Tuesday, August 05, 2014

The Fantasia Daily 2014.19: Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, Thermae Romae II, Closer to God

As the festival starts to wind down, I ask myself: Where the heck is my passport? I stopped putting it in my pocket daily a week or two ago, but I can't figure out whether the apartment has swallowed it or if it fell out of my pocket in a theater or maybe somewhere else. Either way, looks like a fun visit to the consulate tomorrow!

Performance before Thermae Romae

Speaking of consulates, it's interesting and maybe a bit odd that Thermae Romae II was the movie that Japan's opted to have a traditional performance and message from the consul before the start. Those films take place outside of Japan and have a lot of whiteface, and while I suppose they can be seen as celebrations of Japanese culture in their own way, Giovanni's Island and Jellyfishh Eyes are on the schedule, too. Still, nice performance.

After that one, I went to the Burger Bar on Crescent and had this:

Interesting container for a milkshake on the right. Word of warning, visitors to Montreal: This "Hangover", voted the city's best burger during "burger week", lists "a mini-poutine" on the menu, and I naturally figured that would be on the side, as a substitute for the usual fries. No, it's actually inside the burger, between the fried egg, bacon, cheese, patty, and caramelized onions (which I asked them to hold, but they were more scrapable than usual). The folks at the next table were impressed and terrified, and let me tell you, it makes a mess.

Today's plans may not include such a massive burger, but do include The Desert, Monsterz, either Space Station 76 or Metalhead depending on my mood around 7pm, and Welcome to New York.

E Zhan (Once Upon a Time in Shanghai)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 August 2014 in Theatre Hall (Fantasia Festival: Action!, DCP)

Is Philip Ng the next big martial-arts action star to come out of China? It seems like we've been waiting for the generation that comes after Jet Li and Donnie Yen to show up for a while, and while there are certainly stars who can fight a little, guys who can just flat-out throws down are few and far between. In Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, Ng has a great, stylish showcase, a great time for those looking for some old-school action.

Shanghai, 1930. Ma Yongzhen (Ng) arrives on a boat with two others from his village/family, looking to make some honest money, but the gangs rule the city, with Long Qi (Andy On) making inroads on the Axe Federation. Though Ma initially finds honest work, he takes action when gangsters invade the poor neighborhood where he lives. He fights Long to a draw, but that just makes the gangster fond of the country bumpkin, enough to offer him a job as a waiter at the Paradise Club. However, Long isn't the only gang in town, and the three remaining Axes are not above collaborating with the Japanese.

The movie opens with action, as Ma takes exception to some thieves trying to steal a little girl's baked potato, and makes him regret it. And while Ma makes an earnest effort to avoid fighting for much of the film - he wears a jade bracelet on his wrist as a reminder that his right arm is so powerful that he might accidentally kill someone brawling - it's inevitable, and when things finally do explode, it's fantastic - the legendary Yuen Woo-ping is action director, with Yuen Cheung-yan choreographing, and there's some impressive action, not necessarily acrobatic, but hard-hitting and shoot so that you can see that Ng, at least, can really move, with Andy On no slouch either (Sammo Hung is still looking pretty good in a supporting role, too). Ng and On have a great fight in the center and there's a massive gauntlet to be passed in the finale. And while it's fun to just sit back and watch the actors and subtitle trade blows, it's fun to watch closely and see that the Yuens are actually impressively careful to not have Ng hit with his right fist unless he really means business; even in the midst of a frantic volley, he'll block or throw an elbow with that arm, but no ordinary punches.

Full review at EFC

Thermae Romae II

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 August 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

2012's Thermae Romae adapted a manga with a delightfully high-concept premise - an architect of Roman bath houses (thermae) finds himself in modern Japan, which loves the institutions just as much as his homeland, and tries to introduce twenty-first century luxury to ancient Rome. It's a neat idea, and the sequel does find new facets of it to tap, but it's gotten stretched rather thin by the end.

A year has passed in both time zones, and in AD 136 Lucius Modestus (Hiroshi Abe) is charged with upgrading the thermae in Rome's Colosseum. Though not a fan of bloodsports and aware of how the roman senate seems to be using them to undermine the pacifist policies of Emperor Hadrianus (Masachika Ichimura), he sees a chance to improve the situation for gladiators, especially once a trip through the vortex shows him how contemporary sumo wrestlers unwind after a match. As he makes more trips to the present to learn about water parks and hot springs resorts, he once again crosses paths with Manami "Mami" Yamakoshi (Aya Ueto), now a reporter for a bath-enthusiast magazine, as her comic version of Lucius's previous visits never took off.

Sequels have conflicting demands - "move forward" and "more of what I liked" - and Thermae Romae II often feels like screenwriter Hiroshi Hashimoto had ideas for doing the former but often fell back on what was expected. There's a potential theme going untapped, with Lucius amazed by the innovations of the "flat-faced clan" but worried that by copying them he is not actually creating, while Mami had her manga rejected because editors found her artwork lacked its own style, but it doesn't play into the film's resolution much at all. And while it's one thing for a man to act like a bit of an oblivious doof around the girl who likes him once, doing it for a second film is much less cool.

Full review at EFC

Closer to God

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 August 2014 in Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival: Paradigm Shifters, DCP)

Closer to God has characters by the name of Victor, Elizabeth, and Mary, and that's likely no coincidence; there are hints of the Frankenstein story throughout and I wouldn't be surprised if the title itself is drawn from the novel. It's a fairly sharp one, too, enough for it to be a bit of a letdown when it moves from interesting science fiction to horror to get things done for the last act.

Baby Elizabeth is the first human clone. She's roughly one month old, with DNA based upon "father" Victor Reed (Jeremy Childs), and received gene therapy during gestation, and has a small crystalline "receptor" on her forehead that was airbrushed out of the initial pictures. The release of this information ignites a firestorm of disapproval, and he soon retreats home with his team, where his prolonged absenCe has his wife Claire (Shannon Hope) distant and reliant on the married couple that tends the estate, Mary (Shelean Newman) and Richard (David Alford), to help look after their two daughters. They've got some experience in this, though, because of the other baby Victor had brought home a few years ago, saying Ethan only had a few weeks to live.

I don't know if the first half or so of this movie describes the actual structures of the private company that could produce the first human clone or the public reaction to it, but it feels like something close enough to reality to make the audience buy into it; we're in close, and while there aren't a lot of technical details being thrown around, there's palpable tension from being surrounded by a world that will almost certainly disapprove. It doesn't feel like a documentary, but close-up, clipped, and full of the right feelings. The filmmakers create a believable environment without it feeling overly elaborate or designed.

Full review at EFC

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