Friday, August 21, 2020

Fantasia 2020.01: Special Actors and The Columnist

Welcome (again) to the Fantasia International Film Festival, which opened both its on-demand program and livestreamed screenings up to Canada yesterday, and while I'm not in that lovely, less-scorching-hot-in-the-summer country whose leadership appears to have show some interest in containing the pandemic, I am apparently still considered press, so I can request and work my way through screeners, which is what I'm doing, mostly trying to reflect the actual schedule but also fitting in on-demand films that I didn't get to before I started. It's a bit strange that everyone is really going to have their own festival experience, even more so than usual.

Anyway, I'm grateful and will try to earn this pass by pumping out as many reviews as I can, even taking off work for it. I say every year that eventually they're going to realize that this is something a little bit more than a hobby and way less than a job for me and as such will realize that I can and would pay for tickets, but I'm glad it's not this year.

So, no photo of the banner outside Concordia this year, but there is the annual tradition of the opening night film not accepting press passes and me being fine with that because it will probably open elsewhere, which is why I've got pretty much nothing to say about The Reckoning and its cancelled Q&A. I would have liked to see it - Neil Marshall's The Descent was one of my favorite films at the first or second Fantasia I attended - but all the stuff around Marshall, Charlotte Kirk, and some executive at Universal is something I'm kind of glad I don't have to spend much time on, especially since it would have taken me a while to get past the "wait, he's not with Axelle Carolyn anymore?" stage.

Still, I would usually get into the second show of the night, which was effectively Special Actors, and a lot of fun. There might be a bit of concern when watching this that Shin'ichiro Ueda is a one-trick pony or repeating himself, and I do wonder sometimes if filmmakers (and film critics) start immersing themselves in film so early that they don't really know anything else. I don't really think that's the case here, but it's something to watch for the future.

I didn't really see The Columnist as part of the "first day", but they asked for negative reviews to be held until the festival began, so… I think it's kind of a mess in a lot of ways, but I also got kind of irked for it being "So Much for the Tolerant Left: The Movie". It's an attitude I hate coming and going, and while I don't really expect a slasher movie to advance a solution to how social media has made free speech an even more sharply double-edged sword than ever before and more easily weaponized by those who mean harm, I'd kind of like to see it grapple with the issue rather than just say "there are two sides!"

Once again, if you're in Canada, enjoy Fantasia! If you're elsewhere, take notes; there's other virtual festivals coming up and some of these are already in the pipeline to some sort of distribution.

Special Actors (Supesharu Akutâzu)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

There are two, or maybe three, pretty solid ideas for a movie in Shin'ichiro Ueda's Special Actors, and while I suspect that they could maybe be separated to better effect, Ueda would probably feel like that was making the same movie twice. It works as one, oftentimes pretty well, in fact, enough that the folks who watch and enjoy it will have different things that they wish there had been more of.

Things start with Kazuto Ohno (Kazuto Osawa), a security guard who dreams of being an actor but has trouble with both because confrontation and tension makes him pass out. Surprisingly, his younger brother Hiroki (Hiroki Kono) has become an actor of sorts, and after a chance encounter, Hiroki recruits him for "Special Actors", an agency which places its clients not just in stage and screen, but real-life encounters - laughing in movies, fake dates, even muggers you can look tough for fighting off. A former scam artist (Yosuke Ueda) writes the scripts, and their latest major job is right up his alley: Schoolgirl Yumi (Miyu Ogawa) says that older sister Rina (Rina Tsugami) has fallen in with a cult and wants them to infiltrate and expose them.

As soon as that set-up starts being laid out, some viewers might find their eyebrows rising involuntarily, because a caper film that pits two crews doing basically the same thing against each other is just a deliciously fun idea, and both the Special Actors and the "Musubiru" cult are full of colorful characters. If this were just a caper flick, it would probably be in large part about the reformed swindler diving into taking down his opposite number but possibly being hindered by how his team is much less experienced at this sort of thing. There's bits of that there, but mostly the Special Actors seem to know what they're doing well enough to keep things moving quickly, and that's okay; Ueda is clearly having fun with the con-artist material, from the Scientology-mocking religion to the inevitable USB stick gag, and presents it as a nifty mission where folks imitating movies can still pull some nifty feats off.

Full review at eFilmCritic

De Kuthoer (The Columnist)

* * (out of four)
Seen 14 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, internet)

You can see the strong idea that the rest of The Columnist was built around being put front-and-center during a climactic scene toward the end, and that's a thing people make movies like this should try to do. Put a nice cast around it and polish it up fairly nicely, and that should have the movie in good shape. And it is, much of the time, but in the moments when it's not, one gets the impression that the filmmakers haven't completely thought this through, leaving a movie that feels like they haven't thought their good idea through.

The columnist of the title is Femke Boot (Katja Herbers), who is working on her first novel to build off her fame as a regular newspaper columnist, while daughter Anna (Claire Porro) seeks to follow in her footsteps even as she's kicked off the school newspaper for a column the headmaster doesn't like. Like a lot of people, she has trouble dealing with social media, regularly swearing off Twitter and the like for the vitriol with which some respond to her work but logged back in the next morning. She spars on a panel show with horror writer Stephen Dood (Bram van der Kelen) but finds herself connecting when they meet under other circumstances. The tweets that get under her skin more than others come from a neighbor who is extraordinarily nasty online but different in person, to the point where something small can set her off.

It escalates quickly, and between them director Ivo van Aart and writer Daan Windhorst don't necessarily seem to know where to go from there, or necessarily even how to get there. There's not a whole lot of room to examine how online pile-ons can make a person feel unsafe, or even genuinely in danger; on the other side, there's not enough twisted satisfaction in eliminating trolls. There's a bit implied in there about how murder seems to fuel Femke's ability to write her book, but only in a moment or two, and numerous instances that show that Femke is sort of a hypocrite where free speech and civility is concerned depending on whether it's directed at her or coming from her (or her daughter) just kind of sit there, like Windhorst and van Aart are content to have simply raised a point rather than having actually said much about it.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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