Monday, July 18, 2011

The Fantasia Daily, 2011.04: Millennium Dragon, Ip Man: The Legend Is Born, A Lonely Place to Die, and Trollhunter

I'm hungry, need a haircut, and have movies to see, so not a whole lot of time to talk about walking around the St. Catherine's Street sidewalk fair or getting home and finding to my delight that the Sox-Rays game wasn't over, and I had 5+ innings of baseball to watch - in French!

So, pictures:

Legend of the Millennium Dragon producer Kazuteru Oshikiri & festival staff.

Not visible: The security Sony Pictures had on hand to make sure nobody tried to record the movie. Seemed kind of over-the-top, but if it served as a deterrent for people taking out their iPhones mid-movie, I'm all for it.

Programmer Mitch Davis leads a Q&A with A Lonely Place to Die filmmaker Julian Gilbey. Nobody gets excited about a new discovery that he really loves than Mitch, and Gilbey's discussion of how actual logic in the screenplays makes a movie so much better is something I say all the time.

It's also worth noting that a lot of people really seem to dig Lonely Place to Die; Twitch's Kurt Halfyard sat next to me and said that he'd seen it at ActionFest earlier, but had to see it again because the projection wasn't right there and this deserved better. Can't say I disagree.

And now, reviews!

Onigamiden (Legend of the Millennium Dragon)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011)

The craftsmanship of Legend of the Millennium Dragon is remarkable; it's the sort of animated feature where every cel is frame-worthy and the assembly into a moving picture is wonderfully fluid. Like many animated films of its type, though, it's got a "can you top this?" structure that can be overwhelming.

Jun Tendo is a kind of clumsy kid in the present day, but one who is in for a shock when a monster appears out of nowhere to attack him. He takes refuge in a strange temple, where he is transported back in time to the Heian era (the 9th century AD, roughly) - a time he'd been taught was peaceful, but he winds up in the middle of a war between the noble houses and the forest monsters, or oni. The wizard Gen'un tells Jun that he is the one who can awaken and control the eight-headed dragon Orochi and defeat the oni alongside young samurai Raiko. It seems like too much responsibility for the boy, and that's before he meets wounded oni Mizuho and discovers things may be more complicated than he'd been told.

Before all that, though, the film opens with a battle, and it's an impressive visual preview of what's to come: The landscape looks like a painting and the characters like evocative drawings that translate to motion perfectly. The coloring that makes the oni seem unearthly are especially cool, a shimmering effect that may have been a little tricky to pull off in this traditionally animated picture. Digital tools are used extremely sparingly, giving the picture a consistent visual style no matter what wonders it throws at the audience.

Full review at EFC.

Ye Wen Qian Zhuan (Ip Man: The Legend is Born)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011)

If you think the reboot trend in American movies is insane, consider that Donnie Yen's first Ip Man movie came out in China in 2008, the sequel came out in 2010, and then even before that year was out, this prequel/restart of the franchise with "Dennis" To Yu-hang in the lead role is released (it may be more of a copycat, but an odd one in that it involves people who worked on the previous films). Like the previous films, this one combines incidents with Ip's life with a mostly fictional plot. Also like the previous films, there is enough really excellent action on-screen to make one forget about biographical accuracy.

The film starts in 1905, when a young Ip Man and his adopted brother Tin-chi are enrolled in the Wing Chun school of Chan Wah-shun (Sammo Hung), where they meet Lee Mei-wai, who almost immediately develops as big a crush on Man as Tin-chi has on her. After Wah-shun's death, their training is continued by Ng Chung-so (Yuen Biao), and in 1915, the now-grown Ip Man (To) goes to college in Hong Kong, where he meets Leung Bik (Ip Chun), a less prominent Wing Chun master who teaches him some unorthodox moves. When he returns home, Chung-so is insulted and the same triangle with Tin-chi ("Louis" Fan Siu-wong) and Mei-wai (Rose Chan) are still there, now with the deputy mayor's daughter, Cheung Wing-shing (Yi Huang) added to the mix. Plus, Japan is attempting to exert more influence on the area, mostly in the person of Yuko Kitano (Kenya Sawada), and Ip Man is framed for murder.

A quick look at Ip's Wikipedia entry indicates that while writer Erica Lee gets the contributions of his teachers right, much of the rest is fabricated. That is, in some ways, par for the course; Ip Man seems to be the new Wong Fei-hung in terms of how the movie industry is building him up as a folk hero by adding grand adventures to what was already an interesting life, and naturally ones which have him confronting evil foreigners. Apparently they've got to do something to have Ip Man fighting for real rather than sparring, but the big plot twist that enables it, while not coming out of nowhere, is handled in a fairly clumsy manner. Kind of a shame, because the relatively light story of the Ip brothers' romances and the question of whether martial arts styles should stay static or evolve are actually doing fairly well at carrying the movie, and it wouldn't be hard to use one to represent the other.

Full review at EFC.

A Lonely Place to Die

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011)

It's hard not to enjoy action-adventure movies where the word "cliffhanger" can be used in a quite literal sense, and A Lonely Place to Die not only opens with a scene like that, but has another fantastic one coming up later. Around that it's got a nasty little plot twist, some truly vicious villains, and a set of great outdoor action sequences that establish early on that co-writer/director Julian Gilbey can be one mean dude when it comes to dropping characters at the exact moment. Gilbey became an expert climber to make this movie, and he and cinematographer Ali Asad get some stunning footage.

And while I understand Gilbey's reasoning in bringing the action into the village for the finale, it does feel a bit like a mistake. Clearly, the outdoor stuff is where he really excels, and I'm not sure it's a great idea to make the climax of the movie relatively conventional, compared to what had been uniquely thrilling. The movie also loads up on extra characters toward the end, making things more confusing when they should be somewhat simplified.

Don't get me wrong, though - it's still a hard-edged, thoroughly suspenseful action thriller right up to the finish, and a lot of movies like it don't have an extended section where they're clearly the best.

Full review at EFC.

Trolljegeren (Trollhunter)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2011 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2011 - Playback in Black: The Next Wave)

I've missed this a couple of times - couldn't make it work out at IFFBoston, got busy when it played local theaters - but thanks to the vagaries of North American distribution patterns, this was the film's Canadian premiere. I'd kind of subconsciously underestimated it over the months, though I'm not sure why. I really shouldn't have, but at least the end result was getting to see the movie in a big crowd that was really into it.

Which this movie deserves, because it is legitimately funny. Otto Jespersen is dry and cynical as the title character, while Glenn Erland Tosterud, Johanna Moerck, and Tomas Alf Larsen offer balancing (but not annoying) optimism. The special effects are actually much better than I expected from a low-budget Norwegian film - good enough that director Andre Oevredal doesn't seem to build the movie around hiding the trolls more than he has reason to. The first troll makes an exciting entrance, and the movie is played wonderfully straight all around.

If you're in Boston, it's playing late nights in the Coolidge screening room, which isn't the Hall theater, but is better than nothing. The Blu-ray is certainly going on my buy pile, because the movie is, in fact, a real favorite.

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