Tuesday, February 28, 2017

February Quick Picks and Pans

Under the Shadow (2016) Set in 1980s Tehran during the Iraq-Iran conflict, writer/director Babak Anvari’s multifaceted debut feature film deftly balances text and subtext. After Shideh’s (Narges Rashidi) husband is sent to the front, she’s left alone in a tenement building with her daughter and a handful of residents, under the constant threat of air attacks. Her worst fears are realized when an Iraqi missile crashes into her roof. Although it fails to explode, the projectile heralds the arrival of another form of wrath, a malevolent djinn.

While all of the performances are superb, Rashidi really shines as the conflicted Shideh, who grapples with her inner demons as she confronts a literal demon. Under the Shadow goes far beyond the surface, eschewing simple jump scares as it examines the main character’s existential fear of not being in control of her life. It also works by exploiting the fears that any parent or caregiver can relate to, as we attempt to keep our children/loved ones safe in an increasingly uncertain world. I’m not sure how this film slipped through the cracks, but now that it’s available on Netflix, there’s little reason to miss it.

* Thanks to Amber (Follow her on @tangoineden) for the stellar suggestion.

Rating: ****½ stars. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

April and the Extraordinary World (2015) This French animated film, based on Jacques Tardi’s work, takes its inspiration from the stories of Jules Verne and Hayao Miyazaki’s animation style. The steampunk tale is set in an alternate 1941, where a long line of Napoleons preside over the country, and steam power is the basis for most technology. April is a young scientist, who against the will of the oppressive government, carries on her family legacy, to create an elixir of life. Co-directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci take a whimsical approach to the subject matter, but unlike their American counterparts, they don’t feel the need to fill the screen with endless throwaway gags or dizzying action sequences every few minutes. There’s more imagination on display than a dozen lesser so-called “family” films (I love the steam-powered skyway from Paris to Berlin), and a great choice for kids or perennial kids (like me).

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Train Man (Densha Otoko) (2005) Shôsuke Murakami’s charming romantic comedy (based on a novel by Hitori Nakano) presents nothing new under the sun, but what it does, it does very well. After a chance meeting with a cute girl (Miki Nakatani) on a commuter train, a socially inept 22-year-old otaku gets advice from his online pals (all of whom are equally clueless) about how to win her over. Takayuki Yamada is very believable and oddly appealing as Densha Otoko, who attempts to overcome his awkward nature in spite of himself. We can’t help but root for our protagonist, who stumbles along the way, but is never down for the count. Train Man inspires us to foster our real life relationships, but reminds us to never underestimate the power of online interactions.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Human Lanterns (1982) Leave it to the Shaw Brothers to present a kung fu film with an Ed Gein-inspired twist. Chao Chun-Fang, a lantern craftsman (Lieh Lo), plots revenge against all who have oppressed him, pitting two rival noblemen against each other. Meanwhile, he perfects a secret method for creating his decorative lanterns, fashioning them from human skin. As with many Shaw Brothers movies, the set and costume designs are top notch. The makeup effects aren’t quite as convincing, but they’re still unnerving to watch as Chun-Fang peels the skin from his victims. It’s a crazy action/horror hybrid that works in spite of itself. If you’re tired of the same old thing, this movie might just scratch that itch.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video

Squirm (1976) As one of the many nature’s wrath flicks to spring from the 1970s, writer/director Jeff Liebererman’s movie distinguishes itself with some decent character development and a few low rent scares. Set in rural Georgia, mayhem ensues when a downed powerline charges the ground with thousands of volts of electricity, unleashing bloodthirsty worms that ooze out of the mud. A city boy (Don Scardino) visits his country girlfriend (Patricia Pearcy), and is forced to contend with the wriggly menace himself, along with a hateful local sheriff (Peter MacLean). Modern horror filmmakers could learn something from Squirm’s simple approach and slow buildup.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video

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