Friday, September 14, 2018

Fantasia 2018.22: Piercing, The Field Guide to Evil, What Keeps You Alive, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum, and Brothers' Nest

Bonus day! At least, it feels like a bonus day, though I'd have to check to see just when my emails went from describing the festival as running through the first to ending on the second. I think it was before the schedule was announced, although I didn't notice it until I had paper in hand. Still, it was kind of cool that the 22nd annual festival had 22 days, even though that's a lot of film festival and I was kind of wiped out by the end, to the point where I kind of dragged for my two free days in the city.

So let's take some time to thank the festival's volunteers. It would be interesting to see how much turnover there's been - while the programmers and such have stayed pretty consistent, the volunteers at this festival tend to be a young group, and you move and pick up other obligations in your twenties. The old front row crew is almost gone too. Still, Fantasia remains a fantastically-run festival, better than the more corporate ones I"ve been to and really astonishing for the scale of it. Normal festivals don't run three weeks, and seeing so many of these people here from beginning to end just underscores what a labor of love this is - it's a big commitment during the summer when you could be doing a lot of other things with your afternoons and/or evenings for the better part of a month

The schedule was almost entirely repeats, with the sole exceptions being the two screening at Hall that evening, one of which had already had a limited release (although given that Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum didn't hit Boston, I don't know if it hit Montreal), while Lords of Chaos wasn't announced until midway through the festival. It got a lot of good press, but having already really liked Heavy Trip, I kind of felt like I was set in terms of my metal consumption for the festival and way ahead in my metal enjoyment. So I ended the festival across the street with Brothers' Nest

That's Brothers' Nest director/co-star Clayton Jacobson on the right, and he really is the exact sort of laid-back, chatty Aussie you want to ease you out of a 22-day festival, and he himself seemed low-key honored to have the last film of the festival even if it wasn't officially the closing film. Like, we've all been here a while, but we'll stick around a couple hours longer for his movie. Kind of fit my mood at that point more than Mitch earnestly screaming his excitement across the street would have.

It was a fun Q&A afterward, too. He pointed out that he and his brother are often confused with each other back home in Australia, although you really wouldn't necessarily think so to watch their movie. The film itself was one of those odd little indie shoots where everyone is basically living in the house that serves as the film's main location, since it's kind of out of the way, far enough that the city-based actors thought it was kind of unnerving. They shot in sequence so that they could make a mess, and did a lot of nifty things that might be worth a closer look (for instance only one brother makes the floors creak).

(I have a note from this Q&A just labeled "Movie 'Rams'", which I guess is the Icelandic one about a pair of brothers trying to save their flock. I should either take more detailed notes or not let these things age a month before writing them up.)

That's not quite a wrap on the festival - I've got to circle back and the write up all the other stuff that just got Letterboxd-sized capsules - but it's the end of my time at Fantasia for the year. I'll be back next year, even if I may try to find a way to make it less overwhelming, and I can't wait to see everyone I only see once a year and a bunch of sometimes great, but always interesting movies again.

"Clean Blood"

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

There are like three or four things going on in "Clean Blood" that could make for an interesting short genre film, from the opening moments that seem like a flash-forward to a slasher-style ending, the fact that one of the main characters is an exceptionally pregnant man and nobody seems to be saying boo about it, and the otherwise-contentious scene at a family dinner that would, if none of the other things were going on, make this entire clan remember it as "The Christmas with the Really Stupid Argument". It's like writer/director Jordan Michael Blake had a bunch of ideas that he could see connecting but kept cutting down so that he could achieve some sort of artistic minimalism.

It almost works, I think - you can see every single bit of that working, and Blake does a nice job using structure to build a sense of unease, with title cards and act breaks that suggest the little eyebrow-raiser from a moment ago was even more significant, along with a handheld camera that feels like a person rather than a machine. There's skill, and if the goal is just to make the audience feel an odd combination of off-balance, worry, and the mixed emotions of family, it hits that. If there's a more solid storytelling goal, it doesn't quite come together for me, even though it feels like it's teasing, introducing, advancing, and climaxing in all the right places.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

It does not particularly surprise me to see that this comes from a novel by Ryu Murakami, the same author who provided the source material for Audition. One can see a lot of the same DNA that went into that here, though expressed in a garish, colorful manner that's fun to watch in the moment but which never comes together into much more than screenwriter/director Nicolas Pesce showing us just how much affection he has for film and the genre.

Reed (Christopher Abbott) and Mona (Laia Costa) are new parents, which is an exhausting state to be in, and you might not be surprised to find out that Reed is anticipating an upcoming business trip just a little bit. The trouble is, he seems to have snapped - the baby has looked at him and said "you know what you have to do". He's got to sacrifice a prostitute, and one who speaks English so that he can't shut her suffering out. He's already called an escort service for the second night in the hotel, but when he decides he wants to get it over with a night early, the service sends him Jackie (Mia Wasikowska), who is groggy, detached, and not really what he had planned for at all.

There may, someday, be more promising casting for this sort of material than "Mia Wasikowska as a young woman who is more/other than what she seems", but not at the present time. She is, as usual, an exceptional pleasure to watch, playing up Jackie's muted, possibly depressed exterior like it's a thick garment that even her more shockingly unstable moments don't entirely pierce. She never entirely drops a sex worker's reticence to reveal her whole self, which makes the violence that eventually emerges more fascinating - the audience is never quite sure whether it's a reaction or something that was there all along.

Full review at EFC.

The Field Guide to Evil

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2018 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

The Field Guide to Evil is not a bad horror anthology, really - it probably averages out to something a notch or so above average by the time all eight countries in its world tour of frightening folklore have checked in. It's just that it quite possibly peaks with its first entry, and even some of the better ones that follow never quite live up to how smart and thrilling that one is.

That first one is Severin Fiala & Veronika Franz's "The Sinful Women of Hollfall", a take on an Austrian myth that at least seems to subvert its folkloric roots while still cranking up some tension. It follows Kathi, a young woman (Marlete Hauser) who witnesses another drawing blood so that she can at least temporarily hide her pregnancy by showing stained undergarments when the village women do their laundry; they grow closer, a danger in itself, as Kathi's mother warns that it will draw The Trud out of the woods. Franz & Fiala engage with what makes this fable frightening on a gut level, but also find ways to interrogate and question it, recognizing both its original intent but also the power myth has over a community itself, and how one can fight those forces.

Turkey's Can Evrenol attacks similar material in "The Haunting of Al Karisi the Childbirth Demon", which features Naz Sayiner as another woman less than satisfied with the slot she is expected to fill, in this case a miserable mother-to-be caring for her bedridden mother-in-law, her possibly abusive husband mostly absent, while a dark force calls from the well. Evrenol creates a palpable sense of menace, and Sayiner a compelling anti-heroine, enough to make this an effective little horror story on its own. It's simply hard to miss how traditional its interpretation of the myth is compared to its predecessor, despite this being the one set in the modern day. This becomes more acute in the next segment, "The Kindler and the Virgin", which plays like an attempt to compact its story into ten or fifteen minutes without highlighting any specific aspect; a disappointment considering director Agnieszka Smoczynska made The Lure.

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.

Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2018 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Before anything else, Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum is a good horror movie, one that gets the audience to jump at the right times and does a fair job of creeping them out in between. It also arguably represents the evolution of a certain part of the genre, either a transitional step between found-footage movies like The Blair Witch Project and screenshot entries like Unfriended or an impressive job in cross-breeding the two. It's a good enough haunted-house movie that the format never feels like a cheap gimmick.

That format is a live horror webcast hosted by Ha-joon, where a few of his collaborators along with some randomly selected fans will spend the night inside Gwangju's Gonjiam Psychiatric Hospital - closed for twenty years, infamous for a 1979 mass suicide during which the director disappeared, and rumored to have been a site where prisoners (both political and North Korean) were tortured. Nobody, it is said, has been room 402 on the top floor since it was shuttered. The group heading out there includes site regulars Je-yoon and Seung-wook, along with nursing student Ah-yeon, major fan Ji-hyun, Korean-American Charlotte (who has been visiting haunted sites while part of a touring dance crew), and Sung-hoon. They're well-equipped with plenty of maps, cameras, and flashlights, but sometimes even the smallest things can freak you out - and some things don't seem so small.

Once upon a time, something like Gonjiam might have been trying to fool an audience into thinking it was real, or at least been standing back in half-convincing mock surprise that one would accuse the filmmakers who cast unknowns playing eponymous characters in a movie shot on consumer video equipment of that, but the audience has seen too many of those movies while the drones and 4K cameras available at any electronics store are good enough to blur the line between amateurs and professional, at least on the surface level. Gonjiam plays into this, both by establishing early on that this group has enough gear on hand to never really worry about missing anything and by blurring the lines between truth and fiction in different ways, notably by Ha-joon being as much showman as genuine paranormal enthusiast, with eyes on monetizing a video stream that certainly aims to be a more professional production, to the point where the characters are often making sure to create multi-camera set-ups and wear camera harnesses that also capture their faces, driving the visual language of a found-footage film back toward the more conventional.

Full review at EFC.


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

"Bloom" was, if nothing else, an extremely well-programmed short at this festival, serving as a perfect appetizer for Brothers' Nest. Both Australian, both featuring tight casts that allow the filmmakers to focus on one strained relationship, both defined by their space. Both pretty good.

It's immediately and darkly funny, as director Kieran Wheeler establishes mood with cigarette butts and empty beer cans all over a messy little house, so that when star Andrew Faulkner enters the door and seems to match the environment more or less perfectly, the audience immediately gets just how his immediate reaction to seeing rose petals strewn about is to jump to extreme jealousy - this just does not fit! It becomes a row when the audience meets the girlfriend (Emily Wheaton) who insists that there's nothing going on, hot and cool by turns until…

Well, that'd be telling. The climax is as stupid as the fight, which is completely fitting, but Wheeler and his group don't just make this a movie about yelling; this pair is enough of a mess by this point to just not be working when they're at the kitchen table, although it's clear that insults and shouting aren't far behind. They get plenty of laughs out of it, including a nasty one or two at the end, and then get out before it becomes heavily tragic.

That, in this case, is the sort of thing a short saves for the feature.

Brothers' Nest

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

There should, by now, be a name for the class of crime film that starts as a screwball comedy but ends far from it in either feeling or deed, so that one can say a movie is this thing in just a few words and the person to whom it has been recommended won't feel misled. Whatever you call it, Brothers' Nest is an impressive example of that thing, dark as heck but often roaringly funny.

It starts with Australian brothers Jeff (Clayton Jacobson) and Terry (Shane Jacobson) surreptitiously approaching the family homestead in Victoria. The family has, individually and as a whole, fallen on some hard times lately, with the father's death, the mother's cancer, Terry's marriage falling apart… It's a whole bunch of things. So Jeff's come up with a plan, established an alibi, and now they've just got to wait until old farmhand and family friend Rodger (Kim Gyngell) comes by to groom the family's horse Freddie (who will be handed to a new owner next morning). But when he comes early, and their mother (Lynette Curran) is in the car, that messes everything up.

There's a pleasant idiocy to the way Jeff and Terry play off each other, the sort of poor planning that manifests as excessive complication and each brother pointing out something obviously foolish that the other is doing in turn. It's reliably funny stuff, and everybody involved is careful not to lose the fact that most people are just not naturally gifted in criminal situations as the movie darkens. There's bloody slapstick and dumbfounded double-takes, and even though it becomes less inherently funny, things going to hell in an absurd way still bring a reluctant chuckle and a shake of the head, because these guys, right?

Full review at EFC.

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