Dead Pigs


Old Wang comes charging to the rescue!

(2018) Dramedy (China Lion) Vivian Wu, Haoyu Yang, Mason Lee, Zazie Beetz, David Rysdahl, Meng Li, McColl Cowan. Directed by Cathy Yan

 

In the “that’s something you don’t see every day” department, thousands of dead pigs were discovered floating in the waterways near Shanghai back in 2013. That was enough to give Chinese-American director Cathy Yan plenty of inspiration.

Old Wang (Yang) is a pig farmer who lives well beyond his means. While he happily supplies the insatiable need for pork in the city, he discovers all the money which he has invested in the stock market has been absconded with by his broker. Suddenly broke and in debt to loan sharks, he first visits his sister Candy Wang (Wu), the successful owner of a beauty salon for the dough. She’s having issues of her own however; a big development company is putting together a new multi-use complex and her property is the last one not to sell. All the others have been bulldozed so there is no neighborhood left but Candy stubbornly clings to the old, creaking and falling-apart house. Her brother begs her to sell so they can split the proceeds but Candy refuses.

Next Old Wang heads to his son Zhen (Lee) who he believes is a successful businessman. However, Zhen has been hiding the truth from his father; he’s merely a waiter at a suckling pig restaurant. He has also developed a crush on poor little rich girl Xia Xia (Li) who is diffidently going through life from one party to the next, sure her friends love her and shocked when she finds out that they don’t really care. Sean Landry (Rysdahl) is the ex-pat American architect for Golden Happiness which is heading the development threatening Candy’s home – ironically it is to be a recreation of a Spanish village. Sean has some skeletons in his closet of his own – he might have overstated his qualifications on his resume just a tad. He’s hoping this project will leapfrog him to the wealth, power and happiness he’s been chasing. Chasing Sean is Angie (Beetz) who runs a kind of dating service for affluent foreigners in Shanghai.

All will come to a head as the five entwined stories come together. The story ends on kind of a Hollywood-type ending that most film buffs will sniff out a mile away but that doesn’t take away from the pleasantly quirky debut that Yan has concocted with her feature debut. Veteran actress Wu steals the show, being the conscience of the film and despite her sometimes acerbic and grumpy persona, she has genuine reasons for taking the hopeless stand she does. Young Mason Lee, son of director Ang, shows some promise as the young besotted waiter and fills the screen with a kind of quiet decency that bodes well for a leading man future. Beetz who has begun a pretty solid climb to stardom herself is solid in little more than a cameo.

The film is nicely photographed by Federico Cesca and utilizes its Shanghai location nicely from the futuristic but largely sterile cityscapes to the much of the rural pig farms to the stark landscape of the bulldozed development-to-be. Antiseptic office spaces, kinetic nightclubs and fashionable restaurants also look dazzling under the watchful eye of Cesca.

This is what I would consider a twisted comedy with black accents but with enough heart to allow the flaws to be overlooked. It is certainly apropos and a parable of modern Chinese life – socioeconomic gaps, the loss of tradition in the rush to modernize, and the importance of family. This is definitely a solid debut and Yan a talent to keep an eye on.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s a very quirky film in all the right places. The cinematography is very nice.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little bit on the Hollywood side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zhangke Jia, who directed Ash is Purest White which is also playing the Miami Film Festival, executive produced this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Nightingale

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Hereditary


Toni Collette practices her Oscar acceptance speech.

(2018) Horror (A24) Toni Collette, Gabriel Byrne, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Christy Summerhays, Morgan Lund, Mallory Bechtel, Jake Brown, Harrison Nell, Briann Rachele, Heidi Mendez, Moises Tovar, Jarrod Phillips, Ann Dowd, Brock McKinney, Zachary Arthur, David Stanley, Bus Riley, Austin Grant, Gabe Eckert, Jason Miyagi, Marilyn Miller, Rachelle Hardy, Georgia Puckett  Directed by Ari Aster

There are critics who shouldn’t be allowed to review some genres. Those who abhor emotional manipulation should not be allowed to review romantic comedies. Those who think movies exist only to illuminate and educate shouldn’t be allowed to review Hong Kong action films or superhero films for that matter. There are some who don’t have the patience for kid flicks. and there are plenty of critics who don’t get horror movies at all who should be kept away from horror movies with physical restraints – and I suspect some of them would be just fine with that. Me, I love horror movies so at least you won’t get genre snobbery below.

\Annie Graham (Collette) is burying her recently deceased mother. She is strangely ambivalent about it; her relationship with her mom was strained to say the least. In fact, the only member of the family who is sorry to see the old lady go is the youngest, daughter Charlie (Shapiro) who is as creepy a child as you’re likely to find on any movie screen, theatrical or home.

Annie has kind of a strange job; she’s an artist who builds miniature rooms with meticulous detail. These rooms are largely from her own past and present. Annie is already kind of a high strung sort much to the chagrin of her stoner teenage son Peter (Wolff) and grounded husband Steve (Byrne). When a second tragedy strikes the family, it threatens to send Annie over the edge.

Reluctantly, she attends a grief-counseling group where she runs into Joan (Dowd), a motherly sort who has lost her husband and son to a car accident. She confides in an increasingly depressed Annie that she has discovered a means of communicating with the dead. Given a straw to cling to, Annie seizes it with both hands but as anyone who knows anything about the horror genre knows, it’s never a good idea to contact the dead.

Now, the synopsis above makes this sound like a pretty run-of-the-mill horror concoction but I assure you that it is not. This is one of the most justifiably acclaimed horror movies of this year or maybe even any other year, both by critics who do get horror films and fans of the genre alike (not to mention film buffs and cinephiles). The movie is ingeniously crafted, a slow burn that builds to an absolutely twisted finale that will leave you terrified of turning out the lights for days.

One of the reasons to love this movie is Toni Collette. Horror films rarely generate Oscars for actors but this is one that truly deserves to. Collette’s depiction of Anne’s descent into paranoid madness is the stuff of horror rubbernecking – you simply can’t turn away. Collette has been nominated for Oscars before but this may well be her best performance. I can’t imagine anyone topping it. The rest of the performances are strong, particularly the always-reliable Byrne, the up-and-coming star Wolff and veteran character actor Dowd. Shapiro is also particularly strong but she doesn’t get as much screen time as the others.

Steve Newburn is credited with designing the miniatures; they are exquisite and add considerably to the creepy factor So too does the score which doesn’t take cheap shots with ersatz scares. When the really scary stuff starts to unfold, it’s honest and quite frankly, this movie is scary as fcuk. Seriously, if you are easily frightened or overly sensitive this movie may well be too much for you.

This is not the kind of movie that throws jump scares at you to keep you off-balance. This is a slow-building ticking time bomb that immerses you in an atmosphere that is both normal and not-quite-right. As things begin to go off the rails for Annie, we begin to understand she’s not the most reliable of narrators. Is it really happening? I say yes. Whether you’re on the same page as I am, this is certainly one of the most unforgettable horror movies of the past decade and if you didn’t see it during its brief run this past summer, you NEED to see it this Halloween.

REASONS TO GO: Collette delivers a career-defining performance. The ending sequence is terrifying. It’s very likely to become a horror classic. The dysfunctional family dynamic feels authentic.
REASONS TO STAY: This might actually be too scary for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of graphic violence and disturbing imagery, some drug use and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Wolff, Byrne and Shapiro knew each other from previous film work; Collette alone didn’t know any of the actors that played her family, contributing to her sense of isolation which comes out in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/28/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness Day Four

Accidents Happen


Sometimes all you can do is try to look chic in the face of disaster.

Sometimes all you can do is try to look chic in the face of disaster.

(2009) Drama (Image) Geena Davis, Harrison Gilbertson, Harry Cook, Joel Tobeck, Wendy Playfair, Sebastian Gregory, Sarah Woods, Morgan Griffin, Troy Planet, Erik Thomson, Viva Bianca, Rebecca Massey, Katrina Retalick, Jayden Hall, Damien Garvey, Peter Lamb, Johnny Xenos, Ivy Latimer, Karl Beattie, Tyler Coppin (voice), Rosslyn Powell. Directed by Andrew Lancaster

Some people are just inherently luckier than others. They seem to lead charmed lives and little if anything bad ever happens to them. Conversely, there are those born under a bad sign. Nothing ever seems to go right for them and if it weren’t for bad luck, they’d have no luck at all. They are the kings and queens of bad breaks.

Billy Conway (Gilbertson) is one of those latter sorts. A car accident left one of his brothers dead, another brother in a vegetative coma, a third brother (Cook) constantly at his throat and his parents Ray (Tobeck) and Gloria (Davis) in the process of divorce. Billy starts hanging out with neighborhood friend Doug Post (Gregory), a mischievous sort. However when they are fooling around with a bowling ball, their shenanigans leads to a Rube Goldberg-sort of accident that leaves Doug’s father dead. Their role in the accident has gone unnoticed by the police but Billy’s guilt and feeling of living under a curse begins to prey on his mind, necessitating his own confrontation with his family’s past.

I was somewhat surprised to discover that this is in fact an Australian film written by an American, set in Connecticut (based on the writer’s own childhood recollections) with Australian actors (except for Ms. Davis) playing American accents. I should say, mainly inexperienced Australian actors but more on that below.

I can give the film props for cutting out the twee indie cuteness that is so prevalent in modern independent films. And while this movie is marketed as a comedy, it really isn’t one. It’s not even a dramedy – it’s more of a drama with some comedic overtones. Certainly the idea of a family curse can be thought to be in and of itself funny although if you were in said family I suppose you wouldn’t find it very funny. However, this really isn’t played for laughs.

Davis, one of my favorite actresses of the 80s (see The Fly and Beetlejuice) and the 90s (see Thelma and Louise and A League of Their Own) but since her acclaimed performance in The Long Kiss Goodnight in 1996 she has appeared only in three Stuart Little films and this, having devoted her attentions to activist causes and television roles. Her Gloria is a force of nature, foul of language and quick of wit. She’s fiercely loyal to her children but she’s been given quite a battering from life which has certainly had its effects on her.

The rest of the Australian cast is largely inexperienced and it shows. Accents slip regularly and there is a lot of mugging that goes on in lieu of acting which is awfully choppy at times. The concentration of a family curse which is played for drama is self-defeating; it turns the characters into self-pitying parodies which largely turns the audience off – at least in my case it did.

This isn’t completely without merit although I would have liked to have seen a little more experience in some of the lead roles. While I’m all for giving newcomers a break, there were too many of them and I suspect that Ms. Davis simply didn’t have the bandwidth to mentor all of them. Worthwhile simply for seeing Geena Davis on the big screen, sadly it’s brief theatrical run went largely unnoticed so you’ll have to be content with home video for this one.

WHY RENT THIS: A rare star turn for Davis who is sadly far-too-absent from the screen. Less pretentious than some indies.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Pushes it’s “unlucky family” conceit a bit too much. Most of the rest of the cast is less credible in their roles.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of foul language and at least one disturbing scene. There is also some teen drug and alcohol use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally supposed to be filmed in Connecticut, the producers decided to film in Australia due to costs, but then ran into some local opposition when their shooting schedule in suburban St. Ives was seen to disrupt local traffic and lives with local residents threatening to wave lights and play bagpipes in order to cause disruption to the production. Eventually, they were able to negotiate a truce and filming took place over two days with the critical car crash scene moved elsewhere.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $188,160 on a $5.8M production budget; was a box office flop.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: My One and Only

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Hangover Part III