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.

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