Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Fantasia Daily, 2013.12 (29 July 2013): Saving General Yang, Helter Skelter, and The Dirties

Another day of just getting to the Imperial in time for my first movie, barely any time to grab some snacks before going into Saving General Yang. On the plus side, the Gourmais Popcorn they've got at the concession stand is really good (and the $3 price isn't bad for a reasonably-sized portion for a single person). They also started having Pepsi Max in the cooler this weekend, and I'm grateful. Not only has Pepsi Max and an Oh Henry bar become my go-to Fantasia snack over the past few years, but 24 ounces of regular Pepsi just doesn't taste right to me any more.

I did a fair amount of note-taking for Saving General Yang - it's something I do during a lot of foreign films that might not have fleshed out IMDB entries for either the movie or the cast anyway, but with seven brothers named Yang and alliterative names at that? If you want to review that, you have to write down "#5 ... doctor... Yundai?" and hope you can piece stuff together.

Helter Skelter was only the second movie I've seen at the festival in 35mm, the other being Rurouni Kenshin. That one was fairly random, but it made sense for this; it seemed (to me) to very much be calling back to the aesthetics of previous decades, and the film was a big part of it. I was actually all set to put something in the actual review review about how it was an important part of the presentation because you needed to be able to see skin tones and detail... And then I saw that the movie was filmed on a Red and was reduced to a 2K digital intermediate at one point. Still, it was really nice for round things to actually be round.

I had to run across town quickly to see my last film of the day (I'd already seen Willow Creek), and got close to the last seat in the house for The Dirties. Check out this angle:

Matthew Johnson, Curt Lobb, Andrew Appelle of "The Dirties"

That's writer/director/star Matthew Johnson and camera operators Curt Lobb & Andrew Appelle, and they talked a lot about how more or less nothing was planned, and that a great deal of the movie evolved because his co-star just wasn't as interested in improvising being a crazy person as he was. They also mentioned that the found-footage conceit evolved during editing - that there was originally a whole backstory behind the cameramen, but it was not needed and that by actually cutting it out, it pulled the audience in more. And, perhaps more amusingly, they apparently got turned away from festivals because there wasn't enough blood & violence in their finale; what happened didn't actually raise to the level of being controversial enough to program.

Today's plan: Sci-Fi shorts, Library Wars, and Vegetarian Cannibal at the Imperial, maybe skipping the last one because it starts late and I have to work for a few hours tomorrow (plus, I am squeamish). Wearing the Red Sox/Ellsbury t-shirt, because I have apparently become superstitious from looking at how the team's won/loss record tracks my sartorial choices on this vacation.

Saving General Yang

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival: Action!, DCP)

The tale of the Yang Clan is something special, even in a culture already packed full of martial legends. Its combined simplicity and grandeur makes it an excellent source for Ronny Yu's latest, and apparent labor of love that does the legend proud, even for those who have never heard it before.

General Yang Ye (Adam Cheng siu-Chow) is one of the greatest warriors of the Song Dynasty and the proud father of seven sons. Well, mostly proud - there was the recent mess where sixth son Yang Yanzhou (Wu Chan) defeated the favored suitor for the hand of his beloved Princess Chai (Ady Ang Yi-Xuan) and youngest son Yansi (Fu Xinbo) accidentally killed the man when he attacked Yanzhou afterward. Now, though, the empire is under attack by the Khitan, whose general Ye Luyuan (Shao Bing) lost his own father at Yang Ye's hand. The emperor makes Yang Ye the front-line general, but he is soon trapped at Wolf Mountain, and it is up to his sons - pike-fighter Yanping (Ekin Cheng), ax-wielder Yanding (Yu Bo), archer Yan-an (Vic Chou), betel nut-loving swordsman Yanhui (Jerry Li), doctor Yande (Raymond Lam), Yanzhou, and Yansi - to rescue him.

The crawl before the closing credits of Saving General Yang informs the viewer that the Yangs are still venerated today as paragons of filial loyalty, but in the hands of Yu and co-writers Edmond Wong and Scarlett Liu, it is a fine story of how the love and loyalty can become twisted into something tragic, as not only are the sins of the father visited upon the son, but vice versa. It's a simple theme that shows up in every facet of the story throughout the film, but simple is good here: Many martial epics will be filled with minutia and various vaguely distinct factions, but there's not a single character in this movie whose motives aren't crystal clear and don't resonate with the audience, hero and villain alike. The way they act on this emotions is grand and operatic, but Yu and company engage the audience fully.

Full review at EFC.

Helter Skelter

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2013 in le Cinéma Impérial (Fantasia Festival, 35mm)

What a curious but exciting beast Helter Skelter turns out to be - a movie about beauty and its prices that evokes films from a very different time and place (1960s/70s Italy, perhaps) but is undeniably of and about contemporary Japan. I suspect that it works anywhere, though, at least for audiences that don't mind their movies about pretty people doing ugly things being a little on the arty side.

"LiLiCo" (Erika Sawajiri) is Japan's top model, especially popular among youth. She's on the cover of every magazine, does the occasional TV show, and is starting to film her first movie. What the adoring fans don't realize, though, is that she is a complete construct; "Mama" Hiroko Tada (Kaori Momoi) has paid cutting-edge cosmetic surgeons to shape every part of her, but without regular maintenance and treatments, it's up to her make-up artist (Hirofumi Arai) to prevent ugly blemishes from being visible all over her skin. Prosecutor Makoto Asada (Nao Omori) aims to shut down the clinic that does her work, but she's feeling besieged already with the appearance of next big thing Kozue Yoshikawa (Kiko Izuhara).

Well, that and the body that makes up nearly her entire identity rebelling. For the central character of a movie, LiLiCo is a vague, sort of inhuman thing, not so much for being a spoiled monster as someone who doesn't seem to have a true self. It's rare for her to have an opinion, and even when she acts on her own behalf, it seems to come more as a threat to the power of her beauty than an earnest desire. She's a symbol of manufactured attractiveness - Asada notes that her musculature doesn't match her bone structure, and it makes her look especially empty. She's never shown in casual clothing; even alone in her apartment, it's exaggerated glamour and practiced movements.

Full review at EFC.

The Dirties

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2013 in Salle de Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Idle question: When seeing a film about bullying - whether or not it leads to school shootings or not - is it considered a success on the part of the filmmakers or evidence that I'm a horrible person if I initially have violent thoughts toward the victims? I mean, look, bullying is wrong, but writer/director/star Matthew Johnson's character is really, really annoying.

The movie itself is sort of annoying in the same way as it starts, all self-conscious film fan recreating other scenes and not a whole lot of the characters as themselves. It picks up once we start to see Matt and Owen Williams as individuals, and Owen finding a way to ground himself starts to separate him from Matt. It does a kind of nifty thing with the found/repurposed-footage gimmick, too; there are times when it almost seemed as if the cameraman was something Matt was imagining, and his editing of the footage a kind of delusion. Not intended, but it works.

The end... Well, it's okay. We were reminded before the screening that Columbine was almost fifteen years ago, and given (a) what most bullies do and (b) how quickly teen life evolves and mutates, trading on its imagery seems to be a less-than-inspired choice, and I sort of get the impression that the ending was the one they started with, even though this highly-improvised movie evolved into something else by the time they got there.

Full review at EFC.

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