving their Brooklyn apartment to spend a week at a friend’s remote cabin in the woods upstate and staying completely unplugged from the outside world for the duration. What they don't realize is that while they are out in the middle of nowhere trying to find themselves, aliens resembling fuzzy footstools have landed and are wreaking gory havoc throughout the entire world. When they finally discover what is going on and are forced to move into survival mode, they find themselves woefully ill-equipped for the task at hand. The idea of presenting an apocalyptic sci-fi scenario through the lens of a deadpan hipster comedy--sort of a goofy take on "Cloverfield"--but the basic joke of young people so absorbed with themselves that they somehow fail to notice the world literally collapsing around them is not especially unique ("Shaun of the Dead" was a particularly hilarious example of the conceit) and fails to come off here thanks to the repetitive and less-than-insightful contributions by the writing-directing duo of Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson, whose observations of their misfit heroes realizing how unsuited they are for self-preservation--they cant even drive a stick shift car properly, dang it!--sound more like the comments of a hacky comedian who doesn't get the kids these days. I suppose it could be argued that the increasingly grating performances by Reynolds and Mani work because their characters are meant to be irritating, but after spending just a short amount of time with them, most viewers will be hoping for the aliens to finally finish them off and put us out of their misery.

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