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‘Empathy, Inc.’ Takes Virtual Reality to a Heightened, Thrilling Extreme

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Virtual reality is the one of the hottest technologies in video games right now, but its potential applications elsewhere are even more interesting. Of course, being able to convey empathy to those significantly lacking it holds a particular importance when it comes to rich people ruining the lives of everyone else. Empathy, Inc. is all about greed and empathy, so when Joel (Zach Robidas) is screwed out of his venture capitalist job and discovers a new virtual reality product that rich clients are lining up to use, he can’t help but try to invest in the project. The ways empathy and greed intersect in this science-fiction thriller is what makes Yedidya Gorsetman’s film an interesting, exhilarating experience that feels like Nacho Vigalondo by way of Shane Carruth.

Shot entirely in black-and-white, Empathy, Inc. is barely interested in contending with moral grey areas. That’s mostly for the audience to wrestle with as they watch Joel plummet deeper into the dark recesses of Xtreme Virtual Reality (yes, it’s a silly name that the movie acknowledges as silly, but marketable). When Nicolas (Eric Berryman) offers Joel a chance to invest in XVR, he jumps on it by using the money his father-in-law has put away for retirement. What makes the technology so incredible is that it allows the client to take control of a poor person — something rich clients find enticing because of how different their lifestyle is. However, complications arise when Joel realizes that the experience may not be as cut-and-dry as Nicolas claims it to be.

Empathy, Inc.

Outside of whether the technology is morally right or wrong, Joel’s decision to use his wife’s father’s money to get back in the financial advisement game complicates his dilemma with his exploitation of the rich and unaware. Joel’s wife, Jessica (Kathy Searle), is trying to get her acting career booming while finding her own footing in the world, which is only further complicated by Joel’s complete disregard of her wishes, and his predicament worsens when the investment goes sour. While her relationship with Joel isn’t necessarily the focal point of the film, there’s a significance to everything in Empathy, Inc., and being able to jump into another character’s shoes in order to understand their reaction to the other is highly satisfying. This is ultimately what makes the movie work so well.

Empathy, Inc. is not without its flaws of course, but those mainly stem from Joel being a character who tends to walk more on the unlikable side of things. It’s really hard to get behind anyone that makes a selfish decision (like investing a family member’s money into an untested piece of technology), but Mark Leidner has written a great screenplay that feels like it fleshes a lot of what it needs to, and even tries to make Joel into a character you feel sympathy for. It also helps that Robidas conveys his character with just the right amount of smugness and love. Capturing that balance is crucial in a movie which asks the audience questions about their own actions towards the impoverished and suffering. Nevertheless, Joel being more likable would have exponentially improved the impact of those questions,.

Empathy, Inc.

For any missteps that are made, the film makes up for it with a tense final act where the story goes high-concept, yet somehow doesn’t spiral endlessly out of control. Keeping the science-fiction elements nice and neat seems like a daunting task, but just like with Vigalondo and Carruth, Gorsetman and Leidner know how to package it all tightly. The thrills come from that potential to overflow, and there are few movies in recent memory that highlight that balancing act.

With a highly entertaining premise that situates itself in a world that would believably latch onto it, it’s no surprise that Empathy, Inc. is an enthralling film. It feels ripe for a Black Mirror episode, but uses its extended runtime to encapsulate a world that desperately needs a little empathy in it. The idea of monetizing that feeling is inherently interesting, and it’s thrilling to watch someone run with it in the ways that Empathy, Inc. does.

Dark Star Pictures will release Empathy, Inc. in theaters (9/13) and VOD (9/24) this fall.

EmpathyInc

Chris is a graduate of Communications from Simon Fraser University and resides in Toronto, Ontario. His favorite films include The Big Lebowski, The Raid 2, Alien, and The Thing. You will often find him with a drink in his hand yelling about movies.

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‘Nefarious’ Shows Passion For The Home Invasion Genre

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From creative horror fiend Richard Rowntree comes his newest venture, a home invasion film titled Nefarious. The Dogged director and his crew have found an angle to take on the genre to make it feel fresh and lively.

Nefarious follows a few different people in the same small town, from four roommates in trouble with a considerable debt to the wrong people, to a special needs man named Clive who has won a considerable sum of money in the lottery. The film follows multiple sides of the story as they develop, with the violent and ill-tempered Darren at the helm of the intruders. With desperation leading him and his thugs to the house of Clive and his brother, Marcus, these intruders find they’ve gotten into something so much bigger than they thought.

Nefarious kicks off with the first of many interrogation room asides that allude to the events of the film. Soon the plot gets rolling, and the story begins to be pieced together. These interrogation room scenes place characters against a pitch-black backdrop, giving off a bit of a surrealist and dreamlike vibe, and some of the most impressive shots — particularly a scene with the two detectives looking through a two-way mirror — come from this setting. The intro runs a bit long, but continues the surrealist lean, with shaky visuals ranging from violent to erotic to strange shots of different individuals.

Nefarious - Interrogation
Lou being interrogated in the dark expanse.

Whilst Nefarious is a low budget horror experience, it makes use of what it has very well. The cinematography is fantastic, with varied camera angles and creative framing, along with an attention to colour and lighting. There’s a marked step up in the lighting department from Richard Rowntree’s previous offering; Dogged did use what they had well, but with Nefarious it feels like there’s more mastery over it.

On the technical side, everything comes together nicely, not ever feeling cheap or like it’s cutting corners. In fact, the gore and action — which doesn’t really rear its head until the denouement — is quite effectively done. The one exception is a slightly stilted jab with a crowbar to end a character’s life, but it doesn’t hinder the scene at all. The sets are also incredibly well put together, feeling realistic (perhaps due to filming in real houses and locations), and one particular secret room is all the right kinds of terrifying and disturbing.

Meanwhile, the music doesn’t particularly standout on its own, but the distorted bassy beat backdropping a few scenes fits incredibly well with the tone. There’s also an off-kilter element to the soundtrack that helps keep the viewer on edge.

Nefarious - Fridge
Gross and off-putting, just how you want your frozen viscera.

The acting isn’t stellar across the board, but for the most part it’s quite impressive, with performances from Gregory A. Smith as Clive, Toby Wynn-Davies as Marcus, and Buck Braithwaite as Darren shining. Nadia Lamin also puts in a solid performance as the conflicted Lou, and there’s even a cameo from the director himself as the taxi driver.

By the time the denouement is reached, Nefarious reveals a twist more complex than one would first think. Whilst it’s foreshadowed thoroughly enough to see coming, the weight and scope still come as a surprise, and the exposed extra layers of secrecy keep us on our toes. This finale is built to fantastically, culminating in a whirlwind of brutal and sadistic action, but it does get a bit muddied by those multiple twists overlapping each other, which can make it a bit less impactful. Regardless, the great imagery, execution, and pacing through the final confrontation creates a solid finishing point for Nefarious.

Nefarious defies its budget and shows us a refreshing approach to the home invasion genre, whilst allowing itself to grow outside of it as well. There are a few hitches here and there, but nothing that takes away from an otherwise excellent and thrilling ride. The ending alone is worth the watch, though the buildup is captivating as well. Now with two full-length competent horror films under his belt, I’m looking forward to seeing what angle of the genre Richard Rowntree explores next.

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TIFF 2019: The Piercing ‘Marriage Story’ Is a Festival Standout

Noah Baumbach’s newest drama is a searing portrait of a marriage dissolving, and his best film to date.

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Marriage Story

In 2010, director Noah Baumbach began divorce proceedings with his now ex-wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh. The divorce was finalized three years later, and since then Baumbach has been in a relationship with actor and director (and occasional collaborator) Greta Gerwig. It’s impossible to view his newest film, Marriage Story, without taking into account his own dissolved marriage; this is a searching, seething work of recriminations and longing that pits two all–too–human parents against each other, and invites the audience to not only imagine which bits of psychic trauma are his own, but also to consider our own relationships, successful or not.

Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as Nicole and Charlie, a married couple living in New York City with their young son Henry. The film opens with a montage as Nicole recites the things she most loves about her husband, from the way he can cook and doesn’t mind waking up with their son, to his skill as a theater director. In turn, Charlie narrates his favorite aspects of Nicole, his regular lead actor. There are plenty of opportunities for tears here, but the unguarded emotions of these confessions might get them started right from the beginning. But just as they finish reciting these traits, we’re brought back to reality; these confessions were things that they had written down to read to each other as a kind of peace offering at the start of their mediation following a separation that has led up to their divorce. But Nicole doesn’t like what she has written — or at least doesn’t want Charlie to hear it. And if she won’t go, then it’s not really fair for him to read his. So neither tells each other what they most admire in the other, and instead stop seeing the mediator.

It’s the first strike in Nicole and Charlie’s mutually assured destruction agreement. Though they initially plan on avoiding using lawyers, Nicole gets tipped off to a well-regarded attorney (a funny and ice-cold Laura Dern) who advises her to take a maximalist position in order to ensure she gets half of everything she wants — at the very least. Once she has a lawyer, Charlie tries out a variety of legal counsels (a soothing Alan Alda and a fiery Ray Liotta), but the real conflict comes down to location; Nicole has taken Henry to Los Angeles while she films a pilot, and wants to stay even after it’s finished. Charlie, however, thought they would move back to New York. Each escalation in the feud necessitates an opposing reaction, and the two are driven further and further apart, even as they try to stay close for the sake of their son.

Marriage Story

Baumbach has admitted that some details of the film are based on his own divorce, but he’s also said he interviewed many of his friends who divorced around the same time, as well as lawyers and judges involved in divorce cases. In some ways, Marriage Story isn’t just a portrait of a couple separating, but a primer on divorce court that far surpasses something like Kramer vs. Kramer, which was out of date even in 1979. The film is also an opportunity to observe two of the best living actors at the top of their game. Johansson and Driver have a knack for finding the sweet spot between un-actorly naturalism and the stylistic ticks that we recognize as compelling acting. It gives us a sense that these people were actually a family, and really cared for each other. Baumbach’s script helps; it’s maybe his best writing ever, filled with so many painfully open moments, yet leavened with just the right amount of humor. He’s also as fair as he could be, and neither parent comes off as too saintly or self-centered.

Marriage Story ends in a circle of sorts with the discovery of Nicole’s notes about Charlie’s best qualities. Their marriage was effectively over before the film even started, but I kept thinking back to that lovely introductory scene. How might their journey to divorce progressed if they had the courage to speak openly to each other in that one moment? Perhaps something might have been better. Marriage Story doesn’t harbor any of those romantic illusions, however; once it’s over, it’s over.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF 2019: Terrence Malick Puts Faith Front and Center in ‘A Hidden Life’

Terrence Malick makes a glorious return to scripted films with this searing portrait of faith at all costs.

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A Hidden Life

Terrence Malick is back! Or maybe he never went anywhere. Those propositions have divided critics who either see everything he directed after 2011’s The Tree of Life as failures, or who find his subsequent cinematic experiments to be vital additions to his oeuvre. I tend to fall into the latter category, having considerable affection for To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song, which seems like a transition of sorts back to the more tightly scripted narrative films he made up through The Tree of Life. Now, with A Hidden Life, Malick returns to his favorite subjects: religion, morality, family. It may not be a return to form per se, but it’s top-notch Malick, and already one of this year’s best films.

A Hidden Life is inspired by the true story of Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer who was executed after he refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler. Jägerstätter is played by August Diehl, best known to American audiences as the lead Nazi in the bar shootout in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. We first see him tending to his crops in the hilly town of St. Radegund, far above the clouds. (The film was originally titled Radegund before Malick settled on A Hidden Life, which is derived from a line in George Eliot’s Middlemarch.) He lives with his wife, Franziska (Valerie Pachner), and their three young daughters. Malick and his new cinematographer, Jörg Widmer, film the Austrian landscape with some of the lushest greens ever depicted on film, and Franz’s whole family spends plenty of time frolicking in the beautiful surroundings (though he has significantly toned down the frolicking now that he’s working with a tighter script).

Franz first receives military training sometime after the rise of the Nazis but before the start of the Second World War. While there, he befriends a fellow soldier named Waldlan (Transit’s Franz Rogowski), whom he will fortuitously meet again years later. Through the luck of a deferment for farmers, he’s able to return home to his village, but his anti-war, anti-Nazi stances make him an enemy of the other villagers. Malick doesn’t go out of his way to construct contemporary parallels in A Hidden Life, but viewers might breathe a sigh of recognition at the way some of the villagers so whole-heartedly adopt cruel, ugly sentiments once they’re presented aloud by a compelling leader. By 1943, Franz’s deferment ends, at which point his unwillingness to serve sends him on a path to the guillotine.

A Hidden Life

Malick depicts Franz not as a saint looking to serve as an example for others, but merely a man concerned with good and evil. He’s told by multiple figures that no one knows of his principled stand, and that it won’t have any meaningful impact on the Nazi war effort. But he’s not looking to be a hero — just to do the right thing. Diehl’s expressive face is often contorted into anguished looks as he wrestles with his decision. His moral position opens his wife and children up to harassment and even assault from other villagers, and his death will leave them barely able to care for their crops and livestock. Though A Hidden Life is primarily Franz’s story, there are plenty of lovely scenes with Franziska at home, both with her children and with her sister, who lives with the family.

The contours of Franz’s story are understandably inspiring, and it’s not surprising that he was beatified in 2007. (Pope Benedict XVI made regular Sunday walks to St. Radegund as a child.) Malick’s films have always had elements of the religious and the divine, but this is his first film to expressly examine a character’s journey of faith. His camera has always been pointing toward the heavens, into the sun; and when he wasn’t looking up, Malick was looking for the holy closer to us, in the tiny, innocent creatures that populate our world. Now he’s kept his camera pointed straight ahead and found holiness in man himself.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF 2019: Benson and Moorhead Bend Time in the Psychedelic ‘Synchronic’

Trippy visuals and historical context ground this ambitious science fiction film.

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Synchronic

Bringing together trippy science fiction and the grit of New Orleans, Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead continue their streak of grounded genre-fare with Synchronic. With another exploration into concepts of time and reality, Synchronic plays out like a cross between Martin Scorsese’s Bringing out the Dead and Shane Carruth’s Primer. Though not as nuanced in its characters as previous entires in their filmography, Benson and Moorhead provide another delight for genre fans, and a compelling idea that never gets too far out of their grasp, despite its ambitiousness.

Focused on two paramedics, Synchronic finds Steve (Anthony Mackie) and Dennis (Jamie Dornan) driving through New Orleans and stumbling upon several drug overdoses in the city. The only connection between the overdoses is that all of the victims took a new designer drug called Synchronic. As the incidents start piling up, the two become entangled in the mystery of the drug’s effects after Dennis’ teenage daughter (Ally Ioannides) takes it and goes missing. While Dennis tries to find his daughter, Steve takes it upon himself to learn what exactly Synchronic does to the user, which ultimately leads to the film’s surreal and genre-bending narrative.

Tensions between the two escalate as Dennis contends with his failing marriage, which is only made worse when their daughter disappears, while Steve hides a terminal illness that leads him to experiment with Synchronic. As an isolated alcoholic who is dying, Mackie is probably the best he’s ever been in a role that doesn’t really offer him much in terms of character development but still puts him in situations where his charisma brings magnitudes. Hefty amounts of emotional baggage are dropped on him, and he does a significant job elevating the material. Meanwhile, Dornan continues to be bland, and his chemistry with Mackie feels forced every time they banter. In fact, almost all of the emotion in Synchronic comes up short because of this lack of chemistry and Dornan’s poor acting.

Despite that, Synchronic is enjoyable because of where its science fiction concept is willing to reach. The visuals are otherworldly as different time periods blend into each other, and Benson and Moorhead continue to show what can be done on a modest budget. While the film’s trippy concept is explored thoroughly enough, there are facets that desire extrapolation, such as the personal ramifications of taking the drug — which isn’t explored, despite drugs with hallucinatory and psychedelic effects tending to take the user into account. Instead the drug here has the same effect on everyone, with any deviations dictated by external factors. However, the film casually explores Steve’s character within the guise of this, making for a riveting — but not all that deep — look at the past to see how much better things are now.

Synchronic doesn’t quite live up to the neat package that The Endless was, but Benson and Moorhead pare down the scope of the film in order to keep it neater and more controllable. Otherwise, not only would it have been a messy venture, but the dull characters would deny any thrills. Thankfully, Mackie does wonders in a very subdued emotional performance that complements the visually arresting imagery. Synchronic is a solid genre flick that will keep Benson and Moorhead on the rise in the genre community, and will satisfy fans of a psychedelic premise rooted in the real world.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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TIFF 2019: ‘Uncut Gems’ Sends Adam Sandler Through the Ringer

The Safdie Brothers have crafted a hectic, abrasive crime thriller that revels in its misery.

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Uncut Gems

The Safdie Brothers have followed up their grimy, abrasive Good Time with a film that never quite reaches those levels of tension, but is nevertheless cut from the same cloth. With Uncut Gems, the directing duo have crafted something so loud and chaotic — led by an perfectly-cast Adam Sandler — that there is no denying it’s a fun ride, even when it is not so fun to watch. Digging through the grit of loan sharks and a dog-eat-dog world, Uncut Gems is another bonafide hit by the Safdie brothers, but one that works when it piles on the misery — which it often does, rather than find a shred of happiness.

Evading debt collectors throughout New York City, Howard (Sandler) runs a jewelry shop in the Diamond District where he sells to many high-profile celebrities. When a new opal arrives at his shop from Ethiopia, he can’t help but show it off to Boston Celtics player Kevin Garnett (who stars as himself in a fun role that never feels out-of-place), who becomes obsessed with the rock and borrows it with the hope of eventually convincing Howard to let him buy it. Of course, Howard has other plans, as the rock is allegedly worth a million dollars if sold at an auction in which he has already purchased a spot. When Garnett doesn’t return the stone, everything starts going horribly awry in Howard’s life as he juggles a failing marriage, his Jewish family ties, and keeping the loan sharks at bay.

Right out of the gate, Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never) hits the ground hard with a score that carries the cosmic and reverberating effects of the titular uncut gems. When Garnett stares into the opal, he sees exactly what Howard tells him he’s supposed to see: the universe. In that, Lopatin provides a sonicscape so expansive and yet violently singular in its aesthetic that it provides much of Uncut Gems with a mystical aura. Drenched in gritty camerawork that gets up close to show the blemishes of everyone, there’s no denying the film’s mean and potent intensity.

Where Uncut Gems often stumbles is in its narrative threads. While the Garnett storyline weaves in and out, providing a lot of fun as well as hectic tension, it’s a piece of stunt casting that works, while also highlighting one that very clearly doesn’t involving R&B singer The Weekend. Why he is in the movie is baffling, other than perhaps because he evokes a further sense that Howard is in a very upscale world — something we already know by his clientele, multiple properties, and the wealth he actually wears. The Weekend ends up as a weird diversion that can take viewers out of the experience, even if his presence does lead to a further escalation in problems for Howard.

That all being said, Uncut Gems also brings Adam Sandler back into the fold as an actor who can do more than the drivel he has churned out over the decades. More evocative of his performance in Punch-Drunk Love than The Meyerowitz Stories, Sandler gives a comedic and sympathetic performance to a character for whom everything suddenly goes wrong. Living a manic, fast-paced lifestyle, Howard is impatient, aggressive, and greedy, but Sandler makes it possible to get on board with his plight at least partially (there is no way to be on his side completely). His vices are many, but the performance keeps him down to Earth even when it feels like everything is flying off the hinges.

There will likely be many that can’t get past how dirty this movie feels, as it treats many criminal activities as both simply the way things are and they way they always will be. Beyond that, however, the Safdie Brothers provide a nuanced look at Jewish culture, utilizing one of Hollywood’s most prolific Jewish actors, and treat it is as matter-of-fact. Uncut Gems is a frenetic crime film from a Jewish perspective, and delivers on its promise of being a wild ride with a phenomenal Sandler performance. Just don’t expect there to be much hope present, as the Safdies revel in the misery as much as humanly possible, only using hope as a torture device to make the anguish all the more painful.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15

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