Relic


All is not well in this house.

(2020) Horror (IFC Midnight Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote, Jeremy Stanford, Chris Bunton, Christina O’Neill, Catherine Glavicic, Steve Rodgers, John Browning, Robin Northover. Directed by Natalie Erika James

 

The most frequent description I’ve seen of this impressive first feature by Japanese-Australian director Natalie Erika James is “slow burn” and that’s extremely apt. This is a movie that takes it’s time and builds organically to a terrifying conclusion that will leave you breathless.

When octogenarian Edna (Nevin) is reported missing, her concerned daughter Kay (Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Heathcote) hurry to her decaying old home on the outskirts of Melbourne. There is clearly tension between mother and daughter, but there is also a great sigh of relief when Edna turns up with no memory of where she’s been, nor how she got those ominous black bruises on her chest.

But Edna isn’t at all well; she doesn’t recognize her house or even her family at times, and her mood swings are growing progressively more violent. Kay is trying to organize the house and look into a care home for Edna, while Sam is wondering why Edna doesn’t move in with Kay, or Sam with Edna. The deterioration of Edna’s mind is mirrored by the deterioration in Edna’s house; mold and mildew throughout the once-great home, things behind the wall that unexpectedly go thump and a stained glass window that was once part of a cottage that stood on the property but has long since been demolished but is a connection to a family secret that is rearing its ugly head.

Creaky old houses are naturally perfect locations for horror films and in particular for this one. There are plenty of noises in this house, from loud bangs to whispered conversations Edna has with people only she can see. James, who co-wrote the screenplay and based the movie on her experiences with her own grandmother who was afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, has a sure, patient hand, allowing the mood to grow until by the end of the movie the tension is nearly unbearable. She has a deft touch for horror, which sometimes gets treated with in a heavy-handed manner; good horror movies don’t necessarily have to be screams when whispers can be far more terrifying.

James was fortunate enough to get three strong actresses for the lead. Mortimer is one of the world’s most capable actresses – I can’t recall a single subpar performance on her part – and Heathcote has become one of the best young actresses in the business today. Nevin will be less known to American audiences. A veteran of Australian stage and television, she is absolutely mesmerizing here, giving a performance that is strangely sympathetic even as her mind slpis away. It’s heartbreaking to watch, yes, but also terrifying as there are hints of a supernatural presence involved.

The scares are mostly accomplished with practical effects, with sound being predominant – this is a movie that takes “things that go bump in the night” quite literally. In fact, be aware while watching it that the pounding that you hear throughout the movie may be headache-inducing for you – it was for me, although considering how effective the thumps were, I didn’t mind quite so much as I might have. While the one misstep in the film is an overabundance of jump scares which are a cheap way of getting a gasp from your audience. For the most part, though, James relies on atmosphere and superb performances from her leads to get this film on the radar for one of the top horror films (so far) of 2020. I’ll be watching with interest to see what Ms. James does next.

REASONS TO SEE: The use of sound effects is second to none. Creepy and disturbing. Nevin gives an astonishing performance as the demonic grandma.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit repetitive in its use of jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, brief nudity, and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie made its debut at Sundance earlier this year.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews, Metacritic: 77/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Others
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Olympia

Agatha and the Truth of Murder


“Colonel Mustard, in the study, with the lead pipe.”

(2018) Mystery (Vision) Ruth Bradley, Pippa Haywood, Ralph Ineson, Bebe Cave, Luke Pierre, Joshua Silver, Samantha Spiro, Tim McInnerny, Blake Harrison, Dean Andrews, Brian McCardie, Michael McElhatton, Seamus O’Hara, Derek Halligan, Liam McMahon, Amelia Rose Dell, Clare McMahon, Richard Doubleday, Stacha Hicks. Directed by Terry Loane 

 

In 1926, the great mystery writer Agatha Christie disappeared, A great nationwide manhunt ensued with more than 10,000 police officers working the case. She was discovered eleven days later in a hotel, using the surname of her husband’s lover and with no memory of what transpired over those eleven days. To this day, it is a real-life unsolved mystery. This British made-for-TV film offers it’s own explanation.

Christie (Bradley) was at a crisis point in her life. While her career as a mystery author was going well, she was suffering from writer’s block and was tired of writing novels in which her readers simply picked the least likely suspect and solved the crime in that manner. Worse still, her husband (McMahon) was carrying on an affair with a younger woman and was demanding a divorce, one which she didn’t want to grant. Despite his infidelity, Christie was still in love with her husband.

She is in despair when approached by Mabel Rogers (Haywood), a nurse who begs the author to solve the murder of Rogers’ friend (and lover) Florence Nightingale Shore, bludgeoned to death on a train six years earlier. Although at first reluctant, Christie decides that solving the murder is not only the right thing to do but exactly what she needs to get out of her funk. She and Mabel concoct a plan to invite the main suspects in the crime to a country manor under the guise of being an insurance company representative seeing to the disbursement of funds from a will – nothing like appealing to greed to round up a disparate group of people.

Needless to say, things don’t go necessarily the way the great writer planned things and it ends up with her prime suspect (Andrews) being killed. When the actual police, in the person of Detective Inspector Dicks (Ineson), the cat is out of the bag and the game is truly afoot – to quote Arthur Conan Doyle (McElhatton), whom Christie consulted earlier about her writer’s block.

Part homage and part real life mystery, the case that Christie was called upon to solve in the film – the murder of Florence Nightingale Shore, a niece of that Florence Nightingale, actually happened as described and in reality, was never solved. That Christie knew about the case is certain; it was big news in Britain at the time and Christie used elements of the crime in her book The Man in the Brown Suit. Mabel Rogers also existed as well.

Bradley makes an extremely engaging Christie. The actress, best known in the States for her work in Grabbers as well as the genre series Primeval and Humans, gives the acclaimed mystery writer a certain amount of pluck. While she is devastated by her husband’s affair, she has enough self-awareness to know that wallowing in misery is not the way to go. I don’t know how close her portrayal is to how the real Christie was but I think she plays Agatha Christie the way we wish she was.

The era is captured pretty well and while the production values aren’t quite as lush as the best adaptations of Christie’s work are, the movie suffices in that regard. While mystery buffs will find nothing particularly innovative here, I don’t think the movie necessarily had to reinvent the wheel in order to be successful. If I do have a bit of a quibble, the dialogue can be stiff and sound unrealistic to my ears. It doesn’t sound like real people conversing at times.

Fans of Christie’s work – my mother is one and I grew up reading many of her novels – will find familiar territory here, from the gathering at a country manor to the somewhat positive light that the police are portrayed here (other mystery writers have tended to write them as bumbling fools). That makes this kind of cinematic comfort food, the sort of thing that is sorely needed in these trying times.

REASONS TO SEE: Bradley makes a wonderful Christie.
REASONS TO AVOID: The dialogue tends to be a bit stiff.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The film was broadcast on Channel 5 in the UK on December 23rd, 2018. It was the first in a series of fictional films about Christie to be shown on television – each featuring a different actress in the role.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft,  Netflix, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Agatha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindlewald

A Simple Favor


Cocktails and besties, the perfect combination.

(2018) Suspense (Lionsgate) Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Eric Johnson, Jean Smart, Sarah Baker, Gia Sandhu, Kelly McCormack, Glenda Braganza, Linda Cardellini, Andrew Rannells, Rupert Friend, Joshua Satine, Ian Ho, Glenda Braganza, Danielle Bourgon, Andrew Moodie, Bashir Salahuddin, Aparna Nancheria, Gia Sandhu, Katherine Cullen. Directed by Paul Feig

Da Queen will tell you that I love a good whodunit. Da Queen will also tell you I despise a lazy one. A Simple Favor falls somewhere in between; I don’t love it but I don’t hate it either.

Stephanie (Kendrick) is a suburban supermom who has a mommy vlog full of life hacks for moms and so on. Her son (Satine) is a school chum of the son (Ho) of Emily (Lively), a high-powered public relations VP for a high-powered New York fashion firm led by the aptly named Dennis Nylon (Friend) who never met a wardrobe he couldn’t insult, especially if it didn’t involve his own clothing line.

Stephanie and Emily bond over martinis and quickly become besties, sharing their deep dirty secrets – Emily’s marriage to struggling writer Sean (Golding) is crumbling. Emily’s job is demanding more and more of her time and Stephanie is only too happy to pick up both boys from school, but then one night, Emily doesn’t come to pick up her boy – nor does she show up the next day. Stephanie fears the worst.

But Stephanie is a bit of an amateur sleuth and when the police don’t seem to have any leads on the whereabouts of Emily, Stephanie takes over looking for the lost item as any proper mom would. And what she finds…isn’t what she expects.

Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids, isn’t afraid to inject some humor – okay, a lot of humor – into the neo-noir thriller. Sometimes, the movie seems almost schizophrenic at times. The tone varies from light to dark and sometimes in between. The chemistry between Lively and Kendrick absolutely works; they both look like polar opposites but it isn’t hard to see what draws the two characters together. The humor works well, but surprisingly it’s the thriller portion that’s less successful; the denouement isn’t hard to figure out in advance and the movie definitely loses narrative steam during the last third. Still, the things that work in A Simple Favor work very well; the things that don’t can be overlooked.

REASONS TO SEE: Kendrick and Lively have excellent chemistry.
REASONS TO AVOID: More or less mindless entertainment, appearances to the contrary.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexual content and some graphic nudity, drug use, violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the character of Emily is a heavy drinker, Blake Lively (who plays her) has been a teetotaler all her life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Vudu. YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews: Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gone Girl
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Searching

Slender Man


Stopping by the woods on a misty evening.

(2018) Horror (Screen GemsJoey King, Julia Goldani Telles, Jaz Sinclair, Annalise Basso, Alex Fitzalan, Taylor Richardson, Javier Botet, Jessica Bank, Michael Reilly Burke, Kevin Chapman, Miguel Nascimento, Eddie Frateschi, Oscar Robert Wahlberg, Daniel Beaton, Gabrielle Lorthe, Mark Carver, Kris Sidberry, Angela Hope Smith. Directed by Sylvain White

 

One of the more interesting things to come out of the Internet is the creepypasta movement; that is, essentially urban legends created by internet bloggers for the new generation. Perhaps the best known of these is Slender Man, which inspired an actual real-life stabbing, although that isn’t referenced here.

Four bored best buds in a small Massachusetts town read all about the Slender Man online and decide to see if they can conjure up the Slender Man. Of course, they are successful and are soon be stalked by a tall slim apparition in white shirt and black tie. It is said that the Slender Man will either haunt you, drive you mad or take you and when one of the girls disappears, the others begin to suspect that they will be next.

White does a very good job of creating a mood and his atmospheric tone is very conducive to big scares but sadly he doesn’t deliver any. Most of this is rote teen horror with kids doing insanely stupid things especially given that they suspect that they are being stalked by a supernatural being. King as the goth girl carries most of the water here, but the rest of the cast does at least a fair to middling job, all things considered.

I get the sense that given the publicity surrounding the incident in which two adolescent girls stabbed a third in an effort to summon the entirely fictional Slender Man, Screen Gems seemed reluctant to publicize the film much. There was also the studio’s insistence on a PG-13 rating, so the film is fairly bloodless and some of the best scenes, according to director Sylvain White, ended up on the cutting room floor. This is truly a case of a studio killing their own film.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the scenes are genuinely creepy.
REASONS TO AVOID: Generic horror film (dumb kids doing dumb things) with a topical subject.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some atmospheric sequences of terror, plenty of profanity and some crude sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Javier Botet, who plays Slender Man, also makes a cameo appearance as the tall doctor in the hospital at the end of the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Starz, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 7% positive reviews: Metacritic: 30/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Midnight Man
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Meg

Knives and Skin


High school can be scary.

(2019) Thriller (IFC MidnightKate Arrington, Tim Hopper, Marika Engelhardt, James Vincent Meredith, Tony Fitzpatrick, Audrey Francis, Claire VanDerLinden, Alex Moss, Grace Smith, Ty Olwin, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Raven Whitley, Robert T. Cunningham, Kayla Carter, Jalen Gilbert, Genevieve Venjohnson, Aurora Real de Asua, Ireon Roach, Emma Ladji, Grace Etzkorn, Haley Bolithon. Directed by Jennifer Reeder

 

Small towns are microcosms. The people who live there have roles – some chosen, some assigned. Not everyone fits into or likes the role they have, but it’s part of an overall system that keeps things going. It doesn’t take much to throw the status quo completely out of whack. Add a new element – or remove an established one – and the whole dang thing can come tumbling down like a house of cards.

Young Carolyn Harper (Whitley) – a band nerd – snuck out of her house one night to meet a horny jock on the edge of town for clandestine sex. When she changes her mind at the last minute, a tussle ensues leaving her with a nasty gash on her forehead and her brand-new glasses still in the jock’s car as he drives away, leaving her in the middle of nowhere screaming for help.

She never makes it home that night and her disappearance ripples through the midwestern town of Big River like an electromagnetic pulse. Carolyn’s mother (Engelhardt) understandably begins to unravel. Her friends Joanna (Smith), Charlotte (Roach) and Laurel (Carter) – all from disparate cliques in school – grow closer together and discover in their grief that they have strength in consent. The word “no” – often given in the form of an apology. They soon discover how empowering “no” can be.

It is the teens of the town who show maturity, resiliency and strength as the adults soon begin to revert back to the secrets and failings that characterized their lives before the disappearance, only acting out more vigorously. It is up to the teens to remind the adults that there is still someone missing – but it is also the teens who seem more likely to move on.

Reeder takes a bundle of trendy influences, from David Lynch to Harmony Korine to Chantal Akerman and crafts a kind of pastiche, a movie that’s equal parts Riverdale and Twin Peaks with a dash of Neon Demon thrown in. This is a town full of quirky people and the young people are no more and no less quirky than the rest.

There is a very definite post #MeToo feminist tone here as the young girls explore their sexuality and soon begin rejecting the roles that have been assigned them, developing into powerful, strong young women. In many ways it’s heartening to watch but in other ways it’s a depressing reminder of how young high school-age girls are caught in a terrible bind when it comes to their roles in life.

Cinematographer Christopher Rejano bathes the screen in neon blues, greens and pinks which give the film a modern feel, but be warned that this kind of palate is nothing new and while it’s eye-catching, it isn’t particularly inventive. However, Rejano (and Reeder) also do a masterful job of framing their shots, using foregrounds and backgrounds effectively. There is also a propulsive electronic score that brings to mind 80s films but the music you will doubtlessly remember is the dirge-like choral renderings of pop songs by the Go-Go’s, Cyndi Lauper and others.

This may come off as a high school version of Twin Peaks and while that isn’t necessarily inaccurate, it is also over-simplifying it. I suspect that this is being aimed at girls the age of those being played in the film, or slightly older but the pacing here is surprisingly slow and methodical which doesn’t bode well for post-Millennial attention spans. In any case, this is something that’s a little different than the holiday films out there; while it is also getting a brief limited theatrical release, you can also catch it on VOD if you’re of a mind to.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully shot and scored.
REASONS TO AVOID: Paced a little too slowly for its target audience.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s profanity, violence and sexual situations, mostly involving teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seagal and DMX previously appeared together in the 2001 film Exit Wounds.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/10/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 71% positive reviews: Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Twin Peaks
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Grand Isle

Burning (Beoning)


That which reminds us of things we can’t bear to look at must sometimes be burned.

(2018) Mystery (Well Go USA) Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jun, Soo-kyung Kim, Seung-ho Choi, Seong-kun Mun, Bok-gi Min, Soo-Jeong Lee, Hye-ra Ban, Mi-Kyung Cha, Bong-ryeon Lee, Wonhyeong Jang, Seok-chan Jeon, Joong-ok Lee, Ja-Yeon Ok. Directed by Chang-dong Lee

 

Human relationships are by their very nature complex, particularly when sexuality is part of the equation. Sometimes we find someone who we can’t believe could possibly be interested in us; other times we see things in someone that they don’t see in themselves. All the while, our desires burn brightly within us.

Jong-su Lee (Yoo) is a country bumpkin living in Seoul. Hailing from the farming community of Paju, near the DMZ that borders North and South Korea – so close in fact that the propaganda broadcasts from the North can clearly be heard in Paju – Jong-su has managed to get himself an education and yearns to be a writer, admiring American authors like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

To make ends meet while he writes his novel, Jong-su works as a delivery boy. One day he accidentally encounters Hae-mi Shin (Jun) who grew up with him in Paju although he scarcely remembers her. Where he is colorless, she is vibrant; where he is taciturn she is outgoing and she is energetic where he is lethargic. She is everything he’s not and everything he wants. To his surprise they strike up a friendship which turns into something more. She is getting ready to go on a previously planned trip to Africa and needs him to watch her pet cat; he agrees.

While she is gone, he haunts her apartment, missing her presence and her sexual energy. There is some evidence of a cat – a litter box that fills with poop, a bowl that he fills with food which is empty when he comes back – however he never actually sees the cat whom she names Boil on account of that she found him in a boiler room.

Jong-su has had to move back to Paju in the meantime – his father has been arrested for assaulting a government official and eventually is convicted and sent to prison. Jong-su must take care of the family farm. When he receives a phone call from Hae-mi that she needs to pick her up at the airport, he is overjoyed – until she materializes with a new boyfriend, the wealthy Ben (Yeun) in tow. Ben is a handsome, charming, and charismatic sort and Jong-su is certainly aware that Ben is more attractive as a boyfriend in every way conceivable. Ben seems to enjoy Jong-su’s company and often invites Jong-su to parties and on dinner dates with him and Hae-mi.

Outwardly Jong-su seems okay with this arrangement but inwardly he is seething and when he boils over and yells at Hae-mi, she breaks off communication with him. After a few days of frantic calling, Jong-su begins to realize that nobody has seen Hae-mi since then. He begins to get an uneasy feeling, particularly when Ben confesses while high that he likes to burn down abandoned greenhouses for kicks. Suddenly Jong-su is beginning to wonder if there isn’t more to Ben than meets the eye.

Chang-dong Lee is considered one of South Korea’s most gifted and respected directors. His films tend to be deeply layered, very complex and sublimely nuanced. In many ways, Burning is his most accessible work to date. Still, there is as with all his works much more than meets the eye which is saying something given the often breathtaking cinematography.

The triangle at the forefront of the movie has some delicious performances. Yoo has the rubber-faced expression of a comedian but rarely varies it beyond befuddlement and bewilderment. He is a child-man in a fast-paced world of naked consumerism; he is the Nick Carraway to Ben’s Jay Gatsby (the film even references the book directly), fascinated and yet envious. Jong-su becomes obsessed with Ben, first as Hae-mi’s new paramour and later in a different way after the girl’s disappearance.

Yeun, who most American viewers will remember as the good-hearted Glen from The Walking Dead has a very different role here. He is part of the one-percent and has all the arrogance that you would expect from those used to getting everything they want. He also can be cruel, sometimes inadvertently but one has to wonder if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. Ben is, after all, a very bright young man. Yeun does a bang-up job here.

Jun leaves the most indelible impression. Hae-mi is both desperately lonely and wonderfully outgoing. She is very sexual but very naive at the same time. She is a hot mess from a personal standpoint and she breaks the heart of Jong-su who in their last scene together throws it back in her face. She is an enigma, never more so when she disappears and one wonders if she, like her cat, was not real to begin with.

The movie takes a definite turn after Hae-mi goes missing; it goes from a romantic Dramedy to a mystery which seems to be the crux of the film. When a friend who had previously seen the movie asked me what I thought of it, I responded “It’s like getting two movies for the price of one” and so it is but this isn’t such a wide turn that the audience is left with whiplash. Rather, it is an organic change that allows the viewer to go along for the ride without getting too uncomfortable.

This was South Korea’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscars this year and while it didn’t make the shortlist – despite being a favorite to do so – it certainly deserved to do so. There is a purity to this work that transcends cultural lines; I do believe that one can feel the truth in it regardless if you are Korean, American or from anywhere else. Some truths are universal after all.

REASONS TO GO: It’s like getting two films for the price of one. The filmmakers wisely leave a lot of aspects to the imagination. The audience is never 100% sure of what took place in the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The first third of the film is a bit of a slog.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity as well as sex and nudity and some shocking violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to be directed by Chang-dong Lee since Shi in 2010.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Girl on the Train
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Dolphin Kick

The Blood of Wolves (Korô no chi)


Sometimes you can’t tell the cops from the criminals.

(2018) Crime Drama (Toei) Kôji Yakusho, Tôri Matsuzaka, Gorô Ibuki, Yoko Maki, Yôsuke Eguchi, Hajime Inoue, Megumi, Tarô Suruga, Renji Ishibashi, Takuma Otoo, Kyûsaku Shimada, Junko Abe, Marie Machida, Takahiro Kuroishi, Eiji Takigawa, Pierre Taki, Shun Nakayama, Joey Iwanaga, Tomorô Taguchi, Ken’Ichi Takitô, Tomoya Nakamura, Katsuya, Issei Okihara. Directed by Kazuya Shiraishi

In movies there are actual touchstones; Hitchcock for thrillers, Chaplin for comedies, Ford for Westerns and Scorsese for gangster movies. Scorsese himself was influenced in turn by Asian crime dramas which in its own way is somewhat ironic and circular.

Shiraishi says that the 1973-74 five part series Battles Without Honor and Humanity was his main influence for his work but that in turn was influenced by some of Scorsese’s earlier work such as Mean Streets. This film, based on the novel of the same Japanese name, is set in Hiroshima in 1988 at the height of a gang war. The Odani-gumi Yakuza gang have been in control for 14 years; the Machiavellian leader of the Irako-kai gang (Ishibashi) has cut a deal with the volatile leader (Shimada) of the Kakomura-gumi to retake the territory the Irako-kai had lost – and then some.

Trying to stave off what would be another bloody gang war is a cop as rumpled as the packs of cigarettes he smokes incessantly Shogo Ogami (Yakusho) who has just been saddled with a naive straight arrow partner named Shuichi Hioka (Matsuzaka). They are investigating the disappearance of an accountant from a financial institution that is actually a Yakuza money laundering front. As tensions between rival gangs grow, Ogami – who never met a rule he wasn’t willing to break – utilizes informants including his best friend Ginji Takii (Taki) who is a low-level guy for the Odani-gumi to get closer to the rival gangs. Soon Hioka suspects that Ogami is protecting the Ogami as well as himself – there are rumors that the last gang war ended because Ogami, then a uniformed officer, murdered a top man for the Irako-kai. That has been neither forgotten nor forgiven.

In between chasing down sadistic Yakuza and indifferent bureaucrats, Ogami and Hioka hang out in a bar administered by the beautiful but volatile Rikako (Maki) whose past is key to the last gang war and what is leading to the next. Sake will flow and blood will spill – sometimes in buckets – in this brutal, bloody Yakuza film.

Very often during a movie there will be periods where my interest wanes and my attention will wander a little bit. Not so with The Blood of Wolves – there wasn’t a moment that my attention wasn’t focused to the goings-on onscreen. While there is a fairly large cast of characters and many are essentially disposable Yakuza foot soldiers and cops, the main characters are well-developed and especially veteran actor Yakusho deliver some marvelous performances.

As here in America, the gangster film has fallen on hard times in Japan. Once a staple of their film industry, in recent years the Yakuza film has been relegated to the periphery. This particular one is old school and has that epic quality that the best films of such genre greats as Scorsese and Coppola possessed. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some good examples of the genre still being made in the Land of the Rising Sun and this is an example of it. It has already screened at the New York Asian Film Festival this year but as the powerhouse Toei studio is behind it there is a pretty good chance further American audiences will get a chance to see it and this is absolutely worth seeing; it is one of the highlights of the Festival this year.

REASONS TO GO: The comparisons to Scorsese are unavoidable in a good way. The story keeps you riveted to the screen. Yakusho gives a compelling performance.
REASONS TO STAY: Some of the violence may be too much for the squeamish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a ton of brutal violence and some over-the-top gore; there is also plenty of profanity, some nudity, sexual situations and references and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on a novel that is itself a fictionalized version of a  actual gang war that took place in Hiroshima and the neighboring suburb of Kure.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gangster’s Daughter
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Rock in the Red Zone

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)


Oprah Winfrey and Storm Reid try to bring balance to the Force.

(2018) Science Fiction (Disney) Storm Reid, Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Chris Pine, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Peña, André Holland, Rowan Blanchard, Bellamy Young, David Oyelowo (voice), Conrad Roberts, Yvette Cason, Will McCormack, David MacPherson, Akemi Look, Tim Kang, Jessica Rockwell. Directed by Ava DuVernay

 

As a boy I read – eagerly, I might add – Madeleine L’Engle’s classic children’s book A Wrinkle in Time. I was fascinated by the amazing worlds she created and thrilled to the adventures of the intrepid Murry children. It was a favorite of mine but I haven’t read it in almost since I was 11 or 12 and the details have become lost to me.

Ava DuVernay has created a nine figure-budgeted version – much has been made that she’s the first African-American female director to be at the helm for a movie with a budget more than $100 million – which is not all sizzle and no steak precisely; it’s more accurately that the steak has been overwhelmed by the sizzle.

Meg Murry (Reid) is depressed and acting out to a large degree. Her physicist father Alex (Pine) disappeared four years earlier and her principal (Holland) as well as her mother (Raw) are both beginning to gently push her into letting him go and come to the realization that he’s gone for good. Then into their lives – including her precocious adopted brother Charles Wallace (McCabe) who might be more brilliant than her and her father put together – comes Mrs. Whatsit (Witherspoon), a kind of kooky and eccentric woman who tells her that her father is alive in another part of the universe where he had traveled by the sheer force of his mind and he needs her help in returning home.

Through Mrs. Whatsit she meets Mrs. Who (Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Winfrey), equally eccentric and just as powerful. The two Murry kids along with Calvin (Miller) who’s kind of sweet on Meg, accompany the three Missus to rescue Alex. But he’s being held captive by an evil force of energy called The It (having nothing to do with Pennywise the Clown) and it is growing rapidly to the point that if her father can’t be rescued the Universe will be overrun by the It.

The movie is a massive misstep by one of the most talented directors working today. The story gets lost in a turgid script that emphasizes the visuals (which to be fair are incredibly imaginative and a literal joy to behold) over the story. Worse yet, the dialogue is wretched; people in this film don’t talk like real people. At least Mrs. Who has an excuse; she’s programmed (essentially) to talk in affirmations, but everyone else seems to mouth platitudes that after awhile grow wearisome.

Winfrey, Kaling, Raw, Pine and Witherspoon are all fine actors and they do very well here. Reid can sometimes be a bit smarmy but for the most part she is asked to carry the film on her young shoulders and she doesn’t disgrace herself. McCabe however is Hella annoying and he brings to mind poor Jake Lloyd from Star Wars Episode One as a candidate for worst juvenile performance of all time.

The movie failed to find an audience during its theatrical release in March. Some blame it on the fact that the Murry family was interracial, although the African-ness of Black Panther didn’t seem to hurt it any. I’m sure the success of the Marvel film had an impact on the audience for A Wrinkle in Time but I also think poor reviews and bad word-of-mouth doomed it. In all honesty, I don’t think A Wrinkle in Time is a bad film but it’s not a very good one either. It’s kind of bloated and the message of family, hope and tolerance gets completely lost. I have no doubt DuVernay is going to be making important films for decades to come; this one though likely won’t be on her highlight reel years from now.

REASONS TO GO: The visuals are insanely imaginative. Winfrey, Kaling and Witherspoon are perfectly cast.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue torpedoes the film. McCabe’s performance is overbearing most of the film.
FAMILY VALUES: Although suitable for most children, the film contains scenes of peril as well as some themes that may go over the heads of some of the less socially developed kids.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Two more Murry children (twins Sandy and Dennys) who appeared in the novel were cut from the film version.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 40% positive reviews. Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Holy Mountain
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Bright

Wakefield


Bryan Cranston’s glamour shot.

(2016) Drama (IFC) Bryan Cranston, Jennifer Garner, Jason O’Mara, Beverly D’Angelo, Ian Anthony Dale, Monica Lawson, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Ellery Sprayberry, Victoria Bruno, Isaac Leyva, Fredrick Keeve, Bill Timoney, Alexander Zale, Hal Dion, Eliza Coleman, Derek Weston, Angela Taylor-Jones, Tommy Otis, Cameron Simmons, Scott St. Blaze, Carinna Rossignoli. Directed by Robin Swicord

 

Haven’t we all at one time or another wanted to be observers in our own lives, to see how those we are closest to react if we were to disappear from their lives? Frank Capra made in some ways the ultimate version of that fantasy with It’s a Wonderful Life but while the message was uplifting and positive, some suspect that the reality would be much darker.

Howard Wakefield (Cranston) is a successful New York litigator. He has a big house out in the suburbs, a beautiful wife Diane (Garner) and two great kids Emily (Bennett-Warner) and Ellen (Lawson). But that’s just the veneer. Scratch the surface a bit and you come to discover that his marriage to Diane is crumbling. They use jealousy as a means of keeping the home fires burning; she flirts with someone, they argue and then they have great sex – until the great sex part begins to stop. The kids are unenthusiastic about being around him on those few occasions when he’s actually around.

One night he returns home from his commute to find a power outage. At his front door is a raccoon sniffing around the garbage where his wife has thrown out his dinner, tired of waiting for him to come home. He chases the raccoon into the garage where it bounds up to the loft above the garage. He scares it back out again but discovers that a round window above the garage gives him a perfect view of the inside of his house. Fascinated, he plays voyeur for a bit until he falls asleep.

When he wakes up with a start, he sees his wife sending the kids off to school and then toddling off to work as if nothing happened. Incensed, he decides to play out the string a little longer. He raids the house for food and moves into the garage loft. Soon she goes from cavalier to genuinely worried. The police are called.

Weeks go by and Walter begins to experience a kind of liberating freedom. He no longer has any responsibilities, no need to conform to what’s expected of him. When a memorial service is held at the house for the missing Walter, he is bemused that one of the lawyers at his firm is trying to put the moves on Diane. He begins to reminisce about his life with her, how they met – and how he stole her away from his best friend Dirk Morrison (O’Mara) by blatantly lying. All’s fair, right?

But as weeks turn into months and the weather grows cold, he begins to experience something unexpected – loneliness. Being a voyeur has its limits and there’s no doubt that the liberation he’s experienced has lost its luster. To make matters worse, Diane has reconnected with her old flame Dirk who has taken Walter’s place at the Thanksgiving table. Walter realizes that the things he took for granted are the things that made his life worth living but is it too late for him to re-enter his life and live once again?

There is a dark almost Russian feeling to the movie that reminded me of the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. There’s an almost absurd element to the drama – does anybody really think that it wouldn’t be noticed that a wild-eyed bearded man was living in the loft above their garage? – and I found that rather pleasing.

Bryan Cranston has since breaking out in Breaking Bad become one of America’s most reliable actors. Yes, he’s done a few forgettable movies but he’s generally always memorable in them (with a few exceptions). This is all him – much of the movie is Walter’s voice-over narration – and he’s in virtually every frame of the film. It’s quite a burden to shoulder but Cranston carries it like it’s a bag full of Styrofoam. He’s very likely to get nominated for an Oscar this year – probably not for this one but for the much buzzed about Last Flag Flying – and you can see why in this film why he’s a threat every year to make the Oscar shortlist.

Garner and O’Mara are mostly glimpsed from a distance. This is all Walter’s point of view so often we don’t hear what either one is saying. They largely use body language to get across what their character is feeling. I have to award kudos to Swicord for sticking to her guns and to Garner and O’Mara for going along with her plan. It couldn’t be easy for either actor to sign up for a film where they had so little dialogue but both are an integral part of the movie’s story nonetheless.

Howard isn’t a very likable character to say the least. Most of the time in his narration he is full of nasty little asides about various people in his life. Some of his zingers are dang funny but you realize that there is a kind of nastiness to him that he might just get off on demeaning others. One quickly comes to the realization that the problem in Howard’s marriage…is Howard. The man himself takes much longer to come to that conclusion than the audience does.

This is an interesting character study but the movie isn’t really an essential one. With a performance as mesmerizing as Cranston’s is here one has to recommend it on that basis alone but frankly this won’t be one of the more stellar indie films this year in terms of quality. It’s solid though and definitely worth seeing if you can manage it but if you can’t it’s not a great loss either. Still, the central theme of going out of ourselves to get to truly know ourselves is well-handled and there is quality here. Definitely keep an eye out for it and check it out if you can.

REASONS TO GO: This is Cranston’s show and he makes the most of it. There’s a Dostoyevsky-like vibe to the film. It’s an interesting character study.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a little bit on the mean-spirited side. It’s interesting but not essential.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on the E.L. Doctorow short story of the same name that appeared in the January 14, 2008 issue of The New Yorker which was in turn based on the Nathaniel Hawthorne story of the same name published in 1835.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ghost Dad
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Alien: Covenant

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)


Abandon all hope.

Abandon all hope.

(2010) Horror (FilmDistrict) Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson, Garry McDonald, Alan Dale, Julia Blake, Bruce Gleeson, Edwina Richard, Carolyn Shakespeare-Allen, David Tocci, Lance Drisdale, Nicholas Bell, Libby Gott, James Mackay, Emilia Burns, Trudy Hellier, Terry Kenwick, Guillermo del Toro, Dylan Young (voice), Lisa N. Edwards, Kim Ross. Directed by Troy Nixey

Occasionally as children we see a movie that moves us in such a way that it inspires us to take our lives in a direction that might seem unexpected upon the surface. For Mexican horror maestro Guillermo del Toro, that movie was the 1973 TV scarefest Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark in which a troubled young woman moves in a creepy old house and begins to hear voices, see figures scurrying in the shadows and can’t get anyone to believe her that there are creatures living in the house. He was so taken by this movie that he resolved to make these sorts of movies when he grew up. Once he became an in-demand director, remaking the movie that started it all for him became a priority.

Strangely, when the opportunity came to make the movie, he didn’t direct it. Instead, he turned the reigns over to second-time director Nixey. Del Toro also changed the young woman into a little girl and set her and her family loose in a crazy creepy Australian mansion.

Little Sally Hurst (Madison) is shuttled by her somewhat distant mother to live with her father, Alex (Pearce) who is in the midst of renovating a sprawling Rhode Island mansion for a client which would then be sold at an immense profit. Sally is sullen and not at all happy about things, particularly since Alex is completely absorbed by the project which if he can’t pull off would mean financial ruin. It is then his girlfriend Kim (Holmes) who spends the most time with Sally. Sally, who doesn’t like Kim, makes her dissatisfaction known.

Unknown to all three of them, renowned wildlife painter Emerson Blackwood (McDonald) disappeared from the house years earlier. When Sally discovers a hidden ash pit in the basement, she releases a tribe of fairy creatures who turn out to be quite malevolent. They torment Sally and when she tries to explain that the awful things going on to her father, he doesn’t believe her. At first, neither does Kim; in fact, the only person who does is the caretaker, Harris (Thompson) who only wants the three of them to leave.

Eventually the creatures make their hideous plans known to Sally and despite the disbelief of her father, she manages to get Kim to come around. However, can they stand up against a race of creatures that is immeasurably old and have all of time on their side?

Del Toro has a history of putting children in the lead of his horror movies (The Orphanage, Pan’s Labyrinth) and so it’s no surprise that he does so again here. It’s quite natural for adults to disbelieve the wild stories children sometimes tell. However, it then becomes harder to put children in jeopardy, particularly in an American major studio production. Studios are a bit squeamish about that, Jurassic Park notwithstanding. For the most part, we never get a sense that Sally is in any real danger; the creatures, which look like Gollum with anorexia, aren’t really all that scary.

The movie was slapped with an R rating, precisely because the child had the appearance of being endangered but don’t let that fool you; this is definitely more of a PG-13 experience. Pearce and Holmes do a decent job, but they’re not really the focus here; Sally is and while Bailee Madison is a competent child actor, she never really was one that I cared for too much. She’s always seemed a bit insufferable in her performances and Sally certainly is that.

Nixey and del Toro are experts at creating a mood and with the marvelous location and truly creep-worthy sets definitely accomplish the task but again, the lack of feeling of imminent jeopardy kind of wastes all that effort. This is one of those movies that’s all atmosphere and essentially no payoff. It’s surprising because normally del Toro is such a reliable writer. Maybe if he’d made this one independently in Mexico, this might have been a better film. Or maybe if he left the lead character as a troubled young woman instead of a grumpy little girl. This isn’t bad, but it isn’t particularly praiseworthy either.

WHY RENT THIS: Definitely the right location for a haunted house movie. Solid performances by Pearce and Holmes.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Converting Sally to a child was a tactical error. Lacks a sense of dread or jeopardy.
FAMILY VALUES: Horror violence and scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the TV movie that this is based on, Sally was the name of Alex’s wife, not daughter. Here, Alex’s girlfriend is named Kim – and Sally was played by Kim Darby in the original.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gallery of concept art here.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $37.0M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Insidious
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: The Killer