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.

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