Monday, August 10, 2015

The Fantasia Daily 2015.22 (4 August 2015): Socialphobia, Rurouni Kenshin - The Legend Ends, Assassination, and The Taking

The final official day of the festival was going to have a bigger gap in the center for me, but the announcement that Rurouni Kenshin - The Legend Ends would be playing at 4pm filled that in nicely. The festival-goers were understandably excited about this one - the first two films had played the previous two years, the second ended on a cliffhanger, and the third had been due out in Japan just a month after Fantasia 2014 ended, so it seemed a cinch to play and we were quite surprised not to see it show up on the schedule. A number of folks (including me) tweeted about it, and were surprised to see the festival favorite those tweets; maybe the social-media interest proved persuasive with the rights-holder. Whether they did or not, it's an impressive display of how the folks who run the festival are working arguably past to the last minute to make it even better (see also the second screening of Attack on Titan).

It turned out to be one of the most exciting action movies of the festival, although following it up with Assassination makes for a heck of a one-two punch. The latter is in theaters right now, and you should go see it; it's a great big-screen movie that's even better with a crowd.

As press, I wasn't getting into the first screening of Attack on Titan without an invitation, so I wound up crossing the street for The Taking, and I won't lie - it's not an "I would have done that anyway to support smaller films" situation. I am glad it worked out that way, though, because although this British grindhouse flick is kind of hard to love - it's nasty and almost nonsensical in its violence - it's got a very likable cast and is at least up-front about what it is.

Oh, and for those who read the Rurouni Kenshin review and are curious about something:


Toward the end, as she's dying, the villain's girlfriend (or the closest thing to), former courtesan Yumi, says of her taking a blade meant for him that "it was the first time I was ever of use in a fight", and that's a line that 90% of the time draws a laugh for its self-referentiality. I was kind of surprised that the Fantasia audience more or less let it go, which indicates how much the movie was firing on all cylinders by then; we weren't going to be baited into snark.



* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

The inciting incident of Socialphobia is never shown on-screen, just the social-media reaction to it, and that sort of feels right. It's easy to get caught up in something online without having been there at the start, or because of who is arguing on one side, and filmmaker Hong Seok-jae wants to make a point about how this arbitrariness can have disastrous effects. He does fairly well with the online culture, I think, though the real-world sleuthing could use some work.

That first incident is an army deserter hanging himself in a hotel room, garnering sympathy from many,but not @infernosister, who adds her opinion to seemingly every Twitter thread. Smartphone-addicted college student Ha Yong-min (Lee Ju-seung) is flaming her right back,and gets roommate Kim Ji-woong (Byeon Yo-han) to join in. They hook up with "Mr. Babble", who has found her name and nearby address, and organizes a live-streamed visit. When the dozen or so guys arrive, though, she's hanging from the ceiling by an ethernet cable around her neck. The police rule it a suicide, but Ji-woong finds it fishy enough to look closer, while Yong-min figures it's beneficial to investigate because they're studying to be police officers and just being at the scene may have killed their post-graduation job prospects unless they solve the case. And while their inquiries lad to other suspects - and alleged rapist and a StarCraft forum moderator she had sparred with online under another alias - it may also be a way of avoiding a more important question.

That question, of course, is that of what if Min Ha-young did commit suicide. Ji-woong is the one who must confront it most directly, and it's one of actor Byeon Yo-han's best scenes in the film, mostly silent contemplation of what portion of guilt one admittedly harsh tweet among hundreds and being half-dragged into increasing the size of a "real life PKing" mob assigns him. That silence helps the scene work in the abstract,which might otherwise have been difficult, coming as it does after the viewer has learned enough of the characters that they can't quite be thought of as "The Troll", "The Cyber-Stalker", etc., anymore. It's one of Hong's greatest strengths in the film - being fairly young, he understands the material well enough to approach it with individual characters rather than just stumbling over the ideas. It is still worth noting that the only two women in the movie of any consequence are the victim and a former classmate who fills in her backstory, and Hong does not make much mention of this. Maybe sex has not been as much of a factor in online harassment in South Korea as it has elsewhere, but it seems like an oversight on the filmmakers' parts, especially since so much of what he shows feels right rather than over-sensationalized.

Full review on EFC.

Rurouni Kenshin: Densetsu no saigo hen (Runrouni Kenshin - The Legend Ends)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 4 August 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival: Action!, DCP)

Rurouni Kenshin - Kyoto Inferno and Rurouni Kenshin - The Legend Ends were released within a month and a half of each other in Japan, emphasizing how they function more as a two-part sequel to 2012's first film than as the latter two-thirds of a trilogy. Granted, when the series comes to North America, it will probably do so in one fell swoop on video, so any pacing issues those of us who saw them a year apart can likely be discounted. Put that aside, and The Legend Ends plays as a heck of a second act and climax to this larger sequel.

It picks up right where its predecessor left off, with Kenshin Himura (Takeru Sato) diving from the black ironclad ship of Makoto Shishio (Tatsuya Fujiwara) to save his beloved-even-if-he-won't-admit-it Karou Kamiya (Emi Takei). Instead, fate has him wash up at the home of original sensei Seijuro Hiko (Masaharu Fukuyama), whom he begs to teach him the ultimate "Dragon Flight of Heaven" technique, which he sees as the only way to defeat Shishio. As Kenshin spars with Hiko (both with weapons and words), his other friend learn Karou was rescued at sea by a passing freighter, but is comatose, and Shishio uses the immense firepower of his stolen battleship to blackmail the new government into declaring Kenshin an outlaw.

Keishi Otomo, who has co-written and directed the entire live-action series, has roughly two and a quarter hours here, and the way he deploys them is kind of odd for a standalone movie, spending a lot of time on the characters either training or healing up after the events of the last film, rehashing points from the previous films without reiterating their foundations or having particularly new insights, so it sometimes comes across as filling time as much as anything (sometimes, as with the character played by Yusuke Iseya, they feel like holdovers that should have been resolved in the previous episode). It's not necessarily evenly distributed, either - one character from the first two films - Yu Aoi's Megumi - doesn't show up until roughly an hour in and never actually has much to do, demonstrations of how long-running serials like this accumulate characters that can be sidelined in the manga but would feel missing if not given something to do in a film.

Full review on EFC.

Amsal (Assassination)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 4 August 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival: Action!, DCP)

During the first half-hour or so of Assassination, it is not unreasonable to think that the movie could and should be streamlined a bit; there is an awful lot introduced early on that seems needlessly complicated at the time. The next couple of hours of action and intrigue may not necessarily convince a confused audience member that it was all necessary, but it will certainly supply enough excitement that, whatever he or she thought of the film at the start, that same viewer will probably not want there to be less of it. Assassination is big, and that becomes one of its many strengths.

It opens with a scene in 1911, a tense bit where Korean rebels including Yem Suk-jin (Lee Jung-jae) carry out a bombing against the occupying Japanese. The plot is quickly tracked to the wife of Korean industrialist and collaborator Kang In-guk (Lee Kyoung-young), and he is, to say the least, not sentimental about the mother of his infant children. Twenty-two years later, Yem is part of the group recruiting a team intending to make its way to Seoul and assassinate In-guk and war criminal Momaru Kawaguchi in the days leading up to their children's wedding: Sniper Ahn Ok-yun (Gianna Jun Ji-hyun), explosives expert Hwang Duk-sum (Choi Duk-moon), and "Big Gun" Cho Sang-ok (Cho Jin-woong). However, because Yem has been turned by the Japanese, he also hires mysterious assassin "Hawaii Pistol" (Ha Jung-woo) and his partner Buddy (Oh Dal-su) to eliminate the team, claiming that they are Japanese double agents. Even beyond that, though, there is one bit that nobody seems to have planned for.

That twist is, admittedly, something any reasonably attentive viewer will anticipate from the first time he or she hears a certain word in the prologue, but that's okay, because co-writer/director Choi Dong-hoon not only doesn't waste any time beating around the bush, but when it comes time to play that card, he does so in far more ruthless fashion than one might perhaps expect. That's doubly true because while there's no doubt of its deadly intentions, there's a jaunty tone to much of the movie. Pistol and Ok-yun flirt in their early meetings; Song-ok, Duk-sum, and Buddy all have a comic sidekick feel even if there's never any doubt to their capability. Even moments before Yem kills his way out of a trap that's been sprung for him in, Choi is using a light touch, in part to soften the audience up and in part to keep a longish film moving.

Full review on EFC.

"Interior. Familia."

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival, HD)

As much as the dark comedy that is perfectly constructed for its one-reel length is one of my favorite types of short films, there's also something very enjoyable about the one that's about the same size but which is sort of testing how far it can go, because shorts should be a place where filmmakers can take risks and learn what they're doing. "Interior. Familia." is a little bit of both - maybe one joke too many, but good enough to get away with it.

It starts kind of like a Saturday Night Live sketch (or like SNL sketches the last time I watched the show), with the parents (Rosa Cadafalch & Francesco Orella) of their mid-twenties son Raul (Adria Diaz) waking him up at 4:30am because there's something they had to tell him - he was an accident, one they worked really hard to prevent, and that's not the end of the honesty to come.

Close to the whole nine minutes is an inversion of the initially reluctant parent who came to embrace motherhood or fatherhood, and that material is pretty great. It's deadpan dialogue delivered to near-perfection by Cadafalch & Orella, while Diaz has near-perfect "why are you telling me this" reactions. The potential problem comes as writer Esteve Soler and his co-directors start going for something a little satirical - the jokes mostly work but the direction's a little fuzzier, no longer at these particular characters but the world in general. And then, they push it just a little further...

It still works, and the less-perfect-but-still-funny later material doesn't undo the brilliance of how it started. And, again, it's good to see them push in that direction; maybe next time they'll refine that and push somewhere else, because this sort of comedy can only play it safe for so long.

The Taking

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

There are movies that offer stronger lessons on why a film should not have a flash-forward to nearly the end unless there's a really clever twist to be revealed than The Taking, as indicated by the fact that it winds up pretty good despite more or less laying out where it will go at the start. Besides, even if this this preview is more or less useless narratively, you can see how it might be useful in other ways, holding out the promise of enough skin and blood that the person who selected it on their streaming service might stick around for eighty fairly entertaining minutes rather than jump to something else.

It takes place in a Yorkshire town that is seeing hard times. Si (Adam Fogerty), a collection agent for, shall we say, non-bank loans, is stopping in to see just about everyone, while Jeremy (Jonathan Slinger) is also making a living as a representative of an organization offering debt relief. Meanwhile, the best friends operating a pastry kiosk in the local marketplace are looking to move into a proper shop, but a loan is proving hard to secure - not only are times tough, but Dawn (Joanne Mitchell) is often preoccupied with her autistic 18-year-old son and Eastern European mother (Rula Lenska), while Bex (Victoria Smurfit) has the sort of sharp tongue that drives away the people her plentiful cleavage draws in once they get too annoying. Fortunately, Jeremy and Dawn seem to hit it off when he visits their counter...

With a short running time and a predestined finale, there's not a whole lot of doubt as to where things are going to go. Even taking those expectations into account, the script by Paul Roundell still seems surprisingly thin, with a side-plot about Jeremy's daughter being bullied at school that seems to go nowhere and seems to fit in even worse when the film gets into a really ugly rut of Bex and Dawn being under the constant threat (frequently shown not to be idle) of violence for not repaying a nonexistent loan. It's often a tough enough watch that I won't blame more sensitive souls for bailing on the movie - as much as I think Roundell and director Dominic Brunt seem to want to connect the predation of loan sharks and those inclined to commit violence against women, they don't do much more than show someone doing both, again and again, without much insight into how this sort of man gains power by making everyone too afraid for themselves to even consider helping those in similar situations. Demonstration comes awful close to exploitation there.

Full review on EFC.

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