Saturday, September 08, 2012

[REC]³ Génesis & more Fantasia catch-up

It's fair to tag [REC] 3 with Fantasia catch-up, in part because I saw the previous two at that festival and at one point expected to see this there as well, but apparently Magnet had not only purchased it but made it available on VOD by then (Magnolia's usually pretty good about letting its films play festivals as previews)... Or maybe someone else is distributing it in Canada. Either way, it was an odd omission, kind of like how there was nothing from Johnnie To's Milkyway company at all.

Anyway, [REC] 3 is a lot of fun, even though you'll likely be disappointed with it if you go in just expecting more of the first two movies; it goes off in its own direction but does pretty well by that; it's fast-paced, often funny, and just generally a good time for those who like their gore delivered with a wink as much as with gritted teeth. And if you can go to the Coolidge's second midnight screening of it tonight (8 September 2012), I think you'll have a good time. However, I think that in doing so, it chose the wrong ending.

There are four basic ending types for horror movies in particular: The victorious ending, where the monsters are slain; the ambiguous ending, where the hero has apparently beated them back but it's a victory that may be illusory or short-lived; the tragic ending, where the hero falls, never really having had a chance; and the gotcha ending, where it looks like you've got the victorious ending, but ha-ha, the moster wasn't totally dead or something else appears out of nowhere and screw you!

SPOILERS! Seriously, about to talk about the end of [REC] 3 here, jump to the catch-up stuff if you don't want to read it!

As you may gather, I'm no fan of the gotcha ending. I get that part of what horror looks to do is shock the audience, so hitting them with a finale that doesn't quite fit the narrative arc that came before is a bit more acceptable here than in general, but it's become so common that it's not surprising any more. A horror movie that plays things straight and actually has the finale that complements its story would be the shocker.

[REC 3] ends on a gotcha, but it's drawn out enough and ties into the previous movies enough that it may seem to qualify as tragic. I think it's a very bad call; the movie up until then had been bloody and killed every other character (often too casually; I think Adrian deserved a chance to go down fighting rather than being apparently killed off-screen), but it had Koldo and Clara at its heart, and if they didn't get out and start a new family, the exercise seems kind of hollow, especially if the agent of their demise is faceless government thugs we first saw a couple minutes ago.

(Besides, if they die, what's the point of having the wedding video/album that the movie starts with? Who's it for?)

Even if you don't give them the victory ending, I think an ambiguous one would work - end the movie with them in the plastic tunnel. The audience knows from [REC] and [REC] 2 that the government thugs on the other side will probably do them in, but maybe not; maybe they show up in [REC] 4 and Clara has a cool robot arm, just to add to the Evil Dead 2-ness of the atmosphere. Both of those endings would play up wedding themes - starting new lives of your own (which plays to the "this isn't our family any more" line Koldo has a bit earlier) or the uncertainty of the adulthood it represents. But, no, instead, one last bit of gore and faceless, boring kills of characters the audience really liked.

Soemtimes, I think horror filmmakers just choose which ending type to go with at random, no matter what the movie called for.


Anyway, that's [REC] 3; I've also done 11 Fantasia reviews since the last update: The Warped Forest, Schoolgirl Apocalypse, Robo-G, White: The Melody of the Curse, Asura, Black's Game, You Are the Apple of My Eye, Replicas, Ace Attorney, Isn't Anyone Alive?, and Lobos de Arga (Game of Werewolves).

[REC]³ Génesis

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 September 2012 in Coolidge Corner Theatre #1 (@fter Midnite: Fresh Blood, Blu-ray)

[REC] 3: Genesis breaks with the previous films in the series enough that one almost wonders if director Paco Plaza had the idea for the movie and then figured that the benefits of folding it into [REC] continuity outweighed the pitfalls - after all, a pretty-good Spanish-language zombie movie would be much less likely to get even a meager theatrical release in America today if it didn't have the brand name, even if it will in some ways come up short in comparison.

This movie takes place well away from the apartment block of the first two films, instead focusing on the wedding of Clara (Leticia Dolera) and Koldo (Diego Martin), a happy affair being recorded by Koldo's teenage cousin Adrian (Alex Monner), Clara's little sister Tita (Jana Soler), and official videographer Atun (Borja Gonzalez Santaolalla, aka Sr. B). Early on, Adrian notices Uncle Victor's hand is bandaged; Victor (Emilio Mencheta) explains he was bitten by an animal. However, once the reception is in full swing, things seem to get much worse, and before long a zombie outbreak has separated the newlyweds, although Koldo is certain Clara is alive and intends to find her somewhere on the grounds.

The movie starts out as the same kind of first-person horror as the previous installments, though varyinig its technique by offering up three cameras with different-enough looks that the audience can soon identify the point-of-view character from the cinematography, but once the outbreak really begins, one camera is smashed and the film is in third-person scope after that (annoyingly, that image is actually smaller than the camcorder footage on the Blu-ray used to screen this movie, though I imagine anamorphic 35mm prints make it bigger). At times, there are hints that Plaza at one point intended to go with much more found footage; the picture will linger on things like CCTV cameras or monitors as if to suggest they would be used as sources. There's a shot of a news broadcast that indicates we're in the same timeframe as the first two movies, but Plaza and his co-writers only do the smallest bit to expand the mythology of the series or develop new twists on the first-person horror movie, especially compared to [REC] 2.

Full review at EFC.

The Warped Forest

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

Understand this: The Warped Forest isn't a sequel to Funky Forest: The First Contact (the famously trippy film director/co-writer Shunichiro Miki made with Katsuhito Ishii and Hajime Ishimine); it's a movie Miki made out of the ideas that were too weird to fit into even such a surreal picture. Funny thing, though; even though this thing is weird down to its very bone marrow, it's actually more linear and character-based than its antecedent, while still being very funny.

Though the action starts in a world much like ours - except that a few guests at a host springs resort find themselves randomly displaced in time and/or space - action soon shifts to a sort of parallel universe, where alternate versions of the same three trios are followed: Three middle-aged male friends, three sisters, and three young men in a dance club. Their lives intersect in various ways, and despite the peculiarity of their world, the way they talk about "dream-tinkering" suggests that our more logical universe is the one that's unreal.

Just how odd is this place? Well, let's consider the activities of the sisters. Peach works in a shop scaled for Lilliputians and must deal with a tiny pregnant woman looking for the manager. Apli is using an amazingly phallic gun to hunt the elusive Pinky-Panky, and Au Lait collects Kitaka fruits, which one initially thinks kind of look a bit like different reproductive organs... Then Miki shows us the trees they grow on and oh good lord! That doesn't touch upon the obelisks, the use of acorns as currency, or the really weird (and occasionally kinky) stuff. It may not all be top-ten strangest things the audience has ever seen in a movie, but it happily offers up plenty of time when the viewer may find he or she needs to pick his or her jaw up off the floor to properly ask "What. The. Hell?"

Full review at EFC.

Sera-fuku mokushiroku (Schoolgirl Apocalypse)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2012 in Concordia University Cinema de Seve (Fantasia 2012 Camera Lucida, HD)

Believe it or not, Schoolgirl Apocalypse is not the third Nobboru Iguchi film on the festival's program, or a similarly cheery exploitation picture from a filmmaker of like sensibilities. No, it's an often impressive bit of stripped-down sci-fi/horror that stumbles a bit when it tries to get fancy, but otherwise acquits itself very well.

Sakura (Higarino) is an average but hard-working high school student in a small Japanese village whose biggest worries are her English class and archery practice. Little does she know that the latter, at least, will soon come in handy, as something causes all the men in the area (in Japan? the world?) to become inarticulate and homicidal. Seeing her parents die after the madness takes hold in her father, she flees into the woods with little but her school uniform, English textbook, and kyudo bow, she attempts to lay low, though she encounters other survivors, including a mother in apparent denial about her son and ruthless teen Aoi (Mai Tsujimoto). And then there's the injured nurse with an oddly placid western boy (Max MacKenzie)...

Writer/director John Cairns is working on a tight enough budget that he can't really afford to do much that is terribly elaborate, but he handles the basics very well indeed: Though the movie's set pieces are generally small, they're vicious and tend to culminate in the sort of violence that looks more like a crime scene than a slain monster, and the tight focus on Sakura helps Cairns avoid any shortcomings that might come with depicting scale: It doesn't matter how widespread the mania is; so long as nothing within Sakura's reach is normal, it feels as if the whole world has turned against her.

Full review at EFC.

Robo Ji (Robo-G)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

There are certain comedies where the viewer might realize that what's going on really make no sense even as the absurdity unfolds on screen, but will consciously forgive it because this particular joke is worth that particular bit of bad writing. Robo-G is one of those movies; its approach is good-natured without being saccharine, and it works much more often than not.

Japan loves robots, and Kimura Electronics, a small appliance company, is looking to get into the market. They're much further along than you might expect from a three-person project, but they suddenly find themselves without a robot. Elsewhere, Shigemitsu Suzuki (Shinjiro Isarashi) is not taking retirement well; acting in plays at the senior center just isn't cutting it. He answers an ad posted by the desperate robot designers (Gaku Hamada, Chan Kawai & Junya Kawashima) looking for an actor, and not only does his old-man shuffle match a robot's gait, but his scrawny old-man limbs mean he fits inside the shell of the smashed robot! It's originally meant to be a one-off thing, but when Suzuki saves Yoko Sasaki (Yuriko Yashitaka) from a falling support while in costume, "Robo-G" becomes famous.

Robo-G has a plot hole that you could drive a rather large vehicle through - if the robot designers we see for most of the movie are so incapable of actually building robots, how are they even able to get to the film's starting point? The proper answer, of course is "hey, look, something shiny over there!", because both the opening gag and the later contradictory jokes are too good to lose. Once writer/director Shinobu Yaguchi has decided that Kobayashi, Oota, and Nagai don't really know that much about robotics, the script is fairly predictable, although peppered with gags. It would be nice if there were a little more to this movie - while it does touch on the desire of the elderly to feel useful and needed, there's a bit of an opportunity missed later on to touch on how Suzuki-san feels when he discovers he will be replaced by a real machine and face retirement again.

Full review at EFC.

Hwa-i-teu: Jeo-woo-eui Mel-lo-di (White: The Melody of the Curse)

* * (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, DCP)

A girl-group horror movie isn't really a bad idea at all: You've got pretty girls, who are highly competitive by nature to fuel any issues between them, and a bunch of settings and situations where people could be killed or maimed that haven't really been mined that much. The cyclical nature of the business makes something coming from the past a potentially nifty hook. Hopefully someone else will give it a go, because it can be done much better than White.

Pink Dolls isn't a bad girl group, but in the competitive Korean pop music scene, it's too consciously cute compared to the more overtly sexy likes of Pure et al. Still, one agent (Pyeon Jung-su) sees something in them, moving them into a house to practice together in preparation for upcoming talent competitions and TV spotlights. It's there that Eun-ju (Ham Eun-jung), the oldest of the group in her mid/late twenties, discovers an old VHS tape that features an unknown group performing "White", a catchy tune that could still work today. So they appropriate it, with energy-drink-addicted Jenny (Jin Se-yeon), pretty face A-rang (Choi Ah-ra), and bitchy former Pure back-up Shin-ji (Kim May Doni) vying to be lead vocal. Ah, but it appears the song is cursed, with Eun-ju and best friend/voice coach Sun-ye (Hwang Woo Seul-hye) discovering that the group that recording it died in a fire... In this. Very. House!

The twenty-first century music industry and manufactured groups like Pink Dolls are perhaps easy targets, but that doesn't mean they aren't still ripe ones. To a certain extent, I must plead ignorance; I didn't pay much attention to the likes of MTV and pop music when I was young enough for it to be targeted to me, and that's American pop. Modern Korean pop seems like a different, even more regimented beast, and for all I know, things like the "Survival Challenge" reality TV show mean a lot more to White's native audience than a guy pushing 40 on the other side of the planet. Filmmaker brothers Kim Sun and Kim Gok still score a few points even I can catch, though, with somewhat pointed observations on just what a machine pop music is and how cutthroat things are even within a single group, while also showing enough of the commitment and hard work necessary to make the characters sympathetic.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012: AXIS, HD)

These days, there aren't a whole lot of movies being made using animation because they wouldn't work any other way; digital capture and effects have come too far, so even ambitious manga are done live-action now. There are still occasionally throwbacks like Asura, though, where animation doesn't just allow it to be amazing to look at, but means you don't have to put a child actor in the title role.

Because, man, who would want to subject a kid to being a part of this? Born in the middle of war to a mother who died when he was very young, Asura (voice of Masako Nozawa) is raised by wolves until, at the age of nine, he is an accomplished hunter of animals and killer of men, eating the meat of both. A Buddhist monk (voice of Kinya Kitaoji) encounters him and teaches him a sutra to try and civilize him; later, he is sheltered by Wakasa (voice of Megumi Hayashibara), who is beautiful but as poor as everybody else in the drought-ridden Japan of the time.

Asura is a stunning movie visually; the animators at Toei (who usually tackle much more kid-friendly material) combine CGI and hand-drawn animation in surprising ways and get a unique, clean result. I'm not familiar with original creator George Akiyama's work - even the American publishers willing to touch the work of such a controversial creator have shied away from his work - but it's pretty amazing how the visuals look like they could have jumped right off the page but still feel unquestionably like a movie, even as it goes from static imagery to spectacular sequences with swooping cameras and devastation. The film uses a mix of had-drawn and digital imagery, and it's surprising how malleable and expressive the latter are, especially Asura himself.

Full review at EFC.

Svartur á leik (Black's Game)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

Is it weird to call Black's Game kind of fun? It is, after all, a movie about gangs and the cocaine trade that doesn't exactly go the hip black comedy route or make its characters cool through their disdain for authority or hyper-capability. But there it is, grabbing my interest and making its characters worth a little affection despite otherwise being a fairly typical crime movie.

Not that "psycho" Stebbi (Thor Kristjansson) starts out as a gangster, though he does get in some legal trouble. An encounter with old acquaintance Toti (Johannes Hakur Johannesson) yields the promise of a great lawyer if Stebbi will retrieve something hidden from a crime scene. When Stebbi does so even after having to deal with a thug after the same loot, Toti brings him into the inner circle with partner Sævar K (Egill Einarsson) and girlfriend Dagny (Maria Birta). They're joining forces with Bruno (Damon Younger) to take over Rekjavik's cocaine business, which in 1999 is about to explode.

Black's Game is a slick piece of work, with screenwriter/director Oskar Thor Axelsson seemingly taking as many cues from executive producer Nicolas Winding Refn as original novelist Stefan Mani. The cast is young and good-looking without being pretty-boy criminals; the soundtrack contains a fair amount of electronica, and it uses a combination of on-screen titles, narration, and quick-cutting to move the story forward very quickly, though it still manages to avoid seeming rushed.

Full review at EFC.

Na xie nian, wo men yi qi zhui de nu hai (You Are the Apple of My Eye)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2012 in Concordia University Cinema de Seve (Fantasia 2012, DCP)

After watching You Are the Apple of My Eye, I learned that it was even more autobiographical than most coming-of-age movies; read a rumor that it was among the most elaborate attempts gestures ever made to declare one's love for a former girlfriend in order to lure her back; and saw another, more serious, Taiwanese movie about high school friends and lovers whose story carried on into adulthood (Girlfriend Boyfriend). How does that affect my opinion of the movie? Not a whit; it's still a very funny, very charming coming of age film.

Our narrator for this process is Ko Ching-teng (Ke Zhendong), whose parents are paying for him to attend a private academy in 1994 Taipei, though he doesn't do much but screw around with his friends: Hsu Bo-chung (Yen Sheng-yu), who is aptly nicknamed "Boner"; "Cock" Tsao Kuo-sheng (Owodog), basketball fiend; Liao Ying-hung (Tsai Chang-hsien), aka "Scratch"; and A-he (Hao Shao-wen), because every story like this has a fat kid. All but Ko are harboring crushes on pretty honor student Shen Chia-yi (Michelle Chen), so of course Ko is the one that the teacher sits next to Shen in order to keep him out of trouble - and, of course, they soon find that they like each other quite a bit.

Ko and Chen are the enjoyable sort of romance that sneaks up on the characters and even the audience; they clash, gain respect for the other, try to prove each other wrong, and wind up walking down dark streets together because it might not be safe for a girl to be out and about by herself without the climactic kiss. Heck, at first the main thing that seems to be happening is that Chen and her comics-loving friend Hu Chia-wei (Wan Wan) find themselves absorbed into Ko's circle of friends, and it's not until Ko and Chen start doing stuff with just them that they start to feel like they are now and have been a couple, although the two seem amusingly unsure about when and whether they've crossed that line.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2012 in Concordia University Cinema de Seve (Fantasia 2012, DCP)

It strikes me as extremely unlikely that anybody else will go into Replicas with the same expectations I had - not having reached the "R" section of the program, I had somehow got it in my head that this was a science-fiction thing, with robots or clones or something ("In Their Skin", the other title its listed under online, gives the same impression). I was way off, but not in any way disappointed; it's a tense, well-honed thriller that puts a nifty twist on a creaky set-up.

Mark (co-writer Joshua Close), Mary (Selma Blair), and their son Brendon (Quinn Lord) are heading to their vacation home, but without a great deal of joy: They're bundled up because it's the off-season; the wound of Brendon's sister's death is still raw; and the family is ready to fall apart. And they're not as alone as they might expect - new neighbors Bobby (James D'Arcy), Jane (Rachel Miner), and their own son Jared (Alex Ferris) are eager to make friends, despite the grieving family really being in no mood.

What this evolves into is, in the broad strokes, predictable enough that it qualifies as a sub-genre of its own, although "home invasion thriller" is both a dryly technical term and implies that a specific sort of underlying tension is going to be driving the story. And while, sure, there is a fair amount of "presumed safety revealed as an illusion" here, it seems decidedly secondary to other elements, and it's the motivations beyond the usual simple greed and revenge that make this one interesting.

Full review at EFC.

Gyakuten saiban (Ace Attorney)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, 35mm)

I've never played the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney video game, but I gather it's just as deeply silly as Takashi Miike's adaptation, which I submit must be a good thing. I also suggest that it's quite possible that by adapting something that is all plot and self-awarely silly, Miike has made the best video game adaptation yet, without undermining what makes the game popular, even if it is on the long side.

In the future, there is so much crime that giving everyone a full trial would be impossible, so the new system is "bench trials" - three-day rapid-fire exchanges of evidence and procedural moves at which point verdicts of "GUILTY!" or "NOT GUILTY!" will be rendered. Rookie defender Phoenix Wright (Hiroki Narimiya) is working with veteran lawyer Mia Fey (Rei Dan) - until she is murdered and he must defend her clairvoyant sister Maya (Mirei Kiritani). His next case will be an even greater test, though, as he's the only man willing to defend prosecutor (and one-time friend) Miles Edgeworth (Takumi Saito), who is accused of murder with his mentor Manfred Von Karma (Ryo Ishibashi) prosecuting.

One can only hope that the names these characters have in the Japanese dialogue are as joyously goofy as the ones in the English subtitles. Seriously, because I only know a little bit of Japanese, is "Keisuke Itokogiri" as funny a cop name as "Dick Gumshoe"? Even if those names are just preserving the whimsical way that someone translated the original Nintendo DS games, the rest of the movie is (as can be Miike's wont when someone gives him a bit of a budget to spend) a direct translation of the game's visuals, from the wild hairstyles originally meant to make characters distinct on a two-inch screen to the mish-mash of futuristic, contemporary, and period styles mashed together in every scene. Somehow, the knowing absurdity of the setting stitches it all together, and while it's not the relentless cartooniness of Speed Racer or Yatterman, it's worthy of a chuckle.

Full review at EFC.

Ikiterumono wa inainoka (Isn't Anybody Alive?)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2012 in Concordia University Cinema de Seve (Fantasia 2012 Camera Lucida, HD)

It is, I suppose, unfair to judge this picture for not being conventional enough; it's meant to be unusual and relatively plot-free. The question is, if you strip the basic building block of story away, what's left? Isn't Anyone Alive? becomes an end-of-the-world movie whose detachment isn't shocking or philosophical or even that interesting, despite a strong start.

The entire movie takes place on a college campus and the research hospital attached to it, where we meet several small groups: Pregnant student Kaori (Hakka Shiraishi) and her baby's father Katsufumi (Asato Iida) are meeting his fiancée Ryoko (Rin Takanashi) in a café to figure out what to do. Nana (Mai Takahashi) is killing time with friends Andre (Kota Fudauchi), Enari (Yumika Tajima), and Eiko (Ami Ikenaga) before they go to rehearse a song & dance for Ryoko's wedding; she's joined by "Match" (Keisuke Hasebe) and Katsuo (Hiroaki Morooka), fellow members of the Urban Myth Club. Koyuichi (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) is looking for his half-sister Maki (Eri Aoki), an orderly at the hospital. There's more, but after a report of a mysterious incident at the subway station, people start dropping dead.

In another movie, the presence of clever students who know a great deal about urban legends and a research hospital might point to the source of the outbreak and a way to stop it, but let's be very clear: Isn't Anyone Alive? is not that movie. Director Gakuryu "Sogo" Ishii and co-writer Shiro Maeda (who wrote the original play) make sure to raise the possibility and shoot it down early, re-iterating that this is not how things are going to go every time it looks like some sort of plot might develop. The idea, perhaps, is to highlight how cosmically unimportant human concerns are - the characters' dramas and concerns are snuffed out, and what of it?

Full review at EFC.

Lobos de Arga (Game of Werewolves)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2012 in Concordia University Theatre Hall (Fantasia 2012, HD)

First, forget that stupid English-language title; writer/director Juan Martínez Moreno hates it (there's no game involved) and hopes whoever picks it up in English-speaking territories just goes with Lobos de Arga. Instead, focus on what a really great horror-comedy this is - so good that including "comedy" in the description really seems to discount how well Moreno recaptures the feel of classic monster movies, with tons of atmosphere, horrible curses, and practical effects that may not always be seamless, but certainly get the point across.

Tomás Mariño (Gorka Otxoa) was praised for his first book, but writer's block has hit something fierce, and when he is invited to the small town where he was born for a ceremony honoring him, he figures some time in the country might be good for his muse. It's nice to see old friend Calisto (Carlos Areces) again, too, although his agent Mario (Secun de la Rosa) arriving isn't quite so great. Except it turns out that it's less a "ceremony" than a "rite" - a werewolf has been lurking in the woods for decades, and only the blood of a male Mariño on the hundredth anniversary of his turning will reverse the curse.

It's a rare horror-comedy that works well on both sides of the hyphen, but Lobos de Agra does better than most. First, it is genuinely funny; "Vito" is an early nominee for "best supporting canine" and the banter between the guys feels just right. There's no obligatory and rote love story to drag the movie along a predictable route - in fact, Mabel Rivera is the most prominent woman in the cast, and she plays Tomás's grandmother Rosa - but writer/director Juan Martinez Moreno doesn't drag the movie into crude and sexist areas either. Once the stuff with the wolfmen starts, Moreno adds a good deal of twisted comedy to the banter, and generally does a good job of playing against genre tropes and cultural prejudices.

Full review at EFC.

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