Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Fantasia 2017 catch-up, part 3: The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue; Almost Coming, Almost Dying; Death Note: Light Up the New World; 78/52; Friendly Beast; November; You Only Live Once; M.F.A.; and DRIB

With the IFFBoston Fall Focus going on now and an actual non-film festival vacation coming up, I'm making the decision to punt on the last two unreviewed films of day #15, Town in a Lake and Dead Man Tells His Own Tale). It's been three months, my initial Letterboxd entries are not exactly detailed, and something's got to give if I'm going to get to The Endless with any of my brain power intact. It's kind of unfair that these are the ones getting the short end of the stick, because they're basically suffering from being at the tail end of a stretch where the festival was just scheduled so tight that I couldn't get more than a short paragraph or two into my phone between movies and surrounded by shorts that have to get their write-up in real time. It's not that they're bad movies - Town in a Lake is kind of great! - but even those of us super-dedicated to earning our press passes by trying to write something on every darn thing that we see at a three-week festival can't quite manage it.

Heck, releases caught up with me three times during this batch, as both 78/52 (now with the subtitle "Hitchcock's Shower Scene") and M.F.A. both got theatrical/VOD releases just as I was getting to them (not sure when DRIB hit the streams). Sadly, November does not yet to be on any schedules yet, and what the heck, distributors? It's almost November and this thing is weird and gorgeous. I know screens are going to be tough to come by, but that's kind of on you for letting it sit so long, you know?

Anyway, 13 left, with 2 I almost probably won't get to. That Crush Cream Soda and Oh! Henry bar that I've been sitting on since the end of the festival as my reward for finishing these up are almost in my belly!

Yozora wa Itsudemo Saiko Mitsudo no Aoiro da (The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Camera Lucida, DCP)

It's unusual for a film to be based upon a book of poetry, even one with a title like "The Tokyo Night Sky Is Always the Densest Shade of Blue" which frequently allows one of its characters to narrate with a voice that is piquant in its cynicism. Seeing the credit for poet Tahi Sihate is a little more surprising given that director Yuya Ishii adapts it into a film that has a strong narrative despite appearing to be just as focused on what its characters think as what they do.

The narration comes from Mika (Shizuka Ishibashi), a nurse in Tokyo who earns extra money in a hostess bar, though as you might expect from someone whose thoughts tilt toward the dark, she's pouring drinks rather than putting on a big smile and flirting with the customers. That's where she bumps into a trio of construction workers - uncertain Shinji (Sosuke Ikematsu), sarcastic Toshiyuki (Ryuhei Matsuda), and homesick Filipino Adres (Paul Magsign). As they both live or work in the Shibuya section of Tokyo, Mika and Shinji find their paths crossing regularly and they start to form a tentative friendship, even if Toshiyuki is the one that asks Mika out.

It's a sign of just how well-sketched the characters in this film are that Mika can talk about how love does not exist on this earth and also say it's stupid and destructive without the viewer saying, hey, take a cynical side here, or feel like she or Ishii is just being antagonistic. Ishii sets actress Shizuka Ishibashi a difficult task in making Mika so generally abrasive without quite pushing the audience away, especially since he doesn't give her cool, snarky lines to lean on. Ishibashi proves good at directing Mika's doubts inward and presenting her as frank and suspicious but not mean, at a certain remove but showing that she's not aloof even if she may seem disengaged.

Full review on EFC.

Kumoman (Almost Coming, Almost Dying)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, Blu-ray)

There's likely a bit of truth in the way Almost Coming, Almost Dying slows down after a bizarre, titillating beginning: Recovery is not always hard in a way that obviously challenges someone, but it's often kind of boring and/or embarrassing, with a lot of waiting to see if something has healed properly or not being sure how to ask if this illness has affected something intimate. And so, after a fair amount of funny nudity and a themed "massage parlor" to open things up and get Manabu (Misoo No) into the hospital, the rest of the movie seldom strays far from his bed as he spends a month convalescing from a particularly ill-timed brain hemorrhage.

It could be deadly-dull stuff (although I suspect that some Americans may find six weeks of care without worries about paying for it an exciting fantasy rather than a disorienting situation), but director Toshimasa Kobayashi and screenwriter Hiroyuki Abe are good at finding the little things that are weird or unnerving or thought-provoking and giving them just enough room to play out and lead into the next one without ever seeming to focus too much on any one thing. It preserves the singular point-of-view of the real-life Manabu Nakagawa's autobiographical manga without indulging in too much navel-gazing; though very much his specific story, the filmmakers maybe spot some irony in how the hospital stay twists Manabu's initial situation as a 29-year-old man living with his parents and seldom leaving his room: Having others attend to his needs while remaining isolated suddenly becomes a far less enjoyable experience even before the question of how he got there rears its head.

That sense of isolation and disconnection isn't necessarily something that necessarily comes to the forefront for most in the audience; the filmmakers camouflage it with more obvious surrealism and what is generally very good examples of the comedy of embarrassment. Some of it is standard "pretty nurse for whom you have no mystery" stuff, although there's also a number of scenes where on family member tries to run interference to keep others from figuring out just where Manabu had his aneurysm that are perfectly executed comedy. They're also mindful of how they use the "Kumoman" mascot - a furry that personifies both Manabu's RCVS and his fear of another seizure - not letting these flights of fancy overtake the humans at the center or letting that fear get shunted too far aside by its oddity.

Full review on EFC.

Death Note: Light Up The New World

* * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Action!, DCP)

Was there really any particular demand for another spin-off of the theatrical Death Note series, or was the recent Japanese live-action television adaptation just a reminder to the rights-holders that there was money to be made? It doesn't particularly matter, I suppose, because this new addition coming ten years after the pretty entertaining 2006 two-parter is the worst sort of legacy sequel, picking up the convoluted mythology of the first but lacking the characters who initially got their hooks into the audience, or any particularly interesting successors.

A prologue states that the God of Death was so entertained by the chaos caused by the Death Notes ten years ago that he sent a dozen more of these magic notebooks to Earth, allowing a whole new set of people to kill someone just by writing the victim's name (and, optionally, manner of death) while picturing his or her face. The Death Note Task Force is revived, this time led by Interpol detective - and L's "true heir" - Tsukuru Mishima (Masahiro Higashide) and masked private investigator Ryuzaki Arai (Sosuke Ikematsu). It soon becomes clear that someone is trying to take control of all the Notes, quite possibly Yuki Shien (Masaki Suda), a hacker who considers himself "Kira's Messenger". He has sent a "Kira Virus" out that hints that the original Kira, Light Yamagi, is somehow still alive, which draws in Misa Amane (Erika Toda), now a successful actress whose memory of having used a Death Note was erased even if her feelings for Yamagi linger.

That paragraph likely sounds impenetrable for those who haven't encountered this material in one form or another before (there is the original manga, an animated adaptation, the two previous live-action movies which spawned spinoff L: Change the World, the Japanese live-action TV series, and the recent American live-action film), although odds are that there aren't many of those in the film's target audience: Death Note was a cultural phenomenon in Japan and one of the country's most popular cultural exports for a time. And there's certainly potential in a sequel, with an international scope and a "new world" of social media interaction that offers more at both extremes of anonymity and transparency that was just getting started when the earlier iterations came out. Though few characters survived the previous movies, you could probably build a heck of a thriller or satire around Misa as what looks to be a mature, decent woman whose celebrity is built on infamy she can no longer fully recall alone.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Documentaries from the Edge, DCP)

Do we really need an entire 90-minute documentary on the shower scene in Psycho? No, but then again, we don't need a lot of things that turn out to be pretty interesting, and Psycho was a pivotal moment in film history, with the shower scene one that absolutely everybody who has seen it remembers. You could spend a lot more than this time breaking it down - Hitchcock did take a full week to shoot that minute or so of film, after all, and then there was editing and music and all that, so there was thought put into it, and unpacking what seem like thought processes is usually worth doing.

It's probably not surprising that some of the best unpacking comes from editor Walter Murch, who has detailed an authoritative commentary on every cut and decision that Hitchcock and editor George Tomasini made - the man knows his craft and his voice and delivery are such that he can get out a lot of facts and not make it feel particularly dry. He's not the only one to walk the audience through what Hitchcock and his crew did; there are literally dozens of filmmakers and scholars from Peter Bogdanovich to Karyn Kusama to give their insight (conspicuous by his absence is Gus Van Sant, who famously did a shot-by-shot remake of the film). The only primary source that filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe really has left to talk to is Marli Renfro, the pin-up girl who served as Janet Leigh's body double, and her perspective is obviously very specific, although that's part of what makes the clips with the sweet old lady all the more intriguing.

It's not necessarily something that could work for the whole film, and finding the right balance of what to recount, what's background, and interpretation can sometimes be difficult. That's why it's probably more useful than it sometimes appears for director Alexandre O. Philippe to cut to the next two or three generations of filmmakers and fans who are sometimes just gushing or throwing out an undeveloped idea. Even when they're not necessarily providing new insight, it's useful; as the audience can feel these people learning something with them, making it less like a lecture and more like an interactive process. It's lubricant, even if some (like a young film professor who comes off far more as a fan than expert) are energetic enough to become off-putting.

Full review on EFC.

O Animal Cordial (Friendly Beast)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Friendly Beast looks like a pretty typical single-location hostage thriller, a group of somewhat disagreeable people having guns pointed at them by petty criminals in way over their heads, but it's not very long before filmmaker Gabriela Amaral Almeida takes a hard turn, making a movie that, plot-wise, makes almost no sense as coming from that situation. And yet, once it gets rolling, it works; we certainly buy these characters feeling under-appreciated and disrespected enough to take this opportunity to seize the moment and the film.

It's almost closing time at "La Barca", a restaurant somewhere in Brazil, late enough that owner Inácio (Murilo Benicio) is sending Lucio (Diego Avelino), one of the servers, home. There's just one customer there - Amadeu (Ernani Moraes), a big guy eating his rabbit alone, at least until Bruno (Jiddu Pinheiro) and Veronica (Camila Morgado) arrive, already seeming half in the bag. It's a hassle for Djair (Irandhir Santos), the chef, who has already started closing the kitchen down and told his assistants to take the rubbish out, but the restaurant isn't so profitable as Inácio's dreams, so he has hostess Sara (Luciana Paes) sit them down and take their orders. Which means that when Magno (Humberto Carrão) and another couple masked men come in to rob the place, there's a couple more potential hostages. But when things don't go as the robbers plan, Inácio is still egotistical and paranoid enough that things nevertheless might not end peacefully.

Indeed, the way things wind up rearranged makes little enough sense that it seems like filmmaker Gabriela Amaral Almeida has more or less dispensed with plot to venture into a surreal world where dominance games of sex and violence happen entirely as their own thing without having any sort of specific goal. Heck, that's arguably what happens; Inácio and Sara don't necessarily have psychotic breaks in the strictest possible sense but their worldviews have been upset enough that they no longer take reacting in a rational manner for granted. As much as the extremity and, indeed, foolishness of some of their actions may leave viewers scratching their heads, they're not necessarily unreasonable; fear and violence can mess people up, even if there's something vaguely simple or rational about the original plan.

Full review on EFC.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Rainer Sarnet's Estonian fantasy opens with some familiar, but beautifully-lensed, stark images of life in and around a poor, pre-industrial village, and just as you're starting to form an image of what this movie will be like, it drops some utterly bizarre fantasy elements into the mix as a family's kratt goes berserk from lack of work, stealing the cow and trying to lift it like a helicopter before having its mind blown after being told to make a ladder out of bread like a computer trying to parse illogic in an original-series Star Trek episode. If you've never heard of a kratt before, it's a jaw-dropping display of WTFery with which to open the film. For those raised on the Disney-fied versions fairy tales that came out of Western Europe, Eastern European folklore is weird.

Weirder still - Sarnet basically spends the movie accepting its premises while still allowing some modern vernacular to make its way in. The crossroads demon is neither regal, creepy, nor mischievous, for instance; he's a loudmouthed jerk who can be fooled but not pushed around. Witchcraft works, the plague is a shapeshifting creature that can be made to swear oaths, and departed relatives enjoy a nice sauna on All Soul's Day. It's a world where medieval superstitions have some basis in fact but which is fascinating because the people in it, from infatuated young Liina (Rea Les) and Hans (Jörgen Liik) on up, are all people we can relate to. In some ways, it seems like an attempt at partial immersion - the twenty-first century audience that buys a ticket to this sort of film is by its nature well-removed from the superstitions that ruled these people's lives (and which often still hold sway in areas where life has not changed that much), and might have a hard time seeing both the absurdity of the situation and the very real pressures the people involved faced.

It is, of course, not always a happy situation - life is cruel and requires grabbing for anything you can get in this place, so that person you understand is probably ready to screw over someone else you kind of like. There's a weary acceptance that takes some of the edge off, though, and enough genuine love in the hearts of Liina and Hans to give the audience some hope. Things might be simpler if the pair just loved each other, but Sarnet (working from a novel by Andrus Kivirahk) is not going to make it that easy - though Liina loves Hans, Hans is smitten with the new Baroness (Jette Loona Hermanis), a beautiful but sickly young German girl who has her own issues, while Liina has been betrothed to a local merchant. Indeed, there are enough intrigues and background characters that while the film plays out in a relaxed-enough manner - no scene is too frantic and the editing never seems rushed - the audience may at times wish for a little less, because there's just not time for everything to get its full due, even if all the details are intriguing in their own right.

Full review on EFC.

Sólo se vive una vez (You Only Live Once)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Action!, DCP)

Boy, is You Only Live Once a mess, starting from a solid thriller set-up, moving through some genuinely inventive action beats, before spending the bulk of the film in a hackneyed plot that overlooks some pretty darn basic things in order to make the "hiding-out" comedy work, before getting back into some over-the-top action toward the end. It's a genuinely dumb script that decides on a tone but not really a cast, often seeming to make things up as it goes along.

Leonardo Andrade (Peter Lanzani) is the guy who will eventually need to hide out, as he and lady friend Flavia (Eugenia Suárez) are setting up a schlub (Carlos Areces) whose job as a "food engineer" sounds ridiculous but apparently pays well and merits security - at least until ruthless French businessman Duges (Gérard Depardieu) shows up and demands he fork over the formula for the new preservative he's created. Soon enough, Leonardo has a blackmail tape of murder rather than infidelity as well as a flash drive people will kill for, so he's got to hide. Fortunately, there's a bus to a dormitory where Orthodox Jews from all over the country are having a sort of encounter group, so "Pablo Cohen" gets on board. New roommate Yosi (Dario Lopilato) sees something is up immediately, but both his fiancee Sara (Arancha Marti) and Rabbi Mendi (Luis Brandoni) seem to have taken a shine to Pablo, so Sara, Yosi, and Leonardo's estranged brother Agustín (Pablo Rago) - a priest! - get drawn in when Duges starts sending assassins to sniff Leonardo out.

There's something rather tacky about this sort of story - it lends itself to the broadest possible stereotypes while things only seem to get worse as the jokes get walked back (look, these guys are mostly like regular people!). Screenwriters Sergio Esquenazi and Axel Kuschevatzky mostly avoid that - Yosi, Sara, and Mendi have their eccentricities which certainly get exaggerated by their background but would probably be oddballs regardless - but there are still a lot of moments where someone might squint and wonder if Leonardo's first encounter with a specifically Jewish thing really counts as an actual joke in 2017. Thankfully, they and director Federico Cueva are often able to turn that into energy - Leonardo's enthusiasm for a certain group that is not necessarily thought of as Jewish first and not pausing when confronted with neo-nazis are at least fun, and an example of how the filmmakers are not necessarily going to get methodical and over-serious as the plot takes over - which is not necessarily something that a lot of action-comedies can say.

Full review on EFC.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

Rape-revenge films are kind of nasty things, although this one at least had that it was written and directed by women going for it. That at least makes things a little less creepy and exploitative, if not necessarily different but one can perhaps watch it without second-guessing it so much. It's easier to watch a scene where a woman is painting naked as a sign of reclaiming her own agency where physicality is concerned and feel like that's actual intentions rather than an excuse that way, for sure, although it's still not the most creative way to tell this story.

It takes place on the fictitious Balboa University, where Noelle (Francesca Eastwood) is a sweet young art student, kind of shy, doing work that her professor (Marlon Young) criticizes as being kind of conventional, though her friend and neighbor Skye (Leah McKendrick) is more encouraging. Still, she catches the eye of Luke (Peter Vack), a hunky classmate who asks her to to join him at a party at his frat's house, where he goes more than a bit too far. As is often the case, the school's counselor (Mary Price Moore) is no help, maybe not quite victim-blaming but clearly not advocating for her, and when Noelle goes to Luke to demand an apology… Well, she doesn't get one, but his falling over a railing is a different sort of satisfaction that she wouldn't mind feeling again.

Though less obviously misguided than some of its peers, M.F.A. is still a movie that can't help but feel like the filmmakers are checking things off, pointing out the things that you need to know and they need to say about campus rape culture but not necessarily digging deep into it or using that to establish a specific, unique situation. Noelle takes revenge for herself and others, in ways that are more real-world than elaborate, but finding new inspiration for her art as she stays just far enough ahead of the police to build up a little suspense. And, yes, that "new inspiration" bit is kind of gross no matter who is telling the story, although at least nobody brings up the idea that her horrible trauma may be a blessing in disguise. Director Natalia Leite and writer/co-star Leah McKendrick step fairly carefully in trying to avoid false notes, which gives their movie both a certain earnestness and a corresponding stiffness.

Full review on EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2017 in 26 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017: Documentaries from the Edge, DCP)

Though screened as part of the festival's "Documentaries from the Edge" program, DRIB probably only qualifies as a for how it includes some original material that led up to the events depicted and cutaway bits that talk directly to the audience; otherwise it's all "recreations" that have a certain amount if license admittedly taken. It could, perhaps, do with a bit more - the filmmakers' relationship to their story's absurdity often leads to jokes not landing quite as well as they could, although there's enough of them for the movie to work, especially for fans of the absurd.

Actual footage, we are told, cannot be used because of the non-disclosure agreement that Amir Asgharnejad signed when he agreed to work on an ad campaign, so he is forced to recreate his experiences. An Iranian-born comedian who grew up in southern Norway, Amir became a fan of Andy Kaufman when his father died, and a Kaufman-like bit where he picks fights on the street that he can't win goes viral on YouTube. An American advertising agency hits on the idea of sponsoring and product-placing energy drink "DRIB" into the series - creative director Brady Thompson (Brett Gelman) envisions a stealthy, unacknowledged campaign - and somehow, Amir never really gets the chance to tell anyone but sensible copywriter Cathy Rothman (Annie Hamilton) that all the original fights were faked.

For all that Asgharnejad and filmmaker Kristoffer Borgli are going for a story that is stranger than fiction, the absurdity of the situation is not as Kafka-esque as the initial introduction makes it sound: Hollywood is weird but there's never any conflict between its strangeness and Asgharnejad trying to interact with it - as much as he quite reasonably doesn't want to get punched in the face by a bunch of Los Angeles bodybuilders, he often seems more a detached observer rather than someone getting caught up in more than he can handle or comprehend. If the fact that an audience can watch this and not be shocked or befuddled is meant to be an indictment of modern consumer culture, it doesn't quite work out that way, and Asgharnejad at times seems like a guy planning this movie rather than stumbling into it.

Full review on EFC.

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