Quick takes from the 25th Raindance Film Festival, with public screenings in London through October 1st, 2017.
Black Hollow Cage
Thirteen-year-old Alice (Lowena McDonell) lives alone with her father (Julian Nicholson) in a striking modernist house in the middle of the woods. She is getting used to her new bionic arm and believes that their dog is actually her dead mother, though Dad insists this is not the case. (What Dad actually believes about the voice synthesizer the dog wears around her neck, which appears to be speaking the dog’s thoughts [the voice of Lucy Tillett], is not something Alice ever asks him. Maybe in this apparently future world, people’s pets talk to them as a matter of course.) And then two very young strangers, siblings Erika (Haydée Lysander) and Paul (Marc Puiggener) — she is badly beaten up, and he is mute — appear out of nowhere and disrupt Alice’s existence. Oh, and there’s also a strange black cube in the forest that appears to be a time machine. I wish I knew what Spanish writer-director Sadrac González was trying to get at with this unpleasant, nonsensical hash of pseudo science fiction, savage horror, and adolescent angst. (This is a Spanish production, but in the English language.) I’m guessing that it was contrived primarily as a consequence of having found this incredible location — truly, the house is stunning — and crafting (I use the word loosely) a story around it. Events loop back on themselves in uninteresting ways as the blah characters enact random violent physical abuse and cold-blooded murder; this is trippiness for the sake of trippiness, and so that terrible acts can be passed off as “no big deal” because Moebius time streams will erase them. A chilly and ultimately pointless experience.
Six people, an authentic cross-section of New Yorkers, are stuck in an MTA subway car, stopped in an underground tunnel, for like 45 minutes. Naturally, they begin to sing at one another. Stuck — the second feature from director Michael Berry, based on a stage play by Riley Thomas — is pure gritty urban joy, all marvelous, touching songs about grief, sacrifice, mistrust, misunderstanding, and other intimate perils. The rattle of subway trains passing on adjacent tracks creates its own beat as construction worker Ramon (Omar Chaparro: Huevos: Little Rooster’s Egg-Cellent Adventure) sings about working three jobs so that his little daughter can take dance lessons; his Spanish lyrics are untranslated because this is New York and, as homeless but dignified Lloyd (Giancarlo Esposito: The Jungle Book) suggests, translation is not needed if you “stop listening with your ears.” Dancer Alicia (Arden Cho) discovers that Caleb (Gerard Canonico), who bounced onto the subway car hot on her heels, isn’t quite the stalker she believed he was; they share secret pain and not so secret artistic ambitions. (Caleb’s song about the comic-book hero he is creating, wheelchair-bound Magnificent Maggie, is awesome.) A young black woman, Eve (Ashanti: Resident Evil: Extinction), and an older white woman, Sue (Amy Madigan: The Lifeguard) turn out to have some things in common as well. The potential for triteness here was enormous, for what Stuck has to say is not unfamiliar: people aren’t always what we assume they are (though we might have good reason for our assumptions), and if you get to know a stranger and they may defy your expectations. But Berry’s smart direction, which creates rich worlds for these characters far beyond the confines of the subway, as well as the genuine warmth and humanity the terrific cast infuses them with, transform this into an exuberant marvel. This is the rare NYC-set movie that truly captures New York. The only implausible thing about it? A real stuck subway car would be rammed with people, not a mere half a dozen.
[US release: Apr 19 2019 | rated rated PG-13 for some mature thematic material including images of a sexual assault, and brief strong language]
[Amazon US DVD | Amazon US VOD | iTunes US]
In Kamakura, a small city by the sea not far from Tokyo and steeped in medieval history, high-school student Toru (Nijirô Murakami) falls into a martial arts apprenticeship with washed-up former instructor Kengo (Gô Ayano). Over the modern practice of kendo — which uses bamboo swords and protective gear, and is descended from ancient military warfare in much the same way that western fencing is — the bullied boy and the alcoholic man… well, they don’t exactly become best friends and learn the true meaning of kendo, but they do at least become aware of the self-perpetuating cycles of male rage that infect them, as well as their inability to deal with pain that is the lot of so many men and boys, and perhaps begin to start to cope with their own internal selves. We’ve seen this all before, if not necessarily with a Japanese spin. This is a drama, not an action movie, and if it’s a bit overwrought at times and doesn’t quite have enough meat to justify its 125-minute runtime, director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri — working from a novel by Shûhei Fujisawa — does find some small, delightful surprises, like how Toru, an avid rapper, starts writing rap rhymes inspired by kendo philosophy (they flummox his friends). I’m not sure there’s much here to grip a western arthouse audience, but Japanophiles will probably enjoy it.