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Films I Neglected To Review: As August Slips Away Like A Bottle Of Wine. . .
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "The Protege," "Rare Beasts," "Risen" and "Sweet Girl."

With all of the chaos and confusion regarding increasingly tenuous release schedules that the pandemic is currently wreaking in Hollywood, it is somehow reassuring to learn that there is at least one sacred tradition that not even COVID-19 could stop--the tendency by the studios to use the late August/early September period as a dumping ground for aggressively mediocre films that otherwise would have sunk without a trace during the more competitive summer and holiday seasons. A perfect example of this is "The Protege," a overly familiar and fairly pedestrian action thriller composed of elements that you have seen dozens of times before and actors cruising through parts far beneath their talents in exchange for a quick and relatively painless paycheck. This one centers on Anna (Maggie Q), a woman who ostensibly appears to be a rare book dealer but who is in fact a highly skilled assassin who learned her craft from Moody (Samuel L. Jackson), who rescued her when she was a child in Vietnam (where she had already notched her first kills) and raised her to carry on his trade. After celebrating his birthday and demonstrating a wicked cough--two sure signs that one is not going to be eating up too much screen time--Moody is brutally murdered and Anna, who barely escapes getting killed herself, naturally decides to find out who is responsible and get her revenge. While accomplishing this--the details are both befuddling and desperately mundane--she winds up continually crossing paths with Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), the security chief and top killer for the bad guys. Sure, each one is theoretically supposed to kill the other but there is a strange attraction that develops between the two that leaves them debating whether they should fight or. . . well, you know.

For the most part, "The Protege" isn't so much bad as it is a snooze. The story has the lazy familiarity of a television pilot for a show trying to blatantly emulate a big hit film from a year or so earlier, the characters are equally hackneyed and the big and supposedly startling plot developments on hand will most likely be anticipated well in advance by anyone who has seen more than a couple of films of this sort in the past. The big action beats are competently staged but offer no particularly unique thrills of their own--this is a bit of a surprise and shame as director Martin Campbell has more than demonstrated his genre bona fides in the past in films such as "GoldenEye," "The Mask of Zorro" and "Casino Royale." (Yeah, he also made "Green Lantern," but you canít have everything.) What does sort of work is the weirdo relationship that develops between Anna and Rembrandt and that has less to do with the machinations of the screenplay that it does with the nifty byplay that develops between the equally and insanely charismatic Q and Keaton. Their scenes together are so effectively sly, funny and sexy that even the hardcore action junkies in the audience would happily trade away a few of the film's indifferent gun battles and fight scenes in order to work in some more moments between them. Ultimately, not even their considerable efforts are able to make "The Protege" into anything more than the kind of instantly forgettable B picture that seems destined to play in perpetuity on lesser cable channels once it completes its presumably brief theatrical run. Here is hoping, however, that it inspires someone to reteam Q and Keaton in another project as quickly as possible--if they can almost save a project as listless as this with the sheer force of their combined personalities, imagine what they could accomplish with a better script and more interesting characters.

Billie Piper started off her career at a young age as a British pop star of some note before segueing into a generally acclaimed acting, both on the stage and in television shows such as "Doctor Who," "The Secret Life of a Call Girl" and "I Hate Suzie," which she also co-created. Now she makes her feature film debut as a writer-director with "Rare Beasts" and while the results are generally woeful, it at least has the decency to be bad in ways that suggest that she does has a singular vision as a filmmaker, even if it is currently in need of prescription lenses. She plays Mandy, a harried woman trying to deal with a young son, Larch (Toby Woolf) with behavioral issues, the ongoing estranged relationship between her parents (David Thewlis and Kerry Fox) and her job at some kind of media outlet that looks and feels like it was constructed to be a living definition of the phrase "toxic work environment." Because all of this is evidently not enough for her to deal with at once, Mandy inexplicably launches herself into a half-assed relationship with Pete (Leo Bill), a religiously devout and monstrously misogynistic jerk who is like an especially repellent Twitter comment section brought to life. The film essentially boils down to a series of vignettes in which she tries to negotiate these strained relationships while striving to carve out some small measure of happiness and fulfillment for herself.

Piper is clearly trying to position itself as some kind of response to British romcoms like "Bridget Jones' Diary" and the like (at several points, it appears that her key cinematic influence is "Punch-Drunk Love") but she wildly overshoots the mark here in terms of the satiric content. I get that Pete is meant to represent the kind of quietly monstrous men that too many women settle for out of fear that they will never do any better. However, Pete is such a creep right from the start (he seems to have wandered in from a Todd Solondz film) that not only does it go beyond satire into overwrought hyperbole, it makes us think less of Mandy because we cannot faith what she could possibly see in him in the first place, let alone after their disastrous first date that end with her vomiting in the street and him barely noticing. The whole film is like that--the situations and behaviors are so overblown that they feel more like clumsy caricatures and since they are never believable or relatable, it is impossible to care about Mandy or her efforts to deal with all of the shit in her life. And yet, as bad as the film is, it does demonstrate some definite artistic ambitions of Piperís part and on the rare occasions in which she dials things down a bit, such as in her scenes with Fox and Thewlis, the results are somewhat more convincing and effective. Ultimately, "Rare Beasts" is a mostly terrible movie but if you can somehow look beyond all the awkward things in it--not an easy task, I admit--it does show that Piper has a potentially interesting voice as a filmmaker. Hopefully with her next effort, she will have something worth saying.

As the sci-fi thriller "Risen" opens, a small town is decimated by a meteor that crash lands and renders the surrounding area highly toxic, killing hundreds in the process. In order to try to understand what happened and if it was an isolated event or not, the government calls in Lauren Stone (Nicole Schalmo), a controversial exobiologist with a checkered past involving alcohol, to investigate and come up with answers. Her efforts lead her down a dark and twisty path that reveals that this is not the first time that such an incident has occurred and that is before the moment when those killed by the meteor. . . well, you saw the title. In many ways, Eddie Arya's film will remind viewers of "Arrival," albeit on a budget that does occasionally show its seams, by taking a quieter and more contemplative approach to its story of Earth being visited by outside forces whose ultimate motives are murky at first. As it turns out, this is one of those films that is just interesting enough to keep you interested on some vague level for the majority of its running time. However, the deliberately slow and considered pacing starts to work against the film after a while and the final scenes in which all is revealed are, to put it charitably, kind of ridiculous. Still, considering the ambitious nature of the story, "Risen" deserves some points for at least trying to do something different and if it is ultimately a miss in the end, at least it is a near-miss.

Say what you will about the overly familiar and largely banal likes of "The Protege"--at least it has a few moments here and there where the co-stars are allowed to shine and give you some brief hope that it might right itself before returning to its otherwise dull paces. "Sweet Girl," on the other hand, has an equally charismatic star in Jason Momoa (and also serves as one of the co-producers) but it is in such a rush to demonstrate just how idiotic it can be that he never gets a chance to show his stuff. He plays Ray, a devoted family man who is justifiably outraged when a major pharmaceutical company purchases and shelves a potentially life-saving drug from the market in order to push its own super-expensive version and his cancer-stricken wife, who was scheduled to receive the affordable version, ends up dying. When he is later contacted by a reporter with information about corruption involving the higher-ups at the company, Ray goes to meet him with his spunky 16-year-old daughter Rachel (Isabel Merced) secretly following him. Needless to say, the meeting goes violently wrong and after an unsuccessful attempt to go on the run, Ray, with Rachel in tow, decides to fight back while trying to avoid a supremely dedicated hitman (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) dogging them along the way. For the first two-thirds, the film is a standard-issue and fairly listless attempt to present a "Death Wish"-style revenge thriller laced that cynically uses the genuine anger that many feel towards the health care industry as a cheap way of justifying the ensuing carnage in scenes that donít really come off very well because when your ordinary-man-pushed-too-far is embodied by someone looking like Momoa, you actually start to feel sorry for the bad guys after a while. Then comes the final section of the film, which tries to flip the script with a move that must have seemed audacious on paper but which comes across as absolutely ludicrous in the flesh. To make matters worse, the switch comes a little too early and gives viewers more than ample time to play back what they have already seen in their mind with this new information and realize just how utterly silly and implausible it is. "Sweet Girl" is a dud from start to finish, the kind of film that may get play for a few days on the strength of Momoa's presence before disappearing into the morass that is the Netflix catalogue, where it will almost certainly not be missed anytime soon.

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originally posted: 08/20/21 23:39:14
last updated: 08/21/21 01:18:53
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