Thursday, July 18, 2019

Fantasia 2019--THE DEEPER YOU DIG (John and Zelda Adams, Toby Poser, 2019)

Kurt (John Adams) appears to be seeing ghosts in The Deeper You Dig (2019)
Films are notoriously hard to make, even if some filmmakers make it look easy.  As I teach in a film department, and have even endeavored to make films of my own (all pretty terrible), as well as acted in some productions, I know of which I speak.  Not only must one have dedicated actors and crew who are willing to work for no money, but a story capable of being told on the cheap.  Then you have to figure out how to get people--with power, money, and connections--to see the damn thing.  For every film screened at Fantasia, there are a dozen more that didn't make the cut.  One way to resolve some of these issues is to exploit your family members and friends--so many great horror films hinge on getting just the right location, and frequently that location is your Uncle's house (with Mom and Dad providing "craft services" and a bunch of crew camping out on the floor of the set).  Still, getting all these factors in place is pretty rare, and that's why Toby Poser, and John and Zelda Adams' The Deeper You Dig (2019) is such a delightful accomplishment.

You'll float too!--Toby Poser as Ivy and Zelda Adams as Echo in The Deeper You Dig
Deeper begins with two narratives that will soon interconnect.  It follows mother and daughter Ivy and Echo as they experience an average winter day in Upstate New York (the Catskills, to be precise).  Echo wants to go sledding, and Ivy reminds her that she cannot be with her because she has a client meeting--Ivy's a "psychic" who does tarot readings and bilks customers for a chance to talk to their loved ones from beyond the veil.  Meanwhile, Kurt, their new neighbor, is tearing the house apart next door in order to flip it.  His clients are also likely wealthy New Yorkers who want a country getaway not too far from the city.  As is wont to happen, a snowstorm blankets the area, and during Kurt's drunken drive back from the local dive bar, he hears a "thump, thump" and stumbles out of his car to discover what he has accidentally hit.  As you can guess, it's not a deer.

Echo awakens in confusion
Here's where the film takes its fateful turn, and speaks to the carefully crafted nature of its story.  Most people (one hopes) would call 911 and get some emergency personnel out there to handle the situation.  Not Kurt...and what he decides to do shortly thereafter further seals his doom.  Ivy is not just sitting around either, and contacts the local authorities, files a missing persons report, and puts up "missing" posters all over town, even paying Kurt a visit to ask for his help in finding her.  What happens to Kurt is more than just a guilty conscience; as he slips deeper and deeper into the darkness, Ivy and Echo's real connection to the supernatural becomes impossible for him, and the audience, to ignore.  The film combines ghostly hauntings, paranormal phenomena, and possession in a wicked brew that is quite persuasive for a film budgeted at $11,000--as the filmmakers divulged in the film's Q  & A.

How did they pull it off?  Well, Toby and John are a couple, and Toby wrote the script and co-directed with John, and his daughter Zelda operated the camera, and all three of them star, using their home in Upstate as well as a house John was "flipping" as their primary locations.  While the film does have a DIY vibe, the soundtrack is quite evocative and sinister (crafted by John) and the beats of the story, as well as its practical effects, are superb.  The Deeper You Dig (2019) is a family affair, and the 5th feature film on their roster (the other films made by "The Adams Family" are available to screen on Amazon Prime).  John explained that he first got the idea for the family to make films when they were living out of an RV (with eldest daughter, Lulu, now off at college) driving around the country.  Only recently have they decided to try their hand at the horror genre--and the Fantasia audience was certainly glad that they did!

One cannot have enough creepy clowns!
Still, The Deeper You Dig is not just coasting on its "origin story," but is a deeply unsettling, well-acted, and beautifully composed dark fairy tale in its own right.  Toby, John, and Zelda are immensely talented and easygoing artists, and I really hope that more people get a chance to see this low budget, indie horror gem than the fans who cheered and embraced "The Adams Family" at Fantasia.  I'm hoping to bring them in as guests to my college, because I think our students will find them really and truly inspiring. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Fantasia 2019--LITTLE MONSTERS (Abe Forsythe, 2019)

Lupita Nyong'o plays the charming Miss Caroline who protects her young charges from zombies in Little Monsters (2019)
Most kids are annoying.  It's true, and it's not just that other people's kids are annoying.  Don't let those parents fool you--they think their kids are also annoying, but they aren't supposed to say so, and...well, you can't put the toothpaste back into the tube.  Horror is common ground for evil kids getting up to mischief, but little urchins as victims--either of their own parents, or "stranger danger" evildoers--are even more ubiquitous.  These "children in peril" horrors also inevitably have kids doing really dumb things in order to land themselves in mortal danger.  Then they grow into the most irritating people imaginable--teenagers--and we gleefully watch them be picked off by some invincible serial killer. 

Okay, I'm getting ahead of myself.  Back to kids.  Cinematic kids are notoriously adorable, and the 5-6 year olds Abe Forsythe chose for Little Monsters (2019) are definitely cuties.  Still, none of them come close to the angelic adorableness that Lupita Nyong'o channels as their super-sweet and heroic kindergarten teacher, Miss Audrey Caroline; whom, beyond a somewhat checkered past that landed her in Australia, can only exist in the movies.  She is impossibly wonderful, and utterly winning.  After seeing Nyong'o in Jordan Peele's Us (2019), audiences expect her to whup some sorry Zombie ass. She does not disappoint.

If she and those kids were the only people in the movie, I would have been delighted, but nope--we've got to have an overgrown man child in need of a redemption arc and a new girlfriend, so enter Dave (Alexander Englund).  Dave is a washed-up heavy metal wannabe who fights with his girlfriend throughout the opening of the film, and crashes on his sister's couch.  Said sister, Tess (Kat Stewart) happens to be a single mum to one adorable kid, Felix (Diesel La Tarraca--what a name!), who also coincidentally attends Miss Caroline's kindergarten class.  You see where this story is going, right?  When Dave is conscripted to bring Felix to school, he takes one look at Miss Caroline and falls in LUV. 

Miss Caroline plays Taylor Swift songs on the ukulele--and she makes it seem sweet rather than cloying
Frankly, you cannot blame him, but really, there is zero chemistry between these two since Audrey can surely do infinitely better.  He eagerly volunteers to join her in chaperoning the kids to a petting zoo, where a marvelous surprise awaits--Teddy McGiggle (Josh Gad), a really horrid children's performer who seems to be part of a trend of evil children's performers (think Pennywise in It and the evil clown/kidnapper/psycho in Happy).  Although Teddy is not supernaturally evil--he's just a human a**hole.  He serves as a foil for loser Dave, who seems positively evolved in comparison.

When the zombies show up, Miss Caroline does her best to distract the kids and tell them that it's all a game--high-jinks ensue.  While the film is mostly structured for laughs, there are some worrying moments; nevertheless, Audrey wields a shovel with gusto.  As frequent readers know, I'm not a fan of horror comedies, but watching this film in a packed house at Fantasia, I found myself cheering right along with everyone else whenever Miss Caroline got out of a tight scrape.  Likewise, Dave's nephew, Felix, is probably one of the cutest kids I've seen in a while.  As a kid who is allergic to everything, you would expect the little tyke to be ripe victim fodder, but he manages to be much more than his sensitivities. 

Little Monsters is mostly fluff, but fun fluff
Some of the laughs hit, some miss, but Lupita Nyong'o makes the whole experience worthwhile.  She is luminous throughout, and Forsythe really scored when he secured her for Miss Caroline.  This woman can do anything.  I want her to be the star of all the movies. Dave's arc is hackneyed, but I guess we still need to reassure dickhead white guys that they have some place in contemporary cinema.  Be prepared, though--your tolerance for Taylor Swift and Neil Diamond needs to be pretty high to survive Little Monsters.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Ari Aster's Exploration of Grief--Midsommar review (2019)

Dani and Christian take a solstice holiday in Ari Aster's Midsommar (2019)
I had the good fortune of seeing an Ari Aster double feature last night, with a re-screening of Hereditary (2018) accompanied by the premiere of Aster's second feature film, Midsommar (2019).  On the whole, I'm a fan of Hereditary, and watching it again, I unsurprisingly noticed more details and became more sympathetic to the grief-stricken Annie and her family than I was the first time I saw the film.  To some extent, Annie and Charlie are mere victims of a group of people "hellbent" on maintaining the patriarchy by bringing this low-level demon, Paimon, into the world.  Toni Collette is still mesmerizing in her grief, and I really started to sympathize with Alex Wolff's Peter in a much more visceral way this time around.  Wolff gives an extraordinary performance.

I also got into a bit of an argument with this guy sitting next to me, who kept insisting that Annie is entirely unreliable, and the only character worthy of our identification is Steve.  Of course, I think Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is by far the lamest character in the film, just politely downing some pills with his scotch rather than actively doing anything of import!  Yeah, I still dislike that character, but the guy next to me swore that Steve is the only one who actually knows how to grieve, and he's the biggest victim, mostly of Annie's machinations.  Please.  I didn't stick around to hear his take on Midsommar, but I bet he didn't like it that much, since spectators are yet again compelled to identify with an "unstable" female protagonist.  If he was trying to cling to some male POV, then he's pretty SOL unless he identifies with the wonderful Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) who is always, always on protagonist Dani's side.

Dani (Florence Pugh) is the heart of Midsommar and we are aligned with her POV
Ari Aster is capable of bringing out these incredible performances from his female protagonists, and Florence Pugh's Dani is a revelation.  Her journey is ours.  I happened to encounter Pugh in Carol Morley's wonderful The Falling (2014)--her breakout role--and while we do not get enough of her character in that film, one can understand why the other girls, including Maisie Williams' Lydia, are obsessed with her.  Initially, Dani is painted as insecure, tiptoeing around her boyfriend Christian's (Jack Reynor's) delicate feelings, concerned that she might scare him away.  She beautifully embodies this giving and generous woman who chooses a bro who doesn't really appreciate her.  In fact, Aster makes it a point to represent Christian and his bro friends, Josh (William Jackson Harper) and Mark (Will Poulter) as dickheads, with Pelle standing out as someone who is especially sensitive and kind in comparison.  Pelle has invited the guys to his Swedish village's Midsommar festival, and after Dani suffers an incredible tragedy, Christian reluctantly invites her along.  Grumble, grumble say the bros, especially Mark, who clearly just wants to get laid by some beautiful Swedish women.

Christian, Dani, Josh, and Pelle observe the beginning of the 9 day feast and its accompanying rituals
I'm a huge fan of folk horror--HUGE!  So the elaborate occult rituals and all the details involved in this special solstice celebration--one held every 90 years according to Pelle--gave me such pleasure.  Sure, there are moments that seem pretty over the top and hearken back to Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973) big time, but Aster really doesn't handle any of these ritualistic scenes in quite the same exploitative fashion as the earlier film.  In fact, the pagan rites--intertwined with notions of nature and community--seem no less strange than a variety of different practices which are a part of "acceptable" religions; which, I believe, is exactly Aster's point. Christian and Josh, anthropology doctoral students, see the commune as alien, something to be studied and investigated, and do not really perceive the inhabitants as human.  Don't even get me started on Mark, who Aster unfortunately caricatures as this unenlightened neanderthal horndog. Yet, as the film really is filtered through Dani's perspective, her attitude toward the commune and her fellow American guests, gradually, but assuredly, evolves.  Our experience of the film as "horror" largely depends on if our perspective changes along with hers.

Some of the Midsommar rituals are not without a little ultraviolence
One of the reasons the film is not that horrifying is that its images are bathed in the glorious sunshine of summer, and the lush landscape rich with green grass and wildflowers fills the frame with pastoral beauty.  Even when the rituals' participants are tripping on some type of hallucinogen (and that happens a lot), the landscape softly undulates.  For anyone that's every tripped on mushrooms, LSD, or their ilk, the scenes where some of the guests freak out are hilarious.  The effects Aster use are essential to both our identification with Dani's experience, and add to the otherworldly quality of the commune.  At one point, I could not stop staring at this flower on Dani's headdress, that just kept opening and closing, opening and closing.  Mesmerizing.

The film has some graphic moments of violence, especially near the beginning as Dani acclimates to the community and its rituals.  Pelle and his family are distinctly "othered" as they dance and gesture in their all white clothing, wreaths of flowers in their hair.  Once Dani dons their clothing and ornaments, she meshes with the other inhabitants of the commune, baking pies for the feast, and participating in the dance to designate who will be crowned the May Queen.

Pelle speaks of his own losses and encourages Dani to stay
The real turning point of the film is the heart-to-heart talk Dani has with Pelle, where he explains that after he was orphaned, the commune became his family, and he always feels like he is cared for and loved, that he "felt held."  He says he wants that for Dani, and really, the audience wants that for her as well.  His words continue to echo as we watch Christian flirt with Maya, some local girl who sets her eyes on him "to mate."  As Dani absorbs the warmth and intimacy of these Swedish people, wrestling with her grief throughout the film, she finds a place of comfort and support where she would least expect it.

The Hagar women feel Dani's pain
Sure, some of the film's outcomes seem inevitable, and I wasn't surprised by the film's conclusion as much as satisfied with the fates of all those involved.  Reviewers have been touting the film as a sick "breakup movie" and "relationship revenge," but I see it rather as a journey where Dani finally finds herself.  Once lost and clinging to her boyfriend as a life line, she grows and evolves, working through her stages of grief until she comes out on the other side of all that pain, surrounded by a loving and supportive "family"--finding a new "home" far, far away.  I think Aster's film is quite beautiful, but I can imagine that my take isn't the most popular.  In comparison to Hereditary, Aster equips Dani with emotional depth without demonizing her or the cult that embraces her.  In the end, Dani's smile mirrored my own.  Highly Recommended!

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

2019 Fantasia Film Festival--The Schedule is Up!!!

2019 Looks to be a Fantastic Festival!!
Summer is here, and that means the Fantasia Film Festival is just around the corner (8 days from now, and a couple metro rides away, but whatever).  As usual, the festival is headlining way too many films that I desperately want to see, so I'll give you my must sees for this year.  The festival is always full of discoveries, and my abbreviated stay last year meant I missed out on some great films--I caught them later (and I'll be posting on some of my favorites), but nothing beats hearing the crowd go nuts in one of the two main screening venues.  Here we go!

Riley Keough is trapped in Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala's The Lodge (2019)
In 2015, only my second year of attending the Fantasia Film Festival, I went to a film that was generating a lot of buzz on the festival circuit--Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala's Goodnight Mommy (2014).  This stunning and deeply unsettling film blew my mind, and I not only reviewed the film then, but presented on it at a conference and exposed my students to its wonders.  So at the top of my list for films to see this year is their follow up film--The Lodge (2019).  Again, the film follows a stepmom dealing with a couple of kids who aren't thrilled with her, but this time they are snowed in some remote lodge while Dad is away, leaving all kinds of supernatural things to creep around.  Synopses and the trailer suggest that Grace (Keough) is the sole survivor of some suicide cult, so that info puts a spin on things.  I can almost guarantee that this heroine is haunted by some trauma from her past.

The Duchess (Milla Jovovich) keeps her wayward schoolgirls in line in Alice Waddington's Paradise Hills (2019)
I recently read a discussion of Ari Lester's Midsommar (2019) by Charles Bramesco in The Guardian regarding some critical drubbing of the film as "overlong" (at 140 minutes).  Bramesco claims that "Personally, when a horror film gets dinged on the grounds of being “overlong” or “full of bizarre tangents that go nowhere," I take notice and pay attention. The unwieldy, the inexplicable, the ambitious-to-a-fault – this is my cinematic happy place."  For me, a film that draws complaints regarding its gorgeous cinematography and production design "at the expense of narrative" sounds exactly like something I'm going to like.  So Alice Waddington's Paradise Hills (2019) seems ideal.  This dystopian film about a reform school for girls, on a mysterious island, run by The Duchess (Mila Jovovich) has been called "beautiful," "gorgeous," "stunning." As Adi Robertson explains in reviewing the film's Sundance screening, "The film both critiques and revels in an aggressively feminine high-tech aesthetic that’s tinged with eerie surrealism."  Sign me up.

Teens react to the disappearance of Carolyn Harper in Jennifer Reeder's Knives and Skin (2019)
You may be noticing a pattern here, and my frequent readers have already sussed out that the films about which I'm most excited are directed by women.  This predilection is not always wide-ranging, as I tend to avoid horror comedies even if they are women-directed, but award-winning short filmmaker Jennifer Reeder's feature Knives and Skin, touted as a "feminist teen noir," has me quite enthusiastic!  This brief clip not only showcases the stylish imagery, but gives us some Cyndi Lauper love as well.  Reeder will be in attendance as well, so YAY!  I also had to chuckle because one review (written by a man) claims that the film emphasizes "style over narrative."  Yep, I'm in.

Arielle Dombasle is the writer/director and star of the wondrous Alien Crystal Palace (2019)
Speaking of women-directed wonders, I'd see Arielle Dombasle's Alien Crystal Palace (2019) no matter who directed it.  One look at this gorgeous trailer, and I was overwhelmed by vibes from The Hunger, Wim Wenders, with a dash of Liquid Sky.  The film's screening is at midnight at Fantasia.  Honestly, I don't care what time it's showing, I have to see it! Oh, and it's a musical, which would usually send me scurrying away, but if the trailer is any indication of the kind of music on display, I think I'll be fine.

A Mother shoe masquerades as a man in order to raise her daughter in SHe,
One of the more outstanding facets of the Fantasia Film Festival is their animation offerings, and they program innovative animators from around the globe that often use very unique and painstaking techniques to tell their stories.  This year I have my eye on two films that look incredible.  The first, SHe by 28 year old Chinese animator Shengwei Zhou, masterfully employs stop-motion to create a sumptuous tale of a mother (embodied in a red high heel pump) passing as a man (in a leather boot) raising her daughter in a repressive patriarchal culture.  The director illustrates these social concerns with shoes!  Amazing.  The trailer is really opulent.

The Psychedelic Visuals stand out in Son of the White Mare (Marcell Jankovics, 1981)


I know as much about Hungarian animation as I do about Chinese animation (umm, nothing), but after watching a trailer for Marcell Jankovic's Son of the White Mare (1981), I am excited to watch this psychedelic trip.  Seems like the perfect film in which to indulge in Canada's legal psychedelics.

Mia Wasikowska plays Judy, an abused puppeteer, in Mirrah Foulkes Judy and Punch (2019)
Another women-directed project, Mirrah Foulkes' Judy and Punch (2019), has been described as a whimsical and skewed revenge-driven fairy tale; and honestly, Wasikowska's take on characters gives them an extra-special something.  Her role as Jackie in Nicolas Pesce's Piercing (2018) really stole the film from Christopher Abbott's bland murderer wannabee, and I haven't seen Damsel yet, but I've heard that she is magnificent in that as well.  The first time she caught my attention was back in 2008, when she had a major role in In Treatment.  Although I think Burton's Alice films (in which she stars) are just Burton sending his kids to private school (cashing in), she's always riveting, even in dreck.

One wonders what this creepy kid has been munching on in Abdelhamid Bouchnak's Dachra (2018)
This Tunisian horror film, Dachra, has been receiving waves of buzz since its debut in Venice, and the trailer's pacing made me very, very tense (a feeling I quite like).  This film is Bouchnak's first, and I'm excited to fall under its spell, especially so I can figure out what on earth I'm looking at in terms of Dachra's poster.

WTF??
Alba finds herself repeating the same day, less an hour, in Jon Mikel Caballero's The Incredible Shrinking Wknd (2019)
From my very first attendance of Fantasia in 2014, I've noticed that they have a wonderful habit of programming original and innovative "time travel" films.  From The House at the End of Time (2013) to Predestination (2014), Animals (2017), and A Day (2017), I simply love them!  I also teach a Confusion Cinema/Puzzle Films class, and I'm always adding films screened at Fantasia to my list--every single year. This Spanish thriller by Jon Mikel Cabballero, The Incredible Shrinking Wknd, comes across, from the clip, as more of a thriller than a comedy.  Will Ada be able to close the time loop before she runs out of hours in the day?  I must find out.

Is Jade as "crazy" as her boyfriend makes her out to be in Jade's Asylum (2019)
In May of 2018 I flew to Scotland to present at, and attend, a conference on representations of mental illness in cinema--unsurprisingly, there were very few, if any "positive" or thoughtful representations of madness, especially in horror cinema.  I am fascinated by these representations, especially if they are embodied in female protagonists deemed to be crazy--whether "crazy violent" or "crazy and seeing things, aka ghosts."  Alexandre Carrière's Jade's Asylum (2019) is exactly in my wheelhouse--Is Jade having a psychotic episode and delusional, or is the supernatural present?  The film's trailer does not provide any easy answers.  I just hope it doesn't end up demonizing Jade too much.
Super Cool Poster!
After trauma, Luke resurrects his imaginary friend, Daniel, in Daniel Isn't Real (Adam Egypt Mortimer, 2019)

A film that's also getting a tremendous amount of buzz since it's debut at SXSW is Adam Egypt Mortimer's Daniel Isn't Real, which from its title and synopsis, suggests that maybe, just maybe, he is (real.)  Comes as no surprise, dear readers, that a film about a guy is going to attract so much more attention since the link between women and madness is seen by society as normal.  Especially if we get uppity, have opinions, and claim power for ourselves.  Heavy sigh.

I've just touched upon what the 2019 Fantasia Film Festival has in store for us this year.  More to come!!

Monday, July 30, 2018

Fantasia 2018--Luz--Tilman Singer (2018)

Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt) gets a kiss to die for in Tilman Singer's super-cool Luz (2018)
As I waited patiently to file into the screening room to see Tilman Singer's Luz at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival, a lovely gentlemen said to me, "It's like early Cronenberg, with some David Lynch, and also Zulawski."  I replied, "That's awesome, I like all those things!" now exceedingly pumped for a film about which I was already excited.  Well, he was right, but Luz is even cooler than all those touchstones, and one of the most lingeringly compelling and aesthetically beautiful films I've seen at Fantasia, this year and all the years.  Yes, it's that great.

A colleague of mine, whom I deeply respect, asked me, when I was waxing rhapsodically about Luz, "what exactly is the point?"  Hmmm.  I don't think that Luz can be explained in a pithy synopsis, because the film is not a straight-forward, linear narrative.  In fact, there is a thread of a narrative, regarding the female cabbie, Luz, and what appears to be a demon for whom she opened a door during her early boarding school days.  Intermittent flashbacks show a young, nude woman lying in a pentagram surrounded by candles--cue demon ritual.  Said demon really took a liking to Luz back in the day, and now she/he/it is on a "romantic" mission to reconnect with its lost love.  Like Justin McConnell's Lifechanger, the film's supernatural entity is also more or less a body thief, so gender does not really stick.  Yet, unlike McConnell's beast, Luz's entity is distinctly odd and inhuman, rendering the body it possesses strange and uncanny.  In the scene where the possessed Nora (Julia Riedler) seduces Dr. Rossini (Jan Bluthardt), she moves her body in a jerky, yet seductive, manner, slithering on her bar stool.  She fills the small space with her unnatural presence.

Dr. Rossini/the demon controls Detective Bertillion during Luz's hypnosis
The term "fever dream" is pretty over-used when it comes to hallucinatory horror films, but here it seems well placed, as the film shifts from different character subjectivities, and between past and present, without any discernible boundaries. Sometimes the camera gets up close to a character, such as its intimacy with Luz, but most of the time, the camera stays at a significant distance, like a wary observer.  This type of cinematography lends an eerie quality to the set pieces of the film, whether at the police station, where much of the film takes place, or at a bar, where Dr. Rossini has a very strange encounter with the intense Nora.  The scene at a local bar conveys genius on a limited budget, with oddly colored cocktails and shots served up, thrown back by Nora in a primal and predatory manner.  The scenes that take place at the entry to the police station, shot both in a long shot and in a long take, almost convey a mad "Jacques Tati" humor straight out of Playtime--although the film is far too creepy to elicit anything other than uncomfortable laughter.  A hypnosis scene in the police station's conference room becomes a melding, transformative encounter, as Dr. Rossini asks Luz to describe what happened to her the night she leapt from her moving cab.  Gunshots, body swapping, and demonic flashbacks galore explode into a gauzy mist, where characters become indistinguishable in the murky haze.
Luz's (Luana Velis) punk attitude and tough exterior hide her occult leanings
Accompanied by both a seductive and slightly discordant soundtrack, the encompassing mood of the film is deeply unsettling, and its 16mm grain gives the film a certain timelessness--even though the decor nods to 70s and 80s art horror.  Thankfully, no one's whipping out a cell phone here to ruin the mood.  Subtitles for this German film are sensitive to the multiple languages used, and Luz's blasphemous Spanish cursing is accompanied by both German and English subtitles.
Luz's deadly encounter with Dr. Rossini transforms the police station into a liminal space
All my delicate dancing around the film's subject matter cannot really express how gorgeous, imaginative, unsettling, and utterly unique the film is.  So many images leave an indelible impression that continue to haunt long after the film's screening.  Luz is Tilman Singer's student thesis film.  Yes!  I think if one of my students turned in a film with this much confidence, style, and power, my head would probably explode like a moment straight out of Scanners.  Fantasia is a place that can make a filmmaker's career, and I can only hope that a platform like Shudder or Amazon Prime will get a hold of Tilman's film and share it with everyone.  A standout of Fantasia 2018, it's too soon to tell, but Luz is a contender for my favorite film of the festival!  Wow.  Find it and see it.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Fantasia 2018--Under the Silver Lake--David Robert Mitchell (2018)

Sam (Andrew Garfield) is a study in white male hetero entitled voyeurism in Under the Silver Lake (2018)
Well, David Robert Mitchell has squandered all of his accumulated cache from 2014's It Follows with the witless slog of his latest white male fantasy, Under the Silver Lake (2018), which had its North American Premiere at the 2018 Fantasia Film Festival.  The film had earned mixed reviews from its Cannes film festival screenings, and has subsequently had its release date postponed from June 22nd to December 7th after its lackluster reception.  So perhaps I'm not surprised to be massively disappointed by this film that follows grade-A unemployed loser and entitled Silver Lake denizen Sam (Andrew Garfield) as he wanders from apartment to apartment and party to party in search of some mystery girl who he interacted with very briefly, and who disappears from the apartment across the courtyard of his NICE digs in this uber-hip neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Robert Mitchell sets the tone immediately with his latest film by A) having some weirdo animatronic animal (squirrel? beaver? dog?) fall down splat from above, and then briefly animate before keeling over  So, I guess it's QUIRKY!!  Then B) he has Sam laying about on his balcony, with binoculars, watching the topless hippy parrot/parakeet owner across the way.  Very shortly after that, Sam has sex with someone credited as "The Actress" played by Riki Lindhome, because Garfunkel and Oates are not making the big bucks, as they should, and she has to pay the rent, dammit.  May I remind you, that in this film, she is not even given a name.  Granted, other women are called "Balloon Girl" and "Bird Lady," so I guess Riley Keough should be thankful that her manic pixie dream girl "Sarah" actually has a name, although she should just be called "manic pixie dream girl" or "Marilyn Monroe Wannabee" for consistency's sake.
Sarah (Riley Keough) giggles, drinks OJ and eats saltines in bed, and gives Sam some sense of purpose
Sarah catches Sam spying on her from his balcony, and for some very unclear reason, invites him over for a joint, and some OJ and saltines at her place.  She shares one rather chaste kiss before she boots him out of her apartment, planning on meeting up with him the next day.  Yet, when he goes to meet her, he finds the apartment abandoned, uninhabited, as Sarah and her roommates have somehow "poof" disappeared.  This excitement is a bit too much for Sam, who sees conspiracies around every corner, and believes there's some secret message hidden in old images of Vanna White's glances.  Aimless Sam has now got an aim (find Sarah) and neither hipster performance artists (like Balloon Girl) or emo bands such as "Jesus and the Brides of Dracula" will get in his way.  He will journey from hip underground parties, to cool cemetery film screenings in search of the girl he spent approximately 20 minutes with, all in a single-minded stalker quest to find her. 

All the girls want to sleep with loser Sam
My contempt for most of the narrative compels me to skim over some of the more interesting visual and aural touches that Robert Mitchell scatters throughout the film.  The soundtrack is really lush and often echoes noir soundtracks of the past, although no matter how I look at Under the Silver Lake, Andrew Garfield is no Robert Mitchum, nor Bogart, nor even Fred MacMurray.  The film's "ode to Los Angeles" is inconsistent though--are we supposed to be mesmerized by Silver Lake's laid back hipness, or disgusted by its shallow pretension?  Likewise, the film has some striking moments of violence.  One of my favorites has Sam kicking the crap out of two unsuspecting kids, where someone in the audience called out "You get 'em, Spiderman!"  Nice.  Yet, I'm not sure how to interpret this deadbeat nerd-bro's acts of sudden rage.  While they elicited a cheer from Fantasia's audience (look, something's actually happening!), I did not understand what they signified beyond some white male revenge fantasy against petty problems.  How dare you ruin my hero worship of Kurt Cobain, old songwriter dude who laughs maniacally! 

Also, there's this really cool sequence that's a live action motion graphic of a local zine created by Patrick Fischler, who is a lovely presence in just about any film.  But why is this animated sequence in the film?  Cuz it's quirky as fu**.  Lots of questions float around that don't necessarily require answers, but provide motivation for our lame-o detective wannabee to move from point A to point B.  Why is there an underground bunker, and what does it have to do with missing millionaire Jefferson Sevence?  Also, who is the nefarious dog killer, and why are the skunks in Los Angeles so invested in spraying Sam.  I guess, the ultimate question is do we really care?  Nope.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Fantasia 2018--Lifechanger--Justin McConnell (2018)

Drew (Jack Foley in this iteration) gets on with the labor of survival in Justin McConnell's Lifechanger (2018)
One of Fantasia Film Festival's many pleasures is the ability not only to see amazing new horror films, but also see them first.  Fantasia 2018 screened the world premiere of Justin McConnell's thoughtful and gruesome feature Lifechanger, and while I haven't seen the director's other work, this body jumping genre piece really impressed me (and a good chunk of the Fantasia audience that stuck around, full of questions, during the Q & A).

Lifechanger introduces us to Drew in its first moments through the character's voice-over, a remarkably consistent insight into the character as it jumps from person to person through claiming their bodies, and seemingly their memories as well.  Drew has just "taken" Emily Roberts (Elitsa Bako), leaving a rather desiccated corpse double beside it, one of which the body thief will quickly dispose.  So, from the first moments, viewers are introduced to the film's monster, quite sympathetically.  As we know, subjective narration can really align us with characters that commit questionable actions with equally questionable motivations.  Drew states that it takes over people to survive, not with any malicious intent, but out of desperation as its body begins to rot (which creates some nice goopy moments).  Over the course of the film, Drew inhabits a variety of differently gendered bodies, although the film loses some of the subversiveness this gender swapping might entail, by 1) maintaining Drew's voice-over by a distinctly male actor (Bill Oberst Jr.) and 2) by having the character's mission be the single-minded pursuit of melancholy Julia (Lora Burke), with which Drew had a "love connection" with a couple of years ago while inhabiting the body of her husband, Richard, who happened to up-and-disappear shortly after the couple's son died.  Coincidence?  You'll notice that I'm trying to avoid male or female pronouns when discussing Drew, because despite the film's narrative leanings, Drew is definitely "other."

Julia chatting with Rachel aka Drew at the Monarch Lounge
Julia is the very picture of loss, and Drew does whatever it takes to be near her, meeting up at her drinking haunt, The Monarch Lounge, in a variety of bodies/guises.  Drew can either accelerate its bodily decay (by snorting prodigious amounts of blow) or stave it off (through antibiotics), and some of the film's most exciting tensions circle around "the authorities" discovering Drew's "body farm" full of previous incarnations, and hunting down Rachel, who wisely becomes Robert (Jack Foley) just when the police are closing in.  Another bonus is the fact that Rachel was a dental assistant, so she had access to quite a few antibiotics that Drew uses to slow down his decomp while it courts a sadly clueless Julia as her new beau.  Yet, Drew is a monster with a conscience, and it wears the weight of its crimes heavily; when it decides to tell Julia its true nature....well, things don't go quite like it had planned. 

The necessity to change bodies more frequently, for its survival, weighs heavily on Drew
While some people might be put off by the humanizing of Drew, the film's consistent voice-over led to an increased consistency in relation to the performance of a variety of different actors, all who seem to clearly embody Drew, whether housed in a male or female body.  The only thing that really sticks for me, and which the director mentioned frankly in the Q & A, is the "stalking as romance" trope that underlies the majority of the narrative.  While McConnell suggests that the film is an examination of toxic masculinity, I think the film also really compels viewers to hope that Drew can capture Julia's heart, no matter what form it takes.  The film makes it hard to be really critical of Drew--what's a body thief to do if it doesn't want to die, right?

Credit thus goes to both McConnell for writing such well-drawn characters, and for the first-rate performers (many of whom took to the stage at the Q & A) who embodied them.  Lora Burke's Julia is by turns witty and tragic, and always eminently likeable, while Drew's iterations, shackled with its bodily memories, are each utterly unique, but then subtly changed once they transform into Drew.  The fact that the cast pulls off this trick with such agility speaks to both their outstanding talent and McConnell's masterful direction.  I've been careful not to give anything away, but the ending of this film is a doozy--kind of gross, and quite thought-provoking.  I do hope that Lifechanger gets the screenings it deserves.  After theaters and VOD, it would be nice if Netflix or Shudder picked up this gem so that it reaches a larger audience.  Highly recommended!!