Sunday, July 16, 2017

Fantasia 2017.03: International Sci-Fi Shorts, Mohawk, and Game of Death

Loose schedule, but lots of guests!



These good people are from the International Sci-Fi Shorts, with "Haskell" director James Allen Smith to the left of the hostess and "Hum" director Stefano Nurra, "The Sleepers" director Joe Lueben, and "The Sleepers" producer Nicholas Williams to the right.

Interesting group, with Leuben's stories perhaps the most interesting, as he talked about the film coming from a rough patch when he felt like he really could have slept 23 hours a day, and then mentioning that he felt he had to pick his game up when he was what Williams's brother Jonathan, the set designer, cooked up for the main dormitory set. The music was also an interesting story, as he mentioned never having seen Tarkovsky's Solaris despite everyone thinking this film must have been influenced by it. The music he chose as a temp track that heavily influenced the final score, though, was a sort of alternate soundtrack for Solaris dreamed up by people who thought that film was great aside from its score.

Smith did "Haskell" out of a different sort of frustration; generally a documentary filmmaker, he just got to a point where he wasn't feeling it and opted to do something narrative instead.



A bit surprised that there weren't more people from Mohawk here, actually, as co-writer Grady Hendrix has a panel later in the festival, cinematographer Karim Hussain is a frequent guest, and the film was shot in upstate New York. It's still a nice turn-out, with stars Kaniehtiio Horn, Jon Huber (whom my wrestling-fan friends and family probably know best as "Luke Harper"), and Justin Rain joining writer/director Ted Geoghegan on-stage. Geoghegan wanted to do something very different from We Are Still Here, and when he brought the idea up with colleague Grady Hendrix, found out that the journalist and horror-comedy author was actually a huge War of 1812 buff.

It was important to cast Native actors in as many roles s they could, with Hussain recommending Horn as soon as he saw the script and Rain saying he thought he'd blown it, in part because he'd never done a period piece, but he turned out to be a great match for the part even without taking into consideration that the list of Native actors across the U.S. and Canada was pretty low.

I've got no idea what Huber's WWE persona is like, but he was a ton of fun in the movie and on stage. Geoghegan wanted to cast a WWE guy in his part because it called for a mountain of a man, and at the time of filming, Huber was in the middle of six months of rehab for knee surgery, making the brace his character wears not entirely a prop. He was also based out of Rochester, not far from where they would be shooting, so it seemed pretty much perfect.



Game of Death was a local production, so there were a lot of folks on hand - Emelia Hellman, Sam Earle, Caterine Saindon, Victoria Diamond, two members of the crew whose French-language introductions I didn't entirely get, and writer/directors Laurence Morais-Lagace & Sebastein Landry. They all seemed to be having a pretty good time - the project was apparently originally hatched at the festival, started as something on the web in French, and had to become an English-language project to get feature funding.

Which is cool and all, but when that happens, what's with having everything labeled "State Police" (with what kind of looks like the Maine State Seal on it)? Come on, you know the weird blood-drawing cursed electronic game is Canadian; don't try to blame it on us!

Today's plan: I've already seen Wild Blood as my Weird Turkish Film for the festival, and will follow it up with The Outer Limits of Animation, Bad Genius, Replace, and then either Liberation Day or Tokyo Ghoul.

"Swell"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

Even before what's actually going on in "Swell" reveals itself, Bridget Savage Cole's short film has a bouncy feel that is pretty quickly very appealing - bright, colorful design, an upbeat-seeming near future, and a good-looking cast in Britt Lower and Gabriel Luna who are going charmingly big because their phone's "Swell" app is altering their moods, him to "productive" and her to "unapologetically honest". This is, as you might imagine, not a perfect combination, and each trying to adjust their partner's Swell or defend their own leads to a lot of physical comedy and broad changes of performance.

It's a good, fun film throughout - more than most shorts which try to anticipate this sort of disruptive technology, there's a logic to Swell, along with a self-deprecating sense of humor. The details of it work like something we're familiar with, and while Cole is looking to put this relationship through the wringer a bit, she never loses sight of her comedic intentions, which gives Lower & Luna a lot of fun stuff to do while also managing the neat trick of finding a baseline for these characters, even though we never actually see that. The design is nice in both its pastel futuristic cool and the homemade touches that people will add to it, like Ana carving her name out of the logo on her Yamaha keyboard.

"Swell" is a charmer, and it might be fun to see more shorts going for this rather than the darker sorts of cautionary tales we usually get.

"Hum"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

There's an appealingly working-class vibe to "Hum", with Adam Shaw as a plumber whose life is frequently interrupted by a powerful sound that seems to come from inside his own head and James Bryce as a blacklisted academic trying to track it to its source, telling Chris that he may be the key to a breakthrough in quantum mechanics, although Chris just wants to disruptive sensation gone. It comes across not just in Chris trying to get through his day, but how he's clearly got expectations for the prof that aren't being met. There's also not much mystical or amazing to this otherworldly situation - it hurts, and the audience sees him looking tortured, even as he tries to get by.

It leads to a nifty, if shaggy ending, a bit of "qunatum mechanics is magic" stuff but which at least looks nifty on-screen. The resolution is a bit wobbly - I'm not sure how, exactly, Chris learns anything here - but the feel is good, which sometimes matters more at this length.

"Haskell"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

Haskell Carlson, we're informed, was born a few seconds ahead of everyone else, and it might have been interesting if writer/director James Allen Smith took a scene to show what this meant from Haskell's point of view - it's paradoxes and occasional blinks in and out of reality for the normal people he interacts with, but what it's like for him remains a cipher, making the "letting go" bit at the end kind of inscrutable. You get that there has been a struggle and maybe his initial assessment was off, so the emotional release works, but what's going on?

It's less important, I guess, than watching Lucas Oktay and Mark Kelly give their good performances, playing Haskell as a curious child being tested and an adult trying to live a good life and not use what he can do unfairly. It's a strong impression of a good man who perhaps can't quite be normal intstinctively.

"Haley"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

This one's a weird split, putting the intense action that plays into characters we've quickly grown to like at the front and then cutting to a slow, sedate second half that takes a relatively long time to pay off. It's an unusual sort of pacing and it shows how sometimes the best world-building comes out of action and doing - even when things are coming literally out of the blue (or being sucked into it) during the opening, it makes immediate sense because the characters act in a believable way that anticipates the action or something true, while the attempts at exposition in the second half are awkward.

It's nicely done in different ways on both ends, though - while the opening is charming as a man (Corey Sevier) and his daughter (Lyra Sales) have a funny, normal morning only to have the alien-abduction siren go off and have things get immediately tense, the second half featuring the man walking through the woods at least builds to a grand finale. It's also good enough that one doesn't necessarily make the obvious connections until Sevier (who co-writes and directs) flips his last card.

There's perhaps one scene too many, like the emotional closure wasn't quite enough, but it's something which potentially fires the imagination, so why not?

"Miriam Is Going to Mars"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

Shorts like "Miriam Is Going to Mars" tend to rub me wrong way, always seeming a bit more mean-spirited than intended in describing how a mentally-ill person tries to escape the confines of the reality around them. This isn't any exception; the caper feel to Miriam (Ann Sonneville) putting together an application to be part of a manned Mars mission while in a mental health facility benefits greatly from her upbeat but fragile performance, but doesn't quite feel like the manic high followed by a crushing low it's going for, or making a case that what presents as hyper-acuity maybe being an asset (or, perhaps, making the argument that getting away from Earth would mean getting away from her voices).

The latter part of the movie is an interesting but kind of disconnected other story, and I'd kind of like to see that tale (when she fears her sister has completely taken her place in her son's life) stretched out; it's a horror story that's little more than an afterthought here.

"The Sleepers"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

It's not until looking at the IMDB entry that I see that all four of the title characters in Joe Lueben's "The Sleepers" - Lilly (Sam Quartin), Ivy (Nancy P. Corbo), Rose (Susan Slatin), and Sweet Pea (Claire Simba) - are all named for plants of some kind, a nice parallel to how they live in a dormitory, sleeping 23 hours a day, as thoroughly rooted as their namesakes. It's a premise that gives Lueben a chance to do a number of interesting things in twenty minutes, mining their dreams, presenting interviews about what brought them to this place, contrasting grounded and surreal imagery.

But while there's an interesting thread about the kinship that the four in this particular cell share, it's also the kind of short that doesn't really do anything with its ideas. There's no explanation of what the world gets out of maintaining people like this, little of what they get for sleeping their lives away, no real movement. It's appropriate for this particular story to be kind of inert, I suppose, but even if there's not going to be a conventional arc, "The Sleepers" could use a little more poking at its idea and world.

Maybe that will come in the feature Lueben is trying to develop, but I always figure, why wait? That opportunity may never come and this chance is right here.

"Amo"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

There's an austere, fascinating creepiness to Alex Gargot's "Amo", featuring Salvador Roman as an engineer working on calibrating Domo (Marta Blanc), a sexy new model of female companion android that still has a few bugs to work out, with his attention to her earning the jealousy of Mia (Mireia Oriol), who at least presents as a schoolgirl. It's an obvious thing about the objectification of women, in the most literal sense, with bits about fine-tuning and Domo saying that he can shout at her if it makes him feel better. Mia's sabotage and petulance is darkly comic and entirely understandable.

That it's not entirely clear whether Mia is his child or another android, at least at first, is perhaps something that should have been handled a little better, it initially makes the movie seem like it's about "Doc" preferring an idealized mistress to his daughter. It gets a bit more interesting when you allow that Mia is a machine as well, but one which can apparently grow mentally and exhibit some creativity - it shows the premium that Doc is placing on stasis and performing a specific role that he defines in his companions; that Mia can change and be something other than what he originally envisioned is a horror that must, eventually, be deactivated. Though many would want the cute teenager into him as a fetish, that he rejects it isn't a sign of morality, but a desire for control.

Maybe it would work a bit better with a few slightly more clear storytelling choices, but there's something to how the obliqueness plays, even though this isn't really a story built around things being indistinguishable on first glance. It's at least playing with some good ideas, a little more provocatively than initially seems to be the case.

"Son Şnitzel" ("The Last Schnitzel")

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, DCP)

"The Last Schnitzel" has allegedly been banned in Turkey, and that's not necessarily surprising; given how sensitive that government is to criticisms of its president, it's not surprising that a movie which portrayed a future president as a foolish, absurd autocrat isn't going to fly. I'm mildly surprised any of it got made there at all, rather than just pulling together what could be found in Copenhagen.

However it got made and however it can be shown, it's a funny, barbed bit of satire which posits that, with the people of Earth finally having made their planet into a concrete wasteland and having subsisted on nutrition pills for a century, they're about to leave for Mars, but the President of Turkey (Haluk Bilginer) refuses to budge or launch his shuttles until he has a chicken schnitzel. Difficult, when the last chicken on Earth died 200 years ago, but he's given the task to Presidential Assistant Kamil (Sevket Suha Tezel), and he'll figure it out the best he can.

The satiric intent here is obvious - Turkey is far from the only country where the leaders often place their personal pleasure above the needs of the people - but directors Kaan Airci and Ismet Kurtulus, collaborating with original short-story author Onur Koralp on the screenplay, have a knack for combining sharp, specific points with quality slapstick, casting their net wide to find a whole raft of political absurdities to puncture. I like that they stretch their effects budget as far as it can go, giving the world a bit more of a cartoon-ish feel. It's been eleven years since I saw G.O.R.A., but it's the same kind of bizarre Turkish sci-fi aesthetic, although it doesn't wear one out so much in a 30-minute film.

It works in large part for its two contrasting main performances. Tezel picks up the feel of the frustrated mid-level bureaucrat nicely, putting just enough can-do spirit into his frustrated antics to make the short bounce even as he displays frustration with every other person who is either unhelpful in the same boat but not handling it as well. Bilginer, meanwhile, is leonine as the elderly president, not playing him as utterly insane but more unable to understand why, after all his service, this one request is such a big deal.

It's good satire, even if it does hurt a little more as it gets easier to imagine winding up on this track

Mohawk

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Théâtre D.B. Clarke (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Set during the War of 1812, Mohawk pays like survival horror where neither the hunted nor hunters have a moral high ground and can change position in a heartbeat. It's a somewhat ambitious way to attack something that is more flat-out action than larger look at war as a concept, but it makes for a smart, no less thrilling action picture. And it is great, flat-out horror-inspired action, with blood, guts, and plenty of shock as danger frequently leaps out of nowhere, with the fighting often up close and personal but moving at a slightly different pace as characters have to reload after each shot. There are suspenseful sequences and moments to make one wince, but it never seems to pause to space things out.

It's also great-looking - between the blood and the bright colors (and simple, not over-designed costumes), it feels like a no-nonsense throwback to Hammer or AIP, with the cast of relatively-unknown but talented actors a big boost. Director Ted Geoghegan had made two pretty terrific genre movies now, between this and We Are Still Here, and I can't wait to see what he comes up with next while still sending critics a bunch of email for his day job.

"It Began Without Warning"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Well, the title did warn that this one would feature little in the way of explanation for its graphic violence, which moves so fast that I'm still not sure whether or not the twist in the end really works - the film is set up to look like a father trying to kill his kid after mortally wounding his pregnant wife, until we see that the local kids are getting orders from some evil disembodied mouth thing, so had he actually just failed in defending her? Never mind, there's someone hiding in the closet because we need both a kill and a near-escape, but not so fast…

The filmmakers do some nice action choreography and quality gore, but not a whole lot more than that. And, hey, that's not bad for six minutes, but it's perhaps not unreasonable to want a little more story to go with the violence.

Game of Death (2017)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

There's plenty of enthusiasm and energy on display in this Game of Death, from the zippy 8-bit titles to the gleeful rampage through a hospice that concludes it. The filmmakers are having fun doing a gross-out fest workout a whole bunch of apology. It's a nasty little movie, but maybe not quite so nihilistic as it seems; I was eagerly anticipating its cast of young jackass characters dying, and some at least make a bit of a car for them to somehow survive, so they grow on you at least a bit.

It's one for those who go for gore and black humor, and girls in bikinis, and not a whole lot more. You could do a lot worse if looking for unapologetic exploitation.

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