Double Feature: Embers (2015) & Free Birds (2013)

Next up in the double feature quite a mix. First is a 2015 independent drama called Embers, which I’ve heard nothing about before but post-apocalyptic sort of stories appeal to me so I wanted to check it out out of curiosity. Second is probably one I should’ve watched in October for Canadian Thanksgiving however, what the heck, right? We have 2013 animated film, Free Birds.

Let’s go!

Embers (2015)

Embers

Director and co-writer: Claire Carré

Cast: Jason Ritter, Iva Gocheva, Greta Fernandez, Tucker Smallwood, Karl Glusman, Silvan Friedman

After a global neurological epidemic, those who remain search for meaning and connection in a world without memory. – IMDB

Its hard to pinpoint where Embers falls. In one sense, it talks about a world that actually would be pretty scary and it looks at both spectrums of living in a post-apocalyptic world where you create new memories every single day or even more frequent than that and really not knowing anything. Isn’t that what some of us would hope for? Complete bliss from all knowledge? You wouldn’t remember your problems a few hours later but then you also wouldn’t have that long lasting human relationship because you wouldn’t even be able to build or think about those fleeting moments, let alone remember them. Is it emptiness or bliss in that case? However, on the other side of the spectrum is the quarantined who do remember but they don’t have the freedom to live outside the routine. They have memories but they are merely surviving and not really living.

Embers

 

Embers takes on various perspectives from its scattered characters in this area. There’s a young child wandering aimlessly, a teacher who is researching something endlessly, these two meet and they form a bond as one of the endearing moments is him teaching the child how to ride a bike. There is a couple who is together but then their lack of retaining memories separates them. There is an angry rebellious young guy who runs around wreaking havoc to be caught up in something more but not retaining that memory helps him to not even know what happened just moments or hours ago.

With that said, Embers has some decent performances and some nice moments and the shots and setting are filmed very nicely, however, the story itself is disjointed. Is it to match the world that they have created or maybe the story just skims the surface too much to have a resounding feeling? There is some thought-provoking depth that you can see but it never feels enough to feel immersed into the movie.

Free Birds (2013)

Free Birds

Director: Jimmy Hayward

Cast: Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson, Dan Fogler, Amy Poehler, George Takei, Keith David

Two turkeys from opposite sides of the tracks must put aside their differences and team up to travel back in time to change the course of history – and get turkey off the holiday menu for good. – IMDB

Free Birds is the perfect example of how some movies just don’t work and have no humor because its not my thing. However, according to the 17% Rotten Tomatoes score, I’m actually not the only one. First off, the voice acting here is fine as expected with Woody Harrelson, Owen Wilson and Amy Poehler at the helms. Its really the content of what this is and the jokes and dialogue that doesn’t work for me. In many levels, it was just really dumb. I have a peculiar humor so sometimes things like this just aren’t my cup of tea. I turned on Free Birds has background while I was working on something and its all so weird and feels rather unoriginal.

 

Turkeys going back in time to stop turkeys from turning into a tradition for Thanksgiving dinner seems a little odd. There might be some chuckles here and there but for the most part, I spent a lot of time just hoping it would end because it felt really boring and uninspired. I’m going to keep this short. It didn’t grab my attention all that much and the premise isn’t all that interesting to me. Its rare I feel so indifferent about animated films. I guess it was bound to happen eventually, right?

Have you seen Embers and/or Free Birds?
What are you thoughts?

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Fantasia Festival 2017: A Taxi Driver (2017)

A Taxi Driver (2017)

Director: Hoon Jang

Cast: Kang-ho Song, Thomas Kretschmann, Hai-jin Yoo, Jun-yeol Ryu

A Taxi Driver is Korean drama that is based on a true story. It becomes apparent at the end that parts of it particularly related to the said taxi driver especially beginning and ending may be fictionalized mostly because this unnamed brave soul deserved the recognition and yet has never been found since the event. Before we jump too far in, A Taxi Driver is the retelling of how a taxi driver down on his luck decided to take a job to drive a German reporter to Gwangju in 1980 without realizing what was actually happening. The German reporter Jurgen Hinzpeter is an actual person and does have a recording of a clip here made in 2015 before he passed away in 2016 thanking his brave friend who he never got to meet again because he had given a fake name and phone number. This story is a retelling of his story. The best comparison of A Taxi Driver would be to Argo except this is a story about men walking into Gwangju as outsiders and leaving as insiders.

A Taxi Driver starts off in the most lighthearted fashion as we watch this taxi driver drive down the road happily singing along to a song. He makes judgmental comments about university student protesters blocking the road and causing the decrease in clients. Its pretty much an everyday feeling of seeing this man. In fact, it is done so well that it feels like we can connect with his character immediately. Whatever the first half an hour of the film felt like would not prepare you for the rest of it. There is no doubt that the tone gets much more serious as expected with the material and incredibly dramatic but all done effectively. Many will know Kang-ho Song from Korean monster movie, The Host however, its been over a decade and his acting has elevated into this emotional performance as taxi driver, Sa-bok Kim.

The director and the script both hit exactly the right tones. A Taxi Driver is a longer film however, there is only a few moments where we will notice a little drag. This film is about the uprising and seeing how the media released under government and what really happened had a huge discrepancy. The events are ruthless and this movie captures those heartless and confused, not to mention angry and frustrated moments very well as while this is set in a political background, the uprising itself is really talked about in broad strokes but rather focuses on the civilians and these two men who eventually bond together despite their backgrounds to take this hidden story to tell the world. Dramatization in slow motion was also used in parts to accentuate. A Taxi Driver turns into a heavy movie very quickly. It is also a tense experience as we follow these two men escape. However, the script and director adds in car chases to make it more gripping also.

As mentioned before, Kang-ho Song delivered an outstanding performance. However, we have to also acknowledge the great performances by Thomas Kretschmann as Jurgen Hinzpeter. Their parts together truly make this film have their moments as they both struggle to communicate due to language barrier and we see their communication and views align and they understand each other more. The performances overall were truly outstanding and the younger cast, Jun-yeol Ryu takes on a university protester also takes on a supporting role that truly connects as well.

A Taxi Driver is a fantastic movie filled with great performances and the retells a tense, gripping and emotional time in Korea when they struggled for their nation’s democracy.

Fantasia Festival 2017: Bushwick (2017)

Bushwick (2017)

bushwick

Director: Cary Murnion & Jonathan Milott

Cast: Brittany Snow, Dave Bautista, Angelic Zambrana, Christian Navarro, Arturo Castro

When a Texas military force invades their Brooklyn neighborhood, 20-year-old Lucy and war veteran Stupe must depend on each other to survive. – IMDB

Bushwick sets in an intriguing scenario if the southern states would be persuaded by Texas to join in to overturn the government. Their plan is to use insurgence to forcefully takeover unwilling cities. Their next target to get the Northern states was to make a small city of Bushwick located in New York. As the insurgence starts, we fall on scene with Lucy, played by Brittany Snow on her way to her grandmother’s house to introduce her boyfriend. It doesn’t take long before they head out and realize that something is very wrong and separated from her boyfriend almost immediately from the start, she has to avert danger. Luckily, circumstances lead her to meet Stupe, an ex-Marine who knows everything she doesn’t about survival and has a few guns to protect as well and who reluctantly agrees to take her to her destination, while trying to figure out what actually is going on.

Bushwick is a tight and tense ride. While the subtext is the insurgence from the private military force which terrifies the city itself and is the centre of all the danger, the best part of it all is truly the unlikely team in Lucy and Stupe. Together, the character development here and how they bond together throughout the film which is really only set over a few hours was compelling and engaging. One of the best parts of Bushwick is how they chose to film it. It has somewhat of a found footage way even though it isn’t. The start of the film is the best example as they choose to begin using the angle of the helicopters scanning the city from above. However, the best parts is how it chooses to follow the characters. We never seem to follow them directly in back but in fact, it chooses to go watch their feet as they scurry from location to location. It creates a sense of suspense as the camera plays with what we can see and in turn allowing us to be shocked just as the character by the unknown situations ahead.

Lucy and Stupe are two very different people. In fact, the story focuses on their story while not making it too dramatic and keeping it with the action. In fact, it focuses more on the situation at hand and how they work together to get themselves out. Because of this, there may be a difference in tone throughout the movie. While it may seem to make us wonder how serious to take Bushwick, it is well-timed and particularly makes Lucy’s character more believable when she makes some silly decisions in the beginning that may end up having serious consequences. As the movie moves along, their character growth and the value of their team is what will keep it intriguing as they see what this insurgence has caused the people around them especially the reason why a small town like Bushwick was targetted. Brittany Snow and Dave Bautista pull out some of their best acting in this one and delivers two great performances.

Talking about the reason of why Bushwick is chosen make this film seems like an obvious social commentary of sorts. It reflects perhaps the disagreements and wars about the values and beliefs of Northern and Southern states in America. However, the more prominent one is the fact that Bushwick represents a lower class multicultural community which seems like they are disjointed because of that and make them an easier target. However, surprisingly the film takes a turn of how the city’s different groups each may react differently to the insurgence but still survival may just bring everyone together. Going deeper into the message this may convey will enter spoiler territory so we’ll refrain.

To be honest, Bushwick is an interesting premise and it does take the path of some contrived moments. There may even be some predictable happenings that are meant to shock however, it also succeeds in creating an engaging experience by delivering characters such as Lucy and Stupe that make us want to cheer for them to get out of this ordeal. There are quiet and dramatic moments to help see a deeper side of the characters as well as endearing bonding moments, added in with a few comedic moments to slice through the tension a little. All of these moments tie in very well together. There is no doubt in the end that this is meant to be taken with a serious tone and for the most part everything fits together for an action and suspenseful watch through Bushwick. Its not so much about the politics of it all as it is about survival. Just for the performances and the premise and setting, Bushwick is worth a watch.

Fantasia Festival 2017: Fashionista (2016)

Fashionista (2016)

fashionista

Director and writer: Simon Rumley

Cast: Amanda Fuller, Ethan Embry, Eric Balfour, Alex Essoe, Jemma Evans, Alexandria DeBerry, Devon Bonnee

A woman who uses clothes as an emotional crutch discovers her life isn’t as ideal as she thought… – IMDB

Consumerism is a thriving issue to look at. The addiction of it all and here lies the centre of what this drama and mystery thriller is all about. As the words opening the movie at Fantasia, Fashionista takes you into a world of addiction, sex and rock and roll. Simon Rumley directs and writes this film in a non-linear fashion and films it mostly in that non-linear way. Experimental and unique and the texture of it all is also incredibly independent. It is one of the reasons that Fantasia Festival is such a wonderful experience as we get to see these special pieces of cinema and dive into worlds and film-making styles that we don’t usually get exposed to. Fashionista’s strength lies in this originality of its non-linear presentation. It makes its audience work hard to piece it all together throughout and draw their own conclusions. The majority of it makes sense and the final act will generally resolve most of your suspicions. It sends a message about consumerism and the addiction of one person possibly in an irrational way. Simon Rumley does a great job and capturing the emotions and making very artistic shots.

Its hard to talk about Fashionista without giving praise to its cast. Amanda Fuller takes on the role of April, a woman who lives a dream owning a vintage clothes shop with her husband, Eric ( played by Ethan Embry). She loves clothes and is addicted to its touch and fabric as we quickly learn. She goes through many outfits throughout the movie, something like over a hundred. Amanda Fuller embodies April very well as she is believable in showing us her addiction and as her life falls apart, the reliance on these superficial things in her life. Her behavior shifts easily with every scene especially as she finds out that her husband is having an affair. None of this is spoilers as the trailer shows it. This hops her into another phase in life which enters rich bad boy Randall (played by Eric Balfour) that takes her for another trip filled with sex. Of course, all this is jumbled as the film presents snippets of Randall in the first act and makes us wonder what his whole deal is. Both Ethan Embry and Eric Balfour play great supporting roles here. Their characters are different and in turn as the story unfolds gives us a different feeling.

However, Fashionista does fall short with a less than engaging first act. It takes a long time and spends a little too much time emphasizing on the marriage breakup. Perhaps it is to make sure we connect with April more to feel her pain and her reliance and release with her clothes as she has almost orgasmic reactions when she is with them. It creates a mesmerizing snapshot however it is done a little too much. Some parts of the slow first act could’ve cut down to make this a more compact experience. Not to mention that the fragments were a little much. While well-timed such as keeping the injection of a mysterious woman played by Alex Essoe delightfully short but enough to make us wonder her connection to the rest of the fragments that doesn’t seem to go together. Fashionista truly picks up as Eric Balfour enters the scene and takes us on another journey, similar but different and possibly a little more thrilling. It teases us with a few events and when the entire piece falls into place, it offers up a lot of tension but leaving space for still some mystery.

The rock and roll part is a cornerstone of Fashionista. Its carefully selected music that transitions from one scene to the next or highlighting a certain event or moment. However, it also is these moments where the music is overpowering. Perhaps it is to make sure it overwhelms to emphasize the emotions and become more involved with the story. Unfortunately, it is one of the situations a few moments in we wished that we were watching this at home and we can turn down the volume or later on, whether the movie would voice its story better and be more thrilling and experience using silence instead.

Fashionista is a unique experience, highlighting an important message about addiction to consumerism. It is worth viewing simply for the fantastic performance from Amanda Fuller and its original concept of non-linear storytelling filmed in a non-linear way. It is a thrilling experience however it falls short due to a slow first act and overwhelming musical moments that took away from the movie more than it added. Less is more comes to mind in terms of that criticism. Fashionista is a worth a watch for all its outstanding elements however, perhaps more suitable as a home experience.

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.

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: 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.