Sunday, July 21, 2019

Fantasia 2019.09: Blood on Her Name, It Comes, The Wretched, and Alien Crystal Palace

Market weekend started Thursday, I think, but people really started showing up on Friday, so it's probably a bit more important to get in line early and such.

Hopefully that means Matthew Pope and Don Thompson can get find some distribution for Blood on Her Name, which is a tight, nifty little thriller set in what they call "the place between places". It was shot and more or less set in Georgia, and Pope talked about how, being from the area, he wanted to make sure it was authentic; as a fair amount of things set in the South aren't. They more or less wrote it with star Bethany Anne Lind in mind, and were careful about who they surrounded her with in order to make sure that even locals wouldn't think the accents were all over the place.

Next, it was across the street to Hall for It Comes, which I saw several people calling "a whole lot of movie", and they're not wrong. It is something.else, the latest work by a guy in Tetsuya Nakashima who has seldom seemed to make a movie that doesn't push its genre as far as it can go, and I'm not sure I see the point of other exorcism movies after this.

Next up, The Wretched, which got a Sam Raimi endorsement in the past few days and thus maybe a little more of a crowd than it might have had, with a fair number of market folks joining the passholders' line. They brought a fair-sized contingent, with writer/directors Drew & Brett Pierce (not sure whether they're twins or "just" brothers), as well as actors Judah Abner Paul, Madelynn Stuenkel, Zarah Mahler, Jamison Jones, and John-Paul Howard. The big take-away from this is that, like the guys from Porno a few days back, they shot this in an off-season, so what looks like summer in Michigan is actually something like late fall, not the most fun time to be shooting a summer-set movie in Michigan. Nearly everybody, asked about what the most memorable part of filming was, mentioned the cold in some way or other. Stuenkel got to combine it with chocolate syrup, as she was pretty much unrecognizable as "the hag".

After that, I was stupid and went across the street for Alien Crystal Palace which… was not good. Bad, even. Awful. Like, not even campily funny with people laughing at the outrageousness of it all. And though my French is terrible, the vibe I got from the programmers is "how the hell did we sell this out? This movie is terrible!"

That's two hours more sleep I could have had before heading out for Ride Your Wave, Prey, "Born of Woman" '19, The Incredible Shrinking Wknd, and either Killerman or 8 on Saturday, and I regret it.

"Whiteout" (2019)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

After a nifty-looking establishing shot, "Whiteout" is essentially a single take, camera set up in the back seat of a car, looking out the windshield but framed so that the audience can see the driver and passenger stopped and arguing about what to do upon encountering a man just standing in the middle of the road during a snowstorm. It's a neat bit of composition, with the man occupying the upper-central part of the screen where the audience is trained to watch but the active characters in other quadrants. It's an unsettling situation, but the feeling of trying to keep your eyes on both the performance and the place where you can sense something is going to happen increases the tension.

It's got a nifty ending that does a neat job of keeping the viewer uncomfortable, too, leaving room to chat afterward over what sort of instincts kicked in, and how that's going to work out going forward. Not bad results for ten minutes or so.

Blood on Her Name

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

It is very nice when the tail end of this sort of thriller has all of its pieces clicking together, maybe not forming something perfect but nevertheless making sense, maybe just a bit more than it had a moment or two earlier. Lots of movies have those sort of turns; few have them work so well. Some bits weren't exactly foreshadowed in obvious manner but still make everything fit just a bit better, and the filmmakers are able to keep these from stopping the movie because there's a perfect logic to it and a bit more to do afterward.

That all works in large part because everything before it was impressively human foibles. Compassion will mess with even the perfect crime, and nobody here is much of a criminal mastermind, or even really much of a criminal. The endless morass of getting pulled down here by trying to do right things true, especially in this middle-of-nowhere spot where there probably isn't enough of anything to go around, and sentiment really will sink you as much as greed.

Throw in a tremendously solid spine in Bethany Anne Lind's performance, put up against a few dependable character actors, and then cut until there's no fat left, and you've got a fine modern/rural noir.

Kuru (It Comes)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

It's not often that you see a horror movie like this that has both an incredibly clear idea what it wants to be about but also has such ambitious sweep, managing what sometimes seems like multiple new takes on old ideas. And then you get an absolutely amazing climax that is continuously offering more... It's a wonder this thing is never even close to careening out of control.

But it isn't, probably in part because Tetsuya Nakashima and company have a clear enough eye on the potentially maddening nature of parenthood and living one's expected life, and they can turn it around and find different angles on how it can translate into supernatural horror, and in doing so deliver some impressive horror movie shocks. There's themes and cleverness found here, but they don't overwhelm the thrills by making them just simple metaphors; the scares get bigger even as they stay connected to what makes them mean something. On top of that, there's fun against-type characters, like the daddy-blogger, the cheerily creepy little girls, and the ditzy exorcist.

And then there's the last act, which is bigger than anything else in an already-grand flick has set the audience up for despite all the hints that there's more to see than you know coming before. It's almost funny in its sensory overload, but is also not messing around, with all the blood, intensity, and danger of the great cinematic exorcism scenes. Somehow, the very scale of it both seema ridiculous but also expands the film's world in kind of scary ways. It's exhilarating in ways horror movies seldom manage, and when you get to the end, it's been a lot, but it's been great.

"El Cuento" ("Bedtime Story")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

A pair of kids get on their mother's last nerve, leading her to give them a well-deserved scare in this short from Lucas Paulino & Ángel Torres that has a strong idea of which buttons to push and how to unnerve without actually going too far into making things gross. I like how everyone seems understandably frayed and on-edge without quite being hostile, and how the end plays out as a nightmare with all of the nervous illogic but emotional certainty that entails.

The Wretched

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Filmmakers Brett & Drew Pierce are working in a great horror movie tradition here, of the kid who knows something awful is up but can't get anyone to believe him, but at times it seems like they chose the wrong kid - not the eight-year-old who is in the middle of it, but the seventeen-year-old who is next door and is only kind of involved at first. It puts the scares at a little distance, and makes it feel like it should be working harder to pull it together. A late-film twist reveals how this might all fit together, but that puts a lot on the audience as well, because there's no time to spell out details.

It also feels like something of a squandering of a potentially really good monster. The program describes her as a "thousand-year-old witch", but for someone who is supposed to be kind of human, she's got no personality of her own, no sense of having lived a long time, no sense that she's got anything in her head other than living another day. Strictly speaking, that's probably enough, but it's hardly exciting. It's almost like she's gotten too good at jumping bodies and hiding, even if the whole thing where she devours memories seems a bit wonky in execution.

It's a bit of a bummer, because the Pierces have a nifty idea here and put it together well, using a lot of practical effects that hit the right buttons in the viewers' heads without often becoming cheap splatter, and there's a nice cast as well, the MVP being Piper Curda, who brightens almost every scene she's part of and shifts into a different gear when she has to do more. There's more ambition and creativity here than the average horror movie, and I respect the gambit they went for in the last act even if it's only something like 75% effective.

I can't quite talk myself into saying The Wretched lived up to the hype it received, but that doesn't diminish its strengths by much.

Alien Crystal Palace

* (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

I should probably give this one of those "N/A" ratings, because from talking to others later, it seems like I slept through some memorable things, but I don't think I need to give it another chance to say that it's definitively awful. It's terrible and dull and feels like the same half-joke of how the musician who is supposedly the other half of a perfect being is actually a giant pill stretched out for ninety minutes. No matter how weird it wants to get, or how the budget doesn't match the ambition shown by the genuine eccentric making it, it's never weird enough.

I've got little patience for laughing at incompetence, even if it's somewhat less mean-spirited here because the filmmakers know that this is not for everyone from the start and can laugh it off, but, geez, I could have gotten a little more sleep and been less of a zombie the next day or seen something good instead, and I don't see what the upside is.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Fantasia 2019.08: Maggie, No Mercy, and Knives and Skin

Short day, but one with guests aplenty!

First up, director Yi Okseop and co-writer/co-producer/co-star Koo Gyo-Hwan of Maggie, which was interesting in part because it was funded as part of a program that has a yearly theme, this year's being "youth", which was kind of interesting to me as that wasn't exactly what I came for, but which is certainly what the film ended up being.

I also found myself amused that one of the tracks listed in the credits was "What True Self? Feels Bogus, Let's Watch Jason X" by Chris Zabriskie, and while I don't figure I'll ever actually download the album it's on, which has a number of titles like that, I'm kind of curious as to what cue it is and how it got used.

Next up (across the street), No Mercy director Lim Kyeong-taek, who said before it started that this wasn't a particularly complicated movie, which meant a fair chunk of questions about the fighting. Apparently Lee Si-young was already doing boxing as a workout before making the film, but spent three months learning Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. They also mentioned that it was her co-star Park Se-wan's first film, and given the role she plays - a developmentally-disabled teenager who gets sexually assaulted on screen multiple times - that's a heck of a way to start.

Last up was Jennifer Reeder, who was a terrific guest; both her introduction and Q&A for Knives and Skin were irreverent and informative, and a case of someone who was genuinely grateful to be showing a feature at this event but confident enough to push back a little on some questions and break down what she was thinking without worrying about pushing people away. Sometimes, you kind of get the impression that filmmakers are still trying to sell their movies to the audience that just saw it, or are at the very least very aware that this is an opportunity for other people to sell the movie for them. If Reeder is doing that, she's at least doing that by putting her interests and influences out there to sell it for her.

Speaking of influences, I've been looking at Twitter and the like more than I probably should, and it's kind of funny just how many people posting articles about the screening compared the movie to Twin Peaks, what with the quirk and the dead girl at the center and all, despite her going on (twice!) about how she was never a particular fan, not getting past the first season in the 1990s. Makes a body wonder just how much is written ahead of time.

She had a lot of great talk about how, in some ways, this was more a coming-of-age film for its adult characters than its young ones, and how the way we talk about such things can be limiting - if you have your eyes opened to the world and change as a result as a teenager, you're coming of age, but if you do as an adult, it's a crisis, despite the fact that we hopefully never actually stop learning and adjusting. Heck, today's teenagers are often more clear-eyed and engaged with the world than their parents, as the last couple of years' politics shows.

That was yesterday; today's plans include Blood on Her Name, It Comes, The Wretched, and seeing just how much I'm dragging/able to get into Alien Crystal Palace at midnight. And since it's entirely possible I may not have a chance to post with the quick turnarounds over the weekend, Saturday's plans are Ride Your Wave, Prey, actually going to the "Born of Woman" shorts block this year, The Incredible Shrinking Wknd, and probably choosing Killerman over 8. Sunday is probably Cencoroll Connect, Boxer's Omen, Purity of Vengeance, Dance with Me, and Satanic Panic.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

I think I only got far enough in the description of Maggie to think it would be a farce about how everybody in a hospital thinks the picture of two people having sex in the x-ray room is their bones and soft tissue, so I was probably more disappointed than I should have been when there was a whole lot of other stuff going on, and that sort of got abandoned. A shame, because it introduces a fun group of characters, several of whom are more memorable than the ones who get actual names, and there's a great sense of dominoes falling as one thing leads to another here. It's how great episodic comedy works, and it's a bit of a disappointment to see how the film jumps the track.

The rest is nevertheless a decent-enough movie, but it never has a moment when anything near that interesting is going on, and the story that takes up a good chunk of the movie's back half is never up to that initial high concept. It becomes an aimless-youth picture - which, to be fair, was more or less the assignment - and just an okay one, with a main character who is never given an interesting hook to explain why following this screw-up is interesting, other than that he is the boyfriend of the nurse in the front half.

Taken as a whole, Maggie nevertheless has a nice lead performance, with lead actress Koo Kyohwan able to dive onto her character's sometimes frustratingly contrary nature, grabbing the screen even when she's supposed to be kind of secondary. She pushes back, makes impulsive decisions, and contradicts herself, but that's a much more interesting take on uncertain youth than her boyfriend's relative passivity.

Un-ni (No Mercy)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: Action!, DCP)

Man, how many times does this movie think we need to see a developmentally disabled 17-year-old raped before we're invested? I praise Korean genre cinema for not messing around on a regular basis, but there's a fuzzy space between being no-holds-barred in a thriller inspired by an actual crime and making arape-revenge story extra tacky without finding a new angle.

That's a simple way to look away No Mercy, I suppose, but it's not a complicated movie despite its occasional efforts to become one. The second half spends a whole lot of time adding more flashbacks to flesh things out, when all that corruption and detail really doesn't matter and just leads the audience to ask inconvenient questions about the timeline (like, who was looking after the sister while Inae was in jail, how did she only know about the smallest part of this, etc.?). It was the second Korean film of the day to seemingly jump tracks, moving from what was a fairly effective story of bullying and Inae potentially finding herself more and more surprised by the horror she discovers to a dig into continuity the audience knows nothing about until it's revealed as necessary that paints the heroine as negligent rather than tragic.

The action is pretty decent, at least, with Lee Si-young supposedly doing most of her own stunt work and no wires used. The fights are kind of tight and choppy, but they do pull the nice trick of making them feel difficult and painful after spending a bit of time building Inae up - this stuff is harder than it looks and some extra mass and reach can compensate for a fair chunk of skill.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

There are brief moments when Knives and Skin seems to be pushing itself to become a little more mysterious and fantastical than it is, lest it seem too simple, but writer/director Jennifer Reeder has a good handle on how to use that surrealism to perk up audience interest and make the quirk go down a little easier without having it be the movie's whole thing. It's a tricky bit of alchemy, but one she manages.

It lets her tie a number of small, but compelling storylines together without having too many of them become overwrought and off-putting. It's interesting how even in a movie often times about isolation, the teenagers in question are seldom truly alone, and the confidence they show is tremendously appealing. There's a ton of simple capability here, and there's not a character who doesn't get a chance to be abrasive even as the actors get chances to make that parts of a whole.

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 19 July 2019 - 25 July 2019

This should be fast, right? Folks are generally running scared from one thing, which quite frankly has me glad to be filling all my free time with festival films so I won't be even the least bit tempted.

  • That one thing, of course, being the CGI version of The Lion King, which seems like the dictionary definition of "artistically pointless but with obvious commercial appeal". It gets all the big 3D/deluxe screens, playing at the Capitol (2D only), Fresh Pond (2D only), the Studio Cinema Belmont (2D only), Jordan's Furniture (Imax), West Newton (2D only), Boston Common (including Imax 2D/3D), Fenway (including 2D/3D RPX), the Seaport (including 2D/3D Icon-X), South Bay (including Imax 2D/3D & Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Imax 2D/3D & Dolby Cinema), the Embassy (including MX4D & XPlus), Revere, and the SuperLux (2D only).

    Theaters will carve out a few showtimes for other things, including Apollo 11 at Boston Common and the Luna on Saturday afternoon. There are 30th anniversary screenings of Glory at Fenway and Assembly Row on Sunday and Wednesday (Revere on Wednesday only) and 40th Anniversary screenings of The Muppet Movie on Thursday at Fenway, South Bay, and Revere, although South Bay is the only one with evening shows of that one. Documentary This Changes Everything plays Fenway, South Bay, and Revere on Monday, while anime Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? - Arrow of the Orion has subtitled screenings at Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, and Revere on Tuesday.
  • IFFBoston Closing Night film The Farewell opens at The Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square, and Boston Common, and it's a bit of a gem, starring Awkwafina as a young woman not sure she can go along with her extended family's decision to not tell her grandmother she has cancer but arrange a fake wedding so that the can all get together one last time.

    The weekend's midnights include Return of the Living Dead on 35mm Friday, with co-star Linnea Quigley in person, and Cemetary Man on Saturday. Monday's Big Screen classic is His Girl Friday on 35mm, with an optional seminar, and then they kick off a "Summer of '69" series with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on Thursday.
  • There's yet more IFFBoston alums popping up, including a surprisingly decent release for the genuinely weird The Art of Self-Defense, which features Jesse Eisenberg as a man who turns (obsessively) to karate after being mugged, although something may be amiss at the dojo run by Alessandro Nivola and Imogen Poots. That one's at the Somerville, Kendall Square, Boston Common, and the Seaport. The Kendall also gets Sword of Trust, Lynn Shelton's new one which features a ragtag group trying to find a buyer for a unique Civil War relic. The Kendall also has encore screenings of Between Me and My Mind on Monday evening.
  • Apple Fresh Pond adds Telugu language action-comedy iSmart Shankar and Tamil actioner Kadaram Kondan to the Hindi Super 30.

    Over at Boston Common, it appears that Looking Up, with Deng Chao as an astronaut recalling his relationship with his son amid peril, has managed to make it through the censorship minefield, while The White Storm 2: Drug Lords sticks around for another week, although it looks like it will be the first movie bumped when they need to put on more screenings of The Lion King.
  • The Brattle Theatre won't be playing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood next weekend (but plenty of places will, including on 35mm film), though they're giving fans time to get ready with El Mundo del Tarantino: A Kill Bill double feature on Friday, Sabata and a double feature of The Hateful Eight & Django Unchained on Saturday, Inglorious Basterds paired with The Devil's Brigade on Sunday, and a twin bill of Pretty Poison & Jacques Demy's Model Shop on Monday. The Saturday and Sunday screenings are on 35mm film, and a portion of the ticket sales for the Harvey Weinstein-produced films will go to the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

    There's no listing for Tuesday as yet, but Wednesday has a free IFFBoston preview of Blinded by the Light (pass required), and Thursday has a special premiere screening of Braniac: Transmissions After Zero, with filmmakers on hand.
  • Silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis visits the The Regent Theatre on Wednesday for a screening of Woman in the Moon, Fritz Lang's odd but enthralling 1929 vision of what a trip to the moon might be like.
  • The Somerville Theatre plays Bring It On as Saturday's Midnight Special, and a double feature of The Stunt Man and Hooper as the last "Play It Cool" shows for a couple of weeks before Once Upon a Time in Hollywood starts hogging the large screen on Thursday night. All those special shows are on 35mm. Their friends at The Capitol do a bit of rep programming themselves, but use digital projection for their Throwback Thursday show of Casablanca on the 25th.
  • The Harvard Film Archive continues The Complete Howard Hawks with I Was a Male War Bride (Friday), To Have and Have Not (Friday), The Thing from Another World (Sunday), Air Force (Sunday), and his silent Fazil (Monday), the latter with live accompaniment by Robert Humphreville, and all on 35mm. That series interrupted on Saturday for a "Moon Movies" show of The Right Stuff, preceded by a tour of the Houghton Library. There's also apparently a free show of The Reader featuring a talk with the original novelist on Tuesday, although that is not on the HFA's schedule.
  • There's yet more of the French Film Festival at The Museum of Fine Arts, including Last Year at Marienbad (Friday), Non-Fiction (Friday/Thursday), High Life (Friday), Amanda (Saturday), The Freshman (Saturday), In Safe Hands (Saturday), Naked Normandy (Saturday), A Faithful Man (Sunday), Invisibles (Sunday), Sophia Antipolis (Sunday), Sink or Swim (Thursday), and A Man in a Hurry (Thursday).
  • West Newton hosts Boston Jewish Film's Summer Cinematheque series on Wednesday with Back to the Fatherland, with the documentary followed by a Skype Q&A with the filmmakers.

  • Cinema Salem has Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché in their screening room this week. The Luna Theater shows Late Night on Friday and Saturday evenings, Apollo 11 Saturday afternoon, A Nightmare on Elm Street on Sunday and Stop Making Sense on Tuesday, in addition to the Sunday morning and Wednesday night surprises. AMC's Liberty Tree Mall location gives off-peak times to Luke Grimes & Frank Grillo in Into the Ashes and aging-superhero comedy Supervised, which features Tom Berenger, Louis Gosset Jr., Beau Bridges, and a bunch of other people who probably also deserve better.
  • Joe's Free Films has plenty of opportunities to see movies outside, with a couple chances to catch Into the Spider-Verse while Somerville's "Summer of Sequels" changes things up with the Sam Raimi Spider-Man 2.

I am still in Montreal living and breathing Fantasia, and think I can skip Looking Up, so I'll just see twenty-odd other movies.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Fantasia 2019.07: SHe, Stare, and Dreadout

No guests yesterday, so no pictures, but after one week, I've seen 24 features and 14 shorts, 6 attached and 8 as part of a program. Doesn't quite put me on pace for the 80 I've told people I'll see, but the first week is a bit short.

Week two is looking to start off a bit short as well, with Maggie, another dinner break, No Mercy, and Knives and Skin likely to win out over 1BR. Almost a Miracle is recommended.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, digital)

I kind of love "Bavure"; it jumps from being a nifty bit of artistic sleight of hand to a story of adventure and horror (by the time it's reached a second generation of painted people, they're astronauts exploring new worlds) told in distinctive, unconventional fashion. The brushstrokes and bits of live-action help trick the brain into ignoring the tremendous amount of work that goes into these images, even as part of the point is to be impressed by the art.

It's incidentally a nifty pairing with SHe, with some gender-bending bits and moments of surprising horror, but definitely one I'll happily watch again on its own.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, DCP)

I don't know exactly what I expected of SHe, and truth be told I'm not exactly sure what I got. It's a striking stop-motion film, the sort of abstracted, found-object stop-motion that is almost entirely confined to short subjects, only done as a feature and taking a sharp turn from the delight one might feel upon seeing colorful, imaginative stills from it almost from the get-go. You've probably never seen anything like it, and it can be fascinatingly tricky to process.

Taking place in a world seemingly made of discarded clothing and other objects, populated by shoe creatures, SHe opens with a starkly dystopian reality, with the lady shoes imprisoned, let out only just long enough to give birth, and if the literal fruit of their loins sends forth something pink, it is forcibly transformed into a man's shoe. One of these high-heeled pumps fights back, killing her oppressor and then, needing to support herself and her daughter, dons that loafer's corpse to go work in a factory. But when she has a hard time fitting in there…

In building this fantastical world, filmmaker Zhou Shengwei doesn't necessarily lean away from certain tropes - the adult lady shoes are for the most part red, high heels, and have a literal garden growing out the back, with little flower buds for eyes; the guy shoes are black, filled with tools, and studded with metallic bits to show just how masculine they are - and there's something about that which doesn't entirely sit right when given a little thought. Enslavement and abuse is clearly presented as wrong, but Zhou doesn't always do a lot to subvert the attitudes toward gender roles that keep them entrenched. Its satire can be brutally sharp, but not always particularly nuanced.

Full review on EFilmCritic

"Mélopée" ("Plainsong")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Introduced as one of the "Fantastic Week-Ends" shorts that got a bump up to playing with a feature in the main festival, "Mélopée" certainly merits that promotion. In the space of about ten minutes, it does some fairly nifty work in how it keeps its feet in one genre or another, opening with a scene of young people driving to a beach house that nevertheless feels like going to a dangerous cabin in the woods. Then it sketches out a bit of a love triangle quickly, suggesting that Olivier (Antoine Desrochers) has had a crush on deaf friend Diane (Rosalie Fortier) for some time without having to say it out loud and make things especially tense with her current boyfriend Guillaume (Antoine L'Écuyer). Then, once the audience has settled there, things start to get a bit weird.

The filmmakers handle that in impressive fashion, given the short time they've got, making something look legitimately seductive before turning around to make it a clear threat less than a minute later. There's a lot done with sound design and practical effects to make that work, and a sly recognition inversion of who is most likely to be hero and victim in a situation that works without letting the film seem too proud of what it's up to.

One spoiler-y aside: Does the French word for "siren" stretch the same way the English one does? Or does that particular bit of wordplay only show up in translation?

Shirai-san (Stare)

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

I am not one to yell at the screen during any sort of movie, but I've seldom seen one that merits asking just what the heck is wrong with these people to quite such an extent. I mean, people's eyeballs are exploding and you know what to do to make that not happen, and it just involves not doing something. This isn't a difficult choice!

Now, certain people are going to see nothing in that paragraph but "eyeballs are exploding", and want to see the movie. That's totally reasonable. There are worse things to build a horror movie around, and this kind of basic J-horror, occupying the same cursed-woman territory as The Ring and The Grudge, has certainly been effective before. Before being driven into the ground as franchises (an admittedly quick process), those movies were top-notch thrillers, and this film's makers trying to capture that sense of unstoppable, spreading dread is a smart idea.

And this one gets off to a nice start, with a college girl telling a scary story to her friend Mizuki (Marie Iitoyo) before being alarmed by something only she can see. Elsewhere, another student (Yu Inaba) gets a frantic call from his brother Kazuto, saying "she's coming" before the line goes dead. The autopsy says it was a massive coronary event, which can sometimes put such pressure on the eye sockets that they burst, but Haruo finds that fishy, as does Mizuki, especially when they find Kazuto and Kana recently stayed at the same hot springs resort. A little detective work leads them and writer Mamiya to another scary story, about a woman with abnormally large eyes who kills anybody who finds out her name.

Full review on EFilmCritic


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

DreadOut is based upon a survival horror video game, and while it's perhaps not the least ambitious example of adapting the action from that medium into film, it certainly does neither medium any favors, transposing the action from one onto another without doing much to take advantage of what film does better than games. It tries to make up for a thin story by being incredibly frantic, but never takes advantage of the visible potential.

It opens with a flashback to ten years ago, when police interrupted what seemed like a fairly intense supernatural ritual, with cultists holding a medium's daughter hostage to make her participate. Now, Linda (Caitlin Halderman) has more or less repressed that memory, more worried about balancing high school and her part-time job. The building where it happened is abandoned, but Jessica (Marsha Aruan), a girl in the next class up, figures that doing a livestream from that spooky edifice will help boost her social media numbers. She's got her boyfriend Beni (Irsyadillah) and a few others going along - Dian (Susan Sameh) is the one who actually looks up what happened, and Alex (Ciccio Manassero) is brash enough for anything - but they need help getting in, and find out Linda knows the security guard. So Erik (Jefri Nichol) flirts with her a bit, and Linda talks them past the door. When they get to the spot on the sixth floor that's still behind police tape, things start to get really creepy - not only is cell phone reception gone, but one of the many pieces of paper lying around have writing that only Linda can see, and when she reads from it, a portal opens in the floor, with several of the group falling in.

It's not quite non-stop action after that, but things barely slow down; Linda has a lot of running around and exploring to do, Jessica gets possessed, and some nasty ghosts seem anxious to make their way to the human world with a special knife in tow. For better or worse, writer/director Kimo Stamboel captures the mechanics of a game here - there are items to collect and use, puzzles to solve, weapons which can push the undead back, and portals between discrete environments that seem awe-inspiring at first but are eventually just useful. For the most part, Linda is isolated, a player-character trying to feel the environment out while also fighting its hazards, occasionally giving the audience a first-person view. It's a technique that can put the audience right in the middle, but also one that can lack detail or intensity.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Fantasia 2019.06: Porno, Mystery of the Night, Idol, and We Are Little Zombies

The original plan was to start Tuesday later, but I opted to actually get some sleep on Saturday. Fortunately, the gang from Porno stuck around:

That's director Keola Racela, writers Matt Black & Laurence Vannicelli, producer Chris Cole, and co-star Bill Phillips, who seemed to be having a really great time in the Q&A, seeming absolutely delighted when they discovered that some in the audience took their characters' mantra "CBTL" (for "Christ Bears the Load") as a reference to "CBT", which, we were told, has a specific meaning in BDSM which kind of fits with some of the gore that goes on in their movie. They had absolutely no idea, but going forward, they said, they will absolutely claim that this is intentional. It goes with how the mantra for making this movie was "someone will stop us if we go too far" and nobody actually stopped them.

If that film plays anywhere in Boston, it will be a couple of midnight shows in theater #2 at the Coolidge, and that is absolutely where you should see it, as it is the closest approximation of the seasonal theater where they shot it.

After that, it was all films from the other side of the Pacific where even the filmmakers who were in town for the premieres have headed back home, and a hole in the schedule created from moving from DeSeve to Hall that I initially tried to fill finding a cheap HDMI cable only to discover a crazy construction-zone maze on the way to Best Buy and then filled with choice paralysis in terms of supper on the way back, solved by going to Brit & Chips. I see they have a loyalty card (10th visit is free) now, and I suspect that I could fill one of those before returning home.

Today's plans are short - after getting back from work, I'll be seeing SHe, Stare, and Dreadout. This is almost certainly posted after anyone reading it will be able to act on a recommendation to see Swallow


* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

Well, this is not my thing. There's something satirically crude about it - the premise of these enlarged sperm somehow maturing on their own feels like a nightmare borne out of incel insecurity given twisted life, and the weird but enjoyably primitive-seeming practical effects are kind of a kick. It's just, well, everything else: I'm just never going to like things where the performance seems to deliberately stink, and it lurches from gag to gag based on what would be most outrageous, rather than most fitting (or funny)


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Porno - in which a bunch of small-town movie theater employers face a resurrect succubus while trapped in the building after horus - is the sort of movie that feels like someone should have thought of it and done it before, but I can't think of anything particularly similar, and I bet those with better catalogs in their brains won't think of one better. Inspiration usually seems obvious in retrospect, and thus is inspired even before the nice cast and quality, fearless execution shows up.

I think that what makes the film works the most is the kids, who aren't what you'd expect in either direction. There's not a quote-spewing know-it-all among them, and that they're all sincere Christians is played as just part of the environment, something which the rest of their personalities maps onto but which doesn't make them look like fools. They're good kids who like movies the same way that most people do, just a little bit more, although this particular situation is trouble.

Of course, it doesn't really make sense to make fun of them for being prudish during what turns out to be an impressively explicit horror movie, where everything is on the table and then some. The escalation is impressive, and the filmmakers push things so that there's a reason to laugh, wince, and thrill in every scene. It's not messing around, and should be a huge hit in the sort of rep houses that look like they might have been around in the 1990s, with bonus points if it spent some time as an adult theater in the 1970s/1980s.

Misterio de la noche (Mystery of the Night)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Everybody's folklore is kind of messed up, but this movie makes it feel like a competition that the Philippines could win. It's simple but impressively nasty, giving the audience what they've come for, something traditional but also infused with a sort of B-movie atmosphere.

But, then, that's what mythology often is - didactic, straightforward, and far more packed with sex and violence than you remember from grade school, driving simple lessons of morality home in ways that leave no room for argument. Here, the forest spirits themselves appear to be a little shocked at the mayhem that they are part of, with a final scene that suggests they might warn the next foundling about boys. They're not really opposed to it, but it's kind of a lot.

It's generally a niftily-staged movie, with nice bits of shadow-puppetry bookending it and a fine score. The fact that the story is generational becomes a bit of an issue, in that the first half is necessary but is in many ways doing much more to put things into place for later than for itself. The second is fairly casual, which works well for the dialogue-free stretches but not quite so much when consequential actions seem shrugged off with "that's just how it is/was". It's tough to get both right, though, and this movie does a good job of maintaining a tone while still allowing for shifts.

Woo sang (Idol)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Idol is the sort of grand Korean thriller where you can pinpoint, as it happens, the moment when adding one more thing no longer makes it more exciting but instead has you wondering when the damn thing is going to end. It hits a great twisted finishing point but just keeps going, apparently needing to resolve every little thing, and then resolve the things that were brought up as part of those resolutions, and so on..

It wobbles a bit before then, but not fatally, and up until that point it really does have the viewer leaning forward, curious about just how this detail is going to twist things around. It's also got a compelling take on the traditional David and Goliath story, where the underdog is always kind of shady, and there's almost something relatable about trying to stay one step ahead of him, like the charming politician just has no idea how tenacious the rest of the world can be. Writer-director Lee Su-jin does an excellent job of taking what initially seems like one sort of thriller and poking at it until it's something else without every making those changes feel like a bait-and-switch.

"Gacha Gacha"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

"Gacha Gacha" breaks down a bit in the end, with filmmaker Dave Jackson seemingly undecided on what story he eventually wants to tell despite a solid handle on what he wants it to be about. He kind of nails a certain sort of toxic collector's mindset in this, from the obsession, to the pointless competition, to the enthusiasm for something horrible simply because it's rare, to how it becomes a cycle. It's nuts, and co-stars Mika Toyama and Kana Yoshida dive into that.

The short doesn't have much of a second half - there's a neat stop-motion bit, and the futile feeling that nothing will change, but things also get weird(er) almost by default, rather than to make a point. Which is okay - I laughed at some of it - but not quite up to the moments when the short feels especially clever.

We Are Little Zombies (Wî â Ritoru Zonbîzu)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 16 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

We Are Little Zombies is the sort of movie that needs four kids for its story but only has enough attention for a couple of them, with most of that going to the one most designed to get on a person's nerves. That's not always ideal, to be honest, but it is something that a person can get used to over a couple hours, especially when the filmmakers are committed to being the right sort of creative and energetic. Director Makoto Nagahisa attacks grief and the increasingly self-aware people trying to deal with it in a way that may be a lot for people multiple times the age of its 13-year-old heroes, but even they will likely wind up impressed.

It opens with four kids meeting at crematorium, all of them having been orphaned in recent days and unable to summon the tears that their relatives think they should be shedding. Hikari (Keita Ninomiya) is the narrator, a bespectacled video-game maniac whose parents have bought him every new and retro console imaginable and seemed to be on the verge of divorce before a bus accident ended their attempt to reconnect permanently. He invites lollipop-sucking Ita (Satoshi Mizuno), sneak-thief Yuki (Mondo Okumura), and Ikuko (Sena Nakajima), the inevitable girl who is taller and more serious than the boys, back to his apartment, but they are soon running off on their own, coming to a revelation when they hear the homeless singing in a garbage dump.

That's when they decide to become pop stars and the film becomes a musical, and for a while it is at its most solidly entertaining best there. The songs are tremendously catchy, and whether Nagahisa et al are just following pop culture or trying to make the satire incisive to a global audience by having them blend Japanese and English, the effect is the same sort of targeted cynical undercurrent to their poppy beat. The story veers into show-business satire while also having a clear eye on how these aren't just generically exploited children, but ones who are being promoted and monetized specifically on the loss of their parents, with the adults involved trying to split the difference between melancholy and "negative". It seemingly ends almost as quickly and arbitrarily as it begins, and plays all the stronger for having Ikuko play the ringleader rather than Hikari.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Fantasia 2019.05: Dreamland, Chiwawa, G Affairs, and Darlin'

I left after doing some work this morning to have my company laptop say it had 27 updates to install when I shut it down. I hope that wasn't a complete mess with how my laptop will sometimes just decide not to see the internet via wifi every once in a while, leaving me with stuff half-messed-up when I turn it on again Wednesday.

After that, I was mildly surprised at the lack of Q&A after Bruce McDonald's Dreamland (his name isn't part of the title on-screen as it often was for Wes Craven or John Carpenter, but I suspect it will be marketed that way because there's a higher-profile film with that title on the way). I skipped it Sunday night figuring that everyone would stick around, but filmmaking is a job and sometimes McDonald and has to go back to the office on Monday rather than hang around and use that guest pass to see a few movies. Other folks came out to introduce it, but I guess they were off to the airport by the time it was done. Still, easiest way to fit something else in.

After Chiwawa, I took the tunnel from chilly DeSeve to Hall for G Affairs with director Lee Cheuk-Ban, star Hanna Chan Hon-Na, and co-star Kyle Li Yam-San, and they made a movie that is never going to get anywhere near the Mainland China market even if it isn't necessarily hostile to Mainlanders, or if Chapman To Man-Chat wasn't banned from having his work in the PRC (which I must have heard about but didn't remember). It was interesting to see the Q&A put into context how much of the film was inspired by the "Umbrella Revolution" of 2014, and it makes it even more interesting to me that Lee mentioned that they actually got funding from the Hong Kong government, with the HK Economic and Trade Office rep standing up and introducing herself before the show. That definitely frames the movie as a little more political than just dark, and not hiding it, which is interesting.

Last up was Darlin' with writer/director and co-star Pollyanna McIntosh, who had a tattoo from the film finished on-stage by tattoo artist Kelly Ramsey; McIntosh saw some of her Walking Dead fan-art on-line and invited her to the festival after seeing she was Canadian. It made for an unusual sort of Q&A but certainly underscored how thoroughly committed to this movie and grounded she is. There's not a moment she doesn't feel detached. She did sometimes seem a little defensive about how much humor there was in the movie, and I've got to admit I didn't much go for that, but I do think it's interesting that she injected that much into it. One thing that strikes me is that she said the only real note that Lucky McKee gave her was that he wanted to see more of The Woman (McIntosh's character) in the original draft, and for as much as I tend to really like McIntosh, following that advice seems like it's what sends the movie off the rails: Darlin's story is really good, but whenever The Woman shows up after the initial introduction, she takes the focus off of that and contributes little but a body count.

I was kind of surprised when I got out of G Affairs and saw such a relatively short line for passholders, not having realized that the film was already out on VOD. I had kind of expected this to be a harder one to get a seat for.

We'll see how that continues today, with Porno, Mystery of the Night, a decadently long dinner break, Idol, and We Are Little Zombies.

Dreamland (aka Bruce McDonald's Dreamland)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The opening stretch of Bruce McDonald's Dreamland introduces a bunch of visually striking characters against a moody environment, has then open their mouths to begin a story, and then summarily shoots them in the head. The rest of the film isn't quite that nihilistic, but it is fairly pointedly eccentric and detached. McDonald is going for a specific idea of cool here above all else, where it's more important to be stylish than tense.

And that's how you make the story of a disheveled assassin trying to rescue a trafficked kid from becoming a vampire's child bride kind of boring. It's an assembly of cinematic cool signifiers that slumps from one piece to the next, barely having enough emotion behind them to make the audience do more than raise their eyebrows. Steven McHattie has a dual role, which is fun because you probably wouldn't want anyone else playing either of those parts, but the way the film winks at it is another thing that makes a viewer more aware of the games being played than a part of them. Its attempts at satire feel more contemptuous than pointed, and it floats above the violence too easily to make the outrage motivating it actually work.

Chiwawa-chan (aka Chiwawa)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Chiwawa is structured kind of like a murder mystery, but it's 50/50 as to whether that's the direction it's going to go at any point, and that's fine. After all, it seems like the other way they could have gone with it is faux documentary, which probably would have seemed more like middle-aged folks trying to make a movie about youth, which is a trap it only occasionally falls into.

Instead, the filmmakers take pains to avoid letting a plot reveal itself too clearly, observing a bunch of kids in their early twenties as they live life fast and with abandon, sometimes seeming to leave relatively sensible narrator Miki a step or two behind. It allows them plenty of time to play, although sometimes the film seems to be as much about the last generation's issues as Gen Z's (which is hardly unique to it; a lot of folks seem to have trouble realizing that there can be a big gap between 20- and 30-year-olds today). Or maybe it's not; I'm too far from that.

It's got a couple of impressive ladies at the center, though, with Mugi Kadowaki as the searching Miki and Shiori Yoshida as the title character. Between them, they're not exactly an unreliable narrator but the fact that there's always a bit of envy to Miki plays out in how Yoshida often plays Chiwawa as a little too bright, like Miki resents her but also can't bring herself to speak ill of the dead. In some ways, that unacknowledged competition is the thread that connects the movie, and that Miki has won by default can sometimes turn out to be very hollow.

G Saat (G Affairs)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Well, that's kind of g-ross.

Awful g-related puns aside, there's an impressive race between outrageous events and striking style at the start of this movie that almost blunts them both, taking a while to find some sort of equilibrium. Once it does, the story kind of cruises for a while, jumping back and forth to let the environment sink in. It sometimes feels like the filmmakers came up with a fairly simple, if nasty, crime story and then worked out how they could obscure it but spent less time on how to reveal it. I'm still not sure if one character survived, even when you set the last scene aside as deliberately symbolic.

As a result, I'm not sure that this works much more as a story than as a lot of button-pushing, although in a place like Hong Kong, there's probably a lot of value in occasionally making sure you can still do that. It can certainly feel like a primal scream at times, with its teen characters feeling almost nothing between abandonment and crushing authority from those supposed to help them, which certainly seems even more relevant than it has always been today. There's even precious little relief from the other people connected to the tight father-stepmother-teacher-student chain revealed by the end, making for a resolutely dark ride.

Darlin' (2018)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 15 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Darlin' is a weird one, strange enough to make me wonder if it would play better or worse if I'd seen the previous films in this somewhat loose series. You don't actually need Offspring or The Woman to make sense of it, but even so, it's not hard to sense that something isn't quite right here, like it would be a stronger movie if it were more free to be entirely its own thing or a more direct continuation.

The title character (Lauryn Canny) starts the film almost feral, led to a hospital by a similarly naked and uncommunicative woman (Pollyanna McIntosh), where she's able to make at least a small connection with one of the nurses (Cooper Andrews). The hospital has recently been taken over by a Catholic organization, which means that Darlin' is soon transferred to St. Philomina's Group Home for Girls, where Sister Jennifer (Nara-Jane Noone) has been asked to make a special project of her by the bishop (Bryan Batt), who sees the opportunity to reform this wayward child as a way to secure publicity and funding. Everybody seems to avoid being too curious about Darlin' or her history as she swallows the nuns' indoctrination, which means that The Woman lurking in the shadows and wanting her back is just one of two surprises lurking in the corner.

This is Pollyanna McIntosh's third time playing The Woman, this time around taking over as writer and director, and she seems to recognize that the things which were horrifying and transgressive in the previous films may not still have the same kick in the second sequel - cannibalism is still objectively awful, of course, but I imagine that someone doing watching these films back-to-back will mostly be critiquing the quality of the gore effects by the time The Woman kills her first person in this one. So she's smart to switch it up and focus on a situation where the abuse takes a different, more insidious form, and her script is pretty clever about how she sets it up: An early comment by the nurse about how St. Philomina's didn't even respond to the interest he and his husband showed in adopting and the pointed hanging of a cross in the hospital's lobby turn out to be important signifiers in how people who talk a good game about righteousness can often stand in the way of doing good, and it's built so that, while viewers can use the Catholic Church's specific scandals and beliefs as a shorthand, it's the general idea of religion reasserting dominance in spaces that had previously become more secular that plays as the true danger. Darlin' is in many ways a blank slate - but just as crucially, in many ways not - which means the way in which this trend imprints on her is fascinating and sets up the last act very well.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Monday, July 15, 2019

Fantasia 2019.04: The Wonderland, Hit-and-Run Squad, Paradise Hills, and Astronaut PLUS The White Storm 2: Drug Lords

This long day at the movies was brought to you by hunger and caffeine. The hunger comes from not having breakfast stuff in the hotel room and writing until something like five minutes before the first movie of the day started (perks of staying in a really good location), the caffeine carefully administered in Coke Zero form during film #2 and film #4. I don't recommend this long-term.

After a couple of things from Japan and South Korea that seem like they should have been much better than they wound up being - all the pieces were there but did not fit together at all - things picked up a bit with Alice Waddington (r) on hand to show off her film Paradise Hills, with Justine Smith leading the Q&A. Seeing her here has been neat because I'm reasonably sure I started following her on Twitter because of Fantasia but she hasn't been officially involved until now, and it's always fun to be able to match voices, attitudes, body language, and the like to online personae.

A lot of talk about how, while genre film was Waddington's first love, she started out in fashion photography, eventually working her way around to this after some shorts. It's an impressive jump, and I'm looking forward to seeing how people respond to it this fall.

The main event for the evening was director Shelagh McLeod and much of the cast for Astronaut, a Canadian-produced film starring Richard Dreyfuss as a widowed civil engineer who enters a contest for the first private spaceplane flight. As you might expect, everyone really liked working with him; enough that it really surprises me that we don't see him in more these days. I suppose it goes back to one of the first things I remember people saying in a Q&A at film festivals, that even if you're making a tiny independent film, you would be absolutely amazed at whose agents will call if you write a decent part for an older actor.

After that, I opted to mosey on down St. Catherine's to the Forum, where The White Storm 2 was playing. I had seen the first at the festival, and it would feel kind of dumb to let the big Asian/genre festival keep me from seeing an Asian genre film, and of the two films playing on the Concordia campus, I'd seen Shadow (heck, already own a disc) and Dreamland would be playing the nexxt afternoon. It's been a while since I've seen the "first" - this is one of those Hong Kong series more about themes than continuity - and this isn't quite as good as my review of that movie suggests it was, but it certainly has some quality action in the end. It may take Herman Yau a while to get around to it, but he doesn't screw around when he does.

Today's plans are Bruce McDonald's Dreamland, Chiwawa, G Affairs, and Darlin'. By the time this is posted, it's too late to recommend Away at noon.

Bâsudê wandârando (The Wonderland)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, digital)

The Wonderland has all the terrific surface elements of big, respectable anime - a decent coming-of-age story, absolutely beautiful animation, certain specific character types, a traditional life/environmental message - and does each of them well enough that it plays really well from minute to minute, but the whole doesn't really fit together. It's kind of about moving forward but also accepting destiny and how modern life isn't good for the soul but also shopping and the filmmakers sometimes can't decide which way they want to go so they do both things and make one a dream or hallucination but it really happened...

It is scattered as heck. That doesn't make it bad, although it can start to wear; the filmmakers have more ideas than they have room for, and just presenting each of them gives the audience plenty of chance to have their jaws drop. There are some times you can't blame them; there is a lot in this movie that must have looked great on the storyboard, too good to push aside or save for later. I'm sure it will cut a heck of a trailer, and it is fun to watch, which means it's hardly a failure, just a bit of a disappointment coming as the follow-up to Miss Hokusai.

Bbaengban (Hit-and-Run Squad)

* * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

How does a movie about Seoul's automotive investigators, on the tail of a Formula 1-driving criminal mastermind, have so little in the way of automotive action? I mean, for crying out loud, get to the car chases already! This thing is 133 minutes long and really only has a couple of worthy bits of stunt driving.

The worst part is, all of the twisty corruption stuff which takes up the rest of the running time not only doesn't make much sense, it's boring. The writers never seem to figure out who should be the villain and why, and it keeps stretching out and reversing until it becomes extremely hard to care about all the material that is just making the movie longer. There is so much going on that just doesn't matter, and it dilutes the bits that at least hint at something interesting in the focus on corruption.

When the cops do start chasing down "JC", there's some genuinely fun action, and the two leads are a lot of fun, quality mismatches who don't need a romantic spark to work well off each other. Plus, Kong Hyo-Jin plays one of my favorite no-nonsense lady cops, right from the moment when she walks on screen and the usual low-angle shot that typically highlights a stiletto heel that matches her suit instead shows white sneakers. She doesn't come to play.

Paradise Hills

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Paradise Hills feels a bit like a Jaques Demy nightmare, and I kind of hope we get more of those as time goes on - lavish fantasies by/for/about women, pulled off with flair, even if it means I'm not the best person to judge them. The movie is girly as heck and works hard on making sure that its heroines don't have to take on male characteristics to fight back (or, for that matter, to be villains).

This one sometimes seems a little closer to what's expected from the story than one might initially hope - the film doesn't often surprise in what the next step is for much of the running time - although that's okay; it's seldom been told this way. It looks great, and has an appealing cast even if nobody else seems to be having as much fun as Milla Jovovich (not that they're written to have the chance). The look of it melds the future and a conscious return to the rule of aristocracy nicely.

And it sticks its landing pretty well, well enough that I would kind have liked if it had spent a bit more time on the stuff revealed in the last act (though what it goes also does one of the best jobs of adding something to the flash-forward than most do). But, then, I'm a guy, and the threat there could seemingly be more aimed at me than the rest. It does require a bit of a stretch to get where it does, but it's worth it, I think.

Astronaut (2018)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

There are times when I lament modestly-scaled movies being lucky to get a blip of a release in theaters as they head to the small screen, and there are other times when the likely-small theatrical release they will receive alongside their on-demand premieres seems like a nice little bonus. Astronaut falls into the latter category, pleasantly intimate but losing little when played for a crowd.

It's the tale of Angus Stewart (Richard Dreyfuss), a 75-year-old retired civil engineer who, between his own health issues and his late wife being taken in by a scam during her mental decline, has recently found himself moving in with daughter Molly (Krista Bridges), son-in-law Jim (Lyriq Bent), and grandson Barney (Richie Lawrence), though that itself is a brief stop on the way to an assisted-living facility. A stargazer since his youth, he might not have let Barney encourage him to enter the lottery for a seat on the commercial space plane being developed by Marcus Brown (Colm Feore) and his company despite being well over the age-65 cutoff, but he doesn't feel that old. He is, of course, chosen as one of the twelve finalists, though what he sees on the runway leaves him distracted during the televised interview.

It's been around forty years since the last time Richard Dreyfuss got on a spaceship with the odds long that his family would ever see him again, and while that's a dumb movie joke on the one hand, it's a neat thing for director Shelagh McLeod to have hanging over the film in some ways. It's a part of the background noise of the movie and as such not something she has to return to and risk overplaying. It's an approach that benefits the film as she fills it out with other subplots; the threads about Jim being suspended at work and Marcus perhaps overlooking dangers because of his ambition fill some time and connect well with Angus's story, but don't become sort of thing that threaten to take up too much of the film's focus that they could have. It's relaxed, and with much of the story taking place during a snowy winter, ideal for watching from under a blanket.

Full review on EFilmCritic

The White Storm 2: Drug Lords

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 July 2019 in Cineplex Forum #9 (first-run, DCP)

As much as I liked The White Storm when I saw it in 2014, I didn't know it was successful enough to become an action-movie brand, in that apparently any movie about former allies turned enemies in the drug trade could wind up released under that banner. That's what this film is - a similar outline with new characters that has to work to reach the same melodramatic highs, although there's no arguing against the action when the gloves come completely off.

Fifteen years ago, Yu Shun Tin (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) and "Dizang" Fung Chun Kwok (Louis Koo Tin-Lok) were close as brothers in the Ching Hing triad, whose leader - and Tin's uncle - Yu Nam (Kent Chang Jak-Si) was staunchly against getting involved with drugs. Then it all went to hell - Tin's girlfriend (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na) leaves him on the same night Tin is forced to punish Dizang for allowing drugs to be sold in Ching Hing territory. It's a wake-up call for both - Tin goes straight, proving to be an excellent stock trader and marrying lawyer Chow Man Fung (Karena Lam Ka-Yan), while Dizang dives headlong into the narcotics trade, becoming one of Hong Kong's most powerful drug lords. Circumstances cause Tin, who has always given generously to anti-drug organizations, to escalate his battle with direct action, which looks to Chief Inspector Lam Cheng Fung (Michael Miu Kiu-Wai) of the HKPD's narcotics bureau - whose wife was also a cop and killed in the raid on Dizang's clubs that night - like fighting between the triads.

There is a lot going on there - there are threads about the Yus trying to conceive, Lam's daughter, and a side-trip to the Philippines - but there's also too little. Hong Kong cinema has a great tradition of these sort of close friendships ripped asunder to the point where they disintegrate into extraordinary violence, but the great ones establish these relationships more solidly. There is barely enough time to see Tin and Dizang as brothers before they're hurtling in opposite directions, and despite Lam's origin story being connected to their falling-out, he is always on the periphery of the story, a necessary official perspective but never one that drives the action. It's easy to see the shape of how all of this should work, but it never becomes visceral until the script drops the big, obvious bombs.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Fantasia 2019.03: Best of Les Utopiales, Away, Jade's Asylum, Almost a Miracle, and Come to Daddy

Well, I hit the wall late, after spending most of the day in DeSeve, but I hit it nevertheless.

Still, it was a day where the highs were very high indeed, such as Away, with writer/director/everything Gints Zilbalodis (left) here from Latvia and Ruppert effusive in his praise, especially in how well seeing it with a full theatrical sound system works. The one-man-band nature of the movie's production led to some pretty interesting discussion, such as how large chunks of it were rendered straight from preview rather than at a more detailed rate, and the movie was more or less created in sequence. Do that over the course of three years, and your skill and style will change, so he actually found himself going back to re-render the first chapter.

He was also unashamed about this thing being rendered like a game and having the structure of one, even if the person who asked the question seemed reluctant to phrase it that way. I mention in the review that I'll be interested to see if that's an issue in its reception.

The makers of Jade's Asylum had an interesting story to tell about how, when they got to Costa Rica, they found that their monster costumes didn't work nearly so well in the mansion as in the jungle, so this became 90% jungle rather than 90% mansion, and I kind of wonder if that hurt their ambitions to make it ambiguous or psychological. It spins out too far to be all in Jade's head as it is, but that possibility my have worked had it been contained.

They seem like delightful people, but they made a pretty bad movie, though you've got to salute them for getting it done in what sometimes sounded like crazy conditions.

Last up was the crew from Come to Daddy, which was apparently one film too many, because I was in and out and missed a lot of the last half. The live for filmmaker Ant Timpson, a longtime part of the family for Fantasia (and fantastic film in general) was palpable, though.

I'm already running late and starting on Sunday, where the plan is The Wonderland, Hit and Rub Squad, Paradise Hills, Astronaut, and then maybe running off to catch The White Storm 2.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Best of Les Utopiales, DCP)

I'm not quite sure whether "RFLKTR" is an impressive job of compression or a hook that should have had a little more time to play out, though a bit of reflection leads me to think the first even if the second was closer to my first reaction. It's kind of dead-simple in conception, with Breeda Wool as the captain of a small spaceship that crashes on an unknown planet only to somehow encounter herself. It's a classic set-up, but one that can go a lot of different ways, especially when filmmaker Matt K. Turner has the chops to make it look pretty slick.

Almost by accident, it illustrates the trade-off with twists exceptionally clearly: By going for the surprise, it winds up a step away from the impact of when the thing revealed actually revealed. Not entirely, but at least a little.

"Lo Siento, Mi Amor"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Best of Les Utopiales, DCP)

Eduardo Casanova has an enjoyably goofy idea here - Jackie Kennedy (Sara Rivero) having an affair with a grey alien (Javier Botet) - that he and his crew design the heck out of, almost to the point of fetish. It's fun to look at and gets a laugh or two from the sheer outrageousness of it, along with a couple of background gags that feel like they may be clever in some way or another but don't quite land. You can laugh at the idea of it.

… and then you kind of wonder, what's the rest of the gag? Is there some sort of alternate history, something which makes a sort of perverse sort of sense as a result, or what? It feels like the only reason to use a grey is the weird visual - replace him with a human, and nothing changes except that the film is obvious slander. It's not like the late Jacqueline Onassis needs her reputation defended, but it feels like a South Park-level joke, edgy and provocative but not accomplishing much.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Best of Les Utopiales, DCP)

This particular short film mostly got noticed for the credits - companies Gunpowder & Sky and Dust feel like ones to keep an eye on, and writer/director Peter Cilella's name popped from Resolution and The Endless (Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson are credited as producers) - but like a few other shorts in this block, it kind of leaves me thinking "and, next?" It sets up a very familiar situation, executes well, and then ends.

If it's a sort of feature pitch, it's not a bad one; Cilella does a nice job of quickly sketching out some characters and giving his audience room to play (Dan O'Brien is particularly good), and he and the effects crew stage the abduction in a nifty way, using a reflection. I'd see the rest of this movie.

"The Replacement" (2018)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Best of Les Utopiales, DCP)

Sean Miller's "The Replacement" feels like another short which is looking to be a feature pilot - it ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, hints at parts of its world that are barely used, and generally feels like it could be expanded a little in all directions. Unlike most with those properties, it's a fairly satisfying unit on its own, even if it doesn't quite execute its late turn toward the serious as well as it could.

When it is being funny, though, it's kind of great, with Mike McNamara pretty darn good as a janitor frustrated that seemingly all of his clones have succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, with one just having been elected the first clone president. He gets to have some fun playing multiple versions, although the ones where you can see the original in the personality are more fun than, say, President Abe, who looks like a generic politician and may as well be a completely different guy.

The movie flounders a bit as it reaches the end, like it wants to be two - one where Clones Are People Too, so that when you see your clones doing well you should strive to better meet your potential and embrace achievement even when it comes from those who were a sort of underclass, and another where they are a scary Other intent on violently remaking the world in their own image. Those messages are diametrically opposed, and jumping to the second after spending most of the running time on the first seems disingenuous.

"Laura un Vineta"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Best of Les Utopiales, DCP)

You'll have to pardon me for not getting every joke here, because this Latvian short film was screened with only French subtitles and I'm actually pleasantly surprised just how much of my high-school French is still useful. It's probably funnier if you can follow every single little gag well, but it's still an enjoyably goofy little short with some really excellent visual humor

I must admit that I was rather slow on the uptake in terms of how farmer Aldis Berzhins (Leons Lescinskis), who has an alien spaceship crash in his fields while he sleeps, is not just confused and put upon but genuinely obsessed with potatoes in general, and I never quite got whether the folks he was dropped off with were friends or family or what. But there is some really delightful absurdity here, and just the right amount of Armands Bergis as an impressively ferret-like government official.

And, hey, who doesn't like potatoes? Not much better to snack on than some quality fries!

"The Meltdown" (2016)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Best of Les Utopiales, DCP)

Director Connor Kerrigan seems to have gone back and forth between animation, live-action, and animated documentary around the time he made "The Meltdown", and it's a movie that pokes a bit of fun at the appropriation of documentary tropes, setting something like The Office in a nuclear power plant, albeit one so poorly run that apparently everybody has to be in a hazmat suit all the time. It's a fun sort of compressed sitcom with every character very broad and well-established and everything but the kitchen sink thrown in.

I do love how the choice to have everyone in suits means they gesticulate like crazy and have to have big personalities. There's still a kind of taking the weird for granted here, playing the absurd as normal workplace malaise, but it's visually interesting with bright colors and physical comedy rather than arch.

"Juliet" (2015)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Best of Les Utopiales, DCP)

Only intermittent French subtitles on this French short from director Marc-Henri Boulier, so I'm open to the idea that it works a lot better if you know the language.

One thing that I kind of found amusing, though I don't know whether it was intentional or not, was the idea that you can have sexbots like Juliet and it's treated as kind of tacky, but create a Romeo model and all of a sudden guys are ready to take to the streets and riot at being disrespected and treated as replaceable. It's a self-aware little detail that feels ugly but right, and which I don't think I've seen in one of these android stories.

Also amusing: The little clip of Creation of the Humanoids at the start, which suggests people would recoil at machines they had to control via conversation. As much as I'm never going to have an internet-connected microphone in my home or use that sort of assistant on my phone, it kind of hasn't worked out that way.

"Rust in Peace"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Best of Les Utopiales, DCP)

I don't think I've ever been so sad to discover that a movie wasn't taking place in a post-apocalyptic future before. That's some serious, weapons-grade melancholy as a discarded robot tries to reconnect with his owner, not able to comprehend that he was deliberately discarded.

The robot design is great, primitive and clunky and somehow getting a lot of humanity out of its big, featureless, neck-free head. There's something beautiful and pastoral about its long walk home, even if you're under the impression that the world has ended. Once he gets there, writer/director William Welles seems to tap into something about abusive relationships and bad breakups, where one person doesn't get that it's over and the other, while able to recollect the parts they liked and maybe willing to dip into them, can see this as license to be cruel. It's worse here, because poor Exon's a robot and can't know any better, which makes what humanity he has even more tragic.

"An Eye for an Eye"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, DCP)

Apparently filmmaker Julia Ploch has adapted her own comic for this, and I'd be curious to see that, because for as strikingly beautiful as this film is, the story gets a bit lost at times, jumping back and forth and never having a lot to do with the young hero-worshipping frog as it seeks out Red Frog and the Great Catfish.

Still, it is amazing to look at, changing its look up as it moves back and forth in time, giving each chapter its own feel, and showing a lot of flexibility in how you can make a frog look, from the pudgy hero to the powerful legs of the legendary Red Frog. There's a small but epic-feeling air to it that frequently gets one's eyes to open wide at the creativity on display.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, DCP)

Away is a very simple movie in a lot of ways - Gints Zilbalodis made it on his own, structured it like a video game, and doesn't bother with dialogue - but if you're good at what it's focused on, that leaves it fewer places to trip up. And Zilbalodis doesn't trip up - the action is as clear as the symbolism, the music is big and swelling, the designs feel like they could spring from the mind of its young hero, and so on. It's got such an individual personality that it never feels generic, though, just elemental.

And it's gorgeous, each frame looking like a three-dimensional image made by laying construction paper or some other flat material in layers, but the virtual camera work makes it feel like a real place being traversed. Some scenes are tremendously striking - biking across Mirror Lake, for instance, with birds reflected in the impossibly reflective, enough to make one forget the seeming simplicity, or at least appreciate how it makes that shot possible.

I'm curious how different generations will take to it, when someone picks it up for distribution. It is, in a way, so unapologetically game-like that I suspect some will diminish or dismiss it, even if that's also a sign of how it's the hero's journey in almost perfect form.

Jade's Asylum

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International Film Festival, ProRes)

This movie is 83 minutes long, but includes a whole ton of outtakes and crap over the end credits, along with another ton of pointless nonlinear circling back around throughout the film. Take out the subplots that go nowhere and the repetition and there's maybe a half-hour of movie here, and that half-hour doesn't make a lot of sense. One suspects that it is missing a lot of pieces that could have clarified things in pursuit of an ambiguity that does the movie little good, with padding to get it up to something that might get it just long enough to make a festival that doesn't have room set aside for home-grown projects

It's got a reasonably good-looking mushroom monster and a winning heroine - I'd like to see Morgan Kohan in something better - and that goes further than you might think, but the story is so hacked-up and messily shot that they almost never get put in good position. Instead, it's a blur of generic white dudes getting knocked off (albeit without the effects budget to really do the gore well), and the stabs at being a more sophisticated psychological thriller just leave it in no man's land.

Machida kun no sekai (Almost a Miracle aka Machida's World)

* * *½ (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

It's always the ducks. No matter what the cartoon, or movie, or what, the ducks will be the funniest part.

The teenagers in this movie give them a run for their money, though, a bunch of lovable weirdos trying to figure themselves out, sometimes from odd starting points, with the oddest being the compulsively altruistic lead who has honest trouble figuring out how to put the girl he likes over others. It's a kooky group that often threatens to get too big to handle - and which has to occasionally get twistedly meta because of how teen dramas have warped both our expectations of teens and how they actually behave. A Yoshihiro Nakamura-style "community coming together" bit makes it work better than expected, though, even if it's kind of shoe-horned in to make the point that Hajime Machida's relentless, stubborn decency is making the world a better place.

That's a welcome response to how the film is often grappling with how such goodness can be frustrating, both in how a person needs to be able to love someone else more and that it's important to feel special as well. It's a question that we normally see in terms of burn-out and arguments over what "self-care" means, but it's framed as basic humanity here. It's a little thing that helps pull this out of just being about teenagers, and why the struggling writer doesn't wind up feeling completely out of place: Everybody feels bad about where they place the line between helping others and helping themselves.

Also helping is that it's a frequently beautiful movie, although the scenes obviously shot on film look so good that I wish the rest hadn't seemed like such a deliberately familiar Japanese high-school drama style. It's probably a bit of a weirdly film-snobby thing to gush over the briefly-seen, moody flashbacks as much as the whimsical ending, but those moments are especially fantastic.

Come to Daddy

N/A (out of four)
Seen 13 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

I hit a wall during this tonight, which is a crying shame, because what I saw, I liked quite a bit. Director Ant Timpson gets quite a bit out of a more or less perfect cast, the setting is terrific, and the action is eyebrow-raising.

I couldn't tell you much about what happened after one character exited, though, which is a real shame. Hopefully another chance to catch it will come around soon.