Thursday, July 27, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead link to review on EFC.

Kumoman (Almost Coming, Almost Dying)

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

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

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

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

Full review on EFC.

Death Note: Light Up The New World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead link to review on EFC.

Atomic Blonde

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead link to review on EFC.

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