The Festival’s second half proved to be quite worthwhile, with a few gems tucked away in the final days. It was good, but my eyes started to hurt.
7/29: One Cut of the Dead
This should have appeared in the previous week’s “slice”, but for a couple of days I toyed with doing a fuller write-up of Shin’ichirô Ueda’s “found footage” horror exercise. I’m going to ask that you trust me on this, because I cannot say any more without compromising your viewing experience. But you Really, Really Should see this if you can. For those like me who regard the zombie genre as effectively run into the ground, this movie—despite what it seems the premise is—breathes so much life into the tired, tired tropes of zombie-this, -that, and -the-other. Top-notch cast, top-notch direction, top-notch notch. (Highly recommended.)
7/30: The Scythian
I had unfortunately missed seeing this on the big screen as both screenings conflicted with other films. However, even on a modest 41″ television in a darkened cubicle, Rustam Mosafir’s proto-Russian adventure fantasy proved itself to be one heckuva ride. Filled with sword fights, betrayals, mysterious pagans, and some crazy berserker-juice, The Scythian was everything one could want in a medieval adventure yarn. In particular, the score (which is something I’ve noticed I’ve been noticing a lot more) heightened the historical and mystical tones. Both the diegetic music from traveling performers and the ambient tribal chanting grounded the old world feeling; things cut loose a bit more during a fine bit of fighting when the chants were paired with some sick heavy metal guitar. While criticized in its homeland for a lack of historicity, I was more than happy to overlook incongruities from a millennium ago.
Cinderella the Cat
With four directors covering 86 minutes, you get about twenty-one minutes per director. I’m not sure how the assignment was divvied up (though conceivably they could had one for the animation, one for the voice acting, one for the singing, and one for luck), but between them Ivan Cappiello, Marino Guarnieri, Alessandro Rak, and Dario Sansone have put together my favorite adaptation of the classic Basile story. Set on a futuristic luxury ocean liner in permanent port in Naples, Cinderella the Cat otherwise hews to the original closely: benevolent father dying, his daughter cruelly mistreated by his new wife and step daughters; but it adds tremendous flair to the proceedings. The step mother is now a reluctant villain; her kids, all six of them, are psychotic to one degree or another. And as for the arch-villain, Salvatore Lo Giusto (known as “The King”), he’s a gloriously back-stabbing, tune-belting, business-savvy, cocaine-snorting sociopath. While Cinderella and “Prince Charming” aren’t the most interesting of the bunch (as per tradition, I suppose), they make up a solid backdrop for giddily evil machinations.
Others were skeptical, but I was personally struck by four features of the King’s character that made me think of a certain music legend. Guess if you can: singer, cocaine, heterodox eyes, and a pendant in the form of a crowned red pepper. If there had been just two or three of the four, maybe I’d think otherwise, but frankly that smacks far too much of someone’s mid-1970s lifestyle.
Tigers Are Not Afraid
Mexican director Issa López gives her take on the Peter Pan story with a novel combination of urban realism and the eldritch cousin of magic realism. Primarily starring very talented, very young kids, Tigers Are Not Afraid concerns some lost boys who gang together for survival in some ghetto of some slum in Mexico. Their Wendy is a slightly older girl named Estrella (a very compelling Paola Lara), whose mother was recently kidnapped and murdered by the same thugs terrorizing the boys. Estrella’s connection to the fantastical is forged when, in the opening scene, a teacher hands her three pieces of chalk (her “three wishes”) to help calm her during a school lockdown when a shooter arrives. With her first wish– to have her mother come back—a living line of blood appears and begins its pursuit of Estrella. Also, her mother’s ghost talks to her, demanding the man responsible for her and scores of others’ deaths.
Both touching and somber, Tigers Are Not Afraid isn’t really for the standard ghost/horror movie crowd, but for those seeking a darker fairy tale. Like the true stories of that genre, the end is more about justice than happiness.
Tokyo Vampire Hotel
For a colorful, just-barely coherent diversion of repetitive violence, garish luxury hallways, and a strange penchant for a really tedious Romanian folk song, look no further than the Reader’s Digest™ version of Amazon Prime series, I am informed by those in the know that what I saw was a poor way to enjoy the mayhem. That in mind, I’m more inclined to treat what I saw charitably. In 2022 Japan, it’s the Draculas vs. the Corvins (a rival breed of vampire that surpassed the Draculas some time ago). The last hope for the Romanian home boys? A young woman on the cusp of her 22nd birthday who at birth (at 09:09:09 in 1999) was fed some very special blood. As a potential savior for the Draculas, she’s naturally a hot commodity for the Corvins as well—and competing kidnappings ensue.‘s Tokyo Vampire Hotel. Distilled from a six-hour
The oddest thing about TVH, at least in the “movie” form, was a spacial conundrum that was never fully addressed: the titular hotel is, we are told, inside one of the ancient Corvin vampires, who herself is inside the hotel. Reckon it’s a Farnsworth Parabox kind of thing. There were some moments that were a hoot, but it felt altogether like cramming too much frosted cake into my skull.
7/31: The Brink
Good Lord, I was very close to walking out of this one; and later, having decided to remain, almost fell asleep. And what is this “Brink, the,” I hear you ask? An Hong Kong martial arts action (*cough*) movie involving gold smuggling, dirty cops, renegade cops, and a typhoon showdown. The copious blame can be shared between the director (Jonathan Li) and scriptwriter. There were interminable fight sequences that, though my eyes were dry, bored me to tears—and drove me to question just how much abuse these film-makers think the human body can realistically take. At one point, the protagonist was stabbed in the bladder and kept up the thwack-thwack nonsense before diving under water for minutes without supplemental oxygen. And as for you, mister screenwriter, whatever your name is, there is absolutely no reason to tack on a sub-subplot involving a semi-estranged not-quite-daughter who is, oh by the way, pregnant. You’re already wasting enough of my time.
I almost wish I had opted for a full review, as I could complain for quite a bit longer. But out of deference to the other features (and yourselves), I shall cut myself off here.
As Sonny’s “accidents” compound, Cassie’s day gets worse and worse. Taking place right after the sub-prime mortgage crash, Jonathan Watson’s Arizona is a comedy of deadly errors. With yet another directorial debut, Fantasia presents a little comedy about a man who keeps on murdering despite his best intentions after kidnapping a single mother who works in the real estate business. With some sociopolitical overtones (realtors are liars who buried countless “innocents” with un-payable mortgages), the action moves forward in a world of derelict houses protected within a gated community. While nothing too special, Arizona was an amusing way to burn an hour and a half: chuckle-inducing and sprinkled with a handful of celebrity cameos. One “punchline” I found particularly amusing came at the end of the closing credits when it was revealed that the whole movie was filmed in New Mexico. I didn’t suspect such a thing, but I can probably be written off as an East Coast bubble-dweller.
Rokuroku: the Promise of the Witch
Entirely by accident I found myself sitting through yet another anthology horror movie, this time in the guise of an overarching narrative about a young woman whose friends and family are plagued by “yokai“, supernatural forms of dead people who linger in this plane because of one regret or another. The variance in tone between the vignettes compromised RokuRoku‘s overall cohesion, but things were wrapped up better than I expected before the film’s climax. Though made in 2017, many of the special effects had much more of a late ’90s feel, which oddly enough made them more unsettling, giving them an uncanny valley look in addition to their inherent creepiness.
8/1: Madeline’s Madeline and Brother’s Nest
I caught an unlikely pairing for my final movies at Fantasia:‘s hopeful coming-of-age tale Madeline’s Madeline, and Clayton Jacobson’s dark-as-all-get-out fraternal black comedy Brother’s Nest. Watching the two one after the other, I was reminded both of what I like in a movie and what I, to put it politely, find more challenging. Both achieve the goals they set out for, but do so in a very different way.
Madeline’s Madeline was first on the docket and what little I had read about it left me apprehensive, a state in which I remained for the entire first act. By the end of the second act (loosely speaking–its delineations are subtler than that), I had been on the cusp of leaving the theater for the better part of fifty minutes. This was in no way a reaction against the performances—all three female leads were portrayed exceptionally well—-but more so because of them. Helena Howard brings Madeline to the screen superbly; her two mother figures (Miranda July playing her actual mother, and Molly Parker as the acting troupe director that Madeline wants to be her mother) struck me as altogether realistic—and altogether horrible.
Whether in personal experience or in movies, I am troubled whenever I see an impressionable youth being raised by the most overbearing and neurotic of parents. And the director of the acting troupe wallows in such faux-artsy chant nonsense that she seems to realize neither her own lack of talent (directors are supposed to direct, and keep things moving forward) nor the inappropriateness of her overtures to Madeline. The shift in tone in the final twenty-five minutes just about saved it for me, as Madeline becomes her own, strong person, as did the remarks from a reviewer friend who was not so blindsided by the unpleasant mothers as to miss the “threading” intricacies of the plot. (He pointed out, among other things, that a hospital-setting porno was echoed later in a hospital-setting improvisation).
While I enjoyed it far more, I’ve little to say about Brother’s Nest except that A) it was a wonderfully contrived black comedy about murder for money and B) it is another movie that captures the dynamics of two estranged brothers very well. This second point was no doubt aided by the fact that two real-life brothers play the ones onscreen (though I pray their actual relationship is quite, quite different from what was on display). The older one, Jeff, has maintained an illusion of financial success while suffering deep scars from his parents’ divorce and father’s suicide decades earlier. Terry, the younger one, has always felt inferior to his brother but is, this murder plan notwithstanding, a stand-up guy. As we learn about their differing experiences growing up in the same household, our sympathies jerk back and forth until their unfortunate machinations begin and actions become less and less forgivable.
“Real” emotional dramas aren’t the first thing I’m ever looking for. When family conflicts and personal growth are incidental to the narrative, I find that typically reinforces a good movie for me. When the movie itself is about family conflict and personal growth, it is very difficult to win me over. I know enough about life from living it, and learning about fictional people’s tribulations (generally stemming from a lifetime of bad decisions) isn’t why I watch movies. 366’s G. Smalley gives Madeline’s Madeline a much more positive read than I could. On the other hand, jaded old soul that I am, I can enjoy dark treats like Brother’s Nest much more than the next guy.