December 11, 2015

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Deprived of Moss

In a very special episode of our clinging-to-Mount-Rushmore podcast, Ken and I talk scenario revision, Hitchcock/Truffaut, FanExpo GM tips, and John Keel.

November 27, 2015

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Real Made-Up History

In the latest episode of our towering concrete podcast, Ken and I talk favorite NYPL maps, Majestic Overwatch, FanExpo Q & A, and le Corbusier.

November 20, 2015

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Fred Williamson Syndrome

In the latest episode of our delicious podcast, Ken and I talk powergaming, the science of taste, our Dracula movie, and James Jesus Angleton.

November 13, 2015

November 06, 2015

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: If You Violate a Ghost's Trade Policy

In the latest episode of our ever so consistent podcast, Ken and I talk monster consistency, normalized necromancy and the latest raid on Powell’s Portland.

October 30, 2015

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Another Excuse To Drink In the Street

In this ghostly and gobliny episode of our spooktacular podcast, Ken and I talk all things Halloween. Sub-topics include the mythology of the holiday, a riffed scenario, mirrors and the North Berwick witch trials.

October 23, 2015

October 16, 2015

October 02, 2015

September 25, 2015

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: I Was a 10 Year Old Nihilist

In the latest episode of our ursine-aware podcast, Ken and I talk adventure design symbiosis, deep GUMSHOE tips, new Asian action, and the changed bear timeline.

September 22, 2015

2015 Toronto International Film Festival Capsule Review Round-Up

For your clipping and saving convenience as you look for new and rare cinematic treats over the next eighteen months or so, I give you my round-up of capsule reviews from the films I just saw at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. Titles appear in rough order of preference as of this writing. They will doubtless continue to slip and slide around in my estimation with the distance of time. If you’re looking for a list that will contain movies you can find right away, see my 2014 list, many of which have now made the rounds and are now available on various home video delivery systems.

Overall I felt like I had a great year because I picked well. Unlike other years I am not left with the impression that there was a ton of equally great stuff I could as well have chosen. Or maybe a strong year for Asian cinema, which I tend to program heavily anyway, made up for a slightly fallow year from the rest of the world.

The Best

High-Rise [UK, Ben Wheatley] Reserved anatomy instructor (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a brutalist apartment tower run by its strangely intrusive architect (Jeremy Irons) just before its descent into orgiastic madness. Phantasmagorical adaptation of the classic JG Ballard conjures weird beauty from the ugliest elements of 70s design.

An [Japan, Naomi Kawase] Sad-eyed pancake stall operator gives in to the entreaties of a sweet-natured elderly woman who offers to improve his bean paste--the crucial ingredient that gives the film its name. Quiet, beautifully wrought drama starts out as a delightful food procedural on the order of Tampopo or Babette's Feast but becomes so much more.

Murmur of the Hearts [Taiwan, Sylvia Chang] Memories of her family's dissolution keep a painter from connecting with her equally closed-off boxer boyfriend, or seeking out the brother she hasn't seen since childhood. Accumulates emotional power through sensitively observed, authentic character moments.

Recommended

Hong Kong Trilogy: Preschooled, Preoccupied, Preposterous [HK, Christopher Doyle] Hong Kong residents from grade schoolers to Umbrella Movement activists to seniors share their thoughts and aspirations against a series of gorgeous vignettes, some whimsical, others melancholy. Moving non-narrative feature captures the spirit of the city and the evanescence of life.

Hitchcock / Truffaut [US, Kent Jones] Audio from the original interviews, clips galore, and observations from today's top directors provide a documentary extension of what is arguably the most influential film book of all time, Francois Truffaut's collection of conversations with Alfred Hitchcock. If you don't want Hitchcock and Scorsese and Fincher and Linklater et al  to illuminate more to you about storytelling in than you can absorb in a single sitting, I'm not sure we really know each other after all.

Endless River [South Africa, Oliver Hermanus] After his wife and children are murdered in a brutal home invasion, a French ex-pat finds himself drawn to a waitress, whose husband is a police suspect in the case. Layered, ambiguous noir drama evokes James M. Cain and the sweep of 50s CinemaScope.

The Promised Land [China, He Ping] Dance instructor returns to her small town, recalls the love and freedom of her time in Beijing with her hockey coach boyfriend. Subtly rendered drama amplified by a keenly beautiful visual style.

The Lobster [Greece, Yorgos Lanthimos] Sad architect (Colin Farrell) hopes to maintain his humanity in an alternate reality dystopia where unmarrieds have 45 days to find new partners, or be transformed into animals. Alternatively funny and unsettling absurdist satire of the rules societies and individuals fight to impose on romantic love.

Office [HK, Johnnie To] More than the markets are melting down for everyone from the new hires to the CEO (Chow Yun-Fat) of a trading firm headed for an IPO. Musical based on a play by star Sylvia Chang finds To continuing his  experimentations with space by leaning into the artificially of 3D on a gleaming, heavily stylized set.

Der Nachtmahr [Germany, AKIZ] Teen girl is haunted by a homunculus-like creature, leading both her hard-partying friends and uptight bourgeois parents to think she’s going crazy. Delirious fable of misunderstood youth plays like the Austrian spawn of Harmony Korine and Frank Henenlotter.

Men & Chicken [Denmark, Anders Thomas Jensen] Put-upon prof and his indignant, chronically masturbating brother (Mads Mikkelsen in his most hilarious performance) discover that they have four degenerate brothers living in the remote island redoubt of their rogue geneticist biological father. Weird, hilarious and even touching comedy of twisted family ties.

The Clan [Argentina, Pablo Trapero] State security officer in the late days of the Argentinian dictatorship enlists his family in a kidnap-for-profit ring. Bracing true crime drama takes cues from the Scorsese style guide.

My Big Night [Spain, Alex de la Iglesia] Grueling taping of a New Year’s Eve TV extravaganza devolves into chaos. Explosion of comic energy from beginning to end.

A Tale of Three Cities [HK, Mabel Cheung] The turbulence of China in the 30s to 50s tests the love between a Nationalist spy (Lau Ching-Wan) and a tough-minded young widow (Tang Wei.) Glossy, star-driven romantic epic based on the lives of Jackie Chan's parents

Hardcore [Russia, Ilya Naishuller] Newly awakened cyborg super-soldier shoots, punches, parkours and rail-guns his way through a legion of mooks to stop a telekinetic villain from assembling a world-conquering army. Every time you think this crazypants high-action extravaganza, shot entirely in POV, has gone up to eleven, it finds a whole new eleven.

Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) [France, Eva Husson] Rift between two high schoolers over a narcissistic boy triggers out of control sex parties. Dreamy dramas is subversive in depicting  extreme teenage sexuality as entirely non-apocalyptic.

Journey to the Shore [Japan, Kiyoshi Kurosawa] Woman goes on road trip with the very visible, quite solid ghost of her husband (Tadanobu Asano.) Seems to lack the director’s telltale unpredictable strangeness… but only at first.

Evolution [France, Lucile Hadžihalilovic] Pre-pubescent boys on remote island discover that their so-called, oddly young mothers and nurses are performing weird medical experiments on them. Hypnotic tone poem suffused with horror themes and imagery.

SPL2: A Time For Consequences [HK, Soi Cheang] HK cop (Wu Jing) thrown into a Bangkok prison by organ traffickers has no way of knowing that he is the one bone marrow donor who can save the leukemia-stricken daughter of its one honest guard (Tony Jaa.) Baroque fight flick is best enjoyed by setting aside the thought that it will bear any resemblance whatsoever to SPL.

The Whispering Star [Japan, Sion Sono] An android courier delivers packages to the galaxy's few remaining humans, her only company a child-like navigational computer and her own tape recorded diary. Austere contemplation of the pleasures and perils of solitude, with the planets the protagonist visits represented by the still-abandoned streets and structures of the Fukushima quarantine zone.

Right Now Wrong Then [South Korea, Hong Sang-soo] An encounter between a feckless film director and a young painter plays out differently in two variations. Injects a touch of extra warmth to the minimalistic stock elements Hong allows himself in each of his films: chance, embarrassment, desire and overindulgence in soju.

Collective Invention [South Korea, Kwon Oh-kwang] Aspiring reporter finds a web of corporate corruption when he seeks out a pharmaceutical test subject who has mutated into a fish man. Engaging satire is what you might get if Frank Capra made a movie about Deep Ones.

Yakuza Apocalypse [Japan, Takashi Miike] Ordinary people start turnng into yakuza vampires, depriving actual gangster of victims to prey on. Spoof of genre-blending and fight film tropes goes beyond gonzo.

Honor Thy Father [Phillipines, Erik Matti] Landscaper with a shady past resorts to desperate measures after the collapse of his father-in-law's evangelical pyramid scheme leaves his family facing the wrath of violent scam victims. Tough, socially informed emerging world noir.

Very Big Shot [Lebanon, Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya] Drug dealer who acts faster than he thinks decides to dispose of a windfall of pills by faking a film shoot, so he can avoid airport security scans by hiding the goods in sealed film canisters. Adroitly executes a difficult shift of tone and genre, from tense crime drama to moviemaking satire.

Baskin [Turkey, Can Evrenol] Cops called for backup at an abandoned, Ottoman-era police station descend into Hell. Hypnagogic pageant of initiatory creepiness, conjured with micro-budget ingenuity Sam Raimi would be proud of.

French Blood [French, Diastème] Tightly wound racist skinhead gradually develops a conscience but finds it hard to distance himself from his old friends and National Front connections. What initially seems like another run through familiar territory slowly reveals itself as an observational story of incremental redemption.

Veteran [South Korea, Seung-wan Ryoo] Ass-kicking loose cannon cop won't let go of a case against a cocky young psycho executive. Hard action comedy hits the crowd-pleasing beats.

Green Room [US, Jeremy Saulnier] Punk band winds up trapped in a club surrounded by white supremacists intent on wiping them out. Violent survival thriller starring Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots and Alia Shawkat, with Patrick Stewart as head bad guy.

Bleak Street [Mexico, Arturo Ripstein] Fatal destiny entwines twin dwarf masked wrestlers and a pair of desperate, aging prostitutes. Deglamorizes the true crime flick in persuasively grimy B&W, with the prowling camera as omniscient eye of a jaded, judging God.

Lolo [France, Julie Delpy] When his fashion show organizer mom (Julie Delpy) comes home from vacation with a hopelessly uncool new boyfriend, an emotionally arrested young artist schemes to deep-six their relationship. Urbane yet raunchy comedy of Oedipal manners tips the hat to Blake Edwards.

Girls Lost [Sweden, Alexandra-Therese Keining] Trio of girls who get bullied at school for looking like they might be lesbians drink the sap of a mysterious plant and gain the power to transform into boys. Uses fantasy premise to explore the intersection between teen drama and gender identity.

Blood of My Blood [Italy, Marco Bellochio] In the 19th century, clerics try to wring a confession of witchcraft from a nun; in the 21st, fading vampires fear encroaching bureaucracy. Thinky historical allegory given life by a series of striking images.

Demon [Poland, Marcin Wrona] English groom meeting the bride's family for the first time at a vodka-soaked Polish wedding gets possessed by a dybbuk. Stage play adaptation adds allegory and ghost story elements to the wedding spiraling out of control sub-genre.

Good

Schneider vs. Bax [Netherlands, Alex van Warmerdam] A client assigns two assassins, one a middle-class control freak, the other a drug-snarfling novelist, to kill one other. Another enigmatic van Warmerdam fable about darkness and the bourgeiosie, this one a hitman farce of chance and mischance.

Okay

Northern Soul [UK, Elaine Constantine] Two lads in 1974 Lancashire bond over rare soul records and amphetamines. Bromantic music drama colors within the lines.

The Devil’s Candy [US, Sean Byrne] Cool metalhead dad loses himself in painting a horrific mural psychically evoking the activities of a child murderer connected to his newly purchased home. Most examples of the current parental-terror-home-ownership-anxiety-demon-haunting cycle have nowhere to go in the third act. Add serial killer tropes? Bingo: third act!

I Promise You Anarchy [Mexico, Julio Hernández Cordón] Gay skatepunks in careless love ramp up their black market blood donor network for Mexico City narcos. Social realist crime story with slice-of-life pacing.

Almost Good

Lace Crater [US, Harrison Atkins] Twenty-something woman develops strange symptoms after sleeping with a burlap-clad ghost on a Hamptons getaway weekend with friends. Mix of mumblecore and body horror has fun elements, like a supernatural entity who is as tentative and hyper-verbal as the rest of the characters, but no third act.

Not Recommended

The Mind’s Eye [US, Joe Begos] Psychokinetics escape a research facility whose megalomaniacal director is performing medical experiments on them. Rough-around-the-edges cover version of Scanners has all of its exploding heads but none of its subversive metaph0rical content.

Full Contact [Netherlands, Thomas Verbeek] French drone targeting pilot confronts the new stresses of 21st century air warfare. Dispenses with the obvious beats of a drone war story in act one, then shifts, none too compellingly, into the Antonioni zone.

February [US, Osgood Perkins] An ominous force threatens two girls left behind over winter break at a private girls' school. Slow burn horror flick uses recursive structure to complicate its thin narrative. With Kiernan Shipka and Emma Roberts.

The Worst

Frenzy [Turkey, Emin Alper] As Istanbul falls into police state lockdown, a parolee informing for the cops and his brother, who works for the government secretly shooting stray dogs, descend into separate paranoias. Hallmark signs of ill-wrought story construction include repeated story beats, dream sequences, idiot plotting, and the general wet cement pacing endemic to Turkish art cinema.

Sparrows [Iceland, Rúnar Rúnarsson] When his mom leaves the country, a soulful teen has to move to a remote northern fishing village to live with his alcoholic father. I was on board this gorgeously shot look at the way a place can rob young people of agency all the way up to its ending, a truly reprehensible piece of writing (and staging.)

September 21, 2015

TIFF 15: Tony Jaa Has More Than One Use For a Length of Chain

From past years, have I learned the lesson of programming the last Sunday first, so that it’s loaded with treats for the brain-weary festival-goer? Why, yes, I have. Here’s what I saw on the final day of TIFF 15.

Hong Kong Trilogy [HK, Christopher Doyle, 4] Hong Kong residents from grade schoolers to Umbrella Movement activists to seniors share their thoughts and aspirations against a series of gorgeous vignettes, some whimsical, others melancholy. Moving non-narrative feature captures the spirit of the city and the evanescence of life.

There should be a poster of Christopher Doyle that says "You must be this magical to make a non-narrative film about everyday life."

Girls Lost [Sweden, Alexandra-Therese Keining, 4] Trio of girls who get bullied at school for looking like they might be lesbians drink the sap of a mysterious plant and gain the power to transform into boys. Uses fantasy premise to explore the intersection between teen drama and gender identity.

A Tale of Three Cities [HK, Mabel Cheung, 4] The turbulence of China in the 30s to 50s tests the love between a Nationalist spy (Lau Ching-Wan) and a tough-minded young widow (Tang Wei.) Glossy, star-driven romantic epic based on the lives of Jackie Chan's parents.

Research for this film largely consisted of the director drinking with Jackie Chan's dad.

In Hong Kong movies there's sometimes that moment. The moment when you find yourself thinking, "Oh no! Not the montage of the happy times! Not the montage!" (Don't worry, not actually a spoiler.)

SPL2: A Time For Consequences [HK, Soi Cheang, 4] HK cop (Wu Jing) thrown into a Bangkok prison by organ traffickers has no way of knowing that he is the one bone marrow donor who can save the leukemia-stricken daughter of its one honest guard (Tony Jaa.) Baroque fight flick is best enjoyed by setting aside the thought that it will bear any resemblance whatsoever to SPL.

My Big Night [Spain, Alex de la Iglesia, 4] Grueling taping of a New Year’s Eve TV extravaganza devolves into chaos. Explosion of comic energy from beginning to end.

Full capsule review round-up coming tomorrow.

Have a question about my TIFF capsule reviews? It may be frequently asked. If so, I have already answered it.

September 19, 2015

TIFF 15: There Ain’t No Apocalypse Like a Yakuza Apocalypse

Capsule reviews and notes from the Toronto International Film Festival, Saturday September 19th.

Augh. Brain. Clumped. And. Stuck. To. Inside. Of. Skull. But can’t skip a screening and sleep in, because today’s first flick comes from the director of Borgman:

Schneider vs. Bax [Netherlands, Alex van Warmerdam, 3.5] A client assigns two assassins, one a middle-class control freak, the other a drug-snarfling novelist, to kill one other. Another enigmatic van Warmerdam fable about darkness and the bourgeiosie, this one a hitman farce of chance and mischance.

I had this pegged as a 4 throughout, but disappointingly it whiffs its ending.

Lolo [France, Julie Delpy, 4] When his fashion show organizer mom (Julie Delpy) comes home from vacation with a hopelessly uncool new boyfriend, an emotionally arrested young artist schemes to deep-six their relationship. Urbane yet raunchy comedy of Oedipal manners tips the hat to Blake Edwards.

Delpy and her co-star were present for the screening.

Yakuza Apocalypse [Japan, Takashi Miike, 4] Ordinary people start turnng into yakuza vampires, depriving actual gangster of victims to prey on. Spoof of genre-blending and fight film tropes goes beyond gonzo, with a creature wearing a moth-eaten frog mascot suit as the main villain all the other bad guys are afraid of.

Miike was present at the screening, attending TIFF for the first time in fifteen years. I even stayed to hear the Q&A. Fortunately programmer Colin Geddes runs his Q&As by asking key questions himself and leaving little room for audience members to launch into their “this is more of a comment than a question” questions. Miike’s next film will be about people who become human-insect hybrids so they can journey to Mars to fight cockroaches. You know, that old saw.

The Mind’s Eye [US, Joe Begos, 2] Psychokinetics escape a research facility whose megalomaniacal director is performing medical experiments on them. Rough-around-the-edges cover version of Scanners has all of its exploding heads but none of its subversive metaph0rical content.

Very glad to have programmed nothing in the late evening slot. Must try for eight hours sleep, as I saved some of my most anticipated titles for the final day, Sunday. But as I type this: brain. Clumped. To. Inside. Of. Skull.

Have a question about my TIFF capsule reviews? It may be frequently asked. If so, I have already answered it.

September 18, 2015

TIFF 15: When You Become a Cyborg, Your Eleven Gets Recalibrated

Capsule reviews and notes from the Toronto International Film Festival, Friday September 18th.

Murmur of the Hearts [Taiwan, Sylvia Chang, 5] Memories of her family's dissolution keep a painter from connecting with her equally closed-off boxer boyfriend, or seeking out the brother she hasn't seen since childhood. Accumulates emotional power through sensitively observed, authentic character moments.

Though Chang is Taiwanese, she usually works in Hong Kong, making films that reflect its hallmark style. This one on the other hand is very recognizably Taiwanese. In the good, Edward Yang way, not the boring Hou Hsiao-Hsien way.

I just wish the title didn't follow the weird Hong Kong convention of finding English-language titles by randomly grabbing one from an existing movie. It's especially odd for a serious film adopting the title of a world cinema classic and changing it just enough to seem unidiomatic. You know what's a much better title for this one? Green Island. Just call it Green Island, people!

Hardcore [Russia, Ilya Naishuller, 4] Newly awakened cyborg super-soldier shoots, punches, parkours and rail-guns his way through a legion of mooks to stop a telekinetic villain from assembling a world-conquering army. Every time you think this crazypants high-action extravaganza, shot entirely in POV, has gone up to eleven, it finds a whole new eleven.

This film clearly uses the Feng Shui rules. It set off a bidding war between distributors and sold for $10 million. It has garnered a weirdly dismissive vibe from many critics. It is perhaps not enjoyed at its best when weary and unwilling, as so many fest reviewers are. But after the dust settles this will end up in the enduring list of cult action titles for sure. And then those critics will make like they liked it all along.

It also once more makes Midnight Madness the program that reverses complaints that not enough big sales have been made at the festival this year. Notch another defining pick for MM programmer Colin Geddes.

Right Now Wrong Then [South Korea, Hong Sang-soo, 4] An encounter between a feckless film director and a young painter plays out differently in two variations. Injects a touch of extra warmth to the minimalistic stock elements Hong allows himself in each of his films: chance, embarrassment, desire and overindulgence in soju.

Honor Thy Father [Phillipines, Erik Matti, 4] Landscaper with a shady past resorts to desperate measures after the collapse of his father-in-law's evangelical pyramid scheme leaves his family facing the wrath of violent scam victims. Tough, socially informed emerging world noir.

From the director of On the Job, about day parolee hit men.

Eva Doesn’t Sleep [Argentina, Pablo Agüero, 4] Archival footage and dramatic tableaus tell the strange fate of Eva Peron's body after her death in 1955. Dramatic scenes pack a greater punch in the writing, staging and acting departments than one typically expects from an experimental essay-style feature. With Gael Garcia Bernal and Denis Lavant.

Have a question about my TIFF capsule reviews? It may be frequently asked. If so, I have already answered it.

September 17, 2015

TIFF 15: Homunculus Problems, Just a Part of Growing Up

Capsule reviews and notes from the Toronto International Film Festival, Thursday, September 17th.

Blood of My Blood [Italy, Marco Bellochio, 4] In the 19th century, clerics try to wring a confession of witchcraft from a nun; in the 21st, fading vampires fear encroaching bureaucracy. Thinky historical allegory given life by a series of striking images.

From the director of Fists In Pocket and Devil in the Flesh.

Full Contact [Netherlands, Thomas Verbeek, 2] French drone targeting pilot confronts the new stresses of 21st century air warfare. Dispenses with the obvious beats of a drone war story in act one, then shifts, none too compellingly, into the Antonioni zone.

The main problem with making fiction about the drone war is that it is already an overly obvious metaphor.

The Clan [Argentina, Pablo Trapero, 4] State security officer in the late days of the Argentinian dictatorship enlists his family in a kidnap-for-profit ring. Bracing true crime drama takes cues from the Scorsese style guide.

From the director of Carancho.

Baskin [Turkey, Can Evrenol, 4] Cops called for backup at an abandoned, Ottoman-era police station descend into Hell. Hypnagogic pageant of initiatory creepiness, conjured with micro-budget ingenuity Sam Raimi would be proud of.

This is what I want in a Midnight Madness title--from somewhere unexpected, working at the very edge of its ambition, crazy but knowing. And with a blood-drenched taste of political subtext, too.

So to sum up: Turkish auteur cinema, back on festival moratorium. Emerging Turkish genre cinema, the opposite of that.

Der Nachtmahr [Germany, AKIZ, 4] Teen girl is haunted by a homunculus-like creature, leading both her hard-partying friends and uptight bourgeois parents to think she’s going crazy. Delirious fable of misunderstood youth plays like the Austrian spawn of Harmony Korine and Frank Henenlotter.

With Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth fame as the girl’s English teacher.

And Austria, you’ve got to stop undercutting your fantasy and horror pics by imposing the wrong kind of logic on them. You know what I’m talking about, Austria.

Have a question about my TIFF capsule reviews? It may be frequently asked. If so, I have already answered it.

The Birds: Worse

Worse
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TIFF 15: Who Gets Lonelier, Ghosts or Androids?

Capsule reviews and notes from the Toronto International Film Festival, Wednesday September 16th.

An [Japan, Naomi Kawase, 5] Sad-eyed pancake stall operator gives in to the entreaties of a sweet-natured elderly woman who offers to improve his bean paste--the crucial ingredient that gives the film its name. Quiet, beautifully wrought drama starts out as a delightful food procedural on the order of Tampopo or Babette's Feast but becomes so much more.

Frenzy [Turkey, Emin Alper, 1] As Istanbul falls into police state lockdown, a parolee informing for the cops and his brother, who works for the government secretly shooting stray dogs, descend into separate paranoias. Hallmark signs of ill-wrought story construction include repeated story beats, dream sequences, idiot plotting, and the general wet cement pacing endemic to Turkish art cinema.

If you’re looking for the misnomer title of the fest, here you go. I knew this was a risk when I programmed but was misle by comparisons to Polanski and Cronenberg. But then to forgo all risk is the biggest film fest risk of all. Also it was kind of a dead slot.

Evolution [France, Lucile Hadžihalilovic, 4] Pre-pubescent boys on remote island discover that their so-called, oddly young mothers and nurses are performing weird medical experiments on them. Hypnotic tone poem suffused with horror themes and imagery.

Now this is a movie that can aptly claim to be a cutting from a Cronenbergian pseudopod. The obverse of the director's previous film, the much more lyrical weird fantasy Innocence, about girls' rites of passage.

The Whispering Star [Japan, Sion Sono, 4] An android courier delivers packages to the galaxy's few remaining humans, her only company a child-like navigational computer and her own tape recorded diary. Austere contemplation of the pleasures and perils of solitude, with the planets the protagonist visits represented by the still-abandoned streets and structures of the Fukushima quarantine zone.

Last year Takashi Miike had an austere formalist exercise that referenced genre tropes and Sono the crazypants Midnight Madness entry. This year it's the other way around.

I would not choose to see an entire day of meditatively paced titles, but one does not impose one's will on the festival. It imposes its will on you.

Journey to the Shore [Japan, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 4] Woman goes on road trip with the very visible, quite solid ghost of her husband (Tadanobu Asano.) Seems to lack the director’s telltale unpredictable strangeness… at first.

Have a question about my TIFF capsule reviews? It may be frequently asked. If so, I have already answered it.

September 15, 2015

TIFF ‘15: It's Hard Out There For a Deep One

Capsule reviews and notes from the Toronto International Film Festival, for titles seen Tuesday September 15th.

Okay, enough with the measly three-movie days. Time to get down to business.

The Promised Land [China, He Ping, 4] Dance instructor returns to her small town, recalls the love and freedom of her time in Beijing with her hockey coach boyfriend. Subtly rendered drama amplified by a keenly beautiful visual style.

This is the movie that tons of international directors are trying to make, except they lack the chops to captivate and instead only bore.

Collective Invention [South Korea, Kwon Oh-kwang, 4] Aspiring reporter finds a web of corporate corruption when he seeks out a pharmaceutical test subject who has mutated into a fish man. Engaging satire is what you might get if Frank Capra made a movie about Deep Ones.

The house was packed for this one, with not only TIFF regulars but kids from the Korean community who showed up to glimpse the pop superstar who appears in the role of the woebegone man-fish. In the film, you only see him in old photos or under an enormous piscine prosthetic.

Bleak Street [Mexico, Arturo Ripstein, 4] Fatal destiny entwines twin dwarf masked wrestlers and a pair of desperate, aging prostitutes. Deglamorizes the true crime flick in persuasively grimy B&W, with the prowling camera as omniscient eye of a jaded, judging God.

The Devil’s Candy [US, Sean Byrne, 3.5] Cool metalhead dad loses himself in painting a horrific mural psychically evoking the activities of a child murderer connected to his newly purchased home. Most examples of the current parental-terror-home-ownership-anxiety-demon-haunting cycle have nowhere to go in the third act. Add serial killer tropes? Bingo: third act

Lace Crater [US, Harrison Atkins, 2.5] Twenty-something woman develops strange symptoms after sleeping with a burlap-clad ghost on a Hamptons getaway weekend with friends. Mix of mumblecore and body horror has fun elements, such as a supernatural entity who is as tentative and hyper-verbal as the rest of the characters, but no third act.

Have a question about my TIFF capsule reviews? It may be frequently asked. If so, I have already answered it.

TIFF 15: Tom Hiddleston Gets High, JG Ballard High

Capsule reviews and notes from the Toronto International Film Festival, Monday September 14th.

High-Rise [UK, Ben Wheatley, 5] Reserved anatomy instructor (Tom Hiddleston) moves into a brutalist apartment tower run by its strangely intrusive architect (Jeremy Irons) just before its descent into orgiastic madness. Phantasmagorical adaptation of the classic JG Ballard conjures weird beauty from the ugliest elements of 70s design.

This feels more purely a Ballard piece than Cronenberg's Crash, which was such a quintessential Toronto movie. That opening shot of a cold morning Gardiner Expressway lays bare the weird dark heart of my beautiful city. High-Rise on the other hand keeps it British to the bone--1975 Britain to be precise. The spirit of Cronenberg isn't absent but there's a bunch of Lindsay Anderson and Python in its lineage too.

February [US, Osgood Perkins, 2] An ominous force threatens two girls left behind over winter break at a private girls' school. Slow burn horror flick uses recursive structure in attempt to complicate its thin narrative. With Keirnan Shipka and Emma Roberts.

Men & Chicken [Denmark, Anders Thomas Jensen, 4] Put-upon prof and his indignant, chronically masturbating brother (Mads Mikkelsen in his most uproarious performance) discover that they have four degenerate brothers living in the remote island redoubt of their rogue geneticist biological father. Weird, hilarious and even touching comedy of twisted family ties.

The director's first film since Adam's Apples, ten years ago.

 

 

 

 

Have a question about my TIFF capsule reviews? It may be frequently asked. If so, I have already answered it.

September 14, 2015

TIFF15: When Your Wedding Crasher is a Dybbuk

Capsule reviews and notes from the Toronto International Film Festival, Sunday September 13th. I am now well into the dreamtime phase of the festival, as my brain shifts all resources to taking in movies. As opposed to, say, correctly working out the breaks I have between movies and where to best get food. Or remembering what time I need to leave the house without writing it down. Practical considerations, what are they, really? Give me another jump cut.

Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) [France, Eva Husson, 4] Rift between two high schoolers over a narcissistic boy triggers out of control sex parties. Dreamy dramas is subversive in depicting  extreme teenage sexuality as entirely non-apocalyptic.

This one upends expectations to such a degree that I wasn’t sure all the way through if the filmmaker had found a viewpoint on the material. Even after it ended it took me a while to fully appreciate what it was doing and decide conclusively that I liked it.

Demon [Poland, Marcin Wrona, 4] English groom meeting the bride's family for the first time at a vodka-soaked Polish wedding gets possessed by a dybbuk. Stage play adaptation adds allegory and ghost story elements to the wedding spiraling out of control sub-genre.

Veteran [South Korea, Seung-wan Ryoo, 4] Ass-kicking loose cannon cop won't let go of a case against a cocky young psycho executive. Hard action comedy hits the crowd-pleasing beats.

Have a question about my TIFF capsule reviews? It may be frequently asked. If so, I have already answered it.

September 13, 2015

TIFF 15: Sometimes You Don't Want Patrick Stewart To Come Knocking


Capsule reviews and notes from the Toronto International Film Festival, Saturday Sept 12th.

Endless River [South Africa, Oliver Hermanus, 4] After his wife and children are murdered in a brutal home invasion, a French ex-pat finds himself drawn to a waitress, whose husband is a police suspect in the case. Layered, ambiguous noir drama evokes James M. Cain and the sweep of 50s CinemaScope.


Northern Soul [UK, Elaine Constantine, 3.5 ] Two lads in 1974 Lancashire bond over rare soul records and amphetamines. Bromantic music drama colors within the lines.


This was a replacement screening for Amazing Grace, a doc featuring late sixties footage of Aretha Franklin recording her classic gospel album of the same name. The filmmakers, using footage shot by the late Sydney Pollack, apparently decided to make a documentary about  Franklin without doing any research on her. Anyone familiar with her knows that her decades of experience in the music industry has left her extremely distrustful of business arrangements. So she got injunctions against them screening the film at Telluride and Chicago on the grounds that they were proceeding without her consent. The producers also then withdrew the title from TIFF, one hopes because they are now presenting Franklin with several of her legendary boxes full of cash.


Green Room [US, Jeremy Saulnier, 4] Punk band winds up trapped in a club surrounded by white supremacists intent on wiping them out. Violent survival thriller starring Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots and Alia Shawkat, with Patrick Stewart as head bad guy.


From the director of Blue Ruin, also recommended.


The Lobster [Greece, Yorgos Lanthimos, 4] Sad architect (Colin Farrell) hopes to maintain his humanity in an alternate reality dystopia where unmarrieds have 45 days to find new partners, or be transformed into animals. Alternatively funny and unsettling absurdist satire of the rules societies and individuals fight to impose on romantic love.


Other cast members include Rachel Weisz, John C. Reilly and Ben Whishaw.


Office [HK, Johnnie To, 4] More than the markets are melting down for everyone from the new hires to the CEO (Chow Yun-Fat) of a trading firm headed for an IPO. Musical based on a play by star Sylvia Chang finds To continuing his  experimentations with space by leaning into the artificially of 3D on a gleaming, heavily stylized set.

Office will be getting a limited theatrical run in North America from specialty distributor Well-GO USA. Look for it almost immediately if you live near a multiplex that carries films for the Chinese community.

Have a question about my TIFF capsule reviews? It may be frequently asked. If so, I have already answered it.

September 12, 2015

TIFF 15: When the Lebanese Drug Dealers are the Upbeat Part of the Day


Capsule reviews and comments on films seen yesterday, Friday Sept 11th.

French Blood [French, Diastème, 4] Tightly wound racist skinhead gradually develops a conscience but finds it hard to distance himself from his old friends and National Front connections. What initially seems like another run through familiar territory slowly reveals itself as an observational story of incremental redemption.

It's hard to make a movie about neo-Nazi skinheads that neo-Nazi skinheads don't find inspiring. They just watch Romper Stomper or La Haine for the adrenaline and symbology and mentally edit out the moral content. Indeed, as they edit out the moral content of actual life. This film, about a character who instead of being sucked into a personal apocalypse faces the plain old struggles of adulthood, might actually fit that bill.

Very Big Shot [Lebanon, Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya, 4] Drug dealer who acts faster than he thinks decides to dispose of a windfall of pills by faking a film shoot, so he can avoid airport security scans by hiding the goods in sealed film canisters. Adroitly executes a difficult shift of tone and genre, from tense crime drama to moviemaking satire.

Sparrows [Iceland, Rúnar Rúnarsson, 1] When his mom leaves the country, a soulful teen has to move to a remote northern fishing village to live with his alcoholic father. I was on board this gorgeously shot look at the way a place can rob young people of agency all the way up to its ending, a truly reprehensible piece of writing (and staging.).

Have a question about my TIFF capsule reviews? It may be frequently asked. If so, I have already answered it.



September 11, 2015

TIFF '15 Begins on a Vertiginous Note

It's Friday morning and thus time to capsule the movies I saw on Thursday, opening night of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival.

When the fest includes a documentary about film, it typically programs it so you can catch it as the very first of one's public screenings. I've learned to always do this when possible. The doc itself may or may not be a hard act to follow, but it reminds you of films that are. It's hard to think of a more perfect cinematic appetizer than this starter for the 40th anniversary festival. Release the films!

Hitchcock / Truffaut [US, Kent Jones, 4] Audio from the original interviews, clips galore, and observations from today's top directors provide a documentary extension of what is arguably the most influential film book of all time, Francois Truffaut's collection of conversations with Alfred Hitchcock. If you don't want Hitchcock and Scorsese and Fincher and Linklater et al to illuminate more to you about storytelling in than you can absorb in a single sitting, I'm not sure we really know each other after all.

I found this not just informative and absorbing but incredibly moving. Probably this tells you more about where I'm at at this moment in my life especially regarding, art and mortality and what we leave behind, than it does about the film. Or maybe everyone who's genuflected for a lifetime in the cathedral of cinema will feel the same. In which case maybe it's not a 4 but a 5.

And man I need to rewatch Vertigo again soon. And Psycho. And The Birds, and...

I Promise You Anarchy [Mexico, Julio Hernández Cordón, 3] Gay skatepunks in careless love ramp up their black market blood donor network for Mexico City narcos. Social realist crime story with slice-of-life pacing.


Have a question about my TIFF capsule reviews? It may be frequently asked. If so, I have already answered it.

September 10, 2015

It’s That Time of Year Again: The TIFF 15 Capsule Review FAQ

Once again it’s time for me to decamp from my game designerly duties and immerse myself full time in cinema at the Toronto International Film Festival. As I’ve done for many years, I’ll be writing capsule reviews of the movies I see and sharing them here.
This is the 40th anniversary of TIFF, which started out as the humble Festival of Festivals and has become the most important fest for prestige and international film in North America. An unprecedented number of flicks from my must-see directors unspool this year, making the always-complicated multi-level challenge of picking titles paradoxically easier and more vexing at the same time.

For those of you not crazy enough to take a vacation in which you see 45 films over eleven days, some questions may crop up. This post is here to answer them!

When will I get to see these films? A few titles appear in wide or limited theatrical release not long after their festival debuts. I mostly avoid these, since I’ll get another chance to see them soon. Most will continue to roll out to other film festivals, from London to Chicago and perhaps to a fest near you, over the next half a year or so. Those that get commercial releases will show up in movie houses over the next year, give or take. As little as ninety days after that, they’ll begin to filter onto disc, VOD, and finally streaming services like Netflix. Today’s distribution landscape makes it easier than ever for people to see obscure and niche titles, even when they live far from cities able to support thriving art house cinemas. Many of the films I saw and loved last year have by now appeared on Netflix, for example. This year a couple of the titles are from Netflix itself, like Cary Fukanaga’s much-anticipated Beasts of No Nation.

But you make me want to watch great films now! More a comment than a question, but I’ll allow it. To see something cool right away and program your own fest at home, consult my capsule review round up from last year.
Will you be seeing [major release making its debut in Toronto]? Almost undoubtedly not. Not at TIFF, anyway. When choosing titles I heavily weight the one that has yet to secure distribution. Although more films come our way eventually than ever, a few never surface again.

Will you be collecting these reviews into one post? Yes, at the fest’s end. To make my task harder, I’ll be ranking them in order of preference.

Will you be talking about it on Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff? As always. My capsule reviews will appear in the episode that drops on Oct 2nd.

What rating system do you use? I rank films from 1-5, with half points just to make you wonder why I don’t use a ten point scale. When compiling these into the long list, I translate these into verbal categories, sometimes adjusting up or down from my immediate impression.

1 – The Worst
2 – Not Recommended
3 – Okay
3.5 – Good
4 - Recommended
4.5 - Just Shy of a Masterpiece
5 - The Best

Isn’t this hard on the eyes? Yes. But it’s the legs that go first.

Reviews of tonight’s films drop tomorrow morning.

The Birds: Pronouns

Pronouns
Click here for the complete strip archive.

September 02, 2015

Finding Me at FanExpo Canada 2015

Once more this year I’ll be doing the guest thing amid the crazy hugeness of Toronto’s FanExpo. I won’t be at a booth, so if you’d like to chat a bit catch me in the hall before or after a panel. As ever, if you have books you’d like signed, I am more than happy to comply. Attendees can find me at the following panels, all on the weekend:

The Robin Laws Panel
Time: Saturday, 2:15 PM
Location: 703
Description: RPG Industry godfather & Fan Expo Stalwart Robin D. Laws talks about the industry, publishing, podcasting and crowdsourcing.

Game Master Master Class
Time: Saturday, 3:30 PM
Location: 713
Description: The Game Master's craft is a tricky one.  What are the tips and tricks you find most useful when it comes to making your games come alive.  And how do you handle... That guy?  The answer may surprise you!
Fellow panelists: Ed Greenwood, Malcolm Sheppard, Andrew  Valkauskas

Getting Started with Tabletop Roleplaying Games
Time: Sunday, 12:15 PM
Location: 703
Description: Wait, do we all need to buy a player's guide? Do I need miniatures? What's the deal with these dice?  You've wanted to try tabletop RPGs but don't know where to start! Our panel of experts will give you the guidance you need.
Fellow panelists: Andrew Hackard, Jonathan Lavallee, Sara McMillen

Advanced Kickstarting and Crowdfunding
Time: Sunday, 2:15 PM
Location: 717A
Description: Have you run a crowdfunding pitch?  Did you just run out of stretch goals halfway through? Did you have to scrap it all and start from sceratch?  Come share your experiences with the panel and your fellow attendees.
Fellow panelists: Peter Chiykowski, Andrew Hackard

State of the Game Industry
Time: Sunday, 3:45 PM
Location: 705
Description: Another year has passed, and the industry remains. What
new releases wowed the market? Are stores & distributors still
relevant in the age of Print on Demand and PDF sales?
Fellow panelists: Kate Bullock, Jonathan Lavallee, Phil Reed

August 28, 2015

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Semi-Facing Into the Abyss

In the latest episode of our ENnie-winning podcast, Ken and I talk Mutant City Spies, vegetables, the Pelgrane pipeline, and Trotsky gone Hollywood.

July 23, 2015

Finding Me at Gen Con 2015

Update: Original post transposed the times for the Pelgrane Press and Dramatic Interaction panels. The times and dates given below are now correct.

Looking for me at Gen Con? When not in a panel, headed to a panel, or coming back from a panel, I will endeavor during exhibit hall hours to make myself available at the Pelgrane Press booth. That’s booth 609 for those playing along at home. Ask me to sign Feng Shui 2, Dreamhounds of Paris, the new Firefly campaign Ghosts in the Black,  or any item from my back catalogue, and I will be only too happy to comply. (Grab Feng Shui 2 at the Atlas Games booth or Ghosts in the Black from Margaret Weis Productions.) Or just swing by to say hi. That’s why I go to conventions—to chat with folks interested in my work. To catch me discoursing at an event, make note of any relevant items on the following list in the note-taking platform nearest and dearest to your heart. Along with seminars related to my various gaming projects, I am taking part in several Writers’ Symposium events, focusing on the art and craft of fiction.

Thurs July 30, 1 pm – 2 pm: Common People, Epic Conflicts (Writers’ Symposium) Explore ways to tell stories where common people are caught up in events of epic proportions. Learn to make these characters relevant, even if they're not saving the world. (ICC 243)

Thurs July 30, 2 pm – 3 pm: High Fantasy Without the Clichés (Writers’ Symposium) There's nothing wrong with high fantasy clichés, but we'll teach you ways to explore high fantasy storytelling in new ways without coming across like you're looking down on the genre. (ICC 243)

Thurs July 30, 4 pm – 5 pm: Feng Shui 2 (Atlas Games) Get the lowdown on Feng Shui 2 from designer Robin D. Laws, developer Cam Banks, & producer Hal Mangold. Bring your questions & your Most Magnificent 20-Second FS2 Anecdote Contest entries. (Crowne Plaza : Grand Central Bllrm D)

Fri July 31, 11 am –  12 pm: Dialogue and Dialogue Tags (Writers’ Symposium) Learn from our distinguished panelists how to write compelling dialogue that draws readers in & keeps their attention. Added bonus feature: listen to them argue the pros & cons of dialogue tags! (ICC : 244)

Fri July 31, 1 pm – 2 pm: Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff Live (Pelgrane Press) Join Kenneth Hite and I for the second annual live episode of our thrilling, erudition-packed podcast. See if I drop the F-bomb again. This is officially sold out, but we’ll see if that means anything. Weird to think we might have to collect tickets or something. (Crowne Plaza Pennsylvania Station B)

Fri July 31, 4 pm – 5 pmPelgrane Press Panel (Pelgrane Press) Join Simon Rogers, Cat Tobin and others from the Pelgrane team for a behind-the-scenes look at what the award-winning UK publisher's been up to this year, and what they've planned for the coming year. (Crowne Plaza : Pennsylvania Stn B)

Sat Aug 1, 1 pm – 2 pm:  Dramatic Interaction MasterClass (Pelgrane Press) Learn the structures and techniques that turn emotional confrontations between PCs from frustrating roadblocks into rich, surprising moments of human drama. Join me, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and Rachel Kahn as we dispense precious interpersonal wisdom. Whether you're experienced in Pelgrane Press' Hillfolk / DramaSystem or looking to infuse play in other systems with satisfying conflict, they're here to grant your most fervent petitions. (Crowne Plaza : Pennsylvania Stn B)

Sat Aug 1, 4 pm – 5 pm: Investigative Roleplaying MasterClass (Pelgrane Press) Mystery scenario masters Kenneth Hite, Robin D. Laws, and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan train their magnifying glasses on clue-gathering adventures. Whether you're schooled in Pelgrane Press' GUMSHOE line or want to steal its secrets for play in another system, this seminar will shine light in the darkness and reveal the unlikely suspects behind your tabletop woes. (Crowne Plaza : Pennsylvania Stn B)

Sun Aug 2, 11 am – 12 pm: Build Them Up After Tearing them Down (Writers’ Symposium) Destroying characters and smashing their puny lives is easy (and kind of fun), but in this panel we'll teach you how to pick up the pieces and build the character back up afterwards. (ICC : 242)