Sunday, July 15, 2007

Fantasia Day Ten: Death Note, Death Note: The Last Name, Puritan, Isabella, et Midnight Ballad For Ghost Theater

All day at the movies yesterday, including the pretty decent Death Note double feature, hosted by Shusuke Kaneko, who strikes me as a pretty cool guy - low key and friendly, and seeing as it's his third or fourth time presenting something at Fantasia personally (he must have been too busy working on these movies to come last year), I imagine he just likes coming here, too, which is a nice perk if you can get it. I found the first movie to be very good, and I wish the second had been up to it. It wasn't bad, but I think it might have been more convoluted than necessary.

If you're in Montreal for the festival, I can recommend both Death Note films and wouldn't talk anyone out of The Fox Family. I'll be seeing Kiltro, Ultraman Mebius & Ultra Brothers, Mulberry Street and Memories of Matsuko. I didn't realize the last was from the director of Kamikaze Girls until a couple days ago, so it it jumped to the top of my radar pretty quickly.

Death Note (Desu Noto)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2007 in Théatre Hall Concorida (Fantasia 2007)

It's almost pointless to write a review of Death Note alone; its Japanese release was similar to that of Kill Bill, with what is arguably one five-hour epic split in half and the two parts released several months apart. Still, as I write this particular paragraph during an intermission between the two parts, I will say that the first movie ends with one of the nemeses seeming to gain a huge advantage, and it has certainly left me stoked for The Last Name.

Across Japan and around the world, criminals are dying on their feet, victims of heart attacks despite no medical reason for it to happen. One falls in the middle of a hostage situation, and that's when we find out that the deaths are caused by law student Light Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara) writing their names in a magical notebook - the "Death Note" of the title. It was given to him by death god Ryuk (a CGI creation only Light can see), and Light has vowed to use it to rid the world of evil. Popular sentiment is with Light (code-named "Kira" by the police and news media), although Light's girlfriend and fellow law student Shiori (Yu Kashii) doesn't share that opinion. Neither do the police, who have assigned a high-ranking detective (Takeshi Kaga) to the investigation, and are also consulting with a mysterious investigator known only as "L". Fearing (rightly) that Tokyo's MPD has a leak, he has also called on the American FBI, notably Ray Iwatari (Shigeki Hosokawa) and his fiancée, Naomi Misora (Asako Seto).

Death Note doesn't go in for moral ambiguity as much as complete amorality. Light seldom if ever discusses the idea of whether or not writing someone's name in the book is simply wrong, and it doesn't come up much in the debates we see among students and in flashes of newspaper clippings and text messages. The point is made several times that "Kira" is having a powerful deterrant effect, both by noting that violent crime statistics are down and a simple text message from an unknown teen saying "no-one bullies me any more". Ryuk flat-out says he's on neither Light's nor L's side, and more to the point, Light doesn't even blink when he first attempts to kill L, nor attempt to justify the action in terms of how many more lives he'd be able to save. Of course, L does something pretty lacking in conscience to fight back.

Full review at EFC.

Death Note: The Last Name (Desu Noto: The Last Name)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2007 in Théatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia 2007)

Death Note: The Last Name came out hot on the heels of the first film (about four months later), and fulfills the promises made at Death Note's finale. It's got a more complex story than its predecessor, not always to its benefit, but it's far from being one of those sequels that undoes much of the goodwill of the first.

(If you haven't seen the first movie, don't read any farther: There will be spoilers.)

Full review at EFC.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2007 in J.A. De Sève Théatre (Fantasia 2007)

The atmosphere is thick in Puritan, and sometimes it feels as if the film is constructed entirely out of atmosphere - you could get lost in the shadows, the strange lighting, the hints of the paranormal. Underneath it all is a classically-structured film noir, one which plays by the rules of that sort of film while at the same time injecting something supernatural without the two feeling in conflict.

Simon Puritan (Nick Moran) used to be a reporter, but has made his living by giving "psychic" readings in between migraines ever since his father died. Before one reading, a terribly burned man (Pete Hodge) tells him that his wife will be coming in for a reading soon, and gives him a little information about her dead sister. Simon, of course, will fall for the beautiful Ann Bridges (Georgina Rylance), but soon discovers that she is married to a wealthy and unscarred American self-help author (David Soul). The burned man shows up again, saying to stay away from, because she'll only bring trouble - but once someone like Ann has you...

Simon may not truly be able to contact the dead, but he hangs around in eerie places. The house in Whitechapel that he inherited from his father was once the property of Aleister Crowley, and there are stories of hauntings ever since he summoned the devil himself there one night. It was built , as were several nearby churches, but Nicholas Hawksmoore, said to be a pagan who imbued his buildings with dark magic. All of this is, of course, almost completely irrelevant to the main plot of the film, but they are interesting little facts and details on their own, the sort of thing that makes a person pay closer attention and maybe pick up on truly important bits of information.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2007 in J.A. De Sève Théatre (Fantasia 2007)

It's easy to say what Isabella is about - a middle-aged man coming to terms with the daughter he never knew he had - although it's a little more difficult to nail down the specific plot, especially while it's playing. After a while it doesn't quite matter, though, since we're getting very nice work from Chapman To and Isabella Leong.

The film takes place against the background of Macau just before its handover to mainland China; as the occasional on-screen text informs us, the local police department has been rocked by a corruption scandal and is trying to put its house in order before the new bureaucracy does it for them. Shing (Chapman To) doesn't look like a particularly honest cop, so he's got enough on his plate when one of the teenage girls he has been hitting on tells him that he is her father, and needs his help to get into her apartment to rescue her dog. Yan (Isabella Leong) doesn't expect Shing to actually act like a father, but the orphaned girl inspires something in him beyond the usual apathy and scuzziness.

The title of the film refers to the name of Yan's dog, but one can be easily forgiven for believing the film is named after its lead actress. Isabella Leong first gained fame in Hong Kong as a pop singer, though she has been doing a bunch of films over the past two years, and she certainly seems to have an aptitude for it. Her Yan probably thinks that she's old for her years, but while she's certainly had to deal with more troubles than a girl her age should, she's always wearing her young heart on her sleeve. Yan tries to mask it, by being deliberately pushy when she first meets Shing or misrepresenting her relationship to Sing to a boy at school with a crush on her, but Ms. Leong never loses sight of how Yan is still a kid who needs a parent, rather than someone who grew up fast.

Full review at EFC.

Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater (Samgeori Geukjang)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2007 in J.A. De Sève Théatre (Fantasia 2007)

In an odd quirk of festival programming, I somehow wound up seeing four musicals at Fantasia this year (or, at least, four films with multiple musical numbers), which under normal circumstances is roughly what I would see in five years. One of them (Memories of Matsuko) was possibly the best film of the festival; most of the others, including Midnight Ballad for Ghost Theater, are hit-and-miss (generally more hit than miss), though in the case of Ghost Theater it's got little to do with the film being a musical.

The premise is promising enough, and might strike a chord with many moviegoers: Late one evening, Seong So-dan's grandmother goes out, saying she has to see a movie at the Sam Geo Ri theater, but doesn't return. So-dan (Kim Kkot-bi), already without her parents, first has to find the theater - like many old single screen theaters the world over, it's on its last legs, and even though it's not far from home, So-dan has never heard of it. They haven't seen her grandmother, but have an opening at the box office, which So-dan takes - after all, if Grandmother says she is coming here, then she'll probably make it eventually.

Of course, this is no ordinary theater - when So-dan stays late one night to close up, she sees the ancient, listless staff literally transformed, like some sort of ghosts: The overweight woman at the candy counter is Elisa (Park Joon-myeon), a lost princess; the custodian is Hiroshi (Jo Hee-bong), a Japanese soldier from WWII; the projectionist is Mosquito (Park Yeong-soo), an acrobatic clown; and the usher is Wanda (Han Ae-ri), a sexy goth girl. All, like So-dan, once came to Sam Geo Ri and never left. Then there's the owner (Cheon Ho-jin), whom So-dan finds out once made a movie, now believed lost, starring her grandmother. Maybe finding that movie can fix everything!

Full review at EFC.

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