Monday, July 22, 2013

The Fantasia Daily, 2013.03 (20 July 2013): Evangelion 3.0, Rurouni Kenshin, Confession of Murder, It's Me, It's Me & Frankenstein's Army

Sorry for the lateness. A combination of falling asleep, well, before I'd even left my last movie, but certainly as soon as I got back to the apartment; a relatively early start on Sunday, and my laptop's network connection starting to become extremely unreliable led to no time to post then. I think I've figured out a way to get the most of the mess the situation is in, but it's going to slow things down a bit.

Not a particularly great day, I guess; I think Rurouni Kenshin is the movie out of the five I saw that I can most readily recommend, but most of the rest were at least interesting. Yeah, even Evangelion 3.0, even though I'll probably see the fourth more to say I made it through the series as any real enthusiasm

Satoshi Miki & company

Satoshi Miki (the snappy dresser in the center) was there to introduce and face interrogation for It's Me, It's Me, and I wish I could say I liked his movie a bit more. It's got a clever idea but I don't think it's particularly deep; rather, it's the sort of movie where you can see the potential for a great metaphor and wind up rushing to fill it in beyond what's actually presented, while the filmmaker sees the metaphor and thinks it can substitute for the actual clockwork needed to make a story run. A shame, because I really liked Adrift in Tokyo (I'll probably pick it up at the concession stand where they're selling off what is likely the last of Evokative Films's stock), and wanted him to hit it out of the park.

Miki's an outgoing, excitable guy on stage, at least, and in some ways, I was kind of glad during the Q&A that my Japanese and French are as bad as they are: I am reasonably sure that he stated that he wanted his next project to be about Gamera either attacking or hatching from Montreal's Stade Olympique, and am not sure that knowing the details would make it more enjoyable.

After It's Me, It's Me, I opted to get some food rather than see V/H/S/2 again, and while it was a good idea on the "I'm hungry" front, it gave me a long wait for Frankenstein's Army at midnight, and I didn't get through that very well at all; the combination of being full of food and having time to shut down was deadly. On the other hand, I did see that Mr. Steer has been spiffed up a bit. It's still basically a diner, but it seems a bit nicer. Most importantly, they may still have Montreal's best basic burger. There are lots of spots with fancier toppings, but the actual ground beef there is the best.

Evangerion shin gekijôban: Kyu (Evangelion 3.0: You Can (Not) Redo)

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival AXIS, DCP)

Neon Genesis Evangelion has been a manga. It's been a TV series. And now, three quarters of the way through the "Rebuild of Evangelion" film series, I can't help but wonder: When are the folks involved going to create a version that lives up to their impressive ambition by telling the story clearly and well?

It's been fourteen years since the events of Evangelion 2.0, although Shinji Ikari (voice of Megumi Ogata) has missed them, orbiting the Earth in a sort of stasis. His former teammate, Asuka Shikinami (voice of Yuko Miyamura), retrieves him, but things have changed - Asuka and Misato Katsuragi (voice of Kotono MItsuishi) are now part of "Wille", a convoy of survivors running from NERV in the hopes of finding what they need to fight back. Things are different at Ikari's father Gendo's organization, too - the friend Shinji risked his life to rescue, Rei Ayanami (voice of Megumi Hayashibara) is replaced by a hollow, soulless clone, and Gendo (voice of Fumihiko Tachiki) means for his son and new EVA pilot Kaworu Nagisa (voice of Akira Ishida) to retrieve two massive spears of incredible power for reasons that are, as always, mystical and mysterious.

Well, maybe not mysterious to the longtime fans that this series is, in large part, made for (although the storyline is supposedly departing from the source material here). While it's coming into a bit more focus for the rest of us, there is still a lot of reliance on Capitalization Without Explanation in the subtitles (even not knowing Japanese, one can hear these vague concepts as proper nouns in the dialog). To be completely fair to You Can (Not) Redo, one can get the basic gist without the mythology - teen hero wakes up in [even more] dystopian future, finds friends in opposition to each other, is convinced to use his special skills on import mission. One's eyes may glaze in between, but the idea is simple enough and the post-apocalyptic setting reduces the number of weird tonal shifts drastically - no comic-relief penguins or secret identities, and the tight jumpsuits aren't quite the fanservice that was jarring in a property that wants itself to be taken so very seriously.

This streamlining doesn't help with the gigantic problem with the story: Shinji is every type of idiot he can be - slow on the uptake, gullible as a toddler, and not exactly decisive. Sure, the folks who went a heck of a great distance out of their way to get him back don't exactly overburden him with the information he needs to make good decisions, but would it help? It can be hard to tell whether things are nonsensical or just confusing because series mastermind Hideaki Anno is trying to cram a lot of story into relatively little time, and even for the penultimate film of a series, the end leaves the audience in a passive, unsettled place.

Even the animation - generally a high point for the franchise - is somewhat disappointing. Oh, it's terrific in spots; the opening sequence with Asuka blasting into orbit is thrilling, for instance, and some of the CGI effects impress. The character animation is all over the place, though; Asuka's features deform in way other faces don't, and some supporting characters seem to have been created in a completely different style. The scale of the EVA mechs and their enemies doesn't always come across, and the level of detail just isn't up to the series's previous standards.

The occasional roughness makes me wonder if the previous features were found to not have an audience beyond the core fanbase, causing the producers to scale the budget back on this newest entry. A bit of a shame, if so - the eye-popping animation is the only part that appeals to everybody. There's still enough of interest to get me to see the conclusion when it is released - hey, I've come this far - but on the whole, the series is shaping up to be something of a mess.

(Probably dead) link to review at EFC.

Rurouni Kenshin

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival Action!, 35mm)

Rurouni Kenshin is a comic-book movie, not just in the sense that it's adapted from a popular manga, but in how it both aims to introduce a lot of favorite elements and tell the story that best reflects the core of the character. Don't knock this - it's made some crowd-pleasing movies in the last few years, and Rurouni Kenshin does all right even for those not at all familiar with the source (sometimes known as "Samurai X" in North America).

In 1868, as the time of the samurai was coming to its end, one of the class's most lethal young assassins, "Battosai", threw down his sword, tired of killing. Ten years later, he wanders the land under the name Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato), carrying a backward-bladed sword. As he arrives in Tokyo, Kanryu Takeda (Teruyuki Kagawa) is consolidating his hold both in legitimate shipping and opium - including a highly poetent variety developed by Megumi Takani (Yu Aoi). Kaoru Kamiya (Emi Takei) and her family's dojo are the ones standing most directly in Takeda's path, and even a legendary swordsman might not be enough to stand against Takeda's men and weapons.

There's also good-natured street fighter Sanosuke Sagara (Munetaka Aoki) and orphan Tahiko Myojin (Taketo Tanaka), all the better to form a surrogate family with. That's the go-to storyline for any story featuring a wandering hero, and while Rurouni Kenshin will occasionally give this a bit of emphasis, it's more overtly about Kenshin's desire to put his past as a killer behind him and his belief that it's impossible, making him unsuitable for anyone. And since the villains worship him for his prowess as a killer and many of Takeda's crew is highly Westernized, there's a fair amount of the franchise's appeal being touched upon, and while the net sometimes seems to be cast a bit wide, what it's catching is solid material.

Another likely part of the appeal is the action; a samurai story with such specific emphasis on the types of weapons used is under a lot of pressure to do this well and both director Keishi Otomo and action choreographer Kenji Tanigaki come through. Tanigaki has worked much of his career in Hong Kong, and in many ways the swordfights resemble that region's action cinema as much as traditional samurai films, with extended exchanges that are quick but still quite clear. The filmmakers frequently opt to go big, as well, from Sagara's massive bludgeon (made to take down horses) and Takeda's new toy to having to face either an army of thugs - tough, when killing is off the table - or one with supernatural abilities. Otomo and company can play the action as either harsh or fun without missing a beat.

The general sense of fun comes from the characters; as with any ongoing series worth its salt, there's a large ensemble that audiences enjoy hanging around with. Yu Aoi and Munetaka Aoki are particularly good in terms of making supporting characters that are more fun than they have to be - Aoki and, I think, Genki Sudo crack viewers up mid-fight scene, while Aoi makes Megumi modern and witty without seeming anachronistic. In fact, the weak link may be that Sato makes Kenshin come across as maybe too pleasant at times; despite the X-shaped scar placed on his cheek and solemnly delivered exposition, it sometimes seems like he can't help but be a charismatic young movie star, with a smile that comes across as much too carefree. He can sell angry and looks good in the fight scenes, but cheerful seems to come much more naturally than tortured.

But then, that's what the people making this movie seem to be going for - a highly polished action/adventure with entertainment valued over realism or complexity. That's fine; it delivers those goods well and never puts itself in a position where not going dark leads to disappointment or disbelief. It's a comic-book movie, but the filmmakers know how to make a good one.

(Probably dead) link to review at EFC.

Naega Salinbeomida (Confession of Murder)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

If movies were graded on a strict plus-minus system, Confession of Murder would grade out as average; it's packed full of silly and unbelievable plotting and twists along with a feeling of missed opportunities with its media satire, and a few good action scenes don't necessarily make up for that. What that doesn't necessarily take into account is that this movie is most fun when it's at its most insane.

The first insane part, perhaps, is that South Korea has a statute of limitations on murder. Why would you have that? It does, though, fifteen years as of 2005, when the case of a serial killer of ten women - one that particularly tormented detective Choi Hyung-goo (Jung Jae-young), leaving him with scars literal and physical - was dropped. Two years later, Lee Doo-suk (Park Si-hoo) publishes I Am the Murderer, confessing to his crimes in great detail. Handsome, telegenic, and superficially sincere in his desire to make amends, Doo-suk is an instant celebrity, which maddens Choi no end, especially since the book doesn't reveal the location of the last body. Also livid - the families of the victims. And there's no time limit on wanting revenge.

There's a smart, subversive satire of a movie about celebrity culture, equal protection under the law, and the reality of the modern media to be made from that premise. Occasionally, writer/director Jung Byoung-gil decides that he's going to be the one to make it, and whenever he does, Confession of Murder sinks like a stone. It's just strange to have a movie that plays on how screwy people get about celebrities set five years ago - did it get less ridiculous in the Republic of Korea between 2007 and 2012? Jung is also too happy to play into cop-movie tropes to be credible in talking about law enforcement's role in society but also a little too dry when dealing with the media. That part is absurd enough in its way, but far too restrained.

The family of the victims, however, has no such issue. There's pitch-black comedy in their attempts to get revenge - many of them involving snakes and crossbows, because a couple of them happen to have those as a hobby - including a great big car chase involving Choi, a stolen ambulance, and Lee's personal security that could come straight out of an Indiana Jones movie from the way everyone is jumping from one vehicle to another. Every time this movie threatens to be become serious, there's some over-the-top bit of action or comedy or plot twist that makes one laugh. The script will cause a lot of rolling of eyes; for all that it does a good job of hiding some things that the last act will need in plain sight, it holds out other information rather unfairly. Still, the better moments push things toward the positive side of the ledger.

Because writer/director Jung is holding some things back, not all of the cast really gets to shine. Park Si-hoo, for instance, never really gets to show the charisma that Doo-suk must have in order for this story to work, just coming off as good-looking but over-polished. His blandness does make the rumpled anger Jung Jae-young gives Choi a lot more fun in contrast; the actor makes the character a great center of the movie, even if the whole plot does center around him being kind of ineffective. The family members do some crazy stuff, but only one of them - Kim Young-ae as the missing victim's mother - really commands the screen throughout. Things do loosen up as the climax draws nearer, which allows Park Si-hoo and Jung Hae-kyun (playing another one of the aggrieved) to cut loose.

To Jung Byoung-gil's credit, the movie never feels like it's treading water until the last act or just throwing out distractions, a situation to which this sort of thriller can all too often fall victim. It avoids that in part by being ludicrous, but it's more often the go-for-broke fun kid of nuts than the stupid variety, and that scores it a lot of points.

(Probably dead) link to review at EFC.

Ore, Ore (It's Me, It's Me)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival Camera Lucida, HD)

There's clear intent to make a clever movie in It's Me, It's Me, from the opening shots of identical buildings, insistent posters about a rat infestation, and other bits that tie into the high concept of a young man multiplying across the city which seem to have started with some form of identity theft. Unfortunately, screenwriter/director Satoshi Miki stumbles putting the strange concepts together, and the movie has a hard time becoming more than a set of well-executed moments.

The young man in question is Hitoshi Nagano (Kazuya Kamenashi), one of those anonymous protagonists who starts out pondering a jump from a bridge because there doesn't seem to be much chance of life offering a better alternative. Instead, he goes to a restaurant and takes off with the phone of one Daiki Hiyama - a salaryman about his age who placed it on Hitoshi's tray because he didn't notice Hitoshi was there - eventually running a scam on the man's mother, but when he feels guilty and attempts to return the money, Daiki's mother (Keiko Takahashi) recognizes him as her son. Then, when he goes to see his own mother (Midoriko Kimura), there's someone visiting who looks exactly like him! Hitoshi and Daiki find another guy with their face, student Nao Motoyama, and soon it seems like other people are becoming Hitoshi as well. As he starts spending more time with Daiki and Nao, he also finds himself flirting with Sayaka (Yuki Uchida), a married customer at the store where he sells cameras.

Throughout the movie, Miki seem to be poking at the idea of urban anonymity and/or how having a group of friends that are just like oneself is seductive but ultimately unrewarding. He and original novelist Tomoyuki Hoshino have certainly found an interesting way to make these concepts literal, but I'm not sure it's much more than a clever idea. What is Miki really saying about swarms of people becoming effectively interchangeable? That eventually the delight of finding someone who gets you can be diluted to the point where a person can suddenly feel anonymous again? That (perhaps as a result) it's a thing that leads to cutthroat competition? Is it all a reference for him giving up his dream of being a photographer and working in a big-box store (it's worth noting that the best thing to happen in his life comes from Sayaka wanting him to take pictures)? Maybe, although the presentation of it is so fantastical and fuzzy that it's hard for the metaphor to really shine through.

That's in part because the mechanism for the change and the details of it are too mysterious; aside from the initial identity-theft situation seeming sort of backwards, it's often not quite clear whether the new Hitoshis remember their old lives or not. The evolution into a sort of thriller in the second half as the population of duplicates gets out of control and starts getting culled has similar issues. It's a sharp turn about two-thirds of the way through the movie that may take a fair amount of post-viewing rationalization to seem to be about themes or plot machinations, rather than one of several sketched-out ideas that Miki and the original novelist played with until they couldn't find anywhere else to go.

The story's meandering does not mean that the viewer should overlook the impressive work by Kazuya Kamenashi, a pop singer playing the lead role(s) with style; there's just enough similarity and difference between the various versions of Hitoshi to make the situation interesting regardless of the story's weaknesses. He also makes Hitoshi-prime (or at least, the guy we assume is the original Hitoshi Nagano) an amiable enough character, much more likable and fully-realized than this sort of sad-sack could seem to be otherwise. A lot of the most memorable moments have Kamenashi playing against himself, but there's a nice supporting cast when one is necessary - Ryo Kase, Ryu Nakatani, and especially Eri Fuse bounce off him well as his co-workers, for instance. Yuki Uchida makes for a fun and unusual love interest - a little older and thus with her enthusiastic infatuation a little tempered; she's got her own story that intersects with Hitoshi's but isn't completely subservient to it.

Still, a lot of the appeal is watching multiple Hitoshis play off each other, and Miki and company have a good time sewing the effects together - the interactions between the Hitoshis are occasionally more showy than seamless, but those are funny moments. For a movie that doesn't look particularly slick - much of it seems to take place in the same sort of lower-middle-class neighborhoods as Miki's wonderful Adrift in Tokyo - there's a lot of attention to detail in the production, whether in the invisible visual effects or the parallel story that the posters detailing a rodent problem in the background seem to tell. Miki's a talented-enough director that every scene, at least, seems to fit together as a unit, even if the whole becomes shaky.

Less shaky than I originally thought, though - writing this almost a month after seeing the movie, it seems to be much richer and well-considered than it did at the time. I somewhat doubt that different circumstances would make it a more immediately entertaining movie, but there's certainly at least enough interesting elements on the surface to make it worth digging into.

(Probably dead) link to original review at EFC.

Frankenstein's Army

N/A (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

I have to admit - I was in and out of this one from close to the start, just not ready for midnights yet. And while it's sometimes possible to get the gist of a movie even when missing a few minutes here and there, the found-footage nature of this one made it feel like it was jumping around even more. I completely missed the introduction of this movie's Frankenstein descendant, and the second half just seemed like random monster encounters.

Though, to be fair, those were some great old-school monsters, industrial looking and nasty. I'll almost certainly give this another look if it plays the Brattle or Coolidge on its way to video/VOD... I just hope it's at 9:30 or so instead of midnight!

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