Before I Wake


Kate Bosworth knows why the butterflies fly.

(2016) Horror (Netflix) Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Annabeth Gish, Topher Bousquet, Dash Mihok, Jay Karnes, Lance E. Nichols, Antonio Romero, Kyla Deaver, Hunter Wenzel, Scottie Thompson, Jason Alan Smith, Michael Polish, Brett Luciana Murray, Natalie Roers, Erika Hoveland, Avis-Marie Barnes, Courtney Bell. Directed by Mike Flanagan

 

Dangerous and even deadly children have long been a horror trope. There is something about angelic little moppets who gleefully cause mayhem and murder that is absolutely horrifying, reflecting our own fears of being bad parents or of being vulnerable to our kids.

Jessie (Bosworth) and Mark (Jane) have been through the worst nightmare any parent can conceive; their son Sean (Romero) died tragically in a bathtub drowning incident. Jessie is no longer able to conceive and there is an empty space in their lives that two years after the accident they are ready to fill with Cody (Tremblay) who has a tragic history of his own. The couple adopts him and their case worker Natalie (Gish) thinks that these two will give Cody a loving home. And they do for awhile.

They soon discover that Cody has a mysterious power, one that has caused him to be abandoned by would-be foster parents. His dreams become tangible. At first it is beautiful as colorful butterfly with internal lights flit about their house. Then, however, it becomes clear that Cody’s nightmares are also punching into the real world and his nightmares can kill people.

Flanagan is considered one of the most promising young horror directors at the moment for good reason. He’s had a string of movies that have been at least a cut above most films of the genre. This one, caught in the morass that was Relativity in 2015 (when the movie was originally supposed to be released) and 2016 has finally seen the light of day thanks to Netflix. Was this worth the wait?

Yes and no. The movie has some incredible visuals, from th butterflies of light to the terrifying Canker Man (Bousquet). It also has a strong performance from Jane who is superb and likable as Mark although his hair choice has to be questioned; his Fabio locks aren’t quite right for the character. However, Bosworth is dreadfully miscast as the heroine. She is pretty like a porcelain doll and she just looks out of place in the movie. To make matters worse, Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard inexplicably make her exploit the young boy’s powers which really made me feel uncomfortable. To be fair, critics have pretty much universally praised her performance so take my criticism with a grain of salt; sometimes even a good performance doesn’t connect with everyone.

Tremblay, who went on to an Oscar nomination for Room is a bit wooden here but also to be fair he was about seven or eight years old when he filmed this. The concept though is pretty original and for the most part Flanagan gets it right until the ending which is a bit lame. This won’t go down as one of his better films but those who follow his career definitely should see it and those who like films like The Babadook will probably enjoy this one as well.

REASONS TO GO: A terrific premise with some nifty visuals. Thomas Jane is extremely likable.
REASONS TO STAY: Kate Bosworth isn’t convincing enough as a horror heroine. The ending is lame.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images of terror and peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally going to be distributed theatrically by Relativity but their financial woes led to a constant shifting of release dates and finally the film was sold to Netflix where it was quietly released more than two years after the original premiere date.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dreamscape
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Big Take

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Our Little Sister (Umimachi Diary)


These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

These four delightful Japanese girls create sparks.

(2015) Drama (Sony Classics) Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Kaho, Suzu Hirose, Ryȏ Kase, Ryȏhei Suzuki, Takafumi Ikeda, Kentarȏ Sakaguchi, Ohshirȏ Maeda, Midoriko Kimura, Yȗko Nakamura, Jun Fubuki, Kazuaki Shimizu, Kaoru Hirata, Shin’ichi Tsutsumi, Masumi Nomura, Shinobu Ohtake, Fight Seki, Saya Mikami, Saya Mikami. Directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda

 

The Japanese realize that life is contradiction; the hectic, non-stop pace of Tokyo and the fragile beauty of cherry blossoms coexist in their culture. While it sometimes feels like Tokyo is winning the war within Japan’s culture (although I would prefer characterizing it as more of an animated argument), films like this one are proof that the cherry blossom is still strong.

In an old wooden house near the ocean in the seaside city of Kamakura (about an hour south of Tokyo by train) live three sisters who inherited the house from their grandmother. The oldest is Sachi (Ayase), a nurse who raised her other two sisters after their father left for another woman and their mother, devastated, abandoned them. She is bitter towards both her parents, and in a bit of irony is carrying on an affair with a married doctor (Suzuki) that works in the same hospital.

The middle child, Yoshino (Nagasawa) is a bit of a party animal, getting involved with a conga line of bad relationships and drinking much too much. She works in a bank and doesn’t take life seriously and she is constantly arguing with her elder sister. Finally there is Chika (Kaho), a teen just out of high school who works in a retail store and is perpetually smiling and happy. Her boyfriend may look slovenly but he has a good heart.

One day they are notified that their father has passed away. Sachi has no interest in attending the funeral, especially since it is in a rural village far away but Yoshino and Chika go mainly out of politeness. They don’t have many memories of their dad. They arrive at the funeral and meet Suzu (Hirose), the 14-year-old daughter that their father had by his mistress (and later his wife) who had also since passed away. She was now living with her father’s third wife who seemed uninterested in Suzu and her future, although she was pleased that her step-daughters had attended the funeral – including Sachi who showed up unexpectedly.

It became clear to the three Koda sisters that their half-sister was in a bad situation and that she seemed to be a really genuine person – and it turned out that it wasn’t the wife who nursed their father through his final illness but Suzu. Sachi, moved by a sense of responsibility, asks Suzu if she would like to move in with them and Suzu is absolutely thrilled to say yes. When the three sisters leave on the train, the fourth sister sees them off with absolute joy.

When Suzu moves in, she is adored by those who know the sisters. She joins a local club soccer team and excels. She makes new friends at her new school. The owner of a local café is charmed by Suzu who in turn adores her whitefish bait toast. As for the sisters, they are overjoyed to have her in the house and even though all of their lives are changing, there is more love in the house than ever.

Yoshino gets assigned to assist a loan officer who goes to various businesses to arrange loans and finds herself becoming more responsible and less flighty. Sachi, who has assumed the mother role in the family since she was a teen is beginning to see that she can have a life beyond her sisters if she chooses – and that she can do things just for herself. She is also learning the value of forgiveness.  And Suzu is discovering what having a support system means. In the year from Suzu’s arrival the lot of the sisters changes immeasurably.

Kore-eda is one of Japan’s most promising directors and he has put together a string of impressive films to his credit. Many of them are like this one, which is incidentally based on a popular Japanese manga. He tends to put together movies whose plots on paper look unremarkable, but when experienced on the screen become powerful indeed. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel better when it ends than you felt when it started.

It is also a slice of Japan on celluloid. We get a look how the average Japanese family lives from day to day, be it paying homage to their ancestors, delivering gifts to family, funeral rites and courtship, all of which is a little different than we Westerners are used to, although in many ways the cultural differences between East and West are shrinking.

The cinematography is occasionally breathtaking as we see both the rural villages and the small cities (Kamakura has a population of about 174,000 people at present). The film is presented through four different seasons, so we get a sense of the ebb and flow of life for the sisters. Their old house is a little run down but still beautiful in a similar fashion to a beautiful woman who hasn’t taken as good care of herself as she could but remains in her twilight years still a beauty by any standard.

The four actresses who play the sisters all do standout work here which isn’t surprising considering the reputation Kore-eda has for being an actor’s director. Most of the attention is going to Ayase and Hirose for their work as Sachi and Suzu but the other two have nuanced performances in smaller roles. I might have liked a little more attention paid to the two remaining sisters but the movie is fairly long as it is.

This is not a movie that demands your attention. Instead, it presents itself quietly, without fanfare or fuss and just lets you get sucked under its beguiling spell. Honestly, I had thought I might like this movie when I saw the trailer but how much I liked it was a complete and pleasant surprise. Kore-eda creates a beautiful, sweet and melancholy world that you want to dwell in long after the lights come up and he didn’t need a ton of special effects and CGI to do it. If only people realized that you don’t have to see a Star Wars movie to find a new and exciting world to spend time in.

REASONS TO GO: A nice look at Japanese culture and daily life. All four of the sisters have their own personalities and foibles. There’s a mixture of optimism and melancholy that is nicely balanced.
REASONS TO STAY: May lean a little bit too much to the feminine side for some male moviegoers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a small amount of profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All four actresses who played the sisters were nominated for the Japanese Academy Award of which Hirose was the lone winner.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mustang
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: As I Open My Eyes

Trouble With the Curve


Trouble With the Curve

Amy Adams discovers that Clint Eastwood is very sensitive about “empty chair” jokes.

(2012) Drama (Warner Brothers) Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Robert Patrick, Matthew Lillard, Joe Massingill, Ed Lauter, Chelcie Ross, Raymond Anthony Thomas, George Wyner, Bob Gunton, Jack Gilpin, Clifton Guterman, Scott Eastwood, Jay Galloway. Directed by Robert Lorenz

 

Baseball is a game of timing. The batter has to time his swing just so to connect and hit it out of the park. The runner has to start his sprint and just the right time to successfully steal the base. The outfielder has to time his jump to put himself in a position to catch the ball. And the pitcher has to know when the right time to throw that nasty fastball down the middle is or else he’ll be watching the ball exit the playing field.

Life is all about timing too. Nobody know that better than Gus Lobel (Eastwood). A longtime scout for the Atlanta Braves, he was responsible for signing some of the most important players in the history of the franchise. He’s an anachronism though; whereas in the post-Moneyball era clubs have come to rely on computers and statistics, Gus is all about instincts and intangibles. He can tell more about a player from the sound of their bat connecting to the ball than most scouts can from an entire laptop full of statistics and computer analyses. The Braves have the number two pick in the upcoming draft and they’re interested in a player named Bo Gentry (Massingill). They send Gus to check him out.

But that timing is actually bad. Gus is developing macular degeneration and isn’t seeing as well. His friend (and chief of scouting) Pete Klein (Goodman) recognizes that something is wrong. Worried for his friend and knowing that Gus’ contract is up in three months which the general manager Vince (Patrick) hasn’t decided to re-sign him, and knowing that Philip Sanderson (Lillard), an ambitious and ruthless scout wants Gus gone, calls Gus’ daughter Mickey (Adams).

Mickey is also in the midst of some bad timing. She’s a lawyer whose relationship with her dad has been chilly for some time, which is more or less how Gus wants it. She’s also ambitious and driven, bucking to be the first female partner in the firm and the youngest partner ever. She’s working on an important case for the firm and winning it would be her key to having her name on the door.

Pete wants her to go down to North Carolina and keep an eye on the old man. She’s reluctant to do it – and her proud and cantankerous dad doesn’t want her to do it. In true Hollywood fashion, that’s exactly what she does.

At first the two are back in their usual patterns of behavior. Then into the mix comes Johnny Flanagan (Timberlake), a pitcher that Gus once signed who had a promising career until he blew his arm out. Now he’s scouting for the Red Sox, hoping to land a job in their broadcast booth next season. He too is there to see Gentry and determine whether he’s worthy of the first pick in the draft.

He gets googly eyed for Mickey pretty much from moment one but she’s just out of a relationship with a fellow lawyer (Guterman) that left her feeling as if she might be emotionally closed off after all. However it doesn’t take long for Flanagan’s charm to work on her and the two begin to get closer.

However, Gus has his doubts about the arrogant, self-absorbed Gentry who certainly can hit them out of the park. Nothing the stats and his direct observation tell him that there’s anything other than big time endorsement deals and multi-million dollar contracts in Gentry’s future – other than his gut. While Gus’ baseball instincts aren’t in question, he doesn’t seem to know how to relate to his daughter and she blames him for abandoning her twice.

This is not so much a movie about baseball except metaphorically and baseball has always worked superbly well as a metaphor. This is first and foremost a movie about relationships. It is also a movie about communication – and  movie about timing, yes.

Eastwood has made an art out of playing the cantankerous old man and he does a pretty solid job of it here. He came out of retirement (as an actor) to do this for a friend and colleague when some space opened up on his directing schedule when Beyonce Knowles’ pregnancy put the planned remake of A Star is Born into turnaround. Although Eastwood isn’t saying it this time, there’s a good chance this is his final film as an actor so that accounts for something.

Adams is one of the most likable actresses in Hollywood. She’s very much the girl next door type, although she can be smoldering and sex when she needs to be (as she is in a lake swimming scene). She has some good chemistry with both Timberlake and Eastwood. I have to admit that she’s been one of my favorites for several years now.

Goodman, Patrick and Lillard are solid character performances and Goodman, who once played Babe Ruth on the silver screen, makes a fine baseball man. Lillard is a fine actor as well – no reflection on him – but his character is kind of cliché in nearly every way. I don’t think the character needed to be drawn quite the same way; he could have been a passionate believer in computers as a tool for evaluating baseball talent without being quite such a d-bag. I think the movie would have worked better with a more sympathetic antagonist.

There are some real emotional scenes to deal with here, most of which having to do with the things that caused Gus to be so closed off and, well, scared to put it bluntly. That these things affected his relationship with his daughter is a pleasant surprise. These scenes and others that deal with the way they relate to each other are the best in the movie. The presence of Eastwood and Adams doesn’t hurt either, but while the writing is flawed, the basic premise is solid and the movie works overall. Definitely this is not one just for baseball fans or geriatrics.

REASONS TO GO: Eastwood is always engaging and Adams makes a nice foil for him. Baseball sequences are good. Some nice dialogue and character development.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable. Would have been better without a generic antagonist.

FAMILY VALUES: The language can get salty; there are some sexual references and some of the themes are pretty heavy.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eastwood, who had announced that the 2008 film Gran Torino would be his last on-camera appearance came out of acting retirement to star in long-time producing partner Lorenz’ first film as a director.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/2/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. The reviews are mediocre.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bull Durham

ATLANTA BRAVES LOVERS: The team Gus works for is the Braves;  the walls of the Braves offices (and Gus’ home) are decorated with pictures of their greatest players going back to their days as the Milwaukee Braves.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Ong Bak 2

Treeless Mountain


Treeless Mountain

It may be bucolic but there's an underlying tragedy being enacted here.

(2008) Drama (Oscilloscope Laboratories) Hee Yeon Kim, Song Hee Kim, Soo Ah Lee, Mi Hyang Kim, Boon Tak Park, Lee Hyun Seo, Ha Min Woo, Lee Byung Yong. Directed by So Yong Kim

The world can be a harsh place. It is particularly rough on children, especially when their parents are not around. Think of how much harder it is when the parents give them up voluntarily.

Seven-year-old Jin (Hee) and her little sister Bin (Song) are sweet, well-adjusted little girls in South Korea. Unfortunately, their mom (Soo), not so much. Ever since her husband left them, she has had a very hard time adjusting. Raising the two girls by herself proves to be too much so she decides to go and reconcile with her husband. She then must leave her daughters with Big Aunt (Mi), her older sister who makes it very clear that this is a temporary arrangement and that she’s not interested in taking care of the kids herself.

It also becomes equally clear soon enough that she’s an alcoholic, which complicates matters. While their mom promises to return by the time that an empty piggy bank is filled with coins that Big Aunt will give them when they do their chores and are good (giving them incentive to be good – the better they are, the sooner Mommy will be home in their minds), they find themselves often bored with few children their age to play with.

They often wait by the bus stop they saw their mom leave from but she never appears. The piggy bank eventully winds up getting full (thnks to some cleverness from Jin who changes some of the bigger coins into several smaller ones to fill up the bank faster). Eventually they get a letter from their mom saying that things haven’t worked out with their dad and that she will be gone much longer than she first thought.

That’s the breaking point for Big Aunt who decides that the children must now be left with their grandparents on their farm in rural Korea. While the farm is not particularly successful and old granddad not wanting to raise a whole new set of kids after having already raised his own, the grandmother (Boon) takes the girls under her wing and teaches them the importance of family while they patiently await a mother who may never return.

This is a movie whose ambitions I admired very much. So Yong Kim has crafted a very quiet movie with not a whole lot of dialogue and a pace that requires a great deal of patience. Those who have it will be rewarded with a story that has its own beauty as well as its own tragic elements. One leaves the movie wondering what on earth will become of these kids and what sort of chance they have in life.

Much of the film centers on the two sisters and fortunately, both are adorable enough to be interesting. I wouldn’t call it a performance so much as the kids being themselves and allowing Ms. So to film them. There are moments that are truly charming…but to be fair, there are also some that are rather boring as well.

I liked the concept of following the children around and trying to get into their heads as they try to make sense of a missing mom. Unfortunately, the movie takes so much time in getting to its very chrming and bittersweet ending that I found my attention wandering. Maybe that makes me a curmudgeon but this felt more like babysitting than film viewing. I guess I’m turning into the grandfather here which is a scary thought in and of itself.

There is plenty to recommend the movie but one must be a little bit on the Zen side to truly enjoy it. It is rewarding, yes but I’m not sure I’d have the patience to sit through it again. It’s very much like a still life painting. There’s a lot going on if you have the patience and perception to look; it’s just that not all of us do.

WHY RENT THIS: A very realistic look at a family fractured by alcohol and neglect. The two young girls are adorable.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Long periods of time go on with little story advancement. The director relies overly much on the cuteness value of the leads.

FAMILY VALUES: No violence or sexuality and almost no profanity. The themes are a bit on the mature side though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of the cast were amateur actors who had never been in a film before.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an interview with the two little girls two years after the completion of filming; there is also a Q&A with the filmmaker after a screening at the New York Film Forum.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $124,023 on an unreported production budget; the film probably broke even or even made some money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: White Noise 2: The Light