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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

C'est comme au cinéma. Cela fait longtemps que je ne vois rien de mal à ma propre solitude. Les gens exagèrent beaucoup l'importance d'une relation entre deux personnes.