Saturday, September 15, 2012

Bangkok Revenge & some Fantasia catch-up

The funny thing about this movie's walkouts - and, yes, it is kind of sad that blogging about China Lion releases inevitably has a "Walkout Watch" section - is that the first couple seemed to come right when they realized that there were going to be subtitles. If they'd stuck around, they would have seen just how much of the movie turned out to be in English. As I say in the review, this is actually a pretty big issue because only the star really seems conversant in the language, and when they do switch from Thai to English, there are no subtitles, so you miss what's being said in the seconds it takes for your brain to start getting dialogue from your ears rather than your eyes.

Others later abandoned ship because the movie wasn't very good. The whole deal with China Lion distributing this one in America - and seeming to give it a lot more publicity than they did the superior movies opening on either side of it, The Bullet Vanishes and Vulgaria - is kind of weird. It's a French/Thai co-production that's mostly in English, and while star Jon Foo himself is hapa-Chinese, I'm not sure how much this appeals to the expatriates that make up much of CL's target audience beyond everybody liking martial arts action.

Also: The "Bangkok Revenge" title is one of the more obvious renamings for the American audience in recent memory; the distributor just put a title card on the front of the movie, while actually keeping the "Bangkok Renaissance" titles in the opening and closing credits, subtitling them "Rebirth". Weirdly half-hearted.

Anyway, don't let this disappointment keep you from seeing Vulgaria if it plays Boston (or wherever you may be reading this from) in a couple of weeks; I saw it at Fantasia and that is some funny stuff. Other things I saw at Fantasia and am just now finishing full reviews of: New Kids Turbo, Dead Bite, Blood-C: The Last Dark, Columbarium, Poongsan, Hail.


Bangkok Renaissance (aka Bangkok Revenge, aka Rebirth

* * (out of four)
Seen 14 September 2012 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, Sony Digital 4K)

Some martial-arts action flicks are all-around great movies, and many are capable, if not exceptional. A distressing number, though, are one trick ponies, with good action scenes being held together by connective tissue that is given so much less attention than the fights that the movie practically becomes a tug of war. Bangkok Revenge's action makes a good effort early, but eventually the awful in-between material wears it down.

Twenty years ago, an honest Bangkok cop and his wife were murdered in their bed by a gang of corrupt officers, one of whom is sent into their ten-year-old son's room to finish the job. He does, but Manit miraculously survives the bullet to the head, and is taken by nurse Chanticha (Aphiradi Phawaphutanon) to be secretly raised by herself and a martial-arts master in a small village. The fact that Manit's brain injury seems to have left him without empathy doesn't stop the master from teaching him potentially lethal hand-to-hand combat, which will come in handy when Chanticha gives the grown Manit (Jon Foo) what she has learned about his father's murder on her deathbed. He decides to finish the job, with reporter Clara (Caroline Ducey), Inspector Andana (Pream Busala-Khamvong), and French boxer Simon (Michael Cohen) occasionally joining the quest.

Jon Foo is not yet a big name in the martial arts world, but he's working his way up; he's spent time on Jackie Chan's stunt team, and occasionally been a featured performer when Chan or Tony Jaa needs to take on several guys at once. So it's not particularly surprising that the early action scenes, especially, are a lot of fun to watch. Foo's an athletic guy with a nice balance of raw strength and agility, and much of the movie's first half has him moving straight from one fight to the next, taking on large crowds by taking a bunch down hard (the prosthetic-limb guys had to build a lot of broken legs) and moving quick on others. There are some impressively staged fights, especially in close quarters: Foo gets to show his stuff in an elevator, an automobile, and a subway car, in addition to some battles on more open turf. Another is shown in shadow.

Full review at EFC.


New Kids Turbo

* * (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012 Action!, DCP)

After New Kids Turbo, another festival-goer and I off-handedly discussed which bit of incessantly-repeated profanity was less likely to fly with an American audience. For a certain group, that sort of broad-spectrum political incorrectness is an asset not matter what, but those with a limited tolerance for uncouth morons should steer clear, as this movie's got more than than it knows what to do with.

Well, it's got at least five: Richard (Huub Smit), who somehow has managed to attain a place of his own and a dog; Rikkert (Wesley van Gaalen), who has a pregnant girlfriend he has probably never had sex with; Barrie (Flip Van der Kuil), the local pot grower; Gerrie (Tim Haars), a loser idiot even by loser idiot standards; and Robbie (Steffen Haars), the one without a mullet. They're more or less unemployable, especially in this difficult economy, and when they beat up bill collectors after being kicked off welfare for behaving like violent idiots, Richard declares that he's not paying for things any more. When this starts to become a movement, folks hig up in the Dutch government decide that they must be silenced, even if their hometown of Maaskantje is collateral damage.

When I saw the movie has more uncouth morons than it knows what to do with, I mean that literally - the movie does very little with Barrie and Robbie. Presumably Steffen Haars and Flip Van der Kuil are too busy off-screen to carry much of a burden in front of the camera - both are credited as writers, directors, and producers, with Van der Kuil also editing - though for all I know, they only had small parts in the original internet videos and TV series. That there are excess New Kids is indicative of a level of excess that works for the group often enough; even those who likely don't want to admit it will, when pressed for the truth, say that they laughed during the movie, sometimes pretty hard. Go for broke often enough and some of the gags will pay off, especially when you're talking about slapstick targeted at the very deserving (of course, you'll also get comedic dead zones like a painful breaking of the fourth wall). Haars & Van der Kuil also do a pretty good job of escalating things; the gags get bigger and more absurd with the story.

Full review at EFC.

Gancore Gud (Dead Bite)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

There's actually a pretty fun movie inside Dead Bite doing all it can to get out, and it could be just as happily trashy as the one we got. After all, it's got a charismatic-enough lead (and director, and co-writer) in Thai rapper JoeyBoy, a potentially fun ensemble in his group Gancore Club, and all the other ingredients for B-movie fun: Bikini girls, gleefully bloody mayhem, and fun monsters. The beautiful Thailand scenery doesn't hurt at all. But, wow, does it get away from him.

For those of us not hooked up to Thailand's hip-hop scene, JoeyBoy (given name Apisit Opasaimlikit) is the frontman for Gancore Club, and as the movie starts (well, after a framing sequence), they're a little dissatisfied with their last concert, as only ghosts showed up. Their manager attempts to placate them with a music video shoot on the coast with plenty of pretty girls in bikinis, but when they take a boat out to Mermaid Island... Well, things go bad, as they've got a group of savages in the forest led by apparently-immortal Payee (Lakana Wattanawongsiri) and aquatic zombies coming from the sea.

As I said, I don't know anything about Gancore Club, and I suspect that the movie plays a whole lot better for fans. There's a half-dozen or so members in the group, and the filmmakers don't do a whole lot to establish characters and personae for newcomers like me. JoeyBoy seems confident but kind of shy for a big hip-hop star; Golf's a big guy with a big personality; and... uh, Teng likes fishing. They're a likable enough crew - even non-fans will enjoy them well enough - and I imagine if they're your favorite band, seeing them chased by monsters or getting turned into zombies probably makes things a lot more fun.

Full review at EFC.

Blood-C: The Last Dark

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 August 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012 AXIS, HD)

I wouldn't recommend seeing Blood-C: The Last Dark at all, but above all else, do not go in to see this movie cold. Seriously, don't do it. I am pretty sure that this would be a tiresome excuse for a movie with overly frantic action, a protagonist completely devoid of personality, and a laughable finale even if I had seen Blood: The Last Vampire recently or had picked up any of the multimedia tie-ins between then and now, but not having the Blood mythology in one's back pocket doesn't help.

The film opens with a couple of men stalking Mana Hiragi on the subway. They hulk out into vampire-on-steroids monsters and corner her at the station, only to find Mana probably wasn't the one they should be concerned about; Saya Kisaragi (voice of Nana Mizuki) was also riding that train, and Saya is a vampire-human hybrid who has been fighting monsters for far longer than the school uniform she wears implies. It turns out that Mana is part of a team investigating these "Elder Bairns"; this "Sirrut" group believes that they are connected to industrialist Fumito Nanahara (voice of Kenji Nojima).

Nanahara also seems to have something to do with draconian curfew laws in Tokyo that affect the teen-age heroes. To be fair, the filmmakers do a decent job of laying out just enough mythology that a new or lapsed fan can grasp the important elements without smothering the audience with exposition, at least on average. After all, while Blood has amassed a fair amount of details, the broad strokes are familiar enough - long-lived vampires gathering power behind the scenes, their victim/creation seeking revenge, the time to unleash an occult force of unspeakable power drawing nigh.

Full review at EFC.

Columbarium

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 August 2012 in Concordia University Cinema de Seve (Fantasia 2012 Fantastique Week-end, HD)

Columbarium is not quite one jettisoned gimmick away from being a perfect little thriller, but it's tight and suspenseful enough to impress as it is, telling a good little story without much in the way of fat at all. It's a shame that even high-profile Québèçois films don't seem to make their way out of the province very often, because this one's a little gem.

Joe MacKenzie (Gilbert Comptois) was imperfect in life and remains so in death, as his will states that in order to inherit, his sons must spend a week at his lake house in rural Québèc building a columbarium for his remains (a sort of elaborate shrine). Both men have good reason to do so - older son Mathieu (David Boutin) is in dire financial straits from his work on Wall Street and the gambling he did in Vegas to make up the shortfall, while younger son Simon (Maxime Dumontier) could use the money to kickstart his current dream of heading to Los Angeles to become an actor. Of course, the MacKenzie boys have other issues, and the combination of alcohol, energy drinks, blackouts, and biblical quotes that mysteriously appear only serves to bring things closer to a boil despite the chill in the air.

Maybe Columbarium is a ghost story; maybe what happens is the endgame of the brothers' longtime issues; maybe executor Marcel (Pierre Collin) is playing them against each other. One thing is for sure: Writer/director Steve Kerr isn't going to tip his hand very much until absolutely necessary. This does not mean that he and the film are spinning their wheels, though; instead, he's built a situation where a great deal can be implied - the very fact that their father asks his sons to build him this shrine says as much about him and the inevitable relationships of the family as many flashbacks could - and where seemingly small things can crank the tension up a notch or two. Not bad for an indie filmmaker working with a small cast and mostly staying in one location, and he's got the skills to make small steps work.

Full review at EFC.

Poong-san-gae (Poongsan)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 August 2012 in Concordia University Cinema de Seve (Fantasia 2012 Camera Lucida, HD)

I sometimes wonder if Kim Ki-duk has a whole cache of unfilmed scripts on his laptop, turned out quickly because not writing dialogue for your main character saves a lot of time. It makes for a distinctive style, so that even what might otherwise be a straightforward spy movie actually directed by Juhn Jai-hong undeniably has Kim's stamp.

Though the border between North and South Korea may be the most heavily guarded such line in the world, there is one man who passes through it regularly. Leave a note on a bulletin board near the Imjinak bridge, and this anonymous man (Yoon Kye-sang) known only by the Poongsan-brand cigarettes he smokes will smuggle messages and small items to the other side. The governments are mostly unaware of him, at least until some of his clients are busted selling smuggled artifacts. Then, the KCIA contacts him; they've got a North Korean defector (Kim Jong-soo) who is dragging his feet until he is reunited with his young lover In-ok (Kim Gyu-ri).

Main characters not talking may be a Kim Ki-duk signature, but it works to fairly good effect here. Mostly, that's because it is more or less impossible to get any sort of information on the background of this "Poongsan" guy; though he's clearly well-trained, there's no way to find out whether he was originally born in the North or the South, whether by admission or accent, something which the South Korean intelligence officers obsess over. It's an interesting question as to whether this makes him Korean-without-an-adjective or a man without a country. It makes for interesting comparisons with other characters who have crossed the line: In-ok considers herself North Korean and doesn't seem to consider how difficult it might be to go back; the defector is trying very hard to make himself South Korean; some members of an undercover NK team may be going native. As much as stories like this generally focus on how Korea is naturally a singular entity, the pessimistic read here is that too much time may have passed: The message Poongsan carries in the beginning is between two very elderly people on their deathbeds, and there seems little common ground otherwise.

Full review at EFC.

Hail

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 August 2012 in Concordia University Cinema de Seve (Fantasia 2012, DCP)

The word "hail" can mean a number of things, and for some reason I kept thinking of the wrong ones until about halfway through the movie, when some bad weather follows a bad event, and the sound as much as anything seemed absolutely right. After all, there are a lot of figures of speech that use rain to indicate unfortunate events in one's life, but for some people, it comes down harder and you don't always have shelter.

Take Danny (Daniel P. Jones); in and out of jail all his life, his last stint has ended a few days early, allowing him to surprise longtime lady love Leanne (Leanne Letch). This time, he resolves, he's going to stay on the straight and narrow. He is humble as he goes to various auto body shops to ask for a chance to show what he can do. He really seems to have it together most of the time, and even the friends who have been part of the problem before are encouraging. But...

Star Daniel P. Jones knows this role; it is him in almost every way. Director Amiel Courtin-Wilson had previously made a short film ("Cicada") of Jones relating a personal story, and for Hail he combed through five hundred pages of Jones' reminiscences to immerse himself in this man's life and world. Leanne Letch is Jones' real-life girlfriend, and many other cast members are playing themselves or fictionalized versions thereof. The locations add to the verisimilitude and Courtin-Wilson's experience as a documentary filmmaker shows; even in intimate shots, there's a sense of the camera being out of the way as the subjects go about their lives.
Full review at EFC.

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