Thursday, August 05, 2010

Fantasia Daily for 26 July: A Holy Place, Into Eternity, Black Death, Little Big Soldier, The Loved Ones

A tough day to match in terms of quality and quantity, this one - even the somewhat slow start with A Holy Place was a pretty good movie, and I found myself pretty darn enthusiastic about all the rest.

I'm really hoping that a good chunk of these movies get general releases. A Holy Place is from 1990, so even a video release is unlikely. Into Eternity will likely stay on the festival circuit for a while, and might only hit the U.S. on video-on-demand and maybe play something like the Brattle's Eye-Opener series, if that returns this fall.

Black Death will probably get the same sort of release that Valhalla Rising and Centurion are - the PPV before a limited theatrical release. Shame, as they're fun movies and not exactly obscure, but that's the way it is; audiences don't necessarily stray very far from comfort zones these days. Similarly, The Loved Ones will probably end up on the IFC Midnight schedule; everyone's speaking English and it's not like the Australian accents are terribly thick, but it's a weird movie, and though it's about teenagers, there is likely no way to cut it down to a PG-13 rating without also getting the running time down to about an hour - it's short and gross.

Oddly, I think Little Big Soldier might have the best chance to get a "regular" theatrical release. Jackie Chan's still a recognizable name, it's a movie that the critics can get behind, and it's got Jackie doing Jackie Chan things. Unfortunately, I doubt that any distributor is going to be clever enough to put it out in January, when it might mostly face cometition from crap and relatively stodgy awards contenders, but I'd really like to see this get some theatrical play. It's a good reminder of why we love Jackie Chan.

Sveto mesto (A Holy Place)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010: Subversive Serbia)

I've been coming to Fantasia for five or six years now, and I believe that this is the third time that some take on Nikolai Gogol's "Viy" has played. This one is from 1990, part of the "Subversive Serbia" program, but feels like it comes from an earlier era, a creepy period piece dripping with atmosphere.

Thomas (Dragan Jovanovic) is a theology student, though not a particularly observant one. On the way back from a town fair, he sees a carriage that neither of his two companions do. Things get stranger when the old woman who lets him sleep in his barn enters and tries to force herself upon him - which becomes a great deal more appealing when she seems to transform into the beautiful girl in the carriage. Upon returning to the seminary, the abbot tells him he has an assignment: Landlord Zupanski (Aleksandar Bercek) is insisting that Thomas, specifically, come to his estate to pray for his daughter's health, per her wishes. When Thomas arrives, though, Katarina (Branka Pujic) has already passed... And guess where Thomas has seen that face before!

Though A Holy Place is an old-school horror story that takes place in a more repressed time, writer/director Djordje Kadijevic is not shy about drawing the direct line between sex and the occult goings-on that surround Thomas and Katarina. It's a powerful force here, one that literally warps reality and drives men mad, and Kadijevic does a fine job of presenting the dichotomy of the sex drive as being something that is both natural and something that must be mastered lest it destroy everything.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Into Eternity

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010: Documentaries from the Edge)

Often, documentaries will be rated on the perceived importance of their subjects, as opposed to the actual quality of the film. Into Eternity is a rare example of a documentary that not only covers a vital (yet often overlooked) topic, but does so in a way that is informative and even-handed, as well as presented in an interesting way.

The topic in question is the permanent storage of nuclear waste. The waste from fission reactors is generally stored in pools of water above ground, and imperfect solution, as these facilities require constant monitoring and, while the technology is sufficient for the foreseeable future, when dealing with material that will be dangerously radioactive for a hundred thousand years, one must also consider the unforeseeable future. This film takes a look inside Finland's plans for the long term, a cavern being excavated half a kilometer into the bedrock of the Eurajoki region. The facility was started in the twentieth century and is projected to be finished, filled, and sealed at the turn of the twenty-second. It is called "Onkalo", Finnish for "hiding place".

Writer/director/host Michael Madsen (not, let us note, the American actor) does not spend a great deal of time debating the pros and cons of nuclear power itself, beyond pointing out that though there are dangers, today's civilization presumes the availability of abundant energy. Even if another fission reactor was never built, and the existing ones were shut down, there would still be hundreds of thousands of tons of spent fuel rods that (barring a new model of reactor that can use them as fuel) must be quarantined. Building something like Onkalo is presented as a practical necessity.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Black Death

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010: Between Death and the Devil)

Director Christopher Smith is clever in presenting Black Death to us. We all know that the bubonic plague was spread by ticks nesting on rats, and the opening scenes will often have the vermin skittering across the screen. He doesn't use them to show his characters up, though, so their tendencies to offer supernatural explanations can't quite be discredited, which adds a bit of uncertainty to an already lean and mean film.

After all, in 1357, everybody wondered what had sent the pestilence, the main argument being as to whether it was the work of God or the Devil. Whatever the cause, even the monasteries are no longer safe, leading novice Osmund (Eddie Redmayne) to send Averill (Kimberley Nixon), the girl he loves, back to the woods near their home to be safe. He'll soon follow, as a guide for Ulric (Sean Bean). The Bishop has heard that a village near there is plague-free, perhaps as a result of necromancy and dark magic, and has dispatched Ulric and his team to investigate. They battle through plague and bandits to get there, and find that it is plague-free - and that town leaders Hob (Tim McInnerny) and Langiva (Carice van Houten) have little use for the Church.

Black Death doesn't quite have an A-list cast, but it's one where just about everybody involved is perfect for the task at hand. If you need a guy to look imposing while swinging a big sword, every movement a testament to his righteousness, you really want Sean Bean. He looks much more natural in a beard and chain mail than he has in his recent, more contemporary roles, and that's what you want from Ulric: This is a man who feels he has been called to his violent work by God, and should walk through a room, forest, or swamp like he owns the place. His band is comprised of similarly dangerous men (including an excellent Andy Nyman as more or less the exact opposite of the nebbish he played in Smith's Severance), and they've got to be ferocious in their own right but also not quite up to his fierce standard. Of course, there's room for an older, more philosophical second-in-command, and John Lynch fills that part very nicely.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Da bing xiao jiang (Little Big Soldier)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

Jackie Chan's been in the movie business a while, and the last decade or so has certainly looked like the inevitable decline phase of a man who became a star based in large part on his physical gifts succumbing to the passage of time. He's been alternating often painful Hollywood projects with Hong Kong pictures that were merely considered mediocre, and even for longtime fans, a new Jackie Chan picture was nothing to get excited about. Lately, however, he looks primed for a comeback - he's gotten good reviews for his parts in The Shinjuku Incident and The Karate Kid, and his latest movie is a delight.

In it, it's the 2nd century BC, the height of China's "Warring Kingdoms" period. The two specific warring kingdoms are Liang and Wei, and the battle of Mount Phoenix is particularly fierce; it ends with only two left alive: One, a middle-aged peasant foot soldier for Liang (Chan), played dead for the entire battle; the other, a younger Wei general (Wang Lee-hom), is fierce but injured. Thus, the grunt captures the general, planning to take him back to Liang for the award of five acres of good farmland. It will not, of course, be that simple; the general is naturally trying his best to escape, and has enemies of his own withing the Wei hierarchy, including his immediate pursuers, Prince Wen (Yoo Sung-jun) and General Wu (Yu Rong-guang). Plus, they're an easy target for bandits and barbarians across the countryside.

Little Big Soldier has been a pet project of Chan's for years, long enough that when he originally conceived it (he wrote the screenplay with director Ding Sheng), he would have been playing the young general. It's hard to imagine that now, and not just because Chan was already middle-aged when he made his big splash in America with Rumble in the Bronx. Jackie Chan's screen personality has often been that of a man who gets caught up in something but rises to the occasion, and that's a much closer match to the peasant than the general. Just looking at this film, though, even someone who had never seen a Jackie Chan movie before will have to smile at just how well he slides into the role. His character is a little world-weary but mostly optimistic, a gregarious fellow whose homespun and chatty nature should not be taken as a sign of weakness or stupidity; being friendly does not preclude him being clever or resourceful, or having depths to his personality that need to be teased out.

Full review at eFilmCritic

The Loved Ones

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2010 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2010)

What sort of movie is The Loved Ones? It's the sort of movie where, when a carpet is lifted from the floor to reveal hinges, we in the audience are given a bit of time to ponder just what sort of poisonous Australian animals might be in that pit, waiting to feed - and then realize that, really, based upon what we've seen of the movie so far, we both should have guessed and not underestimated how truly messed up filmmaker Sean Byrne's imagination was.

Things have not been going well for Brent Mitchell (Xavier Samuel); his father died in an automobile accident while Brent was driving six months ago, which has weighed on him and his mother ever since. But, it's the end of the school year, time for the dance, and not only has Brent's buddy Sac (Richard Wilson) gotten sexy Mia (Jessica McNamee) for his date, he's going with Holly (Victoria Thaine). Lola (Robin McLeavy) has asked him, too, and while Brent let her down easy... Well, to coin a phrase, whatever Lola wants, Lola gets. Especially since she's willing to settle for a little party in her home, and her doting father Eric (John Brumpton) is just as much a psychopath as she is.

And, holy crap, are they nuts. While I'm certain that their dynamic has shown up in horror movies before, Robin McLeavy is especially noteworthy as Lola. She initially comes off as an average girl, as opposed to a bombshell stuck behind a bad haircut and glasses, and when we see her alone initially, she seems like a normal teenage girl that's a little shy and has her fantasies. As the movie goes on, of course, she's revealed to be more and more of a lunatic, and I like the way she doesn't just turn it on full-blast when Brent regains consciousness in Lola's house; she initially seems to be just kind of spoiled, but soon starts joining in, and by the time the movie's over, she's playing it big, one of the most enthusiastic, indestructible, and entertaining horror villainesses in a long time. Brumpton, meanwhile, is just plain low-key creepy as the father; combining the dad indulging his little princess with a guy who may well have been a serial killer well before Lola came around. Part of the fun of watching them together is that it's never quite clear who was insane first.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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