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Books in August

Oh, well, a day late is better than never!

Hope Rides Again, by Andrew Shaffer.Collapse )

The Store, by Bentley Little.Collapse )

Earth, Air, Fire & Water, by Brian Lumley.Collapse )

A Better Man, by Louise Penny.Collapse )

And now we're into September, when lots and lots of new books come out, yay!

Books in July

Not a lot of reading, because of FantAsia. Fun either way!

Murder Being Once Done, by Ruth Rendell.Collapse )

Wild Horse, by Kyle Richardson.Collapse )

Now May You Weep, by Deborah Crombie.Collapse )

Farthing, by Jo Walton.Collapse )

Happy Lughnasadh, and Happy August!
Captain Ko (Ryu Seung-ryong) leads a ragtag team of undercover narcotics officers, who have the reputation of bungling the simplest job. They have been trying for ages to catch a big drug lord, and when they discover that he and his gang are staying across the street from a chicken joint about to go out of business because there are never any customers, they take over the restaurant with the aim of spying on the kingpin and, hopefully, bringing him down. Unfortunately, the chicken that they cook is a massive hit and soon they have no time at all to spy because they're busy serving an unending stream of customers. Are they really so competent in cooking chicken when they're so incompetent of cops? Do they need to reconsider their career choices? Only time will tell....

This is a very funny movie, full of good humor, sight gags and, of course, lots and lots of staged fights between the heroes and the bad guys. Some of those are so over-the-top that it feels perfectly right to throw in a little music of the spaghetti western variety - fits right in! My only quibble is that during the fight scenes, the director (Lee Byeong-heon) chose to use the wobbly camera method, which always tends to irritate my eyes; otherwise, it's not surprising that this is a big hit in its home country, or (on the negative side) that a Hollywood remake is already in the works!


And another FantAsia Film Festival has come to an end for us. This year was especially rewarding, not just for the films but because we began talking a lot with a number of the staff and the regular folks who arrive early (I mean, in one case 3 *hours* before our movie!) and made a bunch of new friends: Karin who I've known for a few years now and who calls me her "FantAsia mama" because I bring her fruit several times; quiet-voiced Nick who seems to see a gazillion films both in and out of festivals; Phuon and her brother, who sadly lost their much older sister this past Spring, the latter of whom had been such a joy to see year after year; Francesca of the red hair and two adorable kids; and of course Daniel the Hall Master who is just a teddy bear. Wonderful! Can't wait to see them all again next year!
The eccentric Park family own a run-down gas station in the boonies, not far from the test site of a pharmaceutical company. One of the company's test subjects accidentally becomes a zombie, which wanders away and into the Park's gas station. After showing a distinct preference for cabbages, the zombie bites the family patriarch! But an unexpected side effect of that bite is that the patriarch suddenly becomes much more vigorous than his age would suggest, and soon all the elderly men in a nearby village are paying to be bitten themselves. However, there may be more unforeseen side effects coming too....

I'm not a big zombie movie fan, as they tend to get either super gory or just tedious after a while, and often one zombie flick is much like another. Here, though, we have a zombie comedy in which a family of misfits and schemers have to cope with a situation far beyond any of their capabilities. The characters are all well-drawn and distinctive, including the zombie who (oddly enough) is very sympathetic, and the humor is more of the laughing-at-ourselves kind than the malicious sort. It's not enough to turn me into a zombie movie fan, but it was an entertaining way to spend an evening.
The widower Daikichi (Shinosuke Tachikawa) lives with his cat Tama on a small Japanese island that is home to a great many cats and a fair number of old people, including Daikichi's friend Iwao (Kaoru Kobayashi), who is practically the only person on the island who doesn't like cats. As Iwao is a fisherman, however, cats really love him! The quiet community is shaken up a bit by the arrival of Michiko (Ko Shibasaki) from Tokyo, who opens a modern cafe that is soon the hub of the community, and before too long Daikichi is learning to cook from the newcomer. As the seasons pass, there are small changes here, larger ones there, and the effects of aging are taking their toll....

This is an incredibly gentle, quiet movie that just tugs at the heartstrings and never lets go. One flashback scene shows the 6 1/2 year old cat Tama as a kitten and the entire Montreal Fantasia Festival audience as one went "awww!" and then also as one laughed at that reaction - that's the kind of film this is. The director, Mitsuaki Iwago, previously worked as a wildlife photographer, and his way of framing the cats (of which, I hasten to add, there is at least one in every scene) is beautiful, along with his framing of all this fantastic looking food. I suppose if you hate cats, you won't want to see this film, but everybody else should really enjoy it!

FantAsia XI: Kingdom (Japan, 2019)

Xin (Kento Yamazaki) and Piao (Ryo Yoshizawa) are slave children in China in 255 BC, but both teach themselves swordfighting (using sticks) together and vow to become great generals, somehow. One day, a powerful lord comes to their farm and picks Piao to go with him to the palace, leaving Xin behind. Xin continues to train on his own, determined to catch up to Piao one day, but instead Piao returns to the farm, fatally wounded. It seems he was chosen simply because he looks exactly like the King of Qin, Yin Zheng (also Ryo Yoshizawa), and Piao was killed in place of the king by the king's evil younger brother, Cheng Jiao (Kanata Hongo), who has more royal blood than Zheng and therefore believes he has more right to the throne. Xin vows revenge and takes off on an adventure, which leads him straight to Zheng and more trouble than he'd ever imagined....

It's a bit odd that an historical Chinese epic has been made by the Japanese film director, Shinsuke Sato, based on a Japanese manga, but it works really well. Sato has been described as the Japanese Steven Spielberg, which is to say he knows how to stage epic fights, glorious spectacle and resonating themes of friendship, loyalty and the struggle against oppression. A bit long at 2 1/4 hours or so, but the motivations of the main characters and the arc of the story are never lost or bogged down in too much detail; I've left out a slew of characters (including a very important female character) in the above description, but really that's all you need to know. If you like epic battle scenes featuring lances and arrows and, especially, swords, you'll love this feature!

FantAsia X: Shadow (China, 2018)

The King of Pei (Zheng Kai) has reached an accord with the ruler of Wang, whereby the latter is in charge of Jing City even though it really belongs to Pei. Accommodations made, but then destroyed by the Commander of Pei, also called Jing (Deng Chau), who has gone to Wang and proposed a fight between himself and Wang's ruler to determine the ownership of the city. Pei's King is outraged; he's ruled by foppery and compromise, and his Commander has disobeyed him! He strips Jing of his power and sends him from Court. Meantime, the former Commander (also Deng Chau) has been training Jing from the age of 8 to avenge him for his defeat by Wang's ruler; perhaps the King's sister, Xiao (Sun Li) can help to train Jing in a way that will defeat Wang....

I love these Chinese wuxia films - wuxia meaning the type of fighting with swords and staffs and, well sometimes, magic, and director Zhang Yimou (who directed "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," among others) is surely the current master of this genre. Those earlier films were replete with colors everywhere; "Shadow" is almost entirely monochromatic, with bits of red and green here and there but mostly done in greys. And it works, brilliantly - this film is gorgeous to look at, if sometimes head-scratching to understand. Set in a long-ago historical world (I don't know the history of China enough to know if it portrays something from a real historical period, but that doesn't matter in this context), "Shadow" portrays the complexity of Court life, and warfare, in ancient China with beauty and nuance and, well, a lot of blood. Terrific!

Would be a second movie reviewed tonight, "Lake Michigan Monster," but I was feeling unwell and was unable to stay for that screening. I hear it was well-received, though.
Shinga (Shinga Kubota) and Kan (Kan Takagi) are the singers in rival pop bands, until the mysterious Minami (Kiyohiko Ozaki) of Atomic Promotion signs them up as a pop duo to be called the Stardust Brothers. Although they can't stand each other initially, they jump at the massive amount of money on offer, and after only a week with the company, they are superstars with the #1 pop song on the charts! But fame can be fickle, and soon enough Minami is approached to raise up another artist, Karuo (Issay), the son of a powerful politician, and Shinga and Kan are yesterday's news. But Karuo has designs on Marimo (Kyoko Togawa), the young girl who first led the fan club of the Stardust Brothers and then became a pop star herself, and Karuo is used to getting what he wants....

This was an early film by director Makoto Tezuka, son of legendary Osamu Tezuka, when he was only 22 years old. Despite his youth, the film hangs together quite well, with plenty of nods to pop music of the era and an enthusiastic and energetic cast. A bit of slapstick here and an odd monochrome framing device add to the fun; the occasional homophobia-as-laugh-getter hasn't aged well, however. Overall, though, the film has its moments and the flavor of the Japanese pop culture in the mid-1980s is quite entertaining.
Rose (Maeve Higgins) has given up her calling as a psychic after a terrible accident and is making her living as a driving instructor in rural Ireland. Martin (Barry Ward) is a widower with a troublesome ghost of a wife and an increasingly sassy daughter, Sarah (Emma Coleman). When he asks Rose for her help exorcising the ghost, she at first refuses, but then a well past his prime rock star (Will Forte) decides he needs the blood of a virgin to renew his vows to Satan in order to revitalize his long-dormant career, and Sarah is just who he's looking for; or is she?....

This is a very funny movie about ghosts, lost hopes, redemption and everything in-between; Forte is hilarious as the over-the-top Christian Winter, but it's Ms. Higgins who carries the film with humour, grace and rather an alarming amount of moxie. Throw in some sight gags referencing other horror movies along with just out-there craziness (deer head crying tears of 7-Up - "it's Mummy, she always loved 7Up!"), and this is a film that should get a wide audience everywhere. Extraordinary, indeed.
Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) is the son of the governor of Tokyo, a prestige position that puts him in the top echelon at his school, where he is (naturally) President of the students. When Rei Asami (Gackt) joins the school from America, Momomi's position is threatened; Rei is exotic, smart *and* beautiful. Momomi wants to dispose of Rei, but cannot. But then he learns that Rei is actually from Saitama, a degraded part of Japan that has no sea and therefore is considered worthless, its people even more so - people from there even need visas to enter Tokyo! But *then* Momomi's hatred for Rei turns to something else, and they join forces to lead Saitama's people from oppression to freedom....

Some 5 years ago, I was privileged to see "Thermae Romae," a Japanese film in which a modern Japanese man enters a bath in his world and emerges in the baths in ancient Rome; it was easily one of the most inventive, funny and memorable films I saw that year. So when I saw that "Fly Me" was made by the same director, I knew I had to see it. And I certainly was not disappointed! The above description only scratches the surface, as I didn't mention the framing device or all the complications of the many other characters. Suffice it to say that director Hideki Takeuchi brings in whimsy, mixed-up historical detail from real periods in Japanese history, scary monsters that turn out to be something much different, corruption in government, hilarious moments and the most androgynous characters (something that seems to be a "thing" in Japanese cinema), along with a bit of innocent love and dastardly deeds. Oh, did I mention absurdity? Yum!