Review: ‘Parallel’ (2020), starring Aml Ameen, Martin Wallström, Georgia King, Mark O’Brien, Alyssa Diaz, David Harewood and Kathleen Quinlan

December 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

Aml Ameen, Martin Wallström, Georgia King and Mark O’Brien in “Parallel” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Parallel” (2020)

Directed by Isaac Ezban

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Seattle area, the sci-fi drama “Parallel” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black and Hispanic people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Four housemates discover that their house has a mysterious mirror that leads to a parallel world where every person on Earth has an alternative look-alike counterpart in the parallel world, which operates at a slower time pace than Earth does.

Culture Audience: “Parallel” will appeal primarily to people who like twist-filled science fiction where the characters in the story have ethical dilemmas.

Martin Wallström and Georgia King in “Parallel” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

What would you do if you could take knowledge from a parallel world that’s almost identical to Earth and bring that knowledge to Earth? And how would it affect your life and the lives of others? Those are the major questions behind the plot and character actions of the sci-fi dramatic thriller “Parallel,” which brings suspenseful and philosophical moments to a flawed but overall entertaining story.

Directed by Isaac Ezban and written by Scott Blaszak, “Parallel” has a few plot holes that aren’t resolved by the end of the movie. However, these unanswered questions don’t take away from the overall storyline, which is held together by the entirely believable premise that people will often go to extremes if they think there’s a shortcut to what they think will make them happy. “Parallel” throws in the complications of greed and loyalty to demonstrate that this shortcut to happiness isn’t as simple as it might seem.

The story in “Parallel” essentially revolves around four friends/co-workers in their mid-to-late 20s who live together in a house in the Seattle area. (“Parallel” was actually filmed in Vancouver.) Noel Eggerton (played by Martin Wallström) is the group’s “alpha male” who think he’s the smartest one and always acts as if he should be the one to make the most important decisions for the group. Devin Parkes (played by Aml Ameen) is also very intelligent, but he’s a lot more sensitive and compassionate than Noel. Leena Fortier (played by Georgia King) is a free-spirited artist who used to be Noel’s girlfriend, but she decided that it wasn’t a good idea to mix business with pleasure. Josh Resig (played by Mark O’Brien) is a laid-back, creative type who has a mischievous side to him.

The four pals work together as the founders of a start-up tech company that’s trying to sell an app where people can rent private parking space to the public. (The name of the company is never mentioned in the movie.) Their goal is to eventually incorporate the app into technology for voice-activated cars.

Noel, Devin and Josh are the main developers of the app, while Leena and Josh share artwork duties, with Leena being the lead artist. Noel and Devin are in charge of sales and marketing. So far, the four friends haven’t had much success with the business. Money is running out, and the four friends might be evicted from their home if they can no longer pay their rent and other bills.

Near the beginning of the film, Noel and Devin are seen giving a sales pitch for the parking app in a boardroom full of bored and skeptical businesspeople. The leader of this business meeting asks if Noel and Devin can have the app ready by a deadline that Noel and Devin admit that won’t be able to meet. To Noel and Devin’s dismay, they find out that an acquaintance of theirs named Seth has put in a competitive bid with the company to develop a similar app. Seth has guaranteed that he can make the company’s deadline.

Adding insult to injury, Seth had previously interviewed to work at the four friends’ start-up company. But instead, Seth took the intellectual property information that he found out during the interview and used it to develop a similar app. Seth’s backstabbing move is an indication of the four friends’ lack of business savvy that they didn’t patent their idea and make Seth sign a non-disclosure/non-compete agreement when he interviewed for a job with their company.

The four friends had been counting on selling the app to the company that has now rejected them. Without this sale, they have reached the dejected conclusion that they can no longer afford to pay their house rent, and their start-up will probably have to go out of business. To drown their sorrows, the four pals go out for drinks at a local bar. Devin tells the other three that he’s thinking of taking another job.

One of the employees of the bar is a bartender named Carmen (played by Alyssa Diaz), who is somewhat aware that Josh has a big crush on her. However, Carmen has a boyfriend, so Josh doesn’t want to make any moves on her. Carmen is friendly to Josh, but she’s not flirtatious. This love triangle ends up being a pivotal subplot to the story.

When the four housemates go home, they find out through a series of random circumstances that the house has a hidden room that contains a mysterious full-length mirror. And they get very freaked out when they see that the mirror’s glass is actually more like a liquid substance. When someone puts a hand through the “liquid glass,” it disappears into a void, but the person is able to pull the hand out of the mirror.

Devin puts his hand in the mirror and describes the feeling as a “warm tingle, like your foot’s asleep.” And when Devin video records the mirror on his phone, he sees that the video shows the room without the four friends in it. Finally, curiosity gets the better of Josh. Before his housemates can stop him, Josh declares before he jumps completely into the mirror: “Neil Armstrong’s got nothing on me!”

What Josh finds on the other side of the mirror is a parallel world where he sees alternative versions of himself, Noel, Devin and Leena in the same-looking house. The four “alternatives” don’t see him though. The four friends in the parallel world have the same names as their Earth counterparts and look exactly like their Earth counterparts. Noel watches as the four “alternative” friends spend time in the backyard for a barbecue, which is something that the real Josh, Noel, Devin and Leena are not currently doing on Earth.

Josh makes his way back to the mirror and returns to Earth in the house’s secret room, where he tells his three friends what he saw. Of course, they’re very shocked at first. But when they see that Josh doesn’t seem to have any side effects from his trip, they decide to get more information about this parallel world. Through a few experimental trips back to the parallel world, the four friends find out that one minute on Earth equals three hours in the parallel world.

In this secret room that they’ve discovered on Earth, the four friends also find diaries from the house’s previous occupant: a hermit named Marissa Widdicomb (played by Kathleen Quinlan, in a cameo), who mysteriously disappeared before the four friends moved into the house. By reading Marissa’s diaries, the four friends discover that Marissa also found out about the secret powers of the mirror. Marissa was a widow grieving over her dead husband, and she decided to find out if her husband was still alive in the parallel world. She tracked down her alternative self in the parallel world, began stalking her alternative self, and found out that her husband’s alternative self was alive and well.

Marissa became so obsessed with wanting her husband back that she planned to murder her alternative self and secretly take her place. This murder is shown at the very beginning of “Parallel.” Viewers find out later in the movie who the people are in this scene and why this murder was committed. In her diaries, Marissa cautions against anyone coming face-to-face with their alternative or “alt” self because it will probably lead to the death of one of the selves.

Despite the tricky and possibly dangerous outcomes of messing with fate in two different worlds, it isn’t long before the four friends decide it’s worth the risk to use this mirror portal to their advantage. Because they’re desperate to sell their app to the company that rejected them, the four friends come up with a scheme to finish the app in the parallel world in order to beat Seth in the deadline. They call the mission “Operation Fuck Seth.”

Sure enough, the plan works. They finish the app before Seth does, and the sale is made. The four friends celebrate by driving to Seth’s house and gloating to him by telling him the news. Seth is incredulous that they made the deadline before he did. And he becomes increasingly suspicious when he sees the four friends’ fortunes go from bad to “too good to be true.”

That’s because greed inevitably takes over, especially with Noel, Leena and Josh. At first, they decide to go to the parallel world, pretend to be their alternative selves, and go on spending sprees by buying things that the alternative selves will have to pay for but the real selves on Earth can enjoy. (There’s a montage of all the gifts that the greedy pals buy for themselves and bring back to Earth.)

And then, two of the friends decide to take knowledge from the parallel world that isn’t known yet on Earth, and use that knowledge to get rich and famous. Noel decides to steal technology ideas, while Leena (who has always dreamed of being the type of celebrated artist who has her own exhibit at an art gallery) steals art ideas. They both get a lot of praise, recognition and financial rewards for their stolen ideas that they pass off as their own.

Josh doesn’t get as deep into stealing as Noel and Leena do, but Josh doesn’t disapprove of what they’re doing either. Josh’s main concern is how to win over Carmen. Meanwhile, Devin is the only one of the four friends who has a conscience and refuses to steal ideas from the parallel world. He warns his friends that they could face serious consequences if they’re caught, but his warnings go unheeded.

Devin has a reason for feeling as guilty as he does: It has to do with his father Martin Parkes (played by David Harewood) and something that haunts Devin that’s explained in the movie but won’t be revealed in this review. It’s enough to say that although Devin won’t steal ideas from the parallel world, he does have a very big motive to use the parallel world to possibly change things about his life.

One of the four friends ends up becoming the worst of the group (it’s easy to predict which one) and there are several things that happen in the story that indeed become life-or-death situations. “Parallel” somewhat devolves into the type of formulaic thriller where certain people turn against each other and loyalties are tested. However, there’s still enough suspense in the story to keep viewers interested in what will happen and how the story will end.

To distinguish between scenes on Earth and scenes in the parallel world, “Parallel” uses different techniques from cinematographer Karim Hussain. The scenes on Earth have a warmer hue, with a lot of gold and brown coloring. The scenes in the parallel world have a bluish glow, with tilted camera angles and slightly warped effects on the camera lens. Viewers who are paying attention will easily be able to notice the differences between these two worlds.

Out of the four actors playing the main characters in “Parallel,” Ameen does the best in portraying a well-rounded person. And that’s mainly because his Devin character is the only one who has a significant backstory. King also fares quite well in portraying Leena, who at times appears to be complicated because she could go either way in some of the decisions that she has to make.

“Parallel” clearly has influences from “The Twilight Zone” and taps into age-old questions about how much in life happens because of fate versus free will. The ending of the movie is a jumbled rush that could have been improved by answering a few questions that remain unanswered. However, the movie is enough of an interesting sci-fi jaunt that’s worth watching if viewers don’t mind keeping track of characters that have look-alike counterparts in a parallel world.

Vertical Entertainment released “Parallel” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on December 11, 2020.

Review: ‘Monster Hunter,’ starring Milla Jovovich

December 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Milla Jovovich and Tony Jaa in “Monster Hunter” (Photo by Coco Van Oppens/Screen Gems)

“Monster Hunter”

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Culture Representation: Taking place on Earth and in an alternate world, the sci-action flick “Monster Hunter” has a racially diverse cast (white, Asian, African American and Latino) representing the U.S. military and otherworldly warriors.

Culture Clash: Members of the U.S. military find themselves transported to another world, where they have to fight off monsters with other people from that world.

Culture Audience: “Monster Hunter,” which is based on the videogame of the same name, will appeal primarily to people who like simplistic, formulaic action movies with little to no surprises or substance.

Rathalos in “Monster Hunter” (Photo courtesy of Screen Gems/Sony Pictures)

The sci-fi/action time waster “Monster Hunter” is a perfect example of why most video games that get made into movies have bad reputations for being dumb, predictable and lacking a compelling storyline. Written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (who’s best known for the critically panned “Resident Evil” movie franchise, which is also based on a video game), “Monster Hunter” is based on Capcom’s video game of the same title. At least with the video game, audiences can control the action. With the “Monster Hunter” movie, audiences have to sit through an often-incoherent mess that seems recycled from countless other generic sci-fi/action flicks that have been done before and done much better.

The plot of the movie is as simple as its title. It’s really just a series of battles against giant monsters. Some of the creatures live in desert sand, while others live in caves. The monsters have names like Rathalos, Nerscylla and Black Diablos and resemble everything from giant scorpions to oversized versions of the deadly creatures in “Gremlins.” And just like many other sci-fi movies of this ilk, there’s a mysterious gateway portal that separates Earth from the world where the monsters live.

The beginning of “Monster Hunter” shows a glimpse of the other world, when a ship traveling in treacherous icy waters is attacked by giant monsters. Two of the people on the ship end up playing a pivotal role later on in the story: The ship’s captain named Admiral (played by Ron Perlman, wearing a silly-looking blonde pompadour wig) and Hunter (played by Tony Jaa), a bow-and-arrow slinging warrior who also has the stunt skills of a trained gymnast. It’s also shown that Hunter has a few superpower tricks.

The movie then cuts to an unnamed desert on Earth, where a small squad of U.S. Army soldiers are making their way across the land in jeeps. The squad is led by Capt. Lt. Natalie Artemis (played by Milla Jovovich, also of the “Resident Evil” franchise), who is tough and fearless but also shows a compassionate side and a sense of humor during the course of the story. She might be tough, but she also makes a lot of ludicrously bad decisions.

The soldiers in the squad don’t have much character development in the movie, but they are named Dash (played by Meagan Good); Marshall (played by Diego Boneta); Link (played by Tip “T.I.” Harris); Axe (played by Jin-Au Yeung); and Steeler (played by Josh Helman). Axe and Steeler seem to be good buddies since they have a rapport where they joke around with each other. However, the personalities in this group are fairly interchangeable because they’re so generic.

A tornado-like massive sandstorm with electrical current suddenly appears and overwhelms the squad. They soon find themselves in an even more isolated desert area that they can’t find on their map. Their GPS and communication devices aren’t working. It doesn’t take long for them to discover that they’re not on Earth anymore, because giant monsters (larger than dinosaurs) emerge from the sand and attack the humans. The military firearms and other weapons are no match for these monsters.

Dash is the only one in the group who openly disagrees with Artemis when Artemis tells her squad that they have to fight back against the monsters instead of hiding. Through a series of very predictable events, Artemis ends up meeting Hunter. And there’s the typical long stretch of the movie where Artemis and Hunter clash and don’t know how much they can trust each other.

The visual effects in a movie like “Monster Hunter” should be one of the main attractions, but the quality is uneven. The monsters are convincing in most scenes, but then there are other scenes with cheesy effects, where it’s obvious that the actors were in front of a green screen. One of the main reasons to make a video game into a movie is to have the movie look better than than the video game, but “Monster Hunter” falls short of that intention.

Even worse than the visual effects are scenarios where Artemis sustains injuries that would cripple most people, but she’s later able to demonstrate superhuman strength later on in the story. And let’s not get into the continuity and logic problems, where weapons are used that seem to come out of nowhere. And there are several scenes where Artemis is covered in dirt and grime everywhere except her face.

There are also some scenes that don’t make any sense at all. In one of these moronic scenes, Artemis (who’s already injured, exhausted and getting very dehydrated) is seen on top of a stone structure that’s about as tall as two skyscrapers. It’s a climb that would take several hours, but she’s suddenly shown standing on top, as if she’s some kind of super mountain climber.

Why would Artemis make this long and grueling climb that would deplete her energy and make her even more desperate for water? She did it so she could throw a rock onto the sand to see if any monsters would react. And sure enough, after she throws a rock, a monster emerges from beneath the sand and tries to attack. Keep in mind, this idiotic “test” is well after Artemis barely survived a vicious attack by several monsters that she already knows exist.

Jovovich seems to be doing her best to bring a sense of adventure to her role in “Monster Hunter,” but Artemis is really just a variation of her Alice character in the “Resident Evil” movies. Jaa’s Hunter character isn’t that memorable or unique. And viewers will have a hard time taking Perlman’s Admiral character seriously as a badass leader when he’s wearing a hot mess of a mane that looks like a reject from the Joan Rivers Wig Collection. And let’s not get started on the Meowscular Chef, the humanoid cat character that looks very fake and out of place with the humans.

The script problems, the tacky visual effects and the mediocre acting in “Monster Hunter” might be more tolerable if the action in the movie was truly innovative and suspenseful. But most of the action is very uninspired and at times can be considered quite dull, especially for viewers who’ve seen a lot of action movies. And the movie has an over-used action gimmick of making it look like someone is dead but the person was actually unconscious.

The fight scenes in “Monster Hunter” take a very lazy approach of gunfire, explosions, rinse, repeat. The movie also has a few laughable moments where Artemis believes a hunter-sized knife will be enough to kill these monsters. In one scene, she slices a monster’s skin with the knife, but the result is what would be the equivalent of a paper cut on a human. It’s unfortunate that “Monster Hunter” was made as if the filmmakers think the audience is as stupid as this movie.

Screen Gems released “Monster Hunter” in U.S. cinemas on December 18, 2020.

Review: ‘Greenland,’ starring Gerard Butler

December 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Morena Baccarin, Roger Dale Floyd and Gerard Butler in “Greenland” (Photo courtesy of STX)

“Greenland”

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of North America, the sci-fi action flick “Greenland” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A structural engineer, his wife and their 7-year-old son are selected by the U.S. government to be part of an elite evacuation program during a comet disaster, and this privileged status causes problems for them when they are separated during the chaos.

Culture Audience: “Greenland” will appeal primarily to people who like suspenseful apocalyptic movies that have underlying commentary about society’s conflicts over social classes and privilege.

Gerard Butler in “Greenland” (Photo courtesy of STX)

Out of all the types of apocalyptic disaster stories that can be told, perhaps the most terrifying is some variation of “the sky is falling,” whether it’s from meteors, comets or another deadly force from outer space. In the above-average sci-fi thriller “Greenland” (directed by Ric Roman Waugh and written by Chris Sparling), the threat from outer space is a highly unusual comet that scientists at first think is a natural wonder to behold. But the comet turns out to be the worst kind, because it ends up causing worldwide damage and has the power to wipe out most of Earth’s population. 

It’s a concept that’s been done in movies before, but “Greenland” ramps up the suspense level in realistic ways because it’s not too caught up in trying to scare people with visual effects, which are actually done very well in this film. Instead, “Greenland” focuses on the terror experienced by a family of three who get separated from each other in the chaos of an evacuation. There are added layers of stress because the child in this family is diabetic, and the family is targeted by desperate and envious people who want what this family has: privileged U.S. government clearance to be taken to a secret shelter that was built to withstand the worst disasters and attacks.

Like a lot of disaster movies, “Greenland” starts out with people being blissfully unaware of the catastrophe that’s coming their way. In Florida, structural engineer John Garrity (played by Gerard Butler), who is originally from Scotland, is on the job at a construction site, but he wants to get home as soon as possible because his 7-year-old son Nathan (played by Roger Dale Floyd) is having a party where several people in the neighborhood have been invited. John and his American wife Allison (played by Morena Baccarin), who were separated in the past and are now trying to work on their marriage, are organizing the party.

The big news around the world is that there’s an interstellar comet that is passing by Earth, and it’s expected to be the closest fly-by of a comet in Earth’s history. This highly anticipated sighting is such a big deal that people are having watch parties, and the news has been reporting the latest updates on the comet’s trajectory. The comet is considered so safe that it’s been named Clarke.

However, as soon as John gets home, something strange happens: He gets phone messages by text and by robocalls from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. These messages order John, Allison and Nathan to report to Robins Air Force Base in Warner Robins, Georgia, because they have been selected for emergency relocation. The messages demand that no one else can accompany this family of three to the Air Force base.

John doesn’t know if these messages are real or some kind of prank. He tells people at the party about the messages, and they’re not sure if the messages are real either. A few of the adults at the party wonder why they didn’t get these messages too. John doesn’t know why he and his family were selected for this special evacuation.

However, it soon becomes obvious that the messages really are from the U.S. government. While the Garrity family and their party guests are in the living room watching the latest comet news on TV, the first sign that the comet is going to be disastrous comes when it’s reported that a fragment of the comet that was supposed to crash in the ocean near Brazil instead landed in Tampa. The shockwaves caused Tampa to burn, and the inferno blast spread all the way to Orlando.

John and Allison decide to quickly pack up some family belongings and go with Nathan by car to Robins Air Force Base, as instructed. There are some moments of high anxiety when a few of the neighbors beg to go with the Garrity family, but John refuses because he correctly assumes that anyone who doesn’t have government clearance will be turned away. However, he promises that he will contact the neighbors after he finds out more details about what’s going on with the evacuation.

Meanwhile, the Garrity family hears on the car radio that more of the comet’s fragments are wiping out entire parts of the world, including Bogotá, Colombia. Scientists are frantically trying to predict where the fragments might land next, in order to evacuate people from those areas. Anxiety then turns to sheer panic.

Word has gotten out that Robins Air Force Base is one of the designated meeting areas for the evacuees who were selected by the U.S. government. And so, when the Garritys arrive at the Air Force base, they see a terrified and angry mob of people who demand to be let in, even though most of them are not supposed to be there. It’s a foreshadowing of the “haves” and “have nots” conflicts that happen during several scenes in the movie.

Several military personnel are on duty to only allow access to people who are on the government clearance list. And those pre-approved people get yellow wristbands to identify them. There are several Air Force planes waiting to take thousands of people to the same shelter, which is in a classified location that is later revealed to be in Greenland.

The Garrity family makes it safely through the checkpoint, but things take a turn for the worse when they find out that Nathan, who is diabetic, accidentally dropped his insulin in the car when he was looking for a blanket. John finds out that he has only about 15 to 20 minutes before the family’s assigned evacuee plane leaves. He also finds out that all the planes are headed to the same place, so that if he can’t be on the same plane as his wife and son, he’ll hopefully be able to reunite with them at the shelter.

John and Allison hastily make a decision that John will go back to the car to get Nathan’s medicine, while Allison will stay with Nathan and board the plane. However, more complications ensue when Allison speaks to a military guard and tells him about their situation and how they can’t leave without John. And that’s when the guard tells her that because Nathan is diabetic, it’s a health liability, and the Garrity family shouldn’t have been approved for the emergency shelter.

The guard and a colleague then tell Allison and Nathan that they can’t get on the plane after all. Allison and Nathan are then forced to go with the guards to another area, where Allison pleads with another military person to let them on the plane because they don’t want to be separated from John. What happens next are several twists and turns to the story, some of which are unpredictable, while other plot developments are a tad cliché.

All of the cast members give very good performances, even though this movie is not on the type of prestige level where it’s going to get any major awards. The filmmakers avoided the stereotype that a lot of American-made disaster movies have: making the male protagonist/hero someone who was born and raised in the United States. Butler, who is Scottish in real life, keep his native accent in the movie. (Butler is one of the producers of “Greenland,” so that probably had a lot to do with the decision to make John Garrity a Scot too.)

Another non-cliché aspect to “Greenland” is that it doesn’t follow the disaster movie formula of having the hero’s love interest be a passive “damsel in distress.” Allison is no ditz who waits around to be rescued. There are moments where Allison steps up in a big way to help save her family. Baccarin’s portrayal shows a lot of authenticity in how real women would act in the same situation, with all the bravery and vulnerability that comes with it.

John and Allison’s son Nathan is thankfully not written as “too precocious to be true” or a “disease of the week” kid. Floyd capably portrays Nathan’s intelligent sensitivity as a kid who just happens to have diabetes. The movie also makes a point of showing how Nathan’s medical condition quickly changed the status of the Garrity family from “desirable” to “undesirable” candidates for evacuation. It speaks to the prejudice that people could encounter in a similar situation where governments decide who in the population will get preferential treatment in a mass evacuation. 

One of the other memorable characters in “Greenland” is Allison’s widower father Dale (played by Scott Glenn), who somewhat mistrusts John because of the problems in John and Allison’s marriage. And there’s a married couple in the story named Judy Vento (played by Hope Davis) and Ralph Vento (played by David Denman), who play a key role in one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the movie.

Throughout the film, director Waugh never lets up on the frantic pace after the comet disaster strikes. (Waugh and Butler previously worked together on the 2019 action film “Angel Has Fallen.”) And when it comes to characters, “Greenland” wisely takes a “less is more” approach, since the story is focused on this family of three and their perspective for the entire film. It’s a departure from the typical disaster movie that has different storylines for a group of strangers. Simply put: “Greenland” is an apocalyptic movie that isn’t going to change the world, but it largely succeeds in being suspenseful, escapist entertainment.

STX released “Greenland” on VOD on December 18, 2020. The movie will be released on digital on January 26, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on February 9, 2021.

Review: ‘Songbird,’ starring KJ Apa, Sofia Carson, Craig Robinson, Bradley Whitford, Peter Stromare, Alexandra Daddario and Demi Moore

December 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

KJ Apa in “Songbird” (Photo courtesy of STX)

“Songbird”

Directed by Adam Mason

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles during a coronavirus pandemic in the year 2024, the sci-fi thriller “Songbird” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: During the pandemic, a minority of people have immunity to the disease but are also supercarriers of the virus, and this dichotomy affects relationships and has caused a black market to sell illegal immunity passes.

Culture Audience: “Songbird” will appeal primarily to people who like watching tacky disaster movies with ridiculous plot developments.

Peter Stromare in “Songbird” (Photo courtesy of STX)

In the horrifically tasteless disaster film “Songbird,” which takes place during a coronavirus pandemic that has killed millions of people and devastated the entire world, unscrupulous and greedy people have exploited the situation so that they can benefit financially. Ironically, it’s the same mindset that is obviously why this moronic film was rushed into production during the real-life COVID-19 pandemic—to cash in on people’s fears about the pandemic and use the movie’s pandemic storyline as a gimmick to sell it during a real-life pandemic. The results are a useless movie where every single second looks like it was based on an early, substandard screenplay draft, with none of the filmmakers caring about taking the time to improve the film’s quality.

“Songbird” (directed by Adam Mason, who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Simon Boyes) takes place in Los Angeles in the year 2024. The worldwide mortality rate has risen to 56% and 8.4 million people have died because of COVID-23, which is supposed to be a deadlier strain than COVID-19. And there’s no vaccine. The desolate and devastated landscape of Los Angeles looks like a city in the aftermath of a tornado, and there’s a general atmosphere that a corrupt, totalitarian government is in charge. Because of this high mortality rate, Los Angeles has been on lockdown, with people ordered to stay at home, except for essential workers.

One of those essential workers is a bike courier in his mid-20s named Nicholas “Nico” Price (played by KJ Apa), who works for an online retailer called Lester’s Gets, which sells a variety of items that people can use in their homes. It’s not a giant company, because Nico’s boss Lester (played by Craig Robinson) is the only person shown in the dark video control room that monitors the movements of the company’s couriers, via GPS. In other words, the film’s budget was so low that the filmmakers didn’t bother to cast anyone else to work in this monitor room.

Lester communicates frequently with Nico and has to watch Nico like a hawk, because Nico often takes detours, goofs off, and is late with deliveries. For example, in one of the movie’s scenes, Nico randomly shoots hoops at a basketball court while in the middle of a delivery. Lester lectures Nico about Nico’s constant tardiness, but Nico acts like someone who knows he probably won’t be fired.

And why hasn’t Nico been fired because of his tardiness? Because he’s one of the small minority of people on Earth who are immune to COVID-23, and therefore he can freely go outside without needing any face coverings. However, these Immunies, as they’re nicknamed in this movie, are also supercarriers of COVID-23. And so, they’re both envied and shunned by the general population.

Immunies are identified by immunity passes (which look like yellow wristbands) that can be scanned to reveal their personal information. These immunity passes are highly coveted by people who want to be able to go outside whenever they want without fear of being fined or arrested. People are required to take frequent COVID-23 tests at home, which are done on government-issued hand-held monitors that can diagnosis people just by scanning their faces.

People who are found to be infected with COVID-23 are forced to go to the Q-Zone, which is not a health recovery center but it’s described in the story as a death detention center. These detentions are handled by the sanitation department, which is headed by Emmett D. Harland (played by Peter Stromare), who’s an Immunie. Emmett is such an over-the-top, creepy villain that you just know he’s involved in more misdeeds than just being rough and unmerciful with the people he detains.

Because of these drastic changes in society, Los Angeles (and presumably, most of the rest of the modern world) has become a place where people have become paranoid about going outside, for fear of being sent to the Q-Zone. Masked military soldiers patrol the streets and are ready to send people to the Q-Zone if they don’t have immunity passes. Some of these patrollers are quick to draw their guns if they see anyone on the street without a mask. It’s what happens to Nico when he tries his make his way to a home for a delivery, and he’s blocked by overzealous soldiers until Nico shows them his immunity pass.

The high demand for immunity passes has caused these passes to be sold on the black market at prices that can only be afforded by wealthy people or people who can come up with the cash any way that they can. Two of the people who are considered among the top-tier sellers of illegal immunity passes are unhappily married couple William Griffin (played by Bradley Whitford) and Piper Griffin (played by Demi Moore), who are already living an upscale life but apparently are greedy and want more money. William’s day job is as a high-ranking executive in the music industry, even though the movie never shows him doing any work except his illegal side hustle of selling immunity passes.

And because “Songbird” is a movie like the 2005 drama “Crash,” which eventually shows how everyone in the story is connected to each other in some way, the Griffins’ home is one of the places where Nico makes a delivery. People are not allowed to open their doors to delivery people. Instead, deliveries are dropped into a capsule outside a home, and the item in the capsule is then disinfected through ultra-violet rays.

Nico has been to the Griffin home enough times that the house residents recognize him when he arrives. William and Piper have a daughter named Emma (played by Lia McHugh), who’s about 11 or 12 years old and who has respiratory problems, because she always has to wear an oxygen tube. The implication is that she’s especially vulnerable to getting COVID-23.

Emma is really just a “token” underdeveloped character that doesn’t serve any purpose in the movie except to try to make William and Piper look more sympathetic. It’s a futile effort, because these two spouses, who have simmering hatred for each other, are ruthless and sleazy, although one of them turns out to be a lot worse than the other. An innocent and sweet kid like Emma doesn’t deserve the parents she has.

Meanwhile, although Nico might seem to have a cavalier and cocky exterior when he’s on the job, the movie slowly shows that he’s actually in a lot of emotional turmoil. His entire family is dead, presumably because of COVID-23. And before the pandemic, he was a paralegal with plans to become a lawyer, but he had to abandon those dreams. There’s a scene where Nico goes back to the now-deserted law office where he used to work and bitterly goes through some of the remnants of his past.

But more heartbreaking for Nico than the loss of his career dreams is the fact that he’s fallen in love with a woman who’s around his age, but they haven’t been able to be in the same room together because of the pandemic. Her name is Sara Garcia (played by Sofia Carson), who lives in an apartment with her beloved grandmother Lita (played Elpidia Carrillo), whom Sara calls Grammy. Sara’s parents are also dead because of COVID-23.

Nico and Sara met when he made a delivery to her apartment. They had an instant connection and fell in love through constant contact over the phone. Nico also visits Sara by going to her apartment, but not going inside and instead talking to her outside the apartment door. It’s explained that the apartment building is under heavy government surveillance, because it’s a “hot spot” for COVID-23 infections. Therefore, Nico and Sara know they could be arrested if he’s allowed inside her apartment, and Sara and Lita could be sent to the dreaded Q-Zone.

Sara sees firsthand (through her front-door keyhole) how brutal one of these arrests can be, when one of her female neighbors is dragged from her apartment, yelling and pleading for mercy, because the neighbor tested positive for COVID-23. Before the hazmat-suit-wearing sanitation workers arrive to take her to the Q-Zone, the neighbor begs Sara to let her inside Sara’s apartment to hide, but Sara refuses to hide the neighbor, on Nico’s advice. Emmett is supervising this particular detainment with sadistic glee. And he vows that he will be back to this apartment building to get more people because he’s convinced that the entire building is infected.

There are several scenes in “Songbird” where Nico talks to Sara through her apartment door, like he’s her pandemic Romeo to her quarantined Juliet. It’s supposed to be romantic, but Nico and Sara just utter cheesy soap-opera-type dialogue to each other that will make viewers roll their eyes or laugh at the corniness of it all. And when Lita starts having a persistent cough, you know exactly where this movie is going to go in the “race against time” part of the film that’s supposed to make this movie a suspenseful thriller.

Meanwhile, one of Lester’s employees who works from home is a lonely paraplegic named Dozer (played by Paul Michael Hauser), a military veteran in his mid-30s who lost the use of his legs during the war in Afghanistan. Dozer, who’s been a self-described shut-in for the past six years, uses a drone to keep track of Lester’s courier employees. Dozer has a strong sense of right and wrong and likes feeling as if he’s a “rescuer,” which all affect his actions later in the story.

Dozer has been a subscriber to a pretty YouTuber named May (played by Alexandra Daddario), who is a self-described struggling singer/songwriter. She has a YouTube channel called May Sings the Blues, where she sings cover songs and her own original music during livestreams and in prerecorded videos. People who watch her YouTube channel have the option to donate money to her, because she often tells her viewers that the pandemic has made it impossible for her to make money by performing in person.

Dozer has been one of her biggest donors, so May decides to connect with him online and reaches out to him to personally thank him. They begin chatting and soon get very candid with each other about the problems in their lives. Dozer tells May about being a shut-in: “I was in lockdown before it was fashionable.”

May tells Dozer that she moved to Los Angeles because a guy in the music industry promised to make her a big star. She and the guy ended up having an affair, which she now regrets, but the guy still wants to keep seeing her. And then the pandemic happened, and she’s been stuck in an uncomfortable limbo where she still needs the guy to help her with her career, but she wants to break off their affair.

Because of the strict lockdown, it’s illegal for people to have in-person social visits with other people who don’t live in the same household, but May’s lover insists on visiting her for their sexual encounters. May confides in Dozer that she’s afraid of getting infected and/or arrested because of this guy. Dozer offers to help her any way that he can. May’s “mystery lover” is eventually revealed, and it will be shocking to no one who’s seen enough of these types of formulaic, unimaginative movies.

Except for the COVID-23 pandemic aspect of the movie, there’s absolutely nothing unique about “Songbird,” which is a lot like many other badly made post-apocalyptic movies that have a weak, nonsensical plot and dumb action scenes. There’s a chase scene where Nico gets trapped in a building with Emmett and some of Emmett’s armed goons. And out of nowhere, Nico gets help from a gun-toting vigilante named Boomer (played by Paul Sloan), who randomly shows up in the scene and then is never seen in the movie again.

Viewers will also have sit through lots of inane dialogue, such as during another scene when Emmett has cornered some people he wants to capture. He taunts them by saying, “Roses are red. Violets are blue. You think you can hide? I’ll find you!”

One of the producers of “Songbird” is Michael Bay, who’s best known as the chief filmmaker for the “Transformers” movie franchise and the first two “Bad Boys” movies. Even though those movies had mediocre-to-bad screenplays, at least those films had high-octane action to keep people interested and wanting more. “Songbird” doesn’t even have memorable action scenes, unless you think it’s an improvement that at one point in the story, Nico ditches his bicycle and replaces it with a stolen motorcycle.

It all leads up to an ending that’s so terrible that it will make people either laugh or get angry, depending on how much it might bother people that their time was wasted by watching this garbage. And why is this movie called “Songbird,” when the only singer in the movie is a supporting character, not a leading character? Just like this entire ludicrous movie, it doesn’t make sense and it’s too lazy to try to give any logical explanations.

STX released “Songbird” on VOD on December 11, 2020.

Review: ‘Mortal,’ starring Nat Wolff and Priyanka Bose

November 8, 2020

by Carla Hay

Iben Akerlie and Nat Wolff in “Mortal” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Mortal”

Directed by André Øvredal

Some language in Norwegian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Norway, the sci-fi thriller “Mortal” features an almost all-white cast of characters (and one Indian) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A mysterious young man is hunted by authorities because he has a lethal ability to conduct energy and electricity through his body.

Culture Audience: “Mortal” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic sci-fi flicks that put more emphasis on visual effects than in crafting a good story.

Priyanka Bose in “Mortal” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Mortal” starts off as a run-of-the-mill sci-fi flick before it turns into a ludicrous off-the-rails story. Even before the plot twist is revealed in the last third of the movie, “Mortal” had too many weak links for it to be strengthened by the “surprise” ending. This plot twist actually makes the movie worse, because the ill-conceived, drastic turn in the story looks very tacked-on and rushed. It’s as if the filmmakers were desperate to come up with an ending to bring “Mortal” out its repetitive rut.

Directed by André Øvredal (who co-wrote the screenplay with Norman Lesperance and Geoff Bussetil), “Mortal” is essentially a sci-fi chase movie that doesn’t really go anywhere. The movie centers on an American man in his mid-20s named Eric Bergland (played by Nat Wolff), who is in Norway looking for his relatives. The details of his family aren’t revealed until toward the end of the movie, because it’s part of the plot twist.

And so, for almost the entire movie, viewers don’t know anything about Eric except that he’s homeless in Norway and he has a very strange and deadly power: He can conduct and transport energy (especially electrical energy) through his body, giving him the ability to start fires and cause electrical storms. In the beginning of the film, Eric is by himself, looking like he’s a dirty and disheveled vagrant who’s trying to hide from the world.

He trespasses into a home to steal some scissors, medicine, bandages and candy. He eats the candy as if he’s been starving for days. He uses the scissors to cut his hair. And he uses the medicine and bandages to treat a festering wound on his leg.

It’s revealed later in the movie that Eric can get burns on his body when he’s at his peak of energy-conducting power. Viewers will have to suspend disbelief that Eric can be burned everywhere on his body except his face, because nothing bad ever happens to his face except for the unfortunate straggly beard that Eric has at the beginning of the film.

At a gas station in the municipality of Odda, Eric catches the attention of four teenagers (three boys and a girl) in a car. A bullying guy named Ole (played by Arthur Hakalahti), who’s the leader of the group, taunts Eric for looking like the dirty transient that he is. The car then happens to follow Eric to an open field.

Ole gets out of the car, while the other teens follow him and Eric into the field. Ole continues to harass Eric, who warns Ole in an ominous voice: “If you touch me, you will burn.” But of course, Ole touches Eric. And when he does, Eric stares at Ole intensely, while Ole appears to be suffocating without Eric touching him. Ole then immediately collapses and dies.

Eric is quickly apprehended by authorities, who don’t find out much about Eric except for these three things: (1) He’s a backpacker from the United States, but he’s of Norwegian heritage; (2) He’s in Norway to look for his relatives; and (3) He was seen at a farmhouse in Årdal, a municipality in Norway’s Vestland county, where three years before, a fire killed five people at the house. Eric is suspected of starting the fire, but he’s not talking to law enforcement about what happened at that house.

The sheriff of Odda is Henrik Jondal (played by Per Frisch), who’s in charge of the investigation into the death of Ole. The police aren’t making any progress in interviewing Eric, because he refuses to say much to them, so Henrik has the idea to call someone who has experience counseling teenagers and other young people. The hope is that this counselor will be able to break through to Eric and get him to open up about the death of Ole.

The counselor’s name is Christine Aas (played by Iben Akerlie), and she looks like she’s approximately the same age as Eric. And as soon as she appears on screen, it’s easy to see that she’s going to be Eric’s love interest because she has the stereotypical physical appearance (young, blonde and pretty) of a love interest in a formulaic movie like this one.

Even though Christine looks young enough to only be a few years out of college, the movie has made her a whiz at diagnosing medical conditions because she figures out very quickly what Alex’s superpower is. Not long after Christine is put in a police interrogation room with Eric to ask him some questions, he goes from being mute to gasping remorsefully about Ole, “I tried to tell him not to touch me.”

Meanwhile, Henrik is in another section of the police station, where he’s dealing with the parents of Ole, who want answers about what caused Ole’s death. Ole’s father Bjørn (played by Per Egil Aske) is very angry because he knows that the police have Eric in custody as a suspect. (The arrest has been all over the news.) Bjørn demands to be in a room alone with Eric, but Henrik refuses. It’s pretty clear at this point that this won’t be the last we see of Bjørn, who might as well have worn a T-shirt that says “Vigilante Justice,” because that seems to be the only purpose for his character in this movie.

Back in the police interrogation room, Eric reaches for a glass of water, and Christine sees that he’s able to lift the water out of the glass, just by putting his hand above the glass. This gives him such electrical energy force throughout his body, that when Eric places his hands on the wooden table, it scorches the table. And then, Eric gets so upset, the entire room lights up with an electrical storm caused by Eric.

Christine tells Eric the obvious: The energy comes out when he’s experiencing negative emotions, such as fear, anger or anxiety. She tells him that he can control the energy if he just breathes and calms down and gets to a relaxed emotional state. Now that Little Miss Expert has diagnosed Eric’s problem in a matter of minutes, you almost expect her to say, “I’ll be right back. Let me get a yoga mat for you so we can do some breathing exercises.”

Henrik rushes in and witnesses the “electrical storm” in the room, and everyone rushes out before more damage can be caused. The authorities sedate Eric with medication. And a U.S. Embassy official named Cora Hathaway (played by Priyanka Bose) is summoned to take Eric by helicopter to a place that isn’t made clear in the movie because this movie’s screenplay is kind of a sloppy mess. However, viewers can assume that he’s going somewhere for scientific tests.

Eric is strapped to a gurney during the helicopter ride. But when he wakes up and sees that he’s essentially being imprisoned against his will, he goes crazy and creates such a big electrical storm that it causes the helicopter to crash into the ocean. Everyone on the plane dies except for Cora (who ends up in a hospital) and Eric, who has temporarily disappeared. Cora eventually gets released from the hospital and makes it her mission to track down Eric so he can be put back into the custody of the government.

Meanwhile, Eric shows up in the outdoor parking lot of the apartment building where Christine just happens to be at that moment. Somehow, in the short time that Christine and Eric have known each other, Eric has managed to find out where Christine lives. Viewers will have to assume that he was able to look up that information in between causing electrical storms, surviving a helicopter crash in the ocean, finding his way back to land, and then showing up at Christine’s place in the hopes that she’ll want to hang out with him while he’s a fugitive.

It turns out that Christine does want to hang out with Eric and help him elude capture by law enforcement. She tells him, “I’m going take you to my friend’s cabin, and we’re going to figure it out.” The rest of the movie is basically Eric and Christine going on the run together. There’s only one moment when Christine doubts her decision to help Eric, but she shows the kind of immediate loyalty to him that makes it obvious she’s romantically attracted to him. Eric and Christine’s inevitable “big moment” kiss comes later in the movie.

Wolff is serviceable in this poorly written role. He tries to infuse a “lost soul” persona into Eric’s character, but the character is so vague that it’s a wasted effort to try to bring gravitas to the role. The problem is that “Mortal” tells almost nothing about Eric and his background until toward the end of the film, which makes it hard for viewers to root for Eric while he tries to evade capture. The other actors in the film are mediocre, while Bose is just plain awful with her emotionless, wooden delivery of her lines.

And speaking of the U.S. Embassy official Cora, it doesn’t make sense that she would be heading up the task force to find Eric. Embassy officials are political diplomats, not law enforcement or part of a government’s military defense. Based on all the destruction that Eric causes in the movie, the Norwegian military would be the ones to take over if a seemingly crazy guy was out there causing electrical storms that are bad enough to burn bridges, roads, buildings and people.

Even though Cora has seen firsthand how dangerous Eric can be, she wears no protective gear the entire time that she’s trying to hunt him down. She’s dressed as if she’s about to go for a nature hike. And the only indication that she survived a traumatic plane crash in the ocean is that she has a small band-aid on her forehead. Yes, this movie is that stupid.

As for Eric’s big “secret” at the end of the movie, it looks like a blatant cash grab to latch on to the popularity of a certain blockbuster movie franchise. It’s too bad that the filmmakers of “Mortal” couldn’t come up with a more original story. The visual effects and cinematography in “Mortal” are fairly good, but because of the moronic way that this story is told, it doesn’t matter how good the movie’s visuals might look if the dialogue and basic storyline are of such low quality that it’s embarrassing. All the electrical storms and fires concocted for this movie still can’t ignite the film’s very dull and unimaginative plot.

Saban Films released “Mortal” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on November 6, 2020. The movie’s Blu-ray and DVD release date is November 10, 2020.

Review: ‘Proxima,’ starring Eva Green and Matt Dillon

November 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Eva Green and Zélie Boulant in “Proxima” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Proxima”

Directed by Alice Winocour

French, Russian, German and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Russia and Germany, the sci-fi drama “Proxima” has an all-white cast of characters representing members of the middle-class scientific community.

Culture Clash: A French female astronaut, who will be the only woman in an international team of astronauts going to Mars, has difficult coping with how her year-long absence from home will affect her underage daughter.

Culture Audience: “Proxima” will appeal primarily to people who like movies about astronauts and their missions in outer space but with the added gravitas of how these missions affect the family members who are left behind on Earth.

Eva Green and Matt Dillon in “Proxima” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Whenever there’s a movie about astronauts and a journey they take in outer space, people usually expect the movie to have some thrilling scenes of the astronauts in space or landing on another planet. “Proxima” is not that movie. Although the film is about an astronaut mission to land on Mars, “Proxima” takes a close look at a far more emotionally perilous journey: how an astronaut prepares to leave behind loved ones for several months. There’s always a possibility that something could go wrong with the mission and people might not make it back alive. And in the movie, it’s mentioned that the astronauts on this mission will experience a major physical toll on their bodies: Their body cells are expected to age 40 years in six months.

Directed with graceful aplomb by Alice Winocour (who co-wrote the screenplay with Jean-Stéphane Bron), the heart and soul of “Proxima” are centered on the relationship between French astronaut Sarah Loreau (played by Eva Green) and Sarah’s daughter Stella Akerman Loreau (played by Zélie Boulant), who’s about 8 or 9 years old. Sarah, who has a background in engineering, is ambitious, determined and someone who has dreamed of being an astronaut ever since she was a child.

At the beginning of “Proxima,” Sarah is seen testing out hi-tech artificial limbs at work and being a dutiful mother at home in Germany with Stella, her only child. Sarah is separated from Sarah’s father Thomas Akerman (played by Lars Eidinger), who also works in the scientific field, but it’s not specified in what type of science. Sarah has primary custody of Stella, who is a bright, inquisitive and emotionally empathetic child. Thomas, who lives several miles away, has weekend visitations.

But at the beginning of the movie, Sarah has already been selected for an important outer-space endeavor called the Proxima Mission, which will be the first time that humans are expected to land on Mars. The entire mission will take approximately one year for the chosen astronauts to live on Mars. And so, Sarah has to make arrangements with Thomas for Stella to live with Thomas while Sarah is away.

There’s some mild tension between Thomas and Sarah, because he seems a bit resentful that he suddenly has to make major adjustments to his life as a single parent with temporary full custody of his child. But overall, Sarah and Thomas have a cordial relationship and seem to be handling co-parenting responsibilities in the best way that they can.

Luckily, Stella is a kind and obedient child who doesn’t give her parents any trouble. She’s very proud of her mother’s accomplishments as an astronaut. However, Stella doesn’t yet seem fully aware of any long-term impact that Sarah’s absence might have on her and the rest of the family. Stella is more curious than angry about Sarah having to be away from home for a long period of time. Boulant does a good job in her role as Stella.

Sarah has to enroll Stella in a new school that’s close to where Thomas lives. During a meeting with that Sarah and Stella has with an administrator at this new school, Stella mentions that she’s dyslexic, dyscalculic and dysorthographic. Sarah worries that Stella might not be able to adjust to the standards of this new school. Meanwhile, Stella is worried about their female tabby cat named Laika because Stella’s father Thomas is allergic to cats. Sarah keeps reassuring Stella that everything will be fine and that Thomas will get used to having the cat in his home.

Spending a year away from Stella is a decision that weighs heavily on Sarah. Because although no one really comes right out and says it in this story, women who have to spend a lot of time away from their loved ones because of work responsibilities are judged more harshly than men who make the same decisions. Sarah might be feeling guilt or trepidation about how her absence will affect her relationship with Stella, but Sarah is not going to pass up this rare opportunity to not only go to Mars but also to be the first woman on Mars.

The majority of “Proxima” is about Sarah’s preparing herself and Stella for this long separation. Sarah often keeps her feelings bottled up inside, but Green gives an impressive performance where she is able to convey a lot of Sarah’s emotions through her eyes and facial expressions. “Proxima” is not a big adventure story with a bunch of astronauts flying through the universe in a spacecraft. This is a much more specific psychological portrait of someone who’s rarely seen on screen as the main character of a movie: a female astronaut who also happens to be a mother.

Before Sarah goes to Russia, where she and the other Proxima Mission astronauts complete the final phase of their intense training, a conference meeting is held at the space facility to introduce her as the newest member of the team. Members of the press have been invited. And making the introduction is Mike Shannon (played by Matt Dillon), an American astronaut who considers himself to the “alpha male” of the Proxima Mission group.

Mike makes it clear from the get-go that he has a sexist attitude toward women who are astronauts. When he introduces Sarah at this event, Mike makes sure to mention that Sarah is a “last-minute crew member,” implying that she wasn’t a first-choice candidate. And he comments that he’s glad that Sarah is French, “because French women are apparently really good at cooking.”

There are a few groans from the audience when Mike makes these micro-aggressive comments. Mike’s snide remarks, which he tries to cloak in a joking manner, are obviously meant to belittle Sarah, her accomplishments and her earned place on the astronaut team. Sarah is gracious about the backhanded insult and doesn’t confront about Mike about it, because she knows that she’s going to be stuck in outer space with this guy for a year. And given Mike’s attitude that men are superior to women when it comes to being astronauts, Sarah wisely figures it probably would not be a good idea to start off on Mike’s bad side.

Later at an outdoor party for the space-facility employees, Mike introduces Sarah to his wife Naomi Shannon (played by Nancy Tate), and they mention that they have two sons who are close to Stella’s age. When Naomi and Sarah are briefly talking alone together at the party, Sarah mentions her separated marital status and that her estranged husband will be taking care of Stella while Sarah is away. Naomi comments that it must be an special challenge to be a single parent and an astronaut.

Aside from her marital status and whether or not she has any children, Sarah reveals very little of her personal life to her colleagues. In a scene that happens later in the movie, Sarah and Mike are alone in a locker room together, and he tries to get her to reveal her sexual orientation and what’s going on in her love life. Mike asks Sarah if she has a boyfriend or a girlfriend. She plays it cool and doesn’t really answer his questions, while he tells her that he’s just trying to get a handle on who she is.

Astute viewers can see that the only reason why Mike is asking these questions is to see if Sarah has an vulnerabilities that he might be able to exploit. That’s because although Mike acts as if Sarah is inferior to him as an astronaut, he still sees her as a threat because she’s mostly been excelling in the training sessions. During one of the final training sessions in Russia, Mike gloats when it looks like Sarah might fall short of expectations. And Mike openly smirks in the rare occasion that Sarah is late for a training session (because she was on the phone with Stella), and the instructor curtly punishes Sarah for her tardiness by sending her away and not letting her participate in the session.

The other Proxima Mission astronauts whom Sarah meets when she arrives in Russia are Anton Ocheivsky (played by Aleksey Fateev), who’s a compassionate Russian, and Jurgen (played by Trond-Erik Vassal), a German whose personality is hard to read since he doesn’t have much dialogue in the movie. Anton and Jurgen are minor supporting characters whose main purpose in this story is to show that not all of the men on this astronaut team are sexist jerks.

Sarah has a quiet determination to prove herself to everyone on the team. Mike acts more like a rival than a team member. And although he doesn’t blatantly do anything to sabotage Sarah, he does make little digs here and there to try and irritate her on a psychological level. Almost everything that Mike does to get on Sarah’s nerves to to try to make her feel inferior, just because she’s a woman.

For example, when Stella comes to visit Sarah during the final training sessions, Mike expresses irritation (and perhaps some jealousy) that Stella can be seen around the training facility. In a condescending tone, Mike tells Sarah that she needs to “cut the umbilical cord” and get Stella used to the idea that she won’t be able to see her mother for a long time once they’re in outer space. Aside from the fact that Mike doesn’t really have a right to tell Sarah how much time she should spend with her daughter before this momentous trip, the “cut the umbilical cord” comment is completely misogynistic. Obviously, Mike wouldn’t use those words with a man in the same position as Sarah.

Fortunately, “Proxima” doesn’t turn the tension between Mike and Sarah into a ridiculous melodrama. After all, these are professionals who are largely focused on common goals for this mission. “Proxima” also realistically shows that Sarah doesn’t act too shocked by Mike’s sexist attitude, because in her very male-dominated profession, she’s probably used to dealing with men who have the same misogynistic mindset that Mike does. There are also indications that Sarah has a strong sense of self and won’t compromise who she is, such when she rejects a male colleague’s suggestions that she cut her hair or take hormones that would suppress her menstrual cycle while she’s in outer space.

What has more of an emotional impact on Sarah is the fear of not knowing if her year-long absence might permanently damage Stella and her close relationship with Stella. No relationship is perfect, but the love between this mother and daughter is genuinely the most important thing in both of their lives. Amid all the intense training that Sarah has to go through for this mission, “Proxima” shows this mother/daughter love in a way that is touching without being overly sentimental. (Viewers who watch the movie should stay for the end credits, which features a photo montage of real-life female astronauts with their children.)

As a drama set in the world of astronauts, “Proxima” can be considered very low-key if compared to the way astronauts and their work are portrayed in other fictional movies. However much “Proxima” might lack in action scenes, it more than makes up for in its realistic depiction of humanity and relatable emotions. It presents the point of view of a woman astronaut in a male-dominated profession, without taking the cliché route of making gender discrimination the primary focus of the story. “Proxima” is inspiring and effective without being a heavy-handed and preachy movie.

Vertical Entertainment released “Proxima” on digital and VOD on November 6, 2020.

Review: ‘Synchronic,’ starring Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan

October 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie in “Synchronic” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Synchronic”

Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the sci-fi/horror film “Synchronic” has a predominantly white cast (with a some African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two paramedics who are best friends try to find out if a synthetic party drug has something to do with the disappearance of the teenage daughter of one of the men.

Culture Audience: “Synchronic” will appeal primarily to people who like horror movies that blend a mystery with compelling visuals representing other world dimensions.

Jamie Dornan and Anthony Mackie in “Synchronic” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Synchronic” is a noteworthy thriller that’s has a tone that strikes an interesting balance between gritty noir and trippy psychedelic. That’s because the mystery in the movie revolves around a new hallucinogenic party drug called Synchronic that has infiltrated New Orleans and seems to be causing mysterious and gruesome deaths of people who take Synchronic. The movie has a very predictable ending, but the story is immersive, the acting is very good, and it’s worth checking out if people are interested in a well-paced and intriguing sci-fi/horror flick.

Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, “Synchronic” (which was written by Benson) has a friendship between two paramedics at the heart of the story. Steve Denube (played by Anthony Mackie) and Dennis Dannelly (played by Jamie Dornan) are two longtime best friends who work together as employees of New Orleans Emergency Medical Services. And something strange has recently been going on in New Orleans when Steve and Dennis get called to the scenes of suspected drug overdoses.

In addition to the usual OD patients at these emergency scenes, they find people viciously murdered. Also found nearby are packets, which resemble condom packets, that have a Synchronic logo. At one druggie house, a woman has overdosed on heroin in the back room, while man has been stabbed to death by what appears to have been a 3-foot long sword. The two drugged-out witnesses in the house aren’t much help to the cops.

At an apartment building, a couple named Leah (played by Betsy Holt) and Travis (played by Shane Brady), who took Synchronic (which is a pill) both had different hallucinogenic experiences, which are shown at the beginning of the movie. Leah was on a bed and saw a snake come out from under the sheets and toward her. Travis went into an elevator and saw himself transported into a swamp area.

By the time the paramedics arrive, Leah is in a catatonic state with a snake bite, while Travis is dead in the elevator shaft with an eerie smile on his face. A fellow paramedic named Bob (played by Martin Bats Bradford) speculates that Leah was bitten by an eastern diamondback rattlesnake, which hasn’t been seen in New Orleans for decades.

Another bizarre Synchronic incident happens when a man’s body that seems to have been completely burned by spontaneous human combustion is found at an amusement park, with empty packets of Synchronic near his body. Another man (played by Jean-Pierre Vertus), who’s dressed as a voodoo skeleton, is found babbly incoherently with a cackling laugh after he’s taken Synchronic. Steve and Dennis aren’t detectives, but they’re wondering what’s going on with this drug and why it’s linked to these unusual freak-outs, injuries and deaths.

During this mystery related to their job, Steve (who’s in his mid-40s) and Dennis (who’s in his late 30s) are each dealing with personal issues. Steve, who is a womanizing bachelor, has recently found out that he has a brain tumor, but he doesn’t tell Dennis about it right away. Dennis is stuck in a rut in his marriage to his wife Tara (played by Katie Aselton), who is dealing with the stress of working full-time and taking care of their 1-year-old daughter. Dennis and Tara also have a rebellious 18-year-old daughter named Brianna (Ally Ioannides), who is resisting Dennis’ pressure on her to go to college.

Steve is like a “cool uncle” to Brianna. At an outdoor picnic with several of Tara and Dennis’ friends, Steve sneaks a beer for Brianna to drink. She can open up and talk to Steve more than she can with her father. And when Brianna goes missing from a party where she’s taken Synchronic, Steve takes it upon himself to experiment with the drug to try to get to the bottom of the mystery.

“Synchronic” is the type of movie where almost everything looks gloomy, even during the daytime. Moorhead, who is also the movie’s cinematographer, infuses the movie with a lot of sepia and gray tones, to give a sense of doom throughout the entire story. Synchronic is not a “shiny, happy” drug, but one that induces terrifying scenarios that might be more than visions.

These visions almost always include someone or something attacking the person who’s taken the drug. And if the person who’s taken the drug gets out of this drug-induced trance, there is evidence from wounds or other injuries that the attack really happened. How exactly can Steve find Brianna by taking Synchronic? It’s explained in the movie.

Mackie and Dornan have a believable rapport as best friends Steve and Dennis, who have a the type of age-difference male friendship that isn’t seen to often in movies. There are some scenes in the movie that also realistically show the devastating impact that a missing child can have on a crumbling marriage. The stress of Brianna’s disappearance takes a major toll on Dennis and Tara.

The movie’s visual effects are convincing, but they’re not going to nominated for any major awards. What really drives the story in the last third of the film is how much involved Steve gets in investigating Brianna’s disappearance. And if you consider that Steve has a terminal illness, it’s easy to understand the motivations for a lot of what he does in the story. It’s that extra layer of a life in crisis that gives “Synchronic” an emotional urgency that’s portrayed in the story in a captivating way.

Well Go USA released “Synchronic” in select U.S. cinemas on October 23, 2020.

Review: ‘Love and Monsters,’ starring Dylan O’Brien

October 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dylan O’Brien in “Love and Monsters” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Love and Monsters”

Directed by Michael Matthews

Culture Representation: Taking place in California and other parts of the U.S., the sci-fi/horror/adventure film “Love and Monsters” has a predominantly white cast (with some Asians, Latinos and African Americans) portraying the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 24-year-old man goes on a quest to reunite with his former high-school sweetheart during an apocalypse in which deadly mutant monsters have taken over the world.

Culture Audience: “Love and Monsters” will appeal to several generations of people who like sci-fi/horror movies that successfully blend other genres, such as comedy, action, romance and drama.

Jessica Henwick in “Love and Monsters” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Even though “Love and Monsters” takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which mutant monsters have killed off about 95% of the human population, the movie is not a grim and horrific slog that many people would expect it to be. In fact, “Love and Monsters” (directed by Michael Matthews) has a lot of charming comedy as well as heartfelt dramatic moments that can appeal to a wide variety of people. It’s the type of winning movie that people would want to see repeatedly and ask for a sequel. (And the end of the “Love and Monsters” definitely leaves open the possibility that there could be a continuation of the story.)

The central character of “Love and Monsters” is Joel Dawson (played by Dylan O’Brien), a 24-year-old “regular guy,” who lives in an underground bunker with several other young people who are under the age of 40. Apocalypse survivors who live together as a community call themselves a colony. According to Joel’s voiceover narration in the beginning of the movie, the apocalypse (which is called the Monsterpocalypse) happened when chemical compounds from bombs rained back down on Earth and caused animals to mutate into giant monsters.

The monsters killed most of the world’s human population within a year. The survivors fled underground, they live in colony bunkers, and go above ground in hunting parties to search for food. In addition to food that they find above ground, the members of Joel’s colony survive by growing their own food inside the bunker. They also have a cow for milk.

“Love and Monsters” takes place seven years after the Monsterpocalypse began. Joel is an orphan whose parents were killed right when the apocalypse started while the family was trying to escape the monsters that invaded their neighborhood. Joel (who is an an only child) is originally from Fairfield, California, a city about 45 miles northeast of San Francisco. Like most apocalypse survivors, Joel doesn’t have any biological family members who are still alive.

Joel has found a new family with the colony of survivors who rescued him when the apocalypse began. However, Joel feels like somewhat of an outsider in the group. All of the other members of the colony have coupled up (and one couple has had a baby together), while Joel is the only one who doesn’t have a love partner. He also gets scared easily and freezes up when he sees monsters. Therefore, the colony doesn’t consider Joel to be useful for hunting trips and anything that would involve defending their colony from danger.

However, Joel is good at fixing things, he’s loves to draw, and he’s the colony’s main cook. One of the gadgets that Joel likes to tinker with is the bunker’s portable radio, which is the main way that colonies communicate with each other. (Television, phones and the Internet don’t exist in this world.)

Through a lot of investigating and persistence, Joel has found out that his first love, Aimee (played by Jessica Henwick), who was his girlfriend in high school, is living in a colony about 85 miles away in a place called Jenner Beach. He makes contact with Aimee, and she seems thrilled to hear from Joel. Over a period of time, they continue to talk to each other over the radio. And Joel finds himself falling in love with Aimee again.

When Joel and Aimee dated in high school (the movie has a few brief flashback scenes to this time period), their romance was interrupted because they were forced to flee separately with their respective families during the apocalypse. And then, Joel and Aimee lost touch with each other, until now. Because Joel feels like the “odd man out” in his colony, he’s starting to wonder if he really belongs there.

Joel’s colony has a close call when a monster invades the bunker and nearly kills Joel, who is rescued just in time by some other people in the colony who shoot the monster and kill it. This incident causes Joel’s self-esteem to take another hit because he believes that the other members of the colony think of him as a cowardly wimp. This near-death experience and his yearning to reunite with Aimee motivate Joel to say goodbye to his colony to go above ground and reunited with Aimee.

The members of Joel’s colony are disappointed to see him go and they’re very skeptical that Joel will be able to survive this trip on his own. But Joel is determined to go. All they can do is wish him well. One of the members of the colony gives him a map, while Joel takes some other items on the trip, including weapons and a portable radio that hasn’t worked in a long time.

Joel’s trip isn’t always dangerous, but it has a lot of close calls with a variety of giant mutant animals. One of the first that he encounters is a giant frog in someone’s abandoned backyard. Joel is rescued from the giant frog by an intelligent and expressive Australian Kelpie, which Joel calls Boy. This stray dog becomes Joel’s constant companion throughout most of the movie. And the scenes with Joel and Boy are among the best in “Love and Monsters.”

At another point in the movie, Joel accidentally falls into a pit that’s the nest of a creature called a sandgobbler. This time, he’s rescued by two humans: a middle-aged macho man named Clyde (played by Michael Rooker) and a sassy 8-year-old girl named Minnow (played by Ariana Greenblatt), who are not related to each other but are traveling together because their family members have died.

Minnow initially teases Joel over his tendency to get frightened easily, but Minnow eventually learns to respect Joel when he improves his target and defense skills. Clyde and Minnow are traveling north to a destination called Snow Mountain Wilderness, which has a colony of survivors who say the location is safer than other places because the cold and elevation keep the monsters away. The camaraderie between these three seemingly unlikely travel companions is also one of the highlights of “Love and Monsters.”

Clyde and Minnow invite Joel to go to Snow Mountain Wilderness with them. And when all three of the travelers reach the literal crossroads where Joel has to decide to go with Clyde and Minnow or continue west to reunite with Aimee, it’s easy to know what decision he will make. The rest of the movie takes a few twists and turns that refreshingly avoid a lot of predictable scenarios.

The visual effects for “Love and Monsters” are above-average, but they’re not going to be nominated for any major awards. The movie’s world building and how these creatures look are a commentary on the hazardous and deadly effects of humans who don’t take care of the environment. And the environment gets revenge on the humans in this apocalyptic way. The deadly mutant creatures include giant snails and what’s considered the most fearsome and worst mutant monster of them all: the Queen Sandgobbler, which looks like a giant mutant crab.

But not all of the monsters are deadly. Some of the giant creatures just want to be free to live without being hunted, and there’s a message in the movie about how monsters can be judged by looking at their eyes. It sounds a lot cornier than how it’s handled in the movie. One type of harmless creature is the sky jellyfish, which appear in one of the most touching and visually compelling scenes in the movie.

O’Brien, who was the star of “The Maze Runner” movie series, takes on a very different type of post-apocalyptic world in “Love and Monsters,” where humans are more likely to be helpful to each other, rather than have their lives revolve around the cutthroat and cruel competitions that are the basis of “The Maze Runner.” That doesn’t mean all is harmonious among people in the world of “Love and Monsters.” Someone can be expelled from a colony for stealing food, which is considered one of the worst crimes to commit in the “Love and Monsters” world.

The “Love and Monsters” screenplay was written by Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson, who successfully mix various genres in the story. Most of the humor comes from Joel’s self-admitted awkwardness and insecurities, which many viewers will ultimately find endearing because he remains a humble person who’s a romantic at heart. Duffield also wrote and directed the critically acclaimed 2020 film “Spontaneous,” another Paramount Pictures movie about a young romance during a plague, although “Spontaneous” has a darker edge that’s geared to mature audiences. Thanks to assured direction, a genre-blending original story, and an appealing cast of characters, “Love and Monsters” is a crowd-pleaser that invites people into a world that’s very perilous to live in, but it’s a world that viewers will want to revisit and see what happens next.

Paramount Pictures released “Love and Monsters” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on October 16, 2020.

Review: ‘Black Box’ (2020), starring Mamoudou Athie, Phylicia Rashad, Amanda Christine, Tosin Morohunfola, Charmaine Bingwa and Troy James

October 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mamoudou Athie and Phylicia Rashad in “Black Box” (Photo by Alan Markfield/Amazon Studios)

“Black Box” (2020)

Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr.

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the sci-fi/horror movie “Black Box” has a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widowed father suffers from amnesia because of the car accident that killed his wife, and he undergoes a radical scientific experiment to try to recover his memories.

Culture Audience: “Black Box” will appeal primarily to people who like horror movies that blend science fiction with family drama and have unexpected twists.

Amanda Christine and Mamoudou Athie in “Black Box” (Photo by Alfonso Bresciani/Amazon Studios)

At first glance, the sci-fi/horror film “Black Box” seems to be a story about how unchecked scientific experiments can wreak havoc on someone’s life. But beneath all the creepy and mind-bending scenes is a story about yearning for chances to start over and renew relationships with loved ones. Directed by Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour Jr., “Black Box” has some familiar influences (the 1990 film “Total Recall” immediately comes to mind), but the movie has its own unique elements that make it a worthwhile offering for people who like horror movies where a lot of terror can exist in someone’s mind.

“Black Box” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Amazon Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. The movie is the feature-film debut of Osei-Kuffour, who co-wrote the “Black Box” screenplay with Stephen Herman. It’s not a straightforward movie that is supposed to be told chronologically. Instead, viewers have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, just like fragmented memories that could become whole.

In “Black Box,” Nolan Wright (played by Mamoudou Athie) is a 33-year-old photographer and widowed father who is struggling physically, financially and emotionally. He is recovering from a car accident that killed his wife Rachel six months ago and left him in a coma. When he emerged from the coma, he found out that he has amnesia, and he is now coping with feelings for guilt over Rachel’s death and the stress of not remembering a great deal of his life.

Because of his injuries and ongoing recovery, Nolan hasn’t been able to work, and the bills are piling up. There’s a wall in Nolan’s living room that looks like it was punched in anger, and it’s later revealed in the movie that he punched the wall because he got frustrated over being hounded by bill collectors. This type of violence goes against Nolan’s mild-mannered nature. He’s also a kind and attentive father.

Nolan’s lively and very precocious daughter Ava (played by Amanda Christine), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, has become the “lady” of their household. She helps Nolan get ready in the morning, makes meals and helps him remember things, since Nolan as short-term and long-term memory loss. Nolan worries that the big chunks of his life that he doesn’t remember are memories that he’ll never get back.

In the beginning of the movie, Nolan is ready to go back to work at the magazine job he used to have before the car accident. He has a meeting with his former boss Cathy (played by Gretchen Koerner), who also used to be the supervisor for Nolan’s late wife Rachel. But Cathy tells him some bad news: She can’t rehire Nolan because her publisher boss doesn’t think that Nolan’s current work doesn’t reach the same quality level as his past work.

Nolan’s best friend is a doctor named Gary (played by Tosin Morohunfola), who offers to lend Nolan money to help pay Nolan’s bills, but Nolan is politely declines to accept this offer. Nolan tells Gary about being rejected by his former job, and Gary comforts Nolan by telling him, “You don’t need to change your career, Nolan. You just need to remember who you are.”

While Nolan is visiting Gary at the hospital where Gary works, Gary recommends that Nolan try undergoing some of the experimental memory treatments conducted by Dr. Lillian Brooks (played by Phylicia Rashad), who is considered a somewhat controversial visionary because not all of her experiments have been government-approved. And it just so happens that a video of Dr. Brooks giving an instructional lecture to an audience is playing in the waiting room where Nolan is sitting.

Feeling he’s got nothing to lose, Nolan makes an appointment with Dr. Brooks, who knows Nolan’s personal and medical history and decides he’s a good candidate for her Black Box memory recovery experiments. Dr. Brooks tells Nolan that the Black Box converts memories into an “immersive virtual experience, like a dream.” Therefore, when Nolan gets a Black Box treatment, he will have a virtual recreation of his memories.

Dr. Brooks puts Nolan under hypnosis, where he sees himself in a house with different rooms. Before he goes into the trance, Dr. Brooks tells him that the first room he will be in is a “safe room.” There are no safes in this room, but it’s supposed to represent the safest room in the house and the room that Nolan has to be in if he wants to emerge safely from the hypnosis.

Nolan can go from room to room by pushing down on the crown of an imaginary analog watch. However, he cannot open the doors in the safe room. If he wants to leave the safe room, he has to use the watch. And what Nolan sees when he goes under hypnosis would be enough for most people to completely call off the Black Box experiment.

While under hypnosis, Nolan has flashes of memories, but the other people in these memories have their faces blurred out and the rooms are usually very shadowy or dark. One vivid memory that Nolan relives is his wedding ceremony in the church where it took place. But what’s supposed to be happy memory turns into a nightmare.

An unwelcome guest emerges from a church pew. It’s an unknown humanoid creature that can contort limbs at sickening angles. The menacing creature is called Backwards Man (played by Troy James), and every time it moves, you can hear the sound of bones cracking. Just like everyone else in these visions, the face of Backwards Man is obscured. Every time Backwards Man sees Nolan, the creature rushes to attack Nolan, who then has to quickly find a way back to the safe room so that he can come out from the hypnosis.

The first time that Nolan has this terrifying experience, he’s hesitant to go back under hypnosis again. But his desire to recover his memories outweighs any fear that he has, so he goes back under hypnosis again. Another vision that he sees is of a bruised and crying woman in a kitchen. It appears that someone in the home has beaten her and she’s afraid of that person.

Nolan has never seen this woman before, but he later finds out that her name is Miranda (played by Charmaine Bingwa), and she doesn’t live very far from Nolan. He also sees in his visions that Miranda has a crying baby in another room. And once again, Backwards Man suddenly appears to try to attack Nolan.

Nolan begins to wonder if the visions he’s seeing are really memories or delusions. He asks Gary if he’s ever had a history of abusing women. Gary tells Nolan absolutely not and says that Nolan and Rachel were an ideal, loving couple. Gary only remembers bits and pieces of his marriage to Rachel, so he has to take Gary’s word for it. (There’s no mention in the story if Nolan has any other relatives. If he does, he doesn’t communicate with them and vice versa.)

The mysteries of Nolan’s strange Black Box visions are explained by the end of the film. Throughout the movie, “Black Box” writer/director Osei-Kuffour achieves a delicate balance between the Nolan who’s trying to keep things together in the “real world” to be a responsible parent and the Nolan who keeps getting pulled back into the dark and murky world of the Black Box memory experiments. Nolan isn’t quite sure what’s being done to his mind but he’s willing to risk everything just to get back his memories.

But the darker world of these memory experiments spills over into Nolan’s real world, as he has nightmares and blackouts that affect his ability to function as normally as he would like. For example, one day he forgets to pick up Ava from school (it’s not the first time it’s happened), and the concerned teacher who brings Ava home threatens to report Nolan to child protective services if it happens again.

As Nolan, Athie does an admirable job of portraying someone who’s torn between these two worlds, while Christine shows a lot of talent as a child who’s perceptive beyond the level of most children her age. Nolan and Ava’s father/daughter relationship is adorable and realistic. Rashad portrays Dr. Brooks as someone who is passionate about her work, but the movie doesn’t really go into details about other patients whom Dr. Brooks has treated. The only work with patients that Dr. Brooks is shown doing in the movie is her Black Box sessions with Nolan.

The Backwards Man in “Black Box” brings some chills, but this contortionist creature looks too human and familiar for it to become a horror villain that people will be talking about for years. (When the face of Backwards Man is finally revealed, it’s no surprise.) Ultimately, the message of “Black Box” is that no matter how advanced technology becomes and how many material possessions people can have, people’s human connections and memories have intangible value and are treasured the most.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “Black Box” on October 6, 2020.

Review: ‘Spontaneous,’ starring Katherine Langford and Charlie Plummer

October 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Charlie Plummer and Katherine Langford in “Spontaneous” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Spontaneous”

Directed by Brian Duffield

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional U.S. suburban city called Covington, the sci-fi/horror comedy “Spontaneous” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two opposite teenagers fall in love during a mysterious plague that causes people to spontaneously combust.

Culture Audience: “Spontaneous” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in unconventional teen comedies that have many dark themes and gory moments.

Hayley Law and Katherine Langford in “Spontaneous” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

The poster for the movie “Spontaneous” makes it look like a typical carefree teen romantic comedy. This movie is definitely not carefree or a typical rom-com. In fact, the second half of the film gets so dark and depressing that unsuspecting viewers might wonder if they if they were duped into seeing the wrong movie. “Spontaneous” might not please people who are looking for a more conventional story, but if people are willing to experience a movie that takes some bold risks in the teen-oriented film genre, then “Spontaneous” is worth watching.

Brian Duffield wrote and directed “Spontaneous,” which is based on the novel of the same title by Aaron Starmer. The movie adeptly manages the difficult challenge of blending science fiction, horror and dark comedy. For the most part, it works. And thanks to a brutally sardonic performance by Katherine Langford, “Spontaneous” could very well become a cult classic for teen films.

In “Spontaneous,” Langford portrays Mara Carlyle, who narrates the story as if she’s looking back on her life several years later. When this story takes place, Mara is a senior at Covington High School in a fictional American suburban city called Covington. Mara doesn’t fall into a lot of movie stereotypes of pretty blondes in high school. She’s not a cheerleader, a star student, a popular girl, a stuck-up rich kid, or a girl who sleeps around. In fact, unlike most teen protagonists in movies, Mara doesn’t have any burning ambitions in life, she’s not obsessing over a crush, and she’s not trying to get anyone’s approval in particular, not even the approval of her best friend.

Mara’s best friend since elementary school is Tess McNulty (played by Hayley Law), who is as sensible and cautious as Mara is unpredictable and impulsive. Mara likes to get high on illegal drugs and get drunk, while Tess doesn’t do drugs and occasionally drinks alcohol, but never to the point where she’s vomiting or out of control. (The movie has several scenes where Mara spends a lot of her time intoxicated.)

Tess is a student who takes school seriously and has plans for college. Mara does just enough to get by academically and doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life after she graduates from high school. What these two girls have in common is a mutual respect for each other and a plan to eventually live together in a beach house when they’re old.

The movie gets to the “sci-fi/horror” aspect right away, when a student named Katelyn Ogden (played by Mellany Barros), who’s in one of Mara’s classes, suddenly and spontaneously explodes during a class session. There’s blood everywhere in the classroom, everyone runs out of the school screaming in horror, and people are left wondering why this bizarre death happened. As one of the students says later in describing the incident: “It was like a Cronenberg movie.”

Shortly before this incident, Mara had been getting anonymous text messages from a mystery admirer who told her in the messages that Mara has been a crush of this admirer for the past two years. In response, she texts this mystery person with a message saying, “No dick pics.” The secret admirer then texts her a picture of Richard Nixon, with the message, “Sorry, it’s crooked.”

Mara is intrigued and charmed by this person who seems to share her sarcastic sense of humor. While Tess and Mara hang out at a diner together after the “spontaneous combustion” incident, the secret admirer reveals himself. He asks if he could sit with them, and they say yes. Mara almost instantly guesses he’s the secret admirer from the way that he talks and looks at her.

His name is Dylan Hovemeyer (played by Charlie Plummer), who is also a senior at Covington High School. His personality is almost the opposite of Mara’s. Dylan is shy and awkward, while Mara is brash and confident. And although Dylan has pretty much made it clear that he could fall in love with Mara, she’s resistant to even saying the word “love” out loud and isn’t really looking for a serious relationship.

Mara is the type of person who will use illegal drugs or get drunk to escape from her problems or bad thoughts. Because of the trauma of witnessing the explosion firsthand, she decides to take a lot of psychedelic mushrooms in the tea that she’s drinking at the diner. By the time Dylan comes over to Mara and Tess’ table, Mara is flying high. But because she took so many mushrooms, she knows she’s going to get sick, so she asks Dylan to go with her to the diner’s restroom to hold her hair while she vomits.

Mara tells Dylan that she took a bunch of psychedelic mushrooms, so things might get weird. Sure enough, she tells Dylan that she’s seeing several clones of him in the bathroom. And she ends up vomiting a lot, while Dylan dutifully attends to her. Dylan thinks Mara’s hallucinations are kind of funny, and he’s more than happy to cater to Mara.

Mara decides that Dylan has passed an unofficial test of trust, since he saw her in a vulnerable state of intoxication and he didn’t judge her or take advantage of her, so she decides to hang out with him some more. They find out that they have the same taste in 1980s and 1990s rock music. Mara also likes Dylan’s quirks, such as later in movie when he buys a beat-up old milk-delivery/ice-cream truck and Mara thinks it’s one of the coolest vehicles she’s ever seen. Dylan and Mara, who both have no siblings, consider themselves to be outsiders who aren’t understood by very many people.

It should come as no surprise that Mara and Dylan end up dating each other and falling in love. But Mara is the type of girl who wants some independence, and she initially has a hard time admitting that Dylan is her boyfriend. And then there’s the possibility that Dylan will move away because of college. Dylan and Mara’s relationship begins at a time of the school year before students begin finding out which colleges they’ve applied to have accepted or rejected them. Mara and Dylan decide to just make the best of the time that they have together and figure it out as they go along.

On one of their first dates together, Dylan and Mara go to a football game, where on the field, one of the football players spontaneously explodes, which causes the expected bloody mayhem. And so begins a plague in the city where people randomly explode. It could happen to anyone at any time.

The FBI and other government agents descend on the city to investigate. One of those officials is Agent Rosetti (played by Yvonne Orji), who interviews many of the students at the high school, including Mara and Tess. Agent Rosetti is tough but compassionate as she tries to get to the bottom of this mystery. Every time Mara is questioned or interviewed by an authority figures, she gives snarky, unhelpful answers.

The students who were in the classroom of the first explosion are eventually put into a temporary quarantine together, where they go under intense medical exams. Mara predictably hates being confined, and she takes her resentment out on the authority figures. Here’s an example of Mara’s snide way of talking: During an examination with a doctor, the doctor asks Mara, “What do you want to do in college? Mara replies, “Stay alive.”

As more people start to explode in the city, religious conservatives begin flocking to Covington to hold protests because they believe the city’s residents, particularly the teenagers, are cursed by demons. They hold protests with picket signs that say things like, “The Devil Inside Your Children Has Found His Way Out,” “Covington Is Doomed” and “Repent or Perish.” Mara is not religious, but there comes a time when she, like many of the the other survivors, feels survivors’ guilt.

During all of this turmoil, Dylan and Mara become closer. He tells her that one of the reasons why he finally approached her after two years of admiring her from afar was because he doesn’t know how much longer they might have to live. Dylan also opens up about how the death of his father (who passed away from a heart attack) deeply affected him. Dylan, who used to live on a farm, says that after his father died, he would sometimes go in the barn and dance my himself while listen to his father’s favorite music.

“Spontaneous” has moments of sweet sentimentality, but most of the tone for this comedy is acerbic and occasionally it gets very bleak. The movie includes portrayals of overwhelming depression and substance abuse that get to dangerous levels. And unlike a lot of teen-oriented movies, there aren’t necessarily people coming to the rescue to help set any troubled teens down the right path.

Mara can be rude, selfish and irresponsible, but she also has a vulnerable, caring and loyal side that she shows to only a few special people in her life, including her parents. Mara’s parents Charlie (played by Rob Huebel) and Angela (played by Piper Perabo) want to be “cool” with Angela, so they smoke marijuana with her and they’re reluctant to discipline her. When she stays out past curfew time, they worry, but they don’t really punish her, since she’s almost 18 years old.

Some people watching “Spontaneous” might not warm up to Mara because she’s so flawed and has a “no filter” attitude, where she says what she thinks, even though it might be unpleasant or insensitive. On Halloween, when the students go to school wearing costumes, Mara dresses up as the fictional horror character Carrie (the bullied teen in Stephen King’s novel of the same name), who notoriously had a bucket of pig’s blood poured on her at her school prom.

However, Mara’s “Carrie” prom dress doesn’t have blood on it, because Mara is aware that it would be in bad taste, given the spontaneous bloody explosions that started with fellow student Katelyn Ogdon. When Dylan (who’s dressed as an Amish person) first sees Mara in the costume, he immediately guesses that she’s dressed as the “Carrie” horror character. Mara loves that Dylan instantly knew what her costume was, but she adds that “Katelyn fucked it up,” as in it was Katelyn’s “fault” that Mara couldn’t wear blood on the dress.

The editing of “Spontaneous” could have been improved somewhat in the last third of the story, when some self-destructive things that Mara does get repetitive and tend to drag down the pacing of the movie. However, the tender romance between Mara and Dylan is very easy to like and is by far the best part of the movie. Langford and Plummer’s chemistry together is warm, funny and absolutely enjoyable to watch. They both give very good performances in the movie—not the type that will win major awards, but the type that will be used as examples of how to act in a genre-bending teen comedy.

“Spontaneous” does not skimp on the gore, so people who are easily nauseated by the sight of blood might want to steer clear of watching this movie. Even without the spontaneous combustion and all the bloody scenes, the message of “Spontaneous” is loud and clear: Life can be messy. You can either be afraid or live each day as if it’s your last.

Paramount Pictures released “Spontaneous” in select U.S. cinemas on October 2, 2020, and on digital and VOD on October 6, 2020.