Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Fantasia 2018 Catchup 00: Summer of '84, Our House, Arizona, and What Keeps You Alive

Two days left to finish and I've already fallen behind stuff that's hitting theaters (if not around here) and streaming. Fortunately, they're all pretty good and someone else has already reviewed the one I didn't love for eFilmCritic so I can hold off on that one until it hits Boston.

I must say, I'm mildly surprised that the review for Summer of '84 got retweeted by both the lead actor and writer, when a fair chunk of my review was "I kind of hate this kid, he's the sort of self-serving little brat that grows up to write movies where he's the hero and pretty girls fall for him for no reason." I've got to tell you, I am not entirely sure whether they were just retreating any vaguely positive reference to their movie or if the movie is a lot more self-aware than I initially gave it credit for.

Stuff has always turned around fast after genre festivals - it is not doing a distributor any good sitting on their virtual shelves - but this seems like a bit more than usual, and with Fresh Pond not doing nearly as much in the way of lesser movies on screens #8-10 these days, there's not much opportunity to see them on a big screen. Fortunately, What Keeps You Alive will be hitting Brookline next week, playing the Coolidge's "After Midnite" series on the 7th & 8th of September. Hopefully, it will get some earlier shows as well, because I say only half in jest that I find the eight hours on a bus each way to Montreal much easier than trying to get back to Somerville from the Coolidge at 1:45am.

Summer of '84

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Give the Roadkill Superstar team their due: This is the second time in a row where I've gone into one of their video-store-inspired movies skeptical but had them win me over. The initially clumsy nostalgia and self-seriousness builds to a genuinely suspenseful back half, making the movie a bit better than the stylish but empty throwback it could have been.

It opens rough, with foreboding narration by Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere) about how there's a heart of darkness in suburbia. Soon, though, he's delivering newspapers to his Oregon neighborhood in the morning, hanging out with his the other neighborhood kids - Dale "Woody Woodworth" (Caleb Emery), his portly best friend, abrasive Tommy "Eats" Eaton (Judah Lewis), and slightly-nerdier-than-the-rest Curtis Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew) - during the day, and playing hide-and-seek with the younger kids at night. Davey's bedroom is well-placed, directly across the street from that of Nikki Kaszuba (Tiera Skovbye), so the boys spend a fair amount of time there. It's not entirely idyllic, though - the TV station where Davey's father (Jason Gray-Stanford) works is starting to use the phrase "serial killer" when talking about the number of kids who have gone missing from neighboring towns, and Davey has got the idea that it might be his neighbor, Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer). The thing is, Mr. Mackey is also a policeman, so Davey's going to have to convince his friends to investigate themselves.

Kids like Davey grow up to write movies - he likes to borrow his father's camcorder, among his other hobbies - and that very much seems to be what happened here. Maybe not, but there certainly seems to be a bit of wish-fulfillment in not just how Davey seems to be the leader of this group despite being, by all evidence, kind of a nut (even if he didn't suspect Mr. Mackey specifically, what sort of weirdo gets excited about there being a serial killer in town?), but how the cute girl across the way basically decides to drop herself into his life despite his being, as mentioned, a nut, and one who clearly spends a fair amount of time at his window with binoculars. The film strains a bit at how Davey can drag his friends into his weird obsession, but tends to land on just this side of credible. Graham Verchere is, necessary morbidity aside, able to make Davey earnest as heck, so completely convinced of his theory that the other guys might follow along so far as it looks like they might just get grounded rather than face real danger, and he's able to manage that half of the character while also finding the sweet spot where Davey is excited about Nikki's attention but not coming off as either any sort of saint or nice guy with a purpose.

Full review at EFC.

Our House

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Earlier on in this festival, I reviewed a horror remake and discovered that I had inadvertently come close enough to recreating what I had written about the original movie that I would probably get flagged as plagiarizing myself by the automated services that check for such things. I initially avoided going back to see what I wrote about Phasma Ex Machina (aka "Ghost from the Machine") out of curiosity, to see if this happens every time I see a remake where I vaguely remember watching the original, but it turns out that this one is enough its own thing to recommend on its own.

The story is still roughly the same - grad student Ethan (Thomas Mann) and his girlfriend Hannah (Nicola Peltz) leave a family dinner early because a window opens up where they can test their wireless electricity project at the lab, which means that Ethan is not home when his parents (John Ralston & Marcia Bennett) are killed in a traffic accident. Three months later, his life is different - he's working in the local hardware store and more concerned about getting younger siblings Matt (Percy Hynes White) and Becca (Kate Moyer) to school in the morning than the science project gathering dust in his basement, at least until a part ordered before the tragedy arrives, and the electromagnetic field he creates potentially serving as a medium for more than just electricity.

Time flies; the film this remakes is only eight years old and parts of the script seem kind of quaint; I do believe that there is a point where one of Ethan's colleagues is recording their revolutionary wireless electricity invention with a phone that charges wirelessly. Obviously not the same thing, but it shows how fast and loose things get around the plot device - it absolutely had to be tested that night to set up later feelings of guilt, something that uses enough power to black out the city but can be run out of residential basement, especially if they turn out the lights. The film has more than a few moments where you scratch your head, wondering if these guys have ever seen a movie about machines that amplify the spiritual world and a few others that basically say "you know how this goes" as they skip into familiar territory.

Full review at EFC.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Arizona starts out in a smart, timely spot, taking advantage of the vast number of hollowed-out, prefabricated, unfinished developments in the Southwest to create both a memorable sense of desperation and an isolated setting, but somewhere along the way the black comedy of people unwilling to take responsibility for increasingly horrible actions and a twisted American dream becomes a standard direct-to-video thriller. Eventually, a guy chasing a woman and his daughter with a gun is just that, no matter how clever it started out.

But, back up, and meet Cassie (Rosemarie DeWitt), who is trying to sell those places despite their many shortcomings because she's six months behind on the mortgage for her own, sold to her by her boss Gary Bartha, and it's not easy to be confident about it when you might run across someone who has given in to despair during a showing. Sonny (Danny McBride), on the other hand, is less the type for despair than rage, and when his argument with Gary ends in disaster, his panic leads to him kidnapping Cassie, not taking into account that her daughter Morgan (Lolli Sorenson) will soon be home from school, or that his ex-wife might drop by, or…

The film initially presents itself as a black comedy, and a good one, something the mortgage crisis seems to bring out in people. It's the sort of thing that lets them put righteous indignation and self-destructive foolishness in the same person, and in Danny McBride, they find something close to an ideal vessel. He's got a warm, jovial presence that can shift to unhinged at the drop of a hat, and he can milk perfectly-executed moments of dumb, entitled white male privilege just enough to make sure that the audience gets the point without seeming to hit them over the head with it, even after the film has shifted to be more a chase than a comedy. Rosemarie DeWitt plays her part as a well-intentioned mirror, especially toward the beginning, more completely sympathetic but still desperate enough for the audience to believe she might completely throw in with Sonny, though she handles her earlier shift from comic to thriller well.

Full review at EFC.

What Keeps You Alive

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

I haven't perused the listings for the local LGBTQ festival as closely as I have others in recent years, but I don't recall many entries that seemed as unrepentantly pulpy as What Keeps You Alive. It doesn't exactly have main characters who just happen to be gay, but it's also not a niche film, or an introduction, or really outside of the mainstream in any way. It's just a darn good thriller that shows that everyone should watch their backs when they go out to the pretty country with the spotty cell phone reception.

That's where Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) and wife Julie (Brittany Allen) are headed, to a really beautiful lake house that has been in Jackie's family for years. It's not entirely idyllic - the boathouse seems to have collapsed over the winter, for a start - but Julie is impressed, looking forward to a nice, relaxing weekend. She's excited to meet Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), a close friend from Jackie's childhood, and her husband Daniel (Joey Klein), although it's a little odd that Sarah called Jackie "Megan".

Writer/director Colin Minihan lets that stew for a while, letting the audience file it back in their heads as something where they are expecting another bit of related information so that when the two connect, there's that thrilling "oh, shit!" moment before things go to hell. Instead, he jumps straight to the violence, kicking things into high gear early and not leaving a whole lot to be explained. Details will be filled in, sure, but for now, it's about running, hiding, recovering from what may be the year's second-nastiest fall after the one in Revenge, and trying to out-think an exceptionally crafty opponent. It's not a completely streamlined thriller, but it doesn't waste time on building sympathy for its villain or trying to build a metaphor. It is what it is, and it's good enough at being that to not feel like it's just going through the motions.

Full review at EFC.

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