Monday, June 22, 2020

Fantasia 2019 Catch-up, Part 6: Promare (and its shorts); G Affairs; Miss & Mrs. Cops; Why Don't You Just Die? (and its shorts); The Gangster, The Cop, and The Devil; and Lifechanger

Voici! Just a few weeks short of when I would have been heading to Montreal for Fantasia's 2020 edition, my last reviews of movies that played the festival in 2019 (and, in one case, 2018). To be fair, these at least were deliberately pushed off once I saw that they were going to be available to re-watch so I could refresh my memory. Most of them you can find via JustWatch or order a disc, although my copy of G Affairs came from Hong Kong (and, hoo boy, am I gonna get a big package when they start shipping to North America again). That the most recent one, Why Don't You Just Die!, arrived at the end of April and there are still a whole bunch from the 2019 festival that have yet to find legitimate North American homes perhaps demonstrates that there's no need to rush if your goal is letting people know that something available is worth it, although if the goal is to help create buzz that gets a film a deal, that's different.

So… Now what? I suspect it's been years since I've actually been caught up on reviewing festival films, between BUFF, IFFBoston, Fantasia, their side projects, and the occasional trips out of town, and it only took a worldwide pandemic to manage it! I'll likely be applying for media credentials for Fantasia's virtual festival, presuming that such things are even on offer for folks outside of Canada (they probably will, but some films will still likely be geo-locked), and I won't be terribly shocked if, sometime this fall, everybody reschedules all at once, giving me a new crazy backlog.

Of course, I also won't be shocked if Fantasia 2021 is the next film festival I attend. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to putting discs in the player (and streaming things) without worry that it's taking up time that could go to some film that needs the exposure or a festival that gave me a press pass. It's a screwy way to feel if you're not making film writing your actual job, and I am looking forward to at least temporarily being free of it.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

It may not necessarily be rare for something like Promare to do well when stepping down from the packed Fantasia house to a decent crowd at a multiplex to me in my living room where I'm trying not to disturb the upstairs neighbors - at some point, a good movie is just a good movie - but it wouldn't have been the first movie where I fell in love with the energy and confused that with the film being great. And while the smaller quarters does make the rest of the movie smaller, it doesn't diminish the film. It's still a great, fast-paced adventure.

In fact, seeing it that way at this moment makes it come across even better, because the actual plot which initially came across as anime clichés stitched together exceptionally well shows a bit of a smarter shape: The opening which plays as rage boiling up, the tendency to clamp back down hard, and attack it rather than deal with it, the elites who think they can escape but whose plan doesn't work without the exploitation of the underclass, the raging fire at the center of the world which will destroy everything unless we let it out… It's not perfectly insightful - the fact that movies need to end is going to hobble any metaphor - but it does reveal Promare as a movie that has more on its mind than may initially appear to be the case because it is so entertaining.

What I said last year

"Promare: Galo-hen" ("Side: Galo")

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 5 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

"Side: Galo" is an odd little home-video extra, apparently released alongside Promare's theatrical run in Japan and playing so close to being a straight tease of the opening action sequence as to almost feel redundant, but also sneaking in a moment or two of filling in the plot that is only really interesting afterward. At least, it seems that way because that's the order in which I saw it, although someone seeing this might not see such heavy-handed foreshadowing.

It also doesn't get nearly the sort of budget per frame that the feature did. It's not cheap enough to look shabby, but also not as impeccably polished as the film it's meant to supplement, with the filmmakers less able to make the digital-but-not-photorealistic look feel like a style rather than a compromise. It's also hurt a bit by the non-linear storytelling, which keeps it from being as propulsive as the feature, which is kind of unusual; this sort of ten-minute dip into a film's mythology is usually tight.

On the plus side, it's as close as we're going to get to the full anime with a fun ensemble cast to which the film would, in a perfect world, be the budget-busing finale. The feature is done so well that you don't need it, but also done so well that you certainly want it.

"Promare: Lio-hen" ("Side: Lio")

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 5 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

This one feels less like a proof-of-concept than its companion short and more of a dive into the film's backstory, but is rather unsatisfying on that count; while Lio's "Mad Burnish" organization feels like it could have used a few minutes making his lieutenants into more than just anonymous henchmen, the filmmakers never manage that, nor get much from the woman who just discovered she was Burnish in the previous short and what it's like to suddenly become that sort of outcast. The story is kind of a mess, and the presentation, again, isn't as strong as in the feature.

Title character Lio Fotia doesn't show up until it's almost over and the whole thing seems misguided, as this pacifist basically shows up and immediately changes the philosophy behind Mad Burnish by being the most powerful, and it seems thin even without him being the sort of pretty manga antagonist he is. There's something intriguing about how the short sets him up as more a Messiah figure than the guerilla he comes across as being in the feature, but it's not anything that either is set up to do much with.

One thing that jumps into sharp focus here, with so much of the action focused on the Burnish, is that it's very rare that any of the fire in this movie uses a traditional red/yellow color scheme. For as much as the filmmakers say fire and want something that acts like fire, they never really seem to want our brains to react to it on that sort of visceral level. It's not a bad decision, but definitely a calculated, interesting one.

G Saat (G Affairs)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)
Seen 7 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

My first thought upon seeing this was "well, that's kind of g-ross", but awful g-related puns aside, there's an impressive race between outrageous events and striking style at the start of this movie that almost blunts them both, taking a while to find some sort of equilibrium. Once it does, the story kind of cruises for a while, jumping back and forth to let the environment sink in. The filmmakers never settle things down once that's happened, but that's generally enough to cover for any weaknesses in the plot.

It's initially narrated by Yu-Ting (Hana Chan Hon-Na), a student at a top Hong Kong private school who has been saddled with the unflattering nickname of "G", and who has had a rough go of it lately: Her mother (Griselda Yeung Cheuk-Na) has recently died of gastric cancer, and father "Master Lung" (Chapman To Man-Chat) is a dirty cop whose bullying behavior has gone viral online, with Lung recently appointing his mistress Li Xiaomei (Huang Lu) - a prostitute from the mainland who goes by "Mei" - as Yu-Ting's guardian. Lung has also set up shop for his secret meetings in the apartment of Yu-Tin's classmate Tai (Lam Sen), a cello-obsessed loner whose parents have separately gone abroad, which happens to be across from Xioamei's. Yu-Ting's only confidents are Markus (Luk Chun-Kwong), the physics teacher she gives blowjobs, and Don (Kyle Li Yam-San), a tech savant with Asperger's Syndrome everyone else at school assumes is gay.

And then there's the whole matter of the prostitute who is decapitated while Lung has a tryst in front of Tai.

It sometimes feels like the filmmakers came up with a fairly simple, if nasty, crime story and then worked out how they could maintain the initial thrill of the shocking murder but spent less time on how to play it out. Writer Kurt Chiang Chung-Yu and director Lee Cheuk-Pan aren't really making a thriller or a murder mystery here so much as appropriating the structure so that they can bounce around the timeline a little and keep viewers from getting fidgety or wondering what the point of all this is, and it's sometimes more than a bit transparent as Tai reflexively pushes back against telling the detectives what he must have seen and the final bits of explanation are less a culmination of what's come before than a wrap-up after they've said what they want to say.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Miss & Mrs. Cops (aka Girl Cops)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)
Seen 10 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (refresh, YouTube via Roku)

This movie opens with an entertaining bit of action and then, immediately, informs the audience that it's not going to be getting any more of that for a while, and I'm not going to lie, that's pretty disappointing. It's also got a different sense of where the line between hostile and abrasive is than American buddy-cop movies, and while it should - it is South Korean, after all - It's got trouble maintaining a tone that works in other ways. The mean streak you often find in even Korean crime comedies doesn't serve this one very well, especially when it's trying to be very silly and very solemn at the same time.

That first bit of action takes place back in 2002, when Park Mi-Young (Ram Mi-Ran) was a rising star in a Special Women's Task Force, catching a drug dealer and making an impression on a pair of bystanders - would-be prosecutor Cho Ji-Chul (Yoon Sang-Hyun) and his younger sister Ji-Hye, who had not realized women could be cops. Fifteen years or so later, Ji-Hye (Lee Sung-Kyung) is a detective but mostly gets assigned to serving as bait to catch minor creeps, while her brother never passed the bar and Mi-Young left the force to work as a civilian in the complaints department after giving birth. An incident lands Ji-Hye on the same desk as Mi-Young and computer whiz Yang Jang-Mi (Choi Sooyoung) when a college student comes in to report a case of sexual extortion, and with no chance of the computer crime division solving it by the end of a 24-hour deadline.

You can see everything set up so well - a pair of sisters-in-law becoming reluctant partners to solve a case that the men on the force don't necessarily see as a big deal, backed up by a hacker who, between the sexism the film is targeting and cop movie-cliches, is actually extremely overqualified for the job she has - and the three top actresses are all a lot of fun to watch. Ram Mi-Ran is pugnacious as Mi-Young but not so far into that she's out of place at this sort of desk, while Lee Sung-Kyung does a nice job of making Ji-Hye a woman who is obviously similar - an early scene shows them as mirror images despite one being opposite physical types - while still having her own personality. Sooyoung plays off them well as the cheerful geek who complements their sour, intense dispositions.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Papa, sdokhni (Why Don't You Just Die!)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)
Seen 11 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (refresh, Blu-ray)

This pitch-black comedy may be the most action-packed film of the festival, a bloody mess of a movie that maintains a breakneck pace for much longer than one might expect and manages the neat trick of having several of its characters doing corrupt, violent things while still maintaining some level of sympathy, which is kind of the only way this sort of free-for-all works. Why Don't You Just Die! is as darkly comic and violent as you'd expect from the title, but occasionally shows that it knows where the line is between that sort of darkness and outright nihilism.

It starts with a heck of a hook, as Matvei (Aleksandr Kuznetsov) nervously stands outside the apartment of his girlfriend's father Andrei (Vitaliy Khaev), nervously fiddling with the hammer he's planning to use to cave the man's head in. But someone passes by at the wrong time, so Matvei makes an excuse, Andrei reluctantly invites him in, but now his wife Natasha (Elena Shevchenko) is there and Andrei seems to be especially wary once Matvei doesn't have a great excuse for the hammer...

Writer/director/editor Kirill Sokolov doesn't wait very long to start paying that set-up off, immediately throwing his characters through the wringer, drenching the set with red as he quick-cuts to build up speed but tends to follow a smashing blow through, dropping down to slow motion to let viewers "savor" the impact. There are two or three top-shelf action bits in this movie, and a lot of them are set up by making the audience hyper-aware of just where exactly everything is and then sent careening in new directions by weird, violent slapstick. It feels even more absurd (most) confined to one fairly small apartment, and Sokolov manages to heighten things well past when most people would be dead while still having the blood loss take a believable toll (although I gather that this is somewhat realistic, in that it's surprisingly difficult to knock someone unconscious even though adrenaline doesn't actually make one superhuman)..

Full review on EFilmCritic

"Byvaet i khuzhe" ("Could Be Worse")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (Kirill Sokolov shorts, Blu-ray)

I don't want to even think of dinging any of the short films included on the Why Don't You Just Die! Blu-ray too much, because they are by and large things the director was doing with friends and student films and as such are really amateurish because selling action is really difficult. You can see the roots of where Kirill Sokolov will wind up, though, in his sad-sack hero stumbling from one punishment to another, finally encountering something that puts it into perspective.

And he's got a good eye for making do with what he has. I like how he uses the backdrop of light-rail stations for the opening and closing scenes, not just so that he can come full-circle at the end, but because they represent change and movement, and it lets his main character seem alone and rootless where a more conventional setting like a cafe wouldn't. There's one really good performance and he wrings all he can from it before some very well-targeted effects work.

It's sloppy enough in spots that you can see he's working on raw instinct in the places where it does work, but better to have that than not.

"The Outcome"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (Kirill Sokolov shorts, Blu-ray)

Of the four shorts on the disc, this is the one that feels most like the cliché of a Russian art-house film, all grubby and cynical and aiming squarely for where the absurdist and the satirical intersect. It's processed to look a little film-ier, maybe reminding one of Tartakovsky and the like. That's not my thing, generally, but it's kind of heartening to see it still there, influencing and getting pulled out of young filmmakers when a lot of Russian cinema is going for big, slick productions.

There's basically just one joke here, though - when a cleaner leaves a chair on the bed after placing it there to clean the floor, the in-worse-shape-than-their-charges staff of this mental hospital treats it like it's the patient while the actual sick human being in the other bed is ignored. It works whether you see the inmates running the asylum or an incompetant staff going through the motions without realizing how absurd it is (or something in between), but even in a ten minute film, there's not a lot to do with it.

Slick nightmare sequence, though, and the one joke is in fact good enough to be told two or three times in rapid succession.

"Ogon" ("The Flame")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (Kirill Sokolov shorts, Blu-ray)

Huh, I did not recognize that the lead actress in "The Flame" had played a smaller role in Kirill Sokolov's previous short film. She's striking to look at and Sokolov gets plenty from her, capturing how her character Olya is cool but fresh-faced, so that the raw, sometimes insane emotion erupts from underneath something without it being a particular surprise. The story is messy and sometimes random, but Viktoriya Korotkova and Sokolov have enough sense of this girl to keep the audience grounded.

It's also a great thing to look at, from the opening where a toilet stall becomes an art-house dystopia to a nasty fight that shows how far he's come from "Could Be Worse" on the way to Why Don't You Just Die in that it's believably staged and impressively reflects the emotional stakes of the action. It's good enough that the film almost doesn't have any place to go afterward, although there's something to Olya wandering a bit after a moment that feels like it should resolve something doesn't. It's a bit of oddity that gives Korotkova some good moments but which makes for a fuzzy second act, but one that makes some sense even when it feels like it's a bit off.

"Sizif schastliv" ("Sisyphus Is Happy")

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (Kirill Sokolov shorts, Blu-ray)

IMDB has this listed as the first of Kirill Sokolov's shorts, but it's fairly elaborate for that. Maybe he figured he overdid things and then scaled back?

It's a fun sort of dark comedy of errors - a young man in the wrong place at the wrong time attempts to flee police, but while his family are making a hash of escaping the back of their apartment, the cops are having a hell of a time getting into the front. It's a neat set-up, but one where only something like ten or twenty percent of the jokes land well and both ends fizzle out.

The jokes that do work are solid enough to make this an interesting-enough bonus item, though the film on its own is very much the sort of thing an enthusiastic amateur does before going to film school. Nothing to be ashamed of as that, but very much something to grow from.

Akinjeon (The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Sylvester Stallone has optioned The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil for an American remake intended to return Ma Dong-Seok to the title role, even though it's the sort of part that he would be smart to snag for himself. On the other hand, it's also a sign that he's smart enough to see what made a movie work and not mess with it: The high concept in this movie isn't bad, but the star is the best reason to see it.

A serial killer is stalking the area around Cheonan, rear-ending drivers and then killing them when they stop to exchange information, but so far the police haven't caught onto the pattern with the exception of Jung Tae-Seok (Kim Moo-Yul), the sort of honest cop that the rest of the force often figures is trying a little too hard, especially since Captain Cha Soo-Jin (Kim Gyu-Ri) has a cozy arrangement with the local bosses. That's before Kang runs across Jang Dong-Su (Ma), who is not only the sort of guy who's burly enough that it would take a lot of stabbing to put him down for the count, but he's the city's big boss. He doesn't go to the police, of course, but Tae-Sook figures out why Dong-Su laying low, and they strike an alliance - Tae-Sook can't catch the killer without what Dong-Su has seen, and Dong-Su can't let word that some random person almost killed him get out. After all, lesser boss Heo Sang-Do (Yoo Jae-Myung) is already looking to move up.

Ma Dong-Seok - credited in English as "Don Lee" - is a big guy who was a personal trainer before he got into acting, but he's proven to have more range and charisma than that may imply in recent years, and while Dong-Su may not be the role he's ultimately remembered for, it's still one that shows what he can bring. He smashes his way through a few scenes, but there's a bit of put-upon weasel to him as well, something that makes him a bit more than the blunt object you may take him for but doesn't exactly make him admirable and impressive. He's a little funny even when being kind of repulsive, and of all the people involved, he often seems to be the one with the best idea of just how far over-the-top he should be going.

Full review on EFilmCritic


* * (out of four)
Seen 14 June 2019 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Blu-ray)

Telling a horror story or thriller from the point of view of the monster is often an intriguing idea, but one that requires a little more care than writer/director Justin McConnell takes with Lifechanger, although that's not its only issue. The exciting high concepts of its shape-shifting plot and the practical limitations of the production keep running into each other, and it's easy to lose patience by the time it gets to the clever bit.

It starts with a woman (Elitsa Bako) waking up next to a desiccated corpse, though she's got a male voice-over (Bill Oberst Jr.); that's because when "Drew" drains the vitality from somebody, he takes on their physical form, usually healing as he does so, although he still seems to have a wound from where the original Emily tried to defend herself this time around. Changing like this is a matter of survival, but bodies used to last longer, sometimes years, before he used to feel himself about to break down and begin the process again. He's reached the point where he knows which chemicals can change long he has, and has a regular disposal routine; he also has a girl he's fond of, Julia (Lora Burke), and finds a reason to hang around her favorite bar no matter what form he takes (Steve Kasan, Sam James White, Rachel VanDuzer, Jack Foley).

Sometime, around the point where Drew mentions that he lost track of Julia's home address the last time she moved, it clicks into place that, above and beyond the regular murder and path of destruction he cuts through innocent people's lives, he's also a stalker, and that's the moment when the film is most clearly pulled in two directions. It is, after all, an interesting and worthy subject, and a pretty clever way of talking about how a person can hide behind various shifting identities in the Twenty-First Century without the film becoming all shots of computer screens and people typing with overlaid text. It also makes Drew a thoroughly miserable person for the audience to be spending time with, but not necessarily evil or self-deluding in a way that the audience either feels an uncomfortable sympathy or a disgust that can completely override interest in the fantasy situation. It's uncomfortable, but not quite in a way that compels one to keep watching.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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