Sunday, August 07, 2022

Fantasia 2022.12: The Artifice Girl, La Pietà, The Mole Song: Final, and The Breach.

Kind of an up and down day here in a way, but when the ups are as good as The Artifice Girl, that's fine.

Good turnout for the second show on Monday morning, with writer/director/actor/editor Franklin Ritch, cinematographer Britt McTammany, and stars Tatum Matthews and Sinda Nichols. The crowd loved it, as well they should, and it was a kind of fun Q&A in that, while making a movie is always something with challenges, one seemed to go well throughout, even with the pandemic. They got a good cast who worked well together. Folks got on the same page and pulled in the same direction, and everyone seemed to respect each other. Lance Henriksen liked the script and showed up for this tiny movie because he believed in it.

And they had good stories, especially around young Tatum Matthews, who is the only actor to appear in all three acts of the movie and kills it. She's playing an artificial intelligence, appearing on a computer screen, and they shot that live, snaking an HDMI cable into the next room where she was sitting in front of a white background and could just hear the folks addressing "Cherry". In terms of playing the part, she talked about listening to the Alexa voice and trying to capture the cadence; Ritch also pointed out that when they talked about maybe not having Cherry blink when in admin mode, she jumped in and said she'd done the research on that sort of uncanny valley issue and apparently characters in games and animation that are rendered by an engine actually blink too often. Just an incredibly bright future for that kid if she keeps that up.

Good to see a smart project like this work out; I've seen so many sci-fi projects of its ilk not be what they could, but in this case, it all seemed to click.

Slash dominates this photo from the The Breach Q&A, with programmer Carolyn Mauricette, director Rodrigo Gudiño, co-star Natalie Brown, and producer Pasha Patriki (I think); the erstwhile Guns & Roses guitarist had Covid and thus had to call in. He composed the score, although I did notice a lot of selections in the closing credits crediting someone else, He's also credited as an executive producer but didn't sound too hands-on. When folks asked him about the experience of producing a movie.

This isn't really my sort of thing in general, and the Q&A kind of confirmed that it was okay for me to feel that way. I was never a big GnrR fan back in their heyday, and looking back, I sort of acknowledge that they were good at what they did but it never captured me enough that I could get why folks were really excited for Slash. Playing guitar on those songs wasn't exactly easy, I imagine, but nothing about them ever leaped out at me as amazing. Similarly, Gudiño struck me as one of those horror guys who, for better or ill, digs the gore and shocks and his favorite monsters but maybe isn't as motivated by the rest of it. He mentioned that the original audio book had more insectoid monsters, and that he made it more explicitly Lovecraft-inspired. Now that I look the book up, It's probably not the big changes from the source it sounded like when he said it, but that's the impression I got: Some folks just want to make more stuff like the stuff they liked before, and that's well and good, but won't excite those who aren't already big fans of that.

Next up: Tuesday the 24th, with Rani Rani Rani, Chorokbam, Shari, Maigret, Resurrection, and my favorite short of the festival.

The Artifice Girl

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

This is just a terrific bit of science fiction from every angle - grounded in the here and now, grand in its ambitions, chock full of detail that has the ring of authenticity but which is grounded in character. That those characters are both human and inhuman, but there's still some room to access the latter while recognizing it as fundamentally different is something special.

It starts with a nifty idea for an open - Gareth (Franklin Ritch) has been pulled into an interrogation by a pair of FBI agents - Deena (Sinda Nichols) and Amos (David Girard), the sort that handle cases of children being sexually abused, and as they grill him relentlessly, a few things seem off-kilter, as they are looking for the location of Cherry (Tatum Matthews), a nine-year-old whose videos have appeared in a number of submitted tips, and the tipster, who has personally been responsible for more child sex crime arrests than anyone on record. Deena and Amos are not going to accept one child being pimped out as the price of getting all these arrests. Fortunately, Cherry isn't real - she's an adaptive artificial intelligence that can manage multiple contacts simultaneously, pull in unprotected data, and learn exceptionally quickly, and it might be time for her to be more directly integrated with the official system. But if she continues to learn and upgrade her capabilities, what will she be capable of in ten years - or in fifty?

Franklin Ritch, who writes, directs, co-stars, and edits, builds this as a three-act play, which can be a risky move, in terms of stopping and starting again when you've got good ideas and momentum, but mostly pays off in part because he never loses track of what makes the first part work and runs with it without resetting: All three, in some way, are built on prying some information about Cherry that has been somewhat opaque out, and the doing so will play on how people will tend to personify her because she can pass the Turing Test with flying colors despite the fact that her mind and experience of the world is decidedly not human. It's different secrets and different conflicts, in part because Cherry grows and "matures" (in a decidedly AI-specific way) over time, although it necessarily has roots in what she was designed to do in the 2020s. It's an impressive chain that has Ritch doing nice work using the mysteries to move forward and setting up a chain of questions in a way that lets viewers think of interconnected things in pieces.

The film is smartly produced on top of being well-structured. As someone who has watched a lot of low-budget indie sci-fi, one thing that felt especially noteworthy was that it established the trick (that so many fail at) of taking place in a small, bare room but still implying something much larger going on outside. Ritch chose a subject that doesn't necessarily need the world shaking outside the doors to let all the important decisions being made within those tight quarters work, and he and his crew don't go for either ostentatious grit (yes, it's a small cramped space, but it's clearly lit and people move naturally in it) or gaudy futurism (no clear phones!). The filmmakers know what they need to convince the audience of and the resources they have to do it - the cinematography, production design, and editing is all exceptionally functional but deployed with expertise - this movie looks and moves better than it has any right to.

They've also got a pretty darn good cast, with Sinda Nichols at the heart of it as the driven but not inflexible lead investigator - she's clearly not entirely pretending as she plays bad cop in the first act, and it helps define her as a combination of steel and empathy that can be a hard balance to portray. Both Ritch and David Girard make fine foils, both for each other and Nichols, with all three given enough chances to define their points of view early on that the audience can feel the triangle tilt in different directions as new information and situations emerge.

Tatum Matthews, meanwhile, is awfully darn impressive as she goes through three distinct phases in the movie and is convincingly off-center in each one. Putting aside that Cherry presents as a pre-teen throughout the film, therefore requiring a young actress, I suspect that a lot of more seasoned actors might slip up with the technical material on the one hand and the need to change things up (occasionally within the same scene) and make it perfectly clear that what the audience sees both and before and after the mask drop are, in their ways, the true Cherry. She's an ominously superintelligent AI able to make leaps that humans would struggle over with a clear conscience but not exactly detached once that could be too mechanical.

And just bless Lance Henriksen for being a guy who'll say yes to a tiny indie like this if he finds it interesting. He just comes in late, inheriting a lot of baggage, and sort of kills it playing against Matthews, an intriguing look at how these two characters are defined by how they have and have not been able to grow over decades.

I've got no idea where a movie like this lands in the 2020s - it feels too smart and too small in apparent scale to be served well by either the theatrical or streaming models - but who knows, maybe a recommendation algorithm will like it for its sympathetic portrayal of AI and give it a push. It's worth seeking out wherever it may wind up; not many folks are able to make a story so clearly about tomorrow's issues this easily digested in the present.

La Piedad (La Pietà)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Queer Genre Cinema Spotlight, DCP)

There is something to be said for a complete and utter lack of subtlety wielded by a guy with a straightforward theme and an eye for a big, striking imagery, which is the path Eduardo Casanova takes with La Pietà. Sure, it feels good to catch a nice piece of nuance, but let's not undervalue having everything just right out there.

Twenty-something Mateo (Manel Llunell) has lived with mother Libertad (Ángela Molina) all his life, rarely straying far from her at all, sitting in on her dance classes and often having trouble convincing her to let him sleep in his own room at night. When he is diagnosed with a malignant glioblastoma, Libertad naturally makes it all about her, from sympathetic symptoms to taking even more control of Mateo's life as his chemotherapy leaves him drained, but also pondering if this is how he wants to live.

Meanwhile, in North Korea, a trusted aid of Kim Jong-Il loses his faith after his children die from eating poisoned strawberries, enough to consider defecting to the South, but both he (Alberto Jo Lee) and his wife (Songa Park) may find it difficult to so easily let go of the blind devotion that has been carefully instilled into their people since before they were born.

So, yeah, you get that this young man and his mother have a terribly unhealthy relationship, a clear parallel with the dictatorship in North Korea, with deliberate poisoning connecting the two just in case it's not clear. Some of the jokes are super broad breaks from extreme cringe, and the situation is the sort of stereotype that one supposes must happen in real life, if at the extreme. It has a couple of head-shake-worthy reversals, the sort that feel like poor writing because they seem so out of left field, but are done with enough ardor as to remind one that people can be stubbornly irrational; these things could happen or come close enough to illustrate a point.

Ángela Molina runs with that as Libertad, making this mother from hell larger than life when playing offense but hilariously stony when her self-centeredness is brought into question; one can see criticism or the hint that Mateo should have his own agency just bounce off her. It's derangement delivered like eccentricity, getting equal shares horror and nervous laughter. Manel Llunell keeps a clear desire to break free bubbling under the surface of his meekness, such that one constantly feels he's just about to break free but not surprised if he doesn't.

The film is built to be big and empty but still kind of lush, the ultimate beautiful but unlivable apartment, all large marble rooms with raised sections and no decoration that's not pictures of Libertad. This is absolutely a movie where there is zero doubt that the director is also the production designer and often has far less interest in creating a convincing environment than using it as a multiplier. Indeed, at times it seems more like an art installation than a movie, but it is one, just one that doesn't care about convincing the audience that any of this is real.

And so what? It communicates, even if it does so so clearly that the story feels stretched and hammered flat at 70 minutes. It's an art-house movie of the truest sort, but one which shows that such things don't have to be opaque and inaccessible.

Mogura no uta Final (The Mole Song: Finale)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

I feel like I recall another time when Takashi Miike did something like have a character yell "no more sequels!" the way he does here, but give him and his collaborators credit - they know when it's time to leave, having either pushed a concept as far as it can go or, as in this case, reached the point where they're in real danger of taking their goofy series seriously. The Mole Song movies may not quite be going out on top, but they're also not waiting until they're a shadow of their former selves, because this one is still plenty weird and funny.

It's been five years since the last one, so Miike and screenwriter Kankuro Kudo do a fair amount of catching the audience up: Reiji Kikukawa (Toma Ikuta) was last in his class at the police academy and never got a promotion, but turned out to be a perfect undercover agent, sent into the yakuza to infiltrate the Todoroki clan and gather evidence on its leader, Shuho Todoroki (Koichi Iwaki). Along the way, he's gotten into crazy adventures, become close friends with Masaya Hiura (Shinichi Tsutsumi) - a yakuza who loves butterflies and hates drug dealers - and put a lot of stress on his relationship with girlfriend Junna Wakagi (Riisa Naka). He's really ready to be extracted, and it looks like he may have what he needs to bring the whole thing down - literal tons of pasta, imported from Italy, that is actually made of methamphetamine. If he can tie that to Todoroki, the whole clan goes down - but Shuho's son and heir, Leo (Ryohei Suzuki) has also recently arrived home from Italy, a titanically strong bruiser who is at least bright enough to see that Hiura is a potential liability and Reiji is ridiculous.

The filmmakers make just the faintest motions at the first film's musical numbers, and the audience has built up enough affection for certain characters that you've got to take some of the yakuza drama at face value. The series has grown kind of comfortable in its recurring gags, which doesn't make them less funny, but does give a sense of checking things off on occasion. One wonders, a bit, if "knowing we're just about done here" is something Kudo decided he wanted to integrate as he started work on the script; there are things like bringing back fan-favorite characters played by Takashi Okamura and Nanao on the one hand and adding Karen Takizawa to the mix even though there's not exactly a spot open for her because pretty girls getting Reiji into trouble is part of the formula that feel like they straddle the line between spoofing what long-running series do and just being those things.

On the other hand, it's still Miike getting a chance to be goofy, and the film has two or three bits of demented slapstick that are as good as anything you'll see along those lines. They get right to Reiji getting disastrously naked in the opening, and one can practically hear Miike and Kudo giggling at how they put all their Italian stereotypes - including dead-on pastiches of formal gangster movies and the bliss of the countryside that don't quite get derailed by dropping a dumbass like Reiji into them - together in ways that are obviously ridiculous. There's also a couple fights of the sort where the joke is that one guy is dispatching a small army, but which also kind of work as actual fights that wear the hero down while also showing his power to overcome. The big finale is also just a special kind of grand bonkers bit of randomness, the sort of thing one hopes doesn't make it into the trailer or onto the back of DVD cases because the experience of everybody in the theater saying "what? I mean, okay, but what?" together is part of the reason we go to the movies.

Toma Okuta clearly hasn't lost any commitment to this character, diving headfirst into every bit of ridiculous slapstick, bug-eyed shock, and just-overwrought-enough emotion asked of him, a comic performance that marks him an all-time good sport. Ryohei Suzuki jumps in and gleefully chews scenery, making Leo a menace for how much he enjoys throwing his weight around and pummelling his opposition without making him any fool. Shinichi Tsutsumi continues to get a lot of laughs by playing Hiura almost perfectly straight, which means the idea of Reiji betraying him actually means a little bit to the audience. The women, sadly, aren't so well served - the filmmakers don't quite find the comedy in how Junna has to be kind of a mercurial weirdo herself to be in love with Reiji, so Riisa Naka spends a lot of time doing "ex snotty in denial", while Karen Takizawa gets one sexy-funny bit and then spends the end of the movie intuiting what the audience just saw happen and explaining it to the cops so that they can get into place.

A Miike film with "Final" in the title isn't exactly cause for sadness. He's done with this, but he'll move on to the next two or three things, and they'll be fun too. It beats the heck out of a series losing core characters, running out of new jokes, and limping along so long as the shrinking audience stays a bit ahead of the shrinking budget.

"The Fore-Men"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, digital)

Adran Bobb's nifty little short is the sort that might kind of suffer if it were much longer than its fifteen minutes, despite the fact that it is very much the type of short film that catches the eye of someone like Jason Blum or Sam Raimi and gets them to bankroll a feature version. We'll see if that happens; for now, this lean and mean story about two scientists trying to survive after time itself seems to go haywire, forcing them to deal with prehistoric beasts on the one side and quasi-human hunters with advanced technology on the other.

It's got a nifty two-person primary cast, especially Sophia Walker as Dr. Samanthan Martin, carrying herself as somebody who seems genuinely capable of surviving after this sort of apocalypse but also having the air of a believable academic, despite never quite becoming a pulp action scientist. Gabriel Darku similarly feels right as the companion whose brain can't quite seem to handle the impossible situation he's in, slowing Walker's Sam down just enough to keep it suspenseful but also leading her to an explanation as he works to crack it.

Bobb is a guy with a special/visual-effects background, and he gets a lot of bang for his presumably limited buck here, appearing to work tightly with cinematographer Bob Gundu and the rest of the crew to come up with a look that seems cohesive even when there are fantastic and/or digital elements on the screen. The film is not entirely constant action, but there's also very little fat on it, moving everything forward urgently but in no more of a rush than needed, teasing out what's going on but not leaving a lot of room to find the fanciful pseudoscience lacking or figure out a loophole in it. It's a nice little grinder of a short that should set some people up for bigger things even if it itself isn't that bigger thing.

The Breach

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 25 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

The Breach is a flick for folks who enjoy horror movie stuff but is maybe a bit tired of rotating through the same ones constantly. It's capable most of the time and a bit more polished in spots, mixing the familiar pieces up for a new-enough experience. It's not a movie that will do much to grab those who are not fans of the genre, but it can scratch an itch better than many.

It opens with an empty canoe drifting down a river, until it arrives on a shore where a family is having a picnic, and they find that it is occupied, though the corpse inside is unrecognizable. Since it landed in Lone Crow, Ontario, that makes it the responsibility of John Hawkins (Allan Hawco), the chief of police a month or so away from a new job in the city. The regular coroner is out, so they bring in Jacob Redgrave (Wesley French) to try and figure out a cause of death, while deputy Connie Parks (Mary Antonini) combs through records and finds it likely to be Cole Parsons (Adam Kenneth Wilson), a controversial physicist who retreated to a place upriver when his daughter disappeared under mysterious circumstances. There being no roads, he had hired river guide Meg Fullbright (Emily Alatalo) to bring him up, and that's who "Hawk" and Jacob have ferry them up to the likely crime scene (both have history with her). When they get there, they find a much larger house than seems practical for not being on any road, with locked-up doors, spotty electricity, and lots of mess and decay - plus, even the satellite phones needed to get information from Connie seem unreliable. No trace of anybody but Dr. Parsons, but something is very definitely not right there.

It being a horror movie, they brought tents but soon enough decide to set up shop inside, a move that will have the folks in the audience shaking their heads - one may not be generally superstitious but still decide that sleeping in a ramshackle haunted house last occupied by a mad scientist is asking for trouble. The film kind of runs into the usual issues of spinning wheels before it starts dropping its tight supply of potential corpses - interpersonal conflicts trying to build tension despite seeming like relatively small potatoes compared to the horrors they will inevitably face, at least until you add a couple wild cards to the situation (one who can calmly if creepily give some exposition, one to sound kind of unhinged saying the first is a danger). There's bad decisions and mostly ineffectual ones.

The cast is solid enough - Allan Hawco and Emily Alatalo play capable and likable folks, the kind who can let their past connection hover over their scenes without making their breakup the sole thing that defines them; the audience believes that they could part company, get back together, or stay friends like mature adults, but that this will not overshadow them dealing with monsters from beyond our plane. Wesley French's Jacob has a chip on his shoulder about the whole thing, but that seems fair rather than overpowering. Adam Kenneth Wilson plays Cole Parsons as the sort of character who would be played by John Noble with thirty more years of tampering with things he shouldn't under his belt, and Natalie Brown is convincing as the wife who has had enough of dealing with that, especially if it's got anything to do with the loss of their daughter.

The trappings of it are pretty nice, too - quality creepy house, with basements, attics, and crawlspaces that viewers will want no part of and more familiar areas that are cluttered and run-down enough to be a little less threatening but still clearly part of the same place. The makeup and splatter effects from the folks who have been possessed/transformed/mutated by their encounters with something outside our dimension are enjoyably gross (if one enjoys that sort of thing). Guns N' Roses guitarist Slash provides much of the soundtrack, so it's not bland familiar wallpaper, and the two opening pieces are fun in different ways: That canoe works as something uncanny invading a serene little town, and the flashy, galaxy-spanning main titles are fun to watch and a promise that this has more flashier ambitions than ambiguous minimalism.

It's not really my thing - it executes well but nothing under the surface particularly disturbed or unnerved me - but it's good enough to have gotten some fans into the theaters after the last horror movie playing there had run its course back in the day, and definitely good enough to be more than filler to whatever horror-centric service picks it up and its subscribers.

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