Category Archives: Adventure

SIFF 2017: Time Trap *

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 27, 2017)

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The discovery of a rusted-out VW van near the entrance of an underground cavern prompts a Texas professor/spelunker to investigate what happened to his parents, who mysteriously vanished decades before. Concerned that the professor himself may have now disappeared, two of his students organize a search party, dragging several other friends and young siblings along. From that point forward, it’s an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink miss-mash of time portals, Spanish conquistadors, Neanderthals, aliens, The Fountain of Youth, a magic ring and the end of the world. The only thing missing is a cohesive narrative (and perhaps a MST3K riff track?). Co-directors Mark Dennis and Ben Foster desperately want us to connect the dots with 1980s films like The Goonies. So I’ll play along: this is the most indecipherable sci-fi mess since Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce.

SIFF 2017: Rocketmen **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 20, 2017)

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Well, if you (like me) have completely missed out on the web series concerning “…the deranged comedic adventures of Seattle’s little-known protectors, The Department of Municipal Rocketry”, have I got news for you. It’s now been distilled into a handy feature film. The result? A feature film that looks like a web series. On film. As someone who loves cheesy 50s sci-fi and the old Republic serials, I “get” what writer-director-animator Webster Crowell was going for here; his cast is obviously having fun, and his self-animated special effects are cleverly interwoven, but-it never quite takes off.

Blu-ray reissue: Lone Wolf and Cub ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 10, 2016)

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Lone Wolf and Cub –The Criterion Collection Blu-ray (Box Set)

Generally speaking, I don’t gravitate toward ultra-violent films, but this manga-inspired series from Japan (6 features released between 1972 and 1974) is at once so shockingly audacious yet intoxicatingly artful, that any self-respecting cineaste has got to love it…for its sheer moxie, if nothing else. As critic Patrick Macias writes in the booklet that accompanies Criterion’s box set:

“[…] the Lone Wolf and Cub series contains some of the best sword-slinging, Buddhist-sutra-spouting samurai fiction ever committed to celluloid, enriched with the beauty of Japan’s natural landscape and seasoned with the vulgarity of its pop entertainment…”

Erm, what he said. Admittedly, the narrative is minimal, and the basic formula for all the sequels is pretty much established in the first installment: A shogun’s executioner (played throughout by the hulking but surprisingly nimble Tomisaburo Wakayama) loses his gig and hits the road as an assassin-for-hire, with his toddler son (Akihiro Tomikawa) in tow. Actually, he’s pushing the kid around in a very imaginatively weaponized pram (as one does). These films are almost beyond description; but they are consistently entertaining.

Criterion does the usual bang-up job on image and sound with crisp 2K digital restorations on all six films. The hours of extras includes a hi-def print of Shogun Assassin, a 1980 English-dubbed reedit of the first two films. A real treat for movie buffs.

SIFF 2016: Dragon Inn ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 21, 2016)

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Full disclosure: I only recently caught this influential 1967 wuxia adventure for the first time; my excuse being that it is rarely screened and was previously tough to find on home video, until last fall’s (Region “B” only) Blu-ray reissue from Masters of Cinema (which I was able to order from Amazon UK). Judging from the absolutely gorgeous Blu-ray transfer, it looks like SIFF attendees are in for a treat, with a big screen film presentation struck from (I’m assuming) the same recent 4K restoration. King Hu’s film is not your typical Kung-Fu epic; in fact it has more in common with Yojimbo, Rio Bravo and The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly than, say,  Enter the Dragon. It’s colorful, exciting, suspenseful…and unpredictable, with a jaw-dropping finale. I know that I’m running the chalk backwards, but the biggest surprise for me was realizing how huge of an influence this film was on Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.

SIFF 2016: Long Way North ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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Recommended for ages 6+ by SIFF, this adventure tale benefits greatly from its creative pedigree; director Remi Chaye was first AD and head of layout for The Secret of Kells, which remains one of the most beautifully animated feature films of recent years (outside of Studio Ghibli). The story centers on a 15 year-old girl from an aristocratic St. Petersburg family who refuses to write off her missing explorer grandfather, whom the rest of her family believes to be dead. Armed with a copy of her grandfather’s itinerary, an ability to parse navigational charts, and lots of moxie, she slips away from her family’s estate and talks her way aboard a merchant vessel, determined to locate him and his North Pole-bound ship. Exciting and well-made family entertainment.

Wolves, bison & bears…oh my: The Revenant ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 16, 2016)

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“Nah, man…I gotta remember: NEVER get outta the boat!”

-from Apocalypse Now

If there’s one thing I’ve learned reading Jack London and Joseph Conrad and watching countless adventure movies over the years, it’s this: never get out of the goddamn boat. Remember what happened in Apocalypse Now, when they got out of the boat? Aguirre, the Wrath of God? The 7th Voyage of Sinbad? Uh, Deliverance? It very rarely ends well.

Latest case in point: Alejandro Inarritu’s sprawling survivalist epic, The Revenant. Once “they” get out of the boat, everything goes to hell in a hand basket; in this case, an authentic, hand-woven hand basket crafted by authentic First Nation peoples, in an authentic rustic setting. Inarritu’s film is not only steeped in gritty and authentic Old West verisimilitude, but tells its tale in real time. OK, I’m exaggerating-it’s only 3 hours.

The story is set in the early 19th Century, “somewhere” in the Rocky Mountain region of the Louisiana Purchase (I assume, as there are Frenchmen wearing fur hats lurking about). Leo DiCaprio stars as a crackerjack woodsman named Hugh. He and his half-Native American son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) have hired on as guides for a pelt-hunting expedition. After the party is ambushed by Indians, Hugh leads the survivors into the deep woods. While temporarily separated from the party, Hugh is severely mauled by an actual “grizzly mom” (it is the film’s most harrowing scene, which is really saying a lot).

His compatriots find him, barely alive, and begin to carry him along. However, they soon find the terrain too daunting to navigate with a stretcher. Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), one of the more mercenary members of the party, suggests putting Hugh out of his misery so they can make tracks. The party’s Captain (Domhnall Gleeson, son of Brendan) briefly considers the option, but decides to leave Hugh in the care of Hawk and a young volunteer named Jim Bridger (Will Poulter…playing who I can only assume is the Jim Bridger of legend, since the screenwriters take no pains to elucidate). One more man is needed, but the Captain has to first sweeten the pot with the offer of a reward. Guess who steps up? If you guessed our mercenary friend with dubious motivations, you are correct.

What ensues earns what I like to call my “3G” rating (Grueling, Grinding, and Gruesome). It’s a quasi-biblical, “to hell and back” tale of betrayal, suffering, fortitude and (drum roll please)…redemption. It’s also a bit of the aforementioned for the viewer, as he or she is required to channel the patience of Job while awaiting the redemption part.

Which reminds me of a funny story. Around halfway through, I had to excuse myself for a few minutes (hey-let’s see you try making it through a 3 hour flick with a 59 year-old prostate…and fellow sufferers be warned that the sights and sounds of babbling brooks, surging rivers and roiling rapids abound throughout). Anyway, as I left the auditorium, I noted that the recovering but not yet fully ambulatory Leo was slowly, painfully, crawling through brambles. I go do my thing; when I return to my seat several minutes later, I note Leo is still slowly, painfully crawling through brambles. I whispered to my friend, “So I take it I didn’t miss anything?” He confirmed that my intuition was spot on.

While I stand by my conviction that the film would not have suffered from judicious trimming, it still has much to recommend it, particularly for fans of adventures like Black Robe, The New World, The Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves, Never Cry Wolf, or The Naked Prey. In context of its striking visual poetry, there is one film evoked that must have inspired Inarritu and/or his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and that is Letter Never Sent, Mikhail Kalatozov’s tale about a state-funded quartet of Russian geologists who become trapped by a wildfire while diamond-hunting in Siberia. The 1960 film was breathtakingly photographed by Sergey Urusevskiy, also renowned for his work on Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying and I Am Cuba (my review). Like Urusevskiy, Lubezki fuses natural light wide-angle photography with classically composed long shots and audacious hand-held takes that make you scratch your head and wonder “how in the hell did the camera operator shoot that without running into a tree?!”

The director and screenwriter Mark L. Smith co-adapted their screenplay from Michael Punke’s 2002 book The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge. I didn’t realize until doing a little research after seeing the film that Hugh Glass was a real-life trapper and frontiersman (how I know who Jim Bridger is, yet have never heard of this guy…is one of life’s mysteries). I also learned this is not the first film based on Glass’ exploits; that honor goes to a 1971 western called Man in the Wilderness, directed by Richard C. Sarfian (how I know and love Sarfian’s 1971 classic Vanishing Point, yet have never heard of his other 1971 film…is another of life’s mysteries). What isn’t such a mystery are the 12 Oscar nominations, which include Best Actor and Supporting Actor for DiCaprio and Hardy. DiCaprio earns his statue for the al fresco dining alone (you’ll know when you see it). Hardy is perfect playing a character who could be an ancestor for those mountain men in Deliverance. And I can’t emphasize this enough: Never, never get outta the boat.

Spy vs. acronym: Spectre **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 7, 2015)

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In my review of Sam Mendes’ 2012 James Bond adventure, Skyfall, I wrote:

I’m sure you’ve heard the old chestnut about cockroaches and Cher surviving the Apocalypse? As the James Bond movie franchise celebrates its 50th year […] you might as well add “007” to that short list of indestructible life forms. […] Love him or hate him, it’s a fact of life that as long as he continues to lay those gold-painted eggs for the studio execs, agent 007 is here to stay.

Mendes set the bar pretty high with his first stab at the venerable legacy; in fact I was impressed enough with his Bond installment to include it in my top 10 films of 2012 list. Unfortunately, as it turns out, Mendes may have set the bar too high; or perhaps by saying “yes” to Spectre (Bond #24, if you’re counting) he baited the sophomore curse. Whatever the reason, I found 007’s new outing to be a bit shaky, and not quite so stirring.

Unless you live in a cave, I’m sure you’re aware that Daniel Craig is back on board, as are Skyfall screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, joined this time out by Jez Butterworth, who co-scripted the 2010 political thriller Fair Game (my review).

The story picks up with Bond still grieving the loss of his mentor, M (Judi Dench). As foreshadowed in the previous installment, 007 now answers to a freshly anointed “M” (Ray Fiennes), with whom he is already at loggerheads (as we know, he’s a great agent in the field, but has “issues” with authority figures). An enigmatic “last request” from the late M sends Bond gallivanting off to Mexico City for an unauthorized hit job. This sets up the traditional jaw-dropping action sequence opener, which doesn’t disappoint (…yet).

The plot gets a little murky from here; Bond next heads for Rome, long enough to, erm, pump the lovely widow (Monica Bellucci) of a nefarious hit man for information regarding a shadowy international cabal of assassins, spies, terrorists, extortionists, gypsies, tramps and thieves who generally engage in Very Bad Things, and crash one of their board meetings…where he is recognized and called out by its CEO (Christoph Waltz) and subsequently run out of town and dogged all over Europe and North Africa by a hulking henchman named Hinx (Dave Bautista). He is soon joined on his escapade by the lovely daughter (Lea Seydoux) of yet another recently departed nefarious hit man.

Back in London, M is embroiled in an inter-agency scuffle with (to my recollection) a new character in the Bond canon, “C” (Andrew Scott). “C” is the type that our friends across the pond might refer to as a “smug git”. He views M and his agents as anachronisms; much too “analog” in an age where there are so many high-tech surveillance/operational alternatives (you get the impression that this guy would feel right at home with the NSA).

One of the main problems with the film is that it never quite gels for either of these two distinct narratives; when Bond’s exploits in the field and M’s political woes back at the home office do finally converge, it feels tricksy and false in a curiously rushed third act.

It frequently seems as if this film wasn’t being directed by a “person”, but rather by an evenly divided focus group of Bond fans; half of them the adrenaline junkies who really dig the gadgets and the babes and the chase scenes and the shit blowing up, and the other half (like yours truly) who have applauded Bond 2.0’s sense of grittiness, intrigue, and character development that (arguably) flirts more with John Le Carre than Ian Fleming.

But by trying too hard to please everyone, you end up with both sides getting short shrift. The action fans will probably start looking at their watches every time the story moves back to HQ (I couldn’t help noticing that many people at the full house promo screening I attended chose those moments to take their restroom breaks), and those longing for a bit more complexity may view the action pieces as distracting and perfunctory this time out.

Ultimately, Spectre plays more like a “greatest hits” collection than a brand new album.

Speaking of which…Sam Smith is obviously a talented fellow and has some great pipes, but “Writing’s on the Wall” has got to be, hands down, the most ponderous and overwrought Bond theme of all time. It goes on longer than the Old Testament. Seriously:

If you managed to make it through that entire video, please accept my condolences. You deserve a palette cleanser now, so here are my picks for the Top 5 Bond movie themes:

“A View to a Kill”performed by Duran Duran

“For Your Eyes Only”performed by Sheena Easton

“Goldfinger”performed by Shirley Bassey

“Live and Let Die”performed by Paul McCartney

“You Only Live Twice”performed by Nancy Sinatra

Yabba dabba doo-doo: Jurassic World *1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 13, 2015)

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Jurassic World: What could possibly go wrong?

Velociraptors make for great jumbo-sized bloodhounds. Who knew? That’s but one of the startling revelations in Jurassic World, Colin Trevorrow’s remake of Cool Hand Luke. What was that he said? Cool Hand Luke? Is the OP off his fucking meds, or what?!

No, seriously. Hear me out.

Let’s get the synopsis out of the way first. It’s been 22 years since that little “accident” on Isla Nublar. If you’re unacquainted with 1993’s Jurassic Park, here’s the recap: test-tube dinosaurs, humans fleeing, screaming…then munching, crunching, blood, viscera, the end (if you also missed Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World and Jurassic Park III, see: recap for Jurassic Park). And if you think that concerned parties have yet to grasp the central lesson (i.e., that placing giant, lizard-brained predators and snack-sized bipeds into close proximity only ends in tears)-you would be…correct. Yes, “they” have now created a massive theme park (based on Sea World), and are charging people an admission for the privilege of putting themselves into close proximity with giant, lizard-brained predators.

An adorable moppet with a cabbage patch head (Ty Simpkins) and his sullen teenage sibling (Nick Robinson) travel to Jurassic World sans Mom and Dad, who are entrusting them into the care of their aunt (Bryce Dallas Howard) who is head of operations. She in turn entrusts the boys to her P.A. (thus ensuring that they will soon be in life-threatening peril, like all the young ‘uns in all the previous franchise entries). So much for the “plot”.

But that’s not important right now…let’s get back to my Cool Hand Luke theory.

We can all agree that the idea of positioning T. Rex as the park’s alpha heavy is like, so last millennium, right? No worries, because those ingenious InGen scientists (not unlike the director and his co-screenwriters Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver and Derek Connolly) are smart enough to know that if you wanna repackage the same old shit in a different wrapper and fill those seats with asses, you’ve gotta make it bigger…and badder. So they’ve taken the DNA from a T. Rex, a velociraptor, a cuttlefish and added…I don’t know, some Black & Decker chainsaw parts…tossed them into a Bass-O-Matic and set it to “frappe”. Out pops Godzilla on steroids, a mega-predator they dub the Indominus Rex.

But I prefer to call him “Luke”.

Because you see, that ol’ Luke, they got him in a special pen…but they ain’t no prison can hold him, ‘cause he’s a wild, beautiful thing. He’s a crazy handful of nuthin’. And once he claws his way out and starts eatin’ them eggs, look out (I’ll tell ya, my boy can eat fifty of them brachiosaurus eggs, and still have ‘nuff room left for chokin’ down a platoon of park security officers, weapons ‘n’ all). Luke escapes, and who do they send to track him down? Dog Boy, of course (played here by Chris Pratt) and his faithful bloodhounds (played here by a pack of velociraptors). Hell, one of them velociraptor bloodhound dawgies is even named “Blue”! I mean, who can forget Dog Boy’s mournful lamentation: “Look, Cap’n, look what he done to Blue. He’s dead…he run himself plum to death.” Poor ol’ Blue. He was a good ‘raptor…way he used to wag that lil’ tensile tail.

That’s my theory, and I’m sticking to it. Getting half-serious for a moment, I’m giving the film an extra ½ star for the impressive creature effects; but frankly that’s about all it has going for it. For the life of me, all I can remember (and I just saw it this past Tuesday) is donning the 3-D glasses, watching dinosaurs eat people, and my friend marveling throughout at what has to be a new Guinness record for product placement. Memorable quotes? Can’t remember. Specific standout performances? Can’t remember. Plot points? Can’t recall more than one or two. And I wasn’t even high. Wish I had been.

Fairies in the roundabout: Song of the Sea **** & four more for St. Patrick’s Day

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 14, 2015)

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Given that we’re all descended from tetrapods (sorry, creationists) it’s not surprising that a number of cultures have developed myths featuring sea creatures who transmogrify into humans (and vice-versa). In Irish folklore, it’s the “selkie”. Writer-director Tomm Moore has followed up his lovely 2009 animated fantasy The Secret of Kells (see below) with Song of the Sea, a tale steeped in selkie mythology. A 2014 Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature, it’s currently in belated (and somewhat spotty) release around the U.S.

Moore’s film centers on a melancholic lighthouse keeper named Conor (voiced by Brendan Gleeson), who is raising young son Ben (David Rawle) and daughter Saoirse (Lucy O’Connell) on his own, following the tragic loss of his wife, who died in childbirth. Sullen Ben, several years older than his 6 year-old sister, is experiencing growing pains, exacerbated by the fact that he misses his mother terribly. He pines for the mesmerizing tales about magical creatures that mother would tell him at bedtime. He has difficulty relating to his somewhat odd little sister, who is a mute.

After Saoirse is nearly swept away after inexplicably deciding to wander into the nearby surf in the middle of the night, Conor decides the children would be better off staying with their grandmother (Fiona Flanagan) in the big city. The kids aren’t so crazy about this plan; after a few mentally stultifying days with grandma they make a run for it. However, before they can wend their way back home, they are waylaid by a band of characters that seem to have popped right out of one of those fairy tales that Conor’s mother used to regale him with.

I can say no more without risking spoilers, except that if you have a chance to catch this beautiful gem on a theater screen, don’t pass it by. Even though this is only his second outing, Moore has fashioned an entertainment that feels like an instant classic; a work imbued with a timeless quality and assured visual aesthetic that I would put on a par with the best of Studio Ghibli. There is discernible warmth in Moore’s skilled use of traditional hand-drawn animation; a genuine sense of heart and soul sorely lacking from the computer-generated “product” that gluts our multiplexes these days.

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 If Song of the Sea hasn’t opened in your neck of the woods, don’t despair. I have several other recommendations, should your heart be set on a St. Patrick’s Day film fest. In alphabetical order, here are 4 more tales of Celtic magic and myth from the Emerald Isle:

Darby O’Gill and the Little People –Albert Sharpe gives a delightful performance as lead character Darby O’Gill in this 1959 fantasy from director Robert Stevenson. Darby is a crusty yet benign b.s. artist who finds himself embroiled in the kind of tale no one would believe if he told them it were true-matching wits with the King of the Leprechauns (Jimmy O’Dea), who has offered to play matchmaker between Darby’s daughter (Janet Munro) and a strapping pre-James Bond Sean Connery. The special effects hold up surprisingly well, considering limitations of the time. The scenes between Sharpe and O’Dea are especially amusing (“Careful what you say…I speak Gaelic too!”). Stevenson would later direct another “little people” movie, The Gnome-Mobile, in 1967.

Into the West– A gem from one of the more under-appreciated “all-purpose” directors working today, Mike Newell (Dance With a Stranger, Enchanted April, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Pushing Tin). At first glance, it falls into the “magical family film” category, but it carries a subtly dark undercurrent with it throughout, which keeps it interesting for the adults in the room. Lovely performances, a magic horse, and one purty pair o’humans (Ellen Barkin and Gabriel Byrne, real-life spouses at that time).

The Secret of Kells– A unique animated fantasy based on traditional Irish folk tales surrounding the origins of an illuminated manuscript from the 9th Century called The Book of Kells (an actual historical artifact, kept on permanent display at Dublin’s Trinity College). There are Tolkienesque touches (a diminutive hero, forest elves, marauding invaders), but this “quest” tale has a refreshing twist…the goal is not power or an attempt to take down a villain, but rather the preservation of knowledge and illumination. For the amazingly vivid look of their film, Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey, through some kind of “secret” alchemy of their own, seem to have taken some of those marvelous medieval era woodcuts and paintings you see in museums and art books and brought them to life.

The Secret of Roan Inish– John Sayles delivers an engaging live action fairy tale, which, like the aforementioned Song of the Sea, draws its inspiration from venerable Irish legends about the selkies. Wistful, haunting and beautifully shot by the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who captures the misty desolation of County Donegal’s rugged coastline in a way that recalls Michael Powell’s similarly effective utilization of Scotland’s Shetland Islands for his 1937 classic, The Edge of the World. The seals should have been nominated for a special Oscar for Best Performance by a Sea Mammal!

Move over, Smaug: Ragnarok **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 23, 2014)

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According to my exhaustive research on Norse mythology (OK…one-clicking to Wikipedia), “Ragnarok” was the Viking version of Armageddon; warning of an apocalypse that culminates in a worldwide flood, after which all begins anew (not to be confused with “Raga-rock”, which was a sub-genre of wild, far-out hippie music that Grandpa used to zone out to after a hit of Windowpane).

In the context of Norwegian director Mikkel Braenne Sandemose’s eponymous new film, it’s a major concern to a harried, recently defunded archaeologist widower (Pal Sverre Hagen) who specializes in Viking artifacts. He’s been attempting to translate mysterious runes found amongst remains of an ancient shipwreck.

When he and a fellow researcher (Nicolai Cleve Broch) become convinced that Ragnarok may 1) not in fact be a myth, and 2) be imminent, he grabs his teen daughter and young son and heads north to an uninhabited part of Finnmark, where he and his colleague hope to find the missing pieces of the puzzle. After adding a sexy-tough love interest…I mean, assistant researcher (Sofia Helin) and a crusty yet benign guide to the team, the expedition is afoot.

While what ensues in Sandemose’s film can be called out as a shamelessly derivative mash-up of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park, it’s still kind of fun, in a contentedly mindless way. Actually, amid all of the typically big, dumb, loud and over-produced action-adventure summer fare currently flooding the multiplexes, it stands out as a refreshingly old-fashioned yarn. The story clips along without unnecessary padding, most of the violence is (thankfully) off-screen, and it says everything it needs to say in 94 minutes.