Reviews: ‘I Came By,’ ‘Love in the Villa’ and ‘Surrogate’

‘I Came By’

The “Downton Abbey” and “Paddington” star Hugh Bonneville plays against type in “I Came By,” a twisty suspense film barbed with social commentary. Bonneville stars as Sir Hector Blake, a retired judge with a reputation for fairness and empathy. When an activist graffiti artist named Toby (George MacKay) breaks into Blake’s stately home — as part of an ongoing art project to make the wealthy feel unsafe — the tagger discovers something disturbing in the old man’s basement.

Co-written and directed by Babak Anvari — a British-Iranian filmmaker whose “Under the Shadow” and “Wounds” have shown a knack for blending genre thrills with complex character studies — “I Came By” frequently changes focus, following different people. Kelly Macdonald plays Toby’s mom Lizzie, a counselor who regrets losing track of her son’s life. Percelle Ascott plays Jay, Toby’s occasional partner in crime, who is trying to settle down with his new wife and baby. And Franc Ashman plays police detective Ella Lloyd, who finds it hard to nail Blake because of his powerful connections.

This narrative diffusion keeps “I Came By” unpredictable, since it’s impossible to know who Anvari and his co-writer Namsi Khan will shift to next. But it can also make the movie feel less taut than a thriller should be. The story never builds momentum.

That said, whenever the energy starts to flag, Anvari can always come back to Bonneville, who is magnificently oily as Blake: a man who has convinced the world he’s a nice guy, though every now and then the mask slips and we see the anger and bigotry bubbling beneath. The tension in “I Came By” is less about whatever terrible things Blake may have done — or might still do — but more about a ruling class whose outward projection of class and benevolence allows them to get away with murder.

‘I Came By.’ TV-MA, for violence, language and smoking. 1 hour, 50 minutes. Available on Netflix

Kat Graham and Tom Hopper in the movie "Love In The Villa."

Kat Graham and Tom Hopper in the movie “Love In The Villa.”

(Riccardo Ghilardi/Netflix)

‘Love in the Villa’

Stale romantic comedy formulas flatten “Love in the Villa,” an Italian-set crowd-pleaser that lurches between charming and blah. The film’s primary asset (beyond its gorgeous Verona setting) is the strong chemistry between the two leads: Kat Graham, who plays a detail-oriented, Italy-obsessed Minneapolis grade school teacher named Julie; and Tom Hopper, who plays a smug, cynical British wine broker named Charlie. When these two are accidentally booked into the same rental property, they reluctantly agree to share the space — and then start scheming to drive each other out.

Journeyman writer-director Mark Steven Johnson is smart enough to let this war of attrition — and the inevitable detente and romance — play out over a good long stretch in the middle of his movie. This is a fun way to get to know these two characters, as Julie comes up with pranks that work against Charlie’s vanity while Charlie tries to puncture Julie’s pride. The two have to understand each other to hurt each other.

But too much of “Love on the Villa” is off-the-rack rom-com business, not that different from what’s on the Hallmark Channel 24 hours a day. She’s a romantic who really only knows about life from books; he’s a coldhearted businessman who misses the wonders of the world around him; they both have absent partners who don’t really appreciate them, et cetera. Julie and Charlie make a winning couple, which goes a long way toward making “Love on the Villa” watchable. But they’re so boxed-in by the movie’s clichés, their love affair rarely gets the chance to breathe.

‘Love in the Villa.’ TV-14, for language. 1 hour, 55 minutes. Available on Netflix


A single mother endures nightmares both paranormal and personal in “Surrogate,” a cleverly creepy Australian horror-mystery from writer-director David Willing, co-written with Beth King. Kestie Morassi plays Natalie, a nurse who after a disturbing encounter with a mentally ill patient sees her life turned upside-down — almost as if the patient infected her with a free-floating evil, “It Follows”-style. The crisis begins when Natalie wakes up bleeding profusely, in what the doctors assume is a miscarriage … although there’s no sign of a fetus. Soon after, Natalie’s daughter Rose (Taysha Farrugia) starts getting physically attacked by the ghost of a young girl.

“Surrogate” is partly about the frustrating process of Natalie trying to figure out what’s happening to her family. Willing and King give their heroine a break by having her run into Ava (Ellie Stewart), a youngster whose ability to communicate with spirits helps speed up the investigation. But they also torment Natalie by saddling her with Lauren (Jane Badler), a child services officer convinced she’s abusing Rose.

The supernatural horror elements in “Surrogate” are fairly effective, though dulled a bit by the movie’s low budget — and also by how common mysterious hauntings and spooky kids are in movies. What really gets under the viewer’s skin in “Surrogate” is Natalie’s particular predicament — well-played by Morassi — of a parent who right down to the film’s shocking ending feels pushed past her limits, judged by others for troubles she didn’t invite and can’t explain.

‘Surrogate.’ Not rated. 1 hour, 31 minutes. Available on Amazon TVOD

‘One Way’

The crime drama “One Way” begins with a small-time hood named Freddie (Colson Baker, a.k.a. rapper Machine Gun Kelly) stealing money from the mob and hopping onto a bus winding through south Georgia and north Florida, while slowly bleeding out from a gunshot wound. As he rolls through the night toward an uncertain fate, Freddie gets on the phone, calling anyone who might help: his crooked dad (Kevin Bacon), his ex, Christine (Meagan Holder), who is also a nurse, and even his furious boss Vic (Drea de Matteo). He also befriends another passenger, Rachel (Storm Reid), a troubled teen whom Freddie decides to try to save, as one last act of penance in case he dies.

There are some pieces of “One Way” that work well. Baker is a convincing lowlife, his supporting cast is outstanding, and the composer Raffertie’s distorted electric guitar score brings an edgy energy. But despite director Andrew Baird’s best efforts, this movie — written by Ben Conway — still mostly consists of a guy making phone calls on a dark bus. Although Baird shows what’s happening on the other end of those calls, the action remains largely static. The film is a case study in why critics say “show, don’t tell.” It’s 90 minutes of people talking about routine gangster stuff, peppered with occasional gunfire.

‘One Way.’ R, for pervasive language, violence, and drug use. 1 hour, 35 minutes. Available on VOD

‘Mister Limbo’

It’s hard to pin down the genre for writer-director Robert G. Putka’s partly comic, partly surreal art-film “Mister Limbo” — though it bears some resemblance to absurdist theater exercises from the 1950s and ‘60s. Hugo de Sousa plays an everyman who wakes up one day in a desert, unsure of how he got there or who he is. After trying to use a payphone jutting out of the barren landscape, our hero runs into another lost soul (Vig Norris), who also can’t remember much about his pre-desert life — but who does recall a lot about the TV series “The 4400.” These two guys then wander through the desolation, pondering whether they’re in heaven, hell or somewhere else.

When the duo occasionally runs into other people, they have elliptical conversations about the meaning of existence and what it takes to be “good.” This is all so very esoteric that it never fully connects. But the actors are loose and funny; and the overall tone of “Mister Limbo” is amiable. This kind of movie can easily become ponderous and pretentious, but Putka keeps everything wide open, in the spirit of his befuddled protagonists.

‘Mister Limbo.’ Not rated. 1 hour, 35 minutes. Available on VOD

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“Explorer” is a biographical documentary about Sir Ranulph Fiennes: a friend to Prince Charles, a cousin to actors Ralph and Joseph, and often cited as the world’s greatest explorer. With probing interviews and stunning archival footage, director Matt Dyas tells the story of a man who has risked his life for decades to get a firsthand look at some of the planet’s most forbidding locations. Available on VOD

Available now on DVD and Blu-ray

A black-and-white image of two young men in a field from the documentary “Faya Dayi.”

An image from the documentary “Faya Dayi.”

(Janus Films)

“Faya Dayi” is one of the most visually beautiful documentaries of recent years: a hypnotic black-and-white study of Ethiopian communities that harvest and sell (and often consume) a euphoria-inducing plant called khat. Director Jessica Beshir explores the culture and politics of the region, but primarily allows the viewer to feel the effects of the drug, via sequences that are rhythmic and hazy. The Criterion edition of “Faya Dayi” includes some early Beshir short films and a commentary track. Criterion

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