Friday, July 28, 2023

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.05: The Fantastic Golem Affairs, Stay Online, The Primevals, Tiger Stripes, "Paragon", and Restore Point

Didn't expect my first five-movie day of the festival to be a weekday, but somehow it worked out that way. It's doubly funny because I saw two separate "how do people watch two movies in a row" and "stop making long movies" threads on social media by people who just apparently couldn't handle Barbie and/or Oppenheimer this weekend.


Things kicked off with Nando Martinez and Juan González visiting with their movie The Fantastic Golem Affair, a title which sort of makes them scratch their heads (especially the English translation, which had them asking "what's an affair?"). Apparently it's just "Golem" as far as they are concerned , but this is their first time working with outside producers, and while those producers trusted them with a free hand in making the movie, they had a lot to say about marketing, and if they said "Golem" sounds a little too much like a horror movie versus this sort of comedy, well, that's what they know.

A fun bit of the Q&A came with the inevitable "influences" question, which I'd be very tempted to answer "every movie I've ever watched" every time. They were asked about Alex de la Iglesia, and said that they didn't really consider him a big influence, although they understand why an audience that doesn't watch a lot of Spanish comedy might see that, as they both come from the same basic background, but they consider their work much more upbeat and less cynical. They talked about how Wes Anderson was someone they could see as a much more direct influence, in the deliberate staging, use of color, and just generally meticulous control they exercised over every detail on screen.

Next up was Stay Online, with director Yeva Strielnikova (left) and producer Anton Skrypets (right), plus a translator, talking about how, as you might imagine, making a movie in a war zone is a hell of a thing. This one was shot in large part in a house just outside Kyiv, so it wasn't a direct target for rocket attacks, but there were still some that happened quite nearby, enough that one or two folks on the production staff would deal with PTSD afterward. In some ways, what sticks with me the most about the movie is related to that - as a "ScreenLife" movie, it mostly simulates looking at a character's computer desktop, and there are endless pop-ups and alerts about air raids and news, and that's a lot over a 110-minute movie; I am extremely glad I don't have to think of that 24/7 with every one potentially informing me of a life-or-death situation.

One thing brought up was that the post-production involved a lot of translation, which is why most of what we saw on those screens was English, which is kind of an odd compromise, as the characters are speaking Ukrainian with bits of Russian and English thrown in, and it does hit a kind of odd stop in my brain, which was on the one hand was able to digest what was happening easily enough but on the other was sort of wondering why all this was in English. It's also kind of strange to think that I wasn't really watching an original/authentic version of the movie, but what was the best alternative? It already had a fair amount of subtitles that were less translating some material than indicating that this song was a patriotic ballad, or some similar bit of information.

Also, in a sort of odd reversal to what the folks before them said, they mentioned that "Stay Online" as a title is very apt - it has become a thing Ukrainians say to each other, hoping for constant contact and assurance that one is safe - even if it's not entirely well-known outside of Ukraine.

After that, I was hoping for a Q&A with the guests from The Primevals, but producer Charles Band and effects artist Chris Endicott had to leave to catch their flight midway through the movie, so that didn't happen. It's a shame, as the story behind the movie - there are sections in the credits for 1978, 2002, and 2019 - is kind of crazy, and hearing the whole of it would have been something.

Last guest of the night was Colin Treneff, who directed the short "Paragon", which played before Restore Point. The short was fun, although the retro-tech fetish is kind of odd for someone who was screwing around with Apple //e's during that time period.

So - long day! Tuesday would be a bit shorter, as the festival inadvertently supports my day-job work schedule but not starting until 2pm. The plan is In My Mother's Skin; Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Les Rascals, and Marry My Dead Body. And since I'm posting this on Friday, say hi if you're at Aporia, Pett Kata Shaw, River, or The Sacrifice Game.

El fantástico caso del Golem (The Fantastic Golem Affairs)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, DCP)

The Fantastic Golem Affairs is such a breezy, absurd comedy that its biggest failing might be that it seemingly jumps past any scene that doesn't have a joke in it as it approaches the end where bits of story have to be resolved, such that the last act has a lot of moments where the story certainly could have gotten there, but maybe hasn't actually done the work. Or, perhaps, that's a sign of filmmaking strength: If it just feels like scenes have been skipped, rather than avoided because they wouldn't make sense or would kill the vibe, are they really needed?

It opens by introducing Juan Martinez (Brays Efe) and his best friend David (David Menéndez), playing a game of movie charades on the roof that, somehow, winds up with David naked on a ledge - and then falling over it, and shattering like a ceramic urn when he lands on a neighbor's car. Confused, Juan seeks out others who have seen something like this, only hearing back from Maria Pons (Anna Castillo), whose stepfather once shattered his hand in a similar way, although she mainly is looking to hook up. In the meantime, two lovers who also work for a mysterious "golem" company (Javier Botet & Roger Coma) are following Juan, and without CEO David, the company run by Juan's father Toni (Luis Tosar) and aide-de-camp Clara (Bruna Cusi) is having trouble resolving a stuck algorithm, the owner of the car damaged by David's death is looking to sue, and things are getting steadily more peculiar as Juan stumbles around trying to solve a mystery even though he's never had to figure anything out before.

That's potentially the recipe for an annoying protagonist, and Juan does seem like he's roughly one bad decision from being a really insufferable dumbass, but actor Brays Efe and the filmmakers find the spot where the audience believes that, though he's kind of a fool, he's been held back because he everyone feared that he would be one, and it became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Efe plays Juan as lazy and not always great at putting two and two together but maybe not inherently that way, and as a result he's the source of silliness but also great at reacting to it.

He's surrounded by a very solid group, many fairly big names in Spanish cinema, that make for similarly interesting characters: Luis Tosar plays his father with a comic obliviousness that masks a man so confused by the world he wants to escape it, while Bruna Cusí gets to play Clara as feminine and ambitious in a way that works for her but which others find challenging. Anna Castillo takes a woman who puts on a front that reads as elaborately outgoing and grabs hold of how intensely guarded Maria can be. Javier Botet and Roger Coma have very funny banter that makes the idea of one on his own seem off-kilter.

It all takes place in a heightened, cartoonish world that never feels as rigid as a Wes Anderson film but instead relaxed, with the camera moving between rooms of an apartment or office like it's in a 1960s Frank Tashlin sex comedy with knowing winks to Almodóvar, with characters winking at the goofy elements but sort of shrugging and moving through them. The soundtrack is terrific, the running gags run exceptionally well, and when characters exit with impressively slapstick violence, it allows characters to react but doesn't entirely stop the movie dead. It's charming and silly but meticulous enough that it doesn't have to make a big deal of maybe having something underneath.

That said, it doesn't feel like the way things shake out is the natural result of what happened; it's reasonable enough, but not entirely satisfying, especially when a reporter in a press conference scene asks a question that is basically "so, this is still a rich person thing?" and it highlights how these matured characters have still been placed in comfortable positions, which hadn't really been a thrust of the movie and maybe keeps that ending from being completely satisfying.

Stay Online

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, digital)

I know, when I look at my own behavior, that I'm not necessarily any better in this regard, but I imagine that it's hard to watch this movie and not think "young people just will not put down their phones even in the middle of a war zone, huh?" The format of these movies can't help but warp the story, but it's also kind of practical for filming what turns out to be a pretty decent thriller in a place and time when its events make that otherwise impossible.

That place and time is, very specifically, 9 March 2022, mere weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, starting at about 11am. As the opening titles explain, many Ukrainian companies have donated laptops and other materials for the war effort, in this case a work laptop that volunteer Katya (Elizaveta Zaitseva) is to install a GPS tracking system on so that it can be passed on to the army, particularly her brother Vitya, who has not informed their mother that he has enlisted. While the software installs, she talks to an aid-worker friend, Ryan, and then discovers that the original owner's account is still active when his son Sawa calls. Father Andriy was last seen near Ryan, so Katya tries to use the resources she has to track him down.

Every found footage or "Screenlife" movie hits a point where the viewer wants folks to just put the camera down, and that feels like it happens five or six times here, although it's generally followed by a realization that, okay, maybe folks need to reach out and record in this situation. It's an odd tug of war, between the format causing extreme verisimilitude and disbelief. In some ways, the best use of the format is for something that one might not even think of casually removing from a more conventional film to streamline it: The constant barrage of pop-ups and messages that are undeniably useful but which also produce a constant state of heightened anxiety, including news stories that exist mainly to stoke patriotism - even if the audience isn't reading them constantly, the constant pressure is an important part of the environment.

That tension gives rise to what is ultimately at the center of the movie, the idea that war provides opportunities to be heroic and monstrous, and the practical path in between is often less satisfying. Before Katya connects with Sawa, we see her tracking down the mother of a dead Russian soldier to taunt the woman, getting plenty of bile in return but allowing the audience to feel some of the rush of going on the offensive and doing something, even as Ryan warns it's bad for her soul. Helping Sawa feels much better - he's a cute, Spider-Man loving kid, and Katya gets to position herself as a superhero in his eyes, at least until she has to sift through photographs from the war zones to learn where his parents are. Some soldiers are presented as eager to do something actively good; others revel in exerting power, and "what would your mother think?" is a question that continually comes up but doesn't necessarily have a single, helpful answer.

The story itself is fair, a bunch of "then this happens" in the way that war stories can be, although one which seems oddly willing to take things at face value on occasion: There are a few moments when a call being faked to lure soldiers into a trap seems the most likely situation and the question isn't even brought up, let alone explained, which seems like an especially noteworthy gap considering how well most in the audience will know that social media can be filled with distortions and lies. The cast is good, even beyond how this project must be a Hell of a thing to work on near Kyiv, given the circumstances, with Elizaveta Zaitseva particularly notable for how much she takes on over the course of the film, particularly in the nervous, impatient moments when Katya is waiting for a call to go through.

Stay Online gets a boost for timeliness and for being a thing whose very existence is impressive, and it's an often thrilling movie at the ends despite a somewhat mushy middle. I don't know that I truly love it as a film, but I sure respect the heck out of it.

The Primevals

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, digital)

The Primevals is pure unrepentant pulp whose 40-odd years of efforts at production combine exceptionally well, given the circumstances. The acting may be a bit wooden, and the story more than a little threadbare, but given that the old-school visual effects are the draw, it's only right that everything is roughly on the same level.

In Nepal, a yeti has recently been not just seen in the wild, but killed after attacking a Sherpa village, with the ten-foot carcass brought to America for study. Veteran scientist Claire Collier (Juliet Mills) recruits Matthew Connor (Richard Joseph Paul), whose doctoral thesis on the yeti she had rejected for being too speculative, on an expedition to find a live specimen, as well as explaining the apparent advanced neurosurgery that had been performed on the one they found. They stop in India to recruit Rondo Montana (Leon Russom), a former big-game hunter who has grown disillusioned with the safari set, before meeting up with anthropologist Kathleen Reidel (Walker Brandt) and local tracker Siku (Tai Thai), whose brother was killed in the previous attack. They set out to find where the yeti have come from, but soon discover far more.

What they find is one crazy damn thing after another, giving a couple generations of animators chances to integrate strange creatures into scenery that likely felt a serial-era throwback when most of the film was shot in 1994 (there are notes about work done in 1978 in the credits, but that seems like early proof-of-concept stuff). The stop-motion and puppetry is at times stunning - the yeti is pretty near flawless, for example, convincing as it stands in the middle of a large university hall and as it moves. Some crowd scenes certainly seem like the plan is that volume may make up for any individual issues, but the motion has the same sort of quality as that in Ray Harryhausen adventures, where the detail on a small figure maybe doesn't entirely scale and one can sense the armature inside, but it still fools the eye. That said, those crowd scenes don't look like one model multiplied a hundred times, but a lot of individual personality.

Mostly, there's a lot of affectionate love for old-school pulp with its scientist heroes, mostly played by folks who have worked steadily if not notably over the past 30 years, by and large committing to playing their archetypes in straightforward, competent fashion. One won't remember much of their work, but probably won't howl at it, either. Writer/director David Allen, who passed in 1999, seems to revelin pulling back a curtain to reveal a whole other lost world, with a curtain of its own, and earnestly jumping in. It also does a pretty fair job of doing what it can to get a little distance from the genre's more colonialist tropes without seeming smug about its evolution.

Part of the irony of The Primevals being a long-delayed project is that there are parts of this B-movie that likely would have gone direct to VHS had it been released in the mid-1990s that look better than many of its modern equivalents - shooting real sets on film can still look pretty good if the folks involved are reasonably competent, and Full Moon Studios managed to squeeze enough out of a budget to get that result. The folks who crowdfunded the completion in 2019 were clearly working on a labor of love and tribute, so it never feels like corners were cut where monsters are concerned. So while this is no lost classic, it's nice to have it out there, and can proudly share a shelf with other guilty pleasures or movies that do one thing very well even if the rest is average at best.

Tiger Stripes

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

As much as I sense there's got to be something universal here, I also feel like my never having been a tween girl, Muslim, or Malaysian means that it's a pretty tough stretch for me to get there, on top of there being parts I just don't get. Like, I am never going to fully grasp horror stories about a girl's first period where she is actually becoming a monster.

The girl in question is 12-year-old Nur Zaffan bini Azzam (Zafreen Zairizal), more boisterous than her friends Farah (Deena Ezral) and Mariam (Piqa) already, and while mother Munah (June Lojong) could probably have done better than describing her as "dirty" when she wakes up in the middle of the night with blood on her sheets, but it's not all bad - she gets to skip daily prayers, for instance. But soon, not only are her symptoms hard to bear, but Farah turns on her, dragging Mariam with her, and she starts to take on new characteristics more reminiscent of a tiger than a human woman.

It's the sort of thing that could easily be played up as a metaphor or mostly inside Zaffan's head, except that it gets harder and harder to credit that as the movie goes on and folkloric legend "Ina" shows up more often and what happens to others as the film goes on gets harder and harder to credit if she's not becoming something else, eventually asking the audience to rewrite a lot of the movie if that's what they feel is happening. On the other hand, it's not much of a creature feature; the seemingly-contagious hysteria of the second half is a fuzzy story that's not particularly about Zaffan, who often seems frustrated but not really dangerous even as a developing cat-person.

On the other hand, I do love the girl who is going through that madness: Zaffan is the sort of girl who seems like she could be a lot of effort to be friends or family with, especially when you need something predictable, but she's initially joyful even as she's got a tendency to keep pushing. Her nature is to be too independent to really shame, and Zafreen Zairizal captures how, even when she's feeling diminished or rejected, that's likely to lead to more anger than submission. She and filmmaker Amanda Nell Eu navigate the area between "what local society will accept" and "what is natural and reasonable" very well, such that one knows when she has stepped over that second line. Deena Ezral is a kind of impressive counter, similarly smart and forceful but rigid in different places.

The film is so earnest and ready to to deal with the rawness of its' kids emotions that the moments of clear, sarcastic satire almost don't fit in, even though they are some of the best parts of the movie: The vice-principal type who seemingly can't disguise her apathy verging on contempt for her students is probably found in real life far more often than one would like, but the dryness with which she delivers some lines is fine deadpan comedy. The last act is one of the more enjoyable "exorcist gets into more than he bargained for" sequences I've seen in a while, with Shaheizy Sam a charlatan with superficial charm until he gets to Zaffan, who is not nearly so easily cowed. The last bit of that section is a moment that is truly, universally satisfying.

But take this with a grain of salt; I'm a nearly-50-year-old white guy in North America, pretty darn far from being Zaffan, and this movie exists to entertain girls like her more than it does to teach me. I enjoyed the movie and more or less recommend it, but actual insight is likely to come from someone closer to it.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, digital)

You can see the Rule Of Three at work in "PARAGON", as an MIT student (Jacob Ost) in 1984 feeds questions into a computer program he's apparently written that is built to look up anything he wants to know: Normal response, normal response, weird one; innocuously weird answer, innocuously weird answer, plot-advancing revelation. It's a short film with just one character, and there's not much else other than clever production design to distract you.

It's the sort of period fetishism that doesn't quite beg you to find fault with it, even beyond how those of us who were screwing around computers in 1984 are going to tell you that you're probably not going match up an Apple IIe's version of Basic with a book from Radio Shack, and the online knowledge repositories needed for this thing to work just didn't exist (yeah, I'm an old man reminding kids that Google had to be invented). It's kind of funny that if you shot this exact same movie in 1984 - and you probably could have! - it would feel like clever science fiction rather than a retro fetish.

Under it, though, is a kind of fun concept that would have been fun at the time, and writer/director Colin Treneff escalates things nicely the couple of times it's called for, even if it ends on something of a non-sequiter so that it can actually end. I don't know how well it plays for those who don't feel some nostalgia for the old Apple checkerboard cursor, but it manages its elements well enough to work.

Bod obnovy (Restore Point)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 24 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

I do enjoy a nifty sci-fi mystery that's got the feel of something that could become a series, what with the nicely determined detective who doesn't need to be directly connected to the story to be interesting, the smartly-visualized future world, and the premise that offers its own unique issues but also something which resonates further. Restore Point can hang with Minority Report, and looks pretty darn slick for a movie apparently made for Czech television.

It's 2041, and in Prague, at least, there is a "restore point" technology that allows one to be revived from a backup, though it is dangerous if more than 48 hours have passed, as happens in the opening sequence, where Detective Emma Trechinow (Andrea Mohylová) seeks to free hostages who have been held for nearly that long by River of Life terrorists; killing them at that point would be "absolute murder". Her next case could be even more explosive - a key developer of the system (Matej Hádek) and his wife (Agáta Cervinková) have been killed, with their backups erased from the system, on the cusp of the company looking to become a private business. The developer, David, is resurrected using a four-month-old backup and leads Trechinow to a suspect (Milan Ondrík), but there is clearly more going on than meets the eye, especially since Europol detective Mansfeld (Václav Neuzil) has been brought in to supervise.

One of the first things a viewer notices in Restore Point is how impressively immersive its world is, with lots of things that say "future!" but where audiences can feel as at home as the characters because everything has been pushed a bit in interesting, logical directions, with a good balance between what makes good noir cinema and good sci-fi. The animated newspapers should probably be tablets, but this looks better for a mystery and they aren't overwhelming, for example; there's also a lot of harsh lighting coming off police badges and vehicles to help give that little hint of dystopia even though Trechinow seems pretty trustworthy (and more than a hint of that when she and David have to use some illicit means). Everything still looks kind of nifty without being overstated or showy.

It's also a clever enough mystery, one that maybe doesn't have a lot of potential solutions but which gets to the point where the mess of motives is as much the point as the final answer. That's something you kind of have to do with this intersection of genres, because the science fictional matters are not well served if some can be dismissed because they did not, in this case, lead to murder. It's a sign of the times, perhaps, that the eagerness of the Restore Bureau to privatize and make it exclusively available to the wealthy is seen as a greater threat than playing God in general, and the filmmakers are smart in making relatively limited use of Restoration as a plot device, saving it for when it counts.

There's a pretty nice cast, too, with Andrea Mohylová a very solid center, not given to over-emoting but not particularly coming off as cold or aloof, either. Matej Hádek makes a good de facto partner, nailing how fundamentally weird the situation is for him - he may effectively be the lead of both Memento and D.O.A. here - while Václav Neuzil is a more interesting investigation-usurping rival than usual because Mansfeld actually seems to respect Trechinow. As they dig deeper into the mystery, a lot of folks playing more out-there characters are able to step in and steal scenes.

All in all, Restore Point is a genuinely nifty little mystery that hopefully gets some good North American distribution - it's smart, slick, and unpretentious science fiction that goes down pretty easy.

Next Week in Tickets: Films playing Boston 28 July 2023 - 3 August 2023

Gonna try and do this super-quick this week since I'm not in Boston and won't have much chance to see non-Fantasia movies
  • The latest A24 horror thing, Talk to Me, comes from Australia an is built around an embalmed hand that can supposedly put those who touch it in communication with the dead, and you just know the girl who recently lost her mother is going to abuse that. It's at the Somerville, the Capitol, Boston Common, Kendall Square, South Bay, Assembly Row, and CinemaSalem. A24 also offers Circus Maximus, which sees musician Travis Scott collaborate with five interesting filmmakers on segments inspired by his forthcoming album "Utopia". That's at Boston Common, South Bay, Assembly Row.

    For more kid-friendly spookiness, Disney's has a new Haunted Mansion movie, with a cast full of likable people and lots of flashy visual effects. It's at The Capitol, Fresh Pond, West Newton, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema), Kendall Square, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema), Arsenal Yards, and Chestnut Hill.

    Drama War Pony, about two Lakota men on the Pine Ridge reservation, plays at Fresh Pond.

    Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, the latest reboot of the venerable property that looks to play of the teenage as much as the ninja, has a sneak preview at Boston Common, South Bay, and Assembly Row on Saturday and an Early Access fan event on at Boston Common (Dolby Cinema), South Bay (Dolby Cinema), and Assembly Row on Monday before opening Wednesday (well, with previews early enough Tuesday that we may as well just say Tuesday) at the Capitol, Fresh Pond, Boston Common (including Dolby Cinema/RealD 3D), Kendall Square, South Bay (including Dolby Cinema/RealD 3D), Assembly Row (including Dolby Cinema/RealD 3D), Arsenal Yards (including CWX), and Chestnut Hill.

    The kids' matinee at Boston Common this Saturday & Wednesday is Boss Baby: Family Business. There are 35th Anniversary screenings of Heathers at South Bay, Assembly Row, and Arsenal Yards on Sunday. Boston Common has an "investor connect" advance screening of Gran Turismo on Wednesday. Holocaust drama The Hiding Place plays Boston Common on Thursday.
  • The Brattle Theatre has The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future, a magic-realist drama that I liked at Fantasia last year, through Monday. The original Godzilla takes the late shift on Friday and Saturday, and there's also a special screening of documentary Our Body with filmmaker Clair Simon on-hand Sunday evening.

    The week's Warner 100 movies are a double feature of Jewel Robbery & One Way Passage, both starring William Powell & Kay Francis, on Monday, with The Mystery of the Wax Museum & Captain Blood, the latter on 35mm film, on Tuesday. The Dede Allen Centennial continues on Wednesday with Dog Day Afternoon & Serpico, the second on 35mm, while Thursday's Thrill Ride Horror double feature is Jennifer's Body & Drag Me To Hell, with Raimi's movie on 35mm.
  • Three new ones from India at Apple Fresh Pond this week: Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani looks to be a big, old-school Bollywood masala picture with Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt in the title roles; Bro is a Telugu-language flick about a selfish man given a chance to make right after death, and LGM: Let's Get Married is a Telugu-language romantic comedy.

    Anime The First Slam Dunk, a pretty-terrific side-story to the popular manga and anime series directed by the original creator, opens dubbed at Boston Common (you can see it subtitled out at the Liberty Tree Mall).

    Boston Common also opens Never Say Never from China, with writer/director/star Wang Baoqiang as a former boxer who winds up training kids in a rural orphanage.
  • The Museum of Fine Arts and Wicked Queer pull 1996 feature Chocolate Babies, about a group of New Yorkers fighting HIV by any means necessary, from the vault for a screening Friday night.
  • This weeks "Ozu 120: The Complete Ozu Yasujiro" selections at The Harvard Film Archive, all on 35mm film, are Late Autumn (Friday), A Mother Should Be Loved (Saturday), A Hen in the Wild (Saturday), Early Summer (Sunday), What Did the Lady Forget? (Sunday), and Where Now Are the Dreams of Youth? (Monday). A Mother and Where Now are silents, with Robert Humphreville providing accompaniment.
  • The Coolidge Corner Theatre once again sticks with what worked last week, and thus really only has room for a little rep, having to push Barbie to one of the little rooms for it: Stage Fright at midnight Friday, the 2009 Friday the 13th at midnight Saturday, Waiting for Guffman as a Big Screen Classic on Monday, plus Hip-Hop at 50 shows of Wild Style on Tuesday (with guests) and Scratch on Wednesday.
  • The Somerville Theatre has a 35mm print of The Outsiders as their Midnight Special on Saturday.
  • The New England Aquarium has two more screenings of Jaws on the Imax screen on Friday and Saturday.

    And, wow, The Museum of Science has sold out all three weekends of Oppenheimer on the dome, but they've announced a "Summer Space Film" series to follow, with 2001, Interstellar, Gravity, and The Martian.
  • Geez, Landmark Kendall Square is almost all stuff playing the bigger multiplexes this week, although they start a month of "Happy Birthday, Mr. Hitchcock" for Retro Replays with The Man Who Knew Too Much (v2.0) on Tuesday.
  • Boston Jewish Film has the last entry in their "Summer Cinematheque" series on Wednesday, with I Like It Here followed by a conversation with writer/director/cinematographer/subject Ralph Arlyck
  • The Lexington Venue picks up Oppenheimer and Barbiefor the week (closed Tuesday, with just one matinee for Barbie on Wednesday).

    The West Newton Cinema gets Haunted Mansion and holds over Barbie, Oppenheimer (35mm), Past Lives, Indiana Jones,Asteroid City, Super Mario Brothers. Open all week!

    The Luna Theater has Lynch/Oz on Friday, Saturday, and Thursday; The League and Past Lives on Saturday; the original Ghostbusters all day Sunday, as well as a Weirdo Wednesday show.

    Cinema Salem has Talk to Me, Barbie, Oppenheimer, and Mission: Impossible through Monday. There's a late show of Escape from New York on Saturday, Twister matinees on Saturday and Sunday, and True Romance on Thursday.
  • Outdoor screenings listed at Joe's Free Films include Puss in Boots: The Last Wish at the Hatch Shell Friday, Lightyear at the Prudential Saturday, The Secret Life of Bees at Christopher Columbus Park on Sunday, and Top Gun: Maverick at Somerville's Seven Hills Park on Thursday.
Still in Montreal, seeing So Many Movies not listed above.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.04: Ride On, Sand Land, and Raging Grace

Festival-ing tip: The hole in the middle of the day is okay. You can get some errands run, catch up on your Letterboxd entries, really relax as you eat a meal, or the like.

Why do I bring this up, well, I knew today was going to be tight, and not just because I got Saturday's recap up just in time to get on the Metro and had to Concordia for Ride On, which I should have seen three months ago - the AMC at Boston Common still has a standee for it in the lobby! - but which didn't come to Boston. No, it's the way the end of the day shook out.

I only got a picture of Sand Land director Toshihisa Yokoshima in an autograph line, because I assumed there'd be a Q&A and didn't get one before. I was a bit surprised when Animation programmer Ruppert Bottenberg mentioned Yokoshima had been at the festival six years ago with "Cocolors", because even if I couldn't remember a lot from the movie - my brain's filing system apparently doesn't do that so well - I did recall really liking it (more reliable records say: true!). The thing that really threw me, though, was that only a few of us raised our hands and applauded when asked who had seen it. Sure, it had played as part of a shorts block, but it also indicates how this festival, especially, is kind of a living thing and those of us who have been coming forever are outliers.

And then, for what turned out to be the final movie of the day, I hit Raging Grace with writer/director Paris Zarcilla (right) on-hand, even though it would play later in the festival, because I really wasn't interested in Talk To Me (the trailers make it look like it's really good at telling a dumb story, and it's A24, so if it's actually as good as people think, it will probably hang around). It was a pretty decent choice - he had a lot of things to say about how his immigrant parents had influenced the story and how colonialist attitudes have not vanished.

That part of the day turned out to be scheduled tight, so there really wasn't any chance to make it across the street for New Normal, which is a bummer, because that only had one screening, and while Lovely, Dark, and Deep was sold out, a pass might have gotten me in. On the other hand, it is playing today and I got a Q&A.

So, today's plan is going to be a long one as some "maybe laters" catch up with an oddly uneven De Sève schedule (sometimes they start at 11, sometimes at 4): The Fantastic Golem Affairs, Stay Online, and The Primevals on one side of the street followed by Tiger Stripes and Restore Point on the other.

Long ma jing shen (Ride On)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

There are moments in Ride On where Jackie Chan feels like Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, and they're terrific for the same reason, a lifetime of wear atop something we are already fond of. The trouble is that there are far more where he's making a connection to his real history, and that feels more problematic. It becomes a movie where this character is meant to be humbled but still can't admit he's wrong.

Here, Chan plays Luo Zhilong, once the greatest stuntman in Hong Kong, but now living in the mainland, tending Red Hare, a horse a friend gave him in lieu of paying a debt, offering pictures and rides outside a studio instead of actually doing stuntwork. Bills are coming due, though - collection agent Da Mi (Andy On Chi-Kit) it looking to repossess his house, and the company that acquired his old friend's business believes they have a claim to Red Hare. His last two students, "Shrimp" Xia Mao (Yu Ailei) and Ying Zi (Joey Yung Tso-Yi) say he needs a lawyer, but he can't afford one. What he does have is a daughter, Bao (Liu Haocun), who is a law student and has a fiancé, "Mickey" Lu Naihua (Kevin Guo Qilin), who just began practicing. Bao and Zhilong are estranged, but she is apparently won over by the horse, if not her father.

Jackie Chan has been a lightning rod among Hong Kong film fans and a global audience that discovered him from his Hong Kong work in his later years as a result of his political alignment, but he's also at times struggled with the inevitable transition that a star who has built his career on physical prowess must make, where even if you have spent your career building up your chops as an actor and director, as Jackie has done, and genuinely want to move on to more dramatic roles as you age, it's hard not to be pulled back into old habits that have always been good to you and make a movie a less risky proposition. Chan can, at this point, play haunted and worn-down quite well - even in Western movies like The Foreigner, but there are other moments when he flashes the same goofy grin he's used for decades, and others where it feels like he can't quite put his ego aside. Clips of his most famous stunts appear at various points in the movie and aside from how Master Luo is supposed to have been an anonymous stuntman and these clearly show his face, Jackie is no longer beloved enough that blurring the line between the character and the actor necessarily does the character favors.

Beyond that, the movie often feels kind of dull and thrown together. There are a few impressive action scenes that remind you that Jackie is still kind of great at this, but not enough to make it a good action movie, and occasionally awkward fits for a more serious drama. The vibe switches from wanting to be a mature drama that deals with age and regret to kiddie-sitcom plotting and back several times. It drags at times, and there is something profoundly weird and misbegotten about a sequence about how dangerous and thrilling doing a stunt for real is where the actual stunt is obviously digital. The cast is sometimes such as to make the horses seem like the most interesting co-stars, with Liu Haocun pretty but kind of insubstantial as Bao. It's also kind of frustrating that Yu Ailei and Joey Yung get memorable introductions as Luo's students in the first act and then sort of fade away.

Maybe someone other than writer/director Larry Yang Zi could have taken a firmer hand and worked things that so that the film works in self-referential fashion, especially since there is something unexpectedly affecting when Wu Jing shows up for a torch-passing moment and the film reaches for something about how he and Jackie are different action stars for different eras. That could have been something really special, but it doesn't manage quite the level of self-examination.

And yet, I still look forward to The Diary, Chan's long-in-production drama as a director. Despite everything, it's hard not to look at Jackie Chan and want to see him reinvent himself and showcase his other skills now that the things which initially caught our attention are becoming harder.

Sando rando (Sand Land)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival: Axis, DCP)

I feel like I missed a Golden Age of shonen manga by being born too early and not really aware that these series that seemed to owe more to children's cartoons than the serious sci-fi anime that hooked my generation were, in fact, epic adventures... At least, not until they were so intimidating in scale that getting into them looked to be a major commitment that would displace a lot of other great pop culture. As such, Sand Land is a delightful find for me and perhaps others - it's obviously got the same DNA as Dragon Ball, but it's a manageable size despite being a little of everything.

It opens with an army transport of water through an endless being attacked by demons, although we soon discover that perhaps those demons have given some to human kids in a local town. The town's sheriff, Rao (voice of Kazuhiro Yamaji), a wiry old fellow, takes that it while also noting that there are birds that feed on freshwater fish nearby, and goes to the demon town with a proposal, that they find the spring that must be nearby and use it so that both demons and humans can survive. Youthful "fiend prince" Beelzebub (voice of Mitsumi Tamura) is eager to set off on an adventure, dragging reluctant gnome-like sidekick Thief (voice of Chô) along. There are dangers along the way, though which have them abandoning their vehicle and stealing an army tank to continue on - though it turns out that Rao may be more than meets the eye, which puts mercenaries and the army led by cyborg General Zeu (voice of Nobuo Tobita) on their trail.

When I say Sand Land is a manageable size, that just means it's feature-length - it's still packed full of everything, including not just a part-apocalyptic desert wasteland that includes a demon city and tanks, but a foolish capitalist king, insect men, super-powered adversaries, and enough backstory that characters will gasp at a revelation of what really happened thirty years ago. This all exists in a big storytelling stew, but the filmmakers expand things casually, seldom to the point where you question why they didn't do that an hour ago or where the entire story didn't make sense (maybe the world collapses under more scrutiny, but who cares?). Writer Hayashi Mori and director Toshihisa Yokoshima take the original manga by Akira Toriyama, which I suspect was throwing out something new and crazy every week, and make it feel like anything can happen but that they'll play square once the general vibe is introduced.

And, from there, it's fun. The character design is bold and solid-looking, and they represent their types well with solid voice acting - I kind of suspect that I've heard Kazuhiro Yamaji and Mutsumi Tamura voicing characters cut from the same cloth as Rao and Beelzebub before, but it works because they fit the types so well and can still figure out what makes them individual. There's no shame in the movie being designed for kids to the point where killing is explicitly off the table, to the point where tanks almost look like toys and their battles are mostly going to be knocking each other around. The pace is quick but never frantic, smoothly moving on to the next stage whenever the story demands it, and the action a fun game to watch play out, even at its most high-stakes.

It's also just a fun thing to look at; every human, demon, and machine has bold enough lines that the introduction of something fragile-looking hits harder, with the visuals right at the point where a kid can understand that, say, Beelzebub may look like something grown-ups tell you is scary but is obviously cheerful and mischievous, while adults shouldn't feel like they're being talked down to. Yokoshima and his crew stage action in something close to classic anime fashion, preferring to give viewers the lay of the land and cut rather than use a swooping virtual camera most of the time, which keeps the style cohesive rather than muddled.

I'm not diving into all the Dragon Ball after this, but I'll probably pay a little more attention when the next thing like it shows up. Who doesn't enjoy big freewheeling adventure that finishes without having to buy 100 volumes of comics?

Raging Grace

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Most festivals don't necessarily give awards for "favorite character", but if Fantasia did, I wouldn't bet against the Grace of this movie's title winning it. She's an indispensable kid in a movie that quickly gets into grown-up horror, a big part of why the movie can keep the audience laughing in genuine fashion before that becomes nervous and then unnerving.

Grace (Jaeden Paige Boadilla) is the daughter of Joy (Max Eigenmann), a Filipina woman who has been in the UK without proper documentation for years, working under the table as a cleaner while trying to scrounge up the money that a fixer (Oliver Wellington) demands before straightening out her visa and citizenship. Indeed, she and Grace are technically unhoused, spending the summer sneaking into the homes of various employers who have gone away on vacation. The latest offer seems too good to be true - a manor house where Joy can have an actual room, though she still opts to sneak Grace in in her luggage. Grace, however, is a nosy troublemaker who soon begins to suspect that their employer Katherine (Leanne Best) is poisoning her comatose uncle Nigel Garrett (David Hayman), and while Joy doesn't want to look a gift horse in the mouth, it eventually begins to nag at her.

It's not unheard of for a thriller/horror piece like this to start out as door-slamming farce, where writer/ director Paris Zarcilla build multiple comic scenes out of Grace sneaking around a room's furnishings or up stairs while trying to stay out of Katherine's line of vision, or gags where Joy casually sits her daughter in a closet. There's props to this, sure - Grace's pranks where she switches food containers has an obvious parallel, and her being a girl who cried wolf keeps things simmering for a while - and there's a contrast to all the stupidly racist things employers say and do around Joy. Still, a lot of people making unambiguous comedies don't set up and execute jokes nearly as well as Zarcilla does here.

He's also undeniably on point when it comes time to get serious, though; every belittling thing Joy goes through eventually winds up having an even darker mirror image, and Grace's frustration at being hidden away erupts in a bit of cruelty that seems like too much, except that it also highlights just how someone a smart and independent as this little girl can maybe be manipulated when the film takes another big turn later on. And there are some good, big turns, although they never feel particularly out of left field. Zarcilla is quite good at hiding the next awful thing in a temporary victory.

I suspect that he and his cast have fun inverting certain tropes as well, especially in how Max Eigenmann gets to play Joy as sensible and grounded, though understandably tense and occasionally on the believable edge of a stressful collapse, while the various white Britons start as a montage of ridiculous caricatures before Leanne Best brings it to the next level with Katherine, riding the line between being obliviously and deliberately awful, while David Hayman gets a late start but makes Garrett a roller-coaster ride of a character, though all the pieces fit together exactly. And Jaeden Paige Boadilla is a delight as Grace, adept at the physical comedy and able to capture how she's a great, if frustrating kid while still tapping into deep frustrations.

Thrown together, it makes for a terrific little thriller that, while it may have a moment or two of talking a little directly to the audience about the real-world situations that inspired it, also does a terrific job of connecting the absurdity and danger of its situations on its way to a classic spooky-old-house climax.

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.03: The First Slam Dunk, Sympathy for the Devil, "Drumming Makes You Happy", and The Becomers

Or, "the one we should get posted on time because two of these movies hit theaters next week".

It wound up being a late start because the shows in the 1pm slot were things I had already seen, whether in their original release (The President's Last Bang) or the Fathom Events presentation a couple months ago (Shin Kamen Rider), so I spent a bit of time walking down St. Catherine taking in the decorations for Juste Pour Rire.

Very good crowd for The First Slam Dunk, which isn't exactly surprising - the manga and anime have been popular for decades and this has the buzz that it's getting a regular theatrical release next week, although I was kind of surprised just how into it the audience got, as basketball. I remember one time the festival tried to do a genre/sports double feature and the audience wasn't really into it, but this got the sort of response to the game that had me thinking "hey, there's kids watching this movie" when someone cussed as part of their reaction.

Next up after that was Sympathy for the Devil, initially expected to be a big centerpiece presentation with Nicolas Cage getting a Cheval Noir, but the actor's strike means no promotional activities so Mitch was joined by director Yuval Adler and producer Allan Ungar. The writers are also on strike, so that meant that while screenwriter Luke Paradise was there to see the world premiere, he stayed in the audience rather than doing a Q&A.

Which is a real shame for us, because from the way Adler and Ungar described it, this was kind of an interesting script-to-screen story: Adler had apparently seen the script about ten years ago, trying to make it his next movie after Bethlehem, but somebody else got there first. Getting a film made can take ages, though, so it just went through development, with Adler calling every couple years until finally, in 2021 or 2022, it became available and he pounced. It was originally set in New York during the winter, but then Nicolas Cage was cast and it not only wound up relocated to Las Vegas because Cage lives there and his wife was expecting a child soon, but it had to fit into a very narrow window because, in case you haven't noticed, Cage makes a lot of movies these days. He's also a movie star with ideas about his characters, and you kind of wind up bending to that. Adler and Ungar had a bunch of interesting stories about that; they had to find a soundstage, with everyone going through a learning curve with the scenery-projection tech that has become popular since The Mandalorian, with relatively little shot on location, and that cut short by approaching rain, which is a thing you don't think about having to worry about in Vegas. It did mean they got some shots of apocalyptic-looking lightning on the horizon, which fit it pretty well. Not being able to get Cage and Paradise on stage was a shame, because, as much as this is sort of a minor thriller, the talk of how this sort of collaboration happens and winds up coherent is fascinating.

Also, the jacket Adler is wearing there is the same one Cage wears in the movie. I could not pull it off. They mentioned that it was supplied by a clothier in a Vegas hotel, and that four $7,000 jackets gets you a pretty nice logo in the closing credits.

After that, it was across the street to De Seve for The Becomers, with writer/director Zach Clark and producer Edwin Linker. As Clark put it, it is what you get after more or less doing nothing for a year because of a global pandemic, watching a bunch of the original Star Trek, and getting invited to pitch genre movies that can be done cheap and shot in a couple of weeks. The result is genuinely weird and very pandemic-warped, cynical but not quite giving up on humanity.

Clark had some fun stories to go with it, such as how Russell Mael wound up narrating because they both wound up on the same Zoom movie-watch-along during the pandemic and were exchanging emails, and that Clark himself wound up playing the aliens in their natural form because the cast was Chicago-based and the guys fabricating the costumes were in New York, and in this sort of microbudget indie, you limit who is racking up air miles on the production dime. He also couldn't help laughing at how, yes, the weird cultist character were stupid and ridiculous, but have you seen the folks he was basing them on? Just so, so stupid.

Anyway, both The First Slam Dunk and Sympathy for the Devil are opening Friday, 28 July. If I had to guess for the Boston area, Slam Dunk will play Boston Common while Sympathy might show up at Fresh Pond, as Nic Cage movies are wont to do, although who knows with how well the big ones opened this weekend - sometimes a thing opening soft means there are extra screens available, sometimes the opposite means opportunities to run dry up.

As an aside, I probably messed up two promotional photos yesterday, sitting up front and center but not collecting a megaphone for Slam Dunk or sunglasses for Becomers, though not out of any sort of "telling the audience they are part of the entertainment sets a bad precedent" principle; they just weren't handed to me. Hopefully, I won't do the same today, where the plan is Ride On, Sand Land, Raging Grace, and New Normal

"Otamatoon: Let's Play Chirirrin"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival: Axis, digital)

These little vignettes by director Novmichi Tosa and Maywa Denki are about a minute long, but cute as heck, in this case pulling a lot of personality out of two baby toys, one of whose face doesn't really move while the other has a big mouth that lets out contrasting wails to his friend's bells.

Adorable. I hope there's more before other animes this week.

The First Slam Dunk

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival: Axis, DCP)

The First Slam Dunk is a genuinely terrific sports movie and manga adaptation that, like many, probably benefits some from familiarity with the source material - there are plenty of characters who probably carry a ton of weight in the high school drama parts of the manga spend the bulk of the film on the sidelines, cheering the starting five on. But the laser focus on this one game keeps the movie from getting anywhere close to bogged down, or otherwise getting to the point where you're worrying about what's "really" important.

Ryota Miyagi (voice of Shugo Nakamura) is apparently something of a secondary character in the main Slam Dunk manga, but here he is presented as the heart and soul of the Shohoku basketball team, despite his relatively short stature. Just turning 17, he's been a huge basketball fan since he was a little kid idolizing his big brother Sota, who died in an accident soon after they lost their father. Now, though, he is playing for the national championship against powerhouse high school Sannoh, and the starters will get most of the minutes: Hisashi Mitsui (voice of Jun Kasama), a versatile guard; Hanamichi Sakuragi (voice of Subaru Kimura), a former hooligan with red-dyed hair who thinks he's more a basketball genius than he is; Takenori Akagi (voice of Kenta Miyake), a goliath of a center with confidence issues; and Kaede Rukawa (voice of Shinichiro Kamio), Ryota's first friend at this new school, a three-point threat who has a tendency to hog the ball.

Not that is entirely in the game; there are plentiful flashbacks to Ryoga as a 9-year-old kid idolizing his older brother and reeling from the loss, as well as his first days in a new school and on this team. It's mostly good, foundational material, showing what the main force behind these kids' supercharged emotions and showing just how much Ryoga's desire to follow in his brother's footsteps (though he's now older than Sota will ever be) is a strain on his mother. Given that the main line of the original comics and animations primarily follow Sakuragi, it's a nifty way for filmmaker Takehiko Inoue (who also wrote and drew the original manga) to insert a feature into a story that is mostly complete without retreading much. There are moments that longtime fans of the material will probably seize upon, and things that feel like cut subplots to us newbies (like, are Ryoga and team manager Ayako crushing on each other?), but it works, overall.

It's the basketball that people are going to come out of the film racing about, though, and they should: For all that animation carries the risk of looking weightless or letting the filmmakers do an end run around human capability, the action here is heavily motion captured and rendered in a style that keeps the characters rigidly on model as opposed to enabling cartoon-style exaggeration. What the style does allow for is the filmmakers getting the virtual camera right into the middle of the action in a way that could never happen on an actual sports broadcast, sometimes slowing things down maybe 10% so normal people can follow the unfolding action that players can see instinctively, and otherwise just pulling one into the game. It's written to deliver the full roller coaster of an underdog playing a powerhouse, and the festival audience responded like it was a real game.

There are, admittedly, a couple stretches where a flashback goes on a bit long or doesn't seem particularly connected to the immediate game situation and one wants them to get back to basketball, but it's more than enough to give it some heft. And for a first-time director, Inoue handles the push and pull between these two halves very well. He and his animators also do a very impressive job of combining two animation techniques, as the game action is digital but most of the flashback material is a more hand-drawn style, but the transition between the two is unusually seamless, especially considering that the things that looked unreal in the trailer look much better when presented in context rather than quick-cut clips.

It's a heck of a thing for an animated high school basketball game to bring out the same response as attending a game live, but this one manages. It's a heck of a ride, even for those of us who barely know the comic exists.

Sympathy for the Devil

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Confession: As a New Englander, a Nicolas Cage character announcing he's from Southie made me tense up as much as anything else - I mean, folks are going to expect me to have opinions on this. Beyond that, though, the accent is the sort of thing that can just eat an actor up when he's already playing to the rafters, and thus serve as a test for just how big one enjoys Cage going.

It starts smaller, of course, with David Chamberlain (Joel Kinnaman) dropping his son off at his mother-in-law's so that he can get to the hospital where his wife is about to give birth to their second child in her third difficult pregnancy. As he attempts to park, though, a man in red (Cage) casually slides in the back seat and says to drive; when David mentions that this isn't a rideshare, the man pulls a gun and directs him to the outskirts of Vegas. It soon becomes clear that the passenger was looking for David specifically, but why? He's just a nobody, certainly not someone an East Coast hood would be interested in!

And so, the movie becomes Nicolas Cage just Nicholas Caging all over the place for a bit under 90 minutes, and you're kind of either all in for that or not. Cage never mails this sort of thing in, though, and he doesn't here, from the moment he steps out of the shadows with his hair dyed a Satanic red to match his suit to when he eventually, inevitably, sets everything on fire. By now, I suspect writers know that he'll take their script as a starting point to riff and give him more raw meat when he gets attached, and that's what one remembers: Cage takes great joy turning a good line over in his mouth, staring without blinking for far too long, putting more energy into an outburst than is on the page, and walking up to the edge of meta-commentary, both as an acknowledgment that the audience has seen a lot of these movies and hinting that he may be the actual devil who knows how this sort of thing always goes. Still, you can't claim he doesn't actually find something amid the genre trappings; there's undeniably a bit more than the mad-dog killer to his role, even if he's going to let the audience have fun until they really need to see it.

If he's in almost the full 90 minutes, Joel Kinnaman is in more, and though this can be kind of a thankless sort of role, it's worth remembering that the laugh at Cage going big often comes from when the camera cuts to Kinnaman's everyman reacting in the same stunned disbelief anyone else would. Of course, the audience going into the movie is going to have their suspicions that there's more to David than meets the eye, and part of his job is to convince us that, no, maybe there's not, but there still might be enough to him that he can turn the tables at some point in the last act, whether or not he's who his passenger thinks he is.

In the meantime, this is a small but mostly well-mounted little movie. I don't know that it really takes advantage of how Vegas can be a sort of in-between place intentionally; while Boston and New York are mentioned, there aren't any flashbacks, instead relying on Cage telling a story, and it sort of becomes limbo, but not entirely. There are moments that come across more as something the actor can have fun with than the natural response, but the filmmakers make that work as an agent-of-chaos thing, and when the time for action comes, they do a solid job of building suspense from what the audience can see rather than cutting together a lot of action and hoping the vibe is right.

Which is good, because this isn't really a story that hasn't been told before or anything. It's fairly straightforward and has a couple good parts, but even the surprises aren't really surprises. Movies like this fill out a theater on a slow week or are good for an hour and a half when you find it on a streaming service. There's a good chance you'll move onto something else soon enough, but it's better than just fine.

"Drumming Makes You Happy"

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival Underground, digital)

This thing is two minutes long, so I'm not going to go too deep into it, but I hope that the one note I took during it, "Like Paul Reubens playing a buddhist monk", is what filmmaker Josh Coen and lead actor Chad Jamian were going for. It's cheery and silly and gets dangerously close to its joke being spent in a very short time, but it is certainly good for a couple of laughs.

The Becomers

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival Underground, digital)

The Becomers is an enjoyably odd piece of sci-fi that takes a familiar if not exactly common trope (alien visitors/refugees displacing human bodies) and makes it work in large part by maintaining their point of view and maybe not overthinking it. So many movies playing with this get too caught up in the morality of it, where this one seems to get to those questions at the right pace.

The first alien arrives on Earth in a cloud of pink smoke, possessing a hunter before winding in the body of Francesca (Isabel Alamin), a young woman about to give birth. They get acclimated - with a motel manager seeming a little too eager to be of assistance - before the law starts looking for Francesca. From there, they get a chance to jump to Carol (Molly Plunk), who lives in a nice suburban house, and when their lover locates them, they can take over Carol's husband Gordon (Mike Lopez). Seems like a nice, quiet place to reside after fleeing one's home planet's destruction, but they don't know what Carol, Gordon, and their friends were into.

It's an interesting decision that a lot of the humans these folks encounter are weirdos, rather than doing the thing where they observe normal humans and find our everyday lives strange, but get into an even weirder situation. One could say that they do, and most of humanity is just more twisted than we give ourselves credit for, but it lets the filmmakers ride a line where anything can happen but it's not entirely because of aliens-doing-alien-things randomness, letting writer/director Zach Clark do outrageous surprises while still playing kind of fair. It's actually kind of interesting, because on the surface there's not a whole lot of reason for the aliens to really begin to feel remorse and affection for humanity, but testing that ability manages to strengthen it.

This is a very tight little indie, so there aren't going to be a lot of big set-ups, but Clark offers a lot of weird fun regardless. Russell Mael offers narration that seems just off-kilter enough for one to shake their heads as he describes the Lovers' lives on their home planet but also feels grounded in familiar pleasures, hardships, and threats, just the right sort of us and them. There's a really mean-spirited bit early on that works as a joke (and doesn't entirely turn one away from the first lover) because Clark isn't even trying to make the effects believable, and some alien sex that is appropriately gooey and ridiculous, a nice but nasty companion to Mael's earlier narration about "missing your orifice".

The cast does a fairly nice job of taking these protean characters and making them work, with each Lover played by at least three actors each. I wonder, a bit, if maybe the first has a tendency to backslide and have to relearn in each new body, although Isabel Alamin and Molly Plunk both capture some of the same weird vibe (Plunk, especially, makes one wonder how this redhead isn't already at the stage in her career where she's not only joined the cast of Saturday Night Live but is moving on because she keeps getting all the great zany roles in spin-off movies). Plunk has good chemistry with both characters who play her character's lover, with Mike Lopez an enjoyable straight man who can get weird himself on occasion.

This one's going to be an acquired taste; I can already see people asking me why I would recommend it to them. But it's a pandemic production - I'm not sure whether half the characters wearing masks around their chins is a barbed joke or a compromise - and in all its goofy, cynical, and bizarrely hopeful oddity, it captures how that time made us a little nuts as well as anything can.

Saturday, July 22, 2023

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.02: The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell, The Roundup: No Way Out, "Gertrude and Ivan Party Hard", and Vincent Must Die

I arranged Thursday's movies so that other days of the week could play out a certain way, and to be sure I got Larry Fessenden doing a Q&A, and that means The White Storm 3 was seen not at the festival proper but at the movie theater they've carved out of the old forum, which is kind of the rough equivalent of the Boston Common theater back home in a few ways - it's where the Chinese and Indian and other foreign-mainstream will play, with only a few rooms upgraded, but mostly a perfectly pleasant place to see a movie. And, like that place, I was probably the only person in the room, although what did I expect for a 3:15pm niche presentation? I imagine it would have been a lot more fun at the festival, but, again, Larry Fessenden.

That gave me plenty of time to grab some chicken before The Roundup: No Way Out, which had guests!

That's director Lee Sang-yong and producers Billy Aikman and Kim Keung-Taek, who by and large were asked questions in French and thus had their answers translated in kind, which means I didn't catch a lot of it, besides the fact that it is kind of crazy that they are cranking these out at a one-a-year clip right now - The Roundup came out in 2022 and The Roundup: Punishment is expected in 2024 - and that it speaks to what capable folks, all handling different jobs, they have as producers.

For the last show of the evening, Mitch Davis introduced and chatted with Vincent Must Die director Stéphan Castang, and that was entirely in French, so I can't say I gleaned a lot from it. Indeed, the one bit I did catch - Mitch wanted to make sure he said that director of the short that played before it, Louise Groult, correctly, which had Stéphan perk up. "Louise?" Mitch looks surprised they might be acquainted - "tu connait?" - and then there was laughter, but I don't know whether it was because the French film world can be small or because he fooled Mitch.

So that was Friday; Saturday is looking all sorts of up in the air. It may start with The President's Last Bang, or may not, if you're seeing this posted after 12:30pm. After that, I'll do The First Slam Dunk, try and see if it's easier to get into Sympathy for the Devil with Nic Cage no longer there in person (and fall back to Stay Online otherwise), finishing up with The Becomers. Shin Kamen Rider has its moments, and Divinity is recommended.

So duk 3: Yun joi tin ngai (The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2023 in Cineplex Forum #19 (first-run, DCP)

Herman Yau is a guy who tends to direct wielding a sledgehammer, but this isn't a movie that particularly needs a lot of nuance. We've seen the undercover office tormented by divided loyalties before, but Yau isn't really looking for moral ambiguity here. He's just making sure there's someone hanging around to spring into action when he really brings the hammer down.

It kicks off with that familiar scenario - after retrieving a container of "ice" that has been air-dropped in the ocean just outside the Hong Kong territorial waters, gangster Hong Sochat (Lau Ching-wan) is headed back to the city with lieutenants Billy (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) and Wing (Louis Koo Tin-lok) when they are stopped by the police. A massive firefight ensues, during which Wing is revealed to be an undercover cop and Billy is shot. Sochat, Billy, and several other members of the gang flee to Thailand, where Sochat finds a way into the organization of a Golden Triangle warlord and Billy recuperates with the help of one of the villagers, Noon (Wang Caiyu) - while trying to hide that he, too, has been working undercover and it's a longtime friend and colleague of "Wing".

Undercover stories like this are often built as chess matches, but the Detectives have little means to affect the action for much of the movie. What that does is kind of make this a movie where Lau Ching-wan's gangster is the one driving events most of the time, while Au Chi-yuen ("Wing") is away from the action and Cheung Kin-hang ("Built") is injured and mostly sidelined. It's not a bad strategy, actually; Lau obligingly plays to the rafters (I swear there's some Brando in his accent) and handles the action as he uses his exile to worn his way into the local drug transport operation. The filmmakers could have made this a straight gangster picture, if they were so inclined.

The rest of the movie is fine, though; Aaron Kwok and Wang Caiyu are a pleasant enough pair, with Wang able to play Noon in a way that's not condescending despite her situation (she's not particularly interested in being rescued). There's a nice bond between Koo and Kwok as the undercover officers and Koo pushed back at the superiors who just don't understand real police work without making Au look like he'd be a nightmare colleague. There are plenty of flashbacks to keep the violence and melodrama levels up.

And Yau doesn't stint on the action; things kick off with a massive confrontation between the gangster and police that very quickly advances to cars just flying through the air. It's not quite nonstop carnage, but this is not a movie with a big innocent bystander population for most of the run time, so there's no reason not to go full auto and have plenty of grenades and occasional rocket launchers in use. It's staged well enough to not just be about the sheer amount of ammunition, most of the time, right down to how Lau and Koo have a pretty decent one on one in the middle of the truly gigantic carnage at the end.

Subtlety and depth left this series (a brand name rather than an ongoing story) behind long ago, but if what you're looking for is some basic Hong Kong violence, let it not be said that Herman Yau doesn't know what to do with a quality cast and a decent budget.

The Roundup: No Way Out

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festiva, DCP)

Honestly, Korean movie criminals, what makes you see a guy shaped like Ma Dong-seok (aka Don Lee) in a room and think that this is a problem you are going to solve with punching?

The actor's character Ma Seok-do, a former boxer who became a cop, is now working homicide, and his team finds themselves called to the scene of a relatively minor case - a woman who feel from a hotel window - only to find she was dead before she fell, killed by an overdose of a drug called "Hiper". Following the trail back, they discover that local games, Japanese yakuza, and a division of crooked cops are all involved in this trade and scrambling for 20kg of the drug, which had a street value of some $300M.

The big guy's production company is rolling these out one a year at this point, and you can kind of do that when you're this focused on giving the audience what it wants: Ma is amiable, there's a criminal organization or two with enough members that folks will be running into his fists for 100 minutes or so, and the filmmakers never forget that giant stunts and set pieces are actually kind of antithetical to the series's appeal. In some ways, this movie is a bit over-complicated despite its simplicity - Detective Ma has something like six people under him, and there's maybe one gang too many - but the filmmakers keep things running smoothly. There's really only one surprise early on and not a lot of details that will be truly important ten minutes later.

Mostly, folks are there to see Ma punch some fools, and he obliges. His Seok-do is the kind of performance that looks easy because Ma is a movie star and finding the right tone to toss off one-liners, play self-deprecating while still being cooler than those around him, and seeking that something is an effort despite him being a cartoon tank is what he does. The filmmakers supply him with some good sparring partners: Munetaka Aoki and Hong Joon-young as yakuza enforcers who are fast enough to inflict some damage, especially since the former carries a katana, and give off the right sort of arrogant disdain for subordinates and rivals. Lee Jun-hyuk is more an oily, sneering bit of scum. Jun Kunimura shows up on the other side of phone calls and I hope he's around with more to do next time.

I think I said something along these lines with the last Roundup, but it applies here as well: There's not a lot of suspense in these movies, not even as much as introducing likable supporting characters and putting them in danger. The cases are built in a way such that they can come down to fist fights, with some knives and sword thrown in to create something that looks like a challenge and mysteries that can be solved by making sure suspects don't want to be punched again (i can't really defend police brutality as a running gag being being impressed at how good the filmmakers are at it). They're about the satisfaction of a mild-mannered guy punching things that need punching through a wall, and deliver that precisely.

The ending credits tease a fourth entry in this series that started with The Outlaws, "Punishment", coming next year, and I'll probably be able to copy and paste large chunks of this review when writing about it. This team doesn't reinvent the wheel, but they do keep things rolling.

"Gertrude et Yvan Party Hard"

* * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festiva, digital)

Man, parties in movies look like awful, miserable experiences, enough that I wonder if people really enjoy them or if they convince themselves that they do because there might be a new friend or some sex on the other side of one. I suspect that's what the short is playing with - both Gertrude (Baptiste Carrion-Weiss) and Yvan (Lou Franco) both seem out of sorts before they meet, her kind of bored and him trying too hard, but there because it's what folks their age do - but what to do with that?

I'm not sure filmmaker Louise Groult has any sort of great idea for that. They go through stupid reasons for rejecting each other, bloody ways to curry favor, being so phony they repeat each other's stories meant to make themselves sound more interesting to each other as their own, and ascribing their chance meeting to something more, and the actors are good enough at their jobs and the filmmaker has just enough of an off-kilter sensibility that one isn't groaning about how boring this is, but it is very familiar, a bit of stabbing aside. Overall, it's got the feel of something that seems like the funniest thing ever when you're drunk or high and brainstorming gags, but seems less clever by the time folks have actually made a movie out of it.

Vincent doit mourir (Vincent Must Die)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festiva, DCP)

The "high concept" is a tricky thing, and fickle. A big and outlandish premise can certainly help a movie stand out and potentially create dedicated fans, but going into either too much or too little detail can sink the enterprise. Usually, it's just one, but Vincent Must Die sends to have both happen.

That high concept is right in the title. Vincent (Karim Leklou) is an ordinary-enough graphic designer who makes a bad joke about the new intern and soon finds the kid attempting to beat him to death with his laptop computer - and then, a few days later, sees the accountant stab him repeatedly with a pen. His manager suggests working from home, but then he's attacked in the hallway. This sends him to the country home owned by his father (François Chattot); along the way, he encounters "Joachim DB", a former university professor who has gone off the grid as the same thing happens to him, and gives survival tips. But when waitress Margaux (Vimala Pons) doesn't attempt to murder him after they make eye contact, he begins to hope there might be something there.

It's kind of an odd thing that Joachim encourages Vincent to only communicate via various apps and websites, because the way that online conversations can suddenly erupt into rage and spiteful attacks with almost no warning was the first thing that came to mind, especially when those around Vincent respond by isolating him and making it his responsibility to not be murdered by coworkers, neighbors, or random strangers. It's not a perfect metaphor even at the start, of course, but it's the first thing that resonates and can certainly be broadened to look at other sorts of breakdowns in communication and civility that erupt in violence.

When writer Mathieu Naert and director Stéphan Castang are able to dive into it, though, the film is electric and transgressive, with the first out-of-nowhere attacks provoking gasps that are exactly positioned between horror and laughter, and other scenarios seemingly reveling in presenting themselves as things that no reasonable human being can deal with in a reasonable or fair manner. The movie announces itself and its big idea loudly, and the filmmakers do a fine job of reinventing itself as Vincent has to find new ways to survive and the landscape around him changes.

But, in ways that are really frustrating, they never find the best way to veer with their high concept. If it becomes a better proxy for modern discontent, it does so by becoming a force too general in how people are lashing out to mean anything specific. Bits of larger mythology get introduced, but aside from giving Vincent a reason to have a delightful little dog as an early warning system, they don't particularly intrigue as a puzzle to solve or a reality to navigate. There are hints of this happening throughout France, but the focus on Vincent is too narrow to explore that, and who Vincent is when people are not trying to assassinate him is never defined enough that his adaptation is particularly interesting, especially since Joachim just hands him a fair amount. There's actually a fairly long stretch in the middle before Vincent meets Margaux when he's not actually doing anything interesting and no place else for the film to go. Finally, there's a reversal in the last act that, like so much of the rest of the movie, seems more like a clever idea than anything particularly well thought-out.

And yet, for as random as the pairing may be in the story, the odd romance between Vincent and Margaux becomes the heart of the movie. Karim Leklou and Vimala Pons both latch onto how each is lonely but feels unable to find the connection they want, and they've got a way of warily but eagerly circling each other early on that feels genuine and doesn't hold back on how there are unsettling aspects to how they meet and their relationship thereafter. There's a set of handcuffs involved in their intimacy, and while the filmmakers recognize that one's mind will likely jump straight to kink, they're also a tool for safety, and the pair work when they're able to use them for both, a nervous blend of laughter and worry. By the end, one can look at them and say that circumstances can make any relationship disastrous, and the strong ones come up with plans for managing that.

It still leaves an unpleasant taste in one's mouth at times; I don't think a 2020s American movie would be nearly so willing as to position physical violence as a thing a romance must work around as this French one does, despite it being in the service of an obviously heightened metaphor. Even taking that into account, though, I found I didn't particularly care for Vincent Must Die; the line at the end of the terrific hook all too often doesn't go anywhere interesting.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.01: Mami Wata, "The Perfect Place to Cry", and Blackout

There may come a time when I decide I don't need to do as close to the entire Fantasia Festival as humanly possible, but 2023 is not that time. Still, I wondered - it would probably cost me an extra $1000 Canadian to attend without a press pass, and this blog and the associated Letterboxd page isn't anyone's idea of a major media outlet. Affordable sublets and AirBNBs have also been a lot harder to find for this sort of long-ish-term stay since the pandemic. I wound up, believe it or not, discovering that the University of Quebec rents some of its dorm rooms out as hotels during the summer months, and that's where I'm staying. It led to a weird situation because, being a dorm, the "front desk" is manned by what are presumably work-study students who weren't around for any sort of "early check-in" or even having a place to stash one's suitcase, so I walked around with that for a couple hours, and then had to hang around the room to charge my phone. Missed the window to pick up my press badge, so I had to buy tickets and stand in the other line like a regular fan.

(Practice, I guess.)

Because I'd been kind of slow-walking things the past few days, I didn't get on the list for the Official Opening Night film, but I'll see if it plays with English subtitles when it gets its official release on the 11th and do a "Fantasia Extra" on it if so. I'm just kind of glad, relative to last year, that this sort of thing is selling out again, and spending the first night in De Sève made a lot of other days easier.

No guests for Mami Wata, but I do enjoy the fact that Mitch gave the team behind short film "A Perfect Place to Cry", writer/director Shane Bannon and actress/producer Celina Bernstein, as enthusiastic an introduction as he would give the feature's director Larry Fessenden, because, hey, they made a fun little movie.

"Really, Larry - Talbot Falls?"

Larry Fessenden is kind of the John Cassevetes of indie horror - just always there, making his own genre pics, acting in others', and for a stretch his Glass Eye Pix company seemed to be part of just about every one of these movies made in the Northeast. You don't quite have to go deep into horror circles to find fans, but since he's almost always lived within his means, budget-wise, and had as much of an indie sensibility as a blockbuster one (he produced and appeared in Wendy and Lucy), he's never exactly broken through the way, say, Shyamalan or the A24 guys have at various points, but there are a lot of folks who love him, and I don't know if him becoming too big to hand out flyers and chat before a movie would allow the universe to keep rotating.

It was a good Q&A, too - he had a lot to say about how collaborative movie-making is, had a lot of crew join him on stage, and mentioned that a lot of cast members were just there for a day or two, which was a lot of work for the producers, but also speaks to how much folks like working with him (another thing that does is that there were cast members there to support him, but from the audience, as neither he nor anybody else was going to cross the line of promotion during a strike). He apparently met star Alex Hurt while producing a movie his son made, which was kind of funny because the actor is William Hurt's son, so there was inevitable Altered States talk, in terms of transformation, though Fessenden mentioned that they actually kept scaling the wolfman makeup back, both in homage to the original The Wolf Man and because it fit the story.

He's been doing this for 30 or 40 years and still seemed genuinely excited to be doing a werewolf movie; there's other stuff going on, but you can still tell that the guy just likes werewolves. Though not necessarily mummies - he ended the Q&A with talk of doing a mash-up movie with characters from his other works that paralleled the Universal Monsters and really didn't sound interested in having there be a mummy, although maybe an invisible man could be useful. This audience, at least, looked forward to that.

So that's Day One. Day Two is looking to be catching The White Storm 3: Heaven or Hell at the multiplex, then The Roundup: No Way Out and Vincent Must Die at the festival proper. Mami Wata is recommended.

Mami Wata

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Camera Lucida, laser DCP)

I am not sure that Mami Wata has a whole lot of depth beyond the obvious, but there's not necessarily anything wrong with doing what it at least appears to, transposing some traditional folklore into something familiar and making it striking enough to remember. This film is in no way complicated, and has some gaps, but I bet it sticks in audience's memory because it does tend well to the basics and make a strong visual impression.

Mami Wata is an ocean deity worshiped throughout western, central, and southern Africa, including the village of Iyi, where Mama Efe (Rita Edochie) rules as the Intermediary between the village and the goddess. It is not as smooth as it one was, and heir apparent Zinwe (Uzoamaka Aniunoh) finds Efe's words to a mother who lost her child to the sea hollow. Both the dead girl and Zinwe are said to be "Marine Children", the ocean part of their parentage, while Efe's other daughter Prisca (Evelyne Ily) is a more conventional refugee. She is taken with another new arrival, Jasper (Emeka Amakeze), escaping his life as a soldier among the rebels, although Jasper's tales of rebellion resonate with dissatisfied villagers like Jabi (Kelechi Udegbe).

Even if none of that sounds interesting, the film is gorgeous; writer/director C.J. "Fiery" Obasi chooses a stark monochrome palette and spends much of the early going on static, well-composed shots that highlight painted faces or geometrical arrangements. White totem shells feel like they may have actual power from the way they pop against dark skin and backgrounds, and when Prisca is forced to go into hiding, the way that her plain white dress is actually bolder than her usual costume mainly serves to highlight how her painted face immediately stood for something for the audience.

The flip side is that this can make her more a symbol than a character. Both adopted daughters of the Intermediary capture their type well, with the actresses solid screen presences: Uzoamaka Aniunoh captures how the well-meaning urgency of a teenager can turn cruel with a little push, and Evelyne Ily captures Prisca as a true believer who can nevertheless be practical. They are both reflections of Rita Edochie's Mama Efe, who makes me wonder how many of these matriarchs Edochie has played before, with her rigidity but genuine care for her people. Emeka Amakeze gives Jasper just enough wounded sympathy that one almost thinks he is being dragged into a heel turn.

The big trouble is that, for all Obasi seems to have plenty to address in terms of the limits of folklore and traditional life, the desire to be modern, and how there's no way to untangle the "good" migrants from the "bad" ones, he often winds up telling a fairly generic story under the style. Prisca and Zinwe aren't much more than the Grateful and Ungrateful Daughter, and Obasi often doesn't seem entirely sure what to have Zinwe, in particular, actually do while the rest of the story is going on. The village is so insular that the filmmakers have a hard time building a story that won't run too counter to how this traditional society is being damaged by the wrong kind of outside influence without making something inside the village be more broken than they appear to want.

The movie calls itself "a folklore", and works well enough in those terms. It could, maybe, afford to be a little more conventional in spots while still being the eyeball-grabbing experiment that it is.

"The Perfect Place to Cry"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festiva, laser digital)

The nifty trick to a short like "The Perfect Place to Cry" is that it at once distills a horror trope down to its essence, in that you can imagine this moment as pulled from a feature's script, polished to perfection, and then presented as its own thing, but to also find a way for it to take a turn into being its own thing in surprising fashion. All in seven minutes.

The hook is good: A woman (Celina Bernstein) drives to an isolated spot so that she can cry over something that just happened to her without dealing with other people, only to have two of said other people show up, one (Howland Jesse) shirtless and fleeing, another (Kevin Owyang) carrying a baseball bat and implacable. The logical move, both within and from a screenwriting perspective, is for her to run, pursued by someone intent on leaving no witnesses and finding some sort of strength as a result of surviving.

Writer/director Shane Bannon doesn't go that way, instead setting up for an awkward turn and odd punchline, but for all that this is unreal and out of the ordinary, there's a couple of real and earnest things here: Folks aren't entirely one thing, and that one thing being extreme might not skew the rest of their reactions nearly as much as you'd expect, and there's a look on Bernstein's face at one point that says "maybe I should go after this person who was kind to me" even though, no, she should not, that gets at this specific sort of messy emotion.

Anyway - first "interested to see what they do with something bigger" of the festival!


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival:, laser DCP)

"Man, they don't know how to use pitchforks, we do."

There's a whole interesting idea for a classic horror riff in that line, and I kind of wonder what the movie that got built around the idea of a town's migrant labor being the only people practically equipped to fight a monster would be, but Larry Fessenden has more on his mind even as he's careful to keep the story centered and focused on one man's situation.

That man is Charley (Alex Hurt), a building painter with talent for the other thing one can mean when saying "painter", planning to leave his hometown of Talbot Falls after the death of his father. He's got a lot of stops to make - dropping some of his father's papers off with Kate (Barbara Crampton), a lawyer, in hope that she might find something that can stop a development spearheaded by Hammond, the rich man who runs the town (Marshall Bell); giving his ex-wife Sharon (Addison Timlin) a painting by way of apology for how he ruined their marriage; making sure his friend Miguel (Rigo Garay), the sole witness to a grisly attack on two teenagers a month ago, is okay, especially in the wake of a racist op-ed in the paper by Hammond suggesting he knows more; and dropping his old car off with another friend in exchange for a particular tool. Why? Well, he's got the full moon marked off on his calendar, and his vague memories of those nights probably does not come from his binge drinking.

The title makes it clear that the Wolfman stuff is a metaphor for alcoholism and addiction, but even knowing that, Fessenden and actor Alex Hurt do an impressive job of showing how the drink and lycanthropy aren't the only things going on with this man, and that is what creates the real tragedy - he's trying to keep his life together and has people who see his potential even as they also see that he's collapsing. It feels real even as it lands into the heightened horror metaphor of it all, maybe not subtle but nuanced. Alex Hurt does a fine job of capturing just what it means to be this particular sort of mess: One feels the good intentions, talent, and wit, but also the self-destructiveness, savior complex, and tendency to feel bad for what he's done but not quite bad enough to fix it before he's good and ready. Hurt and Fessenden really put their finger on how, even as one grows to understand that an addict may not be in control, one can still get more fed up with them.

Fessenden is able to call on a nifty cast to fill in roles as Charley tries to make his way out of town, from Joseph Cstillo-Midyett & Ella Rae Peck as cops who are facing more than is reasonable without being inept, to familiar character actors like Joe Swanberg, Barbara Crampton, James Le Gros (who based on the number of times he shows up for odd jobs in the credits doesn't mind helping out while he's on set), John Speredakos, and Kevin Corrigan. The folks with beefier parts do well too - Addison Timlin hits this "ex who wants to be understanding but it's hard even when he's being a weirdo" spot dead on, for instance, while Rigo Garay gets to pull multiple layers of being put in a bad situation but having to keep going off. Marshall Bell plays a rich, kind of racist jerk at just the level where one can earnestly despise the guy without getting into whether he or the real world has gone off into cartoon villainy.

And yet, it's not dour - there's some nasty kills for those who come for that, and the movie is also very funny at points as Fessenden uses the some-days-you-just-can't-leave-town structure and finds a way that transforming under the full moon makes it even crazier. Things like transforming into a wolf who doesn't know how to drive a car while behind the wheel and thus going down a hill manages to hit both. Toward the end, at the very moment most of these movies start to get more serious, Fessenden throws more jokes in, and it kind of keeps him from needing to end the film on some grandiose note.

Which keeps things right at the level they need to be at, messy in both emotion and gore because this sort of thing can't be satisfying. Fessenden's take on this particular iconic monster is a real treat: Plenty of blood, plenty of wit, and enough genuine fondness for the various small town residents to keep the film from being hollow cynicism.