A father, a daughter, and a rabbit, plus aquatic horror and Hong Kong stories, are among this week’s home-viewing options.
“Guest of Honour” is the latest dramatic jigsaw puzzle of trauma, shame and intrigue from Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan, who made some terrific films including “Exotica” and “The Sweet Hereafter” in the 1990s before seemingly shelving his distinctive gifts. Sunk by a lack of credibility and clarity, the movie resembles Egoyan’s recent rather than earlier work, but David Thewlis’ central performance provides it with undeniably mesmerizing parts.
Presented in nonlinear mode and featuring familiar Egoyan ingredients — an inspector, a tragic accident, a revenge fantasy, buried secrets — the movie is a psychodrama about a father and daughter trying to understand the festering emotional wounds that have destroyed their loving bond.
Veronica (Laysla De Oliveira), a young high-school music teacher, visits a priest (Luke Wilson) in an opening scene, to make arrangements for the funeral of her father, Jim (Thewlis), a widowed British food inspector living in Canada. In conversations Egoyan uses as a framing device, Veronica tells the priest about her dad and how his choices and mistakes affected her. The flashbacks begin.
Veronica has served time in prison, for a crime she didn’t commit. Particulars include a 17-year-old student (Alexandre Bourgeois) and a malicious bus driver (Rossif Sutherland), both obsessed with her.
Veronica thinks she belongs in jail, for childhood events involving her father, her dying mother, a piano teacher, the latter’s son, and a possible adulterous affair.
Distressed by all this, Jim is crumbling professionally as well as personally. He abuses his inspector authority, faking evidence of rodent infestation to coerce a restaurant worker into supplying information about Victoria’s case. He vows revenge against the person most responsible for Veronica’s predicament.
A pet rabbit named Benjamin, who may be the closest thing Jim has to a friend, and the movie’s only emotionally healthy character, also plays a role in the picture, along with rabbit droppings, rabbit’s feet, and, especially, rabbit-unfriendly cuisine.
Egoyan can weave a spell, and he keeps the intrigue high as he shifts around in time and unravels layers of mystery and memory.
Thewlis, meanwhile, is extraordinary as Jim, whom he gives both a smarmy quality and a tormented dignity. Whether Jim is inspecting restaurants with a meat thermometer, flashlight and self-important air, and shutting down those guilty of code violations as owners beg for mercy, or having a drunken meltdown at an Armenian restaurant whose proprietor (played by Egoyan’s regular collaborator and wife Arsinee Khanjian) hopes to avoid closure, Thewlis makes him fascinating.
Unfortunately, the rest of the characters are a dreary lot, and Egoyan’s overloaded, often ludicrous plot doesn’t help. What might have been an affecting story of a father and daughter who have let personal resentments and sad circumstances prevent them from connecting with each other amounts largely to soggy, silly melodrama.
The revelations toward which the intrigue builds, including truths revealed by the priest, are too muddy to make clear what Veronica feels so guilty about. That’s a big problem.
In the end, viewers are as frustrated as they are hooked. Thewlis and the character he makes so riveting deserve better.
Guest of Honour
Starring: David Thewlis, Laysla De Oliveira, Luke Wilson, Rossif Sutherland
Written and directed by: Atom Egoyan
Running time: 2 hours
Genre devotees should take note of “The Beach House,” a nifty low-budget eco-horror thriller about two couples trying to survive the microbial ravages of an ocean gone wild.
Writer-director Jeffrey A. Brown combines 1950s-style monster entertainment with contemporary themes in this feature debut, which appears influenced by horror giants John Carpenter and George Romero and psychedelic and Lovecraftian sci-fi. Components include aquatic terror, evil fog, body snatching and currently relatable contagion and isolation elements (though Brown finished the film prior to the COVID-19 pandemic).
After opening images of ocean-related disquiet — Brown displays a fondness and flair for foreshadowing — which is followed by a wide shot of a deceptively serene seascape, we meet college organic-chemistry student Emily (Liana Liberato) and her dropout boyfriend, Randall (Noah Le Gros), as they settle into a beach house owned by Randall’s estranged father.
Hoping to share meaningful private time to discuss their flagging relationship, the pair discover that an older couple — seriously ill Jane (Maryanne Nagel) and her devoted husband, Mitchell (Jake Weber) — also are staying in the house, as guests of Randall’s dad. Fortunately, Jane and Mitch are cordial, and the two couples agree to share the home. They connect amicably as they dine together and discuss the fragility of life.
They also share some dispensary edibles, and initially the blue glow and intense fog that appear in the atmosphere seem attributable to the drugs. Soon, however, the characters collectively pass out, vanish, and decay horrifically. Grotesque creatures emerge from the sea. The malevolent fog intensifies.
A deadly contagion is at work, and Emily, drawing on her knowledge of ocean science, leads the survival effort.
The movie contains neither grand ideas nor a knock-out narrative. It consists largely of familiar sci-fi and horror ingredients.
But as genre entertainment, it’s inspired, well-crafted, and while not a spine-tingler, sufficiently scary to satisfy fans.
Brown, an adept tonal mixologist, demonstrates that you don’t need a studio-sized budget to creep viewers out. Used sparingly and efficiently, the visual effects impress. Ghastly is the sight of Emily pulling a long parasitic worm from her foot with tongs.
Importantly, Brown cares about the human beings at the heart of the story. The engaging rapport the characters establish in the early scenes enables viewers to feel invested in their plight when the nightmare takes hold.
The non-superstar cast delivers throughout, with Liberato, as both an action hero and a force of intelligence, driving the drama commandingly.
The Beach House
Starring: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Jake Weber, Maryanne Nagel
Written and directed by: Jeffrey A. Brown
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Available: Shudder.com starting July 9
Hong Kong Cinema, a series of films from one of the world’s top filmmaking spots, launches its 10th annual lineup this Sunday.
Presented by SFFILM and continuing through Aug. 5, the series’ 2020 edition, like other arts events occurring during the pandemic, takes place online at www.sffilm.org/presents. Four recent dramatic films from Hong Kong are on the bill, accompanied by live-streamed Q&As featuring artists from the in-the-headlines region.
* Still Human: Sunday, July 12, 5 p.m.
A bitter paraplegic man forms a bond with his Filipina caregiver in director Oliver Chan’s debut feature.
* Twilight’s Kiss: Wednesday, July 22, 7 p.m.
Two retirement-age men, each of whom lives a conventional family life, embark on a secret love affair in director Ray Yeung’s nuanced story.
* Lion Rock: Wednesday, July 29, 7 p.m.
After losing the use of his legs in a freeway accident, a high-ranking outdoor climber teaches himself to climb in his wheelchair, aiming high, in Nick Leung’s fact-based drama.
* Mad World: Wednesday, Aug. 5, 7 p.m. A man with bipolar disorder struggles to mend his long-broken relationship with his father, in whose care he’s been placed, in Wong Chun’s compassionate tale.