31 Days to Scare ~ See No Evil (1971)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In the English countryside, Sarah Rexton, recently blinded in a horse-riding accident, moves in with her uncle’s family and gallantly adjusts to her new condition, unaware that a killer stalks them.

Stars: Mia Farrow, Dorothy Alison, Robin Bailey, Diane Grayson, Brian Rawlinson, Norman Eshley, Paul Nicholas

Director: Richard Fleischer

Rated: GP (GP was an old rating from the MPAA that replaced the M rating. This was used from 1970 until 1972, when it was replaced with the PG rating.)

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: When I was young, well youngER, I always would write-off horror movies that were made in earlier eras because I didn’t think they really understood what the business was all about.  The films were drab and slow-moving, they rarely had the blood and guts that I was seeking and forget about any masked killers stalking camp counselors around a lake favored by skinny dippers.  Of course, now when I watch these classics, I’m struck by how well constructed they are and see that my reactions then were driven out of Hollywood conditioning me to expect a certain kind of shock every ten minutes.  The need to build a modicum of suspense went out the door around the same time Jason found his hockey mask in Friday the 13th Part III.

Take a movie like 1971’s See No Evil (also known as Blind Terror) for example.  I’m sure if I had seen this one when I was in my teens I would have been bored to tears.  Even despite it being far more intense than I could have imagined watching it today, I just don’t believe I would have been rushing over to my friends house desperate to add this to our sleepover roster along with Halloween and the Freddy films.  Yet Richard Fleischer’s stately scare flick is quite frightening and features more than a few edge-of-your seat moments as we watch a young Mia Farrow evade a killer in an otherwise benign country estate.

Arriving at her uncle’s home after being blinded during a horse-riding accident, Sarah (Farrow) just wants to go back to her normal life, even if deep down she’s more than aware that it can never be the same.  Attempting to be independent, she declines help up the stairs to her room or assistance in getting ready.  One thing I questioned is that Sarah, or more to the point Farrow, seems readily comfortable just charging around the very expansive house with plenty of adornments without any hesitation – if she were newly blind, wouldn’t she at least be a bit cautious?  That first night, she heads out to meet up with her boyfriend Steve (Norman Eshley), leaving her aunt, uncle, and cousin at home…where they are murdered by a killer whom we only see from the waist down. 

The bulk of the 89-minute film centers on Farrow returning home that evening, narrowly missing running into the bodies of her relatives, and then waking up the next morning and finally discovering not just the horrific scene but possibly a clue that would identify the killer.  Trouble is that the killer has also realized their mistake and has returned to get the evidence.  Bad news for Farrow and tense news for the viewer as we witness Sarah just barely avoiding being caught and/or seen by the intruder.  Screenwriter Brian Clemens throws in a few tasty red herrings as we get to the bottom of the mystery but watching it through a 2021 lens it does paint Farrow’s character as a bit too helpless the more the film goes on.  One wants to see her more of an active participant in securing her safety and not just mooning over the horses she wants to get back to riding. 

For 1971 and a film that would be considered PG, this is creepy with a lot of shocking violence implicitly implied…especially in the final act.  No spoilers, but there are some turns that would never pass muster on a ratings board now.  A box office failure when it was released, See No Evil became popular again when broadcast on TV and with its (relative) lack of gory violence it could play easily without much editing that would chop it up.  For fans of British horror or suspense, this is one to check out as a solid example of how to effectively get an audience chewing their fingernails to nubs over a shard of broken glass. (See it and you’ll know what I mean.)

Nashville Film Festival – Part 1

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Tis the season to festival and what a season it has been!  Pivoting nicely from a series of events focused on more genre specific titles, I was thrilled to join the Nashville Film Festival that is currently going on through October 6.  Individual tickets for in person films and quite a lot of virtual screenings are available now — check the Film Guide for more info.

With a mission to celebrate the filmmakers and artists in its home state as well as around the world, there is also a focus on building the immediate community that is so vibrant and constantly producing dynamic work.  I’ve been fortunate enough to visit the city, hear the music, and eat the food so I can vouch for the richness present.  I was also excited by the range of programming offered so let’s hop into the first of two review batches that will come out of the week long event. 

Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road

Truth be told, I was a little surprised to find a documentary on Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys not so very long after Love & Mercy went over so well back in 2014.  While not the de facto one and done story of his life, it dealt with a lot of the same information provided in this documentary.  Of course, BRIAN WILSON: LONG PROMISED ROAD, the doc by Brent Wilson (no relation), has the man himself and that’s what certifies this as a must-watch if you have any interest whatsoever in the history of not just Wilson or The Beach Boys, but pieces of the music scene during the time of their ascent to fame.  Wilson is an agreeable subject, but an interesting interview, and it takes Rolling Stone writer Jason Fine (a trusted favorite of Wilson) driving the genius musician around in a car to lunch or to locations that spur memories to get him to open up and talk about his life.  It’s totally fascinating to watch how Wilson can be moved to speak on hard subjects based on the music he’s listening to or places he’s visiting and it’s a tribute to the director and Fine that they’ve found a respectful way of coaxing that out of him.  It’s not completely warts and all but you know what, does it have to be? Wilson appears to be a man that is content and doesn’t want the burden of holding on to negativity…so why include that in a lasting testimony to his contributions to music where dozens of legendary musicians sing his praises?

Porcupine

All together now, Jena Malone is an actress that has never gotten the full credit she deserves.  Wait, you don’t know that tune?  I’ve been singing it for years and watching PORCUPINE only made me sing it louder.  In writer/director M. Cahill’s stark but ultimately sanguine drama, Malone is Audrey, a pixie-haired woman that finds herself without a job, friends, or companionship but possessing far too much skill and grace to keep it all to herself.  While not necessarily a “screw-up”, she marches to the beat of her own drummer and tense phone calls with her mother hint at a child that went left when her parents believed she should (or could?) have veered right.  Watching endless viral videos to keep herself company, she sees an ad for adult adoption and decides to look into it, eventually being matched up with Sunny (Emily Kuroda) and her brusque German husband Otto (Robert Hunger-Bühler).  The spouses have their own issues to work out but Audrey’s presence begins to, if not soften, loosen up Otto from a controlling grumbler to a more appreciative but still complicated husband and father to his two adult children. While Kuroda and especially Hunger-Bühler put forth strong work, it’s Malone’s show and her subtle performance made up of gentle quirks is what brings this one home.  By not making Audrey some flighty doodle-head and instead giving her a backbone and hard-nose with a warm heart, Malone opens us all up to seeing that strong willed independence doesn’t negate the need for communion with others.

Ayar

I have to say, it’s so odd to watch movies released where people are wearing face coverings and talking about the pandemic and COVID-19.  I’ve caught a number of these over the past few months at festivals, but I feel as if AYAR is the first narrative feature to say it outright and also have it such a part of the story.  Maybe that’s why I was so uncomfortable for the first 1/3 of the movie, meeting the titular character (Ariana Ron Pedrique) living at a motel and about to start working as a maid for an upper-class family in hopes of reuniting with her daughter currently being cared for by her mother, Renata (Vilma Vega.)  Renata won’t let Ayar near her granddaughter because of the COVD-19 restrictions which is a good enough reason for now but that can’t last forever.  Right when you think you know where AYAR is headed, one of the motel guests having a conversation with Ayar refers to the audience watching the movie they are in and everything changes.  Yes, that’s right…we, the audience get brought into the feature and it’s part of an intriguing gear shift devised by the two leading actresses who wrote the film with their director, Floyd Russ.  I won’t say more but even if the concept doesn’t fully come together and lock into place, it’s a bold move that almost (almost!) works.  What does work are the performances from Pedrique and Vega and here’s hoping the twist they’ve implanted in their film gets talked about enough for the right people in the industry to see this and call them up.

Queen of Glory
(reprinted from my Tribeca coverage) I’m a sucker for a lived-in NYC tale and QUEEN OF GLORY, from first-time feature director #NanaMensah (who also writes and stars), has its authenticity certified gold almost from the beginning.  I’m not quite sure how Mensah sets the mood so quickly other than using a lot of real people and interesting/rarely used location shooting, but working with 75 minutes of story the multi-hyphenate star is able to bring audiences right into the world of Sarah, a daughter of Ghanaian-American parents that’s set to graduate with a doctorate from Columbia University and move to the Midwest where her married lover is about to start work.  Then, her world caves in and she inherits a Christian bookstore in the Bronx (and its parolee employee) after her mother unexpectedly dies.  With new responsibilities and new relatives to worry about, not to mention neighbors, friends, and lovers to juggle, Sarah has to find a strong foothold if she wants to regain balance.  Mensah has been in several movies/tv projects that I’ve liked her in and tailor-making this role for herself leads to success in all the right ways.  It’s not a vanity project in so much as the wealth of funny/dramatic scenes are spread around for a memorable supporting cast and the technical achievements are high.  It feels like a pilot of a television series, if I’m being honest, but it’s a show I’d want to see more of.

a-ha: The Movie
(reprinted from my Tribeca coverage) Viewers don’t have to wait too long into A-HA:THE MOVIE, director Thomas Robsahm’s engaging documentary on the Norwegian pop band, to hear the song they became best known for but they may be surprised at how long Take On Me had been bouncing around within the minds and riffs of the musicians before it achieved ear worm status.  That’s just one of the many behind-the-scenes bits of information Robsahm presents in this doc that thankfully is more focused on the drama involved with the music than anything else that might have been pulling at the three-member team over the past five decades.  I liked that while Robsahm finds a healthy number of individuals to interview as he charts the band’s timeline, only the men themselves are ever shown responding to questions in the present day.   I can’t say I was a big enough fan to keep tabs on them above and beyond their #1 chart topper and their evergreen tune for the 007 film The Living Daylights (though I loved hearing about their tempestuous relationship with John Barry!), but I’m happy to have watched A-ha get their moment.

Fantastic Fest – Part 3

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Now that Fantastic Fest has concluded its week-long in-person screenings, audiences that couldn’t make it to Austin have a great opportunity to see many of the films that were shown via the virtual portion of festival that runs through October 11.  A week wasn’t nearly long enough for this voracious fan to take in all the content that I wanted to see so I’m glad to have the extra days to watch (and review for you!) several more.  Expect one more batch after this but do visit HERE for all the information on how you can sign up to stream four of these titles (and more!) for yourself! Don’t delay, though, some films are only available for a limited amount of time!

Knocking

I wasn’t surprised in the least to find out that KNOCKING was based on a minor novella from one of Sweden’s celebrated crime novelists (Johan Theorin). It has all the standard set-ups and expected tricks of a quick read you’d burn through in one sitting over a cup of coffee. While the premise and resolution are nothing revolutionary, it’s how first-time feature director Frida Kempff and star Cecilia Milocco take the material and mold it to Milocco’s intense performance that make this one crackle and pop. As a woman recently released from a mental health facility living on her own in a new apartment, Milocco leaves enough room at the outset for her character to have somewhere to go once she begins to hear strange knocking noises in her unit. Are these sounds in her mind, a cruel bit of torture to remind her of a past tragedy when she wasn’t paying attention? Or are they attempts by someone in her building reaching out for her help? At 78 minutes, the answer is actually held out longer than you might think, and, to its credit, it comes on top of a dandy stylistic choice by Kempff giving the audience something else of importance to focus on. Ends perfectly where it should.   

Alone With You

Watching ALONE WITH YOU late at night all by yourself is maybe not the most advisable thing, especially if you’re prone to let your mind play tricks on you.  A solid example of how to keep your artistic mind churning at high speed during the pandemic, the writing/directing team of Justin Brooks and Emily Bennett (who also stars) have produced a nifty little thriller that isn’t short on surprise.  In a comfortable NYC first floor apartment, Charlie (Bennett) eagerly awaits the return of her photographer girlfriend Simone (Emma Myles) on their anniversary.  Simone’s late though, and the longer Charlie waits the more their apartment starts to feel more confining, eventually trapping her inside with a growing sense of dread…and Emma’s creepy mannequins in the basement covered in sheets.  The mannequins really got me here and why Charlie left the sheets on them is the one thing I definitely kept yelling at the screen each time she ventured into the basement.  Establishing mood and sustaining suspense is difficult so credit goes to Brooks and Bennett because they clearly know what they’re doing.  At 83 minutes, the film still feels a tad long and without the material to totally justify that length…but hey, horror legend Barbara Crampton makes a cameo and with that, all is forgiven.

The Trip

In 2009, Noomi Rapace was the star of the original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films in Sweden and when that first chapter debuted in the U.S. many filmmakers were desperate to work with her.  Sadly, I don’t think any movie she’s made since has truly capitalized on what she brought to her breakthrough work but those feelings changed almost the moment she came onscreen in director Tommy Wirkola’s THE TRIP.  As Lisa, the bleached-blonde actress wife mediocre director Lars (Aksel Hennie) intends to murder during a weekend trip to his family cabin, Rapace sinks her teeth into the part and has a grand time doing it.  To say more about this wildly bonkers film would be greatly unfair to you because the less known about it going in, the better.  All you really need to know is that Lars plans to off Lisa but nothing can prepare either of them for what’s really in store for their weekend in the woods.  Wirkola’s film is insanely gory and often wickedly funny from start to stop.  It also disappointingly has stench of homophobia to it that absolutely should be called out as lazy in 2021, for me it ultimately doesn’t mean THE TRIP should be cancelled.

Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes

Perhaps this comes off as a bit harsh, but I have to imagine that some directors and screenwriters would watch Junta Yamaguchi’s BEYOND THE INFINITE TWO MINUTES and question how much they are challenging themselves as filmmakers.  Written by Makoto Ueda, the concept of this one is so carefully configured that I doubt it was an easy sell without detailed drawings with arrows pointing in all different directions.  Ostensibly presented as filmed in one-shot with an iPhone, a café owner finds that a monitor in his shop can see two minutes into the future and is linked to another monitor upstairs.  After going several rounds figuring out how this works (mostly for dumb-dumbs like me who need it explained more than twice) and picking up a few friends along the way, the group figures out a way to make the monitors a mirror that can see without limit…but in doing so they also see that danger is coming their way.  This is a 70-minute thrill packed with fun and it’s no wonder every film festival is snapping this one up – it’s a guaranteed crowd pleaser. Hate to say it, but I can totally see this getting an American remake within the next two years…if only we had a monitor that could see in the future, so we’d know if it was half as good as the originality of this.

She Will (Note: Not available through FF @ Home)

Often the best kind of horror side effect is the cold tingle that slowly creeps up your spine, starting at your lower back and traveling up up up through every vertebra until it reaches the base of your skull.  SHE WILL had barely begun but a shiver went through me, almost as an early reaction to the eerie and elegantly spooky delights director and co-writer Charlotte Colbert would deliver during the course of the next 95 minutes. Faded actress Veronica Ghent (Alice Krige) travels to a wellness retreat with her nurse (Kota Eberhardt) to recuperate after undergoing a double mastectomy. Heart brittle and body broken, Ghent is angry at everything, especially at the director (Malcolm McDowell) who made her famous and is now trying to do the same for another young, vulnerable girl. Arriving to find the set-up much different than she imagined, Ghent is however entranced by the land which is fertilized with the ashes of women burned as witches in the early 1700’s.  Almost instantly, her health starts to improve, right around the same time gelatinous mud oozes from the ground (and out of her) and then…things get stranger.  Colbert and co-writer Kitty Percy give a script with a #MeToo bent a supernatural twist and lay it at the altar of Krige who does phenomenal work. There’s just no describing the contributions the actress makes to the success of this film, which is all-together handsomely made in production and sound as it is.  One of the very best films I’ve seen in any festival so far this year and absolutely a favorite of Fantastic Fest.

Movie Review ~ Beckett

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Following a tragic car accident in Greece, Beckett, an American tourist, finds himself at the center of a dangerous political conspiracy and on the run for his life.

Stars: John David Washington, Alicia Vikander, Vicky Krieps, Boyd Holbrook, Lena Kitsopoulou, Maria Votti, Daphne Alexander, Panos Koronis

Director: Ferdinando Cito Filomarino

Rated: NR

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  The first movie I saw in theaters after the pandemic started was Tenet, the highly anticipated Christopher Nolan film that kept getting bounced around the schedule at Warner Brothers.  Nolan was determined to release it and theaters were desperate to show it to attract audiences back so they could continue to operate.  After much delay, the film was released in September 2020 to moderate reviews and even more moderate business.  Considering Nolan’s stature, his track record with blockbusters, and the hype leading up to the movie, this was an eye-opening gut-punch to the film industry that movie-going was not going to bounce back like they thought it would.  We all know how things went after that.  Theaters closed again and would open and re-open sporadically for the next several months until a vaccination was in place (Side note: get vaccinated) and some stability could be regulated.  During that time, Tenet was all but forgotten.

You know what?  It sort of should have been.  It wasn’t that great and represented a filmmaker not reaching further than he should have but deliberately going to places that alienated audiences.  For what?  Purposely misdirecting, employing a horrible sound technique, and careening through a serpentine plot that required several large whiteboards to map out, the film was a mess and audiences told Nolan and the studio so with their attendance at the film.  That robbed stars John David Washington and Elizabeth Debicki, both poised to break big with Tenet, from reaching that high level and while both will bounce back nicely (Debicki is playing Princess Diana in the upcoming season of The Crown) you can blame Nolan for that delay.

Watching the Netflix action film Beckett, I was struck by how much it was exactly the kind of breathless, twist-filled experience I wanted Tenet to be.  An international mystery starring Washington and a cadre of interesting actors both familiar and not, it was willing to take risks but not blow off the audience in doing so.  It might be frighteningly pedestrian at times (some of the reveals of the villainous “twists” are so obvious from the start the actors might as well be wearing a sign around their neck saying Bad Person) but the thrills it drums up are real and the situations it puts our central character in have the authenticity that lead you to believe it could happen to you as well if you didn’t play your cards right. 

In the film written by Kevin A. Rice and director Ferdinando Cito Filomarino, Washington (Malcolm & Marie) plays the titular character, who has arrived in Greece with his girlfriend April (Alicia Vikander, Tomb Raider).  When a political upheaval near their hotel gets too unruly, they retreat to the country for a few days to let things simmer down and that’s where a tragic car accident leaves Beckett alone and eventually on the run for his life when he finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Seeing something he shouldn’t have but doesn’t understand, he’s pursued by a horde of unrelenting hunters who will stop at nothing to keep him silent. 

The simple set-up leaves Filomarino a wide berth to stage a number of impressively tense sequences as Washington narrowly evades being caught and takes drastic measures to extricate himself from the situation.  When it becomes clear that no one in authority is trustworthy, he decides to put trust only in himself and the people his gut tells him to follow, including an activist (Vicky Krieps, The Phantom Thread) whose own cause might just have a crossover with the danger Beckett is hoping to escape from. 

Impressively filmed, edited, and performed, I liked this one all the way through to its closing credit sequence.  Obviously made for a more big screen exhibition, Filomarino fills each frame of Beckett with a gorgeous shot of Greece, even though much of the movie isn’t exactly a thumbs up for Greek tourism.  Destined to be but a blip on rising-star Washington’s acting career, I hope more people discover this one as the winter months are approaching and well-constructed action films like Beckett become harder to find in theaters.