LIFECHANGER — Played July 20th — Directed by Justin McConnell, Canada
A murderous shapeshifter sets out on a blood-soaked mission to make things right with the woman he loves.
Everything about this film was constructed as well as could be expected, or perhaps even better than expected. The acting is strong, the plot is strong, the very concept is fresh and original. The folks in charge of the props and gore effects did a top-notch job. I would feel confident recommending the film to anyone.
Despite all these positive things, writing a review for this film is striking me as quite a challenge. The suspense was aided by well-paced editing, and you have to give credit to the ensemble cast because no single person carried the film more than another. There is, because of the shape-shifting protagonist, no lead actor to speak of. So why is this review hard to write?
Because no matter how good this film is — and it is VERY good — the one-two punch comes towards the end, and out of common courtesy this is something we can’t speak of. Two big twists happen, with one involving an incredible use of practical effects. They change everything we think about the main character an whether or not this is a romantic film, a tragic romance. But we must not speak of it. I cannot recommend this film highly enough. Bonus points for having George Mihalka (MY BLOODY VALENTINE) as a “consulting producer”. Score: A
A ROUGH DRAFT – Played July 20th – directed by Sergey Mokritskiy, Russia
A video game designer (Nikita Volkov) is stripped of his identity and recruited by a mysterious force to be the gatekeeper of a multi-dimensional portal.
Early on, the film presents itself as a nice mystery: why is our hero (Kirill) in jail? What happened to his apartment? Where is his dog, Cashew? And while I don’t think we ever find his dog, the rest falls into place once we realize the powerful forces behind the scenes of our world.
There are some cheesy camera effects that you might expect from the SyFy Channel, but this does not take away from the overall film. In fact, it calls to mind some of SyFy’s best cheese, like EUREKA. No one is expecting ROUGH DRAFT to take home a foreign language Oscar, but it certainly is full of imagination and fantasy. Quite a bit of fun, too. (Who thinks of disguising deadly drones as Russian nesting dolls??)
Now, it is a bit strange how accepting of his role Kirill is. He has a successful job, a nice girlfriend… and he does not put up a strong fight to keep them when presented with new obligations he never asked for. (Yes, he does his best to stay with his girlfriend, but not the world — he would basically be asking her to give up her life, too.) But oh well.
The biggest mystery is: why are there not more Russian films that go international? The last great one that comes to mind is NIGHT WATCH, and that was 14 years ago! The Russians are obviously very good at making fantasy, science fiction. ROUGH DRAFT is perfect for a sequel or two (no spoilers!), so maybe we will get a few more great films yet. Score: B
KNUCKLEBALL – Played July 21st – Directed by Michael Peterson
Alone, and targeted on an isolated farm, 12 year old Henry (Luca Villacis, THE MIDNIGHT MAN) finds himself at the center of a maelstrom of terror, and a dark family legacy, when his secretive grandfather (Michael Ironside, SCANNERS) dies suddenly in the night.
This movie is being billed as the “R rated version of Home Alone”, and indeed the second half of it does have a lot of similarities with the second half of HOME ALONE. Even some of the shots seem like an intentional homage. But the real spiritual successor to HOME ALONE is THE BABYSITTER, so this honor is already taken. (Also, HOME ALONE could probably be re-edited into an R if you just changed the music. It’s a rather violent film!)
In the first act, the film is immediately knocked down a notch by some strange, stilted acting and line delivery, especially from the actors playing the parents. The production value is also apparently low, with the camera quality not always as great as it could be (though the direction and shot decisions are fine). The camera is forgivable, but the acting is really difficult to stomach.
In contrast, Luca Villacis is a true professional and makes up for the poor acting, though his strength almost makes it more obvious! Michael Ironside is also excellent, but that is hardly remarkable. It would be more worthy of note if he was not. Ironside is one of those actors whose very presence makes the scene better.
KNUCKLEBALL just got picked up by Raven Banner and will see a wider release in Canada. Though it has its flaws, the overall movie is enjoyable and will likely be appreciated by a wide range of people. (Let’s be honest, I’m just cynical.) Score: B-
LÔI BÁO — Played July 22nd — Directed by Victor Vu, Vietnam
A man dying of a terminal illness receives an experimental medical treatment and soon discovers he has superhuman powers. But the origins of the treatment are intertwined in a dark history that becomes unraveled in his life.
What LOI BAO does, at least for an ugly American, is present a great vision of Vietnam. Not having gone firsthand, what one usually sees in photos is either jungle or scenes of war. Obviously, there is much more to Vietnam than that and LOI BAO captures some of what the country has to offer.
The film has lots of imagination with the action sequences and animation; there is even a touch of humor, though it may get lost a bit in the translation. The tone strikes me as having a broad appeal; as a middle-aged man, I thought it had a great sense of wonder about it, but could just as easily see it appealing to young children. There was nothing profane or dirty about it, but neither was it boring.
The transplant idea was interesting; this has a long history in horror (at least as far back as THE HANDS OF ORLAC), but is not so common in the superhero film. Rather than a new organ causing a man to kill, it causes him to be a hero. That is a nice twist on an old trope. Good fun for everyone. Score: A-
ROKUROKU: THE PROMISE OF THE WITCH — Played July 22 — Directed by Yudai Yamaguchi, Japan
Plot (if there is one): Some yokai, some kaiju, some J-Horror and a bunch of fantasy riffs, but all the Japanese craziness that one expects from a Yudai Yamaguchi film.
For those who know Japanese horror, you will know that director Yûdai Yamaguchi already has a following thanks to the cult hits MEATBALL MACHINE and YAKUZA WEAPON. One should be advised that both of those are better films than ROKUROKU, but if you are looking for the same sensibility, you will find it here.
Right out of the gate, we get a creepy, unsettling opening credits song. Then seemingly the darkness itself is slithering its way down a hallway, and we are visually attacked by the Japanese horror staple of wet, snakelike hair. From there, we get a one-legged woman with an umbrella, an invisible kaiju, a long-necked witch… it just keeps going.
There is an overall lack of coherence, with the point apparently being simply an attempt to put a strange, scary ghost woman in as many disturbing situations as possible. Does it make a lot of sense? Absolutely not. But it is still fun. Score: B