The first week of the 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival is in the books and while I may be a little premature in making such an announcement, I have to say that this year is shaping up to be one of the best years yet. I had a feeling going into the event this year, that there was a change in the air. The films were relatively unknown. The screenings had more of a "must-see" vibe about them than they had in previous years. And there was a sense of discovery akin to the one I felt back in 1997 when Fantasia popped North America’s Euro-Trash cherry with 35mm screenings of all the Italian horror greats. There’s still two more weeks to go so hopefully my sense of optimism won’t diminish.
Over the course of seven days, I managed to catch 12 screenings, which admittedly is a little less than the number I was aiming for. But let’s face it, I’m a little older, I have a couple of adorable kitties at home who aren’t going to feed and/or snuggle with themselves and more importantly, my ass can only handle so much of what has to be THE most uncomfortable seats in the world. That being said, with the exception of a couple of duds, virtually every one of these screenings delivered making the comfort of my fine behind a secondary priority to the visual splendors assaulting my retinas in the most pleasant ways imaginable.
So without any further dudes, here’s a list of what I saw this week, along with my review and star-rating.
FOR LOVE’S SAKE (2012) – by Takashi Miike – Japan
Takashi Miike is the quintessential inconsistent director. I suppose that inconsistency goes with the territory of being a filmmaker who churns out more films than Lindsay Lohan churns out STDs. But that being said, it can sometimes be very frustrating watching a Miike film because I know that this is the same man who gave us such classics as ICHI THE KILLER, VISITOR Q and GOZU and if he only took a more "auteur" approach to filmmaking and concentrated on delivering one film every couple of years, his body of work would be regarded in a more positive light. Instead, Miike has developed into a filmmaker whose work can cause a sense of anxiety and dread insofar as you don’t know which Miike you’re getting this time around. What is consistent about him, however, is his ability to create an incredible opening sequence, a memorable ending and a middle that jumps from one tangent to another before puttering out altogether.
FOR LOVE’S SAKE is very much a Miike film in that regard. This is a musical that combines elements of GREASE with WEST SIDE STORY and going into this, I almost forgot that this was a Miike film and decided to appreciate it as a musical, one of my favorite genres. The first act is a wonderfully absurd commentary on the arbitrary nature of the musical and how in spite of the most serious or ridiculous of circumstances, characters will stop what they’re doing to break into song and dance. I really wish the film kept that up for the entire duration of the picture. Unfortunately, as with most Miike films, the story develops and it’s a real mess. The film jumps from one scenario to another and goes a good hour without any musical numbers whatsoever. Miike’s talents are not in the storytelling department and it shows here. What’s really unfortunate is that the film has quite the incredible climactic sequence that actually brought a tear to my eye. But by the time the film lurches over the two-hour mark to get to this sequence, I was bored out of my mind with the rather uninteresting narrative that just plods on and on with no end in sight.
All this being said, the film did go over very well with the audience and that got me thinking about what Miike really excels at. He’s the perfect "film festival director" in that while most of his films don’t hold up well on home video, they do seem to hit all the right points as far as being a crowd-pleasing production goes. Everyone loved the musical numbers, the sudden bursts of violence and the surreal, black comedy that Japanese genre films seem to do exceedingly well at. And I have to admit, that while I would’ve hated this film had I been watching a screener alone at home, the fact that I was with an audience made this film seem a lot more tolerable.
Rating: ** (out of ****)
DRAGON (2011) – by Peter Chan – Hong Kong / China
Donnie Yen is certainly no stranger to Fantasia audiences. His famous IP MAN series were real crowd-pleasers and his screen presence is undeniable. So when it was announced that Yen would be returning to the big screen with another kung-fu classic, I was very much psyched about seeing DRAGON.
Earlier I was discussing consistency and Miike’s lack of it as a director. Well, one thing you can’t accuse Hong Kong cinema of is inconsistency. The genre films that pour out of the Hong Kong film industry are almost always excellent and are usually the highlights of the Fantasia International Film Festival. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why audiences seem to really connect to these pictures, but I’d have to say that between the glossy, Hollywood-esque production values to the stories that feature timeless values of good vs. evil to the nostalgia factor of genres like martial arts which conjure up memories of watching Shaw Bros., Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan films on VHS, you have sufficient reason for their success.
DRAGON is another winner for Team HK. If you didn’t know any better, you could almost confuse this film for being another sequel to IP MAN. It features Yen in a familiar role, a local loved and admired by his village, pushed to the brink of his tolerance for incivility and forced to defend himself and his family against the tyranny of an oppressing regime via his unbelievable kung-fu skills. But what makes this film particularly stand out is its use of absurd comedy vis a vis the character of an inspector who suspects that Yen is more than what he seems. The inspector is also well versed in medicine resulting in a film that sometimes comes across as IP MAN meets HOUSE M.D. Other examples of humor can be found at the end with some comedic overacting on the part of the main villain and the especially absurd way in which he is dispatched. There are also numerous references to classic Shaw Bros. films, including THE ONE-ARMED SWORDSMEN which got a chuckle out of me.
There are times when it’s hard to tell whether DRAGON is supposed to be taken seriously or as a comedy. But by the time the third act rolls along, you realize that this film is clearly meant to be an homage of sorts to the sensibilities of the old Shaw Bros films that always did a magnificent job of balancing serious drama with slapstick humor. If you go into DRAGON thinking that, you’ll come out with a big smile on your face.
Rating: *** (out of ****)
BLOOD-C: THE LAST DARK (2012) – by Naoyoshi Shiotani – Japan
I love anime. Actually, let me correct myself. I love anime circa ’80s and ’90s. Back then, anime was something new and exciting boasting mature storylines and beautiful hand-drawn animation. Nowadays, I find anime to be cold and pretentious with enough CGI imagery to fool you into thinking you’re watching a cut-scene from FINAL FANTASY VII.
I very much enjoyed BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE back when I saw it at a local Manga film festival here in Montreal. But this film left me feeling empty inside. Between a plot that was so convoluted it made MISSION IMPOSSIBLE seem like BILLY MADISON and a style of animation that was just plain ugly to look at, I have to admit that I actually walked out on the film.
While I’m hesitant to give this film a rating at all, I do feel I sat through enough of it to get the gist of where it was going and unfortunately, it was a road not worth travelling on.
Rating: * (out of ****)
JUAN OF THE DEAD (2011) – by Alejandro Brugues – Cuba
Now this is when Fantasia really got started for me!
I went into this expecting a SHAUN OF THE DEAD clone only with more Cuban cigars, but came out with my stomach literally hurting from having laughed my ass off throughout the entire film. Make no mistake, JUAN OF THE DEAD owes a major debt to its British counterpart. From the concept of an average Joe confronted with an impending zombie apocalypse to the fat comedic sidekick who’s horny and dumb as dirt, you could easily write this off as a SOTD knock-off. However, the fact that this film was shot in Cuba and has the 50-years plus background of Communist tyranny behind it, makes this film one of the most fascinating genre mashups ever conceived.
My only regret after watching this film was that I wished director Brugues was in attendance for a Q&A. I would have loved to have learned how a film like this could have been made in Cuba and what, if any, difficulties he experienced in getting the film off the ground.
Rating: ***1/2 (out of ****)
COLD STEEL (2011) – by David Wu – China
While you may not be familiar with the name David Wu, you’re most certainly aware of his work as an editor, cutting such Hong Kong classics as A BETTER TOMORROW, HARD-BOILED and A BULLET IN THE HEAD among others. After working in television for 17 years in North America, Wu was finally enticed to return to China to direct this emotional powerhouse of a war film, COLD STEEL.
COLD STEEL has many things going for it. It has a very engaging story that manages to put a human face on wartime and how it affects the individual living through it. It has strong performances that resonate quite profoundly with audiences. And it clearly has Wu’s background as an editor imprinted all over it as evident by the smooth pacing of the film that actually makes you wish the film was a little longer than it actually is because you are so sucked into the narrative.
On the other hand, the film does sometimes veer into Michael Bay territory, circa PEARL HARBOR with its pro-China propaganda. In the wake of films like Clint Eastwood’s LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, the gauntlet has been thrown down and the challenge for filmmakers making war pictures is to find a way to move away from the "woe is me, my country is all innocent" motif and into more subtle, mature presentations of what war is really like. However, evil the enemy may be, a lot of the footmen doing the fighting for the powers that be do not necessarily agree and support the mentality that sent them off to war in the first place. Therefore, it behooves filmmakers to find a way to portray both sides as being capable of good and evil. This is a trend I’ve noticed in a lot of these Chinese war films, which makes one wonder about Chinese-Japanese relations and the politics that underline them. In my interview with David Wu, I tried to get him to open up about this and discuss just how ingrained the memory of what happened in WW II is and whether any lingering negative connotations associated with the enemy may influence their depiction in contemporary films and screenplays. Wu was adamant about wanting to move away from these kinds of films and offer a more human approach and to his credit, he does have a couple of characters that represent the "good side of Japan." But a stronger more consistent effort to present both sides would have been appreciated and is almost expected in today’s day and age.
But that being said, the film is a lot of fun with lots of great action set-pieces that conjure up memories of the good old days of Hong Kong genre cinema.
Rating: *** (out of ****)
SUSHI GIRL (2012) – by Kern Saxton – USA
Let’s face it. If this film were made without the killer lineup of cult film heroes that director Saxton was able to rustle up, I don’t think the film would have nearly got the kind of attention that it’s been getting. The story isn’t particularly original and the groan-inducing twist at the end is just that.
That being said, the strength of this film lies not in its story and the cliches that comprise it, but rather in the performances of the absolutely dynamite cast and the dynamics of the relationships between the characters that only accomplished and experienced thespians such as these can deliver.
Some of the highlights of this film include Tony Todd delivering a gut-wrenching monologue that will bring as many tears to your eyes as Todd manages to bring to his while reciting his lines. Mark Hamill delivers a deliciously wicked performance that recalls elements of his Joker from BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. And perhaps the biggest surprise is seeing Atreyu himself, Noah Hathaway delivering a strong leading male performance that will hopefully open more doors for him in the years to come.
Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the film and the cat-and-mouse game that ensued throughout the piece. There’s some great music and sound design that adds an awful lot to the tension of the film. I’m just painfully aware of how unoriginal it is and even more than aware that if there was ever a film whose success was entirely indebted to its cast, it’s SUSHI GIRL.
Rating: *** (out of ****)
LLOYD THE CONQUEROR (2011) – by Michael Peterson – Canada
This is a film that for me, completely epitomizes the newfound "discovery feeling" of the festival. I went into this film with pretty much zero expectations as I hadn’t read anything about it nor heard any buzz about the film going into the festival. But when I came out, I had a huge smile on my face and a confident feeling in the future of Canadian cinema, provided that Michael Peterson is given a blank check to make whatever the hell he wants to make from this point out.
LLOYD THE CONQUEROR was my favorite film of the week and will most definitely find a place in my "Top 10" come the end of the festival on August 9th.
As odd as this is going to sound, what this film reminded me of more than anything else was THE SANDLOT. Granted, the characters are a lot older, the film takes place in Calgary, Alberta Canada, and the subject matter is LARPing and not baseball. But the fundamentals of the two films are the same insofar as you have a group of close friends that remind me of my old high school gang who hang out, bust each others’ balls and dream about finding that one woman who will blow their mind, among other body parts. This group finds itself in a pickle and enlists the help of the town legend to fight a mutual enemy that stands in their way to a better tomorrow. And in the end they triumph with loads of laughs along the way.
Maybe this film spoke to my inner arrested adolescent or maybe it reminded me of my own childhood and how I grew up with a bunch of friends who had interests that weren’t necessarily mainstream-friendly, but either way, I thoroughly enjoyed every frame of this film and sincerely hope this film gets some kind of major theatrical release as the world deserves, nay, needs to learn that Canadians are more than capable of making comedies about men with brooms.
Rating: **** (out of ****)
DEAD SUSHI (2012) – by Noboru Iguchi – Japan
I have to admit that I was really going to pass on this film. Year after year, I get suckered into watching one of Iguchi’s films and I always come out feeling angry and a little less alive for having subjected myself to such unmitigated crap. But my fiancee really wanted to see this film and far be it from me to disappoint her.
Boy am I glad I didn’t pass on this!
DEAD SUSHI was surprisingly a lot of fun and a film that managed to sustain the level of absurdity that the concept of the piece promised. While the film is undoubtedly over-the-top and certainly not meant to be taken seriously at all, I was especially surprised to find myself caring about the main female protagonist. I also felt that Iguchi grew as a filmmaker with DEAD SUSHI with some really nice camerawork and angles. Granted, the cinematography still looks like it was the result of a Mini-DV prosumer camera, it does reflect the work of a filmmaker who is starting to mature as an artist.
Never thought I’d say something like that about a film which features a singing egg-sushi!
Rating: *** (out of ****)
MY AMITYVILLE HORROR (2012) – by Eric Walter – USA
This was one of my most anticipated films of the festival and in many respects I felt it delivered on its promise. I’ve been following the Amityville story for some time now and I’m a huge fan of the original films, namely the first three, yes even the goofy 3D one! I was especially intrigued by the possibilities of what Daniel Lutz would bring to the table as far as shedding new light on what exactly happened in that fabled house.
To director Eric Walter’s credit, Daniel Lutz is given ample time to speak his mind and let his character be revealed bit by bit. We learn that this is a very intense and sad man who was clearly traumatized by whatever happened that night and believes his life was irrevocably scarred by supernatural forces brought upon by his stepfather’s interest in the occult. That latter point is probably the most interesting aspect of the film and adds another layer to the mystery of what may have happened that night. In this film we learn that George Lutz was apparently into Satanism, hypnotism and the like and given his penchant for being into such things, it is believed that he served as a gateway for these paranormal forces to influence the lives of the Lutz family.
I found myself absolutely enthralled by this film. My feelings on whether or not this is real notwithstanding, I thought Walter did a tremendous job of not only letting Lutz speak his mind, but also providing another perspective of the story and balancing some of Lutz’s more outlandish claims with facts grounded in reality. Truth be told, Lutz does paint a very vivid picture and almost fools you into believing him. It’s only when he starts bringing up stories of his stepfather levitating tools in his garage with his mind that Lutz comes across as being delusional, which is a shame because there’s a part of me that really wants to believe that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than that of my philosophy.
Rating: ***1/2 (out of ****)
YOU ARE THE APPLE OF MY EYE (2011) – by Giddens Ko – Taiwan
Year after year, Fantasia presents a crop of romantic comedies from the Far East which put the sappy, melodramatic crap Hollywood churns out to shame. This year was no exception. YOU ARE THE APPLE OF MY EYE tells the age-old story of the girl who got away, a feeling that most men can probably relate to. This film was funny, smart, incredibly well-written and more importantly, one of the most realistic romantic comedies I’ve ever seen in that while we do get a happy ending of sorts, it’s a bittersweet one and one that in many respects, can be interpreted as being quite sad. This was a real crowd pleaser and one of my favorites of the fest by far.
Rating: **** (out of ****)
MEMORY OF THE DEAD (2011) – by Valentin Javier Diment – Argentina
Sadly the only thing memorable about this screening was the fact that for some strange reason, R. Kelly’s TRAPPED IN THE CLOSET was playing before the film unspooled on the big screen.
MEMORY OF THE DEAD was billed as a horror-comedy in the vein of EVIL DEAD II, and while the film certainly has that cabin in the woods besieged by supernatural phenomena going for it, it has very little else to show for itself. It’s inability to balance comedy and horror coupled with some garish lighting, a cliche-ridden screenplay and some horrible CGI effects where the filmmaker clearly implemented for the sake of doing so and not because he had to, MEMORY OF THE DEAD is a memory I’ll be suppressing for the rest of my life.
Rating: *1/2 (out of ****)
ALTER EGOS (2012) – by Jordan Galland – USA
And finally we come to the last film I saw during the first week of Fantasia and boy did it end my week with a bang!
Some might argue that the whole deconstructing the superhero genre and placing these mythological characters within the context of everyday life is played out, particularly in the wake of films such as KICK-ASS, SUPER and to a lesser extent the Christopher Nolan DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY. But quite frankly, if filmmakers can find new and exciting ways to tell these kinds of stories, then more power to them!
ALTER EGOS employs a combination of styles ranging from the neurotic nature of Woody Allen, to the pitch-perfect naturalism of Kevin Smith dialogue to the visual minimalism of Wes Anderson and succeeds in the most entertaining and imaginative way possible. I would love to see this world explored further in a television series where we get to follow the continues adventures of Fridge and the rest of the Superhero Corps. Director Galland creates a universe that is entirely plausible if superheroes did in fact exist in today’s world. All the performances are excellent and the costume design is particularly inspired. But is just me or did the actor playing See-Through look an awful lot like Trey Parker?
Rating: ***1/2 (out of ****)