Review: ‘Tetris’ (2023), starring Taron Egerton

May 13, 2023

by Carla Hay

Taron Egerton, Sofia Lebedeva and Nikita Efremov in “Tetris” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Tetris” (2023)

Directed by Jon S. Baird

Some language in Japanese and Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1988, in the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and Japan, the dramatic film “Tetris” (inspired by a true story) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Video game entrepreneur Henk Rogers gets caught up in a web of ruthless business deals and political intrigue in multiple countries, as he tries to obtain worldwide licensing rights to the game Tetris. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious traget audience of Tetris fans, “Tetris” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Taron Egerton, video games that were launched in the 1980s, and movies about real-life business underdogs.

Togo Igawa, Nino Furuhata and Taron Egerton in “Tetris” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

Combining 1980s entertainment nostalgia and 1980s Cold War history lessons, the dramatic film “Tetris” also mixes facts with fiction. In this lively retelling of the Tetris game origin story, the “race against time” plot developments are obviously exaggerated for the movie. However, the double dealings and business backstabbings ring true, in addition to navigating cultural differences. “Tetris” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival.

Directed by Jon S. Baird and written by Noah Pink, “Tetris” can get a little too over-the-top in how it depicts the story of one man versus corporate giants and the Russian government in the fierce competition to get worldwide rights to the video game Tetris. However, the cast members’ performances elevate the movie, which has some comedic elements that easily could have looked out-of-place with the wrong cast members. “Tetris” has a winking tone to it let viewers know that the filmmakers didn’t intend to make this movie entirely factual or entirely serious.

“Tetris” (a globetrotting story that takes place in 1988) also has a visual motif used to great effect: Many of the scenes have flashes of the live-action visuals presented as if they were in the format of a Tetris game or a video game from the late 1980s. The beginning of the movie also identifies the main characters as “players,” a word that can take on multiple meanings in the context of the story. The word “player” is also more than ironic because much of what happens in all these frantic business deals for Tetris is anything but fun and games.

“Tetris” begins by showing Henk Rogers, co-founder of the small, independent company Bullet-Proof Software at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Henk is of Indonesian-Dutch heritage but he was raised primarily in the United States and lives in Japan during the period of time that this story takes place. His multicultural background comes in handy in some ways, but in other ways it becomes a hindrance when people question his cultural loyalties.

Henk is trying and failing to make his new video game a hit at CES, which is a crucial event for Bullet-Proof Software. Henk has already taken out a bank loan to launch this video game, which he now knows is going to be a flop. But as fate would have it, Henk tries a new video game at the convention: It’s called Tetris, invented by a Russian computer expert named Alexey Pajitnov (played by Nikita Yefremov), who has a humble and unassuming personality.

Alexey does not own the rights to the game. Why? Because in the Communist country that was then known as the U.S.S.R. or Soviet Union, Alexey works for the government entity ELORG, which has monopoly control of the importing and exporting of Russian-made computer products. Anyone who wants the worldwide licensing rights to sell Tetris has to go through the Soviet government first.

In the simplest of terms, Tetris is a game where players try to make buildings out of falling building blocks. Henk is immediately hooked on Tetris and thinks it could be a massive worldwide hit. And he’s willing to bet his life savings and his home on what he wants to do next: partner with a major video game company to get the worldwide licensing rights to Tetris.

An early scene in “Tetris” shows Henk trying to convince a skeptical bank manager named Eddie (played by Rick Yune) to give Henk another bank loan, this time for this Tetris endeavor. After explaining what Tetris is about, Henk tells Eddie why Henk thinks Tetris is so special: “It stays with you. It’s the perfect game.” Henk also mentions that Tetris has become an underground hit in the Soviet Union/Russia, where people have been sharing bootleg copies of Tetris on floppy disks. Eddie reluctantly agrees to the loan, on the conditions that the loan will have a high interest rate and that Henk has to put up his home as collateral.

Henk ends up sneaking into Nintendo headquarters in Japan and meeting with Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi (played by Togo Igawa) and Hiroshi’s assistant (played by Nino Furuhata) to broker for Nintendo the worldwide licensing rights to make Tetris for Nintendo cartridges and arcade machines. Henk turns down Nintendo’s initial offer of $500,000. Henk wants $2 million for the cartridges deal and $1 million for the arcade deal.

While still negotiating with Nintendo, Henk goes to Nintendo of America headquarters in Seattle, where he meets Nintendo of America CEO Minoru Arakawa (played by Ken Yamamura) and Nintendo of America senior vice president/general counsel Howard Lincoln (played by Ben Miles). Minoru and Howard show Henk a sneak peek of a product that has not gone on the market yet: Nintendo’s hand-held Game Boy system. Nintendo is planning to install the game Super Mario Land on all Game Boys, but Henk convinces Minoru and Howard that Tetris has broader appeal and should be the game installed on all Game Boys.

Henk has to contend with three British video game moguls, who at various times are his allies and enemies: duplicitous Robert Stein (played by Toby Jones), the founder/CEO of Andromeda Software; corrupt Robert Maxwell (played by Roger Allam), chairman of Mirrorsoft, a video game publisher; and arrogant Kevin Maxwell (played by Anthony Boyle), who is Robert’s son and the CEO of Mirrorsoft. Henk has been told that Robert Stein has gotten worldwide licensing rights for Tetris and has already made a deal with Mirrorsoft. Henk’s plan, with backing from Nintendo, is to buy out the rights from these British businessmen.

The rest of the movie shows Henk wheeling and dealing, while often getting undercut and betrayed by some people he thought were trustworthy business colleagues. Video game companies Sega and Atari, which were Nintendo’s main rivals at the time, also get in the mix because they also want Tetris. Meanwhile, Henk has to spend a lot of time in Russia (where he eventually meets Alexey) and finds out the hard way that doing a capitalist business deal in a Communist country is a lot more dangerous than he ever thought it could be.

Henk’s family life also suffers because of his obsession to close this deal. His patient wife Akemi Rogers (played by Ayane Nagabuchi), who co-founded Bullet-Proof Software with Henk, handles the managerial administration of the company’s small staff of employees while Henk is in charge of all the sales and marketing. Henk and Akemi have three children: 10-year-old Maya Rogers (played by Kanon Narumi), 8-year-old Julie Rogers (played by Karin Nurumi), and 6-year-old Kevin Rogers. Maya has an important dance performance that she doesn’t want Henk to miss. You can easily predict what will happen.

Meanwhile, in Russia, Henk is assigned a translator named Sasha (played by Sofia Lebedeva), who also educates Henk on Russian and Communist cultures. Henk soon finds out that he is being spied on by the Soviet government. Two of the ELORG officials who have been monitoring Henk are Valentin Trifonov (played by Igor Grabuzov) and Nikolai Belikov (played by Oleg Shtefanko). One of these ELORG officials is much worse than the other.

Egerton portrays Henk as an optimistic charmer who thinks he can talk his way in and out of situations but finds out that he sometimes gets in way over his head. He adeptly handles movie’s drama and comedy. Lebedeva is another standout as translator Sasha, who develops a friendly rapport with Henk and possibly becomes romantically attracted to him. Allam and Boyle provide some sardonic comic relief in portraying the love/hate relationship between Robert Maxwell and Kevin Maxwell. A running joke in the movie is Robert Maxwell’s bragging about being a friend of Mikhail Gorbachev (played by Matthew Marsh), who was the Soviet Union’s president at the time.

Even though “Tetris” couldn’t possibly include portrayals of all the people involved in these complex deals, there are still many characters to keep track of in the story. Luckily, “Tetris” is written well enough to juggle all of these moving pieces in a briskly paced manner, much like how skilled Tetris players navigate the game. The movie’s adrenaline-pumping climax is pure fabrication, but it’s the most memorable aspect of this thriller. “Tetris” strikes the right balance of being escapism and a reality check for how landmark business deals often happen under circumstances that can be stranger than fiction.

Apple Studios released “Tetris” in select U.S. cinemas on March 24, 2023. Apple TV+ premiered the movie on March 31, 2023.

Review: ‘The Host’ (2020), starring Maryam Hassouni, Mike Beckingham and Dougie Poynter

January 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Maryam Hassouni and Mike Beckingham in "The Host"
Maryam Hassouni and Mike Beckingham in “The Host” (Photo by Ashley Paton Photography/Pearl Pictures Productions)

“The Host” (2020)

Directed by Andy Newberry

Culture Representation: Taking place in London and Amsterdam, the cast of white and Asian actors portray a mixture of middle-class professionals, seedy underworld figures and wealthy heirs.

Culture Clash: This film is a classic case of the “haves” versus the “have nots,” the crimes that people will commit to get more money, and how much they might or might nor get away with their crimes.

Culture Audience: “The Host” will appeal most to people who like B-movie thrillers with very familiar tropes that borrow heavily from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film “Psycho.”

Suan-Li Ong in “The Host” (Photo by Ashley Paton Photography/Pearl Pictures Productions)

“The Host” (directed by Andy Newberry) is an uneven, mostly watchable film that wraps itself in the guise of being a crime caper, but the gruesome elements of the story leave no doubt that this is a modern horror flick that will strike some fear into people who venture into a stranger’s home (no matter how lavish it is) for a place to stay. The movie takes quite a bit of time (about half of the film) before viewers get to see the film’s title character.

During the course of the movie, “The Host” screenwriters Finola Geraghty, Brendan Bishop and Laurence Lamers repeat major elements from writer/director Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic “Psycho,” including having three of these main characters: a thief on the run who needs a place to stay; a concerned sibling who goes looking for the thief after the thief goes missing; and a reclusive, mysterious host who lives in a foreboding mansion and who has some serious parental issues.

But first, viewers get to know the thief whose actions propel the chain of events that drive the story. In London, gambling addict Robert Atkinson (played by Mike Beckingham) has been stuck in a dead-end job as a bank teller for years. Robert smokes too much, drinks too much, and makes bad choices in his love life, such as sleeping with a married woman (a co-worker), who ends up ending their affair.

Robert and his younger brother Steve (played by Dougie Poynter, a musician/actor who’s best known outside the U.S. as the bass player for the pop/rock band McFly) spent much of their childhood as orphans. Robert looked out for Steve in their younger days. But now, their sibling roles have reversed. Steve, who’s a married father, is the responsible brother who lends Robert money, while bachelor Robert has been stagnating in a self-destructive rut—much to Steve’s worried disapproval.

One day, a customer walks into the bank to deposit £50,000 in cash. The bank manager entrusts Robert to handle the money and place it in a security deposit box. But since Robert is heavily in debt and doesn’t want to quit gambling, he can’t resist the temptation of stealing the money—even though he knows that surveillance cameras in the bank probably caught him in the act. Robert uses the money to gamble at a local gambling parlor, which looks like it’s run by mobster types with menacing-looking thugs as security. It should come as no surprise that Robert loses in a poker game—£2,000, to be exact—and his opponent demands payment from Robert the next day.

But then, a much older, mysterious man (played by Togo Igawa), who’s been quietly observing Robert in the parlor, approaches Robert and offers him a deal that sounds too good to be true: Take a briefcase, fly to Amsterdam, exchange it for a suitcase that will be given to him by a pre-arranged stranger, and bring the suitcase back to London. But don’t open the cases and don’t ask any questions. All the travel arrangements have already been made, the man tells Robert. And if the task is completed, the man will give Robert £150,000 in cash.

Everything about this deal screams “illegal” or “setup,” but Robert agrees to it, since he’s desperate to pay off his debts and have enough money left over to replace the stolen cash before anyone notices it’s gone. The enigmatic stranger who makes the offer has all the signs of being a crafty and powerful criminal, including his willingness throw all that cash around on someone he’s just met. He also surrounds himself with security goons and an attractive woman named Jun Hui (played by Suan Li-Ong).

Even though Robert makes some dumb choices (it wouldn’t be a horror movie if people didn’t), he’s smart enough to know that there’s a sinister plot in the works, and so his nerves are on edge as he boards the plane to Amsterdam. Robert is so nervous that he doesn’t notice that Jun Hui and a male companion named Yong (played by Tom Wu) have followed him to the airport and have boarded the same plane, where they conveniently sit a few rows away so they can be close enough to watch Robert.

Robert is seated in the same row as a talkative and friendly man (played by Nigel Barber), who introduces himself as an airplane security expert. He later tells Robert, as he offers to give him a ride from the airport, that his name is Herbert Summers. Since “The Host” is also a mystery thriller, of course not everyone is who they first seem to be.

That’s certainly true of Vera Tribbe (played by Maryam Houssini), the Amsterdam heiress who hosts traveling strangers in her mansion when her scruffy friend Gerrie (played by Reinout Bussemaker) overbooks the dumpy hostel that he runs in the back of a local café. This type of overbooking happens to a flustered Robert, who’s told by Gerrie that, as an apology, Robert will get an upgrade stay at Vera’s place at no extra charge. Gerrie explains that Vera is a dear friend who makes these accommodations as a favor to Gerrie.

Here are a few things to learn from the bad decisions that people make in horror movies:

(1) Don’t get involved in mysterious deliveries for a stranger, no matter how much money is involved.
(2) Don’t hand over your passport to a stranger who says they’ll need to temporarily keep it.
(3) Don’t accept drinks from a stranger if there’s a possibility that the drinks could be spiked with something harmful.

When Robert goes missing, the police are reluctant to get involved because the Tribbe family is the most powerful family in Amsterdam. During this manhunt, secrets are revealed to sometimes grisly results. The cast members of “The Host” will not be winning any acting awards for this movie, but some of the cast members are better than others. Poynter stands out as being the most credible with his character’s emotions, while Houssani’s acting range is distractingly uneven, veering from awkward to melodramatic.

The movie has so much of “Psycho” in it, that it’s a blatant homage or ripoff, depending on your perspective. Because “The Host” recycles key characteristics of Hitchcock’s most influential film, this lack of originality is ultimately a major flaw of “The Host” that can’t be ignored. The people who will enjoy this movie the most are those who don’t know anything about “Psycho,” since they won’t be able to guess what’s going to happen in the story.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Host” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on January 17, 2020.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTCRD6Pquh8

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