THE 355 (USA 2021) ***
Directed by Simon Kinberg
The 355 is the code name of a female secret agent that comes up near the end of the film entitled THE 355. THE 355 is the upcoming American action spy film directed by Simon Kinberg (DARK PHOENIX), with a screenplay by Theresa Rebeck and Kinberg, from a story by Rebeck. As the film stars Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong'o, Penélope Cruz, Diane Kruger, Fan Bingbing, five of the world’s most beautiful actresses, it is a female wet dream in the same spirit of the James Bond films.
Actress Chastain proposed the idea of this female-led spy film in May 2018 and the finished film is finally here. As expected, it is a cheesy piece of work so expect major cheesiness and no-brain entertainment, and a good time can be had.
It is a tough bet to determine who is the most beautiful of the five actresses but my favourite is Penelope Cruz. The main agent is a wild card CIA agent, ‘Mace’ Brown played by Chastain. The other four include:
Lupita Nyong'o as Khadijah, a former MI6 ally and cutting-edge computer specialist;
Diane Kruger as Marie Schmidt, a rival German BND agent;
Penélope Cruz as Graciela, a skilled Colombian DNI agent and psychologist, thinly non-agent and
Fan Bingbing as Lin Mi Sheng, a mysterious Chinese MSS agent tracking the team's every move.
The male characters however, are mere pawns in the female spy game or a villain. The males include:
Sebastian Stan as Nick, a CIA agent and Mace's colleague;
Édgar Ramírez as Luis, a DNI agent;
Emilio Insolera as Hacker
Jason Wong as Stevens
The aim of the agents is to recover a top-secret weapon.
The film is a stylish set of action pieces put together to form the story. There is a stylish deliberate breaking of the 180 degree rule.
The 180-degree rule is a cinematography rule concerning the space between two actors within a frame. Imagine an invisible line, or axis, passes through the two actors. Under the 180-degree rule, the camera can move anywhere on its side, but it should not pass over the axis. Keeping the camera on one side of the 180-degree line makes sure the actors keep the same left/right relationship with one another. Scenes filmed this way look orderly and can be easily followed. A camera breaks the 180-degree rule if it crosses the imaginary line. By breaking the 180-degree rule, the camera captures a shot called a reverse angle. Reverse angles are disorientating for viewers. While a reverse angle can add dramatic impact in some circumstances, it can often distract viewers and undermine the scene.
In THE 355, d.p. Tim Maurice-Jones breaks the rule in the one scene with two men talking with Penelope Cruz. One figures the scene to showcase a little flair and also to serve as a metaphor that men can not fully be trusted.
As in all the high budget spy films, it is shot in various exotic locations around the world including London, Paris and Morocco. The 355 should not disappoint spy fans.
AMERICAN SIEGE (USA 2021) **
Directed by Edward Drake
AMERICAN SIEGE has Bruce Willis in a title role though his character, a major one in the story, does not appear throughout the film but only when it matters. Willis plays a small Georgian town sheriff, a sort-of loser who just takes orders from the town mayor and has lost his respect for himself. “You are a waste of space…” says Charles Toutledge (Timothy V. Murphy) the mayor to the Willis character who has something to hide.
The film’s synopsis goes like this: Washed-up Sheriff Ben Watts (Bruce Willis) guards the secrets of the wealthy residents of a small Georgia town. When three outlaws take a prominent town doctor hostage in search of a missing woman, Sheriff Watts is called in to handle the situation before the FBI arrives. In a race against time, mayor Charles Routledge (Timothy V. Murph) pressures Sheriff Watts to launch an assault on the hostage-takers and to eliminate all witnesses. When the Sheriff realizes he may be a pawn in a larger scheme, he must carve a bloody warpath to expose the truth behind the town’s dark secrets.
Willis dons a 10-gallon cowboy hat which he takes off when in shame.
For an action film, the only action set pieces involve shooting with little hand-to-hand combat. There is more story in the script that is written by Drake but the story contains too many characters, which might be a little difficult to follow at the beginning. There is also Charles’ son, the missing woman’s sister and brother, the wealthy doctor keeping a secret and the FBI guys.
AMERICAN SIEGE is a minor Bruce Willis action flick and minor entertainment at that.
ARCTIC DRIFT (USA/Germany/UK 2021) ****
Directed by Ashley Morris
The Arctic has always fascinated the human race. The film ARCTIC DRIFT opens with a chilling scene of blowing snow on a completely white icy landscape. The scene is followed by other disastrous climatic disasters around the world with a voiceover informing the audience that no part of the world would be able to escape climate change.
Like a company with a mission and an ambitious scientist with a goal, the mission of the film is stated and what is to be accomplished anyhow is to be laid out bare to the audience as well. It is clear that ARCTIC NORTH means business and that it intends to accomplish what appears to be an almost impossible mission.
ARCTIC DRIFT is a 90-minute documentary put together by Fremantle International to tell the story of Mosaic, the biggest Arctic climate research expedition. (The film is assembled from the new espied of the long-running PBS series NOVA.) The aim is to spend a year beginning on September 21st, 2019 to study and better understand the Arctic - before it is too late and hopefully to discover what needs to be done to save the planet. The mega-expedition consists of hundreds of scientists (from 37 different countries) and sets the course to the Arctic on the icebreaker Polarstern, planning to spend an entire year in the Arctic to study what is causing these rapid changes.
Needless to say, there are stunning and unforgettable shots captured on film. One is the hungry white polar bears that roam close to the set up camp, obviously looking for food. The aerial shots of the several ice stations called Met City, Ocean City etc. , each set up for specific purposes are also something to behold. But it is the extreme cold of -40C that can only be imagined. I, myself, have experienced such temperatures while in Labrador City one winter. It is quite the experience and one, one can never forget. One segment has the polar bears arriving causing the workers to move away from danger. At the same time, the bears are checking out the cables around the ice stations, causing anger for themselves.
The doc unfolds in days of the expedition, like Day 1, day 5, day 9 etc. Then the beginning of Arctic winter begins. It is 4 months of 24-hour darkness.
There is also the hidden world under the frozen ice. There are shots of the flurry of activity that occur beneath. Marvellous too is the documentation of how all the equipment and scientific instruments are set up during the expedition. One such equipment can collect water at the bottom of the Arctic ocean floor two miles or so beneath.
It is clear that there is much, much more footage than what has been ‘summarized’ in this documentary. One hopes that perhaps a series of this expedition be televised on Amazon Prime so that more can appreciate the handwork and dedication of the expedition.
ARCTIC DRIFT premiers today at Amazon Prime video and makes absolutely compulsive viewing.
AWARE: GLIMPSES OF CONSCIOUSNESS (Germany 2021) ***
Directed by Frauke Sandig and Eric Black
Consciousness, at its simplest, is sentience or awareness of internal and external existence. As implied, awareness is something not easily quantified or defined and thus the film’s quest of providing answers to the question of ‘the meaning of life’ proves a formidable if not impossible one. The doc, which has won awards during its festival run is at times confusing and aimless but effort also counts in the film’s favour.
Despite millennia of analyses, definitions, explanations and debates by philosophers and scientists, consciousness remains puzzling and controversial, being "at once the most familiar and [also the] most mysterious aspect of our lives”. Perhaps the only widely agreed notion about the topic is the intuition that consciousness exists. Opinions differ about what exactly needs to be studied and explained as consciousness, and hence the film’s difficulty arises. Sometimes, it is synonymous with the mind, and at other times, an aspect of mind. In the past, it was one's "inner life", the world of introspection, of private thought, imagination and volition. Today, it often includes any kind of cognition, experience, feeling or perception. In one sequence the film even proposes awareness in plants as the study of a tree pea plant appears to learn or be conscious of its surroundings despite some untruths of its surroundings.
The film begins by attempting to answer the questions: What is consciousness? How is it we are aware we are aware? How can our feelings, subjective experience, emerge from 1.4 kg of gray matter (i.e. the brain)? Why are we not just “brilliant robots”? What happens when we die? After centuries of silence there has been an explosion of “new science” into consciousness, cutting a window into a realm previously tightly held by philosophy, religion and ‘New Age’ dogma.
AWARE follows six researchers (which one assumes have credibility after being chosen by the film’s directors) approaching consciousness –all from radically different perspectives; through Eastern meditation, with high-tech brain research, by methodically exploring inner space through psychedelic substances and by investigating the consciousness of plants. I really personally am not convinced by this plant segment. The researcher here has confessed to doing magic mushrooms on the beach while making ‘discoveries’. Scientists are coming to new insights, some of which have been integral to Indigenous knowledge for millenia.
Christof Koch, possibly the world’s most renowned neuroscientist, head of the Allen Institute for Brain Science, with a staff of 300 scientists, ‘observatories’ with banks of electron-microscopes the size of telescopes and a multi-billion-dollar budget, has startled his colleagues: He has come to openly question whether material science can find the origins of consciousness and has begun to ask if consciousness could be in all things, the fundamental essence of the universe?
Then moving on, off to Nepal. After dwelling in a monastery in Nepal for the last 40 years, Tibetan Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard, himself a former molecular biologist, maintains, you cannot approach consciousness from the outside. But from the inside, through meditation, one realizes, “There is something at the depth of consciousness that is ‘pure awareness. You cannot get deeper than that.”
AWARE is a slow burn of an informative documentary that requires some patience and an open mind to appreciate, though one might not agree that everything the subjects profess is true.
BEYOND THE INFINITE TWO MINUTES (Japan 2020) ****
Directed by Junta Yamaguchi
Directed by Junta Yamaguchi and performed by the members of the Kyoto-based Europe Kikaku theatre group, BEYOND THE INFINITE TWO MINUTES is a time warp sci-fi film that is easily the best and most entertaining film of the Reel Asian Film Festival this year, where it premiered in Toronto.
A cafe owner Kato closes up shop on an ordinary night only to be interrupted by a voice from the TV when he enters his apartment that is above his cafe that turns out to be his own voice, two minutes in the future. Kato downstairs in the shop tells Kato upstairs that he is looking into 2 minutes in the future. This comes about because of a two-minute delay between the monitor upstairs and the video system downstairs. Kato runs down to find that this is true. Downstairs, he calls to himself upstairs on the TV thus confirming what has happened to be true. As Kato investigates the strange occurrence, the night and time itself start to unravel. Kato’s friends and colleagues get enveloped into his time warp, and the results are hilarious, calamitous and existential.
With the future being affected, a time paradox could occur that could be disastrous. So the climax of the film sees the arrival of two bumbling time travel police from the time and space bureau who attempt to correct all the past incidents and make everyone involved forget what had occurred by drinking some potion.
To add to the sci-fi high jinx, there is a romance added and a robbery that will take place, all of which can either be foreseen or perhaps prevented.
The film from start to finish is done in just one act though there are a few black out scenes as the action takes place at night. A few cuts in the entire hour and 10 minutes running time is still quite an accomplished feat. But here, one can see the stage origins of the film.
The script is brilliantly written with tension mounting towards a riveting climax. With long takes, simple locations, and finely tuned performances, this film clearly shows that minor masterpieces can be made on a shoestring budget but it needs a good story, script and thought.
DELICATE STATE (USA 2020) **
Directed by Paula Rhodes
The first 10 or so minutes of a film’s start can very often be used to determine how the rest of the film would turn out. James Bond films, for example, begin with a super charged action sequence. In DELICATE STATE, the film begins with total darkness - nada. And the lens cover is shown with a voiceover saying that the cover of the lens was left on. The Voiceover goes on to state that the image is blurry and the segment ends with a shot of the couple’s cat. The next scene is the bedroom where the woman discovers the camera before their love making and asks it to be shut off. This is clearly a re-enactment and director Rhodes is not fooling anyone. Many films can be described as smart and funny. DELICATE STATE can be described as the complete opposite, as if filmed by a little kid just given a new toy video camera.
The publicity material mentions the famous storming of U.S. Capitol Hill on January 6th, 20121, just a year ago when democracy was threatened. Things went back to normal. The film’s publicity material poses the scenario: But what if that were not the outcome? What if things went… the other way? The material claims that it blurs the line between truth and fiction, building to a startling climax and a conclusion that holds a hope-tinged mirror of accountability up to us all. It should be noted that the Capitol Hill siege occurred on jan 6th 2021, and this film is a 2020 production that competed before the incident. There is no mention of any President by name in the film.
Shot over the course of their actual pregnancy with the leads doubling as a two-person crew, Paula (Paula Rhodes, RESIDENT EVIL) and Charlie (Charlie Bodin) document their impending parenthood during a time of extreme political division. Their heads remain in the sand about the greater world around them until it ends their privileged life.
The film is ever so self indulgent. Rhodes films herself in different outfits as the bathroom door opens and shuts like a curtain. Charlies not only cracks silly jokes but laughs at his own jokes. They talk to their cat, behave as if they do not want to be filmed.
Director Rhodes has lots of opinion on the nationwide protests, political conventions and uprising and lockdowns including childbirth which she conveys to her audience through a video journal her characters Paula and Charlie make for their yet to be born baby.
The film gets better in the second half when it starts to exert more maturity in Rhodes filming and when the nation faces a crisis- the one made up by Rhodes of the ‘what if’ the storming of Capitol Hill went the other way. She should have included her views and included scams of the dreaded former President Trump, noticeably missing in the film, as he had lots to do with the situation.
The best thing about the movie are the famous quotations that appear at the film’s closing credits, the most notable one being from Mother Teresa: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
DELICATE STATE is available on demand January 4, 2022. The feature recently premiered at Dances with Films where it received the Audience Choice Award.
FOR THE SAKE OF VICIOUS (Canada 2020) ***
Directed by Gabriel Carrer and Reese Eveneshen.
Word of caution that the film title carries the word ‘vicious’. Vicious is the very word to describe the horror fest FOR THE SAKE OF VICIOUS as the film contains more than a fair share of vicious violence, the most vicious of all the scenes involving taking a steel hammer and bashing down b each knee, then the shoulder and then the head of the victim.
The film opens with Romina (Lora Burke), an overworked nurse and single mother, who returns home from her late shift on Halloween night to find a maniac , Chris (Nick Smyth) hiding out with a bruised and beaten hostage (Colin Paradine). When an unexpected wave of violent intruders descends upon her home, the trio realize the only way out of the situation is to work together and fight for their survival. The premise gives the filmmakers lots of opportunity for vicious and violent fights, many of these intending for more than 5-10 minutes at a time. The film editing is nothing short of superb in terms of continuity and graphic violence and those who love their entertainment with lots of blood will be delighted for sure. To the directors credit the fight action set-pieces are very well executed, shown as in Hitchcock’s TORN CURTAIN how difficult it is to kill another human being with a gun. Of course the fact is sort-of overdone in this film.
The story seems to love to offer explanations 20 minutes or so after an incident. The connection between Chris, the hostage and Romina is not explained till the film’s 20 minute mark though it is not made clear why the two are in her house. Again the connection between the house invaders and the three in the house is explained only 20 minutes after the home invasion occurs.
The film is a Canadian production shot in the province of Ontario though the setting is not made clear. It is clearly not a British film, though a few actors have a slight British accent and the main heavy has the typical British shorthair gangster look. But the driver side is on the left and the Brits do not celebrate trick or treating.
Most of the action takes place within the confines of a house. The kitchen is small and cramped and it is well choreographed fighting that takes place in the confined areas. The filmmaker makes good use of a vacant house to create the sets for the film.
Set during halloween night, it is a clear noticeable observation that no trick or treating by kids occur during the extended home invasion and fights. It is only after everything is over that the doorbell rings and a girl is out by the front door for a ‘trick or treat’. This flaw could be corrected if the film is not set during Halloween as the season has little to do with the film’s story.
FOR THE SAKE OF VICIOUS is an original Shudder film and opens January the 6th. Vicious pleasure!
SEE FOR ME (Canada 2021) ***
Directed by Randall Okita
Blind victims have always been a favourite subject in suspense films. Audrey Hepburn was pursued by Alan Arkin in Terence Young’s WAIT UNTIL DARK. Mia Farrow was a similar helpless blind victim in SEE NO EVIL aka BLIND TERROR. SEE FOR ME is an updated blind damsel in distress update with an app called SEE FOR me, also the title of the film.
SEE FOR ME stars Skyler Davenport as Sophie, a visually impaired teenager who is house sitting for a wealthy client when three criminals break into the house to rob it. Quite different from WAIT UNTIL DARK and Richard Fleischer’s SEE NO EVIL, Sophie is not that helpless. She has learnt how to cope with her disability but not always in a good way. She takes advantage of people feeling sorry for her. Her mother fusses for her, but she wants her independence. Ever since her ski accident, Sophie has been bitter with life.
The SEE FOR ME app works quite simply and is easy to understand for the audience. Sophie’s only defense is a smartphone app called See for Me which connects her to Kelly (Jessica Parker Kennedy), a gamer who has to use the app to see Sophie's surroundings and guide her actions.
When the film opens the audience sees Sophie travelling to a remote mansion, a huge residence whose owner is paying her, very well, to house sit, or more accurately to look after the cat. She uses the app to have her boyfriend look around the house, when she discovers a cellar full of vintage wine. Googling the price of one bottle, she steals it, while lying to her boyfriend that she had put the bottle back. When three house invaders arrive to rob the safe of cash - the reason there is much cash in the safe is satisfactorily explained, they discover the presence of Sophie. Sophie had already dialed 9-1-1 and the police were already on their way. Sophie makes a deal with the crooks to get a share of the loot if she plays the game and gets rid of the cops. However, the investigating officer turns out to be too nosy and enters the house, only to be shot dead by one of the crooks. And the plot thickens, not to give any more spoilers, but director Okita always keeps inserting more plot points to keep the film from going ‘blah’.
Also updated in this film is the female role. The female is now more resourceful and not as helpless as in the older films. But by making Sophie dishonest. the audience would be less sympathetic to her cause and not every audience would like to see her escape with part of the cash.
SEE FOR ME had its public premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. It is an OK thriller, mildly entertaining but it does not provide more thrills and suspense than WAIT UNTIL DARK or SEE NO EVIL. SEE FOR ME has a limited theatrical opening on January 7th and is available VOD/digital on the 11th.
JUNE AGAIN (Australia 2019) ***1/2
Directed by J.J. Winlove
There have been a few excellent films dealing with the difficult topic of Alzheimer’s and dementia. One is the recent THE FATHER with Anthony Hopkins and the other, a little seem lesbian film DEUX (THE TWO OF US) in which a senior rescues her lover suffering from dementia from her nursing home. In the smart and funny JUNE AGAIN, June (Noni Hazelhurst) has what her daughter calls a ‘break from dementia’. A sort-of miracle occurs when June, suffering from dementia resulting from a stroke and living in a home, suddenly recovers and remembers everything. The doctor says that this is temporary and it is best she stays in the facility. June escapes in a cab and returns to her family. As it turns out, everything has gone wrong since the 5 years June has been ‘away’ due to memory loss. Her daughter is divorced, her son fails from architecture school and the family business has gone to bits. It would have been better than June had not gained back her memory. Be that as it may, June sums up all her strength to put all the pieces back together again. The premise is a fresh look at dementia and a rather brilliant one at that - very smart and funny.
The actress Noni Hazelhurst, famous in Australia, but relatively unknown outside Australia delivers an absolutely stunning performance in the title role of June, making the film smart that it is. Hazelhurst is able to invoke both hilarity and sadness in any moment.
One complaint is that the film gets manipulative at the end but one can forgive J.J. Winlove for the incredibly compelling and entertaining first half of the film. Winlove (born in New Zealand) has made a few films, unseen in North America in the past and definitely one whose work should be noticed.
Directors have used different methods to have the audience feel the problems associated with dementia. In THE FATHER, director Florian Zeller used different actors to play Anthony Hopkins' daughters to disorientate the audience as Hopkins forgets what his daughters look like. In JUNE AGAIN, director Winlove uses jump edits. One scene has June talking to someone and in the next moment the person is no longer there as the film is edited to cut out the time in between. In yet another scene, June is looking at ornaments and in the next, the ornaments are put up on the wall.
Director Winlove’s film never misses on the details. The family’s wallpaper business is shown with all the intimacies of its manufacturing process.
The film scores high marks in political correctness. The film has a strong female presence and a positive LGBT slant as well.
Noni Hazelhurst gets my vote for the Best Performance by an actress in a leading role for the year in my TFCA (Toronto Film Critics Association) ballot, but she might not win as this is likely to be a little seen film.
The film opens on VOD/digital on January 7, 2022. This is the best feel-good comedy about serious dementia.
WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED (UK 2021) ***1/2
Directed by Kier-La Janisse
Witchcraft is the only religion Britain has ever given to the world, says one interviewee in this hour documentary.
WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED is touted as the first feature-length documentary on the history of folk horror, exploring the phenomenon from its beginnings in a trilogy of films – Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968), Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971) and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) – through its proliferation on British television in the 1970s and its culturally specific manifestations in American, Asian, Australian and European horror, to the genre’s revival over the last decade. It has a running time of slightly over 3 hours but it is an exhaustive and comprehensive documentary that has gone on to win accolades wherever it has been shown. Horror fans should be delighted.
The film includes an original score by Jim Williams (A Field in England) and special animated sequences featuring collage art by filmmaker Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg).
The film begins with its first chapter entitled ‘The Unholy Trinity’, the three standing for the films WITCHFINDER, BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW and THE WICKER MAN. Director Jmisse and editors provide quite a lot of clips from these films that at the time stood to counteract the typical period horror provided by the British Hammer films. The directors are interviewed and provide insightful information. BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW was based on 11-year old cold murdered Mary Bell who at the time stood for the epitome of evil, as well as a real witch hunter played by Vincent Price roamed the time of the civil war in Britain. These three films are British giving this American production a real British look.
The second chapter is equally informative. Three folklore horror films are brought to light, EYES OF THE DEVIL, THE STALLS OF BARCHESTER and PSYCHOMANIA.
The last hour showcases more international horror folklore films including the U.S and the continent.
While exploring the key cinematic signposts of folk horror – touching on over 200 films, television plays and episodes as well as early inspirational literature – the film also examines the rise of paganism in the late 1960s, the prominence of the witch-figure in connection with second wave feminism, the ecological movement of the 1970s, the genre’s emphasis on landscape and psychogeography, and American manifestations of folk horror from Mariners’ tales and early colonial history to Southern Gothic and backwoods horror. Finally, the film navigates through the muddy politics of folk nostalgia. The term ‘folk horror’ is a loaded one, and WOODLANDS DARK AND DAYS BEWITCHED explores the many ways that we alternately celebrate, conceal and manipulate our own histories in an attempt to find spiritual resonance in our surroundings.
Over 50 interviewees appear in the film, including Piers Haggard (director, Blood on Satan’s Claw), Lawrence Gordon Clark (director, A Ghost Story for Christmas series), Jeremy Dyson (co-founder, The League of Gentlemen), Alice Lowe (director, Prevenge), Robert Eggers (director, The Witch), Jonathan Rigby (author, American Gothic), Adam Scovell (author, Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange), Andy Paciorek (founder, Folk Horror Revival), Howard David Ingham (author, We Don’t Go Back: A Watcher’s Guide to Folk Horror), Alexandra Heller-Nicholas (Author, 1000 Women in Horror), Kat Ellinger (Editor, Diabolique Magazine), Maisha Wester (Author, African American Gothic) and many more, as well as archival interviews with Robin Hardy (director, The Wicker Man) and Anthony Shaffer (writer, The Wicker Man).
Despite its running time of 3 hours, the dozens and dozens of old horror clips, put together are enough to keep one's interest to to make a list of to- rent or buy unseen horror gems.
There are many ways to view this fascinating and insightful documentary. The film hits Blu-ray on December 7, 2021, both as a stand-alone disc, and as part of the 15-disc box set ‘All the Haunts Be Ours: A Compendium of Folk Horror’ from Severin Films. It also streams on the horror streaming service, SHUDDER as a Shudder Exclusive, premiering Monday, January 10.