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FORBIDDEN EMPIRE Review: One Steppe Up, Two Steppes Back

FORBIDDEN_Theatrical_One_SheetThere aren’t many films set in Ukraine. I know this because I am Ukrainian, and I notice such things. Granted, it’s not like I’ve seen them all (I haven’t), but when the opportunity arises, I’m game for the chance to see a cinematic depiction of the motherland of my ancestors. Most recently, I’ve had the chance to review the excellent 2014 documentary Maidan, as well as the gloriously unhinged 1962 historical drama Taras Bulba. Imagine my delight when the opportunity to screen a Ukraine-set dark fantasy came my way in the form of Oleg Stepchenko‘s Forbidden Empire.

In the early 18th century, British cartographer Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) has designed a technological marvel that will help him accurately map the globe. When he sets out on an eastward course across Europe, he stumbles upon a unique community in a Ukrainian forest. Although it’s comprised mostly of cossacks, there appear appear to be demonic forces lurking about as well. When the daughter of a cossack leader falls victim to a mysterious beast and is made to lay in state for a year, he enlists the cartographer’s help.

Forbidden Empire is a maddening watch. It has a lot going for it, but those positives are undermined by basic storytelling missteps and egregious technical problems.

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The film begins with cartographer Green in bed with a woman; they’re caught by her father (Charles Dance). The scene plays like a classic adventure movie opening gambit – the hero knows his way around women, gets caught, but manages to get away. It isn’t exactly tawdry, but it is lighthearted fun. Rather than make this the opening gambit and nothing else, Stepchenko, who cowrote the script with Aleksandr Karpov, repeatedly returns to the father and daughter (Anna Churina) to aid in telling Green’s story. Green and the daughter are in love and he is writing her letters detailing his exploits; he sends the letters via carrier pigeon so her father doesn’t see them. This makes for a cumbersome storytelling device, as the scenes with the father and daughter are painfully repetitious.  He hates Green and reminds his daughter about it with snide comments, then she rebuts her father with professions of love for Green.

Letter, rinse, repeat.

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These unnecessary father/daughter scenes also stifle the flow of action in Ukraine, which starts with considerable promise as a mysterious seven-horned beast is shown to have killed many young women (in a wonderful visual reveal). This eventually leads to several terrific sequences – a dark fantasy involving demonized humans, an eerie horror scene involving the dead girl, plus some solid action sequences – that are well-executed and quite effective.

The problem is the whole film’s narrative is slapped together. There are numerous plot lines that would be fine to compete with each other if they were more than just loosely-sketched ideas. There is a power-mad priest who rallies the village and rails against Green; a battle for a sack of a thousand gold coins; the presence (and peril) of an otherwise randomly inserted, mentally challenged girl; a love for that girl by a young villager; there is the occasional reminder of the conflict between faith and science; the suggestion that a circle of chalk (?!) can protect people from demons; and the potential for some residents to be possessed by demons (but not all residents).

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It’s a collection of ideas rich with opportunities to add depth to the tale, and the film clocks in at just under two hours, which allows plenty of time. But the ideas are never developed satisfactorily; when the story swings around to one of them, it feels more like a reminder than a development. This suggests a lack of narrative focus by way of wanting to include as much in the film as possible (or hurl a lot at the viewer to disguise the flimsily constructed screenplay). Honestly, it feels like film begins in the middle of a larger tale, the first part of which we are not privy too.

The finishing stroke is the English language dub (the film was originally shot in Russian).  It’s awful – to the point it’s a considerable distraction. The film would have been much better served with subtitles. It’s unfortunate because Stepchenko, with help from great work by cinematographer Vladimír Smutný, knows how to put on a visual show.

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With its globetrotting cartographer and 18th century sense of discovery, Forbidden Empire has the framework to be the start of a fun franchise. But without a solid narrative foundation, that framework wildly sways as the story changes direction, and ultimately topples as a result.

 

2half stars

AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON REVIEW: The Road to Nowhere

Avengers Age of Ultron PosterThe knock on the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been that despite how well they might be made, they are still treated more like product than art.  But in 2012, writer/director Joss Whedon did what many thought was impossible: he made real art out of all that product by bringing The Avengers to the big screen in mighty fashion.  With Avengers: Age of Ultron, Whedon has once again done what many thought was impossible: he has taken a watershed installment in a monstrosity of a franchise and turned it into something of remarkable insignificance.

As the story opens, the Avengers – Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – are out to recover Loki’s scepter from Hydra.  They locate the item in the Eastern European country of Sokovia, secure it, and return home victorious.  With a few days before Thor is to take the scepter back to Asgard, resident geniuses Tony (Iron Man) Stark and Bruce (Hulk) Banner examine it thoroughly and discover signs of artificial intelligence within the scepter.  Stark hopes to leverage that A.I. to create thinking iron robots that will act as a global defense unit, thus opening the path to world peace and affording the Avengers the opportunity to disband.

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Their attempts to integrate the A.I. into Tony’s iron corps repeatedly fail until, when they aren’t paying attention, Ultron (voiced by James Spader) is created.  But there’s a glitch.  As evidenced in the past, the power of the scepter is all-consuming, and it drives Ultron to see “protecting the planet” differently than Stark; Ultron wants to eliminate humanity to protect the earth.  He recruits Hydra experimentation subjects/Sokovian twins Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen) to aid him and his army of robots in world domination.

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Avengers: Age of Ultron is not a bad film; it’s just terribly pedestrian, and so much of it seems to have been constructed based on suggestions made in the Superhero Film Playbook.  Consider the antagonist, Ultron.  Despite having perfect vocals from Spader, he is a wholly forgettable villain, created as a conflict instead of a character.  Although teased as a techno-Pinocchio, his robot construct prevents any opportunity for him to connect to the audience the way Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has done in past MCU films.  He’s ultimately nothing more than a shiny thing with a smoothly-voiced sound card programmed with a collection of clever quips, something more fitting for a Sharper Image catalogue than a major superhero motion picture.  He’s supposed to represent Stark’s dark side, but Stark’s dark side is far more interesting on Stark, not a Stark-bot.

Ultron is also hellbent on destruction, something that sets up the film’s other major flaw: the action sequences.  Almost every action scene suffers from one of two problems: it is ether completely unnecessary to the story (see: Hulk vs. Hulk-Buster Iron Man) or it’s more of the same (see: the climactic battle, which looks remarkably similar to the climactic battle in The Avengers).  The only difference is that the scenes are greater in scope, thus greater in destruction, than they have been in previous MCU films.  It’s as if Whedon forgot that size doesn’t matter, and the only thing going bigger does is expose his surprisingly unsure direction of those sequences.  Whedon relies heavily on chaos as a surrogate for choreography, and the net result is action that at times is annoyingly blurred, and often cannot be followed.

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However, the film is not entirely without merit.  In fact, when it isn’t cranking its action knob to 11, it has many great moments.

Through clever use of Wanda Maximoff’s powers, Whedon offers haunting insight into Black Widow’s past – insight that makes an even stronger case for the need for a stand-alone Widow film.  There are numerous scenes where characters are paired-off that work incredibly well: Stark and Banner, Stark and Cap, and the highlight of the film, Banner and Widow.  The film flirts with an unlikely romance between these two characters that gives Johansson and Ruffalo the room to put on an acting clinic.  I could have watched these two help each other work through their troubling, deep-rooted issues for two hours and been perfectly happy.

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There is also a sequence in the film, one that takes place at a country house (to say any more is to spoil), that is a highlight reel moment – possibly the best in the entirety of the 11-film, 24-cumulative hour MCU.  It hits remarkable human spots for every character, and presents unique juxtaposition at the character level almost across the board.  More of this, or more moments like it, could have done more good for the advancement of the MCU than any battle scene could.  Unfortunately, the next cacophony of explosions couldn’t wait any longer.

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After recently watching Iron Man 2, I noted on Twitter that that film – easily the worst of the MCU – held the distinction of being the only film of the ten to have a repeat director; Jon Favreau directed the One That Started It All, 2008’s Iron Man.  I also wondered then if that was a bad omen for Whedon’s return.  I think it was.  Like Iron Man 2, Avengers: Age of Ultron manages to do some good things for the overall franchise (mostly character introduction and some posturing for the future), but it is burdened with a sense of obligation.  There is this heavy, looming pall over the film that makes it feel like it was made only because that’s what you do next.

The MCU is mapped out for another 10 films that will go into 2019.  That’s a long road to travel, but this leg of the trip goes almost nowhere.

3Star

THE RECONSTRUCTION OF WILLIAM ZERO Review: Absolute(ly) Zero

Reconstruction of William Zero PosterIn the independent film community (and by “independent,” I don’t mean films with megastars produced under boutique shingles hung by major studios; I mean family-borrowed, friend-begged, crowd-funded productions starring and directed by people ready to be the Next Big Thing), 2014 was a banner year for horrors and thrillers.  There truly are too many to list here, but horror’s glowing examples include The Babadook, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Honeymoon, and Lyle, while thrillers list Blue Ruin, The Guest, and Cheap Thrills among its ranks.

This train has continued to roll in 2015, with Spring, It Follows, and Nina Forever reporting from the horror camp, and Man From Reno representing thrillers.  But where is science fiction in this Pure Indie genre film renaissance?  Last year’s Apocalypse Kiss is a great example, but other than that, titles don’t flow from the memory the way they do for horrors or thrillers.  That’s about to change thanks to The Reconstruction of William Zero, a film worthy of a seat at the table with the hot genre indies listed above.

William Blakely (Conal Byrne) is a brilliant geneticist married to his career as much as – if not more so – he is married to his wife, Jules (Amy Seimetz).  After another night of crashing on the couch surrounded by research, the scientist, husband, and father gathers himself quickly, gets on the cellphone with the lab, and races out of the house.  But in his haste to get back to work, he doesn’t notice his young son on a bicycle in the driveway.  A rushed shift of gears into reverse spells tragedy.

Four years later, William finds himself newly emerged from a coma and in the care of his twin brother, Edward (also played by Byrne).  He doesn’t know how he wound up in a coma (Edward must tell him he was in a car accident two weeks earlier), he has no memory of his wife (they have been estranged since the accident), and he has no recollection of his role in the fate of his late son.  In fact, his mind is so devoid of memories, even from his own childhood, he doesn’t remember the most basic things, like how to eat cereal.  Edward must reteach him all of this.  But as William works towards rebuilding his memories, with his ultimate goal being a reconciliation with Jules, he learns that Edward has secrets – dark secrets – about his past and his relationship with his twin brother.

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To divulge any more would be to deny you the joy of discovery – and what a joy this discovery is.  The Reconstruction of William Zero is a dazzling independent science fiction film from director Dan Bush, who co-scripted with Byrne.  The writer/director and writer/star are so successful because they offer an incredibly strong three-point foundation.

The first point is a core concept that remains quite true to the sci-fi genre (yet without getting too lost in the granularity of science).  Integrated within and around that core concept are other thematic elements that allow for a greater depth of emotion and an overall broader appeal.  This film isn’t just about the double-edged sword of science and the great responsibility its great power comes with.  It’s also about love and despair and loneliness and regret and sacrifice and redemption.  The slick sci-fi candy shell of the film has a dense and substantive center that offers a significant emotional heft I didn’t see coming.  Because of this depth, the film never feels gimmicky.

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The second point is the pair of powerhouse performances given by Conal Byrne.

The first performance is that of the fully grown man with the blank slate for a brain.  Byrne plays William with an incredible balance of frustration and hope.  The man with so much tragedy in his past refuses to let the absence of basic knowledge – how to ride public transportation, what an ice cream sandwich tastes like – stand in the way of the chance of reconciling with Jules.  He knows he is both at fault and with faults, but he remains undaunted.

The second performance is that of the caring twin brother who might appear to have all the answers, but who always leaves new questions in his wake.  Byrne plays the mysterious Edward as the antithesis of William.  Yes, the dominant twin cares for his brother, but there is always a question of why.  As the story unfolds and William begins the process of discovery, Edward grows more mysterious, more bitter, and more angry.  This, at times, calls for a certain physicality to the part, and Byrne delivers here too.

In two unique roles that play against each other for most of the film, Byrne invokes the best elements of character acting and channels those elements into a stellar lead performance.

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The third point – and really, the most impressive – is Dan Bush’s direction and his remarkable editing (a job he shares with veteran editor Darrin Navarro).  This film is, at its easiest points, an intricate one.  At its most challenging points, it’s quite complicated.  Bush, through bold choices that exploit (in positive ways) the fact his lead characters are twins, uses a dizzying array of flashbacks – in whole chunks, in tiny flashes, or deftly woven within present-day action – to create a much larger picture that spans years.  He also blocks and frames scenes shared by both William and Edward so well that it is easy to forget the characters are played by one man.  (Kudos to the sound team for making all of this work, too.)

Only towards the end, when William and Edward scuffle, does the staging look a little rough.

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The film is not without its flaws, though, most a result of too much happening at one time, which allows action to spiral out of Bush’s ambitious creative control.  The film also has an ending that belies the rest of its indie freshness to offer stale Hollywood resolution.  Still, The Reconstruction of William Zero presents its strengths with such surgical precision and thrill-ride excitement that I wanted neither the surgery nor the ride to end.

4stars