J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Fantasia ’19: The Wonderland

Akane and her friends pass through a basement portal to enter this fantastical realm, but it is definitely cut from the same cloth as other classic YA fantasies featuring looking-glasses and wardrobes. Maybe it feels a little familiar, but everything looks amazing in Keiichi Hara’s anime feature, The Wonderland (a.k.a. Birthday Wonderland), which had its North American premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Akane is a junior high student who has not been acting particularly social or ambitious lately. To perk her up, her mother sends Akane to pick up her own birthday present from Chii, an eccentric friend of the family, who runs a mysterious curio shop. However, even Chii did not know there was portal to another fantasy world in her basement, until Hippocrates the alchemist pops out of it.

Convinced Akane is the reincarnation of The Goddess of the Green Wind, Hippocrates drags her to his world, so she can perform the ritual of renewal the absent prince appears determined to blow off. Without the ceremony, the lands will dry out and the color will be drained from the world. That might be okay with Zan Gu, the steampunky Dr. Doom-esque villain, who has been plundering metal from the countryside to smelt down for his nefarious plans. Of course, Chii tags along, because she is adventurous and always on the look-out for unique new merch for her store.

Hara’s previous film was the outstanding Miss Hokusai, but while Wonderland matches the visual lushness of that film, it does not connect as deeply on an emotional level. Hara and screenwriter Miho Maruo adapted Sachiko Kashiwaba’s beloved children’s novel, but the story itself proceeds like a mix-and-match of tried-and-true fantasy elements.

Still, Wonderland is worth seeing—and we do mean seeing—because of Hara’s grand spectacles and his neat little details. The sheep who look like gigantic cotton balls are sure to be favorites of younger viewers (ours too). The distinctive character designs created by Russian expat artist Ilya Kuvshinov definitely differentiate Wonderland from other anime, but their personalities are not as strongly delineated.

Wonderland has been tagged by critics as a Ghibli want-to-be, like that is a criticism. Frankly, it brings to mind the story of Phil Woods responding to a critic by shoving his alto at him and hissing, if it is so easy to imitate Charlie Parker than let’s hear him do it. There are definitely Ghibli-esque pastoral vistas and a similar sense of wonder. It is all quite enjoyable, but nobody will be dying to meet these characters again. Recommended for anime fans, Wonderland had its North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

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Monday, July 15, 2019

Fantasia ’19: Critters Attack!

How could a franchise so rich in history go twenty-seven years without a new film? Remember, it was Critters 3 that made a star out of a sickly-looking teen named Leonardo DiCaprio—and his career has been going down hill ever since. Happily, the Krites (a.k.a. Critters) are still going strong, having roared back first with a Shudder reboot series and now a new installment in the original film series. The alien fur balls return to chow down on earthlings in Bobby Miller’s Critters Attack!, which had its world premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Alas, poor Drea has had a hard time of it. Ever since her mother died in a traffic accident, she and her little brother Phillip (an alien invasion-conspiracy theory monger) have had to live with their uncle Lewis Haines, a well-meaning but often drunken sheriff. She pines to matriculate at nearby Leroy College, the elite school her late mom briefly attended, but she lacks the necessary connections. Reluctantly, she agrees to baby sit for a natural history professor, hoping she can call in the favor next time she applies. Of course, she will take the neurotic Lacy siblings, Trissy  and Jake, to the park just when the Critters start attacking.

Since Phillip had long carried a torch for Trissy Lacy, he happily came along with Drea. Maybe it is just as well, because he is better able to recognize an alien invasion when one happens, even if it is conducted by round balls of hair and teeth, greatly resembling Animal from The Muppet Show. However, his judgement is somewhat clouded by Trissy’s presence, especially when the precocious pre-teen insists on taking home an injured white Krite, whom she dubs “Bianca.”

Have no fear franchise followers—the Krites attack early and often. Although the latest Critters movie is set in our day and age, it definitely has a late-1980s-early-1990s vibe going on. It is definitely true to the spirit of the original, especially given Dee Wallace’s return the franchise, as “Aunt Dee,” for the first time since starring in Critters Numero Uno.

For fans, it will be great fun watching Wallace in an Ellen Ripley-esque role. However, it is rather surprising how earnest and appealing Tashiana Washington, Jaeden Noel, and Stephen Jennings are as Drea, Phillip, and Uncle Lewis, respectively. Their family drama and dynamics actually play out well on-screen.

Of course, the Critters are just a blast of furry madness. Clearly, everyone involved had great affection for the original films, including raising genre talents Miller (who previously directed The Cleanse), screenwriter Scott Lobdell (best known for penning Happy Death Day), and editor Mike Mendez (director of The Last Heist and Don’t Kill It).

Sure, it looks somewhat low budget, but that is part of its charm. This Critters is all very old school and nostalgic, in the right ways. Highly recommended for fans Critters and hirsute creatures in general, Critters Attack! had its world premiere at this year’s Fantasia, ahead of its July 23rd DVD release.

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Saturday, July 13, 2019

Fantasia ’19: His Bad Blood

Even shallow film critics will be tempted to invoke the scripture passage about the “sins of the father” when reviewing this stark Japanese moral drama, but there is a good chance they won’t fully understand it. The full quote suggests God’s mercy is greater and more just because he does not hold a father’s transgressions against his son, but men often do. They certainly have in Shinichi’s case. Thirty years after he vanished, the emotionally damaged young man will try to get some closure from the low life father he never previously met in Koichiro Oyama’s His Bad Blood, which had its international premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal.

While his mother was in the hospital delivering Shinichi, his father Hiroshi was absent. His plan to abscond after stealing from her family was interrupted by Shinichi’s moralistic uncle, but he disappeared just the same. That left the innocent Shinichi to serve as the target for all their scorn and recriminations. When their rural community is hit by a rash of break-ins, they assume it is Shinichi and expel him from his home. Fortunately, his mother arranges for him to stay with the kindly Reverend Genichiro. He does not judge Shinichi, but he does not allow him to simply lay about either.

As fate would have it, Shinichi’s deadbeat dad also takes refuge with the good Rev, after one of his small-time cons catches up with him. Initially, Rev. Genichiro keeps their true identities secret, but the truth soon comes out. Of course, their new relationship will be far from perfect. In fact, it might even cause Shinichi more pain.

Bad Blood is an unremittingly dark film, but it is also a highly moral and humanistic one. Arguably, it represents the road largely not taken by Evangelical cinema, presenting a complex but genuinely harrowing portrayal of sin and betrayal. Although evil deeds are not always punished during the course of the narrative, nobody watching the film will want to be anything like Hiroshi or his accomplices.

Ikkei Watanabe’s performance as Hiroshi is fiercely domineering and often downright chilling. In contrast, Yu Toyama plays Shinichi as such a damaged, beaten-down soul, he is often in danger of practically melting into the woodwork. However, the film really gets its spirit and its bite from Akio Kaneda and Keiko Koike, who are both quite remarkable as Rev. Genichiro and Shinichi’s third act girlfriend, Lin.

Frankly, Rev. Genichiro might be the most sympathetic presentation of a clergyman in a mainstream narrative film since Letters to Father Jacob. That was a Finnish film from 2010. This is a Japanese film hitting the festival circuit nine years later. You do not have to be very devout to find that a sad commentary on Hollywood values. Regardless, His Bad Blood is a challenging film featuring some excellent ensemble work. Highly recommended, it had its international premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

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Friday, July 12, 2019

NYAFF ’19: The Pool

Before we see one second of visuals, this film assures us no animals were hurt during its production. That’s great, but most viewers will be more concerned about the humans. It predates Crawl, forcing humans and a particularly ornery crocodile into perilously close quarters. Truly, one darned thing after another befalls poor Day in Ping Lumpraploeng’s viciously clever The Pool, which screens during the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

After a hard day working on the set of a silly hipster commercial, Day relaxes in the pool where they were filming. Unfortunately, he falls asleep when the location manager starts draining the water. When he awakens, he can no longer reach the ladders to exit. Through an unfortunate set of circumstances, his girlfriend Koi dives in with him, bashing her head in the process. Now both are trapped in the dwindling water, out of reach of his trusty dog Lucky and his insulin shots above (yes, of course, Day is a diabetic).

By the way, due to recent flooding, a crocodile managed to escape from the local zoo, so you know what that means. It will be pretty obvious from the gory in media res opening. Man must play a savage game of cat and mouse with the crocodile to survive.

Granted, The Pool can be ridiculously contrived at times, but that is sort of the whole point of a film like this. Naturally, Day will always fall asleep at the worst possible moments, because that is how it goes. The important points are how cleverly his Olympic pool-sized prison is constructed and how dexterously Lumpraploeng maintains the tension in this ultra-claustrophobic setting. This is some remarkably skillful minimalist genre filmmaking.

Theeradej Wongpuapan makes a totally convincing Job-like figure as Day, while Ratnamon Ratchiratham is distressingly vulnerable as Koi. However, there is absolutely no question the big mean Croc steals the show. Lucky is also quite the likeable pooch, but this whole premise is sure to distress dog lovers (let’s just say The Pool is no Dog’s Way Home and leave it at that).

For the most part, The Pool is one set and four characters, including croc and dog, but all the elements work in concert quite devilishly. Recommended for fans of angry animal horror, The Pool screens this Sunday (7/14) as part of NYAFF ’19.

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Dance on Camera ’19: Échappé (short)

Ballet is an elite performing art, enjoyed by kings and czars, but the USSR’s propaganda masters tried to exploit it for their benefit, holding the graceful dance up as an example of Soviet superiority and appealing to its traditional significance for the Russian people. You knew when there was trouble, because state TV would suddenly broadcast Swan Lake. However, their ballet strategy backfired when high-profile dancers defected to the West. It wasn’t just Nureyev. There was also Baryshnikov, Godunov, Makarova, Panov, and the Koslovs. A rising prima ballerina is deeply concerned her brother intends to join their ranks and even more fearful of what steps their handler might take to stop him in Allison Mattox’s short film, Échappé, which screens during this year’s Dance on Camera.

It is 1970. Cold War tensions are mounting, so the stakes are high for the ballet company’s “good will” tour. Nikolai Andreyev is probably their biggest star, but his sister Vera Andreyev’s reputation will probably soon eclipse his. She is also considered much more politically reliable than the long-suspect Nikolai.

Rather awkwardly for Ms. Andreyev, her brother is about to become a victim of her success. Believing her prestige is now sufficient to carry the company, Lionidze, their KGB escort intends to send Nikolai home to prevent any further international incidents (you know, to give one of those private command performances for the Kremlin). This creates a crisis of conscience for motherland-loving ballerina.

Even though Échappé is set during the beginning of the polyester 1970s, it looks terrific thanks to the exquisite lensing of cinematographer Beth Napoli. Frankly, this is one of the best looking films this year, of any length. Beyond questions of cinematic aesthetics, it also helps showcase Martin Harvey’s choreography in a favorable light (so to speak), which patrons of Dance on Camera will surely appreciate.

Leads Olesya Senchenko and Pavel Shatu certainly both look like glamorous dancers, but they also respond well to each other. On the other side of the spectrum, Nikolai Tsankov is deeply sinister, in a slavishly apparatchik kind of way, as Lionidze. Indeed, Échappé is a well-crafted film in all respects, including Mattox’s screenplay. Instead of merely echoing White Crow, Échappé very definitely has its own identity, which really comes into sharp relief when the intelligent ironies of its conclusion are revealed. Very highly recommended for fans of dance and Cold War films, Échappé screens with the documentary Three Dances this Sunday afternoon (7/14), as part of Dance on Camera 2019.

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Ozu’s A Straightforward Boy

In the history of cinema, probably no director had a finer touch when it came to working with child actors than Yasujiro Ozu. He became known for his mastery of domestic dramas, but he also made a few crime melodramas early in his career, because that was the work he could get. This silent short always sounded like a hybrid of the various types of Ozu films, but we didn’t know for sure because it was missing. Then a few years ago, sixteen minutes of the thirty-eight-minute film were re-discovered. Recently, another six minutes were uncovered. The resulting re-assembled and restored twenty-two-minute cut of Ozu’s A Straightforward Boy premieres today on Le Cinema Club.

Essentially, Straightforward Boy is a Japanese riff on O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief,” but in all honesty, Tetsubo does not seem like such a relentlessly punishing Helion. Nevertheless, he will prove to be too much for Bunkichi and his accomplice to handle. Basic math tells us there is still sixteen minutes missing from Straightforward Boy, but the latest restoration is quite cohesive in terms of narrative—especially by the standards of silent cinema, with no obvious gaps.

Still, it inevitably feels somewhat dated, particularly during the scenes in which Bunkichi tries to buy Tetsubo’s trust with toys and sweets. Frankly, his smarmy leering makes him look like a pedophile on the prowl to contemporary eyes, but that is not Ozu’s problem. It is a problem of our times.

Regardless, Tatsuo Saito definitely has a flamboyantly villainous, Snidely Whiplash kind of thing going on as Bunkichi. Tomio Aoki, who later starred in Ozu’s great classic silent feature I was Born, But… (in which Saito also appeared as his father), is suitably mischievous but not abrasively annoying as Tetsubo.

A Straightforward Boy is a perfectly nice little film, but the best way to see it is as part of a deep dive into Ozu’s collected filmography. In any event, it is great to have even more of it available, so hats off to Le Cinema Club for programming it. Recommended for all fans of Ozu and silent cinema, the freshly restored A Straightforward Boy streams 7/12-7/18.

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Thursday, July 11, 2019

NYAFF ’19: Zombiepura

There are reasons to think a military base would be a good place to be when the zombie apocalypse breaks out. They have plenty of guns and medicine stock-piled and a guard duty schedule is already in place. Alas, the survival rate will still be pretty low for the Singaporean soldiers in Jacen Tan’s Zombiepura, which screens during the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

This film has been billed as Singapore’s first zombie film—and the tiny archipelago nation is off to a decent start. However, the main character does not wear so well. Corporal Tan Kayu is a slacker reservist largely lacking charm as well as discipline. Ironically, when he tries to fake conjunctivitis to get out of drills, it will put him squarely in the eye of the zombie hurricane (that is a metaphorical zombie hurricane, not a literal SyFy Channel movie zombie hurricane).

Together with Sgt. Lee Siao-on, the son of the regiment commander, and Susie, the daughter of the canteen caterer, Tan will have to fight his way out of the infirmary and avoid the zombies shuffling all over the base. It will be a challenge for Tan and the by-the-book Lee to put aside their differences, given their history of Gomer Pyle-style antagonism. Frankly, the zombies are probably working as a more cohesive unit. Thanks to muscle memory and conditioned responses, the zombie soldiers continue to stand guard and make patrols. More usefully, they stand stock-still whenever the national anthem is played.

Jacen Tan deserves credit for developing some amusing new twists to the established zombie conventions. However, his characterization could still use a little work. There is not a darned thing about Tan Kayu that is appealing or interesting, but we are forced to spend nearly the entire film with him. Likewise, despite Chen Xiuhuan’s bright screen presence, there is not much personality to Susie.

Regardless, Tan deserves credit for scoring some laughs while simultaneously taking care of the zombie business. The ratio of characters killed or turned to zombies versus healthy survivors must be comparable to that of The Walking Dead or the original Night of the Living Dead. Despite Tan Kayu’s jerkweediness, we would re-enlist for a sequel. Recommended for zombie fans, Zombiepura screens this Saturday (7/13) as part of NYAFF ’19.

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NYAFF ’19: A First Farewell

Sadly, China’s Uyghur population are probably second only to the Falun Dafa when it comes to being demonized by the Party’s propaganda apparatus. The ethnic group, largely based in the Northwest Xinjiang region happen to be Muslim, so they are practically synonymous with terrorism in the state media. Of course, most Uyghurs just want to raise their families and get by. Unfortunately for Isa and his friends, the escalating Mandarin language requirements will make their lives difficult in Wang Lina’s A First Farewell, which screens today at the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Since his father and brother Musa must work tending the goats, Isa is forced to look after his ailing mother, who has been on a steep decline after contracting meningitis. Alas, he does not have much time to be a kid. Yet, he has picture book-worthy friends in Kalbinur and her little brother, Alinaz. Of the trio, Isa is probably the most proficient at Mandarin, but certainly not to an extent that will impress his stern teachers.

Needless to say, Isa has little time to study, but his father intends to rectify that. After a long period of agonizing, he has finally resolved to place his wife in a nursing home. However, both Isa and Musa bitterly resent the plan. The wider community does not cotton much to it either, but they do not shoulder the burden of her constant care.

First Farewell is an enormously empathetic portrait of a community under multiple stresses. Farewells are a constant fact of life for them, because of the region’s stagnant economy. Yet, despite announcing the theme in her title, Wang never belabors the point. In fact, she displays a rather light touch when it comes to addressing her themes. Nevertheless, when Kalbinur’s mother tells her life is about learning to say goodbye, it rings with significance.

Isa Yasan is terrific as his namesake, almost resembling a Uyghur version of the kid in The Bicycle Thieves. He is wonderfully natural responding to Kalbinur Rahmati and Alinaz Rahmati as their namesakes. Yet, the complicated and touching rapport he develops with Musa Yasan (playing Brother Musa) leaves the deepest impression.

First Farewell is a beautiful film to look at, thanks to Li Yong’s striking cinematography, which perfectly captures the beauty and loneliness of the Xinjiang landscape. Still, the film is sometimes too quiet for its own good. First Farewell is livelier and more engaging than many a slow-cinema docu-hybrid, but it is cut from similar aesthetic cloth. Recommended for those who appreciate well-crafted but deliberately-paced coming of age tales, A First Farewell screens tonight (7/11), as part of NYAFF ’19.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Darlin’: The Woman Returns

The world would be much more humane if we had more feral mad women and fewer doctors and nuns. That is the basic lesson of the latest cinematic ode to the noble savage. In this case, it comes with a dump-truck load of anti-Catholic propaganda. Grab for your Tylenol, because this film broadcasts its lectures at mega-decibels. Subtlety will be damned to infernal Hell when Pollyanna McIntosh’s Darlin’ opens this Friday in theaters.

Technically, Darlin’ is an original sequel to Lucky McKee’s The Woman, which was based on Jack Ketchum’s edgy novel. McIntosh reprises her role as “The Woman,” while also serving as director and screenwriter this time around. Arguably, the film’s lineage is the most interesting thing about it.

As the film opens, the Woman has been separated from her daughter, “Darlin’,” who has the great misfortune of wandering into a hospital that has just been acquired by the local Catholic diocese. Supposedly, they are also desperately short of funds, so this take-over does not make much sense, but this film is not about logic. It is just an excuse to grab a cudgel and beat the Catholic Church to a bloody, gory pulp.

Of course, the arrogant chief attending wants nothing to do with the dirty, smelly girl, but the Bishop swoops in sensing a golden opportunity. If he can document the Church’s successful efforts to civilize (McIntosh and company would put scare quotes around that word) her, it should secure a steady stream of donations, so he transfers her to the local girls’ orphanage. It will be poor Sister Jennifer’s job to oversee her education, particularly her religious studies (natch’). As the Woman follows her trail, Darlin’ rather tragically takes to Catholic dogma.

Presumably, McIntosh and company thought they were striking blows against patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia, and bourgeoisie squareness, over and over again. However, the real truth is conservative traditionalists would dearly love for average folks in Middle America to see Darlin’, because it is so relentlessly didactic and nakedly hostile to anyone who might disagree with it, it will inevitably push away hearts and minds rather than convert them. There are no real characters in Darlin’, only straw men and symbols. As soon as we meet the Bishop we know he will turn out to be a pedophile, because there is no way McIntosh would leave an anti-Catholic stereotype on the table.

You would have found more openness and less demonizing of conflicting points of view during a typical Maoist Cultural Revolution re-education session. It is pretty clear if you are not ready to abandon the Catholic Church (or really any Christian denomination) McIntosh and company think you are a bad person, so go hang your head in shame (after voting the way they tell you to). Not recommended—because it’s not really a movie, it’s a diatribe—Darlin’ opens this Friday (7/12) in select theaters.


Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Lying and Stealing: Another Art History Major Gone Wrong

Parents do not let your children major in art history. If you believe what we see in movies, that degree only prepares students for one career: art thief. Of course, if they are successful, they will do quite nicely for themselves. Unfortunately, Ivan (the not-so-terrible) Warding is not in business for himself. He has been scoring hot objects d’art to pay off his late ne’er do well father’s gambling debts. However, he might be able to clear the books with two big scores, but he will need the help of a mystery woman to finish the job, because that is how capers work, especially in Matt Aselton’s Lying and Stealing, which opens this Friday in New York.

Warding loves to quote Willie Sutton, but he prefers to rob from silly rich art collectors. Since banks are Federally insured—that means by us taxpayers—we do not object to his strategy. As [bad] luck would have, moving stolen art on the grey market happens to be one of the other major ventures of Dimitri Maropakis, the bookie holding all the senior Warding’s IOUs. Ivan has been doing this for a while, so he expects to be Even-Steven soon. Of course, Maropakis is not exactly trust-worthy, but he offers the thief a deal. The first job is stealing a Hitler self-portrait from a twitchy and well-armed National Socialism memorabilia collector. The second job will be named later.

To further complicate Warding’s life, he is forced to take in his bipolar but smarter-than-he-looks brother Raymond, who has just been evicted from his halfway house. The FBI agent parked outside his apartment, Lyman Wilkers, is not helping much either. However, there is Elyse Tibladi, an attractive struggling actress and con artist, whom he keeps crossing paths with.

Theo James and Emily Ratajkowski are not exactly Peter O’Toole and Audrey Hepburn in How to Steal a Million, but they have serviceable chemistry. James deserves particular credit for some solid comic timing and a rather decent leading man presence, exceeding viewer expectations quite a bit. Fred Melamed provides a memorable villain, chewing the scenery with flamboyant élan, as the hedonistic Maropakis. Isiah Whitlock Jr. also adds some welcome dry sarcasm as Wilkers.

L&S is a modest film, but it hums along at a healthy clip and manages to punch above its weight class. (Still, it should be noted the film is probably a tad more violent than it really should have been.) Likeably entertaining but nothing transcendent, Lying and Stealing opens this Friday (7/12) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Pet Sematary (2019): Maine is a Terrible Place to Raise a Family

Fans have a strange relationship with the 1989 adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. The author’s readers were so delighted to finally have a half-decent King horror movie after the mid-1980s doldrums (remember Silver Bullet?) they developed more affection for it than it probably deserved. On the other hand, hard-core Ramones fanatics resented their title theme song as a Hollywood sell-out (as it sort of was). Serious horror watchers were encouraged when the up-and-coming team of Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer signed on to direct the remake, but the distinctiveness of their previous films is absent from the latest Pet Sematary, which releases today on DVD.

The Pet Sematary novel and subsequent films will annoy your spell-checker to the point of exasperation. The deliberate misspelling matches that of the pet graveyard the Creed family finds nestled away on the property behind their new Maine home. You would think the realtor would be legally obliged to disclose something like that. Behind it is a deadfall built by the Micmac tribe to keep people away from a hilltop burial mound with a serious reputation for causing heebie-jeebies. Reportedly, it was the Wendigo’s old stomping grounds. That definitely should have been covered in the mandatory disclosure.

Nevertheless, Dr. Louis Creed and his wife Rachel are still all smiles moving in with their eight-ish-year-old daughter Ellie and toddler son Gage. Since Jud Crandall, the crusty old codger living next-door turns out to be an nice old softie, they think the only down-side to their new home are the big rigs that constantly come barreling down the highway right in front of their driveway. Alas, “Church,” the family feline is flattened by one of those eighteen-wheelers a few days later. That night, Creed and Crandall set out to bury Church while Ellie is asleep, but instead of planting her in the Pet Sematary, Crandall leads Creed up the deadfall, to bury Church atop the mini Devil’s Tower. Within a matter of hours, Church comes back—changed.

And that should be enough to foreshadow the rest of the story. Of course, you know some mortal remains are going up there sooner or later. Mild spoiler: in a departure from the book and Mary Lambert’s movie, it will be Ellie who follows Church under the wheels of a speeding truck (but honestly, the evil looking little girl on the key art kind of gives that away already).

In fact, most of the changes from King and Lambert are not for the best. Lambert’s film recounts the prior history of Timmy Baterman, a recently returned WWII veteran, who also died prematurely and took a sinister detour through the Micmac burial ground, which gives the film a vibe of ancient evil hanging over the woods. Kölsch & Widmyer only show an old Baterman news headline brought up by an internet search (how Millennial). Conversely, the flashbacks featuring Rachel Creed’s late sister Zelda Goldman (who suffered from Spinal Meningitis) are expanded in ways that are exploitative and distasteful.

Frankly, the best part of this Sematary is John Lithgow playing old Crandall, but Fred Gwynne was still better in the Lambert film. In all fairness, Jete Laurence is terrific as Ellie Creed, even if a lot of her impressive third act work was a mistake in narrative terms. Jason Clarke also does a credible job portraying Dr. Creed’s descent from everyman to self-deluding psycho-tool-of-the-Wendigo. However, Amy Seimetz, a horror movie veteran, seems weirdly aloof as Rachel Creed.

Kölsch & Widmyer maintain a creepy, moldering-forest-smelling atmosphere, but this is just an unnecessary film to remake. Plus, the Starcrawler rendition of the Ramones’ “Pet Sematary” will be galling for the band’s fans, no matter how they felt about the original tune. Basically, this is just a time-killer for horror watchers that does not live up to the standards of the co-directors’ Starry Eyes and their Valentine’s Day contribution to Holidays. Not recommended for deliberate intentional viewing, Pet Sematary releases today (&/9) on DVD and BluRay.

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Monday, July 08, 2019

NYAFF ’19: Odd Family Zombie On-Sale

We have long argued South Korea cinema has a well-earned competitive advantage when it comes to creepy serial killer thrillers, but whoever expected them to basically take a surprise corner on the crowded zombie market? Of course, it started with the instant classic Train to Busan and its animated prequel, Seoul Station, and continued with the zombie historical, Rampant. Screenwriter-director Lee Min-jae now stakes a claim to zombie comedy territory with the bizarre ruckus that is Odd Family: Zombie On-Sale, which screens during the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Apparently, the young man shambling towards town is one of the college students who was experimented on by a scandal-ridden Pharma company. Initially, he does not make much of a stir, because he is a weirdly polite zombie. In contrast, Man-Deok’s family are pretty rude and obnoxious. Ostensibly, they run a rural service station, but most of their repair clients find their way there through the family’s underhanded tricks. The eldest son Joon-gul does the dirty work and his wife Nam-joo handles the collections. The middle son Min-gul left to work in Seoul, but he has just returned home after getting sacked. The youngest sibling, Hae-gul broods disgustedly, like any teenager embarrassed by her family.

For some reason, Hae-gul seems to have a rapport with the formerly handsome young zombie when he shuffles into town. He really is well behaved, preferring to chop on cabbage instead of human brains. However, when he bites down on bitter old Man-Deok’s scalp, suddenly he gets an infusion of youthful vitality. Soon, the town’s codgers start lining up for a fountain-of-youth bite from “Zzong-bie,” as Hae-gul dubs him, for which the family is only too happy to supply for a reasonable fee. Of course, zombies are still zombies, so the town will inevitably be over-run by a zombie apocalypse—and it will all be the fault of Man-Deok’s family.

Odd Family is a gleefully wild and crazy comedy that still respects the conventions of zombie movies. In fact, the third act turns into a pretty darned credible walking dead stand-off. Nevertheless, its in-your-face attitude never flags for a moment. Zombie comedies are usually very hit-or-miss affairs, but this one mostly hits—and when it hits, it hits hard.

It is also almost shocking to see Jung Jae-young, the hard-nosed star of Confession of Murder and Broken playing a hen-pecked goofball like Joon-gul, but he dives in with both feet. Lee Soo-kyung could inspire some Ellen Ripley-like memes with her forceful portrayal as the resourceful Hae-gul (her weapon of choice is the weed-whacker). Kim Nam-gil oozes sleaze as Min-gul, while Jung Ga-ram does a nice job of humanizing Zzong-bie.

Odd Family has one of the cleverest and most satisfying endings of any zombie movie yet produced, but it would be nearly impossible for any future film to rip it off. At one point, Lee Min-jae also seems to tip his hat to Train to Busan, in a subtle manner. Altogether, it is jolly good fun. Very highly recommended for zombie fans, Odd Family: Zombie for Sale screens tomorrow night (7/9) as part of NYAFF ’19 and for those who will be in Montreal, on July 29th during the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival.

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Sunday, July 07, 2019

NYAFF ’19: White Snake

Blanca and Verta are like the Clooney Sisters of demon snakes. God help the mister who comes between Verta and her sister—especially if he is a measly mortal—but God help the sister who comes between Blanca and her [hu]man. The ancient Chinese legend that inspired Tsui Hark and numerous Chinese operas gets an animated prequel treatment in Amp Wong & Zhao Ji’s White Snake, which screens today at the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Blanca is a restless snake demon. Perhaps that is why the snake demon queen dispatches her to assassinate the evil Taoist general, who has been rounding up snakes to drain their life force in order to attain powers of immortality for the emperor. The mission is not a success. Blanca barely manages to escape, but when she come to in a village of human snake-hunters, she has temporarily lost her memory.

Ah Xuan is not much of a snake-hunter, but he is a stout-hearted lad, so he and Blanca inevitably fall in love. Unfortunately, their temporary romance will not last. Blanca’s enchanted hairpin and the jealous Verta will bring her back to reality and the cold hard fact humans and demons cannot mix. Of course, Ah is willing to trade in his humanity, but by the time he returns as a minor demon with a puppy dog tale, he will find his old human village trapped in the crossfire of a war between the snake demons and the General’s forces.

Ah also has a talking dog, Dodou, so you know you can’t go too far wrong with White Snake. It also boasts some of the most impressive Chinese animation yet (representing Warner Brothers’ first animated Chines co-production), even eclipsing Big Fish & Begonia. The main characters are definitely attractive and heroic looking, but the grand natural vistas and fantasyscapes are truly awesome. The humor is a bit hit-or-miss, but it is mercifully used sparingly.

Plus, it is weirdly fascinating to parse the meanings behind a film that pitches the Taoism of the Darth Vader-like General versus the Buddhism of the Demon Snakes (besides Blanca and Verta, most of them are pretty creepy). However, the film clearly suggests there is more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in the Communist Party’s philosophy.

White Snake has some wildly cool martial arts sequences and its animation is consistently top-notch. Unfortunately, it shares the shortcoming of most fantasy films and anime, when the climax largely jettisons the human element in favor of a maelstrom of fire balls and death rays, whirling about in a visual blur. Still, that is a minor complaint that is not unique to White Snake. Highly recommended for fans of animation, wuxia, and fantasy films alike, White Snake screens today (7/7) as part of NYAFF ’19 and for those who will be in Montreal later in the month, it screens on July 27th during the upcoming Fantasia Film Festival.

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Saturday, July 06, 2019

NYAFF ’19: Ma

Catholic countries idolize motherhood better than anyone. They are also just as perversely aware of its dark, sinister manifestations. The poverty is spirit-crushing, but it is nothing compared to the malevolent spirit inhabiting the woods in Kenneth Lim Dagatan’s Ma, which screens during the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

This is the other Ma that makes Octavia Spencer’s psycho killer look relatively benign. As the film opens, Samuel and his younger brother and sister are alarmed by their mother Lina’s blood-spitting ill-health. When she dies, he makes a Faustian bargain with an evil thing found in an uber-archetypal tree in a suspiciously ominous cave to bring her back, but the initial results are not what he had in mind. The entity soon has him escalating from the family cat.

Meanwhile, the mega-pregger Cecile has returned to her childhood village to give birth following the death of her husband (an implied suicide). Back in the day, she was inseparable from her chums Lina and her host, the devout Gelyn. However, something rather nightmarish happened to them in a nearby cave, somewhat estranging the trio for years. Of course, anyone who has seen their horror movies knows there is no better pagan sacrifice than a pregnant woman.

In fact, Ma could well be a perfectly representative Filipino horror movie, combining grim sequences of desperate naturalism with utter gross-out provocations. Ma could possibly have the longest vomiting scene since Team America: World Police, but it is played direly straight. Dagatan and co-screenwriter Dodo Dayao also wear their Catholic sensibilities on their sleeve. What transpires is particularly disturbing, because we know and the characters understand these are acts of evil knowingly committed by the formerly innocent.

Young Kyle Espiritu is pretty darned chilling as Samuel. His performance is essentially a portrait of damnation. Likewise, it is nearly as disturbing to watch the even younger Alessandra Malonzo and Enzo Osorio take similar descents into madness and murder, as his junior siblings. Frankly, the adults have a hard time comparing to the youngsters’ homicidal horror chops.

Ma is a well-made film, but it is definitely a downer that never offers up any genre catharsis. Cinematographer Cesce Lee gives it a rich, golden aura, evoking a vibe of ancient, folkloric evil. However, it does not build to a crescendo comparable to Joko Anwar’s remake of Satan’s Slaves, a film that connoisseurs of Asian horror might find themselves remembering during Ma. Recommended for Filipino horror fans, Ma screens tomorrow (7/7), as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Friday, July 05, 2019

NYAFF ’19: Dark Figure of Crime

In criminal prosecutions, confessions often are not worth the paper the are scrawled on. That is especially true of the seven murders Kang Tae-oh kind-of sort-of cops to. He will give world weary police detective Kim Hyung-min just enough information to keep him hooked in Kim Tae-gyoon’s Dark Figure of Crime, which screens during the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Kim first met Kang when they were introduced by one of his narco informants. Shortly thereafter, homicide busted Kang for the murder of his girlfriend, for which he is quickly convicted. A few months later, Kang contacts Kim. Even though he works narcotics, the upper-middle class Kim is willing to throw around a little of his own money for a good lead. In return for prison spending money, Kang offers up seven vague murder confessions, including the one he is already doing time for.

Even though Kim knows he is being played, the details are just too specific for him to ignore. He desperately follows each lead, understanding each failure will damage the credibility of the police and the prosecution during Kang’s appeal. However, he cannot walk away, especially after meeting the still grieving grandmother of Kang’s fourth victim—or so Kim deduces.

Loosely based on a true story, Dark Figure gives the prison-confession thriller a darkly sinister twist. Kang is an evil, irredeemably nasty piece of work, but the cat-and-mouse game he plays with Kim is definitely new and different. Ju Ji-hoon just radiates malevolent bad vibes as Kang, Kim Yoon-seok is the real star of the film, as Det. Kim Hyung-min. It is rather unusual (and somewhat refreshing) to meet a movie copper who is reasonably well-healed (even bourgeoise). In fact, that is why Kim is able to take more professional risks. Regardless, Kim’s performance is terrific, tempering righteous outrage with understated grit and fatalism.

We have said it before and Dark Figure proves it once again: Korean cinema has a dramatic comparative advantage when it comes to serial killer movies. Kim Tae-Gyoon’s style is not particularly flashy, but he has a talent for building suspense out of distinctive characters and situations. Very highly recommended, Dark Figure of Crime screens tomorrow (7/6), as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Le Cinema Club: To Be Free (short)

It isn’t easy portraying an icon like Nina Simone. Just ask Zoe Saldana. However, Adepero Oduye takes on the hardest part of playing Simone—her incomparable stage presence—and gets at the essence of the artist in her exquisite short film To Be Free, which premieres today on the new streaming service, Le Cinema Club.

Screenwriter-director Oduye’s short takes its name from “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free,” a song originally composed by Dr. Billy Taylor, which would be covered by many artists—Simone’s recording arguably being the most popular rendition. However, the song Oduye performs while assuming Simone’s persona is actually “My Way,” the tune penned by Paul Anka that became Frank Sinatra’s theme song. Yet, Simone transformed it into something almost completely different.

Heaven knows Nina Simone could be dramatic on stage—just check out her infamous and awesome 1976 Montreux concert if you don’t know what we are talking about—but in this case, Oduye’s Simone is performing in front of a hip and idolizing crowd at an uptown late-night jam spot. They get Simone and her repertoire choices.

Oduye is pretty amazing on the bandstand. Jazz fans will be duly impressed by the real deal music she creates with musical director Vicente Archer on bass, Kwami Coleman on piano, Eric McPherson on drums, and Shakoor Sanders on percussion. Yet, even though most of the film consists of her vocal rendition, but it is still very much a fine piece of screen acting (think of it as being in the tradition of Audra McDonald’s portrayal of Billie Holiday on Broadway in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill).

To Be Free sounds terrific and it looks great, thanks to the mostly black-and-white cinematography of Bradford Young, who lensed big Hollywood releases like Arrival, as well as smaller jazz-related projects, such I Called Him Morgan and As Told to G/D Thyself. Clearly, he and Oduye were channeling the classic jazz photography of Francis Wolff and Herman Leonard in the way they frame their images and evoke an old school jazz vibe through the use of smoke and stage lights.

It is only thirteen minutes, but To Be Free is arguably Simone’s best big screen treatment yet, better representing her than even the Liz Garbus Netflix documentary. Very highly recommended, To Be Free is now streaming on Le Cinema Club.

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Thursday, July 04, 2019

NYAFF ’19: Winter After Winter

China suffered terribly during the Japanese occupation. They go out of their way to remind the world of that fact with every other film they officially release. Apparently, the nation prefers to identify itself as a group of pitiful victims rather than as a global superpower. A dysfunctional family serves as the latest example. They will be duly miserable during the waning days of the war in Xing Jian’s Winter After Winter, which screens as a selection of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Elderly Lao Si will soon turn his grown sons over to the local Japanese commander to [involuntarily] labor in their lumber camp, but he is only incidentally concerned with their fate. Instead, he has arranged a hasty divorce for his eldest impotent son, so one of his two younger brothers can impregnate his now ex-wife, Kun, thereby continuing Lao’s bloodline. Unfortunately, the middle sibling is too disgusted by it all, so he runs off to join the resistance, whereas the dim-witted youngest, simply isn’t up to the task.

Kun rather stoically accepts this unseemly circus, not that anyone is asking her opinion. Her silence speaks volumes. Likewise, Lao Si’s motor-mouth can be cringey to listen to. Frankly, his obsession with blood (well beyond that of the problematic but infinitely more sympathetic characters in Steinbeck’s Burning Bright) approaches outright creepiness. Yet, Xing, previously an accomplished painter, maintains a stately slow pace.

Winter eventually reaches a profoundly ironic payoff, but many viewers will be hard-pressed to see it that way. In fact, Xing maintains such a harshly realistic, matter-of-fact tone, you could almost miss the significant revelations he drops late in the game. This is definitely austere cinema, but the visual artistry of Guo Daming’s striking (mostly) black-and-white cinematography is just as apparent, frame after frame.

As Kun, Yan Bingyan is a haunting presence, thanks to her demoralized and downtrodden body language. However, it is Gao Qiang who really dominates the film as the desperately deceitful Lao Si, debasing himself over small stakes, much like a William H. Macey character in a Coen Brothers film.

Xing’s film has too many bitterly dark plot-points to truly be classified as “slow cinema,” but it is still “slow-ish.” His long takes are impressively composed, but they demand the viewer’s close attention. Interestingly, he also somewhat humanizes the Japanese commander, which definitely distinguishes Winter from the field. Only recommended for hardcore cineastes who will respect its integrity, Winter After Winter screens tomorrow (7/5), during the 2019 NYAFF.

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Cold Blood: Jean Reno Plays Lone Wolf

Movies make terrible doctors. If you ever find yourself pierced by a foreign object, dislodging it could be fatal, but that is usually the first thing film characters do when they find themselves in that predicament. Frankly, our mystery snow-mobiler would probably be dead after the first five minutes, after she pulls loose an impaling tree branch. Fortunately, a grizzled cat like Jean Reno knows better. The reclusive hitman will nurse her back to health in director-screenwriter Frederic Petitjean’s Cold Blood, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Henry is a stealthy professional, who often uses untraceable ice bullets, including the job that kicks off the film. He then calmly returns to his remote Pacific Northwest retreat. It is a good thing he did, because it is his cabin Melody crawls to after her sudden snow mobile accident. She wanted to get away from everything—and she did.

His bedside manner is not so great, but Melody is not an especially gracious patient either. Nevertheless, Henry manages to nurse her back to health, even though neither of them trusts the other. Of course, their suspicions will be justified over time. Meanwhile, Deputy Kappa, a former NYPD cop, who relocated to Spokane for reasons even he doesn’t understand, diligently works the case of the industrialist Henry whacked during the film’s most interesting sequence.

Spokane has a population over 200,000 as well as its own airport, but everyone in the film acts like it is the equivalent of Twin Peaks. At least they pronounce it correctly. Honestly, viewers will wish they could see more of the city, because cabin fever sets in pretty quickly during this film. Jean Reno is one of the most reliable and under-appreciated hard-nosed actors in the business today, but watching him tend to Melody’s wounds and giving her stern advice gets old after a while. Honestly, not enough happens in Cold Blood and most of the events that transpire are ridiculously contrived.

In addition to Reno, Joe Anderson is also highly watchable as Kappa, perhaps because he truly looks like he resents every moment he is in the picture. That leaves Sarah Lind in an awkward spot, playing it straight opposite the steely Reno an in contrast to the snarky Anderson.

Nobody will have strong feelings for Cold Blood or vivid memories of the movie. It is easy to pinpoint the principal reason why: a script that clearly should have gone through further drafts. Petitjean even commits the sin of “Chekhov’s Wolf,” referencing a lobo “with the taste for human blood” in the first act, but never circling back to that plot point. Not recommended, Cold Blood opens tomorrow (7/5) in New York, at the Cinema Village.


Wednesday, July 03, 2019

NYAFF ’19: The Fatal Raid

Doesn’t it warm your heart to see cooperation between the different Chinas? In this case, police officers from Hong Kong, Macau, and possibly Taiwan (at least she is teased for being a Taiwanese spy) team up to stop a senior HK cop gone rogue. Madam Fong and her team happen to be women, but they are as lethal as vintage Michelle Yeoh. They will clean up their male colleagues’ mess in Jacky Lee’s The Fatal Raid (a.k.a. Special Female Force 2: The Fatal Raid), which screens during the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Technically, this is a sequel, but don’t worry about coming in cold. Lee quickly catches the audience up on all the back-story they need to know. Frankly, the subtitles for the screener viewed for this review were not great either, but that hardly matters. Fatal Raid is all about action first and attractive women holding guns second. As such, its language is universal.

Twenty-some years ago, before the handover of Macao and Hong Kong, (which the subtitles refer to as the “regression,” perhaps more accurately than was intended), Tam led a secret HK police operation in Macao that turned into a bloodbath. To avoid embarrassment, the top brass covered up the incident and disavowed all claims for compensation from the deceased officers’ next of kin. The titular raid still haunts Tam, so he decides to take advantage of the new deputy commissioner’s first public appearance in Macao to strike. The ultimate objective is a little murky, but there is no missing the slam-bang chaos that ensues.

 So, action. Lots of it. Honestly, Fatal Raid has the energy and tragic sensibility of John Woo films, circa Hard Boiled, with some “chicks-with-guns” fan service thrown in for extra added meathead appeal. Arguably, Jade Leung and company manage to be both feminist role models and guy-friendly eye-candy, but there are so many bullets whizzing through the air, nobody will have a chance to analyze the film’s gender politics.

Leung is pretty darned steely as Madam Fong. Malaysian pop-star Lin Min-chen is also quite engaging as the strait-laced, fast-tracked Yan Han. Likewise, Hidy Yu, Jeana Ho, and Jadie Lin show off some impressive action chops as their colleagues. The brooding is mostly left to the guys, particularly Patrick Tam, who seethes and agonizes as his guilt-ridden namesake.

This is a massively violent film, but it is also a lot of fun. If you imagine the shootout at the end of Michael Mann’s Heat raised to the power of ten and expanded to fill three twenty-minute windows and you might have a notion of what the film is like. Very highly recommended for action fans, The Fatal Raid screens this Friday (7/5), as part of NYAFF ’19.

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Ari Aster’s Midsommar

Blame Bernie Sanders for giving Millennials a false impression of Sweden. Granted, taxes are high, but it is a capitalistic economy that was arguably less regulated than our own, until we got some relief over the last two years (perhaps you have heard of Swedish companies, like Volvo, H&M, Ikea, and Ericsson). It is also overwhelmingly Lutheran, in an upstanding Calvinist kind of way, but for a group of hard-partying grad students, it is more fun to romanticize pagan solstice rituals. However, the midnight sun phenomenon is legit and it will contribute to the mounting disorientation the abrasively obnoxious tourists experience in Ari Aster’s Midsommar, which opens today in New York.

Dani is the likable one, relatively speaking, but an almost unbearable family tragedy has rendered her an emotional basket case. Her passive-aggressive boyfriend Christian is incapable of giving her the support she needs, because he has been too busy looking for an easy, no-stress exit from their relationship. Yet, he reluctantly invites her along on a trip to the Midsommar festival in northern Sweden, held every nine years at the commune where their fellow anthropology student Pelle lives. He seems a little less randy and crass than the other grad lads, but his interest in Dani may not necessarily be a good thing.

At first, everything is cool when the Americans (and two Brits brought along by Pelle’s cousin) drop acid and gambol in the fields. However, the first ritual is absolutely shocking, even to Josh, who is doing his thesis on midsummer folk traditions. Nevertheless, they stay, to keep the movie going.

There is no getting around the fact Midsommar is nowhere near as scary as Aster’s breakout debut, Hereditary. In fact, it is not really frightening, per se. Instead, more of a string of jaw-dropping, over-the-top set pieces, featuring a fair degree of gore. It is not unlike Guadagnino’s Suspiria remake-re-conception, because the primary response sought by both films is “Dude, WTF,” rather than fear or suspense. It is still definitely a horror movie, but it is all about spectacle rather than existential dread.

Yet, there are still elements of what could be considered hallmarks of a consistent Aster style. Once again, he plumbs the depths of human anguish, putting his lead through a torturous emotional ringer, within the first ten minutes. Arguably, he could be one of the few filmmakers working today who can address themes of grief and guilt in such a brutally honest, unsentimentalized fashion. In addition, we can see the way he employs art and décor to build tension. This time around, it is weird murals and folk paintings that set the tone, much like the eerie miniatures in Hereditary.

Midsommar could even have an outside shot at a best costume Oscar, if A24 campaigns hard for it. A lot of craftsmanship went into the film, but the narrative is rather standard stuff. There are no great surprises here, not even the kicker ending, which would not be out of place in a vintage issue of EC Comics.

Regardless, Florence Pugh and Jack Reynor hold up their ends with uncompromising, all-in performances, even when their characters’ excesses confound the audience’s desire to identify with them, or at least with Dani. Although Christian is a raging jerkheel, we can’t help tiring of her manic swings. Honestly, they are both so unpleasant to spend time with (and wait till you get an earful of Will Poulter as Christian’s horndog pal, Mark), you might just find yourself rooting for the pagan cult to Wicker Man everyone’s butt back to the pre-Christianity era.

That is really how you have to buy into Midsommar­—as a wild dive into a maelstrom of lunacy (again, very much like Suspiria). At times, Midsommar will make you laugh out loud. Other times, you will stomp and shout. It is mostly a good thing when films inspire strong reactions, even if a lot of fans were going in expecting to respond differently.

Of course, horror fans will need to see Midsommar just so they can form their own opinions. It is probably the most eagerly anticipated horror movie and sophomore film since Jordan Peele’s Us (which was better than Midsommar, but Hereditary was vastly superior to the over-hyped Get Out, so let’s call it a draw, so far). Recommended as nutty slice of Scandinavian midnight madness (but not a major new statement in the genre), Midsommar opens today (7/3) in theaters throughout New York, including the AMC Empire.

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