Monday, August 31, 2020

Fantasia ’20: A Mermaid in Paris

Sailors know. There is a reason the old salts fear mermaids and sirens, because they really are out to get men. Lula assumes Gaspard Snow will be her latest victim, but the retro-crooner is weirdly immune to her siren song. Yet, she starts to fear for the broken-hearted entertainer’s life as cares for the beached creature in Mathias Malzieu’s A Mermaid in Paris, which screened during the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Snow would have been happier in the past, so he tries his best to live there. He and his father operate a secret nightclub in the lower deck of a houseboat that was founded by his grandmother and her associates, the Surprisers. During the National Socialist occupation, the Surprisers were an underground resistance cell, who also raised the city’s spirits by leaving whimsical toys on the street for children. Snow tries to keep their spirit alive, but that kind of chanson-elan is not widely appreciated these days.

After a late-night set, he finds Lula washed up on the river bank, with a clearly injured tail fin. The hospital refuses to examine her without a national insurance card, so he takes her back to his bath tub instead. Lula is amazed he can function at all, because her song has left several bewitched men ailing in their wake. She is even more impressed when he is still hail and hearty the next day. According to Snow, his last love affair left him heartbroken and immune to love. Lula is sort of happy to hear that, because she is starting to feel something for him.

Mermaid in Paris
sounds like a conventional fish-out-of-water rom-com (which Lula literally is), but Malzieu’s visual approach is endlessly inventive. After seeing this film, it is clear he is the perfect director to tackle a film version of The Drowsy Chaperone. Best known for the animated Jack and the Cuckoo Clock Heart, Malzieu occasionally incorporates animation into Mermaid, but he really shows a knack for letting visual set pieces unfold before our eyes.

Pieges, on MHz

Elsa Aubry is about to receive an Indecent Proposal, but it won’t jeopardize her marriage—just her soul. Some unknown benefactor will offer her one million Euros, ostensibly as an inheritance, if she simply kills someone, who supposedly really deserves it. The dedicated wife and mother is not a murderer, but she desperately needs the money. Of course, the offer is also not as straight-forward as it is initially presented in creator-co-writer Chris Lang’s two-part French drama Pieges, which premieres tomorrow on MHz Choice.

Clearly, murder is not an enforceable contract item, but the lawyer Dugard maintains willful ignorance. He merely schedules a meeting with Aubry and gives her a flashdrive with a video file to be watched in his absence. If she refuses, Aubry still pockets 5,000 Euros for her troubles. However, if she returns in three days, she will learn who she must kill and when.

Aubry’s first instincts were to go to the police. However, her husband Marc convinces her to at least take the 5K. They are already struggling to make ends meet, even before her Leukemia-survivor daughter Zoe suddenly suffers a relapse. Ordinarily, Aubry would never entertain such an offer, but when Zoe’s only hope is an experimental treatment in Chicago not covered by insurance, Marc is willing to consider it for her.

The format of
Pieges is relatively unusual these days, consisting of two hour-long installments, but it divides quite evenly, both in terms of narrative break and emotional tone. In fact, Pieges is quite effective and compelling, because Lang and co-writers Julien Teisseire, Claire Lemarechal, and Simon Jablonka go micro rather than macro when they reveal the truth behind the secret conspiracy. Instead of an international internet cabal, what is going on is actually deeply personal.

The likable and sympathetic Aubry family dynamics further raise the stakes. It is rather notable and refreshing that Marc is Aubry’s second husband, but Zoe fully accepts him as her father figure. As a result, we can credibly accept any decision they might and still root for them.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Fantasia ’20: The Oak Room

A guy walks into a bar. In this case, a duck does not tell the bartender to put the newcomer’s drink on his bill, but the man has a darkly ironic tale of his own to tell. Naturally, when the punchline finally comes, it is a real killer in Cody Calahan’s The Oak Room, produced by prolific Canadian genre director Chad Archibald, which screens again tomorrow during the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.

It has been years since Steve returned to his snowy hometown in the Canadian lake country, but Paul is still not happy to see him. Nevertheless, he indulges his late customer’s son, as Steve tells him a story of an unusual crime that happened in The Oak Room, a bar very much like Paul’s bar in a similar lake town nearby.

Of course, Paul will interrupt the tale with his own flashbacks and Steve’s perverse insistence in telling the story out of chronological sequence tries the barkeep’s patience, but it will eventually make sense from a cinematic perspective. Of course, to reveal much more than that would be telling.

The Oak Room is very much in the tradition of 1990’s thrillers starring the likes of Steve Buscemi and Harvey Keitel that were promoted as something much more important than they really were, because of their indie status, but which we can better appreciate now for their lean and mean efficiency. Likewise, if you do not allow your expectations to snowball, you should be able to enjoy all the twists, turns, and reversals Calahan and company have in-store for the audience.

Fantasia ’20: Detention

During Taiwan’s “White Terror,” the KMT ruled over a one-party authoritarian regime. Despite formerly professing an anti-communist ideology, the KMT is now well-known as the Taiwanese political party most closely-aligned with Beijing and opposed to formal independence. You would think the Taiwanese would stop voting for the KMT—and they have. Pres. Tsai Ing-wen overwhelmingly defeated KMT candidate Han Kuo-yu, who was subsequently turned out of his mayoral office in a decisive recall election. Such election results would please the students in Wei Chong-ting, if they could live to see them. Tragically, it appears most of them are trapped in purgatory, as a result of the torture they endure in John Hsu’s Detention, which screened at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

The popular Mr. Chang and the very serious Miss Yin both supply books and guidance to Wei’s underground book club. Not surprisingly, a “model student” like Fang Ray-shin is not a member. Since her father is a high-ranking officer, she is about the only student who is not constantly under the microscope of Instructor Bai, the school’s military advisor. Yet, it is Chang whom Fang pines for.

Clearly, someone informed on the group, leading to disastrous consequences for them all, but Fang’s involvement is not exactly clear, even though she seems to share a similar fate as the others. She and Wei must figure it out together, when they suddenly awake in a surreal, nightmarish version of their school.

It is probably safe to say
Detention is the best film based on a video game produced so far and most likely superior to any that might come in the future. Adapted from the horror adventure game of the same title, Detention is deeply steeped in Taiwanese history and also considerably informed by Buddhist teachings. Yet, the imagery is old school supernatural horror, all the way.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Fantasia ’20: Hunted

“The Handsome Guy” and his accomplice originally did not set out for another “Most Dangerous Game”-style people-hunting excursion. They aren’t that sporting. However, when their latest prospective victim escapes into the woods, they inevitably chase after her. It turns out the pagan spirits of nature will pick a side (and it won’t be the predators) in Vincent Paronnaud’s Hunted, which screened at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

The campfire-story prologue tells us this wooded setting is somewhat akin to that of
In the Company of Wolves, but the forest has its own collective, Jungian, Gaia-goddess consciousness. That is about the only good news of the night for Eve (hmm, wonder why they chose that name? Maybe in honor of Eve Arden?). After a night drinking in a strange, vaguely Euro, English-speaking-with-an-accent town, Handsome and his accomplice stuffed her in their trunk, with the intention of doing terrible things to her. When a freak accident sets her free, she is off and running. The psychos would seem to have all the advantages, but the spirit of the forest will do what it can to level the playing field.

Even with the stylized preamble, the first two acts of
Hunted still play like traditional neo-grindhouse victimization-and-revenge horror. However, things get interesting in the third act, when Paronnaud brings back the campers from the prologue. The action gets really messy and complicated, but in inventive ways.

Still, this is definitely quite far afield from Paronnaud’s classy collaborations with Marjane Satrapi,
Persepolis and Chicken with Plums. Even Paronnaud’s super-cool zombie short Territory has greater cinematic scope. Yet, it should be readily stipulated, the payback pays-off in a big way.

Fantasia ’20: Class Action Park

Established in 1978, Action Park was really two parks divided by a highway: Water World and Motor World. You could say it was like Westworld and Futureworld, but more dangerous. Founder Eugene Mulvihill developed the attraction at a time when many thought Vernon, NJ could become the next Vegas. Instead, he turned it into Lord of the Flies. Action Park’s wild rides and wild times are sometimes fondly chronicled in Scott Porges & Chris Charles Scott III’s documentary, Class Action Park, which is currently streaming on HBO Max, closely following its international premiere at the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Affectionately called Uncle Gene by his under-trained teen employees, former Wall Street wheeler-dealer Mulvihill developed Action Park with capital raised by notorious penny stock pusher Robert Brennan. Trump almost came in on the deal too, but Mulvihill’s cowboy ways were too much for him.

Mulvihill definitely played it fast and loose when it came to safety regulations. To save money, he even fabricated a Cayman-based insurance company to supposedly underwrite the dodgy enterprise. Ironically, one of the bonuses of having a transparently bogus insurance company was it made trial lawyers decidedly unenthusiastic to pursue suits against him. Yet, Mulvihill genuinely seemed to want to provide adrenalized thrills for his visitors, so he routinely pushed the envelop when constructing rides, like the notorious waterslide, the Cannonball Loop.

Actually, all of the rides at Action Park were notorious. The film is filled with colorful survival stories from one attraction after another. Yet, for 1980s Jersey meatheads, unruliness of the park environment and the genuinely dangerous nature of the rides were all part of the appeal. Indeed, there seems to be an endless reservoir of anecdotes from former employees and guests that alternate in tone from disbelief they participated in such lunacy to pride they had the guts to stare death in the face.

Porges & Scott generally strike a nice balance between nostalgia for the craziness and respect for the very real tragedies that occurred there. Less persuasive are attempts to use Action Park as a club to bludgeon the enterprising spirit of the 1980s and Pres. Reagan’s modest attempts to deregulate the over-burdened economy, especially since the film clearly implies Mulvihill had local politicians running interference for him.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Fantasia ’20: The Weather is Lovely (short)

It turns out we can even blame millennials for bad weather. In this case, the irresponsible party is Claude, a rookie cloud-maker. When he drops his cloud-maker, it causes a potentially apocalyptic storm in Lien Chun-chien’s charming animated short film, The
 Weather is Lovely, which screened at the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Claude is a bit of a careless goof-off. The same cannot be said of Yin, the diligent young meteorologist conducting research in the observatory below him. When Claude’s device shorts out, it releases a thunderous cyclone. Although Claude tries to remain out of site, he will need her cooperation to avert catastrophe as the storm gains in size and severity. He will also have to cowboy up.

Weather is indeed a lovely sight that bears comparison to vintage Studio Ghibli studio films (particularly The Wind Rises, given some thematic similarities). There is a mildly steampunky vibe to the film’s tech, but Claude’s cloud conveyance also has an old school sci-fi aesthetic, in the tradition of The Rocketeer. It is also appealing to see two STEMmy young people working together and developing a romantic affinity (naturally enough).

Entwined: Lost in a Greek Forest Fable

What’s Greek for “you aren’t from around here, are you?” Their diet might be Mediterranean, but Dr. Panos’s new village neighbors are as superstitious and wary of outsiders as hardscrabble Appalachians. He expects to be busy as the first ever doctor in town, but it turns out the only one he will have to save is himself in Minos Nikolakakis’s Entwined, which releases virtually today.

His father’s death from cancer left Panos’s faith in medicine shaken, so he takes a Joel Fleischman posting in a quaint mountain community, expecting it to boost his confidence. However, his arrival is met with indifference bordering on contempt. When Panos has a chance encounter with the reclusive Danae, he thinks he has finally found someone he can rescue. He figures he can treat the strange bark-like rash on her shoulder with standard drugs and deliver her from the weird old man, whom he presumes is her sexually abusive father.

However, once he spends a night with Danae, the forest will not let him leave. We can immediately see she is some kind of pagan variant on the succubus archetype, but Panos is literally bewitched. Meanwhile, only his exasperated half-brother George seems to be concerned about his whereabouts.

is a hard film to get a handle on, because it combines the aesthetics of Catherine Breillat’s adult fairy tale films (like Bluebeard and The Sleeping Beauty) with the New Greek Weird Wave. It never really works as folk horror film, because Nikolakakis keeps both the emotions and the genre elements at arm’s length. We are also always several plot points ahead of poor, bedazzled Panos, which inevitably leads to audience impatience.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Fantasia ’20: Monster Seafood War

Drawn butter won’t save the world, but maybe weaponized rice vinegar can. The trick will be cracking the crab kaiju’s thick shell. The world is in grave peril, but the giant mutant parts are shockingly tasty in Minoru Kawasaki’s Monster Seafood Wars, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Yuta Tanuma is having a bad day. Already fired from the cutting edge, super-growth formula project that he invented, the former scientist is now working at his father’s sushi restaurant. He was supposed to deliver a fresh crab, octopus, and squid as an offering to the neighborhood Buddhist temple, but he is waylaid along the way. The mysterious mugger does not merely steal his seafood. He also doses them with a completed variant of Tanuma’s own unfinished Setap-Z serum.

Fortunately, there was a witness to the crime, so instead of being a suspect, Tanuma is recruited by SMAT, the Seafood Monster Attack Team. They make U.N.C.L.E. sound pretty silly, don’t they? Rather awkwardly, Tanuma is now supposed to work collaboratively with his contemptuous high school crush Nana Hoshiyama, and his well-heeled rival, Hikoma. It is Hikoma who develops the rice vinegar cannons that tenderize Takolla, and Ikalla, the octopus and squid. Unfortunately, Kanilla the crab is a tougher nut to crack. However, it is SMAT’s chef who makes the game-changing discovery when he cooks up some kaiju pieces that came loose during a skirmish.

Basically, if the
Ultraman franchise is too serious and sophisticated for your palate, this retro “Suitmation” rubber monster movie might be more your speed. It is definitely Kawaski’s thing. He is also the auteur responsible (if that is the right word) for The World Sinks Except Japan, so if you are looking for any semblance of realism, look elsewhere.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Fantasia ’20: Sheep Without a Shepherd

Li Weijie is sort of like Remington Steele, except he uses his encyclopedic knowledge of movies to obscure a crime rather than solve it. Nobody would begrudge him, since his daughter was the real victim. Unfortunately, the roofying creep she accidentally sent to his eternal judgment happened to be the son of the police chief. The two concerned parents face-off against each other in Sam Quah’s Thai-set, Chinese-produced Sheep Without a Shepherd, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Li stretches his income as a freelance IT guy as best as he can, because his daughters are the apple of his eye. Pingping is a teenager with great potential, but she was easy prey for the scummy Suchat at their youth leadership camp. When he shows up to blackmail her for more, things escalate into violence. Returning home just in time to take charge of the aftermath, Li knows better than to trust the cops. Instead, he uses his love of movies as a guide to construct a false alibi for his family.

Having a fistful of receipts for the day in question, Li takes his family back to retrace his steps, but they go out of their way to talk-up potential witnesses. He expects by the time the cops interview them, everything will blend together in their heads and they will inadvertently confirm Li’s timeline. The problem is Police Chief Laaorn is no dummy, just an excessively indulgent mother.

is technically a remake of a Malayam movie, but the film that most directly influences Li Weijie’s plan is Jung Geon-sub’s Montage. It isn’t bad, but Sheep is better—at least if you disregard the ridiculously moralizing epilogue, presumably tacked on to satisfy the Chinese censors. (He also takes some inspiration from Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution, which is still better than either film.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

DieRy: Stalking Goes Off-Line

Being an Instagrammer is almost a profession these days. Likewise, films about social media stars with stalkers are almost a sub-genre unto themselves. This is not the movie that will make either respectable. When an unhinged admirer steals Marie Clark’s diary, it sends her life spiraling in Jennifer Gelfer’s DieRy (the combination of “die” and “diary,” don’t you see?), which releases today on VOD.

Clark (careful not to call her “Claire”) has something like 200K followers, so that is good enough to earn her some meaningful influencer sponsorships. Unfortunately, she still has to deal with creepy photographers. Yet, she continues to work on her masters in comparative religions, especially since she has the hots for her faculty advisor, Dr. Harris, a former special ops veteran.

After Clark’s diary is stolen during a party, she starts getting weird anonymous letters from someone who thinks they understand who she is. They also make references to the murders the unknown party starts committing. Somewhat logically, Clark suspects everyone in her vacuous social circle, except Harris, who refers her to Angus, a scrappy private investigator he knows from his murky days in military service.

It is hard to describe
DieRy in way that does it justice. Basically, it starts out like a Lifetime original movie that utterly vilifies social media, but it evolves into an off-the-wall crackpot conspiracy thriller. In terms of tone, think of it as Showgirls, but with awkward Sumerian religious references instead of the sex and nudity (indeed, DieRy is surprisingly chaste). Throughout it all, most of the overheated ensemble act like they are auditioning for a new Melrose Place reboot.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Hard Kill: Bruce Willis Keeps Working

Think of this as a more down-to-earth, action-driven take on the themes of Sneakers. A military contractor’s Social Justice Warrior daughter developed a super-AI that she hoped could run the world in a more equitable manner. The board just wanted to sell it to the military. Instead, she tried to give it to a terrorist preaching the gospel of class warfare. Obviously, that was a huge mistake. Now a small team of mercenaries must protect the magnate and his fail safe, while hopefully rescuing his daughter in Matt Eskandari’s Hard Kill, which releases tomorrow on VOD.

For reasons that never make much sense, Chalmers and Fox, his chief security executive, have made the assignment perversely difficult for Miller’s team. The idea, such as it is, was to hole-up in an extremely vulnerable abandoned factory, knowing the terrorists would attack with superior firepower and numbers. Miller knows their leader well. The extreme socialist egalitarian now known as “The Pardoner” (a sly Chaucer reference, probably the smartest part of the film), nearly killed him years ago with a cowardly bullet to the back.

Fortunately, Chalmers’ daughter Ava now recognizes what a violent megalomaniac the Pardoner always has been. She will definitely throw her lot in with Chalmers and Millers’ motley mercs, if she gets a chance. However, keeping Chalmers and the code in his safe is of paramount importance.

Hard Kill
is definitely another Bruno-Pack VOD production. It is helmed by Eskandari, who previously directed Bruce Willis in Survive the Night and Trauma Center, and also features Texas Battle (as Fox), who co-starred in Trauma Center, 10 Minutes Gone, and Marauders. The truth is Willis and Battle have a slick professionalism that well serves an unpretentious action film like this.

In contrast, both Jesse Metcalfe and Sergio Rizzuto are blahly bland as Miller and the Pardoner. That is particularly problematic in the case of the Pardoner, considering all the fiery Bernie Sanders-from-Hell rhetoric screenwriters Chris Lamont and Joe Russo give him. A villain with more sinister presence really could have made this movie something, but instead it is just another VOD release from Willis and company.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Fantasia ’20: At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul

If his funereal top hat and cape were not enough to make you suspect Ze do Caixao, a.k.a. “Coffin Joe,” was capable of some serious villainy, his devilish beard and long creepy finger nails should have been a dead giveaway. He was the sinister anti-hero of Brazil’s first horror movie, who became an international horror icon. In tribute to Jose Mojica Marins, the man who created and portrayed Coffin Joe, three of his most notorious favorites are screening as on-demand selections of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival, including the original, At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul.

Coffin Joe is the undertaker of a small post-war Brazilian town, who always makes sure he has a steady stream of business. He does not look particularly imposing, but he terrorizes his neighbors through the sheer sinister force of his will. (In subsequent films, we also learn he is uncannily hard to kill.) He is legally married, but he is openly scornful of his barren wife (and the passive-aggressive hostility is mutual). Obsessed with the idea of reproducing his “superior” bloodline, Coffin Joe covets Terezinha, the fiancée of Antonio, who happens to be the only villager that considers him a friend (like that matters to Ze).

When Antonio invites old Joe to visit a Roma fortune-teller, the villainous undertaker plans to murder him afterward. Of course, the old crone (very much in the tradition of Maleva in the old Universal monster movies) can see Coffin Joe’s intentions and foretells his eventual doom. Naturally, this just makes Ze scoff in her face. However, Coffin Joe will not be laughing so hard when things start to take a supernatural turn during the third act, which will indeed culminate at midnight.

Frankly, it blows the mind to think a film this twisted was let loose upon the world in 1964, the year of saccharine songs like “Chapel of Love” and “People [Who Need People].” It isn’t the just the brutality of CJ’s murders, but also the militant vehemence of his philosophical nihilism. He definitely thinks he is a superman (in the Nietzschean sense), so he has no qualms about acting accordingly. Yet, the film itself is ultra-atmospheric, rendered by cinematographer Giorgio Attili in a super-spooky black-and-white. In terms of look, it is a lot like dreamy vintage Val Lewton, but thematically,
Midnight can hang with the New French Extremity.

Fantasia ’20: You Wouldn’t Understand (short)

It is like the science fiction take on the old Grey Poupon commercials. How so, you might ask? Well, its complicated. It turns out there is a lot of space-time-continuum stuff involved in Trish Harnetiaux’s short film, You Wouldn’t Understand, which screened as part of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Some short films are tricky to review because they entirely hinge around an ironic O. Henry revelation. Others are difficult to write about extensively, simply due to their brevity. Both factors apply to Harnetiaux’s film, co-written with co-star and co-producer Jacob A. Ware. A man is enjoying a fabulously well-appointed picnic, when suddenly another fellow pops up from the surrounding field. Do you happen to have any “horsey sauce” he asks, presumably meaning horseradish. From there it gets strange.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Fantasia ’20: The Woman in the Photographs

Kai wears white suits like Mr. Roarke on Fantasy Island. As a photo re-touch specialist, he helps his clients project a fantasy version of themselves, despite the contempt he holds for them. Kyoko wears red shoes like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. She would rather live in the fantasy she projects to her online followers, but the scar on her chest is a constant reminder of reality. They are either perfectly matched and totally ill-suited to each other. It is hard for them to tell throughout Takeshi Kushida’s The Woman in the Photographs, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2020 Fantasia International FilmFestival.

The digital revolution was not kind to neighborhood photo studios, but Kai still ekes out a living. His primary clients are Saijo, the neighboring mortician, who often needs a respectable ceremonial pictures photoshopped from more causal photos, and unmarried women in need of touched-up photos for their match-making services. He meets Kyoko by chance when an ambitious selfie attempt goes awry. Kai helps her get the shot and then erases her scars.

Kai has never been comfortable around women, partly because his mother died in childbirth, so he is more annoyed than excited when Kyoko crashes in his small flat attached to the shop. However, when Saijo suggests letting her stay, at least until she is back on her feet, Kai passively agrees. As they spend time together, Kyoko starts to rebuild her followers, with the help of his skills, but he also encourages her darker, more self-destructive instincts, though their strange gamesmanship.

In fact, Kyoko vividly proves narcissism and self-loathing are not mutually exclusive. She and Kai offer up extensive grist psychological analysis, both separately and together as an undefinable couple. This is a film that will make viewers deeply uncomfortable, but there are also moments that will brings tears to your eyes.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Fantasia ’20: Crazy Samurai Musashi

Miyamoto Musashi was an epic figure. He was the subject of Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai Trilogy (staring Toshiro Mifune) and it took Tomu Uchida six films to do justice to his story. However, Musashi liked to keep things simple. His classic strategy treatise The Book of Five Rings usually runs under 200 pages, in translation. The latest cinematic treatment Musashi is both simple and epic. The illustrious swordsman will slice through 588 opponents during one long, continuous take in director-fight choreographer Yuji Shimomura’s Crazy Samurai Musashi, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Previously, Musashi killed the patriarch of the Yoshioka clan, so they challenged him to a duel that is really an ambush. In addition to the clan’s loyal members and retainers, 300 mercenaries lay in wait for him. Clearly, the Yoshioka’s plan will not work out as they hope, but on the bright side, Musashi will save them a fortune in mercenaries’ wages.

Thusly begins a non-stop, uncut battle between Musashi and hundreds of opponents. There is not a heck of a lot of dialogue, but the screenplay is still credited to the one and only Sion Sono. You could almost call overkill, but in a way, the rhythmic waves of attacks become almost soothing, like the relaxion videos of the ocean tide. However, as Musashi and lead actor Tak Sakaguchi start to logically tire,
Crazy Samurai becomes a legitimate performance piece. The sight of Musashi defiantly chopping down the numerically superior forces as he staggers about is truly arresting.

Fortunately for Musashi, the Yoshioka have an unfortunate habit of charging with their swords held over their heads, leaving their mid-sections conveniently exposed. It is not a winning move. Likewise, their refusal to attack from behind (perhaps a reflection of the Samurai’s Bushido code) certainly works in Musashi’s favor. Of course, practicality demands Shimomura pitch Musashi plenty of fat fastballs over the plate, so he can make it through this marathon melee.

African Violet (from Iran)

If you have seen Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, you understand difficult it must have been for Shokoo to divorce her first husband Fereydoun. A year later she married one of his friends, the considerably younger Reza. That is a lot of awkward history, yet Shokoo and Reza agree to take Fereydoun into their own home, after his children shunt him off to a nursing home. It will be difficult, but there are times when three’s company in Mona Zandi Haghighi’s African Violet, which opens virtually today.

There is so much that is implied, but left unsaid regarding Shokoo’s marriage to Fereydoun. Clearly, he was much older than she was. We can probably assume the union was not her idea. Yet, for fifteen years, they worked in concert to raise their children. It still didn’t work out. For years after their split, Fereydoun blamed Shokoo for running away with his best friend, but that really wasn’t fair. Regardless, their children inevitably took his side. Yet, Shokoo is still so grateful for his dedication as a father, she offers to care for him.

We can well understand Reza’s initial reluctance, but Shokoo cajoles him into agreement. After all, he has history with Fereydoun too. Despite resenting the old man’s presence, Reza also feels sorry for him. All three have conflicting feelings about each other, but the strange equilibrium that almost settles in will be disrupted by outsiders.

On the surface (and the next few levels down),
African Violet is a quiet but keenly observed domestic drama. However, as you unpeel the layers, you start to confront the inherent inequities of Iranian society buried within. Clearly, Fereydoun’s union with Shokoo was not based on equal terms. Since she divorced and remarried, she is considered a scandalous woman by many, including her own family. Plus, it is rather ridiculous to see a brief scene of Shokoo and Reza laying in separate beds (in the same bed room), like Rob and Laura in The Dick Van Dyke Show, but that presumably says more about the Iranian production code than their marriage.

Yet again,
African Violet demonstrates Iranian filmmakers’ remarkable comparative advantage for the domestic drama genre. Arguably, the Japanese film industry is their closest competitor in this respect. To this end, Haghighi coaches wonderfully subtle and understated performances from all three of her principals, while maintaining a palpable sense of compounded sadness.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Desert One: The Delta Force’s Darkest Hour

The U.S. Army’s Delta Force is feared and respected around the world, yet their first mission that most people ever heard of was a tragic disaster. That was Operation Eagle Claw, the aborted attempt to rescue the American embassy personnel held hostage in Iran. The mission was briefly depicted in the opening of the 1980s action classic, The Delta Force, but it deserves a more serious film treatment. That can sometimes be found in Barbara Kopple’s documentary Desert One, which opens virtually and in select brick-and-mortar cinemas tomorrow.

The 444-day Hostage Crisis was a constant demoralizing drumbeat that surely contributed to Jimmy Carter’s loss. Clearly, it was an unprecedented act of state-endorsed aggression, but as Ted Koppel (whose career at
Nightline was made by the Hostage Crisis) notes on-camera, Carter hamstrung himself by unilaterally removing most of his options from the table. Essentially, he almost exclusively pursued a diplomatic resolution with an extremist regime already engaging in illegal behavior, that did not want to talk to him or his surrogates. In retrospect, the hostages Kopple interviews agree it was a worthy attempt, as did candidate Reagan at the time. Unfortunately, it failed.

The surviving veterans of Operation Eagle Claw go through the timeline of what happened and how it went wrong. At least one of the former Special Operators admitted he was skeptical of the plan, right from the start, but he followed his orders anyway, to serve his country and support his brothers-in-arms. In a particularly frustrating turn of events, the casualties occurred during the withdrawal from the “Desert One” rendezvous point, after Carter had already aborted the mission. Clearly, flawed intelligence and insufficient preparations for the desert conditions were contributing factors, but the film largely ascribes the incident to the “fog of war.”

It is satisfying and frankly rather overdue to see the veterans of Operation Eagle Claw finally get recognition for their service and courage. Conversely, it is sickening to watch the Ayatollah’s student captors gleefully reveling in the deaths of American servicemen and the general success of their hostage taking. By any standard of international law, it was completely illegal act of terror, but Kopple’s Iranian colleagues passively let them chortle away, unchallenged. She would never interview someone in the Trump administration in such a manner, so shame on her.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula

Maybe South Korea was a comparatively fortuitous location for the zombie outbreak, because it is a peninsula, with heavily fortified northern border. The country fell, but remnants of humanity endured. However, they are often more dangerous to encounter than the unthinking zombie hordes in Yeon Sang-ho’s Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula, which opens this Friday on VOD and at select theaters.

Junior army officer Han Jung-seok thought he was saving his family by getting them on the last transport out Korea, but instead, he hastened their death from an infected passenger. Only his resentful brother-in-law Goo Chul-min survives. Ironically, they are forced to seek sanctuary in Hong Kong (where in the real world, millions of Hong Kongers are eager to acquire their BNO credentials). Treated with contempt and barely scraping by, Han and Goo agree to a dodgy proposal from a HK crime boss. They are supposed to slip into Incheon, secure an abandoned armored car full of American Dollars, and bring it to the rendezvous point. For their efforts, they will get a percentage.

Of course, the zombies do not care about money, but the fortune hunters face a greater threat from a gang of former army troops, who have devolved into
Mad Max-style barbarians. Yet, there are also good people surviving in the shadows, like Min-jung and her family.

is getting a lot of angry reviews, because it is not exactly like Train to Busan, Yeon’s breakout hit. Instead, his sequel is much more action-oriented. In a sense, Peninsula is to Train what Aliens was to Alien. Yeon did not simply make the same film again, which is always a risk. Arguably, Peninsula is much less like a typical zombie film than even Train. By this time in the saga (that began with the animated Seoul Station), zombies are just part of the terrain that must be navigated. In fact, the survivors figure out clever ways to use zombies as weapons against their human foes.

Shudder: Random Acts of Violence

As a true crime writer, Todd Walkley is no Michelle McNamara or Ann Rule. His wife Kathy does not want to say it out loud, but she thinks he often lacks empathy for the victims he depicts in his Slasherman comic book. On the other hand, his indie publisher would say you can’t argue with success. Walkley is trying to find inspiration for a suitable ending, but he is about to get some unsolicited “help” from the real-life serial killer, whose crimes he chronicles in Jay Baruchel’s Random Acts of Violence, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

In hopes getting his mojo going again, Walkley and his friends embark on a driving tour from his Toronto home to pre-Covid ComicCon, through the very stretch of upstate New York where he grew up and the I-90 Killer stalked his victims. Everyone assumed the serial killer had “retired,” but when he sees the back issues they leave behind and hears his awkward radio interviews, the mystery murderer returns to his old ways. Soon, the killer is recreating the grisly murder scenes from Walkley’s comics and leaving him cryptic numeric voicemails.

starts out as a clever, uber-meta send-up of horror fandom and serial killer chic, but it runs out of originality at the midway point. Consequently, the only thing that distinguishes the standard issue second half is its sadistic brutality. Baruchel, who wrote both Goon movies and helmed sequel, clearly understands fan subcultures, but he totally loses his footing as a director. Granted, any adaptation of Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti’s graphic novel must have violence, as per the title, but in this case, the laughs suddenly stop—completely—which is problematic. The confusing flashbacks do not help either—and there sure are a lot of them.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Fantasia ’20: Fly Me to the Saitama

Saitama is a lot like New Jersey, but not quite as depressing. It is close to Tokyo, but it is definitely not part of Tokyo. Sadly, many Saitama residents developed an inferiority complex after years of Tokyo looking down on them, but a Saitama resistance will rise in Hideki Takeuchi’s adaptation of Mineo Maya’s satirical fantasy manga, Fly Me to the Saitama, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.

As the son of Tokyo’s grossly corrupt governor, Momomi Hakuhodo strictly enforces the social hierarchy as the student body leader of his elite prep school. It would appear that transfer student Rei Asami has the perfect “Urban Index,” as a Tokyo native, who recently lived in the United States. However, he is actually a Saitama plant. Initially, Hakuhodo considers the mysterious Asami a threat to his authority, but he soon falls head-over-heels for the Saitama rebel. Hakuhodo will even turn his back on his father and his Tokyo birthrate, joining Asami in the Saitama underground, after he is exposed.

This timeless story of rebellion must be true, because Saitama’s most popular radio station broadcasts the story during the wrap-around framing scenes. Regardless, it is indeed a Yaoi boy’s love story, even though Hakuhodo is played by popular actress Fumi Nikaido. In the past, that might have earned the film bonus points for gender-bending, but these days, it could bring down the ire of the “own voices” censors on

Of course, everyone should just take things in the playful spirit they were intended. Yuichi Tokunaga’s adapted screenplay quite cleverly sends up geographic snobbery. Many of the references might be lost on Americans, but if you equate Saitama with Jersey, Tokyo with New York City, and Chiba with Long Island, you will generally get the gist of it.

Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies

If ever there was a documentary that fully capitalized on the “fair use” principle, this would be it. In some ways, it serves as a fitting companion to definitive genre surveys, like In Search of Darkness and In Search of Last Action Heroes, but it transcends genres, while narrowing its focus. Danny Wolf and his many interview subjects keep track of the naked bits over the history of cinema in Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies, which releases today on VOD.

Wolf and company go back to the very beginning with Eadweard Muybridge. Ironically, some of the best stuff in the doc, is also some of the earliest, including the Evelyn Nesbit-ish artist’s model Audrey Munson, who starred as a conveniently nude model in 1915’s
Inspiration, as well as long-tressed Australian swimmer Annette Kellermann, who swam with just her hair for cover in Fox’s A Daughter of the Gods.

The pre-code is duly appreciated, while the Hays-Production Code is roundly dismissed for its Puritanism, which is like shooting fish in a barrel. We also get a brisk tour through the naughty, naked exploitation films of the 1960s, but this handled with greater depth in
American Grindhouse. Yet, perhaps the most familiar passages explain how the appropriation of the X-rated label gave rise to the NC-17 rating.

In terms of icons, a good deal of attention is appropriately given to Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, and Mamie Van Doren. Wolf and company also give all due to credit (or whatever) to Roger Corman’s women-in-prison movies, with context provided by Corman veterans, Joe Dante, Pam Grier, Linda Blair, and Sybil Danning. (Frankly, I’ll be very disappointed if I ever visit a women’s prison in the Philippines jungle and the warden doesn’t look like Danning.)

Monday, August 17, 2020

Marcell Jankovics’ Son of the White Mare

If Peter Max had painted Conan book covers instead of Frank Franzetta, they might have looked a lot like this film. They also would have confused the target audience. Marcell Jankovics set out to adapt several Magyar, Scythian, and Avarian folk myths, but the demands of Hungarian censors forced him to make strange alterations long the way. Yet, the resulting film was one of the most singularly auteurist animated film of its era. Its trippiness remains undiminished, as viewers can see when Marcell Jankovics’ newly restored Son of the White Mare opens virtually this Friday.

Technically, Fanyuvo (who will become known as “Tree-Shaker”) is the third son of the White Mare. As in Greek mythology, we probably really should not dwell on the implied human-animal interactions in this world. We do know Tree-Shaker gained his tree-shaking strength for his mother’s milk. After her death, Tree-Shaker sets off on a quest, like any reputable fantasy hero, to defeat three dragons, who are holding three Princesses captive in the underworld.

To help him, Tree-Shaker recruits two brawny sworn-brothers, Stone-Crumbler and Irontemperer. However, Tree-Shaker does most of the heavy lifting. Frankly, Crumbler and Temperer fail him at an alarming rate, but on the other hand, they sullenly put up with show-off behavior (they even endure weird spanking scenes).

White Mare
is the sort of film that can never be fairly represented in synopsis form. You really have to see it to get it. It is much more about Jankovics’ swirling colors than the narrative blow-by-blow. Visually, it is indeed a trip. Frankly, it is rather surprising the Communist censors allowed so much openly sexual imagery, including the topless Princesses. There is also an awful lot of symbolism to unpack, especially if you are up on your Slavic folklore. Xu Bing—Phoenix (short)

China should thank Taiwan for being such a good neighbor, but that is unlikely to happen. The ROC provides a shining example of a former authoritarian government that has successfully transitioned into a democracy. Less conspicuously, but still quite significantly, it was a Taiwanese mogul who funded the completion of an enormously ambitious work of Chinese contemporary art. Producer-director Daniel Traub documents the artist and the very public work during several on-site installations in the short documentary, Xuu Bing: Phoenix, which premieres this Friday on

Xu Bing is globally recognized as an important living and collectible artist, so he had the cache necessary for a commission like the Beijing Central Business District Atrium. Ordinarily, he would not accept such offers, but he was inspired by the location, or rather the sight of the hard-scrabble migrant workers, living and laboring in squalid conditions. It started with the notion of using cast-off materials from the building site itself, ultimately taking shape as a pair of legendary winged Phoenixes.

Xu started the project at a time when Chinese artists could get away with more than they can now, but the Phoenix project was temporarily put on hold, because of a ban on construction and trucking during the Olympics and formally halted after the financial crisis hit. However, Barry Lam came forward with completion funding.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Fantasia ’20: Free Country

Patrick Stein, from West Germany, is a fiercely honest cop who will investigate the politically protected, no matter the consequences. East German Markus Bach has made a career arresting those who legally guilty of violating unjust laws. Thanks to reunification, they must work together solve a brutal double murder in Christian Alvart’s Free Country, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Back in the West, Stein opened up a corruption case against the brother of his superior, so now he is on assignment in this former-GDR backwater. He has been partnered-up with the beefy Bach, who still takes a more physical approach to police work. However, both cops are rather put-off by the town’s callous disinterest in the fate of the missing (and presumed dead) Kraft sisters. The local brass wants them close the case quickly, but they are perversely dogged, especially when they get anonymous threats. With a pregnant wife back in the FRG, Stein has more to lose, but his intuition and initiative starts to grudgingly impress the guilt-wracked Bach. As they follow-up leads, they start to suspect the Kraft sisters were actually the victim of a serial killer.

Free Country is a remake of the Spanish film Marshland, but Alvart and co-screenwriter Siegfried Kamml cleverly adapt the post-Franco thriller to reunified Germany.  The mystery and procedural stuff of both films are perfectly respectable but they are still probably on the level of what you might find in many of the grittier European crime shows on MHz. Yet, what really sets Free Country apart is the reunification angle. Alvart takes us to a very particular time and place, when former East Germans were coming to terms with the crimes of the Communist regime. Bach is just at the right level to slide through to the new unified order, while still carrying baggage from his past.

The grungy setting is also quite distinctive. Invariably, the investigation draws Stein and Bach to rusty, abandoned industrial behemoths that probably never made sense economically and were maybe only built in the first place to supply a boastful line in a long-forgotten Erich Honecker speech.

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Fantasia ’20: The Old Man Movie

Milk, it does a body good—except when it causes one of those freak Soviet-era milking disasters. The titular Estonian dairy farmer remains so spooked by his rival’s misfortune, he milks the heck out of his poor bossy. Fed up with it all, she runs off, not caring that her udder will eventually explode, drowning the valley in milk. To avoid catastrophe, his city-slicker grandchildren help him search in Oskar Lehemaa & Mikk Magi’s utterly deranged stop-motion animated feature, The Old Man Movie, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Do not look to
Old Man Movie for accurate lessons in agricultural science or really any kind of real-world applications. Having lived in cities all my life, I’m still pretty sure cows do not explode like atomic bombs if they go a day without milking, but fine, let’s just run with it anyway. Regardless, that is what happened to the villainous “Old Milker,” during the black-and-white newsreel prologue, when his cow just decided to stop giving milk. Of course, he deeply resented it when another diary farmer replaced him as the town’s milk supplier.

That would be the Old Man, Priidik, Aino, and Mart’s grandfather, who is less than thrilled to have his grandchildren for the summer. The teenagers, Priidik and Aino are not too happy about it either, but Mart, the young science geek is delighted. It is the sensitive Priidik who causes all the trouble by literally leaving the barn door open. Reluctantly, Grandpa takes the teens with him to search for his cow, leaving Mart behind, to create more chaos with his mad genius tinkering. Meanwhile, Old Milker is also hunting for Grandpa’s cow, determined to behead her, before she explodes.

Friday, August 14, 2020

In the Life of Music: Cambodia’s Most Recent Oscar Submission

There are many contradictory stories regarding the fate of Sinn Sisamouth during the Cambodian genocide, but as a popular, Western-influenced entertainer, they invariably end with his death. He is almost certainly gone, but his music is not forgotten. In fact, his beloved standard, “Champa Battambang” plays an important role for a rural Cambodian family, before, during, and after the horrors of the killing fields in director-screenwriters Caylee So & Sok Visal’s In the Life of Music, announced to release today on VOD.

Amid the relative calm of 2007, Cambodian-American Hope has returned to her ailing mother’s homeland, to meet and make peace with her Aunt Bo and Uncle Vanny. They are both thrilled to host her. Somehow her mother survived and left them behind, but they cannot blame her for that.

As Hope and Vanny make their way to his provincial village, the film flashes back to 1968, when her parents, Chy and Phally, fell in love during a special summer concert. Their first meeting was a little awkward, but the chemistry was there and the closing performance of “Champa Battambang” totally sealed the deal. Of course, they try to stay together to some extent during the concentration camp horrors of 1976, but it is not easy. Chy is also running a risk befriending Mith, a former songwriter transparently based on Sisamouth. Initially, he is a target for the Khmer Rouge’s contempt, until they decided Angkor needs an inspiring propaganda song, but he might not have the stomach for such a commission.

In the Life
is a solid decade spanning family drama performed with great sensitivity by its aptly-cast ensemble. The editing could have been leaner and tighter, but So & Visal definitely convey a vivid sense of a very particularly place, at very distinct times. You can feel the heat and the humidity wafting off the screen. Small World Small Band’s musical numbers, performed as the 1968 traveling band, will also stimulate waves of viewer nostalgia, even if you are unfamiliar with 1960s Cambodian pop music.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Apocalypse ’45: The War Against Japanese Militarism

If you think films produced by the U.S. military during WWII were merely “jingoistic” propaganda, you haven’t seen very many. Yes, films like With the Marines at Tarawa agreed an American victory was critically important, but they did not white-wash the harsh realities of battle. They also reflect a concern for documenting history that led to the dispatch of numerous military film crews. It turns out there was still more unseen footage of the war in the Pacific awaiting discovery in the National Archives, which film restoration specialist Ernest Savage and editor Paul Marengo digitally “cleaned up” and integrated into Erik Nelson’s documentary, Apocalypse ’45, opening virtually tomorrow (ahead of its premiere on the Discovery Channel).

“Apocalypse” is a strong word, but the destruction documented in this film is stark, even by our current jaded standards. It starts with footage shot during the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, by the great John Ford (whose war-time filmmaking activities were nicely covered in the documentary,
Five Came Back), and ends with the Hiroshima’s post-atomic landscape. However, it is worth noting the latter footage was filmed by American servicemen providing medical treatment to Japanese survivors.

The rediscovered and restored archival footage is accompanied by the oral history of twenty-four surviving American combat veterans, including the centenarian Lt. Col. Thomas Vaucher and Corporal Hershal “Woody” Williams, the last surviving Congressional Medal of Honor recipient from Iwo Jima. Despite their advanced years, they still recall the events in question with vivid clarity.

Of course, the significance of Hiroshima hangs over the film, but Nelson and company handle it with unusual thoughtfulness. Throughout the film, they thoroughly explain Imperial militarist regime’s celebration of sacrifice and death, clearly establishing the extent to which they weaponized the civilian population. Every man, woman, and child were expected to fight the anticipated American invasion, literally to the death. The compounded horror could well have been worse than the two atomic bombs (and without them, you might not be reading this review right now).

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Sputnik: The Soviets Brought Back a Passenger

There were good reasons why the Soviets placed their cosmodrome on the Baikonur steppe in Kazakhstan. The flat plains allowed for unobstructed radio signals and the dry climate was good for launch windows. The remote location was also far from observing eyes. The last point will be particularly key when cosmonaut Konstantin Veshnyakov is brought to a secret facility Kazakhstan to supposedly rehab after his “heroic” mission. However, Veshnyakov brought back a surprise “passenger” in Egor Abramenko’s Sputnik, which releases on VOD and in very select theaters this Friday.

Veshnyakov and his co-pilot are anticipating their heroes’ welcome when they hear something on the outer hull of their capsule. Next thing we see, a Kazakh herder finds Veshnyakov and an unsightly mess at the capsule’s crash site.

Supposedly, it will be Dr. Tatyana Klimova’s job to determine what happened to the cosmonaut, in physical and psychological terms. Like House M.D., she is better at tricky diagnoses than consent paperwork. As a result, she was awkwardly available for Semiradov’s proposition. He is in charge of the remote lab, so he is probably something like GRU, as well as military. Regardless, he is most definitely not telling Dr. Klimova the full story. He knows there is something symbiotic inside Veshnyakov that is decidedly deadly—and consequently, potentially valuable.

Set in 1983, the absolute nadir of Soviet Socialist hopelessness,
Sputnik has an appropriately grungy look and oppressive vibe. You can certainly understand why cosmonauts would want to spend months in a tin can. The different setting and context help set Sputnik apart from the classic Alien, a tough but inevitable comparison just about every horror-from-outer-space movie has to contend with. In fact, Sputnik is probably the most successful film in the sub-genre to create its own identity since Tobe Hooper’s Life Force.