Both the truth and limits of the old adage that directing is 90 percent casting can be found in Werewolves Within, a fun if middling horror-suspense-comedy with thick ribbons of whodunit mystery that sails along for quite a while on the strength of a lunatic vibe, born of its motley-crew players, before finally petering out. A loose adaptation of the VR game of the same title, the film has a roster of heavy-hitting, familiar-face bit players (Michaela Watkins, Cheyenne Jackson, What We Do in the Shadows‘ Harvey Guillen, Barry‘s Sarah Burns, Russian Doll‘s Rebecca Henderson) given comfortable room to roam within their oddball characterizations, but it connects most readily courtesy of the crackerjack chemistry of Sam Richardson and Milana Vayntrub. The erstwhile Detroiters star and AT&T commercial pitch-woman each exude barrels of charisma, and also embody highly relatable characters here — almost to the degree that one wishes the movie was more of a two-hander.
Directed by Josh Ruben (Scare Me) from a script by Mishna Wolff, the movie unfolds in the small, snowy town of Beaverfield, Vermont, where the promise of a new, job-providing pipeline has split the community in two (rapacious capitalism visiting havoc upon a town with mere dozens of residents is part of the joke, and the film’s modulated social commentary, which includes a couple digs at gun culture and isolationism). Dropped into the middle of all this angsty, swirling tension is newly arrived federal forest ranger Finn (Richardson), who finds a welcoming and informative guide in postal worker Cecily (Vayntrub). After a Wendigo-type creature fells several folks and the survivors find themselves snowed in together, recrimination and Agatha Christie-type guesswork ensue — plus more bloodshed, of course.
Once its basic premise and set-up are established, the movie’s energy flags a bit, truth be told. But what Werewolves Within lacks in home-stretch lift-off (the end twist will seem one of only two possible to those prize narrative surprise), it generally makes up for with its richly sketched ensemble. This is a movie rooted in character conflict and banter, and Wolff’s screenplay grades out above-average in both of those categories. The movie’s Blu-ray presentation, with optional English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles, features a 2.39:1 aspect ratio, and a 5.1 DTS-HG audio track which more than adequately handles the movie’s dialogue and goosing sound effects.
Following on the heels of recent groundbreaking animated films from China like Ne Zha and Jiang Ziya comes The Monkey King: Reborn, which is based on one of the most popular and enduring figures of classic Chinese literature. There have of course been many, many big and small screen versions of this tale over the years, including a recent film series starring Aaron Kwok alongside internationally-renowned figures like Donnie Yen, Chow Yun-fat, and Gong Li.
Into this crowded marketplace steps The Monkey King: Reborn, an animated offering directed by Wang Yun Fei and featuring an all-new English language dub for its home video release from Well Go USA. The story centers on the short-tempered title character, a mischievous trickster who, while visiting a temple with his master Tang Monk, eats a sacred fruit and unleashes the ancient King of Demons. When the latter kidnaps Tang Monk as revenge for his lengthy imprisonment, Monkey King and his friends have three days to free him before the Earth is overrun by malevolent forces.
The action here is fluid, fairly fun, and certainly free from menace. With its heavy emphasis on self-sacrifice for the greater good, the movie could be somewhat credibly read as a political parable for its home country. But it’s all rendered with enough artistry and skill to make moot that concern (if it was one), and the third act lands with an emotional sincerity which transcends more cynical interpretations. For parents looking to perhaps introduce their kids to the reality that animation knows no borders, and can extend beyond the comfy confines of Disney and Pixar, The Monkey King: Reborn serves up enough differentiation still within an easily graspable fantasy folklore template that it should be well received by most curious kids. Well Go USA’s Blu-ray presentation features 5.1 Dolby digital and 2.0 stereo audio tracks.
A fairly surprising streak of emotional investment and potential metaphor also anchors Seobok: Project Clone, a South Korean import from director Lee Yong Zoo which was a solid commercial performer in its homeland release last spring. Blending science-fiction and action, the story centers around a former special agent, Min Gi-heon (Train to Busan‘s Gong Yoo), who’s called in for a high-priority mission: to escort the world’s first human clone (Park Bo Gum) to safety. Naturally, once word leaks out that Seo Bok might hold the key to eternal life, all sorts of parties have a vested interest in capturing him for their own purposes.
With a sometimes-choppy screenplay credited to four different writers, Seobok: Project Clone isn’t a film which necessarily spends a lot of time rooting down into its science in granular detail. But its special effects work acquits itself and, at 115 minutes, the movie does divvy up and balance its action sequences with some exploration of both masculine identity crisis and modern societal detachment more broadly. These elements, as well as the moral questioning inherent in its premise, help make the film a treat for intellectually curious genre film fans. Well Go USA’s Blu-ray release, presented in 16:9 widescreen, features DTS-HD master audio in two options — Korean and English language — optional English subtitles, and, of course, a selection of trailers.
On the decidedly lesser side of genre movie intrigue arrives Amityville Uprising, with a thud. A horror-thriller that leans into its violence and gore, writer-director-costar Thomas J. Churchill’s movie unfolds at a military base, where a chemical blast sets off a supernatural disaster. As a beleaguered Sergeant Dash (Scott C. Roe) tries in vain to maintain order, a poorly rendered-CGI toxic acid rain comes down, stripping away the flesh of anyone unfortunate enough to be trapped in it. Oh, and another undesirable side effect? It causes the dead to rise again. Ergo we have a sort of low-rent zombie version of Assault on Precinct 13, with the “Amityville” moniker slapped lazily on it. Some of the practical effects here are okay, but the writing, staging, pacing, and acting here are all subpar (Churchill certainly indulges some of the wrong performers), quickly stripping this budget offering of even any down-and-dirty appeal. Lionsgate’s DVD release features a 16:9 widescreen presentation along with a 5.1 Dolby digital audio track.
French cinema has a rich tradition of exploring sexuality with more candor and nuance than American studio fare. Another recent supporting case in this point: Curiosa, an intriguing historical drama from director Lou Jeunet which released theatrically in Europe just prior to Noémie Merlant’s breakout in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire. A love triangle set against a backdrop of sexual exploration, and based on real-life events, the movie does a good job of exploring the psychological motivations and lasting ramifications of desire both diverted and indulged — all while not shying away from the steamier aspects of its narrative.
Merlant stars as Marie de Heredia, a 19th century Parisian poet who finds herself madly in love with Pierre Louÿs (Niels Schneider, giving off not-slight Pedro Pascal vibes), a fellow poet and photographer on the verge of grander fame. Despite their mutual affection, societal dictates keep them separated, and Marie agrees to a marriage of convenience with his friend, the buttoned-up but decent Henri de Régnier (Benjamin Lavernhe). The pair continue a torrid affair, though — often played out in front of his camera. How long, however, can each party be satisfied with this arrangement?
The acting here elevates a solid screenplay. Schneider, Lavernhe, and Merlant all have a rapport which makes these characters feel fully dimensional, and the latter in particular brings an intensity of feeling to Marie’s often conflicting emotions, from the thrill of brushing fingers with Pierre in presence of her husband to the curiosity about what Pierre’s captured images of her (and other women) mean to her connection to him. Film Movement’s DVD release, presented in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio with complementary French language Dolby digital 5.1 and 2.0 stereo audio tracks with English subtitles
Written by: Brent Simon