Thursday, March 04, 2021

Let's Get Weird: Jumbo and Psycho Goreman

So, as I post this, you've got another couple hours to rent Jumbo from The Coolidge, although (if what showed up on my screen when I did is correct), you can wait a while before starting it, which beats what I did with Psycho Goreman, where I rented it from the Brattle's site Thursday night and then played three seconds because while I had to start it by midnight, you had 48 hours to finish. As I may have mentioned before, these virtual screening rooms are opening new frontiers in waiting to watch a movie until the absolute last minute they're available because you're not in exactly the right mood right now.

(Or you can go to Amazon or other VOD services if you read this after midnight. Seriously, click the links; I've been fifty cents in referrals away from a gift card for what seems like a year!)

Jumbo was one that I never got a screener for at Fantasia - and I don't know if I even asked, as prioritizing everything was tricky - and it's definitely a weird one. I'd love it if some distributor somewhere went nuts and made a 4K disc or stream with HDR, just to get better resolution than streaming from the Coolidge's virtual room gets you (or, at least, gets me on my cable/laptop setup) and the greater color depth, because it's actually a really beautiful film with some of the greatest use of color I've seen on this sort of indie in a while. Heck, I'd love to see it on the big screen, although I'm not sure I'd necessarily want an audience, because someone snickering could mess it up for an entire room. It might have been a good de Seve show at Fantasia.

Psycho Goreman, on the other had, would have been a blast in Hall - or at the Brattle as part of BUFF - the sort of thing I might have liked a little more for seeing it with a big, reactive crowd. Like I note in the review, it's got a sort of Don Coscarelli vibe to it, and I'm curious how it's practical effects would look blown up to big-screen scale. Plus, I feel like I may be judging it a little unfairly - like a lot of stuff from the people who were in Astron-6 it's good enough when played straight that I'd love to see how it works without the self-deprecation or winking at the audience. Especially with the young protagonists, I kind of wanted it to be Turbo Kid, which leans toward being The Thing Its Makers Love for real rather than backing off from having to really stick the ending by descending into self-referential chaos. I'd probably write the same thing about it afterward, but I'd probably have been more caught up in the moment.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 3 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (first-run/Coolidge Corner Theatre virtual screening room, internet)

It's tempting to search the internet to see if the romance (of sorts) in Jumbo is a thing common enough to have a name, especially since it has one of those "based on a true story" credits that one naturally half-suspects to be trolling. It's probably not a good idea, though, because once one does that, it's not much of a leap to what a person should do if someone in their life falls in love with a machine, and this is a movie about not knowing the answer.

The young lady in question is Jeanne Tantois (Noémie Merlant), a young woman who has spent most of her summers at the local amusement park and loves building little mechanical replicas of the rides, but is working there for the first time this year. As shy as her mother Margarette (Emmanuelle Bercot) is outgoing, she is happy enough working clean-up during the night shift, especially when wiping down the "Move-It" ride which she names "Jumbo". She's not expecting it to come to life for her, reacting to her touch and communicating with its lights, but she quickly feels a connection to it that's far more sensual than anything she shares with, say, her manager Marc (Bastien Bouillon).

Writer/director Zoé Wittock doesn't necessarily go for subtlety here; there's a moment when Jeanne tells Margarette that she feels the sorts of things that her mother wants her to feel for boys. But while Jeanne's attraction to Jumbo serves as an obvious metaphor for being queer, it seems to have a particular focus on how there's no easy way to tell from the inside whether you're not well or if the straights and normies just don't get you, especially when there's not obviously anybody similar around. Wittock brings this into incredibly tight focus, to the point that if there is anything else on Jeanne's mind, the audience is not privy to it. It could be limiting, but the sheer oddity of her interests and the semi-fantastic way they're presented keeps the film from feeling like it's reducing her entirely to her sexuality rather than just focusing on that aspect of her.

Jeanne being such a relatively blank slate makes for an interesting challenge for Noémie Merlant, who spends much of the film playing introverted to almost the point of blankness but manages to do well playing the odd things that allow her to open up. Strong emotions play across her face without seeming exaggerated or toned down so much as to make the viewer read too much into the slightest variation. It's also delightful to watch how her performance shifts after she apparently consummates the affair; after getting through being afraid of the enormity of what she's just felt, she carries herself differently, like she's still not sure how to deal with other people, but a little more certain of herself. It's the sort of performance that the rest of the cast could easily overshadow or shrink from in fear of overwhelming her, but they by and large don't; even the ones with big personalities are conventional enough to make a contrast.

Then you've got Jumbo himself, the thing at the center of Wittock's seemingly absurd premise that could be handled wrong in so many ways. She seems to make almost every decision correctly, though, never giving him a voice beyond his lights, nor doing much to anthropomorphize him beyond fleeting moments. Jeanne doesn't love him because she sees a man in there, after all. Instead, she leans heavily on cinematographer Thomas Buelens and his team to use the bright candy-colored lighting of the ride to create a bold palette that reacts to where they're pointing the camera - sharp and energetic when shining on Jumbo's clean white body but warm and comforting when lighting the woods around the park. The lighting and composition is often jaw-droppingly beautiful, selling the audience on affection rather than just weird technological lust, and the music by Thomas Roussel has an off-kilter feel while mostly avoiding obvious synth or carnival sounds.

Ending a picture like this is tricky, and Wittock doing better than can be expected still leaves the audience in a position where they may be scratching their heads or wonder just what the message of the film was, specifically. It still winds up surprisingly beautiful and affecting for a movie whose premise invites irony and mockery.

Also at eFilmCritic

Psycho Goreman

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 26 February 2021 in Jay's Living Room (first-run/Brattle virtual screening room, Eventive via Roku)

Filmmaking collective Astron-6 went their separate ways a couple years ago, but promised they would each still be making a lot of the same sort of throwback comedy/horror and that they'd probably work together when there was a good fit. With Psycho Goreman, Steve Kostanski captures a lot of the bloody 1980s-style fun of the old group, and if it seems to fare a little worse at straddling the line between doing a thing well and making jokes about that thing, I suppose that it's inevitable that this film might fall victim to accelerated nostalgia.

The film kicks off with siblings Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna) and Luke (Owen Myre) playing a game of "crazyball" in their backyard, and while Mimi doesn't necessarily change the rules so she always wins, one gets the impression the pushy sister has never lost. This leads to Luke digging a hole in which to bury himself alive in the backyard, where they find a strange red crystal - and then, while they sleep, an alien monster emerges. Before he can start his reign of terror, though, it turns out that the crystal Mimi has taken for her own can control the one time universe-threatening despot she names "Psycho Goreman", and it's tough to know what is worse: A terror like Mimi having control of a cosmically-powered alien, or the fact that the galactic alliance which buried him here ages ago has no trouble with causing a lot of collateral damage on a backwater planet to keep him from re-emerging.

Lots of people love the R-rated genre movies of the 1980s, paying homage by using John Carpenter's favorite typeface, casting veterans of their favorites, or setting their films in that time which is conveniently free of mobile phones, but most of them are making pretty basic slashers, or doing a tongue-in-cheek take that highlights how cheap or absurd they seem thirty-odd years later. Kostanski and his compatriots, on the other hand, take their fandom a little more seriously and have the chops to make it work - though they may be young enough to have initially encountered films by the likes of Don Coscarelli on video, they know that this stuff had to look good on the big screen, and bust their butts to make everything from the title sequence to the miniature landscapes to the makeup look good. Even the stuff that's meant to look obviously fake or comedic seems to have a ton of clever mechanisms in its practical effects, and the music by Blitz//Berlin never works against what's on screen - that everybody involved seems to be taking things seriously only makes the jokes seem dryer and darker, and makes the foundation legitimately cool.

That's what Kostanski is getting out of his young stars, who set the tone for the whole movie. Mimi is often a headstrong and difficult-to-like kid, but Nita-Josee Hanna plays her in fearsomely straight-ahead fashion, making her the sort of kid who is compelling once you've got reason to find her more than abrasive because she's smart and focused in the way a precocious child is without being precious or wise beyond her years. There are at least half a dozen times when she says something completely ridiculous and the movie rolls on because of her confidence. It's no surprise that Owen Myre's Luke is so often bulldozed if not outright bullied, and if Myre has a little trouble holding his own with Hanna, it seldom feels like the actor is weak - Luke's his own person rather than just Mimi's punching bag. The adults play more conventionally dry, with Astron-6-er Adam Brooks as a comically ineffective father and Alexis Kara Hancey a compensatingly capable mom, while Matthew Ninaber (body language) and Steven Vlahos (voice) combine fairly seamlessly to make "PG" funny in how thwarted his grand ambitions are but still threatening when he needs to be.

Kostanski has all these terrific pieces and has a great time smashing them against each other - the action is bloody and not bad, considering it maintains some of the lumbering weight of its inspirations, and the film spends a lot more time with the grandiose flashbacks to PG's past than one might expect. There are nevertheless a lot of times when I couldn't help but remember that the Astron-6 movies were often better when played somewhat straight rather than entirely tongue-in-cheek. The bench beyond the central family isn't really deep enough to make any mayhem PG causes the combination of darkly funny and horrible the film is going for - it might have worked better if the council that condemned him to Earth had shown up there in the final act, both as satisfying story material and because they've got bigger and more fleshed out personalities than many of the rest of the foes. The idea of PG growing fond of Mimi undercuts the thread of Mimi potentially realizing what a monster she can be, which is what makes the movie feel like more than just style.

The style is pretty great, sure - Kostanski and his crew are good at this in a way that few others working at this scale manage to be - and the film itself certainly has more ambition than just splattery practical effects. It's good enough to make one wonder just how could it have been if it didn't take refuge in being a goof on the material.

Also at eFilmCritic

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