Thursday, April 04, 2019

Fantasia 2018 Catch-Up 04: Chained for Life, Blue My Mind, A Rough Draft, Bleach, Laughing Under the Clouds, Punk Samurai Slash Down, Terrified, Number 37, Cinderella the Cat, The Brink '18, and What a Man Wants

How do you manage to be able to keep writing reviews for films you saw at a festival that ended eight months ago and mark your progress in doing so?

Drawing that "X" is incredibly satisfying, and I've managed to do it 82 times for Fantasia. It is kind of amazing how far a few notes good enough to jog your memory and a first draft with the core of what you want to say can get you, and I'm guessing that applies to every type of writing. Being able to figure out where to place your pencil with just the reflected light from the screen and write in a relative straight line while looking up, away from the notebook, on the other hand, probably has relatively limited application.

Even with that, I'm afraid I still had to punt reviews of four movies: RokuRoku was the midnight movie on the festival's second Saturday and I slept through most of it; I saw Da Hu Fa the next Tuesday even though I had already heard the subtitles were kind of a mess (it's a knockout visually and I wish I could find a 3D Blu-ray); Tokyo Vampire Hotel (the Monday after that) was the obligatory Sion Sono selection but it didn't feel right to spend five paragraphs calling it a disjointed mess when it's the cut-down version of an Amazon Prime series which might be perfectly fine; and River's Edge on day #20, which I quite liked but which had the bad luck to be near the end of the festival while I was trying to plow through the notebook in order so that when I got to it this week, I just couldn't flesh the Letterboxd entry out. Sorry, movie, you deserved better from me.

Obviously, the fact that the team up in Montreal is able to choose such a memorable group of movies is also a huge part of why you can do this. Whether they think me taking eight months to finish off is reason for them to deny me the next time I come looking for a pass or reason to approve (I am, after all, doing my part to help boost awareness year-round!).

It's been long enough that Blue My Mind, Terrified, Number 37, and What a Man Wants are all available to stream on Amazon by now (though Terrified requires a subscription to Shudder). Go watch them, they are by and large pretty good.

Anyway, one more bonus post, potentially, since I've received a couple of other films from the festival on disc a couple weeks ago. I should get that done just before I head north this July.

Chained for Life

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

You can feel Chained for Life struggling with the legacy of Freaks and similar films throughout, not to mention the more general difficulty of physical differences, and maybe ultimately not sure what else to do but acknowledge the struggle. The filmmakers are determined not to present a simple fairy tale or something which minimizes the reality of living with an appearance that makes people stare, and as a result they wind up going around in circles a bit, making a movie about making a movie and talking about talking about disfigurement and beauty.

Within the movie, "Chained for Life" is the first American feature by a young European director (Charlie Korsmo), and Mabel (Jess Weixler) its star. They're shooting in an empty section of an old mental hospital, which in the film will be home to conjoined twins, bearded ladies, and the like, most played by people who have done this sort of work before. Mabel's co-star, Rosenthal (Adam Pearson), is relatively new at this, and while his face may be distorted by neurofibromatosis, he's a charming, if shy, man; he and Mabel find themselves chatting and rehearsing together. It's a tentative sort of thing that could become friendship, depending on the circumstances.

The easiest story to tell would probably have Rosenthal a bitter man when introduced, but writer/director Aaron Schimberg instead opts to focus on his nervousness to start, letting the audience meet the guy rather than the issue, and by the same token not defining him by what "normal" people think of him. It's a tack that works in large part because Michael Pearson has a firm handle on the sort of charisma he needs to project here, a combination of natural charm and practiced confidence. Early on, one might be struck by the wit in how he tells Mabel she's got a look of pity on her face - it plays as banter - but it's also a kind of probe. The speech about why he'd like to be a waiter might also be something that's been refined over time, but Pearson doesn't make it feel rote. He's good enough to that I hope he can find some roles that aren't so much about his appearance, if that's the direction he wants to take.

Full review at EFC.

Blue My Mind

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, digital)

Blue My Mind is the sort of movie where I find myself kind of impatient, waiting for a more active story to kick in, but where I am also fully aware that someone who has actually been a 15-year-old girl might look at it and say "yes, this, exactly - this is an uncannily perfect metaphor for having your body and mind suddenly changing and not feeling like you can talk to anybody about it because you've been made to feel like a monster!" It's not for me, and that's okay.

The teenager in question is Mia (Luna Wedler), new at her school and as such somewhat reserved, kind of resenting that her parents (Georg Scharegg & Regua Grauwiller) have put her in this position now. As is often the case, the first girl to talk to her (Una Rusca), is nice enough, but she's more drawn to misbehaving queen bee Gianna (Zoë Pastelle Holthuizen) and her friends Nelly (Lou Haltinner) and Vivi (Yael Meier), which leads to the usual smoking, parties, cutting class, and maybe finding a connection with Gianna's boyfriend Roberto (David Oberholzer). The other girls, however, don't appear to have to deal with the thirst for salt water, or being too freaked out to tell the doctor that the changes in her body that she's really worried about are the bits of webbing starting to form between her toes.

Does it still sometimes feel like the filmmakers have this big fantastical thing in the middle of their story that they spend an hour and a half trying to avoid? Sometimes, yes, and it can be kind of frustrating. Director Lisa Brühlmann and her co-writer Dominik Locher don't necessarily need to build up some detailed mermaid mythology, but the slow doling out of hints doesn't lead to a dramatic pulling back of the curtain, either in terms of transformation or the idea that Mia is part of some larger world in addition to the mundane teenage one she's in. There's tremendous potential in this particular transformation - from the physicality of it to how knowing herself fully will require Mia to go somewhere that her friends and loved ones cannot help her - but Brühlmann often seems satisfied with the vague idea of transforming into a mythological creature as a metaphor for becoming a woman, and as long as the audience recognizes that, there's no need to get more specific.

Full review at EFC.

Chernovik (A Rough Draft)

* * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

It's never a particularly good sign when a viewer's first reaction to a movie is "what is this 'to be continued' garbage?"; this is especially true when the film in question comes from a country that does not exactly have a great pipeline to said viewer, as in this case. After all, if Russian popcorn movies can't be expected to show up in North America, one might never see any follow-up. What's worse here is that, two hours later, the question of whether or not that second part would be of interest is still up in the air; A Rough Draft offers an interesting setting but doesn't get very far.

It starts with one of the good science fiction hooks; video-game developer Kirill (Nikita Volkov) ties one on at a company party, only to return to work the next day to find nobody remembers him, and the same goes for his ex-girlfriend Anna (Olga Borovskaya). When he returns home, there's a woman he never met by the name of Renata Ivanova (Severija Janusauskaite) in his apartment, and it appears the neighbors' memories of him are being erased in real time. It turns out that he is being drafted to serve as a sort of customs agent between alternate realities, and while he has been removed from this world, he has a talent for opening doors to others - and who knows, he may be the one who can find a path to "Arkan", which urban legend says is controlling many others, including our own.

There is certainly a lot there that sounds like a lot of fun could be a lot of fun, and maybe it was in Sergey Lukyanenko's original novel. But while the film is filled with neat ideas and fun visuals, director Sergey Mokritskiy and his team are kind of terrible at introducing them and letting them play out in a way that seems in any way natural. As good an opening hook as the film has, Lukyanenko et al use the opening act to introduce a lot of things that won't much matter (and skimp on the bits that will), before ditching it all with a big "wait, what?" moment for a new status quo. They continually jerk the viewer back and forth with things that are needlessly cryptic or just shrugged off like they should be obvious. There's some interesting details to the world-building, but not even much promise of a story that one can get involved in until the movie is almost over.

Full review at EFC.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

Unlike many adaptations of Japanese comics which have to guess at the ending, the release of the live-action Bleach movie roughly coincides with the conclusion of the original manga, give or take a few months - not bad timing, considering that series ran for roughly seventeen years of weekly releases. It's not hard to see what made the manga so popular; this adaptation of its "Soul Reaper Agent "arc is a satisfying bit of young-adult fantasy action which promises more without feeling like it's short-changing someone who just wants a couple hours of adventure.

Teenager Ichigo Kurosaki (Sota Fukushi) isn't exactly looking for adventure; though protective of little sisters Karin and Yuzu and his absent-minded father Isshin (Yosuke Eguchi) ever since the death of his mother when he was a kid, he could do without the part where he sees ghosts. It also means he can see soul-reaper Rukia Kuchiki (Hana Sugisaki) as she fights a monster invisible to humans. Injured in the battle, she transfers her power to Ichigo, who has a surprising knack for it - her weapon grows bigger and more powerful in Ichigo's hands, and he is able to dispatch the "hollow" quickly. He apparently has a high spiritual pressure that prevents Rukia from reclaiming her powers, marooning her as a mortal. She has to train him so that he can dispatch more hollows and liberate enough power to recharge Rukia, as not only are there more dangerous hollows out there, but between the reapers who prize their secrecy and their sworn enemies of the Quincy tribe, there are a lot of people gunning for the pair.

Extraordinary teenagers fighting supernatural menaces while still trying to get through high school is not exactly the most original idea, especially in Bleach's original medium, but director Shinsuke Sato and his collaborators show a casual comfort with it that isn't always present. They seldom fall into the traps of fetishizing high school experiences or making everybody act like immature teenagers, or cranking up the melodrama so high that there doesn't seem to be any room for pedestrian concerns. The stakes are high but not so much that Ichigo can't keep a foot in both worlds. Stars Sota Fukushi and Hana Sugisaki are a big part of why it works - Fukushi makes Ichigo a big-hearted but reluctant hero despite his expansive personality, while Sugisaki handles Rukia's straight-faced dedication so that it's often deadpan funny but not a joke. They and the film are at their best early on, when "buddy comedy" is showing more than some of the other genres that have been put in its blender - the chemistry between its two superpowered teens is sharp but, at least for now, thankfully non-romantic.

Full review at EFC.

Donten ni warau (Laughing Under the Clouds)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

Over the past decade or so of going to this festival, I've had a chance to see a lot of films based upon Japanese comics (with live action starting to displace animation over that time), and while Laughing Under the Clouds is far from the most aggressively pitched to existing fans rather than new audiences, it does very much feel like most of the intended viewers are going to know whether or not this is their thing before the movie starts. It's not a bad sort of fantasy story, but probably won't win a lot of new converts.

It takes place in a small town, where the three Kumo brothers tend a family shrine, a responsibility passed down for generations, meant to protect the world from a slumbering demon that is now the stuff of legend. Eldest brother Tenka (Sota Fukushi) has a reputation as a fighter that is just sort of legendary, but aims to help the local police more by maintaining an atmosphere of good cheer. Middle child Soramaru (Yuma Nakayama) is always looking to escape his brother's shadow, while Chutaro (Kitaro Wakayama) mostly gets into harmless mischief. The zeal of a ninja being transported to the prison in the middle of a nearby lake - and the strange new behavior of a prisoner who has been held in solitary confinement for years - hints that it may be time for "Orochi" to emerge. The Meiji government takes the threat seriously enough to send soldiers, who see Tenka as a lightweight amateur despite his reputation.

Given this film's English-language title, you might think that the whole "giant snake demon" thing and other bits of attendant melodrama would be played a bit more comedically, but they instead seem to be taken for granted, even when there's relatively little outside the stylized costuming to indicate what sort of heightened setting the filmmakers are playing in (at least to an outsider who knows relatively little about Japan; others may find this take on the Meiji Restoration pointed in what it emphasizes and exaggerates). It means that the film tends to get kind of muddled at times, not always entirely sure what it wants to be about or how much weight to give its supernatural and modern elements. It spends a lot of time putting light soap in the foreground for the first half of the film, enough that the shift to fantasy and action may not entirely seem like a detour, but less important despite the higher stakes.

Full review at EFC.

Panku-zamurai, kirarete sôrô (Punk Samurai Slash Down)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Well, this movie's something. Several somethings, in fact, starting out as a winking con-game movie set in samurai times and eventually becoming five kinds of absurd before a jaw-droppingly insane finale. Somewhere along the way, even the cheery parts get cynical and the biggest hucksters seem to have things right entirely by accident. Some may argue that this makes it a film perfect for modern times, and I don't know that I would disagree.

Junoshin Kake (Gou Ayano) is a samurai and would probably be considered a punk, by some, as the wandering ronin is not above pretending there is a crisis to make sure he gets a new job. In this case, that involves convincing Lord Naohito Kuroae (Masahiro Higashide) that the "belly shaker" cult is a threat to his rule rather than a small group of fairly harmless cranks. Several others, most notably chief retainer Tatewaki Naito (Etsushi Toyokawa), suspect this is malarkey and aim to undermine (or, if necessary, assassinate) Kake, but he's frustrating resilient. As are his lies - and once a disaffected populace knows about the cult, it actually starts to attract members, leading Kuroae to assign Kake to Hanro Chayama (Tadanobu Asano), one of the original founders, to see if he can actually do something about it. At least he's got a cute servant (Keiko Kitagawa), although Ron may be more than she seems.

How closely screenwriter Kankuro Kudo and director Gakuryu Ishii adapt Ko Machina's 2004 novel, I can't say, but if it's close, it speaks to universal the things being parodied are. A viewer determined to bend the film into a metaphor could probably find themselves deep down in a rabbit hole trying to make things that are just jokes fit, but the world is full of opportunists like Kake, trivial issues that take on the scale of real problems because people over-invest in them and the like. Japanese viewers may or may not be able to draw a line to specific targets, but the film works in large part by playing things big and broad enough to seem unmoored from reality, often seeming too ridiculous to have that sort of point until you're talking about it later.

Full review at EFC.

Aterrados (Terrified)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

Give Terrified a lot of credit for not screwing around on the way to the good stuff. A lot of haunted house movies will do a slow build, hint at things that could have a rational explanation, or otherwise play things coy. Writer/director Demián Rugna says to hell with that, going all in on the paranormal barely ten minutes into the movie, and rather than having nowhere to go from there, he builds a contained but still grand mythology, finding ways to make things bigger while still placing them within the corners of our world.

The first haunted house belongs to Clara Blumotti (Natalia Señorales) and her husband Juan (Agustin Rittano); and his not believing her "hysteria" goes roughly about as well as can be expected in the opening of the movie. It soon turns out that their house is not the only one in the neighborhood which has had things going bump in the night - neighbors Walter (Demián Salomón) and Alicia (Julieta Vallina) have encountered strange activity - and that eventually attracts the attention of local comisario Funes (Maxi Ghione). He convinces a trio of experts on the paranormal - Jano Mario (Norberto Gonzalo), Mora Albreck (Elvira Onetto), and Dr. Rosenstock (George L. Lewis) - to come to Buenos Aires to investigate. They each take a house for the night, maybe a bit too excited to see actual evidence of the supernatural.

Paranormal experts like these three show up in a lot of movies about the paranormal; the viewer often needs someone authoritative to both argue that there is such a thing as ghosts and to set rules that can either be obeyed or ignored, and three seems like overkill. The neat trick that Rugna pulls here is that there's a sense that the trio is not quite crackpots, but are folks who believe their own press and know where their bread is buttered - they know each other by reputation, and are practically winking at each other during their first meeting. Rugna spends an enjoyable amount of time playing with how, though these people may be right about there being monsters, that doesn't mean that they are not themselves crazy or cynical. Elvira Onetto, Norberto Gonzalo, and George Lewis give the group a collective vibe on first meeting and their own distinct personalities as they split up, ranging from surprise that they're seeing something so concrete to utter mania. Rugna makes the experts into the potential targets, and in doing so gives himself room for unexpected reactions and ways to defy the pressure on sensible people to get the heck out of there.

Full review at EFC.

Nommer 37 (Number 37)

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

Number 37 is basically an uncredited remake of Rear Window set in an unsavory Cape Town neighborhood, but that's not exactly a bad place to start if the goal is to make a decent thriller, and while the result may not be a classic, it clears that bar. Maybe this version is not as inventive as the things that inspired it, and there's really not a beat that you can't predict once the basics have been put into place, but it does find an approach to the material that makes it worth a new pass.

A few months ago, ambitious crook Randal (Irshaad Ally) and his friend Lester borrowed some money from loan shark Emmie (Danny Ross) to finance a job that, it turns out, could have gone a lot better. Now, Randal is coming home from the hospital paralyzed while Lester isn't coming home at all, but Emmie still wants his money back in a week, and how's Randal going to do that from a wheelchair in a second-floor apartment? Well, there's blackmail - Randal's girlfriend Pam (Monique Rockman) gave him a pair of binoculars, and Randal saw the drug dealer across the way, Lawyer (David Manuel), murder a cop. But Randal will need to recruit help to make this plan work, and that's before the cops start sniffing around.

There's a lot of Hitchcock's classic in Number 37, but it exists at less of a remove than the earlier film. Where James Stewart's Jeff was a photographer, used to placing something between himself and the world before telling its story and effectively meeting his neighbors through his lens, Randal is already part of this neighborhood and world; his being in a wheelchair is not just inconvenient and embarrassing, but directly related to the rest of the story, and more explicitly shameful. That makes the story's themes something of an inversion - where Rear Window told the tale of a voyeur who inevitably must confront danger directly rather than through those who have volunteered to help, this film is about a man used to being on the scene who must, in a way, learn to be like his foes. Not so much as a killer, but as a planner, directing others, even though the last time he made a plan was disastrous.

Full review at EFC.

Gatta Cenerentola (Cinderella the Cat)

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

I feel a bit ungrateful wondering how Cinderella the Cat got made when I enjoyed enough pieces to shade my "it's okay" score toward the positive, but it's a decidedly odd movie that has to stretch to do its most worthy bits and which, as an animated film based on a fairy tale, is often going to have people coming at it with the wrong idea or ignoring it for the same reason. It is, if nothing else, interestingly eccentric, which isn't always enough.

As it opens, Don Vittorio Basile (voice of Mariano Rigillo), a much-beloved tycoon, is set to open a new "Science and Memory Hub" in a future Naples, with his massive high-tech yacht, the Megaribe, as its centerpiece. He's also planning to marry Angelica (voice of Maria Pia Calzone), who has several children to Vittorio's one, but also a lover in Salvatore Lo Giusto (voice of Massimiliano Gallo), who has plans for Angelica to soon become a widow. Those plans come to pass, and ten years on, Vittorio's dreams are in ruins; Salvatore, Angelica, her daughters, and Vittorio's daughter Mia (voice of Mariacarla Norall) live aboard the declining Megaribe, the latter as little more than a prisoner, because Salvatore knows that the only way to control the Basile fortune for good is to marry Mia.

A modern/futuristic retelling of "Cinderella" may seem like a played-out concept, but its four directors and their three co-writers seem to have enough ideas between them that you can certainly see the potential from the attention-grabbing opening all the way through. The movie has a bunch of wonderfully loopy pieces to it, from a yacht seemingly designed to be a ghost ship to a tragic (yet arguably still wicked) stepmother to a transvestite stepsister to glass slippers used to smuggle cocaine to a spunky take on the title character. It's got a new treat for the audience every five minutes, to the point where it could be overwhelming. That it never really seems to go off the rails is at least partially a product of its Italian DNA: The songs are equal parts cheery and mournful, there's a casual sexiness that is only occasionally exploitative (and then knowingly), and a certain fatalism and loyalty where the characters' situations are concerned.

Full review at EFC.

Kuang shou (The Brink)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

"Max" Zhang Jin is certainly well-positioned to be the next big Hong Kong martial-arts star, fresh off a couple fight-scene-stealing turns against Donnie Yen and Wu Jing & Tony Jaa, the sort that make you want to see more of the guy playing the villain. Of course, it's worth remembering that Wu's first starring roles after similar parts weren't exactly impressive, and that's where Zhang finds himself here: Physically gifted, showing enough acting chops beyond fights to suggest star potential, but not yet getting cast in the good lead roles yet.

Instead, he's in this, playing a rule-breaking cop hunting down gold smugglers who are much more interesting to watch before one starts consolidating power and taking charge. It's not quite boring, but it feels like a script built around location availability and what needs to happen, but not really fleshed out otherwise. Zhang's "Sai Gau" Chan Har-dong is often given more intensity than personality, and a subplot about adopting his late partner's daughter but not exactly being an attentive foster father that should say more about this guy but instead feels like it's been copied from another script where it fit better. There's more meat on the story of Shing (Shawn Yue Man-lok), a smuggler disrespected by the triads who see him as only the son of a fisherman, and who intends to steal the chief's underwater cache of gold.

There's a good movie in there, but I kind of suspect that it stars Shawn Yue; there's intrigue and melodrama and a clear motivation to his desire to clean house and pull off a seemingly impossible crime. He's got a colorful, fitting villain, too - triad boss Blackie (Yasuaki Kurata) never leaves his floating casino, and that ostentatious wealth makes a more interesting contrast to Shing and his gang than Shing does to Sai Gau. It's not hard to imagine Lee Chun-fai's script reconfigured to place Shing at the center, with Sai Gau the obsessed cop chasing him, especially if you can put more of a square focus on the nobler parts of his motivations.

Full review at EFC.

Ba-lam-ba-lam-ba-lam (What a Man Wants)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

Somewhere in What a Man Wants is a really delightful farce that knows what to do with its female characters and plays with the dissatisfaction that everybody feels in a way that heightens both its screwball nature and possibilities. Instead, it bogs down for a while before getting to the really fun parts, and reduces interesting women to a way for the male characters to come around to something conventional.

It takes place in Jeju, an island town known for its strong winds (the film's Korean title, "Ba-lam-ba-lam-ba-lam", translates to "Wind Wind Wind"), where Seok-gun (Lee Sung-min) drives a cab, though he once traveled the world designing roller coasters, in part because his wife Dam-deok (Jang Young-nam) was tired of the infidelity. They live next door to Dam-deok's brother Bong-soo (Shin Ha-kyun) and his wife Mi-young (Song Ji-hyo), who run a not-terribly-successful restaurant together. Seok-gun hasn't so much stopped cheating as slowed down, with his latest target Jenny (Lee El), a gorgeous new arrival to town who finds herself drawn to Bong-soo instead - and Bong-soo is stuck in enough of a rut that he's willing to be tempted. Circumstances, therefore, find Seok-geun in the strange position of trying to serve as his brother-in-law's conscience for a change, but Jenny is determined, even getting Mi-young to hire her at the restaurant to get close to her man.

"Circumstances" kind of does a lot of work in that description; screenwriters Bae Se-yeong and Jang Gyu-seong move the story from one lane to another with such a sharp turn that it smashes through the median, at which point the movie feels like it should absolutely fall apart. The plot advances in a cruel enough way as to make the viewer question director Lee Byeong-heon's ability to turn things around and get back to being funny. On top of that, the film becomes somewhat unbalanced, even with bits added that seem designed more to fill in the gaps rather than actually add to the story. Fortunately, director Lee is able to temper and use that choice to create a good feeling of melancholy rather than wallowing; the tragedy is not enough to make things mainly sad, but instead seems to spur people to more actively seek out happiness.

Full review at EFC.

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