Sunday, September 03, 2023

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.09: Aporia, Pett Kata Shaw, River, "Saint-Sacrifice", and The Sacrifice Game.

Big day for guests at the festival!

Lots of folks there for Aporia, which is sort of the closest Fantasia gets to a big American premiere, with writer/director Jared Moshé, production designer Ariel Vida, property master Kristen Semedo, casting director Meg Morman (I think), and producer Justin T. Ross. I seem to recall that star Judy Greer was at one point mentioned as coming, but the strike nixed that.

Anyway, they seemed like a cool group, with a lot of the talk being about Ariel Vida building a very cool time machine, although given that they were shooting most everything on location, it was one they couldn't get out of the house they were shooting in intact. It's also amusing when folks show up for these events all dressed up nice and talk about how they were really into welding all that stuff.

Next up was Nuhash Humayun (right), whom I'd seen a couple days earlier with one of the "Things That Go Bump in the East" shorts, and this was the second screening of Pett Kata Shaw, a one-man anthology that, from IMDB, appears to a feature built out of what was a limited series for a Bangladeshi streaming service, although he says his next one is a full feature with American backing (I believe Jordan Peele is producing), which is pretty exciting, as both of his movies here (or all five) were pretty darn good.

Aside from that, he had some fun stories about the puppets in the third segment - most (if not all) were not made for the film, but came from a university professor who studies such things and many of them were fifty or sixty years old - older than the county, in fact. And, if I recall correctly, heavier than expected, enough so that what seemed like a great cost-saving plan at the start was not, when all was said and done. Looked cool, though.

That's River director Junta Yamaguchi in the center, talking about what may be my favorite film in the festival, a worthy follow-up to Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes that goes to the same well of two-minute time travel in what may seem like a fool's errand but is actually pretty terrific. Indeed, he mentioned that the next movie he's working on will also have a two-minute time travel theme. As someone who really likes to noodle in one specific corner of a genre myself, I get it, but I also liked his thinking: That two minutes is time to do one thing, or maybe two, but not really time to execute or come up with a complicated plan, so it leads to characters thinking on their feet and keeping busy for the whole running time.

He also had a lot of praise for the resort where they filmed; it's a really beautiful place and, for this particular movie, you've got to fine-tune your script to the location, because even if all those two-minute scenes aren't oners, the audience is going to get a sense of where everything is in relation to each other, and what can't be reached, in a hurry. Given that the film was set and shot during the place's off-season, there was always a chance that the weather would make continuity almost impossible to keep, so there was the sense that you ultimately couldn't worry about it too much, and just had to make a film good enough where the audience would accept what you were doing. Still, the snow was not a lot of fun for the cast members in stocking feet and wooden sandals!

(An interesting question would be whether the script had certain iterations earmarked as preferring good weather or snow; it felt like there was correlation between the weather and the action, but I wondered if that's just a human tendency to find patterns.)

Do we love when the directors of the shorts get the same sort of introduction as the folks doing features? Yes, we do. I didn't catch a lot of what "Saint-Sacrifice" filmmaker Jean-Claude Leblanc was saying - as his short was part of the "Fantastiques Week-Ends" program, it was the most all-French of the all-French intros - but, man, was he glad to be there.

Last up, some of the cast & crew from The Sacrifice Game. We did get director/co-writer Jenn Wexler on the left; actor Derek Johns; producers Philip Kalin-Hajdu, Albert Melamed and Heather Buckley; and actor Laurent Pitre. There would have been more, but strike (given that Johns & Pitre are Canadian and this was actually shot around Montreal, I imagine they're in ACTRA rather than SAG-AFTRA). A shame, because I suspect the younger folks would have been a lot of fun: There was a scene with weird dancing that Wexler sounded kind of intimidated by - the choreography was kind of specific, the set didn't give a lot of room to move, and each cut would probably reduce the impact of it - but Georgia Acken played Matilda on Broadway, so, yeah, she was up for it.

(More spoilery comments after the review proper, way down at the bottom).

So, that was a lot of fun. Next up is the second Saturday, with Ms. Apocalypse, New Normal, Tokyo Revengers 2 - Part 1, and Empire V.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

I covered this last week, when it hit local theaters, and while the review may not exactly be fair, because it kind of reminds me of a certain phenomenon common sci-fi created for a more mainstream audience even if one can't really assume that sort of intent or process. It's capably done in a lot of ways, even if the premise intended to be clever is kind of a question that's been asked and answered, with a lot more attention to detail and more interesting moral handwringing.

What I said a few weeks ago

Pett Kata Shaw

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Though apparently first appearing in Bangladesh as a television mini-series, Pett Kata Shaw in its feature form is a nifty anthology that not only doesn't have a bad entry, but plays with the form by nesting one anthology inside another and having the characters more explicitly engage with the idea of storytelling and what folklore means as the movie goes on, though not in an obvious way where the self-referential nature becomes the main point.

It starts with "They Say Djinn Visit Sweet Shops at Night", which in fairly straightforward fashion introduces Mahmud (Chanchal Chowdhury), the last shopkeeper open on a quiet street one night, about to close when a rude customer (Afzal Hossain) barges in, demanding sweets and hinting at the great misfortune that could befall the man who refuses him. Djinn also grant wishes, of course, and Mahmud has long taken abuse for his poor memory…

Writer/director Nuhash Humayun does not necessarily go where one might expect this to go, in that Mahmud does not wind up haunted by personal regrets, or, indeed, the inescapable thought of his neighbors' disdain, but instead the irony that his ability to recall seemingly every fact becomes the stand's draw rather than its confectionery, suggesting that the demon has been hoisted by his own petard but, as he is powerful, Mahmud will be the one who suffers for it. The segment itself is tight and no-nonsense - the locations are plain and run-down, and the more fantastic bits are alluded to rather than shown, but it's got a nasty little kick at the end and Afzal Hossain exudes a terrific sort of slovenly menace as the djinn.

The second segment (although they apparently ran in the other order as episodes), "No Girls Allowed", has Hasan (Shohei Mondol) arriving at the apartment he shares with a lazy roommate waxing rhapsodic about the smell of fresh fish and the nice looking specimen he's brought home for dinner, but he soon finds that he has attracted a Petni (Shirin Akter Shela), an aquatic demi-human standing between him and the door who has already made a gory mess of Hasan's roommate.

Where the first story often played out somewhat quietly, this one offers pretty incessant narration from Hasan, and for a long time it rides the line between a good way to sort of play things lighter than the first segment and playing it too light, even as it's setting up what is arguably a different tone to the ending. What is mostly a two-person show, with one more or less mute, works pretty well on the strengths of their physical performances: Mondol has great jittery energy as he looks between the Petni and the door an awful lot, and making sure to put something else into his panicked narration to reflect how, obviously, he survived in some manner. There's something entertainingly perverse about covering former Miss Bangladesh Shirin Akter Shela with a bunch of prosthetic makeup, but give the crew credit - they don't stint on making her look monstrous, and even hunched over and looking out of her element, she always seems threatening, but Humayun and Shela do a fine job of getting to a point where the audience is starting to think "you know, this sea hag is actually kind of hot" right around the same time Hasan does.

If Humayun had more stories than episodes to work with, then they likely ended up in "Hearsay", which opens with couple Nagib (Morshed Mishu) and Sara (Syeda Taslima Hossain Nodi) as a pair of hikes who are good and lost to the point of starting to get on each other's nerves, told by the folks they meet that they don't really get tourists so much as lost travelers, and that this village is where the country's superstitions were born. While they wait for someone to help them get to town and a working phone, they're regaled with various tales.

The stories naturally tend to take on a more sinister vibe as they go along, but it's the presentation that's most notable at times, traditional puppets acting out the narration and thus making the stories initially silly but progressively creepier, especially once the silly-sounding stories start to link up. The present-day framing may not always be the most eventful or interesting - Nagib and Sara argue in part because characters in this sort of horror short argue, rather than having it come from their individual personalities - but as they hear more stories, one can feel these individual folktales coalesce into a mythology, and as such starting to have power and becoming threatening.

Finally, there's "Call of the Night", where a man coming off a breakup meets some old friends in a trendy downtown area, but also notices a boy seeking alms with stories of a strange cryptid.

In some ways, Humayun ends with the weakest element, although that makes it a satisfying-enough short film, with a few secrets to be revealed, eerie moments of people staring into the sea, and the lurking threat of various disappearances. It turns out to be a bit much story compared to the other segments, sort of noodling around a number of ideas rather than drilling into one; its eventual moral ambiguity winds up being a bit less satisfying than the clear, folkloric cores of the rest. It does, however, make an interesting endpoint when looking at how storytelling has progressed over the course of the film, as the plain-spoken relations of the first leads to the second's subjective narrator and the mythology of the third; this suggests urban legends, and a person attempting to place himself within a story: As characters disappear at the climax, story has finally eaten reality.

Which, admittedly, is not how Humayun seemed to see his film in the Q&A at the festival screening, but that in some ways makes this project all the more fascinating: In successfully bringing his tales of Bangladeshi folklore to life, he is himself captured by it.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Director Junta Yamaguchi's Beyond the Infinite Two Minutes was a magic trick of a movie that I'd be terrified of trying to repeat as a filmmaker, but River goes back to that same well and not only pulls it off, but may be even better: This time-loop comedy sees him and writer Makoto Ueda juggling a larger ensemble cast on a larger stage, but delivering an emotional story nearly as good as its puzzle-solving and logistics.

It's the off-season at the Fujiya Inn, outside Kyoto, managed by Kimi (Manami Honjo), with Mikoto (Riko Fujitani), Kohachi (Munenori Nagano), and Chino (Saori) on hand to clear rooms and see to customers' needs, and assistant chef Taku (Yuki Torigoe) using an empty room to rest up and study his French. Customers include Obata (Yoshimasa Kondo), a writer working on his latest serial, his publisher Sugiyama (Haruki Nakagawa), and two former classmates (Gota Ishida and Masashi Suwa) awkwardly trying to inform each other that their business is failing. Mikoto pauses by the river that runs past the hotel before cleaning out a room with Kohachi, and then finds herself there again - and it becomes very clear that this isn't just déjä vu; time is repeating, every two minutes.

It's kind of amazing how Ueda and Yamaguchi make that work, especially during a segment where Mikoto and Taku have to work some things out in an extended conversation that will be interrupted every two minutes and have everyone else trying to pull them toward something else. The film has been purely silly before and will get sillier afterward, but even as they are frantically trying to get a moment to talk the film crystalizes around them for a bit, emphasizing as most time-loop stories eventually do that living is often having no time for everything that you want but also a seeming eternity stretching out before you that you can't escape. Nearly everyone has some sort of thematic parallel, and in a way that's part of why they can wriggle out of having that too portentous in favor of something else that is hiding in plain sight.

The whole thing is also charming and funny as heck, starting from the fact that hotel employees who, upon discovering they are in a time loop, immediately set out to reassure the guests that they are aware of the problem and working on a solution might be the most Japanese thing I can imagine. With roughly 40 or so loops to work with, Yamaguchi and the cast are able to not just do the expected bits where characters are stunned and confused but also to have the characters seemingly practice, mastering one absurd situation and then taking it to the next level, able to cram a little bit more into two minutes each time until its frenzied. Cinematographer Kazunari Kawagoe seems to manage this as well - maybe not every loop is a single shot, but a great many are, and Yamaguchi requires more motion and complexity in each one than the last, staging things so that characters are entering and doing their thing with clockwork precision that doesn't look like such, and doing all that while building the action around a location that the audience is going to get to know very well by the time things are over.

At the center of it all is Riko Fujitani, who is in nearly every shot once things get started and sets a baseline for the movie as a whole: Mikoto is cheerful, comfortable with the situation as it is as to be afraid of things changing but not so much so that she can't get a good quip off every once in a while, and that's the movie as a whole, funny and able to let the audience cruise and enjoy the quirk of it all but growing a little more tense as it becomes clear that this problem will not solve itself for her (or the rest). She's mostly surrounded by folks who are all escalating from nervous confusion to being increasingly unhinged, but they all do that very well, with Yuki Torigoe noteworthy in how he gets a moment to slow things down just before speeding up.

The movie is light and sincere and often very silly, but mostly had the audience believing folks will, by and large, try to help each other and that you can tell a good story with that attitude. If Yamaguchi and Ueda go to the two-minute temporal anomaly well again, as they apparently intend to do, it will certainly be one of the oddest thematic trilogies ever made, but also potentially one of the most endearingly amusing.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival: Les Fantastiques Week-Ends du Cinéma Québécois, digital)

A fifteen-minute short that I would kind of like to see expanded to a full feature because it's got a couple of nifty ideas to play with between its vision of limbo as a zombie infested version of the world we know and how a man as close to the brink of death as Antoine (Patrick Gauthier) can, in a way, use the world of the living as a sort of warp zone as he strives to reach his own home on the other side of Montréal because that is where he lost his wife and he swore to protect her always.

.It's a simple premise but ably executed by filmmaker Jean-Claude Leblanc with his cast and crew, from the early revelation that this group in a pub beset by zombies is doing something a little bigger than a French-Canadian version of Shaun of the Dead, quickly fleshing out mythology and supporting characters that you could certainly do more with than this short has time for. The vision of Limbo-Montréal is strikingly apocalyptic but in a way that suggests a barren wasteland that has taken on the properties of the real world, and Leblanc uses it enough to keep it always on the audience's mind even if a part of a movie is in a more affordable interior or normal street. The cast is all strong, from its everyman protagonist to its bar patrons who look like they've been here long enough to have landed somewhere between zombie movie survivors and Mad Max characters.

Of course, one shouldn't necessarily treat shorts as pilots for a feature, and I have no idea if Leblanc has ambitions for this story beyond these fifteen minutes. Wouldn't mind it, though - it's a satisfyingly self-contained story that doesn't so much leave one wanting to know what happens next but I would certainly be down for a movie that tells us a lot of what's in between.

The Sacrifice Game

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival: Les Fantastiques Week-Ends du Cinéma Québécois/Septentrion Shadows, digital)

Jenn Wexler squeezes a ton of good stuff into The Sacrifice Game, a really enjoyable bit of period horror that manages to zig when it looks like it's about to zag, hides its fun twists in plain sight, and has a pitch-black sense of humor that doesn't detect from stuff being actually dangerous. It's more "thrilling" than "scary", but that's okay because Wexler and company don't waste many minutes.

It's December 1971, and Samantha (Madison Baines), a student at Blackvale boarding school is about to be informed that she is not going home for Christmas, remaining on campus with Clara (Georgia Acken), the weird girl whose parents have seemingly just abandoned her there, history teacher Rose Tanner (Chloë Levine), and groundskeeper Jimmy (Gus Kenworthy), Rose's not-so-secret boyfriend, for what looks like an awkward holiday dinner. It's hardly what any of them really want, but it will get much worse: Jude (Mena Massoud) and his cult - girlfriend Maisie (Olivia Scott Welch), Vietnam vet Grant (Derek Johns), and increasingly worried Doug (Laurent Pitre) are leaving a trail of murdered women from whom they're removing patches of skin with birthmarks and tattoos that they believe will allow them to summon a powerful demon when assembled in the former abbey that now houses Blackvale.

This is, truth be told, my favorite type of movie massacre, the sort where the first bad guys we're introduced to are maybe not thinking the whole thing where they summon a demon through and discover that it is much more creative in its slaughter than they were. Yeah, it's kind of a guilt-free way to enjoy oneself some grisly murder, but it's done well here, and a lot of these movies need a good switch-up to keep the viewer from getting too jaded or bored by the violence after a while. Wexler and co-writer Sean Redlitz are impressively ruthless and well aware of the extent to which some alliances are unlikely, temporary, or ill-advised, having a great time foreshadowing all the inevitable reversals, betrayals, and folks getting caught in metaphorical crossfire.

This one's also got the sort of fun cast that makes the movie thrive, filled with big personalities and relatively little inner torment. The cult is just what you want from that group: Mena Massoud happily chews the scenery as the most charismatic and sociopathic of the group, while Olivia Scott Welch is the confident brains behind him who knows how to leverage her attractiveness, with Laurnet Pitre and Derek Johns as the loud and quiet followers. I particularly like the kids - Georgia Acken and Madison Baines are actual teenagers who often scan more as tweens than young adults on-screen and maybe haven't consumed a full diet of horror movies yet, and as such are able to just play their parts rather than commenting on some meta fashion. Wexler has Acken lean hard into Clara being a bitter goth while Baines similarly grabs onto how the already-nice Sam is doubling down on the need to have people like her, with fine complementary friction.

It's a nifty-looking movie that knows how to use all the good stuff in there, with the beautiful abbey they shot at believably full of both arcane church stuff and high-school junk closets, on top of there being a snowstorm and Christmas decorations. Wexler and company distill and blend from setting to costume, drop some fun stuff on the soundtrack, making it clear early on that they're going to go for it rather than look for subtlety. Sometimes they move a little fast, in that it might have been nice to explain what is up with these women's markings (if there's an indication of secret society versus being born with them because their lineage is marked, it's sped past awfully quickly), although they don't really need it.

. Wexler mentioned in the Q&A that while there may not be another movie in this mythology - it's maybe due for a small IFC Midnight release before hitting Shudder, and that might not get enough audience to demand a similarly-ambitious follow-up - she might like to do comics, presumably going up and down the timeline from here. She's given herself enough mythology to do that without unnecessarily burdening the tight movie she made.

So, as mentioned, <SPOILERS!>

…One of the most fun aspects of the Q&A, as mentioned, was a thoroughly peculiar dance performed by Georgia Acken, who had starred on broadway despite being only 15 when they started shooting, but that it was pretty important because a lot of the movie's second half plays off how, while Clara is in reality an impossibly old demon who has been imprisoned on the abbey's sanctified ground for centuries and is therefore eager to escape, she has also been a teenage girl for a long time, and at a certain point that's not just a disguise - the mean girls teasing her hurts and she does find herself, perhaps against her base nature, genuinely liking Sam. That's never stated, but it's there; she seldom if ever does the deep demon voice, and lashes out much in the way a smart, angry teenager might. Who she's going to be in the last act has a little more tension than it might.

If she does get to do comics, Wexler says she'd like to do both the immediate aftermath of the movie with Clara and Sam on a road trip, maybe fighting worse demons, and also ten, twenty, thirty years later, as Sam is moving forward with her life but she's still got this jealous goth teenager with magic powers hanging around. Should be fun if they do it; hope I don't miss the Kickstarter.


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