Sunday, May 31, 2020

Pitch Black

Movie Name: Pitch Black
Year of Release: 2000
Director: David Twohy
Starring: Vin Diesel, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Keith David, Lewis Fitz-Gerald, Claudia Black, Rhiana Griffith, John Moore, Simon Burke, Les Chantery, Sam Sari, Firass Dirani, Ric Anderson 
Genre: Sci-Fi, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
When "Pitch Black" made its debut in 2000, no one could have imagined this would start a series of films, largely propelled by its star and co-producer, Vin Diesel. The film follows the story of a group of survivors who crash land in an unknown planet, following a run with a meteor shower which damages the ship where a much larger contingent of passengers are traveling. Carolyn, one of the pilots, is thrown into a leadership position, when her co-pilot and senior officer die as a result of the landing. As the group devises a way to escape the planet, they are faced with a few challenges, namely the fact that the planet is going through an eclipse, and there are alien creatures in it that are attacking and killing the few remaining survivors. They're forced to rely on a survivor, who was also a prisoner by the name of Riddick. He can see in the dark, is very resourceful and a survivalist. The few survivors have to unite forces, in hopes of escaping the lethal creatures on the planet.
Director David Twohy made a name for himself in the 90s as a screenwriter, having written (or co-written) Andrew Davis's "The Fugitive", Deran Sarafian's "Terminal Velocity", Kevin Reynolds's "Waterworld" and Ridley Scott's "G.I. Jane", to name but a few, before his first directorial effort, the alien arrival thriller by the name of "The Arrival". "Pitch Black", which he also co-wrote, is a low budget sci-fi film, with a distinct B-movie flair, which drinks heavily from Ridley Scott's "Alien", nonetheless managing to have a distinctive flair, by way of introducing the anti-hero/lone ranger, in the figure of Riddick. The film also bears some influences from the Western Spaghetti of Sergio Leone, with the central character never really being a villain, but also never quite being a perfect hero. He's the man living by his own rules, saving himself before everyone else, and generally being resourceful in dire times. The film quickly establishes characters and motivations, and what it lacks in stylistic approach and visual prowess, it manages to deliver enough suspense to keep the narrative moving forward. The cast is fairly solid, with Radha Mitchell and Keith David in particular making this all the more enticing, while Vin Diesel manages to create a character with just enough edge. While not particularly memorable, it's still a watchable endeavor. 

The Green Hornet

Movie Name: The Green Hornet
Year of Release: 2011
Director: Michel Gondry
Starring: Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christoph Waltz, Cameron Diaz, Tom Wilkinson, David Harbour, Edward James Olmos, Jamie Harris, Edward Furlong, Chad L. Coleman, Joe O'Connor, Morgan Rusler, Analeigh Tipton, James Franco
Genre: Action, Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 2 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Following "The Science of Sleep" and "Be Kind Rewind", director Michel Gondry tackled the big budget adaptation of the serial "The Green Hornet", which had itself been previously adapted into a TV show with Bruce Lee in the 70s. The film follows the story of Britt Reid, a hedonist heir, who following the death of his father, is confronted with his legacy and also his business (of owning and running a newspaper). He also meets his father's assistant, Kato, whom he eventually hires as his own assistant. Following a few incidents, they both decide to fight crime under the guise of The Green Hornet, which places them in direct confrontation with Chudnofsky, owner of a series of meth labs throughout LA. As Britt and Kato work through their differences, they hire Lenore in order to provide them with further research assistance, all the while uncovering more details surrounding Britt's father death, and the people involved in it.
"The Green Hornet" had a convoluted road to the screen, with a variety of talented filmmakers interested in the property at some point, which included Kevin Smith and Stephen Chow (who was suppose to direct the feature and play Kato). The version which ended up on screen, is based on a script written by Seth Rogen and his writing partner, Evan Goldberg (they've written "This is the End" and "Sausage Party" to name but a few). It's a film that never really works, on any level. Michel Gondry's point of view, which is typically associated with emotionally resonating love stories, or stories about recapturing love between characters, is nowhere to be seen here, and his visually distinctive style, barely makes an appearance. The comedy angle is barely present onscreen, with the whole aspect of "fish out of water" and "growing up rather quickly", faring very poorly, while the chemistry between the two leads is non-existent. It's a film that has a rather pedestrian plot, where supporting characters barely have anything to do, raising the question of why talented performers such as Cameron Diaz and Christoph Waltz even decided to embark on this journey. It's a film that never exactly gels, with generic action sequences reminiscent of Tony Scott's "Last Boy Scout", comedy sequences that are supposed to be based on physical humor, but lack the humor aspect of it, and attempts at character development, that never really materialize. It's a forgettable endeavor for everyone involved in it and a waste of talent from a very interesting director. 

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Murder Party

Movie Name: Murder Party
Year of Release: 2007
Director: Jeremy Saulnier
Starring: Chris Sharp, Macon Blair, Stacy Rock, Sandy Barnett, Paul Goldblatt, William Lacey, Skei Saulnier, Bill Tangradi, Beryl Guceri, Beau Sia, 
Genre: Comedy, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Director Jeremy Saulnier who went on to direct "Blue Ruin" and "Green Room" made his feature directorial debut with "Murder Party", a decidedly smaller romp which premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2007. The film follows the misadventures of Chris, a young man living by himself in Brooklyn, who decides to attend a Halloween party based on an invitation he finds. Following a long path to get the party, Chris discovers that the party is actually part of an art installation being done by a series of art students, all with the intent of impress someone named Alexander, and in the process get a grant from him. On top of it all, the intent of the installation is to murder the person who received the invitation, in that case himself. Chris quickly finds himself tied to a chair, and while the group awaits Alexander's arrival, a series of agendas and rivalries start being unveiled. When Alexander does appear, with his drug dealer friend, things quickly escalate, with accidents and deaths quickly piling up, while Chris is desperately trying to escape.
"Murder Party" definitely has a low budget bravado to it. The writer/director aims his satyrical view point at the pretentious art world of the New York  art scene, and gives it a murderous vibe, which is not quite as graphical (or successful for that matter) as Mary Harron's "American Psycho", but its definitely in the same zip code. It's a film that is quite rough, primarily from a view point of directing actors, but it showcases some of the ideas that the director would expand upon in his following features. Clusters of individuals, apparently within the same wavelength, thrown into situations that spark violence which quickly spirals out of control, with unexpected and dramatic outcomes. Whereas in his subsequent films, the narratives and characters have a greater deal of finesse and depth, in the case of "Murder Party", these are quite shallow/superficial. It's a film that can be seen as an exercise towards better and greater things. Watchable and forgettable.


Movie Name: Wildling
Year of Release: 2018
Director: Fritz Bohm
Starring: Bel Powley, Brad Dourif, Liv Tyler, Collin Kelly-Sordelet, James Le Gros, Troy Ruptash, Keenan Jolliff, Mike Faist, Charlotte Ubben
Genre: Drama, Horror
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
"Wildling" had its premiere at South by Southwest, March of 2018, where it was met with a mix of critical responses, some of which embraced the merger of its indie style roots with more of a horror/genre style. The film is the feature directorial debut of Fritz Bohm, following his stints directing a few shorts. The film follows the story of a young girl named Anna, whom we witness is being brought up in a basement of sorts, by a man whom she calls daddy. Anna never goes out, and is educated by that man, who always treats her very well, always warning her of the dangers that lie outside of the house, by creatures he calls the Wildling. As Anna grows up and becomes a teenager, daddy starts giving her shots, to essentially control her adulthood/womanhood, something that starts making her more and more sick. Following her daddy's failed suicide attempt, Anna is saved by the local sheriff, Ellen Cooper, who lives with her younger brother. As Anna becomes acquainted with people, and with living in society, she also starts realizing she possesses some unique traits that make her quite different than everyone else. Things quickly take a darker turn, when after going to a party, one of the bullies in town tries to harass Anna.
"Wildling" is for the most part a watchable film, mostly for its compelling cast, but also because the director manages to briefly capture the secrets that lie within a small town, and within a few strokes, outline the context in which these characters exist. The film exhibits a certain style reminiscent of Debra Granik's work, interwoven with the ambience of unease, something supernatural, that may lie with the central character, Anna. The director tries to capture a bit of the spirit of John Landis's "An American Werewolf in London", but this film is never quite as funny, nor quite as dark. Whereas Ari Aster and Robert Eggers, directors of "Hereditary" and "The Witch" respectively, tread similar ground, they are showcasing a stylistic approach to their features, which the "Wildling" is lacking. The cast is nonetheless quite compelling, with Bel Powley, Brad Dourif and Liv Tyler all managing to create dimensional and interesting characters. The cinematography from Toby Oliver is at times almost too dark, but it works well for the story being told. It's a watchable film, one that just needed a more distinct and visceral point of view, to make it truly memorable.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Farewell My Concubine

Movie Name: Farewell My Concubine
Year of Release: 1993
Director: Chen Kaige
Starring: Leslie Cheung, Fengyi Zhang, Li Gong, You Ge, Da Ying, Han Lei, Qi Lu, Di Tong, Zhi Yin
Genre: Drama
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 8 
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Synopsis and Review:
"Farewell My Concubine" has a somewhat rare feat of being a Palm D'Or Winner, alongside another feature, in this case, Jane Campion's wonderful "The Piano" (another case of a double win occurred in 1979 with Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" and Volker Schlondorff's "The Tin Drum"). The film follows the story of two young boys in China, who are brought to a Peking opera troupe. Douzi is indoctrinated to think of himself as a girl, since he'll be playing female roles, while his best friend Shitou, will be playing the lead male roles. Douzi initially attempts to run away, but ultimately decides to pursue the acting path seriously after witnessing a famous opera master. As years go by, Douzi and Shitou become Peking opera stars under stage names Cheng Dieyi and Duan Xiaolou, respectively. Whereas Dieyi loves Xiaolou romantically, the latter one marries a beautiful courtesan by the name of Juxian. As the wars and the communist regime alter the Chinese society, so do their lives and allegiances change, with tragic consequences.
Chen Kaige followed the beautiful "Life on a String" with "Farewell My Concubine", who went on to win several accolades and be featured on the list of the best films of the year. What is so remarkable about this film, is the way it narrates the story of two individuals, from their troublesome childhood, all the way through their adult years, while also surfacing the rituals of the Chinese society and how they change throughout the years. It's a film simultaneously epic in scope, but also narrowly focused on the trio of characters which inhabits it: the two best friends, and the woman whom one of them loves, and ultimately causes the rift in the relationship. The director engrossingly depicts the arduous process of becoming a skilled performer, alongside all the sacrifices and brutality the performers have to endure in order to become successful. It's also a view into certain political regimes, ones that are intrusive and ultimately destructive. The trio of central performers is fantastic, particularly the late Leslie Cheung and Li Gong. The cinematography from Gu Changwei is stunning as are the costumes from Changmin Chen. A wonderful film always worth revisiting.

Falling Down

Movie Name: Falling Down
Year of Release: 1993

Director: Joel Schumacher

Starring: Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey, Rachel Ticotin, Tuesday Weld, Frederic Forrest, Lois Smith, Ebbe Roe Smith, Raymond J. Barry, Steve Park, Michael Paul Chan, D.W. Moffett, Kimberly Scott

Genre: Drama, Thriller

Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5 

Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:

Director Joel Schumacher had a busy start of the 90s, commencing with "Flatliners" which premiered in 1990, quickly followed by "Dying Young" in 1991, all aimed at capturing the ongoing popularity of Julia Roberts, then on meteoric ascension to stardom. Following the mild response to "Dying Young" the director bounced back with "Falling Down", which premiered in the US in February, and was in competition at the Cannes Film Festival of 1993. The film follows the story of William Foster, an average man who just went through a divorce, and whose wife got a restraining order against him. He lives in LA, has recently been fired from his job, and the film showcases him spiraling out of control as his day starts, and he's stuck in traffic, under scorching heat, and his car's air conditioning has stopped working. He gets out of his car, and simply walks away. The film accompanies his increasingly bizarre and incident filled day, starting with an altercation at a convenience store, quickly followed by gang members attacking him, to name just a few, which eventually result in him carrying guns and starting to be tracked by the police. And all he wants, is to see his daughter.

"Falling Down" written by actor/writer Ebbe Roe Smith was a project that had its fair share of interest, until it caught the attention of Joel Schumacher who in turn sent it to Michael Douglas. The film has faint inspirational moments and certain tangents to Martin Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" without ever being quite as psychologically nuanced or rich for that matter. William Foster is an every day man, going through challenging moments in his life, someone who has lost his ability to cope with adversity and progressively starts relying on violence to remove obstacles in his path. The film tries very hard to depict Foster as an every day man, and the situations as something that could happen to anyone. It's film that caused some controversy, particularly because it premiered following the LA riots of 1992, and also because the film somehow gives an impression of endorsing the spiraling violence that surrounds Michael Douglas's character (and how other groups and minorities are characterized in the film). In the end, the film isn't quite as successful primarily because the central character is very much always portrayed in a single perspective (not much humanity or humor ever revealed). Robert Duvall's supporting role, the police officer trailing Foster, is a far richer and more interesting role, since the character has a life, has its own quirks, traumas and sense of humor. It's a far more rounded character than any of the other ones in the film. It's nonetheless a film worth watching primarily due to its cast, with a trio of wonderful performers, namely: Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall and Barbara Hershey. The cinematography from Andrezj Bartkowiak is solid, as is the score from James Newton Howard. Uneven, but still worth watching.

Saturday, May 9, 2020


Movie Name: Dave
Year of Release: 1993
Director: Ivan Reitman
Starring: Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Frank Langella, Ben Kingsley, Kevin Dunn, Laura Linney, Ving Rhames, Charles Grodin, Faith Prince, Bonnie Hunt, Parley Baer, Anna Deavere Smith, Charles Hallahan, Tom Dugan
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 7 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Following the success of "Kindergarten Cop", director Ivan Reitman returned with another well crafted, and far better received comedy, "Dave", written by Gary Ross (who had made a name for himself as the writer of Penny Marshall's "Big" and who would go on to be a director himself, with "Pleasantville" and "The Hunger Games" as two examples). The film follows the story of Dave Kovic, a Temp Agency operator, who looks exactly like the current President of the United States. The current President, Bill Mitchell, goes on his escapades, and when that happens, the Secret Service hires Dave to stand in for him. When the President suffers a stroke while having sex with one of his aides, Dave finds himself stuck in the role indefinitely (since the stroke causes the President to go into a coma). The Chief of Staff, Bob Alexander, refuses to divulge the events, to avoid having the Vice-President taking over. He also plans to use Dave to elevate himself to the White House, and generally manipulate the situations to his liking. However Dave becomes more and more comfortable in the position, realizing the good he can do, while also falling in love with the First Lady, who quickly realizes that Dave isn't her husband (whom she hated due to his infidelities).
"Dave" is a film that is not only indicative of a new political climate which started in 1993, but also a film that feels very much influenced by the classic works of Frank Capra (including "Mr. Smith goes to Washington" and "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town"). It's a film that embraces the idealistic side of an every day man, of a good man, who by extraordinary circumstances, finds himself as a President of a nation, and who while surrounded by moral turpitude, thrives to do better, not just for himself, but for everyone. It's also a love story, of two people meeting in somewhat strained circumstances, and who while not necessarily looking for love, find it by looking at each other for who they are, and not necessarily for what their standing in society is. Ivan Reitman manages to deftly and humorously illustrate Dave's progressive confidence and braveness, as he discovers his own strength, with Kevin Kline being fantastic in both roles. The supporting cast provides a variety of flavor including the always reliable and fantastic Frank Langella, Kevin Dunn, Ving Rhames, Ben Kingsley. The female cast is headed by the always superb Sigourney Weaver (who should probably be cast as President in a film of her own), with able support from the equally vastly talented Laura Linney, for whom "Dave" was her second feature film, not forgetting the always reliable Bonnie Hunt. The production team of this film is impeccable, including the score from James Newton Howard and the cinematography from Adam Greenberg. Worth watching.

Benny & Joon

Movie Name: Benny & Joon
Year of Release: 1993
Director: Jeremiah Chechik
Starring: Johnny Depp, Mary Stuart Masterson, Aidan Quinn, Julianne Moore, Dan Hedaya, Oliver Platt, CCH Pounder, Joe Grifasi, William H. Macy, Liane Curtis, Eileen Ryan
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 5 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Jeremiah Chechik's "Benny & Joon" was the director's third feature, following his debut with "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation", which was a considerable hit, whereas his second feature, "Arrive Alive", was terminated while shooting (after 18 days of shooting the production was shut down). "Benny & Joon" is in effect, the second fully released feature of his career, and follows the story of the two siblings in the title. Joon is a young woman, an artist, with some mental issues, while her older brother Benny, is her care taker. He owns and operates a garage, while Joon stays home and works on her art, usually in the care of a housekeeper who keeps an eye on her. Joon is quirky and challenging, resulting in a constant flux of housekeepers. While Benny is contemplating putting her in a group home, the young handsome Sam waltzes into their lives. Eccentric on his own, Sam is inspired by Buster Keaton, and is a cousin of one of Benny's friends. He becomes Joon's new housekeeper, and a relationship between the two of them starts to blossom, with unexpected outcomes.
"Benny & Joon" was one of three releases Johnny Depp had in 1993 (the other two being "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?" and "Arizona Dream"), and is now mostly remembered as a film that further cemented his taste in offbeat roles. It's a romantic film, where unique and particularly sensitive souls meet, fall in love, and fight to find their place in the world, against prejudice and fear from the community they live in and even of their own loved ones. The film works best when it uses Sam's quirkiness and his Buster Keaton inspired actions, to add whimsicality and some magic to the proceedings, since otherwise it's a fairly uneventful and somewhat forgettable endeavor. The film does benefit from a great cast, with particular highlights going to the three leads, but also Julianne Moore, who finally emerged as an actress to be noted (in 93 alone she was in Andrew Davis's "The Fugitive", Robert Altman's "Shortcuts" and Uli Edel's "Body of Evidence"), Oliver Platt, Dan Hedaya and William H. Macy. While not a particularly memorable film, the entire cast make it watchable and enjoyable, and for that alone it's worth revisiting. 

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Godzilla: King of Monsters

Movie Name: Godzilla: King of Monsters
Year of Release: 2019
Director: Michael Dougherty
Starring: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ken Watanabe, Ziyi Zhang, Bradley Whitford, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, Aisha Hinds, David Strathairn, Anthony Ramos 
Genre: Adventure, Action, Fantasy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 2 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Following the commercial success of both Gareth Edwards's "Godzilla" and Jordan Vogt-Roberts's "Kong: Skull Island", a continuation of this series with big monsters was bound to continue. The film follows the events of the first "Godzilla" film, as now the world is aware of the existence of Titans. The narrative focuses on the broken family comprised of Dr. Emma Russell, a paleobiologist, Dr. Mark Russell, her ex-husband and their young daughter, Madison. Emma firmly believes these Titans should be unleashed into the world, since only then can the planet battle all the problems caused by humans. Firmly believing this plan, she unleashes "Monster Zero", who goes on to battle Godzilla, all the while other Titans are being reawakened. "Monster Zero" turns out is King Ghidorah, an ancient alien species seeking to terraform the Earth. It's up to Godzilla and its allies to fight this formidable foe, before the entire planet is destroyed.
Crafting an intelligent and compelling monster film is difficult. Steven Spielberg, when adapting Peter Benchley with "Jaws" and Michael Crichton with "Jurassic Park", knew that in order to successfully craft films that held people's attention, it wasn't necessarily the virtuosity of the monster or showcasing much of it all the time, that made these features so iconic. It's the ability to create a human tapestry of characters that are peers in relevance to the monsters onscreen, since they are after all, who we create empathy with. Michael Dougherty who made a name for himself, firstly as a collaborating writer with Bryan Singer's team (he worked on "X-Men2" and "Superman Returns"), sadly never manages to successfully create a film that is sufficiently compelling and ultimately, memorable. The characters are afterthoughts throughout most of the narrative, and witnessing digitally oversized monsters crash and battle each other for stretches of time, isn't something that holds audiences attention. What was so interesting about "Jurassic Park", or even Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds", was the imminent threat being brought on to the main characters, whose journeys we were invested in. In this film, the characters are barely distinguishable in the middle of all the rubble and noise being created by the monsters. The great cast sadly has nothing much to do, with even the usually excellent Vera Farmiga faring poorly, the same going for Kyle Chandler (who probably should venture out to different roles, since he's worn out the father figure across a variety of films/shows). The visual effects are superb, but sadly even them don't save this film from exhaustion and oblivion. A wasted effort.

Mirror, Mirror

Movie Name: Mirror, Mirror
Year of Release: 2012
Director: Tarsem Singh
Starring: Julia Roberts, Lily Collins, Armie Hammer, Nathan Lane, Mare Winningham, Michael Lerner, Sean Bean, Jordan Prentice, Joe Gnoffo, Mark Povinelli, Danny Woodburn, Sebastian Saraceno, Martin Klebba, Ronald Lee Clark, Robert Emms, Alex Ivanovici
Genre: Comedy
Score out of ten (whole numbers only): 4 
Watch it on Amazon

Synopsis and Review:
Director Tarsem Singh followed his successful "Immortals", with another take on a beloved classic, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", and again in the same year, competing with another project, namely "Snow White and The Huntsman" (which featured a starrier cast, headlined by Charlize Theron, Kristen Steward and Chris Hemsworth, directed by Rupert Sanders). Based on a 19th century German fairy tale, published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, this adaptation once again follows the tribulations of Snow White, and her defiantly malevolent stepmother, The Queen. The Queen is the narrator of the feature, and through her, we come to know of the kingdom in which the action takes place, and of her marriage to the ruler. The King, a widower, has a small daughter by the name of Snow White. Once the King mysteriously disappears, the Queen takes ownership of the kingdom, and poverty and misery ensues. She also nearly imprisons Snow White, all the while using magic to make sure her beauty remains eternal and unchallenged. However as the finances of the kingdom are in dire need, the Queen starts looking for a wealthy suitor, which comes in the shape of a valiant prince, who while on a quest throughout the lands, is robbed by a pack of men in the woods. While the prince and Snow White accidentally meet, sparks fly, much to dismay and fury of the Queen, who stops at nothing to get her will fulfilled. 
Tarsem Singh is well known for his unique aesthetic, and for his collaborations with phenomenal and sadly deceased, costume designer, Eiko Ishioka. After his passion project, "The Fall", the director tackled more commercial endeavors, starting with "Immortals", quickly followed by "Mirror, Mirror". The film is a lighthearted, comedic take on the "Snow White" mythology, but attempts to do so with some restraint, which assessing from the results, ends up being its biggest issue. The film can't quite find its tone, oscillating between the more slapstick, tongue in cheek humor that Julia Roberts and Nathan Lane try to bring to the film, to the somewhat more restrained, feminist and social aware perspective that is represented by Snow White. The comedic tone is indeed its biggest issue, since the film could have been just as funny without the overt and childlike humor. Sometimes less is indeed more. The characters are merely sketches, with both Snow White and the Queen, being defined by very broad strokes, and not much depth of characterization, the same going for the supporting characters. Where the film ends up being successful is, of course, the production virtuosity, from the stunning costumes of Eiko Ishioka, to the cinematography of Brendan Galvin. The actors are a mix bag, with Nathan Lane as always providing effective comic relief, whereas Julia Roberts is very miscast, sporting an accent that comes and goes. A forgettable endeavor from an interesting stylistic director.