December 5, 2019

SEMPER FI: One Bad Oyster
SEMPER FI (2019)
Starring Jai Courtney, Nat Wolff, Finn Wittrock, Beau Knapp, Arturo Castro, Leighton Castro. Directed by Henry-Alex Rubin. (99 min)

Review by Tiger the TerriblešŸ˜¾

Semper Fi tries to be many things at once, but doesn’t really succeed at any of them.

It’s the story of five close-knit buddies who also serve in the Marine reserves. They have “cool” nicknames and spend most of their off-time together, bowling, bonding and drinking...lots of drinking. The de-facto leader is Cal (Jai Courtney), a cop whose younger brother, Oyster (Nat Wolff), is one felony away from going to prison, which is exactly what happens when he accidentally kills a man in a bar fight. Even though it was in self-defense, Oyster is sentenced to 25 years.

Meanwhile, the others are deployed to Iraq, where they – and the viewer – briefly experience the visceral horrors of war. Jaeger loses a limb and Cal shoots an unarmed man during a heated stand-off. Shortly afterwards, they all return to civilian life. Cal tries to make amends with Oyster, who’s still in prison and won’t forgive his older brother for turning him in. Cal suspects Oyster is being abused in prison and will die there if he doesn’t do something. After filing an appeal fails, Cal decides to try and break Oyster out. When his honor-bound friends volunteer to help, he hatches a plan that will utilize their military training as well as his police experience.

"Oh, yeah? Well, double-dumbass on you!"
If that sounds like a variation of The Deer Hunter with a prison break tossed in, you wouldn’t be too far off the mark, though the war segment in this one isn’t nearly as relevant to the narrative and feel like it belongs in another movie. Nor are any of these characters interesting enough to make their camaraderie all that engaging. We’ve seen them all before in better movies. And right from the get-go, Oyster is such an obnoxious, narcissistic jackass that it’s extremely difficult to for the viewer to generate any sympathy for him. Sure, Cal’s driven by guilt and a sense of brotherly love, but if these guys are willing to risk throwing their own lives away, shouldn’t the viewer at-least like the guy they’re trying to save? After all, didn’t Christopher Walken’s character earn our sympathies?

So despite a decent cast, Semper Fi lacks the characters necessary for a compelling depiction of honor, loyalty and brotherhood. Elsewhere, it tries to be a family drama, war film and action movie, but is too erratically paced and episodic for any of these elements to be fully engaging, exacerbated by a major character (Oyster) who displays zero redeeming qualities.

FEATURETTES - “Loyalty and Brotherhood: Making Semper Fi” (interviews with the director and main cast); “A Battle of Honor”
AUDIO COMMENTARY – By writer/director Henry-Alex Rubin

December 3, 2019

SAVAGE: A Snowy Stand-Off
SAVAGE (2018)
Starring Chen Chang, Ni Ni, Fan Liao, Jue Huang, Yicong Zhang, Hua Liu. Directed by Cui Siwei. (113 min)

Review by Tiger the TerriblešŸ˜¼

Somewhere in this movie is a truly great thriller. But while Savage is certainly watchable, it’s marred by some unnecessary story elements and convoluted character development.

It starts off great, with a trio of bad guys who hijack a gold-carrying armored truck by causing a snowy avalanche. They shoot two cops on the way down the mountain, killing one of them. The other manages to get away.

At this point, one would reasonably expect a cat-and-mouse thriller, pitting a lone, outnumbered cop against heavily-armed killers. Instead, the story flashes forward a full year. Wang (Chen Chang) has physically recovered but still hasn’t gotten over the death of his partner, Han. Complicating matters is the fact both were once vying for the same woman, local doctor Sun Yan (Ni Ni). Guilt-ridden, Wang can’t bring himself to commit to her. This dynamic is of little interest and really only exists to put her in peril, because...

Never make snow angels in the road. turns out the robbers didn’t take the gold off the mountain with them. I’m not certain why, since they had a truck that could do the job. Instead, they stashed it in the woods and have now returned to get it. Naturally, Wang is on-hand to try and stop them, as well as avenge his partner. What the narrative doesn’t need is Ni Ni driving up the mountain to find him during a massive blizzard, which eventually strands all of them in a snow lodge. The movie was doing just fine without her.

Still, it’s a tense little thriller at times, especially during the Reservoir Dogs-like stand-off in the lodge. It also makes great use of its snowbound locations, to the point the viewer can practically feel the cold. However, writer-director Cui Siwei seems uncertain what to do with his primary antagonist (Fan Liao). First, he’s a cold-blooded killer, then introspective and philosophical – even threatening to appear empathetic - before reverting back to being a cold-blooded killer. It’s as if Cui briefly tried to give him some complexity before second-guessing himself.

As it is, Savage is entertaining and suspenseful enough to warrant a watch, but the viewer has to wade through some irrelevance and plot contrivances to get to the good stuff. If Cui Siwei could have tightened things up a bit, he’d have a pretty damn good movie on his hands.


December 1, 2019

Starring Andrey Mironov-Udalov, Maria Melnikova, Gela Meskhi, Anastaisiya Melnikova, Valeriy Degtyar, Vitaliy Kishchenko. Directed by Aleksey Kozlov. (102 min)

Review by Tiger the TerriblešŸ˜¼

Battle of Leningrad – originally titled Saving Leningrad – is somewhat misleading. In fact, it’s more of a pummeling of Leningrad by the Nazis, while its civilians evacuate on leaky barges to escape across Lake Ladoga.

Most of the film takes place on Barge 752 during its perilous journey, with some manufactured melodrama from characters who are essentially plot devices (including a pampered pooch). The most contrived subplot is the main one, which has young soldier Kostya abandoning his squad to join his girlfriend, Nastya...on orders from his own father, a high ranking Russian colonel. Nastya considers him a deserter, while Kostya does nothing to advocate for himself. A Kremlin investigator, Vadim, is also on-board to repeatedly threaten both of them, because I guess the Nazis aren't enough bad guys.

When cruise ship shuffleboard turns deadly.
Even getting to that point takes awhile. Battle of Leningrad is pretty dull and aimless until then, serving up subplots and characters we assume will be of greater importance later on (though most aren’t). Once the barge sets off on its trip, however, things get more interesting. Not the characters, mind you, but it turns out the Nazis are aware of Russian plans to evacuate Leningrad and send fighter planes to attack the defenseless boats. Barge 752, already crippled by a violent storm, is a sitting duck.

The storm and aerial attack scenes pretty much save the movie. We may not care who lives or dies, but their peril looks and feels authentic, bolstered by fine editing and impressive visual effects. The same goes for the brief-but-intense skirmish between the Russian and Germans early in the story, which is suitably gritty and brutal.

While Battle of Leningrad is based on a tragic true event during World War II, the film is ironically at its most rousing when depicting death & destruction. That alone might make it worth checking out for war movie mongers, but none of its characters are compelling enough to create any emotional investment. Except maybe the dog.


THE FARE is...Fair
THE FARE (2018)
Starring Gino Anthony Pesi, Brinna Kelly, voice of Jason Stuart. Directed by D.C. Hamilton. (82 min)

Review by Fluffy the FearlessšŸ˜½

Harris (Gino Anthony Pesi) is a weary cabby driving a desolate stretch of road to pick up his last fare for the night, a young woman named Penny (Brinna Kenny). “Like the coin,” he says jokingly. Then after a few minutes of congenial small talk, she literally disappears.

Initially shaken, Harris resumes driving...on a desolate stretch of road to pick up his last fare for the night. Once again, it’s Penny (“Like the coin,” he jokes again). Their conversation is similar, though there’s something slightly different about their words and reactions. And once again, she disappears. The two relive the same scenario over and over, remembering more details from previous encounters (and growing closer each time). They appear to be trapped in some kind of temporal loop from which they can’t escape.

"It's not that I mind you sitting up front, lady. I just wish you'd have let me move my lunch first."
Playing very much like an extended Twilight Zone episode, The Fare is a small film with big ambitions and is clearly constructed to set up its big payoff, which is not-so-much a twist ending as an inevitable one, especially when it becomes obvious Harris & Penny are not reliving the same 20 minutes. Whether or not that revelation is worth the effort depends on the viewer’s patience. The film is often haunting and atmospheric, with likable performances by its two leads. However, it does grow a little repetitive during the middle act. One can’t help but think Rod Serling could have presented the same story in a fraction of the time.

But while the finale may not be jawdropping, at least it isn’t a red herring-laden suckerpunch. The Fare is visually and conceptually interesting enough to keep most viewers engaged, especially those who recall their middle school mythology lessons.

FEATURETTES - “The Look of The Fare”; “Secrets of The Fare” (screenwriter/actor Brinna Kelly spills the beans...don’t watch first!).
2 AUDIO COMMENTARIES - #1) Director D.C. Hamilton; #2) Screenwriter/producer/actor Brinna Kelly
"ALTERNATE REALITIES” - A montage of deleted/unused footage
"BEYOND FM” - Extended talk-radio sequence.
"FLASHBACK SCENE BREAKDOWN” - Storyboard to film comparison.