Thursday, October 05, 2017

Fantasia 2017 catch-up, part 2: Dead Shack, Pork Pie, A Day, Money's Money, Junk Head, The Laplace's Demon, Love & Other Cults, and The Mole Song 2: Hong Kong Capriccio

Folks, if you're going to attend a festival while having a day job or just otherwise planning to stretch that content out over a while - rough drafting is kind of crucial, along with good notes. You may feel like a tool taking notes during a screening, but if you want to write something up later, it's really incredibly helpful. So is dashing off a couple of quick paragraphs between screenings, whether to post as capsules on your site/Letterboxd/wherever, or to save for yourself - the structure and reminder of what you thought was important and memorable at the time really helps give shape later on.

And sometimes that delay works out all right - it turns out that I posted my full review of Money's Money within a couple of days of its actual release in France. I have no idea if that actually drove views to EFC or not, but I've got to admit, it made me feel just a bit more relevant than when I would do a review and it wasn't actually near any chances for people to actually see the thing.

24 more to go, give or take. This may stretch into November, but the stuff you see at these festivals deserve the write-ups.

Dead Shack

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Axis, DCP)

This movie should have been a complete disaster; it's got the stink of 1980s horror nostalgia executed without many thoughts beyond liking gory old movies but maybe liking them more if they were quippier and less likely to take themselves seriously That's generally a recipe for only making the shell of a good horror movie, but Dead Shack instead turns out, if not great, then not bad. It's good enough that if the filmmakers are able to cash in on a demand for early-teen-centered horror after It, I won't begrudge them their good timing.

After a brief glimpse at what looks like the end of a party that was kind of weird before it went horribly wrong, we see Colin (Gabriel LaBelle) get picked up for a weekend in a secluded cabin with his friend Jason (Matthew Nelson-Mahood) and his family: Jason's sister Summer (Lizzie Boys), upon whom Colin understandably harbors a bit of a crush; father Roger (Donavon Stinson), the perhaps too-laid-back father; and Lisa (Valerie Tian), the hot but kind of snotty potential stepmother. It's not a group that meshes perfectly, so the kids wind up taking a walk in the woods, and when they stumble upon that house from before the credits, there's no way they just say "something smells funny, let's get back home."

To a certain extent, how much someone enjoys this movie is a matter of how well he or she responds to swear-y, sarcastic teens. I'm not a particular fan, and while this one gets a boost from a dumb but likable dad who joins in - Donavon Stinson hits the nail on the head in making Roger enjoyably laid-back, able to improve the kids' banter as he dives in but also making it no surprise that he'll be kind of useless when it counts. The interplay between Colin, Jason, and Summer is kind of boilerplate stuff - Colin's shy, Summer's 75/25 in terms of being annoyed and flattered by his interest, and Jason's the kind of twerp whose constant abrasiveness is not clever but loud enough to make up for it. If it comes off as genuine and frequently funny, it's because the authentically young cast sells it very well; Gabriel LaBelle, Matthew Nelson-Mahood, and Lizzie Boys may not be given the freshest of material, but they bring the right sorts of teen self-doubt and assurance to it.

Full review on EFC.

Pork Pie

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

There's something kind of charming about the very existence of this film, the result of a son making his own version of one of his father's films, although it needs a bit more than that for a hook to be more than a curiosity to someone who hadn't seen the 1981 original Goodbye Pork Pie. I'm not sure whether Pork Pie actually finds that, although it plays nicely enough to be an enjoyable matinee, and has a few pretty impressive car bits as well.

It's a bit hampered in its choice of main characters; Jon (Dean O'Gorman) is a blocked and broke writer determined to win the woman he drove away back despite not having done much if anything to improve himself after driving Susie (Antonia Prebble) away decisively. His plan is to meet her at their friends' wedding (to which he wasn't invited), but there's the little problem of his car being on its last legs. Fortunately, he manages to talk his way into a yellow Mini Cooper being driven by Luke (James Rolleston) - which, of course, is stolen. So, sure, when Keira (Ashleigh Cummings) climbs out a drive-through window and into the backseat as she's fired for giving a hamburger joint's customers animal-rights pamphlets with their orders, why not add the rally she wants to attend to their road trip?

That plot is thin enough that the cast had better be pretty darn likable for the movie to thrive. It mostly manages this, even if it does ultimately need to balance Jon with a mother so heavy-handed in her opposition to Susie getting back together with him that his traveling clear to the other end of New Zealand to plead his case sounds almost reasonable. What's impressive is how filmmaker Matt Murphy and his cast don't go for particularly obvious chemistry right off; their banter is never quite awkward but it's not smoothed over by some obvious connection, and for a good portion of the movie, a bizarre or intrusive question will be met with a look that implies the second person can't quite remember why they're traveling with the first. It's never enough to break things, though, because there is an awkward chemistry and a shared impulsiveness to answer it.

Full review on EFC.

Ha-roo (A Day)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Say this for A Day - it rapidly makes a solid impression that being stuck in this sort of time-loop would be a sort of hell, as nobody in the audience wants to watch a tragedy happen over and over again any more than the people involved do, so by the time it does a bit of a switch-up, we're pretty relieved as well as thankful to see that this movie is going to be more than a hyper-compressed Groundhog Day with violent death. It's still kind of a mess, but it's a quick and often effective one.

The person trapped in the loop is Dr. Kim Jun-young (Kim Myung-min), a doctor famous for his international charity work, just back in Seoul from speaking at the United Nations and eager to see his daughter Eun-jung (Jo Eun-hyung), though the tween is frustrated and annoyed by her frequently-absent father, as such girls are. It's 9:58am when he wakes up on the plane, and he'll be yanked back to that moment at 12:30pm - and, as he'll soon discover, it's pretty much impossible to get where he needs to be to change what happens at noon in time. After at least a half-dozen cycles, Jun-young isn't quite numb to what's happening, but he can still be jolted when one of the EMTs on scene, Min-chul (Byun Yo-han), asks how he's able to react differently as well.

It's more than a bit of a relief when Min-chul shows up, because even though that's likely just about a quarter of the way through a 90 minute movie, it's already kind of a punishing grind. That's a large part of the point of the film, of course - people being put through hell to pay for their sins until they can finally attain forgiveness or see the pointlessness of their anger - and it's writer/director Cho Sun-ho's biggest and most important accomplishment that the audience's heads are likely heading in the direction of Sisyphus (or whatever the Korean equivalent is) and other myths of eternal punishment and torment right away, despite the fact that the opening act never really slows down enough for Jun-young to wax particularly philosophical about what this is like, and neither he nor the film in general spends much time in puzzle-solving mode until later.

Full review on EFC.

Money (Money's Money)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

As much as I suspected going in that this would be a fairly grimy, no-nonsense crime movie, I wasn't necessarily prepared for how little it sends to have going on aside from getting things into position and then getting people killed. That sort of seeming nihilism can be as much feature as bug - a lot of crime stories are about how the big score can seem like the only solution - although it's not necessarily a point that the filmmakers seem to be trying to make here.

It takes place in the port city of Le Havre, the sort of place where people carpool because everybody who has been living in the same run-down neighborhood for generations has also been working the same sweaty job. Take, for instance, Danis (George Babluani), his friend Eric (Vincent Rottiers), and Eric's sister Alexandra (Charlotte Van Bervesseles); it's not much of a living, but it's the one they've got, although maybe that can change; Alex has learned that M. Mercier (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing), the local Secretary of State for Public Safety, keeps a lot of cash on hand, relatively unguarded; it should be pretty easy to steal. It would certainly be enough for Danis to pay off his gambling debts (or not) and start over somewhere else with his daughter. It is seldom that easy, though - Mercier keeps a lot of cash in the house because the mob uses him as a conduit, blackmailing him over the matter of a dead escort. The trio are about to walk into a more dangerous situation than they expected.

It's a simple crime thriller, and as a result of that simplicity it sometimes feels oddly small, returning to the same spot in ways that don't necessarily feel natural or otherwise feeling a bit under-populated. When filmmaker Géla Babluani is setting things up, this doesn't feel like much of a problem; there's an old noir tradition of focusing on the people that work in the infrastructure of a place, getting things from here to there but not paid enough to have any sort of mobility themselves, in large part because they're bled by both the big shots above and the bookies or crooks at their own level. Babluani does the feeling of the film a service by establishing these characters' world as so small that their neighborhood feels like a single street, and it's notable that even the attempt to escape it takes place on a train; it's another space too narrow for someone to escape his past that offers only limited options.

Full review on EFC.

Junk Head

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Axis, ProRes)

If nothing else, you've got to respect the very existence of an independently-made stop-motion animated sci-fi film that runs almost two hours. That thing is a labor of love that had one person exercising both amazing creativity and incredible patience. In this case, it looks like he started from an initial short, but that takes little away from the finished product, a dystopian odyssey where even the surface-dwelling human explorer is as changeable as the world around him after his quest to learn about the clone workforce underneath immediately goes awry.

You can sort of see the episodic structure, and how director Takahide Hori may have occasionally used it to recharge his creative batteries, as his (mostly) human explorer occasionally falls down to a lower level of the clone-occupied subterranean world, with each new group to find him building him a new robot body and placing him in a new sub-adventure. It never feels like the stop-and-go sort of episodic, though, with his new form and adventures being a refresh rather than a restart and the flashbacks that emerge from his jumbled memories helping to tie things together even though the focus is often on the here and now. That we don't see much of this explorer in his true form until late gives Hori a lot of room to explore this world from the point of view of a character who is just as much an outsider as the viewer while his outbursts of memory and metamorphoses create just enough of a sense of urgency to move things along.

And while this isn't the sort of animated film you'd call "gorgeous" or the like - it's a post-apocalyptic world whose clones are often mutated and where various forms of worm-like monsters can leap out at any second - the detail is impressive, and the use of CGI to augment the physical puppetry is excellent. It is the sort of film where scaling it up and down in one's head keeps it impressive, as either the small things in a scene are incredibly detailed or Hori has built something fairly substantial, and he's able to use the grotesquerie of his designs to give sympathetic characters a certain pathos and to link the world's creatures without ever seeming to repeat himself too much. Spoken dialogue isn't quite minimized, but the title character, at least, communicates more through action than words. I believe most of the dialogue is nonsense sounds - it didn't sound like Japanese - so everybody is a bit distanced by watching it with subtitles.

Full review on EFC.

The Laplace's Demon

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Camera Lucida, DCP)

The Laplace's Demon is the sort of movie that feels like a throwback until you try and remember just what it's throwing back to. After all, when movies had this sort of look, not many people were actually making this sort of sci-fi/horror; the crisp monochrome photography, ornate setting, and trickily-mounted set pieces were too much for genre productions unless they got to shoot one the not-yet-disassembled set of a classier film. Like the films made by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, these films are speculative fiction in terms of style as well as story, though this nifty film is contemporary in its setting.

It's not immediately obvious that it's taking place in the present day until someone pulls out a laptop. Six men (Silvano Bertolin, Fernando D'Urbano, Duccio Giulivi, Walter Smorti, Simone Valeri & Alessandro Zonfrilli) and one woman (Carlotta Mazzoncini) are traveling to "Rock's Nest", a magnificent but isolated mansion on a craggy island in the Mediterranean to meet with the mysterious Dr. Cornelius on the matter of predictive algorithms, brought there on a ship captained by Alfred (Simone Moscato), who naturally is none too pleased to find that there seems to be nobody on the island to give him his money and the weather makes leaving immediately impossible. He's not nearly so intrigued as the self-described "specialists in applied presumption" to find a scale model of the house in the main chamber, connected to a complex clockwork mechanism that controls eight chessmen - pawns - that follow their movements. There is also a queen moving through miniature house, and they are soon reminded that queens capture pawns far more often than vice versa.

From the start, it's extraordinarily easy to imagine the premise of The Laplace's Demon laid out by either the mad scientist in a pulp magazine or the stalwart genius opposing him, a spot illustration captioned with a line from the text on the facing page, but while director Giordano Giulivi and he collaborators will eventually get there, the film is a kick to watch on the way. It's full of grainy black-and-white photography, slightly heightened performances, and effects that are not shy about being visual effects rather than real things, and Giulivi uses that seemingly less-refined style not just to show a winking fondness for genre trappings of a simpler time, but to plunge the audience into a world where what the characters are fighting is more elemental - not just in the striking death-representing visual of its "monster", but in a philosophical determinism that implies that every step a person makes is predictable. The music by Duccio Giulivi announces the film's genre and influences, and that's fine - even if style weren't half of what makes this movie what it is, the score makes a good jump from atmospheric to frantic the same way the movie does.

Full review on EFC.

Kemonomichi (Love and Other Cults)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Despite being one of those Japanese films that not only never actually seems to circle back around to the flash forward where it starts but has no spot where that scene would fit - with a more pointed opening than most films that do that - Love and Other Cults works in large part because, even with the jumps and changes it features, there's a sad inevitability of things getting to that point, that there's no way for its lost girl to avoid the situation she finds herself in at the start. And like a lot of those very same movies, the path that gets everyone to a depressing place is often not just darkly funny, but even exhilarating.

Narrator Ryota Sakuma (Kenta Suga) falls hard for Ai Shima (Sairi Ito) as soon as she arrives at his junior high, but for once the rumors about the new girl in foster care probably don't do the screwed-up life she has led justice: Her mother Kaori (Leona Hirota) is something of a religious maniac, jumping from one belief system to another and eventually sending Ai to her latest obsession's commune, where Ai is declared as the cult's chosen one "Ananda" - at least, until it's raided because Lavy (Matthew Chozick) is a pervert as well as a fraud. So, throughout high school, she winds up bouncing between foster homes and terrible boyfriends, while Ryota himself falls in with a bad crowd in Yuji Mieno (Kaito Yoshimura) and Kenta Kitagawa (Antony), teenage hangers-on to low-level yakuza Hisaya Kida (Denden). Ryota's and Ai's paths frequently intersect over the next five years, but seldom at a point when they can manage to bring out the best in each other.

In some ways, this feels more like a Sion Sono movie than the actual Sono film that played the festival, plunging its too-young characters into desperate and bizarre situations that they sometimes are too inexperienced to understand is wrong and then having to push through because, well, what else is a kid to do? This is very much writer/director Eiji Uchida's territory too, and Uchida tends to have a more cynical, realistic view of these things than Sono; there's nothing uncanny or fantastical about the darkness in these characters' lives. Things get weird, sometimes jaw-droppingly so, but part of what makes Ai's situation is just how changeable it is - Ryota loses sight of her for what seems like a minute, and her whole life seems to be upended in the meantime.

Full review on EFC.

Mogura no Uta Hong Kong Kyousoukyoku (The Mole Song: Hong Kong Capriccio)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

I honestly retained very little of the first The Mole Song movie Takashi Miike did from when I saw it at the festival a couple years back, and the "previously" reel suggests my brain may have been overwhelmed more than it being a case of it not being memorable; a metric ton of stuff happened, and I have vague memories of musical numbers on top of that (my review suggests I liked it a fair amount even if it did wind up not making a lasting impression). Hong Kong Capriccio benefits from being relatively simple - undercover cop rising in the yakuza uncomfortably quickly must save the boss's daughter from human traffickers and try to take him (and the Chinese mafia) down.

That undercover cop is Reiji Kikukawa (Toma Ikuta), and the sequel starts the same way as the original, with him getting dragged through a crazy situation naked, this time in a cage suspended from a helicopter. He's only got a brief moment to check in with his handlers and his girlfriend Junna Wakagi (Riisa Naka) before being sent back out into the field - where, ironically, the zealous new head of the Organized Crime Task Force, Shinya Kabuto (Eita), is making it hard to operate, in part because boss Shudo Todoroki (Koichi Akawi) has promoted him and his partner Masaya Hiura (Shinichi Tsutumi), making Reiji a person of interest. Shudo has also told Reiji to watch over sexy 19-year-old daughter Karen (Tsubasa Honda) - the sort of girl who inevitably creates uncomfortable situations - even as both the cops and yakuza are trying to deal with a push from China's "Dragon Skulls", led by the mysterious "Papillon".

This plot is exactly the pile of yakuza movie cliches it sounds like, but not quite the one-thing-on-top-of-another marathon that the first was. It is, perhaps, the difference between playing these familiar elements for broad comedy and trying to turn them inside out to mock them, in addition to a sequel not necessarily having to go for every mob-movie joke they can because they might not get another chance; the filmmakers can tell a story simple enough to hang some jokes on without the audience having to struggle to keep up. That gives Miike and the writers a lot of room to do genuinely nutty things - pun fully intended, as the hero takes it in the crotch a lot, and there's a lot of slapstick and other obvious-but-effective comedy. It's got one of the craziest opening bits I've seen in a while, something which doesn't happen on film until the whole idea of giving Miike accrual money to adapt popular comics becomes an actual thing, and the tacky, ridiculous jokes continue through the end, a showdown in Hong Kong that doubles down on the villains being comic-book crazy and pumps the action up to downright ridiculous levels.

Full review on EFC.

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