Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Fantasia Daily 2015.09 (22 July 2015): 100 Yen Love, The Royal Tailor, Momentum, and The Master Plan

One of those days when I head out of the apartment with the actual names of movies less in my head than "de Seve, Hall, Hall, de Seve". For 100 Yen Love especially, I kind of needed to remind myself what I was seeing beforehand. Sometimes the day starts like that when you've got the one movie at de Seve that looks good but isn't necessarily a huge draw for you.

The night's guest was Momentum director Stephen S. Campanelli (l, with Action! programmer Éric S. Boisvert):

He had two claims to fame going into the screening of his directorial debut: First, that he has been Clint Eastwood's primary camera operator for twenty-odd years; second, that he actually went to Concordia University (Fantasia's primary home for the past decade-plus) and screened his student film at the Hall Theatre. As such, he had a lot of friends and people otherwise rooting for him in the audience.

He talked a lot about working with Eastwood, who often comes across as having a very light hand, trusting his crew to do their jobs and make decisions rather than micro-managing. It's a reminder that there are a lot of highly skilled people on a film set, and that even folks like the camera operators, whom audiences not in film production may think of as mainly technicians, are creative people working their way up and interacting with the people audience do know more than you might expect. In Campanelli's case, that meant he was able to make contacts with Olga Kurylenko and Morgan Freeman, adding a bit of juice to this small South African-shot movie.

Short reviews today, because a 10am press screening is the only way I'm seeing Turbo Kid at the festival. Then it's a day of either being a tourist or seeing Ant-Man (maybe a little of both) before catching The Real Miyagi and then likely going for Ju-on: The Final Curse over Cash Only, although I may come to my senses at the time. Anguish and Goodnight Mommy are both recommended.

Hyakuen no koi (100 Yen Love)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2015 in the J.A. de Sève Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Sakura Ando wears some baggy clothes toward the start of 100 Yen Love, because she's actually fairly attractive but this is a character who needs to burn off her frustrating slacker exterior, and that's how it's going to come across visually. It's the kind of thing that's fairly obvious when you know that this is going to be a boxing movie going in, although maybe less so otherwise.

Which you might not, since this movie can take some pretty random turns, with Ichiko Saito (Ando) putting up surprisingly little fight when asked to leave the family home where she's been living since dropping out of college roughly ten years earlier, seeming a lot more responsible and kind than one might expect as she starts her new job, and deciding to learn to box almost on a whim despite the fact that it comes right on the tail of her being attacked. Ichiko is so resistant to explaining herself that this obvious connection is hard to make - she's a weird mess of conflicting motivations that making a conventionally triumphant sports or romance about her seems pretty difficult.

That kind of makes it hard to embrace the film's ending - we're not far removed from "f--- that guy" where Yuji is concerned, even if he really does seem like the only other character who might understand what Ichiko needs at that point. Coming at the end of an uncomfortable but kind of unsurprising finale, it's a weird way to end the movie, although in some ways that's only appropriate - Ichiko just isn't going to follow a conventional arc, no matter how one might want her to.

Because Ichiko is so resistant to explaining herself, what would be obvious connections in other movies can be hard to make - she's a weird mess of conflicting motivations that making a conventionally triumphant sports or romance about her seems pretty difficult. That puts a lot on Sakura Ando's shoulders, and she's not going to go for the sort of emoting that makes it easy on the audience. And yet, even when Ichiko comes across as numb and inactive, Ando tends to get something across, whether it be self-loathing or irritation at those trying to engage her despite her disinterest. When she's learning to fight, there's an intriguing but subtle tug-of-war between the satisfaction of becoming good at something and the uncertainty that requires proof - which isn't far off from how her being in love plays out. Ando gives the sort of performance that one comes to appreciate over the course of a film but which wouldn't look like much in a minute-long awards clip.

Her co-stars tend to be a little more expressive, although it's perhaps appropriate that the most important, Hirofumi Arai, is tasked with making Yuji Kano the same sort of difficult nut to crack as Ichiko, although his more obviously peculiar behavior gives him a somewhat different feel, and he's not often called upon to present a good heart underneath his indifference or selfishness. He still has some of the same underdog appeal as Ichiko, but also some of the instability of the more troubled characters. Toshie Negishi is similarly memorable as the likely-homeless Ikeuchi, really nailing the person whom one wants to help out without actually being around her. Tadashi Sakata gives Numa a vibe that starts out as creepy and builds more than expected.

For a movie that bounces around and, when you start listing things out, heaps a lot of unpleasant material onto Ichiko, it never feels like a downbeat slog or pieced together. Director Masaharu Take builds a film that feels immediate and down on the ground with its scraping-by heroes, but never condescends. He navigates the seeming randomness by never signalling the the audience should be shocked, or changing up the style in an obvious way, although you can see the sports-movie feel pick up in the second half. Even then, though, there's something impressively honest and non-glamorous about the matches we see, a feeling that who these characters are takes priority over their athletic prowess.

It can be a bit hard to embrace the film's ending - the audience is thinking "f--- that noise" where certain things are concerned, and in most movies Ichiko being there as well would be the entire point. Coming at the end of an uncomfortable but kind of unsurprising finale, it's a weird way to end the movie, although in some ways that's only appropriate - Ichiko just isn't going to follow a conventional arc, no matter how one might want her to, and the film is right there with her.

(Formerly at EFC)

Sanguiwon (The Royal Tailor)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

I've been looking to make a "costume drama" joke about this film ever since I first heard of it, but it initially didn't quite seem appropriate - for the first half or so, this is mainly a very funny, good-natured movie, even if the filmmakers are laying the foundations for the heavier material that will come later. In that regard, the script is fairly clever, although perhaps the last act requires the audience to be more tuned into this particular king's capriciousness than maybe I was. It's an unexpectedly entertaining film despite source material that tends to skew toward melodrama and over-seriousness.

As the film starts, the royal tailor and head of the palace's "Sanguiwon" is Cho Dol-seok (Han Suk-kyu), who is not only one of the few holdovers from the previous kings but has served nearly long enough to have a noble title conferred. It has been three years since the death of the previous monarch, so the new King (Yoo Yeon-seok) commissions a new Dragon Robe, as well as new garments for many of his ministers as the court comes out of mourning. Swamped, Dol-seok is advised by friend Dae-gil (Jo Dal-hwan) to bring on Lee Kong-jin (Ko Soo), a young and flamboyant tailor who not only crafts clothes that depart from traditional templates but becomes a confidant of the Queen (Park Shin-hye), a beauty whom the King inexplicably avoids. When the King's eyes fall upon the Defense Minister's daughter So-yi (Lee Yoo-bi), some in the cabinet see an opportunity which will entangle the tailors.

It's easy to expect the relationship between conservative Dol-suk and upstart Kong-jin to be much more contentious, but watching them quickly warm to each other is one of the film's great pleasures. The difference between them is straightforward - Dol-seok is a studious craftsman while Kong-jin is questioning and creating constantly, complementary skills that make them clearly at their best when working together. Even outside of that, they are an extraordinarily entertaining pair, with Ko Soo tremendously funny and charismatic as Kong-jin, a fellow worth rooting on even when moving in a dangerous direction. Han Suk-kyu is not quite so gregarious as Dol-seok, but he has a way of growing on the audience, not seeming as rigid as his place in the story would imply and always keeping his humble origins visible, even when he is meant to fit among the nobles. When together, there is both impressive camaraderie and contention.

The relationship between the King and Queen is easily understood but not easily untangled, even when it is laid bare. Park Shin-hye is luminous as a queen who is both very down-to-earth and appropriately regal. She and Ko soo share a chemistry that teeters on the edge of forbidden romance, a delightfully delicious ambiguity that works however one chooses to view it. Yoo Yeon-seok fleshes out his supporting role as the King so that he becomes an intriguing part of the story as opposed to just the center of the power that drives the others' motivations.

And, man, just look at the clothes. I think the light early tone of The Royal Tailor helps a lot, because it allows the filmmakers to introduce traditional Korean clothing with comedy about its impracticality, allowing the characters to talk about fashion and design in a way that engages more than the audience that is typically enthusiastic about such things. It keeps the audience engaged as they actually become much more central to the plot. By the end, wardrobe is life and death and it not only doesn't seem absurd, it's fascinating even to those who would never, ever have any part of the recent spate of fashion-oriented movies that have played the boutique houses in America.

It's an attractive film well beyond its costumes, beautifully mounted but never over-produced. Director Lee Won-suk, who also made the charming How to Use Guys with Secret Tips, keeps things chugging along at a brisker pace than the 127-minute running time might indicate, and as the film turns from the designs of clothing to those of plots, he handles the transition with grace and wit.

The wrap-up may seem a bit tidy, but it's perhaps necessary to "hide" this story in the actual history. It takes a bit of the air out of a delightful movie that otherwise transitions nicely to palace intrigue, but not that much. Yes, it is a literal take on the idea of a costume drama (if that's a thing they say in Korean), but it's a cheeky, charming one that would rather be entertaining than formal.

(Formerly at EFC)


* ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival: Action!, DCP)

I've got two really frustrated notes on the pad that I usually just use to note character names for Momentum, one about how a car chase was terribly choppy and another frustrated at one character dropping another's backstory that we neither need nor, at the point, particularly care about into the middle of a torture scene that was already just overlong and pointless. Who cares? Why work so hard to give a reason for the heroine not being a monster when "I'm not a complete sociopath" will do?

As you might guess from that, Momentum is one of those (likely) VOD-bound action movies that focuses on entirely the wrong things. At their scale and in their market, there's much more word of mouth to be gained from clarity and great staging than anything else, so make those car chases something where you can see relative positions in a shot, pull back a step and hire people who can fight hand-to-hand without extreme close-ups and cuts, and maybe don't be sadistic when killing people without good reason. Weak and obligatory one-lines amid rote banter aren't going to get you noticed, nor is a big Macguffin that you're not actually going to play out.

What's Momentum offer other than bulk to a cable-box menu and a paycheck for a couple of B-list actors? I honestly can't think of anything, and as there are things I don't demand from 90-minute units of action, I do want inventiveness, and Momentum lacks that to a frustrating extent.

Jönssonligan - Den perfekta stöten (The Master Plan)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2015 in the J.A. de Sève Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

More of this, please.

I've got no idea whether this reboot of Sweden's "Jönssonligan" franchise was popular enough to spawn sequels, but I want it to be. It's a neat, tight little caper movie that introduces its characters quickly, has them play out a set of linked heists with style and panache, and never forgets, even if it was a loved one's murder that kicks things off, that these adventures are supposed to be fun.

I like the cast as well. Simon J. Berger marries an Alan Rickman voice to a methodical character but does so with surprising charm and warmth. Alexander Karim makes the con artist of the group a cut-up, Torkel Petersson makes a depressed demolitions expert funny without (I think) being offensive, and Susanne Thorson has an impish but professional charm as the safecracker. I believe "Rocky" was a man in the earlier iterations of the series (and Karim's Ragnar Vanheden was white), so it's a bit of an updated and diversified cast, but one that works well together. The villains are fun and threatening, but thankfully secondary.

In some ways, I have less to say about this one than others I liked less; it's a modestly-sized caper that amuses and doesn't stumble, rare enough to be worth praising even though that's kid of what these movies are expected to do.

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