The Scythian Lamb (Hitsuji no ki)


….but the seafood is GREAT!!!

(2017) Drama (Asmik Ace) Ryo Nishikido, Fumino Kimura, Ryuhei Matsuda, Kazuki Kitamura, Yuka, Mikako Ichikawa, Shingo Mizusawa, Min Tanaka, Yuji Nakamura, Tamae Ando, Yoshihiko Hosoda, Toshiyuki Kitami, Miyako Yamaguchi, Shinsuke Suzuki, Sansho Shinsui, Yota Kawase, Masatoshi Kihara, Tsuyoshi Nakano, Daihi, Noa Miyake. Directed by Daihachi Yoshida

The rehabilitation of criminals can be a tricky thing. After all, there are all sorts of criminals; those who commit crimes by being in the wrong place at the wrong time; those who have a compulsion; those who fall in to the wrong crowd and some who just plain like being bad.

Like many other rural towns in Japan, Uobuka is having difficulties maintaining their population as many Japanese citizens are emigrating from the countryside to the big cities. The mayor of Uobuka has struck a deal with the Japanese prison system which is dealing with overcrowding to house six criminals who are considered low-risk; they are to be paroled early and send to Uobuka to live provided they stay there at least ten years.

A minor civic functionary, the handsome and somewhat enthusiastic nebbish Hajime Tsukisue (Nishikido) is assigned to get all six of the new residents settled. He greets all of them enthusiastically, remarking that Uobuka is a nice place…with nice people…and great seafood.

The first arrival, Hiroki Fukimoto (Mizusawa) seems rather nervous and when treated to dinner, eats like he had been lost in the wilderness without food or water for days. He is given a job at the local barber shop. My first instinct upon seeing him was “who in their right mind would trust this guy with scissors?”

Next comes the beautiful and sexy Reiko Ota (Yuka) who gets work at the local senior center. Hajime likes her just fine…until she strikes up a romance with his own dad! Shigeru Ono (Tanaka) is ex-Yakuza and wants to stay that way, reacting violently to a recruiting visit by his ex-colleagues.

Kiyomi Kurimoto (Ichikawa) seems rather tightly wound; she has an affinity for cleaning…and burying things in the garden. Katsushi Sugiyama (Kitamura) looks to be the bad boy of the bunch; he is unrepentant and with his shark-like grin gets bored almost the instant he gets into town and starts looking for trouble.

The one exception to the bunch seems to be Ichiro Miyakoshi (Matsuda) who comes off as gentle and friendly. After being placed in a delivery courier position (in a distinctive blue and yellow van no less), he and Hajime become friends which isn’t a bad thing; after all, Hajime has a bit of a double life, going from respectable city functionary to being part of a garage rock band on weekends. When Ichiro shows up wanting to learn how to play guitar, Hajime is fine with it. When he starts hitting on Aya (Kimura) who was the high school crush of Hajime (and lead guitarist in his band), things get a little awkward.

They get even more awkward when Hajime discovers that all six were convicted of murder and when someone shows up murdered…well, the fish guts are about to hit the fan, particularly when another functionary finds out their secret and enlists them all to participate in the Nororo festival, a tribute to an ancient sea creature who once terrorized the town, leading to a tradition of two people being thrown off the cliffs into the sea; Nororo would take one, leaving the other to survive.

Yoshida has rafted a wonderfully off-kilter movie that although ostensibly a drama has elements of noir, black comedy and slice-of-life coming of age film all woven in. The Uobuka looks like a pretty nice place to live which although the running joke of Hajime’s exhortations about the quality of life may get old they are nonetheless dead on which is part of the joke.

The performances here are really rather good. Each of the various parolees has a distinct personality and they each get their own moments to shine. Nishikido, known more for his music career than his acting, shows that he has the chops to make it in the movies on both sides of the Pacific. He doesn’t do a lot of singing even in the garage band sequences but he has plenty of presence nonetheless. Oddly, most of the score is less pop or rock oriented but is a kind of discordant minimalism that actually works better in getting across the “something is not quite right” vibe that this film brings to life wonderfully.

While the New York Asian Film Festival screening has already come and gone, this is a good bet to pick up some sort of American distribution. Sure it’s a bit strange but not so much that American audiences won’t connect with it. Hopefully those of you not in the New York area will get a chance to see it sooner rather than later.

REASONS TO GO: The humor is pitch black and the tone just off-kilter enough to be fascinating. Life in Uobuka looks pretty nice to me.
REASONS TO STAY: The score is minimalist and discordant.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality, some mild profanity and a disturbing scene of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nishikido is a major pop star in Japan.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The World According to Garp
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Whitney

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The Babadook


Not your average bedtime story.

Not your average bedtime story.

(2014) Horror (IFC Midnight) Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Daniel Henshall, Tim Purcell, Hayley McElhinney, Cathy Adamek, Benjamin Winspear, Barbara West, Craig Behenna, Carmel Johnson, Terence Crawford, Chloe Hurn, Jacqy Phillips, Bridget Walters, Tony Mack, Tiffany Lyndall-Knight, Peta Shannon. Directed by Jennifer Kent

I like Australians. They are such a genial people, laid-back and with a quick smile and a terrific sense of humor. I love hanging out with them. They drink like fish, love to eat and are the sort of friends that are loyal forever or until you piss ’em off, whichever comes first. Based on what great folks they are, I wouldn’t think of them as makers of great horror movies. Comedies, yes. But horror movies?

Yes. One of the most talked-about horror movies of the year comes from Down Under, and has quietly been sweeping through the Festival circuit bringing audience and critical raves. Now it’s out and about on limited release, not to mention on VOD.

Amelia (Davis) has that look. The kind where you know she’s hanging on by the skin of her teeth. Sure, she can be all smiles and helpful and generous at the nursing home where she works as a nurse (appropriately enough) but when you look closely at her, you can see that smile is frozen in place with duct tape and Elmer’s glue. The look in her eyes tells it all.

You see, Amelia’s life hasn’t turned out the way she planned. She was happily married, expecting their first child. In fact, she was on the way to the hospital to give birth but there was an accident – her husband died. Both she and the child lived. Now a rambunctious seven-year-old, Samuel (Wiseman) isn’t an easy child to raise by any standard. One moment affectionate and loving, the next screaming at the top of his lungs and being violent, Amelia’s sister Claire (McElhinney) no longer wants Samuel around especially after he pushed her out of a treehouse, breaking her nose. Of course, the other side of that is that the bitch told him that his dad wasn’t around because he didn’t want him. Ouch.

Samuel also sees monsters. Nasty, nightmare-inducing ones that terrorize him so much he sleeps in her bed nearly every night and wakes her up in the process. He builds home made weapons to smash the monsters, vowing to protect his mum and begging her to protect him. Just you and me against the world, kid.

She’s beginning to wonder if her kid needs therapy until a pop-up book shows up mysteriously. She didn’t buy it for him and he doesn’t remember where it came from but the book is vaguely menacing, outright creepy and informs them that you can’t get rid of the Babadook and that essentially it’s coming to kill them.

At first she thinks it’s just a prank, albeit one in poor taste but as unexplainable things begin to plague them, she begins to wonder if Samuel has been telling her the truth all this time. But is this monster truly real, or a figment of her imagination – a sign of her own madness? She has to figure it out fast because it’s already getting to be just shy of too late.

One of the things I adore about this movie is that they don’t make things clear-cut until near the end and even then there’s some ambiguity. Amelia literally unravels as we watch and pretty soon you wonder if there is really a monster or if the monster has been Amelia all along. There are signs pointing to the latter. She has problems connecting with her own son, blaming him for the death of her husband and she feels tremendous guilt because of it. She never once during the movie (although I think she might have at the very end) says “I love you” to her son. His issues are at least obvious and easy to read; hers less so but if you know where to look, she’s as deeply wounded as her son is.

Wiseman does a pretty credible job in a difficult role for any child actor. His outbursts seem genuine and when he shrieks at the top of his lungs, any parent with an ADHD kid will wince in sympathy. We’ve all been there when our child loses it, no? He has to play every gamut of the emotional range of kids and while at times he has that wooden quality that most child actors has, he acquits himself very well.

There are other decent performances in smaller roles, including veteran Aussie actor Henshall as a workplace romance for Amelia and West as Amelia’s next door neighbor who is, I think, her mother-in-law. At the very least she’s a concerned friend.

The Babadook itself, played by Tim Purcell, mostly sticks to the shadows and the audience rarely gets a good look at it. Its silhouette, seen on the movie’s poster, is menacing and chilling to say the least and this is one of the most well-realized movie monsters of the past decade.

This is the stuff of nightmares by cracky and while it doesn’t have the gore that some horror fans seem to require, it does have the right nightmarish atmosphere and the terror in the mundane that Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg used to such great effect in Poltergeist. While the low budget horror of The Babadook might not hold up to the big budget terrors in that film, it nonetheless holds its own and will be swimming around your brain months after you see it for the first time. This has all the earmarks of a cult classic and you’ll want to get in on the ground floor for it.

REASONS TO GO: Hits all the right notes. Fine performance from Davis. Keeps audience guessing. Some truly scary moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Watching a kid act out can be unpleasant. Dog lovers may want to skip this one.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language, plenty of scenes of terror and suspense, some violence and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: “Babadook” is an anagram of “A bad book.”
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/19/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 87/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Red Riding Hood
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Graduate

TiMER


TiMER

Emma Caulfield ponders her romantic future.

(Tribeca Film) Emma Caulfield, Michelle Borth, John Patrick Amedori, Desmond Harrington, JoBeth Williams, Bianca Brockl, Eric Jungmann, Scott Holroyd, Mark Harelik, Nicki Norris, Kali Rocha, Celene Lee, John Ingle, Cristina Cimellaro, Muse Watson. Directed by Jac Schaeffer

Finding love is a tricky thing, particularly true love. There are certainly no guarantees any relationship will work once entered into. What if you could find a way to find out without a shadow of a doubt the person you are MEANT to be with, guaranteed?

A new technological breakthrough has allowed a tech company to develop an implant that measures a certain hormone that….well it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that this implant counts down to the day that you will meet the person you’re supposed to be with, your One and only. If that person also has a TiMER (which is what these implants are called) also, that is. If they don’t, your TiMER doesn’t display a time.

Oona (Caulfield) is an orthodontist who is, to say the least, a bit uptight. Her TiMER is blank and she’s almost psychotic about finding her One. Her mother (Williams) and father (Watson) had split up years before and her mother had remarried using the TiMER and is an absolute zealot regarding the device. Oona’s stepsister Steph (Borth) shares Oona’s birthday but is far more cynical about things. Her own TiMER reads that she is going to meet her One when she’s in her 40s and she’s filling her time until then with meaningless sexual encounters, an attitude she’s trying to convert Oona to.

In the meantime, Oona meets Mikey (Amedori), a bag boy at the grocery store. He is likable enough and the two of them hit it off but Mikey’s TiMER indicates that he will meet his One in about four months. Oh well.

As Oona becomes more and more drawn to Mikey, she begins to question her long-held belief that the device is truly the route to true love. Will she take a chance on the possibility, or wait for the sure thing that the TiMER provides?

The TiMER is a charming conceit and writer/director Schaeffer wisely keeps the tone sweet and light. Caulfield is an engaging enough actress (as those who remember her in her days as Anya on Buffy the Vampire Slayer will attest) and while her character is a bit too neurotic at times for my tastes, it’s still easy to get engaged.

Some of the performances, particularly in the smaller roles, are a bit flat, like the actors aren’t really invested in their roles. And the McGuffin of the TiMER itself seems a bit too far-fetched for me; I can see the appeal of a device like that but the human heart is so complex that it can’t be measured, quantified or digitized; therein lies the heart of the problem for this movie. If you can’t believe in the TiMER, it becomes hard to believe in the movie.

Still, there is enough charm and enough sweetness to make this movie heartwarming. I can recommend it for those who think romance can’t be predicted in any online test, no matter how thorough, because that seems to be the gist of the film. In that sense, I’m on board with the concept. Nonetheless, for those who are dissatisfied with the formulaic romantic comedies that seem to be the only sort of rom-com that Hollywood is capable of churning out these days, this will be a breath of fresh air for you.

A quick note: this film is part of the Tribeca Film Festival’s novel and innovative Tribeca Film Festival Home series, in which 12 of the movies screening during the festival are being made available on the On Demand video on demand series. Most of them are being released by the new distribution arm of the Festival, Tribeca Film and include some pretty seriously interesting films. We saw TiMER this way and it only cost us $5.99, although rates may vary depending on your cable/satellite service. In any case, it gives people who can’t make it to New York a chance to participate in the Festival. It’s a great idea and hopefully some of you will take advantage of it.

REASONS TO GO: A charming and sweet movie that gives some insight into the foibles of love and relationship-building.

REASONS TO STAY: A little bit implausible with its McGuffin and some of the supporting performances were a bit flat. A little neurotic goes a long way and there’s a lot more than a little here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of bad language and a couple of scenes of sexuality, some of it explicit.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is writer/director Schaeffer’s first full-length feature.

HOME OR THEATER: A nice intimate romance perfectly suitable for a date night in front of the TV.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: A Prophet

The Stone Angel


The Stone Angel

Ellen Burstyn is still a powerful actress, even in her sunset years.

(Vivendi) Ellen Burstyn, Ellen Page, Cole Hauser, Wings Hauser, Dylan Baker, Christine Horne, Kevin Zegers, Sheila McCarthy, Devon Bostick. Directed by Kari Skogland

Regret is a powerful thing. It can color your perceptions and order your actions. The longer you hold onto it, the stronger it can get until it completely takes you over.

Hagar Shipley (Burstyn) thinks she’s going for a Sunday drive with her son Marvin (Baker) and his wife Doris (McCarthy). However, it turns out that they are taking her to a nursing facility “just to see,” as Doris puts it. Hagar has been living with Marvin for some time and her needs and ailments are becoming too much for them to handle.

Hagar’s suspicions about the place are not allayed by the petunias at the entrance, nor the sight of senior citizens playing canasta like the living dead. She realizes deep down that sooner or later she’s going to end up if not in that specific home, in one a lot like it. Impulsively, she decides to steal away on one last adventure and winds up in a broken down old beach house, there to reminisce about the events of her life.

The daughter (Horne, playing Hagar as a young woman) of a prosperous Manitoba merchant, she marries Bram Shipley (Cole Hauser), a farmer her father deems beneath their station. He expresses his disapproval by leaving her out of his will, instead leaving all his riches to the city to build a park named after him. She responds by snippishly trampling the petunias planted there.

However, she has inherited more of her father’s attitudes than you might think, and she tends to rub Bram’s face in her family’s superior breeding, which leads to marital difficulties which in turn leads to Bram’s drinking problem. She tries to instill her attitudes into her sons John (Zegers) and Marvin (Bostick) with varying degrees of success. John (her favorite) breaks her heart by falling in love with a wild girl (Page) and marrying her against Hagar’s wishes. Hagar’s fiercely independent nature will carry her through, but it will also cause her a lion’s share of heartache before her time is through.

This is based on a novel by Canadian writer Margaret Laurence and has been a staple of Canadian high schools for the past 40 years. It is set on the sprawling prairies of the beautiful province of Manitoba, and that’s exactly where they filmed it. There are those who wonder how a seemingly empty vista of endless prairie can inspire such devotion and love in the people who live there, but those who see this movie will get a good chance to see precisely why that is.

I will admit to having a great fondness for Manitoba. My mom is from there and I have many relatives and friends who live there and whom I look forward to seeing every time I venture up there, but that isn’t all of it. There is something about the windswept prairies, the city of Winnipeg  and the small towns on the outskirts, the great farms of wheat, sunflowers and other crops, the grain elevators and silos rising like silent sentinels…it just speaks to me, perhaps from a deep genetic place. You should know about that affection before reading the rest of this; my review is certainly colored by it.

One of the movie’s bigger successes is in the casting. Burstyn takes on the role of the feisty Hagar with a certain amount of panache. She’s a consummate actress, an Oscar winner who knows when to go over the top and when to reel it in. She brings Hagar to life as a Canadian icon, a woman who chafes at the strictures of her role in her time and ultimately becomes her own woman, defying the stereotypes of the era.

Horne is almost the spitting image of Burstyn, and on top of that she can act, too. She makes the young Hagar shine almost as brightly as Burstyn’s older Hagar. The two performances mesh nicely, as does the father and son acting team of Wings and Cole Hauser, playing the older and younger Bram respectively.

However, while the movie was written in the early 60s, more contemporary novels by authors like Nicholas Sparks that share a similar storytelling style especially regarding the conceit of an older woman telling the story of her life as a young, spirited girl. Some may find this movie suffering in comparison to movies like The Notebook.

Even so, there is a lot to recommend this movie. I’m not as familiar with the source material that is the novel, but I’m told it is a sprawling, magnificent work, along the lines of Giant and Gone with the Wind. For my money, any movie that tells a compelling story, particularly when it is set in a land that I love as much as Manitoba and its people, is worth recommending.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully photographed and well acted. The casting director not only got some top-notch talent for this film, he managed to get people who resemble each other to play the lead roles at different times of their lives.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie suffers from Nicholas Sparks-itis; although the novel it is based on pre-dates Sparks, the presence of movies like The Notebook and Prince of Tides makes this one seem cliché.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief sexuality and a bit of rough language but otherwise suitable for any audience.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While looking over the call sheet, Burstyn discovered a long-lost relative who was working on the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: August

How About You


How About You

Hayley Atwell ponders how to hold her own with a quartet of aging scene-stealers.

(Strand) Hayley Atwell, Vanessa Redgrave, Joss Ackland, Orla Brady, Brenda Fricker, Imelda Staunton, Joan O’Hara, Elizabeth Moynihan, Darragh Kelly. Directed by Anthony Byrne

Some can accept the indignities of growing older with grace and dignity. Others rage against the dying of the light and in doing so, rage against life itself.

Kate Harris (Brady) runs the Woodlands, a nursing home in the quaint and charming countryside of Ireland as best she can. She is constantly on the edge of financial ruin and lives in terror of having her accreditation taken away from her, and is tormented by the unscheduled visits of a bureaucrat (Kelly) who seems hell-bent on finding an excuse to shut her down.

When family business forces her to leave over the Christmas holidays, she has no choice but to turn to her sister Ellie (Atwell) to run the joint while she is away. Ellie is a headstrong girl, one who brooks no crap from anyone which she at least has in common with Kate. However, where Kate is a by-the-book conformist, Ellie is spirited and anti-authoritarian. This deadly combination has gotten her fired from more jobs than she can count and now, with nothing really to do and a fairly ambitious set of financial needs, she decides to help her sister out. After all, how hard could it be? Most of the residents had gone home with family members for the holiday, leaving only four people remaining.

Those four are about the most cantankerous, ill-tempered and difficult people you can imagine. There’s Georgia (Redgrave), a former actress who is an alcoholic with all the attitude of a diva. Donald (Ackland) is a widower who has lost his soulmate and takes out his pain on anyone unfortunate enough to fall into his orbit with a caustic wit worthy of Mort Sahl. The Nightingale sisters, Heather (Fricker) and Hazel (Staunton) moved into the home not because they needed the care but because after their mother died, they didn’t have anywhere else to go. Heather is a bit of a bully while Hazel harbors a terrible secret.

Ellie means well, but she often does the wrong thing for the right reasons, as with giving some marijuana to a dying resident (O’Hara) to ease her pain. She immediately butts heads with the four who are known, none too affectionately, as the Hard Core by the Woodlands staff. The four of them have alienated so many of the other residents that they have begun to leave in droves, which is the source of Kate’s near-ruin.

As Ellie stands up to the hi-jinx and imperious demands of the Hard Core, they begin to soften. For her part, Ellie begins to see things from a different perspective. Against all odds, they begin to bond. However a Christmas dinner and a surprise visit from the inspector may put an end to their impromptu family once and for all.

Those who loved serio-comic films like Ladies in Lavender or Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont will dig this big time. Like the other two films, the leads are elderly Brits with thick crusts that hide hearts of gold. While this is based on a short story by the Irish writer Maeve Binchy, it doesn’t break new ground in terms of films of this genre. There are a lot of cliches; naughty, crotchety elderly sorts who smoke pot, drink and curse, free-spirited mule-headed youngsters who learn to lower their defenses, mean bureaucrats who are revealed to have a reason for their anger. It’s all here, with a touch of Irish pipe music to remind us that it’s set in Ireland, and old standards to remind us that the leads are elderly.

However, the actors in the main roles are good enough that they help the movie rise above the material. Ackland, best known as the heavy in Lethal Weapon 2, delivers the kind of performance that those familiar with his stage career and some of his earlier work know that he’s capable of delivering. Redgrave exudes class and elegance, even in a role that sometimes demands its lack; she is magnificent here. Fricker and Staunton are two reliable veterans who are sadly underappreciated; they deliver solid performances here.

Any young actress would be hard-pressed to hold their own with a troupe like that, but Atwell does so, and more. Her Ellie is a bit of a screw-up, but mainly because she doesn’t have enough confidence in herself. She is hot-tempered and unpleasant at times but Atwell makes her so likable that we can’t help staying connected to her even when we want to reach out and smack her upside her head.

The title refers to a Burton Freed-Allen Lane standard that while written in 1941, had a version recorded in the early 60s by Bobby Darin which is the version that is heard here, which is appropriate since that more or less approximates the era of the main characters. The song has a vivid role in the movie which I appreciated as an old ex-rock critic – never underestimate the power of a song to change one’s life.

As I said, this isn’t really adding anything new to the genre but then again, who says it has to? It is very easy to sit back and allow yourself to be captivated by the performances and the magic of the Irish countryside. That, as far as I’m concerned, is two hours well spent.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by a cadre of veteran actors with whom Atwell more than holds her own. A bittersweet but upbeat treatise on growing old with or without dignity.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat predictable in places in terms of “eccentric oldsters changing the life of spirited young person” flicks.

FAMILY VALUES: Some extraordinarily salty language and a surprising amount of drug use so it’s probably not suitable for the young.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Joss Ackland worked as a tea plantation manager in Africa during the 1950s.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Unborn