Saturday, September 11, 2010

Fantasia 2010 Catch-up Part 04: Variola Vera, Frankenstein Unlimited, The Executioner, Mesrine

Just five left before I start digging into screeners...

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. Now I'd like to see more of his early career, especially if this tense account of a 1972 smallpox outbreak is representative.

The film starts with Halil Redzepi (Dzemail Maksut) contracting variola vera while on a pilgrimage to the Middle East and returning to what was then Yugoslavia, but soon it drops us into the middle of a hospital soap opera, with all the necessary ingredients: There's Dr. Grujic (Serbedzija), a scuzzy type who has made his way through much of the female staff, but has yet to have any success with Danka Uskokovic (Varja Djukic), the newly-arrived lady doctor who is as professional as she is beautiful. There's Dr. Dragutin Kenigsmark (Erland Josephson), the head of the hospital, who has a history with Dr. Markovic (Dusica Zegarac). The administrative director, Upravnik Cole (Rade Markovic), is having an affair with Slavica (Vladica Milosavljevic), trampy enough that you know she's been a notch on Grujic's bedpost. There are long-term patients, maintenance men, and hangers-on, and it's chaotic enough that one almost doesn't notice Redzepi staggering in, getting the runaround until he's vomiting blood, and nobody at the hospital connecting his symptoms with smallpox (it's extinct, right?) until an outside expert, Magistar Jovanovic (Aleksandar Bercek), insists on placing the hospital under quarantine.

Though made in the early 1980s, Variola Vera dramatizes an incident that occurred ten years earlier, and it feels like a 70s movie. Not just in that it does what I presume a good job of recreating 1972 Belgrade, but also for the general tense atmosphere combined with solid character work. It feels very pre-Jaws/Star Wars, a mirror image of the paranoid thrillers that came out on the other side of the Iron Curtain during that period, complete with a subplot about the government wanting to keep news of the outbreak quiet, not just to avoid a panic, but to avoid looking backward to the west. Indeed, contrary to the expectations Americans might have of Eastern European productions during the Cold War, writer/director Goran Markovic doesn't appear to have any trouble showing institutions as corrupt and/or ineffective.

Full review at EFC

Frankenstein Unlimited

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010)

One of the pleasures of Fantasia is that, while the draws are often much-anticipated movies from around the world, it always has room for smaller films, including enthusiastic showcases for locally-produced works. They're not always on the largest screen and sometimes they're run at odd hours - audiences would have to go to the secondary screen on Sunday morning for this anthology of six tales inspired by Mary Shelley's Frankenstein - but it's an important part of the festival, even if the results are somewhat uneven.

That not every bit will appeal to everyone is borne out by the first segment, Matthew Saliba's "Dark Lotus". It's something of a music video in two parts, with a mad scientist (John M. Thomas) cultivating fetuses in a garden, only to find his work destroyed by a rival (Martin Plouffe) - though years later, the spider-woman (Kayden Rose) born out of his work will avenge him. Having the film start with the most unconventional of the segments is a good idea; though it will excite some, many won't easily connect with it, so it can't derail the movie. The photography is nicely done, and it's creative and effective in its grotesquerie, but even those who like it gross may not like it weird.

Fortunately, it's followed by the most direct take on Frankenstein, Matthew Forbes's "Victor". This one takes place some time after the Monster's rampage, with Victor Frankenstein a pariah in his village, haunted by what his glorious dreams turned into. It's attractively mounted on a small budget, and hits upon a part of the story that is often overlooked or downplayed.

Full review at EFC

Jibhaengja (The Executioner)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2010 in Salle de Seve (Fantasia 2010)

It's not hard for a prison movie to get off to a decent start. There is, after all, always a new guy coming in who needs to be shown the ropes and taught the rules. That the new guy in the case of The Executioner is a guard rather than an inmate isn't even a particularly novel twist on the idea. Still, the filmmakers handle this hook well enough that it's not particularly hurt by its awkward second half.

The new guard is Oh Jae-hyung (Yoon Kye-sang), for whom this is just one more in a series of unimpressive jobs, and it shows - the inmates initially give him no respect. It falls to veteran guard Bae Jong-ho (Jo Jae-hyeon) to toughen him up. Jong-ho is not shy about using his baton, and puts it to Jae-hyung that this is the only way to get the inmates' obedience, even if the hardening sometimes doesn't stop at the prison walls. Things are about to change, though - the new death row prisoner, Yong-doo (Jo Seong-ha) is a serial killer without any shred of remorse, his crimes so reviled that the government feels pressured to reinstate executions (though criminals have been sentenced to hang, none have actually been executed in South Korea since 1997). This move affects not only Yong-doo, but other inmates like Seong-hwan (Kim Jae-geon), who has been awaiting execution for so long that he and Senior Officer Kim (Park In-hwan) have become close friends.

I strongly suspect that The Executioner would have more effect on me if I were a Korean national, or even if I had more familiarity with current Korean culture and politics than I do. Part of the reason is that it does not become overtly political until about halfway through, and while any audience member who has been content to simply watch it as a prison movie will find himself or herself a little thrown by the change in emphasis, foreign audiences may be a little more at sea because they lack a baseline. What is the general thinking on the death penalty in South Korea, and why did executions stop a decade ago? Have there been recent cases like the one depicted that have led to a call for renewed executions, or is this a purely hypothetical situation? Heck, during a section of the film where Jae-hyung and his girlfriend Eun-joo (Cha Soo-yeon) deal with a pregnancy scare, there's an awkward juxtaposition of capital punishment and abortion where I realized that I didn't really know whether the anti-abortion crowds tend to politically align with the pro-execution people, and vice versa, in South Korea as they do in the US.

Full review at EFC

L'instinct de mort (Mesrine: Killer Instinct)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 September 2010 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

The story of French outlaw Jacques Mesrine is a grand, sprawling one, so large that Jean-François Richet felt the need to split it into two films in order to do it justice. Watching the first one, covering Mesrine's rise to prominence in the 1960s, it's possible to make a case that this doesn't go far enough, as Killer Instinct itself could very easily be divided in half, with each segment expanded into a strong film.

Though we are briefly introduced to an older Mesrine, the film quickly flashes back to his origins: In 1959, Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) is approaching the end of a tour as a French soldier in Algeria, and somewhat hesitant about the brutal techniques used to quell the rebellion. He's soon back in Paris, and while his parents (Michel Duchaussoy and Myriam Boyer) have lined up a job for him, his friend Paul (Gilles Lellouche) has found him far more lucrative "off the books" work for gangster Guido (Gerard Depardieu). Soon he's a successful bank robber, and has met and married Spanish beauty Sofia (Elena Anaya), but armed robbery and domesticity don't mix, and by the late sixties, he and new flame Jeanne Schneider (Cecile De France) have fled for Montreal, where Quebec separatist Jean-Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis) could use a man like Mesrine.

Though the two halves overlap somewhat, the geographical split ensures that Cassel's Mesrine is the only character to be a factor all the way through. While that certainly gives Cassel plenty of opportunity to shine, it also can make the telling of Mesrine's story feel a bit shallow: Love interests and partners in crime (sometimes the same people, sometimes in opposition) seem to be rushed on and off the stage, with barely a chance to establish themselves before being replaced with the next year's models. The idea may be to establish Mesrine as larger than life, a man for whom others are just temporary, supporting characters, but it often has the effect of making the others seem neglected. It also may leave the audience vaguely wondering if there's something to the pattern of Mesrine joining groups that seem to position themselves as something other than mere criminal organizations that could be made more explicit.

Full review at EFC

L'ennemi public n°1 (Mesrine: Public Enemy Number One)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 September 2010 in Landmark Kendall Square #4 (first-run)

The first half of Jean-François Richet's two-part biography of French gangster Jacques Mesrine, Killer Instinct, was quiet good; the second half, Public Enemy Number One, is even better: As much as it's still shuffling a lot of characters in and out, it's telling one strong story in a way that's both intense and highly entertaining.

Public Enemy Number One starts by flashing forward to 1979 (the aftermath to Killer Instinct's prologue) before jumping back to 1973, where Jacques Mesrine (Vincent Cassel) has been apprehended by the law but is suffering from no resultant lack of bravado; he's already plotting his next escape. He'll alternate daring escapes with audacious robberies, in the process meeting fellow escape artist François Besse (Mathieu Amalric) and new lady love Sylvie Jeanjacquot (Ludivine Sagnier) and making an enemy of Commissaire Broussard (Olivier Gourmet). As dogged as the detective's pursuit is, though, Mesrine's worst enemy may be his own legend, and how he is starting to believe it.

This movie doesn't pick up right where its predecessor left off in time - about four years have past - but Mesrine in this film is the character that he spent Killer Instinct becoming: A man who believes himself to be a devil-may-care modern swashbuckler, harnessing his personal charisma with ease to tweak the police and charm the public. It's a funny, charismatic performance, but even as Cassel is making the audience laugh, he's also perfectly showing the dark side of this personality: A desperate desire not just to succeed, but to matter. As the movie goes on, this arrogance and desperation takes on a greater and greater prominence in Cassel's performance, even as it becomes more unlikely - with his increasing scraggliness and middle-age spread, he becomes something akin to an aging rock star, confusing charisma with significance.

Full review at EFC

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