Friday, February 18, 2011

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World - 2011 - YUBARI Japan Premiere

Director - Edgar Wright

Rating: 4/5

In a recent interview Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, regular contributors to Edgar Wright, discussed the differing approaches between theirs and Wright's recent projects. Pegg and Frost with Paul went the route of compromise, prepared to make adjustments and play down the more niche-appeal qualities (i.e creationism debate), Wright with Scott Pilgrim went full steam ahead on the film he had envisioned, studio money bursting at the seams. One has since become a massive box-office flop, any guesses? If only there was a way to measure the number of torrents downloaded, perhaps it would paint a different picture, but alas, to many, the commercial line appears to be the bottom line in success. The film is saturated with post-modern referencing, swapping cinema structure for that of computer games, and splices it all with the comic-book origins it is adapted from. Not for everyone perhaps, but this is nothing if not astoundingly unique.

Scott Pilgrim - twenty-something video games geek, bass guitarist for battle of the bands contender Sex Bob-omb, and serial girlf-friend dumper(perceivably a mirror onto the target demographic) - lives in Toronto and is dating a high-school girl, Knives. However, after having his head turned in a chance meeting with Ramona, his true destiny, he begins a surreal adventure to win her heart. The only problem being that she has a past, a past that wants to beat the crap out of him. They come in the form of The Seven Deadly Ex'es, scorned lovers from Ramona's omantic back catalogue. Can Scott make his way through them all, without becoming the eighth member, and still be standing at the end? Thankfully, he seems to be blessed with the fighting powers of his video-gaming heroes, unfortunately so do the seven.

The ex'es that Scott must battle are where the film plugs into the world of computer-games. This is less three acts than seven levels. Each of the duels has a different vibe, ranging from Bollywood, 2D fighting games, The Matrix , to a CGI sound-wave monster vs. dragon. They use the video-game "beat-em up" genre mechanic as a starting point, and anyone with even a passing knowledge will see little references flying at them, left, right, and centre. Wright, however, said that the film takes its structure more directly from musicals, the songs and dances are simply substituted with fights.

When the pixelated Universal globe spins into frame at the start and its classic orchestral opening is done with sketchy eight-bit synth sounds, the film's modus operandus is established. From here to the end, almost every frame is decorated with some sort of retro flourish. Be it the music from old Zelda games introducing Scott Pilgrim as it once did a pint-size Gameboy character, ideas being signified by the kerching of Super-Mario grabbing a coin, or fights ending with a KO and points total flashing up on screen, there are a wealth of nudges and winks here. Apparently, Wright procured the use of the classic Nintendo sounds by writing a letter arguing that they essentially constituted his generation's nursery rhymes. If all of this sounds overwhelming, it never feels excessive, and really helps to posit the picture in this universe of straddled influences.

Despite everything going on, the film gets its feet from the pitch-perfect Michael Cera. Having watched him go from George-Michael Bluth in Arrested Development, to the split-personality of Youth in Revolt, all the while constantly refining his screen-persona, it is a treat to see him turn this into a comic-book hero, and in a strange way feels like the natural conclusion for this uber-geek.

Tropical Thunder claimed that going "semi-retard" was a sure way for an actor to target Oscar glory, well it appears that there is new rule to add to that tradition; if your career is flat-lining, play a snappy, wise-cracking gay man. Val Kilmer did it in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Keiran Culkin does it superbly here. He is brilliant, stealing every scene he is in, and every girl's boyfriend he meets. Gideon, the leader of The League of Ex'es, is played by Jason Schwartzman which surely makes him and Cera the most unlikely super-hero/super-villain pairing in cinema history. Schwartzman channels the angst he has into making Gideon a dislikable, but very watchable nemesis. The dialogue is punchy throughout without falling into over-hipness. There are some great tongue in cheek one-liners as well, "I cashed my last rain cheque."

The criticism leveled at this film is that if this is aimed at you then you're going to love it, but, If you don't have any basis in the cultural landscape being used here then it's going to zoom over your head. There is nothing exclusionary going on here, like Tarantino's Kill Bill, it is not post-modern for post-modern's sake, beneath all the layers this is just a really fun movie. Admittedly, it is a little on the shallow side, but it's not supposed to be anything more. The saddest thing about the commercial malaise here, is that when given the keys to the studio's cheque book, if there's not a sizable return on the investment you won't get them back for awhile. Before Wright can attempt anything on this frenziedly ambitious scale again we might find that he has to prove himself once more.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2011

2011.2.24 (Thursday) - 2011.2.27 (Sunday)

The Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival (YIFF) celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and rather than resting on its laurels has decided to make its third decade count. It aims to broaden its appeal without losing what has made it such a distinct festival. The line-up this year has something for all tastes, ranging from the mainstream to film geek fodder. A wide selection of Japanese films, some of the festival big-hitters from around the world, a handful of intriguing Korean films, and some short films in the mix, too, have this looking like a vintage year. Film in Japan will be there every step of the way, with tweets, photos, reviews, and interviews.

The films break down into four sections -

  • Invited films: featuring the pick of the crop from this years international festival circuit.
  • The Off Theatre Competition: 9 films whittled down from over 347 entrants, personally selected by Yubari, will vie for the 2 million yen prize (about 24,000$).
  • The Forecast: A selection of 18 exciting and innovative films from film-makers to look out for in the future.
  • Yubari Choice: An array of Japanese and international films that offer locals a chance to catch films that would never be screened outside of Tokyo otherwise.
There are also events and discussions with film-makers throughout the festival.

Yubari has adopted a new philosophy to take it forwards, Yubarism. YIFF has always had a certain uniqueness being situated in a snowy, isolated mountain town on a ski resort in Japan's northern-most island, Hokkaido. The town is all about film, movie posters of yesteryear adorn the streets of the city and the festival is a massive part of the communities' identity. The central idea is to have a festival with fewer barriers between film-makers and film lovers, working at its own pace. Unlike the VIP treatment of most film events Yubari aims to make everything accessible, even the opening and closing parties are open to the public. Throughout the festival social events are held, like outdoor stone oven parties, fostering a far more intimate festival experience.Hence the term Yubarism, a mixture of the towns name, Yubari and rhythm.

However, it has not been plain sailing for the festival in recent years. In 2007 the event was cancelled for the first time since it began. The financial woes of the town brought proceedings to a halt. The festival, along with all other local government projects, was cut. Thankfully, the citizens of the town rescued it from the brink and now, it is run as a private enterprise with the help of commercial sponsorship. YIFF has had to adapt to circumstance and there has been a noticeable scaling down.The international prize, which saw film-makers of the caliber of the Coen brothers and Tarantino in Yubari, has had to make way. Tarantino, out here for Reservoir Dogs, managed to get Pulp Fiction written while locked away in his room at the events HQ, Hotel Shuparo. In 2004 he even gave the town its own trivia point, naming Kill Bill's psycho school-girl Gogo Yubari after the town.

The result is that Yubari works presently, as an opportunity for homegrown talent to get some much deserved recognition and credit.Yubari more than ever has found its place as a vantage point for new talent to make their mark on the Japanese industry. Among recent winners was Tsuki Inoue, who Film in Japan interviewed in Fukuoka last year, using the prize money to make her most recent work, Autumn Adagio.

Here are Film in Japan's picks of this years offerings:

I Saw The Devil

Korean revenge thriller from Ji-Woon Kim, of Bittersweet Life and The Good, The Bad, and The Weird fame. Tautly paced, shockingly violent, and terrifically acted by two powerhouses of Korean cinema, Min-Sik Choi, and Byung-Hun Lee.


What with all the revenge films and extreme violence in contemporary Korean cinema, you would be excused for thinking there was anything else. Three women dissect the relationship of Youn, a life model, and her ex-lover Kang, a pick- pocket.

Pink Subaru

To buy a car is the ultimate goal of sushi chef Elzobar, who works in Tel Aviv. Having realized his dream, in the form of a black Subaru, it is promptly stolen. His friends, family, and community begin the hunt for the stolen car.

Hell Driver

A splatter zombie film, with Romero-esque social commentary from Japanese gore maestro Nishimura, best known for Tokyo Gore Police. Filmed in Hokkaido, this is Yubari's local produce.

Polar Circle Presents: Unknown Creatures

An omnibus of Japanese short films that attempts to explore the boundaries of cinema, looking at humanity through unknown creatures. It could be very interesting.

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

Post-modernism is ramped up to the max in this adaptation of an indie graphic novel with a video-game structure. Michael Cera stars as Scott Pilgrim, 21st century super-hero.

Of Gods and Men

Winner of the Palme D'Or at last years Cannes festival, the story of the kidnapping of monks in Algeria in 1996 has attracted plaudits all over the world.

Boku to Tsuma no 1778 Monogatari - 1,778 Stories of Me and My Wife - 2011

Director - Mamoru Hoshi

Rating - 2/5

Mixing surreal elements with the tearjerker formula, this ends up less than the sum of its parts.

Weepy movies based on true stories have the prerequisite of being sad, and this is in bucketloads. What marks this out from other films that demand a box of kleenex on hand, are the main character's short stories and their surreal visualization. However, confines of the genre ensure, though there are some nice ideas, the melodrama is cranked up to 11.

Sakutaro or "Saku" is a head in the clouds creative type, who is obsessed with robots that look straight out of 1950’s TV serializations. He writes odd fiction for a sci-fi periodical, and lives with his high-school sweetheart and wife Seiko, who acts more like his mother than his partner. When they receive the tragic news that Seiko has contracted terminal cancer Saku embarks on a mission to write a short story for her every day . He hopes that giving her something to smile about will help her fight back against the cancer. The film follows the two, and his writing, as her condition gradually worsens.

Japanese popster and TV celebrity Tsuyoshi Kusanagi as Saku is hard to warm to. Attempting to work the charming eccentric angle he comes off, largely, as irritating. There is this childlike quality to him that is unnerving. Seiko, Yuko Takeuchi (The Ring) is generally just the foil to her wacky husband. She does handle Seiko's decline in health convincingly, but the couple's dynamic is hit and miss. There is an excess of soap opera acting going on; in close-up someone will smile to themselves, give an exaggerated look of determination, or have a eureka moment and grin up at the sky. Someone involved was reading too much "acting for dummies". The two both have quality when allowed to perform, this much is clear. An argument between the two suddenly snaps a painful sense of realness to the screen, yet these brief moments are decidedly in the minority. Ren Osugi puts in a shift as the hospital doctor who deals with the couple and is, as always, very good.

The short stories link in meaningfully with the real-world, working sometimes as allegories for the plot. They have a nice quirkiness about them, if a little on the insubstantial side. Saku lying on his back in a park stares upwards as the clouds begin to transform into spaceships and the local buildings turn into lumbering robots. One about a group of old androids being run out of their artic world by the flashy new models stands out. These moments are interestingly done and work nicely, and the shots of sci-fi memorabilia cluttered around Saku's house establish a tangible link between this fantasy world and reality. Ironically though, it is the cold close-ups of the black blots on Seiko's cancer scanse that are the most arresting and alien images.

1778 really starts hammering on the tear ducts in the last 45 minutes. Needless to say there were not many dry eyes in the screening I attended. In fact from about the 90 minute mark there was a perpetual background sob, and only those as cold as ice will remain totally resolute to the credits. Yet, this is one of the fundamental issues with the film, it is so relentlessly sad that it becomes exhausting to watch. Not helping is the fact that it's on the flabby side as well. The third act particularly, goes on for an age. There are a few unexpected turns but, unavoidably there is an inevitability with that number 1778 looming over the film. A bit more conciseness and subtlety would have been a massive improvement.

The basic premise reminded me a bit of Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep, which in turn made me wonder what kind of film this could have been. Whilst it is impossible to remain unmoved by the melodrama, there is a clinical nature to its tear jerking that feels emotionally manipulative. It is quite sad really when you think that films have the ability to make an inherently decent, and true story come across as sentimentalized and gushy. The originality of the parallel world in Saku’s stories is not enough to save this from mediocrity.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Akmareul Boatda - I Saw the Devil - 2011 YUBARI Japan Premiere

Director - Ji-Woon Kim

Rating - 4/5

Whenever a film starts with inoffensive background music on a quiet, dark, snowy road, alarm bells start ringing in your head. Especially, when said film is Korean, where the revenge flick is a refined art form. I Saw the Devil, misogynistic maybe, grotesque definitely, is pulsating, unrelentingly absorbing, heart in the mouth cinema from the off.

A young woman is waiting on the side of the road for a pick-up truck, on the phone to her fiancee, special agent Kim Soo Hyeoon, played by Byung-Hun Lee. Kyun-Chul passes by and offers her assistance with the flat tyre, which she politely declines. As she sits waiting, with the wind screen-wipers occasionally breaking the ominous silence, he comes back with a hammer to get her. He takes her to his underground kill-room where he proceeds with his ritual. The next day a young boy stumbles across a dismembered ear and informs the police. Kim, takes two weeks off work, starting his own vigilante mission, equipped with four photos of suspects. Having ruled out the first two, after beating them to a pulp, he finds his man and begins to exact his revenge. That old adage, to catch a criminal you have to think like one, is taken one step further as Kim decides to achieve, "a real complete revenge" you have to be 10,000 times as sadistic and cruel. Having forced Kyun-Chul to swallow a GPS tracker Kim hunts his prey, bringing him to the point of death, only to set him free to and start all over again.

At the heart of this film are the two immensely physical performances from Byung-Hun Lee (A Bittersweet Life) and Min-Sik Choi (Old Boy) as Kyun-Chul. Byung-Hun Lee is magnificent, controlled and brutal. The metamorphosis he undergoes from vengeful hero to morally gray psychopath is thoroughly believable. After catching Kyun-Chul and suffocating him until he loses consciousness there is a quasi-post-coital moment as he relishes in the relief. The pent-up rage of Kim is contrasted by the terrifying buck-shot performance of Choi. After Old Boy Choi comes to any film with baggage, and the moment his face looms up to the car window there is clearly only one direction this is heading. Choi gives Kyun-Chul the survival instincts of a trapped rat. In one incredible scene in a moving taxi he unleashes a stupendously bloody outburst, all the time the camera is revolving around the action. It is quite mind-boggling in its own right before you start to wonder just how Kim managed to shoot it. Choi is seethingly aggressive throughout, in one scene in a doctor's office the violence that emanates from him is heavy in the air. In his unbreaking glare there is a venom that sits just behind his eyes, it is emotionally draining just to watch. Kim begins to lose control and the two become flip-sides to the same coin, as the boundaries between good and evil are seriously muddied.

There are no lapses in pace so to speak, but the film sequentially snaps into action as the two leads lumber up for another round. These moments are laced with a tension and intensity other films struggle to get near to. When Kim interrupts Kyun-Chul mid-kill in the greenhouse it is a tour-de-force, visually stunning and blisteringly violent. It seems almost the norm for Choi to have seven bells beaten out of him on screen, but he is really put through the grinder here in scene after scene of unflinching, savage attacks. These battles are electrifying and push the film ever onwards, eyes glued to the screen you can't avert your gaze.

Ji-Woon Kim's previous work skips from genre to genre, horror, neo-noir, and what has been termed the Kim-Chi Western, however, he gives every film a unique sleekness that it is instantly recognizable.The film lurks in the darkness, neon-lights fizzing in the background, ominous red lamps dotted about. So engaging is the film that the darkly comic moments that turn up every so often jolt you briefly out of your trance; A knife handle slips off, a door-bell rings mid kill.There are some nice visual touches, too; Kyun-Chul lying on his back in the hotel staring up at the stuffed deer's head as a reminder of his predicament, or after having had the back of his head smashed in, waking up in a tunnel with light beaming through at the end of it. The illuminated angel wings that are attached to the rear-view mirror are particularly creepy.

When you compare this to the artistically bankrupt output of Hollywood, in the genre, Hostel for example, you realize what a thin line must be tread in order for a picture like this to refrain from degenerating into mere torture porn. Well directed, cerebral, and stylish, this is not one for the ultra-violence Asian movie ghetto. It is the product of a film-maker in complete control of his medium. Kim, in defence of his actions asks, "Do you know how it feels to have a huge rock in your chest?" For 2 hours, I did.