Monday, March 25, 2024

Battleship, But More Boring

It's the end of the world as we know it, and this movie feels...blah.

Quick Plot: The year is 2063, and it's not a great one. Most of our planet has drowned, leaving just two unnamed continents above water, and both, therefore, at eternal war. 

On one side, four fairly apathetic paid soldiers are stationed on a base in the middle of the ocean (well, or anywhere, considering most of the world now looks like this). Relief is three months late, and hotheaded Baines and restless Sullivan are eager to jump ship at any chance they get...which makes the appearance of an abandoned enemy ship pretty kismet. 

Cassidy (played with suitable stoicism by Kate Bosworth), finds herself in the middle. She has a casual/maybe deeper romance with Sullivan, but also seems to carry some loyalty to the cause and their superior officer, Sgt. Hendrichs, a man who is fully dedicated to protecting their station. Considering it houses some kind of mystery doomsday device that could completely destroy what's left of the world, that's probably a good thing. 

Last Sentinel is, to put it mildly, a very slow film. A nice way of saying this is to call it patient. A more straightforward adjective would be boring. 

Somewhere in between (but tipped a little to the right), I stand with sad bangs.

Not every apocalyptic drama needs to be exciting or action-packed. There are some great ones that zoom in on a single human element or intellectual challenge. You can tell an end of the world story without a single special effect. The genre doesn't require sparks.

But it should have some form

Written by Malachi Smyth and directed by Tanel Toom, Last Sentinel is a serviceable film. It's shot well, acted quite competently, and has a production design that seems to be making a lot with a little. There's (eventually) a clear sentiment towards the film's end about its message. 

But by golly, it's very slow.

At a full two hours, Last Sentinel is not what you would call an "urgent" film. It ultimately does have some things to say, but it's quite a slog to there. Still, completists of apocalyptian cinema will likely find some satisfaction.

High Points
To my surprise, the actual "four soldiers of varying levels of commitment" interpersonal relationships worked fine, and the dynamics of having one female second in command while in a sexual relationship with the lowest ranked felt absolutely natural. 

Low Points
That being said, there's a good rule in storytelling that I'll sum up in full butchered form: the more specifically your characters are drawn, the easier it is for your audience to connect with them. Last Sentinel goes in such an opposite direction of giving its decent actors zero details as to who their soldiers are, making them such blank slates that BOY is it hard to care

Lessons Learned
I'm not a soldier, but I have to believe it's a standing rule that when investigating potential enemy turf, you do what you can to stay in contact with your team

Engineering skills trump sanity any day

Nothing multiplied by ten still adds up to nothing

Apocalyptic completists (like me) should probably put Last Sentinel towards the low middle of their to-watch list. It's FINE, but also very, very dull. Find it on Amazon Prime.  Amazon Prime if that has any appeal. 

Monday, March 18, 2024

And Then There Were Eleven


I'm the kind of easy mark when it comes to sales. Yellow sticker screaming price reduction that's still higher than the product to the left of it? SOLD. Similarly, when I get a free trial on ANYTHING, you can bet all my complimentary credits that I'll milk it for every last drop.

In case you were wondering, that's why yet again, we're here at the Criterion Channel as my 3-month membership ticks away. Zip up your parka and let's go! 

Quick Plot: A group of 11 teenagers are invited to a mysterious ski trip in the wintery mountains. With the exception of one pair of twins, none of the kids know one another, nor do they have any idea why they were selected or what EXACTLY they were selected for. The few parents we see are happy to dump their load off, even if the three instructors seem to be a

There's Gita, the long-haired sole female unwilling to take any sass from the teenage boy contingent. Wild-eyed Dingo seems like the kind of guy who fails senior year eight times to maximize his time bullying nerds. And of course, "Daddy." 

Up the kids trek into an isolated cabin surrounded by nothing but snow. Food--well, the good food--runs out quickly, putting everyone on edge. Then there's Daddy's sudden declaration that while there are 11 teenagers in the cabin, his list only accounts for 10. One doesn't belong, and Daddy insists it's the kids' job to identify the interloper. 

I don't know nearly enough about the political and cultural climate of 1987's Czechoslovakia to fully understand what writer/director Věra Chytilová is exploring with Wolf's Hole, but that doesn't mean I didn't find it fascinating. I went into this based on the Criterion Channel's description that implied it to be a satire of American slashers. Those elements are there, though there's clearly a lot more at play. 

The only real problem with Wolf's Hole is that it's an impossible movie to describe in a way to set any audience (particularly a genre one)'s expectations. Contrary to the marketing, this isn't really a horror film...but it's also not, well, any particular category. There's certainly satire and humor, maybe a little science fiction, and the bones of horror to put the audience in a very particular brain space. Don't go in expecting to be scared, but do expect a very odd way. 

High Points
I won't spoil it, but Wolf's Hole has one of my favorite endings to a movie in recent memory. I was NOT expecting to walk away from this feeling the way I did

Low Points
It was probably impossible to do with a group of 11 and such a brisk runtime, but it would have helped to have a little more differentiation between the kids (both physically and in terms of personality). I don't mind them all being kind of terrible, but I guess I would have preferred terrible in different ways

Lessons Learned
The weakest link is always left out

Put enough teenagers together and you're bound to have a food fight

SPOILER ALERT LESSON: the real trick to surviving a mysterious sure-to-kill-you trip? Never, and I mean NEVER, take that optimistic group photo before setting off. Our teens don't do it here and they're all better off for it

It's hard to say too much about Wolf's Hole without giving away some of its surprises. It's probably important to go in knowing you're not getting an '80s slasher or typical dead teenager movie, but at the same time, having those concepts in mind help enrich Wolf's Hole. It's not quite like anything else I've seen, which is always exciting. 

Monday, March 11, 2024

Another Dose of Compliance


In this (deadly doll's) house, we celebrate the work of Kyle Gallner. 

Pay your respects and hop in.

Quick Plot: At 21 years old, Randy Bradley hasn't done much with his life. He quietly toils away at a dour burger joint where nobody even knows his first name. His pride gets a minor boost with the tease of a managerial promotion, but the moment he uses it to stand up to a jerk of a coworker, it all tumbles down. 

Being humiliated is one thing. Randy is used to it. Benson is not. 

Played by the always great Kyle Gallner, Benson is the kind of guy you don't notice. Older than the teenagers around him but seemingly even less ambitious, his presence barely registers until it explodes into a shooting spree, sparing only the terrified Randy Bradley.

Written by Jack Stanley and directed by Carter Smith, The Passenger is a fascinating film that toys with genre conventions in ways that constantly make the viewer wonder exactly what they're supposed to be feeling. Is Benson a mere homicidal sociopath or Randy's guardian angel? 

It's a more complicated question than you could possibly imagine. Randy, played beautifully by Johnny Berchtold, has his reasons for living in a whisper, but Benson is right in some regards: he does deserve to give himself more. But Randy is also a good enough person to see past Benson's Tyler Durden-y philosophizing for its own inconsistency.

Having recently rewatched The Ruins, I can now enthusiastically throw myself on the Carter Smith train. The Passenger is a completely different film in terms of story and tone, but when you put them together, you can see so many of Smith's unique strengths as a genre director, particularly in how he's able to draw such real but deeply layered characters without much exposition or background. He seems to have a genuine human touch with his work, and that goes a long way when exploring something horrific.

High Points
For such a lean film, there's quite a lot going on in terms of what's driving our characters, but with the setup The Passenger has, it's still fascinating that the primary story at the heart of the film is how Randy Bradley has spent the bulk of his life in the smallest way possible because of such an understandable guilt over having hurt someone. It's not the kind of emotion that would normally get this kind of treatment

Low Points
I don't know that I have any real complaints about The Passenger, so why not use this space to ask a question that always makes me mad: why isn't Kyle Gallner a bigger star? 

Lessons Learned
It takes a lot of energy to hate a seven year old

Fast food has far more character than a food court

Even the smallest public elementary school needs better security training for office staff

The Passenger is not a fun watch, but it's a beautifully done challenge of a film that explores some very human issues. Don't go in lightly, but do go in.

Monday, March 4, 2024

Spa Day of the Dead

Some people get goosebumps at the classic Universal logo that rolls out before the opening credits. Others cheer at Marvel's new collage. Me? I hear the calming oceans of Marvista and say, "oh yes, this will be something special."

Quick Plot: An unnamed woman steps into the sauna at Serenity Gardens, fancy spa, expecting to sweat out her troubles. Instead, she sweats out...her LIFE.

One year later, we're led back to Serenity Gardens via Stella, a business consultant brought in by owner Ivy to help take things to the next level. The staff bristles at the interference of an MBA. Crystal healing specialist Jett worries her lack of clients will get her fired. Trainer Boxer is a creepy stalker-in-the-making. Yoga heartthrob Kilman follows his own rules, while his casual girlfriend Zoe is the office manager one wheatgrass shot away from pure insanity. 

Unbalanced employees can certainly create an unhealthy work environment, but it ultimately comes down to management. Ivy is an incredibly toxic boss. She pits her team members against one another and punishes meeting misbehavior with forced planks. THIS WOMAN IS THE DEVIL. 

Despite her business sense and education, Stella proves herself to be quite an idiot. Red flag after red flag waves in front of her face and yet she hangs on to her consulting gig, even after obsessive customers are stalking her house, drunken employees threatening her safety, and she becomes the prime suspect in a spa-set murder.

Killer Co-Worker is a tubi original, and that my friends, is a beautiful thing. Lifetime has long held a special place my heart as a reliable source of satisfying melodramatic cheese. tubi seems to have stolen its template, made a copy despite the machine being low on ink, then filled in the outline with whatever spilled wine product was near. 

This is a zany, zany little thriller. Everyone is operating at an 11 save for our 'normal' lead, who instead operates as if 11 was her IQ score. Somehow it all balances out. Director V.T. Nayani gets all her actors on the same page of stupid and by golly, it works. 

High Points
As an actor, it takes a fair amount of bravery to just GO FOR IT (particularly when the material doesn't necessarily support IT), and I have to call out Kendra Williams for taking Zoe to glorious heights of insanity

Low Points
Obviously, Killer Co-Worker isn't working on Titanic (or possibly even Titanic 666) levels of budget, but to establish its main setting as a thriving business with a huge waiting list, it probably would have been more effective to show more than one client

Lessons Learned
Laughter inhibits the power of crystals

MBAs speak fancy language, using terms like 'value adds'

Never trust a woman in a blazer

Like I say anytime I review a Lifetime thriller, you know just by the words "Lifetime thriller" if it's going to work for you. Killer Co-Worker reads exactly the same way, and I had a blast. Keep 'em coming, tubi!