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.

"RFLKTR"

* * * (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.

"Occupant"

* * 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.

Away

* * * 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.

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