Sunday, July 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Past and Future Kings"

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

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

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

Prityazhenie (Attraction)

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

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

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

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

"Valley of the White Birds"

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

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

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

"Scarecrow Island"

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Stealth&Silence: DC Comic Fan Film

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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