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Friday, June 21, 2024

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Arts + CultureScreen Grabs: From the dark, to the streaming services

Screen Grabs: From the dark, to the streaming services

Our film critic Dennis Harvey runs down the most frightening flicks to emerge from the depths to home-format release, including 'Tito', 'Relic', 'The Beach House', and 'Volition'

The demand for streaming movies has increased such during recent months that many films are getting taken off the shelf where they’ve laid neglected since premiering at a festival or elsewhere one, two or more years ago. This inevitably means some movies are seeing the light of day that arguably should have stayed out of sight. But there are also welcome finds that might not otherwise have been deemed commercial enough to get released.

One category that generally doesn’t have a problem finding home-format release, however, is the horror, sci-fi, thriller, or fantasy genres. A whole lotta dreck comes out under that general bracket every month, in such quantity that smaller good films can be overlooked. But three arriving this Friday are each worth checking out.

Natalie Erika James’ Relic was probably the best-buzzed-about title in the Sundance Festival’s midnight section this year, even if it didn’t reap the same sky-high sales figure as David Brucker’s likewise creepy (but less memorable) The Night House. Her feature debut has more in common with another female-directed Sundance horror coming out later this month, Romola Garai’s Amulet. Both are richly atmospheric pieces about an old house afflicted by black mould, an aged resident’s mortality, and other, more supernatural elements of creeping decay.

Here, the disappearance of elderly Edna (Robyn Nevin, a familiar face on Australian screens for a half a century) from her rural home concerns the neighbors enough that they call daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer), who travels from Melbourne with moody offspring Sam (Bella Heathcote) to investigate. They’re baffled, until suddenly Edna turns up, looking no worse for wear, and providing zero explanation as to where she’s been. Kay assumes she’s gone senile, and should no longer live alone. The problem is, Edna isn’t living alone—there is some unseen presence here, making disconcerting sounds that seem to come from behind the walls. When that mystery is partly unravelled (don’t expect more), the effect is most disturbing. Relic’s ending is a bit “huh?,” but it stirs such a thick fog of dread, you won’t mind too much (more info here).

Fog — or something like — is literally the source of terror in Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House. When a young couple (Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros) turn up at his family’s seaside summer home, they’re surprised to find an older couple (Jake Weber, Maryann Nagel) already in residence, invited to stay the weekend by his parents. The quartet decide there’s room enough for all, enjoying one another’s company until the wine and marijuana seem to go to everyone’s heads. Or is the strange, phosphorescent light they see drifting in on air and sea something more than a mere, mild hallucination?

That would be a “yes,” as it turns out. This chamber-scaled apocalyptic thriller with psychedelic aspects floats between horror, sci-fi and psychodrama, never quite settling on a singular tact. its leisurely pace and narrative ambiguities may frustrate those looking for more hard-edged chills—but Brown does arrive at a queasily unstable mood that holds attention. It’s on AMC’s Shudder streaming platform.

Contrastingly high on concrete plot complications and low on stylized ambiance is Tony Dean Smith’s Canadian Volition, which starts out in familiar crime meller territory: Jimmy (Adrian Glynn McMorran) is a genial loser of indeterminate employment who can’t afford to turn down a job offer from the local crime boss (John Cassini). The latter has some stolen diamonds to sell, but due to past misdeeds knows the feds are watching him carefully. Thus he has need of Jimmy’s “gift”: Clairvoyance, meaning he can hopefully see by what means the jewels can find lucrative “safe passage” while eluding the authorities.

Some flunkies plan a double-cross, however, and resulting events lead to disaster that Jimmy might have avoided. To do so, he has to not just glimpse the future, but (thanks to a handy scientist/mentor’s serum) travel back into the past, where he can correct his lethal mistakes — or maybe just mess things up further. Soon there are multiple Jimmys running around the same replayed situations, trying to salvage an ever-increasing pileup of misfortunes. A clever low-budget spin on the kind of time-loop gimmickry that’s floated the big Hollywood likes of Looper and Edge of TomorrowVolition is a smart little sleeper, more neo-noir than fantastical in tone despite its plot hook (more info here.)

Other titles new to streaming this Friday, July 10:

Widow of Silence

A human rights issue little known in the West is one by-product of the long-running conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, with citizens (particularly men) often kidnapped and/or forced into military service by Indian forces. Seven years ago, the husband of nurse Aasiya (Shilpi Marwaha) was “disappeared” that way, and hasn’t been heard from since. Raising their daughter alone and being courted by a suitor, she feels she can’t move on without the formality of a death certificate granting her marital freedom. But the local registrar (Ajay Chourey) is exactly the corrupt type to withhold that document from an attractive widow, unless she provides “something” in return.

Shot in Kashmir’s beautiful Dras valley, Praveen Morchhale’s drama is occasionally a little arid, or stilted in performance. (There’s a big expertise gap between the lead players and the presumably nonprofessional support ones.) But it has a lovely, meditative quality in its visuals and pacing, as well as a stinging payoff for the narrative’s slow-burning tensions.

The Prince

Another well-crafted glimpse into a completely different cultural mindset is Sebastian Munoz’s Chilean debut feature, based on an underground cult novel. In 1970, just before the presidency of Allende, Jaime (Juan Carlos Maldonado) is a pretty, rudderless small town youth who commits a seemingly senseless impulse murder. In prison, he’s thrown into a cell with four men — and two bunk beds. The alpha in charge is Riccardo (Alfredo Castro from Tony Manero), who promptly ditches his prior “boy” and takes the new one as replacement. Meanwhile, flashbacks reveal what drove Jaime to the crime that got him here.

Life here is at once oppressive and wide-open, with the convicts alternately beaten by guards and allowed to do pretty much whatever they please. The Prince is likewise conflicted, landing halfway between the grim big-house cautionary tale of Fortune and Men’s Eyes, and the homoerotic-desire hothouse of Genet’s Un chant d’amour. The lead, a telenovela actor, has to trace a major evolution from wide-eyed new fish to hardened new boss — but there’s no substance to that trajectory. Still, if the film lacks depth and plausibility at times, it intrigues nonetheless at a look at a way of incarcerated life vastly different from our own such systems. It’s on Blu-Ray, DVD and VOD from Artsploitation Films and Kino Lorber.


Making no claims on reality at all is this singular whatsit by writer-director-star Grace Glowicki, who plays the title role. Tito is a skulking, near-mute figure for whom leaving the house to buy toilet paper is a labor of considerable nervous peril — and one left uncompleted, as he thinks he’s stalked everywhere by an invisible monster. This life of quailing fear is upset, then greatly improved by a friendly new neighbor (Ben Petrie) who arrives out of nowhere to cook an elaborate meal, get Tito high, and lure our protagonist out into the bright, no-longer-so-scary sunshine.

But even a good thing can overstay its welcome. When the neighbor refuses to leave (does he even have a home of his own?), their dynamic turns abusive, culminating in a strong-armed visit to a local club—something that to reclusive Tito is as terrifying as being shot into space. This short feature (minus credits it would barely eke past the one-hour mark) starts out an oddball comedy of extreme loserdom a la Napoleon Dynamite, then turns into a lo-fi expressionist nightmare, sort of a mumblecore Eraserhead. It sure could have used a better ending (or any ending, really). But you have to give Glowicki credit: She does stretch her miniscule narrative into something original and strange. More info here.

Guest of Honor

Some directors’ work declines late in life. Atom Egoyan, however, was only 40 when he began plumbing various degrees of mediocrity and silliness — after some years as the most exciting Canadian director in aeons. What happened? This latest only compounds the puzzle. David Thewlis plays a government health inspector of restaurants whose daughter (Laysia De Oliveira) is in prison — for a crime she didn’t commit yet won’t contest, because she feels she should be punished for something else.

Taking place in various time periods, its tricky structure more garbled than intriguing, this is another recent Egoyan joint that’s basically a trashy potboiler treated with a seriousness that only makes it all both leaden and silly. Thewlis, king of squirm-inducing characterizations, adds another resume highlight at the climax, with an excruciatingly inappropriate drunken confession delivered to an audience of strangers. He does it well. Still, we’re never sure why we’re watching him, or anyone else here — this story is perverse and unpleasant, yet also utterly pointless. Remember when Egoyan could weave a similarly tangled web (in Exotica, or The Sweet Hereafter) and make you care? Well, that was a long time ago. As well as through other outlets, it’s available through Roxie Virtual Cinema.

We Are Little Zombies

Makoto Nagahisa’s feature was the favorite film of many viewers at Sundance in 2019, though I was wary — Japanese movies about kids tend to be too cutesy for my taste, even when they pretend to be edgy. Alas, my suspicions were correct: I can’t recall seeing a film so desperate to be liked since Amelie, as it does everything short of licking your hand and wagging tail.

The protagonists are four youths who meet at their parents’ funerals, unite in their confusing shared lack of grief (because none of those parents loved them enough), and briefly become a pop-music sensation because, hey, this is Japan. (Their titular big song rips off Dramarama’s “Anything, Anything,” to my ears.) The addled direction pours on gimmicky camerawork and editing, plus onscreen graphics, animation, videogame fillips, movie homages, et al. I found it exhausting and annoying — albeit probably for exactly the same reasons that many others will find it a total delight. It’s also playing Roxie Virtual Cinema.

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