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February 11, 2015

Simply Indie: Awaken

MUDDLED

Awaken – Muddled

I love it when we receive screeners to review, it’s a lot of fun. It shows that people trust us enough to make a fair assessment of their film. However, here is the sticking point. There is a fine line when you are reviewing a film where you feel a duty of both congratulating a film for it’s merits, while at the same time giving it constructive criticism. This is the crux that I have with 2014’s “Awaken” a small independent film directed by Mark Atkins and starring Natalie Burn. While I do appreciate the production design and some of the performances, “Awaken” is a muddled picture where you have to take the good with the bad.

We begin the film on a mysterious island where we find Billy (Burn) waking up on a beach. Venturing into the jungle, we find out that she isn’t alone. Instantly on the run, Billy meets Nick and Todd who tell her that she needs to meet Quentin, played by Robert Davi, who tells Billy the island isn’t what it seems. Moving to another part of the island, we meet Rich (Jason London) and Kat (Christa Campbell) who are dabbling in organ trafficking and are awaiting the arrival of the mysterious “Mao.” As the film progresses we find out more about Billy’s history and how she made her way to the island as well as who “Mao” is and why she is heading to the island. I’ll leave you in suspense.

So, “Awaken.” I will say that much of the camerawork is fairly well done, including many of the flyover shots that highlight the island and the crystal clear water. The editing is pretty tight and the action scenes are shot fairly well, including the special effects of bones snapping and bullet hits. The acting is decent, and I especially enjoy seeing Vinnie Jones, who plays the tough-as-nails Sarge, and Daz Crawford who plays Stitch, a soldier that has already spent 44 days on the island, evading his captors. Burn also plays the role of the tough female protagonist quite well. While her character might be a little cliché, at least there is some fleshing out of the character. I’ll also mention Jason London’s performance as both goofy, but at the same time something right out of a 1980s film. It’s hammy, but at least it’s entertaining.

One of the biggest issues I have with “Awaken” is the way characters appear in the film, and are never heard from again. I understand that some of the characters are pretty extraneous, but the plot holes are a little hard ignore, especially Quentin’s arc who is working with Rich and decides he is going to leave the island, and I guess he does, because after a conversation with Billy, Nick, and Stitch, he is never heard from again. I even stuck around after the end credits and I got nothing. The other plot line that ended abruptly was that of Daryl Hannah’s Mao character. Similar to Quentin, Mao leaves at a moment of truth and is never heard from again. While I understand how story lines end and a character’s arc can end, it’s odd that it would happen without any explanation.

Overall, “Awaken” is a brisk watch that can be muddled at times, but there are also some memorable performances by Burn, Crawford, and London which will keep you interested. Atkins has a knack for framing and composes some really nice shots as well, but overall, “Awaken” is a pretty run-of-the-mill tale in the vein of TV’s “Lost” and “Turistas.”

For more information about “Awaken” check out the links below:
Awaken Film
Awaken Twitter
Natalie Burn Twitter
Natalie Burn

June 30, 2013

Simplistic TV: Utopia: Series 1

UNSETTLING

I haven’t been the most feverish fan of ‘out there’ shows like X-Files, Lost, or Fringe, but I have watched all three shows to completion.  I mainly started watching to see what all the hype was about, and I eventually finished to figure out where each show was going.  The results for shows like that, unfortunately tend to always be underwhelming.  Why?  High concept shows are harder for audiences and networks to digest.  It’s much easier to plop some cheaper to make reality show/carbon copy cop procedural on Thursday nights than an ‘out there’ show that goes in a wild new direction.  Networks give high concept, ‘out there’ shows just so much rope before they start interfering.  After the allure of ‘the new show’ wears off, networks move these shows to crazy time slots, under promote them, and quietly execute them from the line-up without a peep.  To avoid that, showrunners of these shows are forced to reveal huge plot points too early in order to keep viewership up.  They betray established characters by shoehorning in romantic relationships or deaths to boost ratings.  Ultimately though, showrunners fall into the habit of losing focus and setting their bar so high, they can’t possibly give their viewers a truly satisfying ending.  Thankfully some networks have begun understanding shows like that DO have an audience and DO need their space.  They understand that shows like that DON’T need to rush and DON’T need gimmicks.  They just need freedom and time to tell their stories.  Cable has been that refuge here in the states recently.  However, UK television has been providing that creative environment for as long as I’ve been watching television.  That is why shows like Misfits, and Orphan Black thrive there.  Hell, Doctor Who may be the most ‘out there’ show ever made and it’s been around for seventy years in the UK.  Series one of Utopia has not only thrown it’s hat in the ring with the other ‘out there’ shows I’ve mentioned, but also stands out as one of the most crazy, unpredictable, original, and UNSETTLING shows I’ve ever seen.

How do I describe Utopia?  Hmmmm.  Okay, let me try this.   Four fans of a strange, impossible to find, comic book go on the run when a shadowy government agency tries to hunt down and kill anyone who knows about or is in possession of the book.  The book itself, being a tome or blueprint for some evil master plan to be enacted upon the planet.  Sound silly?  Well, it kind of is.  However, from the first scene of the first episode of the first series, Utopia takes your preconceived notions and whacks them over the head with a baseball bat by showing you a disturbing and UNSETTLING interrogation/multiple murder.  The silly is the smokescreen this show uses to catch you off guard time and time again.  The graphic nature of the violence comes out of nowhere and grabs your attention.  It is used like a super strict nun’s ruler over a parochial school classroom.  The thing about the violence, however, is that it is always in service of the story or the situation.  It is not violence for violence sake.  It is violence that is a result of things that occurred or the catalyst for things that need to happen.  I say that because of a controversy this show was swept up in due to the events of it’s third episode and the horrible events of Sandy Hook.  I read the story and then watched the scene and I did not see it as a glorifying act.  To just chalk it up to irresponsible glorification is a lazy way of viewing it.  However, this is a discussion for another day.

The UNSETTLING nature of this show is apparent as well in the cinematography.  I don’t usually get into the technical ways things are shot too much, but I think it deserves mentioning here due to the purposefulness of it.  Each episode of Utopia is in a psychedelic ultra high contrast. (An LSD user’s heaven.) Shots themselves are nearly always oddly framed and camera movements are sometimes jarringly unconventional.  You could be watching a scene of two people talking, and they’ll be completely out of focus from a high angle while an obligatory wall fixture on a nearby building is in focus.  A character will be talking directly into camera almost completely obscured by the sun’s glare over their shoulder.  Negative space takes center stage more times than not as characters are given tremendous headroom or moved almost completely to one side of the frame.  There are super wide establishing shots of sickeningly colorful scenery where the main characters are just dark specks on the horizon.  Your eyes in every scene will be darting around trying to find out where the danger will come from.  It might be creator Dennis Kelly’s attempt to mimic comic book visuals themselves or just a way to spit in the face of conventional filmmaking in order to stand out.  Either way, it oddly works for Utopia, given it’s strangeness.

The performances on the show are all solid.  A blessing, seeing as there are some unbelievable situations that happen in this show.  However, I never doubt the truthfulness of each character for a second.  Nathan Stewart-Jarrett proves that the charm and watchability he displayed on the aforementioned UK show Misfits wasn’t a fluke.  Alexandra Roach shines with each witty one-liner she gets to drop.  Paul Haggins and child actor Oliver Woollford put in tremendous work. (Though I hope Oliver is eventually given even more things to do on this show.)   However, there are three standouts, in my opinion, that give performances you might not have seen before.  They are Adeel Akhtar as Wilson Wilson, Neil Maskell as Arby and Fiona O’Shaughnessy as the infamous Jessica Hyde.

We’ve seen conspiracy theory computer geeks done to death in film and televison before.  But there is something about Akhtar’s Wilson that separates him from the rest.  He doesn’t have the same angst and bitterness portrayed in those geeks before him.  He seems happy and at peace with his life.  Sure he spouts out some paranoid governmental rumor now and then, but when we meet him, he genuinely likes himself and his family.  That warmness helps you relate to him more than if he were angry at the world and didn’t trust anyone.  Fiona O’Shaughnessy has the task of playing the girl with all the secrets.  The badass.  The loner and rebel.  Jessica Hyde is like a darker cross between River Tamm from Firefly and Leeloo from The Fifth Element.  There are times when her curiosity, brutal honesty, and compassion make her appear very sweet.  However, there are other times when it is revealed that she has been feigning those emotions to get what she wants.  Thus, leaving us unclear of her true nature.  And when she wants to, Jessica Hyde can be downright frightening.  O’Shaughnessy plays her like a sphinx most of the time.  But when true emotions do come, she pulls them off without shortchanging the character.  I’ve talked about the talents of Neil Maskell before in my review of the equally UNSETTLING Kill List.  What he does here in Utopia, however, is truly amazing.  He takes such a despicable, sociopathic, hauntingly scary, unrelatable character like Arby the hitman and somehow gets you to sympathize with him.  Some of the…check that…most of the show’s deplorable acts are done by Arby.  You think that he is a lock to be the shows main uncompromising villain.  But by the third episode you’ll begin to rethink your feelings on him.  How Maskell does that with a character that is a step above robotic, is beyond me.  Of course the writing is a huge factor, but there is something beyond Maskell’s eyes that reflects a man that is just lost in himself.  A man who knows he is a monster but can’t help his nature.  It is a truly great character and performance you’ll be hard pressed to find on American television.

Utopia is an ‘out there’ show with a concept that is dark, UNSETTLING, interesting and very relevant to our society today.  Thanks to UK television and a shorter but more potent 6 episode a season quota, it has enough rope to truly tell it’s story.  Hopefully, this time, it will be a show with a satisfying ending.  Buy a box of chocolate covered raisins….stay away from spoons….make sure to know where Jessica Hyde is….watch it…then tell me I’m wrong.

April 8, 2013

The Simplistic Reviews March Madness Bracket of Good and Final Four Results: BAD

HANNIBAL LECTER (1) WINNER

BEN LINUS (2)


Ben Linus seems to always hide his motives through politeness.  Something that could keep Doctor Lecter at bay for a while.  However, Ben’s massive inferiority complex is a glaring weakness that Hannibal could exploit and turn on him.

April 5, 2013

The Simplistic Reviews March Madness Bracket of Good and Evil Elite 8 Results: TV BAD

BEN LINUS (2) WINNER
CERSEI LANNISTER (8)

Every Cinderella story must come to an end; especially for a woman who has sex with her brother, makes said brother throw a young boy out of a tower, lie about it, have more sex with other family members, and oh yeah, be a total bi*ch!  Ben Linus shows why he is the master manipulator once again and sends Cersei all the way back to Lannisport in a pine box.  This Lannister just couldn’t pay off her debts.

April 2, 2013

The Simplistic Reviews March Madness Bracket of Good and Evil Sweet 16 Results: TV BAD

BOYD CROWDER (5) 
CERSEI LANNISTER  (8) WINNER

The one thing you have to admire about Cersei is her survival instincts.  She seems to always get her way.  She can get more done with a goblet in her hand than Boyd could with a gun.  Even in defeat, Boyd could still probably respect that.

BEN LINUS (2) WINNER
TRINITY KILLER (6)

Ben Linus may not have the flare for the dramatic like T.K., but he always gets the job done.  He is relentless and getting his way and sometimes without even getting his hands dirty.

March 29, 2013

The Simplistic Reviews March Madness Bracket of Good and Evil Round Two Results: TV BAD

JOFFREY BARATHEON (1) 
CERSEI LANNISTER (8) WINNER

The only lady that could open hand slap the king and get away with it was Cersei Lannister.  Killing him isn’t that far a step.  And seeing as she already has one king on her kill resume, it would be easy for her to kill another.   Sadly, its less depraved killing Joffrey than explaining the circumstances of how he was conceived.  (SHIVER)

BEN LINUS (2) WINNER
ANGELUS (7)

People underestimate Ben Linus at their own peril.  He’s stared into the eyes of the smoke monster and lived.  A vampire is small potatoes to this master manipulator.  

RUSSELL EDGINGTON (3) 
TRINITY KILLER (6) WINNER

Much props for Edgington reminding us how an ACTUAL vampire is supposed to act. (I’M LOOKING AT YOU TWILIGHT).  However, serial killers, unlike vampires, can hide in plain sight.  No one sees them coming.

BOYD CROWDER (5) WINNER
NINA MYERS (4)
In the battle of smooth talking snakes in the grass, Boyd Crowder wins hands down.  He’s a man that uses twenty words when three will do.  Sometimes to confuse you.  Sometimes to buy himself time to outwit you.  But always to win.  There isn’t a con you can lay on him that he hasn’t seen, done himself or done better.  
March 26, 2013

The Simplistic Reviews March Madness Bracket of Good and Evil Round One Results: TV BAD

JOFFREY BARATHEON (1) WINNER
ATTI OF THE JULII (16)

Atti gets whatever she want by using the gift god gave her.  Her potent sexuality.  However, brat Baratheon usually doesn’t take kindly to people using sex as a weapon on him.  Just as Tyrion and those badly beaten whores he sent Joff’s way.  Baratheon wins…Atti dies.

BEN LINUS (2) WINNER 
THE GOVERNOR (15)

The Governor is a brutal master manipulator.  But where he has to juggle the wills of men and zombies, Ben Linus has even more on his plate.  Smoke monsters, polar bears, shapeshifting evil beings, time traveling islands,  and enough flashbacks to make a Vietnam vet blush.  On top of the fact that The Governor wasn’t coldhearted enough to let his zombie daughter go.  Linus let his human daughter get her head blown off for his own purposes.  Linus wins and The Governor lost.

RUSSELL EDGINGTON (3) WINNER
GUS FRING (14)

When you get down to brass tacks, Russell Edgington and Gus Fring are both businessmen.  Only one wants to rule the human race and drain the blood of every non-vampire like cattle, and one wants to sell chicken and meth; easy enough to understand.  While both these bloodsuckers are master manipulators, Fring forgot one thing;  Edgington is FU*KING IMMORTAL!  Maybe if that meth was laced with silver nitrate and oak he would have had a chance, but Russell takes his battle easily.

NINA MYERS (4) WINNER
SYLAR (13)

There isn’t a superpower out there that can compete with the evil of the 24’s biggest snake in the grass, Nina Myers.  The thing that makes her so deadly is that you never see her coming.  Jack Bauer didn’t and Sylar wouldn’t either.  Time runs out for the power sucker.

BOYD CROWDER (5) WINNER
ROBERT QUARLES (12)

A sadist versus a slick, smooth talking, hustler from the south.  Robert Quarles has many a trick and pistol up his sleeve.  However, not enough to out wit and out battle the man I like to call The Redneck Joker.  Boyd manages to get his enemies to do his work for him and disarm Robert Quarles quick and simple like.

TRINITY KILLER (6) WINNER
PRESIDENT CHARLES LOGAN (11)

If there is one thing you can count on its this;  never trust a politician, especially a sniveling liar-of-a-president like Chuck Logan.  I mean, this guy killed our first black TV president for crying out loud!  But how does one sniveler defeat another sniveler?  Giving the Secret Service and the CIA a day off, the Commander in Chief doesn’t have a chance against the Trinity Killer.  Using his patented “bludgeon a man to death with a hammer” routine, Trinity wins, and goes off to enjoy a scalding hot shower while crying.

ANGELUS (7) WINNER
SHANE VENDRELL (10)

One of the most dangerous things in this world is a desperate man.  And they don’t get more desperate than Shane Vendrell.  However, desperation is exactly the thing a vampire like Angelus would prey on.  Sad thing is, that family Shane is always trying to protect would be an hors d’oeurve for our favorite vain vamp.   Hand grenade won’t work this time Shane-O.

CERSEI LANNISTER (8) WINNER
STRINGER BELL (9)

Cersei Lannister knows how to manipulate; just as anyone from the Stark family, if you can find one.  Stringer Bell on the other hand, is a sucker.  While West Baltimore is no King’s Landing, Cersei reigns supreme in any domain.
September 13, 2012

Simplistic TV: Revolution

UNDERWHELMING

Revolution comes to us from Supernatural creator Eric Kripke.  The new captain of the Star Trek franchise and television veteran J.J. Abrams executive produces.  The father of the Iron Man films, Jon Favreau, even directs the pilot.  The concept, a world thrown into chaos from a technological blackout, isn’t entirely original, but still interesting.  So, how do I feel after watching it?  Completely and utterly UNDERWHELMED.  I am sadly short on whelm.  Totally in need of more whelm.  And the fault of this lies mainly with the cast. 

Besides a brief appearance by the consistently good Giancarlo Esposito, the cast is a laundry list of no named actors.  Now, I know the casts of shows like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Lost were relative unknowns at the start.  However, those actors put out award winning efforts while tackling very original concepts.  The cast of Revolution seems to be phoning in their performances as though they were aged Hollywood superstars….or direct to DVD Wesley Snipes. 
Tracy Spiridakos, who serves as the show’s lead, (Obvious Hunger Games Cash In Attempt By The Way) is as stock as they come.  She doesn’t have enough acting ability to carry a scene, let alone an entire series.  Graham Rogers, who plays her brother, comes off more like a speaking extra than a costar.  The character with the most potential on the show is Uncle Miles, played by Billy Burke of…ugh…Twilight fame.  He’s a mysterious ex soldier who we know little about, other than he’s good at killing.  An actor with some range and charisma could bring a lot to this type of role.  However, Burke sleepwalks through every line he delivers and even parts of his fight scenes. 
In this attention deficit disorder world we live in now, it is hard to have a show that can captivate and keep viewers.  Especially, if the actors don’t convince us to care about the characters they’re playing.  The performances of Revolution’s cast do little to convince me to care.  Watch it…better yet, DVR it…do your laundry…play with your kids…take up stamp collecting…then if you get bored…really bored…watch it…then tell me I’m wrong. 
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