Tag Archives: B

SPREE

Producers: Matthew Budman, Sumaiya Kaveh, John Long and Eugene Kotlyarenko   Director: Eugene Kotlyarenko   Screenplay: Gene McHugh and Eugene Kotlyarenko   Cast: Joe Keery, Sasheer Zamata, David Arquette, Kyle Mooney, Mischa Barton, Frankie Grande, Lala Kent, Linas Phillips, John DeLuca, Sunny Kim, Caroline Hebert and Josh Ovalle   Distributor: RLJE Films

Grade:  B-

If you’re at all concerned about the baleful influence of social media on contemporary society and the mindless lust for on-line popularity that drives many of its users, Eugene Kotlyarenko’s violent satire will provide ample confirmation that your anxieties are not misplaced.  “Spree” aims to be a “Taxi Driver” for the modern age, and though it comes off as more an exploitative symptom of the disease than a cautionary commentary on it, you have to be impressed by its flamboyance even while deploring it.

Joe Keery, Steve Harrington of “Stranger Things,” gives a maniacal performance as Kurt Kunkle, a wannabe social influencer who’s been posting video blogs under the rubric “Kurt’s World” for a decade, never attracting more than a handful of followers.  To add insult to injury, one of his “followers” is Bobby (Josh Ovalle), a kid he used to babysit, who’s become an internet star and keeps track of Kurt’s stuff just to needle him.

Kurt’s depressed about his failure—and his home life, which he describes in some of his tedious postings—but one day has a brainstorm.  A driver with a ride-hail outfit called Spree for awhile, he outfits his car with cameras and plastic bottles of drugged water and sets off to attract viewers by killing his passengers.  He trumpets his aspirations by inviting people to join what he pompously calls “The Lesson.”

His initial targets—an unapologetic racist, a sexist pig, a coolly condescending dame—are so easy to dislike that Kurt’s exuberantly malevolent gabbing is creepily sympathetic by comparison.  But when he meets Jessie Adams (Sasheer Zamata), a local stand-up comic who has achieved online celebrity herself, he begins to focus on her support as a means of enhancing his own value as a so-called influencer of taste. 

Kurt becomes, in fact, a stalker, though his pursuit of Jessie, which takes him to her gig at a local club, doesn’t stand in the way of plenty of other mayhem on the street.  More bodies drop—including those of revelers who make the mistake of standing up through the sun roof and that of a cop at a traffic stop—and there are interludes with Kurt’s divorced, druggie DJ dad (David Arquette).  Meanwhile the viewership increases, and comments pour into the increasingly frantic live-and-dying feed Kurt’s providing to the world.  Naturally his mental stability will crack completely as the night goes on, and his final encounters with Jessie and his father will ultimately bring him the notoriety he’s been seeking so desperately.

As a dark comedy, “Spree” lays claim to far greater outrageousness than it achieves.  Its target is much too easy, and the narrative too messily structured.  And the ending takes things into more conventional killer-on-the-loose and last-girl-standing territory 

Yet there are two elements that make the movie intriguing.  One is Keery’s flamboyant performance, which combines over-the-top enthusiasm and a pathetic need for attention in making the guy, for all the ghastliness he represents, credibly human: Kurt Kunkle becomes frightening precisely because Keery somehow manages to make him real.  Surrounding him with plenty of actual online “celebrities” like Josh Ovalle also situates Kurt’s obsession in the actual territory he aims to inhabit.

The other is the style, which depends on captured-feed format used in lots of recent slasher movies but doesn’t embrace the stationary laptop-screen perspective that’s made them so insufferably dull.  “Spree” is as stylistically frenetic as the title indicates, frequently using multiple-camera images simultaneously in split-screen while viewer comments scroll across the various feeds.  The result is chaotic, and frankly exhausting at times (as in the closing montages of the story’s aftermath), but Kotlyarenko, cinematographer Jeff Leeds Cohn and editor Benjamin Moses Smith vary things sufficiently, using quieter episodes as palate cleansers, to keep you from just giving up.  (Those viewer comments, incidentally, are horrifyingly on target.)  Carlos Laszlo’s production design and Natasha Newman-Thomas’ costumes, meanwhile, accentuate Cohn’s garish color palette, and James Ferraro’s slam-bang music choices add to the frantically off-kilter mood.

One can argue whether “Spree” indicts social-media obsession or just cheerfully embraces it, but if hardly a totally fun ride it’s a fitfully fascinating one.    

SPUTNIK

Producers: Mikail Vrobel, Alexander Andryushchenko, Fyodor Bondarchuk, Ilia Stuart, Murad Osmann, Pavel Buria and Vyacheslav Murugov   Director: Egor Abramenko   Screenplay: Oleg Malovichko and Andrey Zolotasev   Cast: Oksana Akinshina, Pyotr Fyodorov, Fyodor Bondarchuk, Anton Vasilyev, Albrect Zander, Anna Nazarova and Vasily Zotov   Distributor: IFC Midnight Films

Grade: B-

Egor Abramenko’s sci-fi movie isn’t all that original: you can trace its inspiration not only back to “Alien” but much further, to Val Guest’s “The Creeping Unknown” (1956)—and the concept of an astronaut returning to earth bearing some sort of alien creature inside him was them repeated in episodes of TV shows like “The Outer Limits” (“Cold Hands, Warm Heart”). There is a difference here, in that the creature isn’t technically a parasite that takes of its host, but a symbiote (like Venom in “Spiderman 3”) that comes out and goes back in again, but that difference hardly invalidates the comparison. 

The story is set in 1983, during Vladimir Putin’s idol Yuri Andropov’s brief tenure as Premier of the USSR.  During re-entry from a space mission, a trio of cosmonauts suffers a traumatic episode.  One of them, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Pyotr Fyodorov), survives, but is unable to remember what happened.  He’s now permanently ensconced as a patient-prisoner in a Kazakhstan research facility, where smooth Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) rules the roost. 

Willing to go an unorthodox route to deal with the PR debacle the man’s condition threatens, Semiradov invites Dr. Tatyana Klimora (Oksana Akinshina) from Moscow to diagnose Konstantin.  He chooses her precisely because she’s just gotten in trouble with her hidebound superiors for her unorthodox treatment of a patient, nearly drowning him to break his unhealthy dependence on his mother.  Semiradov wants her to take similar risks with Konstantin, a fellow who seems completely normal apart from his partial amnesia, and is understandably tired of being locked up in a glass cage, and who’s needed to serve as a national hero.

After some cursory questioning, Tatyana diagnoses the cosmonaut with PTSD, but Semiradov reveals he has a far more disagreeable condition: every night while he sleeps, a grey creature with prominent ears, a snakelike tail and—apparently—retractable tentacles emerges from him, crawls around for a couple of hours and then returns to its host, who has no idea of what’s happened.  Fascinated, she decides to remain and research the phenomenon.

What follows is a plot that goes off on several tangents.  One focuses on the relationship of trust and support that develops between Tatyana and Konstantin.  A sidebar concerns an illegitimate child that Konstantin has left in an orphanage in order to pursue his high-flying career.

Then there are revelations about the symbiote and Semiradov, which Tatyana uncovers by prodding the scientist (Anton Vasilyev) who had previously been the colonel’s point man in dealing with Konstantin, to spill the beans about what’s been happening.  Both turn out to have some horrifying implications.  In the end, however, terrible plots are foiled, though self-sacrifice of a particularly terrible kind is required.  After all, it’s now a quarter-century later, and the world is still here, even if the USSR isn’t. 

“Sputnik” isn’t without longeuers—especially in the sometimes sluggish middle section—but Egor Abramenko’s direction is generally smooth, as are Maxim Zhukev’s cinematography, Maria Slavina’s production design and the editing by Alexander Puzyrev and Egor Tarasenko.  The visual effects are also fine, and Oleg Karpachev’s score is properly eerie.

For a film like this to work, however, the performances have to convey a sense of seriousness that can overcome the essential absurdity of the narrative.  They do so here.  Akinshina conveys Tatyana’s rigidity, though she can show outbursts of emotion when needed, while Fyodorov makes a stalwart hero and Vasilyev a properly conflicted researcher.  Best of all is Bondarchuk (also one of the producers), in whose hands Semiradov takes on a creepily bureaucratic mien.

The Russian state recently named its potentially “breakthrough” coronavirus vaccine Sputnik V, presumably to indicate pride in again being first in technological achievement, as when it launched Sputnik, the first space satellite, in 1957.  Abramenko’s film might not break any new ground, but it’s a tidy, unsettling sci-fi thriller in “Alien” mode.