Sunday, August 02, 2015

The Fantasia Daily 2015.18 (31 July 2015): Cherry Tree, Scherzo Diabolico, Ava's Possessions, The Golden Cane Warrior, Shinjuku Swan, and Turbo Kid

I did not expect the day to go quite so long, but waking up early (7am is early on vacation, even if you're dialing in to work at nine), having most of the movie really stacked one on top of the other, and seeing a media/VIP line for the midnight Turbo Kid and getting into it can sure stretch a day.

Thanks to these guys - Scherzo Diabolico director Adiran Garcia Bogliano and "Iris" director Richard Karpala - for sticking around for the second screening of their films; not every filmmaker does that even when it's the next afternoon. It was a pretty cool Q&A; Bogliano is a guy that the festival has wanted to have come for a while, and he was fond enough of the short playing with his feature to both mention it before the screening and share the Q&A, which is rarer than it should be.

It was a fairly informative session, too; Bogliano talked about how he seldom consciously references other films and directors, but loves De Palma (among others) so much that he has kind of internalized certain things as how you make movies, so that it feels like it's coming from him when he does it. He also spent some time talking about the three scenes he shot with drones - how they were meant to be symmetrical (beginning, middle, and end) and how he wanted the audience to see that the action wasn't completely smooth because he always liked movies where you can see that there is someone making decisions as opposed to just a window into a perfectly clear world. Karpala, meanwhile, talked about how directing stunt work in his short film was more terrifying than anything else; even when stuntpeople are pros who have done much more dangerous things, it's a pretty weird thing for a young director to ask someone to do something with the potential for injury just to make a movie (even with plenty of ropes you've got the technology to erase).

Hey, I got to see Turbo Kid! Wonder if this means I'll get into the second show of Attack on Titan as well. Anyway, that is the three writer/directors, Yoann-Karl Whissell, François Simard, and Anouk Whissell, and I can't talk much about the enthusiastic Q&A after the film because my French is terrible. It wound up going very late - the 11:55 start time didn't take into account Shinjuku Swan's length or getting a very psyched-up sellout crowd seated; I think projection started at something like 12:35am. Also extending it: About 19 vanity cards before the film proper started. Folks were counting them out in French, and as much as certain other bits of audience participation bug me, this kind of amused, if only because I tend to count production companies during the opening credits myself.

Then I got home and dropped. A long day, even if I know that Saturday is going to be relatively short.

Today's plan: My whims could change, but I'm thinking Battles Without Honor or Humanity, Sunrise, Poison Berry in My Brain, and Nina Forever. Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal, H., and Excess Flesh are all flawed but interesting.

Cherry Tree

* * (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Cherry Tree starts out kind of silly but promising with its tale of dark-age witches whose evil has been stored in the roots of a cherry tree in the Irish town of Orchard for centuries which leads to a woman apparently killing an old friend so that she can have her job as the local high school's field hockey coach, but once it introduces Faith Maguire (Naomi Battrick) and the characters in her orbit, it becomes a pretty enjoyable little horror film, with touch choices, solid relationships that will hurt when terrible things happen, etc.

But the back end, man. Wow, is that terrible.

The movie never really made a lot of sense - there was always an element of "why now, why her, why this set of steps" to it - but as it goes chugging to the finale, writer Brendan McCarthy and director David Keating just seem to lose all sense of one thing plausibly leading to another. Faith seems to become a video game character being given instructions for what to do next that come from nowhere, and the mythology she's plugged into becomes much more arbitrary. It leads to the movie ending on a stinger that has no punch because it means that the filmmakers just have no idea what the thing or the characters are about.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival, HD)

"Iris" is a pretty obvious spoof of Apple's "Siri", which is probably coming full circle in terms of the name, and it briefly looks like it's going to be cringeworthy by starting with a product launch, especially since its feature set doesn't seem a whole lot more advanced than the current state of the art. Once it gets into the main story, where Dave (Luke Sorge) is disposing of a body while playing a voice-activated trivia game with his phone, things get fun, as these things are always listening.

The result is pretty funny, as Dave finds himself in dilemmas that stem from both crime issues and familiar tech problems, with the film also getting into thriller territory as well. The tone is almost always just right, and both the location in the Colorado Rockies and fine stuntwork (and decent production design) make for something a lot more impressively polished than many shorts of its nature.

Scherzo Diabolico

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

A nifty thing about Scherzo Diabolico: It feels like a black comedy for much of its running time, but you'll likely struggle to remember any actual jokes afterward. The comedy is almost entirely from the discomfort and absurdity of the situation, adding sparks to a sort of two-part thriller: The first dry and methodical, the second frantic.

It's a nifty little picture. I wondered while watching it if main character Aram (Francisco Barreiro) was meant to be working for a criminal organization which at a certain remove from the immediate work of dealing drugs or intimidating businesses looks like any other corporation or law firm, although I don't thin that's where director Adrian Garcia Bogliano was going. It is a neat story of using crime to get ahead, a seemingly perfect one at that, although that will inevitably blow up in his face.

Bogliano fills it in with nifty details, though, from drone shots setting up a feeling of outsiders looking in that keep the audience from identifying too much with Aram to how his milquetoast ideas of success and sophistication manifest in part as the "best of" collection of classical music on the soundtrack which gets a righteously metallic spin when the girl he kidnaps, Anabela (Daniela Soto Vell), hears it again in her mind. It's a story that lets the audience both admire and hate the perfect crime and feel a thrill of conflict when easily-understood plans have monstrous collateral damage, and does it without feeling like it's trying to be even-handed or mournful.

Full review on EFC.

Ava's Possessions

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Three years ago at this festival, I raved about Jordan Galland's superhero comedy Alter Egos in part out of surprise; it worked its alternate Earth scenario better than a lot of films of its sort and built a remarkably solid cast of characters for a sort of spoof movie. With Ava's Possessions, he does the same thing with the demonic possession genre and turns another high concept into a pretty charming comedy.

It starts where a lot of these movies end, with Ava (Louisa Krause) having "Naphula the Anointed" exorcised from her after being possessed for twenty-eight days. On the one hand, that's great; on the other, her boyfriend has left her, it's not as if Naphula called into work, and he committed a whole bunch of crimes in her body that she'll be accountable for if she doesn't join Spiritual Possession Anonymous, make amends to those she has wronged, and learn how to defend herself from future attacks. It will be tough - group leader Tony (Wass Stevens) is a taskmaster, the new friend she meets there (Annabelle Dexter-Jones) is kind of infatuated with her demon, and maybe it's just them having been there for the exorcism, but her parents (William Sadler & Deborah Rush), sister (Whitney Able), and sister's fiancé (Zachary Booth) seem to be hiding something from her.

Galland has a skill that is perhaps underappreciated in that he's able to build a story out of jokes. Especially early on, most scenes in Ava's Possessions are a sort of gag on how someone who has been through this would have trouble dealing with the fallout and re-inserting herself into society, and they're good jokes, but they also move things forward a bit. Where a lot of comedies that sort of poke at genre staples tend to have jokes that are dismissive in some way, this one uses them to construct both a world that makes a certain level of sense and a mystery within it, while also giving the audience a chance to get to know and like most of its characters. It's a real movie that has fun with its subject matter.

Full review on EFC.

Pendekar Tongkat Emas (The Golden Cane Warrior)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival: Action!, DCP)

I talked to folks who passed on The Golden Cane Warrior because the martial arts looked bad in the trailer, which I suspect may be kind of unfair; they were probably cut to ribbons, and even if I am not quite knowledgable enough to always tell okay from good from great, this movie looked pretty good and had Xiong Xin Xin doing action direction. It suffers more from some of the story around those fight scenes.

Not all of it; there's a simplicity to it that's actually quite appealing: World-weary "Golden Cane Warrior" Cempaka (Christine Hakim) intends to step down as the head of her school and must pass leadership, the eponymous weapon, and the knowledge of the ultimate "Golden Cane Encircles the Earth" move to one of her four students. Three of them - Dara (Eva Celia Latjuba), Gerhana (Tara Basro), and Biru (Reza Rahadian) - are children of vanquished opponents she brought in; the fourth is but a child. She chooses Dara, probably the least talented of the group, which incenses Biru and Gerhana, setting them on a path of betrayal and retribution. Not knowing the ultimate technique, Dara and Angin must go on the run, looking for a hidden teacher who can help them even the odds.

It works, mostly, although the story soon becomes dangerously lopsided: While Biru & Gerhana are consolidating power and doing terrible things, Dara spends a lot of time looking kind of useless, not training until later in the game and only becoming anguished at what her former "brother" and "sister" are doing because she herself manages to bring bad attention to innocent people. In a classic kung fu movie, the audience feels the heroine's frustration that perfecting her technique well enough to fight oppressors or take her revenge takes so much time, even as her spirit matures, but co-writer/director Ifa Isfansyah delays that too much hear, even detouring into a long, unnecessary flashback rather than doin the work with Dara.

On the plus side, when she and Elang (Nicholas Saputra) are ready to go, it delivers; the finale is a long mixed-doubles match that lets the stars do their best work after an hour and a half of beating lesser opponents or standing back. It goes on long enough to be a little wearing, but it's quite satisfying to see everyone cut loose, enough to make one wish there was more like that all along.

Full review on EFC.

Shinjuku Swan

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, HD)

Like a lot of movies adapted from long-running manga, Shinjuku Swan shows a lot of telltale signs of screenwriters Rikiya Mizushima and Osamu Suzuki trying to cram a lot of storylines and fan-favorite characters into a couple hours. It's a process that has torpedoed a lot of movies, but works out all right here in large part because the script is handed off to Sion Sono, who knows a little something about making dense-but-exciting movies with a fair bit of darkness.

He's got his work cut out for him telling the story of Tatsuhiko Shiratori (Gou Ayano), a frizzy-haired loser who, after getting into a brawl with six goons on the streets of Tokyo's red-light district, is recruited by Mr. Mako (Yusuke Iseya). Not to be gangster, but to be a talent scout, looking for pretty girls who can work in the neighborhood's nightclubs, massage parlors, and other unsavory spots. Of course, even if they're not quite gangsters, the rivalry between the "Burst" agency that employs Mako and the "Harlem" agency is still about to explode into a fight that often involves Tatsuhiko getting the crap kicked out of him.

By focusing on Tatsuhiko, the filmmakers often seem to be seriously downplaying the fact that he and his colleagues are in the business of exploiting women in every way possible, with Tatsuhiko being a cheerful, friendly face for the argument that prostitution and related activities aren't so bad so long as it's handled with care. That's the spoken case made, although I don't think there's any missing that a lot of these girls are not having their interests seen to with pretty horrible results. So what to make of Tatsuhiko, who gets down about this but is always assured that he does more good than harm? That's kind of what makes the movie interesting, because Ayano does a pretty nice job of making him a guy who really needs to believe that he's doing the right thing and is probably eventually able to do a good job of lying to himself about it.

That quality plays well into the story, too, making Tatsuhiko both easy for the more ruthless people around him to manipulate and harder for them to predict, not really having his altruistic bent. As they attempt to outflank each other, Sono does a pretty terrific job of getting a rapid back-and-forth conflict across without boring the audience with excessive details or getting away from Tatsuhiko, for whom a lot of this is over his head (until falling on it). It's a longish movie that moves, and while the high gloss may obscure the everyday tragedies underneath, they're there for those who choose to look.

Turbo Kid

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 1 August 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Turbo Kid seemed to be on the fast track to being a cult hit well before its release; folks seemed keen on the short film produced as part of a contest connected to ABCs of Death and it seemed to get plenty of early buzz looking for funding and production partners as part of the Fantasia Festival's Frontières co-production market and had people looking forward to it for a year or two. A hero's welcome for the Quebec production was not unexpected at its Montreal premiere; but tat the movie actually is the sort of cheerfully gory retro-sci-fi blast intended is kind of a pleasant surprise.

It takes place in the future world of 1997, when acid rain and nuclear wars have left the world a wasteland. Teenage orphan "The Kid" (Munro Chambers) scavenges what he needs - along with toys and comic books, especially those featuring his favorite, Turbo Rider - while trading them for water. Things are about to get interesting, though - not only has he apparently found a pod full of the sort of gadgets the comic book character uses, but his path has just crossed with Apple (Laurence Leboeuf), a relentlessly cheerful girl from across the wasteland who quickly attaches herself to him. Meanwhile, warlord Zeus (Michael Ironside) controls the water supply with an iron fist, though he worries about arm-wrestling champion Frederick (Aaron Jeffery) leading a revolt.

Most action/sci-fi movies built to be throwbacks to the filmmakers' youth are terrible, for a number of reasons: Sometimes the filmmakers think aping the ineptitude they laughed at is funny itself (it's generally not), often they don't have the resources to do what they need, other times they're just pale imitations without animating spark of their own. I suspect that what gives Turbo Kid that spark is that filmmakers François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell don't just try to imitate the films they watched as kids when their parents weren't looking, but throw in everything else they did at that age: BMX biking, comic books, 8-bit video games, starting to be thrown for a loop by the opposite sex. It feels like they are channelling everything that felt exciting at that age into the movie rather than just one facet (gory movies) which doesn't fit with the things that a filmmaker's adult self puts in. As a result, the movie feels like everything they would have wanted at The Kid's age pulled forward, rather than recaptured.

Full review on EFC.

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