Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Fantasia Daily for 17 July: Oblivion Island, Golden Slumber, Variola Vera, Alice Creed, Eve's Necklace,Fable

Saturday was a long, long day at the festival, not just because of the six movies, which stretched over fifteen hours when all was said and done, but because of there was a fair amount of just plain craziness to deal with as well.

It started early in the AM, before I went to sleep, when I got back from Friday's late show to discover that somewhere between the wall and the laptop, the internet just wasn't working. Sometimes that can be fixed with reboots, but nothing I did to the server or laptop made them get along. I was almost late getting to Oblivion Island because of it, and wound up using the time between it and Golden Slumber sitting in a coffee shop, having bought a cookie and a smoothie for the express purpose of using their WiFi, only to have to wait on the smoothie until the frozen-drink machine was repaired.

On the plus side, there was a short my Mamoru Oshii before Oblivion Island, and it appeared that several people in the audience came entirely to see that 12-minute piece, "Je t'aime". It was, for what it's worth, not bad at all, featuring a basset hound in a world without humans, trying to befriend a strange flying girl robot, who eventually flips out and starts laying waste to everything. In a sense, it was everything you need to know about Oshii compressed into handy short-film size.

Golden Slumbers turned out to be pretty good, but with ten minutes to go...


...someone pulled a fire alarm. This kept us outside for a good fifteen minutes, during much of which time it was raining pretty hard. It also threatened to throw big monkey wrenches into any plans to jump back and forth between theaters; I was okay with my pass, but I was talking to people in line who had tickets for both The Disappearance of Alice Creed in de Seve and Blades of Blood in Hall, which was going to be tight to begin with, but the fire alarm dropped it to zero room for error.

Just to make sure, there was another alarm midway through Variola Vera (this one a "security issue"). That one had some serious attrition during the fifteen minute wait for the building to be cleared; a number of folks wound up bailing because staying to the end, catching a cab, and getting to Nevermore on the other side of town on time just wouldn't be possible. For me, it just meant seeing Eve's Necklace instead of Blades of Blood that night, so I'm pretty sure I don't hate whoever's responsible quite as much as the folks who really seemed to be enjoying Variola Vera.

The introductions for the two last movies of the night each had bits that amused me a bit: For Eve's Necklace the filmmaker paused after saying he was form Austin as to wait for applause; sorry, buddy, that only happens when you're actually in Austin. Also, festival director King-wei Chu introduced the last movie of the night as "Fable: Teeth of Breasts", but that's an easy mistake to make, especially if you've just been waiting backstage with star Melantha Blackthorne.

I ducked out on the Q&A for that one, as all that was left in the theater were folks who were impressed with the movie, and things were surreal enough at 2:30am!

Hottarake no shima - Haruka to maho no kagami (Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

Though digital production has all but taken over the American animation industry, Japan's has mostly remained dominated by hand-drawn images. Of course, as with Disney in the 1990s, digital tools have been used in many traditionally animated pictures, including those from Production I.G. Their first fully-digital feature, Oblivion Island, is a nice little movie but I do rather hope that it's not a sign of things to come.

It's a cute enough story. Haruka was given a pretty hand mirror by her dying mother when she was younger, and said she would always have it with her, but at some point it wound up in a closet, and now she can't find it. The reason why she can't find it is because fox-masked creatures take the things humans take for granted, only returning them if appeased with an egg left at a shrine. 16-year-old Haruka (voice of Haruka Ayase), though she thinks that this is just a fairy tale, nevertheless leaves an egg, hardly expecting to actually see one of the creatures! When it grabs her keys, she pursues it to try to get them back, getting sucked into their world. And while it's probably not difficult to get back, she might as well find her mother's mirror while she's there. Except that it happens to be in the hands of The Baron...

The creative team involved is surprising - co-writer/director Shinsuke Sato has mostly done live-action fare, and his next two films are an adaptation of the ultraviolent manga Gantz; co-writer Hirotaka Adachi is better known for the horror stories he writes under the nom de plume Otsuichi. Surprisingly, what they come up with isn't particularly subversive; instead, it's rather standard family fare, with but one truly scary moment. That's not a mark against this movie, wihch is straightforward, charming, and goes down pretty easy. Kids will seldom get confused, at the very least, although the writing does have a bad habit of creating new rules for its fantasy world at the exact second they become convenient.

Full review at eFilmCritic.

Golden Slumber (Goruden Suranba)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010)

Fish Story may not have set the Japanese box office on fire, but the folks who saw it loved it, so it's no wonder that director Yoshihiro Nakamura chose another Kotaro Isaka novel (with a musical title) as one of his next projects. And it's got another killer hook, one that it gets a lot more mileage out of than other thrillers.

Start with Masaharu Aoyagi (Masata Sakai); when he was in college, he and his friends Shingo Morita (Hidetaka Yoshioka), Kazuo Ono (Hitori Gekidan), and Haruko Higuchi (Yuka Takeuchi) hung out, critiqued fast food, and traded conspiracy theories. Ten years later, he's a deliveryman, although one who gained a certain amount of fame two years earlier for rescuing pop idol Rinka (Shihori Kanjiya) from a burglar. It looks like Morita is doing much better for himself, but when Aoyagi awakes after passing out in Mortia's car, his old friend tells him that he's up to his eyeballs in gambling debt, but it would be wiped clean if he makes sure Aoyagi is in this car at this time. Why? Well, the Prime Minister's motorcade is about to pass by; Morita thinks Aoyagi is being set up as a patsy, like Lee Harvey Oswald. Which is ridiculous--


Nakamura and company set this situation up in a crisp, efficient opening that establishes Aoyagi's dorky, blue-collar charm, and then literally explodes into high gear. After that, the chase is on, and though Golden Slumbers hasn't really had a chance to build, it manages to sustain itself at a remarkably high energy and tension level for a long time. It's probably something like an hour after before that initial jolt starts to wane, and by then the story has started throwing not just twists but counter-twists, giving us a very well-played game of cat and mouse.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Variola Vera

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010)

Wow... Looking at the IMDB page for this, I am shocked to see that Rade Serbedzija played the womanizing doctor in this movie. I had him completely pegged for the Albanian muslim who serves as patient zero, because his career lately has been variations on that sort of hirsute guy of Eastern European heritage. My mind is blown.

That mis-identification aside, I'm really fond of this Serbian (well, "Yugoslavian", as it was made in 1982) dramatization of a 1972 smallpox outbreak. It's tense and bleak, and has the sort of ground-level, unwavering stare most associated with the seventies in America. It's a very nice combination of a simple story and a large, excellent ensemble.

The Disappearance of Alice Creed

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010)

I am somewhat surprised that the title of this film is not "The Kidnapping of Alice Creed". After all, everything else about this movie is precise, thought-out, and well-defined - it would be a shame if the very title proved to be a red herring or gave the end away.

Vic (Eddie Marsan) and Danny (Martin Compston) have a plan. We see them prepare, carefully making sure that they will go undetected and leave no forensic traces that will cause the law to pursue them after they have made their escape. The young woman they kidnap, Alice (Gemma Arterton), will have no chance of escape before the ransom is paid. It is a good plan. In fact, it appears to be a flawless plan. Except, of course, that there is no such thing: There's always something hasn't been taken into account.

What is the wrench in Vic's and Danny's plan? You don't really expect me to say, do you? It's not a bad little twist, which lets the audience look at the plot in a different way, allows the security of the hideout to be compromised (but not obviously so), and sets up for another revelation that, while it doesn't so much turn the plot on its head again, certainly does a fine job of making things more complicated. It is, in its way, a machine as perfectly well-oiled as the original kidnapping plot, designed to keep things up in the air until the last scene.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Eve's Necklace

* * (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010)

I nodded off during this and the next film, and was actually going to go back and give it a second viewing on Monday, but opted against it because, as I was walking back from the office, I really couldn't figure how seeing it a second time would add much more than novelty value. And since I'd already gotten the novelty value, that was time that could be spent in a steakhouse.

It's cute, don't get me wrong, and lends a bit of interest to what would probably be a less-than-impressive thriller scripts, but I don't think the audience ever reacted to it much in a way beyond "ha! that looks kind of weird being done by a mannequin!" The voice acting also kind of got on my nerves; as much as the filmmakers tried to be playing their mannequin melodrama straight, the silly voices just didn't work for me.

Fable: Teeth of Beasts

* (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010)

Every year at Fantasia, generally during the midnight program, I see at least one movie that really should spur me to make a film of my own, just because within five minutes I am absolutely sure I write a better script, and within fifteen I know that the actors and director I could pull in via nepotism and friends of friends would not be complete spazzes. This year, Fable was that movie.

I should have run, but I don't want to be that guy, and this movie was a deadly combination of overly earnest voice-over, ambitious but unimpressive visual effects, and bad acting. Oh, and the "action" sequences. Everything seemed to be moving at half-speed, like they were still practicing their blocking rather than running through so that it looked good on screen.

I feel bad for even mentioning it, but I want this placeholder here: If, in a couple years, an atrocious gender-bending sci-fi romantic comedy with my name on it plays an easily marginalized slot at Fantasia or BUFF, this is why it happened. And as bad as it will be, I'm pretty sure it will be better than this.

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