Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fantasia Catch-Up #06: Experimenter, Ninja the Monster, They Look Like People, The Crimson Whale, Hostile, and Bite

Unscrew the smuggled-over-the-border soda, the last Fantasia reviews are written! I believe this gets my count up to 89, not counting shorts or the Ugandan thing which I could not stay awake well enough to fake.

I would have liked to make it an even ninety, but of the five screeners I requested, I was only able able to watch three. The Dark Below was actually yanked from the streaming library very soon after its public screening, and Strayer's Chronicle... Well, I can't blame the producers for not keeping the link active seven weeks after the end of the festival because some database programmer with a blog opted to write up the stuff he had seen before adding more to his plate.

(I'm not completely done - I have screener links for four short films that played at Fantastique Week-end du Cinéma Québécois, which is technically part of the festival but often feels like a companion event, but those will be combined with another short for a "Things I Shouldn't Try to Review Objectively Because They Were Made By Friends" post.)

I don't particularly regret skipping the three I did wind up seeing; they're all things where the filmmakers show promise but could probably use more seasoning/resources. I appear to have missed an eventful premiere for Bite while I was taking in the Zappin Party across the street, with folks in the audience fainting, puking, and getting banged up because they slipped on the stairs while walking out (de Seve does get realy dark, especially for a movie as shadowy as Bite, although the computer I used to stream it outputs a pretty dim picture via HDMI as well). I suspect that some people making horror movies may like reports of a screening like that better than good reviews - no matter how well I explain what impressed me about it, there's something primal to seeing that the movie got to someone that way.

So, that's a wrap for Fantasia,although I've got plenty of other movie-related backlog for the blog to finish up for this blog, the earliest of which appears to be stuck on the tablet I broke while in Montreal. It probably won't come in strict order.

It doesn't escape my notice that I'm finishing this just as a bunch of friends are descending upon Austin for Fantastic Fest, which makes me kind of relieved that I won't be doing that this year, just in terms of starting the whole process again. I noted last year that, if I wanted to do another genre festival so soon after Fantasia, Sitges is just a week or so later and on the coast of Spain rather than Texas, and while I won't be doing that this year, I suspect I'll get that stamp on my passport soon enough.

In the meantime, though, I am considering a couple of vaguely-related trips: First, I'm starting to get a bunch of emais from the Ithaca International Fantastic Film Festival which happens in November and looks to have a nice sample of stuff I'll be missing in Austin. Anybody I know been there or have an opinion on it?

Also, my partial-season tickets package has me able to buy tickets for the Red Sox-Blue Jays series. Stade Olympique is famously not-great, but I'd love to support baseball in one of my favorite cities. Still, I'm going to check the social media feeds from the folks I follow in Montreal from around that time in the last few years, looking for words like "ice storm", "minus thirty", and "holy crap, it's cold out!"


* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

I really hope that this one opens fairly wide, because I'd like to give it a second look. I came out of it with an odd sort of ambivalence, liking almost all of what it did but feeling like there should have been more heft, especially with all the unusual techniques writer/director Michael Almereyda was using to make sure the audience was paying a little more attention. That's kind of unfair, though - isn't one of the things that usually makes biopics kind of eye-rolling the attempt to make a person's individual life a symbol of something else?

This one is a biography of Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), a scientist studying social relations who is best known for the "teacher/learner" experiment, begun in 1961, where two subjects are placed in separate rooms and one is instructed to give the other a sort of quiz, administering escalating electric shocks for wrong answers - with the twist being that the "learner" (Jim Gaffigan) is a plant who is not actually getting shocked, because the experiment is meant to see how willing people are to hurt another human being simply because someone in authority tells them to. With the atrocities of World War II still fresh in the world's minds - the end of the experiment coincides with the execution of Adolf Eichmann - the results which show that most people will submit to authority are uncomfortable, but Milgram seems to become more infamous for having lied to his subjects rather than the truths he revealed, despite the interesting other work he does.

Most screenwriters would try to find some way for this experiment to become a metaphor for Milgram's life, and in some ways I think that Almereyda is explicitly trying to buck this trend: He spends a lot of time focusing on the Milgram's work, detailing experiments well beyond his most well-known project and pointedly mentioning that he wished he could be remembered for the quality and results of his work rather than the vaguely uncomfortable feelings it inspired in people who had not actually read it. This lets Almereyda stage intriguing sequences showing some of Milgram's other work, such as the "Lost Letter" and "Small World Problem" experiments, which are telling in their own way. Still, the approach at times feels paradoxical - by blunting the usual way to assess Milgram's life, the film sometimes lacks the sharpness to puncture those preconceptions.

Full review on EFC.

Ninja the Monster

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in Theatre Hall Concordia (Fantasia International Film Festival, HD)

Director Ken Ochiai was unusually candid in his Q&A after this film, and one of the things he mentioned was that Japanese movies like Ninja the Monster are made with more than an eye toward the foreign market, opening on maybe five screens back home and hoping to make more money on home video elsewhere, and one can feel it straining for accessibility and against budget.

It takes place in 1783; after the last war, the government has exterminated the ninja clans, as there is no need for entire clans of assassins and spies in peacetime. That is why the samurai Hikojuro is carrying a message from Nagano to Edo, a job previously reserved for ninjas, although what he encounters would challenge any sort of warrior. Some time later, another party is following the same path - Princess Koh (Aoi Morikawa), set to become a councilor's concubine in exchange for aid to prevent a famine, along with a retinue of samurai led by Choemon (Soko Wada), along with one other bodyguard, Denzo (Dean Fujioka), a bit of a mystery, though a skilled swordsman. As they reach the area where Hikojuro disappeared, the locals say that they should not approach the forest, but Nagano can't afford the delay.

The image of the ninja has become fairly well-established in pop culture over recent decades, which really never mad a lot of sense, considering that they were meant to be the invisible assassins of feudal Japan. Ochiai, writer Akijiro Dobashi, and their crew never put Dean Fujioka in a black bodysuit and bandana, and it's admittedly kind of odd: For all that, in real life, ninja were feared because they could be anyone and anywhere, Fujioka playing Denzo so low-key seems to leave something missing - we never see Denzo as an underdog, but he also lacks the aura of invincibility.

Full review on EFC.

They Look Like People

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2015 in the J.A. de Seve Cinema (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

It feels a bit like giving the game away to say that They Look Like People is seldom the movie it's expected to be from the descriptions written in festival programs, which talks about how Wyatt (MacLeod Andrews) can see that most of the people around him are being taken over by aliens or demons or the like and is torn about recruiting his friend Christian (Evan Dumouchel) to the cause of stopping them. They don't hide that it's a "he might be crazy" movie, and if you don't want to hear more, just go watch it now - it's worth going in blind or well aware.

After all, "might" is pretty much superfluous in that description - and that's what makes it unusually fascinating. Filmmaker Perry Blackshear doesn't really try to play into the possibility that genre film fans might be so used to how these things play out - ambiguously-to-"he's right!", or with obliviousness leading to tragedy - that going a different direction might be a shock. From the very start, it's pretty clear where things stand, and Blackshear and MacLeod Andrews generally seem to see that their job is not to persuade the audience that the supernatural elements may be real, but to show how convincing his delusions are to Wyatt. The potential for tragedy is obvious, but there's a great deal of hope to the film, because Wyatt doesn't want to be that way, even if medication and treatment can feel like creating an illusion rather than dispelling it to him.

Andrews makes this work in large part by almost never overdoing the obvious signs of mental illness; most of the time,Wyatt could be withdrawn for any number of reasons. When alone, there's little joy in his preparations for the upcoming apocalypse, just an unusual combination of resignation and calm, like this might be tense work, but accepting it makes things smoother. Andrews varies his chemistry with the rest of the cast well, too - most of the time, there's friendliness and comfort, but the bad days are obvious.

Full review on EFC.

Hwasangorae (The Crimson Whale)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 September 2015 in Jay's (new) Living Room (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, Vimeo Screener)

Two animated features from the Korean Academy of Film Arts played the festival this year, and there's enough underlying similarities to make a viewer joke about them coming from the same class assignment or, more seriously, ponder how young filmmakers may have their minds in similar places: Both On the White Planet and The Crimson Whale ("Hwasangorae" in Korean) are 70-minute pieces of dystopian science fiction about outcast orphans different from their peers falling in with questionable people on a quest. The Crimson Whale is the more conventional one, although it's still a weird, sometimes uncomfortable piece of work.

Its orphan lead is Ha-jin (voice of Kang Wui), a pre-teen girl in the year 2070 who was born on an island but now lives in a Busan which seems to no longer bother rebuilding from the earthquakes the hit the Korean peninsula on a near-daily basis, selling drugs and picking pockets. She can talk to whales, though, which is why a group of pirates led by one-armed Baek Song (voice of Kim Sung-in) are looking to recruit her: They know the location of a gigantic lode of Uncentium, but it's located at the center of a volcanic island and guarded by a "volcano whale", and they will need this "piper girl" to call and influence this fearsome creature so that they can kill it.

Despite being a fairly short feature, it takes writer/director Park Hye-mi a while to get to the meat of it; there's a fairly lengthy first act showing Ha-jin's life on the streets of Busan that is a lot of introduction considering that the quick-witted, cynical girl of that portion will spend a lot of time seasick and otherwise following Baek Song's lead for much of the back end. It's far from wasted time - Ha-jin is a very entertaining "hard-boiled kid" character and Park does better than push the right buttons for her - although it's a bit of a relief when it's time to move on; the film is in nasty territory by then and there's no need to keep digging deeper.

Full review on EFC.


* * (out of four)
Seen 19 September 2015 in Jay's (new) Living Room (Fantasia International Film Festival: Fantasia Undergroud, Vimeo Screener)

Hostile is probably the ultimate example of the dilemma one faces when reviewing the independent/amateur films that play festivals, where on the one hand the critic wants to tell potential viewers that they've probably got better options in most cases while on the other hand not wanting to discourage new filmmakers. Writer/director Nathan Ambrosioni was fourteen when making it, after all, which is the very definition of the very start of a career. It's one with potential, even if this first feature is very rough.

It starts out, mostly, framed as the production of an episode of SOS Adoption, a local television program that attempts to document and help with difficult assimilations into new families. The subjects are Meredith Langston (Shelley Ward) and the two sisters she has adopted, 15-year-old Emilie (Julie Venturelli) and nearly-14 Anna (Luna Belan), and the issues seem less psychological than paranormal. Producer/hostess Chloé (Anatolia Alleis), feeling out of her league, soon turns to an associate who claims some expertise in these matters (Magali Gouyon).

As much as I expected the production to be kind of feeling its way out, one thing that I was looking forward to is seeing just what a kid that age found scary. That's not necessarily there in general terms - the script bounces from one thing to another and values mystery over ideas that the audience can sink its teeth into in many spots, and goes in for a fair number of standard tropes of demonic possession and devil-worship. One does wonder, though, whether Nathan Ambrosioni himself was adopted, because even setting aside the moments when that becomes a clearly-labeled motivation, the film spends a lot of time shuffling the sisters from one caretaker to another, and there's something interesting to be made of this uncertainty, even if it is mostly subtext.

Full review on EFC.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 September 2015 in Jay's (new) Living Room (Fantasia International Film Festival, Vimeo Screener)

Bite is the sort of horror movie that puts just enough effort into its characters and story that it initially seems like there might be something to it beyond the gross-outs. It's not quite up to that level of quality, but a whiff of ambition on what is basically a gore movie is always welcome, even if it doesn't quite come together into the sort of thriller that one can point at and say that there's more to it than initially meets the eye.

It starts out in what looks like found-footage territory, as three women on a bachelorette trip go to Costa Rica. Bride-to-be Casey (Elma Begovic) has colder feet than one might hope - she's not nearly as enthused by the prospect of having children as her finacé, for starters - enough that her friends are advising her to call the wedding off, though Kirsten (Denise Yuen) tends to talk about what's best for her while Jill (Annette Wozniak) about how it's not fair to Jared (Jordan Gray). They hear about a beautiful hidden spring, but appear to find the wrong one, and the bug bites Casey sports by the time they head home are probably worse than they appear.

Things shift to a third-person perspective when they get back north of the border, and as the size of the cast doubles - we also meet Jared's mother (Lawrene Denkers) and the elderly neighbor whose dog she walks (Barry Birnberg) - the average goes down a bit; this second wave of characters tends to be one-note or exaggerated. Sure, Lawrene Denkers does a commendable head-first dive into making Mrs. Kennedy the sort of potential mother-in-law that can make someone question every romantic impulse that led them to the cusp of marriage, but once things get back to North America, the natural-seeming interactions from before are replaced with plot that seems fairly forced.

Full review on EFC.

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