Baby Money directed by Mikhael Bassilli and Luc Walpoth hangs on a simple premise, a couple down on their luck, facing eviction, and expecting a baby partake in a home robbery gone wrong. This was a competent debut feature and much more subdued than I expected. Like me, if you go into this expecting an all out end to end action packed crime thriller you will certainly be disappointed. However, if you go in with zero-expectations this character-driven suspense piece might be right for you.
What makes Baby Money work in part is Danay Garcia’s Minny. While the acting was competent throughout it is Garcia’s performance that really shone. Garcia carried much of the weight of this movie. The way she was able to expertly balance the emotion, thrills, and fear as the events unfolded were the most thrilling part of the film. Like I emphasized earlier the performances make this more of a character study than an action packed thriller.
Besides Garcia’s performance I also enjoyed how the events unfolded in almost real time. Baby Money would have been a more thrilling ride with a tighter script and additional character development especially in the storyline involving Taja V. Simpson’s and Vernon Taylor III’s respective characters. A good way to boil down and describe the essence of the film would be as Safdie-esque but without their budget, brains, polish, and style.
King Car is a Brazilian production, directed by Renata Pinheiro overflowing with style. The production elements really stand out chiefly the art design which brought the film to life. King Car also hints at a growing trend of creative freedom and wave of genre films for Brazilian cinema. Primarily billed as a Sci-Fi feature King Car also interpolates elements of political and social commentary, fantasy, and a coming-of-age story that make for a memorable ride.
Anchored by the fantastic Matheus Nachtergaele, King Car tells the story of Uno (Luciano Pedro Jr.) a teen that has a special connection with cars and his uncle Zé Macaco (Nachtergaele) who transform junk cars into sleek vehicles with the ability to speak. As the cars are transformed the film begins to lean heavily into its social and political commentary that likely will mostly be lost to audiences who are not Brazilian. With three screen writers the movie would have clearly benefited from a tighter script that fleshes out the objectives and psyche of its protagonist Uno.
Even so, it was still a joy to watch. This is the type of movie that has something to say despite getting lost in its own metaphors. Most importantly, King Car is a strong indication of a resurgent Brazilian cinema that is more comfortable dealing with contemporary themes and exploring different film genres. If this sounds like the type of narratives you are intrigued by I’d suggest watching Divino Amor (2019) and Bacurau (2019) who’ve recently helped pave the way for a movie like this.
Pascal-Alex Vincent’s Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist is a love letter to a master gone to soon. Vincent’s direction is notable in it’s unobtrusiveness, gently propelling us with sleek effortless editing along many beats that Perfect Blue, Paprika, Tokyo Godfathers, and Millennium Actress fans already know. Long before this documentary was on my radar I longed to know the master more, to get a deeper sense of his creativity to understand how he came to be an artisan. I also suspected from cursory information that he was too reserved a man to ever give those secrets away.
The beginning of the film lay the groundwork of his life pre-motion animation. His interest in Manga and some of his influences. After that brief introduction we’re introduced to perhaps his most notable film these many years later and what I think is one of the greatest directorial debuts of all time. Perfect Blue. An adaptation of the novel Perfect Blue: Complete Metamorphosis by Yoshikazu Takeuchi. In which an Idol transitions to acting and an obsessive stalker begins to threaten her life. Aronofsky who makes numerous interview appearances in the film tried to get a live action adaptation off the ground in the early 00’s and has cited it as influence for multiple projects, most notably Black Swan.
It then continues along to Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika. Cited and focused on in their order of creation and release. We learn that Kon was including characters from his next would be film Dreaming Machine within the world explored in Paprika. Along the way many collaborators chime in citing shared experiences with Kon, his creative process, work ethic, dual personality, often remarking on Kon’s ethereal personality that even his closest collaborators cite when asked who he was. They don’t really know, they describe what he did and how, but “who” Satoshi the man was seems to escape definition.
The film also details Kon’s television series Paranoia Agent. Which he used to leverage opportunities for burgeoning animators fresh out of college, and to experiment with collaboration. Assigning a different director to each episode he explored numerous ways to detail a coherent story with a revolving door of artists and artisans along the way. Moments of deep emotionality are detailed by a few in the cast and crew, Junko Iwao explains that she was insecure taking the role of Mima in Perfect Blue and that she didn’t want to play a character who’s being beaten for the directors pleasure. Kon opened himself up to her and shared perhaps more than he did with other collaborators that he put himself within the actress, that she was a representation of him as an artist within the industry of Japan feeling exploited and used. His frequent composer Susumu Hirasawa refused to work with Kon on his last project Dreaming Machine, and tearfully wishes he could apologize and thank Kon for believing in him, giving him opportunities, and bequeathing a career onto him that he may not have otherwise achieved.
Satoshi Kon, The Illusionist is a comprehensive and quick look at one of the most influential animators of the century. Though it isn’t one, it does feel a bit like a gravestone that one places their hand on, and drags their finger along in search of understanding what was, and what may yet be that this person had a hand in. Pascal-Alex Vincent should be commended for his work as assembler and director, when you’re detailing a life lost it’s easy to get beleaguered, the quick runtime and filmography backbone to the film propel it along far quicker than one might expect. If you’ve spent time with Kon’s films before, this a great way to appreciate the artisan that made them, and maybe find out which of his projects that you haven’t seen and would like to. If you haven’t seen any yet, this would serve as a lovely introduction.
Mark O’Brien’s directorial debut The Righteous is a severe film detailing Frederic Mason’s (Henry Czerny) and Ethyl Mason (Mimi Kuzuk) next steps after losing their adopted daughter. Near the outset of the film Doris the biological mother is sitting across from Kuzuk’s Ethyl asking about how the service was. She was unable to come due to working at the local steakhouse. It feels like a typical scene at first, until we realize the role each plays, and watching Ethyl try to be strong in front of Doris, while she’s grieving for her lost child internally directly after her funeral.
Following this event Mark O’Brien’s character, Aaron Smith appears under unusual circumstances. He’s hobbled with an injured foot or ankle, and lost in the woods. Frederic agrees to take him in for the night, against Ethyl’s wishes. Ethyl convinces a local cop to stop by on her way home and on her arrival Frederic invents a story, claiming Aaron as his long lost nephew and hustling Officer Hutton on her way. Frederic and Aaron share an odd late night cup of tea, and Frederic wakes up with a start to Aaron and Ethyl cooking and chortling with laughter in the kitchen.
Jason Clarke’s no frills production design, offer a believable secluded cabin and small town feel. Scott McClellan serves as cinematographer and captures a few meticulously crafted shots that are captivatingly lit and terrifically framed. The outdoor sequence detailing Aaron’s arrival is one such particular shot. Editor K. Spencer Jones weaves the film together in a coherent and captivating way that doesn’t seem like it could be improved upon with any change.
While I’m not convinced by O’Brien’s first feature screenplay, it certainly seems like he’s come to play as a director. With masterful lighting, and industrious acting from perennially overlooked performers O’Brien seems to know how to lean on talent. The Righteous might be the first in a long line of films from O’Brien. But the journeys still out on whether those films will continue to be written by him, and I take no satisfaction from my lack of confidence in his writing. I’d be happy to see him grow, and be proven wrong.
Yakuza Princess directed by Vicente Amorim caught me by complete surprise. Based on the graphic novel Samurai Shiro, by Danilo Beyruth Yakuza Princess stars newcomer Masumi, a Japanese-American actress, singer-songwriter, and stunt performer, alongside Jonathan Rhys Meyers in what I consider one of the most commercial pieces of Brazilian cinema in recent memory. For starters the story is told predominantly in English which is somewhat of a rarity for Brazilians productions.
Alternating between past and present day, in Osaka, Japan and São Paulo, Brazil predominantly Japanese neighborhood Liberdade (Liberty in English). The movie tells the story of Akemi (Masumi) an orphan living in Brazil who forms an unlikely alliance with an unknown and unnamed amnesiac man played by Rhys Meyers. Both characters are bound together by a supposedly cursed katana that could hold the key to their pasts. During this journey, Akemi discovers her family was part of the yakuza, or Japanese mob, and vows to avenge those who killed her family. Yakuza Princess is full of style but little substance. The cool visuals, combat scenes, and desaturated color palette, with pops of neon every so often, were what kept me going. Story-wise the movie is shallow and lacked any meaningful throughline to keep me engaged.
My biggest criticism is why did this story have to be told in English? Brazil has the largest Japanese diaspora in the world. So why not tell this story in either Portuguese or Japanese? I understand this was a choice to make the movie more commercial but by doing so the movie undercuts itself and misses the opportunity to explore the relationship between the two countries and cultures which dates back to 1908 when the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Brazil. In this picture we don’t even get to know why or how the characters wound up in Brazil in the first place. Yakuza Princess scores major style points and signals a new and exciting direction full of stylistic freedom that is being embraced by Brazilian cinema now, we just need an actual story to back it up.
Coming Home in the Dark serves up a nice slice of idyllicism in its opening minutes as its cameras sweep through the beautiful New Zealand landscape with its lush rolling green hills and blue skies. The family that treks through this vista have their squabbles, as all families do, but Jill (Miriama McDowell) and Alan (Erik Thomson), nicknamed Hoaggie, still love each other, and though they may struggle with their sons Jordan (Frankie Paratene) and Maika (Billy Paratene), it still seems to be one big happy family. The four are preparing to go camping, and all is well until two strangers saunter up and pull out their guns.
The vagabonds are called Mandrake (Daniel Gillies) and Tubs (Matthias Luafutu), and though Jill and Hoaggie turn out their pockets and hand them the keys to their car, Mandrake and Tubs stay, the latter silently watching as the former monologues. Tensions are already high, and cinematographer Matt Henley uses plenty of long takes to keep the anxiety bubbling, often obscuring some of a character’s face so the audience has to guess at their expression. Jill, Hoaggie, Jordan, and Maika are all face-down on the ground, and thus the audience can only see Mandrake’s boots and the barrel of his gun; Hoaggie observes Mandrake from the back seat of a car, and viewers only catch a sideways glimpse of his profile.
And then, in a flurry of shocking violence, first-time director (and co-writer with Eli Kent) James Ashcroft takes Coming Home in the Dark up a notch, kicking gears into something akin to a horror movie, though one that relies on a creeping sense of dread rather than jump scares and gore. Gillies in particular imbues Mandrake with such an edge that every time he opens his mouth the sense of uneasiness grows until it feels like it might choke you—here is proof that not every actor appearing on the CW (Gillies is most known for his role in The Vampire Diaries and its spinoff, The Originals) is just a pretty face.
But why are Mandrake and Tubs inflicting this violence, both psychological and physical, on Hoaggie, Jill, and their family? Where Coming Home in the Dark separates itself from other thrillers are the urgent ideas running beneath its violent surface: the effect of abuse on both the victim and the abuser, the insidiousness of certain state institutions, the culpability of those who just stand by and watch bad things happen. “There’s a difference between doing something and letting it happen,” Jill says. “There has to be. But they live on the same street.”
Despite Mandrake’s hideous malevolence, as he begins to coax out bits and pieces from Hoaggie’s past (and his own), even a character you had come to trust and sympathize with begins to churn your stomach. It’s quite an impressive debut from Ashcroft, who keeps the film slim and taut, never letting the audience’s anxiety lessen as he teases out the true reason for Mandrake and Tubs’ appearance.
There’s an undercurrent of racial tension at play with Mandrake and Tubs’ relationship and past—Mandrake is white and Tubs is Māori—that rears its head in the finale, but is so subtle that you have to wonder if Ashcroft intended it to be there or we are just grafting an invented conflict onto the film, yet it’s easy to infer the implications. Even if Ashcroft leaves some of these avenues underexplored, Coming Home in the Dark’s moral quandaries still offer plenty of room to get lost in. Much like Mandrake, when it puts its foot on the gas pedal, it rarely slows down, never letting your pulse do anything but race.
The Last Thing Mary Saw is a naturalistic Victorian period piece detailing the events of our titular character Mary’s seeming descent, framed to the viewer through an interrogation sequence that begins at the outset of the film. Though the crime for which she’s possibly committed is not shared, a choice I was particularly thankful for. It stars Stefanie Scott alongside Isabelle Fuhrman, and Rory Culkin. It’s a punishing vision that while conventionally told in chapters doesn’t lose narrative thrust. With punishment doled out as frequently as the days change, it quickly corners us as viewers, not just sympathizing but aligning us with Scott’s Mary.
Edoardo Vitaletti’s camera, leers, peeks, and scurries along informing differing viewpoints. And just as quickly switches to more conventional shots that frequently but not always benefit from the natural soft lighting. While we do get by the book image sequences, familiar turgid strings backing the film to force emotion, and a forbidden love romance, there’s something personal, something simplistic and committed that allows a sincere engagement with the work despite it’s generic segments that when put together make something more.
It’s always worth noting when a film is from a first time director. And The Last Thing Mary Saw serves as not only Vitaletti’s first outing as feature director but writer as well. His fingerprints, while not totally definable do feel distinguishable frequently within the film. From the care he takes to browse his lens along the period costumes or the shallow focus splinter sequence with a large knife pulling a small splinter out of a young boys foot. It all builds a cohesive tone, that (and here’s that word again) while generic feels entirely self informed and referential. Not buried spuriously in making omage to greater predecessors but trying rather to make itself defined.
The sound design is perhaps the sorest spot of the picture. Inconsistently dancing between burrowing strings, music box tinkling, and an eerie distant viola. This paired with awkwardly balanced foley work puts the turning of book pages in a chicken coop cleanly above the words being spoken. It’s little mess ups like this in the back-end of the craft and editing that falter most. Which is disappointing, whenever you’re paying attention to the background stuff, that generally means something is off and nothing in the storytelling side can fix it. Only changing the mix levels can. The Last Thing Mary Saw is a dark familiar ride, that has enough originality and solidity to stand up to most skeptical viewers. It may not be all that impactful, but in the low budget independent horror film genre, it’s got more bravura than most it’s compatriots, and that alone is refreshing.
You would be forgiven, upon starting Wild Men, for thinking that it would be a harrowing tale of survival in pre-modern Norway. We find our fur-bedecked protagonist, Martin (Rasmus Bjerg), crying on the top of a picturesque mountain before clamping down on his tears, gathering his bow and arrow, and tromping off into the woods. The illusion begins to slip away, however, when Martin’s attempt at goat hunting ends in failure, forcing him to bludgeon a frog to death for dinner, and then disappears completely upon Martin’s entering a very modern gas station to procure non-frog food as his desperation and hunger grow.
As it transpires, Martin is just your typical guy, but one who has decided to dress in furs, carry a bow and arrow, and (attempt to) hunt for his own food. This noble calling, however, means that he lacks a credit card, and when the gas station owner confronts Martin about this, it escalates into a kerfuffle that results in Martin fleeing the store, but not before giving a cheery “Take care” to the hapless attendant. Policeman Øyvind (Bjørn Sundquist) sets off after him, though most of his attention is occupied with trying to catch drug runner Musa (Zaki Youssef). Through a twist of fate, Martin crosses paths with Musa, and the three men become entangled with each other as they traverse the mountains of Norway.
They all, in their own way, come to grapple with their masculinity as they trek through the snow: Martin has run away from his wife and daughters in an ill-advised attempt to reclaim his manhood, trading in the typical sports car midlife crisis for roughing it in the woods, his naïve attempts at self-sufficiency only reflecting how unmoored and lost he feels; Musa, barred from seeing his two-year-old child due to his criminal background, longs for the type of family life that Martin has so thoughtlessly discarded; Øyvind, now old, laments the days he acted like Martin and pushed away his late wife, and now reaches out a hand at night to her side of the bed as if he can somehow pull her back from death. It’s a shame that, while all these men are affected by their family (especially the women) in their life—they long for it, they run from it, all of the above at once—the few female characters have very little interiority.
Still, Wild Men manages to breathe fresh life into an age-old idea, bringing a sensitivity to Martin’s blustering and buffoonish actions; besides, even if it’s tiresome to think about another story about a middle-aged man fleeing his responsibilities, Martin’s decision to do so by feebly attempting to turn into a real Viking man is certainly fresh. Director Thomas Daneskov, who co-wrote along with Morten Pape, smartly surrounds Martin with other men who see Martin’s actions for what they are. “My god… You’re so unbelievably simple. It’s marvelous,” Øyvind tells Martin.
Even as Martin does things like chuck his possessions in a fast-flowing river to prove the tarp they are in is waterproof, Daneskov still approaches him and all the other characters with heart: all these men are lost and lonely in some way, and Bjerg, Youssef, and Sundquist all perform marvelously. “We’re all just playing dress up,” Øyvind says sadly towards the end. For a purported comedy, it can pack a wallop, but even so, there’s an irresistible current of charm and goodness running underneath the surface, making Wild Men something more than its premise.
One of the shames of watching a movie like Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It and other festival movies at VOD screenings is the palpable audience reaction to a movie that unfurls itself to the audience. Directed and co-written by Yernar Nurgaliyev, Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It is an ideal festival movie in that it is a perfectly fine and enjoyable break to the monotony of pretension that can often be found in festivals. The setup is typical enough: a bumbling man child Das (Daniar Alshinov) has a pregnant nagging wife (Asel Kaliyeva), he decides to go on a fishing trip with his two friends, Arman (Azamat Marklenov) and Murat (Erlan Primbetov) as one final hurrah before true adulthood. But, instead of a fun getaway with friends, they end up facing abhorrent violence. First, they witness a group of mobsters performing a hit and then find out a one-eyed serial killer on the loose.
This trite conceit of three men in suspended adolescence seems stuck in the mid-2000s era of Hollywood studio comedy. Even the examination of these men and their fears of growing up seems too much “been there, done that.” Even if there are moments of genuine sweetness between the three friends, the observations of masculinity juxtaposed with real world violence is too shallow to say anything. Even the genre blending seems trite.
Then again, Nurgaliyev is not too concerned about making any grand statements on masculinity. This movie is about Nurgaliyev showing off his genre bonafides. He exhibits skill in blending the horror comedy elements, with cartoonish visual gags like a Looney Tunes cartoon or a Stephen Chow movie. Some of the kills are gnarly, and the mixture of practical and special effects really adds the tactile grossness of it all. And like a good joke, the violence escalates appropriately and in opportune times.
Sweetie, You Won’t Believe It is the kind of silly, mindless fun that you want to see with a crowd of people. It may not stick in the mind long after watching it, but the joys are goofily visceral. Sometimes, that’s enough to get by.