Monstrous things sometimes happen, and it’s fascinating when the movies capture these things well. The monsters in this week’s movies come in all forms, ranging from Nazis to jilted lovers, yakuza killers to bad guys who want to take over the world. One movie, believe it or not, features zombie beavers.
Other monsters only appear to be monstrous, but are actually very kind; their real purpose is to expose the monster in us. And it’s those monsters within that are the really scary ones. They can force us to do unforgivable things, or they can prevent us from doing anything at all.
There are two kinds of people: those who roll their eyes at a title like Zombeavers (2015), and those whose eyes light up. If you’re among the latter, Zombeavers (that’s “zombie beavers,” at the risk of stating the obvious) does its job nicely. It will make you laugh, give you some low-down entertainment value, and have you on your way again before too much time has passed (it’s 77 minutes).
A container of some kind of toxic waste accidentally rolls into a stream and turns the beavers into ravenous monsters. Then, three college girls take a weekend trip to a cabin in the woods where they plan to change into bikinis (and, sometimes, out of bikinis) and enjoy themselves. Their idiot boyfriends show up, and we also get the obligatory, creepy, backwoods redneck types (one of them played by singer John Mayer). Refreshingly, director Jordan Rubin uses puppets and animatronics rather than digital effects, so that we can feel the monsters onscreen with the actors. And then there’s the scene of what happens when a human becomes infected. Yikes!
Inglourious Basterds (Netflix)
The genius of Quentin Tarantino’s WWII film is that it’s not actually about WWII; it’s more about WWII films and how they can affect and represent our attitudes toward war. Inglourious Basterds (2009) is energetic, surprising, intense, and funny; but it’s also subtly complex, working on levels that we might not even consider after a single viewing.
Though the movie has many setups and detours, the basic plot revolves around an attempt to kill several high-ranking Nazi officers during the premiere of a propaganda film. Mélanie Laurent plays the owner of the movie theater, whose blonde hair and blue eyes disguise her Jewish heritage. Brad Pitt plays an American lieutenant, who barks orders about “killin’ Nazis” in a booming twang. And Christoph Waltz—who won an Oscar—plays the vile but mesmerizing Col. Hans Landa. The movie received eight nominations in all, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.
The Boxtrolls (Netflix)
Oregon’s Laika studio is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the world of animation, following up the incredible Coraline (2009) and ParaNorman (2012) with The Boxtrolls (2014). Like the previous movies, The Boxtrolls features somewhat dark material, bizarre angles, and strange-looking characters, and yet it has enormous heart. In a city located on the pointy tip of a cockeyed mountain, the boxtrolls come out at night to scavenge junk, which they put to amazing uses in their underground home.
The cheese-loving humans fear them, believing them to be monsters, and the nasty Archibald Snatcher (voiced by an almost unrecognizable Ben Kingsley) is hired to hunt them. But a human boy, who went missing as a baby, has been raised by the boxtrolls. He is called “Eggs” (voiced by newcomer Isaac Hempstead Wright), named for the cardboard box he wears at all times. It’s up to Eggs to find a way to make peace between the two cultures. The movie is more hopeful—and less death-obsessed—than the previous two, with some hilarious dialogue—not to mention a song by Monty Python’s Eric Idle.
Welcome to the Punch (Netflix)
Eran Creevy’s British crime drama is fairly lightweight, but it’s also edgy, feverish, and atmospheric, with two very strong performances. Police detective Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) has been on the trail of master criminal Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong) for years; now Sternwood’s son has become involved in a legal tangle and Lewinsky realizes that the son can be used as bait to lure the father out of hiding.
Unfortunately, this incident takes place within a huge web of corruption and conspiracy, with an election looming on the horizon, and a gun-control bill on the ballot. Creevy films even the most ordinary conversations with style and intensity, and a great cast of character actors pitches in to help: Peter Mullan, Andrea Riseborough, Jason Flemyng, Daniel Mays, Ruth Sheen, etc.
Wuthering Heights (Amazon Prime)
UK filmmaker Andrea Arnold is an Oscar-winner for Best Live Action Short (2003’s Wasp), and has since embarked upon a top-notch feature film career. After Red Road (2006) and Fish Tank (2009), she offered this wonderfully earthy, fleshy Wuthering Heights (2012), based on the first part of Emily Bronte’s classic novel.
Unlike most costume movies, this one is not frilly and pretty; it takes place in a chilly, muddy countryside, where dirty boots creak on floorboards in a leaky, drafty house. Arnold uses a narrow aspect ratio, as if to compress the images even more. But her most brilliant achievement is to turn the alluring, monstrous, outcast Heathcliff into a black man, played as a boy by Solomon Glave and as a grownup by James Howson; it gives the other characters’ discrimination against him a new, painful wrinkle. Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario play the young and grownup Catherine, smitten with Heathcliff. It’s a stripped down version of this story, not necessarily romantic, but with a full, beating heart.
Millennium Mambo (HuluPlus)
Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien is widely considered one of the world’s best living filmmakers, though most moviegoers have never heard of him. Up to now, his films have not been well distributed in this country, and many of them are still very hard to find. After 20 years, Millennium Mambo (2001) was the first of his films to open in the U.S.A., three years after the fact in 2004. (It barely made a ripple, earning only $14,000 at the box office... that’s thousand, not million.)
But distribution likely came as a result of his beautiful star, Shu Qi, appearing in the Jason Statham action movie The Transporter. She stars as Vicky, a lost, detached young woman in the “futuristic” world of 2010. Hou shows the big city as a place of magic and lights as well as enclosure, comfort as well as stagnation. A narrator tells Vicky’s story, but in the third person, adding another level of distance. Like Hou’s other films, it’s brainy and slow going, and it requires some focus, but it’s a very good entry point into the career of a great and fascinating filmmaker.
The Fifth Element (Crackle)
Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997) is one of those rare summer releases that never took itself too seriously, but still displayed an impressive amount of visual imagination; even long after the hype died down, moviegoers still love to re-watch it. Bruce Willis plays the hero, Korben Dallas, who must save the earth by finding four stones representing the four elements, and combining it with the “fifth element,” a beautiful otherworldly creature known as Leeloo (Milla Jovovich).
Gary Oldman plays a bad guy with a great name, Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg, who wishes to let the world be destroyed. Ian Holm plays the scientist who warns everyone, and Chris Tucker plays a DJ whose job is to annoy Willis, and a large portion of the audience. Cult actor Brion James also appears. It was a huge hit for Besson, and earned one Oscar nomination, for Best Sound Effects Editing, which it lost to Titanic. (Crackle lets viewers stream movies for free, with no sign-up required, but you’ll need to watch ads.)
Ichi the Killer (Fandor)
Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike might just be a little bit crazy. He makes an astounding number of movies, sometimes three to five a year since his debut in 1990, and many of them are insanely violent or just incredibly odd. Of all of them, Ichi the Killer (2001) just may be the most notorious, the most infamous, and the most intense.
It’s more or less a gangster story revolving around a bleach-blonde thug (with an array of facial scars and piercings) who has a ravenous appetite for pain and suffering. He learns of the existence of Ichi and tracks him down to see what he can do. The movie has no end of gore and sadism, but it’s pushed to such an extreme that the only possible result is laughter. Still, a strong stomach is required. Tadanobu Asano and Nao Omori star. In Japanese with English subtitles.
Will Smith plays third-generation conman Nicky Spurgeon, who’s so savvy and street-smart that he knows cons from his grandfather’s day, as well as modern, high-tech cons. Then, Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie) wanders into his life, trying to pull a tired old fast one on him. He quickly dismantles her play, but she asks to be trained and stays on with him. Despite his experience, he’s quite unprepared when his feelings for her begin to complicate his big plans, swindling a hotshot Italian race car champ, Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro).
Focus (2015) is a lightweight entertainment, but it comes from the talented writer/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who are experts in criminals, conmen and pick-up artists; they wrote Bad Santa, and wrote and directed I Love You Phillip Morris, and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Even though moviegoers are clever about figuring out cons, the filmmakers inject a great deal of spunky humor into their double-crosses, and actors Adrian Martinez and B.D. Wong offer colorful support.