The Dark and the Wicked

Marin Ireland

 

Some horror directors favour the balls-out approach of a high concept, others go down the skill route. Call it art v craft or wit v cunning. Then you get directors who manage both – Sam Raimi went down the the first path with Evil Dead and down the second with Drag Me to Hell.

The Dark and the Wicked is writer/director Bryan Bertino’s fourth horror movie after The Strangers, Mockingbird and The Monsters. And if none of the others set people alight, they did at least give Bertino the space to make some mistakes and learn how to make a horror movie properly.

That all comes good here, with a film that’s not only extremely well crafted but also understands that beneath all good horror flicks lurks a fear an audience has to relate to, or it won’t work, no matter how much gore and screaming there is.

Before anything as concrete as a plot has announced itself, Bertino’s craft is evident in an early shot – a woman in a remote farmhouse is chopping vegetables for dinner. She hears an ominous noise behind her. She doesn’t tighten her grip on the knife but lets go of it entirely, before turning confrontationally.

This action seems ominously counter-intuitive and it sets up a tension that takes us through the mundane scene-setting that follows – the woman (Julie-Oliver Touchstone) is a wife and her husband is dying in the back room. The grown-up kids Julie (Marin Ireland) and Michael (Michael Abbot Jr) are back at the family sheep farm to say their farewells and support their distraught mother.

Bertino takes a pause for breath before starting on the first of a number of splattery incidents. Particularly nasty the first one. That chopping knife is involved.

With a title like The Dark and the Wicked, it’s not going to come as much of a shock to discover that supernatural forces are at large on this family farm, and not just supernatural but demonic, possibly the Devil himself. Reinforced when Dad, generally insensate and hooked up to oxygen, appears in the bathroom all a-gibber, black around the eyes and pissing down his leg while his daughter is trying to take a shower.

It was around here – blameless person confined to bed, demonic possession – that a thought bubble appeared above my head with the words “The Exorcist” in it.

And then a snowy-haired priest complete with dog collar arrived.

 

Marin Ireland and Michael Zagst
Julie tends to her dying dad

 

From here things movie at increasing speed, the murky lighting of Tristan Nyby complementing the sound design of Joe Stockton, which carefully balances ambient atmospherics with Tom Schraeder’s musical soundtrack, while the increasingly impressive Marin Ireland, as the increasingly distraught Julie, shoulders the burden of the film.

Horror films often feature death but they’re not often about death. The Dark and the Wicked unusually is, and beneath the demonic possession, the gore, the self-injury and the mutilation of animals is a focus on one man’s last days on earth. Actor Michael Zagst, as the dying dad, doesn’t get an awful lot to do but the film is about his character and his impending demise – Zagst’s death scene is, essentially, the whole film.

If the horror of The Exorcist had something to do with the burgeoning sexuality of a young girl, here we’re at the other end of the cycle, at another event most of us don’t want to focus on too closely, if at all.

Dad does die in this film, but it’s not a demon that kills him, it’s mortality, and as heartfelt a death it would be hard to find in another film of this sort.

This obviously won’t do for for horror hounds and so, for the less sensitive among us, Bertino goes for a balls-out ending as well, of gore, gore and more gore – Sam Raimi would be proud.

 

 

The Dark and the Wicked – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Lucky Grandma

Tsai Chin as lucky grandma

 

There’s a silent movie quality to Lucky Grandma, the story of a Chinese grandmother in New York’s Chinatown who gets tangled up with the Triads and somehow (OK, improbably) comes out on top.

But first let’s meet Grandma, played superbly by Tsai Chin (86 when this was made, though she could easily be 15 years younger) as a Buster Keaton-style stone-faced senior, smoking smoking smoking the entire time, partly just because she wants to, partly, we suspect, as a rebuke to a world that is increasingly infantilising her.

One of the places where she isn’t infantilised is the casino, where we follow her just after she’s turned town her caring son’s offer of a chance to move in with his family – she likes it where she is, she told him, and anyway things haven’t got to that point yet.

At the casino she’s treated just like all the other schmucks, but unlike all the other schmucks she wins big – luck was coming her way, her fortune teller had promised – only to lose it all again. And then, chance clearly feeling as if it really needs to put its foot down, on the way back home the man in the seat next to her drops dead and so she takes ownership of the big bag of cash he happened to be carrying.

The cash belongs to the Triads and this is the nub of the film – Grandma v the gang – though things even up a bit when Grandma hires Big Pong (Ha Hsiao-Yuan), a heavy (and big softie) from a rival gang to help protect her when the bad guys come calling.

 

Big Pong and Grandma on a sofa
Big Pong and Little Grandma

 

He’s just shy of 6ft 7in, she’s 5ft 2in. There’s a size thing going on, which is milked for silent-movie-style laughs. The fact that he’s about 40 years younger than her leads also to the suspicion that there might be a Harold and Maude old/young thing about to develop.

Not quite, though the two do certainly become affectionate. Things could probably amble along in this gently humorous way to the end but instead jeopardy arrives in the shape of Sister Fong (Xi Yan), and how nice to see a woman as a gang boss, even if she is the usual loquacious, over-enunciating sort.

As battle is joined and Big Pong’s Zhongliang gang engages with the Red Dragon outfit – with Grandma in the middle – the comedy is parked and there’s nowhere else for implausibility to hide, before things finally resolve themselves gently, all signified by Grandma’s decision to quit smoking.

Lucky Grandma isn’t in awe of notions of authenticity – neither fortune-telling nor Chinese medicine seem to be getting wholehearted endorsement – and it’s rather good on the look and feel of New York’s Chinatown. As well as the crispy duck and dried prawns in jars there are shops full of plastic tat, strip lighting, stuff piled to the ceiling.

Uneasy tonal shifts to one side, this is a good story told at speed. The side characters may be caricatures, but Grandma is the real deal. Having been in everything from The Joy Luck Club to Casino Royale, Tsai Chin seizes the opportunity of a starring role with both hands and runs with it.

 

 

Lucky Grandma – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Kajillionaire

Old Dolio, Theresa and Robert crouching to avoid being seen

 

There’s a lot to like in Kajillionaire, apart from the film itself, since what it boils down to is a story of child abuse told in a tone so wilfully whimsical that it’s hoping to sell itself as a comedy.

The abused party is Old Dolio, a bizarre name for a child, daughter of a pair of grifters whose bar is set so low that their regular gig is to steal mail from the post office and just chance to luck that there’s something in there.

The parents don’t see themselves as bottom feeders, more as revolutionaries who have rejected the blandishments of modern capitalism – where everyone wants to be a “kajillionaire” – liberators clinging to some distorted remnant of hippie idealism, maybe.

The regular routine of zealous Robert (Richard Jenkins), cheerleading wife Theresa (Debra Winger) and withdrawn monotone daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) is hit by a disruption event in the shape of mile-a-minute showy Puerto Rican Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) whom they meet on a plane as they’re off to pull one of their more spectacular scams – the “lost luggage” con (insurance will pay out up to $1,500) – to cover the rent on their dwelling (an office space regularly invaded by cascades of pink foam leaking from the next-door factory). For reasons that appear to owe everything to plot necessity rather than psychological plausibility, Melanie has soon become a part of their setup.

From here to the finish line it’s a case of immovable object meeting irresisitible force, Melanie disturbing the family’s routine and the relationship between the parents and the child. Old Dolio is actually 26 but dresses like she’s 15 and yearns for pretty things and even the slightest sign of affection from her parents, who view untrammelled emotion as one of the features of the “kajillionaire” mindset.

Melanie – all teeth and rack (her tits almost become a subplot) – is those desires incarnate.

 

Melanie and Old Dolio go shopping
Learning to shop: Melanie and Old Dolio

 

Why is the daughter called Old Dolio? The answer comes towards the end and is a brilliant summation of everything that’s wrong with the parent/child relationship. And I’m not going to ruin it, because though the film is ghastly in some respects, it exerts a certain grip, thanks in large part to Old Dolio’s quest for tenderness, a whisper that grows to a roar.

To hook in a demographic who don’t go for writer/director Miranda July’s whimsy, there’s actors Jenkins, Winger and Wood. All are reliably excellent at the worst of times but all are at their best here – Jenkins the elated loser who secretly knows the game is up, Winger the shuffling wife going along with the grifting because there’s no alternative, but Wood in particular, putting on a display of lunatic physicality that atones for her turn as po-faced robot Dolores in the interminable Westworld.

Gina Rodriguez I’ve not seen before but holds her own against this formidable trio with a performance that makes it almost plausible that Melanie would be hanging out with these three weirdos – loud enough to be taken seriously as a “force”, quiet enough that her motivation doesn’t become apparent, until it suddenly is. Ahaa!

But at bottom it’s a child abuse story. The parents have held this girl in their thrall and made her life a misery since she was born. Layering that with oddball characters, bizarre locations and comic situations might be enough to stop the misery bleeding through for some, but it’s not going to work for everyone. Beneath the pink foam, it’s grim.

 

Kajillionaire – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Gemini

Kindly Yukio stuck in the well

 

Gemini director Shinya Tsukamoto was about 30 when he made his most infamous film, Tetsuo, which featured a man turning into a kind of scrapyard monster, complete with gigantic revolving hydraulic penis.

Ten years later in 1999, nudging 40, here he is calmed down a touch, but not that much if the opening shots of Gemini – maggots crawling in meat, bedraggled rats feasting on what looks like an animal head – are anything to go by.

Don’t expect restraint, in other words. Though there is a lot of taste and gorgeousness on display in Tsukamoto’s camerawork in early scenes as we meet a kindly noble doctor, his parents and beautiful amnesiac wife in Japan somewhere in the mid-late 1800s.

Tsukamoto then upends this genteel scenario with one plot lurch after another – the father dies suddenly, then the mother, then a beastly twin or doppelgänger turns up, throws the kindly doc into the well and takes the wife for his own… and she’s not as against that development as you might think.

 

Ryo as the wife caught between two men
Rin knows more than she’s letting on

 

Unlike Tetsuo there’s no stop-frame animation, but Tsukamoto gets about three quarters of the way there with camera movements. In the tranquil world of the “good” doctor we bathe in serene scenes of almost Ozu-like calm, beautifully composed and shot, Tsukamoto even using the grain of the film (remember real grain?) to suggest a painterly high tone. And then, suddenly, it’s as if the director has let his inner animal loose with a camera that’s jittery, swinging around wildly, colours exaggerated to the max. Shakycam on a washing machine on a spin cycle. Discordant and very loud music punctuates the action.

Early on comes the key scene where “good” doctor Yukio (Masahiro Motoki plays both roles) is asked to treat a woman from the slums whose baby is suffering from the plague. She’s at the back door. At the front door is another request – the mayor has fallen onto a stake after drinking too much. Self-inflicted injury.

Yukio can’t treat both and so, being a snob, he opts for the mayor. It’s around this time that the twin/brother/doppelgänger (all is eventually revealed but it doesn’t matter that much which of those it is) arrives, like some eruption from the doctor’s unconscious.

It’s Jekyll and Hyde to an extent – the scientist and the brute – but then so was Tetsuo. Doubles is one of the themes Tsukamoto likes to revisit.

Stuck between the two versions of the same person is the beautiful wife, Rin (Ryo), “amnesiac”, she says, which isn’t true, and playing a game that is beyond the wit of both men. Of all the characters in this film she’s the most enigmatic and most worth watching because she sits between the calm and the monstrous as a key to the whole drama.

Fans of Tsukamoto’s mad style won’t be disappointed. In the more disturbed moments he dives into the lurid – plot, character, acting, camera, lighting, approach to realism, even hair and make-up – like a man possessed.

However, I don’t think I’ve seen a musical number in a Tsukamoto film before, and he gives us a genuinely charming one in Gemini, with all the performers smiling in a That’s Entertainment way as if to say “it’s all just a bit of fun”. Which is about right. This is a highly enjoyable piece of gonzo escapism.

 

 

 

Gemini – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Friendship’s Death

Bill Paterson and Tilda Swinton

 

There’s been a slight revival of interest in Peter Wollen’s Friendship’s Death since the London Film Festival chose it as one of the items they wanted to pluck from obscurity by showcasing it in their 2020 Treasures section, alongside films such as The Cheaters, an Australian silent thriller from 1929, and Chess of the Wind (aka Shatranj-e Baad), a 1976 film shining a light on pre-revolutionary Iran.

Besides which Friendship’s Death – British, from 1987 and starring very known quantities Bill Paterson and Tilda Swinton – seems a bit of a damp squib, even if it was one of film theorist Wollen’s few directorial credits.

A loose description isn’t likely to cause priapic excitement either – old-school journalist Sullivan (Paterson) is holed up with a woman he’s just met in Jordan, while the civil war rages and the PLO try one of their periodic attempts to change the political dynamic.

Meanwhile, inside the hotel where they’re stuck, Sullivan and Friendship have a lot of time to chat, which they do, pretty much non-stop. The end.

There is more to it than that. Surprisingly, Friendship tells Sullivan that she is in fact a robot sent by an alien civilisation. She was heading to the Massachsetts Institute of Technology but got blown off course and ended up in this war zone. As far as Sullivan is concerned, Friendship is either nuts or a spy but she’s easy on the eye and interesting to talk to, and so he indulges her. There’s not much else to do.

And so they talk. About the PLO, her planet, where all life as we know it is dead and only the technological survives, about the “nuclear winter” that wiped everything out and about how organic life forms are in any case just a “lift-off phase” for the next phase in evolution – the electronic phase. En passant, Friendship informs Sullivan that not only is she incapable of sex (nothing down there, no liquids in her body anyway) but she finds the whole concept of “intromittent organs” just kind of odd.

This all leads on to a conversation about pleasure as somehow being definitive of human existence, in what might be called a Captain Kirk glitch in the philosophical matrix, though to be honest I think I was hooked by “intromittent organs”, pronounced by Swinton with just enough precision that we didn’t hear “intermittent organs” by accident, but with just enough looseness that we know Friendship speaks like this all the time.

 

Bill Paterson and Tilda Swinton
Examining the alien for metal fatigue

 

They are a good match this Scottish couple, Paterson and Swinton – he already the master of rhythmic Caledonian delivery, she almost unrecognisably puppy-fatty and new to the biz (she’d debuted in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio the year before) but already mostly in command of that Swinton hauteur – intermittently, you could say.

Writer/director Peter Wollen, who only died not long ago (December 2019) aged 81, was supposedly one of the writers on Antonioni’s The Passenger (I say supposedly because there are a lot of fingers in that pie) and in my more fanciful moments I could see Paterson and Swinton as later versions of Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, who also spend a fair deal of time chinwagging in a hotel room at one point.

It’s all set in one room, and shot in a boxy almost-TV format, but Wollen makes an effort to stop things getting too stagey – the camera starts each scene from a different position, the visual suggesting other changes. And the lighting is gorgeously done, washes of complementary colour laid on by the obviously talented Polish cinematographer Witold Stok.

Even so, staginess persists. Or a mannered style, if you prefer. Considered thoughts are expressed in proper sentences and Paterson and Swinton never speak over each other. No one says “er”. It is a demonstration of the play (which is what it is) as a vehicle for ideas rather than as excitement or entertainment. This was the 1980s and though the avant garde was dead, its influence persisted as a postmodern chimera.

As to what the idea is… at one point Friendship speaks in Arabic and even dons what looks slightly like Palestinian headgear, so she might be the “alien” speaking truth unto power, except that there is precious little of that.

There is some prescient technological stuff, particularly towards the end when Sullivan’s daughter – in an epilogue scene – describes digital storage technology in a way that seems much more 21st century than 1987 (floppy disks were then still cutting edge).

Evocative, charming, well acted… all very interesting. The LFF must have chosen it for other reasons…

 

 

Friendship’s Death – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

The True Adventures of Wolfboy

Wolfboy in pensive mood

 

The True Adventures of Wolfboy. Sounds like it might be a superhero movie – Wolfboy as a junior Wolverine. Or a supervillain movie – a Mini-Me Werewolf. In fact it’s neither. This is the everyday story of a teenage boy covered in hair, lots of it. And before we go any further, yes, he’s tried depilatory products, but the hair just comes back twice as thick.

“I’m normal, I”m a normal kid,” says Paul (Jaeden Martell, who was going by the name Jaeden Lieberher last time I saw him, in 2016’s Midnight Special), a 13-year-old bullied by the horrible other kids, cowed into wearing a balaclava, a freak in his own eyes as much as anyone else’s.

He has parents of the helicopter variety – dad (Chris Messina) hovers about fairly ineffectually, offering team talks and suggesting Paul go to a special school for kids like him. Together they watch a promo video for the institution which places way too much weight on diversity and is fronted by a principal so chummy he’s scary. Mom, meanwhile, has helicoptered herself right out of the situation, having bolted once she caught sight of what she’d given birth to.

 

Dad and Wolfboy at the carnical
At the carnival, before it all kicks off

 

Wolfboy Paul’s “true adventures” are kicked off by a particularly nasty bit of bullying at a carnival, which ends up with him running away from home and setting course for Pennsylvania, where his mother is supposedly living.

As he meets one oddball character after another en route, what then plays out is a tidied-up, slimmed-down but still recognisable reworking of the Pinocchio story, except Paul doesn’t want to be a real boy, just a normal one.

The circus master in Pinocchio pops up in the shape of Mr Silk (John Turturro), owner of a travelling carnival who sees in Paul a chance to bring back the olde tyme freak show. Later, Pinocchio’s Fairy with the Turquoise Hair also becomes a significant part of the story, now transformed into a young nightclub singer called Aristiana (Sophia Grace Gianni), a reminder of where she came from in the turquoise bathing cap she wears when she performs.

Both Mr Silk and Aristiana treat Paul as neither freak nor child – alcohol and cigarettes figure in both sets of interactions – leading to the “but of course” conclusion that the hairiness is none other than a stand-in for puberty, which does seem just a touch crass.

Talking of one thing standing in for another, this whole film seems to be set in a slightly parallel version of present-day America. It’s realistic, but not entirely plausible – where are the people huddled over their smartphones? Where are the CCTV cameras when Paul and Aristiana embark on a life of heisting convenience stores with latest new friend Rose (a rather good Eve Hewson)? As they speed away from yet another robbery in Rose’s van, no onlooker even seems interested in taking down the departing vehicle’s number plate.

It took me a while to click with this not-quite-thereness of the portrayal of everyday life. But slowly the whole thing grew on me, this optimistic picaresque, fairy tale in structure and populated with flawed characters.

Chloë Sevigny turns up, playing Paul’s compromised mother, right about the point when things start wrapping up in a way that’s satisfying both on an emotional level and in terms of plot – the hairiness is explained and a new spin is put on the “learning to love yourself” formula.

Wolfboy – not a hero, not a villain, super or otherwise, in a film where everyone, at some level, is exactly like him.

 

 

 

The True Adventures of Wolfboy – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Love and Monsters

Dylan O'Brien and cute dog

 

I’ve sat through more post-apocalyptic teen adventure flicks – Hunger Games, The Giver, three flavours of Divergent, Maze Runner etc – and not really enjoyed any of them. “They’re not for you,” a mate at work once remarked. And as I whinged some more about one or other of them, she nodded pityingly towards my greying hair.

They’re not, it’s true, but even so I loved Love and Monsters, a post-apocalyptic teen adventure flick that gets by without any hat tips to Ayn Rand – rugged individual against the overweening state etc etc – and sets out its stall immediately with a voiceover by Joel (Maze Runner star Dylan O’Brien) explaining that the world as we knew it has ended, that cold-blooded animals have become huge and predatory and that humanity is 95% gone. The US President, Joel matter-of-factly tells us, was killed by a moth.

The humans who are left now live in isolated groups, communicating by radio when they can, and scavenge for food, batteries, useful stuff, in hunting packs. But not Joel. He’s too much the scaredy-cat and goes to pieces in a crisis. A liability in a scrap, he stays back at base and makes minestrone for his valiant fellow commune-dwellers, a vegetable-based soup saying as much as we need to know about Joel’s status (perhaps Ayn Rand is lurking after all).

All this changes when Joel discovers that Aimee (Jessica Henwick), the love of his life, has actually survived the holocaust and is alive and well a perilous 85-mile trek away. Bidding farewell to his comrades, who rate his chances of survival as zero, off he sets on what becomes a Revenant-style man v oversized-nature trek across the wilderness, Joel’s cojones growing larger with every successful encounter.

 

A monster and a giant duck
Not-too-threatening monster face-off

 

Tone is everything in this film, which from first moment to the last skitters between flip and frightening, engaged yet ironic. The voiceover is the start of it but as Joel heads out on his quest, his encounters add reinforcement, first a cute dog with a nose for trouble, and then a pair of battle-hardened surface dwellers – grizzled, practical Clyde (Michael Rooker) and precocious, sarcastic eight-year-old Minnow (Ariana Greenblat) – who also make clear that a life cowering underground is not the only option.

Tone and creatures, lots of creatures. These new rulers of the planet tend to be massive but they’re not always aggressive. So while some have gargantuan maws arrayed with teeth dripping with digestive juices, others seem to have sprung from the muppetty mind of Jim Henson.

All in all, though, this is an unthreatening creature feature, perhaps modelled on the 1959 Journey to the Centre of the Earth starring James Mason, though far less inclinded to hang about – it moves at a pace as urgent as Joel’s desire to see Aimee again.

Though Dylan O’Brien is now nudging 30 – how quickly they grow – the onetime Teen Wolf actor gets away with playing a few years younger. This is handy because you have to buy into the character of the greenhorn who is not only on a journey to find the ever-receding Aimee but also on a search for the hero inside himself.

A heroic boy-to-man story with the emotional arc and plot beats of Star Wars – there’s even a talking robot – it also has a satisfying finale featuring a hissable villain who gets his comeuppance in spectacular style.

Heroic entertainment with a swagger.

 

 

Love and Monsters – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Train to Busan 2

Gang Dong-Won as Jung Seok

 

Train to Busan 2 goes by a variety of names but the one that works best for me is Train to Busan Presents Peninsula (rather than Train to Busan: Peninsula, or plain old Peninsula), because this best encapsulates what the film is: a film from the Train to Busan people rather than another go around on the zombie killer.

The original film, a classic, takes place pretty much in one place, on board a train heading for Busan, onto which a person infected with a zombie virus has climbed. While the virus runs riot through the train, its selfish non-infected passengers learn the value of banding together for safety. Outside the train, as Yeon Sang-ho’s camera repeatedly shows us, the zombies don’t need the lesson – they throw themselves en masse at any problem. Speeding train? Just grab hold of it in sufficient numbers and slow it to a halt! The zombies in the first film were an advert for the power of collective action.

Yeon’s sequel kicks off four years after Korea has been in absolute quarantine – couldn’t be more topical in 2020 – with four Korean survivors in Hong Kong struggling as refugees (again, topical) taking up an offer to go back into Incheon in Korea to rescue a van stacked with US dollars.

There is no train to get on because there is no infrastructure in Korea any more. The intrepid foursome arrive to find Incheon in ruins and full of zombies. Soon enough they’re in backs-to-the-wall mode, even though finding the truck – in a city full of abandoned trucks – has been no problem at all. What they hadn’t bargained on was a rogue militia of survivors called Unit 361, a raggle-taggle bunch of louts who run things in Incheon, and use any human survivors they find for sport – in gladiatorial man v zombie contests.

 

A horde of zombies on the march
They’re coming to get you

 

So, no, there’s no train in Train to Busan 2. What’s more surprising is that this isn’t really a zombie film either. It’s more like Escape from New York, with Gang Dong-Won, Busan born as it happens, as a Kurt Russell equivalent called Jung trying to fight his way out of Dodge while everyone else is out to get him. Bandanas and greasy combat gear optional.

Separated from his band of fellow mercenaries – most of whom are dead anyway – Jung attaches himself to an empathy engine, a family of survivors headed by Min Jung (Lee Jung-hyun), her two cute girls (Lee Ye-Won, Lee Re) and their grandfather (Kwon Hae-hyo), who at first appears to have been infected by the zombie virus but is in fact just overacting.

And that’s it. This gang struggling to survive, with or without a truck full of cash, while the cold, shiny-faced Sergeant Hwang feeds fresh prisoners to the zombies he has trapped in cages back at Unit 361 HQ. Bread and circuses.

Out on what looks too often like a film set, meanwhile, other zombies are being mown down in their thousands as Jung and crew try to evade capture/try to leave town/try to rescue the cash/try to call in help with the aid of a satellite phone.

The original film’s power came from its claustrophobic on-board setting, with the sacrificial collectivism of the zombies in the wider world as an added bonus. There is no on-board this time, and though there is the odd glimpse of the zombie horde, they’re not the enemy, that’s Sergeant Hwang and Unit 361.

As said, the kids are cute, and Lee Re’s Jooni has driving skills that are impressive, even if the CG sometimes lets her down, but as I was watching her ploughing, scything and mowing her way through yet another field of frenzied zombies, I started wondering just what sort of tyres would withstand that sort of treatment. That’s not a good sign.

The first Busan film was intense, and most suited to being watched in dread-filled silence. This is more your shout-at-the-screen, John Carpenter-inflected affair, brilliant source material for a drinking game – one shot for a snarling militiaman, one for a zombie under the wheels.

 

Train to Busan 2: Peninsula – watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Above Suspicion

Emilia Clarke and Jack Huston

Above Suspicion is the story of one person – an FBI cop who became a killer when his snitch got too powerful – told as the story of another, the snitch herself.

It makes for a messy drama that never quite gets its legs under the table and seems to shortchange everyone involved – the real people whose story this is, the actors playing them, even director Philip Noyce, who, having done thrillers like Patriot Games and The Quiet American, and procedural human dramas like Rabbit-Proof Fence, would, you’d think, breeze through something like this.

But he’s hampered by Chris Gerolmo and Joe Sharkey’s screenplay, which itself is hampered, I’m guessing, by a command from upstairs – we’ve got Emilia Clarke: make it about her so we can hook in the Game of Thrones fans.

As for plot, Clarke plays Susan Smith, a skank smalltime drug dealer in a no-horse town, who divorced her husband (Johnny Knoxville) but still lives with him (more welfare that way), with a deadbeat criminal for a brother, and a lodger whose boyfriend Joe-Bea (Karl Glusman) might be a wanted local criminal.

Emilia Clarke
Susan’s luck is about to run out



Into this familiar world of everyday trailertrashery enters new FBI cop in town Mark Putnam (Jack Huston), a man in a hurry, with a beautiful young wife, Kathy (Sophie Lowe). Together Mark and Kathy have a five year plan to make a splash, get him a bigger better job in a bigger better town so they can afford baby number two and a nice place to live.

Without giving too much of the plot away, things don’t quite go as planned once the increasingly implausible Susan becomes key witness to a crime, and Mark starts to pay her money to keep her coming up with the goods.

On top of that he fancies her, and she him. Mark clearly missed the memo on not mixing business with pleasure plus the one about not having a burger while you’re out because you’ve got steak at home.

The story of a scumbag (Susan) just being a scumbag isn’t much of a story; the story of a paragon of virtue being brought down to loin level is a much better one – yet this film wants to tell her story, not his.

On top of that category error is that old devil called chemistry. There is none between Huston and Clarke, not even the merest hint of heat, which does make the various scenes of Mark and Susan trying to stay out of each other’s pants and then failing just more scenes you’ve got to sit through till the good bit comes along.

Mark’s wife Kathy is one of the good bits, thanks to Gerolmo and Sharkey’s smart writing of her, and of Sophie Lowe’s playing, as a prim wifey who is like that totemic feminist teabag, only revealing how strong she is when in hot water.

The other actors – Knoxville, Glusman, Brian Lee Franklin as a local marijuana bigshot, Austin Hébert as Mark’s on-off sidekick, Thora Birch as her gone-straight hairdresser sister, they’re all underused but credible as thumbnails of lives blighted by the collapse of the bottom end of the US economy. Trump voters.

There’s quality all the way through this, in other words. Makes no difference if the whole thing just doesn’t work, which Above Suspicion just doesn’t.

Above Suspicion – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

On the Rocks

Rashida Jones and Bill Murray in a cab

 

A Sofia Coppola movie with Bill Murray as an agent of misrule? Lost in Translation II is the guiding principle of On the Rocks, though “stars” Rashida Jones and Marlon Wayans might disagree.

First up, we’re served Jones and Wayans hot and then cold – an opening scene shows Laura (Jones) and Dean (Wayans) in love and hot for each other sneaking away from their own wedding party to take a swim in the pool in the hotel basement. Cut to some years later and Dean arrives home late from a work thing, kisses Laura sleepily and then reacts with surprise when she says something. Was he expecting someone else?

She was in bed watching Chris Rock on TV riffing about the difference between “fucking” and “intercourse” – “fucking” is what you do before you’re married, opines Rock – so was in the right frame of mind to entertain doubts about her marriage.

Suspicious, she turns to her father Felix (Murray) for guidance. Felix is a man firmly in the “fucking” camp and has spent his life bouncing from one bed to another. Even now in his anecdotage he’s hitting on every woman he encounters, using charm to get the deflector shields down. Dad reckons that of course Dean is playing away, because that’s what he’d do. Having convinced her to at least consider the idea, the rest of the movie consists of Felix co-opting the reluctant Laura into his increasingly invasive investigation – private detectives, photos, a car chase and ultimately a trip to Mexico to finally nail the bastard while he’s nailing one of his co-workers.

 

Rashisa Jones and Marlon Wayans in a restaurant
Cosy? Not for long

 

Meanwhile, in what seems like an omen, everywhere Laura goes, everyone she talks to, is discussing relationships one way or another – sex, fidelity, new relationships getting going, old ones falling apart.

Farce with a French flavour seems to be Coppola’s intention, though I suspect a French film would have fleshed out the characters of Laura and Dean a bit beyond juggling mother and good-guy dad.

The Laura/Dean story is a MacGuffin. They’re the necessary connective tissue allowing Bill Murray to twinkle away in episodes that would  otherwise be free floating. Two standouts – Felix is pulled over by the cops and, in a bit of “well I never” hat-tipping to 1930s screwball comedies, manages to emerge smelling of roses. In another, Laura enters a beachside restaurant only to find that her father is there already, on first names terms with everyone in the room (all women) and in the middle of singing a showstopping song.

To stop it looking entirely like a Bill Murray film, Coppola writes a few hand-wringing speeches for Jones, mostly of her interrogating her dad about men’s seeming lack of capacity for keeping their dick in their pants, which he responds to with the sort of “it’s hardwired” shrug that’s exactly what you’d expect from an ageing lothario. Harry and Sally stuff.

Felix, by the way, is impossibly wealthy, a semi-retired art dealer; she is a writer struggling with a blank page. I’m not sure if that makes any difference but does at least help locate us more firmly in New York, or Movie New York at least.

Coppola is no Nora Ephron or Woody Allen but she does have insight and good jokes. And Bill Murray – here on killer form.

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020