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Le manoir (2017)
The Next Tucker and Dale?, 21 July 2017

A band of students comes to celebrate the New Year in an old manor house isolated from everything. But soon after their arrival, strange events disrupt the atmosphere, before the party turns squarely into a nightmare.

"Le Manoir" is a film that requires a little bit of patience. If you were to only watch the first ten or twenty minutes and then walk out, you would leave thinking this is just another slasher film about twentysomethings getting picked off one by one. For some people that may be a good film, but others will find it to be something that is a tired genre. If the 1980s did not beat the slasher into the ground, the early 2000s killed it.

But wait! Wait! This is not just another slasher. It is a farce, an inversion of the classic slasher with some spot on humor that is desperately needed. In much the same way that "Tucker and Dale Versus Evil" twisted the redneck / hillbilly trope around, "Le Manoir" successfully bends the And-Then-There-Were-None trope into a comically exhilarating mess.

When the young folks are not busy being killed off one by one, often in humorous ways, we are treated to some strange jokes that only those with a dark sense of humor can appreciate. A man who is ridiculously well-endowed has it used against him. Some folks have never heard of "taxidermy" before, apparently. Animals that seem more at home in Lars von Trier's "Antichrist" make some cameos. And a collar-popping party boy runs into bear traps. Oh, wait, what about the running joke about Oscar Pistorius? Poor taste or comedic brilliance? All the stereotypes are here, from the shy girl to the loose girl to the drug addict and more. But they may not turn out to be used in the stereotypical way. On top of this, it is a costume party, so looks could be deceiving. French humorist Ludovik appears as Ron Weasley, and this makes him appear less formidable than he would otherwise be, for example.

"Le Manoir" is a challenge to review, but a real joy to watch. This is the sort of horror comedy that would play well with an audience and could easily grow in reputation as it ages. The film screens at the Fantasia International Film Festival on July 21, 2017 and is sure to be a crowd pleaser.

"Twilight Zone", Italian Style?, 20 July 2017

A glass in free fall. Have you ever thought if it is possible to calculate into how many pieces it can break into? After numerous experiments, a team of researchers succeeds in doing just this apparently impossible task. Attracted to their experiment, a mysterious professor invites the scientists in his isolated mansion to know more about their studies.

This film was intriguing before the first frame because of its name: "The Laplace's Demon". Anyone who knows philosophy or physics will recognize Laplace as a strong promoter of classic mechanics and therefore determinism. His "demon" could theoretically predict the future because all atoms move in a set pattern. Not unlike LaMettrie, his ideas strongly suggested a predictable, deterministic world was not just theory but reality. And, sure enough, this factors into the film at hand.

The concept of being able to accurately predict how many piece a glass will shatter into has some physics potential, but it has even more philosophical potential. And we see this when the scientists reach the mansion – as they have seemingly achieved a limited understanding of determinism, it is fitting that they themselves become pawns (literally) and their every move is predicted by forces unknown.

Due to the philosophical nature of the film, and its monochrome cinematography, it is being compared to the original "Twilight Zone". This is a fair comparison, and indeed it would fit in well alongside some of Rod Serling's finest scripts. But another fair comparison is to the work of Guy Maddin. Somehow we find ourselves in a rather timeless world, much like Maddin's throwbacks to Eisenstein. We know the film takes place in modern times because of the computers and such, but the look still has something of a retro or antiquated feel. The mansion itself would fit in well in a "dark house" film of the 1930s.

Going any further might risk giving too much away. The film does have some odd quirks about it, such as an Italian man named Jim Bob. Really? But all things considered, this is a great film and one that will make the brain wrinkle a little bit more than usual. "Laplace's Demon" screens July 21, 2017 at the Fantasia International Film Festival.

78/52 (2017)
Puts The Hitchcock Classic Under the Microscope, 20 July 2017

An unprecedented look at the iconic shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960), the "man behind the curtain", and the screen murder that profoundly changed the course of world cinema.

While it might seem like quite a feat to devote 90 minutes of coverage to a one-minute segment of a film, this documentary pulls it off. By exploring every possible angle -- the sounds, the editing, the casting -- we see just how much went into getting the notorious shower scene just right. Most interesting is how many clues are in the film leading up to this moment that may not be obvious, but were sprinkled there by Hitchcock with a knowing wink.

"78/52" is playing on July 20, 2017 at the Fantasia International Film Festival. In this golden age of documentaries, this film still stands out as the cream of the crop.

Zulu (1964)
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How to Pick Sides?, 18 July 2017

Zululand, South Africa, 1879. The British are fighting the Zulus and one of their columns has just been wiped out at Isandlwana. The Zulus next fix their sights on the small British outpost at Rorke's Drift.

This is an interesting film in that it puts the viewer in an awkward position. On the one hand, you want to root for the underdog, right? A couple hundred soldiers against thousands... you want to see them win. But this is now 1964 (or 2017 if you're me) and we have different ideas about colonialism. This land belongs to the locals -- why should we encourage the British? Regardless, this is a great early film from Michael Caine and he is almost unrecognizable to us who know him as the elderly (or at least distinguished) gentleman he became.

A Forgotten Film, 17 July 2017

A crooked American businessman tries to push the shady influential owner of a nightclub in Newcastle, England to sell him the club. The club's new employee and the American's ex-lover (Melanie Griffith) fall in love and inadvertently stir the pot.

The production was initially a low-budget project funded by Channel 4 and British Screen. When the film attracted American financing, it was suggested that the film be recast with American actors. Both Melanie Griffith's and Tommy Lee Jones' careers were in a dip at the time, and they agreed to take parts at a lower fee. Griffith never fully recovered, though Jones still had bright years ahead of him. Interestingly, some people who auditioned but failed to make the cut were Tim Roth and Kyle MacLachlan. Ultimately, the film was financed for less than $2 million by Atlantic Entertainment Group, perhaps best known for "Valley Girl" or "Night of the Comet". This would be one of their final films.

The DP is the legendary Roger Deakins, who had worked with Figgis on his prior made-for-TV film "The House" (1984). Aside from the bigger names in the cast, it is Deakins who elevates the film from a low-budget independent to the big-looking film it is. The use of neon lighting and visual references to the classic paintings of Edward Hopper are evident. Allegedly, the Coen Brothers made Deakins their regular DP after seeing his work on "Stormy Monday". (As of 2017, Deakins has been nominated for 13 Oscars but has not yet won.)

Figgis is a musician, which explains his inclusion of so many musical situations. A jazz club is central to the plot, but it not just exists in the background... the music is very much an important part of the film, almost a character in itself. The soundtrack is some of the finest jazz and blues, and even the film's title is taken from a T-Bone Walker song, "Call It Stormy Monday (But Tuesday Is Just as Bad)", which plays over the credits.

Writer-director Mike Figgis continued to make films, though other than "Leaving Las Vegas" (1995) and possibly "Internal Affairs" (1990) he has never really been seen as an A-list director. Is it time for critics to start looking at his career again? With this release, cinephiles can get a better handle on a less-celebrated director.

The Arrow Video Blu-ray is not packed, but is comfortably filled with some bonus material. We have a very informative audio commentary with Mike Figgis, moderated by critic Damon Wise. The commentary humorously mentions how Christopher Walken was in the running for the Jones role, but he was too terrifying. There is a new video appreciation by critic Neil Young, including a "then and now" tour of the film's Newcastle locations (33 minutes). This is a must-see, putting the film in the proper context of the geography, time period (including the 1970 corruption trial of mayor T. Dan Smith) and its relation to the Mike Hodges' film "Get Carter" (1971).

Classic Gang Film, 17 July 2017

Set against the urban jungle of 1963 New York's gangland subculture, this coming of age teenage movie is set around the Italian gang the Wanderers.

This story is something like a blend between "The Warriors" and "American Graffiti", though for some reason is not as well known as either of them. My suspicion is because there are no real breakout stars. A few familiar faces, but nobody huge. This likely sent it back into obscurity.

What stands out for me is the dynamite soundtrack. The film is funny and has a good plot, but that soundtrack is just perfect and something I would gladly listen to over and over again. I don't know how music rights worked at the time, but today a film like this would probably cost a fortune just on licensing.

Good Fun, 17 July 2017

James Bond is sent to investigate the connection between a North Korean terrorist and a diamond mogul who is funding the development of an international space weapon.

There are some cheesy moments in this Bond film. Mostly the strange use of CGI or green screen or whatever makes Brosnan look like he is floating in places he obviously is not really. Or Halle Berry's dive into the water. If you cannot find a stunt person and cannot make good effects, why do it? Beyond that, this is a pretty good film. I really enjoyed the focus on North Korea, which is not your usual Bond nemesis. I am not at all convinced that the real North Korea has technology as good as is shown in the film, but I suppose that is part of the Bond fantasy.

Replace (2017)
The Stars Align, 16 July 2017

Kira (Rebecca Forsythe)'s skin starts to age rapidly, dry out and crumble away. But then she discovers that she can replace her own skin with somebody else's.

"Replace" is a film with an impeccable horror pedigree. Co-writer Richard Stanley is something of a legend with his films "Hardware", "Dust Devil" and the ill-fated "Island of Dr. Moreau". Co-star Barbara Crampton needs no introduction, wowing audiences since her time as a Stuart Gordon regular. And star Rebecca Forsythe adds a multi-generational aspect to the mix: she is the daughter of genre favorite William Forsythe. Horror fans will be thrilled to see her continue the family tradition.

The film's imagery starts off hazy and is somewhat disorienting for viewers, which may be mildly annoying. Relax, however, as this effect quickly subsides and the need for such an introduction becomes understandable as the plot unfolds. You may say, "I thought this was a film about skin, not memory loss." But be assured that all your questions will be answered.

And you will have questions, because the film is scripted very elaborately with multiple twists. Some of these will be obvious in retrospect, some much less so. This plays into the film's subtle brilliance, because once you think you outsmarted the filmmakers, be prepared to accept where they take the story next. This is a multi-layered onion with a treasure at its core.

"Replace" is a film all its own and defies comparisons. Some of the bloodier scenes might evoke thoughts of "Eat", and the idea of fighting against the aging process may call to mind Debbie Rochon's "Model Hunger". But "Replace" bears less than a passing resemblance to either of them, and far surpasses them both (with all due respect to Ms. Rochon). Very rarely is any film ever completely "new", but "Replace" manages to pull it off.

The film in general is quite strong, with excellent performances from Forsythe and the supporting cast. Crampton's cold, emotionally-distant doctor is a bit off-putting, but considering that is exactly who her character is supposed to be, she nailed it. A special note of praise must be reserved for the set designers. Presumably, the film had a modest budget, but you would never know this from the use of spacious apartments and a very cleverly-constructed medical facility. This is filmmaking with heart.

"Replace" screens on July 16, 2017 at the Fantasia International Film Festival and is certain to be a fan favorite. Produced by our friends at Sparkling Pictures and directed by Norbert Keil, be sure to check it out.

Martial Arts Period Piece, 16 July 2017

A Wing Chun master (Fan Liao of "Black Coal, Thin Ice") has to defeat eight martial arts schools to open his own school. At the same time, he has become a chess piece in the local power dynamics.

Right off the bat, anyone who loves good cinematography is going to appreciate "The Final Master". Director of photography Tianlin Wang brings with him a rich color palette that makes even the opening credits appear sharp and vibrant. The hues and crispness bring to life this time period in ways that only a great man behind the camera can. Accompanied by an interesting score composed of horns and strings (thanks to Wei An), we almost have a noir or mystery feel.

There is a fascinating mix of Asian and European cultures, with the Chinese embracing certain elements of upper class British culture. For those in the West, it is usually the American or Englishman in a story who wanders into the foreign land ("the Orient")… seeing things from the Chinese perspective is a nice switch. The inclusion of Belarusian dancers is also a nice touch, adding in a third component of cross-culture. Not only is there the dominant East-meets-West aspect, but a Soviet bloc piece, as well, which fits in neither one side or the other.

While the reviewer's knowledge of martial arts and its history is admittedly limited, there is something strange about the film referring to our hero as the last of the Wing Chun masters. Today, Wing Chun is known as the martial arts variant of Ip Man, Bruce Lee and even Robert Downey, Jr of all people. Perhaps this was lost in translation, but it defies belief that the ancient art was known by only one man in 1930 before becoming the most popular form of "kung fu" today.

Those looking for a classic, Shaw Brothers-style movie should be aware that the hand-to-hand martial arts is limited in this picture. However, the blade-on-blade action is intense and more than makes up for it. Every possible variation of sword, axe, dagger and more is utilized, including some that seem impossibly large to wield. In an era (1930s Tianjin) where guns were plentiful, it is fascinating that there is some level of honor about what is allowed in combat.

Historical nitpicks aside, this is a great film with beautiful cinematography and plenty of action. We also get a great supporting character in Madame Zou, played by Wenli Jiang ("Farewell My Concubine"). The movie was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 52nd Golden Horse Film Awards, as well as Best Supporting Actress and Best Choreography. It rightfully won in the latter category. North American audiences now get a chance to see the picture, as it screens July 16 at the Fantasia International Film Festival.

A Must-See!, 16 July 2017

The Slovenian cult band Laibach becomes the first foreign rock group ever to perform in the fortress state of North Korea. Confronting strict ideology and cultural differences, the band struggles to get their songs through the needle's eye of censorship before they can be unleashed on an audience never before exposed to rock music.

For those not familiar with Laibach, the band is something of a mix between Devo and Rammstein. In fact, Rammstein freely admits that is influenced by Laibach. Their performance art is steeped in fascist and nationalist imagery; apparently, the North Korean government does not understand the meaning of "satire" and this is one reason the band managed to get the dubious honor of playing rather than, say, Aerosmith or the Rolling Stones. In their own words, "We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter". Take that however you like.

The biggest question viewers might have is how filmmakers even had access to film inside North Korea. That answer is director Morten Traavik, a Norwegian director and artist who is something of a cultural ambassador to the country. Although this documentary is about Laibach and the censorship of North Korea, the figure of Traavik looms large. This is a man who held multiple beauty pageants for landmine survivors. And, when asked about political oppression, he says (not entirely jokingly), "I live in Sweden now, it's pretty oppressive. It's like a Soviet Union made by gay people." Once inside North Korea, danger seems to lurk around every corner. The band and their crew are warned not to wander off alone; without Traavik, they have no mediator. The people there are openly referred to as "brainwashed" and this is evident from the few people who are interviewed on camera. The Kafa-esque levels of bureaucracy are absurd, with the band not even being made aware of who is handing out censorship decisions or why.

Some of the censorship issues actually raise interesting cultural points. The band considered adding some lyrics in Korean to appeal to their audience, but were then told it was risky because it might sound "South" Korean. The countries have been divided for so long that the languages have almost become distinct due to the tight borders. North Korea speaks the same language it spoke 75 years ago, whereas South Korea has been more open to modifications from outside languages. In such an inter-connected world, any language will naturally adapt words from other cultures. But not North Korea.

The concert included re-interpretations of songs from "The Sound of Music", which seems subtly subversive considering the film was, of course, about a family fleeing totalitarianism. With all the lyric notes, video edits and other changes the North Korean censors required, it is rather surprising they allowed this to go through. Then again, did the audience fully grasp the symbolism anyway? Any documentary inside North Korea would be fascinating, but it's the merger of North Korea and a group of individuals like Laibach that raises the film to the level of the absurd. Without a doubt, this is one of the year's best documentaries and a rare treat where truth is stranger than fiction. "Liberation Day" screens at the Fantasia International Film Festival on July 16, 2017.

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