Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Boston Fantastic Film Festival 2006

I don't worry about other festivals the way I do this one. I probably shouldn't be worrying, since it seems like something Ned and the rest of the crew at the Brattle love doing and will for as long as they can. The festival was back up to five nights this time, having been just four last year, although the original schedule had it as six. I think that as long as the Brattle is safe, the festival is safe. That's by no means assured, but the progress meter in the Brattle lobby gives me some measure of hope.

To tell the truth, as much as I used to worry, I'm also a little envious. I see coverage of Austin's Fantastic Fest and Toronto After Dark online, and I see them as things that take place at around the same time as the BFFF, but started later, and despite being relatively new, have huge, amazing line-ups - and meanwhile, I'm doing math to figure out whether there are enough movies to make buying a pass worthwhile as opposed to buying individual tickets.

It was an interesting festival - all movies I hadn't seen, the musical thing was interesting (although it would have been nice to be able to understand the lyrics). It seemed very strange to go to a festival like this and have nothing from Japan, or any official midnight movies. Saturday's performance by Claw Job didn't start until almost midnight, but that's because concerts never start on time.

One minor, funny thing: I went to Newbury Comics to buy an import copy of Election, because the closing night feature was what Tartan is calling "Triad Election", or Election 2. I watched it that night, and rather liked it... Only to find that FedEx had shipped the print of Election 2 to the wrong city. Ah, well. No reason to complain about seeing a good movie.

Anyway, generally a good festival with films worth recommending. As always, I hope for an even bigger one next year.

Tideland

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 October 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Terry Gilliam makes films about fractured realities; it's what he's good at. That's what Tideland is, and while it's possible to look at it and say he's a one-trick pony, he's also better at it than just about anybody else.

There probably isn't a really healthy mind to be found in any of the characters, although 10-year-old Joiza-Rose probably has the best shot at one. That's despite a pair of fairly scuzzy drug-addict parents: Her mother resents Rose, so she's much more fond of her father, who plays in a band and talks of someday moving the family to Jutland, where the Vikings came from... And also has his daughter prepare and administer the heroin he uses to go on his "vacations". After the mother's sudden death, he packs Joiza-Rose up and flees to Grandma's house. She's not there, though, and Joiza-Rose spends a great deal of time on her own, looking to next-door neighbors Dell and Dickens for company.

As good as Gilliam is at this kind of movie, it rises and falls based on the work of Jodelle Ferland, the child actress playing Joiza-Rose. Joiza-Rose is scrappy enough to mostly take care of herself when the adults in her life are basically useless, but despite that she doesn't fit the usual model of a kid forced to grow up too fast - as cute and imaginative as the character is, she can also be shockingly callous and prone to violent mood swings. The really neat trick that Miss Ferland does is to sell us on just how much denial and delusion Joiza-Rose is capable of without making her seem stupid. She doesn't overstate anything except for when a kid might - she's occasionally loud or annoying, but what kids aren't? There's no desperation for the audience's approval or love, just a kid looking like a normal kid even though she's cracking up.

Read the rest at HBS.

Dark Remains

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 October 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

If you're going to see or rent Dark Remains, you probably like horror movies and ghost stories. The thing is, if you like horror movies and ghost stories, you've probably seen something very much like Dark Remains more than a few times, and though worse iterations of this story have made it through the production process, it probably wouldn't be hard to hunt down better ones.

We start, of course, with bodies - a woman slitting her wrists, a man shooting himself, and, after the credits, a yuppie could finds their adorable daughter murdered in her own bed, despite there being no sign whatsoever of forced entry. Allen (Greg Thompson), a technical writer, and Julie (Cheri Christian), a fine-art photographer, cope with the loss by moving out to the country, leasing a house whose last tenants committed suicide. The town, naturally, has a history of suspicious deaths, including the mother of Jim (Scott Hodges), the creepy caretaker. There's also an abandoned prison that Julie is strangely drawn to, and the local sheriff (Jeff Evans) wants to keep an eye on Allen, what with the unsolved mystery of a child murdered in a house Julie claims had been locked up tight. And, of course, after one night in the house, their visiting friends high-tail it out of there and advise Allen and Julie to follow.

They don't, of course. There are dead people to briefly spot out of the corner of their eyes, old newspapers to search through, late-night visits to shuttered prisons to be made, local people to turn psychotic, and investigations that must get nowhere. And, of course, when developing pictures in her darkroom, Julie must occasionally think she sees her dead daughter. (This movie looked to be shot on digital video, and I wonder if at any point during these scenes writer/director/editor Brian Avenet-Bradley considered that ironic.) The script is remarkably thorough in compiling potential supernatural and conventional explanations for what's going on. That isn't necessarily a bad idea; uncertainty about the nature of the threat is often more effective than knowing exactly what one should be afraid of, especially early in a story. This movie is just a little too vague for a little too long.

Read the rest at HBS.

Severance

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 October 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

I'm not sure what the method is for determining whether a horror movie plays theaters or goes straight to video in this country, but it needs refinement. A couple years ago, Christopher Smith's Creep showed up on the "fantastic festival" circuit and was an impressively intense outing that even had a recognizable lead; it went to video. Now he's back with Severance, almost as thrilling as Creep and funny besides, and I can only hope this one manages to see the inside of theaters.

In this one, a group of office mates from the UK branch of Palisades Defense are touring Eastern Europe in a bus, presumably selling weapons to people who really have enough, when they encounter a downed tree. Pompous Richard (Tim McInnerny) opts to take his co-workers down a road that cuts through the woods on foot rather than wait for the tree to be cleared. Clearly, none of the folks on the bus - sarcastic Harris (Toby Stephens), enthusiastic Gordon (Andy Nyman), sexy American Maggie (Laura Harris), mousy Jill (Claudie Blakley), weed-loving Steve (Danny Dyer), and shy Billy (Babou Ceesay) - have seen the opening scene, where a man and his two prostitutes are running through the woods only to be snagged by various traps. They do find a bunkhouse in the woods, but everyone except Richard has their doubts that this is the company lodge where their end-of-trip team-building exercise is supposed to be held.

I've mostly had good experiences at the various offices where I've worked, but I've never worked for a sprawling multinational doing work that feels either trivial or counter to making the world a better place. Apparently, it makes you snippy, quite willing to wander off in the woods of a strange country just to get away from the rest of the group, even after you know it's probably not safe. Smith and his co-writer Moran don't stop at that; as much as there are several lines you can draw between people who don't like each other, it's not a situation where the characters show callous disregard for one another, either. They're mostly decent enough human beings, which is important - as much as there's some good jokes to be made from people being awful to each other, the risk is the audience merely rooting for the characters to die in unusual ways.

Read the rest at HBS.

Automatons

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 October 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

I remember thinking, upon seeing Mothra for the first time, that it was cool to see someone making a movie with their radio-controlled toys. Now comes Automatons, which takes it a bit further, looking for all the world like a movie made with wind-up toys.

In the future, an unnamed young woman (Christine Spencer) lives in a bunker filled with robots. The world outside is a scarred wasteland, and the robots are her only friends even as she tinkers with them to make them more effective fighting machines. The only other human presences in her life are videotapes left to her by her teacher (Angus Scrimm), and occasional broadcasts from the leader of an enemy camp (Brenda Cooney) whose own robots occasionally attack and try to disrupt the girl's work.

Ah, the robots. Filmmaker James Felix McKenney clearly had a minuscule budget to work with, so when the robots clash, it's not an animated extravaganza featuring highly detailed machines fighting each other with meticulous attention detail. Rather, it's dozens of models a few inches tall being blown to bits on the floor of McKenney's apartment. Some digital work is used early on to remove strings, but by the end of the film, some of those are left in, too. That's not the huge issue it could be, and is (per the Q&A) deliberate: McKenney wanted the film to have a hand-made feel, but felt that audiences used to effects work where the main goal is transparency might need to be eased into a style that makes its technique visible. The ten-year-old part of me did, I must admit, get a big kick out of watching toy robots get blown up by firecrackers or set on fire. It doesn't look as seamlessly authentic as digital work, or even more elaborate stop/go-motion model work, but it does communicate something. This is, after all, the end of the world, with fighting machines put together from recycled scraps, and the less-sophisticated special effects reinforce that.

Read the rest at HBS.

Blood Tea and Red String

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 October 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

Christiane Cegavske spent over a decade making Blood Tea and Red String, creating its meticulously realized world one frame at a time even as she moved from city to city. That extraordinary dedication pays dividends; her creation is a stop-motion fantasy that captures the audience in a way that few films have since The Dark Crystal.

In the film, an aristocratic mouse commissions an "Oak Dweller" craftsman to create a mouse-sized doll in the shape of a human girl (Oak Dwellers are birdlike, but furry). The elderly Oak Dweller does this, but cannot bear to part with his creation. He returns his payment, but that does not placate the mouse and his friends, who return in the dead of the night to steal her away. Upon discovering the theft, the craftman's family sets out on a quest to retrieve the doll - not only does the old man love his creation, but he has secreted an egg found by the river in its midsection.

Ms. Cegavske has created a world that feels remarkably real despite its lack of human beings - indeed, in part because of how they're missing. The Oak Dweller creates his effigy from a picture the mouse shows him, which greatly resembles the woman in the film's live-action bookends. Those segments are far stranger than the rest of the film, featuring an eerily silent woman in kabuki makeup serving a cake that disgorges spiders once she cuts it. In contrast, the animals' world seems almost familiar in comparison. It's a world out of fairy tales, where animals take on human behaviors such as wearing clothes or eating at tables with utensils but still remain true to their natures.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Host (Gwoemul)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 October 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

The Host is one of the great success stories of Korean cinema; it shattered box office records in its native land to the point where other filmmakers were grumbling about it being difficult to get bookings for their films. Great success comes after great risk, though, and The Host occasionally feels overstuffed, as if filmmaker Bong Joon-ho feared that he'd never get a chance to make another big sci-fi adventure and accordingly crammed everything he could into this one.

Happily, the film is not simply throwing out monster movie clich├ęs as viewed through a Korean lens. The opening scenes are wonderful twists on how these things usually play out: First, a darkly comic prologue (inspired by true events) where an American army technician orders his Korean assistant to pour noxious chemicals down a sink that drains directly into the Han River, and the camera pans past a truly astonishing number of empty bottles. After that, Bong wastes no time unleashing the monster upon the city of Seoul, but he's almost low-key in the way he does it. You almost have to squint to see it hanging off a bridge, and the filmmakers opt not to break out the shaky-cam or bombastic music as the creature emerrges from the water and starts making things very unpleasant for anybody near the riverbank. Even as people start fleeing for their lives, the movie doesn't go into full, majestic shots meant to show the effects off or quick cuts and zooms meant to tell the audience that this situation is chaotic or that this detail is important. And by not dialing things up like that, he actually makes the situation even more tense and confusing - the way this first act is shot reinforces the environment's normalcy, except for that monster that keeps chasing people, making it more of a dangerous, frightening incursion.

Bong keeps that up right until the moment when slacker Park Kang-du (Song Kang-ho) grabs the wrong girl's hand, and turns back in horror to see a tentacle wrap around his 12-year-old daughter Hyun-seo (Ko Ah-sung) and pull her away in slow motion. But for all it breaks out the action-movie theatrics, that moment also underscores what makes The Host different from the standard kaiju film (to steal a term from across the Sea of Japan) - the focus is not going to be on how scientists and soldiers combine to take the creature down - it's how the Park family struggles to rescue its youngest member in spite of the roadblocks thrown up by the military, who especially want Kang-du isolated, since the creature is believed to be a carrier for a deadly virus - the American soldier whom he helped try to hold off the creature has died a gruesome death.

Read the rest at HBS.

Darkon

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 October 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival/Eye-Opener)

It would be easy for Darkon to be a movie that points and sneers; it is, after all, a film about grown men who fight mock wars with foam rubber weapons. It does occasionally provoke some laughs out of people who role-play with gusto, but every community has people who fit an unpopular stereotype. It's still worth remembering that "weird" correlates well with "interesting".

Darkon, the film tells us, is an evolving fantasy world; participants take on a character and role-play that persona on weekends. Those role-playing sessions may involve negotiations, palace intrigue, or combat. Though the activities take place in parks and soccer fields in the Baltimore area, they represent battles over hexagonal spaces on a map. The game has been active for twenty years, with players joining up and leaving during that time. The mechanisms of play are only given a little explanation, though, as it's the players that interest the filmmakers most.

Our primary focus is on Kenyon "Keldar" Wells and Skip "Bannor" Lipman, long-time players who have risen to be leaders of their realms. Keldar's kingdom Mordom has been constantly expanding and occupies nearly half the game board; Bannor's Laconia is aligned, but as the film begins, he announces plans to break away and tries to rally other groups to his cause. In game terms, this will involve capturing Keldar and bringing him before a war-crimes tribunal, a difficult task with the armies and allies he commands.

Read the rest at HBS.

The Five [Deadly] Venoms (Wu Du)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 October 2006 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival/Eye-Opener)

We all have guilty pleasures - or, for those mature enough not to feel guilt about things which bring them happiness without doing any harm, simply entertainment we love even though we know they aren't in the same category of quality as some of our other favorites Fortunately, it's not just individuals that indulge those impulses, and thanks to the UCLA Film & Television Archive's restoration program, The Five Venoms, which became famous with poorly-dubbed nth-generation prints on late night television, is now available in a clean, subtitled theatrical print.

Of course, the new translation doesn't go a long way toward making its set-up less unlikely: Yang Tieh (Shang Chiang), the last disciple of a dying martial arts master, is instructed to seek out the five previous disciples, who are converging on a small city to seek out the clan's lost treasure. Each has deadly martial arts skills inspired by a different venomous animal, while Yang Tieh knows a bit of each. The bad news is that the Venoms trained in masks, so Yang Tieh has no description to work from other than fighting styles. It soon becomes clear that a local constable, He Yuan-xin (Philip Kwok) is the wall-climbing Gecko and likely one of the good guys, while wealthy merchant Qi Dong (Pai Wei) is the greedy Snake. We soon see which side Toad-style fighter Liang Shen (Meng Lo) and Centipede-style Zhang Yiao-tian (Feng Lu) are on, but Scorpion remains an unknown wild card.

As silly as the story is, it is still notable among Shaw Brothers films in that it actually works fairly well. All too often kung fu movies, even today, are thirty minutes of fights and sixty minutes of perfunctory scenes meant to weakly justify the fights while keeping the seperate. Or they just seem that way because the plots involve some piece of intrigue between royal houses and rival martial arts styles that are highly confusing for Westerners and probably at least somewhat arcane for Chinese audiences. The Five Venoms offers mysteries to solve and alliances to scrutinize, but it's all contained within this single story, with no outside knowledge required. Big chunks of that story seem to defy common sense - Yang Tieh is spectacularly unhelpful (practically absent!) when Liang Shen is framed for murder, for instance - but despite that, there is a story worth grabbing on to.

Read the rest at HBS.