J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Japan Cuts ’17: Shippu Rondo

Among authors frequently adapted for film and television, Keigo Higashino is approaching the lofty, bankable heights of Stephen King and Agatha Christie. American viewers are most likely to be familiar with gritty thrillers based on his work, such as Into the White Nights and the South Korean Broken. It is hard to believe the same pen inspired this light-hearted family caper, but imdb and wiki wouldn’t lie, would they? Regardless, a widowed father is in for a rough skiing outing when he tries to recover a lost canister of super anthrax in Teruyuki Yoshida’s Shippu Rondo (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Chief researcher Kazuyuki Kuribayashi was caught flat-footed when he learned his boss Masaomi Togo allowed an unstable colleague to develop the lethal K-55. To make matters worse, he takes the bio-weapon with him after he is finally fired for being nuts. He had intended to extort money from his former employer, but he is killed in a freak accident shortly after sending his demands.

Of course, the shtickily loathsome Togo will not go to the authorities, so that leaves the put-upon Kuribayashi to recover it. All he has to go on is a transponder frequency and the photo sent by the late mad scientist of a teddy bear apparently marking the hiding place, somewhere out of bounds at a large ski resort. At least his petulant middle school son will get a ski trip out of his dad’s troubles. He also might be able to hep more if Kuribayashi would start trusting him.

Yes sir, lessons will be learned by everyone during the course of Shippu, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most of the cast is rather pleasant to spend time with and there are some decent skiing/snowboarding chase sequences to its further merit.

Hiroshi Abe, who has the flexibility to star in Kore-eda family dramas and the Thermae Romae franchise, has plenty of aw shucks charm, but still manages to project a sense of the widower’s sadness. Tatsuomi Hamada and Sayu Kubota have way more charisma than you would expect as his son Hideto and Ikumi Yamasaki, the local girl who befriends him. Tadayoshi Okura and Yuko Oshima handle the action well enough as the ski patrol member and prospective Olympian who volunteer to help Kuribayashi. However, there is no getting around the pain of watching Akira Emoto mug and guffaw as the embarrassing Togo.

In a way, it is sort of depressing a mostly pleasant, completely family-friendly film like this has absolutely no chance of getting picked up for distribution outside of Japan. We’re only interested in films with violent, provocative content. Therefore, if you want to see it, you’d better see it now. For us, it is especially interesting to place it in the context of other Higashino films we have seen or expect to cover shortly. If anyone is sufficiently enterprising, a Higashino retrospective would certainly make for rewarding viewing. In the meantime, the ultra-nice but hardly spectacular Shippu Rondo screens this Saturday noon (7/22) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Luc Bondy Reinvents Marivaux: False Confessions

Pierre de Marivaux’s plays are still frequently revived in France, but they have never been widely read in English translation. At least he was popular within his lifetime. Frankly, he needed his royalties, having lost his shirt in the Mississippi land bubble. As a result, he should have identified with the well-bred but financially destitute hero of one of his best-known plays. Dorante is now just a plebeian secretary, but he will still sneakily woo his wealthy widowed mistress in the late Luc Bondy’s modern-day adaptation of False Confessions (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

It is all crafty Dubois’s fault. Dorante’s former valet now works in the household of the somewhat older but still alluring Araminte. Knowing his master was smitten after merely spying the wealthy widow at the opera, the servant hatches a scheme to bring them together. Through the influence of his uncle, Dorante lands a job as Araminte’s secretary, beating out the candidate put forward by the Comte Dorimont, an unwelcome suitor Araminte will either marry or sue in court to resolve a long-standing land dispute.

Dorante immediately wins her confidence by spurning her Dowager Countess-like mother’s request to help convince Araminte to see things her way. Since that would have included marrying the Comte, Dorante is definitely not on-board. As she starts to appreciate his charms, Dubois stokes her servant Marton’s romantic interest in Dorante, stimulating Araminte’s jealousy, which in turn clouds her rigid class-based sensibilities and judgement.

Bondy’s False Confessions is an unfortunate case of one or two high-profile critics causing a domino effect among other critics and bloggers who are incapable or unwilling to think for themselves. It has a bizarrely low RT score, but it is really quite spritely and sophisticated. Somewhat controversially, Bondy opted to keep Marivaux’s original language (more or less), but frankly, as experienced in English subtitles, it only sounds elevated rather than forbidding or distancing. Sadly, he also passed away during the final days of shooting, but it is never obvious at what point his freshly widowed wife took over the helm.

It almost goes without saying, but Isabelle Huppert really is terrific portraying Araminte. We don’t often think of her in comedic contexts, but her timing and delivery are impeccable. Bulle Ogier is also quite a stitch unleashing her inner Dame Maggie Smith as Araminte’s tart-tongued mother. In contrast, Louis Garrel underwhelms, largely playing Dorante on sullen auto-pilot. However, Manon Combes really seems earnest and genuine as the out-classed Marton.

Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (best-known for Suspiria and Tenebre) gives it a warmly welcoming, bright and airy look. Bondy opted to shoot the film version during the day at the very Odeon Theater where the cast was simultaneously performing his more traditional staging at night. That concentrated focus somehow produced a consistently witty and charming film, like a lighter, more laidback version of Alain Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet. Highly recommended, False Confessions opens tomorrow (7/21) in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 and moves to the Village East here in New York.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Fantasia ’17: House of the Disappeared

Kang Mi-hee was Catholic, but she could still recognize bad feng shui when she was living right smack dab in the middle of it. We are talking some seriously bad energy here. The resulting horrors will reverberate for decades in Lim Dae-woong’s House of the Disappeared (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Kang was convicted for the murders of her second husband Chul-joong and her firstborn son, Hyo-je, but the latter’ body was never found. After twenty-five years in prison, Kang’s sentence has been commuted to house arrest on compassionate grounds. She has throat cancer. However, it is not particularly compassionate to imprison her in the same evil house where it all went down. Yet, she wants to be there, because she is convinced Hyo-je is still there somehow. Although she never asked for his help, Priest Choi keeps offering. Eventually, he will uncover the house’s creepy history, involving a regular cycle of disappearances.

If Disappeared sounds familiar, it is because it is a Korean remake of the Venezuelan film, The House at the End of Time. Frankly, screenwriter Jang Jae-hyeon follows Alejandro Hidalgo’s film beat-for-beat, but there is no getting around the fact Korean cinema is just so better suited to handling the uncanny sentimental heart-string tugging of denouement. It is what they do best.

Yunjin Kim, best known for her breakout American television work on Lost and Mistresses, happens to be very adept at yanking on those heart-strings. She is terrific as Kang, convincingly portraying her as a young mother and disgraced old woman. Former boy-bander TaecYeon also vastly exceeds expectations as Father Choi. Young Park Sang-hoon IV and Ko Woo-rim are both so strong as Hyo-je and his brother Ji-won, they often make it painful to watch the film.

Disappeared is one of the few remakes that seems to offer the story a more suitable home. The Catholicism is still there, but the added elements of feng shui and shamanism give it more texture and depth. Highly recommended, especially if you haven’t seen the Venezuelan original, House of the Disappeared screens again tomorrow (7/20) as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Japan Cuts ’17: Another Recent Film from the Prolific Sion Sono

Each film in Nikkatsu’s relaunch of the iconic but formulaic soft-core series (see Dawn of the Felines and Wet Woman in the Wind for reference) is not supposed to exceed eighty minutes. Check. There is also supposed to be a sex scene every ten minutes. In this case, that sort of happens, but not really. Of course, Sion Sono is all about breaking rules. When he tries his hand at a R-P, he produces one of his most feminist films yet in Antip0rn0 (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Kyoko is the new It Girl of fashion and chick lit, but she is a hot and mean mess. She will lead her submissive assistant Noriko down a rabbit hole of humiliation and degradation to disturbing depths. However, things are not what they seem. Instead of a sex scene, Sono delivers a world-upending rug pull every ten minutes. Of course, they usually involve plenty of nudity. Plus, dig that groovy color palette.

While it would be spoilery to explain too much, the previous Sono film AP probably shares the closest kinship with would be Tag, which also relied on strong female characters. Whereas Tag challenged its primary trio to literally give their performances on the run, AP demands full physical and emotional exposure from Ami Tomite and Mariko Tsutsui, as Kyoko and Noriko respectively. They also cover an emotional range like you wouldn't believe and often have to turn on a dime (again, it is hard to cite specifics without giving the game away).

AP is a heck of a mind-you-know-what, which is sort of appropriate to the genre, notwithstanding the degree that Sono totally and utterly deconstructs it. Yet, even at seventy-five minutes, the defiant gamesmanship starts to run out of gas in the closing act. Still, it really has to be seen to be believed—and much like Kazuya Shiraishi’s Felines, if you find it arousing, you should probably seek professional help.

Indeed, the “Anti” is no lie. It is another strange but deeply compelling provocation from a compulsively-risk-taking auteur. Highly recommended for Sono’s admirers (but ironically, not so much for R-P fans), Anti screens this Saturday night (7/22) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Karate Kill: Mitsutake Throws Down

Kenji’s sister Mayumi should have come to New York to study rather than Los Angeles. There’s more culture here and it’s still safer, despite de Blasio’s best efforts. Instead, she went to left coast, where she was abducted by a Manson-like snuff video-producing hippie death cult. Fortunately, Kenji has skills that will only get sharper in Kurando Mitsutake’s grungy retro Karate Kill (trailer here), which is now available on DVD and VOD.

After losing contact with Mayumi, Kenji borrows money from one of his part-time temp work bosses to fly out to LA. Thanks to his persuasiveness, he quickly follows her trail to a hostess club for Japanese expats. After several beatdowns, he learns the manager sold her to the Koreshy Capital Messiah cult in Nowheresville Texas for use in their sicko internet subscriber videos. Right, so he’s off to Texas, where he hooks up with Keiko, a previous abductee from the LA club, who managed to escape.

Keiko did not get away clean, as the hook will attest, but you should see the other woman. Call that one Patch. Regardless, Keiko is still a deadly shot. Thanks to her training, Kenji will refine his bullet dodging skills. Right, let’s start piling up the bodies.

If you have seen Mitsutake’s Gun Woman than you should know exactly what to expect. However, this time around, the violence is slightly less brutal and the low-rent Miami Vice knock-off eighties vibe is more pronounced. However, former Pink Eiga star Asami is back kicking butt and frequently topless as Keiko.

As long as you are reading this review, you will show Asami all due respect. Hayate (another one-name wonder) also has massive action chops, serious brooding technique, and virtually no body-fat as Kenji. Mitsutake regular Noriaki R. Kamata is spectacularly sleazy as the LA club owner, but bug-eyed Kirk Geiger maybe manages to go too far over the top as the cult leader Vendenski, if that is even possible in a film like this.

If you want to see a ticked-off brother beating the snot out of dozens of long-hair fetish freaks than its Christmas in July for you. Mitsutake is not kidding around when it comes to offering up bone-crunching karate and the old school exploitation vibe. It delivers what it promises many times over. Recommended on its own terms, Karate Kill is now available on DVD and VOD.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Fantasia ’17: Sequence Break

There was a time when you had to deal with people if you wanted to play video games. Players would put their quarters up to claim the next game and everyone would patiently wait their turn, through common consent. These days, an arcade is a good place for a technician like Oz (short for Osgood, not Ozzie) to hide from the world. Yet, both a cute but neurotic woman and an evil mother board will find him in Graham Skipper’s Sequence Break (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Jerry’s arcade-slash-stand-up arcade game wholesale business is on its last legs, but one of their final customers happens to be Tess, who is really interested in Oz. Much to his surprise, he starts seeing her romantically. They will have a chance to spend a lot of time together while he minds the shop for Jerry. He assumes his good-natured boss has already left to visit family, but he has actually been murdered by a mysterious drifter who intentionally left behind a sinister game board. After Oz installs it in a compatible cabinet, he finds the game exerts a disturbing influence over players, both physically and emotionally.

Sequence Break is a nice example of an emerging loose ensemble of recognizable horror specialists and cult favorites, who almost constitute a throwback to the glory days of the repertory players featured Hammer and Amicus horror films. Skipper himself is better known for starring in nifty retro films like The Mind’s Eye and Beyond the Gates, which also co-starred Chase Williamson, who is terrific as the socially awkward Oz. He also develops some shockingly endearing chemistry with Fabianne Therese, with whom he previously co-starred in John Dies at the End. (She also appeared in Starry Eyes with Noah Segan, who was also in Camera Obscura with Williamson and Mind’s Eye with Skipper. Get the picture?)

Given its retro 1980s arcade aesthetic, Sequence Break’s budget constraints are almost a blessing. The arcade setting and the in-game graphics look absolutely spot-on. The small ensemble really works well together, most definitely also including Lyle Kanouse as old Jerry. The visual effects are basically in keeping with the retro eighties nostalgia, but the practical cables-coming-out-of-throats effects are sufficiently gory and gross.

Basically, Sequence is a lot like Electric Dreams with a strong element of body horror added. However, there is just no getting around how disappointing the ending is. Maybe you can argue it is part of the eighties homage, but it is still lame. Nonetheless, Skipper and the cast press so many nostalgic buttons, it is impossible to stay angry with the film. Recommended for fans of modern horror’s repertory players and the films and video games of the 1980s that inspired Skipper’s screenplay, Sequence Break screens tonight (7/18) and tomorrow (7/19) as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Residue: The Evil Book of Slime

It is nice to know a detective like Luke Harding has an analytical mind, even if he has been underemployed on bottom-feeding cases lately. He has already read deeper into a book of forbidden knowledge than many a trained scholar. It is not exactly a page-turner, only partly because of the evil black goo oozing out of its binding. Even though it plays games with his head, Harding has no choice but to read on in Rusty Nixon’s Residue (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

It started with a strange job for Mr. Fairweather, a sleazy wrestling promoter and low rent crime boss. He was supposed to dig up dirt on ten upstanding-looking citizens, but one really seemed to be as squeaky clean as he acts. Fairweather’s second job was to deliver a package to this straight arrow, but it is nearly intercepted by henchmen working for Mr. Lamont, the city’s real kingpin. Regrouping at his apartment, Harding inadvertently starts reading the book, sealing his fate.

He quickly deduces the book warps readers’ perception of time and reality. Rather ominously, he finds himself doing the same tasks over and over, due to short term memory loss. However, he will get organized, charting the Herzogian explorers progress through the jungle in the pages he has read, while documenting his own progress through the book. It is not a great time for Harding’s grown daughter to crash with him, but he cannot turn her away.

Nixon creates a lot of colorful lore related to the book, giving it some decidedly insidious powers. The father-daughter relationship is also surprisingly engaging. It is only the rival gangster stuff that feels ho-hum. Granted, the book’s ability to wreak cosmic mayhem seems to evolve with each page turned, but it is still relatively true to its Necronomicon inspiration.

James Clayton and Taylor Hickson actually pull-off some redemptive drama as the Hardings. Matt Frewer chews plenty of scenery as Fairweather, even while laboring under a wonderfully ludicrous and gruesome prosthetic (probably bringing back memories of his old Max Headroom days). It is also good clean fun to watch William B. Davis, the X-Files’ cigarette-smoking man, do his thing as Mr. Lamont. Such range he has.

Residue definitely has its rough edges, but its inventive and rather likably nutty. Frankly, it is refreshing to see a gory multi-genre caper that doesn’t double-down on cynicism. Recommended for fans of slimy noir, Residue is now available on VOD platforms, including iTunes.

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Monday, July 17, 2017

CCI-FF ’17: Maivaises Têtes (Bad Heads) (short)

Kipling would be proud of Jenny the barmaid. Let’s just say she is keeping her head while others lose theirs. Of course, she is the reason why, but you still have to give credit where its due. She will take (drastic) proactive steps for a little companionship in Rebekah Fieschi’s ultra-stylish short film homage to 1930s and 1940s black-and-white horror, Maivaises Têtes (Bad Heads) (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Comic-Con Independent Film Festival.

Right from the start, Fieschi does it old school, with the ambiguously Euro host warning us we’d better leave now if we are not hearty enough to handle the terrors to come, because the management will not be responsible for our feeble constitutions. Surely, Bill Castle approves. Then we meet Jenny, a sensitive daydreamer, but with an aura of darkness about her. She has an active fantasy life, but she finally wants a man of her own, so she goes to a place where there are a bunch of men just lying around unused.

Maivaises Têtes looks amazing in every way, most definitely including Dominick Sivilli’s wonderfully eerie and nostalgic black-and-white cinematography, as well as the carefully crafted art direction and set design, down to the spot-on title treatment. When watching Fieschi’s film, Universal fans will almost expect to see the phrase “a good cast is worth repeating” pop up at the end.

The ensemble is indeed repeatable and also appropriately in the spirit. As Jenny, Alice Dessuant is disarmingly earnest yet wildly and conspicuously off. Diako Diakoff hits the right note of faux serious scenery chewing as the host, while also gamely going through the paces as one of Jenny’s fantasy men.

This is the kind of film that should be a blast for conventioneers to watch amid a like-minded audience at Comic-Con. It has already racked up numerous genre festival awards, so it really should open financing doors for a full feature from Fieschi. Highly recommended for classic horror fans, Maivaises Têtes (Bad Heads) screens this Thursday (7/20), as part of the Horror/Suspense short film block at the Comic-Con Independent Film Festival in San Diego.

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Fantasia ’17: Have a Nice Day

This is the film China did not want France to see. Ironically, at this year’s Annency, the world’s most prestigious animation festival, China had been selected as featured guest country, but the Communist censors sabotaged their own PR coup by refusing animator Liu Jian the proper permits to screen his latest feature in competition. Thanks for reminding the world of the grim realities facing Chinese artists under Xi-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. There are no politics per se, but its dog-eat-dog depiction of contemporary China apparently hit too close to the truth. Hopefully, the Chinese authorities will still allow French Canadians to see Liu’s Have a Nice Day (trailer here), by not taking any last-minute measures to block its screenings at the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Ironically, Mao’s mug has been emblazoned on all denominations of paper renminbi banknotes. There are a lot of those Mao’s in the satchel low-level flunky Xiao Zhang steals from his boss. Of course, he is really stealing from the big boss, Uncle Liu, which is a really bad idea. It is a busy night for Uncle Liu, who is already beating the stuffing out of a local artist, so he assigns Skinny (a part-time fixer and full-time butcher) to handle the problem.

Unfortunately, Xiao Zhang has already been handled by an opportunistic couple with a pair of X-ray glasses. Soon, various other dodgy parties are also scrambling after the money, like characters in a seventy-five minute It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World, but set in provincial China—and with a lot of bloodshed.

Frankly, a film like Nice Day is healthy for Chinese society, because it spurs discussion and analysis regarding the state of things. One of the most telling aspects of the film is the frequency characters express a need or desire to leave for another country, often for better educational opportunities or in the case of Xiao Zhang’s girlfriend, corrective plastic surgery to fix the botched work she received locally. So much for the “Chinese Dream.”

Nice Day also happens to be a jolly good caper film, albeit in a decidedly lean and mean kind of way. Viewers should not get too attached to any characters, but on the other hand, they should count any out, no matter how bad their situation looks. This is definitely a predatory environment. It is Xi’s China, so you’re on your own.

The animation is also surprisingly stylish. Generally, the figures are on par with those of Yeon Sang-ho’s Korean features, but Liu seasons Nice Day with noir trappings and little mundane details that really ground it in the real world. It is an excellent film, so hopefully the Communist censors are through throwing tantrums. Very highly recommended, Have a Nice Day screens tonight (7/17) and Wednesday (7/19) as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Japan Cuts ‘17: Daguerrotype

If any old picture is worth a thousand words than the sweat equity that goes into a daguerreotype ought to increase the exchange rate dramatically. In fact, a rather anti-social photographer is convinced daguerreotypes constitute the only true photography. The punishing lengths of time he requires his subjects to sit almost seems to be part of their appeal. Not surprisingly, the only models who would regularly endure his long sittings were his late wife and his neurotic dead-ringer daughter. As a result, his new assistant will be walking into a rather tense family dynamic and maybe, possibly a slightly haunted house in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s first French language film, Daguerrotype (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Jean is initially hired as Stéphane’s assistant precisely because he has no proper photography baggage. He also doesn’t seem to mind working long hours, after his extended period of unemployment (this was Hollande’s France, after all). The old man finds him adequately adequate, but his nervous daughter Marie takes a liking to him. She clearly sees Jean as a potential ally in her quiet campaign to lead a more independent life. Of course, the obsessive daguerreotypist would not care to lose his best and really only model.

Stéphane is also not inclined to move from his spacious but ramshackle villa either, despite the lucrative offers made by the local council and Jean’s efforts to nudge him along (for a sizable commission). It seems his property is dead smack in the middle of a proposed “green works” boondoggle. It also might be haunted. Now and then, Kurosawa will show us hints of the uncanny, but he will maintain the ambiguity until very late in the third act.

In terms of its tone and approach to the supernatural Daguerrotype compares very directly with Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper. However, it lacks the breathlessly intense prologue of the Shopper, which really sets up the audience on pins and needles for the rest of the film. Instead, each door that mysteriously opens raises our hopes that he will finally get into it, only to find it is another tease.

Still, enormous credit is due to Olivier Gourmet who is absolutely riveting as the arrogant, guilt-ridden, and possibly delusional Stéphane. Frankly, one of the most frightening aspects of the film is watching him fall into an ambiguous mental state somewhere between sanity and madness. Tahar Rahim broods well enough as Jean, but Constance Rousseau’s remarkable portrait of Marie is achingly fragile and somewhat off. As usual, it is also fun to watch Mathieu Amalric do his thing in a small but colorful role as Stéphane’s sleazy agent.

This is Kurosawa’s first film with a Euro crew, but he certainly can’t complain about the tech contributions. Alexis Kavyrchine softly-lit cinematography is appropriately eerie, while Casa Stéphane is quite a feat of mise-en-scene. However, the truly ghostly life-size daguerreotypes are absolutely indispensable for the film’s look, tone, and overall effect. So, yes, a picture is worth a bunch of words. Good, but not the masterwork we’re all hoping for, Kurosawa’s Daguerrotype is still very much worth seeing when it has its New York premiere tomorrow (7/18) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Czech That Film ‘17: The Noonday Witch

This is no ordinary hag. The supernatural predator immortalized in Czech nursery rhyme and Dvorak’s symphonic suite always strikes at high noon. She may or may not be stalking the daughter of a recently bereaved widow or possibly her guilt has metastasized into something toxic in Jiri Sadek’s The Noonday Witch (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Czech That Film in Chicago.

Eliska has just moved back to her husband provincial hometown with her daughter Anetka, but without her husband. That is because he is buried there. Evidently, he died in a misadventure that was most likely suicide, but she has yet to tell Anetka. Unfortunately, given the nature of his demise, she stands to receive no insurance benefits. This puts Eliska under tremendous stress that compounds whenever Anetka asks about her absent father. To make matters worse, the region is suffering from a historic draught. The last time water tables were this dry, bad things happened.

It seems they happened to Mayor Mraz’s desiccated-looking wife. Eventually, Eliska learns Madame Mrazova was committed for killing her son. Psychologically, she is unable to bear the guilt, so she now blames the Noonday Witch—or so the Mayor assumes. Ms. Mrazova has been agitated lately, because she senses the witch now has her eyes on Anetka. At first, Eliska does not want to hear her crazy talk, but she eventually sees alarming signs she might be right—or perhaps the single mother is creating them herself, acting out of guilt, stress, and the power of suggestion.

Noonday will inevitably be compared to the over-hyped Babadook, but it is the superior film by a good measure. Sadek and cinematographer Alexander Surkala give the film a distinctive look that is both sun-drenched and eerie. The film has a folkloric vibe, yet it still feels contemporary. Most critically, Sadek handles the evil entity, such as it might be, with dexterous subtlety.

As Eliska, Anna Geislerova mentally cracks up quite spectacularly. Whether there is anything uncanny or not afoot, her nervous breakdown is totally convincing. Veteran Czech thesp Daniela Kolarova is even creepier as Mrazova, while Zdenek Mucha grounds the film as the decent, remorseful Mayor Mraz.

The sun has never been scarier than it is in Noonday, because it dispels the shadows we might hide in. Arguably, it is ambiguous to a fault, but there is no denying the claustrophobic tension Sadek builds. Highly recommended, The Noonday Witch screens this Friday (7/21) and the following Wednesday (7/26) in Chicago, at the Siskel Film Center, as part of the 2017 edition of Czech That Film.

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Sunday, July 16, 2017

Japan Cuts ’17: Haruneko

It is strange film theorists have not spent more time analyzing the connection between genre cinema and experimental film. After all, to accept a postmodern fantasia on anything approaching face value, you have to make similar or even greater jumps as those required by fantastical cinema. Take this one. In many ways, it would bear comparison to Kore-eda’s After Life, but the herky-jerky flow puts us in a completely different headspace. In any event, those who seek death will eventually find it in Sora Hokimoto’s Haruneko (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

The Manager runs a coffee shop in the woods that attracts a steady clientele, despite its remote location. After serving some rich looking French-press coffee, “The Manager” will escort guests into the woods, where they dissolve into sound vibrations. At least, that is the idea. Some guests, like the yakuza on the run or the delusional father who just murdered his wife and daughter might require a little coaxing. However, from a Karmic standpoint, it is necessary for them to move on.

That is the [relatively] clear-cut narrative part. Haruneko has no shortage of hallucinatory imagery that viewers could mull over for years without fully parsing them. Of course, for some, that is the charm of a film like this.

Haruneko is part of the experimental focus at this year’s Japan Cuts, so its surreal sensibilities should not come as a surprise. It is not for a mass audience, but the intimidated will miss out on a terrific performance from young Ryuto Iwata as Haru, a little boy who assists the manager with day-to-day chores and might also be a potential client, as his mysterious sister was or will be.

This is a strange film that changes tone on a dime. Yet, there is something undeniably inviting about the fateful coffeehouse. It is a lovely example of the power of mise-en-scene. Yoi Suzuki’s suggestive cinematography also captures the deep verdant colors of the forest, as well as a sense of the mysteries lurking within. Arguably, it is an experimental film that could have been more powerful if it were less experimental. Recommended for patrons of the avant-garde, Haruneko screens tonight (7/16) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Fantasia ’17: Skin for Skin (short)

Call it Northern gothic. This macabre tale of karma could not possibly be more Canadian, because its ruthless protagonist is clearly and transparently based on Governor George Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company, a.k.a. “The Emperor of the North.” If you were an animal with a pelt, he was public enemy #1. However, he is about to shoot his last bird in Kevin D.A. Kurytnik & Carol Beecher’s Skin for Skin (trailer here), which world premieres at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

When you kill as much as the “Emperor,” it creates an imbalance in the Force, even if they are just critters. His time has come. Thematically, Skin is somewhat akin to Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku, but it is not quite so severe. The visually distinctive animation suggests the influences of N.C. Wyeth’s classic rugged adventure illustrations and Gustav Doré’s gothic Poe and Coleridge engravings. It is a dark film, but a beautiful one.

For years, Canada was the HBC, so it makes perfect sense for Kurytnik & Beecher’s film to premiere at Fantasia. It could very well be one of the most morbid, bloody, and surreal films to earn awards consideration at the end of the year. After all, it has a strong conservation message and the National Film Board of Canada has an impressive track record garnering Oscar nominations for its short films. Recommended for those who appreciate strong visuals (with a purpose), Skin for Skin premieres this afternoon (7/16), as part of the Outer Limits of Animation program at this year’s Fantasia.

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Fantasia ’17: Confidential Assignment

Apparently, Cha Gi-sung must have assassinated too many of Kim Jung-on’s family members in airports, because he developed a taste for luxuries such as food while abroad. Disillusioned with the Kim Dynasty, Cha wants to live the good life and thanks to his security clearance, he knows how to fund it. Supposedly, the pariah state suspended its dollar counterfeiting project when it was embarrassingly exposed, but instead they doubled down developing a set of “super plates.” Of course, he left a trail of dead bodies all the way to Seoul. As a result, two wary cops from opposite sides of the DMZ will reluctantly team up to catch the rogue commando in Kim Sung-hoon’s Confidential Assignment (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Det. Kang Jin-tae does not trust his temp partner, because it makes no sense for the DPRK to go to such diplomatic trouble to catch a garden variety criminal. Likewise, Det. Lim Cheol-ryung distrusts Kang, because exposure of the super plates would badly damage North Korean face. However, he really doesn’t care about all that. He wants revenge for his wife and fellow unit-member, who was murdered by Cha during the plate heist.

Naturally, Kang and Lim spend most of the first act and a good part of the second spying on each other and trying to slip away. However, as Lim gets to know Kang’s incredibly cute family (wife Park So-yeon, sister-in-law Park Min-young, played by K-Pop idol Yoona, and young daughter Yeon-a), Lim starts to warm to his partner-minder. Kang also starts to care less about the geopolitics and more about bringing the murderous Cha to justice.

Basically, Confidential is Red Heat with more denial. At least it shows Lim getting tortured after Cha’s escape from the North, because that is how they motivate people up there. Regardless, the action is pretty good. In fact, the film was marketed in Korea as the action debut of Hyun Bin (so memorable in Late Autumn). He can certainly do strong and silent, so he carries off the shoot-outs and fight scenes rather nicely.

As usual, Yoo Hai-jin is definitely there to provide the comedy, but also effectively accentuates the Kang’s down-to-earth, everyman qualities, making him an easy figure to identify with. Yet, the film’s best asset is Kim Ju-hyeok, who plays Cha with Mephistophelean charm. Given his charisma and the legitimate basis of his grievances, audiences might start rooting for him instead (or maybe that’s just me).


Not surprisingly, Assignment manages to clock in just over the two-hour mark, but the pacing is still pretty zippy. Yoo and Hyun Bin develop some decent bickering buddy chemistry, while Yoona and Jang Young-nam deliver the human interest. Despite its le Carré-like suggestions of moral equivalency, Yoon Hyeon-ho screenplay can’t be accused of glamorizing the North. It is sufficiently entertaining, but the potential sequel teased at the end of the film has an even more intriguing premise. Recommended for fans of the fish-out-of-water buddy-cop action movies, Confidential Assignment screens this afternoon (7/16) as part of this year’s Fantasia, in Montreal.

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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Fantasia ’17: The Senior Class

If you think art school students are inherently more sensitive than you have another thing coming. Granted, the shy, torch-carrying Jung-woo sort of fits the stereotype, but certainly not his coarse pseudo-friend Dong-hwa. They relate to women very differently, especially the aloof beauty, Ju-hee. We know angst and bitterness will mark their final year of school, because this is a production of Studio DADAhouse, the production shingle of Yeon Sang-ho, director of the smash-hit Train to Busan and the animated films, The Fake and King of Pigs. Love hurts like a stiletto in the heart in Hong Deok-pyo’s The Senior Class (trailer here), written and produced by Yeon, which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Ju-hee is beautiful and talented, so her classmates hate her, but pretend to like her. Everyone also assumes she is rich, because of her stylish accessories, but she isn’t. In fact, she has to work at a hostess bar to cover tuition. It really wouldn’t be a big deal if she were working in a Hooter’s here in America, but this is South Korea. Fortunately, it is the smitten Jung-woo who accidentally stumbles over her secret. By maintaining her confidence, Jung-woo manages to get closer to her. She sees it as a platonic friendship between future colleagues, but it’s a start. However, things take a decidedly dark turn when the crass Dong-hwa also learns her secret.

With the passage of years, we start to think school love affairs and dramas really don’t matter, but Senior Class is powerful reminder how much they can sting at the time and how deeply they can scar. Frankly, this is a sophisticated story of unrequited love, opportunistic lust, and predatory gossip that could just as easily unfold in any number of largely self-contained social/professional circles. Just about every viewer should be able to identify with the character’s emotions and understand their pain.

As an added bonus, Senior Class’s animation looks somewhat more refined and detailed than previous DADAhouse features. The voice cast is also admirably expressive. Yeon, Hong, and company are making first class films that take the path less chosen. They have a rare talent and affinity for scrupulously real and unflinchingly honest drama. Indeed, Senior Class an unusual film for “new adults,” because it has the maturity of adult adults. (At times, it is also quite sexually explicit, so viewer discretion is advised). Highly recommended for sophisticated animation fans, The Senior Class screens tonight (7/15) and Monday (7/17), along with Yeong-a Hwang’s surreal animated short Lovescream (which is rather unsettling for imagery that is both sexual and violent).

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Japan Cuts ’17: The Ondekoza

Taiko drumming isn’t just music, it is also spectacle. If you doubt it, check out Yako Miyamoto and her taiko drumming dance troupe, COBU (really, you should). They fused taiko with tap, other modern dance forms, and martial arts, creating a dazzling synthesis. They were able to reinterpret those traditional forms because of musicians like the Ondekoza ensemble, who came together to keep taiko alive and vital in 1969. Yakuza auteur Tai Kato documents the training and performances of a fresh batch of recruits in the criminally under-released and under-screened documentary The Ondekoza (trailer here), which looks terrific in the new 4K restoration that premieres in America during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

The Ondekoza (or Za Ondekoza) live and train communally, much like military personnel. In fact, when Kato follows the newbies as they take their daily jog around Sado island, you almost expect to hear them chant: “I don’t know but I’ve been told, taiko drumming makes you bold.” We get some sense of the young performers’ personalities, especially when they start to make their costumes. However, the real guts of the film are several stunningly filmed performances.

Frankly, Ondekoza compares quite closely to the eternally gorgeous Calle 54, especially Keiji Maruyama’s absolutely stunning cinematography. This is truly bravura, auterist filmmaking, featuring lush backdrops, artful visual composition, and incredibly dramatic but assured jump cuts.

It is not just taiko either. Ondekoza was founded to preserve and revitalize traditional Japanese music, such as the climatic solo shamisen performance, which ranks up the with Hoichi the Earless in Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan as one of the most cinematic shamisen performances ever. Although not quite as innovative as Miyamoto and COBU, Ondekoza also perform in more modern contexts, with groups like the Downtown Boogie Woogie Band, who were more 1970s funk than Meade Lux Lewis barrel house. Yet, it is when Ondekoza reconnect with tradition that they sound their best, such the starkly powerful human bunraku number.

It is depressing Ondekoza was virtually unseen during Kato’s lifetime, because it is such a conspicuous masterwork. Seriously, what more do you need? At least Shochiku has done right by Kato on his centennial (1916-1985), because the restoration is first-class all the way. Very highly recommended, The Ondekoza screens tomorrow (7/16) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Friday, July 14, 2017

Fantasia ’17: Natsuko (short)

Supposedly, she is inspired by Little Red Riding Hood, but her style owes more to Catwoman or Black Widow. Still, we’re not complaining about any part of Alexandre Lusignan’s short short, Natsuko, which screens tonight at the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival, except that is so short.

This definitely looks like a proof of concept short film. In a little over two minutes, the red cloaked, impressively curved action heroine slices and dices her way through a pack of werewolves in a cemetery. Consider us totally sold on the concept and down for a feature treatment. Lusignan is free to add a more complex narrative—or not. Natsuko is just too fun to leave it at two minutes and seventeen seconds. Recommended for the style, atmosphere, and hack-and-slash, Natsuko screens tonight (7/14) as part of a Québécois shorts block at this year’s Fantasia.

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Japan Cuts ’17: Neko Atsume House

If Colson Whitehead can write a zombie novel, why not Masaru Sakumoto? Perhaps because he is written out. The once promising new novelist hasn’t written anything readable in years, so his publisher demands he introduce zombies into his low-rated serial. Hoping to spark his stalled creative process, Sakumoto retreats to a sleepy provincial town, but he finds a whole bunch of cats instead in Masatoshi Kurakata’s Neko Atsume House (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Apparently, NA House is based on a smart-phone game. Considering the number of cats slinking through it, the game must be a first-person shooter, but the film is nothing like that. After his brief initial grouchiness, Sakumoto is actually happy to have all those flea and rabies carrying strays around. In fact, he even tries to attract more.

Remarkably, Sakumoto’s dedicated editor Michiru Towada has not given up on him yet. She keeps schlepping out to beat his latest installment out of him. Despite her shy demeanor and her sentimental attachment to his prize-winning debut, she is honest about the quality of his current work. He basically knows it too, which is why he would rather be the neighborhood’s crazy cat lady. At least, trips to the local cat specialty store provide a little bit of social interaction with Yoko, the owner.

Frankly, NA House must be the best film based on a video game ever, but we’ll still accept Mortal Kombat as an answer for nostalgic reasons. Regardless, NA House has sensitive and complex characters as well as an unhurried but purposeful narrative, which certainly set it well apart from the field. Although the film eschews traditional romance there is something quite endearing and ultimately poignant about Sakumoto’s relationships with Towada and the intimidatingly alluring cat store proprietor. You rarely see these sorts of smart, platonic interactions in movies to any real extent. That’s another reason why NA House is so refreshing.

Atsushi Ito is quietly understated as Sakumoto, which is indeed a virtue. As Towada, Shiori Kutsuna sneaks up on viewers with the power of her performance. However, Tae Kimura’s Yoko outshines everyone, even including the cats.

In fact, there is one green-eyed feline who looks pretty darned evil. No matter what cat apologists say, you’d be freaked if you woke up with him standing over you. Nevertheless, the process of a writer rediscovering his voice is rendered with intelligence and subtlety. This is a good film, even with all those cats. Recommended with surprising enthusiasm, Neko Atsume House screens this Sunday (7/16) at the Japan Society as part of the current edition of Japan Cuts, but if you don’t already have a ticket, you’re going to have to ride the stand-by line.

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Japan Cuts ’17: Hengyoro (Queer Fish Lane)

Underwater plastic surgery is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Fortunately, eccentric elderly vagabonds Tarugani and Papajo have more reputable side jobs staging chain plays that incorporate stagecraft, film, and traditional Okinawan music. The underlying mythology is rich, but narrative logic isn’t much of a priority for Go Takamine’s Hengyoro (Queer Fish Lane) (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Something happened long ago that wiped out most of the population of Patai Village, but Tarugani and Papjo still shuffle around like ghosts. Frankly, things make more sense when they are mounting their chain plays, featuring eerie looking Super8 footage Takamine shot on Okinawa in the 1970s.

Episodic in nature, we watch the strange misadventures of a bag of an illegal aphrodisiac purchased instead of flour. Wrongly blamed for inappropriately acquiring the potent powder, Tarugani goes about his professional practice editing film and faces, while trying to elude the Bibiju, the three supernaturally damp wives of the aphrodisiac-peddling shopkeeper, who are dead set on cutting his ears.

Whatever. Don’t try to make sense of Hengyoro. While bits and pieces make sense in isolation, it is baffling as a whole. This is self-consciously experimental cinema that makes no concessions. Yet, it is easier to watch than you might expect, because Takamine is constantly pulling off wild in-camera visual tricks. Even if you have no patience for the avant-garde, it is strangely compelling to watch him top himself. In fact, it is no hyperbole to say cinematographer Mamoru Hirata’s work is frequently stunning. The traditional Okinawan soundtrack is also starkly powerful.

Takamine is probably best known internationally for the socially conscious, deliberately paced Paradise View, but that film will feel like Guardians of the Galaxy compared to Hengyoro. Still, it is often fascinating to look at and listen to—and that’s definitely something. Recommended for devoted patrons of experimental cinema, Hengyoro (Queer Fish Lane) screens Saturday (7/15) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Japan Cuts ’17: At the Terrace

These neurotic bourgeoisie party guests would feel at home in the caustic plays of Yasmina Reza, but they live in Japan, the home of the deferential apology. That makes it especially awkward when they tear into each other or make improper advances in At the Terrace (trailer here), Kenji Yamauchi’s deliciously cutting adaptation of his stage play, which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

You know how they say parties always end up in the kitchen? Apparently, when you have servants to handle the food, like the well-heeled Soejimas, you wind up on the well-furnished terrace instead. This was an affair for their various work colleagues and clients, so it was not supposed to be fun. Nevertheless, a handful of stragglers will get pretty drunk.

The comedy of miscommunication starts when the hostess Kazumi Soejima busts late-comer Tanoura for not so subtly leering at Haruko Saito, the wife of one of two Saitos at the party. While her husband is hale and hearty, the other Saito remains in a weakened condition from the gastric-bypass surgery that has made him unrecognizable to the guests who had met him before. To compound poor Tanoura’s embarrassment, Madame Soejima will expose his infatuation to her husband the assorted Saitos, who all try to be decent and forgiving about it. Nevertheless, when Tanoura nervously praises her sleek alabaster arms, his compliment will be flogged like a dead horse and brutally driven into the ground.

You might expect a wry comedy of bad manners like Terrace would suffer in translation, but it is still incisively funny. This is the sort of film that we can’t help laughing at, even as we wince at the characters’ discomfort. The details of their lives are very Japanese, but their macro issues are still quite universal.

The entire ensemble is uniformly strong, but my oh my, is Kei Ishibashi ever a force to be reckoned with as Kazumi, the maybe not so hospitable hostess. You have to see her sawing her guests off at the knees to fully understand the acerbic sting of her performance. Yet, as Haruko (the one with the arms), Kami Hiraiwa hangs with her and maybe even one-ups her, when they start verbally mixing it up. On the other end of the spectrum, understated Takashi Okabe is quietly poignant as the newly thin and divorced Saito.

Despite the one set, nobody can accuse Terrace of being stagy, because it crackles with energy. In some ways, it can be compared to Reza, Alan Ayckbourn, and Edward Albee, but Yamuchi’s characters are totally original and completely believable. Very highly recommended, At the Terrace screens this Sunday (7/16) at the Japan Society, as part of Japan Cuts.

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Japan Cuts ’17: Memoirs of a Murderer

This dark exploration of human cruelty was made possible by the worst bottom-feeding instincts of the book-publishing industry (I’m so proud). When a notorious serial killer comes forward to explain how he committed his murders, safely after the statute of limitations has expired for his crimes, there are no shortage of houses willing to promote it. However, some will question whether his tell-all tells all in Yu Irie’s Memoirs of Murder (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Back when it all started, Wataru Makimura was one of the lead detectives on the Tokyo Strangler case. He still literally carries the scars from his encounter with the killer on his face and his soul. Tragically, he was not just an investigator on the case. He was also a victim. Not only was his partner killed in a booby trap meant for him, his missing sister Rika was presumably the final victim.

Thanks to the Strangler’s elusiveness, the statuette of limitations was eliminated for capital crimes. However, all of his known murders were committed before the change in law took effect. Therefore, when Masato Sonezaki comes claiming to be the killer in a graphically detailed memoir, the police are powerless to arrest him. The smooth talking Sonezaki becomes a media darling, but his transparently phony remorse adds insult to the surviving families’ pain. Several will consider taking the law into their own hands, but the guilt-ridden Makimura will do his best to protect them from their own impulses.

By the way, a twist will come, which viewers will know if they have seen the original Korean film, Jung Byoung-gil’s Confession of Murder, which Irie has remade. However, he added an additional sinister revelation that takes the Japanese remake into even darker places. Reflecting Jung’s action roots, Confession was structured around several white-knuckle thrill-ride chase sequences, whereas Memoirs is a darkly twisted exercise in psychological suspense. Both films accomplish their goals with lethal effectiveness.

Hideaki Ito’s Makimura is a perfect hard-nosed, square-jawed Japanese analog for Jung Jae-young, which is high praise indeed. As Sonezaki, Tatsuya Fujiwara does some of his creepiest, clammiest, and most surprising work since appearing as Light Yagami in the original Death Note movies. Plus, Toru Nakamura ratchets up the intensity as Toshio Sendo, the respected journalist who hosts their television showdown.

Even if you have seen Confession of Murder (and if you haven’t, you really should), Memoirs of a Murderer still works on every level. In fact, you can make a credible case Irie surpasses the original, even though they are considerably different viewing experiences. Very highly recommended, Memoirs of Murder screens Saturday (7/15) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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