This week’s offerings are such a mixed bag I scarcely know where to begin. The most praised by other critics is one I’m not sure is worthy of the huzzahs, one of the best is not likely to win many followers and the most enjoyable offering is a movie even I can’t qualify as more than simply a good time.
Let’s start with that one first. “Wild Oats” (2016 / The Weinstein Company, Anchor Bay Entertainment / 86m / $19.98 / PG-13) has widow Eva Fenton (Shirley MacLaine) receive an insurance check mistakenly written out for $5 million instead of $5 thousand. She and her best friend Maddie (Jessica Lange) take off for a tropical island paradise to whoop it up, not knowing that back in the states they’ve become media sensations as well as fugitives from justice. Insurance agent Vespucci (Howard Hesseman) and Eva’s daughter (Demi Moore) pursue to convince Eva to return to the states and give back what’s left of the money, but considering both women have found romance (Eva with a mature gent seemingly on the edge of dementia – an hysterically funny performance from Billy Connelly) and Maddie with a young stud muffin (Jay Hayden), just how much success will they have persuading the two women to abandon such delights?
Now “Wild Oats” is supposedly “based on a true story,” though as usual I suspect “inspired by“ would be a more accurate phrase. Surely some embroidering has been involved when the third act traverses into screwball comedy involving a south of the hemisphere con artist who turns out to be a former student of Mrs. Fenton. And why doesn’t the insurance company just seize Eva’s stateside bank account if they legally have a right to the money instead of sending an agent off to talk her into doing the right thing? Is the material up to MacLaine’s and Lange’s talents? Well, clearly not; both are demonstrably capable of far weightier work than they are handed here. But both women are clearly having a ball, have great chemistry together and are a joy to watch. Make up a batch of popcorn and kick back with the beverage of your choice and enjoy. There’s nothing wrong with pure entertainment when it’s this well made.
Far more serious minded, in fact I can’t recall a single chuckle in its entire length, is “Into the Forest” (2016 / Lionsgate /101m / $24.99 BR / R), based on the novel by Jean Hegland. At some point in the near future a father (Callum Keith Rennie) and his two daughters (Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood) live in a splendid, high-tech house in the woods. Until that is there’s a global power failure. The trio manages for a few days before they make the long trip into town where they find “No Gas” signs everywhere, store shelves stripped nearly bare and merchants accepting only cash (no way to process plastic after all). Dad bites the dust not long afterward and as the days stretch into months without electricity (apparently everywhere in the world, though this is never clear) the two young women must learn how to survive. Fortunately pops had amassed an admirable library and they can learn about the plants of the woods and how to field dress a wild boar (the latter scene does provide some mild humor as the younger sister consults increasingly blood bedecked pages as she goes through the process).
Now some of you are already feeling leery about this film but let me hasten to point out it is not a downbeat exercise; it is no “Grave of the Fireflies” as the main characters slowly go about dying. On the other hand, it is not particularly uplifting either, but it is about survival (though if you don’t like an open ending that leaves the characters’ ultimate fate up in the air you should probably steer clear). That I’m not telling you more about the film has less to do with not revealing spoilers than with the film’s essentially plotless nature. There’s more a series of events than a storyline at work here and what isn’t revealed (such as what caused an apparently world-wide power failure and why it seems to have gone unrectified for well over a year by the time the film concludes) is as telling as what we are told and shown. The endless supply of candles burnt in abundance is another matter and not explaining such small details (their rice also seems to come from a bottomless supply) may bother some viewers but the film is carefully paced and directed by Patricia Rozema (who also scripted) and beautifully enacted by Page and Wood. Because of its lack of overly dramatic incident (save for a rape scene that is just graphic enough to be disturbing) some have found the film boring. Needless to say I did not.
I also came away with a contrarian view – an extremely one at that – of “The Wailing” (Aka Goksung – 2016 / Well Go USA / 157m ) $29.98 BR / NR), as did my sometime viewing companion (who, full disclosure, bailed about half an hour before the end). The complicated plot involves an outbreak of murders in a South Korean town that may be caused by the residents having ingested mushrooms that cause madness. Some of the townsfolk insist it is the doing of a recently arrived Japanese stranger who lives in the woods and is wreaking psychic havoc on them. A bumbling and lazy policeman soon has to become less of both when his daughter either eats some of the shrooms or is possessed (why else would an Oriental child sass her father, use foul language and display appalling table manners?) A mysterious woman in white appears (maybe only in the cop’s dreams?) and infers that the stranger is a ghost so old he has become flesh and bone and is therefore now an unkillable demon. The cop contacts the local shaman to have his daughter exorcised but the process has such deleterious effects on her dad calls it off before the ritual is complete and sets off with some pals to kill the stranger instead. A remarkably resilient zombie inexplicably shows up to complicate that plan. And things only get odder from there.
Whew. And yet the film doesn’t play out quite as absurdly as you might expect based on that encapsulation. It starts slowly as a police procedural with the supernatural elements added slowly. Once the zombie arrives the shark is well and truly jumped however and then there is such a welter of “no this is what’s really going on” reversal after reversals that you cease caring what’s truly happening as it winds to a conclusion any horror fan will have seen coming about an hour beforehand. (This is a film that would benefit by losing at least a half hour of its running time, preferably its entire last half hour which is a confused mess.) I might add that it was quite curious to see so much Christian symbolism and allusions in an Oriental film (some of it very curiously allocated – a demonic figure displaying stigmata?). I was left so underwhelmed by this opus that I went online to see what others had to say and was nonplussed to find that it has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Many of the critics there found it scary (I did not) and claimed it had the most frightening exorcism scene they’d ever seen (for all my problems with it otherwise I’ll stick with the one in William Friedkin’s film). I took comfort in seeing that one of the critics quoted was unaware that Stanley Kubrick did not make a film titled “The Shinning.” At that I realized it wasn’t what I was missing in “The Wailing” it was what others had missed; they hadn’t seen as many horror films as I and my sometime viewing companion had. The might have found this effort less original and impressive, though I won’t deny it’s unusual. It is, however, overlong and derivative.
Horror fans (hardcore only) will fare better with another foreign effort with less lofty goals, “Masks” (2011 / Reelgore Releasing / 109m / $39.95 / NR). This German splatter essay has a young, not terribly talented actress accepted into an acting school founded by a controversial guru whose Method led both him and several of his students to commit suicide. He is gone, his approach has been banned but the school survives. Well, maybe his extreme ideas are no longer being promoted but something murky is going on in the disused wing of the chateau. And maybe the former director is dead but someone (or is it something?) is forever being glimpsed peering through curtains and around doorjambs and suchlike. And heaven knows someone (or something) is skulking about wielding a rapier capable of going through skulls as though they were bread puddings. Students have a habit of dropping out in a very terminal way – and nosey reporters meet a very different kind of deadline. Director Andreas Marschall is being compared to Darius Argento and if you can say “Suspiria” in a drama school instead of a dance academy (right down to the saturated red and blue walls) you’d be right. It may not have as many nutty details throughout (such an attic full of uncoiled barbed wire) but it has visual style out the wazoo and by the end the WTFometer has gone into the red zone. Anyone who loves a good ripe hunk of Eurocheese horror is not likely to care that things are not making a lick of sense by the end. That it it takes things a tad more seriously than its Italian counterparts (the German temperament no doubt) does mean that the middle section sags a bit but the delirious frenzy of gooey murders at the end will no doubt make up for it with fans of such outings.
Another title that is likely only to appeal to a specialized segment of the population is “Warcraft: The Beginning” (2016 / Universal Pictures Home Entertainment / 123m / $44.99 BR+DVD combo / PG-13), based on the video game of the same name. It seems Orcs have found a portal from their devastated dimension into ours in some distant pristine past and are intent on invading and claiming it. Or something like that. I can’t say I so much followed what was going on as was dragged along through it. I’m sure its fathers and sons go to war cause men gotta do what men (and sometimes women if you’re an Orc) gotta do story makes a great deal more sense to the gamer contingent. The CGI is very, very impressive (I was very taken by a winged beast that I suppose was a griffin and by some large wolfish critters), as is the set and costume design (although the earth kingdoms are just a little too Camelot sparkly clean to be believable). There’s little plot and lots of battles (surprisingly violent for the rating) courtesy of all the CGI that over $160 million can buy. It looks impressive, I’ll grant you but there’s little below the surface – and speaking of below the surface you’ll be challenged to identify any of the actors under the computer enhanced prosthetic makeups (assuming any of them are familiar to you – I see Callum Keith Rennie is in here somewhere). For an inadvertent laugh there’s the line of dialogue where one character states, “I’ve never heard of Orcs!” Thanks to Peter Jackson, I doubt there’s anyone, at least in the audience for this flick, who hasn’t. Surely someone somewhere along the line of a production this size should have been savvy enough to excise that bit of dialogue. Gamers and less picky fantasy fans will be tickled to see that the ending leaves things open for a follow-up. The rest of us probably have other things on our bucket list.
No matter what’s on your bucket list, you need to make room for “Last Cab to Darwin” (2014 / First Run Features / 123m / $24.95 / NR), a film that, if not perfect, is as near to it as anything man-made has any right to be. Aussie cab driver Rex (Michael Caton) finds that his stomach cancer has recurred and he has but a few months to live. He makes the abrupt decision to drive across continent to a doctor he has heard on the radio (Jacki Weaver) who has a machine that allows a patient to self-administer a lethal dose of pharmaceuticals (Australia had just passed a physician assisted suicide bill, though its appeal was being sought). The film is minimally plotted, more concerned with Rex and the situations and people he encounters along the way and the hitch-hikers he picks up, such as the young aborigine Tilly (Mark Coles Smith) and Julie (Emma Hamilton), a London nurse for some reason working as a barmaid in the Oz boonies, who Tilly picks up. They and Rex affect each other in unexpected (and some very expected) ways.
Jeremy Sims’ film isn’t entirely free of clichés (images of the setting sun get a real workout for starters) but they aren’t clumsily used and the film isn’t anywhere near as morose or saccharine as you might assume from the brief synopsis offered here. There are even some refreshing flashes of humor such as when Rex is questioned why he named his pooch Dog (“Rex was taken.”). And the quest for an end to his pain and his life turns out to be not as simple and easy as he thought thanks in part to the efforts to repeal the bill that prompted his journey. Reg Cribb’s script (from his play) very carefullyreveals things about its characters. Only gradually do we come to realize that Rex and his neighbor Polly (Ningali Lawford) are more than just friends and that the extreme racial bias of the country (the film is clear that segregation is very much practiced) has kept them from revealing the extent of their feelings to each other. Telling you too much more would be a disservice to a film that should keep its revelations until it’s ready for you to discover them. This little gem has been sensitively directed and has sparkling performances by its entire cast, right down to the tiniest roles – so while Caton may carry the film I’m just not going to single out anyone. Both tender and tough, “Last Cab to Darwin” is not to be missed.