OK, so things don’t really vanish anymore: even the most limited film release will (most likely, eventually) find its way onto some streaming service or into some DVD bargain bin assuming that those still exist by the time this sentence finishes. In other words, while the title of In Review Online’s monthly feature devoted to current domestic and international arthouse releases in theaters will hopefully bring attention to a deeply underrated (even by us) Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, it isn’t a perfect title. Nevertheless, it’s always a good idea to catch-up with films before some… other things happen.
It’s difficult to remember now, but the last decades of the 20th century were a golden age of animal adventure tales, whether geared towards kids (The Bear, Homeward Bound, Babe) or adults (The Edge, The Ghost and the Darkness). Hollywood doesn’t really bother with medium-budget movies anymore, leaving this kind of action genre-adjacent stuff to the provenance of the SyFy Channel — with their interminable series of sharks and snakes and crocodiles vs various cephalopods and humans — and the world of DTV. Writer/director M.J. Bassett is steadily carving herself out a nice little spot in this world of low-budget thrills, unleashing Rogue last year, in which Megan Fox fights off both human traffickers and giant lions, and now Endangered Species, in which an unassuming family must survive an African safari gone horribly awry.
Arriving in Kenya for an exotic getaway, the Halsey family is in disarray. Dad Jack (Philip Winchester) is having problems at work and keeping it a secret from wife Lauren (Rebecca Romijn). Son Noah (Michael Johnston) worships his dad, but also knows that he quietly disapproves of his being gay. Daughter Zoe (Isabel Bassett, also the film’s co-writer) has brought her older hippie boyfriend Billy (Chris Fisher) along for the trip and is avoiding college against Jack’s wishes. It’s a volatile dynamic, which lends an air of authenticity to an otherwise outlandish premise. M.J. and Isabel’s screenplay sets up a series of red flags, all of which collapse in on the family at the same time. Jack can’t afford an official tour guide, so decides to take the family into the safari grounds without one. In a fit of macho hubris, Jack also neglects to check in at the entry gates, meaning there’s no official record of their group having entered the park. Throwing caution to the wind, the family turns their crummy rental van down a closed-off path, ignoring literal warning signs, hoping to get closer to the wildlife. It’s a series of bad decisions that push against the suspension of disbelief, but it mostly works, and almost immediately a rhino attacks the vehicle, knocking it over and crushing their glass water bottles and Lauren’s insulin in the process.
And so, it’s a race against time, as they need more medicine before Mom dies, while avoiding the sun, a pack of hyenas that have begun circling the wreckage, and other assorted wild threats. Naturally, the preexisting familial dysfunction also rears its ugly head, leading to snippy confrontations and angry recriminations. Bassett keeps things lively, leaving ample negative space around her actors and forcing the viewer to constantly scan the background for lurking threats. And once the family splits up to search for a cell signal, the shit really hits the fan. Endangered Species is mostly a lot of fun, fully embracing its fractured Swiss Family Robinson vibe, although not everyone here will survive. As is par for the course with this kind of low-budget affair, the special effects vary from passable to awful, and not all of the cast is up for the task — Winchester, in particular, overplays the douchebag dad angle while never really selling any paternal warmth underneath all the posturing. Still, there are some standout sequences here that rival movies with ten times the budget. It’s a lean, sometimes thrilling, and occasionally mean 90 minutes — someone get Bassett a franchise picture and let her really cut loose.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
Dementia Part II
At only 66 minutes — and that includes the opening credits being repeated at film’s end — the horror sequel Dementia Part II barely qualifies as a feature-length movie. The origins behind this specific endeavor, however, are rather fascinating: in 2017, a horror and sci-fi film festival entitled Cinepocalypse kicked off its inaugural run in Chicago by challenging filmmaker Mike Testin and the producers at BoulderLight Pictures to conceive, finance, shoot, and finish a feature film, script-to-screen, in only five weeks. Testin accepted the seemingly impossible task and, along with co-director Matt Mercer, delivered an in-name-only sequel to Testin’s 2015 feature Dementia. Now, the two films have virtually nothing in common, save for a protagonist afflicted by the titular degenerative disease. Whereas the original was more of slow-burn mystery-thriller blessed with a bonkers final twist, Dementia Part II is a tongue-in-cheek horror comedy that owes more to the likes of Dead-Alive and Shaun of the Dead in terms of delivering one over-the-top gross-out comedic bit after another, the screen awash in vomit, gooey drool, and all sorts of assorted viscera. So, given that context, it’s a bit of a shock that anything even remotely watchable came from such a gimmicky dare; that the resultant film is actually kind of good is something closer to miraculous.
The setup is appropriately simplistic: recent parolee Wendell (Mercer) is sent out on a random handyman assignment and comes across a dementia-addled homeowner named Suzanne (Suzanne Voss) whose increasingly bizarre behavior seems extreme even when allowing for her condition. It doesn’t take long for Wendell to figure out his life may be in danger, but getting out of Suzanne’s house is easier said than done, and that’s even before dusk falls. It has to be noted from the top that Dementia Part II would be nothing without the game performances of Mercer and Voss, who fully commit to the batshit material with the fervor of Laurence Olivier. Mercer revels in the competing feelings of intrigue, fear, disgust, and bewilderment that overwhelm poor Wendell, resulting in a perfectly pitched comedic performance that serves to anchor the film’s more ludicrous sections — of which there are many. Voss, meanwhile, chews up the scenery (quite literally), delivering what can suitably be called a tour-de-force performance, even brave, which is certainly not what anyone will expect walking into Dementia Part II. Testin and Mercer don’t quite stick the landing, teasing a Home Alone-style ass-whooping, but they instead resort to a shotgun because, well, see above. Filmed in legitimately gorgeous black-and-white and featuring opening credits that ape the Friday the 13th sequel — because sure, why not — Dementia Part II is the equivalent to passing gas in the wind, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun while it lasts.
Writer: Steven Warner
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit
Based on the semi-autobiographical children’s book of the same name, Caroline Link’s adaptation of Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit tells a story that might, from the outside, look like a happy one. The Kempers, a middle-class Jewish family, flee Germany mere days before Hitler is able to form a coalition and seize power, escaping persecution by the skin of their teeth. However, the life of a refugee is rarely simple, and as the Nazi regime unfurls across Europe, the Kempers must constantly uproot themselves, living in Zurich, Paris, and eventually England. Centered largely around the family’s young daughter, Anna (a stand-in for Kerr herself), the film offers a look into the day-to-day experience of a young refugee, trying to create a home for herself and make it fit against a range of backdrops that only have one thing of any importance in common: they all just aren’t home.
While the film’s greatest strength is certainly found in the nuanced, understated performances of its child actors — particularly those of Riva Krymalowski and Marinus Hohmann as the Kemper children, the two of whom carry the film’s emotional core — Link never fully leans into their perspectives, darting away at times to follow Anna’s parents and stopping short of adding much depth to her relationships. The result is a film that, despite purportedly being about children’s experiences, doesn’t seem to have any new youthful insights to offer. There are some gorgeous, poignant moments conjured throughout, such as Anna’s quiet rituals of saying goodbye to the objects and places that she cobbles together to form some semblance of a home, but even these only scan as scratching the surface of a far richer story. Link’s restraint does meld well with her chosen settings, from comfortable, cosmopolitan Berlin to the idyllic Swiss countryside to the more impoverished corners of Paris, emphasizing Anna’s experience over any grand or showy allusions to history, but by never fully committing to Anna’s perspective, Link fails to reap the full benefits of either tack. Likewise, the director’s subtle hand with nuanced topics like Jewish atheism or the pervasive European anti-Semitism is admirable, but the approach means she falls short of striking any significant emotional chord.
There’s rich, unexplored territory ripe for study here; the premise of a child’s unique experience as a political refugee isn’t a common cinematic narrative, and there’s real potential here to bring something new to the epic canon of World War II cinema, and so it rankles that Link doesn’t do anything more interesting with her source material. Ultimately, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is an example of a film that ticks most of the right boxes, but it just isn’t all that memorable outside of the specificity of its premise and a winning lead performance. There’s no denying the film has a lot of heart, but it will likely leave audiences wishing it had a bit more ambition too.
Writer: Molly Adams
Benny Loves You
Murderous toys are nothing new to the big screen, and, in fact, have had a bit of resurgence of late thanks to the wildly popular animatronics-run-amok video game series Five Nights at Freddy’s. But setting that aside and imagining for a second that Benny Loves You had been the first of its kind, it would still be a humorless slog, the type of film whose bid at cult status is so nakedly evident and pathetic that you almost suffer secondhand embarrassment. Writer-director-editor-“and other fings” Karl Holt stars as Jack, a 35-year-old man-child whose sad-sack life is turned upside down after the gruesome accidental death of his parents, with whom he still lived. A toy designer stuck in a dead-end job where no one respects him, Jack is nearly at the end of his rope when his favorite childhood stuffed animal — the bright red, floppy-eared, titular Benny — comes to life and begins murdering those who stand in the way of his happiness. Jack, meanwhile, is left to quite literally pick up the pieces, while increasingly suspicious police and co-workers begin to investigate the secret life he is hiding.
Benny Loves You starts in a key of sadistic absurdism and never lets up, with the opening scene featuring a harried mother slapping her brute of a daughter with such force that an over-exaggerated red handprint is left on the child’s cheek. This is also done in slow-motion, so as to assure that viewers get to see the spit that is knocked out of the little monster’s mouth. The girl is then brutally murdered by her teddy bear. Holt seems unable to understand that, in order for this material to work, it needs to be grounded in some sort of reality, with the contrast between the murderous stuffed animal shenanigans and the outside world providing the comedy; everything in Benny Loves You is pitched at an 11, even the dry British witticisms. It’s certainly no accident that might be reminded of the likes of Edgar Wright and his Cornetto trilogy when watching this film, although Holt would have been wise to take a page from that filmmaker’s sense of swift pacing. Benny Loves You is ultimately a single joke set to repeat, with the major problem being that the joke isn’t even that funny or original to begin with. The special effects are appropriately lo-fi, with crude CGI bringing Benny to life, awkwardly inserted into the action like old-school matte shots. And things do at least perk up for an action-driven finale that features multiple sentient toys battling one another, revealing that Holt’s true talent lies in animated antics and not directing flesh-and-blood actors who seem approximately as bored by the material as the viewer’s sure to be. You’ve got to give credit to Holt for launching a passion project in which he had a hand in literally every aspect, made profoundly evident by the sub-30-second end credits. Holt clearly loves Benny; he’s like to be the only one.
Writer: Steven Warner
Anybody who has tackled a creative project of any size will know just how quickly things can get out of hand. Budgets walk an agonizingly thin tightrope, time slips away, and the ideas that seemed so brilliant on paper can face hurdles in execution. We writers know that sometimes it can feel like characters are wriggling around on the page, refusing to stay put and do what they’re told. For RK, the filmmaker at the heart of Rajat Kapoor’s crowd-funded RK/RKAY, this creative struggle becomes ingeniously literal. While in the editing phase of producing his new film, RK (played by director Kapoor) sees his life thrown into turmoil when Mahboob, his main character (also played by Kapoor), disappears from the film entirely and takes on a life of his own. Seamlessly blending into RK’s life and threatening to usurp his creator, Mahboob quickly outgrows the story RK had designed for him, and proceeds to wreak quiet havoc on the director’s life.
Rocking with such a fanciful premise, RK/RKAY makes a wise decision in leaning into its own absurdity. Despite boasting a narrative that bears resemblance to the work of artists like Charlie Kaufman, Kapoor’s script is far wittier and somewhat warmer than similar but more cerebral efforts. Instead of going down any hazy, surreal rabbit hole, RK/RKAY remains relatively grounded, even despite its comic premise, stretching to its furthest emotional conclusions, both in terms of examining the creative process and the resultant ripple effects that beset friends, family, and co-workers who get caught up in it. In Kapoor’s magical-realist world, emotional truth trumps any and all logic without smoothing out the darker edges of reality, utilizing stylish cinematography to blend the two worlds with ease and bathing his fictional characters in buttery, golden light that seems to emanate directly from them, even when they inhabit the real world, which is captured in a more subdued hue. These starkly contrasting worlds might allow for easy satire, but the film doesn’t opt for cheap gains. To his credit, Kapoor does not adopt a cynical tone so much as one that refuses to allow highfalutin ideas of artistry to obscure the parts of creativity that are more akin to mental masturbation than art. For all its charm and comedy, RK/RKAY maintains a refreshing, razor-sharp wit that Kapoor directs consistently inward, questioning the relationship between the creator and their creation, and interrogating his characters as avatars of his own inadequacies and fantasies.
Writer: Molly Adams