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Kentucky Fried Children.

(2016) Horror (Self-Distributed) Tony Nguyen, Ta Quang Chien, Hoang Ba Son, Tram Primose, Vo Quang Chi, Thien Phoc, Dao Anh Tuan, Thuy Hoang, Nguyet  Anh. Directed by Le Binh Giang

Some movies defy simple description. Perhaps it’s because their director is a visionary who is filming outside the box; it might also be that the movie is just an unholy mess. Somewhere between Luis Brunel and Ed Wood is where this particular film lies.

The streets of Hanoi are unforgiving. Violent street gangs play out their songs of vengeance and violence in rain-drenched alleyways as the children of dead prostitutes try to eke out an existence by stealing wallets and selling Zippo lighters. The streets are prowled by a sinister ambulance whose doctor deliberately runs down people, occasionally rapes their corpses particularly when they are attractive women and consumes their flesh otherwise, sharing the tidbits with his corpulent son.

Women are tortured, their teeth pulled out and their flesh burned with cigarettes. What little romance lives in this world is snuffed instantly by the marauding ambulance. Among it all, implacable, are American corporate icons – Coca-Cola and Pepsi which one character waxes rhapsodic about the virtues of mixing the two soft drinks together into one mighty cola – as well as Kentucky Fried Chicken which is apparently the second choice of Vietnamese cannibals. I guess we really do taste like chicken.

This turbo-charged fusion of Grand Guignol, social treatise on globalization and slice of life for the marginalized is the brainchild of Le Binh Giang who took three years to get this hour long film made despite the powers that be claiming it was too violent and expelling him from University because of it. I can see where conservative professors might be confounded by this shocking hour of nearly every taboo being almost gleefully played out on the page or the screen. If you had any preconceptions of  Vietnam before watching this you’ll have them completely blown out of the water after this.

There is a story here but it’s told with flashbacks and flash-forwards and even those who are veteran cinema buffs might have some difficulty in following it. Things do get explained (more or less) by the end of the film but think of the story as something of a circle being closed and then dismembered with a machete. You may not understand what’s going on but I don’t think that it’s vital that you do.

There are some really wonderful images mixed in among the carnage and even the gore looks pretty much up to Hollywood standards. There is certainly an artistic aesthetic here but think of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Frida Kahlo having a love child and then handing it a camera. It’s lowbrow and highbrow all at the same time.

I’m not exactly what to think of this one. On the one hand, I admire the skill and imagination. On the other hand, this seems to be a pointless exercise in gratuitous gore and human depravity as well. I’m not sure what Giang had in mind when he wrote this and I suspect you won’t either. I gave it the middling rating because on the one hand there is much that is commendable about this film; on the other hand too many won’t be able to get past the excessive gore and taboo subjects. This is torture porn taken to its logical extreme.

=Fans of Orlando’s legendary Uncomfortable Brunch will likely find something enticing here and the cannibalism scenes will certainly go down more smoothly with pancakes and eggs. Whether or not this makes its way to Will’s Pub remains to be seen; it has no US distribution and not even an entry on iMDB. It is playing the New York Asian Film Festival and previously played Rotterdam so there is hope that eventually it will work its way to a more adventurous streaming service or a niche distributor. Either way, this is strictly for those who aren’t offended by much of anything. This is cinema for the discerning vulgarian.

REASONS TO GO: This is not what you’d expect from a Vietnamese film. There are some really impressive images here.
REASONS TO STAY: The graphic violence and gore may be off-putting to some. The story is told in a somewhat disjointed fashion.
FAMILY VALUES: Not for the young or the sensitive in any sense; it’s got violence, sex, cannibalism, graphic gore and bloodshed, profanity, sexuality, necrophilia and animal cruelty.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Giang submitted this film as a graduate project at the University of Ho Chi Minh but was denied graduation because the script was deemed too violent.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Slave of the Cannibal God
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: BnB Hell

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The Monster (2016)


It was a dark and stormy night...

It was a dark and stormy night…

(2016) Horror (A24) Zoe Kazan, Ella Ballentine, Scott Speedman, Aaron Douglas, Chris Webb, Marc Hickox, Christine Ebadi. Directed by Bryan Bertino

 

The things that scare us are often those that hide in the shadows, that dwell in the dark but they aren’t always the most dangerous things. Sometimes what is most threatening is that which is right in front of us.

Lizzie (Ballentine) is entering her teen years with a bigger burden than most. Her mother Kathy (Kazan) is a raging alcoholic with appropriately awful taste in men. Lizzie yearns for a normal life but that is not likely to happen with Kathy who is far from a candidate for the Mother of the Year award. Lizzie just wants Kathy to drop her off at school so she can appear in the school play but the two get into a massive fight which ends up with Kathy essentially telling her daughter to go straight to Hell.

The two simply can’t co-exist any longer so Kathy decides to take Lizzie to live with her father (Speedman) who may or may not be much better, but whatever – Kathy is going to take her daughter in the middle of a rainy night through a lonely wooded road. When a wolf runs out into the road, Kathy spins out the car and wrecks it. However, thank goodness there is a cell signal and she calls for an ambulance and a tow truck.

When the two ladies investigate, they realize that the wolf was in the process of being eaten before they hit it. And when the tow truck driver (Douglas) arrives, it soon becomes crystal clear that they’re being stalked by something that is not anything anyone has ever seen before but there is one thing that is absolutely for certain about it – it’s hungry.

There is room here for a really nifty horror film but unfortunately we don’t get it. The constant bickering between Lizzie and Kathy gets irritating after awhile. Also the backstory is largely told through flashbacks which have a tendency to stop the movie dead in its tracks and interrupt the goings on. These also get irritating after awhile.

Kazan has a very youthful face which is perfect for this role; she barely looks old enough to have graduated from high school herself. She has a pretty thankless role; Kathy isn’t what you’d call admirable although when push comes to shove, she finally reacts like an actual mother but most of the movie tells us that she isn’t really much of a mother to begin with. Why she suddenly becomes one doesn’t feel very organic to me.

There are a lot of things that I call horror movie shortcuts; actions taken by the characters that defy logic. Even when panicked, most people aren’t going to continually venture past the streetlight that seems to be their only protection just to see what’s going on. However, the women’s actions serve to advance the plot but not necessarily the characters. That is some lazy writing right there.

The creature effects are nifty (and non-CGI, refreshing in this day and age) and the filmmakers wisely choose not to reveal too much about the monster. They are undoubtedly familiar with the adage that the imagination is far scarier than anything any filmmaker can come up with in general and the filmmakers use that to their advantage.

There are a few moments here and there that are generally scary and the dysfunctional mother-daughter dynamic might have made for an interesting background for the film, but in the end it’s just another monster hunt and not a particularly innovative one. Generally, I’d wait on this until it becomes available at a bargain streaming fee, or on a service you already subscribe to. It’s nothing to seek out intentionally though.

REASONS TO GO: The creature work is pretty nifty.
REASONS TO STAY: Lapses in logic and realism spoil the plot. The mother-daughter bickering eventually got on my nerves. The flashbacks are rather intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is a surfeit of profanity as well as some violence and bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film was previously titled There Are Monsters.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cujo
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu


The Death of Mr. Lazarescu

Mr. Lazarescu (center) navigates through an uncaring medical system populated by caring paramedics, judgmental nurses and indifferent doctors.

(Tartan) Ion Fiscuteanu, Luminita, Gheorghiu, Gabriel Spahieu, Doru Ana, Dana Dogaru, Florin Zamfirescu, Clara Voda, Adrian Titieni, Mihai Bratila. Directed by Cristi Puiu

Nobody wants to get sick. After all, with illness comes discomfort but worse yet is being marched into the medical system, into hospitals. Some of these journeys leave lasting impressions of caring, competent medical professionals; others are much different.

Dante Remus Lazarescu (Fiscuteanu) is a retired 60-something engineer who is an alcoholic with a headache that hasn’t gone away for four days. He’s nauseous and is throwing up blood. He thinks it’s a symptom of a problem with his ulcer, which was operated on ten years before. The pain finally gets bad enough to the point where he calls for an ambulance.

In post-Communist Romania the ambulance service is spotty at best and Mr. Lazarescu is skeptical as to whether one will arrive at all. There has been a major bus crash and casualties are being driven to several area hospitals. He heads over to a neighboring apartment to borrow some painkillers from Sandu Sterian (Ana) and his wife Mihaela (Dogaru). They are willing to help, but don’t really have the pills that he needs. Alarmed, they call the ambulance once again and finally one arrives, driven by Leo (Spahieu) with a compassionate paramedic named Mioara Avram (Gheorghiu).

She manages to get past the well-meaning interference of the Sterians and the crusty personality of Mr. Lazarescu to discover a worrisome diagnosis – Mr. Lazarescu may have colon cancer.

The ambulance (really more of a converted mini-van) whisks Mr. Lazarescu away to the hospital which is presided over by a tyrannical doctor who is far more interested in lecturing the ill man about his alcohol intake than in treating his illness. In a recurring theme, the hospital staff is overworked to the point of apathy. They send Mr. Lazarescu to a different hospital to get some tests done.

That hospital is overwhelmed by casualties from the bus crash, but Mioara’s persistence, a nurse whose friendship with Mioara leads her to be an advocate for Mr. Lazarescu with a doctor who actually has a thread of decency (and a bit of a crush on the nurse) who gets the tests done. Once the tests are done, it is discovered that Mr. Lazarescu indeed has a tumor (in his liver) that is going to kill him slowly. He also has a blood clot on his brain that is going to kill him quickly if he isn’t operated on.

That immediate surgery is a bit of a problem; the hospital they are in is far too stacked up in the O.R. for the surgery to get done in a timely manner. Instead, they recommend Mr. Lazarescu be taken to a neighboring hospital which didn’t get as many bus crash casualties. As Mr. Lazarescu is transported from place to place his condition begins to deteriorate rapidly. Will he be given the life-saving surgery in time?

Strangely, this movie was marketed in Romania as a comedy and there are certainly some comedic elements to the film, but I found the tone grim, unrelentingly so but not in a way that makes the movie a downer. Director Puiu takes the tact of being a passionless observer, one without opinion or agenda who is merely presenting the facts.

In fact, this was based on an actual incident in Bucharest in which a 50 year old man was transported to five different hospitals before the paramedic dumped him at the side of the road, where the man died. In this movie, you don’t get a sense that Mioara would ever consider such an option; she’s doggedly determined to get the treatment Mr. Lazarescu desperately needs.

Despite the title, this isn’t Mr. Lazarescu’s story. It is the story of the system and the participants thereof. It is an indictment of the system (and is regarded as such by the Romanian press) on one level, which fails Mr. Lazarescu miserably but it also praises those who go above and beyond, trying to procure decent medical care despite the obstacles. Mioara is definitely the heroine here.

Gheorghiu does a tremendous job in the role. Sympathetic, she puts up with all the jibes and put-downs by the supercilious and arrogant staffs of the various hospitals, most of whom are less experienced than she. She does so with stoicism that is sad and heroic at once. Also of note is Fiscuteanu, who would pass away from cancer himself a year after the completion of the movie and plays the mostly unlikable Lazarescu with dignity and just enough pathos to make him sympathetic without going over-the-top.

While some might believe this is channeling “E.R.,” there is a more realistic feeling to this than that television show. In fact, medical professionals in Romania have praised the movie for its realism which comes by it honestly – the admittedly hypochondriac Puiu has a long list of physicians who acted as consultants on the film.

The drawback is that the movie, at a little over two and a half hours, does tend to drag in places. However, all of this can be overlooked considering the relevance to today’s healthcare debate. The Romanian film industry has been quietly putting out some really compelling movies (such as Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days) but this is the best I’ve seen yet. It’s worth seeking out if for no other reason as a cautionary tale to take better care of yourself so that you don’t wind up taking the same journey that Mr. Lazarescu does.

WHY RENT THIS: Realistic performances make for an almost documentary-like feel. The subject matter is particularly relevant in today’s U.S. healthcare system debate.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At two and a half hours, the movie drags on a bit too long. The tone may be too unrelentingly grim for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language and scenes of hospital carnage as well as some brief nudity. The subject matter may be a trifle overwhelming for younger sorts.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was intended to be the first of six feature films to be directed by Puiu in a cycle he calls “Stories from the Suburbs of Bucharest.” The second, entitled Aurora is in post-production and is expected to be released in 2010.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Pickings are slim, but there’s a feature on the U.S. Healthcare system that doesn’t compare too favorably with the events depicted in the film.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas