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Films I Neglected To Review: "They Watch. . .But They Don't Understand."

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/19/21 09:33:17

Please enjoy short reviews of "Demonlover," "Flora & Ulysses," "I Care A Lot" and "Silk Road."

The problem with most movies relying on narratives involving the uses (and misuses) of cutting-edge technology is that they have a tendency to look fairly ridiculous just a few years down the road. Whatever one might say about "Demonlover," the paranoid techno-thriller from acclaimed French filmmaker Olivier Assayas that raised hackles (among other things) when it debuted in 2003, it has actually not dated that much in the two decades since its original released, though those who are familiar with how dark and depraved it gets may not consider that to exactly be a good thing. Diane (Connie Nielsen) is an executive at a French corporation who is not above going to great lengths to sideline a colleague in order to be the lead person in their negotiation with a Japanese anime studio that has just developed the next thing in three-dimensional hentai. (If you don't know what that is, Google it--just not in public.) Having made the deal, Diane then begin negotiating with Elaine (Gina Gershon), the representative of American internet company Demonlover, for a distribution deal but it is soon revealed that Diane is actually a corporate spy for Demonlover's chief competitor who is passing on information on the top-secret details. Before long, the plot gets a lot more complicated as it encompasses corporate malfeasance, treachery, plenty of bloodletting--literal as well as metaphorical--and a mysterious website dubbed The Hellfire Club that offers up the latest in sadomasochism and torture, all evidently presented in real time and to order, to anyone with access to the darkest recesses of the Internet and a valid credit card.

At the time this film originally came out, Assayas was known as the celebrated director of such respectable works as "Cold Water," "Irma Vep" and "Late August, Early September" and the notion of him offering up a film mixing together jet-black humor, critiques of globalization and hefty helpings of kinky sex and grisly violence was seen by many as an inexplicable aberration at the time and even today, the only time he has really come close to doing anything like it was his 2007 Asia Agento thriller "Boarding Gate" and that was practically staid compared to this. When I first saw it back in the day, I was kind of split on it--I enjoyed the sleek visual style and the performances from Nielsen, Gershon and Chloe Sevigny (as an underling of Diane’s who turns out to have an agenda of her own) but thought that the initially gripping boardroom battle concept eventually devolved into an increasingly perplexing take on undeniably ugly material that was handled more effectively in David Cronenberg's masterpiece "Videodrome" before arriving at a would-be gut-punch of a finale that just did not come off. Watching it again, I found that my reactions were pretty much the same but I was a little more forgiving of it this time around. While it still remains the oddest duck in Assayas's oeuvre (which has gone on to include such greats as "Something in the Air," "Clouds of Sils Maria" and "Personal Shopper," it is undeniably interesting to see him apply his cinematic gifts on something so far outside his comfort zone. It may also be that the strange and heady combination of ingredients play a little better once the initial shock of them has worn off. "Demonlover" is still no masterpiece and I would caution anyone contemplating seeing it for the first time that things do get kind of rough and very weird at times. That said, as cultural relics from 2003 go, it has stood the test of time better than anyone might have reasonably expected.

I understand that "Flora & Ulysses" is based on the 2014 book that won the prestigious Newberry Medal for excellence in children's literature. I confess that I have not read the book myself but based on the tepid film to emerge from it, I can only assume that either whatever charm the book had was lost on its way to the big screen or 2014 was kind of a weak year for children's books. Flora (Matilda Lawler) is a precociously cynical 10-year-old girl whose life has been rocked by the recent separation of her parents, goofball failed comic book designer George (Ben Schwartz) and Phyllis (Alyson Hannigan), a creatively blocked romance novelist who really hates comic books for not being real literature. One day, she sees an ordinary squirrel run over by a Roomba-type device and not only brings the creature, who she dubs Ulysses, back to life but sneaks it into the house to care for him. It is then that Flora discovers that Ulysses apparently has superpowers—--including a flair for poetry--and takes it upon herself to help him find his true purpose. To help fill up the running time, we are also introduced to a neighbor kid who helps Flora on her mission despite suffering from hysterical blindness , a kindly veterinarian (Anna Deavere Smith) and a bumbling animal control officer (Danny Pudi) who is trying to get his hands on Ulysses on the not-unreasonable suspicion that he might be carrying rabies.

The film is essentially a throwback to those blandly innocuous live-action Disney movies from the Seventies with their shaggy district attorneys and place-kicking mules and whatnot. Filled with numerous slapstick sequences involving things getting knocked over and people screaming and/or doing pratfalls amidst the squirrel-based mayhem, the film is clearly aimed at younger viewers and my guess is that for them, it is perfectly serviceable entertainment. (Their parents, on the other hand, may want to think twice about them watching a film that wholeheartedly embraces the idea of trying to keep a feral creature as a housekept and frowns upon the mother character for not thinking that having it in her house is such a smoking hot idea.) Those whose age has long since passed into double digits, on the other hand, will find the whole thing to be increasingly tiresome as little Flora (whose avowed sense of cynicism is pretty much ignored the moment it is brought up) learns valuable lessons about life, Mom learns to ease up about being married to a slacker and keeping a squirrel in the house and the animal control officer gets repeatedly knocked about as if he was doing a one-man version of the finale of "Home Alone." Meanwhile, the more serious-minded issues involving issues between Flora and her estranged parents--which I suspect played a larger role in the original book--are largely cast aside for the sillier stuff. As I said, "Flora & Ulysses" is a perfectly adequate time-waster for little kids and nothing more--older viewers will no doubt find their jones for flying squirrel-based entertainment better fulfilled by old episodes of "Rocky & Bullwinkle."

If you thought that Amy Dunne, the character that Rosamund Pike played in "Gone Girl," was the epitome of icy blonde sociopathy, wait until you get a load of the actress in "I Care a Lot." She plays Marla Grayson, a slick con woman who has figured out a way to game the failures of the health care system in an exceptionally cruel and profitable manner. With the help of an equally crooked doctor (Alicia Witt) and nursing home operator (Damian Young) , a well-meaning but incompetent judge (Isiah Whitlock Jr) and her equally venal associate/lover Fran (Eiza Gonzalez), she finds elderly people with money on hand and has them declared legally incompetent and shipped off to the nursing home. She then gets herself named their legal guardian--making sure to keep friends and loved ones away--and sells off their belongings, taking a huge cut of the proceeds in the process. Her newest client, Jennifer Preston (Dianne Wiest) appears to be a gold mine all by herself--she has plenty of money and no known relatives to cause any trouble down the line--but once she gets her put away, Marla begins to discover that she is not entirely as she seems to be. Not only does Jennifer prove to be more resilient than she appears, a mysterious mobster by the name of Roman (Peter Dinklage) arrives on the scene with a heretofore unknown connection to Jennifer and a determination to reclaim her at all costs that matches Marla’s.

The premise of writer-director J. Blakeson’s film is undeniably promising and as the film illustrates just how plausible Marla's quasi-legal scam as she guides us through the various stages, viewers will be torn between whether to laugh at the darkly funny audaciousness of it all or to rage at this particularly heartless con. During these scenes, Pike displays a form of misanthropy so finely honed that it is impossible to take you eyes off of her, no matter how monstrous she gets. Unfortunately, the film ultimately proves to be all set-up and no follow-through because once Blakeson has all the pieces in place, he seems to have no idea of where to go from there. At a certain point, whatever points he is trying to make about the failures of the healthcare system, the corruption of capitalism or the treatment of the elderly are pushed aside to make room for the increasingly violent game of one-upmanship between Pike and Dinklage that dominates the second half. (Towards the end, Wiest's character is all but forgotten amidst the mayhem.) The whole thing just becomes more and more cartoonish until it finally ends on a note that is so abrupt and so divorced from the proceedings that it feels like a copout. Still, the performances from Pike, Dinklage and Wiest are all strong and committed--too bad that they are in the service of a film that ultimately isn't.

"Silk Road" recounts the rise and fall of Ross W. Ulbricht, a young man who decided to put his pronounced libertarian leanings into practice by developing a secret website where illegal drugs could be bought and sold in the name of freedom and sticking it to the man--an idea that would make him an enormous amount of money before he was finally taken down by federal authorities on a number of charges. In bringing his story to the screen, writer-director Tiller Russell is clearly hoping to present us with a digital age equivalent of "The Wolf of Wall Street" Both films are built around brilliant but ultimately horrible sociopaths who amass huge fortunes while never demonstrating any interest in the very real damage that they are causing to countless others along the way. The trick in "The Wolf of Wall Street" is that Leonardo DiCaprio played the central role in such an undeniably compelling and galvanizing manner that he held the interest of viewers despite his inherent loathsomeness and Martin Scorsese was able to recount the story in a way that recognized the allure and glamour on display while at the same time indicting him as an example of greed gone mad. (Anyone who still thinks that the film was an endorsement of such behavior clearly was not paying attention.)

Here, it is pretty obvious right from the start that "Silk Road" is going to be the polar opposite of that film. As presented, Ulbricht is little more than a craven bore who spouts off warmed-over libertarian dogma at the drop of a hat and who has hackneyed daddy issues that are clearly meant to excuse his otherwise inescapable loathsomeness. That is bad enough but the problems are compounded by the limp and utterly ineffective performance by Nick Robinson, that starts off at 10 on the Smug-O-Meter and then proceeds from there in increasingly excruciating ways. To be fair to Robinson, any actor would have trouble getting any real meaning out of Russell's hackneyed screenplay, which ineptly crosscuts Ulbricht's story with that of a burned-out old school Fed (Jason Clarke) with family issues who ends up crossing numerous moral and ethical lines in his efforts to bust open the Silk Road at any cost--even if you didn’t know that this was a composite character loosely inspired by two real DEA agents on the case, there is not a single element to these scenes that rings as anything but utterly false. There are points when Russell's script seems to be going out of its way to mess things up--it inexplicably starts at the ending, thereby killing one potential avenue of suspense right from the get-go and then jams in an unconvincing romance between Ulbricht and a lover (a wasted Alexandria Shipp) who seems to exist only to occasionally suggest that certain aspects of Silk Road might not be good for mankind and so that her eventual departure can be seen as the key tipping point for Ulbricht to up his criminal game to soliciting murders. Frankly, the only impressive thing about "Silk Road" is how it takes a potentially fascinating and gripping story involving the crossroads of technology and morality--one that any number of filmmakers could have theoretically knocked out of the park--and somehow manages to render it completely inert long before it finally grinds to a halt.

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