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.

yle Gallner is kind of fun to watch in the role, at least; he spends almost the entire movie not quite bug-eyed but with that sort of intensity either on display or obviously just under the surface, always ready to pull out an arch variation that indicates he's got a brain behind the bile, and even on occasion showing a bit of humanity. It's a broad performance but not a bad one. Emily Skeggs doesn't quite gel with him as Patty, but it may be more about Rehmeier not having the same handle on her than he does on Simon than any shortcoming of Skeggs's; she pulls off the necessary blank and uncomprehending stare that comes from a too-sheltered upbringing without looking stupid, which is no mean feat, while also occasionally bringing out frustration that there's more in her head than her folks have prepared her for

One almost wonders at times if the script started with Patty in high school only to be revised older, but not everything made it all the way, and it wouldn't really be surprising; it's a script full of moments and characters who are strong and well-crafted for single scenes or sequences but which don't stretch that much further. Sometimes that works out pretty well - the quick hits of black comedy work, and it occasionally gives a "guest star" like Lea Thompson or Hannah Marks the chance to be memorable without holding back. That the film seldom stops to explain people's backgrounds can be a bit of a double-edged sword; it doesn't slow things down artificially but can sometimes make things seem random, or has Rehmeier losing track of the line between the bits that seem real and the ones which are meant to be heightened.

Rehmeier brings enough scrappy energy to the movie that it's entirely possible I'm judging it harshly for doing a bunch of things that I generally don't care for - I've got spectacularly little patience for movies where someone being a talented musician is meant to excuse his being a turd as a person and baseline assumptions that families are all stuck with each other and kind of miserable about it, and this one has a lot of both. It's designed to rub me the wrong way, but even given that, it's enough of a battle between nastily clever and boringly nasty that those things can easily push a viewer one way or the other.

Dead(?) link to original 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.

The violent nature of that means Lucie Debay is going to be spending a lot of the movie running, being afraid, and looking more worn-down as things go on, which could be fairly thankless, but she never gives a half-effort, especially considering that Paronnaud and co-writer Léa Pernollet have her start from a place of having a chip on her shoulder from people wanting the impossible at work rather than having her ever be surprised that any man can be like this. It is fun to see her suddenly redirect all of that into rage when she gets her hands on a nice, solid stick to swing, though, and I also want to compliment the hairstylists who give her a cut that lets her catch the camera's eye in early scenes, tagging her as confident and savvy, but degrades exceptionally well over the course of the film.

Opposite her, Arieh Worthalter seems to be having a lot more fun, doing a great turn from gallant to downright nasty without it being a showy mask-drop, and then happily chewing the scenery for the rest of the film because his guy (credited as just "The Guy") is just completely unhinged. For much of the film, he's given Ciaran O'Brien as a sidekick to abuse, and while his part is less showy, he does a good job of playing the put-upon beta without ever becoming more than nominally sympathetic. His job is to give Worthalter's guy an audience to perform to and otherwise remind the audience about this man's need to dominate even when Eve is far off, but it's a pairing that works.

It plays into a tiny scene that demonstrates how Paronnaud is bringing a little something extra in terms of skill to this bit of VOD fodder, as Worthalter opens a candy bar and casually chucks the wrapper into a nearby stream. The camera tracks it a bit until it passes Eve, and in that moment the audience gets a little more on edge, because the way that shot works establishes that she is moving toward her would-be rapists, rather than away. But it also seems calculated to anger even a jaded viewer who has watched hundreds of these chases, because the guy is freakin' littering. It's silly, but the different form of callousness of it works. There's another bit later when the filmmakers start messing around with things happening out of order, and it feels fair because there's a bit of a warning in it, and it also makes a natural lead-in to how crazy the last act will get.

Which is impressive, because for all that stuff like that candy wrapper was making the film feel fairly tight, the homestretch has at least three crazy things that come out of nowhere and send the chase off in a new direction, often in such an absurd way as to elicit a cackle or a delighted "what!?" It's an impressively go-for-broke set of bits that works because Paronnaud hasn't entirely forgotten what got him there in terms of style or essentially being Eve fighting the guy in an uncertain environment. He's willing to pick up and drop those bits of randomness fast enough that the film doesn't get overloaded on the way to maybe, sort of, coming full circle, and while it really shouldn't work - films which drop what had been a good tense thing for an hour to do something else entirely with the finale are usually misfires - but does.

Though made in Belgium with a broadly European cast, it's shot in English, likely because the producers knew that would be good for sales to the streaming services where this will inevitably find long-term homes. I am rather looking forward to the waves of tweets that will come from people stumbling upon it, expecting a generic 85-minute time-waster, and instead getting something where the filmmakers put in the effort to make something memorable and entertaining from start to end.

Dead(?) link to 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.

Dead(?) link to 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.

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