Monday, August 31, 2009

I Sell The Dead

Taking a break from writing up Fantasia reviews to review... a movie that played at Fantasia. I did tell the friendly Anchor Bay Canada rep that I'd be writing it up when it played Boston, and it's worth a little notice that it will be at the Brattle for three more days (Tuesday through Thursday).

It's not a great horror comedy, because despite the violence and blood, it is pretty light on the horror. These days, the audience can just be expected to know the basics of zombies and vampires, and I Sell The Dead doesn't do much to make them scary. It's enjoyable, though.

Also, Larry Fessenden must be the best friend someone making a horror movie can have. He has this loyal group of collaborators, mentors people, and like Lloyd Kaufman seems to be willing to lend a hand to any filmmaker who needs it

I Sell the Dead

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Special Engagements)

I Sell the Dead is one of those movies that sits somewhere between comedy and horror and threatens to be neither one. The horror elements are rooted in the familiar rather than the unknown, but there's often enough plot and mythology to choke the jokes out. Fortunately, writer/director Glenn McQuaid knows he's more interested in being funny than scary, and hits that target fairly well.

Not that it's all going to be a barrel of laughs; the movie starts with grave robber Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden) having his head lopped off for his crimes. Found guilty of murder, he were, in addition to the body-snatching, and the same sentence is soon to be carried out on his accomplice and partner, Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan). But first, Father Duffy (Ron Perlman) wants to hear Blake's confession, and Blake, in order to put the guillotine off for a bit, spins him a story of how he became Willie's apprentice in the "resurrection trade" as a boy, how they subsequently found themselves under the thumb of Dr. Vernon Quint (Angus Scrimm), and how the business changed for them when one of the bodies they dug up was buried at a crossroads, with garlic around her neck and a stake through her heart.

Blake has several tales, some self-contained, others building to a larger story. In fact, he could have extended his fairly short feature (85 minutes including credits) without causing too much audience fatigue by including another episode or two. The episodic format does occasionally make the film feel like the story should perhaps be told in another medium. It uses comic book-styled art for transitions and segments have the feel of 22-page comics balancing the self-contained sotry with the larger one. It could also have been a series of short films - in fact, I suspect that the first tale Blake tells is a long excerpt from McQuaid's "The Resurrection Apprentice", a short from three years earlier which also featured producer Larry Fessenden as Grimes (there's also only one actor credited as "Young Arthur Blake", though he does look older in a second flashback).

Adding more episodes likely would have come at the expense of the film's quick pacing, though - I Sell the Dead seems to fly by while also seeming very laid-back and unhurried. That's impressive; McQuaid has built a movie that, while it only has a few really big laughs, never comes close to sinking into doldrums. He also knows when to tie bits together tightly and when to leave a little slack so that the movie can be clever without feeling like it's about being clever. Some of this is likely by necessity - I suspect one character fills two completely unrelated functions because there was no room in the budget for another actress. The tight budget shows in other spots - the effects and makeup are far from seamless (a knife to the head is actually cringe-worthy) - but thankfully McQuaid and company opt to do the best they can where they can (the use of fog to make sets seem bigger and more complete would do Hammer proud) rather than go for self-referentiality.

One place where resources don't seem particularly strained is a pretty good cast. Star Dominic Monaghan is more a guy whose work history contains big names than a big name himself, but he's good here, dishing out some dry snark without giving the impression that Arthur thinks he's better than anyone. Neither Perlman nor Fessenden has what would be described as a very good English accent (although Perlman may be going for Irish), but in a way that fits with the B-movie atmosphere. The rest of the cast (who seem to mostly be Fessenden regulars) do nicely sketching out amusing characters in not a lot of time; special credit to Brenda Cooney, who appears as an aggressive girlfriend/apprentice fairly late in the game and makes it work without vamping it up too much.

I Sell the Dead is about as charming as a comedy about grave robbers who encounter vampires and zombies can be; even when it's not eliciting big laughs, it's fun buddy movie and clever. The audience members who get the references will probably find them just right, although nothing should seem like a baffling mystery to the rest. Indeed, it's a shame that the beheading that opens the movie and the one promised to end it would imply that there's not much chance for anything but prequels; it's a setting that's worth seeing more of.

Also at EFC.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Fantasia Catch-Up #04: Hard Revenge, Milly x2, Yesterday, Crush and Blush, Orochi, and Smash Cut (18 July redux)

As I mentioned back on the day in question, there was a lot of good introduction and Q&A on the 18th, good enough that some pretty distinct impressions are left about a month later:

The Hard Revenge, Milly double feature had writer/director Takanori Tsujimoto and special effects maestro Yoshihiro Nishimura, and that was fun, in large part because Nishimura, whom I'm pretty sure has been to the festival before, was running around like a tourist with a camcorder, as effusive with his praise for Tusjimoto as anyone in the audience, gladly hyping Tsujimoto's films at the expense of his own Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl. I'd agree with him on this point; his movie was OK, but the Milly movies were extremely impressive examples of low-budget action cinema done well. Tsujimoto talked about having ideas for several more in the series, although he's still looking for sponsors. I hope he finds them; Bloody Battle had the rare but impressive trait of telling a story that felt reasonably complete but whetted the appetite for more.

A good chunk of the cast and crew showed up for Yesterday, telling stories of their adventures in extremely low-budget horror filmmaking. It's amazing that they were able to put something as good as Yesterday together, as they wound up funding it on a car insurance payout, did it during a summer vacation between semesters (with the director being the one who, IIRC, was not going to film school in the fall), and had to go through five cameras to shoot it, as the ones they were able to get access to kept falling apart. It's stories like that which really drive home both how movies can get made on little more than blood, sweat, and tears, but it's still not cheap even when those are your main ingredients. Playing Fantasia and Fantastic Fest is success for a movie like Yesterday; paying back their investors someday is likely gravy.

Smash Cut had the writer, director, and several members of the cast in attendance, including stars David Hess and Sasha Grey. From the sound of it, plenty of folks made the trek from director Lee Demarbre's hometown of Ottawa (where he operates a repertory theater in addition to shooting the occasional movie) to be there, and there were large contingents with great appreciation for Hess's early work in Last House on the Left and Grey's work in the adult film business.

I must admit that after Smash Cut and The Girlfriend Experience, and more importantly, things like her Q&As and interviews promoting them, Sasha Grey is someone I find myself really wanting to like more. She comes off as tremendously good-natured and personable in those appearances. She wears her love of movies on her sleeve more than just about any actor you'll see her age, and talks with equal, genuine enthusiasm about horror and art-house. And yet, in both her non-porn roles, she's really had no luck forming that sort of connection with the audience. Soderbergh got more out of her, but she seems to be in an odd position right now: Too good an actor for the porn, not quite good enough for the mainstream. Here's hoping she can work her way upward.

"Hâdo ribenji, Mirî" ("Hard Revenge, Milly")

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

"Hard Revenge, Milly" is as lean and mean a revenge tale as they come: At 44 minutes, many of them filled with bloody action, it knows what the audience wants and delivers the goods without screwing around. Because it's so tight, it probably won't see the light of day in the U.S. except as a special feature when and if its longer sequel hits home video, but it stands alone very well - you won't do much better looking for a quick action hit.

The future's a rough time; Tokyo is a wasteland being swallowed by the desert, but there's still some life in Yokohama. Unfortunately, the city is dominated by the Jack gang, who brutally murdered Milly's husband and daughter a year ago, leaving her to die. Now, Milly (Miki Mizuno) has returned, she's out for blood, and has both the skills and the cyborg parts to help her extract it from Jack (Mitsuki Koga) and the rest of his gang.

As Japanese action-gore movies go, that's not especially far-out, and the production values don't initially hint at anything special: It's a fairly empty-looking world that does very little to even attempt to look like the future, other than be full of rusty metal and relatively devoid of people. Filmmaker Takanori Tsujimoto is clever with his small budget, though, and there's a sensible if gruesome practicality to what he does manage. He'll put a shotgun inside of one of Milly's limbs, but it won't be a shiny work of destructive art; it'll jam, get beat up, and run out of ammunition.

Full review at EFC.

Hâdo Ribenji, Mirî: Buraddi Batoru (Hard Revenge, Milly: Bloody Battle)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

As the colon and subtitle in its name might indicate, Hard Revenge, Milly: Bloody Battle is a sequel, but that's no reason that anyone who likes a good, bloody action movie should pass it up: Not only was its predecessor well under an hour long and recapped succinctly as the new one starts, but Bloody Battle plays more as the start of something good than a continuation.

Milly (Miki Mizuno) killed Jack (Mitsuki Koga) and his gang, avenging the murder of her family, and now finds herself at something of a loose end. She won't be for long, though: A trip into town to sell the guns she recovered from a gang foolish enough to attack her (apparently not realizing she has weapon-filled artificial limbs) reveals that she's not the only person interested in revenge in this violent world: Escaped killer Ikki (Kazuki Tsujimoto) was a big admirer of Jack as a ruthless criminal (and sexy man), and has his brother Hyuma (Ray Fujita) as an accomplice; Haru (Nao Nagasawa) wants Milly's help in finding and killing the person who killed her boyfriend.

Filmmaker Takanori Tsujimoto has the audience covered whether they've seen "Hard Revenge, Milly" or not; flashbacks are used judiciously enough that the new audience never feels like they are behind, although the film feels very much like a continuation for the rest. He doesn't repeat the set pieces and crazy weapons from the original, but doesn't forget them, either. The story itself is pretty straightforward, but features enough turns to keep things interesting. He's good at giving the audience what they want, carnage-wise, but not using that as an excuse to slack off. A lot of these low-budget Japanese action movies are flimsy excuses to throw a few crazy bits of gore together; Tsujimoto is telling a story while bringing the bloodshed.

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

As with many festival films, there's very little chance that most reading this review will ever see Yesterday. It was made by a group of college students, on a tiny budget, and, objectively, doesn't do a whole lot that more polished zombie movies don't, even if it does on several occasions do it better. It's an achievement that the folks involved can be proud of, but which will likely get little attention or distribution unless someone involved gets famous for something else.

Yesterday was nothing special, which was a blessing when compared to today, when a nasty virus has popped up. You know the sort: The type that turns people all feral, with an undeniable hunger for human flesh that kicks in within hours of infection, allows them to shrug off what should really be crippling - or lethal - injuries, such that they can only be dispatched by causing massive trauma to the brain. It's just popped up in a small Canadian city, and there's only one thing to do: Find some supplies, check on your loved ones, and get to a less crowded, more defensible position. That applies to everybody, whether it be office drones Dave (Mike Fenske), Graham (Jesse Wheeler), and Spence; bullied high-schooler kid Andrew (John Fitzgerald), pro shooting champion Mike (Mike Kovac); Chris (Graham Wardle), about to propose to his girlfriend Sarah (Naomi Inglis); or small-time crooks Rob (Justin Sproule) and Lewis (Scott Wallis).

Six of these characters are thrown together by chance, in circumstances that are sure to cause trouble even before they get out of the city, much less when they have a little breathing room to consider who they're going to be sharing their campsite with. That's one of the basic engines which drives most zombie movies - or horror movies of any type - not knowing for sure whether the monster out there is worse than the bastard in here. Writer/director Rob Grant gets a lot of mileage out of this threat, to the point where the ghouls can become rather peripheral without the story or the tension suffering much at all.

Full review at EFC.

Misseu Hongdangmu (Crush and Blush)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

There's a lesson to be learned from Crush and Blush, perhaps several. The first is that if you had a rough time in high school, it might not be a great idea to go back there unless you are absolutely 100% sure that you've put all those issues behind you. The second is that everything which women do to drive men crazy is only a small fraction of what they do to each other.

Take Yang Me-sook (Kong Hyo-jin). This plain-looking woman of 29 is teaching Russian at her old high school, still nursing a crush on fellow teacher Suh Jong-chul (Lee Jong-hyeok) that carries over from her own days there. He doesn't return those feelings, but he's no saint; gallingly, he's got eyes for Lee Yu-ri (Hwang Woo-seul-hye), a prettier, younger, sweeter girl who also teaches Russian. The school doesn't actually need two Russian teachers, so Me-sook is reassigned to teaching English (which she doesn't know) in the Junior High. This does allow her to befriend Jong-chul's daughter Jong-hee (Seo Woo), and they resolve to work together to break Jong-chul and Yu-ri up - though Me-sook is not nearly as interested in saving Jong-chul's marriage as Jong-hee is.

Crush and Blush is very funny - frequently hilarious - but it is seldom a good-natured sort of humor. Instead, it's often flat-out mean, wringing comedy from nasty things happening to good people. It mocks the delusions of the less-popular underdogs. The movie often plays like a screwball comedy where the characters have malicious intent, and the victims are, for all their innocence, a little hard to feel for. Writer/director Lee Kyoung-mi walks a very thin line, creating just enough motivation that her characters don't come off as monsters, but doing so in a ways as to give them only the slightest bits of sympathy.

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

Atmosphere can get you pretty far in horror, and it doesn't even have to be overtly dark or gothic. Orochi, for instance, is about as good-looking and glossy as they come, but still manages to send the occasional chill down the spine. It needs all the atmosphere it can get, because its story doesn't have the great, visceral hook needed for true thrills.

It starts with Orochi (Mitsuki Tanimura) telling us about herself - she's a supernatural entity that looks like a young girl that passes through the world to observe humanity. On this night, she comes to the house of movie star Aoi Monzen (Yoshino Kimura) for shelter from the rain, and observes some strange things: Tensions between children Kazuza and Risa, noises from a locked attic, creep and grim-faced servant Saijo (Kyusaku Shimada). After she leaves, finds herself entering hibernation years early. When she awakes, she returns to the Monzen house, where Kazuza (Kimura again) has followed in her mother's footsteps, while Risa (Noriko Nakagoshi) tends to her needs and that of Aoi, who is now the one hidden in the attic, as the women in the family suffer under a curse. Orochi takes a job as a maid under the name Yoshiko, and soon comes to think of that human guise as her actual self...

The Orochi character comes from a series by famed horror-comic creator Kazuo Umezu, and that may be why she serves as our narrator even though seems to alien and unearthly to be the obvious choice for the job - if that's how the comics went, then screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi's hands are somewhat tied. The story it is adapted from, "Blood" (the film's title is given as "Orochi - Blood" in some places), is apparently the final entry in the "Orochi cycle", meaning that fans of the source material would know Orochi's powers and characteristics before she becomes directly involved in the story. Takahashi and director Norio Tsuruta take this familiarity somewhat for granted, although Umezu is popular enough in Japan that this may not be an issue there.

Full review at EFC.

Smash Cut

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

The appeal of the deliberately shoddy homage continues to elude me, even when I find something to enjoy in one, as I did with Smash Cut. Wouldn't it be a finer tribute to take what you learned from, and loved about, those films and make something great, rather than so carefully preserving their flaws? Making a movie takes too much time and money, and the finished product lasts too long, to give it less than a full effort. At its best, the people making Smash Cut realize this.

Making bad movies is what Smash Cut is about, of course. We start with Able Whitman (David Hess), who makes comically bad horror movies in Ottawa. He doesn't seem to realize just how bad they are until he's sitting in a theater as the audience openly mocks the terrible special effects. Producer Philip Farnsworth Jr. (Michael Berryman) is thinking of letting Able go. And he's just accidentally killed his stripper girlfriend. But from difficulty comes opportunity - he can use his girlfriend's corpse to bring some added realism to his movies! Of course, he's going to need more than one body, and said girlfriend has a sister, April Carson (Sasha Grey), a reporter who convinces her editor to let her hire P.I. Isaac Beaumonde (Jesse Buck) and go undercover in Whitman's new movie when clues start to point in that direction.

Director Lee Demarbre and writer Ian Driscoll - whose credits together include films with titles such as "Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter" - have made no secret of the fact that they are making this film as a tribute to Herschell Gordon Lewis (who appears as April's editor). They double up on the homage - not only is it made in the style of an old-school HGL movie, but Whitman is pretty clearly created in Lewis's image, though he's more a hired hand than Lewis ever was. It's a fun idea for a tribute to an exploitation filmmaker, as it's a chance to strike back at anyone who has ever called him sick or otherwise made a director's life difficult - film makers and film lovers will probably get a kick out of the revenge fantasy aspects.

Full review at EFC.

This Week In Tickets: 17 August 2009 to 23 August 2009

Lots of long days at the office during the week, then I headed north to Montreal to make a little extra use of the place I sublet for Fantasia and do some touristy stuff:

This Week In Tickets!

I think I've been to Pointe-à-Callière every year that I've been to Fantasia, and it is always something I come back recommending. The exhibitions on the second floor are always very impressive, and after that you go downstairs and see where they're digging up old Montreal. This year, the display was pirates, and the presentation was more elaborate than usual - a miniature corsair built in the exhibition hall.

(Fun fact: The French naval flag is/was plain white. The surrender monkey jokes write themselves.)

After that, I hung around the Vieux-Port area, taking a cruise on the Le Bateau-Mouche boat. I love going onto the water, but this isn't really the way to do it if you're by yourself and not particularly hungry.

Sunday, I wound up heading up Mont-Royal, with the intention of just staying there for a bit, but I got into the latest Hard Case Crime book and was more or less there until it started raining. Then there was laundry and following that brutal Sox-Yankees game on GameCast, getting on the bus and heading for the border.

Ah, the border. Always fun. It's so much nicer crossing into Canada than coming back. One thing I couldn't help but notice is that Canada seems much less worried about when visitors are going to leave. It makes me sad to think that folks coming to the U.S. may not feel as welcome coming here as I do going to Canada. Reflects badly on us, you know?

And, yes, I saw a movie while I was up there. What can I say, I don't drink and don't speak French, so what else am I going to do with my evening. Besides, it's much easier to walk to the Scotia Cinema while I'm there than to head out to the furniture store.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

* * (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2009 at Cinema Banque Scotia Montreal #13 (First-run IMAX Experience)

The Harry Potter movies are a bad habit of mine, one I probably would have dropped by now if they didn't also allow me to feed my appetite for IMAX 3-D. The cast on these movies also tends to be ridiculously good; I can't not see a movie that features Alan Rickman, Jim Broadbent, Helena Bonham-Carter, Gary Oldman, Robbie Coltrane, and a pretty darn good core of young actors

But, good lord, some of these things are terrible. It doesn't help that this series zeroes in with uncanny precision on common fantasy tropes which I hate, particularly the whole "chosen one" idea. Take the opening scene, where a group of evil wizards destroy a bridge smack in the middle of London, apparently just for kicks as they're doing something else. It shows up in newspapers, but for a big set-piece that could eventually expose the whole secret world, it's treated as awfully unimportant by the characters. And then there's a scene later in the movie where Broadbent's character gets all snarky about Hermione's "muggle" parents (and, man, is that word not just designed to evoke spoiled aristocrats looking down at the common folk?) being dentists... I kind of wanted her to smack him down, saying that they perform a useful duty for all sorts of people, rather than just sticking to an incestuous little sewing circle and having nothing to do with the community around them.

I've said this before, but wouldn't the series be much better with Hermione in the lead? I get that it's main juvenile fantasy is that we're all like Potter, unappreciated by those around us but secretly a Chosen One, part of a magical alternate world that will live or die based upon our actions, but Hermione's story, coming from modest origins but being smarter and better than the aristocrats, seems much more appealing. Besides, she's got an actual personality, and is the brains and talent of the group anyway. Harry Potter is pretty darn useless here, either being spoon-fed information, cheating in class, and being heroic by doing the brave thin of Doing Exactly What Teacher Tells Him! Bah.

And that's before getting to how anticlimactic the meaning of the title is, or frustrating and ridiculous the continuing "cryptic for cryptic's sake" is, or just how transparent a ploy the "shocking" final scene seems to be. For all the polish and quality performances to be found, this is just a bad, bad movie.
Pointe-à-CallièreLe Bateau-MoucheHarry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Thursday, August 20, 2009

This Week In Tickets: 10 August 2009 to 16 August 2009

This is late because I figured that I'd put the review of Evangelion 1.0 up while it was still playing the Brattle in order to warn people away, and then Saturday kept me busy, then over the next couple days, quite honestly, it was too warm to actually hold a laptop on my lap and write.

And now, a demonstration of how concert venues expect their tickets to be kept in scrapbooks much larger than a datebook:

This Week In Tickets!

The labeling of that ticket is a little deceptive, and Ms. Raitt and Mr. Mahal shared billing more or less equally, each doing a set somewhere between 45 minutes and an hour and then coming out to do a set together. I ordered the ticket on one of the "no service fee" promotions Live Nation has been doing on Wednesdays, and it was a reminder of how much I like Bonnie Raitt. I'm a bad fan, in that I haven't picked a new album up since the mid-90s.

And Taj Mahal... He's a guy whose name I knew, but really didn't connect to anything specific. I still don't, but it doesn't much matter; the man can pay the blues.

Around the concert, I spent the weekend catching up with some movies in mainstream release. Also, hitting the Brattle to at least get one movie from the Errol Flynn series in.

Mildly amusing: I saw the trailer for 9 in front of District 9, and the trailer for Nine before Julie & Julia. That's gonna have to confuse some folks.

Footsteps in the Dark

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 August 2009 at the Brattle Theatre (Errol Flynn Centenniel)

Originally scheduled as part of a double feature, but the other print didn't come in. Footsteps is fun, though, a murder mystery where Flynn's sleuth is a investment banker who sneaks away from his day job to write mystery novels which mercilessly caricature his high-society acquaintances. Naturally, he winds up in a situation where he must really solve a case, without revealing to the police that his "normal" life had him at the scene of the crime earlier and preserving his reputation by not revealing to his family that he's a sordid novelist.

It's fun, managing to work both as a screwball comedy and a cozy mystery, but it also winds up with all the faults of both genres, too: There aren't enough characters to make the mystery particularly difficult, and many of the comedy elements rest on people acting in a very silly fashion. Flynn, though, glides through it all with an easy charm, and while most of the other characters are of the one-note variety, that note tends to be perfectly in tune.

Julie & Julia

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 August 2009 at Regal Fenway #7 (first-run)

Very charming, as is to be expected with its cast - Meryl Streep as Julia Child, Stanley Tucci as her diplomat husband, Amy Adams as a modern woman working and blogging her way through Child's cookbook, and nice supporting bits for Jane Lynch, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Frances Sternhagen. It also works passably well as a "food movie", and it's also refreshingly nice. There are tensions, to be sure, but I rather liked that in this movie, marriages and relationships are almost always strong things that give people strength rather than fragile compromises under constant threat.

Another thing that I really liked was that the filmmakers really seemed to get blogging. As with many new forms of technology and communication that are integrated into our daily life, Hollywood has often seemed wary of blogging - films will either look down their nose at it, or need to make it into something with video, or just display hilarious ignorance (often referring to "bloggers" as people who read blogs rather than write them). This movie gets it mostly right, from showing how excited bloggers get over comments, the worry that no-one is reading it, and that it's disciplined writing, not (always) amateurish garbage. Screenwriter/director Nora Ephron had a head start, basing her movie in part on a book that came from a blog, but it's worth noting that she also made You've Got Mail, which was centered on adult, non-technical people using email before Hollywood had caught on that it wasn't just the nerds any more.

District 9

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 August 2009 at Regal Fenway #13 (first-run)

Pretty darn good, though it could be about 15 minutes shorter. One thing I really dug about it was that this is a very South African movie - it's pointedly set in Johannesburg, and the script, while not really about apartheid, is clearly the work of someone who grew up with that being more than a faraway concern. It's cool to see that, despite how Hollywood tend to underestimate its audience, folks will come out for something that is unabashedly foreign if it looks like an entertaining movie.

It's also a very competent sci-fi actioner. Filmmaker Neill Blomkamp doesn't stint on the red stuff when the big guns come out, but he's also not nearly so enamored of it as Slam-Bang's Mark Lebanon. The visuals are very snazzy for a mid-budget film like this, too. He makes an interesting choice in making his protagonist more or less a jackass for much longer than an American filmmaker looking to make a big action film might, and uses the faux-doc bits well. There are some bits of science that don't fit quite so well for me - even if you accept that the aliens' technology has a strong biological component despite looking pretty mechanical, the man plot device is really absurd - illness in response to contact with alien motor oil, sure, I'll buy that, but massive and ordered biological changes for a species that evolved on a separate planet? A bit much.

The Hurt Locker

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 16 August 2009 at AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run)

I've been looking forward to this one for a while; I missed a couple chances to see it at SXSW and a preview just before leaving for Fantasia, so I'm very grateful that it stuck around long enough that I could fit it into my schedule, because it's great.

It's great in large part because it does what good cop shows & movies do: Puts the audience right in the middle of the action, giving us plenty of procedural goodness while also cranking up the tension and building characters we're genuinely interested in. It sticks fairly close to its core three characters, and played against a frequent Hollywood standard by tending to align our sympathies much more with the regulation-spouting by-the-book type as opposed to the laid-back, more intuitive fellow. Not completely - Sgt. James is the main character, and we're often given the impression that he's as incredibly good at defusing bombs as he is because he doesn't always stick to protocol - but it's a nifty balancing act, very respectful of the military without being gung ho.

The Hurt Locker is also one of the most tense movies you'll see all year. Kathryn Bigelow can direct the heck out of an action set piece, including those that rely far more on the threat of something happening than on the actual bullets and shrapnel flying, but she and her cast are fantastic with the times in between, too, relieving immediate tension while turning the emotional screws just a little tighter. It's a wonderful little war film, in the tradition that says war is hell, no matter what people think of the specific conflict before, during, or after.
Footsteps in the DarkEvangelion 1.0Julie & JuliaDistrict 9The Hurt Locker

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone

(Yes, This Week In Tickets is late this week. It's been crazy)

I missed this at Fantasia, figuring I'd be able to see it at the Brattle. When I finally did see it, I had a moment of "whew, good thing you made better use of your time in Montreal"... Then realized I'd used it to see Samurai Princess. No-win, although I think Evangelion 1.0 is better. And maybe if I'd seen it at the festival, it would have been in Japanese; that would likely have been better.

It was sort of an interesting night at the movies, though - I salute the New England Fan Experience folks who saw a chance to promote the anime/kaiju aspect of their upcoming convention and did a fine job. It's the sort of thing that the sci-fi marathon (for example) does not do well at all.

Like that event, though, the audience was kind of a mixed bag - most were excited fans, but a guy somewhere to my right would. not. Shut. Up! It also felt like a record in terms of the number of people going to and from the lobby mid-movie, withe more checking cell phones than usual. That half-confirms a theory I have about how the moviegoing experience is being damaged by home theater - this is the sort of thing that people are used to watching at home, and as such they bring their living room behavior with them into the theater.

Another theory I have is that this movie was really made for fans of the franchise, and I don't qualify there - my one experience with it is having the first issue of Viz's English translation of Neon Genesis Evangelion pushed into my hands by the fine folks at Portland's Phantom Kitty Comics, who were very excited about both Evangelion coming to America and the fact that it was being published right-to-left, nearly unheard of at the time. I just pulled that issue out of my longbox, and it amuses me - both in how close it is to the opening minutes of the movie and how utterly strange it seems that a mere eleven or so years ago, Japanese comics were not only a rare sight in the U.S., but those who did publish them did so in pamphlets the size of America comics. Neon Genesis Evangelion #1 cost me the then-princely sum of $3.25 for 40 pages - I believe most U.S. comics were around $1.99 for 24 pages. Perhaps a fair deal compared to Marvel/DC at the time, but consider - if Viz had been publishing the 18-volume Monster back then, rather than costing $180 over three years, it would have run me about $300 over seven and a half years!

Thank goodness those days are in the rear-view mirror.

Evangerion shin gekijôban: Jo (Evangelion 1.0: You Are (Not) Alone)

* * (out of four)
Seen 14 August 2009 at the Brttle Theatre (Special Engagement/Premiere)

Though Evangelion 1.0's built-in fanbase in the English-speaking world isn't as large as those of home-grown franchises, they are around and dedicated. They seemed to greatly enjoy the first of four new movies adapting the saga, and why shouldn't they? The movie is made for them, a fresh coat of paint on something they already love. I've got no quarrel with their enjoying it, but I must say: It does not necessarily play well for those of us with little or no prior affection for the material.

The story, as near as I can piece it together, is that Earth is under attack by alien forces, including gigantic, mysterious "angels". Conventional military defenses don't work, so the people of Japan and the world are putting their trust in NERV, a highly-funded organization that aims to fight the angels with something their own size, skyscraper-sized battlesuits operated by teenagers. Shinji Akari has just arrived in Tokyo-III to be reunited with his father, but Gendou Akari is the cold scientist at the head of NERV, and his only concern with Shinji is to have him pilot Eva 1. What Shinji doesn't know is that Gendou is part of a secret cabal that knows much more about the invasion than they are letting on, and has greater plans.

This all sounds pretty good, and in some areas the execution is excellent. The movie throws a number of wonders at the audience, from a city that converts itself into a fortress to a truly massive underground base, to some imaginatively created killing machines. There's great attention to technical detail, and the animation does an exceptional job of making the computer-generated machines and backgrounds have the same feel as the traditionally-drawn characters. It's not hard at all to have a reaction of "that's cool" when the action starts.

The problem, of course, is that everything around the action often seems to be either deeply stupid, so poorly explained as to appear deeply stupid, or so cut down as to seem poorly explained. Why are these war machines that must cost billions of dollars to produce being piloted by what appear to be untrained high-schoolers rather than soldiers? If it's something intrinsic to these kids' biology, why are you sending them to ordinary public schools where they could, say, get beat up just because they're the new kid? Is Col. Katsuragi really going to give Shinji a cheesecake photo of herself so that he can recognize her when she arrives in Tokyo-III? And what the hell is the deal with the newspaper-reading penguin that lives in her apartment, anyway?

Now, I'm willing to allow that some of the dialog that explains this got mangled in the English-language dub that was shown; even in the best of cases, trying to express something in two languages using the same number of syllables is difficult. Even without dubbing-related issues, what's left in and out is often frustrating - some bits seem to be omitted because it's assumed the fans know it, minor characters are given too much appear in order to create a "stupid teenagers in jeopardy" situation, and other parts are apparently there to set up something which will pay off in a future movie. Characterization is odd and sometimes clumsy: Katsuragi goes from flirty/sympathetic comic relief (and fan-service material) to hard-ass superior officer in no time flat, while Shinji and fellow pilot Rei also have peculiar, changeable personalities that fail to make them actually interesting. A large chunk of the second half of the movie is spent on Shinji whining about how the pressure put on him is unfair, and while he's got a point, it's annoying both for the bawling repetition and how it points out the lack of any good reason for the pressure to fall on him. A final scene before the credits roll is meant to set up a cliffhanger, but is so disconnected from the rest of the movie that only fans will have any idea why it's a big deal.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I will readily point out that the fans around me seemed to like it, and there are things to like: It is technically top-notch, supervising director Hideaki Anno and his two co-directors, Kazuya Tsurumaki and Masayuki, can stage a heck of an action scene. Anno's screenplay, while possibly being severely lacking in some areas, does a fine enough job in building up a potentially complex and well-constructed story that I do find myself interested in potentially revisiting it on video, when I can watch all four planned movies subtitled and judge the story as a whole.

That's years off, though, and other non-fans may not be as forgiving. Evangelion, in its day, was celebrated for elevating what were seen as manga & anime clichés. It may be because of the good work done in previous iterations that this stripped-down and prettied-up version does not seem as impressive as it perhaps should.

Also at EFC.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Fantasia Catch-Up #03: Book of Blood, Instant Swamp, Secret Hot Springs Resort

There's no particular effort being put in to group the films in these catch-up posts any way but chronologically. I'm putting off the ones where I have screeners or other opportunities to see until a bit later, as there's a bit less worry about their details falling out the back of my head. Book of Blood slipped just because I hadn't tagged its entry into the blog properly, although it doing so does create a sort of commonality between the three reviews here.

All three are, in one way or another, second passes at something I'd seen at Fantasia either last year at this, and thus set up comparisons in my mind. Book of Blood is an adaptation of one of Clive Barker's "Books of Blood", following last year's The Midnight Meat Train; Instant Swamp is the next film by Satoshi Miki after last year's very nice Adrift in Tokyo; Secret Hot Springs Resort is the second film in the "Beyond the Pink Curtain" series that I saw, after the previous day's Gushing Prayer.

In the first two cases, I think they are somewhat weaker works. Book of Blood, despite having a few nifty images, has an enthusiastic craftsman behind the camera - John Harrison certainly expressed appreciation for the source material and said he was down for adapting more - but The Midnight Meat Train had Ryuhei Kitamura. Kitamura's a controversial figure among those who know of him, but most will also admit that he has the sort of raw talent that makes you understand why Lionsgate stuck his name on the trailer for the movie (when they were going to actually release in real theaters): Even the majority who don't know his name might expect to later on. Kitamura's movie was a calling card announcing his arrival in North America with every frame; Harrison's was competent.

EFC doesn't have partial-stars so it looks like I gave Adrift in Tokyo and Instant Swamp the same rating there. Here, the difference shows the benefits of using a somewhat more graduated system (or the pitfalls of assigning numeric values at all): Adrift In Tokyo and Instant Swamp are somewhat similar films in tone and production value, but where Adrift would find little ways to exceed expectations, Swamp generally only managed to meet them. That's better than most films, but means it's not quite as good as its predecessor.

Secret Hot Springs Resort, on the other hand, I found a little more interesting than Gushing Prayer. Both were head-scratchers on some level, dark enough to make me wonder if people really watched them for, you know, a good time, as I had been given to understand a pink film's purpose. In the end, my preference came down to which story interested me more, and that was Hot Springs. Prayer seemed much more symbol than story, which generally isn't what floats my boat anyway.

Getting back to the Barker films, I'd be interested to hear what fans of Barker thought about the two adaptations. As I mentioned in the capsule for Book of Blood, I went to The Midnight Meat Train as a fan of Kitamura, liked and reviewed the movie as such, and found myself a bit thrown that 90% of the reviews that appeared when it actually hit (some) theaters and home video were approaching it as a Barker movie rather than a Kitamura one. I wonder if fans of the author might wind up liking Book of Blood better, as it is a relatively straightforward horror movie compared to the stylish Midnight Meat Train.

Book of Blood

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

I am not a particular fan of the horror genre. I don't disdain it or dismiss it; I think it gets a bad reputation at times. But I am by no means an enthusiast. Last year, The Midnight Meat Train excited me for being Ryuhei Kitamura's English-language debut rather than being the adaptation of a beloved Clive Barker story. I only had the vaguest sort of idea what Barker meant as a brand name, quite frankly. After watching another adaptation of a story from Barker's "Books of Blood" series a year later, I'm starting to understand and appreciate it a bit - although this film's director, John Harrison, is no Ryuhei Kitamura, resulting in a much weaker film.

Book of Blood adapts and combines two of these stories, "The Book of Blood" and "On Jerusalem Street", with one serving as a framing sequence for the other. In the framing sequence, a bounty hunter/assassin by the name of Wyburd (Clive Russell) tracks down a horrifically scarred man, who tells us the story of how he came to be hunted. It involves a pair of paranormal investigators - university lecturer and best-selling author Mary Florescu (Sophie Ward) and technician Reg Fuller (Paul Blair) - who discover a haunted house in downtown Edinburgh and set out to investigate, recruiting one of Mary's students, Simon McNeal (Jonas Armstrong), whose family tragedy apparently makes him sensitive to the occult. As they spend their nights in the old, evil house, certain things naturally start to happen - colleagues become attracted, hints of fraud appear, as do incredibly power manifestations.

A lot of that is fairly standard-issue haunted house stuff, and for a great deal of the time, there isn't much more than the gruesomeness of the events to distinguish Book of Blood from something as thoroughly underwhelming as, say, White Noise. You've got the same cobbled-together equipment which is placed just outside of where it can do any good, obvious arguments and jealousies, and a photographic trick (in this case, a sickly green tint to the picture) meant to cause unease. It's executed in a relatively able manner, but seems awfully familiar.

Full review at EFC.

Insutanto Numa (Instant Swamp)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

I watch and review a fairly broad range of films, and when people ask, I generally say that I approach all of them the same way, and try to treat them the same regardless of origin or genre or style. Most well-rounded film fans say this, and we generally mean it. You still have to wonder if there are little prejudices in there, though. For instance, I found Instant Swamp an enjoyable, mostly charming little movie. I have to admit, though - if you took the same script, translated it into English, and shot it in America (or England, or Canada, or, god forbid, Ireland...), my reaction might be less warm and fuzzy and more "being peculiar doesn't make you interesting".

Meet Haname Jinchoge (Kumiko Aso), and occasionally eccentric but focused editor at a Japanese women's magazine which is seeing its circulation numbers fall. She's getting the usual static from her mother Midori (Keiko Matsuzaka) about still being single, but she's about to have other problems - like mom falling into a coma, and finding out that her father may not be who she thought. The most likely suspect appears to be Noburo Jinchoge (Morio Kazama), aka "Mr. Light Bulb", a drifter running a junk shop. Haname won't broach the subject directly, but does wind up hanging out there a lot, where she meets young, spike-haired electrician Gas (Ryo Kase), and Iiyama Wakoko (Shoko Aida), a middle-aged bride-to-be who thinks that only a fortune-telling machine she saw in her youth can resolve her nagging doubts.

Is Haname quirky? Oh, yes. She has the sort of aggregation of odd habits, unlikely personal history which spawns same, and baby-girl-voice narration describing them, that tends to make me scream when the character is played by, say, Audrey Tautou. There are mitigating factors other than my being more tolerant of this sort of thing when it comes from Japan than the west, though. For one, the film doesn't paint her as a pure and innocent free spirit whom the audience must love. She can be snippy, and snorts at others' belief in spirits and superstitions. This is sort of contradictory at times, but Kumiko Aso mostly makes it work, especially in the beginning of the movie when we can see the goofiness give way when she needs to be the level-headed one. A bit of sarcasm can come out, but not to the level of meanness, and her eccentricities don't seem like an alternate personality or make the audience wonder how she can function in the world.

Full review at EFC.

(Maruhi) yu no machi - Yoru no hitode (Secret Hot Spring Resort)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival: Behind the Pink Curtain)

The "Behind the Pink Curtain" series that is currently playing repertory theaters and bookings in the west (including Montreal's Fantasia Festival) is a testament to how certain types of porn have a degree of acceptance in mainstream Japan, or at least aren't very far in the fringes. There are limits to that, of course, and it wasn't always the case. 1970's Secret Hot Spring Resort: Starfish at Night is a look back at a previous generation of dirty movies, with all the skin included, of course.

There were no pink theaters in postwar Japan, or at least not in the small towns. Thus, as with the stag films in America, pornographers would travel from town to town, shooting and selling stills, arranging underground screenings of their movies, maybe filming, all while avoiding the law and, if not affiliated, the yakuza. The folks just blowing into town are a small, independent unit: Jiro Hisao (Jun Yoshida) is the director and sometime male lead, Suzume (Reiko Ohtsuki) is the female lead, and Torikin (Yuichi Minato) the guy who handles the business dealings. Hisao has ambitions to shoot a more ambitious samurai film, with a story as memorable as the sex, and Torikin sets out to recruit some local talent, including Kayo (Tomomi Sahara), a sweet maid at the resort who is drawn to the camera, though she's assured Suzume will be her body double.

If director Mamoru Watanabe and writer Atsushi Yamatoya (writing as Wataru Hino) have any particular nostalgia for this era, it is well-tempered with realism. Jiro and Suzume live hand to mouth and mere steps ahead of trouble, and although it's not always referred to directly, both are starting to feel the squeeze porn puts on people of advancing age: Suzume may keep herself in fine shape, but lines are starting to show up on her face; Jiro may consider himself an artist, but he's not building any sort of reputation. Torikin is younger and doesn't intend to stay small-time for nearly as long as Jiro and Suzume have, especially not for little things like loyalty and honesty. And Kayo is obviously in for more than she bargains for.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, August 10, 2009

This Week Month-Plus In Tickets: 6 July 2009 to 9 August 2009

It's been long enough since I've done one of these that I've just about forgotten how the scanner works. Of course, there was Fantasia Daily for a good chunk of it, but now things are about back to normal. So, without a whole lot more in the way of ado...

This Week In Tickets!

Remember back at the beginning of July, when the Red Sox were in first place, it didn't look like they could be budged from the spot, John Friggin' Smoltz looked like he was going to strengthen the rotation, and it looked like the most significant and exciting part of the baseball season was the return of Nomar Garciaparra? Wasn't it great? I got tickets to both of those games just in case Oakland didn't play Nomar in one, and I got lucky - the seats for the first game weren't far from the Oakland dugout at all (although they weren't kidding with the "Walkway Traffic" label!), and Nomar looked unbelievably happy to be here. They didn't play him at all the second game, but at least that one the Sox won.

Then, after that, it was off to Montreal for Fantasia. The trip down was a slog, but once there, the days were as packed as ever:

This Week In Tickets!

This Week In Tickets!

Those last two days on the schedule, plus the one they added after that... Some year, I'll remember that this festival is never over when it's originally announced to be over. Of course, to make that work, I'd have to have a job that paid me to go to festivals, gorge on movies, and write about them, rather than just a hobby (anyone with such a job to offer, feel free to contact me)!

By the time I got back early on the 28th, I was, as you might imagine, kind of movied out, so I spent the next week not moving far from the house, doing pretty much nothing. So, let's skip the blank page and move to where things more or less get back to normal:

This Week In Tickets!

I don't generally shell out that sort of money for a concert, but the Beatles are proving much less death-resistant than other pop legends, so you see them while you can. It was a heck of a time getting there, though - the website said they would send the tickets two weeks before the show, when I was in Canada, and I didn't find them in my pile of mail when I got home. Despite buying them via Live Nation, I had to call eTix to find out what was up. Then the T bit me; I left work at in Waltham at 5pm, apparently just missed the bus connection in Watertown, wound up waiting for a #57 bus that's supposed to depart every fifteen minutes for nearly half an hour, and then sloooooowly moved through traffic. Walking from Kenmore to Fenway was one of those "we're all going the same place for something that has started already, why aren't we moving as a unit?" experiences. I wound up in the park at roughly 7:15, just in time to see the end of the opening act.

Once the concert proper actually started, though, it was a lot of fun. It amuses me that the seat would have been the best seat I have ever had for a ballgame - five rows behind home plate, not far off center - only to have all the action be waaaaay out by the bleachers (oddly, that makes those terrible monster-facing seats in right field some of the best in the house). McCartney's a guy who knows what his audience wants - the set list was something like 65% Beatles, 30% Wings, 5% more recent - has a likable befuddlement that he's still playing rock & roll at the age of 68, and works the audience well. This isn't one where you're trying to get the crowd hyped up (he had jokes about random cheering), but he's got a knack for seeming to speak directly to the audience and telling amusing stories to stitch the songs together. It helps that he can start them with "my friend George" and "my friend John".

And now... Movies!

Afghan Star

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 August 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #7 (first-run)

I'm not usually one to rail at unscripted television - at this point in the game, the ones that have had staying power are ones that tap into something pretty basic: Desire to travel, belief that talent will out, that sort of thing. The Afghan Star program, a sort of Afghani version of American/Pop Idol, seems to have that basic appeal: Reviving music and pop culture in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, feeling like a united country rather than splintered tribes, etc.

The thing is, I don't watch a lot of these shows, in large part because they feel padded and full of air, as they try to stretch twenty minutes of good content into an hour or two, and the first half of the movie, which feels like a compressed version of the season, has that same sort of problem. Once things start to hit snags in the second half, the film becomes a little more interesting, but despite some interesting details, it's still things we already know: Things still aren't really great for women there, the Taliban may be out but there are still plenty of religious fundamentalists in power ready to attack what seems like anything that involves people enjoying themselves, and struggles against common enemies have only hidden local rivalries, not ended them.

There are bits of interest - while few of the contestants really drew me in, I did grow quite fond of the Khan family, big-time fans of the show - but not enough. The talent competition was generic, and the look at modern Afghanistan, while important, seemed just like every other look at transitional-stage middle east countries I've seen.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

* * (out of four)
Seen 8 August 2009 at AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run)

First, the damning with faint praise: G.I. Joe is a much more enjoyable 1980s toy/comic/cartoon-to-screen than its sibling Transformers. For all that it appears to have taken severe liberties with everything that was done with the property the first time around, it's mostly good ideas: Making the Joes an international anti-terrorist force, giving them black suits that not only looks slick on screen, but enable larger-than-life action that is both cartoonish and vaguely possible, keeping the characters down to a manageable number. The cast is mostly filled with people who, honestly, should be able to do better. Director Stephen Sommers isn't quite back to his Deep Rising form, but he's way ahead of The Mummy Returns and Van Helsing here.

And that's part of what makes it so disappointing: Enough things that shouldn't work go right that falling down on the job on really basic things undermines it terribly. Did anybody, while writing the script, ever read the lines they'd just written aloud and realize that even the best actors can't make them sound like something people would actually say? Considering how ridiculously good everybody around them is - this film boasts Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Christopher Eccleston, Arnold Vosloo, Jonathan Pryce, Sienna Miller, Dennis Quaid (who actually makes his growl of "knowing is half the battle!" work), Rachel Nichols, and Lee Byung-hun (a regular lead for both Kim Ji-woon and Park Chan-wook, who should be a huge international movie star; when the heck do we get A Bittersweet Life, I Come with the Rain, and The Good, The Bad, and The Weird over here?... but I digress) - why on earth do you settle for Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans in the two biggest roles?

It annoys me, because there's some pretty slick stuff in here - the Paris set-piece is a doozy, even with some rough CGI, and as much as this is a "nanotech can do anything!" movie, they are actually pretty clever and consistent in its usage. Sommers ODs on the effects toward the end, because that's what he does, but he at least does it in a way that we can sort of follow. A little more attention to the basics, and he's made a darn good action movie, but instead, I can't help but feel a little cheated.

A Perfect Getaway

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 August 2009 at AMC Boston Common #7 (first-run)

New Stephen Sommers and David Twohy on the same day? Wow. Neither is around much for five years, and then, bang!

Twohy's got the better movie, although putting "Perfect" in the title is a bit of hubris. Understand, it looks great, is well-acted, and has a nice story, but in trying to be clever, it tips its hand way too early, winding up obvious. Now, normally I hem and haw and do everything I can to try to avoid saying that a thriller is a "twist" movie, because the audience deserves the surprise, but Twohy is terribly obvious in laying it out: He makes one character a screenwriter, then tosses bits about red herrings and second-act twists into the dialog. I thought maybe this might be an elaborate fake-out, but, no, once I figured out what the most complete reversal would be, I had it.

Maybe if the movie hadn't so obviously telegraphed its twisty nature, I'd have found it a cheat, but I doubt it. In Twohy's defense, even once the savvy audience has figured out just what's going down, he's not bad at planting doubts in our heads. All six members of his main cast are great fits for their characters. And when it comes time for the last act, Twohy and company don't mess around - the action is nifty and nasty, and very easy to follow. It's rough getting there, but the finale is definitely worth it.
Afghan StarPaul McCartney Set ListG.I. Joe: The Rise of CobraThe Perfect GetawayNomar plays for Oakland, Julio Lugo plays for Boston, Sox loseOakland sits Nomar, Boston sits Julio Lugo, Sox winFantasia Catch-up #01Fantasia (9 July 2009)Fantasia (10 July 2009)Fantasia (11 July 2009)Fantasia (12 July 2009)Fantasia (13 July 2009)Fantasia (13 July 2009)Fantasia (14 July 2009)Fantasia (15 July 2009)Fantasia (16 July 2009)Fantasia (17 July 2009)Fantasia (18 July 2009)Fantasia (19 July 2009)Fantasia (20 July 2009)Fantasia (21 July 2009)Fantasia (22 July 2009)Fantasia (23 July 2009)Fantasia (24 July 2009)Fantasia (25 July 2009)Fantasia (26 July 2009)Fantasia (27 July 2009)

Friday, August 07, 2009

Fantasia Catch-Up #02: Slam-Bang, Gushing Prayer, Hells

While I was writing these reviews, Fantasia released their audience awards. I stuck around long enough to vote, so, before the previews for my EFC reviews, let's see how well my opinions sync up with the festival at large:

Best Asian Feature
Gold: Love Exposure
Silver: Ip Man
Bronze: Thirst

My Vote: Paco & The Magical Book

An incredibly strong field this year. You could arrange those four films in any order and not exactly be short-changing anyone, in my opinion.

Best European, North, or South American Feature
Gold: 8th Wonderland
Silver: tie between Embodiment of Evil and Must Love Death
Bronze: Black

My Vote: Deadgirl (seen at BUFF)

I'm sort of puzzled by the two films that tied for silver - as much as there was great love for the director of Embodiment of Evil, it just wasn't very good. Must Love Death is pretty far from award-worthy, too. Deadgirl, on the other hand, is brilliant.

I don't think there was anything from Australia this year, but there was one from South Africa that wasn't getting near any awards (see below). I wonder if they'd just get lumped in with the Euro/Americas features. No Russian pictures this year - are they European or Asian?

Best Quebec Feature
Gold: Sans Dessein
Silver: The Ante
Bronze: Crawler

My Vote: Did not vote

All I saw was Crawler, and it was just sort of okay at best. I slept through much of Train to Nowhere. Many were presented without subtitles, so I'd have been out of luck.

Best Animated Film
Gold: Hells

My Vote: Tokyo Onlypic 2008, or Hells if my first choice didn't qualify.

Onlypic had a bunch of live-action segments, but Hells is a fine selection regardless. I missed several I would have liked to see.

Guru Prize for Most Energetic Film of the Festival
Gold: Yatterman
Silver: Ip Man
Bronze: tie between Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl and Fireball

My Vote: Yatterman

Guru is an energy drink; I don't know whether they're exclusive to Canada or whether I just don't check that part of the beverage aisle out. I had one of those things last year and swore off energy drinks; that stuff is vile. Anyway, tough to see anything but Yatterman taking this; that movie is utterly crazed from frame one to the end.

Most Innovative Film (Short or Feature)
Gold: Love Exposure
Silver: 8th Wonderland
Bronze: tie between Genius Party Beyond and Must Love Death

My Vote: 8th Wonderland

"Innovative" is a tricky thing to recognize. 8th Wonderland gets my vote for being perhaps the first I've seen to really represent on-line community well. I'm not sure exactly how much some of the others innovate - Love Exposure is daring, certainly. Genius Party Beyond is a sequel, though one made more or less alongside the original. Must Love Death does fuse two difficult-to-combine genres, though not always well.

Best Documentary
Gold: Best Worst Movie

My Vote: Best Worst Movie (seen at SXSW)

I didn't particularly like Wild and Wonderful Whites, two of the other three were of little interest to me, and I just couldn't make Diary of a Times Square Thief. BWM is a lot of fun, though.

Best Short Film
Gold: "The Horribly Slow Murderer with the Extremely Inefficient Weapon"
Silver: "Hidden Life of the Burrowing Owl"
Bronze: tie between "Cencoroll" and "Mortified"

My Vote: "Hard Revenge, Milly", or "Survivors" if my first choice didn't qualify.

"Hard Revenge, Milly" is long enough at 45 minutes that I'll eventually review it on EFC as a companion to its 82-minute sequel. "Survivors" is one that I think I missed during the write-ups, but it's one of the niftiest zombie takes I've seen in a while, positing that somewhere in the back of a zombie's brain, the original person is aware of what his or her body is doing, which leads to a nifty kicker. Of the winners, I've only seen "Horribly Slow Murderer", which is pretty darn amusing. Most of the shorts I saw were before features, although I did get to the "Zappin Party" and "Outer Limits of Animation" shows. I kind of miss "Square Jaw Theater", although there probably aren't enough superhero shorts being made to populate it right now.


* * (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

Slam-Bang is, as the director pointed out several times during the introduction and Q&A, a notable movie for being a bit of pulp action made independently in South Africa. It is apparently very difficult to get a film made there at all, and what limited funding is available apparently goes toward issue-oriented dramas. Notable doesn't necessarily mean good, unfortunately, but you need the notable movies to build a foundation.

(Yes, I recognize that summer 2009 is a bit of an odd time to say that they don't make action in South Africa, with the spiffy-looking District 9 about to be released. That, however, is clearly the beneficiary of some serious outside investment, as opposed to a home-grown effort like Slam-Bang.)

The film opens like many crime movies do, with a decent-enough but easily pushed around guy like George Bennon (Roland Gaspar). George handles IT in a small (and apparently legitimate) business connected to crime boss Mr. G (Jan de Beer); and another gangster, "The Chinaman", wants some information off G's computer (and, yes, his phone voice is an ugly stereotype, right down to calling George "lound-eye"). Get it, George is told, or girlfriend Karen (Jackie Rens) dies. And don't call the cops. Or tell her. She, of course, is already unhappy about George's lack of attention, and probably really wouldn't like it if she found out the only way to get Geroge into the house was to seduce the gangster's wife Maddy (Paula Raposo). Of course, things go wrong: George's contact The Turk (Malcolm Ferreira) seems cool enough, but G has discovered the theft earlier than might hope, and has sent a number of killers, including Isabella (Nicole Smart), after them.

Full review at EFC.

Funshutsu kigan: 15-sai baishunfu (Gushing Prayer)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival: Behind the Pink Curtain)

More than many films, Gushing Prayer is probably best enjoyed when placed into some sort of context. At the festival, there was an introduction that touched upon the cultural, economic, and political situation in Japan in the early 1970s, as well as some discussion about writer/director Masao Adachi, whose radical politics led to a life more incredible than any of the "pink" softcore flicks he made. You don't really need that, but it certainly helps to show why this particular pink is such an artsy thing.

Gushing Prayer follows Yasuko Aoyagi (Aki Sasaki), and three of her friends, Koichi (Hiroshi Saito) and two whom I do not believe are actually named in the film. They make loud noises about not being a pair of couples, though - they aim to behave in truly liberated manner, free of conventional forms of attachment, with prostitution almost considered an ideal. Of course, that's just not human nature, and Koichi starts to feel some jealousy when Yasuko announces she may be pregnant with the child of their teacher, even as it causes Yasuko some despair.

I've only seen a couple of pink films from this era (and have mixed feelings about seeing more should the "Behind the Pink Curtain" film series land at the local repertory theater), so I can't really judge how much of an oddity Gushing Prayer is. It certainly plays somewhat peculiar from the perspective of a twenty-first century American, like an especially chatty nouvelle vague film whose crisp black and white photography gives way to full-color sex scenes (as was the style for many pink films of the time; they were made on a budget tight enough that color stock was saved for the big scenes). Not particularly explicit sex scenes, but clear enough that there wasn't much doubt about what was going on.

Full review at EFC.

Heruzu Enjueruzu (Hells)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

It's fitting that this animated (in every sense of the word) adaptation of Sin-ichi Hiromoto's manga Hells Angels is produced by a company called Madhouse, because it frequently seems the result of throwing in everything, plus the kitchen sink, plus any other sinks that a room full of lunatics could think up. It's charming as well, but gets most of its energy from sheer inventiveness.

We open with Linne Amagame racing off to her first day at a new school, promising her mother that she'll make a thousand friends. She is, as always, frantic and running late, her blue hair an unkempt mess. Linne only has time to make one friend before darting out in the road to save a kitty. Next thing she knows, she and the cat are in Hell, but in this movie's crazy mythology, hell isn't a place of torment. Well, maybe a little - it's a high school, where souls take monstrous forms as they learn what's necessary for their next lives; Linne's new friends Kiki, Wolfie, and Stealer fit vaguely in the vampire, werewolf, and zombie categories. Something weird is going on, though, even by Hell High standards - Linne and the student council (including hunky president Ryu Kotou) still have human form and bleed when injured, suggesting that they are not actually dead. What is Principal Helvis up to?

The recent trend in big-budget American animation has been toward smoothness - every pixel in the frame is given equal consideration, with characters and props often looking more like the output of a CAD/CAM program than an artist's pencil. Japan hasn't been immune, but it does still manage to push something like Hells out every once in a while. The characters in Hells are often drawn with thick lines, distort as they move, and many likely would not be able to stand if they existed in the real world. Sometimes the coloring can't keep up with the line art.

Full review at EFC.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Fantasia Catch-Up #01: Love Exposure, Sweet Karma, and Lalapipo

This Week In Tickets will be delayed a bit this week, in small part because I haven't been out to a theater since returning home. It's not really something I planned on - I was just wiped out for the first couple days back, then over the weekend it got too hot to walk anywhere. Plus, after two and a half weeks of rushing to and from buses and movies... Well, it was nice to kind of just pull up a deck chair, grab a root beer from the fridge, and read some of the three weeks of comics and other books that piled up.

Plus, I tend to keep all my files and scans of calendar pages on an SD card, and the reader died a tragic but heroic death taking a hit that might have damaged the computer otherwise. A new, sturdier-looking one is on the way from Amazon. In the meantime, here's some reviews of the movies from the first weekend that I couldn't get to at the time and for which I don't have screeners for memory-refreshment.

Ai No Mukidashi (Love Exposure)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

I recommend Love Exposure, rather highly, in fact, but be warned: Maverick Japanese director Sion Sono has a rather singular vision, and his previous feature, the more or less mainstream horror-comedy Hair Extensions, only gives audiences a glimpse of it. Love Exposure, on the other hand, is an amazing mix of transgression, sweet romance, naughty slapstick, and out-there plotting. It's also nearly four intermission-free hours long, so before you sit down for this movie, you had better be committed to the Sion Sono experience.

It starts off relatively small: Yu Tsunoda's religious mother died when he was a boy, but before she went, she noted his fascination with the Virgin Mary and said she hoped he would find his own Mary someday. Those words would stick with Yu, especially after his grieving father Tetsu (Atsuro Watabe) becomes a Catholic priest. Eventually, when Yu (Takahiro Nishijima) is a teenager, two women do enter his life: Yoko (Hikari Mitsushima), the beautiful but man-hating girl he meets while dressed in drag for losing a bet with his friends, and Aya Hoike (Sakura Ando), who catches Yu and said friends doing upskirt photography but who, upon hearing Yu's motives, opts to keep an eye on him.

That may not seem like much of a start for such a sprawling movie, but I'm holding some details back - Sono structures the first hour or so of the movie by giving Yu, Hoike, and Yoko detailed introductions in turn, and too much background on any one of them could spoil the surprises in store for when we see how their stories connect. Suffice it to say that none of the three kids have an easy road to the points where they meet, as each is the victim of some form of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. This isn't done just to play off our sympathy, though; the one whose abuse sets off the most visceral reactions is often the hardest to like. It mainly gives us a sense of just how thoroughly askew their perspectives have become, so that some of their more unusual actions become reasonable.

Full review at EFC.

Sweet Karma

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

Sweet Karma is an "avenging angel" movie with all the fat boiled off. The filmmakers know why people are seeing this movie - a hot girl killing bad men in a cool, righteous fury. And even though it's doing better than just going through the motions, it is still keenly focused on giving the audience what it wants, without other distractions - like dialog from the title character, for instance.

Karma (Shera Bechard) was born mute, you see, though anyone looking at her will readily admit that there's nothing else wrong with her physically. Her sister Anna (Patricia Stasiak) went to Canada to take a job as a housemaid, but we know how that sort of endeavor really plays out: Strip clubs and prostitution if she's lucky, a mutilated body in a ditch when she's not. So Karma heads to Toronto in her sister's footsteps, intent on following the chain from the people who recruited Anna in Moscow to the man by whose hand she actually died until they're all dead.

Sweet Karma is a nasty little movie, plunging into its seedy underworld setting without giving it even a surface sheet of respectability. I wouldn't say that this movie rises above the exploitation inherent in its genre, but director Andrew Hunt is keenly aware of it and uses it like a precision tool, manipulating matters so that we feel grimy and unclean in a low-rent strip club and yet still powerfully drawn to Karma, even when she's pointedly using her sexuality as a weapon, in ways that are not that far removed from her targets' practices.

Full review at EFC.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

I suppose I should just get the unfair comparison out of the way - Lalapipo is not in the same class as Kamikaze Girls, Paco and the Magic Book, or Memories of Matsuko. It's only in the same sentence because the writer/director of those fantastic movies, Tetsuya Nakashima, wrote the screenplay, adapting a novel by Hideo Okuda for Masayuki Miyano to direct. It's certainly understandable that festivals would play up Nakashima's involvement, as his recent films have been audience favorites, but this movie has to settle for being quirky and kind of clever.

The title "Lalapipo" comes from a character mispronouncing an American tourist's comment that Tokyo sure has a lot of people, and focuses on six in particular: Technical writer Hiroshi (Sarutoki Minagawa) is a bitter, slovenly man who has started having conversations with penis (portrayed here by a puppet). Tomoko (Yuri Nakamura) is a pretty but shy department store clerk who is recruited into the sex business by "scout" Kenji (Hiroki Narimiya), who has also been given a "mature" actress to manage, without knowing who sort of secret Yoshie (Mari Hamada) has been hiding. Also crossing these characters' paths are Koichi (Yoshiyuki Morishita), an uptight young man whose superhero fantasies are a bizarre combination of the puritanical and the explicit, and Sayuri (Tomoko Murakami), Hiroshi's plus-size hookup who aims to be a voice actor but is already in the entertainment business in another capacity. Their stories overlap in several ways beyond what has been described.

The film sounds like a broad, raunchy comedy, especially since the penis puppet story is the first one out of the gate, and there's certainly a lot of that to it. It's not all fun and games, though - though the porn and adult entertainment industries are somewhat more mainstream in Japan than, say, the United States, there's still quite the strong sleazy undercurrent to even the more playful of those storylines. Other characters do things that aren't always exactly sex-related but have the potential for making the audience very uncomfortable, more often than not without much resolution one way or another. Lalapipo has plenty of belly laughs, but the funny and disturbing content tend to work against each other, rather than as a team.

Full review at EFC.