Monday, July 15, 2019

Fantasia 2019.04: The Wonderland, Hit-and-Run Squad, Paradise Hills, and Astronaut PLUS The White Storm 2: Drug Lords

This long day at the movies was brought to you by hunger and caffeine. The hunger comes from not having breakfast stuff in the hotel room and writing until something like five minutes before the first movie of the day started (perks of staying in a really good location), the caffeine carefully administered in Coke Zero form during film #2 and film #4. I don't recommend this long-term.

After a couple of things from Japan and South Korea that seem like they should have been much better than they wound up being - all the pieces were there but did not fit together at all - things picked up a bit with Alice Waddington (r) on hand to show off her film Paradise Hills, with Justine Smith leading the Q&A. Seeing her here has been neat because I'm reasonably sure I started following her on Twitter because of Fantasia but she hasn't been officially involved until now, and it's always fun to be able to match voices, attitudes, body language, and the like to online personae.

A lot of talk about how, while genre film was Waddington's first love, she started out in fashion photography, eventually working her way around to this after some shorts. It's an impressive jump, and I'm looking forward to seeing how people respond to it this fall.

The main event for the evening was director Shelagh McLeod and much of the cast for Astronaut, a Canadian-produced film starring Richard Dreyfuss as a widowed civil engineer who enters a contest for the first private spaceplane flight. As you might expect, everyone really liked working with him; enough that it really surprises me that we don't see him in more these days. I suppose it goes back to one of the first things I remember people saying in a Q&A at film festivals, that even if you're making a tiny independent film, you would be absolutely amazed at whose agents will call if you write a decent part for an older actor.

After that, I opted to mosey on down St. Catherine's to the Forum, where The White Storm 2 was playing. I had seen the first at the festival, and it would feel kind of dumb to let the big Asian/genre festival keep me from seeing an Asian genre film, and of the two films playing on the Concordia campus, I'd seen Shadow (heck, already own a disc) and Dreamland would be playing the nexxt afternoon. It's been a while since I've seen the "first" - this is one of those Hong Kong series more about themes than continuity - and this isn't quite as good as my review of that movie suggests it was, but it certainly has some quality action in the end. It may take Herman Yau a while to get around to it, but he doesn't screw around when he does.

Today's plans are Bruce McDonald's Dreamland, Chiwawa, G Affairs, and Darlin'. By the time this is posted, it's too late to recommend Away at noon.

Bâsudê wandârando (The Wonderland)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, digital)

The Wonderland has all the terrific surface elements of big, respectable anime - a decent coming-of-age story, absolutely beautiful animation, certain specific character types, a traditional life/environmental message - and does each of them well enough that it plays really well from minute to minute, but the whole doesn't really fit together. It's kind of about moving forward but also accepting destiny and how modern life isn't good for the soul but also shopping and the filmmakers sometimes can't decide which way they want to go so they do both things and make one a dream or hallucination but it really happened...

It is scattered as heck. That doesn't make it bad, although it can start to wear; the filmmakers have more ideas than they have room for, and just presenting each of them gives the audience plenty of chance to have their jaws drop. There are some times you can't blame them; there is a lot in this movie that must have looked great on the storyboard, too good to push aside or save for later. I'm sure it will cut a heck of a trailer, and it is fun to watch, which means it's hardly a failure, just a bit of a disappointment coming as the follow-up to Miss Hokusai.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Bbaengban (Hit-and-Run Squad)

* * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

How does a movie about Seoul's automotive investigators, on the tail of a Formula 1-driving criminal mastermind, have so little in the way of automotive action? I mean, for crying out loud, get to the car chases already! This thing is 133 minutes long and really only has a couple of worthy bits of stunt driving.

The worst part is, all of the twisty corruption stuff which takes up the rest of the running time not only doesn't make much sense, it's boring. The writers never seem to figure out who should be the villain and why, and it keeps stretching out and reversing until it becomes extremely hard to care about all the material that is just making the movie longer. There is so much going on that just doesn't matter, and it dilutes the bits that at least hint at something interesting in the focus on corruption.

When the cops do start chasing down "JC", there's some genuinely fun action, and the two leads are a lot of fun, quality mismatches who don't need a romantic spark to work well off each other. Plus, Kong Hyo-Jin plays one of my favorite no-nonsense lady cops, right from the moment when she walks on screen and the usual low-angle shot that typically highlights a stiletto heel that matches her suit instead shows white sneakers. She doesn't come to play.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Paradise Hills

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Paradise Hills feels a bit like a Jaques Demy nightmare, and I kind of hope we get more of those as time goes on - lavish fantasies by/for/about women, pulled off with flair, even if it means I'm not the best person to judge them. The movie is girly as heck and works hard on making sure that its heroines don't have to take on male characteristics to fight back (or, for that matter, to be villains).

This one sometimes seems a little closer to what's expected from the story than one might initially hope - the film doesn't often surprise in what the next step is for much of the running time - although that's okay; it's seldom been told this way. It looks great, and has an appealing cast even if nobody else seems to be having as much fun as Milla Jovovich (not that they're written to have the chance). The look of it melds the future and a conscious return to the rule of aristocracy nicely.

And it sticks its landing pretty well, well enough that I would kind have liked if it had spent a bit more time on the stuff revealed in the last act (though what it goes also does one of the best jobs of adding something to the flash-forward than most do). But, then, I'm a guy, and the threat there could seemingly be more aimed at me than the rest. It does require a bit of a stretch to get where it does, but it's worth it, I think.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Astronaut (2018)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

There are times when I lament modestly-scaled movies being lucky to get a blip of a release in theaters as they head to the small screen, and there are other times when the likely-small theatrical release they will receive alongside their on-demand premieres seems like a nice little bonus. Astronaut falls into the latter category, pleasantly intimate but losing little when played for a crowd.

It's the tale of Angus Stewart (Richard Dreyfuss), a 75-year-old retired civil engineer who, between his own health issues and his late wife being taken in by a scam during her mental decline, has recently found himself moving in with daughter Molly (Krista Bridges), son-in-law Jim (Lyriq Bent), and grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence), though that itself is a brief stop on the way to an assisted-living facility. A stargazer since his youth, he might not have let Barney encourage him to enter the lottery for a seat on the commercial space plane being developed by Marcus Brown (Colm Feore) and his company despite being well over the age-65 cutoff, but he doesn't feel that old. He is, of course, chosen as one of the twelve finalists, though what he sees on the runway leaves him distracted during the televised interview.

It's been around forty years since the last time Richard Dreyfuss got on a spaceship with the odds long that his family would ever see him again, and while that's a dumb movie joke on the one hand, it's a neat thing for director Shelagh McLeod to have hanging over the film in some ways. It's a part of the background noise of the movie and as such not something she has to return to and risk overplaying. It's an approach that benefits the film as she fills it out with other subplots; the threads about Jim being suspended at work and Marcus perhaps overlooking dangers because of his ambition fill some time and connect well with Angus's story, but don't become sort of thing that threaten to take up too much of the film's focus that they could have. It's relaxed, and with much of the story taking place during a snowy winter, ideal for watching from under a blanket.

Full review on EFilmCritic

The White Storm 2: Drug Lords

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Cineplex Forum #9 (first-run, DCP)

As much as I liked The White Storm when I saw it in 2014, I didn't know it was successful enough to become an action-movie brand, in that apparently any movie about former allies turned enemies in the drug trade could wind up released under that banner. That's what this film is - a similar outline with new characters that has to work to reach the same melodramatic highs, although there's no arguing against the action when the gloves come completely off.

Fifteen years ago, Yu Shun Tin (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) and "Dizang" Fung Chun Kwok (Louis Koo Tin-Lok) were close as brothers in the Ching Hing triad, whose leader - and Tin's uncle - Yu Nam (Kent Chang Jak-Si) was staunchly against getting involved with drugs. Then it all went to hell - Tin's girlfriend (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na) leaves him on the same night Tin is forced to punish Dizang for allowing drugs to be sold in Ching Hing territory. It's a wake-up call for both - Tin goes straight, proving to be an excellent stock trader and marrying lawyer Chow Man Fung (Karena Lam Ka-Yan), while Dizang dives headlong into the narcotics trade, becoming one of Hong Kong's most powerful drug lords. Circumstances cause Tin, who has always given generously to anti-drug organizations, to escalate his battle with direct action, which looks to Chief Inspector Lam Cheng Fung (Michael Miu Kiu-Wai) of the HKPD's narcotics bureau - whose wife was also a cop and killed in the raid on Dizang's clubs that night - like fighting between the triads.

There is a lot going on there - there are threads about the Yus trying to conceive, Lam's daughter, and a side-trip to the Philippines - but there's also too little. Hong Kong cinema has a great tradition of these sort of close friendships ripped asunder to the point where they disintegrate into extraordinary violence, but the great ones establish these relationships more solidly. There is barely enough time to see Tin and Dizang as brothers before they're hurtling in opposite directions, and despite Lam's origin story being connected to their falling-out, he is always on the periphery of the story, a necessary official perspective but never one that drives the action. It's easy to see the shape of how all of this should work, but it never becomes visceral until the script drops the big, obvious bombs.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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