Friday, October 05, 2018

Fantasia 2018 Catchup 01: Madeline's Madeline, Hanagatami, Unity of Heores, True Fiction, Buffalo Boys, Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura, Cold Skin, Relaxer, and Heavy Trip

Okay, this is taking longer than expected, but, to be fair, there is a lot of other stuff coming out that needs/wants writing up. Maybe I'll pick up speed writing while watching baseball and as it gets cooler out, but I really wasn't expecting to have 30-odd Fantasia movies left at the start of October.

On the other hand, I do sometimes wonder as I write these how much other people writing about film would like the luxury of being able to file their reviews without deadlines, with just a first draft and notes to go on. It's hard, sure, but it also makes you focus on what about the film is actually memorable. Plus, first impressions are important and true, but I found myself more impressed with some of the movies I didn't much like - Madeline's Madeline, Hanagatami, and Relaxer upon further reflection. I don't actually like any of the three now, understand, but it was easier to break down what was interesting about them, worth taking away.

I did like Heavy Trip, though, a lot, and am glad to see it's playing the Coolidge this weekend, although with two midnight shows in the screening room, not a lot of people will see it. Sell them out if you can, maybe it'll get another chance next week.

Madeline's Madeline

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Well, that's me done with Josephine Decker. I don't want to be. There are some terrific performances to be found in this movie, a pretty decent core story, and moments that feel like something approaching self-awareness. As with her previous work, I can see great talent and potential there. I want to say nice things. And the thing of it is, if I hadn't come into this movie with a chip on my shoulder about certain things from her previous films, I'd probably be a lot more impressed, although it's not like the things that put that chip there wouldn't still be big negatives.

Things start with 16-year-old Madeline (Helena Howard) doing an exercise in an experimental theater program. She likes theater more than school, and it seems to be a good outlet for the things that had previously found her in psychiatric care. It's a situation that leads to her mother Regina (Miranda July) being rather high-strung, afraid of a relapse but worried about her daughter being swallowed by something she doesn't understand. Madeline, then, naturally gravitates toward Evangeline (Molly Parker), the troupe's leader who becomes fascinated by Madeline's story, moving a version of it closer to the center of the play that she's developing.

You can understand that; Madeline is a fascinating character given impressive life by Helena Howard. She has different faces for Madeline to present to her peers, her family, and her theater friends, but she connects them all with a desire to belong that both can have her shine dazzlingly bright when she sees a chance to connect and strongly suggests how dark her thoughts can get without actually showing her at her worst. She never shies from how Madeline is very much an adolescent, with both her impulsive and calculated actions showing a certain immaturity, so that even when she realizes something crucial and changes direction, it still feels like something where the consequences aren't completely considered; it's the actions of someone who is very bright but also troubled and who, even when she's figuring things out and focused, is still raw and clearly inexperienced. There can be a tendency to elevate the performances of young people that demonstrate maturity, but Howard's ability to show complexity without sacrificing Madeline being a teenager is something to watch for.

Full review at EFC.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

When Hanagatami starts making the next phases of its rounds - the film societies and art-house tours before the small specialty label gives it a home video or streaming release - take note of its length, and fortify yourself properly. As much as there is plenty striking in this intended farewell work by the director of House, and plenty to discuss, it is very much the sort of film that had festival-goers who saw it nodding to each afterward and agreeing that, whatever else it was, it was definitely 159 minutes long.

It follows the adventures of teenager Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) in a Japanese coastal town during the 1930s, before the United States had entered the war and it was mostly a somewhat distant concern. He has just arrived from Amsterdam, where his parents remain, and only really knows Mina Ema (Honoka Yahagi), a sickly girl whom it has been assumed he would marry since they were young. At school, he is making new acquaintances - class clown Aso (Tokio Emoto), monk-like Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), and ready-to-enlist Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) - and it turns out that Mina's friends AKine (Hirona Yamazaki) and Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) know the boys as well. And, indeed, there may be other darker forces in this quiet town besides the fact that most adult men are away at war.

Hanagatami is every bit as gorgeous as you might expect from Nobuhiko Obayashi, the director of not just House but a number of less-obviously insane but painterly productions he has made since - most notably, Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast, another WWII-set nostalgia piece. There's not a shot in this picture that isn't exquisite, and he's long proven himself quite adept at using both location and obviously-constructed rooms to create settings that feel simultaneously genuine and dreamlike. He's careful, here, not to drown the viewer in fond nostalgia, but rather to hint at how Toshihiko and Mina see the world from a bit of an remove. There is no special innocence or clarity here, but there is beauty as well as horror, even if there is more of the latter than initially expected.

Full review at EFC.

Unity of Heores

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

That Unity of Heroes was made for a Chinese streaming service is no big surprise when you watch it; it's a movie that feels like it was put together by an algorithm, looks just good enough for a high-definition screen but maybe not a full-size cinema, and is a revival (of sorts) of something with a loyal fanbase. As with many American internet productions, it's familiar enough to be comfortable most of the time with a few scenes that nevertheless make it worth the time.

Vincent Zhao Wenzhou returns to the role of Wong Fei-hung, the legendary 19th Century martial-arts master he played in Once Upon a Time in China IV & V as well as a follow-up TV show from the same producers, but this is not an official sequel, and probably legally can't be. But it should be familiar enough - Wong is respected enough to not seek confrontation with newly arrived kung fu master Wu (Michael Tong Man-lung), which leaves the latter feeling a bit slighted. Other recent arrivals include Miss Mo Shijun (Wei Ni), a young in-law of Wong's who has been in Europe long enough to be out of place, and Duke Vlad, who has opened a new, Western-style hospital in town - but what is going on underneath?

The material is nothing that fans of the genre aren't familiar with, in many cases close enough to previous Wong Fei-hung movies to make this feel like a remake. It's clumsier, at times - the filmmakers can't quite make Master Wu work as Wong's peer the way that the best rival teachers do when these movies are working, and a mainland production today is going to have a different take on the increasing Western influence on China at the time than a 1990s Hong Kong production (a sharper anti-colonial attitude is not a bad thing, although it does often result in Mo being played more as a fool than a foil). The filmmakers also tend to promise more of a tall tale than they deliver: This was the second movie in a row at the festival that felt like it could have been much improved by the vampires that were clearly hinted at (the Evil White Guy is even named "Vlad"), and you don't establish exploding heads early to not have them at the climax.

Full review at EFC.

Sal-in-so-seol (True Fiction)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The hardest part of writing this sort of thriller must be hitting the point where you feel like there's enough, the point where paying attention has been rewarded but where the audience has not yet said "screw this latest reversal, it doesn't matter, because none of what we've been told matters!" True Fiction unfortunately blows way past that second point in its last act, although by then it's established strength enough that it can avoid losing some.

It starts with Lee Kyung-suk (Oh Man-seok), an unassuming-looking guy who has been tapped by the local political machine as the next mayor of Daechung, an he certainly seems to fit the part: Young, telegenic, a loyal party member, married to novelist Yeom Ji-eun (Jo Eun-ji), who just happens to be the daughter of Senator Yeom Jung-gil (Kim Hak-cheol). It's Jung-gil who tasks him with transporting some money to the senator's lake house, which should be easy enough, except that he decides to make it a sort of working vacation by taking mistress Lee Ji-young (Lee Na-ra) along in his wife's car, and being distracted enough to hit a dog on the way. The dog, it turns out, belongs to Kim Soon-tae (Ji Hyun-woo), who introduces himself as the property's caretaker, demanding restitution on top of making it more difficult to carry out Kyung-suk's original job.

The first half of the movie is delightful, a rapid-fire series of selfish decisions blowing up combined with the delight of someone having got one over on people who really deserve a comeuppance. It's just as fun as it is suspenseful, serving up a satisfying slow burn that promises an enjoyable explosion. The soundtrack is playful, the audience feels like things are on their level, and what happens next could be anything for human reasons; you can see people trying to figure out how to get up on the other guy. Writer/director Kim Jin-mook gets a constant string of laughs, and if you maybe sneer a bit while giggling, it's okay Kyung-suk deserves it.

Full review at EFC.

Buffalo Boys

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: Action!, DCP)

Buffalo Boys is as loud and action-packed as you would hope for an Indonesian western to be considering just how enjoyably bone-crunching the country's bigger recent action movies have turned out. It goes big on the martial arts, gunfighting, and melodrama, and while it doesn't quite build itself into an all-time great of the genre, it's close to exactly what you would expect from that particular fusion.

It opens in the American west, circa 1860, where it turns out that at least a few of the "Chinese" fellows building the railroad actually hail from Java, and a spot of trouble involving a fight on a train has Arana (Tio Pakusadewo) thinking that maybe it's time he takes his nephews back to the land they haven't seen since they were children, their parents killed while fighting against the Dutch invaders. The man responsible, Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker), is still there and running things, so brothers Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) revenge on their mind, although they get a little distracted along the way, making their way to a village from which Van Trach is extorting tribute - which, naturally, include meeting a couple young ladies, pragmatic Sri (Mikha Tambayong) and rebellious Kiona (Pevita Eileen Pearce) - and learning there is more at stake than just their vengeance.

There are, admittedly, times when it could probably do to move it along; the story is simple enough that even with that prologue in California, some flashbacks, and the occasional side trip, director Mike Wiluan and co-writer Raymond Lee still have to pad it out a bit. Even taking that into account, once the brothers arrive in town, they seem to spend a lot of time waiting for an opportunity to get near Van Trach to present itself rather than really doing anything. There's a mean, cutthroat period before the final big action sequence that seems to be killing time rather than moving the story along.

Full review at EFC.

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: The Tale of Kamakura 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 revealed scale and the big, epic confrontation at the end is justified. Then again, maybe asking for justification is snobby - an elaborate fantasy doesn't need earth-shattering stakes to be a big deal for those involved.

That would be writer Masakazu Isshiki (Masato Sakai) and his new wife Akiko (Mitsuki Takahata), who have come to Masakazu's home in Kamakura after a whirlwind romance in Tokyo, Akiko not having been informed that the border with the spirit world is thin to non-existent in this quaint town, so the first water imp she sees causes her to freak out. Soon she has made friends with Kin (Tamao Nakamura), who has been working for the Isshiki for decades, as well as a friendly grim reaper (Sakura Ando), although it takes a while to learn what products humans should not buy from the Night Bazaar. Masakazu, it turns out, is something of an expert on local folklore, consulting with the police when crime appears to have a supernatural element and researching the work of mysterious fantasy author Istuhiro Kataki. These connections may come in handy when a few less-friendly supernatural entities take an interest in Akiko.

Though the ultimate thrust of the plot is right there in the title, writer/director Takashi Yamazaki does not exactly push ahead with a singular focus, instead opting for an approach that likely comes from Ryohei Saigan's original manga, an episodic structure where smaller adventures have some useful bit of lore buried in them that will prove useful later. The main issue is that the most important ingredient, the True Perfect Love between the Isshikis that will inspire a unauthorized trip to the afterlife and which makes all the other romantic subplots resonate all the more, is kind of taken for granted. The audience never sees the love at first sight and courtship that brings Akiko to Kamakura, and much of the first half of the movie has Masakazu treating Akiko as something less than an equal, with unexplained rules about which rooms in the house she must not enter and the like. They're likable people, but this is the sort of movie and town that is filled with likable people, and this couple has a hard time becoming indivisible rather than individually nice.

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's got a more literary feel than many horror movies, and the literature is that of a different era to boot. It does not always live up to its ambitions, but the attempt is usually interesting.

That era would be the early twentieth century, 1914, when a scientist named Friend (David Oakes) has accepted a post as "weather observer" on an Antarctic island, with months of recording the winds and tides and no company but the keeper of the lighthouse. That man, Gruner (Ray Stevenson), does not seem particularly friendly; he has not only decided not to greet his new neighbor but has made his tower a fortress. Why soon becomes clear, as an army of amphibious humanoids overruns Friend's station, forcing him into the lighthouse and an uneasy coexistence with Gruner. Which is to say, Gruner and Aneris (Aura Garrido), one of the creatures whom Gruner has captured, dressed in clothes, and treated as, well, a bit more than a pet.

But let us not use the euphemisms that Friend might have, should this story have been told in true Victorian fashion as entries in his diary - Gruner is having sex with that merwoman, even though he refuses to say that she is more than an animal. It allows the filmmakers (and, presumably, original novelist Albert Sánchez Piñol) to mash a number of high-minded themes together with traditional romantic structures in interesting ways, as the audience's growing belief that Aneris is, in fact, a thinking creature allows the hint of a love triangle to form, and although Friend is clearly preferable in that arrangement than Gruner, it also brings in all the baggage of colonial powers expanding into areas they see as populated by "savages" - the Gruners are clear in their desire to exploit or exterminate, sure, but the Friends can be at best patronizing, their professed love a chance to demonstrate their professed nobility and open-mindedness, which can certainly disappear when the natives decide they want no invaders on their island.

Full review at EFC.


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

There is, I suppose, a good movie to be made about someone so dedicated to not being labeled a quitter that he just doesn't get off the couch until he has completed some sort of challenge, no matter how isolated it ultimately makes him, but this isn't it. It's just nasty and gross, never finding enough of its poor slob's ingenuity or enough pathos to make watching him interesting.

It starts in 1999, with Abbie (Joshua Burge) being bullied into a variation on the "drink a whole lot of milk" challenge by his brother Cam (David Dastmalchian) while playing Nintendo; it ends about the way you'd think. Cam soon has another challenge for him: Finish Pac-Man, through the allegedly-impossible level 256, on the Nintendo Entertainment System. No leaving the couch until he's done! There's money on the line, and Abbie doesn't have much else going on, so he calls a friend (Andre Hyland) to bring him some orange soda and the magazine which should give him all the tips and tricks he needs, but otherwise, he's mostly oblivious to the rest of the world.

And… That's pretty much it. The film continues on with various episodes as Abbie has the occasional visitor or faces new challenges in trying to get by, and there's an interesting sort of absurdity in play - the situation becomes desperate and disgusting, though not to quite the extent that it logically should be given the amount of time said to pass. Some of these bits have the nugget of a good sketch of sorts inside them, and it's probably better that writer/director Joel Potrykus is more inclined to see there is nowhere left for a scene to go and just fade out before starting the next one than he is to keep milking it, but there's not much that's truly inspired. Though individual bits have an underground comix sort of feel to them - dialogue either absent or profane as Potrykus pounds away at making sure every moment is gross and nasty - the movie is built to drag: Even if Abbie realizes this whole thing is stupid, he doesn't have the will to break out of it.

Full review at EFC.

Hevi reissu (Heavy Trip)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Though the "trip" part of the movie only includes a fiercely funny last act, that's no disappointment; this Finnish heavy-metal comedy is pretty much a delight throughout, mostly because our never feels like its characters being both big metalheads and lovable dorks is any sort of conflict that has to be resolved. The filmmakers are well aware that some parts of this type of music (and almost any hobby) are kind of ridiculous even if very serious, but doesn't disrespect it for that.

Turo Moilanen (Johannes Holopainen) and his friends have been playing metal together for ten years, but have never actually gone so far as to actually book a gig and play for anyone else. An orderly at a retirement/rest home by day, his bandmates are Lotvonen (Samuli Jaskio), the guitar player whose father's slaughterhouse provides a fitting, sound-proof practice area; Pasi (Max Ovaska), a librarian and bass player with a perfect memory searching for an original sound; and Jynkky (Antti Heikkinen), the drummer who throws himself so completely into whatever he sets his mind to that he's had to have his heart restarted twice. They're practicing when the organizer of a Norwegian music festival stops in to buy some reindeer meat, giving them his card, and when Mila (Minka Kuustonen) at the flower shop misinterprets this as the boys having landed a spot at the festival, Turo kind of rolls with it, especially since Jouni (Ville Tiihonen) - a used car salesman whose easy-listening band makes him a minor celebrity in town - is also around at the time.

The lie spins out of control, but the filmmakers are smart about this - though it's exposed a little later than perhaps it should be, it also doesn't last so long that the audience ever starts to turn on Turo. Part of it is that Jouni is the type of guy who can get under your skin without being truly evil, while Turo's impulse to impress Mila is initially more subconscious than deliberate, and the lack of ill intent helps a lot. On top of that, there's no denying that it motivates these guys to actually do something rather than be timid. It's the sort of storytelling that looks kind of cliched and not just effortless in a bad way but is actually just smart enough to keep things moving and let the filmmakers hang a lot of funny bits on the framework.

Full review at EFC.

No comments: