SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Run Rabbit Run” (2023)

Creepy kids continue to be all the rave in modern horror. The latest to tap into them is “Run Rabbit Run”, a haunting psychological horror film from director Daina Reid that premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The Australian made film stars Sarah Snook (“Succession”) as a mother dealing with the suddenly strange behavior of her 7-year-old daughter. In the process she’s taken back to deeply repressed memories from her childhood.

Written by Hannah Kent, “Run Rabbit Run” has a patience that sets it apart from the standard-issue horror fare we’ve grown accustomed to. It leans into the psychological aspect of its story as it examines a range of familiar themes, some better defined than others. And while you can’t help but recognize a few familiar horror movie tricks, Reid and Kent use them in a variety of ways that cleverly service their story.

After Elizabeth Moss dropped out due to a scheduling conflict, Sarah Snook was cast in the lead. She’s terrific playing a single mother named Sarah who’s still grieving the recent passing of her beloved father. She puts on a good show for her daughter Mia (Lily LaTorre), but deep down she still struggles with her loss. Her ex-husband Pete (Damon Herriman) and his new wife Denise (Naomi Rukavina) show concern, offering our first hint that something else might be going on with Sarah and Mia. It’s some really good table-setting from Reid and Kent.

Things take a wicked twist after a white rabbit suddenly shows up at their Melbourne home. Mia is intent on keeping it, but immediately begins acting peculiar upon its arrival. Her demeanor completely changes. She makes a crude bunny mask out of pink construction paper and wears it everywhere. She starts drawing ghoulish pictures on the back of her homework. Even stranger, Mia insists on being called “Alice” and demands to see Joan (Greta Scacchi), a grandmother she’s never met. “I miss people I’ve never met all the time,”she tells her concerned mom.

Several other things surface as the story unfolds, much of it to do with Sarah’s troubled past. We learn more about her broken relationship with her estranged mother Joan. And there’s a particularly painful loss from her past that resurfaces and begins chipping away at her psyche. Of course it’s all maneuvering towards several big final-act reveals, some of which become pretty obvious. But Reid holds enough of her cards close to the vest, and she doesn’t let her film get bogged down in genre routines.

Comparisons to Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook” seem all but inevitable. And a few of the movie’s tricks (such as the metaphorical use of a festering wound that won’t heal) may seem a tad too familiar. But “Run Rabbit Run” carves out its own identity through its meticulous pacing and its backstory mystery. Reid’s prowess with the camera gives the film an unnerving sensation, especially in the second half. And then you have Snook who’s able to sell every scene, even the ones we feel like we’ve seen before.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Room 203” (2022)

Something creepy is going on in room 203. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s just the apartment that two lifelong friends move into in this interesting horror film from director Ben Jagger. Based on a Nanami Kamon’s novel of the same name, the Japanese horror influence can be seen all over “Room 203”. You see it most in the slow, patient tension-building and in how its scares are often rooted in the psychological as much as the supernatural. And of course mood and atmosphere are essential.

But what surprised me most about “Room 203” was its welcomed patience. The trio of co-writers (Jagger, John Poliquin, and Nick Richey) clearly have something sinister at the center of their story. But they’re very deliberate and take their time getting there. In fact, for most of the second act, “Room 203” is more of a mystery movie than straight-up horror. Perhaps it’s a constraint brought on by the strict COVID-19 safety protocols and a limited budget. But it feels like a gutsy creative choice – one that works both for and against the film.

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Shot and (I think) set in Shreveport, Louisiana, the movie introduces us to Kim (Francesca Xuereb), a journalism major ready for her first year of college, and her best friend Izzy (Viktoria Vinyarska), a boisterous aspiring actress. The two friends come with their own sets of baggage. Kim is at odds with her disapproving parents who see Izzy as a bad influence. Izzy is still struggling to cope with the death of her mom – a loss that took her to some dark places.

Problems aside, Kim and Izzy are all set to become roommates, renting an apartment together in a historic former commerce building. Upon arriving at the property they’re greeted by their pasty-faced and glaringly weird landlord, Ronan (Scott Gremillion) who shows them #203. It’s a dated but cozy pad with “vintage” furnishings and accented by a beautiful but strange stained glass window. He wraps up his tour with a warning, “The basement is off limits to residents”. That’s always an indicator that we’ll end up there at some point.

The one detail Ronan left out was the apartment’s blood-soaked history (It’s no wonder rent is so cheap). Of course it soon comes to haunt the new tenants. Before long Kim and Izzy begin noticing a rash of unexplainable occurrences. There’s the ugly hole in Kim’s bedroom wall and the growing stench emanating from it. There’s the appearance of an old necklace and music box – totems that are clearly channeling some kind of malevolent force. And then there’s Izzy’s sudden sleepwalking (that’s never good, especially in a horror movie).

Image Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

Kim begins suspecting something’s not quite right with the apartment and recruits the help of her fellow journalism student and potential love interest, Ian (Eric Wiegand) to help her dig deeper into the building’s history. Along the way, Jagger sloooowly ratchets up the horror elements, never shying away from using a number of well-known horror tropes – figures scampering by in the shadows, mysterious foul smells, creaking floors, milky eyes, etc.

In a way I really appreciated the slow-burn and how it gave the characters more room to develop. But the movie does reach a point where the wait for the horror to kick in starts to feel long. And like so many other movies in its vein, “Room 203” leaves a lot of questions unanswered. But these are hardly dealbreakers, and the movie’s strong points are enough to offset, and in several cases overcome, its shortcomings. “Room 203” is now streaming on Hulu and on VOD.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “The Requin” (2022)

“Jaws” it’s not. Nor is it in the same category as “The Shallow”. Heck, I wouldn’t even lump it in with “The Meg”. But “The Requin” has sharks in it so at least they all have that in common. Unfortunately for it, the presence of sharks alone doesn’t make a movie entertaining. And in this case, when they do finally show up, they only add to the litany of problems that make this one of the worst movies of the year despite its good intentions.

“The Requin” is written and directed by Le-Van Kiet whose other 2022 film, “The Princess” was an underwhelming yet considerably better effort. With “The Requin”, the filmmaker’s story is all over the map. He tries to make an emotional family drama and a genre thriller at the same time. Sadly neither lands well and both are hampered with their own sets of problems that they simply can’t overcome.

Alicia Silverstone plays Jaelyn who is vacationing with her husband, Kyle (James Tupper). The couple are working through some heavy issues, namely losing their baby during a recent childbirth. It’s put a strain on their marriage as Kyle pushes to put it behind them while Jaelyn still struggles with PTSD and overwhelming feelings of guilt. So they’ve come to a luxury beach resort in Vietnam to try and save their marriage. But things start a little shaky and you can (sorta) feel the tension between the struggling couple.

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

Kyle has rented out an expensive above-water cabana with all the amenities, an exquisite ocean view, and snorkeling right outside their back door. Everything seems ideal except for one small detail – Jaelyn and Kyle came during monsoon season (smart). And wouldn’t you know it, a tropical storm hits in the middle of the night, shaking them from sleep. Before they’re able to escape, the storm knocks their cabana off its stilts and sends it drifting out to sea (don’t you hate it when that happens).

Thanks to this preposterous scenario, the movie quickly shifts from a relationship drama to an open-water survival thriller. But just as the undercooked relationship stuff is hard to get into, so is the survival angle, mainly because of the laughably hokey dialogue, the exaggerated performances, and the incredibly dumb decisions our two protagonists make. And when the CGI sharks finally arrive (nearly an hour into the movie), they actually make things even more ridiculous. It all culminates in an ending so mind-numbingly absurd, that it kills any sympathy you may have held for the film.

When watching “The Requin” you can see the gears turning as the film tries to bring something different to the screen. But the cheesy (and at times cringe-worthy) melodrama never remotely feels authentic. And the ludicrous character blunders and the laughably bad CGI make the whole man-versus-nature elements impossible to buy. And while its great to see Alicia Silverstone in a lead role, it’s a shame she’s give such bad material that more or less sets her up to fail. “The Requin” is now available of VOD and is streaming on Hulu.

VERDICT – 1 STAR

REVIEW: “Raymond & Ray” (2022)

Two of my favorite working actors teaming up in an off-beat family dramedy? That’s too much for me to pass up on. And wouldn’t you know it, “Raymond & Ray” turns out to be right up my alley. It’s the kind of slice-of-life movie I’m often drawn to. It doesn’t strive to be innovative, nor does it pretend to be something momentous. It’s a simple and grounded look at the human condition through the experiences of two well-rooted characters. It’s tight in scope and honest with its emotions, but it also finds time for levity which is welcomed considering death is a key component.

Written and directed by Rodrigo García, “Raymond and Ray” features a story that’s a bit warped and even a little zany. Yet it always has its feet planted in reality. It follows two half-brothers. Both are very different people who have lived very different lives. Yet they do have one thing in common – they both detest their father. And that shared hatred has only driven them apart. Not because of any disdain for each other (they were actually inseparable as kids). But because being together only brings back the memories of the neglect and abuse they experienced.

Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

Ewan McGregor plays Raymond, an straight-laced stiff with two divorces behind him who’s now separated from his third wife. Ethan Hawke plays Ray, a recovering heroin addict who once aspired to be a trumpet player but gave it (and everything else) up after his wife died of cancer. Both are damaged people whose lives never panned out they way they hoped. And they sought answers in places that only led to more problems.

The movie opens with Raymond arriving at Ray’s house to inform him that their father has died. It’s the first time the two have seen each other in years and even longer since either had seen their estranged father. Ray isn’t especially moved by the news, but he is surprised to learn that their father’s dying wish was that his sons attend his funeral. Ray says to brush it off. After all, the old man’s dead; he won’t know. But Raymond wants them to go (plus he recently lost his drivers license after a DWI so he needs a ride). Ray reluctantly agrees, and the two load up and make a trip to Richmond.

After arriving, Raymond and Ray discover that their late father’s last wishes didn’t end at attending his funeral. He also left word that his boys were to dig his grave and cover it up (their father was able to get the cemetery’s consent through a bogus religious freedom request – a funny gag that pops up several times). While Raymond sees it as their duty, Ray quickly begins to lose patience. Was this really a heartfelt wish of their dead dad or was he heartlessly screwing with them from beyond the grave?

Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

From the very start, the story structure of “Raymond & Ray” is pretty obvious. There will be plenty of revelations along the way, both for the two half-brothers and the audience. These reveals come through their father’s various acquaintances who describe a much different man than Raymond and Ray experienced. Among them are their father’s attorney (Oscar Nunez), his former lover (Maribel Verdú), his pastor (Vondie Curtis-Hall), and his nurse (Sophie Okonedo). Raymond and Ray begin to discover who their father became in recent years. But it doesn’t erase who he was in the past, and those old wounds prove to be deep and painful.

While Garcia gives us plenty of great character moments and some genuinely good laughs, the story doesn’t fully stick its ending. Obviously I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say one lead character ends in a more believable place than the other. But for the most part, “Raymond & Ray” has all the heart and quirkiness it needs to work well as a dysfunctional family drama and a subtle black comedy. And it doesn’t hurt to have talent the caliber of McGregor and Hawke, two savvy seasoned actors who keep this oddball tale on a human level. “Raymond & Ray” premieres October 21st on Apple TV+.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Road Dance” (2022)

Sexual assault, trauma, war, small town oppression – just some of the weighty themes woven into the very fabric of “The Road Dance”, a handsomely shot old-fashioned melodrama from writer-director Richie Adams. Based on the 2004 novel of the same name by John MacKay, “The Road Dance” handles its sensitive issues with the right amount of empathy and thoughtfulness. And though a touch soapy in spots, even those scenes are elevated by an eye-opening lead performance from Hermione Corfield.

Based on actual true events, the story is set in a small, tight-knit community in the Scottish Outer Hebrides. Kirsty McLeod (Corfield) has long been a dreamer, ever since the days of sitting on the beach with her late father, listening to him talk about the world beyond their shores. And while her father may be gone, she still dreams of more than planting potatoes on the same land farmed by her parents. She wants bigger things. She wants to go to America. But it’s a dream that seems so far out of reach.

As the outside world braces for the First World War, Kirsty lives in a tiny remote village with her hard-working mother, Mairi (Morven Christie) and her younger sister, Annie (Ali Fumiko Whitney). It’s an exquisitely realized setting, from the stone houses with grass covered rooftops to the collection of folks who make up the community. You have their priest, their constable, their doctor, and even an odd hermit named Skipper. They all bring such authenticity and character to the film.

Also among the locals is the well-mannered, book-loving Murdo (Will Fletcher) who returns to the village after a tour with the British military. He immediately takes a liking to Kirsty, and the two soon fall in love. But before they can begin their future together, Murdo and three other young men from the village are called to England where they’re to be sent to the Western Front. On the night before the four boys are sent off to war, the village honors them with a ‘road dance’. But for Kirsty, the already sad occasion takes a darker turn after she’s the victim of a horrific crime.

From there the bulk of the film deals with the aftermath, in one part playing like a mystery to uncover Kirsty’s assailant. But the more potent aspect of the story follows a young woman forced to hide her trauma from a small town’s judgement. It’s here that Adams does an especially good job peeling back the many complicated layers, revealing the idyllic storybook setting to be anything but. And it’s in the film’s second half that the intensely committed and throughly engaging Corfield shines brightest. She does most of the film’s heavy lifting, earning our empathy through her honesty and vulnerability.

The movie does feel a little hammy at times (a fault of the screenplay, more so than the acting), and some of the early proclamations of love aren’t particularly convincing. I’m also not sure about the abruptness of the final scene. But there’s an overall sincerity to the storytelling that makes “The Road Dance” more than a standard-issue weepie. And as the drama unfolds to the ruggedly gorgeous backdrop, it’s hard not be swept away. But we’re always brought back to earth, in large part thanks to the revelatory lead work from Hermione Corfield – a star in the making.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Rogue Agent” (2022)

I swear, there must be 100 movies with titles similar to “Rogue Agent” (and I bet I’ve watched and/or reviewed half of them). But generic name aside, this new British drama/thriller very much has a feel all its own. It’s a slow-burning yet meticulously paced fact-based story that takes its time setting up its pieces. But once you get a sense for what’s happening, it’s hard not to be gripped by this appalling and kinda crazy true account.

“Rogue Agent” is co-directed by Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn from a screenplay the duo co-wrote with Michael Bronner. It’s based on a magazine article Bronner wrote titled “Chasing Agent Freegard” which spotlighted Robert Hendy-Freegard. He was a con-man who masqueraded as an MI5 agent to lure in and manipulate numerous people, often separating them from their families and stripping them of their money. The true details are astonishing, and the film pulls pieces from several real accounts to craft a story that gives us a good grasp of Freegard and his shameless deceit.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

The movie opens in 1993 where Robert (played by James Norton, with his natural good looks and deceptively tender smile) works as a bartender in a small college town. We’re told in voice-over about Robert’s cunning. About his keen ability to read people and persuade them. We watch him stealthily target three students and later convince them that he is an undercover agent with MI5. We see him dupe them into believing an Irish Republican Army cell was embedded at the university (during the volatile 1990s the IRA waged a bombing campaign in England. So his claims would get attention). And we watch as he recruits them to be freelance spies for MI5 who report only to him.

I know it sounds unbelievable – like an absurd movie storyline no one would ever buy into. In reality, this is exactly the kind of game Robert Freegard played, and the emotional, psychological, and financial damage left in his wake remains immeasurable. Patterson and Lawn do a good job emphasizing the harm done to Robert’s victims, many of them young women.

Nine years pass and we’re introduced to Alice Archer (Gemma Arterton), a litigation solicitor for a big law firm. While walking to work she meets Robert who now works as a luxury car salesman (fitting). Despite her cautious nature, Robert’s charm does its work and the two begin a romantic relationship. But when Alice begins to notice inconsistencies in his stories she must decide whether to go with her heart or trust her instincts.

Inevitably the true account removes some of the suspense, but I still won’t spoil where the story goes. While much of what we see is fictional, most of it is inspired directly from the real-life encounters victims had with Freegard. And that’s what makes “Rogue Agent” work. Nothing about the story feels false. It remains grounded and avoids all temptations to turn itself into a full-on genre film. It has its slow patches, but it never loses its authenticity and it never loses our interest.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

The film is also helped by strong performances from Norton and Arterton. Norton brings some fascinating layers to Robert. Some of them help us understand why so many people could be seduced by his wiles. Others give us deeper looks at the depths of his duplicity. Meanwhile Arterton makes Alice a solid protagonist who’s always walking uphill in her male-dominated world. But she’s hardly a damsel in distress, and Arterton frequently shows us Alice’s strength and resilience in their many forms. There’s also a really good performance from Marisa Abela who plays Sophie Jones, one of Robert’s early victims who ends up having a big part to play in the story.

It’s truly hard to fathom Robert Freegard’s extraordinary guile but also his shocking callousness. “Rogue Agent” paints a vivid and fittingly diabolical portrait of the scam artist and all his deceptive layers. And by putting a heavy emphasis on Arterton’s character, we’re allowed to see things from the victim’s perspective. The deliberate pacing may push away some, but it’s key to presenting to us the overall picture of this unthinkable story that would be impossible to believe if it weren’t true. “Rogue Agent” opens Friday in select theaters and streaming on AMC+.

VERDICT – 4 STARS