Thriller

REVIEW: 7500

Amazon Studios
Rated: R
Run Time: 92 minutes
Director: Patrick Vollrath

Watching the trailer for 7500 might leave you somewhat underwhelmed and uninterested, as it did me. Airplane hijacking movies are a dime a dozen; an outdated genre that still lingers on. Even 19 years post 9/11, we seem to revisit this collective trauma annually with the release of new hijacking movies. I have my fair share of hijacking favorites that I enjoy revisiting from time to time: Air Force One (1997), Con Air (1997), Snakes on a Plane (2006), all “turn off your brain” kind of films that are the epitome of popcorn flicks. (Man, 1997 was a great year for hijacking movies!) Physical force and action sequences usually dominate this genre, but I am happy to say that 7500 couldn’t be more different to the typical hijacking movie.

7500 debuted last year at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, and was released in the U.S. this June on Amazon Prime Video. It is directed by German born Patrick Vollrath, this being his first full-length feature film. The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Tobias, First Officer and co-pilot of a commercial flight from Berlin to Paris; and Omid Memar as Vedat, a young Turkish Islamic Extremist, who is having second thoughts on the morality of this hijacking.

The plot of of the movie is as follows: a commercial airliner is taking 85 passengers from Berlin to Paris. Islamic Extremists attempt to take over the plane using broken bottles of glass as weapons, and taking some of the passengers as hostages. The are unable to break into the cockpit, so they use threats of violence and death on passengers in an attempt to coerce the pilots to let them in. Without giving too much away, this is the basic plot of the film. But what makes this movie so intriguing—and ultimately why I am going to recommend it—is because of how deeply intimate and thought-provoking the story is.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears in a scene of 7500 | Amazon Studios.

The entirety of the movie takes place inside the cockpit of this airliner. It felt reminiscent of films like Buried (2010) and Locke (2013), or maybe if you mixed those two together. You get to see in detail the level of complexity that exists within these marvelous machines, and the level of education needed to pilot them. There is no musical score throughout the film, which adds to the authenticity of this small world created on screen. Gordon-Levitt and Memar bring exceptional performances to their roles, and gives me hope that one day Gordon-Levitt will be seen and revered as a highly talented actor, and land the larger roles that he has earned.

I often hear other movie fans say that the most fundamental aspect of a movie its ability to entertain its audience. I have a hard time agreeing with this notion. If entertainment was the goal of every movie, then the value of movies would mean very little to those who do enjoy them. My belief about what makes film so universally loved by humans everywhere is its ability to tell a meaningful story. Stories (specifically stories about the human experience) are what captivates the minds and hearts of the audience. 7500 gets at the heart of humanity in the midst of trial and tribulation. It will make you think about ethical and moral dilemmas that you otherwise might not be thinking about. I love movies that make me ask myself, “What would I do if I were in that same situation?” but without offering a clear path or definition of what that right answer is. Yes, there are specific character and plot sequences that I would have changed up a bit, but there isn’t anything too egregious enough for me to give more attention to.

If you have an Amazon Prime account, go give 7500 a shot. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised on the outcome, and at only 90 minutes, it’s well worth the investment of your time.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Rental

IFC Films
Rated: R
Run Time: 88 minutes
Director: Dave Franco

I am not the biggest horror movie fan in the world, but some of my fellow writers here at Backseat Directors were meeting up to go back to the theaters and invited me to join them. Having been in quarantine for many months, I couldn’t resist seeing a new movie again on the big screen. So I went and checked out the new movie, The Rental, from actor/director, Dave Franco. While it showed promise for the new director (The Rental being Franco’s directorial debut), the film did not monopolize well on the interesting and fun set-up that it builds making for a frustrating experience.

The Rental has a fantastic cast with Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, and Jeremy Allen White playing two couples that decide to celebrate their work accomplishments by renting a fancy house on the Oregon Coast for the weekend. As it begins, the movie sets up a lot of potential conflict between the characters: there may be racism on the part of the landlord, illegal cameras in the home, infidelity amongst the partners, and more. I was honestly excited to see where all these plot threads were going to lead and what was going to happen to our characters. The acting from the main cast is also all excellent; and Franco and cinematographer Christian Sprenger do a good job creating tone and an eerie atmosphere throughout. So for the first hour I was really digging this film.

Unfortunately, none of these plot points paid off well in the end. Without giving away any major spoilers, I wasn’t satisfied with any of the character arcs of the people involved, nor are any new characters brought into the story that are compelling. It basically devolves into a slasher movie in the last fifteen minutes but it is too late in the game and too silly to work—even for slasher-movie fans.

(From left to right), Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White and Alison Brie in a scene of The Rental | IFC Films.

When I left the theater I was proud of myself for going back to the cinemas, (mask on and spaced) but I really wish the movie had been better. It had a lot of potential but didn’t monopolize on much of any of it. There’s even a sidestory with a missing dog and a mysterious door that goes nowhere. The suspense and atmosphere were there, but a film has to pay off well and this one just didn’t.

What do you think of The Rental? Have you been back to theaters? We’d love to hear your stories in the comments.

Recommendation: NO GO

REVIEW: Vivarium

Vertigo Releasing
Rated: R
Run Time: 97 minutes
Director: Lorcan Finnegan

The Coronavirus Pandemic of 2020 has completely turned the film and movie theater industries on their heads: every big budget movie has been delayed from its original release date; new dates are added in hopes that movie theaters will reopen soon, only to see the rescheduled dates be delayed again. Things have gotten so bad for movie theater companies nationwide that a petition to receive federal funding has been circulating and gaining momentum. #SaveYourCinema has become the rallying cry of movie fans and movie theater owners alike. (If you want to show your support, go visit www.saveyourcinema.com). The economy shutdown has likely saved lives and slowed the spread of the coronavirus, but it has also decimated countless small businesses, and continues to threaten larger corporations like AMC, Regal, Cinemark, etc.

As movie theater owners and patrons work to adjust to the new way of conducting business and supporting movie theaters, streaming services fill a void left in the vacuum of the movie industry shutdown. Dozens of movies that were slated for theatrical release were quickly switched to a VOD (video on demand) worldwide debut (e.g. Trolls World Tour), or some other movies had their worldwide debut on streaming services like Apple TV+ (e.g. Greyhound).

I had a friend mention to me last week that he misses seeing new movies. My response to him was that he more likely misses seeing new BLOCKBUSTER movies since there is a plethora of new movies that continue to release almost every single week (to which he agreed). Between streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Apple TV+ etc., and VOD services like iTunes, Vudu, and Amazon Prime, there are dozens and dozens of new 2020 movies that are available to watch right now—to the point that I have ventured into seeing new movies that I otherwise would not have watched before… Which has not always been a pleasant experience.

And thus begins my review of Vivarium

From left to right: Imogen Poots, Jonathan Aris, and Jesse Eisenberg in s scene of Vivarium | Vertigo Releasing.

Vivarium debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 2019. It never had a theatrical release and was instead released VOD worldwide back in March of this year. Vivarium tells the story of a young couple (played by Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg) that is on the hunt for their first home together. They walk into a home developer’s office and meet with an odd real estate agent named Martin. Martin has a bizarre mannerism about him. He’s polite and is always smiling, but his social awkwardness was almost too much for me to handle. Like any good salesman, Martin guilts the young couple to take a drive with him to a new suburban development called Yonder, and to take a tour of the freshly built homes. As they pull into the new development you notice that everything is exactly the same—from the color of the houses, to the size of the houses, everything is in perfect unison. As Martin takes the couple on a tour of house #9, Martin’s mannerisms become more and more uncomfortable, and even sociopathic. As the tour comes to an end, Martin disappears outside leaving the couple alone inside. Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) go to their car and attempt to exit the neighborhood. They drive for hours trying to find the exit all the while ending up right back where they started at house #9.

At the beginning of the movie before any of the human characters are introduced, there is a short clip of the parasitic life-cycle of a cuckoo bird. If you’re unfamiliar with a cuckoo bird, get ready to be educated. Female cuckoo birds lay their eggs in the nest of other bird species. Once hatched, the baby cuckoo pushes out any other baby bird or egg from the mother bird, and then is tended to by the surrogate mother bird. Even as the cuckoo grows to sizes bigger than the surrogate mother bird, the cuckoo begs and whines for attention, food, and care from the surrogate. When Gemma and Tom are left alone and unable to escape from this bizarre labyrinth of houses, they discover a box outside house #9 that says, “Raise the child and be released.” I am not inclined to say anymore about the story without getting into spoiler territory; suffice it to say, the cuckoo clip in the beginning has a little something to do with the overall plot of the movie.

Vivarium is an original story that presents a unique and interesting enough plot to hold some viewers’ attentions, but not enough to hold mine. It presents some ethical and moral dilemmas throughout the movie that scratch the surface of really getting you to wonder, “What would I do in this same situation?” but not deep enough to really explore those elements. The pacing is very slow, and the lack of music (although not completely devoid of a score) makes the pacing that much slower. I was very much intrigued by the trailer, and since new movies are not the most abundant product around, I took a stab. But I would be doing everyone reading this a disservice if I said I liked Vivarium, or would recommend it—I just can’t. Even with the creatively clever title “Vivarium” (think Aquarium or Terrarium), there’s just not enough substance to fill even a decent run time of 97 minutes.

Vivarium is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

REVIEW: Extraction

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 117 minutes
Director: Sam Hargrave

After experiencing weeks of relentless Facebook ads, I decided to sign up for six-weeks-free of Chris Hemsworth’s workout app. It’s been fairly successful at putting distance between me and the COVID-15 (like “the freshman 15”… no?), but I don’t look like Thor yet, and there is not nearly enough of him in it. He’s all over the ads, but he is nowhere to be found when the action starts and it’s time to do push-ups.

The same cannot be said for his newest film, a Netflix Original titled, Extraction. Playing a mercenary tasked with rescuing the kidnapped son of a drug-lord, Hemsworth wreaks havoc in this film—killing his enemies with guns, grenades, cars, furniture, architecture, and his own musculature. His character, Tyler Rake, even uses a rake at one point to dispatch an unfortunate enemy. His rescue of Ovi Mahajan (Rudhraksh Jaiswa)—and subsequent escape—take them through jungles, rivers, and crowded cityscapes, keeping the landscape fresh and full of new obstacles and things to hit people with. Naturally, the extraction goes awry and Rake must decide if this job is just a job for him or something more.

A lot of effort went into this film and it shows. The action sequences are awesome, feeling visceral and real without shaking the camera like a maraca. It’s easy to appreciate the top-of-the-line physicality and coordination of hand-to-hand combat by Hemsworth and a whole slew of stuntmen. The director, Sam Hargrave, is a stuntman himself, and performed a few risky maneuvers with camera in hand to get the shots he wanted. There’s an 11-minute “continuous” shot action sequence that is brilliantly captured and incredible to watch. The film as a whole is held under a tide of grit and violence and rarely comes up for air, and even those brief respites are home to heavy conversation. Maybe it’s because Rake’s objective was escape and protection rather than vengeance or mass destruction, but this film felt less indulgent or gratuitous than other movies I’ve seen recently.

Chris Hemsworth and Rudhraksh Jaiswal in a scene of Extraction | NETFLIX

What keeps Extraction from becoming “Call of Duty: The Movie” is the exploration of relationships between fathers and sons, men and boys. Granted, it is an action movie with a triple-digit death toll, so don’t expect ocean-level depth here, but the theme gives enough weight to the movie to keep you interested. Whatever patterns the fathers (or father figures) set, the sons tend to follow, including those of violence, trauma, and vengeance. Tyler Rake is haunted by the loss of his son and this shows in his treatment of Ovi and the child soldiers he encounters. Armed with a natural Australian accent and significant athleticism, Hemsworth is compelling as Rake, capitalizing on the opportunity to portray trauma and loss when it’s not played for laughs. He’s backed by an intriguing and talented supporting cast, among whom Nik Khan (played by Golshifteh Farahani), is my personal favorite.

The third act is probably the biggest let-down of the film.  The action ramps up, but in doing so ceases to be impressive and becomes a lot of faceless, unending CPU’s falling victim to our hero’s inability to miss or run out of bullets. The ending was semi-satisfying and didn’t leave me bitter or upset. Brutal, bloody, and bombastic, Extraction can’t be described as a good time, but I do think it’s a good movie. As far as Netflix originals go, it’s nearing top tier. If you happen to be craving Jason Bourne or John Wick, add this to your queue; especially if you like Chris Hemsworth or want to support stuntman directors. After all, it’s more enjoyable than push-ups.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Blow the Man Down

Amazon Studios
Rated: R
Run Time: 91 minutes
Director: Bridget Savage Cole & Danielle Krudy

This movie might have gone overlooked as it basically went straight to Amazon Prime (original movie) during the COVID-19 pandemic. But don’t let it slip by in your watchlist without some fair consideration!

Who knew there was room for another New England, seaside thriller since The Lighthouse (2019) only came out a few months ago? Honestly, I am in love with the production design and on-site authenticity that comes with movies set in this locale. I want more, and I hope this is only the beginning of this sub-genre movement. This flick in particular charmingly takes advantage of this element. Though the plot by itself doesn’t make for the most engaging or memorable watch, there’s enough originality to merit your time for sure!

Between the scruffy, wet fishermen that serve as a sort of Greek Chorus throughout the film, the fun twist on who populates “the mob” in the small, Maine town, and the raw, grainy cinematography (Todd Banhazl, Hustlers), any independent film lover will eat this up. This movie also really only features women in the “driver’s seat” from all sides, which is a refreshing change as it’s uncommon for crime thrillers, and it doesn’t feel forced in any way at all.

Priscilla and Mary Beth are college and high school-aged sisters who, after their mother dies, are left to pick up the pieces with their oceanside convenient store, and something else far more alarming—to get rid of a body. They become fully aware of the secrets this quiet nautical town has and the powerful individuals controlling it all.

Morgan Saylor and Sophie Lowe appear in a scene of Blow the Man Down | Amazon Studios

I’ll admit that makes the film sound a bit more grandiose than it actually is. The plot doesn’t have too many twists and turns throughout, and rather keeps things small and contained with the feeling that these things could actually happen in a small town without any do-good bystander ever catching on. All in all, it’s enjoyable for that reason, but some may consider it boring all the same—I didn’t. 

Another element that made the movie stand out with its knack for realism, was that there were barely any recognizable actors. In that way, really nothing distracts from the observation of the cold, coastal, secret-rural life. But worth mentioning, it stars Sophie Lowe and Morgan Saylor (Homeland, McFarland, USA) in the lead roles, as well as Annette O’Toole (Smallville, Stephen King’s IT) and Margo Martindale (Justified, The Americans). Writing and directing came from Bridget Savage Cole and Danielle Krudy. This is the first feature-length film for both! And a strong start I’d say.

Though I’d still put this somewhere in the middle of Rotten Tomatoes’ all-too-often awarded 99% range and IMDB’s often unsurpassable 6-point threshold, in the end I advise you go ahead and stream it!

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Invisible Man

I’ve always felt that less is more when it comes to horror. It’s about what you don’t see or what’s implied that makes something scary.

REVIEW: The Last Thing He Wanted

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 115 minutes
Director: Dee Rees

It’s not often I finish watching a movie and walk away scratching me head trying to understand what the two hours were all about… And it’s a shame, really. I mean, should I be more upset about the outcome of a film with such a highly regarded group of actors, or the fact that I spent two hours watching a movie that made little to no sense by the end? I still haven’t quite decided…

These are the moments in which I am happy that seeing a new movie didn’t require me to spend any additional money on a movie ticket and a 10-minute drive to the theater (where I would have inevitably purchased popcorn and a drink, and now I’m out $20 for a movie and snacks). This is why I enjoy Netflix and other streaming services so much: the risk factor of seeing a movie is mitigated when I don’t have to invest so much of my time and money in a film that I might not enjoy. Like any other movie studio, you have your gems, and you have your fodder. Netflix is no exception. Sometimes you strike gold (see: ROMA, The Two Popes, The King), and sometimes you get something that has all the makings of a good movie, but you’re just left feeling unsatisfied (see: Triple Frontier).

The Last Thing He Wanted (adapted from the novel of the same name) begins as a 1980’s geo-political drama surrounding The United States’ controversial involvement in the Nicaraguan Civil War. Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway), a reporter for the Washington Post, is driven by her desire to break the next big story of the CIA’s involvement in the Contra/Sandinista conflict. Her passion for discovering and exposing the truth is the driving force behind her career, even at the cost of her personal safety and family life. Hathaway’s character is set up well in the beginning of the film within this storyline. And this storyline seems to set up the movie on a solid path of political intrigue and drama. But this is where I am supposed to tell you, “Not so fast.”

Willem Dafoe as Richard McMahon in The Last Thing He Wanted | NETFLIX

The moment you meet Richard McMahon (Willem Dafoe) the entire movie shifts. The only thing that carries over from Act 1 to Act 2 are the same characters. I was ready for the geo-political and historical drama setup from Act 1; I was ready for the movie to get messy in the secretive machinations of the CIA during the early 80’s. What I wasn’t ready for (or even expecting) was for the movie to take us down a path of confusing family drama involving illegal weapon-smuggling, and non-sensical love affairs. I genuinely wish I understood better what this movie was about, and the story it was trying to tell. No doubt there is a story behind the confusing plot points and all of Elena McMahon’s first-person narrations. I just wish I knew. But even more so, I just wish that Wikipedia was updated with the plot explanation so I could figure out how to actually make sense of this movie.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Anne Hathaway appears in The Last Thing He Wanted | NETFLIX

Perhaps I’m being too harsh on this movie—maybe one day in the future I’ll take some time to revisit this movie (although, unlikely) and see if I can’t have a better experience on my second attempt. Perhaps my expectations were a little too high for the film when I saw who was playing in it. I might be one of the few people in the world that genuinely believes Anne Hathaway to be a talented actress. Put her in the right role and she has proven to have star potential. Ben Affleck and Willem Dafoe are A-list type actors. These are seasoned professionals. Affleck’s performance was the most disappointing out of the three. But how much can acting talent overcome such a poor screenplay? When it comes to the quality of movies, I view them in the same way I view sports. You have a coach (director), assistants (writers), and the players (actors). Some players are generational talents and can instantly make any team they are on a good, competitive team—some actors are the same way. They have the ability to elevate a movie from bad to decent, or even enjoyable. But for me, I’ve always considered coaches and assistants (directors and writers) to be even more influential of a team’s success than the actual players (actors) themselves. This seems to be the case for The Last Thing He Wanted. A collection of talent on screen that just does not ever translate into a winning team. Which is too bad—the movie had potential.

Recommendation: SKIP IT

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