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Monday
May282018

Lu Over the Wall (2017)

Water You Afraid Of?

You can read politics into most anything these days, and doing so has become America's second national pastime. It's a fun, infuriating, and potentially dangerous hobby, the full effects of which we likely won't know for forty years. But in the meantime, why not burn the midnight oil wondering about what a sitcom does or doesn't mean; whether a musician's outrageous behavior can be pinned on mere theatricality, bona fide insanity, or (heaven forbid) deep-seated yet potentially unpalatable beliefs; or whether or not an animated Japanese film was really meant as a critique of a world increasingly divided by myths and misconceptions?

Masaaki Yuasa's Lu Over the Wall is a charming, family-friendly animated feature that jumps off the screen with upbeat music, hyper-alive colors, and a title character whose endearing sweetness may give you cavities. Yuasa and co-writer Reiko Yoshida create a near-tangible reality within the Japanese island village of Hinoshi. The small population seems evenly split between technology-obsessed teenagers; too-busy-to-do-anything-but-work adults; and a winnowing population of elders who guard against an ancient superstition involving Merfolk.

The waters surrounding Hinoshi are dangerous, you see, inhabited by vicious creatures who devour and/or abduct anyone foolish enough to venture outside the city after dark. This narrative has prevailed through generations, inspiring a tradition of hanging white-painted sea urchin husks outside homes and business (it represents the sun), and spawning the legend of nearby Merfolk Island, where no one dare tread.

Enter Kai (Shôta Shimoda), a sullen teen transplant from Tokyo who finds himself drafted into a burgeoning rock band by peppy local aspirants Kunio (Sôma Saitô) and Yûho (Minako Kotobuki). When Kai joins his new friends at their practice space in the ruins of Merfolk Island, he meets Lu (Christine Marie Cabanos), a sprightly child mermaid who is attracted to the group's songs. In this world, music is not only figuratively transformative, it changes Lu's floppy fish tale into a manic set of dancing legs.

Lu Over the Wall follows in the tradition of E.T., with a small team of sassy kids protecting their lovable alien discovery from the suspicious adults all around them. Lu uses her abilities to help Kai in a swimming contest, thwart bullies, and even open up to his dad, still reeling from a recent divorce. Of course, trouble comes calling when Lu is discovered by the townsfolk during an impromptu flash mob at the beach (it's actually weirder than it sounds), and the movie unfolds as a cautionary tale about the dangers of holding on to outdated beliefs and prejudices in the face of new evidence (and, going a step further, the dangers of not allowing that evidence to be presented).

All hell breaks loose on Hinoshi as Lu's father, a cunning and very protective antrhopomorphized shark, comes looking for his daughter. The ensuing carnage creates an atmosphere in which action replaces communication, and it's only through dumb luck that both humankind and Merfolk don't wipe each other out. It's like a grim version of The Lego Batman Movie's climax, in which unlikely alliances band together to save the day--minus the shiny, irony-coated plastic of that film's overall mood. It's not really a spoiler to reveal that everything works out in the end, since the climactic flooding of Hinoshi leads to some genuine disaster-movie scenarios for which parents will definitely want to be in the room.

I don't know if the writers and artists who created Lu Over the Wall set out to comment specifically on American politics, or if their film is simply a recurring tragedy that pops up across nations and generations. Whichever the case, both children and adults can learn a lot from Lu, Kai, and the various factions that come into conflict as a result of their "forbidden" friendship. We really do need to learn to talk to each other; to listen to each other; and to recognize the dignity of the self, even amidst typhoons of accusation, rumor, and presuppositon. If people who hold opposing political, religious, or social beliefs can't find commonality beneath our myriad divisive labels, we'll be forced to accept the harsh judgment of cosmic commonality, which will drown us all, indiscriminately.

Tuesday
May082018

Terminal (2018)

Noircissism

Just as Gotham City and Metropolis are separated by a puny river in the latest incarnation of DC’s movie universe, I’d imagine there being less than a millimeter’s distance on a map between Frank Miller’s Sin City and The Precinct, the equally hard-boiled urban setting of writer/director Vaughn Stein’s Terminal. Both towns are ridiculously small, thematically colorful, and populated exclusively by lascivious, alcoholic bruisers and femmes fatale whose overlapping adventures reveal corrupt institutions held precariously intact by shadowy voyeurs. But in terms of mystery (a selling point of any good noir), these films are worlds apart.

Terminal’s (ahem) terminal narrative flatness can be traced back to Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters, which posits that “all characters in a movie are necessary to the story—even those who do not seem to be. Sophisticated viewers can use this Law to deduce the identity of a person being kept secret by the movie's plot: This 'mystery' person is always the only character in the movie who seems otherwise extraneous." In a movie like Terminal, whose main cast is only five roles deep, well, let’s just say the character economy isn’t exactly bustling—which is a problem when the eighth-of-the-run-time climax hinges on a revelation that one might deduce from watching the first five minutes (or glancing at the movie poster).

Margot Robbie plays Annie, a sometimes-waitress/sometimes-exotic dancer/sometimes-something-or-other, who wants nothing more than to ascend the Precinct’s underworld, which appears to be based around a perpetually empty train station overseen by the elusive Mr. Franklin (see poster for details). Annie lays out her plan to a priest during confession: she’ll turn the city’s top assassins (Max Irons and Dexter Fletcher) against each other, simultaneously proving her worth and filling a vacuum. Coinciding with the “A” Plot is a side story in which Annie counsels a despondent diner patron named Bill (Simon Pegg), who, following a cancer diagnosis, can muster neither the courage to live nor to die.

Taken on their own, and in Stein’s capably stylish hands, these ideas could have made for fun (if familiar) twenty-minute vignettes in a Netflix anthology series. Unfortunately, there’s an hour-plus of filler stuffed in between the fleeting bursts of momentum, resulting in a pace-challenged collection of dramatic set pieces disguised as a movie. It’s gaudy filler, too, marked by Lit 101 allusions to Alice in Wonderland and  Film 102 references to Pulp Fiction—complete with a suitcase Maguffin and contentious banter between two colorful hitmen, one of whom is named Vincent.

It’s fun to watch Robbie and Pegg stretch as performers: the former exploring a more nuanced brand of crazy than she exhibited in Suicide Squad; the latter refining his unique blend of empathy and black humor, which pays off in ways so unexpected as to require a Usual Suspects-style re-watch.

Then there’s Mike Myers. I don’t envy the actor’s high-wire balancing act, which requires creating a creepy, pathetic new character that does not also bring to mind the comically pathetic characters in his repertoire. He falls off the rope early on. Worse yet, a late-stage costume change conjures specific memories of an iconic Myers identity, inspiring titters rather than the tingles I assume Stein had hoped for. At this moment, the film officially shrinks from city to subdivision, channeling soap-opera surprises and the end of Sucker Punch (ham minus Hamm, as it were).

I can recommend Terminal as a good time, visually. Stein’s feature-film debut commanded my attention and respect, particularly in the handling of sets and shots that feel at once crayon-playful and tetanus-filthy. His take on the “rabbit hole”--a bottomless, glowing chasm that cuts to the Precinct’s perverse heart--is the one Alice reference that lands without a sickening thud, and I will definitely be on board for whatever story calls to him next. I just hope it’s a destination instead of a tourist trap at the end of an unkempt, unremarkable highway.

Friday
Apr202018

Traffik (2018)

Arresting Developments

I was tired heading into Act Three of Traffik. The novelty had worn off, and whatever dashes of style that writer/director Deon Taylor brought to his city-couple-in-small-town-danger thriller, it seemed, wouldn't be enough to save this gussied-up chase-through-the-woods picture. The film's title and premise hint at an international sex-slave ring, but with a half-hour to go, the strongest connection I could draw was Paula Patton running around in a tight, dirty red top. Few would have blamed me for cutting and running.

This, my friends, is why you never, ever, ever walk out of a movie before it's over. Though Taylor subconsciously homages The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and its myriad imitators) throughout, Traffik stops just short of settling for a horror climax in which the beautiful, bloody, half-naked girl kills the bad guys and stomps out a global conspiracy with her will to live and a well-swung axe.

Let's rewind.

Brea (Patton) and John (Omar Epps) are a mid-thirties couple on the verge of getting married. John's best friend, a fast-talking, trouble-making sports agent named Darren (Laz Alonso), gives them the keys to the Sacramento mansion where his clients luxuriate in their off time. On their winding drive up the mountains, John and Brea stop to refuel and, of course, end up at a horror-movie gas station. Between the shifty cashier, the leering biker gang out front, and the strung-out waif dropping ominous clues to Brea in the bathroom, our heroes should very well have headed back home and asked Darren if their palatial getaway had a helipad they could use instead.

But, no, the movie continues on up the mountain, where Brea and John discover they're not alone. I won't dive further into plot developments, except to say that not everyone lives through the inevitable home siege initiated by a mid-level pimp (Luke Goss) on a mission to get back evidence of the titular sex-trafficking organization. Instead, I'd like to talk about the three bright, shining keys to Traffik's success.

The first is Patton. Her performance teetered on annoying for much of the film. Brea, ostensibly a respected and very intelligent journalist, acts like a giddy, guy-fantasy girl right up to the moment when all hell breaks loose. Patton plays her as airy, seemingly always on the verge of hysterics (similar to the reasons people made fun of Jennifer Love Hewitt in the 90s). In the end, though, as Brea comes to terms with what she's really up against, and the life-altering choice she makes in order to confront it, you can see wisdom flood into Patton's eyes. Intentional or not, the filmmakers give us a character who embodies Traffik's mission statement: beneath the comparably ridiculous lives led by so many Americans lies an undercurrent of human exploitation and misery that, once seen, cannot be scrubbed from the soul.

Speaking of soul, cinematographer Dante Spinotti lights the cosmic spark that elevates Taylor's writing and direction. The veteran DP brings the same "A" game to this $5 million indie as he did to mainstream powerhouses like Heat and the upcoming Ant-Man and the Wasp. His technique evolves with the story, framing and lighting earlier scenes involving a circle of well-to-do friends with all the aspirational gloss of a casino-resort commercial; later, as Brea sinks into the gooey, black depths of conspiracy, Spinotti gets down in the muck with her (and drags us along, gasping), only to emerge with a tarnished version of that initial carefree aesthetic. In transition, eagle-eyed viewers will catch an homage to L.A. Confidential's misty, back-lit climax in which the villains prepare to close in for the kill--another Spinotti special.

I mentioned before that Traffik's premise was in danger of being lost somewhere in the second act. Fortunately, Taylor doesn't let us off the hook, and jumps genres on a dime in the final stretch. Brea comes face to face with the horrors of modern-day slavery; as she points out to another character late in the film, the technology might have changed, but the deplorable practice is practically as old as human history. Taylor doesn't turn his thriller into a "Message Movie" per se, but he makes it impossible to dismiss Traffik as a disposable joyride in which good triumphs over evil. By the time the credits role, I dare say you'll be compelled to find out what you can do to knee-cap this very real global epidemic.

The movie is far from perfect. We are presented with two instances of police assistance showing up way too quickly (like, Harold & Kumar quickly); there's the missing-sat-phone-case incident; and Darren's secret coke habit manifests in a way that is both inconvenient and unintentionally (?) hilarious. There's also not enough Missi Pyle in the film. This is wholly a matter of personal bias, but I could watch an entire film about her local-sherrif character (true in her early scenes--doubly so by the end).

So, yes, on first viewing, Traffik was just compelling enough for me to be disappointed that the second act appeared to devolve into a movie I'd seen a hundred times before. But that last half-hour--damn, it's good. I tend to rate thrillers based on how many times I reflexively go hand-to-mouth in shock. Taylor got me twice. More importantly, at the end, I put my hand over my heart in a rare display of exhilaration and indescribable sadness.

Friday
Mar162018

Demon House (2018)

'Thunk' in the Night

There’s an ongoing argument in my house about the validity of paranormal-investigation shows. My wife and I have both experienced unexplained phenomena that we chock up to neither heavenly nor hellish—simply weird and rather creepy. Though we’re both believers in something beyond the realm of current human understanding, I’m not inclined to take others' claims of supernatural insight seriously—especially if they make those claims on television.

Enter Zak Bagans, one of the “Ghost Adventurers” on Travel Channel’s wildly popular, 15-season docu-series. In 2015, he purchased a run-down home in Gary, Indiana, after seeing news reports that its residents had fled following a demonic possession. Bagans and crew moved in, and began interviewing locals who knew the cursed family--as well as the decades of rumors surrounding the “Demon House”.

Demon House is Bagans’ three-years-in-the-making account of his time in Gary. The director’s experience didn’t last nearly that long, but it took quite a lot of writing, casting, editing, and effects work to flesh out the movie, which, if you remove the dramatic re-creations of twelve-foot-tall goat monsters; children walking backwards up walls; and dramatic slow-mo, amounts to maybe thirty minutes of documentary footage wherein dubious interview subjects talk over several glorified open-house walk-throughs.

As propaganda for the supernaturally inclined, Demon House is likely very effective entertainment. My wife partially heeded the warning that opens the film, and left about twenty minutes in. I stuck it out and, despite Bagans’ claim that the movie itself is cursed, I came away with only a mild case of the heebie-jeebies and a profound appreciation for the filmmaker's deft sleights-of-hand.

Even being hyper aware of Bagans’ bag of tricks, I couldn’t help but wonder how he’d convinced so many ostensibly reputable Gary professionals—from police officials, to a social worker, to home inspectors—to talk about their encounters with evil on camera. Surely, there must be something to their stories—unless they were being paid so handsomely by the production as to make up for behavior that could, at best, ding their credibility and, at worst, jeopardize their careers.

Could the “Demon House” really be (as those who’d been inside have claimed) a portal to Hell?

Hold your Apocalyptic horses.

After laying out his case in haunted-hay-ride fashion, Bagans takes us on a revelatory detour, spending a good ten minutes debunking just about everyone and everything from the previous half-hour. The home’s landlord says he’s never heard of any suspicious activity in three decades of owning the property; extended family members of the people whose abrupt exit prompted Bagans to investigate refute their relatives' version of events; undercover video shows one of the first townspeople we meet (a real proponent of the house’s otherworldly qualities) attempting to extort the crew for money in exchange for more outrageous stories. The last straw is a conversation with, if I recall correctly, a structural engineer who talks about the gases, mold, and chemicals bleeding out into the residence—which could very easily cause disorientation and hallucinations with prolonged exposure.

Bagans himself seems convinced that he's in the midst of some kind of small-town shakedown—until, as he says, “Shit got real.”

Yes, after a sanity pit stop, we hop right back on the expressway to Ghostville, with even more wild stories, conjecture, and surveillance footage of visitors and crew members walking the grounds and acting weird. The climax sees Bagans boarding himself up in the house overnight to confront whatever malevolent forces have apparently caused everything from organ failure to car accidents to death in the lives of those whom he has encountered since settling in Gary. The only thing remotely interesting stretch of this alleged horrific experience involves Bagans crouched on a bed, yelling at something we cannot see—and then throwing his car keys at it.

There’s no saving Demon House, but Bagans might have fared better by hiring a narrator to play him. I realize this would make things terribly confusing for the viewer, but the current first-person voice-over conveys the same flat, Dude-Bro affect as that cop in Idiocracy who kept referring to people as “particular individuals”. Bagans looks and acts like the lead singer of a Papa Roach cover band—not good when attempting to convey high-wattage cosmic understanding (or, at the very least, sincerity).

That’s unfair. It doesn’t matter what someone looks like, as long as they’ve got the goods. Unfortunately, our intrepid host’s over-reliance on dramatizations and horror-movie techniques makes the entire operation seem fraudulent—like he’s over-compensating for a lack of evidence that might, on its face, convince audiences that there really was (is?) a sinister force lurking beneath Gary’s blighted soil. We may never know Bagans’ motives (if any, beyond money and fame) for presenting Demon House in this most problematic way. This mystery, to me, is more chilling than a hundred haunted basements.

Thursday
Mar152018

Porto (2016)

The King of Wistful Thinking

Years ago, the South Park kids dismissed all art-house movies as being about “gay cowboys eating pudding”. Though Porto contains exactly zero horses and/or desserts, this artsy, meandering puzzlement embodies the pretentiousness that Cartman and the gang so astutely observed.

Set in the titular Portuguese city, co-writer/director Gabe Klinger’s drama stars Anton Yelchin as Jake, an American expatriate who meets French student Mati (Lucie Lucas) on an archaeological dig site. They connect during a night of extreme passion, disconnect in the harsh light of day (thanks, in part, to Mati’s professor/ boyfriend, played by Paulo Calatré), and spend the next decade living in the past.

Klinger and co-writer Larry Gross rely heavily on narrative trickery, bouncing around Jake and Lucie’s timelines and perspectives in an effort to flesh out a love story that’s too weak (and, ultimately, too creepy) to be palatable on its own. Worse yet, Klinger twists Yelchin’s inherent sensitivity as a performer into the alluring mask of an abrasive man-child who decent moviegoers won’t actually want to see succeed. The filmmakers similarly short-change Lucas by giving her character a “crazy” past that is neglected in both the screenplay and the actress’s performance—and which feels designed to make Jake’s character less predatory by contrast.

It doesn’t work.

At seventy-six minutes, Porto might as well be six hours long. No amount of lush, urban European photography or attractive actors engaged in tantric sex* can make up for the gaping story void. Ultimately, Porto may only be remembered as a sad novelty: it contains one of Anton Yelchin’s final performances, and one of his least memorable roles.

*A casualty of Klinger and co-editor Géraldine Mangenot’s sensibilities is that we lose all sense of time and place, especially in the third act. On the plus side, you may just get a belly laugh when realizing that the half-dozen scenes of mind-blowing coitus did not, in fact, take place over multiple evenings. It’s no wonder Jake looks so gaunt, pale, and devoid of fluid ten years on.