Monday, August 20, 2012

ParaNorman (2011) & some Fantasia catch-up

As mentioned before, I didn't get to see ParaNorman at Fantasia, despite being curious about the tech they'd be using to show it on a screen that otherwise doesn't show 3D movies. In a way, I'm really sorry I missed it; the beautiful attention to detail would have looked great on the huge screen in Hall and I gather the LCD shutter glasses used let more light in. On the other hand, I got to see it less than two weeks later and did get to see Sunflower Hour, so that's a win.

It's bizarre how Hollywood can go through spates of parallel creation, though - before this movie, there were previews for Genndy Tartakovsky's Hotel Transylvania and Tim Burton's Frankenweenie, which will be coming out roughly a week apart a month or so from now. And while they're both cool, I found myself fairly happy that ParaNorman was not exactly overloaded on Universal Monsters references. I mean, I like Universal Monsters, and you do, and they're easily recognized horror icons, but this really felt like Butler's and Fell's own thing, even though I'm sure Tartakovsky and Burton will put their own spins on their movies (because, being who they are, how can they not?).

There were standees and previews for both of those movies, along with Rise of the Guardians (which is just now starting to look interesting) and Life of Pi, which looks downright amazing.

Oh, and while I didn't see ParaNorman at Fantasia, I have gotten five more EFC: reviews done for movies I did see: Hemorrhage, Jackpot, Reign of Assassins, Resolution, and As Luck Would Have It. First few paragraphs and links below.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 August 2012 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, RealD 3D/Sony Digital 4K)

ParaNorman had a pretty great teaser, but what's really impressive is how it's both better than that preview and very much different than what might be expected. Where it really shines is in how, once it establishes its main character's talents and themes, it doesn't sell them out at all, even when doing so to give the movie a more conventional villain would be the easy way to go.

At times, its relatively non-confrontational heart will make the audience think that the movie lacks drama or story, and truth be told, it does at times move a little slowly, with an ensemble around the title character that is pretty dim all around. The thing is, though, that low-key approach is an integral part of the character - our first glimpses of Norman establish him as a pretty great kid, withdrawn in some ways but friendly and helpful when he can be. He's a kid who talks to the dead, and in doing so - and having the movie stick to it - he puts things on an interesting path.

The animation is also pretty phenomenal. It's good-looking stop-motion, sure, with the 3D used well if not in the most obvious way, but what directors Chris Butler (who also wrote) & Sam Fell and cinematographer Tristan Oliver do is really capture the aesthetic of a mid-century monster movie, Despite being very much set in the modern day, it's got a Hammer feel to it, with a very filmic look, like the 24fps speed isn't quite perfect. There's an emptiness and run-down nature to the town of "Blithe Hollow" that fits beautifully, and a genuine love for scary movies that doesn't run counter to its good nature.

Some parents and their kids left the movie early, compalining about it being scary. It is, at times, for really little kids. But I kind of wish they had stuck it out, because the movie is one of the most truly committed to showing how kids shouldn't be scared, and the way to deal with things that scare them isn't just to counter-attack. That impresses me; the movie may have had to trade a little energy for that, but it's smart, fair, and rather upbeat as a result.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2012 in Concordia University Cinema de Seve (Fantasia 2012, HD)

We're probably healthier as a society for not throwing terms like "insane" or "crazy" around quite so much as we used to. It's not always the case in the movies, where simple homicidal maniacs are often the norm, and that's what makes this slow-burner from Alberta interesting: Its main character is even more horrified than the audience.

Oliver Lorenz (Alex D. Mackie) is not well, and probably never has been. Top of his class at Harvard Medical School and the son of another brilliant doctor, he has been in a mental hospital for the last six years for his crimes. One of his doctors (Diane Wallace) has successfully argued for a supervised release, and that's how he comes to be working as a janitor in a clinic and meets Claire (Brittney Grabill), a pretty young nurse. Dr. Peck warns him that he's probably not ready for that sort of relationship, and events soon prove her right, sending Oliver (with Claire in tow as a hostage) across the country to look for his father's notes, which he is sure contain the secret to curing his condition.

Many stories focusing on this sort of serial/spree killer tend to boil things down to an inciting incident, or paint the person in question as a simple monster. Or he's an antagonist where the cops chasing him can at best hope to discover patterns. Writer/director Braden Croft, on the other hand, is careful about always framing Oliver as mentally ill; he's not a freak or subhuman, and though his condition leaves him not just capable of doing horrible things but prone to it, he certainly seems smart and decent enough most of the time that locking him up forever would be a waste. He's rational and humble enough to face his demons, and the arguments for him certainly seem more reasoned than the ones against him at the start.

Full review at EFC.

Arme Riddere (Jackpot)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012 Spotlight Denmark/Norway, HD)

So, it looks like I'm going to have to start putting Jo Nesbø stuff in my Amazon basket, as any guy who comes up with the raw material for both this and Headhunters is my kind of darkly funny. Proper credit must also go to Magnus Martens, though, who took the original story and made a fast-paced, very funny movie out of it.

You've got to feel sorry for that carful of obnoxious boors whose names we never learn - just arriving at the Pink Heaven strip club when suddenly everybody starts shooting. When Detective Solør (Henrik Mestad) and his partner Gina (Marie Blokhus) arrive, only Oscar Svendson (Kyrre Hellum) is alive. Fortunately, Oscar is happy to tell his story - see, the factor where he works hires a lot of ex-cons, including Dan Treschow (Andreas Cappelen), newly-released Billy Utomjordet (Arthur Berning), and Oscar's old friend Tor Eggen (Mads Ousdal). They can't gamble, so Oscar places a bet on 12 soccer games - with some last-minute advice from bartender Trine (Lena Kristin Ellingsen) - that pays off big. As big as the prize is, it would cover some debts better if split fewer ways, these guys are criminals, and, you know, things happen! So none of this is really Oscar's fault!

Oscar claims not to be responsible for a lot. Despite running a swift 82 minutes, writer/director Magnus Martens packs in a great many betrayals, discoveries, unfortunate accidents, and difficulties in disposing of bodies, while also making the occasional jump forward to show Solør trying to untangle the mess. Martens could have padded Nesbø's story out to the ninety-odd minutes people often expect of features with some sort of wholly predictable story arc or set of character moments, but instead he lets things happen quickly enough that the characters don't really have time to stop and consider what they're doing logically, even as the present-day segments keep things clear and have a different sense of humor.

Full review at EFC.

Jianyu (Reign of Assassins)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, DCP)

A popular game among festival attendees after Reign of Assassins (Jianyu) was to try and guess just which parts were worked on by "co-director" (and producer) John Woo. Certain elements of the action, certainly, although several pointed to Face/Off as a possible influence (having not yet gotten to see what a wuxia film that resembles Face/Off really looks like with Painted Skin: The Resurrection). As a result, we probably didn't give writer/director Su Chao-bin quite enough credit for a his fun action-romance.

Whoever's in charge at the start hits the ground running, with a "Dark Stone" assassin squad stealing half of a monk's corpse said to give incredible powers on the person who possesses the whole thing and killing the ones who possessed it. But "Drizzle" Xi Yu (Kelly Lin) betrays her comrades Lei Bin (Shawn Yue) and "The Magician" Lian Sheng (Leon Dai) and their master Cao Feng (Wang Xueqi), the "wheel king". Xi Yu has surgery to change her face - she looks older, but also like Michelle Yeoh, so it's not so bad - and moves to Nanjing to live a quiet life as merchant Zeng Jing, eventually meeting a nice courier, Jiang A-Sheng (Jung Woo-sung) and settling down. But when Dark Stone traces the other half of the corpse to Nanjing, they reassemble the squad with black widow "Turquoise" Ye Zhanqing (Barbie Hsu) in Xi Yu's place and barrel into town in a way certain to upset Zeng Jing's happy new life.

And there's more - this is the sort of movie so packed with glorious crazy that the backstory and opening theft of the monk's corpse could be mistaken for the synopsis of a previous movie, even though that film doesn't actually exist. There's all kinds of crazy weapons, improbable if not downright anachronistic drugs and medical procedures, loopy plot twists, and fighting on well after any normal person would be dead. It's a larger-than-life fantasy in all the familiar ways, and some unfamiliar ones as well.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

Resolution gave me the creeps, and while it's easy to dismiss that as just what horror movies are supposed to do, take a minute to think of how many of the last ten you've seen genuinely did so - and I don't just mean jumping, I mean making you feel nervous. Now, how many of those movies were able to be kind of funny without selling their intent to scare you out? And how many of those were able to even awkwardly subvert recent genre tropes?

Not many, I'll wager. Those are things that often find themselves at cross-purposes, as cleverness requires breaking down what you're watching in a way that run counter to instinctual fear and humor can counter any momentum the movie has away from the audience's comfort zone. And, to a certain extent, that does happen here on occasion; compared to other movies of its ilk, its movement from an interesting hook to really being scary is a bit slow. But directors Justin Benson (who also writes) and Aaron Moorhead always remember to prioritize being scary over the other stuff.

What is that hook? It involves Michael Danube (Peter Ciella) receiving a video from Chris Daniels (Vinny Curran), his oldest friend, that shows drug addict Chris spiralling further into self-destruction, which spurs Michael to travel out to the sticks to try and get Chris clean - whether he likes it or not. And while Chris is genuinely a mess, he's also living off the grid and it's tough to see how he could have sent Michael an email. Michael shrugs that off, keeping Chris handcuffed to the wall and dealing with whoever comes to the door, whether it be drug dealers Billy (Kurt David Anderson) and Micah (Skyler Meacham) or Charles (Zahn McClarnon), the owner of the house where Chris is squatting (on Native American land, no less) - at least, until more unnerving pictures, stories, and videos start showing up on various media.

Full review at EFC.

La Chispa de la Vida (As Luck Would Have It)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, 35mm)

Is Álex de la Iglesia getting a little soft as he ages? Though he's not credited with the screenplay here (nor is frequent collaborator Jorge Guerricaechevarría), it still seems a bit surprising that de la Iglesia, given material with such satiric potential, would not so much pull his punches as focus on the more sympathetic aspects of the situation. The result is still a very entertaining movie, if not exactly the one people might expect.

After a failed attempt to find a new job, Roberto Gomez (José Mota) impulsively drives to the hotel in Cartagena where he and his wife Luisa (Salma Hayek) went on their honeymoon, only to find it's no longer there; the ruins of a Roman colosseum were found on the site and it's been replaced with a museum. Wandering into a restricted area, he falls into the dig site, impaling his head on a rebar pole. Though he can't be moved, he's surprisingly lucid; while the museum directors (Blanca Portillo & Juan Luis Galiardo) try to figure out how to get their opening back on track and a doctor (Antonio Garrido) attempts to treat him in place, Roberto calls an old colleague to get representation in the form of Johnny (Fernando Tejero); he wants a bigger audience (and payday) than local reporter Pilar Alvarez (Carolina Bang) can offer.

It's impossible to read the description of this movie and not think of Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole, only with the parts of the reporter and trapped miners merged. Looking at As Luck Would Have It as a remake or updating of that movie will likely lead to disappointment, and not just because Billy Wilder's movie is a classic. As much as the idea of media feeding frenzies and news as packaged entertainment are as relevant today as ever, it's actually almost too relevant; such activities are so much a part of the landscape as to make satire difficult. Director de la Iglesia and writer Randy Feldman take a few good rips at the media and the way it distorts everybody's behavior, but that's arguably not the film's main focus.

Full review at EFC.

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