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By Vernor Rodgers
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"THE BELKO EXPERIMENT"

There is something unsettling about the building that houses the Belko company. Located near Bogota, Colombia, it pokes out of the ground like a shrine of unrealized dreams; a structure that seemingly was the first phase of what was going to be a burgeoning business community. Instead it is surrounded by, well, mostly nothing. Lot of grassland, some wild dogs and not much else.

Yet each day several dozen people, many relocated U.S. citizens, converge upon this building for their daily dose of mundane tasks. Do the work, collect the paycheck, go home. The company's purpose, vaguely, is to help place American workers with corporations throughout the world.

Then one day there are deviations from the norm. Intense security checks at the entrance to the parking lot. A military presence. Workers native to Colombia told to go home. After that the day pushes on. Until the announcement comes.

Writer James Gunn ("Guardians of the Galaxy") has said in interviews he literally dreamed the concept of "The Belko Experiment." It is a mix of cold corporate manipulations and perverse social tinkering with the ultimate question being: How far would you go to survive?

The announcement, piped in via an in-office PA system nobody seemed to know existed, delivers a chilling directive by The Voice: kill a few of your fellow workers, or more of you will die. Initially this is dismissed as a sick joke. But when metal shutters slam over the windows and escape is no longer an option, a shocking and bloody emphasis is added; meaning this is not a joke and whoever has hands on the levers definitely is in control.

Tony Goldwyn plays Barry Norris, the boss of this facility, and his stance of maintaining composure and keeping everybody on one path of calm and rational behavior is easily doomed to failure. While most of the employees cower and shudder on the border of panic, others break up into factions. Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr. from "10 Cloverfield Lane") and his co-worker and girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona) go on a mission to see if they can summon some outside help. Milch logically believes that if the employees bow to this experiment they are all doomed anyway.

Norris is joined by the office creep Wendell Dukes (John C. McGinley) and a couple of others who in their calculated reasoning assume it is best to be armed. This foresight can come in handy when things really get to the down and dirty final chapter of who will be the last ones standing.

Melanie Diaz plays Dany Wilkens, the new employee who is finding that this first day on the job is more hellish than she ever could have imagined. James Gunn's brother Sean is Marty, a drug-addled employee whose paranoia offers some moments of levity and silliness.

Then there is Michael Rooker as Bud, one of a two-man maintenance staff who unfortunately provides little impact on the bloody proceedings.

The Big Brother element is most chilling. It seems any strategy the workers resort to is detected by the ubiquitous camera coverage in the building, and The Voice, seeing all, coolly advises that these efforts will only lead to more death. Ominously the only ones who seem to be getting free reign over their plans are Norris and his increasingly dangerous and hell-bent-on-surviving group that has all the artillery.

This all is leading to the inevitable fest of spurting blood and a body count that mushrooms. Who lives and who dies offers only a part of this study of human nature. What Gunn also explores is who can maintain any compassion under such dire circumstances.

Adeptly paced under the direction of Greg McLean, "The Belko Experiment" is effective horror, as it taps into a common supposition held by employees that they are seen only as evil and costly necessities by employers who are always seeking ways to find them expendable. Then it takes an uncompromising look at human behavior when it is reduced to its lowest denominator: survival at all costs.

"THE BELKO EXPERIMENT" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/AJ0x3OS4ML0

 

"PREVENGE"

A delightfully wicked dark comedy, "Prevenge," now available on shudder.com, proves, among other things, that appearances can be deceiving.

Written and directed by Alice Lowe, she also stars as Ruth, a young woman late in a pregnancy who looks sweet and vulnerable, as functioning that near to child birth certainly is much more difficult. But by the way, she kills people. This is not a spoiler. The title, "Prevenge" pretty much reveals that something dreadful is about to happen.

"Prevenge" is yet another movie that proves a low budget and tight shooting schedule can be overcome and a nice-looking, well-crafted film can be created. Shot in only 11 days, "Prevenge" also had an astoundingly short pre-production life. The concept behind the movie was thought up by Lowe shortly after she learned she was pregnant in real life. Within two months the script was ready for shooting, and despite being seven and a half months along in her  pregnancy, Lowe took on the lead role.

"Prevenge" begins sublimely with Ruth in a pet store, saying to the store's owner she is seeking a reptilian pet for her son. The store owner seems borderline sleazy and good at injecting sexual innuendo, but the subsequent sudden and jarring violence seems a bit overkill of the victim. What is the motivation for this brutal murder?

Well, whatever is driving Ruth to her shocking actions is revealed as the film progresses. The father of her baby was killed in a climbing accident, and Ruth seeks out others in the climbing party, particularly the leader, Tom (Kayvan Novak), on who she pins most of the blame for the death.

But there is something else. Ruth is hearing the voice of her yet-unborn baby, who urges her to do the killing. Also, in some funny examination scenes, Ruth's midwife (Jo Hartley) tells Ruth that the baby in her womb is conducting a "hostile takeover."

"Just so you know, you have absolutely no control over your mind or your body any more," the midwife informs Ruth, only adding to her psychosis.

Lowe's performance is both chilling and comical, as she appears to be befuddled, clearly in over her head -- at one point she tries surveillance on Tom that is so inept he easily knows she is tracking him. Yet there is a calculated manipulation to Ruth's madness.

Not that everything comes off flawlessly. One of Ruth's potential victims, Len (Gemma Whalen), manages to break away and disappear momentarily, only to reappear wearing boxing gloves. Ruth is like, are you serious?

"Prevenge" is the kind of weird movie that will have its loyal fans. Lowe's study of Ruth is both intelligent and quirky. She is worthy of sympathy via her mourning and misfiring mind functions, yet she is offing people who are guilty of nothing more than being held accountable for a death that probably was an unfortunate incident of which nothing is to blame but bad luck.

"PREVENGE" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/8bEPU_58akI

 

"LIFE"

The opening scene of "Life," under the direction of Daniel Espinosa ("Safe House"), is breathtaking, a single-tracking shot within the confines of a space station, as a crew of six people work to capture an incoming space craft that contains some soil samples from Mars.

After that, "Life" becomes "Alien-lite," a rehash of that classic horror movie's story of a hostile alien being with no conscience and only driven to survive bringing terror to a crew that cannot exactly abandon ship easily.

The cast is stellar: Rebecca Ferguson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare and Olga Dihovichnaya. But when the most colorful character is the first to die, the film flatlines as far as human interest is concerned. Of course by then it is a matter of the humans trying to outsmart an increasingly resourceful and menacing being.

Viewing that opening scene on a big screen is almost worth the price of admission, but only if you go to the cheapest matinee.

"LIFE" Official Trailer:  https://youtu.be/cuA-xqBw4jE

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