Sunday, July 31, 2022

Fantasia 2022.09: The Harbinger, Stellar: A Magical Ride, "Lass Mörder Sein", and Megalomaniac

In a month and a half or so, when I'm joking about how all the people at Fantastic Fest saying they're really feeling it after four or five days are soft, I won't mention that day nine of Fantasia was like this, with me missing the first show because I was doing day job stuff (which engages a different part of the brain), taking a slot in the afternoon off because I'm still not into the Cavalcade of Perversions, and then effectively punting the last film because I was drifting off.

It's taken me this long to figure out that I should probably sit a bit further back for late shows in De Seve than I typically do. There's a stage and stadium seating, and widescreen films are a bit further up, so when I'm hanging out in the third row my natural eyeline might actually be underneath the screen. If you're starting to feel the length of the day, dropping it just a little means you're no longer looking at the actual film and then it's just a bit easier to drop out.

Not that this was a particular issue with Harbinger, a darn good covid-set horror flick that had a nice turnout even for the second show: Writer/director Andy Mitton, producer Richard W. King, co-stars Myles Walker, Gabby Beans, and Emily Davis, plus producer/guy-playing-three-rolls-but-only-one-where-you-see-his-face Jay Dunn. I noted with some amusement that Walker at least was masked right until he sat on the lip of the stage and most of them had masks at the ready. The folks who made a movie set in New York during the early days of Covid were still taking it seriously.

Of course, the pandemic is part of the reason that they were in this movie, too - the cast was almost entirely New York stage actors who took on the job while Broadway and even most of the city's smaller stages were shut down, and had probably spent a fair amount of time in the circumstances that inspired the movie.

See also Stellar director Kwon Soo-kyung, whose movie isn't quite the creative (but probably impossible to actually stage) car chase movie suggested by its taglines, but a shaggier sort of caper with hints at something a bit mystical but doesn't actually rely on it. Not disappointing at all, but also maybe not what one expects from a Korean film in this particular place.

He noted that "casting" the car took a bit of effort - they managed to source two Hyundai Stellars from the proper year and they were apparently every bit as much of a pain in the ass as portrayed in the film, one of them basically unsalvageable by the time they were done shooting and the other, well, not exactly something he'd want to keep as a souvenir. There's a little meta moment in the movie where the lead has the chance to sell it to someone who needs them because they're making a period film, and it speaks a bit to how that can be tricky; there's not a lot of people keeping non-classics like this model in good condition.

Also, in response to a question, he had never heard of Herbie: The Love Bug (which kind of feels like it might be due for a Disney+ revival especially since it's been a while since "New Beetles" were a thing). Just not really a thing in South Korea.

Last up, we've got Megalomaniac writer/director Karim Ouelhaj and producer Florence Saâdi, with (I think) the festival's Celia Pouzet on the left. As I mentioned before, I hit the wall during this one, so I really didn't have much context for their Q&A. The movie itself is stylish but punishing, so I wasn't exactly tempted to try and catch the second screening a couple days later. Must be a different experience at 11am Sunday morning capred to 10pm Friday.

Next up for Saturday the 23rd: Anime no Bento, Demigod: The Legend Begins, My Grandfather's Demons, Deadstream, and Kappei.

The Harbinger

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

I found myself excited by the opening of this movie just seeing that it was going to acknowledge the pandemic. It will, after all, be very strange when, in a decade or two, people start talking about the movies that best represent the 2020s and the thing that defines the early part of the decade is just never present. Even better, though, is that this is a genuinely creepy movie that has all the fears and concerns of these days right at its heart.

As it starts, Mavis (Emily Davis) is not doing well at all, sleepwalking around her Queens apartment, disturbing the neighbors, and having to take increasingly extreme means to snap out of it. The building manager (Jay Dunn) asks if there is some family or friends in the city that she can call, but there really isn't. There is Monique (Gabby Beans), though, a college friend who is trying to ride out the pandemic in a bubble with brother Lyle (Myles Walker) and father Ronald (Raymond Anthony Thomas) at the family home, and Mavis was there for Monique when she needed it. So back to the city she goes, where she finds Mavis is in a really bad state - sometimes sleeping for days, having to dig deep into her skin with her nails to wake herself up from bad dreams which feature the figure of a plague doctor. Soon, Monique is having those dreams too, and when Reddit points them to a demonologist who does Zoom consultations (Laura Heisler), they are told to delete any mention of the problem from the internet, because this thing is a powerful meme (in the classic sense of the word) that can spread just through people knowing about it.

It's a sneaky good metaphor that Mitton has found here, not an allegory for the disease itself but the heightened sense of anxiety and alienation that were a by-product of trying to deal with it. Lots of people lost sleep, found themselves out of contact with friends, or saw people just disappear from their lives without a proper goodbye. The movie does a nifty job of heightening all of that, establishing its own mythology on top of it, careful not to make something real into the work of an outside force. There's a sharp sense of the trade-offs made while people were hunkered down, with the genuine relief Monique and Mavis feel at considering each other safe enough to unmask and approach compared to how Monique's family is warm appreciative of each other but also kind of on edge as the fortress mentality takes hold.

Another part of what makes the whole thing work is not getting too fancy with its nightmares - as surreal as dreams and dream imagery can be, they often feel ordinary in the moment, so Mitton and his crew don't change the lighting or color grading or focus on anything immediately strange until it would also alert Monique. The slow realization that one is in a dream, without it even being weirdly ironic, and the difficulty getting out, pushes the particular horrors of its setting even further. The twist, when it comes, is almost self-aware, what a dream should be, fed when that's an expectation that can be subverted.

There's also a pretty great cast, New York stage actors available because their shows were canceled, fresh faces who are nevertheless not affected, comfortable with a story that they are often telling to each other rather than recreating. Gabby Beans and Emily Davis have such good chemistry together that it's easy to miss just how solidly this film is built around Monique's perspective, with Davis finding ways to carry both Mavi's accelerating breakdown from scene to scene even as Monique's presence is ameliorating it. Beans makes Monique empathetic and thoughtful in a strange situation while still seeming unusually heroic, and her scenes with Myles Walker and Raymond Anthony Thomas feel like a family that gets along but has some sharp differences in priority about how to deal with something like the pandemic. I hope some of them wind up doing more film.

The movie does stretch on a bit toward the end, when it sort of gets into potential mechanics of defeating the Plague Doctor on the one hand and struggles a bit with what sort of horror movie it is on the other - is it ultimately going to be about facing and defeating one's fears or about creating unease and despair to the last frame? There's not exactly a right or wrong answer as opposed to preferred ones, and it's also something of a relief to see these particular fears handled at all.

Stellar (aka Stellar: A Magical Ride)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

The high concept used to sell Stellar - a repo man chases down a stolen Lamborghini Huracan with his father's beat-up Hyundai Stellar - probably would have been impossible to pull off as anything but the most carefully constructed car-chase movie imaginable, far more likely to fall critically short than succeed. Instead, the filmmakers go for something a little more offbeat, and the result is fine - not brilliant, not a disaster, but eminently watchable on a lazy evening.

It starts with Young-bae (Son Ho-jun) and his partner Cheol-gu (Ko Kyu-pil) getting their hands on said red Italian supercar and stashing it it the garage owned by Young-bae's friend Dong-sik (Lee Kyu-hyung) until it's time to deliver to their boss Seo (Heo Sung-tae) so that he can put it on a ship for a foreign buyer. Dong-sik drives off with it, though, and Seo interrupts Young-bae and sister Young-mi (Kim Seul-gi) at their father's funeral to exact punishment. Young-bae escapes, but can't take his own car; instead, he's forced to use the Stellar that his father bought to use as a taxi some thirty years ago and has probably spent the last decade under a tarp. It's no match for a Lamborghini - it topped out at about 50 km/h (about 30 mph) and has seen better days besides - but Young-bae has to find Dong-sik before chasing him anyway.

There are a lot of things in Bae Se-young's screenplay that don't really make a whole lot of sense - would this car not have some sort of tracker, for one, and just how exactly does Seo think that beating on Young-bae and taking his non-shitbox car is going to do anything to advance his goal of getting the Lambo back (it always strikes me that the really successful gangsters are the ones who are able to frighten but not do actual damage, keeping underlings useful and debtors repaying, and Seo doesn't seem very good at that in this instance)? Meanwhile, Dong-sik is just kind of hanging around, not quite waiting to be found but not doing a lot to make Young-bae work for it.

Then again, that's not exactly what this movie is really about - the Stellar is not just a cruddy old car, but a connection to Young-bae's late father (Jeon No-min), whom Young-bae hadn't seen much since he left his wife and children in a "they're better off without me" thing and still resents. Of course, girlfriend Sung-hee (Park Se-young) has just had a positive pregnancy test, so Young-bae has a lot of issues to work through, and the script has him just aware enough of this that when he finds himself talking to the car, he'll finish it by rhetorically asking who he's talking to. And while Seo is in no way any kind of father figure, every misadventure Young-bae gets into that doesn't specifically involve him plays on parents and children in some way, and that's before you get to how, while the car may not have Herbie levels of personality, it can be arbitrary in ways that are all too human. Hmm…

It puts the car in enjoyably abrasive company, as Young-bae can be a selfish dirtbag, but Son Ho-jun isn't asked to cross the line to mean and it's pretty clear that he's basically responding to a world that has treated him poorly in kind. Lee Kyu-hyung and Ko Kyu-pil similarly play unreliable but not mean-spirited partners, and Heo Sung-tae navigates his role as the main villain well, able to look the fool while still being threatening. And while this never becomes a movie built around the chase, the moments where it does start leaning into action, vehicular or otherwise, are not bad at all, particularly one chase with a whole slew of unlikely participants that eventually winds up in reverse.

Even knowing that it's not going to be all chase, the film winds up more than a bit sillier and sappier than it initially sounds, but it mostly navigates that fairly well. It just means there's still room for someone to figure out what happens when you put the Transporter or Special Delivery drivers behind the wheel of a Stellar and ask them to catch the Lamborghini…

"Lass Mörder Sein"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Max Gleschinski has made impressive little lo-fi short here - a sometimes painfully slow burn that opens with a slow pan across what will be revealed as a crime scene, a murder committed with no particular motive for gain, before flashing back to show how it went, and how it could have gone. It issues its foregone conclusion early, and then somehow still manages to build tension through its dynamic of reluctance, bullying, and something just hanging there unsaid - a woman caught between not really being interested in some guys' company not sure whether to push them away or not, even if the situation isn't consciously registering as unsafe.

The film consciously avoids much in the way of obvious polish, opting to look like something its characters might make using regular consumer equipment. There's no glee in the violence, and Gleschinski keeps rolling long enough after for it not to feel like a climax, managing to make the dragging it out seem purposeful.


(Sort of) Seen 22 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

As I say up top, I hit the wall during this one and really didn't absorb much of anything during it. It's a particularly rough sort of movie to do that with, because from what I saw it seemed to be trying to illustrate something cyclical, and was also maybe told out of strictly chronological order, so it's easy to get lost. I got very lost indeed.

A ton of style, though - it's a great looking movie that does an excellent job of establishing that the twisted and horrific can often exist behind boring, bucolic fronts in any neighborhood. The soundtrack is also terrific, and necessarily loud.

Friday, July 29, 2022

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 29 July 2022 - 4 August 2022

Can you believe Fantasia? I'm still here, still enjoying it, although there's some stuff I'd like to move around tomorrow. There's some stuff that played here heading to Boston this weekend, though!
  • Two films that played Fantasia are opening at Boston Common this weekend: Hansan: Rising Dragon (from South Korea) is a prequel set five years before The Admiral: Roaring Currents with an absolutely fantastic final naval battle sequence, while Detective Vs. Sleuths is the current #1 film in China and Hong Kong, with Lau Ching-Wan playing another mad detective for writer/director Wai Ka-Fai, this time racing to get ahead of an army of vigilantes killing those they believe got away with murder. It's absurdly twisty and fast-paced, maybe the best action thriller of the summer.

    It's also a big weekend for Indian cinema, with six new movies. Hindi-language thriller Ek Villain Returns picks up eight years after the first, with a new cast and a copycat serial killer, playing Apple Fresh Pond and Boston Common. Vikrant Rona, playing Fresh Pond in Kannada & Telugu, features Sudeep as a cop in the early 1970s tasked with handling a threat the locals think may be supernatural in nature. Romaro on Duty is a Telugu action flick about a cop fighting corruption at Fresh Pond. Malayalam-language time-travel comedy Mahaveeryar also plays Fresh Pond, as does Gujarti-language comedy Vickida No Varghodo, in which two exes a man has never really moved on from appear at his wedding. I'm not sure which language The Legend is playing in; it's about a foreign-educated researcher fighting the "medical mafia" after returning home, also at Fresh Pond. Shamshera continues at Fresh Pond.

    This month's Ghibli film is one of my favorites, Kiki's Delivery Service, playing Boston Common, Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards on Sunday (dubbed), Monday (subtitled), and Wednesday (dubbed/not at Arsenal Yards).
  • DC League of Super-Pets is the family-oriented movie opening this weekend, with Dwayne Johnson voicing Superman's Best Friend, Krypto the Super-Dog, as he and a group of strays who have accidentally gained powers (including one voiced by Kevin Hart) must solve a case that the two-legged folks can't handle. It's at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, West Newton, CinemaSalem, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), Fenway, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), and Chestnut Hill.

    Vengeance comes from (and stars) B.J. Novak, here playing a podcaster who goes to an ex's funeral in Texas, only to get caught up in the family's conspiracies about her death - and they weren't even that serious! It's at the Coolidge, Boston Common, Kendall Square, South Bay, Assembly Row.

    IFFBoston selection My Old School, a documentary about an adult who posed as a high-school student for a new start, plays Boston Common. It's special gimmick is that the subject didn't want to be filmed, so you get the incongruous sight of well-past-25 Alan Cumming appearing as him in various recreations.

    There are special early screenings of Bullet Train on Tuesday at Boston Common (Dolby Cinema), South Bay (Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (Dolby Cinema), and Arsenal Yards (CWX) in addition to the usual Thursday night previews. Some of the Thursday night previews of Easter Sunday at Fenway, South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards are being billed as "Live with Jo Koy", the star on whose experiences the comedy is based.
  • The Brattle Theatre plays Earwig through Tuesday, with director Lucile Hadzihalilovic telling the story of a girl with ice cubes for teeth being cared for by a mysterious cabal. The weekend also features a twentieth-anniversary re-release of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Distant, on a new 35mm print through Monday.

    The Judy Garland Centennial feature on Monday and Tuesday is The Clock Wednesdays return to celebrating IFFBosotn's 20th anniversary with Petit Maman this week. Thursday's "Midnighters" are The Rocky Horror Picture Show (no shadow cast listed, although Full Body Cast is still showing up at Boston Common every Saturday) and Derek Jarman's Jubilee.
  • The Somerville Theatre has three midnight specials this weekend, with Wayne's World on Friday and both its sequel and Blazing Saddles on Saturday. They also show the new restoration of Lost Highway in 4K from Monday to Wednesday.

    The "Feel Good Flick" at The Capitol this weekend feels more on brand with Pitch Perfect, playing Friday evening and Saturday afternoon.
  • Vengeance is the main opening at The Coolidge Corner Theatre this weekend, but they've got other fun things on tap, starting with a trip to the Rocky Woods on Friday night for an outdoor screening of the Evil Dead trilogy - The Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, and Army of Darkness. Great to watch that surrounded by trees. The After Midnight crew is back in theater on Saturday for silent horror classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, with Jeff Rapsis on the piano. There's a 35mm screening of Roman Holiday on for Big Screen Classics on Monday, and they start a five-week "Coolidge Education" course on the Origins of American Independent Cinema on Thursday (you must register for the entire session; no drop-ins).
  • The Harvard Film Archive continues with (mostly) the new DCPs of The Complete Federico Fellini; this week's selections are Roma (Friday), their own 35mm print of Casanova (Saturday), And the Ship Sails On (Sunday), and Intervista (Monday).
  • Props to Everything Everywhere All At Once for its staying power - it's been on disc for almost a month (and probably on VOD for longe) and is still sticking around theaters! Landmark Theatres, at least, will be adding a filmmaker introduction and eight minutes of outtakes starting this weekend at Kendall Square and the Embassy. Kendall Square's Retro Replay series shifts to Alfred Hitchcock for August, with this Tuesday featuring North by Northwest.
  • Last call for Jurassic World: Dominion on the Omnimax done at The Museum of Science; Saturday's shows are the last listed.
  • The Boston Jewish Film Summer Cinematheque switches to virtual mode this week, with Cinema Sabaya coming online Wednesday and being available for a week (rentals are 48 hours).
  • The Lexington Venue has Nope and Minions: The Rise of Gru from Friday to Sunday (and on Thursday as well).

    The West Newton Cinema get DC League of Super-Pets and Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen A Journey, A Song, keeping Nope, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, Where the Crawdads Sing, and Minions, with weekend matinees of The Bad Guys (Saturday) and Downton Abbey: A New Era (Sunday).

    The Luna Theater has the 2022 Cat Video Fest (Friday/Saturday/Thursday), Crimes of the Future (Saturday), The French Dispatch (all day Sunday), and a Weirdo Wednesday show.

    Cinema Salem Friday-Monday line-up is Thor: Love & Thunder, League of Super-Pets, and Nope. Thursday's Summer Rewind show is Can't Hardly Wait.
  • Joe's Free Films shows plenty of outdoor screenings this week, with multiple spots showing Pixar's Luca and Onward, with the most unusual entry being German drama Goldfish at the Goethe-Institut on Sunday.
  • For those still not ready to join random people in a room for two hours, theater rentals are available at Kendall Square, The Embassy, West Newton, the Capitol and Somerville, The Venue, CinemaSalem, and many of the multiplexes.
I'm still in Montreal (it's lovely); follow my Letterboxd page to see what I'm catching at Fantasia. The festival ends Wednesday, although I may see what's playing here that won't hit Boston (or try to catch the tail end of Nope's run on giant screens) afterward.

Fantasia 2022.08: All Jacked Up and Full of Worms, Detectives vs. Sleuths, Shin Ultraman, "Black Hole", and Glorious

I saw a bunch of good stuff to start Week Two, but it was a genuinely odd/not idea day - I actually made a choice to see the first show of Chun Tae-Il on Wednesday evening rather than Thursday afternoon because it meant I could just squeeze in the press screening of Detectives vs. Sleuths in rather than have its 9pm showtime mess with other things. Getting into the press screening meant signing an NDA not to post anything until 10:30pm or so (when the public screening finished), which kind of meant no logging on Letterboxd for the rest of the day because I like having everything nicely in order and there's no way to insert one movie between two others. A niche function, I suppose, of use to only a few weirdos like me, but probably still more useful than nanogenres!

(I don't entirely understand the NDA; the movie has been out in China for a few weeks, so word about it is getting around, but whatever!)

That's Alex Phillips on the right, hosting the second screening of his film All Jacked Up and Full of Worms. He probably did a Q&A, but, look, this movie started at 12:30, was about 75 minutes long, there's 5 minutes or so of sponsor ads and stuff before the movie, and Detectives Vs. Sleuths played at 2pm a block or so away. The math says I am bolting the second that the credits finish.

(I'd have felt worse about it if I actually liked the film that much, but, yeesh, that was not for me!)

Fantasia crew on either side here, and in between Shin Ultraman director Shinji Higuchi and producer Gen Ito (I think). This movie is, I think, the only sell-out in Hall of the festival as yet, although there were still some empty seats in the wings with no press getting cut off. It's to be expected, as both the follow-up to Hideaki Anno's Shin Godzilla and the latest iteration of a tokasatsu series that has a following of its own, never really gone for that long since debuting in 1965. Higuchi is a big fan and seemed to enjoy the heck out of meeting a bunch of folks in Canada who enjoy this show as much as he does.

I'm not that big a fan - I think the only thing I've seen is Ultraman Mebius & Ultra Brothers at the festival 15 years ago, and that's just about long enough that I can't really use that as a basse for what kind of a reinvention this is. It doesn't seem quite so big a deal as Shin Godzilla, maybe a somewhat more grown-up take on the material, although maybe not as charmingly sincere.

Lots of questions about Ultraman trivia and "might you do the Ultra Seven in a sequel" and the like. I don't do the "my god you're a bunch of nerds" thing often, but I have to admit, it was kicking around my head a little. But with love!

Last show of the day was Glorious with (from left to right) producer Jason Scott Goldberg, composer Jake Hall, star Ryan Kwanten, producer Morgan Peter Brown, director Rebekah McKendry, and co-writer David Ian McKendry (yeah, they're married). They seemed to have a really great time making this movie, although it apparently wasn't without its challenges, beyond just how continuity with blood spatter once you've made a mess of your set early on sounds like a nightmare, especially if you are by and large going for practical work. Which leads to a funny story - they had an old, clunky vending machine written into the script, the sort with handles you pull, mostly used for cigarettes back in the day. They rented one, and it was much heavier than the company told them, a real hassle to get onto set, and then they couldn't open it to insert the one single candy bar that needed to be there. The lock was rusted or something. So, eventually, they just shot without it, the bar is CGI when it's actually in the machine.

The other fun story was in casting J.K. Simmons as the elder god in the next stall over; a small film like that probably doesn't necessarily set their sights on him at first, but when the filmmakers talked to a previous collaborator, he mentioned he'd just done something with Simmons and said he "really loves weird shit and is into Lovecraft", so they sent his agent the script, he loved it, and he was in. Total pro voice actor, obviously, just able to do the role remotely in some cases and hit exactly what they were looking for, this warm but extremely dangerous presence. This does apparently make it a little odd when his voice shows up on My Little Pony or some other cartoon their kids watch, though.

So that was a fun day. Next up would be the second Friday, with The Harbinger, Stallar: A Magical Ride, and Megalomaniac (since I'd already seen The Pez Outlaw and probably wouldn't make it through Accion Mutante at midnight, though I hope that means there's another wave of Alex de la Igelsia 4K discs coming).

All Jacked Up and Full of Worms

* * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Fantasia Underground, DCP)

Well, that there is all sorts of Not My Thing. Which is fine, but you'll understand if I don't actually recommend it.

It initially introduces the audience to Roscoe (Phillip Andre Botello), an amiable-enough maintenance man who isn't exactly cool with his girlfriend bringing her other lover into their apartment but is a bit too timid to do anything about it. Then there's Benny (Trevor Dawkins), who wants to be a father but isn't exactly a functional single human, since he buys an infant sex doll for practice. He winds up in a hotel room with prostitute Samantha (Betsey Brown), who suggests they "do some worms". He says no, but ends up with her little box of wrigglers, bumps into Roscoe, and he's more interested. They are apparently very potent, causing wild hallucinations and immediate addiction.

Again, not really my thing. But as such things go, I must admit to kind of admiring the commitment to the bit displayed by writer/director Alex Phillips and his cast. One gets the sense that at some point he came up with the idea that earthworms were drugs and then everybody kept rolling with it, sensibly not trying to pad the script when they realized that they'd done all they could and only had a 72-minute movie. The action and flights of fancy are not slick but not also not confusing or hidden; Phillips and his crew play chases and hallucinations straight-ish as opposed to trying to cover or winking at the audience over how cheap-looking it is. Everybody plays their parts a little over the top but they aren't trying to compete with each other, they're all on the same sort of grimy, heightened wavelength.

That griminess and the general meanness of the picture makes it pretty off-putting; there's a lot of violence and degradation in the movie that will make folks my level of squeamish look away, and which may have some people grumbling about why they can't just have the absurdity. I can't really argue against it, though - what level of desperate person do you have to be to try snorting earthworms, after all? That's going to put the story squarely in a part of the world where everything is already fucked up and nasty, but while that's honest, it seems a bit more miscalibrated as the film goes on and the boys wind up with a pair of nasty sociopaths rather than the well-meaning but messed up folks like Sam that they met early on.

To be totally honest, I'll never watch it again and will not exactly prioritize any future festival slot with something by "the guy who made the worm movie". It's gross and cruel and I spent a lot just going "ugh, why?" - but it's at least put together by capable weirdos, which is not exactly something all underground movies can claim.

San taam daai zin (Detective Vs. Sleuths)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2022 in Cinéma du Musée (Fantasia Festival press screening, DCP)

It's a frustratingly common occurrence these days to watch a limited series that runs six to ten episodes and feels like it probably could have been a movie instead, and Detective Vs. Sleuths could have been that - it's got enough reversals, potential cliffhangers, and spots where you could probably spend the better part of an episode on flashbacks to stretch that far. Instead, coo-writer/director Wai Ka-Fai delivers a tight 100 minutes that never really slows down. It's almost exhausting at times but it beats being strung along and having the time to see how crazy it all is.

It opens by flashing back to two infamous serial murder cases - "The Butcher Case", solved when one victim escaped 21 years ago, and "The Devil Cop Case" four years later, which ended when Detective Fong Lai-Sun (Raymond Lam Fung) took out the hostage-taking perpetrator professing his innocence. At the time, Lee Jun (Sean Lau Ching-Wan) wasn't satisfied, calling the work of chief inspector Kin Au-Yeung (Tan Kai) fishy and staging a demonstration that got him booted from the force, screaming that he was "The Chosen Sleuth". In the seventeen years since, Lee's mental condition has only deteriorated; he's set up a detective bureau on the streets and obsesses over cold cases. He's not alone - a vigilante group ominously calling themselves "The Chosen Sleuths" has been executing people who got away with murder, marking the crime scenes with the police case numbers of their next target. Lee is trying to get ahead of the crimes - he's insane but brilliant, the next victims appearing to him as visions begging for help - but the Sleuths are a sizable group that apparently includes his daughter (Kathy Yeun Ka-Yee) and the victims of various crimes denied justice. And if you're the task force - chief Yan Wong (Carman Lee Yuk-Ting), Au-Yeung, Fong, and his pregnant partner and wife Yi Chan (Charlene Choi Cheuk-Yin), Lee Jun has to look pretty suspicious himself.

That's a lot, and it maybe gets you to the ten or fifteen minute mark. Wai and his co-writers set this up as a sprint, throwing Lee and Yi together and having them and the rest sprint across Hong Kong and the surrounding area chasing multiple targets at a time and in sequence, usually with a pretty big bit of action once they reach their destination, completely eliminating the portion of this sort of movie where the detectives sit by the phone, waiting for their adversaries to taunt them. Then, if that's not enough, there are flashbacks to when Lee Jun appeared to start hallucinating. Even the scenes of Lee or the cops examining a crime scene have a sort of jumpy energy to them, with Wai (probably rightly) worried that any chance for the audience to sit and think will probably cause everything to unravel.

He certainly seems to have given Lau Ching-Wan instructions to that effect. Lau isn't exactly giving a nuanced portrayal of someone with PTSD or mental health issues here; Lee Jun is tics, muttering his thought process to himself under his breath, and barking at everyone else, always looking over his shoulder when he wants to see what's following him and at the ground in front of him when he doesn't. It's a different sort of mad detective than he played in a previous collaboration with Wai, but it's still strangely compelling; he convinces the audience that Lee is absolutely in this headspace so that when he sticks out a forefinger and thumb as his gun, he believes it so much that the audience starts to feel it. So much of Lee Jun seems silly that the whole thing only works if Lau plays him perfectly straight.

Charlene Choi's Yi Chan serves as his partner, and it's a fun complement; Yi is smart and empathetic enough to see that he's onto something and Choi does nice work at having Yi deal with her own trauma while being irked at how everyone assumes that or her pregnancy is going to hold her back. Raymond Lam therefore spends a lot of time having to be the reasonable center of the team, although he does get plenty more to do on top of that. There's a big enough supporting cast to keep a fair chunk of the Hong Kong film industry employed with "special appearances", with Kathy Yeun and Tan Ki particular standouts as the Sleuths team leader and the cop whose work maybe doesn't match his reputation.

They're all thrown into non-stop action, of course. Wai Ka-Fai probably gets a little less credit than he's due because so many of his previous films have been collaborations with Johnnie To and To is an acknowledged master (I'll admit to thinking of the aforementioned Mad Detective as a Johnnie To movie with a Wai Ka-Fai script even though Wai is also credited as a director), but he and his team do a great job riding herd on this, starting nuts and then building up, keeping the pacing something just short of excessive, building Lee Jun's world with a bit of whimsy while finding enjoyable angles for familiar pieces. Its action erupts but is often a sort of utilized chaos, playing both as a misdirection and dangerous in its own right. The finale may be a tad overdone - even beyond how there's no way that Yi Chan's water doesn't break in the middle, it sort of goes on and on - but after all that build up, "bigger" and "too much" are probably overlapping.

Still, if the biggest problem with a movie like this is that it crams a lot into its running time, that's not really a problem at all. Detectives vs. Sleuths isn't perfect, but in an age when seemingly every action/adventure runs two and a half hours and stories which might naturally take that long are instead given ten or twelve, it's downright exhilarating to have that pared down to just the good stuff in a reasonable feature running time.

Shin Ultraman

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

What one thinks of Shin Ultraman probably depends on the direction from which one approaches it: The Ultraman series of television shows and films seem enjoyable enough but were initially and often kid stuff, while Shin Godzilla was a surprising twist on a franchise that proved smarter and sharper than expected because it had so often been silly despite its serious roots. This seems like a sleek new version of the former, certainly a good thing to be but perhaps disappointing if one is expecting something as multilayered as the latter.

There are still giant monsters attacking Japan, of course, with an SSSP response team assessing situations so that towns can be evacuated and the Self-Defense Force can fight back, with Kimio Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) leading biologist Yumi Funaberi (Akari Hayami), tech wizard Akihisa Taki (Daiki Darioka), and field agent Shinji Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh). The latest assignment looks hopeless until a kaiju-sized silver humanoid appears and fights it back, soon dubbed "Ultraman" by those who got footage. Afterward, the latest addition to the team on loan from the security services, Hiroko Asami (Masami Nagasawa), notes that something is very much off about Shinji, who was closest to Ultraman while trying to rescue children in the kaiju's path. There is not a lot of time to worry about that, though, as Ultraman's arrival brings out other aliens - Zarab (voice of Kenjiro Tsuda), Mefilas (Koji Yamamoto), and finally Zoffy (voice of Koichi Yamadera), who hails from Ultraman's native "Planet of Light" and questions the bond he has seemed to form with humanity.

Shin Ultraman is not the first time this franchise has made the jump to the big screen, but it's almost certainly never looked better than this. Its kaiju attacks are probably the biggest thing this production shares with Shin Godzilla, expertly combining what are either people in sophisticated monster suits or puppets with the same texture and real-time motion with digital augmentation, miniature and virtual environments, and practical and CGI effects in seamless fashion. On the opposite side, a motion-captured digital Ultraman looks pretty terrific; American audiences will quickly connect him to Marvel's Silver Surfer (the two characters appeared at about the same time in the mid-1960s but don't appear to have influenced each other much), and the sleek, seamless redesign feels like how the character was always supposed to look. There are some other nifty designs as well, like when Zarab ditches his cloak to reveal himself as the front half of a hollow render. Even the final battle, where the effects budget looks a bit stretched, there's a consistent aesthetic that seems to reference previous iterations while still looking modern.

It's in the other elements the film shares with Shin Godzilla where the film stumbles a bit. The previous film was as much a documentary-style film about how many civil servants will do their utmost even as those in the upper ranks of government back away from facing big challenges if they'll be blamed for failure and powerful allies like the United States abandon allies when addressing their needs doesn't match the superpower's goals as a giant monster movie, and while one can see Shin Ultraman trying to do the same, it often has the surface but not the soul. There are meetings and a tentative thread about how the government didn't learn from experience when negotiating with Zarab and Mefilas, but the film is too often on to the next thing to really let an idea sink in, and the stylistic choices made by director Shinji Higuchi are more "random weird angle" than anything like the urgent handheld work and quick reverse cuts that characterized the other movie.

It's odd; Iguchi was co-director of that film for primary director Hideaki Anno, who wrote both, and maybe Higuchi is simply not the visionary Anno is, or maybe it's the material. Everybody knows what's deep in Godzilla's DNA from the first film while Ultraman has always been lighter kid-friendly adventure, and this film sometimes only wants to grow up so much, building up a mythology and dropping in a few meta comments about sci-fi tropes, but often just being kind of silly and never reckoning with what Kaminaga merging with Ultraman means to his friends and co-workers, for example. It does pretty well at the level it's at - the cast is capable pros who know the assignment, the jokes land, and the action is never less than a whole lot of fun when it's time for skyscraper-sized combatants to rumble. You can feel Iguchi and Anno trying to get everything they love about Ultraman in at various points, but it never devolves into a litany of references that would be impenetrable to viewers (like myself) who didn't grow up on it.

I suspect those who did grow up on Ultraman will have a great time with this, and those just looking for a fun sci-fi superhero adventure will get a heck of an introduction to the franchise. It's not another Shin Godzilla, but getting that kind of brilliance out of a long-running series is a small miracle that doesn't happen on cue. It's certainly good enough to be curious about what Anno does with his next reboot of classic Japanese pop culture (Shin Kamen Rider) next year.

"Black Hole"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Jamie Parslow and company do something pretty neat with "Black Hole", which plays as an enjoyably slight goofball short that may be as much the folks involved screwing around visual effects as anything else but adds just enough atmosphere and detail for it to be something else as well. It plays perfectly well as surface-level black comedy, but the narration and the way the effects team makes sure the black hole looks at least a bit sinister even if the primary impression is of it being out of place.

(Aside: I will never tire of noting that what we think of black holes looking like now, including in this film, is apparently the result of the Interstellar visual effects team telling their systems to run some math rather than just doing an accretion disc, being surprised, and having their science advisors point out that no physicist has had access to the same rendering tools as a $200M movie.)

Not that you need to read too much into it, although Eddie turning inward even before the gravitational anomaly appears and seeing parts of his life collapse is right there. It's odd to see Aaron Moorhead playing a part outside of his own films, but apparently it's not uncommon, and he's got an easy everyman presence. The gags are good, it looks nice, and overall the short is a nifty little nugget.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Glorious is a fairly short feature but that it gets that far is pretty impressive since it often seems to have the scale of a short film that would probably top out at 15 minutes. Instead, it keeps going, and going, and while a lot of movies like this would probably wear out their welcome fairly quickly, this one gets viewers to settle in and enjoy - it's well enough done that one is happy to stick around for the blood and claustrophobia until director Rebekah McKendry is ready to let them go.

It opens with Wes (Ryan Kwanten) awakening from a nightmare in his car and calling ex-girlfriend Brenda (Sylvia Grace Crim) again before walking around the rest stop he's arrived at. Answering the call of nature, he's greeted by a voice from the next stall (J.K. Simmons), and while he's not really one to talk while he does his business, something is very strange - the weird drawing of a monster on the stall's wall has a hole in the center, but it seems like a black void rather than offering a clear view of the other person. Well, the other being; Wes is sharing a men's room with "Ghatanovawa", a very lonely, very old god. And he cannot leave until he does something for Ghat - something which will have dire consequences for the entire universe if he doesn't.

This is functionally a one-man show, by and large - Ryan Kwanten has a couple scenes with other people, mostly in flashbacks or before he goes into the restroom, but for most of the movie it's him and a disembodied voice, and it's a funny performance, full of annoyance, fear, and anger, the self-loathing that the audience saw a bit of early on sneaking in, and maybe it's more compelling because there's a hint of something else that the audience doesn't quite grasp until the end and/or a second watch. It's also good physical comedy, not usually broad slapstick but very much someone who doesn't know how to react and sort of foals around, slipping up.

J.K. Simmons is doing the opposite, of course, giving a vocal performance that is utterly sincere and level, almost soothing when he doesn't have to be stem, even when talking about the secret mythology of the Universe and other such absurd things. On the other hand, he makes Ghat have a bit of a sense of wonder about the more mundane human things. He pushed and pulls at how weird and scary the whole situation is like a pro.

And it's plenty weird; the setting may not seem to afford the filmmakers a lot of room to play, but they find ways: There's graffiti that seems to get a little creeper with each glance, as Ghat's claims become more likely, quick glances at his gruesome true firm, bits of effects and neat staging when he tries to escape, and lots of wet gore when he goes too far. And considering the obvious Lovecraft influence, there's plenty of time to get cosmic as well.

Eventually, it's time to wrap, and maybe the film isn't quite as strong at that point - the ultimate mechanism feels a bit arbitrary and an element or two feel like they could have been made a little more explicit. Still, the film does ultimately earn its finale, building something impressive out of what could have been a short gag film.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Fantasia 2022.07: Just Remembering, The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future, One and Four, Chun Tae-Il, and On the Line

Wednesday was a busy day but not one with a lot of guests, and also a relatively rare day where I stuck around De Sève into the evening, which is when Hong Jun-pyo made an appearance:

He was there to talk about his film Chun Tae-il: A Flame That Lives On (there are some other variations on the name, but that's what's on the schedule), an unusual project because you don't see many animated films, whether aimed at adults or younger viewers, about labor. Chun Tae-il was a seminal figure in such matters in South Korea, with Hong saying that the history of workers' rights in the country is basically seen as before him and after him. As you might expect, this isn't a corporate-funded feature, but something crowdfunded, as one can see from the extraordinarily long credits even if you don't read Korean, which must surely include everybody who made a 1-won donation.

The film itself was part of a special spotlight on Korean animation, and likely the only part I'll wind up seeing, as most of the others are short film packages playing a bit away from the core venues and sometimes in such a way that seeing them would take up two "slots". As animation programmer Rupert Bottenberg pointed out, there is a bunch of great work being done in shorts there, often as part of student projects, but once folks graduate, most animation houses there are doing work for Japanese and other foreign projects, with just the occasional home-grown feature being commissioned by studios. Occasionally one gets interesting enough to make it to the festival circuit - Beauty Water a couple years ago, for example - but it's fairly slim pickings.

Which is a shame. Chun Tae-il isn't necessarily a great movie so much as a noble one, but it's well-made enough to show there's talent there with visions beyond working for someone else.

Next up: Thursday and the start of week two, with All Jacked Up and Full of Worms, Detectives vs. Sleuths, Shin Ultraman, and Glorious.

Chotto omoidashita dake (Just Remembering)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

If you'd told me that Daigo Matsui and his cast had shot Just Remembering a bit at a time over the past six years and had to integrate covid when they got to the end (or beginning), if believe it; there's a genuine sense of time passing and things taking place at specific moments. That's not the case, apparently, it's "just" a story doled out in reverse order, one day at a time over seven years.

That day happens to be the birthday of Teruo Sako (Sosuke Ikematsu), who in 2021 works as a lighting technician at various stages around Seoul, on this particular night at the ballet. Elsewhere, taxi driver Yo Nobara (Sairi Ito) picks up a musician (Sekaikan Ozaki) who needs to make a pit stop mid-ride. Yo wanders into the theater and sees Teruo semi-awkwardly dancing on the stage after the show is over, and then it's 2020, when Teruo is working at a small rock club and Yo is on an awkward group date with friends after her shift. The guy she bumps into during a smoke break notes that her social-media avatar is a cat which she mentions is an artifact of her time living with her ex-boyfriend. It is, in fact, the same cat that Teruo feeds before going to work each day. And then it's 2019…

Clearly, the two used to be a couple, and the film will eventually get to the end, the good times, and how they meet. It's often all quite straightforward, with a deliberate lack of melodrama: Their relationship highs and lows believably ordinary, with no sense of destiny fulfilled or thwarted, even with major events tending to coincidentally happen on this day. This happens, and some other side story does or doesn't, but there's beauty and melancholy in it. In a way, Matsui's unconventional structure frees him from having to create an arc with conventional foreshadowing or tragic flaws. Things just happen, and there's not necessarily any grand lesson to be learned from it or code to crack, especially when viewed from outside.

Matsui and company have fun with that, though. There's an enjoyable playfulness with the recurring characters who often seem unstuck in time or something other than parallel. There's a man waiting for his wife to return outside Teruo's apartment, saying she's in the future; other characters will say they look familiar whether their encounters are in the past or the future. Jim Jarmusch's Night On Earth looms large in Teruo's apartment - a poster, a frequently-watched DVD where the audience often sees him viewing the Winona Ryder segment, both an indication of how he's probably sort of hung up on Yo years later and a wink at how this film inverts its one-night-in-parallel structure.

There are also a couple really nice performances by the leads - I love the little rasp that strengthens in Sairi Ito's voice as the film goes back in time, something Yo smoothed out as she matured but never lost. There are a lot of signifiers of how Yo seems to gain confidence and maturity over the course of her twenties even though her circumstances seemingly don't change that much, from the cars she drives to standing a little straighter. Teruo has more obvious changes in his life but Sosuke Ikematsu keeps him something closer to level - amiable and appealing and also foolishly stubborn in spots.

There are movies that play this sort of structural game with grander ambitions, but this one does well for being what it is and of its time.

La Vaca Que Cantó Una Canción Hacia El Futuro (The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

Movies like The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future can be either very easy or very difficult to love depending on the audience's general inclinations; their plan of attack involves going around the parts of the brain that reason, and some of us don't have minds that make that easy. This one's good enough to mostly work with a left-brained type like me, so I suspect it will hit even harder for those who think more symbolically.

It opens with a terrific sequence, music over nature leading the audience to a river, from which a barefoot woman in motorcycle leathers (Mia Maestro) emerges, unspeaking, and eventually heads into a local town, where a man collapses in shock seeing her through a window. That's Enrique (Alfredo Castro), and soon his daughter Cecilia (Leonor Varela) will be arriving with children "Tomas" (Enzo Ferrada) and Alma (Laura del Rio) to join brother Bernado (Marcial Tagle) to look after him as he recovers and help tend to the family dairy farm. The strange woman soon makes her way there, and longtime servant Felicia (María Velásquez) recognizes her as the mother Cecilia witnessed committing suicide decades ago, apparently no older or worse for the wear.

(Tomas is clearly transitioning socially, but if her chosen name is ever stated, I didn't catch it, so that's what I'll use here.)

Maybe there's some bit of Chilean folklore that makes this all seem, if not logical, then natural, but it's not stated, for better or worse. Personally, even when I wind up liking the pieces of something magic realist like this, I often find myself resenting the way it seems to substitute for story or agency. It can feel like a whole genre built on deus ex machina. Like, here, the opening return of the forty-years-gone Magdalena is so striking that it's hard not to be intrigued by just what's going on there, but she's seemingly literally just there to be a catalyst for her descendants rather than someone who has/had her own tumultuous life and issues. Those stories aren't bad at all, but that part of the movie is sort of spread out by the fantasy and the occasional annoying concessions made to it, like Felicia deciding Magdalena's family can't handle their return (even though Tomas and Alma already saw and recognized her) and doing a bit of awkward physical comedy to keep Cecilia from seeing her out a window.

It's a good group to watch, though - Leonor Varela doesn't exactly have a lot to do as Cecilia, really, but she inhabits this woman who is clearly quite capable in a high-stress job as a doctor and doesn't necessarily know how to fully relax and just let things happen around her family. Marcial Tagle sketches out a man who has been penned in by expectations of taking over the family business and not being able to be his own true self (the closet door appears to be open even if he can't step out, so to speak) without really having a full story to call his own. And Mia Maestro does nifty work presenting Magdalena as both some sort of nature-spawned entity and someone with a connection to these people, giving the impression that being simplified to a more primal existence allows her to more easily exist with them.

It's mesmerizing to look at and listen to, though. The unusual musical interludes are memorable and intriguing in the way that they seem to burrow into something about the land that exists outside humanity, or tries to. The apocalyptic-feeling collapse of the family business would be a great metaphor for the family as a whole, and still works well enough in the film. And, I've got to admit, the ability to make a character like "Cow 2222" somehow look disapproving and expressive is an impressive feat.

The Cow Who Sang… could hold together a little better for those of us who value such things, although I don't know how well it would retain its odd beauty if it did. Where it works, it dazzles.

One and Four

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

There certainly seems to be a solid-enough premise for a mystery or noir here, but the filmmakers seem to run into a dead end because, while everyone talks about stripping a genre down to its essentials, there is a limit to how far that can go. Filmmaker Jingme Trinley spends a lot of time near that limit, maybe on the wrong side of it, and it can make even a tight-seeming film start to drag.

The premise is good - Tibetan forest ranger Sangyue (Jinpa) wakes up hungover; he's not supposed to have alcohol at his isolated lookout, but everyone breaks that rule, he's had some bad personal news, and he can go weeks without seeing other people. But today, a man (Wang Zheng) shows up at his door, injured, saying he's a forest cop who has been chasing poacher Ma Chunya. Something about this guy strikes him wrong, but Sangyue is aware he's not at his best, and everything seems to check out.

How to make the situation uncertain enough with just the two of them? It's going to take someone else showing up, but that doesn't happen for a while, and in the meantime, the movie kind of spins its wheels, having the two sit around the station drinking, trying to get potatoes warm enough to eat, and tending wounds, then taking some time in the woods to track down the poacher (or play at doing so) and check out the car crash (one car empty, one dead cop in the passenger seat of the other), but until Sangyue's neighbor/supplier Kunbo (Kunde) arrives, and even more importantly the driver of the other car, there's not a lot of detective work Sangyue can do.

Still, playing it out can be enjoyable in some ways. The environment is appropriately chilly, the forest where humans are out of place can feel enjoyably surreal, and the moments of action are well-staged. The basic set-up of a confused rural villager playing off the more sophisticated guy from further east who nevertheless does not speak Tibetan is a good pairing. Jinpa and Wang Zheng make a good contrast, but there's a lot more blunt yelling than potential mind games.

And on top of that, it's not exactly a satisfying ending, with Trinley resolving a few things but maybe a little too fond of the idea of uncertainty and ambiguity to ruin it by saying too much one way or the other. Which is the problem with stripping things down to essentials - an idea is general and open to everything, but an actual story must be specific, or at least more specific than this movie gets.

Chun Tae-il (aka Chun Tae-il: A Flame That Lives On)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Axis Korean Animation Spotlight, DCP)

The festival introduction stated that part of the idea of this animated film was to expose the story to an audience that includes kids, and I am therefore once again impressed with how hard Korean film will go given half a chance. Who else is gonna make sure their kids know their labor history like this, even among independents?

Chung Tae-Il (voice of Jang Dong-yoon) and his family came from the country but would migrate to the city to work in the clothing industry as that work dried up - mother first, then Tae-il, and eventually the rest, all still children aside from the parents. Tae-il started as a sewer's helper, then was a sewer himself, but at 19 opted to apprentice as a tailor, which was less guaranteed money but the chance at more, and perhaps a necessary step to the family opening its own shop. That being more of a management position put the inequities on the floor into sharp relief - long hours, illness from inhaling lint, and so much child labor - that when he found out that there were actual unenforced laws on the books to prevent this, he jeopardized his position by documenting offenses and attempting to submit a report to the police, only to find the government more interested in building Korean industry than protecting the people working in it.

Hong Jun-pyo's take on Chun's life is a fairly family-friendly version of the story, presenting information in easily-digested chunks with some repetition for it to be clear, but generally not patronizing. There are likely a number of factors left out - no mention of how South Korea's government at the time was more a military dictatorship than a democracy, for instance - and the other organizers likely have a bigger impact than is shown, as the labor movement would go on without Chun. Violence is probably softened a fair amount (especially the climax!), but it results in clarity more than overload.

The visual and animation styles are pleasantly clean - cel-styled people whose features have generally not been exaggerated or overly stylized, digital backgrounds that allow for camera movement that have enough processor cycles allocated for detail if not a lot of wear and irregularity. The style emphasizes the more timeless aspects of the story and characters rather than grounding them in the specific period with fashions or references (though older folks may get a laugh out of the young labor organizers along if anybody knows university students to ask for tips when organizing a demonstration).

It is, all told, an oddly likable story considering how dead serious the subject matter is, but that's how one introduces big ideas to new people.

Boiseu (On The Line aka Voice)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

I (semi-ironically) use that old saw about when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail quite often, but On the Line does frequently feel like the embodiment of it: A movie about infiltrating the voice-phishjng scheme that ruined one's life for revenge seems like it calls for capers and con-artistry, but these the folks making it are action guys, so they're going to use that hammer.

As it opens, Han Seo-joon (Byun Yo-han) is an ex-cop who found there was more money in construction, and it's going well; he's expecting a promotion from foreman to project manager on the next job. But then, disaster strikes - not just a worker potentially falling to his death, but a coordinated communications blackout, barrage of calls to folks like Seo-joon's wife Mi-yeon (Won Jin-a), and fraudulent insurance policies has both workers and company losing everything. With just the name of a fake lawyer and the help of Kkang-chil (Lee Joo-young), a hacker he busted in his old job, he tracks things to a compound in China run by "Director Chan" (Park Myoung-joon) and Mr. Kwak (Kim Mu-yeol). The Korean police are already investigating the operation and tell Han to back off but that's obviously not happening.

You can see what the best version of this movie would be right away, with Han assembling a team and attacking the operation from every direction, only to find Chan seems to have outplanned him, or so it seems. It's an episode of Leverage (which had a South Korean edition), but it's a working formula, and there are enough off-kilter elements to make it interesting here: There's the entire cult-like call center, the writer with the brilliant scripts, the on-site operations.

Instead, the whole thing often comes off kind of clumsily. Han is such an obvious plant on top of being a blunt object quick to hesitate to ruin someone else's life that it seems impossible these meticulous planners would let him rise nearly as quickly as he does based on one reference, and there's really no reason to have both Kwak and Chan except to kill time by having them fight, while the guy writing their scripts is some sort of blackmail victim. There's no intrigue inside the call center worth keeping up with, and Han sneaking away or busting through back rooms never feels like a great undercover operation.

On the other hand, Byun Yo-han is at least a guy who brings a fair amount of charisma to this blue-collar-at-heart guy who is nevertheless smart enough to take on the schemers, coming across as a sort of Korean Gerard Butler. He can throw down in a fun bull-in-a-china-shop way but isn't invincible and lets out righteous fury without seeming to be a prick about it. It's a shame the filmmakers didn't figure out how to pair him with Lee Joo-young more; her hyper-capable techie who isn't nearly as smooth as she thinks she is works as a great complement and she's a natural in ridiculous, dangerous situations. Kim Mu-yeol has some fun chewing scenery - again, in a better movie you might do without Chan and just run with how Kwak sort of spins the same web for his crew that he does for his victims.

Ultimately, this maybe wants to be a little too straightforward, with an ending that feels like a cop show's introduction, making sure the audience feels the righteous fury of the scammed for the scammers. The thing is, the movie never really convinces that this is a problem that can be punched, even if punching is what it's got.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Fantasia 2022.06: Employee of the Month, "Hell Gig", Sissy, and We Might as Well Be Dead

Another day skipping out on one of the afternoon shows. Look, I am descended from New England Puritans, and while I am fairly open-minded and willing to see a lot of weird stuff and live and let live about the rest, I am just not going to go to one of three short packages labeled "Cavalcade of Perversions" when I could be sitting down for some decent fish and chips. It's just the way I'm wired.

Besides, you should always find a chance to sit down and eat in the middle of a marathon festival day if you can. Subsisting on popcorn and candy isn't good for you.

The day started with the encore show of Employee of the Month, whose director Véronique Jadin mentioned up front that she'd never really had this sort of corporate drone work, but that there was plenty of obvious idiotic sexism in the movie industry to draw on. This film at least rings frustratingly true on those points, which was a relief, because I often kind of worry about how much art and entertainment is created by people who have never been anything but artists and entertainers.

Here's Mitch with the makers of Sissy, Hannah Barlow (who also co-starred) and Jane Senses. It's an Australian film which they describe as being the overlap of their tastes, bloody and girly in equal measure. It's a clever little movie, and navigating those extreme as well as it does is no small feat, even if it's not exactly my thing.

Both heaped a ton of well-deserved praise on Aisha Dee, whom they'd originally wanted for a spring role but who convinced them that she knew Sissy and the particular panicky lack of confidence that manifests as carefully cultivated extroversion inside out.

Also, they've been on a hack of a festival tour with this, starting out in their home base in Sydney, then to Perth, Busan, and Montreal. Each leg of that is an order of magnitude larger than the last, so I presume they'll be at the moon next.

Last, but certainly not least, Natalia Sinelnikova of We Might as Well Be Dead, which had a lot of people murmuring about High-Rise and what a disappointment it was beforehand, but which turned out pretty dang good. It is, it turned out, a student film, leading my friend Kurt, seeing his last film of the festival for the year, to marvel at the sort of film education you can apparently get in Germany, as Luz from a few years back was a similar case of students cranking out a pretty darn good feature.

Sinelnikova was most excited to talk about her lead, Ioana Iacob; casting films has been as tricky as everything else over the past couple of years, so on the one hand it can be hard to keep things nailed down, while on the other you can sometimes get a hugely-respected actress to do your student film because a global pandemic shut down theater in Romania. Also, it was interesting to hear her talking about the language choices - most of it is in German, but Iacob's character is Polish and Jewish, so she's often speaking Polish or Yiddish as opposed to German when not talking with her daughter and other immigrant friends. It's an odd thing to watch when you're not that familiar with those languages - they seem just close enough that I could occasionally note that there had been a language switch, but probably didn't clock every one of them.

Random spoiler-y question I wish I'd asked during that session: Did she deliberately look for a girl who was taller than Iacob when casting Pola Geiger as Anna's daughter? Her appearance near the end of the movie delighted me and I'm not sure exactly why I liked that facet of it so much - because she'd been so afraid through the movie and emerged from her cocoon bigger and stronger-looking than expected? Like, even if she's not actually going to knock her bullies over, she's more than they expected and she'll be formidable if she ever returns? Dunno. Just one of those details that was unexpected but hit right.

Next up: Wednesday and the end of the first week, with Just Remembering, The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future, One and Four, Chun Tae-Il, and On the Line

L'employée du mois (Employee of the Month)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Hurrah for 78-minute black comedies! As much as releasing a feature that runs less than 90 minutes has often seemed taboo, there's a lot of room under that threshold for a movie to be just right. In this case, it's probably just the right length for an impressive amount of problems snowballing without the caricatures that fuel them to wear thin (or, perhaps, to not boil over with rage that they're not entirely caricatures).

Inès (Jasmina Douieb) has been the glue holding the office of Eco-Clean Pro together for a long time; her title is technically "legal expert" but she also functions as secretary, personal assistant, and is expected to make the coffee even though she doesn't touch the stuff, being the only woman in the office. Well, usually - Mélody (Laetitia Mampaka), daughter of a former colleague, is starting a one-month internship on the day that a visitor from the home office (Laurence Bibot) is making an annual presentation. It includes notes on pay gaps, but as long-time manager Patrick (Peter Van den Begin) puts it, that's more a goal for when they can afford it, despite salesman Nico (Alex Vizorek) and some of the other men in the office getting raises. A gruesome accident and an investigation by the financial police is all Inès and Mélody need - except that Inès may be even more frighteningly capable than even she knows.

Even at its fairly compact scale, many in the audience will find themselves waiting only semi-patiently for the first murder, even without knowing that it's quite that black a comedy - it is important, apparently, for everybody in the office to be kind of awful to Jasmina Douieb's Inès individually before the timid lady who keeps everything running from day to day gets to show how she handles herself in a crisis. At that point, though, we get to see something kind of wonderful in Douieb's performance, like she's figuring out that she can get away with doing something more broadly comic even as Inès is gaining confidence that she might be able to get away with covering up her boss's death and whatever else that follows in its wake. There's something similar going on with Laetitia Mampaka as the intern getting the full measure of how bad a first day on the job can be, although the filmmakers are smart in how they make it clear well beyond their different physiques that Melody isn't Inès minus twenty-odd years, but someone who has a different set of institutional biases to combat and different baseline expectations.

They do it in a pleasantly small-scale film, with the office feeling cramped in the way a real one can often be, rather than one that looks "tight, but not so you can't run a dolly through it". It means that there's got to be a weird efficiency to even the brutal bits of slapstick, like Rube Goldberg disasters compacted into one or two steps, or the phallic nature of a trophy pulling double duty. Every minor character is similarly a perfectly-captured bit of awfulness, with Peter Van den Begin's Patrick an especially great example - he's ridiculous and transparent but there's a scene or two where one can see a hint of the superficial appeal that initially put Inès under his thumb and kept her for something like 20 years.

There are times when it seems maybe a bit too efficient; there's room for some later shenanigans to play out funnier, or at least less directly. On the other hand, a movie like this can burn out quickly if they're not careful, and it's better off doing a quick hit and then letting the audience leave still laughing.

"Hell Gig"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

There's a really fun zippiness to "Hell Gig", with writer/director Ella Gale seeming to consciously strip away anything that's not going to lead to a joke within twenty seconds or so and letting stars Brooke Bundy and Jamie Loftus sort of riff their way through things, spilling what the audience needs to know while dealing with the supernatural trouble that has attached itself to one of them. It's fast and consciously banter-y, but not rushed.

Heck, even the rapid-fire jokes kind of feel explained within the short, with both women trying to make it as comedians and probably kind of quippier than the general population (it took me a bit to not associate "gig" with musicians, but it becomes clear quickly enough). Gale also gets what sort of vibe she's going for here and that the comedy is with the cast. A kind of goofy-looking monster is funny, but she mostly keeps it out of the center of action because otherwise camp could become the main joke.

Anyway, good stuff. Someone hire these folks for bigger things.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Every once in a while, I watch a movie like Sissy and wonder if I'm the reason why it doesn't click with me a bit better. It's well-made, creative, and I can certainly see what the filmmakers are getting at, mostly successfully. Am I just too old, male, and comfortable for it to speak to me? I don't know. I just find myself liking the film when I feel like I should love it.

It introduces the audience to Cecilia (Aisha Dee), an influencer who is doing pretty well for herself streaming tips about how to refocus when the world is too much, which often seems to be the case for her once the camera stops rolling. After posting her latest, she randomly runs into Emma (Hannah Barlow), her best friend as a child, who invites her to a night of karaoke with fiancée Fran (Lucy Barrett) and friends Tracey (Yerin Ha) and Jamie (Daniel Monks), and then to their shared bachelorette weekend. What Emma neglected to include was that this party would be at the home of Alex (Emily De Margheriti), who bullied "Sissy" when they were kids and is a big part of the reason Cecilia hasn't seen Emma since. It's not a pleasant experience for either from the get-go, and it's going to get worse.

This is a spectacularly bad idea on Emma's part that it maybe winds up undermining the movie a bit when the full extent of it is made plain (though it's pretty clear early on), in part because co-director Hannah Barlow plays the character as probably being smarter and more empathetic than that even if she is impulsive. There are other pieces of it that don't quite fit together - Cecilia is so reactive most of the time that the moments when she does plan ahead are jarring and almost feel out of character. It's also the second movie I saw at this festival where somebody does just a terrible job of making sure that their victim is dead.

That's all kind of nitpicky stuff if the movie is vibing with you, and though it doesn't quite do that for me, one can easily see all the situations where it would work. Barlow and co-director/co-writer Kane Senes build the whole film around intertwined earnestness and phoniness - not only is that the very foundation of Cecilia's online persona, but it's in the way many of the characters interact, heightened versions of their core selves so that Cecilia doesn't know what's fake about them and vice versa. There's an awful whimsy to the way a couple of kills are presented that's not out of place with the faux-glitter of others or how one scene is shot upside down mainly because it looks cool. The filmmakers and audience are going to struggle with the concept of "too far" as much as the characters.

And, above all, Aisha Dee is terrific as Cecilia - she's very much not well mentally but the fact that she's a bright and warm presence doesn't play as a façade, but like both halves are real, a duality that few performances capture as well as Dee manages. She's able to grab the audience early and mostly able to keep them past a point where a connection might snap, with Barlow & Senes knowing just which buttons to push to let her. She's counterbalanced extremely well by Emily De Margheriti, despite the latter entering relatively late - she's icy, mean, and angry from the start and never manages to grab the audience's sympathy even when it looks like she deserves some.

It is, I suspect, a tale of horror that will connect much better with folks closer to its characters than I am, which is absolutely fine. Sometimes a film can break through barriers and communicate something universal, and sometimes it's okay to be that specific if it works well enough for the intended audience.

Wir könnten genauso gut tot sein (We Might As Well Be Dead)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 19 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Paranoia's a funny thing; give it even the slightest justification, and it grows out of control. The trick with a movie about it is that we often expect more from fictional characters and situations than we observe in real life, and doing something speculative can put fingers on the scales to an even greater and more obvious extent. That's what makes Natalia Sinelnikova's We Might As Well Be Dead so impressive - she does a nifty job of withholding some and giving even the most rational something to fear that the absurdity and tension of the situation are able to coexist.

As the film opens, a family is making their way for the woods to the St. Phobus tower, warily watching for any potential attackers. They're given a tour by Anna Wilczynska (Ioana Iacob), the head of security for the secure, apparently self-contained community, who is careful to tell them that she will not take their bribes but also won't let management know they were offered. The main portion of her job would seem to be smooth - the biggest complaint is from Gerti Posner (Jörg Schüttauf), whose dog hasn't returned after he let it out to run on the grounds, so it looks like there's a bigger parenting challenge, as daughter Iris (Pola Geiger) has shut herself in the bathroom and won't come out because she's afraid she's got the Evil Eye and that was responsible. Meanwhile, Gerti just won't let it go, and when Anna's investigation accidentally upsets another well-to-do family, things start to spiral.

The type of viewer that finds "plot holes" when a character doesn't do the reasonable thing they would have done in that situation may have a hard time with the back half of this one, because it sure seems like a lot of trouble could have been avoided by Anna just telling someone the embarrassing truth, but that's the beauty in the balanced-but-rickety situation Sinelnikova and co-writer Viktor Gallandi have built: The audience can clearly see Anna weighing how, as much as she is said to be trusted, she's also keenly aware that as an employee, she's not in the same social class as her neighbors and an immigrant to boot, so anything that makes her appear less that perfectly competent is threatening to her personally. The audience never learns how bad it is outside the grounds, really, other than how prospective clients appear to be screened for weapons rather than contagion, but it doesn't necessarily matter whether the residents are reasonable people afraid of real danger or paranoids jumping at shadows - the end result is still going to be the same unless Anna can manage the impossible task of reassuring them.

It's absurd, of course, and the filmmakers never lose track of what that means, both in terms of it frequently being funny and also leading to despair, but they manage the descent well, with inexorable progress, things that make one simultaneously laugh and shake one's head, and just enough time to consider what's going on before moving to the next stop. The team is also very specific about the world they're creating - it feels like an upscale complex that's maybe a bit understaffed, so it's not run-down but also not gleaming. It would be easy for this to tip into something that's mainly about the wealthy exploiting desperate immigrant slaves, and there's a sense that something like that may be what's next while lurking in this movie's corners, but it's not this movie's story.

Of course, Ioana Iacob could star in that one, but she aquits herself quite well here. Anna is good at her job because she is sensible and no-nonsense, but more empathetic than this job requires - you can see the woman who can't quite bring herself to drag Iris out of the bathroom for what may be weeks in how she discreetly refuses bribes, but you can see the half-second when she considers whether cutting some entitled rich jerk down to size. There's a neat group of supporting characters - Jörg Schüttauf in how he sours from a man who just wants his dog, Siir Eloglu as the building manager who seems quite nice until it's time to throw someone out, Mina Sadic as a fellow staffer who knows just how precarious her family's position is - and I find myself with a weird, special fondness for Pola Geiger, who spends most of the film capturing the film's central absurdity and desperation behind a locked door and is a surprise when she finally emerges.

It's an incredibly smart, confident movie under any circumstances - that it's a student film made during a pandemic makes Natalia Sinelnikova someone to watch even more closely.

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Fantasia 2022.05: My Small Land, "Everything at Once", Next Exit, "Where the Witch Lives", and Dark Nature

Got some days with weird gaps in the middle coming up that I probably could have filled, but in this case, I figured I might as well get some grocery shopping done after My Small World, just for breakfast stuff, because starting the day with just an energy drink, whether I'm writing or doing day-job stuff (or writing while code for the day job runs), is probably not great for my stomach. Besides, I don't know anything about Jean Rollin anyway, and I figure there are people who would rather have that seat.

Then it rained! Hard, with wind and everything - I had to deal with this on the way back to the festival:

Doesn't look like anybody was hurt, though, and the folks with chainsaws were able to get out, disassemble it, and remove it by the time I was headed back home around midnight. Go figure, they know how to deal with storms here.

(The city of Somerville recently removed the tree in my front yard that could have wreaked havoc had this happened back home, and that was probably wise)

Over in Hall, Mitch introduced Next Exit director Mali Elfman, star Katie Porter, and producer Derek Bishé for what was a fun Q&A; as much as Elfman has been in and around show business for her life, she seemed incredibly excited to be at this festival with something she wrote and directed (films she has produced have been here, but without her), especially impressed with how good it looked and sounded. If any guest has been having more fun with it yet this year, I don't know who it would be.

You can get some whiplash from the stories she tells about making the film, though, with a lot of the familiar names in the cast and crew being friends or friends of friends and her father Danny contributing a bit of the score, but then they're all driving from Kansas City to Arizona in a caravan to shoot the road trip portions, figuring out how to shoot in places they'd briefly scouted virtually on the fly because of covid, sometimes finding the light and blocking would have to be the opposite of what they'd figured, knowing one positive test would probably kill the whole production. The gray area between established Hollywood and the indies can be kind of crazy.

I'm going to circle back to something else about that Q&A in a bit, but let's head across the street to de Sève for a moment and Dark Nature director Berkley Brady and producer Michael Peterson. Fine enough movie for what it is, with their own tales of making a movie during these unusual circumstances. It was shot in the woods of Alberta, although in places that aren't nearly as far from a highway as the film might have you believe, just far enough to make getting everything to location a hassle. In response to a question, they got those Cave shots by finding a nice cave entrance on the trail and a nice warehouse a couple hours away, but one thing they pointed out about shooting during Covid was that between the time you've budgeted and secured money for your film and the time you started shooting, the price of lumber may have doubled, so you've got half the material to build your set.

Oh, and the director was six months pregnant at the time of the shoot, though that's apparent the best stage to be at for this, as it apparently puts one between morning sickness and really being potentially less mobile.

One thing that kind of struck me during this Q&A and the previous one was that the combination of female director and male producer feels like one I've seen a lot less than the other 3 (main) permutations of that, and it's kind of interesting to note how the general standard for film discussions like this often seems to be that most questions initially go to the director who hands off to the producer when it's more their area, but with this arrangement, you'll more often see them go directly to the producer. That's not a bad thing - using the basic rule of thumb that the director is responsibly for everything in front of the camera and the producer for everything behind it, a lot of Quaid should be going their way! - but it's kind of interesting to note when folks are assuming final authority is with one rather than the other. Not that either of these men was pushing their directors aside - in fact, Elfman often pointed out to what extent commuting to leave a lot of things in Bishé's hands desire it usually being her job was how she was able to make the film without being overwhelmed.

Anyway, Tuesday is next up (blog-wise), with Employees of the Month, Sissy, and We Might as Well Be Dead

My Small Land

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Stories about immigrants and refugees are fraught enough when set in places like the United States or Canada, where institutions at least pay lip service to the merits of multiculturalism, even if the situation on the ground is often very different. It's something else in a more homogeneous country like Japan, and though there is little to no overt racism on display in My Small Land, there doesn't need to be - a network of individually bening-seeming rules can put just as sharp a crimp into growing up.

One wouldn't necessarily note Sarya Chelak (Lina Arashi) as that far out of the ordinary aside from her name - she's a good student, speaks perfect Japanese, and has friends among her classmates, though many think she is German rather than Kurdish because of something from elementary school she decided to go along with, and she's kept busy by other members of the immigrant community because she's the most effortlessly bilingual among them. She and her co-worker at her part-time job, Sota (Daiken Okudaira), are kind of feeling each other out. The government has recently refused her father Muzlan's request for refugee status, voiding their residency cards, though they won't actually be sent to jail during his appeal so long as they remain within the borders of Saitama prefecture and don't take jobs - but how is he supposed to feed Sarya, sister Alin, and brother Robin otherwise?

Someone a little bit older or less good-hearted than Sarya might start wondering if this is an unintended paradox or something designed to wear people down until they give up and become someone else's problem, and writer/director Emma Kawawada certainly invites the audience to take a look at how the greater system builds structures where reasonable-seeming rules can be assembled into repressive structures, with kind individuals only able to fill gaps in so much. Similarly, Kawawada (adapting her own book and working from interviews with many immigrants and refugees) avoids having characters talk directly about assimilation, but she has a keen eye on the reality of it from the start, where Sarya seems to enjoy the dancing when members of the community get together for a wedding but bristles at "she's next". She's just old enough to enjoy that community but see a lot of upside in fitting in with the Japanese, and the audience can see the tug-of-war and the contrast between how Muzlan pines for home while Alin and Robin have no concept of home being anything but Saitama.

It's a lot to put on a young actress in what appears to be her first film, but the part is cast well, and not just because it sort of takes a second look to be certain model Lina Arashi is not entirely ethnically Japanese; she has Sarya carry herself with a certain sort of confidence that figures into the specific way she can be insecure, sensibly picking apart and analyzing her feelings without seeming mature beyond her years. Stress builds up well on her, and she plays well off both Daiken Okudaira and the non-professionals well. She's tremendously appealing even when rebelling or when the effort to keep frustration in check is showing on her face.

That appeal can be a bit of a double-edged sword; Kawawada seems keenly aware of the line between the scenario where the audience is outraged that even someone doing everything right like Sarya is treated poorly and the one where she seems so exceptional as to undercut the broader questions. By and large, she succeeds by presenting Sarya as impressive but also ordinary in the way she goes about it; most everybody is doing their best, but being between two things, whether cultures or stages of life, is hard enough that even the best often stumble.

Still, as the movie ends, the lasting impression is wanting good things for Sarya, her family, and her friends as they grow into decent adults, and what more can one want from a coming of age film?

"Everything at Once"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

A neat transition-point short in which a man who quite possibly may have just died in some sort of boating accident is visited by a paranormal administrator of some sort, although she seemingly has difficulty communicating with people who experience time in linear fashion.

I can't help but find myself wanting a little more with films like this, fully understanding why filmmaker Noel Taylor and others are drawn to moments like this, the chance to play with the moment where one's universe somehow both contracts down to nothing but also potentially expands beyond human understanding; it's heady but also potentially very funny as one stumbles around. When it's done as entertainingly as it is here, with Adelaide Lummis a little threatening but also enthusiastic about how humans are really starting to get there as, well, whatever she is, it's easy to want a little more, to see what comes next and if any of what came before might prove worth flashing back to, and be a bit disappointed to not get it.

Nifty looking short, though, with a bit of a 70s-home-movie look that counters the weirdness with some comfort - and then makes the moments where time gets out of joint just that much more jarring.

Next Exit

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Science fiction and fantasy have inspired some screwy road trips, and while Next Exit is not the strangest of them, it's got a place of honor among them in large part because the folks along for the ride are good company, even if they don't always get along themselves.

Ghosts exist; a California scientist (Karen Gillan) has recorded them, the work's been peer-reviewed, and while there are a ton of questions around that, her research is ongoing, needing a fair dataset of observations from the moment of death. For both Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli), this seems like something they can help with - both are orphans who feel they wouldn't be leaving much if anything behind, and this might be a way to actually accomplish something. Dr. Stevenson's Life Beyond Institute has reserved rental cars for them to drive from New York to San Francisco, but the agency balks at Rose's lack of a credit card for a deposit and Teddy's almost-expired license, although they will let the pair pool their resources. Not that they're an ideal match; Teddy is annoyingly gregarious for the brusque Rose - who, for what it's worth, does not need a fancy experiment to be haunted by spirits.

It's easy for a movie like this to inspire a reaction along the lines of "you're leading with life after death and then focusing on characters' daddy issues that have nothing to do with it? Really?", but writer/director Mali Elfman manages a neat trick of finding reasons to push the other implications of the big swing out to the periphery - there's still the question of why the Earth isn't completely crawling with ghosts, and lots of moments where one can understand why people might not be eager to approach the question. Elfman occasionally peeks into some of America's quietly desperate corners to point out how tempting the idea of a next world without judgment on the way can be, and lets the audience shrink from that on their own.

They get to shrink back to Katie Parker and Rahul Kohli, though, and that's enjoyable. Parker's enjoyably acerbic here, with Rose ready to pounce at any time in large part because she's deeply afraid in other contexts; Kohli is lightly charming - Teddy is one to brush weighty things off while Rose attacks small stuff - but is good at pulling back at that to show just what a mountain of hurt exists underneath. It's neat to watch them get on the same page, recognizing kindred spirits but still clashing over how they handle their traumas. Elfman, Parker, and Kohli all do a good job of zeroing in on how, as much they're fun to watch and seem worth pulling for, they probably aren't good for each other like this; there are multiple scenes where the two get kicked out of places because they brought out something toxic.

They get to do some darkly-entertaining episodes while on the road, with the sparse crowds that come from shooting pre-vaccine playing into the setting well and the more personal, less random stories coming naturally. The climactic sequence makes a nice, well-earned jump into the fantastic without losing track of how the movie got there.

"Where the Witch Lives"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

You've got to be careful what you wish for, sometimes. Having spent many a review bemoaning horror movies that went for a supernatural expansion when the real-life inspiration is in fact more horrific, I feel kind of awful for finding myself mostly kind of bored when "cruel custody battle" looks like it may be the twist.

It's not something inherent with the material, though; this is just kind of a middling short, built around a very nice location but not one that truly sells the story on its own, without some effects or misdirection or the like. The cast dutifully hits their lines, but never get much chance to be more than they appear. It's a short that does what it's supposed to, but not much else.

Dark Nature

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 18 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

There's a certain comfort in formula sometimes, like when one starts getting annoyed during a movie where more people walk into the woods than are likely to walk out and you can take some assurance that at least one of the characters you dislike needs to be an early casualty to create a challenge for the others. It's harsh, sure, but they're not real people and there's a lot of movie to go.

Joy (Hannah Emily Anderson) just got out of an abusive relationship, but is still having flashbacks six months later, and her friend Carmen (Madison Walsh) suggests something that has helped her - a hiking expedition organized by Dr. Dunnley (Kyra Harper), sort of group therapy on the hoof. Carmen has already picked up Tara (Helen Belay), while Shaina (Rosanne Supernault) is already there - the army veteran has been working with the doctor the longest and handles most of the logistics. It's maybe not exactly Joy's thing, and that's before her flashbacks start taking on darker aspects the further they go deeper into the forest, as if enhanced by something they can't see.

Not all kinds of therapy are for everyone, but this seems really ill-conceived even before you see the knocked-over signs saying that a trail is closed: Sure, maybe Joy's a more experienced hiker than we're led to believe, but there certainly seems to be a major safety issue in terms of taking novices out on a trail you don't know well and giving the only map to a martinet who is part of the group because she has her own issues. That's before getting into how Dunnley's skills as a therapist often seem to be asserted rather than shown. This maybe doesn't quite seem like an obvious horror-movie situation even before the supernatural starts to rear its head, but a lot of the plans sure seem ill-conceived.

And, sure, you don't necessarily get a thriller without some elements that are ready to cause problems, but it doesn't build into great suspense here. The characters are individually well-enough acted but there's not any sort of palpable tension between them or much of an indication that Carmen and Joy have a deeper friendship than any of the others. The monster is kind of generic, though not unmemorable; there's a bit of an imbalance between the way it can apparently affect minds from a distance and how threatening it is in person. Gorehounds may be disappointed at how much happens off-screen, and the film ends on a rather awkward beat, not the culmination of facing and either defeating or being overwhelmed by trauma that it could be.

It's put together well enough; the crew found locations that are frequently beautiful with a hint of danger, which shifts to danger with a horrifying beauty when need be. The cast are pros and sell their characters for the most part, though there are moments that could probably be better if a little more intense. There's genuine tension in the opening segment and the bits around cages are creepy enough to make the audience want more. A lot of the film is like that - so generally capable that one wonders how good it could have been if some things were just a bit better.