Monday, July 10, 2006

Fantasia '06, Day 4: Four on four

A couple longish films make for an actual break during the weekend. I opted to see My Scary Girl instead of the first screening of Azumi 2, and since Feed would have made it awful close with A Chinese Tall Story (and just looked nasty), I instead headed to St. Catherine's street to see if Future Shop had a cheap digital camera (left mine at home) and to visit Mr. Steer's, where you can get a pretty darn good burger and a heaping helping of fries. It's a bit less busy than Bartley's back home, but it's still a good burger. The combo special - a burger with both a pattie and a chicken breast - is pretty good, too.

I was kind of surprised to see a lot of folks rooting for Italy in the World Cup. You'd think Montreal would be full of French partisans, but that wasn't the case.

The movies were pretty good. It's frustrating to see that The Woods is probably going straight to video; director Lucky McKee was there for the screening and he didn't even really seem interested in talking about a theatrical release - the "corporate bullshit" has just worn him down to the point where all he wants is to have a copy on his shelf.

It was a pretty good day for crowd reaction, especially in the main hall. The crowd cheering "stage manager" Daniel Walther's removal of microphones and turning off of lights is a kick, and I always know I'm with my type of people when Bruce Campbell's name in the credits gets a big ovation. Funky Forest: The First Contact got lots of audience participation and applause throughout; it's that kind of string of randomness. And some of the folks around me seriously loved A Chinese Tall Story. A Chinese Tall Story and Funky Forest both repeat on Thursday, if you're up here. As mentioned, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon repeats today, and a review is up.

Today's plan: Something touristy, followed by Lost in Wu Song, Murder, Take One, and Tape No. 31

My Scary Girl (Dalkom Salbeolhan Yeon-in)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 July 2006 at Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival 2006)

It is, admittedly, uncool to identify too closely with Kim Dae-woo, the "me" in My Scary Girl (also known as "My Sweet Yet Brutal Girlfriend") - he's a thirty-year-old virgin who has never had a real girlfriend or even kissed a girl. But consider the alternative represented by the title character: She kills people, generally husbands and boyfriends.

Hwang Dae-woo (Park Yong-Woo) and Lee Mina (Choi Kang-hie) meet when she moves in to his building and he nearly throws out his back helping the mover with the refrigerator. He's been the type to make excuses for why he's not dating, but she seems different, and soon his friends are shoving him at her (literally). He gets uncomfortable when her ex-boyfriend shows up, but he soon disappears - and Mina starts shopping for a new kimchee refrigerator when her roommate Jang-mi (Jo Eun-ji) starts complaining about the corpse.

The film's main gag, of course, is that most of the time Dae-woo comes off as the weird one, completely ignorant of how to behave on a date, with his jokes and attempts to plan banter inevitably proving awkward and cringe-worthy. As smart as he is, he comes pretty close to making the wrong move at every point, while Mina is forgiving and, in general, sensible and practical. We wind up spending our time watching the film hoping Dae-woo can make things work out more because it would be a shame for him to lose a great girl like Mina over some sort of silly misunderstanding or by not going through the proper rituals. The idea that screwing up with her romantically might be a quick route to violent death is a sort of secondary consideration.

Read the rest at HBS.

A Chinese Tall Story (Ching din dai sing)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 July 2006 at Théâtre Hall Concordia (Fantasia Festival 2006)

Dig deep into the archives here, and one of the first movie reviews you'll find will be for a piece of cheese called "Monkey War 2: New Pilgrims to the West". Neither the review nor the film is really worth looking at; I just bring it up as my first encounter with the Monkey King characters and one of my first encounters with Hong Kong cinema that wasn't art-house or standard martial arts action. I couldn't help but think of it while watching A Chinese Tall Story, if only because Jeff Lau's new film manages to trump that other movie in budget (by a long shot), craziness, and all-around fun.

Wukong, the Monkey King (Bo-lin Chen), doesn't isn't around for most of the film, as he and his imp companions are captured by an angry demon. He saves his master, the monk Tripitaka (Nicholas Tse), by strapping him to his magic staff and hurling him far, far away. Tripitaka is the second strange thing to fall out of the sky near the lizard imps that find him recently, after a strange coccoon. He eventually winds up paired with Mei-yan (Charlene Choi), an imp with an unsightly skin condition, on the run from attacking demons and looking for allies to rescue Wukong and the others. Their journey will take them to the heavens, and back, and the allies they'll encounter include Xiaoshan (Bingbing Fan), who was tucked away in the coccoon that the lizard imps had found. She's the princess of a technologically advanced group of humans who fled the earth for the stars before the Ice Age. On the way, Mei-yan and Tripitaka must learn to trust each other and Tripitaka must learn to fight, rather than simply try to subdue his enemies with kind words.

This group of characters has been the basis for movies and television many times - Jeff Lau himself made a couple Monkey King films with Stephen Chow ten or so years earlier - but probably never quite like this. Sure, despite having only watched that one old, cheap version, I can recognize a few elements: Wukong's magic staff, his servitude to the Tripitaka as penance for his crimes against the Celestial Court, the pig-imp sidekick, other imps wanting to eat the monk to gain his power are all present. I'm reasonably confident that the time traveling people in spaceships are new, though, and I doubt any earlier edition has had close to this kind of special effect budget.

The opening battle against a horde of demons that Tripitaka is tossed away from is massive enough for Stephen Sommers to feel a twinge of jealousy, and the film abounds with wire work, CGI characters, bright colors, and fanciful environments. The big final battle is absolutely crazy - demons, kaiju-sized plant monsters, kung fu, guys with machine guns, a massive spaceship control room, and what the magical staff transforms into dropped a few jaws in the audience. Lau's got a handle on what his effects crew are capable of, and what he asks of them is not [i]Star Wars[/i]-prequel perfection; he knows that the more stuff he puts on screen, the less likely it is to all integrate seemlessly. Many elements feel hollow and weightless. But each effects set piece has new sights that may be wholly different from the previous one, so if there are faults, they're not the same ones.

It reminded me of how, when I was a kid, I might have had a couple Transformers, Star Wars toys, and army men, so when playing with them I'd come up with a story that had them all together. Here, sci-fi brushes against animal spirits and monsters, and the staff becomes the same sort of cartoon character that the carpet was in Aladdin. Every new scene brings a surprise, which almost becomes disbelief by the end. And if you're still able to be floored after spaceships have held off a demon horde in ancient China, the film is doing something right. The only hitch I really found is that the last sequence in the Celestial Court is really kind of brutal compared to what had gone before; this is a movie where people say "oh, sugar!" (at least in the subtitles), and the nasty treatment the hero and heroine get is really not what I'm used to in a family movie. There's slapsticky violence involving knives earlier, but this feels different, there's no tongue in cheek.

I like the cast: Nicholas Tse opens the movie with a goofy, innocent charm as the ivory tower monk who really thinks he can solve all problems just by talking and getting people to see each others' point of view. He's kind of pulled through the movie, but handles each new crazy situation with aplomb. Charlene Choi is full of energy and enthusiasm, putting enough childlike glee into her role that kids won't get turned off by the buck-toothed, spotty face the make-up people put on her I'd like to see another movie with more of Bo-lin Chen's Monkey King, although maybe his cockiness is best enjoyed in small doses. Bingbing Fan gives a quirky quality to Xiaoshan that keeps her from being a serious romantic rival to Mei-yan, but that's OK. More knowledgable fans of Hong Kong cinema will likely spot a number of familiar spaces; I just noticed Gordon Liu as the King of Heaven.

There's an equal amount of talent behind the camera. Lau is a guy who hasn't really broken through in the West, either by effort or having his films picked up by a major studio (he was a producer on Kung Fu Hustle, wrote So Close, and worked with Wong Kar-Wai early in the careers), but he does a pretty darn good job here, keeping things moving while also giving us enough time to get to know and like the characters. He's got a pretty nice staff behind the camera, too, with beautiful production design and nice effects work making the film a colorful joy to look at. He gets a soundtrack from Joe Hisaishi, best known for scoring Hayao Miyazaki's animated films. Frequent collaborator Cory Yuen stages the action scenes.

This probably won't get much of a U.S. release; it just doesn't look as polished as domestic family adventure movies, so it's probably kind of a hard sell to parents. That's a pity; give this a good dub job and kids would probably eat this up with a spoon.

Funky Forest: The First Contact (Naisu no mori)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 July 2006 at Théâtre Hall Concordia (Fantasia Festival 2006)

Man, every time I think I've got a handle on Japanese pop culture, they throw something like this at me.

This review is sort of useless. I can say, hey, you should watch Funky Forest: The First Contact, because it's funny and weird. But if I do that, and I do it really well, you'll probably have little option other than importing the DVD when it comes out, and I can totally see this being nothing but strange if it's not seen in a theater full of crazed people laughing, doing some audience participation, being just as confused as you but along for the ride. Unless you know someone who programs theaters and can talk him into a midnight show, you really just aren't going to get the experience we did in Montreal.

Which is cool. There's no particular reason (other than economical) why something must be built to work just as well as a shared theatrical experience and a solitary televised one. Of course, I may be full of crap here, just because this is how I first encountered it. After all, the first thought that went into my head about what this movie was like was not co-director Katsuhito Ishii's previous feature, The Taste of Tea, or another recent Japanese film that jumped between a series of bizarre intersecting stories, Survive Style 5+, but Monty Python's Flying Circus, and they did okay delivering surreal comedy into the living room.

Although Monty Python doesn't really describe Funky Forest, either. This movie is a two-and-a-half hour set of sketches, some recurring, some not but containing characters who show up in other contexts, and others apparently just being totally strange one-offs. We start with a pair of goofy-looking bickering stage comics, and we'll return to them often, though only for a few seconds at a time. Then there's little Hachiko (Maya Banno from The Taste of Tea), who daydreams about being in a weird spacescape when she should be doing her homework. We'll meet the "Unlucky With Women Brothers", featuring the ubiquitous Tadanobu Asano as "Guitar Brother", while another brother encounters the "Babbling Hot Springs Vixens". There's "Notti & Takefumi", a young girl kind-of-sort-of dating the guy who had been her English teacher two years before, who relate weird, musical dreams to each other. Then there's a "Home Room!!!!!!!" full of weird high school students (and Hachiko, and some grown men...). And just when you've figured out that, the movie hits you with a guy in a yellow costume with a long, tail-like thing coming out of his groin and a probe he needs a pretty schoolgirl to stick in her navel. Then there's a series of grotesque little creatures inhabiting the school.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Woods

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 9 July 2006 at Théâtre Hall Concordia (Fantasia Festival 2006)

I'll admit it; I've been waiting for The Woods because a favorite actor has a supporting role. I'd recognized director Lucky McKee's skill at building atmosphere and creeping out the audience in May, but it was just too much for me; there just didn't seem to be any particular reason to get to the end of that movie. Here, he's working from a script by another writer, and I think it helps make for a more mainstream, but still creepy, work of horror.

The year is 1965, and Heather Fasulo (Agnes Bruckner) is being sent to an exclusive girls' school after a few instances of acting out, including setting a fire in the front yard which nearly destroyed an old oak tree. The headmistress, Ms. Traverse (Patricia Clarkson) informs her that since her father (Bruce Campbell) isn't quite so well-off financially as he appears, she will be tested for a scholarship, which she receives. The school is isolated by trees in every direction, so there's no relief from the usual girls' school issues - she sticks up for a picked on classmate, Marcy (Lauren Birkell), thus earning the enmity of blonde queen bee Samantha (Rachel Nichols). Another girl, Ann (Kathleen Mackey) has just returned from the hospital. As with any old institution, the school has accumulated creepy stories, but Heather is starting to get the impression that they're much more than just stories.

Aside from being McKee's follow-up to May, which certainly got people's attention when it appeared four years ago, The Woods has gained the stigma for being stuck in a studio vault which is unfair. Almost every film on MGM/UA and Columbia's schedule has had its schedule messed with by Sony's purchase of MGM, though few have suffered as badly as The Woods - it's been in the can for at least two years; and just compare Rachel Nichols in this film to her recent work - no way she can play a teenager any more, and she probably wasn't well known enough (from two separate TV series) to have third billing (first under the title) when this was originally planned for release. Bruckner seemed like an up-and-comer back when the film was expected to be released in August 2004; now her star has faded a little. It's the sort of film a studio has issues with, too - it's centered around teenage characters but is set forty years ago and has an R rating, so they spend a lot of time trying to make it more salable. According to McKee, the version screened is his preferred cut and will probably be the one to come out if and when the studio ever releases it.

Read the rest at HBS.

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