While vampires are in season with Renfield this week, here are the alternative options making their splash as well. This set of write-Benjamin Millepeid, ups includes a horror film based on true events, a grand anime adventure, a modern update of a classic story, a kid-friendly creature feature, and a Ukrainian exploitation feature. The following features reviews for The Pope’s Exorcist, Suzume, Carmen, Chupa, and Once Upon a Time in Ukraine.
The Setup: Inspired by the actual files of Father Gabriele Amorth, Chief Exorcist of the Vatican (Russell Crowe), the film follows Amorth as he investigates a young boy’s terrifying possession and ends up uncovering a centuries-old conspiracy the Vatican has desperately tried to keep hidden.
Review: It’s not as though there’s much to expect here. Once the Screen Gems label pops up, and the film reminds one of its actual origins, I get the hazy feeling that the bar can be lowered quite a bit. Even then, however, there’s not a whole lot to this film. It’s handsomely produced, as the locations, while darkly lit, are expansive enough. I also appreciated the choice to go R-rated with its violence. If this wants to be a schlocky film serving as the origin story of a superhero exorcist that goes around blasting demons with prayer, it may as well have the gore to go with it. Of course, it’s not overly gory, as director Julius Avery doesn’t try to lean on the humor of it all (but be prepared with all the standard exorcism movie tropes). Instead, he lets Russell Crowe command the screen whenever possible. Even in something like this, Crowe’s movie star charisma is enough to make the film spark with life, whether he’s in serious mode, attempting to crack some joke to lighten the mood, or cruising around on his little scooter. No, he’s not enough to make The Pope’s Exorcist a good movie overall, but it gets the kick it needs with his presence.
Where To Watch: Now playing in theaters.
The Setup: As the skies turn red and the planet trembles, Japan stands on the brink of disaster. However, a determined teenager named Suzume sets out on a mission to save her country. Able to see supernatural forces that others cannot, it’s up to her to close the mysterious doors that are spreading chaos across the land. A perilous journey awaits as the fate of Japan rests on her shoulders.
Review: After Your Name and Weathering With You, I’m ready for whatever director Makoto Shinkai has to offer, and yet I was still surprised by Suzume. As a fantasy adventure, there’s so much wonder to be found in this story of a teenage girl realizing her calling early on, as she becomes a protector against evil forces. As I expect at this point, the animation from Shinkai and his team is remarkable in the way it presents crystal clear imagery that feels in debt to certain anime classics while still on its own level. The way that factors into the influences for this story effectively relays the stakes while still being on enough solid ground to be playful. There’s literally a chaotic threat that needs to be taken care of, yet I’m also highly caught up in the humorous struggles of a man’s spirit trapped in a chair that has come to life. In addition to having the most abstract ideas yet for Shinkai, it may also be his best.
Where To Watch: Now playing in both dubbed and subtitled versions in theaters.
The Setup: A woman (Melissa Barrera) on a quest to find freedom embarks upon a dramatic and life-altering journey from Mexico to Los Angeles, receiving unexpected help from a Marine (Paul Mescal) with PTSD in the process.
Review: If there’s any issue with this gritty modern-day take on the classic story of Carmen, it’s how successful one feels the film is in bridging the multiple forms it’s attempting to bring together. Perhaps it’s just the sheer ambition that left me happy with the results, but there really is something to watching a film that attempts to pull off a naturalistic style with dreamlike dance sequences. On top of that, making the romance feel believable is only possible because of what Barrera and Mescal bring to the roles, particularly once they are on screen together. Director Benjamin Millepied has plenty of experience as a choreographer, but he’s pushing hard enough to keep this tragic story interesting. The true highlight, however, is the spectacular score from Nicholas Britell. There’s so much feeling to take away from the film’s music, though it’s not a crutch. Silence and subtlety often fill the screen, and it’s really the design of it all that helps this version of Carmen live on.
Where To Watch: Opening in theaters on April 21, 2023.
The Setup: Shy 13-year-old Alex (Evan Whitten) flies from Kansas City to Mexico to meet his extended family for the first time. There he meets his grandfather and former lucha libre champion Chava (Demián Bichir), energetic, wrestling-obsessed cousin Memo (Nickolas Verdugo), and fearless, hip cousin Luna (Ashley Ciarra). But just as Alex begins to get his bearings, he discovers a mythical creature living under his grandfather’s shed: a young chupacabra cub
Review: I don’t know how long it’s been since the last significant riff on E.T., but director Jonás Cuarón (son of Alfonso) certainly knows what he’s doing. Of course, being set in Mexico allows for some additional subtext to be put in place. In particular, Christian Slater’s scientist, Quinn, is a far cry different from Peter Coyote’s role in Speilberg’s film. With that in mind, this is still a family-friendly feature, with a cute enough design for the young chupacabra the kids find themselves dealing with. Sure, it’s all CG, so the realness of a puppet that breaths is just not there, but I can still admire a film that attempts to dispel the horrific thoughts generally associated with this creature of Mexican folklore. And as it stands, the film is harmless fun handled well enough thanks to the young cast, solid work from Bichir, and this cuddly winged beast.
Where To Watch: Now streaming on Netflix.
The Setup: The samurai Akayo (Sergey Strelnikov) enters Ukraine to retrieve his master’s katana from Harimoto, who is buying slaves from a Ukrainian master, Jaromir. On his way, he meets the serf Taras Shevchenko (Roman Lutskyi), who agrees to help Akayo so he can rescue his beloved from Jaromir.
Review: Here’s a gonzo western that asks the question: What if Ukrainian Poet Taras Shevchenko had a period of his life where he had to deal with samurai, ninjas, and evil slave owners? The result is an energetic feature that shows how much of a Tarantino fan director Roman Perfilyev is. Or is he more geared toward Leone? Or maybe Miike? Or how about Bava? Regardless, this surreal action flick does what it can on the limited means not afforded by a smaller film industry. At a time when Ukraine is faced with so much difficulty in the form of a major bully, here’s a story attempting to wrap its mind around something thematically similar and showing what can happen when certain people join forces and fight back. Incredibly stylish, occasionally bloody, and full of dark humor, in the realm of Grindhouse attempts, there’s fun to be had here.
Where To Watch: Now available on VOD.