Monday, September 08, 2014

Innocence (and more Fantasia catch-up)



I was fairly undecided about which of the two low-profile movies opening this weekend to check out Sunday night until clicking a few extra links in Innocence reminded me of where I'd heard the director's name before: Hillary Brougher directed The Sticky Fingers of Time, which I think may have been the first movie I saw at the Coolidge Corner Theatre when I moved to Boston fifteen years ago. I may have been the only one in the theater catching a 9:30pm show on its last day in town, because that thing was pretty far out there on the indie scale, a time-traveling romance between two women with no special effects aside from someone having a tail in one scene. That thing was weird to 25-year-old me, although who knows how I'd react to it if I took the DVD off the shelf and have it a spin tomorrow.

As mentioned in the review, that was her first movie, and Innocence I'd her third, fifteen years later, with both seeming to have a hard time getting finished and/or picked up for distribution. That's the kind of thing that really terrifies me about the very idea of being a filmmaker - what happens between those dry spells? For all I know, Ms. Brougher had kept plenty busy, working in theater or commercial work and maybe getting attached to projects that never get made our doing rewrite work that gets hidden by the WGA arbitration process, but I don't know if I'd have the temperament for that sort of uncertainty.

The other thing that caught my eye was that it seems to be cut from the same basic cloth as Another Me a couple weeks ago, with both being horror movies (or at least "dark fantasies") based on young-adult novels adapted by women with backgrounds that are pretty solidly in the independent film world. I suspect that there was a bit of a land-rush when Twilight hit, with producers buying up properties and then looking for people who could work cheap, and that two adapted by women got released in close proximity makes me see patterns when there aren't any. Two movies isn't quite a trend anyway, especially since at least one seems to have sat on the shelf for a while, but I kind of hope it is; I remember seeing Jennifer's Body a few years back and feeling kind of ashamed that scary movies by, for, and about women were rare enough for that one to feel like a real anomaly, a response to all the genre movies asked at young men that mostly used young women as ornamentation. Innocence and Another Me aren't perfect - I think I can safely say that even acknowledging that they are very much not made with me in mind - but they're mainstream, even if they're not getting wide releases. They're movies being made for an audience that some still deny exists, by folks who understand that audience much better than the likes of me or all the middle-aged make filmmakers who look like me.

That's pretty awesome, and not just because I know quite a few women who like this stuff and want the chance to make it, but still sometimes feel the need to use pen names that imply being male, or because it seems to be providing overlooked filmmakers a way to the mainstream. The multiplex is starting to look a bit more interesting, even if these movies are still only getting semi-limited releases.

Anyway, even though this isn't a Fantasia film, it could have been, so let's run through the latest batch of reviews I've done for that festival: Creep, The Search for Weng Weng, Ju-on: The Beginning of the End, Four Corners, Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder, Steel Cold Winter, Miss Granny, and Bros Before Hos. Twelve to go.

Innocence

* * * (out of four)
Seen 7 September 2014 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, DCP)

The concept that Innocence plays with is an old one, but that's the way it is with a lot of movies: Whether you're talking about vampires, possession, or any of the other great horror concepts, they can be re-used because there's plenty of room to continue examining them; they're descended from something primal. Such is the case here; the filmmakers are doing a slick update of a horror story that doesn't get as much play as it used to.

Four months ago, the mother of Beckett Warner (Sophie Curtis) died from a freak aneurysm; now she and father Miles (Linus Roache) are moving into New York City, where Miles's publisher Natalie (Stephanie March) has secured Beckett a spot in a prestigious girls' school. There, she makes the acquaintance of students Sunday Wilson (Chloe Levine), Jen Dunham (Sarah Sutherland), and Chloe Murray (Annie Q.), as well as principal Moira Neal (Liya Kebede), nurse Pamela Hamilton (Kelly Reilly), and therapist Vera Kent (Sarita Choudhury), and it's not long before she gets the inkling that there is something very peculiar going on.

Innocence is freely adapted from Jane Mendelsohn's novel by director Hilary Brougher and co-writer Tristine Skyler, an interesting filmmaker though not a prolific one - this is her third film, with her first, The Sticky Fingers of Time, released in 1999. All have been built around women's perspectives, with this one featuring just one or two make characters of any consequence compared to almost a dozen girls and women. Brougher signals where the story is going to go fairly early on in an English Literature lecture, and but soon starts twisting the idea of a young woman's value being tired to her "purity" around. It's not the most revolutionary or subversive take on the concept, but it's played out with a broad enough cast of characters that nobody is forced into being an archetype and there's even room for some black humor in a spot or two.

Full review at EFC

Creep

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2014 in Salle D.B. Clakre (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

My only issues with Creep have nothing whatsoever to do with the movie itself. First, there's the generic title - it's only been ten years since the movie by that name with Franka Potente - and word that two sequels are already planned. I don't know how that works. But look at the movie itself, and it's a work of minimalist near-perfection, tremendously funny and with just enough edge to be a legitimate thriller.

It starts with Aaron (Patrick Brice) telling his camera that he's been hired for a bit of video work, and while it's kind of weird, a job's a job. This one involves following Josef (Mark Duplass) for a day, as he is dying of a brain tumor and wants to leave a testimonial for his unborn son. And while Josef seems very friendly, he's also, to put it mildly, eccentric.

It is a dead-simple premise; Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass have come up with a good reason for a found-footage style movie to be generating said footage and execute it almost by themselves, improvising much of the dialog from their story with Brice directing and shooting from the camera used in-story. They pile every joke that they can on and sell the heck out of each, whether they are shaggy-dog stories, one-liners, or putting a scene together visually in a way that's both funny and disturbing. Creep is a tremendously funny movie, and even when it starts getting into more unsettling territory, the jokes are perfectly executed. It's "wait, what?" humor executed more or less perfectly.

Full review on EFC

The Search for Weng Weng

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2014 in Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival: Documentaries from the Edge, DCP)

Going in, I half-thought that I had seen The Search for Weng Weng before, what with IMDB showing a date of 2007 on it and there being at least some time spent on the 2'9" Filipino action hero in Machete Maidens Unleashed, another Aussie doc about the Philippine movie industry. If there was a 2007 version, though, director Andrew Leavold has added a great deal to it to make something quite memorable in its latest incarnation.

When Leovold started the film, the video store operator - 20 years running Trash Video in Brisbane - didn't realize that there was more to Weng Weng's ouevre than For Your Height Only. But, when he comes to the Philippines with a rough cut of the film and a request for any information that those in attendence have, he soon finds himself not only finding more movies Weng Weng starred in, but meeting a lot of colorful characters along the way, from former movie stars back in working class circumstances to the Marcos family.

It's not without bumps, as Leavold, something of an underground filmmaker, is filming his own quest and finds himself going around in circles a bit, often returning to the same point, letting information that will be contradicted stand, and ultimately allowing a lot of the uncertainty of making the film overshadow what he's learning during the making of it. It perhaps reflects the way he learned things, but it doesn't really feel like he's avoiding the straight line for a purpose as opposed to being new at this. Not that I'd want much of this material removed - even if a lot of the the people seem to have the same things to say, they're all worth meeting and giving enough face time that a viewer doesn't ask who that guy is when a group is shown together. Similarly, a side trip to see Imelda Marcos goes on a bit long and doesn't come across as quite so surreal as his narration builds it up to be, but it is still kind of eye-popping; there is probably another great documentary to be made about the apparent affection many Filipinos seem to still have for their long-time first lady even though westerners probably assumed that she and her husband were strung up after Ferdinand Marcos was deposed.

Full review on EFC

Ju-on: Owari no hajimari (Ju-on: The Beginning of the End)

* * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, HD)

I suspect that the Ju-on franchise must take the ignominious prize for being restarted the most often in the last amount of time - since the original Japanese TV-movie in 2000 (for the sake of simplicity, let's ignore the prototypes made as part of an anthology series), there have been Japanese theatrical features, American features, and now this Japanese theatrical reboot. Oh, and there are rumors of an American reboot. It's understandable - the hook to these ghost stories is still good even if there's a bizarre resistance to expanding the eminently expandable mythos - but it's produced a version 4.0 that brings nothing but a new, inevitably younger, cast.

For those that missed it the first three times around, a Ju-on is like a sort of living grudge, an imprint of pure anger manifesting as the victims at the scene of a murder that affects those who visit, driving them to their own madness and crimes. As before, it is the Saeki family - father Takeo (Yauhito Hida), mother Kayako (Misaki Saisho), and eight-year-old soon Toshio (Kai Kobayashi) - at the center, with others serving as points of entry: Yui Ikuno (Nozomi Sasaki) is the new teacher for Toshio's third-grade class, as the previous one mysteriously disappeared (hmmm); she's got a screenwriter boyfriend, Naoto (Sho Aoyogi). There's also tall-but-timid teenager Nanami (Reina Triendl), pushed by her new friends Yayoi (Yuina Kuroshima), Rina (Miho Kanazawa), and Aoi (Haori Takahashi) to explore a very familiar house that Ali's realtor sister is having trouble selling because of its history.

I may have missed something in the untranslated credits, but I believe that this is the first entry in the franchise made without even the town involvement of creator Takashi Shimizu (after directing six of the things and consulting on 2009's direct-to-video entries, he may have had enough), and his participation does seem to be missed. New director Masayuki Ochiai and co-writer Takashige Ichise retain almost all of the movies' trademarks, from breaking the movie into intersecting chapters that don't always fit together in the expected ways to the creaking sound by which the ghosts announce their presence, but as with the ”White Ghost " and "Black Ghost" entries, the results don't quite measure up - the new Toshio doesn't perfectly appear in the shadows, for instance, and the line between precisely creating a foreboding atmosphere and just showing something weird can be awfully thin. There are hints that they might try something new, style-wise, when the movie opens with a first-person sequence, but that soon falls by the wayside.

Full review on EFC

Four Corners

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2014 in Salle D.B. Clarke (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

I must admit to not having a particular affinity for movies about gangs, and I kind of worry that being drawn to this one because it is set in South Africa rather than an American city doesn't speak well of me - I'm too willing to dismiss these stories as alien rather than close-to-home. Still, the environment that director Ian Gabriel and company visit in Four Corners is a large part of its appeal, showing gangs functioning like secret societies inside prison and a run-down but still somewhat sustaining part of Cape Town, and it serves as background for a fine bit of drama.

The opening titles inform those of us who were not aware that South Africa's "numbers gangs", specifically the 28s and 26s, have been fighting for over a hundred years, and right now, the 26s control the neighborhood where 13-year-old Ricardo Galam (Jezzriel Skei) lives, mostly trying to keep his head down and avoid recruitment. A couple of not-quite-newcomers are going to shake things up, though: Farakhan (Brendon Daniels), a general in the 28s once known as "Lee Marvin" and just released from prison, intends to leave the life and move back into his old house despite the 26 now living there; Leila Domingo (Lindiwe Matshikiza), a doctor sent to live in England as a teen has come to bury her father and is not sure about Manzy (Jerry Mofokeng), a homeless man her father took in. Meanwhile, police Captain Tito Hanekom (Abduragman Adams) does what he can to keep the peace and solve a series of murders that have the gangs on edge.

According to the publicity materials, director Ian Gabriel and his crew shot their movie primarily in authentic locations, the sort of places that even chips and reporters tend to stay out of for their own safety, and also shooting in the local Sabela dialect. How much it represents the actual experience of being there, I can't say, but it feels genuine in ways that aren't always the case: Rather than just the dark interiors of some run-down buildings, this movie spends a lot of time outside, in a neighborhood that is at least crowded if not quite bustling; there are almost always plenty of people in the background, going about their lives, even though the gang presence can be overwhelming. Much of the cast, from background players to people as prominent as Manzy, are former gang members sporting real ink, slotted into roles that for them like gloves.

Full review on EFC

Doktor Proktors prompepulver (Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2014 in the rented apartment (Fantasia Festival, DVD-on-laptop)

All things considered, Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder has got to be one of the least likely kids' film imaginable, and I can't help but imagine a scenario where I'm recommending it to friends and family members with young children and digging myself a bigger hole with everything I say about it. After all, it comes from the director of the earnest but kind of harsh (and crude) Fatso and is based on a series of books by Jo Nesbø, the writer of some blackly funny, but very adult, crime stories. It's also delightfully silly and high-spirited; the kids will love it.

After all, they'll probably empathize with Lise (Emilly Glaister), an ordinary girl in a quaint Oslo neighborhood whose next-door neighbor and best friend has just moved away and whose parents barely notice she's around. One neighbor moving out means another moving in, though, and in this case that's Nilly (Eilif Hellum Noraker), a tiny boy with messy hair who is as excitable and curious as Lise is shy, which leads them to investigate a cloud of smoke coming from the home of reclusive inventor Doctor Proctor (Kristopher Joner). He's down in the dumps, too, afraid he will never invent something useful, especially since his latest powder yields nothing but loud, odorless flatulence. The kids, naturally, think this is fantastic, especially once they discover that with enough, you can launch yourself in the air. At that point, it grabs the attention of the neighborhood's other inventor, the jealous Herr Thrane (Alte Antonsen)

How powerful is Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder? They eventually contact NASA. It's a thoroughly goofy and juvenile sort of set-up, but it's kind of a delight. There's something great about a kids' movie that acknowledges that farts are funny, and rides that without ever making it actually gross. As much as director Arild Fröhlich and screenwriter Johan Bogaeus milk the material, it's almost always done without being rude, which fits well with the colorful neighborhood that feels like a kid's playland - Proctor's house and lab has a slide, Thrane's has a secret underground lab, and everybody wears perfect colorful costumes. Even the bullies (Thrane's kids, of course) are sort of perfect movie bullies, pushing other kids around at their mean father's behest and kind of sad when it means they get left out of stuff. There's danger in the form of a great big snake living in the sewers - animated with the sort of style that will never have it confused for the real thing - and some slimy situations, but it's almost all in fun.

Full review on EFC

Sonyeo (Steel Cold Winter)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2014 in the rented apartment (Fantasia Festival: The Best Years of Our Lives?, DVD-on-laptop)

Apparently the literal translation of this movie's Korean title ("Sonyeo") is simplly "Girl". Fair enough, and evocative in its own way; maybe in some ways a little better than the English-language title it's been given for the festival circuit. I like the chill of the latter, though; it helps show that this is a fairly specific mystery rather than "just" a nifty tale of a dangerous and exciting first love.

After all, the girl is the first thing that Suh Yoon-su (Kim Shi-hoo) sees of the rural village that his parents are delivering him to after a traumatic incident that makes them figure time away from Seoul would do their teenage son good; she's skating on a frozen river in her school uniform. Yoon-su proves quite popular in the tiny farming village's school, although the girl he saw, Hye-won (Kim Yoon-hye) is decidedly not - there are ugly rumors about her and her father (Jung In-gi) that have both of them shunned. Yoon-su can't resist, though, and soon finds himself in a mess that a guy who still has psychosomatic pain in his ears from his friend's suicide back home may not be set to deal with.

Not a bad little take on the "new kid comes to school, finds himself attracted to the outsider" drama canon. One thing I like that director Choi Jin-seong and writer Choi Yoon-jin did is that it's very much winter in this village; oftentimes filmmakers will set a movie like this during the school year but have the weather be temperate. The chill helps here, not just because the image of Hye-won skating are the sort of thing that one can easily see taking root in Yoon-su's head, or because the cold can serve as a genuine danger for a family as poor as Hye-won and her father, but in general attitude. I don't know if Korean has the same way of describing people as "chilly" but people do insulate themselves and do more desperate things then; it also clears out the area so that things are even more lonely for a city kid like Yoon-su.

Full review on EFC

Susanghan geunyeo (Miss Granny)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Sitting down for Miss Granny, I had a horrible fear - what if this was 200 Pounds Beauty again? The template, right down to the newly-cute protagonist becoming a singer, was sort of the same, and it certainly had the chance to play into cruel stereotypes even if it wasn't quite so wrong-headed as building a better life through plastic surgery. The idea further solidified as Shim Eun-kyung proceeded to be just terrific in a potentially disastrous role. Fortunately, this Cinderella story manages to be funny without much in the way of guilt attached.

When it starts, Oh Mal-soon (Na Moon-hee) is the very picture of an ajumma, a stereotypical granny with a sharp tongue, a tight purse, hair permed like broccoli, and a lot more fondness for her son Hyun-chul (Sung Dong-il), a professor of elder studies, than his wife Ae-ja (Hwang Jung-min). She works in a seniors' cafe with lifelong friend Mr. Park (Park In-hwan), oblivious to how he thinks about her. When Ae-ja falls ill in part due to the stress Mal-soon puts on her, there's talk of finding a home for her, which is when she finds the "Forever Young" photography studio, whose proprietor promises to take fifty years off her - and does, giving her the face and body she had before her son was born. Unable to go home, "Oh Doo-ri" (Shim Eun-kyung) rents a room at Mr. Park's house, and when grandson Ji-ha (Jin Young) loses his band's lead singer, she winds up joining, which eventually grabs the attention of Seung-woo (Lee Jin-wook), the producer of a popular televised music series.

The movie tends to back off from the really questionable issues and goes for the big joke most of the time, even as it has fun with Ji-ha's unknowing infatuation. Part of it is how, like the character itself, the movie is tart but not really mean: Director Hwang Dong-hyuk and the team of writers get that Oh looking like a sort of hipster pixie in her 1960s-inspired outfits is funny and a bit ironic but not really a target to be made sport of, so the audience can laugh at the idea when it hits them without it being beaten into the ground (or maybe this is an American pop culture thing that I'm projecting onto a Korean film). The last act softens up a bit to play with the idea of assimilation as well as just oddity, and does it well enough that I might have enjoyed a more thoughtful comedy which played on the idea of new and old identities in addition to gags about an old lady in a young body, especially since the measures that the script takes to avoid it are kind of drastic.

Full review on EFC

Bros Before Hos

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

I wasn't really looking forward to this one, having kind of hated the first New Kids movie enough to skip the second, but it was the only English-friendly thing playing and I wanted to see what came after, so I stuck around. I'm glad I did; it's a fun romantic comedy even if its sweetness can sometimes be buried deep underneath quite the crude exterior.

The "bros" of the title are Max (Tim Haars) and Jules (Daniel Arends), who made a promise as kids to never commit to any woman. They're still getting more action than one might expect of a video store clerk and a supermarket manager, and it would seem like things would keep going on that way until Anna (Sylvia Hoeks) appears. Max feels an immediate connection, but Jules gets there first, and rather than a simple one-night stand, he keeps going out with her, leaving Tom with dueling feelings of envy and portrayal.

As immature as that description makes the brothers sound, it doesn't really scratch the surface - there's also their friend Rene (Henry Van Loon), joining in with the man-child banter, the sex-obsessed autistic guy at the mental health institution where Anna works, and general vulgarity that is mostly delivered with the sort of wide smile that (mostly) lets the audience buy into it coming from a place of immaturity rather than true disdain or malice. I think it might have been better with about 80% less guys calling each other "niggah", "bitch", and "faggot"; though filmmakers Steffen Haars & Flip van der Kuil are likely going for a gag of how it makes them looking stupid, they play it exuberantly enough that it's easy to miss the irony. On balance, the Farrelly Brothers-and-then-some enthusiasm generally wins out, even if you might want the characters to be called out as the movie starts needing charm toward the end.

Full review on EFC

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