Friday, July 21, 2017

Fantasia 2017.08: House of the Disappeared, Cold Hell, and Shinjuku Swan II

Having been to Australia by way of China last fall, and made sure to plan out the vacation so that I'd have enough time to make the travel worth it, I must say, I admire the heck out of people who make those long flights to appear at a film festival for just a day or two:



In this case, that's House of the Disappeared director Lim Dae-woong (center), an unexpected and unadvertised guest, so he didn't have a whole lot of time to answer questions after his movie, as there was one lined up for just fifteen or twenty minutes after. Kind of a shame, as he made a good movie and speaks good English to boot, which certainly seemed to help him engage with the audience.

After that, it was a bit of a break and then across the street for Cold Hell and Shinjuku Swan II. The first was pretty terrific, and the second was something of a letdown - NYAFF got Antiporno, and that has to have a little more of what interests Sono in it, even if it's also part of a franchise in its own way.

Today's plan - After having been away from the festival to see Valerian this afternoon, it's back on campus for Bad Genius, Lowlife, and Kodoku Meatball Machine (though I may check to see if the new screening added for Genius will let me see Jailbreak tonight and thus Tragedy Girls next week).

Shiganwiui Jib (House of the Disappeared)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

I do rather love it when all of the pieces of a ghost story, or any story that plays with time, wind up all fitting together in a way that's not just obligatory, but clever, and earns some emotional points on the way as well. The makers of this Korean film has a bit of a head start, having remade Alejandro Hidalgo's 2013 Venezuelan version, but it's just as likely you'll get a mess from that as something this tight.

Nearly twenty-five years ago, Kang Mi-hee (Kim Yunjin) was convicted of the murders of her husband Chul-joong (Jo Jae-yun) and son Hye-jo on 11 November 1992, though the body of the boy was never found. Twenty-five years later, suffering from what is presumably terminal laryngeal cancer, she is given home imprisonment, allowed to serve out the last days of her sentence in the now run-down house where it all happened, but what she discovered back in 1992 and neighborhood priest Choi (Ok TaecYoon) - her only visitor - is just finding out is that the house is haunted, apparently on a twenty-five year cycle, with 11/11 just a few days away.

I missed the original The House at the End of Time when it played the festival a few years back, so I can't tell just how much of the script here comes from Hidalgo and how much from Jang Jae-hyun, but though Jang and director Lim Dae-woong have a few stumbles in the 1992 period - the presence of a second son in early scenes telegraphs a lot of what will play out in kind of worn fashion, and the filmmakers are perhaps a little casual in how they present and use the fact that the two sons are from two husbands - but it's an impressive example of a ghost story that can keep piling more on without it seeming like excess by the time things are done, and they're able to create variety without it seeming like randomness. They're especially good during the finale, when things initially look like they'll get too loose, but instead snap into place while still having room to be surprising or unconventional.

Full review on EFC.

"Amy"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

The festival's website describes the backstory of what's going on in "Amy", and that feels like kind of a cheat - though director L. Gustavo Cooper and writer Peter Ciella mine some historic events for a short that is certainly quite creepy in spots, the actual short is a snapshot without a whole lot of context. We see an old woman prepare some lemonade, give it to a younger one, and then a few other things happen, but when the short hits its conclusion, it does so in a way that is random, not really spurred by what we've seen before and which leaves the audience asking what was up with that rather than carrying what was going on forward.

Still, up until then, things do seem to be building nicely, with an oppressive environment and unnerving performances from both potential killer and potential victim. There's a quickly established sense of place and danger, and seeing that this team made "The Home" (which I quite liked at MonsterFest) doesn't surprise me; it shows that they have a good eye for this kind of tight, oppressive, dangerous environment. And, to a certain extent, I do like that they didn't try to grab extra legitimacy with a note about how these things really happened, allowing their short to stand on its own as best possible.

Die Hölle (Cold Hell)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Cold Hell is a wonderfully grimy thriller which gets right down to the business of a woman with a crappy support system to draw on for help trying to defend herself from a determined serial killer. It doesn't over-burden the audience with too many subplots or go overboard in fetishizing the crimes, but just does what it promises in ways that are occasionally astonishing but always determined.

Its heroine is Vienna taxi driver Özge Dogruol (Violetta Schurawlow), ethnically Turkish but an Austrian citizen, on probation for drug possession and with good reason to have a chip on her shoulder for everyone but cousin Ranya (Verena Altenberger) and her daughter Ada (Elif NIsa Uyar), and her latest bit of overzealous sparring with a guy who didn't want to practice with a woman has gotten her kicked out of her muay thai gym. Her problems get bigger, though, when she comes home and sees a particularly grisly crime scene through her bathroom window, and with the way the light works, the killer (Sammy Sheik) maybe gets a better look at her than she does at him. Though detectives Steiner (Tobias Moretti) and Petrovic (Stefan Pohl) inform her the M.O. indicates a serial killer, they don't offer much protection, a potential disaster when Ranya's boyfriend Samir (Robert Palfrader) - also Özge's boss- kicks her out, and Özge's apartment is the first place she and Ada think to go.

While the story is one built around thrills and revenge, there are long stretches when it is simply about Özge, a survivor who feels more damaged than she actually is and as a result is extremely reluctant to trust anybody. The abuse she has survived in the past comes out later, and it's interesting to consider what Martin Ambrosch's script implies as a result, starting from how quickly she asks for police protection despite the fact that we've just seen how physically fierce she can be, and how she won't open up about why even when it would certainly smooth things along. It's almost entirely communicated by lead actress Violetta Schurawlow and how she will often stay silent and deflated in the scenes where the audience wants her to show the spine she does in other moments. She sells the sort of closed-off self-reliance that Özge must embody without making her entirely hard, and gets across a very capable urgency in a crisis workout seeming like she really knows what she's doing. On top of that, she manages the physicality necessary for the action like a pro.

Full review on EFC.

Shinjuku suwan II (Shinjuku Swan II)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Maybe it's just a filtering effect - Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono makes enough movies that only the really good ones make it to American festivals, theaters, and home video - but I can't recall ever being bored by one of Sono's films before, certainly not the way I was by Shinjuku Swan II. Maybe he's at that point in his career where he's having a harder time producing outrageously creative material on a regular basis but still needs to pay the bills (and, as you get older, those bills get larger, requiring more and better-paying work), but whatever the reason, this sequel feels like the first time he's truly mailed it in.

A big part of it is that it's concentrated on a lot of the details of the "scout" business depicted in the franchise, from which organizations are protected by which yakuza groups and how the business works, especially in terms of the country's liquor distributor supporting clubs and whatnot. Maybe if you're getting 20 pages of the manga every week, it holds greater fascination, or if this story comes relatively quickly on the heels of a revisit to the first, the details will still be fresh and hold one's interest. But it's also impossible to omit that this is a relatively sanitized continuation of the story told in the first movie, where new scout Tatsuhiko Shiratori (Gou Ayano) occasionally had to confront that the girls he recruited to work in the clubs of Shinjuku were not necessarily just going to have fun, but were being exploited. That angle is barely visible here; a new client's debt is mentioned but plays out off-screen, and the eventual climax of half the story is a beauty pageant with relatively little irony to be found. Ayano seems to carry a little more burden at the start, but it's quickly pushed aside.

The other half of the story, involving Tadanobu Asano as the head of Yokohama's main scout agency, is even more dreary, playing out in the background, waiting for a moment to take on more pivotal part at the end. Like Sono, Asano is a guy with a long history of interesting projects who seems to be doing less exciting work these days, and he's barely got anything interesting to do here. There are moments toward the end, when Asano and Ayano get a fight scene that careens all over the place and the pageant just gets peculiar, where you see hints of the creative anarchy that Sono usually brings to a project, but for the most part, this is just a sequel that adds a new foil, strips out the hard parts, and elaborates on the relatively unimportant details of the first, and everyone involved deserves better than that.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Fantasia 2017.07: Have a Nice Day, Sequence Break, Poor Agnes, and Plan B

Aaaah, spent the morning being available in case they needed me for my job while most of the team met in Frisco, TX, but not necessarily sad that they didn't much. So glad to be in Montreal rather than Frisco, if only for not being in the room for a two-hour presentation. It changed my schedule a bit - Shock Wave and Have a Nice Day played at the same time a few days ago, and I switched which one I saw on which day so I could start movies at 3:15 Wednesday.

Anyway - visitors!



That's director Graham Sipper of Sequence Break on the right, and I kind of wish, as a guy who loves classic arcade stuff, that I'd liked his movie a bit more, though it didn't work out that way. He had a lot of well-warranted praise for the people he worked with, from the cast with natural chemistry from having become friends working on another movie to the effects people who were always willing to get more into the Cronenbergian sexual body horror with their video game. I dig that the game was inspired by Tempest.

Not too thrilled to hear the "I wanted to make the end ambiguous" answer, especially for this movie, which meandered a lot anyway. If you've got a point to make or a direction you want your movie to go, don't back away from that, hit it directly.



That's a bit of a zoom in on a LOT of people from Poor Agnes as Thunder Bay, Ontario isn't a hard trip from Montreal. Left to right, we've got writer James Gordon Ross, the hostess, director Navin Ramaswaran, star Nora Burke, and co-star Robert Notman. A ton of enthusiasm for this one, well-deserved; it's a well-made, smart thriller that is creepy in an unconventional way.



And, finally, Plan B director Ufuk Genç, who was crazy excited to be here; I gather his movie starring a bunch of relatively-unknown stuntpeople got a little steamrolled by the big Hollywood productions that hit Germany in the summer, and coming to a festival where people really celebrate this kind of movie made was huge.

And now, back to the films - I'll be seeing House of the Disappeared, Cold Hell, and Shinjuku Swan II, and having my first actual window to have a between-films meal that's not just grabbing a slice of pizza or a burrito for take-out!

Hao ji le (Have a Nice Day)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Axis, DCP)

For all that modern Chinese films spend a lot of time and effort on showing people spending money, I don't know if I've actually seen enough actual bills on-screen for it to register that the 100-yuan note is blood red. Have a Nice Day, an animated take on the bag-of-money yarn, doesn't quite get the mileage it might from this fact, but it's an impressively tidy take on the form, not wasting any time getting things started and then managing as many reversals through greedy stupidity as it does from actual cunning.

It doesn't mess around with a master plan, starting with construction-site driver Xiao Zhang (voice of Zhu Changlong) having already pulled a gun on passenger Lao Zhao (voice of Cao Kai). His plan is to meet girlfriend Yan Zi and travel to South Korea to fix her botched cosmetic surgery, but Lao Zhao was bringing this money to gangster "Uncle Liu" (voice of Yang Siming), who immediately dispatches butcher and hitman Brother Skinny (voice of Ma Xiaofeng) to recover it. Even if Xiao can stay ahead of Skinny, he makes the rookie mistake of paying for something with one of those large bills, attracting the attention of inventor Yellow Eye (voice of Cao Kou) and his girlfriend (Zheng Yi), while Yan Zi's worried mother asks niece Ann Ann and her boyfriend Lidu to check on things, but when you hear "one million yuan", you maybe do more than check.

The money doesn't actually change hands very often, and when it does, the people holding it often spend a fair amount of time off-screen; Have a Nice Day is about the scramble . It brings out mean little chuckles, pointing up a sort of blanket amorality permeating society, with even bystanders chatting about start-ups and how to succeed while skipping steps, although it's not without cause: A brilliant inventor is stymied because he did not start out rich enough, and even Ann Ann's good communist fantasy (which literally inserts her and Lidu into propaganda posters and songs) seems to be out of reach without seed money. It's a weird irony that the original theft arguably happens not out of greed, but an attempt to back out of a problem caused by vanity, although that sort of desire is arguably its own sort of greed. It's an odd set of motivations, never actually sympathetic enough to be called noble or heroic, but shaded more toward desperation than ruthlessness.

Full review on EFC.

"End of Decay"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Kind of a basic bit of sci-fi/horror, in which a paralyzed researcher (Brian Villalobos) plans a bit of illicit self-experimentation, but co-writer/director Christopher Todd manages a few nice touches, like how Orin's memories and dreams of when he could run have a naturalistic tone that often cuts to a bright, clinical environment as he's snapped back to reality, and the design of the machine he uses to give himself a spinal tap or four is a terrifically simple, effective bit of horror.

There are some elements of how it works as a short film that can seem oversimplified as much as streamlined - there's an assistant character who is there almost entirely for stating the obvious moral questions involved, and Orin's admonitions to not get squeamish at this late date are as much an acknowledgment of this as a statement of actual conflict. The eventual gross-out bits are undeniably effective but maybe a little stretched, although tastes vary, which also goes for how the last shot is more "one last creepy thing" rather than something that particularly aligns with the themes Todd had been driving at.

Sequence Break

* * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Within the past year of seeing festival horror films, I've seen movies based on cursed VCR games, evil party games, and now a malevolent arcade game, and hopefully horror filmmakers are done with this particular bit of nostalgia-mining, because it doesn't seem to lead to an actual good story, no matter how creatively gross it sometimes gets. Sequence Break feels like something that should absolutely work for me, but there's just not much to it.

That aimlessness is reflected in Oz (Chase Williamson), who has been working as a technician repairing old video game machines for a small local business for the last few years, too intent on his work when Tess (Fabianne Therese) comes through, ostensibly to find a gift for her brother, but he meets and clicks with her at a bar later, after boss Jerry (Lyle Kanouse) has dropped the bad news that they'll be closing in a few weeks, after he gets back from a family thing upstate. He doesn't make it, as a mysterious homeless-looking man (John Dinan) kills him after breaking in, somehow connected with the strange circuit board that Oz finds in an unmarked envelope - one that makes for a hypnotic (but nausea-and-nightmare-inducing) game when Oz installs it in an unused cabinet.

Sequence Break is the sort of horror story built around the romantic comedy of the shy guy meeting the girl that's a cool, perfect match but having to tear himself away from whatever keeps him from engaging, and if you cast well, that goes a long way toward keeping the audience happy when a lot of the movie is sort of killing time before moving things along. Writer/director Graham Skipper actually goes with a proven pairing, as Chase Williamson and Fabianne Therese also met cute in John Dies at the End, and it certainly provides a solid foundation to work with - it's genuinely fun to watch them play off each other, and Williamson in particular comes off as a believably introverted guy who nevertheless isn't a one-note guy trivia machine.

Full review on EFC.

"Don't Ever Change"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Things jump from character-based discomfort to dark screwball violence awful quickly in Don Swaynos's "Don't Ever Change", perhaps too much so: The tension between Heather Kafka as a woman and Cyndi Williams as her mother - "birth mother", as Kafka's Amy pointedly notes - is kind of fascinating, and the relationship revealed as Williams's Karen tries to adjust to her new surroundings is one we don't often see portrayed despite it having its root in something we've been asked to ponder time and again.

Instead, though, the film is mostly built around a visit from Frank Mosley's Jason, a "fan" with a mugshot for Karen to sign, and his skewed perspective and bizarre requests send the short in another direction. Not a bad one, by any means - Mosley gets some pretty good takes in as he finds things not quite going as he'd envisioned, and it brings a funny performance out of Williams. Note quite the same thing she'd done before, but something plenty entertaining. It makes this almost two shorts with the same inspiration crammed together, although Swaynos handles the sometimes contradictory impulses better than many do.

Poor Agnes

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Fantasia Underground, DCP)

Poor Agnes twists almost constantly on the way from where it starts to where it ends, playing on audience expectations of human behavior as opposed to genre standards, and it makes for a constant unnerving sort of horror. It's a movie about a monster that places her insanity closer to front and center than is typical but in doing so pushes the viewer to want to get closer, even though he or she has seen early on what a dangerous thing that is.

Agnes (Lora Burke) is a serial killer, although her narration never uses those words, though it's clear from how she disposes of her latest victim that she's figured out a lot of what she needs to do it without a lot of fuss or threat of getting caught, paying attention to everything from physical fitness and which pawnbrokers will pay for the possessions without too many questions. As much as she tries, though, you can't make anyone disappear completely, as she discovers when Mike Mercer (Robert Notman) approaches her on behalf of the parents of one of her first victims from when she was just a teenager ten years ago. Seducing him is easy enough, but what to do next? He doesn't quite fit the profile of her regular victim, but he's getting too close to the truth.

Or at least, that's the train of thought that many will ascribe to Agnes in these moments because the people in the audience are generally sane, and they'll grab onto her narration talking about killing "the right people", or they'll consider that the basically linear way events tend to play out means that Agnes taking notes and asking unusual questions at a torture survivors' meeting as being signs that this is the first time she's really decided to mess with someone rather than just kill them. Writer James Gordon Ross and director Navin Ramaswaran spend a lot of time playing off how the audience wants to find something admirable in the protagonist. There's got to be a motive we can understand or root for, some underlying justice being accomplished by her action, but the script keeps yanking that away even as it keeps putting something else just within reach until the viewer is as committed to Agnes despite her madness as Mike is.

Full review on EFC.

"Show No Mercy"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Action!, DCP)

Mildly surprised this short didn't go before the haunted-arcade-game movie earlier in the day, but sometimes the 1980s action throwback overrides the video game connection. It's also got the "bloopers during the credits" connection with the film to which it was attached, and it sort of tends to affirm that those indicate people had a great deal of fun making the movie but didn't necessarily make something great.

Not that Scott Condit & Jeremy Tremp made something actually bad here; it's a bit slow and stilted getting started, but the scene when the barcade manager and employee both get sucked into a game and start blasting at each other. It's fun with amusing effects, but it's the first things people come up with when they have this idea, not the really clever jokes that would surprise the audience should they appear.

Plan B: Scheiß auf Plan A (Plan B)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Action!, DCP)

You see a lot of calling-card shorts meant to show what a director or an actor could do in a feature, whether they're explicitly presented as that or not, but a calling-card feature is kind of rare, especially one as elaborate as Plan B: Can Aydin, Cha-Lee Yoon, Phong Giang, and Eugene Boateng play versions of themselves, 1980s-movie-loving German stuntmen looking for work to show what they can do, only to stumble into something way over their head and be sent on a dangerous scavenger hunt.

Each stop on this leads to a pretty impressive fight scene, and the filmmakers do something pretty clever - the opening credits have made it clear that Can, Cha-Lee, and Phong are not just starring in the movie but choreographing the action, and while it's usually not a great thing to associate performer and character too much, these guys often being doofuses on-screen can make you forget that they are actually really good at this part of their jobs. The script may be 1980s Hollywood, but the action is like something out of Hong Kong, and each bit is kind of a delight.

The movie's generally funny all around, with Laurent Daniels providing narration as the sort of character usually looked at from outside (a renegade detective actually named "Kopp") and a fun supporting cast that includes both solid deadpan comedic performers and folks who can match up well against the leads in fights. That Germany is not necessarily the place one expects to see this sort of film from is the icing on the cake.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Fantasia 2017.06: Liberation Day, Wukong and Punk Fu Zombie

There could have been a press screening in here, but did I really want to see The Endless without an introduction and Q&A from the filmmakers? No, no I did not. Besides, that was about the same time Cacao 70 opened for breakfast around the corner, and I suspect I'm going to be there a few times during this vacation.

Theater-jumping made for a rapid-fire sort of day, as Liberation Day ended just in time to get across the street for Wukong while someone from the Hong Kong government pitched it as a great place to visit and shoot movies, and then that let out just in time to get downstairs for Punk Fu Zombie.

Wukong was a bit of a surprise - I was expecting something much more serious throughout from the teaser that played before a lot of Chinese movies at AMC Boston Common, but got something a lot funnier, at least through the first third or half. I'm also surprised to look at Fandango and see that it's only playing on half a screen at Boston Common right now (sharing it with Our Time Will Come); it got a pretty big push for a fairly small booking, especially considering that it's apparently cleaning up back in China. Anyway, glad I saw it, but I'm always a bit surprised that these movies show up at Fantasia while/after they played wide releases - for all that Fantasia brings a crowd to Hong Kong action, and the city does have a Chinatown, it seems like there would be a spot at the Forum or something more often. It's also kind of amusing to see some outlets covering movies that got a day-and-date release like they're festival films just being discovered by North America; there seems to be a real lag in catching up to these releases, even a year and a half after people complained about not being informed about The Mermaid.



So, uh, I don't know who any of these people are; the guy on the left was already on-stage when I got into Punk Fu Zombie and my French sucks enough not to catch their introductions properly. Still, they were having a great time working the audience and going on about both their low-budget zombie movie and the short that played beforehand. I honestly straight-up love the enthusiasm the locals display for their films; I really should polish up my French so that I can join in a little more rather than bail before the Q&A I knew I wouldn't understand.

Then I got back "home" and discovered to my delight that not only was the Red Sox game still going on (rained in Boston, I gather), and then that NESN Go isn't blocked in Canada. Darn near fell asleep watching the game on my phone, which was neat.

An interesting day, to say the least. Next up: Skipping the big thing which will be in theaters on Friday but going for Have a Nice Day, Sequence Break, Poor Agnes, and Plan B. Shock Wave is slick, but not a great action movie.

Liberation Day

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Documentaries from the Edge, DCP)

It is, perhaps, unfair to expect Liberation Day to be more controversial than it is, at least from one perspective: It is a documentary and it documents, in a manner that seems fair and transparent, and often entertaining. But it's also a part of a larger project, one potentially more subversive in its intent, and watching everyone involved not necessarily be timid but also not be daring makes for a film that perhaps lacks the kick that one about art-metal band Laibach playing a concert in North Korea perhaps should have.

The story made the news in 2015 - part of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's Liberation Day celebrations (marking both Koreas' independence from Chinese and Japanese rule in 1945) would be the country's first-ever concert by a western rock band, made all the more interesting by the fact that the band is Laibach, a band that first rose to prominence in 1980s Yugoslavia and has since built an identity around their use of fascist iconography in a way that often seems to blur the line between satire and endorsement. Oh, and they would be covering songs from The Sound of Music as a part of the show. Even for someone with the sort of experience working with North Korea that producer/director Morten Traavik has, that's got to be a crazy tightrope to walk.

That this is actually Traavik's fifteenth visit to North Korea is a bit of information tossed out relatively casually, followed by some amusing YouTube videos of other projects he worked on there, but it's something that highlights the almost inevitable paradox at the center of this project: The DPRK isn't going to do something like this with someone they don't trust, someone they trust is not going to push back at their demands very much, and as a result, the friction between extremely unconventional artists and an extremely authoritarian government never really materializes. There's some potentially interesting material to be found in some of that lack of conflict - there is talk about how Laibach is a band from a country that no longer exists, with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc meaning these former Yugoslavians are now Slovenian, and member Ivan Novak sees the utopian elements of the place - but Traavik and co-director Ugis Olte don't particularly delve into that, or even counter those musings with how Pyongyang is something of a showcase city that gives visitors a skewed view of the DPRK as a whole.

Full review on EFC.

Wukong

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

You shouldn't judge a movie by its trailer any more than you should judge a book by its cover, especially the teaser-style thing for Wukong that ran before every Chinese-language film that played my local theater over the last couple of months, but it's still worth mentioning that this isn't exactly the dark, gritty Monkey King re-imagining that implied, but another oft-comedic fantasy adventure featuring the powerful but mischievous demigod, and while it's a fair question as to whether the world needs another one of those, it's at least an entertaining one, even if it does stretch its budget a bit.

It starts in the heavens, where the Destiny Council is preparing to select new immortals 300 years after the escape of a rebellious stone giant ended with the destruction of Mount Huaguo, where the Azi (Ni Ni) eagerly awaits the return of childhood friend Erlang Shen (Shawn Yue Man-lok), whose third eye stays persistently closed a side-effect of his having a mortal father and an immortal mother, only to be interrupted by Sun Wukong (Eddie Peng Yu-yan), who has climbed his way to Heaven to exact revenge for the destruction of his home. Wukong is captured, but the leader of the council, Hua Ji (Yu Feihong) places him in the custody of Azi with a "crown" that will squeeze his head painfully on demand. Undaunted, Wukong still attempts to destroy the Destiny Astrolabe, but that results in him, Azi, Erlang, Hua Ji's enforcer Tian Peng (O Ho), and mechanically-inclined Juanlian (Qiao Shan) being cast down to the crater where Huaguo used to be without their powers, finding the locals menaced by a storm demon.

Though the film opens with a bit of narration that tends toward the grandiose, it gets funny fairly quickly. The Sun Wukong introduced in the first act is not any sort of Monkey King but a shaggy guy in worn clothing strutting with a sort of goofy confidence that is both matched and complemented, an elegant princess who nevertheless is inclined to scrap. Director Derek Kwok Chi-kin and four other writers give the characters big, brash personalities and have them banter as they knock each other around with outsized weapons - Wukong's signature staff often seems like something out of a cartoon, even as it glows red through a black crust like lava. Even after they fall to earth, there's a cheeriness to how they pull together under Azi's leadership, drawing comedy not just from how Juanlian's previously ridiculed devices may be their best hope but from how Wukong and Erlang argue like children over how to best implement it and take credit.

Full review on EFC.

"À part ça, la vie est belle"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Les Fantastiques Week-Ends du Cinéma Québécois, digital)

You don't need to understand French particularly well to enjoy this combination of a bouncy chanson by Claude François with images out of a zombie movie, limited though the animation may be. It is, obviously, a goofy juxtaposition, but it would probably be fun without this particular soundtrack; director François Mercier shows some skill at getting a bit of a zing out of what is basically a comic-book page flip, and making that limited animation work: I laughed a lot more at a zombie's shambling leg being manipulated into playing as dancing than seems reasonable.

It works, no matter what the language.

Punk Fu Zombie

N/A (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Les Fantastiques Week-Ends du Cinéma Québécois, digital)

So, anyway, like I said above, I thought there were going to be English subtitles on this one. Shame on me for not re-checking the program before I left the apartment.

That said, this was never going to be my thing; I'm not big on warts-and-all parody or any form of "let's make a crappy movie on purpose", and this one crosses the fine line between a Wakaliwood-style picture that has to make everything from scratch and accept that it's just got no resources and folks doing bad dubbing because it's a joke. On top of that, it's an hour and forty-five minutes long, and that's a long time for this sort of movie. I was having a good time trying to keep track of the plot even without much French, and I kind of suspect that challenge kept me going longer until the "ugh, are we really still doing this" feeling kicked in.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Fantasia 2017.03: International Sci-Fi Shorts, Mohawk, and Game of Death

Loose schedule, but lots of guests!



These good people are from the International Sci-Fi Shorts, with "Haskell" director James Allen Smith to the left of the hostess and "Hum" director Stefano Nurra, "The Sleepers" director Joe Lueben, and "The Sleepers" producer Nicholas Williams to the right.

Interesting group, with Leuben's stories perhaps the most interesting, as he talked about the film coming from a rough patch when he felt like he really could have slept 23 hours a day, and then mentioning that he felt he had to pick his game up when he was what Williams's brother Jonathan, the set designer, cooked up for the main dormitory set. The music was also an interesting story, as he mentioned never having seen Tarkovsky's Solaris despite everyone thinking this film must have been influenced by it. The music he chose as a temp track that heavily influenced the final score, though, was a sort of alternate soundtrack for Solaris dreamed up by people who thought that film was great aside from its score.

Smith did "Haskell" out of a different sort of frustration; generally a documentary filmmaker, he just got to a point where he wasn't feeling it and opted to do something narrative instead.



A bit surprised that there weren't more people from Mohawk here, actually, as co-writer Grady Hendrix has a panel later in the festival, cinematographer Karim Hussain is a frequent guest, and the film was shot in upstate New York. It's still a nice turn-out, with stars Kaniehtiio Horn, Jon Huber (whom my wrestling-fan friends and family probably know best as "Luke Harper"), and Justin Rain joining writer/director Ted Geoghegan on-stage. Geoghegan wanted to do something very different from We Are Still Here, and when he brought the idea up with colleague Grady Hendrix, found out that the journalist and horror-comedy author was actually a huge War of 1812 buff.

It was important to cast Native actors in as many roles s they could, with Hussain recommending Horn as soon as he saw the script and Rain saying he thought he'd blown it, in part because he'd never done a period piece, but he turned out to be a great match for the part even without taking into consideration that the list of Native actors across the U.S. and Canada was pretty low.

I've got no idea what Huber's WWE persona is like, but he was a ton of fun in the movie and on stage. Geoghegan wanted to cast a WWE guy in his part because it called for a mountain of a man, and at the time of filming, Huber was in the middle of six months of rehab for knee surgery, making the brace his character wears not entirely a prop. He was also based out of Rochester, not far from where they would be shooting, so it seemed pretty much perfect.



Game of Death was a local production, so there were a lot of folks on hand - Emelia Hellman, Sam Earle, Caterine Saindon, Victoria Diamond, two members of the crew whose French-language introductions I didn't entirely get, and writer/directors Laurence Morais-Lagace & Sebastein Landry. They all seemed to be having a pretty good time - the project was apparently originally hatched at the festival, started as something on the web in French, and had to become an English-language project to get feature funding.

Which is cool and all, but when that happens, what's with having everything labeled "State Police" (with what kind of looks like the Maine State Seal on it)? Come on, you know the weird blood-drawing cursed electronic game is Canadian; don't try to blame it on us!

Today's plan: I've already seen Wild Blood as my Weird Turkish Film for the festival, and will follow it up with The Outer Limits of Animation, Bad Genius, Replace, and then either Liberation Day or Tokyo Ghoul.

"Swell"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

Even before what's actually going on in "Swell" reveals itself, Bridget Savage Cole's short film has a bouncy feel that is pretty quickly very appealing - bright, colorful design, an upbeat-seeming near future, and a good-looking cast in Britt Lower and Gabriel Luna who are going charmingly big because their phone's "Swell" app is altering their moods, him to "productive" and her to "unapologetically honest". This is, as you might imagine, not a perfect combination, and each trying to adjust their partner's Swell or defend their own leads to a lot of physical comedy and broad changes of performance.

It's a good, fun film throughout - more than most shorts which try to anticipate this sort of disruptive technology, there's a logic to Swell, along with a self-deprecating sense of humor. The details of it work like something we're familiar with, and while Cole is looking to put this relationship through the wringer a bit, she never loses sight of her comedic intentions, which gives Lower & Luna a lot of fun stuff to do while also managing the neat trick of finding a baseline for these characters, even though we never actually see that. The design is nice in both its pastel futuristic cool and the homemade touches that people will add to it, like Ana carving her name out of the logo on her Yamaha keyboard.

"Swell" is a charmer, and it might be fun to see more shorts going for this rather than the darker sorts of cautionary tales we usually get.

"Hum"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

There's an appealingly working-class vibe to "Hum", with Adam Shaw as a plumber whose life is frequently interrupted by a powerful sound that seems to come from inside his own head and James Bryce as a blacklisted academic trying to track it to its source, telling Chris that he may be the key to a breakthrough in quantum mechanics, although Chris just wants to disruptive sensation gone. It comes across not just in Chris trying to get through his day, but how he's clearly got expectations for the prof that aren't being met. There's also not much mystical or amazing to this otherworldly situation - it hurts, and the audience sees him looking tortured, even as he tries to get by.

It leads to a nifty, if shaggy ending, a bit of "qunatum mechanics is magic" stuff but which at least looks nifty on-screen. The resolution is a bit wobbly - I'm not sure how, exactly, Chris learns anything here - but the feel is good, which sometimes matters more at this length.

"Haskell"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

Haskell Carlson, we're informed, was born a few seconds ahead of everyone else, and it might have been interesting if writer/director James Allen Smith took a scene to show what this meant from Haskell's point of view - it's paradoxes and occasional blinks in and out of reality for the normal people he interacts with, but what it's like for him remains a cipher, making the "letting go" bit at the end kind of inscrutable. You get that there has been a struggle and maybe his initial assessment was off, so the emotional release works, but what's going on?

It's less important, I guess, than watching Lucas Oktay and Mark Kelly give their good performances, playing Haskell as a curious child being tested and an adult trying to live a good life and not use what he can do unfairly. It's a strong impression of a good man who perhaps can't quite be normal intstinctively.

"Haley"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

This one's a weird split, putting the intense action that plays into characters we've quickly grown to like at the front and then cutting to a slow, sedate second half that takes a relatively long time to pay off. It's an unusual sort of pacing and it shows how sometimes the best world-building comes out of action and doing - even when things are coming literally out of the blue (or being sucked into it) during the opening, it makes immediate sense because the characters act in a believable way that anticipates the action or something true, while the attempts at exposition in the second half are awkward.

It's nicely done in different ways on both ends, though - while the opening is charming as a man (Corey Sevier) and his daughter (Lyra Sales) have a funny, normal morning only to have the alien-abduction siren go off and have things get immediately tense, the second half featuring the man walking through the woods at least builds to a grand finale. It's also good enough that one doesn't necessarily make the obvious connections until Sevier (who co-writes and directs) flips his last card.

There's perhaps one scene too many, like the emotional closure wasn't quite enough, but it's something which potentially fires the imagination, so why not?

"Miriam Is Going to Mars"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

Shorts like "Miriam Is Going to Mars" tend to rub me wrong way, always seeming a bit more mean-spirited than intended in describing how a mentally-ill person tries to escape the confines of the reality around them. This isn't any exception; the caper feel to Miriam (Ann Sonneville) putting together an application to be part of a manned Mars mission while in a mental health facility benefits greatly from her upbeat but fragile performance, but doesn't quite feel like the manic high followed by a crushing low it's going for, or making a case that what presents as hyper-acuity maybe being an asset (or, perhaps, making the argument that getting away from Earth would mean getting away from her voices).

The latter part of the movie is an interesting but kind of disconnected other story, and I'd kind of like to see that tale (when she fears her sister has completely taken her place in her son's life) stretched out; it's a horror story that's little more than an afterthought here.

"The Sleepers"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

It's not until looking at the IMDB entry that I see that all four of the title characters in Joe Lueben's "The Sleepers" - Lilly (Sam Quartin), Ivy (Nancy P. Corbo), Rose (Susan Slatin), and Sweet Pea (Claire Simba) - are all named for plants of some kind, a nice parallel to how they live in a dormitory, sleeping 23 hours a day, as thoroughly rooted as their namesakes. It's a premise that gives Lueben a chance to do a number of interesting things in twenty minutes, mining their dreams, presenting interviews about what brought them to this place, contrasting grounded and surreal imagery.

But while there's an interesting thread about the kinship that the four in this particular cell share, it's also the kind of short that doesn't really do anything with its ideas. There's no explanation of what the world gets out of maintaining people like this, little of what they get for sleeping their lives away, no real movement. It's appropriate for this particular story to be kind of inert, I suppose, but even if there's not going to be a conventional arc, "The Sleepers" could use a little more poking at its idea and world.

Maybe that will come in the feature Lueben is trying to develop, but I always figure, why wait? That opportunity may never come and this chance is right here.

"Amo"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

There's an austere, fascinating creepiness to Alex Gargot's "Amo", featuring Salvador Roman as an engineer working on calibrating Domo (Marta Blanc), a sexy new model of female companion android that still has a few bugs to work out, with his attention to her earning the jealousy of Mia (Mireia Oriol), who at least presents as a schoolgirl. It's an obvious thing about the objectification of women, in the most literal sense, with bits about fine-tuning and Domo saying that he can shout at her if it makes him feel better. Mia's sabotage and petulance is darkly comic and entirely understandable.

That it's not entirely clear whether Mia is his child or another android, at least at first, is perhaps something that should have been handled a little better, it initially makes the movie seem like it's about "Doc" preferring an idealized mistress to his daughter. It gets a bit more interesting when you allow that Mia is a machine as well, but one which can apparently grow mentally and exhibit some creativity - it shows the premium that Doc is placing on stasis and performing a specific role that he defines in his companions; that Mia can change and be something other than what he originally envisioned is a horror that must, eventually, be deactivated. Though many would want the cute teenager into him as a fetish, that he rejects it isn't a sign of morality, but a desire for control.

Maybe it would work a bit better with a few slightly more clear storytelling choices, but there's something to how the obliqueness plays, even though this isn't really a story built around things being indistinguishable on first glance. It's at least playing with some good ideas, a little more provocatively than initially seems to be the case.

"Son Şnitzel" ("The Last Schnitzel")

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

"The Last Schnitzel" has allegedly been banned in Turkey, and that's not necessarily surprising; given how sensitive that government is to criticisms of its president, it's not surprising that a movie which portrayed a future president as a foolish, absurd autocrat isn't going to fly. I'm mildly surprised any of it got made there at all, rather than just pulling together what could be found in Copenhagen.

However it got made and however it can be shown, it's a funny, barbed bit of satire which posits that, with the people of Earth finally having made their planet into a concrete wasteland and having subsisted on nutrition pills for a century, they're about to leave for Mars, but the President of Turkey (Haluk Bilginer) refuses to budge or launch his shuttles until he has a chicken schnitzel. Difficult, when the last chicken on Earth died 200 years ago, but he's given the task to Presidential Assistant Kamil (Sevket Suha Tezel), and he'll figure it out the best he can.

The satiric intent here is obvious - Turkey is far from the only country where the leaders often place their personal pleasure above the needs of the people - but directors Kaan Airci and Ismet Kurtulus, collaborating with original short-story author Onur Koralp on the screenplay, have a knack for combining sharp, specific points with quality slapstick, casting their net wide to find a whole raft of political absurdities to puncture. I like that they stretch their effects budget as far as it can go, giving the world a bit more of a cartoon-ish feel. It's been eleven years since I saw G.O.R.A., but it's the same kind of bizarre Turkish sci-fi aesthetic, although it doesn't wear one out so much in a 30-minute film.

It works in large part for its two contrasting main performances. Tezel picks up the feel of the frustrated mid-level bureaucrat nicely, putting just enough can-do spirit into his frustrated antics to make the short bounce even as he displays frustration with every other person who is either unhelpful in the same boat but not handling it as well. Bilginer, meanwhile, is leonine as the elderly president, not playing him as utterly insane but more unable to understand why, after all his service, this one request is such a big deal.

It's good satire, even if it does hurt a little more as it gets easier to imagine winding up on this track

Mohawk

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Set during the War of 1812, Mohawk pays like survival horror where neither the hunted nor hunters have a moral high ground and can change position in a heartbeat. It's a somewhat ambitious way to attack something that is more flat-out action than larger look at war as a concept, but it makes for a smart, no less thrilling action picture. And it is great, flat-out horror-inspired action, with blood, guts, and plenty of shock as danger frequently leaps out of nowhere, with the fighting often up close and personal but moving at a slightly different pace as characters have to reload after each shot. There are suspenseful sequences and moments to make one wince, but it never seems to pause to space things out.

It's also great-looking - between the blood and the bright colors (and simple, not over-designed costumes), it feels like a no-nonsense throwback to Hammer or AIP, with the cast of relatively-unknown but talented actors a big boost. Director Ted Geoghegan had made two pretty terrific genre movies now, between this and We Are Still Here, and I can't wait to see what he comes up with next while still sending critics a bunch of email for his day job.

"It Began Without Warning"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Well, the title did warn that this one would feature little in the way of explanation for its graphic violence, which moves so fast that I'm still not sure whether or not the twist in the end really works - the film is set up to look like a father trying to kill his kid after mortally wounding his pregnant wife, until we see that the local kids are getting orders from some evil disembodied mouth thing, so had he actually just failed in defending her? Never mind, there's someone hiding in the closet because we need both a kill and a near-escape, but not so fast…

The filmmakers do some nice action choreography and quality gore, but not a whole lot more than that. And, hey, that's not bad for six minutes, but it's perhaps not unreasonable to want a little more story to go with the violence.

Game of Death (2017)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

There's plenty of enthusiasm and energy on display in this Game of Death, from the zippy 8-bit titles to the gleeful rampage through a hospice that concludes it. The filmmakers are having fun doing a gross-out fest workout a whole bunch of apology. It's a nasty little movie, but maybe not quite so nihilistic as it seems; I was eagerly anticipating its cast of young jackass characters dying, and some at least make a bit of a car for them to somehow survive, so they grow on you at least a bit.

It's one for those who go for gore and black humor, and girls in bikinis, and not a whole lot more. You could do a lot worse if looking for unapologetic exploitation.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Fantasia 2017.02: Tilt, Super Dark Times, Killing Ground, and Museum

Forgot my phone at the apartment, which was no big deal - there were no guests or anything for horrible photography - although it slowed down my plan of "post to my Letterboxd page for a first draft/outline, fill out later" - but probably deprived what followers I have on social media of me slowly growing more frustrated with an all-day diet of pretty much senseless murder, which would have peaked with me coming out of Killing Ground and tweeting something like "f--- this movie and f--- the scheduling that made seeing anything else impossible". I probably would have had to skip the credits for Super Dark Times and bolt across the street for A Ghost Story or Teiichi, though I probably should have tried.

Anyway, it kind of started running together for me, and on average, the uncertainty of not knowing whether or not I had lost my phone was more unnerving than some of these movies (there's a lot of lack-of-resolution so far this year).

That was yesterday. Today, the other side of tricky scheduling, as the high priorities leave some gaps and I just get to the International Sci-Fi Shorts, Mohawk, and The Game of Death. I most likely did not finish writing this early enough for a matinee of War for the Planet of the Apes or Shin Godzilla

Tilt

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2017 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Brace yourself, world - we're in for a fair amount of "electing Donald Trump as President is a sign of something badly wrong with America" movies, and while we've brought this upon ourselves, I still think it's fair to hope for something a little more interesting than Tilt. Writer/director Kasra Farahani seems to have a good idea of what he wants to get across and how, but (as will often be the case where wrestling with these themes is concerned) recognizing the issues does not necessarily mean being clear on what to do next.

Of course, to be fair, Joseph Burns (Joseph Cross) looks kind of frantic when we first see him, before he and wife Joanne (Alexia Rasmussen) return to Los Angeles from a Hawaii vacation and start seeing a lot of news coverage of the Trump campaign. Getting back to normal for him means working on his new documentary on how the so-called golden age of the 1950s was an illusion; she is working long shifts as a nurse because the hospital is understaffed, while also studying for the MCAT and a couple months pregnant. As the days pass, though, Joe is getting more erratic - he sees an elderly Japanese tourist everywhere, googles the name "Chusuke Hasegawa" incessantly, and going on walks later and later at night, all while seeming quite detached from the idea of becoming a father.

As the movie goes on, the pressure from Jo for Joe to get a more regular job, and as he resists and sometimes seems to self-sabotage, a certain clarity about the movie's themes emerges: Joe may say all the right liberal things about how wealth has concentrated at the top, but he is at heart still pretty much a white guy who feels entitled to whatever he wants, even if it means pursuing this documentary despite the schedule his wife will soon no longer be able to keep, or giving the African-American folks he might encounter in the street a wide berth, or feeling free to intimidate someone almost completely randomly. Farahani establishes this material nicely - an early moment where Joe seems to anticipate his wife hitting her head on a cabinet door, for instance is crystal-clear but also easily ignored, an early harbinger of just what lurks within him.

Full review on EFC.

Super Dark Times

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2017 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

I coincidentally went to my twenty-five-year high-school reunion the weekend before seeing Super Dark Times, spending some time laughing at friends' stories about events that could have gone wrong in similarly horrific ways but never did, and while that doesn't quite line my timeline up with this 1990s-set story, it had me a little more open to this sort of throwback than I usually am. Which is good, because though it's got a few bumps toward the end, I'd hate to dismiss a pretty good movie because I'm usually more interested in the present.

Like those of us reuniting much later, Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) are flipping through their junior high yearbook one afternoon while trying to get a scrambled cable channel to come in, talking about the girls in their class. It's December in their small Northeastern town without a whole lot to do, so they, along with the really obnoxious classmate Daryl (Max Talisman) and still-in-8th-grade Charlie (Sawyer Barth) wind up going through Josh's older brother's stuff, finding both a bag of weed and a sword, choosing the wrong item to screw around with, as a stupid fight leaves them with a dead body to cover up. Zach maybe doesn't have as much reason to feel guilty as the rest, but still breaks a hand punching a wall while disposing of evidence. Heck of an emotional place to be in when Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), maybe the cutest girl in that yearbook, starts to take some interest in him.

The audience has seen her before that, one of the teenagers gawking staring in the cafeteria at a deer that burst through a classroom window and made it that far before collapsing from its injuries. It's a great little opener, establishing a suburban environment that's starting to feel a chill, visually establishing the idea of change with a sharp shift in perspective from being outside looking in to being inside looking out, and focusing on the silent, pained look on the faces of the sheriff's deputies as they realize that there's no better solution than putting the poor beast down. It's a precursor to the other sudden, stupid death(s) that will soon hit the school and the similar helplessness people feel, but it's worth noting that Allison doesn't look away while everyone else is being squeamish. It's a nice subconscious first impression to make when she's not going to be injected into the boys' story as more than a fantasy until later.

Full review on EFC.

"Crybaby"

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2017 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, digital)

"Crybaby" is maybe not quite just one joke, but it's built on a fairly specific gag, and I appreciate the way that Solomon Gray sells it. There's all sorts of things that seem off when the five-minute short starts, and not in a way that's eerie or unnerving, but in a way that says "bad filmmaking" - the shaggy husband claiming he needs to look good for a business meeting, the wife who doesn't seem like she should be so nervous about being alone with a baby that's clearly not a newborn. The instinct is not to buy it, but maybe forgive because it's a short and probably someone's first film. They're trying, right?

Then there's a clever pan, something we hadn't seen revealed without a thundering crash but still grabbing attention, and it snaps together into a twisted sort of sense. As hard as it is to misdirect and zing in a five-minute short, it takes a certain amount of guts to misdirect in that specific way. That director Solomon Gray then went and ended it without underlining it or stretching things out is even better.

Killing Ground

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2017 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

When people who don't like horror movies in general ask those who do how they can enjoy that sort of garbage, they're talking about movies like Killing Ground. With the good stuff, you can talk about nightmare imagery, stories which allow you to confront fears directly or metaphorically, or just admiring the staging and choreography of a suspenseful scene and the catharsis that comes afterward with the good ones, but sometimes, even with good intentions, a movie is just serving up rape and murder without a whole lot else, and staging it competently just isn't enough.

So it is with this one, which opens with shots of a nice spot for camping in New South Wales, although notably devoid of people, even when a nice family-sized tent is in the scene. Young couple Ian (Ian Meadows) and Sam (Harriet Dyer) are headed there for New Year's Eve, and are a bit puzzled to see the empty tent. We do get a look at people there a few days earlier - a bourgie couple (Stephen Hunter & Maya Stange), their teenage daughter Em (Tiarnie Coupland), and baby Ollie (Liam & Riley Parkes). Where the heck are they now - and why did that guy at the pub (Aaron Pedersen) say this Gungillee Falls spot wasn't accessible. What are he and his housemate Chook (Aaron Glenane) hiding?

Obviously, it's that the local constabulary should probably be looking at them for more than a dog that barks too long and loud for the neighbors. The trouble is, as movie spree killers go, they're pretty boring. They don't have the sort of motivation that makes their madness a twisted version of something that sane people recognize, they're generally not inventive enough to set clever traps, they don't even have the sort of weird charisma that makes them larger-than-life forces of chaos. They just violate and kill for what comes across as no reason other than for a horror movie, and what's that get an audience? There are more interesting monsters out there.

Full review on EFC.

Myûjiamu (Museum)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2017 in L'Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Museum is the sort of serial-killer story that has a lot of good bits, including the gruesome ones, and I wonder if it would have been served better if it had been developed as a screenplay first, rather than a serialized manga. After a while, the need to have a new cliffhanger every twenty-five decompressed pages rears its head, and the twists build up, and what started out as a nifty thriller about gruesome murders that suddenly connect to an older case and the detective in charge's estranged wife suddenly involves weird mutations, extended torture, and even more astonishing psychological torment than the audience has already allowed for (which was kind of a lot).

It's too bad, because before it boils over into truly gratuitous excess, Museum is impressive. It hits a nice spot at the intersection of polished and gritty, with Shun Oguri an fine anti-hero and Satoshi Tsumabuki an entertaining villain even when hidden behind a just-unsettling enough frog mask. There's nice attention to detail, even when dealing with characters at the edges of the story, and some impressively nasty kills. There's a nifty feeling of the detectives doing their best to handle a crisis as the story hits its stride, and a wonderfully twisted logic to the killer's actions.

Indeed, it's very close to being very good. Maybe if screenwriter Izumi Takahashi and director Keishi Ohtomo had let the middle breathe (where new murders practically happen one on top of the other) and compacted the last act a bit, it would be worth the inevitable comparisons to Seven; unfortunately, it winds up peaking just a bit too early.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Fantasia 2017.01: The Villainess & Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable

Ha ha, funny thing - I forgot that the handle on my suitcase broke on my last trip and had a heck of a time carting it around. Combine that with a late check-in time at this year's AirBNB and that meant it wasn't a whole lot of fun hauling it to the bus station in Boston or from the one in Montreal, as I was keeping it with me while finding the new Fantasia offices (walked past them twice because I knew, from previous visits, that that was the campus bookstore) and picking up the tickets I needed to get into the opening night films.

But, get there I did, and even managed to snag a front-row, not-terribly-far-off-center seat despite being pretty far back in line. Then it was time to get started film critic-ing:


Brand new notebook, not yet losing pages in the back because they don't make the back cover out of the same material as the front. Feels good, and I think I'll be able to keep up enough that I won't crap out at 40 reviews and only half the festival blogged this year.

There were also guests:



The fellow in the middle is The Villainess director Lee Byung-gil, who also did Confession of Murder, which played Fantasia a few years back. It seemed to take him a little time to warm up to the Q&A thing, although I couldn't really tell - most of the questions were asked in French, and therefore got answered in French, and the one question that was in English was so long and rambling that by the time it was translated into Korean and answered, it wound up being answered in French because the translator maybe lost track of the original language, as one does when all of the other questions were in another.

Still, he did give what seems like a fair-but-frustrating answer to one of the things about the movie that bugged me, if my terribly high-school French can be trusted:

SPIOILERS!

It sounded like he said that Sook-hee's daughter Eun-hye may or may not be alive, depending on whether or not there's a sequel. If there is, she's alive, if not, she died. Fair enough - I think making the film a tragedy works if it's a one-off, but no need to overburden a sequel - although it's a weird thing to leave unclear, as the audience is invested.

!SRELIOPS

Probably didn't need a ticket for Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, but better safe than sorry. It took a while to get to the movie, as The Villainess ran late with the Q&A and then the Japanese Consul spoke for a bit and there was kind of a long pre-show as a local violinist/fantasy fan performed. She was actually really good, and if you weren't up at 5am to catch a bus, you probably didn't mind the wait, but, wow, I was fading by the end.

Anyway, enough grumpiness! Today's plan is Tilt, Super Dark Times, Killing Ground (though I may try to see if I can make Teiichi: Battle of the Supreme High), and Museum. Japanese Girls Never Die is highly recommended.

"No Wave

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2017 in L'Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

First movie of the festival, technically, was this short from the Fantastique Week-end series, and it's a good one. The idea is pretty simple - guy listening to a white-noise broadcast of ocean waves is pretty sure he hears someone drowning, and when he calls the station to complain, well, people can either react sanely to his insane claims or be insane themselves.

What's striking about this short is that writer/director Stéphane Lapointe is able to pivot a number of times within relatively few minutes and get good results each time. The weird noises in the ambient soundtrack? Funny and creepy. Customer service trying to deal with a deranged-sounding customer? Same. The manager after she escalates it? Genuinely unsettling, hinting that maybe we're going for a tell-tale heart thing here. It may make one too many zigzags at the end, but I still found myself kind of interested with the possibilities.

Ak-Nyeo (The Villainess)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2017 in L'Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

The Villainess is a top-tier action movie that nearly gets strangled by a plot so full of new faces, shady organizations, and recurring motifs as to make a viewer start to wonder if writer/director Jung Byung-gil is trying to cover up for there really being relatively little going on. It makes who is fighting who and why such an abstraction that it can be tough to get invested in the outcome, but when things do finally click, the movie works as some crazy, amazing action spectacle.

It opens with a bang, tossing the viewer into the middle of a long-cut hallway fight shot from the first-person perspective of a furious woman. She basically destroys a major meth operation, the police have the place surrounded by the time she's done, and Sook-hee (Kim Ok-vin) is captured. With nothing of her old life left and pregnant besides, she's recruited by a top-secret organization to be a government assassin, told by Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung) that she'll be free to live a normal life by the time daughter Eun-hye starts junior high. So, she is given a new-ish face and, after a couple years of training, a new life as actress Chae Yeon-soo, not aware that new neighbor and would-be boyfriend Hyun-soo (Sung Joon) is also her handler. Life is going about as well as it can given the circumstances, at least until the agency gets a lead on Choi Chun-min (Lee Seung-joo), who seems to have been rising up the criminal organization headed by Sook-hee's late teacher Joon-sang (Shin Ha-kyun) on the basis of a hard drive stolen the night of Sook-hee's rampage. That's the sort of thing that brings all the lies she's been told into the light, probably not great news for either organization that has contributed to making her an unstoppable killer.

That hallway fight is the middle of Sook-hee's story but the logical place to start things, but it makes for a flashback-heavy structure that is big on highlighting events that mirror each other and eventually highlighting the major events in Sook-hee's life from the time between gangsters killing her father to her arrest, but not so much on giving them a lot of texture or giving a shape to the agency and its goals. Lay out the relationship between Joon-sang and Sook-hee, and it's creepy, but director Jung never truly makes the audience feel that. On the other side, Jung doesn't show enough of Sook-hee's training and interaction with her fellow students to show why Kim-sun (Jo Eun-ji) is a rival and Min-joo (Son Min-ji) is a friend; they just pop up when needed later. Nothing really comes of the hard drive macguffin, and something really important is left frustratingly ambiguous for the finale.

Full review on EFC.

JoJo no kimyô na bôken: Daiyamondo wa kudakenai - dai-isshô (JoJo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2017 in L'Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Hiring Takashi Miike to direct an adaptation of a manga that has "bizarre" right in the title seems like it should be a gimme, an easy and obvious fit, even if the idea of Miike directing family-friendly, decently-budgeted adaptations of popular manga still seems a bit peculiar. If audience reaction is anything to go by, he hit a lot of spots that the fans of the long-running series love, although it can be kind of an acquired taste for those encountering the franchise for the first time, though the action is still kind of fun.

After an opening where veteran cop Ryohei Higashikata (Jun Kunimura) runs serial killer Angelo Katagiri (Takayuki Yamada) to ground only to find that he has somehow acquired demonic powers, the audience gets introduced to this world through the eyes of Koichi Hirose (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a high-school sophomore who has just moved to pleasant suburb Morioh Town, although the aforementioned murders are probably going to knock it down the list of Japan's most liveable suburbs. It's a nice school, and the classmate assigned to look out for him, Yukako Yamagishi (Nana Komatsu), is cute but intense. "Intense" wouldn't necessarily be the word used to describe Josuke "JoJo" Higashikata (Kento Yamazaki) unless you insult his pompadour, though the amazing superpowers that he uses to dispatch those who do mostly fix what got damaged. Small-scale stuff until he runs into someone who seems possessed during a convenience store robbery and his older nephew Jotaro Kujo (Yusuke Iseya) shows up to explain that JoJo is summoning something called a "Stand" when he uses those powers, and it seems that the Nijimura brothers (Mackenyu & Masaki Okada) are trying to create new Stand-users for their own purposes.

Give screenwriter Itaru Era credit - the JoJo's Bizarre Adventure saga is a sprawling multi-generational adventure, with the "Diamond Is Unbreakable" series actually the fourth major arc in the series, chosen because it's the first with a mostly-Japanese cast; that he reduces the mythology to something that fits into this film is likely something of a major accomplishment. Nevertheless, it still often feels like there is just too much to fit in: Koichi and Yukako could probably be removed without the plot suffering too much, although they presumably would be major parts of sequels, and it often feels like each mythology-based moment that the fans will go nuts for comes at the expense of something in the immediate story. The movie eventually explains enough, and sets the action up fairly well, but I constantly got the impression that while the filmmakers made something where you don't need to know the source material to understand it, you're probably not going to love it unless you already know the manga or the anime.

Full review on EFC.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

New York Asian Film Festival 2017.03: Village of No Return, Japanese Girls Never Die, Mon Mon Mon Monsters, and Blood of Youth

Four films the day before, a relatively early walk back to the AirBNB, sleeping on something pretty couch-like, ad then back at it again. I started the day with Bong Joon-ho's Okja, and if I'm lucky and nobody chases me away from this AC outlet, the next post down (or up) will be what I thought of that weird little movie and Netflix funding and releasing them almost imperceptibly in theaters. If not, hey, it's Fantasia time!

For better or for worse, Okja didn't quite line up with what was going on across the street in the Walter Reade, so I had some time to kill afterward, mostly hanging around the little park in the middle of Lincoln Center, then it was back across the street to the Reade for another four-movie marathon.

It was a pretty good day - the sort of fun genre festival day where, even though the films are going for something pretty visceral, there at least a little to unpack as one ruminates upon the movies later. I was kind of let down that I didn't get any Hong Kong over the weekend, but sometimes that's how it goes.

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So, with my phone telling me I had 2% storage left and a trip coming up, I offloaded everything to my Windows laptop, which I left in Boston, forgetting that I would be trying to post this from my Chromebook in Montreal. So, come back in August to see Yang Shu-peng introducing his film Blood of Youth

I may not have been able to get through his movie because it was the end of the day and I was sleepy, but the guy's got an interesting story; he never went up through the usual film-school channels, instead working as a firefighter before making his first two films, both period pieces, with Blood of Youth being his first contemporary picture. To me, this sounds like the hard way to go about it, but he pointed out that censorship is more of a problem in present-day stuff. It is one thing to show corrupt officials in the Imperial Court 500 years ago, quite another to imply a police officer is anything but completely dedicated in today's People's Republic of China, even though human nature hasn't really changed.

Anyway, the movie ended I was spit out onto the streets of New York, exceptionally pleased to find a 24-hour-diner not terribly far from the length of sidewalk where Megabus departs from Boston (not particularly close, admittedly, being in the opposite direction from the subway station, but when it's 12:15am and your bus doesn't leave until 3am, you've got some wiggle room). Can't really say I got a decent night's sleep on the way home, but the employer gave us Monday 3 July off without either calling it a paid holiday or making us use time-off, so I had time to atch up later in the day.

And now, I am in Montreal, getting ready to start the next festival! I'll be at The VIllainess and Jojo's Bizarre Adventure (amusingly, The Villainess will close NYAFF a few days after opening Fantasia, so even though one festival is "before" the other, the movie goes the opposite direction), so come say hi!

Jian wang cun (The Village of No Return)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2017 in The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

If The Village of No Return is meant as satire - an idea I am more amenable to now than I was walking out of it - then it's either the sort that plays much better to its home audience or which attempts to bury its true intentions under enough other material that they can easily be lost or distorted. After a few days considering it off and on, I'm coming around to liking Chen Yu-hsun's ambition and some of what he seems to be trying to say, although he often makes a cluttered mess of it.

Though the film opens away from the village of the title, it gets there soon enough, as merchant "Big Pie" Chu (Ban Zan) arrives home with a secret mission from a nearby lord and rumors that there may be a railroad coming through. His beautiful wife Autumn (Shu Qi) is waiting, although it's not like she has a choice - she was a gift to him and has a shackle around her ankle after her previous attempts to escape and find her true love Dean Wang, who was supposed to return after a year making his fortune in the capital but has been gone three. Even more notable, though, is lay monk "Rainbow" Fortune Tien (Wang Qianyuan), who carries with him a mysterious artifact - the "Worry Ridder" helmet, which can extract troublesome memories from one's head, expelling them as tiny cocoons. Which sounds nice, but before long he's used it to erase the memories of everyone in the village, telling them that he is chief, Autumn is his wife "First Flower", and their goal is to help him dig for a long-buried treasure. Autumn is not just a pretty face, though, and has an inkling that something isn't right even before Dean (Tony Yang Yo-ning) finally comes home.

Even before Rainbow shows up, there's a fair amount of misdirection going on - Big Pie is meant to provoke the dangerous Cloud Clan of assassins into an attack, giving the lord cover to intervene and be seen as a savior rather than an aggressor - although the film seems to forget about it for much of the running time in much the way that the brainwashed characters do. Throw in the fact that the assassins maintain their cover by effectively being the country's postal service, and the film is actually built on a very solid theme of how knowledge is power in a very real sense, and tyrants will re-write the actual facts of the situation to serve their own purposes (and, as a key scene or two implies, even a relatively benevolent leader may find it hard to resist that temptation). Chen and the production design team are also cute with how they use the Worry Ridder - it's a whimsical design that doesn't seem out of place in this sort of period comedy at all, but it has a user interface, and that doesn't seem like it's just an amusing anachronism but commentary on the present.

Full review on EFC.

Azumi Haruko wa Yukuefumei (Japanese Girls Never Die aka Azumi Haruko Is Missing)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2017 in The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Japanese Girls Never Die looks like it should be trickier to get a handle on than it is, cross-cutting as it does between two or three related stories and putting what looks like a mystery at the center. But for as much fun as puzzle-boxes are, director Daigo Matsui never lets this aspect of it overwhelm the story. We spend more time watching Haruka and Aina and how they individually feel diminished for being different types of young women in modern Japan, less trying to puzzle out how their stories will connect, and as a result, both the bits tie in and those that don't feel like a bonus.

We're introduced to two or three threads right away, as Haruko Azumi (Yu Aoi) seemingly vanishes outside a convenience store in the time that it takes a camera to pan back and forth, a group of three young people spray paint a stencil on a wall, and a classroom or two's worth of schoolgirls rowdily fills a movie theater. Soon enough, we're flashing back to get to know folks better - Haruko still lives at home at the age of 27, working in the office of a small business where senior office lady Hiroko Yoshizawa (Maho Yamada) does all the work and the two men in charge don't even pretend to treat the women equally; her friend Hitomi (Serina) is marrying a wealthy older man, but she's looking at Yuji Soga (Huwie Ishizaki), a slacker from her high-school class still working at a local convenience store. Speaking of high-school classmates, 20-year-old Yukio Toagashi (Taiga) just loaned his friend Manabu Mitsuhashi (Shono Hayama) a documentary on a graffiti artist, and though they don't turn out to be particularly talented taggers, Haruko's missing-person poster catches their eye, as does Aina Kinami (Mitsuki Takahata), another classmate studying to be a nail stylist whom they make part of the gang in part because she seems like she'd be easy even if she is clingy. There are also news reports about a gang of teenage girls attacking single men out alone, but it's initially hard to register whether these scenes are happening in the background of the other stories or on their own.

For all that Matsui and screenwriter Misaki Setoyama (adapting a novel by Mariko Yamaguchi) seem to be jumping around, their focus is surprisingly tight: Haruko and Aina are both young women pulled back into the orbits of the men they went to high school with, maybe looking to reconnect with a time when more seemed possible even though these guys don't seem to be particularly invested in anything right now or interested in treating them well. Haruko and Aina may not have the exact same story, but there are certainly enough similarities that there's a certain tension to the idea that Aina could wind up on a poster of her own, chewed up by the same world that seems to have no place for a woman other than marriage to some deeply flawed man (or if not flawed, then from so far afield that a woman must be exceptionally lucky to find him).

Full review on EFC.

Bao gao Lao Shi! Guai Guai Guai Guai Wu! (Mon Mon Mon Monsters)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2017 in The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

The jokey stammer in the title of "Mon Mon Mon Monsters" implies a playful irony that is not there at all; the latest from Giddens Ko doesn't quite take pleasure in its cruelty, but it is unflinching in how it uses school bullying as its backdrop for a supernatural horror story. A lot of viewers might hit the point of enough being enough or outright disbelief even before the dismemberment starts in earnest, although they probably shouldn't.

Even before the story proper starts, it's clear that Ko is looking at empathy for the marginalized, as the first thing the audience sees is a convenience store operated by an old woman who probably should have been able to retire years ago trying to get her developmentally-disabled grandson to learn how to make change, while chasing away a homeless man. From there, we go even further around to see a pair of ghouls - humanoid creatures somewhere on the continuum between vampires and zombies. The sun coming up, they retreat even further, into boxes that seem too small to contain their spindly bodies. That the first image of the undead is that they are vulnerable is important, as is the fact that this sort of cruelty exists outside of high school.

High school, on the other hand, is where Lin Shu-wei (Teng Yu-kai) is currently having things thrown at him at the head of the class as teacher Ms. Li (Deng Yu-kai practically smirks; he's been accused of stealing the money for the class trip. When he brings proof that bully Duan Ren-hao (Kent Tsai) and his friends Guo-feng (Lai Jung-cheng) and Wei-zhu (Tao Bo-meng) did it and accused Lin for laughs, her response is that it's no good to throw accusations around and assigns them to do some community service together. This leads to coming back to try and steal from a practically-catatonic old veteran at night, when this neighborhood of forgotten souls is the ghouls' hunting grounds. They barely escape, capturing the smaller ghoul (Lin Pei-hsin), taking it back to the school's abandoned pool house and starting to torture it in the way little psychopaths who find someone who can't talk and seems to regenerate from injury will do. Lin doesn't like it, but goes along both because he's now more afraid of his bullies and because being part of a secret makes him feel special. He does try and research the beast, eventually finding a story of people who went missing from a voodoo cult decades ago. One looks like their captive, and the other is her sister (Eugenie Liu) - and in addition for a hunger for human flesh, she seems to have the instincts necessary to track her kid sister.

Full review on EFC.

Shao Nian (Blood of Youth)

N/A (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2017 in The Film Society of Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater (New York Asian FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

I'll be honest here - this was movie #5 on the day counting Okja, and I was wiped-out enough to drift in and out a lot. Which would normally be a recipe for disaster with a movie involving unreliable narrators, long recurrent flashbacks, computer hacking, and more on top of that. The thing is, I never really felt lost, no matter how many micro-naps seemed to invade my viewing. I was distinctly aware that I lacked details, but I could pretty much follow along.

Unfortunately, as much as I could follow what was going on, I didn't much care. Maybe a few more of those details would have helped, but, the trouble is, it's got an ending that basically says that a bunch of those details weren't real, and while I kind of suspected that from what we saw of the big flashback scene, that seems like it might make things worse; there's enough to grab onto the fact that the movie is lying to you, but not enough to make the alternatives interesting.

Blood of Youth didn't do much for me one way or another, but I didn't exactly give it a fair shot. Given that director Yang Shu-peng is apparently a favorite of the NYAFF guys, I'll certainly be on the lookout for this when it shows up under more manageable circumstances.