J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Fantasia ’17: Oscar (short)

Legendary jazz producer Norman Granz knew what he was doing. It would be quite a challenge for just about any musician to make their American debut during a Jazz at the Philharmonic Concert at Carnegie Hall, but Oscar Peterson killed it. Not merely the greatest Canadian jazz musician thus far, Peterson probably led the best-selling, most acclaimed mainstream swing piano trio—ever. He took the place Nat King Cole vacated to become a full-time crooner, making the piano trio bigger than ever. Marie-Josée Saint-Pierre mixes animation and archival footage to pay tribute to the master in the National Film Board-supported short film, Oscar (clip here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

O.P., as he was sometimes called, played his final bars in 2007, but he left behind a rich and extensive recorded archive. He was also interviewed on numerous occasions, so Saint-Pierre had plenty of primary sources to draw from. We do indeed hear Peterson recall his sink-or-swim debut and also listen to him self-deprecatingly tell the famous story of how he erroneously assumed an Art Tatum record was a piano duo, which is probably the second most famous event in the O.P. creation story. Fans would probably prefer to hear more about his great trios, but Saint-Pierre opts for the personal side of Peterson, in which he forthrightly admitted the demands of his profession put unfair stress on his first wife.

We hear a great deal of the Peterson touch in Oscar and it still sounds sophisticated yet infectious. The film is also attractive looking, frequently framing the archival performances and interviews in suitably urbane animated foregrounds. Saint-Pierre and animator Brigitte Archambault previously collaborated on the documentary short McLaren’s Negatives, which explored the creative process of Canadian animator Norman McLaren, whose 1949 short Begone Dull Care was scored by Mr. O.P., so presumably they shared a full understanding of Peterson’s significance as well as a strong working relationship—at least we would so assume from the stylish finished film.

It is hard to explain what a giant, transcendent figure Peterson cut in his final years. When he came to town to perform a concert, he was more like the earthly personification of jazz itself than a merely mortal musician. This is someone who recorded on equal terms with Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Ella Fitzgerald. Saint-Pierre’s film gives us a taste of what made him so special. Frankly, the only problem with the film is it isn’t longer. Peterson’s life and Saint-Pierre’s approach could easily sustain a two-hour feature treatment. Recommended with affection, the fan-making Oscar screens tonight (7/28), with L’Ange et la Femme, at this year’s Fantasia.

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

AAIFF ’17: The Lockpicker

Maybe our experiences were atypical, but when we were in high school, most of the “popular” dudes were nice blokes you could joke around with. Hence, their popularity. Perhaps we were just blessed with a unique social vantage point, but if you were good at sports and dating a cheerleader, why bother kicking a poor schmuck on the other end of the social ladder? High school sure looks different in the films they make today. The sensitive Hashi does not understand the bully instinct either, but he experiences it first-hand in Randall Okita’s The Lockpicker (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Asian American International Film Festival.

Hashi has a lot to deal with. His best friend, whom he clearly also carried a torch for, recently committed suicide, for reasons that are never fully explained—but viewers will assume bullying was a contributing factor judging from the callousness of his peers. Things are not much better at home, where his abusive father handles the bullying, but he does his best to protect his little sister Lucy. Hashi’s grades have suffered since her death, but in some ways, he has carried on, developing a crush on his manager at a second-hand clothing store. However, his compulsion to steal money from wallets in gym lockers is clearly more about lashing out than supplementing his earnings.

In fact, it is apparent right from the start Hashi is hurting deeply inside and feeling profoundly alienated from his not-so-mate-like classmates. He is constantly shutting out the world to listen to excerpts of his final conversations with her on his mp3 player. There is an unnerving obsessiveness to his behavior, but the contrast between her ghostly words and his business-as-usual surroundings also has a jarringly dissociative effect that will steadily grow stronger as the potential for violence escalates.

Okita helms with a remarkably assured hand, increasing the tension and paranoia to such an extent, we start to expect the film will explode into legit genre territory. Yet, somehow, he just leaves all the pressure built-up, never cranking down a valve to let some steam escape.

Keigan Umi Tang is also quite remarkable as Hashi. This young-looking teen appears to be on the verge of a complete emotional collapse. He makes every bad decision completely and utterly believable within the context of his performance, but it just gets painful to watch him bring more trouble on himself. He truly dominates the film, but Storie Serres hits all the right notes as Sara, the manager-friend who is cruelly oblivious to Hashi’s interest. Jordan Gray also proves that you can have an adult in a high school movie who is not a cliched stock figure, as the flawed but fundamentally decent teacher, Mr. Meikle.

Lockpicker is an impressive film in many ways, but it is hard to imagine buying it on DVD, because one viewing will be more than challenging enough for most audience members. Nevertheless, it is fully loaded with young talent, which makes it a fine choice for festival programming. Recommended for talent scouts and those who appreciate its grim indictment of bullying, The Lockpicker screens this Sunday (7/30) at the Village East, as part of this year’s AAIFF.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Fantasia ’17: Thousand Cuts

Call it the Gallic corollary to the Broken Windows Theory. By allowing racist intimidation to continue unchecked, the Gendarmerie actually creates an environment where drug cartel warfare and hostage-taking can flourish. Everybody is in the wrong place, at the wrong time during Eric Valette’s Thousand Cuts or Le Serpent aux Mille Coupures (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

There is a full-scale, all-points manhunt on to capture “The Motorcyclist.” News reports call him a terrorist, but in France that could just mean he wrote a letter to the editor criticizing multiculturalism. Regardless, it will be Colombian drug traffickers waiting for their French connection who stumble across the mystery man first, but they won’t live to talk about it.

Wounded in his misadventures, the Motorcyclist forces his way into the bi-racial Petit family’s farmhouse. For months, the racist yokels have been harassing French-Senegalese Omar Petit and killing their livestock. As a result, the Petits are not inclined to call the police and if they did, the coppers would be unlikely to respond. However, they still must endure a very real hostage crisis. Even though the Motorcyclist quickly figures out their desperate circumstances and he privately shows signs of sympathizing, he is still not inclined to trust his hosts. Meanwhile, when their deal goes sour, the Colombian cartel dispatches their ace hitman-trouble-shooter to “stabilize” the situation.

Frankly, aside from the xenophobic rustics, it is pretty confusing just who all the dozens of bad guys are and which factions they are aligned with. However, there is no mistaking Terence Yin’s career breakout performance as the blue-eyed Chinese-German-Colombian assassin-problem-solver. He is absolutely riveting in a creepily charismatic, discomfortingly sadistic kind of way. Tomer Sisley (spending time in an even more confining location than in the original Sleepless Night) is all very credible brooding and throwing down as the Motorcyclist, but he just can’t compare to Yin. However, Stéphane Debac compliments him nicely, as the cartel’s French fixer, who is in way over his head, while Pascal Greggory helps humanize the film as the overwhelmed police chief, who could have avoided a lot of this trouble if he had been more proactive addressing the plight of the Petits.

Thousand Cuts has a terrific villain, a nifty action climax, and it makes French society look profoundly corrupt and prejudiced. What more could you ask for, except maybe greater narrative clarity? Recommended for fans of hardboiled French fugitive thrillers, like Valette’s The Prey and Fred Cavayé’s Point Blank, Thousand Cuts (Le Serpent aux Mille Coupure) screens tonight (7/26) and Friday night (7/28) as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Death Fighter: Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Joe Lewis, and Cynthia Rothrock in Thailand

It is a prosaic title, but it does not misrepresent the film. So, it’s about death and fighting? Yes, indeed. A rogue FBI agent is out to avenge his mentor and take down a human trafficking warlord, with the help of a grizzled mercenary. As martial arts plots go, it is certainly serviceable, but the real attraction is watching a number of legendary veterans mix it up with young talent in Toby Russell’s Death Fighter (trailer here) releases today on DVD.

Michael Turner’s partner Conrad has been tracking the evil Draco so long, he willingly joins him in an off-the-books operation in Thailand. Conrad’s intel was valid, but “Valerie,” Draco’s chief enforcer-bodyguard was a little too lethal. All the corrupt cops want Turner out of the country, but the only half-way honest one puts him in touch with Bobby Pau, a half-American-half-Thai mercenary who also holds a grudge against Draco (was there ever a character named “Draco” who wasn’t a villain?).

To find Draco, they will have to head into the jungle, which holds a lot of dangers for a city slicker like Turner. However, that is also where they will find Yui, the director of a rural medical clinical, who also happens to have mad martial arts skills. Together with Pau’s quiet right-hand man Otto, they are a force of four, which should be more than sufficient to deal with Draco, Valerie, Peter (the senior henchperson in Draco’s doghouse), and a hundred or so Burmese mercs.

Death Fighter is like old school Cannon films all the way, but it has an apostolic connection to Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in the late, great Joe Lewis (star of Kill ‘Em All and The Jaguar Lives!), whom the former praised and the latter went 3-and-1 against in official tournament matches. Sadly, as the hard-charging Conrad, Lewis makes a quick exit, but his presence is definitely felt.

But wait there’s more, including Don “The Dragon” Wilson as Pau, the butt-kicking lead, (rather than the cameos or Miyagi-like roles he turned up in recently). He can still throw down, as can Cynthia Rothrock (playing Valerie), whom he frequently faces off against. Stuntman and emerging action star Matt Mullins can’t match the charisma of his seniors yet, but his chops are impressive. The same is true of Thai TV star Chiranan Manochaem, who definitely impresses as Yui. However, it is almost shocking Death Fighter is the only imdb credit for Prasit Suanphaka, because he shows off some spectacular moves as trusty Otto.

Russell (son of provocative director Ken Russell) frames the action well, allowing fans to really appreciate the fight choreography and stunt work. His approach is pretty straightforward—fight, regroup, fight some more, regroup again, and then have it out for good—but that works for us. For martial arts fans, it is straight-over-the-plate good stuff. Highly recommended for patrons of action cinema, Death Fighter is now available on DVD.

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The Zodiac Killer: The Film that Tried to Catch a Killer

It was sort of like the play within Hamlet devised to make the king betray himself. In 1971, the Bay Area was like Whitechapel circa 1888. Fear of a serial killer stalking the streets had good people hiding in their homes. Restauranteur Tom Hanson had the novel idea of using a quickie exploitation film to trick the Zodiac into revealing himself. It sounds crazy, because it was, but the killer’s preoccupation with his media coverage was well-established by that point. Hanson is certain he met the Zodiac face-to-face during the film’s initial one-week run in San Francisco, but he could never prove it (at least not yet). The behind-the-scenes story is truly stranger than fiction, but the film itself is mostly a weird artifact of exploitation cinema. Freshly restored by the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA), Hanson’s The Zodiac Killer (trailer here) releases today on BluRay.

Perversely, the first half-hour of Zodiac 1971 seems intentionally designed to foster sympathy for the Zodiac, by making the residents of San Francisco appear so repugnant, we wouldn’t mind watching them get bumped off. However, around about the second act, we learn Jerry, the vegetarian, rabbit-keeping postal carrier is in fact the Zodiac, who kills for both satanic and Freudian reasons. He is a little upset when Grover, the misogynistic, dope-addicted deadbeat dad with an appallingly bad toupee takes credit for the Zodiac murders. This rather pushes him even further off the edge.

By any rational aesthetic standard, Hanson’s Zodiac is a rough go. It is sort of like watching America’s Most Wanted re-enactments directed by Harold P. Warren, of Manos: The Hands of Fate fame. Yet, it terms of historical significance, it deserves to be preserved on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. Frankly, it is hard to separate the film from its origins and context. Indeed, it is impossible to watch each head-shakingly awkward scene and not wonder what the Zodiac thought of it.

Considering the severity of Hanson’s budget constraints and the on-the-fly nature of the production, Hal Reed (probably best known for The Doberman Gang) and Bob Jones are better than you might expect, as Jerry the Zodiac and Grover the creep, respectively. This is definitely on the low end of the exploitation scale, yet it has a sinister energy you can’t quantify, but viewers will immediately pick up on. In terms of tone, it is sort of like three-parts Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast (mostly sans the gore) and one-part Charles Pierce’s original The Town that Dreaded Sundown.

Ray Cantrell & Manny Cardoza’s screenplay is often fanciful, but the most terrifying thing about the film is how much was true, particularly the fact the Zodiac remains at large. This might be the rare film that would be better as the subject of someone else’s film rather than as a viewing experience to savor and repeat. Still, you have to give Hanson credit. He hatched an utterly insane scheme that maybe came mind-blowingly close to succeeding. Perhaps he should take the film on tour. The San Francisco police never closed the case and the FBI is still taking regular tips. Regardless, Hanson’s The Zodiac Killer is a unique piece of cultural history, so it is nice to have it preserved and available on BluRay, from AGFA and Something Weird.

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Monday, July 24, 2017

The Last Dalai Lama? If Tibet were Free, We Wouldn’t be Asking

The Javits Center is so out of the way, most people do not realize Manhattan extends that far west. It is an evil looking building, but it was the only venue in the City large enough to accommodate the 14th Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday and long-life celebration. In contrast, General Secretary Xi could hold his at a table in Starbuck’s, if you excluded all the favor-seekers. Such longevity and so many friends seem to be signs of good karma, yet the Dalai Lama has lived most of his life in exile. Given the worsening human rights situation in his Tibetan homeland, he might be the final Dalai Lama to reincarnate. His Holiness takes stock of his life and legacy in Mickey Lemle’s The Last Dalai Lama (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Now a vigorous eighty-two-years young, His Holiness has been on the world stage since he was a teenager. When only nineteen, he led a delegation to meet with Tibet’s Chinese occupiers. Initially, he thought he had persuaded Mao and Zhou to allow his people greater freedom of conscience, but alas that was not the case. Eventually, he was forced into exile, but in doing so, he became one of the world’s great statesmen and spiritual leaders. Ironically, he would spread Tibetan Buddhism farther than it had ever reached before. Yet, his commitment to emotional health and awareness always transcends faiths and religions.

In fact, the first half of the film is largely devoted to various educational endeavors that promote healthy mindfulness rather than Buddhist doctrine. That is all very nice, but the film’s title clearly begs a much bigger question. It is indeed true the 14th Dalai Lama has said he does not expect to reincarnate again—and if he does, it will absolutely not be in Tibet. Again, blame China, who insist the Communist Party must play an active role in “selecting” the reincarnate Dalai Lama, much as they did with the contested Panchen Lama, whom virtually all Tibetans consider an illegitimate puppet because he is. The Panchen Lama officially recognized by the 14th Dalai Lama has been held incommunicado since 1995. He was six years old at the time.

Lemle does not spend a great deal of time recapping China’s systematic violation of human rights in the captive nation or their rapacious despoilment of the once pristine environment. However, he directly addresses the surge in Tibetan self-immolation to protest the occupation, which deeply pains His Holiness. It also starkly contrasts the militarism of the invading Communists with the humanistic, nonviolent principles of Tibetan Buddhism.

In military terms, this seems to be a mismatch that grossly favors the occupiers. Yet, as Victress Hitchcock’s documentary When the Iron Bird Flies argues (and Lemle’s film largely seconds) Tibet Buddhism has lost all the battles yet it has already won the war. Which has more international adherents, Tibetan Buddhism or whatever the CP currently calls its “Chinese Dream” Crony Capitalistic-Socialist ideology? Who is more respected globally, His Holiness or Xi-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed? There is no contest.

Of course, it does not hurt Lemle’s film that the 14th Dalai Lama is such a warm, charismatic, and often witty figure (for instance, he archly comments, if the Party now believes in reincarnation so strongly, they should go find the reincarnated Mao.). Lemle, who previously documented His Holiness in Compassion in Exile, once again secured first-class access and continued to share a real rapport with his subject. He also deserves credit for his nonpartisanship, including an insightful segment with former President George W. Bush, the first sitting president to appear publicly with His Holiness. Highly recommended, The Last Dalai Lama? opens this Friday (7/28) in New York, at the IFC Center.

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Fantasia ’17: Junk Head

It the far future. The clones have rebelled against humanity (or what passes for it), but they did not get very far. They are still at the bottom of the dark metropolis and humans are at the top. However, in hopes of reversing centuries of sterility, humans will send explorers down to the bowels of the city. One intrepid surveyor finds some highly unusual genetic material and no end of trouble in Takahide Hori’s stop-motion labor of love, Junk Head (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Our protagonist’s probe already looked like a rocket speeding towards the earth, but some of the lower level denizens decide to blast it with an RPG anyway. Basically, only his head survives the blast, but a semi-mad scientist operating in the ground-level region manages to fashion him a new head and mechanical body. This process will repeat, but the good mad doctor’s work looks rather sleek and stylish compared to the subsequent encasing.

The journeyer initially suffers from amnesia after the crash, but another bump to the noggin bring back his past. Inconveniently, he temporarily loses his comprehension of lower level dialects, but he will eventually have both memory and comprehension. Unfortunately, by that time, his new androidal shell no longer has the capacity for speech.

It is definitely one darned thing after another for our faithful traveler. Yet, he will learn quite a bit about what it means to be human from the clones, mutants, and genetic freaks he encounters down there. It frequently isn’t pretty, but it is always real.

Visually, Junk Head is a flat-out stunner. Hori’s stop-motion animation is absolutely incredible and the dystopian city (sort of like Lang’s Metropolis crossed with Kowloon Walled City and populated with H.R. Giger creatures is one of the most richly detailed animated worlds ever realized on film. Technically, it is a marvel, but Hori does not have an equal talent for screenwriting. Frankly, his narrative is episodic and the application of internal logic is spotty at best. So be it. Viewers will really just want to explore this world—and Hori essentially offers up pretexts to oblige us.

You can think of Junk Head as the film Shane Acker’s 9 aspired to be, but fell short of (especially since they were both expanded from earlier short films). Thematically, it would make a terrific pairing with Don Hertzfeldt’s clone-related short, World of Tomorrow, which is high praise indeed. Highly recommended, Junk Head screens again today (7/24), as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Japan Cuts ’17: Zigeunerweisen

Is there a better way to start a film than by playing a vintage ten-inch phonograph record? No, there isn’t. That is how Seijun Suzuki commenced his great comeback masterpiece, but to make it even better, he has his characters discuss how an audible bit of conversation on the classic Pablo de Sarasate recording was initially considered a flaw but was eventually recognized as what made the record so special. That disc will play a fateful but hard to explain role in Suzuki’s digitally remastered Zigeunerweisen (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

All the cultural tensions of the Taishō Period (1912-1926) can be found in Aochi and Nakasago, former professors at the military academy, who have gone in very different directions. Aochi (tellingly a professor of German) adopted western suits and lives a life of middle class respectability. Nakasago still wears traditional garb and lives a wild (almost feral) semi-nomadic existence. The ex-colleagues reunite when Aochi happens along just in time to save Nakasago from a lynch mob convinced he murdered the lover he led astray.

He probably did it. He certainly admits it readily enough when he and Aochi stop to enjoy some sake at a geisha bar. Rather boorishly, Nakasago insists a recently bereaved geisha perform for them. Yet, both men will be strangely moved by grieving O-Ine as she performs her hostess duties. Aochi will go back to his modernized, luxury-indulging wife Shuko and Nakasago will follow a blind trio of beggars who sing songs so ribald they would make Missy Elliott blush. When they next meet, Nakasago has married Sono, a woman from a proper family, who is a dead-ringer for O-Ine.

It is highly debatable whether Aochi and Nakasago were ever truly friends, but their fates are certainly linked and to some extent, each has the other’s number. There are people in life you just can’t shake, for better or for worse—in the case of Nakasago, it is most likely for the worse. Of course, the doppelganger duo of Sono and O-Ine is also deeply archetypal. Zigeunerweisen is frequently surreal and it eventually evolves into a literally haunted genre film, but there is something universally relatable about its core I-am-not-my-brother-from-another-mother’s-keeper relationship.

Yoshio Harada gets to storm and rage as Nakasago, but it is Toshiya Fujita who injects all the bile and arsenic as the tightly wound Aochi. Frankly, it is fascinating to watch them dance around each other as they observe the rituals of friendship. Naoko Otani also covers a great deal of ground as the forceful, seductive, and ultimately spooky doubles, Sono and O-Ine. Michiyo Okusu is also something else and then some as the privileged Shuko.

Zigeunerweisen is truly a masterwork, precisely because it is so slippery and hard to pin down, yet still so disconcertingly eerie. The Taishō setting adds further layers of irony and foreboding. After all, the Aochis would inherit the nation from the Nakasagos, but we know where that would lead. Very highly recommended, Zigeunerweisen screens this afternoon (7/23) at the Japan Society, as part of the concluding day of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Fantasia ’17: Broken Sword Hero

King Taksin defeated the constant waves of Burmese invaders, unified his country as the Thonburi Kingdom, and promoted trade with the European powers. Of course, he did not do it alone. Initially, the bullied Joi does not look like he will be much help to anyone, particularly himself. However, destiny has different plans in Bin Bunluerit’s Broken Sword Hero (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Unless you really know your Thai history, forget about the sword and focus on the hero. That will be Joi—eventually. It would seem like fate dealt him a tough break, considering the regional governor’s entitled son Cherd is his chief tormentor. When he finally fights back hard enough to draw blood, Joi resigns himself to a life of exile. Living by his wits, he becomes a talented Muay Thai fighter. Unfortunately, that will not be enough to defeat a true master. At least he learns an important early lesson: humility. From then on, Thongdee (as the white-teethed, betelnut abstainer is now known) will study any discipline, under any master with a unique specialty.

Along the way, Thongdee makes some real friends and serves his successive masters faithfully. Periodically, he will face off against his old nemesis Cherd and his corrupt uncle. Although Thongdee is still an outlaw, his good deeds and multi-disciplinary martial arts skills start to attract the attention of a mysterious mustachioed observer.

Bunluerit must be a heck of a persuasive director, because he convinced former Miss Teen Thailand Sornsin Maneewan to portray Thongdee’s potential love interest Ramyong with betelnut-stained teeth. Chutirada Junthit was doubly lucky to play Mauylek, an itinerant Chinese opera performer and marital artist, because she was spared the betelnut and had the chance to show off her own action chops in some of the action sequences.

Of course, the film is clearly intended to launch Muay Thai champion Sombat “Buakaw” Banchamek as the next Tony Jaa. There is no question he has the skills and the super-chiseled physique. Granted, his screen presence will not exactly blow you through the back wall of the theater, but he has greater emotional range than Van Damme and Schwarzenegger displayed early in their careers (or arguably even in their latest films). Still, he is not another Tony Jaa yet, but it isn’t for a lack of effort. He brings tremendous physicality to the action scenes, which should earn him good will from fans right from the start.

If you are looking for bare-chested, fist-pumping, sword-shattering action, Bunluerit and Buakaw deliver over and over again. Again, it is important to remember this is an origins story, so don’t get hung up waiting for a sword to break. Instead, just let the spectacle of flying elbows and knees wash over you. Highly recommended for martial arts fans, especially those who appreciate the Southeast Asian historical elements, Broken Sword Hero screens today (7/23) at this year’s Fantasia.

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Saturday, July 22, 2017

Japan Cuts ’17: Summer Lights

It started with Alain Resnais and now another French crew has come to contemplate the tragedy of Hiroshima. Of course, Akihiro’s interest makes perfect sense, since he is a Japanese expat working for French television, but the assignment still affects him more than he expected in Jean-Gabriel Périot’s Summer Lights (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

The interview Akihiro records with Mrs. Takeda is so powerful, Périot lets it play in its entirety as a twenty-minute uninterrupted prologue, before the opening credits roll. In it, she tells how her beloved mother was lost without a trace and her pretty older sister Michiko, a nurse who cared for the sick and dying, eventually succumbed to radiation sickness. Akihiro is so overwhelmed by her testimony, he abruptly leaves his crew to clear his head in Peace Memorial Park.

However, a rather forward woman in traditional dress seems determined to strike up a conversation with him. She is a little odd, but he finds her company inexplicably comforting. Through her, Akihiro will learn more about what the aftermath was really like. Yes, her name also happens to be Michiko, from which you can probably deduce more than Akihiro. Yet, the inevitable revelation and ultimate takeaway are portrayed in such a simple and straightforward manner, they become profoundly beautiful.

What the Takedas endured is truly heart-rending. Of course, what is missing from Lights are the atrocities of the Rape of Nanjing, the Bataan Death March, the terror-bombing of Chongqing, and the systematic enslavement of so-called “Comfort Women,” none of which was likely to end without a profound shock to rigid Imperial military hierarchy. Perhaps it would be awkward for Périot to address such points, but the truth is always more complicated than reductive peace slogans.

Regardless, Akane Tatsukawa is absolutely remarkable as the deceptively light-hearted Michiko. Appropriately, she has a fishing scene, because she reels us in and then clobbers us. Hiroto Ogi’s Akihiro initially comes across as pretty dense, but he sneaks up on the audience and crystallizes the entire film in the third act. Yet, nobody can touch the plain-spoken power and dignity of Mamako Yoneyama’s performance as Mrs. Takeda.

In a way, Summer Lights is the inverse-opposite of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Daguerrotype. It was shot in Japan, with an entirely Japanese cast, exploring a distinctly Japanese subject, but was helmed by a French filmmaker. Frankly, it is impossible to imagine another tandem of any nationality who could equal Tatsukawa and Yoneyama. Recommended for its remarkable cast and refreshingly humanistic perspective, Summer Lights screens tomorrow (7/23) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.


Fantasia '17: Nutag – Homeland (short)

It was ethnic cleansing before there was such a term. During the Stalinist era, most of the ethnic Kalmyks who had not died of starvation during the period of forced collectivization were exiled to Siberia, half of whom perished while in transit. It was decades ago, yet the pain lingers on for the Kalmyk diaspora. Mongolian-Canadian animator Alisi Telengut gives voice to that pain in the hand-painted expressionistic animated short film Nutag – Homeland (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Telengut eschews narration, simply letting her arresting images wash over viewers. Technically, she takes a somewhat abstract approach, but there is no mistaking the significance of those trains. The effect is poetic and haunting. Originally, Telengut (whose first name ironically means “far away”) set out to make a traditional documentary, but her imagery and the ghostly music and sound design just took over. Frankly, there is still a need for a straight-forward telling of their story, but Telengut expresses the essence of the Kalmyk deportations, doing right by her subjects, ethically and artistically.

Indeed, there is a great deal left to say about the Kalmyk people and their history. For instance, when Khrushchev finally allowed them to return to their homeland, Kalmykia became the only majority-Buddhist political jurisdiction in Europe. At least Telengut has started the dialogue, having previously screened Nutag at high profile festivals, including Cannes and Sundance. It is a beautiful and terrifying work of art. Very highly recommended, Nutag – Homeland screens tonight (7/22) as part of a program of Quebecois short films at this year’s Fantasia.

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Fantasia ’17: A Day

Dr. Kim Joon-young is caught in the worst Groundhog’s Day ever. Like clockwork, he keeps waking up on his Seoul-bound flight, knowing he will scramble in vain to save his daughter from a fatal car accident. It is a horrible thing to experience over and over again, but he eventually learns he is not the only one repeating these painful hours in Cho Sun-ho’s A Day (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Dr. Kim is a famous humanitarian doctor, but pretty clueless as a dad. He really wants to patch things up with his twelve-year-old-ish daughter Eun-jung, but by the time he reaches their rendezvous, he finds her dead in crosswalk. Soon thereafter, the cycle repeats. He tries to pick-up time, but he can never get there quick enough. Much to his shock, ambulance driver Lee Min-chul is in the same position. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot rescue his wife Mi-kyung, who perishes in the back seat of the yellow cab that plows into Eun-jung. They will team up to save their loved ones, but they are in for at least one more nasty surprise.

It is time to retire the repeating time-loop concept for a while, because no film will be funnier than the original or manage to top the intensity of A Day. Unlike other Groundhog homages, just about every go-round in Cho’s film turns into a tense race against the clock. It also gets a little weepy during the climax, but it is a Korean film, so we can’t be too dismayed by that.

Kim Myung-min is terrific as the driven Dr. Kim, quietly radiating anguish and Sisyphean determination. Young Jo Eun-hyung is quite charismatic as the daughter, whom Cho never even gives a chance to become annoying. Byun Yo-han is maybe a bit wooden as Lee the EMT, but you could argue he is supposed to be emotionally distant. Regardless, the scenes in which he and Kim start to put it all together really raise the hair on the back of your neck.

That’s maybe already saying too much, but Cho’s breakneck pacing will hold even the most skeptical and resistant viewers rapt until the final day closes. The Broadway version of Groundhog Day is a super-satisfying show, but the thought of someone trying to stage this film as a book musical is almost too deliriously crazy to contemplate. Very highly recommended, A Day screens tonight (7/22) at this year’s Fantasia.

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Friday, July 21, 2017

Fantasia ’17: Le Manoir

Nadine might have a hard time recouping her deposit on the remote Belgian mansion she rented for a drunken New Year’s blowout. As usual, it is always the blood stains that are the hardest to get out. There will be a lot to clean up when a psycho-killer starts stalking her guests in Tony T. Datis’s Le Manoir (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Nadine and Fabrice are definitely still together, but in the case of Stéphane and Sam, it depends who you ask. He says they are just taking a break, but she says they are totally over. That already makes things pretty awkward, but the night will get much worse when someone starts knocking off the irresponsible partiers. Of course, the heaping helpings of drugs served up by the hippyish Drazic will not help much either, especially when he slips some Jim Morrison-strength mushroom brownies to Sam’s shy cousin Charlotte.

Frankly, there is even more attitude splattered over Le Manoir than blood. While Datis (previously best-known for music videos) helms the slasher business with a sure hand, the film is especially lethal when skewering the clueless millennial mindset. It takes on semi-meta dimensions when you take into the account most of the cast were YouTube “stars,” many whom were making their proper acting debuts in Le Manoir. However, they are totally watchable when bickering, bantering, and getting gruesomely murdered. (As American comparisons, they are not as charismatic as the stars of YouTube Red’s Single By 30, but they are vastly superior to the leads of The Thinning.)

Vanessa Guide probably counts as the professional ringer in the ensemble, delivering some truly outrageous lines with appropriate contempt for decorum as the sexually “confident” Sam. Jérôme Niel doesn’t take any prisoners either as the abrasive and possibly delusional Stéphane. However, Ludovik Day scores the most surprise laughs as the not quite as nebbish as he looks Bruno, whereas Vincent Tirel’s Drazic largely falls back on druggy-guru clichés.

Regardless, you have to give Datis credit for observing horror movie traditions while tweaking and twisting them at the same time. The mansion itself also represents some very effective location scouting and set dressing. Recommended without reservations for horror fans, Le Manoir screens tonight (7/21) and Wednesday August 2nd as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Fantasia ’17: The Laplace’s Demon

Physicists and philosophers like to argue thermodynamics, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory have vanquished Pierre-Simon Laplace’s theory of strict causal determinism, thereby restoring our free will. A group of scientists would like to agree, even though they have been working to create Laplacian predictive models. Finding themselves in a Rube Goldbergian death trap programmed with a revolutionary equation that anticipates their every move has dramatically changed their outlook. Thanks to science, there is a good chance they’re all doomed in Giordano Giulvi’s The Laplace’s Demon (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Isaac’s team of scientists have been working on models to predicts how many shards a crystal glass will shatter into when dropped from a table. They have refined it to within a two percent margin of error. Evidently, there host has advanced far beyond them. Frankly, he is not even there anymore. According to the videotape he left behind for them to watch, he just entered them into his fateful formula and programmed the output into his island villa of death.

Through computer automization, the absentee host will pick off his guests one by one, because he can calculate exactly where they will be at any given moment. They will even be able to watch it happen in real time through the scale model and pre-programmed chess pieces he left behind, unless they can figure out a way to cheat fate and science.

Laplace is a bizarre but wildly distinctive film that represents a quantum leap forward for Giordano Giulvi and his co-screenwriter-co-star Duccio Giulvi from the grungy-goofy Apollo 54. Shot in dramatically stylish black-and-white, it is like a strange puree of Pi, Saw, and And Then There Were None. The film is driven by some heady speculation regarding free will and scientific determinism, but people are still getting killed dead at regular intervals.

Arguably, characterization was not this film’s top priority, but Duccio Giulvi and Silvano Bertolin quite effectively establish the film’s two poles, as the unpredictably eccentric Jim Bob and fatalistic Karlheinz, respectively. However, the art and set design, also overseen by G. Giulvi is absolutely crucial to the film’s success. Most people would agree it is hard to pull off human-sized killer chess pieces, but Giulvi manages to do it.

The ultimate implications of Laplace are depressingly scary, but unlike the instantly stale The Circle, the overall film is so smart and inventive, we really don’t mind its philosophical upshot. It is a dark and twisted revelation that should absolutely not be missed when it screens tonight (7/21) and Monday (7/24) at this year’s Fantasia.

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Thursday, July 20, 2017

Japan Cuts ’17: Shippu Rondo

Among authors frequently adapted for film and television, Keigo Higashino is approaching the lofty, bankable heights of Stephen King and Agatha Christie. American viewers are most likely to be familiar with gritty thrillers based on his work, such as Into the White Nights and the South Korean Broken. It is hard to believe the same pen inspired this light-hearted family caper, but imdb and wiki wouldn’t lie, would they? Regardless, a widowed father is in for a rough skiing outing when he tries to recover a lost canister of super anthrax in Teruyuki Yoshida’s Shippu Rondo (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Chief researcher Kazuyuki Kuribayashi was caught flat-footed when he learned his boss Masaomi Togo allowed an unstable colleague to develop the lethal K-55. To make matters worse, he takes the bio-weapon with him after he is finally fired for being nuts. He had intended to extort money from his former employer, but he is killed in a freak accident shortly after sending his demands.

Of course, the shtickily loathsome Togo will not go to the authorities, so that leaves the put-upon Kuribayashi to recover it. All he has to go on is a transponder frequency and the photo sent by the late mad scientist of a teddy bear apparently marking the hiding place, somewhere out of bounds at a large ski resort. At least his petulant middle school son will get a ski trip out of his dad’s troubles. He also might be able to hep more if Kuribayashi would start trusting him.

Yes sir, lessons will be learned by everyone during the course of Shippu, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most of the cast is rather pleasant to spend time with and there are some decent skiing/snowboarding chase sequences to its further merit.

Hiroshi Abe, who has the flexibility to star in Kore-eda family dramas and the Thermae Romae franchise, has plenty of aw shucks charm, but still manages to project a sense of the widower’s sadness. Tatsuomi Hamada and Sayu Kubota have way more charisma than you would expect as his son Hideto and Ikumi Yamasaki, the local girl who befriends him. Tadayoshi Okura and Yuko Oshima handle the action well enough as the ski patrol member and prospective Olympian who volunteer to help Kuribayashi. However, there is no getting around the pain of watching Akira Emoto mug and guffaw as the embarrassing Togo.

In a way, it is sort of depressing a mostly pleasant, completely family-friendly film like this has absolutely no chance of getting picked up for distribution outside of Japan. We’re only interested in films with violent, provocative content. Therefore, if you want to see it, you’d better see it now. For us, it is especially interesting to place it in the context of other Higashino films we have seen or expect to cover shortly. If anyone is sufficiently enterprising, a Higashino retrospective would certainly make for rewarding viewing. In the meantime, the ultra-nice but hardly spectacular Shippu Rondo screens this Saturday noon (7/22) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Luc Bondy Reinvents Marivaux: False Confessions

Pierre de Marivaux’s plays are still frequently revived in France, but they have never been widely read in English translation. At least he was popular within his lifetime. Frankly, he needed his royalties, having lost his shirt in the Mississippi land bubble. As a result, he should have identified with the well-bred but financially destitute hero of one of his best-known plays. Dorante is now just a plebeian secretary, but he will still sneakily woo his wealthy widowed mistress in the late Luc Bondy’s modern-day adaptation of False Confessions (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

It is all crafty Dubois’s fault. Dorante’s former valet now works in the household of the somewhat older but still alluring Araminte. Knowing his master was smitten after merely spying the wealthy widow at the opera, the servant hatches a scheme to bring them together. Through the influence of his uncle, Dorante lands a job as Araminte’s secretary, beating out the candidate put forward by the Comte Dorimont, an unwelcome suitor Araminte will either marry or sue in court to resolve a long-standing land dispute.

Dorante immediately wins her confidence by spurning her Dowager Countess-like mother’s request to help convince Araminte to see things her way. Since that would have included marrying the Comte, Dorante is definitely not on-board. As she starts to appreciate his charms, Dubois stokes her servant Marton’s romantic interest in Dorante, stimulating Araminte’s jealousy, which in turn clouds her rigid class-based sensibilities and judgement.

Bondy’s False Confessions is an unfortunate case of one or two high-profile critics causing a domino effect among other critics and bloggers who are incapable or unwilling to think for themselves. It has a bizarrely low RT score, but it is really quite spritely and sophisticated. Somewhat controversially, Bondy opted to keep Marivaux’s original language (more or less), but frankly, as experienced in English subtitles, it only sounds elevated rather than forbidding or distancing. Sadly, he also passed away during the final days of shooting, but it is never obvious at what point his freshly widowed wife took over the helm.

It almost goes without saying, but Isabelle Huppert really is terrific portraying Araminte. We don’t often think of her in comedic contexts, but her timing and delivery are impeccable. Bulle Ogier is also quite a stitch unleashing her inner Dame Maggie Smith as Araminte’s tart-tongued mother. In contrast, Louis Garrel underwhelms, largely playing Dorante on sullen auto-pilot. However, Manon Combes really seems earnest and genuine as the out-classed Marton.

Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (best-known for Suspiria and Tenebre) gives it a warmly welcoming, bright and airy look. Bondy opted to shoot the film version during the day at the very Odeon Theater where the cast was simultaneously performing his more traditional staging at night. That concentrated focus somehow produced a consistently witty and charming film, like a lighter, more laidback version of Alain Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet. Highly recommended, False Confessions opens tomorrow (7/21) in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Playhouse 7 and moves to the Village East here in New York.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Fantasia ’17: House of the Disappeared

Kang Mi-hee was Catholic, but she could still recognize bad feng shui when she was living right smack dab in the middle of it. We are talking some seriously bad energy here. The resulting horrors will reverberate for decades in Lim Dae-woong’s House of the Disappeared (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Kang was convicted for the murders of her second husband Chul-joong and her firstborn son, Hyo-je, but the latter’ body was never found. After twenty-five years in prison, Kang’s sentence has been commuted to house arrest on compassionate grounds. She has throat cancer. However, it is not particularly compassionate to imprison her in the same evil house where it all went down. Yet, she wants to be there, because she is convinced Hyo-je is still there somehow. Although she never asked for his help, Priest Choi keeps offering. Eventually, he will uncover the house’s creepy history, involving a regular cycle of disappearances.

If Disappeared sounds familiar, it is because it is a Korean remake of the Venezuelan film, The House at the End of Time. Frankly, screenwriter Jang Jae-hyeon follows Alejandro Hidalgo’s film beat-for-beat, but there is no getting around the fact Korean cinema is just so better suited to handling the uncanny sentimental heart-string tugging of denouement. It is what they do best.

Yunjin Kim, best known for her breakout American television work on Lost and Mistresses, happens to be very adept at yanking on those heart-strings. She is terrific as Kang, convincingly portraying her as a young mother and disgraced old woman. Former boy-bander TaecYeon also vastly exceeds expectations as Father Choi. Young Park Sang-hoon IV and Ko Woo-rim are both so strong as Hyo-je and his brother Ji-won, they often make it painful to watch the film.

Disappeared is one of the few remakes that seems to offer the story a more suitable home. The Catholicism is still there, but the added elements of feng shui and shamanism give it more texture and depth. Highly recommended, especially if you haven’t seen the Venezuelan original, House of the Disappeared screens again tomorrow (7/20) as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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Japan Cuts ’17: Another Recent Film from the Prolific Sion Sono

Each film in Nikkatsu’s relaunch of the iconic but formulaic soft-core series (see Dawn of the Felines and Wet Woman in the Wind for reference) is not supposed to exceed eighty minutes. Check. There is also supposed to be a sex scene every ten minutes. In this case, that sort of happens, but not really. Of course, Sion Sono is all about breaking rules. When he tries his hand at a R-P, he produces one of his most feminist films yet in Antip0rn0 (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

Kyoko is the new It Girl of fashion and chick lit, but she is a hot and mean mess. She will lead her submissive assistant Noriko down a rabbit hole of humiliation and degradation to disturbing depths. However, things are not what they seem. Instead of a sex scene, Sono delivers a world-upending rug pull every ten minutes. Of course, they usually involve plenty of nudity. Plus, dig that groovy color palette.

While it would be spoilery to explain too much, the previous Sono film AP probably shares the closest kinship with would be Tag, which also relied on strong female characters. Whereas Tag challenged its primary trio to literally give their performances on the run, AP demands full physical and emotional exposure from Ami Tomite and Mariko Tsutsui, as Kyoko and Noriko respectively. They also cover an emotional range like you wouldn't believe and often have to turn on a dime (again, it is hard to cite specifics without giving the game away).

AP is a heck of a mind-you-know-what, which is sort of appropriate to the genre, notwithstanding the degree that Sono totally and utterly deconstructs it. Yet, even at seventy-five minutes, the defiant gamesmanship starts to run out of gas in the closing act. Still, it really has to be seen to be believed—and much like Kazuya Shiraishi’s Felines, if you find it arousing, you should probably seek professional help.

Indeed, the “Anti” is no lie. It is another strange but deeply compelling provocation from a compulsively-risk-taking auteur. Highly recommended for Sono’s admirers (but ironically, not so much for R-P fans), Anti screens this Saturday night (7/22) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

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Karate Kill: Mitsutake Throws Down

Kenji’s sister Mayumi should have come to New York to study rather than Los Angeles. There’s more culture here and it’s still safer, despite de Blasio’s best efforts. Instead, she went to left coast, where she was abducted by a Manson-like snuff video-producing hippie death cult. Fortunately, Kenji has skills that will only get sharper in Kurando Mitsutake’s grungy retro Karate Kill (trailer here), which is now available on DVD and VOD.

After losing contact with Mayumi, Kenji borrows money from one of his part-time temp work bosses to fly out to LA. Thanks to his persuasiveness, he quickly follows her trail to a hostess club for Japanese expats. After several beatdowns, he learns the manager sold her to the Koreshy Capital Messiah cult in Nowheresville Texas for use in their sicko internet subscriber videos. Right, so he’s off to Texas, where he hooks up with Keiko, a previous abductee from the LA club, who managed to escape.

Keiko did not get away clean, as the hook will attest, but you should see the other woman. Call that one Patch. Regardless, Keiko is still a deadly shot. Thanks to her training, Kenji will refine his bullet dodging skills. Right, let’s start piling up the bodies.

If you have seen Mitsutake’s Gun Woman than you should know exactly what to expect. However, this time around, the violence is slightly less brutal and the low-rent Miami Vice knock-off eighties vibe is more pronounced. However, former Pink Eiga star Asami is back kicking butt and frequently topless as Keiko.

As long as you are reading this review, you will show Asami all due respect. Hayate (another one-name wonder) also has massive action chops, serious brooding technique, and virtually no body-fat as Kenji. Mitsutake regular Noriaki R. Kamata is spectacularly sleazy as the LA club owner, but bug-eyed Kirk Geiger maybe manages to go too far over the top as the cult leader Vendenski, if that is even possible in a film like this.

If you want to see a ticked-off brother beating the snot out of dozens of long-hair fetish freaks than its Christmas in July for you. Mitsutake is not kidding around when it comes to offering up bone-crunching karate and the old school exploitation vibe. It delivers what it promises many times over. Recommended on its own terms, Karate Kill is now available on DVD and VOD.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Fantasia ’17: Sequence Break

There was a time when you had to deal with people if you wanted to play video games. Players would put their quarters up to claim the next game and everyone would patiently wait their turn, through common consent. These days, an arcade is a good place for a technician like Oz (short for Osgood, not Ozzie) to hide from the world. Yet, both a cute but neurotic woman and an evil mother board will find him in Graham Skipper’s Sequence Break (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Jerry’s arcade-slash-stand-up arcade game wholesale business is on its last legs, but one of their final customers happens to be Tess, who is really interested in Oz. Much to his surprise, he starts seeing her romantically. They will have a chance to spend a lot of time together while he minds the shop for Jerry. He assumes his good-natured boss has already left to visit family, but he has actually been murdered by a mysterious drifter who intentionally left behind a sinister game board. After Oz installs it in a compatible cabinet, he finds the game exerts a disturbing influence over players, both physically and emotionally.

Sequence Break is a nice example of an emerging loose ensemble of recognizable horror specialists and cult favorites, who almost constitute a throwback to the glory days of the repertory players featured Hammer and Amicus horror films. Skipper himself is better known for starring in nifty retro films like The Mind’s Eye and Beyond the Gates, which also co-starred Chase Williamson, who is terrific as the socially awkward Oz. He also develops some shockingly endearing chemistry with Fabianne Therese, with whom he previously co-starred in John Dies at the End. (She also appeared in Starry Eyes with Noah Segan, who was also in Camera Obscura with Williamson and Mind’s Eye with Skipper. Get the picture?)

Given its retro 1980s arcade aesthetic, Sequence Break’s budget constraints are almost a blessing. The arcade setting and the in-game graphics look absolutely spot-on. The small ensemble really works well together, most definitely also including Lyle Kanouse as old Jerry. The visual effects are basically in keeping with the retro eighties nostalgia, but the practical cables-coming-out-of-throats effects are sufficiently gory and gross.

Basically, Sequence is a lot like Electric Dreams with a strong element of body horror added. However, there is just no getting around how disappointing the ending is. Maybe you can argue it is part of the eighties homage, but it is still lame. Nonetheless, Skipper and the cast press so many nostalgic buttons, it is impossible to stay angry with the film. Recommended for fans of modern horror’s repertory players and the films and video games of the 1980s that inspired Skipper’s screenplay, Sequence Break screens tonight (7/18) and tomorrow (7/19) as part of this year’s Fantasia.

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