Sunday, July 31, 2022

Fantasia ’22: My Grandfather’s Demons

Whittling in wood is definitely a grandpa kind of thing to do, but Rosa’s grandfather was a little different. He carved demons. It turns out, they represented the sins and regrets of his life. After his death, Rosa returns to his village, where she must exorcize his old demons, most metaphorically, in Nuno Beato’s My Grandfather’s Demons, Portugal’s first stop-motion animated feature, which screened at the 2022 Fantasia International FilmFestival.

It is quite a shock to Rosa when she learns her grandfather was the mean old man nobody liked. She had lost touch with him after she moved apartments, because she was consumed by her work. As a result, she was already carrying a load of guilt when she arrived. Then she learned his village blamed him for its misfortunes. At first, she dismisses their peasant superstitions, but her dreams are plagued by visions of the demonic figurines he carved.

Beato starts the film in the mode of traditional cell animation, but transitions to stop-motion when Rosa arrives at her grandfather’s farmhouse. The former is kind of quirky, but the clay-based animation creates a richly realized world, informed by local lore. Screenwriters Possidonio Cachapa and Cristina Pinheiro flirt with the fantastical, while maintaining an evocative sense of the mysterious. Of course, Rosa is definitely haunted, but in how many senses of the word?

Regardless, Rosa has a richer character development arc than most live action characters. Her struggles to come to terms with her grandfather’s legacy and atone for his mistakes is some pretty heavy, archetypal stuff. Plus, the music is lovely and the clay landscape looks ruggedly beautiful. It is hard to believe this is Beato’s first feature or Portugal’s first full-length stop-motion film, because it is so impressively realized.

Fantasia ’22: VRDLK Family of Vurdulak

Aleksey Tolstoy died in 1875, but he is on a roll right now. Recently, his novella The Vampire has inspired a feature film, an excellent graphic novel, and now an animated short. As vampire experts know, the Vurdulak (or Vourdalak, spellings vary) is particularly sinister, because it specifically preys on its former family members and loved ones. Fortunately, the traveling Marquis is hard to love, but it is still dangerous for him to encounter one in Sam Chou’s animated short, VRDLK: Family of Vurdulak, which screened at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

While in route to a diplomatic confab in Budapest, the Marquis D’Urfe gets lost in the woods somewhere in Serbia. This is Vurdulak country, so everyone warns him to get off the road after sundown, but, of course, he will not listen. Eventually, the horny braggart winds up at the cottage of old man Gorcha, where he is quite taken with the absent man’s daughter Zdenka. He arrived just before dark, so is shocked when the family refuses to let the freezing Gorcha in.

’s throwback style of animation has its quirky charms, but it gets even more humor from the sarcastic frat boy attitude of D’Urfe. Hammer-style horror derived from classical European sources is usually pretty serious, so it is entertaining to watch Chou and screenwriter Ellery Vandooyeweert mine some humor from Tolstoy’s vampire tale, especially considering how angsty and tragic it is. Yet, they still stay pretty faithful to the original story.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Fantasia ’22: A Girl Meets a Boy and a Robot (short)

How many interlocking stories can there be in a nearly post-human dystopian future? Apparently, there are at least four, but the one most anime fans will really what to see is the tale contributed by the animator of the Cowboy Bebop and Macross Plus franchises. Conveniently, Shinichiro Watanabe’s A Girl Meets a Boy and a Robot screened on its lonesome during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Somehow, the girl managed to stay alive in a desert wasteland, without any companionship. One day, a robot with amnesia falls out of an automated supply train. He sort of resembles the Taika Waititi droid from
The Mandalorian, but is less annoying, and has more personality. With his help, they hitch a train hobo-style to the nearest big city. It is empty too, except for a young man, who gives her a crash course in evading the robotic tank that outlived its programmers. He also introduces her to some lore that does not sound very science fiction-ish, but will motivate the grandly tragic third act.

At first,
Girl Meets appears like a deceptively familiar post-apocalyptic world, but it takes on big, cosmic dimensions. Watanabe handles the slow blossoming quite dexterously and many of his visuals are quite compelling, While the character designs are not wildly original, they definitely resonate with viewers.

Clearlly, anyone who appreciates the major anime series (especially those of Watanabe) should enjoy
Girl Meets. Maybe it is even richer when viewed together with the other stories of Taisu, but as a Chinese production, there is a good chance the Chinese contributions are compromised from a propaganda standpoint. After all, the Mainland film industry is closely aligned with the oppressive CCP. Therefore, seeing Watanabe’s contribution separately at festivals is probably the most ethical strategy for his fans to watch it. Recommended under these circumstances, A Girl Meets a Boy and a Robot had its Canadian premiere at this year’s Fantasia.

Fantasia ’22: Mighty Robo V (short)

Waste, corruption, and mismanagement all hallmarks of every government program known to man. Why would we expect anything different from a mecha-kaiju defense initiative? It turns out the Philippine Giant Monster Defense Institute (PGMDI) is just as dysfunctional as any other state-run enterprise. A documentary camera crew exposes the truth in Miko Livelo & Mihk Vergara’s short film, Mighty Robo V, which screened during the 2022 Fantasia Film Festival.

The cameramen will actually be following the crew of Mighty Robo V 2, because their predecessors just got killed by a kaiju. Unfortunately, Dr. Rody Rodriguez has been using the PGMDI’s budget to cover his online cock-fighting gambling losses, so he has solicited sponsors for each of the giant mecha-robot’s weapon systems. To rebuild public support, he has recruited a team of online influencers to be the new crew. Frankly, his corruption has driven his competent deputy, Laser Panganiban to drink—heavily.

Mighty Robo
is a razor-sharp satire that persuasively applies James Buchanan’s Public Choice Theory to Ultraman-style bureaucrats. This film has bite, especially the unhinged diatribes of the country’s president, whose growling tone very much resembles that of Duterte (who was still in office at the time of the film’s production). Regardless, it makes one thing clear. Government employees will always put their own interests first, even when giant monsters are rising out of the Pacific Rim. By the way, the PGMDI can’t call them “kaiju” anymore, because that term is deemed an offensive slur.

Fantasia ’22: Call and Response (short)

It is a good name for a jazz club, because it implies musical dialogue. According to posters, Chet Baker and the fictional jazz musician “Singleton” will perform there. An aspiring guitar and a competing piano player also want to play there, but first they will have to pass an audition in the animation collective Morgane Duprat’s short film Call and Response, which screened during the 2022 Fantasia Film Festival.

Call and Response
really is a short short, but it is loaded with style. Basically, the busking guitar player and a piano stylist stuck in a depressing bartending gig audition for a chance to play on a bill with Singleton. They start out interrupting each other, but they find a groove when they start playing together.

The musicians, including
Raphael Faigenbaum on piano and Paul de Robillard on guitar, give us some swinging up-tempo bop that sound very 1960s-era appropriate. When they come together, the film explodes in color, but somewhat ironically, the early noirish black-and-white sequences look cooler and jazzier.

Regardless, any film that proclaims a love of jazz deserves a call-out, no matter how short, especially when the animation has so much flair. Recommended for jazz and animation fans,
Call and Response screened at this year’s Fantasia.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Fantasia ’22: Demigod, the Legend Begins

Instead of wire-fu, this martial arts epic uses glove-fu and CGI animation. The art of Budaixi, Chinese glove puppetry, is alive and well in Taiwan, where Pili Puppetry has been a television hit since the mid-1980s. It turns out some of the world’s best wuxia comes from the independent nation of Taiwan. Su Huan-jen is one of its great heroes. Fans get his stand-alone origin story in Huang Wen-Chang’s Demigod: The Legends, which screened during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

As the film opens, Su Huan-jen is still young and slightly irresponsible. Yet, he still manages to help a big Wookie-like animist god win his battle against his more reptilian rival. Su is already deeply in debt to library, so he jumps at the chance to heal its patron, the Lord of Globe Castle. Unfortunately, this provides a perfect opportunity to frame the young apprentice for the Lord’s murder.

The Lord’s adopted son knows Su didn’t do it. The Princess isn’t so sure, but the Lord’s sinister brother is thrilled to finally have access to the book of cosmic knowledge Su had been searching for. All the chaos is an open invitation for rival Lord of the Evil Kingdom to invade, so Su will have a real war on his hands.

Huang really is one of the best martial arts filmmakers working today. He just works with puppets rather people. Screenwriters Huang Liang-hsun and He Yuan-yu give us a story worthy of vintage Shaw Brothers, if they could have afforded the giant kaiju special effects.
Demigod even manages to surprise us with a couple twists. The sets, costumes, and design work are spectacular, especially the library. Of course, the puppetry martial arts are totally cool. That’s what the Huang family does best.

Paper Girls, on Prime

Remember how great the future looked in 1988? The music and movies were consistently fun and George H.W. Bush was poised to be elected president in a veritable landslide. So, how did the 2010s and 2020s turn out so badly? Maybe four newspaper deliverers will find out. They are about to be swept into a time-war in Stephany Folsom’s 8-episode Paper Girls, based on Brian K. Vaughan’s comics, which premieres today on Prime Video.

It is the morning after Halloween (but not for long), when many of the drunken teenaged troublemakers are still roaming the streets. Erin Tieng picked a heck of a first day to start her paper route. Tiffany Quilkin, a savvier paper girl helps show her the ropes. Soon, they meet up with tough-talking Mac Coyle and preppy-ish KJ Brandman, forming a temporary alliance to finish their deliveries together. However, the drunken bullies are not the only ones prowling around their suburban Cleveland neighborhood.

Fatefully, the four girls are caught up in a skirmish between future time-traveling revolutionaries, the STF (Standard Time Fighters), who want to prevent all the bad things from happening, and the “Old Watch,” the reactionaries fighting to protect their privileged positions (and maybe the integrity of the whole space-time continuum dealio). Disoriented after traveling through a worm-hole, the girls decide to hide out at Tieng’s home. They find she is still living there, but she did not turn out how the twelve-year-old would have hoped. As they navigate the future, other girls learn revelations about themselves from family members and in some cases, their future selves.

Folsom’s adaptation of Vaughan’s comics features some pretty intriguing time-travel twists. It is somewhat unusual to hear the old arguments against altering history so casually dismissed, but let’s be honest. The truth is the real, old-school Doctor Who would probably agree with the Old Watch. Nevertheless, the 1980s nostalgia always works and despite some themes of sexuality (brought on by observations of the girls future’s selves),
Paper Girls is not annoyingly woke. In fact, the way Ronald Reagan acts as a sort of spirit guide for Tieng is kind of clever.

The battery of four directors (all veterans of episodic drama) keep action rolling along at a brisk pace. The generally shorter episode length (mostly around forty minutes) makes
Paper Girls highly bingeable. However, it might be a mistake to end the first season without a greater sense of resolution. After all, it could suffer the same fate as Prime’s cancelled Night Sky (which is also a pretty good show, but we’ll never know its ultimate secrets).

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Fantasia ’22: Inu-Oh

How does some heavy biwa sound to you? To the Shogun, it sounds disruptive and dangerous. He is also not very appreciative of the “new” stories from the Tales of the Heike that have made two itinerant performers a sensation in divided Muromachi-era Japan. Art and authority do not mix well in Masaaki Yuasa’s future cult-classic, Inu-Oh, which screened at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival.

As is often the case in Japanese history, the Heike clan lost their war with the Genji, but they got all the glory (albeit tragic glory). Supposedly, you can still hear the voices of their samurai murmuring from the river where their fleet drowned. Tomona is the kind of sensitive artist who can pick-up their whispers.

As a boy, his father died and he was blinded when the Shogun retained their diving services to retrieve a politically sensitive relic from the river. Having little conventional prospects, the now-sightless teen apprenticed to become a biwa troubadour-priest, but he rejected the traditional shaved head and monks’ robes, in favor of a rock & roll style. That appeals to Inu-Oh’s sensibilities. The frustrated actor and dancer was disowned by his father, a celebrated Noh performer, because of his physical and facial deformities. Even while bizarrely masked, Inu-Oh is a crowd-pleasing performer, especially when he teams up with Tomona. Inevitably, their popularity stirs the jealous ire of the Shogun and Inu-Oh’s arrogant father.

Tomona follows in a long line of sight-challenged Biwa players in
  films, starting with Hoichi in the classic Kwaidan and continuing with the one-eyed Kubo in Kubo and the Two Strings. Neither of them played like Tomona. Jethro Tull fans in particular should really dig the fusion of hard rock with traditional (almost pastoral) instrumentation. The musical sequences are extensive, to the point of defining the film’s character and vibe, rather than incidental or episodic. You just can’t miss Tomona wailing on his biwa, like Pete Townsend in his prime.


When films treat us like psychoanalysts, openly asking us to differentiate their characters’ delusions from reality, we should start charging them an hourly rate. Margaret is definitely that kind of unreliable protagonist. Her daughter understandably begs her to seek help, but viewers are the ones who have to judge whether her stalker crisis is legit in Andrews Semans’ Resurrection, which opens tomorrow in New York.

Initially, Margaret is so together, she can give the intern empowerment lessons without sounding condescending (not really, but the intern acts like she can). However, the wheels come off shockingly quickly when she spies David Moore, a man from her secret past. As we learn, Moore trapped her in an appallingly abusive and manipulating relationship.

Apparently, Moore is smart-stalking her, appearing in public places, acting like the picture of mild-mannered innocence. Of course, Margaret knows better and Moore will not wait too long to justify her fear. Unfortunately, Margaret is not merely apprehensive. She downshifts into such unhinged mania, Rebecca Hall’s performance has earned comparisons to Isabelle Adjani’s freakout in

We are told (and come to believe) Moore’s behavior was not just violent and controlling. He took viciousness to macabre extremes. That would still be believable, until Semans ratchets it up to borderline fantastical levels. Yet, that wrinkle is the only interesting angle of an otherwise wildly overwrought stalker thriller, better suited to the Lifetime network than arthouse cinemas.

Fantasia ’22: Punta Sinistra

The high-flying Miami Vice-style partying of the 1980s crashed back down to earth during the far-less-fun 1990s. That was especially true for French Canadian bush pilot and drug-runner Luc Langelier, who fatally wrecked while flying his regular Colombia-to-Montreal run. Neither his body or his cargo were ever recovered, but not for a lack of looking (at least for the drugs). A burned-out journalist (is there any other kind) starts investigating his cold case in Renaud Gauthier’s Punta Sinistra, which screened at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

As a fellow French Canadian, Marcotte feels an affinity with the picaresque Langelier, or so he claims. Regardless, the boozy wash-out certainly fits the hazy, debauched atmosphere of Punta Sinistra. Supposedly, he is writing a book on Langelier, but nobody wants to talk to him, least of all the mysterious Claudine, who regularly swims the surf around Langelier’s crash site. Marcotte must also contend with bad tarot readings and frequent beatings from a gang of surfer-thugs. Fortunately, the shaggy journalist is used to waking up in pain.

Although it uses genre elements, Gauthier’s film has a trippy, experimental heart, very much akin to Ossange’s
9 Fingers. It is a druggy, sun-drenched mood piece and exploration of Marcotte’s psyche—but there isn’t much to the latter to delve into. There are some clever moments (especially when the soundtrack “pays homage” to Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice themes), but long, deliberately baffling scenes of tarot readings and incomprehensible telephone calls really start to drag, which is a real problem for a film barely longer than an hour.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Fantasia ’22: The Breach

This will be John Hawkins’ final case as Lone Crow’s chief of police, so you know it will be a rough one. It is also a pretty interesting one too. Things get pretty wild along the Porcupine River, an offshoot of the Yukon that eventually empties into Alaska, but Hawkins usually expects earthly dangers rather than the uncanny and eldritch that await him in Rodrigo Gudiño’s The Breach, which screened at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

The body that washed downriver aboard a canoe is about as grizzly as they get. It even shuts up coroner Jacob Redgrave. Typically, he has a lot to say to Hawkins, knowing the police chief was his ex-girlfriend’s rebound. Since then, Hawkins broke up with Meg Fulbright, the local charter-boat tour guide. Super-awkwardly, Hawkins will have to travel with both of them up to the remote cabin where the extremely-late Dr. Cole Parsons was staying.

The cabin looks considerably more decrepit and distressed than Fulbright remembers from ferrying Parsons up a few months ago. It definitely looks like the physicist was conducting some very strange experiments, under less than pristine laboratory conditions. However, it is hard for Hawkins to get a full picture, because a mysterious force is clearly toying with them. It also quickly keys-in on Redgrave.

The Breach
is based on an audio-original novel written by Nick Cutter (an open pen-name of Craig Davidson), which might make it something of a cousin to podcast adaptations, like Homecoming. Its audio roots make sense, in a good way, given Breach’s atmospheric setting and intriguing slow-build. Davidson and co-screenwriter Ian Weir keep revealing eerie genre elements at a steady pace, thoroughly hooking and creeping out viewers.

King Bibi, on Chai Flicks

From the standpoint of his nation’s security, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu is probably the most successful world leader of the 21st Century, so far. During his recent tenure, the so-called “Iranian Nuclear Deal” was nullified, the US finally moved our embay to Jerusalem, and several Arab states formally recognized the State of Israel through the Abraham Accords. Arguably, the last comparable Israeli Prime Minister would be Menachem Begin. Yet, throughout his non-consecutive terms in office, Netanyahu contended with a highly critical press corps. Dan Shadur chronicles Netanyahu’s life and political career in King Bibi, which premieres today on Chai Flicks.

To understand Netanyahu, you rather logically need to start with his family. His father was a conservative scholar who was essentially forced to seek employment in America, by Israel’s socialist establishment. His brother Yoni was the heroic IDF commander, who died during the successful rescue mission in Entebbe. His brother’s death was the catalyst for his leadership in the study of terrorism prevention, which also brought him to prominence in America too.

Yet, Netanyahu still endured long periods of Churchillian wilderness-style political ostracism. His peace-through-strength policies were definitely out of step during the euphoria of the Oslo Accords. However, he was ready when reality set in, even if the traditional Israeli was not.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Paid in Blood, Korean Gangsters Do What They Do Best

Chairman Oh will not allow his criminal syndicate to participate in the illicit drug trade. Lee Min-seok is technically retired from organized crime, but his debt-collection agency is not much different from the loan sharks’ leg breakers. The business everyone really wants to be in is, of course, real estate development, especially the grand spa-casino the Chairman is building. That kind of money is easily worth killing for in Yoon Young-bin’s Paid in Blood (a.k.a. Tomb of the River—that was a wise title change), which releases today on digital VOD.

The views from the Chairman’s coastal Gangneung resort will be spectacular for those who live long enough to see it. His steely, middle-aged Eastwood-ish lieutenant Kim Gil-suk assumed it wasn’t any of his business, since it technically sits in his syndicate rival Lee Chung-sub’s territory. However, Oh reassigns the project to Kim, partly to punish Lee for a drug-related incident in one of his karaoke parlors. The calmer, shrewder Kim also has a better temperament for this kind of project, involving investments from not-so-friendly competing outfits.

Inconveniently, Lee Min-seok will kill his old boss to take possession of his shares in the development. Kim tries to finesse Lee when he attempts to muscle his way into the project management, because the Chairman is philosophically opposed to violence. However, Lee has no such scruples, especially since he has a large supply of debtors willing to take the fall for him.

South Korean cinema has given us some terrific gangsters movies.
Paid in Blood is not quite at the level of Nameless Gangster, but it is a solid example, executed with muscle and vinegary cynicism. Yoon definitely takes a hard look at next generation corporatist gangsters, who are more than a little put-off my reckless throwbacks like Lee.

Creeping, the Graphic Novel

Petro could always get serious about studying, raise his grades, and hopefully land a good job after college. However, he thinks the payoff will be better if he becomes internet-famous live-streaming his urban explorations of supposedly haunted places, while dragging along his reluctant friends. In hopes of finally scoring his big viral moment, Petro convinces his fellow-Creepers to attempt the Mount Everest of Creeps. Of course, it is in Romania. Horror fans know this trip is a bad idea and so do most of his friends, but they go anyway in Zack Keller’s graphic novel Creeping, with story by Mike Richardson and art by Doug Wheatley, which goes on-sale today.

Kiara is serious about her medical studies, because that is what her parents want. In contrast, JJ failed out of school, but he has not bothered to tell his wealthy ever-absent father. Izzy is really just going to be with JJ, even though they haven’t revealed their relationship to their friends yet. The attraction between Petro and Kiara is somewhat out and open, but neither is really sure where it is headed. Unfortunately, this will not be a trip for romance.

With the help of JJ’s private jet (technically, his father’s), the Creeping gang plan to live-stream their trek through the ruins of Draghici Asylum. It was once a hospital for the criminal insane, but it was reportedly shutdown because of the unspeakable experiments conducted there. They cover story claimed natural gas deposits drove everyone nuts, so it definitely sounds like a fun spot. At least, they will have the aloof and disdainful Mihaela to guide them to the crumbling castle.

There have been a lot of films about would-be live-streamers or reality TV camera crews meeting their horrific doom in haunted houses. However,
Creeping is a little different than the likes of The Deep House, because it has actual cool-looking “somethings” that would be difficult to do justice in a low-budget horror movie. Wheatley’s designs for the whatever-they-might-be (we can’t say because it would be spoilery) are definitely one of the highlights of the graphic novel.

Keller also nicely humanizes the characters and gives a bit more complexity to their relationships than we usually get in horror films. They are mostly dumb kids, but they are believably human dumb kids.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Fantasia ’22: Summer Ghost

It is a lot more intense growing up in Japan. Think of it this way: how many of your friends went to cram school? In Japan, it would have been 100% of those whose parents could afford it. Tomoya Sugisaki is definitely one of them, but he hates every minute of it. He and two other frustrated teens seek out a perspective from beyond the grave in Loundraw’s Summer Ghost, which screened during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

According to urban legend, the ghost of a beautiful young woman appears when the curious set off fireworks on a summer evening. Although he is a loner, Sugisaki connected online with two other teens who share his fascination with the so-called “Summer Ghost.” An abandoned airstrip looks like the perfect place to summon her, which indeed it turns out to be.

The girl was Ayane Sato. Contrary to popular belief, she did not commit suicide. Instead, she was killed in a hit-and-run, by a driver who subsequently dumped her body in an unknown location to cover-up the crime. Sato explains it is not just fireworks that are necessary to see her. Seekers also need to be mentally closer to death. Indeed, Sugisaki and the bullied Aoi Harukawa are having distressingly dark thoughts, while Ryo Kobayashi is dealing (badly) with a fatal diagnosis.

Sato is definitely a ghost in the tradition of
When Marnie was There, rather than a horror-style apparition. It is enormously sad and tragic, but also ultimately humanistic and life-affirming. The teens’ drama is totally grounded and true-to-life, while the ghost business is quite tragic, in a lovely kind of way.

Fantasia ’22: Deiji Meets Girl

Maise Higa feels like a towny working in her parents Okinawa resort hotel, but a lot of teenagers would probably consider it a pretty cool summer job, especially when attractive Ichiro Suzuki checks in. He is not the baseball player, but Higa is sure he is famous from somewhere. Regardless, she is definitely interested in him, despite the weird events that start happening around him in Ushio Taizawa’s 13-mini-episode micro-series, which screened in its entirety during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Higa is embarrassed by her family (except her grandmother), because she is a teenager. She can’t help noticing Suzuki has that brooding James Dean thing going on, but she just can’t place him. Nevertheless, she must respond to some unusual room service calls when the hotel first floods like a fish bowl and then becomes entwined in a giant Jack-and-the-beanstalk-like tree. In both cases, she traces the fantastical source back to his room.

Fortunately, these incidents never disrupt the hotel’s service for long. They must have some fantastic insurance. Higa also starts developing ambiguous feelings for Suzuki, even though he seems to be somehow causing all the hassle. Something about his melancholy touch her.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Fantasia ’22: Shin Ultraman

Ultraman was the king of “tokusatsu” superhero television universes, years before either Marvel or DC had enough shows to claim such a title. There have literally been dozens of series about Ultraman, his colleagues, and the kaiju they battle. Often, they culminated with a theatrical feature film capstone, so Ultraman on the big screen is nothing new. The filmmakers behind Shin Godzilla got a rare opportunity to reboot the franchise outside the ongoing continuity. Wisely, director Shinji Higuchi and screenwriter Hideaki Anno still respected everything that made fans embrace the series through Shin Ultraman, which screens during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Mysteriously, giant kaiju have been wreaking havoc on Japan (and only Japan), so logically the government formed the S-Class Species Suppression Protocol (SSSP) to hopefully figure out a way to stop them. Shinji Kaminaga was one of their officers, until he was accidentally killed by a friendly alien superhero, who arrived just in time to defeat an invisible, electricity-consuming monster. The giant red and silver humanoid code-named “Ultraman” fuses his consciousness with that of the late Kaminaga, bringing him back to life and continuing his work at SSSP.

Of course, his partner, Hiroki Asami, quickly grows suspicious of the way Kaminaga disappears like Clark Kent during times of crisis. Unfortunately, more dangerous and hostile alien entities are also on to Kaminaga’s secret identity.

Somewhat like what they did in
Shin Godzilla, Higuchi and Anno spend a lot of time skewering the counter-productive infighting of Japan’s governmental bureaucracy. The kaiju always reach perilously close to the outskirts of Tokyo, by the time SSSP files the proper reports in triplicate. However, Shin Ultraman is not quite as incisive and it is much more episodic.

Fortunately, you will not hear accusations of “toxic fandom” with respects to
Shin Godzilla, because Higuchi and Anno stay true to the classic spirit of Ultraman and employ a great deal of the traditional elements and motifs. This Ultraman looks exactly like the Ultraman fans have known since 1966. He is just a little shinier. Ultraman has similar crazy moves and the kaiju are as outlandish as ever.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

New Gold Mountain, in the Epoch Times

It is a tale of intrigue in the colonial Australian goldfields, involving corrupt officials and self-serving "community organizers." For its DVD release, my review of NEW GOLD MOUNTAIN is now up at THE EPOCH TIMES here.

Fantasia ’22: Next Door

Don't worry about Chan-woo’s rear window. It is the dividing wall separating him from his noisy, disruptive neighbor that concerns him. He does not know Ko-hyun, but he certainly hears her and her boyfriend. It therefore comes as quite a shock when he wakes up in her flat, beside a lifeless body in Yeom Ji-ho’s Next Door, which screened at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

After several failed attempts, Chan-woo is studying for what will probably be his last chance to pass the police academy entrance exam. Unfortunately, he is scuffling so badly, he needs to borrow the ten-dollar registration fee. The poor guy is forced to hit up an old drinking buddy for the meager loan. Of course, he first drags Chan-woo out for a quick round of drinks, which turns into a messy, sloppy night.

The next morning, Chan-woo comes to next to what he assumes to be the corpse of Ko-hyun’s boyfriend. He has no idea how he got there or what happened, but as soon as he leaves, he realizes he must get back in, to clean up the evidence of his presence.

Naturally, everything that can go wrong for Chan-woo is absolutely sure to go wrong. Yeom makes clever use of the spartan, claustrophobic sets (aside from the brief drinking scene, the entire film unfolds in the two apartments or the hall and ledge outside). The film also keeps one darned thing coming after another, at a pretty good clip.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Blackwood, Where the Wendigo Roams

You can dismiss Bigfoot, because footage like the Patterson/Gimlin video just looks staged, but don’t scoff at the Wendigo. The latter is an ancient Native legend that probably wasn’t handed down for no reason. Regardless, going into dak, shunned woods is a dangerous proposition. Of course, you can’t tell that to a bunch of outlaws (especially the racist ones), who are determined to blunder through the creature’s stomping grounds in search of gold. They are sure to find something in Chris Canfield’s Blackwood, which opens today in New York.

Dutch Wilder’s gang just pulled off a sensitive job for Sally Pickerton, not even knowing she is a woman. They are even more annoyed when she “offers” to bring them into a claim-jumping caper rather than pay for their services. Believing there is indeed gold in those hills, they reluctantly agree to her scheme. The problem is the hills in question are in the Blackwood Forest, which has a reputation for evil supernatural business with the local native population.

Nevertheless, Dowanhowee feels herself drawn there. She is the last of her tribe. As it happens, she recognizes one of Wilder’s thugs from his participation in the massacre of her people, so she takes advantage of the opportunity for some vengeance. As she flees the Wilder gang, she leads them directly into Wendigo territory.

And that’s about it.
Blackwood definitely would have worked better if Canfield had a better command of mood. It is a pretty straightforward, hurtling-towards-the-inevitable narrative, without much foreboding or tension. As a further drawback, the wendigo creature design often does not look nearly as imposing as it should.

My Old School

This is a documentary about an imposter, starring an imposter. Alan Cumming is not really trying to convince us he is Brandon Lee. He is just lip-synching the part, since the “real” Lee only agreed to faceless audio interviews. That prompts the question whether Lee is really Lee. Turns out he wasn’t, as Jono McLeod reveals in his game-playing documentary, My Old School, which opens today in New York.

The case of “Brandon Lee,” who enrolled in Glasgow’s academically well-regarded, middle class Bearsden Academy in 1993 would eventually be widely covered by the British tabloid press. However, if you do not know his secret, McLeod teases it out slowly, so you better appreciate how the revelations hit Bearsden students, including McLeod, himself. In some ways, the awkward Lee was conspicuously at odds with his classmates. Even his name was suspicious, since the actor Brandon Lee had just died on the set of
The Crow a few months prior to his arrival at school.

Yet, Lee thrived academically and managed to make a number of friends at Bearsden. He even starred in a school production of
South Pacific, which raises further ethical questions once the truth is established. Yet, McLeod maximizes the twists and turns getting, reflecting the confusion he and his classmates shared at the time, and to some extent still feel.

As docu-hybrids go,
My Old School is about as hybrid as they get. In addition to employing lip-synched interviews (a rare documentary technique, most notably used previously in Clio Barnard’s The Arbor), McLeod also integrates extensive Daria-style animated sequences to recreate incidents from Lee’s time at Bearsden. They have some charm and fit the 1990s vibe. As for the lip-synching, Cumming matches the subject’s audio well-enough, but his presence does not add much to enrich the film.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Fantasia ’22: Space Monster Wangmagwi

When the Earth is faced with some kind of monstrous attack from space, everyone’s first choice to lead the defense would be an officer played by Kenneth Tobey. As fate would have it, the aliens target mid-1960s South Korea. Don’t despair, my late grandfather (who fought in the Korean War and was stationed there afterwards) always said the Koreans were some of toughest warfighters he’d ever seen, so the Earth could be in worse hands. Unfortunately, downtown Seoul is still in for the kaiju treatment in Gwon Hyeok-jinn’s Space Monster Wangmagwi, Korea’s second-ever Kaiju movie, which screens (unembargoed) in its freshly restored glory at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Earth is a nice-looking planet, so the aliens (sporting tin foil radiation suits, sort of like silver versions of Marvel’s A.I.M. Troopers) intend to take it. Basically, they are using the
Plan 9 from Outer Space playbook, but instead of raising the dead, they release Wangmagwi (“Big Devil”), a fierce kaiju that will grow to a monstrous size once it enters the planet’s atmosphere.

Wreckage and carnage ensue, but worst of all, Ahn Hee might have to postpone her wedding with Captain Oh Jeong-hwan, because all Air Force officers are recalled to base. She also must deal with an unwanted suitor, Wangmagwi, who scoops her up during his rampage. Arguably, that is a good thing, because it only leaves him one arm free to topple buildings. The Korean Air Force does what they can, but a bratty street urchin with a kitchen knife climbing in and around Wangmagwi’s auditory canal and nasal passage is much more effective.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Moloch, on Shudder

Sometimes in the movies, archaeology is adventurous (like in Indiana Jones). In this case, it is creepy, even more so than the average mummy movie. When a bog body turns up in the northern rural Dutch countryside, it fascinates and alarms a young widow in Nico van den Brink’s Moloch, which premieres tomorrow on Shudder.

Betriek was already in a bit of a weird place, having just moved back in with her grouchy dad and her somewhat difficult mother. Plus, she still carries the childhood trauma stemming from the violent home invasion-murder of her grandmother. A few days ago, the local town “eccentric” discovered a bog body near their property. Then he turned up dead in another hole he dug, shortly thereafter.

The news of his death understandably unnerves Betriek, but she is still interested in the fossilized body—and maybe even more interested in Jonas, the Scandinavian archaeologist overseeing the excavation site. He is kind of interested too, which kind of works out, since he will have a lot of work to keep him there when several more bog bodies turn up. The only drawback is the way people start acting crazy, like Jonas’s formerly trusted colleague, Radu.

Moloch is a lot like a lot of other films, but van den Brink’s command of atmosphere is first-rate. He skillfully teases out the intriguing backstory and steadily builds the tension and foreboding. He and co-screenwriter Daan Bakker totally tap into what makes folk horror popular.

The Last Movie Stars, on HBO Max

Even at the height of voyeuristic reality TV, nobody thought to make a Bobby & Whitney-style show about Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Everyone considered them Hollywood’s classiest power couple, so they assumed they must be boring. However, their relationship had plenty of behind-the-scenes drama. Ethan Hawke never shies away from any of it during his six-part documentary profile of Woodward and Newman, The Last Movie Stars, which premieres tomorrow on HBO Max.

They first worked together on the Broadway production of
Picnic and soon became an item. There was a slight complication though, given the fact Newman was already married—to somebody else. That obviously planted the seed for certain tensions, as the Newman’s daughters (from both marriages) eventually address.

Despite their mutual fame and frequent collaborations, the two were on different career trajectories, which contributed to the other major theme of Hawke’s docu-series. At first, Woodward was the bigger star, thanks to her Oscar for
The Three Faces of Eve. Of course, Newman soon eclipsed her with Somebody Up There Likes Me and he only grew in popularity through his Tennessee Williams films.

To tell their story, Hawke had a wealth of primary sources to draw from. Newman had commissioned his screenwriter friend Stewart Stern to conduct interviews with all the major people in his life (including his first wife), when he had a notion of writing an autobiography (that Knopf bought at auction for good money). When Newman changed his mind, he burned the tapes, but the transcripts survived. Making a virtue of necessity, Hawke recruited many of his colleagues for dramatic readings of the transcribed interviews. Mostly, it works quite well. George Clooney and Laura Linney are excellent vocal sound-alikes for the star couple. Brooks Ashmanskas also sounds so perfectly insufferable as their pal Gore Vidal, it is almost spooky.

Hawke (who previously helmed the refined doc,
Seymour: An Introduction) has a keen eye for selecting clips from the couple’s filmography that marry up well with the themes and events under discussion. Many of the scenes should prompt viewers to revisit the given films. All the really big one, like The Hustler and even Paris Blues (which both have classic jazz soundtracks) get their full just due. Yet, it is a bit frustrating we only see scenes of Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain and Altman’s Quintet to illustrate Newman’s periods of personal confusion and unrewarding professional choices.

Still, it is a little weird to hear
Absence of Malice so casually dismissed. If anything, this should be the Sydney Pollack film’s moment, since we’re now in an era of fake news and journalistic scandals, like the Taylor Lorenz doxing incident. Newman himself dismisses The Towering Inferno as mere commercial fare, but from the perspective of 2022, it looks like a pretty hard-hitting expose of shoddy construction techniques.

Regardless, Hawke’s most conspicuous oversight is the complete absence of Newman’s notorious (from his point-of-view) televised nuclear freeze debate with Charlton Heston. By all accounts, Heston handed Newman his head and reportedly the liberal star never spoke to his conservative former friend afterward. Frankly, it was a major event in Newman’s life that would nicely fit with analysis of his box office bomb,
WUSA (which everyone concedes was a failure). Indeed, Stuart Rosenberg’s yarn demonizing a right-wing radio station arguably reflects a lack of understanding of differing viewpoints that contributed to Newman’s humbling in the Heston debate.

Tales of Tomorrow: Ice from Space & The Bitter Storm

Neither Paul Newman nor Joanne Woodward ever appeared in horror film, so, sadly, it is likely they both considered their acting careers to be failures. At least, they had a smidge of science fiction. Of course, Newman was in Robert Altman’s Quintet, but both thesps also appeared in separate episodes of the early 1950s sf anthology, Tales of Tomorrow, neither of which is discussed in the upcoming 6-part HBO Max documentary, The Last Movie Stars.

predated The Twilight Zone, which you might think could have co-starred at least one of the power couple, but neither did (just family friend Robert Redford). The earlier show is lesser-known, but it remains a cult favorite, because it was written by science fiction writers, for science fiction fans. Frankly, “Ice from Space” (written by E.H. Frank and directed by Don Medford) is a lot like TheThing from Another World, but instead of an alien, it features a mysterious block of ice. Somehow, it seeped into an experimental rocket on its return to Earth and is now freezing the isolated desert military base into a frozen wasteland. It is up to Major Dozier to stop its freezing effects, before it expands to more populated areas.

Unfortunately, the loud-mouth Congressman Burns will berate and bully Maj. Dozier every step of the way. Given its heroic portrayal of the American military and the crass, mean-spirited behavior of the observing politician, it is not surprising “Ice from Space” does not figure prominently in Newman’s profile. It is definitely an outlier in his filmography, but it is a cool, unconventional alien invasion story, boasting an excellent performance from Edmon Ryan as Maj. Dozier. Newman has a minor role-playing Sgt. Wilson, but you can tell from his cocky side-long glances into the camera that he believed he was a star in the making.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Fantasia ’22: The Girl from the Other Side

Supposedly, fairy tales are written for children, but you would never want to be a kid in one of them. Shiva’s case is no exception, but at least she has a mysterious protector. In their divided world, he is considered a monster, but he often exemplifies the best of humanity in Yutaro Kubo & Satomi Maiya’s animated feature, The Girl from the Other Side, adapted from Nagabe’s manga series (and produced by WIT Studio), which screened at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Like a zombie’s bite, a mere touch, skin-on-skin, from an Outsider will turn an “Insider” human into a [so-called] monster too. Humans remain inside the “city,” except when they venture out to conduct military campaigns against the “cursed” Outsiders. The latest excursion has gone tragically wrong, leading the destruction of a borderland village. Only a lone girl survives, but the soldiers are not interested in her.

Yet, the forlorn sight of Shiva stirs something inside one mysterious Outsider. Presumably, he was turned relatively recently. Although he no longer remembers his previous life or his name, the former human she calls “Sensei” still clings to some ties to his past, like a locket. He also treats Shiva with humanist patience and compassion. While caring for her wounds, he scrupulously avoids any physical contact. Thinking more long-term, Sensei also worries for her future education and socialization.

Other Side
is a darkly stylish fable that sounds like a heavy-handed allegory, but it plays out on-screen as something much more sophisticated and engaging. The animation evokes the look of traditional watercolor painting more than typical manga-derived anime, but some of the Outsider figures appear somewhat reminiscent of Belladonna of Sadness.

Scratcher, the Graphic Novel

Tattoo artists need to be good, because their clients will be conspicuously stuck with their mistakes. Even though she has confidence issues, Dee’s tattoos are excellent. Nevertheless, she discovers an unprecedented problem with her work, when the tattoos start moving on her customers’ bodies, driving them insane. Dee must do her best to save her clients and whoever might fall victim to their murderous rages in John Ward & Juan Romera’s graphic novel Scratcher, which is now on-sale.

One fateful day, Dee comes to work at Floyd’s tattoo parlor, where she finds her friend Sarah raving amid the blood and gore of her boss and two customers. Somehow, she fights her off, only to repeat the general experience when she visits the apparently deranged woman in the psych hospital.

Tragically, Sarah’s incident will not be a one-off. Soon, another customer contacts her to complain about his tattoo’s strange behavior. Alarmed by the pattern, she investigates with the help of a hippy scientist and Jerry Jones, the client-cool guy-priest, she manages to save. Unfortunately, she is not quite sure how she did it, but Scripture seemed to help in his case.

The premise of
Scratcher should have an insidious appeal to potential readers who might be looking at the ink on their own arms right now and wondering what if it tried to kill them. Ward‘s story keeps the exact nature of the uncanny phenomenon shrouded in mystery. However, what really makes the graphic novel so distinctive is the character of Jones and his cooperative alliance with Dee.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Fantasia ’22: Princesse Dragon

For fantasy fans, princesses and dragons always go well together, as Anne McCaffrey proved in dozens of books. Frogs are also pretty archetypal, but in this case, the ribbiting comes from a sorceress. Humans, animals, and dragons mix uneasily in Jean-Jacques Denis & Anthony Roux’s animated fantasy Princesse Dragon, which screened at the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

This fantasy world is definitely inspired by Medieval Europe, but the constant threats of war and pestilence have been sanitized. As a dragon, “Dragon” (yes, that’s also his name) sits atop a mountain of treasure, but he yearns for offspring, so he makes a Faustian bargain with Frogceress. She sort of facilitates three magical test-tube eggs for him, but one of them turns out to be a human girl. Dragon does not like mortal men, but “Bristle” has the heart and fire-breath of a dragon, so he eventually accepts her.

One day, while running wild through the forest, Bristle meets the mortal Princess. Despite their differences in socialization, they become fast friends. The Dragon girl even saves the Princess twice, first from a giant bear and then from her father. Unfortunately, Dragon’s warning that humans will inevitably come looking for them will soon be born out by the rapacious king.

This film is right about one thing. No matter how much gold the state has, whether it be personified by a king or the dictatorship of the proletariat, it is never enough. Frankly, Roux’s screenplay gets a little lecturey arguing for royal benevolence, but the animation is lovely. It is also refreshing to see absolute classic fantasy tropes rendered without irony or apology.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Fantasia ’22: Orchestrator of Storms

America had Universal Monsters and Roger Corman. The UK gave us Hammer. Spain is known for Jess Franco and Paul Naschy, amongst others. However, until the emergence of the New French Extremity movement, the French really only had Jean Rollin—and they didn’t think very of him at the time. Nevertheless, Rollin persevered, building a cult following (largely outside of France). Dima Ballin & Kat Ellinger chronicle his life and films in the documentary, Orchestrator of Storms: The Fantastique World of Jean Rollin, which screens during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Rollin always took pride and inspiration from his artistic Bohemian mother and her surrealist friends, with whom she was somewhat scandalously associated. He should have perfectly placed to ride the wave of popularity for lesbian vampire films after Hammer hit it big with
The Vampire Lovers, but his erotic vampire films were not sufficiently bloody and often too romantic or artsy to click with international distributors. Yet, French critics largely dismissed his films as trashy schlock during his lifetime.

Ballin & Ellinger nicely explain all of Rollin’s career hurdles and setbacks, including the inconvenient opening of
Le Viol du Vampire during the May ’68 protests/riots/mass tantrums. They interview most of Rollin’s surviving inner circle, including his frequent co-star/muse, Brigitte Lahaie (who is still probably best known for her adult films).

Saturday, July 16, 2022

In a Silent Way: Fusion Gets a Mockumentary

Jazzen Goodman is an idiot, but for us jazz fans, but he is probably the closest thing we will get to our own version of Spinal Tap. Somewhat counterintuitively, Goodman is obsessed with jazz fusion, with the kind of passion we might expect more for Hard Bop, or maybe even traditional New Orleans styles. He is not completely lacking in talent, but he is definitely his own worst enemy in Collin Levin’s mockumentary, In a Silent Way, which is now available on VOD.

Despite sharing a title with Miles Davis’s classic album (featuring Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter), Goodman seems to identify more with Weather Report and fictional saxophonist Mark Eric Rothco, whom he is sure to alienate sooner or later. So far, his band has been loyal to him, thanks to the drummer Yoshi, who is the real glue holding them together. However, Goodman is convinced he is the star and the presence of the documentarian filming him (not entirely unreasonably) confirms his judgment.

Unfortunately, Goodman is constantly humbled by the LA music scene. Often, it is his own fault. Already over-eager, the guitarist really kicks his stalkerish impulses into overdrive when he convinces himself he had a premonition revealing he only has one month to live.

For someone who loves jazz,
In a Silent Way can be painful to watch. Most of the musicians I know are absolutely nothing like Goodman, but there were one or two who might share some of his self-defeating tendencies. As a depiction of scuffling fusion players, it is only too realistic. However, the prevailing vibe is not one of humor, but rather awkward uncomfortableness.

Co-writer Nicolai Dorian is so all-in as Goodman, he will have viewers tearing their hair out. His lack of maturity and self-awareness gets exponentially more difficult to witness. The rest of the band is stuck in his shadow, except (somewhat) Dillon J. Stucky as the sympathetic Yoshi. However, Jim Meskimen feels totally legit playing legendary fusion record producer, “Tape” McDuffy. Plus, keyboardist Scott Kinsey briefly appears as himself, for added authenticity.

It is frustrating that even in a film like
In a Silent Way, music comes dead last in the final credit roll. You would hope that the producers would value the musicians’ contributions and viewers of a film like this would surely be interested to know who they were. Regardless, Jacob Scesney, Isamu McGregor, Joey Lefitz, Balam Garcia, and Zephyr Avalon sound great on numerous selections (some also featuring Goodman’s reedman rival, Nikaras). Logically, there are also several tracks from Kinsey: “Baba Moussa,” “Kingpin,” and “Near Life Experience.”