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by Bill Chambers It's tempting to say that pop already ate itself, leaving a vast wasteland of remakes and reboots that can't possibly be fertile enough to cultivate imaginations; I sometimes lie awake worrying that one day all we'll be left with is the vultures and their Jane Austen mashups, their homemade Lord of the Rings prequels and Sweded Rambo movies. Should such a Doomsday scenario come to pass, let's hope it occasionally yields something as whimsical and obviously heartfelt as France's The Little Dragon (Le petit dragon) (animated; d. Bruno Collet; 8 mins.; ***/****), in which a magical force brings a Bruce Lee action figure to life, seemingly with the legend's identity, if not his soul, intact, as it is his impulse upon encountering a Chuck Norris cut-out to kick it down. (He also recognizes his name and image on other collectibles.) Decked out in his yellow Game of Death jumpsuit, he navigates a maze of cobweb-strewn movie memorabilia that appears to be some Harry Knowles type's bedroom; in a moment of quintessentially French cinephilia, Bruce, having been passed the torch (the Statue of Liberty torch from a Planet of the Apes model kit, that is), stumbles on a makeshift crypt lined with dolls of Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Louise Brooks, Robert Mitchum, and, erm, Robert Taylor. The stop-motion animation is charming--this scrappy little guy may actually be the ne plus ultra of Lee imitators, who are of course legion--and the tone is deceptively irreverent. This is fan art, executed with gusto--but does it have a function? Collet could be the next Nick Park--but is he hurting for inspiration?
***½/**** starring Atsuko Maeda, Ryo Kase, Shota Sometani, Adiz Radjabov written and directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
by Walter Chaw Kiyoshi Kurosawa's still best known to Western audiences, if he's known at all, as one of the progenitors of the Japanese J-Horror movement, which gained traction in the United States in the years immediately following 9/11. Once the U.S. joined Japan as an industrialized nation experiencing the detonation of a large-scale weapon of mass destruction over a populated area, I think it also took on Japan's cinematic mechanisms for coping: nihilistic horror films where evil comes with neither warning nor explanation--and city-levelling kaiju eiga in the form of a nearly-uninterrupted glut of superhero movies. Kurosawa's twin masterpieces, Cure and Pulse, deal in issues of technophobia and isolation with a painterly eye and a poet's patience. They are among the most frightening films of the last quarter-century, proving perpetually current as our world, and our reality with it, continues to fray. His movies used to feel like cautionary tales; now they feel like prophecy. Pulse, especially, with its tale of ghosts in the machine and airplanes falling from the sky, throbs with an insistent, hopeless melancholy that speaks to the essential loneliness of existence. It's as important a work in its way as anything by Camus or Sartre.
*½/**** starring Elaiza Ikeda, Takashi Tsukamoto, Hiroya Shimizu, Renn Kiriyama screenplay by Noriaki Sugihara, based on the novel Tide by Koji Suzuki directed by Hideo Nakata
Fantasia Festival 2019 runs July 11-August 1 in Montreal, Quebec. Visit the fest's official site for more details.
by Bill Chambers After ushering in contemporary J-horror with Ringu, the first feature-film adaptation of Koji Suzuki's novel Ring, Hideo Nakata directed Ring 2, which was made in response to the poor reception of Rasen, a sequel based on Suzuki's own. Ring 2 doubled the original's grosses, and Nakata tried his luck in Hollywood. But with a stated desire to avoid horror (he didn't want to repeat himself), he couldn't get a bite from the studios (which only want people to repeat themselves)--until fate conspired to put him at the helm of the sequel to Ringu's own American remake, The Ring Two. Nakata nearly quit over the producers constantly foisting rewrites on him, which did not result in a particularly coherent or cohesive film, and the eminence he brought to the project was ultimately used against him by critics. He returned to Japan, where he's bounced around in the years since between film and television, documentaries and shorts, gradually coming to accept his darker creative impulses and the public's appetite for chills. The work, sadly, has suffered from a budgetary standpoint thanks to the Japanese film industry becoming collateral damage in the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, and though the Ring series has persevered through these lean 2010s, it was reduced to schlock (a couple of 3D movies and a Ju-on crossover, Sadako vs. Kayako), dropping all pretense of being anything but a showcase for its black-haired, pint-sized Freddy Krueger in the bargain. For the newest entry, the approach was back-to-basics: Nakata again directs, Suzuki again wrote the source material, and the simplified title, Sadako, unburdens the picture of franchise baggage à la Rambo and Jason Bourne. Bona fides though these may be, what they aren't is a hook; say what you will about the asininity of pitting Sadako against Kayako--at least it's a foundation on which to build a movie.
*/**** starring Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Ziyi Zhang screenplay by Michael Dougherty & Zach Shields directed by Michael Dougherty
by Walter Chaw Everyone is really stressed out in Michael Dougherty's dreadful Godzilla: King of the Monsters (hereafter Godzilla 2), the crass follow-up to 2014's Godzilla, Gareth Edwards's lovely, Spielbergian reboot of the storied Toho franchise for the American market. Everyone here starts at about a 9, temple-veins popping and spittle flying--the undercard attraction to the titanic title bouts between immense CG phantoms. For his part, everyman wolf biologist Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) starts at "Nicholson in The Shining" and ramps up to "Pacino in Heat" before settling down somewhere near status quo William Petersen for the remainder. That little muscle in Chandler's jaw gets a good, clenched workout. Mark is called onto the scene because his ex, batshit Dr. Emma (Vera Farmiga), has spirited away their high-strung daughter, Madison (Millie Bobby Brown), who's designed an electronic doohickey called "Orca," the better to talk to all the giant monsters people have discovered across the globe. Operation of said doohickey appears to involve standard smartphone skills, so the necessity of pulling Mark out of the wilderness to help track down Emma is suspect. He's certainly scream-y and agitated about the whole thing.
WHITE BOY RICK ***/**** starring Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jonathan Majors, Richie Merritt written by Andy Weiss and Logan & Noah Miller directed by Yann Demange
Manbiki kazoku ****/**** starring Lily Franky, Ando Sakura, Matsuoka Mayu, Kiki Kilin written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda
by Walter Chaw Yann Demange's follow-up to his bruising, brilliant '71 is this ersatz Donnie Brasco true-crime epic. White Boy Rick details the rise and fall of underage drug kingpin/FBI informant Richard Wershe, Jr. (Richie Merritt--excellent), dubbed "white boy" by the black Detroit gang into which he inculcates himself as first a sort of mascot, then trusted lieutenant, then deep-cover betrayer, then ultimate usurper. White Boy Rick establishes Demange firmly as a formidable technical director. A scene set in a roller disco circa 1984 is as beautiful, lyrical, and effortless an evocation (and affectionate amplification) of time and space as the Cornelius Bros and Sister Rose dance sequence from BlacKkKlansman. A sudden spinout on an icy road later on carries with it the harsh kinetic immediacy and strong knowledge of space of Demange's '71. The film looks right and feels right. There's a scene at a drive-in where Rick takes a date to watch Footloose: a film that couldn't possibly be more alien to Rick's reality. Crucially, White Boy Rick behaves in the right way, too, demonstrating restraint when appropriate, naturalism where appropriate, and expressionism, especially in a sequence where Rick's junkie sister Dawn (Bel Powley, also excellent) is taken from a crackhouse against her will down a red-lit corridor strobed with shadows.
***½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A- starring Ken Ogata, Kenji Sawada, Yasosuke Bando, Toshiyuki Nagashima written by Paul Schrader and Leonard Schrader (Japanese screenplay by Cheiko Schrader) directed by Paul Schrader
by Bryant Frazer A little more than halfway through Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a fragmented, multifaceted cinematic biography of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, Mishima expresses nostalgia for an afterlife that existed only in the distant past. "The average age for men in the Bronze Age was 18 and, in the Roman era, 22," Mishima reckons aloud, in voiceover. "Heaven must have been beautiful then. Today it must look dreadful." Like the rest of the film's narration, the passage is quoted from Mishima's published work, in this case an article he wrote in 1962, eight years before his death at the age of 45 by seppuku. "When a man reaches 40, he has no chance to die beautifully," Mishima continues. "No matter how he tries, he will die of decay. He must compel himself to live." In 1984, when he made this film, Paul Schrader was 38 years old. He had just come off the commercial misfire that was 1982's Cat People, a straightforward studio assignment he tailored to address his signature concerns about sex and death, putting them in the context of a dark fairytale with intimations of incest and bestiality. It wasn't a good experience. Coked out of his mind for much of the shoot, Schrader fell into a dead-end affair with Nastassja Kinski that he hoped was something more; she wanted nothing to do with him after the movie wrapped, and Cat People's disappointing box-office receipts closed the door on his Hollywood career. He thought of suicide. He scurried away from Hollywood, heading first to New York and then to Japan, in search of a life change. That's where Mishima came in.
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. It begins with a young woman (Yuzuki Akiyama) running for cover in an abandoned factory, but lo, her zombie boyfriend (Kazuaki Nagaya) proves inescapable, and sinks his teeth into her neck as she tells him she loves him one last time. Then a director (Takayuki Hamatsu) yells cut and proceeds to berate his actress for still not being realistically devastated after 42 takes. When he storms off in a huff, the actors commiserate and the makeup woman (Harumi Shuhama) chimes in with a little lore about the factory involving medical experiments on the dead. On cue, a "real" zombie appears, setting in motion a bloody chase through the studio and nearby woods as cast and crew unleash their inner Ash and struggle to evade the contageous bite of the infected. Lasting 37 minutes and unfolding as a "single" shot, this is a dumb but energetic sequence indebted as much to the climax of Children of Men as to any zombie movie (though particularly Romero's--the undead are a nostalgic mint green). And then credits roll, and One Cut of the Dead flashes back one month earlier to the inception of what we just saw: a (fictitious) one-off for Japan's Zombie Channel, also called "One Cut of the Dead" because it was shot live without any editing.
by Bill Chambers This feature-length truncation of a 6½-hour Amazon Japan TV series finds kitsch provocateur Sion Sono presiding over another apocalypse, as gun-crazy vampire clan the Corvins trap young Japanese singles inside their Technicolor hotel "for one-hundred years" while the world outside allegedly becomes ash. Tokyo Vampire Hotel is unconventional, to say the least, though what struck me as its most audacious flourish--Sion's credit and the movie's title appearing 42 minutes into this 142-minute film--might just be an overlooked remnant of an individual episode. Believe it or not, shearing over four hours from the running time doesn't seem to have helped clarify an epic and obviously convoluted narrative, in which the centuries-long feud between the Corvins and the, yes, Draculas comes to a head in 2021 (a significant year in that it will either make or break America) on the 22nd birthday of Manami (Ami Tomite), who was fed eternal blood or some such at birth, making her a delicacy among vampirekind hotly pursued by members of both clans--including K (fashion model Kaho), a kind of Terminator vampire whose "come with me if you want to live" proposition does not put the hysterical Manami at ease. Sion distils all this grade-A nonsense to its exploitable elements (sex and violence, not necessarily in that order), resulting in an almost totally sensory experience; an opening title card beseeches the viewer to play it loud, "even if you're using headphones," which is great advice if you want the sustained feeling of an ice-cream headache. Yeah, I don't know what to say about Tokyo Vampire Hotel, and I'm disappointed that Manami's backstory, exemplified by the culturally-loaded image of her shaving off her long black hair in an act of rebellion, never really merges with her present-day damsel-in-distressdom to create a whole person. Perhaps the picture's masterstroke is that it turns into a painstaking homage to Brian De Palma's Scarface--albeit one set subversively in a vagina--so gradually you don't even notice until it's almost in the rearview. Fantasia Fest 2018 - Programme: Selection 2018
***/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B- starring Kazuo Hasegawa, Fujiko Yamamoto, Ayako Wakao, Eiji Funakoshi screenplay by Natto Wada, based on the novel by Otokichi Mikami, adapted by Daisuke Ito and Teinosuke Kinugasa directed by Kon Ichikawa
by Bryant FrazerAn Actor's Revenge, director Kon Ichikawa's colourful melodrama depicting an elaborate revenge plot by a Japanese onnagata--a kabuki actor trained to play exclusively female roles--begins, appropriately enough, in the Ichimura Theater, where the very first shot illustrates that a panoramic aspect ratio is a perfect match for the wide proscenium. On stage, beefy and androgynous, is Yukinojo (Kazuo Hasegawa), a renowned onnagata appearing in Edo for the first time. This beautiful sequence, defined by Ichikawa's precise, modern Daiescope framing and by the intense reds, pinks, purples, and greens of Yukinojo's costume, is not just kabuki on film. It's simultaneously an expression of character, showing how Yukinojo experiences the rest of the world while in performance, and a declaration of aesthetics, introducing Ichikawa's stylized approach using techniques borrowed from or inspired by theatre.
***/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B starring the voices of Alec Baldwin, Steve Buscemi, Peri Gilpin, Ming-Na screenplay by Al Reinert and Hironobu Sakaguchi and Jeff Vintar directed by Hironobu Sakaguchi
by Walter Chaw So the dialogue's not so bad (having seen Pearl Harbor), the story's not so obscure (having seen Akira), and the voice acting's pretty decent (having listened to Claire Danes do San in Princess Mononoke). It almost goes without saying that the film is hands-down the best ever based on a videogame, and that Squaresoft's 3-D captured animation is breathtaking and exciting, not just for the fact of itself but for what it portends of big-budget Stateside anime. What Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within reminded me of the most is Katsuhiro Ôtomo's seminal 1988 anime Akira, and the revolution Akira heralded for the popularity and scope of the anime genre in Japan.*
***/**** starring Masami Nagasawa, Ryuhei Matsuda, Mahiro Takasugi, Hiroki Hasegawa screenplay by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka, based on the play by Tomohiro Maekawa directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa
by Angelo Muredda The apocalypse becomes an occasion for everything from learning what makes humans tick to getting to know the distant alien who is your significant other in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's genre-defying twentieth feature Before We Vanish, which might be most firmly characterized as a black comedy if it weren't so puckishly sunny. A return to form of sorts after Creepy and Daguerreotype, neither of which were without their charms but did feel at times like a master's idle wheel-spinning, Before We Vanish works best as a high-concept sampler platter of the wildly divergent tones Kurosawa is uncommonly good at mixing up. That isn't to say the alien-invasion framework and neatly-bifurcated dystopian road movie/romcom structure are purely excuses to see how much mileage Kurosawa can get out of his generic indeterminacy. Still, one would be hard-pressed to deny that half the fun lies in taking the film in as the strange sum of its many seemingly ill-fitting parts.
***/**** Image A Sound A screenplay by Jeff Nimoy & Bob Buchnolz directed by Shigeyasu Yamauchi, Mamoru Hosoda
At 10 years old, Sam Jonasson is FILM FREAK CENTRAL's youngest contributor yet. (Unless we're talking mental ages.) Knowing the lad is a cartoon junkie, I thought Digimon: The Movie would be right up his alley. Sam squeezed in this report on the disc between homework and architectural--Lego--pursuits.-Ed.
by Sam JonassonDigimon: The Movie is actually two movies in one: the first movie is about the first season of Digidestines and the second movie is the second season of the TV show, which is on lots of kids channels. You would need good eyes and at least a vague idea of Digimon to understand it. A Digimon is an imaginary creature (animal or human) with one single type of attack (besides things like hitting and biting) who can Digivolve into a stronger and bigger Digimon who has one new attack type. Sometimes, the stronger has two attack types. Digimon are born out of an egg and live in the Digital world, which is parallel to ours. Some Digimon warp or Armor-Digivolve, which means they skip a level or two. Evil Digimon usually take a longer time to Digivolve.
**½/**** starring Matthew Barney, Björk, Shigeru Akahori, Koji Maki written and directed by Matthew Barney
by Walter Chaw Where Matthew Barney's Drawing Restraint 9 falls short of his brilliant, seminal Cremaster series is in its decision to focus on the exploitation of natural resources from whaling through to oil--as filtered through the prism of Japanese industry (using Shinto as the primary test)--rather than on, as in Cremaster, the process and scope of myth-making from the Celts to the Masons to Gary Gilmore. The focus is too discrete for the far-reaching archetypes Barney's disquieting, biomechanical surrealism suggests (he's somewhere at the fulcrum between Salvador Dali and David Cronenberg)--the attempt to articulate the perversity of man's exploitation of their natural resources seems a little like what it is: an artist too good and too provocative to waste his time on something that sells so trite.
Fireworks ****/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B- starring Beat Takeshi, Kayoko Kishimoto, Ren Osugi, Susumu Terajima written and directed by Takeshi Kitano
by Walter Chaw Nishi loves her very much, but when she tries to link arms with him for a photograph, he pulls away. He's not comfortable with his emotions. He's from both a culture and a profession that frowns on that sort of thing. When his co-workers talk about him, they do so in hushed tones and warn one another not to get too familiar, even in their gossip. He's lost a daughter and his wife is very ill. They make allowances for him one day and it results in the crippling of his partner. Nishi avenges him, but another young cop dies in the process. Nishi, dispassionate, empties his gun into the bad guy's skull. But his partner is still abandoned by his wife and child for not being the man he used to be. None of this is how it's supposed to work. Men are taught to be a specific way and promised rewards for their stoicism and brutality. I'm 44 years old. It's taken most of my adult life to begin to unravel the ways that expectation and breeding have made it hard for me to tell my wife, whom I love in a devastating way, "I love you." I was afraid to have kids because I didn't know if I could tell them I loved them. I have two. I tell them every day. I make myself. Takeshi Kitano's Hana-bi deals with the consequences of masculinity--perhaps the most trenchant exploration of the theme not written or directed by Walter Hill. The film understands that some men can only express themselves through motion, which isn't enough in the best of times and is laughably insufficient in the worst of them. Of all the '90s masterpieces of world cinema, Hana-bi is my favourite.
EROS + MASSACRE (1969) ****/**** Director's Cut: Image B+ Sound B Extras B- Theatrical Version: Image B Sound B Extras B starring Mariko Okada, Toshiyuji Hosokawa, Yûko Kusunoki, Etsushi Takahashi written by Masahiro Yamada & Yoshishige Yoshida directed by Yoshishige Yoshida
HEROIC PURGATORY (1970) ***/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B starring Mariko Okada, Kaizo Kamoda, Naho Kimura, Yoshiaki Makita written by Masahiro Yamada directed by Yoshishige Yoshida
COUP D'ETAT (1973) ***½/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras B starring Rentarô Mikuni, Yasuo Miyake, Akiko Kurano, Tadahiko Sugano written by Minoru Betsuyaku directed by Yoshishige Yoshida
by Bryant Frazer In director Yoshishige Yoshida's restlessly erotic trio of films dealing with Japanese radicalism (aptly dubbed "Love + Anarchism" by Arrow Films), past and present merge as easily and ineluctably as the personal and the political. Released between 1969 and 1973, they were made at a politically turbulent time in Japan, when the New Left movement gained social currency and student anarchists, the Zengakuren, challenged the status quo by occupying buildings at universities and high schools around the country. In that conflict between anarchy and order, Yoshida saw reflections of Japan's past--earlier generations of radicals who challenged societal structures in the same way that new activists were pushing back against contemporary norms. Yoshida was not inspired to make anything as simple as a series of biopics or historical dramas; instead, he embarked on a series of formally elaborate films that evaluated the struggles of radicals and would-be revolutionaries from decades past in light of the then-current political moment.