MC 2.2 Shades of Sion Sono at Japan Cuts 10th Anniversary

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Love & Peace © 2015 “Love & Peace” Film Partners

Part of this year’s 10th Anniversary Japan Cuts festival of Japanese film is a mini focus on outspoken rabble-rouser Sion Sono. It’s a fitting addition to a landmark edition of the festival, which has shown numerous films by the prolific director whose works have jarred, delighted, and flabbergasted their audiences for the past several years. It also jels perfectly with the festival’s unstated theme of radicals and rascally revolutionaries, running through both its narrative and nonfiction selections. Sono’s uncompromising attitude and artistic work puts him right at home in this group.

Three films may not seem sufficient to give him his due. But considering this isn’t a full on retrospective (the last to occur in New York was at the Museum of Design in 2011), the trio of works being shown on July 16 – 2 of his recent films plus a documentary made about him, along with an appearance by Sono himself, do form an elegant statement.

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© 2016「園子温という生きもの」製作委員会ࠖ © 2016 “The Sion Sono” Film Partners

THE SION SONO (directed by Arata Oshima) takes an insightful look at the philosophies and working process of the man, mainly by spending time with him and letting him speak – something he does not mind doing at all. Perspective can also be gleaned by talks with those who have worked closely with him. While Sono’s contemptuous attitude toward widely accepted commercial films and critics are well known but amusing to see unfold – we all like someone who names names – real illumination comes in the opening sequence of the film wherein Sono prowls through his studio filled with paintings and sets to work on some of them while deconstructing notions of good and bad. It’s a multilayered act, as the artist appears to reacquaint himself with his work in this medium, engage in the process while discussing it.

The intensity of feelings burning in and around his brought to the surface, not only in hearing from the director himself, but emotional conversations held with Megumi Kagurazaka his wife and an actress that has figured prominently into many key roles in his films, including WHISPERING STARS. She will also appear in person for its screening on the 16th.

Amusing testimonials on Sono’s singular quirks and compulsions come from Fumi Nikaido and Shota Sometani, who speak of their work on Sono’s critically acclaimed HIMIZU. And lest one has been taken primarily with Sono’s ‘bad boy’ image, there is a decided charm to be found in a glimpse of Sono’s earliest activity, which holds uncanny earnest. A very early journal of movie going with collage elements and reviews show signs of a connoisseur and voice of remarkable wit in the making.

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The Whispering Star © SION PRODUCTION

THE WHISPERING STAR is made all the more interesting for the insight we may gain from the documentary, which features footage from the planning stages of this stark exploration of the science fiction genre. There is not much to speak of plot, which finds an android with extremely human qualities (Kagurazaka) as an intergalactic courier in the wake of civilizational collapse. The film is shot in a mesmerizing monochrome.   Here Kaguraka’s subtly expressive voyager, taking in this new world around her with understated wonderment and consternation, is also entrancing against the overall static unfolding of events.

These are accompanied by LOVE AND PEACE. Released in 2015, it is too early to call it one of his classics, but by all rights this will be one. It is essential viewing, not only for Sono fans but anyone with an interest in Japanese cinema. But in terms of the director, it prominently features so many hallmarks of that have distinguished his work, with a notable absence of lurid violence or sex. There is what I’ve come to refer to as a ‘psychodramatic’ style that Sono employs, wherein personal trauma is magnified by key characters to the point of feeling like a large scale devastation. Music turned way up in the mix pulses and pounds, extreme closeups turn bystanders and casual tormentors alike into grotesque monsters and capture every detail of the actor, who has apparently been told to exaggerate mannerisms to cartoonish proportions, and regular scenery is augmented by vibrant colors. All the while scenes are sped through quickly, highlighting only those that emphasize the character’s plight.

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Love & Peace © 2015 “Love & Peace” Film Partners

This only describes the first 10 minutes or so of LOVE AND PEACE, during which a fumbling menial worker at the offices of a recording studio dreams of rock stardom and pines after a subdued colleague (Kumiko Aso) while serving as the punchline of the office jokes. But with a bit fantasy and Sono’s panache for plot progressions both imaginatively far fetched and compelling, his fate takes a turn for the better. It is a rise and rise story that ends up a unique twist on the usual convention of exploding egos leading to an inevitable fall.

The incorporation of diverse musical pieces that are pitch perfect fits is another attribute of Sono’s films in peak form and here it occurs both within and without the story. Aside from wonderfully catchy rock anthems that our down on his luck protagonist begins to magically produce, background music provides numerous callbacks to previous films. Viewers of the director’s numerous works are rewarded in spades, with a rousing callback to the infectious jingle that rang throughout WHY DON’T YOU GO PLAY IN HELL.

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Love & Peace © 2015 “Love & Peace” Film Partners

While the story has feel good elements, it is far from slight. Throughout the movie, scenes that may seem like background noise show Japanese youth with a general lack of awareness about the atom bomb’s treacherous role in the country’s history. Names are also used to show misunderstandings or perhaps a repurposing of history’s scars. Then there is Sono’s unprecedented incorporation of elements straight out of Western imports like Toy Story, a representation of Disney and Pixar both. When this comes to clash with mass destruction ala quintessentially Japanese kaiju movies, it is as though the collective Japanese self identity and its subjection to Western influences is being exploded onto a moving canvas. Who wins may come as a surprise. It is heady thought provoking stuff works on the mind while the personal story of sad sack turned star stirs the emotions.

For tickets and information on these and other films in the JAPAN CUTS lineup, visit the Japan Society website.

MC 2.1 Four Razor Sharp Dramas at JAPAN CUTS 2016

 

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Kako: My Sullen Past Ⓒ 2016 “Kako: My Sullen Past” Film Partners

There is a focus on hard hitting dramas with a conscience at this significant 10th year anniversary edition of JAPAN CUTS. Here are four that stand out.

KAKO: MY SULLEN PAST

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Kako: My Sullen Past Ⓒ 2016 “Kako: My Sullen Past” Film Partners

A work brimming with mystery and engrossing verbal sparring. Fumi Nikaido and Kyoko Koizumi sharing the screen together is pure electricity with the constant promise of fireworks. The story centered around an unsophisticated family slyly introduces a backdrop of political anxiety as adolescent Kako scorns the world around her while making sense of it at the same time, as suddenly she is faced with an aunt who has suddenly returned home under strange circumstances. Embraces ambiguities like the best of Japanese cinema.

 

THREE STORIES OF LOVE

 

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Enter a captionThree Stories of Love © Shochiku Broadcasting / Arc Films

A Harrowing unfolding of three of individuals stuck in the margins, and at the whim of a society that is often insensitive to those who have fallen on hard times or are different. A victim of discrimination against homosexuals, a widow whose wife was senselessly murdered, and a woman stuck in a dull and seemingly loveless relationship. The subtle storytelling leaves some question over who we are following at first. But While the stories are quietly told they bring about a slow release of emotion that is each gripping. They also reveal that the best triumphs of the human will are evident simply in the hanging on and weathering the storm.

 

KEN AND KAZU

 

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Ken and Kazu © Third Window Films

An amazingly accomplished and at times extremely suspenseful low budget production focusing on two drug dealers. One is hot headed, impulsive, tethered to a maternal figure he harbors resentment for. The other is calm, loyal, and looking for a way out so he can make a peaceful life for his wife and soon to be born child. There is raw violence, heated exchanges, and a brooding intensity in the two leads, both with surprisingly small on screen acting resumes. While the tale is a classic one, this feels nothing like the typical yakuza prototype. There are no tacky suits or rolling r’s. And while the scope of the action ends up being relatively small scale, ambitions are huge, to make this more than an exercise in style. The characters here are faced with challenging decisions and the question of what you do when they are placed before you. An essential look at an exciting new voice in Japanese filmmaking.

 

BEING GOOD

 

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Being Good © 2015 “Being Good” Film Partners

An unflinching look at several aspects of how adults navigate the lives of children they raise. Another triptych looks at a novice fourth grade teacher struggling to keep order in his class, a mother of a preschooler with tendencies to strike her child welling up within her, and an autistic child’s encounter with an elderly lady suffering bouts of dementia. Scenes feel extremely real. They are left to unfold calmly yet are extremely compelling. The drama is often nerve wracking. While even handed for a while, as it reaches its conclusion things become a bit more manipulative. But characters are also moved to action as the film decided to not only catalogue problems faced by our youth but show how individuals can take a stand.

For more information and tickets visit the Japan Society website.

MC 1: Japanese Perspectives @ NYAFF 2016

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The New York Asian Film Festival has long been offering a sliding door peek into distant cultures and landscapes by way of programming rare and adventurous films from distant shores. Perfect for New Yorkers to get a dose of exotica without leaving city limits, one can get a quick blast by way of a day at the movies or really immerse oneself in salient aspects of a country’s culture as well as trends in its film output with repeated trips to the festival’s home of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater (June 22 – July 5) and new digs the SVA Theater (July 6 – July 9).

Gaining insight into Japanese culture is unavoidable after even a little time spent with its films, and this 15th anniversary edition of the NYAFF gives plenty of opportunity to do so. Below is a preview of some of the Japanese movies being shown along with some impressions. For a list of all of the movies as well as offerings from South Korea, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South East Asia, visit the SUBWAY CINEMA website.

1.CREEPY

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CREEPY is a psychological thriller from Kiyoshi Kurosawa that has more than a little Hitchcockian flair for suspense. Its biggest reference point, though, is probably early Kiyoshi Kurosawa with the director going back to the kind of off kilter takes on seemingly familiar terror (CURE and KAIRO) head scratching affairs that made singular lasting impressions . This return to form is all the more riveting for casting popular actor Hidetoshi Nishijima as its brooding yet fiery lead and Teruyuki Kagawa, a reliable everyman of Japanese cinema who plays the far more fun villain with maniacal glee. The film’s score dances along a highwire, sending waves of tension down the viewers’ spines. All the while, an equally accomplished sound design makes for a thorough sense of dread and foreboding. The film has its fair share of awkwardness, it is Kiyoshi Kurosawa after all, so prolonged sequences of horrid acts may cause discomfort. It is as though the director is subjecting us to the same notion of being helplessly trapped by circumstances as its flailing protagonists. Like Kurosawa’s other thrillers, CREEPY brings out existential questions of free will and the entanglements of social structures, as well as more local issues of community and the notion of being a good neighbor.

 

2. WHAT A WONDERFUL FAMILY

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Don’t let the charming façade of WHAT A WONDERFUL FAMILY fool you into thinking it is entirely innocuous. The film similarly pokes and prods at traditionally accepted institutions of marriage and family life. The vehicle here is a light comedy focused around an increasingly rare three-generation household, whose eldest figures threaten divorce. While peppered throughout with a gentle zaniness that may seem antiquated, it slyly raises questions over values as family members’ true objections to the split are exposed. The main event is a protracted family meeting scene, which manages to be both no holds barred and civil. Everyone in the cast is on point but Hashizume Isao stands out as the family’s foible-filled patriarchal figure. He is delightfully incorrigible and a joy to watch throughout.

 

3. A BRIDE FOR RIP VAN WINKLE

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Rougher going is the nearly 3 hour BRIDE FOR RIP VAN WINKLE, the latest from iconoclastic director Shunji Iawai (who will be honored at the festival with a lifetime achievement award). It is an odyssey of sorts for its wide eyed protagonist, whose transformative journey, along with the help of a peculiar ‘fixer’ (played by Rising Star recipient Go Ayano) takes her from lonely soul in need of salvation to a savior figure. Far less subtle in its skewering of society, Iwai takes on everything from narrow minded parents to the wastefulness of a population that frowns on recycling old goods. Interesting for its strange straddling of the line between realism and storybook logic, as well as its steadfastly independent production, it can be a tough slog due to some overly long static scenes, in particular those between the main character and one played by COCCO, an actress and singer whose own real life nuances makes for compelling onscreen viewing.

4. KIYAMACHI DARUMA

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Faring less well is the more straightforward genre exercise KIYAMACHI DARUMA. Its title a reference to an ill-fated yakuza member’s limbless state, the mostly plodding narrative only occasionally engages viewers in his unthinkable plight. Although initially suggesting off color humor at the main character’s expense, the proceedings largely maintain 1 sustained note of gloom and denigration. It doesn’t help that the movie’s look is lacking in innovation, reminiscent of video nasties from the 90s (remember Guinea Pig anyone?) that lacked any substance beyond their shock factor. A few points for not pulling any punches, but this story of betrayal amidst a backdrop of criminal activity mostly shouted through by its assorted lowlife characters failed to stir much interest.

 

5. TETSUO: THE IRON MAN

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In honor of its 15th anniversary, the festival is screening a few favorites from the past, including an appropriately slotted 11 pm showing of TETSUO: THE IRON MAN. For those more interested in a visceral experience without the societal context, this was the world’s introduction to Tsukamoto Shinya’s wild imagination. It is a short blast of roughly hewn metallic imagery accompanied by a clanging and banging industrial soundtrack that tells the tale of individuals warped into industrial strength iron clad monstrosities drawn to destroying each other or the world, whichever comes first. With nods to the over the top transformation sequences in Akira, it has been recognized as a pillar of the body horror subgenre, but truly nothing has looked like this before or since. For those uninitiated, the opportunity to see the film that launched hundreds of thousands of passions for Japanese cinema, my own included should not be taken for granted.

For more information about the NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL, visit the SUBWAY CINEMA website.

 

 

Lucha Librarian 1: Video Vortex @ Yonkers Alamo, LUCHA MEXICO @ DOC NYC

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Lucha Libre, the signature style of pro wrestling born in Mexico has come a long way since I was first attracted to the exotic masks associated with the culture as a kid. Or the days when access to it was limited to fuzzy transmissions on touch and go cable tv stations in the high numbers on Saturday afternoons (with no DVR to capture it for later viewing).

Now the phenomenon is far more accessible to the public at large. A few generations have grown up with icons of the style who have worked in the major North American pro wrestling organizations WWE and once upon a time WCW (Rey Mysterio, Eddie Guerrero, Psichosis, Sin Cara and presently Alberto Del Rio, Kalisto). The recent television show Lucha Underground, which includes Roberto Rodriguez in its cast of producers, appeared on the cable channel El Rey bringing important figures active in the sport in the Mexican promotion AAA together with wrestlers from the US Indy scene and former WWE workers, in a highly stylized program with intensive production. It is currently gearing up for a second season. Those wanting to dig a little deeper could find the words of a Lucha Libre luminary, Konan (one K-Dog in the WCW’s popular NOW faction) transmitted via podcast on a regular basis through the MLW family of shows. He is also behind the scenes at AAA and Lucha Underground.

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This is a good week for young and old fans alike in the New York City area to celebrate their love of the unique form of entertainment. At the Alamo Drafthouse Theater in Yonkers, New York on Wednesday November 11 (note: TONIGHT) their always bonkers series Video Vortex, which shows old and rare movies direct from VHS to screen, will show SANTO AND BLUE DEMON VS THE MONSTERS. You can bet the ‘monsters’ will be in trouble in this special tag team match, which will highlight the amazing connection between Mexico’s film industry and pro wrestling, and show the celebrity status these masked figures of the sport achieved. Video Vortex screenings are always just a dollar(!) but bring finances for the delicious food and beer options. Plus some spending cash on the table of VHS and dvd oddities for sale before and after the screening, usually set up right in the theater. It is always good to show up a half hour before start time (8 pm) too to take in a stellar preshow reel, which this time is sure to include trailers of other lucha libre movie classics.

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LUCHA MEXICO is a documentary featured at this year’s DOC NYC festival of documentary movies. It will be screened on at 9:45 Friday, November 13 at the IFC Theater in the West Village with director and writer Alex Hammond and Ian Markiewicz, as well as subjects and real luchadors Shocker and Jon Strongman in attendance. An additional screening will take place 4:45 on Wednesday, November 18 at Bow Tie Cinemas in Chelsea, where only Hammond and Markiewicz are scheduled to appear.

It is an ambitious film covering a lot of aspects of lucha, including its history, the perils and prestige of those in the sport, and behind the scenes aspects of the business. One meets a colorful cast of characters ranging across generations, though there is a strong focus on Shocker and Strongman. While not entirely focused (it is not quite a history of the sport and not quite a biopic on Shocker though at times feels like it could be either of those things) it is a pleasure to take in the beautifully captured visuals that look better than much of those tv broadcasts I snuck in ages ago. Fans, especially those new to lucha stand to learn a lot. The colorful cast of characters also speak volumes for themselves. One gets a sense of how vividly different the scene in Mexico is from the mainstream wrestling products in the US, with strong female wrestlers like Fabe Apache and Sexy Star, and Mini-Estrellas like the KeMonito all getting a bit of representation.

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The movie also gives a strong sense of how deeply rooted lucha libre is to the Mexican cultural identity, with the top stars presented here seeming just as at home doing shows in large arenas and open air exhibitions in more remote villages. The vibrant colors that lighten the more dilapidated locales are breathtaking. The doc also boasts a smart, snazzy soundtrack embodying the melding of tradition and style, which is especially effective over some montages toward the feature’s end. One must stick around for a very smooth and smart title sequence animation over the end credits.

A lot of the footage may feel dated for those keeping up with Mexico’s largest brands and talent featured in them. However, an updating of events definitely occurred, as the movie focuses a bit on the recent tragic passing of Perro Aguayo Jr. during a match. This is spiced into the film seamlessly, and while sad, presents Aguayo and his risk taking peers as heroes.

An Ithaca Dilemma: (5 Resons) Why I Find Myself Drawn to the IIFFF

ithacs poster 2015I am going to start this journey, which could take a sharp turn off a steep cliff at any given moment, by writing in a mode I have a general disdain for: The life hack, list-centric, turn everything into a reason for being mode. Far be it from us to leave people to draw conclusions, let’s map out their reasons for sticking around lest they fear their time is being wasted, valuable time that could be spent on fingerprinting their approval on streams of photos or making up 2-choice surveys for random people to stop and click on their favorite cancelled 90s sitcom.

So while on one hand this might not be putting my best foot forward, this is also a fitting theme for stepping out into the abyss: by introducing a new institution. A new destination. A new preoccupation. New at least for me. Although in its 4th year, this is the first that the 5 day event, running from November 11 – 15, has landed on my radar and continued blipping. Steadily, til it dawned on me that I must be a part of it.

And while I find the overuse of this function-over-form way of focusing an article, it is pretty fitting here. A few times that I have tried to tackle an introduction to this festival, which I myself am just getting to know, I ended up stymied. There is that much to process. I find then, my most honest – and desperate, as I find this piece of writing fast approaching irrelevance with every passing minute – approach would be to talk about what has got me all hot and bothered about the affair. As of yet, I haven’t counted how many points there will be. But hopefully, it will be a nice countable number like 5 or 10, which would end up making the title that much more clickable and your time perceptibly that much less wasted.

Of course you could always just click on the link to the festival website: http://ithacafilmfestival.com and draw your own conclusions.

  1. A Resplendent Retrospective

Without knowing a single shred of new features on the program, I was sucked in by an incredibly curated side focus on body horror. It features a razor sharp selection of touchstone works for fans of cult films and offbeat takes on the horror and scifi genres alike. Most notable for moi would be Tsukamoto Shinya’s TETSUO: THE IRON MAN, a discovery I pulled off the shelf of a Blockbuster Video store while in high school, which has had more of an influence on my apetite for Japanese movies than anything by Kurosawa Akira or Hayao Miyazaki. It is a seamless world of industrial pleasures, despite being created on a shoestring budget, which erases the boundary between sensory experience and analysis. A riff on the battles of mass destruction rendered in Godzilla along with the kaiju movies it spawned and Akira, it follows two men whose bodies transform into junky, unwieldy metal machine monsters who are drawn into a love hate battle of wills, in which one will prevail or two will merge into one bigger and more destructive machine. It is a work of nihilistic glee set to a tribal-industrial soundtrack way ahead of its time by CHU ISHIKAWA. Seeing it on a big screen can only enhance its thrills.

Fast forwarding a decade into Japan’s visceral canon of films, we have AUDITION, one of Miike Takashi’s first blasts of confrontational cinema to impact Western shores. It starts as a playful romp wherein as a single father engages in the most charming of abuses of power by engineering an casting call that also doubles as a search for a potential new wife/mother for his adolescent son. Then, suddenly and violently turns into an increasingly delirious drop into madness. Man’s idealized notion of woman becomes his worst nightmare, as the now iconic Eihi Shiina has her way with her suitors in queasy sequences involving needles and wires. Its another film whose effect will be enhanced by the viewer’s inability to look away.

Then there is David Cronenberg’s SHIVERS, a mischievous experiment on the zombie genre in which sex is terrifying, and an all purpose apartment complex is a microcosm for an infected organism. The 70s kitsch on display is the perfect backdrop for a yarn about uncontrollable lust for physical gratification gone to gruesome extremes. The series is rounded out by EYES WITHOUT A FACE and POSSESSION, films I have not seen and am grateful for the opportunity to catch in a theater.

2. New York, but not New York

 New York City is filled with events in the realm of film and music and art, but there is something significant to be said for getting away from the trappings of the city one is familiar with and truly escaping into an all encompassing environment. And opportunities to do so without going too far out of bounds have been on the rise. Basillica Hudson, for instance is a festival that has been earning high marks for presenting music and other arts in a moody, absconded landscape, where the lack of commercialism and the daring of the artists curated has been rewarding for those willing to travel. If coming from New York City, you’ll have to travel a bit farther to get to Ithaca but the array of experiences to take in is vast enough to make it well worth the road trip.

3. A New Sono

 Upon seeing the film fest’s lineup of international selections in competition, a question I’ve considered had a chance to be answered: Is the chance to see a new Sion Sono (in this case LOVE AND PEACE) film worth driving 3 plus hours for? To which I leapt up and cried ‘yes!’ Without worrying if it will be good or bad, his best or somewhere in the middle, I can rest assured that it will be true to his vision, that it will be unique, and therefore more than likely to be intensely interesting. Look to his existing body of work peppered with rousing acts of celluloid incitement like SUICIDE CIRCLE, LOVE EXPOSURE, and WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL.

Other films in the lineup I am looking forward to on the merit of their directors’ past work is Midnight film AAAAAAAAAH! featuring lines blurred between man and ape, helmed by Steve Oram, who helped write the quick witted Sightseers. Scherzo Diabolico looks to be a blast of societal skewering by Adrian Garcia Bogliano, whose punk fueled head splitting horror film HERE COMES THE DEVIL blasted me out of complacency.

  1. Japan

Along with TETSUO, there is a small focus on extremely independent films dubbed DIY In Japan. HARUKO’S PARANORMAL LABORATORY is one of them, a piping hot Bento box of pop culture references and hyper sexuality that betrays its Gondry-on-a-budget cuteness.

  1. Movies…. andMusic and Art

It’s nice to have a mix of mediums so as to give some perspective to all you are digesting. So it is notable that the organizers of the IIFFF had the foresight to include an art and music component to its proceedings. A gallery will host the art of Chet Zar, a noted special effects creator for the likes of Planet of the Apes and Hellboy. A documentary on the artists called I LIKE TO PAINT MONSTERS will also be screened Saturday afternoon. Concerts will take place most evenings with a focus on heavy sounds Friday, and a diverse evening Saturday, which includes visitors coming up from the Tristate SCREAMING FEMALES and AYE NAKO, whose punk and indie rock leanings are sure to stir the soul.

Oh wow, that came down to 5. Totally organically, not at all planned.

This is far from a complete overview, though, with the event also including films with a focus on the art world, another focus on the films of Turkey, as well as one dedicated to directors from New York, and others under an umbrella theme of gaming. The international competition section features a number of films that may have eluded the savvy filmgoer at fests like Tribeca, Austin Fantastic Fest, and Montreal’s Fantastia to name a few. A selection of short films will be screened, and numerous guests will be on hand including Joe Begos (THE MIND’S EYE), Michael Keating (DARLING), and artist Chet Zar along with the director of the documentary he is the subject of, Mike Corell.

For a comprehensive look, peruse the IIFFF website and download the brochure. And keep in mind, it starts the evening of Wednesday, November 11 and continues through Sunday, November 15.

See you there.