Tuesday, March 31, 2020

"The Haunted Swordsman" and Bacurau

Believe it or not, this past weekend would have been the Boston Underground Film Festival, which vanished in a puff when the folks at BUFF and the Brattle recognized that it would not be physical-distancing-friendly at all. It would have been a bummer to let it pass completely unnoted, but, fortunately for me, one of the selections for the animation program is a short film I could access because I'd contributed to its Kickstarter, and "The Haunted Swordsman" is pretty darn good.

It also made a good pre-film short for Bacurau, one of the first films announced as playing the Virtual Coolidge Corner Theatre, and one that's been getting a fair amount of acclaim from various quarters. The good news is that it lives up to a lot of the hype, and even though it's pretty long for the sort of film in question, you don't much feel it, and it often feels like a good movie for this particular moment.

Not an exact match, obviously, but it's got an oddly utopian kernel to its desperate near future, something you can sort of see in the empty streets outside and the DIY mask projects people with the skills and equipment to do so are doing in their homes. It's a weird time and it makes sense that a weird movie would be the one that has some insight.

"The Haunted Swordsman"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Kickstarter reward, Vimeo via Roku)

Time's funny; it's been less than five years since I saw "The Mill at Calder's End" at Fantasia, long enough to be filed in the "a while ago" part of my brain, but also apparently just enough time for director Kevin McTurk and writer Tab Murphy to get a script, do some crowdfunding, go through the stop-motion process, and start going through the festival circuit again with their 17-minute short. At the scale they're working at - bigger than "one guy's garage", smaller than Laika - that's a lot of crazy detail work.

It's worth it, though, from the opening shot that establishes scale in defiance of the part of the audience's brain that knows these aren't real mountains to the fantastical creatures and the impressive way that McTurk and company are able to ramp up the fantastical elements until the final shot is impressively far from where the movie starts, even though the swordsman hasn't actually moved very far. The design all around is top-notch, seeming to do a good job of creating its Japanese yokai and onis without seeming to do much in the way of exaggerated pastiche. The fight choreography is a smart mix of larger-than-life fantasy and how most of cinema's great samurai battles actually involve a lot of circling, sizing things up, and striking quickly.

The character work is just as good, both on the side of the nifty voice cast (James Hong and Christopher Lloyd are recognizable while Jason Scott Lee and Franka Potente are just as solid) and animation/design. One thing I really like is how McTurk seems to lean into how stop-motion can be a bit stiff and kind of limited in animation for the Swordsman, giving him rigid and disciplined body language, while other characters and creatures are allowed a little more motion and to bend impossibly. Another nifty thing is how "The Navigator", a severed head serving as the swordsman's guide, is perhaps the only character to regularly blink, but because he's missing an eye, it could be a wink, and it's timed so that it could also be some sort of nervous tic. It's one of the easier pieces to demonstrate how the filmmakers are doing a lot of linked things to make their short work - impressive technically and combined with smart storytelling.

Bacurau

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 March 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Coolidge Corner Theatre Virtual Screening Room, KinoNow via Roku)

For a film set in the near future where government is apparently on the verge of collapse, allowing a group of sadists to terrorize the less fortunate, Bacurau is relatively light on violence over the course of its 131 minutes (though what's there is intense) and doesn't particularly go in for complex world-building. What it's got is a strangely reassuring blend of properly directed anger and recognition that anger alone isn't enough. It's a movie that suggests that civilization isn't necessarily doomed just because things are going to hell.

And they are; as Teresa (Bárbara Colen) and Erivaldo (Rubens Santos) drive a truck back to the village of the title, there are people buying and selling the coffins that have scattered across the street after a traffic accident, a price has been put on the heads of revolutionaries Lunga (Silvero Pereira) and Pacote (Thomas Quino), and the river that is the local source of potable water has been dammed upstream; Erivaldo will have to several miles out of his way to fill his tanker up. Teresa is there for her grandmother's funeral - nonagenarian Carmelita was beloved by most and even those that clashed with her like Doctor Domingas (Sonia Braga) had a grudging respect. At first, it seems as if her death has knocked the world off its axis; Bacurau has vanished from online maps and a flying saucer follows a deliveryman on the road. Soon, though, it becomes clear that there are darker force than grandstanding and corrupt district mayor Tony Jr. (Thardelly Lima) converging on Bacurau, led by a mysterious expatriate (Udo Kier).

The previous feature films of co-writer/co-director Kleber Mendon├ža Filho have apparently been focused on specific small slivers of communities, and the strength of this movie can be found in the way this film immerses its audience in the small world that the predators threaten. Carmelita's funeral is allowed to play out in seeming full, the rituals given the importance they hold for the locals, even if they are ragged and unusual at various points. The town has a museum, and its modest building is allowed to feel more like the center of town than the church (which is historically made to be such), solidifying the connections to the community rather than some outside authority. And while on the one hand the way the town retreats and shuts Tony Jr. out when he comes to campaign is meant to foreshadow how a later sequence will continue, their rejection of him is immediately contrasted with the way the community shares his laughable largesse. There's dignity, cooperation, and a sense of shared purpose in how they handle things, and the presentation of that feels practical but also utopian in a conscious, organized way, compared to the usual community of outcasts grasping at each other.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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