Sunday, August 31, 2014

Kundo: Age of the Rampant, and another week of Fantasia catch-up

This is the third Korean movie I've gone to Revere to see this year, and I suspect I'm not done yet - Well Go appears to have included a preview for The Pirates with this movie's DCP (incidentally, I originally typed "attached a trailer to the print", which just sounds so much better). Most of the time, I find myself wondering if maybe there's a sizable Korean community in Revere that I don't know about, but I kind of suspect that this isn't the case, if only because when I got off the 108 bus, so did eight college-age Korean/Korean-American kids clutching printouts from Google Maps; they wound up making up a bit more than half of the audience in the pretty huge theater Kundo wound up in.

Now, I'm not saying the theaters actually inside Boston should book this movie because at least nine people spent an hour on transit each way to get to Kundo, but it strikes me that there's probably an order of magnitude somewhat less committed to seeing a new movie from Korea that might go if it didn't involve two subway lines, a bus, a walk, and snaking one's way through a flea market to do so. Just a hunch, albeit a totally self-serving one.

Anyway, it looks like this is becoming a regular enough trip that it's worth adding a Showcase Cinemas rewards card to my wallet, along with the ones for AMC, Regal, the Brattle, the Coolidge, Chlotrudis, IFFBoston, the Harvard Film Archive, and MoviePass. Anyone who ever picks my pocket may not get much cash, but they will save a crap-ton of money on movies.

At least it played here; it's one of the movies I opted not to see at Fantasia based upon knowing it would get an actual theatrical release. In the interim, I've fleshed out another 8 things written up quickly for "Fantasia Daily" to be full entries on eFilmCritic: Giovanni's Island, The White Storm, The Midnight Swim, The Man in the Orange Jacket, The Seventh Code, The Creeping Garden, Hana-Dama: The Origins, and Guardian.

Twenty to go. I'm starting to think it's going to be a really near thing to get Fantasia finished before Fantastic Fest..

Kundo: Minranui Sidae (Kundo: Age of the Rampant)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2014 in Showcase Cinemas de Lux Revere #10 (first-run, DCP)

Sometimes, a movie spends so long introducing itself that it barely has time to do anything, which feels like the case for Kundo: Age of the Rampant. I think it's because this movie wants so badly to be a Western, but while it takes place in the right era, the place isn't right, and trying to force it means the filmmakers have to explain a lot in a genre that is, at its best, almost instinctive.

It is 1862, a time of famine and plague in the Joseon kingdom, and instead of helping the people, governor Choi (Kim Jong-goo) is throwing himself a lavish sixtieth birthday party, one about to be crashed by the Chusul Clan of Mount Jiri, an outlaw clan that does a little more than rob the rich and give to the poor, including captain Dae-ho (Lee Sung-min), scholar Lee Tae-gi (Cho Jin-woong), doctor Ma-hyang (Yoon Ji-hye), and "The Vicious Monk" (Lee Kyoung-young). What they don't foresee is how their actions will result in Jo Yoon (Gang Dong-won), a ruthlessly ambitious bastard son of a former nobleman, rising to power, although Jo's cruelty gains them a new recruit in butcher Dol Moo Chi (Ha Jung-woo), later known as "Dolchi".

Director Yoon Jong-bin and co-writer Jun Chul-hong divide the film into five acts that each have their own titles and narration, and while it's not a complete stop-and-start each time, it slows the pace down; when the viewer is still getting background information late in the game, there's only so much time for the filmmakers to have things happen against that background. After hitting the ground running with the caper at Choi's mansion, Kundo detours into an extended origin story for Yoon that leads into introducing Dolchi, and then following him for a while before catching back up with Yoon, and by the time that's all done, the team introduced at the start is so far in the background that one wonders why they were given the introduction that they were.

Full review at EFC

Jobanni no shima (Giovanni's Island)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival: AXIS, DCP)

There's a whiff of nostalgia to the start of Giovanni's Island, although it's more for childhood in general than the yearning for simpler, presumably better times that can often infect Japanese cinema, but that passes. Indeed, it's hard not to have Grave of the Fireflies in one's head at some points during the latter half of this one, though it's fortunately not anywhere close to as sad as that spirit-crushing masterpiece. What does share with Fireflies is a knack for telling a story from a child's point if view that would be impressive in live action or animation.

That story starts on Shikotan, on 4 July 1945. Though many young men have gone off to fight, the war has left this small island north of Hokkaido relatively untouched, with brothers Junpei (voice of Kota Yokoyama) and Kanta (voice of Junya Taniai) Senou continuing to attend class in a one-room schoolhouse under the eye of Miss Sawako (voice of Yukie Nakama). Their father Tatsuo (voice of Masachika Ichimura), who named the boys after characters in Kenji Miyazawa's book Night on the Galactic Railroad, heads the island guard (pretty much just the fire brigade in practice), and grandfather Genzou (voice of Saburo Kitajima) continues to fish. Their ne'er-do-well uncle Hideo (voice of Yusuke Santamaria) returns right around the time the Soviets land, and while the boys soon find that they share a love of trains with new neighbor Tanya (voice of Polina Ilyushenko), the Soviet commander's daughter, that transcends the language barrier, it soon becomes clear that the Soviets do not intend this to be a temporary occupation.

Shikotan remains under Russian control to this day, so there is perhaps some logic and necessity to telling this story from the kids' point of view - there's nobody else to talk to who would remember these events. Writers Shigemichi Sugita & Yoshiki Sakurai and director Mizuho Nishikubo craft an interesting tale from these circumstances, one that starts out optimistic - the Japanese and Russian children become close no matter how their parents come into conflict, with a thoroughly charming scene of Tanya and the boys realizing that their model train sets are compatible and literally forming a connection through their walks. There's still a little edge to it - the scene where Tanya shows her room to Junpei and Kanta without seeming to fully realize that it was theirs before the occupiers took the house is going to feel beautifully ambivalent to adult viewers, though maybe not to the kids, while the scenes where Manta is picking Russian up easily will likely unnerve adults who can conceive of cultural assimilation much more. The film is full of little moments like that, and they make it feel real and lived-in.

Full review on EFC

Sou Duk (The White Storm)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival: Action!, DCP)

Sometimes, it's not enough for someone to be shot in the chest. They have to fall off a cliff, and there have to be alligators in the river below. That is the attitude Benny Chan brings to The White Storm, and it's kind of a blast, a throwback to the operatic heyday of John Woo and Chow Yun-fat, only with a couple of even bigger action scenes than Hong Kong could have pulled off back in those days.

Before we get to that, though, we see a Hong Kong drug bust, with rapidly rising detective Ma Ho-tin (Lau Ching-wan) and his lifelong friend Chen Wai-tzi (Nick Cheung Ka-fai) moving in based on information from a third friend, undercover agent So Kin-chow (Louis Koo Tin-lok). This should be it for Chow, but there's a chance to capture international drug supplier Wei Xing-gong (Lo Hai-pang), the "Eight-Faced Buddha" but it involves a perilous joint operation in Thailand. That's how everybody winds up drawing guns (and more!) above that cliff, with the aftermath putting everyone in a new place.

The script is far from perfect - the way they sideline one of the stars for much of the movie in favor of the other two and then make up for it big-time later on with a crazy plot device is a little goofy, and even though it drives the second half of the movie, I don't know if I ever buy into it. I appreciate what Chan and his co-writers are trying to do - it's a neat scenario - but it's a tough sell. But, man, when Chan is shooting things up or banging cars together, it is a ton of fun. The action is concentrated into some big, impressive pieces, with Chan and the action team led by Nicky Li doing some great stuff - there's a car chase/running battle that is as thrilling as it is gloriously over the top, shot beautifully even as some major damage is done. The ending battle is old-school bullet ballet, as good as you'll see.

Full review on EFC

The Midnight Swim

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2014 in Salle D.B. Clakre (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Sarah Adina Smith's The Midnight Swim is one sort of movie in the sometimes ill-fitting skin of another, and I wonder if shedding that skin would allow it to be seen more clearly as a sharp tale of three sisters rather than a plodding story of the paranormal. There are two strong ideas at play here, and the film could have been something great if Smith could have forged a stronger connection between the two.

The three sisters are Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), Isa (Aleksa Palladino), and June (Lindsay Burdge), returned to their childhood home on Spirit Lake to mourn and put their mother's affairs in order. Not to bury her - marine scientist Amelia Brooks (Beth Grant) never surfaced after diving in this unusually deep lake (as in the bottom has never actually been mapped) - but mostly top see each other. Middle child Isa initially tries to fix oldest sister Annie up with Josh (Ross Partridge), but winds up connecting with him herself, while June films everything, ostensibly for a documentary. That includes a tipsy late-night attempt to summon the "seven sisters" of local lore, which may or may not be connected to some of the strange events June captures on video.

The trick with slow-burn movies like The Midnight Swim, even more so with ones that take the form of found footage now that it's no longer a novelty, is to make the characters either outright fascinating or dole enough hints at a larger story out that the audience can overlook how not much is actually happening (presuming, of course, that they're like me and very much into things happening). Writer/director Sarah Adina Smith does fairly well on this account; the sisters are an intriguing group, especially with the missing mother in the background - what we see of Amelia suggests she was eccentric, and three different fathers are implied.

Full review on EFC

M.O.Zh. (The Man in the Orange Jacket)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2014 in Salle D.B. Clakre (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Why, Fantasia (and other) programmers, do you insist on scheduling nearly-wordless movies for 10pm (or later)? I get that they're often enough of an acquired taste to keep out of prime time, but it can be rough on those of us already coming down after 8+ hours of movies.

Few movies work with this sort of exhaustion better than The Man in the Orange Jacket, though. It's a simple enough premise - man (Maxim Lazarev) kills rich guy (Aris Rozentals) who kind of has it coming, and slides into his house/life. Of course he soon finds that either he has a copycat/guy with the same idea coming after him or he's starting to crack - or both! At a mere 70 minutes, the lack of conventional action and fairly sparse plot is not going to tax the tired viewer much, and sometimes the hallucinatory bits work even better in that state of mind.

Writer/director Aik Karapetian moves everything forward at a relaxed but steady pace but also tends to circle around in surreal loops, and it's a combination that works well, keeping the viewer aware of how this man's mind can't help but return to the thing he's done but not keeping the story wholly internal. Karapetian wastes no time getting to the main events but still manages to set the stage cleanly, with a few lines of dialog plus the contrast between the victim's nice house and just-closed business delivering all the information one needs, along with the spark of rage needed to kick start what is sometimes a quiet, methodical sort of thriller.

Full review on EFC

Seventh Code

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2014 in Salle D.B. Clakre (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

The Seventh Code is the sort of movie that can easily get lost in a career like like Kiyoshi Kurosawa's: It's a short thing produced alongside two large projects that sure looks like a promotional tool for its pop-star lead actress. If it is that sort of work-for-hire gig, then at least Kurosawa is using it as a chance to try some new things, shooting a lighter Hitchcockian caper outside of Japan.

This movie's unconventional heroine is Akiko (Atsuko Maeda), a flaky Tokyo girl who has chased Matsunaga (Ryohei Suzuki), a guy she met once in a club a month ago to Vladivostok based on a comment about wanting to see her again that he has completely forgotten. He says she should go home and it seems like good advice; her persistence gets her abducted and stranded there without a passport for her trouble. A more sensible girl would head to the consulate and home, but Akiko makes new friends - Japanese restauranteur Saito (Hiroshi Yamamoto) and his Chinese girlfriend Hsiao-yen (Aissy), and continues to follow Matsunaga even after it's clear that he's involved in something very shady.

It winds up going to one of the two or three places where you'd expect - I can't say what Akiko finally gets into surprised me - but it's a good time getting there. Kurosawa plays things rather lighter than his horror movies and drama Tokyo Sonata, with a streamlined story and a disarming directness in how the characters approach each other, even when Kurosawa pulls the curtain back or events get more serious. Yusuke Hayashi contributes a playful score, the sort that instantly calls to mind people sneaking around. The international intrigue ambles along, but a fair amount of time is also spent on how these characters have come to Eastern Russia looking to establish themselves as something different, although Akiko and Saito are a bit behind Hsiao-yen in terms of actual ambition.

Full review on EFC

The Creeping Garden

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2014 in Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival: Documentaries from the Edge, HD)

I take a certain amount of pride in seeing/reviewing movies like this at festivals, and I half think it's why some issue me press passes - a lot of folks will be trying to get into the big Marvel movie, but he is down for the slime mold documentary! And you know what? These movies are often some of the most fascinating wherever they play, especially when they've got a level of polish and style to go along with their intriguing subject matter, as is the case with The Creeping Garden.

What is a slime mold? Is not an animal, plant, or fungus, though it has characteristics of all three. They most closely resemble the latter - hence the name - but they move (albeit very slowly, about an inch per day) and pulsate when seen on time-lapse. Though found everywhere on Earth, they are peculiar enough to freak people out or inspire curiosity when they turn up, as is the case in a bit of old network news footage that bookends the film, referring to strange blobs in Texas. But, as it turns out, slime molds and the history of public fascination with them is interesting beyond how they are biological oddities.

It's easy for me to list out the interesting bits in this movie, making the review nothing but a recap and perhaps discouraging people from actually seeing it because they've already heard the lecture, so to speak. Fortunately, I in addition to providing the expected information, directors Tim Grabham & Jasper Sharp make a film that is really a year to watch. There is striking photography, including some time-lapse work that is almost too good, as it may give the impression that this throbbing and moving is happening in real time. A cool, unnerving score by Jim O'Rourke plays underneath, full of thrumming bass and bings & bongs out of a 1970s sci-fi movie. There are sharp-without-needless-adjournment bits of CGI and nice clips of microscopy to help the viewer visualize what may not be visible to the naked eye.

Full review on EFC


* ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2014 in Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival: Fantasia Underground, DCP)

Have you ever felt yourself gradually turn on a movie? It's something that can often be sense in an audience, as each member reaches a different point that ticks them off, and the feeling of the group shifts. The mounting feeling that Hana-Dama is getting further and further from good is something different, and can make it seem even more disappointing than a movie that sinks from the start.

Were introduced to Mizuki (Rina Sakuragi) cowering in a closet, locked in there by the other girls in her new class while her teacher turns a blind eye. She's been through worse, though, and has apparently grown into one of those teens who grit their teeth and count the days until graduation when she can get away from all this and her equally messed-up parents (Taro Suwa & Kei Fujiwara). Another bullied girl, Kirie (Maika Shimamura), isn't made of quite such stern stuff, and latches onto Mizuki for support. They join Shibanai (Syun Asada), a truant who has carved out a hiding hole on school grounds and whose problems come more from faculty than peers. Will that sort of support be enough to make it through a particularly cruel high school?

I don't know if I'd necessarily say I liked this movie for most of its running time, even beyond how it deals with the sort of cruelty that a viewer would rather not say he or she enjoyed, or if I'd call it "good", but I kind of admired its frankness about bullying, both among peer groups and institutionally. It's not the best-acted or most inventively written take on the idea, but I bought into it and sympathized with the characters, even when things were a little over-the-top. It had a moment I really liked, avoiding predictable, unsatisfying conflict. And even when the bullying becomes full-fledged sexual assault, I wanted to see how the characters either dug themselves out or served as a horrible object lesson.

Full review on EFC

Pengawal (Guardian)

* * (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2014 in Salle D.B. Clarke (Fantasia Festival: Action!, DCP)

Keep your eyes on Dominique Agisca Diyose, action fans of the world. She's a looker from Indonesia, a good enough actress for the sort of material she's given here, and she certainly looks like she can throw down when the movie gives her a clear shot. Hook her up with a better movie and maybe a better director - maybe the next one from The Raid's team - and she can be a real star.

Guardian isn't the movie that gets her there, though - it's the one where you hope she stands out amid the godawful mess that is the rest of the movie, including a script that is just full to bursting of stupid. She plays Sara, a single mother who had been insisting her daughter learn martial arts all her life, although Marsya (Belinda Camesi) clearly hates it. But since Sara's husband Wisnu was killed when Marsha was just a baby, the idea that powerful criminal Oscar (Tio Pakusodewo) might someday want to finish the job is never far from Sara's mind - and that's not taking into account Paquita (Sarah Sanguin Carter) being broken out of jail by her old gang.

There are worse premises for an action movie, although this one is something kind of special in terms of its dumb script: It not only hinges on something that seems like it should have been dealt with ten years ago (maybe not easily, but it was kind of important enough to not allow it to go unattended for a decade), but it's also the aggravating sort of movie where nobody ever seems to do anything for any sort of reason that makes sense, whether it be the truly frustrating number of times when Sara could just tell Marsya what is going on and save what seems like a lot of the latter running off and getting other people shot at, even beyond how dumb running off unarmed is once the shooting starts anyway. And then there's the annoyingly myopic ending...

Full review on EFC

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