Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Fantasia Daily 2014.06: White Bird in a Blizzard, "Camchat", "The Portrait Studio", Cheatin', In Order of Disappearance, No Tears for the Dead

Spent much of yesterday writing because I figured on doing a little errand-running before a 3pm movie, although I spent too much time on a couple things. Part of those errands included dropping a tablet that I paid about $180 for off for last year $125 worth of repairs. There's a lesson in here, although I'm not sure whether it's about not buying refurbished electronics, keeping the tablet smothered in bubble wrap even though that would make it much harder to fit in a pocket, or what.

Still, fun bunch of movies mostly by guys whose last ones I liked. I don't think I've seen anything Gregg Araki's done off the top of my head (Kaboom looked interesting but didn't line up with my schedule when it came out), but I like Bill Plympton enough to donate to the Kickstarter for Cheatin', and I was rather fond of A Somewhat Gentle Man and The Man from Nowhere, enough so that I made sure to arrange my Fantasia schedule to catch their directors' latest. That they happened to be on the same day and in the same theater made things much easier.

As an aside - what sort of conflict-of-interest situations do critics, even nonprofessional bloggers like myself, face with crowdfunding? I made sure to put a disclaimer on the Cheatin' review, although it's not like I will actually profit monetarily if this (or Veronica Mars for that matter) does well. I actually kind of think that more critics that have the cash and a wide audience should both participate in KS/IndieGoGo/etc. projects and recommend them; there's something immensely satisfying about putting one's money where one's mouth is for talented people and wish I had the means to do it more often and for riskier properties.

Anyway, that was yesterday. Today's plans are an IF/THEN - if The Fatal Encounter runs quickly, then I'll head downstairs to D.B. Clarke for The Infinite Man and The Run, else it's sticking around upstairs for The Huntresses and Kumiko the Treasure Hunter in Hall.


* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2014 in Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival, HD)

Can't say I liked the short film that played before White Bird in a Blizzard much at all. It's ten minutes of looking at screens as young guys fumble trying to connect with each other in various virtual environments, and it's mostly kind of boring. This kind of online communication is common enough now that there's not a whole lot to be said by simply showing it even if you are trying to rehash the same points about how the way people communicate today is less worthy than when everything was face-to-face or over the phone or with beautifully written letters, because this doesn't even show a contrast. There's a couple of bits at the end where it seems like filmmaker Blake Pruitt is trying to make a point by showing how silly this sort of communication sounds in a different context, but doesn't everything?

Plus, it's a pretty dull group of characters, having little to distinguish themselves from each other; they're all young and gay, but none of them are interesting individuals. I suspect that this may have been an interesting idea five or ten years ago, but now it seems too far behind the times not to have a better hook.

White Bird in a Blizzard

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2014 in Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

I saw White Bird in a Blizzard referred to as a coming of age movie, and I don't necessarily think that designation fits. Not every drama where the characters haven't graduated from high school yet needs that label; sometimes bad things just happen when teenagers are around. That's sort of what happens here, and it's why a movie that's very strong in some ways, but is oddly hands-off enough in others that it's not quite as good as the surface suggests it should be.

It centers around Katrina "Kat" Connor (Shailene Woodley), a pretty teenager who comes home one day to find her father (Christopher Meloni) in the kitchen while her mother Eve (Eva Green) has vanished without a trace. The investigating detective (Thomas Jane) can't figure the case out and her boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) seems less anxious to sleep with her, leaving Kat to ponder how her mother always seemed to view her father with contempt and had gone from doting to seemingly envious ever since she went through puberty.

In many ways, White Bird is less Kat's story than it is Eve's told from Kat's obviously incomplete perspective, and it's certainly interesting seen that way: Screenwriter/director Gregg Araki (working from a book by Laura Kasischke) heightens everything about this relationship, to how perfect and extraordinary Eve sees to the younger Kat to the bitter, jealous mess she became later. Eva Green's performance is kind of amazing in how it aligns itself with this; she's imperious, larger than life, and kind of not realistic at all, but it's no trouble believing that this is exactly how she exists in Kat's memory.

Full review at EFC

"Shashinkan" ("The Portrait Studio")

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2014 in Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

It is perhaps fitting that "The Portrait Studio" is silent aside from an excellent score by Jun Ichikawa; Takashi Nakamura's 17-minute short is about the power images can hold without having words attached. A young woman and then her daughter (and her own son) have their portraits taken by a photographer whose home and studio stands slightly apart from the turmoil and change of 20th-century Tokyo, although the daughter seems to take a long time to warm up to the friendly photographer. Natural disaster and war come, but the studio and the music are a constant.

It's beautifully designed and animated, with all of the characters having their own distinct looks and personalities that come out even though we see some briefly in this very specific context. The 17 minutes feels a little long for an animated short (though not nearly as long as Nakamura's massive feature, A Tree of Palme), but it's a comfortable, earned length as opposed to a drag. It's sentimental and charming, and even as someone who dislikes posing for pictures as as one of the short's characters, I found this delightful.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2014 in Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival: AXIS, DCP)

Cheatin' is the new Bill Plympton movie, his first feature since 2008's Idiots and Angels, and it's a fine demonstration that over thirty years as an independent animator, he hasn't dulled his edge much while carving out his niche. It's funny, strange past the point of eccentric, and has a style that is unmistakable for anyone else. Longtime fans should be pleased; and it wouldn't be a particular surprise if showing it to friends created new fans.

It starts with Ella walking around carnival row; she's got green eyes, an hourglass figure, and her nose both in a book and a bit in the air. Cajoled into getting on the bumper cars, she's nearly electrocuted in a freak accident, only to be saved by the studly Jake. Soon, they're inseparable, but one of the many smitten women who stops at Jake's gas station has a plan to get a piece of Jake, leading to more drastic responses on Ella's part.

There's no mistaking a Bill Plympton production even at a glance; his pencil work is unmistakable even as he's shifted to using digital compositing and coloring to put his movies together. It's a bit less sketchy here than some of his previous films, steady from frame to frame and colored in a style meant to evoke watercolors more than his usual colored pencils, and as a result maybe a little easier to watch even as what's happening is strange or the designs are hyper-exaggerated caricatures (everybody is all chest and skinny waists, even if that means Jake's abs have to be stacked one atop another).

Full review at EFC

Kraftidioten (In Order of Disappearance)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Where is the exact line between a movie being a darkly funny revenge story and a full-on, pitch-black dark comedy? In the case of In Order of Disappearance, I think it is crossed early on in a gag that will recur throughout the movie, although it may seem to waver back and forth as the story unfolds. By the time it's over, though, this reunion of the team behind A Somewhat Gentle Man has produced something that is both darker and funnier than that impressive movie.

It opens with Nils Dickman (Stellan Skarsgård) receiving an award for Citizen of the Year for his contributions as a plowman in the Norwegian town he immigrated to some years earlier - only to later find out that his son Ingvar has died of a drug overdose. His belief that Ingvar was no addict is vindicated when he learns that the young man was killed because a co-worker at the airport stole a bag of cocaine from the shipment. Nils finds that man that did it and who gave the order, proceeding to work his way up the ladder toward Ole Forsby (Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen), "The Count" of the local drug trade. Of course, this sleek second-generation kingpin naturally assumes that it was his Serbian rivals, setting a chain of events into action that angers that mob's "Papa" (Bruno Ganz).

You can play this material straight - even with some of the more offbeat characters - and have a fine revenge movie, and superficially writer Kim Fupz Aakeson and director Hans Petter Moland spend most of their time doing just that: The movie isn't filled with Rube Goldberg devices, slapstick, or morons succeeding at things because nobody expects actual violent crime in peaceful Oslo; it's people doing the dark business that they set out to do in serious fashion. That keeps the audience involved in the story and lets things ramp up, but also gives them plenty of time for deadpan asides.

Full review at EFC

Wooneun Namj (No Tears for the Dead)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival: Action!, DCP)

Lee Jeong-beom's last film as director was The Man from Nowhere, an action thriller spectacular enough that I've spotted people who usually don't like their movies with subtitles telling other folks that they've got to see it. Lee stays on that same path in No Tears for the Dead, another movie that combines spectacular action with a brutal story to fine effect, and which should also find fans among those who don't necessarily pay much attention to what comes out of South Korea.

Heck, it even starts out in America, with hitman Gon (Jang Dong-gun) taking out a room full of his boss's rivals, but at a cost that has him wanting no more part of the business. The boss (Dana Lee) insists on one last job to clean up the mess that the last one left - one which will send him back to Seoul for the first time since his childhood to follow financial analyst Choi Mo-kyung (Kim Min-hee) and see if she's the one with the missing money laundering data and eliminate her afterwards. Given the circumstances, though, his heart's not in it, making them a target both for the crew headed by his best friend (Brian Tee) and the corrupt head of Mo-kyung's investment group (Kim Joon-sung) and his own muscle.

No Tears for the Dead gets dark quick, and it's the sort of dark that there's really no coming back from. The opening act leaves Gon and Mo-kyung in holes that it would quite frankly be dishonest to have them climb completely out of and piles other issues on as well. Lee doesn't flinch from this, and it's to his credit that he takes things that might be cheap fodder for redemption stories or trivialized with a deceptive romance in other action movies and presents them as more or less destroying the characters. The themes of the main pair trying to find reasons to live and being drawn to each other are there, but they feel more honest here, especially with the dramatic way Lee chooses not to back away from the best possible way for it to go.

Full review at EFC

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