Eli Roth Explores the Home Invasion Genre with ‘Knock Knock’

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It has been eight years since “Hostel: Part II,” and the phrase “directed by Eli Roth” has been largely absent as the horror filmmaker has focused more on producing and acting, but 2015 saw him return to the director’s chair with a vengeance. First, he gave us the cannibal horror film “The Green Inferno” which saw its release delayed for a couple of years, and he quickly followed it up with the home invasion thriller “Knock Knock.” Keanu Reeves stars as Evan Webber, an architect and happily married husband and father whose family leaves him alone at home one weekend so he can work on his latest project. But Evan soon makes the biggest mistake of his life when he lets two young women into his home after they claim to be lost, and they come to play a number of psychosexual games which have him begging for his life.

Roth was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California to do a press conference on “Knock Knock,” and he was very verbose in discussing what motivated him to make this film. Now whereas his previous movies “Cabin Fever,” “Hostel” and “The Green Inferno” featured young adults heading out of their comfort zones and into the world for a dose of excitement and danger, “Knock Knock” is very different in that it rarely strays from Evan’s comfort zone which is his home. I asked Roth if this scenario presented any new challenges for him as a writer, and his answer was far more descriptive than I expected.

Eli Roth: No, I mean I liked the idea. Obviously I was very interested, probably because I grew up in Massachusetts with that kind of over sheltered, over-privileged and overeducated upper middle-class kid image that yearns for that life experience. In “Cabin Fever” they want irresponsible partying and drinking and drugs, in “Hostel” they want sex they think they can’t find, and in “The Green Inferno” they want validation through this vanity act and they want Twitter followers and it all comes back to bite them in the ass, literally in “Green Inferno.” But with this one, it is about what happens when you let that force into your life that you’re suddenly like, oh my God there’s a crazy person in my house. What have I done? You realize that, because you’re smart, that’s actually what makes you vulnerable. You think well I know how to handle this situation because I’m a smart person and look how well I’ve done so far, and then you drop your guard and then maybe there is some situation where someone’s in your home for whatever reason and you realize, oh my God, this person could take my stuff. There are my alarm codes and they could just really unravel me, and they could do it in such a short amount of time. And then Nicolas (Lopez) and I decided to add the social media aspect. We also were interested in the generational difference in sexuality. Girls in their teens or their 20’s, they must be so much crazier because of internet pornography. There is this grass is always greener mentality and looking at the way teenagers sexualize themselves on Instagram for likes and follows, we’re looking at some people like, in the cast and crew, their young sisters that are 15 or 16 and looking at their friends. You can’t tell in your 40’s if that girl is 16 or 36, and I’m playing on that difference of the sexuality in generations. Now nothing is private anymore, so when we were writing it we just thought about all of the things about modern fears. I wrote “Cabin Fever” when I was 22, I wrote “Hostel” when I was 32, and I wrote “Knock Knock” when I was 42, so they are all very much written about my fears at those ages.

Well, whether he is directing a movie or just producing or acting in one, Roth is certainly not a filmmaker you should ever call lazy. He remains as prolific as ever, and he has a large number of projects he is working on. Among them is “Meg,” an adaptation of Steve Alten’s science fiction novel about an ancient 60-foot long shark which terrorizes a small coastal town. Some critics have described the book as the “Moby Dick” of killer shark novels, so it will be interesting to see Roth’s take on it.

Knock Knock” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

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Imperium

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Imperium” is being released not along after “The Infiltrator,” another movie dealing with an FBI agent going undercover and entering a vicious criminal organization in order to stop the bad guys in their tracks. Like “The Infiltrator,” “Imperium” doesn’t break any new ground in the realm of undercover cop movies, but it is a taut thriller which holds our attention as it throws a barely prepared protagonist into a den of snakes who are quicker to kill than trust.

Front and center in “Imperium” is Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe. Ever since playing the lightning-scarred wizard, the actor has taken on many challenges to prove to the world there is more to him than J.K. Rowling’s infinitely popular literary character. At first he seems out of place as FBI agent Nate Foster, but that’s kind of the point. Nate comes across as a bespectacled and bookish nerd who is more comfortable doing research than going outside of the office. It also doesn’t help he’s the butt of jokes by his fellow agents who have yet to take him the least bit seriously.

But then along comes agent Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) who sees a strong potential in Nate for undercover work. She is also sick of her superiors devoting all their resources to foreign terrorism instead of putting just as much focus on domestic enemies. Angela brings Nate into her office, tells him what he needs to know and gives him a copy of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie, the only book needed for undercover work. From there, Nate transforms himself into a war veteran turned skinhead and navigates his way into the dangerous underworld white supremacy.

I have to give writer and director Daniel Ragussis a lot of credit as he focuses on something I desperately want America’s politicians to focus on: domestic terrorism. When it comes to the “War on Terror,” much of the focus has been focused on international groups like ISIS or The Taliban, but the threat inside America has proven to be far greater these days. Ragussis makes this very clear as he features video footage and photos of Neo-Nazis at work, be it going on marches or committing heinous crimes against those people who are not white.

Radcliffe may still have the shadow of Harry Potter hanging over him, but this doesn’t affect his performance as Nate Parker in the slightest. He makes Nate’s transformation into an undercover agent not just believable, but at times frightening. Movies like these show their protagonists sinking so deep into their assignments to where they lose contact with who they are and develop strong friendships with criminals they are supposed to bring down. Radcliffe shows, a lot of times without words, just how desperate Nate is to get to the truth. We already know just how great an actor he is, and his performance in “Imperium” goes to show the kind of acting challenges he is willing to step up to the plate to take on.

But there’s also Toni Collette who proves to be every bit as good as Radcliffe in her portrayal of, Angela Zamparo. Collette makes Angela cool as they come, and it’s loads of fun watching her reduce her male colleagues to rubble as they can’t even begin to match her job efficiency. Collette made her big breakthrough back in 1994 with “Muriel’s Wedding,” and ever since then she has immersed herself so deeply into each role she plays to where you completely forget the ones she played previously. The scenes she shares with Radcliffe here are great as we watch a rookie and a veteran slowly start to figure one another out, and nothing is never as it seems.

“Imperium” has the requisite scenes where Nate has to think fast on his feet so his cover doesn’t get blown, and some resonate with intensity more than others. One of the best comes when Nate is going to a potential site for a party along with Andrew Blackwell who is played by “The Knick’s” Chris Sullivan. Blackwell brings his best poker face to this scene as we watch Radcliffe tremble in fear as he is made to feel death is just around the corner. Both actors succeed in creating an almost unbearably intense scene here as if they are about to make the most pivotal move in a chess game.

Now “Imperium” will not go down as one of the best undercover cop movies ever made, but it does get the job done. It also shows Radcliffe taking on a new challenge and growing even more as an actor. Both he and Collette are more than enough of a reason to check this movie out sooner than later. Writer and director Daniel Ragussis also deserves a lot of credit for focusing on domestic terrorism as it feels like a realm in today’s day and age which doesn’t get enough attention. Sometimes the greatest threat to a nation isn’t from outside of it, but from within. Seriously, look at what Donald Trump’s bizarre run for President has brought out into the open.

* * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

The Duel

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The Duel” is one of those movies that wants to generate tension you can feel simmering below the surface, but it doesn’t come to life until it is much too late. It’s a shame because it features a pair of mesmerizing performances that are offset by a weak one, and its last half really does keep you on the edge of your seat. Everything leading up to that, however, is undone by a dullness that infects the whole proceedings.

The movie starts off in the year 1866 as young David Kingston watches his father get killed in a knife duel by Abraham Brant (Woody Harrelson), and then it moves to 20 years later with David (now played by Liam Hemsworth) a man and serving as a Texas Ranger. David gets assigned to investigate a series of murders and disappearances that have taken place in an Old West frontier town named Helena, and he reluctantly brings along his wife Marisol (Alice Braga) who doesn’t want to wait for him to return home. It is there that he becomes reacquainted with Abraham who is the town’s preacher and manages to keep the people there in a fearful grip. You should have a pretty good idea of where the story will go from this description.

The setup of the story is reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” which had Leonardo DiCaprio avenging his father’s death at the hands of Daniel Day Lewis, and “The Duel” looks to travel that same path. The problem is that director Kieran Darcy-Smith and screenwriter Matt Cook are not entirely sure how to reach the expected climax with David and Abraham fighting to the death. There are also many questions the movie raises and never answers in a satisfying way, and it really should not have taken long for Abraham to realize who David really is. As a result, the movie never comes to life until we get past the halfway point.

The best thing about “The Duel” is Woody Harrelson who, at this point in his career, can play just about any character he wants to whether it’s in a comedy or a drama. Right from the start, he is a menacing presence as he stares down into everybody’s soul and manages to put the town under a hypnotic spell. Harrelson has played his share of bad dudes before in movies like “Natural Born Killers,” “Out of the Furnace” and “Rampart,” and Abraham Brant is another he can add to his ever-growing resume. Harrelson may have made his Hollywood breakthrough playing a dim-witted bartender on “Cheers,” but watching him in “The Duel” makes that seem like such a distant memory.

Another strong performance comes from Alice Braga as Marisol, David’s wife who falls under Abraham’s spell to where you really want to kick David for leaving her alone so much. Braga is riveting as she takes Marisol from a strong-willed woman to one who is under the grip of something she is desperate to get control over. This is not some stock female character that can be found in your typical western movie, and Braga makes that very clear throughout.

But then there’s Liam Hemsworth who is simply miscast as David Kingston. It’s not that he isn’t believable as a Texas Ranger, but that he shows no real acting range in the role. In many ways he gives an emotionless performance, and it would have been better if another actor equal to Harrelson were cast in his place. Hemsworth just doesn’t bring much to the part, and the movie suffers considerably as a result.

For what it’s worth, Darcy-Smith does a very good job of transporting the audience back to the 1880’s as everything we see feels authentic to the era. He also jacks up the tension considerably in the last half as David and Abraham try to outsmart one another in the barren fields outside of town, and there’s a taut scene where the two face off in the town’s bar. It’s a very effective moment as the anticipation of guns going off becomes unbearably strong, and we can’t be sure of who is going to walk out of there alive.

Indeed, there are many things to like about “The Duel” from its production values to its performances, so it is frustrating to say that it really disappoints. The filmmakers may have wanted to emulate the great and gritty westerns of the past like “The Wild Bunch” or any starring John Wayne, but it can’t hold a candle to them. They are many who say that the western is dead, but no genre ever really dies. But after watching “The Duel,” it does feel like it needs a lot of reenergizing.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * out of * * * *

Daniel Radcliffe goes undercover in ‘Imperium’ trailer

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Lionsgate Premiere has released the first trailer for their upcoming thriller “Imperium.” It tells the tale of an idealistic FBI agent (is there any other kind?) assigned to go undercover and infiltrate a radical right-wing terrorist group that is in the process of creating a dirty bomb to set off in a public place. The trailer makes the movie look like something along the lines of “The Departed” or perhaps even “Reservoir Dogs” as those two featured characters who went deep undercover into the criminal lairs of others and almost lose themselves in the process. It is said to have been “inspired by real events,” and it’s a relief to see that phrase instead of “based on a true story.”

But even though “Imperium” looks like an average thriller on the basis of what we see in the trailer, it does have one major selling point: Daniel Radcliffe. While we will always recognize him as Harry Potter, Radcliffe has long since proven there is so much more to him than J.K. Rowling’s infinitely popular character. Ever since “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2,” he has portrayed a variety of characters that include Allen Ginsberg in “Kill Your Darlings,” Ig Perrish in “Horns,” a conniving individual in “Now You See Me 2,” and a corpse in “Swiss Army Man.” His role as FBI agent Nate Foster in “Imperium” is the kind we have not seen him play before, and that makes what we see in this trailer especially interesting. While the story is a familiar one, it will be fascinating to see what he does here. And perhaps this movie will shed more light on the fact that right wing and Neo-Nazi terrorists represent a bigger threat to the United States than foreign terrorists do.

Also starring in “Imperium” is Toni Collette who plays Angela Zampino, Nate’s superior officer who will help him with his infiltration into this terrorist group. Nate complains throughout the trailer of how he is in over his head, but Radcliffe shows him to be a dedicated agent who will see the job through even if he comes out of it a completely different person. But it also shows how others will be infinitely suspicious of his intentions from one moment to the next.

”Imperium” marks the feature film directorial debut of Daniel Ragussis, and it is set to open in theaters and On Demand August 19, 2016. By the way, imperium is a Latin word which translates roughly as power to command. Check out the trailer below!

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.