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Backtrace

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Following a bank job, Macdonald (Matthew Modine) and his fellow bank robbers do a back-woods rendezvous with shady partners in order to split the cash. The only wrinkle is that Macdonald and his fellow thieves already divvied the cash up and buried what they adamantly believe is their share of the $20 million spoils. The shady partners are none too pleased and a shoot-out ensues, seeing Macdonald’s accomplices all violently dispatched and Macdonald himself legging it through dense woods. During this tense escape, Macdonald cops a bullet to the head and thus a permanent bout of amnesia.

Fast forward seven years and Macdonald is a shell of his former-self and something of a man adrift. He’s banged up in maximum security for a crime he doesn’t remember committing, receiving regular visits from Sykes (Sylvester Stallone), a cop who worked his case and lives in hope of him remembering his crimes. One day, a fellow prisoner poised-for-release named Lucas (Ryan Guzman) offers Macdonald a chance to escape, aided by seemingly compromised prison officer Farren (Tyler Jon Olson) and prison Nurse Erin (Meadow Williams). Macdonald is smuggled out of the facility, to a deserted location where he’s offered a chance to remember his fragmented past with the help of an experimental new drug that restores memories but also causes intense pain. Submitting to the drug, Macdonald is as hopeful at the prospect of restoring his memories, as his abetters are about locating the stolen money from the bank job he cannot remember. On the trail of the escapee is the world-weary Sykes, who’s partnered with the tetchy Franks (Christopher MacDonald), and the pair endlessly bicker while overseeing the manhunt.

Mike Maples’ screenplay is pedestrian, lacking plausibility or weight. There are some serious logic holes which are helped in no small part by the fairly capable cast, particularly Modine who’s rather excellent as a man without a past. The low-budget nature of the production means that most scenes (save the prison sequences) take place in abandoned forests, desolate roads, vacant houses and empty factories, which leaves the viewer with a weird sense of emptiness and makes the film seem stagey. There are twists (obviously Macdonald is something of an unreliable protagonist) which help keep the plot moving along at a decent speed and Thomas Calderón’s editing coupled with Australian Peter A. Holland’s camera work give the action sequences some much needed pep.

The nature of Stallone’s supporting role means that he probably spent only a few days on the set, but he does alright with the modicum of character that the script presents him with. Stallone wears the part like an old shoe, busting out his ‘crusty old cop’ arsenal of character traits and gravelly-voiced grump, carving out a pretty solid performance on the whole.

Overall, it’s a straight-up VOD B-movie and knows what it needs to do to get the job done.

 
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Castle Rock: The Complete First Season

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The premise for Castle Rock could only go one of two ways: bloody great or bloody awful. The conceit is a drama thriller that takes place in the town of Castle Rock, the location of some of Stephen King’s most horrific tales. In lesser hands this could have rendered the series an inert collection of King fanservice, where every car is called Christine and every dog is a Saint Bernard. Happily, and surprisingly, the actual end result is a far more subtle and stranger proposition.

We’re slowly introduced to the weird world of Castle Rock through criminal attorney Henry Deaver (Andre Holland) who is drawn back into his hometown after getting an anonymous call to represent a strange young man called “The Kid” (Bill Skarsgard). Said character is a creepy amnesiac who had been kept at Shawshank Prison off the books, and seems to have a strange effect on those who he touches… Of course this is just the tip of the weird iceberg that Castle Rocks represents, and we soon meet possibly psychic Molly Strand (Melanie Lynskey), chirpy but quirky Jackie Torrence (Jane Levy) and Henry’s adopted mum, Ruth Deaver (Sissy Spacek).

In terms of Stephen King’s mythology, it’s Scott Glenn as Alan Pangborn who is the most direct reference point. Pangborn was the sheriff of Castle Rock for a decade, and in that time faced the sentient pseudonym, George Stark (The Dark Half) and owner of a store with an extremely dodgy returns policy, Leland Gaunt (Needful Things). In this series, Alan has a personal relationship with Henry and a very intimate relationship with his mum, Ruth. This leads to quality family drama and genuinely surprising twists and turns, with the viewer never entirely sure about who to trust.

In terms of performances the entire cast are stellar, with Holland, Lynskey and Skarsgard doing superb work; however it is Sissy Spacey (previously cast in Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie) who owns the show with a stunning turn as a woman beset by Alzheimer’s trying to hold onto the past for as long as possible. The seventh episode titled “The Queen” isn’t just the best of Castle Rock, it’s possibly the best hour of television from 2018.

Ultimately, Castle Rock is a risky genre experiment that pays off beyond all expectations. Certainly, there are questionable elements, the deliberate pace of the series left the final episode with too much to do and the ending hotly contested, but the journey to get there remains deeply satisfying. Plus this is the first series of (hopefully) many, so the lingering unresolved plot strands will no doubt be revisited at some point down the line.

The extra features are a tad scant here, with two featurettes that are essentially puff pieces, however the Inside the Episode mini-docos for each part are a great deeper dive into the more obscure elements of the story.

Castle Rock is stellar genre television and a loving homage to a master storyteller that can stand on its own. You don’t need to be a fan of Stephen King to appreciate it, but those who are even vaguely familiar with the work of Maine’s most famous son are in for a deliciously twisted treat.

 
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All the Devil’s Men

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Jack Collins (Milo Gibson) is an unstable, world-weary ex-Navy Seal who tracks US’s most-wanted and terrorist targets under the auspices of CIA outsourcing. His handler for the CIA, Leigh (Blade Runner 2049’s Sylvia Hoeks) offers him a job, despite the apparent PTSD Jack’s been suffering and the other mental issues that assail him.

He’s dispatched to London (on what sounds like the premise to a Mission: Impossible film) in order to take down a rogue CIA operative named McKnight (Elliot Cowan) before he procures a nuke from Russian gangsters.

Jack’s assigned a team, in the form of operatives-for-hire Brennan (William Fichtner) and Samuelson (Gbenga Akinnagbe). Once in London, the group meet CIA compatriot Deighton (Joseph Millson) and it’s Deighton’s wobbly morality and possible connection to McKnight and his ‘is-he-or-isn’t-he-about-to-cross-everyone’ persona that leads to more violent shenanigans across London, in pursuit of McKnight and the warheads he’s trying to snarf.

There are double (and triple) crosses aplenty as Jack and Deighton continually lock horns and tread the well-worn path of bromance turned sour grapes.

It’s hardly an original format: the battle-weary warrior, the ‘Ronin’ looking for an end to the pain of existence. We get it. Writer/Director Matthew Hope is a dab hand at directing low-budget action sequences and on that front, if shoot-outs are your bag then there’s a fair bit of that to enjoy here. Other than applauding the filmmakers for wringing every drop from an all-too-obviously small budget, there’s little else to recommend this, except the sharply acidic William Fichtner, a hardened veteran of Hollywood supporting roles; he’s incapable of being anything less than enjoyable. As the lead, Gibson is unabashedly riding his surname’s coat tails (and his physical similarity to his dad) but physically, he’s got the goods, it’s just the underwritten script that leaves him – and the rest of the cast – twisting in the wind.

Overall, the fight choreography and action sequences are deftly executed but the brutally ‘by-the-numbers’ scripting, coupled with a considerable lack of character depth or humour, just annihilates any joy that could be derived from the film.

 
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Billionaire Boys Club

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There’s a stinky pall of cruel fate hovering over this retooling of 1989’s based-on-a-true-story TV movie, Billionaire Boys Club (which served as a starring vehicle for “Brat Packer” Judd Nelson). The story is a classic one: ‘80s excess and coke-fuelled youthful promise corrupted by greed and the sweaty-palmed clutch for cash.

Joe Hunt (Ansel Elgort) lives with his father, Ryan (Judd Nelson), and spends his days on the make, struggling to sell his stock market skills and coax over-cashed, feckless trust-fund brats into investing the money that their parents worked so very hard for. Enter Dean Karny (Taron Edgerton), an old school buddy whose ambition-fuelled trajectory intersects with Joe’s, and the two form an unholy alliance, as they spruik their “paradox philosophy”, a masturbatory exercise in business ethics and moral equivalency, conveniently negating morality and ethics that might serve to hinder money-making opportunities.

Such lunk-headed wisdom soon converts brothers, Scott Biltmore (Ryan Rottman) and Kyle Biltmore (Jeremy Irvine), who sign on board the fledgling BBC, an investment company which allegedly took its enigmatic acronym from “The Bombay Bicycle Club”, though once all the crooked and shady events had unspooled, it was dubbed by the media, “Billionaire Boys Club.”

BBC’s partners soon meet Ron Levin (Kevin Spacey in Swimming with Sharks mode), and it’s with Levin’s promise of mountains of investment cash that the young men’s dreams of mammon begin to take shape, and pretty soon it’s cavernous marble and glass apartments, coke lines on glass coffee tables, and pastel polo shirts with popped collars.

Though all is not what it seems, and the hustlers soon become the hustled, which eventually spirals into murderous deeds, orchestrating kidnappings, fraudulent Ponzi schemes and wrestling to the death with crazed, opium-addicted Iranians.

Look, this isn’t a bad film; in fact, it’s a fairly enjoyable cautionary yarn. Taron Egerton is slightly miscast as the conniving “Mean Dean” but he shoulders the part; Elgort offers much the same problem as he did in the catastrophically overrated Baby Driver: he’s a charisma vacuum and presents something of an issue in a story that requires audience connection with the plight of the lead character. Spacey is pretty good as the dodgy Ron Levin, hamming things up and sleazing his way through scenes.

Director James Cox (who previously directed Val Kilmer as porn icon John Holmes in Wonderland) really just copped an unlucky roll of the dice, in that this was the final performance of Kevin Spacey, before his career was immolated by the revelations of his predilection for aggressive sexual harassment. As a result, the film was shelved, and then after the dust settled on Spacey’s behaviour, and kicked into a measly theatrical release in order to honour contractual obligations. The resulting box office gross of $618 had to have been a kick in the teeth for the filmmakers; for Spacey, it’s something of a death knell for his cinematic career.

Overall, the treatment is too tepid to rub shoulders with The Wolf Of Wall Street and too derivative (despite being a true story) to set itself apart from other “impressionable guys getting in over their heads” movies (Oliver Stone’s return to the Wall Street well Money Never Sleeps and Todd Phillips’ War Dogs spring to mind). Okay movie, wrong actor, wrong time.

 
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The Bombing (aka Air Strike)

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This Chinese-produced, big-budget action drama was devised as a salute to the Allied victory of fascism in World War II, however, it became a casualty of the tax evasion scandal that embroiled star actress Fan Bingbing, who was convicted, jailed (and subsequently released) for financial fraud. From a PR perspective, the film was damaged-goods and for various reasons, it was ultimately shelved (it was shot in 2015) and its Chinese release cancelled. Now, it’s undergone a name change, coupled with a re-jigged release in the US.

As it stands, the story features a crumpled and thoroughly disengaged Bruce Willis as U.S. Military advisor Colonel Jack Johnson, ‘training’ a squadron of Chinese pilots who are battling an onslaught of Japanese air attacks. At the same time, ex-pilot Xue Gangtou (Ye Liu) drives a military truck with a top-secret cargo through dangerous territory, along the way rescuing a schoolteacher (Ma Su) and some of her students who’ve survived an air attack. All this is capped off by a mahjong tournament that takes place in the capital during the bombing raids, presumably meant to give some sort of human-focused climax to the proceedings.

What was clearly intended to be a lavish, Hollywood style epic with multiple plot threads, numerous characters (both Chinese and American) and an epic scope, has been mercilessly re-edited into a frenzy of action sequences interspersed with discombobulated dramatic scenes and squeezed into a running time of just over 90 minutes.

According to the credits, Mel Gibson was a ‘consultant’, though it’s hard to see how any such creative input has been applied to the characters or story, or for that matter any overall logic applied to the tonal flow of the film.

The plotting and pacing have been so bizarrely clipped, there’s been zero effort in editing the film to create an emotional through-line on which to hang the character moments. The resulting experience amounts to a montage of segments from scenes where the scripting and performances weren’t that great to start with, where Chinese actors deliver over-dubbed lines like “Sir! Please allow us to go kick some ass!” This punctuates the gossamer-thin story thread with a leaden thud.

To make things worse, what are clearly, half-finished effects shots and sloppily composited CG action sequences that wouldn’t feel believable on a PlayStation 2 only serve to undermine any semblance of drama.

Tonally weird character histrionics take Hollywood style combat jeopardy clichés to a laughable extreme (the pilot with a picture of his sweetheart and child next to his altimeter is fundamentally going to die, that was established quite clearly in Hot Shots and even then, the character was called ‘Dead Meat’).

A great deal of money was spent here, though it seems to have been utterly derailed by the problematic production woes. There have been a number of slickly executed, western-aimed Chinese productions that managed to effectively cross the cultural and lingual barrier, however, it seems that this one exploded on the launch pad.=

The rapid-fire hack and slash editing that skips through dramatic beats like a trailer montage, is testament to the fact that there was at least an intent to tell a sprawling story on an epic canvas, but that crucial balance of story, tone and character is reliant on the wax and wane of the financial and creative forces at play during production. If these elements were interfered with, then the whole damn thing can unravel – and how.

 
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In Darkness

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No stranger to the small screen, Natalie Dormer (Game of Throne, The Tudors) co-writes this gritty crime thriller alongside Director Anthony Byrne (Ripper Street, Peaky Blinders). The first half of the film plays like a “Hitchcockian” thriller, accompanied by a nice suspenseful film score by Niall Byrne.

Set in London’s busy streets, the film follows strong female protagonist Sofia, a blind pianist who finds herself entangled in a world of murder and crime when she hears her upstairs neighbour Veronique (Emily Ratajkowski) fall to her death. Soon discovering that Veronique’s father Radic is a ruthless criminal accused of horrific Serbian war crimes, Sofia is embroiled in a cat-and-mouse game between a dishevelled detective and the criminal underground festering with Radic’s henchmen.

Throughout the first half of the film, Sofia’s motives are at times questionable and she is not initially who she seems, as her own path of revenge is revealed. Mysterious thug Marc (Ed Skrein) seems to play Sofia’s knight-in-shining-armour, which at times feels unnecessary simply because of the fact that Dormer kicks-ass as a one-woman wrecking machine. But the connection both characters have developed makes for a nice twisted romantic part to the story.

The storyline is at times generic, yet it does have redeeming qualities. Anthony Byrne constructs a very simple, yet effective scene where a fight breaks out, but all you can see are fighting shadows on a wall; plus, tight pacing, slick sound design, plus Dormer’s strong blind person, who outshines all the other characters in the film.

The film provides a few too many twists and turns, which makes for a convoluted narrative and an unconvincing ending, however, you can also easily look past this to appreciate it for the impressively directed, clever thriller that it is. All-in-all a nice addition to the small screen.

 
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7 Days in Entebbe

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Brazilian director Jose Padilha is no stranger to the action genre, best known for the Elite Squad series and the 2014 remake of RoboCop. This time, Padilha directs 7 Days in Entebbe, produced by Working Title Films, and penned by Gregory Burke (’71), based on the real-life events that took place on July 1976, when a group of revolutionaries hijacked an Air France flight carrying 250 passengers en route from Tel Aviv to Paris. The hijackers set the plane down in Entebbe, Uganda, where they held hostages captive for one week. The film depicts the real-life “Operation Entebbe”, a counter-terrorist hostage-rescue mission launched by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and carried out by the Israeli Defense Force.

The film starts with an upbeat performance from members of the Batsheva Dance Company. Padhila uses the performance throughout the film, cleverly going back and forth to the suspenseful dance between certain scenes. However, the dance sequences are arguably the most attention-grabbing thing about this film.

The Entebbe hijacking has been retold through two 1977 films, Raid on Entebbe and Operation Thunderbolt. The Last King of Scotland, a 2006 film also contains the raid as a subplot. Padilha takes a different approach; 7 Days in Entebbe offers us a ‘through-the-eyes-of’ narrative, focused specifically on two German revolutionaries. One a slightly timid Wilfried (Daniel Bruhl) and the other an edgy, yet fearless Brigitte (Rosamund Pike). Wilfried and Brigitte are just two members of the hijacker group made up of pro-Palestinians. The two Germans seem out of place in a group who have contrasting ideas of what a “revolutionary” is.

Nevertheless, Bruhl and Pike make the most of their characters. There are times where you feel sorry for them, even more-so than the actual hostages themselves. The regret and panic that overcomes them as the seven days are closing in, makes you want to believe that what they’re doing is good and they’ve just been misguided.

Adding to the mix of complex characters is Prime Minister Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) and his defense minister Shimon (Eddie Marsan). Rabin wants to negotiate with the terrorists, something Israelis insist they never do, whilst Shimon wants to take charge with a daring rescue plan. Then there’s Ugandan President Idi Amin (Nonso Anozie), who happily welcomes the terrorists and supplies them with troops and weapons. Idi Amin was a brutal dictator of his time, yet this film portrayed a somewhat nervous and feeble side of him.

Entebbe is a well-made film, although it falls just short of captivating. It’s a tough reminder that peace between Israel and Palestine are still a thing of the distant future. With high production values and a great cast, it was originally slated for theatrical release in Australia but after a tepid reception in the US it comes straight to the home here, which is where it belongs.

 
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Braven

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Take no prisoners thriller Braven is directed by stunt veteran Lin Oeding. More significantly, it stars Jason Momoa, the 6’3″ Hawaiian-American who came to prominence in Stargate: Atlantis and  Game of Thrones before emerging in the DC Universe as Aquaman.

Here, Momoa plays loyal family man, Joe Braven, devoted son and husband forced to defend his home and family, demonstrating that he’s the wrong man to mess around with.

His propensity for violence is waiting to be triggered, so we’re to believe; a fuse not helped by his difficult father (Stephen Lang), suffering from PTSD and a drinking problem.

The old school Road House style violence is illustrated in one singular sequence, where without any talk, Braven steps in and beats four men half to death after they bash Papa Braven to a pulp for mistaking a girl at a bar for his wife.

Following that, Momoa, his daughter Charlotte (Sasha Rossof)  and his now, suddenly mentally stable father find themselves battling a home invasion by a drug cartel, led by top character actor Garrett Dillahunt as Kassen.

The film proceeds as a largely by-the-numbers thriller, as the goons come after Momoa and his father while the two slowly, violently and unbelievably pick them off one by one.

While showcasing Momoa’s well known tough guy skills, logic is often absent in Braven. But if you’re after cheap thrills and arbitrary close-ups of violence such as an arrow shot into a face, then you’ve found your fix.

 
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The Post

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Steven Spielberg’s none-more-timely real life political drama The Post posits Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee as the dogged avatar of a principled free press, the Nixon Administration as, well, the Nixon Administration, and puts Meryl Streep’s Katharine Graham, socialite-turned-publisher of the eponymous Washington Post, in the hot seat as an untested woman who must balance the ethics of journalism against the more pragmatic requirements of running a news organ that is both beholden to risk-adverse stakeholders and liable for legal prosecution if it does what we the audience all know to be The Right Thing.

Of course, Streep and Hanks do end up doing The Right Thing, as history tells us, but in this case it’s the journey, not the destination, plus the resonance with contemporary issues in this current dark age of “fake news”, “bias”, Fox & Friends, military adventurism, and so on. The distance between The Post‘s 1972 setting and the current year does not seem particularly large at times.

Except, perhaps, when you look at the gender politics of the time, which are an eye-opener. The Post takes place at a point when men still withdrew to the drawing room for some post-dinner-party real talk while their wives gossiped and swapped recipes and make up tips. It’s a milieu that Streep’s Washington society matron is effortlessly comfortable in. She’s less confident when it comes to making her mark as the big dog at the newspaper following her husband’s suicide – especially when she and her editor, Hanks’ Bradlee, must decide what to do with The Pentagon Papers, a damning Department of Defence report on the rolling disaster that was the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Publishing is clearly in the public interest and could put the Post – then a relatively small paper – in the big leagues. However, a court injunction against the New York Times over their prior publication of the material, and the nervousness of the Post‘s board in the lead-up to a stock market float, make the decision less straight forward.

The Post‘s obvious precedent is Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 film All the President’s Men and, indeed, Spielberg’s effort serves as a kind of prequel thereof (Tom Hanks is playing the same real life character that Jason Robards played, if you’re keeping score). The Berg’s classical, restrained Serious Movie style is even a decent match for Pakula’s, although when All the President’s Men was made it was a contemporary drama, while The Post has the burnished patina of a historical drama (compare Spielberg’s recent Bridge of Spies).

However, what really rings as nostalgic is the film’s faith in a robust and forthright fourth estate. While much is made of how the paper is beholden to its board of directors and their economic concerns, it essentially functions as rousing tribute to clear-eyed, ethical journalism – quite the jarring anomaly in a time when even the most irreproachable reporting is frequently and publicly dismissed as corrupt, biased, and broken. Spielberg’s film is clearly meant to be a paean to the free press, but seen through the cynical lens of the current age, it occasionally feels simplistic, even naive.

Still, The Post remains a rock solid, gripping drama, thanks to Spielberg’s steady hand on the tiller and strong performances both from the principals (although Hanks occasionally drifts towards pantomime) and an excellent supporting cast that includes  Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Tracy Letts, Bradley Whitford, David Cross, Bruce Greenwood, Carrie Coon, and Matthew Rhys. When we look back on Spielberg’s career this will probably be considered a minor work, but minor ‘Berg is still worth your time.

Special Features on the Blu-ray release include a number of insightful featurettes:

LAYOUT: Katharine Graham, Ben Bradlee & The Washington Post
EDITORIAL: The Cast and Characters of The Post
THE STYLE SECTION: Recreating an Era
ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT: Music for The Post

 
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The Gateway

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Particle physicist Dr. Jane Chandler (Jacqueline McKenzie) is working on an experiment involving teleportation, but the latest trial brings unusual results: piercing the barrier between alternate dimensions. Normally proving the Many Worlds Theory would be cause for celebration, but a personal tragedy intervenes: Jane’s loving husband, Matt (Myles Pollard) is killed in an accident.

In her grief, Jane seizes on a unique but chancy opportunity to salve her emotional wounds: she locates an alternate world where she has died and Matt lives and brings the parallel duplicate of her husband back to our world. However, she does not reckon with just how worlds and people might differ, and this new version of her partner might pose a terrible danger.

The Gateway is low-key highbrow sci-fi, eschewing spectacle for twisty plotting, provocative ideas, and a compelling central performance from veteran actor McKenzie, who is utterly convincing as an intelligent woman who nonetheless makes a singularly poor decision in a moment of emotional turmoil. Pollard, too, does admirable work, quickly sketching a likable persona for ‘Matt A’ before sinking his teeth into the decidedly more ambiguous ‘Matt B’.

Director and co-writer John V. Soto has chops for this sort of thing, having built a solid career by making genre fare on a tight budget, starting with 2009’s The Crush. The Gateway is his most conceptually adventurous work, dressing what is effectively a domestic drama in the trappings of science fiction. It works well, for the most part, occasionally faltering due to the odd off performance, or out of place element (there’s an electrical gun doohickey that comes into play later in the proceedings that is too jarring in the way it’s deployed). The proceedings build along rational lines, working within the boundaries established by the premise and never breaking the rules.

That’s both admirable and unfortunate, in that The Gateway never quite manages to lever itself up out of the acceptable and into the realm of the notable. Essentially, it feels like a rote episode of a genre anthology series expanded to feature length: watchable and engaging in the moment, but never pushing the boundaries enough to be remarkable. That’s no cardinal sin, but with a premise like this the gates of possibility are wide open, and the film never explores them as far as it could.

The question is whether The Gateway will find an audience. Those looking for drama may be put off by its genre elements, while SF fans may baulk at the film’s lack of both spectacle and overt fantastical trappings. Hopefully the right eyes will find it, though; while The Gateway is no instant classic of the field, it’s a solid effort that traffics in ideas and emotion rather than pixels and explosions, and that alone makes it worth your attention.