Friday, July 12, 2019

Fantasia 2019.01: Swallow and The Art of Self-Defense

Ah, the annual trip to Montreal, which went weirdly smoothly - I got up early, made it to South Station with plenty of time despite the Red Line being messed up in recent weeks, had no issues with Greyhound or the border, and the room I'd rented on AirBNB turned out to be a sort of self-service hotel very close to the festival. I picked up my pass and things were entirely stress-free until the rain started coming down while I grabbed a burger, but that just meant I got a little bit wet as I crossed the street.

Of course, I've been so "busy" lately (all that difficult time spent on baseball in London and the Fourth of July and visiting my family in Maine!) that I've had just about zero time to look at the Fantasia program, much less the schedule, and see how I would attack it, which is awkward when people ask what you're looking forward to over the next month when you'll see 80+ features and probably close to as many shorts. So, once I collected everything, I sat down and at least planned opening night:

This was pretty easy, even though opening night film Sadako was opened to pass-holders even though that's not always the case - I've actually never seen Ringu or any of its sequels, spin-offs, remakes, translations, or crossovers, and I'm guessing this was not exactly the time to jump in. So that left me Swallow for the first slot and a choice of either a movie that would be playing again the next day or one that I would have seen at IFFBoston except that a late train gave me reason to detour to Avengers: Endgame. Easy enough!

And both were actually really good, sharp but empathetic and often funny critiques of modern life. They're not quite the movies you expect to see when you go to a genre festival, but both were smart and maybe easy to overlook if they get to Boston cinemas at all.

Fun casts, though I admittedly thought Haley Bennett was Mia Wasikowski for a while in Swallow (it is the sort of rolle that Ms. W tends to play), while no matter what I see him in, David Rasche is somehow still Sledge Hammer, even 30-odd years later. Riley Stearns and Jesse Eisenberg sent video greetings for The Art of Self-Defense, with Eisenberg making sure we realized that "you can laugh at the movie and you will not be wrong, you will be correct."

Plus, in between, the first short that serves as a sort of teaser for the Fantastique Week-Ends of Quebec shorts, and a funny one!

Now, if you'll excuse me, I've got a new notebook and it's time to go fill it up. Today's plans are The Deeper You Dig, His Bad Blood, a quick run across the street to hopefully get into Little Monsters, Eisenberg and Imogen Poots again in Vivarium, and seeing if I'm up for a DIY midnight with The Wrath or if I need my sleep to prepare for a long Saturday.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSeve (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

Swallow turns out to be just the right sort of low-key unnerving it needs to be, though it would have been exceptionally easy to overshoot the mark. It's a film about disquiet and discontent, so while it's entirely appropriate for it to occasionally make the audience cringe, it can't run away with things and make its admittedly disturbed main character seem nuts. Instead, it's impressively sympathetic even when it could be a freakshow.

Hunter (Haley Bennett) and Richie (Austin Stowell) have recently married, and it's a bit of an adjustment for her; Richie's just been made a managing director of the large family business, and while Hunter spends the suddenly vast amount of free time she has at their new house sketching - she wants to be an artist - the days do seem to stretch out for someone used to working, especially since Richie's promotion is keeping him busy. He and his parents (Elizabeth Marvel & David Rasche) are excited when she announces that she is pregnant, the mother giving her a self-help book that she found helpful when pregnant with Richie, but she takes its instructions to "do something unexpected" in an odd way, impulsively swallowing a small marble - and when that passes, she moves on to other small objects around the house.

It's an odd but believable compulsion, effective in large part because anybody watching can almost grasp the appeal right away - filmmaker Carlo Mirabella-Davis and star Haley Bennett make sure that the audience can grasp the tactile nature of it even though that's not necessarily something film gets across well; it's a clear contrast to the open, soft environment where Hunter finds herself alone - the house is all open floorplans and a balcony whose glass walls are almost invisible. Her new in-laws are friendly enough but have a tendency to see her as an extension of their son, especially once she's pregnant. As strange as this behavior is, it's clearly asserting something inside and out.

Full review on EFilmCritic

"You Don't Know Me"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, digital)

I gather from the mostly-French introduction to this short that it was done as one of those 72-hour film challenges, so I'm a bit inclined to cut it a bit of slack if it feels a little clumsy in spots. It's a strong concept - American couple traveling through Quebec find themselves in a tricky spot and are forced to badly play along when it looks like they would otherwise be blamed - and feels like it's about 75% there most of the time. The performances are nice, the staging is capable if not necessarily inventive, and the script and editing on both ends could use a little refinement but if you only had three days to do everything, it's okay to have spent enough time on shooting that there's a bit of a crunch otherwise.

It works, though, and a short can be forgiven a fair amount if it sticks the landing as well as this one does. A dark comedy like this doesn't just have to work in the last five seconds, but the fact that those five seconds work certainly makes up for any small shortcomings that the rest may have.

The Art of Self-Defense

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

From the big desktop computers in the offices to the jokes built around answering machines rather than mobile phones, it seems likely that Riley Stearns's The Art of Self-Defense takes place too early for the phrase "toxic masculinity" to have been in common use, so he has to address that sort of issue even more plainly. The result is a delightfully weird deadpan comedy that is laser-focused on how something can be both awful and absurd, filled with laughs for those who enjoy dark, screwy humor. It's got no place for subtlety but that's far from the only way to land a good joke.

Initially, those jokes are at the expense of Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), an accountant in his mid-thirties who, though he doesn't seem to be doing anything particularly offensive, is almost reflexively insulted by everyone from his co-workers to tourists passing through the diner where he eats. One night, it's worse, as he's mugged by a group on motorcycles as he goes out to be food for his dachshund. He initially considers buying a gun, but during the mandatory waiting period he comes upon a karate dojo and is soon taken in by its masterful, poised Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). It soon becomes an obsession, and even though just a yellow belt, he is given an invitation to join the mysterious night class.

Jesse Eisenberg has a lot more range than he's usually given credit for, but it's undeniable that roles like this are where he excels: Casey is a social misfit who seemingly can't speak in any way that's not awkward, so that even when he acclimates or takes on less milquetoast qualities, it becomes a sort of twisted, dorky perversion of supposed cool. Stearns delivers the characters blunt, comically plain dialogue and Eisenberg makes it especially leaden, and the audience has to kind of enjoy the way lines will just drop to the floor and lay there as they come out of his mouth, seemingly crude and wooden but always landing just the way they are supposed to. He's so good at that sort of thing that one almost doesn't notice just how painful and heartfelt Casey's anxiety can be.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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