Friday, April 20, 2018

Rampage & Isle of Dogs: Nostalgia and Da' Feelz


It was the summer of 1987, the horseflies were biting and the river was cold but I had enough gumption to go out and collect bottles, mow lawns, and pick weeds for a number of houses around the neighborhood. I usually took my cash down to the local video store, rented a movie, had a slice of pizza, and rode my bike home- but sometimes I had a little something extra for the video games in the backroom. Paperboy, some Indiana Jones game, the ever-shifting Pinball machine, the four player dungeon crawl game I forgot the name of, and Rampage. The goal was simple… destroy the city. Smash the buildings, eat the people, destroy the tanks and jets and helicopters, and get more points than your opponents. It was a three player game with a lizard, a gorilla, and a giant wolf. Simple.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars in the film adaptation of that game and the simple storyline is given a few zings and whistles regarding plot, but the film remains as simple and as enjoyable as the game itself. He’s the caretaker of an albino gorilla named George, and an accident aboard an orbiting satellite brings a few samples down to earth and infecting three animals with altered DNA. Giant monsters, destroyed cities, and general mayhem.

Look, this isn’t a great movie. It’s actually pretty stupid and the stunts are outlandish, the contrivances are silly, but the movie never tries to take itself too seriously and the action is big enough to satisfy fans of the boom and bombastic. But if you’re looking for Shakespeare in the park, then just go to the park. This is just a fun movie for the sake of a little nostalgia and a lot of silliness.

6.5 out of 10.

Isle of Dogs

I was not in the mood. Wes Anderson’s animated film looked like a sappy love letter to dogs and dog lovers everywhere and I was just not in the mood. My wife picked the movie out of a handful that were showing, and it was the least annoying option for me and so we went to the movies and I sat in a theater and mentally folded my arms with a sad little spoiled pout. The movie started…

Atari is a twelve year old orphan whose Uncle is the mayor of Megasaki, a city of Japan’s near-future. A recent epidemic has stricken the city’s dog population, and ordinance has banished them to an off shore island. This includes Atari’s faithful dog, Spot. The boy makes a daring rescue attempt, aided by a rogue pack of dogs. The five go on a journey to find Spot and, perhaps, undermine the efforts of Atari’s uncle.

Almost two hours later, I had tears in my eyes and an odd smile in my heart. The film wasn’t JUST a love letter to dogs and dog lovers. The movie explored deep feelings of loyalty, honor, compassion, and love- it weighed in on society’s ills in placing trust with a misguided leadership and entertained throughout. The film took daring risks, choosing to allow many of the human characters to speak in their native Japanese with English translators and the rare subtitle. This film was pure joy from beginning to end.

10 out of 10 and a must watch.

PS: I remember the name of the game. And if you guess below you'll win some kind of "no prize" from me. It won't be shipped, it won't be mailed, it won't be of any value, and it won't be a tangible thing you can hold. But you can name the game and be all sorts of big and bad.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

BOXCAR at Paper Wing Theatre

The Mexican border along the United States is not an easy topic to discuss or approach in this day and age. With our President and his supporters demanding that we "build a wall" and others demanding a "comprehensive immigration policy", no one ever really tackles the serious issues surrounding the people. In Sylvia Gonzalez's "Boxcar (El Vagon)", the issue is approached from a much more personal and direct approach when five travelers are trapped in the sweltering desert heat and two border patrol officers investigate. Inspired by a very real tragic event from the mid-80s, Boxcar places a human face on a political hot button that haunts many countries today.

Full Disclosure: This is not my usual cup of tea. Let me get that right out of the way- I am at a stage in my life where I try to keep from commenting on hot button shows that have a political issue. I've actively avoided commenting where any comment I make could be misconstrued and taken as offense. But having a few friends in the cast, I wanted to support them and see their performances. I wasn't going to write a single word. What happened, however, is that the claustrophobic nature of the play wormed it's way into me and sucked me in despite my hesitation. This is, at it's core, a deeply scarring horror experience as we witness five men trapped in a boxcar with very little air and a sweltering desert surrounding them. And I love me some good old fashioned human HORROR. And while I'm sure many would see this as a human drama, this is very much the core of a horror story to me.

Roberto (Christopher Lopez) and Bill (Erik Fleming) are two border patrol agents interviewing one of the five men trapped in the boxcar, a Salvadoran teen named Noel (Emilio Sapien). He relates the story of his passage north for the two men- a story that eventually leads to his arrival at the boxcar and his introduction to the other four men. All five have paid the Coyotes to smuggle them across the border to the United States, and this leg of the journey involves travel along the rails, across a desert, in a locked boxcar.

We meet the pious Francisco (Alexander Henson), the jovial Huero (Jason Roeder), the irreverent Pepe (Andres Reyes), and the indomitable Manuel (Jose Miguel). The four men quickly bond over their stories of travel to the United States, taking Noel under their wing and offering him advice on women, studies, finding work, and avoiding deportation. But the heat is steadily rising and they are in greater danger than they realize. Everyone delivers on their performances, giving the audience every reason in the world to sympathize with each of them.

A great weight lies on Manuel, however- a man of humor, intelligence, and compassion. He is the one who allows the door to be locked and he is the one who has to try and urge the others through their journey, to try and find a way to survive. Jose Miguel's performance is top notch, and it's no surprise to see him open the show with an early interaction with Patrol Officer Roberto. Both characters are central to the themes being explored as Roberto is forced, by duty, to send Miguel back in the opening moments of our play.

Christopher Lopez hits hard with his own performance. the second generation child of a Mexican immigrant, Roberto questions his duty, his past, and the very system that he enforces. He's also forced to realize that there are no easy answers. He butts heads with his partner, he wrestles with his conscience, and he's ultimately left to make a choice.

The entire package is brilliantly produced and directed by Linda Felice. She makes very deliberate lighting choices and develops a sound track that works in cohesion with the performances to lure the audience into a very emotional experience.

10 out of 10. And I don't make that rating lightly. 

Monday, April 9, 2018


A Quiet Place

Directed by and Starring John Krasinksi (The Office), A Quiet Place tip toed into theaters and the silence was deafening. Heh? HEH? Play on words… ain’t I the clever bastard? Eh? Anyway, moving along- we are following a rural family of five (With one on the way) in the aftermath of some sort of devastating invasion. The ldest daughter was born deaf, so the family communicates via sign language, they’re tip-toeing on sand, they’re trying to see to their medical needs in the wasteland around them and they are desperately afraid of the slightest noise. It’s the noise that attracts… something.

A tense film that smothers the theater in silence, “A Quiet Place” pulls no punches and stretches taut the razor wire through your nerves. Every jostle, every breeze, every single creek of a leaf or sharp intake of breath could mean certain doom. Kasinski proves himself with an adept skill in true fear and delivers the goods for emotional pay-offs. As a father myself, it’s very easy to identify with Kasinksi’s character as he’s forced to make necessary decisions to keep his family safe. He’s a good man with a good heart, but his nerves are exposed and raw. He is joined by his real life wife, Emily Blunt, as a mother who is trying to plan for the birth of a brand new CRYING baby and trying desperately to preserve the lives of all her children. Millicent Simmonds, a deaf actress, plays the eldest daughter and carries much of the emotional weight of the film- Her malfunctioning cochler implant means she can’t hear what noise she could be making- she can’t hear the danger approaching, but she is resourceful and intelligent and she wants to do more than her father seems ready to teach. Noah Jupe and Cade Woodward are the younger brothers, each carrying a different responsibility to the emotional devastation the family is experiencing.

10 out of 10, A Quiet Place is a perfect horror experience with deep chills, tension, and an emotional climax that releases the gauge with explosive relief. Don’t miss this one.


Based on the runaway bestselling novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One takes all the nostalgia from the novel and shuffles the story up a little and recreates the intended feel of the pop culture love letter. Steven Spielberg’s latest film virtually boils with Easter Egg references, planting the bulk of the film’s narrative in the Virtual Reality landscape of The OASIS where anybody can be whatever they want to be. Fantasy fulfillment is just a click away. Not only has it become a form of entertainment for the overpopulated earth, it’s become the primary economic resource with large corporations “mining” game resources and trapping indebted players with indentured servitude in the game. (Not as farfetched if you know about the World of Warcraft mining industry in third world sweat shops.) After the death of the games creator, he’s left a puzzle game behind that will allow a random player the opportunity to gain controlling shares in The OASIS and, essentially, control the world.

Tye Sheridan (X-Men: Apocalypse) is cast as Wade Watts (AKA: Parzival), a player in the game who has devoted the past several years to tracking the founders clues and attempting to solve the riddles and defeat the game in order to escape his unfortunate life amongst the dregs. Through his obsession with the life of the games founder, Wade discovers the mistakes his idol has made and ultimately comes to make decisions that will pull him away from a similar path.

The film moves along briskly and explores the nostalgic effect of pop culture, speaks lightly of the dangers of escapism, and ultimately delivers what one friend refers to a “treat for the senses” with its engaging visuals and f/x.

7.5, and a high recommend.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

RedcapJack's Rules for Reviewing...

I've posted this before, but thought I'd do a new post about it. 
1.      Review the Show you are seeing, not the show you want to see.
-         THIS is my most important rule above all others.
-         I see it all the time. A reviewer goes to see a play or a movie and they don’t like the subject matter. They don’t like the set because they hate the color brown or they think an actor is “too old” to play a role or they find a pet peeve in the show that sticks in their craw- whatever. Or they went to a show and they wanted to see Shakespeare and instead they got Sam Raimi. It is not my job to tell you about the show I wanted to see- it is my job to tell you about the show that I am seeing. If a theater decides to insert post-modern sensibilities into the tale of Romeo + Juliet, then did they do it well or was it a jumbled mess that confused everyone? If I watch “Evil Dead: The Musical”, did the actors pull it off and did the gore get the crowd excited and were the jokes hitting or is the blood not plentiful enough? My “taste” has nothing to do with what is being presented and I may not exactly BE the target audience… but the target audience may read what I am writing and I have to serve as a guidepost for whether they choose to bring their money to this product. It’s not fair of me to impart MY tastes on their decision. Only my interpretation of what is being delivered and what sensibilities I feel are being aimed for. Write about whether the show achieves what it sets out to do, nothing more and nothing less.
2.      Buy something.
-This may seem a little odd, but I honestly don’t believe that anyone has the right to say word one about a show or movie if they don’t put skin in the game. You might get a free offer to see a show, but while you are there you had better buy a concession item or two and you better not act as though you “deserve” a freebie just because you’re writing. Some people have told me that I deserve a free ticket because my writing helps to sell a show, but the truth is that I have nothing to write without the show to begin with. So I often buy my tickets- I support the arts when I can and the only time I even accept a freebie is when I simply can’t afford a ticket because I’m on a low a budget. And, even then, I occasionally scrape some funds together to see a movie or a play because I have a special interest in it. The added bonus is that I can say whatever the hell I want because I laid down some skin to watch it or see it or read it and that makes it, essentially, “mine” to do with as I choose. Buy something, for heaven’s sake.
3.      Don’t take notes during the show:
I really HATE it when I see people writing in a journal as they’re watching a show. They see something, they jot something, and they’re missing something else that’s happening. You want to keep it fresh, wait for intermission or set change or whatever- but don’t take a note in a book while you’re watching a show. You are MISSING something if you do. If you’re there in a “professional capacity”, then act like a professional and absorb the full experience before you start writing an opinion on something that might become further informed as the show progresses. I’ve read several reviews that have left me completely confused because the plot they describe is NOT the plot taking place on the stage, or  a line of dialogue is taken completely out of context solely because the writer glommed on to something and started to take a note rather than pay attention to the rest of the scene.
4.      Take a Program or Read the Credits:
This shouldn’t even need to be a rule, but here’s the thing: I’ve seen names misspelled, I’ve seen characters misidentified, and it’s annoying as hell. Even with the program, I occasionally make a mistake- but I always try to correct it in the editing. A Program for the play or the Credits of a film will often give you the most basic information you need to have in identifying who is involved with what. With the creation of IMDB, this is even easier for reviewing films because the names are there to do research on and see other projects the people are involved with.
5.      Identify and be specific-
-         I’m going to give an example of what I mean for this- I dislike James Cameron’s film “Avatar”. Not only do I dislike it on a personal level, but on a professional level as well- that doesn’t negate the fact that I realize it is an amazingly beautiful film with fantastic special effects. It doesn’t mean that I don’t acknowledge the action or that certain actors in the film do a good job of presenting the story. What it does mean is that I call out James Cameron for writing a near carbon copy script for “Dances with Wolves” or "Fern Gully" and created such a generic and passé series of driving motivations that he literally chose to use the word “unobtainium” in order to describe his MacGuffin. I’m describing precisely what I did not like about the film, precisely where I found fault, and exactly why it didn’t work for me. But I also praised precisely what I thought was incredible and worthwhile for someone who WOULD like the film and that there is value in it.
-         Too many times these writers simply try to create an art form unto themselves in tearing apart something they don’t like. They offer zero credit to anyone or anything and the review becomes about them or about their cause. I don’t have to love everything, but there was hard work put into a production and the good stuff needs to be pointed out just as much (probably more) as the bad.
6.      DO NOT SPOIL:
-         There are ways to talk about a movie or film synopsis, to talk about specific performances, to talk about specific “moments” without spoiling the rest of the film. I’ve read a number of reviews where the writers just flat out tell you the whole of the story, including the twist ending and then stared at the article wondering if I should bother seeing the movie or show. What’s the point? It’s already been spoiled.
-         First off- these reviewers are occasionally wrong. They totally miss the point or they see something happening that is not happening. It’s confusing and you feel at a loss, but chances are more than likely they had their head down while taking notes and missed something. Don’t spoil the show.
-         Star Wars: A New Hope features the story of a young man who joins an elderly old warrior to help rescue a princess from the Galactic Empire- we need never read about the death of Luke’s Aunt and Uncle because that is a twist in the story, a dramatic moment that loses all impact the moment the audience is informed of it. Don’t talk about the twists in a review, don’t spoil the ending, and don’t spoil the show.
7.      Be fair: “It’s Personal- take responsibility for it.”
-         A review is always a personal interpretation of what the reviewer is watching, reading, or listening to. Not only that, but the art they are reviewing is a personal thing that is being created by someone(s) who is likely going to read those thoughts if they are published in any medium (even a lowly blog on the interwebs). As much as I may wish to say something “isn’t personal”, it is and I’m responsible for what I write. As such, I have a responsibility to the performers, writers, and producers to be fair in what I’m writing. To view their product on a level where, even if I don’t understand it, I’m being fair with it and I’m not letting my personal feelings interfere with an honest review. But that doesn’t mean “lie”- be honest and responsible for that honesty. If I don’t like something, I owe it to myself and my credibility to say that I didn’t like it and to explain why. If I do like something, I owe it to myself, my credibility, and any readers that what I am writing is worth their time.
8.      Keep a ratings scale:
-Thumbs up, thumbs down, that stuff doesn’t fly for me because there are so many levels to regard whether something is good or not.  I used a five point rating scale based on the Netflix *Star* program, mostly for ease of effort. I've changed to 10 points in recent years. Much of the scale is subjective and occasionally may seem inconsistent when set against my reviewing history.
Let me be blunt; I enjoy B movies, zombies, horror, bizarre comedy, and thrilling adventures… A family drama surrounding the personal problems of a daughter, son, mother, or father is not necessarily my cup of tea. It’s not something that cries out “Come see me!” and then sends me running to my piggy bank in hopes of cashing out- but they can be really good and really well done. On the other hand, something appeals to all of my senses but maybe came off a little oddly- something wasn’t perfect and it could have been any number of things, including my particular mood.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Avenue Q: The High School Musical???

I've seen and written about several productions of Avenue Q over the past several years, as it is one of my favorite musicals. Recent events transpired, and a young family friend found himself cast with  the ensemble for this terrific show- in his High School. So, I found myself confused, amused, and transfixed with the opportunity to see a show that features Puppets having sex, talking about racism, pornography, suicide, and irresponsible drinking but with a High School spin. What would remain? How would the songs change? What would the end product be?

So yes, there were many changes.... you were no longer "As loud as the hell you want", there were no Girlfriends from Canada, and the internet was for "Fun". But what remains is the heart of the show and themes of confusion, growing older, and taking responsibility for your life and recognizing that stress is always impermanent. And the young teen cast capably handle the complex issues of gender, sexuality, economics, responsibility, and relationships.

Christian Hurtado leads the cast with the role of Princeton (also doubling as Rod), the new kid to Avenue Q and whose journey we are following as he exits college and enters a world he is ill prepared to handle. Celeste Seymour embraces the ridiculous nature of an obviously white girl playing the role of Television's Gary Coleman, capably handling her solo in Schadenfreude with delicious enthusiasm. Desmond Aguilera embraces a somber presence as the un-funny comedin, Brian and Xavier Rodriguez goes through vocal gymnastics while handling the dialogue and songs for Nicky, Trekkie Monster, Boy Bear, Ricky, and the Newcomer. Katrina Torres is at times very funny, endearing, and vocally gifted but she seemed a little guilty to be playing such an offensively written character and didn't really embrace the insulting cadence that Christmas Eve is known to have.

But the absolute shining light of the show had been Jackie Ortiz in the roles of Kate Monster and Lucy (No last name for this adaptation). At turns innocent, endearing, and having a full grasp of the material, Ortiz delivers amazing vocals and projects the emotional turns for her puppet with gravitas and stopping on the dime perfect comedic timing.

8 out of 10

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Cry-Baby at Paperwing Theatre

Cry-baby the Musical

Based on the John Waters film, Cry-baby is a rock-a-billy musical comedy that follows the story of Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker- a disaffected teenage rebel leader of the "Drapes". Teenage Allison falls in love with the pacifist bad boy, despite her grandmother's disapproval and the resentment of her current "square" friends. The musical differs from the film in a number of ways, with many sub-plots abandoned or changed to suit a more streamlined narrative that focuses mostly on the romance and allegoric comedy.

Randy Pires steps into the title role with campy bluster that is way too cool for School, his vocals capturing parts Elvis and parts Rob Halford with a southern twang. Alyssa Matthews is Allison Vernon-Matthews, ridiculously naive and hopeful for a day when she might release her inhibitions and be as bad as she wants to be. Alyca Tanner is dramatically prim, proper, and sincere in her portrayal of Mrs. Vernon-Matthews, the grandmother of Allison. The three leads take the audience on a ride through rockabilly camp with featured performances from the female "Drapes" Wanda (played with sultry energy by Zeana Bey), the dangerous "Hatchet-Face" (Played with vicious glee by Erin Elizabeth Davison) and pregnant Pepper (with "in your face" energy from Persis Tomingas). Edie Flores puts in a charismatic performance as Dupree, Cry-baby's best friend.

And there were two show stealing performances that hit me hard and kept me laughing throughout the entire show- first, Joseph Jones absolutely KILLS it as the obnoxious "Baldwin", would-be suitor to Allison and Cry-baby's rival in music. Jones delivers an inspired slapstick performance with frantic energy and over confidence. One scene had be doubling over in physical pain as he runs back and forth in the background, screaming for "Allison!" with his arms flailing like Kermit the Frog.

Second, Zanna Wei is deliciously INSANE as the Cry-baby obsesssed "Lenora", whose song "Screw Loose" was played with over the top madness that spiraled into dark revelations about the character and the depths of her lunacy. (I wonder how many more ways I can say she was Bat-fuck bonkers crazy before I finish this paragraph?) I was in tears, trying to catch my breath, and loving the absolutely hysterical duet between her and Baldwin (All in my Head) as they dream of their perfect future with their significant paramours. 

An enthusiastic ensemble went all in on the production, making this a great experience for fans of local performances. Highly recommended with an 8 out of 10.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

GREAT GOOGLY MOOGLY, MOVIE REVIEWS!!! (Hurricane Heist/Strangers 2/Red Sparrow/Before we Vanish/The Party)

Hurricane Heist:

Two brothers speed across the highway with their father, trying to outrun the storm as it crashes down on top of them. This is a flash back to decades before the film, adding emotional depth through talk about football, whose fault it is they’re running behind, and the sudden death of the father that we only sort of barely got to know. Oh, they also have southern accents- these are all some good ol’ boys. They ain’t meanin’ no harm. But that big bad Hurricane is comin’ down on them hard and fast and it roars and… dear lord… as they stare up from the wreckage of the house where they were hiding they can see a face in the storm. A face.

And about twenty years later, we come down to the same area where the youngest boy (Toby Kebbell) is a meteorologist tracking an oncoming storm. He feels the storm in his gut- because he has magic storm predicting skills or some such and really… look, he’s got Paxton in his soul. (I’m referencing “Twister” here, so if you don’t get the reference then check out that film.) And when you got Paxton-soul, you get a bad ass tank of a car and a sudden desire to visit your brother (Ryan Kwanten)… but before that we better establish that there’s more than just a storm coming. And that’s when we’re introduced to the films hero and protagonist, the female Treasury agent played by Maggie Grace.  She and her partner (Ralph Ineson) and transferring billions in old bills to be shredded in the midst of the sudden hurricane. She has a history, she’s made mistakes, this is a crap job for her, yadda yadda blah blah, and what she doesn’t know is that there’s about to be a robbery.

We find a bunch of far strung mistakes and coincidences lead to our three protagonists meeting, kind of forming a few alliances, and just as soon as the robbery goes down we find them being chased and doing some chasing of their own through the oncoming hurricane. Honestly, this is as preposterous a series of stunts, scenes, and cool set pieces as you might imagine. This is a ridiculously over blown and awesomely terrible flick with football clichés, gung ho violence, and cheesy villains from start to finish. If you expected something great, where have you been through most of the disaster films that have taken place over the years?

Parts “Hard Rain” and “Twister”, the movie is a cheesy popcorn muncher that you laugh at as much as you laugh with, so it is what it is. But being what it is, that’s certainly a fun ride if you turn off the brain and just enjoy the ride.

Oh, there’s also some ham-fisted lecturing about environmental disasters, global warming, and other stuff. Ignore that… it’s barely enough to function as a story point, anyway.

6 out of 10.

The Strangers: Prey at Night

I’ve been trying to catch as much of the main stream horror releases as I could this year, and I’ll let you in on a secret; I didn’t enjoy the first Strangers film in the potential franchise. It was creepy enough, it was shocking enough, but I ultimately left the film feeling less satisfied than I would have preferred. And so I wasn’t really looking forward to a sequel, but here one is.

It doesn’t pick up where the first left off- but we do start with a quick little scene of our three killers arriving in a trailer park vacation spot that’s largely been abandoned for the season. We then switch to our protagonists making their trip to this same trailer park- the teen girl is moving north to attend a boarding school after her parents literally give up on her. Her older brother is the “perfect” child, and we see she’s feeling like the disappointment of the family. Of course, the family half-heartedly tries to reach out to her but they feel well in over their heads. Thankfully, this family drama straight out of an ABC afterschool special is quickly interrupted with the arrival of our three masked Antagonists. And then, hilarity ensues.

I found the filming style of the movie to be a little strange, capturing angles and fading in on bizarre close-ups with an after effect that kept the image a little out of focus at times. Stylistically, I kind of enjoyed the technique and it added to what tension did exist in the film. However, the story was largely unencumbered with any real stakes and I lacked any real empathy for the characters. The parents, especially, had already set off my hackles for their willingness to abandon their daughter.

Not a bad film, some decent gore effects, and some satisfying sequences. To be honest, I did “enjoy” this movie a bit more than the first Strangers film but ultimately realize that it doesn’t carry the same punch as its previous entry.

6 out of 10.

Red Sparrow

Jennifer Lawrence starts as the titular character in this spy thriller based on the novel by former CIA operative, Jason Matthews. I want to get that out of the way because a lot of people are far too quickly drawing comparisons to the Marvel property of Black Widow, of which this work bears no real resemblance beyond the fact that both characters are Russian and trained as specialists. But where they differ and how the story is told is very different.

Recruited by her uncle after an unfortunate accident, ballerina Dominika Egorova undergoes espionage training as part of the “Sparrow” program for the Russian Government. Sparrows are trained to seduce their targets, psychologically profiling them to provide them with the things they want the most and gain their trust. She is sent on a mission to get close to an American Agent who is known to be working with a Russian double-agent deeply connected with the Government. As with all espionage films, the twists are plenty and there are plans within plans. Lawrence delivers a credible performance and puts it all on the line. And I mean ALL.

Okay, how this film avoided an NC-17 is a mystery to me. The movie gets incredibly graphic with regard to the sexual content, avoiding all but penetration in a couple of scenes and getting downright nasty in the dialogue. The weird part is that it treats the subject matter in such a clinical way that it’s not at all alluring or perverse, it’s utilized as a tool and nothing more. There is one scene with another trainee that literally strips the material down and destroys any sense of sexual dynamic for the characters. It’s cold, it’s brutal, and we see it on display with clinical distaste. But it’s still there.

As a fan of spy thrillers, this movie moves more like a “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” than it does a “James Bond” film, so don’t expect action set pieces and grand stunt work combined with cutting edge sci-fi gadgets and technology. This is pure espionage, cat & mouse chases, misdirection, manipulation, and cold planning. I loved it.

8 out of 10. 

Before We Vanish

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is mostly known for his horror films, with “Pulse” receiving a big budget Hollywood remake. But the Japanese film-maker has had a varied filmography, with his latest film getting released to mixed reviews from the 2017 Cannes festival. And “Before We Vanish” is definitely a difficult movie to rate, describe, or categorize… with some parallels to John Carpenter’s “Starman”, Kiysohi crafts a world on the brink of alien invasion while studying the ideas that make us human. The film is based on a stage play of the same name.

Shinji is a philandering husband who seems to have forgotten everything when his wife, Narumi, arrives to retrieve him from a local hospital. The couple are facing a difficult period in their marriage, with Shinji having been caught philandering and Narumi focused on her career. The two have grown apart, but Shinji’s new mental state may provide them with a new opportunity to reconnect. But we quickly learn there’s more to Shinji’s affliction. Concurrently, a recent massacre has left lone survivor Asumi in a similar state. And reporter Sakurai finds himself traveling with Amano, an self-proclaimed “alien” intending to invade Earth and wipe out all human life as we know it. Chaos erupts as people begin to fall to strange afflictions, their grasp on human concepts stolen by the alien invaders.

This is difficult stuff to grasp- the aliens aren’t eating our brains, they aren’t turning humans into zombies, and they aren’t wiping us clean. They are taking individual concepts in order to understand and destroy us. The very core concepts of “Ownership”, “Family”, and “Work” are some of the most basic functions to us, but if they were stolen from us entirely we would be left with a large vacuum. And nature abhors a vacuum. And it can help us question what it is that makes us truly human.

I personally loved this film, but wouldn’t recommend it to a wider audience. The film is much more of a science-fiction romance than it is an adventure or horror of any sort. But it affected me on a personal level and left me feeling parts sad, hopeful, happy, angry, and other feelings I’m having  a hard time working through. If you enjoy Japanese cinema, you probably won’t want to miss this film.

9 out of 10.

The Party

A bunch of intellectual left-wing elitists are celebrating the election of a friend to a Parliamentary Seat, representing her party on a number of issues relating to healthcare. On the eve of her greatest triumph, her world is torn apart with revelations of illness, adultery, greed, and hypocrisy. This is a scathing black comedy about a small group and their personal drama. The wit is sharp, cynical, and laced with poison barbs that pull through social norms, politeness, relationships, and social politics.

7 out of 10.