Thursday, August 01, 2019

Fantasia 2019.17: White Snake, International Short Science-Fiction Film Showcase 2019, Kingdom, Why Don't You Just Die?, and Les Particules

A long weekend day, built more or less around the short film program, though it started off with a Chinese animated movie, and it was the first time I can recall seeing a Warner Brothers logo in front of a mainland film. I hadn't realized that Warner Brothers (F.E.) - I presume the "F.E." listed in the credits is for "far east" had operations there.



It's a good thing I chose to take a picture of the filmmakers for the sci-fi shorts - from left to right, Anna Sobolevska of "Eternity", Colin West of "Here & Beyond", Kit Zauhar of "The Terrestrials", Brock Heasley of "The Two Hundred Fifth", and Ursula Ellis of "Ava in the End" - because it was a longer block than I thought, bringing me right up to there being just about no time to get across the street for Kingdom.

One thing I'm a bit curious about is whether a pretty good 50/50 split in gender for these filmmakers (four directed by men, four by women, one by a male/female pair) is a goal the programmers were looking to achieve or just a thing that happened naturally. There's no sense of a finger on the scale or anything seemingly chosen to balance out the program, but I'll be scanning the animation block when I write it up to see if it's a pattern. Either way, though, good for them; considering how much of the feature program relies on international films, it may not be practical to get that kind of parity in the most visible parts, but I'm glad they're managing it where they can.

Huh, somehow I've gotten this written up before heading out for the last day of the festival, where I will be seeing Judy and Punch, The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea, Promare, and The Divine Fury. Missbehavior is recommended; Night God is an acquired taste.

Baishe: Yuanqi (White Snake)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival: AXIS, DCP)

The White Snake story hasn't been as frequently retold as that of The Monkey King on-screen, although I can't help but feel there's been more in recent years than the one that came out in 2011 with Jet Li, Eva Huang, and Charlene Choi. It's a natural fit for animation, though I'd be a bit surprised if this often fun weird production manages to find much of a niche on this side of the Pacific.

It's an enjoyable enough fantasy, framed here as white snake-demon Verta/Xiao Bai failing to reach enlightenment after 500 years but becoming a better person when amnesia has her living among humans and falling in love. There's an evil admiral who is killing snakes to absorb their power, her closest friend being sent to stop her when it looks like she's sold out, and plenty of other fun stuff, including some big, entertaining bits of action. I'm not sure how much it deviates from the classic myth, but for the most part the simple story that has plenty of room for action and romance works well enough to overlook some very arbitrary plotting.

I haven't seen enough Chinese feature animation to judge how good this is in comparison, but while there's some impressive creativity (one villain rides what can best be described as a "cerberostrich") and nice staging, there's something a little off about it; character proportions are a little too exact and motions a bit too smooth and programmed. It can feel like Robert Zemeckis's Beowulf in terms of going a long way to make animated characters feel human and not quite making it, and what stylization there is (like the eyes bigger than the mouths) doesn't help them emote quite as much as it should. It's not a bad look, but it's one more thing about the movie that feels like it could use a little refinement.

Full review on EFilmCritic

"Face Swap"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

I wonder who how alarmed Einat Tubi's and David Gidali's "Face Swap" has people who have likenesses they consider an asset, and by which part - the plot which has people in the not-too-distant future using real-time deepfakes to play at having sex with a celebrity or the fact that an independent short without a huge budget (IMDB says $25K) can semi-convincingly have George Clooney and Rachel McAdams on-screen, albeit after a big up-front disclaimer. It's an impressive technical achievement.

It initially makes for a bit of a clunky movie, though, spending a lot of time on the characters oohing and aahing over the technology. The good news is that it's something of a punchline short, with the somewhat drawn-out buildup leading to a very quick but impressively funny tear-down. It's almost over too fast, but fortunately Tubi & Gidali give it just enough time to hit and work before rolling credits.

"Ava in the End"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

"Ava in the End" has a simple premise (woman "awakens" as an uploaded consciousness inside a virtual world, awaiting download into a clone body) and puts a nice twist on it, but what makes it work is just how well everything in it clicks together: There's a lot of foul-mouthed, trash-talking comedy up front as Ava and the computer bicker ("I'm offering you calorie-free dark chocolate with bacon, are you fucking kidding me?") that eventually reveals a very human layer of fear, loneliness, and need for companionship, though "Bae" never says this. It's built so that the conversation about how Ava is surprised and kind of mocking that someone didn't have something like prepared has a neat inversion by the end, as life is precious even if the circumstances of her resurrection are kind of cruel.

Director Ursula Ellis and Elsa Gay do nifty things with Addison Heimann's script, especially as they switch the tone up midway through. Allie Gallerani seems to be having fun as Bae's voice as well, giving her a personality that seems real after starting out as just programmed affect.

"The Five Minutes"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

The gimmick of "The Five Minutes" requires a fair amount of in-story gyrations in order to work - director Shange Zhang and writer Nichole Delaura have to manually cut off any way that its plot device of making a phone call to the past could actually change things - but it handles this fairly well, mostly by having Demi Ke play the person explaining them as kind of salty and not particularly interested in holding her client's hand through the process; maybe she's done it too much. Zhang also has a bit of a tendency to highlight the melodrama, framing the man calling his late wife like the movie is going to be about how he figures out a way around this, lighting the phone booth where he makes his call in ominous crimson.

Despite all that, though, the core works. I've seen an interview where Zhang talks about seeing it as a particularly Chinese story before hearing from others that it's more universal, and I don't think anyone would disagree that the spouse being so focused on being a good worker that he doesn't see how his absence deprives the person he's doing it for of something to hold onto is not particularly limited to one culture. The cast gets it, with Eon Song impressively illustrating wife Luli's fragility what Zhan Wang is quite good at having Yu Cheng both not see it and not able to see anything else later. Especially toward the end, it's really quite an excellent take on the theme of desperately wanting more of the person you've taken for granted and the utter impossibility of retrieving what has been lost to the past.

"The Two Hundred Fifth"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

Brock Heasley's "The Two Hundred Fifth" is a pretty nifty short film that seems like it could benefit a bit from either being pared down further or being expanded into a feature. There's a lot going on with its premise of a young woman who has been repeating her life with memories intact for centuries that comes through nicely as she spends an eventful last day with her best friend - how being different can make her detached, seeing many of those around her as less than true people and seeing consequences as something to explore rather than to be feared. Ema Hovarth plays her as hardened but kind of aware of that; you can see how she gravitates to the people who help her retain her humanity without her ever saying so, and Audrey Neal plays the best friend as genuinely freaked out but also a solid anchor.

The problem, to the extent there is one, is that Heasley has bigger ideas for the premise, and you can't really blame him for it - these people would form an intriguing Illuminati, with a mechanism to push their power back in time and potentially ruthless power struggles that never end but also never leave the present moment. Heasley opens the door to that in the short's closing minutes, and while it's fun to speculate about and try to imagine, it's also not really what this movie is about. Truth be told, I don't know if you could really make it into a movie - even as a book, you'd need a diagram like the one in the American edition of All You Need Is Kill, and I don't see how the thing ever ends unless Maxine gets erased by a repeater whose timeline overlaps with hers. It's a weird switch at the end of the movie that dangles something the film has no room for in front of the audience.

Might as well indulge it, though; it's not likely to show up elsewhere and Heasley is able to tie it into the smaller story he can tell. Better a good film that recognizes that there's more going on than one that collapses under the weight of its too-grandiose premise.

"The Slows"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

A bunch of intriguing ideas collide in Nicole Perlman's "The Slows", from the way native populations are treated by colonizers to just why childhood is important and needs a certain lack of structure at times, and it eventually becomes something of a jumble, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, I suspect that a huge part of why it works is that lead character Eryn, a journalist looking to document the remaining tribes who still conceive and grow to adulthood the old-fashioned way, herself seems to have a hard time fitting all of it together, but just knows that she's seeing something that deserves to challenge her notions.

Or maybe that's the most generous take on how Eryn can sometimes be hard to get a handle on; Annet Mahendru finds a fairly believable take on what this five-year-old adult might be like, but I idly wonder if Gail Hareven's original short story gets in her head more rather than having her just become a little less alien. It might help, as she's kind of an incidental observer through much of this movie, with all the bigger things happening around her, right down to a final bit of visual effects that harnesses the ways it is sometimes less than perfectly smooth to be a little more unnerving. It's as good a way of showing the conflict in her mind as any, though, and that's a nice little bit of ambition.

"The Terrestrials"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

It would be selling Kit Zauhar's "The Terrestrials" short to dismiss it as having the kernel of a good idea, even though it does sort of bury what makes it interesting under a fair amount of filler and stretched metaphors - for instance, narrator Lucy's rambling about Voyager's Golden Record is the sort of thing that sounds like it's trying to elevate the short but could be excised because it doesn't add that much. Once it gets to the core of the idea, the film is so self-consciously spartan, much taking in an empty virtual space with just the two characters and a bed, that you can't really say that the kernel is buried.

Still, it's kind of waffly when it gets there, wanting to grapple with the idea of what matters in real and virtual spaces without ever having a reckoning about it. Zauhar's given the audience an interesting set of perspectives - Arabella Oz playing a hurt woman with harsher principles and Henry Fulton Winship as a guy perhaps too ready to dismiss online interactions as not counting - and the cast does well to make them people as well as avatars for how we think about these interactions. The film could use a little more passion and maybe action, though - it's hard to escape that it's about two people talking in an empty room without either really changing their perspective that much.

"Here & Beyond"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

There's a casually chilling bit early on in "Here & Beyond", when aging widower Mac (Greg Lacey) is told that, as his brain is starting to deteriorate, he should start to purge his home of any reminders of the past that aren't around in his present, likely starting with his late wife. It's horrifyingly practical, but I found myself wondering why filmmaker Colin West put it in there, as Mac doesn't actually do that and never seems to suffer from the sort of dementia that has him confusing Ruth (Christine Kellogg-Darrin) with new neighbor Tess (Laurel Porter), a teen herself unmoored because her family moves every few months. It's the sort of thing that you can't really say and not act upon.

Fortunately, there's enough to like about the short to like even absent that bit of follow-through; Lucey and Porter make an enjoyable odd couple that don't seem cleverly mismatched even though they also don't exactly give each other what they need directly, and the warmth between Lucey and Kellogg-Darrin seen in the VHS tapes of their old children's science program is a real delight, one which West doesn't dilute or confuse by showing them together in other environments. The spot in the end where it seems to drift into fantasy is a bit weaker, although you can sort of see where West is going with it in Mac returning to the woman he loved and Tess taking something from one of the people who entered and left her life quickly, but it's not quite as strong as just watching everybody play off each other without that extra layer.

"Lavender"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

Henry Boffin's "Lavender" is another short that threatens to tie itself up in a knot in order to establish its hypothetical situation - a virus that puts its victims in a permanent vegetative state combined with meat becoming unaffordable leading to those afflicted being processed into "Brawn" foodstuffs, which have a grouping system to prevent one from eating family - and I don't know that it's really worth the effort. There are stories to be had here about how to deal with loved ones disintegrating mentally and how we're probably engaging in a lot of self-deception in maintaining our protein-rich diets, but I don't know that the movie is really big enough to cover all that.

It tries, though, and Ellen Bailey does a good job of letting all of that play across her face as the daughter who finds out her father has fallen victim to the "hobodus" virus as she's about to grill up a Brawn steak, and later becomes uneasy as she tours the facility where her father will await harvest. She handles the flashbacks where we see that Heather and Clive didn't have as much time together as either would like, and those moments are also great for how John McNeill shows just what has drained from the father, as are the ones where we see him as a younger man giving young Heather a strong foundation. And, hey, credit to Joel Pierce for making Heather's husband seem like kind of a jerk in this situation but not one that makes her look bad for marrying him.

It's ambitious, and I suspect that the tug-of-war between Heather dealing with something that feels individual and making more general points is always going to go to the first if the filmmaker wants to make a movie that resonates emotionally. It's just kind of unfortunate that it leaves the rest a little underdone.

"Eternity"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, digital)

I suspect that I would have liked to hear director Anna Sobolevska answer questions about "Eternity" more than just about any other film/filmmaker in the program; it's got a strong concept and often looks striking but has the fuzziest plot of any of them, although that may be on me; I've often struggled with Eastern European science fiction/fantasy that is big on scale but short on specifics, especially if that would get in the way of showing how tortured the characters are. Oleg Moskalenko's Ian is tortured as heck after an accident leaves his lover Marie (Daria Plakhity) on the border of life and death after he talked her out of a consciousness-upload plan, and everything else is gravy.

It's a harrowing scenario, but one which Sobolevska sometimes seems to dance around; there's a detour with Ian entering the mind of someone else in a similar situation and an odd sort of bargaining that requires a lot of technical talk that isn't really explained. As filmmaking that does more than just tell a linear story, though, "Eternity" is often impressive - Moskalenko makes Ian truly torn apart, and the glimpses of these virtual afterlives being built and tested as the system is being adopted makes them feel like well-intentioned purgatories. The scenes of Ian and Marie when they were still alive and trying to live life to the fullest are especially beautiful, sumptuous enough to feel real and warm even though the virtual worlds are doing their best to replicate them.

I can certainly see where "Eternity" is going and like the general direction, but I must say that the path is sometimes tricky to follow.

Kingdom

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

I wonder how often non-fans encountering manga, anime, and their adaptations find themselves tripped up over how the protagonists will have earnest enthusiasm, loyalty, and commitment as their best qualities, valuable traits to be sure but not as important in American stories as figuring things out. Kingdom, for instance, is about a guy who kind of blows past having wound up ignorant through no fault of is own by having grown up a slave to be kind of dumb generally, but he's the one we're supposed to identify with and root for.

And there's worse ways to go; Kento Yamazaki dives into Xin and gives him a passionate purity that falls short of "useful idiot"; he isn't quite so unaware that he can just be pointed at things indiscriminately to tear them down, and he's got enough sense of self and loyalty that his ambition to become a great general isn't entirely frightening. It helps a lot that he's surrounded by a strong cast of entertaining allies - Ryo Yoshizawa, Kanna Hashimoto, and Masami Nagasawa all connect on the same wavelength to make for the sort of tight-knit cast that can mix melodrama with high adventure and inspire audience loyalty.

Drop that in the middle of a big, slick movie and you've got an entertaining couple hours. Director Shinsuke Sato's latest blockbuster manga adaptation is historical adventure rather than the usual urban sci-fi/fantasy, but this gives him and his team a lot more room to play with the big action scenes than usual, as the fighting can spread out and feature lots of impressive swordplay and wire-fu without it having to feel like it fits in a real world that the audience knows well. It's big and boisterous action, and the production design crew does a fine job of either transplanting some of the manga's more peculiar designs or creating a world that feels like it could have come out of a comic. It is a bit odd to see a movie about China's warring-states period where everyone is speaking Japanese (even if I only really know this because I recognize a few more phrases in that language than Mandarin), but it's a fun example of the genre.

I'd kind of like to see a European studio hire Sato to adapt Vinland Saga, although I don't know if I can imagine it actually happening.

Full review at EFilmCritic

Papa, sdokhni (Why Don't You Just Die!)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplômés de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

This pitch-black comedy may be the most action-packed film of the festival, a bloody mess of a movie that maintains a breakneck pace for much longer than one might expect and manages the neat trick of having several of its characters doing corrupt, violent things while still maintaining some level of sympathy, which is kind of the only way this sort of free-for-all works. It's kind of unfortunate that this mostly applies to the men in the film, with the women pushed to one emotional extreme or another, but it keeps things hopping.

And hop they do, because writer/director/editor Kirill Sokolov throws his characters through the wringer, drenching the set with red as he quick-cuts to build up speed but tends to follow a smashing blow through, dropping down to slow motion to let viewers "savor" the impact. There are two or three top-shelf action bits in this movie, and a lot of them are set up by making the audience hyper-aware of just where exactly everything is and then sent careening in new directions by weird, violent slapstick. It feels even more absurd confined to one fairly small apartment, and Sokolov manages to heighten things well past when most people would be dead while still having the blood loss take a believable toll.

It slows down necessarily when it leaves the apartment for flashbacks, showing where the characters are coming from and why everybody is eventually going to want corrupt cop Andrei dead. It seldom seems quite enough and sometimes takes a while to circle back, but it's hard to see how Sokolov could do that better even as he's mostly doing what needs to be done. The film also starts to run out of steam a bit in the end, but he at least seems to sense this and finish up quickly.

Les Particules

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

I suspect that there are bits of Blaise Harrison's coming-of-age film that I don't quite catch; aside from my having been a lame asexual teen who has trouble connection with these movies to begin with, it kind of seems like the film taking place on a border might have struck a chord more with European audiences: Does going to an apparent international school with both French and Swiss students make a kid more likely to feel like they don't fit in? It seems like it would, but it's not something I was able to see playing out here.

Of course, it wasn't as flashy as the strange effects P.A. (Thomas Daloz) sees playing out around him, presumably from the Large Hadron Collider which is located below the town. That becomes a potent metaphor, something beyond his teenage aimlessness that he can't yet grasp, distorting reality itself. It's often on the periphery, and it would probably take another viewing and some mulling over to see how far Harrison is going with this - the final shot suggests things coming together and smashing into more basic pieces, which may be how young people feel these days, placed in situations out of their control to see what happens, although it doesn't necessarily fit the rest of the film. Maybe it's something simpler, like understanding the world is founded on unknowable mysteries but that moving ahead means trying to solve what you can anyway.

It's a tough thing to embody, but I like the way Daloz manages it. P.A. is not an especially active, charismatic character, but Daloz and the filmmakers give him worth to go along with his doubt, a good heart even as confusion often results in pettiness. He plays well off Salvatore Ferro as a similar best friend and Néa Lüders as the girl who starts off as his second choice but proves quite winning. They integrate well into the world Harrison gives them, full of advanced but banal science and seemingly inexplicable mysticism.

Definitely one I'd like to see at a better hour and not just the fifth show in a very long day.

1 comment:

Brock said...

Hey Jay, really enjoyed your take on The Two Hundred Fifth! It's a great, fair review and I appreciate your thoughtful approach. You really keyed in on some of the things going on underneath the surface that not everyone sees, and I totally agree that I was really pushing against the short film format. Hopefully, 205 gets a chance to break out beyond it one day.