Wednesday, July 31, 2019

15 Minutes of War: True Story of Terror

Djibouti was the final French colony, thanks in part to the large Afar minority, who consistently voted to maintain ties with France. Eventually, they resorted to a full-scale insurrection against the oppressive Somali-majority government, so their concerns were justified. Regardless, just about everyone realized independence was inevitable in 1976, but militant Somali nationalists still felt compelled to take a school bus full of children hostage. Despite the dithering of bureaucrats, the rescue mission represented the birth of the French GIGN commando service. The initial hand-wringing and the eventual assault are vividly dramatized in Fred Grivois’s 15 Minutes of War, which opens this Friday in Los Angeles, following its Canadian premiere at this year’s Fantasia (under its French title).

Andre Gerval’s men are the best Paris law enforcement has to offer. They are still not the GIGN yet, but they are already used to unconventional international assignments. Ideally, they would like to do a quick recon and then take their carefully timed simultaneous shots, but they will have to wait for Paris to give the go ahead to the local Foreign Legion commander. Unfortunately, they will have to cool their heels in the hot sun while the French authorities try to negotiate with a group of terrorists that refuses to talk or budge from their ultimatum.

Of course, the local legionnaires resent the hot-shot Parisians, but Gerval gets on surprisingly well with Phillip Shafer, the unofficial CIA observer. Meanwhile, Jane Andersen, the American expat teacher tries to keep her kids calm, while putting up with the thuggish behavior of their captors.

Perversely, French cinema once again puts Hollywood to shame with a refreshingly heroic portrayal of the uniformed specialists defending their countrymen against the forces of terrorism, joining the ranks of The Assault and Special Forces. The situation is complicated, but the terrorists are still definitely the bad guys.

As Gerval, Alban Lenoir is impressively steely, but still a far cry from a Rambo caricature. Among his proto-GIGN teammates, Michaël Abiteboul creates the most distinctive persona, as Georges Campere, the fastidious gadget guy. Sebastien Lalanne, Guillaume Labbe, and David Murgia are harder to tell apart, as their scruffier colleagues, but together they develop a salty bantering camaraderie that sounds very to true to the spirit of uniformed brotherhood.

The glammed down Olga Kurylenko is also surprisingly credible and compelling as Andersen, the teacher who voluntarily puts herself in harm’s way for the sake of her kids. However, the real discovery is Kevin Layne, who is absolutely chilling as Barkhad, the ruthless, kat-addicted terrorist leader. He makes quite a sinister villain, but in no way is he cartoony. Rather, he is frighteningly real.

The bureaucratic-diplomatic rigmarole Gerval and company have to wait out will have viewers pulling their hair out in empathetic frustration. However, when the intervention finally goes down, Grivois stages a rip-roaring string of action sequences that are super-charged but still completely realistic. Frankly, we need more action movies like 15 Minutes, at this particular point in time. Enthusiastically recommended, 15 Minutes of War opens this Friday (8/2) in LA, at the Laemmle Music Hall.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Fantasia ’19: Kingdom

This is a film that could make the heads of the “Own Voices” cultural segregationists’ heads explode. It is a Japanese film, adapting a Japanese manga, starring Japanese actors, portraying Chinese warriors during the Warring States period. Let us dispense with issues of so-called authenticity and deal with the film’s cinematic merits, because they are considerable. A slave find himself caught up in a palace coup, but that also means opportunities for freedom and social advancement, if he can survive that long in Shinsuke Sato’s Kingdom, which had its Canadian premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Li Xin and Piao were born into slavery and slaves they shall remain, unless they can hack and slash their way to freedom. All their free time is devoted to fencing training, but it appears to pay off when they catch the eye of Lord Chang Wen Jun. Alas, it is only Piao he is interested in—for a very particularly reason. It turns out, he bears a striking resemblance to the King, for whom he was to act as a double.

Unfortunately, Li learns this when Piao returns to the farm mortally wounded. The King of Qin, Ying Zheng, was usurped by his serpent-like younger brother, with the backing of the generals and ministers at court. Reluctantly, Li takes Piao’s place protecting the king, even though he (not unfairly) blames the deposed monarch for his sworn-brother’s death. However, the more he and the king fight together, the more they will come to respect each other.

Kingdom has just about everything you could ask for in a historical costume drama. There is gritty, blood-drawing action, both on an epic scope and at a one-on-one level. There are all kinds of betrayals and scheming going on. Plus, there are a number of outlandish looking Dick Tracy-esque villains. Yet, above all, the characters display the sort of tragic heroism of the best wuxia and Chanbara films.

Sato has become Japan’s blockbuster director of the decade thanks to movies like I Am a Hero, Inuyashiki, Gantz, and Bleach, but Kingdom is his most sweeping film yet. He is working on a big canvas, but he still gets some good work out of his cast. Kento Yamazaki is bug-eyed and hyper-active as Li, but not to the level of shtickiness. Ryo Yoshizawa plays a nicely differentiated double role as Piao and the King, but it is Masahiro Takashima who really commands the screen as Lord Chang. Yet, the surprise star might be Masami Nagasawa, who steals scenes and shows off impressive action chops as Yang Duan He, the chieftain of the Hill People.

Even in Japanese wuxia movies like Kingdom, we still get a triumphant celebration of the forcible unification of China, which seems rather unnecessary. Nevertheless, the whole point of the film is the fight scenes and action coordinator Yuji Shimomura does not disappoint. This is exactly the kind of film that made action fans fall in love with martial arts cinema in the first place. Very highly recommended, Kingdom opens August 16th in the U.S. and Canada, following its screening at this year’s Fantasia.

Fantasia ’19: The Father’s Shadow

Are esoteric rituals something kids grow out of? Horror movie fans are the wrong people to ask. Regardless, nine-year-old Dalva’s natural affinity for magic and her motivations for dabbling are not going away anytime soon. Mending her family will take extreme measures, but she is willing to risk opening Pandora’s Box in Gabriela Amaral Almeida’s The Father’s Shadow, which won the Best Actress Award and Special Jury Mention at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Young Dalva is nowhere close to being over her mother’s untimely death, but she is still in much better shape than her father Jorge. He has basically shut down, robotically laboring away in his Sao Paulo construction job and barely going through the motions at home. In contrast, Dalva soaks up her Aunt Cristina’s white magic lessons that she in turn applies on behalf of her classmates. Maybe that is not such a good idea, but at least she is being social.

Unfortunately, when Cristina gets engaged to the distribution marketing stooge of her dreams, she leaves Dalva solely in Jorge’s sullen care. Alas, her father further withdraws into himself when his best friend at work is laid-off and subsequently dies in an accident that might very well be suicide. Jorge only rouses himself to roughly forbid Dalva’s practice of the mysterious craft, which drives them even further apart.

Father’s Shadow represents a considerable change of pace after the bloody chaos of Amaral’s first feature, Friendly Beast, like a change-up following a fastball, in American baseball terms. There is still a pronounced class consciousness, but it manifests itself in drastically different ways. Dalva’s environment is desperately poor and her father is as working-class as one can be, but that is the only reality she ever knew and as natural as the air she breathes.

By cinematic standards, Father’s Shadow is unusually evocative. You can practically feel the heat from the blow-torches at the construction site and smell the earth when Dalva’s mother is exhumed from the graveyard, so she can be reinterred in a cheaper drawer (talk about bad karma) early in the film. However, many of the genre elements are not fully and consistently realized, like the ominous welder shadowing Jorge, who sometimes appears to be a symbolic embodiment of his guilt, while other times he could have stepped out of a vintage slasher movie.

Frankly, it is hard to decide what to make of Father’s Shadow, because it struggles with its own identity crisis. Yet, it is safe to say young Nina Medeiros will impress everyone as Dalva. It is an eerie and ambiguous performance, but her pain and vulnerability are always palpable. Nobody will begrudge her the Best Actress award she snagged at this year’s Fantasia, like the Anna Paquin of Brazilian horror.

Arguably, Father’s Shadow signals a bit of a trend towards art-house horror in Brazil, along with Marco Dutra & Juliana Rojas’s Good Manners, but the earlier werewolf film was slyer and ultimately more satisfying in genre terms. Both Medeiros and Amaral show a facility for handling a wide spectrum of extreme emotions, but this film is more likely to be remembered as a stepping stone in their careers rather than as a genre touchstone to return to periodically. So, cheers Nina Medeiros. It is a film you will respect, but Friendly Beasts was much more fun. Recommended for viewers who take their horror with a strong dose social realism, Father’s Shadow should have a long festival life after its North American premiere (with nicely translated English subtitles) at this year’s Fantasia. Portuguese translation to come, courtesy of the truly amazing Angelica Sakurada.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Unmasking Jihadi John

With all respects to the movie Yesterday, the world would have been a much better place without these certain Beatles—namely the quartet of Daesh terrorists dubbed “The Beatles” by their Western hostages, because of their British accents. By far, the most notorious was the one referred to as “Jihadi John” in the media, because he is the one who committed the atrocities in the infamous beheading videos. There is plenty of biographical detail, but all the really difficult questions are skirted in Anthony Wonke’s Unmasking Jihadi John: Anatomy of a Terrorist, which premieres this Wednesday on HBO.

Mohammed Emwazi was born in Kuwait, but his family soon immigrated to London to escape tribal oppression. During his early school days, he was a shy Manchester United fan, but he turned more delinquent in his teen years. Inevitably, radical Islam offered a worldview that excused him of all responsibility, making him the poor victim.

Emwazi’s terrorist sympathies were no secret to the British authorities. In fact, they intercepted him during his first attempt to wage jihad in Iraq. Much is made of this episode, during which time a British intelligence officer tried to turn him into an asset. Wonke and screenwriter Richard Kerbaj are determined to frame this as a tipping point, pushing him into radicalism, but this seems to rather overstate matters, since he was already determined to commit acts of terrorism against his former country.

Regardless, he would indeed enlist with Daesh (Wonke and Kerbaj refer to it by the terrorists’ preferred term, ISIS), just as it was emerging as the successor to Al-Qaeda among the hearts and minds of violent Islamists. Eventually, he and three other British born terrorist-traitors took a leading role holding and eventually executing a group of Western hostages, including James Foley.

As we know from the horrific footage, it was Emwazi who slit their throats on camera. Clearly, he was chosen for the job precisely because of his London accent. It did indeed create a firestorm, but Wonke and Kerbaj try to present it purely in terms of sensationalistic journalism and the disbelief that one of our Britain’s own could turn on his own country.

They completely ignore the wider point about what the Emwazi case says about radical Islam. He was not oppressed by Israel or brutalized in a refugee camp. He didn’t even suffer from long bouts of unemployment. Instead, his history suggests there is something intrinsically violent and anti-social in his Islamist world view. Right, Wonke and Kerbaj would rather have us move along, wanting us to think there is nothing to see here.

There is still some informative dot-connecting with respects to Daesh’s operations, but that is nuts and bolts stuff, rather than deep insights. Frankly, the film almost could pass for an effort to forestall such in-depth analysis, despite the participation of experts, including the unexpected presence of Gen. David Patraeus. Somewhat disappointing, Unmasking Jihadi John need not be considered required viewing when it premieres Wednesday (7/31) on HBO.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

AAIFF ’19: The Tale of Kieu (short)

This short film was made possible by the “Anti-War” Movement and the Eighteenth-Century Vietnamese poet Nguyen Du. The Vietnam War is over, but the nation is not at peace—far from it. Millions of refugees (known as “Boat People” in the Western media) fled persecution from the victorious North, braving starvation, the elements, and the predatory violence of Thai pirates to start life again at zero in the West. A young boy will endure all such perils in Ray Leve’s short film, The Tale of Kieu, which screens during the 2019 Asian American International Film Festival.

It is not immediately clear why the film title alludes to Vietnam’s great epic poem, but it is safe to say water represents great danger in both. We watch a rag-tag boat of refugees ration their water as they bake in the sun—and then the pirates attack. It is a hard fate, but somehow hundreds of thousands managed to survive. If only they had a fraction of the media and NGO support marshalled for certain (but again, not all) refugees today, but they were a politically inconvenient reality for the so-called “peace movement” and their ideological allies.

Tale is an impressively well-made film. In fact, it was lensed by indie cinematographer extraordinaire Sean Price Williams. However, it views more like a scene taken from a longer feature instead of even a proof of concept short. While watching it, we definitely get the sense of prior events being alluding to and there is very definitely more to come for some characters.

Still, the quality of the production definitely leaves viewers wanting more. It is also a subject that deserves greater attention and commemoration. Maybe the last really significant film about the Vietnamese refugee experience was Ann Hui’s Boat People, a 1982 HK production starring a young Andy Lau.

Tale of Kieu is a visceral a jolt of historical memory and hopefully the start of something bigger. Recommended as an effectively constructed work of indie cinema and a conversation starter, it screens Tuesday (7/30), with the documentary Seadrift, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

AAIFF ’19: Baliko (short)

You could see photos of the Abominable Snowman every week in the Weekly World News and there is still grainy video of him and Bigfoot on A&E and the History Channel all the time. Nevertheless, a reputable professional photographer is convinced a clear, unimpeachable shot of a mythical Himalayan monster will jump-start her stalling career. More than a thousand words, a picture is worth everything in Chris Chung’s short film Baliko, which screens during the 2019 Asian American International Film Festival.

When an editor tells Mara her photos are pretty but dull, it stings bitterly. Resolved to show him and every other obnoxious jerk differently, she becomes obsessed with the idea of photographing Baliko, a legendary beast that only shows itself at particular times during the lunar cycle. According to folklore, his coming demands a sacrifice from local villagers, to atone for their collective guilt. They do not like talking about him much, even in this day and age.

Whether he believes or not, Mara’s Bertie Wooster-ish British boyfriend James will accompany her on the trek. She knew from the start he wouldn’t be much help, but she is still surprised how much his chatter bothers her. In contrast, their weathered Sherpa guide hardly says a word. Perhaps that is why he inspires confidence.

Baliko is sort of a survival story, sort of a monster film, and definitely a close cousin to the vintage tales off irony once seen on shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. Yet, the frosty setting is not so very different from Game of Thrones, which notably featured Baliko’s star and screenwriter, Jessica Henwick. She is also a Marvel alumnus, having played Coleen Wing in Iron Fist and The Defenders, so Baliko ought to have major fanboy appeal.

Henwick is also really terrific as Mara, showing considerable range while completely upending many of our assumptions. Jonathan Howard’s James might be too much of a twit for the film’s own good, but Tom Wu (Hundred Eyes from Marco Polo) is steely as ever as their silent guide.

Some viewers might guess the film’s twist, but it still has bite because of the shrewdly clever ways Chung frames the closing scenes. Frankly, this film ought to be a hot ticket, considering its three primary cast-members have all appeared in big, moderately large, or minor roles in some of the largest film franchises going (including Marvel, James Bond, and Godzilla). More importantly, it is smart and chilling (but maybe not in the way viewers will expect). Very highly recommended, Baliko screens tomorrow (7/28), as part of the Shorts: Otherly Worlds program at this year’s AAIFF.

Fantasia ’19: Melopee (short)

Arguably, no genre makes better use of sound to create atmosphere and tension than horror. Try to imagine The Exorcist without its signature sound design. Sometimes sound is the source of danger itself (as in The Sound and Pontypool). In this case, a little campfire music leads to a lot grave peril in Alexis Fortier Gauthier’s short Quebecois film, Mélopée, which screened during the 2019Fantasia International Film Festival.

Three millennials will be vacationing together in a beach house, but sensitive Olivier definitely looks the odd three’s-a-crowd man out, especially since he is obviously attracted to Diane, Guillaume’s girlfriend. However, she starts to give off hints his interest might be reciprocated. Nevertheless, she is still together with Guillaume, so there are times Olivier will not want to be in the house. Instead, he polishes a new song by the water, but beneath the surface, something listens—and it will start responding.

Believe it or not, Mélopée takes a borderline Lovecraftian turn, which is quite a jolt. Yet, it maintains a consistent tone. Stylistically, Mélopée could sit compatibly alongside so-called “post-horror” films like The Witch and Personal Shopper, but also takes care of genre business to sufficiently satisfy old school genre fans.

There is some wild design work in Mélopée. It is also nicely inclusive to have a deaf character among the primary trio—Diane, impressively played by Rosalie Fortier, whose warm presence makes an impression—but it also turns out to have a direct and surprising bearing on the narrative. Highly recommended for a broad spectrum of genre fans, Mélopée had its world premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Astronaut: Sending Richard Dreyfuss Into Space

This private space entrepreneur and his contest to win a free trip into outer space is sort of like an interstellar Willie Wonka and his golden tickets. To enter, Angus Stewart must lie about his age, but not his idealism. However, he is still more of an engineer than a spaceman. Perhaps it is therefore fitting when his quest for the stars takes a Feynmanesque turn in Shelagh McLeod’s Astronaut, which opens today in New Jersey, following its North American premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

“Angus,” as he insists he be called, even by his daughter Molly and grandson Barney, generally had a good life, but the last few years have been a little rocky. Now in his 70s, he has been forced to move in with Molly and her husband, due to the debt his late wife incurred when she purchased a donkey farm while in the throes of dementia. On the plus side, he can teach Barney about astronomy and try to pass along some of his passion for space exploration.

Unfortunately, for health and financial reasons, Angus’s son-in-law successfully forces him to move into an assisted living facility with especially annoying staff. Out of frustration with his new circumstances, Angus enters the lottery for a spot on the first private space tourism flight, offering by a transparently Musk-like entrepreneur. Obviously, he lies about his age and health.

Of course, he is chosen as one of the twelve space idol finalists, because that is the whole premise of the film. However, Angus will not stay in contention for long. Instead, most of his efforts will be spent raising questions about the mineral erosion potential going on beneath the super-long runway.

In a way, Astronaut represents a return to the galactic curiosity and optimism of Close Encounter, which made Richard Dreyfuss’s career, but this film cannot hold a candle to the quality and entertainment value of the Spielberg classic. Still, it offers plenty of warm fuzzies and a few nice PSA’s for greater investment in STEM education.

Dreyfuss really seems to enjoy playing Angus and the film definitely respects everything he represents. Still, the cranky codger with a heart of gold act gets more than a little cliched. Arguably, the best aspect of the character is his complicated but affectionate relationship with his son-in-law. Yet, perhaps the biggest surprise is Graham Greene’s risky but ultimately quite poignant performance as a stroke victim in the senior home. It is also fun to watch frequent big-screen villain Colm Feore play against type as the driven but decent space capitalist.

Astronaut is a nice little film that pushes a lot of nostalgia buttons for the time when our nation actually had a space program, but it is definitely small film that won’t take up too much space in anyone’s memory. Weirdly, it opens theatrically today, the week after the fiftieth anniversary of the Moon Landing, but maybe that was a strategic decision to avoid last week’s tanker hull’s worth of space programming. Recommended as a spot of chicken soup for the space nerd’s soul, Astronaut opens today (7/26) in NJ, at the AMC Jersey Gardens.

Fantasia ’19: Idol

There is nothing like an auto accident to stall a promising political career. Just ask Teddy Kennedy. At least he survived to become a national punch-line. Koo Myung-hui does not have the luxury of running as a Kennedy in Massachusetts, but technically, he was not a party to the accident. It was his horrible son Yo-han behind the wheel. His callous and reckless behavior will ignite a deluge of agonizing moral dilemmas in Lee Su-jin’s Idol, which won the Cheval Noir Awards for best feature and best actor at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Koo was feeling pretty good about the chances for his anticipated gubernatorial campaign, until he returned home to find his son and wife washing blood of the family car. Then he noticed the body in the duffel bag. His wife is in full cover-up mode, like Hillary Clinton deleting emails, but Koo will not play along. Instead, he has them return the body to the scene of the crime and then forces the entitled Yo-han to turn himself in. They just fudge with the timeline a little.

Of course, things get complicated when reports of a witness surface. Suspecting the death [or murder] of his grown autistic son will not be a priority for cops and prosecutors, the victim’s father, Yoo Joong-sik hires a private investigator. Things really get complicated when it is revealed the mystery witness is Ryun-hwa, his son’s arranged wife, an illegal alien from China. Everyone wants to find her, including the maybe not so morally upright Koo.

Okay, so we should all be able to accept the notion politicians will do some pretty reprehensible things to preserve their power by now. However, what makes Idol so interesting is that it shows how far everybody will go to get what they want, as well as the lines they just won’t cross. All the major characters in this film are capable of some pretty extreme actions, but there are also things they just refuse to do. That isn’t necessarily so for some of the minor characters, of whom there are arguably too many. Lee has the questionable habit of introducing new faces very late in the game, just to advance the narrative.

In a somewhat unconventional turn of events, Han Seok-kyu and Sul Kyung-gu shared Fantasia’s best actor honors for their respective turns as Koo and Yoo, but it rather makes sense. Both performances are excellent and there is a weird symbiotic push-pull dynamic shared by their characters. Koo is the less showy role, but Han still has moments that genuinely shock and surprise. Nevertheless, Sul just burns a hole in viewers’ souls with his portrayal of Yoo’s righteous rage and bitter impotency.

Chun Woo-hee’s work as Ryun-hwa also perfectly fits with the film’s ambiguous tone, yo-yoing from femme fatale villainy to frightened vulnerability from scene to scene and moment to moment. Plus, Yo Seung-mok and Hyun Bong-sik do what character actors do best, adding grit and color as Yoo’s investigator and the honest cop working the case.

Idol is a tense film fueled by blistering anger at political corruption and social iniquity, but it has some ragged edges. Motivations are often questionable and sometimes personalities can change drastically for no clearly established reason. Nevertheless, its boldness is bracing, like good, strong aftershave. Recommended for fans of socially conscious thrillers, Idol should have extensive festival screenings ahead of it, after winning the Cheval Noir at this year’s Fantasia.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Fantasia ’19: Dreadout

You can think of it as the Indonesian Silent Hill. Doesn’t that inspire bushels of confidence? It is the first Indonesian video game movie-adaptation, based on a locally produced horror-survival game. Staying alive will be no easy feat, but it never is in a Mo Brothers film. This time around, Kimo Stamboel helms on his own, bringing Dreadout to bigger screens, including Concordia’s SGWU theater, where it had its North American premiere during the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

This will be a case of live by the smart phone, die by the smart phone, or vice versa. To score more followers than their upstart juniors, a group of well-heeled high school seniors decide to break into an abandoned apartment building that was the scene of a notorious crime. Super idea kids. Nothing could go wrong with that plan. To enter, they need the help of Linda, a financially strapped classmate.

Of course, we can immediately tell she was the terrified little girl who witnessed the disastrous exorcism during the prologue. Soon, she also starts regaining memories of that night when the entitled Scooby-Doo gang break through the old police tape cordoning off her former apartment. It had changed since she lived there. Much to everyone’s bafflement, there is now a deep pool right in the middle of the floor. Naturally, it turns out to be a portal to a sinister nether realm that pulls Linda and Jess (the queen bee) through to the other side.

This world is populated with demonic creatures, who all want a piece of Linda. Fortunately, she discovers the flash on her phone will keep them at bay—and possibly even vanquish them. Yes, much game-play-inspired demon flashing will transpire.

As half of the Mo Brothers tandem, with Timo Tjahjanto, Stramboel has jointly directed some pretty extreme movies, like Killers, but this time he goes it alone. The results are strangely ordinary, but the atmosphere is genuinely creepy. In fact, Silent Hill comparisons are indeed apt.

The set design and art direction of Dreadout are genuinely quite striking. The film looks good and Caitlin Haldman solidly anchors the film as down-to-earth Linda. On the other hand, the rest of her classmates are just generic horror movie teens. Only Mike Lucock really stands out from the pack, to any extent, as the older, more corruptible security guard.

Dreadout moves along at a respectable clip, but it has none of the visceral intensity of a film like Killers. It is mostly just okay, which is really the film’s biggest surprise. Still, by the standards of video game movie adaptations, it ranks up there, largely from lack of competition. Recommended for game fans, Dreadout had its North American debut at this year’s Fantasia.

Fantasia ’19: The Incredible Shrinking WKND

In most time-loop movies, the looper gets to start fresh with each reset, but Alba will carry her cuts and stains with her. Fortunately, she is in okay health, despite drinking like a fish, unlike the easily winded Bill Murray. However, her relationship with Pablo is in a sad state. Alba must heal their bond to get back to forward-moving regular life, but she is running out of time and chances in screenwriter-director Jon Mikel Caballero’s The Incredible Shrinking WKND, which had its North American premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Lately, Alba has exhibited behavior typically observed in aging frat boys with Peter Pan syndrome. For Pablo, it just isn’t cute anymore. Yet, it is really her insensitivity to his needs that finally prompts him to break-up with her. This catches her completely off guard, largely spoiling the weekend trip to her childhood vacation cabin she had planned with their friends. Suddenly in a ruminative mood, she wanders past the mysterious old abandoned weapons factory that is presumably the cause of the time-loop she finds herself in.

Of course, Alba is utterly baffled by the situation. She then responds by preemptively dumping Pablo. However, as she resolves to prevent the breakup and heal their relationship (presuming that will break her out of the repeating cycle), Alba figures out each loop lasts exactly one hour less than the one before. Tick-tock.

The glut of time-loop movies could give a science fiction fan Groundhog’s Day Deja vu, but Caballero makes it fresh again, starting with the gender reversal of his hard-partying, irresponsible protagonist. He dexterously reveals more and more revelations regarding Alba’s relationships with Pablo and their friends in each loop, springing new complications that make each successive go-round even trickier for her to navigate. It really is quite a clever script and he stage-manages all of Alba’s rushing about quite effectively.

Iria del Rio is compulsively watchable as Alba, going all in, in a hot mess kind of way. Viewers will get annoyed with her, but remain sympathetic to her predicament. In fact, she shows tremendous range, showing a flair for almost farcical comedy, but also dialing it down for a few surprisingly poignant moments. Frankly, Adam Quintero is mostly underwhelming as Pablo, but Jimmy Castro and Adrian Exposito definitely stir up the pot as two of their noisy, discontented friends.

“Clever” really is the right word to describe WKND, because in addition to all the new twists and tweaks Caballero gives the time loop movie, it also engages in some wickedly droll visual gamesmanship that will sneak up on you if you are not alerted to it beforehand. Probably the best loop movie since the Korean film, A Day (granted, that was just from 2017, but there have been a lot of them since then), The Incredible Shrinking WKND is highly recommended for time-themed science fiction fans, after its North American debut at this year’s Fantasia.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Fantasia ’19: Sadako

Somewhat ironically, the more successful a horror franchise gets, the trickier questions of canonical continuity become. That is certainly true of the Japanese Sadako/Ring/Ringu series. It has at least two separate continuity lines, as well as two Ju-on/Grudge crossovers and an early sequel TV series. That doesn’t even include the first Japanese TV movie that adapted Koji Suzukki’s source novel without much fanfare or the American and Korean remakes. Regardless, fans will be happy to see Hideo Nakata, director of the original Ring and Ring 2 (but not technically the second Ring film) return to the well (so to speak) with a freshened-up new jumping-on point (but not exactly a reboot), Sadako, which had its North American premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

The poor little girl we immediately meet has endured an abusive childhood, not unlike that of Ringu’s Sadako Yamamura. In fact, her psychotic mother, Hatsuko Sobue, is convinced she is the reincarnation of Sadako, but before she can immolate the terrified girl, either Sadako or the would-be victim lights Sobue up, Fire-Starter-style.

The little girl is physically unscathed, but emotionally stunted in the extreme. It will be Dr. Mayu Akikawa’s job to draw out her young patient. However, she gets distracted when her aspiring YouTuber brother Kazuma vanishes after posting an urban exploration video of the burned-out Sobue apartment. Of course, weird things start happening around the hospital, but the epicenter of the madness will be a certain cave.

Instead of just warming up the Ring backstory in a microwave, Nakata and screenwriter Noriaki Sugihara broaden and deepen the Sadako mythology. The film is long on atmosphere and mostly disinclined to peddle in jump scares. The amber-glowing cinematography also gives the film an eerie otherworldly shimmer. Plus, the sound design is as unsettling as ever.

On the other hand, it is hard to believe Elaiza Ikeda’s deer-in-the-headlights Dr. Akikawa would have the wherewithal to mix it up with some kind of demon-spawn. Regardless, young Himeka Himejima deserves a great deal of credit for being heartbreaking vulnerable or legitimately terrifying, depending on the scene. Takashi Tsukamoto also provides a solid Fox Mulder to Akikawa’s Scully, with his portrayal of Yusuke Ishida, her brother’s publicity consultant. Plus, Hiroya Shimizu is painfully credible as the cringe-worthy Kazuma.

A lot of reviewers have uncharitably slammed Sadako as merely a collection of J-horror staples, but what did they really expect? The truth is Nakata established a lot of those conventions, so he is entitled to rip himself off. Regardless, it is definitely creepy, in a vintage 1990s J-horror kind of way. Recommended for fans or as an introduction to J-horror, Sadako had its North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

She’s Just a Shadow

Movies hate pimps, such as Morgan Freeman in Street Smart, but they usually find madams sassy and fun, like Dolly Parton in Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. The power couple of this alleged thriller happen to be a madam and a pimp, but they are both wildly problematic. Sadly, the term ill-conceived applies to almost all aspects of Adam Sherman’s Tokyo-set She’s Just a Shadow, which is now barely playing in New York.

Honestly, the opening scene is so utterly repellent and completely irredeemable, only true professionals will make it past the first five minutes of Shadow. Let’s call out Sherman right here and now, because he directed, wrote, and produced this exercise in soul-deadening cruelty.

A serial killer has been killing women in a truly horrific manner. The part where he ties them to train tracks like Snidely Whiplash is the only aspect of his M.O. remotely fit for polite discourse. Irene the madam and Red Hot the pimp are not very concerned about the escalating death toll, until the freak starts targeting their girls. Supposedly, Irene was more preoccupied with the power struggle she had been waging against her rival, Blue Sky, but the two exploiters were really more interested in partying with the girls and their vacant-eyed pal, Gaven.

Somehow, Shadow manages to be disturbingly violent and glacially slow. As a thriller, the film is a complete bust. Our protags figure out who the killer is about halfway through, but they opt to do nothing about it, leaving him free to murder more women in their employment.

Among the “woke,” labeling a film misogynistic is a lazy way to demonize films that are not to their aesthetic liking, but in the case of Shadow, it really is true. The violence and belittling of women here are beyond excessive. As an added bonus, Sherman periodically throws in tripped out psychedelic Ozu buffer-transitions from Hell, including utterly baffling shots of smiling blue teeth.

Sadly, this film represents a perilous misstep for Tao Okamoto, who had been building an international rep in some major Hollywood film and television shows (including The Wolverine). Arguably, she is actually pretty good as Irene, but everyone else around her is a mess, flailing around and mangling the dialogue they appear to be repeating phonetically. For obvious reasons, that makes the ridiculously over-written voice-over narrations even more awkward and embarrassing.

This is a bad film according to any objective standard. Sherman cannot even earn credit for the naughty naked bits, because the women’s makeup is so distractingly garish and unattractively heavy. There is flat-out nothing to see here. Absolutely not recommended, She’s Just a Shadow still has a couple of lonely screenings to go at the Cinema Village in New York.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Fantasia ’19: Extreme Job

Being a small businessman is not so different from being a cop. Both have a tough time making ends meet and the bottom-feeding media is only too happy to score cheap points against either. At least independent proprietors can be their own boss. That is why narcotics team leader Go will be tempted to make it permanent when he goes undercover as a purveyor of fried chicken in Lee Byeong-heon’s Extreme Job, which screens again during the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Go’s team made a real hash of their last case, so if they do not rack up some high-profile collars quickly, they are likely to be disbanded. The five misfit cops decide to follow a rival squad leader’s tip, staking out long-suspected drug kingpin Lee Moo-bae’s new hideout. There is definitely illegal business going on behind closed doors, but the chicken shop they have been using to monitor Lee’s gang is about to go out of business. In the spirit of all or nothing, Go uses his pension fund to buy it out.

Of course, they will have to sell some chicken to keep up appearances. Oddly enough, Det. Ma, the compulsive gambler and general foul-up, happens to have a knack with chicken. In fact, his chicken with rib marinade becomes a foodie sensation. Suddenly, Go and his team are too busy filling orders to do much police work, which frustrates the hard-charging veteran and the idealistic newbie. However, things take a surprise turn when the media starts nosing around.

Extreme Job is one of the relatively rare South Korean comedies that translates quite well for American audiences. Of course, it does not hurt that there is quite a bit of action, including a massive beatdown climax. However, it really works because Lee Byeong-heon and screenwriter Bae Se-young take a clever premise and fully develop it. They do not simply milk a few chuckles out of the prospect of cops distracted by their own chicken-slinging cover. This Macguffin takes on a life of its own.

It is also amusing to see Ryu Seung-ryong, the grizzled star of films like The Target, The War of the Arrows, and The Front Line, playing such a sad-eyed, snake-bit underdog. He still shows off plenty of action chops down the stretch. Although he is more than a bit annoying at first, rubber-faced Jin Seon-kyu also develops some roguish charm as the culinary-skilled Ma.

Thanks to the game cast (Go’s Fab Five), Extreme Job has quite a bit of genial charm. It is easy to see why it broke Korean box office records and has Kevin Hart kicking the tires of a potential American remake. It is just a lot of easy-going fun, somewhat in the spirit of the original Beverly Hills Cop and Stakeout movies. Recommended for fans of cop comedies, Extreme Job screens again next Wednesday (7/31), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

Fantasia ’19: Ghost in the Shell Virtual Reality Diver (VR short)

Major Motoko Kusanagi is one of the most beloved characters in anime—hence the strong emotions riled up by the “white-washed” casting of Scarlett Johansson in the live action Hollywood adaptation. Fans will be happy to see the real anime Kusanagi is back, but she only has fifteen minutes to save near-future Japan in Hiroaki Higashi’s Ghost in the Shell: Virtual Reality Diver, an immersive VR short that screened (or goggled) during the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

If it is your heart’s desire to freefall over a dystopian Tokyo than Diver is about as close as you can get, for now. The experience might make some headset wearers a little nauseous, but try to enjoy the scenery on the way down, because the panoramic 360 field of vision was rendered by Production I.G with their usual attention to detail and flare for spectacle. In fact, if you are not constantly looking around, you are missing out.

Fans also will not want to miss an original and entirely self-contained Ghost in the Shell story. Having the just completed her latest tune-up (more of a rebuild), the now entirely cyborg-ized (but fully conscious) Kusanagi is scrambled to defend a Kuzan peace delegation from terrorist Okitatsu Oribe. To do so, she will have to fight him both in physical reality and in cyberspace, both of which are pretty trippy to plunge into via VR.

Yet, maybe the coolest thing about Diver is that screenwriter Junichi Fujisaku and the I.G team still find ways to address the franchise’s over-riding theme: just what does it mean to be human in a cyber age? Kusanagi is keenly aware of her cybernetic status and the awkward fact Oribe’s weaknesses are rotted in his acutely human condition.

So yeah, there is some substance there, but the whole point is soak up the visuals and feel the rush. Clearly, I.G takes their bread-and-butter franchise world seriously, because they took considerable care translating it to a VR short format (still considered pretty gimmicky by a lot of folks). Although Ghost in the Shell: Virtual Reality Diver is now available on several VR platforms, many fans’ best chance to see it will during festivals, like this year’s Fantasia, where it was a selection of the virtual reality section.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Fantasia ’19: The Prey

Joel McCrae in the original 1932 Most Dangerous Game film was the exception. The villains in every subsequent people-hunting movie always have a knack for choosing the worst possible quarry, like Jean-Claude Van Damme in Hard Target, Michael Dudikoff in Avenging Force, and Ice-T in Surviving the Game. Undercover Chinese cop Xin is cut from the same butt-kicking cloth. When he winds up in an off-the-books Cambodian prison, he will have to survive the warden’s special hunt in Jimmy Henderson’s The Prey, which had its Canadian premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Xin was working undercover infiltrating a gang of cyber-thieves targeting China when he was swept up in a local bust. Justice is swift in Phenom Penh, so he soon finds himself remanded to a remote jungle prison. Not surprisingly, his martial arts skills earn him a spot in the latest hunt the warden organizes for carefully selected customers. This time, his regular client Mat has brought along his fabulously wealthy but ragingly psychotic nephew “T,” so good times are sure to be had.

Of course, Xin will be gosh-darned difficult to kill. As a further complicating wrinkle, his Chinese colleagues will follow the tracking device in his confiscated Rolex, but they are definitely out of their element. Essentially, Xin will have to rely on himself—maybe getting a small degree of help from the thief who also survives the initial culling with him.

Yes, this kind of story has been done many times before. Some films have offered more interesting twists, but Henderson keeps it simple, preferring to rely on the action chops of newcomer Gu Shangwei. Fortunately, he has the moves and the grit, resembling a cross between Tiger Chen and vintage Jimmy Wang Yu.

Gu should earn himself a lot of attention for his work in Prey, but as of now, Vithaya Pansringarm is probably the best-known cast-member. Recognizable to western audiences for portraying the corrupt warden in A Prayer Before Dawn and the corrupt warden in Mechanic: Resurrection, this time around Pansringarm plays—the corrupt warden. It’s like he has become the Strother Martin of Southeast Asia.

Byron Bishop and Nophand Boonyai also make strong secondary villains, so viewers can anticipate plenty of cathartic payback. Italian expat Henderson never gets too fancy, but the legit rain forest settings definitely give it a humid atmosphere of authenticity. The Prey has been billed as Cambodia’s first million-dollar action movie, but its charms are really more that of grungy old school beat-downs. Easily recommended for straight-up action fans, The Prey had its Canadian premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Fantasia ’19: Ride Your Wave

This case of young love is so sweet it could put you into a diabetic coma, but since it comes via anime, most of us will be okay with it. Hinako Mukaimizu and Minato Hinageshi are an obscenely cute couple, but their romance will be mixed with tragedy in Masaaki Yuasa’s Ride Your Wave, which had its North American premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Mukaimizu is already a legend on a surf board, but she is uncomfortable navigating life on dry land. In contrast, everything seems to come easily to Hinageshi, the dashing young fireman, except surfing. Both Hinageshi and his junior, Kawamura Wasabi, noticed Mukaimizu from afar, but it is Hinageshi who turns her head. Of course, he was at the right place, at the right time: rescuing her from her burning apartment building, on a fire department cherry-picker.

Things get serious quickly between them, but their happiness will be rudely interrupted by misfortune. Yet, somehow, they maybe find a way to stay together. In fact, there is a bit of a fantastical twist. Meanwhile, Wasabi and Hinageshi’s sister Yoko start playing larger roles in the drama.

Thematically, Ride Your Wave feels like a closer cousin to Naoko Yamada’s A Silent Voice than Yuasa’s previous films, even including The Night is Short, Walk on Girl. Regardless, it packs an emotional haymaker that rivals Your Name. This is definitely the kind of film that will give you the sniffles down the stretch. Yes, it is shamelessly sentimental, but it also lays a lot of character development ground work that pays off big time.

Yuasa’s aquatic motifs give him the opportunity for some delightfully colorful and splashy visuals. His “new adult” characters are also ridiculously attractive, as physical specimens and as sensitive young kids. However, Michiru Oshima’s groovy instrumental soundtrack and Generations from Exile Tribe’s candy-coated J-pop theme song really make the film so lethally effective.

It is refreshing to see a film that is so unabashedly romantic and utterly unapologetic about wearing its emotions on its sleeve. The surf and sun might bring to mind the 1960s Japanese “Sun Tribe” movies for some cineastes, but the earnest characters are a welcome rebuke to the sociopaths of Crazed Fruit and its ilk. This is a wholesome film, just like Mukaimizu (and surfer girls like Gidget and Annette Funicello before her). Highly recommended for fans of Japanese animation and beach movies, Ride Your Wave had its North American premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Fantasia ’19: It Comes

Hereditary’s Ari Aster cannot hold a candle to Tetsuya Nakashima when it comes to portraying extreme human emotions. Technically, this is his first outright horror movie, but aesthetically, it is not so far distant from films like Confessions and Memories of Matsuko. The only thing more intense then the family dysfunction in his latest work is the supernatural horror looming over Nakashima’s It Comes, which had its Canadian premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Newlyweds Hideki and Kana Tahara look like a picture-book couple, but there was a strange incident from his childhood that continues to haunt his dreams and subconscious. There is a sinister force out there that still “calls out” to him. The birth of his daughter Chisa was a happy event for the couple and their friends, but it might provide an opening for the ominous supernatural power to get its hooks into the nuclear family.

When wild things start happening around him, Tahara reaches out to Kazuhiro Nozaki, an expert on the occult, and his girlfriend, Makoto Higa, a self-taught psychic. However, the uncanny entity is too powerful for her to handle. Much to her chagrin, the Tahara family will need the help of Higa’s arrogant older sister Kotoko, a professional exorcist highly trained in the shamanistic arts. Then you-know-what happens—a lot of it.

It Comes is a heck of a wild ride. It starts on a micro level, but Nakashima quickly takes it macro, staging bigger and more-over-the-top horror movie exorcisms than you have ever seen before. There are also multiple shocking surprises in store for viewers. In fact, we start out assuming it is about one set of characters, but it really turns out to be about an entirely different group of folks. It Comes morphs into a very different film than what you expect, but that makes it genuinely surprising, almost (but not quite) like seeing Hitchcock’s Psycho again for the first time.

Takako Matsu, who rocked Nakashima’s Confessions, commands the screen as Kotoko Higa, portraying a psychic exorcist distinctive enough to rival Lin Shaye in the Insidious franchise. Jun’ichi Okada really sells the film’s extreme madness, convincingly playing Nozaki as the character is dragged sideways through the proverbial wringer. Nana Komatsu and Haru Kuroki, as Makoto and Kana, respectively, also convincingly shift gears multiple times over, completely keeping viewers off balance.

This is a scary film and an insane spectacle. It is also Nakashima’s best film since Confessions, representing a rebound after the comparatively disappointing World of Kanako. Enthusiastically recommended for fans of films like Hereditary, Insidious, and The Conjuring, It Comes premiered in Canada during this year’s Fantasia.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Fantasia ’19: Mystery of the Night

Think of it as A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in Spanish colonial Philippines, but the forest spirits are very, very angry. Karma is a you-know-what for a privileged aristocratic family and a wronged feral woman will be the instrument of their destruction in Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr’s Mystery of the Night, which had its world premiere at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Without question, the most striking scenes in Mystery are the opening and closing shadow silhouette sequences that share a similar aesthetic vibe with the Lion King Broadway production, except they are considerably darker—of course.

Not surprisingly, it is all the fault of a hypocritical Spanish priest, who finds it rather inconvenient when a woman he impregnated starts heckling him in front of his church before masses. Believing she is insane, the wealthy mayor Anselmo agrees to abandon her deep in the forest during his next hunting expedition. He keeps his promise, but he returns home a cursed man—literally.

Years later, his son Domingo continues the family tradition of journeying into the forest most of the other Spaniards fear to enter. This time, he encounters the woman’s feral daughter, who was raised by the mythical spirits and wild animals of the woods. Her pheromones exert such a powerful influence over him, he forgets himself with her. He also forgets his wife, making promises to her he definitely shouldn’t. When his betrayal becomes clear, the forest orphan’s rage will manifest itself in supernatural ways.

Mystery is either hypnotic or sluggishly paced, depending on how indulgent you are. Visually it is quite striking and the forest setting is so evocative you can practically smell the underbrush. However, the film practically trips over its heavy-handed anti-colonialist message. Borinaga Alix and screenwriters Rody Vera and Maynard Manansala (who adapted Vera’s stage play) completely throw subtlety out the window.

Still, there are some cool effects and make-up, particularly the spirit with eyes (that open and close) all over his arms and shoulders. There are also some really grotesque bits that will impress gore fans. Above all, Solenn Heussaff really deserves credit for going all in as the feral woman. It is truly a wildly animalistic and highly sexualized performance. Frankly, the sum of the film’s parts is probably greater than its whole.

Arguably, Mystery is too artsy for its own good. A faster tempo and a little less sermonizing would bring its message to more viewers. Only recommended for high-end cineastes, Mystery of the Night had its world premiere at this year’s Fantasia.