Deadbeat dad Seok-heon (Ryu Seung-ryong) finds himself back in his daughters (Shim Eun-kyung) life following the death of his ex-wife. She’s facing an all-or-nothing battle with a corporate giant trying to buy out her neighbourhood for re-development: luckily for her, her father has unexpectedly just gained superpowers.
Psychokinesis, a Korean film from director Yeon Sang-ho, aims to offer a more grounded spin on the traditional superhero tale, putting the powers into the hands of a middle-aged malcontent whose biggest thrill in life is stealing instant coffee packets from his employer (a serious sin in Korean society, apparently). And, despite a host of strange narrative decisions and a sense that it is never sure how high it wants to aim, it does kind of work, at least in part.
Maybe it’s the sheer novelty of seeing superpowers in the hands of someone like Seok-heon (he gains them after drinking water from a fountain recently hit by a meteorite), maybe it’s the relationship with his daughter that he desperately wants to fix, or maybe it’s the barmy-ness of the actual plot, as Seok-heon takes on a corporate giant and its many hired goons with his increasingly unlikely telekinetic powers. Or maybe it’s because the thing is acted quite well, especially by old-hand Ryu and the younger Shim.
Or maybe it’s because, like the best superhero movies, it’s using the extraordinary to express sentiment about something basic, in this case how the perceptions of fathers change over time, from thinking them superheroes to thinking them beneath your attention, and back again. Or, to put it another way, what would a loser trying to get back into his daughter’s good graces do with superpowers? The interaction between father and daughter gives Psychokinesis a nice emotional core away from all the silliness and prevents you from dismissing it as another low-budget distraction.
On a slightly larger level, the film attempts some social commentary, as the basis for the narrative comes from a real-life incident of locals being killed by police in the middle of a forced eviction. This class-warfare angle explodes in the films topsy-turvy third act with an unexpectedly visceral clash between bent cops and mostly defenceless protesters. Seok-heon’s involvement in this comes off as a strange escapist thing, and it’s probably the only part of the film that doesn’t sit too well, an ill-placed diatribe that is just a bit too serious.
The special effects are hit and miss – earlier sequences involving a mass brawl between goons and protesters are better than later, sketchier, attempts to render more advanced superpowers into being – and the film is shot competently enough, without any real sense of flair or imagination. But that doesn’t bother me too much: coming out at the same time as the superhero behemoth that was Infinity War, Psychokinesis is a decent example of how the genre can be subverted to produce something unique on a much smaller scale. Korean cinema isn’t looking too shabby. Recommended.
A throat injury suffered as a child leaves Amish bartender Leo (Alexander Skarsgard) unable to speak, but he still manages to make a life for himself in Berlin of the not-too-distant future. A relationship with the enigmatic Naadirah (Seyneb Salah) gives him a new perspective, and when she goes missing, Leo delves into a seedy underworld he barely understands in an effort to find her. At the same time, AWOL Army medic Bill (Paul Rudd) attempts to dodge police, while engaging in his own criminal activities
When Duncan Jones brought out Moon in 2009, I wouldn’t have been alone in considering him likely to become one of the new great sci-fi directors. But since then he’s only managed to come out with two films: the passable Source Code, and the franchise-bait drek that was Warcraft. Coming next was this, apparently Jones’ big passion project, in development for years. And that really tells, in the most negative way possible.
Mute is a film where the director/writer has clearly gotten a bit too “in” to his creation. It’s over-produced and over-wrought, which is all the more surprising considering how derivative it is of other things, most notably Blade Runner, M*A*S*H and Minority Report, films Mute is aping every other frame and every other line of dialogue. Jones establishes an interesting enough universe, but the choice of main characters – Skarsgard’s mute Amish bartender, and Paul Rudd’s slightly off-kilter mob surgeon – are so weird and bizarre that it’s hard to get too invested in Mute.
It’s too long (126 excruciating minutes) and too disjointed, jumping between the central narrative, flashbacks and its two “protagonists” in a manner that rapidly goes from eclectic to uncomfortable. Leo’s investigation and Bill’s warped “good dad” shtick wear on you so fast as you go from scene to scene without a clear idea of where things are going and what all of this mess is supposed to symbolise. It’s just too random, like Jones can’t decide which of his visionary sequences to keep in and which to cut out, and in the end just decides to lump them all-in, whether its Bill’s numerous baffling asides with his paedophile buddy (Justin Theroux) or Dominic Monaghan’s…prostitute? It was a bit hard to tell honestly. Duncan Jones is the son of David Bowie by the way (the film is partly dedicated to him) and this is real Ziggy Stardust stuff.
Skarsgard should be better as Leo, but is ultimately sort of ham-strung by the lack of dialogue, unable to get across what he needs to get across with just facial expression and movement, perhaps a failure of directing as much as it is acting. His character is too odd to grab a hold of, being an apparently dedicated Amish guy who lives in a metropolis, works as a bartender and has a girlfriend who is, um, non-traditional shall we say. It’s messy. On the other side, Rudd looks completely at sea here, with a character who varies between extremes so regularly it’s hard to make any kind of connection with him, and who turns out to be an antagonist, sort of? Maybe?. I suppose he’s supposed to be sinister, but then why get Hollywood nice guy Paul Rudd to play him? It’s even messier.
I mean, its shot well, but you would expect that of Jones. Neo-Berlin and its underworld looks great, even if it is just a HD version of Los Angeles of the future. In a society out of control with surveillance and corporate stamping, delivery drones buzz around while billboards exhort locals to turn in US soldiers gone AWOL. But you can have all the interesting universe building and cinematography you want, it’s just an art gallery without a coherent narrative and good principals.
It’s a strange, almost pompous, and thoroughly ill-made production, that bodes unkindly for Jones’ future career. More and more, it feels like he caught fire for one brief cinematic moment, and has been treading water since. Mute is the moment when he slipped under the surface. I hope he comes up for air next time. Not recommended.
Survivors Guide To Prison
Neary one in a hundred Americans are incarcerated in one form or another. The prison system they are a part of is rife with problems, ranging from over-crowding to ethically iffy for-profit systems. Documentarian Matthew Cooke, with the help of some of those who have been imprisoned unjustly, outlines how to avoid prison, how to survive if you wind up there, and how to get out.
This was just a random selection on Netflix one uneventful Saturday afternoon, and I would be lying if I said that Danny Trejo’s giant head on the thumbnail wasn’t part of the reason I gave it a look. But I’m glad I did because, while preachy to the extent of risking a label of liberal screeching, Survivors Guide To Prison is an illuminating and interesting combination of exploratory, investigative and recordation documentary.
It’s a fast-paced experience, where it seems the director struggled to cram in every talking head, every talking point and every judgmental analysis of what would appear, from even a cursory examination, to be an utterly broken penal system. That kind of frantic editing, where real-life experiences mesh not so easily with the titular guide, does drag the film down a peg or too, but it’s impossible not to be carried away with Cooke’s central thesis, even if he could do with taking a few deep breaths. Perhaps he wants this to be the cinematic equivalent to a rapid fire arrest, interrogation, sentencing and imprisonment, with the harsh lighting, grainy visuals and rapid cutting.
To wit: American’s are more likely than any other democratic citizen to be imprisoned, especially minorities; the judicial system is weighted against you the moment you are arrested, to the extent that it is frequently preferable to plead guilty to a crime you did not commit to save yourself a lengthy wait in jail for a trial that may not go in your favour; prison itself is a maelstrom of human rights violations, sexual violence and recidivism, frequently run on a for-profit basis; the whole point of the exercise is flawed, as the concept of prison as punishment clearly isn’t working. Oh, and, as the film makes clear, there are more innocent people in prison than you might think.
Cooke lays it out simply enough, using real-life testimony and the occasional input of legal advice to give you an idea of what to do if accosted by a police officer, if arrested, if going to trial, if going to prison. The somewhat garish nature of his own contribution, a floating head over-exposed on a black background, did strike me as a bit odd, but he is certainly persuasive. The likes of Trejo, Ice T, Busta Rhymes and an unseen Susan Sarandon as an unseen narrator, are along to make up the numbers.
In the end, Cooke makes it clear that anyone can get sucked into a system, where mistakes by police are actively covered up and the state would rather you just take your punishment, just or unjust, especially if you can’t afford sufficient legal representation. Beyond that, you’re just surviving. Recommended.
(All images are copyright of Next Entertainment World, Netflix and Gravitas Ventures).