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

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