I watch a lot of movies: good, bad, indifferent; all genres; English and non-English speaking; and, occasionally, I write a few comments about those I enjoyed. Here are six mini-reviews, in no particular order. The percentage/numerical ratings in the title fields are from the review-aggregation website, Rotten Tomatoes (where I look for 60% or higher), and the internet movie database, IMDb (where I look for 6.0 or higher). Movies for Movie Buffs: Index lists all my reviews so far posted.
73. 7 Prisoners (7 Prisioneiros), Crime/Drama, Director Alexandre Moratto, 2021 Brazil, 98%/7.2
When talk turns to trafficking and modern slavery, we mostly think of young girls forced into prostitution by sex traffickers. Lured by promises of a better life performing house duties in a loving home, the girls are whisked away over borders, deprived of their passports (‘I just need it to complete some paperwork. You’ll get it back.’) and thrust into the world of squalid teenage prostitution and worse. 7 Prisoners is about modern-day slavery but, in this case, of seven young men forced to work in a scrap-metal yard run by an unscrupulous yardmaster. The first group of four, led by 18-year-old Mateus (Christian Malheiros), wave goodbye to their families in rural Catanduva, board a minibus, and travel to a metal reclaiming yard in São Paulo where they are met by a grim-looking yardmaster, Luca (Rodrigo Santoro), who introduces them to their dormitory, lunchroom, workshop, work details and then calmly says, ‘I need your documents. Did you bring IDs?’ ‘May I ask why, Mr. Luca?’ asks Mateus. ‘For the paperwork,’ comes the reply. And so it starts. The four young men find they are locked in the compound guarded at the gate by an armed enforcer. When they demand their freedom, they are deprived of their cell phones and informed they owe Luca a large amount of money to cover the advance to their families, recruiter’s fee, transportation, lodging, food, and equipment and tools and that they need to work to pay it off before they can leave. When one of the young men threatens to just run off, he is told ‘We know where your family lives. We’ll pay them a visit.’
So far, this is classic entrapment and slavery but the story becomes interesting when Mateus realises that the only possible path to freedom is to gain the trust of Luca and, in effect, become an assistant yardmaster. How he does this and the consequences on his relationship with the other young men, now swollen to seven in number by the arrival of three new recruits, makes up the second half of the film and raises many ethical questions about loyalty, survival, and corruption. 7 Prisoners, based on considerable research and survivor interviews, is a raw commentary on what goes on in the underbellies of large third-world cities.
74. Blue Bayou, Drama, Director Justin Chon, 2021 USA, 77%/7.1
Prior to the year 2000 in the United States, registering the US citizenship of adopted non-US babies and young children born in another country was a haphazard affair. Although the US adopting parents were required to register the adoption in the country of adoption, many failed to complete the registration process in the US state of residence. This left adoptees vulnerable to US laws of deportation and in an attempt to solve the problem, the US government passed the federal Child Citizenship Act of 2000 which gave automatic US citizenship to any non-US adopted child under the age of 18. But not those over the age of 18, including Korean adoptees dating back to the US’s involvement in the Korean War in the early 1950s and subsequent maintenance of a military presence. The American Adoptee Rights Campaign estimates that 20% of 112,000 Korean children adopted by American adopters since the 1960s are not legally American citizens and therefore at risk of deportation. That’s 22,400 at-risk Korean aliens in the USA and there are examples of individual deportations.
Writer/director/actor Justin Chon, himself of Korean descent, has crafted a fictional story around one such case. Antonio LeBlanc, played by Justin Chon, is a middle-aged Korean adoptee living with his pregnant wife, Kathy (Alicia Vikander), and stepdaughter Jessie (Sydney Kowalske) on the banks of a bayou in Louisiana, struggling to make ends meet. Antonio has a low-level criminal record which prevents him from securing a full-time job. He earns money as a part-time tattooist. Enter Ace (Mark O’Brien), Kathy’s vindictive ex-husband and biological father of Jessie. Ace is a local New Orleans Police Department law enforcement officer and he resents the strong stepfather-stepdaughter relationship between Antonio and Jessie and thus the stage is set for Ace to manipulate an act that causes Antonio to come to the attention of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
What follows could have been maudlin, appealing only to a Mills & Boon audience who enjoy a good tearjerker, but the story is lifted into high drama by the acting skills of the two stars, Chon and Vikander. You may still need a tissue or two but fictional stories such as these highlight the plight of real people in the USA and a new US act, the Adoptee Citizenship Act of 2021, is in development which, if and when passed, will ‘grant automatic citizenship to all qualifying international adoptees adopted by a U.S. citizen parent, regardless of the date the adoption was finalized or the entering visa.’
Give Blue Bayou a viewing but check the legality of your own citizenship first, just in case!
75. Coming Home in the Dark, Thriller/Horror, Director James Ashcroft, 2020 New Zealand, 92%/5.7
Coming Home in the Dark would be an average psychological revenge-horror movie were it not for the performance of Daniel Gillies as Mandrake, one of the two seemingly homeless vagrants who accost school teacher Hoaggie (Erik Thomson), his wife, Jill (Miriama McDowell), and their two teenage sons just after they have settled down for an off-road picnic somewhere in a remote part of New Zealand. Mandrake’s quiet but menacing appearance at the picnic site accompanied by his sullen enforcer sidekick, Tubs (Matthias Luafutu), seems to be random but, like a finely-constructed onion, each utterance and action reveals an inner layer to the story which finally unravels to reveal… well, I’ll let you find out. Be aware that the violence, when it comes, is shocking and Daniel Gillies’ characterisation of Mandrake is menace-acting at its finest, especially when he speaks, although there will be moments when you will be sympathetic with his revelations.
The Rotten Tomatoes’ critics have used words like utterly chilling, evil, menacing, charismatic, relentless, riveting, provocative, tense and terrifying to describe the vagrant protagonists and twists and turns of the storyline. All these adjectives fit director James Ashcroft’s careful crafting and editing of each scene, and cinematographer Matt Henley’s eye for New Zealand’s remote wilderness. Background music is sparse, just three atmospheric soundtrack occasions. Ashcroft uses the natural sounds of automobiles on highways, nature in the wild, and the breathing rhythms of the actors to convey ambient accompaniment to what the eye and brain are absorbing on the screen. It’s simple, effective and, at times, highly suspenseful.
Coming Home in the Dark is not for the faint-hearted.
76. Complicit, TV Drama, Director Niall MacCormick, 2013 UK, -/6.2
In 1967, philosopher Phillipa Foot posed the ethical dilemma known as the trolley or train problem. Here it is, slightly modified by me: You are standing at the junction of a train track where the single track on your right divides into two separate tracks on your left. There is a lever beside you that controls which of the secondary tracks connects to the main track. You glance right and see a runaway train approaching the junction at high speed. You glance left and on one secondary track see five young boys playing on the track, oblivious to the impending danger and too far away to hear you shout. On the other secondary track there is a young girl walking, also oblivious to the impending danger and not within shouting distance. The lever is currently set to direct the train onto the track on which the five boys are playing. You have a split second to decide whether to use the lever to redirect the train onto the track containing the young girl or leave it as is. There is no other option available. Do you condemn the boys to save the girl or the girl to save the boys?
Here’s a variation. You are a British Security Service (MI5) case officer on the trail of a suspected male British subject of Yemeni descent who, you are convinced, has been radicalised and is preparing to cause mass murder in the UK using the deadly poison, ricin, made from the residue of castor beans used to make castor oil. Your departmental boss is not convinced by what is mostly circumstantial evidence but allows you to follow the suspect first to Yemen and then on to Egypt where you discover he has visited a castor bean farm and has been arrested by the local Egyptian police following a raid on the farm. Because of his British nationality, the suspect comes under the protection of the British Consulate in Cairo and protocol demands that anything you do or say to the suspect must be overseen and agreed upon by a local MI6 person stationed in Cairo.
When you visit the suspect, you discover that he has been beaten up and, under torture, has already confessed to assisting in the manufacture of the ricin and, even worse, has arranged for the ricin to be sent to an address in the UK. But, when you meet him, he retracts the confession. But, he does so in a mocking tone and claims his rights as a British subject. In a clandestine meeting, however, with the senior member of the Egyptian police who conducted the torture, you are told that the suspect could be tortured further to reveal the UK address. Now your personal ethical dilemma is revealed. Should you sanction further torture, possibly the death, of the subject and hence save the lives of many people in the UK, or should you follow the rules and prohibit further torture thus potentially becoming partially responsible if the mass murder occurs in the UK? This is the subject of the excellent made-for-TV film, Complicit.
David Oyelowo plays Edward Ekubo, the MI5 case officer; Arsher Ali plays Waleed Ahmed, the suspected jihadist; Stephen Campbell Moore plays Tony Coveney, the local by-the-book MI6 officer; Makram Khoury plays Colonel Hazem Ashraf, the Egyptian policeman who understands the power of torture and has no qualms in administering it when lives are at stake; and the tension in the film ratchets up like a guitar string being constantly tightened. This is no James Bond leaping about on rooftops or speeding through busy streets in a busy metropolis. No, this movie is dialogue-driven and will raise questions of ethics and correct behaviour as the evidence against Waleed Ahmed mounts. At the end of the film, you too will not know which way to pull the lever as the runaway train hurtles towards the children on the tracks, or whether you should condone or condemn torture when, potentially, many lives are at stake.
77. Don’t Breathe, Crime/Horror/Thriller/Drama, Director Fede Alvarez, 2016 USA, 88%/7.1
Don’t Breathe 2, Action/Drama/Horror, Director Rodo Sayagues, 2021 USA, 45%/6.1
Many film directors have been drawn to crafting movies centred around an individual who, despite having a major physical disability, is capable of acts that are beyond those to be reasonably expected. Blindness is one such disability and, in biopic movies, we can follow the real-life success of rhythm and blues musician, Ray Charles (Ray, 2004), or blind climber Erik Weihenmayer’s successful climb of Mount Everest (Farther Than the Eye Can See, 2003), or fictionalised accounts of promising athletes who overcome blindness to achieve greatness in their chosen sport such as Yannick, a blind runner, in The Straight Line (La Ligne Droite), 2011.
Blind exponents of martial arts have also caught the attention of film directors, starting with the famous manga stories of a blind Japanese swordsman, Zatōichi, first introduced in film form in The Tale of Zatōichi in 1962 and subsequently developed in many sequels and a 103-episode television series. If you are unfamiliar with Zatōichi, he is best observed in Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano’s film of the same name released in 2003 in which Kitano plays the eponymous hero, or in the 1989 American action movie, Blind Fury, starring Rutger Hauer. More recently, Ben Affleck played a blind martial arts superhero in Daredevil, 2003.
Fans of home-invasion horror movies are also well served. Typically, the story is based on a young seemingly defenceless blind woman within her own home who senses the presence of someone or something intent on causing mischief or worse e.g., the highly-acclaimed Wait Until Dark (1967), Mischief Night (2013) and See for Me (2021). We, the audience, are instantly drawn to her vulnerability and our recognition of her plight is heightened by the fact that her blindness puts her at a major disadvantage. We are definitely on her side as the story unfolds.
Not so with Don’t Breathe, released in 2016. In this home invasion movie, the vulnerable blind young woman is replaced with a grizzly old Navy SEAL veteran, Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang), who is reputed to have $300,000 hidden in a bag inside the house. Three semi-professional young-adult burglars break into the house and accidentally awaken Norman during their search for the money. Then the fun starts! Be prepared to hold your breath as they hold theirs when Norman is close by and be prepared to encounter twists as the story proceeds.
Don’t Breathe 2, released five years later sees Norman living in a big old house in the suburbs accompanied by his adopted daughter 11-year-old Phoenix (Madelyn Grace). A group of bad guys led by gang-leader Raylan (Brendan Sexton III) seems intent on kidnapping Phoenix and, as expected, Norman fiercely repels the would-be abductors in gory battles of wits both inside his house and elsewhere. As with Don’t Breathe, the twists come thick and fast but the fight scenes are more straightforward.
If you fancy a double-bill horror movie evening-in that stretches your assumptions about what a blind Navy SEAL can achieve against all odds, try Don’t Breathe followed by Don’t Breathe 2. And don’t forget to turn all the lights out in the house before you settle down to watch the films!
78. The Stronghold (BAC Nord), Action/Crime/Thriller, Director Cédric Jimenez, 2020 France, 50%/6.9
Similar to Complicit (see number 76 above), The Stronghold raises questions of ethics. The film follows the progress of a Brigade Anti-Criminalité (BAC) police team focused on drug traffickers in the northern region of Marseille. The officers spend their day looking for and arresting street drug dealers but their real aim is to uncover the location of the distribution centre and bust the traffickers. The problem is that the drugs are stored in a building in a heavily-guarded part of north Marseilles and a raid would have to be meticulously planned and could easily result in loss of life. Marseilles has a reputation as a major drug trafficking route for drugs into France (remember the classic French Connection and French Connection II movies made in the early 1970s?) and the BAC team, comprising leader Grég (Gilles Lellouche) and his two sidekicks, Antoine (François Civil), and Yass (Karim Leklou), have a break-through when one of their informants says he knows the location of the building in which the drugs are stored prior to distribution to the dealers, and that the arrival of a new shipment is imminent. In exchange for revealing the location, the informant, himself a drug addict, demands 5 kg of heroin as payment thereby raising the question; where do the police obtain 5 kg of heroin? And is it ethical to pay an informant in the very currency the police are trying to close down? I’ll leave you to find out what happens to our trio of tough French cops, and to the real-life cops on whose 2012 story this movie is based. Like all French cop movies, the action is gritty, realistic, entertaining and will cause you to question whether in their efforts to catch the bad guys the cops cross a line into bad-guy-behaviour territory.