Sunday, August 30, 2020

Fantasia 2020.09: The Block Island Sound

Got two more from Friday maybe coming later because I didn't get my screener requests in before folks apparently went home for the weekend, so maybe we'll call that 2020.09.5 or something.

I really liked this one, though it's kind of funny that I followed the links back and saw that I apparently liked the filmmakers' first feature eight years ago but it hasn't been hugely "sticky". I can't remember whether it played the Boston area or not, but I hope this one does; it's a solid little movie, and the filmmakers are somewhat local, enough that it's got a real New England feel to it even if a fair amount was shot in Los Angeles. This sort of New England beach town is my favorite sort of non-city place, and incidentally one of the best places to set a movie.

The Block Island Sound

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

I don't know that anybody will be going to movies to just see whatever is playing next for a while, or if this will have the sort of distribution where it's an option, but I love the idea that someone might buy a ticket for The Block Island Sound, figuring it's some sort of rock and roll story, only to discover it's a horror movie, maybe about some sort of subsonic noise that drives men mad. It's none of that, but it is a pretty darn nifty little thriller that makes the most of what it's got.

It opens with a disoriented man (Neville Archambault) coming to on his boat while out to sea, and it turns out that Tom's spells, which only his son Harry (Chris Sheffield) knows about, aren't the only strange thing happening on and around Block Island; Harry's EPA scientist sister has been called out to the island to investigate an ongoing mass die-off of fish, with over nine tons having washed up on West Beach so far. She arrives with co-worker Paul (Ryan O'Flanagan) and daughter Emily (Matilda Lawler) in tow. Soon Tom disappears, and while investigating, Harry finds some sort of strange radio interference in the spot where his boat was found.

The McManus Brothers, who wrote and directed, had their last big-screen release eight years ago with Funeral Kings, and if this movie was nothing more than a story of a sometimes-contentious family dealing with the father's decay, it would be a worthy follow-up to that movie. Neville Archambault switches between friendly, cantankerous, and out of it in a way that would feel natural if there wasn't this other set of circumstances but also fits in nicely that way. Michaela McManus and Chris Sheffield make the relationship between Audry and Harry as something that's been worn kind of thin over time, and it adjusts in just the right way when Heidi Niedermeyer enters the picture as a second sister. The family is easy to relate to but also feels specific to this particular sort of community, where you're either stuck with each other or cut off, with the place overwhelmed by outsiders in the summer or a little too quiet during the off-season.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Fantasia 2020.08: Alone and A Mermaid in Paris

Only two movies with embargo dates on Thursday, so at least I haven't fallen much further behind in the last day. I'm kind of starting to feel the festival grind that I occasionally hear people talk about (but which I've seldom felt at Fantasia), and it's really making me miss the in-person experience, where even if I feel like I'm falling behind, there's another movie to get to and another and while it's nice that I'll have no more reviews to do at the end, I really miss the grind.

Anyway! Remember how earlier in the summer there were stories going around about people watching movies on the Seine? That movie was A Mermaid in Paris, and it's had an interesting year, opening up in March, seeing theaters close a week later, coming back when they re-opened in July, and if Box Office Mojo is to be believed, making pretty good coin in South Korea when it opened there. I wonder if it will make it here; I remember hearing about it enough early in the year to figure it had the profile, but I kind of don't know what the landscape is going to look like over the next few months with some theaters open while others running virtually and it likely being hard for distributors to supply a film to both. It's a bummer that I didn't love it more, but the female lead reminds me of young Julie Delpy and who doesn't love that?

Alone

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, internet)

There's a note at the end of the credits for Alone that states it was based upon another movie, and there's a temptation to wonder if anybody really would have known that this was adapted from any specific one of the couple thousand movies with a similar setup in Sweden or elsewhere. It and Försvunnen share the same screenwriter, so good on him getting paid twice for the frame of a decent, solidly-made thriller that wouldn't be particularly original even if it weren't a remake, but gets the job done.

It opens with Jessica (Jules Willcox) packing her stuff in a U-Haul and getting ready to move; not exactly sneaking out of town but not saying any long goodbyes; it's been a rough year. There's a little bit of weirdness on the road with an SUV that is going way below the speed limit and then riding her tail after she's able to pass. The same car shows up in the motel parking lot that night, with its driver (Marc Menchaca) coming up to apologize, which is kind of weird, but then she sees him broken down on the road, and then…

Well, let's just say that a guy doesn't have a room in his cellar with bars on the windows that locks from the outside if he hasn't done this before, and while that could be formidable, the film does not revel in Jessica's helplessness - it establishes the seriousness of the situation with Jules Willcox capturing how this situation is almost paralyzingly frightening, but the filmmakers quickly move on to the next stage of things. It's something the film does well throughout, so that even in the moments when Jessica has a brief advantage or chance to put some distance between her and her abductor, there's often a lingering force that threatens to freeze her even beyond the practical things that slow her down.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Une sirène à Paris (A Mermaid in Paris)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, internet)

France doesn't quite produce a steady stream of movies like A Mermaid in Paris, but probably more than wind up making it to even boutique theaters in the United States. If it feels like there used to be more, when Jean-Pierre Jeunet was working steadily with his movies getting world-wide distribution and some adventurous distributors picking up both animated and live-action movies that had one foot in the surreal, that's likely because it's not easy, with most of them winding up like Mermaid - often on the wrong side of the border between cute and cutesy, featuring a French sense of humor that is hard to translate, and so focused on whimsy that it's light on everything else. It's the sort of film one looks at and wants to love only to find that doing so is a bit harder than it looks.

Taking place after a series of 2016 floods that are well-remembered in France but maybe not so much in the rest of the world, it initially introduces Gaspard Snow (Nicolas Duvauchelle), who spends his evenings singing in the semi-secret below-decks section of Flowerburger, the floating restaurant started by his grandmother and currently owned by his aging father (Tchéky Karyo), who has decided to sell despite the nostalgic Gaspard's objection. A couple regulars have disappeared lately, walking straight into the Seine because of some sort of siren call. Apparently, the floods have washed an injured mermaid up the river, whom Gaspard finds and tries to rescue. When she awakes in Gaspard's bathtub, Lula (Marilyn Lima) is shocked to see that he is apparently immune to her song, which generally causes men to fall so deeply in love with her that their hearts explode, and what neither realize is that while he tried to bring her to a hospital the previous night, her song was overheard by a young doctor (Alexis Michalik), and his scientist wife Milena (Romane Bohringer) is determine to discover what happened - and perhaps take revenge.

Director Mathias Malzieu is actually best known as a rock star, though he also became an author before he started adapting his stories into films, and Mermaid is a multimedia project as well, with both an album and a book coming out more or less simultaneously. I wonder a bit if it might work out better as an album where he can hit an emotional theme or event, play with it for a few minutes and not really worry too much about the nuts and bolts of how it fits together. The story here makes a certain amount of sense, but Malzieu and co-writer Stéphane Landowski cut a fair amount of corners, telling the audience about Gaspard's heartbreak but seldom showing it affecting his personality, or having him seemingly betray no curiosity about having met an actual mermaid until very late. That Lula has killed is something that the film seldom reckons with, other than it being an easy excuse to make Milena an antagonist, and while there's some interesting stuff going on with Lula never having been in a situation where she could love before and Gaspard's hardened heart, it's a metaphor that Malzieu and Landowski thoroughly lose track and control of by the end of the film..

Full review at eFilmCritic

Friday, August 28, 2020

Next Week in Virtual Tickets: Films sort of playing Boston 28 August 2020 - 3 September 2020

I'm pretty sure I'll be staying in this week, but a lot of places are opening, if you feel safe doing so.

I've got to say, though, for as much as I generally understand and more or less support the multiplex chains not wanting to touch things that are going to VOD on the same day, but you've got to think that in this specific circumstance, it's kind of weird that they won't play Bill & Ted Face the Music but will book three or four screens with stuff that is a $2.99 rental on Prime or free with ads on other services. I mean, practical matter, you can probably "fill" a few 30-person-capacity screens with that even if you're going to stand on principle most of the time.

  • Giving priority to the local/virtual places, The Coolidge Corner Theatre adds Epicentro, the new documentary from Hubert Sauper, to their screening room; it's an examination of Cuba in the post-colonial era, a history that aligns roughly with that of cinema itself. A live-streamed Q&A with the director is planned for next weekend. Another documentary, MR. SOUL!!, comes as part of the online screening series being put on by the Roxbury International Film Festival in lieu of an in-person event; it features Ellis Haizlip, who produced and hosted PBS variety show SOUL! from 1968 to 1973. Continuing virtual offerings include Coup 53, From Controversy to Cure, Jazz on a Summer's Day, I Used to Go Here, and John Lewis: Good Trouble.

    His Girl Friday is the subject of Thursday's Coolidge Education seminar, with the introduction and Thursday night Zoom discussion led by film critic Monica Castillo.
  • The Brattle Theatre has a big-ish week ahead, with three openings and two special events. First up is Ghost Tropic, a shot-on-film story about an immigrant cleaning woman who has to walk across Brussels to get home after falling asleep on the last train of the night, and meets the various people who populate the city at night. Closer to home, Moroni for President is a documentary about Moroni Benally, a gay academic running for President of the Navajo Nation, and others who are part of the campaign to become arguably the most powerful Native American in the country. They also have MR. SOUL!, and continue to screen Desert One, the restoration of Son of the White Mare, Represent, Jazz on a Summer's Day, Creem: America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine, and You Never Had It - An Evening with Bukowski.

    Both live-screening series they participate in have shows this weekend, with 36 Cinema showing My Lucky Stars at 9:15pm on Friday, with Scott Adkins, Frank Djeng, and Mustafah Shaikh providing commentary for the martial-arts comedy that features the legendary trio of Jakcie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yeun Biao. For those potentially looking to stay up late, Movie Night has 8pm & 11pm screenings on Friday and Saturday night of Fells Good Man, which follow artist Matt Furie attempting to reclaim his character Pepe the Frog from the alt-right trolls who have appropriated him. "Seats" are limited, and each show will
  • Landmark Theatres Kendall Square has re-opened with a full-ish slate, most notably The Personal History of David Copperfield, directed by Armando Iannucci and starring Dev Patel in the title role; it also plays Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, South Bay, and Revere.

    They also open Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, in which director Werner Herzog profiles the late travel writer, a longtime friend and collaborator, returning to many places that Chatwin was particularly fond of. Another documentary, The Mole Agent has a private investigator hiring an 83-year-old man to go undercover at a retirement home suspected of mistreating its residents, only to have him become involved in the lives of the residents.

    They also pick up Ethan Hawke in Michael Almereyda's Tesla, as well as Charlie Kaufman's new film, I'm Thinking of Ending Things. It's a Netflix film, so apparently Landmark isn't that scared of same-day VOD, although Bill & Ted will have to wait until their sister cinema in Waltham, the Embassy, fully re-opens on Thursday.
  • Other theaters are re-opening this weekend, including the Regal at Fenway and the Showcases in Revere and Chestnut Hill. The big new release is The New Mutants, the X-Men spinoff featuring Anya Taylor-Joy, Maisie Williams, Charlie Heaton, Blu Hunt, and Henry Zaga in an adaptation of one of the comics more horror-oriented stories. It's been sitting on the shelf for a couple of years, and is probably only getting a release now because it's a convenient dumping time for something which, contractually, can't be sent straight to VOD. It's at Boston Common (including Imax/Dolby Cinema), Fenway, the Seaport (including Icon-X), South Bay (including Imax), Revere (including XPlus), and Chestnut Hill.

    Extra screens are filled out with re-releases, including Raiders of the Lost Ark at Boston Common, Revere, and Chestnut Hill; all six Rocky movies at Boston Common, South Bay, and Revere; Back to the Future at Revere, Jurassic Park at Fenway and Revere; Spider-Man: Homecoming at Boston Common, Revere, and Chestnut Hill; Spider-Man: Far From Home at Boston Common and Fenway, Revere, and Chestnut Hill; Interstellar at Fenway; The Dark Knight Rises at Fenway; John Wick at Fenway; Wonder Woman at Fenway; BTS: Bring the Soul at Boston Common and Revere; and the whole Lord of the Rings Extended Edition set at Fenway. Revere also has The Ten Commandments on Sunday, anime feature Made in Abyss: Journey's Dawn on Monday, plus The Notebook and Spongebob the Movie: Sponge Out of Water on Tuesday,

    Christopher Nolan's Tenet doesn't official open until next Friday, but there are a bunch of "Early Access" screenings starting on Monday at West Newton, Kendall Square, the Embassy, Boston Common, Fenway, the Seaport, Chestnut Hill, and Revere
  • The Eight Hundred is the biggest success story so far of China's cinemas re-opening so far, and distancing requirements in individual theaters means it gets spread out a bit more. It comes from Mr. Six director Guan Hu and is another one of their epic war movies, this one telling the story of a small group trapped in a Shanghai warehouse in 1937, surrounded by the Japanese army. It's at Boston Common, the Seaport, and Revere.

    Revere also picks up Spanish comedy Father There is Only One 2, directed by and starring Santiago Segura.
  • The West Newton Cinema Is currently listing Inception, The Burnt Orange Heresy, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Casablanca, Motherless Brooklyn, and The Goonies as playing Friday and Saturday, no shows on Sunday, The Wizard of Oz on Tuesday and Wednesday, and is also opening Tenet on Monday. Presumably they've seen when they get business or are getting a fair number of private rentals. They are also offering curbside popcorn pre-orders for pick-up on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

    The Lexington Venue is taking it week-by-week, and will be closed this weekend, though they have Fatima scheduled to open on 4 September
  • The Somerville Theatre still has The Fight, Amulet, John Lewis: Good Trouble, the Quarantine Cat Film Fest, Pahokee, and Alice in their virtual screening room; ditto for The Capitol and "One Small Step" shorts, the Cat Film Fest, The Surrogate, and Heimat Is a Space in Time in their own virtual theater while still selling ice cream and snacks.
  • The Regent Theatre looks to be opening for some live events with "Rock Cats Rescue Presents The Amazing Acro-Cats" from Friday to Sunday, although Wednesday's "Bearly Dead" show is listed as a live-streamed show. They also still have links to WBCN and the American Revolution, Creem, What Doesn't Kill Us, and Reggae Boyz on their front page.
  • The Brattle, the Coolidge, and West Newton have all been offering relatively reasonable rentals for up to 20-ish people; you may have to dig through their websites or call them directly get quotes on rates, available slots, and what the rules on concessions and masking are.


I will be heads-down watching Fantasia screeners for most of the week, hoping to seamlessly transition to the virtual edition of New York Asian Film Festival afterward.

If you're not ready to go out, make sure to write to your representatives via Save Your Cinema, and check out Nightstream, the upcoming online festival put on by BUFF and other genre festivals around the country.

Fantasia 2020.07: Bleed with Me, Kriya, and Kakegurui

Been a while since I had one of those "can't write during the day but let's keep going until 2am" days, but that's where I was with Wednesday's movies, which had me behind anyway because I didn't get the Kakegurui link until late fairly late. Ah, well, there are some short days coming up, and maybe I won't overlap with NYAFF quite so much.

On the other hand, this does kind of get me back on the planned "watch movies during the day, write while watching baseball at night" schedule!

Bleed with Me

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

I reevaluate movies between watch and review all the time, often finding something that makes it at least a little more interesting with a little thought. For Bleed with Me, it got me from frustration with the ending to "yeah, well, I guess", which is good, because for most of the running time, I was pretty fond of this tight little thriller. I still am, actually, and I suspect those less bothered by certain plot devices will like it a whole lot.

It opens with Rowan (Lee Marshall) asleep in the back seat of a station wagon. She's not actually still a teenager, but kind of looks young and vulnerable. She's traveling to a cabin belonging to the family of co-worker Emily (Lauren Beatty) along with Emily's boyfriend Brendan (Aris Tyros). Brendan is initially none too thrilled about having a third wheel along, but Emily insisted, and he's been a pretty good boyfriend, helping out a lot as Emily recovered from an accident six months ago that still has her walking with a limp. It's looking like the under-the-weather Rowan might be spending a lot of the time in bed, and she's starting to suspect that Emily may be to blame, using the leftover painkillers she casually mentioned to keep her sedated.

Why? Well, more and more cuts keep appearing on her arm, and Rowan has spotted Emily with containers of blood when she thought Rowan couldn't see. Though Rowan doesn't have anyone she can confide it without sounding insane, there's a certain strange logic to it - Emily has a sort of strange, detached way about her, and Rowan had the first couple scars before she got there, so even if a body was found, it would be pretty easy to say there was no foul play. Writer/director Amelia Moses does a nice job of giving the audience time to construct this alongside Rowan without the customary need to stop and say things out loud, go back and forth about how it sounds silly, and the like. She just trusts the viewer to get in and go with it, rather than stepping forward and back to make sure one understands just exactly how unlikely it is.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Kriya

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 26 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

As I watched Kriya, I was somewhat reassured that the main character spends much of the movie in the same place I was as an audience member - extremely uncertain whether he was in the middle of something weird and creepy or just culturally outside his own experience. It's the sort of movie where that could very easily be misinterpreted, especially for someone for whom it is much further from the usual, but instead it's especially effective (although it does make me wonder how all the movies with various bits of Christian weirdness play to members of other cultures).

It opens in a club, where Neel (Noble Luke) and Sitara (Navjot Randhawa) catch each other's eyes. As they make out in Neel's car after his gig as DJ is done, Sitara feels uncomfortable about going further there, so they drive to her place - an unexpectedly large mansion - only to find that Sitara's father is laid out in the living room, apparently breathing his last, surrounded by her younger sister Sara (Kanak Bhardwaj), their mother Tara Devi (Avantika Akerkar), and a Panditji or wise man (Sudhanva Deshpande), nurse Magdali (Anuradha Majumder) off to the side. Neel isn't sure he should be there, and the mother agrees, but he also doesn't want to leave the distraught Sitara. Something feels badly off to him - shouldn't a family with this grand house have more friends and family here - but maybe that's just the unsettled feelings he has regarding the deaths of his own parents.

As is often the case with films this steeped in the specifics of another's culture, I'd be genuinely interested to hear from Hindus just how fast and loose this film plays with various traditions, although writer/director Sidharth Srinivasan has seemingly taken pains to note where this this "black funeral" diverges from the norm in order to invoke dark magic and attempts to break a curse through unholy means. Whatever the case may be, it does a really terrific job of placing the audience in Neel's place without making him a complete everyman placeholder. He's not in every scene, but it's close, and Noble Luke does an impressive slow-burn freakout as the film goes on. For a large chunk of the movie, there's almost an awareness that his situation could be darkly funny under slightly different circumstances, which Srinivasan and Luke are able to make things creepier - every time Neel tries to use the social awkwardness to escape, he gets pulled in a little deeper and finds himself a little more disturbed.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Eiga: Kakegurui

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 27 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

You do not actually need to have seen the 13 episodes of the Kakegurui television series to follow this film, which stars the same cast and appears to pick up where they leave off - there's a character whose primary purpose seems to be to get a new viewer up to speed - but it's probably useful to know that this is not a completely stand-alone film in order to temper one's expectations. There is some fairly inspired material here, but the audience can't get the entire picture.

As journalism club member Kyu Nitobe (Akira Onodera) informs us latecomers over the first fifteen minutes, Hyakkoah Academy is an elite school for children of the super-rich, but instead of focusing on academics or athletics, it is dedicated to gambling, under the premise that knowing when and how to bet and win big is the most important skill in business. Yumeka Jabami (Minami Hamabe) is a recent transfer student but one who has quickly risen through the ranks to become one of the school's most skilled and compulsive gamblers, quite possibly a rival to Student Council President Kiari Momobami (Elaiza Ikeda) herself. There are other threats to the Council's power - a group of students who have renounced gambling has formed The Village in an abandoned school building, with Jueri Arukibi (Haruka Fukuhara) its most public officer and Amane Murasame (Hio Miyazawa), said to have once bested Momobami herself, the mysterious leader; less high-minded vandals led by Tomo Inuhachi (Mariko Ito) destroying gaming tables - so she decides to hold a special election, in which students must gamble to vote and candidates play in pairs. Super-rich brat Itsuki Sumeragi (Ruka Matsuda) tries to recruit Yumeko to her team, but she decides to work with high-strung boyfriend Ryota Suzui (Mahiro Takasugi), while her friend Meari Saotome (Aoi Morikawa) teams with a Villager who still likes gambling a lot, Jun Kiwatari (Yuma Yamoto), while Jueri and Tomo form another team - and Murasame chooses to sit the election out.

That is a lot of characters, and it's pretty clear that there could have been even more, with the student council having some pretty colorful folks on the bench, a bunch of people Yumeko has defeated name-checked, and Nitobe kind of hanging around on the sidelines once his fifteen minutes or so of intense exposition at the start is done. On the other side, fans of the show can probably look through that description and spot the "guest star" pretty quickly. It makes that first stretch frantic and maybe dizzying for the newbies while likely being something the fans will fast-forward through, one of the busiest "previously on…" packages ever assembled. It's fairly effective for establishing the players, but leaves the whole set-up as something one definitely shouldn't examine too closely - is there any sort of faculty at this school, or classes, or is it all kind of self-directed, like Nitobe doing a sort of school paper thing? Why do the kids in The Village care about being expelled if they've got no interest in participating in the activity that is the school's reason for being? Just what sort of power do the "Life Plan" documents being thrown around have outside the academy's gates? There are some genuinely clever ideas at work here - the idea that captains of industry are being trained to treat the economy like a game rather than learn practical skills is both sociopathic and bitingly on-point satire, and there's a sort of lesson to how the game which takes up most of the film's second half requires a balance of skill and personal charisma - but, wow, does the premise as presented here have some big gaps to be filled in!

Full review at eFilmCritic

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Fantasia 2020.06: Unearth & Tezuka's Barbara

Not to argue marketing with film-industry professionals, but you put "a fracking horror movie" on your poster, I'm expecting something a little different than I got with Unearth, whether it's something a little tongue-in-cheek or something where the horror is a little more related to the subject matter, as with, say, Larry Fessenden's The Last Winter. I kind of liked the "dying farming town" material here, but it's drier than the tagline suggests and the movie takes a while to get there.

Still, I did enjoy Tezuka's Barbara a lot, especially since it felt like the director more or less disappeared after I saw Black Kiss at Fantasia 14 years ago (under the title "Syncronicity") and really liking it; I hoped he hadn't fallen away from cinema or been unable to escape his father's shadow. Macoto Tezka has seemed to do a fair amount for his father's estate since then, but this really does feel like his thing as well.

I'm actually mildly surprised I don't have a copy of Barbara on my shelf; I remember seeing it come out but as manga and graphic novels pile up, I sort of go on-again and off-again where buying Osamu Tezuka stuff is concerned. There's so much of it, and it's amazing to me that he died relatively young at 60, because his output is immense, and extends to television and film production as well as manga. The man was legitimately a giant.

Falling a bit behind, in part because I had a non-festival detour yesterday, but I hope to catch up tomorrow.

Unearth

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

There's a pretty good movie to be found in Unearth, but I am reasonably sure that it is not a horror movie, and trying to make this film into one does it a disservice. That's not a knock on horror as a genre or even saying that it's inappropriate for this setting; it's saying that the sudden turn in this movie's last act means that the filmmakers can't make the most of either what came before or the potential of what happens after.

It focuses on two neighbors in the small town of Silverthorn, Pennsylvania. Tom Dolan (P.J. Marshall) has recently lost his father Joe, who ran the family farm with Tom's mother Kathryn (Adrienne Barbeau). He has no children of his own, but wife Aubrey (Monica Wyche) has a daughter, Christina (Allison McAtee), who had been largely responsible for looking after Joe in his decline, learning a great deal about the farm, although her passion is photography. George Lomack (Marc Blucas) is a mechanic, though he inherited a fair amount of farmland from his late wife. His older daughter Heather (Rachel McKeon) is at college on scholarship, while younger daughter Kim (Brooke Sorenson) is returning to highschool after having had a baby. Both are seeing their fortunes squeezed - the Dolans had to sell off the cattle for their dairy operations, and locals are going to a chain for their inspections - and while Kathryn thinks they should merge their land, a natural gas exploration firm has come with offers.

Unearth is 94 minutes long and it is an hour in before there's any hint of something supernatural or paranormal going on, but that is not a particular weakness. Though many films about farming communities or families in decline focus on how small farms are squeezed by big business - and the script certainly makes reference to that - writers Kelsey Goldberg and John C. Lyons have a stronger focus on how they can crumble from the inside, as generations regard each other with suspicion and disagree about how to handle challenges they don't understand. Kathryn doesn't trust her son to handle her husband's legacy, George and Tom cannot adapt to a changing world, and the young women are sensible but lack the resources to venture out on their own. Directors Lyons and Dorota Swies do fine work in steadily operating the crank that grinds these people down, and how they are caught in a process that they were not given the tools to manage.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Barubora (Tezuka's Barbara)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

After some nifty animated titles, Tezuka's Barbara opens with a gorgeous blue-tinged view of Tokyo courtesy of Christopher Doyle, a jazzy soundtrack from Ichiko Hashimoto, and a great noirish bit of narration that screenwriter Hisako Kurosawa may or may not have brought over straight from manga/anime legend Osamu Tezuka's original work. It's an incredibly promising start for a film that winds up a bit all over the place, but at least that seems to be in the tradition of the original graphic novel and maybe this handles it a bit better.

"A woman like the city's excrement of millions it swallowed and digested - that was Barbara." She's a homeless girl that writer Yosuke Mikura (Goro Inagaki) encounters on the way home one evening, taking an interest as she drunkenly recites poetry and says she's heard of him, although she's blunt about how the novels that have made him rich are simple, middlebrow literature at best. He kicks her out after she gets mouthier and starts drinking his 50-year-old single malt, but soon encounters her again. He should perhaps be wary - as he grows more obsessed, Barbara (Fumi Nikaido) seems to supernaturally eliminate those she considers threats, and he's not the first person to have seen her as a muse.

Though manga-ka Osamu Tezuka created a number of more adult-skewing works, he is likely best known as the creator of Astro Boy, and even his more horrific works share that strikingly clean style, while son Macoto's films have often been grimy, noirish things. Macoto has said that Barbara was the piece of his father's work he feels most in sync with artistically, but bridging the two visions takes a fair amount of work. Happily, the filmmakers have put together a really terrific crew to make it happen, with Doyle (and Kubbie Tsoi) contributing beautiful shots that nevertheless feel icy, a mood matched by Hashimoto's soundtrack that feels like it harkens back to a different period's sort of movie. The production design departments along with costume, makeup, and the like create striking looks that are heightened but just far enough that it's easy to slip in and out of the more apparently fantastical moments. It's not perfect - there's one character where the attempt to capture her hairstyle or headwear had me thinking "what is that?" whenever she was on screen - but it's an impressive job of adapting someone whose style was not designed for live action in the slightest.

(Apropos of nothing, the English-language posters which have the names of the father and son side-by-side transliterate them differently, "Osamu Tezuka" versus "Macoto Tezka", whether to downplay the family connection or heighten how the son is noteworthy on his own.)

Full review at eFilmCritic

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Fantasia 2020.05: The International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase & Detention (2019)

Huh. It is genuinely weird to have the sci-fi shorts done the next day and not exactly be falling behind as a result. I mean, sure, I did only watch the one thing after that, but Detention was so darn good that it immediately shot up to my favorite of the festival: Horror for teenagers that has something to say in the strongest possible terms.

As for the shorts - lots of AIs in one form or another here, and I kind of wonder what that means - is it just which short films were the best of the submissions, or is it a sort of inevitable thing that is probably going to affect daily life sooner than we think but which we don't talk about much? Microsoft advertises AI these days, but as a software feature rather than something which might approximate a person, and I wonder if this slate is people saying that we're awful close to things that previous science fiction said was far off.

Also, +5 bonus points to "Skywatch" for pneumatic tubes.

"Toto"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, Vimeo via Roku)

The first thing that came up when I typed "Toto" into the IMDB search bar was My Neighbor Totoro, and while it's not a true match, it is the sort of thing that makes a person stop and think about it a bit. It's obviously not a direct influence but there's a good chance Miyazaki is in the back of filmmaker Marco Baldonado's head somewhere.

His "Toto" is a seven-foot tall robot that is round in every dimension and is delivered to Rosa (Rosa Forlano), a 90-ish Nonna living on her own. She's businesslike in activating it and teaching it to assist her with making homemade spaghetti and sauce, something which granddaughter Santina (Gabriela Francis) has no interest in when she arrives to visit for an afternoon. Eventually it needs a charge and suggests an upgrade, which Santina handles while Rosa is asleep.

Toto comes back a bit different, but not in a really dangerous way, but in a way that's kind of disappointing; Rosa's no luddite but wants to be comfortable and appreciated, something you can see in the taped up remote control she uses when watching TV and the way she has trouble connecting with the next generations who don't speak Italian. She wanted an invisible, simple tool to get through to Santina, and she's more interested in that than the result.

Forlano is, as one might expect, Baldonado's real-life grandmother, and odds are there was a lot of "be yourself", shrugging at the absurdity of being herself in that situation, a spaghetti dinners for the crew on the set. Like a gentler Mihyazaki film, there's not a lot of tension and plot here, but a great deal of clear-eyed affection.

"Doppelbänger"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, Vimeo via Roku)

Sofian Khan does a nice job of ruminating on the future in "Doppelbänger" in part because he starts it off with something happening - a very realistic "Doppel" robot (Annapurna Sriram) crashing mid-orgasm, which makes things tricky for George (Gibson Frazier) right away, as George has no idea how to fix it, the rental was supposed to be anonymous, and his own Doppel has arrived home from work early. There's a plot, but it's simple enough to fill 15 minutes and be resolved with tech talk that makes just enough sense to ignore while Khan lets Frazier and Sriram chat.

They chat about how AIs like their Doppels are proving more and more able to fill every human job more efficiently, but not in a way that feels more like exposition than two people genuinely concerned with the effect on their lives. They've got enough chemistry together that this could lead to something but it's also played as quick and fraught enough that it might not. The two stars do nice work thawing out just enough over this span, and none of the science-fictional material gets in their way.

The film does kind of feel like it's got the wrong ending - like Khan was a little too concerned about leaving the audience hanging or not giving George-2 something to do and skewed the mood a bit. Still, it gets most right, and it's a nifty bit of work that feels natural without feeling too much like a documentarian trying to make science fiction fit the same beats.

"Swipe Up, Vivian!"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, Vimeo via Roku)

The best gags in "Swipe Up, Vivian!" probably come from the exclamation point in the title and how it describes the alarmingly aggressive user interface of dating app "Bliss" (Desiree Stables), which not only bullies agoraphobic astrology blogger Vivian (Emily Marso) into using it but really doesn't make it easy to just passively absorb what Vivian can about match Katrina (Mary Williamson) rather than linking them up for immediately holographic communication. Writer Addison Heinmann and director Hannah Welever get the absolute most out of the comic jumps it causes without actually hammering on how tomorrow's forcefulness reflects how apps already make their money by getting their users to engage more, right freakin' now.

The other half of the story could maybe use a little work. The emptiness of the curfewed streets below Vivian's apartments doesn't speak to how people fear for their lives so much as an oppressive police state, which the film doesn't have time to get into. Mostly, though, there's something just off about how Katrina is written; she's almost as pushy as Bliss itself, and while it sort of makes sense that someone who joined themselves rather than having her sister sign her up, there's not exactly enough time to convince the audience that Vivian might like pushy, at least a little.

Everyone involved makes a good enough effort that this is a frequently very funny short, and maybe that big issue is something that doesn't play as quite so questionable to audiences closer in age to the twenty-something characters the way it does to this viewer's middle-aged, slow-adopting self.

"Skywatch"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 24 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, Vimeo via Roku)

People make short films for a lot of reasons, but "Skywatch" certainly looks like a pitch reel, pure and simple, from the slick effects to the sting at the end which says not only that there's a lot of story to tell but that there's already one star interested in being a part of it. Respect to it, though - it kicks off with a fun story about "NexPort" deliveries being rerouted by a pair of mostly-harmless teenagers (Uriah Shelton & Zach Callison) that could go a bunch of places, chooses one, raises the stakes and then sets up a good premise for a movie.

The visual effects and action are, at times, a bit frenzied, but it works for the set-up, with kids who have had reason to get a bit cocky winding up over their heads and not knowing what the heck to do once they wind up in the middle of actual violence. I've often been skeptical about the idea that we'll ever actually see the fleets of multicopter drones doing deliveries that filmmaker Colin Levy's effects team fills the sky with, but I dig the way that this future has retrofitted every building with a series of pneumatic tubes which is just delightfully retro but also serves as a reminder that in this world, the Amazon surrogate has successfully tunneled its way into everybody's homes. It's a very well-done combination of cool and unnerving throughout.

I don't know whether this short is going to convince any studio to spend tens of millions of dollars, or even if a feature version would get me to spend twenty. It's got the right pieces, though, and just enough to be enjoyable on its own.

"Tu último día en la tierra" ("Your Last Day on Earth")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, Vimeo via Roku)

There's not really any bit of "Your Last Day on Earth" that isn't kind of ridiculous, but filmmaker Marc Martínez Jordán does an impressive job of leaning in on that. It looks like he's got a budget of a hundred bucks and embraces that by just using whatever's at hand and winking at the audience about how kitschy this sort of low-budget filmmaking can be, and there are some very good laughs to be had from that. The trick he pulls off, which is actually quite clever, is to make it come off as desperation. What we see on screen is probably not literally what is going on in the world of the story, but its fakeness speaks to how badly the main character wants to believe in the situation, even if it makes no sense.

It's a technique that kind of leaves one without a whole lot else to say about the film, aside from how hard I laughed at "incredibly well-hidden bombs". Everything keeps looping back to that central trick aside from maybe the one-last-thing reveal, and it generally works in retrospect. I'm not quite sure where the "too silly/just silly enough" line is for all these different bits, but it's a really neat trick that Jordán manages to stay on the right side just about every time.

"Carmentis"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, Vimeo via Roku)

I'd kind of like to see what this one sounds like in a theater or on headphones, or maybe I need to adjust my receiver, because the sound seemed kind of wonky on my Roku, but just enough so that I thought maybe it was meant to be that way, like the AI in the main character's environment suit was speaking through a kind of busted speaker. Probably not, and I probably wasn't meant to strain to hear what it said.

Aside from that, this is a fair enough take on the "stranded but determined man tries to make it to safety despite injury" short. The visuals are nicely built, Ben Mortley does a nice job in what's basically a one-man show, and the eclipse makes for a good ticking clock. It's a little dry - there's usually something of a problem-solving component to this sort of story, and "Carmentis" doesn't really have that, more or less entirely about pushing through. It's got the flashbacks to the far-off love, the standard bit where Mac tells the AI to stop giving him warnings, all that. There's a nifty visual effects sequence that may be a bit about accepting that you are only around for a while, but it doesn't really mesh with the rest of the short. Still, it's a fairly decent version of this particular standard, good enough to see what filmmaker Antony Webb can do with a bigger canvas.

"Fall Out"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, Vimeo via Roku)

The South Korean entry in this International showcase is South Korean as heck, kind of vicious in how it pulls no punches with either its satiric intent or its violent intensity. It gives the audience a family whose town has been barricaded since a nuclear accident 500-plus days ago, radiation burns festering, having to quickly rebound from trying to keep safe during the latest "exothermic event" to recovering the really insufficient amount of ice they are allotted every week.

Filmmaker Chung Jae-hoon really does a nice job of digging into how tempershave frayed even as people have somehow adapted to this as normal over the previous 16 months, with an underlying premise that the people in power will screw you over in any way that they can not so much out of malice as indifference (why waste good money keeping this town alive?). Teenager Hyo-Jin (Lee Ji-Won) is the hero of the piece, mostly, but the most memorable performance comes from Song Ah-Young as her mother, who takes on a frightening intensity when Hyo-Jin discovers that their situation is even less fair than they thought, leading to a series of nasty confrontations that become all the more bitter as another surge briefly sends the temperature up to 50 Celsius.

"Fall Out" is an uncompromisingly mean little movie that strips out the possibility for hope that even most dystopian stories have, but is no less compelling as it fights for those last scraps.

"Ligea Mare"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: International Science-Fiction Short Film Showcase, Vimeo via Roku)

"Ligea Mare" connects enough sci-fi tropes that I'm not sure whether it would be better off cut down a bit or expanded to feature length, but filmmaker Adam Zimney at least seems to be looking in the right direction most of the time. There are a lot of nifty little bits to it, and I kind of wonder where he'd go with his ideas with more room.

Sure, the set-up is kind of doomed - ruthless company uses androids that, because of their memory implants, don't really know they're not actually human ot work a base near a methane lake on Saturn's moon Titan, monitoring and experimenting to see if they can make a breakthrough but pulling back once an AI displays some actual initiative. There's no way this ends well! And it's not going to here, at least as "Lilli" develops into a superintelligence, but the getting there is the fun part, even if you know all the twists and reversals by heart.

At its very best, the film fascinates with how its cast captures these intelligences - Jasmina Al Zihairi's Lilli and Daniel Gawlowski's Max both have an intriguing mix of being adult and kind of child-like, memories not entirely making up for how their minds just aren't as complex as those of humans, yet. The pair do a nice job of making them not quite human but not so far off as to be unrecognizable, while the story emphasizes just how this gives humans a chance to see them as disposable and resetable.

But, pro-tip - when you see an artificial intelligence watching video of a colony of ants working together with fascination, it's time to cut and run.

Fanxiao (Detention '19)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

Sometimes you know within a couple minutes that a movie is going to be the good stuff, and that's the case with Detention, which makes its case in striking fashion in the opening and never loses sight of that original target, delivering plenty of scares and style as the film goes on.

The setting is 1962 Taiwan; the country is every bit the dictatorship that Communist China is, with all books containing "leftist thoughts" banned. Nevertheless, there's a "book club" at Greenwood High school that meets in a storage room and not only reads banned books but copies them; it's run by Miss Yin (Cecilia Choi Si-Wan) and Mister Zhang (Fu Meng-Po), counting students such as the confident Wei Chong-Ting (Tseng Chin-Hua) and more easily shaken Sheng (Pan Chin-Yu) as members. Fang Ray-Shin (Gingle Wang Ching) is not a part of it, but when the honors student wakes up from having fallen asleep in a classroom, she's alone in the school with Wei - and not only does it seem like something terrible has happened, but all lines of escape and communication have been cut off. And that's before they see that something paranormal might have been responsible.

The opening scenes of Detention are particularly striking for how they set the tone, with pervasive government announcements militarism, framing the early scenes as propaganda posters, including one with the kids entering school where the boys in military outfits enter on one side of the "instructor" meant to keep everybody in line and the girls on the other, their school clothes more like those of the present day but strikingly uniform down to the hairstyle. Even when the screen is meant to be cluttered rather than precisely set out, or when the characters are in a place of presumed safety, authority and control are not that far behind It's something inescapable that cranks the tension up just a little more as Fang and Wei try to find their way to safety, as well as during the plentiful flashbacks.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Monday, August 24, 2020

Fantasia 2020.04: Baby: The Secret Diary of a Mom to Be

Like I mentioned yesterday, sometimes it's hard to get screeners on the weekend, and that's before I took a large chunk of the day writing up shorts and then deciding that I was going to do my usual Sunday crosswords for a couple hours or so. A bummer, because the one movie I watched turned out to be a bit of a minor disappointment. Secret Diary of a Mom to Be isn't bad, but it's not as good as Jody Luk's first film and just generally feels like it should be better if she wasn't playing straight down the middle so often but instead went for the bigger laugh or odder circumstance more often.

Ah, well. No baseball tonight so plenty of time for the stuff already being lined up.

Baby: The Secret Diary of a Mom to Be

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

It's probably not a great sign that the bits that caught my attention in The Secret Diary of a Mom to Be weren't really anything to do with the story but random things I didn't know about life in Hong Kong, like how professional athletes don't make a lot of money and how one of the things they ask at your job interview is your preferred method for entering Chinese characters into a computer. It's a sign of how observant she is and how she's able to spin a movie out of little things, but it would be nice if the material at the center was as interesting as the stuff at the edges.

That center contains Carmen Yau (Dada Chan Ching), a PR manager at a Hong Kong sports stadium, and her husband Oscar Ching (Kevin Chu Kam-Yin), star of the basketball team that plays there. Carmen is up for a promotion to manage the company's facility in Vietnam, and doesn't figure anything will stand in the way - though all of her best friends are either pregnant or recent mothers, she's got a highly irregular period that makes conception very unlikely. But not, it turns out, impossible, and while her friends and co-workers are thrilled for her, she's not close to sure, especially once mother-in-law Margaret (Candice Yu On-On) finds out, bringing her friend Tam Yuk-Wing (Louis Cheung Kai-Chung), a popular childbirth consultant, in to help manage her pregnancy.

Margaret and Tam aren't the only people who feel free to make decisions for Carmen once they find out she's pregnant, and it's the seed for a potentially interesting story, as is Oscar feeling that he's got to become the family breadwinner now but not really equipped for it. Writer/director Jody Luk Yi-Sam doesn't exactly have much of a story lined up here, though - Carmen's job recedes into the background, Oscar picks up a new group of expecting/recent father friends ("Baba Club") to match Carmen's besties, and the movie becomes something of a split hangout picture with occasional bits of the couple together grousing about how the other doesn't understand. Eventually there's an well-worn suspected-infidelity plot to bring things to a climax that even the characters don't seem to believe in.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Fantasia 2020.03: Monster Seafood Wars, Circo Animato, and Class Action Park

How is Fantasia 2020 different than all the others for me, aside from the obvious? Well, almost all of the screeners for movies playing these two days need to be requested from a third party other than the festival, but I'm not sure how many of the people involved were working the weekend(*), so this is one of the shortest Saturdays I've ever had at the fest and Sunday will likely be even shorter. On the other hand, it meant I could watch a shorts package and reviewing the whole thing did not put me behind by months, so there's that.

(*) Not at the festival; those guys are always running flat out for three weeks and there is no reason to believe that this year is any exception.

Anyway, it's looking like I might have some time to catch up on some of these, so we'll see how the rest of the week goes. I already had to circle around on a couple of the shorts, because I thought I'd put them on "Watch Later" so I could use the Roku, but no. Weird. There will be some things that don't match the schedule, but it works that way with the fest's in-person press screenings sometimes, too.

Anyway, enough about how the sausage is blogged, let's get back to the shorts - if you're in Canada, the "Circo Animato" package is exceptionally solid and the rest of us should hope some of these short films filter into other ways they can be seen. If I ran a theater, one of the things I would do is contact filmmakers of shorts like this directly and see if I could book them as before-movie feature, which is probably very difficult but would at least give my hypothetical theater something to stand out with. From this batch, I would definitely be talking to the makers of "The Weather Is Lovely" and "Wade", albeit to pair with very different films. I'm bummed that I'm missing out on the introductions and Q&As with the short packages this year, but everybody is going to have something to be proud of. Plus, I believe it's the first time I get to use "Croatia" as a tag on this blog (even if the short in question may be more Serbian than Croation)!

Last item on the day - a link was literally mailed to me as I was watching the shorts - is Class Action Park, which will apparently be on HBO Max at the end of the month. I gather that despite having both HBO and Cinemax in my cable package, I don't have that service, which is ridiculous and highlights why these massive companies should be naming their services after the movie studios rather than the TV brands, but at least it will be around for those who couldn't log in for this one. It's fun and horrifying!

Monster Seafood Wars

* * (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

Minoru Kawasaki has been making movies along the lines of Monster Seafood Wars for years if not decades, and though I've missed most of them, I get the impression that they've been just good enough and just profitable enough that he's been able to keep working and maybe upgrade his resources over that time. The movies haven't necessarily been good, per se, but they've apparently been consistent enough in quality and tone to get him a fanbase. This one's like that - not good, but he's got enough of a voice that it's kind of interesting.

It's a giant monster movie, with 50-meter tall sea creatures - an octopus, a squid, and eventually a crab - attacking the city and suspicion falling on Yuta Tanumu (Keisuke Ueda), who was bringing a basket with those three animals personally selected by his sushi-master father to the local shrine, as well as Setap-Z, the super-growth serum he helped to develop (at great expense) while at the Institute for Super Physical & Chemical Research. Japan quickly organizes a Seafood Monster Attack Team whose leader Hibiki (Ryo Kinomoto) recruits Yuta's childhood crush Nana Hoshiyama (Yoshina Ayano Christie) and ISPCR rival Hikoma (Yuya Asato), the latter of whom suggests they use bursts of rice vinegar to soften the molluscs up so they can be blasted with missiles.

The upshot of all this is that Takella the squid and Ikulla the octopus start dropping chunks of meat after that first battle which are incredibly delicious. It's a fun idea that pretty much everybody who has seen a giant monster movie has probably at least jokingly thought about, and it seems like like Kawasaki and co-writer Masakazu Migita have put a little thought into it (working, perhaps loosely, from a story by monster movie special effects legend Eiji Tsuburaya). Not a lot of thought, which is a shame; you can see the outlines of something cleverly satirical when you connect the offscreen marauding of giant monsters with meat only affordable for the wealthy - especially galling considering Yuta developed Steap-Z to help feed the hungry - but not only does it not really go anywhere, but the filmmakers just grind through the same exact bit what seems like ten times in a row, and it is dreadfully boring. I wouldn't be surprised if it was a little bit more fun for Japanese or J-phile audience who can spot cameos and parodies that others might miss, but if you're not getting that, it's a killer.

Full review at eFilmCritic

"Spinning Top"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

Shiva Momtahen's "Spinning Top" is produced by Iran's Documentary and Experimental Film Center and has a pleasant preserving-stories vibe to it even though it having it narrated by a little kid strips it of the usual nostalgia and gives it more of a boy's adventure feel as its young hero goes searching for his lost toy, eventually digging through a well of memories to find it. It's a choice that almost starts to grate but doesn't quite reach that point, no matter how rapid or circular that voice-over work gets. Momtahen finds the line between imagination and metaphor and straddles it expertly, letting the audience enjoy both sides.

It's a delight to look at, too, as the narrating boy is mostly presented as an extremely cute figure with classic cartoon proportions and design, centered on screen and framed by gorgeous borders that regularly shift into new configurations and dazzle with their colorful designs. It puts the purity of a child's imagination in the middle of something mythic, while the occasional shifts and transformations into a shaded, three-dimensional style are both playful and a bit of a shift into something more real. It doesn't quite make this story half-remembered, but does put it into memory.

"Kkum"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo)

Poking through credits, I see director Kim Kangmin worked on Dave Made a Maze, which kind of tracks; this is earnest and imaginative and built out of an unusual medium such that you never take the way it's made for granted but can still sink in and let Kim tell his story. It's a fascinating look - everything is made out of styrofoam and that gives it both the lightness of dreams and the solidity of reality. Everything here is surprisingly solid for being seemingly insubstantial.

Which is as it should be - it tells how the narrator's mother has constant dreams about her son and does a little digging into their interpretation but also how they spur her to action, whether in terms of prayer or something more concrete. Kim describes his mother's dreams as building a shield thousands of layers deep around him and it's a visual metaphor that works, especially as that shield is a silvery glow that matches the rest of the film's muted color scheme but also feels more solid even though it's a digital force field. Even as your eyes are examining the image, the idea is sinking in.

Plus, there are styrofoam insects getting splatted in a moment that is as delightfully goofy as it is sincere, and a brief but clever break in style around the birth of Kim's first child, as the world changes for him. It makes for a nifty short indeed.

"There Were Four of Us"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

Cassie Shao's "There Were Four of Us" is the sort of abstracted animation where I find myself wanting a little more context, because it's striking and personal and creates a heck of a mood in seven minutes. I just can't quite grasp where some of it is coming from.

I like the look of it, though, with the aggressively garish colors and shifting styles, taking place in a world that seems apocalyptic but that may just be how the characters see it. It dips down into something that is more literally dreams and self-reflection at times, eventually charting a physical and mental course that takes the narrator and viewer back to the start.

I get the feeling that this is the sort of art that reveals more as you stare longer and come back to it. It's got a good enough hook to make that happen, but a festival animation block may not be the best way to get there.

"Thin Blue Variety Show"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

There was a nifty thing that went on during the early days of this year's BLM protests, as actors appalled with the way law enforcement was attacking protesters donated the residuals they'd received from playing cops, and I don't know how much it lasted beyond that, but Gretta Wilson's "Thin Blue Variety Show" comes from the same place of looking at how media reinforces acceptance of bad police behavior and always has. It's sharp and angry, almost too much so to be described as black comedy, because even though everything has the look of jokes and parody, there's not a moment that isn't dead serious and full of conviction.

Stop motion can be tricky and time-consuming, so Wilson only manages three or four minutes, but they're packed and full of cleverness as she represents these characters by their costumes, presenting them as faceless puppets while the generic "perp" mannequin they abuse is nothing but face with no limbs to fight back. She uses MAD Magazine type stand-ins, but it's pointed enough that one can't watch the short without wondering how much of this "copaganda" has made its way into one's own head, right down to the closing statistics that sure look like they could finish an episode of Law & Order

"Genius Loci"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

Adrien Mérigeau puts a lot of characterization into "Genius Loci" in a relatively short bit of time - there is a lot going on with Reine (voice of Nadia Moussa), a young black woman who bristles at the close watch sister Mouna (voice of JIna Djemba) keeps on her, wanting to go out into the city, even as she finds it hostile to her and doesn't know exactly what she feels about white musician Rosie (voice of Georgia Cusack). Her body language, narration, and the way she sees the world sometimes tell different stories, but they all reinforce her as a fascinating character.

It's a lot, but sometimes life is a lot, and Mérigeau does some very nice work getting the audience inside Reine's head and doing the little-to-big changes that show just how things can run away from her. I like that sometimes it's not just a one-off issue but everything cumulatively that seems triggering for her, with memorable moments of her pausing, pulling back, and trying to get back on track, and how the world around her is beautiful but also kind of rough, both in how it's depicted and the actual conditions. It's an impressive case of the style representing the message without often getting too exaggerated.

"Reflexion"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

There must have been an incredibly fast turnaround on this one to have Alain Bidard's quarantine-inspired piece ready even for this delayed festival, and it almost feels retrofitted, like it started out as something else. For most of its running time, it feels like it's just a video chat about a pair of kids from different sides of the tracks in love with one afraid of how other people would act if they knew, with a bit of enforced isolation added to the end. It doesn't entirely feel like a last-minute twist, but certainly feels like it could have been.

It's an odd movie in other ways; the visual style with the exaggerated eyes contrasted with the hyper-detailed lip movements is a bit unnerving, right on the edge of the uncanny valley, and the whispered conversation takes a little strain to hear. It's an earnest but kind of mundane conversation realized with animation that can't do a lot to heighten it or focus on the most important points, the sort that feels like it might fare a lot better if Bidard just got a couple expressive young actors on Zoom and let them speak.

"Inside Blue"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

I love how quickly and wordlessly Chen Yi-Chien establishes the nervous pathology of "Inside Blue"'s main character, the need to have everything in its proper place that he brings tape to assign it even if it's not immediately obvious. It leads to a tormented but kind of funny bit of self-inflicted slapstick at times, even as the plaintive grunting on the soundtrack brings it just far enough into sympathetic rather than mocking territory.

I like the way Chen uses his digital tools as well; the style with any sort of anchored motion seeming too smoothing and the three-dimensionality being a bit exaggerated often comes across as fake or like the filmmakers just didn't have enough cycles to make it look more natural, but here it reads as hyper-awareness. I also love how nothing is allowed to be round and smooth, with every circular object rendered as an irregular pentagon or the like, not really sharp enough to be truly threatening but also not reassuring or comfortable. It reinforces how the world seemingly needs to be tamed even as both the audience and likely the character know that this is not the actual reality of things.

"Seoulsori"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo)

Kim Kyoung-bae's "Seoulsori" is the sort of three-minute short that feels like it must go a little longer for how much it does visually after initially seeming to be a bit still - Kim jumps from one image to another to the next without ever seeming to be jumping past anything. It's moving fast, but making each moment last just rough seconds that it lodges in the brain as something one was looking at for a while, enough that when elements return later it's got a little mental real estate. The upbeat but aggressive score by PEEJAY helps move it along too.

There's also something about how Kim goes hard against type that tickles a bit. It's a kid looking at a piece of art and being sucked in, but instead of amazement and awe he feels pure horror, and I find myself wondering why a bit - the piece he's looking at is fairly conventional, if a bit somber. Are the rest of the museum's displays pushing him into this, or is he just overpowered by the very idea that art can have this sort of effect on him that it frightens him? Maybe it's just kids sometimes being scared by things which seem totally innocuous to others, and filling the void with whatever they can imagine.

"The Weather Is Lovely"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

I wouldn't be shocked to see Lien Chun-Chien's "The Weather Is Lovely" showing up more post-Fantasia; it's a nifty adventure that's cheery and imaginative and has enough computing power thrown at it to compete with what American studios can do. Maybe it doesn't show up in the Oscar nominees, but it probably makes the "Highly Commended" section and is selected for various family-friendly short programs. It's mainstream in a good way and it's a shame that there's not much of a place for a general audience to become aware of things like this.

And it's charming as heck, as a curious meteorologist discovers a tool dropped by a cloud artist and is delighted, at least until it gets too much water and starts to spit out a massive waterspout. There's an opposites-attract thing going on that lets both of them still be really charming and pleasant, and feels a bit like an inverted Disney Princess set-up with the spunky lady scientist in the open and the guy from the magic cloud city nervously poking around.

There's little to no dialogue, but the characters are expressive, with Lien and co-writer Lee Pohan filling the screen with little details but not overwhelming it, and making the danger of the "villain" real but not entirely scary, finding a lot for both characters to do as well as a fun robot sidekick or two. I'd watch a series of this pair's adventures and want more.

"Peace & Love"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

Ah, the annual short film that is presented in French with no subtitles so I've got to figure out what's going on and how I feel about it just from the action.

I've kind of got no idea what was going on - a master and an apprentice are on a boat, they encounter another, there are some really aggressive fish, and a metamorphosis… Maybe the dialogue explains things, maybe it's just everybody saying "yeah, this is messed up". It's fun to watch, though, with everything extremely malleable and chaotic but with a lot of charm. It moves quickly and makes the chaos work for it, and you get an impression of the characters just from the way they hold themselves. Nice effects animation, too.

And on top of that, the last few seconds works as a punchline even for those of us who don't really know what the joke is, if only because it's an extremely well-timed gag.

"Florigami"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

"Florigami" is a straightforward but nifty little abstract bit of animation from director Iva Ćirić, the sort where you get what she's doing pretty quickly but marvel at both how nice it looks and how clearly it's presented. It features sprouts and vines trying to grow toward the sun, blocking and sometimes throttling each other, with one made to grab the audience's attention and seeming to have a little more agency even as the stronger vines block it. It's the sort of thing that looks like it just happened or was done algorithmically even though every frame was likely labored over.

A thing I dig about it is Ćirić finds a really nice spot where these plants feel just active enough that the audience can feel some sort of identification but, despite the bright white vine's buds which look kind of like eyestalks, they never get too anthropomorphized. Yeah, there's something we're supposed to get out of them and all, but they're still plants. It's a metaphor, not a fantasy.

"Wade"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

If the festival had a "short I would most like to see expanded to a feature" award, "Wade" would probably get my vote. Kalp Sanghvi and Upamanyu Bhattacharyya create a vision of a flooded Kolkata that not only impresses with its detail but pulses with anger, every corner not just showing the remnants of regular life but the sort of denial and xenophobia contributed to this mess in the first place. It picks up at a moment when people seem to be right on the edge of being able to handle their new normal but still finding things shifting.

It's a great-looking movie but seldom a pretty one; the tigers that move into the city are downright monstrous-looking and the pinholes the characters are given for eyes combine with characters' super-bronzed skin to suggest that the sun is pounding down even more than expected. It makes them feel like the walking dead even before the filmmakers really start loading up the hardships. They pile it on relentlessly but at a pace that creates tension more than frenzy, with plenty of genuine building horror.

I'm not saying it would be a fun feature, but it would be a memorable one with a strong point of view, even if it might be a hard sell.

"The Grave of St. Oran"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

Jim Batt's "The Grave of St. Oran" is adapted from a poem by Neil Gaiman with him providing narration, and it's an interesting little bit of history that I suspect Gaiman finds fascinating in part because there are unsettled pieces to it. Several times, he stops to say that maybe something else happened, or that history doesn't record that bit, but it doesn't really matter, because the totality of the story has a shape and is built around this bit they do know. It is the sort of thing that makes a story neither history nor myth but legend.

Batt embraces that, using a style that seems to come from the illustrations a contemporary monk might make for the story, limiting motion somewhat but not completely, repeating shots that suggest the two saints that landed on Iona were close friends. Though animated and set hundreds of years ago, these shots feel like photographs from a true-crime documentary, which fits, and also lets Batt slide all the easier into horror, both as Oran is buried alive and he begin to haunt the place. It's often a pretty simple visual, the sort that suggests there is something eerie about the place, if not a history of carnage.

"Eerie" seems to be what they're going for, if sometimes an arch and curious variation of it, and it generally works out fairly well.

Class Action Park

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, internet)

New Jersey's infamous Action Park is the sort of thing that, decades later, defies belief - it seems like it almost has to be parody that is exaggerated a little too much. But, no, it was a real thing and the makers of the documentary seem almost as stunned as the audience, spending an hour and a half saying "can you believe this?" in shocked surprise and not having to do much else.

They do start by giving a little background, discussing how 1970s stockbroker Gene Mulvihill was looking for something new to do after being banned from Wall Street and purchased a pair of ski resorts in Vernon, New Jersey, but also wanted to make money off them in the summer, which led to building one of the country's first water parks, with mountain slides and go karts as well. As one might imagine, Mulvihill was not one who cared much for rules, so he pushed to make the tracks more thrilling (despite very few involved actually knowing much about engineering) and hired as few minimum-wage teenagers as he could possibly get away with - all while creating a fake off-shore insurance company and using it to launder money. Surprisingly, the place would stay open for twenty years.

There is probably a nifty movie - dramatic or documentary - to be made that focuses more on Mulvihill and maybe uses the dangerous rides and lax supervision as punctuation or subplots, but it's hard to blame directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III for going the other direction - there's much more footage to work with and it makes for eye-opening television. Much of it comes from the 1980s, so it's a combination of home movies and VHS footage, and they lean into it for the general look of the film - the animations have a crude and hand-drawn look rather than being sophisticated CGI renderings of how all the physics works, and even the captions that label the participants often look like something that may have come from the local news during that period. It's nostalgic for those who lived through the period, although not ostentatiously so. It's what they've got to work with and they run with it.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Fantasia 2020.02: Dinner in America, Hunted, Cosmic Candy, and "You Wouldn't Understand"

Would you believe me if I said The Undertaker's Home isn't included here because I was trying to emulate the festival experience and I would have been in de Seve watching Dinner in America while it played in Hall so that doesn't ring true? No? Is it because I clearly would have been in the other room because the subject matter would have been more my speed even if Dinner had actors I like?

Well, it would be fun to say, but I don't necessarily have the room to be clever like that. It turns out that Dinner in America is not necessarily a bad movie but it is very much a not-for-me one, although it likely would have found its way onto my dance card during a normal fest for the same reason it did here: I'm going to try and max out my time with as many movies as possible, and maybe only give the program a cursory glance early on so that I'm not 100% sure what I'm getting into as I sit down. I'm probably doing that a little bit more here than I would in Montreal, since I'm not carrying around the big paperback program which I like flipping through a lot more than the website. But I'm also just kind of taking the screeners as they come.

Hunted, on the other hand, turns out to definitely be my thing, especially now that I'm probably a little more aware of how Little Red Riding Hood probably resonates a lot more with women's experiences than I was when I noted that something like three or four entries in a short women's horror program referenced it. The star is actually wearing a red hoodie through much of the movie, but it's also tons of fun when you get down into the details, including a bunch that were too fun to put in the review because of the surprise (though I will say that the blue paint goes from "wait, what?" to "that's kind of perfect" in about two seconds). I also really dug Cosmic Candy along the same lines - it's another simple story told well with sharp details.

And then, finally, we looped back around to "You Wouldn't Understand", which I gather played before Dinner in America if you watched it via the livestream. It's a nifty little short that hits a really specific mood better than a lot of jokier attempts to do so, and I'm looking forward to having a little time to dig further into what the group has posted on YouTube.

Dinner in America

* * (out of four)
Seen 20 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, internet)

Sometimes there's a thin line between characters who are difficult and abrasive but interesting and characters you just plain hate. Sometimes it's not necessarily thin, but it just seems to take forever to reach the point where you can see it and maybe get something out of it. Dinner in America is in the second category, but by the time I realized that I found it hard to give it the proper credit. It spends so much time being nasty and charmless that it is hard to take its better impulses seriously.

We first meet Simon (Kyle Gallner) puking as he takes part in a drug study which is going about as well for Beth (Hannah Marks). They're booted out, and she invites him over to her place for Sunday dinner, which goes about as well, with him burning some bridges and other items on the way out. Elsewhere in Detroit, mousy 20-year-old Patty (Emily Skeggs) is being bullied on the bus and at work, with her parents saying she can't go to a concert on Friday night. She spots Simon as he's dealing some drugs and running from the cops, and he decides to hide out at her place for a while, although he's got a whole list of things he's got to do while she's looking for a new job.

Simon is a miserable little jackass, and while writer/director Adam Rehmeier will occasionally toss in something to make him seem a bit more sympathetic, but almost every bit of it is just targeting his violence at people the audience disapproves of more, and even his eventual opening up to Patty is selfish, like he can't see her having value until it's revealed that she has talent directly related to his own interests. It could be a moment of growth, but he's not given much of a chance to show he's a better person in general. He's the sort of petulant punk-rocker who's got nothing but anger and violence most of the time, and while it's energetic and entertaining at moments, it can wear on a viewer.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Hunted (2020)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, internet)

Most moviegoers don't see that many movies like Hunted, but if you go to genre festivals or spend a lot of time digging through your favorite streaming services to find the new selections, it gets categorized: Survival horror, nature, woman on the run, etc. What makes one of those stand out? A couple good performances. Some visual style. And a willingness to go kind of crazy at the point where the audience might be expecting the filmmakers to coast.

It starts in familiar-enough fashion - a fairy tale allusion, a woman frustrated at work who goes out to a bar to blow off some steam, and a guy who initially seems nice enough but shows his true colors quickly. Soon enough Eve (Lucie Debay) is stuffed in a trunk, but able to flee her kidnappers (Arieh Worthalter & Ciaran O'Brien) thanks to a freak accident. They are never that far behind, though the woods are full of surprises.

Writer/director Vincent Paronnaud is likely best-known internationally as Marjane Satrapi's collaborator on the film version of Persepolis, and he's spent much of the rest of his career in comics and animation, so it's not exactly a surprise when the bit before the opening title includes a nifty bit of animation that is nevertheless well-enough matched to the rest of the movie that it doesn't feel like it doesn't belong. It's quickly contrasted with a moment or two of grainy-video shot in less than great lighting, and that's a bit of a preview of what's going to happen throughout the movie: Every time Eve is able to put a little bit of distance between herself and her pursuers, the forest scene takes on a bit of a fairy-tale quality, albeit as much Grimm as Disney, while there's a flatness to the guys' scenes, maybe a slight washing-out, like they're living in the violent constructed fantasy meant to be captured on camera.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Cosmic Candy

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

It took me a bit of time to reset my brain for how off-kilter Cosmic Candy is, and the funny part is that because I saw it via this festival and consume a fair amount of fantastical material anyway, I had to adjust it downard. It's trippy at the start but things didn't click into place until I realized that it didn't take place in a world where hallucinogenic confections make it to supermarket shelves, but one where things get plenty weird and interesting on their own.

So that piece at the start where Anna Pilarinou (Maria Kitsou) seems to fly into space from the liquor aisle of the supermarket where she works is just a dream, one from which she is wakened by Persa (Magia Pipera), the ten-year-old next door, loudly practicing her lines for the Independence Day school play. That may not be an issue for very long; the other residents of the building are circulating a petition to kick Persa's father (Dimitris Lalos) out, what with them being behind on the rent, attracting suspicious characters, and being generally weird. Of course, Anna is a bit of a mess herself, probably kept on at the shop because her late father was the best friend of proprietor Yannis (Fotis Thomaidis) and apparently suffering from some sort of compulsive behavior. But when Persa's father disappears and the landlord changes the locks, she can't bring herself to push the girl in front of her door away.

It takes a while for director Rinio Dragasaki and her co-writer Katerina Kaklamani to really start digging into the reason why Anna is the way she is, if that's what they actually do - for all that viewers may wisely nod at understanding why she's a lousy supermarket clerk clinging to certain things despite apparently owning a very nice apartment outright, the filmmakers leave the exact extent to which it is cause and effect up to viewers. Similarly, there's almost no time spent on exactly why Persa's father needs to run and hide; the two learn just enough about each other to recognize a bit of themselves, but the story keeps their backstories fuzzy enough that the film can't really lead to them confronting the past as opposed to deciding on a present and future.

Full review at eFilmCritic

"You Wouldn't Understand"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

The fun of "You Wouldn't Understand" is that it never quite makes sense, but always feels like the piece that would make everything fall into place is just around the corner. It starts with a man (Anthony Arkin) having himself a tastefully-elaborate solo picnic, seeing something odd in the distance, and then having one of the folks he sees (Jacob A. Ware) approach and ask for some "horsey sauce" but dissemble just enough to make it weird before things start getting truly strange. From there, things seem to get even more bizarrely random.

But… not quite. I don't know whether director Trish Harnetiaux and co-writer/co-star Jacob A. Ware have mapped out what's really going on to the point where the film is actually tight and self-consistent if you know all the background, but they've built something just steady enough that they can throw in a bunch of science-fiction tropes and have the viewers both feel like they have seen this bit and understand it enough to get by but also sympathize with Anthony Arkin's bemused observer and get the feeling that this is what suddenly finding yourself in a sci-fi situation where the underpinnings of reality are being kicked out. Or, hey, living in a world where something that should be a really big deal gets tweeted out every ten minutes but the cumulative effect is kind of numbing, if you have to align it with the real world.

Not that there's much effort to do that, and indeed, Harnetiaux and company do a nifty job of mixing the comfortable with the unusual; all the white in the wardrobe and other spots marks things as specifically otherworldly, though there's a sort of comforting normalcy about the setting, even if it does seem like it's designed as an idealized early-twentieth-century. The two actors strike this balance extremely well too; Anthony Arkin has a reassuringly grounded nature even as he gets pulled into the weird here while Ware has a wide-eyed beaky presence that suggests a lot of times through the scenario has not exactly driven him mad but made him care very little about appearing sane.

It's kind of odd to apply the "it only felt like…" line to shorts, but it's amusingly true here - this ten-minute movie comes together well enough to only feel like five, never hitting a snag despite having a whole lot of ideas to fit in and move through. Arkin probably has a hand in that as editor, although it goes to show just how well Harnetiaux and the rest of this "Steel Drum in Space" team works together. I'm not sure I've ever been inspired to follow a YouTube channel from a festival short before, but this is certainly a group I'll keep an eye on.