The Witches (2020)


Someone itches to find some witches.

(2019) Family Horror Comedy (Warner BrothersAnne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Chris Rock (voice), Jahzir Bruno, Brian Bovell, Kristen Chenoweth (voice), Stanley Tucci, Charles Edwards, Morgana Robinson, Eugenia Caruso, Ashanti Prince-Asafo, Eurydice El-Etr, Orla O’Rourke, Codie-Lei Eastwick, Josette Simon, Joseph Zinyemba, Ana-Maria Maskell. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Most people remember author Roald Dahl for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or James and the Giant Peach, but he also wrote a book called The Witches which back in 1990 was turned into a movie by director Nicholas Roeg. Thirty years later, a different Oscar-winning director takes a crack at it.

A young boy (Bruno) – whose name we never know but is referred to in the credits as “Hero Boy” – is orphaned in a car crash and sent to live with his down-to-earth Grandma (Spencer) in Alabama. She is loving and hipper than most grandmas, dancing to the strains of the Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” which sets the tone as definitely the late Sixties in a place where it wasn’t especially pleasant to be African-American.

Grandma as a young girl had discovered that witches are real – demonic creatures that masquerade as women but are actually completely bald, so they wear wigs that give them nasty rashes on their scalps; they also wear gloves because their hands possess only three fingers that end in razor-sharp claws. Their feet are square with a single toe, and their mouths are extra-wide and full of wickedly sharp teeth. When the grandson has an encounter with one in a store, Grandma realizes she can’t protect him and decides to take him on a vacation to a swanky hotel, where the witches can’t find him, right?

You see, witches also hate children with a passion, complaining that they are noisy (true), selfish (true) and smell like dog poo (wellllll…some do, some don’t). The Grand High Witch (Hathaway) who turned Grandma’s closest friend (Prince-Asafo) into a chicken, has a plan to rid the world of kids once and for all. She’s going to reveal her evil plan to her colleagues at a witches convention (disguised as a do-gooder organization dedicated to the welfare of children) – which as bad luck would have it, is taking place at the very hotel where Grandma and her charge have fled to.

More I will not reveal about the plot; if you’ve read the book, suffice to say that this version of it follows the plot of the literature pretty closely, certainly more so than the 1990 film. If you’re not familiar with it, then it’s best not to reveal too much because that will spoil the fun, and above all, that’s what this movie is – fun.

Hathaway chews the scenery with grand gusto, deliciously, delightful evil with a mock-Eastern European accent that makes her somehow even creepier. Much of her facial features and body has been redesigned digitally, giving her the look of a witch while remaining still recognizably Anne Hathaway. She camps it up quite a bit, but the role definitely calls for it, and Hathaway delivers. We sometimes forget that the woman is a fabulous actress who is capable of doing just about anything she wants to in front of the camera. Another reviewer posited that she was acting as a kind of surrogate Betsy DeVos, proclaiming she’s doing everything for the good of children while in reality she was out to cause harm to them, particularly those who are poor or members of minorities. That reviewer for Consequences of Sound wasn’t wrong, I think.

Spencer is a diametric opposite; she’s the loving, warm embrace that we need watching the boy suffer the loss of his parents, withdrawing into an uncaring shell; not eating, not engaging, not smiling ever. She gradually wins him over and brings him back to life, and those scenes early on in the film are among the best in the movie.

Zemeckis is a big believer in CGI and true to form, he employs a whole lot of it here. Some works, but there’s some that doesn’t. There are some talking mice in the movie that look awfully cartoonish, like they stepped out of a Looney Toon, and that doesn’t do the movie any favors.

The big question here is how appropriate is this movie for kids. Yes, it’s based on what is ostensibly a children’s book, but there are some scenes that are going to absolutely terrify the more impressionable wee ones in the house. Parents might want to give the movie a bit of a preview before determining if their kids have the maturity to handle it. Also, the first part of the movie concerns how the grandson deals with the death of his parents in a fairly realistic manner, which might also upset kids who are sensitive. Older kids, say into double digits on the age scale, or particularly mature young ‘uns should be able to handle this.

As mentioned in the Trivial Pursuit entry, this was supposed to be one of the fall tentpoles for Warner Brothers this year, but obviously COVID made the studio revert to Plan B. The movie recently debuted on HBO Max here in the States but in other countries that have handled the pandemic somewhat better than we have will be able to see it in theaters as soon as this weekend. Enjoy.

REASONS TO SEE: Outstanding performances by Hathaway and Spencer.
REASONS TO AVOID: Occasionally too cute for its own good.
FAMILY VALUES: This is some mild profanity, some scary images and difficult thematic elements.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally set for theatrical release in October, the release date was moved out due to the pandemic, until Warner Brothers decided to send it direct to streaming on its HBO Max service.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/26/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews, Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hocus Pocus
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness continues!

The Cuban


The memories of when we were young.

(2019) Drama (Brainstorm) Louis Gossett Jr., Ana Golja, Shohreh Aghdashloo, Lauren Holly, Giacomo Gianniotti, Shiva Negar, Jonathan Keltz, Layla Alizada, Kane Mahon, Tabby Johnson, Margaret Lamarre, Gerry Mendicino, Richard Chevolleau, Emily Piggford, Mazida Soroor, Paulbaum Wildbaum, Wajma Soroor, Nadine Roden, Pazz Neglia, Olga Consorti. Directed by Sergio Navarretta

 

Our culture is remarkably cruel to the elderly. We have a tendency to shut them away in warehouses for the old, out of sight and out of mind. We sigh and tell ourselves that it is in the best interests of those whose golden years are tinged with rusted iron; in reality it is as often a convenience for ourselves.

Young Mina Ayoub (Golja) is a pre-med student starting her first day on the job in an extended care facility. One of her assignments, as passed on to her by head Nurse Baker (Holly) is to care for Luis Garcia (Gossett), a cantankerous gentleman who is in the throes of vascular dementia and in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. He refuses to eat the dietitian-prescribed food that is supposed to be good for his ailing heart. She notices a poster of Benny Moré on the wall, a legendary Cuban trumpeter. Her late father had introduced her to Cuban music so she has a bit more familiarity with it than the average Afghan immigrant.

She also lives with her Aunt Bana (Aghdashloo), who as an administrator for the facility, is watching Mina like a hawk. Bana had a career as a physician in Kabul before the violence there forced her to move to Canada but it meant giving up her career and taking care of her niece, who by then had been orphaned

Mina is oddly drawn to Luis and decides to play some Cuban jazz records to see if they would stimulate something more than the vacant stare he gives (when he’s not throwing plates in her general direction when she tries to get him to eat). She also discovers that Luis is willing to eat Cuban food that he remembers fondly, so she begins cooking some for him and bringing it in.

Gradually we discover that Luis was one of the most revered guitar players in Cuba, whose band Los Cubanos played all over the world and shared the stage with luminaries like Dizzy Gillespie. He also was deeply in love with Elena (Golja in a dual role), the band’s singer. The food and the music begin to awaken Luis and he and Mina begin to bond. She also begins a romance with Kris (Gianniotti), a teacher’s assistant at her college who is studying psychology and has some insight into Luis’ condition, as well as a guitar. Soon, it appears Luis is coming out of his shell, but that generally means that the other shoe is about to drop.

Navarretta, whose career spans 20 years although he has mostly directed short films, is a bit heavy-handed in places; for example, the flashback scenes of Luis in Havana are vibrant and colorful; the scenes in the nursing home drab and colorless. We get that Luis’ life is more vivid in his memory than in his intolerable present, but I don’t think it was necessary to make the home look like Alcatraz.

The performances here are strong with the 84-year-old Gossett showing that he won an Oscar for a reason; he imbues Luis with humanity and dignity, despite the fact that his dementia is robbing him of both. Luis is often volatile, his moods swinging wildly from violence to joy to child-like to weary, sometimes within the confines of a single conversation. Although his Cuban accent slips from time to time, his chemistry with Golja is undeniable and she brings a great deal of life to the film; she’s another veteran of the DeGrassi series that seems to have employed nearly every actor in Canada at one time or another.

Although the movie is low-key, it does show a genuine affection for Cuban music and culture, not to mention a valid point to make about how the elderly are treated in modern Western society. I could have done without the subplot of the romance between Mina and Kris; it distracts from the real story which is the relationships between Mina and Luis, and between Mina and her family, which is also an important commentary on the expectations of immigrant families which I could relate to directly. This is a movie that some might write off as a Hallmark channel type of film, but I can assure you that it is much, much more – it is a hidden gem that film buffs would do well to seek out.

REASONS TO SEE: A love letter to Cuban music as well as an indictment of how we warehouse the elderly.
REASONS TO AVOID: The romance between Mina and Kris feels unnecessary
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief mild violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The soundtrack was written by Hilario Duran, a veteran Cuban pianist whose own life story has many similarities to that of Luis Garcia.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews, Metacritic: 53/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Buena Vista Social Club: Adios
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Rebuilding Paradise

Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things


The legend in action.

(2019) Music Documentary (Eagle Rock) Ella Fitzgerald, Sophie Okonedo (narrator), Sharon D. Clark (narrator), Ray Brown Jr., Judith Tick, Smokey Robinson, Norma Miller, Patti Austin, Andre Previn, George Wien, Johnny Mathis, Itzhak Perlman, Tony Bennett, Laura Myula, Margo Jefferson, Gregg Field, Will Friedwald, Kenny Barron, Norman Granz, Dizzy Gillespie, Cleo Laine, Alexis MorrastDirected by Leslie Woodhead

 

So many of the great musicians of the mid-20th century jazz scene are little more than names to most Americans now; some night even that. Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, was a giant in her time, one of the defining voices of American music, one whose career spanned six decades.

Her career almost never happened. Part of the Great Migration of African-Americans moving from the South to the industrialized North in search of a better life, she moved to Yonkers as a child with her mother and stepfather. Her mother died when Fitzgerald was just 13 (the result of injuries incurred in a car accident), ending up living on the streets of New York after a stint in reform school where the abuse was so pervasive that she ran away. Only a victory in a 1934 talent show at the Apopllo Theater in Harlem would save her.

Discovered by the “King of Jazz Drummers” Chick Webb who led one of the most popular bands in New York at the time, Fitzgerald became a star after recording “A Tisket, A Tasket” – a jazzed up version of a nursery rhyme that Fitzgerald co-wrote) and she never looked back.

She embraced scat singing as World War II began and became one of its most accomplished practitioners. After the war, she recorded a string of hits for the Verve label (a jazz label founded specifically to market her) and became a mainstay touring around the world, often on the road for nine months of the year. That made it difficult to sustain a relationship with her only child, Ray Brown Jr., who became a musician himself although his relationship with his mother was often distant – the two rarely spoke during the last ten years of her life.

The movie utilizes archival footage that frames the times that Fitzgerald grew up in, as well as illustrating the racism that she faced throughout her life. When she purchased a house in Beverly Hills, she had to use her white manager Norman Granz to do it, despite the fact that she had more than enough cash to buy the house outright.

There is performance footage and we get a sense of the passion and the power of Fitzgerald’s craft. It could be said that she was married to her career; throughout most of her life it was her focus. She did love children and founded a foundation that helped provide food and healthcare to at-risk kids in the last years of her life, but mainly she expressed herself through her music; she was a highly private individual who rarely talked about her feelings in interviews, with a notable exception – a radio interview in 1963 when she finally spoke out against the racial injustice she had seen and that her people continued to deal with. The interview was never aired, a postscript that echoes through these uncertain and volatile times.

Her story is told largely in a chronological fashion, interspersed with interviews of contemporaries (both archival and modern), as well as a younger generation who recognize her influence on modern music. While the testimonials are glowing, the film largely fails to draw the lines between her music and modern music and when the movie ends, doesn’t really elucidate what her legacy is.

What survives first and foremost is the music and we get a fair sampling of  it and we are left to marvel at her control and her phrasing. The movie is available on virtual cinema for the next couple of weeks (fans can benefit the Tampa Theater, the Polk Theater in Lakeland or the O Cinema in Miami (see the virtual cinematic experience link for a line-up of theaters across the country). It is also playing at the Enzian for those who want the big screen experience which I would highly recommend.

REASONS TO SEE: The soundtrack is simply amazing.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is abrupt and really doesn’t analyze her legacy at as much as I might have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: There are depictions of racism including some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Fitzgerald won the legendary Apollo Theater’s talent contest in 1934, she hadn’t planned to sing but to dance as she had on Harlem street corners, but when she was preceded by the Edwards Sisters (two of the best dancers to ever come out of Harlem), she changed her mind and sang, believing she could never win against the sisters with dancing.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/28/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews: Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Keep On Keepin’ On
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part

The Soul Collector (8) (2019)


Good men can still do bad things.

(2019) Horror (SHOUT! FactoryTshamano Sebe, Inge Beckmann, Keita Luna, Garth Breytenbach, Chris April, Luxolo Ndabedi, Owam Amey, Sindiwe Magona, Graham Clarke, Eve Maxagazo Andy Crawford, Jac Williams, Andres Brink. Directed by Harold Holscher

 

The South African film scene has been coming on lately, with several movies produced there getting international attention. The Soul Collector (which made the Festival rounds known as 8) is a horror movie with its roots in local traditions and mythology, certainly a heady and largely untapped source of inspiration for scare flicks.

William Ziel (Breytenbach) has been experiencing rough economic times, so he heads to the interior of South Africa to work his family farm after the death of his father (Clarke). He brings along his adopted daughter Mary (Luna), whose parents in addition to being William’s brother and sister-in-law are also dead, and his wife Sarah (Beckmann) who has demons of her own.

William knows next to nothing about farming, but help comes in the form of Lazarus (Sebe), a wise old black man who once worked the farm. However, local villagers, led by their one-eyed chief (April), are aware of the true nature of Lazarus; he collects souls for the demonic presence occupying his daughter’s (Amey) body. Lazarus, a good man driven to an act of madness by grief and desperation, has also befriended Mary, whom the demon is dead set on feeding upon.

First-time director Holscher has crafted a film that looks really nice; beautiful vistas of the rolling plains of South Africa, as well as in-camera effects that are as effective as any CGI. He also is given the richness of African legend to work from, but sadly, resorts to jump scares and horror tropes that end up taking his movie down a few notches.

That’s not to say that the movie is entirely without merit. There are some frank discussions on the intertwining of life and death (the figure 8 is used to denote the place where the mortal world and the next realm meet, which is where the living can communicate with the dead) and Sebe is an imposing presence; intimidating when he needs to be, but clearly conflicted over his fate and the bargain he made. It is hard not to feel for Lazarus and Sebe does a good job of making the character sympathetic.

The other characters are less so; William is stubborn, refusing to see any other reality but the one that he wants to see. He is going to make this farm work no matter what! For her part, Sarah is often bitchy and vindictive, mourning that she can’t have children of her own. As for Mary, she’s not the plucky heroine of most horror movies (which is refreshing) but she keeps silkworms in a music box that plays the “Swan Theme” from Swan Lake (which is used as a motif throughout the score, at times to distraction) and is in every sense, a little weird. Then again, she’s been through a lot.

I like seeing horror movies using the mythology of other cultures, be they Latin, Eastern European, or Asian; we so rarely get to see the rich folklore of Africa used cinematically that it’s refreshing when it happens. I just wish that the director had done a little more with it here.

REASONS TO SEE: Takes us to an environment not usually found in horror films.
REASONS TO AVOID: Plenty of horror tropes and jump scares.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity, some images of terror and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Not related to the movie of the 1999 movie of the same name.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/13/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews, Metacritic: 37/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Golem
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Exit Plan

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle


You can’t always tell a Jungle Book by its cover.

(2018) Adventure (NetflixRohan Chand, Frida Pinto, Christian Bale (voice), Andy Serkis (voice), Benedict Cumberbatch (voice), Cate Blanchett (voice), Tom Hollander (voice), Matthew Rhys, Naomie Harris (voice), Peter Mullan (voice), Jack Reynor (voice), Eddie Marsan (voice), Louis Ashbourne Serkis (voice), Keveshan Pillay, Patrick Godfrey, Lorna Brown. Directed by Andy Serkis

 

Hollywood from time to time gets it in their head to make competing versions of similar stories, whether it’s of apocalyptic astronaut strikes, or remakes of beloved children’s classics.

Most folks are well-aware of the story behind this film, originally a group of short stories penned by British author Rudyard Kipling but not likely from reading the book so much as by seeing the 1967 Disney cartoon. Serkis’ version, which was actually filmed three years before it was released, is a much darker version that in many ways was closer to the stories that Kipling wrote but with enough family-friendly elements to lend confusion as to what this movie wants to be.

The motion capture is generally of facial expressions which becomes a bit of a liability; it’s kind of creepy to see snakes and wolves and bears looking quite that human. The CGI in general is pretty uneven, which considering the amount of post-production time that was available to them seems almost criminal. However, the vocal performances are uniformly swell and American-born child actor Chand shows some impressive athleticism and acting range in this role.

The film was intended to be the first of a trilogy of films establishing what Warner Brothers (the original studio behind the film – see Trivial Pursuit) a franchise but with Disney beating them to the punch doing what they do best, and with that version making like a kajillion dollars at the box office, there was no way this was going to end up as anything other than a footnote, which it really didn’t deserve. Certainly there are flaws, but despite the dark and sometimes brutal tone it is at least a different riff on a familiar tune.

REASONS TO SEE: Impressive voice performances. An interesting subplot about identity.
REASONS TO AVOID: The CGI is uneven. Neither a family film nor one meant for adults.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence – some of it bloody – peril and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally filmed by Warner Brothers to be released in 2016, but Disney’s own version forced them to push back the release a year, and then another as the effects proved more time-consuming than first thought. Only a few months before it was scheduled to be released in theaters, the film was sold to Netflix, the studio rightly thinking that their version would be unfairly compared to the much more family-friendly Disney version.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews: Metacritic: 51/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Jungle Book
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Capernaum

The House With a Clock In Its Walls


Welcome to the dark ages.

(2018) Young Adult Fantasy (UniversalJack Black, Cate Blanchett, Owen Vaccaro, Kyle MacLachlan, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Colleen Camp, Sunny Suljic, Lorenza Izzo, Braxton Bjerken, Vanessa Anne Williams, Ricky Lynn Muse, Charles Green, DJ Watts, Aaron Beelner, Joshua Phillips, Christian Calloway, Caleb Lawrence, Dylan Gage Moore, Eli Roth, Alli Paige Beckham. Directed by Eli Roth

 

I don’t know why Hollywood has such a problem with adapting young adult fantasy franchises from their original book form. Other than the Harry Potter series, every attempt has led to movies that ranged from dreadful to dull and were more often than not, both. This first book in a series from author John Bellairs fares no differently.

Young Lewis (Vaccaro) has been orphaned. It’s 1955, so he has been sent to live with his eccentric Uncle Jonathan (Black) in Michigan. Jonathan lives in a mansion that you just know is haunted – all it lacks is hitchhiking ghosts – that is stocked with odd magical creatures, like a chair that is too eager to please and a garden topiary shaped like a griffin that – I kid you not – craps mulch.

Then again, Lewis is a bit of an oddball himself so he fits right in. Along with their prim and proper neighbor Florence (Blanchett) who carries on a platonic friendship with Jonathan, they are investigating the mystery of a ticking clock in the walls of the house that could well signal an apocalyptic cataclysm enacted by the fully evil previous owner (MacLachlan) who is definitely dead but certainly not gone. Jonathan is a warlock and Florence a witch but are they powerful enough to stop the evil machinations of a much more powerful magician?

Eli Roth, who helped popularize torture porn with films like Hostel back in the 90s, might at first seem like an odd choice for this kind of movie until you realize that before he started his run of blood-soaked horror features he was directing animated shorts for children, so he isn’t without understanding of the kid mentality. That’s why it’s sad that the film falls victim to the same trap most of the other failed young adult franchise adaptations fell into – talking down to their audience. Kids are definitely not dumber versions of adults; they’re just less experienced. Sure, you can make ‘em laugh with vomiting jack o’lanterns as Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke (who helmed the superior Supernatural series on the CW) do but that is disrespecting your audience. If you wonder why the Potter series succeeded where so many others failed, look at the way they developed their characters and respected their story as well as their target audience. Studios don’t seem inclined to do that these days, I’m afraid.

Blanchett is a ray of sunshine as Florence and she gets many of the best moments in the film. Black does his best, but he’s a much more effective performer when there’s a bit of an edge to his game. Vaccaro is likely a nice kid, but he’s playing a boy who is supposed to be grieving and the scenes in which he’s called upon to cry for them are just appalling. I don’t blame him; I blame the casting director who put him in a terrible position.

The effects are passable and the movie is loaded – perhaps overloaded – with them. It lacks character development, substituting quirks for characters, and humor that will appeal to parents as well as kids. Toilet humor is the refuge of the faithless, and it is clear that the filmmakers had no faith that their audience could handle humor that’s above the level of a three-year-old.

REASONS TO SEE: Cate Blanchett is absolutely terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Simplistic plot and passable effects.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some scary content, fantasy violence, rude humor and mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film directed by Roth not to receive an R rating in the U.S.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Fios, Fubo, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Showtime, Sling TV,  Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/17/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Goosebumps
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Collette

Captain Black


Are you talkin’ to me?

(2017) Dramedy (Random) Jeffrey S. S. Johnson, Linara Washington, Georgia Norman, Charley Koontz, Joaquin Camilo, Kirsten Roeters, Liesel Kopp, Mackenzie Astin, Michael Marc Friedman, Reece Rios, Nico David, Carla Tassara, Robert Maffia, Lauren Campedelli, Dylan Lawson, Parvesh Cheena, Scott Krinsky, Ashley Dowling, Katherine King. Directed by Jeffrey S.S. Johnson

 

Superheroes occupy a unique place in our society. They represent the best within us, the desire for justice and goodness, the noblest aspects of our beings and the achievement of the impossible. We mostly all aspire to be heroic in some way, shape or form – and some of us aspire to the super-powered aspect of heroism.

Mike (Johnson) is a manager at a suburban chain restaurant that has a Mexican theme. It’s the kind of place that whenever a patron has a birthday, the staff gather to sing their own version of “Happy Birthday” in a way that people like me cringe at. You’ve probably been to several just like it.

Although Mike seems to be a pretty decent guy, it would be a stretch to say that there’s anything particularly noble or heroic about him. When an obnoxious customer confronts him, he backs down rather than standing up for what’s right. While he’s aware that his neighbor (Kopp) is being abused by her husband, he doesn’t act on it, allowing the abuse to continue even as he bonds with her son (David). He mourns the loss of both his parents but remains estranged from his sister Brie (Roeters).

One night one of his waiters (Camilo) eaves a bag of comic books behind. Intrigued by the four-color covers, he brings them home and becomes immersed in the world of Captain Black, a kind of Batman style of hero, as well as his super sexy partner Kitt Vixen who in one of the movie’s better joke sequences, Mike discovers that there is a porn site dedicated to the character. Still, the mild-mannered restaurant manager begins to find some self-confidence especially as he repeats the Captain’s axiom: “Life is precious. Life is fragile. Be your own ally!” Mike can particularly relate to this given everything happening around him.

For a Halloween party he is inspired to create a homemade Captain Black costume. There he meets a young woman (Norman) wearing a Kitt Vixen costume. The two find a mutual attraction and head out to the garage for a quick, frantic coupling. This seemingly innocent act would turn out to have a profound effect on Mike’s life.

The movie starts off with kind of a suburban vibe, fairly laid back but takes an unexpected turn towards the serious. Johnson, who wrote, directed and starred in the movie, handles both sides of the equation fairly well, giving Mike a good deal of heart but also having him grapple with issues that are very real and very rough. I don’t want to give too much away but suffice to say that the movie will come off as a bit of a warning about one-night stands and the damage that can result from them.

Movies like this have to walk a very fine line; on the one hand it has to deal with a sensitive subject without diluting the impact of that subject but on the other hand, it has to be light enough that the film doesn’t end up drowning in darkness which it could have easily done. The topic is an extremely emotional one and it is handled with emotion, with that emotion given the respect it deserves. It’s a very fine work particularly given that it is the first feature Johnson has done.

I won’t say I was blown away by this film completely; the ending is a bit of a letdown at least for me and some of the supporting characters could have used a bit more depth, but the relationship between Mike and his friend Kris (Washington) is a special, realistic one that enhances the movie rather than detracting from it. It makes me wonder if Washington and Johnson had a friendship outside the movie prior to filming. This is the kind of movie that flies under the radar for no good reason but the lucky ones among us who are willing to take chances may well discover a quality gem. Seek this one out for sure.

REASONS TO SEE: The film starts out unassuming and quiet but turns grim and strange towards the end. Johnson delivers a really good performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending was a bit off-note.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a scene of sexuality and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Johnson is best-known for being the voice in the T-Mobile commercials for the past six years.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Google Play, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Super
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Rondo

Stray (2019)


Empty factories are always creepiest at night.

(2019) Supernatural Crime Thriller (Screen Media) Karen Fukuhara, Christine Woods, Miyavi, Ross Partridge, Takayo Fischer, Saki Miyata, Brandon Brooks, Brian Carroll, Jamiah Brown, Kiran Deol, Eunice Chiweshe Goldstein, Alex Hyner, Nicolas Jung, Fahad Olayan, Geoffrey H. Russell, April Lind, Sonia Jackson, Heather Pache, Cecilia Benevich. Directed by Joe Sill

 

Maybe the most interesting thing about police work is that you never know what you’re going to get when you get on the job. That also may be the most dangerous thing about police work as well.

Detective Murphy (Woods) is getting back to work as a homicide detective after an extended leave of absence. It’s bad enough that her ex-husband Jake (Partridge) is also now her boss but she is immediately called to a grisly murder scene in which a woman has apparently been burned to death, but then the weirdness begins. First of all, the woman isn’t burned – she’s petrified. The body has also been dated as over a thousand years old despite the fact that the victim had been seen just the previous day.

The victim’s daughter, Nori (Fukuhara) is eager to discover what happened to her mother but the victim’s mother (Fischer) is less forthcoming. Murphy’s bad news instincts are on overdrive so she cultivates a relationship with Nori. The two women are linked by tragedies in their immediate past and the two begin to bond. Murphy discovers that Nori has strange psychic powers that manifest when she is emotionally stressed. Not only that but those powers run in the family; her grandmother has them, her mother has them and her estranged brother Jim (Miyavi) has them.

As Murphy chases down the killer it is clear that Nori is the next target and by extension Murphy who has put the girl under her protection much to the dismay of Jake but how does one protect a girl from powers so evil and so strong that they can turn a human being into stone in the blink of an eye?

Sill makes his feature film debut here and it’s really not a bad one. There are elements that really work here and even though this is a low-budget affair, the CGI is actually pretty good. What isn’t as good is the procedural aspects which take a few liberties with logic and common sense.

There are some strong performances here, particularly by Woods who places a deeply wounded and self-medicating burned out cop, a role that normally goes to middle-aged white guys. Adding the feminine factor to the mix (not to mention that Murphy is a total badass) is a welcome deviation from standard crime thriller clichés. The supernatural element isn’t exactly groundbreaking but it does add a nice twist; however, the nature of Nori’s powers are not really clear for the most part and that can be frustrating.

This isn’t a bad film at all and there are some really good moments. Cinematographer Greg Cotton makes excellent use of shadows and darkness and a color palate that goes well with both. While the movie won’t exactly rock your world, it won’t bore you either. Sill definitely someone to keep an eye on and those who like their movies on the eerie side might actually find it a worthwhile pick.

REASONS TO SEE: There is a unique lyricism present here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The police procedural aspect is a little dicey.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fukuhara is best-known in the States for her portrayal of Katana in Suicide Squad.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 60% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Deliver Us From Evil
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Pahokee

Blade of the Immortal (Mugen no jûnin)


Hana Sugisaki points out the logical flaws in the plot; Takuya Kimura just doesn’t care.

(2017) Martial Arts (Magnet) Takuya Kimura, Hana Sugisaki, Sôta Fukushi, Hayato Ichihara, Erika Toda, Kazuki Kitamura, Chiaki Kuriyama, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Ken Kaneko, Yôko Yamamoto, Ebizô Ichikawa, Min Tanaka, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Seizô Fukumoto, Renji Ishibashi, Shun Sugata, Yoshiyuki Yamaguchi, Jon Iles (voice), Philip Hersh (voice), Libby Brien (voice). Directed by Takashi Miike

 

Immortality is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s intensely lonely – particularly when everyone you know and loved was already dead. Immortals would be likely to become hermits as the pain of getting close to anyone would outweigh the comforts of companionship. Being immortal, in other words, sucks.

Manji (Kimura) is a samurai who loves only his little sister Machi (Sugisaki). Manji kills his corrupt lord and takes Machi on the run with him after the lord murders her husband and drives Machi insane. The two are cornered by ronin after the bounty on his head; after he agrees to disarm himself so that Machi might get safe passage, the ronin leader kills the girl anyway out of spite. Manji then slaughters every member of the ronin before collapsing to the ground, mortally wounded.

He is approached by an 800-year-old witch (Yamamoto) who infuses him with sacred bloodworms that will heal all his wounds and render him immortal. Rather than being a blessing however, he quickly realizes that he has been cursed and must wander around as a rogue samurai himself, alone and friendless.

A half century later, he is approached by another young girl, Rin Asano (also Sugisaki). Her father, a dojo sensei, has been murdered by the ambitious Kagehisa Anotsu (Fukushi) who has plans to unite all the dojos in Japan into a kind of super-dojo under his control. He has also kidnapped Rin’s mother, although her head shows up mounted on the shoulder plate of the armor of one of Anotsu’s lieutenants. Rin wants justice and the witch essentially led her to Manji to get it. Manji realizes that this might well be his opportunity at redemption that would break the curse and allow him, finally, to die.

Taking on Anotsu who has some secrets of his own is no easy task, even for a guy who can’t be killed. Also there’s the nearly insane Shira (Ichihara) whom Manji has exacted a terrible price from and who means to get his revenge on the immortal, even if it means killing Rin.

Miike is a visual stylist who has the poetry of violence that Scorsese utilizes. He is artful with his gore and mayhem; the fights carefully choreographed to be almost ballets of carnage. Severed limbs fly through the air in graceful parabolas while jets of blood fountain from fatal wounds but this is no Grand Guignol. It’s most definitely Art.

This director is definitely an acquired taste but one worth acquiring. He has a connection with Japan’s collective id and knows how to tap into it so that even audiences unfamiliar with Japanese culture can relate although it’s much easier if you’re at least conversant with Japanese cultural norms. He also, like Scorsese, is superb at shot composition and knows how to frame the action, often with the most bucolic and idyllic of backgrounds.

I can’t whole-heartedly recommend this; at more than two hours there are plot points that go nowhere and characters leap into the story wildly from nowhere, careen about the plot a bit like a pachinko machine and disappear, never to be seen again. I’m not one for saying that a master should be edited but this could have used some brevity. Also, Sugisaki just about always shrieks her lines; I get that there are some cultural differences between what is acceptable acting practices between the States and Japan but godamighty she gets annoying very fast and she’s in most of the scenes.

This isn’t for the faint of heart nor should it be. As I say, Miike is an acquired taste and like sushi, there are plenty of those who will resist acquiring it. Those who can appreciate the delicate tastes and textures of sushi can enjoy it as a favored dish the rest of their lives; so too those cinephiles who appreciate the different and the unique will discover Miike and be able to enjoy his work for the rest of their lives.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are intense and satisfying. Miike is a master of shot composition and utilizes some beautiful cinematography. The costumes are magnificent.
REASONS TO STAY: This movie runs a little too long. Sugisaki is nearly unwatchable as Rin.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Miike’s 100th film in a 22 year career…he has since filmed three more (and counting).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, FlixFling, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/29/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Assassins
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Coco

Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale


Naledi goes walkies.

(2016) Nature Documentary (Netflix) Mike Chase, Wellington Jana, Brett Mitchell, Boago Poloko, Robert O’Brien. Directed by Ben Bowie and Geoff Luck

 

The plight of the African elephant is largely well-known now; poachers kill the majestic creatures at a terrifying rate of 96-100 every day and all for their tusks which are highly prized particularly in Asia and the Middle East.

Naledi was born into this situation. We witness her first moments of life – her birth was captured on film – and that footage is absolutely incredible. It’s definitely one of the highlights of the movie. From there, Naledi’s life isn’t easy. Her mother dies of disease when she’s only a month old and the men of the elephant preserve camp in Botswana where she was born have to fight to keep the baby alive. It’s no easy matter.

Mike Chase, one of the camp’s directors, is an outspoken advocate for the elephants and regularly addresses governments and NGOs to discuss the elephants and what can be done to save them. Much of the film in fact focuses on the Great African Census, an attempt to get an idea of how many elephants are left in the wild and sadly the numbers are a lot worse than feared. Preserves where once hundreds and thousands of elephants lived have fewer than a dozen still in the wild. Poachers, who are paid princely sums of money (for that part of the world) for the tusks, have to get bolder as their prey get fewer. Chase explains that those who employ the poachers – the distributors of ivory – actually want the elephants to go extinct. When the elephants are gone after all their ivory will skyrocket in price. I don’t think I’ve heard a greater indictment of the sickness of greed and the excesses of capitalism in my life.

That the current situation involving African elephants is absolutely critical is a given. The question that faces a film reviewer here is do they present the information in a way that will move people to action or at least sympathy and the answer is clearly yes. However, one must also look at the title of the film and perhaps take a step back.

The title seems to imply that the story here is Naledi and we do get to see a lot of her. She’s one of the cutest animal characters that you’ll ever see and she has a ton of personality. DisneyNature has made their mark anthropomorphizing animals and telling stories using the footage they gather; that’s not necessary here. The footage by itself tells the story and the animal herself is enthralling without assigning voiceover characteristics to her. Points to the filmmakers for that.

But if you think you’re getting a cute Disney-esque story about a baby elephant, that’s only about half the film. Most of it is an environmental treatise which, as previously stated, does present the plight of the species eloquently but in all honesty there are plenty of other films that have done that as well including Netflix own The Ivory Game. Quite frankly, if I had to choose between the two films to educate an audience about what’s going on with African elephants, I would choose The Ivory Game over Naledi. Perhaps the filmmakers were hoping to bring in a family demographic with the promise of cute baby elephants but I’m not so sure this is entirely appropriate for family audiences, particularly those with sensitive sorts in it. Naledi’s story is not an easy one to watch all the time.

Still, one can’t complain about a film for bringing an important subject to the table, even if they are essentially repeating things that have already been said. It also should be said that the filmmakers turn their attention to the Great Elephant Census which is helping activists focus efforts on where it is needed the most, something that wasn’t mentioned in The Ivory Game that I can recall. Chase is heavily involved in that project. The movie is a little rough for the wee ones but those who care about elephants should see it, even if the filmmakers are preaching to the choir.

The movie had a theatrical debut at the Seattle International Film Festival late last year and but really only played a few festivals before heading to Netflix. The streaming giant hasn’t really publicized the movie much if at all and there are few reviews of it out there. The movie is certainly flawed but it deserves better, even if it is false advertising to a certain extent. At the very least it makes a fine companion piece to The Ivory Game and the early scenes of Naledi are worth seeing all by themselves. One must also consider the grim option that if things continue to go the way they’re going, the only place to see these magnificent animals will be on films like this – after the last one is gone.

REASONS TO GO: Naledi has an engaging and adorable personality. As you might expect, the cinematography is wonderful.
REASONS TO STAY: The dual story between Naledi and the conservation efforts doesn’t always mesh well.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult themes as well as some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Great Elephant Census is largely funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Born in China
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Exception