Monday, October 26, 2020

Nightstream 2020.02: Come True and The Doorman

My plan with Nightstream was to try and watch as many of the movies I could close to when they went online, to try and simulate the festival experience in as close to real time as possible, which went out the window right away when I saw that The Doorman being scheduled for something like 11:15pm on Thursday night. At least one of the fests that united for Nightstream was on the West Coast, so it made sense to give them premieres that worked with Pacific time, but I was just not going for that after staying up for the Run premiere and Q&A.

It was an easy slide to Friday, though, as the only thing I'd selected from that date was Come True, something I hadn't snagged a Fantasia screener for but had been looking forward to. It made for a nifty little "hey, I liked their previous films" double feature even though I seems to have lost track of Come True being from the director of Our House and The Doorman being directed by Ryuhei Kitamura at least a couple of times. I'm sure that I noted these facts multiple times and had it figure into my decisions to select the movies, but it didn't stick until late. Weird, but the whole festival season has kind of been like that - without a physical program and schedule to flip through and mark up, more and more information is left in one's head, and maybe not as easily flipped to.

One of the other things that's been kind of strange about this whole digital festival season is watching things online. By and large, the quality has been pretty good, but streaming is almost never as reliable as a disc or an DCP "ingested" into a theater's projection system. Take Come True, for instance, where the deep blacks often had that effect where you could see the jagged borders between one shade of black/dark gray and the next. It's not really distracting until you notice it, and even then it doesn't really hurt the experience; it just serves as a reminder of what the limits on this delivery medium are. But here's the thing: The only scenes that are really dark enough for this to be an issue are the dream sequences, which the characters in the movie record and view using equipment that, if not explicitly analog, is kind of cobbled together and imperfect, which makes me wonder if this is a deliberate effect, playing on the fact that certain members of the audience will recognize this as a modern signal of lo-fi video recording where the actual analog artifacts that the apparently tape-based system would just scan as "old".

It's not really a big deal, but it's something that's kind of interesting to be as a streaming skeptic. I wouldn't be surprised if you could trace filmmakers using imitation of less-technically-advanced filmmaking for a purpose back to someone making flashbacks silent in a circa-1930 talkie, but it's usually been easy to identify where it's a deliberate choice and where it's just hitting technical limits, and I don't really know what it is in this case.

None of this is really a big deal, especially considering all the circumstances that have us doing film festivals in our living rooms, but I think both of these things are great examples of why I can't wait for life and moviegoing to get back to something resembling normal.

Come True

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Nightstream, Eventive via Roku)

Come True has the look of an indie horror movie that aims to be more than spooky - the sort that, by dint of the exceptionally specific circumstances of its characters and somewhat vague sources of its scares, must be About Something Real. As it turns out, while there's a fair amount going on here, writer/director/cinematographer Anthony Scott Burns appears to primarily be interested in creeping viewers out, and he's got a pretty darn good handle on that.

It opens with Sarah (Julia Sarah Stone) having a weird dream and waking up, not in her home in a sleeping bag in a local park's playground. Why she's only running in and out of her family's house isn't said, but not getting proper sleep is starting to mess with her. Best friend Zoe (Tedra Rogers) is happy to let her stay over, but doing that too much causes trouble. Luckily, she finds a two-month sleep study that pays $12/hour, and for now, that looks like just what she needs, especially since the grad student she meets, Anita (Carlee Ryski), seems pretty nice and there are several subjects who have done it a few times, saying that it's not odd when the woman she shares the room with doesn't come back after a day or two, since sleeping in strange places is weird to a lot of people. When another patient has an episode, she realizes that the guy who followed her and Zoe earlier (Landon Liboiron) is one of the people doing the study, and she's having some very weird dreams. Plus, she's got no idea what this team is measuring.

If Come True were the sort of film I initially thought it was going to be, Burns would spend a fair amount of time digging into what's up with Sarah - that she's sleeping outside despite seemingly having a place to go suggests a rift that would be worth digging into, but it's approached obliquely at best, mostly serving to highlight how stubborn she can be, arguably well past the point where it makes any sense. For the most part, Sarah's circumstances are used to push her inevitably back to the sleep study, rather than make the movie about her, to the point where she spends much of the last act literally sleepwalking through the action.

It's a bit of a waste, because Julia Sarah Stone could carry a movie focused entirely on Sarah; for all that the audience is not given a lot of details about Sarah's life, she and Burns excel at convincing the audience that there is a consistent story behind all this and that it's slowly destroying her, with Stone excellent during the periods when she doesn't have anyone to work against. She's good the rest of the time, getting across how Sarah is often both smart and foolish. The way Burns eventually pairs her with Landon Liboiron's Jeremy is not always great story-wise, but it's fun to watch her teenage cockiness play off his junior mad scientist persona, where he's got a full dose of hubris but is still afraid of getting caught. It's nifty chemistry without coming off as cute for long enough to hobble Come True as a horror movie.

And when all is said and done, Burns and company do a great job of building up the creepiness from a good start to an exceptionally tense finale. Though set in the present, it often calls back to the sci-fi horror of the 1970s and 1980s, with fuzzy analog tech and bulky monitoring suits that scoff at modern, sleek design. There are eerie tracking shots through the caverns of Sarah's dreams that feel uncanny but not weightless the way virtual cameras often can be, with motifs that feel connected but aren't always decipherable and eerie presences that are dead simple in design but effective in use. Burns occasionally jostles the timeline just a bit to get the audience close to Sarah's confused, sleepless headspace, and spends the last act on a clever way to blur the line between the waking and dream worlds without doing the usual trippy thing.

That half of the movie is so impressively and meticulously executed that I look forward to seeing Come True again to see whether or not the pieces I wanted more from snap together better on a second go. Burns's previous film Our House aimed for and hit the same intersection of sci-fi, horror, and drama square, so it wouldn't be surprising even as he approaches it less directly.

Also at eFilmCritic

The Doorman

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 October 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Nightstream, Eventive via Roku)

The Doorman was never going to be an all-time great movie within its genre - its ambitions just aren't that high - but it probably should have been a good one. The idea is familiar but solid, most of the cast has been good in something or other, and the director is not some anonymous worker bee. At worst, it should be an average bit of not-quite-theatrical action maybe brought down by some piece not being up to par, but instead, it's unimpressive all around, no single part being as good as it should.

It starts with soldier Ali Gorski (Ruby Rose) doing escort duty for the American ambassador in Bucharest, the sort of mission that leaves one with a great deal of regrets or PTSD. A year later, she's back home in New York City, discharged and at loose ends until her uncle Pat (Philip Whitchurch) hooks her up with a job as a doorman at the Carrington, a Manhattan residential building undergoing renovation. And it should be easy to start, since most all the tenants will be out of town over the Easter weekend for planned construction work. Well, almost everyone - one thing Uncle Pat didn't mention was that Ali's late sister's husband Jon (Rupert Evans) and his kids (Julian Feder & Kila Lord Cassidy) live there and are one of the two remaining. The others are an elderly couple whom superintendent Borz (Aksel Hennie) and recently-released criminal Victor Dubois (Jean Reno) are targeting.

The setup is Die Hard without the numbers completely filed off, but that's not exactly a bad thing; even as it aims to steal from the best, the story has some other stuff going on, although with four writers credited it's not surprising that somewhere along the way they couldn't really make the other things they're playing with stick. There's a script somewhere in there where all the secret passages, forgotten crimes, and people who have left old lives behind connect and resonate, but it feels like sheerly practical things like how to keep the action from spilling outside or how few characters they can get away with having without it seeming excessively unlikely than any of that. There's also a plot thread about Ali and Jon apparently having been a couple before he married her sister that is just completely useless, like screenwriters can't imagine writing not having a romantic subplot but can't be bothered to make it interesting.

Maybe something would come of it if anybody in the cast seemed to see this as a stepping-stone to bigger things rather than a job to fill time, but there's nobody in the cast who's really fun to watch. Ruby Rose has often been a solid part of an ensemble when she and they are able to challenge each other to raise their games, but she doesn't have that here and winds up fairly bland when not fighting. Rupert Evans is a big ol' nothing as her brother-in-law, and while Aksel Hennie kind of has a good detached-mercenary thing going, it doesn't exactly play off anything because nobody is heated enough to make his calm seem reassuringly professional until it's dangerous. The closest anyone gets to being fun to watch is Jean Reno, who has done dozens of these movies and probably knows what makes them work better than anyone else on the set, so even though he's not really trying to steal scenes (and in fact seems perfectly comfortable spending most of his time on screen in an action movie sitting in a chair directing underlings with nods), doing the minimum amount that works is more than the rest of the cast manages.

Rose, Hennie, and a generally capable group of goons on hand to slow Ali down (Louis Mandylor, David Dakurai, Hideaki Ito) do a fine enough job of running and shooting at each other, and generally don't look bad when they get into punching range, but for the amount of action there is, it's not very exciting. Lots of rounds get shot off, but it's almost always the sort of suppressing fire that keeps something interesting from happening rather than forces it to. The secret passages and hidden areas occasionally made for cool visuals when they're revealed, but are seldom exciting beyond that. Things only start to really cook in the final showdown, when a bit of unconventional camerawork and an impressively gross kill are a reminder that for a while, roughly from Versus to The Midnight Meat Train, director Ryuhei Kitamura was one of genre cinema's most distinct and exciting voices, even if the results were all over the place.

The Doorman could use the Kitamura who went for broke and wiped out half the time; it might at least make for a memorable disaster. Instead, he's just one more person among the many here who aren't living up to their full potential. Maybe it's one of those movies where everything from the script to the shoot to the editing is on tight deadlines and the filmmakers never had time to get something great once they had something usable, or maybe everybody was just collecting a paycheck in Romania between more interesting jobs. Either way, it makes for a B-movie that is neither good nor interesting enough to grab a viewer's attention in a sea of straight-to-video action.

Also at eFilmCritic

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