“Re: Born” is a brutally violent comeback for Tak Sakaguchi

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“Re: Born” is a title that makes sense once you watch the latest film from Yuji Shimomura (“Death Trance”), but it might as well have been called “One Man Army.”

Tak Sakaguchi (“Versus”) has come out of retirement for this brutal Japanese martial arts film where he plays a former special forces soldier named Toshiro. His code name is “Ghost” because of the way he can way he could sneak up on people in battle. As our story begins, Toshiro has been out of the game for several years. He runs a convenience store and is raising his young niece Sachi, occasionally experiencing some PTSD-like dreams that have him wanting to get back into action.

Turns out, Toshiro really pissed off his former commander “Phantom” when he left the special forces because of what he considered shady activities on the side. For him, it’s always a battle of good and evil. No matter how many times he has fought for his life, Toshiro only has a few superficial cuts and scars. It’s always the other guy who gets hurt.

Phantom ends up kidnapping Sachi and taking her off to his compound to lure Toshiro out of his retirement and into harm’s way. With the help of Max and Masani (who were recruited to assist by Toshiro’s cousin Kenji, previously blinded and disabled in battle to protect him), they head off to rescue Sachi and settle the score.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the last 45 minutes of this movie are one long continuous fight scene. There are almost no breaks in the action and it’s fully relentless. As Toshiro and his fellow warriors make their way into battle with the Japanese Defense Force soldiers, it’s quite interesting to note that “Ghost” fully eschews the usage of guns. His teammates back him up occasionally with gunfire, but he always approaches in a sneak attack, disabling the guns of his opponents and offing them with knives and his hands for the most part. The other guys honestly don’t even need to be there as he takes on what feels like hundreds of men and keeps on ticking.

“Re: Born” has some simply awesome fight sequences. With highly choreographed, briskly edited, and non-stop action, it has the thrills and body count of a hundred Hollywood blockbusters.

Julia Ducournau’s “Raw” is an unforgettable debut film

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While introducing the U.S. Premiere of Julia Ducournau’s “Raw,” Fantastic Fest programmer Evrim Ersoy declared it “the most audacious genre film of 2016.” After viewing, it’s hard to argue with the man.

This French coming-of-age story focuses on 16-year-old Justine (Garance Marillier), a bright young woman heading off to veterinary school. It’s a real family affair – her parents met and fell in love at the same school and Justine’s older sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is already an upperclassman there.

Now, I don’t know who the hell would send their kids to this school based on the annual hazing rituals that all incoming students face. It’s literally a hell week with the “Rookies” against the “Elders.” Beds and belongings are thrown out of dorm room windows; kids are stripped and covered in paint; everybody is forced to eat raw animal organs and wash it down with a shot. Let’s just say that I would have already been looking at transferring schools after the first night.

It’s the last event that sets the tone for our movie. Justine is a vegetarian and after being forced to eat a rabbit’s kidney, her body starts to revolt. First, she breaks out in a rash over the majority of her body and continually scratches all over until she bleeds. Things get a little darker than that rather quickly when she starts craving meat. The school nurse tells her she just has food poisoning and needs to rest, but it’s not long before we see something the doctor couldn’t have predicted. But Justine wants more than meat, she starts to develop a taste for human flesh.

When the movie premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, there was quite a buzz about the film after a few audience members reportedly passed out at the first Midnight screening. This had me preparing for the worst. Don’t get me wrong, the movie is fairly gory and has a handful of really disgusting moments, but there’s a lot more going on and there were only two moments that really had me flinching in my seat.

The underlying story of “Raw” is one of sibling rivalry and sexual awakening. Justine develops a crush on her ridiculously handsome gay roommate Adrian (Rabah Nait Oufella). After she walks in on him and another boy getting intimate in their dorm room, she’s quickly pushed out into the hallway but can’t stop herself from listening. Her own inexperience and curiosity keep getting the better of her. She may not exactly be innocent, but Justine is surrounded by people who are far more advanced than she is when it comes to drugs, alcohol, and sex. This newly triggered primal instinct and thirst for blood takes over and wrecks havoc over the course of the first week of school.

Pretty much everything about this movie clicked for me, from the candy-colored visuals to the incredible soundtrack featuring tracks from Blood Red Shoes, The Long Blondes, and The Dø. “Raw” is an unforgettable debut feature and a real highlight of this year’s festival lineup.

“Raw” screens again at Fantastic Fest on Tuesday at 5 p.m. Focus World will be releasing the film in select theaters and on VOD in 2017. 

Paul Verhoeven returns to the big screen with controversial “Elle”

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For his first feature film in a decade, Paul Verhoeven (“Basic Instinct”) originally intended to shoot in Boston and had a long list of famous actresses (including Nicole Kidman) he wanted to star. Instead, he found it impossible to find financing or an actress to take on the lead role in the United States. He moved on to France and teamed up with the incomparable Isabelle Huppert. From there, one of the year’s most controversial films was born.

At 63, Huppert is no stranger to taboo subjects on film – she’s portrayed a sadomasochist in “The Piano Teacher” and had an incestuous relationship in “Ma Mere.” It’s safe to say that nothing she’s done before has inspired as many “hot takes” as her role here as Michèle Leblanc, a successful businesswoman who operates a video game development company with her best friend Anna (Anne Consigny).

One afternoon at home, she is the victim of a brutal rape. The man attacks her and flees the scene, but continues to follow-up with threats via text message. Michèle does not contact the police or report the crime in any capacity. She changes her locks and has an STD test, but otherwise takes the case on herself. She begins to replay the incident over and over again in her mind, each time changing the situation slightly until, in one flashback, she is successful in beating the attacker to death. From here on out, she begins to reinforce herself by buying pepper spray and heading to a gun range to learn how to properly shoot.

While it appears as though the movie is now headed directly into rape-revenge territory, it actually shifts into something much darker and subversive. It’s true that she remains focused on finding out who attacked her, but once the man is unmasked she continually puts herself in situations to be alone with him. It’s hard to imagine that Verhoeven ever really thought he could get this particular movie made in the States. As is, it feels very, very French. The fact that her character is raped multiple times throughout the film, never mind the implications behind those repeated assaults, will undoubtedly be difficult for some viewers to wrap their heads around.

There are multiple storylines threaded throughout the 130-minute running time, some more complicated than others. Michèle’s relationships with her son and mother are strained, but we also learn that she’s never gone to visit her father in prison, where he’s been for nearly 40 years. Her own identity has been partially wrapped up in his, thanks to a chilling photo taken when she was 10 after her father had just committed a string of mass murders. As these little portions of backstory unfold, we get a better sense of her slightly twisted frame of mind.

Huppert is the lifeblood of this film and it is one of her most memorable (and difficult) performances. I cannot think of another actress who could have taken on such an unlikeable and boldly vulnerable character and given it the same complexity and power.

“Elle” screens again at Fantastic Fest on Tuesday at 8:15 p.m. Sony Pictures Classics will open the film in New York on November 11 and it will likely appear in Austin this December. 

“Buster’s Mal Heart” examines Y2K paranoia with the help of “Mr. Robot” star Rami Malek

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In the post-film Q&A for her second feature, Sarah Adina Smith referred to “Buster’s Mal Heart” as “an atheist’s lament.” It’s a story not so much of dual personalities, but of how a person (probably with mental illness) can evolve over time into somebody you don’t even recognize.

As the film begins, Rami Malek (in his first leading film role, cast here before the success of “Mr. Robot”) is on the run through a mountain range in rural Montana. Local law enforcement officers have been chasing him for years, knowing him only as Buster. He’s made a habit of breaking into empty vacation homes and taking up temporary residence. A favorite personality of one of the local morning radio shows, he frequently calls in with off-color warnings about the end of days.

Buster wasn’t always a hermit. Once upon a time he had a wife named Marty (Katie Lyn Shell) and a beautiful young daughter. He was the night shift manager in a small hotel, but that became part of his unraveling. By keeping long hours overnight and sleeping during the day in the home of his in-laws, his life wasn’t anywhere near where he hoped it would tbe. Grand plans of buying land and living off the grid are mentioned often, much to Marty’s disinterest.

As the film’s narrative shifts between these two different points in his life, we learn that his name is actually Jonah. The time period when he is working in the hotel is actually the late 90s. We get a sense of how susceptible that he can be to conspiracy theories when he becomes fascinated by a late night television host warning of how people are just “trapped in the machine.”

The tipping point for his sanity occurs when a man (played magnificently by DJ Qualls) shows up at the hotel late at night and explains a variety of end-of-the-world secrets to Jonah. A fascinating examination of how gradual the transition could be from “normal” to full-on Y2K paranoia, it’s actually quite easy to sympathize with Jonah’s struggles at first. Perhaps less so by the time he’s fully unbalanced and taking a couple hostage for Christmas when they make the mistake of coming to their guest house for the holidays.

Smith provides just enough comic relief and tender flashback moments between Jonah and his daughter for viewers to almost feel sorry for him as the storyline loops back around to those opening moments in the mountains. It not unlike when news reporters interview the neighbors of a person who did something awful and they say “he was a really nice guy” in disbelief. Did he suddenly become this person or were the signs there from the beginning? The success of the film hinges on Malek’s performance, which should appeal strongly to fans of his television persona.

The success of the film hinges almost entirely on Malek’s go-for-broke dual performance, which should appeal strongly to fans of his also-paranoid television persona.

“Buster’s Mal Heart” screens again at Fantastic Fest on Monday at 5:15 p.m. 

Terrifying thriller “The Autopsy of Jane Doe” is not for the squeamish

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For three generations in Grantham, Virginia, the Tildens have owned and operated the local morgue and crematorium. Tony (Brian Cox) has been showing his son Austin (Emile Hirsch) the ropes, but he’s not too excited to carry on with the family business. His girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond) is ready for him to come clean with his father and Austin is close to mustering up the courage to tell him.

After a long day at work, Austin and Emma are planning to head out to the movies when the local sheriff drops in with a new body. It’s an anonymous “Jane Doe” found buried in the basement at the site of a home invasion. The cops at the crime scene can’t figure out what happened, saying that it looks like the other victims “were trying to break out” of the house. Sheriff Sheldon needs a cause of death for the Jane Doe body before he can fully report on the case to the press. He asks Tony and Austin to work into the night to tell him what really happened to her.

Tony is a self-professed traditionalist. He is less concerned with the crime scene details and more interested in nailing down the exact specifics that led to death. Each step of trying to uncover the story behind Jane Doe’s demise leads farther down a path of confusion.

This is the English-language debut for “Troll Hunter” director Andre Ovredal. He masterfully manages a foreboding sense of dread as each new secret comes to light during the autopsy. Not for the squeamish, the procedures in the film are detailed in a very graphic manner as the potentially ritualistic murder of this woman is slowly revealed.

To say much more would spoil the film’s surprises, but it’s fair to say that it hits all the right notes. Not only is the story clever, but the performances from Cox and Hirsch absolutely take it to the next level. As a powerful storm rolls in and the power starts to flicker, these actors elevate what could’ve been a simple genre exercise into something far more effective and truly terrifying.

“The Autopsy of Jane Doe” plays again at Fantastic Fest on Wednesday at 9 p.m. It has been acquired by IFC Midnight and is expected to be released in late December. 

Post-apocalyptic “The Bad Batch” bites off more than it can chew

bad-batchIn her second full-length film, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour throws us into a fairly specific post-apocalyptic world of her own creation and provides viewers very few details.

In this (possibly) not-so-distant future, those in society who are most unredeemable are tattooed with a number behind their ear and thrown through a perimeter fence into a far-flung wasteland that is, or at least was, part of Texas. If this happens to you, you’re in the “bad batch.”

When we meet Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), she’s freshly inked and dropped off into the desert with only a sandwich, some water, and a pair of very colorful jean shorts. While there appears to be nothing in the distance as far as the eye can see, it isn’t long before Arlen is captured.

You see, there appear to be two distinct ways of survival if you are an awful enough to be exiled here. Some people make it to Comfort, a safe-haven community where anything is available for a price. Those picked up before they arrive in Comfort are snagged by “bridge people,” a cannibalistic tribe of bad batchers (many of whom are inexplicably bodybuilders) who survive by dismembering their prey and honing some serious butchering skills.

Arlen’s price for survival is literally an arm and a leg. She escapes from her predators and makes her way to Comfort, which is like if “Mad Max: Fury Road” went to Burning Man. Five months after her traumatic limb losses, Arlen is out scavenging for scraps, when she comes face-to-face with a woman and her young daughter. These are bridge people who are unfortunate enough to have crossed her path.

This setup of this first thirty minutes or so are incredibly promising, but then we get ninety more minutes of nonsense. The film’s widescreen frame is filled with striking visuals and heavily detailed set design. The technical merits are plentiful, but the film is overloaded with a bloated storyline and groan-worthy dialogue. Along the way, we’re treated to an unrecognizable Jim Carrey and the guru of Comfort played by Keanu Reeves. In one particularly awful scene, he explains his power and influence by regaling Arlen with a story about how he makes the sewer system work. He also appears to be managing a baby farm, surrounded by young pregnant women all wearing shirts that say “The Dream Is Inside Me.”

Unfortunately, “The Bad Batch” presents many more questions than it answers and survives on style over substance. Amirpour does have an uncanny knack for setting the tone with an incredibly propulsive soundtrack that features music from Darkside, Pantha Du Prince, and White Lies. It’s a shame that these audiovisual merits of the film far exceed the storytelling.

The film does not have any scheduled encore screenings at Fantastic Fest. It has been acquired by Screen Media Films and Netflix, who will premiere it in early 2017. 

Studio Ghibli’s “The Red Turtle” is a melancholy tale of survival

red-turtleDutch director Michael Dudok de Wit takes a very minimalist approach with his new feature, the first ever international co-production from legendary Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli.

It’s a fairy tale about a man lost at sea who washes up on a deserted island. Instead of panicking, he sets about building a raft to get himself back home. Several attempts at tweaking his plan fail, due in some cases to faulty construction. The only other witnesses to this situation are a group of crabs that scurry around. Sometimes they amusingly assist. Often they scramble to get out of the way. Eventually, the man’s plan fails because of a massive red tortoise that gets in the way and busts up his bamboo vessel from underneath.

With the exception of the word “HEY!” shouted a few times, there are only sound effects, a playful score, and a comforting color palette on hand to illustrate what happens to our castaway. Since the end of the silent era, there haven’t been many attempts at capturing an audience’s imagination without the assistance of dialogue. The visual freedom provided by animation allows for Dudok de Wit to tell a moving and intimate story without the need for a huge cast of characters.

The power of nature is the guiding force to this fable. There is a profound melancholy highlighted in the aftermath of nature’s fury and the man’s distinct instinct to survive against all odds.

Completely storyboarded in Japan under the supervision of artistic director Isao Takahata (“Only Yesterday”), French animator Jean-Christophe Lie (“The Triplets of Bellville”) also assisted by overseeing the actual hand-drawn 2D artwork.

By blending different methods of storytelling and respecting the art of traditional animation, “The Red Turtle” feels like a lost classic that has been waiting to be rediscovered.

Sony Pictures Classics will release “The Red Turtle” in New York and Los Angeles for an Oscar-qualifying run on November 18. The movie will expand and should hit the Austin area in late January. It screens again at Fantastic Fest on Monday morning at 11:45 a.m. 

“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea” is the greatest/most spot-on movie title since “Snakes on a Plane” (and is much better than “Snakes on a Plane”)

“I like this idea,” the character of Dash Shaw says in the filmmaker Dash Shaw’s “My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea.” “It has the quality of a dream.”

myentirehighschoolsinkingintothesea_02That notion holds for all of Shaw’s striking feature debut. The cartoonist is a well-known and prolific quantity in underground comics circles. NPR named  his “New School” one of the best of 2013. “Bottomless Belly Button” (Fantagraphics) and “Bodyworld” (Pantheon) are strong and distinctive — part Gary Panter punk squiggle, part Charles Shulz emotion, part fine art color sense, part 21st century technique.

“My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea,” written and directed by Shaw, takes his distinctive technique — a blend of traditional drawing, animation techniques (such as acetate drawings and paintings laid over a background that might be painted or colored by hand) and Photoshop – and translates it to a full-length animated feature. Well done, everybody.

Dash Shaw (voiced, in a perfect bit of casting, by Jason Schwartzman, who has made a career out of unlikable protagonists) is a sophomore. He and his best pal Assaf (Reggie Watts) work on the school newspaper with Verti (Maya Rudolph). Indeed, the three are the newspaper, and their daily lives are filled with what you remember from high school: mean girls such as Mary (Lena Dunham, also note perfect), weird lunch ladies named Lorrain (a very gravely Susan Sarandon) and various bullies.

Dash, who sees himself as the hero of his own life and possibly everyone else’s, loves the sound of his own voice, especially when overwriting for the paper. As Assaf and Verti grow closer, Shaw is feeling left out, printing bitter rants about his now-estranged friend. Determined to get a real scoop, Dash discovers a genuine problem with the school. Too late — an earthquake sends it literally falling into the ocean.

The allegory for struggling in high school becomes concrete (and rather damp) as Dash and his band of outcasts must avoid sharks, drowning and despair as they ascend the Titanic-like school to get to the senior floor and the roof, hopefully to “graduate” by surviving

Shaw (the creator) does a fine job mixing emotional nuance, surrealism and one of the most striking stylistic mash-ups most animation fans have ever seen (though it is almost exactly like Shaw’s comics work). Crude-looking (but very canny) black outlines are filled with flat, ever-shifting colors depending on mood and plot. Watercolors blend with gouache and oils, John Cameron Mitchell shows up as the king jock and there’s a really great ongoing Go Nagai joke.

Which all makes for a movie that turns a tired indie trope — the outcasts in high school flick — into something fresh, weird and at all times lovely to look at.

 

‘Arrival’ is the year’s best sci-fi film, bar none

"Arrival"
“Arrival”

Let’s get one thing clear: It takes nothing away from “Arrival” — as powerful as it is — to note that director Denis Villeneuve and writer Eric Heisserer were working with extraordinary raw material.

“Arrival,” which screened Sept. 21 as part of Fantastic Fest and will open wide in November, is based on “Story of Your Life” by the amazing Ted Chiang. It is perhaps the single best sci-fi novella of the past 25 years.

(Chiang, it should be noted, releases no wine before its time — of his 15 *total* short stories, novelettes and novellas, seven have won a total of 14 awards; dude’s batting average is insane).

Now, that said, “Story of Your Life” is a deeply internal work, and it is a tiny miracle that Villeneuve and Heisserer figured out a way to translate this tale to film in the first place, let alone make it so touching and smart.

It’s a movie about the day the world metaphorically shifted on its axis, but it is mostly the story of one woman.  Like the very best science fiction, “Arrival” is hopeful and a bit implausible and slightly corny and mind-bending and a little bit sad. It fills a where-do-we-go-from-here shaped hole in the heart and manages to be a canny look at the nature of grief and time at the same time.

We first see Lousie Banks (Amy Adams, as good as she gets without having a scene-chewy part) mourning the loss of her daughter, whom we see, in a montage, from her joyful birth to too-early death. Then, we see the aliens arrive — 12 smooth, black ovals, hovering over various points on the globe.

Banks, a brilliant linguist, is brought in by the military (represented by Forest Whitaker) and the CIA (represented by Michael Stuhlbarg) to attempt to communicate with the aliens — massive, seven-legged creatures that humans come to call “heptapods.” Their speech is impenetrable but, working with physicist Ian Donnelley (Jeremy Renner), Banks starts communicating with the heptapods, whose written language may or may not be the key to their presence on Earth.

While Banks holds off the U.S.’s military, the rest of the world (by which I mean the Chinese and Russians, mostly) is starting to freak out at this stuff. Paranoia soon takes over, and suddenly nobody is sharing information with anyone else. The question hangs in the air like one of the alien ships: Do the heptapods mean to do us harm, or are they here for another reason?

Adams gives a tight, measured performance, while Villeneuve,  cinematographer Bradford Young, composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and editor Joe Walker dole out information and color it in knowing ways, building to third act revelations that make for profoundly moving film-making, the sort that demands that you watch it again from the beginning.

 

 

“Oldboy” director Park Chan-wook explores crime, sensuality and colonial Korea with “The Handmaiden”

South Korean director Park Chan-wook at the Fantastic Fest film festival at the Alamo Drafthouse-South Lamar in Austin, Tx, on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. The filmmaker was on hand to introduce his new movie “The Handmaiden.” ALYSSA VIDALES/AMERICAN-STATESMAN
South Korean director Park Chan-wook at the Fantastic Fest film festival at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar on Sept. 22. The filmmaker was on hand to introduce his new movie “The Handmaiden.” ALYSSA VIDALES/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Park Chan-wook paces around the small karaoke room at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. Given the savagery of the South Korean filmmaker’s increasingly legendary “Oldboy,” one of the gnarliest tales of revenge ever lensed, you’d perhaps think he was pacing “like a caged tiger” or “a man imprisoned” or some such nonsense.

Nope. Just a bad back.

Park, whose “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” Tim League himself has said was a direct influence on starting Fantastic Fest, is in town for the festival with his new film, “The Handmaiden,”  which is based loosely on Welsh author Sarah Waters’ 2002 novel “Fingersmith.” Park and his frequent writing partner Chung Seo-kyung move the story from Victorian England to Japanese-occupied Korea in 1930s.

And yes, some small spoilers follow.

“The Handmaiden” follows a pickpocket named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) who is ordered by the con man leader of her crew, Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), to get herself hired as a servant to the wealthy heiress Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee) so Fujiwara can ingratiate himself with Hideko and steal her wealth.

Instead, Sook-hee and Hideko fall in love. And things get complicated. Extremely, plot-twisty complicated. Three-chapters-from-three-different-perspectives complicated.

Park says he changed the setting for very specific narrative reasons. “It is a story about these two women falling in love,” Park says. “The first hurdle in their relationship is class. The second: the fact that they are deceiving each other. Thirdly, the fact that they are of the same sex. These are the three elements getting in the way of their love.”

In moving the story to Japanese-occupied Korea, Park was able to add a few more elements.

“They are now of different nationalities, two different nations that are opposed to each other, and they have to overcome this animosity as well,” Park says. “I added on top of that the age difference between the two characters. There is more of a gap between the two in the movie than in the novel. In Asian cultures, age difference adds a bit of hierarchy. All of these are hindrances for these characters to achieve love as equals.”

Park adds that the topic of Japanese-occupied Korea is still a delicate one: “Because it’s a touchy subject,” he says, “it’s not properly dealt with in mainstream cinema.”

Then again, it also allowed for Park to introduce the character of Uncle Kouzuki, a Korean collector of rare erotica who is posing as Japanese. Kouzuki lives in a bizarre home (literally one half is a European mansion, the other half is a traditional Japanese house) and is a key figure in the complicated narrative

“Kouzuki is basically a Japanese sympathizer, and his presence is felt throughout the film,” Park says. “Even in the scenes he is not there, because he has designed this house with those philosophies. He is worshiping the Japanese and Western culture filtered by the Japanese that has made it into Korea.”

Explicit but never pornographic, the sexiest scene might be the least conventionally hot, when Sook-hee files down her mistresses tooth while the latter takes a bath.

Park says this was a key scene for him deciding to make the movie. “They were clothed in the book, but I could imagine the sound of the thimble (used to file the tooth) and I could imagine the characters in such proximity that they could hear each other’s breaths and heartbeats,” Park says. “I wanted to see this scene in a film.

“It is such a sensual moment and I wanted to amplify it a bit by moving it to the bath with the steam and the flowers all around. These two women are shy, they will avert their gaze from each other. But it is a scene about that moment when you are taken by somebody. Your heart is beating because you have fallen head over heels for somebody so quickly. It is a moment of emotional tremor.”

“The Handmaiden” will be in theaters in October.