Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Fantasia 2019.22: Judy & Punch, The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea, Promare, and The Divine Fury

How long does the process of getting reviews written through the rest of the festival take when I finally go "screw it, I can't keep up with all these shorts"? Well, in a strictly numeric sense, roughly four months and three weeks. In a more general, landmark-based sense, the last movie of the festival, a preview of a soon-to-be-released Korean film, has had its theatrical and home video releases. The second to last has not quite had that happen, but it has had Fathom Events shows, stuck around Boston Common for a surprisingly decent run, and then come back for encores.

That night, though, it was the closing night film which meant I had to buy a ticket and get in line, which is good for the soul lest you get too used to cutting to the front.

There were guests for the short film that played before Promare, "Totsukuni no Shoujo" (or "The Girl from the Other Side" in English, and my notes stink, but I think it's directors Yutaro Kubo and Satomi Maiya, along with producer Jouji Wada of Wit Studio. No Q&A, because they introduced rather than followed, but they made a nifty film.

Anyway, that's a wrap, four and a half months later. Which means, just another seven months until the next one and some 30-odd movies to review on the second pass. This festival is a monster and I wouldn't spend my summer any other way.

Judy & Punch

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

Punch & Judy shows weren't a big thing in the United States when I was a kid, and I'm not sure how much longer they remain something that people in the British Isles or Australia still grow up with. They've disappeared, in part, because enough people eventually became uncomfortable with the violence behind their broad knockabout humor, and perhaps they've been shuffled far enough back in our cultural memory that Judy & Punch can manage to pull people in with the promise of entertaining puppetry and wry humor before making them think about domestic violence.

Professor Punch (Damon Herriman) was once a famous touring puppeteer - a popular form of entertainment in the 1600s - with whom Judy (Mia Wasikowska) fell in love, eventually marrying and having a child. They now live in the town of Seaside (which is nowhere near the sea), operating a theater of their own. Punch's name is on it, of course, even though Judy is now the more talented marionette builder and operator, and she must often cover for his drunkenness. One day, Punch does far worse than his usual dalliances with the barmaid at McDrinky's, and when Judy confronts him in horror, he responds with violence, leaving her for dead. Fortunately, she's found by Scotty (Daisy Axon), a little girl who would sneak into town from a camp of outcasts to see the show, and nursed back to health. She wants justice, but is that even possible for one as wronged as her?

It's an unfortunate state of affairs that one can't honestly add "in that time and place" to the last sentence, and the familiarity of Judy's story is what gives the film such genuine depths of despair. Writer/director Mirrah Foulkes uses the period setting to make Punch's crimes and the community's complicity all the more horrific, but making the language contemporary enough that the audience can't quite dissociate. Audiences will look at the worst of what Punch does and how the mob enables him and hopefully find themselves leaning toward wondering if society is better enough today rather than just dismissing the question out of hand. There's even purpose to the things which seem designed to be anachronistic, like the more progressive attitudes of newly-appointed Constable Derrick (Benedict Hale) - Foulkes is able to make a joke out of how out-of-place they seem but also make the audience maybe think a little about how often people live up to them today.

Full review at EFilmCritic

To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón (The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Eels, apparently, can migrate surprisingly far distances, from the Mediterranean to the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. I know this because filmmaker Syllas Tzoumerkas makes sure that the audience sees a clip from a documentary on the subject, so you'd better believe that there's a metaphor to be found here. That, after all, is what raises a film from being dark misanthropic genre material that goes nowhere to being a praiseworthy drama: Not just having the crime story stand for something else, but making sure that the audience knows it does.

The eels here are not caught so much as farmed, though, and like them, there are at least two women who would rather be migrating from small-town Meologi. Elisabeth (Angeliki Papoulia) is the oft-hungover chief of police who is only there because it was easier for the people in Athens who found her inconvenient to promote her to a backwater than fire her when they needed her out of the way, while Rita (Youla Boudali) works in the processing plant but has a ticket to Miami in her wallet, mostly staying behind for family reasons. She soon has a bit less family, with disreputable younger brother Manolis (Hristos Passalis) found dead of an apparent suicide. It's the sort of thing that might not be investigated much closer, except that some out-of-town students are also missing, nobody from Rita to the Albanian drug dealers seems to be reacting quite the way you'd expect, and Elisabeth is a good cop when given the chance to be.

It's never particularly hard to see why these women are looking to get away; there are towns like Meologi all over the world, and they all have the same sort of look to them, at least in the movies - houses that look like slightly-overgrown sheds with trash in the front yards, the one nightclub that just barely avoids looking depressing with the lights down low, beaches where the sand, sea, and sky all verge on being the same gray color. Of course it has a fish-processing plant, because what else can make a seaside, agrarian community feel quite so miserable? Tzoumerkas doesn't lean on these tropes quite to the point of parody, fortunately, but they are familiar in their deployment, mostly interesting in how he occasionally shakes them up: The ten-years-earlier opening in Athens, for instance, is staged like something from a much bigger action movie and gets across why Elisabeth might miss the excitement of the city even if it also shows the inherent dangers and hints that it's probably not good for police to enjoy their work too much. There's another jaw-dropping moment with Rita that briefly takes things into more surreal territory, even if the film doesn't stay there long.

Full review on EFilmCritic

"Totsukuni no Shoujo" ("The Girl from the Other Side")

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

I did not realize, before writing this review, that there was a manga for "The Girl from the Other Side" that was much larger than this ten-minute short, and I therefore have no idea if this is meant as a sort of pilot or if it adapts some specific chapter. I may try to learn more about this series later, but I may not, as I am fond of the animated short as it is.

It gets its point across in impressive form, after all, wordlessly suggesting a girl out of place but (mostly) unafraid, due to a doting creature whose genteel manner contrasts with his inhuman face and shadowy air, and glimpses of how certain things seem to decay in his presence. There is, in all this, a story implied that is elemental, and the way directors Yutaro Kubo & Satomi Maiya use this visual format to play a little tug-of-war between the generic and specific gives it even more feeling of a fairy tale. The understated score plays its part well, too - it is simple and gentle, for the most part, doling notes out like a music box in innocent fashion, but racing just a bit when there's a little menace to be found, or when the little girl's dreams briefly reminds her that something is not right.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS/Closing Night, digital)

There are some films that lean into their genres' tropes so hard that they verge on self-parody, and then there's Promare, which punches clear out the other side. The filmmakers are well aware of every single form of excess that this sort of anime sci-fi adventure is prone to, but they're also aware that those things are what make said movies and shows awesome, and are fully committed to making their movie that sort of thrillingly crazy as well.

Sometime in the future, people just suddenly start catching on fire when their emotions flare, leading to the Great World Blaze. Thirty years later, these "Burnish" are no longer completely out of control, in large part due to an elite firefighting force armed with the latest technology and heroic specialists, none more fearless and dedicated than Galo Thymos (voice of Ken'ichi Matsuyama), a frequently shirtless lunatic dedicated to squelching flames with his burning soul. This latest fire seems to be the work of "Mad Burnish" Lio Fotia (voice of Taichi Saotome), who sees himself as a freedom fighter. And, while Galo hates to admit it, something does seem screwy about the whole situation He consults his mentor Kray Foresight (voice of Masato Sakai) and investigates on his own, discovering an incredible secret about the source of the Burnish's power.

Consume enough comics/manga, anime, and other superhero adventure, and you can start getting blasé about set-ups like this; I spent a fair chunk of another review of a film that played this festival trying not to call it folks reinventing the X-Men again. Promare obviously takes most of its inspiration from the Japanese equivalents and their tropes - the elaborate vehicles piloted by apparent teenagers, the over-the-top explosions and property damage, the angular character designs and the bellowed declamations - but it does so with the brakes completely disengaged, using apocalyptic disaster as a starting point, pausing the action to splash character names on screen, and frequently not just turning on a dime but having that turn take the characters into such an enormous new region that you wonder how anybody in this world could have missed it before. Director Hiroyuki Imaishi and writer Kazuki Nakashima clearly love this stuff and while they can make jokes at the excesses, they are not going to treat it as a joke.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Saja (The Divine Fury)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The hook for The Divine Fury is such a simple and obvious genre mash-up - the martial artist whose hands have been blessed/cursed in such a way that he can exorcise demons by punching them in the face - that it's kind of surprising that such a film doesn't hit theaters every other week. The reason, I suspect, is likely why this movie is only half as cool as it could be: Shooting fight scenes is complex and time-consuming compared to talking about demons, so the movie inevitably doesn't do as much of the good stuff as one might hope.

Things start out twenty years ago, when policeman Park Ji-Won (Lee Seung-Joon) is killed during a traffic stop by a driver who is something other than human. Park had been a devout Catholic, but his son Yong-Hu lashes out against the church. Twenty years later, he's a Mixed Martial Arts champion, but a voice in his head is making him more aggressive and he's starting to wake up covered in unexplained blood. A shaman sees that he's got a demon attached to him and refers him to Father Ahn (Ahn Sung-Ki), who recognizes stigmata on Yong-Hu's palms and enlists him to help fight the Black Bishop (Woo Do-Hwan), though Yong-Hu (Park Seo-Ju) just wants those things off his hands so he can live a normal life.

Exorcism stories don't have a lot of room for half measures in terms of ambition, to the point where it's sometimes better to be a shallow, pulpy work the doesn't make a whole lot of sense but delivers a lot of blood and spectacle than to grasp at more serious themes without fully connecting. That's an issue that filmmaker Kim Joo-Hwan never quite solves: There's a story here about Yong-Hu rediscovering his beliefs, but that's a different thing in a world where there are actual demons than one where you truly must take the supernatural on faith, and there's not a whole lot more that resonates, at least for Yong-Hu (Father Ahn is feeling kind of worn down). The Bishop and his brethren are fairly generic villains, as well.

Full review at EFilmCritic

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