Fantasia Festival 2018: Big Brother (World Premiere 2018)

Big Brother (2018)

Big Brother

Director: Ka-Wai Kam

Cast: Donnie Yen, Joe Chen, Yu Kang, Mingji Lou, Fung Woo

Big Brother is an unexpected title in Donnie Yen’s filmography however, also one that he has been wanting to do. It is about education and sending the positive message that everyone can follow their dreams even those left behind and ignored by the very competitive Hong Kong education system. It only takes an honest and passionate educator to go beyond their duties to make sure their students go back on the right path. Playing as Mr. Chen, Yen’s role is one that marries the sparse but exciting action scenes that we have come to expect with a more profound dramatic moments focussing specifically on five of the students considered the losers in the “bad” class. His heartfelt performance has some comedic moments especially in the unorthodox way of teaching which fits incredibly well to this out of the box character.

Big Brother

While there are some cameo and supporting roles with more seasoned actors and actresses especially the Taiwanese actress Joe Chen as one of the teachers and Fung Woo as the ex-principal in an inspiring role as well, the five young actors are all first time actors. This decision is a smart one to keep their stories feel real and genuine.  While some of the stories feel dramatized for the movie, the reality is that in the Hong Kong society, their stories are common: alcoholic dad; Hong Kong born Pakistani origins; daughters feeling less important than sons and the high risk of the triad preying on high school students to get them to do their dirty work. For these young cast, they did a great job at each of their respective roles as they each had their own dreams which broke the barrier of the expectations of where they are from.

Big Brother

A lot of praise does have to go to assistant director turned director Ka-Wai Kam as he steps into the director’s chair a fourth time with this project. It is obvious that he has a lot of experience tucked away with the way he maneuvers his shots to capture the moments. He finds a way to add in the action seamlessly to a more dramatic film while not forgetting the focal point of reflecting how a flawed education system breeds the issues that are occurring and puts its focus on a few members to give these characters their well-deserved development and never making them feel disposable. Not to mention, the scenes itself speak for themselves and how these vibrant characters have connected with its audience.

World premiering at Fantasia Festival a whole two and a half weeks before its release in Hong Kong, Big Brother brings both heartwarming and heartbreaking stories about some very real and human everyday life aspects of the Hong Kong education system, the criticism towards its teachers and the society views of it all.  Add this to your collection of inspirational education movies like Freedom Writers, Big Brother might have some societal barriers to understand some of the finer details but its heart to bring a positive message and highlight the flaws in the current education system is one that needs to be addressed. It takes one person willing to go above and beyond to make a difference. It’s perfectly suitable for Donnie Yen. Big Brother is a positively inspiring movie that manages to tug at your heartstrings and cheer for following your dreams and paying it forward.

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Fantasia Festival 2018: Bleach (2018)

Bleach (2018)

Bleach

Director: Shinsuke Sato

Cast: Sota Fukushi, Hana Sugisaki, Erina Mano, Miyavi, Taichi Saotome, Ryo Yoshizawa, Yosuke Eguchi, Yu Koyanagi

For anime lovers, Bleach has been a long time in the making. It has an incredible amount of episodes in the original series itself and that isn’t counting the animated movies derived from it alone. However, even if you have no knowledge of Bleach from its source material, this live action adaptation starts at the beginning. It tells the story of a teenage boy called Ichigo (Sota Fukushi) who loses his mother at a young age and can see ghosts. Nearing the anniversary of his mother’s death, his sister is attacked by a being called a Hollow and a soul reaper girl Rukia (Hana Sugisaki) from the Soul Society comes to his rescue. In battle with the Hollow, she ends up being injured and out of desperation despite the strict rules, she notices his high spiritual powers and transfers her soul reaping skills to him. While he defeats the Hollow, she transfers more than she intends and turns into human form forcing her to become his classmate while she trains him to be strong enough to return those powers.

bleach

Starting from the beginning of its source material may be the saving grace for Bleach. In this way, they manage to pull of a film that introduces its audience to the world through the eyes of Ichigo as he first encounters it himself. Of course, there is still a lot to learn about Ichigo himself from how he lost his mother to how he can see ghosts, although the latter along with the high spiritual power elements are more of a between the lines connection. Even with 2 hours, Bleach merely skims the surface in demonstrating this world that has been built. Soul Society doesn’t get touched on a lot except for that one rule and the two men, Byakuya (Miyavi) and Renji (Taichi Saotome) who show up to track Rukia, on the other hand, a member of Quincy, Ishida (Ryo Yoshizawa) pops up which gets a brief backstory to his purpose with pursuing Ichigo. Lots of information to digest here and it is no surprise that the script chooses to bring in these characters to build up the main story. In some ways, it works out because the main story revolving Ichigo brings in family, ties into his history and ends up developing his character quite a bit. On that note, Fukushi takes the role and runs with it in a spectacular way. His portrayal gives Ichigo so much charisma that it’s hard to look away from what he goes through. Luckily, this approach keeps the story contained, and at the end of the day, the movie takes the step to wrap up the story as it ties up all the loose ends.

bleach

Bleach has some charms and some minor issues. In terms of charms, it does feel like you are watching a live action manga. The characters have the goofy manga reactions and in the live action version, it creates a lot of comedic moments to cut through the tension of fighting the mystical unbeatable Hollow. It even throws in some explanation in manga drawing form to probably give it some link back. The Hollow itself is some good CGI work there. The action is done fairly well and the weaponry is replicated really nice albeit some obvious CGI work as well. The best part of Bleach is the score and soundtrack. It is energetic in the hard rock music way that blends so well with the tone of the film as a while. However, its minor issues lie in the pacing where the middle lags a bit in development and sits are a weird transition point that takes a while to get there. Because of some lack of depth, some characters here feel disposable as their purpose feels merely to achieve something or another. That is price of placing the focus on the main story but only skimming the surface of the other arcs. However, this is a movie and the effort to keep it contained is admirable especially with how much Bleach has grown since it was first created. It is still an entertaining fantasy action adaptation that does a lot more right than it does wrong.

This review was posted also on That Moment In.

Fantasia Festival 2018: Rondo (2018)

Rondo (2018)

Rondo

Director (and writer): Drew Barnhardt

Cast: Luke Sorge, Brenna Otts, Reggie De Morton, Gena Shaw, Michael Vasicek,  Ketrick Copeland, Steve Van Beckum

A kinky sex proposition devolves into a chain of murder, sex, revenge. And more murder. – IMDB

Right from the start, it is undeniable that Rondo isn’t going to be a normal film. A narrator (Steve Van Beckum) sets up the scene of what will unfold and this same narrator will return a few times to keep us up to date on what is going on in the minds of the characters. In some ways, this bizarre set up works. At least, it makes sure the audience knows exactly what is going on before they enter into a scene. Of course, this can’t be more odd than Paul (Luke Sorge), a neurotic war veteran whose sister Jill (Brenna Otts) sets him up to see a therapist (Gena Shaw) who in turn ends up being prescribed to a secret kinky arrangement with a password to get in. Crossing the lines into this criminal underworld leads him to meet Lurdell (Reggie de Morton) and the events spiral out of control from there.

Rondo

Rondo is a bizarre film. It is the execution that makes it unique and not really the story itself. Choosing to use a narrator and then characters in certain roles that say out of the ordinary things is only the tip of the iceberg here. For the most part, there are some incredible monologues for the characters especially the therapist’s that set the tone of the film right away. It is peculiar and straddles between not knowing whether to laugh or to be disturbed. It is an odd feeling to say the least.  In other moments, the narrator talks as the characters just sit there and the camera zeroes into their expressions. It draws out the scene of the conversation. While it gives something of a stylistic difference, it does beg the question of why we don’t just get the dialogue itself. In terms of performances here, Rondo boasts some over the top moments including the performances themselves. A lot of times, it is deliberate and also feels that way also. Maybe it is the low budget feeling that it emits and how they turn it around to make it an over the top version that applies to the scenario.

Rondo

Rondo is a film that will appeal to a niche group. It is over the top and weird in both good and bad ways. It is not quite as unique as it believes itself to be, just like the dark humor will land at times but not all the time. The cycle of events in the film is like a rondo (the musical piece reference), it takes its moments and snowballs them with their own variations involving different character in a similar scenario or amping up the mischief. Rondo is a harmless film to say the least. Its an indie film with a lot of heart but it won’t be for everyone.

Fantasia Festival 2018: Searching (2018)

Searching (2018)

Searching

Director (co-writer): Aneesh Chaganty

Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Michelle La, Sara Sohn

After his 16-year-old daughter goes missing, a desperate father breaks into her laptop to look for clues to find her. – IMDB

Whatever your digital footprint is, almost all of us has one. That is central focus on this new subgenre of online found footage films produced (and at times directed) by Timur Bebmambetov now called “screen life”. No one knew this was the grand vision when Unfriended (Reviewhit theatres with mixed reviews but there is no doubt this is a project of Bebmambetov as this year’s Fantasia Festival saw the next three films telling different stories using screen life as its basis: Unfriended: Dark Web, Profile and Searching.

Searching

Searching is a family drama mixed into a thriller. The film starts with the endearing (and of course dated) screen of Windows XP as a new user profile is added for his wife. Through this we see the Kim family grow through the years with key moments of the couple and their hardships and milestones. The main two being the daughter Margot’s (Michelle La) first days of school and mom Pam’s (Sara Sohn) diagnosis and fight with cancer. Eventually, its gets the present with messaging and facetime as dad David (John Cho) messages Margot about her not doing chores. Things take a plunge for the worse when Margot never comes home from her study group but called him three times in the dead of night. Realizing something has gone wrong, he files a missing persons report and Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to his case but his assignment is to try to figure out his daughter’s friends and other contacts to pinpoint where she was last seen. With that, he takes the dive into her laptop and learns that her daughter’s has been hiding a few things from him.

Screen life here is used incredibly well here. The idea of our digital footprint being the source to tracking down anyone and getting hints of their life is an idea that feels real. Searching uses it incredibly well. Right from the blocks of protected emails and trying to set up recovery passwords to the first time discovery of what extends for the clueless parent  navigating outside of Facebook and Instagram, like Tumblr and more. Using these real life applications is the key to making it even more realistic, instead of the fictional ones that we usually see in movies. David is a parent who is stuck in his worst nightmare. After the loss of his wife, he realizes that he has no idea what Margot has been up to. The truths he ends up learning leads him to some clues and some dead ends. It is the way that Searching sets it up that makes it both logical and engaging. It takes no time to be invested in recovering this missing teenage girl and wondering whether she had ran away or something worse had happened.

 

Searching

John Cho takes on this dad role impressively. Searching gives him moments of comedy as his cluelessness for the modern social media makes him do silly things relatable for most of the younger generation to probably what parents would respond. At the same time, while Margot’s story highlights the lack of communication in their relationship and makes us think how much fault each of them have in this matter. Michelle La also takes on the role of Margot in a convincing way especially as she is a good kid going through a hard time.  Debra Messing plays the decorated detective, Rosemary Vick who is assigned to this case and seems set on the fact that Margot has run away but also very human from the standpoint of a mother.

Searching might seem like a straightforward idea but the application of screen life is one of the most outstanding used to date. Different from Unfriended, it takes us for a personal journey through the life of the Kim family and a father and daughter relationship while putting us into the worst nightmare of any parent. What is worse in the end: his lack of knowledge of his daughter or whether she will come home. Both equally important and yet helpless thoughts making the development of David a journey in itself as he tackles the assumptions from the world as the case grows public with each discovery. Being a thriller, it takes an incredible approach to put you at the edge of your seat (and I literally was) and adds in the perfect moments to give some clues one step at a time. Searching is full of twists and turns and drops them in a well-paced manner. Its one that comes highly recommended and the wait for this film isn’t long for wide release. It lands in theatres on August 3rd.

Fantasia Festival 2018: A Rough Draft (2018)

A Rough Draft (2018)

A Rough Draft

Director: Sergey Mokritskiy

Cast: Nikita Volkov, Severija Janusauskaite, Yuliya Peresild, Evgeny Tsiganov

A video game designer is stripped of his identity and recruited by a mysterious force to be the gatekeeper of a multi-dimensional portal. – IMDB

A Rough Draft is based on a Russian novel of the same name by Sergey Lukyanenko. Kirill (Nikita Volkov) is a genius video game designer whose new idea has set him apart but suddenly, he comes home to find it taken over by a mysterious woman (Severija Janusauskaite). In the following hours, his life as he knows it disappears as he soon realizes that he has been wiped from the memory of everyone that he knows. With no job, homeless and accused of murder, he soon gets a message to go to a location which turns out to be a customs office to other realms and he gets introduced to his new job as interdimensional guard. There are many rules to this job but he now has abilities and is immortal. On top of that, he also meets his ex-girlfriend Anna (Olga Borovskaya) who doesn’t remember him either and decides to try to reboot their relationship. Of course, things go array as this new job and the life he wants doesn’t align and when Anna is taken away, he goes off to find her through the realms.

A Rough Draft

There are a lot of imaginative and unique elements in A Rough Draft.  Looking at the world through Kirill’s point of view as he goes to the different realms crafts a great fantasy and sci-fi element. The world itself or the different realms is filmed so beautifully and meticulously to show its different environments and a different era in time. Each realm have their purpose. Similar to  District 13 of The Hunger Games, it also has the unknown mystery realm that has lots of rumors. The contrast of the brighter realms versus the more sombre ones  makes for some unique moments. One of the most outstanding parts of the imagination is watching the Matryoshka dolls turn into violent drones. Now, there’s some next level creativity of blending in their own culture.

A Rough Draft

The downside of A Rough Draft is in the story. Perhaps  because it is an adaptation that it needs a little more detail because of the complexity of the world and the realms and simply how everything works. The movie didn’t completely demonstrate the world-building enough to make how even the simplest things of why and how Kirill got his powers suddenly or how certain things somehow turned out well when previous situations proved otherwise. There is a lot of discrepancy here and it creates some disjointed and confusing moments that disconnects the story from the audience who hasn’t been exposed to the novel.

A Rough Draft is a creative world full of fanciful ideas. Visually, it is a beautiful film. However, the execution does leave something further to be desired in terms of world building context. For fans of the source material, the ending does hint that the movie will have a sequel.

Fantasia Festival 2018: Pledge (World Premiere 2018)

Pledge (2018)

Pledge

Director: Daniel Robbins

Cast: Zachary Byrd, Phillip Andre Botello, Zack Weiner, Aaron Dalla Villa, Cameron Copperthwaite, Jesse Pimentel, Jean-Louis Droulers, Joe Gallagher, Erica Boozer

A group of college freshmen pledge an exclusive fraternity but soon realize there’s more at stake than they could have ever imagined. – IMDB

It’s always nice to see filmmakers dive into rarely tapped or simply, untapped territories. To focus its story around fraternities and hazing and the whole pledging process is a great angle to use especially when there are some truly over the top things that can happen (or as the rumor goes) so what would stop it from diving into terrifying rite of passages like in Pledge.

Pledge starts in a fairly ominous way but jumps its timeline to the present as we see the typical loser or nerdy freshmen David (Zack Weiner), Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello) and Justin (Zachary Byrd) trying to be accepted into frat parties and just belonging somewhere without being humiliated. Things take a turn when they miss out on a party and a beautiful college girl Rachel (Erica Boozer) invites them to a party which ends up being in the middle of nowhere at a mansion. Taking this leap of faith, they are welcomed into this party (for the most part) and is invited back for a pledging ceremonies with two other guys, Ben (Joe Gallagher) and Sam (Jean-Louis Droulers) by these rich college boys Max (Aaron Dalla Villa), Ricky (Cameron Cowperthwaite) and Bret (Jesse Pimentel). The hazing starts off humiliating (and gross at times) but things get crazy and out of hand really fast and it turns into a race to escape and survival.

Pledge

Pledge takes its audience for a grueling and brutal roller coaster ride that takes a huge dive from bad to worse to horrifying exponentially. The cinematography is handled incredibly well by William Tracy Babcock who maneuvers the shots to create a lot of atmosphere and chaos essentially with lighting and different angles making some engaging moments. Of course, no movie like this is complete without credit to the entire direction from director Daniel Robbins paired up with a great script by writer Zack Weiner, the same mentioned above that plays David. This film does a lot of right especially in choosing to twist a fairly straight forward story into an intense and well-paced thriller at a decent run time of accomplishing all of it in 81 minutes. Movies nowadays tend to run overly long and when a movie manages to be equally effective in a decent length, it is something to give credit to.

Pledge

While a lot of the elements here contributed to this edge of the seat movie experience, one of the main standout is to its talented young cast. Whether it was the pledgers or the hazers, the depth in their characters is done so well. The film takes a lot of perspective from the college freshmen trapped in this life-threatening situation. The beginning moments give us a good idea of who these guys are wrapped up in their goofy and socially awkward personalities which push their personal limits and if and how they would retaliate. At the same time, a lot of the disturbing moments go to the quickly spiraling and out of control hazers. As the leader of the trio, Aaron Dalla Villa does a great job at being Max. His portrayal takes this character to the next level with his quiet expressions brewing with suspense then in a moment switching over some over the top repeated yelling for example to completely set the mood in a psychologically terrifying moments. However, Jesse Pimentel and Cameron Cowperthwaite, playing Bret and Ricky respectively, deliver equally fantastic roles. If Jesse Pimentel’s voice sounds familiar, he voices the role of Lucas Baker in 2017’s survival horror game Resident Evil: Biohazard, which was also a fairly unhinged character. There is so much more to say about how each of their roles shined, however to keep this spoiler-free, the hazers in general shined because of their characters depth. These characters are engaging to watch because of their development. They create the tension by growing more unhinged with each step further into the hazing process.  There is nothing more terrifying than characters like these who spiral and what they do next is unexpected and unpredictable.

Pledge takes a great angle at adapting a story with a rarely used premise. While the moments in the hazing process are terrifying and even gross at parts and is a huge part in building the tension, the real credit goes to its young actors whose characters who make this into a deeper and much more psychologically driven thriller. It is a cleverly structured movie from start to finish and one that is a must-see.

Fantasia Festival 2018: The Witch in the Window (World Premiere 2018)

The Witch in the Window (2018)

The Witch in the Window

Director (and writer): Andy Mitton

Cast: Alex Draper, Charlie Tacker, Carol Stanzione, Greg Naughton, Arija Bareikis

When Simon brings his twelve year-old son, Finn, to rural Vermont to help flip an old farmhouse, they encounter the malicious spirit of Lydia, a previous owner. And now with every repair they make – she’s getting stronger. – IMDB

The Witch in the Window is the next project of Andy Mitton, the director of We Go On. Just like his last project, he takes on many hats as director, writer, editor and composer.  Whereas his first film is about proving the supernatural existence of afterlife, The Witch in the Window is about a family drama, entrapment and belonging in a haunted house setting. The story starts about a deemed witch by the community children because of how she acts when she was alive and how she died by the window. The deeper story here is what takes the building tension to the next level with some effective atmosphere build-up that creates equally effective jump-scares.

The Witch in the Window

This is a slow burn movie that takes a lot of its fear in its lurking details in a literal way. With a title like The Witch in the Window, it pulls your eyes directly to the windows in the shots naturally. In the most subtle ways, it is also these moments that bring on the haunting feeling of someone lingering just in the corner of your eyes which is what makes it so effective. It also does have some of the horror tropes like the nervous neighbor who cautions the new owner or the various knocks and creaks in the old house but because of the well use of silence and isolation of certain sounds, these moments build the tension effectively. While there are some moments which make us question our character’s action as well but this horror story is unique in the way it structures around the development of these characters. In many ways, the tone also wraps the house itself in its own character because the house is new to this father and son and as they learn about it in the beginning, so is the audience, making what to expect especially har do predict.

The Witch in the Window

What makes this film stand out is the bonding of the father and son relationship. There is the mystery as to why the son Finn (played by Charlie Tacker) is sent to “exile” for whatever he was snooping into on the Internet due to his curiosity which clearly had some lingering effects but then pairs it with his self-aware nature who casually asks if there is some dark gory history about the house the moment he lays his eyes on it. However, he is also showing his youth when he doesn’t understand some.of the other terms like flipping a house. On the other hand, his father Simon (played by Alex Draper) has a few secrets of his own that we as the audience get to discover. For starters, he has a heart condition that weakens him and also his dedication to repairing this house. The bond may start off weaker in the beginning but as the film moves along, the one thing stronger than the horror is in the strength the world during apocalypse.

In the true form of a thriller, this slow burn indie film uses the run time efficiently to make it a gradually tense experience. There are a few twists to it that create the unique foundation of this film. As with We Go On, Andy Mitton has an out of the ordinary vision to his stories and the same applies here, especially with the ending itself that might just take you by surprise.