Mister Universo (Review)

Mister Universo

aka Mister Universe
Mister Universo
2016
Written by Tizza Covi
Directed by Tizza Covi and Rainer Frimmel

Mister Universo
A pursuit for a lucky charm leads into a quasi-magical realism world with Mister Universo! The last of our SFIFF coverage, this time running over to the San Francisco Alamo Drafthouse for a fun Italian film that I probably wouldn’t have watched on my own if it wasn’t part of a festival and caught my eye in the movie listing. I’m glad it did!

Mister Universo is actually a sort of sequel to 2009’s La Pivellina (Little Girl), Tairo is grown and a lion tamers, now with a quest of his own. Besides the quest we still get an extended view of the family and friends of Tairo as he travels up and down the Italian peninsula, with most people playing themselves (or versions of themselves.) It is a fun slice of life into a culture that there isn’t really much about (except Covi and Frimmel’s other films!)

We begin following Tairo and him preparing for his show, hanging out with his girl Wendy Weber, and generally causing trouble with some of the circus performers he doesn’t like. These arguments have escalated to pranks, and Tairo soon finds all his stuff has gone missing, scattered around the park the circus is staying at. Tairo doesn’t have much and finds many items quickly, but there is one item that has completely disappeared, and it is important to him. An iron bar bent by a strong man when Tairo was a child, his lucky charm that he needs to touch before every performance.

Wendy is way more superstitious than Tairo, she is into charms, fortune tellers, putting candles in streams to remove bad luck/the evil eye. She is a contortionist bends her body in much the same way that the iron bar was bent. Tairo knows her interests and even takes her to one of those hills that goes down but is also going up (if you’ve been to one of them you know what I am talking about) for some neat scenes. He does find plenty of time to good-naturedly harass her little dog, Panico. While Tairo dismisses Wendy’s superstitions as nonsense, he has superstitions of his own and soon is off on a search to find the strongman so he will bend him another bar.

The bar was bent by Arthur Robin, Mr. Universe 1957, the first black Mr. Universe and also called Black Hercules. As far as I can tell he didn’t make any movie appearances. He does eventually appear in Mister Universo, so I guess he did end up in movies after all! Taizo’s journey lets him visit all sorts of relatives, including his parents, grandmother, cousins, brother, and other circus friends. The interactions with the performers and with the circus culture and families are the film, everyone knows everyone in a roundabout way, having worked with them long ago at some earlier job. Taizo’s big cats are aged and obviously overweight, they have health problems just from being so old, and one passed on earlier but there is no money for replacement animals. It’s a totally obvious metaphor for the whole circus industry aging out and fading away. We see it in the family members who have moved out of the circus life and are doing other things. Even Mister Universe himself is a shadow of his former self, though he still looks amazing for his age!

Superstition and reality blend to make Mister Universo an amazing travelogue that shows that there may just be some magic left in the world, but not in the obvious way.
Mister Universo
SFIFF 2017

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Posted by Tars Tarkas - May 4, 2017 at 7:09 am

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Maliglutit (Review)

Maliglutit

aka Searchers
Maliglutit (Searchers)
2016
Written by Norman Cohn and Zacharias Kunuk
Directed by Zacharias Kunuk and Natar Ungalaaq

Maliglutit (Searchers)
SFIFF fun continues with my first ever visit to the BAMPFA – Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive – for the Inuktitut-language film Maliglutit! I didn’t have time to enjoy the rest of the museum as I had to grab some lunch and then BART it back to San Francisco to make another film, thus is the life of someone who bought two tickets to movies. Maliglutit is a film by Zacharias Kunuk, this timed joined by Natar Ungalaaq in the director’s chair. It’s inspired by the John Wayne Western The Searchers, but discards much of the racial politics of the plot in favor of an internal setting between different groups of Inuits. But it keeps the basic premise and even the title, though translated (never fear, the English title is helpfully added in parentheses!)

Kuanana (Benjamin Kunuk) returns from hunting with his son Siku (Joseph Uttak) to find that the rest of his family has been killed and his wife and daughter kidnapped. He must go rescue them and stop the people responsible, in what can only end with more people dead. Before the attack, the group is seen hanging out at a local party where they are kicked out for just being leeches in regard to taking food and romancing women while not contributing anything. The attackers are four men who are occasionally called the Kupaks after their leader, Kupak (Joey Sarpinak) The men tire of their lonely scavenger lifestyle and think some wives would be just the thing to make things better, and how else do you get wives than be raiding a peaceful household?

The attack by the Kupak group thought to be a polar bear attack by the family at first, they smash into the igloo through the wall and the scene is shot as if an animalistic attack is happening (which is basically what is happening.) Man is again the apex predator, Kuanana’s parents are beaten (and die later when Kuanana returns home) and his youngest son is killed. The men run with the wife and daughter, but soon realize they are being followed and must set up a confrontation before Kuanana picks them off one by one.

The slow pace of the film fits in with the setting. The beginning scenes have a lot of sitting around watching food cook and making clothes, stories are told, songs are sung, life is as it was. There is a lack of modern conveniences but a limited amount of Western tools such as metal knifes and tea sets and a gun with a few bullets. We also get a nice class on igloo building as some of the characters rapidly put up structures (Kunuk had a crew on standby that would help them make authentic structures, which probably came in handy during the cold weather they had during filming!)

The family asks for help from a spirit to locate the food Kuanana and Siku go out to hunt, and Kuanana calls upon a spirit to help guide him to what is left of his family. The scenes set Maliglutit apart, a new twist on a familiar tale. I’ve seen some people try to label this film as something different from a Western, but it is a Western, it follows all the movie rules of a Western, we just trade horses for dogsleds and a snowy wasteland for a desert. There is no need to divide this into something new, and that potentially limits the audience that might get exposed to it (which would be a crime!) There just isn’t enough native filmmaking, especially native films that are good and can find an audience that might not have watched it otherwise.

Maliglutit fits in perfectly with remix film culture, not just with the Turkish Star Treks but with the Infernal Affairs/The Departeds. It will be something you haven’t seen before while being just familiar enough to want to see who it plays out.
Maliglutit (Searchers)

SFIFF 2017

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Posted by Tars Tarkas - May 3, 2017 at 7:02 am

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Headshot (2016 – Review)

Headshot

Headshot
2016
Written by Timo Tjahjanto
Directed by Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto

Headshot
A late night screening at the Roxie let me see martial arts film Headshot, it’s got Iko Uwais, Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman!!!) and Hammer Girl herself, Julie Estelle! There are some other martial stars and a whole slew of fight scenes that keeps things entertaining even when part of the plot threatens to snatch that away.

The world of Headshot is a world where it takes dozens of bullets to kill someone, leading to many many scenes where characters are basically emptying clips from their machine guns into people before they finally die. It gets a little ridiculous. Okay, it gets very ridiculous. Insanely ridiculous. I had to assume it takes place in a universe where bullets only hurt as much as a bee sting or something. The violence and gore helps paint Headshot as more of a martial horror movie, it even opens in a filthy prison where dozens of characters machine gun each other down, only seemingly collapsing from the weight of the shear volume of bullets they pump into each others bodies.

Even the plot is set in motion because Iko Uwais was shot in the head and didn’t die, washing up in a coma on the beach and awakening in the hospital weeks later with amnesia. He’s then dubbed Ishmael by the local incredibly young Dr. Ailin (Chelsea Islan), who is infatuated with him and reading Moby Dick at the time. Any further parallel to Moby Dick is accidental beyond Ishmael’s determination to stop the villain Lee sort of like how Ahab was obsessed, but not in a self-destructive way that gets everyone dead, only a bunch of random innocent people. We know from Steven Seagal movies that coma victims are irresistibly attractive to women, so she couldn’t help it.

Ishmael wakes up, remembers nothing, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t still looking for him (or the former him, who was named Abdi), and soon Ishmael is violently getting his memory back and has to save the now kidnapped Dr. Ailin by punching and kicking his way through the army of villains. The main thing we are here for is the fights, to see Iko Uwais beat the snot out of people, and there is plenty of beating! The fight sequences are fantastic, and while they don’t measure to the top tier stuff from The Raid or the sequel, they are still worth your time, even if the rest of the plot is about as bad as The Raid 2‘s boring gangster drama.

The fight with Very Tri Yulisman is the best in the film, and they save it towards the end. Earlier fights have mixes of martial arts and gunplay (a fight in a police station seems to reference a scene in Die Hard before going in a completely different direction) A fight on a bus full of murdered people while goons are trying to burn it and all the evidence on it (and hopefully Ishmael as well) is a good highlight, the increasing danger as the fight progresses does a good job of building suspense while still giving plenty of nice fight choreography and brutal hits.

The boss villain Lee (Sunny Pang) gets several scenes that all do the same job of showing how he’s just an evil force of nature. His prison escape (from which he purposefully got himself captured just so he could escape?), his taking over of local drug gangs by killing anyone who dares resist him, and his history of kidnapping children after he raids villages, raising the children to be killers that he later uses as enforcers. As most of these kids are now in their mid-20s, this is like 20 years of investment into a bunch of powerful soldiers, all of which he sends against Ishmael in slow trickles so they can be defeated. Lee is more of a collection of villain tropes than an actual villain or even an evil father figure. They try to touch on the bad father figure part, but only spend a limited amount of time with, most of which is divorced from affecting Ishmael directly and instead hits Julie Estelle’s character more than anything in explaining why she won’t leave with Ishmael.

For Headshot you need to come for the fighting and wait for the next fighting. Luckily things start going by at a fast pace after the plot gets started, but it would be nice to once again recommend one of these Indonesian action films for the plot in addition to the fighting. I just want more, and I’m not going to settle for less.
Headshot

SFIFF 2017

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Posted by Tars Tarkas - May 2, 2017 at 7:54 am

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Mrs K (Review)

Mrs K

Mrs K
2016
Written by Chan Wai-Keung and Ho Yuhang
Directed by Ho Yuhang

Mrs K
Kara Hui headlines another action flick with Mrs K, the star of My Young Auntie and The Inspector Wears Skirts series returns to her action roots for what is rumored to be her farewell film performance. A delivery boy brings an oversized basket filled with food to a large house in a gated community. Inside, the homemaker (Kara Hui) is bringing out a fresh batch of buns from the oven. But the delivery boy brandishes a gun, while his partner starts rummaging through the house, demanding the valuables. The housewife smiles, grabs the gun and starts smacking the delivery boy, and shooting his accomplice in the crotch with the pellet gun. She admonishes them for being so sloppy and not even having a real gun, while the delivery boy lets loose that his pregnant girlfriend is at her husband’s doctor’s office. She lets them go with a warning (and a taste of her cooking), but the accomplice isn’t done yet and makes plans to return with a weapon. But she’s already called security on them, and watches from the video feed as the guards beat and arrest them.

Mrs. K isn’t your typical housewife. She has a rich husband (Wu Bai), a daughter (Li Xuan Siow), and looks the part, but she has a past with a lot of shade, and that’s going to catch up with her real soon. But from the introductory sequence we know she’s not someone to be taken lightly and she knows her way around weapons. It’s going to take someone with a real reason to want to mess with her, and that person exists.

Macau had a casino robbery years ago, most of the plotters escaped with the money, but their inside man (Simon Yam Tat-Wah) tried to turn on them, and she shot him. Only problem was, he wasn’t shot dead, and now he’s back and very angry. Mrs K herself is first harassed by a nosy ex-cop who managed to track her down, but she turns the tables on his attempts at blackmail. What he did end up doing is lead Simon Yam’s character right to her. One quick sequence later, and her daughter is kidnapped, her husband is in the hospital, and Mrs. K is desperate to get her back, woe to anyone who gets in her way.

Mrs K doesn’t do the straight-forward female lead driven action, part of the running time is devoted to her daughter’s attempts to escape from the villains (which she does often enough thanks to bumbling co-conspirators) and her husband’s attempts to recover enough to provide help. This keeps things from becoming Mrs. K running through a gauntlet of goons, but also seems to make the film lose focus. Mrs. K had such a good introductory scene we just want more of her and less of anyone else.

Mrs K is best when it is throwing us into the thick of some rough action sequences, and there isn’t enough of them for my taste, but what we do get works and works well. The action scenes are the meat, and they deliver with some nice desperate fighting between aging heroes and villains, at times you can see on her face that Mrs K knows that some of the jumps and falls are going to be painful but must endure them to save her daughter. Characters get hurt, and their being hurt follows them throughout the movie. They are getting old and tired, but continue to fight because they must, to save their family or to enact their revenge.
Mrs K
Director Ho Yuhang is obviously a fan of Quentin Tarantino, beyond the film superficially resembling Kill Bill, it is peppered with soundtracks from Westerns. There are some nice shots such as a POV while a head is in a vice or the silhouetted killer standing off in the distance, but Ho doesn’t get too creative with shots and that ends up making the better ones stand out more than they should. The opening sequence where the fellow co-conspirators are all slaughtered is and interesting introduction, but at that point we are to confused as to who the people are and why we would care. Oddly enough, the characters are more developed in death when they appear to Mrs K as an hallucination. Fans of Hong Kong style action will enjoy Mrs K, but if you are looking for something greater, you should probably keep looking.

SFIFF 2017

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Posted by Tars Tarkas - May 1, 2017 at 7:01 am

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The Incredible Jessica James (Review)

The Incredible Jessica James

Incredible Jessica James
2017
Written and directed by James C. Strouse

As part of my marathon of SFIFF films, I went from the glacial pacing of Life After Life in a small, cozy venue to a large, packed theater for the energetic and colorful The Incredible Jessica James. Every bit of frame of The Incredible Jessica James oozes color and joy, even through her hardships and struggles. Jessica James opens while on a Tinder date, talking over him and basically explaining he’s there to try to make her ex jealous while she’s spying on him, and that he blew any chance of getting action through a series of early mistakes in their communication.

Jessica James writes plays while collecting rejection letters from various theatrical collegiate programs around the country, but earns a living working for a non-profit doing theater classes with local students. Between jumping into sections of her life, we spend time with her doing exercises with the kids, some of which illuminate her own insecurities and issues growing up. We learn about her parents arguing over money, and Jessica having to choose one to live with during the eventual divorce. Later she returns to Ohio for her sister’s baby shower, she’s obviously uncomfortable returning home and dealing with her mother and step-father (She hasn’t even told them that she broke up with her ex) and with traditional familiar roles the women back home portray. During the baby shower, she gives her sister a baby book for revolutionaries that includes a mention of the singer Peaches, this leads to bemused confusion for the other guests.

Jessica’s actress friend Tasha (Noël Wells) sets her up with her (sort of) friend Boone (Chris O’Dowd), who is also getting over a breakup, but in this case it is a divorce and he’s still at wandering around the neighborhood his ex-wife lives in while she and her new boyfriend watch him from the window. Boone and Jessica set up a pack to unfollow their own exes from social media and follow each others, thay way they can send updates when something important is happening but not obsess over them. Both coming from areas of pain, they connect more than either of them expects to considering how opposite they are. Chris O’Dowd is his usual lovable self, while Noël Wells is amazingly delightful as Jessica’s friend who is dealing with the same lofty dream job problems yet somehow seems way more confident despite experiencing the same struggles.

Jessica James’ insecurities are the heart of the matter. Her plays are what she loves doing, but she’s not experienced what she would consider success. Jessica meets her idol, Sarah Jones, who shares that even with her successes, that doesn’t mean anything as far as long term security, it’s all about doing what you love doing. Jessica James appears confident and powerful while dancing through the opening credits, proclaiming how dope she is while arguing with Boone, and working to convince her students to go to a writers’ retreat, but sometimes it takes an extra kick to use that confidence in the parts of life that need it the most.

The Incredible Jessica James is a vehicle written entirely for Jessica Jones after writer/director James C. Strouse worked with her on People Places Things. While he wrote it, he would meet with her regularly to discuss things and get her input. As he mentioned during the director Q & A after the show, Jessica James is a combination of himself and Jessica Jones (including combining their names). It’s hard to picture anyone else in this role. The Incredible Jessica James is great fun, full of witty humor that will leave a smile on your face and warmth in your heart.

SFIFF 2017

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Posted by Tars Tarkas - April 28, 2017 at 10:49 am

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Life After Life (Review)

Life After Life

aka 枝繁叶茂 aka Zhi Fan Ye Mao
Life After Life
2016
Written and directed by Zhang Hanyi
Life After Life
In a desolate landscape wracked by the cruelty of winter, a dying community slated for removal for industrialization is the site of a haunting ghost story. Life After Life presents a world where a wife returns from beyond the grave for a mission of moving a tree that will help guide her soul into her next life. To do so she possesses the body of her young son, and her husband must then embark on her quest.

Life After Life is slow and methodical. The scenes are long takes, the characters pause for long beats between line deliveries, and even the plot takes a while to get going thanks to a series of setbacks and side quests. Ming Chun (Zhang Mingjun) is basically a lost family provider, what is left of his ancestral community is being relocated, his daughter has already moved away to the big city, and his son is frustrated and eager to run off himself. Ming Chun seems like he’s wandering alone, but soon the spirit of his late wife possesses his son, and finally he has a purpose even if her return doesn’t magically turn him energetic.

Son Leilie’s (Zhang Li) entire body language changes when he’s possessed by the spirit of Xiuying. He goes from a confident and angry young make to a soft-spoken and slumped figure, completely transforming into a new character. It’s also obvious as to why Xiuying and Ming Chun were perfect for each other, they both have the same slow personality that gels well. Xiuying needs a tree that they planted as newlyweds moved so it will help her spirit in the afterlife, as strange trees that don’t know you well enough run the risk of assigning you a less ideal new life. Leilie being possessed by Xiuying is accepted without question by everyone they encounter, which helped speed up scenes without reconvincing everyone. Ming Chung and Xiuying even visit Ming Chun’s parents in their next lives, his father is now a dog while his mother is a bird.

The crumbling cave house structures of the old community work with the bleak winter landscape to help strip all color from the frames, only the clothes worn by Leilie seem to have any sort of pop. The community is already the walking dead, but the countryside has preceded it (it’s implied the orchards were poisoned by industrial pollutants). Despite the dawdling pace, there are bits of life and whimsy. We see a giant rock wiggling down the side of the mountain, but it’s not until our heroes drive by it that we see it is because several workers are working the rock downhill via wiggling it with ropes. Later we see Ming Chun and Xiuying moving the tree by a similar method, both bringing to mind mythological tales.
Life After Life
Zhang Hanyi’s debut isn’t for everyone, it’s definitively art house. But it’s really good at doing what it wants to do, capture an eerie landscape and story with echoes of the industrialization of China with the old clashing with the new, presented from a rural slow-paced direction. And as one of our criteria is judging films on if they do what they want to do, Life After Life knocks that out of the park. As much fun as all the slow paced styling is, by the time they were getting around to moving the tree I was already fine with the town being bulldozed over. Life has already passed them by, maybe the moved tree can help the community find their way in the big city, or at least stop pausing for 30 seconds after every sentence. The low energy scenes were in complete contrast with the film I saw directly afterwards at SFIFF, The Incredible Jessica James, which was so full of energy and color and life that it was like cinematic whiplash! But that’s another review…

(I’ll also put in a warning that they show real animals being killed as a goat is killed for dinner, so be warned if you are like me and not into that stuff! Yep, the first two films I saw at SFIFF had dead animals in them, lucky me!)

SFIFF 2017

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Posted by Tars Tarkas - April 27, 2017 at 9:43 am

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