Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fantasia Daily for 24 July: King of Thorn, Suck, Sophie's Revenge, Sawako Decides, The Last Exorcism

A long, but pretty fruitful Saturday at Fantasia; not one bad movie seen, and things ended on a pretty good note. There was a large and enthusiastic turnout for Suck, which aside from being fun & Canadian had some scenes set in Montreal, and that's always going to get a big rise from the crowd (more on that "tomorrow"). It also had a pretty good line-up of guests who did an entertaining Q&A:


Yeah, sorry about the lack of a photo. Ironically, the distributor of both Suck and The Last Exorcism maybe missed out on folks putting pictures up from the Suck screening because they opted to ban cameras and cell phones from The Last Exorcism. As a result, I left mine at the apartment at the start of the day (the signs that sprouted up a couple days earlier didn't mention any place for safekeeping), and so this is the documentation you'll have to be satisfied with.

As you might imagine, this didn't go over well with the Fantasia crowd; it was a real nuisance getting in - in an act of real chutzpah, Alliance not only wanted to take people's cameras away, but have us sign a release that they could film our reactions (favorite comment: "are you filming this reaction? It's anger!"). The studio representative got booed when she got called up on stage, which she took without making a big deal of it.

It really is a silly thing to do, though - does Alliance really think that they have to be more worried about piracy of The Last Exorcism than, say, Scott Pilgrim? Do they really think that the people who will be satisfied with watching this movie on a torrent that was taken via a cell-phone camera were going to be paying for a ticket or a DVD anyway? Those are people with no standards, and you can't worry about them.

It threw an even bigger wrench into the festival than the fire alarms a week earlier, actually - I flat-up missed the midnight If a Tree Falls because of how late this movie ran. So, distributors, don't do this nonsense in the future. It annoys your best customers and does almost nothing to stop piracy.

Ibara no O (King of Thorn)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

King of Thorn is the sort of anime that, whatever else you might say about it, doesn't cheat the audience. It offers up top-notch animation and uses it to create a story that is both grand-scale and strange, with big, bloody action and bizarre ideas that are just a stepping stone to crazier things. It threatens to become too much, honestly, but it's never dull.

The time is the near future, and the world is beset by a new pandemic: ACIS (Acquired Cellular Induration Syndrome), which in its terminal stages causes the body to harden into a brittle, stone-like material, earning it the nickname "Medusa". Venus Gate, a company headed by shady expatriate Russian industrialist Ivan Vega, has built a cryonics facility in Scotland that can potentially hold 160 infected people for up to a hundred years, awaiting a cure. Among those chosen by lottery is nervous Japanese school girl Kasumi, escorted by her more confident twin sister Shikazu. Something goes terribly wrong after the group are frozen, though, and when Kasumi comes out of suspension, the chamber is filled with large, thorny vines and strange monsters. Soon it's down to Kasumi and a small group of allies - a prisoner, a nurse, a kid, a cop, and an elderly senator - to find a way out and solve the mystery of what happened.

There's no missing that King of Thorn (Ibara no O in the original Japanese) is a science-fiction/horror take on "Sleeping Beauty"; even if the gigantic mutant briars overgrowing a castle whose occupants were to sleep for up to a hundred years aren't a sufficient hint, the film makes a fair number of more direct references, to the point where one may be tempted to yell "I get it, already!" That is, for better or worse, what the movie is like; it has a hard time with the concept of "enough". If one underwater chase is good, two are better; a couple instances of a recurring bit like the Marco Owen character wanting to be called by his first rather than last name isn't as good as three or four; one crazy last-act plot twist being revealed just means it's time for the next one. I'm pretty sure that even the 9-year-old boy has a secret agenda. It's almost a brute-force approach to storytelling, and a little clumsy at times, but there's certainly never a dull moment.

Full review at eFilmCritic


* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

Okay, let's get it out of the way. Suck... doesn't. It's actually kind of a blast, diving into rock & roll and vampire tropes head-first and building an entertaining horror-comedy out of them, which should appeal to fans of either genre.

Joey Winner (writer/director Rob Stefaniuk) and his eponymous band aren't going very far; his manager Jeff (Dave Foley) is apathetic to the point of saying that if he were in Joey's place, he'd fire his manager. There's tension between Joey's current girlfriend (Nicole de Boer) and his ex Jenny (Jessica Paré), who also happens to be the band's bass player. Something happens in Montreal, though - Jenny leaves the show with a creepy guy (Dimitri Coats), and comes back pale, uncomfortable in the sun, and needing to drink human blood. Fortunately for the band, vampires have supernatural charisma that gives Jenny inhuman stage presence; unfortunately, Jenny attracts the attention of a determined vampire hunter (Malcolm McDowell).

There are a lot of glib horror comedies out there, especially involving vampires; they've become too familiar and unlike more animalistic supernatural villains, it's too easy to make being a vampire seem just like being human but with cool superpowers. Suck absolutely has this going on, but since the world of rock & roll can be strange and amoral as is, it's not such a strange leap to get to feeding on blood. It can parallel just about any form of (self-)destruction and debauchery that shows up in a musician biopic, and works as a good metaphor for how fame changes people, too.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Sophie's Revenge (Fei Chang Wan Mei)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

Take heart, people of the world; the west and the east aren't necessarily so different after all. Sure, we may not see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, but if both cultures churn out romantic comedies where the heroine is able to attract the guy of her dreams despite being dishonest, manipulative, clingy, and more than a bit nuts, surely there's room for understanding on bigger issues!

Take Sophie (Zhang Ziyi). A rising star as a comic book artist, she until recently was engaged to the hunky surgeon who removed her appendix, Jeff (So Ji-sub). Unfortunately, in a repeat of their early romance, Jeff is now with a more recent patient, movie star Joanna (Fan Bingbing). Sophie is devastated, especially since her wedding is only a few short months away. But a plan (and a potential story for her new graphic novel) comes to her - she will win Jeff back from Joanna, then leave him at the alter, breaking his heart as he broke hers. As an accomplice, she recruits not just her friends Lily (Yao Chen) and Lucy (Ruby Lin), but Gordon (Peter Ho), who has the same problem shaking Charlotte that Sophie has with Jeff.

Oh, Sophie, Sophie, Sophie, you lovable utter lunatic! If you were a man, there's no doubt that we would consider what you are doing stalking, and instead of us laughing at your endearing clumsiness, we'd be hoping you get hauled off to jail! But you have been wronged, you do tend to trip over your own feet, you're played by pretty Zhang Ziyi in a non-stop array of colorful outfits, and your apartment (which magically goes from being messy in a way that is either tomboyish or indicative of great depression to perfectly art-directed in a scene cut) has an elegant and unused wedding dress right in the middle! What use is logic and the general definition of acceptable human behavior against that?

Full review at eFilmCritic

Kawa no soko kara konnichi wa (Sawako Decides)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010)

A frustrating aspect of seeing foreign films at festivals is that they tend to be very directer-oriented, so if it's a performance that catches one's eye, the most likely situation for seeing that actor again is if he/she and the director become regular collaborators. Sometimes you get lucky, though; after Hikari Mitsushima bowled audiences over in Love Exposure last year, it made a lot of sense to play her in the title role of Sawako Decides, a decision that works out pretty well for all involved.

Sawako, 23, has been in Tokyo for five years, and is also on her fifth job - a tea lady at a toy company - and fifth boyfriend, Kenichi Arai (Masashi Endo), a junior executive at said company. He's divorced, spends his evenings knitting, and has a four-year-old daughter, Kayoko (Kira Aihara), but Sawako figure's she's no catch either. It can't be helped, as she says to every misfortune and embarrassment that comes her way. And those are about to pile up - Kenichi is fired, and her uncle Nobuo (Ryo Iwamatsu) has been calling her to come home, as her father Tadao (Kotaro Shiga) is dying and she's the only heir to the family's fresh water clam-packing business. She doesn't really want to - Sawako didn't leave under good circumstances - but Kenichi thinks it would be a good idea, so she goes along.

Sawako can be a kind of a downer of a character, especially early on. She's not self-confident, she's not assertive, and the impression she gives more often than not is that she doesn't really want to be there, wherever "there" is. She drinks a lot of beer, enough for other characters to occasionally comment on it. It takes a bit of time, in fact, to realize that Sawako is not a fundamentally negative character; she's just pragmatic. "It can't be helped" is never an excuse to give up, but it takes a while for it to really become an acknowledgment that she's got to try a little harder than others maybe might have to. Mitsushima's performance is a fine transformation from self-doubt to self-determination, one that doesn't advertise its turning points, even in retrospect, but which is appealing throughout. Matsushima has a way of perking up when something engages Sawako without suddenly making the character cheerful, and her flat statements can slap someone in the face with reality without them seeming mean. She never cracks a big smile (and only gets one really angry rant), but we get to know her well enough to see the joy and accomplishment in smaller reactions.

Full review at eFilmCritic

The Last Exorcism

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

I've got an issue with The Last Exorcism, but it's about as minor as one can be: It may be borne almost entirely out of my personal beliefs and one that only becomes an issue in the final minutes. Up until then, it's a cracking good faux documentary that manages the nifty trick of continually tightening the screws without overselling itself.

The film is presented to us as a documentary following Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a middle-aged Baton Rouge preacher. He's been preaching since he was a child, but he had a crisis of faith when his son was born deaf and he found himself trusting the doctors much more than the Lord. Like his father before him, he performed exorcisms, but recent news stories have made him decide to not only stop that practice, but expose it as a dangerous fraud. To do so, he and documentary filmmaker Iris (Iris Bahr) will answer one of his letters requesting help, filming the entire process. He chooses the case of Nell Sweetzer (Ashley Bell), whose father Louis (Louis Herthum) is attributing all manner of nasty things to a demon in her body. Cotton does his thing, but when Nell shows up at his hotel room that night in a strange delirium, he realizes that his work is far from done.

The hook for The Last Exorcism is presenting exorcists as little better than con artists at their best, and it's a good one. Typically, films involving exorcisms require the audience to at some point take the mythology of devils and demons as a given, but this one starts from a place of skepticism and spends most of its running time there. Co-writers Huck Botko and Andrew Gurland recognize that as soon as they reveal that Nell really is possessed by a demon, the gig is up, and the ambiguities that have been fueling not just the story, but the characterization, up until that point will be swept aside. Besides, they've got much worse things to fill the audience's head with than mere fallen angels.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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