1969’s The Girl from Rio aka Future Women just hit 4K UHD thanks to Blue Underground and if you haven’t seen this swinging Jess Franco Bond knock off, you’re in for a treat.
The film is one of the more restrained films I’ve seen from the Spanish director, who’s best known for his rather prolific catalog of 207 films that mostly reside in the torrid realm of sexploitation. What makes Rio odd is its lack of skin, especially considering that it was made in partnership with producer Harry Alan Towers, who also produced his Marquis de Sade inspired outings. Towers produced not only Spanish, but also Italian sexploitation pictures, and famously produced some of the Laura Gemser films that would later be rebranded as Black Emanuelle titles. That being said, this is a rather tame R rated actioner, but that doesn’t make it any less great by any stretch of the imagination.
Like most of Franco’s films, the director uses a real location, that of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to elevate his Jet Set Bondsploitation film that has our 007 proxy, Richard Stapley (Richard Wyler), fleeing to Rio with $10 Million in stolen money. This has every criminal outfit in the area after him including Sumitra (Shirley Eaton/Goldfinger) and her army of gorgeous women warriors who hope to use the money to take over the world. Technically, this film is a sequel to The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967), and features Sax Rohmer’s Sumuru character (renamed Sumitra in the English dub, strangely obliterating all references to the character). While there’s a bit of a twist at the halfway point, the film is a fun romp into the world of Jess Franco by way of this secret agent tale that doles out its story in equal parts camp, parody and the kind of luridly fetishistic Franco subtext you’d expect.
For those that dig old school Bond and James Franco, there’s a lot to appreciate here with its pulpy action supplemented by a bizarre 60s rogues gallery of villains of course with plenty of girls and guns. While Wyler isn’t the strongest lead, he’s luckily surrounded by a cast of characters led by Shirley Eaton who definitely makes up for his lack of gravitas. Also the film later adds Marta Reves’ Ulla who quickly shifts gears from damsel in distress to a co conspirator to Wyler’s Stapley. My personal favorite however of the eccentric cast, has to be the delightful Elisa Montés who plays Masius (George Sanders) accountant/girlfriend, whose cheeky presence is accentuated by her collection of cunning little psychedelic inspired hats.
The film is presented here uncut in 4K on a dual layer 66 GB UHD by Blue Underground, from a new scan from the original camera negative. The film was shot in the same “batch” as Eugenie and Justine, and looks just as good. The transfer is crisp, bright and clean with a well balanced contrast throughout. The groovy color palette here and mandatory gel lighting is accentuated by a layer of Dolby Vision that makes some of the costumes and scenes really pop.
The special features include an all-new audio commentary with film historians Nathaniel Thompson and Troy Howarth – this is informative and entertaining; “Rocking in Rio” – an all-new interview with Franco expert Stephen Thrower; and “Rolling in Rio” – interviews with director Jess Franco, producer Harry Alan Towers and star Shirley Eaton.
For folks looking to get their feet wet in the Franco Filmography, this definitely feels like a good gateway. While you get a good idea of his style, it feels about as mainstream as I think Franco could get. Girl from Rio is a rollicking adventure that for the most part works in spite of itself. The only hurdle for entry is probably the odd dubbing here that sometimes feels like parody. But once you’re acclimated to that and Franco’s dreamy zoomtastic cinematographic style, you’re all set to have a groovy good time. Being a Bond fan this definitely hit the sweet spot for me and gave a new appreciation for Franco watching this odd riff on the secret agent film, that as expected loses interest in its male lead altogether only to empower and entrust the film to a character that would normally be relegated to a femme fatale.
For DC fans looking to find solace in a better era, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm hits 4K UHD in a modest special edition this Tuesday thanks to Warner Home Entertainment. The 90’s animated series – theatrical outing originally hit theaters in 1993, where I caught it at my local dollar theater – remember those? The film came out about a year into the life of the animated juggernaut that ran for nearly a decade, and was originally intended as a direct to video adventure for fans of the show. But given the show’s success, a last minute decision was made to release it theatrically, where it stumbled at the box office due to this last minute change. The film has since found its audience on home video, where it became a mainstay for fans of the series who, like myself, see it as one of the best Batman origin stories ever committed to film.
The film is a love story of sorts, that has Batman (Kevin Conroy) trying to figure out who is killing big crime bosses in Gotham. The problem for Batman is the killer is a fresh masked vigilante in Gotham called the Phantasm, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Batman’s black caped appearance. Because of this, those that have been waiting for the vigilante to break his code of never killing, think he’s finally lost that restraint and is now on a killing spree and needs to be stopped at all costs. This just so happens when Andrea Beaumont (Dana Delany), a mysterious woman from Bruce Wayne’s past returns to Gotham after having to flee when her father got in over his head with the Gotham mob before Bruce put on the cowl. While Batman gets to the bottom of the Phantasm’s reign of terror on Gotham’s underbelly, we get a flashback of the origins of this Batman showing us how close he was to hanging up the bat-suit thanks to Andrea.
What I think makes this one of the best origin stories is, for one we aren’t forced to watch pearls scattering in an alley while a young boy looks on, like we’ve seen countless times. Instead we watch a young man who after unexpectedly falling in love is being forced to make a choice of whether or not to keep a vow and a course he set before he thought happiness was an option. I think not only is that choice a bit more relatable, it’s played against Bruce looking back on this after he’s made a name for himself in Gotham. While Kevin Conroy’s iconic Batman is definitely the star here, Dana Delany’s Andrea Beaumont is a formidable presence in the film, as someone who could have changed Bruce’s life and we as an audience actually believe that compared to some other leading ladies in this canon. While the Phantasm is what got butts in seats, the tragic romance of Wayne and Beaumont and how that plays out sealed the film’s status as one of the best.
The 4K UHD presented by Warner is the best case scenario in my opinion when it comes to a traditional animation’s visual presentation. No recoloring/touch ups have visually been done and instead Warner’s attention was focused on capturing the best image possible from the source, which looks to be the original negative. This is from the color, to the contrast to the grain still present, along with brush strokes. I love when I am watching an animated film and I can make out the way a cell was painted, or the cell layers or the composting tricks used in a shot. That kind of clarity is on full display here and given the animation and art style of the show, there’s a lot to take in. The only special feature is a doc on Kevin Conroy, which is a posthumous look at his influence he’s had on the role while voicing Batman in almost every media you can imagine.
At 76 minutes Batman: Mask of the Phantasm manages to do more than most 3 hour super hero epics, because it just focuses on the humanity of these characters and that’s where most superhero films falter. While it is this story of the new big bad coming to Gotham, which alone could be a plausible narrative, it’s the love story that highlights how Bruce Wayne got here that drives the heart and soul of the film and that’s not an easy task in this sub-genre or animation. Bruce Wayne feels his most human here, since the love affair transpires before he’s been hardened by decades of patrolling Gotham and he hasn’t completely given himself over to the bat. I think that what if and seeing how Bruce found the character of the Batman makes this a different origin story. Because while he has made the vow and he has decided to fight crime, in the flashbacks the idea of Batman is just that, and it just so happens when he meets the love of his life.
This article contains several comparisons which contrast the older Warner Brothers Blu-ray transfer with the new 4K UHD restoration. The frames aren’t necessarily exact matches, but should give a solid indication of the visual differences.
The “slider” images below allow for a quick comparison of the stills from both discs by color, cleanliness, and framing. Both sets of images are direct captures from the released discs, but may not be representative of both discs’ full 1080p and 4K UHD resolution. These are only illustrative of differences, and not definitive, especially in terms of resolution and clarity.
While the original source material used for The Exorcist’s 4K restoration has not been provided by Warner Brothers, it’s worth noting that the restoration credits on both cuts have been updated from their previous Blu-ray incarnations to note a 4K Restoration supervised and approved by director William Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman (both sadly RIP).
Friedkin and Roizman supervised these new UHDs and the original 2010 Blu-ray, making for a notably interesting visual comparison. The Exorcist’s creative team has certainly taken advantage of the new color timing possibilities of HDR, pushing for deeper shadows and sharper color tones. The opening Iraq sequence is bathed in yellow and red, while the film’s later possession sequences contrast in a cooler, at times sharply bluer palette. The 2010 Blu-ray feels much more muted and hollow–an aspect that seems closer to theatrical and early DVD presentations–while the new UHD feels saturated and deeper by comparison.
The amount of detail brought out in this higher resolution cannot be denied. Where some shots of the Blu-ray note a good amount of black crush and pixelization, black levels on the 4K screenshots are more naturally developed. Note the finer texture of the sand and rubble of the archaeological dig, the tufts and shadows of Regan’s bedding and straps, the sinewy flesh and deep red blood of Dick Smith’s makeup on Regan’s face, and the usage of fog and mist in the film’s iconic lamppost shot and the appearance of Pazuzu during the exorcism.
It’s also interesting to note that accompanying the boost in image quality is a slight horizontal crop across both discs, reframing the film from its previous, more open-matte Blu-ray. I haven’t found other references online to this new framing, which seems like a deliberate choice by both Friedkin and Roizman.
It’s also worth noting that the sound mix has also received a Friedkin-supervised upgrade to Dolby Atmos, which is used to inventively disturbing effect in the film’s opening strings to final usage of Tubular Bells. A further coup compared to past releases is the remastering and inclusion of the Theatrical Version’s original mono mix, presented here in DTS-HD.
In the most mixed-bag aspect of this 4K upgrade, all of the film’s extras have been ported from the Blu-ray solely to the included 4K digital copy. Only the previously recorded commentaries by Friedkin (Disc 1–Extended) and William Peter Beatty (Disc 2–Theatrical) are included on the physical discs. Warner Brothers mitigates this by making the included Digital Code applicable on both Movies Anywhere and Vudu.
Regardless of the extra steps viewers must take to view the film’s archival special features, this 4K UHD of The Exorcist is a must-have upgrade for fans of a film long in the pantheon of Horror greats, just in time for the Halloween season.
The Exorcist is now available on 4K UHD courtesy of Warner Brothers.
L: 2010 Blu-ray / R: 2023 4K UHD
L: 2010 Blu-ray / R: 2023 4K UHD
L: 2010 Blu-ray / R: 2023 4K UHD
L: 2010 Blu-ray / R: 2023 4K UHD
L: 2010 Blu-ray / R: 2023 4K UHD
L: 2010 Blu-ray / R: 2023 4K UHD
L: 2010 Blu-ray / R: 2023 4K UHD
L: 2010 Blu-ray / R: 2023 4K UHD
L: 2010 Blu-ray / R: 2023 4K UHD
L: 2010 Blu-ray / R: 2023 4K UHD
L: 2010 Blu-ray / R: 2023 4K UHD
L: 2010 Blu-ray / R: 2023 4K UHD
L: 2010 Blu-ray / R: 2023 4K UHD
I feel like Kenneth Branagh’s Hercule Poirot series, as excellent as it is, is possibly cursed. The first film, 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express famously starred Johnny Depp, who was going through a bit of a PR crisis after a messy divorce with Amber Heard, and a video leaking of the actor fighting with his ex-wife leaking right at the beginning of the #metoo movement. But that aside, Murder was excellent, with Depp playing a more nuanced and menacing heavy, that still stands today amongst the actor’s stronger performances where he did something other than, his stereotypical wacky character.
Next up was the shot in 2019 Death on the Nile, which starred Armie Hammer, who in the lead up to that film’s release notoriously was outed as texting women about drinking blood and cannibalism. During that time, Fox the studio, was gobbled up by Disney and the film was shelved for nearly 3 years thanks to not only the studio looking to weather another PR storm for the series, but COVID as well. While some many simply say these issues are possibly due to the director having such large and lavish casts, I rebuke that theory with you don’t see this happening to Rian Johnson.
But Branagh nonetheless persists with his passion project, and out of nowhere seemingly, a trailer for his third outing as the master detective Hercule Poirot, A Haunting in Venice was released loosely based on Agatha Christie’s 1969 novel Hallowe’en Party. I was actually quite surprised when I first heard about the film, since I wasn’t even aware of its existence, but figured that Branagh who stars and directs these films was finally trying to get ahead of anything that could transpire on a press tour, that would honestly be abbreviated anyway given the strike. The film once again features an all star cast this time featuring Kyle Allen, Camille Cottin, Jamie Dornan, Jude Hill, Kelly Reilly, Michelle Yeoh, Ali Khan, Emma Laird and Philly’s own Tina Fey.
Perfectly timed with the Halloween season, the film transpires in 1947 and has Hercule Poirot after the events of Nile, retired and living in Venice avoiding anyone trying to enlist his help. That is until an old friend, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), a successful mystery author and no doubt Christie proxy, recruits the detective to help her debunk a notorious medium (Michelle Yeoh), who plans to do a séance on old Hallows Eve. What begins as an attempt to contact the daughter of Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly) at a supposedly haunted palazzo where she committed suicide, instead has Poirot trying to solve the young woman’s murder by one of the attendees. It’s a potboiler of a chamber piece that has the detective grappling with ghosts, both literal and metaphorical.
Kenneth Branagh is as great as ever leading this exciting ensemble that features some of my personal favorite actors. As far as Poirot goes, this film is the most human we’ve seen the master detective as this case tests not only his beliefs, but his skills of deduction, given it’s been some time since he’s taken a case. While Kelly Reilly turns in a much more understated performance that we’ve seen from her time on Yellowstone, Fey is a spitfire and is playing a tug of war with Branagh whenever the two share the screen. Yeoh is as good as you’d expect as the devilish medium Joyce Reynolds, but sadly we don’t get nearly enough of her character in the film as I would have liked.
Unlike the brighter and more picturesque films before this one, Haunting primarily takes place in a darkened palazzo to reinforce the claustrophobia of the setting, where the sound design is used to lean into the supernatural. Given both of these factors, I would HIGHLY suggest seeing the film in Dolby, since the sound is nearly a character here and the deep blacks you can get from their premium format only enhances the overall viewing experience. Pacing-wise the film’s 103 minute runtime assures you that the film moves at a brisk clip as we build to the dénouement that was easily my favorite of the last three films. I feel like Branagh is not only getting better with the character, but how he marries the mechanics of the detective story and intertwines it with a rather moving thematic exploration the impact of war.
With Kenneth Branagh’s third outing as Hercule Poirot, he turns in his most human take on the master detective yet, in a rather impressively paced and chilling chamber piece. I found the subtext about war and the mark it leaves on those that survive it especially poignant and moving. As for the scares, while there’s definitely more than a few solid jumpscares, this film is shockingly as clever as it is creepy. That is thanks to not only a credit to Branagh but another outstanding ensemble who no doubt will go down as my favorite as they test the detective in what was probably his most challenging case yet. A Haunting in Venice could finally be the unsullied hit of the series, delivering the detective’s most crowd pleasing adventure yet just when theaters need it most.
Cinapse is all about cinematic discovery. This Shawscope Volume 2 column is, therefore, a watch project for our team, and guests, to work through this phenomenal set from Arrow Video. These capsule reviews are designed to give glimpses of our thoughts as we discover these films for ourselves. Some are kung fu cinema experts, some less so; all are excited for the adventure.
The Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers Studio cranked out a staggering number of feature films over its lifetime. With worldwide influence continuing to this very day, their contributions to cinema are myriad and undeniable. Arrow Video has curated a second volume of titles; an intentional way to wade into the deep waters of the Shaw Brothers. Beyond capsule reviews, our team also offers thoughts on the set curation and bonus features. Watch along with us, join us in the comments, or reach out on social media (linked below) if you’d like to submit your own
The Category III classic The Boxer’s Omen is a psychedelic transgressive masterwork that I am honestly shocked it took me this long to see. (I was actually waiting to see it in HD, if that was any consolation). Director Kuei Chih-Hung brings to mind Alejandro Jodorowsky with his story of a small-time gangster/boxer who is brought into a spiritual battle between his twin from a past life, who is now a Buddist monk, and a cabal of black magicians. The two men are forever linked and because of that the gangster is the only one able to lift the curse on the monk who was poisoned with golden needles, thus preventing him from attaining enlightenment. Essentially he is forced to save the spiritual life of his twin or forfeit his own since if his twin dies, so does he.
The film has this bizarre, nearly exploitative relationship with Buddhism and it views these sometimes grotesque rituals that our characters are tasked with an almost fetishistic lens. The film is unlike anything from Shaw, both in its scope and scale. While Shaw was no stranger to horror films, none manages to combine the profane and gruesome with a look at mysticism that elevates the film from a garish spectacle into something much more profound. It’s now my favorite Shaw Film and I don’t say that lightly. Sure it has hand to hand combat, sure it has fantastical spiritual combat, sure it has one of the most intense spiritual journeys in the Shaw catalog, but what other Shaw film features my favorite 80s rubber halloween tarantula as a spirit totem amulet?
If you want Buddha to have your back in a battle with a demon: DO. NOT. FUCK. That is the biggest life takeaway one can glean from one of the most bonkers gross out spectacles I have ever seen in my life: Chih-Hung Kuei’s 1983 Shaw Brothers ripper The Boxer’s Omen. One plot description might make this sound like a Jean-Claude Van Damme film: The legendary on screen villain Bolo Yeung cripples Chan Hung’s (Phillip Ko) brother in the kickboxing ring, so he must travel to Thailand to get his revenge. But let me tell you, this ain’t no JCVD film. It turns out Hung, in a past life, was a twin brother to a Buddhist monk. Now that Buddhist monk is trapped in purgatory and only Chan Hung can crush the demon before both he and his embalmed former twin pass into eternity forever. All Chan Hung needs to do is swear off all worldly pleasure and become a monk imbued with the spiritual powers of a Buddhist exorcist! Loaded to the brim with chaotic and bizarre spiritual wizard battles and gross out gags that take potshots at the “exoticism” of Thailand, The Boxer’s Omen is pure exploitation that stacks up so many bizarre visuals as to be one of the truly weirdest cinematic experiences I have ever had.
Dan is our transgressive cinema guy and his take is more informed than mine, so I’m glad he really appreciates this on a fundamental level. I’m glad I saw it, grateful for how truly bizarre and committed it is to its weirdness, and appreciative of how different it is from so many other Shaw Brothers films. But I don’t know that I could ever subject myself to the chaos offered here again. PS: As you might suspect… Chan Hung Fucks, and as a result, loses some of his magic Buddha powers, which leads to a bunch of wizards gutting a crocodile, slopping its entrails all over the floor, and placing a corpse inside which resurrects into a female demon that wants to eat Chan Hung’s soul… obviously.
After my multi-week disappearing act, I’m back on this Shaw ish. Between burn out from this collection and an insanely busy life lately, I had to skip a few entries lately… but there was no way I wasn’t going to return for The Boxer’s Omen. A film that I’ve had in my collection for years, it has sat unwatched for far too long. I had been waiting and hoping for a dubbed version but if even this extensive Arrow collection has subs only, it’s clear that won’t be happening for me, so the time had come!
There’s so much to say and yet saying anything means very little with this one, as it’s truly a “see it to believe it” brand of batshit insanity. Unlike anything I’ve seen in the Shaw catalog before, it’s unique, fun, and all the best kinds of weird. It blends Buddhism with weird black magic rituals and really eye-catching demonic imagery in such unique ways. It stands out completely among the rest of the entries of this box set.
For me, my favorite moments were in the weird, hellish visions, as well as a couple of the fight scenes. There’s a decided influence from 70s European horror in this one, while still retaining some of what makes Shaw Kung-Fu films work so well.
I can’t wait to rewatch this one in short order, as it’s certainly a film my wife, who also loves horror and enjoys partaking in Shaw films with me, will take great joy in watching. Until then, I’ll be thinking often about some of the crazy images and scenes in what may become my favorite Shaw film in time.
And We’re Out.
Chaos reigns! in Austin, TX, from September 21st – 28th
It’s that time of year again when the Alamo Drafthouse S Lamar gives itself over to the fiends of Fantastic Fest. The chaotic genre film festival that blends weird and wild films, with equally nutso parties and events. Sure we don’t have a lobby this year, but Chaos will find a way!
It’s not too late to get on over and secure one of the remaining badges. The 2023 lineup has already been announced, and after a digging into things, the Cinapse team attending this year, has gotten together to share their most anticipated features. Read on to see what stood out, and and check in with us next week, as we’ll be running full coverage from the festival.
As is always the case for me, I plan to focus as much on the action cinema options as I possibly can. What’s different this year is that Fantastic Fest doesn’t seem to just have a smattering of a couple of action titles, but rather quite a few offerings from all across the world in my genre of choice. I couldn’t be more excited about this development and offer my sincerest thanks to the programmers. Here are the action films I plan to check out and potentially cover here at Cinapse!
Kill: Perhaps creeping into “my most anticipated” territory is Kill, an Indian action film that promises a more stripped down and grounded Raid-like approach than your average mega-amped, music-filled Indian blockbuster. Don’t get me wrong, India has been emerging for years as one of the most exciting hubs for action cinema, but I’m always a sucker for a stripped down hardcore brawler and the buzz on Kill is pretty electric.
One Percenter: Ever since the early 2000s when my young mind was blown by the cross-genre face-melter Versus… I’ve been a Tak Sakaguchi fan. So when a Tak action film hits Fantastic Fest, I’ll be there. He’s just got such an iconic screen presence and he also seems interested in pushing the envelope to bring us something new time and time again. From Crazy Samurai (which I didn’t care for but which is a feat of accomplishment) to Re:Born, the guy is innovating and I can’t wait to see what he has in store for us here.
100 Yards: I am not super familiar with a lot of the talent behind the Chinese 1920 set martial arts epic 100 Yards. But, as an action and martial arts cinema fan, I’ve seen hundreds of these types of films and nobody does period martial arts like Chinese crews do. Fantastic Fest is one of the only places each year where I can see grand martial arts films on the big screen with a roaring crowd and I can’t wait to experience that again with this Game Of Thrones-sounding tale.
The Last Stop In Yuma County: I’m fascinated by actor and filmmaker Jim Cummings (The Beta Test, The Wolf Of Snow Hollow, Thunder Road) and his involvement in a project will immediately get my attention. Make it a modern slow burn western and you’ve got my butt in a seat.
The Creator: Look, I know this is a highly mainstream pick and the film will be hitting wide just days after it plays Fantastic Fest. But I’ve been a Gareth Edwards fan since his indie breakout Monsters and have enjoyed watching his meteoric rise to Godzilla and Rogue One. But somehow it seems he really has something to prove right now, and an original sci-fi epic like The Creator is catnip to me. I’m really hoping this is something special and proves Edwards has the chops to match his heart and ambition.
Honorary Mentions: I’ll Crush Y’all, Baby Assassins 2, Enter The Clones Of Bruce, Kennedy, Triggered
My top 3 most anticipated for this year’s Fantastic Fest in no particular order.
CONANN, is the latest by Bertrand Mandico who previously brought the surreal masterwork After Blue to Fantastic Fest in 2021, taking home Best Film that year. That was easily one of my favorites that year with its visceral vision of pure decadence and splendor contained in a lesbian acid western. This year however, he’s tackling the myth of Conan the Barbarian with what promises to be “a gory time-traveling fantasy.” After that synopsis, I can’t even imagine what the transgressive auteur has in store for us this time around.
CALIGULA MMXX or CALIGULA THE ULTIMATE CUT – Nothing is going to be beat seeing one of my most anticipated films of the year (Read my post as to why,where I interviewed the editor of the project) with its target audience. I couldn’t be more excited for this screening, and the fact that its star Malcolm McDowell will be on hand, means it’s going to be one hell of a Q&A. I’ve seen that man speak before and can be hilariously poignant and sometimes a bit too candid. So I am counting down the days to see if it truly is the film they originally set out to make, or another glorious disaster.
ONE – PERCENTER – Yûdai Yamaguchi (Deadball, Meatball Machine) is back at Fantastic Fest with one of the best Stuntmen in the business Tak Sakaguchi (Versus), who in his latest is playing a weathered stuntman who tussles with the Yakuza while making his latest actioner. Given Tak’s reputation, expect plenty of fights with a focus on frantic and fast paced choreography while he gazes off into the distance looking as badass as humanly possible. This also sounds like just the meta exercise that will give the seasoned genre veteran a moment for some real introspective moments as well the action he is known for.
Opening night of Fantastic Fest is always crackling with energy. This year even more so, as Fest-alum, and Austin-based filmmaker/actor Macon Blair (Blue Ruin, Green Room, I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore) kicks things off with his new film, The Toxic Avenger. Yep, Troma is back baby, and if it’s half as gnarly and blackly comedic as his previous projects, we’re in for a treat.
Like everyone else who saw it, I was fucking delighted by Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes. The team behind it is back with more time-bending shenanigans so you can bet I’ll be there for River.
I always feel a little weird picking something that’s getting a general release, but as an unabashed lover of Rogue One, I can’t wait to see The Creator, the new slice of dystopian sci-fi from Gareth Edwards, one that looks to set out a possible future as we collide with AI.
I always make time for a documentary at Fantastic Fest, it feels like a nice change of pace and a way to further my insights. From this year’s lineup, SCALA!!! is the standout. As a Brit, I had certainly heard of the (in)famous) London repertory theatre that courted controversy with it’s screenings of films such as The Clockwork Orange in the 70s/80s. It’ll be good to refresh and fill in the blanks on this one.
Finally, The Origin. The synopsis seems to distill into “stone age survival meets mystical monster”. Sold.
River: Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes was one of the most surprising and joyful discoveries I’ve ever had at Fantastic Fest, so naturally Junta Yamaguchi’s follow-up tops my list for what I’m most anticipating at this year’s festival. Here, Yamaguchi swaps time-travel for time loops–with jaw-dropping camera trickery and smile-splitting zaniness surely to follow.
Cobweb: Beloved South Korean actor Song Kang-Ho reunites with the stellar director Kim Jee-Woon (A Tale of Two Sisters) in what appears to be a twisted black comedy about the 70s Korean film industry? Say no more, I’m sold.
Eileen: William Oldroyd’s Lady Macbeth wasn’t just my magnificent introduction to Florence Pugh–it was a nail-biting, gut-churning, venomous character study with crackling tension. I missed his long-awaited follow-up film, Eileen, at this year’s Sundance film fest–but I’m so excited to rectify that at this year’s festival, and to see what bewitching and sinister chemistry Oldroyd concocts between leads Thomasin McKenzie and Anne Hathaway.
UFO Sweden: The Vast of Night was one of my favorite out-of-nowhere titles from Fantastic Fest a few years ago–and UFO Sweden appears to capture a similar sense of suspenseful, wide-eyed wonder while boasting visuals that harken back to ET, Super 8, and other “kids on bikes” sci-fi classics.
Honorable Mention: Where The Devil Roams, When Evil Lurks, Sleep, The Fall of the House of Usher, Totally Killer, All 4 Secret Screenings
Fantastic Fest is the largest genre film festival in the U.S., specializing in horror, fantasy, sci-fi, action and just plain fantastic movies from all around the world. In years past, the festival has been home to the world and US premieres of PARASITE, JOJO RABBIT, BONE TOMAHAWK, JOHN WICK, FRANKENWEENIE, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, APOCALYPTO, ZOMBIELAND, RED, SPLIT, HALLOWEEN, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE, MID 90s, and SUSPIRIA while the guest roster has included such talent as Tim Burton, Nicolas Winding-Refn, Lilly and Lana Wachowski, Bong Joon-Ho, Taika Waititi, Robert Rodriguez, Rian Johnson, Bill Murray, Keanu Reeves, Martin Landau, Winona Ryder, Edward Norton, Ryan Reynolds, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Karl Urban, Josh Hartnett, The RZA, Dolph Lundgren, Paul Rudd, Bill Pullman, Paul Thomas Anderson, Kevin Smith, Jon Favreau, George Romero, Darren Aronofsky, Mike Judge, Karyn Kusama, M. Night Shyamalan, James McAvoy, Vince Vaughn, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jonah Hill, Barbara Crampton and Jessica Harper. Fantastic Fest also features world, national, and regional premieres of new, up-and-coming genre films. Fantastic Fest has seen the acquisition of many titles, including BULLHEAD, KILL LIST, MONSTERS, KLOWN, THE FP, PENUMBRA, HERE COMES THE DEVIL, NO REST FOR THE WICKED, VANISHING WAVES, COMBAT GIRLS, I DECLARE WAR, THE PERFECTION, and TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID. Fantastic Fest is held each year at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas. Alamo Drafthouse has been named the best theater in the country by Entertainment Weekly, Wired, and TIME. Variety included Fantastic Fest in a list of “10 Film Festivals We Love” and was also named one of the “25 coolest film festivals” by Moviemaker Magazine.
Pirates and Swordfights and Fish-People, oh my!
One Piece is one of those titles that I’ve been aware of for most of my life without ever knowing the first thing about what it actually is. I knew it was a popular manga and a popular anime, and that the franchise mascot was a smiling kid with a red shirt and a straw hat. And that really was the extent of it until very recently. Hell, until the hype started building for the live-action Netflix adaptation, I wasn’t even aware that this is a series about pirates, never mind that said smiling kid is a wannabe pirate with Elastigirl-style stretching powers by the name of Monkey D. Luffy (‘Luffy’ rhyming with ‘poofy’ rather than with “fluffy”, in defiance of God’s will).
But the trailers for the Netflix show made it look like a big colorful fantasy adventure that was right up my alley, and my buddy explained enough of the intricacies of the original series and its world and lore to pique my interest, so it was with genuine curiosity that I fired up the first episode of the live action series. None of that set-up prepared me for just how much I would love this show, these characters, and the gonzo world of pirates, wandering swordsmen, secret organizations, half-machine people, fish-people, sheep-people, people with super powers because they ate magic fruit, people with super powers because fuck you that’s why, and a seemingly infinite ocean with endless space for whatever mayhem you can imagine.
Jesus, no wonder this thing has been going strong for so long.
Quick primer for my fellow newcomers: One Piece began life in 1997 as a manga series written and drawn by Eiichiro Oda. Since then, there has been a long-running anime adaptation, along with strings of movies, specials, video games, and basically any form of media you can name. The comic is finally in its endgame, but the saga of the Straw Hat Pirates spans hundreds of comic volumes and over a thousand episodes of the animated series.
Set in a fantasy world that is almost completely covered in water, the story of One Piece kicks off with the execution of Pirate King Gol D. Roger at the hands of the tyrannical World Government. Before he dies, Roger declares that his greatest treasure, known as the One Piece, is up for grabs. All you have to do is find it. This kicks off a new age of piracy, as people race to the ocean in droves hoping to find this most inconceivable of all treasures.
22 years after Roger’s death, a hapless (but deceptively competent) young man enters the fray. Monkey D. Luffy (played here by Iñaki Godoy) is a happy-go-lucky doofus gifted and/or cursed with stretching abilities courtesy of a Devil Fruit (look it’s a whole…it’s a whole thing. The kid stretches like a rubber band, just go with it) and he’s determined to find the One Piece and be declared the new King of the Pirates.
Over the course of this first season, we watch Luffy go from treading water in a sinking dinghy to being an actual captain, assembling a fellowship of similar losers, outcasts, and dreamers to join him on his seemingly endless quest. There’s Zoro (Mackenyu), a taciturn bounty hunter determined to become the greatest swordsman alive; Nami (Emily Rudd), a mysterious thief and master navigator; Usopp (Jacob Romero Gibson), a motormouth fabulist with a knack for marksmanship who wants to prove his mettle, and Sanji (Taz Skylar), a smooth-talking chef on his own quest to uncover the ocean’s secrets.
But wait, there’s more. There’s also Koby (Morgan Davies), a cabin boy Luffy rescues who wants to become a Marine, and also on the Navy side there’s Helmeppo (Aidan Scott) and the fearsome Vice Admiral Garp (Vincent Regan), and then there’s all the pirates like the clown who can disassemble his body into pieces and the black cat folks who have super-speed for some reason and then there’s Red-Haired Shanks and his whole crew, and that’s not even getting into Arlong and his band of fishmen and their set-up and-
Look, it’s a busy show. After finishing all eight episodes, I went back and watched a bit of the first season of the anime, and it only served to highlight the sheer staggering density of this source material. The sheer effort that has gone into streamlining and editing this material to fit within a busy but fairly breezy eight hour season is a remarkable feat even before you start considering that the final product is actually successful. Very successful, in fact.
The breathless enthusiasm and unflagging energy go a long way to keeping a newcomer invested in each fresh bit of berserk worldbuilding and cheerfully nonsensical bit of design or action. One Piece moves with such absolute confidence and such unfaltering conviction that it’s easy to surrender to its excesses and its go-for-broke imagination. The show walks a delicate balance of grounding the cartoon physics and logic just enough in reality to allow for the possibility of even a bit of sincere dramatic weight, while also being a show in which essentially every character is capable of gravity-defying martial arts and some even go a step beyond that and fully just have superpowers. There’s a lived in practicality to the costumes and the sets, and that practicality sits side by side with a sequence in which Luffy inflates himself to the size of a parade float in order to catch a cannonball in his belly and send it flying back at an attacking ship.
It’s a split that’s also palpable in the cast and the various approaches they take to this material. The uniformly excellent young cast playing the Straw Hat crew are doing everything in their considerable power to bring as much sincerity and gravitas as they possibly can to every scene detailing the broken homes and haunted pasts and implacable feelings of yearning driving them to the sea.
Meanwhile, the various actors playing the villains and antagonists, particularly Jeff Ward as the rabid clown Buggy and Regan as the over-zealous Garp, are one and all going so far over the top it’s a wonder they don’t crack the ozone. Even before the physics-shattering action starts up, these performances keep One Piece firmly rooted in its origins as a demented cartoon, even as the younger cast members valiantly strive to bring the humanity front and center.
Striking a balance between these extremes and making it all feel like…one…piece…is Iñaki Godoy as Luffy. The task would seem impossible, but Godoy makes it look as easy as breathing, assuming that breathing comes easily. Apologies to asthmatics, but the simile stands.
Godoy somehow identifies an earnest and empathetic core to Luffy even in the most heightened and ridiculous moments of the series. Radiating joy and enthusiasm in his every second on screen, you fully believe that this bizarre creature would compel others to his cause and bend the rules of reality around his deeply felt sense of right and wrong. Godoy’s not a total newcomer (he had a prominent role in a previous Netflix series, The Irregulars) but One Piece should be a star-making turn given the difficulty of what he achieves, and how easy he makes it look.
The other major standout of the cast is Mackenyu as the sword-wielding Zoro (one R though, so he’s totally distinct from that other Zorro). Mackenyu also stole the show in Rurouni Kenshin: The Final as the villainous Enishi. In that film and this series, Mackenyu not only leaks charisma out of his pores, but he seems to have an intuitive understanding that the more relaxed he is in comparison to the mania around him, the more of an impression he makes. He knows how to use a silent scowl to nail a punchline better than any dialogue could, and he knows that striking the right pose can sell a badass moment more than even the choreography.
One Piece has martial arts battles, sea monsters, found families, the power of friendship enabling flawed people to overcome their traumas and live as their best selves, super-powered brawls, a goat-guy in one episode for some reason, the list goes on and on.
American efforts at anime adaptations have had a…mixed…reaction, let us say, and there will always be the question of why a property or story that’s been told perfectly well in one medium ‘needs’ to be ported over to another. Especially in the case of a series like One Piece, where the elasticity of comics and animation is a literal better fit for a main character who is indeed elastic.
I can’t speak to how longtime One Piece readers and viewers will respond to this (though the anecdotal response I’ve seen so far has been pretty delighted) but taking it on its own terms as a new original fantasy/adventure series, I was immediately hooked by the world and characters of One Piece. With endless invention and a surprising amount of sincere heart and humanity, it’s a daffy brew unlike any other major fantasy series going on right now.
Netflix, hurry up and pay your goddamn writers and your goddamn actors so they can start working on a second season already.
Black Circle is the latest by Here Comes the Devil’s Adrian Garcia Bogliano, which just hit Blu-ray thanks to Synapse Films in a feature packed special edition. The film stars Swedish genre icon Christina Lindberg, who most will recognize from her turn as Frigga from Thriller: A Cruel Picture aka They Call Her One Eye, who plays the creator of a self help record album from the 70’s that has an eerie side effect. This comes into play in the present day when Isla (Erica Midfjäll), lends the album she credits with her new found executive job to her sister Celeste (Felice Jankell), who recently suffered a bad break up and lost her job. While Celeste’s demeanor takes a turn for the better, she begins to have visions of a doppelganger, which echoes her sister’s recent paranoia that someone who bears a striking resemblance to her is following her after giving up the record.
The pair of course go looking for answers, and that takes them to Chirstina Lindberg’s character, who is a witch of sorts, who knows what’s happening to the women – and it’s not good. There’s an interesting commentary on the whole self-care phenomenon, that I found thematically gives the horror film a rather strangely empowering message. Also our sister protagonists do a rather remarkable job at selling some of the rather big swings the narrative takes here, while also keeping us firmly invested in their relationship. As for Lindberg, who’s the reason I picked the film up, I was worried that either she wouldn’t be in the film very much or basically be cast to the periphery, but that’s thankfully not the case. She’s definitely in the mix with the leads and puts in a rather stirring take on a witch with a conscience.
The disc has a great balance for both fans of the film and those who came to the film thanks to Lindberg. I started as the latter, but thankfully became a fan of the film as well and parsed through the rest of the rousing extras. The disc comes with a director’s commentary, a cd soundtrack, the original short film that inspired the film, a behind the scenes featurette, and a 57 minute interview with Lindenberg by the director of Black Circle Adrian Garcia Bogliano who is obviously a fan as well. That conversation digs into most of her life and career and thankfully she remembers quite a bit and is introspective and pragmatic about her time working in sexploitation and in the adult industry in the 1970s. This interview alone is worth the price of the disc for fans of Christina.
Black Circle is a moody little slice of psychological horror that came as a pleasant surprise. While most like myself will be coming into the film solely as a fan of Lindberg, thanks to the rather captivating performances by Erica and Felice, I found myself completely along for the ride even when the film gets weird in the third act. Fortunately by then, Christina has entered the mix and Bogliano has set the stage in such a way that I was nothing short of completely in when it’s revealed how it can be reversed. That combined with the interview – that should honestly be a documentary unto itself, makes this a must buy for fans of Lindberg and those curious about her career renaissance. To me it’s a bittersweet package, because while Lindberg reveals the sad reality behind why she stepped away from acting, you can at least see she was welcomed back with open arms.
[Q&A] REBEL Directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah Discuss the Real Life Inspirations Behind their Exploration of ISIS and the Radicalization of Muslim Youth
Rebel the latest by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah (Bad Boys for Life, Ms. Marvel and Batgirl) which premiered at 2022 Cannes Film Festival opens in theaters TODAY and has the directors utilizing their skillset in the action genre, to tell a very personal and moving story this time around. Rebel focuses on Kamal Wasaki (Aboubakr Bensaihi) an idealistic Belgian rapper who after getting busted for drugs in his home country flees to Syria to volunteer to help the victims of the war. Soon after he is kidnapped by ISIS where he is forced to shoot their propaganda videos thanks to his experience shooting his own hip-hop videos. Then one day to prove his loyalty, he is charged to kill a US soldier in front of the camera. When this clip is played on the news his family is reluctantly brought into the story.
While Kamal’s mother (Lubna Azabal) struggles with what drove her eldest son down that path that has branded her an outcast in her community. She starts to notice Kamal’s younger brother Nassim(Amir El Arbi) has become the target of local ISIS recruiters who wish to use his brother and video games to lure in him. Rebel looks to tell a story of war, radicalization and family that’s unflinching in its deception of the atrocities of war, while not losing site of the very humanity of people trapped in these conflicts. The director’s turn in what is easily one of the best films, which is unlike anything that’s ever tackled this material. Interspersed in the film’s narrative are musical interludes that manage to dig into the character, showing us Kamal’s inner struggles in a way that is usually associated with monologues, but instead showing us the world through his eyes.
In anticipation for the film’s release I got to speak with both Adil and Bilall about Rebel, dig a bit into the film and its very real-life inspirations and of course ask about Batgirl.
So you’ve directed Bad Boys for Life, Batgirl for the DCU, MS. MARVEL and now REBEL, that’s some pretty impressive range. What inspired you to tackle the much more challenging and personal story this time around, rather than another blockbuster?
Adil El Arbi: We love all, all kinds of movies, but this is a story that was so personal and that we’ve been working on throughout our Hollywood career. I think this is also the best movie we ever made, which is like the combination of everything that we learned, whether it’s in Hollywood, or in Belgium.
But for Bilall it was something very personal for him.
Bilall Fallah: I come from a neighborhood with the highest percentage of young Belgian Muslims that went to Syria. So I really saw it firsthand. I saw people I went to school with that I know as friends, I saw them leave. And then to see all the attacks in Europe, it was really painful to see and these guys that are just like us. They have the same background. They’re Belgium, Moroccan Muslims, and to see them in ISIS videos, it was like really disconnecting. We really wanted to understand what is happening and understand what this radicalization comes from, and how it affected not just the whole Muslim community, but also the whole world.
We felt like we had to tell this story, and that’s why, we decided not to go for a big commercial movie, but tell this super personal story, that I think is extremely important to tell.
Do you think with how prevalent radicalization has become on a world stage especially in America, people are more open to finally hearing the whole story of some of these ISIS recruits, because it’s never quite as simple as it seems and we see that because Kumar really didn’t sign up to be in Isis.
Adil El Arbi: Radicalization is a very universal story and it’s not necessarily only connected with a certain religion or ideology. When you watch movies about Muslim extremism, you would sometimes think, oh, it’s just Islam radicalism and that’s not how it is. (But) it’s much more complex than that. It functions as a cult or even as a criminal organization, as a mafia and ISIS used all the techniques of social media, of propaganda – making those slick videos and making it look like a video game and giving a sense of community to a young audience.
It’s something that extremism uses – that false sense of community. An individual might be not important in society or think he’s not important, but when he is part of that extremist group, all of a sudden he’s important. He’s working on something bigger than himself, and that is something that is true for not just Islam, but also for far right extremism, and all other kinds of extremism. ISIS was the first big internet terrorist group that perfected it.
You previously worked with your lead Abu on BLACK, and he’s back in the lead on Rebel and it’s an emotionally vulnerable performance, that’s the gateway for the audience into this world. How did you work with him on that performance and was it hard for Abu to give himself over to the role of Kumar because he definitely takes you through his journey?
Adil El Arbi: We consider Rebel to be really a historical document, in the same way that the Vietnam movies of Oliver Stone are a document of that era. It is trying to understand how it was inside ISIS, how the behind the scenes worked. A lot of these guys, they started out just like a lot of people that go to Ukraine to volunteer now. They started out with this ideology of trying to save people, trying to be a hero. But then all of a sudden this gets sucked in by this organization. It’s like a mafia, you cannot get out of it unless you die.
For Abu Bacca, who plays Kamal, it is very personal to him too, because he grew up in Moerbeke, the neighborhood where a lot of those that went on to ISIS guys grew up. He knew personally a lot of these guys, that eventually became part of ISIS and terrorists.
It’s labeled as the terrorist neighborhood of Europe, basically.
Bilall Fallah: He (Abu) felt like this label was an injustice to not just his community, but also to the whole Muslim community. He felt like he had to tell this story from a real deep human aspect and he portrayed it so well, because he knows it inside out. He knew these guys and he’s also a rapper. So casting him for us felt obvious.
The subject matter is so grim here, were the musical interludes always part of the narrative? I mean somehow they really managed to work and Abu really imbues them with his performance.
Adil El Arbi:In 2013, 2014, (when we started the project) we always wanted to put music in it because it was the best way we thought to convey the madness and the emotion, that pure narrative and dialogue could not. Music, poetry and dance touches the audience on another level, even if you do not understand the lyrics.
Music is such an important aspect of the Muslim Arab culture, whereas ISIS was radically against that. They were against rap, music, female voices and dance. So if you’re gonna make a movie against ISIS, you have a musical component. It’s also a way to get really inside the heads of the character and Aboubakr Bensaihi, who is very musical in his mind, also gives this kind of Arabian Nights vibe to the story.
It was a risk, obviously, we were not a hundred percent sure if it would work out. So we had a plan to edit the movie without it just in case. But once we edited together and we saw how emotionally it resonated in the heart of the audience, we felt, okay, we are on the right track. We keep it in.
That said, were there any you had to cut?
Adil El Arbi:(Laughs) That’s all we had because while doing those scenes, we understood why musicals are mostly Hollywood productions. Because it’s very hard to do and very expensive.(Laughs)
The action here is on par with your other work, but you really manage to imbue it with a weight of consequence and purpose. Was it hard to not to eclipse the emotional beats of the film and not overwhelm that story?
Adil El Arbi: I think the fact that we had this experience of Bad Boys for Life, the Jerry Bruckheimer Action School, we had this skill set to be able to focus and really dig deep on the characters. Our approach was always however big the situation we stay very close to our characters. We experience every moment with them. So the audience feels the danger and, and feels all of that cruelty and the harshness of the war scenes.
That definitely translates, because the film is very grim and it definitely doesn’t shy away from anything. I’m still haunted by that ending. Was that always the way you were gonna end the film?
Adil El Arbi: Well, the movie is a recollection of several real stories that we heard. One of the most heartbreaking was the story of a guy who was forced by ISIS to shoot his own mother. It’s like child soldiers in Africa, you heard similar stories. So all these separate stories resonated on a very emotional level to us. So we felt like this is the natural consequence, the natural ending of the movie.
Finally, as a fan of your work and being a comic book fan, I have to ask about Batgirl? What was that experience like, will we ever see it?
Adil El Arbi: Well, you know, we like to say, you wanna know what Bat Girl would’ve been like, well watch the most recent movie right before that. It was Rebel.
You know, the thing is that it’s still a mystery. I’m still not a hundred percent sure what happened, one day maybe we’ll write a book about it.
I would read that!
Adil El Arbi: But without a doubt, it’s the biggest disappointment of our career, obviously. Because, you wanna make a movie for the DC fandom, you know, they are, they are our boss. So we felt like they are the guys and girls that eventually should decide whether a movie is good or bad. They didn’t get the chance to do that. We didn’t get our day in court and, and make our case, that’s kind of unfinished business. But we go back and forth on that sometimes. We’re very sad and frustrated on one hand, but on the other, we got the chance to be in Gotham.
Leslie Grace gave a fantastic performance. She gave a very human and vulnerable take on Barbara Gordon, but also a strong Barbara Gordon, somebody that really grows with flaws. But has aspirations and you look up to her. Working with Keaton, who is the ultimate Batman, that was a fanboy, dream come true. Brendan Fraser was a villain with so much, it was heartbreaking, basically, to see how he played that villain. He was very nuanced and the movie overall was very Burton-esque, but also a bit more grounded like what Nolan did.
Bilall Fallah: It was like a wintertime Batman Returns world, you could say, with a very straightforward and grounded story.
A HAUNTING IN VENICE, or How Hercule Poirot Got His Groove Back….
As someone who grew up in the UK observing David Suchet’s unparalleled take on the character, I approached Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express with hope and trepidation. The film impressed with it’s style and polish, but fell short of greatness. Two years ago Death on the Nile ran into similar issues while also being weighted down some baggage surrounding members of the cast. While flawed, both showcased Branagh’s passion for these ventures into Agatha Christie’s famous literary creation, as well as his adeptness at bringing the titular star to life. A series of movies that entertain, and perhaps feel like a season staple for family viewing. A Haunting in Venice, continues this trend (although not necessarily centered around the holiday you might thing), while also delivering Branagh’s most accomplished and adventurous adaptation yet.
Scripted by Michael Green (the previous two entries, Blade Runner 2047, Logan), Haunting is a loose adaptation of Christie’s novel Hallowe’en Party. The era, location, and some character tweaks makeup the bulk of the changes. The opening sees Poirot seconded to Venice, exiling himself from the public, and from the sleuthing pursuits that have made him a worldwide name. His occasional jaunts around the city are facilitated by an an Italian bodyguard (Riccardo Scamarcio), who intercepts the advances of those who dare to seek out the detective’s services. One day, old friend and crime novelist Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey) turns up on his doorstep. Her series of crime books inspired by Poirot’s exploits made them both a household name, and in search of inspiration she has stumbled across something she cannot explain, and is looking to puncture the mystery with Poirot’s perspective. She paints a case intriguing enough to draw him out of retirement, at least for one night. A family enveloped by tragedy, a long rumored haunted location, and a mystic who demonstrates unerring insight into hidden events. During a Halloween night séance, an attendee is identified as being responsible for a believed suicide in this home one year earlier. Shortly after, a guest is found murdered. Connecting the two, Poirot seals the storm lashed palazzo, holding all survivors within its walls overnight, as he looks to uncover the truth being both deaths.
At the root of things is a young girl, Alicia Drake (Rowan Robinson) a bout of mental illness, apparently threw herself rom the balcony of her bedroom, into the treacherous canals of Venice below. More than a crime tale, it’s a ghost story. The guests at that circle, all haunted by the loss of this girl, or by something else from their past. The grieving mother, Rowena (Kelly Reilly), the housekeeper Olga (Camille Cottin), even her fired up ex-fiancé Maxime (Kyle Allen). Also in attendance is the family doctor, Leslie (Jamie Dornan), a man traumatized from his time one the front lines and now heavily reliant on his precocious young son Leopold (Jude Hill) for emotional support. Amidst it all is this is the beguiling medium, Joyce Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh), and her assistants Nicholas (Ali Khan) and Desdemona (Emma). Seems to puncture the veil between worlds in an eerie sequence that sets this whodunnit in motion.
Refreshingly, this isn’t a mystery that isn’t overly complicated. Instead, these people and the visceral emotions of it all front and center. These haunting traumas run from the loss of a child, to the loss of a love, PTSD after serving in World War 2, and even one of the guests own ability to commune with the dead. Even Poirot himself is not immune to the cloud that hangs over us and affects our perceptions, our insights, and our actions. Bringing his own pain and disconnect from life to the proceedings ties him to events emotionally, and also connects back to his mythology laid down in the previous two chapters. The cast all turn in performances that don’t just meet, but enhance the tone and timbre of the film. Branagh in particular has this down pat, peeling back new layer’s of this character’s psyche, and with the wry comedy he delivers proving the lifeblood of the film. Yeoh’s monologue early in the film is a standout, Dornan manages to pack an emotional heft into his performance, and Reilly’s assured turn should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed her career.
It’s a tight film, perhaps overly so. While a 104 minute runtime is appreciated, some of the scenes and character arcs would benefit from a little breathing room. This aside, the snappy pace really adds to the rather frenetic feel as the tale unfolds in the dark, twisting confines of this palazzo. Dark but without losing detail, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos showcases the stylish but minimal production design that reflects the melancholic mood of the piece. Branagh threads that period feel with a pulpy horror lilt, wheeling out old tropes such as jump scares, ominous bangs, lingering shots on dark corners, sheets draped over statues, jump scares, and good old sights in the mirror. Handheld cameras, wide-lensed shots, snappy transitions, and Dutch angles add to the off-kilter feeling pervades the film, and Poirot’s place within it. In front of and from behind the camera, this is clearly a labor of love for Branagh who by shaking off some of the formality of the series, hits his stride with a Poirot outing that is intriguing, playful, and unabashedly fun.
A Haunting in Venice opens on September 13th