That said, this fest had no dogs in it for us, although there wasn't a Pinnacle-level triumph either. But an average of "Good" is still pretty great. Kudos to the fest for programming heavily in neo-noir and films about architecture, both of which piqued my interest nicely. Extra props not only to cinematic boon companion his_regard but to young Colin who caught most of them with us.
Blade of the Immortal (Japan, Takashi Miike) Unkillable samurai Manji battles the weapon masters of the antinomian Itto-ryu fencing school (and hordes of mooks) in one of the best superhero films I’ve seen since Winter Soldier. Bloody carnage, moral nuance, chambara action, nods to Leone, and did I mention bloody carnage build to a magnificent elegy for the age of heroes. Miike continues his art’s laudable climb out of nihilism in this, his 100th film.
November (Film, Estonia/Netherlands/Poland, Rainer Sarnet, 2017) Teen peasant girl (and werewolf) Liina loves teen peasant boy Hans who loves the newly arrived German baroness. Set in a world infused with Estonian folk belief, from the Devil and the personified plague on down to love potions, and lensed in amazing black and white by Mart Taniel, this film evokes actual fairy tales better than almost anything I’ve ever seen.
Thoroughbreds (US, Cory Finley) Teenage Connecticut rich girls Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) find friendship in sociopathy and plot the murder of Lily’s odious stepfather. Finley’s playwriting experience pays off in a taut script perfectly played by his two leads and Anton Yelchin as a lower-class drug dealer whose moral compass maybe hasn’t corroded completely.
The Merciless (South Korea, Byun Sung-hyun) Undercover cop infiltrates a smuggling ring in Busan, but this being an Asian film, finds himself ever-closer friends with his gangster target. Tiny script wobble in the last act can’t erase the control and ease of the direction, or the power of the acting.
The Experimental City (US, Chad Friedrichs) Zippily edited and filmed in a period-TV filter and palette, this documentary tells the story of a progressive technocratic dream of a domed city in Minnesota, and the local protests that stopped it in 1973. Makes excellent and ample use of archival recordings and footage of other Modernist urban mirages to illuminate and even celebrate its quixotic subject.
Faces/Places (France, Agnes Varda and J.R.) Famed director Varda and hipster poster artist J.R. team up and hit the road to capture and depict the stories of ordinary French people. Sweet and nice as French pastry, and nourishing as French bread, this celebration of la joie de vie makes a virtue of its fabrication, much as do the artists involved.
Chasing the Blues (Chicago, Scott Smith) Record collector (Grant Rosenmeyer) resumes his quest for a legendary blues album the instant he gets out of prison. Likeable shaggy dog comedy gets good value from brief appearances by Jon Lovitz and Steve Guttenberg, but it’s really a fun excuse to make up a blues legend and riff on it.
Sicilian Ghost Story (France/Italy/Switzerland, Fabio Grassadonia & Antonio Piazza) Middle-school girl Luna becomes increasingly obsessed, suffering nightmares and waking dreams after her true love Giuseppe is abducted by the Mafia. Based on a real 1993 kidnap-murder, the directors cast Sicilian unknowns as the children to quite frankly amazing effect. The dream, fairy tale, and mythic elements don’t quite blend with the crime and love stories, which is the only reason this ambitious film (barely) misses the Recommended mark.
Have a Nice Day (China, Jian Liu) When driver Xiao impulsively steals a bag with a million yuan at knife-point from a courier for “Uncle Liu” it sets off an early-Tarantino-ish tour through the grifters and criminals and weirdos connected to Xiao, Liu, or the bag. Animated in strong line and color against detailed unmoving backgrounds depicting a grottily anonymous Chinese city, and scored with (not enough) pop music, it’s its own beast even if that beast is a shaggy dog.
Reconciliation (Poland, Maciej Sobieszczański) In 1945, Silesian farm boy Franek becomes a guard at a Communist labor camp to rescue an inmate: Anna, the Polish girl he loves. Her lover Erwin, a German, is also interned in the camp, and the tragic drama builds inevitably from there. A little slow and a lot brutal, the film distances itself from the characters in the interest of universality, but at the expense of involvement.
The Line (Slovakia/Ukraine/Czech Rep, Peter Bebjak) Slovakian cigarette smuggler Adam faces family pressures from mom, wife, and daughter, and professional pressures from his Ukrainian mafiya supplier to run drugs. A fine crime story, especially for Dracula Dossier GMs looking for more on the Count’s Slovakian smuggler minions, but nothing except the setting particularly stands out.
Gemini (US, Aaron Katz) Personal assistant (Lola Kirke) to a movie star (Zoë Kravitz) becomes a suspect in her murder. I was all set to love this stylized, prefab tour through the “Hollywood crime story” trope box until it just ran out of road with a terminal anticlimax. Kirke is super, though, so keep her on your radar for when she hopefully gets a script with a fourth act.
Control (Belgium, Jan Verheyen) Belgian police detectives Vincke and Verstuyft (reason and emotion, respectively) hunt a serial killer in Antwerp but their partnership founders when Verstuyft sleeps with a near-victim and possible material witness. Plays like a two-hour television episode from a well-shot procedural TV show; since it’s the third in a series of films, it essentially is.
Tokyo Vampire Hotel (Japan, Sion Sono) If Sono had made this as a standalone film rather than recutting 2 hours and 22 minutes from his Amazon Japan miniseries, it would likely rank much higher. Sono’s trademark combination of stunningly beautiful images and hyperviolence adds two feuding clans of vampires, but his wild inventiveness seems more like flailing at TV sprawl lengths.
Budapest Noir (Hungary, Éva Gárdos) High gloss and low budget can work but don’t here: the overlighting minimizes menace and the empty streets remove realism from this toothless tale of a reporter in 1936 Budapest investigating a murdered prostitute. (Glimpses of Budapest’s hidden self are sparse but welcome.) But our protagonist has no skin in the game, no wounded nature, and no iconic code: being a jerk is not actually a tragic flaw.
Mon Mon Mon Monsters (Taiwan, Giddens Ko) Teen bullies and their sullen target capture a c.h.u.d. and slowly weaponize it between bouts of torture — while its sister searches for her lost sibling. Gets points for a good monster and a properly decrepit mise en scene, but I remain of the opinion that having a completely unsympathetic protagonist is usually a mistake.