‘There Is No Evil’ Tops List Of New Releases
‘Profile,’ ‘Spiral’ and a pair of missable films also open
Friday, May 14, 2021
Credit: Kino Lorber
Cinemas are open again but the best film available this weekend is only streaming. Here’s what to see and what to avoid.
Let’s start by focusing on the good stuff and end with the films you should avoid.
‘There Is No Evil’
“There Is No Evil” serves up four thematically linked tales about Iran’s death penalty and the servicemen tasked with performing the executions. Each story explores different choices as characters willingly comply, defiantly resist, or are coerced into following orders.
At one point, a character states, “Your power is in saying ‘no.’" In some ways, that reflects what filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof is saying to the world and specifically to the Iranian government.
Rasoulof has a contentious relationship with the Iranian government and has been subjected to filmmaking bans and travel restrictions. In 2010 he was arrested on the set of his film along with fellow filmmaker Jafar Panahi for not having a permit to shoot. More recently, he was sentenced to prison for a trio of films authorities found to be “propaganda against the system.” While appealing the decision, he managed to shoot “There Is No Evil” under the radar of authorities then release it and win the Golden Bear, Berlin Film Festival’s top prize, in 2020. I’m sure that only antagonized authorities.
So despite government pressure, which comes with very real and harsh consequences, Rasoulof continues to say no. For “There Is No Evil,” he refuses to back away from questioning his government and challenging its use of the death penalty, which Amnesty International describes as being used as “a weapon of political repression.” So when American directors like Zack Snyder (more on him later) complain about how unfairly he’s being treated by studios who won’t let him make the films he wants, you need to put that in a context of filmmakers like Rasoulof who are being repressed in very real ways that make people like Snyder look like a spoiled child.
But what’s compelling about Rasoulof’s film is that while he’s clearly and passionately critical of Iran’s death penalty, his film has room to be humane and compassionate toward each character as he grapples with his options and then deals with the consequences.
“There is No Evil” is stunningly cinematic as it contemplates provocative moral questions. In one story, he brilliantly plays the mundaneness of everyday life against the act of executing people.
In another story, a character is elegantly summed up in an image where the man is standing next to his military uniform hanging in ghostly scarecrow fashion on some branches. We clearly see how his past has impacted his future. The visual splendor of his film is sometimes simple, as when a man who needs to reveal a family secret to his niece is driving over a series of steep hills in which we cannot see what is below from the crest of each hill. It almost feels like a leap of faith each time he begins the descent, reflecting how he cannot see what lies ahead if he reveals his secret.
“There Is No Evil” is both specifically Iranian and universally accessible. It is streaming through Digital Gym Cinema and is well worth seeking out.
“Profile” cites inspiration from a real story that of the 2015 nonfiction bestseller “In the Skin of a Jihadist” by a French journalist who now, the production notes say, “has round-the-clock police protection.” For the film, she is transformed into Amy (Valerie Kane), a British journalist who goes undercover to bait and expose a terrorist recruiter through social media. I’m not sure exactly how the real story played out, but the cinematic one makes Amy seem a bit gullible, not terribly smart and too easily seduced by a sexy guy ("Star Trek Discovery’s” Shazad Latif) on Facebook who calls her baby and seems so much more interesting than her drab boyfriend who keeps calculating their living expenses.
I suppose having “There Is No Evil,” in which we get very three-dimensional Middle East characters, arrive at the same time as “Profile,” in which there is far less depth and nuance, provides some sort of balance. “Profile” does try to add one positive person of color to offset some of the other representations, but the film is really designed as a simple thriller with a narrative hook that happens to be from the real world and which raises some serious issues.
But director Timur Bekmambetov is not really a director with much interest in social issues. From his first hit, Russia’s modern vampire tale “Night Watch,” he’s displayed more interest in stylish visuals than anything related to character development or themes. He is a fun filmmaker but not one of any depth.
The gimmick of “Profile” is that it all takes place on Amy’s laptop. And I have to give credit to Bekmambetov for actually making it play out in a compelling and visually engaging manner. He presents it all in what the press notes call “Screenlife format,” which he pioneered for the pre-pandemic “Searching” and “Unfriended,” films he produced but did not direct.
“Profile” hooks you with its fast-paced narrative that doesn’t leave you any time to think but even at its fast pace, you still feel like there’s a lot of stupid stuff going down. The real story merits actual serious discussion but this is not the film to do that or even has any interest in doing that. It’s a story where we feel like we want to know more about the girls who succumb to these online predators and more about these recruiters and their world. This is out in cinemas but perfectly fine to watch at home.
Yes, there is another “Saw” film, but under the sort of rebooted but also continuing the franchise name of “Spiral.”
“Saw” films, like the “Final Destination” franchise, is all about one thing: clever, gruesome kills. These films never build tension or suspense because they never bother to create characters we actually care about. So with that emotional hook gone, they need to gross us out or give us vicarious delight in clever onscreen kills.
I think the “Saw” film I liked best was when Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) targeted unscrupulous health care corporations, which allowed filmgoers to get some perverse pleasure from seeing greedy corporate types subjected to deaths tailored to their particular vice.
So the key to these films is not too much plot and plenty of ingenious kills. If you try to write too much of a story, then we start to think about dumb a lot of it actually is.
Jigsaw died back in “Saw III” (I think, since they tend to blur) but managed to continue to inform the franchise. Now “Spiral” tries to jump-start a new storyline with a “copycat” Jigsaw. The film was conceived, written, shot and completed before the pandemic and in a certain way, that really hurts it because the storyline involves corrupt cops.
Before the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement that arose during it, there were a plethora of cop stories that Hollywood cranked out without much thought. But after having protests and sometimes daily news stories about law enforcement killing Black people, audiences may not be as eager as they were to embrace films that serve up old tropes about cops.
So “Spiral” does deal with corrupt cops, but these cops, who are both Black and white, are shown killing white people and none of their crimes are linked to any sense of racism or how law enforcement is systemically flawed. Now I know asking a “Saw” film to have any social relevance is ridiculous on a certain level, but with Chris Rock taking the lead as an honest cop willing to turn in a fellow officer for murder, there is the potential for giving the franchise a little bit of edge. Imagine if the cops the new Jigsaw was targeting for racist cops guilty of murder and never being held accountable. Then the film could reflect a reality we have been made painfully aware of and use that to fuel the vengeance and horror.
I actually liked Rock a lot as Det. Zeke Banks and I suspect some of the film’s best lines might have been improvised or suggested by Rock. But director Darren Lynn Bousman is a bit of a hack and doesn’t make the film anything memorable. Plus, I have to confess that any film that opens with a scene singing the praises of “Forrest Gump” has an uphill battle.
In the end, a “Saw” movie is about the kills, and “Spiral,” which comes in as the ninth film in the “Saw” franchise, doesn’t have enough, nor are they very inventive. And with all the downtime we have, we get to think about how badly thought through the film is, starting with the most basic starting block of how Banks could have been so blind to the corruption of the partner he worked next to for years. That makes Banks seem dumb and is just the most obvious of the film’s many plotting problems. See this if you are a “Saw” fan or Rock fan. Otherwise, there’s nothing of interest.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel: ‘Wrath of Man’ and ‘Army of the Dead’
OK, now for the worst, and I do mean worst.
I was actually looking forward to “Wrath of Man.” The trailer teased me with the reunion of director Guy Ritchie and actor Jason Statham who had partnered so well on “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch.” But I feel like they got together and said, “Hey, everyone expects us to deliver a fun, action-packed, snappily written film so let’s surprise them with something that is none of those things.”
My son actually tapped out of the film because it was so bad. Everything about the film feels off — the pacing, the dialogue, the action, the jokes. It’s a ridiculously complicated plot requiring lots of coincidences and suspension of disbelief but without the over-the-top joy of their two previous films. The plotting here is so slow and measured that it allows us too much time to think about how lame it all is.
“Lock, Stock” and “Snatch” were thoroughly absurd, but that was the point. It was like Ritchie saying, “I’m gonna tell you a story that you will never believe.” But his sheer gusto and enthusiasm made me go happily along for the ride.
“Wrath of Man” is just glum. It’s a revenge tale, but we’re not that engaged in the outcome because it feels so diluted. Statham seems bored and going through the motions of an aging action star and Ritchie seems only moderately more inspired. Too bad, because when these two are firing on all cylinders, they can deliver the goods.
I have already wasted two-and-a-half hours of my life watching Zack Snyder’s “Army of the Dead” (and this after the four hours he took with his Snyder Cut of “Justice League”) so let me be brief.
Although he made a serviceable remake of George A. Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” Snyder knows nothing about what makes a good zombie movie. And the fact he called this “Army of the Dead,” which some may think makes it linked in some way to Romero’s “Dead” films, is just offensive. These zombies are nothing like Romero’s zombies in any way, shape or form, and there is absolutely none of Romero’s smart sense of social commentary.
Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” and the Cuban “Juan of the Dead” were worthy descendants of Romero and carried on the “dead” legacy with honor.
Netflix's “Army of the Dead” plays out like a video game, but I think some video games have better CGI and even better storylines. The opening credits play out like a more somber version of “Zombieland’s” open as the film informs us that there is a zombie outbreak in Vegas and the city has been walled off with some uninfected humans living in a community inside the city that seems to have everything it needs.
But now, the government wants to nuke Vegas to get rid of the zombies, but before that happens, some Japanese businessman wants to engineer a heist from a casino inside zombie territory. So Dave Bautista leads a team to execute a quick mission … oh until his dumb daughter wants to abandon the kids she has been put in charge of to look for their missing mom by tagging along with her estranged dad.
The layers of stupidity are like an onion where you keep peeling one back to expose another. Snyder, who painfully serves as his own director of photography so that he is even more enamored with each shot and unwilling to cut anything, works from a script that seems to know nothing of either zombies or heist films. There’s an attempt to come up with some kind of zombie civilization with smart and dumb zombies, but they should have watched a few of Romero’s films to understand what it is that makes a zombie film work and what’s intriguing about creating self-aware zombies (see Bub in “Day of the Dead”).
“Army of the Dead” left me bored and angry and I had to go home and watch a Romero film to cleanse my palate. I’m sure Snyder has a nine-hour version of this lurking in the wings for all his fans to devour. But the more studios indulge Snyder’s ego, the worse his films have become. Not worth seeing, and if you must, don't bother going to a cinema. Just watch at home so you can pause a lot and walk away to do something more interesting.
So please, refrain from giving these films your money, or filmmakers will be encouraged to keep making lame and ultimately boringly bland movies.
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