The Green Sea


Simone is serving up a knuckle sandwich.

(2021) Mystery (Reel 2 Reel) Katharine Isabelle, Hazel Doupe, Dermot Ward, Amy-Joyce Hastings, Jenny Dixon, Elena Tully, Zeb Moore, Ciaron Davies, Michael Parle, Eric Branden, Audrey Hamilton, Darren Killeen, Ava Kealy, Conor Marren, Darren Travers, Ed King, Peter Broderick, Graham Ward, Jonathan Caffrey, John Carey, Peter Lynch. Directed by Randal Plunkett

 

There is a tendency among young filmmakers who have a whole lot of ideas rattling around in their heads to try and get them all down on celluloid. The problem with that is it often makes a film feel less focused; generally, keeping things simple and honing in on the story above all things is the best way to go – but not always. Making films is funny that way – there are no hard and fast rules.

If we want to talk about rules, Simone (Isabelle) doesn’t really follow any. An American author living in a somewhat dilapidated mansion in a small Irish village, she was once a heavy metal musician who went by the name Sim Chaos, although her band never really progressed beyond cult status. So, she decided to write a book and it turned out to be a bestseller. Now she is trying to churn out a follow-up, but it has been six long years since her last one and her agent has lost patience with her.

But Simone has a lot going on, none of it good. She lives alone, after her marriage failed and her daughter…well, stick around and see. But she’s by herself, drinking herself into oblivion night after night, struggling to bang out a few pages on her typewriter, then tossing them into the fireplace in disgust. She keeps to herself and when she ventures into the village to get supplies, she is surly and rude, responding to a pleasantry to have a nice day with a pointed “F*ck off.” The only thing she seems to care about – besides her vodka – is her Jeep, which like her home has seen better days.

While returning home one evening after a particularly frustrating day in which she had a mechanical breakdown and was told it would be less expensive to buy a new car than to repair the old one, she runs into a young girl (Doupe) who is incongruously in the middle of the road in the middle of nowhere. Knowing that she has already had too much to drink and could be thrown in jail if she reports the incident, she instead takes the young girl home and feeds her, giving her a place to stay during the night. The girl, whose name Simone doesn’t want to bother to learn and whom she refers to only as “Kid,” starts cleaning up the place. Still, Simone wants her gone and gets hysterical at the thought of the Kid touching her belongings. However, she recognizes that the Kid could be useful, so she allows her to stay in exchange for cleaning up the place.

Things start to look up for Simone; she even dates a hero-worshipping auto mechanic (D. Ward) from town. But there is someone looking for the Kid, a smiling man (Parle) in a bowler hat and dark glasses whose apparent good humor makes him seem all the more sinister, and the Kid seems to bear a striking resemblance to a character Simone is writing about. Who is the Kid, and what does she want with Simone?

The movie starts out with an almost Gothic, brooding air (in an almost Brontë-like sense) but slowly adds elements of horror, thrillers and the supernatural into the mix. Some of these elements work better than others, and one must give first-time feature filmmaker Plunkett (who also wrote the screenplay) full marks for ingenuity, but at times the movie feels a bit lost in terms of its own identity.

But one thing that works really well is the chemistry between the two leads. One of the things I really liked about it is that the two women are constantly changing their dynamic; one moment, it’s almost sisterly; the next, it feels more like mother-daughter (and the roles of mother and daughter often reverse between Simone and the Kid) and at other moments, they’re like besties. Mix in some beautiful cinematography from Philipp Morozov and you have a good strong foundation here.

But still, Simone has her armor up so thoroughly that even the audience can’t really see through it and it takes Plunkett an hour to address the whys of Simone’s behavior, although astute viewers might be able to figure it out before then. The upshot is that it makes Simone a difficult character to relate to and get behind, although once you understand what drives her it becomes much easier. I’m all for filmmakers who make their audience earn understanding, but some viewers might give up on the movie before they really should, and that would be a shame. The payoff isn’t what you expect it to be, and that might be off-putting too, but I tend to prefer movies that err on the side of imagination rather than movies that stick to established formulas. This isn’t always an easy film to love, but it gets under your skin unexpectedly nonetheless.

REASONS TO SEE: Really strong chemistry between Isabelle and Doupe.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little bit out there.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, sexual references and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Isabelle may be familiar to American audiences from her work in the film Ginger Snaps.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/19/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Secret Window
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Moustache


Tenzin engages in a little monk business.

(2020) Mystery (Abramorama) Oxygen Tobgyal Rinpoche, Tsering Tashi Gyalthang, Tulku Kungzang, Tenzin Kunsel, Ngawang Tenzin, Rabindra Singh Baniya. Directed by Khyentse Norbut

The search for enlightenment is an Eastern concept that we sometimes here in the West misinterpret. It is not always navel-gazing and chanting. It can be hard work.

Tenzin (Gyalthang) is a would-be entrepreneur in Kathmandu, Nepal who aim’s to open “Nepal’s best coffee shop.” When he’s not working on his ambitions, he also takes music lessons, somewhat half-heartedly, at the insistence of his mother, who believes him to be talented. In the meantime, he has assembled partners and funds, and is in the process of finding the perfect location. He brings his pal Jachung (Kungzang) to a bucolic location that was an older building badly damaged in an earthquake. Jachung insists that it was once a monastery and sacred to the goddess; trespassing and taking photos is a very bad idea.

And it turns out he was right. After experiencing some bizarre visions of women that only he can see, Tenzin consults a hip monk (Tenzin) – in shades and bright red headphones, no less – who nonchalantly informs him that he’s going to die in seven days. Tenzin is skeptical but as the visions continue, he consults a grumpy, older monk (Rinpoche) who informs him he has to find a dakini, a kind of feminine spirit who can take any form. Getting her alliance can stave off death.

So Tenzin goes on a kind of a journey through Kathmandu, trying to find a dakini and as the visions become more persistent, his skepticism becomes less sure. Can he find the dakini before he shuffles this mortal coil, or will she turn out to be right under his nose – in the person of singer Kunsel (Kunsel) who is part of his music class?

Most of the criticisms I’ve read about the movie complain that it is far different than the press notes and the poster make it out to be. Some were expecting a Jodorowski-like psychedelic freak-out, which I found kind of odd but okay. This is more of a spiritual journey, although not explicitly religious. In other words, this is very much a Buddhist film – full of wisdom, gentle humor and unexpected beauty. Norbu, who has helmed four other features besides this one (all with similar Buddhist themes), certainly knows his stuff both from a spiritual and practical standpoint. Not only is he an accomplished director, he’s also a spiritual leader among Tibetan Buddhists.

He has the advantage of utilizing Wong Kar Wei’s cinematographer Ping Bin Lee, and he makes full use of that advantage. Not only is there beautiful Nepalese locations to gawk at, the film is expertly framed with breathtaking shots – for example, one by a rushing river at dusk, candles floating on the waters, lights winking like fireflies.

Norbu also has a tendency to use nonprofessional actors and he found one in Gyalthang who has incredible screen presence. Although Tenzin has Western tendencies, wearing a suit and tie, working from a laptop, and with a huckster’s cheerful grin, there’s also something quite appealing about him, even if he is the least spiritual guy in the movie. He goes from monk to monk, asking how he might find a dakini, and gets a different answer every time – they can’t even agree on what a dakini IS. I get the sense that Norbu is also poking gentle fun at the foibles of his own philosophy (Buddhism is less a religion than a philosophy).

The pace is slow and languid and enjoying the film, like attaining enlightenment, requires a bit of patience. Still, this is one of the best films of the year that you’ve never heard of, easily equal of any that will have their praises sung at the upcoming Oscars. In a just world, there would be those sorts of accolades for this one too but I expect that Norbu didn’t make this movie for the kudos. Like Tenzin, he made this to point those on their own spiritual journey to the path of wisdom. Who can find fault with that?

REASONS TO SEE: Very understated and gentle. The music has almost a bluesy undertone. Gorgeous cinematography and locations. Strong performance by Gyalthang.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some might find it slow-paced.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Norbu is actually from Bhutan and is a lama, a Buddhist holy man who was proclaimed as a child to be the third incarnation of the founder of Tibet’s Khyentse Buddhist lineage.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/15/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Graduate
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Together Together


					

Hidden Orchard Mysteries: The Case of the Air B and B Robbery


The joys of hanging with your bestie on a summer day.

(2020) Family (VisionJa’ness Tate, Gabriellla Pastore, Catarah Hampshire, Carlos Coleman, Corey J. Grant, Kim Akia, Donovan Williams, Orlando Cortez, Davey Moore, Camilla Elaine, Hunter Bills, Ole Goode, Jaymee Vowell, Kevin Robinson, Vanessa Padla, Candice Richardson, Ja’Juan Burton, Edward Pastore, Audrey Meah, Diane D. Carter, Tim Davidson, Vienna Ash-Simpson. Directed by Brian Shackelford

 

Have you ever been around someone who was consciously trying to sound hip, but the words are awkward and only make you cringe? It’s one thing to have a 17-year-old telling you that they’re woke; it sounds disingenuous when it comes out of a 40-year-old mouth. Sometimes an entire movie can feel that way.

Summer is beckoning and best friends Lulu (Tate) and Gabby (G. Pastore) are looking forward to three months without school. They live in a fairly tony development called Hidden Orchard where people are friendly, but bicker over just about everything, such as a resident’s plan to convert a property into an Air B and B. Then when the house is robbed the neighborhood goes on edge. Lulu and Gabby are determined to solve the mystery that apparently the local police are having issues cracking. The deeper they get into the mystery, however, the greater danger the two intrepid teens realize they are in. Pretty soon solving the case may be the only way they can get out of this with their hides intact.

I have nothing against family movies in general, but oftentimes they seem to be of the opinion that their target audience is unsophisticated and not very bright. I have found that most young people actually have more than a few brain cells rattling around between their ears, and appreciate not having everything spelled out to them. They are perfectly capable of figuring things out for themselves.

Parents and most kids are going to find this cliché and riddled with afternoon special tropes. While Lulu and Gabby get on like a cross between the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew (or to be a little more current, like they should be headlining shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon. Your kids may find that intriguing, although most kids are probably not too interested in a 20-year-old TV show.

While the cast is admirably diverse and in particularly, African-Americans are shown in a light of being hard-working, intelligent and prosperous, the acting feels very stiff and the line delivery sounds forced. Worse still, the music – which is constant to the point that there is almost no moments during the film that don’t have a soundtrack – sounds like the score of a bad TV movie comedy. It’s intrusive and noticeable, which is not a good thing at all.

Parents should be aware that there are an awful lot of damns, hells, and hos. While I think that for the most part it’s no worse than what the average kid hears during the course of their day, some parents may be uncomfortable with it, as well as the drug humor herein. I would recommend that parents consider this when deciding whether this is appropriate viewing for their children.

Nothing here is all that offensive, other than the execution. I get the sense that this could have easily turned into a franchise had this been done right, but I can’t think of a single reason to watch a sequel to this. Definitely one of the worst films I’ve seen so far this year.

REASONS TO SEE: Positive portrayal of people of color.
REASONS TO AVOID: Very cliché and predictable. The acting is forced and uniformly mediocre. The score is intrusive and sounds like it was filched from another older bad movie. Although marketed as a family film, some of the material may not be appropriate for some kids.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some peril and rude humor, as well as mild profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although he has directed several documentary features, this is Shackleford’s debut as a narrative feature director.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Nancy Drew
FINAL RATING: 2/10
NEXT:
Babyteeth

The Vanishing (Keepers)


Taking on all comers.

(2018) Mystery (SabanGerard Butler, Peter Mullan, Connor Swindells, Gary Lewis, Emma King, Ken Drury, Soren Malling, Ólafur Dari Ólafsson, Gary Kane, Roderick Gilkison, John Taylor. Directed by Kristoffer Nyholm

 

On or about December 15, 1900, three lighthouse keepers on the tiny island of Eilean Mor in the Flannan Islands about twenty miles West of the Outer Hebrides Islands in Scotland vanished without a trace. Their fates are unknown even to this day and are the subject of lively conversation locally.

Senior officer Thomas Marshall (Mullan), grizzled veteran James Ducat (Butler) and fresh-faced newcomer Donald MacArthur (Swindells) – known in the log book as “The Occasional” because he isn’t a full-fledged member of the crew yet – are set for a six-week shift watching the Flannan Islands Lighthouse. It is tedious, boring and lonely work but the three men get on pretty well, ribbing the newbie and heading off the cold with copious amounts of Scotch.

Then a rowboat shows up with an apparently dead body and a locked chest. Donald is sent down to investigate, and the dead body turns out to be not-quite-dead-yet. Donald ends up in a fight for his life and triumphs, but is sorely affected by what has transpired. You just know that whatever is in the chest that someone was willing to kill for is certainly going to have other people looking for it, and of course they eventually show up. That leads to further mayhem, guilt, paranoia and inevitable tragedy.

Nyholm does a good job of creating an eerie atmosphere. Certainly there have been paranormal explanations as to what happened to the keepers, but Nyholm and writers Celyn Jones and Joe Bone keep their feet planted firmly on terra firma, but Nyholm is not above making us think there is something otherworldly going on. It is only in the last half of the film that we’re pretty much told “Nope, nothing crazy going on here.”

The performances here are superb, particularly from Butler, who doesn’t get many opportunities to flex his acting muscles in the action movies he primarily makes these days, and Mullan, one of the finest character actors in the UK. The turn of the 20th century is replicated well here, although the lighthouse is equipped with a radio that I’m fairly certain wasn’t in general use for another decade at least.

Despite the title which intimates a spooky horror film, this is a pretty taut thriller with explosions of very personal, in-your-face violence. Well-acted with a nicely tense atmosphere of paranoia and maybe something else, this is an ideal viewing on a cold, windy night – or for that matter, a still summer day.

REASONS TO SEE: Very atmospheric with great period production design. Solid performances all around, particularly from Butler and Mullan.
REASONS TO AVOID: Devolves into a generic thriller towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of violence and grisly images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the lighthouse of Eilean Mor is still operational albeit slightly modernized, four other lighthouses were used in the production of the film due to the remoteness of Eilean Mor.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lighthouse
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
A Dog’s Way Home

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

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

Long Day’s Journey Into Night


The more that things change, the more that they decay.

(2018) Mystery (Kino-Lorber) Wei Tang, Jue Huang, Sylvia Chang, Hong-Chi Lee, Yongzhong Chen, Feiyang Luo, Meihuaizi Zeng, Chun-hao Tuan, Yanmin Bi, Lixun Xie, Xi Qi, Ming Dow, Zezhi Long, Jian Jun Ding, Kailong Jiang, Kai Liang, Chuanren Lin, Xizhen Liu, Tongfu Long, Zhonglan Luo, Zhengfu Meng, Hongyue Pan. Directed by Gan Bi

 

Funny thing about dreams; they’re often more real to us than what we perceive as reality. Dreams reveal our true selves – the good, the bad and the ugly. Dreams can be beautiful, but dreams reveal the lives we wish we had led.

Luo Hongwu (Huang) is returning to the Southwestern China town of Kaili which he had lived in much earlier days of his life. He has returned there after the death of his father, the ne’er-do-well gambler nicknamed Wildcat (Lee). Luo finds a photo of a woman (Tang) hidden in a broken clock and vaguely remembers a relationship with someone who looked like her – and her name might have been Wan Qiwen. He goes in search of the woman.

Along the way he interacts with a rogue’s gallery of oddball characters from a crusty hairdresser (Chang), a precocious 12-year-old boy who lives in an abandoned mine, and assorted pimps, thieves, hookers, thugs and cops. Luo finds himself in a movie theater and sits back to watch the movie in 3D, putting on his 3D glasses. That’s when dreams become reality, and vice versa.

If you think I’m being deliberately vague about the plot, you’re not wrong. The thing is that this is something of a stream-of-consciousness film which has a kind of dream logic to it in which the laws of physics might just be suggestions. Director Gan Bi hit the critical radar in 2015 with his debut feature Kaili Blues which contained a single 40-minute tracking shot. He outdoes himself here with one that lasts close to an hour – in 3D yet – that takes up the entire second half of the film. It is a magnificent technical achievement but in the immortal words of Ian Malcolm (as spoken by the equally immortal Jeff Goldblum) he was so busy figuring out if he could he didn’t stop to think whether he should.

Bi is a visual wizard and the shots are so thoughtfully framed, so beautifully lit and the production design so exquisite that you realize that he’s heavily influenced by the great Chinese director Kar-Wei Wong. It’s a beautiful movie to watch and if you’re tempted to avoid reading the subtitles altogether and just let yourself float among the images, I wouldn’t blame you. In fact, I think that’s a good way to approach this movie because the dialogue is absolutely superfluous.

Movies in many respects are dreams given form and I don’t know about you but some of my dreams would make shitty movies. This is a long (nearly two and a half hours), slowly paced and often confusing film that, like a dog trying to settle down in its bed for a nap often turns round and round on itself before settling down, only to get up again and do the same thing all over again. In that respect this isn’t a movie for everybody except the most esoteric and avant garde of filmgoers. Mainstream audiences aren’t going to like this very much.

There is a very Noir tone to the film which is welcome; it is set in a city where the rainfall is constant, like Seattle on steroids. As a result, there is a sense of decay and entropy to the surroundings where water is wont to break through walls and create nifty little waterfalls. Most of the characters smoke like chimneys and not just because everyone in China seems to be a chain-smoker but because smoke and water go together as motifs. Incidentally, despite the title there is no connection here that I could see with the classic Eugene O’Neill play.

This should be approached as fine art; very subject to interpretation. The story isn’t the important thing which is something that will have most mainstream moviegoers headed for the exits. What matters here is the tone, the vision, the feeling and the thoughts provoked, but don’t say we didn’t war you about the whole art thing.

For readers in Miami the movie is currently playing this week at the Cinematheque before taking up residence at the AMC Sunset Place. Keep an eye for the visual cues as to when to put on your 3D glasses; there’s a brief graphic informing the audience to put on their glasses when you see the main character put on his.

REASONS TO SEE: The shot composition is outstanding. There is a definite Noir feel to the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a bit of a slog, figuratively and literally.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sensuality and a crazy amount of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chinese moviegoers felt misled by the marketing campaign which billed the film as a Noir mystery and less as an art house experience leading to a good deal of Internet backlash.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into the Void
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Postal (2019)

Out of Blue


Questions in a world of blue.

(2018) Mystery (IFC) Patricia Clarkson, James Caan, Jacki Weaver, Mamie Gummer, Toby Jones, Aaron Tveit, Jonathan Majors, Gary Grubbs, Alysha Ochse, Yolonda Ross, Thomas Francis Murphy, Tenea Intriago, Lucy Faust, Brad Mann, Lawrence Turner, Carol Sutton, Brenda Currin, Deneen Tyler, Devyn A. Tyler, Elizabeth Elkins, Garrett Kruithof, Elizabeth Pan. Directed by Carol Morley

 

As this film begins, we see the quote “We are not in the universe. Rather, the universe is in us.” When you consider that the make-up of our bodies is essentially created from the same elements that stars emit, that’s not far from the literal truth.

Detective Mike Hoolihan (Clarkson), a recovering alcoholic lesbian whose one of the better practitioners of detection, is called to an observatory to a homicide. Pretty astrophysicist Jennifer Rockwell (Gummer), the daughter of a prominent New Orleans family, has been shot dead. She can’t help but notice that the modus operandi of the killer is eerily similar to a slate of unsolved murders from decades earlier known as the .38 Caliber Killings. She also can’t help but notice a vintage shoe, a discarded sock and an open jar of a face cream popular decades earlier.

She has no shortage of suspects. Jennifer’s colleague Professor Ian Strammi (Jones) is a bundle of nerves and shows signs of having been in a struggle. Jennifer’s boyfriend (and also a colleague) Duncan J. Reynolds (Majors) is also behaving a bit oddly. Then there’s her grieving father, Colonel Tom Rockwell (Caan), a Vietnam War hero, local politician and electronics company proprietor who seems a bit tightly wound. Only Jennifer’s mother Miriam (Weaver) seems remotely grief-stricken and even she is showing signs of dementia.

Hoolihan is dogged in her pursuit of the truth but the case haunts her in unexpected ways. Jennifer, a vocal proponent of the “we are stardust” school of thought, is an expert on black holes and posits that we all exist because a star died somewhere billions of years ago. Jennifer’s own sense of wonder and relentless pursuit of her own scientific truth touches Hoolihan, perhaps reminds her of herself as she navigates the twists and turns of the case.

Based on a Martin Amis novel, the film has more than a little noir element to it. There is very much a literary feel to the movie; some of the dialogue is probably a better read than it sounds spoken aloud. That’s a shame because the cast which has some pretty impressive names in it is essentially left to trying to say some of these lines with a straight face and not always succeeding, as when Weaver’s character chides Hoolihan “Have you thought about dressing like a woman, dear?” There are plenty of references to the scientific quandary Schrodinger’s cat which makes the film esoteric to the point of either pretentiousness or brilliance – I’ll leave it to you to decide which.

The soundtrack is also reasonably impressive although it leans a bit too much on Brenda Lee’s version of I’ll Be Seeing You.” Clint Mansell’s atmospheric score is also a definite plus. What isn’t a plus is the overuse of incidental imagery used as linking devices between scenes. It makes the movie feel a bit too busy, a bit too pretentious (there’s that word again).

All in all, the movie comes off as a particularly uninspiring episode of C.S.I. Despite the best efforts of Clarkson and cast, the movie feels somewhat tired and somewhat lost. While I don’t mind the concept of the film and I like Amis as an author very much, the movie doesn’t do Amis’ source novel (Night Train) much justice which is pretty much par for the course for adaptions of his work.

REASONS TO SEE: Clarkson and Weaver deliver fine performances. The soundtrack is impressive.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is stretched out too much. There are far too many unnecessary incidental shots; the filmmakers don’t overburden themselves with self-restraint.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film originally had its world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 44% positive reviews: Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dark Matter
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tigerland

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

London Fields


There is nothing like a dame – take it from me!

(2018) Mystery (Paladin/Atlas) Billy Bob Thornton, Amber Heard, Theo James, Jim Sturgess, Cara Delevingne, Gemma Chan, Jamie Alexander, Jason Isaacs, Lily Cole, Henry Garrett, Jennifer Missoni, Alexandra Evans, Michael Shaeffer, Belle Williams, Emily Kincaid, Triana Terry, Hon Ping Tang, Chris Wilson, Chris Ryman, Rita McDonald Damper. Directed by Matthew Cullen

 

For my money, Martin Amis is one of the most gifted and interesting novelists in the world today. He has a way with words and imagery that few authors can match. He has a very cinematic style but oddly, the movies made based on his works have not exactly lit the world on fire.

This one won’t either. Nicola Six (Heard) is a woman with the kind of gift that you just wish you could take back; she knows when she’s going to die. She knows how she’s going to die (she’ll be murdered). She even knows where she’s going to die (in a London alleyway inside a car). She just doesn’t know who. Terminally ill writer Samson Young (Thornton) has done a home exchange with bestselling author Mark Asprey (Isaacs) who wants to get the flavor of Hell’s Kitchen from Samson’s grungy apartment. In the meantime Samson is hoping that his years-long writer’s block can be broken by a change of scenery and when he hears Nicola’s story, he knows he’s the man to write it.

Nicola has narrowed the “who” part of the equation to two men who both have romantic inclinations towards her; the coarse and amoral South End darts champion Keith Talent (Sturgess) who sees Nicola as a trollop and a sex toy that is his rightful due, and Guy Clinch (James), a posh and married industrialist who has money and the world’s most nightmarish kid. One of them is going to kill Nicola. Who will it be? And will they do it in time for Samson to get the whole thing down on paper before he cashes in himself?

The movie has all the elements of a great Amis novel – the whiz-bang satire, the noir overtones, the almost cartoonish characters with outlandish names – but it doesn’t have the energy nor does it have the inspiration. First-time feature director Cullen (known for having done Katy Perry videos, among others) inserts bizarre juxtaposing images throughout the movie which rather than enhance the flow of the story or set the viewer to thinking simply just takes them out of the movie and irritates them. I can’t tell you how many times I started reaching for the “off” switch before deciding to give the movie a second chance. To be fair to Cullen however it is likely that most of those images were inserted by the producers after the fact and against his wishes. Either way, they are deal killers.

That’s a shame because I was excited that this kind of cast (which includes Johnny Depp in an uncredited role as a gangster and rival darts champion for Gary) would be working on an adaptation of an Amis novel. While Thornton is always an interesting performer, the others either feel zombie-like (Heard) or over-the-top to the point where it approaches self-parody (Sturgess). The narration, which is meant to give the film a noir-like tone clashes with the British gangster movie that Cullen appears to be attempting to make. I think that the director had an idea in mind but I’m just not sure he executed it very well.

This was filmed more than three years ago and has been beset by legal issues and an ability to secure distribution until recently. There are some things worth checking out but really the only thing one could hope for from this disappointment of a movie is that it might motivate those inclined to be readers to maybe pick up the source material by Amis and give it a read. That would be a far more fulfilling use of their time.

REASONS TO GO: Billy Bob Thornton is a national treasure.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a whole lot of unnecessary surrealism.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity, a little violence and drug use, and a whole lot of profanity and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director sued the producers and the production company after alterations were made to the film that he hadn’t authorized.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 26/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trouble is My Business
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Don’t Go