Tuesday, August 29, 2023

MR-9: Do or Die.


I've mentioned the idea that for foreign and indie movies really have to get lucky with their release date to show up at the local multiplexes here in Boston, and MR-9 feels like it got just about as lucky as one can - it's not very good at all, but its distributors found a week where not much of anything was coming out in the USA to the extent that some theaters had a couple of showtimes and apparently figured that the crossover between the local Bangladeshi population (which has shown up occasionally for movies at Fresh Pond) and fans of direct-to-video action might get a kick out of seeing Michael Jai White and Frank Grillo. And, hey, it worked; between all that, having seen some good Bangladeshi stuff at Fantasia, and figured why not?

Well, because it's bad. Really bad. Like, wondering if the folks booking it even saw a trailer, and if the market for the Korean sci-fi film that opened elsewhere last week would really have dried up just because it wasn't opening weekend. It may have - I wouldn't have been surprised if Well Go just completely shifted its promotion elsewhere after the first week - but who knows? It's odd AMC chose this over the animated Chinese adventure they've been advertising for a while.

I hope the Bangladeshi-Americans in the audience had a good time with it, although I wonder, because it almost feels like there's some kind of scam going on, between it looking so cheap and often only barely seeming to have a toe in Dhaka with a mostly-Western crew and cast. Like, someone got the rights to this long series of novels that haven't been made into a film in 50 years after the writer died, raised good money off just how popular they are in Bangladesh, and then did the absolute minimum necessary to show their funders that they were making a movie while pocketing their funds.

Or, I suppose, the Bangladeshi-American direct-to-video filmmaker might legit love the Masud Rana books, or have family who does, and was shocked to find the rights were available so cheap. Maybe a little of both. If that's the case, well, I'm sorry your passion project turned out so poorly.

MR-9: Do or Die (aka Masuda Rana)

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 August 2023 in AMC Boston Common (first-run, DCP)

Look, if you're going to make a shot-on-VHS-quality James Bond knockoff, at least have the common decency to have it clock in at 85 minutes rather than over two hours. It's not like cutting the better part of an hour from this thing is going to render it more incoherent than it already is. And, who knows, maybe picking up the pace and cutting out a bunch of repetition and filler keeps the viewer occupied enough to not be cataloging all the ways in which it's a story-telling disaster.

When a CIA plan to turn TLF financier Subir Shen (Kolten Jensen) before his meeting with R&R Robotics head Roman Ross (Frank Grillo) goes sideways, agents Duke (Michael Jai White) and Paul (Niko Foster) recruit Masud Rana (ABM Sumon) of Bangladesh's Bureau of Counter Intelligence to take his place, which will also require "MR-9" to fool TLF's Shula Devi (Sakshi Pradhan), although she seems to be onto him very quickly.

It's at least amusingly bad to start, as Shen falls to his death after trying to land a flying kick on Duke only to basically bounce off and over the side of a building when the latter doesn't even stagger a bit. That's maybe a joke, at least, but the film follows it up by introducing the title character in the most obviously doubled assault on a rich guy's compound with the worst sense of action geography you'll ever see, at least until later in the movie, as Rana puts up a hood and is mostly shot from behind for good measure, with the interior of this South African mansion apparently made of easily destroyed plasterboard that never catches a stray bullet because the gunplay is all CGI muzzle blasts and people breaking blood packs as they clutch at their wounds. It's an early warning that this movie is not going to be very good at all, in any way, and that the earlier eccentric bit was apparently an accident.

And it somehow gets worse, like they were scripting and shooting scenes at random without any idea how they'll fit into a movie. MR-9's Q equivalent shows him devices he never gets close to using, the villains are owners of a robotics company that never does anything with robotics, just planting a bomb at Hoover dam (and, maybe, one set to explode in Dhaka at about the same time) for some reason. Devi switches sides for little reason. The moment an action setup threatens to be good, it's full of cuts to establishing shots and people with no part of the fight at seeming random. Even a pointless flashback to the title character winning a swim meet as a kid looks like the producers couldn't bother to find kids who are actually good at swimming. It's a damn near constant mess, right up to the elongated, incredibly pointless epilogue that threatens the audience with "to be continued".

I can't speak to how well ABM Sumon embodies Rana, the lead character of a 550+ book series by the late Qazi Anwar Husain (that's a new pulp cranked out every month for 46 years or so); maybe the character is supposed to be sort of blandly handsome and quietly cool until he encounters a genuine supervillain, but he never comes off as cool enough for a new audience to feel like he deserves the deference the other characters give him. Sakshi Pradhan does do more than fill out a nice dress, at least, recognizing that this sort of spy needs to cop an attitude in meetings where everybody is thinking of killing each other. Michael Jai White seems to either be aging out of this sort of role or picking up a paycheck, at least compared to producer Niko Foster, who lands somewhere between "pro wrestler" and "bad James Remar impression" chewing scenery as his partner.

The film gets a grudging extra half star for a couple fight scenes with White where the action crew seems to have at least tried to give the other filmmakers something useful, even if it does wind up terribly edited, and for Frank Grillo showing up and growling like he has some pride in his work and figures someone casting a good movie could be watching. Still, it's kind of shocking that something this inept cracked a multiplex screen even on a slow week: It looks cheap and mailed-in, and not like the work of actual professionals.

Monday, August 28, 2023

Landscape with Invisible Hand.

Sunday was National Cinema Day, so Boston Common was a little more crowded than usual for a Sunday when I was seeing stuff that was not a big new release. Indeed, when I was printing out my ticket for the first movie of the day, I could hear the folks at the next kiosk debating which three movies they would see that afternoon and which they might have to pass on. Apparently a lot of people planned to take maximum advantage of $4 movie day.

It makes me wonder what the sweet spot for movie pricing is, a bit - clearly people enjoy going to the movies and will do it enthusiastically when it's really cheap, no matter how often you hear people say that it's just as good at home, and in terms of matinees, I kind of wonder what the max is for all those folks who come when a matinee is $4 but not when it's $10. Seven bucks? Six?

It made for a surprisingly decent crowd, although it was sort of amusing that both my first movie of the day (Last Voyage of the Demeter) and this had a couple red-band trailers, since the MPA says it's "rated R for language and brief violent content", even though it's based on a young-adult novel. It's potentially a pretty light R, except that there's a suicide, which isn't something I'd spring on a twelve-year-old going into a PG-13 movie, but the language seemed pretty mild - certainly less cussing than was in the Dumb Money preview.

(Fortunately, I was out of there way before this happened. Reading that bit reminds me of how, back when I worked at a downtown theater in Worcester during college, studios would open anything "urban" on Wednesday rather than Friday so that the gangs would kind of spread out rather than all coming on the same night. Not that this was necessarily a gang thing, but what happens when you get everyone going to something at the same time when you don't really have to.)

Anyway, I really liked this one, and I'm sorry I didn't catch it earlier so I could write this post a week ago when it had more than three screenings left (although, hey, it may run Thursday afternoon!). I would imagine that it will be on-demand in a couple weeks, though I don't know how quickly Amazon puts things from MGM on Prime (yes, an MGM logo on a non-Bond film! And an Annapurna one, though I had it in my head that Skydance absorbed them).

Landscape with Invisible Hand

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 August 2023 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

A fun list to make on Letterboxd, for those who enjoy doing so, would be "crazy-sounding description doesn't get into half of how weird this thing is". Landscape with Invisible Hand would definitely be on that list, a movie that seemingly starts out with one satirical target but quickly branches out, winding up delightfully, seemingly randomly, weird even as it hits what it aims at square.

That initial description focuses on how, in 2031, aliens known as the Vuvv made first contact with humanity and soon completely upended the economy with their orbital manufacturing of everything from high technology to 3D-printed food. For teenage artist Adam Campbell (Asante Blackk), that means even a lawyer like his mother Beth (Tiffany Haddish) can't find work; for new classmate Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers), it means her family has been camped out under an overpass until Adam impulsively invites them to stay. They fall for each other pretty quickly, and Chloe suggests they do "courtship streaming", because apparently the Vuvv being asexual creatures who reproduce by budding makes them especially fascinated by human romantic relationships - and they'll pay to watch.

It's a setup rife with potential to talk about kids broadcasting even the most personal aspects of their lives on social media before they've got the slightest idea of what that means, craving the approval of entities that really cannot see it as anything but entertainment, but writer/director Cory Finley, adapting a novel by M.T. Anderson, has already shown signs of having other fish to fry, quickly sending the movie careening in other directions. One could probably, if so inclined, see the Vuvv arrival on Earth as a sharp metaphor for colonialism, even if Finley seldom has anybody using those words. Mostly, though, it's a fierce critique of the damage economic inequality does, with the Vuvv's arrival turbo-charging the movement of wealth to the few who are increasingly isolated from the majority of the people. There's a moment where Adam responds to his mother talking about appealing to what's in a Vuvv's heart by saying he doesn't know if they even have a circulatory system, and it's a good sci-fi joke, but it hits a little better because it speaks to how merely terrestrial billionaires so often only seem to see everyday life for those who have to consider a budget as aggregated abstractions.

It's impressive how on-point this all is, actually; it's not unusual for the bits of a science fictional world created to illustrate one point to make one wonder how that could change without others also doing so, or to contradict others, but this film's world holds together really well. Things from the how the Vuvv mess with human education to how they appropriate local art in the finale probably screams colonialism, for instance, while the ways people attempt to toady to their oppressors or resist also scans, as well as the fact that these two responses are played off each other. It's one of the more far-ranging yet coherent bits of world-building you'll see in this sort of film.

And yet, that doesn't come at the expense of the sheer oddity of it. The Vuvv themselves and every bit of the world built to accommodate them are just amusing to look at without ever feeling entirely like a joke, right down to their methods of literally talking with their hands (or flippers, as the case may be). Each of Adam's paintings that serves as a chapter title is both funny and plays into him actually being a talented artist, and there are darkly comic jokes lurking around the edges of a lot of scenes. It's a thoroughly off-kilter world able to induce nervous laughter at every turn.

And, at the center, there's Asante Blackk, who is able to play Adam as a smart and self-aware teenager but not one who has a lot of adults' words put in his mouth to make a point. He's funny and solid and also able to make a viewer believe that the hero of the piece is just immature and volatile to lash out or freeze when it's not going to help at all. He's got a nice chemistry with Kylie Rogers as Chloe, but they also play as teens new enough at all this that their initial attraction can hit some major bumps. There's a number of nifty performances around them, from Tiffany Haddish and Josh Hamilton as the pair's single parents, to Brooklynn MacKenzie as the kid sister who feels like she could easily have her own story of defiantly navigating this future, to William Jackson Harper dropping in for a few scenes and making both his presence and absence felt.

Finley has done a couple other things since his first feature, Thoroughbreds, but this still makes for a nifty follow-up, offering another pair of teenagers in the middle of the sort of world you almost have to be a psychopath to survive. It's just weird enough to not be to everybody's taste, but manages that in a way that seldom feels off-target or like it's sacrificing what feels real about its young protagonists to make a point.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 25 August 2023 - 31 August 2023

End of the summer, so things are getting a bit odd. It also apparently means that it's National Cinema Day again, with $4 tickets for most (if not all) shows at many theaters on Sunday (I kind of think they don't announce it until a few days before to keep people from seeing things th ey'd already planned on then rather than seeing something impulsively).
  • After what seems like a month of previews, Gran Turismo finally has its official opening, based on what the trailers talk up as a true story, with Archie Madekwe as a top gamer recruited by a maverick team owner (Orlando Bloom) and a trained by a reluctant coach (David Harbour) for actual racing. It's at The Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema/Imax Xenon/Spanish subtitles), Kendall Square, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema/Imax Xenon), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema/Imax Laser), Arsenal Yards (including CWK), and Chestnut Hill.

    Retribution, a Liam Neeson actioner where the car he's using to bring his kids to school is rigged to explode unless he obeys the voice on the other end of the phone, opens at Fresh Pond, Boston Common, and South Bay. It's also the first American feature from Nimród Antal in a decade and reunites Neeson with Schindler's List co-star Embeth Davidtz (not notable, just weird how careers go)!

    Biopic The Hill stars Colin Ford as a young baseball player whose weak bones would seem to make it unlikely he'll ever plays in the majors, with a nifty supporting cast including Dennis Quaid, Joelle Carter, Scott Glenn, and Bonnie Bedelia. It's at Boston Common and South Bay.

    Jurassic Park returns for its 30th anniversary with RealD 3D screenings at Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row; presumably the same conversion that played Imax theaters for its 20th ten years ago. Boston Common also brings back more recent Universal films Asteroid City and Super Mario Bros; screenings of the live-action The Little Mermaid at Boston Common, South Bay, and Arsenal Yards are now sing-along shows.

    American Graffiti has 50th Anniversary shows at Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row on Sunday and Wednesday. Lady Bird plays Boston Common on Sunday (early!). A remastered Coraline plays Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards on Monday. Horror-comedy Slotherhouse, with a rather unlikely killer creature, plays Boston Common and Assembly Row on Wednesday. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is the Wednesday kids' matinee at Boston Common.
  • Golda opens at Landmark Kendall Square, West Newton, Boston Common, and Assembly Row; it stars Helen Mirren as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir during the Yom Kippur War on 1973, a particularly dangerous moment in Israel's history. It also features Liev Schreiber as Henry Kissenger.

    Also playing afternoon shows at the Kendall is The Eternal Memory, a documentary about a prominent Chilean couple whose lives are upended by a diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease. Their final Hitchcock film for his birthday month is The Lady Vanishes, playing Tuesday evening.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre opens Mutt, mostly in the GoldScreen, which follows Lío Mehiel as a young trans man in New York facing upheaval in many facets of his life.

    This is the last week of Hip-Hop at 50, with two 35mm midnights - Colors on Friday and New Jack City on Saturday - plus a 35mm print of ATL on Tuesday, ending with The Forty-Year-Old Version with director Radha Blank on hand for a post-film Q&A. Thursday's Big Screen Classic is Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, the action movie that introduced the world to Tony Jaa specifically and muay thai in general.
  • The Brattle Theatre has the the 35-years-later reissue of Tokyo Pop, about a musician who goes to Tokyo only to find the friend she'd intended to meet had left, although she hooks up with a local band, through Sunday. It's the first film by Fran Rubel Kuzui, who would direct the first version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, produce a couple interesting movies, and then seemingly disappear from the business. They also have Wreckmeister Harmonies, a 2001 film from Ágnes Hranitzky and Béla Tarr in which a mysterious circus presages societal collapse, from Friday to Monday. The Warner 100 double feature on Monday & Tuesday is White Heat & The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, both on film, wrapping the series. Also finishing are the Wednesday films edited by Dede Allen, with a double feature of The Breakfast Club & The Addams Family, the latter on 35mm film, and Thursday's Thrill Ride Horrors, with M3GAN & Upgrade.
  • Seven new films from India open at Apple Fresh Pond this weekend: In Hindi, there is Dream Girl 2, which looks like a variation on Tootsie, with the "2" apparently indicating more of a thematic match than a chronological sequel; Akelli stars Nushrratt Bharuccha as an Indian woman trapped in a war zone; and Ghoomer, starring Saiyami Kher as a would-be cricketer trying to stay in the game after losing a hand. In Telugu, Gaandeevadhari Arjuna is an action-adventure starring Varun Tej, while vertie-styled comedy Boys Hostel returns. Toby is a Kannada-language thriller, and King of Kotha is a Malayalam-language crime drama.

    They also hold over Hindi drama Gadar 2, Hindi comedy OMG 2 (also at Boston Common), Tamil action-comedy Jailer, and Hindi romantic comedy Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani (also at Boston Common).

    Bangladeshi/American production MR-9: Do or Die stars Abm Sumon as Bangladesh's top spy (who has appeared in 550+ novels!) and also features American action specialists Michael Jai White and Frank Grillo; it plays at Boston Common.

    K-Pop concert film/documentary Kangdaniel: My Parade plays Boston Common on Wednesday.
  • The Somerville Theatre and IFFBoston finish the Sight and Sound Summer Vacation, counting down to #1 with 2001: A Space Odyssey (70mm Friday), In the Mood for Love (35mm with original color grading Saturday), Tokyo Story (35mm Sunday), Citizen Kane (35mm Monday), Vertigo (35mm IB Technicolor Tuesday), and Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (35mm Sunday afternoon/Wednesday evening). The Midnight Special on Saturday is The Peanut Butter Solution, a real oddity about a kid who loses his hair and is given a special potion by some ghosts the grow it back (with some side-effects).
  • The Regent Theatre once again has music documentary Have You Got It Yet? The Story of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd on Wednesday and Thursday.
  • The Museum of Science has two more weeks of "Summer Space Films" on the dome, with Gravity this Friday & Saturday and The Martian next weekend.
  • The West Newton Cinema opens Golda, including a sold-out special event screening with Boston Jewish Film on Sunday, and continues Elemental (Friday/Saturday/Sunday matinees), Past Lives, Theater Camp, Barbie, Oppenheimer (mostly 35mm), Asteroid City (Friday matinee), and Super Mario Brothers (Friday/Sunday matinees).

    The Lexington Venue continues Oppenheimer and Barbie, and is open Friday to Sunday.

    The Luna Theater has music documentary, the Oldboy reissue on Saturday and Sunday, and a Weirdo Wednesday show.

    Cinema Salem has Oldboy, Theater Camp, Talk to Me, Barbie, and Oppenheimer through Monday. Friday's late show is Ichi the Killer, one of the big international breakthroughs for director Takashi Miike and star Tadanobu Asano, at 10pm Friday, Last Action Hero Saturday and Sunday afternoons, and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial on Thursday.
  • Outdoor screenings listed at Joe's Free Films include Thor: Love and Thunder at the Hatch Shell on Friday, The Bad Guys at the Prudential Saturday and Winthrop Square in Charlestown Wednesday, and League of Super-Pets at the Iacono Playground on Monday.
Looking at Tokyo Pop, Retribution, MR-9, In the Mood for Love, and maybe some other classics/catch-up despite some being at weird times (what's the logic in having your straggling shows of The Last Voyage of the Demeter at 11am?).

Saturday, August 19, 2023

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.08: "Lollygag", Hippo, Baby Assassins 2, "Every House is Haunted", and Where the Devil Roams

Although there are days when I look at the shorts before a feature as something tightening a schedule unnecessarily, and others where you go, well, that ten minutes or so made the ticket/slot worth it.

Kind of a late start, in part by design - the first show in De Sève was Blackout, which I saw opening night because I could see The White Storm 3 in regular theaters the next day and because my day-job work schedule; the second from catching the first show of Becomers on a rare De Sève evening because I had seen Divinity at BUFF (and may wind up expanding that Letterboxd entry at some point,. So I arrived at the festival relatively late in the day.

Which means the first feature was Hippo, featuring (left to right) cast members Eliza Roberts, Kimball Farley, Jesse Pimentel, and Lilla Kizlinger; writer/director/producer Mark H. Rapaport; cinematographer William Babcock; and executive producers Julian Lawitschka & Charmaine Kowalski. I was a bit surprised to see pretty much the whole cast on stage, because while it's not a big movie by any means at all, a reasonably noteworthy production company is involved ("Rough House Pictures" is executive producers David Gordon Green, Danny McBride, and Jody Hill), but I guess it's not an issue until it's distributed by an ATMTP company, maybe.

At any rate, I gather a lot of these folks have worked before, although this was Lilla Kizlinger's first North American film, but she's great; maybe some of her Hungarian work will make it to festivals next year.

There were no guests for Baby Assassins 2, but plenty for Where the Devil Roams, with Mitch Davis welcoming The Adams Family - mother Tobey Poser, sisters Lulu & Zelda Adams, and Father John Adams. It's kind of a reminder of how the films that play these festivals fall in and out of favor: Fantasia used to play a ton of movies like Baby Assassins, indy or "V-Cine" Japanese genre movies that have really tight budgets but some folks involved who are absurdly talented at one thing, whether it be Yoshihiro NIshimura's effects makeup or Yudai Yamaguchi's action, but there are fewer recently. There was a recent period when every genre festival and event was including "Wakaliwood" movies from Uganda, and now this is the Adams's third movie to play this festival in five years, even more impressive when you consider just how independent they are and that there was a plague during that period. When I saw The Deeper You Dig back in '19, I mostly treated it as a novelty. Three straight films accepted to the festival suggests the family is more, but I don't know. Davis seemed genuinely enthusiastic and the movie filled the big room and the family led a long Q&A, so there was some enthusiasm, but even as this is a more ambitious, I don't know that they've made the leap from novelty act to folks you have to watch.

And don't get me wrong - I love that there are folks like this family (or the Schmidts, who sent the differently-bonkers Island of Lost Girls to the festival last year) out there making movies, screening them locally, putting them up on various sites, and occasionally poking through to festivals like this. But it hits differently when played in a featured slot with expectations around it than as an underground discovery on the smaller screen.

There was also a projection issue, the sort where you remind yourself that 35mm film is an optical/mechanical process where a capable and attentive projectionist can usually figure out what's off, whereas digital has the picture looking blue with a discolored bit in the center and there's not a whole lot you can easily do about it. I've got a "too green?" note for the short film, but by the time it started being an issue with the second, I was kind of checked out.

So, that was the start of week 2, which continued on Friday with Aporia, Pett Kata Shaw, River, and The Sacrifice Game.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, digital)

"Lollygag" is an enjoyable, off-kilter short on its own, but it's especially intriguing paired with Hippo; it's arch and artificial in some of the same ways, but there's a central thought and a broad sort of sympathy here that's very easy to lose. "Lollygag" is quite affected, yes, but there's at least something there.

Narrated in Greek even though it appears to take place in an American suburb, it features a woman looking back on her teen years discussing how she doesn't remember the first time she saw the Boy Next Door (Isaac Powell), but did remember the last. Her bedroom had a view of his pool, and both he and the backyard were beautiful, even if she had come to realize boys didn't actually interest her. He was apparently bisexual, though, with various young men and women joining him, while on other days, he sat there picking at a Whiteman's sampler, until…

Well, that's where it gets interesting, especially once she crosses the fence. The Girl (Gaby Slape) does not become sentimental, but her detachment is not contemptuous, though it walks right up to the line for some dark comedy. There's callousness here, especially from the perspective of youth, but the narration is built to highlight the distance from this story which started with a VHS-blue screen and implies she has become a different person in the meantime, one who perhaps recognizes that the Boy Next Door had a hollow life, even if it isn't the trappings that caused it.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Say this about Hippo: I could at least feel and share in one character's well-earned distaste for the rest. It's not really much to hang onto in terms of vibing with a movie, but it's at least something.

That character would be Buttercup (Lilla Kizlinger), who was adopted Ethel (Eliza Roberts) and her husband after her family in Hungary was killed, but her foster father also died some years ago, leaving her and her foster brother Hippo (Kimball Farley) to be raised by Eliza, and as they have been homeschooled, they are not well-socialized at all. Hippo is just generally hostile to everyone in the world except his mother, while Buttercup doesn't imagine anything more to her life than motherhood, and no ideas for potential fathers than Hippo.

What director Mark H. Rapaport and his co-writer/star Kimball Farley are doing here is interesting, in that even as the narration points out that Hippo and Buttercup are homeschooled and that there's an content filter on their internet, it can take a while before it really sinks in that this family has been cut off from common American culture in a way that has analogs beyond this particular tiny enclave. Between cinematographer William Babcock's monochrome photography and Eric Roberts's narration that hint at documentary tropes without actually imitating that sort of film, the filmmakers create a sort of counter to their isolation: The family is outsiders, but the viewer is also outside of them and looking in, shifting them from eccentric to hidden, folks who have seemingly had their brains deliberately poisoned rather than being eccentric by circumstance.

That's what makes Lilla Kizlinger's Buttercup the soul of the movie; she's both insider and outsider at once time, and if she's been captured by this situation, she's at least sensible enough to feel something is amiss and perhaps holding on to something else. Kizlinger is really terrific here, the person who always draws one's attention even when Kimball Farley's Hippo is built to be more eye-catching and more outrageous in his behavior; she and Rapaport almost never fail to make her withering disdain both very funny and sad. Farley and Eliza Roberts are never quite able to forge that connection; they make their ridiculous characters believable in that most of us have probably met people with the same sort of abrasive and deluded personalities, and they can deliver something bizarre with conviction, but one doesn't necessarily quite believe in them.

Because of that, sharing Buttercup's frustration at being trapped with these people was more or less all the movie seemed to have for me. Its stupid and mean characters never felt like they could be anything other than stupid and mean in other circumstances, and the arch narration from Eric Roberts adds a level of smugness. It's a sort of demonstration that even the darkest comedy often comes from a sort of empathy, especially if the ability to relate to horrible people catches a viewer off guard, rather than just pointing and sneering. And so, Hippo winds up a movie where the cast is good and the gags are executed well enough, but I never found myself in a mood to laugh.

Baby Assassins 2 Babies

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

I was not a particular fan of the first Baby Assassins, and I was prepared to be unimpressed with this one, especially as it seems to be the sort of sequel that is by and large more of what was going on in the first movie rather than an expansion or continuation. Fortunately, the formula has been tweaked so that the parts in between the action scenes works a lot better. There still seems to be a lot of stretching the time between action scenes out, but everybody seems to have gotten better with practice.

The film opens by introducing a new pair of young assassins, brothers Makoto (Tatsuomi Hamada) and Yuri (Joey Iwanaga), who aren't getting choice jobs because they aren't part of the "official" underground economy, and also because Makoto especially is kind of sloppy. Their agent (Junpei Hashino) suggests that perhaps they can move up by eliminating some competition. Meanwhile, Mahiro (Saori Izawa0 and Chisato (Akari Takaishi) are on probation because they are behind on their bills and intervened in a bank robbery that was preventing them from paying them on time, so they're back to working part-time jobs, seemingly easy marks for the up-and-comers.

In a lot of ways, the plot here is awfully close to the same as last year, but it's also a good example of how seemingly small tweaks can make a big difference. The story is streamlined in that each new situation Chisato and Mahiro find themselves in seems to flow fairly directly from the last, rather than being arbitrary directives and detours, while Yuri and Makoto are less complicated adversaries than the yakuza family in the first. On top of that, writer/director Yugo Sakamoto recognizes that his two main characters work because they complement each other, so the girls banter more than they fight. As a result of all that, the pacing seems a little zippier; this story may be slight, but it's a straight line delivering a viewer to the next piece of screwball comedy or well-staged fights.

And, the action is still pretty great - as with the previous movie, the main complaint here is that there's not really enough of it. They work in large part because Saori Izawa is a potential breakout star as a screen fighter and Joey Iwanaga is surprisingly solid himself. The film builds to the pair of them squaring off, and it's well worth the wait: Izawa is light on her feet but explosive, so capable of doing something physically incredible at any moment that the final showdown can get little adrenaline rushes from Mahiro and Yuri feinting at each other. The fights get a little better when Izawa is in then, and even if most are relatively quick and spread with stretches in between, they've got a ton of energy.

Akari Takaishi is a bit stronger as the more comedic half of the pair, where the last film often played Chisato as a girl-next-door type who could thrive in normie scenarios where Mahiro stuck out, here she's more often depicted as a weird psycho who probably wouldn't be great at much else. Takaishi goes from airhead to dead serious without much transition and makes you believe in both so that Chisato can be both ridiculous and dangerous. I suspect that many of the actual jokes land better the more one is immersed in Japanese youth culture (to the extent that the inanities the characters talk about might be deliberately maddening to those who aren't), but the cast in general and Takaishi in particular sell the absurdity of it well.

I never thought I'd want a Baby Assassins 3 after the first, but this is a marked improvement, and I'd like to see what this crew could do with the resources to go a little bigger.

"Every House is Haunted"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, digital)

A really delightfully clever, almost gentle short film that starts out drily humorous, with a realtor telling young couple Maya (Kate Cobb) and Danny (Kevin Bigley) that "the ghosts are mostly harmless" and that the previous owners of the house barely ever saw them. Maya is skeptical, but she eventually sees Kevin (Emmanuel Wood), seven years old when he died, mostly wanting to play. She has a reason to see a child, as it turns out, but is soon befriending the house's other spirits, though Danny doesn't see them.

Tragedy unites people, even if it's not the same tragedy, and filmmaker Bryce McGuire recognizes this as natural as opposed to something to be scared, but still deeply weird, and that's the vibe of the film, Maya realizing that she's not alone and has people to share it with, even if they aren't actually talking about that all the time, even if she can't fully share it with her husband Kate Cobb and the rest are just what the film needs, able to inhabit this odd space and make it feel real.

There's not a huge amount of story here, mostly just observing, but there's a pointed use of the word "us" that hints at more. McGuire is already expanding one short to a feature, and I don't know that I'd necessarily want this to just be setup for a larger story, but I'd still be interested to find out where things would go next.

Where the Devil Roams

* * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Like a lot of films with this sort of background, including the rest of the Adams Family's work, what's interesting about Where the Devil Roams is that it exists at all and is as good as it is. For a movie made by folks who are basically amateurs, well away from most hotbeds of film production, it's ambitious and generally capable of realizing those ambitions. It's as much a novelty as it is a genuinely good movie, but it's watchable enough, rather than the complete disaster of similar projects.

Taking place during the Great Depression, it follows the members of a carnival sideshow on tour, particularly one family: Steven (John Adams) and Maggie (Toby Poser) are a magic act, although not so popular as Mr. Tips, whose gruesome self-mutilation is somehow reversed every night. Leigh (Zelda Adams), their daughter, is a beautiful and ethereal singer, but mute in all other circumstances. John was once a doctor, but since his service in World War I he can't stand the sight of blood, which would seem to make him an odd match for Maggie's murderous rages. That frequently emerges as they travel from town to town separately from the rest of the carnival, until they bite off more than they can chew. Fortunately, Leigh knows how Mr. Tips manages his trick.

Gruesome and boring is a tough combination, and there's a stretch or two in this movie where this family of carnies just seems to cycle through driving down a dirt road, stopping at a house where Maggie will kill its occupant (and Leigh takes a picture), while they blindfold Steven because his PTSD is apparently so very specific that only the sight of blood triggers it, three or four times in a row. The film is already well past the point of being shocking, and it hasn't really gotten to its big idea, even halfway through. It feels like they've promised all their friends and collaborators that they'll get to be immortalized dying on screen, no matter how much time it gives the audience's mind to wander about whether Leigh constructs a darkroom in the corner of their tent or if she knows which photography shops don't raise their eyebrows at this sort of thing.

This family has been making feature-length films and shorts as a collaborative unit for at least ten years, since younger daughter Zelda was about ten, breaking through on the festival circuit five years ago with The Deeper You Dig, and they've got some talent for it. They know their tools and their outside-the-box choices don't feel like things professionals avoid for a reason, and for the most part any roughness in the acting feels like it fits into the heightened, weirdo-attracting world of the carnival. There are some decisions that seem influenced by what they can scrounge up as opposed to necessity - although I suppose the family traveling alone in the one period automobile they have access to rather than in a caravan is both - but they and their team are good at doing that scrounging and making the most of it.

But then there's the story, and I'm not sure that this movie really has a big idea, rather than a plot device and a desire to make a homemade period horror flick. The filmmakers talked about going into scenes with a "template" in the Q&A, but the movie really feels like it could use a tight script, because there's no real suspense to it; they know how to shoot and cut but don't give scenes much purpose beyond the plot. The film is seldom driving at anything, and there is little that resonates in the ideas. It's horror fans imagining scenes and scenarios and figuring out what they can do with the resources they have.

And, fine. I don't want to discourage this sort of homemade film; the Adams Family productions are decent achievements where fellow fans can feel proud of what they've created. But this one isn't much more, and if you're looking through the vast Tubi archives for something that can thrill and excite, this probably won't be your best choice.

Friday, August 18, 2023

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 18 August 2023 - 24 August 2023

Ah, late summer, when the re-releases show up to take some screens, earlier things play out, and the stuff where the studios thought "maybe, maybe not" open.
  • The third of four DC comics movies coming out this year, Blue Beetle, has a young Latino fuse with an alien device that a corrupt corporation has designs on. It's at The Capitol, Fresh Pond, Jordan's Furniture (Imax), Boston Common (including Imax Xenon/Dolby Cinema/Spanish dubbed/subtitled), Kendall Square, South Bay (including Imax Xenon/Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax Laser/Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), and Chestnut Hill.

    Strays is an adults-only take on Homeward Bound with Will Ferrell, Jamie Foxx, Isla Fisher, and Randall Park voicing dogs who are looking to return to the owner how abandoned on… for revenge! It's at the Somerville Theatre, Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including shows with Spanish subtitles), Kendall Square, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards.

    Also opening is Back on the Strip, a comedy that stars Wesley Snipes as a former Vegas stripper trying to revive his old group around a new protege, though the ensuing years have not entirely been kind to the rest. It's at Boston Common and South Bay.

    The latest Disney 100 re-release at Boston Common is the animated (good) Beauty and the Beast; Wednesday's kids' matinee at Boston Common is The Croods: A New Age.

    Sony is still doing Gran Turismo previews (Friday at Boston Common/Assembly Row, Saturday at Boston Common/Assembly Row, Sunday at Boston Common/Assembly Row), which hopefully means they think it's generating word-of-mouth for when it actually opens Thursday evening. There's also a "Fathom First" of Golda, starring Helen Mirren as Golda Meir, at Boston Common Wednesday.
  • Landmark Kendall Square and Boston Common open Landscape with the Invisible Hand, the new film from Thoroughbreds which takes place several years after an alien invasion that is non-violent but devastating to the economy, leading to a pair of teenagers to stream their romance to the occupiers as it's all humans can offer them.

    Kendall Square also has more screenings of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure on Saturday and Sunday evenings, while this week's Hitchcock film on Tuesday is Rope.
  • The new restoration of Oldboy opens in or expands to The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, Boston Common, Luna Lowell (Thursday), and CinemaSalem.

    "Hip Hop at 50" continues at the Coolidge with Def by Temptation at midnight Friday, Cool as Ice at midnight Saturday (35mm), Clockers on 35mm Tuesday (with a seminar by Globe critic Odie Henderson), and Belly on 35mm Wednesday. Pedro Almodóvar's' Law of Desire is the 35mm Big Screen Classic on Monday, with a 35mm print of Sunset Boulevard playing Thursday with another seminar from Odie Henderson.
  • The Brattle Theatre has added Friday & Saturday memorial screenings of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure to what was already lining up as a busy weekend, with Indian action flick RRR playing Friday to Sunday and Shiva Baby playing Saturday and Sunday, with pre-recorded Q&As at the 10pm screenings.

    The Warner 100 screenings this week are all on 35mm film, with Yankee Doodle Dandy on and Arsenic and Old Lace & The Man Who Came to Dinner on Tuesday. The Dede Allen double feature of Mike's Murder & Night Moves on Wednesday is also on film. the Thrill Ride Horror double bill on Thursday of Barbarian & Malignant
  • This week's Ghibli presentations at Boston Common are Porco Rosso, playing dubbed on Sunday and subtitled Tuesday, and The Wind Rises, playing dubbed Monday and subtitled Tuesday.

    The Indian films from playing Apple Fresh Pond and Boston Common, being big Independence Day releases, continue. They include Hindi drama Gadar 2, Hindi comedy OMG 2, Tamil action-comedy Jailer (with Telugu shows at Fresh Pond; I hadn't realized it was the new Superstar Rajini flick), and Hindi romantic comedy Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani.
  • The Princess Bride is the midnight special at the The Somerville Theatre, playing on 35mm film. They start moving Oppenheimer downstairs for digital shows on Monday, when they team with IFFBoston to begin the Sight and Sound Summer Vacation, playing the top 10 films from the latest Sight & Sound poll, with Singin' in the Rain (35mm) on Monday, Man with a Movie Camera with live accompaniment by the Anvil Orchestra on Tuesday, Mulholland Drive (35mm) on Wednesday, and Beau Travail on Thursday; the series continues through August 30th.
  • The Regent Theatre has music documentary Have You Got It Yet? The Story of Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd on Wednesday and Thursday.
  • It looks like it may be wise to get tickets for the "Summer Space Film" series at The Museum of Science ahead of time, as they are listing both shows of Interstellar this weekend as sold out; Gravity plays next week and The Martian the week after..
  • The streaming encores of several Belmont World Film selections from the spring series- The Worst Ones, Farewell Mr. Hoffman, Chile '76, The Beasts, and Peaceful - are available via Eventive week through Tuesday evening
  • The West Newton Cinema returns Elemental (no show Thursday) and continues Past Lives, Theater Camp, Barbie, Oppenheimer (35mm), Asteroid City, and Super Mario Brothers (Friday matinees).

    The Lexington Venue continues Oppenheimer and Barbie, and is open Friday to Sunday plus Thursday.

    The Luna Theater has Earth Mama on Friday and Saturday; CatVideoFest 2023 on Saturday; Stand by for Failure: A Documentary about Negativeland on Saturday evening, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory all day Sunday, as well as a Weirdo Wednesday show, plus Oldboy on Thursday.

    Cinema Salem adds Oldboy and Passages to Talk to Me, Barbie, and Oppenheimer through Monday. The '99 version of The Mummy plays Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening, with Rocky Horror playing Saturday night with the Teseracte Players (Full Body Cast is, as always, at Boston Common at the same time). Last Action Hero plays Thursday evening.

    If you can make it out to Danvers, IFFBoston/Fantasia selection Birth/Rebirth is playing at the Liberty Tree Mall.
  • Outdoor screenings listed at Joe's Free Films include Super Mario Bros. at the Hatch Shell on Friday, Spider-Man: No Way Home at the Prudential Saturday and Healy Playground Wednesday, Glass Onion at Christopher Columbus Park on Sunday, Vivo at Noyes Playground Monday, Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile at Peters Park Tuesday, and Shrek & Ferris Bueller's Day Off at Cambridge Crossing on Thursday. Shrek also plays on the Fenway Park scoreboard Tuesday, presented by Alamo Drafthouse Cinema.
I'm looking at some catch-up, Blue Beetle, Landscape of the Invisible Hand,Strays, and maybe some of the Sight & Sound films. Wish I'd thought to get tickets for Interstellar.

Monday, August 14, 2023

One and Only

I could make the standard joke about weaning one's self off Fantasia slowly, maybe by only seeing one Chinese film on a day when you could see two, but truth be told, I had three days of not seeing movies including not seeing this one before coming home, and then it was the only thing I saw Sunday.

What's kind of interesting is that this got writer/director "Da Peng" Dong Chengpeng on my Letterboxd for directors I'd seen multiple movies from this much as I'd remembered that he directed Jian Bing Man and City of Rock and that was one of the reasons I was interested in Post Truth four months ago, but, for some reason, that pretty darn good movie didn't leap to mind when making plans for this one.

I chose to see it on Sunday because, between my return flight being Saturday, returning to work Monday, and the film only having matinee shows, that was the only window to see it. What's kind of surprising to me is that Post Truth also was only booked for matinees, although I don't remember if it was quite so well-attended as One and Only was. I gather co-star Yang Yibo is a big rock star in China, which might be the main reason why there was a decent, young-looking crowd at Boston Common, although the decision to limit shows like this is odd, considering. Maybe they've got data that says Jian Bing Man and City of Rock did much better in matinees. Odd coincidence, otherwise.

At any rate, I liked this quite a bit, but I'm amused that this is the fourth movie of Da Peng's I've seen and the fourth time I've been kind of wary of it beforehand before rather liking it. Maybe he's just a filmmaker I like.

Re lie (One and Only)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 August 2023 in AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, DCP)

I don't watch a whole lot of these dance-focused movies, but I've always gathered that if you can just tread water or do a little better until the big dance-off comes, the audience will probably go home happy. This movie has a strong enough core in writer/director "Da Peng" Dong Chengpeng and costars Bio Huang and Wang Yibo that the stuff that goes on when they're not dancing is going to be pretty competent, and that will do until it's time to dance.

The film opens with a street dance competition in Zhejiang, where the E-Mark team coached by Ding Lei (Bo Huang) is initially fretting because their star dancer Kevin (Casper Chu) is running late, and when he does show, he throws a fit when one of his teammates misses a move. Ding suggests this would not be an issue if Kevin practiced with the team, while Kevin instead suggests they fire various team members and bring in foreign ringers. Elsewhere in the city, Chen Shuo (Wang Yibo), who once auditioned for the team but didn't make it, is working three jobs between a car-wax shop, dancing gigs for Brother Xie (Xia Shenyang), and the restaurant run by his mother (Liu Mintao). Bing hits upon the idea of hiring Shuo as a sort of stand-in for practice, and he quickly bonds with the rest of the team, triggering Kevin's jealousy as the next competition nears.

All of this stuff is pretty much on-template; the film is full of stock characters, from the egomaniac who breaks with the team to the coach's ex who still kind of likes him to the amiable teammates to the cute young reporter, but the cast all know what these folks need, everyone is sincere including the comic relief. That' a bit of a surprise, since the other three films from Da Peng and co-writer Su Biao which have crossed the Pacific to play American theaters were fairly broad comedies, and this film is played more or less straight. When it's time for jokes, they're pretty good, and everyone involved seems to get that earnest support is going to play better than manufactured conflict that the audience can spot as phony a mile away. There's the occasional great bit, while the awkwardly-plotted twisting in the last act plays like the filmmakers were torn between two paths and tried to keep bits of both because it gives Bo Huang a nice moment to play for boos.

Interestingly, Bo often plays Ding like the sort of zany loser that Da Peng usually plays in the films he writes and directs, a fast-talking striver bouncing back from self-inflicted wounds, but he seems to get how the youthful ambition thwarted by a broken leg clashes with the paternal instincts that make Ding a good coach, and his most memorable scenes show a man keenly aware of the conflict. Wang Yibo's Shuo is often the opposite - a dutiful son who needs building up to have the sort of forceful stage presence Kevin does - but he handles the build-up well. Song Zuer plays well off him as the reporter who bonds with Shuo over them both kind of being interns, and Liu Mintao hits most of the "sad backstory but doesn't let it interfere with supporting her son" points quite well. Casper Chu and the other folks who are primarily dancers are used well.

So that keeps things moving in well-lubricated fashion until it's time for the big showdown between Kevin's team and Shuo's, and there's some terrific dancing in the finale. Da Peng probably could have more dance scenes on the way there - some of those scenes are shot and cut in such a way that they don't look as much like amazing sequences as one-off feats, and don't showcase the rest of the team's moves well enough that Shuo breaking them out would have an impact without announcers narrating what's going on - but the climax is terrific, including a literal exclamation point that could easily draw laughs but somehow doesn't. I gather Wang Yibo is a big pop star in China, so it's probably not surprising he can dance a bit, especially when you think back to how he stole a couple action scenes in Hidden Blade earlier this year. He doesn't really have to be a whole lot more than likable for most of the movie, but he sure shows up when it counts, on and off the dance floor. Da Peng and his crew don't lock the camera down or stop cutting in the climax - they keep the energy up and check in on the side-stories of all Shuo's friends and family - but they both know that this is both a talent showcase and a way to show who Shuo and Kevin are and what they've become over the movie.

And when that hits, yes, you forget a bit that the previous hour and a half was kind of by the numbers, albeit from a cast and crew that execute the template with care rather than indifference. They're looking to make a movie that plays well to a crowd, and hit the target squarely.

Friday, August 11, 2023

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 11 August 2023 - 17 August 2023

So… What'd I miss? And what's next?
  • The big opening is The Last Voyage of the Demeter, which expands the story of the ship that carried Dracula's coffin from Transylvania to England into its own story of horror on the high seas. It plays Fresh Pond, Boston Common, South Bay, Assembly Row.

    Aporia opens at Boston Common; it's a sci-fi film starring Judy Greer as a mother who is given the opportunity to use a time-tunneling device to kill the drunk driver who killed her husband, but soon discovers that you can't just change one thing. Jules is another piece of indie sci-fi, with Ben Kingsley as a man whose life is upended when a flying saucer and its pilot crash into his backyard.

    Gran Turismo is being pretty heavily previewed before its official opening two weeks from now, with shows Friday (Dolby Cinema at Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row), Saturday (Imax and Dolby at Boston Common and South Bay, standard and Dolby at Assembly Row), and Sunday (Boston Common, Assembly Row). Enter the Dragon has 50th Anniversary shows on Sunday and Wednesday at South Bay and Assembly Row. Remastered but apparently 2D screenings of Coraline play Monday and Tuesday at Boston Common, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards. Sing 2 has an early matinee at Boston Common on Wednesday. Strays has an early "Hump Day" screening on Wednesday at Boston Common, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards.

    The Imax screen at Assembly Row re-opens with Oppenheimer.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre has director Ira Sachs on-hand for a Sunday afternoon screening of Passages, his sexy and tumultuous new drama about a modern love triangle with an international cast. It plays in the screening room most of the rest of the week. It also plays at Kendall Square.

    The Hip-Hop at 50 series continues with five 35mm shows: There are midnight screenings Friday on Friday and CB4 on Saturday and weekday showings of Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest on Tuesday, Awesome I Shot That! on Wednesday, and a Rewind! show of the original House Party on Thursday. There's also a Sunday afternoon screening of this year's CatVideoFest package and the annual Big Screen Classic show of The Big Lebowski on Monday. Note that they will be using a DCP for many screenings of Oppenheimer this week, especially Monday to Wednesday.
  • Three new ones from India this week at Apple Fresh Pond, including two Hindi-language sequels which also play Boston Common. Gadar 2 reunites the cast and creative team of the original 2001 film for a story set 22 years later, during the Indo-Pakistan war OMG 2 seems to be more a thematic sequel than a direct one, with a civilian bringing the government into court for comprehensive education rather than suing god. Bhola Shankar is a Telugu-language action picture which has a former gangster chasing down those who harmed his family. Holdovers include Tamil action-comedy Jailer at Fresh Pond (with Telugu shows Saturday and Sunday) and Boston Common, with Hindi romantic comedy Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani also at those theaters.

    Two from China open at Boston Common: Mad Fate ist he latest from Soi Cheung and it's a banger, starring Gordon Lam as an astrologer thrust into the middle of a serial killer's spree who is also trying to change the fate of a witness whose stars say he will become a killer himself. One and Only comes from Jian Bing Man and City of Rock filmmaker Da Peng, with Huang Bo and Wang Yibo as street dancers, although I don't believe it has any evening shows.

    K-Pop concert film Mamamoo: My Con the Movie plays Saturday at Boston Common.
  • The Tuesday "Happy Birthday, Mr. Hitchcock" Retro Replay at Landmark Kendall Square this week is The 39 Steps; and there's a special tribute show of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure on Wednesday with $8 seats.

    They also open the new restoration of Oldboy on Wednesday; it closed Fantasia is still impressively sick, aside from looking as great as it ever has (one obvious CGI knife aside).
  • The Brattle Theatre celebrates Alfred Hitchcock's birthday weekend with a double-feature of Rear Window & North by Northwest from Friday to Sunday. The Warner 100 screenings this week feature Bette Davis, with Dark Victory & Jezebel on Monday with Mildred Pierce & The Letter on Tuesday. The Dede Allen centennial shows on Wednesday are The Wiz early and a 35mm print of Henry & June late, and the Thrill Ride Horror double bill on Thursday is Ready or Not & Crawl
  • The Harvard Film Archive wraps their summer "Ozu 120: The Complete Ozu Yasujiro" program this weekend with Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Ozu-inspired Café Lumière on Friday, Tokyo Story on Saturday, with The Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family and An Autumn Afternoon on Sunday. All on 35mm film, and then the Archive will be taking a little break until September.
  • The Museum of Science kicks off a "Summer Space Film" series with 2001: A Space Odyssey playing on the dome Friday and Saturday night.
  • The Somerville Theatre has Bubba Ho-Tep as their Saturday midnight special, and sends Tuesday's "Attack of the B Movies" double feature of Killers From Space & Mesa of Lost Women downstairs because you aren't getting the 70mm print of Oppenheimer off the big screen yet.
  • Belmont World Film will be revisiting their spring "Complicated Identities" series, with Stay With Us playing Monday evening at Apple Fresh Pond and five other films - The Worst Ones, Farewell Mr. Hoffman, Chile '76, The Beasts, and Peaceful available to stream for a week starting Tuesday night
  • The West Newton Cinema brings Past Lives back to join Meg 2 (no show Thursday), Theater Camp, Barbie, Oppenheimer (35mm), Asteroid City, and Super Mario Brothers (Sunday/Wednesday/Thursday matinees). Open all week!

    The Lexington Venue continues Oppenheimer and Barbie, and is open Friday to Sunday plus Thursday.

    The Luna Theater has CatVideoFest 2023 on Friday, Saturday, and Thursday; Earth Mama on Saturday; Purple Rain all day Sunday, as well as a Weirdo Wednesday show.

    Cinema Salem has Talk to Me, Barbie, Oppenheimer, and TMNT through Monday. Man Bites Dog plays a late show Friday and the '99 version of The Mummy shows on Thursday.

    If you can make it out to Danvers, indie sci-fi comedy The Pod Generation is playing at the Liberty Tree Mall.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts will be showing Nope on their lawn Wednesday night as part (all?) of this summer's "Sunset Cinema" series. Other outdoor screenings listed at Joe's Free Films include four on Friday: Moana at the U.S.S. Constitution, Raiders of the Lost Ark at Somerville's Boynton Yards, Lightyear at Hynes Playground, and Back to the Future at the Hatch Shell, The Princess Diaries is at the Prudential Saturday, The Empire Strikes Back plays Christopher Columbus Park on Sunday (maybe as a double feature with Star Wars, but I think that's supposed to be a colon instead of a comma), Wakanda Forever at Horatio Harris Park Monday, Marcel the Shell with Shoes on at Ringer Playground Tuesday, League of Super-Pets at Mary Hannon Park plus a 35mm print of It Came From Outer Space on the Greenway Wednesday, with Clueless at Somerville's Seven Hills Park on Thursday.
Not planning on seeing more in Montreal before returning home Saturday night, although I may catch One and Only while up here because otherwise I apparently have one chance to watch it. Otherwise, figuring on hitting Demeter and finally catching up with Oppenheimer, Barbie, Meg 2 and maybe TMNT.

Fantasia 2023 in theaters: Aporia and Mad Fate

I try to go through festivals as I see them, figuring they might fall out the back of my head by the time I get to them, but two films from the festival are opening in Boston this weekend. Near as I can tell, that's all, and nothing is coming out on disc, VOD, or any streaming service in the next week, but that can be tough to find good information on until they're available.

Anyway, more info on visitors and atmosphere when I get to the movies in the "Fantasia Daily" posts; for now, I'll just say that if you've only got time for one of these movies this weekend, I would recommend Mad Fate.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

I can't speak to what sort of genre material writer/director Jared Moshe consumes in his spare time, or what unproduced scripts he has on his laptop, but Aporia has the feel of a movie made by someone who has an idea for a speculative fiction story but who doesn't really familiarize themselves with the genre because they figure it's not really important: Their movie, after all, is really about human relationships as opposed to that sci-fi stuff. Sometimes it works. Sometimes you wind up reinventing what Ray Bradbury figured out seventy years ago and fumbling the fallout.

The film starts with Sophie (Judy Greer), an overworked assisted-care nurse whose daughter Riley (Faithe Herman) has been in an even bigger spiral since the death of her father, and when she's suspended for skipping class, Sophie reaches out to Jabir (Payman Maadi), one of her late husband mal's closest friends, for help. Jabir, once a physicist in his home country before immigrating, reveals that he's been working on a machine that can send "abstract" particles back in time - and if you send them back to where and when a person's head is, nobody will be able to explain the stroke. They figure out a "safe" moment to remove the drunk driver who killed Mal, and it's a success - Mal (Edi Gathegi) is back, and only Sophie and Jabir know anything is different. But they soon discover that they've made life worse for the driver's widow Kara (Whitney Morgan Cox) and her daughter Aggie (Veda Clenfuegos), which means they've got to intervene again. Oh, and Jabir has a whole file cabinet full of serial killers and child abusers.

So, I know this isn't really that kind of movie, but once you lay this all out, I can't help but think that roughly ten years before it's possible to build a retroactive murder machine on a hobbyist budget, something like 20% of the world population would suddenly have a stroke. Maybe more, because the folks who survive to that new future would piss someone off, and so on. That's the peril of having your production designer build a machine that looks like it's put together with spare parts and scrap metal - and, yeah, it's a really great-looking machine - you can't exactly presume there's ever just going to be one Jabir who figures this sort of thing out. On top of that, science-fiction fans are going to rescue the central dilemma as a butterfly effect (articulated by Arthur C. Clarke in "A Sound of Thunder" back in 1952 and named by Edward Norton Lorenz in 1972) and perhaps be skeptical that this can be fixed by stomping on more butterflies, and you'd better hope that they haven't read Isaac Asimov's "The Dead Past" (1956) and put together than what Jabir has built actually works even better as an untraceable murder weapon if you know where someone was one second ago (relevant, because we're already dealing with Jabir's kill list). The big ideas Moshe is playing with are decades old and well-known tropes by now.

But, again, this is not that sort of movie. It's okay for what it is, especially once it starts piling multiple changes on top of one another, and the point is arguably to give the cast a chance to show their characters wrestling with the weight of the decision, and they mostly do okay by that. It's kind of nice to see Judy Greer actually get a lead role, and one that gives her something to work with as Sophie is overwhelmed by her grief and has strong feelings about both how she must make things right or feels addled by the world around her suddenly changing (or learning that it has changed without her knowledge). Payman Maadi makes an interesting counter, carrying the tragedy of Jabir's lost family but also able to make the scientist's cool calculation a bit unnerving.

The script often doesn't seem to know how to get out of its own way, though - a scene where one character tells another about the machine is weird in how it comes out of nowhere, for instance, like Moshe saw a hole that needed patching and did it in the oddest-feeling way possible. The big fault, though, even beyond how the usual tropes haven't been thought through, is that for a movie that wants to emphasize characters' emotional decisions over sci-fi what-ifs, its moral compass is really all over the place. These characters are playing god but seldom have any vision outside their own narrow desires, and the decisions made in the home stretch are framed as brave self-sacrifice but are, in effect, ways to shed responsibility for what the characters have done.

Honestly, I think I might find the end of this movie uglier the more I think about it. Aporia is well done in a lot of ways, but kind of misbegotten in others, and a defense that it makes you think isn't going to make one think better of it.

Ming'on (Mad Fate)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 3 August2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

For all that I've seen horoscopes, fate, feng shui, and a number of similar things off that ilk used in Chinese films before, it's almost always been in fantasies, or a sign of comedic superstition or eccentricity, generally for older female characters - or at least easily dismissed as such from my western point of view. Mad Fate feels like the first time I've seen characters really take that sort of thing dead seriously, such that even if they're nuts for doing so, the film has to do so as well. And, boy, does that make the film a ride.

May (Birdy Wong Ching-Yan) seems to fit the stereotype, at first, as she's allowing herself to be buried in a cemetery for a couple of hours because her astrologer (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung) is predicting a disaster for her in that timeframe - one that being buried alive in a thunderstorm could maybe cause. Instead, she returns home to a building that houses a lot of other prostitutes, whom a veteran detective (Berg Ng Ting-Yip) has been warning about a serial killer (Peter Chan Charm-Man) in the area. In a twist of fate, the rain smears the number on an order of noodles being delivered by Siu-Tung (Yeung Lok-Man) - who looks on the killer's work with fascination rather than revulsion. The detective has had his eye on Siu-Tung since childhood - he has a history of killing animals and scarred his sister - and the chart the astrologer creates for him has murder in his future, But, the man claims, it is possible to change one's luck and fate by changing one's habits and environment.

It's madness, of course, but a specific sort, as both Siu-Tung and "The Master" are likely insane and a danger to others, but the idea that you can read the stars and adjust your living space to somehow change your destiny is no less a lifeline than anything that psychiatry can offer. It at least offers something concrete you can do, and perhaps just committing to doing that can change your habits. The desperation of these two to avoid the urges that threaten to overwhelm them is something so compelling that it's easily able to muscle a more conventional serial killer story off to the side.

And it is an awful lot of fun to watch Gordon Lam and Yeung Lok-Man work here. Lam is a Hong Kong veteran who may be doing the best work in a busy career here, creating a character who seems desperately heroic at the start, striving to save people that the system doesn't care about or believe are in danger, but that's a thin layer over his own desperation to believe that he can defy what the stars have in store for him, especially when the audience gets a glimpse of what he was and could be again if he doesn't fight what the stars have in store for him. Yeung, meanwhile, does nice work riding the line of someone who may be a sociopath but still has the idea that it would be better if he wasn't, giving little hints as the movie goes on that Siu-Tung wants to be better but is still a volatile ball of rage and violence that wants to cut things open. The performances get bigger and bolder as the film goes on, unrelenting but compelling madness. The same goes for Berg Ng Ting-Yip as the cop who is mostly professional but can't get past his fear of Siu-Tung and Peter Chan, whose killer is seemingly unburdened by worry about what he is but is still made more volatile by the sheer nuisance of the others.

Is there something to this so-called madness? Perhaps; Siu-Tung and the Master do keep crossing the paths of this killer after all, and the script by Yau Nai-Hoi and Lee Chun-Fai seems to revel in creating convincing coincidences - not so much unlikely random events, but there's a sort of gravity to the way that the paths of these four characters (or five, once Ng Wing-Sze's prostitute-with-a-gambling-problem Jo relocates from the building where a bunch of her colleagues have died to the one where Siu-Tung has taken up residence) keep bending toward each other in ways that individually seem reasonable but are a lot when added together. Director Cheang Pou-Soi does really nice work of keeping this sort of thing feeling deft and natural even as the film erupts into bloody violence when these threads do cross, making sure that the darkly comic absurdity of the premise and the dangerous mania of the execution are present in almost every scene, teaming with frequent collaborator Jack Wong Wai-Leung to make sure that the action is hard-hitting.

It's also a terrifically stylish movie, with great locations from the cemetery in the opening to the rooftop where much of the later film takes place, with the city in between often ugly and seedy in a way that seems to be trying to mire everyone in quicksand. And don't look up for hope - I don't know that there's a sky in the movie that hasn't been digitally augmented or re-composited in such a way that suggests a capricious God tormenting them with madness and danger. The film never lets up with this sort of thing, aiming to make the audience as paranoid as what they're watching. It's a more colorful hell than Cheang's previous film Limbo, but no easier to escape.

(Looking at his credits, it's no wonder that Monkey King trilogy just didn't play right!)

It is, if nothing else, as mad as the title promises, pulling the viewer along through a cosmology that is maybe not rational but does, for these two hours anyway, operate with a strange alternate logic that is just as compelling, making for one heck of a ride.

Thursday, August 10, 2023

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.07: A Chinese Ghost Story, "How to Get Rid of Your Cheating Husband", Booger, Insomniacs After School, Things That Go Bump in the East, and Devils

Not seen until a couple days later, but those "Lost Cat" signs are some clever viral marketing for Booger and a colorful way to spruce up some shuttered storefronts, including one which I think was another regular Fantasian's favorite coffee shop.

Anyway, there's Booger writer/director Mary Dauterman (on the write) with the festival's Justine Smith, talking about how, yes, this film takes place in a very specific part of Brooklyn because that's where they live, and that the Booger we see on-screen is her cat half the time and a couple of "professional" cats at others, although I gather the pros were only marginally easier to work with.

Here is some of the line-up of folks who made "Things That Go Bump in The East", a pretty good turn-out considering how much we're talking about short films made on the other side of the planet, here. From left to right - and apologies for where my notes are bad - we have "English Tutor" producer Jung Jongmin, cinematographer Paik Won-jo, and writer/director Koo Jaho; "You Will See" co-star Chng Min-Si and cinematographer Perrin Tan; "Foreigners Only" cinematographer Ali Ejaz Mehedi and director Nuhash Humayun; "Tang" filmmaker Kim Min-jeong, and host Steven Lee. Nuhash Humayun also had a feature in the festival, and was one of the most voluble folks in the Q&A, joking about how this was all based on a real thing in Bangladesh and how he's not necessarily immune to the pressures involved, as the "fake" North American accent he was using wasn't exactly how he spoke at home.

Finally, we wound up the day back across the street in Hall with director Kim Jae-Hoon there for Devils, which had a lot of people talking about it being gorier/more violent than usual, enough to make me wonder if maybe Korean movies have been smoothing themselves out for a more mainstream/international audience? I mean, I haven't really joked about a movie having a Korean level of violence lately, sure, but Project Wolf Hunting wasn't that long ago.

Next up: A quick detour into Fantasia stuff coming out over the next week, and then Hippo, Baby Assassins 2, and Where the Devil Roams as part of the next "regular update". As I post this, the festival is over, but I've got plenty of Letterboxd entries to expand and shorts to write up.

Sien lui yau wan (A Chinese Ghost Story)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Fantasia Retro, 35mm)

This movie really is just a classic of pulling one crazy thing on top of another that looks like just another briskly zany Hong Kong horror-fantasy-comedy, although if that these things were a dime a dozen I've admittedly got to rack my brains a little as I consider how many of the similar movies I'm thinking about came afterward and tried to imitate what this team did exceptionally well. If this movie's not best-in-class, it's right up there.

After an opening where a scribe meets his end at the hands of a ghostly dancing woman, the film introduces Ling Choi San (Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing), a shabby traveler who just barely passes a number of dangers and indignities as he makes his way to a town where he's expected to collect a number of debts, as well as swordsmen Yin Chek Ha (Wu Ma) and Hsia Hou (Lam Wai), who have a long rivalry and have chosen the haunted grounds of the Lan Po temple on which to duel. When the broke Choi-San is directed to the temple as a place to sleep without paying, they expect he won't return, but he serendipitously evades some ghosts and throws another, Lip Siu-Sin (Joey Wong Cho-Yin), off with his general decency, to the point where she finds herself unwilling to murder him. Of course, she is by far the most sweet-natured supernatural entity on the premises.

Of all the things that work just a little bit better than could be expected, the not-so-secret weapon is Leslie Cheung, who takes the stock character of the nice but inept twit stumbling through the crazy situation and makes him a genuine heart of the movie hero even though Yuen Kai-Chi's script never actually makes him better at fighting or doing the sort of magic that dispatches supernatural villains. That is a lot more rare than you'd think for the number of these movies that have this naif at their center, but Cheung has the sort of natural sweetness the part needs and an ability to handle tragedy when it becomes clear that Siu-Sin's best ending might be reincarnation rather than resurrection. He and Joey Wong play off each other very nicely at that, she's believably a reluctant monster. Wu Ma, meanwhile, is a counterpart to them falling for each other with bombastic delivery and pragmatism about how she's a ghost and part of something that could cause disaster and he's just a goober who will likely be no help at all.

It's also got some really nifty monster effects in its dessicated mummies, who maybe don't always look great when seen in full, but the filmmakers really maximize their effect when they are introduced, making a scene organized more around comic beats than actual scares still feel sinister and dangerous. The delight taken in the film's special effects work is probably a big part of why the film is often associated as much with producer Tsui Hark as director Tony Ching Siu-Tung, although his work is nothing to sneeze at; he The film is full of fun bits of supernatural madness, including demon weddings and the confidence to do almost zero effects when characters open a portal to another world because there doesn't really need to be something cool there and it would just distract from the thing that's going on and what's up next.

And, yes, there's flying martial arts; Tony Ching started his career as a director with Duel to the Death and is one of the action directors here, and the action always plays as pretty substantial: Even as Wu Man, Lam Wai, Lau Siu-Ming and others are leaping at each other and trading blows with swords as they go by, it seldom feels like there isn't effort behind these impossible showdowns, as opposed to people flying and posing at each other for energy blasts.

All in all, It's a confident, entertaining movie that really nails what makes the genre work at its best.

"How to Get Rid of Your Cheating Husband"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival Underground, digital)

There's an "oblivious-influencer" dynamic to this movie that I don't quite get - insert humblebrag about not watching the kind of short internet videos in question here - but which is kind of amusing regardless, like these two are so far up their own tails that the fact that one friend's husband was another's boyfriend even registers as weird and uncomfortable. Like, it's not so much that they should hate each other rather than him, but that they don't even seem capable enough of extending their awareness that far from their individual selves.

It's kind of the most memorable thing about the short, really; that vibe (combined with German actors who I suspect are exaggerating odd accents when speaking English) is far more memorable than any twist or line that arises out of it.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival Underground, DCP)

On the one hand, I always feel embarrassed during this festival about taking days or weeks to get reviews posted. On the other, circling back a week later and comparing what stuck with me to what is in my notes and quick entry on Letterboxd is often clarifying and an odd contrast: For example, a week and a half away from Booger, I had almost completely forgotten that there was a fantasy/horror component to the movie, which speaks to how well the rest of it is done, considering the festival where I watched it.

"Booger" is the name Izzy (Sofia Dobrushin) gives to a stray cat that showed up in the apartment she shared with longtime best friend Anna (Grace Glowicki) a couple years back and decided to stay over Anna's initial objections. But now Izzy has died, and while Anna is trying real hard to hold it together, she can't afford the rent on her own, Izzy's mother Joyce (Marcia DeBonis) is in and out to pack up her daughter's things, and Anna's boyfriend Max (Garrick Bernard) is kind of pissing her off by acting even more broken up about Izzy even though they were never really friends without Anna as an intermediate. On top of that, when Anna tries to get Booger to stop gnawing on a plant, the cat bites her and bolts out an open window, and if it wasn't bad enough that Anna lost Izzy's cat, it's starting to look like that bite is making Anna take on some feline characteristics.

So, if I don't remember much of the whole "turning into a cat person" thing, what did stick in my mind. Well, Grace Glowicki as Anna, mainly; she's in nearly every scene of the movie and gives a performance that stacks all of Anna's emotions rather than switching between them: Weird cat stuff on top of her clearly using her lost cat to keep from collapsing from the loss of her friend on top of the sort of grief that leads to other forms of denial to how she was maybe not entirely sure of herself before all this. She's sort of on her own for much of the movie, although one noteworthy element is just how well she pairs with Marcia DeBonis in navigating the empty space that's supposed to link them; DeBonis's Joyce is obviously devastated while also giving the impression that, at her age, she's encountered death a little more and understands the emotions around it better. It's also impressive just how strong an impression Sofia Dobrushin makes as Izzy in quick bits of random vertical video from the girls' phones, enough to get the impression Anna kind of orbited around her and make other remembrances ring true.

The cat-person story is what sells the movie, though, and even if it falls away when considering what makes this a noteworthy film, in the present one may find oneself wondering if maybe writer/director Mary Dauterman over-committed to the bit, just a little? For as much as I loved the central performance and the sharp way that it looks at grief, there comes a point where I'm a little more tempted to groan and wonder just how many things along these lines that they intended to do, especially when the expressions of it get a little more grotesque than just Anna's habit of licking at the hair that dangles to her mouth. It's not just kind of nasty, but a viewer can kind of feel early on that this isn't really going to be a film where the end is a complete physical transformation or Anna otherwise losing her humanity.

The execution of those things is often pretty strong, though, almost all done with body language and just unwavering dedication to doing this thing, no matter how weird or gross it may be. Still, I think the line which stands out the most is "she was going to leave me?", which changes the grief in a way the audience immediately understands and makes both Anna and Izzy more imperfectly human without ever having to tear either down, even if there's another, more consequential moment that upends the story more.

It's a really impressive little movie in a lot of ways, even if I do worry that the next person I recommend it to won't realize what they're in for.

Kimi wa Hokago Insomnia (Insomniacs After School)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival Underground, DCP)

Is there something about the manga magazine to movie pipeline that enables Japan to send two or three pretty darn good coming of age stories to this festival (which mainly features genre cinema) every year when it seems like this is a genre we barely do in America? Do these movies play theatrically and do well? I'm so curious, because even something as specific in its details as Insomniacs After School is going to be universal to some extent.

It opens with high-school student Ganta Nakami (Daiken Okudaira), who wanders around at night unable to sleep, only to find himself crashing during school hours, thinking he's the only one like this until, sent up to the school's disused observatory on an errand, he discovers Isaki Magari (Nana Mori), a bubbly, popular girl, napping there in a storage locker. They quickly bond over their shared affliction, though school nurse Kurashiki (Yuki Sakurai) informs them that 1 in 4 Japanese have some sort of sleeping disorder, and suggests they re-start an astronomy club to legitimize the use of the room, putting them in contact with graduate Yui Shiromaru (Minori Hagiwara), who led the club the last time it existed and won an award for her astrophotography, though Isaki doesn't take to the technique nearly as well as Ganta.

One thing that I particularly like is that, despite what that last sentence may imply, it's not long after the moment when one recognizes that the movie is kind of built around the boy's perspective and interest that it finds a way to give the girl something that could, eventually, be more hers than his. In some ways, that's the bare minimum, but it's important: A lot of movies don't manage that, and it's very welcome, especially when a person has seen a lot of them and can sort of spot the point where one character may wind up the means for the others to learn a valuable lesson, which is fairly adroitly handled here.

The very appealing leads are a big part of why this is another strong entry in the genre: Daiken Okudaira, for instance, is likable and earnest enough as Ganta but does capture that even a genuinely decent-hearted person can tend to make things about himself, both in terms of being a bit selfish and overreacting when things go wrong, while Nana Mori brings the stubbornness and perhaps desperation behind Isaki's cheerfulness. There are also a bunch of supporting characters who carve out individual places and personalities in pretty limited time, particularly Minori Hagiwara as the nurse one suspects has some sort of similar issues of her own and Haruka Kudo as Isaki's sister Saya, who feels more like a genuine sibling with whom one has a complicated relationship than is often the case in Japanese films (often, there seems to be an age gap or implication that brothers and sisters inhabit different worlds that isn't present here). That includes parents who, even when they're not around much, at least feel like a daily, concerned part of their kids' lives.

Co-writer/director Chihiro Ikeda, for the most part, avoids much in the way of filigree; the film is cleanly shot and generally opts for characters telling each other things rather than flashbacks, because in most cases the fact of someone opening up about what happened is actually more important than its details. They're good at making the quiet emptiness of these towns at night beautiful but also just a bit off; it's nice for Ganta and Isaki to have special space, but less so that they need it. The locations, from the high school with the unlikely observatory to the old ruin Ganta uses as background for a photograph (one of the few times the film gets fancy or clever with its shooting), are enjoyably specific.

It is, as per usual, a very direct film aimed at teenagers like its characters, but it does that very well indeed.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Things That Go Bump in the East, digital)

A young man wanders through an empty school building, inescapable music in the air, but when he finds the person playing it, it only makes things scarier.

Filmmaker Tarun Thind jumps on some pretty common nightmare elements and executes them well, from the unnerving setting with endless hallways that never seem to lead outside to how discovering a musician rather than just something on the PA only makes it worse to the final overload. I suspect that it might have worked even better for me if I had recognized "God Save the Queen" as the tune being played on Indian instruments; knowing that, it works even better as an idea that this definitionally British thing is pervasive even now, having wormed its way into South Asian culture even where it's incompatible and done damage whether one tries to resist or not.

"Two Side"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Things That Go Bump in the East, digital)

What initially simply looks like a case of school bullying reveals itself as something more sinister, the student at the center starts cracking up.

This is a really nifty short that, perhaps, hints at a sort of cycle of predation on top of the main character just losing his mind, as its animation piles symbol upon ambiguous symbol, with mirrors and masks, the latter literally having two faces. The crime at the center definitely happened, of course, but the implication is that the victim had done the same thing at some point, and so on up and down the line; it just turned out worse. Visually, the film is a treat - all that imagery is great to look at and director Luo Mingyang is terrific about jumping from one perspective to another in both smooth and abrupt fashions.

"English Tutor"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Things That Go Bump in the East, digital)

Looking to earn some extra money, a college student (Lee Do-Eun) takes a job tutoring So-yeong (Oh Chae-A), but both the student herself and the obsession of her mother (Seo Hye-In) to hear "just one word in English" soon becomes exceptionally unnerving.

Overall, an impressive horror story that doesn't really mess around with subtlety - both So-yeong and her mother are creepy from the start, both made miserable in their own ways from the pressure put upon them, and Lee Do-Eun has a quick descent from someone approaching a job casually to realizing that when you are brought into someone's home, there's a good chance that you'll encounter all the associated issues within. Writer/director Koo Jaho escalates quickly, so that it's quickly chasing the Tutor outside and offering up a bloody result.

"Foreigners Only"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Things That Go Bump in the East, digital)

A man looking for an apartment (Mostafa Monwar) in Bangladesh finds himself thwarted by numerous openings that are apparently available only to foreigners, building to an obvious solution.

Well, maybe not the obvious solution, as the ads for "Fairosol" skin lightener in the background are apparently only slightly exaggerated from the real projects on offer in South Asia, but the obvious horror movie one. Writer/director Nuhash Humayun is not particularly subtle here, but given how pervasive some of this is, subtlety is not really called for: Between the pervasive advertising and a landlord (Iresh Zaker) making sure that he explains his rationale in clear English (as opposed to Bangala), presenting it as an aspirational issue that nevertheless reveals the sort of combination of snobbery and self-disdain that leads people to diminish themselves. The ultimate solution is gruesome and should logically be fooling nobody, but that's the sick humor of it - people will respond to a surface trait no matter how nasty what's underneath is.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Things That Go Bump in the East, digital)

Well-enough made to feel closer to "a real movie" than machinima (I've seen Unreal Engine credited in enough actual features to recognize how blurred that line can become), although its basic survival-horror material, short runtime, and lack of dialogue tend to leave it open to interpretation while not giving one a whole lot to interpret. I think it's mostly a nightmare of a woman who feels she is somehow inauthentic after losing a lot of weight or otherwise re-shaping her body being chased down by grotesque, fatty monsters and shed skins, though this doesn't seem to be as prevalent a theme in Korean cinema as it had been in previous years. It's fine, and I suspect younger audiences who can engage more emotionally when they see something that looks like a videogame will probably enjoy it more than I.

"You Will See"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Things That Go Bump in the East, digital)

In this one, Gwyn (Chng Min Si) comes into possession of a camera that seems to have a mind of its own as she pushes herself further to capture something meaningful.

The thing that resonates me here is the way that carrying a camera around can mess with your mind in a way that having one as part of your phone doesn't; you're constantly looking for a shot rather than capturing one opportunistically, but also often feeling that you don't necessarily have the right to it, that the striking image you've chosen to capture and save and maybe sell or present often comes from someone else. That's the thing that writer/director Kathleen Bu and actress Chng Min Si capture very well here, from Gwyn's nervousness and urgency to things like the camera straps digging into her shoulders, like it's enslaving or capturing her rather than just functioning as a tool.

"Night of the Bride"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Things That Go Bump in the East, digital)

"Night of the Bride" is a premise that could turn into black comedy with relatively little effort - a young woman (Gurleen Arora) has been kidnapped with the intent to marry her to a desperate mother's son - but writer/director Virat Pal mostly chooses to be relentlessly straightforward in the film's grimness, even if it starts with the odd image of a woman being made up while tied up, like all the questioning and trying to talk one's way out of it happened before that point and now there's just desperate pleading.

Still, that doesn't make Arora's portrayal any less compelling or Harrdeep Kaur any less insane as the mother, and Pal does a nice job of keeping the noose tight, with most of the short taking place within one or two rooms, a wall of resignation among the rest of the cast that seems harder to fight than active cruelty, and a revelation or two that doesn't necessarily surprise but certainly highlights just how difficult these forces can be to resist, even when folks know they are wrong.

"Wang Shen Zhi Ye" ("A Night with Moosina")

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Things That Go Bump in the East, digital)

A busy animated film in which a kid ventures into the forest after seeing a friend emerge changed, but there's a twisting path to getting out of both the forest and a trans stage with one's life.

Director Tsai Shiu-Cheng offers a sumptuous feast of animation, with screens full of bright colors, often crowded with objects meant to keep humans safe from all the spirits in the forest, even as the colors mute as heroine Chun Mei pushes deeper into darkness. It's an adventurous, often riotous spookshow, but Tsai has the knack for letting all that happen at a pace where the next thing is always a few seconds later than it might otherwise be, just enough to make the audience dread what comes next a little bit more.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

As much as yelling "plot hole!" is bad film criticism most of the time, there is some real "we put a lot of effort into showing that something is hard before having it be easy in the home stretch" nonsense going on here that is going to draw that complaint a lot. It maybe shouldn't really matter, because it's mostly in the service of gratuitous last-minute twists which are already kind of a lot, but it does get a "hey!" or at least should.

Two years ago, homicide detective Jae-hwan (Oh Dae-hwan) and partner Gi-nam (Kim Won-hae) thought they had tracked down a ring of serial killers, but things turned sour at the last moment. Now, Jae-hwan has a new partner in Min-seong (Jang Jae-ho), and is determined not to let history repeat when they corner the killers again after a tip from inside the group. During the chase, Jae-hwan and quarry Jin-hyeok (Jang Dong-yoon) vanish when they fall over a ridge, but Jae-hwan's car is soon found with the pair unconscious inside. When he awakes inside the hospital, though, Jae-hwan discovers that he is inside Jin-hyeok's body and vice versa, with the killer threatening to kill his family unless he tracks down Jin-hyeok's partners, so that he can extract revenge for their betrayal.

It doesn't really matter that the end is especially stupid because the film mostly runs on taking a nutty premise and then having something even crazier behind it, and that's executed in such a way to make one kind of admire the sheer audacious nature of it. The cast comes to play, with Jang Dong-yoon making meals of both Jin-hyeok's mad sadism and Jae-hwan's panic while Oh Dae-hwan makes a great leap from "cop on the edge" to sadistic manipulator; if they're not hitting the crazy heights of Travolta and Cage in Face/Off, they're in the same ballpark.

And yet, beyond the high concept, the filmmakers often seem to just go harder instead of enjoying the bold choices they make from the very start. For example, if your serial killers are already painting their victims in weird paint that glows in UV light, why also dismember them? That's taking something that could be uniquely twisted - taunting messages to the forensics guys, for instance - and replacing it with plain gore. There are a half dozen cops in the squad, but none are really memorable, and, heck, even new partner Min-seong is more or less the same guy as Gi-nam, right down to potential family connection. It's bloody, but maybe not that creative in such things aside from the one big idea that carries it for a while, when the plot gives writer/director Kim Jae-Hoon all sorts of opportunity to play with how the line between the cop and killer mindsets can be twisted. Kim's got a story that needs to be very cynical about its cops but doesn't quite manage it.

Kim does have an impressive mean streak, though which manifests itself in impressively staged action as much as so much maniacal laughter. Fights give the characters some room to move and whale on each other, and everything gets bigger and harder without hesitation when it's called for. Big storytelling swings must be accompanied by big action, and he never shrinks from that.

The movie goes from clever to dumb in a big hurry at points, obviously enough to be visible in real time rather than just on further reflection. It's manic enough to keep things going - and at 106 minutes, lean by Korean standards - but sometimes going for broke means falling short even if it's an impressive effort.