Summer movie season is basically here because if it’s Summer, it’s… Spiral, but there are still plenty of other films out there. This set of write-ups includes a screenlife thriller, a darkly comedic thriller, a relationship thriller, a claustrophobic thriller (lots of thrillers this week), as well as a slasher flick, a coming-of-age story, a Chinese spy movie, and a courtroom drama. The following features reviews for Profile, Riders of Justice, The Killing of Two Lovers, Oxygen, Initiation, North Hollywood, Cliff Walkers, and Monster.
The Setup: Playing out entirely on a computer screen, an undercover British journalist (Valene Kane) attempts to bait and expose a terrorist recruiter (Shazad Latif) through social media, only to find herself being tempted.
Review: It would be easy to write this premise off as a cliché, yet Profile is based on a non-fiction book, which recounts many aspects that actually occurred to varying degrees. This isn’t to say the film avoids using dramatization as an opportunity to deliver a compelling thriller, but I got a lot out of what director Timur Bekmambetov was going for with his use of the unconventional “screenlife” format to tell this story.
As Bekmambetov has produced many of these films, seeing him take on the format himself was interesting enough, even if the general setup and execution is about the same. Still, I remain fascinated by how a filmmaker can move the viewer’s attention to different parts of a computer screen at any one time while keeping plenty of information flowing. While the use of replays means the film can essentially speed through certain aspects to get to significant moments, seeing the way characters are manipulated through this angle on the story allows for an engrossing experience.
Whether or not there is much meat on the bones of this film is a different story. Profile draws enough attention to a real issue without saying much. However, the actors do their job, as limiting as their positions can be, with solid turns in the story to continually add exciting wrinkles to a plot that has an inevitable endpoint but feels complete nonetheless.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters on May 14, 2021.
The Setup: Military man Markus (Mads Mikkelsen) returns home to care for his teenage daughter after his wife is killed in a tragic train accident. Or was it an accident? A survivor and his similarly geeky, offbeat friends team up with Markus to embark on a revenge-fueled mission to find those who may be responsible.
Review: Well, now I definitely need to see Men & Chicken. That’s one of the previous films Mikkelsen has made with writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen who shows a terrific handle of tone in this darkly comedic thriller that calls on Coen-esque story developments to propel itself along. Thanks to an off-kilter approach to this revenge story, there’s a lot of good entertainment to be found in Riders of Justice while never forgetting the core emotions driving these characters.
It’s especially great to see the range of Mikkelsen, who is a force of nature when called upon, but also a father utterly ill-equipped to handle the complex emotions when it comes to dealing with the tragedy that has befallen himself and his daughter. Combining this character with such an oddball group of techy geeks caught up in what points to a murder conspiracy makes for a different sort of ride that settles in the middle as a ridiculous “all under one roof” situation that keeps things lively.
With elements of screwball comedy, dark humor, a strange sense of poignance, and several thrilling moments, Riders of Justice isn’t quite unpredictable, but it feels like a challenge set on the audience to join in on the choices being made to take a different approach to justice.
Where To Watch: Available in LA, NY, and select theaters starting May 14, 2021. In theaters everywhere and On Demand on May 21, 2021.
The Setup: David (Clayne Crawford) is desperately trying to keep his family of six together during a separation from his wife, Nikki (Sepideh Moafi). They both agree to see other people, but David struggles to grapple with his wife’s new relationship.
Review: This is a dread-filled thriller that is entirely focused on a complex familial situation with no easy answers. It’s the kind of story that portrays the adults as completely and utterly human, meaning they will make mistakes and don’t skate through their lives with easy answers. With that in mind, this film may clock in at under 90 minutes and only show a few days’ worth of time, but enough work is done to make this film feel very lived in, in addition to the intensity that comes through the filmmaking.
Writer/director Robert Machoian makes some deliberate choices, starting with the academy ratio framing, which gives the film a more personal and claustrophobic look. There’s also heavy use of silence and sparse dialogue accompanying long takes to make the viewer understand David’s various emotional states. Plus, the sound design is given a considerable push to have a near-constant tone, further emphasizing the growing build towards some kind of release.
Not hurting at all is the terrific performances, particularly from Crawford. While we don’t understand all of the circumstances that brought him to this point, there’s such a brutal understanding of the issues he seems to have weighing against the amount of effort he’s putting in to hold himself together and make his current living situation work.
The Killing of Two Lovers is a film that settles the viewers in for a slow burn and keeps things heightened enough to hope for the best but prepare for total destruction somehow.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters and On Demand May 14, 2021.
The Setup: A woman (Mélanie Laurent) wakes up in a medical cryo unit. She doesn’t remember who she is or how she ended up in a box no larger than a coffin, but she’s running out of oxygen and must rebuild her memory to find a way out of this nightmare.
Review: These kinds of films are fun. Obviously, there are only so many (Buried with Ryan Reynolds comes to mind), but the concept of a character essentially stuck in a coffin for the entire runtime is a cool little gimmick that a skilled filmmaker can bring a lot of creativity to. Enter Alexandre Aja, a director who has toned down his penchant for high-level gore in recent years, focusing more on suspense. That’s not to say the quite entertaining Crawl didn’t have any extreme alligator violence, but we’re a bit further away from his breakthrough films High Tension.
The key to a film like this is a compelling lead performance, and Laurent delivers on that well. The French performer juggles the various responsibilities of playing the drama of her situation, the frightening nature of her setting, and even a person of action as she fights to gain what’s needed to survive. Her only counter is the cryo unit’s A.I. voiced by a mildly mischievous Mathieu Amalric (himself a veteran of being locked into one position for a film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly). While Laurent’s character deals with various forms of jeopardy, the machine serves as an advisor of sorts with logical yet entertaining ways of keeping her challenged.
Not content to do merely basic work, Aja makes the most out of the single and very confined location (though occasional dreamy flashbacks provide some breaks). While the cryo unit has various components to help give the film some dynamic looks, including multiple forms of lighting, the camera is able to capture all the right angles in a way that continually keeps the audience thinking and surprised. It’s certainly a good way to distract from some flaws that can be found in this particular story, though the more we understand why Laurent is in the position she’s in, the more forgiving we can be. By the end, this claustrophobic thriller manages to keep itself way above life support.
Where To Watch: Available to stream on Netflix beginning May 12, 2021.
The Setup: During a university’s pledge week, the carefree partying turns deadly serious when a star athlete is found impaled in his fraternity house, which is just the beginning of a series of murders with one theme in common.
Review: The irritating thing about slasher films like this is how clearly the intention is to use the genre as a means to get across a particular message or idea. At its core, Initiation joins other recent efforts, such as the (2nd) Black Christmas remake to examine MeToo era issues. Connecting that to an assortment of male and female characters, with the men, in particular, all functioning as different forms of problematic personality types, means having a film that could ideally address socially conscious ideas while delivering an entertaining slasher flick.
Neither aspect quite works. Thematically, while the effort is made, the writing does the film no real favors, as most of the ideas are bluntly stated, and none of the characters really offer much in the way of nuance. As a horror film, it takes a long time for that aspect to kick in, and when it does, it’s never scary enough to justify the journey to get to those points. Director John Berardo does get credit for delivering some creatively gory deaths, although the eventual revelation leaves a lot to be desired.
The incorporation of social media could have also added more to the focus on the modern era. Still, this element merely acknowledges it exists and populates the screen with text bubbles of all kinds at different moments. There’s something to be said for making the film watchable enough, but as far as having much to offer on a horror, dramatic, or topical level, the initiation rarely gets past the start.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters, on VOD, and on Digital May 7, 2021.
The Setup: Described as the first-ever movie about becoming a professional skater, Michael (Ryder McLaughlin) is about to graduate high school, and his aspirations of going pro are rubbing up against his father’s (Vince Vaughn) ideals for him to go into a more secure direction.
Review: There’s plenty to say about this solid coming-of-age story from writer/director Mikey Alfred, who gets a strong performance out of his lead, McLaughlin, and manages to incorporate some innovation into a fairly standard film. However, so much of my focus seems to be on just how great Vaughn is as Michael’s father. He’s not in a lot of the movie, but it’s such a well-performed supporting performance that goes with many of his intriguing dramatic efforts that I can only hope to see him get some credit for the work he’s been putting into crafting dynamic characters.
But anyway, back to North Hollywood. I’m always down for a slice of life type films such as this, where the stakes amount to saying the right thing to show one’s drive to go with their passion is real. Helping matters more is a sense of relatability. Coming from some of the crew that helped make Jonah Hill’s film, Mid90s, it’s not so much that these stories have major thematic goals or a collective of skaters an audience can become enlightened by. It’s more about showing what anyone wants – finding a way to get a handle on their dreams. Sometimes that can include establishing better relationships with a parent, a romantic partner, and even friends. North Hollywood coasts through a lot of this, but it has a good head on its shoulders.
That’s best exemplified by the portrayal of male bonding. Michael has two best friends, Jay (Booksmart’s Nico Hiraga) and Adolf (Aramis Hudson), who get far more development than I would have expected, and it’s mainly because the script is wise to not make Michael the best of them. He’s a character who has clear talent as a skater, but a lot of areas he’s not as skilled at, and a key one becomes how he relates to those who care about him. Mixed with a nice sense of humor, this is a better than average way to present such a tale.
Where To Watch: Available On Demand starting May 14, 2021.
The Setup: Set the puppet state of Manchukuo in the 1930s, the film follows four Communist party special agents who return to China after receiving training in the Soviet Union, only to be sold out and surrounded by threats on all sides.
Review: My interest in Cliff Walkers is pretty straightforward. Hearing acclaimed director Zhang Yimou had made a 1930s spy thriller set during a snowy winter was all I needed. As a master of visual storytelling, combining thrilling works of melodrama with a gorgeous assault on the eyes when it comes to his colorful cinematography (although the near color-less Shadow was just as visually impressive), I was fully prepared to be wowed just from a spectacle standpoint.
Cliff Walkers does indeed deliver on the filmmaking aspect. Everything we see is rendered skillfully and excitingly. Watching characters move through the snow-laden grounds of the various cities and other environments looks fantastic. Seeing characters in trench coats and fedoras (with powder on the brims) never stops providing a cool vibe. The gunfights all pack a punch as well, not to mention the old fashion cars that end up in CG-aided chases around the streets.
As a historical action film, there’s plenty to have fun with, and that’s good because the story is a bit of a wash. Not that it’s bad, but it’s a mix of twists and Chinese propaganda that doesn’t have a lot to say, feeling more like a way for Yimou to satisfy certain producers for whatever he plans next, which may be a bit more critical of his government. Regardless, the characters all have various arcs reaching differing levels of satisfactory endings. With so much espionage in play, the importance of it all gets a bit muddled, but that doesn’t stop the look of Cliff Walkers from being a true highlight.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: Steve Harmon (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is a 17-year-old honor student who has been charged with felony murder. The film follows his journey through a legal battle for his innocence, filling us in on how he got into this position, using different points of view to complicate the perceived understanding of what really happened.
Review: Not that all the backstory is needed, but this film initially debuted at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and has only just now made its way to Netflix. It’s also 20 minutes shorter than when it originally premiered. I’m not sure if that helped or not, but the resulting film is an occasionally affecting drama that is too heavy-handed in its approach to accomplish more than what’s expected.
Adapted from Walter Dean Myers young adult novel, I see the value in a story like this; I just wish the film didn’t feel like a highlight real of all the typical things one sees when it comes to a young Black man trying to get by in a world where the system can very easily shut him down. Requisite scenes of irritating white superiors, black-on-black violence, sympathetic white savior characters, and more populate this film. Some elements are better inserted than others.
Perhaps the film is more notable for the amount of talent on display. Harrison is as effective as he’s continued to be in films since (Waves, Luce). Having filmed this before his more notable projects, John David Washington is here and providing just enough with his minimal role. However, the film also makes time for Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Hudson, Tim Blake Nelson, Jennifer Ehle, Jharrel Jerome, A$AP Rocky, and Nas. It would have been great to see this cast in a better picture. As it stands, the film is more interesting for the conversations it can introduce than its cinematic quality.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.