Monsters: Dark Continent (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Wanting to make something of their lives, Mike (Sam Keleey) and his friends sign up for the military to be deployed in the Middle East where insurgents and giant extraterrestrials reside. Twelve weeks into their first tour, the team receives a seemingly straightforward mission in which they are to rescue four soldiers. Everything starts to go wrong, however, when their convoy hits a bomb, instantly killing members of the team, and insurgents send a rain of bullets and rocket-propelled grenades.
“Monsters: Dark Continent,” written by Tom Green and Jay Basu, is essentially three pictures put into a blender without any additional flavor added to it. What results is a confusing, misleading, bland miscalculation; it is standard a war picture one minute, a would-be thoughtful rumination about the horrors of war the next, and then just as suddenly it turns into a fight against aliens. Little connective tissue is shared among the strands and so the film is almost unbearable to sit through.
An early mistake is the failure to establish one perspective that we will follow and eventually sympathize with. Perhaps the most interesting character is Sergeant Frater (Johnny Harris), having done seven tours in the Middle East and is increasingly worried that his daughter back home no longer recognizes him. Instead, the writers divide the film’s time between Mike and Frater, but the former is so boring that even when he is showing rage, frustration or regret, I felt no connection to his plight. It is a stark contrast against Frater. The sergeant can just sit still and his eyes reveal it all.
The massive aliens remain in the background throughout which is unforgivable. We see giant tentacles writhing in the desert as they are being shot but we learn nothing new or exciting about them. Why are they releasing spores? Why are the baby aliens burying themselves in the desert sand? I think the most exciting bit involves a fight between a dog and an alien about the size of a hog—which happens very early in the movie. There is not enough alien interest generated for those hoping to see these creatures in action.
It peaks too early. It can be argued that the climax of the picture is when Mike’s friends begin to meet their respective deaths. There are a lot of manly screaming, crying, blood, and missing limbs, but it all comes across as fake because we learn close to nothing about the young men. For instance, during the narration in the beginning, Mike claims that Frankie (Joe Dempsie) is his best friend. Not once do we ever feel the emotions behind that claim during their interactions in the field.
Directed by Tom Green, “Monsters: Dark Continent” is neither about the humans nor the aliens that the title promises. In the end, it becomes about the filmmakers’ mediocrity, their inability to construct and execute a two-hour story that is worth telling. It is another one of those terrible movies where I would like to sit down with the filmmakers and ask them personally what they were thinking while creating this disappointment.
Black Death (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) was a young Christian monk who decided to go with Ulrich (Sean Bean), the envoy to the bishop, and his men (Emun Elliott, Johnny Harris, Andy Nyman, Tygo Gernandt, John Lynch) to guide them in reaching a village surrounded by a marsh beyond the Dentwich Forest. It was a place of special interest because word went around that a necromancer had taken control of the area. The heretic was to be apprehended and sent to the bishop for trial and execution. Based on the screenplay by Dario Poloni, “Black Death” was a gripping gothic horror with a supernatural premise on top of the Bubonic Plague backdrop. Since no one understood the science of vectors and disease, people surmised that the pestilence was an act of God, a way for Him to purge away the sins of His people. As the film got deeper into the mystery involving a person being capable of raising the dead, it was interesting to observe the way the men’s faith was challenged. Of particular interest was Osmund, torn between his devotion to his religion and being with a woman (Kimberley Nixon) he loved. Being a monk, he had to choose one or the other. The changes that occurred within each character, not all of them given enough time to get to know by the audience, had variation and maintained a certain level of subtlety. What was straightforward, however, was the physical journey that the men took toward the village. When the group stopped, they faced some sort of death. The standout was a battle among thieves in the forest. The violence was gruesome–throats were sliced, swords went through torsos, arms were torn off completely–but somehow it never felt gratuitous. I got the impression that we actually needed to see how fierce the men were so that later on, when they eventually had to face something so monstrous and they cowered like children, we had an understanding of their fears. The village in question was very curious. Since it was unexpectedly peaceful, the director, Christopher Smith, milked certain looks given by its residents. Hob (Tim McInnerny) was obviously the alpha male, his voice commanding and stature very proud. Langiva (Carice van Houten) was also worthy of suspicion. Her blonde hair which complemented her very pale complexion probably concealed a very dark evil. The abandoned church, given Christianity’s influence back in the day, was a good signal that something wasn’t quite right. There was one detail that didn’t make sense to me. After finding out about the unused place of worship, why did the men continue to trust the villagers by eating their food and drinking their wine? It felt like a plot convenience, a weak set-up so that the men from the outside would lose their advantage. It was a surprise to me because prior to that point, the material did a great job in circumventing eye-rolling clichés. Nevertheless, “Black Death” was very atmospheric, especially the sequences when the men had to wade through the marsh, and offered engaging performances, particularly by Redmayne. The movie worked because it sacrificed cheap scares for more thoughtful denouements.
London to Brighton (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
I love that feeling when I come out of a movie being absolutely blown away because I knew nothing about it prior. Paul Andrew Williams’ directoral debut had a certain quiet power that did not quite let go until the very end. His picture was told in a non-linear fashion which first showed two girls: one about twelve years old (Georgia Groome) and the other middle-aged (Lorraine Stanley). At first, I thought they were sisters but I was surprised to learn later on that they were actually strangers. The audiences knew right away that they were injured and running away from something–the bloody details of from who or what were revealed later. I think it is for the audiences’ best interests not to know much about this movie like I did. Right from the get-go, I wanted the two women to escape to safe havens despite them being very rough around the edges because throughout the film, we get to learn that they are essentially very good people, especially Stanley’s character. Since Groome’s character was a runaway, Stanley became the sister or mother-figure by default because everyone else wanted to harm the little girl or take advantage of her in some way. The way Stanley valued the girl and put the girl in front of herself really touched me because they knew each other in less than a day. Given their dire and downright scary circumstances, I honesly do not know if I would have done the same for someone else. As the picture went on, more and more was asked of Stanley’s character and I constantly had to evaluate what I would have done if I were in her shoes. The supporting characters include Johnny Harris and Nathan Constance, as the two men who were on the hunt for the two leads, and Sam Spruell as a rich guy who wants to collects something that he feels like was owed to him. This is a small picture but the budget did not limit the crafty and touching writing about the two women’s plight by means of losing their innocence and eventual redemption. Their path to freedom was undeniably dark but the challenges they had to face could have potentially taught them to be stronger individuals.