Sunday, August 17, 2014

Singham Returns, The Admiral: Roaring Currents, and some Fantasia catch-up

Maybe, if I went to Showcase Cinemas Revere more often, I'd know the schedule better and getting there wouldn't be such an adventure when they played something not showing elsewhere. Today (well, yesterday, technically) I tried to give myself a bit of a cushion because transit instructions that involve the subway are generally not to be treated as precise in the way ones that just involve commuter rail and buses are. I just missed one Red Line train, but made a quick enough transfer to the Orange Line that it might have been close at Malden if the bus that would have brought me to the theater half an hour early wasn't ten minutes late. Then I got off a couple stops earlier than necessary... Well, still made it to the theater with time enough to spare to get some pizza, but, boy, would it save me an awful lot of trouble if these things played at Boston Common or Fenway.

I'm genuinely curious as to whether there's a notable Korean population in/around Revere, whether CJ Entertainment has a better relationship with Showcase than they do AMC or Regal, or whether the theater in Revere is just more likely to have an extra screen than the ones downtown. I'm not going to complain about any Asian genre film playing near me, but it can seem so random where and when they show up.

Speaking of genre films from foreign lands, I'm working my way back through the Fantasia movies that I couldn't review in "real time", so here's a closer look (on EFC, with excerpts below) at Live, Cold Eyes, Late Phases, and Han Gong-ju. Scroll waaaay to the bottom of this post for some ending-discussion where that last one is concerned.

Singham Returns

* * (out of four)
Seen 15 August 2014 in Regal Fenway #2 (first-run, DCP)

Not having seen Ajay Devgn's first go-round as Bajirao Singham, I have no idea of this sequel - which stands alone well enough - is an improvement or disappointment relatively speaking. There are elements which suggest it could be either or both; the title character is a cut above most no-nonsense cops, but is stuck in a movie whose high stakes seldom translate into excitement.

Though he grew up in a smaller village, Singham is now working in Mumbai, where his reputation for honesty is not yet quite so well-known. His newest assignment will involve protecting Guruji (Anumpam Kher), the leader of a progressive political party fielding a slate of young, uncorrupted candidates in the coming election. This possess a threat to their uneasy allies in the current coalition government, rival party leader Prakash Rao (Zakir Hussain) and bogus spiritual leader Baba (Amole Gupte), who intend to take the election by spreading around "black money" - and it soon looks like one of Singham's most trusted men is delivering it.

That's not a bad story, and there's even a chance at a little more mystery-solving than is typical as Singham's team tries to figure out just how one of their own wound up dying while driving an ambulance full of dirty money, but it's far from complicated. Heck, it cuts from someone asking who would want to harm Guruji to Baba saying "me", and doesn't significantly complicate the conspiracy from there. It's probably a little bit too basic for a movie that runs close to two and a half hours without taking much of a turn at intermission. There is a bit of a romantic comedy subplot that chews up a little time, but the movie does not mix tones enough for the time it does go for something lighter to work.

Full review at EFC

Myeong-ryang (The Admiral: Roaring Currents)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 August 2014 in Showcase Cinemas de Lux Revere #2 (first-run, DCP)

Let's be honest about The Admiral: Roaring Currents ("Myeongryang - Huiori Bada" in the original Korean, and apparently sometimes only either half of the English title is used): Roughly 95% of why people buy a ticket is for the great big battle sequence at the end, and the intrigues that set it up and put human faces on the combatants really just need to be not-awful. That's about where it lands - good enough for the first hour or so, but coming through with what it promised.

The battle of Myeongryang took place on 26 October 1597, with Admiral Yi Sun-shin (Choi Min-sik) standing between the capital of Joseon and an invading Japanese Navy commanded by General Wakizaka (Cho Jin-woong) and augmented by "Pirate King" Kurushima (Ryu Seung-ryong). It is far from a fair fight - Yi is ailing since being arrested and tortured under suspicion of being a Japanese double agent before being reinstated after a devastating defeat, and the Korean Navy is so desperately outnumbered - roughly 300 to 12 - that he's been ordered to have his men reinforce the army. He does not intend to die on dry land, though, and a look at a nearby whirlpool gives him an idea.

The first half of Roaring Currents isn't actually filler, and I suspect that Korean history buffs will enjoy it. It does contain a certain amount of set-up for what comes later, with characters introduced and a look at what motivates everyone beyond trying to win the war. It's not bad at all, but it doesn't exactly feel illuminating: Folks buying a ticket for this movie probably know the basics of what's going to happen, and while there are some exciting moments to it, there are few moments either during the run-up or the battle where the viewer stops and thinks that this moment had or would have a major effect on the ultimate outcome.

Full review at EFC


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

I get the impression that Yusuke Yamada's novel Live could be made into a fairly successful movie if the filmmakers had some resources to work with; the story is nothing revolutionary, but it's the sort of basic young adult adventure that American studios have been betting big on. In this case, though, it wound up in the hands of Noboru Iguchi and with a budget low enough to just reference the novel rather than properly adapt it.

In the book, Naoto Yamura is the hero; the guy with the same name in the film (Yuki Yamada) is an entitled little twerp who initially doesn't pay any attention to the package he gets containing a copy of Live, a cell phone, and a directive to follow instructions or his mother dies. He arrives at the "starting line" to find about thirty others in the same situation, notably including Shinsuke (Yuki Morinaga) and Runi (Ito Ono), fans of the book; gymnast Akari (Mari Iriki), and kickboxer Tamaki (Mitsuki Koga). The book contains clues on how to proceed and hints of the lethal challenges and weapons to be found along the way. The whole thing is being broadcast online, and only the winner saves his or her loved ones.

Not actually being familiar with the book or the film's reception in Japan, I can't say that much about whether Iguchi's metatextual take on the material helps or hurts it. For all I know, this may be the most interesting possible take on a route but popular story. Export seems to hurt it, as some moments assume a familiarity with the source material that Iguchi's western fans won't have, and while there's an argument to be made that the movie is satirizing game-like linear plots and audience addiction to violent media, it's far more example than commentary.

Full review on EFC.

Gamsijadeul (Cold Eyes)

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

It's been a while since I've seen Eye in the Sky, long enough that when I looked up my original review, I was surprised how lukewarm I was toward it at the time. Maybe the folks who were talking about this South Korean remake being better than the original had something.

It's still built on a nifty idea for a cop movie or series, following a squad whose specialty is maintaining surveillance by means both high and low tech. Both versions also start out with a memorable sequence, where what seems like one big game of cast-and-mouse separate into two threads, with potential surveillance squad member Ha Yoon-ju (Han Hyo-ju) trailing team leader Hwang-sou (Sol Kyung-gu) as an audition to join the squad while a mastermind later called "Shadow" (Jung Woo-sing) watches his own crew's crime play out his own all-seeing vantage point. It has the makings of a potentially fantastic game of cat-and-mouse as Shadow starts taking on even larger jobs.

As with the Hong Kong version, there's a sense that this idea might work better as the pilot to a TV series - there's even a mysterious group of villains pulling Shadow's strings who may be gangs or North Korean spies for all audience knows to serve as recurring threats - than as a movie. That squad room full of characters who barely get names here would certainly appreciate it. Happily, it mostly serves to give the movie some texture when it could have wound up a very dry game of chops and robbers with the main emotion being whether Yoon-ju is cut out for a job where following a potential subject means passing by an actual crime in progress. It’s a fairly self-contained story, but doesn't feel small.

Full review on EFC

Late Phases

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2014 in Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

As soon as he or she sees Nick Damici in this movie, blind but still a gruff former soldier, about to be placed in a retirement community, even the jaded moviegoer may smile a bit. It's not the usual hero or setting for this type of film, but horror movies about old folks are often kind of great - old guys know stuff but are often shoved aside to be forgotten - and this one is no exception.

Damici plays Ambrose McKinley, a Vietnam vet who has just buried his wife and is now being moved into a seniors' community with the help of his son Will (Ethan Embry). Though he generally blows past being curmudgeonly to outright hostility, he hits it off with his neighbor Gloria (Rutanya Alda) - so when she is the victim of an "animal attack" - which he finds out are surprisingly common in this isolated, wooded area during the full moon - he sets out to make sure it doesn't happen again.

Director Adrian Garcia Bogliano and writer Eric Stolze don't play particularly coy with the audience at the start; though Ambrose may be blind, the audience can quite clearly see that his new home has a werewolf problem during that first attack. The surprising bit is how they handle things from that point forward: Rather than screw around having the hero play catch-up with what the audience already knows, they have Ambrose figure the basic problem pretty quickly, and without having secretly been a werewolf hunter or otherwise encountering the supernatural in his youth. It may be a bit of a leap for the audience, but it lets the filmmakers strip a lot of the counterproductive delay that tends to bog horror movies down despite being completely logical from this one so that they can concentrate on Ambrose doing some detective work and figuring out how he can fight a monster despite being a blind senor citizen. The audience can imagine the inevitable scene of sad younger people feeling really sorry for the old man making up crazy stories, so even though the filmmakers plant the prerequisites, they make Ambrose smart enough to avoid it.

Full review on EFC

Han Gong-ju

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2014 in Salle D.B. Clarke (Fantasia Festival: The Best Years of My Life?, DCP)

It is almost never difficult to figure out where Han Gong-ju is heading, and that's okay. It may, in fact, be part of the point. Surprise is not the only way a movie can punch the audience in the guy, and between the excellent performance of Chun Woo-hee as the title character and the precision filmmaking by writer/director Lee Su-jin, this is one of the most quietly devastating teen-focused movies you'll see.

It starts off on an uncomfortable place, with Gong-ju's former teacher Nan-do (Min Kyung-jin) calling in a favor to get her enrolled at a new school and begging his mother (Lee Young-ran) to let the teenager stay at her place, at least temporarily. After that, the girl tries to keep her head down, taking swimming lessons and helping out in Mrs. Cho's shop, although one of her classmates, Eun-hee (Jung In-sun), is eager to befriend her after hearing her practice in the music room. Every once in a while, there's a glimpse of her old life and friends like roommate Hwa-ok (Kim So-young) or Dong-yoon (KimChoi Yong-joon), the cute son of the boss at her part-time job, but they are very much not a part of her present.

Director Lee does an extraordinary job of doling out information on just what happened to the title character to make her change schools at exactly the rate to keep the audience half wondering and half dreading having its suspicions confirmed. Even while saving that for the last act, the movie is well-able to examine the fallout as this girl who is getting the rawest of deals tries to just get by. Holding the specific reasons for page back allows Lee to do something impressive, giving the viewer a close look at just how society undercuts and fails girls and women in Gong-ju's situation generally while not allowing something big to overshadow who she is specifically.

Full review on EFC

SPOILERS! It makes me want to take the most optimistic view of the final scene, a gut-punch by its very nature. I think, though, that this is why Gong-ju put so much importance in the swimming lessons - she knew that, at some point, things would get low enough that she would throw herself off a bridge, and she aimed to make sure that, when she came to her senses moments later, she would be able to get through it. I ay be hoping for this to happen enough to be ignoring what was actually on-screen, in that I maybe saw a shadow on the Han to indicate Gong-ju swimming, although it may just be wishful thinking. It changes the meaning of the movie tremendously: On the one hand, it's a tribute to Gong-ju that she was able to steel herself for when depression and despair eventually overwhelmed her, but it's probably reasonable to say that no matter what she does, you really can't compare yourself for what this sort of victim is going to go through.!SRELIOPS

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