DON’T BREATHE

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

A movie that is less than the sums of its parts, Fede Alvarez’s follow up to his 2013 horror remake of the Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe, is less the stuff of lore, but looks like it could have still been the stuff of lore. Somehow it’s not difficult for me to sit back and imagine the people who came up with this home-invasion turned slasher flick trying to see how far fetched of a concept they could bring and perhaps borrow from urban legends. I’m sure the sentence, “Hey, imagine if some robbers broke into a blind guy’s house and tried to steal from him not realizing that he’d booby-trapped the entire fucking thing?”

That in essence is not a bad thing: disabled heroes pitted against blood-curdling evil people have been the stuff of horror stories since day one, and most memorably in Wait Until Dark, which had its own imitators. This time, the blind person isn’t a woman but a man (Stephen Lang) whose name we never learn. Turns out, the man is sitting on top of a buttload of money in the middle of a desolate area in Detroit (fast becoming a scenario for horror-movie makers; it indeed looks freakish enough without the scares to make you want to turn the heck back). Three deadbeats, Rocky, Money, and Alex (played by Jane Levy, Daniel Zorvatto, and Dylan Minnette), make something of a killing by breaking into houses and taking what they can seemingly with impunity, and in one such heist Money is seen letting loose of a lot of, um, gunk, onto the carpet of a house he just stole from. [My mind immediately thought, “DNA sample? I’m sure when the police arrive they’ll catch this piece of evidence.” But I realized, this isn’t the important aspect of the movie. Fede Alvarez is interested in Something Else.

The three deadbeats decide to do One More Robbery. This time, it’ll be big. No, not big–huge. The blind man in question, a former marine, it seems won the money out of a huge settlement after being hit by a car. They rationalize it as, he can’t be needing this amount of money. He’s old and alone and so let’s screw him.

That’s where the slow build up ends and the movie proper, begins. Alvarez still can’t resist giving you the jump scare early on in the movie (and of course, again why I hate American horror movies that rely on jump scares to elicit a cry of panic from the audience before getting into the meat of it). It tells me that even when the break-in —  a sequence staged rather competently as a one-shot surveillance camera pinpointing salient elements of the house as if this were a video game and we were at level one — Alvarez still has to give you a requisite minor boo moment in order to remind you of what you’re watching.

The first boo does work — the Blind Man has a giant rottweiler that looks like a wrecking machine or a Cujo sequel. The second is much more clever: Money breaks into the sleeping man’s bedroom to gas him to sleep. Before he does so, he is startled to see the man sitting up looking into nothing, but still . . . looking . . . unsettling. Too alert for someone ostensibly disabled. Remarkably agile. Not to mention, the camera has already led us underneath his bed, which has a rather ominous gun strapped to the box spring.

It doesn’t take long for the threesome to realize not that they’re in over their heads, but just how deep they’re in. The house and its owner, once the gloves are off, have become an inescapable prison and all avenues lead to zero. Without disclosing anything, let me say, Don’t Breathe is brutally good in spurts and pieces. A stand out sequence is a rather protracted chase scene done entirely in the dark reminiscent of the climactic sequence of Silence of the Lambs. We barely get a grey on black glimpse of movement and actors and only manage to see their eyes as pitch-black orbs seeking anything. It is as unnerving as anything done in horror and on that basis Alvarez gets a solid pass. The problem arises when you realize that even at a lean 85 minutes the home invasion turned prey has to run out of steam at one point, that the film introduces some rather unbelievable monkey wrenches that seem to be only to extract cries of disgust from the audience (again, mission accomplished) and wouldn’t be out of place in both a David Fincher horror entry circa Se7en or a grade-C schlock picture. How far can the premise of a blind man with an apparently bottomless resource to cut through the invaders like a sieve and slice them off one by one is anyone’s guess. Alvarez’s lack of any background of the characters (except Rocky, whose horror of a home life we see) and his anxiousness to get into the man’s house points to a mix of distrust for his audience’s patience and an almost sadistic need to let loose something impossibly lethal.

But, this is August, and horror movies don’t tend to be of the memorable kind. This one’s good, but no more, and it probably might not go past first view when you’ve all but forgotten about it or its hype. Jane Levy, an actress who has the role of the gutsy survivor down pat plays our Final Girl down to the hilt and even manages to sneak in some “don’t go there” moments counterpointed to “just get OUT of there!” hollers. It’s a shame we can’t root for her for almost 90 per cent of the movie, but you can’t blame a girl playing tricks to live wanting a little cash and a break to get out of dodge.

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

https://youtu.be/p4-6qJzeb3A

I’ve been seeing animated pictures for as long as I can remember, and  nothing could prepare me for the opening image that Laika’s stop-motion animation presented in its latest effort. A raging sea, with furious, cobalt-blue waves probably hundreds of feet high, and in the distance, a tiny boat manned by a determined woman with an expression of sheer agony and terror on her face as she battles the waves. As an audience member I couldn’t believe things could get worse, and then I heard the wan cry of a baby. Surely this wouldn’t be the end — Danae suffered a similar fate and survived. Facing an insurmountable wave, the woman–a Japanese princess–strums a small object with two strings. The pitch-black terror of night becomes a blinding blue-white light and the wave, which surely would have killed her and her baby, is no more. She and her child are safe in a remote location.

And thus begins the story of Kubo, a visually impressive piece of work from Laika, known for their films Coraline and Corpse Bride. Kubo is a wonder of a kid, a boy missing an eye (covered in an eye patch) able to spin magical tales of battling warriors to an adoring audience while manipulating colorful pieces of paper that turn into living origami and become players in his stories. A standout story — the one featured — is that of Hanzo, the great samurai. Deep into a climactic battle between Hanzo and the Moon King, night begins to fall. Kubo is forced to leave the townsfolk and run back to the cave he lives with his mother Sarutai (Charlize Theron) who seems somewhat disconnected from reality. She worries about Kubo being outside and warns him repeatedly that he must not stay once the Sun goes below the horizon. If he should be out, his aunts and grandfather, the Moon King, will come for him and take his remaining eye.

It’s no surprise what happens once the Chekhov gun has been shown: Kubo will find himself outside of his comfort zone, interestingly searching for an answer from his deceased father in an ceremony where townsfolk connect with their loved ones who have passed. The scene is absolutely breathtaking and spiritual as lanterns pepper a river with their soft effulgent golden glow. That same scene will be used later in the film for a much more powerful effect that will move even a heartless soul. But not to digress–Kubo gets much more than he bargained for when his father fails to come, and while the appearance of the two aunts isn’t to the scale of the monster-mother of Coraline, it is truly shocking: covered in black smoke, they come with a vengeance and completely destroy everything in their path. Sarutai, sensing danger, intervenes and with the power of her magic sends her boy off into the unknown, to seek his father’s armor and be indestructable.

When the boy wakes up he is greeted by a monkey (Theron, again), who has been sent from its physical form of Kubo’s toy monkey to protect him from the danger of his family at all costs. Both set out to find Hanzo’s armor and along the way meet up with Beetle (Matthew McConaughey, and the three form an often bickering but mostly tight unit set on a quest. The quest, proper, is as old as time itself and while you could map it out step by step, Laika has some visually impressive set pieces that in my opinion rival anything I’ve seen by Disney or Pixar. Watch for a truly terrifying skeleton, and an equally third act appearance of a giant beast of a fish I would not wish to encounter late at night, ever. Where Kubo excels primarily, I think, is in presenting its characters with as close to human rendering as possible so that the quiet scenes in between those involving battle resonate as much. What I really liked was the fact that buried in between the quest is a beating heart, a love story of enemies who became lovers and by doing so, defied a family and a tradition of heartlessness. This is a wonderful, spellbinding tale of heroes, legends, evil kings and two warrior sisters straight out of King Lear (played to perfection by Rooney Mara), but essentially, of the capacity to see, to negate blindness in lieu of connecting through sight with the universe. Alongside with April and the Extraordinary World, this is by far one of the most magical animated films I’ve seen this year, and its essence still lingers with me long after the credits have rolled and the picture has closed.

EQUITY

3.8 out of 5 stars (3.8 / 5)

 

Its trailer suggests Anna Gunn playing a woman with power, and boy does she wield it. Even so, this is a man’s world and the story of Equity — written, produced, directed, and acted by women in plum lead roles — is ultimately about a strong, ruthless woman’s drive to secure a product into the marketable hell that is Wall Street, who finds out just how hard it is to play against the Big Boys. Playing completely against her more subdued housewife from Breaking Bad, Anna Gunn virtually explodes on screen from the second she comes on, proclaiming rather openly how much she loves money and from then on just letting her hair down and her fangs sink into a character that has no problem going against her own sex if it means coming out on top. Gunn is Naomi Bishop, a senior investment banker who just came out of a bad IPO (which has given her the attribute of being problematic to work with) and is trying to get her foot into the trading jungle via a new social media outlet, the rather femininely named Cachet.

Working with her is her right hand woman, Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas), who does much of the hard (and often dirty work) for Naomi, including using her own sexuality in order to secure a part of the big picture that is Cachet. Erin wants a promotion, but Naomi sidelines her, which leaves Erin quietly seething. In the interim, Naomi’s lover Michael Connor (James Purefoy) is trying to fish for insider information in order to sell for a hedge fund (masked as a hedge dog). Michael isn’t above checking Naomi’s blackberry, although finds himself sold short when he realizes she’s blithely given him a fake password. Adding to the plot is an old friend of Naomi’s, Samantha (Alysia Reiner), an up and coming DA who’s investigating Michael Connor. A reunion dinner with Naomi goes rather bad as Naomi’s own paranoid suspicion comes into play, which leaves Samantha no other option than to up the stakes of her investigation. The issue is, Samantha is also into money and her government salary (as comfortable as it is) won’t quite provide for her and her kids. [She has a wife, criminally underwritten and played by Tracie Thoms, of whom we get to know nothing and see her in only a peppering of short scenes.] It’s only time before Sam wonders if her own case against Michael Connor (and, potentially, Naomi herself) is worth it.

Subplots pepper the story, adding a rich layer of smaller characters that move in and out and create a tight noose that doesn’t let up until the final scenes. This is the thriller for the cyber age, one where car chases are non existent and one can kill off a character without having to off them personally. There are still the necessary meetings in shadowed parking lots with characters of dubious loyalty, hackers and the like, so in this, Equity maintains its roots in film noir in all but the noir and reverses the genders expertly. Anna Gunn plays her role as a desperate woman trying to maintain afloat, trusting no one and even going to shocking lengths to avoid any more scandal. The script probably overdoes her reactions to certain events late in the film, so instead of having one major scene-chewing meltdown (like the one Michael Douglas had in Wall St.) we have three, and they all seem rather underwritten and a tad superficial. There’s none of the kind of bite that something written for Meryl Streep in Manchurian Candidate or even the comedic Devil Wears Prada gave her. Even so, and some rather obvious telegraphing to the audience, Equity is a sharp film, feminist, grim, showing that women can be just as bad if not more than the men and then some. It probably won’t get Gunn any awards but should introduce her as a force in the film world, post AMC.

#HORROR

0.5 out of 5 stars (0.5 / 5)

 

In the pile of fair, good, and excellent movies that I get to watch on a weekly basis there’s that rare anti-gem of sheer awful that sometimes sneaks its way into my List of Movies to Watch or Netflix/Amazon Queue. Which is okay, because I haven’t the slightest thing against a bad picture. Nothing that a couple of martini glasses and some friends looking for an object of ridicule to gawk at and perhaps nominate for some potential MST3K reboot. [So far nothing has been THAT bad, but you never know. I may go see Ben Hur 2016.]

#Horror (or, as it’s also known, Hashtag Horror) is a real turkey, without irony or even a sense of humor about it. It’s also irritating in ways I could never possibly imagine. Imagine a rather generic intro where someone like Balthasar Getty, whom I barely remember after his debut in Lord of the Flies, playing a married man to Chloe Sevigny (weakly good in Love & Friendship, flat-out horrible here) who makes out with some starlet playing his mistress on their way through a wintry Connecticut landscape  only to meet the sharp end of the world’s sharpest butcher knife. Now imagine that this morphs into what seems to be an epileptic’s nightmare. Here come the credits: a retina-destroying atrocity of pop-ups posing as name-cards that introduce the players, each second or third punctuated by some shrieking sound that is meant to sound like the knives clashing together or something. I’m not sure where the idea came from, but that alone is sheer torture.

And it continues all. throughout. the. fucking. movie.

You see, there is a party happening in a Connecticut home reeking of female debauchery reminiscent of The Bling Ring minus the theft scenario. The girls attending, except one, are all super rich, super spoiled, and begging to get the shit slapped out of them by a real parent. Not a single one comes forth as a real player, and whenever they–selfie obsessed social media hogs that they are–post either a message or picture, anything, the movie gets that aforementioned awful sound effect with some quick cartoonish visual. Bullying happens with an intensity I haven’t seen in a while and it goes from one girl to the next, until it reaches a head. One really mean girl named Cat gets the kibosh after her bullying gets a little out of hand. She leaves, not before uploading a series of unflattering pictures on social media as a means of cyber-bullying. Timothy Hutton, once a great promise 30 years ago, arrives searching for Cat, the girls start getting picked off one by one, and it’s all a garish, terrible atrocity that hasn’t the slightest in terms of suspense or horror.

#Horror is available on Netflix Streaming. Have a lot of wine before watching this one. I didn’t . . . .

ON DVD: ADVANTAGEOUS

3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

 

I’m always looking for the next alternative science fiction movie. While the genre seems to have experienced some kind of eventual slow decay, there often comes a story that quietly and rather deftly bucks the trend. A tiny little film seen only at Cinema Village before quickly making its debut on Netflix, Jennifer Phang’s and Jacqueline Kim’s Advantageous is a clever story of how far a woman has to go to secure not only her daughter’s future, but her own legacy in the world. The movie takes place in a distant future where the XXIst Century is referenced as a distant past. Jacqueline Kim, an actress that has only graced movies a precious few times, plays Gwen, a spokesperson for a cosmetic agency that sees herself in the precarious position of being let go because she’s reached an age where she can no longer represent the agency convincingly. In a future where women have been effectively shut out of the job market and have also been rendered infertile, Gwen attempts to use her eggs as a form of income. However, even that is not an option as she has her daughter’s education (and future) to secure. With circumstances becoming dire, she faces an almost chilling option: and thus sets the story into a completely different but clever direction.

Advantageous, like many stories before it, uses science fiction to tell another story entirely. Within its narrative is a woman (or Woman as a whole) still having to fight to secure her position in a society that even now continues to value youth. What I do like of Advantageous is its almost entirely diverse cast, consisting almost entirely of Asian Americans, driving the narrative to its somewhat satisfying conclusion. The placement of Gwen as a Korean-American facing obliteration by her superiors — played by James Urbaniak and Jennifer Ehle in the not too subtle roles of good boss and bad boss — is significant, especially in a time when almost all acting opportunities go to Caucasians and anything other than white tends to be placed under a specialty market. the one weakness in the story are the subplots that involve Gwen in a situation resembling a soap opera (although it does give Ken Jeong a chance to play against type) and the unresolved situations involving unseen female neighbors weeping into the emptiness of their apartments that doesn’t quite belong into the story. Other than that, this is a well performed picture with Jacqueline Kim and Samantha Kim as mother and daughter anchoring a story brimming with ideas of a darker future that looks sophisticated without having to resort to unnecessary CGI.

Advantageous is available on Netflix streaming.

MARGUERITE VS. FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS

Marguerite and Florence Foster Jenkins: [A]

Well, it was bound to happen. No matter how good a foreign movie may be, it will be invariably upstaged by its American version. The Danish movie A Hijacking is barely remembered today in light of its much showier version, Captain Philips, to name one example. Another example? Marguerite, France’s Best Picture of 2015, released in the same calendar year as Florence Foster Jenkins, itself unleashed onto the public not five days ago, and with Meryl in the lead, acting for the both of them.

Which is saying a lot, and at the same time, doing Marguerite a disservice. It just so happens that both movies deal with the same topic, observed from different angles. But while Florence Foster Jenkins is the glitzy biopic of the famously bad singer of the same name, Marguerite is a fictitious version of that, following the true events closely while transposing them to Parisian society of the Roaring Twenties.

The result is the same, and at the same time, not exactly. Marguerite isn’t quite the laugh-out-loud howler that the trailer seems to suggest. For all of its colorful plotting, two hours is a lot of bad singing, and this happens a lot in Marguerite which overstays its welcome by a pinch. It does, however, boast a couple of visual sight gags and one hysterical scene where Marguerite attempts to ‘sing’ to Queen of the Night and winds up sounding quite close to an ear-splitting AMBER alert in the middle of the dark.

Marguerite is a solid, but somewhat incomplete portrait of a woman who lived life on her own terms, even when it also involved a great deal of delusion and plunging into the unknown like a seasoned pro. We never get to the root of the matter of why she chooses to perform so badly, or if she’s even unaware of how badly she sings. She exists, and everything rotates around her like satellites. Also, Catherine Frot (Haute Cuisine) is a much softer presence than Streep and she brings a youthful, exuberant touch to a woman in her 60s. Even when her character seems to be a little two-dimensional Frot manages to make her likeable instead of a willing clown. You laugh at her, but deep down, you feel for her, and in the end, you wonder what might it have been, had this woman had a gifted voice instead of this caterwauling shriek that would make Yoko Ono squeal with delight.

Florence Foster Jenkins, however, will steal any residual spotlight from Marguerite based on director and star power alone. [And Marguerite is doing rather well in rentals after a successful one-month run in March this year.] Also, let’s face it, the story is American, about a New York socialite with too much money, and completely relatable to us than to see a sepia-filtered version created across that no matter how well-crafted it was still looks and feels like dress rehearsal. Visually more complex than the chiaroscuro-tinted Marguerite, Stephen Frears’ film is a rich, almost gaudy display of shocking golds and pure warmth. It’s as if the intention was to make everything involving Foster Jenkins’ universe as colorful as her persona, springtime forever, and critics be damned, and the movie works because of it.

The story is pretty much the same as its French version, but it adheres to actual moments in Foster Jenkins’ life events leading up to her triumphant, yet career-killing concert in Carnegie Hall in 1944. Florence Foster Jenkins introduces herself via a tableau vivant playing as was her wont, a loud, clashing character akin to God, or an angel, immersed in radiance, for the people who will come to see her — society people and members of the Verdi Club of which she was its patroness and founder, one of her charities involved in the preservation of the arts. Florence, a woman who dreams about singing like Lily Pons, decides to get a pianist who will work with her and her vocal coach, Enter Cosmo McMoon (Simon Helberg), a mild-mannered, effete man with wide eyes who in getting the job has no idea what he’s stepping into until he hears her ear-splitting warble. For the most part his barely concealed grin and chuckle writes this off as some kind of rich people’s joke until her husband, St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), clearly makes it known that Madame Florence is a consummate professional. It’s almost surreal.

As a matter of fact everything (in both Marguerite and Florence Foster Jenkins) points towards some demented screwball comedy and the knowing that we are coming closer to the day our heroine performs for a massive audience not of her choice (Foster Jenkins played only to a pre-selected audience of her liking who would applaud her no matter what). It could have ended there and treated the subject as a punch-line. Frears’ movie dives inward to create a fully-fleshed character who comes from the right place.

Florence Foster Jenkins loved music, art, performance itself. Through Streep’s expressive eyes we see a little girl still trying to score the part of the diva or the ingenue. Streep turns Florence from a possible joke meant to cause commotion in the New York art scene into a complete woman who just happened to be dealt a fucked-up series of cards and whose wealth allowed her to indulge in her own dreams. That it gave Foster Jenkins a husband who we come to realize isn’t playing Von Stroheim to a demented Gloria Swanson is one of the sweeter parts of the film. Bayfield really, truly loved her, so much he indulged her whims as long as it made her happy. Hugh Grant as Bayfield has me sold — while he couldn’t come out of those bland romantic leads he played 20 -odd years ago, his is a man whose pain and mortification at keeping the charade moving for his wife’s sake  you can sense at he edges of his smile. Nina Arianda has a smaller part reminiscent of Hope Lange’s brassy New Yawker of Pocketful of Miracles as a woman who first almost dies from laughter, then commands the laughter to shut the fuck up and let the woman sing.

Will it be any surprise when the Golden Globes (and dare I say it, the Oscars) get announced and you see Streep again up for the award?

ON VOD: DARLING

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

 

If there ever was a movie one could classify as an arty mood piece that wouldn’t be out of place at the MOMA, playing on an endless, silent loop, Mickey Keating’s Darling would have to be it. You could write the outline of this extremely lean picture (it runs a mere 75 minutes without the credits) in one brief sentence: a young woman goes batshit crazy in the old dark house. That’s not exactly a bad thing: it’s been done since forever and keeps on selling no matter how you twist the genre, how you switch genders, how many twists and turns. People love to go to movies to go see an unstable person going off the rails and venturing into extreme bloodletting. For the most part, it works and yields classics like Robert Wise’s The Haunting, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.

It works well here, but more as a series of homages than a movie in itself. We never get to know the name of the leading lady hired by her landlady (Sean Young, where have you  been since the Batgirl fiasco?) to take care of the place while she’s gone. Of course, the landlady reveals some pertinent information that probably isn’t the best thing to do. Turns out, there was a previous caretaker, she went berserk, and threw herself out the window. Sounds a lot like a certain caretaker who’s grim tale finds its way into the current manager’s caveat emptor, huh? And much like the replacement caretaker, the now defunct Jack Torrance, Darling already looks like she’s tightly wound up, and her 60s-inspired outfit and hair, her body language, her entire demeanor and those epileptic flashbacks that come out of nowhere don’t seem to help much. Once Young leaves the picture, the story is almost devoid of dialogue, relying on Lauren Ashley Carter’s escalating performance to drive the story along.

In this aspect, Keating does a fantastic job. Carter is often framed in the center of the screen either looking menacingly at the camera with her huge, Bette Davis eyes that hint at impending hysteria. She’s several times seen walking what has to be the narrowest hallway in any New York apartment. The space looks almost expressionistic as the perspective narrows the space until it makes an uneasy 90 degree turn and just seeing Carter slowly drawn to whatever is around that corner is chilling. And her focus on an unnaturally open shower drain is one of the freakiest elements I’ve seen in a while.

However, the movie has to take her out of her space, and she decides to venture into the night where she meets a young man with whom she strikes up some stilted yet flirty conversation. This leads to some  situations that drive the movie well into the dark while the some obscure words carved into wood that indicate some magical incantation continually insert themselves into the fabric of the story — and Darling’s psyche. However, this isn’t the kind of horror movie that offers jump scares. As a matter, there are none, and even a scene of shocking violence happens with the severity of a pendulum, and I for one think it’s a brilliant move — very much of the calculated horror that Poe wrote about. Horror in this story brings up consequences of acts and in Darling’s world, the ghosts are real, and are a part of her, coming back and back, and what was behind that door will inevitably seal her fate.

Darling doesn’t reinvent the wheel but that’s fine: the story is meant to present a mind going to pieces with horrible finality, and leave us in the end with a sense of inevitability, of repetition, of a vicious cycle being repeated.

ON DVD: SONGS MY BROTHERS TAUGHT ME

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Much like New Zealand’s The Dark Horse, Chloe Zhao’s debut film Songs My Brothers Taught Me focuses on a people that mainstream society has failed to serve and has pushed back into the lands where they may be forgotten. The Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota live in a microcosm of sorts. We zoom into the lives of Johnny (John Reddy), a young man looking to become a bull rider, his sister Jashaun (Jashaun St John), and their mother Lisa (Lisa Bedard, the voice of Disney’s 1996 movie Pocahontas). The crux of the action starts when their absentee alcoholic father dies in a fire, leaving them destitute (not that there was much to begin with), and even more untethered to themselves. Johnny decides he wants to skip town and move to Los Angeles, but faces problems when his part-time job as a bootlegger places him squarely in competition with other territorial bootleggers in the area, and the fact that he may have to leave Jashaun behind.

Jashaun, meanwhile, facing the potential loss of her brother, commences a friendship with older men who may act as brother substitutes, notably a tattoo artist who designs clothing and interiors, while Lisa seeks refuge in religion and hopes for the release of her oldest son.

Much like Terence Malick’s films (and a clear reference is his own Badlands, where the action here transpires), Chloe Zhao turns the land into a character itself. Despite her minimal cast no one gets more screen time, and everything that they feel, every step they take seems to be firmly grounded onto the land itself, which offers zero comfort and endless desolation. Even so, this is not a depressing movie; clearly there is a lull of defiance going on, a possibility of hope among the hopeless. Songs My Brothers Taught me is a tiny gem in a sea of indies steeped in soul-searching and that it broke out of the festival circuit and into theaters in March is almost a feat in itself.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me is available on Netflix streaming and Amazon Instant Video.

THE MERMAID

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

 

And here we have the surprise hit of the year, a movie that wouldn’t have gone past its requisite one-week run at either the Landmark Sunshine or AMC25 (the second, a multiplex that has a couple of theaters devoted exclusively to Asian releases). Stephen Chow’s hilarious but sensitive The Mermaid played over and over and even got its 3D release at Metrograph this summer even when it was already available on DVD and VOD platforms. A story that American cinema has made a fortune of telling and re-telling, most notably in 1984’s Splash (also a surprise hit that made superstars of its actors), The Mermaid follows that plot to an un-subtle degree, but takes an alternative route.

Liu Xuan, a playboy businessman (played by Deng Chao) purchases an expanse of the Green Gulf in order to turn it into a business enterprise of his own and along the way utilizes sonar technology to clear the area of any sea-life. While at a business party he meets a young girl named Shan (Lin Yun) who seems to be a fan and makes a fool of herself, Liu Xuan dismisses her, preferring the company of his business partner Ruolan (porcelain-faced Zhang Yuqi). Unbeknownst to him, this is no ordinary girl but a mermaid sent to seduce and kill him by her clan of merpeople who have suffered the transgressions of humans long enough and want revenge. When things sour between him and Ruolan, Liu Xuan decides to approach Shan after all. He gives her a call and they both agree to go out to dinner at a fair where she works. There, they bond over food and music and surprise, surprise, he starts to fall for her and before you know it he wants to do nothing else but marry her.

Of course, there is that little business of offing Liu Xuan and making a stance against his business’ abuse of sea life, but that’s something the movie explores in completely off-the wall scenarios of ambush that go completely wrong and turn a key character’s giant tentacles into an exotic dinner. The third act, however, takes a much more serious tone and its plot development morphs into a completely different motion picture, drenched in action sequences, suspense, and nail-biting drama that bring in a much-needed weight to the rather screwball-intensive plot. For that, The Mermaid winds up being a much better movie than what the set up seemed to indicate, closer to a crazy, out-there eco-comedy about the dangers of abusing Mother Nature, and the consequences that transpire when She decides to fight back.

THE LITTLE PRINCE

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

 

Like the trailer says, there are stories no child should ever go without, nor should any adult ever forget. While there are authors who publish book after book after book to great fame and monetary gains, Antoine de Saint Exupery was not one of them, and only came with this, his most famous poetic novella, which has as of today become of the most published and read children’s books of all time. I won’t go into the details of the story — mainly because it’s so well-known it almost begs the question why. How it manages to dovetail into a modern view (and the eyes of an unnamed little girl who walks into the story via an eccentric neighbor), and how both stories go hand in hand in the pursuit of dreams and the realization of the self in the face of the evils of society — seen as the flawed characters of the novella; vanity, greed, blind obedience, etc. — is the heart of this timeless story. A marvelous animation that is true to the book’s spirit divides the original tale with its contemporary counterpart — it truly feels as if though the book had suddenly opened a window and you have been transported into its universe. The Little Prince is the perfect visual reminder that we are greater than what we believe we are, and even when we may get sidetracked with the curves life can place on our paths it’s never too late to reconnect with the inner child that lives within ourselves. There is definitely a little prince inside all of us, sleeping, sentient, just waiting for that miraculous encounter with the journeyman that we are.