Toronto After Dark 2012: Sushi Girl Review (Robert Harding)

Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2012

Sushi Girl (2012)

Starring Tony Todd, James Duval, Noah Hathaway, Andy Mackenzie, and Mark Hamill

Directed by Kern Saxton

People have been paying tribute to their favourite films for decades. Films have been sequelled, rebooted, and remade. When a film is remade under a completely different guise without giving tribute to its source it usually falls under two categories. When it is well received it is considered an homage to the original, considered smart and given accolades. Films that aren’t well received are considered rip-offs, unoriginal and often forgotten.  Sushi Girl is not a reboot, sequel or remake but it’s similarities to other films are without dispute.

After serving six years in prison, keeping his mouth shut following a jewel theft that went horribly wrong, Fish (Noah Hathaway) meets up with his fellow thieves for a sushi dinner. Unfortunately for Fish, this crew isn’t about to leave until they get what’s theirs and only he knows where their diamonds ended up…or so they think.

Sushi Girl is getting very mixed reviews.  Many are calling it nothing new and a blatant rip-off of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (which itself was a “rip-off” of Ringo Lam’s City on Fire).  Others are stating that it is a fantastic homage to great heist movies. There’s no denying the similarities between Sushi Girl and Reservoir Dogs and City on Fire, but just like Reservoir Dogs has subtle differences from City on Fire, Sushi Girl has its own differences.

Much like Reservoir Dogs, Sushi Girl works well mainly because of its cast. With Noah Hathaway, Tony Todd, Mark Hamill, James Duvall and Andy Mackenzie making up the main cast of jewel thieves you might think the film was filled with second rate actors but that is not the case. Mark Hamill stands out as a sadistic psychopath (clearly influenced by his Joker character), Andy Mackenzie could easily be an actual crazy enforcer in any biker gang and Tony Todd commands the screen whenever he opens his mouth.  In fact, Tony Todd needs to get more similar roles as he emanates  a “don’t fuck with me vibe.” The cast is rounded out with cameos from such names as Michael Biehn, Sonny Chiba, Danny Trejo and finally Cortney Palm who looks absolutely gorgeous as the title character.

Through fantastic characters and plenty of sushi this film managed to beat its way into my good books. I wouldn’t call this an homage or a rip-off but simply a new telling of a familiar and entertaining story.  I truly enjoyed the performances from Mark Hamill and Tony Todd and loved all the great cameos. If you are at all a fan of Reservoir Dogs or City on Fire I suggest giving Sushi Girl a chance, but keep an open mind.

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TIFF Bell Lightbox – Candyman 35mm Review (Matt Hodgson)

TIFF Bell Lightbox

Rue Morgue

Candyman (1992)

Starring Virginia Madsen, Tony Todd, and Xander Berkeley

Written by Clive Barker (story) and Bernard Rose

Directed by Bernard Rose

Candyman, Candyman, Candyman…Candy – I can’t even make it to four times on a freaking written review! That’s the kind of impact this nightmarish slasher had on kids growing up in the 90’s. For a while Candyman was one of the movies often talked about in between classes, but few had actually experienced the fear and the violence elicited by the gory hook which had replaced Candyman’s right hand. I hadn’t seen Candyman for years, but thanks to Rue Morgue, the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Fan Expo, fans had a chance to watch a 35mm print of the beautiful and talented Virginia Madsen opposite one of the most iconic killers in the history of horror cinema. And that’s not the end of the story: Tony Todd, the Candyman himself, would be present for a Q&A after the screening. If this doesn’t excite you and strike a little bit of fear into your heart at the same time, then you may not be familiar with the story of the Candyman.

Based on The Forbidden, a short story by the prolific and talented horror author, Clive Barker, Candyman is the story about two graduate students trying to complete a thesis about the origin and transmission of urban legends. Helen (Madsen) and Bernadette (Kasi Lemmons) are having a difficult time coming up with an urban legend that hasn’t already been investigated ad nauseam. However, while conducting a series of recorded interviews Helen comes across the legend of the Candyman. In the poorer areas of Chicago the residents seem to attribute horrible killings to a murderous ghost or vengeful wraith with a bloody hook in the place of his right hand. Once a slave, the Candyman experienced an unfathomable amount of pain in life and a little over a century later looks to share his horrible past with the living. Despite the horror of the urban legend, it seems easy enough to avoid the Candyman – don’t say his name five times while looking into the mirror. Unfortunately, the curious and incredulous Helen can’t help herself, and after chanting his name her horror begins.

SPOILERS

Despite a couple of issues, Candyman holds up remarkable well after an unbelievable 20 years since its release. The movie feels incredibly violent and bloody, yet there isn’t a lot of onscreen violence. I can’t help but think that this feeling is elicited by the great practical effect of Candyman’s gore-covered hook. Rose uses many close-ups of this weapon throughout the movie and as a result it becomes embedded in the viewers brain. This sort of psychological skill seems hard to find in the current crop of slasher movies being made, and it’s really a shame as it is much more effective than having a high body count.

The chemistry between Tony Todd and Virginia Madsen is incredible, with Madsen turning in a particularly amazing performance as an intelligent and adventurous graduate student who gets a little too attached to her research as many graduate students are apt to do. During the Q&A Todd told the audience that he and Madsen practiced fencing, horseback riding, and other elegant sports or activities in order to ensure that their chemistry was as close to genuine as possible when they finally shot the film. Another interesting story brought up during the Q&A involved the amazing ‘bee’ scenes in the film, in which bees crawled all over Todd or Madsen. One scene in particular had a few dozen bees crawling over Todd’s face and open mouth. He assured us that this was in fact REAL. The shot was made possible by placing a device in Todd’s mouth which would prevent the bees from crawling into his mouth and down his throat. The filmmakers also hired a ‘bee wrangler’ for the set with the focus on using young bees, as they don’t develop the ability to sting until they have reached the 12-hour milestone in their lives. Despite these precautions, Todd was still stung 26 times while shooting the movie, and collected a cool $26,000 in the process as he had a ‘$1,000 a sting’ clause in his contract thanks to a savvy lawyer.

There were only two issues that really bothered me about Candyman: a particular costume and a bit of sloppy logic in the story. Firstly, why in the hell does Candyman wear chef pants and a fur coat? Maybe this worked back in 1992, but it was a little distracting in 2012. Last time I checked Candyman was not a pimp. I also found myself waiting for Flavor Flav to jump onto the scene and start a public enemy music video. Secondly, when Helen gets arrested for the first time the police think that she has beheaded a dog, attacked a young mother with a meat cleaver, and finally kidnapped a small child and is the only one who knows his whereabouts. Of course they promptly let her out on bail and allow her to go back to her apartment. I can’t believe that this seemed logical in 1992, but I don’t recall having a problem with it then.

It was a great night out at the Lightbox; Candyman looked great on 35mm, and Tony Todd had a hugely entertaining Q&A with local film critic, Richard Crouse. I can’t wait until Rue Morgue and TIFF screen another classic horror film like this and really make it an event. Todd also told the audience about another screening in Toronto that he is attached to later in the year, although he was not clear if he will be present for it. More news on this in the near future.

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Fantasia 2012 – Sushi Girl Review (Matt Hodgson)

Fantasia Film Festival 2012

Sushi Girl (2012)

Starring Tony Todd, James Duval, Noah Hathaway, Mark Hamill, and Andy Mackenzie

Directed by Kern Saxton

MINOR SPOILERS

When I started Entertainment Maven a few years ago it was not because I was in love with movies, but rather with the art of storytelling. Movies, books, video games, lyrics, there are countless mediums through which a competent storytelling can tell an enticing tale. However, throughout my life it has become clear that film has become the storytelling method of choice. By critiquing movies and attending festivals I have one of the most enjoyable ‘jobs’ I can imagine. Also, it is no secret to my friends and family that I would like to write a screenplay of my own one day. It is probably this frame of reference that made Sushi Girl especially upsetting for me to watch.

A Tarantino inspired crime thriller, Sushi Girl is the story of a ruthless band of criminals who get together after their newest member, Fish (Noah Hathaway), is released from prison after a 6-year term. The group reunites in a beautifully decorated dining room over a delicate sushi dinner served on the even more delicate naked body of a sushi girl. Tony Todd, James Duval, Mark Hamill and Andy Mackenzie round out the group of hardened criminals, each possessing a uniquely dangerous personality. The dinner quickly turns ugly as despite being ‘business’ partners, the men don’t seem to be the best of friends. Soon enough we learn that the real reason for the dinner is to find out the whereabouts of the jewels that went missing at the end of their last job. The men blame Fish and are convinced he has stashed the jewels somewhere, and they seem ready to get the information out of him by any means possible.

As you can see, Sushi Girl has an absolutely stellar cast, enough players to interest even the casual moviegoer, and all of the primary actors deliver. Mark Hamill gives a great performance as the sadistic and flamboyant Crow, while Tony Todd simply resonates one badass dude. Jimmy Duval was also particularly good as a poor-decision-making screw-up who is really a good guy at heart. The Chinese Ming Dynasty dining location is absolutely gorgeous, an excellent and thoughtful choice for what is certainly a theatre-inspired, dialogue driven film. Add to these points the nail-biting intensity of having five killers in a room, none of whom fully trust the others, and Sushi Girl should have been a home-run. Unfortunately, Sushi Girl had problems from the first phase of making a film, the script writing phase.

I understand how passionate writers can be of their work, it is one of the most toiling journeys a person can make, from starring at a blank page to the completed work. However, screenwriters must be very vigilant in evaluating their initial ideas before embarking on the journey. I always ask myself: ‘Is the idea interesting?’ ‘Is it a story a lot of people would want to hear, or is it just for me?’ ‘Is the idea adding some interesting new aspect to the body of films already out there (even if it’s just a unique genre mash-up)? I’ve had to learn to ask myself these questions the hard way. Unfortunately for the writers of Sushi Girl, they hit upon a sure-fire way to make an uninspired movie by having one of their central characters tied to chair and tortured for about 30 minutes. Maybe it worked for some earlier filmmakers, but this has to be one of the most annoying cliches to permeate horror and crime films. Its like a parasite. Unfortunately the problems don’t end here.

The dialogue sounds like written dialogue, it may be true, but it’s never a good sign when it’s blatantly obvious. Some of the actors are able to save some of the lines, particularly Hamill and Todd, but mediocre to sub-par dialogue in a dialogue driven movie is a recipe for disaster. Also, brief appearances by Michael Biehn and Danny Trejo got an eruption of applause from the crowd, but their unimportant roles could have been played by unknown actors with more effectiveness as it made the film feel like a recent episodes of SNL where James Franco randomly appears for the audience to clap at in lieu of humourous writing. And of course what bit of original filmmaking would be complete without a twist ending?

The filmmakers of Sushi Girl had the ultimate golden horseshoe, an amazing veteran cast and a beautiful location. It actually pains me to say it as everyone involved in the film seemed absolutely dedicated to it, but Sushi Girl is not much more than a wasted opportunity, an opportunity that most filmmakers won’t get in their entire careers.

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