The Fatal Raid


Happiness is a warm gun.

(2019) Crime Action (Well Go USA) Jade Leung, Hidy Yu, Min Chen Lin Andrew Kam Yeung-Wa, Kristy Yeung, Aaron Boggs, Jeana Ho, Michael Tong, Patrick Tam, Sin-Hang Chiu, Elaine Tang, Man-kit Yuan, Jadie Lin. Directed by Jacky Lee

 

The “girls with guns” Hong Kong action film subgenre is pretty much what it sounds like; equal parts action and titillation, sort of like Charlie’s Angels with a bit of an edge and a little more cheesecake. For the most part, that subgenre has fallen by the wayside as the mainland Chinese government, which tends to be a little less lenient towards sexuality in cinema, has essentially become overseers of the thriving Hong Kong moviemaking scene. This movie, directed by veteran Jacky Lee, looks to if not resurrect the subgenre, at least pay tribute to it.

An elite Hong Kong police unit, trying to apprehend a criminal gang in Macau, is ambushed leading to a bloody gunfight that leaves numerous members of the team dead. The police brass, as is often the case, hushed up their own role in botching the raid. Now, 20 years after the event, the surviving participants are haunted by the events of that day. Heading back to Macau for a celebration honoring the heroes of the police force, they are led into an ambush with the same gang. Will history repeat itself, or will justice finally prevail?

The plot here is pretty generic and it isn’t terribly well-developed. Most of the emphasis is on the extended gun battles (there are three of them that take place in the film) and less so on developing the characters. The focus seems to be, strangely enough, on Detective Tam (P. Tam) who despite being the lone male on the team becomes the point of focus here – I imagine the #MeToo movement hasn’t made much headway in China just yet. Tam is a fine actor – don’t get me wrong – but if you’re going to cast someone like Jade Leung, who was one of the mainstays of the genre and a terrific actress in her own right – you should damn well make better use of her. As it is, her presence is so commanding as the police inspector that she still manages to steal the film anyway.

Now, I’m not trying to kid myself – most people are going to see this movie for the action sequences and they aren’t that bad. The problem is, they aren’t that memorable either, which is surprising. I have actually seen the movie that this is a sequel to, and there is far more connection between the films than is usual for sequels in the Chinese movie business, which is also surprising. However, the sequel isn’t going to inspire anyone to run right out and rent the film that preceded it which is a shame, because it’s a much better (and much more fun) movie than this one is. The tone here is grim and a bit of a downer, rather than lighthearted and brain-melting, which is normally what you want out of a Hong Kong action movie. See it for the opportunity to watch Jade Leung at work, but there’s not much other reason to take a chance on this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Jade Leung is a compelling presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: The unmemorable plot really drags in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, some sex and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is a sequel to Special Female Force.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Iron Angels
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Kipchoge: The Last Milestone

Raging Fire (Nou fo)


Shots fired!

(2021) Crime Action (Well Go USA) Donnie Yen, Nicholas Tse, Lan Qin, Angus Yeung, Patrick Tam, Ben Lam, Deep Ng, Kang Yu, Henry Prince Mak, Tak-Bun Wong, Jeana Ho, Ken Lo, Simon Yam, Tony Tsz-Tung Wu, Kwok-Keung Cheung, Jing-hung Kwok, Ray Lui, Chris Collins, Fung Kwok, Singh Hartihan Bitto, Inderjeet Singh, Cheung-Ching Mak, Yee Tong Directed by Benny Chan

 

When Hong Kong was the action movie capitol of the world, Donnie Yen was one of its principal stars and Benny Chan one of its most talented directors. After the handoff from the UK to mainland China, the Hong Kong film industry, which at its peak produced 200 films per year, was absorbed into the Chinese film industry and became subject to pre-approval by Communist film censors. The by-the-seat-of-the-pants take-no-prisoners action that made it beloved by those who had picked up on just how special those films were became a thing of the past.

But this latest film, starring Yen and fellow HK action star Tse, is a throwback to the style before Chinese action movies became indistinguishable from low-budget American ones. An elite team of Hong Kong police officers, led by Cheung Chung-Bong (Yen) who is as incorruptible as it gets, are after a mysterious band of thieves whose ruthlessness and willingness to spill blood have made them a priority. To Cheung’s shock, he discovers that the thieves are ex-cops led by his ex-partner Yau Kong-Ngo (Tse). Ngo had been sent to prison after a riverside interrogation went sideways. Bong had put him there, and essentially their superiors through Ngo under an entire fleet of busses. He emerged from prison with thoughts of deadly revenge and a moral compass that had turned pitch black.

The two are headed for an inevitable confrontation and while getting there, Chan gives us plenty of amazing action sequences, including a car chase that you’ll have to see to believe, and all sorts of fights, mayhem and gun battles. Yen, at 60, still has plenty of action chops left in him (he was recently cast in the upcoming John Wick sequel) and Tse is one of the most charismatic stars in Asia. Having both of them in the same film is a little bit like Christmas in August.
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The plot leaves a lot to be desired; we’ve seen it before, not just in big budget American action movies (think Michael Mann) but also in a plethora of Hong Kong crime movies which have made detailing the line between cops and criminals something of a trademark. Also, for a movie that’s roughly two hours long, there is almost zero character development for everyone other than the two leads, which is a disadvantage the film never really overcomes.

But then another action sequence comes along and all is forgiven (there is an interrogation room sequence in which Ngo and Bong have a quiet moment that is the best non-action moment of the film; the movie could have used more scenes like it). One is reminded that at its peak, the Hong Kong film industry was one of the most innovative and imaginative in the world, at times rivaling Hollywood for clever action sequences. For anyone who remembers those Hong Kong action movies of the 80s and 90s with fondness, this one is going to be right up your alley.

REASONS TO SEE: Hyper-kinetic action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is mighty pedestrian.
FAMILY VALUES: There is much violence, profanity and some gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This would be Chan’s final feature as a director as he passed away from cancer August 23, 2020. He was able to complete shooting and supervise the majority of post-production before his illness prevented any further involvement.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heat
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Don’t Sell Me a Dog

The Macaluso Sisters (Le sorelle Macaluso)


Facing the future together.

(2020) Drama (Charades) Viola Pusatieri, Eleonora De Luca, Simona Malato, Susanna Piraino, Serena Barone, Maria Rosaria Alati, Anita Pomario, Donatella Finocchiario, Ileana Rigano, Alissa Maria Orlando, Laura Giordani, Rosalba Bologna, Bruno Di Chiara. Directed by Emma Dante

 

One of life’s few universal truths is that we all experience both joy and sadness; triumph and loss. Those things mold us, shape us into the people we become; some through the memory of golden moments, other through the bittersweet acrimony of what might have been.

The five Macaluso sisters live in a shabby but spacious top-floor apartment in Palermo, Sicily. They keep doves in what had once been a playroom long ago, doves that they rent out for parties, weddings, magic shows and so on. The doves return back to their nest once they’ve finished with whatever spectacle they’ve been rented to. The sisters have been orphaned but don’t seem terribly traumatized by it.

Maria (De Luca) is the oldest and most responsible; she handles the business and for the most part keeps the lights on and the pantry from being bare. Next is vain Pinuccia (Pomario) who is all about make-up and flirting with boys. Then there’s bookish Lia (Piraino) who squabbles endlessly wth Pinuccia. Plump Katia (Orlando) is next and the youngest is Antonella (Pusatieri), who although five is ready to be a big girl. She begs Pinuccia to dab some lipstick on her mouth, which Pinuccia does in an affecting scene – the first of many.

Once the business is done for the day, Maria gets the girls ready for a day at the beach. Not being very well-off, they mostly walk there, finding a field full of plaster dinosaurs to play in, and once they get to the beach which is fronted by an exclusive club to which they are not invited, they lead the bathers in an impromptu dance. But the day’s joy turns to tragedy.

The rest of the film is all about how the sisters deal with that tragedy, and is told in three acts; the first is the day at the beach, the second takes place about twenty years later as the girls are now adult women, at which an adult Maria (Malato) has some startling news, and an adult Katia (Giordani) tries to convince the stubborn adult Lia (Barone) – in whose name the apartment is – to sell the crumbling apartment so that each of the sisters might get something to help them out financially.

The third and final act is the shortest and takes place when the sisters are elderly women. Throughout the apartment remains, growing shabbier as time passes. The doves also remain, much to Katia’s annoyance. Dante (no relation to the American director Joe Dante) gives the movie a fairly sad, bittersweet tone which only increases as the film goes on. The younger Macaluso sisters get the most screen time as their section is essentially the film’s longest, as they show up in flashbacks throughout the film. The nature of the tragedy which essentially shapes the lives of the sisters is hinted at throughout the movie, but shown in full near the end in perhaps the only misstep of the film; I don’t think it was necessary to show it, to be honest. There is also a scene in the idle of Lia, who is apparently studying to be a veterinarian, dissecting a cow which might set off alarm bells for the squeamish.

Dante uses Erik Satie’s elegiac Gymnopédie No. 1 throughout, mostly sourced as the music for a clock that plays the well-known tune, and then in the piano version most of us are familiar with. The piece is often used in cinema as a metaphor for growing old, and its use here is fitting.

Although most of the action takes place in the apartment, the movie never feels claustrophobic. The first third is incredibly joyful which makes the second and third acts all the more poignant; Dante does a wonderful job using tone throughout the movie. And while the metaphor of the doves may be a bit overdone here, it isn’t so overdone as to become monotonous and quite frankly the relationships between the sisters at various times in their lives was absolutely compelling for me.

The movie, which premiered at Venice last year, is probably not on the radar of a lot of cinephiles since it isn’t getting distribution by one of the more noted arthouse labels, and that’s a shame because this is an absolute gift of a movie. It’s playing in New York and Los Angeles only at the moment, but there are plans to release it in select theaters around the United States throughout August. Hopefully, it will be playing in a theater near you but certainly keep an eye out for it on VOD when it becomes available there if not.

REASONS TO SEE: Intensely, powerfully emotional. A realistic examination of sisterhood.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally melodramatic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, nudity, sexual content, adult themes and an animal dissection.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is based on a stage play, also written by Dante.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/14/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Little Sister
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Suicide Squad

Train to Busan Presents Peninsula


More zombie goodness.

(2020) Action/Horror (Well Go USA) Dong-Won Gang, Jung-hyun Lee, Re Lee, Hae-hyo Kwon, Min-Jae Kim, Gyo-hwan Koo, Do-Yoon Kim, Ye-Won Lee, Daniel Joey Albright, Pierce Conran, Geoffrey Giulliano, Christopher Gordon, Bella Rahim, John D. Michaels, Milan-Devi LaBrey. Directed by Sang-ho Yeon

 

In an age of pandemic, a zombie plague sounds almost passé. Still, if it’s anywhere as good as the first film, Train to Busan was, this should make for some rip-roaring entertainment guaranteed to take our minds off of COVID. Is this what the doctor (or plague virologists) ordered?

After the zombie plague outbreak detailed in the first film has spiraled out of control, Jung Seok (Dong-Won), a Korean soldier, tries to get his sister and her family aboard the last ship leaving the Korean peninsula.to safety in Hong Kong. On the way to the dock, he passes a family begging for help but he puts his survival face on and eaves them behind. He gets his family on board the ship, but the plague breaks out there and claims his sister and nephew.

In Hong Kong, Seok is racked with guilt over not being able to protect his sister, whose husband Chul-Min (Do-Yoon) also blames Seok. They have been marginalized, stateless and penniless, working for a criminal gang who have a job for them – to return to Seoul and pick up a truck full of cash and gold that the gang had abandoned there when the pandemic got out of hand.

It turns out that the zombies aren’t the only dangers in Korea. Chul is captured by a squad of soldiers who had been abandoned on the Peninsula led by the maniacal and quite mad Captain Seo (Gyo-hwan) and his bloodthirsty Sgt. Hwang (Min-Jae) and Chul is made to fight zombies in a kind of Thunderdome meets The Walking Dead gladiator extravaganza. Seok is rescued by Min Jung (Jung-hyun) and her two daughters, part of the family Seok left to die on the way to the harbor. Together they must find the truck and Chul and get out alive – no easy task in the quarantined Korean peninsula.

The claustrophobic feeling of the first film is largely missing, and that’s a shame – it was one of that film’s most powerful elements. While there’s much more of an expansive canvas here – bringing to mind George Miller’s Mad Max movies as well as John Carpenter’s Escape From New York – it lacks the immediacy and character development of the first film and seems to be much more involved with scenes of swarming zombies in full-on attack mode. To be honest, the zombie sequences tend to be the best ones in the movie. It slows down to a crawl in between them, with much being made of Seok’s guilt feelings and Chul’s anger towards Seok.

The director of both Train to Busan movies, Sang-ho Yeon, is best known in the States for his animated features (among others, a Train to Busan prequel Seoul Station. It is unsurprising that the CGI has a cartoon-ish look to them, and there is an awful lot of CGI, particularly in the third act. I can’t speak for Eastern audiences, but to Western eyes the difference is really noticeable and not in a good way. Still, there are enough entertaining elements to keep this movie at a mild recommendation status.

It is one of the few new films currently playing in theaters. It is not currently available for home viewing, although if you want to wait awhile, that is certain to change. Those feeling comfortable enough to venture out into theaters and who live in places where movie theaters have reopened can give it a whirl but be aware that it isn’t playing in every multiplex available. Locally, the film can be seen at the Regal Winter Park Village, the Regal Pointe Orlando, the AMC Disney Springs and Cinemark Universal Citywalk.

REASONS TO SEE: The action sequences remain top-notch. Adds an element of gleeful sadism that is a change from the first.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie drags between action sequences. The CGI is obviously CGI.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of violence and zombie carnage, as well as a heaping helping of gore as well as some scenes of kids in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this is the second live-action film in the Train to Busan franchise, it is actually the third film overall – the animated Seoul Station is also set in the Train to Busan universe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 56’% positive reviews, Metacritic: 50/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: World War Z
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Stand: How One Gesture Shook the World

Guest of Honour


This party is about to be toast.

(2019) Drama (Kino-LorberDavid Thewlis, Luke Wilson, Laysla De Oliveira, Rossif Sutherland, Tennille Read, Tamara Podemski, Gage Munroe, Alexandre Bourgeois, Gage Munro, Arsinée Khanijian, John Bourgeois, Sugith Varughese, Hrant Alianak, Seamus Patterson, Isabelle Franca, Joyce Rivera, Juan Carlos Velis, Alexander Marsh, Sima Fisher, Sochi Fried. Directed by Atom Egoyan

 

Atom Egoyan is well-known among cinematic connoisseurs and hoity-toity critics alike. During the 90s, he turned out several wonderful movies that bespoke a talent for layering dense plots and exploring the inner pain of characters in imaginative ways. Over the past few years, however, his films have lost their sharp edge, and while he’s maintained his reputation, critics continue to view his new films with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.

Like many of his films, his recent movie was spotlighted at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, something he has done so often he might well be known as “Mister TIFF.” Here, we meet Veronica (De Oliveira), a comely high school music teacher, discussing the funeral of her father with a patient priest (Wilson). As she tells Father Greg about her dad, it turns into a therapeutic ride into the past for her.

Her Dad, Jim (Thewlis), wasn’t the easiest man to get to know. “He made a lot of odd choices,” she confesses and so he did. A man who dreamed of owning a restaurant but ending up as a health inspector instead, he combs the restaurants around Hamilton, Ontario, looking for code violations, measuring the temperature of meat, combing the out-of-the-way spaces looking for vermin droppings and spoiled food. He seems to be a nice enough guy, though – he even took care of Veronica’s pet bunny Benjamin while she was in jail (cue vinyl record scratching sound).

It turns out Veronica had been in jail for abusing her authority as a teacher with a minor, despite the fact that she didn’t do the crime – and everyone knew she didn’t do the crime. She insisted, however, that she be jailed for it and serve the most stringent sentence available. Why would she do something like that? What secrets in her pasts and in her father’s compelled her to such a stand?

It all gets explained and as with many Egoyan projects, it takes a number of unexpected twists and turns, involving a high school boyfriend of Veronica’s, a music teacher, a skeezy bus driver, fried rabbit ears (apparently that’s a thing), a dead mom and dreams that didn’t work out the way they planned. This plays a little bit like a whodunit, only we all know who did it. Like all of Egoyan’s work, this film doesn’t lack for things going on.

Sometimes it feels that way, however, with endless montages of Jim investigating restaurants and Veronica conducting band performances. It feels like in trying to tell a complex story, Egoyan got caught up in the minutiae and eventually became lost within it. There are flashbacks a-plenty, and even flashbacks within flashbacks for good measure. At times, it becomes difficult to manage just what time period is being examined, as the story takes place (more or less) over a 15-year period.

The performances are good, with De Oliveira playing the guilt-ravaged Veronica with a kind of resigned world-weariness, Thewlis as rock solid as ever and Alexander Bourgeois channeling a young Leonardo di Caprio as the object of Veronica’s guilt, or, at least, apparently so. Not everything is as it seems, which is usually a good thing.

But sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. In the hour and forty-odd minute run time there’s an awful lot stuffed into the mix, and after awhile the average viewer might feel like their heads are going to explode, but still Egoyan is a good enough director not to let it get completely out of hand. He benefits from some nifty cinematography from Paul Sarossy, although the Philip Glass-influenced score by Mychael Danna is often intrusive.

The movie is currently available in Virtual Cinematic form, benefiting independent theaters across the country. For Florida readers, the theaters that are currently running the virtual screenings include the Enzian Theater in Orlando, the Tampa Theater in Tampa, the MDC Tower Theater in Miami, the Corazon Café in St. Augustine, the Coral Gables Art Cinema in Coral Gables, and the Pensacola Cinema Art in Pensacola. Click on the theater name to go to the Kino Marquee link for that theater; for those readers outside of Florida, click on the Virtual Cinematic Experience link for a list of theaters elsewhere.

REASONS TO SEE: Beautifully autumnal.
REASONS TO AVOID: Gets bogged down in minutiae.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, some sexual situations and a small amount of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Khanijian  who plays the Armenian restaurant co-owner, is married to Egoyan in real life.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 32% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Sweet Hereafter
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Fighting With the Family

Rabid (2019)


She’s got a bit of an overbite.

(2019) Horror (Shout! FactoryLaura Vandervoort, Benjamin Hollingsworth, Ted Atherton, Hanneke Talbot, Stephen Huszar, Mackenzie Gray, Stephen McHattie, Kevin Hanchard, Heidi von Palleske, Joel Labelle, C.M. Punk, Edie Inksetter, Tristan Risk, Sylvia Soska, Jen Soska, Vanessa Jackson, Joe Bostick, Troy James, Greg Bryk, A.J. Mendez, Dion Karas, Amanda Zhou. Directed by Jen and Sylvia Soska

 

The Soska sisters are a pair of Canadian identical twins who have turned into promising horror directors. Their latest, a remake of an early classic by their countryman David Cronenberg, walks a fine line between modernizing a classic and overpraising it.

Rose (Vandervoort) is a mousy wannabe fashion designer who works for the insufferable Euro-trash designer Gunter (Gray) who regularly bullies her. Her BFF Chelsea (Talbot) convinces her to come to the company party that night where hottie photographer Brad (Hollingsworth) flirts with her. When she discovers that Chelsea put him up to it, Rose storms out of the party, gets on her scooter and promptly gets into a horrific accident.

With part of her intestine missing and her face marred by a ghastly mutilation, she is certain her career is over. However, Dr. Burroughs (Atherton) proposes a radical new treatment – stem cell manipulation – that will restore her beauty and repair her injuries. It sounds too good to be true but what does she have to lose?

The treatment goes better than she would dare hope. Dr. Burroughs’ promises are kept and more; when Rose gets back to work, she does so with new-found confidence that impresses Gunter to the point that he invites her to work on his new collection. She’s living the dream now.

But not so much since it turns out there are side effects. You see, Rose has a massive craving for blood and a weird appendage growing out of her armpit. And it turns out that Rose is now carrying a kind of super-rabies that is spreading throughout the city. Living the dream has turned into a living nightmare.

This is a fairly faithful remake of the original which is best-known for being porn star Marilyn Chambers’ first legitimate screen role. There is a smattering of social satire here that is welcome and a few in-jokes; early on, an employee of Gunter’s wonders about his new line “Why are we remaking old trends?” The level of self-awareness in the film is clever and subtle.

Unfortunately, a lot of good ideas here go undeveloped and the Sisters – whose earlier films didn’t shy away from the gore, certainly seem to be a bit tamer here. There are a few gruesome scenes – the injuries to Rose’s face, as depicted above, among them – but for the most part, there is a curious lack of over-the-top gore which might have benefitted the film.

A little judicious editing might have always helped. The movie is 20 minutes longer than the original and feels long; by the time the movie reaches its denouement it feels more like a marathon than a sprint. A good horror film requires brevity. There’s none of that here.

Vandervoort, best known for her time on Smallville, does a fairly decent job although quite frankly when compared with Chambers that’s not a high bar to reach for. She shows some nice horror chops here and although I don’t think that a further career as a scream queen is necessarily in the cards for her but if she chose to go that route I think she could make some real inroads.

I had high hopes for this one given the pedigree of the Soska sisters and the original material so I was mildly disappointed. It’s still worth seeing, particularly if you’re into body manipulation horror, but this is far from essential. Still, I do believe the Soska sisters are on the verge of becoming big players in the horror genre.

REASONS TO SEE: Occasionally delves into social satire which it does with welcome subtlety.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long.
FAMILY VALUES: There is extreme and often horrific violence, disturbing images, drug use, sexuality and nudity not to mention plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Producer Paul Lalonde is best known for his work o the Left Behind film franchise. This is his first non-faith-based film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/21/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews: Metacritic: 41/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: World War Z
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
And Two If By Sea

The House (Huset)


Getting the point a cross.

(2016) Horror (Artsploitation) Frederik von Lüttichau, Mats Reinhardt, Sondre Krogtoft Larsen, Evy Kasseth Rosten, Sigmund Sæverud, Anita Ihler, Ingvild Flikkerud, Heidi Ødegaard Mikkelsen, Espen Edvartsen, Sophie. Directed by Reinert Kill

 

A house represents a lot of things. It is shelter from the elements, a refuge we come to at the end of a working day. It is where our family is; it is where memories are made. Indeed, some houses seem to have memories of their own.

During the Second World War, German officer Jurgen Kreiner (Reinhardt) and enlisted man Andreas Fleiss (von Lüttichau) have captured a Norwegian resistance fighter named Rune (Larsen). During the skirmish, Rune was injured in the leg and a third Nazi, Max (Edvartsen) was killed. Fleiss is all for shooting the Norwegian in the face; the more level-headed Kreiner wants to take him for questioning.

\It is winter in Norway and that season is particularly harsh. Wandering through the countryside, the map they’ve been provided seems wrong. At last, to their relief, they come upon a home in the middle of nowhere, seemingly abandoned. The house is inviting, warm and cozy; there is food and rest here for the cold, weary men. For all that, better they had died in the snow.

\Oh yes, this is a haunted house movie but it is also so much more. There is an art-house feeling of subtext here as the movie tackles guilt and the nature of evil. Fleiss is unapologetic, believing history to be the province of the Nazi party and that his Führer can do no wrong. He despises anything non-Aryan, including the Norwegians whom he constantly disparages. Kreiner is haunted by his time in a concentration camp. He is more intelligent, more worldly and more prone to regret. The house, scene of a 17th century exorcism, has plenty of nightmares to go around.

Kill, who has the perfect name for a horror movie director, knows what he’s doing. Every shot is exquisitely framed and lit. He utilizes old saws like doors opening by themselves and half-seen images out of the corner of the eye to perfection and sound effects cause the men – and the audience – to jump. Yeah, there are a lot of jump scares in this one but they’re done really effectively.

\The movie is more of a slow burn than a quick fire. It requires time to built the atmosphere although most savvy viewers – and a lot of unsavvy ones – will figure out there’s something very wrong in this Norwegian house pretty quickly. Thus, American audiences may end up getting a little bit impatient with this one. While the payoff is a bit ambiguous, the ride is effective enough to reward those who stick with it.

REASONS TO SEE: Makes good use of sound and atmosphere.
REASONS TO AVOID: The pace may be too slow for American audiences.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and horrific images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This marked the first time in 14 years that a Wes Anderson film didn’t feature Jason Schwartzman in the cast (he did co-write the script).
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: One of Kill’s early short films is included.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/29/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Keep
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Pacific Rim: Uprising

The Ritual (2017)


These are the manly rituals of remembrance.

(2017) Horror (eOne/Netflix) Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Robert James-Collier, Sam Troughton, Paul Reid, Matthew Needham, Jacob James Beswick, Maria Erwolter, Hilary Reeves, Peter Liddell, Francesca Mula, Kerri McLean, Gheorghe Mezei, Adriana Macsut, Constantin Liviu Codrea, Zane Jarcu. Directed by David Bruckner

 

There is nothing quite like a hike in the woods to get you connected with the planet and with your friends. There are those who relish it more than others; some prefer more urbanized pursuits. But the one thing that most people agree on – particularly when it comes to horror movies – is that short cuts rarely end well.

Five college buddies are at the pub trying to figure out where they’re going to go on their bro vacation. They are of an age where they’re getting too old for Ibiza and too young (barely) for brunch but Vegas remains an attractive option. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes the group of five and now they are a group of four. In honor of their fallen comrade, the surviving four – whiny Dom (Troughton), guilt-ridden Luke (Spall), Alpha male Hutch (James-Collier) and the “takes the piss” guy Phil (Ali) – head out on a hiking trail in Northern Sweden headed for a lodge which is supposed to be really, really cool.

Along the way, one of them twists his ankle and rather than continue on the trail or head back, the five do the horror film-stupid act of taking a short cut through the woods because we know that a walk through dark and scary woods is a far easier task than following a clear, well-marked and well-maintained trail, right? All in all, with decision making skills like that, they’d have been better off going to Las Vegas. All they’d have lost was money.

They end up lost and stranded in the woods in the balmy Swedish weather (read as “lots of rain and fog”). Soon creepy things start to happen; they find eviscerated animals hanging from trees and strange symbols carved into the wood. They hole up in an abandoned house (which Phil wryly proclaims “This is clearly the house we will all be murdered in”) with a strange straw figure on a kind of altar. No wonder each of them have terrible nightmares that night and at least one of them ends up naked in a supplicating position at the altar.

Unnerved the quartet tries to find their way back to Swedish civilization but what they don’t know is that they are running headlong into the clutches of a rural cult – and the dark thing that the cult fears and worships. Daylight can’t come fast enough.

This British film was snapped up by Netflix and well they should. This is arguably one of the best horror films since The Babadook in my opinion. It has a lost in the woods Blair Witch Project vibe (albeit without the found footage) combined with a Wicker Man cult creepiness. In fact, Bruckner does a great job with the creepy tone which continues to grow more and more unnerving as the film progresses.

The movie does start rather slowly with one scene of shocking brutal violence breaking up the monotony but it turns out to be very okay; this is a slow builder and a fast burner of a movie. By the time the second half of the film rolls around you realize you’re on a roller coaster both emotional and metaphorical as the scares and chills come at you without any let-up.

The monster in the film isn’t revealed until near the very end (mostly you see it as trees swaying and unearthly howls) and it’s certainly worth the wait. It’s not in the film very long in terms of screen time but it casts a giant shadow the whole way and it also has the power to send the characters hallucinations involving their worst fears and greatest guilt. It is particularly effective on Luke who blames himself for what happened to one of their number, not because he’s directly responsible but because he failed to help when his hour of need arose.

The movie is all about guilt and redemption and that may be a bit too cerebral for horror film fans who only care about the visceral (and there’s nothing wrong with either of those types of horror by the way). There is some scenes of gore but we don’t see bodies actually being ripped wide open by the monster which might be the movie’s only real failing.

The Ritual played the Toronto Film Festival in 2017 and has gotten some really good critical notices particularly in its native UK. Here in the States, it is available now on Netflix and worth getting the service for all by itself. This is one of the best Netflix original movies to date for the service and an early entry for the best horror film of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The monster, when finally revealed, is really nifty. The last half of the film is a roller coaster ride. The creepy factor gets higher and higher as the film goes along.
REASONS TO STAY: The film starts off rather slowly.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity, violence (some of it graphic and brutal), some grisly images as well as scenes of terror.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the producers of the film is Andy Serkis although he doesn’t appear in the film as either an actor or a motion capture specialist.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rituals
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Devil’s Gate

Pop Aye


Never get between a man and his elephant.

(2017) Drama (Kino Lorber) Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Bong, Chaiwat Khumdee, Naronng Pongpab, Yukontorn Sukkijja. Directed by Kirsten Tan

Sometimes we get feelings in our lives that threaten to overwhelm us, feelings we just can’t ignore. They become the elephant in the room, that feeling like we don’t fit in any longer or never fit in, that life has somehow managed to pass us by. Sometimes it takes a desperate action to get our lives back in order.

Thana (Warakulnukroh) is an architect who no longer feels at home in the firm he helped put on the map. Once a brilliant, bright shining future, he designed Gardenia Square, a shopping center which is now slated for demolition a mere twenty years after it was built. The son of his former boss now runs things and has replaced most of the architects with younger men who look at Thana as something of a dinosaur whose only use is to provide files.

Things are bad at home as well. His wife Bo (Sirikul) no longer seems attracted to Thana – and to be fair, his attempts at seduction are mostly awkward. Bo lives to shop and while her husband was a well-respected architect, there were plenty of things to buy. These days she knows she’s married to a man widely regarded as a fool and their marriage is a shell that isn’t going to last much longer. She seems shallow when we first meat her but as the movie goes on we see that there are heretofore hidden depths that explain her actions somewhat.

One day in the streets of Bangkok Thana spies an elephant (Bong) who he believes to be the elephant that he once had as a boy in the village of Loei, some 300 miles northeast of Bangkok. Nicknamed Popeye after a favorite cartoon of his as a youth (he trained the elephant to do the “toot toot” at the end of the “I’m Popeye the sailor man” theme), the elephant is mostly a means of making a quick buck for the mahout that owns him. Wanting more for his beloved elephant, Thana buys him on the spot and tries to bring him home but Bo is not having it.

Instead, Thana who has grown tired and disillusioned with city life decides to return to Loei where Thana’s Uncle Peak (Pongpab) will care for the creature. He and Popeye begin a journey from the bustling city of Bangkok into rural Thailand where they will meet a bevy of eccentric characters, including a transgender woman named Jenny (Sukkijja) who Thana treats with some compassion and who eventually gets a chance to return the favor, Dee (Khumdee), a gregarious homeless man living in an abandoned gas station who knows that his days are numbered but only regrets having left the love of his life whom he wishes to connect with one last time and a pair of officious police officers who are trying to move Thana and Popeye to the police station for “violating urban tidiness” even though the cops encounter the two on a road in the middle of nowhere.

All of these encounters serve to help Thana grow into a different man, one at peace with the disappointments of his life. While it may be true, as Thomas Hardy once put it, that you can never go home again, Thana finds out the secret to life; home is where you are at.

Tan was born in Singapore and has lived in a variety of places including Thailand where she worked as a t-shirt vendor on the streets of Bangkok. Now based in New York after attending the Tisch School of Visual Arts, she has made several impressive shorts. This is her feature-length film debut and it is a strong one. The movie has a gentle kind of surrealism to it that makes of unusual situations a kind of normality that makes them more palatable to the viewer. There is a sense of humor throughout but it is a gentle one, more of a chuckle than a guffaw at the ridiculousness of life.

The cast is mainly unprofessional but they do a fair enough job in conveying the various eccentricities of the various characters involved.  Warakulnukroh, a former progressive rock musician, manages to convey the puzzlement of Thana as he moves through a life that has left him behind. I don’t get the sense that he’s trying to adjust very much; he seems to be fairly bothered by the situation but doesn’t seem too motivated to change things until Popeye shows up. Khumdee also has some quiet moments that are compelling in his all-too-brief appearance here.

Most important here is the elephant and he is more expressive than a lot of human actors I’ve seen. I’ve never had the privilege of looking directly into the eyes of an elephant but there is a wisdom and sadness locked in those pachyderm eyes, an emotion that conveys empathy for the plight of Thana and by extension, himself. In many ways, Popeye is our avatar, marching slowly and resolutely towards an end that is pre-ordained but not necessarily without surprise. It is indeed the journey and not the destination since we’re all headed the same way anyway.

The movie is pretty slow-paced and might have benefited from some shorter more concise scenes particularly in the middle third. Keep in mind that an elephant never gets anywhere from anywhere else quickly so your best bet is to sit back and just enjoy the ride and that’s really good advice for watching any movie like Pop Aye. Allow it to wash over you and immerse you in its gently skewed universe. The ending is a little unexpected which is most appreciated, and you never really know what’s around the next bend in the road. All good journeys are like that.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a low-key sense of humor. The elephant is a keeper.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a touch too long and may be too slow-paced for some viewers. Some characters just fade from the movie without explanation.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tan won the screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, becoming the first filmmaker from Singapore to win an award at the prestigious event.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walkabout
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: I Don’t Feel at Home In this World Anymore

Dig Two Graves


Samantha Isler and the tunnel of terror.

(2014) Thriller (Area23a) Ted Levine, Samantha Isler, Danny Goldring, Troy Ruptash, Rachael Drummond, Dean Evans, Bradley Grant Smith, Gabriel Cain, Ryan Kitley, Audrey Francis, Mark Lancaster, Mikush Lieshdedaj, Bert Matias, Gregorio Parker, Ben Schneider, Ann Sonneville, Sauda Namir, Tom Hertenstein, Kara Zediker. Directed by Hunter Adams

 

Guilt when coupled with grief can make a very potent emotional stew. It can drive us to do things we would never ordinarily consider doing, to completely rewrite our moral codes. It takes a very strong will to grapple with these emotions at once and come out on top.

Jake Mather (Isler) however has the disadvantage of being a pre-teen. She and her brother Sean (Schneider) were standing on a cliff above a quarry which is now a lake. He urged her to jump. She didn’t want to. He offered to hold her hand. She said yes but at the last minute let go. Over the side he went and into the water, never to resurface. In fact, his body was never recovered.

She is soon approached by a trio of gypsy moonshiners who have the devil’s own offer for her; she can get her brother back if only she can get someone to take his place. They even have a specific person in mind – Willie Proctor (Cain) who has a huge crush on her. As it turns out their grandfathers have a connection to the gypsies going back to 1947, thirty years earlier. That connection has dark connotations for the two children who weren’t even born when the events took place.

Jake’s grandfather (Levine), the town sheriff, has been holding the guilt of those events in and as he investigates the mysterious gypsies and their designs on Jake, memories come flooding back, unpleasant ones. Keeping Jake alive will be hard enough; keeping her soul pure will be something else entirely.

Although this was filmed in Southern Illinois, there is more of a West Virginia vibe to it from my point of view. The movie seems to take its cues from Southern Gothic authors like Flannery O’Connor and Shirley Jackson. There is palpable menace but nothing so overt or concrete that we can identify exactly what it is. That makes the movie doubly scary. Adams chooses to take things slowly rather than racing towards the finish line; it’s a calculated risk but it serves the overall tone well.

Ted Levine is a fine character actor who is best known as the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs and the beleaguered San Francisco police captain in Monk. He goes subtle here, playing the haunted Sheriff Waterhouse mostly through the eyes and the cheroots he smokes. The sheriff loves his granddaughter fiercely and feels the pain of her grief keenly but he never talks down to her. I never thought I’d say this, but Ted Levine is the kind of grandfather I’d want to have. Most of the rest of the cast is decent although special mention must be given for Samantha Isler, who a couple years after this was filmed made Captain Fantastic. Her performance has depth far beyond that of most young actors.

The one place the movie goes wrong is the final act. It just seems to lose steam and never really regains it. There are some good moments that involve the Sheriff and his predecessor and we finally find out what the connection between the gypsies, Willie Proctor and Jake Mather is but I think a little bit too much is given away during the flashback sequences and as a result it comes as something of an anticlimax. I would have liked a bit more dramatic tension in the ending but at this point the film’s slower pace and languid tone work against it.

The rural setting is inherently creepy and dare I say haunted; thankfully, the horror elements are kept subtle and not too far-fetched. Adams has a very sure hand and the pacing is wonderfully slow. I’m absolutely flabbergasted this sat on the shelf so long but to be honest, this isn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. In these days of short attention spans and easily distracted youth, slow rolling thrillers simply aren’t going to get the audiences that quick cutting big budget CGI-laden franchise films are going to. And that’s okay; but there is an audience for movies like this and hopefully Dig Two Graves will find it.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a wonderful Southern Gothic feel to it.
REASONS TO STAY: It runs out of steam in the final act.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a few disturbing images, some nudity and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the movie is just now getting a limited release, it actually debuted at the 2014 New Orleans Film Festival.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: iTunes
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jessabelle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Spectral