The Story of 90 Coins (2015): Sheer Perfection (Review) [Update]

Zhuang Zhiqi as Chen Wen

[Update] We have included a link to the film on Vimeo and the film’s Facebook page at the end of this review.

Every once in a great while someone will create something that is sheer perfection. An effort that marries concise storytelling with an unsurpassed beauty that speaks to the romantic heart beating in our chests. The Story of 90 Coins, helmed by first time director Michael Wong and starring a cast of relative unknowns is nigh on perfect.

Running just over nine minutes, the short film tells the story of Wang Yuyang (Dongjun Han) and Chen Wen (Zhuang Zhiqi) and, later, peripherally Andre (Jose Acosta) who intrudes on the couple’s relationship.

The film starts with Wang trying to convince a hesitant Chen Wen of his love. She resists a proposal by saying she does not feel the same way. He then suggests a 90 day period in which he proves his love to her. Chen Wen agrees.

Each day, YuYang gives his love a coin. At the end of 90 days, he says,  if she accepts him he will use the money to purchase their marriage certificate.  If she does not choose him, Wang says,  they can buy a few drinks where they first met and never see each other again.

Chen Wen narrates the 90 day process, where Wang gives her a “gift wrapped” coin every single day. She relates that they became a couple almost unconsciously. They do not,  however, marry as originally planned by YuYang, she is not ready just yet.

Enter the presence of Andre, a fashion designer who has his own designs on Chen Wen. Wang is concerned and jealous of this hopeful suitor. This leads to a break in relations and Chen Wen decides that perhaps Wang is not the soulmate she agreed to marry.

As she prepares to leave, she learns that inside each carefully wrapped coin is a love letter from YuYang. We are treated to a montage of funny, loving and touching moments that show just how special that 90 day time period really was.

In his first time in the director’s chair, Michael Wong has hit, in sports parlance, a home run. The Story of 90 Coins takes us through a plethora of emotions all in just over nine minutes.

The tale, and the actors who tell it, takes us back to that  one true love we all worked so hard to keep. We feel the euphoria of young love, the pain of breaking up and the bitter regret that follows.

Written by Bai Xuedan the short film is a thing of beauty. Cinematographer Liwei Jian presents each frame flawlessly. The trio of this intimate cast come across as gorgeously young creatures that we fall in love with. Even the interloper Andre is seen as an unbelievably attractive threat to Wang’s relationship with Chen Wen.

The editing is perfect and the ending, which according to the trivia found on IMDb was not as planned, leaves us forlorn and pinning for what we may never have.

At its very core, Wong’s romantic drama can be seen as an intricate take on the old bon mot of “women never knowing what they want until it’s gone.” Michael gives us a punchline presented so beautifully that we might just miss the implications at first glance.

The very power of this film to make us weep, both for joy at young love and for the loss of it later on, is a testament to the talent of this new director.

Out of the 5 star scale used by Mike’s Film Talk to score films, The Story of 90 Coins is a clear 6. Concise, stunning and poignant, this film does it all. With 11 festival awards and a further six nominations this is a brilliant first time effort. We cannot wait to see more from Michael Wong.

For more information about the film head on over to the official Facebook page. You can watch the film here:

The Story of 90 Coins from Michael Wong on Vimeo.

The Witch (2016): Turning Hansel and Gretel On Its Head (Review)

Anya Taylor Joy as Thomasin

Several things stand out in The Witch. Right off the bat, there is that heavy Yorkshire accent combined with the “Olde English” phraseology. Granted there is not one “Eee by gum” to be heard but writer director Robert Eggers’ decision to have his protagonists come from “God’s Country” was a sly bit of irony considering the circumstances of the plot and the players in it.

Another is the emphasis on the bleakness of the setting.  The downright dourness of all the early settlers who faced a new world with God in their heart and a blunderbuss at their side. Pundits today who work overtime to take the humor from this modern day world would have fit right in. Eggers’ pilgrims have no sense of humor at all.

Of course the main theme here is the simplicity of the people who believed that God almighty was to be found everywhere if they only kept him in their heart. Eggers took this belief system and infused it with a twisted version of Hansel and Gretel, with a touch of “Little Red Riding Hood,” where the witch is not vanquished at all.

Considering the dire reviews that some gave The Witch when it came out, it seems that that Yorkshire accent and all those thy’s and thee’s and come hither’s may have put American audiences off. But “by ‘eck that were how they talked” back then.

(Thick Yorkshire accents are best understood by those who come from “God’s Country.” The rest of the human race have to really work at picking out about half of what is said.)

The film does offer something else in spades though; above and beyond the woodcutter link to a Grimm’s Fairy Tale or two.

The Witch has atmosphere and a sense of foreboding so powerful it practically leaps off the screen.  Watching the film is an exercise in tension. There is also  a feeling that Eggers may well be telling his version of Job in the new world. (One of the characters actually references that particular parable.)

The moment the family are banished from the “plantation” we know this is going to end badly for William (Ralph Ineson), Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their family. Sure enough, not long after relocating Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is out playing peek-a-boo with the youngest family member when the baby boy is stolen between glances. 

Eggers throws a lot into the mix. He includes the hysteria from the Salem Witch Trials and the two smallest children of the family, after the theft of the baby, sound nothing like their parents or older siblings. The duo are thick as thieves and sound years older than they actually are.

The youngest children, after the baby is stolen, are damned creepy and disturbing.

The two  throw fits and mimic the gyrations of the young girls who were responsible for so many being punished for witchery in Massachusetts. This adds to the suspense and overall sense of foreboding that rules the film.

(There is a bit where a hand flies up to cradle young Caleb’s head, played brilliantly by Harvey Scrimshaw, and the very sight of the hand is enough to make the keyed up viewer gasp and jerk away from the screen.)

Most agree that Anya Taylor-Joy nails it in this film. Clearly this young actress is one to watch and she will be the next big thing in the acting world for a long time to come.

However, this was not a one person show. All the actors knocked it out of the park. Ineson with that deep resonant Yorkshire voice of authority, Dickie ringing the changes on her emotional toil and inner strength, Scrimshaw and his change after that meeting in the woods and the youngest actors: Ellie Grainger and Lucas Dawson were just brilliant.

Anyone watching this film may never want to go near a black goat again…ever. (Black Phillip was damned creepy full stop.) It may also go a long way toward explaining just how well the mixture of religious fervor and old fashioned superstition combined to create such an atmosphere of sheer dread.

It is interesting to note that one of the plot devices entailed Katherine rounding on Thomasin and making the girl’s life a misery. Since she has “come into womanhood” the mother insists that it is time for the child to leave.

This appears to be an British cultural issue and is even alluded to, in jest, in the John Ford film The Quiet Man. In the 1952 film, the conspiracy against Squire Danaher is that two grown women cannot live under the same roof. (It holds true to this day as this writer can firmly attest.)

The Witch may not be the scariest film made in 2015, it had some pretty decent competition, it is, however,  undoubtably the most unsettling and atmospheric horror film of the year.

Cinematographer Jarin Blashchke does a brilliant job in terms of lighting and each frame is nigh on perfect.  The sound is spot on while the sets and  the costumes feel authentic  right down to the smallest detail.

Fans appeared to be split in their reactions to the film. Most seeming to want or expect jump scares every two seconds. There are, at least a couple of these popcorn hurling moments in The Witch and they are far enough apart that each come as a surprise.

For those who appreciate a nuanced horror film that takes its time to set up the finale, The Witch is a 4.5 star film. It loses a half star for that, at times, impenetrable Yorkshire accent.

The film  is on Amazon Prime at the moment as well as other streaming and On-Demand platforms and available on DVD. Fans of horror films will want to check it out if they have not already. It is worth watching.

Abomination (2015): Brilliant Mystery Thriller (Review)

Abomination

Co-written and directed by Yam Laranas (who also worked as DP) Abomination holds the viewer’s interest from start to finish. Classed as a mystery thriller this latest offering from the man who gave us The Echo is the cinematic version of a “page turner.” Quite literally, the film is an addictive treat that one feels compelled to stick with to its very surprising end.

The story follows young Rachel Rivera, a troubled teen with a number of mental issues. She feels responsible for putting her father in a coma and is on medication  meant to help her control her emotions.

Rachel, it seems, has trouble separating truth from fiction. She also has an anger management problem. The film starts with Rivera covered in blood and in a state of confusion.

The mystery starts immediately and the story keeps the audience on its toes as the young teenager struggles to make contact with her family. She is taken to hospital and when the well-meaning nurse calls Rachel’s mother, the woman hangs up.

Throughout the film the audience is taken back to Rachel’s recent past. The girl relives various traumatic and upsetting memories and we are privy to her pain and confusion.

Filmed in the Philippines, Abomination features English dialogue and has not, apparently, been dubbed. This adds a lot to the proceedings and each actor manages to knock it out of the park despite the odd awkward speech pattern.

Tippy Dos Santos is spot on as the heroine of the piece. As Rachel she manages to convey both sides of this troubled character almost effortlessly. To Santos’ credit we never see the wheels turning behind her performance.

Toni Moynihan play’s Rachel’s mum Vicki with a mixture of tired resignation and helpless anger at the situation she finds herself in. Justine Peña, as Mindy, makes the most of a smaller role and, like Santos, convinces as the confused best friend.

David Bianco, as Dan, makes a splendid rotter and the audience applauds when this roofie toting miscreant gets his comeuppance.

Laranas manages to shift the gears of the film almost seamlessly. There are a number of revelations, some more traumatic than others, that continue to surprise the audience.

Abomination has been put together very well. As one attempts to piece together events that have shaped Rachel’s recent past and present, each occurrence dovetails perfectly with the O. Henry ending.

Yam Laranas is a master storyteller. (He shares writing credits with Gin De Mesa, Oscar Fogelström and Paolo Vacirca – the latter two for the screenplay.) In this project he manages to infuse the film with what feels like a supernatural slant.

Yam does not disappoint with his latest effort. His protagonist is a character we root for from the very first frame. The twists and turns of her story captivate as much as they mystify.

Rachel works so hard to learn the truth of who she is and how she came to die that we empathize completely with her plight. When at last the mystery is solved the audience is shocked.

Abomination is a solid 5 star film. It keeps the viewer guessing right up until the reveal and at 90 minutes never drags. Tippy Dos Santos makes the most of her role and gives the audience a heroine that is easy to root for.

The Dead Room (2015): Based on a True Suburban Legend (Review)

Laura Petersen as Holly in The Dead Room

Every so often a film is released that ticks all the boxes and rings all the bells.  The Dead Room is one of these gems, a film that dares to leave the “found footage” trend alone and delver an old fashioned haunted house movie along the lines of  The Legend of Hell House.  Although this film is based on a “true” suburban legend.

Despite this New Zealand film delivering a brilliant suspenseful and slow build to a satisfying conclusion there are some who just did not “get it.”  A critic for the LA Times was very dismissive of the film. Perhaps he did not understand that jump scares, buckets of blood and nubile young ladies being sliced and diced does not apply to all horror films.

Maybe, God forbid, the reviewer thought it should have been a found footage film.

Jason Stutter and Kevin Stevens wrote the screenplay after hearing about the legend in a pub. Sutter directs the film and manages to put everything together nicely.  The Dead Room is an intimate picture with only three characters, not counting the ghostly house and its violence prone otherworldly visitor. 

Laura Petersen is Holly; a psychic who is afraid of ghosts and hauntings,  makes up one third of the ream of researchers. Jeffrey Thomas is the team leader Scott who does not believe in ghosts but desperately wants to see one. Jed Brophy is Liam the team’s science nerd. 

As the trio investigate the recently deserted house, the family left with the clothes on their backs,  it takes a long while for the spirit to cooperate. Once it does the activity increases steadily and finally the team  experience the ghost’s presence.

The pacing of the film is slow but steady. Sutter chooses to build on the unease generated by the spirits activities. At a time when there are more than a few paranormal investigative teams on television (Ghost Hunters  aka *TAPS* and Most Haunted to name but two) the film covers familiar ground.

Using the formula,  established by not just the paranormal shows mentioned above, but by real procedures used by non-televised “ghostbusters” as  well, the film looks fairly convincing. Anyone familiar with these ghost hunts will recognize the procedure of sit and wait.

For all the complaints about the slowness of the film’s action, things do not really take that long to escalate. The conversations between the small team help to establish the characters of each player.

The opening door, part of the legend of the real haunted house, the footsteps and the escalation of the ghost’s interactions all move forward to reveal a surprising conclusion to the film.

It appears that the ending was possibly influenced to a degree by the 1973 film The Legend of Hell House, albeit a lot less theatrical and overblown.  Regardless of this, the film delivers its eerie and atmospheric tone almost to perfection.

This is not a film about a boogeyman that indiscriminately hacks and slashes his victims. Nor is it a “blockbuster” chills and thrills horror movie along the the lines of The Conjuring franchise.

The Dead Room is a fine example of New Zealand horror that is underplayed to allow the audience to get caught up in the film.   It is far easier to suspend one’s disbelief when events are handled in a restrained and well paced manner.

Petersen is convincing as the psychic who really does not enjoy her job. Thomas and Brophy also bring a certain truth to their characters making this little trio of ghostbusters feel as authentic as any of Jason Hawes‘ team from TAPS.

This is a brilliant haunted house film that earns a full 5 stars for delivering  a creepy and slowly escalating sense of unease and fear.  It serves up an excellent twist that is truly surprising and it is very entertaining. Horror fans expecting more hoopla and less suspense should give this one a miss.

Cut Snake (2015): Smoldering Sullivan Stapleton (Review)

Sullivan Stapleton and Alex Russell

Set in 1970s Australia, Cut Snake features a smoldering Stapleton Sullivan who moves through most of the film like a big jungle cat. He visits his old mate Sparra Farrell (Alex Russell) and finds him engaged to Paula (Jessica De Gouw).

Directed by Tony Ayres, from a screenplay by (Blake Ayshford),  Cut Snake puts the audience on tender hooks almost from the first frame. Pommie (Sullivan) travels from Sidney to Melbourne to see his pal, Sparra.  Once he arrives,  Pommie wastes no time integrating into  Sparra and Paula’s life. 

As the fim progresses the audience learn more about Sparra and Pommie. Pommie is all testosterone fueled aggression and  he seems full of cheerful menace. Sparra is adamant that he has gone straight. Pommie sets about tearing down his friend’s new life after prison.

Ayres gives the audience a brilliant bit of misdirection. The first part of Cut Snake is full of Sparra’s unease at Pommie’s emergence from prison.  Both men increase the tension level with their “back and forth” and it seems that initially Pommie is interested in Paula.

The film then shifts direction and it is revealed that Pommie is not interested in Sparra’s fiancée at all.

Cut Snake is a nerve wracking film to watch. Even after Pommie’s true motivations are revealed, the tensions do not abate  one iota. The vast majority of the film is spent waiting for that other shoe to drop.

Midway through it does and it lands heavily.

At its core, Cut Snake is a romance film set against a thriller background.  All the actors really deliver and delved deep to find their characters’ inner truth.  The unease felt every single time that Stapleton appears on screen, never goes away.

The desperation felt by Sparra, who frantically tries to go straight, is equally present in Pommie. The violence prone hard man is pure frustrated  rage topped by a crushing longing for something that, he learns eventually, he cannot have.

Ayres puts the film together brilliantly. The scenario is compelling and nigh on impossible to stop watching. Sullivan looms large in every single scene he is in.  He emits a presence so intense it is difficult to imagine sharing screen time with the actor.

The music screams the ’70s, from Linsey de Paul to David Essex singing the eternally catchy tune Rock On,  it all brings 1974 Sydney to living breathing life.  The clothes look perfect and everything from the sets to the cars is spot on.

Sparra’s carefully laid plans crumble to pieces as Pommie refuses to leave. He drags his old cellmate down back into a life Sparra swore to leave behind.

Sullivan, who is currently wowing the world on Blindspot makes Pommie bigger than life. The former convict is all muscle and attitude in his quest for what he desires. By the end of the film viewers who are not familiar with Sullivan’s work will realize he has Goliath sized chops.

Alex Russell holds his own in this intense story of love, betrayal and criminal activities down under. De Gouw does not shirk her acting duties either and all three really deliver in this  Aussie thriller.

Cut Snake is streaming on Hulu  and is definitely worth watching.  This is 5 star entertainment. The film, almost two hours long, never drags and is impossible to stop watching.  Check out the trailer below: