Review: Luz (Germany 2018)

A borderline-experimental possession horror film, Luz straddles the line between arthouse and horror, with enough unsettling atmosphere, blood, and nudity to satisfy gorehounds, but an avant-garde approach that wouldn’t seem out of place in a museum installation.

It can take time to get into the rhythms of Luz, indeed just to figure out what’s going on. The basic story, of a psychically gifted cabdriver named Luz (Luana Velis) being pursued by a demonic entity from her past is not complicated from a plot standpoint, but the filmmaking is highly theatrical and deliberately offputting, forgoing most of the usual tropes of the genre, and trusting the audience to keep up with who is possessed and why.

The film hits an early highpoint with seduction/confrontation between a consulting police psychologist (Jan Bluthardt) and an apparent barfly (played by Julia Riedler) who turns out to be deeply connected to the events.  Riedler goes big, providing a bird-like, off-kilter performance that wouldn’t be out of place in a Guy Maddin silent – given the almost affectless performance from Velis as the title character, I would have preferred more out of Riedler. Luz, the center of the storm, is unfortunately the least compelling of the main characters.

Where the film really stands out, however, is sound design. Director Tilman Singer (in his debut and thesis film), soundtrack creator Simon Waskow, and the rest of their team create a sonic landscape of reverb, isolated dialogue, and overlapping diegetic and non-diegetic sounds, with constant whispering, multiple languages, and an emphasis on small noises (the crunch of celery, the rustle of clothing) that wouldn’t be out of place in a Cattet/Forzani joint like Let the Corpses Tan. There’s a droning quality that makes Luz sometimes feel like the aural equivalent of a Sunn 0))) album, and I dug it.

Luz is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but those seeking more outré sensorial freak-outs along the lines of Eraserhead or Beyond the Black Rainbow will appreciate this new voice in horror.

2 1/2 out of 4 stars (Above average).

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Review: The White Storm 2: Drug Lords – NYAFF 2019

This is some classic Hong Kong bullshit right here. I saw the original White Storm a while back, but I’m pretty sure this has nothing to do with it. Instead, Herman Yau sets up a wild grudge match between former gangster buddies turned businessman-and-quasi-Batman (Andy Lau) and drug lord (Louis Koo), that culminates in one of the best action scenes I’ve seen in years as cars and bullets rip through HK’s Central Station (took me a moment to recognize it).

None of it makes much sense, all of it is wildly melodramatic, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen as many wives and girlfriends get killed for dramatic effect in one movie 9or as many people plunge to heir deaths from buildings outside of The Towering Inferno), but it’s fun in that uniquely HK way.

By the way, does Andy Lau ever actually age?

2 1/2 out of 4 stars (good).

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Review: Fly Me to the Saitama (Japan 2019) – NYAFF 2019

I fucking loved this movie. Perhaps the campiest thing I’ve seen in years, this boys-love Romeo and Juliet fable of a Rococo oppressive Tokyo dominating its lame bedroom suburb neighbor Saitama (imagine if folks from New Jersey needed visas just to enter NYC) is an insane riot of color and set design that made laugh out loud with glee. Repeatedly.

Director Hideki Takeuchi (of the similarly delightful, though much lower key, Thermae Romae) unfailingly leans into the crazy: Saitama is a mud-filled wasteland while Tokyo students prance around in kimonos on white horses, and the world is a mix of steampunk, medieval fashion, and high sci-fi. Not to mention that the lead male teenagers in this star-crossed love story are played by 44 year old musician Gackt in full Dracula-meets-Barry Lyndon garb, and a cross-dressing Fumi Nikaido playing male as the Tokyo Governor’s son.

I legitimately have no idea how well the humor translates (though if audience laughter is any guide, pretty well). I’ve lived in Tokyo (practically on the Tokyo-Saitama border, just the right side of Tokorozawa) and I know there were plenty of jokes so local that they went over my head, but when we finally get to see the prefectures one step further removed from Saitama and they are populated by LITERAL DINOSAURS, I dropped any resistance.

4 out of 4 stars (great).

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Review: The Perfection (2019)

I am genuinely uncertain whether what I just watched was terrible terrible, or hilariously awesomely terrible. And I’m not sure if the director and cast know either. But I wasn’t bored.

I attended a screening with a Q&A from director Richard Shepard and stars Alison Williams and Logan Browning, and Shepard said the film was shot in 24 days, cheap and fast, from an idea he developed himself for Williams, and that seems about right. Shepard also said his inspiration was partly the films of Park Chan-Wook, and that seems about right too. Though to me, less Park’s recent work and more the earlier bits like Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and mixed in with things like Ebola Syndrome and Audition and Black Swan.

Tonally the film is all over the place, I had no idea what to expect (all I knew going in was “Alison Williams and cellos”) and it felt like the film shifted genres from styled “chapter” to “chapter” – psychological thriller, body horror, gory revenge, exploitation. It’s deeply silly, occasionally beautiful, more often goofily conceived and performed. Steven Weber (of Wings fame) is a highlight, building on his fun turn as an Armenian mobster in Party Down to show his chops as a great character actor. It definitely left me curious what others thought.

And one last note. Without spoiling anything, how weirdly fitting and ironic that this particular narrative would come from the now disgraced Miramax.

2 out of 4 stars (average). Honestly, this film is very hard to rate. In some ways it’s a 1 star movie, in others it’s a 3 star movie. So I averaged it out.

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Review: The Ranger (USA 2018)

The Ranger, directed by Jenn Wexler and co-written by Wexler and Giaco Furino, is a fun, tight, modern indie slasher, in the tradition of “roll up your sleeves” regional splatter flicks like The Mutilatorand “punks vs. hicks” schlock like Punk Vacation.  While the film suffers a bit from bipolar plotting and tone, solid performances from leads Chloe Levine and Jeremy Holm keep things on track and make for a satisfying splatter flick with an emotional core. Continue reading

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CSB Interview with Kanata Wolf, Director of Smokin’ On the Moon – NYAFF 2018

Kanata Wolf’s first film, Smokin’ On the Moon (Japan 2017) had its International Premiere as part of the 17th New York Asian Film Festival.  The film stars Arata Iura and Ryo Narita as two aimless thirty-somethings, living weed-filled blissful lives until narrative vicissitudes force them to grow up and face the real world.  I had a chance to speak with Wolf, in NYC along with cast members Shaq and Dankichi Magnum, and his producer Tadahiro Sekiguchi, to present the film, about shooting a weed film in Japan, the apartment complex where he shot much of the film, and foiling audience expectations. 

CSB:  First off, why do you go by Kanata Wolf for this film?

KANATA WOLF:  My real surname is Tanaka, so I reversed it.  And my first name is Yuichiro and the kanji in it is the same as “wolf.”  I am only using that name for films, not for novels.

CSB:  This is your first feature film and you also wrote the script?

KANATA WOLF:  Yes. My background is in music videos, not film.  Here, first I wrote the novel, that’s where it all started.  The Japanese name of the story actually translates as Rooster, from one of the main characters [the character played by Ryo Narita]. Continue reading

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Review: Premika (Thailand 2017) – NYAFF 2018

Courtesy of M Pictures

Those in the mood for midnight movie fare need look no further than Premika, an absolutely bugnuts karaoke-themed horror movie out of Thailand. It’s funny, it’s gross, and it’s even a bit heartbreaking. Premika is gonzo filmmaking at its best, and I kind of loved it, stupid as it is. Continue reading

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Review: The Big Call (China/HK 2017) – NYAFF 2018

© 2017 Universe Entertainment Limited

The Big Call, the latest from Oxide Pang, is so hilariously overwrought (even by Hong Kong standards) for its subject matter that I spent most of the first half of the movie convinced it was a sly parody.  No such luck tough, this police thriller about the glamorous world of telephone scamming is dead serious. Continue reading

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CSB Interview with Richard V. Somes, Director of We Will Not Die Tonight – NYAFF 2018

Courtesy of Strawdog Studio Production

Richard V. Somes’s film, We Will Not Die Tonight (Philippines 2018) has its World Premiere tonight, June 29, as part of the 17th New York Asian Film Festival.  The film stars Erich Gonzales as Kray, a down-on-her-luck stuntwoman who stumbles into a dangerous situation with her friends and ends up having to fight for her life against a vicious gang.  I had a chance to speak with Somes, in NYC to present the film, about shooting on a tight schedule and budget, stunt work in the Philippines, and the greatness of The Warriors. 

CSB: I understand you shot this film in eight days.  How did you manage that?

SOMES: It was all about making the crew and the actors feel comfortable with long hours of work and long hours of action and fight scenes. I said to them, “This has no budget, and this is a passion project for us, you can always say no.”  But, of course, the main actress, Erich, she really wanted to do the film.  So I surrounded her with a lot of friends, and most of the actors I tapped to be producers.  They didn’t ask for compensation or anything, but my offer to them was that they would be producers and get back-end, hoping we could distribute it or sell it somewhere.  And the plan totally worked. They were more passionate because they were also producers, so they wanted to do their best, so that we could sell the project someday. Continue reading

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Review: Dynamite Graffiti (Japan 2018) – NYAFF 2018

© 2018 “Dynamite Graffiti” Film Partners

The 17th New York Asian Film Festival kicks off tonight at Lincoln Center and I could not be more excited.  I’ve been coming to Subway Cinema’s annual extravaganza’s since before they even were the NYAFF, and they’ve never once failed to put on a good show.  This year’s fest promises to be no different, with the now customary assortment of crowd-pleasers, big budget action, serious arthouse, and midnight movies.  All the favorite genres are out – we’ve got the gory Korean historical epics (Age of Blood), the Hong Kong crime thrillers (Beast Stalkers), the indie Japanese zombie horror (One Cut of the Dead) and freak-outs (Smokin’ on the Moon), a Thai surprise (Premika), and a robust selection from the upstart film industries of Malaysia and the Philippines. Continue reading

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