Friday, September 11, 2015

Fantasia Catch-Up #05: Port of Call, Antisocial 2, Cherry Tree, Scherzo Diabolico, The Golden Cane Warrior, Battles without Honor or Humanity, Poison Berry in My Brain, and Nina Forever

Folks, I am close enough to the end to taste it. Literally, as there are two bottles of Crush Creme Soda (which, near as I can tell, you can't get in the United States) that I save for the complete and final end of the festival chilling in my fridge for when I get to the end of this annual project.

Three more to go, and then I see how many of the screener links I've been sent are still valid. Kind of bummed that I know one isn't, because I scheduled other things around knowing that something was on the list.

(Of course, there's always the box full of physical screener discs from various festivals and years somewhere in this apartment, but I'm sadly probably never getting to them...)

Port of Call

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Port of Call looks like it's going to be a police procedural, and certainly acts like one during the early going. But then the answer to "who killed Wang Jiamei?" presents itself, and Aaron Kwok's Inspector Chong keeps investigating. At first it seems like he thinks Ting Tsz-chung (Michael Ning) may not have done it, or maybe this is another girl, but, no, he just wants to know why. But can one ever really understand this?

It's a gruesome murder, naturally, and a sordid one, with Jiamei (Chun Xia) a teenage girl who had only just immigrated to Hong Kong from Shilong, a rural town in Guangdong Province, though her mother May (Elaine Kam Yin-ling) and sister Jiali (Jacky Choi Kit) had arrived some years earlier, and her inability to fit in at school and aim of being a model was taking her down a dangerous path. With no body, initially the only indication that a murder has been committed is the amount of blood - with no apparent connection to Ting at all.

If Port of Call were primarily a mystery, the way that writer/director Philip Yung Chi-kwong goes about revealing what happened might be unsatisfying, but it's clear from early on that this is not his intent. Instead, he uses the form to bring out te history of Chong, Jiamei, and Ting. As that happens, the movie transforms, becoming a film about loneliness and isolation. Language, appearance, or obsession can be the source, but the emotion looks similar on all three characters, even if none of them is even in a situation where there are no other people in their lives.

Full review on EFC.

Antisocial 2

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

When you see something like the pretty-decent 2013 film Antisocial at a festival with the filmmakers there, someone always asks about a sequel; it's almost as obligatory a question as "what was your budget?" and "how much was improvised?" The response is usually a description of something bigger and different, although everyone there knows that it's not actually going to happen. Sometimes it does, and as a result we sometimes find out that this may be a bad idea.

In this case, the filmmakers posit that the "mimetic virus" that appeared on the Redroom social network on the previous New Year's Eve went global, enough that much of the world is zombie-like "users", with the uninfected calling those who have survived via emergency trepanation "defects". That includes Sam (Michelle Mylett), the first film's survivor, who turns out to have been pregnant and is about to give birth as the action starts. A religious fanatic (Kristina Nicoll) takes her baby and leaves her to bleed out when labor comes. She doesn't, and her search for her baby leads her to cross paths with Bean (Josette Halpert), a teenage runaway from a nearby army base where her father Max (Stephen Bogaert) will do just about anything to stop the upcoming "upgrade". He also seems to consider defects subhuman, with Bean no exception.

Why is a sequel a bad idea? In this case, it's because there's just not really a level on which this thing makes any sort of sense. As neat a concept as a social network which swallows its users might have been, getting more detail reveals that this thing that tapped into a modern fear doesn't make conceptual sense as when examined closely: Zombies who don't create original exploitable content are a bug, not a feature as far as this sort of website is concerned, and while the feared "upgrade" actually leading to more user autonomy would be a neat ironic ending, the script has not been imbued with that sort of cleverness.

Full review on EFC.

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, and it becomes a pretty enjoyable little horror film, with tough choices, solid relationships that will cause things to hurt when terrible things happen, etc. But the back end - oof. The film squanders goodwill in impressively thorough fashion, to the point where it's easy to forget having liked it at the start.

To be fair, that opening description of the evil witch tree leads to Sissy Young (Anna Walton) apparently killing an old friend so that she can have her job as the local high school's field hockey coach. Once it introduces fifteen-year-old Faith Maguire (Naomi Battrick) and the characters in her orbit - leukemia-stricken father Sean (Sam Hazeldine), motorcycle-riding best friend Amy (Elva Trill), cute-boy-that-likes-Faith-though-Amy-saw-him-first Brian (Patrick Gibson) - and Sissy starts insinuating herself into Faith's life, things start to get interesting.

They're interesting in large part because that cast of characters is good enough for a movie that doesn't have weird supernatural stuff going on. Naomi Battrick is a great discovery as Faith; she's got an easy appeal, coming across as smart and kind without being bland, capable of wit but never losing track of the weight resting on her. She's got particularly nice chemistry with Sam Hazeldine as her father; there's both ease and desperation to their closeness. Patrick Gibson is given a somewhat generic boy to play as Brian, but he and Elva Trill give their characters a bit of personality. Anna Walton, on the other hand, dives into her wicked-witch role without looking back, making Sissy unhinged but never out of control.

Full review on EFC.

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 half dry and methodical, the second frantic, both nicely done.

They both center on Aram (Francisco Barreiro), a hard-working cog in a nameless company whose hard work is recognized and cheerfully exploited by his boss Cranovsky (Jorge Molina), though the fact that it doesn't translate into promotions or even overtime pay is what gets noticed at home. He may have figured out a way to move up, though: That methodical, detailed mind has hatched a plan to kidnap Cranovsky's daughter Anabela (Daniela Soto Vell) at a time when her father's attention reallly needs to be on the business.

I wondered, at times, if Aram was meant to be working for a criminal organization of some sort; there are indications that he's dealing with shady people whom his work has kept out of jail, and he doesn't seem to be a lawyer; at a certain remove from the immediate work of dealing drugs or intimidating businesses, such a group looks like any other corporation. I don't think that's where director Adrian Garcia Bogliano was going - otherwise more suspicion would probably fall upon Aram when he starts using crime to get ahead - but it opens the door to thinking about how the inverse is true: The hierarchies and pressures in a business are like those in a gang, meaning that the best way to advance is to think like a criminal and take out the people higher on the org chart.

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 unimpressive in the trailer, which I suspect may be kind of unfair; they were probably cut to ribbons, and even if I am not quite knowledgeable 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, honestly.

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 (though Angin is a prodigy). 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 here, even detouring into a long, unnecessary flashback rather than doing the work with Dara.

Full review on EFC.

Jingi naki tatakai (Battles Without Honor or Humanity)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2015 in the Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival: Retro & Restorations, DCP)

There's a pretty good mob movie in the middle of Battles Without Honor or Humanity, but it is with the ends that make it brilliant: It starts with images of the mushroom cloud and Hiroshima in the immediate aftermath of the war, but then jumps into images so frantic that it's almost impossible to absorb them fully - even when they're freeze-framed, it's on a blur. Director Kinji Fukasaku is making introductions, but most characters will need a second appearance to be recognized. It finishes with a funeral, as it must with all the violence being handed out, but one where the disgust at all the violence can't overcome how it is the only thing some of these guys, including the one making the statement, know.

In between, Fukasaku and the writers tell a story that plays like a rapid fire recitation of events - dates appear on-screen, narration fills in gaps, as the yakuza wars in Kure City, Hiroshima, play out over decades, with this film seeming to only have time for the highlights. It's mostly seen from the perspective of Shozo Hirono (Bunta Sugawara), a former soldier who was jailed after killing a gangster who raped a local girl. There he shares a cell with Hiroshi Wakasagi (Tatsuo Umemiya), a captain in the Doi organization, and a favor for him gets Hirono a place in that family. He becomes an ally of Yoshio Yamamori (Nobuo Kaneko), and goes with him when Yamamori starts a new organization. Hirono is a loyal man, but loyalty is only so prized in groups like this.

Though Hirono is the film's main character - it starts with him, it ends with him, and the filmmakers generally tend to reflect his mindset, whether directly or ironically. In some ways, this is even true when he disappears from the film for an extended stretch in the middle; for all that screenwriter Kazuo Kasahara and director Kinji Fukasaku are making sure that the audience recognizes the events that shape the Kure City yakuza while Hirono is in prison, the full effect in terms of actual change don't crystallize until Bunta Sugawara is on-screen again. He may have heard the news while behind bars, but that's different from experiencing it.

Full review on EFC.

Nounai Poison Berry (Poison Berry in My Brain)

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

I'm not sure when Inside Out opened in Japan, but I do wonder how many folks there saw it as less incredibly creative and insightful compared to their American counterparts, considering that the Poison Berry in My Brain manga has been running since 2009 and this live-action adaptation came out in May. The similarities are obvious - a female protagonist with a committee of five personality fragments debating over her next actions in her head, and some similar imagery - although I suspect that the romantic comedy plot gives it much less heft than Pixar's movie made for a younger audience.

In this case, we follow Ichiko Sakurai (Yoko Maki), a smart and attractive woman of twenty-nine whose odd mix of impulsiveness and indecision have recently cost her a job, although she is choosing to see it as more time to work on her novel. She has a harder time than usual making decisions, because seemingly every one must pass through a committee in her brain - thorough chairman Yoshida (Hidetoshi Nishijima), optimistic Ishibashi (Ryunosuke Kamiki), pessimistic Ikeda (Yo Yoshida), impulsive Hatoko (Hiyori Sakurada), and meticulous record-keeper Kishi (Kazuyuki Asano). Something else overrides them when she meets young sculptor Ryoichi Saotome (Yuki Furakawa), pulling her into a relationship that likely wouldn't be easy even if she were good at making choices.

There are times when being a romantic comedy makes Poison Berry rather frustrating - it keeps what is going on in the head of Ichiko too focused on one aspect of her life when there is clearly more going on; for example, that she's writing a novel sometimes seems more like a way to bring an alternate suitor into her life than a major deal on its own. It also obscures that her near-paralysis when it comes time to make decisions is perhaps the root of her problems, which should make the "internal" story focus more on how her various personality traits can work together, and the screenplay by Tomoko Aizawa doesn't have a great grasp on that. It seems even more unhealthy in terms of how it deals with Ichiko's sexuality, although that may come from Setona Mizushiro's source material.

Full review on EFC.

Nina Forever

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Ben & Chris Blaine have a heck of a great idea for a movie here - when Rob (Cian Barry), who tried to commit suicide after the death of his girlfriend but failed, starts seeing Holly (Abigail Hardingham), there are certain weird things about the relationship, but none more than how the bloody, back-broken, naked Nina (Fiona O'Shaughnessy) starts appearing when they have sex. That is something to get past.

Aren't ghosts always, though? I've mentioned before that ghosts are best used as the past given form, and Nina fits that description perfectly - Holly is attracted to Rob in large part because of her romanticized perception of his tragic history, which all but assures that this particular baggage is an integral part of their relationship. It's a really neat trick - as much as hauntings and sex are often connected in horror movies, it's usually immediately violent either in terms of murder or rape (because she doesn't realize who/what she's actually sleeping with at that moment), while Nina mostly brings hurtful words and major cleaning issues. She's emotional pain that a girl like Holly sees herself as rising to the occasion and dealing with.

Nina is no silent specter who is maddening as much for her lack of explanation as anything else, either - the film eventually goes into interesting places with where her presence comes from, and she's quite willing to chat about why she disdains both Rob and Holly. The words that the Blaines give her really nail how the past can be both tremendously cruel and utterly uncaring at the same time.And while I stumbled a bit on O'Shaughnessey's accent (the North of England can be tough on American ears), her physicality in the role is kind of incredible - she moves a bit, but it's mostly flopping around, feeling like a dead thing without rigor mortis-induced lurches that seem rather ridiculous after seeing this.

Full review on EFC.

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