Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Island of Cats (2019) Japan Cuts (2019)

If you like cats then The Island of Cats is manna from heaven. The story of a cat who tries to find a human companion for its “owner” on the title location is an absolute delight.

To be honest I don’t have a lot to say about this film other than my face cracked open from smiling so much. This delightful film is 90 minutes with good people and great cats and is an absolute delight. It is a film that will make you feel good and smile from ear to ear. Is it the “best film” ever made. Oh hell no. I don’t think it was ever supposed to be. Rather it is a lovely and loving film that is going to be something you put on whenever you are blue.

If you have tickets for the NYC screening that is taking place this weekend you’re in for a treat. If you don’t have tickets try to go score a stand by ticket to the sold out show. If that doesn’t work I’m guessing you should keep an eye out since a film this good is bound to end up getting a US release.

For more information on the Japan Cuts screening go here

Island of Cats plays at Fantasia in Montreal later in July

SHe (2019) Fantasia 2019

SHe (yes the two capital letters and the single lower case letter is correct) concerns a female shoe creature who escapes from the pens where women are kept and masquerades as a man hoping to find some sort of freedom and instead finding things are not as expected.

Wordless and strange beyond words She is a one of a kind film. It is a film that is going to delight many and drive many more to the exits. I don’t mean that as a knock, rather this is just a film that is going to either delight you or be revealed as too weird. I mean this is a film about sentient shoes, ones that create socks and drink stockings.

A masterfully animated film that should be seen just for the technical achievement, the stop motion is so perfect that there is almost no sense of the animator. The animation is so smooth that the creations on screen truly seem to transcend their inanimate existence and take on a nightmarish life.

I personally adore the images and the strangeness. This is a singular work of a unique visionary. At the same time I am fully aware that this is not going to sit well with many people- especially at feature length.

For those looking for the weird, the wonderful and the strange this film is a must. For anyone looking for a vanilla film look elsewhere.

God bless Fantasia for bringing us this masterpiece.

SHe replays July. For more information or tickets go here.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Fantasia ’19: Critters Attack!

How could a franchise so rich in history go twenty-seven years without a new film? Remember, it was Critters 3 that made a star out of a sickly-looking teen named Leonardo DiCaprio—and his career has been going down hill ever since. Happily, the Krites (a.k.a. Critters) are still going strong, having roared back first with a Shudder reboot series and now a new installment in the original film series. The alien fur balls return to chow down on earthlings in Bobby Miller’s Critters Attack!, which had its world premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Alas, poor Drea has had a hard time of it. Ever since her mother died in a traffic accident, she and her little brother Phillip (an alien invasion-conspiracy theory monger) have had to live with their uncle Lewis Haines, a well-meaning but often drunken sheriff. She pines to matriculate at nearby Leroy College, the elite school her late mom briefly attended, but she lacks the necessary connections. Reluctantly, she agrees to baby sit for a natural history professor, hoping she can call in the favor next time she applies. Of course, she will take the neurotic Lacy siblings, Trissy  and Jake, to the park just when the Critters start attacking.

Since Phillip had long carried a torch for Trissy Lacy, he happily came along with Drea. Maybe it is just as well, because he is better able to recognize an alien invasion when one happens, even if it is conducted by round balls of hair and teeth, greatly resembling Animal from The Muppet Show. However, his judgement is somewhat clouded by Trissy’s presence, especially when the precocious pre-teen insists on taking home an injured white Krite, whom she dubs “Bianca.”

Have no fear franchise followers—the Krites attack early and often. Although the latest Critters movie is set in our day and age, it definitely has a late-1980s-early-1990s vibe going on. It is definitely true to the spirit of the original, especially given Dee Wallace’s return the franchise, as “Aunt Dee,” for the first time since starring in Critters Numero Uno.

For fans, it will be great fun watching Wallace in an Ellen Ripley-esque role. However, it is rather surprising how earnest and appealing Tashiana Washington, Jaeden Noel, and Stephen Jennings are as Drea, Phillip, and Uncle Lewis, respectively. Their family drama and dynamics actually play out well on-screen.

Of course, the Critters are just a blast of furry madness. Clearly, everyone involved had great affection for the original films, including raising genre talents Miller (who previously directed The Cleanse), screenwriter Scott Lobdell (best known for penning Happy Death Day), and editor Mike Mendez (director of The Last Heist and Don’t Kill It).

Sure, it looks somewhat low budget, but that is part of its charm. This Critters is all very old school and nostalgic, in the right ways. Highly recommended for fans Critters and hirsute creatures in general, Critters Attack! had its world premiere at this year’s Fantasia, ahead of its July 23rd DVD release.

Luz (2018) opens Friday

This is the review I originally posted in October when LUZ was making the festival circuit. I was asked to take it down until the theatrical release and with that happening Friday I am reposting it.

I am delighted that LUZ is playing so many major genre festivals (Fantasia, Fantastic Fest, Brooklyn Horror) and getting solid critical world of mouth. However at the same time I am very curious what most horror fans are thinking because ultimately the film is not really a horror film, it’s something else entirely. While there are chills, there are no jump scares. While there is some violence it’s not what you think.

The film is about a young woman named Luz. She is a cab driver who as the film begins has walked into a police station. From there it becomes essentially two monologs/stories as a woman at a bar tells a doctor about her friend and then the story that is revealed as Luz is hypnotized and relives the earlier part of the evening. Its low tech and chilling.

And while it does involve a demon it really isn’t a horror film. I can’t tell you why because…well… that would be telling. Yes it has some of the tropes of the horror genre but when you get to the end you’ll realize that the film was going somewhere else.

Its brilliant and probably one of the best films of the year. I say that because over 24 hours after I saw I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t move on. The construction of the film is so damn perfect I kind of wonder why it hadn’t been tried before.

Actually the reason the film works is because of the cast Luana Velis as Luz, Jan Bluthardt as the doctor and Julia Riedler as the girl in the bar are Oscar worthy. They may very well be the best ensemble of the year. They get it right. All of them are as good as you can get. Bluthardt is particularly stunning because he simply has to turn on dime repeatedly. I am in awe. It is a performance that should be studied.

While most definitely a genre story selling it as a horror film is selling it short. There is way more going on here and we are better for it.

I am going to guess that the gorehounds and those expecting a typical horror film are going to be initially disappointed but I am guessing that down the road, when they revisit the film they will see it to be the masterpiece that it is.

LUZ is highly recommended. One of the must see films of 2018. (and now 2019)

The Astronaut (2019) Fantasia 2019

Richard Dreyfuss plays  Angus a 75 year old widower who being shuttled off to an old age home. Always wanting to go to space he signs up for a contest to get a seat on the first commercial space flight. However things don't go as he plans as his health and the discovery of a possible problem with the flight complicate things.

Certain to be in the running for various awards Richard Dreyfuss is the reason to see this film. While most certainly a good film, it is Dreyfuss's emotionally charged performance that drives the film. Not only do we feel all his aches and pains but we see deeply into his heart and come to understand the man. Dreyfuss makes us one with Angus, with the result that every emotion we feel, tear we cry and laugh we make is honest and genuine.

I am deliberately not discussing what happens since the film has a great deal going on and if I say the wrong thing it will make it sound like it is something it is not. I say this because much of the film is focused on what happens when we and our parents grow older. What exactly happens to ourselves, our dignity and most importantly our dreams. If I discuss the growing old crap (which is right on and perfect) you will lose sight of the fact that this is really a film about following your dreams where ever they lead you-for however long it takes to achieve them.

I should probably warn you that this is a drama first and not a science fiction film. It is not about the space flight but about getting there. Saying that a space flight happens is not giving anything away because of what is in the photos, trailers and the very title gives it away.

This is also a low budget film make with and for love so don't expect big flashy effects except from the realm of acting

Recommended (and bring tissues)

THE ASTRONAUT played Fantasia earlier this evening. It will open in theaters at the end of July.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Japan Cuts Starts This Week So Go Buy Lots Of Tickets- A Curtain Raiser

The glorious Japan Cuts starts this week and I have almost nothing to say except “it’s all good-go buy tickets”.

Okay, that’s not entirely true, there are a couple of films I didn’t love (but I did like them), and I still haven’t seen everything, However I know for damn sure why everything is at the festival, which is saying a great deal in an age when so many film fests are full of “what were they thinking” films. Japan Cut is full of films that you will either absolutely love or at worst like but not love, while completely understanding why the film was programmed. I say this because there were one or two that weren’t my cup of tea but were still interesting enough that I was glad I saw them.

But enough of this idle chatter what you all want to know is what should you be getting tickets to- or in a couple of cases what films are worth waiting on the standby line to see (a good number of the films are already sold out)

My choices for the MUST SEES at Japan Cuts based on what I’ve seen areas follows:

ISLAND OF CATS – cat porn drama set on the legendary Japanese island has a cat trying to help his master find companionship. You will want to o buy yourself lots of cats.

BEING NATURAL – is a wild and woolly that is not for all tastes. The story of a man left adrift when his uncle dies leaving him with nowhere to go takes a bizarre and what planet did they get that from turn on the final 20 minutes. If you want weird cinema this is it- just be willing to wait for it.

STEP FORWARD – one of the great films of 2019 concerns a minister manning a suicide hot line. I was moved to the point where I am still struggling to find words to review it. I simply don't have words.

RED SNOW – visually and aurally stunning film concerns a reporter opening a decades old case and wrecking everyone's sense of the staus quo. While things may not be perfectly resolved the ride is magnificent.

NIGHT CROSSING –A thought provoking look at a blind man who wants to make a movie that forces you to reconsider what cinema is, how we see the world and how we communicate with those with differing points of reference.

BLUE HOUR – Closing night film has two friends going home again and finding things they didn’t expect to find. The set up maybe one we’ve seen before the delivery is not with some great characters doing some very real things.

I also highly recommend both KILLING and BULLET BALLET which are playing as part of the festivals tribute to Shinya Tsukamoto who is being honored at the festival. Look for coverage of both films and an interview with the man himself.

And there is more- but those should get you started.

I don't know what to say other than JAPAN CUTS ROCKS- GO BUY TICKETS

For more information and tickets (and information on sold out shows) go here

The (Birthday) Wonderland (2019) Fantasia 2019

A slacker girl goes to visit her crazy aunt who runs an antique shop discovers that she may be the Goddess of the Green Wind, destined to save an alternate reality after her hand perfectly matches a palm print in the store.

Based on Sachiko Kashiwaba's 1988 children's book Strange Journey From the Basement, THE WONDERLAND (or as the title on the print I saw said THE BIRTHDAY WONDERLAND) is a gloriously wonderful adventure. Full of incredible sights and sounds this is a film that will delight the inner child in all of us. There are just so many cool things here that I could spend this whole review waxing poetic about them all. I' not going to do that but instead say that I spent much of this film murmuring "oh that's so cool" over and over again.

While the film suffers from having the basic person drawn into a quest in a magic world plot line for a spine, the skeleton and details that flesh out the story lift the film up from something we might of thought we've seen before, into something we want to see again and again.

This film is a stunner and proof positive that Fantasia is one of the best places to see animated films from across the globe.

Jared King's Jade Leung/Michael Tong Interview on Podcast on Fire

Jade Leung and Michael Tong and their careers in posters
I have a story to tell…

Somewhere on July 3rd word went out that Jade Leung and Michael Tong were going to be appearing at the new York Asian Film Festival on July 5. It was a last minute addition. I was informed by Jared King when I got an email asking if I knew anything, specifically if they would be doing anything for the press. Emails were exchanged and we were informed that they would be  willing to sit for an interview before the screening of Fatal Raid on July 5th, so off Jared went.

After the interview Jared sent me audio and I was delighted.I loved that the interview was more a conversation between a bunch of people having a fun. You could hear everyone was having a good time laughing and talking. I sent it off for transcription figuring it was gold.

The problems started when I got the transcription back and realized it didn’t read as well as it played. Neither Jared nor I liked it. I sent it off to Mr C who didn’t like it either. I figured it could be saved if I mercilessly pared it back… and the result was even worse. Shorn of all of the vocal inflections, crosstalk, laughter and commentary in Chinese the conversation died on the page.

I’m mentioning this because the conversation Jared had with the two stars was something special. It was two stars and their handlers being confronted with a fan who loves them and falling into a conversation even before the recording started. When Jared jokes at the start “I know who you are” it gets a laugh because they know from the material he brought with him he really does. It’s echoed later when Jared says something that causes to Jade to sigh that he know her better than she knows herself.  All the friendliness and delight in everyone’s voices missing from the transcript.

In contemplating how to present the conversation Jared asked me if I had a problem if he gave the audio to Podcast on Fire to run. I did not. Indeed having fought with the transcript I knew it was the only way to go.

To that end here is the talk, I dare not really say interview that Jared did with Jared Leung and Michael Tong on Podcast on Fire J.uly th 2019 at the New York Asian Film Festival
Michael Tong Jared King and Jade Leung

An Absurd Accident (2017) hits VOD on July 18th

Impossible to summarize easily pitch black comedy thriller takes a little bit to get going but once it gets going it manages to produce both uneasy laughs and chills as everyone's sins of omission or lies comes back to haunt them.

The film is nominally the story of a hotel owner in rural China. Suspecting that his wife is having an affair he decides to kill her and turns to the quack doctor giving him aphrodisiacs  to get him a hit man. When the appointed time comes the plot begins to unravel as nothing is what it seems and no one is who they claim.

Chinese film noir meets the off kilter sensibilities of the Coen Brothers in a film that is continuously shifting gears. Told in chapters the film shifts styles as well as the more or less straight forward film swerves into literal silent comedy territory with black and white bits that are straight out of the Mack Sennett Studio. Why the film shifts in that direction isn't really clear but it does make the film stand out.

I really like the film a great deal. This is a film that doesn't behave as you think it will. A well made gem of a film AN ABSURD ACCIDENT this is the sort of audacious inde film that makes you sit up and take notice- and laugh.

What an absolute cinematic joy and a hidden treasure.

AN ABSURD ACCIDENT is highly recommended when it hits VOD on July 18th

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Jade's Asylum (2019) Fantasia 2019

Jade, who is haunted by the abusive ghost of her father, goes to Costa Rica with her boyfriend and his buddies on vacation. There the guys get stoned and pick up some local women. She is annoyed that her beau has been stoned for two days and making out with one of the locals. Tensions grow before twisted humans come from the sea and violence erupts.

With stunning make up effects and great photography and editing Jade’s Asylum should be a great film, but it’s need to plumb the depths of the human psyche with long passages where not much happens and people just sit around and brood  kills the film. Because of the silences we don’t really get to know anyone, with the result everyone kind of blends together. Long silences are broken by too direct statements that mean something. The film more often than not feels like an attempt to make an art house drama rather than a thriller or horror film.

Making everything worse are plot turns that make zero sense. For example we are met with two conundrums at the start which quickly doom things. First why are we entering the action when tensions are high since its clear Jade and her boyfriend  hate each other?  If they don't hate each other then they have so much resentment that they will need years of therapy to make it work. The second point is why is Jade on the trip with all the guys when it was clearly a guys’ trip? The only reason she is there is to instigate the events in the film. Her being there and being in conflict lessens our ability to sympathize with her. Other problems arise with the plotting, but those made me disconnect from the film and not care about the others.

What kills me is that on a technical level the film is truly great. The images are perfect, the editing and sound masterful and I love the mossy deformed men. If this had had a plot that was up to the technical achievements this would have been a truly great film.

As it is now Jade’s Asylum isn’t recommended for anyone other than technical film freaks and monster make up fans.

One of the rare Fantasia misses.

Nate hood's 400 word on Song Lang (2019) NYAFF 2019

For his gorgeously realized, opulently shot feature debut Song Long, director Leon Le takes audiences to 1980s Saigon, a culture in the midst of painful transition. On the one side are the elder generations, survivors of decades of constant warfare and jealous protectors of traditional Vietnamese culture. On the other, the younger generations born into an increasingly pervasive capitalism, unconcerned with the old ways and obsessed instead with money, sex, and consumer goods. On the one side is Ling Phung (Isaac), filial son and performer of cải lương—Vietnamese folk theater. On the other is Dung (Lien Bin Phat), an emotionally deadened debt collector for a loan shark. Their lives are thrown together when Dung pays a visit to Ling’s theater to collect on his mother’s debts, sparking an odd friendship between two young men who have more in common with each other than they might imagine.

Many early critics have praised Song Long for its luscious cinematography—Chen Kaige’s Farewell Me Concubine (1993) seems a common point of reference—and loving depictions of cải lương. But the film is more than a wistful entertainment; it’s a anatomical cross section of a society on the brink of anomie. Notice how Le juxtaposes Dung’s shiftless life as a gangster with those of cải lương performers: whereas every moment of every day is strictly regimented and defined with purpose for the actors, Dung languishes most of his days away in a detached haze, drifting from empty rooftop to empty rooftop in between “collections.” The actors experience the full breadth of life preparing for and performing their art: joy, love, loss, tragedy. But Dung wanders in an anhedonic torpor, showing as much excitement when he makes love or plays video games alone in his apartment as he does when he learns one of his “clients,” the mother of two small girls, killed herself to free her family from her debts. Even Dung’s avowed atheism seems superficial when compared to the prevalent Catholicism and Buddhism surrounding him.

The film could’ve easily leaned towards the reactionary with its celebration of traditional Vietnamese culture and societal collectivism, but Le’s not interested in political proselytization—he’s telling a story first and foremost of two young men struggling to navigate life, tragedy, and heartbreak in the only ways they know how. It’s this blending of subtexts, narrative, and undeniably pictorial beauty that makes Song Lang an auspicious debut.

Rating: 7/10

Joe Bendel on We Are Little Zombies (2019) Fantasia 2019

Technically, they are not zombies in the Walking Dead sense. They are zombies like the “She’s Not There” British invasion rock band. Of course, they are a kiddie band, but they have grown up awfully fast. Death has brought them together and death might just be what breaks them apart in Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies, which screens during the Fantasia Fest

Death will be their constant companion. As fate dictates, the four youngsters meet at the crematorium hosting their parents’ funerals—that’s right, all eight of them. Yet, strangely, they feel little emotion, which even they find somewhat odd. Instead, they band together, trashing their apartments and taking refuge on the streets. They have contempt for the future, living only in the now.

Of course, their stories are uniquely awful. Hikari Takami’s parents died when their tour bus had a fatal collision. They had been hoping to save their marriage by taking a strawberry lovers’ tour (at least they managed to avoid a divorce). Yuki Takemura’s parents committed suicide to escape their creditors. Shinpachi Ishi’s parents were killed in a gas fire at their greasy wok restaurant. Ikuko Ibu’s ‘rents were murdered by her stalker music teacher, because he thought she wanted him to do it—and maybe she did. Ibu is the oldest of the four, so naturally the boys all develop a crush on her.

Yet, it will be Takami who leads their band, “The Little Zombies,” filtering his Gameboy soundtracks through old school synthesizer modulators. Their street performances go viral, launching them to pop idol status, but you can guess the path of their career trajectory.

Little Zombies is not a horror movie, but it is definitely a massive cult film. With its intrusive 8-bit soundtrack and seizure-inducing rapid-editing, it is like an all-out assault on the senses. It is an exhausting film, but you have to respect Nagahisa’s ability to maintain the breakneck lunacy. Even if it makes your eye-sockets bleed, it is a heck of an accomplishment. As an added bonus, Nagahisa’s screenplay is riddled with clever, postmodern breakings of the fourth wall and self-referential wackiness.

Frankly, it is pretty amazing how deadpan Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, and Sena Nakajima remain, despite the maelstrom of insanity swirling around them. It is a different sort of performance, maintaining stoic discipline rather than emoting, but they fulfill their duties faithfully. Recommended for fans of Sion Sono at his most out-there, We Are Little Zombies screens July 16th at Fantasia.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Not a review of Sabu's Jam (2018) NYAFF 2019

This is purely a place holder. I wanted to simply say that I saw Sabu’s JAM which played at the New York Asian Film Festival, but I don’t know what to think. This uncertain reaction is not what I expected from a Sabu film since every film of his has produced some sort of emotion—even if only in the end when the plot threads came together in an ah ha moment.

Beginning at the end the film follows three people as their lives end up converging in a single moment where, they literally crash into each other. And I really don’t know.

A couple days on I’m still pondering it. I know I should watch the film again but I’m torn, especially since I’ve been told that the film is getting a sequel. Perhaps down the road, linked to another film it will make more sense, or provoke a reaction that I can put into words.

For now I just want to say that I’ve seen the film and full review is coming. Until then here is Nate Hood’s review.

Joe Bendel on The Gangster, The Cop and The Devil (2019) Fantasia 2019

There are two basic strategies serial killers can opt for to select their prey: obsessive observation and stalking or pure randomness. The latter has the advantage of following no discernible patterns for the police to trace. The downside is a potential target like Jang Dong-su. The beefy gangster is really hard to kill and he has an army of foot soldiers to search for his mystery assailant. Frankly, the killer would probably be better off if the ethically ambiguous national copper Jung Tae-seok finds him first in Lee Won-tae’s deliciously twisted The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil, which tomorrow at the Fantasia Festival.

Jang is played by the mighty Don Lee (Ma Dong-seok), so nobody in their right mind would mess with him. Of course, that is precisely the case with the psychotic “K.” He thinks he has the drop on Jang with his usual minor fender-bender M.O., but it takes more than a few stabs to kill the Paul Bunyon-esque crime lord.

Initially, Jang’s gang assumes the attack was the work of a rival faction, but he calls off the war when he comes to. Not surprisingly, he is inclined to solve the matter personally rather than cooperate with Jung’s investigation. However, they forge a tentative alliance to coordinate intel and resources to track down the killer. They start betraying and double-crossing each other almost immediately, but they still keep returning to their basic agreement, for the sake of preventing further murders and scoring some stone-cold payback, so, yeah.

South Korea has always demonstrated a clear comparative advantage when it comes to producing serial killer thrillers, but GCD takes the genre to new sinister heights. Lee Won-tae came up with the mother of all high concepts and his execution barrels forward with the energy of a runaway freight train. Plus, it is just jolly good fun to watch Don Lee and Kim Moo-yul scheme, fight, and bicker together as Jang and Jung, respectively. Lee could very well be the only man in the world who could credibly play Jang, who we can easily believe would survive multiple stab wounds to the torso. Train to Busan already made him a star, but GCD should definitely be a next-level-up movie for him.

Yet, maybe the biggest surprise is how well Kim hangs with him. He is spectacularly sleazy and nakedly self-serving, but we also believe he genuinely wants to stop the murders. As K, Kim Sung-kyu is undeniably creepy and coldly clammy, but he is somewhat overshadowed by the larger-than-life flamboyance of Lee and Kim Moo-yul.

GCD is so wickedly clever, the American remake rights have already been snapped up. Unfortunately, it was Sylvester Stallone who nabbed the hot property, which doesn’t inspire much confidence anymore. On the plus side, Don Lee is already attached to reprise his portrayal of Jang, which is cause for cautious optimism. Regardless, there can be little doubt the original will be the better film—and it is the one opening this week. Very highly recommended, The Gangster, The Cop, the Devil plays tomorrow at Fantasia.

Dance on Camera ’19: Échappé (short)

Ballet is an elite performing art, enjoyed by kings and czars, but the USSR’s propaganda masters tried to exploit it for their benefit, holding the graceful dance up as an example of Soviet superiority and appealing to its traditional significance for the Russian people. You knew when there was trouble, because state TV would suddenly broadcast Swan Lake. However, their ballet strategy backfired when high-profile dancers defected to the West. It wasn’t just Nureyev. There was also Baryshnikov, Godunov, Makarova, Panov, and the Koslovs. A rising prima ballerina is deeply concerned her brother intends to join their ranks and even more fearful of what steps their handler might take to stop him in Allison Mattox’s short film, Échappé, which screens during this year’s Dance on Camera.

It is 1970. Cold War tensions are mounting, so the stakes are high for the ballet company’s “good will” tour. Nikolai Andreyev is probably their biggest star, but his sister Vera Andreyev’s reputation will probably soon eclipse his. She is also considered much more politically reliable than the long-suspect Nikolai.

Rather awkwardly for Ms. Andreyev, her brother is about to become a victim of her success. Believing her prestige is now sufficient to carry the company, Lionidze, their KGB escort intends to send Nikolai home to prevent any further international incidents (you know, to give one of those private command performances for the Kremlin). This creates a crisis of conscience for motherland-loving ballerina.

Even though Échappé is set during the beginning of the polyester 1970s, it looks terrific thanks to the exquisite lensing of cinematographer Beth Napoli. Frankly, this is one of the best looking films this year, of any length. Beyond questions of cinematic aesthetics, it also helps showcase Martin Harvey’s choreography in a favorable light (so to speak), which patrons of Dance on Camera will surely appreciate.

Leads Olesya Senchenko and Pavel Shatu certainly both look like glamorous dancers, but they also respond well to each other. On the other side of the spectrum, Nikolai Tsankov is deeply sinister, in a slavishly apparatchik kind of way, as Lionidze. Indeed, Échappé is a well-crafted film in all respects, including Mattox’s screenplay. Instead of merely echoing White Crow, Échappé very definitely has its own identity, which really comes into sharp relief when the intelligent ironies of its conclusion are revealed. Very highly recommended for fans of dance and Cold War films, Échappé screens with the documentary Three Dances this Sunday afternoon (7/14), as part of Dance on Camera 2019.

Come to Daddy (2019) Fantasia 2019

I can only talk about the set up for COME TO DADDY which is good and bad. It’s good because I won’t give anything away. It’s bad because there volumes to say about the film and I don’t discuss it lest I ruin it for those who haven’t seen it.

The plot of the film has Elijah Wood going to see his long lost dad on the coast of California. Wood hasn’t seen his dad in decades and he has been summoned by his dad in an effort to build bridges. Or so he thinks, because once he gets there dad (Stephen McHattie) isn’t what he remembers and is acting very oddly.

And I’m leaving it there because what happens is the movie. It’s also a not what I expected.

Part comedy of discomfort, part thriller, part horror film and part “WTF were they thinking” COME TO DADDY surprises you every five or ten minutes with turns and shadings that are completely unexpected. It’s a film where you think you know what’s going on until you don’t. This is a film that is very much taking place in the moment. We are not given any sort of clues as to anything beyond what we are seeing until something happens or is said in the normal conversation; and that flips everything that has gone before without mess plot twists. It is a ploy that most film directors don’t use, they want to tell you way too much, but Ant Timpson brilliantly doesn’t do that and instead uses the way life really works against the audience. The turns are such that you’ll want to see the film again just to see how it all plays out now that you know what is going on.

I really like COME TO DADDY. While not perfect, there are a couple of bumps along the way, I love that it’s a funny film that forces the audience to stay on their toes and talk at the screen as things shift and change with a mere line.

A wickedly poisoned delight you'll want to see more than once..


Thursday, July 11, 2019

The Deeper You Dig (2019) Fantasia 2019

THE DEEPER YOU DIG blew me away. A small micro-budgeted micro-crewed film made by a couple and their daughter, all of who were on both sides of the camera, the film is a nominal supernatural tale that transcends every expectations to become something glorious and great.

This is story of what happens in the wake of a tragedy, involving a mother, her daughter and a stranger, it will haunt you long after the credits roll.

Yes I know that was awkward and obtuse because I am intentionally not going to tell you any more than that about the plot. I know you’ll be able to read other reviews which will spill the beans but I really would prefer you not to read them. If you can you should go into the film knowing as little as possible. One of the joys of this film is going in full of expectations and then having all of them shot down. There was a point early on where I just took everything I was expecting and locked it up in a cabinet. What I thought was going to happen was never going to so there was no point in fighting it.

Beautifully acted by the three principals and directors (John Adams, Toby Poser, Zelda Adams) the film creates a very real place. We have three rounded characters who pull us into the madness. Talk about ensemble acting, this is something more, especially considering where the film takes us. Their achievements go beyond acting to the script and technical aspects since this a film that was made as a truly collaborative effort. How in holy hell did they pull this off? It’s the work of a grand hive mind- how do we bottle this.

One of the things that delights me is that the filmmakers turned their lack of a budget into something miraculous. Seemingly unable to do fancy effects they simply go around it and do things in a straight forward manner. Can’t afford a ghost effect? Then don’t use one just have the actor be there. That may sound counter intuitive or the use of something on the order of The SIXTH SENSE to trick the audience, but that’s not the case here and the result is dead nuts creepy.

Not to parse words John Adams, Toby Poser, and Zelda Adams have made a masterpiece. To be certain it is a small, not particularly flashy one but it is one and it has genuine power. It is self-assured and a commanding. Grabbing us by the labels it forces us to journey with it, forgiving blemishes by the sheer force of presence and the skill of its juggling. It’s kind of like discovering the guy next door has the pipes of an opera star.

THE DEEPER YOU DIG is a great film. It is one of the very best films at Fantasia and probably of 2019 as well. If you can go into the film knowing it is a small gem of quiet power I highly recommend it.

THE DEEPER YOU DIG plays Fantasia again July 12th. For ticket and more information go here.

Sadako (2019) Fantasia 2019

Hideo Nakata returns to the film franchise he started with Ringu in 1998 for rough;y the 12th feature film in the sequence that has included films from Japan, Korea and the US.  I wish I could report that the return brought great things but the fact is the series has long ago run out of steam and the effort to give it new blood is wildly uneven.

After a mother tries to set her daughter on fire because she believes her to be the reincarnation of the evil Sadako, the girl at the center of the Ring curse, the young girl is brought to a mental hospital with amnesia. Put in the care of a young doctor who genuinely cares for the her girl begins to come around despite weird things happening around her. At the same time the doctor's brother visits the apartment where the fire happened and several people died. This unleashes Sadako once more on the world.

The opening sequence to SADAKO is full of creepy dread. Watching the mother prepare to burn the daughter she locked up is truly troubling. What makes it worse is we know that Sadako is locked in a cave by the sea and is nowhere near the apartment that is soon to become an inferno. Watching it I had high hopes for the series that had pretty much run its course several films back.

Unfortunately the film soon stumbles once we are introduced to the doctor and her goofy brother. While they would be fine in almost any other film, here the goofiness and the forced sense of foreboding fail to generate any scares. Any tension created by the opening sequence is instantly lost in the corridors of the brightly lit hospital.

The only real tension or frisson in the whole film comes from the weird moments where the young girl sees dead people. The first such person had me talking to the screen. After that the only times I perked up was during some of the supernatural bits.

Sadly despite the best intentions of restarting the series the film falls into the same patterns of the last couple of movies where a couple of really cool moments are lost in the connecting material; which only exists to give the scary bits a reason to exist. In all honesty I really hope this is the end of the road for the series for a very long time because at this point the cash cow is long  dead and been replaced by a cheap pleather imitation.

A sad opening to Fantasia 2019, this is one film you can skip.

Maggie (2019) NYAFF 2019

Sweet small scale film begins with an X-ray being found of a romantic twist in the X- ray room, which leads to speculation as to who it was. Nurse Yoon-young thinks it was her and goes into resign only to find she and one doctor are the only ones who haven't called in sick...

...spinning out in unexpected directions from there so as to include all sorts of seeming digressions from sink holes to cat fish, MAGGIE charms at almost every turn. Working entirely because we like the people in the film MAGGIE simply is good times with good people. To be certain things go oddly at times but we always accept it. What ever happens we simply accept it.

I was delighted and I suspect you will be too.

MAGGIE plays Saturday at the New York Asian FIlm Festival and next week at Fantasia in Montreal

Joe Bendel on Zhang Yimou's SHADOW (2018) Fantasia 2019

Commander Yu of the Pei Kingdom is a bit like Field Marshal “Monty” Montgomery (and Saddam Hussein). He uses a double. “Use” really is the right word. The Machiavellian Yu will exploit his other self while openly defying his king in Zhang Yimou’s masterwork Shadow, which opens tomorrow in New York.

The Kingdoms of Pei and Yang have struck an uneasy alliance, but the latter enjoys the stronger position, because they hold the strategically important city of Jingzhou. That does not sit well with a fervent Pei nationalist like Yu, but the cruel and cowardly king has dug in his heels. Rather than challenge Yang’s claim to the city, he will instead sacrifice his beloved sister as a marriage offering. However, Yu upsets his plans by having his “shadow,” the peasant-born Jing, challenge Yang’s legendary commander, Yang Cang, to a mano-a-mano for-all-the-marbles duel.

Of course, this enrages the Pei King, who is all too willing to rule as a de facto vassal of Yang, as long as his authority is obsequiously respected. Meanwhile, Jing develops free-agent inclinations of his own. The only ally Yu can fully count on is his wife (only referred to as “Madam”), whose loyalty is unconditional, even though her romantic affections are starting to shift to Jing.

Shadow was relatively unheralded before its Western festival debut, but it ranks up there with Zhang’s finest wuxia epics, which is saying something. Without question, it is one of his most visually stunning films, clearly inspired by Chinese ink-wash and charcoal drawings. Technically, this is still a color film, but Zhang largely utilizes an austere but striking color palette of blacks, whites, and grays.

The big martial arts set pieces are equally amazing to behold, if not more so. The umbrella fighting techniques practiced by Yu (played by Jing) might sound eccentric, but they are lethally cinematic. The same is true of the epic-worthy set design, including the awe-inspiring Ying-Yang battle platform.

Deng Cao truly covers the waterfront in the dual role of Jing and Yu. He chews plenty of scenery as both hero and villain, but he also shows off his tremendous action chops. Zheng Kai is spectacularly slimy and downright odious as the King, while Hu Jun is gruff but dignified as General Yang. However, it is Sun Li who truly grounds the film as the noble, long-suffering Madam Yu.

The imagery is arresting, the fight scenes are super-charged, and the drama is the stuff of classic high tragedy. Taken altogether, Shadow makes the case for Wuxia as the ultimate artistic flowering of action cinema. It is a great film from a master filmmaker. Very highly recommended, Shadow plays at Fantasia July 14 and 15