Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Fantasia 2020.06: Unearth & Tezuka's Barbara

Not to argue marketing with film-industry professionals, but you put "a fracking horror movie" on your poster, I'm expecting something a little different than I got with Unearth, whether it's something a little tongue-in-cheek or something where the horror is a little more related to the subject matter, as with, say, Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter. I kind of liked the "dying farming town" material here, but it's drier than the tagline suggests and the movie takes a while to get there.

Still, I did enjoy Tezuka's Barbara a lot, especially since it felt like the director more or less disappeared after I saw Black Kiss at Fantasia 14 years ago (under the title "Syncronicity") and really liking it; I hoped he hadn't fallen away from cinema or been unable to escape his father's shadow. Macoto Tezka has seemed to do a fair amount for his father's estate since then, but this really does feel like his thing as well.

I'm actually mildly surprised I don't have a copy of Barbara on my shelf; I remember seeing it come out but as manga and graphic novels pile up, I sort of go on-again and off-again where buying Osamu Tezuka stuff is concerned. There's so much of it, and it's amazing to me that he died relatively young at 60, because his output is immense, and extends to television and film production as well as manga. The man was legitimately a giant.

Falling a bit behind, in part because I had a non-festival detour yesterday, but I hope to catch up tomorrow.

Unearth

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

There's a pretty good movie to be found in Unearth, but I am reasonably sure that it is not a horror movie, and trying to make this film into one does it a disservice. That's not a knock on horror as a genre or even saying that it's inappropriate for this setting; it's saying that the sudden turn in this movie's last act means that the filmmakers can't make the most of either what came before or the potential of what happens after.

It focuses on two neighbors in the small town of Silverthorn, Pennsylvania. Tom Dolan (P.J. Marshall) has recently lost his father Joe, who ran the family farm with Tom's mother Kathryn (Adrienne Barbeau). He has no children of his own, but wife Aubrey (Monica Wyche) has a daughter, Christina (Allison McAtee), who had been largely responsible for looking after Joe in his decline, learning a great deal about the farm, although her passion is photography. George Lomack (Marc Blucas) is a mechanic, though he inherited a fair amount of farmland from his late wife. His older daughter Heather (Rachel McKeon) is at college on scholarship, while younger daughter Kim (Brooke Sorenson) is returning to highschool after having had a baby. Both are seeing their fortunes squeezed - the Dolans had to sell off the cattle for their dairy operations, and locals are going to a chain for their inspections - and while Kathryn thinks they should merge their land, a natural gas exploration firm has come with offers.

Unearth is 94 minutes long and it is an hour in before there's any hint of something supernatural or paranormal going on, but that is not a particular weakness. Though many films about farming communities or families in decline focus on how small farms are squeezed by big business - and the script certainly makes reference to that - writers Kelsey Goldberg and John C. Lyons have a stronger focus on how they can crumble from the inside, as generations regard each other with suspicion and disagree about how to handle challenges they don't understand. Kathryn doesn't trust her son to handle her husband's legacy, George and Tom cannot adapt to a changing world, and the young women are sensible but lack the resources to venture out on their own. Directors Lyons and Dorota Swies do fine work in steadily operating the crank that grinds these people down, and how they are caught in a process that they were not given the tools to manage.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Barubora (Tezuka's Barbara)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

After some nifty animated titles, Tezuka's Barbara opens with a gorgeous blue-tinged view of Tokyo courtesy of Christopher Doyle, a jazzy soundtrack from Ichiko Hashimoto, and a great noirish bit of narration that screenwriter Hisako Kurosawa may or may not have brought over straight from manga/anime legend Osamu Tezuka's original work. It's an incredibly promising start for a film that winds up a bit all over the place, but at least that seems to be in the tradition of the original graphic novel and maybe this handles it a bit better.

"A woman like the city's excrement of millions it swallowed and digested - that was Barbara." She's a homeless girl that writer Yosuke Mikura (Goro Inagaki) encounters on the way home one evening, taking an interest as she drunkenly recites poetry and says she's heard of him, although she's blunt about how the novels that have made him rich are simple, middlebrow literature at best. He kicks her out after she gets mouthier and starts drinking his 50-year-old single malt, but soon encounters her again. He should perhaps be wary - as he grows more obsessed, Barbara (Fumi Nikaido) seems to supernaturally eliminate those she considers threats, and he's not the first person to have seen her as a muse.

Though manga-ka Osamu Tezuka created a number of more adult-skewing works, he is likely best known as the creator of Astro Boy, and even his more horrific works share that strikingly clean style, while son Macoto's films have often been grimy, noirish things. Macoto has said that Barbara was the piece of his father's work he feels most in sync with artistically, but bridging the two visions takes a fair amount of work. Happily, the filmmakers have put together a really terrific crew to make it happen, with Doyle (and Kubbie Tsoi) contributing beautiful shots that nevertheless feel icy, a mood matched by Hashimoto's soundtrack that feels like it harkens back to a different period's sort of movie. The production design departments along with costume, makeup, and the like create striking looks that are heightened but just far enough that it's easy to slip in and out of the more apparently fantastical moments. It's not perfect - there's one character where the attempt to capture her hairstyle or headwear had me thinking "what is that?" whenever she was on screen - but it's an impressive job of adapting someone whose style was not designed for live action in the slightest.

(Apropos of nothing, the English-language posters which have the names of the father and son side-by-side transliterate them differently, "Osamu Tezuka" versus "Macoto Tezka", whether to downplay the family connection or heighten how the son is noteworthy on his own.)

Full review at eFilmCritic

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