Thursday, July 20, 2017

Fantasia 2017.07: Have a Nice Day, Sequence Break, Poor Agnes, and Plan B

Aaaah, spent the morning being available in case they needed me for my job while most of the team met in Frisco, TX, but not necessarily sad that they didn't much. So glad to be in Montreal rather than Frisco, if only for not being in the room for a two-hour presentation. It changed my schedule a bit - Shock Wave and Have a Nice Day played at the same time a few days ago, and I switched which one I saw on which day so I could start movies at 3:15 Wednesday.

Anyway - visitors!

That's director Graham Sipper of Sequence Break on the right, and I kind of wish, as a guy who loves classic arcade stuff, that I'd liked his movie a bit more, though it didn't work out that way. He had a lot of well-warranted praise for the people he worked with, from the cast with natural chemistry from having become friends working on another movie to the effects people who were always willing to get more into the Cronenbergian sexual body horror with their video game. I dig that the game was inspired by Tempest.

Not too thrilled to hear the "I wanted to make the end ambiguous" answer, especially for this movie, which meandered a lot anyway. If you've got a point to make or a direction you want your movie to go, don't back away from that, hit it directly.

That's a bit of a zoom in on a LOT of people from Poor Agnes as Thunder Bay, Ontario isn't a hard trip from Montreal. Left to right, we've got writer James Gordon Ross, the hostess, director Navin Ramaswaran, star Nora Burke, and co-star Robert Notman. A ton of enthusiasm for this one, well-deserved; it's a well-made, smart thriller that is creepy in an unconventional way.

And, finally, Plan B director Ufuk Genç, who was crazy excited to be here; I gather his movie starring a bunch of relatively-unknown stuntpeople got a little steamrolled by the big Hollywood productions that hit Germany in the summer, and coming to a festival where people really celebrate this kind of movie made was huge.

And now, back to the films - I'll be seeing House of the Disappeared, Cold Hell, and Shinjuku Swan II, and having my first actual window to have a between-films meal that's not just grabbing a slice of pizza or a burrito for take-out!

Hao ji le (Have a Nice Day)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Axis, DCP)

For all that modern Chinese films spend a lot of time and effort on showing people spending money, I don't know if I've actually seen enough actual bills on-screen for it to register that the 100-yuan note is blood red. Have a Nice Day, an animated take on the bag-of-money yarn, doesn't quite get the mileage it might from this fact, but it's an impressively tidy take on the form, not wasting any time getting things started and then managing as many reversals through greedy stupidity as it does from actual cunning.

It doesn't mess around with a master plan, starting with construction-site driver Xiao Zhang (voice of Zhu Changlong) having already pulled a gun on passenger Lao Zhao (voice of Cao Kai). His plan is to meet girlfriend Yan Zi and travel to South Korea to fix her botched cosmetic surgery, but Lao Zhao was bringing this money to gangster "Uncle Liu" (voice of Yang Siming), who immediately dispatches butcher and hitman Brother Skinny (voice of Ma Xiaofeng) to recover it. Even if Xiao can stay ahead of Skinny, he makes the rookie mistake of paying for something with one of those large bills, attracting the attention of inventor Yellow Eye (voice of Cao Kou) and his girlfriend (Zheng Yi), while Yan Zi's worried mother asks niece Ann Ann and her boyfriend Lidu to check on things, but when you hear "one million yuan", you maybe do more than check.

The money doesn't actually change hands very often, and when it does, the people holding it often spend a fair amount of time off-screen; Have a Nice Day is about the scramble . It brings out mean little chuckles, pointing up a sort of blanket amorality permeating society, with even bystanders chatting about start-ups and how to succeed while skipping steps, although it's not without cause: A brilliant inventor is stymied because he did not start out rich enough, and even Ann Ann's good communist fantasy (which literally inserts her and Lidu into propaganda posters and songs) seems to be out of reach without seed money. It's a weird irony that the original theft arguably happens not out of greed, but an attempt to back out of a problem caused by vanity, although that sort of desire is arguably its own sort of greed. It's an odd set of motivations, never actually sympathetic enough to be called noble or heroic, but shaded more toward desperation than ruthlessness.

Full review on EFC.

"End of Decay"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Kind of a basic bit of sci-fi/horror, in which a paralyzed researcher (Brian Villalobos) plans a bit of illicit self-experimentation, but co-writer/director Christopher Todd manages a few nice touches, like how Orin's memories and dreams of when he could run have a naturalistic tone that often cuts to a bright, clinical environment as he's snapped back to reality, and the design of the machine he uses to give himself a spinal tap or four is a terrifically simple, effective bit of horror.

There are some elements of how it works as a short film that can seem oversimplified as much as streamlined - there's an assistant character who is there almost entirely for stating the obvious moral questions involved, and Orin's admonitions to not get squeamish at this late date are as much an acknowledgment of this as a statement of actual conflict. The eventual gross-out bits are undeniably effective but maybe a little stretched, although tastes vary, which also goes for how the last shot is more "one last creepy thing" rather than something that particularly aligns with the themes Todd had been driving at.

Sequence Break

* * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Within the past year of seeing festival horror films, I've seen movies based on cursed VCR games, evil party games, and now a malevolent arcade game, and hopefully horror filmmakers are done with this particular bit of nostalgia-mining, because it doesn't seem to lead to an actual good story, no matter how creatively gross it sometimes gets. Sequence Break feels like something that should absolutely work for me, but there's just not much to it.

That aimlessness is reflected in Oz (Chase Williamson), who has been working as a technician repairing old video game machines for a small local business for the last few years, too intent on his work when Tess (Fabianne Therese) comes through, ostensibly to find a gift for her brother, but he meets and clicks with her at a bar later, after boss Jerry (Lyle Kanouse) has dropped the bad news that they'll be closing in a few weeks, after he gets back from a family thing upstate. He doesn't make it, as a mysterious homeless-looking man (John Dinan) kills him after breaking in, somehow connected with the strange circuit board that Oz finds in an unmarked envelope - one that makes for a hypnotic (but nausea-and-nightmare-inducing) game when Oz installs it in an unused cabinet.

Sequence Break is the sort of horror story built around the romantic comedy of the shy guy meeting the girl that's a cool, perfect match but having to tear himself away from whatever keeps him from engaging, and if you cast well, that goes a long way toward keeping the audience happy when a lot of the movie is sort of killing time before moving things along. Writer/director Graham Skipper actually goes with a proven pairing, as Chase Williamson and Fabianne Therese also met cute in John Dies at the End, and it certainly provides a solid foundation to work with - it's genuinely fun to watch them play off each other, and Williamson in particular comes off as a believably introverted guy who nevertheless isn't a one-note guy trivia machine.

Full review on EFC.

"Don't Ever Change"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017, DCP)

Things jump from character-based discomfort to dark screwball violence awful quickly in Don Swaynos's "Don't Ever Change", perhaps too much so: The tension between Heather Kafka as a woman and Cyndi Williams as her mother - "birth mother", as Kafka's Amy pointedly notes - is kind of fascinating, and the relationship revealed as Williams's Karen tries to adjust to her new surroundings is one we don't often see portrayed despite it having its root in something we've been asked to ponder time and again.

Instead, though, the film is mostly built around a visit from Frank Mosley's Jason, a "fan" with a mugshot for Karen to sign, and his skewed perspective and bizarre requests send the short in another direction. Not a bad one, by any means - Mosley gets some pretty good takes in as he finds things not quite going as he'd envisioned, and it brings a funny performance out of Williams. Note quite the same thing she'd done before, but something plenty entertaining. It makes this almost two shorts with the same inspiration crammed together, although Swaynos handles the sometimes contradictory impulses better than many do.

Poor Agnes

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Fantasia Underground, DCP)

Poor Agnes twists almost constantly on the way from where it starts to where it ends, playing on audience expectations of human behavior as opposed to genre standards, and it makes for a constant unnerving sort of horror. It's a movie about a monster that places her insanity closer to front and center than is typical but in doing so pushes the viewer to want to get closer, even though he or she has seen early on what a dangerous thing that is.

Agnes (Lora Burke) is a serial killer, although her narration never uses those words, though it's clear from how she disposes of her latest victim that she's figured out a lot of what she needs to do it without a lot of fuss or threat of getting caught, paying attention to everything from physical fitness and which pawnbrokers will pay for the possessions without too many questions. As much as she tries, though, you can't make anyone disappear completely, as she discovers when Mike Mercer (Robert Notman) approaches her on behalf of the parents of one of her first victims from when she was just a teenager ten years ago. Seducing him is easy enough, but what to do next? He doesn't quite fit the profile of her regular victim, but he's getting too close to the truth.

Or at least, that's the train of thought that many will ascribe to Agnes in these moments because the people in the audience are generally sane, and they'll grab onto her narration talking about killing "the right people", or they'll consider that the basically linear way events tend to play out means that Agnes taking notes and asking unusual questions at a torture survivors' meeting as being signs that this is the first time she's really decided to mess with someone rather than just kill them. Writer James Gordon Ross and director Navin Ramaswaran spend a lot of time playing off how the audience wants to find something admirable in the protagonist. There's got to be a motive we can understand or root for, some underlying justice being accomplished by her action, but the script keeps yanking that away even as it keeps putting something else just within reach until the viewer is as committed to Agnes despite her madness as Mike is.

Full review on EFC.

"Show No Mercy"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Action!, DCP)

Mildly surprised this short didn't go before the haunted-arcade-game movie earlier in the day, but sometimes the 1980s action throwback overrides the video game connection. It's also got the "bloopers during the credits" connection with the film to which it was attached, and it sort of tends to affirm that those indicate people had a great deal of fun making the movie but didn't necessarily make something great.

Not that Scott Condit & Jeremy Tremp made something actually bad here; it's a bit slow and stilted getting started, but the scene when the barcade manager and employee both get sucked into a game and start blasting at each other. It's fun with amusing effects, but it's the first things people come up with when they have this idea, not the really clever jokes that would surprise the audience should they appear.

Plan B: Scheiß auf Plan A (Plan B)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2017 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU/Théâtre Hall (Fantasia International FIlm Festival 2017: Action!, DCP)

You see a lot of calling-card shorts meant to show what a director or an actor could do in a feature, whether they're explicitly presented as that or not, but a calling-card feature is kind of rare, especially one as elaborate as Plan B: Can Aydin, Cha-Lee Yoon, Phong Giang, and Eugene Boateng play versions of themselves, 1980s-movie-loving German stuntmen looking for work to show what they can do, only to stumble into something way over their head and be sent on a dangerous scavenger hunt.

Each stop on this leads to a pretty impressive fight scene, and the filmmakers do something pretty clever - the opening credits have made it clear that Can, Cha-Lee, and Phong are not just starring in the movie but choreographing the action, and while it's usually not a great thing to associate performer and character too much, these guys often being doofuses on-screen can make you forget that they are actually really good at this part of their jobs. The script may be 1980s Hollywood, but the action is like something out of Hong Kong, and each bit is kind of a delight.

The movie's generally funny all around, with Laurent Daniels providing narration as the sort of character usually looked at from outside (a renegade detective actually named "Kopp") and a fun supporting cast that includes both solid deadpan comedic performers and folks who can match up well against the leads in fights. That Germany is not necessarily the place one expects to see this sort of film from is the icing on the cake.

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