Sunday, July 31, 2016

Fantasia ’16: Battledream Chronicle

Depending on how it is used, the internet can either liberate or enslave. Ask the Chinese how that works. Circumstances will be even more extreme in the year 2100. In this animated future, all nations are connected through the digital universe of Farandjun, where most day-to-day life is conducted, rather than in the toxic real world. Unfortunately, when the rogue AI virus Isfet assumes control over Farandjun, she demands the connected nations conduct a Battle Royale, with the losers submitting to the victors, in both the virtual and physical realms. Princess Syanna Meridian was the first to fall, but she will have a chance at redemption in Alain Bidard’s Battledream Chronicle (trailer here), which screened during the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Meridian was once the Crown Princess of the first formerly sovereign state pitted against the fierce Mortemonde. As a result, she was the first to learn Mortemondian dictator Isaac Ravengorn has special armor that renders him invulnerable and therefore invincible within Isfet’s Battledream arena. As they will do with successive losers, the Mortemonde victors will wipe the memories of Meridian and her people, integrating them into the lower rungs of their society.

As Meridan and her partner Alytha Mercuri plug away as workaday gladiators in the Battledream, Ravengorn cuts through his competition. The tiny city of Sablereve is the final holdout. A recent defector from Mortemonde has brought news of a relic within the game that can pierce Ravengorn’s armor. However, Meridian chances across the Easter Egg weapon during one of her matches, but is wholly unaware of its significance.

Let’s not mince words. Battledream’s underwhelming CG animation is barely a cut above straight to DVD B-movies like Gene-Fusion. However, its speculative world-building and heady themes are more ambitious than its flat style suggests. Frankly, is looks just adequate enough for viewers to get pulled into the cyberpunky story of oppression and revolt. Bidard has created some surprisingly engaging supporting characters, including Nyssa, the escaped Mortemonde slave, Oramame Alwami, a sadist Mortmonde inquisitor who was once Nyssa’s gladiatorial partner, and Klaus Balrog, the high-ranking Templar and defender of Sablereve.

This is definitely a film about good versus evil. In fact, the internal laws and traditions of Mortemonde are unusually nefarious and cruel. Bidard certainly primes us for some payback. Yet, he avoids most of the clichés you would expect in the final showdown.

Considering it was produced for about twelve cents, Battledream is definitely worth checking out. Animation fans will might find its visuals appealingly retro—or perhaps not. Still, there just aren’t that many animated features coming from Martinique, so this also holds a claim to novelty and national pride. As a bonus, it also features the Sonny Troupé Quartet’s tune “Voyages & Rêves” (see video here) over the closing credits, earning extra points for good taste. Recommended more for fans of dystopian science fiction than animation connoisseurs, Battledream Chronicle screened during this year’s Fantasia.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Fantasia ’16: The Show of Shows

There was a time when lion-trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams was a regular on the Tonight Show and received flattering portraits in Sports Illustrated. Today, media appraisal of circus people falls somewhere on the spectrum between Benito Mussolini and Jack the Ripper. You can sort of see the shift of attitude in Icelandic director Benedikt Erlingsson’s circus-focused feature length clip package culled from the National Fairground Archives in the freshly liberated Great Britain. Get your sad clown face on for Erlingsson’s The Show of Shows (trailer here), which screened during the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival.

It will be Sigur Rós fans who will most enjoy Show, thanks to the trance-ish electro score co-composed by band-members Georg Holm and Orri Páll Dýarson along with Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson and Kjartan Dagur Holm, rather than circus folk. Just about everyone else will quickly start to drift as the thematically divided mastercut of vintage circus and carny footage starts to wash over them.

However, Erlingsson’s sort of cheats right from the start with a section devoted to dancers. Snake dancers maybe, but ballroom dancers? Maybe it’s a Scandinavian thing. He avoids the exploitative side shows (but Tod Browning’s cult classic Freaks also screened at this year’s Fantasia, so we’re covered), while casting a somewhat politically correct idea on the animal training acts.

Granted, there are some crazy (and sometimes acceptably amusing) visuals in Show. To some extent, it summons hazy memories of a simpler era, when lions were expected to earn their keep by letting chipper young woman stick their empty heads in the beasts’ mouths, rather than just unproductively laze about their natural habitat. However, the film’s tone of hipster detachment will likely satisfy neither the nostalgic or the morally apoplectic.

During this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Show of Shows screened one day as a looped installation, which is probably a better way of presenting it. You can definitely pop in for twenty minutes and get most of what there is to engage with in the film. Still, the dark aural palette scored by Holm et al gives the film the feeling of a deep bottom. Editor David Alexander Corno also stiches it together in a manner that flows smoothly and logically.

Those who were won over by Erlingsson’s droll and vermouth-dry Of Horses and Men will be thrown by this departure. Frankly, it is hard to recommend to a target audience, since it is murkily unclear just who it was intended for. Still, it is likely to pop up again somewhere following its Canadian premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe

It is like the trippy, absurdist science fiction epic Jerzy Grotowski never made. Andrzej Zuławski also considered it the film he never made, or rather the film that was “murdered,” despite stitching together his surviving scraps into over two and a half hours of immersive strangeness. Thanks to the ham-fisted Polish Communist censors, it is an even more surreal viewing experience. Digitally restored to a clarity probably never really seen before, Zuławski’s mauled and maligned masterwork On the Silver Globe (trailer here) re-releases today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

In both narrative and aesthetic terms, Globe is closely compatible with Aleksey German’s adaptation of the Strugatsky Brothers novel, Hard to Be a God, which should either thrill or despair viewers, depending on how severe and adventurous their tastes might be. Both films tell the stories of space travelers from Earth who essentially go native on a distant world. In the case of Globe, it is astronauts Marta, Jerzy, and Tomasz who give birth to a new human civilization, like an Adam and Eve threesome, but with all the jealousies implied by the “two’s company, three’s a crowd” cliché.

As the new civilization becomes increasingly tribal, their descendants welcome Marek, a new arrival from Earth as the messiah in the battle against the Sherns, the planet’s sinister bird-people, who seem to have some sort of extra-sensory powers. Or something like that.

Frankly, Zuławski was never really going for narrative cohesion in the first place. Yet, when the new Communist culture commissar Janusz Wilhelmi shut down his two-years-and-counting shoot and ordered the destruction of all the film and components Zuławski and his crew couldn’t hide away, it literally left gaping holes the auteur eventually filled in the late 1980s with voice-overs. Considering Zuławski always makes it explicitly clear why his narration is necessary, Globe might just be the most savagely passive aggressive film you will ever see.

It is also remarkably heady and bafflingly obscure. While the religious symbolism is tough to miss, the finer points of the alien culture and the characters’ relationships seem to shift and evolve with confounding regularity. Yet, like German’s film, it is loaded with outlandish set pieces and gritty, grimy world-building detail. Cinematographer Andrzej Jaroszewicz’s wide angles and fish-eyes gives it all a truly otherworldly look, while Andrezej Korzynski’s electro-ambient-symphonic-blues-prog-rock score heightens the eclectic, anything-goes vibe.

No matter how you cut it, Globe simply was not a great showcase for its cast, unless there was a state-approved hack director looking for a thesp to run amok like a naked shrieking wild man, smearing mud and blood on his chest. However, it is bold cinematic vision from an aesthetically and ideologically rebellious artist. Arguably, Wilhelmi shot himself in the foot banning and marring a film that so many would have found utterly incomprehensible, but they understood perfectly the oppressiveness of his decree. Even if you have no idea what to make of it (and the cinema gods will readily pardon you for that), it is still nice to have it available in all its raggedy, defiant glory. Recommended for serious film students and patrons of censored works, On the Silver Globe open today (7/29) in New York, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Fantasia ’16: Therapy

When a child goes missing, it means all hands on deck for a provincial French police force. That just leaves two junior detectives to work a quickly developing serial killer case. Potentially, they could prevent dozens, maybe hundreds of future missing persons. It all seems like a dangerous misallocation of manpower, but this is France. Remember, they never did catch the Pink Panther. Whether they can stop the shadowy killer seen in tape after tape of found footage is a more pressing question in Nathan Ambrosioni’s Therapy (trailer here), which screened during the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival.

A box of tapes is found in an abandoned building near popular a camping site. Normally that would not be so remarkable, but the blood splatterings give them a sense of urgency. As the crime lab converts the various formats (VHS, Go-Pro, 16mm) onto flash-drives, two detectives watch the horror develop. Stephanie, her slightly domineering boyfriend Steven, and three teen relations planned a relaxing weekend getaway, but as Seb, the poorly socialized film student documents, the frequent sound of distant screams quickly casts a pall on the evening. They really should have left when someone breaks into Steven’s car, but instead he waits until the a.m. hours to investigate the sinister squat nearby. That would be the one that was once an insane asylum.

It is tempting to get pedantic over the found footage (why is CSI splicing it together in chronological order and how would they even know it in the first place), but watching it from the helpless perspective of coppers Jane and Simon is pretty creepy. As in his breakout debut Hostile, Ambrosioni, the French horror prodigy, still displays a commanding mastery of mood and tension, but Therapy is a much more conventional and slashery follow-up.

Even though he plays it fast and loose with the found footage conceit, it is still a tough film for thesps to register in. Nevertheless, Nathalie Couturier is quite compelling as the driven Jane. Likewise, Shelly Ward keeps us thoroughly off balance as Abigail Parker, “the witness with a secret.” As part of Ambrosioni’s repertory company, she is becoming quite the cult horror star. Fittingly, Ambrosioni plays Seb—mostly heard rather than seen.

There is no questioning Ambrosioni’s horror mechanics. His use of sound and light to keep veiwers on edge is decidedly impressive. Nevertheless, Therapy just doesn’t hit you on as deep a level as Hostile—and its big twist is not nearly as bracing. Okay, but still something of a sophomore slump in comparison, Therapy had its world premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

Monkey King: Hero is Back—Sun Wukong in Some Highly Animated Animation

All things considered, it is rather encouraging to see Sun Wukong, a.k.a. the Monkey King is more popular than ever in China. He compulsively rebelled against authority, leading his notorious “uproar in Heaven” before becoming a disciple of Buddhist monk Xuanzang, protecting him on his quest in search of sacred texts. Following hit live-action films starring Donnie Yen and Aaron Kwok, Sun Wukong gets the animated treatment in Tian Xiao Peng’s Monkey King: Hero is Back (trailer here), which opens this weekend in select cities.

There will be no Journey to the West for this Monkey King—at least not yet. Instead, young Liuer inadvertently frees the mischievous hero from his five-hundred-year imprisonment. It turns out the orphan could use some help. After his parents were killed in an ogre attack, Liuer was adopted by Fa Ming, an itinerant monk. Unfortunately, the lad was separated from his surrogate father when he rescued a toddler from ogres commanded by the Saruman-like Hun Dun, who is in the market for child sacrifices. Enter the Monkey King.

Except the newly released Sun Wukong will need some convincing before he decides to play the hero. Liuer will have some help from the Monkey King’s fellow Journey to the West Disciple Pigsy, who is also conveniently reanimated. However, their once and future comrade Sandy the Sandman will not be joining them this time around. Given Pigsy’s ineptitude, most of the heroics will be left up to the Monkey King, with occasional assists from the boy and the monk.

MK’s CG-animation is perfectly presentable and some of the classically-inspired design work is downright cool, such as the White Dragon and Hun Dun’s cliff-face lair. Liuer can be a bit of a pain, but the action sequences are surprisingly cinematic. It is also absolutely bizarre how much the animated Sun Wukong looks like the painstakingly made-up Kwok in The Monkey King 2 in 3D, or vice versa. Yet, there is something arguably more appealing about the wiry, hardnosed animated Monkey King than the twitchy recent live action portrayals.

Ironically, Jackie Chan provides the Monkey King’s voice in the English dub, but not in the original Mandarin. It definitely sounds like him, for what that’s worth. For additional class and cred, James Hong dubs the righteous old butt-kicking Fa Ming. Frankly, the production values are considerably higher than you might expect. However, there are several scenes that are probably too intense for most young viewers, but Monkey King-Journey to the West fans will appreciate their integrity.

Over the years, the degree to which Sun Wukong has been depicted with primate or human features has swung back and forth like a pendulum. Like the live action blockbusters, Hero is Back doubles down on his Simian-ness. It is not as visually striking as Wan Laiming’s classic Monkey King—Uproar in Heaven, but it respects the character and delivers the action. Recommended for young but relatively mature wuxia viewers, Monkey King: Hero is Back opens tomorrow (7/29) at the Cape Ann in Gloucester, MA and has a number of special weekend matinee screenings at participating Landmark Theaters.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Fantasia ’16: Sori, Voice from the Heart

This freshly sentient AI surveillance satellite should monitor a screening of Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky or perhaps Johnnie To’s film of the same name. Both would give her a greater appreciation of her purpose. Instead, the satellite of love crashes to earth and teams up with a Korean father desperately looking for his long missing daughter. Short Circuit style hijinks gets a massive dose of fatalism in Lee Ho-jae’s Sori: Voice from the Heart (trailer here), which screened during the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Naturally, Kim Hae-gwan had a terrible row with his college-aged daughter Yu-joo the last time he saw her. Shortly thereafter, she presumably perished in a terrible transit fire. Yet, without a body, Kim refuses to give up hope. Following up a false lead on the Incheon Islands, Kim literally stumbles across the NSA satellite he will later dub Sori. It too is on a mission. After intercepting a cell phone call from a girl caught in the crossfire of an attack on the Taliban, Sori is determined to find her and protect. She too is wracked with guilt for facilitating the strike. However, as Alan Rickman’s Gen. Frank Benson would point out, the drone strike might very well have prevented far worse horrors in the form of a suicide bombing. (By the way, it is not too early to start talking posthumous best supporting actor for Rickman.)

Thanks to Sori’s skill set, Kim is finally able to track various cell phones associated with his daughter. Of course, a narrative of this nature faces two potential perils, a ridiculously phony happy ending or a massive downer. Instead, Lee and co-screenwriter Lee So-young try to fake some symbolic redemption, but the film just works better when it embraces the tragedy.

Lee Sung-min (awesome as the cop in Broken and the crooked prosecutor in A Violent Prosecutor) is simply devastating as Kim. Chae Soo-bin is maybe even more heartrending as Yu-joo. Their backstory will pretty much do you in. However, Sori herself rather conspicuously looks like something kit-bashed together with parts leftover from R2D2 and Number Nine. Granted, it is nice to see Lee Ha-nui play a smart, forceful character like KARI (Korea’s space agency) scientist Ji-yeon, but her dialogue is conspicuously loaded with exposition. Lee Hee-joon fares even worse as the blandly arrogant NIS working with and against the Yanks to recover Sori.

Frankly, Lee Ho-jae and So-young’s didactic criticism of the NSA gets awfully old, lightning fast. There is genuine grit and integrity to Lee Sung-min’s performance, but the film still leaves viewers feeling manipulated. Not a priority to catch up with, the greatly mixed Sori: Voice from the Heart had it Quebec premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

Fantasia ’16: We Go On

Hamlet told Horatio “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” but that’s not good enough for Miles Grissom. He wants proof of something after death, so he is offering thirty thousand American Dollars to anyone who can conclusively demonstrate the existence of ghosts, angels or what-have-you. You can forget about angels right off the bat, but ghosts are a different story. After all, there are good reasons why Jesse Holland & Andy Mitton’s We Go On (trailer here) is screening during the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Ever since his father died in a car crash, Grissom has been petrified by cars, plagued by medium level agoraphobia, and paralyzed by the very idea of death. That was about three decades ago. In a desperate attempt to reassert control over his life, Grissom pledges his inheritance to anyone who can prove there is something after. Naturally, he is inundated with responses, but his no-nonsense mother Charlotte helps him whittle them down to three main contenders (and maybe a few dark horses).

The first session with Dr. Ellison, an academic paranormal researcher starts promisingly, but ends disappointingly. The pattern will repeat with the other main contenders, but one of the dark horses just might be the real deal. In which case, Grissom could be in for a hard careful-what-you-wish-for lesson.

Indeed, Holland & Mitton’s narrative radically changes course midway through, but it always makes sense given the context. It is definitely creepy, but it is also its own film. We are certainly not watching the same basic chiller re-purposed for yet another cast. However, it is safe to say Annette O’Toole is their ace in the hole, because she is terrific as the tart-tounged Charlotte.  In contrast, Clark Freeman’s turn as Grissom truly inspires mixed reactions. At times, he seems appropriately nebbish, but he is also rather dull. The same could never be said of John Glover, who is flamboyantly sleazy as ever playing Dr. Ellison. Although her work as Josephina the medium is considerably less showy, Giovanna Zacarias is still effectively squirrely, in a quiet, tightly wound sort of way.

WGO springs a few sly surprises along the way, but the clever details are what really make the film. Holland & Mitton do not reinvent the genre wheel, but they nicely balance grounded humor with supernatural horror. Recommended for horror fans who appreciate character and concepts, We Go On screens again tomorrow (7/28), as part of this year’s Fantasia in Montreal.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Fantasia ’16: Man Underground

Geologists ought to be pretty down to earth (so to speak), but Willem Koda is flaky as shale. Even his friends (both of them) will admit he is ragingly paranoid. However, that doesn’t mean “they” aren’t ought to get him in Michael Borowiec & Sam Marine’s Man Underground (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Koda used to be a Federal contractor, but those days are long gone. Now he makes a poor living as a speaker on the nutter circuit. Todd Buckle sort of inherited Koda’s friendship from his late UFO-watcher uncle, maintaining it out of loyalty and loneliness. Koda might have his faults, but he is polite, which impresses Flossie Ferguson, an aspiring actress stuck waiting tables in her sleepy hometown. Oddly enough, she inspires Koda to follow-up on Buckle’s innocent suggestion. The trio will expose the truth by making a microbudget film of Koda’s life.

For a while, this seems almost remotely doable. However, as Buckle steadily falls for Ferguson (despite her jerkheel yuppie boyfriend), Koda finds the personal revelations increasingly painful. Of course, he might not be the only one feeling alarmed by the film’s content, if you know what we mean.

Ostensibly, Underground is an X-Files style sf-conspiracy thriller, but it is actually a wise and sad portrait of a true believer. George Basil has the appropriate hound dog presence for the world weary Koda. He nicely turns some surprisingly poignant moments, as when he realizes how he froze out his long-suffering ex-wife after playing a scene from their ill-fated marriage with Ferguson. As Buckle, Andy Rocco is also amusingly droll in a laidback, unassuming way. Somehow, Pamela Fila just doesn’t feel like she fits in as Ferguson, but its not for a lack of trying.

Underground is definitely a film composed in a minor key, but it has its rustic indie charms. Basil proves you can fully commit to character, without indulging in shtick or histrionics. It is a nice film, but not a revolutionary revelation. Recommended for conspiracy cinema fans, Man Underground screens again next Wednesday (8/3), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

The Invitation: Dinner Party with Kool-Aid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 25, 2016

Fantasia ’16: Chihayafuru Parts 1 & 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Into the Forest: When the Grid Crashes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantasia ’16: In Search of Ultra-Sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Fantasia ’16: The Inerasable

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Japan Cuts ’16: The Actor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 22, 2016

Japan Cuts ’16: Flying Colors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantasia ’16: Aloys

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

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

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

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

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

AAIFF ’16: Daze of Justice

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

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

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

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

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