Fantasia and New York Asian Film Festival Review: Under the Open Sky

Written by Patrick Hao


Under the Open Sky is the disappointing feature from Miwa Nishikawa attempting to explore the difficulties an ex-convict faces as he tries to integrate back into society. That ex-convict is Mikami (Koji Yakusho), a former member of the Yakuza, who had just spent thirteen years in prison for murder for which he claims was self-defense. An impulsive but sweet man, Mikami struggles to find a job especially as the little indignities of people’s prejudices begin to mount.

As much as this film is about the failure of a system, it is also about the way a community can help those who are struggling. Despite initial prejudices, everyone around Mikami is earnest in their attempts to help him – even the bureaucrats and welfare officers. It’s human beings trying to be good people. Mikami even forms unlikely friendships with the local owner of a grocery store (Seiji Rokkaku) who initially suspected him of shoplifting and a television director Tsunoda (Taiga Nakano) whose initial intentions were to create an exploitative documentary about him. The film seems adamant that there are no truly bad people, just bad circumstances.

New York Asian Film Festival 2021

Nishikawa, a disciple of international film darling Hirokazu Kore-eda. possesses the empathetic qualities that make Kore-eda great which can serve a film like this well but she’s heavy handed in her approach. Which becomes frustrating as it becomes clear this filmmaker does not trust the audience. The documentary being filmed about Mikami is used as a device that explicitly spells out the salient observations that could be gleaned from the film moments after they happen. This undercutting any sense of discovery or revelation.

It’s over two hours long doesn’t help, as the film tends to meander in unmeaningful ways. Flashbacks to Mikami’s past offer little insight into what was already established in the present day. And the film’s tangent into whether Mikami will return to his life in the Yakuza seems only to occur in order to fulfill some sort of quota.

That is not to say that Under the Open Sky can be entirely dismissed. The film is buoyed by an excellent performance from Yakusho. He is tender and funny with an unpredictable explosiveness. Every film, no matter how shaggy, will feel steady when it is anchored by a consummate pro like Yakusho. Nishikawa, herself, is not an untalented filmmaker by any means. The warmness and goodness of her characters, mixed with her soothing cinematography and tinkling score had me almost tearing up at the exact moments she wanted us to. Its emotional manipulation at its finest.

Under the Open Sky is only disappointing because the elements of a good film are present on screen. Maybe a tighter cut would have allowed the film to focus instead of feeling like a shallow exploration of its themes. Alas, at least we are left with a great performance from Koji Yakusho.

Under the Open Sky Trailer

You can purchase a ticket to see Under the Open Sky in Canada from Fantasia Film Festival and in the United States of America at New York Asian Film Festival.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Sundance 2021 Review: Violation

Written by Taylor Baker


SYNOPSIS: With her marriage about to implode, Miriam returns to her hometown to seek solace in the comfort of her younger sister and brother-in-law. But one evening a tiny slip in judgement leads to a catastrophic betrayal, leaving Miriam shocked, reeling, and furious. Believing her sister to be in danger, Miriam decides she must protect her at all costs, but the price of revenge is high and she is not prepared for the toll it takes as she begins to emotionally and psychologically unravel.


“What’s wrong with a little Sammy Harris?”

Miriam (Madeleine Sims-Fewer)

Built on naturalistic landscapes and a swelling score, Violation presents the brutality at the core of it’s story in close-up. Whether stirring batter, deboning a rabbits leg, or watching a spiders legs twitch while it suffocates under a cup. It forces a sense of brooding and suffocation onto the viewer in classic yet unconventional ways.

First time feature film writer/directors Dusty Mancinelli and Madeline Sims-Fewer—who also leads the film—present a somber look at pain and murder. Their collaborative first feature makes sound design it’s fulcrum and while at times it’s score propels us along, just as often and craftily it dips out allowing the stirring of nature to envelop us. Defining a sense of place that intensifies the collage, sometimes spectre like imagery that dances on screen with it.

Madeline Sims-Fewer plays Miriam a woman whose distanced from her family and is having trouble at home with her husband. In lieu of spoiling the narrative, I’ll just say an “event” occurs, prompting Madeline’s “Miriam” to commit a violent murder. The twist here is not so much a conventional twist as a spurring on of the form we’ve already seen employed, now toward active violence. The murder scene is cripplingly human, Miriam’s reaction to her own actions is like a dagger twisted into the gut of the viewer. Her anguish undeniable.

Many have written about the discomfort that they experienced during the film, and I don’t want to completely write that off. But I think that in high caliber pieces of cinema that have similar topics, these feelings of discomfort are more a sign of greatness than any indicative modicum of banality. I can’t quite say I’m thrilled by this film, but I was astounded. 

Violation Trailer

Highly Recommended

Violation played during the Sundance 2021 Film Festival and scheduled to release in multiple territories on March 25th 2021 on Shudder.

Sundance 2021 Review: Night of the Kings

Written by Taylor Baker


SYNOPSIS: A young man is sent to “La Maca,” a prison in the middle of the Ivorian forest ruled by its inmates. As tradition goes with the rising of the red moon, he is designated by the Boss to be the new “Roman” and must tell a story to the other prisoners. Learning what fate awaits him, he begins to narrate the mystical life of the legendary outlaw named “Zama King” and has no choice but to make his story last until dawn.

Night of the Kings has been formally submitted in the category Best Foreign Language Film by Côte d’Iviore (Ivory Coast) for the Oscars.

REVIEW: A finished story is a dead man. Or so it seems in Philippe Lacôte’s sophomore feature. About a prisoner who is renamed Roman on an ominous night when the moon turns red and the title of storyteller is foisted upon him. Hinging on the words of debut performer Koné Bakary(Roman), this Scheherazade-like fable mixes reality, history, and desire.

Night of the Kings is at it’s most engaging in the prison(La Maca) as we’re witnessing Bakary engage in the act of storytelling. Holding his own against the crowd of prisoners shouting, singing, and jeering as he weaves his tale. When we shift to the images of the story being told they often lack atmosphere, tension, and propulsiveness. Things that immediately leap back into the viewer as we shift–often mid-scene back to the prison.

I found these choices to be deft and thoughtful ones. Reproposing the hypothesis: does a story belong to the storyteller or the audience? It does this all while engaging in the meaning, expectation, responsibility, and duty of telling of ‘your’ story not just as a man but as a nation. Rather than proffering answers Night of the Kings lingers on the cost of these questions.

The contemporary in prison timeline is sumptuously lit, with warm lamps and a near total absence of natural lighting until daybreak. Fabric hangs everywhere, the sets are dressed with care but not overfilled. The sound design and foley work seam together trickles of water, chirping insects, and dampened bare-feet splashing small pools of water to evoke an atmosphere that, were I able to view in a theater would assuredly be all encompassing.

Night of the Kings tells it’s story, and performs a transference of emotion. Emotion at a sense of history, a sense of loss, a hope for the future, but the agony and vigor it takes to just reach one more day. One thing is sure, I want to see more out of Philippe Lacôte as a writer/director and if he can re-team with newcomer Koné Bakary all the better.


Night of the Kings Trailer

Episode 88: The Outside Story / MLK/FBI / 76 Days

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Links: Apple Podcasts | Castbox | Google Podcasts | LibSyn | Spotify | Stitcher | YouTube

This week on Drink in the Movies Michael & Taylor discuss their First Impressions of the Prime Video Titles: I’m Your Woman & Sylvie’s Love. Followed by Official Selections to the Heartland International Film Festival, San Diego International Film Festival, and the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival. These Official 2020 Film Festival Selections are: The Outside Story, MLK/FBI, and 76 Days.

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Streaming links for titles this episode

MLK/FBI will be released by IFC FIlms on January 15th 2021

76 Days is currently available in Virtual Cinemas

The Outside Story is currently seeking distribution.

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