Monday, August 16, 2021

Fantasia/New York Asian Film Festivals 2021.06: Hotel Poseidon and Baby Money

Fairly narrow windows of availability during this virtual festival had me watching Giving Birth to a Butterfly and Hotel Poseidon back-to-back, two films with surreal elements that may be revealing just in terms of what I'm up for. Butterfly is 77 minutes long, builds sympathy, and generally gives the audience something worth looking at. Poseidon is considerably longer, pushes the audience away early, and mostly delivers more ugliness. I don't necessarily think that a film should be obligated to be nice or pretty, or to make it easy on its audience, but I must admit, as I started to get through Hotel Poseidon, the thought going through my head was "this probably has as much going on as Butterfly, but is it worth it? Does it have enough more going on that to be worth more effort than something which is not just friggin' nasty?"

Anway, I did wind up finding more than I expected in Poseidon, although I can't say I really like or recommend it that much. I feel like I had to actively play film critic to find metaphor underneath its ugliness, while Butterfly resonated immediately. Different audiences react to different things, which is why star ratings are as foolish as they are addictive.

For example, I don't know how many other folks like "dumb crime" as much as I do. I suspect that for a lot of people, it's tied up pretty strongly in "what the Coen Brothers do", and they are the unquestioned masters of this genre, there are times when I think they may be too clever for it, like they can't help but scoff at the schlubs who have backed into a bad situation that they can't get out of. This genre doesn't have to be black comedy, but it's really easy to stumble into that, or make it sort of straight twisty crime. I've commented before that I think the fourth season of Fargo (talking about Coen-adjacent) isn't dumb enough, all told, except maybe the nurse who is sort of a side story. Props for trying something new, but it didn't feel like Fargo.

Which is a long way of saying that I liked Baby Money for being serious dumb crime. More or less everyone screws up at some point, but it feels legit, like the way most of us would panic and not think things through if we ever got to the point where crime seemed to be our best option. Most of us aren't wired for it, despite what some will tell you about humans being innately sinful or selfish, and as a result, we're going to handle this stuff badly, and I dig the way that the filmmakers found a way to work with that despite the fact that our brains are pretty well trained to either solve a puzzle or enjoy someone being unusually clever when watching this genre, and this defies expectations without being disappointing.

Hotel Poseidon

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Front72)

Hotel Poseidon is probably not the first film to peak with its opening titles and decline precipitously after that - at some point in his career, Saul Bass must have worked on a stinker - but what it demonstrates about getting through off-putting material for a payoff is interesting. That opening has its gross bits, but they pay off in a nifty title reveal; the rest of the movie asks the audience to endure plenty more for less concrete awards.

Admittedly, filmmaker Stef Lernous is aiming to make a strikingly off-putting first impression, showing Dave (Tom Vermeir) living in the midst of the rot and decay that has overtaken the shuttered hotel that his late father opened, with this late morning bringing something between belittling and encouragement from the neighbor on the other side of a thing wall and his apparent lover (Ruth Becquart) skipping the latter. It also brings Nora (Anneke Sluiters), whose options must really be limited if she's knocking on the papered doors and asking Dave to rent her a room for one night; an appointment with Jacki (Dominique Van Malder), who has ideas of transforming the function room into a cabaret; and the death of his Aunt Lucy, whose hospital bed had been parked in a hallway, inactive to the point where she may actually have passed some time ago.

The hotel is established as a nasty place, with moldy surfaces, standing water in every aquarium used as decoration, and every disused item from the coffee pot to the lights catching on fire when it they try to draw a little electricity from the shoddy wiring, and Dave himself seems to belong there, walking around as if he's long accepted that adapting his routine to the squalor is less effort than making it what one might call livable. Lemous and actor Tom Vermeir seem to understand this mindset well; they make Dave feel like he absolutely hates the very idea of people, to the extent that one can see him accepting abuse because he feels he deserves it but also sneering in his responses because everyone else does too. That so many of them are played as cruel or callous doesn't exactly make one inclined to disagree with this take. Dave seems to barely leave the hotel, and they run together, with it hard to see where he ends and it begins.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Baby Money

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Front72)

Of all the different ways one can make a crime movie, there is probably none more difficult to get right than straight "dumb crime" - that is to say, one which reflects that few crimes (beyond white-collar frauds that are seldom investigated much less prosecuted) are actually committed by people who are actually good at it. There are moments when one wants Baby Money to have a clever twist or characters colorful enough to make for black comedy, but it manages the trickier route of getting suspense from its characters being enough out of their depth to be unpredictable but not random.

Minny (Danay Garcia) isn't dumb herself; she's just had an unexpected pregnancy put a real hitch into her job as an exotic dancer. Her boyfriend Gil (Michael Drayer) has a line on a job that can earn them some quick cash: He'll serve as lookout while Tony (Travis Hammer) and Dom (Joey Kern) break into a house to retrieve a purple box, with Minny driving; a call on the burner phone at 4AM will say what to do. Things naturally go completely sideways, with Minny fleeing the scene as the police arrive and the home invaders taking refuge in an empty house - at least, until Heidi (Taja V. Simpson) and her autistic son Chris (Vernon Taylor III) arrive home.

The typical caper tends to go sideways because of a hidden flaw in the plan - somebody can't be trusted, or there's some unexpected security measure - and while that is kind of the case here, it's not like anything unlikely happens. Instead, writers Mikhail Bassilli and MJ Palo build the bulk of the movie on fight-or-flight responses, and the irony is that most of the time, the characters are probably better off that way; even they are as relatively bright as Minny and Heidi seem, they misread the situation and make bad decisions, and the neat trick the movie pulls off is that characters always seem to panic in the way that makes the most sense in the moment. It makes a crime into a chaotic combination of understandable actions.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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