The Kidd here...
I'm back with another batch of reviews from my time spent up in Montreal at the Fantasia International Film Festival. I've just about managed to catch up on everything I saw in my few days there, as it was still a pretty sizable batch of movies. I've got one final review to come for one of my favorite films of the fest and a couple of interviews still heading your way, but check out a few of these flicks, as there's some really good stuff to watch.
How do you have a film about a group of friends trying to make good on a pact to all have girlfriends by the time the first of them is to be married? Made in the United States, this would have turned into your typical sex comedy, filled with dick and fart jokes and enough bodily fluids to open a sperm bank. It would have been crass. It would have been vulgar, and it probably would have been put in the hands of some Judd Apatow wannabe. It would have tried too hard to be funny and shocking at the same, while coming up short on both ends. AFRO TANAKA, based on the manga series, falls victim to none of those pitfalls, with Daigo Matsui delivering a comedy that’s smart, sweet and consistently hilarious to make all audiences laugh, regardless of cultural lines.
Played earnestly by Shota Matsuda, the film is built around its loser-ish title character. He’s a genuinely nice guy with a good heart, but he’s not exactly the brightest and lacks any type of social skills, rendering him completely awkward to just about everyone outside of his childhood circle of friends. After talking a good game about how all of their virgin selves could easily find girlfriends (notice the lack of urgency to get laid), Tanaka finds himself the only single one of the bunch when he gets an invitation in the mail for his friend’s wedding. AFRO TANAKA takes you along on his journey to find someone, anyone who he can call his girl.
Much of AFRO TANAKA’s strength comes from Matsuda’s ability to balance Tanaka’s complete cluelessness when it comes to women with his general likability. Tanaka could easily be viewed as pathetic and devoid of any hope, but Matsuda is able to elevate him to a character you root for. You want him to find that lady. You don’t want him to embarrass himself any further. You almost want to reach through the screen, grab a hold of him and shake the shit out of him, in the hopes that he then might get it. After all, this is a guy who crafts a tentative calendar of relationship goals – everything from first kiss to first sex – in order to have some sort of reasonable timeline in his head for whether having a girlfriend in time for the wedding is entirely possible by his watch.
He doesn’t know how to dress to impress. He has no idea how to talk to, or even exchange text messages with a girl. He’s never had a girlfriend before, doesn’t know what to do with one and winds up making you laugh trying to figure it out with every boneheaded idea he thinks might work. Of course his friends aren’t any help either, as they’re hardly the playboys they think they are in their own heads, and what we wind up with is a group of easily identifiable guys who speak to all of us who have ever pondered way too hard over how to get a girl we really liked.
The script by Masafumi Nishida and Masaharu Noritsuke keeps the jokes coming at a rapid pace, and the ones that don’t quite land are very few and far between. Tanaka’s internal monologue, which allows him to comment on things that aloud would make the character a complete douchebag, keeps him honest and relatable in his over-analysis, and makes you feel as if you know exactly how he ticks. There are no secrets to the film, as it places you right in the shoes of the protagonist and allows you to get it through his thoughts and actions.
AFRO TANAKA turned out to be one of the bigger surprises I caught at Fantasia, and, if you have the chance to catch it Stateside, this is one I think you’ll appreciate. It doesn’t have to be dirty to cover its faults, because it’s quite simply that good.
Sometimes a film tries to do way too much. In fact, sometimes a movie might be better off to go in a unintended direction, one that makes sense within the context of a movie. Instead writers and directors hold strong to their original concepts, with no bend at all to their vision… and that’s fine and dandy that they then can go ahead and make the movie they want. However, that’s doesn’t necessarily turn it into good art or even a good film.
CITADEL is a perfect example of a movie that works at the outset, building up its perfectly terrifying premise and giving us the lense of a man crippled by paranoia and fear to witness it… and then about halfway through, pisses that all away in order to jam diseased zombies or cannibalistic zombies or whatever type of generic creature director Ciaran Foy ultimately settles on into the story. Such a choice actually takes the horror of CITADEL down a great deal, because random events of awfulness are much more frightening than something we’ve seen countless times before, and it subsequently cuts the balls off the film by making it feel pretty ordinary.
Tommy (Aneurin Barnard) lives in an apartment building with his pregnant wife, but, when they are in the process of moving out, he witnesses through the elevator window her being attacked by three hooded kids. They jam a hypodermic needle into her stomach, and while the baby is saved, she dies due to an unidentified infection after being in a coma for nine months. Needless to say, Tommy is a little fucked-up, having to raise his daughter now all by himself after witnessing such a tragic event.
This renders Tommy as a shut-in, scared to leave his new home out of fear that the kids might be back, only this time they’re looking for him and looking to take away his baby girl. Watching Tommy absolutely crippled by fear is a fascinating watch, as you witness the madness of this man slowly take over all aspects of his life. At one point, armed with a hammer, he takes up shop in his bathroom with his daughter, hoping that no one will come for them. Barnard is gripping as this victim when CITADEL sticks with that portion of the story. Then a crazy priest (GAME OF THRONES’ James Cosmo) shows up, the kids are stripped of the premise they had going for them, a magical blind child is added in and it’s all downhill from there.
CITADEL is about half a good movie, and that first half is really solid. Watching a man suffer a nervous breakdown prompted by his past while trying to hold it together for his kid would have been a far greater idea for CITADEL to follow than taking the easy way out by incorporating humans that aren’t really humans. It feels so lazy and stale that all of the good its first half did is wasted on second and third acts that really don’t come together at all. CITADEL started off with a great deal of potential, but that’s about as far as it ever got.
There’s a familiarity to the Icelandic crime thriller BLACK’S GAME that comes from watching any number of gangster/drug dealer movies over the years. There’s always a crew looking to make their mark in their trade of choice, and at the heart of it is a guy who really don’t belong, one who sort of falls into the life and then becomes consumed by it, because who wants to give up the money and the drugs and the women that easily? In this set-up, it’s Stebbi (Thor Kristjansson), branded Psycho by his new friends. In a twist of fate, he runs into an old friend outside of jail where he was just released following a drunken assault. In exchange for some legal counsel, Stebbi must do a favor for the bruising Toti (Johannes Haukur Johannesson). He has to go into a crime scene and find some hidden drugs… and with his discovery, just like that, he’s in the inner circle.
From there, we get a decent look at the Icelandic drug trade and the assortment of characters who come together in BLACK’S GAME to revolutionize it via a network of distribution and importation. Stebbi gets in deeper and deeper, further over his head, to the point that you know where things are headed for him, but there’s a meandering quality to the rest of the movie, as BLACK’S GAME feels like it’s stuck too much in just showing us this lifestyle without telling much about it. There’s a paper thin plot at best to keep these characters involved, and a great deal of the film feels like loosely connected scenes that don’t actually benefit one steady thread.
I would have liked to see BLACK’S GAME do a lot more with the conventions of the genre rather than being such a slave to the same devices we’ve seen time and time again. There is a chemistry between Kristjansson and Johannesson that manages to draw you in, wanting to see how these childhood friends will come full circle, but when Toti takes a backseat to Bruno, a new partner in their operation, BLACK’S GAME loses a bit of steam and never quite recovers, falling into the rut of being a copycat instead of doing something different with the material.
I’m much more of a psychological horror kind of guy. Give me a scenario that could actually happen and I’ll take that over a slasher flick any day. Home invasion movies… those scare the shit out of me. Granted, I’m not sitting in the theatre, cowering with my eyes closed, but those are the types of films that terrify me in the moment, because you just never know. It could happen to anyone in any place at any time. You could be enjoying a nice evening at home with your family, watching TV, eating dinner, playing board games, whatever you like doing together, and, all of a sudden… BAM!!! Some crazy motherfuckers are coming in your door, taking over your house, threatening you, scaring your wife, traumatizing your children. Fuck… that’s some real horror right there. These are the thoughts that can keep you up at night. These are the fears that REPLICAS preys upon.
Mark (Josh Close) and Mary (Selma Blair) are trying to recover from the accidental death of their daughter and take their son up to a remote vacation home for some time away that they can spend with one another. This is a fractured family that hasn’t figured out how to deal with the blame and grief yet, and, because of the tragedy that has struck them, there’s a degree of discomfort that comes from watching them interact with each other. Other than their kid who is just being because he doesn’t know any better, Mark and Mary no longer know what to say to each other, how to act around one another… their relationship is severely damaged.
Unfortunately, they don’t have any time to try dealing with it before an overly friendly family of neighbors comes to pay them a visit one morning, dropping off some extra wood and trying to arrange for a meal sometime soon since company up in the area is rather scarce. Mark relents to their pushiness, and inviting Bobby (James D’Arcy), Jane (Rachel Minor) and their son to dinner later that night, he makes a mistake that is going to eliminate all of the peace and quiet they were hoping for.
In addition to the home invasion aspect that comes from allowing these uneasy and awkward strangers that clearly have something off about them into your home, REPLICAS is carried by the performances of D’Arcy and Minor. Their characters are driven to find what they think is the perfect life, and their intrusive path to finding it is hypnotic to watch. Filled with odd questions and even odder behavior, Bobby and Jane’s interactions with Mark and Mary take an inherent piece of tension and continue building upon it with purpose, as the truth behind the neighbors slowly reveals itself.
REPLICAS paints itself into a corner though by trying to contain the course of events as they would realistically unfold. I’m not one to call for violence simply for violence’s sake, but there’s a lack of it here that then prevents the stakes from effectively being established. That leads to plenty of talk in perhaps over-developing both families and not nearly enough action. REPLICAS could have benefitted from more, because less doesn’t quite do the trick when you’re talking about threatening confrontation. This also leads to a bit of a weak resolution, as it comes about mostly through stupidity inconsistent with the rest of the film, and not by someone’s limits being pushed so far that action is the only choice.
First-time director Jeremy Power Regimbal does an excellt job in building these relationships, as skewed as they may become, and, due to the uncertainty of where they’re going at the start, he’s able to ratchet up the suspense as REPLICAS wears on. He doesn’t quite land the whole film without a few bumps towards the third act, but there’s enough in REPLICAS’ premise and antagonistic performances to keep you hooked.
Read up HERE for my reviews of SUSHI GIRL, BLOOD LETTER and SCHOOLGIRL APOCALYPSE, HERE for my review of ERRORS OF THE HUMAN BODY and HERE for my reviews of COLD BLOODED, A FANTASTIC FEAR OF EVERYTHING, DEAD SUSHI and EASTON'S ARTICLE, all from the 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival.
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