TIFF2016: The Belko Experiment

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It’s the steel doors that keep Mike (John Gallagher Jr.) from thinking its a practical joke. Heavy and impenetrable, they cover every window and exterior door in the Belko building, trapping the 80 employees inside. Only minutes earlier an ominous voice on the intercom told them they had to choose three employees to kill. The COO (Tony Goldwyn) doesn’t take it seriously. It’s just a practical joke, he says to calm down his staff. Someone’s just taking the piss, so take it easy, have some water and enjoy being away from your desk for awhile. But then people start dying. And the ominous voice comes back on: phase one complete; moving on to phase two.

Equal parts Battle Royale and The Office, The Belko Experiment takes office politics to an extreme, and incredibly violent, level. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a mechanic, chef, salesman, janitor, computer programmer, or executive. Once the thin veneer of job titles that they hide behind are stripped away the characters are left with a simple choice: kill or be killed. Obviously, this being a Midnight Madness movie, the characters don’t sit around waxing philosophical about the immorality of the situation or how quickly we give in to our survival instinct; they start grabbing knives, blowtorches, pistols, shovels, staplers, and anything else that resembles a weapon and begin spilling blood.

Wisely, the characters in the film are categorized into three groups: the staunch pacifists, the reluctant participants, and the scarily enthusiastic thugs. Throughout the nightmare, office employees float between these groups – often selfishly joining the one that offers them the greatest chance of survival at that moment. It’s fun to see how the different approaches play out – such as the pacifists trying to get the attention of the outside world to circumvent the whole “killing each other” thing to the thugs rationalizing their brutality by saving employees with kids but then coldly murdering the elderly (and anyone who disagrees with them, or that they just plain don’t like).

This clever distinction between the characters is all but abandoned for the inevitable gruesome showdown in Phase Three, which despite all the creative killings and unrelenting chaos, starts to feel a bit repetitive when everyone is acting like a monster.

The Belko Experiment has a great premise, diverse characters, thrilling action, close calls, and makes you wonder what you would do in such a scenario. Probably just hide in a ventilation shaft.

Grade: B+

Sidenote: There’s some stomach-churning scenes when employees are lined up against a wall to be executed. Even though I’m pretty jaded when it comes to movie violence (it’s all make-believe after all), it was pretty hard to watch weeping co-workers face the inevitable end of their lives at the hands of their friends and colleagues. I prefer violence coming from over-the-top caricatures rather than the coldly calculating perpetrators that seemed all too real in these scenes.

 

Super: Of Average Intelligence

Back in September of last year, I was eagerly anticipating James Gunn’s superhero-without-powers Super. I didn’t manage to get tickets to the TIFF screening (that happens when you haven’t bought tickets months in advance), and without seeing it in theatres, I forgot all about the film. Until the DVD came out on Tuesday. It wasn’t exactly worth the wait.

The latest entry in a burgeoning superhero sub-genre (joining the likes of other superheroes-without-powers flicks Kick-Ass, Defendor, and Special), Super follows the adventures of Frank D’Arbo (Rainn Wilson), an ordinary everyman who works as a short-order cook at a greasy spoon and is happily married to the woman of his dreams – recovering drug addict Sarah (Liv Tyler). At the outset of the film, he only has two perfect moments: getting married to Sarah, and that time he pointed a police officer in the direction of a fleeing mugger. D’Arbo is a bit of a bland guy.

When Sarah relapses and goes to live with Jacques (a fantastic Kevin Bacon), a mid-level crook, D’Arbo snaps. He decides to win – nay – rescue Sarah back by donning a homemade red bodysuit and becoming the Crimson Bolt, a masked hero with a deadly wrench as his main weapon. This is all fine and dandy (the movie is about a superhero wannabe, after all), but how D’Arbo is inspired to become a superhero is through a lengthy absurd dream sequence that has him literally sitting on his bed with his head cut open and a swarm of tentacles caressing his brain. And then he’s touched by the finger of God. It’s a bit too outlandish.

The aspect of Super that initially drew me to the movie was that it was supposedly about a psychotic individual (think Travis Bickle) who dons a cape and mask and seeks justice for what he decides are social ills. One of the crimes that he brutally beats two people over? Butting in a movie line. It’s a great (albeit graphic) sequence that’s cathartic initially (who hasn’t wanted to brutally beat someone for cutting in line?) and then horrifying as D’Arbo smashes his wrench into the man’s head and a geyser of blood streams from his forehead. I really wanted this movie to be the superhero version of Michael Douglas’ classic turn as the fed-up everyman in Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down. Instead, it’s mostly typical superhero-without-superpowers shtick with a dark side (and those oddly out-of-place religious sequences).

Rainn Wilson as the Crimson Bolt.

This isn’t to say that Super is a bad movie. It’s merely a very average one. Two-thirds of the film feels limp – Frank beats up some thugs, gets shot up, recovers, rinse and repeat – without really advancing the story or providing visceral thrills. But the third act gives the film a shot of adrenaline and things really start moving. D’Arbo gets a sidekick – psychotic comic book store employee Libby (Ellen Page) who spends equal amounts of time viciously assaulting “criminals” (a term I use loosely) as she does trying to start a romance with Frank. And then there’s the attack on Jacques’ compound with an arsenal of weapons, bombs, and Libby’s homemade Wolverine claws. It’s a thrilling and empowering sequence (who doesn’t cheer inside when you see the everyman become an invincible killing machine of criminal scum?). It’s good that the film ends on a high note, but I found myself wondering: though it ends on a bang, the majority of the film is a whimper.

Grade: C+

Side note: Of the superhero-without-superpowers sub genre, I still think Kick-Ass is the cream of the crop, despite it’s many flaws. But I do have to commend Super for making Rainn Wilson seem like a viable (and believable) fighting machine.