Andre And His Olive Tree (PG)
104 minutes/opens Jan 14/3 stars
When he picked chef Andre Chiang as the subject for a biography, Singaporean film-maker Josiah Ng could have ended up with a 104-minute exercise in public relations.
But Chiang's lack of concern about false humility or self-effacement, as captured in the film, gives it a much-needed touch of astringency.
After taking his Restaurant Andre to the top, the chef shocked the gastrosphere by shutting it down in 2018 while it was still a hot ticket, returning its two Michelin stars. Ng's film follows the chef, his wife Sudarampai "Pam" Chiang and staff as they go through the restaurant's final year.
Chiang comes across as a prickly perfectionist, obsessive with food, presentation and service, and a man who runs his kitchen with paternalistic sternness. Watching him might be triggering for those who have ever had a micro-managing boss or overly critical teacher.
And like a tiger dad, he grumbles to visiting mentor Jacques Pourcel about how young apprentices do not stick around these days. They have the audacity to leave his kitchen to "make stupid muffins and marmalade and bagels" instead of paying their dues in a "great restaurant", he gripes.
Here is someone with a trait few possess: He has a sense of destiny. In his 2016 book, Octaphilosophy: The Eight Elements Of Restaurant Andre, Chiang spells out his approach to food. He also has a restless need to demolish his past and move on, and a burning sense of mission.
The film is at its best when it is quietly observing Chiang at work - judging the flavour of a dish with a scowl, greeting guests at the door with a grin, juggling bookings with his wife, and commiserating with Pourcel about the fecklessness of today's youth.
But it spends too much time with talking heads. Friends and food writers offer platitudes that underline what is already obvious (Chiang's eye for detail, for example), while chats with employees can yield only so much honesty.
Stigmatized Properties (PG13)
112 minutes/opens Jan 14/2 stars
Ghost hunter reality shows are known for several things, chief among them that not one has proven the existence of ghosts.
So how you feel about this movie depends on how you feel about these programmes, as its screenplay re-enacts episodes from a Japanese haunted home series.
Yamame (Kazuya Kamenashi) and Taisa (Koji Seto) are struggling performers who, having failed at comedy, join the team at a television variety show. In a bid for ratings, Taisa suggests a cast member rent a "stigmatised property" - a place where an unnatural death has occurred - then record the events that follow. Yamame is put up for the job, much to the dismay of fan and friend Azusa (Nao Honda).
Director Hideo Nakata helped make Asian horror a global trend with films such as The Ring (1999) and Dark Water (2003), Stigmatized Properties lacks the depth and scares of his best work.
The key failing here is the point of view. The story makes Yamame the protagonist, so all spooks and apparitions are experienced by him.
He is as muddled a character as one is likely to find. To heighten the scares, he is made to be a vulnerable, sensitive sort of guy - the perfect cowering victim for the restless soul of a murdered woman, for example.
But the story also needs him to be the sort of person who would take on one ghost hunter assignment after another, despite how the last job seemed to have shaken him to the core.
What made Dark Water and The Ring so effective was that the ghoul was the co-protagonist as well as intelligent and malicious. Here, the spirits are introduced, explained, then dealt with in cursory fashion. It becomes a monster hunt.
Nakata's deft touch can be seen in the supporting characters, such as Yamame's smarmy, ratings-driven boss, but that is not enough to lift this work.
The Vigil (NC16)
90 minutes/opens Jan 14/4 stars
Spooky movies are at their spookiest when both the haunter and the haunted are fully-realised characters who make choices that fit with who they are and what they want.
On that score, this superbly crafted piece of creepy minimalism does well - it not only fits a world inside the single room of the movie, everything done by both the living and the dead also makes sense.
Yakov (Dave Davis), a New Yorker in need of cash, takes on the job of shomer, someone who guards the body of a dead person at night as part of the Jewish funeral ritual. While he is Jewish, he is no longer a believer and does his best to pull away from his community of Orthodox Jews.
The stage is set for dusk-to-dawn terror as Yakov is assailed by the horrors of his past - the ones that caused him to renounce his faith - and those that haunt the woman whose body he has to watch over.
Writer-director Keith Thomas, making his feature debut, dives into the idea that psychological trauma, especially those directed at one's religious and ethnic identity cuts so deep that they can become externalised as malevolent entities. It is not a new idea - for example, it can be said that the Pontianak, a creature common to several South-east Asian cultures, is the embodiment of women's suffering.
But that device is used to the fullest here. Inside a Brooklyn living room draped in the blackest of shadows, Yakov finds tools that come to hand - his memory, the telephone, books on the shelf, clues left here and there - to heal himself spiritually so he can fight the beings tormenting the soul of a dead woman.
Thomas uses simple practical effects, boosted by soundtrack thumps, to create the odd jump scare, but what stands out is the sustained mood of dread. Dawn cannot come soon enough.
Wild Mountain Thyme (PG)
103 minutes/opens Jan 14/not reviewed
In this drama-romance set in Ireland, Tony (Christopher Walken) is a patriarch who is set on bestowing his farm to American nephew Adam (Jon Hamm) instead of his son Anthony (Jamie Dornan).
Hurt by his father's plans, Anthony decides to change his life. Meanwhile, his childhood friend and neighbour Rosemary (Emily Blunt) waits for him to return her affection.
The film is written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who wrote the romantic comedy Moonstruck (1987) and who wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated drama Doubt (2008).