Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai (2011) & some Fantasia catch-up

Tying Hara-Kiri to Fantasia catch-up is kind of thin, but not absurdly so; as I joked when seeing the Fantasia and Brattle schedules a couple months ago, with each having different and mutually exclusive Takashi Miike movies during the same three-week period, it's gotten to the point where Miike is making so many movies so quickly that it literally is impossible to see them all. Fortunately, the streaming services have this one, and Amazon was just recently offering a $3 discount on streaming/download purchases of $3.99 or more, so what the heck?

I'm curious to hear how it looked to people who saw it either in theaters or on VOD (whether Amazon's or others). I found the picture very dark, and while it's possible that this is just the movie's style, I have my doubts. This was shot in 3D to be exhibited in that format, and remember the issues people had with Brave? This was much dimmer than that. Maybe it's something in my connection (Amazon -> Toshiba laptop -> Toshiba projection HDTV), but it's not the first time it's been an issue.

Completely separate streaming issue: Comcast is being a pain about me streaming the shows I missed while in Canada, doubly annoying because a large factor in my missing them is that the CableCard in my DVR hasn't been picking up data for months. I suppose it's time to bite the bullet and just get one of the cable company's, but, man, that feels wrong to me.

Anyway, while trying to catch up on TV, I've also been catching up on my Fantasia reviews for EFC, sneaking links back into the original "Fantasia Daily" posts. If you missed those, here's what I've done so far: Juan of the Dead, Gyo, Wrong, Zombie Ass, The Haunting of Julia (aka Full Circle), Dead Sushi (maybe I should have pulled Robogeisha off the shelf for a Noboru Iguchi theme), Mitsuko Delivers, The Victim, and Punch.

Ichimei (Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 August 2012 in Jay's Living Room (theatrical rental, Amazon streaming)

Hara-kiri seems like an odd choice for a 3D remake - it features far more sitting around and dueling with subtle turns of phrase than it does swordplay - but with Takashi Miike in the director's chair, one figures that the film will be transformed into something strange and exciting. Shockingly, it's not, and despite hewing close to the previous version with plenty of talent on-hand, this version (Ichimei) doesn't manage the alchemy that made Masaki Kobayashi's version (Seppuku) a classic fifty years ago.

The retainers in the prosperous house of Ii roll their eyes when ronin Hanshiro Tsukumo (Ebizo Ichikawa) comes to the gate and requests the use of their courtyard to commit seppuku in October of 1634; "suicide bluffs" (where a samurai makes such a request in hope of being sent away with money or, if he is very lucky, being offered a position) are common in this time of peace with several houses recently disbanded. Before granting his request, chief retainer Kageyu Saito (Koji Yakusho) tells Tsukumo of Motome Chiziiwa (Eita), another ronin who made a similar request two months ago only to have the house's squire, Hikokuro Omodaka (Munetaka Aoki) suggest that an example be made to deter others. After hearing this story, Tsukumo relates what brought him to the House of Ii that day, and how the story is not as simple as Saito thought.

This story differs very little from the Kobayashi version, but in defense of screenwriter Kikumi Yamagishi, what would you change? It is a great story of the powerful being cruel to the impoverished, unaware how the actions they undertook for their own convenience may come back to bite them. The distinctive structure both serves to reflect the very formal world in which the movie takes place and to cleanly present the different sides' perspectives without making the facts subjective but still changing apparent cowardice to desperation. The way things unfurl undeniably makes the audience interested in how it ends. Miike and company are clearly committed to the themes of the movie: There are few scenes that don't directly speak to the difference between truly honorable behavior and that which satisfies the words of some code; the final scene is a perfect capper, speaking of the admiration of symbols above reality.

Full review at EFC.

Juan de los Muertos (Juan of the Dead)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, digital)

Juan of the Dead, like many recent zombie flicks, falls into the category of horror movies that are far more glib than scary. It occasionally feels like it misses opportunities for going that route, but thankfully it is more oftent han not able to make the gross out gags and satire work.

A pair of middle-aged Cubans, Juan (Alexis Díaz de Villegas) and Lazaro (Jorge Molina), are on a raft just outside of Havana, but they are fishing rather than fleeing - although when Lazaro hoists the weird corpse, fleeing might have been wise. Insstead, they return to their poor neighborhood and are there when the zombie outbreak begins in earnest. While rescuing his daughter Camila (Andrea Duro) - in town to visit her grandmother and definitely not him - Juan discovers that he has a knack for dispatching the undead, and soon he, Lazaro, transvistite China (Jazz Vilá), China's hulking boyfriend who faints at the sight of blood Primo (Eliecer Ramirez), and Lazaro's son Vladi California (Andros Perugorría) have started a business, helping people dispose of their former loved ones for a price.

Juan may not be the scariest zombie movie ever made - it's far more likely to use its splatter in the service of slapstick than shocks - but it can lay some claim to being among the funniest. Writer/director Alejandro Brugués fires a steady stream of lowbrow humor at the audience, and while the jokes themselves are generally unsophisticated, the execution is quite often clever, with the physical comedy especially well-choreographed. Brugués also has a good knack for when it's more funny for people to be fed up and when taking things in stride works best.

Full review at EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012: Axis, HD)

Gyo packs a whole bunch of messed-up into a very short running time, and while to a certain extent that's the way it should be - once you've started freaking an audience out, do not stop! - there's a risk of going too far, too fast. Especially when your starting point is "fish with spider legs crawl onto land and attack!"

The fish first make landfall in Okinawa, where Kaori, Erika, and Aki are taking a post-graduation vacation at a beach house owned by the family of Kaori's fiancé Tadoshi. There's already hostility brewing between the sort of trampy Erika and mousy Aki even before things get weird, and then when Kaori returns to Tokyo to investigate a cut-off telephone call from Tadoshi with freelance photographer Tsuyoshi in tow, since he's looking to score an interview with Tadoshi's uncle (Professor Koyanagi is the closest thing to an expert that exists) - things just get freakier in both places.

Unrestrained freakiness is the calling card of Gyo's creator, horror manga-ka Junji Ito, who uses his medium to visually conjure any nightmare he can think of without holding back. The first walking fish is only the start; soon the movie has got Great White Sharks marauding on land, infections affecting humans in grotesque ways, disgusting medical experiments on the results, and huge schools of everything making it very clear that the situation has escalated to apocalyptic in no time. Surprisingly, this is the first animated adaptation of Ito's work (though there have been many live-action Tomie pictures), and filmmaker Takayuki Hirao runs with it. It's a rare moment when the film seems to be holding back.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, DCP)

Even those who haven't seen Quentin Dupieux's previous feature-length bit of absurdity Rubber can probably guess that this is going to be a strange movie from the title alone. The playful, cheery nature of the picture may be a surprise, though; rather than the perverse nastiness which usually prompts a declaration that something is "just wrong", this is pure joyous oddity.

Dolph Springer (Jack Plotnick) has lost his dog, and that's just the tip of the iceberg where the strangeness in his life is concerned: His alarm goes off at 7:60, and it rains inside his office - though that's a whole other story, as is the weird thing his gardener Victor (Eric Judor) needs to show him. At least there is some word on his dog - according to an intermediary, the mysterious Master Chang (William Fichtner) would like to speak with him about it.

It's a weird world that Dolph lives in, but what sets Dupieux's strange world apart from those of other quirk-pushers is how delightfully the oddities reinforce each other, with none of them seeming like a thing that would keep something akin to regular life from functioning. Everything seems a bit out of date and off-center, and the overall effect is to have the audience feel a bit off-center themselves, but not overwhelmed.

Full review at EFC.

Zonbi Asu (Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

Once you have made the decision to see a movie by the name of "Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead", you've implicitly acknowledged that certain criteria, like good taste, are not real considerations. So, essentially, whether it is worth a rent comes down to the questions of whether the zombies and the ass deliver. The answers are yes, and yes - pretty literally.

The setup is horror movie basics - five teenagers on a trip to the boonies - Tak (Kentaro Kishi), his girlfriend Aya (Mayu Sugano), Aya's slutty friend Maki (Asana Mamoru), Aya's much more demure friend Megumi (Arisa Nakamura), and Naoi (Danny), a nerdy friend of Megumi's. This rural area is home to a mad scientist (Kentarou Shimzu), whose efforts to help his sickly daughter... Well, you know how it goes. Just sort of substitute intestinal parasites for the usual virus.

That seems to be roughly the amount of work director Noboru Iguchi and his three co-writers did on the screenplay - it's pretty much a basic framework on which to hang gross-out gags, fart jokes, and nudity. These things are all well and good, but seldom come at the most fitting of times or with the smoothest of executions, although Maki's declarations that her next fart is going to be really bad is a better use of Iguchi's tendency to have his characters say what they are doing or about to do than usual. Heroine Megumi is given an origin story that can come across as hilariously over the top or spectacularly ill-conceived, as you've got to be more clever with the "teenagers committing suicide over bullying" form of bad taste than with the "pretty girls breaking wind" form.

Full review at EFC.

The Haunting of Julia (Full Circle)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre J.A. de Seve (Fantasia 2012: House of Psychotic Women, video)

The Haunting of Julia (aka Full Circle) is extremely hard to find today - the copy used for this screening was a special telecine from the only known archival print, and the actual ownership of the film is a bit murky. That's a movie not far from lost, and while that fate shouldn't befall any film, it's easy and sad to imagine it happening to Julia - it's good enough to be missed, but not until someone points out its absence.

Julia (Mia Farrow) may not quite be living a perfect life, but it's comfortable and she's got a lovely daughter (Sophie Ward) - at least until Kate suddenly starts choking during breakfast and Julia's desperate but perhaps misguided attempt to clear an airway for her leaves the girl dead and Julia in a mental ward. Upon her release, she leaves her husband Magnus (Keir Dullea) and buys a new house, spending more time with her old friend Mark (Tom Conti). Her new house has lots of strange noises and an odd thing or two happens there, but how much of that is Magnus trying to intimidate Julia into coming back and how much is a ghost from the house's past?

Do you need a waifish young woman to scare witless? 1970s Mia Farrow is the way to go, looking like she'll blow away in a strong wind and with a voice to match (here sporting a posh English accent). Her initial collapse and later panicky torment are just what you'd expect. Just as great, though, is her frenzied mania in that first sequence or her anger at others not believing in her; she pushes her face and voice to their limits, looking and sounding like she's about to become someone else. She's no simple victim, though; what most intriguing about Julia and Farrow's portrayal of her is how intelligent and focused she seems much of the time. By the same token; there's this sheltered and privileged air to her as she investigates the mysteries surrounding her potentially haunted house that makes the audience question her apparent stability in a different way.

Full review at EFC.

Dead Sushi (Deddo Sushi)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

Noboru Iguchi's Dead Sushi is the latest product from the prolific Japanese B-movie maker that, while not explicitly made for export, certainly seems to have North America and the rest of the west in mind during production. Not that it's in English (aside from the credits) or has foreign characters; indeed, it caters to j-pop enthusiasts by delivering them exactly the sort of Japan they fetishize, only amplified. As Dead Sushi demonstrates, it doesn't always make for great movies, but it seldom results in boring ones.

Poor Keiko. The daughter of a master sushi chef (Jiji Bu) who wanted a son for his heir, she was trained unceasingly in sushi preparation and martial arts (for mental discipline) until her klutziness led to her leaving home in tears. She winds up a hostess at the Korinoya Hotel, known for its sushi but also the home of some drama: The owner's wife (Asami), a former hostess herself, is having an affair with the sushi chef (Kanji Tsuda) and the other hostesses pick on Keiko, though groundskeeper Sawada (Shigeru Matsuzaki) befriends her. This weekend, a pharmaceutical company is having a retreat at the hotel, but it may be ruined by the arrival of Yamada (Kentaro Shimazu), a strange vagrant with a secret formula that regenerates dead tissue - like sushi - giving it a compulsion to kill!

Dead Sushi is ridiculous, of course, but it takes full ownership of its silliness all the way through, from the moment when Sawada looks at Keiko's hands and pronounces that they were made to handle fish to when another character notes that they are long past the point where anything makes sense and beyond. It's awfully genuine and good-natured about it, as opposed to pompous or mean-spirited - even when the script is taking shots at sushi posers, it's less disdain than sincere appreciation of the sushi chef's art. When he comments on how sad it is that even flying sushi monsters have a pecking order, it's funny but also completely sincere. Iguchi is not making high art, but he does bloody-but-silly as well as anybody, so you get sushi with squeaky little voices and great big fangs, along with mutated forms of both sushi and humans that just get weirder as the movie goes on.

Full review at EFC.

Hara ga kore nande (Mitsuko Delivers)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2012 in Concordia University Cinema J.A. de Seve (Fantasia 2012, HD)

The previous film by Yuya Ishii to play Fantasia was called "Sawako Decides", and to be completely honest, this one could do with a little more deciding and acting on those decisions. As nice as this movie and most everybody in it is, it wouldn't hurt if the characters were a little more active.

Take Mitsuko Hara (Riisa Naka). Nine months pregnant from a man left behind when she returned to Tokyo from California, she's just been evicted from her apartment, and, after a nap, tells a taxi driver to follow a cloud. It takes her to a run-down neighborhood that looks the same as it did during World War II. She barges into the apartment of "Granny" Kiyoshi (Miyoko Inagawa), the bedridden landlady and sets up housekeeping, getting dinner on the house at nearby Yoichi's Restaurant. It's not quite as rude as it sounds; Yoichi (Aoi Nakamura) recognizes her from fifteen years ago, when young Mitsuko (Momoka Oono) and her parents (Shiro Namiki & Miyako Takeuchi) hid from their creditors for a few months that turned out to influence Mitsuko quite a bit.

Well, maybe it is a bit rude, but Mitsuko's pushiness is a part of her character. Though poker-faced and given to not bother with any explanation when she does act, she's also aggressively generous, and almost uncomprehending when others don't act according to the same principles. That selfless nature is actually sort of a storytelling problem in a lot of ways; she's so seemingly passive when making decisions on her own behalf that the film gets stuck in neutral.

Full review at EFC.

The Victim (2012)

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

Michael Biehn has worked with some great directors over the course of his career, but his forays into directing his own material so far have been odd, to say the least. He went to Hong Kong to direct The Blood Bond but wasn't involved in post-production (and thus he does not consider it his film), and made this on a shoestring. You'd think a guy with Biehn's résumé and contacts who wanted to direct would get a shot at something higher-profile, and maybe be able to make something better than this.

Kyle (Biehn) lives by himself well outside of town, though he's not quite a hermit; he's just got his reasons for this sort of solitary life. It's about to be shattered, though, by the arrival of Annie (Jennifer Blanc), a stripper who had been having a little camping trip with her friend Mary (Danielle Harris) and two local cops. But now Mary's dead, and it would be very bad for the ambitious Harrison (Ryan Honey) if word of this got out, so he and his friend Cooger (Denny Kirkwood) aim to chase Annie down.

The Victim is a bare-bones grindhouse movie: The cast is small, the locations are few, and the short running time is noticeably padded by flashback scenes with Annie and Mary where little of note happens. It is made quick and dirty (a twelve-day shoot, and not a lot more in the way of pre-production), and looks it; it's got a genuinely stripped-down feeling without feeling like a pastiche. It's the genuine article, for better or worse.

Full review at EFC.

Wandeuki (Punch)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2012 in Concordia University Cinema J.A. de Seve (Fantasia 2012, DCP)

From the name it's been given in English, "Punch", you might expect Won-deuk-i to be an inspirational sports movie, and it's got some of that in the later reels. In reality, it's actually something closer to an inspirational teacher movie, though few of those are ever this funny without becoming outright self-parody.

Doh Won-deuk (Yoo Ah-in) is a bit of an at-risk kid: His grades are low and his family is poor, and things are only going to get tighter now that the cabaret where his hunchbacked father Gak-sul (Park Soo-young) and somewhat slow "uncle" Min-goo (Kim Young-jae) dance is closing down. So Won-deuk gets into fights and gets singled out in class by teacher Lee Dong-joo (Kim Yun-seok), and it doesn't end when school's out - Dong-joo lives in the same crappy neighborhood as Won-deuk, practically next door, and continues haranguing his student late into the night. So it's not really a surprise that Won-deuk prays for Dong-joo to die, and that's before the latest way Dong-joo sticks his nose into Won-deuk's business: Introducing the boy to his mother Sook-hee (Jasmine Lee), a Filipina immigrant he's never known.

There's also Chung Yoon-ha (Kang Byul), the class's studious-but-cute girl; a crabby neighbor (Kim Sang-ho); a writer of existential martial arts novels (Park Hyo-joo); some jail time; and, yes, the chance for Won-deuk to channel some of his hostility via kickboxing. There are a lot of episodes to this movie's episodic structure, but to the credit of director Lee Han, it seldom feels meandering, even when the screenplay by Kim Dong-woo (based on Kim Ryeo-ryeong's novel) is kind of piling stuff on as opposed to letting one event lead to another. Part of why that works is that it's a rare individual scene that goes on too long, allowing them to pack a lot of events into a bit under two hours. The film is also presented as much as a comedy as anything else, which smooths things over; it's easier for comedies to move onto the next thing than dramas.

Full review at EFC.

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