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.
The King’s Daughter
The King’s Daughter is a film with a troubled history, to say the least. Based on the 1997 fantasy novel The Moon and the Sun by Vonda N. McIntyre, the earliest development of its big screen adaptation dates all the way back to 1999, exchanging hands between various film studios and creative artists for years before finally beginning production in the spring of 2014 courtesy of Paramount Pictures. Its planned wide release in spring of 2015 was scrapped a mere three weeks before its expected debut, the studio citing incomplete special effects work as the culprit. It was ultimately sold to another studio in 2020, which proceeded to offload it to yet another distributor late last year. And so, eight years after production officially wrapped, The King’s Daughter finally limps its way into theaters across the nation, with little fanfare and even less expectation. To put into context just how much time has passed, two of the film’s leads, Kaya Scodelario and Benjamin Walker, got married and had two kids in the interim.
That random piece of trivia ultimately proves more memorable than anything found in the movie itself, which is quite an accomplishment considering the story involves King Louis XIV of France kidnapping a magical mermaid that will grant him immortality so long as he slices it open before a solar eclipse. From the film’s opening moments, it’s quite obvious that the proceedings have been edited with a chainsaw, flitting with breathless abandon from one random scene to the next, continuity and coherency be damned. Scenes abruptly start and stop with no rhyme or reason, existing solely to thrust the bonkers storyline forward. Marie-Josephe (Scodelario) is a sassy orphan living in a convent who loves the cello and is apparently some sort of savant at composing music, even though the evidence is vague at best. She is called to the court of King Louis XIV (Pierce Brosnan) for reasons both obvious and incredibly plot-convenient, as it is soon revealed that she is the king’s illegitimate daughter. Luckily, her arrival coincides with the capture of a mermaid (Bingbing Fan), whose life force will grant the vain king immortality. Marie ends up bonding with the mermaid after jumping into its enclosure a few times and stroking its face, which apparently is all it takes to cement a lifelong friendship. The mermaid also heals her broken arm at one point by swimming around her and emanating a cheap-looking golden glow, proving its magical powers. Meanwhile, the villainous royal doctor (Pablo Schreiber) plots nefarious schemes, the king’s trusted priest (William Hurt) rambles on about the purity of the soul, and the hunky sailor (Benjamin Walker) who captured the mermaid falls in love with our spunky heroine, all while Brosnan — befitted with flowing and luscious hair extensions — chews the scenery in the key of fey.
It’s obvious that quite a bit of money was spent on The King’s Daughter, its vast and ornate production design hinting at a concept of enchantment the rest of the film is unable to conjure. Modern-day pop music from the likes of Sia fills the soundtrack, while the costumes, hair, and make-up run the gamut from era-appropriate to ‘70s glam rock to Flashdance. Director Sean McNamara is no stranger to heightened, pop-inspired tween entertainment, having helmed the likes of Bratz and Raise Your Voice. And in fairness, he does an adequate enough job here, although it’s hard to imagine any filmmaker who could successfully pull off a movie whose moral is about both metaphorical and literal freedom but whose heroine climactically screams, “I just want to belong to someone!” The mermaid itself is barely on screen, probably because the special effects are atrocious, although it must be noted that CGI was used to “soften” Fan’s Asian features, a completely unnecessary detail that doubles as one of the most offensive things put to film in ages. Somewhere along the way, Julie Andrews was brought in to provide voiceover narration, an obvious last-ditch effort to bring clarity and class to the Frankenstein-ed final product, one that manages to move at a clip but accomplishes little else. Even the title reflects the sheer stupidity on display; just call your film Princess and be done with it. At least we already know the cast moved on to better things, as should the viewer.
Writer: Steven Warner
The Tiger Rising
Despite a title that would seem to suggest some kind of magic-tinged narrative, The Tiger Rising is not another low-rent, knockoff fantasy property, but is instead a low-rent, knockoff Florida Project. That, plus the controversies of non-payment of crew that have dogged the film in the two-and-change years since production wrapped, and it feels safe to say that The Tiger Rising will remain one of the year’s more dubious releases across the rest of 2022. Based on the National Book Award-nominated children’s book by acclaimed youth novelist Kate DiCamillo, Ray Giarratana‘s film adaptation bears none of that prestige, instead wallowing in its own cheap grime and woeful production quality. Pitched to the archest possible degree and littered with childhood poverty-isms, the film concerns a young rash-riddled boy named Rob who lives in a “stupid hick town with stupid hick people,” where the relative trash factor of Floridians is hotly debated, and where the script throws in a few instances of rancid grammar just in case viewers weren’t yet clued in to demo the film’s working with. The put-upon youth is of course bullied, by the sort of anonymous preteen thugs who think the way to welcome a new student is to chase her across a playground (but only until the bell rings, which they unequivocally respect), and he of course lives in a scuzzy motel with his dad after the recent death of his mother, in a bit of j-fic miserablism. “Just till we get back on our feet,” he tells new friend Sistine (Madalen Mills), a Black girl who is new in town and has a chip on her shoulder regarding the podunk populous — a fair stance to take, though it would go down smoother if Mills, previously so charming in the unfairly overlooked Jingle Jangle, wasn’t seemingly coached to operate on the register of roid rage.
Okay, so with a duo of underdog rugrats in place, what about the tiger? Rob finds the creature caged in the woods behind his motel, and so he frequently visits him because he finds it affords him some fleeting inner peace, for nebulous reasons. He also shows the wild animal to Sistine, and she has opinions on his living conditions. That’s about it re: the tiger. The rest of the Nickelodeon-style dramatics involve scenes like one where Rob freaks out that Sistine accidentally peeped his tighty-whities. Dennis Quaid does pop up as Beauchamp, the motel and tiger’s owner, giving a performance that seems fueled by coke — delivering the only perkiness in the movie — but which, being a children’s film, we’ll just assume is his particular take on kids flick villainy. The triangulation of these limited story beats results in an awkward narrative that alternately blunders and fast-forwards its way to some inevitable places and predictable tragedy, but with little to actually say about anything. Flashback sequences of Rob’s mother do little to elucidate either him or his father’s psychology beyond their archetypes of soft dweeb and melancholy dad, and there’s absolutely no rhetoric — or even moralizing, really — concerning the captivity of wild animals or the pervasive amorality of culture’s broad human-centric thinking, other than Rob and Sistine observations that he should be free. A couple of Einsteins, these two. There’s barely even acknowledgement that the tiger is something altogether different than a dog or a mule, so uninterested is the film in any consideration of the brutal beauty of nature or our ethical responsibility to the granularity of animal psychology. It’s as unimaginative and perfunctory as adaptations come, and indeed the utter ineptitude of The Tiger Rising at every level is enough to fairly chalk the film up to sheer laziness, but then there are the inexplicable low angles with which scenes are so frequently shot, which means someone here was at least making decisions. None of them turned out to be good ones, however, and The Tiger Rising stands out only for how it makes bland derivation seem like something to aspire to. All that’s left to chew on at film’s end is whether it was crueler to put that gorgeous tiger in a cage or in this film.
Writer: Luke Gorham
The Free Fall
Five years after his debut as a co-director of found footage folk horror The Triangle, Adam Stilwell returns solo with The Free Fall, a horror-mystery that riffs on both psychological woman-in-peril films and occult horror. Following an entirely uninspired opening sequence, The Free Fall follows Sara, a woman who has recently awakened from a coma following a suicide attempt with a home and husband that she has no memory of. As she attempts to piece together memories and establish some kind of normality after the death of her parents, Sara grows wary of her husband, Nick, and his unsettling behavior.
The Free Fall turns every dial up to eleven, poking even the most inattentive viewer in the eye with its heavy-handed symbolism and playing every melodramatic instinct to its most extreme. Most of it induces eyerolls (such as the wrought-iron decor covering half of the house — we get it, she’s trapped), with Stilwell drawing on an extremely mixed bag of banalities from said woman-in-peril genre work. In the column of clichés perhaps better left alone is Stilwell’s Mrs. Danvers analogue, an imposing housekeeper seeking to undermine the mistress of the house, a role which is written here with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, offering little real menace. Similarly unsubtle, but slightly more effective, is Shawn Ashmore’s turn as the sinister, turtleneck-clad husband, a performance in which he gets to chew scenery via monologues about cannibalism and saying the word “darling” with increasingly threatening intonation. It’s a performance that Ashmore doesn’t really have the physicality or the menace to back up, and his work thus ends up perhaps a bit too unintentionally campy rather than truly frightening, something that may or may not be a dealbreaker for members of the audience. Andrea Londo’s performance as Sara, a character who should be the lynchpin of both the film’s emotional arc and its horror atmosphere, is merely passable, unfortunately unable to make the film any more memorable than most other low-budget horror schlock.
Stilwell truly does jump in with both feet in a few instances, offering an M. Night Shyamalan-worthy twist that may alienate some of the audience but at least indicates some level of unconventional intent, and which is the film’s first (and only) hint of originality. But The Free Fall ultimately isn’t anywhere near as ambitious as it seems to have aspired to, and even the constant insistence on cheesy melodrama that could have elevated it to camp-cult territory likely won’t save it from its fate as a forgettable B-movie.
Writer: Molly Adams
Director Benjamin Louis’s thriller Stoker Hills opens in an anonymous classroom setting, where a college professor — played by Tony Todd, of all people — lectures his students on the finer points of film history, name-dropping various filmmaking titans and asking questions about famous quotes that even a ten-year-old with a passing knowledge of the medium would recognize instantly. That this is supposed to be a senior-level collegiate course implies that Louis has no familiarity with the intricacies of actual film school, not that such a thing is a prerequisite to a good movie or a talented filmmaker. The abysmal Stoker Hills, however, makes a strong case otherwise, presenting as a found-footage horror flick crossed with a substandard detective narrative that is self-serious to the point of near parody. Two obnoxious film nerds (David Gridley and Vince Hill-Bedford) armed with a handheld camera and enough weed to smoke both Cheech and Chong under the table set out to make their senior project, a short film entitled Street Walkers, in which zombie hookers wreak havoc on a small town. “Think The Walking Dead meets Pretty Woman,” is how one character describes it, which should clue the viewer in to the level of cleverness on display here. Unfortunately for them, their leading lady, “Two-Take” Erica (Steffani Brass) — trust me, she could use a few more takes — is abducted by a man in a beat-up car while filming late one night, resulting in a frantic search that ultimately involves two jaded police detectives (William Lee Scott and Eric Etebari) who are hot on the trail of a serial killer known only as “The Shadow” and who is unfortunately not a ‘90s-era Alec Baldwin re-enacting a famed radio show.
The first 30 minutes of Stoker Hills are almost entirely found-footage and exemplify the worst traits of the subgenre, including nausea-inducing shaky-cam, shallow focus, limited lighting, and tight close-ups, all of which obscure the action to a degree that makes it impossible to follow what is going on for more than one or two seconds. Once the action shifts to the police detectives and their fourth-rate Se7en shenanigans, the film’s aspect ratio changes from standard widescreen to Cinemascope, while the camerawork limits itself to static point-and-shoot, with the occasional flourishes of Steadicam and tracking shots thrown in. The film doesn’t necessarily look bad in this section and exhibits signs of competency, but it is aesthetically bland, which is at least in line with the sleep-inducing plot mechanics on display. For a film whose storyline ultimately hinges on a pig-to-human heart transplant, Stoker Hills is fatally devoid of any sort of fun, instead choosing to focus on endless filler where the two detectives exchange hard-bitten dialogue that is meant to recall classics of the genre but instead brings to mind a particularly awful DTV misfire from the ‘90s starring the likes of Stephen Baldwin and C. Thomas Howell. No attempt is made to make any of the action the least bit involving once the found-footage angle is mercifully dropped, as the central mystery is completely absent of thrills or surprises. A few splashes of blood here and there do little to alleviate the tedium, and the twist delivered at film’s end is a true kick in the balls that makes the preceding action both essentially pointless and wholly ironic given the final product on display. Found-footage as a whole is in desperate need of a new infusion of blood; Stoker Hills, unfortunately, might just be the final nail in the coffin, another anecdote to discuss in film courses around the globe. Thanks for the contribution.
Writer: Steven Warner