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Films I Neglected To Review: Discomfort & (Taylor-) Joy
by Peter Sobczynski

Enjoy short reviews of "The Country," "Here are the Young Men," "Limbo," "The Mitchells vs. the Machines," "Separation," "Things Heard and Seen" and "Without Remorse."

"The County," the new effort from Icelandic filmmaker Grimur Hakonarson, who also the international favorite "Rams," is a film that left me sharply divided after watching it--it is certainly well-made and well-acted but the very concept of the whole enterprise is so odd and off-putting that it left a bad taste in my mouth that none of its genuine achievements could quite overcome. The film tells the story of Inga (Arndis Hronn Eglisdottir), a farmer's wife in a small rural community who has to put her disenchantment with her way of life aside when her husband dies in a mysterious car crash and she is forced to assume all of his duties and debts in order to prevent losing everything. Before long, she is made aware of unfair business practices in which she and other local farmers are being charged exorbitant amounts for goods and services and threatened with reprisals if they go elsewhere and takes it upon herself to do battle with the powers-that-be by calling attention to their misdeeds. Sounds like a pretty standard rabble-rousing narrative of an ordinary person going up against the system, right? The weirdo twist this time is that the price-fixing bad guys turn out to be the people behind the local co-op, an organization that ostensibly stands as a rebuke to heartless corporations but which actually hold a financial stranglehold on the entire area by controlling everything that goes in or out. Granted, my experiences with community co-ops has been rather limited over the years but it seems to me that they tend to be pretty benign institutions that rarely, if ever, dabble in crimes greater than supplying more rutabagas than necessary. This plot twist gives the film an odd feel that suggests one of those virulent anti-communist films of the Fifties where every break from the social norms of the day--be in juvenile delinquency, those funny cigarettes or women going to college--could be traced back to the sinister machinations of the U.S.S.R. In a way, this film is a little more insidious because while those older films were obviously hysterical overreactions that few took seriously even then, this one has enough going for it--especially Englisdottir's performance, which grows stronger and more sympathetic as she gets more fired up by her fight--that it is easy to overlook the more questionable aspects of the enterprise. If you are able to read it as a simple David vs. Goliath-style narrative and nothing more, then I suppose "The County" is worth seeing. However, if you look into it any further than that, there is a good chance that may come away from it as confused and disenchanted as I was.

"“Here are the Young Men" charts the lives of three young Irish lads over the course of their post-graduation summer months in 2003 and, rest assured, it will prove to be a time where everything changes forever for the lot of them. When we first meet the trio--moody Rez (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), violently hotheaded Kearney (Finn Cole) and middle-of-the-road protagonist Matthew (Dean-Charles Chapman)--they are celebrating the last day of school by getting stoned and trashing both a local church and their headmaster's car because. . . i dunno, they are just rebels who refuse to conform to adulthood like the other sheep out there. One night, their partying is briefly interrupted when they witness a child being run over by a car and their inability/unwillingness to properly process that event spins them off into different directions--while Matthew alternates between moping around and beginning a tentative relationship with classmate Jen (Anya Taylor-Joy), Rez in consumed with suicidal thoughts while Kearney finds himself acting on his increasingly psychopathic impulses, including giving drugs to a local junkie that may or may not have been laced with rat poison. Considering that the film's first scene is set outside a funeral, it goes without saying that the summer doesn’t quite end well for all of them, leaving the questions of who will live, who will die and who in the audience will give a shit when it is all over.

With its brash stylistic gambits (including frequent cutaways to a satirical faux game show that at one point offers an inexplicable cameo appearance from Noomi Rapace), driving soundtrack and cheekily nihilistic approach, it is pretty clear right from the start that Eoin Mackin wants his film, adapted from Rob Doyle's 2014 novel, to be looked upon as a sort of Irish "Trainspotting." In actuality, the combination of derivative plotting, empty flash and characters who run the gamut from boring to repellent makes it feel more like the Irish "Amongst Friends." As an observation as to what causes young people to act out in such anti-social ways, it offers absolutely no insight into their compulsions or the strains of misogyny and toxic masculinity that appear to have been hard-wired into them that they have to break in order to move on. As a simple saga of kids gone wild, it is just trash and lacks the kind of lurid kick that might have at least made it into something memorable. The only remotely appealing thing about the whole sorry enterprise is Anya Taylor-Joy, who made the film back in 2018 and probably wishes that it wasn’t coming out now in the wake of her recent stardom. Unfortunately, despite the promotional campaign insinuating that she is the star, she is not actually in the film that much and when she is, her character is there mostly to assure viewers that Matthew is straight and serve as a plot device when Kearney tries to rape her and Matthew assumes it is her fault because Kearney--who has by this point already demonstrated his lunatic bona fides to everyone--is his mate! She is the best thing in "Here are the Young Men" by far--not that there is much competition for that prize--but not even her presence makes this alternately boring and garish exercise in teen angst bullshit into something worth watching for even a second.

The very moment that I mention that Ben Sharrock's "Limbo" is a film that deals with refugees and the immigrant crisis, there is an excellent chance that a number of you might find yourselves rolling their eyes and moving on to another review on the basis that there is no way that you would want to spend good money to watch a film on that particular topic. That would be too bad because it would mean that you left before I got a chance to mention just how surprisingly hilarious, heartfelt and entertaining it is. Set on a fictional Scottish island, it focuses on a small group of refugees who have been placed there while their applications for asylum are being processed. Our central character is Omar (Amir El-Masry), a Syrian musician who is a master of the oud, the string instrument that is about the only thing that he brought on his journey, but refuses to play it for reasons that he keeps to himself. His fellow refugees include Nigerian brothers Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), the latter one holding out the highly unlikely dream of playing football for Chelsea, and Farhard (Vikash Bhai), a Freddy Mercury fanatic from Afghanistan whose expectations for a better life in the U.K. are still high despite having been there the longest. As the wait goes on and on and Omar's existence is reduced to either wandering the countryside or taking part in classes supposedly designed to help refugees do everything from applying for jobs to hitting on women, he finds himself forced to confront the reasons as to why he chose to try for asylum in the U.K., instead of staying at home to fight like his brother or go to Istanbul with his parents, and why he no longer seems eager play the instrument that had played such an important part in his life.

"Limbo" is a film that deal with a serious and powerful subject but it makes the smart move of not hitting viewers over the head with its importance in every scene. Instead, it makes its points about the immigrant experience--especially the various reasons why someone might choose to leave their entire life behind on the off-chance of being allowed to go off somewhere else to begin again--in a quiet and restrained way that nevertheless makes its points in a smart and cogent manner. It also has a refreshingly absurdist streak of deadpan humor, the kind you might find in a Jim Jarmusch film, running throughout that blends quite nicely with the more serious material--in one of the funniest bits, Omar, while out on a walk, is subjected to a couple of minutes of Islamophobic rhetoric by a carful of local kids who nevertheless give him a ride back to his camp so that he won't get caught out in the approaching rain. True, some of the attempts to blend humor and pathos are not quite as successful and the second half of the film grows less interesting as the offbeat comedy is gradually phased out and replaced with full-on earnestness. That said, "Limbo" is still a smart, well-made and sometimes very funny work that takes a subject that most of us know only from dire newspaper headlines and television reports and puts a bracingly human face (not to mention a chicken or two) onto it.

"The Mitchells vs. the Machines" is an animated film about family dysfunction and, as it turns out, it is pretty much in favor of it. Having spent her life living with a family that doesn't seem to understand her, aspiring filmmaker Katie (Abbi Jacobson) is about to leave home for a new life at college among people who actually get her when she gets a rude surprise--in an ill-advised attempt by Luddite father Rick (Danny McBride) to patch things up after a quarrel, he has cashed in her plane ticket and decided that the whole family--including mom Linda (Maya Rudolph) and her dinosaur-obsessed brother Aaron (Mike Rianda, who also co-wrote and co-directed the film with Jeff Rowe)--will go on a road trip in their ancient station wagon to drop her off at school instead. While the Mitchells set off on their potentially hellish road trip, Silicon Valley bigwig Mark Bowman (Eric Andre) is introducing his latest highly advanced A.I. program to the world, Alas, this involves kicking his original Siri-like program, Pal (Olivia Colman), to the curb, an action that Pal responds to by overriding the programming and enacting a doomsday scenario in which robots under its control round up all the humans and shoot them into outer space in wifi-equipped pods. With the fate of humanity at hand, the Mitchells attempt to both save mankind and reconcile their differences before it is too late--as it turns out, both tasks are about equal in terms of difficulty.

Although written and directed by newcomers Michael Rianda and Jeff Rowe, the main creative personnel behind it, at least from a promotional standpoint, are co-producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, whose previous efforts have included the likes of "The Lego Movie" and "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse," two of the most ingenious and engaging American animated features to come along in recent years. This one, however, does not quite rise up to the heights of its predecessors. It takes a while to get going, it runs a little too long for its own good and it sometimes struggles to reconcile the zany stuff involving the robot holocaust with the more sincere and serious-minded stuff with Katie and her dad trying struggling to reconcile their seemingly insurmountable differences before it is too late--I confess that there were more than a few moments when I found myself wishing that the filmmakers had junked the robot storyline entirely and stuck exclusively with the family stuff. And yet, that sense of unevenness is easily forgivable because the stuff that does work--ranging from the goofball humor to the story that manages to be surprisingly thoughtful about family ties amidst the colorful chaos to the appealing and strikingly nuanced performances from the voice cast to the inspired combination of 2D and 3D animation (the film's visual conceit suggests that Katie is presenting the reality of the situation through her own unique cinematic perspective as it happens)--is both quite good and allows the film to mark its own ground rather than turn into another Pixar clone. The result is a real rarity--a family film that all members of a typical family will be able to enjoy in roughly equal measure.

The name William Brent Bell may not resonate very much with the average moviegoer but he has become infamous among horror fans for making some of the weakest and most incompetent exercise in the genre in recent years, including "Stay Alive," "The Boy," "Brahms: The Boy II" and the infamous "The Devil Inside," a film with a conclusion so idiotic that when I saw it unspool with a big preview audience crowd, they were so pissed off that a riot almost broke out. His remarkable batting average continues with "Separation," a lazy rehash of cliches that has been assembled in such a haphazard and disinterested manner that it suggests nothing but contempt for anyone foolish enough to actually spend a few bucks and two precious hours on it. After an accident involving their adorable moppet daughter Jenny (Violet McGraw) out-of-work former cartoonist Jeff (Rupert Friend) and bill-paying attorney Maggie (Mamie Gummer) go through what appears to be the fastest legal split since Steve Martin called for a citizen's divorce in "The Man with Two Brains." Alas, that meanie Maggie wants sole custody--just because she has a job, a rich family and other petty concerns--but that quickly goes away once she is killed by a mysterious hit-and-run driver. Unfortunately for Jeff, this isn't quite the problem solver it seems to be--Maggie's dad (Brian Cox) begins making noises about suing for custody of Jenny on the basis that her father is a moron, Jenny begins speaking in baby talk and mysterious forces seem to be coming after Jeff, Jenny and lovestruck nanny Samantha (Madeline Brewer), oftentimes in grotesque variations of the puppets that are strewn about the house whose presence alone would warrant the removal of a child from the premises in real life.

Although the opening scenes of the film are not necessarily good by any stretch of the imagination, they are not quite as incompetent as Bell's other films have proven to be and it is still fun to watch a pro like Cox at work even when dealing with clearly substandard material. As it goes on--and on--though, the proceedings get stupider and stupider, the scares are pretty much nonexistent and our hero is such a moron in so many different ways that viewers will find themselves in the odd position of rooting for someone to get Jenny out of his self-absorbed clutches. Then comes the finale and while it may not be quite as asinine as the end of "The Devil Inside" (once it all ends, most viewers will be too woozy to care), it is still dopey enough in both concept and execution that for several minutes, I assumed that I was watching an elongated dream sequence. The only remotely scary thing about "Separation," which ultimately turns out to be little more than "Kramer vs. Kramer" with more killer puppets, is that even though it is bad enough to rightly be considered a nadir in the careers of most filmmakers, Bell, according to IMDb, currently has no less than 8 projects currently in various forms of development to unleash on unsuspecting viewers. Frankly, I’d prefer taking my chances with the killer puppets.

If you were to search for someone to write and direct a film in which a seemingly happy and ordinary family that moves from the big city to a rustic farmhouse in the middle of nowhere and finds themselves confronting both the metaphorical darkness lurking in their own lives and the possibly malevolent spirits that are evidently living with them, my guess is that your list of go-to people would probably not be topped by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, the filmmaking duo behind such less-than-terrifying projects as "American Splendor," "The Nanny Diaries" and "10,000 Saints." And yet, they are the driving forces behind "Things Heard & Seen" and while the resulting film is plagued with all sorts of problems, one of the biggest is their absolute lack of feel for the genre as a whole. Based on the Elizabeth Brundage bestseller "All Things Cease To Happen," the Seventies-set story opens as Catherine Claire (Amanda Seyfried) reluctantly joins her husband, ambitious academic George (James Norton), and their adorable moppet daughter Franny (Ana Sophia Heger) on a move to a remote farmhouse in upstate New York where her husband has secured a job teaching at a small college. Already struggling with an eating disorder and a sense of dislocation regarding her new surroundings, Catherine seizes on a number of odd incidents that suggest that their new home--which they naturally got for a song--is possibly haunted by some kind of spirit. George pooh-poohs her concerns but we soon discover that he is not the most trustworthy individual--not only has he failed to inform Catherine about the dark secret behind their home but immediately starts carrying on with a local horse trainer (Natalia Dyer) who, it turns out, happens to be the girlfriend of the older of a pair of local brothers (Alex Neustaedter and Jack Gore) who have their own connection to the house as well. Suffice it to say, Catherine makes a series of horrifying discoveries while George provides enough gaslight in his attempts to cover up his lies to single-handedly illuminate the entire house during the times when the electricity goes haywire from the supernatural intruders whose presence is becoming increasingly hard to ignore.

In telling a story in which a small family--including a struggling academic who talks about becoming a writer, an increasingly hysterical wife and a small child--are confronted with possible spirits and definite inner demons after moving into a new place in the middle of nowhere on a whim from Dad, it seems obvious right from the outset that Berman and Pulcini are clearly trying to make their own version of "The Shining." Alas, it appears that the only iteration of that tale that they ever experienced was the fairly inept (1997) made-for-TV version with Steven Weber and they still somehow fail to clear that not exactly lofty artistic bar. The dramatic tension is practically nonexistent, the intermittent scares are equally ineffective and the concluding half-hour or so is such a mess that I can only assume that it has been changed from the novel because I cannot imagine even a halfway-respectable book editor letting something that messy and incoherent out under their watch. As the central character, Seyfried (whose presence will presumably lure in viewers in the wake of her justifiably praised and award-nominated turn in "Mank") does try to make something out of the story and her character but is eventually stymied by the nonsense she is working with here. Other than her efforts, "Things Heard & Seen" is a near-total misfire that takes some of the hoariest genre cliches imaginable and mishandles them so completely that its artistic failures prove to be the only remotely scary things about it.

As bad as "Things Heard & Seen" is, it is ultimately too dull and dopey to get especially upset over, which is not the case with the infinitely more loathsome "Without Remorse," an adaptation of the Tom Clancy best-seller that has been trying to reach the big screen since it was published in the early 90s and which would have been better off if this iteration had failed to get off the ground as well. The film opens in Syria as Navy SEAL John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan) and his team are utilized by sleazy CIA agent Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell) to pull off a dangerous mission rescuing an operative taken by Russian forces that proves to be legally dubious as well. Three months later, several members of John's team are attacked in America by Russian assassins and while John survives his assault, his pregnant wife is not so lucky. After recovering from his injuries, Kelly gets the name of the one Russian attacker that he wasn't able to kill and uses this information to force Ritter and the Secretary of Defense (Guy Pearce) to use him as part of a payback mission involving the surviving members of his team that becomes increasingly complicated as the bodies begin to stack up.

The only thing separating "Without Remorse" from the crypto-fascist revenge thrillers and military-might-makes-right spectacles that were all the rage during the 80s and early 90s is that those earlier films--at least the bigger ones--would never have dared to cast black people in the lead roles (Jodie Turner-Smith co-stars as Kelly's superior officer)--one might have, at most, been appointed as either comedy relief or a friend whose untimely demise inspires the carnage to come. Instead of making anything of this, however, the roles prove to be as blandly anonymous as can be--practically anyone in the SAG director could have played with only minimal revisions--as well as utter wastes of Jordan and Turner-Smith's considerable charisma. Although I have not read the original Clancy novel (life being too short and such), I understand that it has been changed considerably in its decades-long journey to the screen but even I would be willing to hazard a guess that the book was more interesting than the alternately brutal and boring mishmash offered up by co-writers Taylor Sheridan and Will Staples, which has all the subtlety, nuance and dramatic tension of the kind of low-effort junk that Cannon Films might have offered up in their waning days. The listless direction comes from Stefano Sollima, auteur of the repulsive "Sicario: Day of the Soldado," and the most positive thing about his contributions is that this film is slightly less repellent than his earlier effort. Cruel, ugly and mean-spirited in equal measure and absolutely none of the excitement that one might reasonably expect from a Tom Clancy adaptation, "Without Remorse" is a singularly dreadful work and while the ending does laboriously attempt to set up a sequel, I am pretty certain I would rather see another entry in the "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit" universe than sit through another one of these anytime soon.

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originally posted: 04/30/21 04:48:49
last updated: 04/30/21 05:45:52
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