J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Japan Cuts ’18: We Make Antiques!

The tradition of pottery and ceramics dates back to at least 600 BC in Japan, where it remains a vital and respected medium for contemporary artists. You can see that for yourself from the exhibitions the Ippodo Gallery regularly stages in New York. You won’t come across the work of Sasuke Noda there anytime soon. He had that kind of potential, but he was ruined by an unscrupulous dealer. He now gets by on modest forgery scams, but he has a chance for some Sting-style payback in Masaharu Take’s We Make Antiques! (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Norio Koike is sort of like Lovejoy, but less ethical. Ever since the smalltime dealer was fooled by a forgery foisted on him by Tadayasu Hiwatashi and his dodgy expert authenticator Seiichiro Tanahashi, he forced himself to develop an eye for immediately detecting fakes, regardless of what the provenance might say. Yet, he still fell for Noda’s counterfeit Raku tea bowl.

It turns out Hiwatashi and Tanahashi were also the ones who destroyed Noda’s reputation. Despite their awkward introduction, the two scammers quickly discover they are birds of a feather with mutual enemies. With the older gent’s network and dealer credentials, they can take the con Noda ran on Koike to a much higher level, like something in the neighborhood of 100 million Yen. (Actually, that is a few fingers less than a million dollars US, but it still fills up more than one briefcase.) They just need a more compelling fake Raku bowl.

Yes, the con is on and it is indeed breezy fun. This is an amiable film with some low-key elements of farce. There is some door slamming and hiding under tables, but it never descends into slapstickery. In fact, the film genuinely has a passion for ceramics, which it wants to share. The patrons and staff of the Ippodo would probably get a big kick out of it, but fans of caper movies will also dig the scheming and scamming.

Kiichi Nakai is delightfully roguish as Koike, the charming old rake. Watching him smooth talk his way through the picture is just good clean entertainment. Kuranosuke Sasaki’s Noda is rougher around the edges and more understated, but he nicely compliments Nakai. Kogan Ashiya and Masaomi Kondo make appropriately pompous villains, while a veritable rogue’s gallery of character actors add all kinds of color and energy as Koike and Noda’s assorted bunco accessories.

It all goes down easy and even swings, thanks to the jazzy soundtrack composed by Harumi Fuki, including some epic drum solos worthy of Birdman. It is light and breezy, yet Nakai and Fuki still demonstrate virtuoso mastery of their respective crafts. Highly recommended for fans of con artist films, We Make Antiques! screens tomorrow (7/22) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Friday, July 20, 2018

Japan Cuts ’18: Dream of Illumination

Remember in the 80s and 90s when Dick Gephart and Pat Choate were warning us the Japanese were going to buy everything in America worth having? Their demagoguery seems ridiculous after two or three Japanese financial crises. In fact, the shoe is on the other foot for residents of Rokujo, who have been forced to sell their land to foreign developers. Noboru Ueda is the broker who has facilitated those transactions. His relationship to the people of the community runs deeper and darker than even they realize, but he will reveal everything to his daughter Nana in Thunder Sawada’s Dream of Illumination (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Ueda will soon transfer back to Tokyo, because he is about to package the last really choice parcel of Rokujo land. However, his daughter Nana has decided to stay on her own to finish her senior year of high school. Ueda is further prompted to reflect on the past when he picks up a former client from the train station. Michiko Kajimoto and her husband gave Ueda his first important sale, but they divorced shortly after they left town. She has now returned to observe an important anniversary with the help of her friend Yuko Ikuda and the former mayor, Tomoharu Miyoshi, both of whom think Ueda is lower than pond scum.

Dream is a quiet, moody film, but Sawada keeps it sharply focused. Each relationship has specific meaning within the context of the narrative. There is a real point to it all, but Sawada reveals it with agonizing deliberation. Still, this is not a shallow Rondo-like attempt to show our inter-connectedness. It is an acutely humanistic examination of modern life, in which good people and decent behavior do not always prosper.

Sara Shida is maybe a year or two older than Nana Ueda would be in this film, but she invests the character with maturity well beyond her years. Frankly it is fascinating to watch her work opposite Yuya Takagawa as her world-weary father. Noboru Ueda is not exactly wracked with guilt, but he carries some heavy, exhausting secrets. It is an artfully nuance performance that invites sympathy for the devil. Maho Yamada is absolutely devastating as Kajimoto, but Elen might just be the real discovery of the film as the forceful but sensitive Ikuda.

Although the predatory land development theme is sure to appeal to a lot of critics’ and distributors’ biases, Dream is too subtle and Spartan to suit their aesthetic tastes. Still, those who appreciate film as an artform should definitely be impressed with Mizuki Nishida’s arresting black-and-white cinematography. Thoughtful cineastes had better see it tomorrow, because it is not the kind of film that will come back around many more times. Recommended accordingly, Dream of Illumination screens Saturday afternoon (7/21) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Japan Cuts ’18: Born Bone Born

Technically, Okinawa is still part of Japan, but you might understandably start to doubt that on the remote island of Aguni. The bone washing ritual called senkotsu would be one reason why (it is what it sounds like). Four years after the death of their mother, a wildly dysfunctional family reunites to literally wash her bones and pick bones of their own in Toshiyuki Teruya (a.k.a. Gori)’s Born Bone Born (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Since Emiko died, her husband Nobutsuna has become a sad drunk. Their grown son Tsuyoshi bitterly resents being the responsible one, who paid off the family debts. Responsibility has never been his sister Yuko’s strong suit, but when she shows up in an advanced stage of pregnancy with no husband in tow, it totally scandalizes the island. Fortunately, matronly Aunt Nobuko can put gossips in their place, right quick.

Obviously, the awkward homecoming will crescendo during the senkotsu ceremony. In the meantime, the family will air all their grievances, but frankly, they probably need to get everything out in the open before they can start to heal. In fact, their family actually stands to grow, between Yuko’s baby and her lover, who has no idea what kind of buzz saw he is walking into when he follows her out to Aguni.

BBB is a lovely little film that is not unlike Kore-eda’s Still Walking (which also screens at this year’s Japan Cuts, in honor of its 10th anniversary), both in terms of theme and tone, but Teruya/Gori finds considerably more humor in family angst. In fact, the humor nicely counterbalances the sentimentalism of it all.

The ensemble also shows great range and flexibility. Just when they seem to settle into their assigned roles, Ayame Misaki as Yuko, the flaky one; Eiji Okuda as Nobutsuna, the depressive one; and Michitaka Tsutsui as Tsuyoshi, the judgmental one; they start to mellow and evolve.

Aguni makes quite a picturesque backdrop, where it looks like time stands still (which it actually does, according to one character). Kazuya Sahara and Koja Misako also penned a beautifully evocative minimalist soundtrack that also compares favorably with GONTITI’s music for Still Walking. Once again, Teruya proves nobody does domestic drama and dramedy better than Japan—or in this case, Okinawa. Highly recommended for discerning adult viewers, Born Bone Born screens tomorrow at noon (7/21) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Blumhouse’s Unfriended: Dark Web

If all you knew about the internet was what you saw in movies, you would think the world would be better off if it rolled back the digital revolution, returning to analog card catalogs and mimeograph machines. Probably the last time something good happened on-screen because of a computer was when Matthew Broderick raised Ally Sheedy’s grades in WarGames—but subsequent events got rather complicated for them. In this case, things go from bad to worse for a group of friends skyping together in Stephen Susco’s Blumhouse-produced Unfriended: Dark Web (trailer here), which opens today in theaters.

After weeks of eyeing a sleek new laptop in his coffee shop’s lost-and-found, Matias, a poor aspiring game-designer finally succumbed to temptation. Obviously, that last sentence has multiple believability issues, but let’s continue anyway. When it starts acting buggy during a skype session friends, the nebbish gamer discovers a cache of hidden violent surveillance videos and an interface for dark web communication modeled after the mythological Styx River.

Matias quickly deduces the previous owner was an agent of “The Circle,” who abducts and murders victims for their viewing pleasure. More ominously, he knows that Matias knows, which puts him and his friends in jeopardy. Soon, he is sending Matias ultimatums, demanding the return of his laptops, or else he and his deaf girlfriend Amaya (not on the group chat), along with the rest of his friends, will suffer the consequences.

Frankly, Unfriended: Dark Web (a loose thematic sequel to the 2014 movie, just plain Unfriended) suffers badly in comparison to Aneesh Chaganty’s forthcoming Searching (known as just plain Search at this year’s Sundance). It too uses the movie-via-digital-screens-and-face-time concept, but its narrative is much more inventive. Chaganty’s protagonist figures out ways to use the technology that very likely contributed to his daughter’s disappearance in his desperate attempt to find her. In contrast, Susco’s Dark Web follows an undeviating line straight to Hell. Do not pass go, do not collect $200, do not give us any hope or build up any real suspense.

Even though Blumhouse regular Betty Gabriel is on-board as Nari, the cop fiancé of Matias’s pal Kelly, the cast of skypers are problematically bland and forgettable. Only Stephanie Nogueras registers to any extent as the sensitive Amaya, who has understandably had enough of Matias’s immaturity. Nor is there a really distinctive villain to focus our attention on. The Circle is certainly disturbing as an idea, but whenever the conspirators appear on-screen, they use digital signal distorters, so basically this film reduces down to empty-headed hipsters getting murdered by static. On the plus side (for Blumhouse), this had to be incredibly cheap to produce.

Unfriended: Dark Web is the sort horror film that leaves you feeling angry and used, because it took ninety minutes of time to take viewers someplace so grim and unsatisfying. Take heart, Searching is a good film (that keeps looking better and better), which will redeem this general conceit when it screens at Fantasia and AAIFF before opening theatrically on August 3rd. In the meantime, we have Unfriended: Dark Web to contend with, but you are better off skipping it when it opens today (6/20) in multiple New York theaters, including the AMC Empire.

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Thursday, July 19, 2018

Mari Okada’s Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms

Forget about Egyptian cotton and high thread counts. There are no finer textiles then the Hibiol cloth woven by the legendary Iolph. They might look like teen aged girls, but they live through centuries without aging a whisker. The outside world mistrusts them and the feeling is mutual. However, when a decaying empire tries to harness their genetic longevity, a (comparatively) young Iolph is thrust into a world she is destined to outlive in Mari Okada’s anime feature Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

As a Iolph, Maquia is supposed to feel lonely, but that doesn’t make it any easier. She has resigned herself to a super-long life weaving Hibiol cloth, when the army of Mesate suddenly invades. The cornerstone of the regime’s power were the ancient Renato dragons they successful adapted for military purposes, but the last of the mythical beasts are dying. If the king takes an Iolph as his wife, his successor should in theory live long and prosper. In the process, Maquia is whisked away by a wounded Renato, who crashes into the outskirts of a bucolic human farming community.

Soon thereafter, Maquia discovers a foundling still locked in its dead mother’s arms. Her maternal instincts compel her to adopt the infant she will name Erial, even though she knows she will outlive him by centuries. They spend a few happy years in that rural community, but eventually they must move on, to avoid attracting attention to her fantastical nature. She is sort of like John Oldman in The Man from Earth, but she is also a mother. Indeed, a great deal of Maquia addresses just what it means to be a mom, beyond simple biology.

There is no question Okada set out to make viewers blubber like a baby. This is the mother of all sainted, sacrificing mother films. Yet, Okada also does some highly intriguing fantasy world-building. She could set entire films in the Mesate realm that did not feature Maquia or explore mother-son relationships. Frankly, she could have doubled the time allotted to the Renatos without trying viewer patience. Regardless, when she lowers the emotional boom, it leaves a large indentation.

Visually, Maquia is also a rich, lush spectacle. The fantasy architecture is particularly arresting—so much so, we could easily envision it inspiring builders of the future. Arguably, this is the best-looking, most exotic-feeling animated film since Big Fish & Begonia, but it is as emotionally direct and resonant as Bambi.

The social systems and backstory of Mesate are so compelling, we would have preferred more palace intrigue and less tear-jerking, but it is clear as day Okada fully realized her vision. Even the most aloof hipsters will get choked up at the end. Highly recommended for fans of sophisticated anime, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms opens tomorrow (7/20) in New York, at the Village East.

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Fantasia ’18: Room Laundering

Call it karma fraud. Japanese law requires prospective tenants receive notification of a recent death in a rental unit, but it does not stipulate how far back that regulation applies. Goro Ikazuzi provides a work-around. He supplies a short-term resident to establish a buffer between future tenants and the deceased, rendering the flat “laundered.” His niece Mika Yakumo might either be the best or worst person for such a job, because she sees dead people. Usually, Yakumo resolutely resists any form of personal connection, but she will uncharacteristically find herself getting involved with two ghosts and maybe even a living human during the course of Kenji Katagiri’s Room Laundering (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Yakumo’s father died when she was five years old and her mother mysteriously vanished a year later. It is now just her and angle-working uncle. He is a bit of a sleaze, but he seems genuinely protective of her. Most of the time, Yakumo easily ignores the ghosts in the apartment she launders, but she rather starts to enjoy the goofy personality of Kimihiko Kasuga, a punk rocker who now regrets committing suicide. In fact, she is somewhat sorry when she is reassigned to her next flat.

This could be her toughest case yet—her first murder site. Yuki Chikamoto was a cosplaying business executive, who was brutally stabbed by an intruder. She would very much like Yakumo to help bring her killer to justice. Kasuga would too. Much to her surprise, he has also moved with Yakumo, because he is attached to an object she removed from his former home. There also happens to be a somewhat geeky but presentable young chap next door who is quite interested in Yakumo—again, much to her surprise.

In many ways, Room Laundering is a dark film, but it also manages to be absolutely charming. Katagiri and co-screenwriter Tatsuya Umemoto never water down Yakumo’s emotional issues and anti-social tendencies, which is why it is so satisfying when she finally starts to come out of her shell. Fundamentally, this is a story about growing up and learning to process pain, but the room laundering premise and the attendant ghost subplots are wickedly clever.

Elaiza Ikeda is terrific as Yakumo. It is a restrained and disciplined performance that never takes the easy way out, but still pays off in a big way. Likewise, Joe Odagiri is endlessly surprising as Ikazuzi. This isn’t his splashiest or most important role, but it is likely to become a fan favorite. Kiyohiko Shibukawa earns all kinds of bittersweet laughter as Kasuga, while former AKB48 member Kaoru Mitsumune is quite poignant as Chikamoto.

First time helmer Katagiri takes his time establishing his characters and the rhythm of their lives, but his third act is an endlessly inventive parade of revelations. This is an undeniably eccentric film, but it should be described as soulful rather than quirky. Very highly recommended, Room Laundering screens again on Saturday (7/21), following its North America premiere at this year’s Fantasia up north.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Occupation: Australian for V

Australians definitely seem to be a freedom loving people, despite their 1996 and 2002 gun laws. Unfortunately, they will regret that legislation when the alien invaders arrive, but at least there are still plenty of hunting rifles out in the rural communities. A rag-tag group of survivors will take the fight to the aliens in director-screenwriter Luke Sparke’s Occupation (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The aliens first attack during exhibition Australian Rules football match. It was supposed to be former captain Matt Simmons last hurrah and the current captain’s golden opportunity to be scouted, but it did not end that way at all. They do not get along much, but they will have to work together as charter members of the resistance. It turns out their core group is quite resourceful, thanks to members like Simmons’ girlfriend Amelia Chambers, the grizzled but wiser-than-he-looks farmer Arnold, and Peter Bartlett, an ex-militant and would be family man, who just finished serving his prison sentence for murder.

Sure, we have seen this all several times before, starting with the classic George Pal-produced War of the Worlds and recently in the African-set Revolt, which was also released by Saban Films. There are scores of superior alien invasion films, but Occupation’s nicely drawn characters and game cast keep us hooked anyway.

Temuera Morrison is probably the best known and fans will enjoy watching him seething with rage as Bartlett, the distressed father. Stephany Jacobsen shows real star potential as the forceful, action-oriented Chambers, while Charles Mesure looks and acts like Australia personified as crusty, trusty Arnold. Plus, Jacqueline McKenzie steals a few scenes as the uber-commanding Col. Grant.

There is not much time or thought devoted to the aliens’ backstory. Basically, Sparke cribs here and there from the original V and Independence Day. The two-hour running time is really pushing it for what is essentially a B-movie, but to his credit, he keeps the energy level amped up. It cannot compare to the 1953 War of the Worlds, but it is lightyears better than the Tom Cruise monstrosity. Recommended for science fiction fans who enjoy a straight-up throwback now and then, Occupation opens this Friday (7/20) in New York, at the Village East. So, keep watching the skies everybody.

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Japan Cuts ’18: Violence Voyager

As a blond American boy, Bobby already stood out in rural Japan, even before he got trapped in a sinister amusement park of body horror. Even if it were called Cronenberg Gardens, it still wouldn’t give fair warning of the heinous crimes against nature that happen there. There will be a lot of mutated kids in Ujicha’s unbelievably weird cut-out “geki-mation” animated feature Violence Voyager (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Bobby and his pal Akkun want to visit a former schoolmate who moved to the other side of the mountain, so they head off along a sketchy trail, despite the warnings of responsible adults, like the hermit, Old Man Lucky-Monkey. Alas, they take a fateful detour when they start following the faded signs for the mysterious amusement park, Violence Voyager. Although the park looks abandoned, it is still functioning and the proprietor will even let them in for free.

Initially, they enjoy the role-playing adventure of fighting mutant cyborgs until it gets totally and painfully real. Soon, they connect with other young survivors, some of whom have been badly disfigured by the robot monsters’ noxious secretions. Eventually they learn (the hard way) the real purpose of the park is to either use them as food or convert them into more distorted cyborg creatures.

There are probably more dead or deformed children in VV than any other animated film in the history of recorded civilization, but as the old saying goes: “you can’t make an omelet, without breaking a few twelve-year-olds.” In fact, Ujicha gleefully revels in gore, bad taste, and disregard for propriety. It is so over the top, you cannot take it too seriously. Yet, there is something about the Violence Voyager park that hits us on an archetypal meadow, like it could be nestled in the Hudson Valley of one of Washington Irving’s tales, albeit one that was warmed up in Hell and drizzled with viscous bodily fluids.

Regardless of taste, you have to give Ujicha credit for being the contemporary master of geki-mation—a form of cut-out animation that also utilizes zooms and pan-and-scans for effect, as well as some highly practical effects, like blood and slime. He is sort of like Lotte Reiniger crossed with Tom Six. It sounds crazy, because it is, but there is still something indescribably unsettling about his figures.

Pound for pound, Ujicha’s previous film, Burning Buddha Man was probably more bizarre, but VV will burrow deeper under viewers’ skin, because it is a lot like seeing the kids from Stranger Things get deposited into the Cabin Fever franchise. It’s not for everyone. Frankly, it is the sort of film that separates real cult cineastes from the pretenders. However, if you want to see something truly deranged, it is all that and then some. Recommended accordingly, Violence Voyager screens Friday night (7/20) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Japan Cuts ’18: blank 13

If you want to learn a little about the cremation process and have a good cry, then Takumi Saito is your man. The actor’s directorial debut could serve as a graceful coda to the Oscar-winning Departures. Thirteen years after abandoning his wife and two sons, Masato Matsuda dies of cancer. The two brothers grew up bitterly resenting their absent father, but they are shocked to learn how he touched the lives of others during his funeral in Saito’s blank 13 (trailer here), which screens as a selection of the 2018 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film.

Matsuda was a degenerate gambler who only ever brought home debt-collectors. However, he managed to eke out a few bonding moments with his younger son Koji over baseball. That is why Koji is the only one who tries to reconnect with Masato when the family hears of his cancer diagnosis. The effort is awkward and ultimately inconclusive.

Nevertheless, the Matsuda Brothers resolve to do their duty at the funeral, but for a while it looks like only Koji’s girlfriend Saori Nishida will be there for moral support. Yet, to their surprise, a Runyonesque assortment of gamblers, bar-workers, and nocturnal dwellers coalesces to paint a picture of their father as the salt of the earth.

Comparisons with Departures will be inevitable, but blank 13 has considerably more humor. There are a number of eccentric and ribald reminiscences at the funeral, but the tonal shift is never as drastic as it sounds. Even at its most outrageous, the film maintains a wistful melancholy. 

Lily Franky is perfectly cast as the sad-eyed but ultimately inscrutable Matsuda. Misuzu Kanno is quietly devastating as Hiroko, while Issei Takahashi openly expresses the pain and confusion Koji never really got over. Initially, Saito seems to have assigned himself a one-note role playing the bitter older brother, Yoshiyuki Matsuda, but he really lowers the emotional boom down the stretch. Plus, about half a dozen Japanese character actors of varying degrees of recognizability combine to a create truly distinctive mosaic portrait of the dearly departed, sort of led by a game Jiro Sato as the unlikely impromptu master of ceremonies.

To its credit, blank 13 does not try to answer every question about Matsuda’s dubious behavior, but it is still wholly satisfying. In fact, this is exactly the sort of foreign film that can go mainstream, even with its relatively short seventy-minute running time. It is a wonderfully humanistic film, but if you want to see it at Japan Cuts, you will have to fly stand-by. Enthusiastically recommended, blank 13 screens this Friday (7/20), at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Fantasia ’18: The Scythian

One thousand years ago, give or take, Russian Slavs had largely displaced the Scythian nomads of Iranian-Assyrian descent along the Eurasian Steppe. The Russian warlords had ambitions of conquering Kiev, so yeah, not much has changed in all this time. However, the stout-hearted Lutobor has more pressing problems than empire building. He must rescue his wife and daughter from a band of assassins known as the “Wolves of Ares” in Rustam Mosafir’s The Scythian (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

The Scythians’ days are numbered, but they are not going down without a fight. Making a bold play, they kidnap Lutobor’s family, demanding he assassinate the prince in exchange for their safe return. Lutobor remains loyal, but the Prince’s hatches a scheme to feign his slow death from poison to smoke out the conspirators. Unfortunately, his trusted lieutenant will have to become a fugitive from feudal judgement. His only ally will be Marten, a Scythian warrior betrayed by his own comrades during the raid on Lutobor’s compound.

If you have been craving hack-and-slash action, there is plenty in The Scythian. It is also loaded to the gills with weird pagan imagery. On the other hand, the logic is a little light. It never makes much sense that Marten would so immediately and decisively align himself with Lutobor, but so be it. Don’t bother looking for strong women characters here either, because it is a product of its environment.

As for the guys, there are a lot of them, but only three or four really register. Aleksey Faddev has the brawn and action chops for Lutobor, but Aleksandr Kuznetsov is a much stronger screen-presence as the mongoose-like Marten.

It is hard to miss the significance of the Christian proto-Slavs mastering the wild steppe. Even more fundamentally, that this Russian production would opt to identify with the pillaging hordes is even more telling—whereas in the West, our sword & sandal flicks usually feature heroes of Greek or Roman civilization, instead of rampaging Vandals. Granted, the ending somewhat deconstructs its own heroic Slavic mythmaking, but that probably just left its target domestic audience confused.

So, mind your steppe everybody. Frankly, The Scythian is such an oddball train wreck of symbolism it really is worth seeing. More importantly for most well-adjusted viewers, the fight scenes are definitely staged with gusto. This is a film that would make MSNBC’s talking heads wet their pants, because it combines rampant unchecked testosterone with barbaric Robert Spencer-alt right hair-styles. Recommended for Donald Trump and the curious, The Scythian screens again on Thursday (7/19), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Fantasia ’18: Crisis Jung

If you thought Heavy Metal magazine was insufficiently violent and sexualized than this is the animation you have been pining for. Now please seek professional counseling. The gender-bending might lure in a different class of viewer, but boy will they be sorry. Hopefully all in attendance were prepared for some lurid gore when Baptiste Gaubert & Jeremie Hoarau’s French web-series Crisis Jung (trailer herescreened feature-style during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Jung (now there’s an archetypal name) and Maria are lovingly gamboling in the fields when an army of space demons swoops down, engulfing the world in darkness and installing their leader as the cruel overlord. His name would be Petit Jesus, which should tell you all you need to know about where this film/micro-series is coming from and what its intentions are. Being a cruel bastard, he kills Maria and utilizes her severed head as cornerstone of his temple.

Thanks to his rage, Jung becomes a superhero, but before he can defeat PJ, he must overcome his own mental hang-ups. Each time the evil Jabba’s minions beat him to within an inch of his life, he is sent careening into another surreal therapy session, in which an unseen headshrinker helps him work through his emotional issues.

If Gaubert & Hoarau really wanted to be subversive, they would have made the psychoanalyst a strict Freudian. Be that as it may, the shock value of Crisis Jung quickly grows tiresome. If you have seen one evil henchman with a chainsaw phallus, you have pretty much seen them all. Watching the episodes back-to-back, their opening and closing credit sequences included, also reinforces how much they all follow the same, repetitive template.

Gaubert & Hoarau probably think this is all very edgy, but until they redub their Galactus-like supervillain “Petit Mohammad,” we’re just not impressed. They maybe have the germ of something in the outlandish analysis sessions, but the characterization is stilted and much of the sexual violence is gratuitous and counterproductive. Totally unnecessary, Crisis Jung probably will not leave much of an international footprint after screening at this year’s Fantasia.

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Monday, July 16, 2018

Fantasia ’18: Aragne—Sign of Vermillion

According to this film’s mythology, people once believed “insects that affected our subconscious lived inside us”—sort of like Scientology, but not as creepy. Unfortunately for Rin, there might be something to that superstition. In fact, it might be part of the perfect storm of bad karma she must weather in Saku Sakamoto’s short-in-length, but long on weirdness Aragne: Sign of Vermillion (trailer here), which premiered during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Poor Rin has a lot more to worry about than just her university exams. She was duped into renting a flat in a truly sinister apartment building. In addition to horrendous Feng Shui, it just might be built over something horrific. As if that were not enough, the neighborhood is also being stalked by a serial killer, who arranges his victims in a highly ritualistic manner. Rather ominously, there were earlier cases of his MO, dating back decades.

Aragne is a wildly eerie film, but we wish Sakamoto had developed the insidiously intriguing backstory more before lighting off into a maelstrom of woo-woo spectacle. Sakamoto did digital effects for Mamoru Ishii’s Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, so it is not surprisingly that we can see a bit of visual kinship between the two films. Sakamoro crafts some wild imagery as well as some extraordinarily atmospheric set pieces. It just seems like he rushes the film too much, because he also created some genuinely inventive narrative elements.

Still, the artistry that went into this film is immediately apparent. He particularly capitalizes on the grotesque nature of the insects to give the film a uniquely textured feel. It is not just style, there are plenty of inventive narrative elements—we just wish there had been more time to explore them. (You won’t hear us say a film should be longer very often, so savor the moment).

Of course, it could very well have been a factor of budget constraints. The fact that Sakamoto independently produced such an ambitious and aesthetically distinctive film is quite a feat. Real animation fans will surely appreciate the accomplishment. Recommended for horror and anime connoisseurs, Aragne: Sign of Vermillion screened as part of this year’s Fantasia, up north.

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Fantasia ’18: Destiny—The Tale of Kamakura

If Orpheus and Eurydice lived in this charming Japanese village instead of ancient Greece, they might have had a better chance at cheating death. In Kamakura humans and spirits (as well as a menagerie of other mythical creatures) openly cohabitate as friends and neighbors. It is a lot for Akiko Isshiki to get her head around when she marries a Kamakura native, mystery novelist and part-time detective Masakazu Isshiki, but she will see even more fantastical things when she is forced to visit the realm of death in Takashi Yamazaki’s Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura (trailer here), which screened during the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Viewers get a rather scenic introduction to Kamakura, along with the incredulous Akiko. There are cute little kappas living in their yard and all kinds of spirits selling wares at the night market—not all of them are friendly. In fact, one sinister goblin tries to kill the Isshikis with poisoned mushrooms. However, that brush with death allows Masakazu to temporarily perceive agents of death as they go about their business. They are not bad folks, really. In fact, the agent assigned to his faithful editor Honda is quite personable. Together, they help the distressed man to make arrangements that allow him to continue to watch over his family. In this case, he is forced to reincarnate immediately as a toad spirit.

About midway through, we learn there is a malevolent entity out there that resents the Isshikis’ married bliss. It will do anything to break them up, including divorcing Akiko’s spirit from her body. At this point, Destiny takes a turn towards the territory of Richard Matheson’s What Dreams May Come, but it always remains sweet and indomitably optimistic.

Despite being based on Ryohei Saigan’s mid-1980s manga, which doesn’t seem to have much readership here, some hip distributor ought to pick it up, because it could be the geek date movie to end all geek date movies. The Isshikis are a completely winning couple and their story of love reincarnated in successive lives is deeply romantic. It also tops the wonder of Vincent Ward’s vision of the afterlife, which was the best aspect of his Matheson adaptation.

Masato Sakai and Mitsuki Takahata are altogether charming as the Isshikis. Their chemistry develops naturally and they are both refreshingly earnest and even virtuous. Yet, Sakura Ando (probably best known for 100 Yen Love) steals scene after scene as the big-hearted, snappy-dressing grim reaper. In addition, the film is fully loaded with colorful supporting characters, many of whom are played by some of Japan’s most recognizable thesps.

Yamazaki helms with the perfect touch, involving viewers on an emotional level, but never shaking our confidence in his plucky leads. Based on Destiny, as well as previous films, such as the Always Sunset on Third Street trilogy and Space Battleship Yamato, he might just be the best in the business for manga/anime live action adaptations. We would love to see the Japan Society do a retrospective of his work. Destiny will be indispensable to any such surveys. Very highly recommended for fans of romantic fantasy and fantasy world-building, Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura screened at this year’s Fantasia, up in Montreal.

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NYAFF ’18: BuyBust

Feeling conflicted about the War on Drugs? Erik Matti is about to raise even more concerns regarding the way it is prosecuted in the Philippines. It is surely no accident his latest film is one of several recent Filipino releases that calls into question the methods used to enforce justice in the Duterte era, but there is no time for politics in this action showcase. It is a kill-or-be-killed struggle to survive in Matti’s BuyBust (trailer here), which had its world premiere at the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Nobody is more skeptical of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) top brass than Agent Nina Manigen. She is already the sole survivor of a disastrous operation that wiped out the rest of her previous squad. Even though she is considered a jinx, Bernie Lacson recruits her for his new squad. Unfortunately, their first field op bears a striking similarity to the notorious bust-gone-wrong Manigen barely survived. The idea is to grab the uber-protected drug kingpin Bennie Chen in mid-transaction, using Teban, a reluctantly cooperating narco middle man as bait. The operation needs to be fast and clean, because the entire walled off slum is under the control of the drug lord.

Alas, Lacson’s operation is betrayed by Judas, the same mole in the PDEA responsible for the massacre of Manigen’s first team. Trapped in the slum, Manigen and a handful of colleagues will have to fight pretty much everyone as they search for an escape.

Basically, BuyBust is like The Raid: Redemption, but set in a shanty village instead of a tenement. However, Matti’s film, considered his first straight-up action movie, is far grittier and fiercer. Frankly, the body count here is astronomical and many of the deaths are spectacularly brutal. Arguably, Manigen and her valiant colleague Rico Yatco qualify as heroes, but there is not a lot of heroism in the film. They do some grisly things to survive, but they do not have much choice.

Fans will probably be stunned by Anne Curtis’s steely, hardnosed action-turn as Manigen, but she truly reinvents herself here. It is hard to imagine just about any other glamorous leading lady who could duke it out so convincingly amid all this muck and detritus, including Atomic Blonde’s Charlize Theron (maybe Kim Ok-vin from The Villainess).

Yet, as Yatco, Brandon Vera is right there with her, every step of the way. In fact, they develop some terrific fighting chemistry together (but in a film like this, terms like “relationship” are meaningless). Victor Neri’s Lacson is also a seriously bad cat, while Alex Calleja steals a few scenes as the rather reasonable (and comparatively decent) Teban.

There were some action elements to Matti’s On the Job, but BuyBust is just complete and total mayhem. Yet, we care about Manigen and her colleagues, because Matti invests a full half hour to establish their characters and the dysfunctional system they serve. Still, viewers better be prepared for the relentless havoc he lets loose. As an action beatdown, it totally calls and raises We Will Not Die Tonight. Highly recommended for hardcore action fans, BuyBust premiered at this year’s NYAFF, before screening this Wednesday (7/18) at Fantasia, and opening theatrically in the U.S. on August 10th.

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Sunday, July 15, 2018

NYAFF ’18: Inuyashiki

Spiderman tells us: “with great power comes great responsibility.” A put-upon salaryman like Ichiro Inuyashiki knows plenty about responsibility, but not so much about power. However, a mysterious explosion turns the late middle-aged family man into a mecha-style superhero. He uses his new powers to cure kids in cancer wards—a noble application indeed—but he was not the only person at that fateful explosion site. Great power also corrupts in Shinsuke Sato’s live action manga-adaptation, Inuyashiki (trailer here), which screens today during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Poor Inuyashiki gets no respect in the office and even shabbier treatment at home, from his wife, son, and daughter. Nobody will even stop to listen when he is diagnosed with cancer. While out walking the abandoned dog his wife won’t let him keep, Inuyashiki is engulfed in some kind of alien energy. When he wakes, he is a cyborg with a low tolerance for sodium.

Hiro Shishigami was there too. He was not a bad kid. Shishigami loves his mother and does his best to protect his childhood friend Ando from bullies. Unfortunately, he has been embittered by a series of disappointments, starting with his parents’ divorce. Soon, his reckless use of powers turns into full-fledged serial killing and terrorism. Of course, as a lifelong video-game player, Shishigami immediately takes to the new powers, whereas Inuyashiki is like Ralph Hinkley in The Greatest American Hero.

In fact, Inuyashiki could be considered a cross between the classic Stephen J. Cannell TV show and the Death Note movies, especially considering how adept Shishigami becomes at killing from great distances.  In some ways, this film definitely feels familiar, but Noritake Kinashi keeps it fresh with his lead performance as Inuyashiki. It is hard to make such a woeful doormat character so engaging, but he pulls it off. He and Sato are also unusually consistent in their portrayal of the salaryman cyborg. He remains pretty much the same deferential dufus, instead of suddenly morphing into a confident, flashy-dressing ladies man, just because he can fly.

Takeru Satoh is undeniably creepy and cold-blooded as Shishigami, but he is so much like Tatsuya Fujiwara’s Light Yagami in the Death Note movies, fans could get flashbacks. Regardless, the women around him are terrific. Yuki Saito is quite poignant as his mother Yuko and Fumi Nikaido is a heartbreaking wonder as Shion Watanabe, possibly the last person who is able to reach Shishigami. It is a comparatively small part for Nikaido, but she elevates it into something serious and rather meaningful.

Inuyashiki is far more character-driven than most super-hero movies, but the large-scale Shinjuku climax still delivers plenty of spectacle. As far as strict logic goes, it doesn’t make much sense, but it is big and suitably apocalyptic. All things considered, it is a nice alternative to the super-slick Marvel and DC movies. After watching Inuyashiki, a lot of viewers might find themselves looking for Joey Scarbury’s “Believe It or Not” on YouTube. Recommended for its humanity, Inuyashiki screens today (7/15) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Saturday, July 14, 2018

Made in Hong Kong ’18: Colour of the Game

They don’t make Triad gangsters like they used to. Wallace is an example of old school quality, whereas Robert, the son of the high-ranking boss Nigel is a perfect example of everything wrong with the new breed—and then some. When Wallace is ordered to whack Robert, he doesn’t have any choice in the matter, but he knows he is getting pulled into some dangerous business. There will be plenty of duplicity and deception in Kam Ka-wai’s Colour of the Game (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Made in Hong Kong Film Festival in DC.

Wallace is a grizzled, disillusioned cat, but he still gets the job done. Nobody messes with him or his new protégé Sky. “Superman,” his eager young apprentice, is a geek, but he handles the business side of things well. Sometimes his punky mechanic daughter Lily also helps out, but for a job this sensitive, he will need to call in two old comrades. Tyson is fresh out of prison and raring to go, whereas the ailing BBQ will need more coaxing.

Of course, Robert is an appalling human being, who totally has it coming. Nobody will mourn for him, least of all Wallace. Killing the big boss Dragon’s trophy wife in a coked-up rage certainly merits getting rubbed out, but it is still pretty reckless from the standpoint of internal
Triad politics. Maybe he should have suspected it was a set-up all along. Regardless, Wallace will not leave any of his team at their mercy, even if one of them is a police informer.

Colour is definitely a throwback to 1990s Hong Kong gangster movies (those white suits are totally cool). It obviously tries to recombine the elements of vintage Johnnie To films (like The Mission), starting with To stalwarts Simon Yam and Lam Suet. It is considered the loosely-tied third installment in screenwriter Jing Wong’s Colour trilogy, but it sure doesn’t seem like they expect much audience familiarity with the previous films.

In some ways, Colour is like a Harry Brown kind of film for Yam and Lam, who take stock of their careers through their aging gangster characters, Wallace, and his direct superior, Slaughter. Yet, it also heralds the arrival of Philip Ng and the promising debut of Sabrina Qiu, as Sky and Lily. Ng took a lot of heat for his cocky portrayal of Bruce Lee in Birth of the Dragon (despite looking like his dead-ringer), but here he truly distinguishes himself in the final smashing fight scene. He also develops some rather appealing chemistry with Qiu.

Nevertheless, nobody upstages Yam, not even Lam. He is hardnosed and hardboiled, but also somewhat philosophical and even remorseful about the state of things. It is the kind of role he was born to play—and watching him do it is always a treat. It is a little odd neither NYAFF or Fantasia programmed Colour, but Made in Hong Kong has it. Highly recommended for fans of the cast and/or the genre, Colour of the Game screens tomorrow (7/15) in DC at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery.

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Friday, July 13, 2018

NYAFF ’18: Buffalo Boys

The Dutch were something else, weren’t they, what with their windmills, tulips, and Indonesian colonialism. This movie will make then pay dearly for their Western imperialism, but it will use the conventions of the American western to do it. Two brothers and their uncle have returned from California to avenge their decimated family and kick some Dutch butt in Mike Wiluan’s Buffalo Boys (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Jamar and Suwo’s father tried to make peace with the dastardly Van Trach, but that worked out poorly for him and his Javanese village. Their Uncle Arana had a feeling that would happen, but he didn’t have time to say I told you so. He was too busy escaping with his infant nephews. As soon as they return, they get into trouble rescuing a village headman’s daughter from Van Trach’s Weinstein-esque henchmen. Naturally, that brings down the full Wrath of the Dutch (how about that for a title?) on their former hosts.

As a result, the three outlaws are particularly ticked off when they blow into Van Trach’s corrupt Dodge City. They even take rooms above the saloon, as they bide their time. As if matters were not personal enough, Suwo rushes headlong into some ill-advised fights to protect the headman’s other daughter, the tomboy fighter, Kiona.

Buffalo Boys is so blatantly trying to stoke resentment against the West, you would think it was produced by Jackie Chan. At times, it really wallows in the level of agitprop. Nevertheless, it needs to be stipulated Wiluan stages some terrific action scenes. The final shootout is a real smoker that can hold its head up with many classic gun fights. Naturally Jamar and Suwo are grossly outnumbered, but they are not necessarily outgunned. Plus, they are considerably more mobile, since the Dutch insist on wearing their wooden shoes.

Indonesian superstar Ario Bayu cuts the right sort of broad-shouldered figure for Jamar, but his glum brooding allows Yoshi Sudarso to frequently up-stage him as the more dashing Suwo. Yet, Tio Pakusadewo towers over both of them as grizzled old Uncle Arana. Frankly, Reinout Bussemaker is laughably sinister as Van Trach, but that is the sort of mustache-twisting villain a film of this degree of subtlety demands.

Wiluan produced Headshot and Beyond Skyline, so he obviously learned a thing or two about how action should look on-screen. Both those films are more fun than his directorial debut, but he still notches some highly distinctive kills. Unfortunately, the didactic soapbox statements are more likely to inspire dismissive laughter than woke revelations. Still, between the two, you can’t say the film doesn’t entertain. It is messy and prone to embarrassing finger-wagging, but still kind of fun. Buffalo Boys screens Sunday evening (7/15) at the SVA Theatre, as part of the 2018 NYAFF, so proost everybody.

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NYAFF ’18: Sad Beauty

It is like a Thai version of Beaches, at least as far as we know. However, life is more intense and somewhat stranger in Thailand. So is death. Yo will experience that reality first-hand when she is forced to confront her best friend’s mortality in Bongkod Bencharongkul’s Sad Beauty (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Yo’s career has hit the skids after her latest social media meltdown, so like always, she relies on Pim, her lifelong best friend and unpaid assistant to keep her spirits up. Despite Yo’s shallowness, their friendship is real. However, she has trouble being the supportive one for a change when Pim is suddenly diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Still, she gives it a go for a while, until a violent incident sends her binging down a spiral of self-medication and hedonistic oblivion. Frankly, she has a right to be a little freaked, but Pim will still need her.

If you want to learn how to dispose of a body in Thailand, Sad Beauty definitely offers an eye-opening tutorial. Nevertheless, the film is way more consistent, both in terms of tone and theme then it maybe sounds. This is an unflinching honest depiction of a female friendship and its built-in inequalities. It definitely feels very true to life and the closing post-script from thesp-turned-director Bencharongkul openly invites viewers to assume it is based on her own experiences.

Florence Faivre (recurring on both The Expanse and Agents of SHIELD) is indeed a sad beauty, a hot mess, and a fitting analog for Bencharongkul. At times she brings to mind the exquisite sadness of Shu Qi in Millennium Mambo, but other times it is just hard to watch her self-indulgence and self-destructiveness.

Although it is the quiet, deferential role, Pakkawadee Pengsuwan is absolutely devastating as Pim. Our hearts ache for her, but she is no mere movie-of-the-week cancer patient. She is a complicated personality, with very real fears and resentments. It is a bold performance, physically and emotionally.

Unlike buddy movie clichés, real friendship is relatively rare on screen, because it is messy, complex, and the terms are often unequal. Sad Beauty is a wise and undeniably poignant exception. Frankly, it would have been an awkward fit for past NYAFFs, but it is a worthy little film that adults will appreciate. Recommended for fans of sophisticated tear-jerkers, Sad Beauty screens tomorrow (7/14) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Thursday, July 12, 2018

To Hell and Back: The Kane Hodder Story

Kane Hodder is probably the most recognizable ambassador for horror movies working in film today, even though he wore a hockey mask for his most famous role (Jason Voorhees) and heavy prosthetic make-up for his second major franchise character (Victor Crowley). Hodder was a fan favorite before the industry understood the horror genre had fan favorites and he still brings something special to every film he makes. However, he had to endure quite a bit to get to where he is now. No matter what you thought of him before, you will develop enormous new respect for Hodder after watching Derek Dennis Herbert’s documentary, To Hell and Back: The Kane Hodder Story (trailer here), which releases tomorrow on DVD/BluRay and VOD.

It is not clear whether it is an established fact, but many of Hodder’s friends and colleagues are convinced he has committed more on-screen murders with his own hands (machine-gunning faceless charging troops in war movies wouldn’t count) than any other actor. His tenure as Jason in the Friday the 13th movies are a big part of that body count. He wore the hockey mask for four films, starting with Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood and concluding with Jason X. They might not be the best films in the series, but fans still consider him the definitive Jason.

Yet, there is far more to his story. It sounds remarkable now, given his unmistakable size and daredevil reputation, but Hodder was bullied relentlessly during his pre-teen years. This almost sounds like a cliché from a 1980s slasher film, but Hodder talks about the experience in direct and personal terms. Frankly, he explains the psychological impact of bullying better than any other documentary we’ve seen.

Unfortunately, that was not his lowest point. Early in Hodder’s stunt career, he nearly died when a fire stunt went disastrously wrong. Yet, it is even more harrowing to hear about the months of pain and botched care Hodder suffered until he was finally transferred to the Bothin Burn Center, one of the top burn wards in the country. It is pretty heavy to see Hodder return to express his gratitude to the specialists there.

Of course, there is also plenty of fun stuff in Herbert’s doc, like Hodder pal Robert Englund, who definitely came to play. Fans of Cannon action films will be interested to learn Hodder did stunt work on Avenging Force—in a case of getting back up on the horse that threw you, they were actually fire stunts. Adam Green also discusses his collaborations with Hodder at length, many of which really brought out the actor’s sense of humor (such as Digging Up the Marrow, which remains bafflingly under-appreciated).

To his credit, Hodder is remarkably forthright about all the mistakes he has made in life. Clearly, he hopes others can learn from his experiences. Hodder is a survivor—that’s what really comes through loud and clear—and it always behooves us to listen to how trauma survivors endured their ordeals. Plus, he genuinely seems to love what he does and has a real affection for most of the films he made, which is cool. That is why it always gives us confidence to see his name in a film’s credits. This is not a breezy film, but it will confirm your horror fandom tenfold, at least. Very highly recommended for horror aficionados in general and Hodder fans particularly, To Hell and Back has a special screening tonight (7/12) at the Galaxy Theatre in Austin, TX, before releasing tomorrow on DVD/BluRay and iTunes.

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