Sometime an artists whose primary output is writing tries their hand at directing, with mixed results. In the case of Stephen Gaghan’s Abandon, the results are flat out miserable, all across the board when you consider that he wrote the thing too. Katie Holmes headlines the murky tale of a girl whose mysterious ex boyfriend (Charlie Hunnam) resurfaces to creep her out after disappearing years before. The film is steeped in darkly shot, choking scenes of mumbling gloom that I suppose were an attempt at atmosphere but just cloud perceptions and numb over any chance of tension or thrills. Holmes has always been a huge talent and she does her best here but you can only do so much with material this bad. Benjamin Bratt plays a hunky detective who gets a bit too involved in her case than he probably should, and ends up standing around looking confused most of the time. Hunnam, whose acting style has always irked me, tries to do the deep dark brooding bad boy thing here, and comes across as listless and bored, his motivations never made clear beyond lurking with vague intent. Just as an example of how humdrum it all is: Fred Ward plays Bratt’s superior officer and when he’s introduced in a dimly lit precinct, he’s literally just sitting on the floor against his desk, looking like he gave up with the script, tossed it in the dustbin and is waiting for them to yell cut so he can call his agent and finally get the next Remo Williams film underway instead of appearing in gothic Hallmark trash like this. It’s interesting because Gaghan showed great promise after this by directing the phenomenal Syriana, then subsequently waded back into the mires of mediocrity with his next feature, Gold. He’s uneven as a director, and this is the lowest point for him. The whole thing fits the title, really; it’s like they Abandoned any hope of making this half decent and just cloaked it in as much hollow, portentous energy they could muster up and hoped no one would notice that there’s no substance to back up the style. The ending is as empty as the rest of it, there’s no resolution, twist or aha moment, it just ends in thin air. Avoid.
I imagine THE BELKO EXPERIMENT was the first screenplay James Gunn pulled out of his drawer and dusted off to make, spending his cache from GUARDIANS on, that Disney absolutely forbid him to direct. The end result is a fun, hard genre picture that is exactly what you’d expect it to be. It’s a return to pre Marvelized Gunn.
The film is brutally violent, more so on the realistic side than the over-the-top Tarantino induced cinematic folly. The casting is what makes this film work to the degree that it does. It’s a mixture of Gunn’s troops, typecast players, and a very fun cameo at the end that anyone who’s familiar with Gunn or De Palma’s work will instantly rejoice in seeing.
The entire ensemble plays hard to their typecast, with the exception of Michael Rooker who has been recently re-branded by Gunn as the likeable salt of the earth guy. Tony Goldwyn is the no bullshit asshole who plays on his good looks and affability, and it is fantastic seeing him back on the big screen. He’s great in this. John C. McGuinley plays his smarmy self in a throwback to his turn in PLATOON. Sean Gunn is the dope. John Gallagher, Jr is the everyman who grows a pair and rises to the extraordinary situation, and Brent Sexton is the guy who’s there to help until he isn’t.
The picture is a perplexing ride. While it’s a hard genre staple, you’ll find yourself thinking a little too much about it, casting shades of grey where there really isn’t any intent of. HIGH-RISE was a comparison that I found myself trying to make, but the film isn’t nearly as sophisticated, and that’s okay because it’s not trying to be.
The film’s excessive violence will certainly be cause for backlash, but while watching I kept thinking about the need for violence in entertainment. Whether it’s gladiators, boxing, MMA or fist fights in hockey; it’s an aspect of our culture that refuses to go anywhere because it is a primal urge that is so badly desired. Somebody somewhere has had to have made an “ultra-violence” quip somewhere talking about this film.
Bottom line is that THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is a film that uses violence in its most primitive form, but in a respectfully cinematic way that genuinely gets lost amongst the shoddy horror films that continuously show up on streaming platforms. This film is exactly what it sets out to be, and doesn’t try to be anything that it isn’t. It could have easily tried to be some LORD OF THE FLIES rehash, but it wasn’t and that is refreshing. The film opens with the ultra nostalgic Orion Pictures logo, and if that excites you, this movie was made for you.
The 6th Day is a brash, in your face sci fi actioner with some deft scientific notions that it plays around with in near satirical fashion. It chooses to shoot most of its scenes in my hometown of Vancouver, including a set piece atop the spiral shaped Vancouver Public Library tat sends sparks raining down into the streets and choppers spinning wildly to their demise. I love when films shoot here, because it gives my city an exciting chance to be a part of escapism, and it’s amusing to watch them digitally maim all sorts of landmarks and then chuckle as I see them intact on my way to work the next day. Schwarzenegger, in one of his last great flicks before his deliberate hiatus (we shall not speak of the abomination that is Collateral Damage), plays Adam Gibson, a helicopter tour guide who has a strange blackout in mid flight while transporting the CEO of a swanky scientific corporation (slick Tony Goldwyn). He arrives back home to find a clone of himself living with his family, and things only get weirder from there. He has stumbled into the inner workings of extremely illegal experiments involving human replication, and Goldwyn & Co. are none too pleased about it. Goldwyn has secretly made human cloning an everyday thing for the company, hidden from the aging eyes of the moral upright doctor who founded the company (Robert Duvall). This is all enforced by a ruthless corporate thug for hire (Michael Rooker) and his foxy assistant (Sarah Wynter). Schwarzenegger is faced with the daunting task of taking down this un-sanctioned empire, reclaiming his family and blowing up some stuff along the way. It’s a terrific flick, and Arnie gets to say the best line he’s ever spoken, directed at Goldwyn, which I won’t spoil here but it’s pure gold. Goldwyn is hateable and malicious, the horrific third act prosthetics fitting him like a slimy glove. Duvall strikes a noble chord and almost seems to have wandered in from a more serious film. Rooker is intense, evil and scene stealing as always. Watch for Wendy Crewson, Michael Rapaport and Terry Crews as well. In a movie so committed to the trademark Ahnuld fireworks, it’s cool to get a whiff of actual thought provoking, Asimov-esque intrigue with the cloning, a concept which is fully utilized and really a lot of fun here.
Tony Goldwyn’s Conviction is a searing dramatic tale that’s heavily based on true events, and is essentially the underdog story boiled down to its most effective elements, with inspiration running throughout its truly remarkable storyline. Hilary Swank can be a force of nature in her work, and she’s dynamite here as Betty Anne Waters, a small town girl who is very close with her rambunctious sibling Kenny (Sam Rockwell), who grows up as the troublemaker of the two, running afoul of a nasty local police officer (Melissa Leo). When his next door neighbour is found stabbed to death, Leo sees it as her opportunity to get rid him for good, and tampers with evidence, until he is convicted. Guilty until proven innocent is the mantra with this difficult tale, and because it’s based on a true story that happened in real life, it unfolds at a snails pace of tragic events in which a satisfying outcome sometimes just seems out of reach. With Kenny in wrongfully convicted and rotting in prison while his wife and daughters edge towards moving on, Betty does the unthinkable: with no previous experience in college, let alone law, she decides to study for the bar exam, in order to eventually represent Kenny in court, and prove his innocence. It seems like something from a movie, and here we see it, but this is something that really, really happened, which to me is extraordinary and essential to make known. She persists through many obstacles both great and small, and with the help of a dapper senior colleague (Peter Gallagher), and a perky fellow law student (Minnie Driver) she passes the exam and sets out to defend her brother. It’s a rocky road, beset with the decayed and deliberately lost memories of years before, and the police officer’s longstanding belligerence. Unreliable witnesses, uncooperative testimonials and all sorts of stuff get in her way, but Betty ain’t a girl to quit or back down, a character trait which Swank seems to have been born to play, and is the lighthouse which guides this fantastic film along its track. Rockwell exudes burrowing frustration as a man in a position of incomprehensible sadness, hopeful yet resigned to his fate which has been orchestrated by evil, targeting him in wanton cruelty. Painful is the word for him here, and when Rockwell sets out for a mood in his work, you damn well feel it. Juliette Lewis briefly rears her head as a dimbulb witness who plays a part in Betty’s quest, as does Clea Duvall very briefly as another witness who seems to have no idea what she actually saw. Melissa Leo is an actress who is utterly and totally convincing whether she’s on the good or the evil side of the coin, holding the audience in rapturous awe with seemingly little effort. Here she’s so nasty it radiates off the screen, providing a core incentive for Betty’s struggle, whether or not the events actually played out like that. Director Tony Goldwyn is an actor himself and uses that experience to forge a film with respect and sympathy for its two leads. One of the more underrated films of 2010.
Ahh, Ghost. What an authentic romance classic, a film that puts a big old grin on your face whether you want it to or not, a sloppy, smile that’s just wide enough to catch the tears that fall as a result of the sadness which accompanies the sweet, too essential ingredients in any love story that hopes to affect us in either direction. Balance is key, and Ghost employs both the giddy, heart-skipping joy of romance and the looming possibility of threat and tragedy in equal measures, never getting too dark or to soppy, at least for me. Demi has never been more adorable, in one of her career highlights. Her and Patrick ‘Roadhouse’ Swayze play star-crossed young lovers, in the beginning stages of building their lives together, a time that should be unconditionally happy for both, and is, until one fateful event rips them apart and plunges the narrative into effect. They encounter a thief in an alley one night, and Swayze is killed. Only, his spirit remains behind, for more reasons than he at first realizes. He keeps a protective, loving eye on Moore, and is driven to the notion that his death was no accident, his lingering presence meant for the purpose of both truth, love and retribution. He is aided and assisted by a sassy psychic (Whoopi Goldberg) who acts as his conduit between both realms. There’s supernatural intrigue and conspiracy afoot, but as exciting as that stuff is, it’s the love story between Patrick and Demi that has kept generations rooted to the story. A romance film is nothing without two leads who share both chemistry and a great script, which this one supplies generously. They are a show stopping pair in their scenes together, and if their predicament doesn’t draw forth both smiles and cries from you as a viewer, well, you’re wading through the wrong genre, my friend. The two of them make this one an honest to goodness winner with their performances, supported by narrative elements that only raise the stakes of their relationship. A film which will never not be a classic, and everyone should have in their collection. Ditto.