Monday, August 25, 2014

Frank & Fantasia catch-up

I knew I was going to see something on Sunday evening, but was weighing various options, and wound up weighing them long enough for Frank to be the winner by default. I think it wound up being the right choice, though; it was one I had been looking to see at Fantasia but which wound up blocked by Fuku-Chan of Fuku-Fuku Flats on one day and Once Upon a Time in Shanghai and Thermae Rome II on the next. Since I was pretty sure it would play Boston later, I wasn't too broken up about missing it, but it's kind of a shame about the scheduling on that first one, since Michael Fassbender's unusual performance went right up against Miyuki Oshima's. Not quite ideal, but it happens.

Since this played Fantasia, it's probably as good a time as any to note the 7 reviews I've posted to EFC in an attempt to catch up with what I saw at Fantasia: Suburban Gothic, Zombie TV, The Zero Theorem, Heavenly Sword, Puzzle, Let Us Prey, Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead.

And getting back to Frank but still speaking of festivals, I've got to admit that the tie-in that the movie has with South by Southwest is kind of weird. It's not the first film I've seen which includes the music festival as a part of the story and then played the film festival - heck, I was there for it once - but it's kind of a weird progression, one I'm not sure seems more incestuous or like a snake eating its own tale, even if there's no feeling that it's being done to curry favor. Then again, it may seem doubly weird because Frank seems to poke at SXSW in a way - that it's built around being welcoming to artists and very hip, but is actually more mainstream and popularity-driven than that cultivated reputation.

I'm actually kind of curious if Fantastic Fest will be as much like that as I fear. Less than a month to go to find out!


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 August 2014 in Landmark Kendall Square #6 (first-run, DCP)

Not being a drinker, I'm probably appropriating a terrible metaphor here, but this movie strikes me as being like a certain kind of binge: You start out down, but soon the alcohol gets you and everything is crazy and funny and even when somebody clocks you, it doesn't feel like any real damage has been done until the uncomfortable truths start coming out. That's when you realize that the movie you had filled away as "the one where Michael Fassbender wears the papier-maché head" is going to leave you with something to chew on.

It starts with Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson), a frustrated songwriter working an office job that bores him, seeing a poster for the band "Soronprfbs", although they look like they're going to cancel their gig in his quiet Welsh town when the keyboardist tries to down himself. Jon offers his services to their manager Don (Scoot McNairy), and that's where he meets the rest of the band - drummer Nana (Carla Azar), French guitar player Baraque (François Civil), Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) on the theremin, and front man Frank (Michael Fassbender), who never takes off his expressionless papier-maché head. That first concert is a disaster, but when Soronprfbs still needs a keyboard player for something in Ireland, he gives Jon a call.

It gets brilliantly absurd from there, because while Frank is an obvious goof on weird, experimental musicians (specifically, writer Jon Robson's friend Frank Sidebottom), it's a good-natured one, with Jon serving as the sort of straight man more prone to be drawn into the weird goings-on than look down upon them. Ronson and co-writer Peter Straughan come up with a ton of jokes that go well beyond the innate oddity of Frank's head - an impressive mix of the verbal, visual, and musical, actually - that director Lenny Abrahamson and the cast execute in nearly-perfect fashion. There's a good chance that the audience will be laughing continually enough to miss the setup being done for a darker second half in some of the more pointed gags.

Full review at EFC

Suburban Gothic

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

According to the post-movie Q&A, writer/director Richard Bates Jr. initially couldn't get any projects off the ground after Excision, in part because that movie, despite garnering many positive reviews and festival awards, was just absurdly dark. So for his next one, he bounced back with something still kind of freaky and gross but also aggressively light. Suburban Gothic is about a guy who can see ghosts and who must help one find her final rest Or Else, but there's barely a moment without something enjoyable goofy going on.

It starts out with a not-uncommon scene for young people today - Raymond (Matthew a Gary Gubler) has earned an MBA, but there are no satisfactory jobs to be found, leading him to move back in with his parents (Ray Wise & Barbara Niven). Home is everything he remembers from high school and worse, from his belittling, intolerant father to the bullies who have grown up into angry alcoholics. The sole positive would seem to be that cute bartender Becca (Kat Dennings), seemingly the only cool person from back then who hasn't left, seems to like him enough to go along when he starts to see ghosts.

The spooky stuff isn't quite an afterthought in Suburban Gothic, but there's a good chance that it won't be what the audience remembers above other things over the movie ends. In some ways the ghosts and other supernatural elements serve to reflect and amplify the idea that there's a sort of rot in communities like this, withered dreams and barely-hidden prejudices that take on a life of their own and continue to exert an influence after the initial incident is long past. That comes through in the ghost story, but because there needs to be some mystery there, it's not as clearly communicated as it is in the more mundane parts, where it's right there to see.

Full review on EFC

Zombie TV

* (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Yoshihiro Nishimura, Japanese makeup/special effects artist extraordinaire (and decent director as schlock goes), loves himself some zombies, and got a couple of other directors to go in with him making this riff on the things, resulting in 78 minutes of sketches purportedly coming from a network dedicated to zombie-oriented programming. It's as thin a concept as it sounds, especially getting the whole thing in one gulp.

There are some serialized bits - "I Want to Be a Zombie", in which survivors of the outbreak ponder whether they're better off letting themselves be turned off they can go out screwing the scantily clad zombie girls outside their hiding space, and "Zombie God", in which a woman (Miyuki Torii, able enough to stand out) becomes a zombie but retains her intellect - but most of the rest are jokes that recur or very simple one-off gags. Given how there's a "station identification" logo and voiceover between segments, I suspect that this was originally developed for the web or some other medium and stitched together into a movie.

That would explain a lot, there's a cheap chuckle to be found in a few of these three- out four-minute segments, and if only one in five or ten works when they pops up on a YouTube channel every few days, no big deal, you're only out a bit of time. String more than an hour of them together, though, and the one-joke premise becomes even less - it's one bit of incongruity that could serve as the basis for a joke, except that the folks involved are not really that funny, with just a few rare exceptions. Part of that may just be humor being subjective, bit often the gag will just be crude or bloody but not well-timed or playing against expectations.

Full review on EFC

The Zero Theorem

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival: Paradigm Shifters, DCP)

I wonder if writer Pat Rushin ever thought something along the lines of "this script is so screwed if we don't get Terry Gilliam" when writing The Zero Theorem. There are other directors who would dive into the weirdness of its world, but the material seems so perfectly matched that Gilliam passing on it or expressing interest and getting bogged down in development hell or the million other things that can seemingly go wrong when Gilliam makes a movie seem like they would have killed any chances to see this.

That would have been unfortunate; for all that it has a couple of stumbles, particularly in the final scenes, it's a clever movie, filled with life even if it's about a character who initially tries to retreat from it. The filmmakers handle what are superficially big questions with the sort of wink that says they're not important at all in favor of a middle path between spirituality and pure economics that says to just have a good life, and for as much as that may sound like simple common sense, it can often be useful to manually remind oneself of such basic ideas, especially in a world that not only offers dazzling detail and distraction, both via technology and philosophy.

Consider the setting where the audience first meets Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz); this highly neurotic man is employed by a titanic corporation whose work floor has all the forced whimsy of a dozen internet-bubble tech forms but the dehumanizing pressure on all sides of a cubicle farm or sweatshop. He's an "entity-cruncher", solving complicated modeling problems represented as visual puzzles, and believes he could work better from home, where he could wait for a potentially life-changing phone call. His supervisor Joby (David Thewlis) cannot authorize it, at least until Management (Matt Damon) recruits him to work on a theorem that has burnt out everyone else who had been charged with it. Soon, he is working in blissful solitude - at least until interrupted by pubescent IT guy Bob (Lucas Hedges) and Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry), a very persistent girl he meets the one time he accepts an invitation to a party.

Full review on EFC

Heavenly Sword

* (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2014 in Salle D.B. Clarke (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

It was bad enough for Heavenly Sword to be terrible, but for it to be the second and more egregious bad movie I saw from the same category is annoying. It makes me regret my Bayonetta review, because I fear that even though I may not have used all my "how movies from video games are generally terrible" material on that, I kind of feel like I'm slagging a whole broad category of movies more than I want to, when the actual situation is that the festival booked two real stinkers, probably because they are predictable in terms of decent tickets sales.

This one takes place in a pseudo-Japanese fantasy kingdom, positing a sword of incredible power sent from above for an ancient battle but which is now guarded by a nomadic tribe, as it is too powerful and corrupting to use for any but the men of the chief's line. The current leader, Shan, has only a daughter, Nariko (voice of Anna Torv), though she is likely an equal to the clan's best male warrior, Kyo. Thus, evil king Johan (voice of Alfred Molina) sees an opportunity - if he can wipe or the weapon's protectors, he can turn the sword to darkness. And while Nariko, Kyo, and crazy-girl founding Kai escape and discover Shan has an illegitimate son, this unsuspecting Loki (voice of Thomas Jane) happens to be working the center of Bohan's citadel.

I don't think it's impossible to make a good movie from a video game, but I think it's somewhat telling that the most successful game-to-film franchise, Resident Evil, is quite far from slavish toward its source material. Games and films have different narrative needs, even in the action scenes, although they're getting closer. This one really is laughable, though, with a backstory that can exist for no other purpose than to set this particular sorry up and characters with no life beyond their designated purpose. There are sequences that seem to exist entirely to reflect game mechanics, such as a surprisingly dull but that involves fighting while sliding down massive suspension cables. The plot is full of empty reversals entirely because that sort of random redirection can serve a game well - you, as a player, get to do something new! - even if it is dramatically unsatisfying in a movie.

Full review on EFC


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

I'm sure that the title of Puzzle was supposed to describe the sensation of watching it to a certain extent, although there were several times that I think filmmaker Eisuke Naito may not necessarily have meant to set the degree of difficulty quite so high. Some of that may be down to subtitling, though, and if that's the case, Naoto has made and even better murder-by-remote-control movie than I thought - and I'm pretty fond of this one already.

The plot is an old standby - deathtraps set to deliver a gruesome death or injury unless the mastermind's instructions, generally to solve a puzzle in a limited time frame, are followed. The gimmick within the story is that this that it is built around high school students, including bullied-but-resourceful Shigeo Yuasa (Shuhei Nomura) and failed suicide Azusa Nakamura (Kaho), as well as faculty like pregnant teacher Ms. Yasuda (Kokone Sasaki) and Chairman Yakai (Ryuzo Tanaka). Lead investigator is Detective Hitome (Baku Ohwada), despite his son initially being a suspect.

Or is Naoya Hitome a potential victim? Naito and his co-writers, adapting a novel by Yusuke Yamada, spend a lot of time blurring the line between perpetrators and victims, whether through misdirection when introducing characters, having former victims seek revenge, or varying the perspective from which the audience watches things play out. It's an impressive job of showing how almost all people, even in an extreme situation like this, have the capacity for both good and evil. I do think that the fractured narrative, which randomizes which facets of the characters the audience sees at any given time, makes it more confusing than it needs to be. Hiding the character arc like that requires some greater clarity in the pieces, and it's not initially clear whether the various "X days earlier" are all from a specific zero point or relative to each other, while some sequences need to be communicated batter (Azusa's attempted suicide initially looks successful and I'm not sure how Shigeo wound up with the other guys), and I wonder if it was that way in the book.

Full review on EFC

Let Us Prey

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

After seeing this, a festival buddy suggested that part of the reason this fell flat for her was that we'd just seen another over-the-top revenge piece in Puzzle. I didn't have quite the same reaction; where she was bored, I was actually pretty well sucked in for most l of it, from the "Hell is coming" opening titles to much of the big standoff, but afterward I sort of shrugged, said it was a movie I had seen, and moved on.

It takes place over the course of one night, P.C. Rachel Heggie's first night on the job in a small Scottish town. Even before arriving at the station, she sees a speeding driver run a man down, and while the victim seems to vanish into thin air, she still brings the kid in, putting him in a cell next to a former teacher locked up for another domestic violence claim that will probably evaporate in the morning. It was looking like a rough night anyway, with cells filling up and uncompromising Rachel rubbing the other two constables the wrong way, and then the hit-and-run victim shows up, initially dazed and untalkative - although when he does start communicating, he has a knack for putting things on edge that may be supernatural.

Start with the good: Pollyanna McIntosh owns this movie as Rachel, with the hard-ass rookie cop absolutely holding her own against the other characters, all of whom are against her at various moments. She's a taut mass of determined body language but never becomes monotonous, in part because she's damn good at letting the audience see how much she's trying to look tougher than she fears she may be even while still being fairly formidable. McIntosh is complemented by Liam Cunningham, who is great as a sarcastic spirit of vengeance. Once "Six" reveals himself as not being the victim Rachel expected, Cunningham gets to spot gravelly, disdainful lines at the whole cast of characters in a way that's just barbed enough to get under their skin; is a sort of certainty and control that is obvious without announcing itself. They've got good support, too, with Bryan Larkin and Hanna Stanbridge playing partners in more ways than one, Douglas Russell taking a reserved character in eye-opening directions, and a jail full of folks rope for retribution.

Full review on EFC

Død Snø 2 (Dead Snow 2: Red vs Dead)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

As much as I would tell many that Norwegian filmmaker Tommy Wirkolka's Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was an underrated bit of high-concept fun, I was not the biggest fan of his first international hit. That's a bit of a problem by some definitions of what it takes to give a movie a fair shake, as this sequel was definitely made to give those who liked Dead Snow more of that thing that they liked. It is that, although I give Tommy Wirkola plenty of credit in pushing it into being a "next step" rather than just a repeat.

This new film picks up right where the last one left off, quickly putting sole survivor Martin (Vegar Hoel) under arrest on the hospital, since nobody is going to believe the body count at the ski lodge is the result of Nazi zombies. Realizing that Herzog (Ørjan Gamst) and his undead legion are still kicking, he escapes to confront them at a WWII museum, picking up tour guide Glenn (Stig Frode Henriksen) as a sidekick, and Glenn discovers an American "zombie squad" online that they can alert - not realizing that it's one guy who still lives with his mother (Martin Starr) and his two nerd-girl friends (Jocelyn DeBoer & Ingrid Haas). Probably the only reason they're not totally doomed is that the doctors surgically reattached Herzog's arm to Martin's stump rather than his own, giving him some zombie Nazi superpowers.

My issues with this are sort of the same as the first, although a little experience and a somewhat higher budget helps to smooth some issues out a bit. Both Dead Snow movies are the type of horror-comedy hybrids where there's no real heft to the horror, which leaves the splatstick without the real zing it needs to be scary as well as a gross-out joke. There nothing wrong with these movies just being horror-villain mash-ups, but the ambition toward genuine satire or disturbance might have led to interesting places. The movie-geek stuff seems a bit lazier, easy recognition-based jokes and substitutes for personality rather than being part of one. We're often given information in a way that is a difficult balance between "how would they know that?" and "yay for getting us to the good stuff quicker!"

Full review on EFC

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