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.

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