Fantasia Festival 2017: Friendly Beast (2017)

Friendly Beast (2017)

Friendly Beast

Director and writer: Gabriela Amaral Almeida

Cast: Luciana Paes, Murilo Benicio, Irandhir Santos, Camila Morgado, Humberto Carrao, Ariclenes Barroso

 For the small audience that got to see the World Premiere of Portuguese thriller Friendly Beast, this was as the director calls it “another animal”. Friendly Beast takes place in a small restaurant as it nears closing and last minute customers are there along with the owner, a waitress and a chef. As tension within the restaurant staff with the owner and even its customers build, two armed robbers burst in. This sets the stage as the owner now peels off his friendly smiling face and counteracts in his own way. On the surface, Friendly Beast is an intense thriller that sees two key characters find who they are, both oppressed of what they truly want whether they know it or not. Under this is many tones about control in general to man and woman’s power in relationships, different races and social class clashes. Gabriela Amaral Almeida, presented this debut piece and told the audience that this script was stemmed from anger and frustration from the director and writer of Friendly Beast as Brazil’s political changes stunted her progress with another project. While she explains that the film has undertones of highlighting the Brazilian culture and politics, for those unfamiliar with Brazil politics, there are still many other themes to explore.

Friendly Beast is an intriguing piece to talk about. Mostly because there is so much care and detail at how the entire script is staged. Yes, this movie is carefully staged so that each room creates a different tone and atmosphere. This becomes an important element to understanding the character development. Friendly Beast is a one setting movie and yet because of how the rooms are used, it feels like there is much more space and meaning. For example, the dining room is where everything is put on a facade. It is falsely pretty but as the space becomes more disordered throughout the movie, the characters have also changed to be more outwardly on being themselves while in contrast, the washroom is a private closed space and its where the most real feelings are released in hiding.

There is no doubt that Friendly Beast is about its characters in all their motions and quietness and words. Every move is rehearsed and calculated to fully express what that scene wants to show its audience. In fact, the two main characters here are familiar faces. Murilo Benicio, who plays restaurant owner Inacio, is a renowned actor in the Brazil film industry. Luciana Paes, who plays Sara the waitress, was recently in Netflix Original series 3%. Both of them deliver incredibly engaging roles that even in their most quiet moments create tension. It makes the audience experience various phases and we soon realize that the performances reflect a great script put together to give each moment in this 90+ minutes importance. Some scenes will challenge you and others will literally make you feel uneasy and that also has to do with the sound design and the soundtrack.

There are times when directors talk about what they are trying to portray in their piece and it is a far-fetched idea that doesn’t get executed well. Gabriela Amaral Almeida and Friendly Beast is definitely not the case. If you see this movie (which you should), take the time to see between those lines and see the story she is trying to tell. Take a close look at what she has staged and let the building quiet tension grab you. And when Friendly Beast ends, it may very well sit on your mind afterwards.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)

valerian and the city of a thousand planets

Director: Luc Besson

Cast: Dan DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Sam Spruell, Kris Wu, John Goodman, Ethan Hawke, Rihanna

A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe. – IMDB

Adapted from a French comic series titled Valerian and Laureline, Luc Besson’s latest piece takes us on a sci-fi adventure to Alpha, the City of a Thousand Planets where we follow the adventures of two young agents and partners, Major Valerian and Sergeant Laureline. Luc Besson heading back to a sci-fi premise and seemingly calling back to The Fifth Element days is an endearing thought. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is a visually stunning adventure full of new aliens and characters to discover, perhaps more so for those that have not read the source material. While filled with great performances what does let  down the overall experience is the story itself being adventurous and fun but slightly predictable.

The performances here focus mostly on Cara Delevingne’s Laureline and Dan DeHaan’s Valerian. As a team, they work together well and while on missions, there is a friction and conflict they have as Laureline fights for her recognition and importance. While some of their dialogue feels cheesy and oddly out of place, they have a certain chemistry that helps in certain ways. It adds in some laughs here and there and their bickering while overused in movies does help ease in some relaxing moments between the action. There are some bigger names here as well such as Clive Owen as the Commander who gets taken by an alien race that was deemed to have been destroyed. While not a huge role, he excelled at commanding his scene. What is also a nice face to see here is Kris Wu, a young actor that appeared earlier this year in XXX:The Return of Xander Cage, who gives a good performance while in a supporting role as well. Aside from that, Ethan Hawke has a cameo role that draws similarities to Jack Sparrow’s free spirit and this leads to Rihanna who is really showing off as a performer more than she is an actress as she dazzles us with a beautiful on-stage transformational dance which is followed shortly after with an emotional scene that falls short from its intentions.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets does lack depth in its story. Perhaps the length of over two hours did more harm than good, as there was a certain level of suspense in the beginning however, the ending became increasingly predictable. What does make this flick worth your time is how Luc Besson brings this world to life in every single way. The City of a Thousand Planets is fascinating to discover at every corner and the effects are done incredibly well. While some may complain about the drawback of having too much CGI, this is a strength in creating this fictional fantasy world. The action and technology here makes those moments feel like we are immersed in great adventures as Valerian and Laureline go on their own mission. It almost feels like we are in a video game. The best example is when Valerian’s gun can shoot platforms as he vaults through a gap with all these fantastical creatures that are both beautiful and dangerous simultaneously.

Overall, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets has its flaws. It is meant to be a popcorn flick that will dazzle its audience visually with its beautiful and mesmerizing world along with its action-packed sequences. There is no doubt that this one has decent cast that delivers even with a story that lacks depth however it is a fun and entertaining flick.

Fantasia Festival 2017: Napping Princess (2017)

Going to Fantasia and not checking out at least one anime or other animated films would be a pity. While some great choices slipped through because of scheduling like Senior Class, I wasn’t going to let this one go.

Napping Princess (2017)

Napping Princess

Director and writer: Kenji Kamiyama

Cast: Mitsuki Takahata, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Tomoya Maeno

In the car-clogged Eastopolis, capital of the kingdom of Heartland, Princess Ancien is confined to gilded cage of sorts. Gifted with remarkable powers, she can bring the inanimate to life using a magical digital device. But she also draws to the city the Terrible Colossus, placing her father’s realm at risk. Back in the real world, it’s three days before the Tokyo Olympics of 2020, and sleepyhead Kokone awakes again from her dreams of Heartland to the realities of life in small-town Okayama. All is not well, though, as her struggling widower father has become tangled up in some sort of corporate intrigue. Soon, the divide between her reveries and the real world will begin to crumble… – Fantasia Festival

Napping Princess, also called Ancien and the Magic Tablet, is a fun and magical adventure animated feature. Straddling between reality and the dream world, a different but linked story with all the same characters come to life in an endearing and a lot of times, humorous way. Cute characters and fantastic environments and the magical kingdom being so pretty, truly makes it something of an eye candy. Napping Princess however does seem to get lost in its length a little and the final act meshes together in a way that makes it hard to follow.

The concept of Napping Princess is outstanding and this anime takes its audience for a ride both literally and figuratively. Our main character is college bound Kokone who has an awkward but close relationship with his widower father who ends up being arrested by the police because he is accused of stealing something. This takes Kokone and her school friend, Morio on a journey as they tumble and roll through one scene after the next, funnily getting through it despite the danger. Napping Princess is definitely a family friendly feature and in many ways, remains innocent. Not only is Kokone and Morio colorful but even the more subtle characters also are. Between the reality and dream sequences, many characters are portrayed differently however also a joy to watch. Even the enemy may have a secret agenda that we soon learn about by the end, however he and his goons are comedic goofballs. What makes it funnier is the fact that the audience is the smarter person here and it becomes obvious that the scenes were written as in our seats we react accordingly with disbelief of the innocent acts of revealing where Kokone is for example in a situation where she may be too trusting.

Napping Princess is an anime that aims to keep its audience on its toes as Kokone escapes and learns about her parents. While the audience gets to see a bigger picture as we can see the villain’s schemes as well as the father’s interrogation, the journey is primarily with Kokone and her friends. While the kingdom of Heartland is a steampunk world filled with mesmerizing designs and a war that is incredible to watch. The real world is in a much more personal journey. Princess Ancien may know much more about her powers and her capabilities but on the contrary, Kokone is only learning about her background as she heads off on this escape and its an adventure that takes everyone quite the turn. Plus, everyone likes an adventure with a magical bear. In this case, he’s called Joy and an adorable little thing that is Princess Ancien’s companion in the kingdom of Heartland.

While Napping Princess is a rather long anime, it does create two fun worlds: the kingdom of Heartland and the future reality of Japan in 2020. In a world of corporate schemes and a dream world of impending war from giant creatures attracted by magic, both are in danger and its all on Kokone or Princess Ancien to hatch a plan that will fix it. Its fun, entertaining and filled with lots of laughter. Its never too serious or even too dangerous even if there is a little bit of violence. With cute and colorful characters, Napping Princess is a family friendly animated feature that is altogether a fun time.

Fantasia Festival 2017: Dead Shack (2017)

Dead Shack (2017)

Dead Shack

Director: Peter Ricq

Cast: Lizzie Boys, , Lauren Holly, Matthew Nelson-Mahood, Gabriel LaBelle, Donovan Stinson, Valerie Tian

While staying at a run-down cabin in the woods during the weekend, three children must save their parents from the neighbor who intends to feed them to her un-dead family. – IMDB

Described as The Goonies meets Night of the Living Dead, Dead Shack comes as a fun zombie romp with a  young cast fighting to save their drunk father on a camping trip when they accidentally discover their neighbor and her undead family. This femme fatale next door does everything to make sure to keep her family safe and fed. With a runtime of 85 minutes, Dead Shack knows how to pace its movie to be fast and filled with moments of tension, comedy and action.

The young cast here creates a nice balance in characters. Matthew Nelson-Mahood playing the son’s best friend, Jason who is socially awkward as he tries to impress his best friend’s sister, Summer (played by Lizzie Boys) every chance that he has. He captures the role very well and in turn, with his awkwardness, brings in quite a bit of comedic relief along with the banter in moments of panic with the young trio. The three here create a balance of intelligence, common sense and spontaneous reflex and this leads them to really pull up a lot of strength and courage. Its also impressive to see that the story quickly shifts these teens, particularly Jason that starts the movie being told to toughen up and quickly does.

While the young cast is the focus here, the rest of the characters are well-used also. The father, played by Donovan Stinson is the most hilarious part of this movie. He starts off the movie with a lot of funny moments. However, even the supporting roles are there in their oddly disposable way but still have their value, mostly for comedy as well. Its realizes how to capture the humor in spite of the horror tension they want to create here. It also helps make the teens more useful and responsible than their parents.

The setting of the movie is in the middle of nowhere however fits perfectly. While Dead Shack feels like it is riddled with cliches, it uses them to their advantage whether by making some smart comeback in the dialogue or turning it into a comedic moment or adding some common sense that most horror movies don’t have. The music builds the moments really well also whether it is to create tension or the soundtrack that compliments some of the scenes. Along with some clever camera work capturing close-ups and angles, it works wonders for Dead Shack as a whole.

It is a shame that it feels that the enemy is largely underused. While it works because it helps create tension as to wondering when the undead or the Blonde will show up. This movie is definitely more a comedy in a horror setting. While there are more undead as the movie moves along and it never feels like we’re really invested into any of the characters, it still finds a way to make this into a fun romp that surprisingly works really well.

Fantasia Festival 2017: Origami (2017)

Origami (2017)

Origami

Director: Patrick Demers

Cast: Francois Demers, Milton Tanaka, Normand D’Amour, Alexa-Jeanne Dubé

During one of his many Asian adventures, David, a visual artist who specializes in Japanese art, encounters a mysterious man who makes him discover his latent gift for time travel. – Fantasia Festival

As an extension of the Fantasia event, Les Fantastiques Week-ends du Cinéma Québecois comes the world premiere of Origami by French-Canadian director, Patrick Demers. Before the movie starts, Demers who is present advises the crowd that the least we know about the film the better. He hopes that the audience will fall into the main character’s shoes and wishes everyone happy travels. Upon finishing Origami, we definitely feel the same way hence, we will not only avoid all spoilers but this review will be completely on various technical aspects and stay far away from the story itself. The only thing in regards of the story is that Origami is an absolute treat as both a time travel movie and a dramatic thriller.  The story is intriguing.  It will make the audience ask question after question as we willingly and patiently wait for the answers at the end, without knowing if there really will be one. The best of movies will still motivate you to try to figure it out while waiting, letting the story take us on their journey and Origami achieves that.

Right from the start of Origami, the sound design and atmosphere is already set for a world full of mystery. The tones and the lights are done well. It uses its cinematography cleverly of both capturing an entire scene and zooming in to capture emotion. The score itself is subtle in parts, dropping out in important parts to create the right mood while in other parts, looming and building in the background. The sound also is what creates the time travel transition as well as the visual of it all. What time travel movies mostly have issues with is how to set a believable time travel concept that works. Origami keeps what we know, reinforces that by adding in a simple description and lets us learn about time travel as its main character, David (Francois Arnaud) explores it as well.

While Origami has various characters, it is very much a one man talent show for Francois Arnaud, who plays the main character, David Marceau. A quick look at Francois Arnaud’s filmography and you can spot some familiar titles from TV series Borgias and Blindspot. A key element of this sci-fi thriller goes into finding a great balance of how to present this character and in short, he nails it. He creates the right emotions and feels human. We learn about him during the movie, just enough to connect with the character. Here is where we talk about the other characters’ being one dimensional. They only are there to serve a particular purpose, be it to explain time travel to David or being a parent role, for quick examples. This is where Origami falls short as some scenes automatically become dispensable and even pointless, creating a slight drag, making the parts with David the only ones that cause intrigue and mystery.

Origami is not perfect but it is a rare appearance in the French-Canadian landscape as it dives into the sci-fi territory exploring the realms of time travel. Francois Arnaud delivers a strong performance and the story makes us question and piece together the plot along the way to keep it intriguing. It pulls a few stops that achieved its purpose. While the plot drags a little in the centre stemming from characters that aren’t fleshed out enough, the main character’s journey is still well worth a visit.

**A note here that I am very easily convinced with time travel movies. This one has been one of the few movies to surprise me in the near future with its plot reveals so I’m incredibly happy to have seen it. While there are French-Canadian movies that I enjoy, they have a very dreary air over them, usually taking the most grim takes on events. While this one tiptoes a little in that area, it manages for the most part to create something a little different. For its all its efforts, I appreciated and enjoyed it.**

Fantasia Festival 2017: Free and Easy (2016)

Free and Easy (2016)
Director: Jun Geng

Director: Baohe Xue, Benbin Gu, Gang Xu, Liguo Yuan, Xun Zhang, Xuxu Wang, Zhiyong Zhang

When a traveling soap salesman arrives in a desolate Chinese town, a crime occurs, and sets the strange residents against each other with tragicomic results. –IMDB

A peddling monk, a soap salesman, a reforestation ranger: What do these three characters have in common? Add in a God-loving man who is seeking for his disappeared mother, a jack of all trades kung fu instructor and a tough landlady. Throw together two cops who really seem to be both careless and clueless and this creates the mix of a 99 minutes Chinese movie set in desolate area in Northeast China. Free and Easy is an odd piece altogether. Is it trying to be comedic with its dry  humor? Or is it a societal statement about the world we live in pushing those into paths they don’t really choose no matter how good or bad they are? Perhaps, its a crime story when one of the characters die. Just like the story its telling, maybe the genre also steps somewhere in a grey area.

Free and Easy is however an interesting piece of cinema to talk about. With so many characters on screen, we mostly focus on the soap salesman and the monk at the beginning. The cops are the other end of the spectrum as they truly feel useless in their positions or simply bored. They talk constantly about things they probably shouldn’t and then they also take antibiotics like its candy. Not the authorities that we’d imagine them to be. In a community like this one, desolate and forgotten, even the cops are useless, it is a statement on how everyone has their own way to fend for themselves and survive day to day. They are thrown into circumstances that we eventually realize aren’t quite them however, it is all a sense of digging out that part of them that they need to live. The soap salesman and monk eventually have some insightful conversations throughout the movie that truly point us into knowing them more. Just as the reforestation ranger obsesses over who cut down his trees and we start seeing his mellow character go through a myriad of reactions to the situation. However, with the amount of characters here, the focus moves quickly through them. Their personalities, their facades, their conversations, their tricks all come together as what defines this world because we never know any of them well enough to know their history or even their story. We only know what they are now and those few days in this desolate area.

While, Free and Easy slowly progresses its story and it feels disjointed throughout the majority of it and there isn’t really a character to bond with, one of the best aspects is its landscape and cinematography. The way that the director composes their shots, capturing the wide angles and pulled out space. It truly expands on the desolate and emptiness in this area. Perhaps, it also is done to create a parallel for these characters who each have their own issues and all don’t seem to keen about what life they are in now. No one truly seems happy. However, the scenes here truly capture so much atmosphere and is structured carefully to capture exactly what it wants and hides some of the details off screen. One of the best scenes do go to one of the cops confronting four of the characters as they keep moving on and off screen.

Honestly, there isn’t a lot to say concretely about Free and Easy. The story needs a little more work particularly for the pace they are going at. The sound design is nice and the cinematography captures so much of the atmosphere and the area despite it being desolate and empty. The characters are plentiful but never fleshed out. The dry humor definitely is there however, it never seemed to work enough although humor is rather subjective. Free and Easy is a statement piece about society, at least from the first watch, it definitely seems to be leaning the most in that direction. Its a lot of reading between the lines and listening to the dialogue and conversations. Its a movie for those that enjoy dry humor, slow-paced and reading between the lines.

Personally, this doesn’t feel like a movie that I was meant to like. I do think for its vagueness in many of the issues, it makes it more thought provoking to figure out what they are trying to say. What message is it all about? I’m honestly kind of in between with this one.

Fantasia Festival 2017: Vampire Cleanup Department (2017)

Vampire Cleanup Department (2017)

vampire cleanup department

Director: Pak-Wing Yan, Sin-Hang Chiu

Cast: Babyjohn Choi, Min-Chen Lin, Richard Ng, Siu-ho Chin, Susan Shaw

Tim Cheung joins the Vampire Cleanup Department which is a secret task force for dealing Chinese vampire Goeng Si. He is instructed by his uncle Chau and he saves a female Goeng Si, Summer from her evil lord Goeng Si who buried alive her. – IMDB

For those familiar with the Mr. Vampire series decades ago and their introduction to the hopping Chinese vampires, the recent years has seen a resurgence to seemingly revive or perhaps catch Hong Kong’s own wave of the vampire popularity. In 2013, Rigor Mortis saw the debut directing work of Juno Mak get the cast of the originals and create a serious horror full of gore and symbolism. However, Vampire Cleanup Department this year aims to do the same thing but uses more of the horror action comedy angle, in turns more in vein with the original series while still taking the familiar actors. It feels like a true revival or remaster or perhaps modernized reboot of this Chinese cult favorite and not only appeal to the fans of the franchise but also grab a new generation and educate them about these hopping vampires. Screened in Cantonese, the English subtitles were done well enough to still carry the humor it wanted for the most part. We always like to make sure that the jokes will still carry well to an international audience.

Vampire Cleanup Department does many things right. It is hard to say that anymore in terms of comedy or horror. Two things the Hong Kong industry in general seems to have hit a snag as it settles for ineffective and trope-y horror or dumb and nonsensical humor. However, this movie is littered with clever jokes and puns and most of all, actors that deliver them seamlessly and perfectly. It also uses the CGI that they have access to in order to make these vampires and other action/horror effects feel more authentic and less campy. Its a re-skin and one that is done tastefully. For those who were too young when this released or never quite had access to it before or simply the new generation, Vampire Cleanup Department never forgets to educate its audience as it educates and trains its long awaited new blood. Using this story line works in this situation because we as the audience will also learn about how hopping vampires came to be, how to get rid of them as well as how this secret department originated as a new vengeful vampire is unleashed into the city accidentally.

Another great aspect of Vampire Cleanup Department is its veteran actors. Siu-ho Chin and Richard Ng are the main characters in this as they take a supporting role that links to the past. They are fun and entertaining. Siu-ho Chin contributes to a lot of the action as he is the younger of the original crew. Richard Ng brings a lot of the humor. Its truly hard to not feel nostalgic when watching them on screen as they have both been part of memorable films aside from the Mr. Vampire movies. They are the anchor of this film and despite the younger actors seeming to be a focus of the film. The scenes they are in keep the movie grounded as their opposite personalities in their characters also create a nice friction.

The one downfall of this flick truly goes to the young romance, Tim and Summer, played respectively by Babyjohn Choi and Min-Chen Lin. This factor is less to do with their performance but more with the more than familiar romance. Its sappy and redundant. In fact, the humor elements added into their budding romance makes it fun and cute however never lets us feel too invested either, at least not enough to feel emotional about their outcome. Sadly, the romance does take up a decent portion of the movie. While still successfully entertaining us for the most parts, it falls short from what the rest of the movie creates and could of been done a little more concisely.

Vampire Cleanup Department is a treat. Despite its rinse and repeat romance that doesn’t have the connection with the audience it is meant to have, everything else is done very well. It creates a beautiful balance of action, comedy and horror. It revives and reboots this Geong Si, aka hopping vampires, from the late 80s to 90s from the Mr. Vampire series. It also brings in some new blood to possibly (and hopefully) continue the franchise in a modern way. This film has found a way to keep itself self-contained while remembering to honor its predecessors by creating a link of the world the earlier movies created. It brings back the atmosphere those movies had while giving it a fresh look successfully.