Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fantasia Catch-Up #06: You Might As Well Live, Battle League, Crawler, Rough Cut, Embodiment, Breathless

This will, thankfully, be the last batch of reviews I try to do from weeks-old memory. The rest of my Fantasia reviewage will be stuff I have screeners for, either to refresh my memory or to watch for the first time. I generally don't reach back this far, but I do feel a bit of an obligation to review all the movies I see for free on a festival pass (it's the unspoken deal between festivals and critics - you give us free movies, we give you word of mouth, good or bad).

It is, obviously, kind of tough - I generally only take notes during foreign-language films, as they're less likely to have character names listed on IMDB, so I'm working from memory. That's not particularly trustworthy, as evinced by all the people who ask me how I can keep them straight when I nonchalantly say I saw roughly 20-30 films a week on a festival binge. My response is usually that the festival programmers and my personal tendencies don't generate schedules where things run together. So on the 24th, I saw a low-budget Canadian gross-out comedy, a Japanese sci-fi romantic comedy, a Japanese fantasy, a Korean relationship drama, and a Quebeçois creature feature. Those things don't really run together, and it's a tribute to the Fantasia programmers that most of what they ran, even when it wasn't particularly good, was memorable.

That aside, there is some benefit to having a little delay; when I write about these movies six weeks later, then the stuff I can talk about because it's stuck with me is probably the stuff that's worth talking about. The trick, I guess, is to punt when you really don't have anything to say, and don't completely override your first impressions. Those initial reactions are important; the person who is reading what you write is more likely than not going to see the movie to get first impressions, after all.

You Might as Well Live

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival - Flirting with Chaos)

You Might as Well Live is a solid moron movie - the type where the lead character's quite astounding stupidity is just balanced with his innocence in such a way that we can laugh at him while still rooting for him somewhat. It's a precarious balance, because this film's Robert Mutt has a really stunning amount of stupidity that needs countering (to the point where the innocence starts resembling even more stupidity), but the movie careens from one hugely crude joke to another just well enough that it only fitfully becomes tiresome.

Mutt (Joshua Peace) is making another unsuccessful suicide attempt as the film opens, and this time it gets him committed to the loony bin. It winds up being the first place that he ever fits in, but a new doctor (Julian Richings) uses this to prove that he's capable of surviving on the outside. Of course, when he does get home, he finds that his neighbor Fred Seinke (Stephen McHattie) has the whole neighborhood thinking he's a pedophile. His friend Hershey (Dov Tiefenbach) and Hershey's girlfriend Cookie (Kristen Hager) take him in, and just when it looks like Mutt has every reason to give up hope, he has an alcohol-related vision of Clinton Manitoba (Michael Madsen), the one-time star player of the local independent-league baseball team, who tells him that all he needs to be someone is a girl, some money, and a championship ring. So now he has a goal!

So, if you're making a little independent Canadian comedy, how do you stand out from the big budget competition pumped out by Hollywood? You could go for smart, black comedy filled with biting satire... Or, alternately, you could amp the crudity up a couple notches. You Might as Well Live , as you may have guessed, goes the second route, with suicide attempts played as goofy slapstick, an unobstructed view of Mutt being chased through town naked, and, because it seems like even PG-rated movies are showing folks vomiting nowadays, we get to watch Peace drop trou and take a crap (truly, I don't want to think of what the next frontier is for gross-out comedy).

Full review at EFC.

Kamogawa Horumo: Battle League in Kyoto

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

You know, if someone had told me right after Kill Bill that the girl who played Gogo Yubari would find her niche in comedy, I don't know that I would have believed him. It's true, though - Chiaki Kuriyama is the best part of the underwhelming GS Wonderland, handled the funny bits of Hair Extensions fantastically, and now we see her co-starring in Kamogawa Horumo: Battle League in Kyoto, a charmingly silly little movie.

She's one of the freshmen who joins her university's Horumo team, the "Azure Dragon" club. Among the others are our narrator, Akira Abe (Takayuki Yamada), who has been assured by outgoing club president Makoto Sugawara (Yoshiyoshi Arakawa) that it's just a perfectly normal club. He's drawn in by another prospective member, the beautiful Kyoko Sawara (Sei Ashina). Other new recruits are Koichi Takamura (Gaku Hamada), who grew up in L.A. and is kind of clueless about his ancestral land, and Mitsuru Ashiya (Takuya Ishida), who has never failed at anything. What they soon find out is that Azure Dragon is not just a club that gets together for dinner; it turns out that Kyoto is overrun with little oni demons, invisible to most people, who battle to amuse the local spirits. In order to give the spirits a good show, the members of the four local colleges' Horumo clubs give the onis their marching orders.

And they do this by dancing.

Full review at EFC.

* * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre de Seve (Fantasia Festival)

Crawler is a dumb, poorly-acted horror movie, but by gum, it's a sincere dumb, poorly-acted horror movie. If it's engaging in self-parody, it's doing so with the straightest face imaginable. The cast and crew all seem to be completely earnest in their efforts to make the best damn "killer bulldozer that is actually some sort of otherworldly beast" movie that they can, and I applaud their effort, at least.

So, there's this equipment rental yard, from which a construction company is looking to rent an earth-moving machine. Sadly, the guy who was to pick it up arrives too late, and it's out on another job. But what about this one, he says, which says "do not rent under any circumstances?" Well, there's a reason for that, and while the two men are mutilated, the crawler shows up at the site on its own, where foreman Jimmy (Deke Richards), who is just returning to work after a fatal accident (fatal to someone else, in case that's not clear) and site manager Sandra (Heidi Hawkins) soon find that bad things happen to any crew member who gets near the metal yellow monster.

It may seem unsporting to make fun of the script to a killer-bulldozer movie, but is it my fault that director Sv Bell and his co-writer Robbie Ribspreader (who, admittedly, has the coolest filmmaker pseudonym this side of Olivier Megaton) put all those fish in that barrel? I think not. They are mighty big fish, too. It's not just that nobody in the film ever says or does anything particularly clever, or that the film is populated entirely by stock characters; it's that everything about the killer crawler seems made up on the spot. That it's got no backstory is maybe fine; a lack of explanation can make an implacable killing machine scarier. But the nature of the beast seems to change on the merest of whims; it can do (and is inclined to do) whatever is convenient to the story at this very moment. You can maybe get shocks that way, but you can't build suspense.

Full review at EFC.

Yeong-hwa-neun Yeong-hwa-da (Rough Cut)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

I've got to be honest here... I kind of wanted a different ending on this. Part of what's so much fun about Korean movies is that they don't seem obligated to take even familiar genre films in the same directions that either Hollywood or western indies do, but would that have been so bad here? After all, this premise is, oddly enough, not nearly as played-out as one might think.

After all, given the long-time, two-way love affair between gangsters and the movies, you'd think they'd have intersected this way more often. On the one hand, you've got Jang Soo-ta (Kang Ji-hwan), a popular actor whose volatile temper and tendency not to pull punches during action scenes is threatening his current movie, as he's put his co-star in the hospital. On the other, you've got Lee Kang-pae (So Ji-sub), an underboss who loves the movies, even once having a bit part in a film; he's serving as the conduit between the rest of the gang and Chairman Baek (Song Yong-tae), in jail awaiting trial. One night, Kang-pae and his men are having a meeting at the same restaurant as Soo-ta and the filmmakers, and the two meet, not getting off on the right foot. The odd result, though, is Kang-pae being offered the open part in Soo-ta's movie, which he accepts - on the condition that the fight scenes are real.

I'm curious about how the screenplay for this film evolved as it passed through the hands of three or four different writers. From what I gather, it started with famed (or infamous, depending on one's taste) auteur Kim Ki-duk, and ended with an extensive rewrite by director Jang Hoon to make it his own, with Ok Jin-gon and Oh Sei-yeon somewhere in between. So maybe it was never a simple comedy, or maybe Kim was looking to produce something conventional to fund his more offbeat films. Whatever the process, the film bears some of the marks of having had many hands touch it - there are subplots which may seem extraneous and odd shifts in tone. Jang does an exceptional job of pulling all of this together, making what could be dead ends into interesting character builders and keeping the audience on its toes.

Full review at EFC.

Encarnação do Demônio (Embodiment of Evil)

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival - José Mojica Marins)

If you've been waiting decades, or even just years, for José Mojica Marins to complete his trilogy of films about homicidal undertaker Zé do Caixão (aka "Coffin Joe"), don't let my negative review stand in your way. There's a good chance that it's everything you could hope for from Marins's long-awaited return to his signature character. But if you're new to the series, or just not particularly enamored of it, I fear that the semi-legendary status of Embodiment of Evil's forebears will work against it.

The long-time absence of Zé do Caixão (Marins) from movie screens is explained by saying that he has been in prison, doing the usual thing charismatic sociopaths do there - driving guards mad, maiming other inmates. But he has been freed by Lucy Pontes (Cristina Aché), a lawyer who found procedural erorrs in his prosecution. This incenses her husband Claudiomiro Pontes (Jece Valadão), who put Zé away, and his equally corrupt brother Oswaldo (Adriano Stuart). And, honestly, not playing strictly by the book would have been okay here, as it's not long before Zé is up to his old tricks, gathering disciples, killing those he considers his enemies, and searching for the woman who is worthy of being the mother of his child. Maybe it's favela girl Elena (Nara Sakarê), or biologist Hilda (Cleo de Paris). The Pontes brothers soon find themselves allied with Father Eugenio (Milhem Cortaz), a man of the cloth dedicated to Zé's destruction.

Those coming to a horror movie looking for a string of murders and mutilations will not be disappointed; Marins is working without censorship for the first time in his long career, and holds very little back. The blood and guts are plentiful, and while not played quite so grim as torture porn, it is something that the camera lingers on past the initial shock. Some of the shots, if my understanding of co-writer Dennison Ramalho's translation during the Q&A is correct, may be more authentic than is typical of horror movies - in addition to shooting in actual favelas (slums), Marins seemed to imply that they hired some body-modification guys so that, for instance, when you see someone suspended from the ceiling by hooks, that's not make-up and props. Marins has other visual tricks up his sleeve, too, including some rather trippy hallucinations.

Full review at EFC.

Ddongpari (Breathless)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2009 at Concordia Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival)

Breathless is about the parts of South Korea that you typically don't see in the cinema. For all that the nation has a fine and varied film industry, even the gangsters often appear to be at least middle-class; the folks for whom life as a struggle and the neighborhoods they live in are fairly invisible. And then there's Yang Ik-joon, an actor who had mostly been in the background of TV dramas; here, he does everything he can to not be an invisible man any more.

Yang writes, directs, edits, produces, and stars in Breathless, making it outside the Korean studio system and shooting it on the streets. He's struck gold there, making a movie that frequently makes its audience uncomfortable but is oddly hopeful, and uses a string of events that simply seem almost random at times to build a tight story. As a result, he's gone from unseen actor to festival jury member, picking up awards along the way.

He plays Kim Sang-hoon, a man whose motto in life seems to be "just give me a reason". Sang-hoon makes a living as partner and chief enforcer for loan shark Man-sik (Jeong Man-shik), and, brother, you do not want to be late on your payments to them, because although Sang-hoon and Man-sik are sensible enough to know that crippling borrowers makes them unlikely to ever pay you back, Sang-hoon certainly looks like he can get carried away. The only crack in his armor (aside from, maybe, the mild-mannered Man-sik) appears to be neighborhood kid Hyun-in (Kim Hee-soo) and his mother Hyeon-seo (Lee Seung-yeon), whom he looks after and gives most of his money too. Even doing something good like chasing bullies away from schoolgirl Han Yeon-hee (Kim Kot-bi) may be followed by his smacking her for letting them bother her. Still, Yeon-hee latches on to him, as on the balance he's certainly done more for her than her alcoholic father and thuggish brother Yeong-jae (Lee Hwan) ever have.

Full review at EFC.

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