Saturday, August 19, 2023

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.08: "Lollygag", Hippo, Baby Assassins 2, "Every House is Haunted", and Where the Devil Roams

Although there are days when I look at the shorts before a feature as something tightening a schedule unnecessarily, and others where you go, well, that ten minutes or so made the ticket/slot worth it.

Kind of a late start, in part by design - the first show in De Sève was Blackout, which I saw opening night because I could see The White Storm 3 in regular theaters the next day and because my day-job work schedule; the second from catching the first show of Becomers on a rare De Sève evening because I had seen Divinity at BUFF (and may wind up expanding that Letterboxd entry at some point,. So I arrived at the festival relatively late in the day.

Which means the first feature was Hippo, featuring (left to right) cast members Eliza Roberts, Kimball Farley, Jesse Pimentel, and Lilla Kizlinger; writer/director/producer Mark H. Rapaport; cinematographer William Babcock; and executive producers Julian Lawitschka & Charmaine Kowalski. I was a bit surprised to see pretty much the whole cast on stage, because while it's not a big movie by any means at all, a reasonably noteworthy production company is involved ("Rough House Pictures" is executive producers David Gordon Green, Danny McBride, and Jody Hill), but I guess it's not an issue until it's distributed by an ATMTP company, maybe.

At any rate, I gather a lot of these folks have worked before, although this was Lilla Kizlinger's first North American film, but she's great; maybe some of her Hungarian work will make it to festivals next year.

There were no guests for Baby Assassins 2, but plenty for Where the Devil Roams, with Mitch Davis welcoming The Adams Family - mother Tobey Poser, sisters Lulu & Zelda Adams, and Father John Adams. It's kind of a reminder of how the films that play these festivals fall in and out of favor: Fantasia used to play a ton of movies like Baby Assassins, indy or "V-Cine" Japanese genre movies that have really tight budgets but some folks involved who are absurdly talented at one thing, whether it be Yoshihiro NIshimura's effects makeup or Yudai Yamaguchi's action, but there are fewer recently. There was a recent period when every genre festival and event was including "Wakaliwood" movies from Uganda, and now this is the Adams's third movie to play this festival in five years, even more impressive when you consider just how independent they are and that there was a plague during that period. When I saw The Deeper You Dig back in '19, I mostly treated it as a novelty. Three straight films accepted to the festival suggests the family is more, but I don't know. Davis seemed genuinely enthusiastic and the movie filled the big room and the family led a long Q&A, so there was some enthusiasm, but even as this is a more ambitious, I don't know that they've made the leap from novelty act to folks you have to watch.

And don't get me wrong - I love that there are folks like this family (or the Schmidts, who sent the differently-bonkers Island of Lost Girls to the festival last year) out there making movies, screening them locally, putting them up on various sites, and occasionally poking through to festivals like this. But it hits differently when played in a featured slot with expectations around it than as an underground discovery on the smaller screen.

There was also a projection issue, the sort where you remind yourself that 35mm film is an optical/mechanical process where a capable and attentive projectionist can usually figure out what's off, whereas digital has the picture looking blue with a discolored bit in the center and there's not a whole lot you can easily do about it. I've got a "too green?" note for the short film, but by the time it started being an issue with the second, I was kind of checked out.

So, that was the start of week 2, which continued on Friday with Aporia, Pett Kata Shaw, River, and The Sacrifice Game.


"Lollygag"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, digital)

"Lollygag" is an enjoyable, off-kilter short on its own, but it's especially intriguing paired with Hippo; it's arch and artificial in some of the same ways, but there's a central thought and a broad sort of sympathy here that's very easy to lose. "Lollygag" is quite affected, yes, but there's at least something there.

Narrated in Greek even though it appears to take place in an American suburb, it features a woman looking back on her teen years discussing how she doesn't remember the first time she saw the Boy Next Door (Isaac Powell), but did remember the last. Her bedroom had a view of his pool, and both he and the backyard were beautiful, even if she had come to realize boys didn't actually interest her. He was apparently bisexual, though, with various young men and women joining him, while on other days, he sat there picking at a Whiteman's sampler, until…

Well, that's where it gets interesting, especially once she crosses the fence. The Girl (Gaby Slape) does not become sentimental, but her detachment is not contemptuous, though it walks right up to the line for some dark comedy. There's callousness here, especially from the perspective of youth, but the narration is built to highlight the distance from this story which started with a VHS-blue screen and implies she has become a different person in the meantime, one who perhaps recognizes that the Boy Next Door had a hollow life, even if it isn't the trappings that caused it.


Hippo

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Say this about Hippo: I could at least feel and share in one character's well-earned distaste for the rest. It's not really much to hang onto in terms of vibing with a movie, but it's at least something.

That character would be Buttercup (Lilla Kizlinger), who was adopted Ethel (Eliza Roberts) and her husband after her family in Hungary was killed, but her foster father also died some years ago, leaving her and her foster brother Hippo (Kimball Farley) to be raised by Eliza, and as they have been homeschooled, they are not well-socialized at all. Hippo is just generally hostile to everyone in the world except his mother, while Buttercup doesn't imagine anything more to her life than motherhood, and no ideas for potential fathers than Hippo.

What director Mark H. Rapaport and his co-writer/star Kimball Farley are doing here is interesting, in that even as the narration points out that Hippo and Buttercup are homeschooled and that there's an content filter on their internet, it can take a while before it really sinks in that this family has been cut off from common American culture in a way that has analogs beyond this particular tiny enclave. Between cinematographer William Babcock's monochrome photography and Eric Roberts's narration that hint at documentary tropes without actually imitating that sort of film, the filmmakers create a sort of counter to their isolation: The family is outsiders, but the viewer is also outside of them and looking in, shifting them from eccentric to hidden, folks who have seemingly had their brains deliberately poisoned rather than being eccentric by circumstance.

That's what makes Lilla Kizlinger's Buttercup the soul of the movie; she's both insider and outsider at once time, and if she's been captured by this situation, she's at least sensible enough to feel something is amiss and perhaps holding on to something else. Kizlinger is really terrific here, the person who always draws one's attention even when Kimball Farley's Hippo is built to be more eye-catching and more outrageous in his behavior; she and Rapaport almost never fail to make her withering disdain both very funny and sad. Farley and Eliza Roberts are never quite able to forge that connection; they make their ridiculous characters believable in that most of us have probably met people with the same sort of abrasive and deluded personalities, and they can deliver something bizarre with conviction, but one doesn't necessarily quite believe in them.

Because of that, sharing Buttercup's frustration at being trapped with these people was more or less all the movie seemed to have for me. Its stupid and mean characters never felt like they could be anything other than stupid and mean in other circumstances, and the arch narration from Eric Roberts adds a level of smugness. It's a sort of demonstration that even the darkest comedy often comes from a sort of empathy, especially if the ability to relate to horrible people catches a viewer off guard, rather than just pointing and sneering. And so, Hippo winds up a movie where the cast is good and the gags are executed well enough, but I never found myself in a mood to laugh.


Baby Assassins 2 Babies

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

I was not a particular fan of the first Baby Assassins, and I was prepared to be unimpressed with this one, especially as it seems to be the sort of sequel that is by and large more of what was going on in the first movie rather than an expansion or continuation. Fortunately, the formula has been tweaked so that the parts in between the action scenes works a lot better. There still seems to be a lot of stretching the time between action scenes out, but everybody seems to have gotten better with practice.

The film opens by introducing a new pair of young assassins, brothers Makoto (Tatsuomi Hamada) and Yuri (Joey Iwanaga), who aren't getting choice jobs because they aren't part of the "official" underground economy, and also because Makoto especially is kind of sloppy. Their agent (Junpei Hashino) suggests that perhaps they can move up by eliminating some competition. Meanwhile, Mahiro (Saori Izawa0 and Chisato (Akari Takaishi) are on probation because they are behind on their bills and intervened in a bank robbery that was preventing them from paying them on time, so they're back to working part-time jobs, seemingly easy marks for the up-and-comers.

In a lot of ways, the plot here is awfully close to the same as last year, but it's also a good example of how seemingly small tweaks can make a big difference. The story is streamlined in that each new situation Chisato and Mahiro find themselves in seems to flow fairly directly from the last, rather than being arbitrary directives and detours, while Yuri and Makoto are less complicated adversaries than the yakuza family in the first. On top of that, writer/director Yugo Sakamoto recognizes that his two main characters work because they complement each other, so the girls banter more than they fight. As a result of all that, the pacing seems a little zippier; this story may be slight, but it's a straight line delivering a viewer to the next piece of screwball comedy or well-staged fights.

And, the action is still pretty great - as with the previous movie, the main complaint here is that there's not really enough of it. They work in large part because Saori Izawa is a potential breakout star as a screen fighter and Joey Iwanaga is surprisingly solid himself. The film builds to the pair of them squaring off, and it's well worth the wait: Izawa is light on her feet but explosive, so capable of doing something physically incredible at any moment that the final showdown can get little adrenaline rushes from Mahiro and Yuri feinting at each other. The fights get a little better when Izawa is in then, and even if most are relatively quick and spread with stretches in between, they've got a ton of energy.

Akari Takaishi is a bit stronger as the more comedic half of the pair, where the last film often played Chisato as a girl-next-door type who could thrive in normie scenarios where Mahiro stuck out, here she's more often depicted as a weird psycho who probably wouldn't be great at much else. Takaishi goes from airhead to dead serious without much transition and makes you believe in both so that Chisato can be both ridiculous and dangerous. I suspect that many of the actual jokes land better the more one is immersed in Japanese youth culture (to the extent that the inanities the characters talk about might be deliberately maddening to those who aren't), but the cast in general and Takaishi in particular sell the absurdity of it well.

I never thought I'd want a Baby Assassins 3 after the first, but this is a marked improvement, and I'd like to see what this crew could do with the resources to go a little bigger.


"Every House is Haunted"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, digital)

A really delightfully clever, almost gentle short film that starts out drily humorous, with a realtor telling young couple Maya (Kate Cobb) and Danny (Kevin Bigley) that "the ghosts are mostly harmless" and that the previous owners of the house barely ever saw them. Maya is skeptical, but she eventually sees Kevin (Emmanuel Wood), seven years old when he died, mostly wanting to play. She has a reason to see a child, as it turns out, but is soon befriending the house's other spirits, though Danny doesn't see them.

Tragedy unites people, even if it's not the same tragedy, and filmmaker Bryce McGuire recognizes this as natural as opposed to something to be scared, but still deeply weird, and that's the vibe of the film, Maya realizing that she's not alone and has people to share it with, even if they aren't actually talking about that all the time, even if she can't fully share it with her husband Kate Cobb and the rest are just what the film needs, able to inhabit this odd space and make it feel real.

There's not a huge amount of story here, mostly just observing, but there's a pointed use of the word "us" that hints at more. McGuire is already expanding one short to a feature, and I don't know that I'd necessarily want this to just be setup for a larger story, but I'd still be interested to find out where things would go next.


Where the Devil Roams

* * (out of four)
Seen 27 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Like a lot of films with this sort of background, including the rest of the Adams Family's work, what's interesting about Where the Devil Roams is that it exists at all and is as good as it is. For a movie made by folks who are basically amateurs, well away from most hotbeds of film production, it's ambitious and generally capable of realizing those ambitions. It's as much a novelty as it is a genuinely good movie, but it's watchable enough, rather than the complete disaster of similar projects.

Taking place during the Great Depression, it follows the members of a carnival sideshow on tour, particularly one family: Steven (John Adams) and Maggie (Toby Poser) are a magic act, although not so popular as Mr. Tips, whose gruesome self-mutilation is somehow reversed every night. Leigh (Zelda Adams), their daughter, is a beautiful and ethereal singer, but mute in all other circumstances. John was once a doctor, but since his service in World War I can't stand the sight of blood, which would seem to make him an odd match for Maggie's murderous rages. That frequently emerges as they travel from town to town separately from the rest of the carnival, until they bite off more than they can chew. Fortunately, Leigh knows how Mr. Tips manages his trick.

Gruesome and boring is a tough combination, and there's a stretch out two in this movie where this family of carnies just seems to cycle through driving down a dirt road, stopping at a house where Maggie will kill its occupant and Leigh take a picture, while they blindfold Steven because his PTSD is apparently so very specific that only the sight of blood triggers it, three or four times in a row. The film is already well past the point of being shocking, and it hasn't really gotten to its big idea, halfway through. It feels like they've promised all their friends and collaborators that they'll get to be immortalized dying on screen, no matter how much time it gives the audience's time to wander about whether Leigh constructs a darkroom in the corner of their tent or if she knows which photography shops don't raise their eyebrows at this sort of thing.

This family has been making feature-length films and shorts as a collaborative unit for at least ten years, since younger daughter Zelda was about ten, breaking through on the festival circuit five years ago with The Deeper You Dig, and they've got some talent for it. They know their tools and their outside-the-box choices don't feel like things professionals avoid for a reason, and for the most part any roughness in the acting feels like it fits into the heightened, weirdo-attracting world of the carnival. There are some decisions that seem influenced by what they can scrounge up as opposed to necessity - although I suppose the family traveling alone in the one period automobile they have access to than in a caravan is both - but they and their team are good at doing that scrounging and making the most of it.

But then there's the story, and I'm not sure that this movie really has a big idea, rather than a plot device and a desire to make a homemade period horror. The filmmakers talked about going into scenes with a "template" in the Q&A, but the movie really feels like it could use a tight script, because there's no real suspense to it; they know how to shoot and cut but don't give scenes much purpose beyond the plot. The film seldom driving at anything, and there is little that resonates in the ideas. It's horror fans imagining scenes and scenarios and figuring out what they can do with the resources they have.

And, fine. I don't want to discourage this sort of homemade film; the Adams Family productions are decent achievements where fellow fans can feel proud of what they've created. But this one isn't much more, and if you're looking through the vast Tubi archives for something that can thrill and excite, this probably won't be your best choice.

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