Saturday, June 06, 2020

Fantasia 2019 Catch-up, Part 5: House of Hummingbird, Shooting the Mafia, Lake Michigan Monster, Night God, Koko-Di Koko-Da, Les Particules

Tired: "Oh, man, it's taken me almost the whole year to review everything from Fantasia; I'm a terrible critic who won't be credentialed next year because it takes me forever!"

Wired: "F--- yeah, look at me stretching that content out even though everything has been canceled! Glad I have some reserves! Hahahahaha!"

I jest a bit, and some of these reviews at this point are kind of rough - I am leaning a lot on what I wrote on my Letterboxd page and notes that I'm finding hard to read (I need to check if eye doctors are open yet, because I probably need reading glasses), so this is the one where the reviews really become ruminations on their themes and how that has stuck with me nearly eleven months later In some cases, I've had to skip a bit - I looked at what I had for Hard-Core and just couldn't add much to it.

Anyway, I'm done relying just on notes, but have some Blu-rays and streaming to hit so that I can catch up and be fresh. And, hey, taking forever means that I can end this post by noting that you can actually pre-order House of Hummingbird now, which was not on the horizon at all when I saw it last year!

Beol-sae (House of Hummingbird)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2019 in Auditorium des Diplomes de la SGWU (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

The very last detail I noticed during the screening of House of Hummingbird - indeed, the very last detail there is to notice - is that the copyright is assigned directly to writer/director/producer Kim Bora, rather to a production company or some group of investors, and I wonder if it meant she started out with more resources at her disposal than the film's young heroine or if it's just that much more important to claim the story as hers. It doesn't matter, really - the film is good either way - but it's the sort of small detail that can stick with you at the end of a movie about a girl who is often overlooked.

That girl is Eunhee (Park Ji-Hu), fourteen years old and unable to get into her family's apartment because her mother is napping or out or otherwise just not answering the door, to the point where Eunhee eventually wonders if she's in the right place, as these low-income units do tend to run together. There are five in there, including older sister Suhee (Park Soo-Yeon), who is always in trouble, and brother Daehoon, a year older but getting all of their parents' attention and support as he studies for his high-school entry exams. Eunhee isn't a great student - she'd rather hang around with boyfriend Jiwan and bestie Jisuk - but new teacher Kim Young-Ji (Kim Sae-Byuk) sees something in her notebook doodles. Even with that new interest being shown in her (and that of a new classmate), Eunhee doesn't quite think of herself enough to raise much of an alarm when a persistent sore throat doesn't go away.

It's a testimony to just how good young actress Park Ji-hu is - and how carefully filmmaker Kim Bora has inserted potentially upbeat moments - that House of Hummingbird doesn't just become a parade of misery, confirmation that adolescence is nothing but cruel torment. Eunhee is a middle-school heroine that the audience can get behind even as her troubles get piled high, and Park makes it clear that she needs someone behind her, always showing the hesitation and frustration of someone who knows she is not thought of as much and is only just figuring out that she is undervalued. Park puts the same sort of intelligent passion into the scenes where she's worried and empathetic as when she's frustrated and envious as Eunhee eventually figures out how to demand attention because she deserves it and not just because she feels slighted.

She's never alone in her troubles, which helps quite a bit; it's clear from the start that her mother and best friend know where she's coming from, even if they often seem powerless to help each other break away for more than a few minutes at a time. It's part of being a girl in that time and place, and while the very first scene captures how close a kid can be to boiling over in this situation, the movie as a whole trends toward Eunhee getting more able to handle herself, even if it's sometimes a sort of youthful not knowing any better. The cast around her does good work in carving out individual personalities while also representing all of the various things that a girl like Eunhee is up against, despite making sure that they are never actually bigger than her.

Part of that is that director Kim never sets things up so that Eunhee has one clear problem that she has to solve. The bulk of the film is relatively small moments, even when the room is crowded enough for Eunhee to fade to the back of a classroom or family gathering, and Kim shows an ability to hold those moments for a while, focusing on how Eunhee is reacting to them, and switch them up so that neither she nor the audience is completely overwhelmed. There are at least two major challenges as the film moves into its later stages, but neither Eunhee's diagnosis or the calamitous real-life event that Kim works into the script are things that an eighth-grade girl can exactly conquer through her own efforts, but getting through which can solidify and strengthen her.

Adolescence is tough but survivable, and House of Hummingbird nails that vibe well.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Shooting the Mafia

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival, DCP)

This is an intriguing but odd documentary, in that it seems like it could be more focused or detailed or illustrative, but instead the filmmakers just let their subject take them where she would, and if that wasn't where they expected, so be it. It helps to have the sort of subject who is willing to take you places in that case, although sometimes that means being ready for them to just not be interested in certain parts of the story.

Which isn't necessarily the case with Letizia Battaglia of Palermo, born in 1935, sent to a convent school by a controlling father, married at 16, and had three daughters, with the Mafia a part of the background noise, as was typical on the island of Sicily. She was 40 years old before walking into L'Ora to look for a job and winding up a photographer. She quickly became known for having a great eye, and also for not flinching in how she depicted organized crime (she photographed her first murder scene on her third day on the job). She would eventually enter politics with the Green Party, and her work would be seen as a crucial part of an unprecedented crackdown.

Some documentaries have a subject and some have a star, and there's no doubt that Battaglia fits in the latter category, she's famous, well-respected, and colorful and knows it. She's able to casually take charge of the film and bring out the respect and deference of those who talk about her, seldom seeming like she's bragging or ostentatiously self-deprecating. She doesn't seem to be bullying director Kim Longinotto or dictating what can or cannot be included in an obvious way; she just sits squarely at the center, telling stories she knows so well that they are somewhat hypnotic, so that the rest of the film has to work a bit harder.

As a result, the fact that Battalagia became a photographer and that she saw people connect to these pictures is the story, rather than the how of it. The film never seems to have as much of Letizia Battalagia's photography as it seems like it really "should", compared to others along similar lines. Longinotto seldom stops to comment on Battalagia's work as art and/or journalism, or call attention to a certain image being hers and what it represents as such. There are also noticeable gaps likely based upon what she was interested in talking about, and that means they have to work around it. For instance, there's not much about her time in politics, or when she wasn't active in either politics or photography, so she takes a step back during the big Mafia trials, letting those major events play out without her. It sometimes makes her feel like a convenient way to look at Sicily in general, rather than her, but it's always an odd thing when the main character is missing from the climax.

That doesn't leave a gap, because she is interesting enough to carry through, even if she never fits the confines of a conventional documentary easily. The people in her life talk about her with great affection, including a sometimes eyebrow-raising parade of younger photographers she took as lovers. Because she didn't pick up a camera until the age of 40, there's relatively little documentation of her early life, leading the filmmakers to fill in the gaps with film clips, which helps elevate her to a larger-than-life figure, confusing the heightened reality of the movie's techniques with the often dramatic life she would lead. It's intriguing and informative, but also shows you can't avoid myth-making.

Which is fine; a movie like this is about telling a big story lived by a big personality. What's left out, or given surprisingly little time, is unusual, but that doesn't make the rest any less interesting.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Lake Michigan Monster

* * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Fantasia Underground, digital)

Deliberate camp is awful most of the time, which is a fair description of Lake Michigan Monster, a tough slog for as long as the joke is looking at it and laughing at how low-rent it feels, but kind of fun once it finds itself more in the realm of the weird. Despite it only being 78 minutes long, it seems to take forever to make that jump, and I can't say that I found it worth the investment.

It is a story told by Captain Seafield (Ryland Brickson Cole Tews), who hires a motley crew of specialists on his quest to kill the monster of the title, which he holds responsible for the death of his family. It is, in fact, motlier than most, as most seem fairly dangerously unstable. Of course, Seafield may be the kookiest of them, as he's not really a captain of anything - truth be told, he doesn't know the first thing about the sea (or, for that matter, large freshwater lakes), and quite honestly his experience is more field than sea.

When initially considering this movie, I couldn't help but think back to One Cut of the Dead, which was similarly painful for at least a third of its running time before suddenly switching gears in order to break out a last act that more than made up for the weak start, but the trick there was to really make use of absolutely everything that had been planted beforehand, retroactively making the early grind funnier. The bits that are awkwardly sprinkled into this movie's first half are obvious, and surrounded by things that aren't ever going to be more than "hey, isn't this dumb?" So it looks cheap and hammy, never really building to anything, and isn't going to be more. It's not only obvious but it slows down for stretches, trying to separate things that don't go together but not making great use of that time.

Fortunately, the filmmakers find various ways to dispense of its less necessary characters (as people making movies with "monster" in the title tend to do), and eventually just pares itself down to one man on a mission and between the no longer screwing around milking the same set of jokes on the one hand and a commitment to throwing a bunch of effects creative enough to not need every computational cycle a whole server farm can give on the other, the last stretch of the movie becomes a whole lot more fun. It's full of action, the randomness suddenly feels like its pushing in fun new directions, and Captain Seafield actually seems to give a damn about what's going on rather than just making the occasional arch-but-stupid remark.

It's still pretty dumb and campy by the end, but at least by that point it's asking is viewers to laugh at what it does well rather than what it's deliberately doing poorly, and that's a massive improvement. Creativity counts for a lot when you working on a shoestring, often much more than just letting the audience in on the joke.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Nochnoy Bog (Night God)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

As fusions of post-apocalyptic devastation and bureaucratic intransigence go, Night God is certainly arresting to look at and utterly committed to a level few films manage. It's also a reminder that, for however much truth there may be in this sort of vision of the future, it can be monotonous and ineffective once a viewer realizes that the cynicism is relatively unshakable. At a certain point, you don't add much by saying everything is a mess in the way that it has always been a mess and always will be, and how many ways can you say that?.

Sometime in the future, a man (Bajmurat Zhumanov) returns to his home village after the fall of civilization, wife and daughter Aliya (Aliya Yerzhanova) in tow, only to be treated as an outsider, held at gunpoint, and forced to produce proof that he belongs there. After all, one would not want to be caught outside, when otherworldly entities take control of the area.

Kazakh filmmaker Adilkhan Yerzhanov creates an art-house apocalypse, one which offers up a world without sunlight but has familiar sorts of authoritarian types in charge of the town our narrator returns to, still asking for forms and proof of identity even if they must be hand-written. An absurd situation develops involving live explosives and a TV game show, but it just redirects things back to the bureaucracy, and the stonewalling before anybody attempts to solve it is perfunctory, at least for an outsider; perhaps there are elements of satire that play out more entertainingly in his native land. It's perhaps fitting that this sort of entrenched administration doesn't really change, but it comes across as a sort of default position, and it as such doesn't demand a particular character to complement it or get ground down. Star Bajmurat Zhumanov turns in a performance that's just a little less generic than the scenario, half befuddled everyman and half not used to putting up with this, and does well by it.

The film has its greatest spark of life when the daughter who had been silent through much of the film finally has words for her father about how he and his generation's obedience and timidity wrecked the world, but the filmmakers don't really seem to have any desire to run with that in any interesting direction - indeed, they see nothing but Icarus in that sort of attitude. It's kind of a bummer, not just for the fatalism, but because Aliya Zainalova has been doing good work in the corners throughout the movie and her complete frustration with the idiocy of all this is easily the film's most relatable moment

It's a striking vision of this at least. It's the sort of world that exists easily on a soundstage, and the details of it can be hypnotic, from the snow that sparkles as it falls through a hole in seemingly every roof to the daughter's yellow jacket, which seems to change shade as more or less light is cast in a scene. It's very deliberately paced, with the getting from one thing to another often a bit of a dark slog, but the islands of insanity and style are perhaps all the sharper for that.

The film is fully committed to its pessimistic metaphors, probably to a fault, but it's impossible to miss the thought and craft used to place them on-screen. For all that there is undoubtedly truth in what Yerzhanov is upt to, the film could really use a few more moments when the characters do something concrete, even if it's futile, rather than just talk about how thinking is resistance. It's a fair poke at present circumstances, but not one that leads anywhere.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Koko-di Koko-da

* * * (out of four)
Seen 26 July 2019 in Salle J.A. DeSève (Fantasia International Film Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

I spent a little time talking about what one could do with time loops when discussing another film that played this same festival, The Incredible Shrinking Wknd, and watching Koko-di koko-da (the last syllable of which is pronounced "day") in such close succession was a fascinating example of how the same seemingly limited device could be used to different ends. This one, in particular, is impressive for how it manages to remain harrowing even when the viewer can reasonably expect what they see to be erased.

It opens with a small family - father Tobias (Leif Edlund), mother Elin (Ylva Gallon), and daughter Maja (Katarina Jakobson) - on a camping outing to celebrate Maja's 8th birthday. It's a fun outing, with Maja's face made up like a bunny, until something makes Elin violently ill while they're on the road far from a hospital. It looks like it's going to be fine, but then things take a turn. Three years pass before they take another camping trip, which seems ill-advised even without the characters straight out of nasty folklore that keep turning up.

The bulk of that happens within the first ten minutes or so, and while most who see it will likely come in with a little more idea of what's going on than someone building a full day's festival schedule without being too picky about it, it's still built to pull the rug out from the audience early enough that talking about the work of the cast may be seen as SPOILERS. The small core cast is reliably terrific, sketching out a good baseline so that the devastated versions of the characters that we see for the rest of the film exist in sharp relief. Lief Edlund is especially good, creating different flavors of desperation as his anxiety from the potential collapse of his family is pushed into heightened territory. It's a fine match for Ylva Gallon, who spends the back half of the movie making sure that the audience sees that Elin is a raw nerve with no idea how to direct what she's feeling. They get all the room they need to demonstrate this, with the rest of the cast creating memorable adversaries that never detract from the stars.

As they shouldn't; this is not a film about that sort of monster. Instead, Johannes Nyholm has made a film that plunges into the despair of grief on multiple fronts, and the combination of the contrast with "before", the Groundhog Day-style time loop that traps you in a fearful place, and the perversion of something mostly-unrelated into something you can no longer abide is something that rings true even as it also feels like too much. In some ways, even the things that don't quite fit feel like they have meaning by highlighting the contradiction: Even as time resets, for example, the seasons change, so that this is both a place where the family feels stuck and one where the repetition does not mean they can escape quickly from any perspective. The movie can be a grim sit, and for some the repeated violence is going to be too extreme even as a representation of traumatic emotions. (End of spoilers)

It is, by the end, clear where the film is going, but it certainly can seem like overkill as things become gruesome. And then, at other times, it doesn't seem like too much, and there's this weird ethereal beauty to the horror it represents, an exquisite pain or a fleeting glimpse of something better. The extended shadow-puppet sequences, for instance, are dark as can be but also feel like people struggling and healing. There's humanity to the film's monsters, if not too much, and something sad but real about the characters trying to readjust to something normal. For all that this movie can occasionally be too much, it doesn't leap straight over being effective on its way there.

The sense of being unable to escape from a terrible moment or feeling makes this sort of story a potent metaphor but also a trap, because the situation calls for audiences to examine their situation without it becoming a puzzle. It's a line Nyholm walks extremely well, even as he creates a film that is eerie on top of being scary. It's the rare film to have a foot in both the festival's arthouse and horror sections, fitting just as well in each.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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 such a lame asexual teen that I have trouble connecting with these movies as an adult to begin with, both the specific details of their environment and the fantastic events they encounter seem like they're saying something just out of my reach. That may be a good thing - there's a certain arrogance in thinking that the experience of youth is universal or easily mapped between generations and locations, even if there often is something to recognize.despite that.

In this one, I wonder a bit what the film taking place on a border might mean to its European audiences, as the characters live in the town that is home to the CERN Large Hadron Collider, which straddles both France and Switzerland: 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, at least relative to other stories of European youth, but it's not something I was able to pick up as playing out here. What does having this thing which brings people from around the world in (and under) your backyard mean when it's not something you can really grasp?

Of course, all of that goes hand-in-hand with the strange effects Pierre-André "P.A." Jasson (Thomas Daloz) sees playing out around him, presumably from some experiment being conducted at the LHC. He's the sort of kid that often gets lost in the background in high school, taking an early bus because transit doesn't get to his part of town quite as often as it should, hanging out with folks like scruffy Mérou (Salvatore Ferro) and trying to get the attention Léa (Emma Josserand), though winding up spending more time with the ailing Roshine (Néa Lüders). It's all very ordinary until Mérou vanishes during a camping trip, something which could be foul play, him lighting out for somewhere else, or maybe something to do with the destruction of the building blocks of reality underneath their feet.

That unfathomable science which appears to have strange manifestations aboveground becomes a potent metaphor, something beyond P.A.'s teenage aimlessness that he can't yet grasp, something 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 star Thomas 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 - it's a character that would often be pushed to be flagrantly eccentric rather than just off and dealing with things his own way - and Néa Lüders winds up quite charming as the girl who starts off as his second choice but proves quite winning. They integrate well into the world Harrison gives them, not playing into stock teen tropes but showing a surprising charm when they threaten to become disaffected bores.

And, perhaps, that's a bit of what Harrison (who has made a pair of documentary shorts following someone from teenager to manhood) and co-writer Mariette Désert (who collaborated on another look at disaffected French youth in Jessica Forever) are trying to get at: The next generation will always be dealing with a world full of advanced but banal science and seemingly inexplicable mysticism for which their parents who did not experience it can't prepare them, and not knowing is part of the challenge. It's definitely a film that I'd like to see at a better hour, and not just the fifth show in a very long day.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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