Fantasia 2019, Day 5, Part 1: Bruce McDonald’s Dreamland

Thursday, August 15th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Bruce McDonald's DreamlandI have fond memories of Bruce McDonald’s rock n’roll road movies from the 1990s, specifically Roadkill, Highway 61 Revisited, and Hard Core Logo. It had been a while since I’d seen one of his films (one drifts away from artists, sometimes, like friends we once knew), but I began July 15 at Fantasia in the De Sève Theatre getting reacquainted with McDonald’s art by way of his new movie Dreamland, at Fantasia presented as Bruce McDonald’s Dreamland.

Written by Tony Burgess and Patrick Whistler, the movie takes place in a European city in which politically powerful aristocrats live in a walled palace while gangsters and assassins roam the streets below. Johnny (Stephen McHattie) is a hitman working for a small-time crime boss, Hercules (Henry Rollins, excellent and electric) who wants to send a message to a trumpet-playing jazz Maestro (also played by McHattie). If his drug addiction doesn’t kill him, the Maestro will be performing for the Countess (Juliette Lewis) who rules the city; her brother, a vampire, is getting married to an unwilling and very underage girl, kidnapped and sold to him by Hercules. Trafficking in young girls is a line Johnny always refused to cross. What will he do now?

I’ve seen reviews criticising the movie for being over-dreamy and not especially linear. I do not understand this. In many ways it struck me as a straightforward story with a few surreal elements — the setting and the vampire, in particular, as well as the dual-casting of McHattie. The plot’s solid, even workmanlike, as characters make moral choices and move the story along to the wedding that marks the big finish of the film. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of this, but I wouldn’t call the violent noirish crime plot especially bizarre.

I would say it’s done well. The story moves nicely, and mixes a range of genres with no obvious sense of strain. Oddly, for a film in which crime and horror elements dominate, it’s remarkably light if never exactly cheerful. It is witty, and unpredictable, and entertaining. McHattie alone makes the film worthwhile, playing both the guarded, sharp, and somehow beaten-down Johnny, and the bitter, ruthless Maestro. Scenes in which the two characters meet come off perfectly.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 4, Part 5: Shadow

Wednesday, August 14th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

ShadowMy fifth and last movie of July 14 brought me back to the Hall Theatre. I had not seen two consecutive movies that day in the same cinema; no two films had come from the same country. It was in retrospect a good day at Fantasia, and it was ending with a bang: the latest film from Zhang Yimou, Shadow (also known as Ying, 影). Written by Zhang with Li Wei, it’s a tale of historical battles and political machinations told with visual dynamism and a distinct colour sense, fitting nicely alongside previous works by Zhang such as Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower.

(The movie was preceded by an animated short, “Modern Babel,” written, directed, and animated by Lin Zhao. It follows a woman on an increasingly hallucinatory shopping expedition, as she must struggle against crowds and sinister black birds, while she and the rest of the world descend into violence and madness. It is expressionistic and indeed nightmarish, the design sense a little like Peter Kuper’s comics. It’s black-and-white, and does effectively create an oppressive visual atmosphere. I found it a bit bare, or perhaps a bit elliptical, in terms of story.)

Shadow opens with exposition. Long ago, in the 3rd century AD, two countries in what is now China battled for control of a city. The country of Pei lost when its general Ziyu (Deng Chao) was defeated in a duel with the unbeatable general Yang Cang (Hu Jun) of the kingdom of Yang. The king of Pei (Zheng Kai) is therefore annoyed to learn, as the movie opens, that Ziyu’s challenged Yang Cang to a rematch; the king has his own schemes to recover the city, which involve marrying off his sister (Guan Xiaotong). But all is not what it seems. The man everyone knows as Ziyu is in fact a double; the real Ziyu, gravely wounded by Yang Cang, has hidden himself away, operating through this double — his shadow, a man named Jingzhou. But has Ziyu’s wife Xiao Ai (Sun Li) developed a new kind of technique that will give Pei victory in battle?

This is a complex story, with various subsidiary characters contributing to the machinations. But it always remains clear, building almost mathematically to an explosive set of final battles. There is an operatic feel to the film, in its grandeur, its self-conscious seriousness, and, inevitably, its body count and tragedy. It’s a tone familiar from Zhang’s previous work, and so this feels a logical extension.

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Fantasia, Day 4, Part 4: Mystery of the Night

Tuesday, August 13th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Mystery of the NightMy fourth film of July 14 brought me back across the street to the De Sève Theatre for a tale from the Philippines, Mystery of the Night. Directed by Adolfo Alix Junior, it’s an adaptation of a play by Rody Vera called Ang Unang Aswang (The First Aswang). As written for the screen by Maynard Manansala, it’s a meditative story that doesn’t betray its stage origins in the slightest, a deliberately-paced visual spectacle about colonialism, magic, and the wilderness.

After an introduction told in the form of a shadowplay, the film proper begins in the 19th century, when Spain ruled the Philippines. There is a sin and an attempt to cover up that sin; we see these things, but the main dramatic action of the film takes place years later. The victim’s daughter (Solenn Heussaff) has been raised by forest spirits in the jungle. Grown to an adult who knows no human language, she meets Domingo (Benjamin Alves), the son of one of the men responsible for the cover-up; he, trespassing into the domain of the spirits, names her Maria. What happens between them, and the transformation she undergoes near the end to bring justice, forms the main part of the movie.

It’s difficult to summarise the film because the movement of the plot is relatively simple, but for that reason deserves to be experienced relatively unspoiled. There is a stately rhythm to events, which unfold simply, one thing leading to another with dreadful inevitability. This is by no means a plot-oriented movie, but I’m not sure it would be precisely accurate to call it centred on character, either. It’s driven perhaps by theme and visual sense as much as anything, and if that sounds unpromising, in practice I think it works surprisingly well.

The themes are deep and interconnected, if perhaps schematic. The original sin that drives the story is brought about and covered up by the collusion of the colonial church and the colonial state, male structures acting against a low-status woman. Powerful men from a built-up city make an incursion into the wilderness, and despite their best efforts, indeed ironically because of them, create a kind of innocent yet powerful female force within the wild forest. That woman, Maria, ends up being given her name by Domingo, and both of those names are symbolic; his choice for her says something about his character but is perhaps best understood as irony. In any event Maria herself is a creature without language — specifically, perhaps, without the language of colonial oppression. If their initial encounter is Edenic, in civilisation Domingo reveals himself to have a patriarchal attitude, using things and people for his convenience. This leads to Maria’s transformation, and violence that resolves itself with certain myths having reasserted their powers and certain other mythologies exposed as powerless.

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Fantasia, Day 4, Part 3: Paradise Hills

Monday, August 12th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Paradise HillsI saw my third film of Sunday, July 14, in the big Hall Theatre. Paradise Hills was introduced by director Alice Waddington, who spoke about her love for Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, and The Neverending Story, and how she wanted to make something that reflected her and her friends. It was an interesting way to set up a fine film that continually did unexpected things.

Paradise Hills begins with a lavish wedding in what looks like the near future, a ceremony of the ultrarich in which the bride (Emma Roberts) sings to the guests about her intention to be submissive to her husband. As the bride and groom go up to their wedding bed, the film flashes back to two months previous, when Uma, the woman who we have seen as the bride, awakens in a kind of resort on a strange island. She finds her parents sent her there to get her to comply with their choice for her groom. The island’s filled with other young women whose upper-class families have sent them there to lose weight, or accept their career advice, or generally submit to their guidance. Uma, much more rebellious than in the opening sequence, is not ready to do that and gathers a group of equally disaffected women about her — Amarna (Eiza González), Yu (Awkwafina), Chloe (Danielle Macdonald). Their apparent antagonist and jailer is the malevolent ruler of the island, the Duchess (Milla Jovovich), who may have superhuman powers. But what is really happening on this island? What strange mind-games is the Duchess playing? And what will happen when Uma’s old boyfriend Markus (Jeremy Irvine) turns up in disguise?

Scripted by Nacho Vigalondo and Brian DeLeeuw from Waddington’s original story, the film’s a mad assemblage of striking ideas. Many of those ideas are visual. In writing about the film one almost has to begin with the costumes and setting. The women of the island resort wear surreal dresses whose references and symbolism are so dense as to be overwhelming. The resort itself is a gallimaufry of modernist architecture half-overrun by ivy and flowers. Everywhere and at all times the colours are highly saturated, but shadow and texture are used well, creating a sense of richness rather than garishness (usually).

There is a sense in which the movie’s like a consciously feminine take on the vocabulary of a Jack Kirby, with dresses instead of super-hero uniforms and curving organic plant forms instead of crackling energy-blasts. The comparison’s probably most apt in the way the film recalls Kirby’s intensity of vision, presenting a riot of creativity expressed through its own distinct idiom and design sense. It’s not just the outfits; it’s the bizarreness, the way a device that the masters of the island use to mess with Uma’s head takes the form of a carousel horse.

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Going Postal with Terry Pratchett (and David Suchet)

Monday, August 12th, 2019 | Posted by Bob Byrne

GoingPostal_PromoEDITEDI think that the late Terry Pratchett was an elite satirist. He used humor in a fantasy world as the vehicle, which probably causes many to dismiss how good he was at writing satire. I’m a huge fan of the Discworld books, and I’ve written a post on the City Watch, and one on Troll Bridge, a short story featuring Cohen the Barbarian. I think an overview of the Discworld series would be a worthy post here someday.

Moist Von Lipwig is the protagonist of three Discworld novels: Going Postal, Making Money, and Raising Steam. In his first appearance (Going Postal), Von Lipwig is a con man who is finally captured and hung. Actually, he was only hung to within half an inch of his life. Lord Vetinari, the Lord Patrician of Discworld’s biggest city, Ankh-Morpork, I think that Vetinari is one of the best fictional rulers ever created.

Vetinari wants to reopen the city’s Post Office; an establishment that had essentially collapsed under its own weight – and greed. He gives Lipwig the choice of walking out a door (which the nearly dead man discovers opens onto an almost bottomless pit) or reviving the post office. Lipwig, who figures he can con his way out of things, reluctantly takes the job. There are, of course, many hurdles, including a golem named Pump 13 who ensures that he is not going to run away.

The Clacks are network of semaphore towers, that is Discworld’s pre-eminent communications network, with some internet overtones. The post office is brought back to compete with the unreliable, monopolized Clacks.

That’s the groundwork, and from here on in I’ll discuss the miniseries, which does differ from the book a fair amount, though it’s still faithful to Pratchett’s work. The Clacks is run by Reacher Gilt, played deliciously by David Suchet, the personification of Agatha Christie’s fat Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (who you read about HERE, of course…). With long hair, an eyepatch, and evil to the core of his larcenous heart, Suchet gets to have fun with the character. The character is a bit more serious in the book, but Suchet’s portrayal works for the movie.

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Fantasia, Day 4, Part 2: Astronaut

Sunday, August 11th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

AstronautI saw my second movie of the day of July 14 in the Fantasia screening room, where critics can watch a movie on a large computer monitor at a time convenient to their schedules. And indeed scheduling had brought me to the screening room to fill a gap between two other films I wanted to see. Note then that I did not see the film I’m about to describe in a theatre; I don’t think the way I watched it affected my reaction, but it’s perhaps best to give it the benefit of the doubt.

Astronaut was written and directed by Shelagh McLeod. It stars Richard Dreyfuss as Angus, a 75-year-old widower and former geological engineer who moves into an old age home shortly after the film starts. An amateur skywatcher, he also enters a contest for a spot on a private spaceship built by tech mogul Marcus (Colm Feore) — and wins, despite being ten years over the cut-off age for contestants. Will Angus fulfill his lifelong dream of going into space? Or is he too old? Or are there other problems lying in wait?

Let me begin with something good: Richard Dreyfuss is excellent. He’s thoroughly convincing as Angus, and engaging enough to carry the movie for quite a while, even in the absence of other positive aspects. The supporting cast is generally fine, especially an almost unrecognisable Graham Greene as Len, a fellow resident of Angus’ retirement home.

There is a sense in which Feore is actually a weak link among the performers. This is of course not due to a lack of ability on his part. But playing a brilliant entrepreneur running a private space-flight company, he has to convince us that his Marcus is believable as a competitor to Elon Musk or perhaps Richard Branson, the sort of man who could be found in their company. And he doesn’t really get enough to work with. Marcus remains more plot device than character, presented in the film as a mature man of integrity and genius as well as the kind of charismatic figure who can draw both investment funding and media attention. There’s a lack of depth to him, no sense that some of his virtues might be in opposition to some of his other virtues.

In truth, that may be the least of the movie’s failings. The plot is a mess, relying far too heavily on coincidence. I don’t mean that it’s coincidental that Angus happens to win a random draw to become part of a group of finalists competing for the trip to space; a movie’s allowed one given, I think, and anyway if that sort of lottery-winning set-up is good enough for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory it’s good enough for Astronaut. But as the film goes on, it turns out that not only does Marcus’ spaceport happen to be very close to Angus’ home, Angus’ earlier career happens to leave him as the only person who could possibly know a certain piece of information vital to the launch of Marcus’ spaceship.

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Fantasia, Day 4, Part 1: The Wonderland

Saturday, August 10th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The WonderlandIn reviewing the movies I see at Fantasia I like to mention the theatre in which I see a film, because the room the film’s screened in often gives a hint about the movie’s nature. The smaller De Sève is often a venue for indie cinema and lesser-known pictures. The larger Hall will usually hold more obviously popular movies, meaning a lot of action films and blockbusters. This is not inevitable, and there are a number of reasons why something you’d think you’d see in one cinema gets hosted in the other. But the two theatres do have their own personalities, and sometimes you watch a movie that fits the personality of the place perfectly.

Which is all by way of saying that on Sunday, July 14, I headed down to the Hall to watch The Wonderland (also Birthday Wonderland, originally Bāsudē wandārando, バースデー・ワンダーランド), a new animated film by Keiichi Hara, whose previous film Miss Hokusai had greatly impressed me. Miho Maruo, who wrote the script adapting Miss Hokusai from the original manga, also handles the script for The Wonderland, which is based on a 1988 novel (Chikashitsu Kara No Fushigi Na Tabi, literally Strange Journey From the Basement) by Sachiko Kashiwaba. Kashiwaba’s an award-winning children’s writer in Japan; Hayao Miyazaki once tried to adapt her novel Kirino Mukouno Fushigina Machi (A Mysterious Town Over the Mist), ultimately scrapping the attempt but keeping the bathhouse setting for the film that became Spirited Away. If The Wonderland is any indication, her work and themes have some clear parallels with his.

Akane (Mayu Matsuoka) is a Japanese girl about to turn 13, who goes to the knickknack shop operated by her flighty aunt Chii (Anne Watanabe) to get her birthday present. There, she and Chii are surprised when she encounters the mustachioed and top-hatted alchemist named Mister Hippocrates (Masachika Ichimura) and his assistant Pipo (Nao Tôyama), who reveal that Akane has a destiny in a mysterious otherworld that can only be reached through the basement of Chii’s store. It turns out that in this fantasyland Akane’s the latest incarnation of the Goddess of Green Wind, who is the only one who can save the world from its slow decay into colourlessness. Akane’s opposed by mysterious figures who have their own schemes to stop the erosion of colour, and sets out on a quest through the various lands of this World Beyond to the centre of all things.

This is a straight-ahead well-told fantasy adventure story. Designs are consistently strong and inventive; there’s a prodigality of visual ideas, with elaborate and individual interiors and exteriors. The motif of colour comes across well, as every location is filled with bright eye-popping hues except for those suffering under the entropic plague. Oddly, the real-world settings have almost as much colour to them, making the World Beyond perhaps a trifle less distinct than it might have been. Still, there’s no danger of confusing the two realms; not just the magic but the societies of the other world are different from this one. In that world, technology stopped developing after a certain point: “We were happy enough as we were, I suppose,” one of the inhabitants reflects.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 3, Part 2: Away

Friday, August 9th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

AwayMy second feature film of Saturday, July 13, was at the De Sève Theatre. It was the one-man animated feature Away, by Latvian Gints Zilbalodis. Zilbalodis wrote, directed, edited, animated, designed the sound, and did everything else for this 75-minute wordless fable about a young man trying to cross a mysterious island.

Before it played came “An Eye For An Eye,” a 17-minute animated short from Poland. Written and directed by Julia Ploch, who adapted her own original comic story, it’s about a hero who vanishes and a youth who tries to seek him out. Both characters are frogs, and the hero, the Red Frog, has disappeared after a quest for the secret knowledge held by the mysterious Great Catfish. It’s a structure a little like Telemachus seeking Odysseus, I suppose, but the result’s different.

We see what happened when the Red Frog finds the Catfish, the wounds he suffers and his Jonah-like travails, and get a glimpse of the wisdom he’s learned. That gives the conclusion a powerful heft. The story’s well-told and unpredictable, in (what looks like a) hand-drawn style, sketchy but sinuous, with an understated use of colour. Banners and panels appear on screen with secondary events within them, picture-in-picture storytelling. Dialogue’s replaced by word balloons holding pictures. In a technical sense, it’s a fascinating and effective way to adapt a graphic novel, and the overall story’s a solid and well-structured creation.

Away begins with a youth parachuting into a desert. He’s chased by a shadowy giant to a green oasis in some hills. There, the youth finds a map, a motorbike, and a small curious yellow bird. The map shows us that he’s at one end of an island, and there’s a town at the other end. The youth chooses to get on the bike, with map and bird, and race past the giant. Chased by the dark shape, who is less a physical threat than an entropic force that drains life and energy, the boy tries to reach the town at the far end of the island, passing many strange places along the way.

The movie’s made in an expressive, simplified CGI style with bright but harmonious colours. It’s fluid, with expressive movement and particularly beautiful moments in its sense of scale. The film makes extensive use of long takes, particularly notable when they come in the form of long gliding camera moves tracking across swathes of landscape. Still there’s a constant sense of movement and, dramatically, of a chase — of the need for the youth to keep moving forward. While characters do sometimes feel as though they’re skating over the landscape, or interact with other physical objects in an uncanny fashion, it’s easy to view this as part of the dream-world and dream-logic of the film.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 3, Part 1: Master Z: Ip Man Legacy

Thursday, August 8th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Master ZThere’s a critical truism that all art is political. I would prefer to phrase it as “all art can be read politically,” because art has to be interpreted. And no work of art can be read only one way. Individual perspective and changing circumstances will give a work very different meanings, possibly including different political significance. (I once worked out my version of the truism as “all readings of art will depend in part on the reader’s historical and political situation,” which is why I’m not a sloganeer.)

Consider Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (originally 葉問外傳:張天志, romanised as Yip Man ngoi zyun: Cheung Tin Chi). Directed by Yuen Woo-ping, it’s a spin-off from the three Ip Man films that starred Donnie Yen (a producer for this movie), which were loosely based on the life of the kung fu master who taught Bruce Lee. Master Z is the story of one of the masters Ip Man defeated in one of the earlier movies, Cheung Tin Chi (Zhang Jin, also credited as Max Zhang; I’m told this film’s title comes from an alternate way of romanising ‘Cheung’). When we meet him, in Hong Kong in 1961, he’s sunk so far as to have become a semi-principled gangland heavy. As the movie starts, he leaves this life for a more honest path. Complications ensue.

Most particularly, there’s Kit (Kevin Cheng), a hotheaded drug-peddling gangster with a withered arm, and Kit’s sister Kwan (Michelle Yeoh), who leads a crime syndicate she wants to make into an honest organisation despite the corrupt British rule in Hong Kong. After Cheung gets involved in a fight between Kit and a young woman named Julia (Liu Yan) — who’s sticking up for her friend and roommate, the opium addict Nana (Chrissie Chau) — he ends up working in the bar owned by Julia’s brother Fu (Naason), who’s engaged to Nana. Unfortunately, that part of town is where Kit wants to peddle drugs. And what part does restaurateur and community leader Owen Davidson (Dave Bautista) have to play in all this?

Put like that the film may sound complicated or soap-operatic, but in practice it’s all very clear and sets up a plot that’s engagingly complex yet relatively character-centred. The story’s a function of individuals with relatable motivations reacting against each other, and develops accordingly. Those motivations are big bright primary-colour emotions: love, love of power, and revenge. The different relationships among the characters provide complexities and shadings to these motivations, and the variety of strands in the plot are woven with dexterity. If occasionally characters drop out of the film for a time — most notably Cheung’s young son — we don’t notice.

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Fantasia 2019, Day 2, Part 3: Vivarium

Wednesday, August 7th, 2019 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

VivariumI’d skipped the first day of the 2019 Fantasia Festival since the only movie I wanted to watch, The Deeper You Dig, played the next afternoon. That gave me three movies on Day 2, and after seeing first an indie horror film made by three people and then an Australian comedy led by a major Hollywood star, I could only wonder what I’d get in the Irish-Danish-Belgian co-production called Vivarium.

Directed by Lorcan Finnegan from a script by Garret Shanley, it was based on a story by Finnegan and Shanley (the same team collaborated on Finnegan’s previous film, Without Name). Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg star as Gemma and Tom, a young childless married couple hoping to buy a home. A strange real estate salesman named Martin (Jonathan Aris) takes them to see a property in a new housing development. The place is eerily perfect and inhuman, the development empty of all other life. Then Martin vanishes, and when Tom and Gemma try to drive away they find geography doesn’t work right; they constantly find themselves back at the front door of the house Martin selected for them, number 9.

Whatever they do, they cannot escape. The streets are a maze that always returns them to the start. Their car eventually runs out of gas. And then a box is delivered, with a baby boy inside, and a note telling the couple that if they raise the child they’ll be allowed to leave. They do start to take care of the infant, but the boy grows quickly into an uncanny child (Senan Jennings) with inhuman reactions. What will he become as an adult? And what will it cost them to see it?

This is a visually striking movie that exploits the formal qualities of CGI and indeed of digital photography. Tom and Gemma are trapped in a world of unreal balloon-clouds; of perfect blue sky and of infinite green houses, their colours boosted just a little, just not quite real. The opening, introducing Gemma at the school where she teaches, is vital in providing a contrast — in showing what the real world looks like. More specifically, the opening shots of the movie show a cuckoo pushing eggs out of the nest it’s claimed; in addition to anticipating the film to come, these first shots are a vivid depiction of actual nature that establishes the sterility of the housing development as a stark opposition to the world of living things.

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