Monday, July 31, 2017

Fantasia 2017.18: Geek Girls, Mumon: The Land of Stealth, Bushwick, and Mayhem

It's always nice when Sunday gives you a little extra time because you've seen the films that start right around noon earlier in the festival or elsewhere, although what time I gained to write more was eaten up by laundry and breakfast at Cacao 70. The waffles and black sesame hot chocolate was different so I regret nothing.

Actually went to the wrong theater for Geek Girls initially, thinking it was in de Seve rather than Clarke, so I arrived just before the start and took a seat off to the side because there were a ton of camera folks capturing stuff for behind-the-scenes material leaning in over those seats. Plus, it would be weird if the person most front-and-center for this movie was a guy. That said, when the film was introduced, it was producer Michael Massicotte doing the talking. Not the case during the Q&A afterward:

Front to back, five of the film's subjects who were local - Mariko, writer/director Gina Hara, Elizabeth, Rebecca, and Stephanie - and the Fantasia event host. A great, friendly, often-funny group that talked a great deal about how, even in the time since they shot the movie, things have gotten a bit better in terms of not having to come across as a tomboy or otherwise avoid being feminine, since that's a thing that many had a hard time reconciling when younger or when entering the workplace. Also a fair amount of reminding the guys in the audience that if we're not helping, we're making things worse, so call out your friends when they're giving women trouble, along with some side-talk on how a lot of trouble can come from women.

It would have been nice to stay for the whole Q&A, but I had to duck out because, even though festivals don't always announce the Yoshihiro Nakamura film of the year as a centerpiece they way they do with Takashi Miike/Sion Sono/other prolific and off-beat Japanese directors (his work is more mainstream in many ways), they're always pretty terrific and often uplifting in a way that few at the festival manage, so you build your festival schedule around them even if you miss the "Pieces of Asia" short package and the neat-looking Tiger Girl. It didn't disappoint as a movie, although there were a lot of glitches in projection, as the studio apparently sent an "HD Cam" tape rather than a DCP. I've accepted that an actual 35mm print of new films is too much to ask, but, c'mon, this is a Toho/TBS film; those guys can afford to send something that won't break midway through.

It got people talking, though I had to argue a bit with some about what the movie was going for:


There's a moment toward the end, when pragmatic but resentful samurai Daizen points out that razing Iga has not destroyed the inhuman nature of its residents but dispersed them into Japan as a whole, when the picture briefly half-dissolves into a present-day street scene that someone in the audience yelled about those damn millennials, and I think that he missed the point that it's not necessarily the newest generation Nakamura and writer Ryo Wada are scolding, but the society that has come before them which has prized the individual over the community.

I talked with a couple of others about how community was a major theme in Nakamura's films, and Mumon was in many ways about how aligned self-interest is not a real substitute for the real thing. One agreed, but wished Mumon's wife could have survived the end, and I wanted that, too, but I was kind of glad that Nakamura and Wada didn't pull that punch. It might have felt good, but I don't know that there was a better way to show that Mumon had grown into a full person than to show that he was still human even without her immediate influence. It's a tough case to make, because she makes such a great impression in relatively little time, but I do feel it was the right call.


After that, it was a quick dash downstairs for Bushwick, which was better than expected but even more obviously politically charged than Mumon, enough that I wonder if it's even releasable in much of America, though it's a pretty great action film. Makes me glad I got to see it here. After that, a burger and poutine from another one of the new burger places that have popped up around Concordia (though I miss Buns something fierce, and apparently m:brgr is gone now too), and into Hall for Mayhem.

Director Joe Lynch (center) is a real hoot if you see him doing a Q&A for one of his films, with festival programmer Mitch Davis (left), as usual, pretty terrific both serving as hype man before the film started and letting Lynch use him as something of a straight man in a long (almost an hour!), funny discussion afterward, with composer Steve Moore a great, dry addition as midnight approached.

I've got to dock his movie half a star for his encouraging the meowing, though. A man must have his principles.

Monday's plan: Night Is Short, Walk on Girl; Deliver Us; Lu Over the Wall; and Blade of the Immortal. Fashionista and Mon Mon Mon Monsters! are both pretty good, and if there's a crazy line for Blade I could easily convince myself to do "Sherlock Holmes vs Charlie Chan", because the CineClub event is always a ton of fun and I love Sherlock Holmes, even if Basil Rathbone is far from my favorite.

Geek Grils

* * ¾(out of four)
Seen 30 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017: Documentaries from the Edge, DCP)

Generally upbeat documentary about a topic that my own perspective has generally allowed me to either take for granted or only hear about when things turn ugly; director Gina Hara admits that there a filter involved in that - she mentions that many people refused to be interviewed - but it works for what she wants to present, in terms of making something aspirational rather than downcast.

Shinobi no kuni (Mumon: The Land of Stealth)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, HD Cam)

As per usual, the movie by Yoshihiro Nakamura is relatively unheralded at the festival, because he's not as outrageous as some of his fellow very productive Japanese auteurs, but it's one of the best. It looks every bit the silly bit of ninja action from the start, but there's a biting criticism of capitalism lurking underneath, so that when it comes to the fore at the end, the audience shouldn't be surprised, but it still hits a bit harder than expected.

That doesn't completely undercut how light-hearted much of the movie is, with a particularly entertaining title character who is so cocky (with reason) about his skill as Iga's best ninja that he can be absurdly laid-back and push aside any concerns about actually hurting anyone for missions that don't require it. Nakamura and the effects crew create action scenes that match the personality, with wire work that makes Mumon feel lighter than air, and just slightly less whimsical action for the rest. A fun disco-pop soundtrack adds to the feeling.

It seems like a bigger, more fantastic movie than I remember Nakamura doing before, but he handles that material well, sneaking more serious elements in smoothly, and while he absolutely goes for bluntness at one spot at the end, there's no harm in it, and he's got a wink or two left. It is, then, the sort of brilliance we really should expect of Nakamura by now, oddball genre martial with a solidly humane core.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

I don't recall seeing it mentioned in the movie's description, but after a while, someone watching Bushwick will notice they can't remember the last cut, and it's about then that the degree to which is not going to let up sinks in, and what seemed like an interesting what-if about Brooklyn being attacked by domestic terrorists becomes a grueling survival thriller.

It's a heck of a well-executed one, too, with even some cuts that aren't as hidden as the filmmakers were trying for not diminishing just how much they've often got going on in a sequence, action that can be surprising both for its relentless and for how it never seems escapist; the tension comes from just how ugly things sometimes seem.

It's got a nice cast, too, between an understated Dave Batista and Brittany Snow, who sells what her character grows into over an hour and a half of real time very well. The filmmakers also supply a highly entertaining supporting cast for them to play off. It's pretty important that this sort of on-the-move picture come up with characterizations one instantly grasps and then has life breathed into them, and this one does that extremely well, giving a whole lot of spark to what could be a dry exercise in hitting marks so that the action works.

"In the Dark, Dark Woods..."

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

I suspect that many in the audience initially took "In the Dark, Dark Woods..." to be a coming attraction for a feature; it not only looks much too polished to be something made by a fairly small crew with just these five minutes as the intended end result, but filmmaker Jason Bognacki (with Aline Bognacki as co-writer/producer) paces it like one: It teases the audience with the promise of more as it jumps forward, not exactly hiding its big climactic revelations, but being casual enough with them that it's not unreasonable to think there's something bigger coming up.

But, near as I can tell, this is a stand-alone work, and it absolutely functions that way - the Bognackis use this style to tell their story quickly, using the narrator to make it feel like a fairy tale whose details most of us already know, jumping over details that seem familiar so that the viewers get a whole, compressed story that nevertheless contains striking details. It's impressive, compact narrative work that leverages every way movies can deliver information without overwhelming.

And if the Bognackis want to do a feature-length version of this period story of a woman whose soul is so dark she becomes invisible and thus has to steal another's skin, I'm down with that. Even more than with features, short films are best when they leave the audience wanting more just because what they deliver is so good, but this one looks like it could literally give us more without the stretching many other shorts would have to do.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

Mayhem is, if nothing else, up-front about how it's going to appeal to the id and allow things that even the most violent stories will disapprove of in some way, and that the filmmakers mostly manage to get away with that is as much a testament to the charisma of Steven Yeun and Samara Weaving as anything else. It's hardly the first movie whose appeal is in large part based upon enjoying well-done violence that might otherwise be found unacceptable; it just does a better job of directly selling that to the audience.

The mechanism for that is "ID-7", a virus that pours jet fuel on the emotional impulses of anyone who contracts it (along with giving them a distinct red eye). Attorney Derek Cho (Yeun) helped formulate the defense that got murder charges against a "redder" dismissed, and as a result he's been promoted to a corner office on the fifth floor of Towers & Smythe Consulting, although that's far enough from the penthouse that Kara "The Siren" Powell (Caroline Chikezie) can still use him as a fall guy, and his attempt to take it up with boss John Towers (Steven Brand) gets him fired. As luck and irony would have it, though, ID-7 has been detected in the T&S ventilation system, leading the Center for Disease Control to lock him up in the basement rather than throwing him out on the streets, along with Melanie Cross (Weaving), whose attempts to dispute the details of her mortgage he dismissed earlier. Now, though, they see each other as potential allies, since they've got about an eight-hour window during which they won't be charged for any crimes they commit on their way to getting satisfaction from the people who screwed them over.

I suspect that if Derek's and Melanie's rampage actually went to court, the previous decision would not be an automatic get-out-of-jail-free card, and that's akin to the central nut that the filmmakers have to crack - what's the balance between T&S karmically deserving what's coming, the clear premeditation on the part of Derek and Melanie, and how their thinking is being influenced by the virus? Few in the audience will probably find the way these factors interact perfectly done all the time, although writer Matias Caruso and director Joe Lynch are mostly able to set things up so that the audience is willing to negotiate - like, a viewer would be okay having them get to Kara or John and then holding back until they made the first move and were mutilated in self-defense. Things don't necessarily play out that way, naturally, and maybe if the film gave the audience a little more of the pair consumed by their immediate impulses rather than making plans, it would work a little better for more people. Sure, folks going to see something called "Mayhem" with this description are likely okay with what they're getting, and there is a nice irony to the set-up, even if the film isn't as much about T&C being hoisted by their own petard or even about a virus that heightens emotions showing Derek what he really wants.

Full review on EFC.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Fantasia 2017.17: Attraction, "Cocolors", Jailbreak, and Fashionista

The last weekend of the festival is best described as "there are many things you want to see and the fact that there are only a couple days left means there are far fewer second chances on the schedule, so suck it up and make choices you don't want to" - so, as a result, I regretfully skip Gintama, the 35mm print of Bastard Swordsman, Another WolfCop, and Tragedy Girls, only really regretting the first, and that mostly because Attraction wasn't really good.

Bunches of guests, though, with an unexpectedly packed house for Attraction because the preceding short was from Quebec. I kind of hoped it would clear out a bit after that, give me a little more breathing room, but that didn't happen. Good for them!

Next up were Toshihisa Yokoshima and Park Hyemi, directors of "Cocolors" and "Scarecrow Island", respectively, here seen as if consulting with their translators because that was the best picture I got where the faces weren't right behind their microphone stands. The director of the third short in the collection sent a video greeting, so that's a lot of people really happy to be in Fantasia. Heck, after the Q&A, Yokoshima set up a desk in the lobby and autographed a souvenir for everyone who came.

I didn't get a picture of Louisa Phung when she introduced her film before Jailbreak, but she was pretty enthusiastic and animated, joking about how she was from Vancouver, where DC-based action projects are half their work, so this film was Canadian content, on top of getting another female and Asian filmmaker into the lineup, to applause. She also ran up to get a selfie with the audience, saying she didn't get a chance to do it the first time because that was justifiably more about Jailbreak with those filmmakers in town from Cambodia, which only made sense.

Last up, Simon Rumley (c) and Amanda Fuller (r) in town to support Fashionista, which Rumley said started off being much more about consumerism than addiction, but that script eventually got scrapped and changed for the better. Fuller talked about how costuming went amazingly well, considering she had something like a hundred outfits in a 108-minute movie, and they were pulling liberally from both her own wardrobe and that of the costume designer, who had a very different body type but somehow still got stuff to fit. At the end, they joked about how it took Rumley roughly ten seconds to decide what he was going to wear to the screening and Fuller, well, somewhat longer.

Also, I bet the Q&A went on for twice as long at Fantastic Fest despite likely having fewer questions because there would have been a standing ovation every time Rumley said he liked Austin. Part of that was praising the friend whose apartment they were able to use to shoot the movie, as an offshoot of someone in the audience asking about the great movie posters you see in the background, although I suspect I would have framed the question in terms of "what's up with all the Nazi stuff on those posters".

Sunday is for Geek Girls, Mumon: The Land of Stealth, Bushwick, and Mayhem. Bad Genius is pretty great, Extraordinary Mission has some good action, but they'll have already started by the time this is posted.

"Past and Future Kings"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017: Fantastique Week-Ends, DCP)

At half an hour long, "Past & Future Kings" is kind of long for a short but still not quite long enough for the breadth of its ambition - its long fast-forward, in which a would-be king (Jason Cavalier) convinces the mage (Elias Varoutsos) bound to his new crown to show him his future, is all major events but very little motivating him to get from one spot to another. It's fine as things start - at that point, the film is drawing on pseudo-Arthurian themes, and you just kind of expect that a noble knight will become a compromised king with enemies in his court, because that's the natural way of things, but as things become more fantastical, it feels like "that's how these stories work" is covering a lot more ground. By the time we get to the end, there's a twist or two, but it seems like a lot of time but not a lot of work to get there, story-wise.

The writing may presume things, but the execution is impressively hard-working, putting Cavalier in a lot of different scenarios, all of which look fairly good, including fine action choreography at times when it calls for that. Though the film starts with people saying "look at all this carnage" in a way that calls attention to how the filmmakers really couldn't manage a huge medieval army with their resources, the later, tighter scenes work quite well. Cavalier is chameleonic enough to make his multiple iterations of the same character work, and Varoutsos seems to be having a great time as the mage who, seeing the future, is perhaps not terribly interested in his age's stuffy formality.

Prityazhenie (Attraction)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

It's something of a pleasant surprise that Attraction is more of a Russian take on The Day the Earth Stood Still than War of the Worlds or Independence Day, although I suspect that few looked at The Day the Earth Stood Still and thought that the movie needed more dumb teenagers, although it's possible. It makes the constantly changing impulses a bit more believable, at least.

That is where the movie tends to fall over, as its heroine Yulia actually manages to grab hold of the movie once it had settled on her being basically decent and wanting to help, albeit in a somewhat entitled way (she is the type that rebels against her military father while still being comfortable throwing his weight around) but takes a long time selling her into that role, and in the meantime tends to change character direction for everybody at the drop off a hat. It's also a funny thing that how weak and clichéd much of the characterization is (and the focus on the teenage characters) manages to undermine one of the film's more interesting choices, where the military folks who maybe have some idea how well attacking a technologically superior opponent would go tend to be cautious while the civilian authorities are hotheads. It's just that the movie as a whole is not clever enough for the audience to expect subversion there.

This apparently got a big Imax release in Russia, although it probably wouldn't make the cut elsewhere; it's got some nice design, and looks nice when things are holding still, but action often looks like a video game, weightless and not really pay off the world around it.

"Valley of the White Birds"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017: Axis, DCP)

Quite the beautiful animated fantasy from Cloud Yang and Wolf Smoke Studio, "Valley of the White Birds" shows a knack for using design to indicate character early on, as the young man seen moving through the woods is visually closed off by robes that cover half his face and swallow his arms, hair in a tight bun and eyes piercing, a complete contrast to the older man he meets, round and shaggy, approaching the white birds of the title with friendship while the birds turn to dried leaves in the younger man's hands.

It's a nifty bit of visual characterization that immediately makes "Valley" more impressive than the simple fantasy about a man confronting some sort of spirit in combat that it could have been; combine what we infer about this guy with his visions of a younger, more open version of himself as the characters wander an abandoned village, decay accelerating as the birds whither at his touch,, and the obvious question is how misguided his quest may be, though he doesn't read as the villain. It's great characterization matched by impressive animation that blends a traditional look with the occasional subtle three-dimensional effect, all on top of a nice, atmospheric soundtrack.

"Scarecrow Island"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017: Axis, DCP)

Park Hye-mi's follow-up to Crimson Island is a bit smaller in scale both for being a short and in its basic story, though it builds a fairly full world in its introduction, quickly getting the audience up to speed about how an atomic war 180 years ago left the bulk of the world uninhabitable and full of mutants, which the island-based survivors attempt to eradicate on bombing missions - at least, until the narrator discovers an island with green vegetation that seems to be inhabited by an old woman who has built herself scarecrows for company, leading him to start dropping supplies.

Park tells a nifty little story here, using the playful arrangements of the scarecrows and how the pilot sneaks around to find discarded clothing to contrast the propaganda images and unnerving indications that the "monsters" being bombed may not be far from human on the plane's screens, making it feel like a small act of rebellion that could potentially lead to more, especially when the voice-over indicates that he is becoming more interested than this than his actual job. I like the design for the hero, too, freckled and young even if his flight suit doesn't quite seem too large for him.

I still must admit that the design and the present-day voice-work had me thinking he was a girl at first, especially since some of the other narration seemed to be a different, more masculine-sounding voice. I suspect the confusion was mostly on my part, although I'd be a little interested in whether Park has more story to fill out the gap.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017: Axis, DCP)

The main event of this shorts triple-feature is pretty terrific, mostly taking place in a busy underground city where the population has retreated after a cataclysm, although the contamination in the air is still so dangerous that you never see the people without their helmets and environmental protection suits. It is, to us looking in, a supremely isolating way to live, especially as the lighting and reflection often makes the helmets look like giant eyes, but the people in the movie don't seem to think so - those suits are what they need to live, there's plenty of customization so you can tell who is who, and on festival days, they put on skeletal designs with phosphorescent paint.

It's a haunting world that feels familiar through the efforts of director Toshihisa Yokoshima and the Kamikaze Douga team, using CGI to give the underground city a busy appearance lit by dozens of sources, not quite cheery compared to the hellish surface we see once some characters start going on salvage missions, but home enough that the audience can feel it dying as those lights slowly become fewer and the crowd scenes less crowded. There are twists to it as the world distorts in nightmares as the characters we meet as kids - pushy Shu, meek Aki, and sickly mute Fuyu - become adults and find that this means losing people.

And yet, amid all that, there's something not quite hopeful, but powerful in its truth as Fuyu develops into an artist, rediscovering printing so that his drawings can be preserved, and the rest of the community seems to instinctively know that this is important. There would usually be a character who characterizes the ailing runt as a drain on their resources, but there seems to be a tacit understanding that getting Fuyu colored rocks with which to make paints is a useful part of the salvage missions, and a scene of his art being destroyed in a fit of anger is among the most frightening despite more obviously horrific events. It's not necessarily what the movie is about - the main beats at the end are about being committed to your friends even if there's a barrier of abstraction between you - but that it's an important part of the film gives it an extra level that makes it all the more impressive.

Stealth&Silence: DC Comic Fan Film

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017: Action!, Blu-ray)

Writer/director Louisa Phung joked before the film about the various levels of nerdery you would have to be to catch certain references, and I kind of wonder at what level you're saying "this seems more like a Huntress story than a Catwoman story" is. Probably "you're a big giant nerd but also kind of an ass". Hopefully noting that I and the rest of the theater perked up at the appearance of a character who was obviously Cassandra Cain and wondering why DC seems to have no idea how to use a character that people really like a lot.

That aside, it's a fun little fan film with some impressive action, really feeling like it's cutting loose when the characters get to start throwing down; the various screen fighters know their stuff. It's also when the DC stuff starts become less like Easter egg material and more like things the filmmakers genuinely like - they made a pretty good Black Mask prop, for instance.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017: Action!, DCP)

Like a lot of action movies from places that really don't have that sort of industry, Jailbreak shows that there are a lot of folks in Cambodia who know some martial arts and aren't particularly concerned with the safety standards other places have in place. Whether it will translate into something that lasts or not, time will tell, but this first foray into it is a high-energy hoot.

It's not exactly a lot but action; once things get started, the movie is basically one brawl after another, as the cops transferring gangster "Playboy" into a maximum-security prison are constantly outnumbered by less-skilled but more numerous prisoners, and they just keep going, knocking each other around, throwing the occasional knife into it, and every once in a while going for a one-on-one with a featured heavy. It's not the detailed, obviously creative choreography you'd see from Jackie Chan or Donnie Yen, but it's busy and exciting without overloading.

And sometimes, the fact that there aren't a whole lot of established rules here work in their favor. Sure, it's easy enough to snort at the all-female gang that goes in for more spike heel/push-up/leather pants combos than really makes sense for their work, but a lot of it plays as enthusiastic pulp rather than our exploitation. Plus, the camera work is kind of nuts, weaving in and out of fights, sometimes being bowled over and having to right itself, but eventually feeling like it's being improvised well. Eventually, they'll probably figure out how everyone else does things, and their best talent will get poached by Hollywood or China, but for now, Jailbreak is an action flick quite unlike even those that share its basic plot, and that's always a neat discovery.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 29 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

Roughly a minute or so into Fashionista, I could feel my eyes start to roll as the opening credits not only cut to a similarly-framed shot of Amanda Fuller's April with a different outfit for each new name put up, but the soundtrack changed as well (my notes say something along the lines of "oh, this is just precious!"). I works, I suppose, as shock therapy to get the audience used to the way director Simon Rumley puts his movie together, taking a lot of distinct moments and putting them next to each other without obvious transitions and trusting that the audience will see the through-line even on the first time through.

It works, mostly; the big idea at the center, how April's creative fashion sense comes across as fun and cool and hides a tendency toward hoarding and addiction, is kind of fascinating. Lots of movies link creativity and addiction or mental illness in a way that positions the latter as the necessary side-effect of the former, because it's tough for an artist to say that the way that a person expresses himself or herself may be hurting that person or those he or she cares about. Fuller is really great at bringing this out - as much as she's a fun character at the start, before a yuppie monster pulls her into the dark side of memorable attire, she always hits the notes which highlight her troubles with self-image and compulsion; she's good enough to overshadow the supporting characters who will have a big effect on her actions, although not by too much.

Rumley's script does get a little too cute at times as it moves toward the end, not just when it reveals that certain incongruous scenes throughout the movie have been part of a metaphor for reinvention that maybe doesn't necessarily serve our understanding of April as well as it could, but as the more monstrous activities of her new lover come to light. It's not that they can't go big, but they don't seem to fit quite as well as, say, the similar ending of Most Beautiful Island.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Fantasia 2017.16: Thousand Cuts, Darkland, A Thousand Junkies, Fritz Lang, and Innocent Curse

A day that really went back and forth.

That's Thousand Cuts director Eric Valette, who does that really enjoyable thing where the director of a grim, bloody, no-messing-around thriller is actually tremendously animated and genial in person, responding to the audience's questions of influences and what it was like to work with author DOA with what certainly seemed like a lot of enthusiasm (at least, to this guy whose French is terrible). Sounds like he wanted to make something akin to Straw Dogs, and I can see that, even if that winds up a relatively minor part of the film.

After that, I stuck around de Seve for most of the day, finding Darkland just okay but kind of getting into A Thousand Junkies, and then happy that I didn't have the same tough decision to make between Fritz Lang and Better Watch Out that others did (I saw that under the name "Safe Neighborhood" at MonsterFest). Not that it would have been a really difficult decision - I really love the films of Fritz Lang and a biopic done in his style was right up my alley.

After that, it was a choice between the tribute screening of The Crazies, Scott Eastwood in French car-chase movie Overdrive, and Takashi Shimizu's Innocent Curse, and I chose pretty poorly with the latter, in part because I was hungry and would have had to run to Overdrive without getting anything to eat in between. Remember, folks, you go to film festivals to feed your eyes and ears; your stomach can wait!

For Saturday: Attraction, "Cocolors" et al, Jailbreak, and Fashionista. Game of Death, Bastard Swordsman, and 68 Kill are all kind of fun.

Le serpent aux mille coupures (Thousand Cuts)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

You can tell Thousand Cutsis going to be an excellent slow burn from the start, as director Eric Valette contrives to bring three or four more or less unrelated groups to the sake deserted spot in rural France and doesn't make it seem like a ridiculous premise despite being a huge coincidence. It's a tingly feeling that this could be a really entertaining mess, a sensation that only increases as an even more dangerous fellow shows up after the first boy of violence and two law-enforcement agencies get involved.

From there, it's all about turning the screws, and Valette does a fine job of that making not just the audience but the less-hardcore thugs wince as the worst of them tortures his way to what's going on while the folks pegged as heroes are more or less helpless. It's careful, measured progress that keeps the audience glued to the screen as the very implausibility of the set-up keeps everybody orbiting each other, eventually drawing closer until the big confrontation comes.

And then that's pretty darn good, a demonstration of how the French don't really mess around when it comes time to throw everything against each other in this type of flick, building a very satisfying final confrontation.

Full review on EFC.

Underverden (Darkland)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017: Action!, DCP)

Fairly average as this sort of revenge movie goes, with a reasonably charismatic star who does a fair job of showing that this sort of revenge is pretty punishing for someone who just got back into fighting recently, and is a few years older than the punks responsible for his brother's death besides.

It's okay, basically a guy who is a fairly big star bringing a dumb action movie a little more gravitas than it might, even if the action would be better with a specialist.

A Thousand Junkies

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

At some point during A Thousand Junkies, a viewer will likely think it's getting dark, but of course it's been dark since the start, when its main trio got into their beat-up Volvo to score their first heroin of the day, and starting to get strung out really just emphasizes what the oddball banner had been hiding.

It's weirdly entertaining getting there, though, as the audience has a good laugh or ten at an entertainingly-mismatched group of characters and a bunch of frustrations that are individually very repayable and frustrating. It's good character comedy that plays almost like am exercise - how funny is this before you remember that the joke is specifically about trying to score drugs?

If there's a major flaw, it's that the cast doesn't necessarily sell the characters' anguish as the day goes on and they feel more sick. Maybe that's part of the point - that at a certain point, the tragedy is not that they're destroyed but that they can't imagine not doing drugs and this changing their ways. It makes for a movie that maybe doesn't stray as far from the black comedy as it is aiming to, but still works on that level.

Fritz Lang

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

Though there have likely been many biographies and articles written about Fritz Lang, most primarily know him through his films, and that is the way this picture chooses to approach him and his time, refusing to step outside of its subject and instead creating a sort of alternate reality where Lang's life was a Lang film. It's a bit of a risky play - writer/director Gordian Maugg is likely not in the category of the man he pays homage to as a filmmaker - but it's at the very least an interesting one.

As the film starts, it's October 1929 and Lang's Woman in the Moon is playing in German theaters, but the days of silent film are rapidly waning, and producer Seymour Nebenzal (Philipp Baltus) expects Lang's next to be a talkie. Unfortunately, Lang (Heino Ferch) and his wife/collaborator Thea von Harbou (Johanna Gastdorf) are having trouble coming up with a good script, so when he sees an item in the newspaper about Inspector Ernst Gennat (Thomas Thieme) leading the search for a serial killer in Dusseldorf, he hops a train and inserts himself into the investigation, which becomes an obsession when he lays eyes on Anna Cohn (Lisa Friederich), a friend of one of the victims who looks uncannily like Lang's late first wife Lisa.

I suspect that relatively little of the main action in Fritz Lang is based on actual fact in all but the loosest of senses; though Lang's research for his first sound film, M, was extensive, it did not extend to being part of the proximate case that inspired it. Instead, it plays as the sort of historical mystery that makes sleuths out of real-world figures, at least at first, but it soon pushes that into obliquely examining one of the darker points in Lang's life before returning to a narrative about the split between himself and von Harbou. It's an at times uneven journey, both because Lang's visitation of the actual killer in the last act seems like a bit much and because it can sometimes gloss over Lang's own less-sterling qualities and the depths of the turbulence in his relationships with his wives; a serial killer tends to overshadow things.

Full review on EFC.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

The IMDB entry for this is, if nothing else, up front about this being a pilot for a longer project, listing its title as "Rue: The Short Film", and it could probably make a decent basis for a feature. Maybe you wouldn't just drop it in as the pre-credits prologue - it's a little stilted and builds to a climax that you wouldn't necessarily want to start over from - but as something that's more a "tales from the world of Rue" thing, it would work, though it's a bit rough at spots.

On the plus side, it's got some nice work to it. Morgan Taylor Campbell may initially come off as know-it-all exposition girl, but once she storms out of the classroom and is just playing the character, she feels quite natural in her reactions as a teenager who thinks she's really smart and ahead of everyone else but has actually been hurt badly. It's also got a neat monster whose design is foreshadowed by the classroom decoration (a forest canopy made out of hands traced and cut out of construction paper), though I kind of hope a feature has some effects money to make it a bit more mobile.

I don't know if I'd actually see "Rue: The Feature" based on this - it needs a bit of work and practice - but there's enough that works to make it interesting.

Kodomo Tsukai (Innocent Curse)

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Takashi Shimizu may not entirely be a one-trick pony, but he spent the early portion of his career performing that one trick an awful lot, and while he may have done some more interesting things in the years since his direct involvement with the Grudge franchise ended ten years ago, they haven't made nearly the same splash internationally. It certainly makes Innocent Curse look like a sad case, though - a lot of the same creepy-kid shtick but terribly diminished returns, as a viewer is likely to feel less scared than sad for the people involved.

He doesn't seem to be messing around as things start, as an angry, abusive mother locks her daughter Runa out on the balcony and screams that if she'd rather be with her father, she might as well jump - only to have Runa mysteriously vanish and reappear, singing a strange song. Three days later, neighbor Yuri (Momoko Tanabe) discover's the mother's body, and when reporter Shunya Ezaki (Arioka Daiki) interviews her, Yuri's high-school classmates inform him of the legend of "Tommy's Curse", which has these sort of temporary disappearances and violent deaths. While Shunya's boss tells him to let go of such silliness, his girlfriend Naomi Harada (Mugi Kadowaki) is seeing reflections of her own abusive childhood in Ren (Haruto Nakano), a kid at the preschool where she works whose mother has just not shown up to pick him up. She takes him in, unaware that letting him call her "mommy" may be enough to make her the target of the pied-piper figure (Hideaki Takizawa) appearing to these abused and neglected children and their parents.

Child abuse is a repulsive-enough real-world horror that building a horror movie around it can seem like base exploitation from one side and like it diminishes something genuinely ugly from the other, and Innocent Curse has moments that do both. To Shimizu's credit, that opening scene with its anger hitting the soundtrack even before the studio logo has finished is legitimately ugly, as is a later one which lays forth the nastiness of a character we'd seen as mostly sympathetic. Far too often, though, it's reduced to a mere plot device, something that we know has happened to kids but which doesn't bring out the really visceral anger that it could. It's a poor match for the often silly parts of the script, as Shimizu and his collaborators never really twist the things that come from a kid's imagination into something truly nightmarish.

Full review on EFC.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Fantasia 2017.15: M.F.A., Drib, Town in a Lake, Dead Man Tells His Own Tale, and Good Time

A bit longer than I expected, as I was putting it at 50/50 that Dead Man Tells His Own Tale wouldn't let out in time for me to get into the night's big attraction, and it was close enough that I wondered if I should walk away, get an early start on writing, and let someone who needed it for their job have a seat. But first…

M.F.A. director Natalia Leite is on the left, talking about her film. I liked it, for the most part, although it was something of a case where I heard her talking about shooting the revenge-killing scenes as fantasy that I kind of hemmed and hawed, because they didn't really create the measure of excitement that I think she was going for, and I think that goes beyond me not being a woman, young or otherwise. It was, at least, interesting to hear her talk about shooting a rape scene first thing in the morning when nobody is really into it, despite knowing it's what the film needs. Non-sexual violence seems like it would easier to choreograph to not be so uncomfortable and scary.

The 3:30 show of Drib was moved across the street to Hall, which was kind of weird, although it gave me time to hit the Swiss watch/chocolate place for a hot dog and a 68% cacao Madagascar Chocolate milkshake. As much as it's a good sausage and shake, watching it change over the past years has been kind of amusing - it started out as very much a place where you could buy fancy Swiss wall clocks with a place to get chocolate off in a corner, but the layout has been a bit different every year, evolving to the present where it's basically a cafe with clocks serving as decoration and a back room where you can see more.

After that, it was back to de Seve for Dead Man Tells His Own Tale, and it's pretty darn cool to see someone I know brought up on stage to talk about her short. I've seen her at BUFF, of course, but it's a different thing when it's not your home festival.

Finally it was back across the street for Good Time, where I got this lovely seat:

… meaning that my pictures of Mitch, filmmakers Joshua & Ben Safdie, and star Robert Pattinson (who draws a crowd) earn the horrible photography tag:

Doesn't much matter; they made a pretty great film and give an exceptionally entertaining and informative Q&A, talking about how the guy playing "Jerome" in one of its jail scenes was someone who actually had spent time in jails and gangs (they used a lot of non-professional actors), and as a result did a lot of the blocking for them, making sure they go things right. Joshua talked a lot about how Cops, which is seen a couple times in the movie, really speaks to America in the 21st century a lot more than you'd like it to.

Friday's plan: Thousand Cuts, Darkland, A Thousand Junkies, Fritz Lang, and we'll see whether I'm more in the mood for Overdrive or Innocent Curse after that. Better Watch Out is pretty decent, and the free George Romero tribute screening of The Crazies is a good movie by a good dude.

"Red Handed"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

Nifty, though very compressed short about a woman dealing with a very persistent stalker, ultimately taking desperate measures to make sure he gets caught. I really like the first few minutes of this six-minute short, as it gets across the huge blind spot the law has where persistent harassment is concerned more as a distinct problem for the characters than as a lecture. It wobbles a bit toward the end, seemingly not quite sure how much weight to give to "clever" and "desperate" in the woman's eventual plan, and as a result doesn't quite stick the landing like it hopes to.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

Rape-revenge films are kind of nasty things, although this one at least had that it was written and directed by women going for it, which at least makes things a little less creepy and exploitative. Not necessarily different, perhaps, but one can watch it without second-guessing it so much - it's easier to watch a scene where a woman is painting naked as a sign of reclaiming her own agency where physicality is concerned and feel like that's actual intentions rather than an excuse that way, for sure.

That being the case, it's still kind of a movie that can't help but feel like it's checking things off, pointing out the things you need to know and it needs to say about campus rape culture but not necessarily digging deep into it or using that to establish a specific, unique situation. Noelle takes revenge for herself and others, in ways that are more real-world than elaborate, bit staying that far ahead of the police but finding new inspiration for her art.

(And, yeah, that's kind of gross no matter who is telling the story, although at least nobody brings up the idea that her horrible trains may be a blessing in disguise.)

Nice performance by Francesca Eastwood, though; she can rage and boil exceptionally well, and she's fantastic when she mousy needs to be in the immediate aftermath of her attack. I wonder how much she's meant to seem cognizant of the oddness of her using her sexuality to exact revenge, and how much of that comes from Eastwood.

Full review on EFC.

"Whiskey Fist"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2017 in 26 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

The framing device Gillian Wallace Horvat puts around this film - that it's a rejected script for a liquor company's short-film contest - is kind of brilliant, because not only does it enable her to bite the hand that feeds her in terms of talking about dumb branding stuff, but it really gives her free rein to do almost any crazy joke she can and have it not seem like going off the rails, because half of the joke is that the filmmaker was nuts to submit this.

Of course, that meta-level stuff mainly works if the core material is funny, and that is the case here; Horvat and her game cast sell the material with a great combination of deadpan and knowing reaction shots. I'd laugh hard even without that going on, but loved it even more for the multi-layer satire.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2017 in 26 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017: Documentaries from the Edge, DCP)

This probably only qualifies as a documentary for how it includes some original material that led up to the events depicted and cutaway bits that talk directly to the audience; otherwise it's all "recreations" that have a certain amount if license admittedly taken. If it's trying to be something a bit more than something based on a true story or have a bit more of a meta level, it's a bit short.

Fortunately, it's still quite funny; the absurdity of the situation is not as Kaufman-esque as the initial introduction makes it sound, but the cast had a good handle on when to go for weird and when play it as sane people in a crazy environment. In some ways, the L.A. advertising world can be too easy a target, but that doesn't make its specific sort of strange headspace and amorality less of a fine source of material.

DRIB probably isn't nearly as strange and out there as it would present itself as being, but it's solidly funny, and maybe would work better if it presented itself as more mainstream than it does.

Full review on EFC.

Matangtubig (Town in a Lake)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Highly recommended to me and I can see why - it's a moody piece that effectively shows the paralysis and denial that can come from having an unimaginable crime in one's midst, but those can be tough to make into a story that goes forward. Town in a Lake feels true and often traps into something real even in its more metaphorical moments, but it can be dull.

Still, it's got moments of brilliance, especially in a last act where reality seems to go off the rails - at first subtly, and then in undeniable ways that almost demand explanations that will not be forthcoming. It's a tough way to end, but one that works, giving the audience reason to consider just what people are willing to trade in order to feel like the world is safe.

"For a Good Time, Call…"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

As much as I like director Izzy Lee and writer Chris Hallock, and will miss them as they leave Boston for points south and west, there's no denying that I really like a much more focused horror film than they tend to make. The impulses behind this one are great, you can sort of see the connection between the guy who posts his revenge porn getting attacked after he encounters the original form of that (the number scrawled on the bathroom wall), but there's something to the leaps the short makes that puts me off - the monster doesn't quite seem a personification of what it represents, and the guy sort of seems to go into the rest-stop bathroom for the specific purpose of getting attack, just putting in earbuds rather than attending to any sort of business.

I'm glad to see Izzy continues to have strong pacing skills and a good team in cinematographer/editor Bryan McKay and musicians Give Zombies the Vote, and I think this is some of her best work with actors, too. Here's hoping that the move to L.A., with more available resources and a potentially more competitive environment, will get her up to the next level.

El Muerto Cuenta su Historia (Dead Man Tells His Own Tale)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

That took a couple of turns toward the end, and that night have been okay if the movie hadn't dwelled to get there. This tale of a sexist take who revives as a member of the undead controlled by a cabal of mysterious women could be a nice throwback to the original sort of zombie, but instead it spins its wheels, having a fun cast not really do anything until it's ready to get into supernatural mythology at the end, and then a stinger that's seemingly nothing but set-up for something we'll never see.

Good Time

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Good Time just moves, setting up what seems like a simple central relationship and then blowing it up by pushing Robert Pattinson's character into new bad situations, letting it slowly dawn on the audience that this isn't a good guy no matter how sympathetic his initial motives are. It makes for a fascinating shift, as the audience sees the astonishingly destructive chaos going on but is kind of stuck with Connie.

But what a run it is, as the Safdie Brothers never really let up, rolling one scenario into the next with almost no delay, never making the action moments into punctuation but instead just pushing through. It's a thing that keeps this night going and not necessarily worrying about how you'll get back to something.

And while it seems very street-level and simple-looking, it's got real style, from a flashback style to the credits to the pulsating soundtrack. The Safdies are great with sound and rhythm, to the extent that it pulls the audience through even when the visuals are chaotic and muddy.

Full Review at EFC

Fantasia 2017.14: 78/52, Friendly Beast, November, You Only Live Once, and DJ XL5's Cataclysmic Zappin' Party

Busy day, kind of weird at spots, too:

The director of 78/52 couldn't be there, but producers Annick Mahnert and Kerry Deignan Roy were, flanking King-Wei Chu during their post-screening Q&A. They mentioned that much of this project actually came together at Fantasia's "Frontieres" market a couple of years ago, which made them very glad to come back here. I was kind of surprised that one or two of the interviewees who were in the film also didn't show up (I think Richard Stanley is still hanging around), but they probably would have just been repeating what they said in the film. It was a fun discussion; they mentioned that Walter Murch was one of the first people they interviewed for the "sizzle reel", and the man had done his homework, with pages of notes for an interview that would prove to be the spine of the film.

Also mentioned: Much of the interview material was shot against green screen, so that everybody could be placed into the same setting, and director Alexandre O. Philippe wants to do a similar documentary about the chestburster in Alien, and I don't know if that merits quite the same examination, but I'll bet there's an audience.

Guests for Friendly Beast as well, with the hostess (have not yet caught her name), writer/director Gabriela Amaral Almeida, the credit/poster designer, and executive producer Ana Kormanski. I always feel a little bit vindicated when the director hits a few of the same topics that are bouncing around my head when talking about her movie, and her discussion of how Sara became somewhat animalistic because she didn't know what she was trying to become worked that way for me.

Nobody was there for November, although I probably wouldn't be able to stay because I wanted to run across the street for You Only Live Once rather than hang around for Tokyo Idols. Once there, I was glad to have arrived in time but disappointed to see that the scheduled short either played before I sat (not likely; it was 15 minutes and I was only 5 minutes or so after the start time) or was cancelled to give more room for a Q&A and facilitate a quick turnaround in Hall for the Zappin Party.

Then the Q&A got weird.

The guy on the left is a jury member, followed by ACTION! Programmer Eric S. Boisvert and director Federico Cueva. The question was about the metaphor of the movie, to which Cueva kind of casually said that there really wasn't one, followed by this guy getting up from the audience and half lecturing the director and the audience about what this movie was really about and how we didn't respond to a scene where the hero beats up some anti-semites satisfactorily. It went on for five or ten minutes, basically eating up any time for others to ask questions and not really giving Cueva a chance to answer. Really just the epitome of annoying Q&A behavior, both in terms of telling the filmmaker what he was thinking and trying to make it about yourself. It's not that I'm necessarily opposed to pressing on a tough question, but when people do this, I'm not sure what really gets accomplished. It often feels like a performance, more meant to show how clever you are than actually talk about the film.

Got me an action photo instead of something static, at least. Fortunately, we did have to clear out to let the Zappin Party set up, and it ended pretty quick. That next show had its own case of folks who tried to make themselves the show, but fighting meowing is a losing battle.

Thursday's Plan: M.F.A., Drib, Town in a Lake, Dead Man Tell His Own Tale (preceded by "For a Good Time, Call…" from my friends Izzy & Chris!), and then it will probably be a tight fit to get into Good Time and its guests. Ma Vie de Courgette outside is good stuff.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Documentaries from the Edge, DCP)

Do we really need an entire 90-minute documentary on the shower scene in Psycho? No, but then again, we don't need a lot of things that turn out to be pretty interesting, and Psycho was a pivotal moment in film history, with the shower scene one that absolutely everybody who has seen it remembers. You could spend a lot more than this time breaking it down - Hitchcock did take a full week to shoot that minute or so of film, after all, and then there was editing and music and all that, so there was thought put into it, and unpacking what seem like thought processes is usually worth doing.

It's probably not surprising that some of the best unpacking comes from editor Walter Murch, who has detailed an authoritative commentary on every cut and decision that Hitchcock and editor George Tomasini made - the man knows his craft and his voice and delivery are such that he can get out a lot of facts and not make it feel particularly dry. It's not necessarily something that could work for the whole film, which is why it's probably more useful than it sometimes appears for director Alexandre O. Philippe to cut to the next two or three generations of filmmakers who are sometimes just gushing or throwing out an undeveloped idea. It's lubricant, even if some (like professor Marco Calavita) are energetic enough to become off-putting.

Finding the right balance of what to recount, what's background, and interpretation can sometimes be difficult. The only primary source the movie really has left to talk to is Marli Renfro, the pin-up girl who served as Janet Leigh's body double, and her perspective is obviously very specific. There are moments when Philippe seems to be giving Psycho and this scene in particular a bit more of a position as a definitive picture of America in the early 1960s than is perhaps warranted, and there are moments when he seems to stretch when finding threads running through Hitchcock's life and career.

This is perhaps not essential viewing for those who like movies and this one in particular - there's nothing wrong with being more interested in reacting to something than analyzing it. It's a pretty good primer on how movies work, and a fine response when people dismiss the idea of caring about the quality of a genre film, because it demonstrates just how much deliberate effort goes into crafting a good one.

Full review on EFC.

O Animal Cordial (Friendly Beast)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Friendly Beast looks like a pretty typical single-location hostage thriller, a group of somewhat disagreeable people having guns pointed at them by petty criminals in way over their heads, but it's not very long before filmmaker Gabriela Amaral Almeida takes a hard turn, making a movie that, plot-wise, makes almost no sense as coming from that situation. And yet, once it gets rolling, it works; we certainly buy these characters feeling under-appreciated and disrespected enough to take this opportunity to seize the moment and the film.

Indeed, there are times when it seems like the filmmaker has more or less dispensed with plot to venture into a surreal world where dominance games of sex and violence happen entirely as their own thing without having any sort of specific goal. It's fascinating to watch the central pair, as one has such a specific idea of who he is and should be that he's almost oblivious to how he's destroying everything that supports that while another is so uncertain of her goals that she devolves into something practically bestial, while the people in another room can't even plot an escape or try to outwit their captors because they straight up cannot understand what they are dealing with. There's really no place for this to go, but the performances by Murilo Benicio and Luciana Paes as they run in place are too fascinating to pass up.

Eventually, the movie has to come to an ending, and there's a lot of fake blood on the way to that point - it's a fairly gruesome film even if it doesn't have a lot of special creativity in its kills, although Amaral Almeida manages to avoid the point where it's just rote violence. The tension is built well enough that she doesn't really need an obviously-shocking bit of action choreography to pay it off, especially if what she's trying to show is a slow, inevitable sink into a mire there may be no crawling out of.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Rainer Sarnet's Estonian fantasy opens with some familiar, but beautifully-lensed, stark images of life in and around a poor, pre-industrial village, and just as you're starting to form an image of what this movie will be like, it drops some utterly bizarre fantasy elements into the mix as a family's kratt goes berserk from lack of work, stealing the cow and trying to lift it like a helicopter before having its mind blown after being told to make a ladder out of bread like a computer trying to parse illogic in an original-series Star Trek episode. If you've never heard of a kratt before, it's a jaw-dropping display of WTFery to open the film on. For those raised on the Disney-fied versions fairy tales that came out of Western Europe, Eastern European folklore is weird.

Weirder still - Sarnet basically spends the movie accepting its premises while still allowing some modern vernacular to make its way in. The crossroads demon is neither regal, creepy, nor mischievous, for instance; he's a loudmouthed jerk who can be fooled but not pushed around. Witchcraft works, the plague is a shapeshifting creature that can be made to swear oaths, and departed relatives enjoy a nice sauna on All Soul's Day. It's a world where medieval superstitions have some basis in fact but which is fascinating because the people in it, from infatuated young Liina (Rea Les) and Hans (Jorgen Liik) on up, are all people we can relate to. Not always happily - life is cruel and requires grabbing for anything you can get in this place, so that person you understand is probably ready to screw over someone else you kind of like. There's a weary acceptance that takes some of the edge off, though, and enough genuine love in the hearts of Liina and Hans to give the audience some hope.

It's also a downright gorgeous film - cinematographer Mart Taniel shoots in exceptionally crisp black and white and finds compositions that are striking in how well they use the entirety of the screen or sink into it, while the rest of the filmmakers find bits of life to inject into what could be a boringly grimy setting, with even the Baron's mansion majestic even if it seems a bit run-down. But eventually, you can't help but come back to the casual wonder of the fantastic, with the makeshift kratts animated as what looks like fantastic puppetry and simple yet striking effects hinting at a magical, if dangerous, world.

I gasped at what I perceived as invention a lot, although I don't know how much is the case - though Sarnet (working from a novel by Andrus Kivirahk) is reach back to the Estonia of a couple centuries ago, you see this kind of strangeness in Baba Yaga's chicken-legged hut, the films of Jan Svankmajer and Andrei Tarkovsky, or even those weird Polish movie posters people periodically rediscover. This material has always been out in the world, but only rarely placed right in front of our eyes, and I hope like heck that this gets a fair-sized release, because it's romantic, tragic, funny, and exhilarating to discover.

Full review on EFC.

Sólo se vive una vez (You Only Live Once)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Action!, DCP)

Boy, is You Only Live Once a mess, starting from a solid thriller set-up, moving through some genuinely inventive action beats, before spending the bulk of the film in a hackneyed set-up that overlooks some pretty darn basic things in order to make the "hiding-out" comedy work, before getting back into some over-the-top action toward the end. It's a genuinely dumb script that decides on a tone but not really a cast, often seeming to make things up as it goes along.

But it turns that into energy, which is not necessarily something that a lot of action-comedies can say. Peter Lanzani makes a cheerful scoundrel of a star here, selling the improvised escapes better than the times when he's got to be a flat-out action hero, and he's able to create infectious chemistry no matter what cast members he's paired with. He's given a good group of Euro-trash villains, too - while Gerard Depardieu is mostly picking up a paycheck and a free trip to Buenos Aires, he's able to create some genuine menace while still having some funny bits, and Santiago Segura and Hugo Silva are both pretty good as the guys on the ground. I wish there was more for the women in the picture to do, because both Eugenia Suarez and Arancha Marti are a lot of fun.

The action sometimes seems to be a little too big to be thrilling - gigantic explosions that are basically jokes about how much overkill is going on and machine-gun fire that really should hit more fleeing characters if only by accident - but that's probably better than too gritty for a action-comedy that is this silly most of the time. It doesn't really make for a great film, but it hangs together much better than it could.

Full review on EFC.

DJ XL5's Cataclysmic Zappin' Party

Seen 25 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

DJ XL5's show is a cornerstone of the festival, mixing twenty-odd shorts with clips of things that the people involved probably wished was forgotten. Since most of them are really short, I'll just give the highlights bullet points:

  • "Road Runner" by Mercier François - Fun little twist on how certain cartoon characters have only the vaguest resemblance to the animals they are supposed to be (there's a fun bit in Chuck Amuck where Chuck Jones tries to reconcile them, winding up with "well, they're both from Tasmania"). Like a lot of Zappin Party bits, the premise is the joke, but François does it quickly and well.
  • "Couples Night" by The Summers Brothers - Amusing premise (work friends get together, discover something uncomfortable) done well gets pushed aside for a top-this twist. Not an uncommon occurrence in genre-festival comedy shorts, to the point where it can basically be discounted, so it's easy enough to say I liked it for the game acting in the first couple minutes and shrugged off the last minute or so.
  • "Simon's Cat: Bed Sheets, Laser Toy, and The Monster" - Three shorts from Simon Tofield that once again have his cat basically being a troublemaking cat, and any laughs Simon gets at the cat's expense are quickly countered by the cute little thing's claws. Still funny, with the extra-cartoony "The Monster" a standout.

    (Obligatory "guys, your meowing is annoying before the movie starts and just dumb during the actual shorts, because what fan just stomps over something's careful comic timing like that?" comment)
  • "Sans réponse (Without Answer)" by William Papadin - Another staple, the B&W art-house spoof with pretentious narration. This one's a good'un, with a final bit that makes everything coming before a bit funnier.
  • "CTRL-Z" by Alexandre Mullen - I swear there was something right along these lines at BUFF, but this one's funnier, especially as it gets its big laughs from something having to do with the basic premise, rather than a "things get really weird" finish.
  • "Girl #2" by David Jeffery - Very solid horror spoof that's clearly a cut or two above some of the other material production-quality-wise (they even got Sean Callery to do some of the music). Plays its last joke out a bit, but funny how it pulls the catfighting and survival horror together.
  • "Godblocked" by Chadd Harbold - Cute idea, although I don't know that the personalities for God/dead jerk/pretty blind date really clicked enough for me here.
  • "The Accomplice" by John F. Beach & Jon Hoeg - I liked this one quite a bit, even the wonkiness on its ramp-up. Maybe 17 answering machine messages was a little bit much to tell the story, but the imperfection of it contributes to the panicky feel nicely.
  • "Hologram Cop/L.A. Ninja" double feature by Calder Greenwood - All readers probably know where I stand on making deliberately crappy-looking spoof/homages, but I still laughed at a couple bits of "Hologram Cop" enough to feel a bit saddened when what I presumed would be one of my favorite characters if this were a movie rather than a fake preview bit it, and really liked the effect that "L.A. Ninja" ended on. There's some genuine talent here, so I hope they push themselves to make something genuinely good rather than using "it's supposed to be bad" as a crutch.
  • "Happy End" by Jan Saska - Niftily structured animated dark comedy that sometimes moves a bit too fast and has a style that may make what's happening sink in a bit slower than it should, but the amusingly gross black comedy is good and the final bit works really well, given a moment or two to sink in.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Fantasia 2017.13: The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue; Almost Coming, Almost Dying; Death Note: Light Up the New World, and Atomic Blonde

Huh - Between the end of Monday and the start of Tuesday, I saw five Japanese films in a row, effectively an entire day. That's kind of unusual for this festival, though it might not have been in its earlier days when it was far more Asia-focused. Interesting.

Director Toshimasa Kobayashi was on-hand for Almost Coming, Almost Dying, and he was memorably upbeat and high-energy. I'm afraid most of the Q&A questions were in French, so I didn't get a lot of information out of it, although I did glean that he had to change the design of title character "Kumoman" somewhat from that of the original comic because, apparently, the original manga-ka was influenced by some other character.

The streak ended with Atomic Blonde, which was fun, but before that was Death Note: Light Up the New World, where the most fun came from King-wei Chu writing an audience member's name in his own Death Note as a warning not to pull your cell phone out. As I wasn't impressed, I'm mildly curious how many in the audience would have preferred a sneak preview of the Death Note Adam Wingard did for Netflix - it looks like a different thing, but it has to be better than the mostly-boring sequel was.

Wednesday's plan: 78/52, Friendly Beast, November, You Only Live Once, and DJ XL5's Cataclysmic Zappin' Party. Colossal, playing outside, is pretty good

Yozora wa Itsudemo Saiko Mitsudo no Aoiro da (The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Camera Lucida, DCP)

It's unusual for a film to be based upon a book of poetry, even one with a title like "The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue" which frequently allows one of its characters to narrate with a voice that is piquant in its cynicism. Seeing the credit for poet Tahi Sihate is a little more surprising given that director Yuya Ishii adapts it into a film that has a strong narrative despite appearing to be just as focused on what its characters think as what they do.

The narration comes from Mika (Shizuka Ishibashi), a nurse in Tokyo who earns extra money in a hostess bar, though as you might expect from someone whose thoughts tilt toward the dark, she's pouring drinks rather than putting on a big smile and flirting with the customers. That's where she bumps into a trio of construction workers - uncertain Shinji (Sosuke Ikematsu), sarcastic Toshiyuki (Ryuhei Matsuda), and homesick Filipino Adres (Paul Magsign). As they both live or work in the Shibuya section of Tokyo, Mika and Shinji find their paths crossing regularly and they start to form a tentative friendship, even if Toshiyuki is the one that asks Mika out.

It's a sign of just how well-sketched the characters in this film are that Mika can talk about how love does not exist on this earth and also say it's stupid and destructive without the viewer saying, hey, take a cynical side here, or feel like she or Ishii is just being antagonistic. Ishii sets actress Shizuka Ishibashi a difficult task in making Mika so generally abrasive without quite pushing the audience away, especially since he doesn't give her cool, snarky lines to lean on. Ishibashi proves good at directing Mika's doubts inward and presenting her as frank and suspicious but not mean, at a certain remove but showing that she's not aloof even if she may seem disengaged.

That she's not obviously the way she presents herself most of the time is something made more pointed in her male counterpart Shinji, who is alternately characterized as silent or needing to fill any time with talk. Fortunately, the jump from one side to the other never seems artificial or arbitrary, indeed, some of the most enjoyable moments come when it feels like Shinji has found a way into a conversation and Sosuke Ikematsu captures that moment of breathless excitement. Just as Ishibashi spends a fair amount of time finding just how relatively surly Mika can be without it pushing the audience away, Ikematsu is toeing the line where Shinji's eagerness can be a legitimate annoyance to Toshiyuki but not the audience. It's especially intriguing to watch how, for much of the movie, Mika's attitude may be rubbing off on Shinji more than the other way around, and the viewer isn't necessarily happy to see Shinji get grumpier, but the performance is walking a nice line between him deliberately trying to adopt her attitude and him letting a little bit of what he may have bottled up out.

As a result, the movie plays as a very specific sort of pessimistic at times, as Mika and Shinji can freely look at Tokyo and say that there's a lot about the place where they live that they don't like without sounding like twenty-somethings trying to act like they're above something popular or cool. No, they've got a very specific sort of self-awareness that often seems hard-won, and it's interesting to see them try to engage or not, frequently getting really frustrated, because as much as the audience can see that they are damaged in ways that would probably make them good for each other, that's a hard way for someone to see themselves. Writer/director Yuya Ishii is pretty good at letting them stumble and potentially hurt each other without really angering the audience; even more so than in his previous films to play Fantasia (Sawako Decides and Mitsuko Delivers), he shows a knack for instilling patience in an audience that might otherwise be inclined to ask what these people think they've got going on that's better. It's especially interesting as the film takes a bit of a risk in introducing characters new to the audience in the form of ex-lovers and family members late in the process. It's a move that can often feel like cheating to force a resolution if the new folks came across as strictly straw men that don't measure up to the main characters or targets Mika & Shinji needed new experiences to attain, but they come with complicated-enough stories of their own to become interesting additions.

Ishii and cinematographer Yoichi Kamakari have a bit of a challenge in shooting Tokyo here in a way that's clearly neither love letter not the opposite, although it's interesting to note that, even as they get out of the crowded areas, empty spaces are usually shrouded in darkness, while Mika's trip home reveals a brightness and openness that is almost completely disconnected from the city - indeed, we don't even see her near a train station; it's almost as if getting out of the city teleports her into a different world. There's a lot of careful decisions that aren't nearly so obvious as the ones in his previous films, and he tones down the obvious eccentricity as well, like he's got a clearer view of youth here compared to the somewhat odd perspectives he specialized in before.

This makes The Tokyo Night Sky… less aggressively quirky than what Ishii has done before, more like an earnest North American indie, though it's got a frankness that seems to work better in Japanese films than many other cultures'. It's a plain-spokenness that comes to the fore and sticks in the memory even amid arch language, animated segments, and sometimes random plot developments, giving the film an appealing, memorable sort of honesty.

Dead link to review on EFC.

Kumoman (Almost Coming, Almost Dying)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, Blu-ray)

There's a likely bit of truth in the way Almost Coming, Almost Dying slows down after a bizarre, titillating beginning: Recovery is not always hard in a way that obviously challenges someone, but it's often kind of boring and/or embarrassing, with a lot of waiting to see if something has healed properly or not being sure how to ask if this illness has affected something intimate. And so, after a fair amount of funny nudity and a themed "massage parlor" to open things up and get Manabu (Misoo No) into the hospital, the rest of the movie seldom strays far from his bed as he spends a month convalescing from a particularly ill-timed brain hemorrhage.

It could be deadly-dull stuff (although I suspect that some Americans may find six weeks of care without worries about paying for it more enticing than what comes before), but the filmmakers are good at finding the little things that are weird or unnerving or thought-provoking and giving them just enough room to play out and lead into the next one without ever seeming to focus too much on any one thing, preserving both the singular point-of-view of the autobiographical manga being adapted without making something too navel-gazing. They're also mindful of how they use the "Kumoman" mascot - a furry that personifies both Manabu's RCVS and his fear of another seizure - not letting the weird thing overtake the humans at the center or letting that fear get shunted too far aside.

It makes for a small movie, the sort of small-scale autobiographical indie that can be hard to find amid things with greater apparent import that take them more seriously, but it works in the same way that the type of comics it is based on do, injecting a little visual metaphor into something serious.

Full review on EFC.

Death Note: Light Up The New World

* * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Action!, DCP)

Was there really any particular demand for another spin-off of the theatrical Death Note series, or was the recent Japanese live-action television adaptation just a reminder to the rights-holders that there was money to be made? It doesn't particularly matter, I suppose, because this new addition coming ten years after the pretty entertaining 2006 two-parter is the worst sort of legacy sequel, picking up the convoluted mythology of the first but lacking the characters who initially got their hooks into the audience, or any particularly interesting successors.

A prologue states that the God of Death was so entertained by the chaos caused by the Death Notes ten years ago that he sent a dozen more of these magic notebooks to Earth, allowing a whole new set of people to kill someone just by writing the victim's name (and, optionally, manner of death) while picturing his or her face. The Death Note Task Force is revived, this time led by Interpol detective - and L's "true heir" - Tsukuru Mishima (Masahiro Higashide) and masked private investigator Ryuzaki Arai (Sosuke Ikematsu). It soon becomes clear that someone is trying to take control of all the Notes, quite possibly Yuki Shien (Masaki Suda), a hacker who considers himself "Kira's Messenger". He has sent a "Kira Virus" out that hints that the original Kira, Light Yamagi, is somehow still alive, which draws in Misa Amane (Erika Toda), now a successful actress whose memory of having used a Death Note was erased even if her feelings for Yamagi linger.

That paragraph likely sounds impenetrable for those who haven't encountered this material in one form or another before (there is the original manga, an animated adaptation, the two previous live-action movies which spawned spinoff L: Change the World, the Japanese live-action TV series, and the recent American live-action film), although odds are that there aren't many of those in the film's target audience: Death Note was a phenomenon in Japan and one of the country's most popular cultural exports for a time. And there's certainly potential in a sequel, with an international scope and a "new world" of social media interaction that offers more at both extremes of anonymity and transparency that was just getting started when the earlier iterations came out. Though few characters survived the previous movies, you could probably build a heck of a thriller or satire around Misa as what looks to be a mature, decent woman whose celebrity is built on infamy she can no longer fully recall alone.

Unfortunately, the screenwriters for the new movie are not nearly that ambitious. Light Up the New World spends much of its running time repeating of the plot twists of the first movies, like it's too timid to expand the mythology in ways that weren't in the original manga even if that set-up was specifically designed to force the story down a single path. The film is basically starting from scratch, but the filmmakers don't seem to have the guts (or interest) to be as enjoyably loopy as its predecessors were, with the main new things of interest a couple of new Reaper designs. Indeed, the mostly-boring group of supporting characters implies that this group of filmmakers don't really get that part of the originals' appeal was that, underneath the slick black-and-white aesthetic and high-minded questions of morality, they could get genuinely weird - Light, L, Misa, Ryuk, and even L's butler Watri were broad, entertaining characters, maybe not realistic but memorable. Instead, this one mainly ups the body count and makes the conspiracies more realistic, and that's not nearly as cool as the surprises that were in store ten years ago.

Part of this, perhaps, comes from Shinsuke Sato directing the film. Currently on a string of capably adapting various manga thrillers and light novels into mainstream hits, he does a good job of cranking up the tension during a confrontation and has a good eye for using the deep blacks and offsetting whites that has always been this franchise's look, even if he doesn't polish them quite so much as Shusuke Kaneko and his team did with their movies. He benefits from ten years of improvement in visual effects technology, too; Ryuk and the other demons have gotten a nice visual upgrade without changing their look. The filmmakers do a fair job of taking a group of far-out concepts and getting them down to a scale where the audience can connect.

Indeed, fans of the previous Japanese Death Note movies will likely be happy to get a little more of that, and the filmmakers never really screw things up. That's faint praise for a series that previously built a satisfying cliffhanger out of a smirk but here tones down the melodrama even while talking a good game about raising the stakes.

Dead link to review on EFC.

Atomic Blonde

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Action!, DCP)

Atomic Blonde is an odd duck, a Cold War spy movie that probably couldn't be made until after the Berlin Wall fell, and which is so dominated by a few extraordinary action scenes that the double-dealing and betrayal almost becomes a side note. That's not a bad choice at all - the story is one more game of spy v. spy that's not going to stick in one's memory, but those fights in the middle of East German apartment buildings are ones to rewatch.

The time is November 1989, and though the Berlin Wall will still come down, that in some ways makes the activity going on by the world's intelligence agencies even more frantic as they race toward an uncertain future. British agent James Gasciogne (Sam Hargrave) has recently acquired a list of all known agents in Europe from a source, but he is killed by Soviet agent Yuri Bakhtin (Jóhannes Jóhannesson) and the list - stored inside a Swiss watch - stolen. Bakhtin intends to sell it, but MI-6 is sending agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) in to find and retrieve it, with loose-cannon station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) providing support. Complicating things are a young French agent (Sofia Boutella) endeavoring to look over their shoulders, the Stasi agent who provided the list (Eddie Marsan) saying he has it memorized and therefore needs immediate exfiltration for himself and his family, and word that it will reveal the name of a highly-placed double agent.

This is all told in flashback as Lorraine is debriefed in London, apparently as an excuse to have Toby Jones and John Goodman as her interrogators, and it's sometimes a weird way to go about it - there's little that is actually revealed or explained during the interrogation scenes, and while it seems likely that she will reveal that one of them (or one of the folks on the other side of the two-way mirror) is the traitor, not much is done to tease that possibility beyond the audience basically knowing how spy movies work. They do, perhaps, serve another purpose - while these scenes don't quite bring the Berlin action to a crashing halt, they are somewhat useful reminders that the filmmakers have a moody, morally-ambivalent spy story going on in the middle of the bombastic 1980s nostalgia and action.

Maybe "nostalgia" isn't quite the right word for the way that director David Leitch and his crew treat the late-1980s setting, but they lean hard on the period accoutrements, making darn sure that everybody is dressed in the most garish but somehow stylish clothes to be found in a Berlin disco during that period rather than something gray (or black) and invisible, while the soundtrack leans heavily on the decade's most memorably dated hits. It's sometimes a little much - the inevitable sound of "99 Luftballons" on the soundtrack is on-the-nose enough for the reaction to be more "of course they went there" than "hey, great song for this scene" - but it's certainly eye-catching and serves as a nice reflection of the real-life events unfolding nearby, as history is being made less by James Bond in his tux or bureaucrats in their gray suits than young people standing up for themselves.

The spy characters are still necessarily ciphers at times, though. Charlize Theron's Lorraine is cool and sexy and completely confident that she's the smartest person in almost every room, but can't help but feel like an empty vessel, giving little indication of just what makes her tick, with fierceness and physicality admittedly a decent substitute. You get a little more characterization out of James McAvoy, Sofia Boutella, and Eddie Marsan as her allies, with McAvoy given a lot of the best non-fight material as the spy who has embraced his job's need for amorality and who seems to be having fun sneaking under the wall to buy off East Germans with the fruits of capitalism.

Then again, Lorraine and the film both seem to come to life when the film dives into its action sequences, and former stuntman David Leitch probably gives the fight choreography and other stuntwork a heck of a lot more consideration than many directors would. The result is immediately apparent on-screen, with long takes showing just what Theron and stunt double Monique Ganderton, as well as the rest of the cast, are pulling off, getting across just how bruising and exhausting smashing through a bunch of physically larger enemies can be while never losing track of what's going on. He pointedly uses the setting to his advantage - everything in 1989 East Berlin seems to be made of metal rather than the plastic of later years, and as such looks like it hurts when it hits, while the lightweight East German cars get tossed about in really satisfying ways during chases (probably in large part CGI, but done well).

Is anybody going to particularly care who the double agent is by the end of Atomic Blonde? Not likely. Are they going to be talking about the brutal gauntlet Lorraine has to run to get "Spyglass" out of the city, and wishing that more action movies had something that thrilling? Yes, absolutely; it's fantastic, the sort of material that elevates spies moving pawns around a chessboard into something thrilling and definitely worth checking out.

Dead link to review on EFC.