J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Invitation: Dinner Party with Kool-Aid

Never ignore the weird things people say. We are socially conditioned to explain away odd statements. We want to think so-and-so “just didn’t realize how that sounded.” Unfortunately, this just sets us up for even worse awkwardness. A grieving father recognizes the bizarre nature of his ex-wife’s cult, but his ragingly anti-social behavior will not help his cause in Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation (trailer here), which releases today in a special BluRay-DVD-digital bundle.

When Will and Eden’s son Ty died in a freak accident, it killed their marriage as well. For the last two years, he has tortured himself, while Eden disappeared off the face of the earth. It turns out she was in Mexico with her future second husband David and members of a supposed grief support group called Invitation. However, even David Miscavige would admit they display cult like tendencies. Plus, the leader vaguely resembles Wayne Dyer.

Having finally returned her luxurious house in the Hills, where she once lived with David and Ty, Eden throws a homecoming party for her old friends. She also invites Will and his relatively new significant other, Kira. Pruitt and Sadie, two of Eden’s fellow cult members are also there to give Will bad vibes. Before long they bust out the cult recruitment videos, but everyone except Will is still willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Through rapid cuts, Kusama shows us brief, nearly subliminal flashbacks, flashforwards, or representations of Will’s inner emotional turmoil. It is intended to keep us off-balance and guessing whether Will or David and Eden are the nutty ones, but it only clouds the narrative.

However, Kusama is spot-on in the ways she depicts the other guests bending over backward to explain away the dubious behavior of Eden and David and Pruitt and Sadie. Kasuma and screenwriters Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi perfectly nail the ways cults manipulate people. It is a pretty darned frightening process to watch unfold.

Arguably, all the time Will spends sulking on his own ought to be a credibility problem, considering he is at a dinner party with old friends, but you can hardly blame him. The only guest who seems like any fun is Michelle Krusiec’s hard partying Gina, but at least she gives the film constant energy boosts. As Will, Logan Marshall-Green broods like a monster. John Carroll Lynch (Marge Gunderson’s husband in Fargo) is creepy as heck as Pruitt. Likewise, Michiel Huisman’s David is smoothly sinister, but Tammy Blanchard’s drugged out expression and Morticia Addams wardrobe are dead giveaways as to Eden’s true colors.

Eden’s well-appointed home is also a real design triumph. Looking both tony and eerie, it facilitates the story quite remarkably. Periodically, Kusama will push the envelope of credibility, but when she simply lets events unspool, it is uncomfortably believable. Definitely recommended for horror fans (despite some quibbles along the margin), The Invitation is now available on BluRay/DVD from Drafthouse/MVD.

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Monday, July 25, 2016

Fantasia ’16: Chihayafuru Parts 1 & 2

Karuta is sort like baseball and boxing. It offers a competitive advantage to southpaws—and there the similarities end. Using waka poetry cards derived from the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, players try to snatch away the verses that follow the stanza chanted by the reader. Or something like that. Chihaya Ayase is a natural. Arata Wataya is even better. Taichi Mashima is just okay, but together they were an unbeatable team in grade school. Unfortunately, family circumstances split them apart, but a passion for the game might just bring them back together in Norihiro Koizumi’s adaptation of the manga and anime franchise, Chihayafuru Parts 1 & 2 (trailers here and here), which screened on successive nights during the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Ayase’s passion for karuta can be a little overwhelming at times, but that is what it will take to start a new club in her high school. Naturally, she is overjoyed when Mashima transfers to her class, but he will need a bit of convincing. Their former rival Yusei Nishida (a.k.a. “Meat Bun Guy”) soon joins up. It will take some arm-twisting, but eventually they recruit Kanade Ooe and Tsutomu Komano (a.k.a.”Mr. Desk”), capitalizing on her love for traditional Japanese culture and his elitist pretensions. It will take a while for them to gel as a team, but they will have the wise council of their former teacher, Hideo Harada, who knows Mashima and Wataya as “Eye-lashes Boy” and “Glasses Boy,” respectively.

When they start competing, Ayase is their only A-level player, but Meat Bun will soon join her. Of course, all the top high school karuta gunslingers will be looking for her. Unfortunately, she will let herself get sidetracked by her perhaps unrequited (or perhaps not) love for Wataya and her obsession with left-handed Shinobu Wakamiya, “The Queen,” or the top-rating woman karuta player in Japan (and hence the world), despite still being in high school herself. Meanwhile, poor luckless Mashima continues to carry a torch for Ayase.

What a lovely, lovely film, or rather duology. If they screened it in high schools, it could inspire a karuta craze among American teenagers. The five Mizusawa High players are all ridiculously cute kids, but they also have realistically complex personalities. Two back-to-back films totalling nearly four hours might sound excessive, but viewers will miss spending time with them when it ends. Of course, it starts with Suzu Hirose, whose career is just exploding with Chihayafuru and Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister. As Ayase, she is both forceful and vulnerable—and altogether winning.

The entire ensemble is engaging, most definitely including Shuhei Nomura, who compellingly humanizes the somewhat moody Mashima. Mone Kamishiraishi and Yuki Morinaga give Ooe and Mr. Desk nuance and dimension beyond their character quirks, while the crafty veteran Jun Kunimura dispenses wisdom as Harada with seemingly effortless élan. Viewers will have to wait for the second film to see Mayu Matsuoka in action as the Queen, but she will definitely make her regal presence felt.

Koizumi helms with a light touch, letting his young cast keep it real. Masaru Yokoyama’s medium up-tempo score also subtly reinforces the bittersweet vibe. Amazingly, even though the films leave so much unresolved (exactly like real life), the audience will feel like they are skipping on air when the final credits roll. These films will just totally recharge your batteries. Recommended with tremendous affection, Chihayafuru Parts 1 & 2 next screen internationally at Bucheon on Thursday (7/28), following their North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

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Can We Take a Joke?: Losing Our Right to Laugh

In 2010, only 40% of incoming college freshmen agreed it was safe to hold unpopular opinions on campuses. When polled again as seniors four years later, only 30% agreed. That is terrifying, because it suggests future adults have been acclimatized to an environment without free speech. As a result, in a recent Pew survey 40% of millennials supported curbs on free speech on social justice warrior grounds. That is obscene. It is our rights they are willing to trade away, but it is comedians who are the canaries in the coal mine. Director Ted Balaker and a platoon of outspoken comics ask WWLBD or “what would Lenny Bruce do?” in the funny and alarming documentary Can We Take a Joke? (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

No comedian has been arrested on obscenity charges since Bruce’s 1964 trial in New York. His biographer and posthumous attorney readily point out the irony that the cops and politicians who once targeted Bruce would now respect his First Amendment rights, but he could never play college campuses today. Chris Lee is a case in point. Washington State University administrators actually recruited a mob to disrupt the staging of his gleefully tasteless campus production, Passion of the Musical. Now that’s obscene.

Some of stories of rampant political correctness are just plain ludicrous, like Gilbert Gottfried getting fired from his gig as the voice of the Aflac duck because of a joke about the Japanese tsunami. Seriously, what part of Gilbert Gottfried didn’t they understand? Obviously, they never saw him on the Comedy Central roasts. Clearly, Gottfried is not about to shut-up anytime soon. Indeed, he offers plenty of no holds barred commentary throughout the film, along with unintimidated colleagues, like Adam Carolla, Penn Jillette, Heather McDonald, and Jim Norton.

On the other hand, Justine Sacco remains in hiding, but her story clearly illustrates the point. She became the face of internet mob justice when she Tweeted: “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” before boarding a plane. While she was offline, she was pilloried by the righteous (naturally led by Gawker) and fired by her employer, IAC (they own Tinder and Chelsea Clinton sits on their board of directors) without giving her a chance to tell her side of the story. That’s obscene. For the record, it was a bad joke, but it was meant to be satirical.

Indeed, this kind of political correctness deliberately deafens the masses to notions of context, which profoundly impoverishes the level of public discourse. The implications for a relatively free democracy are absolutely chilling.

There might be a little too much Lenny Bruce love slightly unbalancing Take a Joke, but its analysis is always spot on, particularly that of Greg Lukianoff, the president the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). It will make you offended by the professionally offended and outraged at kneejerk outrage. Timely but hopefully not too late, it also features a good deal of laughs (albeit often bitter ones). Highly recommended for free-thinkers as well as any Millennials not afraid of getting their feelings slightly bruised, Can We Take a Joke? opens this Friday (7/29) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Into the Forest: When the Grid Crashes

When the Jean Hegland’s novel first released, it was well-received as a feminist take on apocalyptic fiction. Since then, it has also found a receptive audience among the Prepper community. It is not hard to see why. When the grid goes down for good, you do not want to be a woman without a gun in Patricia Rozema’s adaptation of Into the Forest (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

After the death of his wife, Robert moved his two roughly college-aged daughters to his state-of-the-art, sustainable cabin in the Pacific Northwest woods. Oddly enough, they are both mostly okay with it. Eva is obsessively focused on her modern dance routines, while Nell starts a relationship with Eli, one of the few hipsters in the nearest burg. When the power goes out, they assume it is a localized phenomenon, but when they finally trek into town for supplies, they learn it is much more widespread, with no anticipation of a quick fix.

Papa Bob is probably the kind of guy who would have three months of food on hand, but certain supplies are soon exhausted. Matters take a grim turn when a freak accident leads to the good father’s death. He might have made it when the grid was still up, but he has no chance in the permanent blackout. Of course, his death also leaves them without an obvious “protector.” Nell tries to assume that role anyway, at least to an extent, while Ava slides into depression. It will get even worse for them when the outside world finally intrudes on their darkened home.

From either a feminist or Prepper perspective, Forest is pretty effective film. Granted, the second act sibling angst drags on a bit too long. If ever there was a time to knuckle down and get serious it would be Doomsday. However, Rozema vividly portrays the post-Armageddon world. Unlike the loudness of most post-apocalyptic movies, it is the quiet stillness of the girls’ environment that is most striking. It also inevitably demonstrates why it is important to have an equalizer when the social order breaks down. As if that were not enough to entice gun-owning Preppers, it even holds pro-life implications.

As the father, Callum Keith Rennie is a naturally charismatic and reassuring presence. He is almost like a slightly younger clone of his Canadian countryman, Victor Garber. Although she is supposed to be the responsible one, Ellen Page is often annoyingly petulant as Nell. However, Evan Rachel Wood shows great range and taps into some truly dark places as Ava. Essentially, the film is a three-hander at most, with Max Minghella stuck with little more than a walk-on part as Eli, but Michael Eklund (not bad in Errors of the Human Body) eschews all subtlety, practically screaming “redneck predator” as an unwanted visitor.

It would be nice if Forest spurred a discussion of our vulnerable power grid, but don’t hold your breath. Despite the efforts of former Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, we have not hardened our powerlines against potential electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. Perhaps most problematic, the Defense Department has declined to “island” our military bases. That means they share the same utilities as the rest of the civilian population. After the blackout of 2003, we know only too well how one crashing grid can bring down those it is linked to like dominoes. Therefore, our military would be equally in the dark as the rest of us in the event of an EMP, power plant sabotage, Carrington Event, or who knows what (a few back-up generators aren’t going to cut it).

Even those who prefer to bury their heads in the sand should appreciate Rozema’s low key, closely observed vision of the apocalypse. It is primal yet personal. Recommended for both Prepper and feminist subcultures, Into the Forest opens this Friday (7/29) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Fantasia ’16: In Search of Ultra-Sex

Canal+ has long offered full service programming to a wide spectrum of customers, including special scrambled overnight broadcasts. Those were exactly what you think they are. As a result, the venerable media company had quite an extensive archive of soft-core and not-so-soft-core naughty movies for filmmakers Nicolas Charlet and Bruno Lavaine to plunder. The resulting hacked-together and over-dubbed Frankenstein’s monster of a supercut takes the narrative shape of a psychedelic science fiction film. The Earth is in trouble, but nobody is complaining in Charlet & Lavaine’s In Search of Ultra-Sex (trailer here), which screened during the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Part of the fun of watching Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid with friends comes from showing off your recognition of the incorporated film clips. Here, you’re on your own. Fortunately, there were more than enough bargain basement Star Trek and Power Ranger knock-offs to supply the skeleton of Charlet & Lavaine’s narrative. Some nefarious force has stolen the Ultra-Sex, the mystical mojo holding Earth’s collective libido in check. Now that its gone, there is actually a halfway credible cause for all the hanky-panky breaking out in public places.

Naturally, various teams of naughty starship crews, private detectives, and superheroes take up the case of the missing celestial inhibitor. Yet, perhaps not so ironically, the cheapest, goofiest looking footage comes not from the Skinimax spoofs, but from the notoriously cheesy but “legit” Samurai Cop.

If you are not prudish or a color correction professional, Ultra is an amusing exercise in cult movie eccentricity. Mercifully, Charlet & Lavaine wrap things up in exactly one hour, because this concept could easily become a case of “too much of a good thing.” Although they arguably have a greater narrative through-line than the films they are sampling (mostly from set-up and foreplay scenes rather than consummations), it is still pretty loose. Of course, any meaningful attempt at characterization is necessarily impossible. It is literally a gag reel.

Be that as it may, it is pretty bizarre to see what some blue movie makers thought viewers would find titillating and even more mind-blowing that Canal+ apparently aired them at one point (granted, in the early a.m., but still). We’re definitely talking about the sexually explicit puppets here.

Yeah so, Ultra. There are plenty of opportunities to chuckle and shake your head at the wacky barrage of images, but there is no danger of anyone busting gut from laughter. Frankly, Charlet & Lavaine probably cobbled together the funniest film they could, but their source material might just be inherently limiting. Nevertheless, it is never dull. Recommended for cult fans who like to be able to say they have seen films of notoriety, In Search of Ultra-Sex is out there someplace, following its Canadian premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Fantasia ’16: The Inerasable

Notorious history disclosure is a big deal in real estate law, but here in the city, we don’t care. If we hear of a murder-suicide in a good building, we ask if that means there’s a vacancy. Tokyo is sort of like that, but this particular flat renting well below the neighborhood market rate still maintains an ominously high turnover rate. The newest tenant finds out why in Yoshihiro Nakamura’s The Inerasables (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival.

“I, the mystery novelist” does not talk about herself much, but she has a good relationship with her fans. Currently, she has a regular magazine gig writing ghost stories based on real experiences submitted by her readers. The latest comes from a university architecture student, who will simply be known as “Kubo.” Soon after moving into her suspicious affordable apartment, she started hearing noises from the bedroom nook. She eventually realizes in is the sound of a kimono sash sweeping the floor as the spirit wearing it swings on her spectral noose.

The unwanted supernatural disturbances are entirely confined to the one room of Kubo’s flat, but they appear to be rampant throughout the neighboring unit. With “I’s” help, Kubo starts investigating the history of the land itself, uncovering a chronicle of violent tragedy dating back over a century.

Inerasable is a wickedly smart and atmospheric film that turns j-horror conventions on their head. It is no accident “I” narrates the film, because Inerasable is very much about the telling of the tale. There is really no gore at all to be found within, but it is massively eerie to watch as the layers of the onion are peeled back. This is a horror film mystery readers will flip for, because it is driven by the investigative process.  Frankly, Inerasable will scare viewers directly in proportion to their level of concentration.

As a further relative rarity, Inerasable also features several complex characters played by a first class cast with understated discipline (masterfully helmed by Nakamura). As the cool, calm, and cerebral “I,” Yuko Taakeuchi makes Jessica Fletcher look like a bumbling idiot. Ai Hashimoto’s Kudo is also smart and acutely sensitive. Kuranosuke Sasaki adds some wit and panache as I’s mystery writer colleague, Yoshiaki Hiraoka, while Kenichi Takito keeps it real as Naoto, I’s down to earth husband.

Screenwriter Ken’ichi Suzuki’s adaptation of Fuyumi Ono’s novel has the immersive intricacy of considerably longer but similarly engrossing films, like Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Reason and the Solomon’s’ Perjury duology, which we consider high praise indeed. Yet, Inerasable also strangely brings to mind Scooby-Doo, simply because it is so pleasant to spend time with the informal paranormal-investigating team I assembles. They deserve future sequels, but this is what we have for now and its terrific. Very highly recommended for intelligent horror and mystery fans, The Inerasables had its Quebec premiere at this year’s Fantasia in Montreal.

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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Japan Cuts ’16: The Actor

Takuji Kameoka is a working actor, with the emphasis on working. Some of his roles are little more than extra gigs, but the professionalism and frequency of his supporting turns earns him the respect of his more famous colleagues. Inevitably, the journeyman thesp will have the inklings of a midlife crisis, but he will have trouble fitting it into his busy schedule throughout Satoko Yokohama’s The Actor (trailer here), which screens as the closing selection of this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Kameoka is also a heavy drinker, but that seems to go with the territory. He is a veteran of just about every genre, but his most frequent credit is “Thief.” He would like to settle down, but in his line of work, he never meets the sort of real world woman who might be interested in him. However, Kameoka finally starts to get ideas during a shoot in the exurban provinces. Finding himself at loose ends his first night on-set, he walks into a bar and is immediately struck by the proprietress, Azumi Murota (so will the entire audience).

The chemistry is immediately evident, yet also comfortable, as if they had known each other for years. It obviously means something to Kameoka, but he will allow himself to get distracted by other business, including an audition for a Spanish auteur he reveres and a rare theatrical casting in a hideously pretentious production directed by and starring a grand doyen of the stage.

The Actor is a lovely film that proves Japanese cinema has an overwhelming comparative advantage in bittersweet dramedy. However, it suffers in comparison with the sublimely poignant Uzumasa Limelight. While Seizo Fukumoto’s aching dignity took on regal dimensions, Ken Yasuda’s Kameoka is a more rough-and-tumble blue-collar kind of guy. Like his character, Yasuda is often cast as comic foils (that would be him portraying the hyper-judgmental high school teacher in Flying Colors), so he can clearly relate. Avoiding clichés, he brings out Kameoka’s rumpled charm and fatalistic sense of humor. It is easy to understand why he is such a reassuring presence on sets.

As Murota, Kumiko Aso steals our hearts and then quietly breaks them. The give-and-take of her scenes with Yasuda are just beautifully balanced. Yoshiko Mita also upends our expectations and drops some surprisingly heavy lines as Natsuko Matsumura, the dread terror of the stage. Regardless, it is Yasuda’s film and he makes the most of it.

Somewhat strangely, Tsutomu Yamazaki plays a cap and shades wearing jidaigeki director transparently modeled on the late, great Akira Kurosawa, whose last film released in 1993, over twenty years ago. Still, some the films charms are its knowingly nostalgic winks, like the rear-screen projection driving sequence. Regardless, Kameoka is a rather timeless figure and Yasuda’s fine performance will most likely only appreciate over time. Recommended with affection, The Actor concludes the 2016 edition of Japan Cuts, this Sunday (7/24) at the Japan Society.

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Friday, July 22, 2016

Japan Cuts ’16: Flying Colors

Sayaka Kudo is the sort like Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, except she has real issues and real adversity to overcome if she hopes to make it into her first choice school. She could not even spell Keio University before she enrolled in Seiho Cram School, but she might have a puncher’s chance at admittance in Nobuhiro Doi’s Flying Colors (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Kudo was constantly bullied during elementary and middle school, but she found acceptance in high school when she fell in the gum-smacking mini-skirt-wearing clique. Doing shockingly little academic work, Kudo and her friends are at the absolute bottom of their class, but they have fun shopping and doing karaoke. However, when she is indefinitely suspended, her protective mother Akari enrolls her in Seiho, where she will be tutored by Yoshitaka Tsubota, the Jaime Escalante of cram schools. He might be slightly nebbish, but the dedicated Tsubota has a knack for adapting his pedagogical approach to suit each pupil. He will face his greatest challenge with Kudo, given her fourth grade reading level, but she will work with him, rather than against him.

Of course, nobody believes in Kudo besides Akari Kudo and Tsubota-san, least of all her disinterested father. Instead, Toru Kudo obsesses over her brother’s high school baseball career, which puts crushing pressure on poor Ryuta. Her high school teachers similarly dismiss her ambitions, but her hard-partying friends embrace her dream, even when that means letting go rather than holding on.

You might think you know where Doi is taking the film—and you probably have the right general idea, but it cuts way deeper than you expect. Based on a real life cram school teacher’s autobiographical novel, Flying fully explores the sources of Kudo’s insecurities and alienation. After walking in her stiletto heels through the first ten minutes, it is hard to begrudge her choices. It is also hard to forgive her jerkheel father, but Doi and screenwriter Hirohi Hashimoto just might manipulate us into doing it anyway.

Flying is the sort of film that gives just about every character their fifteen minutes to explore their flaws and earn forgiveness. It is a defiantly humanistic film, powered by Kasumi Arimura’s remarkably rich and complex performance. She is not just a bubbly airhead. We see her mature and come into herself. It is a rather remarkable process that puts Witherspoon’s shtick to shame.

Arguably, we learn very little about Tsubota’s private life, but Atsushi Ito’s earnest portrayal is still quite compelling, in a Stand and Deliver kind of way. Yo Yoshida is exquisitely heart breaking as Akari, while Tetsushi Tanaka perfectly pivots as her disappointed-by-life father. Shuhei Nomura never comes on too strong as her potential cram school love interest, Reiji Mori, while Airi Matsui, Honami Kurashita, and Nanami Abe show unexpected grace as Kudo’s Kogal posse.

It is always refreshing to see a film that values academic achievement. It is also a pleasure to see young talent stake their claim to the future on-screen. Flying should definitely take Arimura to the next level up, both commercial and critically. She is a revelation, but she is also surrounded by young, but ridiculously polished talent. If ever a film could be called a sure-fire crowd pleaser, it would be Flying Colors. Very highly recommended for teens and anyone who ever felt like a screw-up, it screens this Sunday (7/24) at the Japan Society, as part of Japan Cuts 2016.

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Fantasia ’16: Aloys

Aloys Adorn is a private eye, but he follows more in the tradition of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers than Hammett or Chandler. Nondescript and unassuming to a fault, Adorn is perfect for divorce surveillance. Following the death of his father (who was also his partner and roommate), Adorn withdraws from life in a manner worthy of Bartleby the Scrivener, but a strange neighbor will try to pull him back, sort of, in Tobias Nölle’s Aloys (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival.

It is not like a lot of people are yearning to engage with Adorn, but he will freeze out any who try. That includes his rather odd neighbor Vera. Apparently, she was so frustrated with him, she stole his video camera and digital tapes. That would be before her accident-slash-suicide attempt. He used to watch his old surveillance footage each night, in lieu of having a life, but she will force him outside his comfort zone instead.

She calls it “telephone walking,” but it is essentially a mutual visualization exercise. In this case, it might actually work. Soon Adorn is projecting himself to a mossy forest, where he meets the hospitalized Vera. Or maybe it is an idealized version of her. Regardless, he soon starts to feel some kind of something for her, especially when she joins him in his apartment for groovy, retro-1970s console-organ party.

Aloys is a very strange film, but also an understated one, as you would perhaps expect from the German-speaking Swiss. Nölle’s mastery of mise-en-scène is conspicuously evident in each and every carefully composed shot. He and cinematographer Simon Guy Fässler make Euro drabness look dramatically stark. Yet, he might be too thorough when it comes to problematizing ostensive reality. Once the telephone walking starts, he never lets viewers get their feet back under them, though not all cult cinema fans will object to that.

Without question, Nölle elevates style over narrative, so be prepared to deal (or not). However, the hypnotic control he exerts is almost eerie. There is substance to the surreal flights, but do not look for easy, programmatic symbolism. Just call it an existential trip. Recommended for the adventurous, Aloys screens again this Wednesday (7/27) as part of Fantasia ’16.

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AAIFF ’16: Daze of Justice

The stakes are high, but the proceedings of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal are often tediously dry. To some extent, the legalistic tone is necessary, but it often plays into the hands of the Communist Khmer Rouge defendants, who wish to keep the truth bottled up. Remarkably, Hong Siu Pheng came back for more. He watched the prosecution of his father, Kaing Guek Eav, a.k.a. “Comrade Duch,” from the protected chambers provided for family members, but he will return to witness the trial of Nuon Chea and three other high ranking war criminals with survivors of the genocide. It will be a difficult experience, but it precipitates small, highly personal steps towards reconciliation in Michael Siv’s Daze of Justice (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

In hopes that the truth will finally come out, Cal State Long Beach Professor Leakhena Nou recruited several aging survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide to confront the accused in court. Siv, the son of a survivor, will document their journey as an observer. However, the story takes an unexpected turn when Hong Siu Pheng agrees the accompany them during the trial. 

He clearly lives a hardscrabble life with his family in the provinces, so the survivors cannot accuse him of benefiting from his father’s connections. Frustratingly, he apparently learned little from his father’s tribunal, judging from the bland, relativistic platitudes he repeats. However, he quickly changes his tune when he finally visits the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, where his father oversaw the constant torture and executions, as well as the Choeng Ek Killing Fields memorial. It is like he literally deflates on screen.

Although they are obviously wary around each other, the survivors direct little overt hostility towards the mass murderer’s son and vice versa. Belatedly, Hong Siu Pheng seems to finally face up to his uncomfortable family history, which also happens to be deeply troubling national history. For the good Professor, he clearly represents the nation in microcosm. Unfortunately, it just isn’t practical to take every deliberately misinformed citizen on a similar excursion, but that is presumably why Siv and his cameras were welcomed into such private moments.

Hong Siu Pheng is indeed a deeply compelling figure, who carries the stigma of his father’s crimes, but holds none of the culpability. The doc obliquely questions just how much the Tribunal’s heart is in these prosecutions, without sounding paranoid and conspiratorial. Daze is sympathetic towards all innocent parties (broadly defined), while capturing the hushed eeriness that now hangs over Tuol Sleng and Choeng Ek. It is a highly personal film, but it also holds wider national significance for Cambodia. Respectfully recommended, the sixty-nine-minute Daze of Justice screens this Sunday (7/24) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

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Thursday, July 21, 2016

Beta Test: Game Hard

Andrew Kincaid is like the Mike Bloomberg of gaming companies. An ardent gun control supporter, he coins the slogan: “keep guns in games.” He is also determined to keep his company’s technology out of the hands of the military. Of course, it is all for the sake of preventing obstacles to his megalomaniacal quest for power. Unfortunately, his toughest critic will literally find himself playing the villain in Kincaid latest video game. The game’s repercussions on real life will also come as a nasty shock to the first test player in Nicholas Gyeney’s Beta Test (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New Jersey.

Max Troy has not left his house for the last two years. He obviously has issues, but also made bank testing and sometimes modifying Kincaid’s releases. The newest first-person shooter seems unusually real, because it is. Thanks to a chip implant, former Sentinel executive and all-around hardnose Orson Creed will helplessly embark on a Grand Theft Auto style crime spree, with Troy at the controls. However, Troy puts two and two together quicker than most movie characters, forcing Kincaid to dispatch a team of colorful henchmen to keep Troy playing the game at gunpoint. Unfortunately, the in-game premise—the abduction of Creed’s wife Abbie, who also happens to be Kincaid’s ex—is similarly all too true.

Gyeney and co-screenwriter Andre Kirkman are startlingly gutsy when they reveal Kincaid has forced a patsy to commit a Columbine-style school shooting to advance his agenda. However, they apparently felt the need to water-down the film’s Second Amendment implications with some clichéd rhetoric castigating Kincaid as a one percenter. It just sounds unnatural coming out of Creed’s rightwing-looking mouth.

At least Creed can fight. Creed is the first lead role in a film for Manu Bennett, best known as Crixus in Spartacus. He certainly has the physical presence and his weird growling voice is actually quite effective. Executive producer Kevon Stover, Edward Michael Scott, and Yuji Okumoto (from Karate Kid II and Awesome Asian Bad Guys) add energy and villainous verve as Kincaid’s hit squad. Linden Ashby is suitably slippery and slimy as the evil gaming tycoon, but unfortunately, Larenz Tate is rather bland and lightweight as the house-bound Troy.

In all honesty, Beta Test often looks like a B-movie in problematic ways. However, there are some impressively brutal fight scenes and it is almost hypnotically compelling to watch the bearded-up and bespectacled Bennett do his thing. Recommended as a guilty pleasure with some degree of implied support for personal liberties, Beta Test opens tomorrow (7/22) at the AMC Loews Jersey Gardens in Elizabeth.

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AAIFF ’16: Crush the Skull

Aspiring young burglars should remember you should case the joint for at least two months before pulling a job and always try to get an inside look first. That might sound like misguided advice, but nobody should end up like the clueless thieves who blindly stumble into a serial killer’s tricked out house in Viet Nguyen’s Crush the Skull (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

Blair and Ollie’s last job was supposed to be their very last job, but it went spectacularly wrong. To get her lover out of prison, Blair goes deeply into debt with a ferocious loan shark. Like it or not, she and Ollie will have to sign onto her brother Connor’s dodgy home robbery plan. The secluded house looks like primo real estate, but Connor has no idea what awaits them inside. Someone hasn’t done his homework.

Of course, they find precious little furniture or valuables of any kind, but there are piles of grisly home movies lying about. They also find an apparent torture chamber and plenty of restraining devices. The doors are looked from the outside, the windows are shatter proof, and a cell phone jammer blocks all signals. Unable to reach the skylight they entered through, the dysfunctional band of thieves finds themselves in deep, dark danger.

Even though the implications of Skull are often profoundly disturbing, the film is tremendous fun, in the evilest way possible. The strong characters give Nguyen a solid foundation to build on. Katie Savoy and Chris Dinh have terrific chemistry as the bickering but devoted Blair and Ollie. We can really believe they are a couple with some intense history together that are still into each other. Chris Riedell unleashes industrial strength attitude as Connor, while Tim Chiou frequently upstages everyone as Riley, Connor’s dimwitted “crew,” who always manages to stay on the right side of shtick and ridiculousness.

Although the opening prologue is a bit grim, Nguyen follows up with a wonderfully outrageous, blackly comic sequence of misadventures. The house is also a minor triumph of production and art design that just spews out atmosphere and foreboding (even though it bears some surface similarities with the Rube Goldberg house in Adam Schindler’s Intruders, a.k.a. Shut-In). It is a creepy film, but it earns laughs more regularly than the Scream franchise. Highly recommended for horror movie fans (who will especially dig the final scene), Crush the Skull screens tomorrow (7/22) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Japan Cuts ’16: Emi-Abi

In their Manzai comedy duo act, Jitsudo is definitely the Martin to Unno’s Lewis, but the straight man can’t even croon. Unfortunately, when his partner is killed in an auto accident, Jitsudo’s career starts to look just as dead. Of course, dealing with his complicated feelings of grief, guilt, and jealousy would be a good first step in Kensaku Watanabe’s Emi-Abi (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Jitsudo was the preening Abbott while Unno was the goofy Costello. They were a natural pairing, but it was Kurosawa, the respected Manzai veteran, who brought them together. After retiring from the stage seven years ago, Kurosawa has developed a reputation for aloof eccentricity, perhaps not completely unlike Bill Murray. After weeks of feeling sorry for himself, Jitsudo is finally facing up to his pseudo-mentor, but it will be difficult, because Kurosawa’s beloved younger sister Hinako also died in the car with Unno.

That meeting will go spectacularly badly, but perhaps there is a method to Kurosawa’s madness. In any event, their encounter spurs flashbacks to Unno’s first datish night out with Hinako. It also took an ugly turn, but it vividly explains how they forged such a deep connection.

Emi-Abi sounds like a tonal mine field, but Watanabe (the award-winning screenwriter of The Great Passage) manages to scamper through unscathed. A good deal of credit goes to the uniformly understated cast. Surprisingly, this most definitely includes Tomoya Maeno’s poignant Unno. He might be rubber-faced when the footlights are on, but Maeno plays him as the grandpappy of all crying-on-the-inside-clowns off-stage.

To keep us off balance, Haru Kuroki periodically cold-cocks the audience with out of left field humor as Natsumi, Jitsudo’s long suffering manager. Kuroki is in the midst of an amazingly productive period, gracing distinctive and diverse films like Solomon’s Perjury, Nagasaki: Memories of My Son, and A Bride for Rip Van Winkle. Mari Yamachi is also wonderfully sweet and distressingly vulnerable as Hinako. Ryu Morioka nicely portrays Sanemichi’s late twenties midlife crisis, but as Kurosawa, Hirofumi Arai gets to drop all the film’s sly little surprises—and he makes the most of each one.

Man, if ever there was a bittersweet film, Emi-Abi would be it. Sometimes it is absolutely charming, but there are scenes that are downright painful to watch, involving predatory street violence and deliberate humiliation. That’s Manzai for you. Highly recommended for those who appreciate drama with heart and an edge, Emi-Abi screens this Sunday (7/24) at the Japan Society, as part of Japan Cuts 2016.

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Fantasia ’16: Karaoke Crazies

In some countries, karaoke is looked down on, largely due to the red light districts they are mostly found in (and the activities that therefore often happen therein). On the other hand, it is a perfectly respectable pastime for families and co-workers in Korea. However, one struggling parlor will profitably re-establish karaoke’s naughtiness. Unfortunately, this will attract the attention of a serial killer in Kim Sang-chan’s Karaoke Crazies, which screened during the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Sung-wook’s provincial karaoke palace was built specifically to service a large factory. When it closed, business plummeted, but the suicidal Sung-wook hardly cares. He is too busy torturing himself and listening to (but not watching) hardcore dirty movies. In a half-hearted attempt to fend off creditors, he posts a sign for a singing helper. The obviously damaged Ha-suck applies. Frankly, she can’t sing a note, but she knows how to keep customers from complaining. Sung-wook pretends not to notice, until it just reaches a ridiculous level.

Such unprofessional behavior scandalizes Na-ju. She is a real deal singer’s assistant, who arrives like the wind to turn Sung-wook’s parlor around. Soon she is holding court in the “loud room” with respectable clients, while Ha-suck services the pervs in the “quiet room.” Of course, there is considerable crossover between their clientele. Sung-wook even hires the deaf homeless man apparently suffering from acute PSTD whom he found secretly living in the store room. The Karaoke parlor starts to function as going concern, with a bizarre sense of family. Yet, those ominous reports of the serial killer stalking the region will clearly amount to something in the third act.

K Crazies is the sort of film that you might call quirky if quirkiness didn’t have such a bad reputation. Perhaps the closest comparison would be some of the Coen Brothers films—think of a blending of Barton Fink and Fargo, with maybe a dab of Lebowski dolloped on top. It covers pretty much the entire emotional spectrum from laughs to tears to fears, yet you can never feel Kim Sang-chan switching gears.

As Na-ju. Kim Na-mi doesn’t just crank up the sex appeal. She also really knocks the wind out of viewers with a shockingly human and humane turn. Likewise, Bae So-eun is deeply compelling as the recovering Ha-suck. Lee Moon-sik ably holds it all together and directs traffic as Sung-wook, the world-weary everyman. It is not often that viewers engage with a genre film on such a personal level, but the ensemble truly pulls us in.

By the time K Crazies wraps up, you will feel like you went through a lot with the four primary characters and that you know every inch of the karaoke parlor by heart. Darkly stylish but also mature and forgiving, it really packs a punch. Very highly recommended, Karaoke Crazies should have a long festival life (including London’s FrightFest), after screening at this year’s Fantasia.

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AAIFF ’16: Polis Evo

The cars are flashy, the bullets are plentiful, and the women are demurely veiled. Prepare yourself for some bickering buddy-cops, Malaysian style. At least those cars are fast. The same cannot be said for the wits of Inspector Sani, a conciliatory slacker on the Terengganu police force. His quiet life will be upended when he is partnered up with Inspector Khai, the notorious “Supercop” on assignment from K-L. When not bickering and bantering, they will work together to bring down a nasty meth ring in Ghaz Abu Bakar’s Polis Evo (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

First of all, we have to give Peninsular Terengganu credit for issuing some pretty slick wheels to their officers. Sani and Khai will put them to good use. Khai was dispatched to follow up a lead in Sani’s normally sleepy jurisdiction as a way to force him to slow down a little after his latest massive smackdown. Apparently, Sani’s old high school science teacher Adli Hashim went Walter White to pay off debts, but when he refused to cook up the lethally pure batch demanded by the gang leader, he turned up dead himself.

The stakes start to rise when the gang tries to knock off Adli Hashim’s daughter, for whom Sani long held a torch. However, things really start to get messy when the bad guys launch a full-scale attack on the hospital she is recuperating in. Even Sani will have to admit something is amiss given the level of destruction.

Fortunately, there are several spectacularly in-your-face action scenes that should be catnip for fans, because the corny dialogue is not going to get the job done on its own. Frankly, it rips off dozens of 1980s odd couple cop movies, successfully copying the energy, but not the wit. The opening gag in which Sani catches a beady-eyed peeper ogling his sisters without their headscarves is particularly clumsy, especially considering what the implications might be for all parties in real life. Conversely, when Khai and Sani’s oldest sister Anis start falling for each other, the film is rather sweetly chaste. Ain’t nobody jumping into bed together, that’s for sure.

Rugged and taciturn works quite well for Shaheizy Sam’s Inspector Khai. He is the sort of hard-charging cop we can always appreciate. As his requisite opposite, Zizan Razak spreads the shtick around pretty thick, but he serviceably gets down to action business in the third act. Nora Danish is also appealingly upbeat as the assertive Anis. We just wish she could be even more progressive.

Ghaz (as he is largely known in the biz) has a knack for livening up car chases. If he ever teams up with a screenwriter who has a better ear for one-liners, he could make quite an international name for himself. PE has its weaknesses, but it is still definitely worth seeing for the tightly executed action sequences and the Malaysian flavor. Recommended with the above caveats, Polis Evo screens this Saturday (7/23) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Train to Busan: Yeon Goes Live Action, but Stays Zombie

Busan is home to one of Asia’s most important film festivals. It happens to be a fest with a large midnight section, so they are probably no strangers to zombies. According to rumors, Busan handled the unthinkable catastrophe better than most Korean regional governments. Unfortunately, there are several train cars loaded with even more shuffling undead headed straights towards the city in Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For those keeping score at home, TTB takes place one day after the events of Yeon’s animated zombie film, Seoul Station. The morning news is filled with mysterious reports of violent riots erupting, but the average citizenry is still unaware a full scale zombie apocalypse has broken out. Super-busy fund manager Seok-woo proceeds to take his unhappy young daughter Su-an to visit her mother in Busan, exactly as planned. Obviously, if any zombies get in, a speeding commuter train will be a terrible place to be cornered: a confined space, packed with people, but no guns.

Of course, one manages to jump on at the last minute, along with uninfected shellshock man. By the way, these are not slow zombies we are talking about. They happen to be really darn fast. As usual for Yeon’s films, crisis brings out the worst in humanity, especially the scummy transit executive Yong-suk. Despite his every-man-for-himself instincts, Seok-woo will start working with a handful of passengers to survive. The audience will especially care about working class hardnose Sang-hwa, his mega-pregnant wife Sung-kyung, high school baseball player Young-guk, and cheerleader, Jin-hee. Yes, they do have baseball bats, which will be put to good use.

So basically, TTB is like Under Siege 2, but with zombies instead of Eric Bogosian. Yeon unleashes a massive undead beatdown, but it never feels CGI’ed. Those zombies pile-ups look as real as you’re ever going to want to see them. There is wide-ranging wreckage and a good deal of gore, but the human emotions are also legit. There are several character sacrifices—and they are always heavy moments. Frankly, Yeon’s only real mistake comes in killing off too many major characters. While we respect him for respecting the principles of zombie cinema, TBB deserves to become a franchise, which would be easier with a few more returning faces.

Ma Dong-seok (a.k.a. Don Lee) is just plain awesome as the brawling Sang-hwa. His star has been steadily rising, but TTB should send it into the stratosphere. Likewise, An So-hee scores breakout turn as the resilient Jin-hee. Gong Yoo and Kim Su-an are certainly believable and ultimately quite poignant as the dysfunctional father and daughter, while Kim Eui-sung chews the scenery like Pac-Man as the odious Yong-suk. Yet, Yeon chooses to humanize him at the most unlikely moment. That is not like the frequently didactic filmmaker, but it sure keeps viewers off balance.

Yeon does not exactly reinvent zombie natural history, per se, but he gives the genre a few new tweaks. However, the pedal-to-the-metal execution will leave zombies fans in awe. It is easily the best zombie film since Sabu’s Miss Zombie, which was an entirely different cinematic creature. Very highly recommended for genre enthusiasts, Train to Busan opens this Friday (7/22) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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AAIFF ’16: 1000 Hands of the Guru

Some royals crafted humanitarian images for themselves simply by attending a few charitable cocktail parties and looking good in Versace. Her Royal Highness Princess Ashi Kesang Choden T. Wangchuck of Bhutan is different. The scholar and devout Buddhist practitioner works directly with monks and art restoration experts preserving her nation’s heritage as the executive director of the Thangke Conservation Center. It is a real job she is well qualified for, but it does not leave her any time for preening PR campaigns. Fortunately, the efforts of the Princess and her colleague and teacher, Ephraim “Eddie” Jose are documented in Tobias Reeuwijk’s 1000 Hands of the Guru (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Asian American International Film Festival in New York.

In past centuries, thangkas were essentially portable altars. They are sacred, but they are intended to be used rather than filed away. Over time, they absorb wisdom and holiness as the focus of meditation and rituals. They can never be disposed of like common detritus, but they become faded and threadbare. With the support of Bhutan’s royal family, Jose developed a systematized restoration regimen. At first, the monks did not get it, but the results were a revelation.

Beyond her royal status, the Princess Ashi Kesang was also western educated and tutored in Buddhist teachings by some of Bhutan’s most revered monks, making her a perfect choice to lead the Center. Frankly, she and the charismatic Jose should be a publicist’s dream, but the Buddhist nation is apparently a bit outside People Magazine’s beat.

In fact, the thoughtful and camera-friendly duo directly elevate the straightforward documentary. Despite capturing some striking images, Reeuwijk’s approach is largely reportorial, with maybe a pinch of advocacy thrown in. However, Princess Ashi Kesang’s narration lucidly (and compellingly) explains the higher spiritual principles informing the Center’s work. She might even help viewers prepare for death.

It is just nice to know the Thangke Conservation Center exists in our world—albeit in a distant corner. Reeuwijk addresses the pressures of globalization and modernization that challenge Bhutan’s traditional way of life, but there still seems be a considerable place for contemplation and faith in the Himalayan nation. Smart and sensitive to its subjects and surroundings, the sixty-five minute 1000 Hands of the Guru is educational in a relaxed, easy-going way. Highly recommended for those who care about the preservation of art and culture, it screens this Friday (7/22) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

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Fantasia ’16: Fury of the Demon

It is a film so powerful, it causes disorientation, short-term psychosis, and violent rioting, but it is still more entertaining to watch than A Serbian Film. It is the oldest of old school horror films, helmed by the pioneer himself, Georges Méliès, or perhaps one of his sinister colleagues. Technically, the notorious lost film never really existed, but that does not stop the French genre cinema establishment from analyzing the heck out of it in Fabien Delage’s droll mockumentary, Fury of the Demon (trailer here), which screened during the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Every decade or so, someone stumbles upon a print of Fury of the Demon and screens it, unwittingly unleashing chaos. Eccentric American film collector Edgar A. Wallace (note middle initial) sort of knew what he had, but his private screening for French film scholars and journalists yielded similar results. Various French critics play it admirably straight for Delage as they describe the terrors of the experience. Frankly, they aren’t bad actors at all. For added genre appeal, Alexandre Aja and Christophe Gans also get in on the joke as talking head commentators.

Fury bizarrely taps into something that is hard to define. With over two hundred of Méliès’ five hundred film oeuvre missing, who is to say what we haven’t seen? After all, his Robinson Crusoe just turned up four years ago. Ironically, the universally ignored B-movie Playback, sort of used a similar Macguffin, but it that case it was Louis Le Prince (a.k.a. Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness). Although Playback’s riff on Le Prince lacked Delage’s erudite sophistication, it was still the best part of the film.

However, Fury really does it right. Delage cleverly assembles evocative Méliès clips and constructs an eerily believable alternate mythology in a mere sixty minutes. Did Méliès really have an occult-obsessed junior partner named Victor Sicarius, who secretly made early splatter-gore films on the side? It is doubtful, but if so, maybe its all real. In that case, could someone point out where Manhattan’s “historic Virginia Theater” stands?

When you watch Fury, you sort of want it to be true, even though it is basically horrifying and sometimes tragic. For genre fans with a sense of movie history, it is just a gas. Highly recommended for smart viewers, Fury of the Demon had its North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia and will screen later in August during FrightFest in London.

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Japan Cuts ’16: The Shell Collector

Just when you thought it was safe to walk barefoot on the beach again, the cone snails attack. You have to pick them up first, but if you don’t know they carry a stinger, they might surprise you. It turns out the cone snails are particularly potent in Yoshifumi Tsubota’s adaptation of the Anthony Doerr short story, The Shell Collector (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Japan Cuts: Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

The blind-since-birth Professor has retreated from the world, preferring the company of his shells, just as the apocalyptic outbreak started. The degenerative disease causes paralysis of the extremities, but mostly leaves the mind intact. It is an awful curse for most of the afflicted, but particularly cruel for an artist like Izumi Yamaoka, whom the reclusive Professor finds washed up on-shore. While he nurses her back to relative health, she manages to get stung by a particularly nasty cone snail, but instead of killing her, the venom cures her.

Suddenly, Yamaoka is a brand new person, but not in a way that makes the Professor comfortable. Inspired by the visions she saw, Yamaoka wants to try the venom trip again, but he adamantly insists that would be a really bad idea. Eventually, she leaves, wiping out the subtle two-handed chemistry the film had built up. In her place slouch the thuggish island headman who strong-arms the Professor into curing his daughter, Tsutako Yuba. Next, it will be the Professor’s own son Hikari his Up With People colleagues at a suspicious NGO who start pestering him for the cure.

Doerr’s story might work on the page as an anti-science fable, but it is clunky and didactic on the screen, especially once Yamaoka makes her exit. Tsubota luxuriates in the coastal landscape, but his mood is not strong enough to overwhelm obvious pedantry, like why is it the only person who can find the life-saving shells is a blind dude who basically just sticks his hand under a rock less than a foot from the water-line, pulling them out like they were waiting for him.

At least for a while Lily Franky and Shinobu Terajima forge some mature and intriguingly complex chemistry as the Professor and the artist. Sosuke Ikematsu’s gee whiz vibe really clashes with the third act’s foreboding, but that is probably more on Tsubota than the actor. Ai Hashimoto only gets to walk around looking ethereal, but she certainly does what is asked.

Tsubota and company probably Life of Pi in mind as their benchmark, but it falls considerably short. Frankly, breaking up the delicate two-character balance simply sabotages the film. It isn’t really recommended, but it is sold out this Thursday (7/21) anyway, so skip the stand-by line and rest up for later screenings during this year’s Japan Cuts at the Japan Society, in New York’s fashionable Turtle Bay neighborhood.

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Monday, July 18, 2016

One Night Only: There’s Always Something Left to Lose

Hong Kong cinema gave the world Ko Chun, the Mr. Lucky who can’t lose in the God of Gamblers/From Vegas to Macao franchises. Now Taiwan offers up a corrective in this new Chinese co-production. Gao Ye once had wealth and social position, but he lost it all and kept on losing. He will try to win back some redemption during a long dark night of the soul, but the game is rigged against him in Matt Wu’s One Night Only (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The audience will know within seconds Gao Ye has seen the inside of a prison cell and has some nasty credits on his case. At this point, he doesn’t much care. Being cashless, he is rather surprised when an attractive prostitute loudly knocks on his door, expecting to do business. Unable to shake the strangely innocent Momo, Gao Ye convinces her to stake him instead. That works out about as well as we expect. Thus begins a series of nocturnal misadventures in the tradition of Scorsese’s After Hours (a lesser work in his filmography), until things take a radically tragic turn.

In fact, that is when the film really starts getting good. Frankly, the first act is a bit of a slog, focusing on Gao Ye’s jerkheel behavior. Yet, Wu and screenwriter Ren Peng also lay the groundwork for future payoffs at this time. Of course, that also means the second act will get pretty darn dark, taking us through the world of indentured prostitution and underground cage-fighting. Still, it crescendos with a romantic crescendo worthy of Camille that miraculously ties up all the suspicious loose ends lying about.

Yang Zishan (who just so happens to be married to Wu) really breaks out of her rom-com So Young/20 Once Again pigeon-holing as the relentlessly sad yet hopeful Momo. This film just wouldn’t work without her. Of course, Aaron Kwok is plenty believable as the dissolute Gao Ye, but he also turns on the star wattage for the big redemptive moments. For extra added heartache, Hao Lei is deeply compelling as Gao Y’s long suffering wife, seen in flashbacks.

Although set in a fictional, gaming-inspired city, One Night Only practically reeks of low life atmosphere. Cinematographer Charlie Lam takes full advantage of all the neon to give it a stylishly urban noir look. It is the sort of film you have to stick with through a long set-up, but it is ultimately worth it. Recommended for those who enjoy gambling dramas and tearjerkers, One Night Only opens this Friday (7/22) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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