Delicious Dish

Raw

by Hope Madden

Much has been made of barf bags and fainting during screenings of writer/director Julia Ducournau’s feature debut, Raw.

A festival favorite, the film has been plagued by rumors of aggressive audience nausea, let’s say, as well as ambulance calls. Several theaters recently have offered vomit bags with ticket purchases.

Don’t let that cloud your expectations. Raw is no Hostel, no Human Centipede.

What you’ll find instead of in-your-face viscera and nihilistic corporeal abuse is a thoughtful coming of age tale.

And meat.

Justine (Garance Marillier, impressive) is off to join her older sister (Ella Rumpf) at veterinary school – the very same school where their parents met. Justine may be a bit sheltered, a bit prudish to settle in immediately, but surely with her sister’s help, she’ll be fine.

The film often felt to me like a cross between Trouble Every Day and Anatomy. The latter, a German film from 2000, follows a prudish med student dealing with carnage and peer pressure. In the former, France’s Claire Denis directs a troubling parable combining sexual desire and cannibalism.

Ducournau has her cagey way with the same themes that populate any coming-of-age story – pressure to conform, peer pressure generally, societal order and sexual hysteria. Here all take on a sly, macabre humor that’s both refreshing and unsettling.

A vegetarian from a meat-free family, Justine objects to the freshman hazing ritual of eating a piece of raw meat. But once she submits to peer pressure and tastes that taboo, her appetite is awakened and it will take more and more dangerous, self-destructive acts to indulge her blood lust.

In a very obvious way, Raw is a metaphor for what can and often does happen to a sheltered girl when she leaves home for college. But as Ducournau looks at those excesses committed on the cusp of adulthood, she creates opportunities to explore and comment on so many upsetting realities, and does so with absolute fidelity to her core metaphor.

She immediately joins the ranks of Jennifer Kent (Babadook) and Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) – all recent, first time horror filmmakers whose premier features predict boundless talent.

Verdict-4-0-Stars

Major Upgrade

Ghost in the Shell

by George Wolf

For all the celebrated vision of the 1995 Japanese anime standard Ghost in the Shell, it resembled the inspirations of a teenage boy hopped up on the works of Phillip K. Dick and Hugh Hefner. There was warmed-over sci-fi pondering, and there was plenty of gratuitous boobage.

Director Rupert Sanders delivers the live action remake as a visually rich feast, bringing a welcome upgrade to both character and storytelling.

In a technically dizzying future where the line between human and machine is growing constantly thinner, Major (Scarlett Johansson) emerges as the first true “ghost in the shell”: human brain in a cyber body.

She’s viewed as the perfect weapon, but her mission to locate Kuze (Michael Pitt), a cyber-terrorist capable of hacking into human minds, leads to some revelations that will have Major questioning her loyalties.

The studio defense of Johansson’s casting amounts to a weak tap dance around the truth: she’s a big star who looks the part and they think she’ll combine butts with seats. While the “whitewash” criticism is fair, Johansson also brings a necessary shift away from Major as merely a ridiculous adolescent fantasy.

Johansson conveys well the clash of mind and machine at work in Major, while Pilou Asbaek (A War) steals scenes as Batou, Major’s macho partner who’s sporting a nifty new set of cyber eyeballs.

Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) and his visual team work wonders (the 3D version is worth the investment), re-creating various scenes from Mamoru Oshii’s original film with stunning new flourish. This future world pops with visual style in every corner while maintaining a cold, unforgiving and detached aesthetic that feels right.

Screenwriters Jamie Moss and William Wheeler do provide crisper dialogue and a more polished narrative than the original film, but it’s a tale still rooted in overwrought tropes and stale cliches. Ironically, with a moral so consumed by the preservation of humanity, Ghost in the Shell doesn’t give you much to think about.

This beautiful body needs more of a soul.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

Identity Crisis

The Blackcoat’s Daughter

by Hope Madden

Winter break approaches at a Catholic New England boarding school. Snow piles up outside, the buildings empty, yet Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton) remain. One has tricked her parents for an extra day with her townie boyfriend. One remains under more mysterious circumstances.

Things in writer/director Oz Perkins’s The Blackcoat’s Daughter quietly unravel from there – although quiet is not precisely the word for it. There is a stillness to the chilly, empty halls. But thanks to the filmmaker’s brother Elvis, whose disquieting score fills these empty spaces with buzzing, whispering white noise, a sinister atmosphere is born.

Like Perkins’s Netflix-produced follow up I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, Blackcoat’s Daughter breathes atmosphere and tension. Perkins repays your patience and your attention. You can expect few jump scares, but this is not exactly a slow-burn of a film, either.

It behaves almost in the way a picture book does. In a good picture book, the words tell only half the story. The illustrations don’t simply mirror the text, they tell their own story as well. If there is one particular and specific talent Blackcoat’s Daughter exposes in its director, it is his ability with a visual storyline.

Perkins is also a master at generating tension, a kind built on unsure footing. The filmmaker routinely touches on your expectations, quietly toying with them. He introduces characters and situations rife with horror possibilities, but equally plausible as images of safety: priests in a boarding school, cars on an icy road, James Remar in a motel room.

Remar’s mug can be associated with so many villainous characters that his presence in this film as a concerned father figure is perfect. There is one masterpiece of a scene between Remar and Emma Roberts – one that dances with to so many different rhythms of danger – and it perfectly encapsulates this filmmaker’s power over an audience.

When the slow and deliberate dread turns to outright carnage – when Perkins punctuates his forbidding atmosphere with hard action – he loses his footing just a bit. But Blackcoat’s Daughter is a thoughtful little horror show, its final act a fascinating rethinking of old horror tropes.

Pay attention when you watch this one. There are loads of sinister little clues to find.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

Glen Baby Glen Ross

The Boss Baby

by Hope Madden

Imaginative only child Tim (Miles Christopher Bakshi) loves his life. He loves to play with his mom (Lisa Kudrow) and dad (Jimmy Kimmel), loves to have adventures, and loves to go to sleep after his three favorite stories, five hugs and one special song.

All that changes when his little brother (Alec Baldwin) arrives. Why can’t his parents see that this stranger in their home is all manner of wrong?

Tim’s right – there is something up with the wee one. Baldwin’s Baby has been sent to Tim’s house to infiltrate a pet company. Why? Because puppies are so darn cute, people might want to stop having babies and just get puppies.

Things get considerably more convoluted from there.

Marla Frazee’s children’s book The Boss Baby is a clever metaphor brought to life. There’s a new boss in the house, and he is a total baby. Cute.

It was Michael McCullers’s unfortunate task to turn Frazee’s couple dozen lines into a screenplay that would take up approximately 90 minutes. That leaves an awful, awful lot of space to fill with McCullers’s imagination, and that brain takes us in some weird directions.

The film’s foundation combines ideas from the recent animated mediocrity The Secret Life of Pets and Storks. Plus there’s a surprisingly good dose of The Office tossed in there, and, of course, some Glengarry Glen Ross.

But still, there is more time to kill.

How shall we fill it?

How about with Elvis impersonators? Lots of poop jokes? An evil Mrs. Doubtfire? Pacifier acid trip? Maybe a pot shot or two at designer puppies?

Why not?

As it turns out, The Baby Boss is a very strange and strangely subversive little cartoon.

Many of the jokes are aimed high above the average 3-foot-tall and under crowd, but honestly there’s not a great deal for the tykes to cling to. The story is far too complicated, and the dazzling array of bizarre ornamentation only further confounds viewers.

Maybe you have to settle for the little things. Does Tim learn that there is enough love to share with his baby brother? Does Alec Baldwin say, “cookies are for closers”?

Yes and yes.

Verdict-2-5-Stars

Brutally Vital

Land of Mine

by Rachel Willis

Land of Mine is almost impossible to watch. Not because it’s bad. On the contrary, it’s an amazingly crafted film that boasts an incredible screenplay and cast. It’s hard to watch because writer/director Martin Zandvliet’s film is so intense it leaves the viewer on constant edge.

Roland Møller is Sargent Carl Rasmussen, a Danish soldier tasked with overseeing fourteen German POWs at the end of World War II as they clear a beach in Denmark of land mines. This violation of international law is a stain on Denmark’s history that Zandvliet brings to light. The thought of grown men forced to crawl across beaches searching cautiously for land mines is repellant enough. It’s made worse by the fact that many of the POWs were teenage boys.

Zandvliet’s scripts balances the emotions of the situation well, and Møller’s performance brilliantly captures the feelings of the Danish people. There is little sympathy for the German POWs. If anything, this is seen as a just punishment for the crimes committed by Germany during the war. However, the audience sees the soldiers for what they are: children who simply want to go home.

As the film proceeds, tensions mount. The history of the situation is brutal and bleak, so as the audience gets to know the characters, it’s impossible not to sympathize and worry for their safety with each moment that passes. The mental torture inflicted on the prisoners is felt by the audience as we’re forced to watch their slow advance across the beach. Moments of quiet could be rent apart at any moment. It’s nearly unbearable.

However, Zandvliet knows when to give the audience a break, and the scenes on the beach are countered by more lighthearted moments: a soccer game, the boys talking about their futures, and interactions between Rasmussen and the boys that show his shifting emotions.

Land of Mine is difficult viewing, but as Zandvliet brings empathy and compassion to a dark moment in history, it becomes equally vital.

Verdict-5-0-Stars

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kCgLSY-3bYw

Black Magic Woman

The Love Witch

by Hope Madden

Anna Biller, everybody. Holy shit.

Wes Anderson with a Black Mass fetish and a feminist point of view, Biller wrote/directed/produced/edited/set-designed/costume-designed/music-supervised the seductive sorcery headtrip The Love Witch.

Elaine (Samantha Robinson – demented perfection) needs a change of scenery. Driving her red convertible up the seacoast highway toward a new life in northern California, her troubles – and her mysteriously dead ex-husband – are behind her. Surely, with her smart eyeshades and magic potions, she’ll find true love.

Shot in dreamy 35mm and produced in lurid Technicolor, the film achieves a retro aesthetic unparalleled in modern cinema. And yet, a mid-film cell phone and third act DNA evidence pulls you from the hip Sixties spell of burlesque shows and tea rooms – but don’t mistake this for anachronism. Instead, it fits perfectly into a narrative that sees a deranged lunatic embrace archaic gender roles with the rage of one already ruined by them.

Enough cannot be said for Biller’s imagination for detail – from the contents of a “witch bottle” to the retro look of every actor, the era-evoking flatness in line delivery to the excruciating art adorning Elaine’s walls.

The orgy of colors, textures and dessert treats signifies the sensual madness eating away at poor, narcissistic Elaine.

Biller’s casting sense is as keen. Every actor not only fully embraces the weirdness of Biller’s spell, but each looks like they just walked out of a Sears Roebuck catalog circa 1968.

Expect a loose confection of a plot, as Elaine molds herself into the ideal sex toy, winning and then tiring of her trophies. This allows Biller to simultaneously reaffirm and reverse gender roles with appropriately wicked humor.

Biller pulls thematically from her 2007 film Viva, but her epic knowledge of the sexual revolution era Black Magic Woman flicks (Oh, there are plenty: Mephisto’s Waltz, Season of the Witch, The Velvet Vampire) and her clear growth in her craft help The Love Witch exceed all expectations.

Verdict-3-5-Stars

So That Happened…Local Wildlife

Local Wildlife

by Hope Madden

Did you hear the one about the Southern Ohio man who purchased a mountain lion at a flea market and promptly lost it?

The punchline is, that’s a true story.

There are so many things wrong with that sentence I don’t know where to begin.

I was writing a short magazine article on Ohio’s updated exotic pet laws. I got in touch with Terry because I was looking for some kind of counterargument to balance the seemingly reasonable limitations recommended by Columbus’s health department.

Terry sold exotic animals, so the new restrictions would limit his business. They also meant getting rid of his beloved pet Smiley, the 5-foot gator who roamed free through his store.

That wasn’t dangerous?

Terry guaranteed that captive-born animals were harmless, and that garden variety pet stores carried much deadlier wares than anything I’d find in his store. I glanced at the toothy, venomous, cold-eyed whatnot behind glass all around me.

“In fact,” he began, lifting a small box taped for shipping, “what’s in this box here is one of the most dangerous animals you’ll find in this state.”

He shook the box at me for emphasis. I’d had surgery on my left foot and was wearing an orthotic boot, so outrunning a predator seemed unlikely. This suddenly felt like a problem. Then Terry took out a pen and began to tear open the packing tape.

“You can buy these at almost any pet store, and I guarantee they do more damage to the human body than anything I sell.”

Again with the shaking.

Tape gone. Terror rising. Immobility problematic.

It turned out to be a small, non-venomous reptile, bright green and not un-gekko-like but prone to biting. A let down of sorts, but I’m not ashamed to say Terry had scared the living shit out of me.

I’d lost my train of thought due to the anxiety and relief cycle, and when I began paying attention again Terry was telling me that Ohio needed no laws at all to regulate the ownership of exotic animals.

Certain that I’d misheard, I tried to clarify with the most obvious question that sprung to mind.

“What about, like, lions?”

“Most zoos turn to private collectors when they want to acquire a rare exotic.”

“But certainly there are animals that people shouldn’t own.”

“Other people,” he answered. “I mean, you don’t even have to get a license to raise a child, but you need one to own an alligator.”

Wait, but…I mean…children rarely eat you.

Terry went on to tell me of a middle aged man with an intellectual disability whose mother died, leaving him alone with his 8-foot gator and 40 rabbits. The tragedy, in Terry’s eyes, was that the state intervened and made the man give up his gator as well as his rabbits.

Hold the phone – there was an 8-foot gator living in the city of Columbus? Inside city limits?

I’m sorry, did you say 40 rabbits?

What the hell?

Terry went on to share other pet owner misfortunes. In all Terry’s stories, the tragedy is that the owner is separated from his animal. Even in the case of an apartment manager who kept 10 gators in his 2-bedroom basement flat.

Ten.

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The other tenants were unaware.

And you couldn’t trust the state, the health department, the humane society, not even the cops. Terry told the tale of a Cincinnati man infected with rhino venom. I don’t even know what that is, but it sounds nasty, doesn’t it?

Terry maintained that the cop on duty knew of the only stash of rhino anti-venom in the state, and he neglected to share this information, rendering him the Cincinnati man’s murderer.

But the snake is really the killer, right?

“No. The cop knew where the anti-venom was.”

“But, what if he wasn’t the cop on call? Then would the snake have been the killer?”

“But the cop on call knew where to find the anti-venom.”

“But the man’s deadly poisonous snake bit him. Doesn’t that lead you to believe that he shouldn’t have had the snake in the first place? Maybe that poisonous snakes are too dangerous for ordinary citizens?”

“No Ohioan has ever died due to poisonous snake bite.”

“You mean, except that guy in Cincinnati?”

“The cop on call could have saved him.”

“But he did die.”

“But the snake didn’t kill him. The cop did.”

The real villains, as the spreadsheet taped to his stockroom door would prove were I only to hobble past the register to see its evidence, were not the exotics or the cops, but domestic animals. More Ohioans perish due to cattle, horses, and dogs than to venomous snakes, gator bites, or constrictors every year, said Terry.

I’m no rocket scientist, but isn’t that because they’re Ohioans? Cows outnumber people in some areas of this state. What’s the dog-to-constrictor ratio in Ohio, I wonder?

This guy is nuts, I thought to myself as I began the arduous limp-marathon from the front of the store to the door with the statistics. Then, as I passed the register, I met the pet who’d replaced Smiley.

I nearly stepped on an enormous yellow python, piled up on the floor.

Free. Loose. Open for business.

As I halted my one good foot just inches from pissing off a natural predator, my own rarely tapped survival instinct kicked in.

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Hobbling backwards was easier than I’d have guessed.

In fact, hobbling right the fuck out of the store took me basically no effort at all.

Life: It’s What’s for Dinner

Life

by Matt Weiner

Life comes at you fast. Real fast, when it’s a hyper-intelligent Martian lifeform hell-bent on survival. In Life, a seemingly unstoppable alien terrorizes the isolated crew of a spaceship. Is the plot eerily familiar? You bet. Does the film do enough to merit its obvious Alien comparison? Surprisingly, yes.

Director Daniel Espinosa makes the most of the zero-gravity settings on the International Space Station—first with inspired long takes introducing the cramped passages, and later with the haunting, creative blood spurts that will soon saturate them.

Inhabiting the ISS is a multinational crew who has recovered alien life from Mars. All the diverse archetypes are on board, including a wisecracking specialist (Ryan Reynolds), a world-weary veteran (Jake Gyllenhaal) and a suspiciously reserved biologist (Miranda North). Plus a few more alien appetizers, but this paragraph is already more backstory than most of the crew members receive.

Excitement quickly turns to horror once scientist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) finds a way to bring the cell to life. The astronauts are no match for “Calvin,” as those blissfully ignorant down on Earth have christened the creature. The more astronauts Calvin feeds on, the bigger it gets until it balloons to a nightmarish love child between an octopus and the Xenomorph.

Life is written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the team responsible for Zombieland and Deadpool. And the film allows a few—very few—quiet moments to shade in some character depth. But these quasi-philosophical pauses just get in the way of the movie’s strengths.

And the biggest strength Life has going for it is that the film is a whole lot of fun as a dumb thriller. Well, that and a way-too-qualified cast who can add some pathos to the almost methodically expectant death scenes. (Did I mention how nifty those blood spurts are?)

Much like the ISS crew, the film comes dangerously close to running out of gas by the end. The familiar setup wears itself thin, and Calvin has too much CGI aloofness to win our affection like the Alien did.

Overall though, Espinosa mostly succeeds at keeping the action moving. Life trades in the languid dread of its forebear for a breakneck (among other appendages) pace that requires little thought and demands no frame-by-frame viewings. But while this monster might be a bit immature, it packs a vicious punch.

Verdict-3-0-Stars

 

Ride or Die

CHIPS

by Hope Madden

How many of you remember that, in 70s cop shows, cars blew up all the time?

Without that knowledge, one of two running jokes in CHIPS will make no sense. The other one – well, you’ll understand it, it’s just not funny.

Neither is much of anything else in writer/director/star/seemingly good guy Dax Shepard’s big screen tribute to the cop show of a bygone era.

Shepard plays Jon to Michael Peña’s Ponch, and the two have to overcome their intimacy issues and crack some case about dirty cops.

Peña’s a talented actor (and a hard worker – the 41-year-old has 83 acting credits). He’s also versatile, easily handling drama or comedy. What he’s not is a lead.

Neither is Shepard. Both actors are likeable enough, amusing enough, but not compelling enough to keep your interest for 100 minutes.

Shepard’s script doesn’t do them many favors, either. The convoluted story offers opportunities for cool motorcycle tricks, and who needs a reasonable plot for a 70s TV spoof? But the laughs aren’t there, the nostalgia doesn’t work, and the film lacks the self-referential humor and off-handed fondness for the source material that made films like 21 Jump Street so much fun.

Kristin Bell is underused but fun as Jon’s unlikeable ex-wife and Vincent D’Onofrio remains a welcome presence in any film. But the rest of the supporting cast gets little opportunity to make a mark.

It’s hard to hate CHIPS. Like its leads, the film is blandly appealing but seriously in need of something bolder to hold your attention.

Verdict-2-0-Stars

Shout at the Devil

The Devil’s Candy

by Hope Madden

Hard rock music makes for both an evocative soundtrack and theme for horror. It possesses a throbbing, angry darkness perfectly suited to imagery, behavior and pace. The hilariously wrong Kiwi flick Deathgasm and last year’s brilliant Green Room knew this.

Writer/director Sean Byrne recognizes this ripe musical landscape. He returns to the genre after too long an absence with his own head banging horror show – The Devil’s Candy.

In 2009 the Tasmanian filmmaker released one of my all-time favorite films, The Loved Ones. And while Candy can’t match the unhinged lunacy of Byrne’s previous classic, his skill with a story, a camera and a cast are still evident.

Ethan Embry plays Jesse Hellman, struggling metalhead painter who, with his wife and pre-teen daughter, just bought a bargain of a house out in the Texas sticks. Why so cheap? Amityville shit.

So, the demented son (Pruitt Taylor Vince) of the deceased former owners lurks about. Meanwhile Jesse’s art becomes more disturbing and consuming. But Byrne shifts expectations, setting the film up as a haunted house/possession terror that turns into more of a serial killer thriller.

Still, so much about this film smacks of redundancy. Too many movies follow a young family into the damned home of their dreams, generating tension with either the fear that one family member will turn on another, or that the parents cannot keep their child safe. Or both.

No, Byrne’s follow up film does not boast the same unbridled originality as Loved Ones. But he almost makes up for that flaw with well-crafted characters, excellent on-screen chemistry among his performers, and a genuine love of metal.

The crossroads between Satan and music – in imagery and lyric – have long influenced and been influenced by horror films. Black Sabbath and White Zombie took their names from scary movies, and the list of flicks that set Satan and rock music against the innocent is too long – and mostly too awful – to mention. (OK, a few: Trick or Treat, Phantom of the Paradise, The Gate, Suck, Liquid Sky, Queen of the Damned – remember that piece of garbage?)

Byrne does a better job of exploding the clichés associated with this line of thinking than perhaps any filmmaker who’s taken up Dio’s sign of the horns. No longer the hysterical outsider condemning that devil music, the film simply uses metal as its backdrop and vehicle, no judgment involved.

Byrne’s also blessed with a lead in Embry, whose caring and vulnerability shine through his tough- looking exterior. Vince is another reliable (if typecast) actor, easily generating sympathy and terror in equal measure.

Clocking in at under 90 minutes, Devil’s Candy is a tight little rocker. The lyrics are familiar, but the riffs still kick ass.

Verdict-3-0-Stars