J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Wind River: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Hunts a Murderer

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service closely collaborates with indigenous tribes on conservation efforts, but there are tensions over its administration of the eagle feather permit system. Few people understand the complexity of these relationships better than Fish & Wildlife Agent Cory Lambert. His ex-wife is Native American. They still have a young son, but their teen daughter was murdered under circumstances that make it unlikely the killer will ever be discovered. As a result, Lambert is more than willing to assist a rookie FBI agent investigate the subsequent murder of his daughter’s best friend in Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Time has passed, but Lambert has not fully healed. However, he has remained as diligent as ever on the job. When wild predators attack livestock, Lambert is the one called to track them down. He knows the area, so he is the one to take Special Agent Jane Banner to view the freshly discovered body of Natalie Hanson. Unlike most agents called to work murders on Federal land, Banner would like to see some justice done, but she knows she will not get very far without Lambert.

Having reasonably good relations with the Shoshone and Arapaho, Lambert also has better luck getting the locals to talk. That includes Hanson’s distraught father, who extracts a promise from Lambert to use his skills as a hunter as well as a tracker, even if Hanson’s lowlife brother and her outsider boyfriend turn out to be suspects.

Just when you thought American thrillers had given up the ghost, Sheridan bags and tags a heck of a trophy with WR. Best known as the screenwriter of Hell or High Water, Sheridan shows the same flair for cutting dialogue and gritty criminal scenarios. However, the stakes at play in WR run far deeper and darker.

As Lambert, Jeremy Renner rises to the occasion, knocking the wind out of viewers with the downright shocking emotional rawness of his performance. Granted, he is known for his brooding, tightly-wound work, but this raises his game to a whole new level. Frankly, it is hard for Elizabeth Olsen’s Banner to compare head-to-head, but she asserts herself well in the third act action scenes. Of course, it is nice to see Graham Greene do his thing as the tribal police chief. Yet, Jon Bernthal and Kelsey Chow possibly upstage everyone as Hanson and her lover in a surprisingly long and brutal (but absolutely appropriate) flashback sequence.

There is nothing cheap about Sheridan’s narrative. Like Paul Kersey in the original Death Wish, Lambert will have to settle for vicarious payback, if he can track down the person or persons responsible for Hanson’s death. Sheridan and cinematographer Ben Richardson make the most of the frozen locales, creating a snowbound modern western that nicely compliments the East Texas desolation of High Water. Lean, mean, and intensely resonant, Wind River is very highly recommended when it opens this Friday (8/4) in New York and Los Angeles.

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AAIFF ’17: A Foley Artist

The storied Central Motion Pictures Corporation (CMPM) is like both the Cinecitta and Shaw Brothers of Taiwan. Legendary auteurs like Hou Hsaio-hsien, Ang Lee, Edward Yang, and Tsai Ming-liang all started their careers there. They also produced plenty of crowd-pleasers, such as Eight Hundred Heroes and Cloud of Romance. Over the decades, Hu Ding-yi worked on all sorts of films there, but he might be the last of his breed. The sound effects master’s career becomes a vehicle for taking stock of the history of Taiwanese cinema in Wan-jo Wang’s A Foley Artist (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Asian American International Film Festival.

When Hu started with the CMPC, its apprenticeship program was almost as regimented as the military, but it offered the job security of IBM in its heyday. He rose through the ranks in the sound department, at a time when appreciation was growing for sound effects. Not surprisingly, many sound editors, audio engineers, composers, and dubbing specialists pay their respects to Master Hu. Probably the biggest name present is the eternally glamorous Sylvia Chang, who has surprisingly nice things to say about dubbing artists.

In fact, some of the most interesting sequences in Foley Artist, involve the craft of voice-dubbing, which was originally performed in Taiwan by recognizable radio personalities. Foley specialists like Hu also became quite resourceful scouring dumps and junkyards for cast-off items that could make desired sounds. Fittingly, sound editor-mixer Chen Chia-wei nicely emphasizes and isolates the sound effects Hu created, giving the audience a richly varied and fully audible sample of his talents. Although still professionally active, the industry has largely passed Hu by, which gives the film a tone of nostalgic melancholy.

Frankly, the more you know about Taiwanese cinema, the more you will get out of Foley Artist. We now have genuinely boundless respect for Mr. Hu, but we really want to see Eight Hundred Heroes. Evidently, it was a huge hit, but critics dismissed it as bloody jingoism. Sounds awesome, can we get a 4K rerelease, please? In fact, Wang’s respectful and well-researched documentary would nicely compliment a retrospective of CMPC films. Recommended for classic movie fans who have a sentimental affection for physical act of old school filmmaking, A Foley Artist screens Thursday (8/3) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

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Fantasia ’17: Lu Over the Wall

When it comes to mer-people, the Celts have their selkie, the Slavs have the rusalka, and Japan tells tales of the ningyo. Those ningyo legends have a darker tone than our Disney and Ron Howard mermaid movies, so it is not so surprising many residents of a coastal Japanese fishing village hold misconceptions regarding ningyos. One compulsively cheerful ningyo will do her best to change their prejudices, starting with a moody Tokyo transplant in Masaaki Yuasa’s Lu Over the Wall (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Yuasa has been busy, having already released Lu and Night is Short, Walk on Girl in Japan this year. While both feature his “flat” style of character rendering, Lu is clearly intended for a much younger audience. After his parents’ divorce, Kai moves to the harbor town of Hinashi with his father. The moody aspiring electronica DJ reluctantly joins the band led by town princess Yuho and her torch-carrier Kunio, mostly because he is curious to see Mermaid Island, where they practice.

The island was once the site of an ill-fated ningyo/mermaid-themed amusement park, but deserted jutting rock formation always shielded nearby “Mermaid Harbor” from the sun they dread. This is one of the few ningyo legends that is apparently true. They also really enjoy music, especially Lu, who can’t help singing along with the band. As luck would have it, she has a better voice than Yuho, so Lu replaces her as lead vocalist. Of course, this makes things awkward when they actually get live gigs, especially considering the anti-ningyo sentiments of old-timers, like the old granny who blames the ningyo for her husband’s disappearance.

It is indeed true ningyo can turn the land-bound into ningyo with a vampire bite to the neck. However, they only use their powers for good, as when Lu liberates all the puppies in the pound, turning them into merdoggies. She pretty much has everyone in the audience won over at that point. Still, she is a bit young-looking to be hanging with Kai and Kuho. Supposedly, they are in middle school, but their animated figures look more like high school teens, whereas Lu resembles a nine or ten-year-old. Technically, Yuasa keeps things squeaky clean, but when Kai finally admits he has feelings for Lu, it should make everyone feel a little uncomfortable.

Still, Yuasa has an affinity youthful alienation and the rhythms of small town life. It is also nice to see so many presumably minor characters take on greater significance later in the film. The major plot points are all pretty predictable and the environmental messaging gets a bit tiresome, but Yuasa keeps us hooked with all his clever bits of business. Plus, there are merpuppies. Miguel Ortega & Tran Ma’s Ningyo is still more our kind of mer-creature film, but Lu should charm fans of similar films, like Ponyo and Mia and the Migoo. Recommended for young viewers, Lu Over the Wall screens tonight (7/31) and tomorrow (8/1), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Sunday, July 30, 2017

Fantasia ’17: Matasaburo of the Wind (short)

Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad is the one Japanese children’s book non-Japanese speakers might know and even own. It has been adapted as anime features and inspired films like Giovanni’s Island. Miyazawa’s story “Kaze no Matasaburo” might not be as familiar to English audiences, but it was also the subject of several feature treatments. The characters of Miyazawa’s classic tale have been reconceived as anthropomorphic animals (as was often the case with Railroad) and the narrative is simplified, but the purity of spirit remains in Hiroki Yamada’s animated short Matasaburo of the Wind (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Even though summer is fast approaching, Saburo Takada has transferred to a remote provincial school. In this case, the city native is rather stunned to find herself sharing a classroom with a bear, a tortoise, a rabbit, a frog, and an earthworm—as fellow students. There is also a human boy who rather fancies her. Much to his annoyance, some of friends get it into their heads she is Matasaburo, the son of the wind god, because she arrived in such gusty weather. Its rubbish of course (starting with her being a girl), but she will have a fateful encounter with the real Matasaburo.

Yamada’s deceptively simple animation is packed with warmth and nostalgic goodness. The streamlining of the story boils it down to its essence, but the twentysome-minute running time is still long enough to feel substantial. The supportive but unobtrusive score further heightens vibe of summer rain and cicadas chirping. This really is bitter-sweetness at its sweetest.


After watching Wind, a complete retrospective of films based on or inspired by Miyazawa’s work suddenly sounds like a heck of a nifty idea. Yamada’s adaptation is just good for what ails you. Very highly recommended, Matasaburo of the Wind screens this afternoon (7/30), as part of the Fragments of Asia shorts block at this year’s Fantasia. Kang Heekyung’s superhero romance Rainbow also screens as part of the block. It is also sweet and well-meaning, but it cannot match the charm and depth of Matasaburo.

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Fantasia ’17: Highheels (short)

It sounds like a Cosmo punchline, but it is acutely human. For millennia, mankind has only survived as remnants within androids. Yet, by the year 4015 that little piece of humanity has started to covet luxuries again. Designer shoes are in particular demand among fashion-conscious androids, but Kai is one of the few artisans capable of crafting something worth obsessing over. Her perfectionism also manifests itself through obsessive behavior in Inchul Lee’s darkly beautiful science fiction short film, Highheels (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Highheels must be the most fashionably fabbest science fiction since Luc Besson and Jean Paul Gaultier collaborated on The Fifth Element. For proof, check out the ensembles donned by Blue, Yellow, and Red, three customers of Kai’s retro-retro showroom (you should be able to tell which is which). When Blue commissions Kai to make a custom-made shoe, the android-shoemaker produces something so elegant, it catches the eyes of both Yellow and Red. Of course, Kai will keep faith with her original customer, so she’d better appreciate it.

This is a terrific speculative short that takes a rather dark turn, but that is what you get when human nature reasserts itself. Frankly, this would have been a great selection for MoMA’s current Future Imperfect series, because it is very definitely an example of science fiction exploring the question of what it means to be human. Plus, it has the star-power of Rinko Kikuchi, who amazes as the increasingly driven (and perhaps consequently human) Kai.

Highheels also looks incredible thanks to Remi Yanai’s eye-popping, runway-worthy costumes and producer Mutsumi Lee’s carefully crafted art direction. This is a triumph of mise-en-scene that might be described as Fifth Element with dashes of Bladerunner and Black Swan, but the action is entirely confined to the carefully controlled environment of Kai’s boutique.

Very highly recommended, Highheels screens today (7/30), as part of the Fragments of Asia shorts block at this year’s Fantasia. There are several great shorts in that block, but Chai Siris’s 500,000 Years is somewhat disappointing. The hybrid-documentary shows an itinerant projectionist showing a lurid 1970s Thai horror film at a forgotten shrine, but it really just makes us want to watch the film they are screening instead. However, Highheels and Matasaburo of the Wind make Fragments a can’t-miss ticket.

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Fantasia 17: The Night is Short, Walk on Girl

It’s easy to play up the bittersweet moments in an American Graffiti­-style end-of-an-era night of partying. However, if you can find the best parts in the hangover than you’re really onto something. Buckle up, because it is going to be a heck of a party in Masaaki Yuasa’s The Night is Short, Walk on Girl (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

It starts with a wedding, but the after-after-party is where it’s at. Than these Kyoto college students are off to enjoy the night life of the nocturnal city that apparently puts both New York and Las Vegas to shame. The Senpai (upperclassman) would like to chat up his crush, an underclassman known simply as “The Girl with Black Hair,” but he is painfully shy, He gets ribbed by his friends, but frankly they are even worse, especially Don Underwear, so-called because he pledged never to change his under-garments until he finds the mystery woman he fell in love with during a brief chance encounter. If the logic of his strategy escapes you, just backburner that thought for now.

The Senpai will follow the Girl with Black Hair as she struts through the college district nightlife like an animated Holly Golightly. It would be a bit stalkerish if he weren’t so ineffectual. They might actually be meant for each other, but first the Girl with will get a lesson in exotic cocktail history, assist the Puck-ish God of the Used Book Market restore cosmic balance to the free flow of used books, and step into the lead role of a guerilla theater troupe’s floating production.

Kyoto looks like a heck of a fun city and the Girl with is an absolutely charming companion to share it with. There is probably more alcohol consumed in Night is Short than a typically sloshed Hong Sang-soo or Thin Man movie, but there is more to it than that. In fact, the wild night catches up with them, sending nearly everyone to their sick beds to nurse colds and flus, except Girl with. As she starts tending to her old and new friends, certain aspects of the night come into sharper focus.

Night is Short is a rarity among animated films, because it maintains a light, whimsical vibe, while not including any objectionable material, but it clearly has an adult sensibility. You need to have lived through a few nights like this, albeit without the surreal flights of fantasy, to fully appreciate the film’s intoxicating vibe.

Yuasa’s style is also rather mischievously flexible. He slides up and down the scale from representationally realistic anime to dayglo candy-colored abstraction, but somehow he maintains a consistency of tone and attitude. It is just a trip to take in all the visual confections.

Like the Girl with Black Hair, Yuasa’s film is an energetic charmer. Night is Short has heart and panache married together in ways we’ve rarely seen. It will make you feel several years younger, so maybe you consider seeing it if you have the chance. Very highly recommended, Night is Short, Walk on Girl screens tonight (7/30) and tomorrow (7/31), during this year’s Fantasia.

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Future Imperfect: Dead Man’s Letters

It was produced in 1986, but this Soviet post-apocalyptic drama envisions a world of widespread environmental devastation and a weak central government that still tries to maintain its authority through brutal and arbitrary assertions of power. In other words, nothing has changed for Soviets, except maybe for the millions who died in the nuclear blast. Existence rather than life goes on for a professor futilely searching for his missing son in Konstantin Lopushansky’s Dead Man’s Letters, which screens during MoMA’s ambitious but oddly titled film series, Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction.

The Professor is sort of like a post-apocalyptic Nicholas Sparks character. He essentially narrates the film through ruminative letters ostensibly written to his son Eric, even though he realizes it is highly unlikely they will ever be read by the intended recipient. His wife sort of survived, but she is fast succumbing to radiation sickness, dementia, and who knows what else. They have found temporary refuge in a shelter below a Hermitage-like museum, which explains the high quality of surrounding bric-a-brac and detritus.

In flashbacks, we witness the impact at Soviet ground zero and watch the Professor’s desperate search for Eric in various makeshift hospitals and morgues. Grotesque yet visually arresting, these sepia-toned sequences have the look and feel Hieronymous Bosch. They are some of the most effective passages of the film. However, the high point is undeniably the eulogy the museum director gives to mankind before committing suicide in despair. Rather than condemn man, he praises our tragic outsized ambition and the capacity to love that produced so much great art. Frankly, it is quite a refreshing sentiment, compared to the contemporary eco/outbreak/zombie thrillers that argue humanity is fundamentally evil and deserves to give way to snail darters and cockroaches (looking at you, Girl with All the Gifts).

Both the style and subject matter of Letters largely overwhelms the veteran cast. Nevertheless, as the Professor, Rolan Bykov still manages to project dignity and a profound sense of loss. Physically, he resembles Wojciech Pszoniak in Andrzej Wajda’s 1990 Korczak, especially when the Professor assumes guardianship of a group of outcast children. Yet, it is Iosif Ryklin who truly defines and redeems the film as the museum director (sometimes credited as “The Humanist”). His farewell address is the sole identifiable element that qualifies Letters for MoMA’s Future Imperfect, a series that explores the ways science fiction is uniquely qualified to determine what it means to be human, but it is more than sufficient justification.

Letters’ unambiguous religious symbolism might surprise many, given its Soviet origins. However, the end titles make it clear the film was partly (if not largely) produced with the Western nuclear freeze movement in mind. Clearly, the hope was if the gullible West took a gander at the suffering wrought by nukes, they would force Reagan administration to unilaterally halt the military build-up, cluelessly giving the Soviets time to regroup and rebuild. We now know nobody was more concerned about the potential destruction a nuclear war would cause than Ronald Reagan himself, but he could see deception and manipulation for what it was.

Lopushansky assisted Tarkovsky during the production of Stalker—and it is easy to see the master’s influence. We can also see echoes of Letters in Aleksay German’s Hard to Be a God. Of course, both Stalker and German’s film were based on novels written by the Strugatsky Brothers, Arkady and Boris, the latter also being a co-screenwriter of Letters, so you could say all three films are closely related. As a result, Letters is one of the better Soviet Bloc post-apocalyptic movies, far superior to August at the Hotel Ozone (screening tomorrow). Recommended for those who appreciate strong imagery or are nostalgic for some Soviet duck-and-cover, Dead Man’s Letters screens again today (7/30) at MoMA, as part of Future Imperfect.

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Saturday, July 29, 2017

Fantasia ’17: Cocolors, etc.

Whether it is the far future or the distant past, the environment is a sinister force not to be trifled with. We’re talking about poisoned atmospheres, radiation, mutated monsters, and of course birds. The grimmest view of humanity’s possible fate comes in Toshihisa Yokoshima’s Cocolors (trailer here), the lead selection of a trio of animated shorts that screen together during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

We never see the faces of Aki and Fuyi, but we still feel for them deeply. Like all the residents of their subterranean shelter, they are never seen without their dark reflective environmental helmets. Fuyi is acutely sensitive and sickly by nature. Aki is also rather sensitive, but he is relatively healthy compared to his peers, so he is selected for the salvage corps. It is their job to bring back useable resources from the surface to sustain their community. Aki is not very good at it, but he regularly managed to bring back colored stones for Fuyi to color in his idealized portrait of what life was like on the surface. It is a harsh, inhospitable world now, but it turns out it wasn’t mankind’s fault—at least not entirely.

Despite the absence of big anime eyes, Cocolors is absolutely devastating. It relies solely on subtitled vocal performances and animated body language, but it will emotionally cold-cock you just the same. As an added bonus, Yokoshima creates a richly detailed world in only forty-five minutes. Somewhat conspicuously, he leaves plenty of questions unanswered, especially when he briefly but unambiguously establishes the extraterrestrial nature of the catastrophe. That leads us to believe he has more planned for this world, but probably not with Aki and Kai.

As in Cocolors, the protag of Park Hye-mi’s Scarecrow Island has had to grow up fast. After a nuclear disaster, mutated monsters took over the Earth’s land masses, forcing humanity onto aircraft carrier shelters. Call sign FA35 is fighter pilot in his early teens at the latest, but he was just promoted to captain his own squad of “cleaners.” It is their job to clean sectors of monsters. However, when he is thrown off course, he spies a living, breathy human, who has decked out its secluded isle with scarecrows. Although they never really communicate, good will blossoms as FA35 regularly returns for fly-bys and to drop supplies for more scarecrows. Unfortunately, militarism will interrupt their budding friendship.

Scarecrow is another provocative post-apocalyptic tale from the maker of Crimson Whale, but it sort of suffers when compared to Cocolors. Still, Park crafts some memorable visuals and somehow avoids a feeling a finger-wagging didacticism, even though the film obviously has a heavy take-away.

On the surface, Cloud Yang’s Valley of White Birds is the ringer of the trio, yet it totally fits. A haughty mage has blown into an abandoned hamlet like Sergio Leone’s High Plains Drifter. It appears to be inhabited entirely by white birds, who could very well have the jump on him. Frankly, Valley is more about style and imagery than narrative, but is it ever gorgeous. In a way, it is like the most spiritually-imbued wuxia fantasies, rendered with a look that subtly hints at traditional watercolor. It is a film to sink into and just let whatever happens happen.

Altogether, it is quite a strong trio. Valley probably edges out Cocolors as the class of the program, but it is a close call—and their respective merits are radically different. Highly recommended for fans of animation and dystopian cinema, Cocolors, Sacrecrow Island, and Valley of White Birds screens this afternoon (7/29), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Friday, July 28, 2017

Fantasia ’17: Fritz Lang

It was one of the first films to be “ripped from the headlines.” Although, the great auteur sometimes denied it, his classic M was transparently inspired by the case of Peter Kürten, “The Vampire of Düsseldorf,” premiering in theaters two months before his execution. Gordian Maugg offers up some wild speculation as to why the case so fascinated the filmmaker in the fictionalized Fritz Lang (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

It would be the film that forever changed Peter Lorre’s life. It was also highly significant for Lang as his first sound film. While the Kürten case started out as grist for the new screenplay Lang has been unable to start, Maugg and co-screenwriter Alexander Häusser suggest other reasons the case hit so close to home for the filmmaker. Perhaps most obviously, Anna Cohn, a witness who last saw her murdered friend presumably in the company of the killer, happens to be a dead-ringer for his late first wife Lisa. The Düsseldorf police chief also happens to be an old acquaintance.

Maugg flashes forwards and backwards, showing us scenes from Lang’s WWI service, his convalescence, during which time, he meets and falls in love with his future first wife, his affair with eventual second wife and great co-writer Thea von Harbou, and his current position as the monocled-king of Weimar high society. Yet, the Kürten murders bring out his dark side. Suddenly, he too is stalking witnesses and revisiting crime scenes. Indeed, Lang might just understand Kürten too uncomfortably well.

It is devilishly difficult to portray Fritz Lang on-screen when the director roguishly played himself with so much dash and verve in Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt. That subversively witty persona is the Lang we will always want to see, which puts Heino Ferch’s brooding, traumatized Lang at an enormous disadvantage. To be fair, he does some good work reinterpreting the director as a real-life film noir character, but the “real,” reinvented Lang is way more fun. Frankly, Jack Palance’s character in Contempt, the crass Jeremy Prokosch, would probably be the only one who would enjoy seeing Lang depicted in such an unflattering manner.

Frankly, Harbou does not get much better treatment from Johanna Gastdorf (cold-blooded and highly calculating). However, Samuel Finzi would do Peter Lorre proud as the profoundly damaged, Dostoyevskyan Kürten. Lisa Friederich also deserves credit for valiantly laboring to humanize the film as the acutely human Lisa Lang and Anna Cohn.

During the second act, Fritz Lang the movie really seems to be getting someplace as it capitalizes on the intrigue of the doppelganger motif and the suspense of the investigation. However, the pop psychology of the third act is not worthy of its subject. Stylistically, the incorporation of 1930 archival film and newsreel footage, ironically heightens the feeling of unreality, giving it a Guy Maddinesque vibe, which might be the most effective aspect of the film. Earning a conflicted response, Fritz Lang ultimately disappoints when it screens tonight (7/28), during this year’s Fantasia.

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Fantasia ’17: Oscar (short)

Legendary jazz producer Norman Granz knew what he was doing. It would be quite a challenge for just about any musician to make their American debut during a Jazz at the Philharmonic Concert at Carnegie Hall, but Oscar Peterson killed it. Not merely the greatest Canadian jazz musician thus far, Peterson probably led the best-selling, most acclaimed mainstream swing piano trio—ever. He took the place Nat King Cole vacated to become a full-time crooner, making the piano trio bigger than ever. Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre mixes animation and archival footage to pay tribute to the master in the National Film Board-supported short film, Oscar (clip here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

O.P., as he was sometimes called, played his final bars in 2007, but he left behind a rich and extensive recorded archive. He was also interviewed on numerous occasions, so Saint-Pierre had plenty of primary sources to draw from. We do indeed hear Peterson recall his sink-or-swim debut and also listen to him self-deprecatingly tell the famous story of how he erroneously assumed an Art Tatum record was a piano duo, which is probably the second most famous event in the O.P. creation story. Fans would probably prefer to hear more about his great trios, but Saint-Pierre opts for the personal side of Peterson, in which he forthrightly admitted the demands of his profession put unfair stress on his first wife.

We hear a great deal of the Peterson touch in Oscar and it still sounds sophisticated yet infectious. The film is also attractive looking, frequently framing the archival performances and interviews in suitably urbane animated foregrounds. Saint-Pierre and animator Brigitte Archambault previously collaborated on the documentary short McLaren’s Negatives, which explored the creative process of Canadian animator Norman McLaren, whose 1949 short Begone Dull Care was scored by Mr. O.P., so presumably they shared a full understanding of Peterson’s significance as well as a strong working relationship—at least we would so assume from the stylish finished film.

It is hard to explain what a giant, transcendent figure Peterson cut in his final years. When he came to town to perform a concert, he was more like the earthly personification of jazz itself than a merely mortal musician. This is someone who recorded on equal terms with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ella Fitzgerald. Saint-Pierre’s film gives us a taste of what made him so special. Frankly, the only problem with the film is it isn’t longer. Peterson’s life and Saint-Pierre’s approach could easily sustain a two-hour feature treatment. Recommended with affection, the fan-making Oscar screens tonight (7/28), with L’Ange et la Femme, at this year’s Fantasia.

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

AAIFF ’17: The Lockpicker

Maybe our experiences were atypical, but when we were in high school, most of the “popular” dudes were nice blokes you could joke around with. Hence, their popularity. Perhaps we were just blessed with a unique social vantage point, but if you were good at sports and dating a cheerleader, why bother kicking a poor schmuck on the other end of the social ladder? High school sure looks different in the films they make today. The sensitive Hashi does not understand the bully instinct either, but he experiences it first-hand in Randall Okita’s The Lockpicker (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Asian American International Film Festival.

Hashi has a lot to deal with. His best friend, whom he clearly also carried a torch for, recently committed suicide, for reasons that are never fully explained—but viewers will assume bullying was a contributing factor judging from the callousness of his peers. Things are not much better at home, where his abusive father handles the bullying, but he does his best to protect his little sister Lucy. Hashi’s grades have suffered since her death, but in some ways, he has carried on, developing a crush on his manager at a second-hand clothing store. However, his compulsion to steal money from wallets in gym lockers is clearly more about lashing out than supplementing his earnings.

In fact, it is apparent right from the start Hashi is hurting deeply inside and feeling profoundly alienated from his not-so-mate-like classmates. He is constantly shutting out the world to listen to excerpts of his final conversations with her on his mp3 player. There is an unnerving obsessiveness to his behavior, but the contrast between her ghostly words and his business-as-usual surroundings also has a jarringly dissociative effect that will steadily grow stronger as the potential for violence escalates.

Okita helms with a remarkably assured hand, increasing the tension and paranoia to such an extent, we start to expect the film will explode into legit genre territory. Yet, somehow, he just leaves all the pressure built-up, never cranking down a valve to let some steam escape.

Keigan Umi Tang is also quite remarkable as Hashi. This young-looking teen appears to be on the verge of a complete emotional collapse. He makes every bad decision completely and utterly believable within the context of his performance, but it just gets painful to watch him bring more trouble on himself. He truly dominates the film, but Storie Serres hits all the right notes as Sara, the manager-friend who is cruelly oblivious to Hashi’s interest. Jordan Gray also proves that you can have an adult in a high school movie who is not a cliched stock figure, as the flawed but fundamentally decent teacher, Mr. Meikle.


Lockpicker is an impressive film in many ways, but it is hard to imagine buying it on DVD, because one viewing will be more than challenging enough for most audience members. Nevertheless, it is fully loaded with young talent, which makes it a fine choice for festival programming. Recommended for talent scouts and those who appreciate its grim indictment of bullying, The Lockpicker screens this Sunday (7/30) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Fantasia ’17: Thousand Cuts

Call it the Gallic corollary to the Broken Windows Theory. By allowing racist intimidation to continue unchecked, the Gendarmerie actually creates an environment where drug cartel warfare and hostage-taking can flourish. Everybody is in the wrong place, at the wrong time during Eric Valette’s Thousand Cuts or Le Serpent aux Mille Coupures (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

There is a full-scale, all-points manhunt on to capture “The Motorcyclist.” News reports call him a terrorist, but in France that could just mean he wrote a letter to the editor criticizing multiculturalism. Regardless, it will be Colombian drug traffickers waiting for their French connection who stumble across the mystery man first, but they won’t live to talk about it.

Wounded in his misadventures, the Motorcyclist forces his way into the bi-racial Petit family’s farmhouse. For months, the racist yokels have been harassing French-Senegalese Omar Petit and killing their livestock. As a result, the Petits are not inclined to call the police and if they did, the coppers would be unlikely to respond. However, they still must endure a very real hostage crisis. Even though the Motorcyclist quickly figures out their desperate circumstances and he privately shows signs of sympathizing, he is still not inclined to trust his hosts. Meanwhile, when their deal goes sour, the Colombian cartel dispatches their ace hitman-trouble-shooter to “stabilize” the situation.

Frankly, aside from the xenophobic rustics, it is pretty confusing just who all the dozens of bad guys are and which factions they are aligned with. However, there is no mistaking Terence Yin’s career breakout performance as the blue-eyed Chinese-German-Colombian assassin-problem-solver. He is absolutely riveting in a creepily charismatic, discomfortingly sadistic kind of way. Tomer Sisley (spending time in an even more confining location than in the original Sleepless Night) is all very credible brooding and throwing down as the Motorcyclist, but he just can’t compare to Yin. However, Stéphane Debac compliments him nicely, as the cartel’s French fixer, who is in way over his head, while Pascal Greggory helps humanize the film as the overwhelmed police chief, who could have avoided a lot of this trouble if he had been more proactive addressing the plight of the Petits.

Thousand Cuts has a terrific villain, a nifty action climax, and it makes French society look profoundly corrupt and prejudiced. What more could you ask for, except maybe greater narrative clarity? Recommended for fans of hardboiled French fugitive thrillers, like Valette’s The Prey and Fred Cavayé’s Point Blank, Thousand Cuts (Le Serpent aux Mille Coupure) screens tonight (7/26) and Friday night (7/28) as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Death Fighter: Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Joe Lewis, and Cynthia Rothrock in Thailand

It is a prosaic title, but it does not misrepresent the film. So, it’s about death and fighting? Yes, indeed. A rogue FBI agent is out to avenge his mentor and take down a human trafficking warlord, with the help of a grizzled mercenary. As martial arts plots go, it is certainly serviceable, but the real attraction is watching a number of legendary veterans mix it up with young talent in Toby Russell’s Death Fighter (trailer here) releases today on DVD.

Michael Turner’s partner Conrad has been tracking the evil Draco so long, he willingly joins him in an off-the-books operation in Thailand. Conrad’s intel was valid, but “Valerie,” Draco’s chief enforcer-bodyguard was a little too lethal. All the corrupt cops want Turner out of the country, but the only half-way honest one puts him in touch with Bobby Pau, a half-American-half-Thai mercenary who also holds a grudge against Draco (was there ever a character named “Draco” who wasn’t a villain?).

To find Draco, they will have to head into the jungle, which holds a lot of dangers for a city slicker like Turner. However, that is also where they will find Yui, the director of a rural medical clinical, who also happens to have mad martial arts skills. Together with Pau’s quiet right-hand man Otto, they are a force of four, which should be more than sufficient to deal with Draco, Valerie, Peter (the senior henchperson in Draco’s doghouse), and a hundred or so Burmese mercs.

Death Fighter is like old school Cannon films all the way, but it has an apostolic connection to Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in the late, great Joe Lewis (star of Kill ‘Em All and The Jaguar Lives!), whom the former praised and the latter went 3-and-1 against in official tournament matches. Sadly, as the hard-charging Conrad, Lewis makes a quick exit, but his presence is definitely felt.

But wait there’s more, including Don “The Dragon” Wilson as Pau, the butt-kicking lead, (rather than the cameos or Miyagi-like roles he turned up in recently). He can still throw down, as can Cynthia Rothrock (playing Valerie), whom he frequently faces off against. Stuntman and emerging action star Matt Mullins can’t match the charisma of his seniors yet, but his chops are impressive. The same is true of Thai TV star Chiranan Manochaem, who definitely impresses as Yui. However, it is almost shocking Death Fighter is the only imdb credit for Prasit Suanphaka, because he shows off some spectacular moves as trusty Otto.

Russell (son of provocative director Ken Russell) frames the action well, allowing fans to really appreciate the fight choreography and stunt work. His approach is pretty straightforward—fight, regroup, fight some more, regroup again, and then have it out for good—but that works for us. For martial arts fans, it is straight-over-the-plate good stuff. Highly recommended for patrons of action cinema, Death Fighter is now available on DVD.

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The Zodiac Killer: The Film that Tried to Catch a Killer

It was sort of like the play within Hamlet devised to make the king betray himself. In 1971, the Bay Area was like Whitechapel circa 1888. Fear of a serial killer stalking the streets had good people hiding in their homes. Restauranteur Tom Hanson had the novel idea of using a quickie exploitation film to trick the Zodiac into revealing himself. It sounds crazy, because it was, but the killer’s preoccupation with his media coverage was well-established by that point. Hanson is certain he met the Zodiac face-to-face during the film’s initial one-week run in San Francisco, but he could never prove it (at least not yet). The behind-the-scenes story is truly stranger than fiction, but the film itself is mostly a weird artifact of exploitation cinema. Freshly restored by the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA), Hanson’s The Zodiac Killer (trailer here) releases today on BluRay.

Perversely, the first half-hour of Zodiac 1971 seems intentionally designed to foster sympathy for the Zodiac, by making the residents of San Francisco appear so repugnant, we wouldn’t mind watching them get bumped off. However, around about the second act, we learn Jerry, the vegetarian, rabbit-keeping postal carrier is in fact the Zodiac, who kills for both satanic and Freudian reasons. He is a little upset when Grover, the misogynistic, dope-addicted deadbeat dad with an appallingly bad toupee takes credit for the Zodiac murders. This rather pushes him even further off the edge.

By any rational aesthetic standard, Hanson’s Zodiac is a rough go. It is sort of like watching America’s Most Wanted re-enactments directed by Harold P. Warren, of Manos: The Hands of Fate fame. Yet, it terms of historical significance, it deserves to be preserved on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Frankly, it is hard to separate the film from its origins and context. Indeed, it is impossible to watch each head-shakingly awkward scene and not wonder what the Zodiac thought of it.

Considering the severity of Hanson’s budget constraints and the on-the-fly nature of the production, Hal Reed (probably best known for The Doberman Gang) and Bob Jones are better than you might expect, as Jerry the Zodiac and Grover the creep, respectively. This is definitely on the low end of the exploitation scale, yet it has a sinister energy you can’t quantify, but viewers will immediately pick up on. In terms of tone, it is sort of like three-parts Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast (mostly sans the gore) and one-part Charles Pierce’s original The Town that Dreaded Sundown.

Ray Cantrell & Manny Cardoza’s screenplay is often fanciful, but the most terrifying thing about the film is how much was true, particularly the fact the Zodiac remains at large. This might be the rare film that would be better as the subject of someone else’s film rather than as a viewing experience to savor and repeat. Still, you have to give Hanson credit. He hatched an utterly insane scheme that maybe came mind-blowingly close to succeeding. Perhaps he should take the film on tour. The San Francisco police never closed the case and the FBI is still taking regular tips. Regardless, Hanson’s The Zodiac Killer is a unique piece of cultural history, so it is nice to have it preserved and available on BluRay, from AGFA and Something Weird.

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Monday, July 24, 2017

The Last Dalai Lama? If Tibet were Free, We Wouldn’t be Asking

The Javits Center is so out of the way, most people do not realize Manhattan extends that far west. It is an evil looking building, but it was the only venue in the City large enough to accommodate the 14th Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday and long-life celebration. In contrast, General Secretary Xi could hold his at a table in Starbuck’s, if you excluded all the favor-seekers. Such longevity and so many friends seem to be signs of good karma, yet the Dalai Lama has lived most of his life in exile. Given the worsening human rights situation in his Tibetan homeland, he might be the final Dalai Lama to reincarnate. His Holiness takes stock of his life and legacy in Mickey Lemle’s The Last Dalai Lama (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Now a vigorous eighty-two-years young, His Holiness has been on the world stage since he was a teenager. When only nineteen, he led a delegation to meet with Tibet’s Chinese occupiers. Initially, he thought he had persuaded Mao and Zhou to allow his people greater freedom of conscience, but alas that was not the case. Eventually, he was forced into exile, but in doing so, he became one of the world’s great statesmen and spiritual leaders. Ironically, he would spread Tibetan Buddhism farther than it had ever reached before. Yet, his commitment to emotional health and awareness always transcends faiths and religions.

In fact, the first half of the film is largely devoted to various educational endeavors that promote healthy mindfulness rather than Buddhist doctrine. That is all very nice, but the film’s title clearly begs a much bigger question. It is indeed true the 14th Dalai Lama has said he does not expect to reincarnate again—and if he does, it will absolutely not be in Tibet. Again, blame China, who insist the Communist Party must play an active role in “selecting” the reincarnate Dalai Lama, much as they did with the contested Panchen Lama, whom virtually all Tibetans consider an illegitimate puppet because he is. The Panchen Lama officially recognized by the 14th Dalai Lama has been held incommunicado since 1995. He was six years old at the time.

Lemle does not spend a great deal of time recapping China’s systematic violation of human rights in the captive nation or their rapacious despoilment of the once pristine environment. However, he directly addresses the surge in Tibetan self-immolation to protest the occupation, which deeply pains His Holiness. It also starkly contrasts the militarism of the invading Communists with the humanistic, nonviolent principles of Tibetan Buddhism.

In military terms, this seems to be a mismatch that grossly favors the occupiers. Yet, as Victress Hitchcock’s documentary When the Iron Bird Flies argues (and Lemle’s film largely seconds) Tibet Buddhism has lost all the battles yet it has already won the war. Which has more international adherents, Tibetan Buddhism or whatever the CP currently calls its “Chinese Dream” Crony Capitalistic-Socialist ideology? Who is more respected globally, His Holiness or Xi-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed? There is no contest.

Of course, it does not hurt Lemle’s film that the 14th Dalai Lama is such a warm, charismatic, and often witty figure (for instance, he archly comments, if the Party now believes in reincarnation so strongly, they should go find the reincarnated Mao.). Lemle, who previously documented His Holiness in Compassion in Exile, once again secured first-class access and continued to share a real rapport with his subject. He also deserves credit for his nonpartisanship, including an insightful segment with former President George W. Bush, the first sitting president to appear publicly with His Holiness. Highly recommended, The Last Dalai Lama? opens this Friday (7/28) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Fantasia ’17: Junk Head

It the far future. The clones have rebelled against humanity (or what passes for it), but they did not get very far. They are still at the bottom of the dark metropolis and humans are at the top. However, in hopes of reversing centuries of sterility, humans will send explorers down to the bowels of the city. One intrepid surveyor finds some highly unusual genetic material and no end of trouble in Takahide Hori’s stop-motion labor of love, Junk Head (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Our protagonist’s probe already looked like a rocket speeding towards the earth, but some of the lower level denizens decide to blast it with an RPG anyway. Basically, only his head survives the blast, but a semi-mad scientist operating in the ground-level region manages to fashion him a new head and mechanical body. This process will repeat, but the good mad doctor’s work looks rather sleek and stylish compared to the subsequent encasing.

The journeyer initially suffers from amnesia after the crash, but another bump to the noggin bring back his past. Inconveniently, he temporarily loses his comprehension of lower level dialects, but he will eventually have both memory and comprehension. Unfortunately, by that time, his new androidal shell no longer has the capacity for speech.

It is definitely one darned thing after another for our faithful traveler. Yet, he will learn quite a bit about what it means to be human from the clones, mutants, and genetic freaks he encounters down there. It frequently isn’t pretty, but it is always real.

Visually, Junk Head is a flat-out stunner. Hori’s stop-motion animation is absolutely incredible and the dystopian city (sort of like Lang’s Metropolis crossed with Kowloon Walled City and populated with H.R. Giger creatures is one of the most richly detailed animated worlds ever realized on film. Technically, it is a marvel, but Hori does not have an equal talent for screenwriting. Frankly, his narrative is episodic and the application of internal logic is spotty at best. So be it. Viewers will really just want to explore this world—and Hori essentially offers up pretexts to oblige us.

You can think of Junk Head as the film Shane Acker’s 9 aspired to be, but fell short of (especially since they were both expanded from earlier short films). Thematically, it would make a terrific pairing with Don Hertzfeldt’s clone-related short, World of Tomorrow, which is high praise indeed. Highly recommended, Junk Head screens again today (7/24), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Japan Cuts ’17: Zigeunerweisen

Is there a better way to start a film than by playing a vintage ten-inch phonograph record? No, there isn’t. That is how Seijun Suzuki commenced his great comeback masterpiece, but to make it even better, he has his characters discuss how an audible bit of conversation on the classic Pablo de Sarasate recording was initially considered a flaw but was eventually recognized as what made the record so special. That disc will play a fateful but hard to explain role in Suzuki’s digitally remastered Zigeunerweisen (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

All the cultural tensions of the Taishō Period (1912-1926) can be found in Aochi and Nakasago, former professors at the military academy, who have gone in very different directions. Aochi (tellingly a professor of German) adopted western suits and lives a life of middle class respectability. Nakasago still wears traditional garb and lives a wild (almost feral) semi-nomadic existence. The ex-colleagues reunite when Aochi happens along just in time to save Nakasago from a lynch mob convinced he murdered the lover he led astray.

He probably did it. He certainly admits it readily enough when he and Aochi stop to enjoy some sake at a geisha bar. Rather boorishly, Nakasago insists a recently bereaved geisha perform for them. Yet, both men will be strangely moved by grieving O-Ine as she performs her hostess duties. Aochi will go back to his modernized, luxury-indulging wife Shuko and Nakasago will follow a blind trio of beggars who sing songs so ribald they would make Missy Elliott blush. When they next meet, Nakasago has married Sono, a woman from a proper family, who is a dead-ringer for O-Ine.

It is highly debatable whether Aochi and Nakasago were ever truly friends, but their fates are certainly linked and to some extent, each has the other’s number. There are people in life you just can’t shake, for better or for worse—in the case of Nakasago, it is most likely for the worse. Of course, the doppelganger duo of Sono and O-Ine is also deeply archetypal. Zigeunerweisen is frequently surreal and it eventually evolves into a literally haunted genre film, but there is something universally relatable about its core I-am-not-my-brother-from-another-mother’s-keeper relationship.

Yoshio Harada gets to storm and rage as Nakasago, but it is Toshiya Fujita who injects all the bile and arsenic as the tightly wound Aochi. Frankly, it is fascinating to watch them dance around each other as they observe the rituals of friendship. Naoko Otani also covers a great deal of ground as the forceful, seductive, and ultimately spooky doubles, Sono and O-Ine. Michiyo Okusu is also something else and then some as the privileged Shuko.

Zigeunerweisen is truly a masterwork, precisely because it is so slippery and hard to pin down, yet still so disconcertingly eerie. The Taishō setting adds further layers of irony and foreboding. After all, the Aochis would inherit the nation from the Nakasagos, but we know where that would lead. Very highly recommended, Zigeunerweisen screens this afternoon (7/23) at the Japan Society, as part of the concluding day of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Fantasia ’17: Broken Sword Hero

King Taksin defeated the constant waves of Burmese invaders, unified his country as the Thonburi Kingdom, and promoted trade with the European powers. Of course, he did not do it alone. Initially, the bullied Joi does not look like he will be much help to anyone, particularly himself. However, destiny has different plans in Bin Bunluerit’s Broken Sword Hero (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Unless you really know your Thai history, forget about the sword and focus on the hero. That will be Joi—eventually. It would seem like fate dealt him a tough break, considering the regional governor’s entitled son Cherd is his chief tormentor. When he finally fights back hard enough to draw blood, Joi resigns himself to a life of exile. Living by his wits, he becomes a talented Muay Thai fighter. Unfortunately, that will not be enough to defeat a true master. At least he learns an important early lesson: humility. From then on, Thongdee (as the white-teethed, betelnut abstainer is now known) will study any discipline, under any master with a unique specialty.

Along the way, Thongdee makes some real friends and serves his successive masters faithfully. Periodically, he will face off against his old nemesis Cherd and his corrupt uncle. Although Thongdee is still an outlaw, his good deeds and multi-disciplinary martial arts skills start to attract the attention of a mysterious mustachioed observer.

Bunluerit must be a heck of a persuasive director, because he convinced former Miss Teen Thailand Sornsin Maneewan to portray Thongdee’s potential love interest Ramyong with betelnut-stained teeth. Chutirada Junthit was doubly lucky to play Mauylek, an itinerant Chinese opera performer and marital artist, because she was spared the betelnut and had the chance to show off her own action chops in some of the action sequences.

Of course, the film is clearly intended to launch Muay Thai champion Sombat “Buakaw” Banchamek as the next Tony Jaa. There is no question he has the skills and the super-chiseled physique. Granted, his screen presence will not exactly blow you through the back wall of the theater, but he has greater emotional range than Van Damme and Schwarzenegger displayed early in their careers (or arguably even in their latest films). Still, he is not another Tony Jaa yet, but it isn’t for a lack of effort. He brings tremendous physicality to the action scenes, which should earn him good will from fans right from the start.

If you are looking for bare-chested, fist-pumping, sword-shattering action, Bunluerit and Buakaw deliver over and over again. Again, it is important to remember this is an origins story, so don’t get hung up waiting for a sword to break. Instead, just let the spectacle of flying elbows and knees wash over you. Highly recommended for martial arts fans, especially those who appreciate the Southeast Asian historical elements, Broken Sword Hero screens today (7/23) at this year’s Fantasia.

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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Japan Cuts ’17: Summer Lights

It started with Alain Resnais and now another French crew has come to contemplate the tragedy of Hiroshima. Of course, Akihiro’s interest makes perfect sense, since he is a Japanese expat working for French television, but the assignment still affects him more than he expected in Jean-Gabriel Périot’s Summer Lights (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

The interview Akihiro records with Mrs. Takeda is so powerful, Périot lets it play in its entirety as a twenty-minute uninterrupted prologue, before the opening credits roll. In it, she tells how her beloved mother was lost without a trace and her pretty older sister Michiko, a nurse who cared for the sick and dying, eventually succumbed to radiation sickness. Akihiro is so overwhelmed by her testimony, he abruptly leaves his crew to clear his head in Peace Memorial Park.

However, a rather forward woman in traditional dress seems determined to strike up a conversation with him. She is a little odd, but he finds her company inexplicably comforting. Through her, Akihiro will learn more about what the aftermath was really like. Yes, her name also happens to be Michiko, from which you can probably deduce more than Akihiro. Yet, the inevitable revelation and ultimate takeaway are portrayed in such a simple and straightforward manner, they become profoundly beautiful.

What the Takedas endured is truly heart-rending. Of course, what is missing from Lights are the atrocities of the Rape of Nanjing, the Bataan Death March, the terror-bombing of Chongqing, and the systematic enslavement of so-called “Comfort Women,” none of which was likely to end without a profound shock to rigid Imperial military hierarchy. Perhaps it would be awkward for Périot to address such points, but the truth is always more complicated than reductive peace slogans.

Regardless, Akane Tatsukawa is absolutely remarkable as the deceptively light-hearted Michiko. Appropriately, she has a fishing scene, because she reels us in and then clobbers us. Hiroto Ogi’s Akihiro initially comes across as pretty dense, but he sneaks up on the audience and crystallizes the entire film in the third act. Yet, nobody can touch the plain-spoken power and dignity of Mamako Yoneyama’s performance as Mrs. Takeda.

In a way, Summer Lights is the inverse-opposite of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Daguerrotype. It was shot in Japan, with an entirely Japanese cast, exploring a distinctly Japanese subject, but was helmed by a French filmmaker. Frankly, it is impossible to imagine another tandem of any nationality who could equal Tatsukawa and Yoneyama. Recommended for its remarkable cast and refreshingly humanistic perspective, Summer Lights screens tomorrow (7/23) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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