Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl (2017) Japan Cuts 2018

It’s easy to play up the bittersweet moments in an American Graffiti­-style end-of-an-era night of partying. However, if you can find the best parts in the hangover than you’re really onto something. Buckle up, because it is going to be a heck of a party in Masaaki Yuasa’s The Night is Short, Walk on Girl, which screens during the the Japan Society's Japan Cuts this Saturday night.

It starts with a wedding, but the after-after-party is where it’s at. Than these Kyoto college students are off to enjoy the night life of the nocturnal city that apparently puts both New York and Las Vegas to shame. The Senpai (upperclassman) would like to chat up his crush, an underclassman known simply as “The Girl with Black Hair,” but he is painfully shy, He gets ribbed by his friends, but frankly they are even worse, especially Don Underwear, so-called because he pledged never to change his under-garments until he finds the mystery woman he fell in love with during a brief chance encounter. If the logic of his strategy escapes you, just backburner that thought for now.

The Senpai will follow the Girl with Black Hair as she struts through the college district nightlife like an animated Holly Golightly. It would be a bit stalkerish if he weren’t so ineffectual. They might actually be meant for each other, but first the Girl with will get a lesson in exotic cocktail history, assist the Puck-ish God of the Used Book Market restore cosmic balance to the free flow of used books, and step into the lead role of a guerilla theater troupe’s floating production.

Kyoto looks like a heck of a fun city and the Girl with is an absolutely charming companion to share it with. There is probably more alcohol consumed in Night is Short than a typically sloshed Hong Sang-soo or Thin Man movie, but there is more to it than that. In fact, the wild night catches up with them, sending nearly everyone to their sick beds to nurse colds and flus, except Girl with. As she starts tending to her old and new friends, certain aspects of the night come into sharper focus.

Night is Short is a rarity among animated films, because it maintains a light, whimsical vibe, while not including any objectionable material, but it clearly has an adult sensibility. You need to have lived through a few nights like this, albeit without the surreal flights of fantasy, to fully appreciate the film’s intoxicating vibe.

Yuasa’s style is also rather mischievously flexible. He slides up and down the scale from representationally realistic anime to dayglo candy-colored abstraction, but somehow he maintains a consistency of tone and attitude. It is just a trip to take in all the visual confections.


Like the Girl with Black Hair, Yuasa’s film is an energetic charmer. Night is Short has heart and panache married together in ways we’ve rarely seen. It will make you feel several years younger, so maybe you consider seeing it if you have the chance. Very highly recommended

For ore information and tickets go here

Monday, July 16, 2018

Nate Hood rides with the Buffalo Boys (2018) NYAFF 2018 Fantasia 2018

Whatever the intention of the individual filmmakers, the Western genre has always been one about the triumph of colonialism. Despite the genre's preoccupations with justice, personal honor, and rugged individualism, America's westward expansion necessitated the displacement of native peoples and the exploitation of immigrant populations, usually at the point of a gun. It's a bloody, brutal history sanitized through literal decades of whitewashing and cultural sanitization. But it's because of all this that Mike Wiluan's Buffalo Boys is such an odd and exciting surprise—an Indonesian Western that borrows wholesale the visual trappings and thematic touchstones of John Ford, Sergio Leone, and Sam Peckinpah to tell a defiant story of gory colonial revolt.

Set in 1860, the film follows two gun-slinging brothers—Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso)—as they return to their ancestral homeland after growing up in the wilds of California to avenge their father, an Indonesian sultan murdered by a cruel Dutch overseer named Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker). Traveling with their elderly uncle Arana (Tio Pakusadewo), they embark on a perilous quest taking them through a countryside ravaged by Dutch exploitation: of families massacred for growing food crops instead of opium; of company-branded children; of roaming bands of criminals allowed to rape and pillage in exchange for keeping Van Trach's peace; of barely pubescent girls forced into sex slavery. Van Trach's right-hand man, a pitiless "half-breed" enforcer with a silver six-shooter and superhuman aim, even feels like a direct nod to the stoic and silent gunslingers of Clint Eastwood and Franco Nero.

The majority of the film takes place in a Dutch settlement ripped straight from Poverty Row, complete with a swinging-door saloon with a tack piano and petticoated prostitutes. But Wiluan never loses his ultimate focus: the brothers have arrived to enact brutal, apocalyptic revenge on murderous imperialists.

The film's overly long second act is an emotional endurance test for audiences as Wiluan graphically details every imaginable horror inflicted upon native Indonesians, complete with scenes of whipping and rape lifted wholesale from American slave narratives. But these sequences are also an endurance test for the audience's patience. Both brothers spend a good 15-20 minutes of screen-time watching said atrocities take place no more than 10 feet away from them while in disguise, leaving the audience wanting to scream "Do something!" in their stunned, stupid faces. There are times where their impotent inaction seems less like appropriate character responses than poor screenwriting designed to prolong Wiluan's indulgent torture-porn. But when the action kicks back in it does so with a fury.

The last third is a superb rollercoaster of expertly shot and choreographed shootouts, fistfights, and open warfare. All complaints about the plodding second act go right out the window at the sight of two Indonesian cowboys riding water buffalo into an enemy encampment as an Ennio Morricone electric guitar twangs in the background.

Rating: 8/10

BUFFALO BOYS World Premiered at Fantasia July 14th. It played  NYAFF July 15th. It will premiere in Indonesia Thursday July 19th and go in general release in it's home country the next day.

It should also be noted that the film has spawned a sequel series which will play on HBO Asia in the fall and HBO everywhere before year's end.

BUYBUST (2018) NYAFF 2018 (World Premiere) Fantasia 2018

With BUY BUST director Erik Matti moves from dramas and films that flirted with moments of action into a full on non-stop action. I wish I could report the master director was successful in the move, but it wasn’t. To me it’s proof that some directors should avoid some genres, after all there is probably a good reason Ingmar Bergman never directed a car chase film.(Though in fairness I would love to see what would have resulted.)

The plot of the film is minimal. A big crime lord has gone underground. The cops want to flush him out so they set up a sting with a lower dealer. The target doesn’t show and changes the location of the deal from a large open plaza to the narrow maze like confines of a shanty town. It is a set up (as was an earlier raid that wiped out cop Anne Curtis’s previous squad) and an unending battle for survival results.

Destined to be compared to THE RAID, the close quarters locations and no sense of where we are is probably closer to the scifi thriller the CUBE where people jumped from room to room. However don’t be fooled by any comparisons BUY BUST fails on its own terms and is a two hour long bore.

The film collapses from the outset when it fails to establish any characters. I knew Anne Curtis and the big guy who looked like David Bautista because of how they look. I picked up a few other people but basically if they had bullet proof vests they were cops, if they didn’t they were bad guys. Names? Forget about it. They fly by if they are mentioned at all. Back story? Curtis’s previous squad was killed. And another female cop has kids, but she doesn’t last long,(And the attempt to draw emotion out of her death fails miserably because one audible line about her kids in the middle of multiple people talking does not a character create.

There is no attempt at establishing the geography. We are just dropped into this maze and walked around for ten minutes before all hell breaks loose. While the location is based on a real place, there is no shot to let us (specifically anyone not from the Philippines) know what this place is (one overhead shot would have been nice). The result is we are in CUBE like series of “rooms” and alleys. We are not in a real place but what could be simply a soundstage where they shifted the walls around. We don’t know where the cops are trying to get to other than the amorphous and cryptic out- but where is that? Even as a vague idea?

The lack of geography reduces the action sequences because we aren’t watching a sequence in a story progression as people go from place to place with a goal but rather a series of set pieces that don’t connect because we don’t know where anything is happening.

The violence is good but the close quarter nature and frequent view from above works against the film since because of the rain, the low light and everyone looking similar we are just looking at motion without anyone we are invested in. I was frequently wondering, what the hell I was watching. Worse the outcome of the violence is wildly uneven with some people falling quickly, while others with the same wound in the same sequence still going on and on.

While the cast all seems to be good, the one person I knew, lead, Anne Curtis seemed out of place. Of the entire cast, her thin fashion model good looks made her look out of place (and don’t get me started on how she held a gun). Anne I love you, but no.

Seeing this at the World Premiere at the New York Asian Film Festival was a trial. I kept wanting to reach for the remote to jump to something that wasn’t muddy ill-defined action. It tried my patience and wasted my evening

BUYBUST is mess and not recommended.

Screened as the closing night film of the New York Asian Film Festival and screens Wednesday July 18 at Fantasia (For information go here)

Inuyashiki (2018) NYAFF 2018 Fantasia 2018

Inuyashiki is the name of the protagonist of the film with the same name. A put upon salaryman he is transformed into a robotic super robot when an “alien:” forces crashes in a park late one night and destroys his body. Also killed and rebuilt is a teenage boy. Where Inuyashiki begins to use his powers for good, healing the sick, the teen turns his angst and hatred of his father into an excuse to kill all of mankind. Eventually the two robots collide.

The programmers of the New York Asian Film Festival called this one of the best manga adaptions ever. I think they are over selling the film. It’s really good but hardly great, thanks to a heavy downer of a back story of our hero, an unsatisfying ending and wildly uneven CGI effects. (Then again the bleakness of the film is keeping with the bleakness of the festival programming)

The problems with the film begin with the whole back story of Inuyashiki. He has a shrew of a wife and kids who are monsters. I hated them so much that when it looked like his daughter was going to die I cheered (in a packed theater). His life is so stacked against him it is not only crushing but ridiculous. Why so many miserable people would be together is beyond me. This may have worked in the manga where multiple volumes to build characters but here everyone is vile and deserve to die.

The tone of the film is all over the place. The opening third is bleak and dark. Then the film picks up moments of humor as the superpowers are tested and then it goes into full superhero mode. The problem is that the film never balances the tone the sadness, super and superhero as the darkness is always there and the humor bounce in and out uncomfortably. I never knew what I was supposed to feel.

The film also has some huge plot holes such as how does the bad guy know how to work everything while our hero doesn’t. Also why is the villain so much stronger than the hero? There are no answers.

While there are some good things in the film, the killing from a distance, Inuyashiki’s sense of right and wrong and some of the final battle, the film never seems to satisfy. Something is always off or just missing.

Nowhere is that more clear than the mid- credits stinger where, surprise surprise, we find out that there is a possible sequel.

To be honest, I liked the film but not much more than that.

Inuyashiki played on the closing day of NYAFF and at Fantasia fest July 23 and 24 (Tickets here)

blank 13 (2017) Japan Cuts 2018

Based on the childhood experiences of screenwriter Koji Hashimoto this little drama will kick your legs out from under you and haunt you for a long time. It is reminder that how we see those we call family- even those we hate - is not always a clear indication of who these people really are.

The film begins at a funeral service. Koji's long MIA father has died and he and his brother are holding a service for him. Unfortunately it is right next door to a temple holding a service for someone with a similar name so there is some confusion of mourners. As Koji waits for the service to start he remembers life with his father, a hardened gambler who spent all his money on the next game of chance. Once the service starts, the friends of his dad begin to tell their life with the gambler and it is very different than what his kids experienced.

Crossing the line between tragedy and comedy BLANK 13 with move you all over the place. At times crushingly sad the film also has moments that are laugh out loud funny. This is life as it is really lived. Funny one moment, sad the next. Some how first time director Takumi Saitoh manages to keep the film entirely grounded as it bounces back and forth between emotions. To say that h does so perfectly doesn't truly explain what an achievement it is since more often than not even the best directors fumble the emotional shift.

The film is a lovely reminder that we really don't know the people around us. We don't know their lives with other people. We also don't know what they do when we aren't around or what means something to them. When the child Koji gives his father an essay and he says he will read it later w assume he would dismiss it and throw it out, little do we suspect that he didn't and that years later he was still talking about it-just not to his son.

I was moved by BLANK 13. I was so touched that in prepping for Japan Cut I had to stop watching films when the movie was done because I was so lost in my thoughts. I can't recommend this small gem enough.

BLANK 13 plays July 20th at Japan Cuts in NYC. For tickets and more information go here.

NYAFF is done

Went to 3 NYAFF films today- reviews are coming. I'm tired so they have to wait.

I love seeing Mondo and his son, Peter, Nate, Chris Bourne, Lee, Sean and Kristieas well as meeting Fnny and Laura. Friends are why I go to the fest.

I am still fuming from from being told we had to leave between the final two films. We we told we could leave our stuff, but when we left we were forced to the end of the huge line, found are stuff was moved (mine and Fanny's) or gone Peter's. We then had to scramble to refind seats in the packed out theater.

I should let it go but its a clear shift in the festival I'll be talking about.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

THE SCYTHIAN (2018) Fantasia 2018

Lutobor is a good soldier who has the misfortune of surviving an attack by a group of Scythians hired to kidnap his wife. Ending up caught up in the political games of his lord, he is allowed to escape to find his wife. Taking Marten, a captured Scythian with him, he heads off to get his wife and child back.

Bleak, black, bloody and bruising  THE SCYTHIAN is cinematic brick to the head.  A violent slice of life on the Russian steppes of several centuries ago, it is a land where the strong survive and no one is safe. This is a film filled with violence and death in truly ugly and realistic ways.

There is a great deal going on here and it makes for a rich little film. The forward thrust of the film is a save the family revenge thriller but at the same time the film expands that to include political intrigue and the changing of the gods. Not only are we off balance because of all the violence, we quickly realize that all sorts of games are afoot as well. There is no safe place and no one we can trust.

One of the things that I love is the film does not behave as you think it will. Trust me on this there are twists and turns that I never saw coming. And then there was a point where I thought we were in the home stretch and I realized that there was still a long way to go. I wondered how it could fill the time only to discover it could do so easily/

And in a way that is one of the small flaws in the film. There is a great deal going on. At some point around the half way point I realized I kind of lost any sense of who some people were.I knew the main characters by sight but the names of people and peoples were lost. I could follow what was going on but I suspect I was missing something. I suspect I will like it ore the second time through

Then again I alternately want to see this film again and I never want to see it again. Undoubtedly a truly great historical action film, it is also a great deal to take in. From the copious amounts of blood and violence to the politics, this is a film that feels more is more, with the result that by the end we feel beaten up. Unlike most other films these days you will want to take a break after you see this.

Reservations and audience abuse aside I love this film. It is a unique and one of a kind film that rattled my cage and made me sit up and take notice. It is one of the best films at Fantasia as well as one of the truly notable films I've seen in 2018.

Highly recommended for anyone who can take the realistic gore and blood.

Crisis Jung (2018) Fantasia 2018

This series of ten seven minute show episodes grows tiring real fast as a loving couple in a pastel world are plunged into a world of hate by Petite Jesus, a video game sort of boss, who tries to keep the couple apart.

Imagine if every fighting anime/manga was mashed together and then given a Jungian overlay (the hero keeps going into therapy to find some hidden strength) and then mixed with lots of animated gore and blood inflicted by men with chainsaw penises, monsters made of anuses and other grotesques. It's amusing for two of the ten or so episodes but then falls apart as you care less and less about the characters and the plot and only hang into see what sick thing is going to show up next.

Well done, occasionally clever, but incredibly one note CRISIS JUNG disappoints and you'll be done way before the series reaches the half way point.

A disappointment at Fantasia

Champion (2018) Fantasia 2018

It takes a brave man to star in an arm-wrestling movie after the face-plant that was Over the Top. Ladies and gentlemen, that man is Don Lee (Ma Dong-seok). He is the one who brawled his way through a train car of zombies in Train to Busan. Believe it or not, his character even references the notorious Sylvester Stallone bomb as his inspiration. Yet, Lee manages to surpass his role model in Kim Yong-wan’s unabashedly earnest family sports drama Champion which player earlier today at Fantasia.

“Mark” Baek Seung-min is big, but shy. He had a hard time of things during his formative years, so it is understandable. His desperately poor Korean mother gave him up for adoption, but his American foster parents died shortly after his arrival in the States, leaving him essentially on his own. Inspired by Over the Top, arm-wrestling became his only passion, but his professional career was cut short in America by a dubious scandal. His only friend, the sleazy (but possibly decent way deep down) Jin-ki has lured him back to Korea with the promise of managing his professional comeback.

To sweeten the deal, Jin-ki also offers up the address of Baek’s birth-mother, but the arm-wrestler soon learns she has recently passed away from cancer. However, he discovers he has a sister (Su-jin), a niece, and a nephew he never knew of. Suddenly, they have someone to chase away the mobbed-up bill collectors and fix things around the apartment, while Baek finally starts to feel a sense of belonging. Of course, his refusal to throw matches at the behest of a crooked sponsor will probably lead to trouble down the line, especially when the scummy sports bettors recruit Punch, a steroid-juicing, psychotic former contender to be their standard bearer, straight out of prison.

Lee, who was born in Korea, but grew up in America, graduating from Columbia State University, clearly understands where his character is coming from. He is acutely earnest as Baek, but he also looks like he could rip Stallone’s arm off. It is easy to see why he has already reached a significant level of stardom in Korea and is poised to do the same internationally when you see him interacting with Ok Ye-rin and Choi Seung-hoon, the young, ridiculously cute thesps playing his niece and nephew. The fact that he is not dramatically up-staged by them, pretty much says it all.

Lee also shares some nice chemistry with Han Ye-ri’s Su-jin and turns some rewarding third act scenes with Kwon Yool’s heretofore annoying Jin-ki. Unfortunately, Yang Hyun-min and Lee Kyoo-ho make rather generic villains, who really are not very enterprising. Plus, Kim’s screenplay manufactures a lot of bogus drama that starts to try our patience. Yet, we can’t help rooting for Baek and his potential new family, because they all look so good together.

So, to recap, if you need a sensitive hulk, Don Lee is your man. As good old Lincoln Hawk says: “The world meets nobody halfway. When you want something, you gotta take it.” To that end, Lee carries this film and thereby grabs leading man status. Nobody should have any illusions—Champion is shamelessly manipulative and sentimental, but it is an indomitable crowd pleaser—with distinctly Korean sensibilities. Recommended for fans of Don Lee and family-friendly triumph-over-adversity sports movies.

Cold Skin (2017) Fantasia 2018

I am not sure what it is, but for some reason COLD SKIN really didn't work for me. I know that it is not that the film echoes several recent films and it creatures that could pass for relatives of the star of THE SHAPE OF WATER. Several other films at Fantasia echo other films and I liked them just fine.

No, there is something else afoot, only I'm not certain what it is.

On the eve of the First World War a young man is dropped off on a remote barren island near the bottom of the world. He is to study and record the weather. He will live on the island for a year until relieved. He is not, however, alone on the island. Across the way there is a lighthouse- which looks more like a fortress in it's construction. It is manned by a curmudgeon of a man who wants nothing to do with anyone. And the island is further inhabited by fishmen who want to eat our hero.

Generating almost no tension COLD SKIN falters by not moving like a thriller. In a weird way the film plays like a drama. Passages seem to be there to further some deeper meaning about human inter-relationships rather than producing scares. If the drama worked better I could probably have forgiven the bumps but it simply doesn't.

The film also doesn't make a sense at times as plot twists either lay there or make you go "wha?" For example sticks are used to make bars for a window-except the island is barren. There are also some time jumps that left me wondering.

By the half way point I stopped caring.  It wasn't that it was bad, more it wasn't done well enough.

A disappointment.

The Unseen Films Obligatory Japan Cuts Curtain Raiser and List of Recommended Films

One of the coolest festivals of the year starts Thursday- The Japan Society’s Japan Cuts. This annual orgy of cinematic goodness plumbs the depths of Japanese cinema to reveal all sorts of goodies. I know that isn’t the most sophisticated way of saying things but Japan Cuts is too cool not to get a little emotional.

While most people in New York got to know Japan Cuts due to the co-presentations and overlap with the New York Asian Film Festival, this year the programmers have ended the overlap and for the first time in a long time it will stand on its own- and we are so much better for it. Having seen most of the films I can honestly say that the ability to see all the films without having to choose ones at a rival fest will allow more people see some truly fantastic films.

This year it looks as though we will be covering every film other than BLEACH because it sold out. And while there is an added screening at 11pm- I can’t cover it without springing from a hotel room in Manhattan.

While I have liked to some degree or other everything I’ve seen- there are some I loved and those are listed below. While films like MORI and BLANK 13 are sold out you may be able to score tickets on the cancelation line

Regardless go to the Japan cuts website and buy ticket (info and tickets here)

And now the films getting the Unseen Films seal of approval:


Blank 13
Is it comedy drama or dramatic comedy? Deeply moving film about the sons of a confirmed gambler who ran out on them 15 years earlier dealing with his return to their life while on his death bed. A magnificent exploration of how we see those we love, hate or deal with in our lives. A stunning achievement and my vote for the best film at this year’s Japan Cuts

Violence Voyager
Unless you’ve seen the earlier Burning Buddha Man you’ve not seen anything like this disturbing face punch about a secret amusement park where visitors must fight mutant monsters or risk being turned into one themselves. Not for most audiences but this manga/anime hybrid will thrill a select audience.

Born Bone Born
Based on a short film by the director this film follows a pregnant woman was she returns home to help wash the bones of her mother. Odd quirky and accasionally moving, it has a deeply moving an unexpected ending which includes what maybe one of my favorite final shots in any movie ever.

Mori:The Artist’s Habitat
Day in the life of a 94 year old artist who is endlessly fascinated by life in all its forms and who has no intention of leaving this world any time soon. Deeply moving, this is a film that will force you to re-engage with life and really see life. The more I think about it the more absolutely love it.

Outrage: Coda
Takeshi Kitano returns in the third film in the Outrage series. Probably the weakest of the three, it still has some great moments as the stupid move of a smart ass yakuza brings down Kitano’s wrath. While Kitano disappears for about half the film his presence hangs over everything. A delight for any Kitano fan.

Hanagatami
Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 40 year struggle to adapt Kazuo Dan’s 1937 novella is done. The result is a one of a kind movie that only Obayashi could have made. Completely and totally a piece of cinema the story of a group of friends on the brink of the Second World War will delight and move you. A film like any other, it is a must see for any fan of film and what it can do.

ARAGNE: SIGN OF VERMILLION (2018) Fantasia 2018

Saku Sakamoto did just about everything in bringing his ARAGNE: SIGN OF VERMILLION to the screen. I have no idea if he was wholly successful, but I do know it is great looking but strange film.

The plot of the film has a young woman moving into a new city. What she thought was going to be a bright and happy place is dark and dank. A serial killer, some call the Savior maybe on the loose.  She is also seeing weird insects, spirit bugs, around dead people and animals.

Moody, expressionistic and often down right creepy  ARAGNE is a film that works mostly on and emotional level. The plot doesn't make a great deal of sense, which in this case isn't a problem since there is enough mood and foreboding to overwhelm a small city. We are in a dream world or perhaps the ind of our heroine so what we are seeing could be suspect. Then again weird giant bugs may have invaded the city.

I like the film a great deal despite having reservations about the plotting. On the other hand after seeing the film close to bed time I found the the music and imagery invaded my dreams- which after you see the film you'll understand not to be something you want to happen.

Strongly recommended for anyone wanting a film that will hang with you forever.

Fantasia's only screening of ARAGNE: SIGN OF VERMILLION is done.

DESTINY: The Tale of Kamakura(2017) Fantasia 2018

In my curtain raiser for this year's Fantasia I mentioned that every year I see films that end up on my best of the year list. This year with DESTINY: THE TALE OF KAMAKURA its seeing one of the films that maybe one of  my favorites of all time.

A writer who lives in the town of Kamakura marries a young woman he has instantly fallen for and brings her home. She is unaware that the town she lives in is magical so creatures, spirits and gods live there as well. Wondrous things happen.

I won't say more other than this is pure movie magic. I want to go live there. Think of this film as a live action version of the magical places in Studio Ghibli films. Actually the film kind of borrows and makes it's own all sorts of bits from films and fantasies else where. Not that you'll mind or notice because by the time you're half an hour in Kamakura will be it's own wonderful place.

Wonderfully simple, yet gloriously complex in its plotting, what you think are toss aways are in fact important or referential to things later on (that night market statue for example). This is a film that is a finely oiled machine and you'll need multiple viewings just to see it. And you'll want to see it and share it which is the best part.

This is a wonderful romance cum fantasy about true love and destiny. In an age where there is so much down beat hatred and disappointment  it is a great joy to find a film filled with genuine love and kindness and real magic. It is such a joyous film that any burps are forgiven because the overall package about love and life outshines the flaws.

Hands down this is one of my most favorite films of 2018 and maybe ever.

The film has finished it's Fantasia screening but I know it will be showing up else where soon so keep an eye out.

The Third Murder (2017) opens Friday at the Quad

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Third Murder is not something you’d expect from someone known for carefully crafted family dramas. Who would have thought he’d suddenly show up with a court room mystery? Then again lurking at the heart of the film are various family dynamics.

Brought in after the defendant has confessed, and everything looking like a slam dunk for the prosecutors, a defense attorney takes the case of man who has confessed to the killing. As he begins to work on a defense, hoping at the very least not to get the death penalty, things begin not to add up. Sure his client could have done it, and there is evidence to point to his doing it, but he can’t tell the same story twice. Every telling has another twist. Worse the background of the man and outside factors make it look less and less likely that he did it.

As with Kore-eda’s best work this is a family film. At its heart are three men, victim, alleged killer and defense attorney, who are all fathers of daughters. It is a relationship that colors how each men acts or acted. It also shades how we feel about everything we see. It’s this additional level that lifts the film up from being a simple run of the mill mystery and makes it worth repeated viewings as you ponder not only what happened but the relationships.

While a tad too leisurely to generate true nail biting suspense, The Third Murder still manages to hold your attention. It’s a film that draws you in and drags you along because you want to know the truth. The truth is a dicey thing in this film since, as one character remarks “no one tells the truth here”. Everyone has an angle. Personally I was so engrossed that when my cellphone went off at the moment of a key revelation I wanted to reach through the phone and kill the caller.

I really liked The Third Murder a great deal. It is highly recommended when  opens Friday at the Quad cinemas in New York.

Summer of 84 (2018) Fantasia 2018

If the Losers’ Club can take on an all-powerful demonic clown like Pennywise and Charley Brewster can face off against a vampire next-door, four nebbish but scrappy eighties kids ought to be able to handle their neighborhood serial killer. However, there is one slight complicating factor. It is not absolutely certain Wayne Mackey is the killer stalking Cape May, but there is no doubt he is a local copper. Of course, Davey Armstrong is not about to be dissuaded by awkward facts like that, but his friends will need constant convincing in François Simard, Anouk Whissell & Yoann-Karl Whissell’s Summer of ‘84, which screened during this year’s Fantasia Festival.

It is 1984. The Reagan-Bush ticket is cruising to re-election, college grads actually expected to land jobs, and fifteen-year-olds like Armstrong and his buddies were not nearly as jaded by the media and pop culture as they think they are. Armstrong, Tommy “Eats” Eaton, Dale “Woody” Woodworth, and Curtis Farraday are all preoccupied with girls, but Armstrong also has an abiding interest in lurid conspiracy theories. While most Cape May residents are alarmed by news of the serial killer, he is thrilled by it.

As luck would have it, Armstrong, the paperboy, happens to spy some rather suspicious but circumstantial details around Officer Mackey house while collecting for the month. Aided by his own imagination and his friends’ boredom, he manages to convince the gang to launch an ambitious surveillance operation. The stakes will raise dramatically when the boys inevitably blow their cover. However, Armstrong’s attention will also be somewhat divided when Nikki Kazsuba, the somewhat older literal and proverbial girl-next-door starts paying (essentially platonic) nocturnal visits.

Obviously, Summer of ’84 hopes to ride the 1980s horror nostalgia wave, launched by Stranger Things and It. Be that as it may, Summer happens to be smartly written and skillfully executed. It hits all the right notes, but it is also willing to go to some surprisingly dark places. In terms of tone and aesthetic, Summer is a dramatic departure from the directorial trio’s prior film, Turbo Kid, but it is clear from both works, the tandem knows and appreciates their 1980s genre films.

The four young co-conspirators all look age and era appropriate, but Judah Lewis really stands out as the spectacularly foul-mouthed Eaton. Yet, Tiera Skovbye scores some of the biggest laughs as the sly but sensitive Kazsuba. However, it is Rich Sommer who really makes the film work by maintaining audience uncertainty with a performance of perfectly calibrated ambiguity.

Summer of ’84 is a great deal of fun, because it convincingly evokes the eighties era and suburban milieu. It also proves Simard, Whissell, and Whissell have considerably more range than we might have thought.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Being Natural (2018) Fantasia 2018

Taka spends his days taking care of his sick uncle and his nights sitting outside and playing his beloved bongos. When his uncle dies his world is upset as his uncle has left the house to another relative and then a couple arrives from Tokyo and things go steadily down hill.

Director Tadashi Nagayama's BEING NATURAL is going to challenge audiences. A mix of drama, comedy and magical realism the film seems to be a haunting and moving tale that gets under your skin in all the right ways. The thing is that as the story goes a little dark it suddenly takes a left turn into the twilight zone and becomes something that will make you go "WTF?" Probably out loud.

That I am going to devote my entire piece to the turn is a reflection of the fact that my thoughts on the film hinged on the last twenty minutes. What I thought of the film before them is one thing and what I think after is something else entirely. I do like the sequence but I'm not sure it actually fits with what went before.(I think that is an understatement).

No I will not tell you what happens. (though it may or may not have to do with the promotional material calling Taka a saint). If you're curious you should see it for yourself. I will warn you that over the top gore is involved.

I have no clue. Frankly I'm still processing. That said if you want to see a film that is going to provoke a reaction see BEING NATURAL.

BEING NATURAL plays again on the 16th at Fantasia. For more information and tickets go here.

Boiled Angels:The Trial of Mike Diana (2018) Fantasia 2018

Mike Diana put out an underground comic called Boiling Angels that featured all sorts of nasty things which Diana hoped would push people's buttons and get people thinking about the sorry state of the world. A town in Florida found hat he was doing shocking and they charged and convicted him for obscenity- in 1992.

What happened to Diana should be unbelievable except that it really did happen, he really was charged, he really was convicted and really was ordered not to go near children and never to draw again. We would love to hope that it was a minor blip in the way of the world but the current state of America with simple battles about what is true make is almost a dead certainty that this is going to happen again.

Frank Henenlotter's micro budgeted feature is therefore a needed warning about what did and could happen. Talking to all the people involved, including the prosecution, who get to tell their story (which they are sticking to), BOILED ANGELS is everything you need to know about what happened and why. Because of it's warning the film is a must see.

As important and vital as I think the film is, I wish the film were better put together. While everything we need to know is here, the ordering is not quite the best. Bouncing through time in places the film feels more like a series of digressions. The use of Diana's art has mixed effect with some bits being spot on, and others just sort of laying there. The unevenness of the assembly made this a film I admire more than I like.

A must see because it is vital in a world where free speech is in danger, BOILED ANGELS plays again July 18th at Fantasia. For more information and tickets go here.

MAQUIA: WHEN THE PROMISED FLOWER BLOOMS (2018) Fantasia 2018

Maquia looks to be a mere teenager but is a century or ore old. Her people have a gift and have become immortal. When a evil king invades hoping for the secret to their long life and to kidnap the women for his own purposes, Maquia is cast out into the world. Finding a small child she takes it in a raises it as her own watching hi grow old while she remains young.

I'm not going to lie, I got misty toward the run up to the end credits. I'm sorry the final sequences in the film worked for me and I teared up...

...that said I'm not sure about the rest. While I will say that after the invasion the film picks up, I'm still not sure that it all really worked for me. While there is nothing really wrong with the story, this mediation on the life of an immortal isn't wholly new. We've been here before, just not taken it from the perspective of a mother...

...then again the film made me misty at the end, so take that for what you will.

MAQUIA has has it's one Fantasia screening. It hits theaters on July 20th across North America

Steve on KAKEKOMI and MEN ON THE DRAGON NYAFF2018

KAKEKOMI
Three women seeking a divorce flee to a temple where they will complete two years of religious service and thus be granted their divorce. Love, friendship and danger results. Grand epic tale is great looking and well-acted but over long. Running an unwieldy two hours and twenty five minutes the film is a little too much concerned with being arty as opposed to simply telling the story. There is a good a good tale here, and it is one hell of death to the patriarchy story, but there is a bit too much arty angles and need to be making a point. I’m guessing this is one of NYAFF’s concessions to the art house crowd who fund the Film Society. While I like the film, I really wish that had picked up the pace. Regardless worth a look.

MEN ON THE DRAGON
As their company downsizes four men join their company's dragon boat team in order to preserve their jobs.  Male bonding, mirth and drama result. Good but completely unremarkable comedy hits pretty much every cliche you can imagine with a few new wrinkles, but not enough to make it stand out. While completely enjoyable  it's very little beyond that and will fade from your memory as soon as it's over.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Nate Hood makes THE BIG CALL (2018) NYAFF 2018

Oxide Pang’s THE BIG CALLl may be one of the few times I’ve seen a film sabotaged by its need to flesh out its villains as sympathetic human beings. When we first meet Lin Yahai (Joseph Chang) and his lover Liu Lifang (Gwei Lun-mei), they’re depicted as the cruel, unfeeling, amoral heads of a Thai phone scamming ring defrauding innocent people out of their savings. An early montage sees the two of them literally throwing fistfuls of cash to groupies as their operators—Chinese nationals trafficked into Thailand where their passports are confiscated and they’re forced to work 14 hour days—steal tens of thousands of dollars from gullible seniors while what sounds like an industrial cover of Dies Irae drones in the background. They only get more vicious from there, with Liu going so far as to repeatedly threaten to kill her trafficked girls for disobedience.

The film even opens with a grim portrayal of the havoc they wreak: a police officer named Ding Xiaotian (Cheney Chen) fails to stop an elderly man from killing himself after losing all his savings to Lin and Liu’s ring. But a strange thing happens about halfway through—the film actually tries to get us to sympathize with the two of them. In a horrific twist of fate, their ring accidentally scams Lin’s sister out of her tuition money, causing her to kill herself like the man at the start of the film. (One of the cruelest and subtlest details of the film is that a multi-millionaire like Lin has done so little to support his family that his own sibling would be driven to suicide over losing a few thousand dollars.) And through a series of conversations with Xu Xiaotu (Jiang Mengjie), one of the trafficked slaves from Hong Kong who’s actually an undercover cop for a Sino-Thai joint task force working to bring the ring down, we learn that Liu is miserable in her relationship with Lin whom she suspects of cheating on her.

But by that point, the film has done such a good job of convincing us that they’re unrepentant monsters that these appeals towards the audience’s better nature fall flat. This is all a shame, for otherwise THE BIG CALL is an excellent, pulse-pounding thriller. Pang does an fantastic job building tension as we watch both the task force and the phone ring struggle to stay one step ahead of each other, particularly after Liu starts to suspect that Xu might not be who she says she is. The film eventually climaxes with a Hong Kong-style action scene of considerable merit that nonetheless feels out of place in a film about mind games, psychological manipulation, and intrigue, but no more than the villains’ ill-advised babyface turns. It’s a testament to Pang’s direction that THE BIG CALL manages to weather these miscalculations so successfully.

Rating: 7/10