Freaks (2019)

A weird, intense man keeps his seven-year-old daughter locked away in their house while training her to act like a “normal” person because if she doesn’t, bad guys will kill them both.

But enough about me.

So I sound-proofed it.
I, too, got tired of my children complaining about the ghosts in the tiny, dark room I locked them in.

In this movie, Emile Hirsch (Killer Joe)—who is not a young, skinny Jack Black, don’t be fooled—plays “Dad” to Chloe (Lexy Kolker) while nursing a seemingly paranoid fantasy about “bad men” who want to kill them. We immediately know not all is as it seems because Chloe is, indeed, a freak. In particular, she can see into remote locations—and be seen in those locations—though she’s not aware she’s doing it.

Chloe desperately wants a mom, since her own mother (Mary, Amanda Crew, “Silicon Valley”) died when she was a baby. Dad has a plan to train her to be normal, then let her live with the family across the street neighbors, which is something Chloe desperately wants. So much so that she projects into her future foster sister’s bedroom and makes her pretend to be her mother, cuddle her and tell her she loves her.

Dad, too, seems odd, since he insists he can only protect her if he doesn’t fall asleep. And when he does fall asleep, things happen: The lights in the house go on, the water starts working, strange noises emerge from outside, etc.

Or possbily anything anywhere.
Bruce Dern appears in an ice cream truck. Scarier than anything in “IT”.

I won’t spoil it, because this movie works by imposing a number of layers on top of each other, each of which by itself is fairly ordinary, but which keep you engaged until the next layer is pulled back. It takes about 30 minutes to get a strong picture of what’s going on, for example, with the mysterious ice cream man (Bruce Dern, aged hippie, and, oh, I dunno, From Up On Poppy Hill) who is aggressively trying to lure Chloe into his truck. But then you have the mystery of what the deal is with Dad. And is the (really hot) Federal Agent (Grace Park, who appears mostly on TV and in my better dreams) good or evil or somewhere in between, and more importantly: can she be trusted?

The thing that works about this movie is that it sets up its rules (which are admittedly rather broad, conceptually) and then lives by them. You learn X, and that explains certain phenomena that come before (and more importantly, in some ways, after). Then you learn Y, which explains some other stuff, and so on until you get a fairly good (if simple) picture of what the world is and how our characters play their roles in it.

And shock of shocks, for a movie which is about existential crises for all of humanity, it’s rather non-judgmental. The second half of the movie, when it seems like it could veer into straight up action, reminds us that what we’re viewing is actually pretty horrifying. There’s a lot of murder going on—and it’s all pretty understandable. Which is a kind of uncomfortable feeling. Obviously, we’re biased one way by the mere orientation of the telling—but on the other hand, we (the audience) would be the very definite losers of any the scenarios that play out where we’re rooting for one side over the other.

She's good looking, is what I'm getting at.
This movie makes me feel conflicted about Grace Park. That’s something I never want to feel.

It’s shockingly nuanced for a modern movie, much less a horror movie, and it does it without being political. I was worried because of this one line (naturally played in the trailer) where they talk about “making people illegal”—a red flag, stay-away sign for anyone not wanting to be bludgeoned with some heavy-handed pro-illegal-alien message. But in the movie, there’s: a) no connection made  (or even reasonably plausible) to our modern immigration crises; b) no real judgment as to whether or not “making people illegal” is good or bad. And not just immigration, the movie skillfully avoids any real sociopolitical commentary on homeschooling, racism or any of the other low-hanging fruit lazy writers go to these days.

The later half gets a little action-y, as mentioned, but there’s still a fair amount of horror, or at least horrific moments. The ending, involving a hellfire missile, edges into goofy, but in a sort of expected cinematic way, kind of like Ready Or Not‘s somewhat bombastic denouement. It didn’t bug me much. It’s still technically summer, after all. Also, that last section is a good, suspenseful build-up with a little cat-and-mouse between the (hot) federal agent and dad, as the latter stalls for time and the former is smart enough to put the pieces together

Besides being hot, federal agent woman is kind of a complex character. She comes off as a bleeding heart at times early on (when she’s on TV) but then she’s as tough and no-nonsense as her character would really have to be. Top notch acting, which is true of all the principals. Emile Hirsch’s torment bubbles under the surface but ends up explaining a lot of his nigh-hysteria, as he literally lives an existence no one else is for nearly seven years. (This makes perfect sense in context.) Amanda Crew has limited screen time but she makes the most of it, being both sympathetic on the one hand, and a little scary on the other (much like Dad). Why, Bruce Dern nearly convinces me he’s not thoroughly evil. (I kid the Dern, he’s quite good here, though I think his nose hairs should get 10% of his fee.)

It's a mountain?
If you look closely, you can see where Trump signed the wall. (I kid! It’s not even a wall!)

Speaking of small amounts of screen-time they do a lot with, the across the street neighbors played by Ava Telek, Matty Finochio and especially Michelle Harrison do great work in their one main scene. And a special shout-out to the thuggish Alex Paunovic, who provides the climactic moments of the film with its weird mix of horror and comedy. Paunovic and (sidekick federal agent) Reese Alexander were in Dead Rising: Watchtower, an earlier attempt by writer/director team Zach Lipovsky and Adam B. Stein.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say this movie is better (not having seen the former) but I don’t think it will be very popular. Actually, I’m seeing now that it was only released into 111 theaters which means it probably won’t have a chance to be very popular, which is—well, it’s probably sensible from a business perspective. This story really inverts some common and very popular movie tropes, similar to Brightburn, which had much bigger names attached and got a much wider release and (I imagine) was a lot less challenging.

As I said early on: There’s a whole lot of murder in this movie and you really end up understanding all of it. That makes a man uncomfortable. And most people don’t like to be uncomfortable.

Every time.
I hate it when they pretend to be asleep so you have to carry them out of their burning room.

Ne Zha

Two, count ’em, two Chinese movies playing in Alhambra, and at the AMC which meant another month of squeezing value out of their $25/mo A-List service. But there was a rub: The last movie (Line Walker 2) got out five minutes after the this one started, and A-List doesn’t let you book overlapping events, which I can understand in principle. But, come on: A modern movie has a good five minutes of credits on it!

I struggled with it a bit. Then when Line Walker turned out to be 98 minutes long with credits, well, I was in a bind. It still wouldn’t let me book the film, even with a solid 20 minutes of spare time prior. But I’ve paid for this service. I could’ve tried to resolve the issue with the management but, come on, what’s a branch manager going to do about it? Best case is she—I don’t know why it would be a woman, but there it is—lets me in anyway. Worst case is she doesn’t.

You WANT to do the right thing.
Lookin’ innocent.

So we just sat down. Even though the principle is not damaged (we did not take anyone’s seat or displace any money, except maybe as far as recompensing Ne Zha‘s producers), I was not thrilled with the situation. I mean, I’m the guy who went to the After Dark Horror Fest year after year with The Boy and bought eight tickets, one for each movie, even when all I had to do was sit there and wait for the next to start. (At the time it worked out to about $200. Yikes.)

Then, after all that, as the credits started to roll on this one, I thought “Have we made a terrible mistake?” I mean, this is a kids film. And kids films are always risky, except for a few brief windows: Disney flicks in the ’90s, Pixar’s in the ’00s…uh…Disney Flicks in the ’50s…

I mean, it’s kind of funny because kid flicks have legs, you know? How many generations have watched the 1938 Snow White and how many non-kids can still enjoy those films. The best ones tend to be timeless because they’re not constantly bumping up against pop culture references (that the kids wouldn’t understand), politics, or complicated (and often bad) messaging.

But the bad ones, oh, Lord. They’re bad. And some of the CGI here is shall-we-say lower-budget looking compared to American fare. And yet.

Bit by bit the movie won us over.  Again, I am profoundly struck by how much freer Chinese movies feel compared to American ones—and this is compounded by the fact of being a movie for children. First, though, a quick look at the plot:

Hairy like a Chinese dragon.
Buckle up, this is gonna get hairy.

There is, in the heavens, a Chaos Pearl which can absorb heavenly energies. But it gets out of hand, so the Heavenly Father, Tianzun, sends two of his minions, the goofy riding-a-flying-pig chubster Taiyi and the lean and serious Chen to subdue it. It’s too powerful, though, absorbing all the energy they can throw at it, and Tianzun has to handle it himself, which he does by splitting it into its Spirit and Demon orbs. (Called “the Spirit Pearl” and “Demon Pill” in the subtitles, which has that kind of amusing pidgin-y sound you sometimes get on the mainstream Asian films.)

The Spirit Pearl is going to be given to Li Jing, the human lord guarding Chengdu Pass, who protects the human world from demonic onslaught. His wife will give birth to the reincarnation of the Spirit Pearl, whereas the Demon Pill will be smote by lightning in three years, destroying it. As a reward, if Taiyi can manage to watch over this process and make it all come off okay, he gets a spot on the Heavenly Council. The serious and, let’s face it, evil Chen is not having any of this, so he sets out to sabotage the process.

Which he does, by swapping out the Spirit Pill for the Demon Pill such that Li Jing’s new son ends up being a demon. Meanwhile, Chen gives the Spirit Pearl to the dragons, who have been chained up for eons since being defeated by the gods. The Spirit Pearl incarnation only needs to destroy the Chengdu Pass guardians (the castle and all the villagers) to free the dragons.

So there’s your setup, all done in the pre-credits opening. (Yes, the credits are up front, which I liked because the title guys are very creative.) Ne Zha is a demon by nature who is destined to destroy humans but is being raised by demon hunter parents who will do anything they can to save his life—remember, he’s going to be struck by lightning in three years. (He’s pretty much an eight-year-old throughout the movie.) Meanwhile, the “good guy” is being trained by dragons to murder a bunch of people.

It’s a good message: Be what you want, not what your “destiny” says you should be. And it’s one, more or less, that would be at home in an American kidflick, too. But then things get weird. And by “weird” I really mean, “not weird” because Chinese political correctness is not at all concerned with American SJW neuroses. To wit:

  • Taiyi is fat. There are a LOT of fat jokes.
  • Taiyi keeps a lot of things in his pants. At one point, his hands are full so he tells Ne Zha to rummage around in them. There are no overtones of sexuality here. The packed theater laughed a lot at the subsequent gags which were indeed pretty funny on a slapstick-y level.
  • The only woman who plays a major role is Nezha’s mother, and it’s to love Nezha so much that he realizes he doesn’t have to be a killing machine. (In fairness, she can also fight, but that’s a longstanding martial arts tradition.)
  • There is zero diversity.
  • Unless you want to count the big beefy dude who shrieks like a girl at any sign of peril. He does it a lot. It’s never not funny.
  • There is a message, but it’s a traditional one that is widely shared, so the movie doesn’t nag about it. You’re really just there for the characters.
  • Everyone has dignity and worth: Even the buffoonish Taiyi gets his moment of greatness.

This last is an interesting characteristic of Chinese films generally: There will be comic relief characters who are as broad as you can imagine. But whatever trouble they cause, they’re going to have a moment which reflects the goodness of their true nature. Nobody exists just for yuks—not even shrieking dude.

China-style.
He’s lazy, he’s a buffoon, but he has his moment of true wisdom.

There are a lot of fart jokes, and I laughed at them, not gonna lie. I’m tempted to say there was a philosophical theme behind them, as farts actually play a pivotal plot point, where they win the day versus, em, more conventional means of propulsion. But sometimes gaseous expulsions are just gaseous expulsions. I will say, however, that a lot of slapstick works on more than one level. Every mother ultimately feels like their son (or sometimes daughter) is a little fire demon, smashing into everything and everyone with gleeful abandon.

In fact, a lot of this feels very “boys will be boys”-ish. The Spirit Pearl child, Ao Bing (who is adult-sized) is serious, dedicated and conflicted, and the two “children” end up being each other’s only friends, because they’re the only ones not afraid of each other. They bond over hacky sack which, if you didn’t know (and I didn’t), is a traditional Asian sport, in China known as jianzi.

The Boy noted the combat scenes were exceptional. I’d compare them to animated combat scenes in kid movies but our kid movies don’t have much combat (except superhero movies), and these hold up to the best of those. There’s a very good command of space and motion that makes it feel more true.

Worldwide, Nezha is in the top 10 for 2019, and has the #1 box office for any non-English film, so it’s probably exemplary in a lot of ways. But I’m guessing the filmmakers’ relative sense of freedom is the same no matter what: Probably the Chinese filmmakers get approval from Beijing and know that they’ll be fine within those parameters. In America, you never know what the next thing that offends someone—thus necessitating a human sacrifice—will be. And I think creates a nervous tension that permeates a great many of our movies.

The fire demon's the good guy.
I mean, who to root for?