Alec at the Movies: Synchronic/The Empty Man

★★★★

Another week; another double bill – I’m trying to get while the getting’s good. Who knows how much longer theaters will even be a thing? As per usual – don’t go to the movies if you don’t feel safe doing so. If you do go – please wear a mask, socially distance and follow all posted safety protocols. With no further ado, here’s what I saw!

Synchronic

“We want to be very clear: at the time of writing this, we personally wouldn’t go to an indoor theater, so we can’t encourage you to.” These are the words written by “Synchronic” co-director Aaron Moorhead via Instagram back on Sept. 11, 2020 on behalf of himself, fellow director and screenwriter Justin Benson and producer David Lawson. As my wife will tell you, I don’t listen worth a damn … so I went and saw the movie theatrically regardless. And I’m very glad I did – it’s one of 2020’s best.

I know Benson and Moorhead more by reputation than I do their work itself. I’ve heard very good things about “Spring” and “The Endless,” but haven’t seen either of them as of this writing. “Synchronic” is the first film I’ve seen of theirs and it left me longing to backtrack and catch up with their stuff.

Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan star as Steve and Dennis respectively – they’re a pair of best friends and New Orleans-based paramedics. Steve’s a ladies man living single and free; Dennis is married to Tara (Katie Aselton of “The League”) with two daughters on either side of the parenting age spectrum – 18-year-old Brianna (Ally Ioannides from AMC’s “Into the Badlands”) and an infant. The two men begin encountering many cases spurred by a legal street drug substitute called Synchronic. I don’t want to say much else about the plot because I went into the film fairly cold and feel it benefitted greatly from me doing so.

Dornan’s a legitimate actor when he takes a break from spanking bare bottoms with a belt. As good as he is – and he’s very, very good – this is Mackie’s movie. I’ve been a fan of Mackie’s for a good long while. Whether it’s as Papa Doc in “8 Mile,” the male lead in Spike Lee’s misguided “She Hate Me,” the bully boxer in “Million Dollar Baby,” an on edge soldier in “The Hurt Locker” or as Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the dude always makes an impression. Mackie may very well be doing the best work of his career in “Synchronic.” As a New Orleans native, he seems particularly engaged by and connected with the material.

“Synchronic” is obviously a low budget movie, but what these filmmakers lack in money they more than make up for with unbridled imagination and genuine emotion. This is incredibly assured sci-fi. The movie moved me to tears, which is sort of bummer while masked up.

4.5/5

The Empty Man

“The Empty Man” has been sitting on a shelf since 2018. It’s not a bad movie in the slightest, but it’s also entirely too long (137 minutes seems a tad lengthy for a horror flick). Despite being released by Disney’s 20th Century Studios, the picture still sports a 20th Century Fox studio logo. It’s like the studio didn’t know what to do with the product so they simply dumped it into theaters as Halloween programming during a pandemic. I’m honestly surprised the film was greenlit in the first place – despite being based off a BOOM! Studios graphic novel by Cullen Bunn, it’s not especially commercial. One could argue the result is more art house than grindhouse.

James Badge Dale stars as James Lasombra, a widower who lost his wife (Tanya van Graan) and son in a car accident. James is a former police officer who runs a security store. He’s a lonely sort who celebrates his birthday by himself paying for a Mexican meal with a coupon. He’s paid a visit by Amanda Quail (Sasha Frolova, who’s a good albeit interesting-looking actress – her character resembles some sort of amalgamation of Scarlett Johansson and Noah Schnapp’s Will Byers from “Stranger Things” with a dose of Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) from “Pulp Fiction” thrown in for good measure), a family friend and the daughter of Nora (Marin Ireland). The girl doesn’t seem distraught per se, but she also doesn’t seem totally with it. Soon thereafter, she disappears. A message is scrawled on her bathroom mirror in blood, “The Empty Man made me do it.” James has to answer questions from Detective Villiers (Ron Canada). Dissatisfied with the work the police are doing, James begins investigating Amanda’s disappearance on Nora’s behalf. His investigation leads him to the shadowy Ponitfix Society fronted by Arthur Parsons (the always reliable Stephen Root).

“The Empty Man” is written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker David Prior. Prior cut his teeth making behind the scenes documentaries for the physical media releases of many of David Fincher’s films. Fincher’s influence can be felt in this final product. Prior, who also co-edited the picture, composes many artfully-constructed frames that call to mind Fincher’s work. He’s leisurely with the pacing (much like Fincher), but doesn’t have the control of his more experienced mentor. Three-quarters of this film are a masterclass in tension and suspense before going off the rails in the final quarter.

Badge Dale is an actor I generally dig (the cat was aces in Michael Bay’s “13 Hours” a handful of years back) and he does admirable work here. He injects this overtly serious picture with some much needed levity and often does it with little more than some expertly timed and employed facial expressions. Badge Dale is good enough that I’d like to see him headline more features. Likewise, Prior shows promise – I’ll anticipate whatever he does next.

3.5/5

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