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.

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