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.

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