Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A Rough Draft (2018) Fantasia 2018

Super video game world designer is forcibly made a gate keeper the door between worlds. However things become complicated as he tries to return to his world and some people try to kill him.

Or something.

Weird Russian science fiction film never quite finds its footing as it zips through set pieces that are beautifully done but which never quite hang together.

More disappointing than bad, A ROUGH DRAFT remind one of other better films (Matrix), and even some lesser ones as well with it's notion of a tower between worlds. In a weird way I kept waiting for some of Michael Moorcock's heroes to come waltzing through this version of the tower at the center of it all.

While the story never thrills the visual effects and action sequences do and they keep you watching even when all else fails.

I'm glad I saw it but looking back it wasn't something I needed to go out of my way to see.

Night Comes On (2018)

Angel is 18 and just out of juvenile detention. She wants nothing more than to connect with her girlfriend and then get revenge on her father who killed her mother.

A small nuanced tale, NIGHT COMES ON is a winner. Looking like your typical inde film director Jordana Spiro shakes up expectations by not going where you think it will. – doesn’t give us your typical tale in your typical way. She doesn’t spoon feed us everything allowing us to ponder things, such as the fact that Angel’s girlfriend was kind of gone before she was locked up because Angel was distant even then. Also things around Angel’s Dad are not as clear cut as Angel thinks they are.

Spiros‘s tale is also helped along a first rate cast who make everything 100% believable. The cast from top to bottom sell the tale not just by speaking and doing, but by showing signs of living the character’s lives in their eyes. Michael Caine has said that the secret to great acting is the ability to show signs of a characters thoughts in the eyes. This cast does that and then some. Everyone is fully invested with the result we as an audience is also fully invested.

This is a super film. While it may not rock the pillars of heaven it will rock your heart.

Recommended.

NIGHT COMES ON opens Friday in theaters and on VOD

Flavors of Youth: Anime Nostalgia in China

It is not often Japan and China cooperate, so any time it happens must be significant. Thanks to the animation house that produced the instant-classic Your Name., China never looked as good as it does in this anime anthology. Bittersweet memories resurface for the grown adult protagonists of Li Haoling, Yi Xiaoxing & Yoshitaka Takeuchi’s Flavors of Youth, which premieres this Saturday on Netflix.

Mainland China is all about motion and migration, so it makes sense the brief wrap-arounds collect our main characters in an airport. It is a vastly different China than the quiet provincial town the protagonist of Yi’s “Sunny Breakfast” grew up in. He was largely raised by his loving grandmother, because his parents were working in the big city. Each day, she brought two bowls of San Xian noodles from the town’s beloved noodle shop for a hearty breakfast. As he matured, those noodles and those from the successor noodle store (not quite as good, but maybe even more inviting) took on special significance in his life.

“Sunny Breakfast” is a sweet little tale that elevates mood and nostalgia over drama and big pay-offs. It is quiet, but it resonates, especially for anyone who has walked through a neighborhood like the East Village, pointing out all the once-popular establishments that aren’t there anymore (Dojo, Mondo Kim’s, Mahmoud’s original location, the Japanese hotdog place, etc., etc.).

Probably, Takeuchi’s “A Small Fashion Show” packs the least punch of the trilogy. Set in Guangzhou, it follows the struggle of a supermodel at risk of losing her mojo as she ages into her mid-twenties or whatever and her younger sister, an aspiring designer, whose frocks could provide her the inspiration she needs. Obviously, this is a story we can all relate to. Still, it is nice to see a mature and endearing sisterly story unfold on screen. Takeuchi (a 3DCGI artist on Your Name) also makes the city of Guangzhou sparkle like a fantasy realm.

Easily the best constituent film and the closest in tone to Your Name is Li’s “Shanghai Love.” Conceived as an homage to Makoto Shinkai’s 5 Centimeters per Second, it tells the story of how a high school romance went wrong and the remorseful Rimo’s desperate attempt to make amends years later. The twists of fate are heartbreaking, but it feels very true to life for anyone who grew up in the 1990s, no matter where that might have been.

Flavors is a wistful film about memory and regret, but Li (also serving as “overall director”) ties everything together in a way that actually feels upbeat and hopeful. The seventy-five-minute film is probably too slight of stature for a conventional theatrical release, but it should charm anime fans who chose the stream it. Recommended for viewers in the mood to savor the right kind of sadness, Flavors of Youth launches on Netflix this Saturday (8/4).

Nico,1988 opens tomorrow

Boasting a towering performance by Trine Dyrholm in the title role, NICO 1988 is a look at the last three years in the life of the performer known as Nico. Her real name was Christa Päffgen and she hated talking about her days in the Velvet Underground. We watch as she tours stoned out of her mind and then cleans herself up and gets her life together.

Dyrholm is amazing. That the film is magnificent as it is due entirely to her hypnotic performance. Destined to be legendary, and with luck Oscar nominated, Dyrholm is force of nature. She isn’t acting but inhabiting the role. While I’ve seen clips of Nico in real life I've lost the ability to even think of the real Nico, Dyrholm is now my Nico. I can’t say anything more than that. This is a performance for the ages.

More fantasia than straight on biography, much is left out and the film only really concentrates three moments in time, a long section of her 1986 European tour that she did stoned out of her mind, a 1987 tour where she and her son were trying to get clear and brief period before her death when Nico was happy. We are traveling with her in three moments of time little else.

And for some that is going to be a big problem. As much as I, and people of my age loved the film, some of the younger writers I spoke with didn’t care for it. While they admired the filmmaking and the performance the fact that they knew nothing about Nico worked against their enjoying the film. They didn’t know why they should care. I can understand that, since I am not a well versed in Nico and the Velvet Underground and while I didn’t know the details I could appreciate her iconic status, something the younger writers couldn't.

On the other hand if you know Nico or know of her or are a rock film fan this film is going to work for you to some degree. While you may not love it like me, you will probably like.

Then again the film has Dyrholm central performance which makes it recommended for everyone.

This was one of my favorite films at Tribeca

What a Man Wants (2018) Fantasia 2018

This is a Korean movie, so even though it starts out like a Blake Edwards sex farce, there will be some tragedy eventually. Men are indeed acting badly, but they are not the only ones in Lee Byeong-hun’s What a Man Wants, which screens during Fantasia 2018.

Seok-geun constantly cheats on his patient and lovely wife Dam-deok, because he is a cad. Ironically, he often tricks his straight-laced brother-in-law Bong-soo into covering for him. A lot of people would give him a pass if he had some side action, because Seok-geun’s sister Mi-young can be a you-know-what-buster. One fateful night, Bong-soo naively shows up for the pool game that was supposed to serve as Seok-geun’s alibi and inadvertently steals away the attention of his new prospective lady friend, Je-ni. Seok-geun had been daring him to have an affair of his own, so he finally gives into temptation.

Not long after the affair begins, Bong-soo’s professional standing as a chef-restauranteur dramatically improves. Alas, tragedy also strikes the family. As a result of these combined events, Bong-soo and Seok-geun effectively trade places. However, when Mi-young hires Je-ni as a waitress in the restaurant, things revert back to a farcical level.

There is a fair amount of door-slamming in WAMW, but there is also a good deal of guilt and grief. When it loses a character, the repercussions are felt all the way through to the end. Still, there is plenty of physical comedy, mostly executed without excessive mugging.


Most of that sneaking around and hiding under tables falls to Shin Ha-kyun, who is quite nimble and rather poker-faced as Bong-soo. Initially. Lee Sung-min plays Seok-geun as a roguish shaggy dog, almost like a Korean Jim Belushi, but he gets surprisingly serious during the third act. In fact, it is a rather smoothly and subtly evolving performance. Yet, the biggest surprise might be Lee El, who elevates Je-ni beyond a mere sex status, giving her complicated depth and dimension, very much in the tradition of Dada Chan.

Nobody gets off easily in WAMW, but Lee and co-screenwriters Jang Gyu-sung Bae Se-young do not hold grudges against anyone either. You might have missed the connection, but their screenplay is based on the 2011 Czech film Men in Hope, yet they definitely incorporate distinctly Korean attitudes. They also capitalize on the temperate and inviting Jeju Island locales. A nice balance of funny and sad, What a Man Wants screens today as part of Fantasia 2018

Tokyo Vampire Hotel (2018) Fantasia 2018

Sion Sono's bat shot crazy vampire TV series (see it on Amazon) has been cut down to 140 minutes losing roughly five hours in the process. I don't know how they compare but this film is just bonkers.

The plot basically has a young woman surviving mass murder only to end up forcibly brought to the title location in order to help the good vampires, Draculas, battle the bad vampires, the Corvins. Bloody mayhem results.

Actually this is all mayhem, and not always for the better. The minimal plot comes and goes as all sorts of nastiness happens and I was left to wonder "what in the holy hell was I watching"?

While every sequence is clearly the work of Sono working near the top of his game the over all film doesn't hang together. I kept feeling lost and all connection except that of admiration for the sequences faded.

While the film is worth seeing for Sono completeists, I think most people probably should go for the full on series- I'm going to head over myself once the festival is done.

Monday, July 30, 2018

The Brink (2018) Fantasia 2018

A disgraced cop who never says a word or changes expressions, is reinstated to the force after being charged with killing a bad cop. He ends up on the trail of a super bad ass villain who also never says a word and never changes expression.The bad guy is smuggling gold from a sunken ship and killing anyone who gets in his way.

The plot is unimportant in this ever building series of action set pieces. People fight, cars crash, people scuba dive and it all climaxes on a small ship in a big storm. The action is mind blowing and will make your jaw hang open. In all seriousness the action set pieces are some of the best from the last decade...

...the problem is there are no real characters and the plot seems to be an after thought with the result there is nothing to hang anything on. I watched the film twice because I thought I missed something- nope I got it all. Moving at a breakneck pace the forward motion of everything drives the film forward and keeps us interested. However the lack of plot never full engages us.

Don't get me wrong, I like the film. But the action sequences are so good that I should be loving this instead of liking it.

Reservations aside THE BRINK is a must for any action film lover when it plays Fantasia again tomorrow.

Tigers Are Not Afraid (2018) Fantasia 2018

I am at a loss as to how TIGERS ARE NOT AFRAID was  playing smaller festivals such as Boston Underground and even Fantasia but not in the bigger fests like New York or Tribeca or any of the other huge festivals. The fact that films by Guillermo del Toro are lauded there but gems from filmmakers like Issa López, who has made a film that is probably more powerful than most of del Toro's films, is just wrong.

TIGER follows young Estrella whose mother has been carried off by the drug cartels in Mexico. She is left to fend for herself and falls in with a band of boys who have similar stories. They work together to get food and stay safe. They tell each other fairy tales to pass the time. However fate has other plans for the group and they are soon on a collision course with the cartels.

Realistic, but with supernatural overtones, Estrella sees ghosts and a traveling line of blood, this is a real world fairy tale. I should add that this is not a Disney sort of fairy tale but something more akin to the original Grimm's tales where truly bad things happen.

Shocking yet deeply human and moving. TIGERS is a film that is light years above and beyond most other "genre" films out there in that it gets the blend of real and fantastic elements exactly right. Nothing is over done or unbelievable. We buy everything that happens, even the fantastic stuff because we believe in the characters.

At the same time the film is very much a fairy tale with monsters, ghosts, magic, wishes, princes,a princess and any number of fairy tale tropes wandering through the film. However the film is so well done that you'll never think of it as a fairy tale, rather simply as a solid drama.

This film is amazing and get better the more you ponder it. One of the best films of 2018.

Highly recommended.

Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days

Heaven can wait, but reincarnation has a strict deadline. “Paragons” must prove their worthiness in forty-nine days or they will have to go through the purgatorial slog with the rest of the moral slobs. Apparently, paragons run in the family. Gang-lim and his team of guardians helped firefighter Kim Ja-hong navigate the seven hells and now they have been assigned to his murdered brother Su-hong. This time, the case awakens painful memories for the guardians that had been suppressed for nearly a millennium in Kim Yong-hwa’s Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days, which opens this Wednesday in New York.

It isn’t easy being a guardian. Gang-lim and his assistants, Hewonmak and Deok-choon are one reincarnation away from their one-thousand-year quota, but despite his worthiness, Kim Su-hong will be a hard case. He was an angry ghost, because he was killed by two of his army comrades, but Gang-lim helped ease the bitterness in his heart, only slightly violating the afterworld’s Prime Directive. As a further complication, Kim claims he does not want to be reincarnated, but he goes along with the process out of curiosity.

As a condition for Kim’s expedited trial, Gang-lim’s team must also take care of some housekeeping in the human realm. An old man is long overdue to ascend, but Sung-ju, the house god living in his flat chases away all guardians that come with a death notice. He is played by Ma Dong-seok/Don Lee, so you know he will be formidable. In a major violation of protocol, Sung-ju now lives openly with old man and his abandoned grandson. However, he has a few secrets that will be of interest to Hewonmak and Deok-choon, because he served as their guardian way back when.

The previous film, AWTG: The Two Worlds, featured some intriguing afterlife world-building and some Tsui Hark-worthy fantastical action sequences, but seemed relatively self-contained. However, Last 49 Days answers just about every question viewers might have had, while deepening the backstories and mythology, eventually serving up several heavy revelations. It definitely tops the first film, even rectifying the some of the first film’s flaws, like the weak prospective paragon.

The intertwined histories of Hewonmak and Deok-choon are particularly compelling and so is the chemistry that develops between them, as played by Ju Ji-hoon and Kim Hyang-gi. As Gang-lim, Ha Jung-woo is still all kinds of steely, but he also ups his game, reaching for levels of classical tragedy. Even though Ma/Lee has become an action lead in his own right, it is easy to see why he would take an ensemble role as Sung-ju the household god, because it is quite an effective showcase for his larger-than-life screen-presence and good-naturedly luggish comedic chops.

The Two Worlds was visually impressive, but it is The Last 49 Days that really forges an emotional connection. We liked the first film, but after watching the second, we kind of love these characters. So, good news: we will be seeing more of them. The first two films were shot back-to-back, Matrix/LOTR-style, but The Two Worlds was such a monster hit in Korea, two more films have already been greenlit. Consider us down for the franchise. Recommended for fans of action-fantasy and good karma, Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days opens this Wednesday (8/1) in New York (simultaneous with Korea), at the AMC Empire.

Miseducation of Cameron Post opens Friday

This is a repost of my review from the Tribeca Film Festival

Cameron is caught having sex with her girlfriend at the Homecoming Dance in 1993. Everyone is freaked out and sent off to a faith based school where her same sex desires are to be combated.

Very good drama with a comic edge looks at the the whole notion of programs that are suppose to readjust sexual orientation so god will love us. Its a film that is nicely low key and will give anyone on any sort of belief scale something to think about.

I have no idea what god's thoughts on the whole matter are, but it's clear the filmmakers have a sympathetic eye toward the people forced to endure treatments that are at best quackery and at worst abuse. No one is cliche or smart ass in tone, unless it comes out as part of a real character. We care for the kids and we accept that some of them really do want to change. Best of all while decidedly not in favor of the treatment, the film doesn't give us monsters to hate. The counselors are caring. They really do want to do what they think is god's work. We get the sense that they really think they are helping until it's clear they aren't.

One of the better films of 2018 THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST is recommended

Sunday, July 29, 2018

Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema starts Friday

The second annual Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema starts this week and it looks to be a blast. Taking place in Kew Gardens proper and at the Queens Museum the festival is 10 days of cinematic goodies that has something to delight everyone. Go here and look things over and buy some tickets.

Okay, full disclosure as this posts I have not waded into this festival as I have with other recent ones, because I have been covering four other festivals and I am just really beginning to put my coverage together (hence the brevity of this curtain raiser). As a result I can’t really list all of the goodies as I have with other recent festivals. However I can make a few suggestions:

US, FOREVER AGO - I am in love with this film. A narrative/documentary hybrid the film becomes something else entirely. Heralding the arrival of Irina Varina it blew my mind and then some. One of the best films of the festival and maybe 2018. Highly recommended.

MURDER MADE EASY is an absolute blast of a film. It begins with a dinner among friends and then turns deadly. I saw this earlier this year and I have been recommending it ever since. A great great film one of the best films you'll see all year.

NOTHING CHANGES:ART FOR HANK’S SAKE is a great portrait of man who lives for art. Well past the age most people have retired, goes every day into his studio overlooking Union Square Park in NYC. This is a great portrait of the need to create.

THE DOCTOR’S CASE – a solid Sherlock Holmes tale based upon a Stephen King Story. Not a monster story but a solid mystery

INTO THE VALLI is a heavy drama about a Frankie Valli impersonator whose personal life begins to crumble. Its a killer.

CHASING SUNSHINE is a sweet comedy that you have to see at the festival. An amusing tale of two friends on a scavenger hunt so one can find secret admirer, it is probably going to get lost once off the festival circuit because it’s brief run time is going to keep it off many people’s radar. That shouldn’t happen because it’s a lovely film. See it and then then help spread the word.

A VIOLENT MAN - excellent boxing film noir updated to the world of MMA has a fighter, who laid out the champ in a sparring match, chief suspect in a murder. A great cast and a solid script make this one to see. One of the very best films at the festival

Those are just some of the films playing, there are plenty more so go buy tickets and see something. The festival website is can be found here.

People's Republic of Desire (2018) Fantasia 2018

Chinese live-streaming might not have the weird fetish appeal of the Japanese idol industry, but the fake egalitarianism and built-in exploitation make it even more perverse. Popular hosts and singers on the YY streaming platform can make tens of thousands of dollars per month, but the system is still stacked against them. Molecular biologist-turned documentarian Hao Wu dives deep into the YY ecosystem in People’s Republic of Desire, which played at this year's Fantasia.

Shen Man is an up-and-coming YY host, who is the sole support of her unemployed father and step-mother. She will be a genuine contender during the annual YY competition, because she has a number of well-heeled patrons and a major YY talent agency backing her. If you read YY’s media kit, it probably makes the platform sound like an egalitarian place, where average folk determine who is successful with their votes and on-line buzz. In reality, they might be able to boost a host from obscurity to a modest following, but once big-dollar patrons start throwing online (but very real) money around the live-caster’s “showroom,” the serfs are effectively frozen out of the action.

Big Li is maybe the last exception. He is considered the “diaosi” (a hard to translate term for a homely underclass male) who made good. He is the last of the unagented hosts who will meaningfully compete in the YY contest. A win will bring online fame, as well as more sponsors and hopefully gifts, but it comes at a price. Agencies will spend hundreds of thousands ofreal dollars on online votes, which they charge back to clients, making second place an expensive disappointment.

Wu follows both hosts through two competitions and a very messy year of scandals and personal strife in between. Wu’s approach is primarily sociological, with a special focus on the disenfranchised diaosi, who become increasingly disconnected from the live-streamers they helped build. There is also a pronounced element of sexism in how female live-streamers are treated. Even top talent like Shen Man must regularly field vulgar comments and many of their patrons clearly expect sexual favors in exchange for financial support.

However, we see enough of the inner workings of YY and major agencies (many of whom seem to be bankrolled by sketchy underworld types) to know this racket is fishy. Frankly, someone should do a full-scale expose of the Chinese live-streaming industry, but there is not exactly a robust tradition of investigative journalism on the Mainland.

Desire manages to make Western social media look less corrosive and divisive, which is definitely quite an achievement. As director and editor, Wu shows a keen eye for human drama, but still gives viewers a good overview of the bigger picture. He vividly illustrates the disparity between migrant workers and the oligarchical patron class, without belaboring the point. Highly recommended as a snapshot of contemporary Mainland society.

Penguin Highway (2018) Fantasia 2018

How you take PENGUIN HIGHWAY will depend upon how you take Aoyama, the 4th grader at the center. A super smart kid he knows he is going to be great and he knows he will marry the mysterious young woman who works at his dentist's office. What he doesn't know is why there is a flock of penguins in the middle of his tiny town. He is a cock sure kid that made me want to beat the snot out of him.

Yea he's a sweet kid, but he is a real twit. He is kind of like Sheldon from THE BIG BANG THEORY, annoying as all piss which is the reason I avoid the show. He is exactly like a bunch of really smart kids I knew growing up, all of whom I wanted to smack sense into. The fact that I didn't like Aoyama meant that I had a difficult time with the twists and turns involving the rest of the film.

Filled with some wonderful idea, some beautifully rendered sequence and a haunting score PENGUIN HIGHWAY should be a home run but it never really worked for me. It's not just that I didn't like the main character, it is more the fact that the film wants to be more clever than it is. Its trying to be wondrous and instead it is just okay. Yea, the bits look great (I love the penguin hordes), but the story never really works.(And I'm not going to be specific because much of this film is a mystery and the fun is seeing where it goes.)

I'm disappointed.

One of the rare disappointments at this years Fantasia. ( then again of you love characters like Sheldon on BIG BANG you'll probably eat this up)

One Cut For The Dead (2018) Fantasia 2018

It was supposed to be the Rope of zombie movies, filmed in one continuous shot. Then the zombies attack for real. However, if you think that sounds crazy, wait until you see it all again from a different perspective. Zombies get the mash-up treatment like never before in Shinichiro Ueda’s One Cut of the Dead (trailer here), which screens during the Fantasia 2018.

Higurashi is a bullying director a thousand times worse than Peter O’Toole in The Stunt Man. He has so little regard for cast and crew safety, he awakens the zombie curse hanging over their remote location, an abandoned industrial site, where the Japanese military reportedly staged sinister occult experiments during WWII. As crew-members turn into feral zombies, Higurashi finally gets the realistic performances he wants from his terrified thesps.

However, there is much more going on outside the camera’s field of vision. In a complete change of tone, the film goes from a Night of the Living Dead rip-off to a worthy successor to Noises Off. It is hard to explain out of context, but Ueda’s editing is absolutely masterful. You just need to see it for yourself.

One of the many cool things about Cut is how completely Ueda and his cast commit to each phase of the film. The second and third acts are so wickedly clever, precisely because we were with the cast-members when they were running for their lives during the opening set-up.
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Takayuki Hamatsu could possibly give the performance of the year as Higurashi. He certainly shows phenomenal range. Yet, Harumi Syuhama arguably eclipses his lunacy as Nao, the makeup artist who turns into a berserk killing machine and also acts pretty nuts in the third act as well. Mao develops some smart but endearing chemistry with them both as her namesake, an aspiring filmmaker.

Eventually, Cut evolves into a hilarious valentine to underdog independent genre filmmaking. It would pair up nicely with Graham Kelly Greene’s criminally overlooked Attack of the Bat Monsters. In fact, at one point a character in the Cormanesque spoof rather wistfully states: “in the future, people will watch these movies and laugh, but they’ll never understand how hard we worked on them.” That sentiment also perfectly fits Cut. It is a total winner that will charm the pants off horror fans. Very highly recommended, One Cut for the Dead screens tonight as part of Fantasia.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Nate Hood ponders the merits of TOURISM (2018) Japan Cuts 2018

I like to think Daisuke Miyazaki’s Tourism is the kind of movie Agnès Varda and Chris Marker would make if they were bemused, slightly detached millennials with nothing but a long weekend off from work and two iPhones: a DIY meditation on the essential interconnectivity of mankind that casually blends narrative storytelling and in-the-moment cinéma vérité documentary to create something melancholic yet hopeful, cerebral yet heart-felt, intensely culturally specific yet defiantly globally minded.

I suspect many people won’t make it through the deliberately tedious first half, and for good reason—it’s essentially a video diary of Nina (Nina Endô) and Su (Sumire), two disaffected Japanese twenty-somethings working mind-numbing blue-collar jobs who win plane tickets to anywhere in the world in the lottery. They choose Singapore (largely because you supposedly don’t need to speak English to get around there) and set off on their first trip outside Japan. We’re then treated to the equivalent of a thirty minute Instagram story: them going through airport security, them playing with video filters during the flight, them finding their hotel, them visiting tourist traps, them futzing around with selfie sticks, them window-shopping at malls.

But for all its banality, there’s a hypnotic undercurrent of discovery as these two women slowly realize just how small the world is, even if that realization is subconscious. This subtext becomes overt text in the last act when Nina loses Su and her iPhone and gets lost in Singapore’s slums. As she wanders helplessly through the streets, passing temples and mosques, crowded town squares and darkened alleyways, she finds helpful strangers in the strangest places. A random woman she asks for directions turns out to be a secret otaku who sings her the theme of a Japanese kid’s show. Elsewhere she runs into a Muslim family who takes her into their home and feeds her while joking about the different ways their cultures pray before meals. And finally she attends a roof-top concert where a Japanese Yoko Ono lookalike belts out Beatles covers.

This is the ecstatic wisdom of Tourism: the farther away you go from home, the more familiar things and people get. In a way it reminds me of Joji Koyama and Tujiko Noriko’s Kuro: both films show us a surface narrative about culturally misplaced Japanese women while obliquely hinting at deeper, more esoteric truths. But while Kuro depths may have echoed of horror in a disconnected world, Tourism echoes of hope in a digital one.

Rating: 8/10

Rondo (2018) Fantasia 2018

Paul, a vet suffering from PTSD is sent to a shrink by his sister, however the shrink has a weird prescription for him to get better, namely bondage and fetish play. However things don't go as planned and Paul is soon on the run.

A great cast and a first rate premise are left to flounder by smart ass knowing tone that plays it all for laughs. For get the notion that this is a serious thriller, this is really a satire of the erotic thriller genre. Unfortunately instead of walking the fine line of thrills and laughs it falls on its face. Honestly this shouldn't have been played as a comedy, but a dead on thriller, or if not a wholly serious  one, than one that is played much straighter and less knowing than this is. The trouble begins with the voice over which makes it sound like an commercial for Geico  and then goes on from there. Nothing is played straight, everything is played for a laugh with people suddenly creeping around or in a silly manner for no discernible reason. It kills any suspense or desire to watch because it comes off as dumb.

Which is a shame because there is a good story here. Sure the plot has been done before, but rarely with a cast this a good. They manage to sell the film at least a little bit.

Not really worth your time or effort Rondo is a miss that could have been hit if it just took off the clown suit.

Jax in Love (2017) Hollywood Horror Fest 2018

Writer and star Rakefet Abergel's turn as the lovesick Jax has won several awards. I'm not sure that matters as much as my getting slightly creeped out because she reminded me of one of my brother's ex-girlfriends. She was so much like a woman I know that I got chills at the thought of that relationship ending up like what happens in JAX IN LOVE.

I really can't say much about what happens in the film because the scares and unease comes from where and how the story goes. Running a brief 20 minutes there isn't any wasted moments. What I can say is that a young woman named Jax is out driving in the desert when her car breaks down. Calling for help she tells her boyfriend's friend that she is out looking for him...but there is a bit more going on.

I know Colin Campbell is the director of JAX IN LOVE but I don't know how much directing he really had to do since this is all Rakefet Abergel's film. She wrote and she acts with such great conviction that one has to wonder how close Jax is to her real self. One kind of gets the sense that all he had to do was point the camera and Abergel did the rest. It's a super performance and I can understand why she has won numerous awards.

The film itself is pretty good. It produces tension through out but suffers from having a point where you can kind of figure out what is happening. It's not remotely fatal but Abergel the writer should have given Abergel the actress a little less obvious place to go.

Regardless of my quibbles, this is a solid little film and definitely worth seeing when it plays in a festival near you.

JAX in love plays tomorrow at the Hollywood Horror Festival. For more information and tickets go here. 
For more information on other screenings go here.

CINDERELLA THE CAT (2018) Fantasia 2018

There are no fairy godmothers in Naples. Prince Charming is the “King” of the underworld—and he’s no prince. Fortunately, Mia is a resourceful young girl, but not for long. She is about to come of age and inherit her murdered father’s fortune in Ivan Cappiello, Marino Guarnieri, Alessandro Rak & Dario Sansone’s mature animated fable, Cinderella the Cat, which screens during Fantasia 2018 in Montreal.

Vittorio Basile’s plan to revitalize the Naples seaport district is so visionary, only he understands it. His grand QE2-like cruise ship headquarters and its pseudo-artificial intelligence only hints at the potential grandeur of the project. Unfortunately, Basile falls for the wrong woman, torch-singer Angelica Carannante, who is conspiring with her lover, gangster Salvatore Lo Giusto to kill Basile as soon as the rings are exchanged. They will have to keep his young daughter Mia around until she is old enough to sign over her inheritance, but that does not mean her wicked step-sisters (and drag queen step-brother) have to be nice to her.

Young Mia had a rather touching relationship with her bodyguard Primo Gemito (sort of like the Man on Fire movies), but alas, he is the first person Carannante fires. However, he will make a dramatic return to the now shabby-looking ship as an undercover cop. Frankly, the rusty vessel is a good place to nose around, because it often records significant moments and projects the holographic playback at times that are either extremely opportune or inopportune, depending on one’s perspective.

This is not a Cinderella for kids, but it is wonderfully stylish and rather inventive. With its retro-futuristic fairy tale setting and holographic imagery, it feels something like a cross between the under-appreciated Italian science fiction classic, Morel’s Invention and maybe Streets of Fire, or who knows what. Plus, as an added bonus, there are several contemporary pop-big band musical numbers that are quite jaunty.

Yes, there are four, count them four, credited directors on Cenerentola, but the look and tone are always consistent. Along with three additional co-screenwriters, they create some unusually sharply drawn characters. Their villains are particularly strong, especially the glamorous femme fatale Carannante. Arguably, the traumatized Mia is the least developed, but everyone around her more than compensates.

There is a cat who occasionally slinks in and out, but the title is figurative. However, there is a talking crow, who has a significant role to play. Frankly, this Cinderella is probably too adult for GKIDS to handle (more so even than Chico & Rita or Mind Game), which is a shame, because they might be the only distributor who can handle animation this sophisticated.

Regardless, animation fans will be impressed by the originality and ambition of this noir fairy tale. Again, it should be fully understood this is not a kid’s cartoon. It is meant for grown-ups with discerning taste, who still enjoy a little mayhem. Very highly recommended. Cinderella the Cat screens today, as part of this year’s Fantasia.

Japan Cut Capsule Reviews: SIDE JOB, THICKER THAN WATER, and AMIKO

SIDE JOB
I don’t know what I think about Side Job. I think on some level I don’t have the understanding to full get or connect with the film. The film concerns a woman who is still living in temporary housing with her father as a result of the tsunami of 3/11. Slipping into Tokyo on the weekends to act as a call girl. While I can connect with the drama on a basic level the greater overtones of the damage left by such a huge tragedy eluded me (even when I saw the final image of the sign talking about being okay because we survived).

Despite my inability to connect the film is worth giving a shot for the strong performances and its exploration of how we react in the aftermath of tragedy.

THICKER THAN WATER
Thicker Than Water is the story of three sibling orbiting around each other and trying to get ahead in the world. While I was entertained by the film it didn’t leave me with a great deal to say about it. Blame it on all the other films playing at Japan Cuts. I’m going to have to circle back around and give it another shot

AMIKO
Yoko Yamanaka’s Amiko is a micro-budgeted road film about a 16 year old outside who meets and falls in love with a boy in her class. When he suddenly disappears she follow him to Tokyo. Hip, happening and flashy this film is a snarky ball of energy. For better or worse this is very much the work of a very young filmmaker who is full of wide eyed enthusiasm. While the film as a whole doesn’t reach the epic heights of some of the moments this film should act as a calling card for a filmmaker with great promise.
(This film plays at Fantasia on the 31st)

Friday, July 27, 2018

Nate Hood on NIGHT IS SHORT, WALK ON GIRL (2017) Japan Cuts 2018

Is there an anime director working today as consistently exciting and unpredictable as Masaaki Yuasa? Since his directorial debut in 1999, he has consistently dazzled and perplexed audiences with a string of bizarre features running the range from surreal comedies (Mind Game [2004]), kaleidoscopic children’s fantasies (Lu Over the Wall [2017]), and misanthropic, hyper-violent, hyper-sexualized horror dramas like the Netflix series Devilman Crybaby (2018). His newest film to finally make it over to the West—Night is Short, Walk On Girl—is a bubbly romantic comedy that feels like bathing in warm champagne.

Based on the novel by Tomihiko Morimi, the film watches in sublime amusement as a hapless college student nicknamed “Senior” (Gen Hoshino) tries, fails, and tries again and again to confess his feelings to the mercurial “Girl with Black Hair” (Kana Hanazawa) during one peculiarly long night of drinking and partying. As must happen in these stories, Senior’s increasingly absurd attempts are foiled by increasingly absurd contrivances that eventually become downright Bunuelian. Some of these include having his pants and underwear stolen by a depressed tycoon living on a triple-decker passenger train, being forced to participate in a spicy hotpot eating contest to win a rare copy of a book the Girl loved as a child, and crashing a guerrilla-style street rock opera that’s shanghaied the Girl as the romantic lead. And along the way there are drinking contests, Sophist dance parties, drinking contests, underground societies of erotic ukiyo-e collectors, drinking contests, crossdressing security guards, sudden rainstorms of apples and carp, mischievous gods of used books, and more drinking contests. (The Girl has a superhuman love for and tolerance of alcohol.) Oh, and the very laws of time may or may not have broken down, seemingly propelling Senior and the Girl through the span of an entire year in a single night.

It’s delightful, delirious, delicious madness that perfectly captures the breathless euphoria of falling in love and the first time you truly realize just how scary and wonderful it is. Yuasa once listed Tex Avery as one of his key influences, and the anarchic elasticity of American cartoons is obvious in every frame, particularly in his love of hyper-exaggerated Ub Iwerks squash and stretch where characters can suddenly spaghetti their way across rooms, down alleys, and across frames. For Yuasa, going off model IS the model, and the film clips along with the same infectious sense of spontaneity and joy.

Rating: 8/10

Equalizer 2 (2018)

Denzel Washington had never made a sequel to any of his films until the Equalizer 2. While it may not always be clear from what is on screen, there is a sense that the richer deeper tones given to Robert McCall made Washington return to the character.

As the film opens McCall is living in Boston and driving for Lyft. He is finishing up the reading list his wife left behind and pondering the future. As he takes a young man with an artistic bend under his wing, he is mourning the death of his wife with a good friend (Melissa Leo) still in the spy business. As they talk we are let in on a new tidbit, much of the world thinks McCall is dead. When Leo’s character is killed in Brussels while investigating a suspicious death, McCall is forced to contact his old partner who was in Brussels to see what happened. When it’s clear it wasn’t a random event but a targeted killing McCall vows revenge.

A deeply contemplative film, Equalizer 2 is more a character study about a man who seems to be running out of time. Friends are falling away, his connection to his dead wife is fading away, time is changing things. Where is he going to go? What is he going to do? He isn’t sure. One thing he is going to do is take a young artist under his wing. It results in a wonderful subplot to the film. It also gives us one hell of a cinematic moment as McCall rescues his friend from a street gang who wants to use him for their own purposes. Standing in a hall way in the project McCall unloads on his charge about choosing a direction in life. It speaks volumes to everyone, the kid, the audience and even McCall who give voice to his own doubts. It’s a must see and one of those times when a movie makes the hair stand up on your neck and arms.

Watching the film there is a sense that this was longer at some point. There are some plot threads that are left hanging or not fully realized. I’m not talking about things like how McCall can beat up a room full of slimy yuppies and not get arrested? More bits of character back stories are not explored. We are told the bare minimum even though there is a weight there that implies we should know more. What exactly happened to McCall’s wife that has saddled him with so much guilt? We don’t know. It’s not fatal but the film would have been even richer had we known. The film also essentially jumps to the final confrontation once McCall confronts the bad guys which feels too rushed.

The action, when it comes, is choice. There are not a lot of action sequences, an opening fight on a train, the yuppie fight, the rescue from the gang, an attempt on McCall’s life in a car are all rather brief. Of course the final battle, an extended shoot out in a coastal town during a hurricane, fills a good fifteen or twenty minutes of screen time, and while illogical at times (I mean how can the bad guy remain on top of a tower with the wind never mind see anything to get a clear shot?) it still is a great deal of fun.

Bumps or no, Equalizer 2 is a really good film. While there are signs of cutting and some illogical bits, the film still packs a punch. While I would love a third film in the series, I would be fine if McCall finds piece and hangs up his guns.

Recommended

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Yocho (Foreboding) played Japan Cuts 2018

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s YOCHO (Foreboding) is a second trip to the well that gave us Kurosawa’s previous BEFOE WE VANISH. This time Kurosawa enlisted Tomohiro Maekawa the writer of the source play for the two films to help him craft this story of the first stages of an alien invasion.

Conceived as a TV series companion to the earlier film it was then cut together and over an hour of material was removed. The editing is so well done that I would be hard pressed to know that it was ever five separate episodes, or that anything was missing. This film plays as companion/prequel/riff/meditation on the earlier film and its concepts.

The film follows a woman who finds herself dancing at the point of an alien invasion, though he doesn’t know it at first. First a co-worker is afraid to go home. She warns there is a ghost there. It turns out the woman doesn’t recognize her father and has lost all concept of what a family is. Next her husband is acting a little weird, as is her boss at work. I’ll leave it for you to see how it goes together.

More leisurely paced than the earlier film and drifting in and out of nooks not investigated in the previous film YOCHO has some food for thought. What the aliens are doing (stealing concepts) makes for interesting post screening discussions. I saw this film at Japan Cuts with friend and Unseen Films writer Joe Bendel, and our walk back to the subway was one long talk about the film and it’s ideas.

The problem for me is that this time out the 140 minute run time, and a structure that started as a multipart TV series causes the film to drag. Things loop around to fill time. With time to fill our minds begin to wander and the problems with the plot and even the basic flaw of the alien theft of “concept” rears its ugly head. How can you steal a concept when one concept is tied to all the others we hold. How can you understand say the idea of family if you don’t understand all that goes with it. Even the notion of hatred doesn’t work if you don’t know what all the other emotions are. It got so bad that I was wondering why the aliens were doing it since it makes no sense (never mind that it is handled in BEFORE WE VANISH) in the context of this film.

Additionally it’s clear that the budget was minimal with most of the film taking place in mostly empty locations with only the main cast. The city where the action takes place is pretty much a ghost town before the aliens show up with people only showing up if a scene calls for it. It is really noticeable when the otherwise surprisingly empty hospital develops a huge crowd in the lobby for a single scene where the alien doctor walks though and causes everyone to collapse. The scene brought roars of laughter from the audience at the Japan Society for any number of reasons.

While not a bad film, it never rose above being just OK for me. Having seen a good chunk of Kurosawa’s other films I would consider this one of his minor films or one of his doodles where he farts around with a concept to see where it goes. While any of his lesser films is better than most directors best films, so I’m glad I saw it, but at the same time it isn’t anything I need see again.

Tourism (2018) Japan Cuts 2018

I’m going to say upfront that like Daisuke Miyazaki‘s previous film Yamato (California), Tourism didn’t work for me. Part drama, part documentary the film is very close to watching someone’s home movies if they actually took the time to really pick their shots to frame the action.

The plot of the film has a couple of friends going to Singapore to meet up with a friend who lives there. After the touristy places are a bust they go to mall. One get separated and begins to really see the city and its people.

It looks good but it didn’t connect to me. Part of the problem is I really didn’t care for anyone on screen until the second half. I didn’t really care about the characters because they were so bland. Until the touristy stuff goes there is no one here. I think the other problem is that some of the funding came from a tourist board with the result everything has its best foot forward.

If you liked Miyazaki's earlier film give the film a shot otherwise you’re on your own.

For tickets and more information go here

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Hurt (2018) Fantasia 2018

ADDENDUM: I have been informed that the version of the film that this review is based on is not the finished film. The press office of  Fantasia has told me that there are differences between the screener and the finished version that World Premiered at the festival. I am supposed to be getting access to the finished version at which time I will rewatch the film and make changes based upon the second viewing. For the moment I am leaving the review up as a kind of place marker.

I know HURT world premiered at Fantasia, however it has the feel of a horror film that more typically plays at the Tribeca Film Festival, namely one that is much more concerned with being something other than just a horror film. While this occasionally results in a film that is genuinely scary, or if not scary really good for other reasons (the Arnold Schwarzenegger film MAGGIE is the first thing that springs to mind), more often than not it results in a film that gets points for trying but which ultimately fails to be much of anything. This latter fate is what happens to HURT, a film that tries hard to be something and ends up being kind of forgettable.

What is kind of sad about HURT is it has some great stuff in it. For example it opens with a sequence that plays as if it were a nostalgic slasher film. While not completely scary, it does generate a strong sense of style that makes you want to keep watching. Once the sequence is done the film kind of flounders

The film follows Rose as she goes through the paces on Halloween. She is sitting on a stoop with a mask on and fake scars scaring kids. Her husband is home from military service. They end up going to the local spook house attraction and... things happen...

...though not what you expect because this isn't that sort of movie...except when it becomes that sort of movie.

I suspect HURT is going to have a number of fans who love that the film is trying to be a human drama  beyond the chills, however for me the film doesn't really work. Part of the problem is that by using the typical horror trappings our expectations are never really met. While I love films that don't do what we expect, they tend to modulate the balance of old framework (horror film) and new trappings (domestic drama) to create something that seems new even if it isn't. HURT despite having a great cast, a great sense of place, some interesting ideas, never gets the balance right. Everything seems off.

To be honest my interest waned and my attention drifted.

While I didn't really care for the film, the film will have its champions, sadly I'm just not going to be one of them.

Japan Cuts Shorts

ACROSS THE WATER
Hypnotic piece about a woman, water and dance.
I can't say more since it is a film that is all about the image and sound and how you react to it

BIVALVIA: ACT 1 (Experimental)
A contemplation of the emptiness of life through a look at bivalves.
Odd film will either thrill you make you wonder why. I wondered why a lot

BREATHING HOUSE (experimental)
Cinematic poem about a house

DREAMLAND
Possibly my favorite film at Japan Cuts is 4 minutes of trippy animation. If it ran a couple of hours drugs would no longer be a problem.WOW and then some

How Can You Know Where to Go If You Do Not Know Where You Have Been?
A woman remembers the 2nd world war on the home front. Its good but subtitles get lost on the white background

Nate Hood ponders WE MAKE ANTIQUES (2018) Japan Cuts 2018

Heist movies are always the most fun when they’re about a bunch of bastards ripping off a group of even bigger bastards. I’m not talking about a film’s inherent quality or importance within the genre itself, I’m talking about flat-out, slam-dunk fun. It’s just not as satisfying to watch a group of clever crooks steal from faceless corporate entities (e.g. Logan Lucky) or super-wealthy aristocrats who honestly won’t miss a measly few million (e.g. Ocean’s 8).

This is what Masaharu Take’s We Make Antiques! intuitively understands, giving its crooked heroes a pair of even more crooked villains to outfox: smug and slimy antiques appraiser Seiichiro Takahashi (Masaomi Kondo) and dealer Tadayasu Hiwatashi (Kogan Ashiya). To whit, it’s a joy to watch unscrupulous dealer Norio (Kiichi Nakai) and expert pottery forger Sasuke (Kuranosuke Sasaki) join forces to trick them into buying a counterfeit tea bowl which ostensibly belonged to the sixteenth century tea ceremony master Sen no Rikyū. After a charming first act where they con each other—Sasuke tricks Norio into buying a closet of fake antiques which Norio tricks Sasuke into selling for bargain bin prices—they unite in their common animosity towards Takahashi and Hiwatashi.

Some might argue that this counterfeiting scheme may not constitute an authentic heist. But the story beats are exactly the same: the thieves meet up, identify a target, plan a job, assemble a crew, execute said job while countering complications, and evade the authorities. (The supporting cast of ne’er-do-wells is particularly delightful, especially a suspiciously nonchalant sushi chef who moonlights as a forger and an ancient xylophagic paper maker.) The best sequences involve the actual construction of the forgery, beginning with Sasuke tasting samples of clay to get the right kind—you apparently want slimy, sour clay for older pieces—and ending with Norio sweet talking Takahashi and Hiwatashi during a public auction.

The one problem many audiences might have is the more casual tone and pacing of the film. Unlike Western heist films, the characters are never in any danger of imminent harm or imprisonment. And despite its peppy jazz score, there’s rarely a sense of ribald excitement or chaos. It’s so staid and measured it can occasionally be off-putting, particularly in the third act when all the different pieces of the caper start falling into place. But despite this, We Make Antiques! is a low-key, relaxed little bauble. I wouldn’t mind seeing Norio and Sasuke return for a sequel.

Rating: 6/10

Nate Hood wanders through Mori, The Artist's Habitat (2018) Japan Cuts 208

In his Great Movies review for Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (1988), Roger Ebert explained that the film is “like music or a landscape: It clears a space in my mind.” Watching Shûichi Okita’s Mori, the Artist’s Habitat, I felt the same mental emptying, the same translucent quieting of my subconscious until nothing remained but the stillness on screen.

I say stillness not in the traditional sense of stasis, but in the Daoist sense where one casts off the cares and obsessions of material life and exists totally within the moment, totally in the now, totally in communion with the Dao that Cannot Be Dao’ed. Mori, the Artist’s Habitat has no real plot, no real causative narrative.

Things may happen, but nothing actually Happens: it is simply a day in the life of Morikazu Kumagai (1880-1977), beloved Japanese painter known for his bright colors and simplistic compositions of animals and nature. Morikazu spent the last several decades of his life never leaving his sixty square meter house and garden, receiving visitors with his long-suffering wife Hideko and silently observing the insects and animals in his backyard. He’d spend hours on his stomach watching columns of ants, hours on his bottom contemplating a strange stone, hours on his back staring at the empty sky, pausing only to coo a local cat, slurp a bowl of noodles, or ignore unwanted guests. (The film’s biggest laugh comes when Morikazu nonchalantly brushes off a call from the Japanese government offering him the Emperor’s Order of Culture award, reasoning that accepting it would bring even more visitors.)

The conflict—if one could call it that—comes when a developer of a nearby condo that would block the sun from their garden demands that Hideko and Morikazu take down a series of posters put up by their fans protesting the construction. But even this is downplayed, ultimately leading to a tender scene with the developer’s assistant where Morikazu assesses a painting by his son. He calls it trash, but important trash, for it’s art and the pursuit of art is itself a worthy and noble undertaking regardless of whether or not the artist has talent.

Mori, the Artist’s Habitat similarly interrogates the validity of Morikazu’s cloistered life: can such an existence have meaning or importance? To which the answer is simply yes—its mere existence is its own validation. For Morikazu is. He awakens and eats, he naps and watches. Sometimes he paints, but more often he doesn’t. For his is a life in perfect harmony with the Daoist concept of wu wei (無爲): non-action. By having no pretensions, he has no worries. By having no desires, he has no self-destructive cravings. By living in the eternal now, he settles into the very rhythm of the cosmos.

Near the end of the film, he asks his wife if she could relive their lives the same way all over again, would she. She scoffs and says no. She’s too tired. But Morikazu? He’d be content living the same life over and over again for the rest of eternity. And who could blame him?

Rating: 9/10

MORI THE ARTISTS HABITAT plays tonight at the Japan Society. The screening is sold out however there maybe standby tickets at the door. For more information go here.

Saint Bernard Syndicate (2018) Fantasia 2018

(This is a repost of my review from Tribeca)

Two obnoxious twits go to China to sell St Bernards and it all goes wrong.

Frederick is extremely pushy. He knows everything even when he doesn't. All he wants is to make a dortune in ordr to show up his dad. Rasmuson is another know it all. He is also a sexist pig who sees all the ladies as fair game. While we often feel sorry for the, e never really like them

Very much a film by Mads Brugger, ST BERNARD is a film made to make you feel uncomfortable. All of the humor is from pain. Either something has gone horribly wrong or someone says or does something that makes our skin crawl because we can't believe that they are actually doing that. It makes the film a tough watch at times because we simply are waiting for the next terrible thing to happen.

While there is a lot of pain in the film, things turn a shade of black and bleak in the last half hour. as some of the turns make us fear things are going to get very racist and ugly. While that doesn't happen, I suspect that our feelings are the point since it forces us to consider what we would do, which might be the very bad things we project on the characters.

While I like some of director Brugger's films, I don't like them all. He some times is too intent of provoking a reaction at all costs. ST BERNARD SYNDICATE is damn close to the like/loath line. As a result while I like the film, I can see where others may hate it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Nate Hood wants no part of Violence Voyager (2018) Fantasia 2018

Experimental animator Ujicha’s Violence Voyager feels like nothing so much as a modern update on the boom of hyper-violent, hyper-nihilistic Original Video Animations (OVAs) that flooded the Japanese anime market in the late 80s and early 90s: mean, vicious titles low in sense but high in blood, sex, and human cruelty; the kind of poorly dubbed shlock like Osamu Kamijo’s Violence Jack and Ichirō Itano’s Angel Cop that made Central Park Media and Manga Entertainment industry titans stateside and doomed anime’s reputation as gory porn cartoons for almost two decades. The only difference is these shows tended to involve full-grown adults (usually in futuristic and/or post-apocalyptic settings) and the occasional high schooler.

But the depraved tortures and killings in Violence Voyager are saved almost exclusively for little children, usually naked ones cowering in fear. It follows the fate of two young boys, the brave American Bobby and his cowardly friend Akkun, as they come across the eponymous amusement park on the side of a nondescript mountain. At first it seems like a gigantic water-gun tag attraction where guests must blast Googie robots, but they soon discover a small tribe of lost children fighting for their lives. Turns out the robots are metamorphosed monstrosities made from kidnapped kiddies by a mad scientist intent on creating a new race of organic/mechanical life who also just so happens to have a Lovecraftian/Cronenbergian behemoth locked in his basement laboratory. And those Googie robots? They aren’t armed with water guns like the ones given to Bobby and Akkun—they’re equipped with corrosive acid sprayers that can melt good little boys and girls into screeching skeletons of bubbling flesh in seconds. One by one the children get picked off as Bobby tries to save them all and defeat the dastardly doctor before it’s too late.

Much beleaguered credit must be given to Ujicha’s art style, a unique blend of animation stills and live action puppets he calls “geki-mation.” Of course, if I was feeling particularly grouchy—from, say, sitting through 80+ minutes of child murder—I might point out that almost the exact same technique was used more brilliantly in Sean Meredith’s superb Dante’s Inferno (2007), a film which conspicuously lacks terrified prepubescents getting turned to hamburger meat, and any given number of Monty Python’s Flying Circus shorts. Some might be able to stomach the story for the sake of the art, but I can’t emphasize this enough: child killing is not my definition of a good time. And I’m suspicious of anyone for whom it is.

Rating: 4/10

VIOLENCE VOYAGER screens again tomorrow at Fantasia

Love,Song (2018) LA SHORTS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

Love,Song is a sweet little short about an unrelated young man and a young woman who grew up a brother and sister. While he runs off to America she realizes that she is in love with him. When he returns she tries to tell him how she feels.

Well-acted and beautifully realized the film plays more like a highlight reel than a fully formed film. Running a much too brief 17 minutes the film marches us through the relationship at speed and while it tugs at our heart strings it doesn’t play them the way it could or should.

I should back up here and say that I am picking on a very good little film because I think this will be an excellent feature film. There is a lovely story here that really needs to be explored more fully for maximum effect.

I should also say that director Qingge Gao needs to be allowed to make features she has a real eye and a wonderful sense of drama.

Quibbles aside it is definitely worth a look.

Announcing First Annual Metrograph Film Book Fair on August 11 and 12

Members Preview on August 10
Readers, film lovers, and everyone who lives in the significant overlap of that Venn Diagram: the first ever Metrograph Book Fair will be open to the public on Saturday, August 11 and Sunday, August 12. Thousands of rare, vintage, and out of print items will be available, including biographies, monographs, hundreds of periodicals covering the last seven decades from Sight & Sound to The Velvet Light Trap, plus memorabilia, scripts, novelizations, and other extraordinary pieces of ephemera. In addition, New York Review of Books and Posteritati will be vendors during the two day event.
A program of film screenings and talks will run all weekend, with novelist and essayist Darryl Pinckney introducing Warren Beatty’s Reds (connected to the Collected Essays of Elizabeth Harwick, edited by Pinckney) and critic Nick Pinkerton introducing John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island (and discussing David Stacton’s novel The Judges of the Secret Court). 
It’s enough to make any cinephile and bibliophile cry with joy and wonderment.

The Quad announces Winona Ryder retrospective, UTTERLY WINONA, Aug 17-23

The Quad celebrates the singular screen presence of Winona Ryder with a retrospective. Highlights range from her debut performance in Lucas to her iconic roles in Beetlejuice, Heathers, Reality Bites, and more

The late 1980s and the 1990s would have been a lot less interesting at the cinema without Winona Ryder. Surfacing onscreen while still in her teens, with a shy presence that came with a strong magnetic undertow, she didn’t have the air of a conventional movie star. Yet her very uniqueness drew attention and won hearts, while her seemingly boundless capacity for empathy placed her in direct communion with young viewers. Several of her movies caught the zeitgeist; she proved equally adept at period tales and up-to-the-minute youthquakes, excelling whether with bruising dramatic intensity or voluble comedic chops. Participating in top studio projects, she earned back-to-back Academy Award nominations and began to use her clout to support projects directed by women and featuring female-driven ensembles. Ryder was a standard-bearer for individuality and self-authenticity; if she is to be forever tagged with a Generation X label, then it is only fair to acknowledge that the generations of actors since owe her a debt. On the occasion of this month’s release of Ryder’s new comedy Destination Wedding—building on the success of Stranger Things—the Quad returns to the roots of her brilliant career.

Additional titles to be announced

Beetlejuice
Tim Burton, 1988, U.S., 92m, 35mm

Bram Stoker's Dracula
Francis Ford Coppola, 1992, U.S., 128m, DCP

The Crucible
Nicholas Hytner, 1996, U.S., 124m, 35mm

Edward Scissorhands
Tim Burton, 1990, U.S., 105m, 35mm

Girl, Interrupted
James Mangold, 1999, U.S./Germany, 127m, 35mm

Great Balls of Fire!
Jim McBride, 1989, U.S., 108m, 35mm

Heathers
Michael Lehmann, 1989, U.S., 103m, 35mm

The House of the Spirits
Bille August, 1993, Portugal/Germany/Denmark/U.S./France, 139m, 35mm

How to Make an American Quilt
Jocelyn Moorhouse, 1995, U.S., 117m, 35mm

Little Women
Gillian Armstrong, 1994, U.S./Canada, 116m, 35mm

Lucas
David Seltzer, 1986, U.S., 100m, 35mm

Night on Earth
Jim Jarmusch, 1991, France/UK/Germany/U.S./Japan, 129m, 35mm

1969
Ernest Thompson, 1988, U.S., 94m, 35mm

Reality Bites
Ben Stiller, 1994, U.S., 99m, DCP

LETTER FROM MASANJIA (2018) AAIFF 2018

The letter from Masanjia of the title was a letter from jailed activist Sun Yi who was imprisoned and being forced to make Halloween decorations for the Chinese government. Years later it was fund by Julie Keith when she took out the fake tombstone out of the box for a party. The letter told of the terrible conditions in the prison camp and asked that a human rights organization be contacted. Keith went to the media and the story exploded.

This film is the story what happened after the letter hit the media. Su Yi, back home after his release saw the story on the letter and went into hiding for fear of reprisals. He and the filmmakers, then decided to make a film about the prison camp and what happens there.

Not a film that is likely to be shown in China any time soon. LETTER FROM MASANJIA is a kick in the face. If you needed more proof that the Chinese are far from nice people, this film will give it since it lays out clearly how bad they are. I have had a pretty good idea how bad they were but LETTER still had me talking to the screen.

Not to put too fine a point on it, this is one of the best unvarnished looked at the terrible things the Chinese government are doing to their people. It’s a stark reminder of the evils of a country that represses its people. That President Trump is sucking up to these people is both shocking and expected.

A vital must see at AAIFF when it plays July 28th. For more information and tickets go here.

AAIFF ’18: Badass Beauty Queen

When she competed as Miss World Canada, Anastasia Lin’s talents were telling the truth and exposing injustice (she also plays piano). However, the leadership of her pageant did not share her talents. Since Lin criticized the Chinese government’s oppression of Tibet and Falun Gong practitioners, the Communist Party was determined to silence her—and the Miss World organization was happy to serve as their muzzle. Yet, the would-be censors were not match for Lin’s guts and grace. The rest of the Western world should heed the events documented in Theresa Kowall-Shipp’s Badass Beauty Queen: The Anastasia Lin Story, which screens during the 2018 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

They have some cool beauty queens in Canada, but some absolutely rotten pageants. One of Lin’s predecessors was Miss World Canada 2003 Nazanin Afshin-Jam, who used her platform to speak out against Iranian human rights abuses and encouraged Lin to compete. On her second attempt, Lin won the Canadian crown, which was initially reported widely in China. Then they realized the beauty queen was in the habit of thinking for herself.

When Lin’s mother separated from her father, she took her daughter to Canada for the superior educational opportunities it offered. At that time, she largely believed Party propaganda, but when she read uncensored accounts of the Tiananmen Square massacre and the oppression of the Falun Gong, it opened her eyes. However, as she began raising human rights issues, the Party used her captive father in their attempts to control and punish her.

The Chinese government’s behavior towards Lin (a Canadian citizen) and her Chinese family is deplorable, but not the least bit surprising. However, what is shocking is the extent to which the Miss World pageant (chartered in the UK) fell in line behind their Chinese masters. When the Chinese government refused her entry to Sanya to compete in the global Miss World pageant, the organization never uttered a peep. When they supposedly let her compete in the finals the following year, the categorically refused her permission to speak to the media, even though plenty of her competitors were allowed to do interviews. Yet, in each case, the attempts to silence and bully Lin came back on China and the Miss World pageant, like a bad PR boomerang.

Thanks to her friends, Lin was able to capture an awful lot of the intimidation as it happened. It is particularly eye-opening to watch the Miss World officials betray the principles of free speech for the thirty pieces of silver they receive from their Chinese sponsors. Frankly, they are worse then prostitutes, who merely rent out their bodies. The Miss World pageant sold out our freedoms along with their dignity—and they sold them cheap (Miss World officials declined the filmmakers’ interview requests, presumably because they have nothing to say for themselves).

Indeed, many of the experts interviewed in the film argue Lin’s story is particularly important because it illustrates the international implications of China’s oppressive attempts to silence critics. Lin is a Canadian citizen, but they targeted her and her family because she exercised her Canadian right to free speech.

In many ways, Badass Beauty Queen is a timely wake-up call regarding the threat China poses to free society, but it is also a highly intimate and watchable film. Kowall-Shipp shrewdly recognized the personable, down-to-earth Lin was the film’s strongest asset, so she let her personality shine through loud and clear. It seems inconceivable that the Miss World organization would try so hard to keep her away from cameras and microphones, but such is the extent of their craven corruption.

This is an important film that will make you deeply concerned and maybe even a little afraid of China’s ability to reach its critics in the West. Yet, it will also make you want to hang out with Lin, who despite all she has been through, never takes herself too seriously. Very highly recommended, Badass Beauty Queen screens Saturday (7/28) at the Village East, with a post-screening Q&A scheduled with Lin herself, as part of this year’s AAIFF.