Friday, December 27, 2019

Fantasia 2019 Catch-up, Part 1: Kingdom, Satanic Panic, Blood on Her Name, Daniel Isn't Real, Human Lost, Paradise Hills, White Snake, Knives and Skin

The second pass on Fantasia reviews will probably begin in earnest on the ride home from work today, but for now, here are the movies that got a theatrical release between my initial write-up at the festival and, well, now. Some of them just had a couple of days of Fathom shows, others came and went from relatively few theaters quickly because they hit VOD at the same time, Blood on Her Name actually hasn't been released but it played a local-to-Boston festival, and at least one is out on disc already.

So, if you want, click the links and watch them. It's probably a better way to have an enjoyable Fantasia experience in winter than riding a bus eight hours to Montreal to see a movie.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

I wonder how often non-fans encountering manga, anime, and their adaptations find themselves tripped up over how the protagonists will have earnest enthusiasm, loyalty, and commitment as their best qualities, valuable traits to be sure but not as important in American stories as figuring things out. The main character of Kingdom, for instance, is a guy who kind of blows past having wound up ignorant through no fault of is own by having grown up a slave to being kind of dumb generally, but he's the one we're supposed to identify with and root for.

That would be Li Xin, who in 255 BC is a child slave being taken to the estate of his new master when their cart passes an army led by Wang Qi (Takao Ohsawa), China's greatest general. He soon becomes fast friends with another slave boy, Piao, and they vow to train with each other and eventually escape bondage as soldiers who become great generals. Ten years later, they have honed their skills via constant sparring, and Chancellor Chang Wen Jun (Masahiro Takashima) buys Piao's freedom to serve the king. Some time after that, Piao returns, mortally wounded, saying Prince Cheng Jiao (Kanata Hongo) has deposed young King Yin Zheng, and entrusts Xin (Kento Yamazaki) with a document to bring to the king in hiding. When he arrives he's in for a shock - Yin Zheng is a dead ringer for Piao, though the ambitious aristocrat's personality is no match. Retaking the throne may prove incredibly difficult - that more royal blood flows through Cheng Jiao's veins has him commanding the world's fiercest army, while Zheng has only a handful of loyalists including Xin and young brigand He Liao Diao (Kanna Hashimoto), and an alliance with the hill people and their leader Yang Duan He (Masami Nagasawa) will still leave them badly outnumbered.

I doubt that Yasuhisa Hara's manga is a particularly accurate take on China's Warring Kingdoms period, and the script by Tsutomu Kuroiwa and director Shinsuke Sato likely diverges even further, but this version makes for a streamlined movie that gives the audience a taste of palace intrigue without getting too bogged down in the details, colorful armies to do battle, and a spot at the center for a guy like Xin whose energetic nature will make it easy for younger viewers to identify with him. Like many recent big action/adventure movies, it's made in large part for middle-school boys, but perhaps more squarely and honestly than some others; Sato and company don't obviously load the movie with innuendo on the one hand or give any signs of cutting what they really want to do down to please the television networks that are paying for it.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Satanic Panic

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Satanic Panic is horror comedy for people who know the genre and can poke fun without being entirely flip about it - it has a loopy premise on which the filmmakers hang a lot of jokes, but the people involved know this doesn't work if everybody involved is taking it for granted. It manages to avoid being cynical despite that being the default mode for both horror and this kind of satire.

After an opening bit where parents chase their daughter through their McMansion because they're even more upset than usual that their little princess and her boyfriend had sex, the film shifts to Samantha Craft (Hayley Griffith), a sweet 22-year-old on the first night of her first job, delivering pizzas. A lot of people try and take advantage of her good nature one way or another, but things don't get truly weird until she makes a big delivery out to posh Mill Basin and not only doesn't get a tip, but runs out of gas. She sneaks into the house to try and get some gas money, and it's kind of weird in there, with everyone in red robes and Danica Ross (Rebecca Romijn) leading they in some sort of weird role-play. Eventually, they figure out that this girl no-one recognizes is a virgin, and what luck that is, because, if you remember, the teenager they had planned to sacrifice to the Dark Lord kind of fell through.

It's a fun set-up and gives director Chelsea Stardust and screenwriter Grady Hendrix the chance to throw Sam into a bunch of weird situations as she proves to have better survival instincts than one might expect, aided by how devil-worshipers by their nature have difficulty working as a team. Things really click into place when Sam runs across original sacrifice Judi (Ruby Modine); that's when the movie becomes a sort of buddy comedy pairing an innocent who is nevertheless not a fool and a girl who (having been raised in this Satanist household) knows the score but is, maybe, not as corrupt as she thinks. Seeing it evolve into that is probably the movie's best surprise: Genuine friendship isn't exactly what movies like this are usually made of, as they are usually too busy skewering the rich who will do anything to get ahead, but it happens almost before the viewer is aware of what's going on and without the filmmakers obviously building it up as the force that can counter the evil - it would not, after all, work if this were a calculated action.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Blood on Her Name

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Film noir has always tended to take place in the cities, whether because it makes for better shadows or because people have some revisionist image in their head where small towns are the "real America" compared to the places where individual acts of corruption can be large enough to be visible, but there's plenty of opportunity to be found elsewhere.

You don't need to explain this to Leigh Tiller (Bethany Anne Lind), who is already taking her 14-year-old son Ryan (Jared Ivers) to appointments with a probation officer and struggling to keep the family's garage afloat despite how her no-good husband made ends meet by running a chop shop after hours. Some folks apparently think it's still going on, as a late visit from one of her ex's partner in crime Daryl Cobb (Tim Hughes) leaves her with a body to dispose of, and while the smart move would be to just dump him in the lake, Leigh feels guilt about Cobb's girlfriend Dani (Elisabeth Röhm) not know what happened to him. But Cobb hadn't pulled his job alone, and somewhere along the line, Leigh lost a pretty distinctive necklace.

Bethany Anne Lind is in every scene of this movie, and her performance gives the movie a tremendously solid spine to build on. The story is driven by her attempts to do right, whether by her son, her employee Rey (Jimmy Gonzales), herself, or even a total stranger, despite the fact that she doesn't have a lot of room to make sacrifices and everyone in her life from her husband to her cop father (Will Patton) has seldom shown the same inclination, and her face always reflects that it's difficult. Lind shows Leigh's struggle to be a decent person without making her seem too idealistic and also builds the sort of not-entirely-formed shell that Leigh would have developed at this point in her life. There's never a crack when the audience learns something new about her or her backstory.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Daniel Isn't Real

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The trouble with using supernatural horror as a way to examine real-world issues is that while the metaphor may be pretty good, inevitably, someone has to bring up the thing you're trying to talk about on its own, usually before committing to one direction or the other, and for some in the audience, that makes the direction you go a disappointment. Like, dealing with schizophrenia can be scary, and demonic possession is just silly made-up stuff in comparison. I suppose it can go the other way, too.

There's not a whole lot of doubt where things are for Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson); she's got some pretty severe mental health issues to start. Her young son Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner) seems healthy until witnesses the aftermath of a shooting and meets his new friend Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid). Daniel Daniel is the sort of imaginary friend who seems pretty harmless until he encourages Luke to help his mother overdose on her meds, and a horrified Luke locks Daniel up after that. At least until seven or eight years later, when another incident with his mother has college-aged Luke (Miles Robbins) more stressed than usual and Daniel (Patrick Schwarzeneggar) reappears. Luke knows Daniel is imaginary, but he kind of needs a voice telling him to be more outgoing and follow his heart - both in his studies and when he meets Cassie (Sasha Lane) - and Daniel has grown smart enough to bide his time and not ask too much of Luke too soon.

Eventually, Daniel is persistent and demanding enough that Luke starts reading about demons and researching the shooter from the day Daniel first appeared, and that's where Daniel Isn't Real starts to develop real problems: Every indication that the title might not be the case makes the film seem a little less consequential, a story about arbitrary mythology rather than a troubled kid trying to deal with more than he's able to handle. Sure, it may be a case of Luke being a highly unreliable narrator, but that's maybe worse; it makes the movie a guessing game with what really happened an exercise left to the audience, and that's a tough needle to thread. Director Adam Egypt Mortimer (adapting a novel by Brian DeLeeuw into a screenplay with the author) seems too enamored of the horror imagery to fully commit to undercutting it, giving the audience an imaginative other world and Exorcist references more often than signs that he's being seduced by his own fantasies.

Full review on EFilmCritic

HUMAN LOST Ningen Shikkaku

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, DCP)

Human Lost is one of those anime productions that are something like 60% world-building, 30% action, and 10% trying to find a story in all that. The fact that it has no shortage of interesting ideas which keeps it moving at an impressive clip, and it certainly hooks the audience with a great centerpiece action scene early on. It's fun to watch and explore, enough that anticipation of it all coming together can carry the viewer to the end.

The premise is that in 2036, illness and even permanent injury have been all but eliminated in Japan thanks to a combination of gene therapy, vaccines, and nanotechnology, but that hasn't quite made it a utopia - the elites are worried about admitting new members to their ranks and upward economic mobility is stalled, to the point where the city center is walled off from the hoi polloi, who live in polluted slums. Oh, and sometimes the self-healing nanotechnology goes out of control, making people into rampaging monsters - the "Lost". Depressed artist Yozo Oba (voice of Mamoru Miyano) is brought to a protest by his friend Takeichi (voice of Jun Fukuyama), where things quickly get out of control between the riot police and a sudden mutation - one which Yozo somehow reverses. That grabs the attention of both Human Intelligence Laboratory administrator Shibuta (voice of Kenichirou Matsuda), who sends "Applicant" Yoshiko HIragi (voice of Kana Hanazawa) to offer him a place inside the wall, and Masao Horiki (voice of Takahiro Sakurai), a rogue bioengineer working among the common people.

When Human Lost is focused on the basic science fiction of its posited future, it can be terrific; there's a cynical but frighteningly believable logic to how something that is seemingly a blessing can have devastating effects on society, pointing out how this new technology could freeze everything in place with retirement pushed into the indefinite future and a pollution-free environment being considered a luxury if people's bodies can just process all the toxins. Director Fuminori Kizaki and screenwriter Tow Ubukata leave most of that day-to-day material for the audience to puzzle out, instead focusing on how this can amplify the intensity of other areas, like how reckless and violent protest can become when everybody has all-but-magical health technology, even if using it can be a frustrating customer-service call.

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, while still being fun (if somewhat familiar) science fiction.

It starts with a wedding and then a flashback to two months earlier, when Uma (Emma Roberts) was clearly not nearly so excited about marrying Son (Arnaud Valois) and as such was sent to Paradise Hills, which looks like an island spa except that there is not only no leaving until one has pleased The Duchess (Milla Jovovich) and become the sort of woman who understands her place in society. Uma is assigned a room with plus-sized southern girl Chloe (Danielle Macdonald) and abrasive, headphone-wearing heiress Yu (Awkwafina), and also makes friends with rehabbing pop star Amarna (Eiza González). The man she truly loves, Markus (Jeremy Irvine), sneaks onto the island to rescue her, but even with his help, escape will be difficult, especially since the ladies are taken to a mysterious chamber after being drugged at night.

It's a good thing that Paradise Hills has style to burn, because it often hews more than a little closer to what's expected from the story than one might initially hope. As much as the opening flash-forward is actually in the top 5% of such things (it establishes the world outside of Paradise Hills a bit, and there are still surprises on tap as the movie gets there), it also gives off a Stepford Wives vibe that earns some early groans and may turn people off before it starts getting interesting. 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 so entitling from the point of view of the women being "reprogrammed". It looks great, but more importantly, it doesn't look entirely like a male fantasy of submissive women. It's more insidious in how it attempts to twist a more modern femininity into something that is not obviously subservient but definitely secondary. The look of it also melds the future and a conscious return to the rule of aristocracy nicely, and the explicit emphasis on class serves as a reminder that Uma and her new friends are starting from a privileged position and their point of view isn't universal.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Baishe: Yuanqi (White Snake)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, DCP)

The White Snake story hasn't been as frequently retold as that of The Monkey King on-screen, although I can't help but feel there's been more in recent years than the one that came out in 2011 with Jet Li, Eva Huang, and Charlene Choi. It's a natural fit for animation, and though I'm a bit surprised to see this often fun (though weird) get a release on this side of the Pacific, it's at the very least a nifty change of pace for Western audiences whose kids could use a new animated adventure in their rotation.

As the story starts, green snake demon Xiao Qing (voice of Tang Xiaoxi) - "Blanca" in the subtitles - has tried to reach enlightenment for 500 years but, failing, is sent to the mortal realm for a mission against a general (voice of Zhang Boheng) who is gathering snakes to increase his occult powers with their life-force. She is only partially successful, losing her memory and knowledge of her snake form, and is rescued by A Xuan (voice of Yang Tianxiang), a resident of a village of snake-hunters who would prefer to become a doctor. With Xiao Qing missing, her closest friend Xiao Bai (voice of Zhang Zhe), aka "Verta", is sent to complete the mission, and though she loves Xiao Qing like a sister, it certainly looks like Xiao Qing has betrayed them and put their people in danger.

It's an enjoyable enough fantasy, framed the lesson that one is unlikely to reach enlightenment by separating oneself from the world even with centuries of meditation, but might become a better person by living among humans, having adventures that confront one with practical realities, and falling in love. There are times when it sometimes feels a bit like screenwriter Damao and directors Huang Jiakang & Zhao Ji are perhaps trying to reinterpret the myth for a more modern audience in a way that can make the plotting feel arbitrary, but for the most part the simple story has plenty of room for action, romance, and fun with talking-animal sidekicks who are kind of alarmed to find themselves talking.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Knives and Skin

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)
Seen 8 December 2019 in the Brattle Theatre (first-run, DCP)

There are brief moments when Knives and Skin seems to be pushing itself to become a little more mysterious and fantastical than it is, lest it seem too simple, but writer/director Jennifer Reeder has a good handle on how to use that surrealism to perk up audience interest and make the quirk go down a little easier without having it be the movie's whole thing. It's a tricky bit of alchemy, but one she manages.

It opens with a hook-up gone wrong, as Carolyn Harper (Raven Whitley) leads Andy Kitzmiller (Ty Olwin) to a secluded spot only to have a change of heart, angering Andy. That's the last time anyone sees her alive, although her body doesn't exactly stay in one place. Carolyn's mother Lisa (Marika Engelhardt), also the school's chorus teacher, immediately becomes a wreck, although her band-mates think it's kind of par for the course, while several students assumed to be Carolyn's friends say they haven't been close in a while. Meanwhile, preparations start for homecoming, a substitute teacher catches the fancy of Andy's sister Joanna (Grace Smith), and the kids' parents are generally not in great shape themselves.

Carolyn's disappearance is where the audience first starts watching these people, but it's not exactly the focus of the movie; though the various families have connections to it, this is mainly a way for Reeder to tie a number of small, but compelling storylines together without having too many of them become overwrought and off-putting. One never forgets Carolyn, but there's a moment early on where the cute substitute teacher mentions that a girl disappeared in high school, but can't remember her name when pressed. The Kitzmillers and Darlingtons have their own drama going on, her bandmate Colleen (Emma Ladji) is more concerned with the football player who likes her even though she's very much, in her mind, not someone who dates jocks and so on. That secrets come out now is somewhat incidental.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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