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‘A Trip to Italy’: Stale leftovers from a lousy meal

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media

“A Trip to Italy” is a follow-up to “The Trip.” Both films were cobbled together from episodes of a BBC television sitcom series, directed by Michael Winterbottom. They each starred Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as fictionalized versions of themselves.

The original set of shows was televised in 2010. They were premised on the notion that actor, Steve Coogan, had accepted a commission from London’s “The Observer” magazine to go on a tour of restaurants in the north of England and write about it. He undertakes the gig, principally to impress his gourmet girlfriend, Mischa, and spend time with her. Before they depart, Mischa breaks up with Coogan. To fill the void, rather than go alone, Coogan reluctantly invites fellow entertainer and quasi-friend, Rob Brydon.

During the tour, the newly single Coogan has a series of casual sexual trysts. Brydon is not nearly as much of a star. Moreover, he is a rather unattractive fellow, short with pock-marked skin and a grossly oversized jaw, Coogan resents the fact that Brydon is nevertheless far more comfortable in his skin that he is.

Throughout the film, the two bicker. They are engaged in an ongoing battle of improvised, petty one-upmanship. Each does competing impressions of Michael Caine and Sean Connery. The film provides only ephemeral moments of respite from their ongoing battles.

To satisfy viewers, who hadn’t had enough of this interminable squabbling, another set of shows was broadcast on British television during 2014. This time around, Coogan and Brydon are commissioned by “The Observer” to jointly follow in the footsteps of Lord Byron and other 19th century English Romantic poets through Italy. They will stay in six different places, Liguria, Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi, then end up in Capri. In each location, Coogan and Brydon savor delicious meals, all the while continuing their obnoxious arguments. Once again, they reprise their dueling impressions of Michael Caine and other celebrities. How many times do I need to hear them? When Coogan confides the fact that he committed adultery to a female friend, he does so in the voice of Hugh Grant. So, even when confessing to an intemperate act, Brydon can’t resist doing schtick. How pathetic!

The contentious dynamic between Coogan and Brydon was first manifested in “Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story,” a 2005 film, which was also directed by Michael Winterbottom. The plot involved the quixotic efforts to adapt Laurence Sterne’s essentially unfilmable novel, “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.” Their passive-aggressive shenanigans were supposed to be funny.

In an interview Coogan explained that he and Brydon exaggerated, “the aspects of ourselves that help the comedy … I like playing with the fact that it might be me, to give it a bit more edge. So some of the conversations with Rob are funny, but some of them are very uncomfortable. They’re sort of genuine arguments. It’s a sort of an exaggeration of real life.”

I don’t know what Coogan and Brydon are like in real life. Could they really be anywhere near as unbearably passive-aggressive as their on-screen personae? Throughout his career, Coogan has portrayed a litany of smug, solipsistic, self-absorbed characters, most notably Alan Parsons. You know that a film is in trouble when Coogan’s character isn’t the most annoying one in a given film. Yet in “A Trip to Italy” and their other collaborations, Brydon is vying for this dubious distinction.

Both Coogan and Brydon might be euphemistically described as acquired tastes. Suffice it to say that it is a taste that I have not yet acquired. For that matter, I can’t imagine that I ever will.

The film captures the stunning scenery of Italy, especially those sites on the Tyrrhenian Sea. Scenes featuring the preparation of indigenous cuisine will make your mouth water. If the filmmakers edited out every scene with Coogan or Brydon in it, they would have a nice 20-minute spot for the Italian Tourism Board. However, as a feature length film, “A Trip to Italy” is a thoroughly annoying entity.

Despite the inclusion of delicious looking repasts, narratively “A Trip to Italy” is akin to stale leftovers from a lousy meal.

* ½ No MPAA rating 108 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

 

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‘Life After Beth’ zany zombie film

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FILM REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNE/For 21st Century Media

Once upon a time, zombie films were a subset of the horror genre. They were invariably scary. After all, who wants to be devoured by a walking cadaver?

However, these days, zombie films take many forms, even the comedic.  Such is the case with the new release, “Life After Beth.”

As the film opens, Beth Slocum (Aubrey Plaza from television’s “Parks and Recreation”) is very much alive. The robust young woman is hiking alone through Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. The flick segues to her funeral, where it is revealed that she died from a fluke snake bite.

Her boyfriend, Zach Orfman (Dane DeHaan, the Green Goblin in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”) is consumed with grief. Zach’s own parents (Paul Reiser, Cheryl Hines) seem unable to relate to his sense of bereavement.

So, Zach begins to regularly visit Beth’s dad, Maury (John C. Reilly) and mom, Geenie (Molly Shannon) to commiserate with them. He begins to become close with them, particularly Beth’s dad. The two play chess and smoke marijuana together. Zach expresses his sense of guilt that he had routinely rejected the various activities, which Beth suggested that they do together. This included turning down her invitation to join her on the fatal hike. He also confides that shortly before her death, the relationship had become rocky. Beth had suggested that they start seeing other people.

Abruptly, Beth’s parents stop answering the door when Zach stops by. Moreover, they won’t accept his telephone calls any more. Naturally, Zach is hurt and confused by the Slocum’s sudden and inexplicable remoteness.

Eager to resolve this conundrum, Zach returns to the Slocum’s home. Peering through the living room window, he sees Beth. What is going on? He bangs on the door until Maury answers. Of course, Maury insists that Zach is mistaken and vehemently disclaims that Beth is alive.

Zach visits Beth’s gravesite. He sees a big, empty hole there, devoid of any corporeal remains. Apparently, Beth has dug herself out of her subterranean repose. Now revived, Beth has no recollection of ever having died. She also doesn’t recall that she had broken up with Zach and regards herself as still very much in love with him.

Initially, Zach is elated by Beth’s return. However, he learns that Beth’s persona has been transmogrified. Now, she has wild mood swings and is often subject to violent outbursts. Moreover, Beth is now suffused with a ravenous appetite for human flesh. She also consumes the upholstery in Zachary’s car.

It turns out that Beth’s resurrection is not an isolated aberration. A deceased mailman, Zach’s dead grandfather, and various other long-gone characters start showing up. Their behavior is also bizarre.

“Life After Beth” has some laugh out loud moments. When Zach suggests that the Slocum’s recently fired Haitian housekeeper, Pearline (Eva La Dare), might be responsible for making zombies, Maury shoots back dismissively, “Pearline couldn’t even make a bed.” Undaunted, Zach visits her family’s home. She is long gone. When Zach wonders aloud whether Pearline could have been responsible for the sudden increase in zombie sightings, an unspecified family member responds through the screen door with indignation. He challenges whether Zach thinks that all Haitians practice voodoo. It is a well-constructed vignette. It is unfortunate that the film doesn’t have more of them.

“Life After Beth” boasts a committed performance by Plaza. She captures Beth’s myriad mood permutations. Plaza and her co-protagonist, DeHaan, exhibit a nice chemistry together. Paralleling all the zany zombie shenanigans, their characters seem to genuinely care about one another.

Films like “Life After Beth” aren’t necessarily intended to be illuminative or didactic. They don’t always impart any grand message. However, I couldn’t help taking one away from this film. Just because two people love one another, doesn’t mean that they have any chance of a compatible romantic relationship. If you are a human, sustaining a love affair with a zombie is a hopelessly futile aspiration.

“Life After Beth” is intermittently amusing. The lead performances are engaging. Jeff Baena co-wrote the stellar screenplay for “I Heart Huckabee” with director, David O. Russell. Alas, he comes up short here. In his directorial debut, Baena is plagued by his own screenplay. It reflects a poor synergy between its narrative elements and persistently disconcerting tonal shifts. As a result, “Life After Beth” is a marginally entertaining and decidedly uneven film.

**1/2  R (for  pervasive language, some horror violence, sexual content, nudity and brief drug use) 90 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

 

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‘Frank’: Quirky comedy has serious undertones

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media

Before I tell you the premise of “Frank,” please allow me to advise you that this Anglo-Celtic film has some endearing qualities. If I tell you the farfetched premise at the outset, you may surmise that the film is unduly farfetched and twee. You may understandably rule out ever seeing it. That was my initial inclination.

The eponymous character of Frank (Michael Fassbender) is the lead singer of an underground rock quintet. He has attracted a cadre of similarly quixotic musicians; Clara (Maggie Gyllenhall); who plays the theremin (is that a sufficiently obscure instrument for you?); bassist, Baraque (Francois Civil); drummer, Nana (Carla Axar); and a soon-to-depart keyboardist. Don (Scott McNairy) is the band’s verbose manager. They all regard Frank as a musical visionary and genius. However, it remains unclear how they have all reached this fervent belief.

This is less of a band than a cult, which is devoted to worshipping Frank and remaining obscure at all costs. To begin with, the name of the band is Soronprfbs. Don’t worry reader-your eyes haven’t gone out of focus. That’s right-the name of the band is Soronprfbs. As becomes evident midway through the film, no one in the band even knows how this oddball, vowel-challenged name should be pronounced. None of them seem to think that is a big deal that they never bothered to decide on this salient element of brand development. Francophones, Baraque and Nana, don’t speak English and no one in the band is conversant in French.

I haven’t reached the strangest part of the film’s set-up yet. Although Frank has inspired the adulation of his bandmates and manager, he has a certain foible. Frank wears a spheroidal, papier-mâché head. It features a well-ventilated design and is equipped with built-in microphone, which renders him audible. The carapace is replete with unblinking eyes and a fixed grin permanently plastered on it. Is this a stage prop, which is worn only at gigs, in the gimmicky world of popular entertainment? Nope-none of his colleagues have ever seen Frank’s face. Is Frank obfuscating a deformed or disfigured visage? None of them seems to think that it is a relevant question. Frank forgoes the ingestion of solid food. He subsists on liquid potions, which he imbibes through a straw. Whenever Frank takes a shower, he dons a clear plastic bag to prevent his papier-mâché head from getting soaked. It remains unclear how Frank he can brush his teeth, wash his face, or scratch an itch beneath the surface of his artificial head. Is this a mere oddity or evidence of clear mental illness?

The film’s P.O.V. is provided by Jon (Domhnall Gleeson). He is a ginger-haired office drone. He is an aspiring songwriter, who cranks out incomplete jingles on his Casio player. Jon evidences much more in the way of appetite for popularity than any substantive talent.

One day, Jon is out for a walk to the beach. He observes a pair of ploicemenrescuing a man, who has attempted to drown himself. The Soronprfbs posse stands nearby. It turns out that the man just pulled from the surf, is the band’s depressed keyboardist. Jumping on the opportunity, Jon volunteers that he can play the keyboard. The band’s manager asks whether he can play C, F and G. When Jon responds that he can play these perfunctory chords, he is hastily hired to play at a gig on the following night. No rehearsals are involved. The gig proves to be a total disaster.

Afterwards, Jon joins the band for a jaunt to Ireland. He assumes that it is for another isolated gig. Accordingly, he packs a single pair of spare slacks and calls his supervisor to advise him that he will miss a day of work. However, when he arrives at a remote cabin complex, he learns that the band is going to record an avant-garde concept album. They will allocate as much time as necessary to complete it.

As he amply demonstrated in last year’s “About Time,” Domhnall Gleeson has an eminently likable screen presence. The son of acclaimed Irish actor, Brendan Gleeson, he provides the audience with a character with whom they can identify. At the epicenter of the film is the fact that Clara, Baraque, and Nana are intensely hostile to Jon, without any provocation. The three of them are constitutionally disagreeable jerks. They contrast with Jon, who persistently exudes an upbeat enthusiasm and kindness. Jon’s surreptitious tweeting about the band provides them with an unexpected booking at SXSW. This represents a huge opportunity for the band. Instead of eliciting their gratitude, Jon’s efforts buttress the trio’s antipathy toward him. Do they resent him simply for having a pragmatic agenda?

The film is immersed in the microcosm of those afflicted with mental illness. Jon is the isolated member of the core cast, who appears to be sane. He seems to be extremely well-grounded, albeit eager for recognition. Don insists that Frank is the sanest person he has ever met. However, Don reveals that he had been involuntarily committed for his psychiatric condition. Does his assessment of Frank’s sanity have any credibility? Clara is consumed with a constant psychopathological rage and is subject to volatile outbursts. However, Clara is nevethleless flabbergasted when Jon questions her about any history of institutionalization. Baraque and Nana are also steeped in irrationality. Then, there is Frank himself. What is the putative relationship between his creativity and his eccentricity?

Two of the film’s best vignettes take place successively near its denouement. The scenes have fundamentally different tones.  They both take place as a result of Jon’s good-hearted, well-intentioned efforts to track down Frank, after he has seemingly experienced a nervous breakdown. Jon visits the home of Frank’s parents in Bluff, Kansas.

The conceit in the comedic scene is that Jon has never seen Frank’s visage. He approaches a thirtyish man standing on the lawn, whom he assumes to be Frank. Jon launches into a heartfelt soliloquy with the man. The befuddled guy advises Jon that his name isn’t Frank. He’s just a tree surgeon there to provide an estimate for the homeowners.

This is typical of the film’s effective use of every day characters for grounding. In addition to the tree surgeon (Travis Hammer), there are Jon’s doting parents (Moira Booker, Paul Butterworth), a German vacationer (Rosalind Archer), two helpful SXSW administrative aides (Hayley Derryberry, Lauren Poole), an attractive television interviewer (Katie Anne Mitchell), a diner in a Chinese restaurant (Dean Satriano), and a hillbilly, who is totally oblivious to the Frank cult phenomenon (Kevin Wiggins). Collectively, they provide a studied contrast to the film’s untethered characters and their jaundiced attitudes.

The film then pivots adroitly to one its most poignant scenes. It involves Frank’s parents (Tess Harper, Bruce McIntosh). They describe Frank’s past psychological struggles. This provides a sobering perspective on the issue of mental illness.

Frank is inspired by the late English musician, Chris Sievey. He fronted for the group, The Freshies, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. He later developed a stand-up comedy routine under the stage name of Frank Sidebottom. Sievey wore a giant head, evocative of the one featured in the film. However, there are significant differences between Sievey and the film’s protagonist. Sievey only wore the head at gigs not as a constant anatomical addendum. Unlike the protagonist, he did not eschew commercial success, but seemed quite intent upon courting it. Although Sievey may have had his foibles, there is little to suggest that he suffered from overt mental illness. Based on his days as a keyboardist in Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band, Jon Ronson wrote  a  memoir. Along with Peter Straughan, Ronson also co-wrote the film’s screenplay, which adopts a contemporary setting.

Much of the film involves a one-joke set-up, which is played for broad laughs. “Frank” often devolves into silliness and gratuitous absurdity.

At other junctures, the film embodies an unexpected earnestness. It frankly, if fleetingly, examines the relationship between mental illness and the creative process. A winning performance by Domhnall Gleeson might be the film’s greatest attribute. These mitigating virtues make “Frank” worth seeing.

*** R (for language and some sexual content) 95 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lerner prose@gmail.com.

 

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‘Game Stands Tall’: Formulaic, but entertaining

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media

Football winning streaks are a noteworthy phenomenon. The New England Patriots have the NFL record with 21 consecutive regular season victories. The Oklahoma Sooners have the collegiate record with 47 straight regular season wins.  The De La Salle High School Spartans eclipsed both streaks by a wide margin. Over the course of twelve seasons, from 1992 through 2004, the Bay Area team won 151 consecutive games.

The Spartans were coached by Bob Ladouceur (Jim Caviezel), who is the film’s central figure. The film depicts Coach Ladouceur as a soft-spoken, benevolent, and high-minded individual.

“When the Game Stands Tall” is inspired by the 2003 book of the same name by Neil Hayes. He covered the Spartans as a sports journalist with the “Contra Costa Times.” Hayes followed the team for practices, meetings, and games during their undefeated 2002 season. His book is limited in scope to the period before the streak ended.

“When the Game” opens with the Spartans annihilating an overmatched  opponent to win its 11th straight California state championship. It places the viewer in the position of rooting for Goliath to smite David, the puny little shepherd boy, who was too small to even don armor.

However, the cinematic version of “When the Game Stands Tall” uses the winning streak principally as a back story. The vast bulk of the film takes place after the streak is abruptly ended. It focuses on the team’s losing skein and their efforts to get back on track.

Of course, since this is a sports film, the team must overcome adversity. Coach Ladouceur suffers a crippling heart attack after furtively smoking a cigarette. Are we really supposed to believe that Coach Ladouceur indulged in a single isolated cigarette? How will the team fare while their putatively saint-like coach is recuperating?

“When the Game Stands Tall” also depicts the off-field struggles of several players. The team’s star running back (Alexander Ludwig) is routinely bullied by his overbearing blowhard of a father (Clancy Brown, essentially reprising his role from “Friday Night Lights”). In a dubious act of achieving an unfair competitive disadvantage, De La Salle  busses two Afro-American players (Stephan James, Jessie Usher) cross-town to their campus. Will their athletic heroics enable them to earn collegiate scholarships and escape the ghetto? Then, there is the coach’s son, Danny (Matthew Daddario), a receiver on the team. Their father-son relationship is at odds with their coach-player dynamic.

The film persistently asserts that Ladouceur was far more interested in molding the characters of his players than winning football games.  Forgive my cynicism, but I do not believe that a coach can sustain a 151-game winning streak without focusing obsessively on the actual outcome of games.

Viewers should also be forewarned that this sanitized PG vehicle is a not-so-subtle Christian movie. It is co-produced by Affirm Films, a division of Sony Pictures. They are involved with making faith-based flicks. Previously, they made “Facing the Giants,” another flick about a high-school football team, which also embodied strong religious overtones. At one juncture, a player matter-of-factly declares that he and his girlfriend have take a purity pledge.

The iconography of this film is at times repugnant.  De La Salle High School is an elite, private Roman Catholic High School. The camera frequently flashes on Jesucentric imagery, which festoons the school’s hallways. The film seems to subliminally suggest that God is on the side of the Spartans because their coaches and players are more devout. Assuming arguendo there is a Supreme Being, who governs the universe, somehow I suspect that he has more important things to worry about than which high school football team wins a given game.

The film makes a point of establishing that Coach Ladouceur also teaches a class in religion. He is fond of quoting Matthew 23:12 for inspiration. For those whose memory of the New Testament is a tad rusty, the section exhorts, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled.” This Biblical text is used as a rationale for a pivotal on-field stratagem.

If you didn’t know otherwise, watching Jim Caviezel in this film, you would swear that he is portraying a zombie. Soft-spoken? No-this guy is more like a walking dead. Once again, Caviezel’s performance is preternaturally devoid of emotion.  Caviezel considers it sinful to kiss or touch a woman other than his wife. That is certainly his prerogative. However, it seems incongruous that he never kisses or hugs his screen wife, portrayed by Laura Dern. It makes their relationship seem emotionally distant and detached.

“When the Game Stands Tall” is cloyingly sentimental and manipulative. The film’s moral formulations are deeply disturbing. The blatant product placement for Dick’s Sporting Goods brings the film’s earnestness into question.

However, the film does present some exciting game footage. If you can get past its numerous flaws, “When the Game Stands Tall” is a reasonably entertaining, albeit formulaic, sports flick.

** 1/2  PG (for thematic material, a scene of violence, and brief smoking) 115 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

 

 

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‘As Above’: Unintentionally funny horror

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER /For 21st Century Media

Invoking found footage as a conceit, “As Above, So Below” is premised on the battle between mortals and supernatural forces. It centers on Scarlet (Perdita Weeks).

With a polished British accent, Scarlet touts her academic pedigree. She has a masters degree, two doctorates, speaks four current languages, and is versed in two dead languages. Did I neglect to mention that Scarlet also has a black belt in Krav Maga? Imagine, if you will, Laura Croft with less pronounced cleavage and a bigger brain.

What do you suppose is Scarlet’s putative purview of academic expertise-would you believe alchemy? It is true that alchemy has long been discredited as a bogus pseudo-science. However, once upon a time, it was accepted as a legitimate and influential discipline. Its adherents included Sir Isaac Newton-yes that Isaac Newton-you know, the guy, who first propounded the concept of gravity. Sir Robert Boyle, who is hailed as the father of modern chemistry, was also a prominent alchemist. His involvement antedated the bifurcation of alchemy and chemistry into two altogether separate scholarly paradigms.

Through most of its history, alchemy conflated elements of magic, religion, medicine, cosmology, mythology, and spiritualism.  Alchemists sought to discover the so-called Philosopher’s Stone. They believed that this would enable them to ferret out a universal solvent, the elixir of life, and the formula to transmute base metals into gold.  With the advent of modern science, the Hermetic principles of alchemy fell from favor in intellectual circles.

That doesn’t stop Scarlet. She remains in fervent pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. Scarlet is following in her father’s footsteps. Her dad had been a leading authority on the history of alchemy, who eventually committed suicide. As one character suggests, studying alchemy is a pathway to madness.

In an early vignette, Scarlet sneaks into Iran. There, amidst dropping bombs, she crawls though an underground passageway to study the inscription on an ancient carving. In the process, Scarlet risks not only her own life, but the life of a married man with children. It turns out that her machinations also led to the imprisonment of a close colleague, George (Ben Feldman from television’s “Mad Men”). She abandons him to languish in a Turkish jail.

Scarlet decides that the secret of the Philosopher’s Stone lies in the catacombs of Paris. These ossuaries hold the remains of an estimated six million people.

Since Scarlet has not mastered Aramaic, she desperately needs someone to translate some inscriptions written in this particular dead language. It just so happens that George is working in Paris. He is an expert in Aramaic, so Scarlet tries to entice him to help her. Big surprise-George is still stewing over the fact that Scarlet abandoned him to rot in a Turkish jail. Understandably, he wants nothing to do with her.

Somehow, despite George’s vehement protestations, Scarlet convinces him to join the expedition. In addition to George and Scarlet’s American cameraman, Benjie (Edward Hodges), she recruits a trio of Parisian cataphiles, Papillon (Francois Civil), Souxie (Marion Lambert), and Zed (Ali Marhyar). They will serve as guides for the outing.

“As Above, So Below” is the first film to ever make use of the off-limits section of the Parisian Catacombs. It employs them quite effectively to infuse a strong sense of a spooky atmosphere. However, the screenplay itself offers little else new to recommend the film. For a vastly superior subterranean flick, which involves survival against adversity, I recommend “The Descent” for your consideration.

“As Above, So Below” does have its share of laugh out loud moments. Unfortunately, I do not believe that any of them were intended by the filmmakers. One of the funniest involves the recurring sound of a telephone, which rings intermittently in the catacombs. Is it an auditory illusion? The group eventually discovers a rotary telephone, sitting on a nicely preserved wooden stand. Why did the telephone company install a telephone in the catacombs? How is the telephone still operative? How is the wooden stand still in good condition, notwithstanding the moist environment of the catacombs? To me, the most confounding question of all is who would be calling? Is someone ordering a pizza from the bowels of the catacombs?  I think that the filmmakers missed a golden opportunity for product placement. Wouldn’t Comcast or Verizon have welcomed the opportunity to advertise their latest promotion in conjunction with the incongruously situated telephone?

If you are adverse to  the prospect of bats; rats; enclosed spaces; crawling through human skeletal remains; wading through waist-deep, stagnant water; subterranean cave-ins; centuries-old curses; spooky creatures; herky-jerky camera work; or, worse of all, being trapped underground with an overbearing female, who is obsessed with alchemy; you would be well-advised to skip this film. On the other hand, if you take a certain perverse pleasure in watching a schlocky horror film, laced with unintentional humor, “As Above, So Below” might just fit the bill.

**1/2 R (for bloody violence/terror, and language throughout) 93 minutes

 

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

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‘November Man’: Timely spy thriller

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REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media 

Daily headlines trumpet the massing of Russian troops on the Ukranian border and bellicose quotes from Vladimir Putin, which are evocative of the supposedly thawed out Cold War. Could there be a more propitious time for a film which uses the revival of Russo-American tensions as a narrative spine?

“The November Man” is based on the best seller, “There Are No Spies,” the seventh in Bill Granger’s series. In 2005, Pierce Brosnan ended his run as James Bond. He and his business partner, Beau St. Clair, through their Irish DreamTime production company, purchased the screen rights to the property. The project languished for years until being revived for principal photography last year.

In a prologue, we meet Peter Devereux (Brosnan), a highly-trained C.I.A. agent. He is well-known for his aversion to forming personal relationships, for fear that they might undermine his success. As he glibly tells his protégé, David Mason (Luke Bracey), “If you want a relationship, buy a dog.”

Devereaux is running a pressure-packed operation in Montenegro. Things go awry, when Mason disregards orders and succumbs to an ill-considered impulse. As a consequence, an innocent young bystander is fatally shot by a sniper’s bullet.

Fast forward five years to Lausanne, Switzerland. There, Devereaux runs a small mountain inn and raises his school-age daughter Lucy (Tara Jevrosimovic) as a solo parent.

One day, his quiet modus vivendi is interrupted by a blistering visitor out of his past. It’s Hanley (Bill Smitorvich), a high-ranking C.I.A. official. As Hanley details, the saber-rattling Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski), has been elected President-elect of Russia. He has a dark history stemming from his atrocities during the Second Chechen War.  The U.S. has decided that it is in their strategic interests to expose his venal misdeeds.

A C.I.A. double agent,  Natalia Ulanova (Mediha Musliovic) has infiltrated Federov’s inner circle. She has collected proof of his war crimes in Chechnya. This is deemed invaluable by the C.I.A. However, Natalia will only provide the evidence if the C.I.A. extracts her. Although Natalia has been advised that Devereaux has retired, she nevertheless demands that he be the one to extract her. Why is she so insistent about this?

With K.G.B. officials in hot pursuit, Devereaux and Natalia speed through the streets of Moscow. Overhead, a C.I.A. drone monitors their progress and provide real time updates to Hanley. Before they can escape, Natalia is shot in the head. Who is the assassin? Devereaux and his former trainee, Mason, have a tense and unexpected encounter in the street. Ignoring protocol, neither shoots the other.

Before she was shot, Natalia gives Devereaux the name of Alice Fournier (Olga Kurylenko, coincidentally a Bond girl in “Quantum of Silence” opposite Brosnan’s successor, Daniel Craig). Here, she portrays a social worker in Belgrade, Serbia. She works with some of the girls, who Federov had sold into the sex slave industry during the Chechen conflict. Devereaux is particularly intent on tracking down a woman, named Mira, who Federov had used as his personal sex slave, when she was a 15-year old orphan.

Federov has tasked his top assassin, Alexa (Amila Terzimehic) with terminating Mira before she can divulge any embarrassing secrets. Terzimehic demonstrates exceptional limberness and grace, while exuding memorable screen presence.  In addition, it becomes apparent that there is a mole in the C.I.A. Could it be the agency’s director, Perry Weinstein (Will Patton). It is also unclear what Mason’s agenda is. Another wild card is Denisovic (Dragan Marinkovic), who was previously in the sex trade business with Federov. Is he still collaborating with Federov or has he also been targeted for elimination? Against this backdrop of uncertainty, Devereaux must convince Fournier to divulge Mira’s unknown whereabouts, so he can extract her before she is killed.

I was taken aback by how much I enjoyed “November Man.” I am not generally a fan of Pierce Brosnan. To me, he was an unmitigated disaster as James Bond. If he wasn’t the most egregiously miscast actor to play the role (there is George Lazenby to account for, after all), he is undoubtedly the worst to portray Agent 007 in multiple films. He was far too effete and lacked the requisite physicality to essay the role. I still cringe at the memory of Brosnan in “Die Another Day,” unconvincingly simulating a superannuated surfboy. He was obviously standing in front of a blue screen, not offshore North Korea. (Retrospective note to screenwriters: The Korean peninsula is blocked from oceanic swells by the island of Japan).Yet, here is Brosnan at 61, nine years after his last Bond portrayal, playing a similar spy character with surprising efficacy.

“The November Man” is a taut spy thriller with a surprisingly effective lead performance by an unlikely actor. Director, Roger Donaldson (“No Way Out”) does another good job of bringing the script by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek to the screen.

Production values are solid. The cinematography by Romain Lacoubas and score by Marco Beltrami are both noteworthy. Olga  Korylenko’s looks are initially played down. However, for a pivotal scene, make-up and costume design transform her into a stunning beauty. Locations in the Serbian Danube were well scouted to provide a strong sense of time and place.

“November Man” offers a compelling perspective on East-West geopolitical conflict and spycraft in the 21st century as the Cold War heats up yet again.

*** R (for rape, profanity, sexuality, nudity, graphic violence and brief drug use) 108 minutes

Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose@gmail.com.

 

 

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