Sunday, November 30, 2014

Fantastic Fest Catch-up, First Half: Over Your Dead Body, Wyrmwood, Tommy, The World of Kanako, The Tribe, and Tokyo Tribe

Two months later, I've finally finished half the reviews I opted to save until later during Fantastic Fest. It has been a busy time, and during the burst over the past couple of weeks, I've been tremendously glad that I (a) kept notes while watching the movies and (b) wrote short reviews for the blog the day of/next morning; a whole bunch of the stuff below and on eFilmCritic is basically those things expanded. Some by a little, some by a lot.

Also, it's worth noting that my TWIT entry on those week is fairly heavy on the things that I didn't love, and as such omits thanks to a lot of people who deserve it: Alex Johnson, who sold me the pass he couldn't use when I found myself without one just a couple of weeks out; Adrian Charlie, who got me in contact with Mr. Johnson; Jason Whyte, who has been encouraging me to go for years (that means he owes me a trip to Fantasia, right?); William Goss, who said hi and whom I wished I'd had a chance to hang and chat with more; Mike Snoonian & Izzy Lee, other Boston folks who gave me something to grab on to when the crowd was more than I could handle; and all the great people at the festival, who worked their butts off to make a festival whose energy and playlist certainly cannot be denied.

There. I feel much better now. Follow them all.

And now, the movies: Takashi Miike's Over Your Dead Body, crazy Aussie zombie movie Wyrmwood, Swedish thriller Tommy, Tetsuya Nakashima's The World of Kanako, gut-wrenching sign-language drama The Tribe, and Sion Sono's hip-hop action opus Tokyo Tribe.

There. Having hit the halfway point (both in terms of days and unfinished reviews), I believe I am allowed to drink one of the not-available-in-Boston sodas that I purchased on the way out of Texas.

Kuime (Over Your Dead Body)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2014 in Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #8 (Fantastic Fest, DCP)

In addition to his film work, Takashi Miike has directed a few stage productions, experience that he likely dipped into for Over Your Dead Body (Kuime in Japanese). At times, I kind of wish that was where the film stayed; it has all the material for an intriguing backstage drama and the diversion into horror is kind of all over the place.

The play being staged is Yotsuya Kaiden, a classic kabuki tale of a poor samurai scheming to improve his position, even if it involves shedding a wife who has brought him as far as she can. Kosuke Hasegawa (Ebizo Ickikawa) plays Iemon the samurai on the stage, co-starring with real-life girlfriend Miyuki Goto (Kou Shibasaki) as Iwa. Given the drama between rehearsals - another cast member, Miyuki's married former boyfriend Jun (Hideaki Ito), would like to start an affair; the young actress (Miho Nakanishi) playing a supporting role is the type who professes her desire to follow in Miyuki's footsteps and then does so by sleeping with Kosuke; and cheerful stage assistant Kayo (Hitomi Katayama) knows every part just in case someone needs her to fill in - it's no wonder that the supernatural themes of the play seem to be bleeding into the world around Miyuki.

If there's one thing you can count on from Miike, it's that he will go to weird places and present what he finds in a memorable way, and that's certainly the case here. It's just that, as is often the case, he, writer Kikumi Yamagishi, and the film itself go to so many different strange places that the story starts to seem random once the supernatural becomes involved. Strict rules aren't necessary but not having every scare pulling in different directions would probably help, and while there's there's a clear connection between the creepy dolls and the movie's most obviously horrific sequence, childlessness doesn't seem to be the strong motivator for Miyuki that it is for Iwa, and some of the other moments just feel random. The individual results are certainly disgusting in memorable ways, at least.

Full review on EFC


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2014 in Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #9 (Fantastic Fest, DCP)

It's no bad thing, I say, that Wyrmwood feels like a season's worth of an eventful TV series packed into an hour and a half; it's an exhausting ride at times, but there's not ten or fifteen minutes anywhere in the movie that don't come across as exciting or have at least one really cool thing in them. Though making it over four years surely has brothers Kiah and Tristan Roache-Turner ready to take a break for a while, it's one of the rare movies where the audience's inevitable requests for a sequel seems like a great idea.

Things kick off quickly, with a light in the sky and something in the air kicking off a zombie apocalypse that quickly decimates Australia, leaving is with a manageable number of initial survivors: Mechanic Barry (Jay Gallagher), his wife Annie (Catherine Terracini), and daughter Meganne (Meganne West); good-natured aborigine Benny (Leon Burchill); crusty middle-aged tinkerer Frank (Keith Agius); and Barry's sister Brooke (Bianca Bradey), whom the others will spend much of the movie trying to track down. Trouble is, she's already been found by some military types and a mad scientist (Berryn Schwerdt), who are never as helpful as one would hope in this sort of crisis.

Director Kiah Roache-Turner and brother/co-writer Tristan start things off with a flash-forward that establishes a tone of raucous action, which may be a little overdone as a device but is also a bit nice to have in the back of one's pocket when events take a turn toward the Walking Dead-variety "unbearable price of survival" misery factory. That doesn't last too terribly long; the Roache-Turners are soon getting past the point in the middle where it starts to run down a bit - in addition to the justifiably-depressed hero, there's a little too much "evil government/business eager to kill the remains of an already reduced population" on the other side with little in between - keeping just enough of that edge around to push everyone through the end.

Full review on EFC

Tommy (2014)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 September 2014 in Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #7 (Fantastic Fest, DCP)

Tommy starts out looking like it might be a certain type of movie - you know, the one where the underestimated woman at the center is eventually revealed to always be three steps ahead of everyone around her (or if not quite that far ahead, still the smartest person in the room) - with a certain type of twist - seeing it all from her perspective. I'd like to see that movie someday, but this one is more about a gamble, which some may not find quite so satisfying. I dig it, though.

The woman in question is Estelle (Moa Gammel), just returned to Stockholm after fleeing the country with her husband Tommy and daughter Isabel (Inez Buckner) after a heist gone wrong left a couple of cops dead and Tommy holding the bag a year ago. Tommy, she says, will soon follow, and he wants his share when he does, something which naturally puts the other members of the crew on edge - Bobby (Ola Rapace) is doing quite well for himself and dating Estelle's sister Blanca (Lykke Li Zachrisson), Matte (Alexej Manvelov) is trying to go straight, and Estelle's godfather Steve (Johan Rabaeus) says he'll help but tends to make phone calls after she leaves.

Moa Gammel has a neat trick to accomplish in presenting Estelle as someone who could be that woman, and by the same token is someone the characters she encounters is going to underestimate. After all, she doesn't come from a family of criminal masterminds, but one of molls (her mother seemed to go for crooks too). Because the movie is necessarily keeping the details of Estelle's and/or Tommy's plans close to the vest, she doesn't get to give a great underdog performance or show Estelle as always calculating, but that's okay; there's enough going on with her outside of the step-by-step process of recovering Tommy's money to keep things interesting. The scenes with her family are especially good; it's always clear from looking at Gammel that Estelle has opinions about Blanca getting involved in the same sort of life she and their mother did, string enough the subject doesn't even have to be raised in connection with Isabel. She tension and desperation (when genuine or a put-on) well, and she does a nice job of building a relationship with the absent Tommy.

Full review on EFC

Kawaki. (The World of Kanako)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 September 2014 in Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #7 (Fantastic Fest, DCP)

The latest from Tetsuya Nakashima is not quite so sublime as his mid-aughts peak (Kamikaze Girls and Memories of Matsuko is a heck of a one-two punch), and it kind of stretches out too long, padded by some increasingly ugly violence. On the plus side, though, it is energetic as all heck, propelling the audience through the underworld with a protagonist that they're not supposed to like, but who makes it hard to look away.

High-school student Kanako Fukushima (Nana Komatsu) has, as of 16 August 2013, been missing for six days, making her mother Kiriko (Asuka Kurosawa) desperate enough to call her ex-husband Azikazu (Koji Yahusho), a drunken mess of an ex-cop that she had damn good reason for divorcing. Azikazu immediately shows what lost human being he could be, but he could be a dog with a bone where a case is concerned, finding through conversations with Kanako's middle-school friend Nami (Fumi Nikaido), classmate Emi (Ai Hashimoto), and more, that Kanako may have become a bigger piece of scum than he is - his quest goes through a criminal underworld where Kanako is not necessarily a victim.

Though Kanako is the character mentioned in the title, Azikazu is the guy that the audience will be spending the bulk of the movie with, and Koji Yakusho is pretty great as the title character's terrible father. He is playing something of a monster, and not the restrained variety where a tiny bit less feeling than one might expect is the signal that something is off; Yakusho tears into his material to make Azikazu a practically feral beast. It's the sort of performance that dares the audience to sympathize with him for being an honest, focused animal than the likes of his former partner Asai (Satoshi Tsumabuki in a delightfully oily turn) or how he's able to let forth an animalistic rage as he tears into progressively more vile criminals. Still, even when Azikazu is doing our saying something that sounds like the right thing for the right reasons, there's a certain sort of vacancy, like he's distilled anger that just happens to be pointed in the right direction.

Full review on EFC

Plemya (The Tribe)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 September 2014 in Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #5 (Fantastic Fest, DCP)

Well, that's certainly something I'm glad to have seen, although I'm also sort of thankful that I'll likely never see the like again. The excited parts of that sentence are to be expected from a movie whose opening titles say it's in sign language and will not be subtitled, but maybe not the nervous ones. And yet, it's a sign of a great movie when even those are thrilling as well as horrifying.

I suspect that what we see in The Tribe - a sequestered, young population turning away from their supposed reason for being there but instead wreaking mayhem - happens at a lot of boarding schools, but seeing it happen at a Ukrainian school for the Deaf makes it hit a bit harder. Although no explanations are given, it's not hard to figure out what's going on in these kids' heads: The hearing world finds them a nuisance worthy of only grudging concessions, and this is the first time they they've been able to band together to do what they want, and with that anger it comes out as violence, crime, and sex. There is one classroom scene early on, but after that, academics seem irrelevant - the only time we see the kids doing anything resembling study later, the purpose is immediately undercut.

It's a harrowing ride, with traditional bullying at the start, lawlessness in the middle (which filmmaker Miroslav Slaboshpitsky often uses as a perverse way to show students coming together), and horrors the audience might wish to unsee at the end. It's a bleak movie that often elicits cringes, but to his credit, Slaboshpitsky never seems to just be engaging in exploitation; everything moves the story of new student Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko) forward in some way, from the opening scenes where he has difficulty finding the school, to his crush on classmate Anya (Yana Novikova) - who along with roommate Svetka (Rosa Babiy) turns tricks to try and afford the papers to emigrate to Italy - to the ugly place that leads. Slaboshpitsky shows the audience much more than it wants to see at times, but it seldom feels like too much.

Full review on EFC

Tokyo Tribe

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 September 2014 in Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar #4 (Fantastic Fest, DCP)

Sion Sono has never really been the quiet, contemplative sort of art-house director, but his last few films seem to have been brimming with the sort of constant action that would make genre filmmakers jealous, with Tokyo Tribe an almost non-stop barrage of over-the-top insanity once the fighting starts. The surprising thing is that an audience can be somewhat forgiven for not registering that fact, since the veneer on top of it - a busy manga adaptation told as a hip-hop musical - is crazy enough in its way that it may be what the audience remembers.

And that's not exactly unfair. That style has Tokyo Tribe moving forward at a constant fast pace, with jokes and details packed into every corner, more characters than the audience can possibly process, and moments of jaw-dropping insanity that you can almost imagine Sono giggling as he put them into the script for how silly they are (the beatboxing server in the banquet scenes may have been my favorite thing Sono has ever gone for while she was on-screen). There's garish designs, tanks, slapstick, and other over-the-top madness.

What is going on? Well, as narrator MC Show (Shota Sometani) lays it down, every neighborhood in Tokyo is run by a themed gang kept in balance largely by the central Musashino Saru, whose leader Tera (Ryuta Sato) is all about peace and love. Another gang, the Bukuro Wu-ronz, led by Bubba (Riki Takeuchi), is looking to make a move, and by attacking Mera, sets the other gangs at each other's throats, with even Tera's friend Kai (Young Dais) looking to fight despite being hugely outmatched physically by Bubba's son Mera (Ryohei Suzuki). And if that's not enough, there's a kung fu princess (Nana Seino) hiding out in one of the prefectures, and delivering her to her clan for sacrifice would give Bubba the ally he needs to claim all of Tokyo.

Full review on EFC

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