Saturday, August 15, 2020

Fantasia On-Demand Preview 2020.01: Clapboard Jungle, Yummy, Life: Untitled, and Sleep

So, Fantasia is weird this year - it's happening as an online film festival from 20 August to 2 September, with the streaming from the festival site requiring that you be in Canada to watch. I could probably try and get around it with some VPN chicanery and maybe even feel good about it - I've been coming for 15 years and am way closer to Montreal that the folks in Vancouver! - but I decided I wasn't going to do that even if I didn't get credited as media. The festival has been absurdly generous to me as a guy for whom this is an avocation rather than a job and I sure as heck am not going to give the people running the festival any reason to (a) not give me a pass in the future or (b) not even sell me tickets because I acted like an entitled jerk.

Anyway, as you can see, they did accredit me this year, which means I'm eligible for screening links and the like. It won't get me access to the entire program, and I may be denied some of the stuff that is available because some films' producers/distributors are pickier about giving out links, but I suspect that the bigger releases will be well-covered by the major sites. I figure my willingness to cover the smaller things is why they keep accrediting me anyway.

The festival's online offerings are split into two parts - some movies are available on-demand throughout the entire two-week period, while others are live-streamed at specific times, like with the regular festival. When the festival starts, I will be doing my best to mirror that schedule to the extent that I can, so those two weeks should look like the regular "Fantasia Daily" posts I've been making for the past decade and a half. I kind of have to, what with the embargo schedule and all. But, here's a funny thing about the embargo schedule - the programmers (and, presumably, content-owners) have staggered it so that reviews will be spread out over the next week, kind of approximating an extra week of the festival (or, because this is Fantasia, getting it up to its proper three-week length. There's no way I wind up that same schedule, but it feels a little right, and this post, at least, is all stuff from "Preview Day One" (festival day -6, if Wednesday is a day 0; "7 B.F." if we want the Georgian Calendar to inspire our numbering).

For Canadian friends, you could do a lot worse than to start your virtual Fantasia with Clapboard Jungle, where the festival plays a part and you'll get a glimpse of Mitch and some of the regulars. You guys can figure out the purchasing of tickets and such at the official site. For Americans (and the rest of the world), I suspect that some of these movies will be part of Nightstream, a joint venture between five American genre festivals (including my local one, Boston Underground). And, heck, I gather Yummy is already on Shudder and will be on disc in a couple of months, so consider it a preview of that!

Also: No really great place to say it in the review, but Sleep reminded me of the basic premise of Hereditary in a lot of ways, and while it's not quite so polished, I feel like it didn't completely lose itself in the potentially-supernatural aspects the way that movie did, certainly leading me to like it more than that film, although I don't know how many other people have the same sort of hang-up about that as I do.

Clapboard Jungle

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Documentaries from the Edge, Vimeo via Roku)

It's probably not particularly important to mention that I was fairly disappointed in Lifechanger, the feature film made by Clapboard Jungle director Justin McConnell whose production is a major focus of the second half of his documentary on being an independent genre filmmaker at the present moment, but the review is easy enough to find on this site, so there's not much point of not putting that context right up front. It kind of doesn't matter, though - it's not just that McConnell does a good enough job of showing the madness of independent film production to make you realize that just getting something made is a victory, but that the madness is the point.

He makes this point by making the risky choice of making himself, rather than the film, the story, which he acknowledges as hubris right at the start, but it's necessary: Focusing on the production of one film would give a documentary such as this a clear beginning, middle, and end, with resolution and boundaries, but that would be something of a lie: Even as Lifechanger is taking shape and going into production, the theme that is taking shape is that filmmakers like McConnell can't just focus on the one thing; they must have a "slate" of multiple projects in the works at all times because not only are there are going to be long stretches where work on that one project is stalled, waiting for someone else's interest or availability, but because producers investing in a filmmaker are looking for longer-term returns, or because nothing will come of it. Eventually, yes, shooting, editing, and doing the festival circuit with Lifechanger will take center-stage, but outside of those moments, McConnell and those like him have to split their attention, build a pipeline, and be ready to change direction .

It changes the focus of the movie from what you might expect, and it works sneakily well - one of the first filmmakers McConnell talks to is Guillermo del Toro, and while it's always fun to hear him wax rhapsodic about how much he loves movies and enjoys making them (and useful to demonstrate the dedication filmmaking inspires), one sees him making The Shape of Water and knows that, even if he's famously had trouble getting films off the ground, he's a bit disconnected from the granular struggle at this scale. He soon expands it to folks the mainstream may not know, whether because their successes at the box office are still relatively minor or because they work well behind the scenes - people like producers, packagers, and festival programmers - the ones who are usually cast as villains or obstructions in movies about moviemaking.

Full review at eFilmCritic


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 12 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo)

If enthusiastic gore and violence is your first priority for a horror movie, Yummy has you covered; the filmmakers spill a lot of blood and build some gross prosthetics, and they don't waste a lot of time getting from one gruesome gag to the next. That's not quite all it's got, but it's close, and while that may be enough for those just looking for an hour and a half of splatter, it's the sort of horror movie with a lot of places where it could have been great if the filmmakers had run with something a little bit more.

It quickly introduces the audience to Alison (Maaike Neuville), her boyfriend Michael (Bart Hollanders), and her mother Sylvia (Annick Christiaens), driving to a clinic in Eastern Europe where Alison can get inexpensive breast reduction surgery and Sylvia can get some more stereotypical procedures. Michael, who studied to be a doctor before discovering he can't stand the sight of blood, finds the low-rent place suspicious, from namesake surgeon Dr. Krawczyk (Eric Godon) to administrator Janja (Clara Cleymans) to travel coordinator Daniel (Benjamin Ramon), and he's not wrong: There's an occasional zombifying side-effect to Krawczyk's experimental stem-cell formula, and when one gets loose, Alison and company are in a particularly bad situation.

The sight of that first zombie is the first of many times a viewer may raise an intrigued eyebrow; she's topless, super-perky, toned, and smooth, and while "sexy zombies" isn't necessarily the most creative idea out there, you can do something with it, flipping the script by having perfect-looking but hollowed-out undead chasing folks who look impaired or maimed in some way, but it's a passing fancy, with moments of role-reversal though it's never a consistent-enough theme to become the movie's thing. There's a weird creature that may or may not be connected to the zombies, because why not, and a thread about Michael being kind of clumsy and having bad luck that kind of lurks without getting a really great moment, especially since director Lars Damiseaux and co-writer Eveline Hagenbeek seem to be playing with the idea of Michael being more useful as a healer than a fighter at one point, another potentially interesting twist.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Life: Untitled

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, Vimeo via Roku)

Writer/director Kana Yamada's Life: Untitled is based upon her play, and it's a fair translation, but it's kind of funny how things that are just part of how things work in one medium can make you wonder if something else is up in another. This one, for instance, opens with a character addressing the camera directly and mostly takes place in one location, no big deal in the theater, but do it in a movie and eventually something seems like it might be up. Is this some sort of deal where there's really just one character and everyone else is some sort of figment of her imagination or fragment of her personality?

Probably not. Well, not literally, but it's that sort of movie.

The girl who starts by breaking the fourth wall is Kano (Sairi Itoh), who has had what she describes as an "ordinary life" - though not one that exactly has her eager to jump into any sort of intimate relationship. She goes to work for the Crazy Bunny escort service, but recoils the first time that she's in a hotel room with a client. She doesn't quit, though, instead staying on to help around the office, assisting the manager by answering phones, keeping the fridge stocked, and making sure everybody gets paid. The girls include bookish Shika (Aika Yukihara), gossipy Atsuko (Aimi Satsukawa), and businesslike Riyu (Tomoko Nozaki), as well as Shiho (Reiko Kataoka), who at about 30 is the "older woman" of the group, and Mahiru (Yuri Tsunematsu), who has a tendency to smile a little too wide and laugh a little too hard. Drivers include friendly Hagio (Dai Ikeda) and bleach-blond Ryota (Shunsuke Tanaka), who is maybe not having the best reaction to how serious a crush Kyoko (Kokoro Morita) has for him.

There aren't a whole lot of men to be found in this movie, just enough that it's not entirely obvious that Kano has cocooned herself among this group at least partially in order to avoid dealing with them. That's kind of impressive, because Yamada is fairly pointed during that first monologue that she's had some really lousy experiences that culminate in a lousy first assignment, but avoidance has a different feel than overt anger. One doesn't necessarily notice that a lot of them men who might be aggravating the situation are off-screen, just being referenced rather than having it demonstrated, but it builds. It is, without calling attention to itself as such, a precise sort of encapsulation of how men tend to treat women as just sex objects and then look down on them even more when they leverage their sexuality. It's kind of exhausting and frequently humiliating but not something a woman can completely extricate herself from.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Schlaf (Sleep)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, internet)

The trick that the makers of Sleep pull off isn't necessarily rare, but it leads to disaster often enough that you have to admire how well they manage it. It's a thriller that is so exceptionally grounded at its center that one can easily discount just exactly how almost everything else about it is. It's a trip but not so random that filmmaker Michael Venus ever actually loses track of what made the audience get invested in the first place.

That would be the mother/daughter pair of Marlene (Sandra Hüller) and Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof); the former is a flight attendant who has a few health issues, mostly a sleep disorder that sometimes interrupts her breathing, manifesting as frightening nightmares, although Mona is starting to realize Marlene might have mental health issues as well, especially when they come to a head as a particularly bad dream sends her into a breakdown at a Stainbach hotel, in a fugue state when Mona arrives. She winds up staying in the same hotel, run by Otto Fahrmann (August Schmölzer) and his wife Loretze (Marion Kracht), trying to solve the mystery of what sent her mother over the edge, or why the hotel seems to match drawings Marlene made before she left. Soon she's having nightmares of her own, which is understandable under the circumstances, even without the doctor's warning that Marlene's condition may be hereditary, unless there's more to it.

Mona is an intelligent, rational young woman who winds up dropped into some very irrational situations, the sort of character who could easily be swallowed alive by a movie like this, with filmmakers often working overtime to make her seem cool or quippy, but that's not the way Venus and star Gro Swantje Kohlaf go. Kohlof has room to seem puzzled by the mystery and unnerved as she finds signs of her mother's issues in her own head, and she does so without ever seeming to lose the initiative. One gets the sense that because Mona has been dealing with Marlene's issues her entire life, she has a handle on how to navigate strange situations and maintain some control even if she's being buffeted. It's fun to watch her react uncertainly to this town's eccentrics, shiver at the things that make her question her own sanity, and make seemingly aggressive leaps out of character when that's the only reaction to everything going crazy.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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