Monday, July 21, 2014

The Fantasia Daily 2014.04: Bayonetta: Bloody Fate, Red Family, In the Land of the Head Hunters, The Reconstruction of William Zero, The Suspect

Another long day, as the weekend can be. I spent a little too much time writing Saturday morning to make it to Jellyfish Eyes, as expected, but I think I probably could have gotten into Zero Theorem if I'd tried; the doors were at least open, although it turned out to be tight between that and the end of Bayonetta and I wanted to see Red Family anyway.

There was both a short film before In the Land of the Head Hunters and a panel discussion afterward, but I'm afraid I didn't write any names down for the first (it's not in the official program) and the latter was all in French. If you want to feel like an ignorant American, try doing the hunched-over trying-not-to-be-rude retreat.

After that, pizza, and then a weird "do we line up here, or down there, I know you said here but a bunch of people have just walked past us to line up down there and I can see people who are lined up downstairs who are in the same boat as me pass-wise, come on, what's the deal here?" alongside the folks from the Boston Underground Film Festival (who recognized me for my stylish BUFF t-shirt) in the line for The Reconstruction of William Zero. I get that the guys are sort of figuring things out as they go along with this new screen - there really isn't much room to wait in the lobby area down there - but man, folks were just ignoring the rules while other people were arriving down there via the tunnel from the building across the street (not complaining too much about that one, as Garbriela saved me a good seat after I recommended the movie to her).

It turned out to be a great movie, and writer/director Dan Bush gave a good, though brief, Q&A afterward. I kind of wish I'd had a chance to ask him about the various levels of technology he and his set decorators used on this movie, because it's got what look like Commodore PET-era machines alongside very modern cell phones, and it's a curious choice; I didn't know whether he was trying to evoke the 1980s or just thought the clunky old machines look cool. I was trying to figure out early on if the implication was that one character was making the other think it was thirty years earlier, but it mostly seemed like looks.

(There's a picture, but it's on my camera, and I left my mini-USB cables back home. I'll put it up then or maybe find something when I go to get my tablet repaired)

Most of the folks I saw there stayed in that theater for Cybernatural while I went upstairs for The Suspect. If I'd realized that The Suspect was hitting US Blu-ray on Tuesday, I might have made another decision, but I might not have, as this has some good big-screen car chase action.

Today's plan: Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, which appears to have an entire other short feature by the same director attached, and Hwayi: A Monster Boy, based mainly on having other chances to see the thing playing against it. If you're in town and haven't seen it, Cold in July is excellent at 7pm.

Bayonetta: Bloody Fate

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2014 in Salle D.B. Clarke (Fantasia Festival: AXIS, digital)

I strongly suspect that there is no movie, not even among the psychadelic ones by auteurs who were pretty weird even before the drugs, that is as utterly nonsensical to a viewer as an anime created to adapt or enhance a video game that he or she has not played. Bayonetta: Bloody Fate may actually be better than most in that category as it's not actually incomprehensible; it's just so full of clunky storytelling and empty fanservice that I can't see even those fans caring much for it.

It starts with a ton of backstory about witches, sages, the Creator Jubileus, and a Forbidden Child raised by the witches but lost for 500 years and amnesiac, aside from knowing she's supposed to kill anges. That's our frequently-naked heroine Bayonetta (voice of Atsuko Tanaka), who cuts down mostly-headless angels with her "knights" (a set of four guns, with a couple attached to her stiletto heels), among other weapons. A reporter by the name of Luka (voice of Daisuke Namikawa) is searching for the truth about the witches and sages, and incidentally Bayonetta, which may have more to do with Mr. Balder (voice of Norio Wakamoto), leader of the mysterious Idvalle Group, and Jeanne (voice of Mie Sonozaki), the assassin in his employ whose skills curiously reflec Bayonetta's.

Oh, and there's also Cereza (voice of Miyuki Sawashiro), one of the most annoying kid characters in the history of anime, and that is a pretty tough list to climb. She's also annoying in how she encapsulates some of the movie's worst problems, at least when seen on its own: She barely has a personality beyond one or two standard trains and repeated actions/lines, as she's a character built for a very specific purpose and seeming to have very little detail beyond that. Because that's standard operating procedure, it makes everyone and the whole environment a cipher, from the heroes to the world that they're presumably trying to save.

Full review at EFC

Boolgeun Gajok (Red Family)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2014 in Salle D.B. Clarke (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

There have been many, many films built around the twin premises that the family next door that's too perfect to be true really isn't, and that they have their own problems. Red Family doesn't go a completely new direction with it - The Americans is a great ongoing series with a bigger canvas to work on than this Korean film, for example - but it hits its marks very nicely indeed, with its fair share of eye-opening moments.

Of the "family" of North Korean spies living in a tony Seoul suburb, only Chief Comrade Seung-hye (Kim Yu-mi) really seems to see this as her patriotic duty - "husband" Jae-hong (Jung Woo), teenage "daughter" Min-ji (Park So-young), and "grandfather" Myoung-sik (Son Byung-ho) all have family back north effectively being used as hostages. That keeps them executing the missions that they are assigned, but it's the next-door neighbors that might pose the biggest threat: Min-ji is starting to like their son Chang-soo (Oh Jae-moo), while his grandmother (Park Myung-shin) is fond of Myoung-sik, and even the constant fighting of Chang-soo's parents (Park Byung-eun & Kang Eun-jin) serves as a keen reminder of what they're missing.

This is a small film from Kim Ki-duk's independent production company (the Korean filmmaker wrote the script but left direction to newcomer Lee Ju-hyoung), so don't expect a lot of the action or elaborate tradecraft that espionage thrillers often feature; most of the film takes place in suburban homes with very little need to clean up afterward. That doesn't mean it lacks for suspense; the last act is a sustained bit of tension in part for how it's buried beneath the surface. More often, the filmmakers will just suddenly drop the bottom out from a scene, playing up how sudden changes are the norm for this group.

Full review at EFC

In the Land of the Head Hunters

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2014 in Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival, HD)

As is so often the case with early silent movies, you can't just watch In the Land of the Head Hunters as intended; the new restoration is pieced together from two incomplete prints and still has plenty of segments that are just missing, filled in with stills. That's almost cruelly ironic, because while many films from that time period were considered disposable entertainment, it's clear that Edward S. Curtis was trying to make something that documents as well as entertains.

Make no mistake, though, this is an adventure story first and foremost, telling the tale of Motana, the son of a village chief sent out on a "vigil" to prove his worthiness. While there, he meets Naida, the daughter of another chief, who is promised to a sorcerer. If Motana can bring back that sorcerer's head, he can marry the girl, but assassinating such a man is seldom going to be a tidy way to end things. So there will be battles.

It's an exciting story, and while Curtis was primarily a still photographer famed for his pictures of Native Americans, he put an exciting narrative together. Though Head Hunters is only about an hour long, that was a full-length feature in 1914, and it's one that hits the ground running and seldom lets up. There are chases, battles, dreams, and all manner of other action, and while some intrigue and romantic plots fall a bit by the wayside, even a modern audience will seldom feel bored. It's a cracker, even a hundred years later.

Full review at EFC

The Reconstruction of William Zero

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2014 in Salle D.B. Clarke (Fantasia Festival: Paradigm Shifters, DCP)

As much as it's fun to be one of the first people to see a movie, it's kind of frustrating when you want to talk about the thing you've seen right away, but the only people you can do so with are the ones who were in that room - and, because it's a film festival, we're all rushing to the next movie. The Reconstruction of William Zero is likely to be one of my favorites of the festival, and I want more folks to see it, but I do not want to give things away.

It starts out playing a few tricks with time, as geneticist William Blakely (Conal Byrne) rushes from his home with wife Jules (Amy Seimetz) and son Kevin to get to work. At the same time, he's being revived by his twin in a new home, suffering from near-complete amnesia after a stupid automobile accident, learning anew that he and Jules have been separated for four years. He's got to relearn everything - and he's been making a start via experimental methods - and some of what he learns is strange and horrifying.

There's a throwback quality to Reconstruction, from the eighties-style production company logos to a lot of the set decoration and costuming - in fact, I'd peg it for a period piece if not for the mobile phones, RFID keycards, and tablet computers that show up as well (it's occasionally kind of distracting if you tend to watch closely enough to try and find an in-story reason for the old tech aside from the atmosphere it creates). Mostly, though, that comes from the way the movie builds and paces itself - director Dan Bush and co-writer Conal Byrne establish a chilly atmosphere early on, letting the audience and characters in on what's happening early enough that they can watch things play out while also letting the audience chew on the ethics of the situation. A good chunk of the effects budget is used on having Conal Byrne play against himself.

Full review at EFC

The Suspect

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival: Action!, DCP)

Like a lot of action pictures, The Suspect occasionally has too much going on could sometimes benefit from a little more clarity in its presentation. The good news is that those moments when the plot is convoluted and the camera just won't stay still are generally made up for when things lock in for a truly impressive chase.

The suspect is Ji Dong-chul (Gong Yoo), an former elite soldier for North Korea who defected to the South and is now working as a driver, mostly for Haejoo Group president Park Gun-ho (Song Jae-ho), another defector, while also trying to track down the man responsible for the death of his wife and daughter. When circumstances place Dong-chul at the scene when Gun-ho is murdered - and in possession of a crucial piece of evidence - the manhunt is undertaken by more than the local police: Corrupt NSIA agent Kim Suk-ho (Cho Seong-ha) is in charge of the investigation, while Colonel Min Se-hoon (Park Hee-soon) - who tangled with Dong-chul back when the latter was one of North Korea's top agents - does the work on the ground. The only ally Dong-chul has is former reporter Choi Gyung-hee (You Da-in), who has been trying to get him to participate in a documentary on defectors ever since she was fired from her old job.

There's a lot going on in the script by Lim Sang-yoon, especially early on, and there's the sense that a lot of it could be simplified. A lot of time is spent early on establishing the characters' bona fides, past interactions, and motivations, and the film gets some mileage (and some decent action) out of that, but to a certain extent, it really doesn't matter: Although there are certainly moments when this movie will remind an audience of The Fugitive, it never really turns into a murder mystery the way that movie did, and all the background that the audience is given helps round the characters and story out but you can have less of it, because it doesn't really matter that much when the characters are going to be smashing their way through things rather than setting traps for the real killer.

Full review at EFC

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