Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Fantasia 2011 Feedback: Final feedback

Today is Wednesday August 17th and the Fantasia Film Festival came to a close an Sunday August 7th, a full 10 days ago, so why still write about it? The answer is simple. Despite producing 10 full length reviews for films Between the Seats attended, there remain some gems that deserve mention. Consider the following as a ‘Capsule reviews’ column, but reserved for some final thoughts on films which received either world, Canadian, or Québec  premiers at Fantasia this past summer. 

A Horrible Way to Die (2010, Adam Wingard)

Told in non-chronological order, A Horrible Way to Die (it premiered at TIFF last year. How is it that the film is still trying to find an audience on the festival circuit?) is a character study that follows two people who must combat their respective addictions. Sarah (Amy Seimetz) is a former alcoholic attending support group meetings and Garrick (A. J. Brown) is a kind, well spoken, gentle serial killer. Anyone who crosses him on the street would not have the slightest idea that the fellow was afflicted with a seriously deranged condition, but the truth that lies beneath is grotesquely inhumane. Sarah is currently dating a fellow support group member (Joe Swanberg) whereas Garrick has just escaped custody and is on a search for non-other than Sarah, for flashbacks reveal that the two have an unexpected linked past.

A Horrible Way to Die was but the first in a series of films at the festival which proved that the American film scene is alive and well, one only needs to know where to look. Adam Wingard’s film makes a bold move in dealing with two disparate conditions and treating them like any other addiction. Shot in the ‘cinema vérité’ style which has grown immensely popular in recent years, it most certainly helps the viewers sink into this world of people desperately wanting to do well and right the wrongs committed in their pasts. One can understand how this can be the case for Sarah, but for Garrick, the situation is far more perplexing. It is obvious he is on a journey for something, but he his old habits are hard to relinquish, seeing as he goes about dispatching a great number of people in his quest to reunite with Sarah. Audiences might need to a few minutes to adjust to the non-chronological order of the story and understand what sort of tale director Wingard has reserved for them, but once things settle into place after some exposition, the movie clicks along nicely and studies the two central characters in a very truthful manner.

Perhaps more impressive than the psychologically gripping tale is the acting prowess of the two leads, Amy Seimetz and A. J. Brown. Both play bruised characters, and while the female lead is re-discovering the pleasure in life without the drink, the male’s way of life is still being dictated by his cruel habit. Of the two, it is fair to argue that Brown has the more difficult task. After all, how does one play a kind killer? His mannerisms just prior to murdering his victims is borderline sweet and he even sheds tears once the act has taken place, and yet by any standards he is a terrible person. Is it permissible to empathize with this man or preferable to shun as many would? What exactly does he want to Sarah? The film challenges the viewer at virtually every turn and is uncompromising in its depiction of the lives of its two central figures.

Battlefield Heroes (2011, Lee Joon-ik)

Unbeknownst to myself and many others in the room, Lee Joon-ik’s picture is in fact a sequel, whose predecessor is Once Upon a Time in a Battlefield, released in 2003, but, as the director assured us all before the lights darkened, seeing the first episode is not a prerequisite. Sigh of relief.

The story takes the viewer bake to a very different time in Korea, back to the 7th century when various states were warring for control of the entire peninsula. During this particular chapter, it was a prolonged faceoff pitting the southern Shilla states against the northern Goguryeo. When the leader of the Shillas (Hwang Jeon-ming) makes a deal with the Chinese Tang Dynasty to attack together, the Goguryeo state and its headquarters in Pyongyang are in serious trouble.

If the above description has given the reader that Lee Joon-ik’s Battlefield Heroes is yet another run-of-the-mill historical epic, they are only partially correct in that assessment. The film does indeed feature military leaders and statesmen of sorts working their way through warfare tactics as well as bargains to share land once the battle is over and done with, and the movie had plenty of action scenes to boot. All that being said, this South Korean adventure film has a lot more in store for the viewer, with the results proving to be somewhat surprising. For starters, Lee clearly aims for comedy for the vast majority of the film’s run time. This is not such a terrible idea, even though it may put off more than a few people who like their historical epics as gritty and truthful as possible. While the director does not mean to state that war is nothing but a big joke, there is undoubtedly at attempt at poking some fun at how incredibly silly, overblown and complex wartime can be. The nature of the humour changes from very broad to witty seemingly on a dime. I must admit to preferring comedic with wit to that which is too broad, meaning that when Battlefield Heroes was going for some of the sillier jokes it was not as engaging, but on the whole the experiment of meshing the ‘war epic’ and the comedy’ paid off more than it did not. There is an entire host of character plot threads that director Lee Joon-ik works with, some of which are more serious and dramatic in nature, which, ironically, are seemingly more forgettable because of that. On that level too the film is not a rousing success, but makes it to the finish line nonetheless.

Something that surprised me was how the movie became inventive in its action scenes. What looked to be at first mostly a story played for laughs with only sporadic action at best ended up showing some impressive colours when armies clashed. This is not to argue that the picture becomes intensely gritty, for it does not, but rather that the sides, especially Goguryeo state, put into place several clever battle tactics to earn an advantage while in defence of their castle.  Even some of these moments go for laughs at times, but beneath all the fun and games  are some genuinely interesting attack and defence mechanisms on display. In that sense, Battlefield Heroes really does function as a ‘war film’ in addition to being a comedy.

Brawler (2011, Chris Sivertson)

Taking a page out of David Fincher’s Fight Club and today’s ever popular MMA events, Chris Sivertson delivers a powerful story of two brothers who practice a no holds barred type of boxing in an underground league on a boat off the coast of stunning New Orleans. One in is Charlie (Nathan Grubbs), slightly older, wiser, married to the beautiful Kat (Pell James) and also earns some real money by working in construction. The other brother is Bobby (Marc Senter), younger, far more brash and cocky, frequently running into money problems with little to no venues available to him to pay the money back to the lone sharks. Charlie is eventually forced to not only retire from fighting after a terribly violent accident, but also have his little brother as a houseguest after the latter once again runs into the wrong crowd. Bobby grows impatient as a lack of fighting opportunities present themselves, but his brothers wife Kat proves to be a worthwhile distraction, at least until Charlie notices...

Despite my adoration for this film, there is one slight that could be said about it: it does not boast an original plot. After a few minutes to properly intake the sights and sounds of world Charlie and Bobby live in (the film opens with a brilliantly constructed opening sequence. Everything from the cinematography to the music is pitch perfect), the overall story kicks into gear and that is when things become a wee bit too predictable. There are few true surprises, but despite that noticeable flaw, if we are to call it that, Sivertson’s Brawler is a fantastic journey. At the center of the piece are actors Nathan Grubbs, Marc Senter and Pell James, who all performs their roles admirably. The dynamics between this trio are more than enough to make up for whatever predictable plot developments arise. Even despite their predictability, they do feel natural and emotionally satisfying. To witness the crumbling of a solid brotherhood duo is tough. Grubbs and Senter in particular have superb chemistry and one can believe them as brothers. Their story arcs are dealt with tremendous care and love by the script and the direction. One can take it as a case where the story holds less importance than the actual character relationships. On that level, the film is a stunning success.It should be noted that the film features delightful music too, although filming in New Orleans must have helped a little bit.

The fights scenes themselves are delivering in convincing and often brutal fashion. The editing and camera positioning is such that the viewer truly gets to witness what a brawl of this nature is like. The intensity of these moments is palpable and certainly made for some of the more viscerally powerful scenes in cinema so far in 2011. It surely helped that co-star Marc Senter himself had practiced some forms of self-defence and combat in his younger days, which only added to the authenticity of this crucial passages. Hopefully Brawler will earn some sort of theatrical and DVD release, even if it happens to be a small one, for it deserves to be seen by many. 

And with that, Between the Seats official coverage of Fantasia 2011 come to an end. We sincerely hope you enjoyed reading these movies as much as we enjoyed writing about them.As the saying goes, all good things must come to an end.

The lineups on Mackay street under 30 degree weather, the pit stops at Tim Hortons or Al Taîb Pizza, that chap Daniel who zapped off the lights before every film began in the Hall screening room, the bizarre film goers who would imitate the meowing of cats whenever said lights would go out, the Concordia buildings that I accepted as a familiar spot for 3 weeks (I'm a McGill graduate)...see you all in 2012!


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