‘A Score to Settle’
Unlike some of the other former Hollywood A-listers now stuck making cheap VOD genre pictures, Nicolas Cage can usually be counted on to bring some funky energy to routine roles. Without Cage, there’d be almost no reason to see the by-the-numbers revenge thriller “A Score to Settle.” With him, the movie isn’t just watchable, it’s occasionally riveting.
Written by John Newman and directed by Shawn Ku (who, to be fair, add a few grace notes of their own), “A Score to Settle” sees Cage playing Frankie Carver, who gets out of prison after doing a long stretch with two burning desires. First, he wants to make up for the mistakes he made with his family. Second, he wants to kill everyone who put him behind bars.
For much of the film’s first half, Frankie readjusts to the modern world with the help of his estranged son Joey (Noah Le Gros). Frankie has a pile of money stashed away, so he checks into a luxury suite and has fun learning about smartphones, catching up with Joey and spending time with a high-end prostitute (Karolina Wydra).
Once the story shifts more to the revenge, it loses steam, despite two big twists — one predictable, the other wild. The action sequences and the underworld characters are underdeveloped.
But Cage plays even the blandest pulp material with soul and gusto, as though the pathetic grudges of a petty criminal were the stuff of epic drama. His passion brings some color to an otherwise drab picture.
Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; also on VOD
‘Is That You?’
In the quietly creepy Cuban horror film “Is That You?,” Gabriela Ramos plays Lili, a teenager living in the country with her tyrannical father Eduardo (Osvaldo Doimeadiós) and her mother Alina (Lynn Cruz) — whom Eduardo keeps bound with ropes. The dad is more affectionate toward his daughter, though, which may explain why Lili takes his side when Alina considers fleeing with the family’s employee Carlos (Jorge Enrique Caballero).
Writer-director Rudy Riverón Sánchez waits a good long while before he brings in his movie’s supernatural elements. When Eduardo is abruptly killed, Lili calls on some ancient Caribbean hoodoo to bring him back. And as is usually the case with resurrection stories, what returns from the beyond … well, it ain’t quite right.
Sánchez doesn’t waste any time, however, before he plunges viewers into a nightmare. In the opening sequence, Eduardo is forcing himself on a clearly unwilling Alina; and in the scenes that follow, “Is That You?” establishes the family’s perverse dynamic, made all the more upsetting by their relative isolation, emphasized by the incessant chirping of insects on the soundtrack.
Make no mistake: “Is That You?” is a grim, grim movie that keeps the conventional horror beats to a minimum, replacing them with disturbing domestic drama that many will find hard — or even impossible — to sit through.
But Sánchez really has something difficult but necessary to say here, about how sometimes an oppressive patriarchy endures because the people who benefit from it — even if just marginally — won’t let it stay dead.
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 2, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; available August 13 on VOD
It’s hard to tell exactly what writer-director Yuval Adler is going for in “The Operative,” an espionage drama that’s well acted but largely inert. Based on Yiftach R. Atir’s acclaimed novel “The English Teacher,” the movie hits all the right plot points but never connects them to a story with any kind of momentum or tension.
Martin Freeman plays Thomas, a Mossad handler who loses track of one of his best spies — the Iran-based Rachel (Diane Kruger) — and then tells the story of their relationship in a series of flashbacks, as he tries to figure out where she might be. What emerges is a none-too-rosy portrait of modern spy-craft, where agents feel disconnected from any larger cause or mission.
Kruger and Freeman give fine performances — as does Cas Anvar as Rachel’s Iranian target, who guides her to a different perspective on “the enemy.” But while the movie doesn’t lack for provocative ideas, it remains too conceptual throughout. “The Operative” is in the spirit of the smart, slow-burning, cat-and-mouse thrillers by John Le Carré and Graham Greene, but those authors’ books do a much better job of balancing sociopolitical analysis with genuine suspense.
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 2, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills
‘15 Minutes of War’
The historical action picture “15 Minutes of War” is mildly disappointing as a thriller, but it’s fascinating as a look back at a pivotal moment in the global war on terrorism. Set on the Djibouti-Somalia border, the film dramatizes one of the first major operations of GIGN, a French special forces unit formed in the wake of the 1972 Munich Olympics hostage crisis. When Somali rebels kidnapped a busload of schoolchildren in 1976, GIGN snipers deployed in the surrounding hills, ready to take action when negotiations failed.
Though director Fred Grivois drops in some dramatic ‘70s-style split screens in the early going, “15 Minutes of War” is mostly square in its style — until a climactic shootout that makes some effective use of gun sight POV. Even during its long setup, though, this movie is a broadly sketched but illuminating depiction of what happens when powerful nations grow weary of sorting through the subtleties of geopolitics and start letting heavily armed secret agents handle diplomacy.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 2, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; also on VOD
The presence of “Riverdale” star Camila Mendes in the muted crime drama “Coyote Lake” might attract some of her curious fans. But, while she gives a good performance as a young woman feeling trapped in her remote border town, and Adriana Barraza gives an even better one as her mother, writer-director Sara Seligman struggles to build on a strong premise.
Mendes and Barraza play Ester and Teresa, who run a lakeside boardinghouse but make their real money from killing human traffickers and taking their loot. The movie’s slim story follows what happens when armed thugs arrive and hold the women at gunpoint, unaware of how lethal they can be.
The setting and the characters are fairly unique. But they’re put to fairly mundane use, in service of a blah coming-of-age tale that has less to do with tense border crossings than with a kid who’s getting tired of her dull daily routine of murder.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
Playing: Starts Aug. 2, Vintage Los Feliz 3; also on VOD