Friday, September 01, 2017

Fantasia 2017.05: Tom of Finland, The Honor Farm, The Senior Class, Shock Wave, and Free and Easy

Dang, into September before having an entry for all 21 days of Fantasia. Now to go back and review the other … (flips through pages in movie notebook) … forty-one movies I didn't have time to fully write up on the first pass. Kee-rap!

So, it's been a while, but this was one of those days where you end up in De Seve because the early shows are things that I wanted to see but couldn't make earlier (Tom of Finland, The Honor Farm, and The Senior Class), and then, because I'd seen The Little Hours at IFFBoston, and wasn't interested in Small Gauge Trauma, there were basically two paths for the rest of the day - Shock Wave and Free and Easy in De Seve and Have a Nice Day and Radius across the street. As much as Radius looked neat, Free and Easy looked very good, and I couldn't see it on the second showing without missing Cold Hell, so there's that decision made. Makes a couple days later work a bit better, too, as Shock Wave had an earlier show than Have a Nice Day.

Kind of surprised to have a guest:

That's The Senior Class director Hong Deok-pyo in the center, giving a brief Q&A after his film. It's been a while, so what I most remember is that one of the questions was about how someone had a hard time seeing the lead character as sympathetic, and he said you weren't really supposed to, but I think that he seemed a little half-hearted, and it's a sign of what I thought was the film's greatest weakness, that as much as it's about showing a thing as bad, it's also the sort of movie that you can see actual monsters watching it and being "yeah, put that b---- in her place".

And now, feel free to jump back a month or so on the timeline for Day 6, with Liberation Day, Wu Kong, and Punk Fu Zombie. If I were posting this on the morning of the 18th of July, I would be recommending Animals and saying your mileage may vary on Bitch

Touko (Tom of Finland)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

There's delightful release toward the end of Tom of Finland, as the title character visits California and discovers a world where things may not be perfect, but he doesn't have to hide that he likes men, and muscles, and leather. It's a moment of wonder that gets across just how much the audience, like Touko, has grown so used to the limits placed on him that they seem invisible until they're gone, and by getting in a spot to communicate that moment of joy, the filmmakers have perhaps done the best thing that biographers can by letting the audience understand their subject for a second, on top of just knowing the facts.

Touko Laaksonen's life might not look that unusual from the outside - he fought in the war with the USSR, moved in with his sister Kaija (Jessica Grabowsky) afterward, would have liked to be a fine artist but took a job doing advertising work at the same firm where she worked, was well-liked but never married. He was gay, though, in a time where this was a crime, although you could find a community if you knew where to look. In the war, it was a park in the middle of the city, where he would have trysts with Heiki Alijoki (Taisto Oksanen), his superior officer, and Veli "Nipa" Nakimen (Lauri Tilkanen), an aspiring dancer. Touko (Pekka Strang) would encounter both again after the war - Heiki, now in the diplomatic service, when Touko gets into trouble for selling homoerotic cartoons in Berlin; Veli when Kaija doesn't realize her new boyfriend is in the closet. Years later, when he buys a little smut under the counter, he's surprised to learn that the drawings stolen in Berlin have been circulating ever since, and he actually has a cult following in America.

Laaksonen may not be a big enough name that the audience can be expected to come in knowing the details of his life, but there's a general slope toward personal and societal acceptance over the latter half of the Twentieth Century that the film can coast on a bit, from a time of police raids and absolute terror of being outed, to winks and nods, to overt acknowledgment. This framework is more conventional than it could be - though the film jumps back and forth in time, the filmmakers aren't doing this to hide something as much as skip relatively uneventful periods; given that he's known for his art, it wouldn't be surprising to see it come to life and tell the story, but his famous "Kake" character only pops up in a few moments rather than being given a life beyond Touko's imagination. It's fitting, perhaps - Touko is presented as a genial fellow whose deviations from societal norms are less rebellious than eccentric, and watching the film reflects both that solid reliability and playfulness.

Full review on EFC.

The Honor Farm

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Well, heck, how do you say anything about why you like this movie without spoiling it? You can tie yourself up in knots talking about the fact that it surprises while trying to scrupulously avoid what sort of expectations it defies, or wondering if this bit happens too late in the movie to mention to someone who hasn't seen it but feeling you can't recommend it without pointing out how great that is - and it's kind of too peculiar to just say "trust me". But that's the sort of movie that one can really go for if it hits you just right.

It's easy to talk about what a traditional but entertaining horror hook it has, starting with two sweet girls with lousy prom dates - Lucy (Olivia Grace Applegate), the narrator, sees her boyfriend Jake (Will Brittain) get drunk and stupid right away, while her friend Annie (Katie Folger) brought a pretty much random guy (Samuel Davis) because her boyfriend just ghosted her. They wind up tagging along with another group after - gothy Laila (Dora Madison Burge), handsome JD (Louis Hunter), Jesse with the drugs (Michael Eric Reid), Zoe (Christina Christina Parrish) & Shanti (Josephine McAdam) with the promise of mushrooms and a seance at a haunted location outside of town - an honor farm once worked by prisoners whose barracks were once part of an asylum. It's spooky as heck, and soon they discover they're not the only ones there.

Things get weird, eventually, but never so weird that the audience loses track of how these are regular high-school seniors, with vague things to figure out, not really a part of what they find. And, even though we don't necessity know a whole lot about them, we like them, and don't need a whole lot of extra crisis to care about them in the moment. Writer/director Karen Skloss co-wrote the movie with her teenage daughter, and between them they shape it into something that favors present-day authenticity over nostalgia but never crawls down a rabbit hole of dense slang or kids who talk like middle-aged screenwriters.

Full review on EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Axis, DCP)

"Lovescream" is about how eating ice cream on a hot day is better than just about everything else and I simply will not hear other interpretations. They are wrong.

Getting there means five or six minutes of animation that is pretty darn charming as a young wanders from her bed through beautiful environments that are both detailed and abstracted. The same goes for her and the sprite she encounters; despite a simple design with bold, thick lines, the characters are expressive and able to communicate. It makes for a pretty, charming little movie.

Jol-up-ban (The Senior Class)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Axis, DCP)

Yeon Sang-ho made the jump to live-action films with Train to Busan last year, but that doesn't mean he's left animation entirely behind: The animation studio where he produced The Fake and The King of Pigs is still a going concern, and he contributes the script for The Senior Class, which exhibits the same brutal cynicism and reflection of societal ugliness as the films he directed. It's not quite so strong a work; Yeon and director Hong Deok-pyo don't quite pull their punches, but they often don't have the right target.

Shin Joo-hee (voice of Kang Jin-ah) is the star pupil in a Seoul college's visual arts department, and on top of being talented and ambitious, looking to study in Paris after graduation, she's beautiful, if a bit difficult to approach. She certainly seems to be out of the league of Choi Jung-woo (voice of Lee Joo-seung), a less-praised but studious classmate with his sights on making comics on the web. Jung-woo's friend Baek Dong-hwa (voice of Jeong Yeong-gi) earns a bit of extra money as a courier, but he also like to drink, and one night he foists a delivery to the Vovo "spa" off on Jung-woo, who is surprised to run into Joo-hee there, earning money for Europe under the name "Su-im". It's a secret that could bring Joo-hee and Jung-woo closer, but it's also the sort that inevitably gets out.

Hong's film doesn't quite embrace visual ugliness the way that Yeon's animated work generally has; few characters have scowling, pinched faces as the default, but the general feel of the film will be familiar to those who have seen other films from Yeon's Studio DADAshow, with the characters simply drawn (rapidly losing detail the further they are from the center of a scene's action) and moving a bit stiffly, as if their joints aren't quite so flexible as they should be. It's a slight limitation to the animation that heightens the emotion on display in a scene because it favors bolder movements unencumbered by background elements that may run counter to the main thing the filmmaker is trying to get across in the scene.

Full review on EFC.

Caak daan jyun ga (Shock Wave)

* * (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

They don't crank out quality genre films quite the way that they used to in Hong Kong, but that's a relative thing; Shock Wave writer/director Herman Yau Lai-to and star Andy Lau Tak-wah are still good for two or three movies a year, and it's not uncommon for them to look as sleek and polished as this mad-bomber thriller. Unfortunately, it takes more than good production values to stand out as an action film these days, and Shock Wave barely even lights a fuse.

Lau plays J.S. Cheung, the best in the HKPD Explosive Ordinance Disposal unit, though he went undercover a year or two back, infiltrating a bank-robbing crew led by Peng Hong (Jiang Wu), an operation that ended with much of the gang behind bars but Peng still on the loose. Now, he's comfortably back in uniform, mostly settled down with schoolteacher Carmen Li (Song Jia), though not married. It's the perfect time for Peng to reappear with a new crew, calling himself "Blast" and setting bombs all around the city. The first few are just to get the city's attention for the main event - bombs which could collapse the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, not only killing the thousands trapped inside but potentially bankrupting the region. Blast wants a king's ransom and the release of his brother Biao (Leo Wang Zi-yi), but it may just be a ploy, as he is apparently bankrolled by Yim Kwok-wing (Liu Kai-chi), a director of the company that operates the much more expensive Western Harbour Crossing Tunnel.

That's an enjoyably-specific enough detail that I'm inclined to wonder if some other moments that seem weak or unsuspenseful play better for the locals who don't need to have certain elements explained - though I'm certain that there's a bus full of Chinese tourists trapped in the tunnel as much so that the tour guide can tell them and the mainland audience things like how the WHC is known as "Tycoons' Tunnel" as to provide confused older people who can be put in danger. That's actually a relatively efficient use of minor characters compared to the rest of what Yau and co-writer Erica Lee Man build; the film is peppered with "guest star" minor characters and subplots that are seldom of enough sustained importance to play into the climax. It's like they're trying to build tension with a lot of little things, but the math in action thrillers doesn't always work that way.

Full review on EFC.

Free and Easy

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Not a lot of movies like Free and Easy seem to make their way out of China; the popular entertainments that get day-and-date releases are often gushing tributes to Chinese prosperity, and the less poppy things tend to be historical. This one is something different from the start, a comedy of the absurd that is hard to categorize as a crime movie because there's nothing in this nearly-abandoned former factory town to take. It's a striking set of initial images, a town that has not yet fallen into complete disrepair but only has people show up on occasion, a maze with so many of the buildings connected. It's not a place that needs help; it's one that has already busted.

Writer/director Geng Jun populates it with oddballs, from a soap salesman who is robbing a kid handing out flyers even before it turns out that his homemade soaps are infused with chloroform, or something else that knocks those who give them a sniff unconscious to a monk who seems to be running scams as much as dispensing enlightenment. There's not a combination of them that isn't fun, and they can deadpan off each other without seeming like duplicates. Some are even downright mournful.

That dedication to playing things utterly straight and sparse population can result in a movie so quietly grinding to a halt that the audience doesn't quite notice until they're fidgeting, wondering if they've had a micro-nap and missed something, until the end comes and there's the nagging sensation that there should be a little more to this. It's not a comedy that builds its quiet absurdity into an impressive climax, or one which leaves the audience feeling that it is revealing a tragedy or greater truth. It probably does, but it may just be a bit too arch to actually get much juice out of seemingly-dry material.

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