Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Fantasia 2020.10: Minor Premise, Born of Woman 2020, and Sanzaru

Go figure, the two-plus-hour group of short features took some effort to get through. Good news/bad news is that the last few days only have a few "scheduled" items that have screeners, so maybe I'll be able to catch up a bit.

I struggled a bit more with the "Born of Woman" package than I did last year; it felt like there were more things in it that I just didn't get, and even the ones I did seemed more complicated by how including them in a block of films from women often seems to imply more than just the simple fact that women directed them, so meaning feels just a bit further out of reach. Still, a lot of good stuff in there.

I also found that I really liked Sanzaru; it's got a lot of moments when it could go off in typical horror movie directions of shock and trippiness, and while it never runs from either, there's purpose to every bit rather than just red herrings. It's kind of art-house horror, the sort of thing I could see A24 picking up, although the polish is in different places.

Minor Premise

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

There's a stretch at the start of Minor Premise when I wondered how a movie shot during quarantine was already finished and on the festival circuit, so cut off did it seem from the rest of the world even when a character was supposed to be delivering a lecture. That proves not to be the case, and it's kind of a shame; working their way around that sort of logistical challenge, whether it was part of the on-screen action or not, would have made for a much more interesting movie than the rickety Jekyll-and-Jekyll-and-Hyde-and-Hyde thing that viewers get.

The man in question is Ethan Kochar (Sathya Sridharan), who had long worked with his father Paul (Nikolas Kontomanolis) on technology to read and edit memories, although that was a mess - the father tried to take credit for the son's work and while a working prototype was built, crucial information was missing for their intended project of editing consciousness. Months later, a building at the college is being dedicated to Paul Kochar, but department head Malcolm (Dana Ashbrook) is pushing the difficult Ethan for results and presentations to the board; Ethan's ex-girlfriend Alli (Paton Ashbrook) has also returned to the university, as established a figure as he is. It's the sort of situation that inspires rash self-experimentation.

At least, it does in movies; in real life, it would seem like a long shot that Ethan's basement laboratory, with no graduate students or other team members to check his work, or any sort of proper protocols that include an actual control group, would get any sort of funding, and even if some rich eccentric did bankroll him, it seems unlikely that he'd be able to publish any sort of peer-reviewed paper, no matter how lax the standards have grown, or have what he has created gain government approval for commercial or therapeutic use. This may seem like party-pooping, nit-picking complaints to make, but it's indicative of how much the filmmakers are going to sweat the rest of the details or have supposedly smart people approach problems later, and it's also frustratingly uncreative: The movie is made up of tropes that were silly when they first started getting used for simplicity's sake decades ago, and it's big "what-if" idea is basically phrenology with more modern terminology on top.

The really frustrating thing is, all of this isn't even in service of making a streamlined, thrilling narrative; director Eric Schultz and co-writers Justin Moretto and Thomas Torrey create a downright goofy scenario where different mental states cycle out at precisely timed intervals that just so happen to alight with the exact tops and bottoms of hours (dumb, but useful for the audience that has to keep track of it), but they don't use it very well on any scale. There's seldom any tension in how Ethan has to get some useful chunk of work done in six minutes, or how these passing hours are bringing him closer to some sort of collapse. They start subplots out of a sense of apparent obligation - Malcolm just has to knock on the door and discover Ethan isn't himself - and then do nothing with them, and the way Alli being there to assist is handled is just as frustrating as she literally walks in and out of things depending on whether they want Ethan to have someone to talk to or whether the story requires she be ambushed, despite it clearly not being a good idea to leave him on his own. She never particularly looks like this marathon effort is taking anything out of her, either.

Sathya Sridharan and Paton Ashbrook at least commit to what they're given, even if that's not much (especially in Sridharan's case, since he should be getting the chance to create ten memorable variations on Ethan but is never given the opportunity); they handle the commit to the pair being intelligent people who care for each other, in the specific way that Alli is going to be professional and friendly despite Ethan's arrogance having hurt her before, a chemistry between them that is not necessarily being pushed in the expected direction. And while Ethan's lab is silly in concept, it's a fun place to be an on-screen mad scientist from how the lighting is just the right combination of shadowy and fluorescent sterility, with blackboards, cobbled together computer systems, and a memory-reading barber's chair that matches the mood. If nothing else, Schultz and company know what they want this movie to look and feel like and nail that.

Unfortunately, that serves as a nice coat of paint on a movie that is dumb from its silly remote lectures to the one last twist that everybody knows is coming likely before the film even starts. It's a mess that could have created much more intrigue had it been just a little more smartly organized.

Originally published at eFilmCritic

"Come F*ck My Robot"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Born of Woman 2020, Vimeo via Roku)

I'm not sure that I've ever seen a better distillation of why women groan and say "why even are men?" than this movie's 12 minutes, where the range from villain to male hero is from an engineer (Ian Abramson) who creates a robot with a vagina and immediately starts to pimp it out (despite calling her "like a daughter") to a confused and generally decent young virgin (Nicholas Alexander) who decides he's not okay with this after meeting "Ivy" (voice of Catherine Tapling) but still has trouble with the fact that she is, shall we say, not conventionally attractive and not going to fall head over heels in love despite him doing one good thing. Nobody's perfect, but one might want that range to extend a little further in one direction.

That said, "Come F*ck My Robot" is still an entertaining, mostly-upbeat short film, with Alexander able to bring the audience on a pretty good emotional ride in that time while Tapling does nice voice work and Abramson makes his character awful while hugging the line between cartoonish and skin-crawling. Filmmaker Mercedes Bryce Morgan keeps things moving at an enjoyably frantic pace, slowing down just long enough to have Brian and Ivy connect while showing how Abramson's engineer resents that. I'm not sure that the anachronisms quite match up - I don't think cragislist was around until after car phones had evolved into flips - but the filmmakers are smart in how they use them, placing this far enough into an ambiguous past that Ivy doesn't have to be a perfect gynoid but where the film still doesn't come off as period. Ivy's actual design is a nifty blend of sleek and boxy plopped in the middle of sets that are both disturbing and sad.

It's a fun little short that gets at female frustration with men from an abstract place but does so in an extremely enjoyable, goofy way.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Born of Woman 2020, Vimeo via Roku)

"Blocks" is just surreal enough that I keep wanting to assign some sort of meaning to it and then stepping back, thinking that's a little much although there's got to be something there from the way the film is built, and then wondering whether young mothers would say I'm reaching or not stretching far enough. It's got the feeling of being clever but is absolutely not smug about it.

That weird premise - mother-of-two Ashleigh (Claire Coffee) suddenly finds herself, shall we say, unlikely to ever run out of Legos - feels like the sort of thing filmmaker Bridget Moloney came upon by accident and then found just enough variations to fill a ten-minute short with, not building toward anything extra-crazy but not exactly repeating herself either. It's a nice job of milking a joke just enough, while also having eccentric stuff going on around it to keep the giggles coming and a fun performance from Claire Coffee, who is very much in line with Moloney's sense of humor.

It's agreeably absurd, doesn't wear out its welcome, and ends in a way that makes one feel like it has accomplished something, even if you're not quite sure what.

"Break Us"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Born of Woman 2020, Vimeo via Roku)

The part of me that loves crime movies and thrillers is kind of disappointed that Rioghnach Ni Ghrioghair didn't hit the double cross that I was looking for when I was looking for it, because there are bit where it certainly looks like Sophie (Danielle Galligan) is scoping out how she can not be caught on camera while the more apparently enthusiastic Mark (Gavid Drea) is. Of course, what she does is probably better, telling a story that evolves because of what's going on rather than just mechanically playing out what happened before the audience got there.

It's a fun play either way, as the pair launch a plot to rob a post office but find things immediately diverging from their plans, building the tension up a little and getting things rolling. I don't know that the main pair ever get a chance to show how well they work off each other for more than a second or two, but Galligan is especially good as she often has to make Sophie look like she's not connected with any of what Mark is doing but still have what she's feeling run across her face.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Born of Woman 2020, Vimeo via Roku)

I'm not sure that the summary listed for this movie in its IMDB listing is necessarily something you can deduce for sure from the movie, in which a pair of Jamaicans (Sharon Duncan-Brewster & Cherrelle Skeete) who have been in the UK all their lives are being deported before an attempt to sedate the older, more agitated Esther seems to kick off an alarming series of events that turn the tables and then some.

As with a lot of shorts, I wonder a bit if filmmaker Faye Jackson (who wrote, produced, directed, and edited) initially saw this as a part of something bigger; the film poses a question but stops before it gets to any sort of logical endpoint, although I don't know that there's really a feature here, either. It's a lot of nifty pieces that form into a snapshot if not quite a story. It's an impressive snapshot, though, and the style is aces - there's a moment with two or three great moments coming rapid-fire and the big one leaves the audience shocked enough to carry through to the end, with what they seen on-screen reflecting that.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Born of Woman 2020, Vimeo via Roku)

There are two separate moments in "Diabla" when I stop and wonder if it's supposed to indicate that what filmmaker Ashley George just showed the viewer was meant to be a premonition or something she's feared, and while I'm pretty sure it's not, I'm not quite sure what circling back around to that same shot or moment is accomplishing. Is it the last time Nayeli (Ruth Ramos) trusted the world around her, or a reminder that one still has to walk the same path even though something terrible has happened on it? I'm not quite sure.

In between, it's impressively strong. It feels strange to compliment a movie for how well it handles a rape scene, but it must be tremendously difficult as a filmmaker to make it appalling without actually stopping a short film that only has a little time to work with while not diminishing it or even making it exploitative. Part of why it works, I suspect, is because George and editor Diana Mata do an impressive cut to the doctor's office, with the visit ending on a whispered line delivered well enough to make one skip a breath. What comes after is a bit out there, but well-done.

Actress Ruth Ramos is in the middle of it, and she's pretty great; one gets a quick impression of her Nayeli and the of how what was done to her is huge but doesn't fundamentally change her - she may be warier, and a little harder, but she is still the same young woman underneath. It may take a great deal of support and help, but she never surrenders herself.

"The Rougarou"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Born of Woman 2020, Vimeo via Roku)

Huh. There are something like half a dozen short films and TV episodes about a "rougarou" in just the past few years. Is this some sort of new emerging urban legend or something that's been out there that I'd never heard of?

I genuinely thought it was just some sort of nonsense word being made up on the spot by a father recently released from jail (Jacob Tolano) trying to entertain his daughter Gerty (Victoria Dellamea) while explaining the scars he has picked up along the way. The pair are a nifty contrast, even if a sometimes alarming one - as much as Vin seems to genuinely adore his little girl, he's over-polished, slick, and not nearly as clever as he thinks he is compared to the smart, practical, if naive Gerty. It's great odd-couple energy that can't hold.

Still, it's fun to watch Gery see that there's potentially a monster in her neighborhood and start working to deal with it - Dellamea is a genuine delight - and then see how things play out as she confronts the reality of it. I like the direction filmmaker Lorraine Caffery takes with it, very much aware that Gerty's specific circumstances might not have this on the usual track.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Born of Woman 2020, Vimeo via Roku)

Anna Chazelle's "Narrow" was probably not specifically inspired by A Quiet Place, but it's hard not to think of that feature when watching this short, with the scavenging for post-apocalyptic resources, paths you can't leave, and the like. It's science fiction/horror built around following the rules of its universe without really making the reason for them self-evident or building a mythology that makes them interesting. There's not even a metaphor that seems to work for it when all is said and done. Sure, at one point it looks like it will be about how exhausting staying on the path that someone else has left down is exhausting and often leads to dead-ends that force you to backtrack, but unfortunately, Chazelle doesn't wind up bringing her short somewhere that could actually get anything out of it.

It looks great, and Chazelle (who writes/produces/directs/stars) knows what she wants out of her own performance, but it feels empty at the end, even if it's intentionally making a point about how not following society's rules even as they exhaust you will have you destroyed. There's dark truth in that, but there's a point where making the in-story situation so arbitrary hurts the effort to do more.

"F For Freaks"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Born of Woman 2020, Vimeo via Roku)

At 30 minutes this is the longest of the shorts in the block but the one that feels like it can best be summed up with "ugh". To a certain extent, I get why filmmaker Sabine Ehrl does what she does, dragging Ursula Werner's wheezing, elderly Gabriela through scenes where she's not just absolutely unneeded, but a practical liability, and takes every opportunity to detour into cruelty; there's got to be no excuse, no way to offer sympathy to someone who is old and sick and maybe being exploited in a different way to the elves or gnomes (or whatever the little people being hunted are). She is not going to let her viewers miss her point.

Still, one wonders whether she could have maybe found a way to do this efficiently, because for all that she creates a striking, memorably ugliness, highlighted on occasion by pinpricks of wonder when the elves show up - Ehrl and her visual effects crew do a nifty job of putting them right on the line where a viewer can't be sure whether they're seeing an unusually small child or something unreal - it's just miserable enough to watch that I can see people bailing if it's the last piece in a collection (as the longest sometimes is) or getting unruly if it plays before a feature. It's the sort of movie where you can see the cynical realism and intent behind each decision, but while that is worthy, it's not necessarily worth enduring.

"Ils salievent" ("They Salivate")

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Born of Woman 2020, Vimeo via Roku)

Huh. That's a lot of fluid.

A lot of fluid.

I kind of don't have more than that. It's one of those shorts that I watch closely, because filmmaker Ariane Boukerche is obviously doing something very deliberate that has meaning to her, but where I watch all this drool happen and just don't connect it to anything. It just strikes me as weird images in sequence, with things escalating, but which never makes me think anything but "huh, that's weird".


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

The opening scenes of Sanzaru are genuinely peculiar; most of the rest of the film is grounded and commonplace. In a lot of movies, that might serve as a reminder that there is some sort of dark force lurking in the background, but that's often the opposite of what filmmaker Xia Magnus is up to here. Larger-than-life evils are not always invented, but they may be easier to deal with than the more prosaic situations that they're used to explain.

Evelyn (Aina Dumlao) is far from home in Victoria, Texas; the Flilipina nurse provides in-home care to Dena Regan (Jayne Taini), a mostly-bedridden widow whose mind is starting to go. Daughter Susan (Tomorrow Shea) hired her; son Clem (Justin Arnold) is staying in his RV on the property, while Evelyn's nephew Amos (Jon Viktor Corpuz) is staying in Clem's old room, visiting while suspended from school in Dallas for fighting. It would be a slow, uncomfortable downward spiral, but Dena is panicking over a missing piece of jewelry, which she thinks Amos may have stolen; Amos is beginning to realize that his absent mother and aunt are keeping something from him, and Evelyn is starting to hear spooky noises from the intercom that lets her monitor Dena while doing other work in the house - at least, when the power isn't randomly cutting out. On top of that, the mail occasionally contains a letter for a Mr. Sanzaru, despite the mailman mentioning that Evelyn and "Mo" are the only Asians he can remember being in the area.

Though the audience is primed by the opening narration from Evelyn's dead mother and voices coming from the cemetery, they rapidly come to seem metaphorical. Not entirely - if the static and mysterious sounds from the intercom weren't enough to remind the audience that they were watching a horror movie, the glimpse she catches of old VHS tapes hidden in a room she hadn't realized was there in the preceding months certainly sound alarm bells for savvy viewers. More often, though, what haunting there is seems much more prosaic - Dena freezing, or suddenly seeming to be trapped in the past is the most obvious, but Mo, Clem, and Evelyn all have things that weigh them down. They don't need ghosts, even though there certainly seems to be one there.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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