Thursday, September 14, 2017

Fantasia 2017 catch-up, part 1: Good Time, Bushwick, Museum, Mohawk, Game of Death (2017), Plan B, Napping Princess, Shinjuku Swan II, and Lowlife

So, here's roughly 20% of the reviews I saw at Fantasia this summer and just had time to get an entry on Letterboxd and the blog before the next day started with a whole new batch of things to write up started screening. It's slower than I've been in other years, but well ahead of last year's "crash and burn" pace.

There's some darn good stuff in here, and I probably should have posted a smaller update while Good Time was still in theaters. Bushwick is on demand, at least, and recommended.

Good Time

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Whether the Safdie Brothers explicitly intended to make something that feels like 1970s cinema right down to the dirtier, more desperate side of New York taking the fore or whether the just got there naturally from starting from the same place with the same goals, Good Time manages the neat trick of seeming like a throwback to that era without ever coming across as an imitation. It's got a vitality to it that comes from not being so obviously controlled, but never gets so shaggy that it's not moving forward.

It opens with Nick Nikas (Benny Safdie) being examined in a mental hospital, and it's clear that he's got some cognitive issues and difficulty with abstract thought. Despite that, his brother Constantine (Robert Pattinson) pulls him out, and they're soon robbing a bank, botching the getaway bad enough that Connie is soon desperate to bail his brother out, knowing Nick might not even survive overnight at Riker's Island. It's a fear soon borne out, as Connie is soon trying to find Nick at a hospital and teaming with another small-time crook (Buddy Duress) to recover a bag of drugs that can maybe get Connie the money he's looking for.

There's a fair amount of "and then this happened, and then this…" in the middle of that and plenty after, a flitting from one scenario and group of characters to another that can seem almost like the filmmakers are easily distracted, Good Time just moves. The Safdies set up what seems like a simple central relationship and then blow it up by pushing Connie into new bad situations, keeping the goals simple but always just outside Connie's grasp so that the running at them always seems natural and while the nervousness and panic accumulates, it doesn't require Connie or the audience to recall a whole lot and set one's mind counter to that forward momentum. It's clear that the situation Connie is in at any given moment is often a matter of his not stopping to think, but the pacing is just such that it's easy to get swept up into the bad choices.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

The makers of Bushwick were likely never going to be able to bury its progressive message under a movie that people across the political spectrum went to see for the well-made action, but it's not hard to imagine the people financing the film wishing they would be a little more coy. It turns out that the film is hitting video on demand and a few theaters at a time when patience with wishy-washiness is fairly spent, so it's in good shape there. And while the script and story are often a bit simple, the action is impressively elaborate, often eyebrow-raising in both what the filmmakers do and how they do it.

It opens with Lucy (Brittany Snow), a graduate student coming home to Brooklyn's Bushwick neighborhood for Thanksgiving break, walking through a strangely empty subway platform with her boyfriend, only for them to get the shock of their life as they discover that there is open warfare going happening on the surface. As they are separated by a sniper's gunfire, the camera follows Lucy as she takes cover from both invaders and those looking to take advantage of the chaos in the basement of Stupe (Dave Bautista), an ex-Marine Corps medic who wants to reach his family in Jersey City, but agrees to help Lucy find her grandmother and cousin Belinda (Angelic Zambrana). Eventually, it becomes clear that the only hope of escape from this organized invasion is making their way to the Army's evacuation point at Cleveland Park, but to fight their way there, Lucy and Stupe must act as go-betweens for JP (Jeremie Harris), who has guns, and Father John (Bill Blechingberg), who has people hiding in his church.

Bushwick opens with a bit of cute banter, but it's not long before that's interrupted by violence, and after a while, someone watching the movie with an eye toward filmmaking technique (whether purposeful or not) will notice they can't remember the last cut. It's about then that the degree to which the film is not going to let up sinks in, and what seemed like an interesting what-if about Brooklyn being attacked by domestic terrorists becomes a grueling survival thriller. It's a heck of a well-executed one, too, even with some cuts that aren't as hidden as the filmmakers were trying for not diminishing just how much they've often got going on in a sequence. Directors Cary Murnion & Jonathan Milott are plenty ambitious and don't miss many tricks, especially during the first half, stitching together tight bits centered on a single room with long handheld shots through a school building, and often doing this while keeping a sniper and his victim in the same shot. The action that can be surprising both for its relentless and for how it never seems escapist; the tension comes from just how ugly things have become in a matter of hours.

Full review on EFC.

Myûjiamu (Museum)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2017 in L'Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Museum is the sort of serial-killer story that has a lot of good bits, including the gruesome ones, and I wonder if it would have been served better if it had been developed as a screenplay first, rather than a serialized manga. After a while, the need to have a new cliffhanger every twenty-five decompressed pages rears its head, and the twists build up, and what started out as a nifty thriller about elaborately gruesome murders has gotten downright weird and drifted far from what grabbed the viewer's attention in the first place.

When the first case rears its head - a woman tied up and allowed to be eaten by starved dogs - detective Hisashi Sawamura (Shun Oguri) and his partner Nishino (Shuhei Nomura) start following the usual sort of leads, although the fact that she was found with a note indicating punishment makes Sawamura nervous; the veteran detective knows that that sort of thing usually indicates the work of a serial killer. Sure enough, another body turns up with a similar note, and Nishino soon uncovers the connection: Both were jurors for the "Girl in Resin" case three years ago, but there doesn't seem to be anyone who would be inclined to take revenge on the six jurors and three judges. More immediately pressing is that the jurors included Sawamura's wife Haruka (Machiko Ono) - who has just taken their son Shouta and left the workaholic after years of neglect, naturally without leaving a forwarding address.

As nasty a serial-killer story as that is already, it will get even nuttier, suddenly involving weird mutations, extended torture, and even more astonishing psychological torment than the audience has already allowed for (which was kind of a lot). It's a fairly severe shift for a movie that had not entirely been about the chase but still had the thrill of something new discoveries and an unsettled situation to keep things exciting; the answers it provides are twisted enough to match the questions, but once that's done, the movie keeps going, fairly quickly getting into a rut where the audience isn't so much eagerly or nervously awaiting what happens next, but just dreading the confirmation that the situation is what it looks like and wondering how much more unpleasant the next scene will be compared to the previous. The film hadn't been cheerful to that point, but it becomes a real grind.

Full review on EFC.


* * * 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 plays 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 - a lot of filmmakers will look for the simplest possible through-line that gets from one fight to another in that case, or look for murk - but it makes for a smart, no less thrilling action picture.

During that war, both the Americans and the British sought the allegiance of the Mohawk nation, though as the film opens, they remained steadfastly neutral despite British emissary Joshua Pinsmail (Eamon Farren) being very close to Oak (Kaniehtiio Horn), daughter of a local matriarch, and their lover Calvin Two Rivers (Justin Rain). The hotheaded Calvin opts to force the issue, attacking an American fort. As a result, the trio are pursued by an American unit commanded by the reasonable Charles Hawkes (Jack Gwaltney) but with Hezekiah Holt (Ezra Buzzington) agitating for harsher action, aiming to exterminate the party before they can make their way through the woods to a mission and make their case for joining the Brits to the elders.

What ensues is often great, flat-out horror-inspired action, with blood, guts, and plenty of shock as danger frequently leaps out of nowhere. The fighting is often up close and personal, moving at a slightly different pace than many audiences may be used to as characters have to reload after each shot, and writer/director Ted Geoghegan makes good use of how this creates short bursts of offense amid longer moments of vulnerability, along with frequently gruesome deaths that give the characters enough time to register horror at their impending oblivion. There are suspenseful sequences and moments to make one wince, but it never seems to pause to space things out.

It does, of course, although the cast is also very good at building their characters up on the run. That's a major benefit for the primary trio of Kaniehtiio Horn, Eamon Farren, and Justin Rain, whose relationship is settled enough to not require much comment but unusual and complex enough that the audience can read a lot into how they interact. Horn is especially good, with Oak often more capable and leel-headed than her men, never coming close to saying that she's putting up with Joshua because that's what Calvin wants because she's loyal, but Horn can make the idea hang there making Oak stronger rather than weaker. Ezra Buzzington makes Hezekiah Holt a frenzied, monstrous adversary, but the men with him are an interestingly varied group, from Ian Colletti as his son Myles - a chip off the old block but more sneering than sociopathic - to Jonathan Huber (the WWE's Luke Harper) as an amiable giant of a man fighting for his country and who could easily be the protagonist if the perspective shifted a bit.

Full review on EFC.

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 that concludes it. The filmmakers are having fun doing a gross-out fest without 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 case for them to somehow survive, so they grow on you at least a bit.

There's five of them to start out, teenagers initially hanging out by the pool at Ashley's house - her (Emelia Hellman), her boyfriend Matt (Thomas Vallieres), their kind of snobby friend Beth (Victoria Diamond), Kenny with the broken hand (Nick Serino), and sweet-seeming Mary-Ann (Catherine Saindon). Beth invites Tom (Samuel Earle), and their dealer Tyler (Erniel Baez Duenas) eventually shows up, by which time they've found "The Game of Death" among the other old board games in a closet. Though it looks like a twisted version of the 1980s "Quizzard", it draws blood when all the players are holding it, and then has a couple of LED countdowns start - the players have to kill over twenty people, and if nobody dies before the timer hits zero… Well, exactly what you think is going to happen does before it resets.

Game of Death was originally put together as a web series, and it's fair to wonder how much of the story was built on the fly - once it hits the road in search of more bodies, it never moves back, and the characters can be very thinly sketched: I honestly wasn't sure through much of the movie whether Beth and Tom were supposed to be brother and sister, boyfriend and girlfriend, or some sort of weird step-sibling middle ground (probably the second with me misinterpreting a "bro" thrown into conversation or something). Directors Sebastien Landry & Laurence Morais-Lagace and Edouard H. Bond & Philip Kalin-Hajdu, their co-writers, are probably not looking to make any particular statement about the perils of other people's nostalgia or today's teenagers being particularly craven and amoral, or even get a lot of tension out of the moral dilemma this game poses; they pretty much just want to serve up a bunch of exploding heads and other gory deaths in fairly rapid-fire manner.

Full review on EFC.

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 and meta as Plan B: It basically announces at the start that its three stars are guys that can do much more, both as actors and stuntmen, than the German film industry is asking of them, and then sets about giving examples. That could be either painfully silly or a bland exercise in fight choreography, but the filmmakers know when to wink and when to let folks show what they've got.

Can Aydin, Cha-Lee Yoon, and Phong Giang all play versions of themselves, 1980s-movie-loving German stuntmen looking for work and held back in equal parts by Can's over-enthusiasm - the massive Stallone fan butts head with directors by trying to make fight scenes more elaborate - and having their pal U-Gin (Eugene Boateng) as their manager despite his really having no head for numbers. This includes the location of their next gig, so instead of finding a film shoot, they find gangsters holding their boss's wife Victoria (Julia Dietze) hostage because she's one of the only people who knows where Gabriel (Henry Meyer) keeps his blackmail files on just about everyone in Berlin - or, more precisely, the first stop on a scavenger hunt that leads to it, with a bunch of goons at every stop, which is why the kidnappers hold on to Phong and sent Can, Cha, and U-Gin out rather going themselves.

Each stop on this leads to an 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. Aydin, Yoon, and Giang divide the fight scenes among themselves fairly equitably, and they're smart enough to know that they'll look best by giving themselves quality opponents, giving a lot of fellow stuntpeople a chance to let audiences see their faces as well as just their moves, with Heidi Moneymaker (Scarlett Johansson's stunt double for her Marvel work) and others impressing and letting the filmmakers shoot action scenes Jackie Chan-style, with a ton of medium shots that show motion and aren't frantically cut trying to hide things.

Full review on EFC.

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. Heartland 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 way they reflect each other actually allows writer/director Kenji Kamiyama to come at car culture from opposing directions, showing both the delight of innovation, speed, and maneuverability on one side while also questioning the overbearing corporate weight and inertia of the automobile industry. Each half is, on its own, a perfectly enjoyable story, and Kamiyama does a fine job in making them reflect each other, even if things get a little fuzzy when it's time for them intersect.

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), or maybe something like this isn't unusual but being a sequel got it past the filter, but whatever the reason, this feels like the first time he's truly mailed it in.

It picks up a year after the events of Shinjuku Swan; Tatsuhiko Shiratori (Gou Ayano) is still a successful "talent scout" in Tokyo's Shinjuku district but he's a bit less cheerful than he was - one friend is dead after the brawl between rival agencies and the gangs that support them and his friend Yosuke (Yuki Kubota) has disappeared. In terms of pure business, the merger between two agencies that ended the war leaves the "Burst" agency Tatsuhiko works for with too many scouts and not enough clients, a solution they propose to rectify by expanding to Yokohama, with Tatsuhiko accompanying Gensuke Seki (Motoki Fukami), who left the island some time ago, to get things started. Of course, Yokohama already has its own scouting business, headed by Masaki Taki (Tadanobu Asano), and his response to having his territory invaded is to attack Burst on its own turf.

Where the first Shinjuku Swan captured some interest in part because it was an introduction to the "scout" business, and there was a certain sense of discovery from seeing how this process worked, a second film inevitably digs into less vital minutia, from which organizations are protected by which yakuza groups and other questions of 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 maybe not; it's a deeper dive into material that was not considered important enough two years ago, and it shouldn't be taken for granted that viewers excited to learn the basics and enough detail to tell a story want more details.

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 got 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, expectations being raised all the higher because it seemed to be coming out of nowhere, so there was no moderating talk from other festivals. 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 not just make it work, but capture something that a slew of imitators haven't gotten right since Pulp Fiction..

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. Director Ryan Prows and his collaborators respect that most of their characters are good people who have made the mistake of assuming others were just as decent, only to have genuine monsters screw it up.

Take the opening, when an ICE raid led by Agent Fowler (Jose Rosete) rounds up a whole bunch of undocumented immigrants in a motel whose owner Crystal (Nicki Micheaux) at the very least looks the other way, with the detainess delivered to Teddy "Bear" Haynes (Mark Burnham), whose burrito shop is cover for something far worse. One of the abducted girls says that luchador hero El Monstruo will save them, but it turns out that El Monstruo (Ricardo Adam Zarate) not only works for Bear, but is married to Bear's adopted daughter Kaylee (Santana Dempsey) - and while pregnant Kaylee thinks they should make a break for it, the luchador feels honor-bound to stay. Meanwhile, Crystal is hoping Bear can find a kidney for her ailing husband Dan (King Orba), and Bear's accountant Keith (Shaye Ogbonna) is picking his old friend Randy (Jon Oswald) up after that man is released from prison, with Randy's umissable new ink not the only thing that could make this uncomfortable.

Full review on EFC.

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