Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Fantasia Catch-up #05: Samurai Princess, The Divine Weapon, Black, Yariman, Crazy Racer, and Cryptic

I see, that between the time I wrote the original review a month and a half ago and now, Samurai Princess has become available for pre-order in the U.S. That figures; it's likely the worst thing I saw at Fantasia this year, just pathetic pandering, but it gets distribution, whereas something like Cryptic, Crazy Racer, or even Yariman does not.

It's not even good pandering, for crying out loud! It's inept.

On the other hand, though it sometime takes a while, the good stuff does occasionally wind up making it over here. One of the movies I had the most fun at last year was X-Cross, and that's popping up in the U.S. this October. Now, that movie is a bunch of crazy, frantic fun with girls in trouble and grotesque villains and attempted dismemberment, but it sings. It creates the delightful feeling of wanting to know what's going to happen next, as opposed to when it's going to end.

Samurai purinsesu: Gedô-hime (Samurai Princess)

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

Why watch this crap? I ask not just because it's tacky exploitation that's bad for you, but because it's not even ably made bad exploitation. The acting is terrible, the director can't even frame a shot properly, and the action, for all the lovingly realized gore it leads to, is not exciting. Even if you've got very specific violent cinema fetishes, there's probably a movie or five out there that can serve them better.

Samurai Princess is one of those movies that functions mainly as a violence delivery system. There is a basic story, about a girl (Aino Kishi, whose character despite the title is neither a samurai nor a princess) hunting down the pair of cyborg lunatics who slaughtered her classmates to create "art", but she herself is being hunted by agents of some sort, as she herself has been made into a cyborg and that sort of body modification is illegal. Helping her is Gekko (Dai Mizuno), a guitar-toting ex-agent also looking to find the killers, ever since they murdered his sister, and willing to work with a cyborg to do it.

Yoshihiro Nishimura handles the the gore effects for Samurai Princess; from his recent ubiquity, he must be Japan's equivalent of KNB FX, providing services to movies as slick as L: Change the World and as slapdash as, well, Samurai Princess. Still, it should be no surprise that the blood, guts, and weaponized prostheses are some of the very best things that the movie has to offer. It's not his best work, but when director Kengo Kaji needs a gross-out, the scene is not likely to fall short for mechanical reasons. Those wanting to see the human body mutilated in a variety of creative and fantastical ways won't come away disappointed that there wasn't enough or that it was done inexpertly.

The problem, of course, is everything else.

Full review at EFC.

Shin ge jeon (The Divine Weapon)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

The Divine Weapon is an historical action/adventure that yearns to be an epic. To that end, it's got a lot of characters, runs north of two hours, and strives to tell the story of a pivotal moment in Korean history. The end result is bloated, of course, not quite so grand as the filmmakers would like it to be, but it's got some very impressive set-pieces and is amiable enough in between. By the end, it has certainly given the audience a big helping of what they want.

The year is 1430 and the situation on the Korean peninsula is tense. The Joseon dynasty is prosperous, but they are dominated by the Mings to the north, who are demanding increased tribute, including hundreds of eunuchs. Joseon's greatest weapons designer has created plans for a piece of artillery that could change the balance of power. The designer is killed but his daughter Hong-li (Han Eun-jeong) escapes. Chang-kang (Heo Jun-ho), a close adviser to King Sejong (Ahn Sung-kee) brings her to Sul-ju (Jeong Jae-yeong), a merchant who has plenty of issues with the court. The palace and the army are being watched closely, he explains, but perhaps Sul-ju's low profile and Hong-li's engineering genius will be enough to decipher her father's notes and construct the Singijeon while it can do some good.

The movie is crowded with other characters - villains, a monk who has ties to the court, a Japanese merchant lady, Hong-il's faithful servant, the various partners in Sul-ju's company, and then some. Most are sketched out well enough; even if they only seem to exist to fulfill a specific purpose in the movie, they're individual enough within this story. Even if they don't necessarily distinguish themselves from similar types in other movies, they make enough of an impression on the audience that it's a bit of a hit when one of them doesn't survive an action sequence.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

I've seen Black at two different film festivals this year, and both times it was introduced as "blaxploitation" or in that tradition. I don't necessarily see it that way; certainly, there are moments that recall those 1970s films, and the cast is primarily dark-skinned, but it's a far more polished film than that moniker would imply. It's also crazier - out-there enough that I didn't review it at SXSW because I wasn't sure how much of what I recalled the morning after that midnight screening was actually part of the movie.

The film opens with an armored car robbery that ends badly enough that ringleader Black (MC Jean Gab'1) is considering not just laying low, but going straight. Well, briefly - that's before he gets a call from his cousin Lamine (Ibrahima Mbaye) in Dakar. There's a bunch of conflict diamonds in the poorly guarded bank where Lamine works as a guard - no problem for a Parisian crook like Black, right? Except that the bank's branch manager Kumassi (Michel B. Dupérial) has also told local arms dealer DeGrand (François Levantal) about it, and DeGrand needs money to appease soldier of fortune Viktor (Anton Yakovlev) - who, once he hears about it, figures he may as well cut out the middleman. And Kumassi's corruption is becoming a little too well-known, as Pamela N'Diyae (Carole Karemera) has been sent to the branch to keep an eye on things and tighten up security.

Oh, and have we mentioned that DeGrand's girlfriend is a witch-doctor, and before the heist at the start of the movie, Black was stopped by an African mystic saying that he was the lion and had to find the panther, whatever that means?

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival - Behind the Pink Curtain)

"A skin flick you can watch with your girlfriend!"

There was a story passed around this summer about how adult film actors were disappointed that the current trends in the industry was leading to their films being stripped down to their most base essentials, without even the pretense of plot to string the sex scenes together. Most of the time, the reaction has been mockery - what did they expect? The answer, likely, is something like Yariman - a movie that delivers the expected skin but also gives its cast a little room to act and elicit emotions other than arousal.

Arousal doesn't take a back seat, of course; the movie starts with Lemon Hazawa topless, as her character Miki is having a quickie with her boyfriend Ken (Yuichi Ishikawa) before work. Ken's eyes are starting to wander, though, and today they wander in an unexpected direction - that of an old girlfriend, Yoshiko (Yukari Sanada). This leads to more than just eye contact, of course, and a little post-coital weirdness. The chance to either get past that or put it behind them never comes, though, as Yoshiko is killed by a hit-and-run driver. Since Yoshiko had no family, Ken takes the responsibility of finding her family's grave-site and bringing her ashes there - with Miki along to help, no matter how awkward that is.

This is a "pink" film, so there will be other partners for both Ken and Miki, enough to fit five or six sex scenes into the film's sixty-five minutes. The cast is likable and attractive, with a variety of body types, and director Rei Sakamoto makes them getting it on reasonably arousing even when the movie's story is more filled with melancholy and regret than raw hedonism. The sex stays within the bounds of softcore - plenty of bare breasts, but relatively discrete camera angles; no engorged organs or on-screen penetration. It does the job well enough, although those looking for wall-to-wall titillation with nothing left to the imagination would be well-advised to look elsewhere.

Full review at EFC.

Feng Kuang de Sai Che (Crazy Racer)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival - Hong Kong Cinema 100 Years)

If I were to look over the reviews I've been writing over the past few weeks, I'd probably find I've used the word "crazy" a lot, and generally meant it as a compliment, which I hope comes through. China's Ning Hao is clearly trying to curry favor with me, as Crazy Racer (also known as Silver Medalist) is his follow-up to a film called Crazy Stone. And he's not failing.

We start a few years ago. Cyclist Geng Hao (Huang Bo) has just won a big race, but he takes a swig from a product he's endorsing made by Fala Li (Jiu Kong). Positive drug test! Forfeiture! Banned! Now, years later, he's driving a refrigerated truck, and his trainer has just died of a heart attack. Geng Hao decides Fala Li should pay for the funeral, but it's a bad time for this. The race is about to be run again, only a Thai drug dealer (Worapoj Thuantanon) has taken the place of one of the cyclists so that he can smuggle cocaine into the city inside the bike. He's meant to meet up with a couple gangsters (Rong Xiang and Jack Kao). Meanwhile, Fala Li is trying to kill his wife (Dong Lifan), but he's hired a couple of petty crooks (Xu Zheng and Yung Cheung) who aren't good at the big stuff - and have stolen Geng Hao's truck.

These stories are barely connected from the outset, but it's not long before Ning is taking these threads and weaving a quilt out of them, having this connect to him, him run into them, them pass that without realizing it, and that make this nearly impossible. This sort of rapid mixing and matching of story lines has become a regular feature of Western films, but maybe not so popular in China, where even films with complex plots (far more rare than complex characters or ideas) often present them in large, discrete chunks. At least, that's what crosses the Pacific. Crazy Racer, on the other hand, is frantic.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

I like to tell people, when recommending sci-fi stories in any medium, that if you don't find your head hurting a little during a time-travel story, or at least see the potential for that headache, then it's probably not a great idea for a time-travel story. That's just the idea, of course. The real key is whether the storytellers can make the mental gymnastics worth it, like John Weiner and Danny Kuchuck do here.

Little Jessie Graver (Jadin Gould) doesn't know it yet, but she's about to have the worst birthday a kid can have. Sure, she's received a neat present - her first cell phone - but later that night, her mother Sara (Jodi Thelen) will fall into a coma when a live electrical cable falls into the pool. She's taken off life support, and eight years later, Jessie (now played by Julie Carlson) is a sullen teenager who wants nothing to do with her father (Toby Huss), spending her time hanging out with her friend Damon (Johnny Pacar) and his girlfriend Mia (Brooke Vallone). While going through some of her old things, she finds that old phone, never used, and on a whim calls her old home phone number. A little girl answers, and she and Jessie seem to have a lot in common.

Now, we can all see the general direction Kuchuck and Weiner are going with this. This basic plot outline has been used by a number of films, but few of them handle it quite so elegantly as this one does. The key to that is the fine performances by Gould and Carlson. They're close enough in age that their strikingly similar appearance is crucial for the audience's belief - movies which posit a longer gap can get away with actors with more superficial similarities, but this film doesn't have that luxury. Fortunately, they also do a nearly-flawless job of portraying the same character. They've both got the same curious streak, the same way of talking, and the same skeptical outlook toward the unusual events occurring in their lives.

(Skip the next paragraph if you don't want to know how Weiner and Kuchuck handle the potential paradoxes of their story.)

Full review at EFC.

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