It’s the week of Halloween, and there are fortunately plenty of new releases fit for this time of year. Balancing all the other horror films I’ve been watching with this set of new genre-flavored releases does plenty as far as knowing there are many options out there. That in mind, this week’s write-ups include an Amblin-produced monster movie, a horror film dealing with grief and struggle, another horror film laced with satire, a new take on a classic, a lively animated adventure, and a gritty look at a supposed paradise. The following features reviews for Come Play, His House, Bad Hair, Rebecca, Over The Moon, and Waikiki.
The Setup: A non-verbal autistic boy, Oliver (Azhy Robertson), becomes the target of a long-limbed monster named Larry. Larry only appears through electronic devices, such as smartphones and lamps. Over time, Oliver’s parents (Gillian Jacobs and John Gallagher Jr.) slowly begin to understand the threat of Larry as well and will need to act to keep their son from being taken away.
Review: There is a good portion of Come Play that is creepy and effective. Having children as the targets of this device-based monster allows the stakes to become higher while also assuring a certain broad accessibility level. Despite this film presenting a creature that seems to want to harvest children, it’s not graphic in its telling, which jives with having Amblin Partners as one of the production companies attached to this film. I only wish it were consistent all the way through.
A couple of set pieces that bring to mind Insidious and Poltergeist go a long way in fully realizing the domestic terror causing problems (and not being limited to one’s home). However, for all the effort put into creeping out the audiences, along with young Oliver (and eventually Sarah and Marty), the film loses its direction by the third act. Until that point, writer/director Jacob Chase has done a wonderful job connecting us with Oliver, a child dealing with non-verbal autism.
As far as seeing a film that manages to incorporate a level or representation not often seen, and without exploiting it, Come Play certainly deserves credit. I’m also all for inventive creature effects, let alone effective sound design to really amplify the mood. However, just by nature of letting smart devices and screens serve as a major plot device, there’s baked-in silliness to watching adult characters push themselves through an app that screams, “Danger!” at them for the sake of getting these characters into wild predicaments.
It was enough to have me check out of how serious the story had presented itself and focus more on the odd details when it came to understanding this monster’s rules. While I can accept a level of fantasy, coming at odds with the tone and execution only goes so far when a film feels as though it can’t quite get across its main ideas to the viewers.
Where To Watch: Opening in theaters October 30, 2020.
The Setup: A refugee couple (Wunmi Mosaku and Sope Dirisu) from Sudan move into a home in a new English town, only to find evil lurking beneath the surface and within their walls. The problem is, it’s not only the house but guilt that has invaded this abode.
Review: There are times when His House feels quite remarkable. How this film manages to tie the drama and severity of refugees’ lives into the horror genre is a great premise. Relying on writer/director Remi Weekes to apply British horror sensibilities means taking on a certain atmosphere that could call to mind gothic films, were this film not set in a smaller, urban neighborhood. His House is at its best when it manages to throw the viewer into the mind of this house’s two occupants, both harboring lots of thoughts and memories concerning their situation.
At the same time, it becomes a bit uneven when asked to explore more of the character dynamics, serving as a choice to preserve certain plot-based elements until later on in the film. Understandably, finding ways to not force exposition on the viewer is commendable. I only wish the balance felt a bit clearer in getting to understand these characters and what the ultimate drive of this film is supposed to be.
It’s not a spoiler to say grief plays a role in this movie, not unlike The Babadook. The manifestation of that grief, let alone the stress of maintaining a new-to-them normal life, allows the film to put various creepy figures and imagery on display. This is well-assisted by the obsession with the home’s shabby state. Watching Dirisu’s Bol tear up the wallpaper in search of answers, or Mosaku’s Rial deal with a state of being that has her literally lost in her own housing complex, means getting a sense of dread slowly overtaking the characters.
Fortunately, thanks to very confident filmmaking, visually arresting moments expanding the scope of a fairly limited feature, and an ending that manages to hit the right emotional beats, His House does well by its property.
Where To Watch: Available to stream on Netflix October 30, 2020.
The Setup: Set in 1989, an ambitious woman (Elle Lorraine) gets a weave to help her succeed in her image-obsessed job in the entertainment industry. Things take a turn when realizing that her weave has a mind of its own and a means to feed.
Review: Conceptually, this is a triumph of high concept horror. What if a woman’s weave came to life and started feeding on people? Writer/director Justin Simien came swinging out the gate with his debut-film-turned-Netflix-series Dear White People, and seeing him steer towards horror-satire seemed like a great direction to go. Alas, despite a strong opening act and a bonkers final 15 minutes, Bad Hair gets far too lost for the majority of its runtime due to a large cast, lack of focus, and feeling tonally challenged.
There is plenty of merit to be found. Newcomer Elle Lorraine is a good find for a naïve opportunist, with serious issues involving how to get her hair did. The way Simien approaches filmmaking is great too. Shot with a lot of use of Super 16mm to allow for a certain aesthetic, finding a way to combine body horror and Little Shop of Horrors means getting plenty of opportunities to go wild with the display of evil hair. Even before the real horror starts, watching the scene where Lorraine’s Anne gets her weave is handled like a graphic medical procedure.
However, trying to properly incorporate the world of media, the black culture’s influence, and office politics means watching a film that gets buried in the weeds with commentary that can be very hit or miss. The comedy is never quite as sharp or funny enough to feel in stride with the awful things involving the evil weave. At the same time, the amount of horror garnered from hair sucking the life out of people is entertaining enough at first but doesn’t find much of a way to develop this into something more intriguing.
Despite promise, it’s better to just shave that hair off.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Hulu.
The Setup: Based on the famed Daphne Du Maurier novel, previously adapted by Alfred Hitchcock (his only film to win Best Picture), this newer take is set in the same 1930s time period and features a young newlywed (Lily James) arriving at her husband’s (Armie Hammer) family estate on the English coast. All seems well, except the shadow of the previous wife, Rebecca, whose legacy lives on, with help from the sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Review: No one is going to question the lavish nature of this film. Everything involving the actors, costumes, production design, and locations have been put on display in a maximized way to ensure a level of grandeur. Ben Wheatley has directed a very good-looking film. And yet, there’s never an understanding of why another version of Rebecca needed to be made.
Were this film to update the time period to either a contemporary environment or even something like the 80s, there’s perhaps some thematic angles to draw from as a way to dig more into the class-based society these characters contend with. With major plotlines surrounding wealth, gender roles, and more, this story is certainly ready to be examined under a different context. However, the resulting film is more or less an exact redo of what has already come before, with the addition of color.
Sure, the actors’ skills add to the adequate nature of what is on screen, but they could have well been served by a screenplay requiring more of them in a story headed in new directions or fit with some sort of reversal. Additionally, to say this new take is just like adding color is a misnomer by nature of what Alfred Hitchcock brings to the director’s table. I am a fan of Wheatley’s, but he’s not bringing any signature work to the film.
If this is simply a way to avoid watching an older, black and white film, well, then enjoy this blandly retold version of Rebecca that feels designed to be much more easily discernable when it comes to getting across its ideas, mood, and the story turns. While the story and previous film manage to bring in a haunting understanding of these characters’ situation, 2020’s Rebecca feels more like a film making me hunger for what the characters are being served rather than wanting to know more about them.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.
The Setup: In this animated musical from Oscar-winning director and former Disney animator Glen Keane, a girl builds a rocket ship and blasts off in an attempt to meet the mythical moon goddess.
Review: Despite the nature of inclusivity, which sees a good amount of money going into an animated film featuring a diverse all-Asian cast, much of Over the Moon feels like style over substance. That’s not to say the film isn’t worth anyone’s time. Still, I can’t see it transcending in the same way other fantastical adventures involving children and operating on this scale of animation quality have.
Honestly, the story just seems too thin, even when padded out by several songs (though Steven Price’s score for the film is terrific). At 100 minutes (with credits), Over the Moon doesn’t quite land properly in the realm of efficiency the way many 80-90-minute animated features do, and the splash additions in the form of more songs, colorful characters, nice fables, and familiar thematics only take the film so far.
Produced by Pearl Studio, this makes me feel bad for their first film, Abominable, which did have more to work with from a character and story standpoint. But really, Over the Moon is not a bad film, just one that comes off a bit flimsy overall. Utilizing a familiar animated movie trope – the death of a parent – the foundation should provide some weight but ends up cueing audiences up to get many story beats that come off as second-hand use.
Fortunately, director Glen Keane is good at what he does. The voice actors bring life to these characters as well. The combination of all of these good elements lets the film play as perfectly suitable entertainment overall. I only wish there was more to build out some more lasting feelings.
Where To Watch: Now available to stream on Netflix.
The Setup: The first narrative feature written and directed by a Native Hawaiian filmmaker; Waikiki features a struggling woman (Danielle Zalopany), who works as a teacher and hula dancer, among other things, crashes into a broken-down man (Peter Shinkoda), only to find this to be the least of her latest dilemmas. However, as the two continue to stick together, the worries of the world slowly begin brushing up against the nature, humanity, and culture of Waikiki.
Review: The title is almost a misnomer, as Waikiki’s location certainly has an allure symbolized by what one would expect from Hawaii. However, writer/director Christopher Kahunahana is not geared to tell a story of bright sunny beaches, romance, and relaxation. Instead, he opts for a gritty drama focused on a woman having a very rough couple of days.
Zalopany is terrific as Kea, a woman we literally watch struggle doing the math of how much money she is earning from her various jobs to make a housing payment. That level of despair is constantly thrown at us, as Kea is not only struggling financially but dealing with an abusive boyfriend and random circumstances that life keeps throwing at her. For a good portion of the runtime, this is not a happy movie.
However, things eventually take a turn. Her chance run-in with Shinkoda’s Wo eventually builds to an offbeat friendship allowing the two to relate to each other in a way that goes beyond simple feelings and interactions. In turn, Wo is able to help Kea start to become one with the spirit of her environment.
While not opting for too many money shots to emphasize the beauty of the island, Kahunahana has more skills at hand to get into the areas he finds interesting. It’s not that there’s a refusal to embrace the surroundings, it’s just seeing a confident director find a proper outlet what kind of story he wants to tell about his homeland and how to earn a certain level of display. Waikiki is a rough watch at times, but ultimately a rewarding one.
Where To Watch: The film will have its West Coast Premiere at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival Oct. 29 & 30. It is also the Closing Night selection at the Hawaii International Film Festival, Nov. 5-29.