Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Maze Runner and the last Fantasia catch up.

I actually finished the review for Welcome to New York on the flight from Boston to Houston, so I think it's fair to say that I did, in fact, finish all my Fantasia business before Fantastic Fest, even if I am actually posting from the ground in Austin. Woo-hoo!

Anyway, enjoy The Maze Runner, which I caught as a preview about a week and a half ago; it opens tonight/tomorrow, and it's not bad, just kind of overdoing it on the holding back. You'll certainly see many action movies that aren't put together as well as it is during any given season, and it's got a capable enough cast. Here's hoping there's more to the sequel, if such a thing gets made.

Anyway, not much time to get bagged and lined up for Fantastic Fest day one, where I'll be seeing Hardkor Disco, As Seen By Others, and Cub.

And to close up the old business, here are the last seven Fantasia reviews: Hunter X Hunter: The Last Mission, Real, Ejecta, The Desert, Monsterz, Metalhead, and Welcome to New York. As much as I'm looking forward to the next week, I also can't wait to get back to Montreal.

The Maze Runner

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 September 2014 in Regal Fenway #13 (preview, RPX DCP)

There have been action movie more aggressively stripped of the basic building blocks of story - like character background and motivation - than The Maze Runner, but the better ones are either trying to make some point about basic human nature or engage in some criticism of their genre. Here, it's the generic anonymity of a video game, with player proxies, tasks to accomplish, and the promise of information as a reward. That's all good for as far as it goes; it just doesn't go very far.

Player approximately-38 (Dylan O'Brien) enters "The Glade" the way all of them have, through a cargo elevator that also supplies whatever the couple dozen or so amnesiac boys in this walked valley can't grow or glean themselves, although it's clear that there's something a bit different about him, since if the others have flashes of the outside world in their dreams, they don't seem to mention it. High walls surround The Glade on all sides, with doors that lead into a massive labyrinth, closing at night when the sound of "Grievers" frighten the Gladers (nobody who has stayed in the maze overnight has survived their sting). Things have apparently changed with the arrival of Thomas - names come back in a day or two - as one of the "maze runners" looking for a way out is stung during the daytime, soon followed by an ahead-of-schedule new arrival. This one's a girl (Kaya Scodelario), clutching a note saying she's the last.

A half-dozen our so other boys have roles of some import, and while only a couple get to really show much in the way of individuality - most notably Chuck (Blake Cooper), the youngest, and change-fearing fighter Gally (Will Poulter) - they are, by and large, a group that the audience will generally find amiable enough, although the range of personalities is both kind of narrow and low-key, even with the backstory that implies a Lord of the Flies period that nobody wants to return to in the past. The cast isn't really bland; they're just handed characters who have no history by definition and given a story where, at least in this adaptation of the novel, only ever pivots on the characters' emotional reactions as a distraction.

Full review at EFC

Gekijouban HUNTERxHUNTER: The Last Mission (Hunter X Hunter: The Last Mission )

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival: AXIS, HD)

As near as I can tell, there were fifty weekly TV episodes between the two Hunter X Hunter films released in Japan last year, so it's not exactly surprising that The Last Mission does not exactly pick up right where Phantom Rouge left off - and despite this film's title, the weekly anime and manga adventure has rolled on through 2014, meaning another film is not unlikely. And they may as well keep on going; the fans are still there and this is a good time even for those going in relatively cold.

Pre-teen Hunters Gon and Kilua haven't changed that much since the events of Phantom Rouge, although Kurapika is now working as a princess's bodyguard and is apparently on speaking terms with a villain he wanted dead before. Today, Gon & Kilua are attending the Battle Olympiad at Heaven's Arena to support their friend Zushi as are many other members of the Hunter Association as well as various dignitaries. Which means that bit from the beginning of the movie when Isaac Netero, now president of the Association but one of its fiercest warriors decades ago, didn't quite kill rebel hunter Jed before he could cast a "Demonic Grudge" spell, is obviously foreshadowing a pretty massive hostage situation.

As before, there is a fair amount of Hunter X Hunter mythology referenced by characters who don't exactly get a proper introduction, so non-fans may be a bit lost at times. On the other hand, enough of it is in the form of secrets being revealed that it's not hard to catch up with the important stuff, and the script by Nobuaki Kishima makes things a bit easier by sticking close to familiar genre material: This is basically Die Hard, when you get right down to it, albeit with super-powered 12-year-olds in a kilometer-high building. That the resurrected Jed is threatening to reveal the Hunter Association's dark secrets works on its own as a macguffin without the actual nature of those secrets being terribly important, and that his powers come from "on" rather than "nen" isn't that big a deal, either. While some events are probably a big deal for fans, the action and emotion is big and over the top enough to be a blast for the rest of us.

Full review on EFC

Riaru: Kanzen naru kubinagaryû no hi (Real)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Kiyoshi Kurosawa has gotten even more interesting in the past few years, after stepping away from horror to do 2008's drama Tokyo Sonata, then immersing himself in teaching before doing a television series, a short feature that's probably as much record promo as stand-alone project, and this bit of science fiction. The interesting thing here is that this is still very much the work of a guy who knows how to scare you, making a pretty straight line between slick futurism and a contemporary world becoming more and more strange.

The science fictional elements are an old standby, an apparatus that one person can use to enter the dreams of another, in this case husband Koichi Fujita (Takeru Sato) trying to reach his wife Atsumi Kazu (Haruka Ayase), who has been comatose since a suicide attempt one year ago. He finds her constantly revising the horror manga she's drawing, saying she could finish and leave the apartment if he could just find a picture of a plesiosaur she drew in fourth grade. He searches for it outside her dream environment, first finding an unpublished comic and then following that to Hikone island where she grew up (and he spent that fourth-grade year), where a buried memory awaits.

The material itself isn't necessarily the most creative - technology to get inside the heads of coma patients is a classic bit of sci-fi - but Kurosawa and his co-writers (and original novelist Rokuro Inui) come up with neat details, such as "philosophical zombies" and jumbled-up dreams. His particular genre-film background comes in especially handy here, as it's no particular surprise when the subconscious mind of someone who writes and illustrates horror stories for a living contains zombies of a non-philosophical bent and other monsters, but beyond that, Kurosawa has always been one whose movies played on the idea of a world where things suddenly don't make sense, perfect for this sort of movie. He's also accomplished enough to pull off an impressively constructed "how'd they do that" scene where Koichi and Atsumi walk into fog in one location and out in another despite it being a single tracking shot.

Full review on EFC

Ejecta

* * (out of four)
Seen 3 August 2014 in Salle D.B. Clarke (Fantasia Festival: Action!, DCP)

In the Q&A after the movie, the filmmakers described how Ejecta sort of came together as a sort of chimera, with its two distinct tracks being shot well apart and stitched together like a Frankenstein's monster. It's not necessarily a bad idea - I don't really think I'd like to see either stretched to a full ninety minutes, even if each has something worth watching - but it doesn't quite come together as a greater whole.

Though cut together, with both built around talking to the same man, the two parts have distinct styles. One is found-footage, shoot by paranormal documentarian Joe Sullivan (Adam Seybold), who has come to a remote farm to interview William Cassidy (Julian Richings), who claims to have been abducted by aliens, and certainly seems erratic enough to support his claims that they did something to his head. That's certainly bolstered, for the audience at least, by the other scenes, where Cassidy is being held in a black site and interrogated by Dr. Tobin (Lisa Houle), who is also directing a team of government agents very interested in the aliens' latest visitation.

Both tracks are ways that filmmakers with a certain set of resources - not a lot of money but a capable cast - might go about making a sci-fi thriller, letting the actors build characters around necessary exposition and saving one's metaphorical and literal bullets for a big payoff. The trouble is, this tends to lead to unreliable narrators teasing the audience with hints rather than telling the bigger story, and while the whole team - writer Tony Burgess and directors/editors Chad Archibald & Matt Wiele - do yeoman's work keeping up the feel of forward motion while keeping actual resolution just out of reach, but there's just not a whole lot to it.

Full review on EFC

El Desierto (The Desert)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 August 2014 in Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

There's a lot to like about Christoph Behl's post-apocalyptic love triangle, and the fact that it can be described as such without coming across as an annoying genre mismatch is just the start. It's a neat little entry into the canon of small stories that take place during the end of the world, albeit one that sacrifices most of the immediate physical damage to do it.

As far as they can tell - and in any real sense that matters - Axel (Lautaro Delgado) and Jonathan (William Prociuk) may be the last two men on Earth, with Ana (Victoria Almeida) the last woman. They've converted a house into a fortress and come up with rules to ensure their survival as well as (hopefully) their sanity, but it's no surprise that they're starting to reach their breaking point. Maybe it could have gone on indefinitely when it was just Axel and Jonathan, but adding Ana makes it a situation that is never going to go smoothly, even if things didn't wind up with Ana and Jonathan together and Axel burning with desire.

The cast is terrific in a situation where one not playing up to the standards set by the other two could have sunk the whole enterprise, or at least reduced it to something much less interesting. Behl makes the somewhat interesting choice of not having Axel's obsession bleed into envy, which makes the scenes with just Delgado and Prociuk a little more interesting. There's a sense of them being perfectly complimentary, with Axel's intensity a bit unnerving but Prociuk getting a certain amount of the same effect by portraying Jonathan as kind of laid-back - not the kind that gets people killed through inattention, but right on the border of detachment, a distinction that is not easy to see immediately.

Full review on EFC

Monsterz

* * (out of four)
Seen 5 August 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

2011's Haunters was an excellent Korean movie that established a simple premise - two people with opposite superpowers (mind control and rapid healing) on a collision course - and delivered with entertaining action pieces, a likable cast of characters, and style to complement its straight-ahead drive. I figured it for a US remake, but Japan got there first, and sort of screwed it up.

The initial set-up is, in fact, almost exactly the same: Ten or fifteen years ago, an abusive father tried to kill his son but succeeded only in unleashing his powers to control anyone he sees, with the enraged boy forcing his father to snap his own neck. The boy is grown now, limping through the world on a prosthetic leg, making people give him whatever he needs and occasionally adding control just because he can. Elsewhere in the city, mild-mannered Shuichi Tanaka (Takayuki Yamada) works for a moving company with friends Jun (Taiga) and Akira (Motoki Ochiai), at least until he is hit by a car and recovers impossibly quickly. He eventually winds up taking a job in the driver's guitar shop and getting close to his daughter Kanae (Satomi Ishihara). When the "monster" (Tatsuya Fujiwara) robs the shop, it turns out that Shuichi is not vulnerable to his powers, and that just cannot be allowed!

This version, adapted by Yusuke Watanabe and directed by Hideo Nakata, has some nice details (although giving a kid with immense psychic powers a copy of the Akira manga to read and latch onto may have been a bad idea), but it also does some completely unnecessary things. Much like the recent Ju-on reboot, the cast skews younger than that of the original, and while there's a certain logic to it, there's also a certain bit of weight lost. It's a weird bit of narrow-casting to appeal to a core audience which is also reflected in how Kyu-nam's Ghanian and Turkish friends are now otaku or gay, with no mention of Kanae having a western mother. The unusual diversity of Haunters's cast played into a theme, which is why seeing it reduced is somewhat disappointing.

Full review on EFC

Málmhaus (Metalhead)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 August 2014 in Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Metalhead doesn't exactly sneak up on an audience - it's clear from the start that writer/director Ragnar Bragason has some pretty good ideas for his story about grief and mourning, especially when he trains his camera on the parents of the title character. And yet, is still never quite what the viewer might expect, especially if he or she comes in expecting a simple story of a young woman out of sync with her small town (although that's in there and also done well).

Nine years ago (in 1983), Icelandic farmers Karl (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) and Droplaug (Halldóra Geirharðsdóttir) sent their daughter Hera to fetch her older brother Baldur for dinner, only to witness him slipping and falling into a still-running thresher. Hera responded by taking possession of Baldur's heavy-metal record collection and immersing herself in that. Now a young woman, Hera (Thorbjörg Helga Dyrfjörd) wait for the bus out of town every morning but never actually gets on - which is more than can be said for her still shell-shocked parents - and her devotion to this music along with her generally hostile demeanor has the conservative farming community alarmed, though the new priest (Thröstur Leó Gunnarsson) may be more understanding than she expects.

After the horrific opening, there's not always that much for Hera to actually do, but Bragason keeps her just busy enough for things to crank along. In this town of Hof, she's the squarest of pegs in the roundest of holes, but by this point all the big clashes seem to be over, and the focus is on how static a situation is: Hera is pointedly not leaving, and is continuing to orbit her lifelong friend Knutur (Hannes Óli Ágústsson) if only because they're seemingly the only young people around. Her drunken acting out is entirely predictable by this point, while Karl and Droplaug are in a similar state of paralysis. It's such an utterly effective look at what it's like to be unable to move past grief or to be stuck in a town that seemingly has nothing for you but your family that one might not notice just how close things have come to a breaking point.

Full review on EFC

Welcome to New York

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 August 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival: Closing Night, HD)

That Welcome to New York is a long, rambling movie is not in and of itself a bad thing. There are times early on where it's a definite plus as the audience is kind of assaulted with the excesses of M. Devereaux (Gerard Depardieu), and compacting either that our what comes later might change the impact. Ultimately, I wonder what it's about. Who is never in doubt: The movie is based closely enough on the Dominique Strauss-Khan case closely enough to have three screens worth of disclaimers at the front, but pointedly fictionalized in a way that causes it to lose a bit of weight.

Devereaux, an official at the World Bank and potentially the next President of France, has tremendous appetites, especial of the sexual variety, and no conjunctions about indulging them at any time, whether it be with the attractive and accommodating women he has hired for his office in Washington or the escorts he and his traveling companion hire on a trip to New York. The next morning, a hotel maid walks in on him as he's coming out of the shower...

... and cut to Devereaux checking out, creeping his daughter's Canadian boyfriend out with his enthusiastic sex talk that includes speculation about the young couple's activities, and making his way to the plane while the NYPD takes the maid's statement and discovers just how little time they have to arrest him before he does the country. When they do, word reaches Devereaux's wife Simone (Jacqueline Bisset) in the middle of a charity dinner, forcing the publishing heiress to come to America and see to his defense, try to salvage her ambitions for him, and see if her husband realizes just what sort of damage he's done.

Full review on EFC

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