Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Fantasia 2019 Catch-up, Part 4: Dance with Me, Ode to Nothing, Fly Me to the Saitama, L'Intervention, A Good Woman Is Hard to Find, Black Magic for White Boys, The Father's Shadow, and Door Lock

Yeah, I'm looking at the dates I saw these movies and the dates I've posted full reviews on eFilmCritic and just kind of sighing. Insert the usual comments about how I need to commit to cranking through things faster, not working my day job during the festival, cutting down my caffeine intake to a point where I'm focused and alert but not jittery.

(Or we could talk about how I apparently take great notes and do good first drafts in the middle of a five-movie-a-day festival!)

I am kind of shocked that of the eight movies in this update, only one has actually become available to watch in the United States over the intervening nine months, at least from my searching on Prime Video and JustWatch (which seems like it could include some more services but I probably the best index of availability we have). It doesn't seem like too long ago that turnaround on what I saw at Fantasia was incredibly fast, and not just because some selections were effectively word-of-mouth screenings before the imminent DVD release! There were a lot more labels that could get material onto store shelves if not theaters, and I wonder to what extent VOD and streaming has changed the game in unexpected ways. When IFC Midnight buys the US distribution rights to something from Spain or Brazil, and instead of manufacturing a disc they can sell for $20 starts looking at rentals… Well, when I pay $7 to rent something on Amazon, what's left between what Amazon takes and what they send back to Canal+ or whoever? It feels like the margins on importing films are really thin these days, unless you're Amazon or Netflix, and then I wouldn't be shocked if foreign studios are uncomfortable locking themselves into that sort of exclusivity with no per-purchase money. And since the theaters with those big comfy chairs and almost an hour between screenings to include 20 minutes of trailers, 20 minute advertising package, and 10 minutes for cleaning just have fewer seat-times for everything, crowding smaller stuff out, and now things don't have the legitimacy of a theatrical release. The exception is Chinese and Indian films, but they're day-and-date so the festival circuit doesn't mean much.

What genre labels we do have these days seem more focused on getting older material out, which is great - Arrow, Shout!, Kino, Vinegar Syndrome, and the like are doing fantastic, necessary work. It just feels genuinely odd to me that some of the movies I saw last July which seem pretty appealing to people unafraid of subtitles (and were released in their home countries earlier), like Dance with Me and Door Lock, are probably going to hang around in limbo for a little longer and then maybe appear after you've scrolled down a search for a while with little fanfare because what festival hype they got is two years disconnected from a scattered release. Even now, when we've got all the time in the world to catch up on stuff, it's hard to know what to catch up on.


Anyway, you can (as of this writing) watch L'Intervention (though you may need to search for "15 Minutes of War"), and A Good Woman Is Hard to Find was scheduled for a May theatrical release, and who knows, maybe the distributor will make it available for indie theaters' virtual screening rooms. And it's looking even more vital to get to film festivals more when we've got film festivals again, because that seems to be the only way some of these movies will have a chance to snap their fingers in front of our faces and tell us they exist.

Dance With Me

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

Movie and stage musicals are grandly and gloriously unreal in a way that little else in popular culture manages to be, and people can't handle it; almost every one made these days builds in some excuse for the songs rather than giving the audience credit for understanding that they are not what's literally happening. Dance With Me is no exception, but it does that well enough to make one want to see what filmmaker Shinobu Yaguchi and star Ayaka Miyohsi could do without making excuses, since they've clearly got the right screwball instincts and the film is ultimately about loving this sort of material whether it's realistic or not.

Miyoshi plays Shizuka Suzuki, a sensible office worker who does her sister a favor by looking after niece Nana while she's in the city for a day, agreeing just a little too hard when Nana disparages having to do a song for the school talent show. They stumble upon once-famous hypnotist Martin Ueda (Akira Takarada) at an amusement park, and the hokum he does to get Nana over her stage fright instead lodges in Shizuka's head, so that the next day, any music she hears, from her workout mix to a co-worker's ringtone, has her singing and dancing along like a character in a musical. Ueda has already skipped town, but the out-of-work actress who had been working as his assistant (Yuu Yashiro), decides to help her track him down - not only was she a part of this, but Ueda didn't pay her. Or the yakuza. Along the way, they pick up a hitchhiking street musician (Chay) and hire a cheap private detective, but the odds that they find Ueda before Shizuka has to be back to work on Monday are looking slim.

The thing that mostly makes Dance With Me work is the thing that basically gives the game away; there are large chunks that the audience will not believe unless, at some point, the movie's heroine learned how to do all the singing and dancing, even if the trail of destruction she leaves as the result of her compulsion to make any song she hears into a musical number suggests that maybe she didn't, and once you've put that in her backstory, there's little doubt what she has to confront. Like a lot of meta-musicals, it's often conveying how characters bursting into song is great for conveying big emotions rather than just doing that, but Shizuka's story is eventually her own. How this will end is never in doubt, and is just a matter of making the path leading there crooked.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Oda sa wala (Ode to Nothing)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Films like Ode to Nothing aren't quite a genre unto themselves, but after a while one can be a bit jaded: It's sad, with a fanciful but eccentrically morbid premise, the sort of thing that's a bit transgressive and daring, but which is clearly meant to be taken seriously. They get made on a regular basis because there's something to it, and when someone has as keen an eye for where she's going with the idea as Dwein Baltazar does with this one.

She begins by introducing the audience to Sonya (Marietta "Pokwang" Subong), who runs a small funeral home, presumably passed down from her father Rudy (Joonee Gamboa), who mostly sits in the apartment above in silence, waiting for Sonya to prepare dinner, while she deals with people who want to haggle past the last minute. They're behind in rent and loan-shark landlord Theodor (Dido de la Paz) when a Jane Doe is dropped on their doorstep, and as time drags on, she starts to find the corpse more friendly company that her father, though she has her eye on handsome street vendor Elmer (Anthony Falcon).

It's kind of hard to grasp the level of loneliness on display in Ode to Nothing at first. It's right out front from the start, and it is fairly clear that this is what the film will be about from the start, but Sonya must sink deep into a genuinely frightening desperation before the full extent of how it's eating at her becomes completely clear, and that's when the filmmakers know that they can push the film somewhere else. They often choose not to, sinking further into despair, but the possibility was there. The audience still knows that a line has been crossed, that the characters have reached the next crossroads, but the fact that things clearly could change at these points but don't every time just emphasizes how difficult it can be to get out of such a hole.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Tonde Saitama (Fly Me to the Saitama)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

This may not be the most shojo movie possible, assuming I'm not being my manga categories mixed up, but even if I am, it's right up there in terms of just being absurdly, specifically Japanese, and regionally so at that. It shouldn't travel at all, even to a festival audience of people who love Japanese pop culture, and yet it got the biggest laughs of any film there, because for all that the jokes are specific, the spirit is not, and the way they're told is something anyone can laugh at.

The Saitama is a Tokyo suburb, described as the bits that were left over when Tokyo and Yokohama separated, and apparently not well-regarded by its neighbors. Teenage Manami Sugawara (Haruka Shimazaki) is embarrassed to be from there, something of great consternation to father Yoshiumi (Brother Tom) and mother Maki (Kumiko Aso) as they take a road trip. Frustrated, Yoshiumi turns on a radio drama, set in a heightened Tokyo where Class President Momomi Hakuhodo (Fumi Nikaido), a stiletto-heeled monster from the very best family, rules her high school with an iron fist with the Saitamese basically servants living in hovels, though she is as immediately smitten with new transfer student Rei Asami (Gackt) as anyone - "you can still smell the America on him!" What she doesn't know is that before he went abroad, he lived in the Saitama, and has been sent to infiltrate high society and destroy it from within.

Though I can't recall ever seeing any of the manga Mineo Maya specifically, original series Tonde Saitama was published in a girls' manga magazine and director Hideki Takeuchi is clearly channeling the general style, with its elaborate hair and fashion, lean and androgynously handsome men, and generally exaggerated visuals represented and amplified on-screen. It's a somewhat garish style that often works better on the page than screen, but this is a story that lets the filmmakers lean into it; between the contrast with the modern simplicity of the car and the satirical intent, it's no leap for the style to be self-parodying. After a while, becoming more ridiculous is a big part of how Takeuchi and screenwriter Yuichi Tokunaga keep it light rather than mean.

Full review on EFilmCritic

L'Intervention (15 Minutes of War)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

From the subtitles, the English title for this film is "15 Minutes of War", which naturally leads to the question of what's going to happen for the other 80. The answer is a lot of simple competence, making for a very French take on the sort of military action film that, in American hands, often seems to be more likely to overflow with testosterone even when trying to be modest and self-deprecating. The differences are sometimes subtle and the end result is about the same, but it's still a good result.

It takes place in 1976; at the time, Djibouti was France's last colony, not necessarily a status that the people there and in neighboring nations were too fond of. In February, three terrorists - Barkhard (Kevin Layne), Morad (Andre Pierre), and Ilyans (Adbeladim Mazouzi) - hijack a bus containing 31 students and teacher Jane Andersen (Olga Kurylenko) and drive it to the Somali border. They wind up in a no-man's-land between the two, and while France dispatches a team of elite soldiers led by André Gerval (Alban Lenoir), the terrain is built for a stalemate and a move in the wrong direction could cause an even bigger international incident.

If you know the genre, you know the drill, but it's pretty pleasant, at least as military action movies go. This film is procedural, spending a fair amount of time on working out tactics, with the GIGN unit arguing with other groups on the scene and command back home in Paris, just in a somewhat less shouty manner. Meanwhile, having a teacher in the middle of the hostage situation gives the filmmakers plenty of chances to check in and make sure that the audience knows what the stakes are, and Olga Kurylenko slides into that role nicely, catching the way a character taking a job in this place necessarily has an adventurous side without being fearless and playing off everybody from the child actors to Kevin Layne's domineering mission leader well. Alban Lenoir, Michaël Abiteboul, Ben Cura, and that crew know the level of mission-focused confidence that stops short of cruelty that one wants the soldiers to show.

Full review on EFilmCritic

A Good Woman Is Hard to Find

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

A Good Woman Is Hard to Find starts as one sort of crime movie and evolves into another, and truth be told, it's the first half that seems to have the greater potential at first. Of course, a lot of the best genre movies are built around hidden potential both in the characters and story, and that's what makes this one sing - the right casting and some willingness to crank up the pressure can do wonders for even the most threadbare thriller plots, and this one's got some really good work from top to bottom.

The potential good woman in question is Sarah Collins (Sarah Bolger), recently widowed without much of a safety net; after a flash-forward, she's introduced carefully doing math in a Belfast supermarket as she shops for herself and her two children. Ben (Rudy Doherty) is six years old and hasn't spoken since his father was killed, and Lucy (Macie McCauley) is four. As if they haven't had enough trauma, their car is stolen and the guy who did so, Tito (Andrew Simpson), eventually decides to lay low at Sarah's house, since the very randomness of choosing their car means local crime boss Leo Miller (Edward Hogg) won't be know where to find the guy who stole his drugs. It is, naturally, a terrible plan for all involved.

The nifty casting turns out to be Sarah Bolger, who invests this young working-class widow with plenty of nerve when appropriate, a hard-earned variety that's convincing enough that the film has no need to open with or flash back to the events that put the family in its current position - the audience can see exactly how much she loved her late husband even if he wasn't perfect in the way she tenses up in every scene with her mother and in how she seems defiant in her survival. The script seldom makes her overconfident or timid, and she's got the right mix of courage and fear at all times, someone who knows her capability but recognizes real danger. Bolger always seems to recognize that she's in a crime movie even when being placed in relatively ordinary situations, always looking over her shoulder or otherwise paying extra attention.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Black Magic for White Boys

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Fantasia Underground, DCP)

I'm not particularly curious to see the previous iteration(s) of Black Magic for White Boys, which got a fairly thorough retooling between its initial screening at Tribeca and when it played Fantasia two years later, including a time when it was retooled as a mini-series. I'm not sure whether or not to be surprised that this work still left it with obvious gaps and issues; it's a messy process but one that could have filled in all the gaps. It's still frequently funny in a charmingly homemade way; its seemingly effect-less effects and unrefined characters have the nice effect of Onur Tukel's film just laying what it wants out there.

It revolves around a small theater in Brooklyn, where "Larry the Magnificent" (Ronald Guttman) puts on an unimpressive magic show with the aid of assistants Lucy (Eva Dorrepaal) and Dean (Colin Buckingham), with a new intern in Alina (Deni Juhos) just brought in. Landlord Jamie (Jamie Block) is about to put them out of business with a 30% rent increase, but Larry has an ace in the hole - a line on real magic, the ability to make things disappear, although things apparently went wrong when he used it last - though, apparently, in a different way than his "freelance work" for Jamie. Meanwhile, Jamie's friend Oscar (Onur Tukel), who has been cheerfully living off a trust fund, is freaking out that girlfriend Chase (Charlie LaRose) is pregnant, while "pharmacist" Fred (Franck Raharinosy) is dispensing pills with nigh-magical effects to many members of the group.

This is the sort of quirky New York-based indie that can seem insular whether one is inside its particular bubble or not, since even such cockeyed enough versions of the fringe theater and arriviste worlds can still seem like a movie-length private joke, and writer/director/co-star Onur Tukel has been relatively prolific even if his films have been relatively small blips outside the festival circuit. Making that sort of movie puts a filmmaker in touch with a potentially pretty decent cast, even if Ronald Guttman is probably the only one whom most viewers will immediately think they've seen somewhere before. They are, by and large, playing people who are not quite so odd as to be interesting if one met them randomly but who can can drop a line that's selfish or oblivious or some combination of both so that it lands the right way as to give one a sense of who they are and have it not be completely awful, even when they have more or less accepted that they are kind of awful.

Full review on EFilmCritic

A Sombra do Pai (The Father's Shadow)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The Father's Shadow is the second film from Gabriela Amaral as writer/director and it's more or less what one would hope for in a second feature: It's got the style and intensity that makes it a piece with Friendly Beast but a story that is not any sort of repetition and the confidence to try something more emotionally ambitious. That "has she made anything else/oh I liked that/and this is even better" hit is one of the best parts of going to festivals or immersing oneself in less-heralded films long-term.

It's the story of Dalva (Nina Medeiros), a quiet ten-year-old girl in a small town whose mother has recently passed away and whose father Jorge (Julio Machado) is crumbling. Aunt Cristina (Luciana Paes) has been attempting to fill the gap, but her fiancé Elton (Rafael Raposo) is moving to the city and wants her to come along. Before leaving, she teaches Dalva some traditional magic, but it's not always of practical use as she tries to raise herself and look after her father.

It's immediately obvious that this film is going to live and die by how well the audience can connect with Dalva. That's no slight on the work Julio Macado and Luciana Paes do as the rest of her family - they impress - but it's clear right away that their jobs are to establish the child's environment as much as tell their own story. Happily, the young actress in this movie, Nina Medeiros, is genuinely amazing, and even if it's just a matter of casting the girl who could best give the movie what it needs most of the time - a skinny body seemingly about to collapse under the weight on the family stress put upon her hiding eyes that indicate almost frightening intensity - getting the right amount and focus in any given scene is no small thing. She's great and delivers exactly what the movie needs at every moment even when silent. It's a tense little performance that convinces the audience that anything is possible for Dalva, from collapse to genuine sorcery.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Door Lock

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

It seems as though nifty movie ideas get passed around the world and redone for local audiences more than they used to, well beyond how folks used to complain that it was mainly Americans who didn't want to deal with subtitles. I think that I have seen the movie which inspired this film (Sleep Tight), but it's not like the case of another Korean remake of a Spanish thriller a couple years ago when I realized that I knew what's going to happen next about ten minutes in. It certainly feels like its own movie, and a thriller that doesn't mess around much to boot.

Door Lock opens with a bit of CCTV footage from outside an apartment very much like the one occupied by Jo Gyeung-min (Kong Hyo-Jin), a loan officer who is very on-edge about her personal safety - aside from seeming dizzy and dull in the morning, she notes her electronic lock behaving erratically, and eyes fellow passengers on the subway and a package delivered to bank where she works with suspicion. She's got reason to be worried, but only co-worker Oh Hyo-Ju (Kim Ye-Won) believes her without reservation, and in this sort of situation, it's not necessarily any easier to trust Detective Lee (Kim Sung-Oh) or okay-seeming supervisor Kim Sung-Ho (Lee Chun-Hee) than combative customer Kim Ki-Jung (Jo Bok-Rae) or custodian Han Dong-Hoon (Lee Ga-Sub).

Full review on EFilmCritic

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