Friday, October 2, 2015

Fantastic Fest 2015 Movie Review: ASSASSINATION CLASSROOM

Assassination Classroom.
Director: Eiichiro Hasumi.
Writer: Tatsuya Kanazawa, based on the manga by Yusei Matsui.
Actors: Ryosuke Yamada, Masaki Suda, and Ninoyima Kazunari. 

Sometimes you hear of a movie's premise, and you think it must be a joke. That's what Assassination Classroom is like when I first heard of it.

The basic premise is that a powerful yellow tentacle creature who destroyed 70% of the moon is now threatening to destroy the Earth by March. But for some strange reason, he makes a bargain with the Japanese government: he will become the teacher for the misfit class 3E from Kunugigaoka Middle School, and teach them in the ways of assassination so they can attempt to kill him thus averting the earth's destruction. It also doesn't help that the teacher, named Koro Sensei/UT aka "Unkillable Teacher," has a big smiley face as a head and can move at Mach 20 speed, create clones of himself, and fly.

What makes this movie work is how serious the characters are regarding the situation. Not only that but through the course of the movie you end up caring about the characters and the relationship they have with Koro Sensei. That's pretty weird because, you know, he wants to destroy the earth and all of that but the movie commits and sells you on the bond.

While Koro Sensei is this vibrant and colorful presence both literally and figuratively, the kids in the classroom all fall into some broad stereotype of a school movie. You have the sensitive protagonist in Nagisa (Yamada), the cool badass kid sitting in the back of the classroom, Karma (Suda) and various bully jock types and then mostly background characters.

On the other hand, the movie is drop dead funny. There's just something so funny about a teacher who is helping a classroom of middle schoolers try to figure out how they can kill him. There are so many times when the students are trying out crazy plots on how to kill him, botching them all, yet all the while Koro Sensei is praising them for their ingenuity.

The movie does struggle a bit to find its plot beyond the premise. The main antagonist proves to be a little random and out-of-nowhere and never seemed like a convincing threat. In addition, since this is part of an ongoing series and there was a sequel already announced, this felt more like a pilot than a full-fledged movie. Hopefully that can be corrected next time around.

Still, Assassination Classroom does have a lot of sweet moments that show Koro Sensei's humanity and the bond that he develops with his students. He is a committed teacher that not only wants to teach them how to kill him but also how to be successful, well-rounded adults, hell he even flies all of them to different parts of the world. This figures in greatly because they are considered societal misfits that won't amount to anything so him choosing the class to mentor is a very rebellious and subertive act.

Despite the few complaints Assassination Classroom is one of the best times you could have in a theater this year. It's surprisingly full of heart and it makes you root for the slightly demented creature that will destroy the planet.

Fantastic Fest 2015 Review: THE DEVIL'S CANDY

The Devil's Candy.
Director and Writer: Sean Byrne.
Actors: Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, and Kiara Glasco. 

The Loved Ones was one of the most famously hard to find movies out of the festival circuit in the 2009-2010 season. Director Sean Byrne has been away ever since, but thankfully he is back with The Devil's Candy, which is his second movie and his first American production. It's a much more coherent effort with amazing performances by the cast, and one of the heaviest soundtracks in recent memory with cuts by Pantera, Slayer, and a score by the drone metal legends, Sunn 0))).

The story revolves around a struggling metalhead artist, Jesse (Embry), who moves into a new huge house in rural Texas with his wife Astrid and his equally metal-obsesssed daughter, Zooey. As it goes, this also happens to be the site of a couple of murders, and of course, once they move into the house, Jesse's work turns to the more macabre and disturbing. What's worse is that the son of the former residents keeps coming around because the voice in his head is telling him to do some unpleasant things.

But this is not a simple haunted house movie. Byrne manages to employ his knowledge of horror to bring a much more interesting version of a story we've all seen before by mixing aspects of demonic possession, haunted house movies, and even early 00's Japanese movies. And despite the fact that we still follow a nuclear family, the fact that it's a young couple with a tattooed metalhead dad feels fresh because you don't ever see those kinds of characters on screen.

Not only are the characters and their dynamics unique, but the plot itself is surprising. Most genre fans should be able to tell where the story is going but there are still a few left turns along the way that keep the movie compelling. Visually, the way that the Texas farmlands are shot it makes them a lot more scary even during the daylight.  He also manages to get an amazing performance out of Embry, who thankfully has had a genre career revitalization in the last few years shedding his boyish charms and embracing something darker.

The movie's themes about artistic ambition are some of the most interesting ones. As a struggling artist, Jesse tries his hardest to make ends meet and has to accept bland commissions for banks. But when he becomes more possessed and channels the dark energy of this spirit, his works are messed up but full of life, with him losing track of time. Any artist can relate to the freeing sensation, and the je ne sais quoi when you are just compelled to create something, and it flows from you as it if were instinctual.

Once he starts getting attention from a gallery owner, you see how unintentionally neglectful Jesse can get. This is the weakest part of the movie, if only because the gallery and its owner are such obvious "Satan" allegories, causing him to be late to pick up his daughter in order to secure a gallery show. You know that's a huge deal because as you can see, Jesse has a huge bond with his daughter and it ends up being maybe one of the coolest dad-daughter relationships seen in a long time

And while some of the visual symbolism might be a little too on the nose, it's a tiny problem in an otherwise excellent movie with awesome cast and a creative story around it. He's become a much more assertive director and the movie is the better for it. Look for the last shot of the movie and tell me it's not a memorable scene.

With The Devil's Candy, Sean Byrne shows that his time spent in between movies was not wasted. Let's just hope that he comes back sooner than later.

Fantastic Fest 2015 Review: BONE TOMAHAWK

Bone Tomahawk.
Director and Writer: S. Craig Zahler.
Actors: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons and Richard Jenkins.

Bone Tomahawk shows why we need more movies in the horror western genre. While not being a straight out horror movie, it features some of the most terrifying moments in recent memory.

This is a stylish and gripping movie that shows the brutality of the wild west. Featuring the awesome ensemble cast, the movie tells the story of this quartet of men, Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Russell), his deputy Chicory (Jenkins), John Brooder (Fox), and Arthur O'Dwyer (Wilson) all with their own baggage heading out into the wilderness to attempt to save a group of people including O'Dweyer's wife, Samantha (Simmons) from a cannibal tribe of Native Americans.

Impressively directed by first time filmmaker S. Graig Zahler, he makes some very peculiar and fascinating scene choices, quickly cutting away from the action to a bush or a mountain. This helps give the movie a very distant and cold feeling to it. Which is exactly what the characters experience. Despite the fact that they are out in the hot plains, this wilderness out there is cold and unflinching and merciful. It's a place where death is common as it is brutal.

A big part of the movie is actually spent with the main quartet and they really tie the whole film together. Matthew Fox steals the movie with his portrayal of Brooder whose very violent ways against people, especially Native Americans, is the source of a lot of trouble within the group. It doesn't help that he has a thing for Samantha.

Once O'Dwyer's leg is injured and he starts to slow down the party, there are some very serious conversation about what to do with him ranging from amputation to death. But O'Dwyer's not the type of man to give up and the movie goes from a rescue movie to one dealing with themes like willpower and perseverance against all odds.

And the odds here are some of the scariest cannibals you hope you never have to meet. They're designed in a way that could be criticized as being demonizing and vaguely racist -- at one point someone gets scalped -- but the tribe is meant to represent the harshness of the frontier life where nothing comes easy, and everyone is trying to kill you for just existing.

Speaking of the tribe, this movie features one of the top kills of the year and it caused quite the stir with the audience. But also the action sequences here are the types that are so chaotic and they're shot in a way that you never know what to expect, and it is fantastic.

Apart from Fox, the rest of the cast is doing a passable job but Kurt Russell's performance isn't anything new but Richard Jenkins disappears into Chicory so well it was hard to tell it was him for a long time.

Bone Tomahawk is an accomplished movie. There's very little fluff here and there, and despite the fact the characters are wandering for most of the movie, each scene feels vital. Having a cast with great chemistry helps as well as masterfully shot action sequences. Can't wait to see what Zahler does next.