Sputnik


A space oddity.

(2020) Sci-Fi Horror (IFC Midnight) Oksana Akinshina, Fedor Bondrachuk, Pyotr Fyodorov, Anton Vasilev, Aleksey Demidov, Aleksandr Manushev, Albrecht Zander, Vitaliya Kornienko, Vasiliy Zotov, Anna Nazarova. Directed by Egor Abramenko

It is said that in space, nobody can hear you scream; in a Soviet-era research facility slash prison, everybody can hear you scream – they just pretend not to.

It’s 1983 and do you know where your cosmonauts are? It is the last gasp of the Cold War and a Soviet space mission has crash landed, leaving one cosmonaut dead and the other, Konstantin Veshnyakov (Fyodorov) with amnesia. He is brought to a forbidding research facility by Colonel Semiradov (Bondrachuk), a fatherly sort who seems genuinely interested in finding out what happened. To that end, he enlists disgraced psychologist Tatyana Klimova (Akinshina) who cured a young teen of his fears by holding his head underwater. That’s apparently too extreme even for the USSR, so she’s about to experience an abrupt career change when she’s approached by Semiradov to see if she can rescue the memories from the cosmonaut, a national hero.

But it turns out that the hero isn’t alone inside his body. He has an alien hitchhiker, translucent and almost jelly-like, able to fold itself into a much smaller space – say, a man’s esophagus – and come out at night to feed. And what does an alien parasite – or is that symbiote? – eat? Cortisol, the pheromone of fear. And then, he tears off the head of the victim and feeds more conventionally.

Tatyana is determined to suss out Konstantin’s secrets and is remarkably successful, in more ways than she can imagine – she begins to develop sympathy, and then maybe emotional attachment – to Veshnyakov. When it turns out that the government is interested in the little stowaway and has some pretty nasty plans for it, she knows she and Konstantin need to make a run for it, but where can they go that would be safe from the creature inside?

In a lot of ways this harkens back to the creature features of the late 70s and 80s, particularly Ridley Scott’s Alien and the other films (and there are many) that it inspired. The parasite/symbiote is no xenomorph, but it is virtually indestructible and very, very aggressive. Tatyana wants to get the creature out of Veshnyakov without killing him; she is the conscience. Veshnyakov is the id, where the monsters dwell. Semiradov, who comes off something like a Bond villain here, is the cold logic unencumbered by compassion. In a sense, he is as much a monster as the alien.

Abramenko has assembled a slick-looking film that takes good advantage of Soviet-era brutalist architecture and of the horror tropes of the era that the film is set in. It is a bit of a slow burn, but it does heat up until it gets to its preposterous yet nevertheless satisfying ending.

The creature design is off the chain; it’s scary as hell, completely alien but makes logical sense. Akinshina and Fyodorov do good work as the heroic leads, but it is Bondrachuk who really shines as the kindly-on-the-surface-but cruel-to-the-core Colonel, whose absolute loyalty to the state will ring a troubling chord for some who have seen this kind of obsession all too often these days.

This is another great horror film for 2020, a year that seems to be destined to be remembered as a horror film in and of itself. I had a few quibbles – the creature is introduced far too early, robbing it of some of its effectiveness, and the pacing is a little uneven and there are a few too many clichés at work, but overall, this is a stellar horror film that is bound to have you wishing for a brightly lit place to repair to immediately afterward.

REASONS TO SEE: Does a good job building the tension. The creature effects are solid. Spartan production puts emphasis on the story.
REASONS TO AVOID: Reveals the creature far too early.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of violence, gore and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the performance footage was originally filmed in black and white, but was restored to full color for use in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Apollo 18
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Hole in the Ground

The Prince (El princípe)


Jaime and Ricardo in better times.

(2019) Drama (ArtsploitationJuan Carlos Maldonado, Alfredo Castro, Lucas Balmaceda, Sebastián Ayala, Cesare Serra, Catalina Martin, José Antonio Raffo, Paola Volpato, Nicolás Zárate, Paula Zuñiga. Directed by Sebastián Muñoz

 

The thing about prison movies is that they lend themselves to exploitation. Very rarely do we get anything set in a prison that is thought-provoking without it sinking into a morass of sexuality and violence.

In this Chilean film, there is certainly a lot of sex. Jaime (Maldonado), described in the press materials as a “hot-tempered narcissist,” impulsively stabs someone to death and ends up imprisoned. This is during the Pinochet regime in Chile, one of the most brutal and repressive governments ever, so don’t expect a whole lot of rehabilitation going on here. In fact, once he’s thrown into the hellhole, the key is neatly disposed of and he’s expected to rot, or end up dead.

But the thing about Jaime is that he’s a resilient sort and the thing he has going for him most is that he’s a really good-looking guy. That’s why the BMIP (Big Man in Prison), Potro (Castro), latches on to Jaime and makes him his boy toy. This doesn’t sit well with his previous plaything, who snidely dubs Jaime as “The Prince” and the nickname sticks.

The relationship between Jaime and Potro is bittersweet; Potro may have swagger out in the yard but deep down inside he yearns for prison and is this close to breaking. The brutal, sadistic guards don’t make life any easier for the men in the cell block, which actually ends up suiting Jaime just fine. The trajectories of the two men are aimed in the same direction for a time, but it becomes clear that they are headed in different directions, which isn’t going to be good news for one of them.

Muñoz interweaves what’s going on in the prison with flashbacks to Jaime’s life before he murdered someone. We see his previous relationship with Ricardo (Zárate) and see in it a parallel. This isn’t about freedom; it’s about how we tend to follow the same paths over and over again.

There is a good deal of gay sex, but don’t expect flowers and rainbows. It’s brutal and joyless, all about release and power. Even when we see Jaime having sex with a woman earlier in the film, the sex is still the same – absolutely no desire to satisfy his partner so long as he himself gets off. When he gets what he wants, he’s gone. That element is also present in the sexual encounters in prison. There’s nothing sexy about it, although I’m sure there are a lot of straight women who will nod knowingly at the site – and more than a few gay men as well. The sex begins to become a numbing agent, but then again, what are you going to do with your time in prison.

Maldonado is certainly a handsome man, but his portrayal of Jaime is extremely low-key. There isn’t a lot of depth to the character; we know he’s self-involved, we know he is all about the booty call, we know he’s not terribly bright. Beyond that, it feels like he’s just treading water as an actor, which isn’t what you want from a lead performance. In a lot of ways Castro, who starred in one of Chile’s most honored films (Tony Manero), gives Potro the depth that Jaime lacks. I think Jaime is supposed to be the protagonist, but he ends up being almost secondary in his own story. That’s kind of an odd feeling, and I’m not sure if the decision to make it so was a conscious one by Muñoz or if Castro is just that good an actor. A little bit of both, I suspect.

Prudes and those made uncomfortable by gay sex will not like this much. There is a lot to unpack here and that’s okay, but still I ended up wishing that Maldonado had given us more to hang our hats on with Jaime. A little bit more depth here and this would have been an extraordinary film, instead of just an ordinary one.

REASONS TO SEE: Castro is an incendiary presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: Jaime doesn’t have enough depth as a character to carry the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a ton of male on male sex, graphic nudity, rape, profanity, violence and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature film as a director for Muñoz; his background is as in art direction.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Fandango Now, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Prophet
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Medicine

Outlaws (2017)


Ba da bing.

(2017) Crime Drama (A24) Ryan Corr, Abbey Lee, Simone Kessell, Josh McConville, Matt Noble, Aaron Pedersen, Sam Parsonson, Eddie Baroo, Aaron Fa’aoso, Jacqui Williams, Adam T. Perkins, Soa Pelelei, Daniel Pantovic, Moodi Dennaoui, Alex Arco, Gary Owens, George Houvardas, Gemma Sharpe. Directed by Stephen McCallum

 

Outlaws is the debut feature from Aussie Stephen McCallum, and it is equal parts Sons of Anarchy and grindhouse biker flick from the 60s and 70s. It features the Copperhead Motorcycle Club, whose president Knuck (Noble) has just been released from prison. His right-hand man Paddo (Corr) has been running things in his absence, and doing a good job of it as well; in fact, Paddo’s girl Katrina (Lee) would like to see the temporary in charge situation made permanent.

But Knuck’s wife Hayley (Kessell) doesn’t trust Paddo to step down quietly, and with the two women pushing their men towards it, conflict is inevitable. And with Paddo’s mentally and emotionally challenged brother Skink (McConville) providing the catalyst, things are just about to blow.

There’s plenty of violence and loud rock and roll, which is to be expected in a movie like this. While the acting is merely adequate, I suspect that the fundamental problem here is the script, which is a bit vapid and at times, riddled by logical holes. It also feels like we’ve seen all this before (we have, but on TV in the aforementioned Sons of Anarchy which is a much better viewing choice). While there are elements of Lady Macbeth in the two biker chicks and the plot is vaguely Shakespearean, the characters are mostly various degrees of deplorable and don’t inspire a whole lot of audience identification, unless beating up other people is your thing.

REASONS TO SEE: Nice pacing and fine tension level maintained.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is not very original.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, violence, sexuality and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matt Noble, who plays Knuck, wrote the script.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/10/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews, Metacritic: 24/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Animal Kingdom
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Here Awhile

The Happy Prince (2018)


Oscar Wilde, looking decidedly like a rock star.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Sony ClassicsRupert Everett, Colin Firth, Emily Watson, Colin Morgan, Anna Chancellor, Tom Wilkinson, Béatrice Dalie, Ronald Pickup, Julian Wadham, Joshua McGuire, John Standing, Daniel Weyman, Edwin Thomas, Tom Colley, Benjamin Voisin, Ciro Petrone, André Penvern, Alexis Juliemont, Ricardo Ciccerelli, Alister Cameron, Caterina D’Andrea. Directed by Rupert Everett

 

Oscar Wilde was one of the greatest wits of his time, perhaps of all time. When he was convicted on a charge of deviant behavior, he was sentenced to prison for two years of hard labor. His health broken and fed up with England, he moved to the continent where he would live out the remaining days of his life, which were not many.

This is a passion project for director, writer and star Rupert Everett, who passed on plum roles on the off chance this film would be greenlit; it took ten years before he was able to get the film off the ground. I don’t know that Everett would agree but it was worth the wait.

The movie largely revolves around the Irish poet-playwright’s final days in France and Italy. Once the toast of London, Wilde has been deserted by all but a few diehard friends. Some, like Reggie Turner (Firth) and Robbie Ross (Thomas) generally cared for him and looked after him as best they could, which considering Wilde’s penchant for hedonism was no easy task. There was also Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Morgan), the young man whose affair with Wilde ended up being what got Wilde jailed. He is portrayed here as a selfish, childish and arrogant prick who treats Wilde like garbage, but whom Wilde still loved passionately. That, sadly, is not an unusual story; I think we’ve all known somebody who was flinded by their love for someone who was completely toxic.

The cinematography here is lush and nicely captures the gilded glory of an age in which austerity wasn’t a factor, not to mention the lovely countryside scenes in Europe. An elegiac score contributes to the overall melancholy tone. This is not a movie you’ll want to see when you need to be cheered up.

Yet, there is much to recommend it, starting first and foremost with Everett. His passion for the project is palpable throughout and his performance here is likely to be what he is remembered for. Clearly Wilde is someone who means something special to Everett and the care he puts into his every gesture and sad-eyed regret will haunt even the most jaded of filmgoers.

My one issue with the film is that it is told in a non-linear fashion and there are regular flashbacks. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to tell if you’re seeing a flashback or not at times and it ends up being unnecessarily confusing. Some critics have complained that Everett doesn’t really educate the viewer in Wilde’s body of work, but I think he does something better; he inspires the viewer to want to research it on their own.

What happened to Oscar Wilde was a massive miscarriage of justice. Although he was pardoned posthumously along with tens of thousands of other men convicted of the crime of being “indecent with men,” he deserved to be lauded in his twilight years, not despised and spat upon. It is perhaps poetic justice that today he is remembered for being one of the greatest names in English literary history and an icon to the gay community, while those who tormented him are largely forgotten.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances throughout, particularly by Everett. Beautifully shot.
REASONS TO AVOID: Difficult to tell what was a flashback and what isn’t.
FAMILY VALUES: The film contains plenty of adult thematic content, sexual situations including graphic nudity, profanity, violence and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Oscar Wilde gets his hair cut at the beginning of his prison sentence, that’s Everett actually getting his hair cut. As this was one of the first scenes shot, leaving Everett nearly bald, he would wear a wig throughout most of the rest of the movie.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews: Metacritic: 64/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving Vincent
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
THe Leisure Seeker

Night School (2018)


Kevin Hart is THIS tall…

(2018) Comedy (UniversalKevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Rob Riggle, Romany Malco, Taran Killam, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Al Madrigal, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Keith David, Anne Winters, Fat Joe, Ben Schwartz, Yvonne Orji, Bresha Webb, Jeff Rose, Donna Biscoe, Owen Harn, Zach Osterman, Janet Metzger, Tim Ware, Miriam Kulick, Curtis Washington, Maria Legarda. Directed by Malcolm D. Lee

 

Kevin Hart and Tiffany Haddish are two of the funniest and most successful comics alive. You would think that a movie starring the both of them would be funny, no?

No. Hart stars as Teddy, a high school dropout who manages to literally burn his last place of employment to the ground. Desperate to find a job, he just needs a GED in order to win his girlfriend (Echikunwoke) and get a high-paying job at a merchant bank that his friend (Schwartz) has secured him.

Getting that GED won’t be easy. He has to return to his alma mater, whose principal (Killam) is now the nerd that Hart bullied back in the day and the teacher (Haddish) is a no-nonsense sort who isn’t falling one iota for Teddy’s streetwise hustler charm, particularly since it’s obvious that Teddy isn’t planning on putting much – if any – effort into the task.

San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle (who was far more generous than his review than I am) gets the movie’s main problem down quite well; Hart is an aspirational comedian, one who makes his living off playing characters who want to better themselves but sabotage themselves at every turn. Haddish is more of an anarchic comic, one who excels by causing chaos and then resolving it. The two styles don’t really mix well, and the victim here is Haddish whose style is suborned to Hart’s, which turns out to be a colossal waste of her talents.

That doesn’t mean that the movie is without laughs – with the kind of talent in this cast top to bottom it would be impossible not to at least chuckle from time to time. Sadly, though the movie starts out as a ponderous monolithic bore basing most of its comedy on fart, butt and poop jokes, or at least humor on that level. Hart is much better than that. However, I will admit that if you stick with the movie, it does get better as it goes along…just not enough for me to really recommend it.

REASONS TO SEE: Gets better as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: Predictable and unfunny. Not enough chemistry between Hart and Haddish.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, crude and sexual humor throughout, some drug references and a bit of violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although hart has written several of his comedy specials, this is his first feature film writing credit.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft,  Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews: Metacritic: 43/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING:  Summer School
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
The Predator

Ocean’s 8


Back in black.

(2018) Action Comedy (Warner Brothers) Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Elliott Gould, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Richard Armitrage, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Dakota Fanning, Sarah Paulson, James Corden, Dana Ivey, Elizabeth Ashley, Marlo Thomas, Charlotte Kirk, Whitney White, Charles Prendergast, Damian Young, Talia Cuomo. Directed by Gary Ross

 

Sure, we need more films with empowered women doing what men do. The Ocean’s trilogy had an A-list all-star cast including George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Bernie Mac and so on and so forth. Why should they have all the fun?

Indeed, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to prove that girls just wanna have fun too but the movie is sorely lacking in the presence of Steven Soderbergh, who wrote snappy dialogue, created a retro mood that recalled the Rat Pack that made the original Ocean’s 11 and let the men loose in Sin City – obviously the cast was having a great time with one another.

Sadly, this heist movie involving the theft of a fabulous Cartier diamond necklace from the equally fabulous Met Gala party annually hosted by Vogue’s Anna Wintour (who cameos as herself, one of a raft of cameos) fails to deliver the goods. As much as the Oceans trilogy felt like all involved were having a great time, this one feels like just another job. The bonding never feels authentic and the chemistry is sorely lacking. Like the distaff version of Ghostbusters back in 2016, the movie feels less of an ensemble and more of a collection of actresses. Don’t get me wrong – some of the sequences here are done with the kind of clever wit that the Oceans films are known for and the movie is entertaining in its own right and it makes some salient points about our celebrity-obsessed culture but it doesn’t hold up to any of its predecessors except maybe the least of the series, Oceans 13.

Part of the problem is that I think the expectations for a distaff version of an established and beloved franchise is that the movie will replicate the feel of the originals and that’s hard enough to do in the first place; throw in that the cast is going to be all-female in a fairly misogynistic society as we have and the movie has two strikes on it before it gets out of the gate. I think that thand their relationships I I think that the biggest mistake that was made here was that short shrift was given to the characters at the expense of a “sisters are doing it for themselves” empowerment narrative and sisters can do it for themselves as Wonder Woman and The Hunger Games have more than proven. It’s a pity that a cast this glittery left me so cold.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the sequences are marvelous.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks the camaraderie of the first three films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use and sexually suggestive content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Gould is the only actor from the first trilogy to appear in this film, scenes were filmed with Carl Reiner and Matt Damon but were both left on the cutting room floor.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bandits
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bob Fosse: It’s Showtime!

Charlie Says (2018)


Charlie says “kill the rich.”

(2018) True Life Drama (IFC) Hannah Murray, Suki Waterhouse, Sosie Bacon, Marianne Rendón, Matt Smith, Grace Van Dien, Merritt Wever, Annabeth Gish, Chace Crawford, Bridger Zadina, Lindsay Farris, Kimmy Shields, Kayli Carter, India Ennenga, Matt Riedy, Tracy Perez, Sol Rodriguez, Dayle McLeod, Julia Schlaepfer, Bryan Adrian, Cameron Gellman, James Trevena-Brown, Jackie Joyner. Directed by Mary Harron

 

Perhaps one of the most notorious crimes in American history is the Tate-LaBianca murders committed by the Manson family cult in August, 1969. It was all the more horrifying because several of the perpetrators were young women who by all accounts sweet-natured, good-hearted girls before they met Manson. How they journeyed from that background to become vicious mass murderers has always been a subject of speculation.

Director Mary Harron (American Psycho) takes on the task of looking at three of the most notorious women – Leslie “Lulu” Van Houten (Murray), Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkle (Bacon) and Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Rendón) – three years after the crimes were committed and after they’d been sentenced to death, a sentence which was commuted to life imprisonment after California abolished the death penalty in 1972.

Mostly we see this through Van Houten’s eyes; how she was brought over to the cult by her friends Krenwinkle and Bobby Beausoleil (Gellman) and how she eventually fell under the spell of the charismatic wannabe rock star Charlie Manson (Smith). Charlie gave them purpose and in the era of free love, all the love they wanted. In return, he told them what to think, how to act and who to have sex with. He often exhorted them to “kill their egos,” erasing their sense of self. Under his tutelage, they became blank slates willing to love him, screw him, die for him and kill for him.

While in prison graduate student Karlene Faith (Wever) is assigned to teach the girls while they are being held separate from the rest of the general population at the California Correctional Institute for Women. Karlene is disturbed by the extent the women have been brainwashed (they still believe that Manson was an absolute God three years into their prison sentence) and hopes to bring them out of his control by using feminist theory. Of course, once that is accomplished the ladies will have to deal with the horror of what they have done.

The film doesn’t really cover any ground we haven’t been over before – anyone who saw the landmark television miniseries Helter Skelter will be more than familiar with the story. However, this is the first time we’ve seen the story through the eyes of the Manson women. Van Houten of the three makes a memorable impression but then that was the primary subject of Faith’s book on which the movie is partially based (several other sources were also used). It helps that Murray captures the innocence, longing and naivete of Van Houten; she becomes a sympathetic character, a victim of Manson before the murders even occurred.

Matt Smith, the former Doctor Who, is magnificent as Manson. In what I believe to be the best portrayal of the late cult leader since Steve Railsback in the Helter Skelter miniseries in 1971. Smith shows a man becoming more paranoid and vicious as his delusions become more pronounced. The hippie movement was meant to be one of peace and love; Manson was the dark distorted reflection of that ethic. It served to terrify middle America and cast a pall on what the young people of the time were trying to accomplish. I lived in the San Fernando Valley in 1969 not all that far from Spahn Ranch where the Manson Family was headquartered; I remember the era well.

While the murders aren’t the centerpiece of the film, they are shown in some graphic detail. This may be off-putting for those who are sensitive or squeamish. The movie is creepy from the beginning but the longer it goes, the creepier it gets. It does show how even decent, ordinary human beings can be changed into homicidal monsters. It is not comforting to know that it could happen to any one of us given the wrong circumstances.

There are some great period songs on the soundtrack and a nice recreation of Spahn Ranch (the real one burned to the ground in 1975 and is part of a state park now with nary a sign the Family was ever there). I don’t know that the world needed another movie about the Manson family – and apparently the murders play an important role in Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – but certainly it is interesting to see things from the viewpoint of the women who were in on crimes that were so mindblowingly awful that most of us couldn’t possibly conceive of them, let alone carry them out. This is truly a chilling film.

REASONS TO SEE: The longer it goes, the creepier it gets. Smith makes the best Manson since Steve Railsback. The soundtrack is terrific.
REASONS TO AVOID: Might be a little too lurid for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, drug use, violence, sex and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The songs performed by Smith as Charles Manson in the film were actually written by Manson himself.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Helter Skelter
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
All is True

Ash is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü)


A loaded gun will get everybody’s attention.

(2018) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Tao Zhao, Fan Liao, Yi’nan Diao, Xiaogang Feng, Casper Liang, Zheng Xu, Yibal Zhang. Directed by Zhangke Jia

Qiao (Zhao) is the girlfriend of gangster Bin (Liao) and as such commands a position of high status in Datong, the provincial city in which she lives. When her boyfriend is attacked by a gang of vicious, bold youths she fires a gun into the air to stop the violence. She ends up being the one arrested for possession of an illegal firearm but despite the police interrogation, she doesn’t give up her boyfriend (it’s his gun). She’s sentenced to five years in prison. When she is released, Bin is nowhere to be found – in fact none of those who were part of the Jiang hu, the fraternal order of the underground who follow a rigid code of loyalty are to be found either. She hears that Bin has left the criminal life and has a new girlfriend; she sets out to find him, trying her best to survive in the meantime. Eventually she does find him and he is a different person as is she; therefore, they part and she heads back to Datong where it all started.

This latest film from virtuoso director Zhangke Jia takes Chinese gangster movies and turns them into a sprawling epic, but not in the sense of a Godfather film. This is more of an emotional epic that follows Qiao through her journey through triumph, betrayal, vindication and disappointment. As China goes through enormous changes in the 17 years in which this film takes place, so do the characters try to adjust – not always successfully. That’s kind of a hallmark of Jia’s films as is Zhao, his real-life wife who stars in many of his films. She is extraordinary here.

Some American viewers may not have the patience for a film like this; the pacing is very deliberate throughout and although there are some well-choreographed fight scenes and moments of vivid wonder, for the most part Jia is content to simply let things unfold at their own pace. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful movie that while not Jia’s best is certainly not a disappointment in the least.

REASONS TO SEE: There is an epic feel to the entire film. Zhao delivers a tremendous performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is slow-moving particularly throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jia pays tribute to John Woo by utilizing the theme song from The Killers throughout the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Six
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Sorry Angel

The Age of Blood (Yeokmo – Banranui Sidae)


Don’t cross swords with this guy if you can avoid it!

(2017) Martial Arts (Storm) Hae-In Jung, Won-jong Lee, Cheoi-min Park, Seung-jin Hong, Ji-hoon Kim, Hae-Sung Kwon, Tae-Joon Ryu, Sua-a Hong, Lee-won Jong, Jo-jae Yoon. Directed by Hong-sun Kim

I had always thought that the Chinese and Japanese were the masters of the martial arts period movies but of late the Koreans have won a seat at that particular table and this film does nothing to diminish their newly found status.

Kim-Ho (Jung) is a master swordsman for the army of King Yeongjo (Ryu) who has returned home in shame after losing a battle to the rebel armies of In-jwa Lee (Kim) who was captured during the fight. To his  mortification, Kim-Ho is demoted to a prison guard at the equivalent of a federal penitentiary. To make matters worse, he becomes subordinate to his Uncle who has become very disappointed in his nephew, as has Kim-Ho’s daughter who inexplicably winds up going to work with him his first night.

And that first night turns out to be a really bad night for “take your daughter to work” night. In-Jwa Lee’s right hand man and master swordsman in his own right Min-chul Do (Yoon) is dead set on breaking out his boss from jail. The plan is to then take him to the Imperial Palace where he’ll have the opportunity to take out the King and, to his mind, restore the kingdom to righteousness. Did we mention that Yeongjo ascended the throne by poisoning his brother, the rightful heir?

But neither In-jwa nor Min-chul reckoned on the presence of Kim-Ho who is armed only with what is essentially a nightstick, his own sword being taken away by his Uncle who disdainfully explains that he won’t need it. Kim-Ho will have to take on an army nearly by himself, one that is set on killing every living thing in the prison, guards and prisoners alike. Heads will roll (literally) and blood will spill before the night is out.

This is a more than satisfying action film with some spectacular sequences and some nifty swordplay. Jung has become a star in Korea although he is not quite as well-known here in the States; he is better known for his boyish good looks and tends to play more romantic roles. In this film, he starts off with almost a comedic role but as the film wears on becomes a deadly warrior. This is, so far as I know, his first foray into martial arts action star territory and he shows he can handle it ably.

The movie also benefits from a very well-done animated opening that sets the scene, and terrific cinematography throughout, although some of the night scenes are too dimly lit. There’s also a strange penchant to go from color to black and white and back again without any rhyme or reason.

Although some of the characters in the film are historical (and a few based on historical figures) this is largely fiction. While you get a glimpse of Korea’s Joseon era – in many ways their golden age – this isn’t a history lesson per se. However it is massively entertaining and is everything you want from a martial arts historical piece. This doesn’t have American distribution yet and sadly their last screening at the New York Asian Film Festival is this afternoon but keep your eyes peeled for it at your local Asian film festival. Hopefully a savvy distributor specializing in Asian films will pick this one up.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is beautiful and the action sequences outstanding.  The movie changes drastically in tone from beginning to end which actually works really well. The animated opening sequence is outstanding.
REASONS TO STAY: There are strange switches from color to black and white without explanation or seeming reason. Some of the sequences are poorly lit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: King Yeongjo was an actual monarch during Korea’s Joseon era who ascended to the throne pretty much the way it was described here in the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Curse of the Golden Flower
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Scythian Lamb

Paddington 2


This may be the ultimate “oh dear” expression.

(2017) Family (Warner Brothers) Sally Hawkins, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw (voice), Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton (voice), Hugh Bonneville, Madeleine Harris, Michael Gambon (voice), Samuel Joslin, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, Richard Ayoade, Peter Capaldi, Joanna Lumley, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jessica Hynes, Robbie Gee, Tom Conti, Meera Syal, Claire Keelan. Directed by Paul King

 

Sequels so very rarely get to be better than their originals but here’s one that is true for that will appeal mainly to the parents with small kids set. The series of British children’s books by the late Michael Bond has made a smooth transition to the big screen and while it didn’t get the box office numbers of a big hit mainly due to circumstances beyond the control of the filmmakers (more on that in a minute), it has all the earmarks of being a great franchise.

The plot is simple; Paddington’s (Whishaw) Aunt Lucy (Staunton) is about to celebrate her 100th birthday and for the special occasion the animated bear wants to get her a special gift. He even finds one – a pop-up book that tours London. However, the price is a bit beyond the bear’s meager savings so he goes out to earn enough to buy the book but on the eve of his being able to afford it, someone steals it and Paddington is blamed and sent to prison for it.

Hawkins who returns from the first film as Mrs. Brown, the mom of the family that adopts Paddington, continues to excel in every role she takes on. The last few years in particular have seen some wonderful performances by the actress including an Oscar nomination but this is while not up to that level is nonetheless really, really good.

Grant gets a chance to let his inner ham out as he plays a has-been actor which could have led to lots of really inappropriate jokes, but Grant not only sets to the role with a fine sense of self-deprecating humor but with a lot of gusto as well. He very nearly steals the movie but the fact of the matter is that the film is so well-written, so warm and fuzzy that it’s like pulling a favorite blanket over you on a rainy day and curling up with a nice hot cup of tea and a beloved book you’re re-reading. It doesn’t hurt that the ending is such a feel-good moment that only the most hard-hearted of people will not get misty-eyed. There is no bigger group of unrepentant hard-hearts than film critics but the acclaim for this film has been nearly universal. If you didn’t see this one in theaters – and chances are you didn’t – you owe it to yourself and particularly your kids (if any) to catch this one on home video when it becomes available on it next month.

REASONS TO GO: The climactic train chase is a great deal of fun. Hawkins is becoming one of my favorite actresses. The ending (not including a scene while the credits are running) is one of the most touching and beautiful I’ve ever seen.
REASONS TO STAY: The film drags a bit in the middle. Some of the acting is a little silly and lots of the humor is very, VERY British.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of action on a kids show level as well as some mild rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: As of this writing, Paddington 2 holds the distinction of having the most positive reviews (192) on Rotten Tomatoes without a single negative one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Garfield
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Cocote