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Kazoku wa tsuraiyo (2016)
Funny, Sweet Look at a Modern Japanese Family
Shuzo, a recent retiree, likes to spend his time smoking and drinking and hanging out at his favourite bar; Tomiko, his wife of 45 years, has been taking creative writing courses at the local cultural center. When Shuzo get home from his bar late one night, which happens to be Tomiko's birthday, he (having forgotten her birthday) promises to get her what she wants, as long as it's not too expensive. Tomiko reassures him that what she really wants only costs 450 yen - it's a divorce. Her proclamation throws the entire house into a tizzy - the household including their oldest son, his wife and two children, along with their youngest son; their daughter and his husband, constantly fighting and threatening divorce, are also frequent visitors. How this family will resolve their problems is a matter of time, fighting, family meetings and, well, hilarity too
. I enjoyed this light, witty and sometimes touching tale, with its characters who are quirky but not annoyingly (or overly) so. There is a constant stream of physical humour too, with various people falling over things, tripping down stairs and so on - again, done to a certain degree, but not so much that one starts rolling one's eyes at it. This is a fun glimpse into modern Japanese family life, particularly with respect to the differences between the generations, and it also serves as a comedy of manners, Japanese style!
Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot (2015)
Superpowers, Italian Style
Enzo (Claudio Santamaria) is a small-town crook in Rome, stealing purses and taking on small jobs with other crooks just to get by; after one such incident, he finds himself being chased by the cops and the only way to escape them is to jump into the Tiber River. Unfortunately for him, the place where he jumps conceals a number of barrels containing toxic waste, and one of them has been leaking. He suddenly finds himself with superpowers, and uses them to steal for himself until one day he meets Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli), a young woman lost in a fantasy world featuring the Japanese anime Steel Jeeg. She convinces him to use his powers for good, but she doesn't know that a super-villain, Fabio (Luca Marinelli), wants to subvert Enzo for his own ends
. This film is a hoot, a shout-out to Italy's 1970s love affair with the (real) "Steel Jeeg" anime from Japan, and a gritty tale from the dark belly of the big city all at the same time, and all done with exquisite Italian flare. (Fabio, for example, has a fabulous dress sense and has a small-time claim to fame as a one-time contestant on a TV talent show, which everyone mistakes for the Italian version of "Big Brother.") There's lots of action, of course, but also a quieter story of how Enzo gains superpowers which lead to him gaining his soul. This movie won a bunch of Italian film awards, and it's easy to see why - it's by turns charming, brutal, thrilling and tender. Anyone familiar with the genre will know from the beginning how it will end, but the journey itself is a terrific ride, and lots of fun!
Too Young to Die (2016)
Another Insane Japanese Comedy
17-year-old Daisuke (Ryunosuke Kamiki) has a crush on classmate Hiromi (Aoi Morikawa) and is thrilled to sit next to her on the bus during a school outing, but the bus crashes and Daisuke finds himself in Hell, although the rest of his class seems to have landed in Heaven. The rock'n'roll demon Killer K takes Daisuke under his wing and tries to help him find a way to get out of Hell and back to Hiromi, but the paths to doing so are never easy
. This is an insane, hilarious comedy from Japan that has to be seen to be believed. The version of Hell is just completely wacky, and Daisuke's journeys to the world and back to Hell again are inventive and very funny. And the whole story is brought together with the use of various forms of heavy metal music, which of course just has to be the only music fit for Hell! If you get a chance to see this film, do so, you will be happy you did!
The Perils of Reanimation
Marc Jarvis (Tom Hughes) is a rich, young, successful artist who is suddenly told that he has cancer and has at most a year to live. He decides to freeze his body in the hopes that future medicine can cure him, but his girlfriend Naomi (Oona Chaplin) is horrified that he means to take his own life in order to ensure that his body is in as good condition as possible when he dies. Nevertheless, he does just that
only to wake up some 60 years later; Dr. West (Barry Ward) and his team have learned, through trial and error, how to reanimate frozen humans. Marc is their first complete success, and with the help of nurse/assistant Elizabeth (Charlotte Le Bon), Marc struggles to find meaning in his new existence, while his long-ago past still pulls at his heart
. I'm not sure why this is a Spanish film as it's in English and features British actors; but, no matter. It's a really thoughtful science fiction film that addresses not only technological advances but the moral and ethical problems associated with them. I very much liked Tom Hughes (who looks a bit like Cillian Murphy) because he was able to take his character through a very complex maze of emotional realities; then again, everybody in this film is good. Interestingly, the problem of how to portray the future was solved by simply having Marc remain in the facility in which he was reborn, because his body was not strong enough (yet) to adapt to outside conditions; a neat explanation that means the viewer isn't taken out of the picture by seeing a future world that looks cheesy or contrived or otherwise unnatural. Well done, filmmakers!
Through his best friend in London, Peter (Itay Tiran) meets Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), and soon he travels to her home village in Poland to marry her and settle down in the large, if somewhat isolated, house of her parents. Left there overnight, he does some digging and appears to uncover a skeleton; but the next morning, the hole and the bones are gone, and Peter has spent a rather strange night. Shrugging it all off, Peter and Zaneta marry and a huge party is held at the house; much dancing, speechifying and, especially, drinking of vodka ensues. But Peter isn't feeling quite himself shortly after the party begins, and soon he's acting *very* much out of character
. This is a retelling of the Yiddish tale of the dybbuk, a kind of ghost story, and it's very well done here - the acting is excellent, the atmosphere alternates between wild partying and sheer creepiness, and the horror, while striking, is more of the quiet variety than the blood-splatter type (for which I was grateful). I don't know how available it is in North America - I saw it at Montreal's always-brilliant Fantasia Festival - but it's well worth searching for!
The Show of Shows (2015)
Difficult to Watch
"The Show of Shows" is a documentary about circuses; it is short (77 minutes), non-linear (jumping around in time from the earliest films of circus acts to about the mid-1960s) and not narrated - instead, a score was created by members of Sigur Ros to create the mood for each section of the film. It's divided into categories - dancers, tightrope walkers, clowns, acrobats and so on - and probably gives more or less equal time to each, but it felt that half the film contained images of animal acts, and that was, for me, its downfall. Until relatively recently, nobody regulated the treatment of the animals, and you could see, very easily, how very stressed and unhappy and in some cases tortured these animals were; it was truly painful to look at. I can't recommend it for that reason, even though some of the old footage is fascinating. Definitely not for most.
Wu lin sheng huo jin (1983)
Wild and Hilarious Hong Kong Martial Arts Film
Eighteen years ago, the leaders of a number of martial arts clans captured and killed a young couple who refused to give them "the manual"; the couple had a son and a daughter, each of whom were taken by a rival clan to be raised and trained in the martial arts. Now, the youngsters are 18 and ready to find the weapon that will allow them to avenge their parents' deaths - but first they must fight, among other things, a black-clad English-speaking mummy, flying Chinese ideograms, treachery both within and outside of their clans, and maybe even each other
. This is one of the hilarious martial arts movies made by the famed Shaw Brothers in the 1980s, who attempted to revive interest in the form by throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix. By this time in their careers, they were also playing with special effects (as a result of the success of the original "Star Wars" film) and the results were sometimes spectacular and sometimes spectacularly awful! A great deal of fun, but don't try to find any logic or rationale in the story or your head will surely explode!
Action-Packed, But Tender Too
Hong Gil-dong (Lee Je-hoon) is a detective with a mission: to find the man who murdered his mother in front of his childhood self and avenge her death. For years, he has worked as a detective in the large organization headed by the sister of the wealthy family that adopted him, learning the skills he needs to track this killer down. When he finally has his target in sight, however, members of a mysterious gang kidnap the man, leaving his two young granddaughters distraught and not sure where to turn. Hong tells the girls that he can find their relative, but he needs them to come with him on the journey, and so the three set off together. The girls hope Hong will save their grandfather, but they don't know the reason he's hunting him
. That's a very brief description of the set-up of this extremely convoluted story; there are more twists and turns here than I've seen in a film in a very long time! Nobody is who they seem to be and nobody's motives are what they appear. Well, except maybe for the two girls - I wish I knew the names of the child actors, who are excellent (particularly the 8-year-old, perpetually snot-faced, younger kid). There's an awful lot to like in this movie, both because of its hard-boiled aspect, its tender one and its sheer over-the-top action. One thing I'm not sure of is its time frame; there are references (visual and otherwise) to the 1980s, but the clothing and cars, among other indications, seem to hark back to the 1930s. If that anachronistic visualization doesn't derail you, however, you're in for a heck of a packed, exciting and ultimately satisfying two hours!
You'll Love It As It Breaks Your Heart
Life is bleak on the island after an "industrial accident" destroyed most life and left its remaining peoples to scramble amongst piles of rust and garbage to survive. Teenager Dinky wants only to run away, leave the island and find a better life, but she also wants to persuade Birdboy, a solitary youth who is shunned by most, takes drugs all the time (to subdue the demon living inside him) and rarely talks, to come away with her, for Dinky loves Birdboy. But Birdboy has his own joys and sorrows, the former being flying and his ability to seed the scorched earth with new life via glowing acorns and the latter being the murder of his father by police who misunderstood his purpose. He is not too sure how long he can continue in his life, and in the meantime Dinky and her friends plan their escape, while trying to avoid the clutches of the trash- dwelling rodents who call themselves "the forgotten children".... This is an animated film that began life in 2012 as a short and was subsequently expanded to full length by the two directors, Alberto Vasquez and Pedro Rivero. It is beautifully wrought, a piece of gorgeous (if often bleak) drawing, and the characters really get under your skin. But oh, it's so tragic for everyone involved; although the final images show a kind of beautiful transcendence, by then this viewer's heart was already completely broken by the pathos of it all. If you don't mind having your heart broken by film (as I don't), then give yourself the haunting pleasure of seeing this film!
Beautifully Rendered, But Still a Soap
By 1762, the Joseon dynasty in Korea has been in power for about 300 years, and it's managed to stay in power that long through a mixture of Confucian disciplinary skills amongst the functionaries and adherence to strict codes of behavior and style in the court. Yeongjo (Song Kang-ho) has been King for decades; his son by a concubine, Sado (Yoo Ah-in) is the Crown Prince but he doesn't follow the Confucian teachings (in fact, he hates to study at all) and doesn't adhere to behavioral norms either. When, in a fit of madness, he decides to assassinate his father, his plot is foiled and the King, unable to accuse him of high treason because that would place the dynasty in peril, decides to name him a commoner and condemn him to death. A terrible death, though, one in which the Crown Prince is placed in a sealed wooden box and left in the hot sun to slowly die of thirst and hunger. As the days pass, the story of how such a thing came to pass is told in a series of flashbacks, detailing the tragedy of this royal family
. This film is based on a true incident in Korean history, one that is of huge importance in that culture because of all the social resonance it encompasses. The film is beautifully created, with sumptuous costumes and gorgeous vistas, and both lead actors are convincing in their roles. But, well, the story comes across as quite sentimental and melodramatic (just about all the various women do in the film is weep silently, although there is a memorable scene with the Dowager Queen late in the film), and frankly, at 125 minutes, it's just way longer than it needed to be. In particular, the last 10-15 minutes are quite pointless, at least to someone who is not Korean and thus doesn't have the cultural or historical background to appreciate it. I liked it overall, but it could have done with some judicious editing, I think.