Saturday, November 25, 2017

Fantasia 2017 catch-up, part 4: Thousand Cuts, A Thousand Junkies, Attraction, Jailbreak, Fashionista, Geek Girls, Mumon: Land of Stealth, Lu Over the Wall, Prey, and The Endless

And that's 72 feature films reviewed on eFilmCritic for Fantasia, give or take - it's not counting A Taxi Driver, which opened in Boston the week I got back and was thus skipped in Montreal accordingly, but is counting Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which I didn't actually see as part of a festival screening but did go to see between the start and end of the festival. There were also 4 short film packages that got pretty good write-ups (as did most of the shorts I saw), and 7 features I saw, but didn't get a chance to expand into full reviews. One was in unsubtitled French, so maybe give me a pass on that, and a couple of the others… Well, the filmmakers would probably rather I not share my feelings on a couple in any depth.

Yeah, it took three and a half months after the actual end of the festival, which is not ideal, but given that I kind of tapped out last year, it's an improvement, and I'm glad I figured out a bit more of a better way to go about it. Picking back up on updating my Letterboxd account and not shying away from using the international plan on my phone let me update a fair chunk in real-time. I didn't have more time during the fest, or immediately after, but a good chunk of first impressions being down as an initial draft helps, and getting this chunk down has helped me discover something reassuring - that, contrary to what some seem to think, it is much easier to write about what we love than what we dislike. That sticks around.

It means that, though it took me months to write them up, I was able to say all I want Mumon: Land of Stealth and The Endless, saving the best for last, so to speak. I'm kind of surprised that The Endless didn't get bumped up because of an impending release by Well Go, but I'm hoping that they find an early-2018 slot that gets it a semi-wide release. I've been waiting months to talk about something in this movie, and even if I figure that a lot of the people I'd want to discuss it with have already, you like to do it publicly these days. A far sadder consequence of the delay can be seen with A Thousand Junkies: The film I saw as darkly funny when watching it feels quite different on the other side of one of its stars dying what may have been a drug-related death. I really wasn't sure how to handle that when expanding the review; I tried to just stick to my initial impressions.

By interesting coincidence, I saw Mumon: Land of Stealth pop up in a YesAsia email, and it got me frustrated with the Japanese film industry's apparent disinterest in the world market all over again. Yoshihiro Nakamura's films may not quite get the buzz they deserve at festivals, and apparently haven't found favor with the broader J-pop fandom here, but they're consistently great. Because the audience is currently rather niche, nobody is paying the fees Japanese studios want to license their movies, but the studios don't want to jeopardize that potential revenue stream, so they don't put English subtitles on their Blu-rays. Or maybe it just doesn't occur to them to make them English-friendly because they don't see enough opportunity there - certainly, there are very few of us that will pay the ridiculous prices they want for those discs (the three editions up for pre-order have list prices from $45 to $90). The upshot is, nobody sees these films outside festivals, and it seems as if the desire to get the most potential money out of them is preventing people in North America from buying them at all.

But you know what's not expensive?

Yes, it's a Jay-at-Fantasia tradition, where I spend the last loonies in my pocket on Crush Cream Soda and Oh Henry bars that you can't easily find in the United States, saving them until after I finish my reviews. They will taste so good tomorrow!

Le serpent aux mille coupures (Thousand Cuts)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

You can tell Thousand Cuts ("Le serpent aux mille coupures" in the original French) is going to be an excellent slow burn from the start, as director Eric Valette contrives to bring three or four more or less unrelated groups to the same deserted spot in rural France and doesn't make it seem like a ridiculous premise despite being a huge coincidence. It's a tingly feeling that this could be a really entertaining mess, a sensation that only increases as an even more dangerous fellow shows up after the first bit of violence and two law-enforcement agencies get involved.

It starts with a drug deal going down; Jean-François (Stéphane Debac) doesn't really want to go through Spanish drug kingpin Javier any more. He soon won't have to, as an escaped felon (Tomer Sisley) crosses path with Javier's crew and comes out injured, but at least alive, disposing of the car and bodies well enough that a cartel lawyer and fixer (Terence Yin) are dispatched to find out who is responsible. Adrien holes up in the nearby farm, where owner Omar (Cédric Ido) and his wife Stéphanie (Erika Sainte) are already on on high alert because a lot of the locals do not like that a black man purchased the place after the previous owner went bankrupt - and, indeed, the key witness who could unravel the whole thing (Guillaume Destrem) was there to vandalize and destroy crops.

From there, it's all about turning the screws, and Valette does a fine job of that making not just the audience but the less-hardcore thugs wince as the worst of them tortures his way to what's going on while the folks pegged as heroes are more or less helpless. It does, eventually, wind up with Valette and co-writer Hervé Albertazzi (who wrote the source novel and is credited under nom de plume DOA) stretching themselves a little thin - Omar and his family disappear for a while as the situation in town gets more out of control, and while the various law-enforcement agencies getting along is a nice change of pace, it implies we don't need quite so many people involved. This mostly works, because the careful, measured progress keeps the audience glued to the screen as the very implausibility of the set-up keeps everybody orbiting each other, eventually drawing closer until the big confrontation comes.

Full review on EFC.

A Thousand Junkies

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

At some point during A Thousand Junkies, a viewer will likely think it's getting dark, but of course it's been dark since the start, when its main trio got into their beat-up Volvo to score their first heroin of the day, and starting to get strung out really just emphasizes what the oddball banter had been hiding. It's a humanizing though not particularly sympathetic look at being that far into addiction, though I've got no idea how accurate it may be.

Tommy (Tommy Swerdlow) is the guy with the car, and he starts his day before 7am, picking up T.J. (TJ Bowen) and Blake (Blake Heron), and putting in a call to Jimmy, their favorite dealer, who will, as the day goes by, always seem just out of reach. In the meantime, they chase down other leads, like Igor (Dinarte de Freitas), a rich Russian kid that Blake knows who doesn't like to shoot up alone; they'll also think back to how they met and how they got the car.

This is a story set in Los Angeles, so it's almost fitting that the car gets an origin story of its own; it's an indispensable part of the group, and as run-down, desperate for fuel, and close to collapse as its human occupants. It's not a character in the movie, but it's a necessary part of the framing: Director Tommy Swerdlow shoots a lot of scenes through the windshield, of course, but it's also important as the only true home these three have - they may have places where they sleep, but those belong to other people. The car is the only place or piece of the scenery that is constant as the men travel from one neighborhood to another, never letting a true sense of place build up. And when they finally start to get desperate enough to turn on each other, the car is part of that, too.

Full review on EFC.

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, although is justifying the weak bits better than avoiding them?

As it opens, a Moscow high school class is more or less ignoring the teacher going on about the night's meteor shower - well, the nerd everyone calls "Google" (Evgeniy Mikheev) is interested, while Yulia Lebedeva (Irina Starshenbaum) and her friend Svetlana Morozova (Darya Rudenok) make plans to watch it from the top of Sveta's apartment building. Or not - "watching a meteor shower" makes for an excellent excuse for Yulia to sneak off with boyfriend Artyom (Alexander Petrov) without Yulia's strict military father Valentin (Oleg Menshikov) being terribly suspicious. It works out well until one of those meteors hits an alien spaceship, the spaceship crashes, and Sveta is in the impacted area that Valentin is placed in charge of securing. Yulia, Artyom, and some of his friends sneak in and find both some alien tech and an injured member of the crew - and this "Hakon" (Rinal Mukhametov) not only looks human, but kind of cute.

Though the film has its problems - it can tend toward spinning its wheels on the way to an extremely obvious "power of love/danger of jealousy" story - 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). Irina Starshenbaum has the right sort of attitude for the bratty but basically decent Yulia, and she's able to sell the necessary quick growth while still showing the same prickly exterior. She's kind of got to; neither Alexander Petrov or Rinal Mukhametov is nearly as charismatic in their parts as she is, leaving her having to do the heavy lifting to make those scenes compelling.

Full review on EFC.


* * * 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 flicks from places that don't export a whole lot of movies, Jailbreak shows that there are a fair number of folks in Cambodia who know some martial arts and aren't particularly concerned with the safety standards other places have in place. Whether the excited reception this movie got at the festival will translate into a steady stream of Cambodian action movies or not, time will tell, but this first foray into cinematic mayhem is a high-energy hoot.

As it opens, the local authorities have just captured "Playboy" (Savin Philip), the presumed leader of the Butterfly Gang, and he's being transferred to Prei Klau Prison by an elite escort: Dara (Dara Our), the team leader; Sucheat (Dara Phang), just transferred from an undercover unit; Tharoth (Tharoth Sam), tough enough to hang with the guys; and Jean-Paul Ty (Jean-Paul Ly), a French GIGN agent. Of course, Playboy being the actual leader of an all-female gang rather than just the money man is unlikely, and he's ready to roll on Madame Butterfly (Celine Tran), and knowing this, she's made it known to Scorpion Gang leader Bolo (Sisowath Siriwudd) that there's a price on Playboy's head and an opportunity for a breakout. There are, of course, a whole ton of Scorpions in this prison, and Playboy is supposed to be locked up with the worst of the worst.

This may be giving the plot a bit more credit than it deserves. It's basically twenty minutes of enough exposition for the cops to be more than "the girl", "the guy with the beard", and the like, and then all hell breaking loose. Once things get started, the movie is basically one brawl after another, as the cops 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. Director Jimmy Henderson and his co-writer Michael Hodgson don't clutter things up with a lot of complexity or worries about people switching sides, but they're good at splitting the group up and bringing it together to make for good fights, and not cheating too badly with the geography of the place. 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 the audience.

Full review on EFC.


* * * 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!"). It 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.

April (Amanda Fuller) has more than enough outfits to make that happen; she and her boyfriend Eric (Ethan Embry) run the Austin second-hand shop that bears his name and the overstock fills their apartment. It's alarming to see, really, but seems relatively benign until a few things start to threaten that status quo, like when Eric starts taking trips to Dallas to discuss opening a location there with the uncle of cute customer-turned-employee Sherry (Alexandria DeBerry), leading to some fierce arguments. It's after one of those that she meets Randall (Eric Balfour), a well-to-do man with fingers in some unsavory pies and whose own clothing obsessions complement April's. Soon he's paying for fancy, designer outfits, and it's a big change for someone who so closely identifies with her outfits.

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 in a way that positions the latter as the necessary side-effect of the former, and in April's case it goes further because she often seems to literally be creating herself. In her mind, how she presents herself is a large part of who she is, and the wardrobe upgrade Randall offers feels like a sort of upward mobility even if it is still putting on the outfits another man gives to her, and within a more narrow range. It's a tendency to define herself by what she has and allowing herself to be trapped by what feels like her own initiative.

Full review on EFC.

Geek Grils

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017: Documentaries from the Edge, DCP)

A great number of documentaries might be said to have the prime of their lives on the festival circuit; that's where they're most likely to find packed houses and lively discussion, far more so than during the later years when they're getting one viewer at a time on whatever streaming services pick them up and their information ages. This is especially true for Geek Girls, which seems especially designed to play to audiences at genre film festivals, whether as a rallying point or a useful wake-up call, depending on one's perspective.

It's the work of Gina Hara, a Canadian born in Hungary who, like many women who enjoy comics, video games, and science, has occasionally been made to feel unwelcome by male would-be gatekeepers, enough to be interested in documenting the phenomenon. And so she does, starting in Tokyo's Akihabara district ("where geek history began") and initially finding nobody who would agree to be interviewed on camera, causing her to circle back to North America with a stop in her childhood hometown, talking to an interesting group along the way: Jamie Broadway of Black Girl Nerds, competitive gamer Stephanie Harvey, Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist Anita Sengupta, and many others, before returning to Japan for an interview with a pair of tentative, anonymous young women.

One of the more interesting facets of the film is actually one of its more implicit, in that the way Hara defines the geek world is markedly different than how I would as a man a decade or two older who loves genre material but never embraced the term "geek". Calling Akihabara ground zero highlights the focus on manga, gaming, and cosplay, which from one perspective is a bit of a slight on folks like Bjo Trimble (an important figure in early Star Trek fandom) and authors like Andre Norton and C.J. Cherryh who injected a female perspective into science fiction and fantasy even if they had to do so under androgynous pen-names. It's an important choice in a couple of important ways: It focuses the film on the present rather than the past, and it serves as an important reminder that what men generally place at the center of geekdom - and the mostly-male media that treats this as the default - can be markedly different from what women do, with much of the friction where these two spheres intersect.

Full review on EFC.

Shinobi no kuni (Mumon: The Land of Stealth)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, HD Cam)

When attending a genre festival, find the movie by Yoshihiro Nakamura. It will often be relatively unheralded, either because he's not as outrageous as fellow very productive Japanese auteurs like Miike or Sono, or because he's not adapting something that has already found a fandom across the Pacific, but it will almost certainly be one of the best films there. Such is the case with Mumon: The Land of Stealth, and on top of that, it's one of Nakamura's very best. It looks every inch the silly bit of ninja action from the start, but there's a biting criticism of capitalism lurking underneath, so that when it comes to the fore at the end, the audience shouldn't be surprised, but it still hits a bit harder than expected.

As it opens, it's September 1579, and the ninjas of Iga are battling again. They're not really enemies - ninjas are too much the dedicated mercenaries to really hate the rival clans - but fighting is what they do, and being on top leads to the best jobs. Heibe Shimoyama (Ryohei Suzuki) recognizes it as a stupid exercise, but it should be relatively harmless; his clan's fortress is well fortified. At least, it seems that way before Mumon (Satoshi Ono), whose name means "no door", crashes through and then steps aside because he was only paid to make an entrance - at least until he's offered a better deal. The he returns home to his wife, Okuni (Satomi Ishihara) who is refusing to let him into their modest house until he makes good on what he he promised when he kidnapped her from her hometown of Aki. Meanwhile, in Ise, Nobunaga Oda's plans to unite the kingdom are blocked by Iga, but who wants to fight a province full of ninjas? Instead, he sends his son Nobukatsu (Yuri Chinen), to keep them busy by building a fortress. They figure, fine, we can just tear it down when we're done.

It's a whimsical, silly series of events, adapted by screenwriter Ryo Wada from his own novel Shinobi no Kuni, and the filmmakers deliver a lot of poppy, bubbly scenes that serve as a fun contrast to how dour this sort of period film can be. There's a skewed logic to how scenes play out, with the ninjas coming off as simple folk with simple needs, almost refreshing in how they outright avoid tying themselves in knots. In a way, they're almost like children, and there's great hay made out of how these fearsome warriors are kind of goofy, with Mumon easily admonished and pushed around by a woman who is technically his prisoner.

Full review on EFC.

Yoake Tsugeru Lu no uta (Lu Over the Wall)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, Bu-ray)

Masaaki Yuasa had two feature films at the festival, which is some pretty spectacular productivity for someone working in animation, and I suppose that when you're on that kind of roll, it's no surprise that both wound up pretty darn good. Lu Over the Wall is a different sort of delight than Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, in some ways a more conventionally unconventional coming-of-age fantasy: It's hardly the first story with magical creatures helping a lonely kid find his place and save the town, although few are quite the same feast for the eyes and ears.

The kid is Kai (voice of Shota Shimoda); he lives in Hinashi, a fishing town denied sunlight by its massive "Shadowstone" wall, which also hides Merfolk Island, a failed amusement park built around the legends that mer-people lived nearby. He and his father just moved there from Tokyo, and Kai is trying to be invisible, but when classmates Yuuho (voice of Minako Kotobuki) and Kuniko (voice of Soma Saito) discover his DJ skills from something he posted on YouTube, they get him to join their band. They are not the only ones who hear Kai's music - Lu (voice of Kanon Tani), a young mermaid, hears it and sings along, and she gets so caught up in it that it gives her legs to dance with. Soon, she's joined the band, even though Yuuho and Kuniko don't know anything about their new singer other than her amazing voice.

That's just the basic plot, and while that's effective as heck - Yuasa and co-writer Reiko Yoshida pack all the coming-of-age themes, young romance, running around to keep a secret, and subplots which flesh out the supporting characters as complete, interesting people into a leisurely but not over-stuffed film - it's the way that this story sometimes gives Yuasa the chance to suddenly jump into something new that lets it grab a spot in a viewer's head. It's using music as a jolt from the very start, where the audience not only gets a sense of the strong feelings Kai is holding in as he composes and arranges in the opening before sudden jump to a bouncy theme song that occasionally feels like it has set too high a bar for the rest of the film because the music won't quite be so popping and married to fantastic visuals until almost the end. Teenagers in a band can often seem like shorthand, piggybacking on the viewer's own memories of a time when music was a direct line to their passion, but Yuasa and Yoshida seldom actually have their characters talk about this rather than just throw themselves into it in various ways.

Full review on EFC.

Prooi (Prey)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

Prey is, make no bones about it, a silly extra-large-animal-attacks-humans movie, but it's one that is quite well aware of precisely what audiences want from that sort of picture. There is not really a single sequence that doesn't play out with exactly the beats that one might expect for this sort of B-movie, which adds up to the film in general playing in the same sort of way. This is thankfully more of an asset than a weakness here - director Dick Maas and company hit familiar genre notes, but hit them fairly well.

After a poor suburban family encounters something wild and hungry, we meet Lizzy (Sophie van Wilden), a veterinarian at Amsterdam's Artis Zoo who specializes in large animals, whom she generally considers less troublesome than her recently-discarded-but-still-hopeful ex-boyfriend Dave (Julian Looman). She's called in by Detective Olaf Brinkers (Rienus Krul), who has her name on file for dealing with animal attacks. He's hoping for a coyote or the like; she frightens him by saying it's a lion, larger than average, maybe escaped from some illegal private menagerie. Olaf's boss wants to keep it quiet and have a cousin who has gone on safari handle the situation, but eventually they're going to have to call Lizzy's former colleague (and lover) Jack (Mark Frost), not aware that his last job has left him a little less equipped to hunt down this sort of predator.

The long tradition of people who would ordinarily encounter an actually dangerous animal being menaced by something large and carnivorous isn't exactly distinguished - for every Jaws, there are a great many inferior imitations. Fortunately, director Dick Maas is a B-movie pro, and he hits the right notes at the right moments, so that while the film never really has great moments of surprise and shock, it's very satisfying in terms of execution. There's a certain comfort to being able to see that the people involved know what a killer-animal movie is supposed to do and do that, giving the audience what it wants with just enough color to keep it from being self-parody. The moments of black comedy feel more genuine than ironic.

Full review on EFC.

The Endless

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International Film Festival 2017, DCP)

Aaron Moorhead & Justin Benson have not only not made a bad movie yet, but they're 3-for-3 in making fantastic films that at some point make the viewer's eyes bulge with delight at one point or another, when it becomes clear that they are doing something really clever. The Endless is no exception, building tension in an almost conventional way and then making sure that both the things that build mystery and resolve it are genuinely thrilling. It's a genuinely great horror film that will excite their fans and likely impress even those who aren't huge fans of the genre.

Benson & Moorhead also star in the movie, playing brothers Justin and Aaron Smith, who escaped from a cult ten years ago. Or at least, that's how Justin puts it; younger brother Aaron still romanticizes the group and tends to skip his deprogramming appointments. He might be tempted to go back if the pair didn't receive a videotape in the mail, but that's what it takes to get Justin to join him for a visit, especially with it referencing a mysterious "ascension" and seeming to end with disaster. So they return to Camp Arcadia, past the oddly-fresh memorial for their mother on the side of the road, and see that things have not changed much - Hal (Tate Ellington) is still working on some strange equation, Aaron still has a huge crush on Anna (Callie Hernandez), and neighbor Carl (James Jordan) is still kind of a jerk. There are new additions - cute artist Lizzy (Kira Powell) and Jennifer (Emily Montague), who came to California after her husband disappeared. There are secrets here which could, at the very least, tear the brothers apart.

This is only the pair's third feature (after Resolution and Spring), but one can already see strong themes emerging in their work that runs deeper than the love of analog media or the threat of something too ancient for its origins and purpose to be properly remembered. All of their films deal in some way with the idea of getting stuck at some point in one's life and someone trying to break free, and they aren't shy about laying this idea right out there from the start, with Aaron especially wanting to return to the safety of the place that sheltered them when their mother died and Justin trying to mount an argument for moving them forward. Right at the start, it's feelings that most in the audience can immediately connect with, even if the source is unusual, and it forms the bedrock of the movie.

Full review on EFC.

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