Friday, July 19, 2024

‘Lumberjack the Monster’ (2023)

Back in 1999, Takashi Miike put anyone with a fear of needles extra on edge with the psychological thriller “Audition.” In it, a widower seeking a wife falls for the wrong prospect, an alluring yet deeply scarred young woman with sadistic tendencies and a thing for needles. More conventionally, Miike delivered the competent “Seven Samurai”-esque “13 Samurai” in 2010, but with this disquieting psychopath-vs.-sociopath thriller slipped quietly into your Netflix stream, the auteur of J-horror gets back to his gory roots. The mayhem revolves around the enigmatic Akira (Kazuya Kamenashi), an urbane lawyer who is stalked by a masked serial killer who does his handiwork with an ax, removing the brains of victims. But Akira is not your typical victim: In the prologue we learn he’s one of the few survivors of a private orphanage whose demented, well-off matriarch experimented on children with brain surgery. Gray matter and “neuro chips” are very much at the center of the gory, over-the-top and macabre mania in which arterial spray and death by cellphone are a thing. It also turns out that Akira hangs out at a posh private clinic where he and his mate conduct interviews and diabolical experiments on folks who may or may not be psychopaths. A strange side hobby indeed. On the trail of the killer – and Akira – is ace profiler Arashiko Toshiro (Nanao Arai), dutiful and dour behind feathered bangs and bookish black-rimmed glasses. She’s essentially our guide to making sense of this highly watchable nonsense. Not all of it tallies, and I’m not sure Miike particularly cares, but it is one of his creepiest fun watches since the tempura torture scene in “Ichi the Killer” in 2001. (Tom Meek) On Netflix.

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‘Hit Man’ (2023)

The dry, droll wit of Richard Linklater (“Boyhood,” “Dazed and Confused”) hardly ever flags, and it doesn’t so much here – but it never quite hums either, though it postures as if it does. Based on a 2001 newspaper article about Gary Johnson, a regular Joe who posed as hit man for the Houston Police Department, Linklater’s jumping off has Gary (Glen Powell) as a New Orleans philosophy professor who gets roped into a police sting. Turns out Gary, able to act out some of his hypothetical classroom material, digs channeling the faux persona of Ron, a cold, professional killer, as a van full of surveillance police listen to jilted lovers and business partners offer cash for kills. The win here is the all-in performance by Powell, who teamed with Linklater on the underrated 2016 baseball comedy, “Everybody Wants Some!” Powell’s natural, Sam Rockwell-esque nonchalance edges into screwball, carrying the film beyond the one-note premise. Adding spice is Adria Arjona as Madison, one of the targets Gary/Ron comes into contact with. She practically purrs in the part, and the two leads play exceptionally well off each other as Gary and Madison become illicit lovers. Their physical chemistry is more than healthy; it’s practically carnivorous. The film pushes racy and sultry the way it pushes the comedy: to the near popping point. It’s not an A-grade effort from Linklater, who has his share of them, but it is a performance-driven work that should boost Powell and Arjona to more front-and-center parts. (Tom Meek) On Netflix.