Sunday, January 29, 2017

Monster Fest 2016 03: Playground, Prevenge, Dearest Sister, Mondo Yakuza, Free Fire, The Windmill Massacre, etc.

Saturday was the longest day at Monster Fest, just the way it is at some other genre festivals, even without counting the overnight “Cult of Monster” marathon, which I passed on because, hey, my sleep schedule was going to be messed up enough as it was. That and because the rooftop screening looked like a cool thing to do. And while a six-film day is probably more ambitious than was good for me at this festival, they wound up being spaced out so that I could walk around, get some fish & chips, and otherwise keep the blood circulating.

Plus, the choices made for some fun moviegoing experiences:

Here’s the Q&A that followed Dearest Sister. Although my notes don’t include the moderator, that’s director Mattie Do in the center and Matthew Victor Pastor, who directed the short in front of it (“I Am Jupiter I Am the Biggest Planet” to the right. Both were pretty darn good movies, with both directors pretty fierce in talking about how important it was to them that they be of their place (Laos and the Philippines, respectively). It is not always easy shooting a movie there - I’m not sure how much of an industry Laos has at all - and they both talked about how Western outsiders who do so often come across as a bit condescending, especially around the subject of “sexpats” (and, yeah, there’s a portmanteau I never need to hear again).

That lovely gal down front is Wilma The Whippet, and she is the subject of the picture I most regret not getting at a film festival ever. Wilma is not Ms. Do’s dog - though she has two whippets that appeared in her film, bringing them from Laos to Melbourne for the festival would be logistically difficult - but instead belongs to festival founder Neil Foley, and she watched the film with him, from her own seat directly in front of me. She was exceptionally well-behaved, not barking once, even when the other dogs were on screen, and sitting up in apparent attention for the first half before lying down to rest. Exceptionally good dog, and I wish I’d gotten the shot of her sitting in the theater seat before the movie began.

Also, I love the Kickstarter reward you can see on the screen behind the filmmakers.

Cast and crew of Mondo Yakuza at Monster Fest 2016

You know this picture - the cast & crew of the locally-produced film that shows up to the festival en masse. In this case, it’s the makers of Mondo Yakuza, and my terribly handwritten notes indicate that, from left to right, we’re looking at the fight choreographer whose name I didn’t get down, producer Dylan Heath, actor Cris Cochrane, actress Skye Medusa, star/co-writer Kenji Shimada, director Addison Heath, actor/PA Simon Harcourt, PA Bill Clare, a luchador-masked member of the Screaming Meanies (who did the score), cinematographer Jasmine Jakupi, and my notes get worse from there. Clearly, I’m not a journalist who gets paid for this.

As you might expect, with a bunch of friends in the audience and a crazy movie, it was a somewhat chaotic Q&A, although you could get the gist of how this group makes a lot of movies together, grinding them out fast and trying to make each one a little better and more professional. Interestingly, they mentioned Mondo Yakuza has a distribution deal in Japan and they were looking forward to shooting a filmt here.

Finally, here’s the Lido’s rooftop cinema, which is a neat feature to have and a reminder that late November is late spring there. Not late-late spring - it was kind of chilly by 11pm, so I for one was rather grateful that there were blankets on many of these deck chairs - but certainly the part of the year where this was a regular part of the Lido’s schedule.

In some ways, it was kind of like an urban drive-in, right down to the soundtrack being piped out on a radio signal for which attendees were given receivers on the way in. I’ve to to admit, I’m now mildly curious as to which Boston-area places have flat roofs that could make this work, although I don’t know if the novelty is enough to fit it into the schedule (we’ve got a lot of 35mm midnights compared to the Blu-ray used here)

Anyway, it was a fun day that highlights what a neat festival this is. I almost wish I could make it part of my yearly rotation.

Plac zabaw (Playground)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #8 (Monster Fest 2016, DCP)

There’s a certain bravery to the way films like Playground transgress, although it’s a courage that is perhaps not all it’s cracked up to be: The filmmakers are obliquely saying incendiary things to an audience that is inclined to search for such meaning and likely to agree with that which is being said, after congratulating themselves on enduring something that folks going to the cinema for mere entertainment wouldn’t. It impresses, it reveals a bit more under scrutiny, and yet, I honestly don’t know whether I’d recommend someone see it rather than just tell them about it.

It starts by focusing on Gabrysia (Michalina Swistun), a smart and serious pre-teen in a small Polish town who has decided that today, the last day of school, is the day she’ll ask her classmate Szymek (Nicolas Przygoda) out. Szymek’s a good-looking class-clown type, the sort eleven-year-old girls like, and Gabrysia has everything she needs to do to not get him to blow it off. As the three prepare for school, Szymek has to help out his handicapped father, while his best friend Ozmek (Przemyslaw Balinski) complains about his baby brother. Gabrysia has a plan not to be blown off, although maybe she should be looking elsewhere.

It would be easy to writer/director Bartosz Kowalski to make Gabrysia the clear-cut protagonist of the film facing unfair rejection, but the fact that he doesn’t is kind of interesting: She’s pushy and demanding, not just ready to declare her affection but looking for a way to back Szymek into having to go out with her. When the film shifts to Szymek’s and Ozmek’s point of view, she comes off as snobby and entitled where before she might have just seemed socially odd, full of unevenly-distributed self-confidence. Michalina Swistun is impressive in giving Kowalski what he wants as perspective and circumstances shift - she’s never precocious in a cute, ingratiating way, but there’s nervousness to when she’s trying to be manipulative and sympathetic horror to her being called on it. Gabrysia is maybe not someone the audience is always behind, but she’s always interesting.

Full review on EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016, DCP)

Given its title, I wonder if the script for Prevenge at one point had a more explicitly sci-fi angle at one point, playing out as something much more in line with The Terminator rather than taking a darker route where, if its murderous mother-to-be earns the audience’s forgiveness, it’s a much more troublesome decision. I’d kind of like to see that movie sometime, but Alice Lowe seems ideally suited for this take, and she sure as heck makes it interesting.

More than most movies, even those films conceived as the filmmaker’s own star vehicle, Prevenge is made by and for Lowe, and specifically at that time of her life: After writing the script, she directed and acted in this film when she was about seven months pregnant. I’m not sure I can recall a movie so built around the lead actress’s pregnancy in quite the way this one is before - even Absentia, if I recall correctly, is more a case of writing it into the script after casting rather than being integral enough that it was more a necessity for the shoot than a challenge - and doing so is admirably ambitious; I’m not sure how many women would deliberately schedule the intense grind of making an independent film for their third trimester. As much as it likely, in some small way, freed Lowe up from having to think about the physical aspects of the performance as opposed to simply playing the Ruth’s personality, she’s a talented enough actress that this particular bit of authenticity likely wasn’t critical.

On the other hand, it does give her instant credibility with an audience often willing to simplify the idea of pregnancy when she goes to dark places. Ruth, see, hears her unborn child’s voice, and it often tells her to kill, because some person or other will eventually do her harm. It’s a brilliant twist on the usual plot of impending motherhood teaching a woman responsibility and self-sacrifice, as what Ruth is facing is not just the loss of independence and personal pleasure - for Ruth, impending motherhood is not just a fear of being unable to measure up to other people (or alternately repeating her own mother’s mistakes), but utter uncertainty that she’s doing the right thing at all. How can someone like her be a decent mother, even if her motives are good? Have all the changes to her body and the hormones affecting her mind made her someone else, who still has all the flaws she started with?

Full review on EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016, digital)

I’ve approached movies like “I Am Jupiter I Am the Biggest Planet” with some caution over the last few years, ever since Montreal’s Fantasia Festival concluded a FIlipino Cinema program with a hand-biting satire of the middle-class filmmakers there who make what folks call “poverty porn”, so it was good to see that this short film has much more than conspicuous commiseration to recommend it. It uses the slums of Manila and the wealthier people who scoop from there for their own gratification as a backdrop, but does so in the service of a tight story of people becoming dangerous when pushed to the brink.

Filmmaker Matthew Victor Pastor does a lot of clever things here - he introduces the characters at their own pace and lets the audience get to know them by their actions rather than talking themselves up, and he grounds the events in the location without making the film a polemic. There’s a bit of revenge fantasy to the film, and the contrast between realism and imagination is highlighted by the way he presents the film: It’s visually kind of flat and digital, consciously lacking a lot of fussy camerawork, but also very quiet, with what little speech there is presented as intertitles. It’s a fly-on-the-wall movie that is nonetheless very aware of its artifice, and generally uses both effectively.

Nong Hak (Dearest Sister)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016, DCP)

There’s no universal answer to how much attention should be paid to the living compared to the dead when crafting a ghost story, especially when you consider that a good one will do a great job in misdirecting the audience. Dearest Sister, for instance, puts the supernatural so near its center that it can easily look more important than it is, drawing conscious attention away from the more conventional material that it metaphorically extends. That’s kind of its job, and it does so successfully enough that it not making a lot of sense as a plot device can be quite forgivable.

Taking place in Laos, it inverts some of the traditional ways Westerners go about ghost stories. Nok (Amphiaiphun Phommapunya), for instance, heads into the city for her job working as a personal companion rather than to an isolated mansion. She’ll be helping her cousin Ana (Vilouna Phetmany) out where she can, as Ana is losing her sight and her Estonian husband Jakob (Tambet Tuisk) is frequently away on business. Nok is viewed with suspicion in both her new and old homes, with her immediate family thinking she’ll spend her time looking for a white fiance while Ana treats her country cousin as something between family and a servant, which makes the married couple who serve as maid (Manivanh Boulom) and gardener (Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy) even more hostile. It’s not exactly unwarranted, either; when Ana goes into trances and seems to see things from outside the normal world, Nok doesn’t shrink from exploiting those visions.

Nok arrives at Ana’s house quickly, too quickly to come across as a fish out of water, and that seems purposeful: The impression that forms with the audience is somebody between statuses; though she is actually in a pretty good position, she sees herself as potentially downgraded to a servant, and therefore needing to grab hold of the next level up to the extent that she can. Director Mattie Do and writer Christopher Larsen set the situation up in a way that seems so natural that it’s easy to sympathize with Nok even when she’s acting selfishly at first, with Amphaiphun Phommapunya always making sure that the audience sees how much of her can be explained as being young and in a new environment; her initial steps down a bad path come across as her being in over her head, keeping the audience with her enough to be invested in which way she’ll eventually lean.

Full review on EFC.

Mondo Yakuza

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016, digital)

Mondo Yakuza isn’t quite an “amateurs making a movie for themselves and having fun” production with no commercial prospects, but it has that sort of energy, making it a fairly agreeable throwback to old-school grindhouse productions. I imagine that’s especially true if one’s old grindhouse played a lot of Seijun Suzuki, and in attempting to channel that particular Japanese auteur, these Aussie filmmakes have the room to push things pretty far and still not feel like parody, since what inspired them was so insane.

It starts rough, with a Japanese student telling her drug-dealer boyfriend that she doesn’t worry about danger too much, because her brother back home is yakuza and if anything happens to her, well, you know what would happen. The universe apparently sees that as too good a dare to ignore, so soon enough Ichiro Kataki (Kenji Shimada) is arriving in Australia, picking up a bunch of guns, and looking for the punk who killed his sister. That would be Ryan Beckett (Glenn Maynard), a raving thug who will inevitably wind up holed up in the home of his even more insane mother (Elizabeth O’Callaghan) with his at least comparatively sane brother Calvin (Rob Stanfield).

Though it’s got a vengeful yakuza injected into the middle of it, part of what makes this movie fun is that, while it doesn’t quite play as a spoof of contemporary Australian crime movies, it pretty clearly shares a lot of DNA with things like Chopper and Animal Kingdom (and likely dozens of others that didn’t make such a high-profile Pacific crossing), although it’s got the sort of over-the-top violence and characterization that more serious crime movies would pull back on. That’s actually a point in its favor at this budget level; fake blood is cheap to make and, let’s be honest, even if five not-great actors whose characters die gushing blood at regular intervals have the same amount of screen time as one guy with roughly the same talent in another movie, it’s more exciting and less wearing. The criminal day-to-day of the Beckett Boys isn’t particularly memorable, but it doesn’t completely feel like going through the motions, and the cast is at least given expansive personalities to play up rather than hanging blandly around until they can increase the body count. Rob Stanfield, in particular, brings out a lot of very entertaining frustration as the brother righteously angry that the family business, and likely his corpse, is going to get cut to pieces because his brother is a violent idiot.

Full review on EFC.

Free Fire

* * * ¾(out of four)
Seen 26 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas #1 (Monster Fest 2016, DCP)

Ben Wheatley has accumulated a cult fanbase by making films that strive to cut out the bits that aren’t in some way special, figuring that most people have seen enough movies to fill in the blanks or just go without if it means not seeing one more bloody scene of a local explaining his town’s weird history to the main character just because it’s going to play out later. At times, this gives his movies a thrill of discovery that they might not otherwise have; at its worst, this impulse can make movies like High-Rise seem perplexing and full of weirdos doing things at random. In Free Fire, it makes for a mainstream action movie that just doesn’t mess around, letting a crazy gunfight expand to fill almost the entire running time without making the audience wait around for the good parts.

The action takes place in 1978, where a number of lowlives have gathered in a Boston warehouse, looking to do an arms deal. Ord (Armie Hammer) is looking to buy, Vernon (Sharlto Copley) is looking to sell, and former Fed Justine (Brie Larson) is brokering the deal. Seems easy enough, but the guns Vernon brought aren’t the model Ord was looking for, and one of Vernon’s guys, Harry (Jack Reynor), has a serious beef with Stevo (Sam Riley), one of Ord’s. That would be enough to get people to start shooting, even if a double-cross wasn’t already inevitable.

So they start shooting at each other, and really don’t stop until the movie ends; moments of conversation generally involve the participants hiding behind whatever may provide them cover, speaking sotto voce to the person next to them or yelling across the open space. This doesn’t make it a dumb action movie at all, it turns out - the script by Wheatley and partner Amy Jump is full of tremendously funny bits, nd while they may have a character yell out in the middle that he’s forgotten which side he’s on, the plotting is certainly tighter than they could have gotten away with. As is their tendency, these filmmakers focus on what’s interesting and exciting, understanding that the audience really doesn’t care that much about the lives of these characters outside this room and thus not wasting any time with flashback and the bare minimum on set-up, dropping enough of what a viewer needs to not be jolted out of the film by wondering why that person is doing that thing which doesn’t make sense without killing the momentum.

Full review on EFC.

”Hell of a Day”

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas Rooftop (Monster Fest 2016, digital)

Though there are still a great many fans of post-apocalyptic scenarios, I’ve started to think that, unless the filmmaker has a genuinely creative way to use the situation as a metaphor for something else, I’d much rather see something like “Hell of a Day” than an extended slog through the end of the word: Give the audience a quick rush of gore and horror without giving it the time to get comfortable with what they’re seeing, and have them ready for the main feature within fifteen minutes. At this 15-minute scale, writer/director Evan Hughes can get the job done without the structure starting to feel hollow.

It’s a perfectly simple set-up - an injured girl played by Alexandra Octavia takes structure in an abandoned-looking inn, only to find that, no, she hasn’t left the living dead entirely behind, and trying to find a safe spot puts her in more danger. Hughes does a lot of things right here - the inn is a great setting whether he and the other filmmakers found it in a state of disrepair or dressed it up, dangerous-looking in its decay but also nightmarish for being a public gathering place so clearly bereft of people, for instance, and when things get bloody, he and make-up artist Liz Jenkins do not do things halfway; it’s genuinely gross. Octavia makes the audience believe that she might have the right attitude to react to the situation with the title, hardened and tough from getting through danger, but also weary and exhausted. And while the short doesn’t quite come full circle in the way that its makers seem to be aiming, it’s a nasty little puzzle box that clicks into place at the end.

The action and events of this movie could easily be the background for someone you see for ten minutes or less on The Walking Dead, and maybe that’s a part of what makes it fun - it reminds the viewer that the guys who wind up just being cannon fodder had their own horrific path to get there. It’s not deep, but it’s also not trying to stretch shallow until it looks deep, and that’s something for which a viewer can be grateful.

The Windmill Massacre (aka The Windmill)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 26 November 2016 in Lido Cinemas Rooftop (Monster Fest 2016, digital)

There are plenty of horror movies out there that try to do what the guys making The Windmill Massacre do, but in some ways that makes its relatively modest target harder to hit: While so many are trying to stand out from the pack by being consciously aware of the genre’s structure or trying to elevate themselves to something greater, Nick Jongerius and his collaborators just build something that wouldn’t be out of place in a gruesome EC comic book, and while that may preclude it from later being remembered as one of the era’s great, influential horror movies, it works well enough in the present tense.

Meet Julie - no, scratch that, meet Jennifer Harris (Charlotte Beaumont), who fled her native Australia for Europe a few months ago, although the family that hired her as a nanny has just found out about her fake ID. She flees, hopping on the “Happy Holland Tours” bus when it feels like the police are closing in. It looks like a pretty fly-by-night outfit, with a motley crew also departing from Amsterdam to tour the windmills: Jackson (Ben Batt), a soldier with PTSD; Ruby Rousseau (Fiona Hampton), a former model trying to reinvent herself as a photographer; Curt West (Adam Thomas Wright), a kid just taken out of school by his father Douglas (Patrick Baladi) and strangely unable to get his mother on the phone; Nicholas Cooper (Noah Taylor), a former surgeon; Takashi Kido (Tanroh Ishida), a Japanese tourist whose grandmother wanted her ashes spread in the Netherlands; and Abe (Bart Klever), the tour guide. One windmill not on the tour, where a madman ground murder victims rather than grain, is said to just be a legend, although when the bus breaks down and they can’t find cellular service…

Jongerius and his co-writers (Chris W. Mitchell & Suzy Quid) don’t exactly create the next great slasher villain in Miller Hendrik (Kenan Raven); he doesn’t have a great visual hook to define him or the sort of personality that could carry him into a second movie, and while sequel-readiness isn’t necessary in general for horror movies or practical for this one - his murder weapon is not exactly what you’d call portable, so a follow-up would have to be almost a remake with new tourists - it’s often a good way to measure how enthusiastic one is about the villain in the present tense. There’s enough to Hendrik that I suspect the filmmakers could flesh him out a little given the opportunity, but in this movie, he never really seems to come out of the background, even when the Jongerius gets past the point of cutting away just before the thing following someone attacks.

Full review on EFC.

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