Review: The Belko Experiment*

Belko

As the employees of Belko Industries arrive at their office building for another day of work, they are greeted by unusually heavily armed security. Not thinking much of it as highly violent crimes are known to take place in Colombia where the American employees are stationed, everybody goes about their business as usual. However, their routines are disrupted when heavy metal shutters suddenly encase the building, and an eerie voice sounds out across the office, telling the trapped office workers that they must kill a handful of their colleagues. Should they fail, the unseen voice informs them, the result will be the death of a substantially larger number of their fellow workers. Initially assuming that they are being pranked, the employees soon learn that the threat to their lives is in fact very real, as they are asked to kill more and more people within a certain time frame lest whoever is conducting this cruel game do it for them. Thus, the fight for survival begins and the terrified office workers must kill or be killed, but does the average office worker have what it takes to kill innocent people?

Since it is helmed by Wolf Creek director Greg McLean and written by Guardians of the Galaxy writer and director James Gunn, one of course expects The Belko Experiment to be plentiful in terms of both gore and wit. Thankfully, both elements are present in good measure, with visuals and scenarios that are equally grim and humorous, resulting in highly entertaining kibble for gorehounds with a dark sense of humor. The special effects are sufficiently gruesome and the acting performances are decent, giving you both someone to despise as well as someone to root for, with John Gallagher Jr being particularly enjoyable as everyman Mike Milch. As for the story, while it may not be the most original, Gunn’s decision to occasionally defy the horror formula by throwing character expectations out the window keeps the story fresh and ensures that tension is maintained throughout the film.

However, while The Belko Experiment is enjoyable as a disposable bit of blood-spattered entertainment involving creative use of office equipment, it is unlikely to impress those who are familiar with Battle Royale, as The Belko Experiment never manages to accomplish the absurdly excessive level of gore associated with its Japanese source of inspiration. As for the story, many have drawn comparisons to Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard’s collaborative effort The Cabin in the Woods, and there are indeed obvious parallels to be found in terms of the premise. Both films feature innocent people being forced into a terrifying situation by an outside force that has no regard for human life on an individual basis, but while The Belko Experiment may manage some of the wit of the subversive The Cabin in the Woods, the lack of layering not only results in fewer plot twists, it also means that the potential satirical edge The Belko Experiment could have had goes virtually unexplored. The end result is therefore lacking in depth compared to the carefully constructed 2012 horror.

Just as with any other genre, bland horror films have been a problem for decades, and while The Belko Experiment is anything but original, the talent and experience of its creators is evident in spite of its modest budget and simple plot. As such, the end product may be unexceptional, but its competent execution (no pun intended) makes it a highly enjoyable, if disposable piece of horror cinema. Additionally, it also manages to be the second film of 2017 that features gory use of otherwise innocuous office supplies – I am looking at you, John Wick: Chapter 2 – which is efficient enough to make you reconsider leaving passive-aggressive notes for your colleagues, just in case you should find yourself in a situation similar to the premise of The Belko Experiment someday.

Verdict: 7 out of 10.

*An edited version of this review was published in the May 2017 issue of Fortean Times.

Review: The Handmaiden

Handmaiden

Normally, I start my reviews with a short synopsis to give some insight into the premise and tone of the film being reviewed, however, in the case of The Handmaiden, I will refrain from doing so. This is not so much to humor director Park Chan Wook’s request that people go into the film blind in terms of the plot, but rather because watching this film without knowing much beforehand enhances the viewing experience associated this extraordinary piece of cinematic storytelling. If you insist to learn some generalities about the plot before sitting down in the dark, the single sentence your average cinema will supply you with should be more than enough to pique your interest while still leaving plenty of room to be continuously intrigued and surprised as you begin to learn exactly where this story about two young women in 1930’s Korea will lead you. As such, this review will touch upon themes rather than the narrative.

Adapted from Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, which was set in Victorian England rather than the film’s 1930s colonial Korea, the film follows the same narrative structure by dividing the story into three parts. In terms of Park Chan Wook’s adaptation, it is worth noting that the structure of the first segment in particular is significantly different depending on whether you watch the theatrical cut or the director’s cut, just as the director’s cut is 23 minutes longer than the theatrical cut. With the theatrical cut already running 144 minutes long, one could fear that the director’s extended cut is merely a self-indulgent snooze fest with its 167 minutes. Fortunately, the lengthy duration never becomes a drawback for either version thanks to the gorgeous visuals that are showcased alongside the sensual and witty performances, showing once again that Park Chan Wook’s features are as visionary as they are visceral. As such, the director’s cut is the superior version as its structure and increased attention to detail makes it even more delectable than the already stunning theatrical cut.

For anyone familiar with the work of Park Chan Wook, it should come as no surprise that a film by the director of 2003’s Oldboy gets an R-rating, and for good reason. This time around, it is not gory violence that is abundant in his latest directorial effort, as the controversy of The Handmaiden instead lies with the sex scenes, which are rather explicit. While it is expected of Park Chan Wook to push the cinematic envelope with the near-pornographic content of The Handmaiden, the film remains his most accessible to date. This is largely due to how the erotic content is handled, as the composition of the sex scenes and the excellent chemistry of the two leads in terms of their acting capabilities keeps the sex scenes from becoming gratuitous sex just for the sake of it. However, some criticism is still in order; for a film with a lesbian love story at its center, as erotic, sensual and visually appealing as the sex scenes are, it is at times a little too evident that they were directed from the perspective of a male director, and it does detract from the otherwise brilliant storytelling and cinematic craftsmanship ever so slightly.

Films about lesbian relationships rarely get to grace the silver screen as it is, but aside from the representation some will enjoy thanks to the main relationship portrayed in The Handmaiden, the film is a superb piece of storytelling with such outstanding craftsmanship that it will excite any viewer with an appreciation for good cinema and good writing. As previously stated, going in blind in terms of plot points does enhance the viewing experience, but since few cinemas have published synopses that will tell you anything beyond the general premise of the film’s first segment, you will still be met with plenty of twists and turns. Just as these are expertly executed in terms of direction, editing and cinematography, the performances will help you get pulled into this thrilling story, so leave any prudishness at home and allow The Handmaiden to seduce you.

Verdict: 9 out 10.

Review: The Fate of the Furious

FF8

Dom (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are enjoying their honeymoon in Cuba when Dom is suddenly accosted by the cyber terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron). Blackmailing him into doing her bidding, she forces Dom to betray his family and secure an electromagnetic pulse device for her. Obtaining the device proves easy enough with Dom’s skill set, and as Cipher’s evil plans continue to unfold, the team must make unusual alliances in their race against time to stop Cipher and Dom, but can they defeat one their own?

The Fast & Furious franchise went the way of most action franchises and became worse and worse as the sequels went on, but then something interesting happened; the fifth installment turned the franchise on its head and somewhat abandoned the street racing aspect in favor of action-packed heists requiring cool cars. The result was a handful of highly entertaining, self-aware sequels that knew exactly what they were, ran with it and exceeded audience expectations. The over-the-top action and tongue-in-cheek self-awareness is certainly back in the eighth installment, and viewers should be reminded to park any sense of logic or critical thinking at the door, as the laws of physics do not apply to this film. Thankfully, this does not detract from the fact that The Fate of the Furious has surprisingly good entertainment value for an eighth installment, presenting the viewer with plenty of absurd action set pieces and humorous interactions that serve as the perfect backdrop for shoveling popcorn into your face. However, because we are this far along in a film series that never had much depth to begin with, what little plot the film does have gets stretched much too thin over the 136 minutes of runtime. This results in long segments of the film being rather dull with scenes that are inescapably reminiscent of something found in a soap opera in terms of dialogue and plot twists. As such, the film has a distinct lack of tension and peril, which is further felt due to the film makers having already shown parts of every major action sequence in the trailers, leaving few surprises in terms of just how crazy things get this time around.

As for the villain, Charlize Theron does a decent job playing a callous, calculating cyber terrorist; she might as well have been the main antagonist in a Bond movie, had they continued in the style associated with Pierce Brosnan’s turn as Bond, that is. Her motivations are those of your average sociopath with delusions of grandeur and a zest for world domination. As you would expect, this cookie cutter approach to the main villain removes some of the urgency from her plans, and the fact that she spends the vast majority of the film behind a keyboard ordering a reluctant Vin Diesel around only lessens her impact further as it makes her extremely disconnected from the rest of the cast and thereby any chance of feeling like a genuine threat.

After the seventh installment served as a farewell to Paul Walker after his tragic demise, fans of the franchise have voiced their concern about how this new installment would fare without him, and the dynamic of the team is severely affected by his absence. Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham have an amusing, hate-fueled bromance throughout the film, but this speaks more of their individual appeal as action stars and their onscreen chemistry than to the dynamic of the team as such. While Statham has to work with the team this time, giving him the chance to redeem past evildoings whilst building on an already established character, he never feels like an integrated part of the team. Scott Eastwood also joins the good guys as an uptight agent working for Kurt Russell’s Mr. Nobody, and while Eastwood does join the team on their missions, his character is not fleshed out enough to allow him any chance of fitting in with the rest of the group, thus resulting in the film having no clear indication as to who will fill the gap left by Walker.

There is certainly entertainment value to be found in the latest installment in the Fast & Furious franchise, but despite the action star credentials of several of its cast members and the outlandish nature of the action sequences, the end product is surprisingly bland. There is also a distinct lack of the structure that was present in the last couple of installments, just as Justin Lin’s flair for filming over-the-top action is sorely missed; while there appears to be plenty of well-choreographed fighting, the use of shaky cam is inexcusable as it completely ruins the sense of fight cohesion. Lastly, the self-awareness and the ridiculously silly scenarios these elements result in are at times taken to extremes that run the risk of going overboard and losing its audience. However, if you enjoy Vin Diesel being the main star of a ridiculously implausible action franchise, 2017 is indeed your year as this film continues in the same mediocre but fun vein as January’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage, and there are frankly worse things to subject yourself to in terms of action cinema.

Verdict: 6 out of 10.

Review: Raw

Raw

The timid Justine (Garance Marillier) is about to begin studying at the veterinary school where the rest of her veterinarian family has also studied. Aside from their choice of profession, another thing that runs in the family is vegetarianism, and Justine finds her lifestyle challenged when one of the relentless hazing rituals she is challenged to participate in at the school requires her to eat a raw rabbit kidney. When her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) – who is a senior at the school – scolds Justine for refusing to follow tradition, Justine reluctantly lets Alexia stuff the kidney into her mouth. Afterwards, she seemingly has an allergic reaction to the kidney, but as she continues to try to adjust to life at the school during the intense first week of pranks and rituals, she begins to feel a craving she has never felt before – a craving for raw flesh.

Whenever a film about cannibalism gets hyped because of audience members supposedly falling ill due to its gruesome visuals, there is always cause for concern. One concern is that the claims could be exaggerated or even completely unsubstantiated, and that the film’s marketing campaign is merely trying to take advantage of people’s willingness to throw their money at anything controversial. Another concern is that even if the feature in question actually contains genuinely shocking imagery, gore solely for the sake of gore not only has a tendency to get terribly tedious terribly quick, it can also be an indication of a poor script, which has only been covered in blood to hide its shortcomings in terms of compelling storytelling. While the yelps and gasps at my screening were indeed plentiful during the scenes containing various types of body horror, there is thankfully a lot more to Julia Ducournau’s debut as a feature film director than mere blood-spattered hype.

Although Raw is definitely not for the squeamish, it avoids falling victim to the tropes so often associated with the sub-genre of cannibalism-themed horror by having a story with very relatable human themes at its core. As much as the film is about the main character’s self-discovery in terms of her cannibalistic desires, the portrayal of this awakening is deeply intertwined with her self-discovery in terms of her sexuality and her independence. The defiance and conflict that comes along with Justine being a young woman on the cusp of adulthood makes it a highly fleshed out character portrayal with a meaty character arc, where the extremely intense environment she find herself in serves as the catalyst for her development. This is not only in terms of the very literal catalyst of the hazing ritual that requires her to eat a raw rabbit kidney, but also because of how this environment removes her from her comfort zone and forces her to interact with strangers and adapt to her new surroundings. Ducournau showcases her talent by brilliantly conveying the intensity of the school environment with stunning cinematography and a pounding sound design that forcibly pulls the viewer into the oppressive and aggressive atmosphere, creating an equally vivid and visceral cinematic experience.

The acting further sells not only the intense atmosphere, but also the human aspect of the story; Marillier and Rumpf work exceptionally well together, selling the premise and their connection as sisters as perfectly believable. This further adds a grounded nature to the horrific proceedings, as sibling rivalry gets taken to a new level with their relationship becoming increasingly animalistic, creating an intriguing portrayal of the subject matter. Their sparring is also dryly humorous at times, and it is this subtle use of humor as well as the hints of satire that gives the film a well-balanced tone that further helps to realistically sell its disturbing premise without becoming too self-serious.

It is rare for a film about a subject as highly taboo as cannibalism to be compelling, simply because the subject is so abstract that it can easily become too absurd to allow the viewer to genuinely immerse themselves in the story, especially when this involves emotionally investing in the cannibal rather than their victim. Ducournau’s tantalizing stew of deeply unpleasant body horror and various types of human self-discovery is therefore a remarkable effort, not only in terms of cannibal horror, but also from a purely cinematic standpoint, making it one of the better items on this year’s cinematic menu thus far.

Verdict: 10 out of 10.

Review: Free Fire

Free Fire

In 1978, the two Irishmen Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) have travelled to Boston, Massachusetts, to buy some weapons. With the inept and imbecilic duo Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) in tow as their questionable muscle, their contact Justine (Brie Larson) has arranged for them to meet the arms dealer in an abandoned factory. When the dealer’s effortlessly cool and overly smooth representative Ord (Armie Hammer) shows up late, the Irishmen are anything but impressed, but they agree to go along nonetheless. Once inside, they are introduced to the obnoxious and moronic arms dealer Vernon (Sharlto Copley) as well as his other associates, but as they begin to inspect the weapons, it becomes apparent that the arms dealer has not been entirely honest. The deal quickly and hilariously falls apart, and soon the motley crew of incompetent idiots are pitted against each other in a gritty fight for survival.

Contemporary action films have a tendency to want to be bigger and more fantastical than anything that has come before them in the genre. While this can be highly entertaining when all the aspects of film making come together perfectly, the result is more often than not a generic, bloated mess, which no amount of humongous action set pieces can save from the clutches of mediocrity. In the case of the action comedy Free Fire, Ben Wheatley has all but stripped anything resembling a plot from his and Amy Jump’s latest collaboration, confining the story to a clumsy shootout that plays out in real time in a restricted space. The result is a highly conceptual film that sheds any pretence of the seemingly invincible action hero that has been done to death. Instead, the characters of Free Fire are a hilariously incompetent bunch, whose inability to hit a target is for the most part so laughable that it almost makes Stormtroopers look like skilled marksmen.

Since the emphasis is on the concept more so than the plot, Wheatley carefully planned everyone’s placement on the set prior to shooting the film. Not only did this ensure that he always knew which characters needed to be where during filming, it also led to the setting of the film being fully realized as an environment where the filthy factory poses as much of a threat to the lives of the characters as the hapless shooting does. This intricate mapping also results in a highly structured film with a tight pace, where new elements are introduced at carefully paced intervals to keep the audience engaged for the full 90 minutes of the film. Utilizing the medium of cinema to its full extent, the lighting, color grading and score all help to emphasize the tone of the film, selling the time period well. The editing is also seamless, maintaining tension while also keeping track of the individual characters at all times. And the characters work perfectly for what they need to be, which is not only because of the witty and highly quotable writing, but also thanks to an ensemble cast whose skill ensures that the jokes continue to land as everyone increasingly deteriorates while the bullets fly around their ears.

Some have voiced their disappointment with the film on the basis that they were expecting something similar to Reservoir Dogs in terms of the tone of the film. Aside from the fact that both films are largely confined to very restricted sets and both have copious amounts of strong violence and foul language, one does wonder how the trailers and marketing has led anyone to feel misled, as Free Fire tonally has much more in common with the films of Shane Black than anything Quentin Tarantino has ever done. As an action comedy, Free Fire ticks all the right boxes as it expertly blends action and comedy, just as it is rare to see a high concept film succeed so well within its own confines. As such, the film is a refreshing mix of silly, gritty and conceptual that provokes plenty of laughs and gasps as it fumbles its way through its story like a delightfully bumbling cousin of last year’s The Nice Guys.

Verdict: 10 out of 10.

Review: Ghost in the Shell

GITS

In a future obsessed with cybernetic enhancements, Major (Scarlett Johansson) succumbs to the injuries she has suffered in a terrorist attack, but scientists manage to save her brain and place it in a manufactured body before her natural body perishes. Being the first of her kind, she joins Section 9, where she becomes the ultimate weapon in the fight against cyberterrorists who hack and control people’s minds. However, when a new enemy emerges and her memory begins to glitch and show her things from her past, Major questions the circumstances of her rebirth, and as the lines between good and bad increasingly blur, she suspects that perhaps her life was not saved, but instead stolen.

Live action adaptations of anime rarely cause anything but varying degrees of frustration, so it is understandable that most people familiar with the Ghost in the Shell manga and anime were apprehensive about this highly influential franchise getting the Hollywood treatment. The main focus of this particular adaptation is the 1995 animated feature Ghost in the Shell, although liberties have been taken to alter the storyline as this version is not a shot for shot remake, but instead borrows from other Ghost in the Shell storylines. Scarlett Johansson delivers a good performance as the Major, utilizing her more-human-than-human shtick to its full extent while also adding a subtle tinge of humanity to the character. Boasting stunning visuals, the film showcases both highly detailed production design and expert cinematography. In fact, the visuals are often so beautiful that it is easy to see how much inspiration the animated version took from Blade Runner, as the 2017 adaptation of Ghost in the Shell occasionally manages to mimic the atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece. This artistic paraphrasing is also prevalent in Lorne Balfe and Clint Mansell’s score; while Kenji Kawai’s breathtaking score from the original is sorely missed, Balfe and Mansell’s work is beautiful and haunting, ensuring that the tone of the new film remains similar to that of the original.

But the tone of the film is also what will make it a divisive experience for the audience; while fans of the 1995 original may find enjoyment in both the film’s tone as well as the recreation of many a stunning image, the uninitiated may not be equally entertained. This is in part due to how much the pacing begins to drag in the second half of the film; Rupert Sanders’ adaptation may get high marks for faithfulness in terms of the superficial elements, but the acting and the story are not engaging enough to elevate the film from beautiful mimicry to good storytelling. These issues are only exacerbated by the choice to dumb down the philosophical element of the film, as this choice detracts substantially from the overall experience, resulting in the film easily managing being passable, but never being anything near exceptional.

It is difficult to review this adaptation without commenting on the whitewashing aspect, as people have become increasingly aware of how problematic and culturally insensitive a lack of accurate representation is. Is whitewashing an issue in terms of the source material? No. Mamuro Oshii, the director of the 1995 original, has pointed out that Major is not subject to the confines of race because she is a cyborg. Is whitewashing an issue in terms of Hollywood casting standards? Yes. Scarlett Johansson as an individual is not the problem as such, as the responsibility for whitewashing rather lies with the production companies backing the film; while there are numerous Asian actresses who would undoubtedly have fit the requirements for the role of Major perfectly, they would not be anywhere near as high profile in the eyes of Western audiences as Johansson is, so the casting choice callously and expectedly boils down to profit. While increasing diversity would raise the profile of more non-white actors, we all know that money talks the same language as studio executives. As such, the production companies have clearly wished to cast someone with Johansson’s star power, as they perceive her to be reason enough alone for some cinema-goers to throw their money at the film. There are further points to be discussed in terms of the issue of whitewashing in relation to the live action adaptation of Ghost in the Shell, but delving into them here would result in dissecting plot twists of the film that some would consider spoilers. All in all, the good thing we can take from this discussion is that it will hopefully push Hollywood to reconsider how they go about casting films such as Ghost in the Shell in the future, as this film is guilty of whitewashing to such a degree that the tone deaf insensitivity is baffling.

Controversies aside, Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell is an admirable effort in terms of visuals and tone, but the choice to dumb down the highly compelling and intricate philosophy of the original leaves the viewer with the feeling that the film makers did not manage to fully implement the ghost into this whitewashed shell.

Verdict: 6 out of 10.

Review: Get Out

Get Out

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is about to visit his in-laws for the first time, but he is feeling apprehensive about the looming encounter. However, these are not your average jitters associated with meeting the parents of your significant other; Chris is anxious about meeting his in-laws because they are white and his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams), has yet to tell them that Chris is black. Upon arrival, his sense of unease only increases, not only because Rose’s parents are inadvertently alienating him as they awkwardly keep telling him how much they like black people, but also because something seems to be terribly wrong with the black groundskeeper and maid employed by the white family. After an intense impromptu therapy session conducted by Rose’s psychiatrist mother under the guise of wanting to help Chris quit smoking, things keep getting weirder and weirder, and Chris begins to wonder if he should just get the hell out of there.

Opening with an eerie scenario that draws obvious parallels to the tragic murder of African American teen Trayvon Martin, it instantly becomes clear that writer/director Jordan Peele – who is one half of comedy duo Key and Peele – is not afraid to address the nature of contemporary racism in his directorial debut. As the plot begins to unfold, the unease the main protagonist feels is rooted in his discomfort of being a black person surrounded exclusively by white people. Drawing on his own awkward experiences in such scenarios, Peele satirizes the ignorance of well-meaning white people by showcasing how their overcompensation in terms of reassuring Chris of their acceptance of him only proves that they see him as a skin color first and a human being second. What makes this approach particularly impactful is that these white people are not your average racist caricatures; they are the overbearing liberal elite who are unaware of their own hypocrisy. By avoiding the usual Hollywood tropes of portraying racism exclusively as either being a trademark of rabid sociopaths or as something that only happened in the past, Get Out’s portrayal of everyday racism is as fresh as it is relevant.

On top of the brilliantly satirical social commentary, Peele also manages to expertly increase the more conventional type of unease associated with the horror genre. As the film progresses, the ugly face of racism is not the only element that gets increasingly unpleasant, as the nature of the plot at the core of the film is also sinister to say the least. Without ever losing track of the overarching social themes, this plot is slowly unwrapped, tipping the film further and further from thriller territory into a more conventional type of horror. This is done by slowly increasing the sense of danger and the frequency of the scares that come along with the genre. While the scares are generally rather conventional, they are largely effective and never veer into ridiculousness, resulting in a very well-balanced end product. The genre, storytelling and pacing are not alone in being well-balanced either, as the actors showcase their skills with solid acting performances all around. LilRel Howery in particular steals every scene he is in as the best friend that an anxious Chris repeatedly calls, only to receive hilarious advice that lightens the mood for both Chris and the audience at welcome intervals. All in all, nothing about the production value of Get Out ever gives away that the film was made with a modest budget of $4.5 million.

What sets Get Out apart from most modern horror is not only how it seamlessly blends satire and horror together in a way that makes the two elements elevate each other, it is also the fact that the story is told from the perspective of people of color, an underrepresented demographic in terms of mainstream horror. As a result, Get Out is an original, tense and sharply satirical horror film that not only is noteworthy contribution to the horror genre, but also bodes well for Peele’s future efforts as a film maker.

Verdict: 9 out of 10.