J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

NYAFF ’18: The Age of Blood


King Yeongjo is sort of the Donald Trump of the Joseon era. Centuries later, Koreans still have misgivings regarding the way he ascended to the throne, but they generally agree he appointed good judges. It is not for Kim Ho to say. After months of scuffling, the former royal swordsman is enormously surprised when he is appointed a lowly guard at Joseon’s version of a maximum security Federal Pen. However, he will be the right man in the right place when conspirators come to break out the leading rebel against Yeongjo’s rule in Kim Hong-sun’s The Age of Blood (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Not only is Kim Ho working as a workaday screw, he is also now a junior to his disappointed uncle. He doesn’t really know how things work, so he brings a sword on his first day in uniform. Yes, he will be needing that later. When the when the forces led by the hardnosed Do Min-chul attack the rock to break out the fanatically self-righteous Lee In-jwa, they kill all witnesses in sight, guards and prisoners alike. Of course, they weren’t counting on Kim Ho.

At first, Age of Blood is sort of an anti-prison break film, like a Joseon Rio Bravo, but it evolves into a hard-galloping action movie, in the tradition of War of the Arrows. In fact, Yeongjo and his successor Jeongjo will be familiar to fans of Korean cinema from previous films like The Throne, Fatal Encounter, and Royal Tailor, which together paint a decidedly ambiguous picture of their legacies.

In fact, the intrigue is so far behind the scenes in Age of Blood, it is hard to form any hard and fast judgements. If anything, viewers might get the nagging feeling Kim Ho is fighting for a potential tyrant, but his loyalty is to the country and its laws, not to a single man. Regardless, the action is the thing here—and it gets messy. There is considerable hack-and-slash blood splattering going on here. No quarter is asked or given.

Jung Hae-in shows grit and action cred like we’ve never seen from his before, as Kim Ho. He looks totally credible slicing and parrying, while also projecting the appropriately world-weary man’s-got-to-do-what-a-man’s-got-to-do attitude. Hong Soo-a is also shows off some nice chops as Lady Yoo Seo-yeong, Kim Ho’s unexpected ally. Kim Ji-hoon’s Lee is arguably too cold-blood, but Jo Jae-yun is terrific as Do, the intense but honorable adversary.

If you want a sober assessment of Yeongjo’s administration, the Korea Society can probably recommend a good book. If you want swordplay, archery, martial arts, and general skullduggery, then Age of Blood should keep you fully entertained for nearly two full hours. Recommended for fans of period action films, The Age of Blood screens this Wednesday afternoon (the Fourth of July) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’18: Old Beast

In recent years, the Chinese Communist Party has embraced Confucianism and its filial piety to cover for the shortcomings of its own failed socialist ideology. As far as Lao Yang is concerned, you can just stick your five relationships in your ear. He is going to take what’s coming to him and do as he will, letting his family be damned in Zhou Ziyang’s Old Beast (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Like the city of Ordos, Lao Yang has had his ups and downs, so now he figures the world owes him, including his family. His wife just suffered a stroke and needs an operation, but he wouldn’t know. He is too busy drinking with cronies and dropping by his mistress’s flat. In between these important duties, he has a camel he was supposedly taking care of for a buddie butchered for its meat.

Yes, Lao Yang is a hard man to love, but he is more complicated than he initially seems. It turns out he rather generously supported his grown children when they needed it most. Still, stealing the cash they scraped together for their mother’s operation is about as dirty it gets. It is hard to blame them for tying him up and holding him hostage. However, things really get ugly when Lao Yang gets the police involved.

At this point, the vibe of Old Beast starts to feel like contemporary Iranian dramas, such as Melbourne and About Elly, in which the characters keep digging deeper and deeper moral-ethical holes to bury themselves in. Everything Lao Yang does makes the situation worse for him and his long-suffering family. It gets uncomfortable to watch, but he certainly receives his comeuppance.

Tu Men is quite remarkable as Lao Yang, in what could be described as a Falstaffian performance, but without the loud bluster. There is real Shakespearean dimension to the man, but there is also a painfully realistic grubbiness. He dominates the film, but Sun Jiaqin and Yan Liyang further ratchet up the pathos as his married and expecting daughter Yang Xiaoqin and his favorite grandson, Dandan.

Zhou and cinematographer Matthias Delvaux shrewdly use the Ordos and Inner Mongolian locales to create an environment of hardscrabble helplessness. The way the ostentatious Communist monuments and decaying housing projects dwarf the people into meaningless makes Lao Yang’s the-heck-with-it nihilism rather understandable. This is a strong film in all respects that deserves eventual theatrical and DVD releases. Very highly recommended, Old Beast screens Tuesday night (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Friday, June 29, 2018

NYAFF ’18: River’s Edge


Ichiro Yamada is bullied regularly in high school, but that does not necessarily mean he is a good person. In fact, he is arguably a creepy sociopath, but the rest of his classmates are not much better. The kids are definitely not alright in Isao Yukisada’s River’s Edge (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Haruna Wakakusa often protects the sensitive looking Yamada from her knuckle-dragging boyfriend Kannonzaki, but she still sleeps with the lout. However, she insists on protection and keeps things pretty conventional. Her bestie Rumi, on the other hand, will indulge Kannonzaki’s kinky and irresponsible demands on the side. Wakakusa might have initially felt an attraction to Yamada, but he nips that in the bud by coming out to her. Sadly, he has not been as honest and decent with Kanna Tajima, an enraptured underclassman he has been using as a cover for his true sexuality.

Yamada has not let Tajima in on his other secret either. His special place of refuge from the world is a weedy nook by the river that shelters a desiccated corpse. For some reason, he finds its presence soothing. The fact that it might be somebody’s missing loved one never crosses his mind—or if it does, it doesn’t bother him. Wakakusa also seems untroubled by this special secret Yamada shares with her and the same is true of his other platonic girlfriend, Kozue Yoshikawa, a teen actress-model with a disturbing binge-and-purge habit.

Seriously, aren’t you glad you’ve graduated from high school? At least River’s Edge is a period piece set in the early 1990s, so everyone is spared the nefarious multiplier effect of social media. Misaki Setoyama’s adaptation of the cult manga series is uncompromisingly honest and brutally naturalistic, but it just leaves the audience with a sense of emptiness. Nihilism, cynicism, and misanthropy really don’t leave us with much to work with.

Nevertheless, the young cast are uniformly quite remarkable. Fumi Nikaido does some career best work as Wakakusa, which is saying something. She rather fools the audience with her plucky façade, but when she finally reveals how empty she is inside, it is quite heavy. Likewise, Ryo Yoshizawa is absolutely chilling as cold, calculating Yamada. As Yoshikawa, Sumire (one name only) has that undefinable “it” quality that just pops off the screen. However, it is Aoi Morikawa who really brings the emotional pile-driver as the naïve and vulnerable Tajima.

Youth are often aimless in Japanese films, going back to the original “Sun Tribe” movies, but River’s Edge takes it to a whole new level. It is sometimes shocking and maybe a little depressing, but there is no denying its potency. Recommended for black coffee-drinking cineastes, River’s Edge screens Tuesday evening (7/3) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’18: The House of the Rising Sons

The list of artists who have performed “The House of the Rising Sun” includes some truly impressive names, like Leadbelly, Josh White, Nina Simone, and the Wynners. You would know the latter if you grew up in Hong Kong during the 1970s. They actually started out as “The Loosers,” with a second “o” for extra fun. Their “Behind-the-Music” triumphs and mostly tribulations come to the big screen in The House of the Rising Sons, directed by Wynners drummer Antony Chan, which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

It started out as a garage band despised by their working-class neighborhood, especially by Ah Kin (a.k.a. led guitarist Bennett Pang)’s tailor father. He and Ah Keung (a.k.a. bassist Danny Yip) and drummer Ah Yau (Chan) were going nowhere until the band’s charisma index shot up dramatically with the addition of lead vocalist Alan Tam, and vocalist-rhythm guitarist Kenny Bee. However, there was always a bit of a divide between the pretty boy singers and the grudge kids rhythm section.

Regardless of Tam and Bee’s star potential, the Loosers’ early days were full of scuffling, as you would expect from a name like that. Just when they would make a little progress, they would fall back again. Of course, when the band finally hits, Tam is almost immediately pressured to go solo.

Rising Sons should be an upbeat, candy-colored nostalgia trip, similar in vibe to Tom Hanks’ underappreciated That Thing You Do. However, the tone is just all over the place. It is not exactly clear what Chan was going for, but he makes most of the band look like thoughtless jerks and gives the impression he is an anti-social space-case. Frankly, it is rather unpleasant spending time with the Fab Five.

Still, Kara Wai is terrific in her brief scenes as Keung’s mom. Simon Yam gives a characteristically expansive performance as Kin’s dad, but seeing him play an insecure father figure in a period setting brings back memories of his exceptional work in the beautifully bittersweet Echoes of the Rainbow.

There are plenty of amusing haircuts and awkward fashions, but it seems pretty clear throughout Rising Sons you really had to be there. Chan cleverly stages some after-hours jams, but by and large, he really doesn’t make a case for the Wynners’ enduring musical significance. Even its appeal to sentimental fans is questionable. It will keep you distracted, but it is a cold fish of a film that is hard to fall in love with. Unless you are a Wynners diehard, The House of the Rising Sons shouldn’t be a priority when it screens Monday evening (6/29) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’18: The Blood of Wolves


You do not keep rival Yakuza clans in check by being an apologetic liberal community organizer. You need a cop with a wild streak. That certainly describes Shogo “Gami” Ogami. He has the swagger and he can match any Yakuza drink for drink. Word has it he might be too chummy knocking sake back with Hiroshima’s leading gangsters. Regardless, the young Internal Affairs detective assigned as his undercover partner will get quite a lesson in community policing during the course of Kazuya Shiraishi’s The Blood of Wolves (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Hiroshima, 1988: a gang war is brewing and only Ogami can stop it, or so he thinks. It is really just a continuation of the previous war that broke out in the early 1970s. Ogami was also involved in that conflict—perhaps too involved, if rumors are true. As goody-two-shoes Shuichi Hioka watches his new partner and secret target extort information from suspects, pop out for quickies with witnesses, and force him into punishing brawls, he decides everything he has heard about Ogami must be true. Yet, he slowly starts to appreciate the method behind Ogami’s madness. In fact, Hioka embraces Ogami’s fast-and-loose tactics just when the top brass, the media, and the largest Yakuza clan all turn against him.

Seriously, you cannot get anymore old school than Blood of Wolves. It is just drenched in atmosphere and attitude. As Ogami, Koji Yakusho channels Ken Takakura on a grain alcohol bender. Yakusho has played his share of hard-nosed characters before, but Ogami can knock the wind out of you with a dismissive glance. Standing next to him is a tough assignment, but Tori Matsuzaka holds his own quite impressively as the tightly wound Hioka. In fact, when he eventually runs off the rails, it is quite a spectacle to behold.

Despite Yakusho’s dominance, Blood is fully loaded with memorable supporting turns, especially Yoko Maki as a club hostess with a deep grudge. It is just a ferociously beautiful performance. Pierre Taki is also quite colorful and almost humanly decent as Ginji Takii, the leader of a minor right-wing party affiliated with the largest Yakuza clan (and Gami’s best bud), while Renji Ishibashi is slime personified as its Mephistophelean chairman.

The 1980s period details are perfectly recreated, while cinematography Takahiro Haibara soaks up the grit and sleaze of the back alleys of Hiroshima and Kure. Frankly, it looks like the film was shot in the 1970s rather than the 1980s (or 2010s), but that is not a bad thing. Wolves is Shiraishi’s best film to date, by far (at least among those that have had New York festival play). It is also a dynamite showcase for Yakusho and half a dozen other prominent Japanese screen thesps. Very highly recommended, The Blood of Wolves screens Monday night (7/2) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Thursday, June 28, 2018

NYAFF ’18: The Third Murder


This will be an awkward case for hotshot attorney Tomoaki Shigemori. It will remind him guilt and culpability are not necessarily the same thing. The case against Takashi Misumi also illustrates the systemic advantages enjoyed by Japanese prosecutors. Yet, most vividly, the pitched court battle demonstrates how elusive the truth can be, as a tangible, knowable thing. Shigemori will try his best to uncover the truth while obeying his clients instructions—ironically, two objectives that never really concerned him much before—in Hirokazu Koreeda’s The Third Murder (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Misumi confessed and his lawyers never laid the groundwork to question his culpability. By the time Shigemori is called in, the best he can hope to do is challenge the charge of felony homicide, by separating the alleged murder and robbery of Misumi’s former factory boss into two discrete acts. The way Misumi keeps changing his story makes his task even more difficult. Nevertheless, as Shigemori digs in, he starts to question many of his assumptions.

Frankly, a fact-finding trip to Misumi’s frosty Hokkaido hometown only raises more questions and uncertainty, starting with his previous two murder convictions. During his previous trial, Misumi never denied killing two loan sharks who were preying on the town’s dispossessed blue-collar workers. Shigemori starts to see a pattern emerging when the sins of his latest “victim” become apparent, but his client refuses to give him the confirmation he so earnestly desires.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, Third Murder could have been a ridiculously overwrought and symbolically overblown film, but Koreeda exercises rigorous restraint. He only hints obliquely at possible religious and spiritual interpretations, which makes them exponentially more tantalizing. Every step of the way, he focuses on the mundane and absurd bureaucratic rituals of the Japanese legal system, which keeps the film firmly grounded in reality. Yet, there is always a sense of some greater truth just beyond our reach.

Third Murder also proves Koji Yakusho is one of the absolute best in the business. He makes Misumi acutely human but also profoundly inscrutable. He might be a cypher, but he still expresses remorse and compassion, in ways that will hit viewers hard. Suzu Hirose is even more poignant and affecting as Sakie Yamanaka, the dead man’s daughter, who clearly feels a greater emotional connection to Misumi. Masaharu Fukuyama is also terrific subtly portraying Shigemori and the slow re-awakening of his integrity and idealism. He and Yakusho are riveting whenever they face-off together, even though they both usually tack an understated, slow-burning course.

This is the kind of film that will reward periodic revisiting over the course of decades. It chronicles injustice, but it is a deeply, deeply moral film. Thematically, it is a dramatic departure for Koreeda, but it still examines relationships between parents and children through an undeniably humanistic lens. Yet, if you strip away the Christian imagery and potential allegorical readings, you will still have a compelling legal procedural. Very highly recommended, The Third Murder screens Saturday afternoon (6/30) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’18: Kakekomi


1841 was not quite the end of the era, but many Edo Era institutions were drawing to a close. For instance. celebrated novelist Kyokutei Bakin was finishing the final installment of his epic multi-volume novel Tale of Eight Dogs, much to the relief and anticipation of his loyal readers. The Tōkei-ji nunnery also still offered sanctuary to abused women seeking divorces, but the Shogun-chartered institution was definitely in the crosshairs of the repressive Edo authorities. Nevertheless, three women will find asylum together, allowing them time to prepare for their very different fates in Masato Harada’s Kakekomi (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Jogo is a skilled ironsmith, whose unfaithful, wastrel husband literally dares her to seek refuge as a Kakekomi, assuming she will be too ashamed of the blisters on her face to venture outside her forge. Somehow, she manages to gin up the courage to call his bluff, finding the encouragement along the way from O-Gin, a well-heeled fellow Kakekomi, who has been injured fighting off bandits. With Jogo’s help, they both reach Tōkei-ji’s receiving inn, where the staff will evaluate their application and prepare them for monastic life.

Kakekomi who successfully serve two years as nuns will be granted a divorce regardless of their husbands’ feelings on the matter. Of course, there will be no contact with men, but somehow Shinjiro Nakamura manages to gain entrée now and then, because of skills as a student of medicine. He also happens to be an aspiring novelist, much in the tradition of Bakin, who is a favorite of many Tōkei-ji residents.

At least Jogo’s deadbeat husband passively accepts the situation. In contrast, O-Gin’s smuggler common law spouse worries she will betray him to over-zealous Edo authorities. The violent Samurai husband of bushido-bred Yuu Togasaki is even worse, but she intends to use her two years for training, so she can solve that problem permanently. Of course, everyone will have to worry about potential moles sent by the villainous Edo magistrate.

Kakekomi is described many places online as a “drama-comedy,” but we’re hard-pressed to find the funny parts. However, as a straight historical drama, it is totally absorbing and often quite moving. The stakes are very high, but the Kakekomi are necessarily strong characters, who have taken responsibility for their own lives, refusing to live as victims.

This character develop arc is especially pronounced and downright inspiring in the case of Jogo. She evolves from a physically scarred shell of a person into a beautiful and commanding woman. Yet, every step of the process is completely believable thanks to the wonderfully subtle and engaging performance of Erika Toda. Hikari Mitsushima, Rina Uchiyama, Misuzu Kanno, and Yuko Miyamoto compliment her nicely as O-Gin, Togasaki, the deeply troubled O-Yuki, and the mole.

Women dominate this film for obvious reasons, but Yo Oizumi memorably plays Nakamura with a light touch, without resorting to shtick or buffoonery (we suppose he accounts for the comedy, as when he warbles a subversive ditty, openly defying to Edo’s ban on public singing). More to the point, there is an effortless naturalness in the way the chemistry builds between him and Toda’s Jogo. Tsutomu Yamazaki also plays Bakin with a wry presence and imposing stature worthy of vintage Orson Welles.

There are a lot of strands in Kakekomi, but Harada satisfyingly brings them all together in a way that is so logical, it feels like it was fated from the start. The combination of new beginnings and final exits is quite bittersweet, totally in keeping with a film set in a Buddhist nunnery. It really is an unusually graceful and humanistic film. Very highly recommended, Kakekomi screens Sunday afternoon (7/1) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’18: Unbeatable


What film do you immediately associate with the song “The Sound of Silence?” It probably used to be The Graduate, but henceforth it shall always be Dante Lam’s Rocky-style Mixed Martial Arts underdog movie. Why use the moody folker as a motif for training montages? You might as well ask why climb Mt. Fuji or why hike the Camino de Santiago? Dante Lam has done it and he did it with Nick Cheung and Eddie Peng in Unbeatable (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

As we learn from the tightly cut prologue, former boxer “Scumbag” Fai, grieving mother Gwen Wong, and Lin Si-qi, the brooding son of a disgraced real estate tycoon, all need redemption. Fai has come to Macao to avoid his loan shark’s knee-cappers. His buddy arranged a gig coaching and spotting at an MMA gym as well as a room in the flat occupied by Wong and her assertive ten-year-old girl Dani. There used to be a little brother too, whose death Wong has yet to recover from. She is an emotional basket case, but Fai will slowly help Dani bring her out of her shell.

Fai also reluctantly agrees to train Lin for the big no-fighters-turned-away MMA tournament, with the $270 million purse. Frankly, the former rich kid was never really into money, but he hopes he can revive his father’s broken spirit by winning it all.

So, Unbeatable sort of starts out like Creed and then reverts back to Rocky IV. Either way, it is definitely adhering to a tried a true formula, but there is good reason why the formula was codified in the first place. Regardless, as long as we get to see the chiseled Cheung throw some arm bars, we’re okay with however we get there.

Lam is the recipient of the Excellence in Action Cinema Award at this year’s NYAFF, so you know he will do the MMA scenes justice. Indeed, he makes all the holds and grappling clear and easy to follow, while capturing the sport’s brute force. As a sizable bonus, Sai’s scenes with the Wongs are really quite endearing and downright poignant. Mei Ting never waters down Gwen Wong’s profound emotional issues and Crystal Lee shows loads of charisma and future potential as the protective Dani. Unfortunately, Lin’s subplots are not as sharply written, but you can’t blame Peng, because he brings plenty of intensity and a super-cut physique.

Unbeatable pairs up nicely with Lam’s cycling film, To the Fore, also starring Peng. In both films, he shows a knack for clearly delineating each race or match. However, action fans will most likely prefer Unbeatable, because it features Cheung beating the snot out of people. Plus, cinematographer Kenny Tse and the picturesque Macao locales deserve credit for making those montages pretty dashed cool. Recommended as meat and potatoes for fans of MMA, Cheung, and Peng, Unbeatable screens Sunday (7/1) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Escape Plan 2: Hades


In the first film, Ray Breslin’s security firm was headquartered in Los Angeles. Now, its in Atlanta. The tax credits must be better there. They really ought to move the company to China, because that is clearly where this sequel expected to do most of its business. When you think about it, it rather makes sense Chinese movie patrons would be so interested in breaking out of prison. It is a new high-tech, off-the-books prison, but Breslin is as slippery as ever in Steven C. Miller’s Escape Plan 2: Hades (trailer here), which releases this Friday on VOD.

Breslin’s specialty, showing up private prisons, has not earned him a lot of friends. Unfortunately, the rescue operation that goes bad during the prologue will not help matters much either. Still, he can be philosophical about setbacks, like dead hostages, because he plays go with his new protégé, Shu. Despite his martial arts skills, Shu is the first member of the team whisked away to the double-secret Hades facility, while watching the back of tech entrepreneur Ma Yusheng, a somewhat estranged childhood friend.

Ma is the target of a paying customer, but it soon becomes clear Hades’ “Zookeeper” is rounding up members of Breslin’s firm for reasons of personal payback. This facility with its constantly morphing structure and largely automated support services poses a particular challenge to Breslin. His three golden rules for escape have always been: learn the layout, learn the routine, and get outside help. So, time to improvise.

Escape Plan 2 is only releasing on VOD and DVD, which is a shame, because surely there are [older] fans out there who would enjoy watching Sylvester Stallone team-up with Dave Bautista, but they might not get the word without a theatrical release. Most likely, it was to protect Stallone from stupid click-bate pieces on how low the per-screen-average was for his latest film, even though the marketing was entirely targeted at the VOD market (these seem to be a specialty of Yahoo Movies). At least it spares the studio the agonizing decision of whether they should launch a best supporting actor Oscar campaign for Bautista or 50 Cent.

Chinese super-star Huang Xiaoming handles about seventy-five percent of the fight scenes, which is a shrewd decision. He definitely has the chops and the physicality. Stallone looks fine as a guy drinking coffee in a café, but he is starting to push it as an action hero. Again, Miller and screenwriter Miles Chapman wisely have Breslin play a more Picard-like role in the first two acts, but they just cannot keep Stallone out of the big climatic rumble. As Breslin’s friendly rival Trent DeRosa, Bautista swaggers through the film like it is all a big lark to him, which it probably was—and yet that works. 50 Cent and Jaime King do not have much to do as Breslin’s support staff, but Titus Welliver sort of upstages the primary villain as the Zookeeper’s tough talking deputy, Gregor Faust.

Hades was conceived as the first part of a sequel duology, but it definitely has plenty of closure, despite clearly suggesting where the in-the-works third film will go. Granted, Hades is not a transcendent masterpiece, but it is considerably more enjoyable than many films Stallone made in his prime (remember Rhinestone, Oscar, or Over the Top?). This is totally a B-Movie, but Huang and Bautista bring quite a bit of value-added. If you enjoy attitude and testosterone, Escape Plan 2: Hades should happily distract you when it releases this Friday (6/29) on DVD, BluRay, and VOD.

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NYAFF ’18: Sekigahara


It was the big battle the events in James Clavell’s Shogun were leading up to, but this time we do not see them through the eyes of Richard Chamberlain. In 1600 (a nice round year), the Eastern Army commanded by Ieyasu Tokugawa (Toshiro Mifune in Shogun) clashed with the Western Army led by Ishida Mitsunari. The Eastern Army had greater numbers, but the battle still could have gone either way, at least according to the semi-fictionalized chronicle in Masato Harada’s Sekigahara (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Mitsunari is loyal to Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the great unifying daimyo, even though he chafes under some of the lord’s harsher decisions. When Hideyoshi dies, Mitsunari is determined to preserve his heir’s succession and to institute a more just and humane administration. Tokugawa is less idealistic and more Machiavellian. There is also bad blood between the two samurais.

Initially, Tokugawa holds all the institutional advantages, but Mitsunari scores several coups when it comes to recruiting allies. He sways the legendary leprosy-afflicted samurai Yoshitsugu Ōtani to his side, appoints the physically scarred and battle-tested Sakon Shima as his commander, and accepts the services of stealthy Iga Ninja Hatsume. During the course of her service, Hatsume and her lord will fall in love, but they can never consummate their feelings, due to political considerations.

As you would hope and expect, Sekigahara is jam-packed with tragically epic battle sequences. This is a satisfyingly big film, which might be why the small, quiet subplot involving Mitsunari and Hatsume is so potently poignant. As the two non-lovers, Junichi Okada and Kasumi Arimura do not have a lot of screen time together, but they still develop some lovely chemistry.

In fact, Okada brings Shakespearean dimensions to Mitsunari. When he is arrogant, it will make you wince—and when he is humble, it is downright heroic. The always reliable Koji Yakusho shows he still has a few tricks up his sleeve as the scheming Tokugawa, while Takehiro Hira is spectacularly grizzled and hard-nosed as the serious-as-a-heart-attack Shima.

Sekigahara is exactly the sort of film that made many cineastes fall in love with Japanese cinema in the first place. Harada commandingly manages the numerous battlefield reversals and nicely balances all the complex elements (arguably, two-and-a-half-hours is pretty tight for this genre). It is an elegant work of big screen craftsmanship, but it absolutely takes no prisoners. It is all quite sad, yet still a great deal of fun. Very highly recommended, Sekigahara screens this Friday (6/30) at the Walter Reade, where Harada will receive NYAFF’s Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award (his past festival selections include Chronicle of My Mother, Climber’s High, and Shadow Spirit).

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NYAFF ’18: The Hungry Lion


It must be very difficult to be a teenage girl in Japanese high school. The sexually repressed culture tells you one thing, but the fetishistic uniforms suggest something else. Add in all the corrosiveness of social media and you have a recipe for potential tragedy. Such will be the case for poor Hitomi Sugimoto in Takaomi Ogata’s The Hungry Lion (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

At first, it is funny to Sugimoto and her friends when their homeroom teacher is perp-walked out of class by the cops. Everyone enjoys the scandal of his alleged statutory crimes, until one of his purported sex tapes is leaked. Although Sugimoto sees no similarities between herself and the compromised girl in the video, somehow everyone else is convinced it is her. It starts with whispering, escalates into taunting and bullying, and then culminates in full-fledged sexual harassment.

Sadly, we can guess exactly where this story is headed, but it is still devastating when it gets there. Ogata cranks up the verisimilitude, using a highly realistic, unforgivingly digital style not unlike the online videos that cause so much damage in the film. While Ogata does not confine himself to personal device screens, in the manner of the upcoming Searching movie (simply known as Search at Sundance), he still very clearly reflects the way they shape teenagers’ perspectives. The upshot is we really do feel like we are voyeuristically watching the real-life downfall of a teenager. However, Ogata has plenty to say after the inevitable. In fact, he practically chokes viewers on irony.

Urara Matsubayashi is so believable as Sugimoto, it is absolutely terrifying. Her deer-in-the-headlights look will utterly haunt you. In fact, the entire cast looks so real, you could believe this is some sort of docu-hybrid. The narrative might be fictional, but it is probably based on plenty of real life incidents.

In a way, Hungry Lion is like Murder on the Orient Express. Everyone helped do in Sugimoto. Friends, rivals, adults, family—nobody’s hands are clean in this one. It is often a tough film to watch, but it still manages to shock and surprise. Arguably, Yumi Sawai’s precise editing is key to the overall effect. It is devastating, but probably a necessary warning regarding kids and social media. Highly recommended, The Hungry Lion screens Saturday (6/30) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2018

NYAFF ’18: We Will Not Die Tonight


Action cinema doesn’t get much grittier or zeitgeisty than this. At one point, the leader of an organ trafficking ring suggests the current government in Manila would be fine with them preying on poor slum-dwellers—and it is hard to argue with him. However, Kray is pretty darned appalled. The under-appreciated stunt performer and her punky friends will fight for their lives and the life of an innocent in Richard Somes’ street-to-the-max We Will Not Die Tonight (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Even though she is usually taken advantage of on-set, Kray still makes more money performing stunt work than catering. She needs it for her ailing father, who was also a stuntman during the run-and-gun Roger Corman glory years (but it took a toll on his body). That is why she and the rest of her former juvenile delinquent gang are willing to come together for a reunion gig arranged by their flaky leader Ramil.

Of course, everyone is slack-jawed shocked to learn Ramil’s old neighborhood pal Bangkil wants them to kidnap kids off the street, so their organs can be harvested. Even slimy Ramil wants no part of that, but Bangkil doesn’t take no for an answer. So, Kray and her mates grab little Isabel, a missing girl currently in the news and hide in an abandoned industrial building, where a spectacularly bloody game of cat-and-mouse will play out.

Holy cats, Somes really isn’t dorking around here. You will probably feel like getting a tetanus shot after watching it. Frankly, Atomic Blonde looks downright genteel in comparison, like afternoon tea and crumpets.

If you want yourself a feminist action figure than Kray will knock your socks off. Previously known for squeaky clean rom-coms, Erich Gonzales completely explodes her old image with her remarkably intense and unrelentingly physical performance as Kray. Yet, she is not a super-woman. In fact, she shows tremendous sensitivity and vulnerability. Max Eigenmann drastically plays against type in a similar fashion as the every-punk-for-themselves Cheche.

Alex Medina aptly portrays Ramil as too slick for his own good, but he is also totally convincing as the walking wounded getting the heck sliced out of himself. Thou Reyes and Nico Dans nicely round out the gang as the strongly delineated Jonesky and Rene Boy. In contrast, most of the organ trafficking villains could have had their sinister idiosyncrasies emphasized and exaggerated more.

Regardless, the pedal-to-the-metal action and overpowering vision of urban anarchy will completely hypnotize most viewers. Think of We Will Not Die as the Filipino analog to Judgement Night, if the early 1990s thriller had more martial arts and less copping out. Even though it was only shot in eight days, We Will Not Die represents some truly virtuoso indie filmmaking on Somes’ part. Twenty years ago, it would have sparked a bidding war among indie distributors, but it is doubtful the surviving players can handle a film with this kind of naturalistic honesty and pure genre menace. Highly recommended for grown-up action fans, We Will Not Die Tonight screens Friday night (6/29) at the Walter Reade, as part of this year’s NYAFF.

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NYAFF ’18: Dynamite Graffiti


In 1980s Japan, Akira Suei was part Hugh Hefner and part Larry Flynt. His skin magazine Photo Age had “real” “counter-culture” articles, as well as the other stuff. However, Suei doesn’t seem to be especially interested in either kind of reading material. This just seems to be what he does in Masanori Tominaga’s Dynamite Graffiti (trailer here), which screens as the opening night selection of the 2018 New York Asian Film Festival.

Based on Suei’s autobiographical writings, Dynamite tells his story mostly chronologically, but through the prism of his mother’s tragic suicide. She and her lover were shunned by their provincial mining town because they had both been institutionalized for tuberculosis. After carrying on a scandalously passionate affair, they decided to blow themselves to smithereens with dynamite. For the rest of the film, Suei lives in her shadow as the “son of the woman who…” It is never clear what he makes of his mother or her suicide, but she is by far the film’s most sympathetic character.

Presumably, the incident rather disturbs his father as well. Nevertheless, they are stuck together for a while. They live hand-to-mouth, but somehow, Suei manages to enroll in graphic design courses for a few semesters. He paints some sandwich boards for a strip club and follows where that work takes him.

The film was probably built around the early scenes in which the guileless acting Suei tries to placate the sour-faced Puritanical police captain inspecting the latest issue of Photo Age like it is a bit of smelliness stuck on his shoe. These recurring gags are absurdly funny, but they just seem to trail off without resolution, like a SNL skit.

For all its excesses, The People vs. Larry Flint clearly suggests its central character really believed in the 1st Amendment and truly enjoyed naughty pictures. In contrast, Suei doesn’t seem to have any real passions. He just drifts through the episodic film, treating his long-suffering wife dismissively and recklessly pursuing a not-particularly-interested co-worker. By the way, the behavior depicted in this film definitely constitutes sexual harassment—just for the record. There’s the counter-culture’s values in action.

It is just baffling what Tominaga expected viewers to take away from all this. Tasuku Emoto is often quite droll as Suei, but it is a performance designed to be cold and inscrutable. Machiko Ono is absolutely heartbreaking as the tragic mother, as is Toko Miura, playing the lover, whose body and spirit Suei literally breaks. Fans will also be amused to see jazz musician Naruyoshi Kikuchi portraying in/famous photographer Nobuyoshi Araki. Kikuchi also penned the distinctively angular, but still swinging score, which is probably what Dynamite will be primarily remembered for years from now.

Dynamite Graffiti is problematic in many ways, but its subject matter is sure to appeal cult movie fans. It has the same kind of colorful period details that elevated Boogie Nights, but it never even invites viewers to make an emotional investment. There are moments of outrageous ribald comedy, but it really just convinces us pornographers are just obnoxious jerkweeds. Dynamite Graffiti isn’t recommended as a film, but it will probably be demonized by the virtue-signalers any second now, so if you want to know what it is really like before the Pavlovian dogs tear into it, check it out this Friday (6/29), as the opening night film of this year’s NYAFF.

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Hover: Keep Watching the Skies


Drones—they’re not just for delivering Amazon packages anymore. They can also kill people Scanners-style. That is what you call a practical application. Unfortunately, a slow, lingering death seems to be a common side effect among farmers who adopted drone technology. When she isn’t killing people, a euthanasia specialist will try to get to the bottom of the mystery in Matt Osterman’s Hover (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Claudia and her partner John are busier than ever dispatching clients in their district. Their latest case work was especially difficult, because she just discovered the boss made her pregnant and he is dealing with the very early stages of a fatal illness. Of course, that gives the conspirators a perfect cover story when they fake his suicide to prevent him blowing the whistle on their arrangement.

Somehow the nonprofit and euphemistically named Transitions is in league with the drone company. Claudia will start to put the pieces together herself with the help of some rural conspiracy cranks and a dissident maintenance worker at the drone company.

Yes, that’s right, Hover combines two super-fun topics: euthanasia and agriculture. Hello! Is anyone still reading this? Arguably, Hover essentially reworks the premise of Michael Crichton’s Runaway, but what was cautionary speculation in 1984 is basically old news in 2018.

Still, Osterman invests the film with a moody vibe that mostly works for it, but screenwriter Cleopatra Coleman struggles to carry the film as its weak lead. On the other hand, Craig muMs Grant is worth remembering for future casting thanks to the smart and intense presence he shows as John. Not surprisingly, Beth Grant is convincingly nutty as the tinfoil hat wearing Joanna, while Dré Starks is a real standout as Victor Smith, the paranoid and anti-social son of a Transitions client. Plus, it is fun to see horror movie regular Fabianne Therese appear as Claudia’s duplicitous assistant, Tania.

You have to give Osterman and Coleman credit for their thoughtful and complex treatment of euthanasia. This is not an advocacy film by any stretch. It might even damper some viewers’ enthusiasm for the practice. It also avoids most of the dystopian clichés, setting the film in a world nearly indistinguishable from our own. Still, a little bit a future world building would have made the visuals more interesting. The resulting film is well-meaning, but probably already too late. Not very compelling, unless you are a diehard drone-phobe, Hover opens this Friday (6/29) in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Monday, June 25, 2018

Clio Barnard’s Dark River


If you remember your King Lear, you understand the problems presented by an indivisible estate and multiple heirs. That is sort of true of Rose Tremain’s Trespass, but it will be hard to recognize her book in the film that it inspired. Clio Barnard’s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant was more faithful than her take on Tremain’s novel—and that’s saying something. However, she remains true to her uncompromising vision and exacting aesthetics throughout Dark River (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For fifteen years, Alice Bell has drifted from farm to farm, primarily working with sheep. She has scrupulously avoided her father’s tenant farm, for reasons we soon guess. However, she finally returns after his death (from a prolonged illness), to claim the farm she believes to be her right, both by birth and as compensation. Of course, that does not sit well with her brother Joe, who has tended the farm, quite poorly, during their father’s slow decline.

As a result, the Bell sibling reunion quickly goes from awkward to downright hostile. At the best of times, they carry on in a cold war footing, bitterly arguing over every farming strategy. However, the potential for violence is always palpable.

Ruth Wilson’s performance as the deeply wounded Alice Bell is harrowingly intense (it also looks like she really learned how to shear sheep). You feel for her keenly, but you’d also want to keep her at arm’s length. That goes quadruple for Mark Stanley’s loutish Joe Bell, but he is not a caricature either. Arguably, his grievances are just as legitimate as hers. In fact, the tragedy of this film is their complete inability to communicate.

Sean Bean gives the film further star-power, representing something of a departure from Barnard’s previous films. In this case, he plays the father, Richard Bell, who is already dead before the picture even starts—possibly a new record for his characters’ early deaths. However, his presence lingers, either as toxic memories or perhaps as a genuine ghost. Nevertheless, the revelation regarding his abuse is sort of a lazy fallback—honestly, these days, it is more surprising when fathers are not molesting their children in socially conscious indie films.

In a great irony (one Barnard wisely resists driving into the ground), the Bell Siblings happen to be fighting over a lease rather than a deed. You do not need to be an agricultural economist to surmise Yorkshire probably does not have a competitive or comparative advantage when it comes farming and livestock. Frankly, that understanding makes the film even more depressing. Yet, it is always invigorating to thesps like Wilson and Stanley at the top of their game. Recommended for admirers Spartan British working-class dramas, such as those by Andrea Arnold, Dark River opens this Friday (6/29) in New York, at the Village East.

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Black Water: Van Damme and Lundgren Team-Up


There is not a lot of room to do the splits on a submarine, but fortunately JCVD has plenty of others moves. As CIA counter-intelligence operative Scott Wheeler, he has been framed and renditioned to a super-secret sub-bound interrogation center by the very turncoat he was trying to root out. Basically, its Under Siege on a submarine (not that that’s a bad thing) in Pasha Patriki’s Black Water (trailer here), which is now available on DirecTV and opens this Friday in New York.

Wheeler and his partner-lover Melissa Ballard have recovered an encrypted flash drive with some kind of NOC-listy Macguffin from the treasonous cabal, but alas, the bad guys have the drop on them. They take out Ballard, but they have to capture Wheeler alive to recover the drive. Of course, he can take whatever the by-the-book Agent Ferris can dish out, at least until the legit interrogator is whacked by Wheeler’s old mentor, Edward Rhodes. By doing so, he pretty much reveals himself as the mole.

Wheeler, along with the two surviving honest CIA agents will play Die Hard games with Rhodes and the mercenaries administering the prison portion of the sub. Strict firewalls are in place sealing off the military crew from the civilian wardens, but both Wheeler and Rhodes will try to devise ways of making contact. Wheeler also finds an ally in “Marco,” the huge mysterious German prisoner in the cell next to his.

Even though Black Water is all about rendition and off-the-books facilities, it doesn’t seem to give a gosh darn about any of that, as long as the good guys are in control. No doubt, critics from The Guardian and Pravda will give it a stern lecture about the wasted opportunity to make political statements, but Patriki and screenwriter Chad Law understand everyone’s time is better spent administering beatdowns to duplicitous traitors.

Van Damme looks a little weathered around the eyes these days, but physically he is still probably the best conditioned of his class of 1980s action stars. Frankly, it is pretty easy to buy into him as a lean, mean fighting machine, unlike Steven Seagal. Dolph Lundgren also still looks big and muscular—and he continues to generate good will with his affable screen presence. Frankly, we think it is high time for the Academy to recognize Lundgren for his contributions to action cinema and his activism fighting human trafficking, but don’t hold your breath.

As a bonus, the supporting cast is pretty solid, especially by genre standards. Al Sapienza chews the scenery with a fair degree of verve as the villainous Rhodes. John Posey looks and sounds spot on as the submarine skipper, Captain Darrows and Courtney B Turk generates plenty of heat with Van Damme as Ballard.

Van Damme and Lundgren really deserve credit, because they keep working regularly and they sufficiently take care of themselves and their images to maintain their action hero cred. Black Water is a fine example of that. Scoff all you like, but it is hard to resist the film’s meathead charms. Recommended for old school fans, Black Water opens this Friday (6/29) in New York, at the Village East.

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Sunday, June 24, 2018

Cinepocalypse ’18: Cop Baby


In Vladivostok, you can never find a gun-wielding infant when you need one. He might not look imposing, but he is one of the few honest cops in Russia. After a bust went bad, the wounded Major Igor Khromov did the old body-switcheroo with the newborn son of green-belt policing Oleg Leykin. Leykin is even less intimidating-looking than his son, but together they are cops and buddies in Alexander Andrushenko’s Cop Baby (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Cinepocalypse in Chicago.

Khromov did a year of jail time as part of his deep cover. As a result, he should be able to get close enough to bust the Triad boss who has taken over the Vladivostok drug trade. Unfortunately, Leykin ill-advisedly intervenes when the Triad limo crushes a flower bed, but it really isn’t his fault. Everything just unfolds according to the curse a fortune-teller placed on the rude, crude Khromov. Unfortunately, the consciousness of Leykin’s little boy is now stuck in the presumed to be brain-damaged body of Khromov.

Itching to get back into action, Khromov soon reveals himself and his impossibly deep, growling voice to the nebbish Leykin. Despite their radically differing temperaments, they will try to work together to bring down the Triads and lift the curse, because that is what you do in a body-switch movie.

Basically, if you thought the Baby Geniuses franchise had potential, but was too subtle and refined, then Cop Baby should be your samovar of tea. Let’s just say Cop Baby is no Wolfcop. The lycanthropic cop movies have real heart and some clever humor. Most of the gags here revolve around the contrast between the innocent looking rug rat and Sergey Garmash’s gravel-voice delivering a torrent of cynical dialogue. It is amusing for a short while, but it quickly dead-ends.

Garmash is as hard-bitten as ever, resembling Lee Marvin, circa Death Hunt. However, Andrey Nazimov is painful watch as the gawky Leykin. As his wife Katya, Elizaveta Arzamasova is also a pretty forgettable shrinking violet. Even the kid lacks screen charisma, which is a problem.

There’s really not much point to submitting a goonie goofball movie like this to a rigorous critical analysis. What people really want to know is just how long Andrushenko can keep up the ridiculous premise. The answer is forever—at least, that is what it feels like. Not really recommended, unless you want to see something defiantly stupid, Cop Baby screens again tomorrow night (6/25) at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago as part of Cinepocalypse 2018.

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Saturday, June 23, 2018

Cinepocalypse ’18: Satan’s Slaves

It could be the Indonesian Hereditary—and it’s a remake, so there really isn’t much new under the sun. That doesn’t mean it isn’t scary as Hell though. After three years of bedridden decline, Rini Suwono’s mother is finally gone. Or is she? She was always difficult, but she takes it to all new heights (or lows) when she starts haunting her family. It seems to be all part of her satanic death cult’s plan in Joko Anwar’s Satan’s Slaves (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Cinepocalypse in Chicago.

Mawarni Suwono was once a popular local folk singer, whose eerie ballads had a vibe not unlike the string-heavy Judy Collins’ rendition of “Both Sides Now” that happens to play over Hereditary’s closing credits. Of course, her old records label just throws crumbs to her family, so they are in rather desperate financial straits. In fact, the nameless father will leave looking for work shortly after the funeral.

As a result, Rini will have to face the initial rounds of terror and tragedy on her own, including the death of her paternal grandmother. That just leaves her and her younger brothers: the surprisingly helpful sixteen-year-old Tony, the bratty ten-year-old Bondi, and the mute nearly seven-year-old Ian, who will become the primary focus of most of the supernatural and sinister attention. Rather tellingly, none of the siblings look alike, presumably because they were each the product of unions with different cult members.

So yes, things are bad, but they will get steadily worse. Hereditary really is a fitting comparison film for Satan’s Slaves, which incorporates elements of James Wan haunted house movies, demonic horror, and killer cults. The milieu of isolated rural poverty and Islamic traditionalism heightens the atmosphere of hopeless dread (it might be politically incorrect to say it, but the truth is Catholics and Buddhists have the best exorcists). The early 1980s period details are all spot-on and the music, most particularly Suwono’s old records, burrows under your skin like a tick.

Tara Basro solidly anchors the film as Rini, but some of the best work comes from her younger co-stars, especially Nasar Annuz and M. Adhiyat, who are completely believable as Bondi and Ian, even when placed in some wildly freaky circumstances. As a bonus, Egy Fedly cranks up the attitude and eccentricity as Budiman, who was once a close friend of Rini’s grandmother, before becoming a paranoid Fortean researcher.

Frankly, Anwar is probably the most under-appreciated genre master working in cinema today. He has a masterful command of mood, pacing, and fear that builds over time. Despite, or maybe because of its thematic similarities with Hereditary, Satan’s Slaves could very well be the film that will take him to higher levels of international awareness and distribution. Very highly recommended, Satan’s Slaves screens again this Monday night (6/25) at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago as part of Cinepocalypse 2018.

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Friday, June 22, 2018

Pascal Laugier’s Incident in a Ghostland


H.P. Lovecraft was probably the most influential horror writer since Poe, but the Social Justice Warriors are determined to bully and ban his books out of the canon. Alas, Lovecraft lived a bitter life, plagued by ill health and poverty, so he had the chance to assemble a large cast of multi-ethnic friends reflective of your average Williamsburg coffeehouse. Off to the memory-hole with him. That is why Lovecraft is such a strange choice to be the literary hero of young Elizabeth Keller, especially since her movie isn’t very Lovecraftian. However, there is plenty of other content to distract the professionally offended throughout Pascal Laugier’s Incident in a Ghostland (trailer here), which releases today on VOD and in limited theatrical release.

Beth and Vera Keller’s mom Pauline has just inherited a creepy farmhouse out in the middle of nowhere from their late aunt. Best of all, it is packed to the rafters with spooky vintage dolls. In addition to the house’s bad vibes, we know from the newspaper Beth was skimming, a couple of maniacs have been butchering families in their homes. Vera the drama queen could at least take the minimal effort to close the front door, but she is too busy being put out by the move.

Of course, the “Fat Man” and the “Candy Truck Woman” will take advantage of the open invitation. They don’t just kill, they torture their victims to death. However, the three women manage to survive. The adult Keller will become the celebrated horror novelist she always wanted to be. Unfortunately, Vera never recovered from the emotional shock. She lives a state of permanent PTSD, constantly reliving the experience, as if it never stopped. That is why it is so baffling her mother never moved them out of the house. However, when Elizabeth is lured into making an emergency visit, we start to suspect there is something more ominous to Vera’s condition than her sister previously realized.

Ghostland has a twist at the midway point that is a serious game-changer, but it is also a major downer. The violence, while not as intense as that seen in Laugier’s notorious Martyrs, will also put off many viewers, which is fair enough. However, many of our more kneejerk colleagues feel duty-bound to castigate the film for its alleged “transphobia.” You see, Candy Truck Woman is actually a dude, but that is hardly intended as any kind of social commentary. It is just part of the horror movie tradition of taking a perceived threat and revealing it to be even more dangerous than viewers had assumed.

Frankly, the only thing about Ghostland worth objecting to is its dubious commitment to on-set safety. According to news reports, Taylor Hickson was badly cut up in a scene involving real glass, which is unforgivable in any post-Midnight Rider production. It is a shame, because the two sets of actresses playing teen and adult Beth and Vera—Emilia Jones and Crystal Reed as Beth and Hickson and Anastasia Phillips as Vera—are remarkably compatible and ferociously committed.

Regardless, there is no denying this is one creepy unsafe space. All the sinister dolls and eerie bric-a-brac represents a triumph of production and set design. In fact, this film would actually be scarier if Laugier reined in the violence a bit and cranked up the anticipation instead. There are moments in Ghostland that really get under your skin, but the film’s on-screen violence and real-life misfortune are real buzz-kills. Only recommended for aspiring set decorators and prop designers, Incident in a Ghostland hits VOD platforms and select theaters today (6/22).

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