TOP KNOT DETECTIVE (Australia, dir. Aaron McCann & Dominic Pearce)
Briefly aired on Australian television in the early ’90s and lost except for VHS recordings from that era, the Japanese TV series TOP KNOT DETECTIVE became a cult sensation among those lucky few who managed to see it. The documentary of the same name is a deep dive into the history of the show, the corporation that created it, and the troubled star whose bad boy behavior off-screen helped make it a success. It’s a fantastic documentary, but what makes it really astonishing is that it’s 100% false. Filmmakers Aaron McCann & Dominic Pearce created a ton of totally convincing archival material for the film ranging from Japanese celebrity magazine layouts to TV interviews from the era when the show aired and the crowning achievement of clips from episodes of TOP KNOT DETECTIVE. It’s a seriously incredible feat of carefully detailed study and invention, and if it wasn’t entirely fabricated it would be one of the best documentaries of the year. As it is, it will have to settle for just being one of the funniest films of the year, a riotous celebration of Japanese pop culture and the strange things that work their way into cult consciousness.
FIRSTBORN (Latvia, dir. Aik Karapetian)
Meek architect Francis (Kaspars Znotins) and his wife Katrina (Maija Doveika) are assaulted by a young biker on their walk home from a friend’s dinner party. The police, including Katrina’s ex-boyfriend who is now a detective, aren’t very helpful. Francis, desperate to prove his manhood to Katrina, sets out to find the biker himself. He manages to find the young man, but a shocking accident puts an abrupt end to their meeting. Nine months later, Katrina is about to give birth and the couple have moved into a new building. Everything is going well until a box arrives at their front door, the contents of which send a very clear and chilling message to Francis: His business with the biker is not finished. Writer/director Aik Karapetian’s previous film, the surreal horror THE MAN IN THE ORANGE JACKET, brought him to the notice of genre fans worldwide. FIRSTBORN is not quite as defiantly strange as that film, unfortunately to its detriment. The score and sound design in this film are excellent and effective in creating an unsettling atmosphere, and the film looks fantastic. Despite being technically impressive, though, FIRSTBORN is a familiar revenge thriller. Nothing in the story is terribly memorable, although there are tense moments and the film as a whole is well-executed. Karapetian has the makings of a great genre stylist, and anyone interested in international genre cinema should have him on their radar.
GEMINI (USA, dir. Aaron Katz)
Jill (Lola Kirke) is the personal assistant to actress Heather (Zoë Kravitz), whose career is heating up just as she feels the need to take a break. She’s just left her actor boyfriend Devin (Reeve Carney) and is trying to protect her new girlfriend Tracy (Greta Lee) from the public eye. The morning after Heather asks to borrow Jill’s gun, Jill walks into the house where Heather is staying and finds her dead: shot multiple times with Jill’s gun. When the police arrive, Jill is questioned by Detective Ahn (John Cho) and quickly realizes she’s the top suspect in the murder. With time ticking down until the cops find her, Jill decides to change her look and investigate the murder herself, which goes about as well as one might expect. GEMINI is a loose, shaggy quasi-detective story that plays like a sunny California companion to writer/director Aaron Katz’s previous feature COLD WEATHER. Both films feature a central mystery and a wildly unqualified amateur investigator, although with its Los Angeles sheen GEMINI feels a little more polished and a little less overtly comic. It’s still often very funny, with great small roles for James Ransone as a sleazy paparazzo and Nelson Franklin as a cranky screenwriter. Both films are also beautifully shot by Andrew Reed, who uses Los Angeles as a backdrop just as expertly as he did with Portland in COLD WEATHER. GEMINI is being misleadingly marketed as a slick thriller, which is probably going to result in a lot of head-scratching from audiences looking for the super-cool “Neon Noir” its trailer suggests. Katz is more interested in his characters and their relationships than the crime that puts them into motion or the resolution of that central mystery. It’s more akin to something like Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE, which functions as a mystery but is clearly more concerned with other matters.
1922 (USA, dir. Zak Hilditch)
Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) checks into a hotel in Omaha and sits down to write a confession about the events of 1922, when he convinced his son Henry (Dylan Schmid) to help him murder the boy’s mother Arlette (Molly Parker) in order to keep their farmland from being sold to a slaughterhouse. This having taken place in the rural Midwest in the 1920s, Wilfred doesn’t have a hard time getting away with it as far as the law goes. But the act has tragic consequences nonetheless, both in the psychic damage it does to both men and in a series of odd coincidences that may be simply that or may be a justice coming from beyond the grave. 1922 is an adaptation of a Stephen King novella, and as such it benefits from its source material’s solid structure and conversational storytelling style. Jane speaks in a raspy drawl, his voiceover omnipresent throughout the film, as if directly addressing the viewer using curious turns of phrase that reflect Wilfred’s background. There are some truly unsettling images in the film, including a recurring motif of rats in places they should not be, and it feels reminiscent of ’80s/’90s cable horror staples like THE CURSE. This is the kind of film viewers of a certain age would have caught on late-night cable when they were probably a bit too young to be watching it and it would scare the hell out of them. As such, 1922 is endearing in a similar way as deadly serious episodes of TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE, although its pretty photography and excellent score by Mike Patton lend it more gravitas than that might suggest.
BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (USA, dir. S. Craig Zahler)
Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) is laid off from his job as a mechanic and comes home to find his wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) getting ready to visit her lover. After dismantling a large part of her car with his bare hands, Bradley sits down with Lauren and they talk over what they should do to fix their relationship–they still love each other, but they’ve grown apart, and they genuinely want to get back to where they were. Bradley also reluctantly has to take work from Gil (Marc Blucas), an old friend and current low-level crime lord. Things go well for a while until Gil sets up Bradley to do a pickup with men sent by Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito), a bigger fish Gil wants to align himself with. Bradley ends up arrested when Eleazar’s men screw up the operation, and Eleazar is embarrassed and out a lot of money. He presents Bradley with an ultimatum through his messenger, the Placid Man (Udo Kier): Get transferred to a maximum security prison and kill a man, or Lauren and their unborn child die. S. Craig Zahler uses a similar approach to the prison/crime drama as he did with the Western in his debut feature BONE TOMAHAWK. The titular brawl doesn’t take place until the very end of the film; the first half of the movie is concerned with creating a complete picture of Bradley and his relationship with his wife. Vaughn gives what is pretty easily the best performance of his career here, giving Bradley both an imposing physical presence and a strangely comforting calm between explosions of gruesome violence. And make no mistake, there is plenty of really horrific violence here. As bloody as BONE TOMAHAWK was, the bodily harm done here is even more cringe-worthy. While the gore, soul soundtrack, and weirdo side characters (including an abortionist known among the underground for his rare talents) are all lifted from ’70s exploitation films, Zahler approaches BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 like a detailed, thoughtful character study about a principled man who happens to find himself in the middle of one of those ridiculous prison action movies and what he’s gonna do about it.
JAILBREAK (Cambodia, dir. Jimmy Henderson)
Playboy (Savin Phillip), the public face of the infamous all-female Butterfly Gang, has been arrested and agrees to snitch on Madame Butterfly (Celine Tran), the real leader of the gang. Madame gets word to one of the gang leaders in the prison where Playboy is being transferred that he must be killed before he can testify, and the reward will be $200,000. The police team transporting Playboy includes Jean-Paul (Jean-Paul Ly), who has been transferred from Paris for some reason. The first part of the transfer goes smoothly, but once Playboy is in his cell the gang makes their move and the police must fight their way out of the prison and keep Playboy alive. JAILBREAK is a highly entertaining martial arts action film that barely takes a breath once it gets all the pesky setup out of the way. Think of it as a cousin to THE RAID, only made on a thrift-store budget and punctuated with some really goofy humor. Those aren’t complaints–it’s rare that a film including the sheer number of broken bones and busted faces as this one can be honestly described as “endearing,” but this certainly qualifies. There’s an infectious energy and enthusiasm here for the martial arts on display and action cinema that is undeniable. It’s not the most polished action movie out there, but JAILBREAK is hands-down one of the most fun and purely entertaining action films of the year.
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Tags: Aaron Katz, Aaron McCann, Austin, Australia, Cambodia, Dominic Pearce, Fantastic Fest 2017, James Ransone, Jennifer Carpenter, Latvia, Lola Kirke, Los Angeles, Mike Patton, Molly Parker, Nelson Franklin, Reeve Carney, S. Craig Zahler, Stephen King, Thomas Jane, Udo Kier, Vince Vaughn, Zoe Kravitz