Monday, July 24, 2017

Fantasia 2017.11: The H-Man, Broken Sword Hero, What a Wonderful Family! 2, and The Sheriff in Town

Lots of guests one day, nearly none the next - although, to be fair, I bailed on what was probably one of the centerpiece, guest-intensive things of the festival as I skipped King Cohen because I figured it would run into The Sheriff in Town. It turned out that I didn't really love that one - it's a clever idea and you can constantly see what it's going for, but only clicks about half the time - but I don't regret the choice that much; I'm weirdly incurious about the history of cult movies and people behind them, especially if they're of relatively recent vintage. So, sure, I would have loved if the presentation on Ishiro Honda that preceded The H-Man had been a little more focused and mapped out for the time it had, because I'm just as fascinated by the other material that goes with the story of Honda's life and work, but I'll happily give a seat at the Larry Cohen tribute to someone who is really excited about being in the room.

Today: Junk Head, The Laplace's Demon, Love and Other Cults, and The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio. Most Beautiful Island is good enough that I'm tempted to see it again with the director in attendance, you all already know what Terminator 2 is although an early look at the 3D conversion/restoration might be neat, and Q: The Winged Serpent is a thoroughly bizarre thing on 35mm.

Bijo to ekitai ningen (The H-Man)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Ishiro Honda, 35mm)

Probably my only 35mm throwback at Fantasia this year, it's a bummer that the print was dubbed in a way that probably couldn't have sounded great in 1959, much less 2017 (if the idea of a sub is to make it easier to swallow, what was with the stereotypical accents except when Chikako is singing?). It is a bit of a minor work from the director of the original Gojira, but kind of fun as a genre mash-up in ways they didn't do as much at the time when the original genre films were thriving, a cops & criminals picture that suddenly takes a detour to a mysterious ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and then deals with gangsters and oozing monsters in equal measure.

Literally oozing; "H-Man" is a viscous radioactive liquid that may or may not have any memory of being human, and while it's weird and a little creepy, it's only immediately threatening once in a while. It's a good thing that everything about the rest of the movie, from the cops to the crooks to the psychedelic burlesque at a nightclub, is kind of neat and off-kilter, and probably more fun with a subtitled print.

Thong Dee Fun Khao (Broken Sword Hero)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Action, DCP)

What makes a great martial arts action movie? The obvious first part of the answer - "great martial arts action" - is right there in the question, but while fans will often accept other deficiencies if a film delivers that, they often want a little more than just the promise of another fight in between action scenes. Broken Sword Hero takes a stab at delivering that, but unless one is particularly invested in Thai fighting techniques and history, it's a bit of a mixed bag.

The film introduces the viewer to Thongdee (Buakaw Banchamek) as an adult running from a horde of pursuers, but quickly flashes back to him similarly on the run as a kid, when he's called "Joi" and bullied by the governor's sun Cherd. They're still enemies as adults, when Cherd (Nantawut Boonrubsub) and his uncle Panritdeja pursue Thongdee to a boxing camp. The pair's pursuit spurs Thongdee to move on, studying various martial arts at other camps, with young Boonkerd (Vannapoom Songsuparp) tagging along. They make a number of friends both in training and on the road, with Thongdee particularly taken by Ramyong (Sornsin Maneewan), who leaped from a caravan to defend her sisters from apparent Burmese invaders, and as a result attracting the attention of her uncle Rueang (Phutharit Prombandal), who has an important position in a different governor's staff.

The festival program hints that the star of this movie, Bukaw Banchamek, could be the next Tony Jaa, and he certainly seems to have the muay thai bona fides to pull that off; a four-time champion and solidly built dude (who also played professional soccer), there's little surprise when he jumps into a fray and starts trading effective-looking blows or just lays someone out quickly. He can certainly move and perform the athletic feats necessary. Charisma-wise, it's kind of hard to tell how he'll shape up given more acting roles, but he looks like he might make for a good "inexperienced guy befuddled by weird situation" sort of hero.

Unfortunately, he doesn't get a whole lot of chance to really play a character in this picture, because despite the plots that sort of develop around the edges, there is really nothing to this movie but boxing. Thongdee goes to one boxing camp, spars with the master's best student as an audition, trains, gets into a bigger fight, and then moves on to the next one. It's not even really a case that he seems obsessed with becoming known as the country's best fighter or the like, or that he's always in immediate danger of discovery; there's just no drive to get from one situation to another (Cherd sort of disappears as a factor at one point, and it's not like he's missed, but it's an example of how what's important aside from Thongdee learning to fight fluctuates semi-randomly in this movie). He accumulates a few sidekicks almost randomly, and though they're often pretty good ones - there's even a nice moment when a fighter kicked to the side for losing one fight joins the group and Thongdee recalls that happening to him without it having to make it into the dialog - the star isn't quite actor enough to make it feel like a makeshift family rather than other guys hanging around.

Full review on EFC.

Kazoku wa tsuraiyo 2 (What a Wonderful Family! 2)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Yoji Yamada is obviously not going to make as many What a Wonderful Family! movies as he did Tora-san entries; production moves slower these days even if I suspect that he is writing what he knows in terms of infusing these comedies with themes about the challenges of aging as well as the sillier bits of farce that push the plots forward. But I hope he keeps going; I've grown fond of the Hirata family and love the studio-era traditionalism found here.

This one follows up on the first, probably a year or two later, and for the most part everything is as Yamada left it - Shuzo Hirata (Isao Hashizume) and his wife Tomiko (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) did not wind up divorcing, but they do spend most of their time doing their own things. Eldest son Konosuke (Masahiko Nishimura), his wife Fumie (Yui Natsukawa), and their own sons Kenichi (Takanosuke Nakamura) and Nobusuke (Ayumu Marumaya) still live with them, but youngest son Shota (Satoshi Tsumabuki) has married Noriko Mamiya (Yu Aoi) and moved out. Fumie notes that Shuzo's car has a fresh dent or two on it, and suggests his daughter Shigeko (Tomoko Nakajima) talk to him about giving up his driver's license, but everyone is kind of afraid to confront him about that. Meanwhile, as Tomiko takes a trip to Scandinavia to see the Northern Lights, Shuzo and lady friend Kayo (Jun Fubuki) encounter one of his old high school classmates, Ginpei Maruta (Nenji Kobayashi), handsome and from a successful family back in the day but living alone and working a road crew at the age of 73 now.

Full review on EFC.

Boangwan (The Sheriff in Town)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Filmmaker Kim Hyung-joo has a pretty great concept for an action-comedy here, as the cop who breaks all the rules actually gets fired for a botched investigation but becomes something other than a P.I. who has crawled into the bottle, but you've got to be true to the references you make, and if you start out specifically name-checking Chow Yun-fat in John Woo's A Better Tomorrow, that's the scale you should probably be working on. It's a fun story, but don't promise a riff on John Woo's best if what you've got is something closer to a 1980s TV spoof.

Five years ago, Detective Choi Dae-ho (Lee Sung-min) charged into a situation without waiting for back-up, hoping to get closer to meth kingpin "Popeye" by capturing his lieutenant Shin Il-sik (Jeong Man-sik), but instead his partner was stabbed, Il-sik got away, and the police only captured frightened mule Koo Jong-jin (Choi Jin-woong). That gets you fired, but five years later, Dae-ho isn't despondent; he's returned to Kijang, Busan, a pretty easy-going beach town where he's gone into business with brother-in-law Deok-man (Kim Sung-kyun) and become the unofficial sheriff. He and his "Voluntary Crime Prevention Group" are looking askance at the "Beach Town" development, and it only gets weirder that when it turns out to be funded by Jong-jin, who after serving two years struck it rich in the traditional medicine business and credits it all to the kindness Dae-ho showed the night he was arrested. But with meth showing up in Kijang just as Jong-jin shows up, Dae-ho can't help but be suspicious - or does he just want to see some real action again?

Even when this sort of crime story is played straight, the cop is frequently the least entertaining part of the movie, and while that's not entirely the case here, Lee Sung-min never quite clicks as Dae-ho the way that Choi Jin-woong does as Jong-jin. Choi's part is the rare comic performance that is funny foot just how level it is rather than how it shifts in tone and manages to maintain that over the course of a feature-length film, with Choi always finding the point where Jong-jin is hitting his exaggerated bonhomie in a way that is not normal but not really deadpan, and it's never not funny. This is, perhaps, because it is in large part a response to Lee getting increasingly frantic as Dae-ho, but Lee doesn't have as many gears as Choi does, so the build-up of Dae-ho's suspicions isn't quite the escalating tension it could be.

Full review on EFC.

Fantasia 2017.10: Napping Princess, Dead Shack, Pork Pie, A Day, and Money's Money

Fantasia 2017.10: Napping Princess, Dead Shack, Pork Pie, A Day, and Money's Money

A fun, guest-filled day, starting with the very enjoyable Napping Princess, which I guess is the name GKids will use when releasing Ancien and the Magic Tablet in North America, although it didn't appear on the DCP projected, actually making some of the folks neat me think it was the short before the main feature. Weird, but I'm glad this will come out in the USA and probably hit video around Christmas, because I think my nieces will dig a lot of it, even if the big action finale is way too much and probably shouldn't even be there at all.

The day's first guests were the makers of Dead Shack, from left to right co-writers Phil Ivanusic and Davila LeBlanc, co-error and director Peter Ricq, and producer Amber Ripley. They made a pretty decent movie, despite my going in thinking basically "it's this or Turkish camp", and I suspect a lot of folks will like the stuff I didn't really go for.

I do like that they got genuine kids for the movie, although the filmmakers pointed out that it made an already short shooting schedule even shorter, since the kids could effectively only work dove hours a day. There are apparently a lot of scenes where one of the folks in the picture doubled for a young cast member.

Matt Murphy (right) made the trip from New Zealand to talk about how Pork Pie was a family affair, as he not only adapted a movie his father made but had siblings and other family members directing second unit, working on costumes, and the like. He said it was still very different from the movie his father made, both in terms of character choices and technology. And, in answer to a question, that Mini was pretty helpful, although they went through one and a half cars - one a total loss, one not really usable because of all the equipment they bolted onto it, including a rig that would allow someone to drive it sitting on the roof while the actors performed, and they actually sold the last one to help finance the film.

Director Cho Sun-ho was there for A Day, and he got a fairly impressive ovation for a guy who, near as I can tell, doesn't really have anything out there that would make him a particular favorite with the audience. It was a fair Q&A, given how twisty questions on a time-loop movie can be and that can't be easy going through a translator.

And, finally, today's "I should really learn French again" event photo has Géla Babluani, director of Money's Money, in the center and I think a cast member on the right introducing the film (he didn't come out for the Q&A afterward). It was a pretty low-key session, with me mainly picking up that Babluani wasn't really interested in violence, but often found it the best way to tell his stories.

For Sunday: The H-Man, Broken Sword Hero, What a Wonderful Family! 2, and The Sheriff in Town. Bastard Swordsman is enough fun that I considered swapping it in for Broken Sword Hero depending on how long the presentations with H-Man go, and might have tried to squeeze November or King Cohen in between Family and Sheriff.

Hirune-hime: Shiranai watashi no monogatari (Ancien and the Magic Tablet, aka Napping Princess)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Axis, DCP)

I judge animated movies based in part on niece-appropriateness these days, and roughly five minutes into this, I was seeing a fantasy about an awesome little girl whose magic power is basically knowing how to code, so, heck yes, I was ready to pencil it in as a Christmas present right away. The movie doesn't live up to that great beginning all the way through - it's got kind of a big problem toward the end - but a bad climax is not really a deal-killer, even if it tries.

Mostly, though, it alternates between two related stories: It opens in Heartland, where everyone's job revolves around the auto factory in the castle, and Princess Ancien (voice of Mitsuki Takahata) is a powerful sorceress, able to change the world with her magic tablet. This, it turns out, is the recurring dream of teenager Kokone Morikawa (also voiced by Takahata), a few days out from her last summer vacation, which coincides with the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. She lives in Okayama with her auto-mechanic father Momotaro "Jersey" Morikawa (voice of Yosuke Eguchi), with childhood friend Morio (voice of Shinnosuke Mitsushima) just arrived home from college. There's also a more sinister visitor - Ichiro Watanabe (voice of Arata Furuta), who has Jersey arrested, claiming he has stolen Shijima Motors property, leaving Kokone to figure out what is going on.

There's something genuinely charming about both halves of the film. One is openly and unapologetically a fantasy, but the 2020-set scenes have a lovable looseness to them, feeling like they're being played out by regular people who may be mechanically-minded but not conspiracy naturals. It's fun to watch them stumble both forward and back, as the case may be; it's the source of a lot of laughs and humanizing.

The animation itself is pretty nice, too, a classic style that certainly owes a debt to Ghibli, although it draws from a slightly different, more sardonic library of facial expressions. It's occasionally a little bit creaky in the present, but makes delightful imaginative leaps in the dreams, offering adventures and a mystery just the right speed for the younger viewers.

As frequently wonderful as the dream segments are, there's little denying that the one at the climax is almost insanely excessive, like the filmmakers were determined that every single asset created for the movie needed to feature in this finale, and it's not only visual overload, but brings up a lot of questions about just what all this alternate world stuff means after it's been explained quite well and emotionally.

Will that bother little kids like my brothers' girls? Heck if I know, although the big action sequences might scare them. It's a strange mistake to put the movie's biggest fantasy-action sequence at a moment when it makes absolutely no sense to have one, but it doesn't hurt the rest of what is charming about the film much at all.

Dead Shack

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Axis, DCP)

This movie should have been a complete disaster - it's got the stink of 1980s horror nostalgia executed without many thoughts beyond liking gory old movies - but instead it turns out, well, not bad.

To a certain extent, it's a matter of how well one responds to swear-y, sarcastic teens; I'm not a particular fan, and while this one gets a boost from a dumb but likable dad who joins in it kind of scans as a bit obnoxious to me even if it is genuine and frequently funny. The movie keeps plugging away, though, and a little mortal danger helps things - it plays more as nervous reactions than just being a jerk, and it certainly gives the characters an alternate note to play against.

And, eventually, it gets into the gore, and it's entertainingly gooey stuff, played in large part for gross slapstick, but able to work for pathos when necessary. It's a reasonably tricky line to walk when using mostly young characters, because what's funny sarcasm in the average zombie movie would undercut the basic innocence of the kids.

(It's also kind of interesting that they walk the characters right up to saying the word "zombie" a couple of times, not quite struggling with the oddness of a world where teens don't know the rules but coming close to having to deal with it.)

Pork Pie

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Axis, DCP)

There's something kind of charming about the making of this film, with a son making his own version of one of his father's films, although it needs a bit more than that for a hook to be interesting to someone who hadn't seen the 1981 original. I'm not sure whether Pork Pie actually finds that, although it plays nicely enough to be an enjoyable matinee.

It thrives on its likable characters, although it takes its time giving the audience basic information on a few of them, hoping that just watching them play off each other week do the trick. It does, eventually, but that leaves a lot in the hands of the actors, trying to make the ransom situations they find themselves in something that days something about their characters.

On the other hand, there's nifty car chase action to fill a lot of the gaps, and while it's kind of random itself, it looks great as the Mini Cooper one character style drifts down winding roads and onto a train (which itself winds up on a boat, and how is that a thing, New Zealand?). By the end, I'm not sure that the movie has exactly earned its finale, but it's enjoyable enough enough to watch that one is willing to forgive.

Ha-roo (A Day)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Say this for A Day - it rapidly makes a solid impression that being stuck in this sort of time-loop would be a sort of hell, as nobody in the audience wants to watch the cute little girl die over and over again any more than her father does, so by the time it does a bit of a switch-up, we're pretty relieved as well as thankful to see that this movie is going to be more than a hyper-compressed Groundhog Day with violent death.

And it does become more than that, but, boy, even at 90 minutes, it's kind of a punishing grind, and while that's part of the point - people being put through hell to pay for their sins until they can finally attain forgiveness or see the pointlessness of their anger - I'm not sure if writer/director Cho Sun-ho really finds a good point to really change his characters enough to make his finale really work, aside from how it basically hinges on a character doing something that the film spent a good deal of time establishing as just not being physically possible, necessitating a change in hearts and minds.

This is a very nicely crafted film, even without us English-language folks getting the pun in the title. It just isn't quite so steady underneath as it seems like it should be.

Money (Money's Money)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

As much as I suspected going in that this would be a fairly grimy, no-nonsense crime movie, I wasn't necessarily prepared for how little it sends to have going on aside from getting things into position and then getting people killed. That sort of seeming nihilism can be as much feature as bug - a lot of crime stories are about how the big score can seem like the only solution - although it's not necessarily a point that the filmmakers seem to be trying to make here.

Instead, it's a simple crime thriller that sometimes fella oddly small, returning to the same spot in ways that don't necessarily feel natural or otherwise feeling a bit under-populated. It does manage some impressively clever and creative moments as it sets up the situation for the anti-heroes to wiggle out of. When it starts to play out, though, you can't help but wonder what the filmmakers trying to accomplish.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Fantasia 2017.09: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Bad Genius, Lowlife, and Kodoku Meatball Machine

Man, what a lousy day to have my phone's battery die before the guests show up, because a ton of folks came for Lowlife from L.A., and Yoshihiro Nishimura came in a slick jumpsuit/coverall thing which not only had a great splatter pattern, but assured us that he wouldn't be stripping down to a loincloth.

Still, it was a really fun day; I probably could have gone without Valerian, but wanted to see that while it was on the fancy screens, since I have no idea how it's going to play in the U.S. and if it would still be on the big screen when I got home. After that, I decided to play it safer than a lot of people did, skipping The Laplace's Demon because while some things online showed it was short enough to squeeze in before Lowlife, so I actually say down for supper, which is always cool during a festival.

The film got a big hype push over the past month, and Mitch was super-enthusiastic in his introduction, talking about how most of the films they book are things that they knew were coming, tracking them through production, while this was a blind submission that took them by surprise. The filmmakers seem to really appreciate the faith the festival showed, and will certainly be seeing Fantasia as their home festival for the future.

And then, finally, the Nishimura movie, which I was worn out enough to nap through. He was throwing candy around in the lead-up, though, and I must admit, I'm not sure whether I should trust random candy whose wrapper I can't read thrown by a maniac.

Today's plan - Laundry! Then Napping Princess, Dead Shack, Pork Pie, A Day, and Money's Money. God Of War and Most Beautiful Island are both recommended.

Vaerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2017 in Cineplex Forum #3 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP/AVX)

I forget whether I started buying the new English-language printings of Valerian & Laureline upon hearing that Luc Besson would be doing a movie or if reading the first few of those got me excited to hear Besson was making the film; it was about the same time. I say this not because I'm in the tank for this and you should downgrade my praise accordingly, but because I started out hoping for another fast, colorful sci-fi picture like The Fifth Element and wound up hoping they wouldn't change the comic too much. That's likely not a huge issue for most English-language viewers, who will hopefully embrace what bright, kinetic fun it is even if the script is lacking in spots.

Centuries in the future, the International Space Station has grown to such a massive structure hosting hundreds of species that it was pushed out of Earth's orbit to push into the unknown, now called "Alpha". Two special agents of the Human Federation, Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne) have been tasked with bringing a strange creature that can replicate matter to Alpha from the black market, but something seems amiss - not only did Valerian receive a mental "wave" of a planetary disaster on his way to the mission, but there's a mysterious radioactive dead zone at the center of Alpha, and when Valerian and Laureline are tasked with security for a meeting to investigate, terrorists appear and kidnap Commander Arun Flitt (Clive Owen). Valerian pursues, but his ship crashes, leaving Laureline to find him despite feeling that things still don't add up.

Valerian & Laureline first appeared in print about fifty years ago, and that movie technology has just catching up to what writer Pierre Christin & artist Jean-Claude Mézières could do on the page in the past decade or so is a testament to what boundless imagination comics can achieve, although film has arguably strip-mined V&L for visuals for nearly as long as they've been around, from Star Wars to Besson's own The Fifth Element (which at least put Mézières on the payroll as a designer). Despite the fact that some of its more iconic visuals have been used elsewhere, Besson and his team still manage to find or design something spectacular to put on the screen in nearly every scene, creating a bustling sci-fi world that few live-action films have managed. It's a lively blend of design work, CGI, and practical effects, and looks good enough that Besson can spend a good chunk of the opening on an alien world with no humans in sight. It's definitely worth checking out on the biggest, brightest 3D screen one can find (even if some of those properties may occasionally contradict each other).

Full review on EFC.

Chalard Games Goeng (Bad Genius)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Bad Genius is going to make a fun double feature with Brick at some point in the not-too-distant future. It's a little less obviously eccentric in translating the heist movie to high school than Rian Johnson's film noir was, but it's still kind of brilliant for recognizing that its true story was a caper at heart and going for it.

Rinrada "Lynn" Nilthep (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) is not the usual crime-movie anti-heroine, after all; she's introduced as a mousy high-school freshman with excellent grades who worries that her father VIt (Thaneth Warakulnukroh) can't really afford to put her in the sort of expensive private school that would serve as a stepping stone to college abroad. That reticence disappears when she's offered a scholarship and free lunches besides, and she's quickly befriended by Grace (Eisaya Hosuwan), not nearly so smart but gregarious and part of all the cool extracurriculars. It's helping Grace keep her grades up high enough to perform in the school play where Lynn first contrives to slip her friend the answers, and soon it's not just Grace, but her rich boyfriend Pat (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) and his friends that are looking for help from "Mentor Lynn". The school's other scholarship student, "Bank" Thanathon (Chanon Santinatornkul) wants no part in any sort of scam like this, but they will eventually need his help senior year if Pat and Grace are going to pass the Standard Test for International Colleges ("STIC") and go to school in Boston as planned.

This could easily have been a traditional story of a good girl caught up in peer pressure, but instead it recognizes Lynn for the criminal mastermind that she is and lets the audience have a blast as she plans and improvises ways to pass the answers to her school's standardized tests, and Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying does great work in making Lynn somewhat detached without being icy. Though it's never stated, one gets the idea that studying has always been easy for her and pulling this sort of real-world operation off in the moment is the first real challenge she's ever had, and that she seems to relish it even though she seldom breaks a smile. Lynn is kind of a challenging protagonist - she's detached and analytical from the start, so it's impressive that Chuengcharoensukying manages to get the audience with her well before she's in any sort of real danger.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Lowlife has been getting a lot of the hype at the festival this year, enough for people to worry before it screened that it can't possibly live up to what the programmers have been saying about it. And yet, somehow, it managed - it's a gritty crime story that can throw a disgraced luchador and a good-hearted guy with a full-faced swastika tattoo into the mix and somehow make it work.

It's got no business doing so - it starts off in a dark, dark place and will find ways to sink lower as the film goes on - but it's also got an eye on which characters deserve better even if they're going to come to a bad end, and that's most of them aside from a genuinely nasty villain. It's the sort of movie that can often be described as ruthless in how it makes the audience love characters just to have them die horribly, but the filmmakers don't really go in for that sort of cruelty. There's tragedy to be found here, and violent absurdity, but it's not a sarcastic, smirking combination of the two.

Conceptually, it's kind of a hard sell, like an eccentric crime movie only weirder, but it works in ways that its more conventional cousins seldom do.

Koduko Meatball Machine

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Yep, Nishimura is still making movies with truly astounding, elaborate monsters gross-outs but not a huge amount of all the other things that make a great movie. It seems like he's the last one standing from the Sushi Typhoon group, especially as this one is basically remaking a Yudai Yamaguchi movie with Yamaguchi h nowhere to be found, but maybe this is just timing.

I'm not sure whether I've outgrown this sort of movie or midnight in general; it's impressive in its way, but the insane monster designs just don't keep me up with anticipation of the next anymore, and these things just don't have enough aside from that (although, let's make it clear, Nishimura is second to none in that regard).

Friday, July 21, 2017

Fantasia 2017.08: House of the Disappeared, Cold Hell, and Shinjuku Swan II

Having been to Australia by way of China last fall, and made sure to plan out the vacation so that I'd have enough time to make the travel worth it, I must say, I admire the heck out of people who make those long flights to appear at a film festival for just a day or two:

In this case, that's House of the Disappeared director Lim Dae-woong (center), an unexpected and unadvertised guest, so he didn't have a whole lot of time to answer questions after his movie, as there was one lined up for just fifteen or twenty minutes after. Kind of a shame, as he made a good movie and speaks good English to boot, which certainly seemed to help him engage with the audience.

After that, it was a bit of a break and then across the street for Cold Hell and Shinjuku Swan II. The first was pretty terrific, and the second was something of a letdown - NYAFF got Antiporno, and that has to have a little more of what interests Sono in it, even if it's also part of a franchise in its own way.

Today's plan - After having been away from the festival to see Valerian this afternoon, it's back on campus for Bad Genius, Lowlife, and Kodoku Meatball Machine (though I may check to see if the new screening added for Genius will let me see Jailbreak tonight and thus Tragedy Girls next week).

Shiganwiui Jib (House of the Disappeared)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

I do rather love it when all of the pieces of a ghost story, or any story that plays with time, wind up all fitting together in a way that's not just obligatory, but clever, and earns some emotional points on the way as well. The makers of this Korean film has a bit of a head start, having remade Alejandro Hidalgo's 2013 Venezuelan version, but it's just as likely you'll get a mess from that as something this tight.

Nearly twenty-five years ago, Kang Mi-hee (Kim Yunjin) was convicted of the murders of her husband Chul-joong (Jo Jae-yun) and son Hye-jo on 11 November 1992, though the body of the boy was never found. Twenty-five years later, suffering from what is presumably terminal laryngeal cancer, she is given home imprisonment, allowed to serve out the last days of her sentence in the now run-down house where it all happened, but what she discovered back in 1992 and neighborhood priest Choi (Ok TaecYoon) - her only visitor - is just finding out is that the house is haunted, apparently on a twenty-five year cycle, with 11/11 just a few days away.

I missed the original The House at the End of Time when it played the festival a few years back, so I can't tell just how much of the script here comes from Hidalgo and how much from Jang Jae-hyun, but though Jang and director Lim Dae-woong have a few stumbles in the 1992 period - the presence of a second son in early scenes telegraphs a lot of what will play out in kind of worn fashion, and the filmmakers are perhaps a little casual in how they present and use the fact that the two sons are from two husbands - but it's an impressive example of a ghost story that can keep piling more on without it seeming like excess by the time things are done, and they're able to create variety without it seeming like randomness. They're especially good during the finale, when things initially look like they'll get too loose, but instead snap into place while still having room to be surprising or unconventional.

Full review on EFC.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

The festival's website describes the backstory of what's going on in "Amy", and that feels like kind of a cheat - though director L. Gustavo Cooper and writer Peter Ciella mine some historic events for a short that is certainly quite creepy in spots, the actual short is a snapshot without a whole lot of context. We see an old woman prepare some lemonade, give it to a younger one, and then a few other things happen, but when the short hits its conclusion, it does so in a way that is random, not really spurred by what we've seen before and which leaves the audience asking what was up with that rather than carrying what was going on forward.

Still, up until then, things do seem to be building nicely, with an oppressive environment and unnerving performances from both potential killer and potential victim. There's a quickly established sense of place and danger, and seeing that this team made "The Home" (which I quite liked at MonsterFest) doesn't surprise me; it shows that they have a good eye for this kind of tight, oppressive, dangerous environment. And, to a certain extent, I do like that they didn't try to grab extra legitimacy with a note about how these things really happened, allowing their short to stand on its own as best possible.

Die Hölle (Cold Hell)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Cold Hell is a wonderfully grimy thriller which gets right down to the business of a woman with a crappy support system to draw on for help trying to defend herself from a determined serial killer. It doesn't over-burden the audience with too many subplots or go overboard in fetishizing the crimes, but just does what it promises in ways that are occasionally astonishing but always determined.

Its heroine is Vienna taxi driver Özge Dogruol (Violetta Schurawlow), ethnically Turkish but an Austrian citizen, on probation for drug possession and with good reason to have a chip on her shoulder for everyone but cousin Ranya (Verena Altenberger) and her daughter Ada (Elif NIsa Uyar), and her latest bit of overzealous sparring with a guy who didn't want to practice with a woman has gotten her kicked out of her muay thai gym. Her problems get bigger, though, when she comes home and sees a particularly grisly crime scene through her bathroom window, and with the way the light works, the killer (Sammy Sheik) maybe gets a better look at her than she does at him. Though detectives Steiner (Tobias Moretti) and Petrovic (Stefan Pohl) inform her the M.O. indicates a serial killer, they don't offer much protection, a potential disaster when Ranya's boyfriend Samir (Robert Palfrader) - also Özge's boss- kicks her out, and Özge's apartment is the first place she and Ada think to go.

While the story is one built around thrills and revenge, there are long stretches when it is simply about Özge, a survivor who feels more damaged than she actually is and as a result is extremely reluctant to trust anybody. The abuse she has survived in the past comes out later, and it's interesting to consider what Martin Ambrosch's script implies as a result, starting from how quickly she asks for police protection despite the fact that we've just seen how physically fierce she can be, and how she won't open up about why even when it would certainly smooth things along. It's almost entirely communicated by lead actress Violetta Schurawlow and how she will often stay silent and deflated in the scenes where the audience wants her to show the spine she does in other moments. She sells the sort of closed-off self-reliance that Özge must embody without making her entirely hard, and gets across a very capable urgency in a crisis workout seeming like she really knows what she's doing. On top of that, she manages the physicality necessary for the action like a pro.

Full review on EFC.

Shinjuku suwan II (Shinjuku Swan II)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Maybe it's just a filtering effect - Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono makes enough movies that only the really good ones make it to American festivals, theaters, and home video - but I can't recall ever being bored by one of Sono's films before, certainly not the way I was by Shinjuku Swan II. Maybe he's at that point in his career where he's having a harder time producing outrageously creative material on a regular basis but still needs to pay the bills (and, as you get older, those bills get larger, requiring more and better-paying work), but whatever the reason, this sequel feels like the first time he's truly mailed it in.

A big part of it is that it's concentrated on a lot of the details of the "scout" business depicted in the franchise, from which organizations are protected by which yakuza groups and how the business works, especially in terms of the country's liquor distributor supporting clubs and whatnot. Maybe if you're getting 20 pages of the manga every week, it holds greater fascination, or if this story comes relatively quickly on the heels of a revisit to the first, the details will still be fresh and hold one's interest. But it's also impossible to omit that this is a relatively sanitized continuation of the story told in the first movie, where new scout Tatsuhiko Shiratori (Gou Ayano) occasionally had to confront that the girls he recruited to work in the clubs of Shinjuku were not necessarily just going to have fun, but were being exploited. That angle is barely visible here; a new client's debt is mentioned but plays out off-screen, and the eventual climax of half the story is a beauty pageant with relatively little irony to be found. Ayano seems to carry a little more burden at the start, but it's quickly pushed aside.

The other half of the story, involving Tadanobu Asano as the head of Yokohama's main scout agency, is even more dreary, playing out in the background, waiting for a moment to take on more pivotal part at the end. Like Sono, Asano is a guy with a long history of interesting projects who seems to be doing less exciting work these days, and he's barely got anything interesting to do here. There are moments toward the end, when Asano and Ayano get a fight scene that careens all over the place and the pageant just gets peculiar, where you see hints of the creative anarchy that Sono usually brings to a project, but for the most part, this is just a sequel that adds a new foil, strips out the hard parts, and elaborates on the relatively unimportant details of the first, and everyone involved deserves better than that.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Fantasia 2017.07: Have a Nice Day, Sequence Break, Poor Agnes, and Plan B

Aaaah, spent the morning being available in case they needed me for my job while most of the team met in Frisco, TX, but not necessarily sad that they didn't much. So glad to be in Montreal rather than Frisco, if only for not being in the room for a two-hour presentation. It changed my schedule a bit - Shock Wave and Have a Nice Day played at the same time a few days ago, and I switched which one I saw on which day so I could start movies at 3:15 Wednesday.

Anyway - visitors!

That's director Graham Sipper of Sequence Break on the right, and I kind of wish, as a guy who loves classic arcade stuff, that I'd liked his movie a bit more, though it didn't work out that way. He had a lot of well-warranted praise for the people he worked with, from the cast with natural chemistry from having become friends working on another movie to the effects people who were always willing to get more into the Cronenbergian sexual body horror with their video game. I dig that the game was inspired by Tempest.

Not too thrilled to hear the "I wanted to make the end ambiguous" answer, especially for this movie, which meandered a lot anyway. If you've got a point to make or a direction you want your movie to go, don't back away from that, hit it directly.

That's a bit of a zoom in on a LOT of people from Poor Agnes as Thunder Bay, Ontario isn't a hard trip from Montreal. Left to right, we've got writer James Gordon Ross, the hostess, director Navin Ramaswaran, star Nora Burke, and co-star Robert Notman. A ton of enthusiasm for this one, well-deserved; it's a well-made, smart thriller that is creepy in an unconventional way.

And, finally, Plan B director Ufuk Genç, who was crazy excited to be here; I gather his movie starring a bunch of relatively-unknown stuntpeople got a little steamrolled by the big Hollywood productions that hit Germany in the summer, and coming to a festival where people really celebrate this kind of movie made was huge.

And now, back to the films - I'll be seeing House of the Disappeared, Cold Hell, and Shinjuku Swan II, and having my first actual window to have a between-films meal that's not just grabbing a slice of pizza or a burrito for take-out!

Hao ji le (Have a Nice Day)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Axis, DCP)

For all that modern Chinese films spend a lot of time and effort on showing people spending money, I don't know if I've actually seen enough actual bills on-screen for it to register that the 100-yuan note is blood red. Have a Nice Day, an animated take on the bag-of-money yarn, doesn't quite get the mileage it might from this fact, but it's an impressively tidy take on the form, not wasting any time getting things started and then managing as many reversals through greedy stupidity as it does from actual cunning.

It doesn't mess around with a master plan, starting with construction-site driver Xiao Zhang (voice of Zhu Changlong) having already pulled a gun on passenger Lao Zhao (voice of Cao Kai). His plan is to meet girlfriend Yan Zi and travel to South Korea to fix her botched cosmetic surgery, but Lao Zhao was bringing this money to gangster "Uncle Liu" (voice of Yang Siming), who immediately dispatches butcher and hitman Brother Skinny (voice of Ma Xiaofeng) to recover it. Even if Xiao can stay ahead of Skinny, he makes the rookie mistake of paying for something with one of those large bills, attracting the attention of inventor Yellow Eye (voice of Cao Kou) and his girlfriend (Zheng Yi), while Yan Zi's worried mother asks niece Ann Ann and her boyfriend Lidu to check on things, but when you hear "one million yuan", you maybe do more than check.

The money doesn't actually change hands very often, and when it does, the people holding it often spend a fair amount of time off-screen; Have a Nice Day is about the scramble . It brings out mean little chuckles, pointing up a sort of blanket amorality permeating society, with even bystanders chatting about start-ups and how to succeed while skipping steps, although it's not without cause: A brilliant inventor is stymied because he did not start out rich enough, and even Ann Ann's good communist fantasy (which literally inserts her and Lidu into propaganda posters and songs) seems to be out of reach without seed money. It's a weird irony that the original theft arguably happens not out of greed, but an attempt to back out of a problem caused by vanity, although that sort of desire is arguably its own sort of greed. It's an odd set of motivations, never actually sympathetic enough to be called noble or heroic, but shaded more toward desperation than ruthlessness.

Full review on EFC.

"End of Decay"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Kind of a basic bit of sci-fi/horror, in which a paralyzed researcher (Brian Villalobos) plans a bit of illicit self-experimentation, but co-writer/director Christopher Todd manages a few nice touches, like how Orin's memories and dreams of when he could run have a naturalistic tone that often cuts to a bright, clinical environment as he's snapped back to reality, and the design of the machine he uses to give himself a spinal tap or four is a terrifically simple, effective bit of horror.

There are some elements of how it works as a short film that can seem oversimplified as much as streamlined - there's an assistant character who is there almost entirely for stating the obvious moral questions involved, and Orin's admonitions to not get squeamish at this late date are as much an acknowledgment of this as a statement of actual conflict. The eventual gross-out bits are undeniably effective but maybe a little stretched, although tastes vary, which also goes for how the last shot is more "one last creepy thing" rather than something that particularly aligns with the themes Todd had been driving at.

Sequence Break

* * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Within the past year of seeing festival horror films, I've seen movies based on cursed VCR games, evil party games, and now a malevolent arcade game, and hopefully horror filmmakers are done with this particular bit of nostalgia-mining, because it doesn't seem to lead to an actual good story, no matter how creatively gross it sometimes gets. Sequence Break feels like something that should absolutely work for me, but there's just not much to it.

That aimlessness is reflected in Oz (Chase Williamson), who has been working as a technician repairing old video game machines for a small local business for the last few years, too intent on his work when Tess (Fabianne Therese) comes through, ostensibly to find a gift for her brother, but he meets and clicks with her at a bar later, after boss Jerry (Lyle Kanouse) has dropped the bad news that they'll be closing in a few weeks, after he gets back from a family thing upstate. He doesn't make it, as a mysterious homeless-looking man (John Dinan) kills him after breaking in, somehow connected with the strange circuit board that Oz finds in an unmarked envelope - one that makes for a hypnotic (but nausea-and-nightmare-inducing) game when Oz installs it in an unused cabinet.

Sequence Break is the sort of horror story built around the romantic comedy of the shy guy meeting the girl that's a cool, perfect match but having to tear himself away from whatever keeps him from engaging, and if you cast well, that goes a long way toward keeping the audience happy when a lot of the movie is sort of killing time before moving things along. Writer/director Graham Skipper actually goes with a proven pairing, as Chase Williamson and Fabianne Therese also met cute in John Dies at the End, and it certainly provides a solid foundation to work with - it's genuinely fun to watch them play off each other, and Williamson in particular comes off as a believably introverted guy who nevertheless isn't a one-note guy trivia machine.

Full review on EFC.

"Don't Ever Change"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Things jump from character-based discomfort to dark screwball violence awful quickly in Don Swaynos's "Don't Ever Change", perhaps too much so: The tension between Heather Kafka as a woman and Cyndi Williams as her mother - "birth mother", as Kafka's Amy pointedly notes - is kind of fascinating, and the relationship revealed as Williams's Karen tries to adjust to her new surroundings is one we don't often see portrayed despite it having its root in something we've been asked to ponder time and again.

Instead, though, the film is mostly built around a visit from Frank Mosley's Jason, a "fan" with a mugshot for Karen to sign, and his skewed perspective and bizarre requests send the short in another direction. Not a bad one, by any means - Mosley gets some pretty good takes in as he finds things not quite going as he'd envisioned, and it brings a funny performance out of Williams. Note quite the same thing she'd done before, but something plenty entertaining. It makes this almost two shorts with the same inspiration crammed together, although Swaynos handles the sometimes contradictory impulses better than many do.

Poor Agnes

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Fantasia Underground, DCP)

Poor Agnes twists almost constantly on the way from where it starts to where it ends, playing on audience expectations of human behavior as opposed to genre standards, and it makes for a constant unnerving sort of horror. It's a movie about a monster that places her insanity closer to front and center than is typical but in doing so pushes the viewer to want to get closer, even though he or she has seen early on what a dangerous thing that is.

Agnes (Lora Burke) is a serial killer, although her narration never uses those words, though it's clear from how she disposes of her latest victim that she's figured out a lot of what she needs to do it without a lot of fuss or threat of getting caught, paying attention to everything from physical fitness and which pawnbrokers will pay for the possessions without too many questions. As much as she tries, though, you can't make anyone disappear completely, as she discovers when Mike Mercer (Robert Notman) approaches her on behalf of the parents of one of her first victims from when she was just a teenager ten years ago. Seducing him is easy enough, but what to do next? He doesn't quite fit the profile of her regular victim, but he's getting too close to the truth.

Or at least, that's the train of thought that many will ascribe to Agnes in these moments because the people in the audience are generally sane, and they'll grab onto her narration talking about killing "the right people", or they'll consider that the basically linear way events tend to play out means that Agnes taking notes and asking unusual questions at a torture survivors' meeting as being signs that this is the first time she's really decided to mess with someone rather than just kill them. Writer James Gordon Ross and director Navin Ramaswaran spend a lot of time playing off how the audience wants to find something admirable in the protagonist. There's got to be a motive we can understand or root for, some underlying justice being accomplished by her action, but the script keeps yanking that away even as it keeps putting something else just within reach until the viewer is as committed to Agnes despite her madness as Mike is.

Full review on EFC.

"Show No Mercy"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Action!, DCP)

Mildly surprised this short didn't go before the haunted-arcade-game movie earlier in the day, but sometimes the 1980s action throwback overrides the video game connection. It's also got the "bloopers during the credits" connection with the film to which it was attached, and it sort of tends to affirm that those indicate people had a great deal of fun making the movie but didn't necessarily make something great.

Not that Scott Condit & Jeremy Tremp made something actually bad here; it's a bit slow and stilted getting started, but the scene when the barcade manager and employee both get sucked into a game and start blasting at each other. It's fun with amusing effects, but it's the first things people come up with when they have this idea, not the really clever jokes that would surprise the audience should they appear.

Plan B: Scheiß auf Plan A (Plan B)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Action!, DCP)

You see a lot of calling-card shorts meant to show what a director or an actor could do in a feature, whether they're explicitly presented as that or not, but a calling-card feature is kind of rare, especially one as elaborate as Plan B: Can Aydin, Cha-Lee Yoon, Phong Giang, and Eugene Boateng play versions of themselves, 1980s-movie-loving German stuntmen looking for work to show what they can do, only to stumble into something way over their head and be sent on a dangerous scavenger hunt.

Each stop on this leads to a pretty impressive fight scene, and the filmmakers do something pretty clever - the opening credits have made it clear that Can, Cha-Lee, and Phong are not just starring in the movie but choreographing the action, and while it's usually not a great thing to associate performer and character too much, these guys often being doofuses on-screen can make you forget that they are actually really good at this part of their jobs. The script may be 1980s Hollywood, but the action is like something out of Hong Kong, and each bit is kind of a delight.

The movie's generally funny all around, with Laurent Daniels providing narration as the sort of character usually looked at from outside (a renegade detective actually named "Kopp") and a fun supporting cast that includes both solid deadpan comedic performers and folks who can match up well against the leads in fights. That Germany is not necessarily the place one expects to see this sort of film from is the icing on the cake.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Fantasia 2017.06: Liberation Day, Wukong and Punk Fu Zombie

There could have been a press screening in here, but did I really want to see The Endless without an introduction and Q&A from the filmmakers? No, no I did not. Besides, that was about the same time Cacao 70 opened for breakfast around the corner, and I suspect I'm going to be there a few times during this vacation.

Theater-jumping made for a rapid-fire sort of day, as Liberation Day ended just in time to get across the street for Wukong while someone from the Hong Kong government pitched it as a great place to visit and shoot movies, and then that let out just in time to get downstairs for Punk Fu Zombie.

Wukong was a bit of a surprise - I was expecting something much more serious throughout from the teaser that played before a lot of Chinese movies at AMC Boston Common, but got something a lot funnier, at least through the first third or half. I'm also surprised to look at Fandango and see that it's only playing on half a screen at Boston Common right now (sharing it with Our Time Will Come); it got a pretty big push for a fairly small booking, especially considering that it's apparently cleaning up back in China. Anyway, glad I saw it, but I'm always a bit surprised that these movies show up at Fantasia while/after they played wide releases - for all that Fantasia brings a crowd to Hong Kong action, and the city does have a Chinatown, it seems like there would be a spot at the Forum or something more often. It's also kind of amusing to see some outlets covering movies that got a day-and-date release like they're festival films just being discovered by North America; there seems to be a real lag in catching up to these releases, even a year and a half after people complained about not being informed about The Mermaid.

So, uh, I don't know who any of these people are; the guy on the left was already on-stage when I got into Punk Fu Zombie and my French sucks enough not to catch their introductions properly. Still, they were having a great time working the audience and going on about both their low-budget zombie movie and the short that played beforehand. I honestly straight-up love the enthusiasm the locals display for their films; I really should polish up my French so that I can join in a little more rather than bail before the Q&A I knew I wouldn't understand.

Then I got back "home" and discovered to my delight that not only was the Red Sox game still going on (rained in Boston, I gather), and then that NESN Go isn't blocked in Canada. Darn near fell asleep watching the game on my phone, which was neat.

An interesting day, to say the least. Next up: Skipping the big thing which will be in theaters on Friday but going for Have a Nice Day, Sequence Break, Poor Agnes, and Plan B. Shock Wave is slick, but not a great action movie.

Liberation Day

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Documentaries from the Edge, DCP)

It is, perhaps, unfair to expect Liberation Day to be more controversial than it is, at least from one perspective: It is a documentary and it documents, in a manner that seems fair and transparent, and often entertaining. But it's also a part of a larger project, one potentially more subversive in its intent, and watching everyone involved not necessarily be timid but also not be daring makes for a film that perhaps lacks the kick that one about art-metal band Laibach playing a concert in North Korea perhaps should have.

The story made the news in 2015 - part of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea's Liberation Day celebrations (marking both Koreas' independence from Chinese and Japanese rule in 1945) would be the country's first-ever concert by a western rock band, made all the more interesting by the fact that the band is Laibach, a band that first rose to prominence in 1980s Yugoslavia and has since built an identity around their use of fascist iconography in a way that often seems to blur the line between satire and endorsement. Oh, and they would be covering songs from The Sound of Music as a part of the show. Even for someone with the sort of experience working with North Korea that producer/director Morten Traavik has, that's got to be a crazy tightrope to walk.

That this is actually Traavik's fifteenth visit to North Korea is a bit of information tossed out relatively casually, followed by some amusing YouTube videos of other projects he worked on there, but it's something that highlights the almost inevitable paradox at the center of this project: The DPRK isn't going to do something like this with someone they don't trust, someone they trust is not going to push back at their demands very much, and as a result, the friction between extremely unconventional artists and an extremely authoritarian government never really materializes. There's some potentially interesting material to be found in some of that lack of conflict - there is talk about how Laibach is a band from a country that no longer exists, with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc meaning these former Yugoslavians are now Slovenian, and member Ivan Novak sees the utopian elements of the place - but Traavik and co-director Ugis Olte don't particularly delve into that, or even counter those musings with how Pyongyang is something of a showcase city that gives visitors a skewed view of the DPRK as a whole.

Full review on EFC.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

You shouldn't judge a movie by its trailer any more than you should judge a book by its cover, especially the teaser-style thing for Wukong that ran before every Chinese-language film that played my local theater over the last couple of months, but it's still worth mentioning that this isn't exactly the dark, gritty Monkey King re-imagining that implied, but another oft-comedic fantasy adventure featuring the powerful but mischievous demigod, and while it's a fair question as to whether the world needs another one of those, it's at least an entertaining one, even if it does stretch its budget a bit.

It starts in the heavens, where the Destiny Council is preparing to select new immortals 300 years after the escape of a rebellious stone giant ended with the destruction of Mount Huaguo, where the Azi (Ni Ni) eagerly awaits the return of childhood friend Erlang Shen (Shawn Yue Man-lok), whose third eye stays persistently closed a side-effect of his having a mortal father and an immortal mother, only to be interrupted by Sun Wukong (Eddie Peng Yu-yan), who has climbed his way to Heaven to exact revenge for the destruction of his home. Wukong is captured, but the leader of the council, Hua Ji (Yu Feihong) places him in the custody of Azi with a "crown" that will squeeze his head painfully on demand. Undaunted, Wukong still attempts to destroy the Destiny Astrolabe, but that results in him, Azi, Erlang, Hua Ji's enforcer Tian Peng (O Ho), and mechanically-inclined Juanlian (Qiao Shan) being cast down to the crater where Huaguo used to be without their powers, finding the locals menaced by a storm demon.

Though the film opens with a bit of narration that tends toward the grandiose, it gets funny fairly quickly. The Sun Wukong introduced in the first act is not any sort of Monkey King but a shaggy guy in worn clothing strutting with a sort of goofy confidence that is both matched and complemented, an elegant princess who nevertheless is inclined to scrap. Director Derek Kwok Chi-kin and four other writers give the characters big, brash personalities and have them banter as they knock each other around with outsized weapons - Wukong's signature staff often seems like something out of a cartoon, even as it glows red through a black crust like lava. Even after they fall to earth, there's a cheeriness to how they pull together under Azi's leadership, drawing comedy not just from how Juanlian's previously ridiculed devices may be their best hope but from how Wukong and Erlang argue like children over how to best implement it and take credit.

Full review on EFC.

"À part ça, la vie est belle"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Les Fantastiques Week-Ends du Cinéma Québécois, digital)

You don't need to understand French particularly well to enjoy this combination of a bouncy chanson by Claude François with images out of a zombie movie, limited though the animation may be. It is, obviously, a goofy juxtaposition, but it would probably be fun without this particular soundtrack; director François Mercier shows some skill at getting a bit of a zing out of what is basically a comic-book page flip, and making that limited animation work: I laughed a lot more at a zombie's shambling leg being manipulated into playing as dancing than seems reasonable.

It works, no matter what the language.

Punk Fu Zombie

N/A (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Les Fantastiques Week-Ends du Cinéma Québécois, digital)

So, anyway, like I said above, I thought there were going to be English subtitles on this one. Shame on me for not re-checking the program before I left the apartment.

That said, this was never going to be my thing; I'm not big on warts-and-all parody or any form of "let's make a crappy movie on purpose", and this one crosses the fine line between a Wakaliwood-style picture that has to make everything from scratch and accept that it's just got no resources and folks doing bad dubbing because it's a joke. On top of that, it's an hour and forty-five minutes long, and that's a long time for this sort of movie. I was having a good time trying to keep track of the plot even without much French, and I kind of suspect that challenge kept me going longer until the "ugh, are we really still doing this" feeling kicked in.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Fantasia 2017.03: International Sci-Fi Shorts, Mohawk, and Game of Death

Loose schedule, but lots of guests!

These good people are from the International Sci-Fi Shorts, with "Haskell" director James Allen Smith to the left of the hostess and "Hum" director Stefano Nurra, "The Sleepers" director Joe Lueben, and "The Sleepers" producer Nicholas Williams to the right.

Interesting group, with Leuben's stories perhaps the most interesting, as he talked about the film coming from a rough patch when he felt like he really could have slept 23 hours a day, and then mentioning that he felt he had to pick his game up when he was what Williams's brother Jonathan, the set designer, cooked up for the main dormitory set. The music was also an interesting story, as he mentioned never having seen Tarkovsky's Solaris despite everyone thinking this film must have been influenced by it. The music he chose as a temp track that heavily influenced the final score, though, was a sort of alternate soundtrack for Solaris dreamed up by people who thought that film was great aside from its score.

Smith did "Haskell" out of a different sort of frustration; generally a documentary filmmaker, he just got to a point where he wasn't feeling it and opted to do something narrative instead.

A bit surprised that there weren't more people from Mohawk here, actually, as co-writer Grady Hendrix has a panel later in the festival, cinematographer Karim Hussain is a frequent guest, and the film was shot in upstate New York. It's still a nice turn-out, with stars Kaniehtiio Horn, Jon Huber (whom my wrestling-fan friends and family probably know best as "Luke Harper"), and Justin Rain joining writer/director Ted Geoghegan on-stage. Geoghegan wanted to do something very different from We Are Still Here, and when he brought the idea up with colleague Grady Hendrix, found out that the journalist and horror-comedy author was actually a huge War of 1812 buff.

It was important to cast Native actors in as many roles s they could, with Hussain recommending Horn as soon as he saw the script and Rain saying he thought he'd blown it, in part because he'd never done a period piece, but he turned out to be a great match for the part even without taking into consideration that the list of Native actors across the U.S. and Canada was pretty low.

I've got no idea what Huber's WWE persona is like, but he was a ton of fun in the movie and on stage. Geoghegan wanted to cast a WWE guy in his part because it called for a mountain of a man, and at the time of filming, Huber was in the middle of six months of rehab for knee surgery, making the brace his character wears not entirely a prop. He was also based out of Rochester, not far from where they would be shooting, so it seemed pretty much perfect.

Game of Death was a local production, so there were a lot of folks on hand - Emelia Hellman, Sam Earle, Caterine Saindon, Victoria Diamond, two members of the crew whose French-language introductions I didn't entirely get, and writer/directors Laurence Morais-Lagace & Sebastein Landry. They all seemed to be having a pretty good time - the project was apparently originally hatched at the festival, started as something on the web in French, and had to become an English-language project to get feature funding.

Which is cool and all, but when that happens, what's with having everything labeled "State Police" (with what kind of looks like the Maine State Seal on it)? Come on, you know the weird blood-drawing cursed electronic game is Canadian; don't try to blame it on us!

Today's plan: I've already seen Wild Blood as my Weird Turkish Film for the festival, and will follow it up with The Outer Limits of Animation, Bad Genius, Replace, and then either Liberation Day or Tokyo Ghoul.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

Even before what's actually going on in "Swell" reveals itself, Bridget Savage Cole's short film has a bouncy feel that is pretty quickly very appealing - bright, colorful design, an upbeat-seeming near future, and a good-looking cast in Britt Lower and Gabriel Luna who are going charmingly big because their phone's "Swell" app is altering their moods, him to "productive" and her to "unapologetically honest". This is, as you might imagine, not a perfect combination, and each trying to adjust their partner's Swell or defend their own leads to a lot of physical comedy and broad changes of performance.

It's a good, fun film throughout - more than most shorts which try to anticipate this sort of disruptive technology, there's a logic to Swell, along with a self-deprecating sense of humor. The details of it work like something we're familiar with, and while Cole is looking to put this relationship through the wringer a bit, she never loses sight of her comedic intentions, which gives Lower & Luna a lot of fun stuff to do while also managing the neat trick of finding a baseline for these characters, even though we never actually see that. The design is nice in both its pastel futuristic cool and the homemade touches that people will add to it, like Ana carving her name out of the logo on her Yamaha keyboard.

"Swell" is a charmer, and it might be fun to see more shorts going for this rather than the darker sorts of cautionary tales we usually get.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

There's an appealingly working-class vibe to "Hum", with Adam Shaw as a plumber whose life is frequently interrupted by a powerful sound that seems to come from inside his own head and James Bryce as a blacklisted academic trying to track it to its source, telling Chris that he may be the key to a breakthrough in quantum mechanics, although Chris just wants to disruptive sensation gone. It comes across not just in Chris trying to get through his day, but how he's clearly got expectations for the prof that aren't being met. There's also not much mystical or amazing to this otherworldly situation - it hurts, and the audience sees him looking tortured, even as he tries to get by.

It leads to a nifty, if shaggy ending, a bit of "qunatum mechanics is magic" stuff but which at least looks nifty on-screen. The resolution is a bit wobbly - I'm not sure how, exactly, Chris learns anything here - but the feel is good, which sometimes matters more at this length.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

Haskell Carlson, we're informed, was born a few seconds ahead of everyone else, and it might have been interesting if writer/director James Allen Smith took a scene to show what this meant from Haskell's point of view - it's paradoxes and occasional blinks in and out of reality for the normal people he interacts with, but what it's like for him remains a cipher, making the "letting go" bit at the end kind of inscrutable. You get that there has been a struggle and maybe his initial assessment was off, so the emotional release works, but what's going on?

It's less important, I guess, than watching Lucas Oktay and Mark Kelly give their good performances, playing Haskell as a curious child being tested and an adult trying to live a good life and not use what he can do unfairly. It's a strong impression of a good man who perhaps can't quite be normal intstinctively.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

This one's a weird split, putting the intense action that plays into characters we've quickly grown to like at the front and then cutting to a slow, sedate second half that takes a relatively long time to pay off. It's an unusual sort of pacing and it shows how sometimes the best world-building comes out of action and doing - even when things are coming literally out of the blue (or being sucked into it) during the opening, it makes immediate sense because the characters act in a believable way that anticipates the action or something true, while the attempts at exposition in the second half are awkward.

It's nicely done in different ways on both ends, though - while the opening is charming as a man (Corey Sevier) and his daughter (Lyra Sales) have a funny, normal morning only to have the alien-abduction siren go off and have things get immediately tense, the second half featuring the man walking through the woods at least builds to a grand finale. It's also good enough that one doesn't necessarily make the obvious connections until Sevier (who co-writes and directs) flips his last card.

There's perhaps one scene too many, like the emotional closure wasn't quite enough, but it's something which potentially fires the imagination, so why not?

"Miriam Is Going to Mars"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

Shorts like "Miriam Is Going to Mars" tend to rub me wrong way, always seeming a bit more mean-spirited than intended in describing how a mentally-ill person tries to escape the confines of the reality around them. This isn't any exception; the caper feel to Miriam (Ann Sonneville) putting together an application to be part of a manned Mars mission while in a mental health facility benefits greatly from her upbeat but fragile performance, but doesn't quite feel like the manic high followed by a crushing low it's going for, or making a case that what presents as hyper-acuity maybe being an asset (or, perhaps, making the argument that getting away from Earth would mean getting away from her voices).

The latter part of the movie is an interesting but kind of disconnected other story, and I'd kind of like to see that tale (when she fears her sister has completely taken her place in her son's life) stretched out; it's a horror story that's little more than an afterthought here.

"The Sleepers"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

It's not until looking at the IMDB entry that I see that all four of the title characters in Joe Lueben's "The Sleepers" - Lilly (Sam Quartin), Ivy (Nancy P. Corbo), Rose (Susan Slatin), and Sweet Pea (Claire Simba) - are all named for plants of some kind, a nice parallel to how they live in a dormitory, sleeping 23 hours a day, as thoroughly rooted as their namesakes. It's a premise that gives Lueben a chance to do a number of interesting things in twenty minutes, mining their dreams, presenting interviews about what brought them to this place, contrasting grounded and surreal imagery.

But while there's an interesting thread about the kinship that the four in this particular cell share, it's also the kind of short that doesn't really do anything with its ideas. There's no explanation of what the world gets out of maintaining people like this, little of what they get for sleeping their lives away, no real movement. It's appropriate for this particular story to be kind of inert, I suppose, but even if there's not going to be a conventional arc, "The Sleepers" could use a little more poking at its idea and world.

Maybe that will come in the feature Lueben is trying to develop, but I always figure, why wait? That opportunity may never come and this chance is right here.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

There's an austere, fascinating creepiness to Alex Gargot's "Amo", featuring Salvador Roman as an engineer working on calibrating Domo (Marta Blanc), a sexy new model of female companion android that still has a few bugs to work out, with his attention to her earning the jealousy of Mia (Mireia Oriol), who at least presents as a schoolgirl. It's an obvious thing about the objectification of women, in the most literal sense, with bits about fine-tuning and Domo saying that he can shout at her if it makes him feel better. Mia's sabotage and petulance is darkly comic and entirely understandable.

That it's not entirely clear whether Mia is his child or another android, at least at first, is perhaps something that should have been handled a little better, it initially makes the movie seem like it's about "Doc" preferring an idealized mistress to his daughter. It gets a bit more interesting when you allow that Mia is a machine as well, but one which can apparently grow mentally and exhibit some creativity - it shows the premium that Doc is placing on stasis and performing a specific role that he defines in his companions; that Mia can change and be something other than what he originally envisioned is a horror that must, eventually, be deactivated. Though many would want the cute teenager into him as a fetish, that he rejects it isn't a sign of morality, but a desire for control.

Maybe it would work a bit better with a few slightly more clear storytelling choices, but there's something to how the obliqueness plays, even though this isn't really a story built around things being indistinguishable on first glance. It's at least playing with some good ideas, a little more provocatively than initially seems to be the case.

"Son Şnitzel" ("The Last Schnitzel")

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

"The Last Schnitzel" has allegedly been banned in Turkey, and that's not necessarily surprising; given how sensitive that government is to criticisms of its president, it's not surprising that a movie which portrayed a future president as a foolish, absurd autocrat isn't going to fly. I'm mildly surprised any of it got made there at all, rather than just pulling together what could be found in Copenhagen.

However it got made and however it can be shown, it's a funny, barbed bit of satire which posits that, with the people of Earth finally having made their planet into a concrete wasteland and having subsisted on nutrition pills for a century, they're about to leave for Mars, but the President of Turkey (Haluk Bilginer) refuses to budge or launch his shuttles until he has a chicken schnitzel. Difficult, when the last chicken on Earth died 200 years ago, but he's given the task to Presidential Assistant Kamil (Sevket Suha Tezel), and he'll figure it out the best he can.

The satiric intent here is obvious - Turkey is far from the only country where the leaders often place their personal pleasure above the needs of the people - but directors Kaan Airci and Ismet Kurtulus, collaborating with original short-story author Onur Koralp on the screenplay, have a knack for combining sharp, specific points with quality slapstick, casting their net wide to find a whole raft of political absurdities to puncture. I like that they stretch their effects budget as far as it can go, giving the world a bit more of a cartoon-ish feel. It's been eleven years since I saw G.O.R.A., but it's the same kind of bizarre Turkish sci-fi aesthetic, although it doesn't wear one out so much in a 30-minute film.

It works in large part for its two contrasting main performances. Tezel picks up the feel of the frustrated mid-level bureaucrat nicely, putting just enough can-do spirit into his frustrated antics to make the short bounce even as he displays frustration with every other person who is either unhelpful in the same boat but not handling it as well. Bilginer, meanwhile, is leonine as the elderly president, not playing him as utterly insane but more unable to understand why, after all his service, this one request is such a big deal.

It's good satire, even if it does hurt a little more as it gets easier to imagine winding up on this track


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Set during the War of 1812, Mohawk pays like survival horror where neither the hunted nor hunters have a moral high ground and can change position in a heartbeat. It's a somewhat ambitious way to attack something that is more flat-out action than larger look at war as a concept, but it makes for a smart, no less thrilling action picture. And it is great, flat-out horror-inspired action, with blood, guts, and plenty of shock as danger frequently leaps out of nowhere, with the fighting often up close and personal but moving at a slightly different pace as characters have to reload after each shot. There are suspenseful sequences and moments to make one wince, but it never seems to pause to space things out.

It's also great-looking - between the blood and the bright colors (and simple, not over-designed costumes), it feels like a no-nonsense throwback to Hammer or AIP, with the cast of relatively-unknown but talented actors a big boost. Director Ted Geoghegan had made two pretty terrific genre movies now, between this and We Are Still Here, and I can't wait to see what he comes up with next while still sending critics a bunch of email for his day job.

"It Began Without Warning"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Well, the title did warn that this one would feature little in the way of explanation for its graphic violence, which moves so fast that I'm still not sure whether or not the twist in the end really works - the film is set up to look like a father trying to kill his kid after mortally wounding his pregnant wife, until we see that the local kids are getting orders from some evil disembodied mouth thing, so had he actually just failed in defending her? Never mind, there's someone hiding in the closet because we need both a kill and a near-escape, but not so fast…

The filmmakers do some nice action choreography and quality gore, but not a whole lot more than that. And, hey, that's not bad for six minutes, but it's perhaps not unreasonable to want a little more story to go with the violence.

Game of Death (2017)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

There's plenty of enthusiasm and energy on display in this Game of Death, from the zippy 8-bit titles to the gleeful rampage through a hospice that concludes it. The filmmakers are having fun doing a gross-out fest workout a whole bunch of apology. It's a nasty little movie, but maybe not quite so nihilistic as it seems; I was eagerly anticipating its cast of young jackass characters dying, and some at least make a bit of a car for them to somehow survive, so they grow on you at least a bit.

It's one for those who go for gore and black humor, and girls in bikinis, and not a whole lot more. You could do a lot worse if looking for unapologetic exploitation.