At times a disorienting mix of sobering terror and pulpy ‘demon movie’ conventions, the internal struggle Belzebuth wages over how to tackle a genre that is starting to feel ancient is evident early on. However, a script that is constantly on the run from the devil’s workshop keeps things fast and fresh, and ultimately manages to hold a fractured soul intact long enough to provide some supernatural thrills with hints of an Exorcist-meets–The Terminator vibe.
That may sound odd at first (and it is), as Belzebuth starts out more grounded. After a tragic (and horrifying) incident years earlier that cost him him his newborn son — and ultimately, his wife — detective Emmanuel Ritter is assigned to a mass shooting at a Mexican elementary school that has been perpetrated by a young boy. The sickening slaughter drudges up old nightmares, but when an American investigator for some sort of Vatican paranormal agency shows up and starts getting strange readings from the crime scene that may connect it to other mass attacks on children in the area, Ritter soon finds himself in pursuit of an ex-communicated priest who might be either the cause or the solution. While the pair tries to find out exactly what the evil force behind this carnage is after, they head down a road toward confrontation with demons both outside and in.
Along the journey, Belzebuth showcases plenty of creepy religious paraphernalia, white-eyed possessions, requisite talks about faith, a smattering of Ghost Hunter technobabble, and a John Connor-like figure who just might be a future savior of humanity — if he can survive. There are also more imaginative elements that definitely have a little more fun with the subject matter, occasionally dipping their toes into Sam Raimi levels of goofiness, such as with possessed pieces of cloth that suffocate and drag struggling victims into dark corridors, or a clever scene with a statue that comes to life which simultaneously tempts and taunts. In these moments, Belzebuth is a rollicking good time, one of those horror movies that will leave audiences smiling.
However, the film also depicts some uncomfortably shocking events that involve the deaths of multiple children, which at times can work against the more fantastical atmosphere that the rest of the story seems to be going for. These scenes are mostly front-loaded, giving the impression early on that Belzebuth is going to be darkly dramatic — a chilling examination of the nature of evil that is often hard to look at. Despite showing restraint when it comes to gore (which smartly helps his cause), director Emilio Portes doesn’t sugarcoat the callous wickedness of the atrocities in the slightest, presenting realistic scenarios that often hit a little too close to home. These sequences are skillfully assembled so as not to sensationalize the horror, and are highly effective at getting the audience’s attention.
So much so that when Belzebuth introduces the paranormal CSI team, who deliver lengthy tangents about high-speed cameras that record ghost sounds, or shine magic lights that illuminate ethereal hand prints while cracking wise, it can be a bit jarring. What kind of movie is this now? What had felt like it was going to be a slow, methodical boil now glosses over explanatory exposition as if impatient to get to the gooey parts. Gone is the clinical investigation of cold, heartless attacks, and in its place we get a demon tornado in a fortune teller’s house, an apocalyptic priest covered in symbolic ink, an eerie baby buggy, and an abridged — but still shrieky and messy — exorcism.
Belzebuth isn’t always pretty in its pursuit of a fresh take on the demon movie, but the result is nonetheless compelling.
One would think that these spirits don’t mesh, and it’s hard to argue in the various moments where disparate atmospheres meet that the transition is smooth. But Belzebuth nevertheless somehow pulls off the switch, segueing with such sincerity and craft that it’s difficult not to be pulled along. Portes gets all that pesky mystical dialogue out of the way as quickly as possible (except when a wizened, magnetic Tobin Bell is wheezing it out), and makes sure to pick up the pace; the faster things go, the crazier they get, the less questions asked. And before you know it, the film has turned from the investigative dread inspired by a Seven–like terror on the loose, into a thrilling (if sometimes clumsy) escape from an unstoppable force bent on finding and killing the one hope for mankind’s future.
In addition to Portes’ mostly steady hand at the helm, Belzebuth‘s ultimate success is greatly aided by an earthy cast capable of hitting whatever the script throws at them. Anchoring the proceedings is Joaqin Cosio as Ritter, whose weathered face, large frame, and lumbering gait is perfect for a man fighting his own disbelief (“In Mexico, even atheists are believers.”). His skepticism is countered by Tate Ellington’s wiry ghostbuster, hunting his supernatural perps with the measured enthusiasm of a Catholic G-Man. Tobin’s priest rounds these two out by lending an authoritative air to a mythology that is never quite sure of itself; if he says something, well, it must be true. A special mention must also be made for Jose Sefami, whose sympathetic sidekick detective comes across as a caring outsider always trying to find his way in. His quietly powerful performance will likely stick with viewers long after the sputtering oaths, holy water burns, and levitation has faded.
These people are champs, effortlessly gliding between the chilling and thrilling, even when their script stumbles in its demands. Because of their efforts, and the sharp filmmaking by Portes, audiences are never at a loss for reasons to keep watching. Belzebuth isn’t always pretty in its pursuit of a fresh take on the demon movie, but the result is nonetheless compelling.
Belzebuth releases on Shudder August 29th.
‘The Kingmaker’ is a Probing Look at the Wife of a Despot
The Queen of Versailles, released back in 2012, was one of the best documentaries of the decade. Directed by Lauren Greenfield, it followed Jackie Siegel, the trophy wife of David Siegel, founder of the timeshare company Westgate Resorts. The film depicted the family’s construction of what was to be the largest residential home in the United States, which quickly went awry once the 2008 financial crisis hit their business hard. The documentary showed that Greenfield has a unique gift for understanding the lives and pathologies of the super-wealthy. Seven years later, Greenfield is back with The Kingmaker, another documentary portrait of a rich lady — one who, like Jackie Siegel, also had a cartoonishly evil husband and a weakness for both opulent residences and rare exotic animals.
The Kingmaker is a portrait of Imelda Marcos, the First Lady of the Philippines from the 1960s to the ’80s. Imelda is known in the popular imagination as the supportive wife of that country’s dictator Ferdinand Marcos, for frequently meeting with world leaders, and for her extensive collection of thousands of pairs of shoes. This one is set on the other side of the world, but is just as instructive, not to mention entertaining.
Greenfield’s film catches up with the now 90-year-old Imelda, and depicts her life today as she luxuriates around her various estates, reminisces about late husband, tells stories about meeting with leaders from Reagan to Mao to Saddam, and pushes the political career of her son, known as Bongbong, who ran for vice president of the Philippines in 2016.
For the first half hour or so, The Kingmaker looks like an attempt to humanize and even rehabilitate Imelda’s image. She opens up about her mother’s death and her husband’s serial infidelities; he claimed he was constantly sending her around the world because he feared a coup, but really it was so he could conduct extramarital affairs.
We start to think this is, if not a puff piece, the equivalent of one of Errol Morris’ docs, where he gives a controversial political figure a chance to have their say while also challenging them.
But eventually things turn, and The Kingmaker lays out that the Marcos family had in fact engaged in massive human rights improprieties, from torturing political dissidents to rigging elections, to a scheme that entailed razing an entire residential area in order to build a zoo of exotic animals which were imported from Africa via bribes. Perhaps it was a clue early on when Imelda revealed how well she got along with the likes of Richard Nixon, Moammar Khadafy, Mao Tse-Tung, and Saddam Hussein.
The Marcos family also plundered billions from their own people, which paid for real estate all over the world, priceless art, as well as that famous shoe collection (The Kingmaker shows, among other things, that the Philippines could really use an Emoluments Clause.) What Imelda has to say now (she only ever refers to her husband as “Marcos”) makes it clear that she was not only complicit in the dictator’s crimes, but continues to defend and profit from them to this day.
And from what we see of the Marcos’ son, Bongbong, he’s a uniquely untalented and uninspiring politician who has inherited all of his father’s corruption, but none of his charisma. The Kingmaker also ties in with the modern-day politics of the country, as its current president, Rodrigo Dutarte, is shown as the true heir to the Marcos tradition, depicted as a Trump to Bongbong’s Jeb Bush.
The Kingmaker also recalls Joshua Oppenheimer’s great 2013 documentary The Act of Killing in the way it demonstrates how national myths are established and carried through the generations. We see schoolchildren reciting why the imposition of martial law was actually a moment of national glory.
Greenfield’s last film, last year’s Generation Wealth, was a big step down, lacking any focus and for some reason concentrating a great deal on people from the porn industry. But The Kingmaker is a return to form for the filmmaker, as it shows she’s honest enough to speak ill of her own subject.
‘Rojo’ Takes Carefully Composed Aim at Argentina’s Murky Past
Getting off to a creepy and crackling start, Benjamín Nasihtat’s Rojo can’t quite live up to its opening promise while admirably trying to navigate a muddied maze of vague suspicion around a small town in Argentina during the 1970s before the coup. Still, though the story bumps into a few dead ends before finally emerging into some light at the finish, exquisite compositions — punctuated by occasional bursts that mimic the time period’s cinematic style — and a quietly simmering performance from star Darío Grandinetti manage to keep things engaging enough throughout this low-key thriller.
After a mysterious opening shot in which an abandoned house in a pleasant neighborhood is calmly looted by various locals, Rojo directs our attention to a cozy, upscale restaurant where respectable lawyer Claudio sits alone, waiting for his wife, courteously acknowledged by other similarly well-off patrons. He draws the ire of another customer, who abrasively chides Claudio for occupying a table when he is not ready to order, thus depriving those who are. Pretending to take the higher road, Claudio gives up his seat, but can’t resist also giving this rude young man a lecture of his own — one that despite its refined vocabulary, smacks of hostile superiority. From there, an altercation ensues that will not only haunt Claudio for the rest of the film, but also stand for a certain societal rot that took over a country.
The sequence is chilling in its callousness, the way in which a person is removed from a restaurant — and a community — with nary a blink of an eye; soon, everyone is back to chattering away, enjoying their meals as if a mere pest had entered and was quickly shooed away. Beneath their civilized faces, however, their are subtle signs of deep unease. Rojo expertly creates a tension here that it will then go on to very slowly dilute, as more and more tangents are given prominence in an attempt to reinforce already clear themes without shedding new light on them.
The paranoia and guilt lurking beneath nearly every interaction in Rojo serves to bring attention to the various disappearances that take place and are alluded to throughout the story. That fear of being “disappeared” without a trace is a clear reference to the “los desaparecidos” — political dissidents from the era who either fled the country or were kidnapped and murdered in the wake of a military coup that wanted to silence opposition. The premise that one can suddenly say the wrong thing and summarily be erased from society while everyone looks the other way is an inherently scary one, and that pervading atmosphere goes a long way toward making Rojo highly watchable.
However, once the general idea is firmly and skillfully established, Rojo seems to have little place else to go with it. A subplot involving selling the house from the prologue is mildly interesting in how it portrays the opportunistic behavior that capitalized on atrocity, but the process eventually fizzles out. American rodeo cowboys pay a visit, alluding to U.S. involvement during the coup, but not much else. A trip to the beach perhaps shows a bit of the pressure that gets to those who have had to turn a blind eye for so long, but little else is garnered outside a stylish depiction of a solar eclipse that washes the screen symbolic red. A teenage romance seems like it’s reaching for something important to say about dominance and jealousy, but can’t come up with more than another disappearance — and of a character who might as well be a nobody regardless, for the few minutes they are on screen.
A missing doctor, a magician’s act, a church confrontation; the power of the vanishings is undermined somewhat by their frequency. But maybe that’s the point — that we all can be desensitized to injustice.
Still, whether or not one finds meaning, it’s hard to take one’s eyes off such gorgeously composed images as Nasihtat has crafted here. Though its plot often seems to lack focus, Rojo still emits a feeling of pinpoint exactitude through pictures. Nearly every frame is a joy to examine, creating a palpable sense that angles and staging have been meticulously prepared to convey important information key to unlocking the script’s mysteries. Restrained use of zooms and freeze frames also help inject some period style into the proceedings, and can be effectively startling. Holding it all together though is the repressed performance of Darío Grandinetti, who masterfully finds the quiet fear and hypocrisy in a certain kind of ‘upright’ citizen. As the various pressures grow (including from a big-city TV investigator played by Alfredo Castro), will he be able to hold it together?
The payoff is a bit anti-climactic, but Rojo has already been trending that way since the beginning. Nevertheless, it does conclude on a more explicit note, and there is a great visual pleasure to be had from simply watching this story unfold in such sharp, capable filmmaking hands.
‘Rojo’ is now available on digital formats from 1844 Entertainment.
‘Queen of Hearts’ is a Frank and Difficult Look at Sexual Desire
Trine Dyrholm is typically brilliant in Danish film ‘Queen of Hearts’ — playing an older woman embarking on an affair with her stepson.
Queen of Hearts starts with a rather banal scene. Anne (Trine Dyrholm) walks through the woods with her dog. Her children are just outside her large, glass-heavy house. She goes inside, where her husband, Peter (Magnus Krepper), says police have called and he has to go. She looks outside at some barren trees, dramatic strings play, and the title credits come on; it’s a seemingly innocuous moment curdled into something far more ominous.
This opening salvo with something moody and dark hiding within the banality and reliability of a simple family scene (later revealed to be in the future) sums up the Official Danish Best International Film submission Queen of Hearts as a whole. This is a film of bad decisions, loneliness, and creaky moral boundaries, interrogating the mores of modern womanhood against the backdrop of supposed domestic perfection.
Our protagonist, Anne, is a lawyer who works with children who have been abused. She knows how to talk to young victims of rape and neglect, balancing a firm sense of what’s right with the necessary language to give these children hope. But she has difficulties switching from work to home, unable to give her twin daughters the affection they deserve. One way for anyone to switch off and focus on life outside of work, of course, is to engage in some form of intimacy; yet, her hypocritical, workaholic doctor husband has little time to give her any attention in the bedroom.
When Peter’s teenage son, Gustav (Gustav Lindh), turns up to stay for the summer, Anne is immediately attracted to his moodiness and sexual swagger. Their slow seduction scenes seem to all come from different movies: porno (he suddenly comes out of the shower in the towel), summer indie drama (a scene in a lake with splashing water and an ecstatic soundtrack), and eventually horror (a writhing, overly staged sex scene in the dark that is extremely shocking in its frankness).
These shifts in tone reflect the film’s queasy study in shifting sympathies, making Queen of Hearts a modern morality play baked in typically Scandinavian seriousness. Is Anne simply engaging in a harmless affair, rediscovering her long-dormant sexuality? Or is the age difference simply too far? With echoes of both The Hunt (2012) and the women-focused sex-dramas of Lars von Trier, it is sure to provoke a mixture of praise for its brazen female sexual gaze, and eventually disgust for where this gaze finally takes us.
Most of us assume that we are good people, even as we are engaging in less than savoury activities. It may look bad to people on the outside, but we have our reasons. The ever-reliable Trine Dyrholm turns in another mesmerising performance here, balancing her own lack of sexual self-confidence against her outwardly authoritative presence as a lawyer. Even if we cannot agree with what she does, Dyrholm successfully conveys her character’s complexity, making her sympathetic throughout. But just as we can never judge ourselves objectively, we can never know the ultimate effect our actions may have on others, especially in a dynamic such as this, leading to some bitter results.
Queen of Hearts asks the viewer to never make assumptions, to think outside of clichés, and to really dig deep into the true heart of the matter. Director May el-Toukhy knows she has strong actors and a strong screenplay here, employing minimal tricks to just let them get on and really chew into the material. While unlikely to make it into the final Oscar shortlist, Queen of Hearts deserves a lot of credit for its utter brazenness and steadfast commitment to its difficult premise.
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