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 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. It's something reflected in her male counterpart Shinji, who is alternately characterized as silent or needing to fill any time with talk, but the jump from one side to the other never seems artificial or arbitrary; despite backstory that takes a while to come out, actors Shizuka Ishibashi and Sosuke Ikematsu always feel like they're capturing complementary sides of the same character.

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 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 (working from, interestingly, a book of poetry by Tahi Saihate) 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.

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 (we don't even see her near a train station; it's almost 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.

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.

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 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 set coming ten years after the pretty entertaining 2006 two-parter is the worst sort of legacyseql, 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.

Heck, as it goes toward the end, it winds up repeating a lot 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 specific path. The film is basically starting from scratch, but doesn't really have the guts to be as enjoyably loopy as its predecessors had, with the main new things of interest a couple of new Reaper designs. Indeed, the upgraded effects for returning monster Ryuk and 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. 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.

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.

Full review on EFC.

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