Monday, August 27, 2012

Robot & Frank and Fantasia catch-up

Today's tenuous connection between a current movie's review and Fantasia catch-up: I was really hoping to have made it far enough along in my review queue to be presenting my review of Robo-G alongside this one. They've got fun surface similarities - both feature old guys and robotics, although their stories are pretty far off once you get past that. Still, they've both got stars with the same sort of appeal in the title roles - Frank Langella and Shinjiro Igarashi/"Mickey Curtis" both have reached the thin, bald, but still physically active stage of their careers - and have robots that aren't all people want to believe they are.

Anyway, Robot & Frank is currently playing the big screen at the Coolidge as well as Kendall Square, and is worth checking out. It's smaller and sweater than a lot of its indie-film brethren, but that's a large part of its charm.

Of course, now that I look, I see that there is another robot-related movie in this set of catch-up reviews, Kim Jee-woon's segment of Doomsday Book. Similar designs, but ultimately opposite approaches. Anyway, this batch's catch-up for those who are just following new blog entries also includes Hard Romanticker, Nameless Gangster, Graceland, Quick, and The Human Race.

Robot & Frank

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 August 2012 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (first-run, 35mm)

People often ask writers of offbeat or science-fictional stories where they get their ideas, but that's often the wrong question, since ideas are everywhere and one has to but pick up a paper or click on a website to trip over three or four. It's putting them together to make a good story that's tricky. For instance, the idea of using robots in elder care has been floating around for a while, though not nearly as long as the bored, retired criminal. The combination is what gets filmmakers on the road to Robot & Frank, but it takes Frank Langella and some other collaborators to make it kind of wonderful.

And some details, of course. Frank (Langella) is not just starting to slow down, but his memory is going. With his daughter Madison (Liv Tyler) doing charity work on the other side of the globe and his son Hunter (James Marsden) five hours away, he's only getting worse. Thus the robot Hunter delivers one weekend, and though Frank wants no part of it, especially when he's talking to the town librarian (Susan Sarandon), he re-evaluates that when he discovers that its programming does not actually prevent it from breaking the law, and the robot could be a potential partner-in-crime.

It says a lot about Robot & Frank that I wonder if the main character was given his name because writer Christopher D. Ford and director Jake Schreier saw Langella in the role from the very beginning. The part fits him like a glove, after all, even though it's often much more low-key than the intense performances he's best known for. There's bits that suit his theatrical background as he occasionally tells stories or exaggerates lies just enough for the audience to feel like a part of his schemes, and he's just crotchety and defiant enough to show how he can inspire both fondness and annoyance. It's the way he handles the character's memory lapses that are most impressive, though - rather than the befuddled stumbling some actors will do, making "good days and bad days" completely binary, Frank will slip into the past but still stay somewhat tethered to the present. It lets us empathize with his conviction that he can look after himself rather than just see him as someone who doesn't realize he's a problem to be solved.

Full review at EFC.

Doomsday Book

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

Anthology film Doomsday Book does not quite end the world in three ways, as one might expect it to do. Even more interesting is that the contemplative middle segment comes from noted action director Kim Jee-woon, whose unusual restraint provides a nice breather between Yim Pil-Sung's two tales of apocalyptic mayhem.

The package starts with "A Wonderful New World", in which lab technician Yoon Seok-woo (Ryoo Seung-bum) is left behind when his family goes on vacation because he technically has a month left to his military service - and they stick him with the job of cleaning their filthy apartment, too. It could be worse, though; he's got a date with beautiful Kim Yoo-min (Koh Joon-hee), and things go pretty well! At least, that is, until something in the rotten apple he threw into the compost bin mutates (in a zippy montage) and makes its way back through the food chain in the form of a zombie virus.

It has to be an apple, didn't it, which knocks humanity another level down from paradise? As symbols go, it's oddly ambivalent: Maybe the residents of Seoul are returning to the savage state of grace that existed before the knowledge of good and evil, and does the crisis come from allowing the apartment to get so disgusting or by returning its products to the environment? That's for the audience to decide; in the meantime, Yim delivers a fun but somewhat scattershot piece. It starts out as a fun romantic comedy, with Ryoo making likably nerdy, put-upon lead who matches up surprisingly well with Koh Joon-hee's Yoo-min, and they keep that up once the horror elements start to pop up. Eventually, though, their story gets subsumed in the larger disaster, and their return isn't quite as satisfying as their introduction, though it does have a few nice moments.

Full review at EFC.

Hâdo romanchikkâ (Hard Romanticker)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

Su-yeon Gu's Hard Romanticker is one of those movies that feels like it was cobbled together from a bunch of anecdotes that don't necessarily add up to a story, but is able to more or less able to get by on those tall tales being entertaining and the guy at the center having some charisma. It seems a bit like a patchwork, but works a lot more than it doesn't.

The center of most of these events is Gu (Sota Matsuda), a hood in Shimonoseki, Japan of Koeran descent with a blond dye-job. He's not actually involved in the opening break-in, where teenage punks Masaru (Tokio Emoto) and Tatsu (Kento Nagayama) accidentally kill the grandmother of North Korean gangster Kim Chon-gi (Yuya Endo), but he knows them and is thus a convenient scapegoat when Kim starts asking questions. In the meantime, he's got Detective Fujita (Atsuro Watabe) asking him for intel, a schoolgirl (Ayaka Tomoda) with a crush on him, and older gangster Shoji (Claude Maki) asking him to guard a coin-locker key. He also gets an offer from yakuza-connected Takagi (Shido Nakamura) to help manage a club in Kobura, where he winds up crashing with hostess Natsuko (Sei Ashina).

With its detached, youthful protagonists, pervasive criminality, and emphasis on atmosphere as much as plot, it's easy to see a kinship between Hard Romanticker and the French New Wave, or to stay in Japan, Nikkatsu's "New Action" cinema of the 1960s. The jazzy soundtrack and somewhat grainy cinematography help set the atmosphere, but it's the attitude that matches it the most; characters may get violent at the drop of a hat, but there's a sort of passive, observational feel even then. People don't start fights; fights happen as these guys move through their lives.

Full review at EFC.

Bumchoiwaui Junjaeng: Nabbeunnomdeul Jeonsungshidae (Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, DCP)

Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time (Bumchoiwaui Junjaeng: Nabbeunnomdeul Jeonsungshidae) opens, at least in this English-subtitled version, with a definition of the word "daebu", which means "man of one's grandfather's generation" - or "Godfather". Give writer/director Yung Jong-bin credit for giving his mob drama lofty ambitions, even if its actual achievements aren't quite on that level.

Though the movie somewhat closer to the present day, the story starts in the 1980s, when Choi Ik-hyun (Choi Min-sik) is a Busan customs official of only moderate corruption, though that's landed him with some merchandise he doesn't know how to sell and an internal investigation. This leads him to gangster Choi Hyung-bae (Ha Jung-woo), who it turns out is a distant relative, both being part of the Gyeong-ju clan. Hyung-bae does not initially appreciate this connection, having henchman Park Chang-woo (Kim Sung-kyun) deliver Ik-hyun a beating, but his father demands he show respect. So Ik-hyun is brought into the business, where his connections prove useful - especially once young prosecutor Jo Bum-suk (Kwak Do-wan) starts sniffing around.

There's a potentially interesting idea being played with here - that any enterprise with a certain level of ambition needs both doers like Hyung-bae and facilitators like Ik-hyun, criminal ones most of all. When things are going well for the Chois, this is actually pretty fascinating to watch, especially since it is all but inevitable that neither will truly appreciate the other's contribution. 1980s Korea makes for a good background, as well - it seems as though a capitalist economy under a military dictatorship gives the mob plenty of business opportunities and keeps overhead low with the necessary corruption nicely centralized, letting the Chois at times appear legitimate. It's good empire-building even for those who don't particularly like mafia movies.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2012 in Concordia University Cinema J.A. de Seve (Fantasia 2012 Spotlight: Filipino Cinema, HD)

The easiest way to describe Graceland - a twistier, less philosophical take on Akira Kurosawa High and Low - maybe does it a disservice by making it sound like it is less than its potential. That's not particularly true; it's actually a pretty great thriller that makes its examination of larger issues so integrated that they don't need to be talked about; they inform every moment.

Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes) has been the chauffeur for Filipino Congressman Manuel Chango (Menggie Cobarrubias) for years, including taking him and the odd young lady to hush-hush assignations, like the one going on at the start. For all that loyalty, he gets no respect; Chango's wife Marcy (Marife Necesito) is frosty when Marlon's daughter Elive (Ella Guevara) is with him when he comes to pick up their girl Sophia (Patricia Ona Gayod) for school (the girls, of course, are delighted to see each other). He's facing a pink slip as rumors of scandal start to get out, but much worse is coming: A kidnapper (Leon Miguel) pulls the car over and demands Marlon act as a go-between if either father wants to see his daughter again, which naturally makes the driver the prime suspect in the eyes of Detective Ramos (Dido De La Paz).

It's tough to blame him; looked at from the outside, Marlon's got a whole lot of motive, and it's not long before he's on even more shaky ground. Just in terms of making a thriller, writer/director Ron Morales is really not messing around: Graceland has a brutal and efficient setup that puts a noose around its hero's neck early, and then relentlessly finds ways the make the situation worse without ever resorting out-of-nowhere events.

Full review at EFC.

Kwik (Quick)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012 Action!, DCP)

Quick is, when you get down to it, a pretty stupid action movie that tries to camouflage this fact with raw speed. The filmmakers would likely have no argument with that assessment if given it directly, just asking how well they pull the action off. And they actually do all right. Very few things that can explode last the movie without blowing up, and practically no piece of glass remains unbroken. It knows what its audience wants and panders away.

Han Gi-soo (Lee Min-ki) is a wizard with a motorcycle, although after he and his pack caused a massive accident six years ago, he now works as a courier, dispatched to get things across Seoul faster than anyone else can. This day, his cargo includes a person - Ji Chun-sim (Kang Ye-won), his girlfriend back then who is now best known as "A-Rom" of OK Girls. But there's also a twist - a bomb in her helmet that will explode if it gets too far from the headset in Gi-soo's ear or if he doesn't make certain deliveries on-time. Of course, when those deliveries turn out to be bombs, Detective Seo (Ko Chang-seok) and the rest of the police force are after them, including Kim Myeong-sik (Kim In-kwon), who used to hang out on the fringes of Gi-soo's gang and still has a massive crush on Chun-sim.

Is sending a dupe on a motorcycle around town to deliver bombs under threat of blowing up himself a convoluted plan, even before the coincidental involvement of an ex-girlfriend? Oh, yeah, especially since they are special miniaturized super-bombs, which means there are secret government, corporate, and mob angles. Honestly, the chart that the police work up for who may be targets and potential masterminds is more complicated than the ones you see in thrillers where the identity of the killer is the point, rather than a reason for chase scenes and massive explosions. To their credit, the filmmakers handle it pretty well; the solution to the mystery doesn't really matter, so director/co-writer Cho Beom-gu moves through them as quickly and smoothly as he can without them getting confusing.

Full review at EFC.

The Human Race

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

It's an obvious thing to say in a review, and probably everyone who writes a review of this movie will say some variation, but what the heck: The Human Race kicks a fair amount of ass even though its star only has the one leg. As almost obligatory as that comment is, at least it gets a low-budget independent movie into someone's head. Then they can watch it and discover that it's actually better than just a novelty piece.

Eighty people have been snatched up from a Los Angeles street corner in a flash of white light and placed on a path... somewhere. They include Veronica (Brianna Lauren Jackson), who has just learned that her cancer is in remission; amputee and veteran Eddie (Eddie McGee), who was giving an inspirational speech at the special-needs school where his friend Justin (Paul McCarthy-Boyington) teaches; immigrants like Gabriel (Fred Coury), Ting (Celine Tien), and her brother Shio Lau (Ian Tien), and more. Eddie's not the only one with a disability; two (Trista Robinson & T. Arthur Cottam) are deaf and an older vet (J. Louis Reid) moves even slower than he does. Their instructions are simple: Follow the path. Stray from it, and you die, with only certain buildings designated as safe zones. Get lapped twice, and you will die. Do this until there's only one of you left.

It's a viciously straightforward plot, but it's what writer/director Paul Hough does with it that makes it worth the audience's attention. Hough uses the high stakes to get at just what the people in this group are capable of, getting a broad enough cross-section that they can represent the larger audience fairly well. It runs the gamut between the expected cynicism and optimism with plenty of different gradations in between, and opportunities for characters to move back and forth along the scale. Even the disabled characters and others that would often be played reflexively sympathetic or as victims get to occasionally show their less altruistic sides.
Full review at EFC.

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