Saturday, July 30, 2016

Fantasia 2016.08 (21 July 2016): Aloys, Kaiju Mono, and She's Allergic to Cats

Sometimes, you know just from looking at the schedule that you're making a bad decision, but you figure, hey, do I want to see a likely-good movie that seems like a bit of a downer or the fun movie with a crowd that's into it? That's the logic that had me choosing Kaijyu Mono over Fourth Place, and, no, it wasn't really satisfying. I probably would have also chosen Train to Busan over She's Allergic to Cats if the former was only playing once, since some of the praise I was hearing is the kind that film the first couple times.



Best picture I could get of Cats director Michael Reich, who is, in fact, just this animated on stage. It's the kind of Q&A that convinces you that the guy is just as out-there as his film because he almost seems to jump each time he's got to say something, whether it be answering a question or describing what he's done and how he hopes we'll react.

Aloys

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Theatre (Fantasia 2016: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Filmmaker Tobias Nölle initially entices viewers with a version of Aloys that is not quite so internal, with a mystery to sole and perhaps an unnerving way of things playing out, before settling into something that better matches its withdrawn title character, and it's the mark of how well he handles the film that this never feels like a bait-and-switch; it smoothly moves into more reflective territory while still being more interesting to watch than just a man lost in self-contemplation.

Not that Aloys Adorn (Georg Friedrich) really spends much time considering his feelings or place in the world. A private investigator by trade, he works to be hidden as he follows cheating husbands, although he'll often put something small in his pocket and shoot video of what he sees unrelated to any case - the daughter of a neighbor (Yufei Li) claims he got his cat this way. He ignores her and most everyone else, from Julie (Agnes Lampkin), the old classmate at the funeral home where his father will be cremated, to his next-door neighbor Vera (Tilde von Overbeck). One day, he falls asleep on the bus and awakens in the garage, his camera and several tapes stolen. When the thief calls, she says that he is now the one being watched and they're going to try "phone-walking", an unusual therapeutic technique involving guided visualization. Oh, and that his cat is dying and needs magnesium supplements.

Aloys could probably use some help, there's little doubt about that. What makes him an unusual case is that he doesn't seem to be introverted so much as absent, with no sense of self at all. He seems to eat nothing but plain white rice and his home and office, to the extent that they betray any sense of individual personality at all, would seem to reflect that of his late father Harald; the decor and equipment seems about a generation out of date (at least). It may just be a quirk of the subtitles, but Aloys never refers to himself in the first-person singular, always saying "we". He's been an extension of his father/employer all of his life, it seems, and in some ways it's like he's trying to create an independent self by stealing little tokens or moments, even if he does initially resist the voice's attempts to mold him, at least until he knows who he is dealing with.

Full review on EFC.

Daikaiju Mono (Kaijyu Mono)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Theatre (Fantasia 2016, DCP)

There are a lot of things that are fun to mash up for a couple of minutes or a still image but whose appeal starts to flag as the joke plays out and the folks who like one thing have their fill of the other over the length of even a short feature. On the other hand, I'm guessing that there's a big overlap between the admirer sides of giant monster movies and professional wrestling, enough that there's more of an audience for something like Daikaiju Mono than might first appear. Those folks will have a fair amount of fun with this one, while the rest will most likely nod and say that looks about like what they expected.

As is de riguer when giant monsters are about to appear, Japan is besieged by calamitous weather and seismic activity, on top of plants that haven't been seen for millions of years reappearing. Disgraced Doctor Totaro Saigo (Ryu Manatsu), his daughter Miwa (Miki Kawanishi), and their research assistant Hideo Nitto (Syuusuke Saito) were on the right track but lost funding for their experiments, at least until the monster "Mono" starts tunneling from Monster Pass to Tokyo. Then, they have the chance to put "SETUP X" into action, injecting Nitto with a formula that scales him up to full kaiju size to fight Mono - and makes him more muscular and sexy, much to Miwa's delight! But don't worry, moviegoers - he's also perfected a fabric that allows Nitto's underpants to grow with him.

Director Minoru Kawasaki is an old hand at this sort of thing, even considering that having people dress up in goofy costumes and grapple is kind of a specialized line (he is, after all, perhaps best known for a movie by the name of "Calamari Wrestler"). More generally, he's built a career on skewed but fond takes on the pop culture of his youth, and here he takes giant monsters, pro wrestling, and sentai superhero adventures and sews them together in pretty much the exact way one would expect, but the shared DNA makes it work pretty smoothly, without distracting gear-shifts. He's canny enough to know when to go with decent effects and when cheap is funny, because while there's a giggle or two to be had from pulling out the obvious toy tanks from Mothra for a quick scene or two, Mono looking bad would get old fast.

Full review on EFC.

"Fuck Buddies" (2016)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Theatre (Fantasia 2016, digital)

This particular short by the name of "Fuck Buddies" (there are a lot of them, and a lot of other movies that had the name at one point but changed it because there are a lot of festivals that will happily play something that uses the term constantly but won't print it in their program) has moments when it feels like a real shotgun approach to short filmmaking, as writer/director Nate Wilson takes a simple premise - two roommates/best friends (Sharon Belle & Alexander Plouffe) find that a lot of seemingly innocuous things are triggering the urge to hook up, and as the reason makes itself known, Joseph finds himself growing more attached than Ellie.

Wilson is young - around nineteen - so he's likely still learning what works, so I'm inclined to applaud his ambition in taking what starts out as a goofy gag and running in three orthogonal directions, playing out the comedy that goes with this too-casual compulsive sex, revealing a weird horror plot behind it, and trying to get into what it means for the emotionally all at once. It's kind of a mess, as Plouffe's attempts at sincerity and lovesickness just don't wind up complementing Belle's terrific glibness, and both have problems trying to play against the horror elements, which most clearly betray how little margin there is in terms of production values here.

Still, when the group is going straight at funny, whether in terms of witty narrative banter are gleefully raunchy cartoon sex, they are really good at it, blowing past chuckles and getting the big, guffaw-level laughs, amping up the ridiculousness with ease. So maybe they can't also increase the pathos at the same time; everybody is young enough that it seems likely to come with time.

She's Allergic to Cats

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2016 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia 2016: FantasiaUnderground, DCP)

The main character of She's Allergic to Cats spends his time making lo-fi video art and dreams of remaking Carrie with cats, and while it doesn't always work out this way, there's probably a decent correlation between how much a potential viewer finds this a reasonable use of one's time and how much he or she will be into the movie. It aims to be peculiar, so it is probably fortunate that its particular flavor of weird is not exactly hidden away.

Mike Pinkney came to Los Angeles to make movies, but that's a pretty competitive field, especially considering his fairly esoteric ideas, so instead he's barely scraping by grooming dogs and making plaintive entreaties about the ray infestation to his landlord (Honey Davis), who is not particularly inclined to let responsibilities to his tenant distract him from his music career, such as it is. It could be worse, though - he may not be a particularly good pet groomer and most people think his ideas are crap, but Mickey Rourke's daughter's assistant Cora (Sonja Kinski), who takes their dogs to the ship where he works, seems to like him. Maybe a date wouldn't be a disaster.

If writer/director Michael Reich were interested in making a more mainstream film, it's not something that would be terribly far out of reach. Though the details will occasionally emphasize the grimy elements of the life where Mike has landed and his artistic ideas are eccentric at best, he actually approaches the film as a very grounded comedy much of the time - the audience isn't going to spend a lot of time wondering whether or not something really happened or having to work their heads around impossibly surreal sequences of events. The folks Mike encounters may be weird or selfish, but they're kind of familiar comic types at heart - Honey Davis (as himself) and Flula Borg, as Mike's bluntly skeptical German agent, could drop into a more conventional Hollywood story without much issue.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

Another quick break from posting Fantasia reviews (and, sort of, seeing Fantasia movies) because nobody else at EFC gave the new Star Trek a full review and I've got strong opinions about the reboot series (see 2009 and 2013) that I can't be expected to hold back.

(The timing of this being released mid-Fantasia isn't great for me, and I know that there are one or two programmers on the festival staff that probably shook their fist when Paramount not only moved this from the May releases the first two movies had to July, but then bumped it a couple of weeks later. When announcing the 2016 festival's date last year, King-wei Chu mentioned it as "the week after the new Star Trek comes out", and I wouldn't be shocked if he tried to finagle a special Canadian premiere.)

Anyway, I liked it, enough that I'm looking forward to seeing it in 2D at my local theater when I get back home (though new director Justin Lin mostly keeps it looking like part of the same series as J.J. Abrams's first two films, this is the first time in a while that I've had issues with 3D making things too dark to see well). I'm a bit worried that my opinions on it were a bit colored by things I read beforehand, even if they have been things that led me to appreciate what the folks involved were doing. It's fast, good-natured, and generally upbeat and exciting even as it throws a lot of destruction around. It does a bit of fiftieth-anniversary fanservice (how many remember that the Enterprise was named the Yorktown in Gene Roddenberry's early drafts of "The Cage"?), but does so fairly organically rather than stopping to point out that thing you might remember from the original series and movies.

One thing that I couldn't help but notice is that a cast of characters that works very well for a television show where not everybody needs to be inovolved in the plot every week winds up a bit unweildy in movies where, because they only come about every three years or so, nobody should be sidelined. There are moments in this where you wonder why the doctor and xenolinguist are being pushed into action beats beyond wanting to use those characters/actors, and it doesn't quite fit.

The other thing about the cast that you can't help but notice is that Zoe Saldana is the only recurring woman. Though a fourth movie is by no means a sure thing, I'm kind of curious how the cast will evolve in it. Given that on the one hand producer J.J. Abrams has said that they don't intend to recast Chekov after Anton Yelchin's tragic, far-too-early death, and on the other he has talked a fair amount about increasing representation in Star Wars and other Bad Robot projects, I really hope that he will seize the opportunity to make the series reflect the 1960s mindset that wound up with a 6:1 male:female ratio. Further, I hope that involves bringing back Rachel Nichols (whose character has semi-canonically been established as alive in the comics), Alice Eve, and/or Sofia Boutella, so that these character(s) feel like legit, regular parts of the crew rather than just rotating guest stars. It's akin to why the writers opted to give Sulu a husband rather than adding a new gay character, much to George Takei's understandable chagrin - it would be really easy for these additions to something that's been around for a long time to be swept aside if you don't dig them in deep.

Still, that's a thing to watch out for as the next movie hopefully comes together, and as the cast of next year's Star Trek Discovery TV series starts forming. As much as I love the reboot series when it's hewing closest to the spirit of the original show, there's no need to be stuck in the 1960s when it comes to representation, and I think the folks involved realize this. Yelchin's death a terrible reason to have an opportunity like this (and from a logistical standpoint, I wouldn't blame the filmmakers if they just took the opportunity to breathe easier with a smaller cast), but it is in some ways a thing they should have been looking at anyway.

Star Trek Beyond

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2016 in Scotiabank Theatre Montreal #13 (first-run, Imax 3D)

2016 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Star Trek's first broadcast, an occasion that would normally be the time for retrospectives and a special event that brings back old favorites. The thing is, the incarnation of Trek that has been running for the past seven years has been built on so many of these callbacks that more would not be special. As a result, the 2016 film is forced to go the other direction, doing a stand-alone adventure that looks to recall the unshackled nature of the original series even as it maintains the relentless action of the current film incarnation. It's not always a perfect fit, but that's okay - New Trek is better when it's being a bit reckless.

Things pick up midway through a five-year mission to explore uncharted space, and U.S.S. Enterprise Captain James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) finds that it is starting to wear on him even before a diplomatic mission goes bad, though in a mostly harmless manner. He and the crew can use some downtime at Federation Starbase Yorktown, but they have barely left the ship when an escape pod arrives, with its alien survivor Kalara (Lydia Wilson) whose ship disappeared deep inside a nebula. When the Enterprise is attacked by a swarm of small fighters, they're forced to abandon ship, with the bridge crew sent in different directions: Kirk, Kalara, and navigator Pavel Chekov (Anton Yelchin) trying to recover the artifact Krall is searching for; Doctor Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban) tending to a wounded science officer Spock (Zachary Quinto); chief engineer Montgomery Scott (Simon Pegg) meeting former prisoner Jaylah (Sofia Boutella); while helmsman Hikaru Sulu (John Cho) and communications officer Nyota Uhura (Zoe Saldana) and the rest of the crew are held prisoner at the camp of protean warlord Krall (Idris Elba).

Justin Lin takes over in the director's chair from J.J. Abrams, who shepherded the first two films of the new series and is still on board as a producer, while Doug Jung and cast member Simon Pegg take over writing duties from Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman, and while the film looks the same at first glance, it is clearly playing to the new team's strengths. Lin, the veteran of the Fast & Furious series, gets a lot of slam-bang action to work with; this movie is full of things smashing into other things or chasing each other down, and that's probably the thing that will rankle the long-time fans the most; Star Trek evolved from an action-packed show that nevertheless couldn't afford truly massive battles to something more overtly utopian and pacifist over time, and while I'd argue that Lin's fast-paced, large-scale action would fit the original series just fine if that show had had a couple hundred million dollars to play with, and maybe fifty years of people growing used to faster pacing. He mostly retains Abrams's "bright future" aesthetic, although he'll play with it - you can see the corridors of the Enterprise grow darker as Krall's boarding parties make their way through. He doesn't have quite the natural comfort with 3D that Abrams does, though; see this one in 2D.

Full review on EFC.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Fantasia Daily 2016.07 (20 July 2016): Momotaro: Sacred Sailors, Lights Out, and Library Wars: The Last Mission

Good gravy, but I do lose stuff here. A couple years ago it was my passport; last year my badge (fortunately, that was on the very last added day). This year, so far, there's an umbrella gone - I knew it as soon as I walked out of Ghostbusters on the 18th - and one ticket for Lights Out. It's one of a few movies that the press pass doesn't get me into, but since the alternative was seeing The Alchemist's Cookbook again, and the preview looked pretty good, I figured, why not. If I had to guess, I'd say my first ticket got left on the counter at Altaib Pizza on Rue Guy, and I hope someone enjoyed using it.

(And, no, I am not going to be the critic who complains about needing to spend money and wait in the regular line to see a movie at a festival, and not just because there's no reason to upset guys who give me one more on the basis of "reviewing everything" than "many readers". It's good to be reminded a bit of what the larger festival experience is like and this probably has regular press screenings anyway.)

A visit from Library Wars director Shinsuke Sato was originally on the schedule, but he had to cancel because he was busy working, although he was able to share the preview for Death Note 2016, and I'm kind of curious how that works.

One thing I noticed while writing the review is that Sato and the cast of Library Wars apparently did a TV spin-off that aired a week or so before the sequel, and I'm kind of curious to see it, because it looks like an episode of a series set in the universe, which has real potential. I mean, I'd watch a weekly show about librarians fighting censorship with machine guns, and I know people beyond my librarian friends would too.

Momotarô: Umi no shinpei (Momotaro, Sacred Sailors)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016: Axis, DCP)

It is both a crying shame and entirely fitting that Momotaro: Sacred Sailors is Japan's first animated feature. Fitting because it immediately demonstrates the signature style and impressive quality that what later become known as "anime" often demonstrates, along with the willingness to reinvent traditional material for a new audience. It is also very much a World War II propaganda film, and as such rather uncomfortable enough to watch in North America seventy years later that it becomes little more than noteworthy.

The Momotaro ("Peach Boy") story is a well-known bit of Japanese folklore, of a human boy found floating inside a peach who later goes on adventures with a talking monkey, dog, and pheasant. Here we meet the sidekicks first, as they return home for a few days' leave from the Imperial Navy and get into some minor adventures before returning to the occupied lands, where they rejoin Momotaro and help open schools to educate all the unfortunate locals before they, as paratroopers, conduct a daring raid on the Allies' base on Devil's Island.

That divides the film into three sections, and while it's clear from the start that the notes in the credits saying that this was made at the behest of the Navy, it's interesting and perhaps instructive to note just how filmmaker Mitsuyo Seo ramps it up - the first third presents the military and war as something almost completely abstract, with monkey Sarukichi talking about the joys of aviation and the group working as a team when his younger brother Santa falls in the river. Then we see the upbeat side, the implication that Japanese forces are "liberating" people, making their life better. Then, finally, the fighting, the killing, the caricatured opponents, the venomous belittling. It maps the way that people either use the noble to insulate themselves from the parts of soldiering that are less so or convince themselves of the activity's worthiness in order to justify the horrors of the conflict. That Seo likely didn't mean this as an examination of military propaganda doesn't matter; by making the nationalistic message something clear enough for children to take in, it's accidentally a perfect distillation of the techniques.

Full review on EFC.

Lights Out

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016: Special Presentation, DCP)

The more horror movies I see, the more I appreciate the ones that do not mess around with unnecessary complications but which can still use their high concept to create nifty moments. That is Lights Out in a nutshell - it's got a reason to be scared of the dark, some clever uses of the concept, and a quick pace that doesn't leave room for contrived conflicts when there's enough genuine suspense.

Meet Martin (Gabriel Bateman), a likable young kid who just lost his father and is seeing his mother Sophie (Maria Bello) starting to crack. In an unusual turn of events, Mom's the one who seems to have an imaginary friend, except that "Diana" only seems to appear in the dark and has the sort of glowing eyes and claw-like hands that would have any kid losing sleep. That's why he's falling asleep in class, and when Child Protective Services can't contact Sophie, they call his half-sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who cut ties when her father - Sophie's first husband - disappeared.

Though studio horror movies have been a game of how much of the violence can be included in a film that is given a PG-13 rating for a while now (I first noticed the phenomenon with the American version of The Grudge, but it probably goes back further), part of what makes Lights Out a bit of a breath of fresh air is how, while it should never be show up the "family" category of one's preferred streaming service due to a few spots where covering the kids' eyes becomes mandatory, it feels more like a movie built to scare kids made a bit more intense than one made for adults that was pulled back. The boy at the center is a big part of that, not just for being about ten years old but for exemplifying how, at its heart, this family wants to pull together, and there's not a lot of time wasted on acrimony or trying to make this complicated with emotional divide-and-conquer tactics.

Full review on EFC.

Toshokan sensô: The Last Mission (Library Wars: The Last Mission)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016: Action!, DCP)

The first live-action Library Wars film was a curious thing, a seemingly natural venue for sharp satire that instead focused on light romance to the exclusion of what would seem like more unique material. In some ways, its sequel over-compensates, mission-focused in nature as well as name, but it is overall a strong follow-up that expands on its premise in interesting ways while also making for an enjoyable visit with favorite characters.

As before, the film takes place in an alternate timeline where the Japanese government has a "Media Betterment Act" and a well-armed censorship bureau to enforce it; the loophole is that local libraries are allowed to defend themselves. In the eighteen months since a rookie squad including Iku Kasahara (Nana Eikura), Mikihasa Komaki (Kei Tanaka), and Hikaru Tezuka (Sota Fukushi) faced a trial by fire, things have mostly gone fairly well: The Musashiro Library where they work is seeing more visitors, and there's a planned freedom-of-information exhibition in Kasahara's hometown that plans to use the sole remaining first edition of 1950's "Foundation of Library Law" as a centerpiece. But as plans for the exhibition come together, there are clouds on the horizon: A disgruntled employee has burned books critical of the Library Defense Force and claimed Kasahara was involved, and Tezuka's older brother Satoshi (Tori Matsuzaka), who quit the LDF and went into politics, is talking about consolidating the libraries and Media Betterment Agency under the Department of Education, pointing out that the public has had enough of two branches of the government shooting it out on a regular basis.

There's a nifty hook in there that at least offers the potential for a timely and typical story while also clearing up something that made the series seem far-fetched even allowing for its satirical nature - it turns out that the MBA is a national agency while the libraries are local, and the combat rules are thus a bizarre political compromise. Elements of Satoshi Tezuka's arguments resonate as a result; it's a potentially potent stew of recognizing how destructive the conflict can be but still having real concerns about compromising important principals. That can be a difficult thing to make into an action-oriented plot, and the film's writers struggle with it a bit, although sometimes the dissonance can be intriguing: It can seem bizarre that the scenes of people excitedly using the library can exist side-by-side with huge amounts of troops willing to shoot the place up, but that's probably as good a description of life in the twenty-first century as any.

Full review on EFC.

Monday, July 25, 2016

For a Few Bullets

I talk about the changes in how Chinese cinema is coming to North America a lot, enough that it's probably kind of boring, but I think it's kind of a big deal to note: Two years ago, the only way I was seeing a movie like For a Few Bullets was by coming to Fantasia and being surprised that it was playing. Last year, I was crossing my fingers that a goofy-looking Chinese comedy would hang around Boston an extra week so that I could see it when I got back, but the blockbuster adventures were still mostly crossing slowly, hoping to build buzz at places like Fantasia and NYAFF and maybe get picked up by a specialty distributor for VOD/DVD. Now, global releases are common enough that I'm having to find or create holes in my festival schedule to see all the Asian action/adventure that's playing Montreal this week.

It's kind of crazy.

At least it was relatively painless; I opted against À la recherche de l'Ultra-sex and found myself the only person in the theater at the old Forum for a 9:45pm show. I'm kind of curious how these movies do in MTL; I don't see it on the list of cities as regularly as I do Boston, and the Forum isn't quite so close to Montreal's small Chinatown as the Boston Common theater is. Do the Fantasia fans support these films year-round, or is the concentrated festial booking about as much as can be supported here?

Kuai Shou Qiang Shou Kuai Qiang Shou (For a Few Bullets)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2016 in Cineplex Odeon Forum Cinemas #13 (first-run, DCP)

When For a Few Bullets ends and the main titles come up, the first one displayed is "A Film by Peter Pan", and it's okay to chuckle. Pan Anzi could have maybe chosen a Western name that didn't have it's own built-in punchline, but it fits in this case. He's made the sort of big, swashbuckling action/adventure that someone who pledged to never grow up might make, full of frantic action and plot twists that could really use some dialing back.

It takes place in 1940, when Japan was consolidating its grip on Asia and were planning on installing a puppet government in Nanjing, headed by Chinese traitor Song Jingzhi (Vivian Dawson). He's assassinated by Li Ruo-yun (Zhang Jingchu), but that only slows things down. The Japanese have a plan to fund and legitimize their invasion by acquiring a treasure held by Russian warlord Kivenov (Andrey Karybin), so Li recruits con artist Xiao Zhuang (Kenny Lin Gengxin) to help steal it, although there is a gauntlet to be run across Manchuria to prevent it from falling into the hands of Japanese general Oda Koki (Kenneth) and "The Phantom", a larger-than-life concentration-camp executioner.

The ingredients for a pretty damn good pulp adventure are there, and a popular one - treasure-hunting stories are incredibly popular in China right now, and fusing it to a big "Machurian Western" along the lines of The Good, the Bad, the Weird covers a lot of freewheeling adventure bases. Pan (and a huge brace of consulting and collaborating writers) throws everything and the kitchen sink into it, and a new roller-coaster ride is always around the corner, with plenty of energy behind it. The production design people make just about every frame a joy to look at, with the desert a warm, almost inviting yellow and Li's elaborately detailed six-shooters going with everything from a western-inspired outfit to a severe uniform.

Full review on EFC.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Fantasia Daily 2016.06 (19 July 2016): The Throne, The Lure, and Baaghi

So, I think I'm going to retire the idea of daily run-down of what I saw, at least for this year; the environment just isn't conducive to it and I feel like I've been short-changing things. From here on out, I'll (mostly) just go in order and it takes as long as it takes.

At any rate, Tuesday the 19th was a pretty quiet day; it was one where you more or less course your theater early and went with it, and I went with Hall (good luck getting me to remember "SGWU" when I'm not cutting and pasting) because people both here and at BUFF seemed to be really excited by it. Not exactly a bad decision, but it's not going to be listed as a favorite when all is said and done, though it will be a "thing you should probably see".

On the other hand, it did offer up perhaps the best "can't make it, but here's a video" introduction in some time, as Agnieszka Smoczynska chatted happily about how they didn't have musicals or horror movies in Poland when she was growing up so making her own was a real treat while her children ran around in the background, waving and trying to get on camera.

Sado (The Throne)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016, DCP)

There is a line in The Throne about how royal families are unique in that one must think of one's children as enemies far sooner than one would like. That's probably true in other circumstances as well, but it's far from the essential tragedy of this (South Korea's submission for consideration as "Best Foreign Language Film" at the last Academy Awards), where the Crown Prince's greatest weakness may be that he is incapable of being that sort of enemy.

The frame of the film takes place over the course of a week, starting as a furious Crown Prince (Yoo Ah-in) marches toward the palace of his father, King Yeongjo (Song Kang-ho), sword in hand. Recognizing the potential for disaster - by law, a traitor's punishment also falls upon his son- the prince's wife Hyegyeong Hong (Moon Geun-young) alerts Royal Consort Yi (Jeon Hye-jin), the prince's birth mother, in hopes that quick action may save her own son, the "Grand Heir". The prince is caught, stripped of his rank, and locked in a box to die, giving everyone in the royal family the better part of a week to ponder how it got to this point.

The filmmakers throw a lot of specifics about the various complicated relationships and power centers in the Joseon Dynasty, and while it is undoubtedly interesting and important in terms of why certain things happen the way they do, none is more central than the fact that the Crown Prince is an artist at heart. He wants to do little more than read, write, and paint since about the age of ten, and the King simply cannot comprehend that his son is not like him; he grew from a boy who truly loved studying practical things to a man who took to politics naturally, and that his son hasn't just doesn't make sense to him. It is, despite the stakes, a story that a great many people should have no trouble connecting to.

Full review on EFC.

Córki dancingu (The Lure)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016: Polish Genre Cinema, DCP)

The Lure includes what is thus far one of my favorite moments of the festival, when a mermaid who is starting to follow the story of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid fairly closely rolls her eyes at her sister's worries about where that leads, saying it's "just a superstition". The movie's at its best when it's able to be as untethered from expectations as something described as a Polish period horror musical should be; it's less exciting when it opts to follow the template.

It starts by happily mashing up mermaid and siren mythology, with sisters Zwota (Michalina Olszanska) and Srebrna (Marta Mazurek) rising up out of the Vistula River, singing to the musicians practicing on shore that they would never eat them, even as the song entrances the men. Fortunately, their singer Krysia (Kinga Preis) snaps them out of it, and soon Zwota (subtitled "Golden") and Srebrna ("Silver") have been added to their band - these mermaids can manifest legs apparently at will, although getting wet brings the tail back - and are bringing a lot of new fans to the kind of scuzzy nightclub where they play, and whlie Zwota saw Warsaw as just a nice stop to maybe eat a few lowlifes on the way to America, Srebrna is developing a huge crush on bass player Mietek (Jakub Gierszal), despite his not being sure about a relationship with some who isn't, well, human, and how dangerous all-around the legends say it is for a mermaid to fall for a man.

There haven't been a lot of movies quite like The Lure; the closest thing that comes to mind is The Phantom of the Paradise, another garish fantasy placing a classic story in a nightclub with a catchy beat to hold it together. The filmmakers infuse it with a thrilling energy, because even if 1980s Poland is not exactly prosperous and performing at this club involves stripping as much as singing, there's still the chance to reinvent oneself, make music, and do whatever you enjoy. The songs can be funny and passionate, and director Agnieszka Smoczynska stages them as bona fide musical numbers happening right there out in the open and in the characters' heads at the same time. Even when the story is looking for a direction early on, it's exciting; anything can happen both in a movie and in a young woman's life.

Full review on EFC.

"Never Tear Us Apart"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016: Action!, DCP)

The makers of "Never Tear Us Apart", in their introduction, mentioned that this was a sort of calling card with the intent of making a feature version, which goes along with a conversation I overheard about another short while waiting in line, saying that a short is basically your first act. That's something I disagree with, at least as far as good shorts go. This one, for instance, works because it fits perfectly into five or six minutes, and really doesn't much need to be expanded to fifteen times that size.

At the size it is, it's a lot of fun - a couple of guys (Matt Keyes & Alex Weiner) are kind of out in the middle of nowhere, looking to connect with someone, while a couple of older backwoods types (James Rae & Leigh Ann Taylor) are butchering and cooking the last poor slob to find their house (Mark Anthony Krupa). The young guys arrive at that doorstep, there's a chase, some blood, and... Well, there's a great sting, the sort that's good enough that it's what I take away from the movie despite a bit of gore that is really terrific for this sort of short and some action that makes up for some kind of wobbly performances.

It is, I suppose, also a good place to start another high-concept gore-comedy, but I'm not sure the exploration could outdo the initial surprise. Maybe we'll see.

Baaghi

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016: Action!, DCP)

With any luck, Baaghi will eventually look like the movies Jackie Chan did when he was at the same point in his career as present-day Tiger Shroff: Not very good overall, made from fill-in-the-blanks scripts, filled with people who can't really act, and perhaps best forgotten if not for the fact that, from the very start, this guy could fight when the camera was on. You could cut one heck of an action-oriented trailer for this one, even if there is a fair amount of other filler.

It introduces us to the villain first. Raghav (Sudheer Babu) apparently makes enough money operating underground fight clubs out of Bangkok - around the world that when he kidnaps Sia Khurana (Shraddha Kapoor) after his minions found the object of his obsession - not hard, as she's taken over as the star of a movie her father (Sunil Grover) is shooting - no police force or diplomat is willing to take him on. And so, her father hires Sia's ex-boyfriend Ronny (Shroff), who trained as a martial artist under Raghav's father (Shifuji Shaurya Bharadwaj), though Raghav was the stronger student.

It's a pretty darn simple story, so it's a bit frustrating that writer Sanjeev Dutta and director Sabbir Khan feel the need to stretch it out to 133 minutes, including a plot about getting the mute son of a friend an operation that will allow him to speak that is basically forgotten by the end, and a lot of back-and-forth to explain why they can spend a whole bunch of the first half having Ronny and Sia meet excessively cute and still have him giggly act like he's only rescuing her for the money. It's a messy amount of flashbacks piled on as well; building it like that means that by the time the movie gets to the intermission (or where it would be, since North American venues usually play these straight through), it seems like a lot less has happened than actually has. Instead of feeling like we've seen the full arc of the characters' story, it feels like it took an hour to go from Ronny being hired to go to Bangkok and Ronny going to Bangkok.

Full review on EFC.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fantasia 2016.05 (18 July 2016): White Coffin and La Rage du Démon

Short movie day at the festival, because basically every movie I'd seen elsewhere - The Eyes of My Mother, Three, Karaoke Crazies, and The Wailing was scheduled for Monday, which was not convenient - you kind of lie them spread out, giving more of a chance to not make tough decisions. So I used the free space in the afternoon to go see the new Ghostbusters. It was pretty decent, if a little too fond of explaining details.

I got back in plenty of time for White Coffin, although there were some weird technical issues, and the funny thing about a movie having its world premiere at a festival known for off-kilter films is that there's no way to tell whether the soundtrack is messed up or there are just some really odd choices being made so long as you can make out the dialogue and follow what's going on - and it could have been, because the director was doing screwy things like changing aspect ratios. That's what wound up happening, resulting in us seeing the rest of the movie by screener. Not ideal, but we got through. I do kind of wonder if the accidental weird soundtrack and the interruption affected my opinion of the movie; that's not how it's meant to be seen.



There's the Q&A for La Rage du Démon, with director Fabien Delage on the right, making the trip from France. I can't tell you a whole lot about what was said, because my French is terrible, but everyone seemed to be into it, and there were two more unusual French-language shorts afterward (that I won't try to review because my brain was fried). There was a lot of uncertainty on whether this would have subtitles or not, but I figured I could hang on for an hour, even if it was mostly a talking-heads faux-doc. There were titles, however, and I'm glad, because I wound up quite enjoying the movie.

"Madre de Dios"

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Cinema (Fantasia 2016, digital)

My initial reaction to "Madre de Dios" is that, while I may have hated director Gigi Saul Guerrero's previous short film, "El Gigante", at least that one had something resembling a story, compared to this one which is just an ugly scene of violence and mutilation not particularly attached to anything else. That's unfair; while this lacks exposition or much in the way of dialogue, it's not hard to figure out what's going on and maybe extrapolate a little more around it.

I don't care, though. Guerrero and her crew can do some quality make-up, light things so that it comes across as dark but nothing is particularly out of sight, and step through what's going on with enough competence that a fragment of a story emerges and, because I'm not a monster and the cast and crew is capable of presenting the violence in a certain way, I feel a bit repulsed by a woman being stuck by knives. It still never feels like an actual movie, just a demonstration that these folks know how to use the tools. It's not engrossing, it doesn't have an interesting idea at the center, it doesn't even make me think that I'd like to see what she can do; it's just capably made ugliness that I don't get much from.

Ataúd Blanco: El Juego Diabólico (White Coffin)

* * (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Cinema (Fantasia 2016, digital)

I'm tempted to call the thing that makes White Coffin an incredibly frustrating horror movie "video-game writing", but I haven't played them in a while and I have friends who tell me its alternation of action with just enough dialogue to send the player off on another mission isn't exactly state of the art any more. Director Daniel de la Vega winds up having to make Adrián & Ramiro García Bogliano's script fly with sheer craft, and while he's got a fair amount of that, it can only get him so far.

It opens with young mother Virginia (Julieta Cardanali) driving across Argentina with her daughter Rebeca (Fiorela Duranda), on the way to a new home, although a phone call from Rebeca's father indicates this may not be entirely within the terms of their custody arrangement. That may be moot; while eating at a rest stop, Rebeca disappears, as does one of a number of kids on a school trip. Virginia remembers a truck pulling out and chases after it, only to have an ambulance try to run her off the road.

She hits a pretty dead end, but fortunately a mysterious man (Rafael Ferro) shows up to say that if a mother finds the White Coffin and brings it to a certain place then maybe she stands a chance - but not why. No, he'll just drive her a little way, get out of the car, and say she has to do this unexplained thing on her own for unexplained reasons. It devolves into a tremendously stupid game that involves keeping three women so ignorant as to require prompting phone calls and ready to turn on each other, facing mortal danger despite the fact that the whole thing doesn't make any sense if they don't get to the end relatively intact. It's one of those stupid horror movie plots where, even if you acknowledge that the goals of the villains make some sort of sense, this is a ridiculous way to go about it.

Full review on EFC.

La Rage du Démon (Fury of the Demon)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Cinema (Fantasia 2016: Axis, DCP)

Fabien Delage's La Rage du Démon ("Fury of the Demon" in English) is hardly unique for being a mock-documentary built in such a way that you could probably make a decent nonfiction film out of the material shot to supplant the main story, but that is a large part of its charm: There is genuine passion for all the material here, even the stuff that doesn't necessarily serve Delage's story.

It is, ostensibly, the story about a screening at a Paris museum in 2012 of a Nineteenth-Century film recently unearthed by an American collector, quite possible a lost Méliès. It doesn't receive the rapturous reception that one might expect, though - the theater erupts into violence, the police have to be called, ten people are sent to the hospital. A little research suggests that this has happened both other times the film is known to have played (its 1897 premiere and a 1930s screening in New York). Did Georges Méliès, in many ways the most important filmmaker in history, film something unearthly enough to drive men mad?

The answer, in real life, is no, and even within the film, Delage suggests that this demonic film may be more Méliès-adjacent than anything else. In doing so, he creates characters and a story that has the ring of period truth, tapping into how Méliès, who was a magician before he became a filmmaker, would have moved in the same circles as the spiritualists and others who fed the occult craze around the turn of the twentieth century. The stories of Victor Sicarius would be a worthy period piece on its own, and Delage does a fine job of not just fleshing it and its details out, but imagining the sort of record necessary that what we "learn" would be believably fragmentary, uncertain, and open to interpretation.

Full review on EFC.

Fantasia 2016.04 (17 July 2016): Parasyte: Part 2, The Bacchus Lady, Bad Cat, In a Valley of Violence, and As the Gods Will

Another busy weekend day, although a little more compact than Saturday.



First guest of the night was Will Blank, who made a pretty good short film in "Limbo", although playing before a feature means he basically just got up to say hi and that he's excited to have his movie playing Fantasia; the short-film guy doesn't exactly come out after In a Valley of Violence to answer questions about how he got Sam Elliott to do a voice for a dying dog in your tiny picture or what made him decide to adapt a comic instead of doing an original script. I'm kind of curious on how that works unless he knows Marian Churchland personally. I can't figure short films make a whole lot of cash, so they can't be paying her much, although anything she gets for what was probably an eight-page story in an anthology is probably found money.

Takashi Miike at Fantasia 2016

Hey, it's Takashi Miike again, this time with As the Gods Will. In a lot of ways, the Q&A was kind of a repeat of the one from the night before, as the folks who didn't get tickets to the big awards presentation came to this movie and asked certain questions about genre or whether he'd be interested in doing a film in Hollywood, especially given how specifically Japanese a lot of the iconography in his films are. He said that if he did, it would probably be like the Masters of Horror episode he did, mostly shot in Japan with his usual Japanese crews rather than coming to Los Angeles (or wherever it winds up shooting) and dealing with all the overhead associated with that.

He also mentioned that his next project was going to be a TV movie for three-to-eight-year-old girls, so it probably wouldn't play Fantasia, to which programmer Nicolas Archambault basically said "we'll see about that". This means that it's very possible that, within the next couple of years, I will quite possibly be giving one of my nieces a Miike DVD for her birthday, and I would like to apologize to my brothers/sisters-in-law in advance.

Kiseiju Kanketsu Hen (Parasyte: Part 2)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016, DCP)

A mere six months passed between the releases of Parasyte parts 1 & 2 in Japan, and it feels like that's the case within the films as well - something has changed, taking a turn for the darker, and is easy to feel that it isn't for the best. It's natural for this to happen, of course; opening acts are for discovery and finales are for not just using those discoveries but whittling them down. It can make something that originally thrilled with its invention and make for a bit of a drag, although the filmmakers do at least make an exciting chase out of it.

Though the man-eating parasites introduced in the first are merely the subject of urban legends as far as the general public is concerned, the police are taking them seriously, and their newest weapon is Uragami (Hirofumi Arai), a serial killer with an uncanny ability to recognize those whose heads are not human anymore. He doesn't quite know what to make of Shinichi Izumi (Shota Sometani), a teenager who had his hand rather than his head replaced, and who is doing all he can to eliminate all the parasites he can find. Because they can detect each other, including "Migi" (voice of Sadao Abe), parasite leader Ryoko Tamiya (Eri Fukatsu) is using a human journalist (Nao Omori) to keep tabs on Shinichi and Migi. Tokyo mayor Takeshi Hirokawa (Kazuki Kitamura), who leads a City Hall full of parasites, has decided they're better off getting rid of Shinichi, and Mr. Goto (Tadanobu Asano) is more than happy to take on the job; every fiber of his being says to devour them all.

One of the odd things about these movies, noticeable in the first but more pronounced in the second, is how Shinichi is actually much less central to the larger story than one might expect, although there's something eminently reasonable about it. Sure, he's unique in this world, but be honest - is an infestation of murderous shapeshifters with a taste for human flash really going to be thwarted on the larger scale by a kid on his own looking for revenge on the creatures that killed his mother and classmates? No, the are probably going to be trained professionals who know how to think tactically and have the arms to match. It's odd to watch the big story shift away from Shinichi, although in some ways it's stranger to see him brought back to center stage toward the end.

Full review on EFC.

Jug-yeo-ju-neun Yeo-ja (The Bacchus Lady)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Cinema (Fantasia 2016, DCP)

There's a moment toward the start of The Bacchus Lady where writer/director E J-Yong goes just a bit overboard in making the intentions behind making the movie clear as a character who also makes films spells out how, while South Korea is one of the world's most productive economies, it has one of the worst rates of the elderly living in poverty among developed nations. So, get ready; this is not going to be cheerful story even if it is one heck of a heartfelt one.

How bad is it? Well, Youn So-young (Yoon Yeo-jeong) is going down to the park to turn tricks every afternoon in her mid-sixties, although she'll have to reduce the services offered thanks to the gonorrhea one of her elderly clients saddled her with. While at the clinic getting it diagnosed, she witnesses a panicking Filipino woman stab her doctor and yell at her son Min-ho (Choi Hyun-jun) to run. A kid who can't speak Korean or English is not the sort of extra burden So-yeong needs, but she takes him in anyway, although she'll often ask her neighbors to watch him while she works. Soon, she meets old acquaintance Yong-su (Jeon Moo-song), and his news about many of their contemporaries is not good.

The title of the film refers to how selling a "Bacchus drink" (a local brand) is code for solicitation, and the prostitution angle has been played up some in the descriptions, and it is certainly jarring to not just see someone the age of the ironically named So-young in the world's oldest profession, but relatively casual about it, standing in a line-up of other grannies, seeming more annoyed than frightened in the clinic, calmly telling a john what to do when the police conduct a periodic sweep of the hotel that rents by the hour. At times, the casual way E J-Yong establishes So-young's world gives it the feel of something marginalized but viable, akin to her neighbors (her landlady Tina is trans, another neighbor is disabled, and immigrants abound), and that's likely very deliberate: E is giving the audience a taste of how these people are outsiders but aren't exactly harmful or dangerous.

Full review on EFC.

Kötü Kedi Serafettin (Bad Cat)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Cinema (Fantasia 2016: Axis, DCP)

It's not like people ask me if I've seen "the Turkish Star Wars" on a regular basis, but I suspect I get it more than most and saying "no" by itself just leads to people trying to sell me on a movie with "being terrible" as one of its selling points. Now, at least, I've got a good redirection - I may not have seen that, but I've seen the Turkish Garfield, and this one at least manages to be kind of funny in its violent, vulgar insanity.

Serafettin (voice of Ugur Yücel) - "Shero" for short - is a big orange cat, but instead of being a lazy curmudgeon, he's more of a thug, stealing liquor, hanging out with vermin, and otherwise making life miserable for his nominal owner "Tank" Tonguç (voice of Ahmet Mümtaz Taylan). Today, he's looking to hit that sexy new Siamese that his buddy has spotted, but let's put that aside for a second, as orphaned kitten Tacettin/"Taco" has shown up claiming to be his son - not that he cares; only human dads care about their litters. Still, Taco is crimping his style with classy white Angora Misscat (voice of Demet Evgar), although that might not be quite so bad as that Siamese's owner coming back as a zombie hell-bent on getting revenge on Shero (I told you that didn't turn out well).

Although I've known many a sweet cat in my time, even the most die-hard cat lover will admit that some of them can be real jerks, and Bülent Üstün's "Kötü Kedi Serafettin" appear to take that as a starting point, with Shero a grouchy, selfish monster who smacks his friends around, probably has many more bastards than Taco, and has a number of other unsavory habits, and a lot of the people and animals around him aren't much nicer. It's the sort of unpleasantness that would probably feel like a little too much even with the movie a mere eighty minutes long, so Üstün and co-writer Levent Kazak do a few things to ameliorate it, making sure to bounce Shero from one situation to another, having his heart not be very big but probably not totally nonexistent, and, when all else fails, giving him a thoroughly unhinged adversary. It keeps the comedy black but not quite to the point where the audience is supposed to pump its fist at Shero being nothing but mean.

Full review on EFC.

"Limbo"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016, digital)

Like a lot of things, "Limbo" becomes roughly twice as good when Sam Elliott's voice is added. It's not a bad short before that, with a couple funny moments and some enjoyably odd bits, although it's got a sort of whiff of self-pity as we see a man (Raúl Castillo) have a funny but petulant reaction to an unwanted text on his cell phone and then just seemingly walk into the desert for no reason, the implication being that whatever is going on with the wife/girlfriend we see in flashbacks (Anahi Bustillos) is just too awful to bear until he finds the dying dog and is granted a wish for showing a little kindness in its last moments. It's just the sort of thing that is supposed to evoke a young person feeling like the world is going to end because of a setback but, in an attempt to be universal, winds up not being specific enough to get hold of.

Once the dog talks with that great voice, filmmaker Will Blank seems to get to what he wants, cutting between the desert and all of the places where this guy figures a single wish could send things in a different direction. The music speeds up, we get glimpses of things that have been hidden, and, yeah, Elliott's voice add this mournful quality to counter the idea that you can fix everything for free. It's a pretty great cheat code to have at your disposal, really.

In a Valley of Violence

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016, DCP)

At some point in Ti West's new film, I wondered if this was an early sign that Ethan Hawke was going to follow the Kevin Costner aging curve, getting lean and squinty and without time for young people's foolishness even if he doesn't exactly look old. That may yet happen, but for the time being, Hawke doesn't really seem like he should be playing the parts that Costner and Clint Eastwood aged into yet, and that's part of what makes In a Valley of Violence kind of an off-kilter kick rather than another dreary, too-somber take on the western.

He plays Paul, who describes himself as a killer but not a thief but recognizes that this doesn't really represent any sort of moral high ground, and is headed to Mexico with his dog Abby. He'd like to avoid other people if he could, but he needs some water and supplies, with tapped-out mining town Denton the best place for it. Once he gets there, the usual things happen - hothead Gilly (James Ransone) picks a fight; Mary Anne (Taissa Farmiga), the sweet girl behind the desk at the hotel, takes a shine to him and Abby - and it naturally leads to the Marshal Martin (John Travolta) suggesting Paul leave town. He does, continues to Mexico, and the movie ends, an enjoyable fifteen minutes long.

At least, that's what would happen if characters in westerns knew when to let things lie, which is not the case here. No, things go pretty much as expected, and to a certain extent, people can see it coming: John Travolta's marshal is described as the sort of corrupt tyrant that often has that job in these movies, but he's smart enough to know where this sort of thing goes and try to put a stop to it. It's initially not quite enough to feel like a parody or a deconstruction, but this sort of sensible behavior at the start gives West openings that he can use to poke at westerns, movies, and genre fiction in general. West loves this stuff and really isn't interested in taking it apart and putting it back together, but if he can have a laugh at characters having derogatory nicknames or how dramatic moments interrupt the action, or maybe just remind the viewers that age differences in prior centuries would make most of them uncomfortable, he will, just so long as he's pushing these things aside and not saying they make things ridiculous. It's the best kind of winking at the audience because it's made up of reactions that make sense even without a fourth wall to break.

Full review on EFC.

Kamisama no iu tôri (As the Gods Will)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016, DCP)

There's honesty in the title of As the Gods Will, although sheer caprice is not necessarily the best way to build a movie. Having Takashi Miike at the helm with a bit of a CGI budget doesn't hurt - if nothing else, it will boost the "well, never seen that in a movie before" count - but after a while you'd really better enjoy absurd and arbitrary murder rooms for their own sake, because the movie doesn't have a whole lot else.

We're thrown into the first right away, a lethal game of "red light/green light" controlled by a living daruma dolll at the front of a high school classroom, with friends Takahata (Sota Fukushi) and Sakate (Shota Sometani) apparently the most level-headed and therefore least likely to be exploded by the doll's death beams. That bloodbath leads to another, as the survivors of the other homerooms - including school bully Takeru Amaya (Ryunosuke Kamiki) and Takahata's longtime crush Ichika Akimoto (Hirona Yamazaki) - are thrown together with folks from other schools, such as former classmate Shoko Takase (Mio Yuki) in a sort of lethal tournament run by giant cubes floating over almost every city on the planet.

Say what you want about the lack of any sort of thematic coherence to this movie - and, trust me, I will a couple paragraphs from now - but there's little denying that at least the first two legs of it are a demented sort of work of art. To a certain extent, killing a bunch of teenagers is not necessarily an audacious move in Japanese cinema these days (or at least, not the sort of movies that Miike makes or which make it to North American genre festivals), but Miike plays it as physical comedy with precisely honed timing while also rapidly shifting gears into a tense action sequence or a look of horror as the camera pans over a ton of headless bodies and marbles, and on top of that, he's also flashing back to the kids arriving at school to fill in their characterization a bit. The giant "beckoning cat" sequence that follows it is similarly brilliant, pushing the absurdity even further while showing that just because an action bit is ridiculous does not mean it can't be well-staged. As much as Miike will often be praised for the outrageous, over-the-top content of his movies or how he can actually stage one heck of an action scene, it's somewhat rare to note both of these skill sets in play at once, feeding each other.

Full review on EFC.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Fantasia 2016.03 (16 July 2016): Parasyte: Part 1, Outer Limits of Animation, Terra Formars, The Master Cleanse, and Bed of the Dead

Fun day Saturday, though the type that causes delays in postings because there's a lot playing the next day as well and because I saw a lot of shorts, which kind of need to be written up pretty quick.

So let's start with that:



Sorry about that; the weird angle just wouldn't give me a good view where the lighting didn't wash out everything. It was kind of an unusual "Outer Limits of Animation" show, though, in that there usually seem to be a fair number of local people just out of college (or maybe still there) filling the roster out and showing up on stage. I wonder if more of those were folded into the local part of the festival ("Fantastique Week-end") than before.

Anyway, that guy on the left is Diego Maclean, talking about how working with composer Luigi Allemano really helped shape his animated short. Sorry about the #HorriblePhotography.

Normally, Saturday would probably be a five-movie day, but this spanned two across the street and while they might have lined up later (or earlier), I was down for both Parasyte and the big Takashi Miike presentation:





You kind of know that Takashi Miike would be a guy who wears sunglasses indoors, right?

He made the usual jokes about getting lifetime achievement awards when he figures he's still got a lot of "lifetime" in him, saying he hopes to come back for Fantasia #40 for his second. It is a little surprising to see that, for a guy who has made about a hundred movies, he's really not that old (born in 1960), and is still pumping out two per year. One of the main things he talks about is not really seeing genre as a director, which I think can be a double-edged sword: He makes exciting movies that often go into unexpected places because he's not especially hung up on classification, but given that I love some genres for what they are specifically (science fiction, especially), I do worry about them getting a bit flattened.

Also: Someone told him that there are no cockroaches in Montreal, so maybe the effect of Terra Formars would be lessoned. Is that true? I had never heard it before!

Yesterday's plan (because I'm a slave to a format): Parasyte Part 2, The Bacchus Lady, Bad Cat, In the Valley of Violence, and As the Gods Will.

Kiseijuu (Parasyte: Part 1)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Aditorium (Fantasia 2016, DCP)

When I was mentioning Parasyte to a friend as something I was kind of considering skipping because these multi-part manga adaptations that are Japan's biggest blockbusters these days can eat a big chunk of the schedule. He quickly piped up that the manga was one of his favorites, so I penciled it in, not needing that hard a sale where "teenager whose right hand is a shapeshifting monster seeks to combat the monsters who control whole people" is concerned. That it's kind of a blast isn't necessarily surprising; that it's an impressive enough combination of teen angst, man-eating monsters, and cartoon slapstick to recommend it to those not necessarily enamored of that combination (depending on how good Part 2 turns out) kind of is.

The parasites don't know what they are as they hatch in the bay and come ashore in Tokyo; they're just following instincts to enter human bodies through the ear canal and, having consumed the brain and bonded with the body, feed, mainly on human beings. Shinichia Izumi (Shota Sometani) is relatively fortunate to be sleeping with earbuds in; but he can't do much aside improvise a tourniquet when the thing burrows into his hand. Soon that hand is stretching, acting on its own, manifesting eyes and a mouth, and calling itself "Migi". The fiercely pragmatic Migi (voice of Sadao Abe) isn't going to risk any harm coming to the bloodstream that brings it nutrients, but hiding it from his mother (Kimiko Yo) and lifelong friend Satomi Murano (Ai Hashimoto) is awkward, and that's before Migi starts detecting others like him, including the school's new chemistry teacher Ryoko Tamiya (Eri Fukatsu). Seeing everything as an experiment, she introduces Shinichi/Migi to two others in her network, "student" Hideo Shimada (Masahiro Higashide) and a cop who would rather Shinichi not no the name of the life he's taken over, going by "Mr. A" (Mansaku Ikeuchi) - the latter of which decides to treat Shinichi as a threat. And then--

Well, there's a lot of "and then". Though the original Parasyte was described to me as a relatively short manga, running eight volumes and not heading off on tangents like other popular Japanese comics, you can still see the serial structure in the movie, with what would have been big cliffhangers having to be resolved almost immediately and new characters and situations introduced throughout. It gives the movie an unusual ebb and flow not unlike binge-watching a TV series without episode breaks, so after about 80 minutes I found myself wondering if this was the big movie-ending cliffhanger. Screenwriter Ryota Kosawa does do a fair job of compacting it, with the only real issue being that certain things that were supposedly going on already are kind of casually introduced when the plot needs them.

Full review on EFC.

"Accidents, Bluders, and Calamities"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Theatre (Fantasia 2016: Outer Limits of Animation, video)

The first short in the festival's annual "Au-delà de l'animation" presentation was, as we were told at the top, both a good bookend and the start of a number of themes that would carry through the block. Pop it out, though, and it's still a lot of fun, even if it does make one feel just a bit awful for laughing.

It's presented as a cautionary storybook read by a possum to his two kids, presented to us as live action with 26 CGI animals who all meet a tragic fate at the hand of the most dangerous thing in the world: Human beings. The mayhem is creative and kind of horrible, even if it does eventually lean heavily on insects enough that, by the end of the alphabet, the viewer isn't feeling too bad. Director James Cunningham does something kind of neat in that he often seems to be just shooting everyday scenes and adding the beasties in, which makes the ones where the action is a bit more elaborate even funnier because we're not really expecting the animals that have been more or less beneath human notice to have an effect on the action.

There's also some nice voice acting; Phillip Greeves has a soothing, pleasant voice that puts the audience in mind of a bedtime story despite the mayhem, while what I presume are the director's children (Drew & Eleanor Cunningham) occasionally interrupt, reminding us that, yeah, kids can enjoy nasty stuff even while still being sweet themselves. It's a bunch of funny juxtapositions, realized fairly well.

"Way of Giants"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Theatre (Fantasia 2016: Outer Limits of Animation, video)

A big part of the credits for this short involve thanks to those who crowdfunded the musical score, and it's a good thing to point out; there's a handmade wooden flute at the center of the story, and it makes a beautiful soundtrack as crucial to the final work as the striking imagery. It feels complete, even if the silent storytelling can sometimes have the audience working a bit to tell what's going on as well as what it means to the characters.

Still, it does work when all is said and done. While it's initially a little confusing that the grandfather of a little girl who runs into the forest during her tribe's lumber harvest shares a lot of characteristics with a giant forest spirit, it also helps tie her learning about death and renewal, and how taking from the natural world can be a violent act and thus should be done with respect.

"Junction"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Theatre (Fantasia 2016: Outer Limits of Animation, video)

A bright, candy-colored fantasy that plied audience members with temporary tattoos before the start of the block, "Junction" has writer/director Nathan Jurevicius adapting his own storybook about a family of face-changers who, by inserting a token into a slot in a mountain, see their visage changed into something else every year.

"Junction" is unapologetic digital animation, reveling in its objects' unnatural smoothness and lack of weight, often defying gravity or making something too flimsy to exist in the real world, and all the better for it; it comes across as a world of pure imagination, bolstered by sweet, enthusiastic narration. There's new imagination in every frame and a cute moment after the credits. What I particularly love is how Jurevicius plays with the human tendency to see faces in everything, making a circle of it as not only do these face-changers get heads that are shaped into other things that suggest faces, but there are plenty of faces to be found in the background. It's something we do, and it slides the idea that these illusions influence us in een while telling a fun story where those faces are very real.

"Le Bruit de Gris"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Theatre (Fantasia 2016: Outer Limits of Animation, video)

Guys, it's a new "A Town Called Panic" short! Celebrate!

Those who are familiar with this stop-motion series likely don't need much more introduction than that; this one may be even more anarchic than usual, though, as Horse, Indian, Cowboy, and their friends go crazy creating in a plain gray lobby, only to be thwarted by a neighbor who likes things quiet and boring. They write, draw, and play music without much care - always a fun contrast to the painstaking work that goes into making it.

It's packed full of fun, and I'm now reminded that it's quite likely my nieces need to be introduced to these guys, because they're a chaotic delight.

"Journal Animé"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Theatre (Fantasia 2016: Outer Limits of Animation, video)

More delightful chaos from France as the doodles filmmaker Donato Sansone does on top of the photos in his daily newspaper at the café take on a life of their own, giving a satirical edge to the stories within (most from late 2013) and generating general madness. It's a nifty format, and probably technically trickier than it looks giving the turning pages that aren't quite flat on the table.

I suspect that some of the gags are going to be lost on me because we only seem to hear news from France when it's a horrible tragedy, but there's something universal about taking the piss out of the official-seeming photographs that often define the news, and the quick jokes piled one on top of another, whether topical or just absurd cartooning, keep the laughs coming.

"Clouds"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Theatre (Fantasia 2016: Outer Limits of Animation, video)

There's an early image in Diego Maclean's "Clouds" that strikes me, in which the village's priests wear headgear that looks like fountain pens at first sight, both because it looks kind of strange and because it hints at the themes in a couple of larger ways: We see shapes that aren't necessarily there, and those elders are writing their own rules as a means of control.

They're approaching an old man whose job is to look at the clouds and draw what he sees, which will guide the sacrificial ritual performed later. It's uncomfortable as soon as the audience realizes what's going on, more so as the characters do, and Maclean subtly reinforces that what he sees is influenced in large part by what's on his mind, whether it be an obvious shape, how he's interacting with others, or his own crumbling faith.

It's quiet but pointed, and Maclean's simple linework sketches the characters quickly while making the fluffy, borderless clouds in the sky something else entirely. There's a little bit of a hiccup in the climax, but overall it's quite a beautiful little work.

"Stems"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Theatre (Fantasia 2016: Outer Limits of Animation, video)

It's hard to believe that "Stems" is just two minutes long; writer/director Ainslie Henderson seems to look at materials for that long while talking about how he likes to make his stop-motion puppets out of found objects that had a life before he got to them, before he starts actually making them and having them come to brief life as he talks about how there's an innate sadness in stop-motion because the characters are so ephemeral.

That's fitting, though. As the film shows, these things stop living when he stops moving them bit by bit, but they create something that stakes out a place in a viewer's mind.

"Dernière Porte au Sud" ("Last Door South")

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Theatre (Fantasia 2016: Outer Limits of Animation, video)

The conception of "The World" is one of the most immediately striking things in a short where the narrator describing it is a little boy with a second head, "Toto". It's a collection of rooms connected by corridors connected by staircases, and he's yet to explore to the end of it, though he tries, despite his similarly two-headed mother's misgivings. It's an eerie, black-and-white world where people have multiple heads, but we know right off that this boy isn't seeing the whole story.

There's tragedy to "Last Door South", born of exceptionally good intentions that never take into account that curiosity will quickly outstrip the limits necessary for a deception to take, although writer/director Sacha Frenier does a fine job of building that up, using the stop-motion animation to craft characters and situations that tell us we don't know some of the rules of how this story's world works while making sure that all the character work is crystal clear.

"Un Plan d'Enfer"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Theatre (Fantasia 2016: Outer Limits of Animation, video)

Huh, I didn't realize that this film was from the guys that did A Cat in Paris. It, too, involves cats, following two criminals with a master plan to use catnip to lure all the cats in the neighborhood to follow them, where they will distract the guard dog allowing them to steal a fortune in gold easily.

Naturally, you don't need to speak French to see that things aren't going to go according to plan (which is good, because it ran without subtitles), but even with relatively simple art, the characters are expressive and the slapstick very funny. Filmmakers Alain Gagnol & Jean-Loup Felicioli stage a goofy robbery that moves quick and gets good laughs.

"The Loneliest Stoplight"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Theatre (Fantasia 2016: Outer Limits of Animation, video)

This one isn't quite as good as I remembered it being when I saw it as part of the Oscar shorts package last year. It felt a little more like Bill Plympton the second time around, knowing it was his, and is still quite charming.

Maybe this sort of sentimentality isn't quite in his wheelhouse, but there are worse things to get good at if he wants to make more with this tone.

"The Animal Book"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Theatre (Fantasia 2016: Outer Limits of Animation, video)

Initially seeming like a too-close bookend with the first in the program ("Accidents, Bluders, and Calamities") in how it bizarrely features a lot of animal death, it quickly takes a different tone, as the bloody slapstick walks a fine line between absurd and horrifying, especially since the situation causing it (a driver falling asleep at the wheel) is dangerous in its own right. Directors Cho Hyun-a and Kim Su-jeong have a simple cartooning style that also has a bit of fussiness to it offsetting the cute rounded shapes.

The final pullback is very clever, though, as Cho & Kim show that the imaginative parts were, in fact, imaginary, although representing something very real (and almost adding a bit of horror to the whole set-up as an aside). It does momentarily make for a bit of an odd situation in that it's practically screaming that it is a metaphor, but there's not much denying that it works.

Terra Formars

* * (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016, DCP)

As much as I've been enjoying the Terra Formars manga, I readily admit that a great part of its appeal is its utter ridiculousness and over-the-top action, which is crazy enough that recent volumes have had a hard time balancing the big action with a plot, as right now the story actually has enough going on that seeing it stretch out over multiple volumes because there's so much fighting can be really frustrating. Maybe, I thought, a movie might streamline that a bit, but as much as I love Takashi Miike, he's not exactly the guy who is going to get a conventional narrative out of a sprawling manga.

He tries, though; he and screenwriter Kazuki Nakashima mainly adapt the first, most accessible volume, which is pretty much a tale of survival as opposed to one with a lot of international intrigue, and it lets him play the movie a fairly straight horror movie at times, aside from the criminals and outcasts being on a terraformed Mars and fighting giant intelligent cockroaches with bug powers of their own to call upon. It's gross and messy, but kind of enjoyably weird. For better or worse, it often feels like the sort of thing that the Sushi Typhoon guys (Noboru Iguchi, Yoshihiro Nishimura, et al) would have made if they got their hands on some real money - unrepentant in its pulpiness but kind of sloppy as well.

Part of it, I think, is that Terra Formars isn't really built around characters; it's built around fights, with a new insect form (later volumes get into other animals as well) introduced for each fight and, once we've seen it, really not needed later, so you might as well off that guy and put the focus on someone new. It gives a movie plenty of eye-popping moments, but not a lot of cohesion, and even big dumb action movies about fighting humanoid cockroaches on Mars need some of that.

The Master Cleanse

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016, DCP)

Bobby Miller has a pretty nifty idea here, and I suspect my biggest issues with it are along the lines of "I might have done that differently" rather than actually finding fault with what he did. Maybe that means the metaphor is working and I've just got some stuff to work on.

It is a movie, after all, about a group of people who go to a retreat to cleanse and find that what they've purged has become something living. The characters come to love the beasties, but it was expelled for a reason, so... It's one of those ideas where, yeah, you can absolutely see what's going on and how it all reflects our own inner turmoil, but when the characters are played so naturally and other bits of the plot are turning on in-universe technicalities, it's tough to overcome the desire to treat these as real things rather than metaphorical ones.

Still, that Johny Galecki and Anna Friel are so believable and easy to connect with as two individuals doing the cleanse for different reasons is not exactly a bad thing. The kind-of-nebbishy-guy/sexy-but-hurting-girl combination is a bit overused for the wrong reasons (wish fulfillment by filmmakers much closer to the first than the second), but I like the vibe they give off, with Friel's Maggie knowing that guys like Galecki's Paul often punch above their weight and really just not looking for that sort of connection at this time and place. They come together very naturally, and getting them working together like this excuses a few other issues.

"Roadside Assistance"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Theatre (Fantasia 2016, digital)

It's the old, old story - man picks up incredibly attractive hitchhiker (Kelsey Deanne), there's implications and innuendo, and then it turns violent, and by now the idea that the lady could be the dangerous one isn't even necessarily flipping the script.

It works out pretty well in this case, though - writer/director Bears Fonté gives the pair fun dialogue that has them recognizing something is up, and the revelations are just the right blend of expected and twisted. Plus, Kelsey Deanne is pretty great as the hitchhiker - she gives the character this great combination of knowing she's going to provoke a reaction with how she looks and sarcastically not putting up with it going too far. She's dangerous, and sexual, but the doesn't make the two intrinsically linked.

Bed of the Dead

N/A (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2016 in the J.A. de Sève Theatre (Fantasia 2016, DCP)

Ah, nuts - just couldn't make it through this one without a ton of five-minute micro-naps, although I don't think I was keeping anyone out of the sold-out show. The big problem is that the parts I saw were pretty good, and I really can't fit the other screening in.

It's a goofy high-concept (a bed made from a cursed tree that has found its way into a hotel of sorts) stretched out to a kind of ridiculous extent, but there's always a feeling of genuine tension and terror to it, which is not usually the case with something this weird.