Wednesday 14 October 2020

Films from Grimmfest 2020 Part 2: Reviews of The Unhealer (USA 2020), An Ideal Host (Australia 2020), I Am Ren (Poland 2019), Rent-A-Pal (USA 2020), Monstrous (USA 2020), Urubú (Spain 2019) and Fried Barry (South Africa 2020)

So here's the last seven of my coverage of the majority of the features at Grimmfest. Part 1 is here:

The Unhealer (USA 2020: Dir Martin Guigui) While some movies fetishise the style of the 1980s, Argentinian director Martin Guigui continues to his rather eclectic career CV with this strange throwback movie whose story is straight from an 80s video rental.

Lance Henriksen is Pflueger, a faith healer doing the rounds of the mid west, looking like Dr Emmett Brown from Back to the Future (1985). He's stolen some magic from an Indian burial site, which gives its possessor special powers, much to the annoyance of first Nation chief Red Elk (Branscombe Richmond). Meanwhile young Kelly (Elijah Nelson) is the kind of kid that gets kicked around at school, in part because he has a tendency to eat the packaging of food rather than the food itself. Mum Bernice (Natasha Henstridge) is understandably concerned. She's seen Pflueger in action and invites him to their house to treat Kelly. But what happens instead is that the power transfers from the healer to the boy. And as a result Kelly works out that he's become immortal, with the ability to recover from any injury; any harm done to him is immediately felt by the harmer. Time to show those bullies who's who, and also reacquaint himself with class cutie Dominique (Kayla Carlson). But the bullies get their revenge, and set about messing with the trailer home Kelly shares with mum. The prank backfires however, causing the home to explode (with Bernice inside); and when Kelly finds out what they've done, he gets really mad.

The Unhealer is a strange mix of PG style wish fulfilment movie, with added gore (it's actually rated 18 and with good reason). The joint morals of 'be careful what you wish for' and 'absolute power corrupts absolutely' thread through the film, and the old native burial site plot device is brought out of retirement. That's not to say that this isn't hugely enjoyable, because it is; hey who doesn't like watching movies where the little guy gets all buff and beats on the class gits? The Unhealer is aided by some great turns, particularly Henriksen, albeit he isn't in it for long, and Henstridge as Kelly's worried mum; Elijah Nelson is also convincing as the weakling turned superboy Kelly. This is an enjoyable old school movie which plays like one of those shiny mid career Wes Craven movies like Deadly Friend (1986). Recommended.

An Ideal Host (Australia 2020: Dir Robert Woods) Squeaky clean couple Liz (Nadia Collins) and Jackson (Evan Williams) have just moved into their new home in a remote part of Australia and are about to hold a dinner party for a group of friends, with the whole evening timed to the last second. Among the group who arrive is Daisy (Naomi Brockwell), who has a history of upsetting such gatherings with a loose mouth and a penchant for booze. 

Predictably as the wine is opened Daisy acts true to form, and Liz's plans for the perfect evening are ruined. But when Daisy steps outside for some fresh air with Brett (St John Cowcher), who lives on a neighbouring farm, Brett comes on to her; she also sees something weird coming out of his mouth. Back at the house Daisy's story is seen as mere attention seeking, but the reality is far stranger than most of the guests were expecting.

This micro budget horror comedy gets its thematic inspiration from films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Carpenter's 1982 re-boot of The Thing and Jack Sholder's Hidden (1987). It may take a while to get going, but the last third is both gore soaked and inventive. The movie also benefits from a very smart script and in the case of Liz, a character who makes the highly enjoyable transition from domestic goddess to indefatigable heroine (and back again), at one point cauterising a wound using the blow torch normally deployed for browning creme brulees. 

I Am Ren aka Panacea aka Jestem Ren (Poland 2019: Dir Piotr Ryczko) Renata (Marta Król) is wife to Jan (Marcin Sztabinski) and mother to son Kamil (Olaf Marchwicki). She also believes that she's an android purchased for the family; not named Renanta but Ren, an acronym for Regenerative Emotive Neuro-being, and she has a barcode on the bottom of her foot to prove it. When we first meet her, Renata has undergone an unspecified traumatic event which may have involved being violent to Kamil, although her version of events was that she had suffered from a critical systems failure. Is this true, or is Renata just a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown?

Jan persuades the household to stay with a family psychologist. When there Renata meets a woman called Ela (Marieta Zukowska), who introduces herself as a supervisor, but who also has a barcode on her foot and confesses that she too is an android. Or is she just another patient, and has obtained her information by eavesdropping on Renanta's counselling sessions? Ela also thinks the bruises on Kamil's body, attributed to Renata, were actually caused by Jan. Renata also comes to believe that the clinic they're attending is some kind of de-programming centre for faulty androids. Is she there to get better, or to be dismantled?

Ren's story is consistent, but often contradicted by events: in one scene she tells teenage Kamil that she's only been with him for three years, but he shows her footage of the two of them together when he was a baby. As the movie progresses the narrative doesn't become any less occluded, but the viewer is increasingly left to choose in which version of the truth they are prepared to invest.

"My only task is to provide them happiness. And security...I am here on special terms." This is Ren's assessment of her worth, and Ryczko's strange film, full of unreliable narrators, can be seen as a visual essay on poor mental health, a dissection of a woman's identity in relation to mother and wife roles (the director dedicates the film to his own, presumably deceased, mother), or a disturbing and downbeat sci fi movie. It's visually cool, almost like a fictional lab experiment. But Król's performance as Renata makes the film; it may be hard to care for her, but it's impossible not to feel sympathetic.

Rent-A-Pal (USA 2020: Dir Jon Stevenson) Set in 1984, David (Brian Landis Perkins) lives in the basement of his mother Lucille's house in Denver. She has dementia and he is her sole carer, a position made tricky because of her historic violence towards him which, now, because of her age, manifests itself in stream of angry put downs. David is 40 years old and very lonely. He subscribes to a rather mercenary VHS based dating service called 'Video    Rendezvous' and, when he's not looking after mum, spends his time viewing tapes of dating hopefuls. While recording an updated video at the VR office he picks up a videotape called 'Rent A Pal.' The tape features a character called Andy (Will Wheaton), an unemployed guy from Davenport, who acts as a video companion to the person watching. Andy asks questions, allows for the viewer's response, and a relationship of sorts is formed. David is initially sceptical but gradually Andy's 'winning' personality leads to him considering his on tape chum as a true friend.

Meanwhile at the VR office, a match has been found for David: Lisa (Amy Rutledge) is a carer herself and likes that he is a carer too. They arrange to meet and seem to get on. But David's grip on reality is beginning to loosen as his 'friendship' with Andy deepens, achieved by constant playing of the 'Rent a Pal' video. "You are entitled to the things you want" Andy urges. and David comes to believe his teachings.

As an anxiety trigger, Rent-A-Pal is one hour and fifty minutes of sweaty palms, shallow breaths and borderline dissociation; and that could equally describe David or the viewer. This is a very uncomfortable watch, shot through with mordant humour and waves of sadness, whether it's the plight of Lucille (a terrific performance from Kathleen Brady), unable to distinguish between David or his late father Frank, or David's near chance at true love with Lisa. It is perhaps inevitable where the film will end up - the whole thing feels like an exercise in ratcheting up tension - but it's to the credit of the actors that nothing is overplayed. The star of the show is Perkins, who plays David not as a pathetic weakling but as a man trapped by duty, whose only requirement is to love and be loved. But Rent-A-Pal demonstrates how difficult that can be.

Monstrous (USA 2020: Dir Bruce Wemple) The Adirondacks are, apparently, alive with the sounds of...well, bigfoot. The area has been the source of local legends since 1970s, particularly focused around the village of Whitehall, NY (a real place which has its own statue of a bigfoot in the centre of town). In Lansing, Michigan, Sylvia (Anna Shields, who wrote the film) is with her friend Jamie (Grant Shumacher), a guy who does the whole 'X Files' thing (he even has an 'I Want to Believe' poster on the wall) and has been doing his homework on disappearances in the Adirondacks, an area where their friend Dana also went missing. Jamie's convinced there's a sasquatch behind the disappearances, and arranges to follow Dana's trail, hooking up with Alex (Rachel Finninger) the girl who Dana gave a lift to and who has a house near Whitehall. Jamie bails on the morning of departure so Sylvia decides to do it alone. Turns out Alex is a girl. Turns out they're both not into boys, and when they arrive at Alex's house, turns out they're into each other.

But Alex is secretive; she carries a hunting knife, and there's a weird humming sound coming from inside her home. Looks like Alex knows more than she's letting on, but things get more difficult when Jamie follows them, and finds out that his first hunch about the reasons behind the disappearances was dead on.

The poster for Monstrous advertises itself as a monster movie, but it's clear that there's more than one type of monster in this flick. And it's to be congratulated for attempting to do something different with the standard 'bigfoot' movie, which to be honest is pretty limited as a concept to start with.

But this is rather scrappily put together, particularly towards the end of the movie. The narrative is disjointed (and there's a prologue which kind of gives the game away) and to be honest apart from a few practical effects there's little to recommend it. Sorry.

Urubú (Spain 2019: Dir Alejandro Ibáñez) Ibáñez is the son of Narciso Ibañez Serrador, the Spanish film director responsible for, among other movies, the chilling Who Can Kill a Child? (1976), which posited that very question when two English tourists confront a gang of murderous children on an island.

Ibáñez Jr frames his 'reimagining' of dad's work with end credits that list the frightening statistics on children born into poverty and war, and infant mortality rates in developing countries; as a documentary maker it is perhaps unsurprising that he was inspired by his father's film and sought to contextualise his remake in this way.

Tomás (Carlos Arrutia), a nature photographer, is about to embark on a two week trip to the Rio Negro area of the Amazon with his wife Eva (Clarice Alves) and their young daughter Andrea (Jullie D'Arrigo). His aim is to photograph the rare Albino Urubú bird. It's clear from the opening scenes that Tomás is neglectful of both wife and daughter; his only concerns seem to be his camera equipment and the quest for the perfect photograph, so much so that Andrea spends all her time plugged into her tablet, and Eva, starved of attention, becomes attracted to Captain Nauta, in charge of the boat that will take them to their jungle accommodation. 

When they reach their destination the isolation of their location starts to get to Eva, and Laura begins to be more truculent and difficult. It's a region which has seen a number of fisherman mysteriously go missing, and locals are superstitious (one even gives Andrea a necklace for good luck). Tensions between Tomás and Eva escalate when Andrea goes missing. Distraught, they head out into unknown terrain in search of her, but while they thought they were almost alone, they are surprised to come across a small village, seemingly mostly occupied by children.

Ibáñez's documentary background is very much in evidence through lush jungle photography and some stunning wildlife footage (don't worry, there's no animal cruelty). Narratively the movie is as meandering as the Amazon itself, and most of the film is more or less a three hander of Tomás, Eva and Andrea. The soundtrack, by Arturo Díez Boscovich, does most of the dramatic heavy lifting, occasionally coming across like outtakes from a James Bond score. It's very difficult to make children appear murderous and scary. Dad may have managed it but there's little menace in Urubú. Nevertheless the sentiment behind it is sound, and the movie had a great sense of place about it. 

Fried Barry (South Africa 2020: Dir Ryan Kruger)
 Barry's not having a great day. His wife Suz (Chanelle de Jager) hates him for not providing, his son seemingly doesn't recognise him, and his creditors are giving him trouble. He's also a heroin addict, and on his way back from a bender with a fellow junkie he's abducted by aliens who carry out various, er, intrusive experiments on him. 

When he's released back to terra firma, Barry seems odd; this is because he's now being controlled by an alien, who's keen to see how they do things on earth. It probably wasn't the alien's best idea to form their experience of the third rock from the sun by hitting the sleazy back streets of a South African township: on his first night the alien, via Barry, experiences drugs, discos and sex with a prostitute (Bianka Hartenstein) that results in a 60 second pregnancy, producing a baby who very soon grows up to be a replica of Barry and who insists on mum's breast milk.

One positive side effect of the alien occupation is that Barry becomes more loving to his family. But the good times aren't bound to last: when Barry experiences violent withdrawal symptoms, a trip to hospital kicks off an episodic journey through the streets and hospitals of Cape Town as the alien within gradually melts down.

Or something. Fried Barry feels a bit like a Paul Verhoeven re-boot of Bad Boy Bubby with a bit of Enter the Void, crossed with The Man Who Fell to Earth and elements of The Greasy Strangler. A short film extended to feature length, its humour is fairly blunt and it quickly outstays its welcome: many scenes go on way too long, and the shaggy dog nature of the narrative makes it pretty uninvolving. It's also a really 'male' movie: women are either harridans or submissive sex objects, homosexuality is treated as reprehensible and poor mental health is played for laughs. I'm sure it's all very ironic and doubtless I need to lighten up, but I just felt I wasn't the target audience for this one.

No comments:

Post a Comment