Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Pirates and yet more Fantasia Catch-up.

Between Roaring Currents a few weeks ago, The Pirates yesterday, and Haemoo, another sea-faring Korean adventure, on my hypothetical list for Fantastic Fest in a few days, I'm starting to wonder if some Korean studio built a big shooting pool like James Cameron did for Titanic and is going to get some use out of it no matter what. Not that I'm complaining, I love these things, and if South Korea wants to keep making them for me, they can go right ahead.

It was one of the more sparse crowds I've seen for a Korean movie in Revere lately, especially after the multi-week runs Roaring Currents and Kundo got, although I did have to get up pretty early to get there, leaving Central Square by quarter of eleven for a 12:15pm movie; I suspect the local college students who might be inclined to make the trip out to Revere may have gone for the show might have been waiting for the next show.

It does make me a little sad that this didn't play Fantasia, although there's no knowing if it would have made the cut. As much as I'm glad I get to see some of these movies either at the same time they play in their native land or just weeks later, them being pre-sold and moved to screens fast enough to do so means they are skipping the festival part of their run, which means that instead of seeing them with a big crowd of excited people in Montreal, there's three of us in a rather empty room in Revere. It's selfish to think like this - when Well Go manages to get this on screens, it gets more people in seats than one or two screenings at festivals that the folks in the right place at the right time do, and I don't want to deny folks a chance to see it because I am often one of those folks in the right place and right time, even if the individual experience is better at the festival. No real solution to it other than to enjoy both when you get the chance.

Speaking of Fantasia, here's another five reviews completed over the past week: WolfCop, Hunter X Hunter: Phantom Rouge, Black Butler, Time Lapse, and 3D Naked Ambition. Seven to go. It's going to be close, as far as getting one festival done before the next is concerned.

Haejuk: Badaro Gan Sanjuk (The Pirates)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 September 2014 in Showcase Cinemas de Lux Revere #2 (first-run, DCP)

That they can be given names as generic as "Pirates of the Caribbean" or, in this case, just "The Pirates", without fear of confusion means just one thing: There are not enough pirate movies being made these days. This one is occasionally on the silly side, but it's packed full of quality swashbuckling, and not nearly enough trips to the theater deliver that.

It starts in 1388, introducing us to Jang Sa-jung (Kim Nam-gil), who decides he would rather be a bandit than a rebel soldier as his leader Yi Song-gye seems to have more concern for himself than the people, though he must fight his way through captain Mo Hong-gab (Kim Tae-woo) to desert. At sea, Yeo-wol (Son Ye-jin) may be the only woman in a pirate crew, but she's first mate and clearly the most capable, even if she's not nearly so cold-blooded as captain Soma (Lee Kyoung-young). Three years later, Yi has become king, but a royal seal from the Ming Emperor meant to legitimize his rule is lost at sea, swallowed by a whale. Yeo-wol has no taste for hunting such a creature, but she is backed into it, and soon finds Jang to be competing with her.

As inciting incidents go, anything that includes the phrase "swallowed by a whale" is pretty unlikely, but the neat thing about such improbability is that it gives writer Cheon Seong-il and director Lee Suk-hoon the opportunity to play things both straight and comedically without a lot of the tonal whiplash that can come when movies try to do both. The filmmakers are certainly able to present the villains as real threats, but there are extended periods of outright slapstick comedy - watch mountain bandits who don't know what a whale is get in a boat to catch one! - and the two are able to intersect without one undercutting the other much better than is often the case.

Full review at EFC

WolfCop

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

Contrary to any expectations one might have from buying a ticket based upon the name alone, this movie is not "RoboCop, but he's a werewolf". So, get over that and hope that someone else takes that particular idea and runs with it. There, now you can appreciate WolfCop as an enjoyable bit of supernatural action-comedy - I don't think it's actually trying hard enough to scare anybody to call it horror.

In this one, a crappy cop by the name of Lou Garou (Leo Fafard) in a small Canadian town is investigating a report out in the woods when... Well, he's not quite sure, but he wakes up with a pentagram carved on his chest and more trouble getting a close shave than usual, but one gets the impression that strange stuff has happened to him while drinking before. This actually inspires him to do a little investigation, though, even if he does spend more time talking to conspiracy theorist/taxidermist Willie (Jonathan Cherry) and busty bartender Jessica (Sarah Lind) than his by-the-book partner Tina (Amy Matysio). It soon becomes clear what's going on, and the only question is whether the full moon will leave Lou as more wolf... or cop!

Director Lowell Dean and co-writer Bannister Bergen are playing this with their tongue firmly in their cheek, clear from the first time you see an advertisement for an establishment called "Liquor Donuts", and they don't ever do much to mitigate this. There are plentiful jokes about stuff small towns where there isn't much to do other than drink and hunt (the Drink & Shoot is, in fact, the place's signature event), although it doesn't spend all of its time mocking the locals. Most of the jokes land well, and when they don't, the next one is not far off. There's a winning self-awareness of the story's absurdity and the production's limited budget that stops just short of breaking the fourth wall. Heck, the main character is actually named "Lou Garou", and is played by an appropriately hairy guy.

Full review on EFC

Gekijouban HUNTERxHUNTER Hiiro no Genei (Hunter X Hunter: Phantom Rouge)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival: AXIS, HD)

Every time a film that is spun out of a long-running manga or anime series lands on the festival schedule (or, less frequently, plays locally), I get the idea of grabbing one of the Wednesday regulars at the comic shop and asking what I need to know, though I never do. As a result, I've really got no idea how Phantom Rouge plays to longtime fans of Hunter X Hunter, although I'd guess they will go for it, as might the rest of us if we catch up.

The two Hunters who take the lead in this adventure are Gon and Kilua, twelve-year-old boys who nevertheless are exceptionally well-trained martial artists who can enhance their abilities by tapping into a force called "nen". While the Hunter Academy is training them to be adventurers and peacekeepers in a world of strange powers and mysteries, their newest mission is personal: Their friend and fellow Hunter Kurapika has had his eyes stolen by an evil magician, although he still receives enough imagery through them to direct Gon and Kilua to look for a manor with a certain view. Gon winds up enlisting the help of street puppeteer Retsu, although Kilua is wary, not so much because he doesn't like girls, but because he was born into a family of assassins and struggles with the entire idea of friends, including Gon.

Well, that certainly describes an animated movie based upon a manga I have never read that was as a result kind of difficult to wrap my head around. Kudos to those involved for keeping it from becoming incomprehensible, though - along with the trés kawaii bit that opened the movie to introduce Gon, Kilua, and Hunter Academy to newbies like me, the filmmakers do a fair job of explaining as they go. A benefit, perhaps, of having preteen heroes still learning about the frantic world around them. It can still be somewhat overwhelming, especially since the exposition is not spread around evenly: There's full background on Kurapika despite him spending much of the movie sidelined, just enough on Kilua to feel like half the story, while main character Gon is left fairly simple. Still, the last-act pile-up of characters is shockingly manageable, even if all the talk of "nen" does sort of become gobbledegook to an outsider such as me.

Full review on EFC

Kuroshitsuji (Black Butler)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival: Action!, DCP)

One of the women in front of me was throwing her hands up roughly every ten minutes or so during this movie, and I wondered off the top of my head whether she was just having a general "what the hell is this thing?" reaction to a movie that always has some other crazy thing to offer its audience or a more specific "what the hell have they done to my favorite manga because it's not supposed to be like this?" one. I gather the film takes some pretty extreme liberties with the source material, and maybe if I'd read more than a few chapters in Yen Press's brief attempt at a weekly Japanese-style manga anthology, I'd be upset too. But I haven't, and I'm not, because this thing is just gloriously daffy.

It features 17-year-old heroine Shiori Genpo (Ayame Gouriki), who cross-dresses as her illegitimate brother Kiyoharu so that she can inherit the family fortune and title in an alternate 2020 where there is still a powerful aristocracy - some members of whom, like Shiori, serve as secret agents for the Western Queen. Her butler Sebastian (Hiro Mizushima) is a demon who protects her and serves as a partner so that he may someday consume the soul she sold to him as a child in order to escape and bring the men who kidnapped her and killed her parents to justice (the world believes Shiori to be dead). Almost immediately after breaking up a human-trafficking ring, "Kiyoharu" is assigned a new mission: Discover who is behind the spontaneous mummifications happening throughout the city. Aunt Hanae (Yuka) may be able to get her "nephew" entree to the club that seems to be the epicenter, and Shiori's investigations not only discover links between new drug "necrosis" and arms dealer Youzo Shinozaki (Ichirota Miyagawa), but that someone else involved, Shinpei Kuzo (Masato Ibu), may also have been part of Shiori's kidnapping ten years ago.

Some fantasy adventures are content to insert one new thing into the familiar, but between original manga-ka Yana Toboso and screenwriter Tsutomu Kuroiwa, Black Butler throws one thing after another onto the pile, and why not? Once you've got the demon in there and made the decision to change the setting from Victorian England to an alternate reality (which made it much less weird to shoot with a Japanese cast), there's not much end to what you can do. What's most surprising about going this direction, though, is that both the writers and directors Kentaro Otani & Keiichi Sato opt not to take the frequent winking "isn't this all so wacky?" attitude most pulp mash-ups go for; this is a surprisingly intense action movie for being so downright weird, though it stops well short of making the whole thing a joyless trudge through ever-darker territory.

Full review on EFC

Time Lapse

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2014 in Salle J.A. de Sève (Fantasia Festival: Paradigm Shifters, DCP)

Time Lapse is a standout even for one of the best sci-fi years I can remember Fantasia having, and while those are rankings that may not mean much to non-attendees, it is meant as high praise. There's always room for an enjoyably devilish effect-before-cause story that, as many of the best do, fits together like an exceptionally well-constructed puzzle.

This one starts with Finn (Matt O'Leary), a struggling artist keeping a roof over his head by serving as the housing department's superintendent. He shares this apartment with girlfriend Callie (Danielle Panabaker) and best friend Jasper (George Finn), and lives across the way from a scientist whose mail is starting to pile up ominously. When they go to check, Mr. Bezzeredes is missing, but the front room of his apartment is filled with a massive camera pointed at their place. The lines of Polaroids covering the wall are creepy, but the kicker is when they discover that these photographs are taken automatically once a day - and show the view of their apartment from twenty-four hours in the future.

This isn't, strictly speaking, a time-travel movie, but it's in the same family. The tension in these stories comes not just from the forces within the story itself but in how different aspects appeal to the head (the puzzle that involves present and future events being locked into place) and heart (the idea that one's efforts matter and can make things better), working at cross purposes. Director Bradley King and his co-writer B.P. Cooper do an exceptionally good job of maintaining this conflict, because it's not just about leaving them both as possibilities until the end; we've got to feel that Finn and company can act even as we assemble puzzle pieces assuming that they can't. King & Cooper do an excellent job of making sure that the intellectual half of it is well-constructed - I didn't quite figure out the missing piece exactly, but did wind up appreciating that bits were hidden in plain sight without becoming predictable.

Full review on EFC

Naked Ambition

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2014 in Théâtre Hall (Fantasia Festival, Xpand 3D)

I wonder how many of the critics who regularly make sure to include something along the lines of "don't pay the extra for 3D, there's nothing that merits it" for seemingly every movie released in the format will pause when considering Anri Okita's L-cups in 3D Naked Ambition. After all, even someone who usually likes the format such as myself can find this to be a bit of a long hour-forty-five with glasses on despite the movie being quite funny, although it's hard to overlook things that make an impression.

Before those particular breasts are thrust into the audience, we're introduced to Wyman Chan (Chapman To), a writer of erotic fiction for a Hong Kong periodical, although his editor Larry (Tyson Chak) has to let him go. Commiserating with adult-video store owner Simon (Derek Tsang), they come up with a new idea - a tour of Tokyo where fellow AV fans can contribute ideas and watch a for-collectors-only movie be filmed. With the help of liaison Shodaiko Hatoyama (Josie Ho), things are going well until the actor storms off, at which point Wyman is drafted to fill in and... Well, things go off-script. This makes him a laughingstock back home, but is tremendously popular with Japanese women, so he starts a new career as "Mario Ozawa".

That screen name is a reference to a well-known actress in this genre, although not so well that I would have heard of her, not being the sort of aficionado that Wyman and his friends are. I suspect that there are a lot of gags in the movie that play to a knowledgeable audience, whether that involves familiarity with Asian porn or the sort of extremely local jokes Hong Kong filmmakers throw into Category III movies like this which they know stand no chance of getting past Mainland China's censorship board. I suspect most people who would be up for this will at least recognize the basis of the most frequently recurring gag - turning the tables on well-known AV scenarios to have "Mario" playing the victim of sexually aggressive women - just through osmosis. There's a surprising amount of teeth to it, actually, both for pointing out how repetitive the scenarios are and how ugly these fantasies are, even if there is something absurd about Wyman being overpowered.

Full review on EFC

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