Friday, August 27, 2010

Fantasia 2010 Catch-up 02: Mutant Girls Squad, A Frozen Flower, I Spit on Your Grave, At World's End, The Revenant

Fantasia 2010 Catch-up 02: Mutant Girls Squad, A Frozen Flower, I Spit on Your Grave (2010), At World's End, The Revenant

A month after Fantasia ends, and I'm still trying to catch up writing the reviews of films I saw there. Makes you jealous, doesn't it? If so, you can at least have a mini-Fantasia experience this weekend with three films from this year's festival opening at least semi-wide: Centurion, Mesrine: Killer Instinct, and The Last Exorcism. The last is the only truly wide release, but the first two are likely showing up if you're in a fair-sized city.

Here are some exciting "filmmakers waiting to take questions pictures:

From the I Spit on Your Grave '10 screening, left to right: Programmer Mitch Davis, director Steven R. Monroe, Star Sarah Butler, original version writer/director Meir Zarachi, producer Lisa Hansen

From the At World's End screening, a couple with Mitch Davis and director Tomas Villum Jensen (very funny guy):


From the screening of The Revenant, writer/director Kerry Prior:

Anyway, here are the reviews of Fantasia films that I've posted to eFilmCritic in the past week or so; you can see them as they go up by either following their RSS feed, their Twitter feed, or my own tweets.

Sentô shôjo: Chi no tekkamen densetsu (Mutant Girls Squad)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

Even more than most over-the-top Japanese movies of its ilk, Mutant Girls Squad exists in large part due to alcohol and the west: While of the time, one just suspects that the filmmakers had to be plastered to come up with this stuff and that the end result actually sells more to Americans looking crazy Asian imports than in its native land, that's pretty much the actual genesis for this project: The directors and producer went out drinking when they visited the New York Asian Film Festival as guests, and decided that they should do a movie together for the next festival. The funny thing is, it's allowed them to play to their strengths and make what is in fact a pretty good movie, as gory action-comedies go.

We start with Rin (Yumi Sugimoto), a pretty schoolgirl who, as her 16th birthday is approaching, starts to feel a pain in her arm. What she doesn't realize is that she, like her father (Kanji Tsuda), is a mutant, with her particular power a hand that becomes a razor-sharp claw. She has trouble controlling it at first, which leads to an incident or two and the government's anti-mutant squad hunting her down. But, there's an underground society of mutants, led by Kisaragi (Tak Sakaguchi). They take her in, have Rei (Yuko Takayama) teach her to control her power, and have "cosplay nurse" Yoshie (Suzuka Morita) look after her until she's ready to take part in the glorious war against the human race. The thing is, Rin kind of likes humans.

Directors Tak Sakaguchi, Noboru Iguchi, and Yoshihiro Nishimura each tackle a third of the movie, in that order, but each has his fingerprints on his colleagues' segments: Sakaguchi handles the action choroegraphy for the whole film, Nishimura covers all of the prosthetics and gore effects, while Iguchi is the credited writer. If you want to make the observation Iguchi seem to get off rather lightly, I won't necessarily disagree. I will say that he and co-writer Jun Tsugita turn in a screenplay that is surprisingly coherent and makes the three main mutant girls sympathetic and motivated without it feeling too ham-fisted. It's not something that transcends its genre and the section that Iguchi directs is, like a lot of his work, unusually obsessed with pretty young girls with mechanical parts, but it gets the job done.

That job is primarily to give the directors insane things to shoot, and, wow, is the film chock-full of them. Nishimura concocts strange and impractal but also pretty cool armor for the government, absolutely bizarre mutations for the (mostly) girls, and when it comes time for the characters to throw down, does a good job of making sure that there are plenty of severed limbs, fake blood, and other mayhem to gross us out. Sakaguchi makes the fights fun to watch, fast paced and not overwhelmed with CGI. He's pretty good at handling the strangeness that his compatriots throw at him, figuring out how to make the mutations work as opposed to finding them something to just shove aside. That's good, because with this trio in charge, the movie is inevitably going to have action scenes where schoolgirls sprout tentacles for arms, swords out of their breasts, and chainsaw blades from their butts.

It's where these guys' movies intersect, and as a result, the movie doesn't actually feel disjointed or gimmicky. The directors have worked together before, and it's clear that they all love this sort of material; though the movie is funny and over the top, it's honest camp, filmmakers making the best splatstick movie they can without mocking the genre. The cast buys into it, for the most part, playing big but mostly stopping short of mugging for the camera. Yumi Sugimoto is a likable lead and a capable enough performer in the action sequences. Suzuka Morita and Yuko Takayama do well enough as her good and bad angels, and Sakaguchi is amusingly nuts as the transvestite mutant villain.

Mutant Girls Squad is exactly the movie you'd expect three "extreme cinema" guys from Japan to make after seeing Americans eat the likes of Tokyo Gore Police, Be a Man! Samurai School, and Vampire Girl Versus Frankenstein Girl up. The good news is, it comes together much better than patchwork movies usually do, with all three filmmakers able to do do what they do best.

Full review at EFC.

Ssang-hwa-jeom (A Frozen Flower)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

How things change; before The King and the Clown, which was very careful about what it showed of its title characters' relationship, I don't think you ever saw gay characters in Korean cinema, and Park Chan-wook's Thirst wound up with relative unknown Kim Ok-bin landing the female lead because more established actresses wouldn't get near the nudity and sex the part demanded. Just a couple years later, both of those seem to be relative non-issues for A Frozen Flower, which puts a Goryeo king and one of his guards in the same bed with no doubt what's going on, and has a few eyebrow-raising scenes involving the queen, as well.

Toward the end of the Goryeo era, the King (Ju Jin-mo) creates the Kunryongwe, a group who enter the palace's service as children, with the palace as their home and family, and one boy, Hong-lim, catches the King's attention with his dedication and skill. Ten or fifteen years later, the adult Hong-lim (Jo In-seong) is now the captain of the guards as well as the King's lover. This presents a problem, politically; though the King is Korean, he must defer to the Yuan emperor, and has married a Yuan princess as part of that alliance. But since women do nothing for the King, not even his beautiful and loyal Queen (Song Ji-hyo), he has no heir, and is thus vulnerable. So, the Queen must conceive, and Hong-rim is the only man the King will trust with the job. But once you put two people in the same bed, things are bound to get complicated.

A Frozen Flower does a remarkably good job of balancing its erotic thriller and palace intrigue sides; even though those have always been two sides of the same coin. Writer/director Yu Ha does a good job of showing us the situation in the kingdom so that we may admire the King's strength as a leader even as we mayt start to harbor doubts about how he handles his personal life. At the same time, he makes sure that the King, Queen, and Hong-lim are interesting individuals so that the needs of the kingdom don't overwhelm what affection we develop for the characters. The triangle he sets up is interesting, not just for the homosexual nature of one of its legs, but for how we perhaps don't initially realize quite how unevenly the power is distributed in practice as well as in theory, so that by the end we have to wonder whether it was that way from the start - although Yu manages to make it much more ambiguous than he otherwise might have. He's also good at cranking up the heat in both senses of the term - the tension is thick as relationships disintegrate into mistrust and plotters tighten their nooses, and the sex scenes are equally exciting, not just for being titillating (if a studio released it in the U.S., it would be a very hard R), but for being in turns blissful, awkward, and passionate enough to leave an impression for when we see the characters later.

The cast is top-notch. Jo In-seong starts Hong-lim off as charming but a little insubstantial, gradually building him until his passion is what drives the movie. He is able to work well with both his other leading man and his leading lady, enough that the audience can not reduce the film's conflicts to just his sexual orientation. Ju Jin-mo is charismatic as the King, a strong and forceful personality able to make the audience keenly aware of his position without coming off as pompous or likely to be underestimated. And Song Ji-hyo is quite good as the Queen, both regal and able to convince the audience of her loneliness and humanity.

It's a pretty good movie, sexy and suspenseful, beautifully realized. My only real issue with it was that it may have been a little too funny at times: The scenes where Hong-lim is trying to impregnate the Queen while the King is in the next room, with literally paper-thin walls between them, got a lot of laughs, and I'm not quite sure how appropriate a response that was. It could have been played as uncomfortable-tense, as opposed to uncomfortable-funny. Similarly, the last scene is broadly sentimental in a way that the rest of the film pointedly is not, and although it's grown on me a bit, it's a bit much in the moment.

One thing that I would like to praise that may get overlooked amidst the sex and the intrigue is how great the action in this movie is. There are only two or three big action moments, but they are explosive - the first from how unexpected it is, and the one at the end for the sheer fury demonstrated, and how each swing of the sword and bit of destruction seems to have meaning. This is not just a person angry and looking for revenge, but an attempt to tear down everything that had once meant something, as much a bitter recrimination as a rousing finale.

It's an exclamation point on the story, and a fitting one. A Frozen Flower could have been just a costume drama where the costumes frequently come off, but instead plays as both an intriguing thriller and a surprisingly strong romance.

Full review at EFC.

I Spit on Your Grave

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

I can't comment on the original version of this movie (which was properly titled Day of the Woman), as I haven't seen it; if this new version is toned down, as many horror remakes tend to be, I think I would rather not. This one is rough and brutal, to the point where Anchor Bay feels that it can't be cut down to an R rating for its planned October theatrical release, and they're probably right about that. The filmmakers are right not to pull their punches, although this version may not be quite so bitter a pill as they'd hoped and planned.

Jennifer (Sarah Butler), a young writer, has rented a small cabin on a lake in Louisiana, where she hopes to work on a novel in peace. Anything resembling that peace will be shattered after a few nights, when some of the local boys - Johnny (Jeff Branson) from the gas station, his buddy Andy (Rodney Eastman), camcorder-toting Stanley (Daniel Franzese), and slow handyman Matthew (Chad Lindberg) - fueled by liquor and perceived slights, knock down her door and attack her. She runs, finding the Sheriff (Andrew Howard) hunting in the woods, only to have him join in. They chase her into the woods; cornered, she drops from a bridge into a river. The rapists figure their tracks should now be easy to cover, especially once they find the body. But...

About half of the movie is quite excellenly made, if unpleasant. It takes some time to set the stage; director Steven R. Monroe at times risks boring the audience with details of ordinary life whose secondary purposes are a little too clear (Jennifer's workout clothes which shouldn't be seen as a provocation; the abandoned shed, etc.). It's supposed to numb the audience, though, so that when Johnny and company arrive at Jennifer's cabin, the audience is that much more ready to be jolted. And the rape scene is absolutely horrific; even though most of the audience is probably well aware of what they bought a ticket for, they're really not. It's violent and frightening and just will not cut away until the audience really understands that the oft-repeated axiom that rape is not about sex but power is dead on.

The cast acts the hell out of it, although the most impressive scene here may not be the crime itself, but the one leading up to it. Jeff Branson in particular does a great job of moving his character from kind of unpleasant to monstrous without a seam; even though there is a clear inciting point, it's a smooth transition. The same goes for the rest of the group; they make the attack feel like a feeding frenzy, their characters unable to resist the smell of blood in the water, but not because a switch has been flipped or a veil cast aside; these men have pushed each other past the level of what society allows as we watched. It contrasts very well with what Sarah Butler does, going from certain and falsely confident to helpless.

And then we come to the movie's second half, where it sometimes feels like Monroe and screenwriter Stuart Morse are trying to play both sides of the street. It's structured in a way that feels familiar, with gory and fitting punishments being doled out, but with the rush of satisfaction we usually get from a revenge thriller drained out of them. Which, I believe, is part of the point - Monroe and writer Stuart Morse are looking to deconstruct and deglamorize both rape and revenge fantasies. It's a fine line to walk, and I don't know if they always manage it - some bits are so elaborate and cartoonishly suited to their targets as to run counter to the brutal realism, and we don't quite get into Jennifer's head enough to see why she would take this route. And that's really too bad, because the best moments in this section - the ones where there is not just real suspense but where Butler potentially has a chance to do something special - are the ones where we're directly confronting the question of just how far gone and messed up she is. Those moments should be what everything else is leading to, but instead, the film cuts to another gruesome horror set-up.

And those set-ups often work; many will watch them and feel that Monroe has taken scenes that might play for cheers and even laughs in other movies and made them uncomfortable again. It won't work that way for everybody; some will find no difference between this I Spit on Your Grave and the exploitation films it means to invert. A little more emphasis on what's going through the character's head as opposed to just what she's doing could have made a world of difference.

Full review at EFC.

Ved Verdens Ende (At World's End)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

It's a little bit amazing, when you come to think of it, how quirky action/adventure films made outside the Hollywood system can be. Maybe it's just because I am used to the conservative thinking that is typical here in America, but I tend to think these unusually expensive pictures with many different groups involved in financing and production would play it safe. And maybe that's usually the case, and those films just don't get exported. Still, I have a bit of trouble imagining At World's End coming from a Hollywood studio; as much as it's a big, exciting adventure with the expected dash of romance, it's also more than a little eccentric.

For instance, Adrian Gabrielsen (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) isn't the typical action hero; he's a psychologist working for the Danish government. He lives in the shadow of his well-respected father (Ulf Pilgaard) and cancer-stricken mother (Birthe Neumann), and has just been given a truly bizarre assignment: Fly to Jakarta and evaluate Severin Geertsen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) to determine if he is competent to stand trial for killing the crew of a British nature program in the movie's opening. At first glance, there seems to be no doubt that Geertsen is a loon; he claims to be 129 years old, well-preserved by eating the petals of an unusual plant he calls "Hedwig". The thing is, someone seems to believe him, which leads to Adrian being arrested for murder himself, escaping from jail with Geertsen, and the pair fleeing across the island with Adrian's secretary Beate (Brigitte Hjort Sørensen), trying to get to where Geertsen has hidden Hedwig and escape to Sri Lanka.

Even if At World's End had a more conventional action-comedy story, it would still have an unusual cast. Aside form Adrian's less-than-glamorous job, he's fussy and rather lacking in conventional charm. He's more than just a bit of a nerd or a nebbish; the thoroughly unconvincing way that he claims to have quit smoking goes beyond embarrassing to downright pathetic. It's impressive how likable Kaas makes this wimpy character, in large part by making him hilarious as a victim of circumstance who captures just how most of us would probably react in these sorts of unlikely situations. Meanwhile, even if Geertsen turns out not to be delusional, he's still kind of nuts. Coster-Waldau plays him as brave, charismatic, and assured, but also kind of psychotic from being out of touch with human society for a while. There's a hilarious bit at the end of an action scene where Adrian asks Severin why he did something terribly violent; Geertsen pauses, says he doesn't know, and then enthusiastically claps his new friend on the back like everything's okay. The pair make for a very amusing role-reversal, with the handsome Coster-Waldau in the supporting role and Kaas's sidekick-looking guy the star.

The real standout, though, may just be Brigitte Hjort Sørensen as Beate, the secretary who comes across as an unusually capable and charming ditz. She tromps through the jungle in a ridiculous dress, says overly-truthful and shallow things, but is also pointedly not stupid; she not only supplies Adrian with common sense, but often takes the initiative in getting them out of a sticky situation. Sørensen gives an immensely winning performance, letting us see that Beate has a bit of a crush on Adrian without having her make eyes or get flustered or give any of the other standard, obvious signals. She's gifted with great comic timing, and does is just generally fun to watch.

Anders Thomas Jensen's script is as funny as the cast. The movie opens with a sharp bit of black comedy, skewering nature shows by showing us both how we suspect they are behind the scenes and how we'd like some to end, and continues to up jokes both light and dark even as the adventure story picks up speed. He does a good job of supplying director Tomas Villum Jensen with enough comedy and action beats that those coming for either will feel satisfied. He also does well in not allowing the fantastical elements to take complete control of the movie without making them seem commonplace.

Director Tomas Villum Jensen (no relation to the writer, although they and Nikolaj Lie Kaas have frequently worked together in various capacities) takes all that and makes a handsome, exciting movie. Though not often afforded the chance to shoot big adventure movies in Denmark as either and actor or director, Jensen is up to the challenge of shooting an action-comedy on three continents (Australia frequently doubles for the Indonesian jungle), doing action well but keeping the movie a satiric comedy first and foremost, while also taking time to occasionally stop and just let the audience (and characters) enjoy the view. The only place where the Jensens ever really stumble is in the end, when they try to add a certain amount of pathos to the mix; it's a bit of a drag on a movie that had been pretty bouncy, even if occasionally dark.

Lots of adventures try to get serious in the end, though, and few of them can boast that they've done as well as a comedy, romance, and thrill ride beforehand. At World's End is decidedly offbeat, but also successfully so, a fun adventure all the better for its frequent odd choices.

Full review at EFC.

The Revenant)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

The Revenant is nearly two hours, long for a splatter-comedy, and if I could come up with a good suggestion for trimming it, I would probably offer it. The trouble is, the scenes which could probably survive a little tightening-up - the ones that are mostly David Anders and Chris Wylde talking - actually have a really nice rhythm to them. If the movie was mostly that, it would be a real low-budget delight.

Good news: Bart (David Anders) is finally home from Iraq. Bad news: He returned to Los Angeles in a pine box. Good news: He's able to climb out of his coffin and meet up with his best buddy Joey (Chris Wylde). Bad news: He's got no appetite for anything but human blood. Good news: There are a bunch of creeps in the bad parts of town that are probably most useful as revenant food. Bad news: The LAPD doesn't take kindly to vigilantes. And Bart hasn't told his girlfriend Janet (Louise Griffiths) that he's sort of alive, even though her friend Mathilda (Jacy King) is noticing something is amiss. That's small stuff, though; other than that, it's all upside.

When the movie focuses on Bart and Joey just hanging out, trying to make sense of Bart's undead state, it's a lot of fun. Anders and Wylde have great chemistry together, and they make Bart and Joey the sort of slackers that we can absolutely buy as being surprised by what's going on but also just sort of rolling with it. They play off of each other very well, working their banter around physical and gross-out comedy without skipping a beat. And as much as we meet them as goofy comedic types, the actors make their characters real and three-dimensional enough that we buy into what's going on as the situation becomes more serious in the second half of the movie.

Despite the good work by the cast, The Revenant does at times seem to lose its way as it goes on. Writer/director Kerry Prior seems to have had a bunch of ideas for what he could do with a sort-of-vampire popping up in modern-day L.A., and was determined to use them all, whether or not they drew the film out too long, gave it an uneven tone, or ultimately just didn't make sense. It doesn't quite feel like flailing around, but the movie does become something of an aggregation of little bits that worked individually, and fit together from piece to piece, eventually wandering far from its main strengths. It also loses something as the number of characters contracts, and the violence becomes out-of-character slapstick even while the characters' issues become more serious.

For a horror comedy with a minuscule budget, it is put together very well. Prior sets himself a bit of a challenge in that the vast majority of the film has to take place at night - revenants aren't quite vampires who burst into flames when the sun comes up, but they do lose their animating spark, whether they're in a building or outside - and while the footage is somewhat grainy, the audience always has a good idea of what's going on, and when the action goes from small but gory effects to a larger chase and standoff, Prior handles the change in scale well.

While the movie has been playing festivals for the better part of the year and seemed pretty locked, Prior made the occasional comment in his Q&A about how certain cut scenes may wind up back in at some point. Certain bits could be elaborated on, but I'm not sure making this movie longer would do the pacing and occasional disjointed feeling any favors, even though most of the movie is pretty good.

Full review at EFC.

No comments: