Saturday, July 29, 2017

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

A day that really went back and forth.



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

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

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

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

Le serpent aux mille coupures (Thousand Cuts)

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

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

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

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

Underverden (Darkland)

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

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

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

A Thousand Junkies

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

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

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

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

Fritz Lang

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

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

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

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

Full review on EFC.

"Rue"

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

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

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

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

Kodomo Tsukai (Innocent Curse)

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

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

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

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

Full review on EFC.

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