Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Japan Cuts ’21: Wonderful Paradise

For Shuji Sasaya, home is not where the heart is and he is definitely not the king of his castle—especially since he was forced to sell his inherited McMansion to cover his gambling debts. None of the other family cliches apply to the rest of the Sasayas either, but at least they all get together for one last bash at the old family home in Masashi Yamamoto’s relentlessly bizarro Wonderful Paradise, which screens as an online selection of the 2021 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film, at the Japan Society.

Nobody is happy about moving, even though none of the family has particularly fond memories of their time in the luxurious house. Sasaya’s daughter Akane tries to make some at the last minute by inviting the entire internet for a BYOB blowout. It doesn’t take long for pretty much everyone to show up, including her estranged mother, Akiko.

What starts as a party morphs into a matsuri festival fused with a rave. Good taste and any sense of realism quickly gets tossed out the window. Buckle yourself in for a Bollywood-style musical number, a Buddhist funeral using the local dealer’s pot for incense, a blood-soaked (but not fatal) same sex wedding, the ghosts of the Sasaya grandparents, a pop-up café with a coffee bean straight out of
Little Shop of Horrors, and a boy who weirdly turns into a stick (sort of like what happens to Josie Packard in Twin Peaks, but we’re not supposed to be disturbed by it here).

The last part is a good example of the film’s tonal issues. Yamamoto and co-screenwriter present it all as good crazy fun, but a lot of what happens is really dark and twisted. It is also pretty difficult to care about any of these characters, except maybe Akane (and there is an outside chance for her nebbish brother Yuta).

Japan Cuts ’21: Mari and Mari

Norio’s rebound arrived suspiciously fast—like supernaturally so. He just found a new Mari in his flat, in place of his old Mari. Unlike Dick Sargent on Bewitched, he can tell she is not the same person, nor does she claim to be. Norio tries to figure out what-the-heck in Tatsuya Yamanishi’s Mari and Mari, which screens as an online selection of the 2021 Japan Cuts Festival of New JapaneseFilm, at the Japan Society.

For extra irony, Norio works for a casting agency. He thinks he lives happily with Mari Tanabe, his girlfriend of three years, who works at a bookstore. However, when he comes home one night, she is not there and nowhere to be found at her regular haunts. Then one night he comes home and finds Mari—the other Mari. She does not know why she is there, but she just feels compelled to be there.

First Norio freaks out and then slides into an angsty funk. He keeps throwing Mari II out and then letting her come back. Despite some fantastical elements, it is hard to figure just what
Mari and Mari is. It is extraordinarily moody, but it lacks the mysteriousness of Richard Ayoade’s The Double. You can sometimes think of it a Vertigo without the suspense (and vertigo), but it is really more of a deadly serious spin on a Hong Sang-soo film like Yourself and Yours.

Monday, August 30, 2021

Japan Cuts ’21: To Sleep So as to Dream

It  was a retro silent movie about silent movie stars. How did this not get a big re-release push after Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist won Best Picture (despite some subsequent blowback, it really is a great film)? Director-screenwriter Kaizo Hayashi’s vision is playfully twisty, in an almost Borgesian way. A crime has been committed that is surrounded in a greater mystery, but the Uotsuka Detective Agency is on the case in Hayashi’s To Sleep So as to Dream, which screens in its freshly restored glory as a classic selection of the 2021 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film, at the Japan Society.

Madame Cherryblossom, a Norma Desmond-like grand dame of Japanese silent cinema, hires Uotsuka and his apprentice Kobayashi to recover her kidnapped niece Bellfower. However, “M. Pathe and Co,” the criminal organization that abducted her is so cagey, they only leave a riddle as to where the ransom money should be delivered. Unfortunately, every time the Uotsuka Agency gets close to recovering Cherryblossom, the M. Pathe magicians snatch her away—and increase the ransom another one million yen.

TSSATD is not a true silent. There are plenty of foley effects and incidental music. We can also hear characters voices, when they have been pre-recorded, as with the kidnappers’ initial reel-to-reel ransom tape. However, when characters speak face-to-face, we must read it in the intertitles. This is a somewhat eccentric approach, but Hayashi makes it work.

His wonderfully nostalgic noir visual style is a major reason why. Aesthetically,
TSSATD is perfect for admirers of Guy Maddin, because it has the same darkly dreamy vibe. It is a world where gumshoes and stage magicians rub shoulders, while watching samurai in the hazy film-within-a-film. Cinematographer Yuichi Nagata makes all look suitably mysterious and nocturnal, while the mise en abyme movie shimmers with mystery.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

Japan Cuts ’21: The Great Yokai War—Guardians

He is a cult favorite among kaiju enthusiasts, but he is relatively under-represented on screen. There is his original 1966 film trilogy and his 2010 reboot series, but mighty Daimajin never had to duel it out with Gamera or Rodan. Takashi Miike partly rights that wrong by pitting him against a ticked-off collective of yokai (mythical Japanese spirits and demons) in The Great Yokai War: Guardians, which screens again the old-fashioned way during the 2021 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film, at the Japan Society.

You need no familiarity with Miike’s
The Great Yokai War of 2005 to fully enjoy Guardians, just an appreciation of the various traditional yokai. Many of those mythical entities apparently originated in the Fossa Magna rift and they have melded themselves into giant “Yokaiju” ball with the intention of barreling back into the sea. The problem is Tokyo is right smack dab in its path. In addition to causing horrendous destruction, it would release a primordial monster currently held in stasis beneath the city. Everyone coyly refers to it as “you-know-who,” clearly implying he is a big-name kaiju, whom Miike and the Kadokawa could not acquire the usage rights.

Frankly, some of the yokai are inclined to watch the world burn, but others would rather save it. To do so, they need to recruit a descendant of legendary samurai Watanabe no Tsuna to sacrifice himself to the mighty Daimajin. Scaredy-cat Kei Watanabe is not inclined to step up when they pull him into their parallel fairy world, but he gins up his courage to save his younger brother Dai, after he is tricked into being a replacement.

The Yokai (including outliers the Yeti, Cyclops, and Frankenstein Monster) are wonderfully bizarre and often gleefully over-the-top, but the kiddie melodrama can be more than a little too whiny and neurotic. Miike often has trouble establishing the right tone for his “family films,” like
Ninja Kids!!!, but it is especially true here.

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Japan Cuts ’21: KIBA The Fangs of Fiction

The Japanese publishing industry is more horizontally integrated than here in America. There, the line between book and magazine publishing is so porous, first serialization often comes baked into every big book deal. Japanese publishing houses still maintain literary journals to showcase their prestige authors, but diminishing ad revenue and circulation are just as challenging for them as they are for American periodicals. Nevertheless, a roguish editor shakes up the business with some unconventional signings in Daihachi Yoshida’s KIBA: The Fangs of Fiction which screens live-in-person today, as part of the 2021Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film, at the Japan Society.

is the prestigious literary journal of the Iba family’s media empire. Trinity is their other one. That is the one Teruya Hayami edits. Trinity was thought to be on its last legs, but when the publishing patriarch passes away, the resulting uncertainty presents opportunities for a sly dog like Hayami. He starts by poaching Kunpu’s unappreciated junior editor Megumi Takano.

With her help, they sign the debut novel of Sei Yazawa, a Michael Chabon-ish hipster postmodern thriller writer. They also steal away
Kunpu’s celebrated but lazy star author Daisuke Nikaido (think Norman Mailer in the 1980s) for his first manga. Really thinking outside the box, Hayami approaches model Saki Joshima to publish her secret Tarantino-esque hard-boiled fiction. However, the real coup would be snagging something from a legendary Salinger-like literary recluse.

It turns out two of the best films ever about the publishing industry are both Japanese. This is one of them. Yuya Ishii’s
The Great Passage is the other. Yoshida mixes sly workplace comedy with some surprisingly dark twists and turns, but somehow his tonal shifts are not as jarring as they might sound. It is not exactly a thriller per se, but one darned thing definitely happens after another.

Friday, August 27, 2021

No Man of God: The Bill & Ted Show

One could make a good case celebrated FBI profiler Bill Hagmaier deserves a share of the royalties from books and movies like Silence of the Lambs and The Alienist. He was one of the first to pick the brains of serial killers to glean insights to help catch serial killers, starting with one of the most notorious predators ever: Ted Bundy. Amber Sealey dramatizes the Bill & Ted sessions in No Man of God, which releases today in theaters and on VOD.

In 1984, Pres. Reagan launched the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, which pioneered the profiling techniques that are now so familiar on TV procedurals. Hagmaier was a junior, but up-and-coming special agent. He basically drew the short straw with Bundy, who had expressed endless contempt for the Bureau. Nevertheless, the devout Hagmaier somehow won Bundy over with earnestness.

At first, Hagmaier just tried to engage Bundy to see what he might reveal about the serial killer mentality. Yet, the agent clearly hoped Bundy would eventually confess to more of the murders he was suspected of, giving more families closure. However, time becomes an issue when the governor signs an expedited seven-day death warrant for Bundy.

There is no horror in
No Man of God and virtually no thriller elements. It really is verbal cat-and-mouse game, sort of in the moody tradition of Playhouse 90 and Reginald Rose. It is also a better film than the lurid and muddled Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, but Zac Efron still deserves credit for his go-for-broke performance as Bundy.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Candyman 2021

This hook-handed bogeyman first appeared in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood anthologies, just like Rawhead Rex and paranormal detective Harry D’Amour from Lord of Illusions, but he has proved far more enduring. His fans should therefore be happy to hear his latest film does not reboot jack. Instead, it builds on the original cult classic (but we can’t speak to the two sequels). Ill-advisedly, people keep saying his name in Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, which opens widely tomorrow.

In Bernard Rose’s 1992
Candyman, Helen Lyle was a grad student researching the Candyman urban legends in Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing projects. As part of her research, she and a friend successfully invoked the Candyman by saying his name five times while looking in a mirror. That all really happened in the world of DaCosta’s film, including the bad end Lyle came to.

That is sort of the story Brianna Cartwright’s brother tells at a dinner party to get a rise out of anyone, but filtered through a media lens not privy to the full supernatural truth. However, it is sufficiently compelling to inspire her artist-boyfriend Anthony McCoy to investigate the Candyman urban legend and the remnants of the now “gentrified” Cabrini Green neighborhood, for a series of paintings. Much like Lyle, he becomes obsessed with the lore, which dates back to the original Candyman, Daniel Robitaille, who was lynched in the 1890s. Of course, his new work openly invites viewers to “say his name,” leading to inevitably gory consequences.

You won’t hear any nauseating talk about “toxic fandom” in conjunction with DaCosta’s
Candyman¸ because unlike other recent reboot/remakes, she and co-writer-co-producer Jordan Peele understood why the elements and characters of the original worked so well the first time around, so they doubled (or tripled) down on them. The shadow puppetry animation that dramatizes Candyman’s early origins is especially effective at evoking a sense of folk horror. It hard to explain why, but fans of the original star, Tony Todd, should be just fine with this film too.

Be that as it may, Michael Hargrove is all kinds of spooky playing Sherman Fields, the current incarnation of Candyman. According to the film’s backstory, Fields was murdered by overzealous Chicago cops, who unjustly suspected him of lacing candy with razor blades. (However, at least one scene ambiguously clouds that assumption of innocence.) Yet, Colman Domingo (from
Passing Strange) outshines everyone as William Burke, a Cabrini Green old-timer who tutors McCoy in Candyman lore.

Despite a plan to avoid “black trauma,” Yahya Abdul-Mateen II does an excellent job freaking out and enduring some pretty gross body horror. (If you’re looking a film with scab-picking, this is your huckleberry.) Unfortunately for Teyonah Parris, she is stuck playing the responsible and boring girlfriend, who refuses to believe any of McCoy’s crazy talk until it is way too late. However, it is nice to see Vanessa Estelle Williams return from the 1992 film, in a pivotal late scene.


According to the Bible, Behemoth is a chaos-monster, who is destined to battle it out with Leviathan. He is thought to resemble a hippopotamus. You won’t really see anything like that here. The creatures are more goat-like, presumably because of the demonic associations. There are plenty of rough beasts and infernal goings-on in Peter Sefchik’s Behemoth, which releases tomorrow on theaters and on-demand.

Joshua Riverton considers himself a whistleblower, but usually that term is reserved for people who come forward with evidence of wrongdoing. He is more of an accuser, who has made charges the chemical company he used to work for is responsible for the mysterious toxins killing his young daughter. Apparently, the corporate Behemoth has really good PR, because Dr. Woeland (dig that name), the snake-like director, is able to spin and stonewall with ease (like the press wouldn’t eat up a good sob story with a big business villain, like pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving).

Desperate for the truth, Riverton confronts Woeland, with his flawed friends, Keelee Crawford and Dominic Wagner. However, when Woeland’s suspiciously strong and intense body guard resorts to violence, the hostile encounter turns into a desperate hostage situation. Technically, Woeland is the hostage, but he seems to be in charge of the situation. He also seems to be responsible for the weirdly trippy, nightmarish visions that start tormenting them.

Sefchik is an experienced specials effects artist, so he gives full reign to his talents creating the sinister creatures and hallucinatory visions seen throughout the film. The monsters are impressive, but the screenplay is laughable. Honestly, the themes and narrative can be somewhat fairly compared to Timothy Woodward Jr’s train-wreck,
Checkmate, which is not a good place to be.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Japan Cuts ’21: School Radio to Major Tom & Go Seppuku Yourselves (shorts)

It is sort of like Love Letters for geek culture, but it is an analog throwback, which makes it cooler. Two lonely high schoolers collaborate on a radio drama, despite never meeting. Yet, a connection is still made in Chisaka Takuya’s short film School Radio to Major Tom, which screens on-demand as part of the experimental shorts package offered by this year’s Japan CutsFestival of New Japanese Film.

Those who attend this high school during the day and those assigned to the night shift rarely meet. It is a hard-and-fast social division, but Eisuke Hoshi doesn’t really fit into any cliques. His primary activities involve his solo stewardship of the school radio. As a result, he is quite surprised when his night-time counterpart discovers the tapes of his science fiction serial and starts recording the part of Major Tom in her own voice.

Technically, Takuya never quotes from “Space Oddity” verbatim, but he paraphrases it all over the place. If it was a rights issue, the Bowie estate is being short-sighted, because this is the most potently nostalgic film they could ever hope to have showcase his tunes.

Even though they do not share any proper scenes together, Chka Arakawa and Tokuma Kudo are both terrific as the young radio programmers. It is hard to precisely describe their relationship, but they definitely make it into something.

Fittingly, the film’s grungy VHS-looking really suits the 1989 setting and the analog media that plays such a role in the film. Strictly speaking,
School Radio is a teen drama, albeit a rather mature and wistful one, but the science fiction story the characters spin (heavily Bowie-influenced with maybe a touch of Space 1999) gives it extra genre appeal. Very highly recommended, School Radio to Major Tom screens as part of the experimental shorts package (even though it is totally accessible) during this year’s Japan Cuts (and it also screens on-demand with It’s a Summer Film! at Fantasia.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Uruguayan Giallo: The Last Matinee

If you haven't seen Ricardo Islas’s Frankenstein: Day of the Beast, his super-graphic take on Mary Shelley, it is just as well. You can watch it unspool as the film playing within this film’s faded movie palace, while Islas himself plays the slasher-killer. Islas’s movie pretty much s*cks, but there are aesthetic merits to the neo-retro giallo that repurposes it. The brutal killer does in fact wear black patent leather gloves in Maximiliano Contenti’s The Last Matinee (a.k.a. Red Screening), which releases today on VOD.

Ana is an engineering grad student, who is covering for her projectionist father in the booth of this downtown Montevideo borderline-grindhouse cinema. We can tell from the posters on the wall, they now specialize in horror, including Argento’s
Opera. Supposedly, the film is set in 1993, yet Islas’s Frankenstein released in 2011, but it doesn’t really matter. It looks like the kind of Euro-dreck you would find heavily edited on Elvira’s Movie Macabre back in the day.

Unbeknownst to Ana, a rain coat-clad killer has trapped the sparse audience and skeleton-crew staff inside the theater, so he can hack them up, one-by-one. That’s the movie for you. The characters are such obvious stock characters, it is almost perversely entertaining to see them fed through the grinder.

What really works is the wonderfully seedy theater setting. Contenti takes us through every room and cranny. He also channels the look and vibe of vintage giallos (perhaps even more successfully than Onetti’s
Francesca or Cattet & Forzani’s Amer, but not as entertainingly as the spoof The Editor), even though thematically, it is more closely akin to 1980s slashers. The meta-ness of Islas adds a layer of irony, but his Frankenstein truly looks unwatchable.

Monday, August 23, 2021

Fantasia ’21: Midnight

This Korean film could complete a “see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil” trilogy with Wait Until Dark and Mute Witness, while maintaining the same level of quality.  In this case, Kyung-mi and her mother are deaf. They are accustomed to being patronized and dismissed by society, but that makes them particularly vulnerable when a serial killer starts stalking them. However, the women are more resilient than he expects in screenwriter-director Kwon Oh-seung’s thriller, Midnight, which screens in-person again tomorrow, as part of this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

Kyung-mi gets by okay as a special sign-language customer service rep, living with her seamstress mother. Unfortunately, after a late night at work, they accidentally witness a masked serial killer abducting So Yong, the younger sister of her guardian, Jong Tak, a tough cop recently discharged from military service. Initially, the predatory Do-shik tries to dispose of them at the scene, but when they manage to summon the dumb local coppers, he successfully dons his mild-mannered civilian persona, claiming to also be a concerned family member of a missing person. Unfortunately, this allows him to get close to enough to Kyung-mi and her mother to learn things like their address.

Baby-faced Do-shik (chillingly portrayed by Wi Ha-jun) is one of the creepiest, most monstrous serial killers seen on film, since maybe the contemporary Korean milestones,
The Chaser and I Saw the Devil. There is also a good deal of social commentary in Midnight, regarding the way the cops and society in general treat the deaf, but instead of detracting from the suspense, it actually intensifies it.

Jin Ki-joo is absolutely terrific as Kyung-mi. Her performance is scrupulously realistic and not the slightest bit cringey. Likewise, Gil Hae-yeon is totally down-to-earth and believably terrified as her mother. Wi just radiates pure, clammy evil as Do-shik, while Park Hoon is quite compelling as the conflicted and guilt-ridden Jong Tak.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

Blomkamp’s Demonic

Carly Spencer is about to plunge into VR world like that of Ready Player One, but it was designed for therapeutic purposes rather than entertainment. Unfortunately, there is something else in there—something evil. The technology is cutting edge, but the evil force has been around for centuries in Neill Blomkamp’s Demonic, which is now playing in New York.

Spencer changed her name after cutting all contact with her notorious serial killer mother Angela McDonald. Yet, somehow the clinic treating her now comatose mother managed to track down her old friend Martin, so it is probably only a matter of time before they find her, as indeed they will. It turns out they have plugged her locked-in mother into a simulated reality. However, McDonald refuses to engage with it, until she talks to Spencer.

Reluctantly, Spencer agrees to go in, only to tell her mother off, but instead, McDonald just begs her to leave. Shortly, thereafter, Spencer experiences some extremely disturbing and life-like nightmares. Martin has a demonic (so to speak) theory about what is going on, but she doesn’t want to hear it.

To his credit, Blomkamp has finally delivered a film that does not give viewers a stern lecturing on a political topic. Instead, he supplies some creepy atmosphere and several chilling scares. The simulated-world is deliberately designed to look glitchy, which can be a little jarring, but when Blomkamp really delves into the demonic aspects, it gets profoundly creepy.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Japan Cuts ’21: It’s a Summer Film!

Can't decide if you are in the mood for a sappy teen romance, a samurai Chanbara film, or some light science fiction? Well, you do not have to choose. This film does it all—and it might just save the future of filmmaking in the process. Genres collide, but the can-do spirit of teen filmmakers prevails in Soushi Matsumoto’s It’s a Summer Film!, which screens on-demand and in-person, as part of the 2021 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film, at the Japan Society.

Nobody loves samurai films more than “Barefoot.” (She and her friends have somewhat eccentric nicknames that don’t seem to bother them.) Much to her frustration, the film club throws all its resources behind the popular Karin’s weepy teen melodrama instead of her script,
Samurai Spring. Her friends, “Kickboard” (of the Astronomy Club) and “Blue Hawaii,” (a member of the kendo team) encourage her to go it on her own, but she is reluctant until she suddenly finds her perfect lead.

For some reason, the mysterious Rintaro insists she must make her film, but he is reluctant to star in it. Barefoot is confused when he talks about being her greatest fan, but there is definitely romantic attraction percolating between them. Things really get confusing when the crew learns Rintaro’s secret—so much so, it becomes unclear whether
Samurai Spring will be completed in time for the high school’s summer festival.

In some ways,
Summer Film bears some thematic similarities to the original Bill & Ted, but its teen characters are much smarter. It might best compare to One Cut of the Dead, because they both use genre elements to pay “feel-good” tribute to the filmmaking process. Summer Film has more to offer than cuteness, but it is indeed as a cute as a button.

Friday, August 20, 2021

Japan Cuts ’21: The Pass—Last Days of the Samurai

Forget about Tom Cruise. In Japan, Tsuginosuke Kawai is often regarded as the last samurai. At the end of the Shogunat era, his Nagaoka clan found itself caught between forces loyal to the Shogun and the newly restored emperor. He wanted to avoid a fight, but the Boshin War draws him in anyway in Takashi Koizumi’s The Pass: The Last Days of the Samurai, which screens live-and-in-person during the 2021 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film, at the Japan Society.

Kawai is the Nagaoka Clan’s chief retainer. Given his lord’s advanced years, he is also the de facto strategist and decision-maker. He tries to remain neutral after the Shogun’s abdication, but the two warring factions just won’t have it. Reluctantly, Kawai assumes command of an alliance of smaller clans, even though he suspects their efforts will ultimately prove futile. However, they might have a prayer of survival, if they continue to hold the strategic Enoki Pass. Whoever controls the pass controls Nagaoka Castle.

is a terrific samurai film that is rife with tragic Shakespearean overtones, which makes sense, given Koizumi was the assistant director on Kurosawa’s Ran. Hardnosed Koji Yakusho (the star of Takashi Miike’s 13 Assassins and Hara-Kiri) is instantly credible and immensely compelling as the shrewd, but world-weary Kawai. In many ways, you could consider this a samurai equivalent to Eastwood’s late-career cowboy movies. He also perfectly personifies Ivan Morris’s conception of the “Nobility of Failure” in Japanese history and culture.

Yakusho also shares some keenly poignant chemistry with Takako Matsu, playing his eternally patient wife, Osuga. Their marriage is not perfect, but it endures. As added bonuses, the legendary Tetsuya Nakadai and Kyoko Kagawa turn up in small parts. However, there is no question Yakusho owns the film, body and soul.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Fantasia ’21: Mergen (short)

In fantasies, the son of a warrior is almost always destined to become a warrior himself. For a young Kazakh boy, destiny calls early. Fate is serious business on the Central Asian steppe, but so is revenge in Raiymbek Aizhanov’s longish short film Mergen, included in the Radical Spirits shorts block, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Mergen’s father is a warrior in the Khan’s army, but he has not been heard from for an ominously long time. Nevertheless, Mergen’s mother and second-sighted grandmother decide to stay behind when their nomadic clan departs, in hopes he will eventually find them later. Instead, it will be other warriors from both sides of the conflict that intrude upon their yurt (as a former resident of an Upper Eastside studio, I have to say yurts look pretty spacious and comfy).

Aizhanov’s nearly half-hour film is filled with hack-and-slash action and sweeping steppe backdrops, but it also includes a good deal of spiritually-based fantastical elements: visions, portents, and messages communicated through dreams. It is exotic looking, but archetypally familiar. Think of it as the sort of film Mel Gibson would like to still be able to make.

Young Alikhan Abi is impressively expressive and disciplined, but also looks age-appropriately small and vulnerable as the title character. Yerzhanov Gazret adds tragic heft as the Kazakh traitor. Aizhanov stages some satisfying action sequences and cinematographer Sardar Baimolden makes it all look big and cinematic.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Chapelwaite, on Epix

Even though it was originally a 30-page short story in Nightshift, it sort of makes sense “Jerusalem’s Lot” has become a mini-series. Technically, it is a prequel to Salem’s Lot, which still holds bragging rights as best Stephen King miniseries yet (and maybe second best overall adaptation behind the original The Shining). This one isn’t quite that good, but it definitely represents a rebound from the disappointing Lisey’s Story. Maine (circa 1850) gets weird again in creator-writers Peter & Jason Filardi’s 10-part Chapelwaite, which premieres Sunday on Epix.

There has been little happiness in the Boone ancestral home of Chapelwaite, but retired whaler Charles Boone hopes to change that when he inherits the property and the local mill from his estranged cousin, Stephen. Much to his surprise the townsfolk of Preacher’s Corners make no effort to hide their hostility when he arrives. The presence of his mixed-raced children, eldest daughter Honor, troubled middle daughter Loa, and son Tane, the youngest, only fan their prejudice, but he promised their late mother he would provide a stable upbringing for them (on dry land).

Unfortunately, Chapelwaite appears to have a destabilizing effect on Captain Boone. He is constantly unnerved by the sound of rats in the walls that only he can hear, especially in light of the family’s history of insanity. Initially, only their governess, modern-thinking Rebecca Morgan and loyal mill employee Able Stewart befriend the Boones, but as the captain uncovers an unholy cabal centered in the nearby ghost town of Jerusalem’s Lot, the local Constable and deeply flawed parson also side with the pariah family.

Chapelwaite is at its best during its mid-to-later episodes, when the rag-tag Team Boone takes its stand (so to speak) against the infernal forces of Jerusalem’s Lot, led by the ferocious Jakub. There really is a bit of the vibe from It or The Stand, but set against a wonderfully eerie gothic setting. You can see the King-ish themes and motifs, but there are also Hawthorne-like elements. Unfortunately, that also means there is a very King-esque hostility towards fathers and clergymen, even though both Charles Boone and Rev. Martin Burroughs grow in stature and have their grand moments.

Adrien Brody does a terrific job freaking out and brooding hard as Charles Boone. Young thesps, Jennifer Ens, Sirena Gulamgaus, and Ian Ho, are all quite effective as the Boone children, but the Filardis maximize Loa’s petulant acting-out, to a point that becomes tiresome. However, Devante Senior, Gord Rand, and Hugh Thompson really stand-out, adding depth of characterization as Stewart, Rev. Burroughs, and Constable Dennison.

Fantasia ’21: Follow the Light

Kids shouldn't have to worry about demographic trends, but these classmates are totally getting done-over by them. So many people are moving out of their rural community, their school will be forced to close. Instead of proms and homecomings, the students’ time together will culminate in the closing ceremony. As always, the same old cliquey kid stuff still applies, but there might possibly be aliens out there too in Yoichi Narita’s Follow the Light, which screened during this year’s Fantasia.

After his dad’s acrimonious divorce, Akira moved back with him to his old home town, enrolling in a new school, only to learn he would have to start over once again, after the end of the year. He is understandably shy, but when the class’s queen bee notices his artistic talents, she recruits him for the closing ceremony. However, it is Maki that Akira has stuck in his head. Due to conflicts with classmates and difficulties with her parents, Maki has practically dropped out. She spends most of her days at her Uncle Hideo’s rice farm, standing on the roof, staring off into the horizon.

Then one day, a strange light appears in the sky. Akira and a new friend (who is trying too hard to latch onto him) follow it to Hideo’s farm, finding Maki communing in the crop circle it produced. The resulting bond between Akira and Maki could lead to something real, but it also causes jealousies and resentments.

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

The Interpreters, now on PBS Passport

This review was not planned in advance, much like Biden’s mad, scrambling withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, there is a compelling justification for its sudden appearance, unlike Biden’s cut-and-run policies. Even before this week, thousands of Afghan interpreters and civilian contractors were desperately seeking asylum in America. They are the subject of Andres Caballero & Sofian Khan’s documentary, The Interpreters, which streams on PBS Passport and is available on VOD.

To protect the Afghans and Iraqis who risked their lives to assist the Coalition forces, in hopes of rebuilding a better country for their families, Congress passed the supposedly fast-tracked “Special Immigrant Visa” (SIV) program, but when did you ever know government bureaucrats to be efficient or display a sense of urgency? What was intended to take months according to statute, takes years in practice. Plus, the application process requires Kafkaesque reams of paperwork.

For the interpreters Caballero & Khan interview, the clock is ticking. Without their visas, it will only be a matter of time before they are hunted down by the Taliban or Daesh. Yet, what is truly chilling is the realization matters just got exponentially worse Afghan interpreters over the last few days.

Caballero & Khan give the greatest screen-time to a chain-smoking Iraqi interpreter who adopts the sly alias, “Philip Morris,” mostly likely because he was the easiest to follow over an extended period of time. Morris kept in contact with Minnesota National Guard sergeant Paul Braun, who doggedly followed-up on his end in a long, protracted effort to bring the interpreter and his family safely to America. The film makes a point of highlighting anti-immigrant sentiment, particularly that stoked by Trump, but it seems like the way Braun’s family and others in the MN community embraced Morris and his cause is just as important to the story.

Viewers also hear from several Afghan interpreters during the course of the doc, which suddenly makes it acutely topical. To paraphrase Sen. Ben Sasse and others, what we’re seeing now wasn’t just predictable, it was predicted.
The Interpreters helps put a face on the massive tragedy underway. Yet, what can we expect for them when the administration cannot even evacuate American citizens at this time?

Monday, August 16, 2021

Dash Shaw’s Cryptozoo

This film premiered earlier in the year at Sundance, but it has already aged badly. In the opening prologue, the 1960s hippy characters daydream about violently storming the U.S. Capitol, because that is what they think socially concerned activists should do. Frankly, the entire attitude of the film is nearly as problematic. Once again, it is the U.S. military and its industrial support system that are the bad guys of Dash Shaw’s animated feature Cryptozoo, which opens Friday in New York.

After waxing poetic about attacking the seat of the U.S. Federal government, Matthew stumbles across the fence of a Jurassic Park-looking facility, with his more cautious girlfriend Amber. Eventually, we will meet up with her again, but first Shaw flashforwards a bit, introducing us to Lauren, a cryptozoologist working for the crypto-menagerie for mythical creatures founded and funded by Joan, a slightly dodgy philanthropist.

Unfortunately, one of their cryptids is missing. As it happens, Lauren has a childhood attachment to the elephant-looking “baku.” Known as dream eaters, she fondly credits a baku for vacuuming up her nightmares during her difficult childhood. With her new Medusa-like sidekick, Lauren sets off on the trail of the missing baku.

Of course, the leading suspect is the U.S. military-industrial complex, which naturally harbors ambitions of weaponizing the baku’s abilities. Seriously, do you think we could maybe briefly refrain from launching attacks on the American military in a week when our they are desperately airlifting personnel from the roof of our Kabul embassy, like it is 1975 all over again (thanks entirely to the appalling misjudgment of the Biden administration)? Again, the timing is bad for this film, but it is due to its virulent underlying ideology.

Shaw’s wavy-shimmering style of animation is also a bit of an acquired taste. It bears a resemblance to the old
Dr. Katz show, but it is more creepily Gilliam-esque here. While his first feature, My Entire High School Sinkinginto the Sea was slight and inconsequential, it still managed to mine mild laughs from its premise. In contrast, Cryptozoo takes itself agonizingly seriously.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Fantasia ’21: Night Bus (short)

This will be the last bus of the night. Its route runs from the end of the line to the end of someone’s life. It will be a bumpy ride, but don’t buckle up, because some of the other passengers are suspect. Beware of the monkeys too in Joe Hsieh’s remarkable Taiwanese animated short Night Bus, included in the Things that Go Bump in the East shorts block, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.

It is late, so there are few passengers on the provincial bus headed back to the big city. The two laborers are used to traveling this way. The rich elderly lady is not, but since luxury car boke down, she is forced to make do. The pregnant woman and her husband also look like they are accustomed to better traveling accommodations, but here they are. They also do not appear to be very affectionate with each other. Everyone’s fate will become with that of another solitary traveler inside the bus and a mother monkey with her baby on the outside.

Night Bus
is one of the best film noirs, of any length, that you could hope to see all year. It is basically a tightly concentrated thriller in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents tradition, but the incorporation of the monkeys gives it added genre dimensions. You could even call it horror without much fear of contradiction.

Fantasia ’21: Koreatown Ghost Story (short)

Chuseok is described as a Korean combination of Thanksgiving and the Day of the Dead that is observed in both Koreas. However, it is difficult for North Koreans to fully celebrate, because they have no food for their holiday feasts and no access to the graves of their ancestors. That would be fine with a young Korean-American artist, who gets rather creeped out by old Eastern traditions in Minsun Park & Teddy Tennebaum’s short film Koreatown Ghost Story, included in the Things that Go Bump in the East shorts block, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Hannah’s long-deceased parents were friends of Dr. Moon, who dresses like a medical doctor, but apparently also practices holistic medicine, notably including acupuncture. Therefore, when Dr. Moon asks her to come visit before Chuseok, Hannah agrees out of respect. Before she knows it, Dr. Moon has her on her table for an acupuncture session. Then things get weird.

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Fantasia ’21: Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched

A man from the city finds himself stranded in a quaint village, where they kill him in a ritual sacrifice. There, that’s folk horror for you. Nature can also be a nasty, vicious beast in such films. Stone circles and pagan cults are celebrated in Kier-La Janisse’s Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched, a three and a half horror documentary survey of folk horror, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Janisse starts with the folk horror fans know and love best, the so-called unholy trinity of Michael Reeves’
Witchfinder General, Piers Haggard’s The Blood on Satan’s Claw, and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (mercifully, the Nic Cage remake is scrupulously ignored). The film then flashes back to the sub-genre’s literary roots in stories like Grant Harrow’s Pallinghurst Barrow and the ghost stories of M.R. James.

It turns out the BBC was a fount of classic folk horror in the 1970’s. The James adaptations of the
A Ghost Story for Christmas franchise are still well regarded and the creepy kids drama The Children of the Stone maintains a nostalgic cult following. The second half of Janisse’s exhaustive study loses some of its focus and energy, but there is still some interesting coverage of international folk horror. It is particularly nice to see Mattie Do and clips of her film Dearest Sister.

Unfortunately, a good deal of the critical commentary is predictable and repetitive. Honestly, if you took a shot for every time some uses a form of the word “colonialism,” you would be lucky to wind up in the hospital rather than the morgue. The same is true for the word “patriarchy,” so clearly Janisse did not cast a very wide net for diverse viewpoints. Frankly,
Woodlands is a good example of how the insular world of hipster film criticism is starting to sound like a brainwashed pagan cult.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Fantasia ’21: Straight To VHS

Manuel Lamas was no Ed Wood or Tommy Wiseau. His films were ultra-low budget and ultra-strange, but they could disturb and provoke viewers in a way that solidified his small but dedicated cult following in Uruguay. Regrettably, he also lacked Wood’s endearing charm. It turns out Lamas was a bit of a jerk, but his strange vision still pulls filmmaker Emilio Silva Torres into a trippy wild goose chase in his documentary-hybrid Straight to VHS, which screens live-and-in-person at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.

In 1989, Lamas released
Act of Violence in a Young Journalist to virtually no acclaim, but he managed to get a hundred or so VHS cassettes into Uruguayan video stores, thanks to a shrewd distribution strategy. In subsequent years, it took on a mythical life of own with idiosyncratic cineastes like Silva Torres. The title makes it sound like harsher grindhouse fare than it apparently was. There are random supernatural elements, but essentially the film blends a telenovela-like sex and revenge melodrama with a documentary-like presentation of the journalist-heroine’s efforts to explore the nature of violence and document its effects on society.

The acting was challenged and the production values were bargain-basement, but there is still something about the film that gets under people’s skin. Silva Torres assumed finding lead actress Blanca Gimenez would be the key to unlocking the puzzle. She had been Lamas’s writing and producing partner, so it was often assumed she was his romantic partner as well. However, that does not turn out to be the case. In fact, she had all kinds of issues with the late filmmaker. Then just when the project appears stalled, a batch of previously unseen Lamas tapes is mysteriously delivered.

Straight To VHS
eventually goes pretty far out there, but it is really more interesting when it stays relatively grounded. The truth is Lamas, Gimenez, and their films together are sufficiently interesting. They really don’t need a stylized punch-up. By the halfway mark, everyone has us convinced this is a significant work of indie-outsider cinema, despite its dubious aesthetics.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Benny Chan’s Raging Fire

This film could very well represent the end of an era. It is the final film of Hong Kong action auteur, Benny Chan, who helmed it through production, but had to bow out for post. It could also represent the swan song of the gritty HK cop-and-gangster genre that we know and love. As Xi and the CCP apply the draconian National Security Law to all aspects of HK life, we can expect local film production to increasingly mirror the propaganda churned out on the Mainland. It’s star, Donnie Yen, has publicly sided with the Party against the democracy protesters, so maybe he will be okay with that. Perhaps it is also telling this Yen vehicle is already playing in the PRC, but will open in HK after its American release. The star still has his moves, but the cultural climate has changed drastically (and not for the better) when Chan’s Raging Fire opens tomorrow in New York.

A few years prior, Bong and his protégé Ngo were working a high-profile kidnapping case. With the clock ticking, the two cops divvied up their prime suspects. Ngo’s team managed to beat the location of the victim out of their perp, but then they kept beating him into an early grave. Much to their surprise, the police brass scapegoated them for the entire affair. Now they are out of prison and looking for revenge. For compensation, Ngo’s gang also plans to grab some cash in some spectacularly messy armed heists.

In terms of themes and tone,
Raging Fire is a lot like Alan Yuen’s Firestorm, but it doesn’t take things quite as far. Were it not for the presence of Yen, a rather disappointing apologist for HK police brutality against the Umbrella Movement, it probably wouldn’t see release in its current form. In Chan’s screenplay, as he filmed it, the upper echelons of police leadership are shamelessly corrupt. Beating information out of suspects appears to be standard operating procedure and even the stalwart Bong does not appear excessively concerned over collateral damage. (Incidentally, the fraught pregnancy of Bong’s wife is rather lazily manipulative.)

Still, fans will be happy to see Chan, the genre veteran, stages several impressive action sequences. The final hands-to-hand confrontation between Bong and Ngo is especially satisfying. Yen shows his martial arts chops are still finely honed, but dramatically, he is content to coast, as Bong. In contrast, Nicholas Tse is a riveting presence power-brooding and death-ray-staring as Ngo. He makes a great villain, but that somewhat unbalances the film.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Fantasia ’21: Kratt

Kratts are sort of a folky Baltic equivalent of the golem. They are invoked by purchasing bargain-basement souls from Satan, to perform arduous labor. They will slave away at all the tasks given to them, but then they invariably go to work on their creators. Rather ill-advisedly, two self-absorbed kids try to create their own demonic drone while staying with their grandmother in her rustic Estonian farmhouse, but they get far more trouble than they Faustianly bargained for in director-screenwriter Rasmus Merivoo’s Kratt, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.

The last time a lot of us saw Kratts on-screen was Rainer Sarnet’s
November. That was a starkly moody but exquisitely stylish horror-noir. Merivoo’s Kratt is more like an unruly and unholy union of Stranger Things and PG: Psycho Goreman, but with an intentionally annoying post-Millennial attitude (amongst the children). Technically, the terrible twosome unleashes all the chaos with good intentions, to whip up a Kratt to do Grandma’s chores for her, but it is not a swell thought out plan. However, Merivoo allows plenty allows plenty of subplots to spin out into oblivion, but he always keeps the manic energy cranked up to the max.

Merivoo’s own spawn, Nora and Harri are convincingly rotten and clueless as tweener Mia and her somewhat less horrible younger brother Kevin. Together they are a pair, but Mari Lill is more than their equal as their strange and spooky Grandma. There are plenty of wacky supporting performances, notably including Jan Uuspold, as the Pastor called into to exorcise the Kratt, who channels
Animal House-vintage Mark Metcalf (Neidermeyer), which is not inappropriate.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Slasher: Flesh & Blood, on Shudder

It is sort of like And Then There Were None, but everyone is dysfunctional family. Of course, the servants are keenly aware they aren’t, even though they secretly might be. Family game night is a miserable, dog-eat-dog tradition during Galloway family reunions, but this one will be lethal. At least the survivor stands to inherit a huge chunk of change in writer-creator Aaron Martin’s Slasher: Flesh & Blood, directed by Adam MacDonald, which premieres Thursday on Shudder.

Spencer Galloway always took sadistic delight pitting his family against each other. He told them it helped them develop the killer instinct necessary to succeed him as head of the family’s financial empire. However, this time the stakes are for all the marbles, but he won’t be around to enjoy the drama. Given a terminal diagnosis, Galloway planned to have his assisted suicide specialist administer his final exit and then preside over his particularly brutal games. Any family member who declines to play, regardless of the circumstances, inherits nothing.

That was the plan, but a psycho-slasher dressed in a mask and 19
th Century coat and tails complicates everything. Suddenly, each eliminated player also gets eliminated from life. There will also be a few surprise players: a literal prodigal will return and the housekeeper’s daughter gets her chance for recognition (and revenge).

The remote island setting and the Agatha Christie-like one-by-one plot structure still work pretty well in
Flesh & Blood, but it lacks the suspenseful crackle & pop of the thematically similar (but under-appreciated) Harper’s Island. Also, F&B has a few kill scenes that are so disturbingly graphic, they would not be out of place in the Hostel franchise.

On the other hand,
F&B features genre legend David Cronenberg portraying the nasty patriarch, Spencer Galloway, who will often be seen in uncomfortably revealing flashbacks. There is a drily manipulative dimension to his gamesmanship that is definitely chilling. Sydney Meyer and Paula Brancati are both appealingly energetic as potential “final women” survivors, Liv, the servant’s daughter and Christy Martin, the disgusted sister-in-law. Unfortunately, only Sabrina Grdevich really brings the flamboyant villainy as the elitist grown daughter, Florence.

Evangelion 3.0 + 1.01 Thrice Upon a Time, on Prime

Shinji Ikari's father issues are pretty extreme. Gendo Ikari has done his best to sever all connections to his son, while leading a shadowy conspiracy to destroy the world and re-create humanity into a single collective consciousness. Yet, you could say “like father, like son,” since Shinji has almost inadvertently destroyed the world, not once, but twice. That is a lot for one young person to bear. Not surprisingly, the angst-ridden mecha-pilot is not holding up well in creator-chief director Hideaki Anno’s Evangelion 3.0 + 1.01: Thrice Upon a Time, the [most likely] concluding film of the Rebuild of Evangelion reboot series, which premieres Friday on Amazon Prime (with a title like that, you know it must be an anime feature).

As the film opens, Shinji Ikari is so guilt-ridden, he has practically shut-down his body and spirit. He has been shipped off to a peaceful countryside community of survivors to recuperate, along with his fellow EVA pilots, Asuka Shikinami Langley (who both resents and carries a torch for Ikari) and Rei Ayanami (a clone of a clone, quietly imploding worse than Shinji).

Of course, this interlude cannot last. Eventually, Ikari and Langley will return to WILLE, the global defense agency led by Misato Katsuragi, who was something like a surrogate mother to Ikari. They first met while they were serving NERV, ostensibly WILLE’s forerunner, which was secretly founded by his father to hasten the final, world-shattering “Impact.”

Obviously, it is time for the final battle (at least until the next one), to be fought by Katsuragi helming the WILLE fleet, including EVAs piloted by Shikinami and her gifted comrade, Mari Illustrious Makinami (for whom Ikari might carry a torch) against the vastly greater forces of NERV. Eventually, Ikari will also have to face his father, EVA-to-EVA, in Minus-Space, where the rules of physics and scale measurement do not apply.

There are some anime series that get pretty apocalyptic, but
Thrice Upon a Time tops them all. It also outdoes all the competition when it comes to neurotic angst. Yet, that really makes 3.0+1.01 a fitting capstone to the series. Once again, Anno’s team delivers visuals that are three or four cuts about the series anime standard. The prologue battle above a ruined Paris is particularly striking. Arguably, the first act idyl in the village drags out a bit, but it ends on a potent note that is ever so true to the spirit of the franchise.

Monday, August 09, 2021

Fantasia ’21: Remain in Twilight

Suppose Kevin Costner showed up for the reunion in The Big Chill. That is basically what Kazuki Yoshio did. His five friends cannot explain his presence (neither can he), but they aren’t complaining. While they have time together, they try to say the things they left unsaid and complete some unfinished business in screenwriter-director Daigo Matsui’s Remain in Twilight, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Yoshio is generally enjoying hanging with his pals Kinichi Fujita, Tetsuya Akashi, Taku “Sauce” Sogawa, Taisei Tajima, and Yusaku Mizushima, but he is troubled by a nagging question: didn’t he die five years ago? Well, to be technical about it, yes, he did. Nevertheless, here he is, rehearsing their [in]famous school dance number, clad in unflattering red loincloths.

Needless to say, the dance gets a rather mixed reaction from wedding guests, but they are determined to double-down and perform it again at the reception. However, that leaves them several hours to kill. Eventually, they start to address the elephant in the room, as well as their lingering guilt and grief. Yoshio will also have a chance to finally express his feelings to Mickie, the classmate he always carried a torch for.

In the film, Yoshio’s mates keep saying everything should have ended after his big scene with Mickie—and they are probably right about that. Instead, the film gets a little too lost in metaphysical symbolism, but not so far that it totally undermines all the good will the film previously generated. For the most part, Matsui’s magical realism is sly, understated, and remarkably endearing.

Sunday, August 08, 2021

Fantasia ’21: Agnes

It is now Pope Francis’s Church. The conservatives are out and so are their old school practices. So, what happens when a demon needs exorcising? In this case, they call in a semi-disgraced old priest. He doesn’t really believe either, but he thinks the form of the ritual still holds value. However, he hasn’t yet met the possessed title nun in Mickey Reece’s Agnes, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Sister Agnes is cloistered in a highly traditional and secluded convent. Nevertheless, the Devil still found her there. She exhibits all the classic signs of possession, so the stern Mother Superior is forced to request help from the Archdiocese. Much to her annoyance, it arrives in the persons of the rakish Father Donaghue and his young protégé, Benjamin, a Deacon, who will soon take his vows as a priest.

Father Donaghue does his thing, assuming the ritual will give Sister Agnes the psychological or emotional relief she needs. Unfortunately, this case will be a considerably more difficult—and more real. Yet, the possession is only half the story. Equal time will be given to the aftermath, as Sister Agnes’ closest friend, the former Sister Mary, navigates civilian life after losing faith and leaving the convent.

Initially, the second half feels like a punishingly long and drawn-out epilogue, but Reece eventually pays if off with a quiet but really well-written explanation of faith from the newly ordained Father Benjamin. There is a lot to slog through, but the light-bulb moment redeems it. Plus, the demonic horror stuff is pretty creepy.

Reece has a weird, off-kilter style all his own. His eccentric rhythms and cadences suggest an unholy union of 1970s art-house cinema and questionably dubbed Euro-horror movies, but somehow it seems to work for him. Ben Hall and his radio announcer voice are a perfect match for Reece. Like in
Climate of the Hunter, Hall is an intriguing and unpredictable presence as Father Donaghue—so much so, we would like to see him leading other horror films, helmed by other directors.

Saturday, August 07, 2021

Fantasia ’21: Seobok

He has the life expectancy of novelist James Gunn’s The Immortals and the emotional maturity of a test tube. Everyone wants a piece of the genetically engineered clone, because he can’t die unless he is killed. Fortunately, he has the protection of former intelligence agent Min Ki-hun. The ex-spy looks like a basket case, because he is, but Min can still take down the bad guys in screenwriter-director Lee Yong-ju Seobok, which screens as an on-demand selection of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Disgusted by the dirty work of his last assignment, Min has walked away from the agency. He also has a terminal brain tumor. Weirdly, that makes him the perfect candidate to serve as Seobok’s bodyguard. If he can keep the clone alive, he gets first dibs on a Seobok mojo-extracting treatment.

Of course, that will be the tricky part. A shadowy cabal already assassinated the American scientist evaluating the Seobok project and the clone himself is presumed to be their next target. However, Seobok (named after a Qin Dynasty messenger dispatched to find the elixir of life) is hardly helpless. It turns out he has massive Professor X-like telekinetic powers that were an unanticipated byproduct of his radical genetic engineering.

Lee is working with a familiar template (cynical government agent learns to respect the humanity in the guinea pig is tasked with protecting), but the action sequences are crisply executed and Gong Yoo is remarkably haggard and world-weary as Min, despite his babyface. The problem is Seobok (portrayed with utter emotionlessness by Park Bo-gum) truly has the personality of a lab rat. The silent steeliness thing works much better for Jo Woo-jin as the sinister intelligence chief Ahn Ik-hyun. However, some of the best dramatic work comes from Jang Young-nam as Lim Se-eun, Seobok’s surrogate mother and project scientist.