PROTECTED: 3 STARS
For the second time in as many months, Samuel L. Jackson plays a hitman whose family values are as strong, if not stronger, than his instinct to kill. In “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” he found his family to be logical, not biological. In “The Protege”, now in theaters, he is the mentor and father figure of a killer played by Maggie Q.
Q is Anna, one of the best trained assassins in the world. She was introduced to the life of international intrigue by Moody (Jackson), a hitman on the blues guitar.
“I’m the big bad wolf who comes to get you,” he said, “when someone on earth decides your time is up”.
He rescued her in Vietnam in 1991 after her parents were killed by Communist soldiers.
“He didn’t save my life,” she said, “he gave me a life.”
When Moody is brutally murdered, Anna loses the only person she can trust. Vowing revenge, she uses her special skills to find out who blew up her mentor and father figure.
“I’m going to find out who killed my friend,” she said, “and I’m going to end his life and the lives of everyone who stands in my way. “
One of those people who stands in his way is Rembrandt (Michael Keaton), a rival assassin who works for very bad, but well-connected people. As the plot thickens, the bond between Anna and Rembrandt thickens as her investigation takes her back to where her story began, Vietnam.
“The Protege” is a brilliant revenge film that covers well-traveled terrain. There are exotic locations, elaborate action sequences, complicated alliances, and a dark backstory. Richard Wenk’s screenplay takes over one of the greatest hits of the international assassin tropes and director Martin Campbell, best known for directing the 007 comeback movie “Casino Royale”, knows how to capitalize on these elements of the story.
So why does “The Protege” seem less than the sum of these parts? Maybe it’s because the characters don’t elevate the material.
Q is a believable action star, skillfully handling kinetic stunts. Jackson brings his brand of cool effortlessly and Keaton is eccentric and mysterious and somewhat cavalier about his chosen profession.
“I could put two on the back of your head,” he said after making love to Anna, “and then go make a sandwich.”
Everyone brings something to the film, and while Q and Jackson have a simple fix to their relationship, the chemistry between Keaton and Q feels strained. An attempted fight scene that leads to the bedroom, set to “That Loving Feeling” by Isaac Hayes, falls flat despite on-screen talent.
“The Protege” aspires to be something bigger than it is. The morality of the murder business is debated, generational trauma is brought up and there is a complicated (and not terribly interesting) conspiracy at play but the movie is at its best when it puts aside its notions of gravity and focuses on l primitive aspect of the story, Anna’s quest for revenge.
THE NIGHT HOUSE: 3 STARS
“The Night House,” a new thriller starring Rebecca Hall and now starring in theaters, explores the psychological damage left after tragedy and the secrets tear a woman apart.
When we first meet Beth (Hall), a high school teacher in upstate New York, she is lost in grief over the sudden death of her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit). She is angry, is treated with alcohol to ease the pain.
At night, alone in the beautiful lake house he built for them, she is tormented by ghostly visions. Bloody footprints appear, the stereo switches on by itself to play “their song” and there is a loud knock on the door, but when she opens the door, there is no one there. During the day, she finds herself with her grief and the lingering feeling that Owen has left as many secrets as she has memories.
Her friend Claire (Sarah Goldberg) and neighbor Mel (Vondie Curtis-Hall) offer their support, but the gruesome visions and auditory experiences continue, pushing her to the brink. As she puts away her things, her clothes, her books, the compiled instants of a lifetime, she discovers evidence that Owen had a hidden life involving the occult and a number of women who look remarkably like Beth.
“The Night House” is a gothic psychological horror film anchored by Hall’s remarkable performance. She reverses the idea of the grieving widow, playing Beth as outraged and unfriendly. As she goes through the stages of grieving, focusing on the anger, it is heartbreaking. An early scene with the mother of one of his students complaining about her son’s poor grade is brutal in its honesty laid bare. She’s an open wound, and Hall engages with the more daring aspects of the character, allowing the viewer to have a window into Beth’s world.
Director David Bruckner creates a lot of atmosphere and a sense of the weird that keeps the quirky story afloat despite the script’s leaps in logic. As Beth’s inner turmoil intensifies, the story adds too many elements that aren’t going anywhere like a mysterious second home in the woods and Beth’s lookalike. As the script gets more and more convoluted, the intensity built up in the first half of the film wears off.
“The Night House” is a provocative take on mourning with an excellent lead performance, but is canceled out by a lengthy approach to the story.
RARE BEASTS: 3 ½ STARS
The opening of “Rare Beasts,” the ambitious new VOD film starring Billie Piper, who also wrote and directed, is the end of the worst date ever.
Over dinner and a glass or two of wine, overconfident TV writer Mandy (Piper) and Pete (Leo Bill) discuss everything from his ultra-traditional take on women as wives and mothers, to the size of his teeth. It seems he doesn’t really like women, but can’t imagine his life without one by his side. Or, at least, in his kitchen and his bedroom.
They are oil and water, chalk and cheese. In a romantic comedy, that would be an exact example of the kind of misogynistic person at the bottom of the barrel Mandy should avoid until Mr. Right arrives, especially after Mandy recanted after one of his outbursts, ” These are classic rapist remarks.
But “Rare Beasts” is not a romantic comedy. It feels more like a thriller, because Mandy and Pete’s first meeting is so awful that as time goes on you’ll be on the edge of your seat wondering what’s going to happen between them.
Mandy is the insecure single mom of Larch (Toby Woolf) who tries to tame her negative thoughts with a Stuart Smiley-style mantra, “Even though I’m scared and angry, I still love and respect myself.”
The disastrous date is the start of a strained relationship, born out of insecurity and now out of a small amount of self-loathing.
“I want to reveal myself one room at a time,” she said, “so that I can tell you about what I physically hate about me.”
Despite their utter incompatibility and Pete’s claim to find women “intolerable,” the couple struggle through a relationship, motivated by dysfunction. She visits her parents on vacation in Spain and they even discuss marriage.
“Rare Beasts” has the audacity on its side. Piper fills the film with difficult characters, neuroses, and close, personal close-ups of Mandy who almost look inside her head to reveal the chaos within the character. He’s conflicted in his treatment of the form – maybe we’ll call him a non-rom com – and his characters, who are almost as out of touch as the storytelling.
Piper walks through the story, slowing down every now and then to focus on memorable scenes, like a New Mothers Day snorting coke, or taking a detour through darker, whimsical moments. The result is a dizzying, quirky film that paints a modern picture of feminism while making Piper a fearless (and often quite funny) filmmaker.