J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

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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NYAFF ’18: Respeto

At maybe fifteen years-old, aspiring rapper Hendrix is just a kid, but he is already displaying rapper like tendencies. He has no problem with stealing from just about anyone, even though he always seems to get caught. It is a hostile environment to grow up in, especially for a semi-orphan-like Hendrix, but an elderly bookstore will help broaden his perspective in Alberto “Treb” Monteras’s Respeto (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Hendrix and his pals, the tomboyish Betchai and the Porthos-like Payaso set out to burgle Doc’s store, but they wound up trashing the place instead. In lieu of charges, the three punky kids agree to fix up his store with their own sweat equity. At first, the old man is aloof, but he slowly starts to take a protective interest in the kids, particularly Hendrix.

It turns out Doc was once a well-known poet and critic of the Marcos regime, but he has not written any new verse in years. In fact, he is increasingly alarmed by the parallels between Duterte now and Marcos then, but when he finally speaks out, it will be to give the duplicitous Hendrix a taste of his own medicine at a battle rap showcase (it is tough to watch, but it is far and away the film’s best scene).

Respeto is undeniably gritty, but every heavy-handed punch is telegraphed way in advance. This isn’t so much of a narrative as it is a laundry list of urban pathologies. We have seen this all before and we have seen it better in films like Neomanila and Hamog. Kids are nihilistic, because they are responding to their grim, predatory environment. We so get that, but then what?

Abra might be a popular rapper in the Philippines, but he just doesn’t have the screen presence necessary to carry the film as Hendrix. Instead, it is the old cat, Dido De La Paz, who takes ownership of Respeto as the memory-haunted Doc—and thank goodness he does, or the film would have really been flat.

Clearly, Monteras hoped the film’s immersion into Manila’s hip hop scene would mask its predictable plot and didactic excesses. It works up to a point, but it s tough to shake the feeling that we have been here before, because we have. Simply not distinctive enough to recommend, Respeto screens Saturday evening (7/14) at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2018

NYAFF ’18: Premika

If you can possibly imagine an episode of Scooby-Doo with gallons of squirting blood and a human trafficking subplot then you could have an inkling of the defiantly taste-challenged tone of this Thai supernatural outing. It should also be readily asserted the ghost is very real and she wants you to sing karaoke—or else. Anyone who mangles a lyric or sings offkey dies a horrible death in Siwakorn Jarupongpa’s Premika (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

The cops call her “Premika” based on the name stitched in her fetish-style school uniform, but they really don’t care about solving her murder. They can’t even be bothered to find all her scattered body parts. That is why she is such an angry spirit. She is attached to a vintage-style karaoke machine that might look like fun, but its a nightmare for unsuspecting victims. To survive Premika’s wrath, the shallow, obnoxious guests of the resort most score at least an 80 with their performance. Fortunately, one of Thailand’s top boy bands happens to be playing for the grand opening.

Premika is mostly rather silly, albeit in a ridiculously gory kind of way, which is why the revelation of the ghostly school girl’s back story has such a Jekyll-and-Hyde whiplash effect. Most people will come out of the film with their heads spinning, wondering what the heck did they just see. This is truly a kitchen sink kind of movie, with just about everything you can think of thrown in rather chaotically.

So, who needs subtlety anyway? If you want to see some completely off-the-rails lunacy than Jarupongpa has your number. Natthacha (Gena) De Souza is also quite a wonder as Premika. She can be fierce and eerie one moment and then K.O. you with her tragic poignancy from out of nowhere, sort of like Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman, but not really.

Premika is not as gleefully nuts as Countdown or Dead Bite, but its not for a lack of trying. What a Thai triple feature those three films would make. Obviously, Jarupongpa’s screenplay is likely to offend many, but that is all part of its charm. Recommended for fans of the nutty and whacked-out, Premika screens Friday night (7/13), at the SVA Theatre, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Path of Blood: Al Qaeda vs. Saudi Arabia

If there is one heroic figure in this documentary, it is Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, who crushed Al Qaeda’s campaign of terror in Saudi Arabia with a forceful armed response and close coordination with Western intelligence agencies. Since then, he has been purged of his government office and his place in the royal succession. Oh well. At least, he proved you can win a war against terrorism (or come close enough for government work). Viewers will get an eye-opening look at Al Qaeda in footage the terrorists shot of themselves (with some supplemental video shot by Saudi security forces) throughout Jonathan Hacker’s Path of Blood (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Forget Eric Hoffer’s True Believer. Ali, the Jihadi who we meet in the opening scene is such a clueless simpleton, he literally asks the Islamist recording his intended martyrdom video to use “smaller words.” For him, the choice between building a life in the here-and-now or opting for a fantastical harem of virgins in the afterlife is probably a no-brainer. One thing is certain: the candid footage of him and his other fellow Islamist extremists does not paint a flattering picture—and they shot it themselves.

Unfortunately, the collected videos suggest the savagery of the Al Qaeda terrorists even exceeds their stupidity. Despite Ali’s awkward blooper reel, this film is absolutely nothing like Al Qaeda’s Funniest Home Videos. There are some absolutely chilling clips, including some of the final minutes of American hostage Paul Marshall Johnson Jr.’s life, before he was beheaded on camera. Hacker largely spares us the actually murders, but plenty of the resulting blood and gore can be seen uncensored and unsanitized. That can be hard to watch, but the fact Mark Boal (screenwriter and producer of Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker) is onboard as an executive producer should reassure a lot of viewers.

Hacker also incorporates several scenes of the Saudi security forces taking the fight to Al Qaeda, mostly shot by Saudi law enforcement. There is chaos and bloodshed, but it is clear the Saudi forces are professional and highly motivated. Indeed, it is easy to see why the Saudi authorities were willing to share all this footage they either confiscated or shot themselves. Without a doubt, it documents an unqualified win over Al Qaeda, scored by the very same nation that was so embarrassed by its high-level connections to bin Laden. Of course, now that Prince Muhammad is on the outs, and possibly under house arrest, the PR points are suddenly a bit muddled again.

Regardless, Path is enormously instructive by exposing the psychology and ideology of Al Qaeda terrorists. It also identifies some potentially winning strategies for fighting terrorism. It is worth noting none of the martyrs and murderers ever goes off on Israel. Frankly, the Israeli issue just doesn’t seem to be on their radar. Prince Muhammad and the House of Saud are a different matter entirely. The resulting film, quite brilliantly cut together by editor Peter Haddon (with some additional wok done by Kirsi Pyy and Bob H. Woodward), is profoundly illuminating and often deeply disturbing. Highly recommended for tough, inquiring viewers, Path of Blood opens this Friday (7/13) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2018

NYAFF ’18: One Cut of the Dead

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

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

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

One of the many cool things about Cut is how completely Ueda and his cast commit to each phase of the film. The second and third acts are so wickedly clever, precisely because we were with the cast-members when they were running for their lives during the opening set-up.

Takayuki Hamatsu could possibly give the performance of the year as Higurashi. He certainly shows phenomenal range. Yet, Harumi Syuhama arguably eclipses his lunacy as Nao, the makeup artist who turns into a berserk killing machine and also acts pretty nuts in the third act as well. Mao develops some smart but endearing chemistry with them both as her namesake, an aspiring filmmaker.

Eventually, Cut evolves into a hilarious valentine to underdog independent genre filmmaking. It would pair up nicely with Graham Kelly Greene’s criminally overlooked Attack of the Bat Monsters. In fact, at one point a character in the Cormanesque spoof rather wistfully states: “in the future, people will watch these movies and laugh, but they’ll never understand how hard we worked on them.” That sentiment also perfectly fits Cut. It is a total winner that will charm the pants off horror fans. Very highly recommended, One Cut for the Dead screens Friday night (7/13), at the SVA, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’18: Dukun

How do the powerful and privileged become ever more so? Black magic. We’re not saying it actually works, but Mona Fandey had plenty of patrons who believed so. The nightclub singer turned shaman achieved infamy when one of her rituals slightly misfired. She decapitated an up-and-coming politician. Look, we’ve all been there, but its still embarrassing when it happens to you. Yet, her fictionalized analog takes this setback in stride throughout Dain Said’s long awaited Dukun (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Right, so Diana Dahlan’s ritual for the ambitious Dato’ Jeffri was not the smashing success they both hoped for, but things could be worse. As she sagely notes, at least he paid in advance. That attitude isn’t helpful when she is tried in the media, ahead of her courtroom trial, but her smugness is disconcerting, suggesting she knows something everyone else doesn’t, most   particularly including her counsel, Karim Osman. The last thing he needed was a case like this, but is forced to accept, in exchange for help finding his daughter Nadia from a City Hall contact.

As Osman searches high and low with Daud, a private investigator of sorts, who happens to be attuned to occult matters, he actually does a half-decent job defending Dahlan. He scores enough points to irritate Talib, the lead cop on the case, but his own client’s cryptic hints regarding Nadia’s disappearance are not exactly reassuring.

It will seem bizarre to Americans who do not live in California or on a college campus and therefore value free speech and expression that a film as benign as Dukun could be withheld from distribution for twelve years. It might be transparently inspired by the Fandey case, which was rather embarrassing to the ruling Sunni political party, but Said and screenwriter Huzir Sulaiman avoid policy and ideology, while adding plenty of their own invention—starting with Dahlan’s very real supernatural powers.

Dukun is an unusual blend of the courtroom drama and horror genres, which sounds strange, but actually works pretty well. In fact, they juggle a fairly large cast and a good number of subplots rather dexterously, even though they kill off one particularly intriguing character far too soon (alas, such are the perils of being a character in a horror movie).

As Dahlan, Uime Aida is a femme fatale, with the emphasis on the “fatal.” There is clearly supposed to be a feminist subtext to her prosecution, but she is so fabulously sinister, she undercuts the gender politics. Of course, from a horror fan’s perspective that is totally cool. On the other side of the spectrum, Adlin Aman Ramliee is completely convincing as the completely out of his depth Osman. Ramli Hassan is seriously righteous as Daud, while director-thesp Nam Ron is all kinds of hardnosed as Talib.

Weirdly enough, the film’s central legal question is legitimately debatable: was the decapitation really premeditated if Dahlan/Fandey truly thought the rite would bestow immortality on her victim? Still, the severed head is a pretty tangible piece of evidence that is tough to argue with. It very well might be anti-death penalty NGOs that ultimately object to the film, because the fictionalized Dahlan is definitely guilty of some seriously evil stuff, rather than a victim of fear and prejudice. Fascinating on many levels and also wickedly creepy, Dukun screens this Friday (7/13) at the SVA, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Monday, July 09, 2018

NYAFF ’18: Crossroads—One Two Jaga

The police in Kuala Lumpur might make the far-left rethink abolishing ICE, because they make the bureaucratic agency look rather benign in comparison. KL cops are always happy to score a cheap collar, but on the plus side, they can be bought at prices most “undocumented workers” can afford. This is particularly true of the shamelessly corrupt Hassan, but not so much for his squeaky-clean rookie partner in Nam Ron’s Crossroads: One Two Jaga (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Sugiman and his sister Sumiyati were Indonesians working legally in Malaysian, but she sabotaged her status when she walked out on her exploitative employers (who hold her passport). Fortunately, Sugiman works for Sarip, a big wheel in Indonesian expat circles, who can smuggle Sumiyati home, for a specially discounted price.

Since Sumiyati is now a fugitive, Sugiman will have to keep her under wraps until it is time for her to leave. This is not a good time for cops to start snooping around Sarip’s garage-junkyard-whatever. Frankly, he has high-level protection to prevent that sort of thing, but Hussein something about the place just bothers Hussein. Sarip’s cop-hating son Adi is not exactly a moderating influence either.

Initially, Crossroads (the “One Two Jaga” refers to a local variation on the kids game “cops and robbers”) starts out very much like one of those these-people-are-all-inter-connected-in-ways-they-don’t-know-yet indie films that may have finally fallen out of fashion, but it builds to an explosive third act. Viewers can guess the general trajectory things are headed, but Nam Ron takes it deeper and darker than even experienced genre fans will expect.

Frankly, there is an additional sub-plot involving Filipino expats who skim from their boss’s regular police bribe money that easily could have been eliminated. Seriously, any of us could have told them that would end badly. On the other hand, the tension between Hussein and Hassan is electrically charged and really rather gutsy, given local sensitivities (it is worth noting one of his prior films remains unreleased).

Sugiman and Sumiyati are also acutely human characters, caught up in circumstances beyond their control. Ario Bayu and Asmara Abigail really look like brother and sister (such is their mutual good fortune) and they act like siblings with years of strained history together. Zahiril Adzim maybe broods a little too much for his own good as Hussein, but Rosdeen Suboh makes the roguish Hassan into an intriguing, multi-dimensional figure. He is not all bad and he is certainly not all good, existing in the gray areas, much like nearly everyone else in Malaysian society (or so the film seems to suggest).

Despite working towards a foreshadowed tragedy, Crossroads is quite compelling to watch. The subplots are not developed with equal thoroughness, but it is worth seeing the high caliber work of Bayu, Abigail, and Suboh, under any circumstances. Recommended for discerning patrons of naturalistic crime drama, Crossroads: One Two Jaga screens this Wednesday (7/11) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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The Beatles: Yellow Submarine, Restored & Re-Released

Only a true cultural milestone could inspire licensed toys from Legos and Hot Wheels, as well as a reference in a taunting letter from the Zodiac Killer. As their movies go, the Beatles were relatively okay with it. It was fifty years ago today, or rather July 17th that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the original Fab Four saved Pepperland from the Blue Meanies in The Beatles: Yellow Submarine (trailer here), directed by George Dunning, which opens today at the IFC Center in a fresh new 4K restoration, commemorating it 50th anniversary.

For Millennials out there, the Beatles were sort of like the Monkees, but they were British. They were extremely popular while they were together, but its not like they were Rutles, mind you. Their first film, A Hard Day’s Night, might be the greatest rock & roll movie ever, but it was a tough act to follow-up. At the time, they had rather mixed feelings regarding Help! and Magical Mystery Tour, so they reportedly agreed to an animated film as an easy way to fulfill their contract. However, the look of the picture, designed by Heinz Edelmann (and not Peter Max, as is commonly assumed), perfectly fit the band’s growing allegiance to the counter-culture.

The story is loose and not especially concerned with logic or continuity, but it is really just a clothesline on which to hang the trippy visuals and some eternally catchy Beatles tunes. Idyllic Pepperland has been invaded by the music-hating Blue Meanies, so the Lord Mayor dispatches Old Fred, a salty old mariner, to find help in the Yellow Submarine. Coming up in Liverpool, Fred chances upon a brooding Ringo [Starr], who volunteers himself and his three mates. Presumably, they will chase out the Blue Meanies using music, but they never really discus a plan, per se.

Along the way, the Beatles sing “All Together Now,” pick up Jeremy Hillary Boob, Ph.D., the “Nowhere Man,” and get separated from Fred and the yellow sub, before inevitably coming together once more, naturally. There are also plenty of quotes from previous Beatles songs, in addition to the proper musical numbers, which include greatest hits from Revolver (the title tune and “Eleanor Rigby”) and Sgt. Pepper (the albums’ title track and “When I’m Sixty-Four”), as well as a few originals.

As an animated film, Yellow Submarine looks very much like a product of its time—in fact its flying glove and sparkling rainbows truly helped establish the visual vocabulary of the era. The patchwork screenplay, including contributions from future Love Story scribe Erich Segal (who was a former classmate of Jeremy DuQuesnay Adams, the acknowledged inspiration for the Nowhere Man), is all over the place, but it shrewdly took a page from Hard Day’s Night by showcasing the playful goofiness of the Beatles personalities.

In fact, there is something appealingly innocent about Yellow Submarine, harkening back to a time when animation for adults did not necessarily entail adult subject matter. The film is still G-rated, but a lot of the sly puns and references are sure to be lost on children. Frankly, it probably also helps to have a basic grounding in Beatlemania. The truth is, song like “When I’m Sixty-Four” take on an additional significance when you know the band’s dramatic history. Recommended as vicarious nostalgia for an era that wasn’t as good as its PR cracks it up to be, Yellow Submarine starts a special engagement today (7/9) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Sunday, July 08, 2018

NYAFF ’18: The Looming Storm

People are forced to celebrate anniversaries of the year 1997 in China, but Yu Guowei does not have happy memories from that time (many Hong Kongers also have decidedly mixed feelings about it). That year, the factory security guard tried to catch a serial killer, but his plan misfires badly in screenwriter-director Dong Yue’s The Looming Storm (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Essentially, Yu is the head security guard for Smelting Plant #4 someplace in the Eastern Central provinces, but he also has loss-prevention duties that earn him deferential treatment from most of his co-workers. The significance of such prevalent worker theft is largely lost on the aspiring detective. Regardless, he occasionally (and eagerly) provides auxiliary assistance to the over-worked local cops, including maintaining the perimeter around the killer’s latest body.

The victims all seem to be young women working at one of the regional factories, so it stands to reason the killer is also an industrial laborer. Nosing around, more or less on spec, he spooks a suspicious hooded figure, whom he chases all through the factory yard. The incident confirms his suspicions, but it will be a costly misadventure. Yu will have to be smarter, but he will have more time to plan, since he will be included in the massive layoffs about to sweep the district. Logically, he takes his savings to bait a trap for the killer. That would be Yanzi, a former prostitute Yu helped set up in a new respectable life. However, she is confused by the chasteness of his attention and oblivious to his ulterior motives.

Much like Explosion and Black Coal Thin Ice, Looming Storm combines film noir elements with socially conscious themes, but it is a slower build. There is no shortage of mood and atmosphere, because it rains incessantly in this unnamed center of urban decay. However, Dong somewhat confuses matters by hinting at the unreliability of Yu’s perspective, yet ultimately leaves the question hanging.

Nevertheless, Yu the striver is exactly the sort of brooding, desperate character that is totally in Duan Yihong’s wheelhouse. We always feel for him, even at the height of our skepticism. However, it is Jiang Yiyan who really lowers the boom as the marginalized but dignified Yanzi. Role for role and scene for scene, Jiang might just be the best actress working today. With respects to Looming, she doesn’t just steal the picture, she makes it.

It is hard to go wrong with a film noir that has this much rain. The provincial, soon-to-be-post-industrial setting definitely heightens the vibe of danger and alienation. It starts slow and ends somewhat too ambiguously, but it still pays off handsomely, thanks to the perfectly cast leads. Recommended for fans of Chinese noir, The Looming Storm screens tomorrow night (7/9) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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