Sunday, July 06, 2008

Fantasia 2008, Day Three: Batman, Two Tales to Keep You Awake, the 36th Chamber, Le Grand Chef, and Jack Brooks

I bumped into Kurt Halfyard from Twitch today, and I was impressed that he recognized me from last year because, despite his protestations that he's bad with names and faces, I'm worse. No way I would have picked him out if I'd been sitting behind him rather than vice versa. Our paths crossed for the afternoon shows at the Hall theater; we were both pretty darn pleased to see a new-ish film by Alex de la Iglesia and agreed that this guy doesn't get nearly the exposure he should. His films are a thorough joy to watch, but his earlier work especially seems to be pretty much unavailable in Region 1, while his completed English-language thriller doesn't even seem to be on a North American release schedule at all (and with the collapse of Tartan, Ferpect Crime seems to be on its way into limbo as well).

The double feature from the Spanish TV-movie series Films to Keep You Awake was the highlight of the day film-wise for me (I'd certainly buy a ticket for de la Iglesia's entry, at least), although being three rows from the front while Gordon Liu took questions and did a little impromptu martial arts demonstration was also a bunch of fun.

Today's plan: The Substitute, Punch Lady, either Negative Happy Chain Saw Edge or The Pye-Dog (the first starts about a minute before my previous film gets out, so I'll have to sprint once the credits start and see if it's still letting in), Let the Right One In, and then either Who's That Knocking at My Door? or What We Do Is Secret, depending on my mood.

If you're in town, I can recommend Genius Party and [REC].

Batman: Gotham Knight

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

The idea behind Gotham Knight certainly seems sound enough - have a nice lineup of Japanese animators and American writers (who have worked on well-liked runs of the comics and the much-loved animated TV series) team up for tales that link the two entries in the most recent cinematic series. They've even got Kevin Conroy of the animated series back doing his voice. With that line-up, this seems like it should be a slam-dunk.

And yet, though there is much to admire about Gotham Knight, it doesn't quite add up to what it should. Sure, the structure is nice, with episodes that combine to form a single narrative, and I think this is a nifty way to get Batman characters into the movie series that couldn't be used well in a feature (Killer Croc, Deadshot, Crispus Allen). For all the style, though, Gotham Knight still sometimes looks and sounds cheap, and the jumping between animation styles, effective within "Have I Got a Story For You", is disconcerting over the course of the movie: Alfred looks completely different in the two segments he appears in, and Bruce Wayne goes from very well-built to pretty-boy slender. That might have worked in a strict anthology, but the episodes are supposed to be connected here.

I may write more about this one in the fall, when the BD will likely be available cheaper as part of a Batman box set. This is a movie created for home video, and probably is best judged seen that way.

Películas para no dormir: La habitación del niño (Films to Keep You Awake: The Baby's Room)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

Alex de la Iglesia is a reasonable omission from the Masters of Horror series; it skewed North American and this Spanish director has spread his work across multiple genres. Fortunately, a similar series in Spain did include him, and Films to Keep You Awake produced things closer to feature-length with (I'm told) better production values. de la Iglesia's entry, at least, is a winner.

After a prelude with kids playing hide and seek, we meet Juan (Javier Gutierrez) and Sonia (Leonor Watling), a young couple with a seven month-old baby and a much older house that they've just moved into. Juan's busybody sister Teresa (Eulalia Ramon) and her smug husband Marcos (Ramon Barea) stop by, incidentally dropping off some hand-me-downs. Most are useless, but they set up the baby monitor, only to hear strange sounds coming from it. They install a security system and upgrade to a new monitor that includes a camera, but that just shows Juan somebody in the baby's room. Sonia doesn't see it, and an increasingly paranoid Juan is referred to paranormal expert Domingo (Sancho Garcia) by his boss (Antonio Dechent).

While de la Iglesia has dabbled in many genres, he and writing partner Jorge Guerricaechevarria have always been most at home with black comedy, and some of the best moments in The Baby's Room are also among the funniest. Early on, they defuse any thoughts about what a cliché-ridden situation the young couple perhaps having their first marital problems might be, and nearly everybody has a great line or three. The scene where Juan first sees something on the baby monitor and goes to investigate is a small masterpiece of comic timing, one of those sequences where everyone in the audience laughs twice - once when they realize where the scene is going (and it doesn't hit them all at the same time), and once when it finally gets there.

Full review at eFilmCritic.

Películas para no dormir: Para entrar a vivir (Films to Keep You Awake: To Let)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

To Let was shown at the Fantasia Festival as part of a double bill with another movie from the "Films to Keep You Awake" series, Alex de la Iglesia's The Baby's Room, and it shares a number of characteristics - a young couple starting a family, and a creepy new home. It puts a decidedly different spin on the material, though, playing up the bloody action as opposed to the black comedy.

This film's young couple are Mario (Adira Collado) and Clara (Marcarena Gomez). They're in a bit of a bind, since they've sold their old place before finding a new one, so even though Clara's not feeling well - morning sickness combined with the end of a 36-hour shift as a nurse - she agrees to see the apartment Mario has made an appointment to see, although she gets to play bad cop. They almost just turn right around upon finally finding it - it's in an ugly old building in a crummy-looking area with weird-looking mannequins strewn all over the place, but the realtor (Nuria Gonzalez) insists that the area is being redeveloped, with a school and a green zone and shops, and it's fully furnished and all the renovation is on them. Carla still doesn't like it, especially the way the woman is talking like they've already taken the place, but takes a moment to lie down when she's feeling dizzy. That's when Mario finds the pair of old sneakers he threw away last week, and she sees a photo of them already placed on the bedside table... Just where did Mario find the listing for this place, anyway?

Co-writer/director Jaume Balaguero was one of the directors of [REC], and like that sensation, To Let doesn't let up once the chaos begins in earnest. This is a pretty straightforward escape movie, with protagonists in a weakened state trying to outrun and outwit an adversary that knows the solidly-built territory much better than they do and has a few nasty tricks up its sleeve. Balaguero and his co-writer Alberto Marini do a nice job setting everything up, playing on what a weird and uncomfortable process looking for a new place to live is and finding a nifty way to sidestep the "how does this last more than five minutes if the heroine has a cell phone" question.

Full review at eFilmCritic.

Pi li shi jie (Disciples of the 36th Chamber)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy Shaw Brothers action films a lot, but they were definitely a factory. Take Disciples of the 36th Chamber, part of a series of Shaolin martial arts stories. I happened to see the first in the series, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, as part of a Shaw Brothers retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive about a month ago. It was a ton of fun, but you can't help but notice this second sequel follows the same template - rebellious kid who looks way too old to still be in school gets into trouble, is sent to the Shaolin temple to learn discipline, excels in his classes, but rebels in order to fight the oppressive Manchus. This time around, Gordon Liu's San-te is the monk instructing the rebellious student, Hsiao Ho's Fong Sai-yuk.

So you get a lot of training exercises, and more comedy as Sai-yuk is kind of an obnoxious brat. The spiritual and political aspects of Shaolin kung fu are less prominent here, and the action, while well-choreographed, lacks a certain amount of tension because so much of it is just training exercises. Stylistically, Shaw Brothers movies are so similar that it's surprising this one comes from 1985; it could be from any time in the twenty years before. That's why it's almost surprising how good the big battle at the end is, as director Lau Kar Leung (aka Liu Chia-lang) throws everything but the kitchen sink into a wedding trap. One of the things the Shaw Brothers did better than anyone else is battles with scale; there are moments in the end where long shots of the big battle fill the screen, and there are dozens of people fighting.

The restoration work is very good, and having Gordon Liu on-hand to introduce the movie and take questions afterward was a major treat. Disciples probably won't wind up on my list of favorite martial arts movies, but if the Shaw Brothers studio was a factory, they did at least tend to crank out quality work.

Full review at eFilmCritic.

Le Grand Chef

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival, From Manga to Screen)

At a festival like Fantasia, it's important to seek out movies like Le Grand Chef even if they don't turn out to be among the best in the festival - a steady diet of zombies, serial killers, ghosts and the like can leave a person feeling incredibly burned out by the time it's over. A mostly light-hearted movie about rival cooks can be just what one needs to cleanse the palate, if you'll excuse the metaphor.

Five years ago, Sung-chan (Kim Kang-woo) was poised to ascend to the top of the cooking world, but a terrible and nearly fatal blowfish incident led to Oh Bong-joo (Lim Won-hie) being selected as the head chef at Korea's most prestigious restaurant and culinary school instead. Now, Sung-chan is happily working as a farmer and greengrocer, looking after his increasingly senile grandfather, when an old friend shows up. The knife of the last Master Chef to Korea's last king has been found in Japan, and a nationwide contest has been announced to find which chef deserves to be its new owner. The man wants Sung-chan to enter, but he has no interest in doing so, even if he has left pretty VJ Kim Jin-su (Lee Ha-na) around to pester him until he does. He's resolute about not wanting to be in that sort of high-pressure environment again - at least, until Bong-joo shows up to offer him the position as the head of his kitchen if he stays out.

There's a lot to like about Le Grand Chef. Fans of the food movie will enjoy watching Sung-chan and Jin-su prepare a variety of Korean dishes far more appetizing than what they may remember from Oldboy. Director Jeon Yun-su keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, and he and screenwriter Shin Dong-ik embrace the episodic nature of the original comics (occasionally even using the sort of split screens Ang Lee used for Hulk) without making the resulting film seem choppy or overstuffed. There's a fun cast of characters, and even the ones that could have been one-note villains or clowns are something more interesting.

Full review at eFilmCritic.

Jack Brooks, Monster Slayer

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 July 2008 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

Jack Brooks, Monster Slayer has been getting a lot of love from genre fans, in part because it shows them a lot of love: It casts Robert Englund, it's fairly funny in the self-deprecating way that this group of fans accpets, and the cast and crew make a big point of how they did almost all the effects work with practical effects rather than CGI. It's the kind of movie that makes me idly wonder what the reception would be like if, prior to festival screenings like this, they told the audience that they were just making this sort of horror movie because it's cheap and has a built-in audience, and that they'd used computers to make something that looked just like puppets or men in suits. Just as an experiment.

It's fun, don't get me wrong, but I had the same sort of reaction to it I had to Behind the Mask a couple years ago: It's fun, and actually pretty well-made, but I didn't grow up on that sort of movie, and thus find myself loving it less than those who did.

Full review at eFilmCritic.

No comments: