Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Fantasia 2019 Catch-up, Part 3: Ride Your Wave, Maggie, No Mercy, It Comes, The Wretched, The Prey, The Incredible Shrinking Wknd, 8, Cencoroll Connect, and The Purity of Vengeance

I'm going to have to find a way to make the Fantasia reviews come faster next year, whether it's remote-working less so that I've got more mornings to write, finding someone else to come for eFilmCritic so I don't feel obligated to review everything I see with the press pass, or just improving my focus so it doesn't take me so long. I've still got 17 Fantasia films that haven't received full reviews and I'm sure I was finished with 2018 by this point last year.

Of course, who knows how CoVID-19 will fit into this? I'll probably have more chance to crank through these over the next couple weeks that I would have otherwise, especially with roughly zero new releases to push them back, and I can't yet guess when the local film festivals that would be taking up my writing time over the next couple of months will reappear - maybe in the fall (the Irish Film Festival has already staked out November dates), maybe at a point which creates hard decisions re Fantasia in the summer, maybe we'll just have a skip year for the Underground and Independent Festivals. Heck, who knows what Fantasia will be like with so many films not getting released in their native lands in the first half of 2020, if we're not all still self-isolating by then?

Anyway, as you might imagine, this whole operation is getting tricky this far from the festival, no matter how good my entries on Letterboxd are and how much my notes fill in the rest. I got to Idol and had to punt it; I liked the film, but the details were not just gone but mixed up with another Korean thriller. I've skipped over G Affairs too, but that's because I was able to order a disc from DDDHouse and I can catch myself up later, while I'm locked in with no baseball.

The bright side: Those omissions mean that, as I cruise through the unreviewed movies, 8 wound up being eighth in this batch!

Kimi to, nami ni noretara (Ride Your Wave, aka Riding a Wave with You)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, DCP)

As Masaki Yuasa's output increases, he seems to be moving away from the strange and trippy films that gained him attention and toward the conventional, though if the result is something like this sweet animated romance, that's not a bad thing. It's still distinctive and occasionally eccentric, and winds up being something fairly unique once the bits of fantasy there are kick in.

He quickly introduces the audience to Minato Hinageshi (voice of Ryota Katayose), a lifeguard and fireman trainee whose eye is quickly caught by Hinako Mukaimizu (voice of Rina Kawaei), an incoming freshman studying oceanography who would probably spend all day surfing if she could. They connect pretty quickly, with Minato's best friend Wasabi Kawamura (voice of Kentaro Ito) knowing his buddy's found a good thing even if Minato's little sister Yoko (voice of Honoka Matsumoto) is jealous. It seems like a perfect romance in this seaside college town, but things can change in an instant.

They do, of course, with an inevitability that will likely have viewers noting that these nice young people are almost certainly being set up for a fall early on. Ideally, the audience wouldn't see it coming that way - it is generally far better to be completely gobsmacked than to pick up on things going too well - but Yuasa and screenwriter Reiko Yoshida are smart enough to not make a morbid game of it or make the moment that things change so grim that the fantasy that comes afterward seems completely ill-advised. It's a tricky line to walk, and I suspect that some will find that the filmmakers are being too playful with serious matters, while others will be impressed with the line being walked between frightening and seemingly harmless delusion.

Full review on EFilmCritic


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Yi Ok-Seop's Maggie is a genuinely peculiar little picture, and maybe could have done well being a little smaller with its eccentricity a bit more specific. It winds up being fun in spots while not quite living up to its ambitions in others, but the clever bits are quite fun.

It opens at the "Love of Maria" hospital, a former convent that has been converted into a private hospital that, with things like a space-themed x-ray room, can often seem like a fancy hotel. Nurse Yeo Yoon-Young (Lee Joo-Young) and her boyfriend Sung-Won (Koo Gyo-Hwan) get it on in that room, and when photographs from its equipment are posted on a bulletin board, chief of orthopedics Lee Kyung-Jin (Moon So-Ri) makes it very clear to Yoon-Young that this is not that sort of place. Meanwhile, Sung-Won has taken a temp job trying to fill the massive sinkholes that are appearing around Seoul, and his co-workers are even bigger screw-ups than he is.

When I was choosing films to see at the festival, the description of Maggie had me thinking it would be a farce about how everybody in a hospital thinks the picture of two people having sex in the x-ray room is their bones and soft tissue, leaving Yoon-Young (who came in to spite Kyung-Jin) and her boss the only people to care for patients and make house calls, so I was probably more disappointed than I should have been when Sung-Won and the sinkhole side winds up taking up more time later, and the really great comic hook is pushed aside. A shame, because the hospital introduces a fun group of characters, several of whom are more memorable than the ones who get actual names, and there's a great sense of dominoes falling as one thing leads to another here. It's how great episodic comedy works, and there's a keen eye for absurd detail that carries forward through the whole film.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Un-ni (No Mercy)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: Action!, DCP)

Man, how many times do the makers of this movie think we need to see a developmentally disabled 17-year-old raped before we're invested? I praise Korean genre cinema for not messing around on a regular basis, but there's a fuzzy space between being no-holds-barred in a thriller inspired by an actual crime and making a rape-revenge story extra tacky without finding a new angle. That's a simple way to look at No Mercy, I suppose, but it's not a complicated movie despite its occasional efforts to become one.

It picks up with Park In-ae (Lee Si-Young) walking into a garage in a red dress and heels that don't exactly beg to be accessorized with a sledgehammer, but In-ae is the sort of lady who makes it work. A beauty with strong mixed-martial arts skills who is having a little trouble finding work after a couple years in jail for a trumped-up charge, though Ha Sang-man (Lee Hyung-Chul) of "Happy Cash Loans" will throw her some work for collections. She is at least happy to be reunited with sister Eun-Hye (Park Se-Wan), a pretty teenager who is mentally about ten years old and whose history of being bullied had inspired them to move before. When Eun-Hye doesn't come home from school one day, In-ae naturally starts worrying and looking, and what she finds as she examines both Eun-Hye's current circumstances and the way things were in the last town where they lived fills her with the sort of horror and rage that leads back to visiting small businesses with a sledgehammer in hand, working her way up to Senator Park Young-Choon (Choi Jin-Ho).

This film doesn't necessarily demand a whole lot of range from its two lead actresses - the happiness and affection between the Park sister as they see each other again is something of an oasis among the rest of the film - so much as sustained effort that leaves a little room for individual personality. Lee Si-Young is committed and properly intense, doing good work to find distinct notches to push In-ae's fury to new levels with each new revelation and communicating how terrible she feels for somehow not having seen this before. It's not exactly an emotional roller-coaster, but it's not something where one can settle in or detach. Park Se-Wan occasionally falls into the trap of making Eun-Hye's disability substitute for a personality, but more often she captures a kid wanting people to like her and knows she's got to work a little harder, even if she doesn't fully understand why what's involved makes her feel awful. The rest of the cast may be playing creeps without much in the way of nuance, but those two are able to anchor things.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Kuru (It Comes)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

It's not often that you see a horror movie like this that has both an incredibly clear idea what it wants to be about but also has such ambitious sweep, managing what sometimes seems like multiple new takes on old ideas without losing what makes them work. That would be enough, but the film also builds to an absolutely amazing climax that is continuously offering more, the best and wildest exorcism put on film in a long time. It's a wonder this thing is never even close to careening out of control, but director Tetsuya Nakashima knows what he's doing.

After a flash-forward teaser, we're properly introduced to Hideki Tahara (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and his fiancee Kana (Haru Kuroki), who will soon be married and expecting a baby. Before they've told anyone the name they've chosen, someone visits Hideki at work to talk about Chisa. The colleague who took the message dies under mysterious circumstances, and as events get stranger (on top of the regular stress of a new baby), they find themselves reaching out to an old friend who studies folklore (Munetaka Aoki), freelance occult writer Nozaki (Junichi Okada), and club hostess/medium Makoto Higa (Nana Komatsu). At first, this seems a small enough haunting as such things go, although it may grow to the point where Makoto's sister Kotoko (Takako Matsu), one of the world's top exorcists, may need to get involved.

The trick of a good horror movie is often finding something that already scares the audience and giving is a life of its own, and Nakashima and company have a clear eye on, among other things, the potentially maddening nature of parenthood and living one's expected life. Part of what they do that's impressive is build the story such that things have some time to fester and recur, which means they can turn the Taharas' lives around and find different angles on how it can translate into supernatural horror, and in doing so deliver some impressive, varied shocks. Nakashima' adaptation of Ichi Sawamura's novel gets out there enough that things never play as purely metaphorical - there's themes and cleverness found here, but they don't overwhelm the thrills by making them just simple analogs to real life - but the scares get bigger even as they stay connected to what makes them mean something.

Full review on EFilmCritic

The Wretched

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The Wretched does things that relatively few horror movies seem to think of, and does them with a skill that a lot of its brethren that are traveling more well-worn paths don't necessarily manage. That's enough to get the horror fans most susceptible to becoming jaded excited about it - the ones who love this stuff but who, in their jobs as festival programmers or production company employees, see every movie less creative filmmakers crank out must find their eyes going wide. I don't know that it will be the case for those not quite so immersed in the genre; somewhere along the way, there maybe should have been a little something more to make its often audacious choices really hit home.

Five days ago, Ben (John-Paul Howard) arrived to spend the summer with his father Liam (Jamison Jones), who has thoughtfully found him a job at the marina he manages. His co-worker Mallory (Piper Curda) and her kid sister Abbie (Zarah Mahler) are pretty cool, but he is, as is customary with children of recent divorce, not impressed with Sara (Azie Tesfai), his father's new girlfriend. He's also noticed Abbie (Zarah Mahler), the attractive mom next door, although when her son Dillon starts noticing that she's acting strange...

Filmmakers Brett & Drew Pierce are working in a great horror movie tradition here, of the kid who knows something awful is up but can't get anyone to believe him, but at times it seems like they chose the wrong kid - not the eight-year-old who is in the middle of it, but the seventeen-year-old who is next door and is only kind of involved at first. It puts the scares at a little distance, and makes it feel like it should be working harder to pull it together. A late-film twist reveals how this might all fit together, but that puts a lot on the audience as well, because there's no time to spell out details, and requires the audience to be horrified at the idea of what's been lost more than the actuality of it

Full review on EFilmCritic

The Prey

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: ACTION!, DCP)

As "The Most Dangerous Game" riffs go, this certainly is one. You know the story, and the makers of this one don't have any particular twist or hook to add to it too make this stand out in a sea of them. Or at least, not an obvious one from this side of the Pacific; maybe it touches on something topical in Cambodia, but I'd be surprised, as it seems fairly generic, though enjoyably violent.

In it, undercover Chinese Interpol agent Xin (Gu Shangwei) winds up in Cambodia's Western Region Prison when caught at the scene of a crime, and it's not long before he learns that the warden (Vithaya Pansringarm) has a side operation in letting wealthy sadists hunt folks who are unlikely to be missed. The latest group is Mat (Byron Bishop), Payuk (Sahajak Boonthanakit), and his nephew Ti (Nophand Booyai), and it makes sense to include the Chinese guy with no friends in the country among the prey. And if someone like Detective Li (Dy Sonita) shows up to spring Xin after learning where he wound up, it just becomes all that much more important to destroy the evidence and kill the witnesses.

The disappointment is not so much that the story is familiar, but that the execution is mostly just decent. This is the team that made the fairly impressive Jailbreak a couple years earlier, but having a more open environment doesn't necessarily do a lot of good. There's some decent gunplay, but it's seldom as good as the previous film's martial arts and inventive camerawork, mostly just a lot of sharp running and tumbling and pointing guns with purpose. The technique is still slick and it does lead two a couple of quality fights, but the close quarters seemed to inspire more creativity.while the sharply defined geography gave the previous movie structure that this one doesn't have in such abundance.

Full review on EFilmCritic

El increíble finde menguante (The Incredible Shrinking Wknd)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The big question after this screening was "when did you see it", referring to the compositional trick going on through the film, which maybe speaks to how it's more of a visual gimmick than something that enhances the film's themes without overstating them. Which is a shame, because as much as that particular element may or may not work for a viewer, it does play into what filmmaker Jon Mikel Caballero is going for, helping to focus a genre often played for laughs into something a little more thoughtful.

It starts with a group of friends heading to a house in the country for the weekend, one that Alba (Iria del Rio) used to visit when she was a child. With her are her kind-of-snotty boyfriend Pablo (Adam Quintero), square-but-funny Mark (Jimmy Castro) and his girlfriend Claudia (Irene Ruiz), would-be YouTube star Mancha (Adrián Expósito), and cheerful-but-unemployed Sira (Nadia de Santiago). It should be fun, but as is often the case, it's complicated; Alba's father is having health issues and things are starting to fray with her and Pablo, while Mark and Claudia have their own things to bring up. It is not, necessarily, the sort of weekend where one wants to get caught in a time loop, especially one that Alba soon discovers is an hour shorter each time through.

Many time-loop stories are built to create a sort of existential despair or repetitive trauma underneath the comedy of being able to predict what's coming and figure out a situation given enough reps, but the twist Caballero puts on it gets to an intriguing and resonant paradox: Alba has not been doing much with her youth, only to suddenly get hit with the idea that there's less she can do and less time to do it than she thought. It's a take that has bits of wasted potential and bits of dying young to it, but isn't about making existence seem pointless with drudgery. Alba is on vacation, and it's potentially nice, but it's limited, and making the most of the good times, it turns out, takes effort and consideration rather than just casting one's cares aside and living for the moment.

Full review on EFilmCritic


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The demon, of sorts, at the center of 8 is a sad, guilty one, something which makes for a different sort of thriller than the fairly traditional opening implies; it's as much the story of someone bound to something supernatural as those facing it, which means that filmmaker Harold Holscher doesn't have save the sense of tragedy that goes with these stories entirely for after he's done stringing the audience along.

Set "somewhere in South Africa", it introduces the audience to Mary (Keita Luna), a precocious young girl who has come to the country with uncle William (Garth Breytenbach) and aunt Sarah (Inge Beckmann) after the death of William's grandfather. The farm has seen better days and the house at the center is far too large for such a small, modest family. They soon meet "Lazarus" (Tshamano Sebe), who says he used to work for Master Zeke and who quickly befriends Mary, but there's something strange about the drifter, with other locals unwilling to take work on the farm if he's around and some even calling him a demon.

Small things give 8 a distinct, South African identity; the very time it takes place, in 1977, seems too late for this kind of story in many locations, like the rest of the world is more settled, but here these sort of old family mansions are just starting to become obsolete. It makes "Lazarus" feel even more like a lingering remnant of something else, which the white family doesn't understand but the locals do. There is mistrust between the various groups that needs little explanation but forms a real barrier, but one which is part of the landscape rather than the most central point of the film. It's an extra layer of tension that keeps the audience from ever getting too complacent.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Cencoroll Connect ("Cencoroll" & "Cencoroll 2")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, digital)

There's a shift in the animation style somewhere in the middle of this film, but that's natural; there's ten years between the releases of "Cencoroll" and "Cencoroll 2", and you can't help but see the spot where they are fused into a short feature. The thing is, it becomes a bit of a different sort of anime at that point, introducing more characters who have clear purpose and sense of urgency, piling more action on, losing a bit of what made the opening feel unique even if it isn't necessarily anything completely new.

A sonic rift in the sky occasionally belches out strange creatures, which run around and fight and do some damage, and high school girl Yuki (voice of Kana Hanazawa) is fascinated by them. Getting too close to one of those showdowns, she discovers that her classmate Tetsu Animiya (voice of Hiro Shimono) is somehow bonded with one, communicating with "Cenco" and helping the creature to feed, but really not curious about all the rest beyond that, even as a similarly bonded teen, Shiuu (voice of Ryohei Kimura) is spoiling for a fight.

Short films like the original "Cencoroll" sometimes wind up in the same sort of place despite being made for opposite reasons, either as calling-cards to show bigger studios and producers just what makes a given team stick out or in a burst of independent creativity that they know they'll likely have reined in should they make the big time. Whichever is the case for director Atsuya Uki, he came to play, and his team seems to have a blast with exaggerated character designs, Cenco morphing into new shapes and the characters making the same sort of right-angle turns as they drive each other nuts. It's high-energy and a delight to look at, full of surprises even as the story is purposefully meandering and not exactly driving toward anything in particular.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Journal 64 (aka The Purity of Vengeance)

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

"Department Q" has, as a film series, reached the point where it not only has to deal with characters staying in the same place rather than having some sort of shift in their job or life, but where a character is compelled to mention that they really didn't have this many perverse cold cases before Carl Mørck was assigned to them. It's not quite a breaking point, but it's a spot where I suspect everyone involved is thinking about how to avoid inertia while not changing the series's basic appeal.

And it does okay. This time around, the more personal narrative that takes center stage for those following the characters as much as the mysteries revolves around Carl's partner Assad (a first-billed Fares Fares), who is given a rare chance to move up while confronting the issues with being an Arab in Copenhagen more directly. It's nicely and sympathetically laid out (down to the way emphasis is placed in the phrase "non-ethnic Danes" to make it sound reluctant and avoid positioning Assad and his friends as outsiders), giving Fares the chance to act as the movie's rock rather than just having Assad be Carl's. It takes some of the pressure off co-star Nikolaj Lie Kaas as well; his morose, cynical detective can hold steady rather than having to plumb further depths, even making a joke or two on occasion.

This case launches in the present with the discovery of a mummified family around a table with one empty chair in the walled-up room of an apartment, and touches on an uglier bit of Danish history that can't be entirely consigned to the past (don't they all). In this case, it's the story of Nete (Fanny Leander Bornedal), who was sent to the island "girl's home" of Sprogø in 1961. The place would later become infamous for illicit experiments and forced sterilization in the name of eugenics, with Nete's particular tormentors doctor Curt Wad (Elliot Crosset Hove) and nurse Gitte Charles (Luise Skov). In 2016, Wad (Anders Hove) is now running one of Copenhagen's most successful fertility clinics, and once Carl and Assad tie the room to Sprogø, it's not altogether unreasonable to assume that he may have been intended for the empty chair and thus might still be a target.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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