Monday, July 16, 2018

Fantasia 2018.04: Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura, Aragne: Sign of Vermillion, Cold Skin, L'Inferno (1911), and The Scythian.

Never underestimate the manga/anime crowd at Fantasia. You may think that something is just big in Japan because you haven't seen it in the local comic shop, and it doesn't really seem to fit with the festival from the description, and then you show up at Hall and it's packed to the gills forDestiny: The Tale of Kamakura, and then again for Aragne: Sign of Vermillion.

Axis programmer Rupert Bottenberg on the left, Aragne director Saku Sakamoto and producer Osamu Fukutani in the middle, translator on the right (can't find a name in the program). We were given autographed prints as we entered, too, which was pretty cool.

Most of the Q&A was in French, so I couldn't pick much up. I did rather sympathize with one of the English-speaking people who asked a question, basically saying she got kind of lost by the end, and what was going on? The response was basically "I don't want to invalidate anybody's interpretation", but I think this is more a case of viewers being frustrated because the telling was unclear, not something being left open-ended. Storytelling is communication, and if your pretty imagery doesn't get something across, I kind of wonder what it was going for.

It was kind of interesting to actually hear them admit that the story started as one thing but wound up having other pieces added to it as it went on; it may explain why the movie seemed somewhat disjointed and lacking direction.

Stuck around Hall for Cold Skin after that, which meant there was very little time to get across the street and into L'Inferno. I don't think it quite got to the point of needing to find some folding chairs to seat all the passholders, but I don't think there were any seats left once I got it.

Mitch Davis, as always, was effusive in introducing Maurizio Guarini of Goblin, who accompanied the film. It was an interesting score - I admit, I sometimes have trouble wrapping my head around something so obviously synth-based for a silent film - that mostly distracted from the guy next to me who occasionally seemed to be boasting to the lady next to him about how he could spot some of the more obviously fake bits. Congratulations, you saw through the special effects of a 107-year-old movie!

Ah, maybe I was just crabby because I was hungry. There was enough time before the last film of the day to get a proper burger, some poutine, and a milkshake to help with the sore throat. I suspect I would have found The Scythian a ton of violent fun anyway, but a full stomach helped.

Today's plans include Relaxer, Being Natural, Neomanila, Mega Time Squad, and Profile.

Destiny: Kamakura Monogatari (Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

Destiny is a cute fantasy romance that does a pretty nice job of building a magical world around its laid-back setting, but which is maybe too slight for its finale. The filmmakers never quite build up the connection between its husband and wife enough to convince us that the big, epic confrontation at the end and story of a love that spans multiple lifetimes is justified.

As a collection of smaller stories, though, it works quite well, with fanciful and good-natured episodes that make this a place I could see visiting regularly. The effects work is also top-notch, especially toward the end, where Japanese fantasies often start breaking down because they can't quite afford that step up to something even bigger. Not a problem here, as the film does a nice job of building up rather than going too big too fast.

Full review at EFC.

"Walking Meat"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival:AXIS, digital)

Zombie stories have arguably reached a dangerous level of oversaturation, where they are so common that you take some of the horrors involved for granted. Shinya Sugai does a nice job of pushing past that with "Walking Meat", positing a take where people also consume zombies and having fun with "older guy not understanding millennials" bits.

Which sounds groan-worthy at times, but works better than you might think; it gives him a set of broad, funny characters to throw into the usual mayhem, and he's not above making the frustrated mentor character look ridiculous as well. The director's background in visual effects sometimes has him a little too enamored of the first-person shot, but the action is mostly on point otherwise, and the way that the film actually focuses on the characters rather than how much mayhem can be done to the zombies is kind of refreshing.

I suspect some of the millennial jokes are kind of Japan-specific, right down to the punchline of having plans after work (compared to more traditional drinking with colleagues, I guess). Mostly, though, it's fun, comedic zombie mayhem.

Aragne: Sign of Vermillion

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, DCP)

Aragne: Sign of Vermillion is the sort of anime that would has always excited audiences looking for something they couldn't find in American cinema a generation ago, a combination of science fiction, horror, and mystery that plays has a whiff of the exotic and has plenty of room for fan theories and speculation. Those movies are not always as rich as they seem, unfortunately, and this one suffers badly for not having a more defined story, even though horror can often get further on atmosphere than other genres.

After opening with a nightmarish vision by a mental patient - or did that actually happen? - focus shifts to Rin Shida (voice of Kana Hanazawa), a timid university student living in an apartment that does not live up to its billing as "eco-friendly living atop a reclaimed toxic site". She's catching glimpses of strange, insect-related horrors, but are they real or in her head, her imagination working overtime to connect a series of mysterious deaths and rumored cult activity?

Well, maybe that's not really what's going on, but it might as well be. Writer/director Saku Sakamoto keeps throwing new revelations and explanations at the audience, but as good as he is at creating striking imagery, he's not that great at building a story, almost seeming indecisive at times. Here, he'll talk about some sort of rare insect-borne disease from decades ago being the explanation for a series of deaths, but then it's some sort of weapons development from decades before that. Characters are introduced in such perfunctory manner that they don't even feel mysterious because you need to know something to figure that the rest doesn't fit. It winds up feeling like Sakamoto had an idea but couldn't get a feature-length story out of it, and wound up tacking other bits on until the movie was feature-length but the original central story had been buried.

It makes for a disjointed film that is not done many favors by its tendency to make the audience distrust what they are watching. Sakamoto repeats fading to black and then having Rin wake up disconnected from the previous action - repeat it one more time and the audience probably starts laughing at it rather than holding that in - and for all that this sort of feeling of moving from one nightmare to another helps create atmosphere, it doesn't give the audience much to hang on to. Later on in the movie, there are what appear to be strange revelations about Rin, but given that the audience hasn't really gotten to know her that well, there's not a lot of impact to "everything you know is wrong".

That sort of plot-oriented storytelling doesn't really seem to be Sakamoto's forte - he has come up through effects animation - but there's no denying that he is good at the visual half of the storytelling. He draws Rin as both ethereal and down-to-earth, gets a great visual gag out of the difference between how the apartment building was advertised and the reality, and does a really spectacular job of going for the gross-out throughout the movie. From moth wings to brain beetles, he gets the most out of the "spirit bugs" he introduces early. He does have a bit of a weakness for filters at times, but does a fair job of integrating obviously first-person material into a movie that is otherwise trying to use the aesthetic of traditional animation.

To be fair to Sakamoto, this is an independent production in a way that is often only possible with animation - he wrote, directed, composed the music, and handled the visual effects, mostly crowdfunding the work. If this has some success, he'll probably have more assistance to smooth over his weaknesses and help him learn later on. For right now, he's still got a lot of storytelling to learn, because this movie doesn't hold together at all.

Full review at EFC.

Cold Skin

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Cold Skin is maybe not quite as clever as it could be, but it's a nicely chilly/claustrophobic piece that holds up with two or three characters at a time (although its horror does involve a horde or ten). It doesn't exactly keep the conflict between the main pair at a background simmer, but letting the audience concentrate more on the vicious-seeming humanoids allows what those two represent to occupy a little bit less of the conscious mind, letting it sink in.

In some ways, the film comes up with some of its most interesting bits too late to really expand on them - the Prometheus symbolism toward the end seems like the start of another film rather than the end of this one - probably weighting it more toward pulp than the cerebral horror of its best ambitions. It's good pulp, though, and certainly smart enough to be worth a little though

Full review at EFC.

L'Inferno (1911)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival Ciné-Concert, DCP)

The sort of silent film where one has to be committed to meeting it on its own ground, because this thing's from 1911, has a somewhat relaxed pace, and probably assumes a certain level of familiarity with the source material.

Meet it on those terms, though, and it's fascinating, a film that leaves no doubts about the horrors of Hell even when the capabilities to visualize them are primitive. The score that accompanied this screening sometimes worked against that, occasionally emphasizing camp, but the effects work is sometimes eye-catching, especially in context.

Skif (The Scythian, aka The Last Warrior)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

It's always a tricky business to mix ancient or medieval settings with modern sensibilities, even when one knows it is necessary (the elegant prose that survives from those ages almost certainly doesn't match how people actually spoke, but making things too simple and modern also often sounds wrong). The Scythian seems to handle that better than most, but not necessarily because it seems particularly realistic. Some mix of its roots in Russian legend and straight-ahead action plotting makes it click, even when it mixes modern glibness with brutal period action.

It takes place roughly a thousand years ago, when Christian Russia was expanding into pagan lands. Lutobor (Aleksey Faddeev), a skilled warrior and trusted lieutenant to Lord Oleg (Yuriy Tsurillo), the prince of Tmutarakan, has just been informed that his lovely wife Tatiana (Izmaylova Vasilisa) has just been given birth to their first child, but the celebration not only brings Oleg and his son Vselav (Aleksandr Patsevich) - Lutobor's closest friend - but a group of mercenaries known as the Wolves of Perun, who kidnap Tatiana and leave a note commanding that he assassinate Oleg. After the plot is discovered, Lutobor escapes with Marten (Aleksandr Kuznetsov), the pagan assassin captured during the kidnapping, hoping to stay just far enough ahead of their hunters so that Marten lead Lutobor to his family and the means to clear his name.

Strip the trappings away and The Scythian is basically a buddy-cop movie set in medieval Russia, with Lutobor the falsely-accused straightlaced cop and Marten the wily criminal he's stuck working with (the character is actually named "Kunitsa" but subtitled as "Marten", apparently expecting more people to recognize that a marten is a type of weasel). And while both are far too cognizant of how the other is a not-to-be-trusted enemy to ever truly feel like a team, the interplay between them is entertaining, and they are both enjoyable examples of their types: Aleksey Faddeev is kind of sardonic and cool as Lutobor, but he brings a sense of honor to it that's not overbearing, while Aleksandr Kuznetsov is good at giving the impression of always looking for an opportunity without actually having his eyes darting about - it's a slick, energetic performance.

And that energy will often be necessary, because director/co-writer Rustam Mosafir puts the pair through a lot of mayhem, and if you like this sort of big, muscular action, it's good stuff: Heavy swords that make crunching impact against armor and spark when they hit stone, kicks where you feel the power even if they don't people flying like wire-fu when they connect, fist-fights where it sometimes seems sparing an opponent will be more difficult than killing them. Mosafir and his crew shoot this all in fine fashion, and when they kick it up a notch to fantastical proportions in the middle - when Lutobor powers up to the level where he can literally rip opponents apart with his bare hands - it is larger-than-life, but not out of bounds, even as it gets gloriously bloody.

The moment when things really go over the top is when they pass through the land of the Forest People, and it's just delightfully weird to look at. The whole thing feels grimy and primitive, but with an eerie, imaginative set of looks. There's an earnest consciousness of the gold being applied to Oleg at the start and a sense of wear to the costumes of the people being squeezed out, a sense of being ancient but weathered. It's a good balance between being imaginatively ornate while still feeling grounded.

It's pretty good-looking for this sort of brutish action, a notch or two better than most other films in the genre which can't quite strike the right balance between celebrating the grim violence and making it palatable. The Scythian is ridiculous in its own way, but it still works.

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