Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Fantasia Catch-Up #02: 100 Yen Love, The Royal Tailor, Momentum, The Master Plan, On the White Planet, Tales of Halloween, The Ninja War of Torakage, Princess Jellyfish, Deadman Inferno, and Bunny the Killer Thing

Trying to pull ahead of the one-month line and not quite managing to do so. Of course, the really scary thing is that there's six months of other stuff backed up behind this.

It is somewhat interesting to see what that (currently) 32-day-gap does to one's opinions of movies, especially looking at the star ratings. For instance, I remember much less of the bits of Bunny the Killer Thing that I enjoyed but all of the icky feeling, so that got downgraded. Deadman Inferno comes together a lot better now that I'm not trying to keep track of all that was going on but have allowed it to settle, making me wonder whether my tendency to take notes in festival screenings, especially those where I have a press pass, is too much of a distraction, or if my brain is just not built for the sort of rapid turnaround that "covering" a festival at internet speed requires.

Ah, well. At least I'm not going to Fantastic Fest this year, so I won't feel pressed for time on that end - I used up my "other festival/travel vacation" time back in May for SFSFF, and a bit more for moving, but right now the only self-imposed deadline I'm staring down (I think) is Love & Peace before it screens in Austin.

On to the next batch!

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. The willingness to go where the story leads is one of this occasionally-odd movie's charms, though.

As it starts, Ichiko Saito (Ando) is 32, a college dropout living with her parents, and not exactly doing much to help out at the family bento stand. Her sister Fumiko (Miyoko Inagawa) and nephew Taro (Ruka Wakabayashi) have also moved back in after Fumiko's divorced, and if Ichiko and Fumiko didn't get along as kids... Soon Ichiko has moved out and taken a job at the 100-yen store down the street, which has it's own odd group - fellow employee Numa (Tadashi Sakata) is a creep, former employee Ikeuchi (Toshie Negishi) is always coming by to get day-old sandwiches, and guess what "banana man" Yuji Kano (Hirofumi Arai) buys a lot of. At 38, Yuji is facing his last chance to make it as a professional boxer, but it's not necessarily shacking up with him that turns Ichiko's attention that way.

This movie can take some pretty random turns, with even some of the more direct routes not necessarily coming across as straightforward. For all that Ichiko seems like kind of a lazy lump at the beginning, seeming a lot more responsible and kind than one might expect as she starts her new job, and though she appears to learn how to box almost on a whim despite the fact that this decision comes right on the tail of her being attacked - a series of events that gives the audience all the cringe-worthy parts and then hints at a follow-up though any resolution happens off-screen. Even once she starts learning to box and has the expected training montages, things play out due to a large helping of chance and decisions that don't necessarily seem reasonable. Writer Shin Adachi never really gives Ichiko someone to confide in, or voice-over to explain her reasoning directly to the viewer, and the outside factors that affect a person's life are kept well outside the audience's view in this case.

Full review on 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.

Full review on EFC.


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

The title of Momentum is appropriate in a way the people behind the film probably don't intend; momentum, after all, is a measure of the potential energy of an object that is moving but in a passive, unguided fashion - something that generally must be harnessed and redirected. Almost everything in the film itself is momentum of a sort, in motion and capable of being used for interesting purposes but, as it is, just drifting through a bland action movie which isn't going to steer them anyplace new.

It starts out with a robbery of a Cape Town bank's safety deposit boxes, conducted by four people in voice-disguising stealth suits, although when Alex Faraday (Olga Kurylenko) stops one of her partners from killing a hostage, her mask comes off, and she has to go underground. Before she really has a chance, though, her partner and ex-boyfriend Kevin (Colin Moss) attracts even more unwanted attention, as he has stole things a U.S. Senator (Morgan Freeman) does not want getting out. So he sends cleaner "Mr. Washington" (James Purefoy), head of a presidential-themed squad, to take out everyone who might have seen the video, right down to Kevin's wife Penny (Lee-Anne Summers).

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? It slows what's happening "now" and doesn't really change how the audience looks at Alex afterward. It's useless unless the viewer really likes to see action movies go through the motions.

Full review on EFC.

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.

As it starts, Charles Ingvar Jonsson (Simon J. Berger) and his uncle Ralf (NIklas Falk) are in the high-end car-theft business, with Charles's meticulous planning meaning that they get away clean even when filling special orders. When Ralf spots an irresistible target of opportunity, he and Charles wind up with more than just a fancy car - there's a laptop in the back seat with a whole lot of information that ruthless banker Anna-Lena Wallentin (Andrea Edwards) doesn't want getting out. When it turns as bad as expected, Charles decides to turn the tables, but he'll need to recruit a team - con artist Ragnar Vanheden (Alexander Karim), demolitions expert Harry Berglund (Torkel Petersson), and safecracker Denise "Rocky" Ostlund (Susanne Thorson) for the heist(s) he plans.

That starts with breaking Rocky out of police custody before she can do it herself, with the jobs progressively building in scale, but all being impressively designed: There's just enough moving parts that things could be moving smoothly over here but stretching to a breaking point over there, with all four members of the "Jonsson Gang" always having a useful part to play, with no unreasonably stupidity required. Director Alain Darborg and his co-writer Piotr Marciniak both build and execute these sequences well, with a light touch and plenty of funny moments despite giving them real stakes. The in-between scenes, with planning and characters just hanging out, are snappy too, never feeling like just killing time.

Full review on EFC.

Chang-baek-han eol-gul-deul (On the White Planet)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, DCP)

Hur Bum-wook's movie is told primarily in white with some gray and black highlights, but it's dark as all hell, positing a world not just where the one kid who is the only person or even thing on Earth of a non-ashen hue has already become a hardened killer by the time the film starts as he's hunted for being different, but where the whole world seems to have devolved into violence and chaos. The whole movie is populated by monsters, right down to the pedophile rapist who is part of the group he falls in with. It's not for the faint of heart, but it's got a rage one can't help but admire.

The audience learns the specifics piecemeal as the film goes on, but things are pretty simple: On a planet that looks like Earth from space but where everything is some shade of pale, one (apparently nameless) kid has what we would consider normal flesh tones, and is hunted by everyone for it, from roving backs of children his own age to agents of the government. He's a survivor, but his mind is so twisted toward violence that when he's taken in by another wanderer called "Boss", it's pretty easy for this guy to exploit him and other children for his own ends; Boss has a plan that relies on the nameless anti-hero killing a lot of people.

It's kind of too much, numbing despite the fact that one of the two impressive sequences the film opens with is horrific in its brutality. That bit where the kid kills someone and then smears the white blood on his face manages to encapsulate an idea - this kid is willing to go to monstrous lengths to fit in because he sees no other choice and knows nothing but violence. The sixty-odd minutes after that seems more like restatement than development, despite the fact that there is a story there, albeit one that eventually kind of dead-ends.

Full review on EFC.

Tales of Halloween

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

It may seem like splitting hairs, but this anthology from eleven noteworthy filmmakers working in the horror genre is much more a "Halloween" movie than "horror", if you get the distinction: It, like the holiday, is more about celebrating the annual chance to enjoy things that go bump in the night and dress up crazy more than looking to truly disturb its viewers. That's fine, and I don't know if it could be otherwise with the churn that comes from telling ten stories in 99 minutes, although one should perhaps set expectations accordingly.

After an elaborate title sequence with a spiffy new Lalo Schifrin theme (son Ryan directs a segment and introduces Adrienne Barbeau as a disc jockey that horror fans will find familiar, the film starts off with three segments built around trick-or-treating: in Dave Parker's "Sweet Tooth", little Mikey is told a scary story about another kid who wanted to eat his trick-or-treating candy before bed, but is told a local legend about another little boy (Cameron Easton) and how it is very important to share. In Darren Lynn Bousman's "The Night Billy Raised Hell", the Billy of the title (Marcus Eckert) accepts a dare to egg the house of a neighbor (Barry Bostwick), but when he's caught, the man offers to teach him what a real trick is. Then in "Trick" by Adam Gierasch, two couples play party games between rings at the doorbell, only to find that some of their visitors won't be satisfied with candy. It's a fun group that would stand well on its own despite the potential for repetition - the three share a similarly nasty sense of humor that doesn't undercut how all three are kind of spooky tales meant to teach a lesson. The three teams mix things up, though, with kids and adults sering different purposes and the emphasis jumping from gore to the joy of nasty things presented in a playful manner to something that actually feels kind of creepy. This first trio does a really great job of showing how the same jumping-off point can lead different directions, and also setting the bounds of the film's tone.

Connecting the next pair is a little less straightforward, as Paul Solet's "The Weak and the Wicked" introduces Alice (Grace Phipps), a witch-costumed young woman who has been bullying kids for some time, and James (John F. Beach), who seems intent on revenge but doesn't look capable of it; while Axelle Carolyn's "Grimm Grinning Ghost" has an older group meeting to exchange scary stories, which naturally has one on edge as her car breaks down on the way home. They both get into things that happened some time ago, though. Solet doesn't quite do the same job of holding back to hit the audience with a quality scare that Carolyn does, although he does have more nasty bits on the way.

Full review on EFC.

Ninja Torakage (The Ninja War of Torakage)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

It's not fair to say one either digs Yoshihiro Nishimura or one doesn't, because his output as a director can vary wildly even if the general style is the same - the awful Zombie TV comes from the same part of his brain as the very fun Helldriver. He often makes movies to give himself a place to put some of the crazier make-up/effects ideas he has and let some crazy action and goofy comedy rip, which isn't always going to result in great art. Ninja Torakage is actually one of his more grounded productions, and it's still kind of nutty.

It is narrated by Francisco, a "Portuguese" scholar of the ninja who really doesn't even look a bit Caucasian, who tells us of the Homura clan, at the time led by the ruthless Gensai Shinonome (Eihi Siina), who in order to get her hands on a scroll that can unlock a lost treasure kidnaps the son of Torakage (Takumi Saito), once the greatest ninja of the clan but now retired to farm with his wife Tsukikage (Yuria Haga), a fair ninja herself. Obviously, he will be seeking a chance to turn the tables, but that will be difficult between a corrupted cult, the sheer numbers Shinonome can send against him, and the lurking presense of Onimanji (Kanji Tsuda), a rival ninja whose son is practically feral.

This is the moment where I'd often wink and say "or something along those lines", but even when indulging in a fondness for weird detours, Nishimura has made something where the desire to tell a story squeaks ahead of the desire to show what kind of crazy things he can create. Surprisingly, there's relatively little really strange effects work to it - really, just one weird monster - although there is plenty of way over the top gore in the fights' aftermath. It gets bizarre at times, no question; Nishimura is the kind of filmmaker who will get an image in his head and always think "how do I create this with practical effects and makeup" rather than "how do I justify this story-wise", and so the script opens doors to the absurd while the crew behind the scenes gets busy. Fortunately, Ninja Torakage has a look that embraces its low-budget artifice, feeling about halfway between a backyard production and something polished enough to play theaters even if Nishimura is also the guy called on to do special-effects makeup for major Japanese blockbusters like Attack on Titan.

Full review on EFC.

Kurage hime (Princess Jellyfish)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Though the audience for comic books in America - and symbiotically, comic-book movies - has been growing broader in the past few years, the variety of material has lagged a bit, and we'll probably never catch up Japan, where a romance comic that involves jellyfish, dressmaking, and cross-dressing can be popular enough to continue for dozens of installments in phone-book-sized weekly anthologies and spawn both animated and live-action adaptations. As unlikely as the material may seem, it makes for a romantic comedy as entertaining as it is off-beat.

The title character is Tsukimi Kurashita (Rena Nounen), although she'd argue that her late mother was a bit off-base in declaring every girl grows up to be a princess. Today, she's an aspiring manga artist who loves jellyfish but has some pretty crippling self-image issues, living in "Amamizukan" boarding house with a handful of other girls with their own obsessions and the same nervousness around boys and confident girls that Tsukimi has. Still, she's able to summon the courage to yell at a pet-store employee who has two jellies that need different types of water in the same tank, getting supprot from the sort of tall model-type girl that typically terrifies her - and when she discovers that this girl is actually Kuranosuke Koibuchi (Masaki Suda), son of a local politician (Sei Hiraizumi) who violates the "no boys allowed" rule no matter how good he looks in heels and a miniskirt. Oh, and he's got a cute but timid half-brother, Shu (Hiromi Hasegawa), who develops a bit of a crush on Tsukimi after Kuranosuke gives her a makeover for an afternoon out.

The plot that develops - a monolithic developer with a bitchy representative (Nana Katase) planning to tear the girls' building down and Kuranosuke's plans to fight them by creating a line of jellyfish-inspired dresses - is silly but committed to with genuine sincerity. While it has its ridiculous moments, and isn't perfect in terms of giving everyone in the cast something to do, it also leads to spots that are both hilarious and uplifting. Most importantly, the filmmakers never forget that it's there as a way to make Tuskimi and Kuranosuke a team than just its own thing. It gets the movie to a pretty nice ending point, too, where there's room for more but the important work seems to be done.

Full review on EFC.

Z Airando (Deadman Inferno)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, HD)

Even the biggest zombie movies tend to be pretty simple things, and I wouldn't necessarily say Deadman Inferno (aka "Z Island") was exactly complicated. It does have a fair amount more going on than is typical for this sort of movie, and writer/director Hiroshi Shinagawa keeps that up even after others would switch to all head shots, all the time. On top of that, he goes for laughs. It's a lot of material, more than the movie really needs, but when zombie movies are a dime a dozen, it's a way to make yours memorable.

Heck, the flashback that opens the movie doesn't even involve where the zombies came from, but a battle between yakuza gangs that leaves one gangster wounded and another arrested. Ten years later, Takashi (Shingo Tsurumi) is just getting out of prison, happy to be reunited with "big brother" Hiryoya Munakata (Sho Aikawa), who now works construction with Shinya (Red Rice), another former brother. He's less happy when he finds out that his daughter Hinata (Maika Yamamoto) has run off with her friend Seira (Erina Mizuno) rather than see him. Meanwhile, the yakuza who led the ambush ten years ago, Sorimachi (Yuichi Kimura) is being teamed with Kiyama (Hideo Nakano), a glorified accountant, to hunt down Akira Yoshida (Daisuke Miyagawa), a low-level thug who stole a bunch of drugs and left for girlfriend's home of Zeni Island, where he's cutting them with unusual stuff. So, guess which island Hinata's mother Sakura (Sawa Suzuki) says she's run off to?

A little subtitling or familiarity with a setting can make a big difference - I did not initially realize that the [former] yakuza were on the Japanese mainland while other characters were on an island until the two groups of gangsters actually got on a boat. It's an example of how I think Shinagawa maybe wanted to do a little more story-wise with this movie than he really had room for: There are a lot of characters and subplots to keep track of - a couple dozen once you figure in even more yakuza, island cops, doctors, and fishermen - and while it gives Shinagawa a bunch of folks to off or turn, it takes a bit of time to get there, and he sort of handwaves the zombies with "well, that's how it happens in the movies" (this does, however, lead to one of the film's funnier lines, as the horror-movie-loving doctor wonders whether it's walkers or runners).

Full review on EFC.

Bunny the Killer Thing

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Even given some time to think on it, I'm still not really sure where I stand with Bunny the Killer Thing. There is a lot more sexual violence than usual, and that aspect of it is a tough nut to swallow, with those scenes right on the line between being a legitimate extension of horror movie violence and something that is really uncomfortable considering the tone that they were going for. I mean, there's a rape scene right in the middle of this movie that involves running from a guy in a bunny suit with a ridiculous giant prosthetic penis, and the repulsive bad taste of one pretty much cancels out the entertaining bad taste of the other.

It's a pretty straightforward slasher movie in some respects: Jari (Roope Olenius) and Emma (Katja Jaskari) have rented a cabin in the woods and are each bringing two friends - Emma's roommate Nina (Veera W. Vilo) and friend Sara (Enni Ojutkangas) along with Jari's buddies Mise (Jari Manninen) and Toumas (Hiski Hämäläinen) - while Jari's little brother Jesse (Olli Saarenpää) stows away in their borrowed ambulance. Along the way, they meet up with three Brits whose car has broken down - Lucas (Marcus Massey), Tim (Orwi Imanuel Ameh), and Vincent (Vincent Tsang) and eventually find out that they are not alone in the woods - the guy from the opening has become half-rabbit creature with an impossibly large unit, constantly screaming for "pussy!" although, really, any orifice will do.

Horror stories have been splicing human and animal genes since long before scientists discovered the double helix, and if you're going to make a human-rabbit hybrid threatening, making it a sexual predator is probably the way to go. It even makes a sort of sense to make a comedic horror story once the concept is out there, because there's a nasty absurdity to it and there's opportunity for good satire, whether of how horror movie characters come to these secluded cabins to get laid but seldom get more than they bargained for so ironically, or just of everyone's darker sexual desires. Finding the right balance and tone for raunchy material can be a paradoxically delicate task, though, and filmmaker Joonas Makkonen charges in without the sort of care needed to do so.

Full review on EFC.

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