Thursday, August 3, 2017

Fantasia 2017--The Endless--Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (2017)

Justin Benson and Aaron's Moorhead's The Endless (2107) turns the desert into an otherwordly realm
The Fantasia Film Festival can make a filmmaker's career, it's that well known and prestigious a festival.  When Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead were introducing their third film at this year's festival, the accomplished and extremely smart The Endless (2017), they thanked festival programmer Mitch Davis with heartfelt gratitude for giving their first feature, Resolution (2012) its breakout screening, all based on a "scratched up DVD" he was generous enough to watch, and love.  For those of you in the know about the indie horror/sci-fi film world, the rest is history as these two filmmakers have become the darlings of the festival world based on their high quality, deeply reflective films (be sure to see their second film, Spring (2014) too). The Endless connects to their previous films, a gift to their fans, but also stands alone as a balanced and inventive work on its own.

Justin and Aaron (co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead) revisit their old UFO death cult
The Endless follows Justin and Aaron (played by co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead), two brothers who struggle to live a happy life under their present circumstances.  They are both former "escapees" from what Justin describes as a "UFO death cult" that consisted of fun practices like castration, pedophilia, and plans for a mass suicide.  After the brothers receive a videotape from the death cult suggesting that the cult's members are far from dead, Aaron decides he must revisit this part of his childhood, and Justin unwillingly joins him.  They encounter not quite what they expect, as the cult is still pretty mysterious, but doesn't seem as "woo-woo" as it could be, and members do not seem like they are on a one-way track to mass death.  Still, plenty of weird sh** keeps happening to make you simultaneously side with both the wildly suspicious Justin and the naively trusting Aaron.

The brothers encounter strange totems and supernatural phenomena in this desert retreat
As I mentioned, there are plenty of nods to their previous films, specifically to Resolution, to make a fan's head swell with in-the-know pride.  The film employs its desolate and isolated landscape beautifully, and I haven't encountered that pervasive sense of lostness in a film for a while--an uncanny sense that you're pretty sure you passed that exact same log just moments ago.  The film is just ambiguous enough to make you trust our protagonists and yet question what they experience, and whether they are actually reliable as narrators.  Benson and Moorhead use the "don't show too much" approach to genre filmmaking, so that your imagination is triggered and fills in the blanks deliberately left open.  Nevertheless, what they do show us is pretty damn cool.  These guys know how to create a rich and elaborate world with very little money.  Will someone please give them a television show?  I believe that they could give Stranger Things a seriously competitive run. The Endless is the kind of cerebral sci-fi film that takes you along for a ride while making you feel rather smart, and is littered with surprises for those viewers who feel jaded by many contemporary examples of the genre.  This film solidifies Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's solid reputation; they simply ROCK.  See this film.

Fantasia 2017--Spoor--Agnieska Holland (2017)

Agnieska Holland's latest film Spoor (2017) combines magical mystery with cinematic joy
Fantasia just announced its winners of the festival's prizes, and best film goes to one of the best, if not the best, film I saw at Fantasia this year, Agnieska's Holland's gorgeous and thoughtful Spoor (2017).  I'm struggling a bit trying to convey my enthusiasm for this film in words, but I'll do my best without spoiling its mysteries or gushing overmuch.

Spoor is anchored by Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka's luminous performance as the vivid and incomparable Duszejko
Spoor is set in a truly magnificent but rather bleak area of the Polish countryside, where mists roll over the hills, and the mottled gray of a pack of deer, only their antlers showing,blends seamlessly with the desolate decor.  Within these challenging environs thrives Duszejko, a dog owner, animal lover, English teacher, and a woman who is much smarter and sexier than anyone else in the film.  By the way, she's in her 60s; this kind of casting would be unheard of in a Hollywood film, unless Meryl Streep starred (Oh No, Hollywood, you cannot remake this one).  The film follows Duszejko as she plays with her dogs, chastises hunters, poachers, and bad cops, and sharply eyes the sad straits of the younger generation, embodied by Dobra and Dyzio, whom she befriends.

She has suitors who admire her for her intelligence and beauty, including Boros, an entomologist
One morning, she wakes to find both of her beloved dogs missing, and soon after a handful of prominent men of the community end up murdered, with all signs pointing to some kind of "killer animal" revenge scheme, as each man is an abuser of animals in some way, and the only evidence seems to be deer tracks.  Duszejko is a lover of animals and nature, and like an animal rights Miss Marple, she decides to figure out what is going on in her rustic small town.

Duszejko respects the lives of all animals
Surprisingly, the film never veers into some pedantic, vegetarian screed against hunting or meat eating, but is more of an exploration of the importance of balance with and respect for nature.  The images of animal life, whether cowering from humans or malevolently watching their every move, are just stunning, the cinematography a delight at every moment.  Meanwhile, the procedural aspects of the film are very well done.  The film possesses a good twist, and by the time you find out how this wave of violence came about, you are so deeply entrenched by your love of the characters that drive the film, that your entire moral compass may shift.  The film questions patriarchal power and its abuses, while also shining a gentle light on anti-conformists who follow their own path, as well as what "family" really means.  How one can choose their family.  Within this context, the film's ending feels just right.

Some of the issues with which Spoor engages
A great film should transport you to another world, even if it's one familiar to you in some ways.  The film should compel you to deeply care about characters and their outcomes, forging a strong identification with them while maintaining a sense of intimacy, as if you have entered a secret, private realm.  A great film forces you to reexamine the places and people that you encounter everyday, shaping and shifting your perspective.  A truly magnificent film will take your breath away and make you feel sad that it has ended.  Spoor is that film!  I would happily pay extra to follow a franchise that focuses on Duszejko, and I hope that this performance brings Agnieszka Mandat-Grabka the attention she so richly deserves.


The film's quiet moments are just as intense as its more dramatic ones
Spoor was the third film I screened that day at the Fantasia Film Festival, and I walked out of that film not tired, but electrified, and seriously thought about screening it again the next day, I loved it so much.  Agnieska Holland's mastery of cinema and her profoundly poignant and provocative look at humanity is on wondrous display in this masterpiece, and I hope that Fantasia's award is the first of many accolades.  See this film as soon as you can, and then tell all your friends to see it.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Fantasia 2017--Bushwick-- Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott (2017)

Right-wing mercenaries turn Bushwick into a battle zone in Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott's Bushwick (2017)
When explaining to my friend Gus a synopsis of Bushwick, I described it as follows:  "There was lots of shooting, running, and hiding, and more shooting, running, and hiding, and a lot of people died.  Some of those people died unexpectedly."  While this description may not be the most charitable toward the film, it doesn't mean it's any less accurate, or that the film is not really VERY entertaining.

Lucy (Brittany Snow) learns combat survival skills PDQ
The film follows the blond Buffy look-a-like Lucy (Brittany Snow) as she arrives home with her boyfriend to visit her grandmother in Bushwick--shades of Little Red Riding Hood seem very deliberate.  Without really spoiling anything, her boyfriend is immediately killed in an explosion, and Lucy is forced to fend for herself in what has become a violent militarized zone, where teams of snipers, dressed in black, are just randomly gunning down the populace at every turn.  Meanwhile, desperate times produce a series of rapists and looters that hew a little too closely to some dangerous stereotypes, and if not for the gruff Stupe's assistance (played with stoic gravitas by Dave Bautista), she would be just another corpse littering the street.

Stupe and Lucy immersed in the shooting, running, and hiding loop
What follows is Lucy trying to find out what's happened to her family members (her grandmother and sister, respectively), while the two survivors try to figure out what the fu** is going on.  Turns out that a series of Southern states, under the influence of a charismatic right-wing ideologue, and funded by the pockets of some major corporation, are staging a military insurrection and seceding from the U.S.  The mercenaries they are using, who are merely "following orders," have been told that Bushwick is a good flashpoint for this insurgency because its a place so divided by difference, that its various factions couldn't possibly unite together to stage an organized resistance.  Of course, as right-wing fu**wits are so often dead wrong, the highlights of the film are the fierce pockets of resistance that emerge, and how people are willing to fight to the death against injustice.  Yet what the film implies, but doesn't really explore with any depth, is that folks are willing to go to the same lengths to fight to maintain bigotry and inequality.

Right-wingers are willing to "Make America Great Again" by any means necessary
While Bushwick was in production well before the results of the 2016 election, its themes are beyond timely and really resonate with the political sh**show that is the U.S. right now.  The film isn't overly pedantic, even though it certainly takes a side in this new version of a civil war.  Some characters die that you might not expect, which gives the film a bit more inventiveness beyond its shoot-em-up aesthetic and almost non-existent backstory.  Bushwick is a fun ride, but not as cathartic as I had hoped.  While the film is still way too chilling (similar to the ways in which the current adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale feels imminently possible), it feels too much like a video game to really resonate or make you care.

Fantasia 2017--Tiger Girl--Jakob Lass (2017)

Jakob Lass's Tiger Girl (2017) shows us what happens when women get angry
Watching women stop taking sh** and stand up against di**heads can be extremely satisfying, especially in a world where the differences that divide us can create a sense of overwhelming powerlessness.  Jakob Lass's gritty Tiger Girl (2017) immediately immerses you in a world where for young women, every moment of the day is laden with harassment and threat.  The film follows Maggy (Maria-Victoria Dragus), aka Vanilla, as she fails her police exam and takes the next step toward having some kind of future, training as a security guard.  Along the way, her encounters with both men and women are dispiriting, as she is mocked, harassed, and treated like garbage repeatedly.

Both Vanilla and the audience fall for Tiger's (Ella Rumpf's) charms
In the midst of this bleak situation, Tiger (Ella Rumpf) appears, a young, rough female hoodlum who takes no crap and meets adversity with a vicious kick and a kind of violent glee.  Someone blocks a parking space with her giant SUV? Knock off her side mirror so there is room.  Threatened waiting for the metro?  This scrappy young woman will take you on, even if it means she'll suffer some knocks in the process.  Certainly, the violence both committed by and acted upon Tiger is upsetting, but that's what makes her tough, mischievous demanding of payback so thrilling; her limited code of ethics, and her manic energy, keeps the character from being too unlikeable.

The baseball bat is the catalyst for a whole bunch of mayhem
After Vanilla's fateful encounter on a subway platform, the two start to hang out in earnest, two angry, disenfranchised women looking to have some rather violent fun.  The development of their friendship feels both hyper-intense and desperately real.  Their primary source of entertainment is to dress up in security uniforms, and pretend to enforce rules on the populace, wielding a small degree of authority in a world where they have little to none.  The scene where they strip search a series of male customers at the local mall is both disturbing and decidedly naughty.

Vanilla (Maria-Victoria Dragus) starts to take her violence way, way too far
Still, what starts out as some pranks against a culture that oppresses them, turns into a full-blown display of "ultra-violence," as Vanilla starts acting out well beyond her nighttime excursions, slugging people and bullying them just because she can.  Her once absent confidence transforms into a strange narcissistic psychopathy, and her ability to feel empathy is completely replaced by a malicious contempt for everyone, including a couple of droogs she enlists along the way.  In this maelstrom of female rage, even Tiger starts to distance herself from Vanilla and her extremes.

Vanilla and Tiger pose as mall security
While the film's adrenaline-fueled scenes of action and rage certainly plunge the viewer into this grim world and drag her along from scene to scene, the repetition of often unmotivated violence gets to be a little tedious after a time.  What begins as refreshing starts to feel rather pointless, and the film takes on an A Clockwork Orange relentlessness.

The cops are always eager to assert their authority
Yet, while Kubrick's film seems to have some really clear messages in its ultraviolent worldview, Tiger Girl's takeaway is more unclear.  Both young women are hungry to attain a power that is relatively absent in their lives (power that is economic, social, sexual).  Vanilla's interest in becoming law enforcement, and then part of a security force, connects to a larger wish to gain control over her life and wield authority over others.  Yet the notion of "power corrupts" is taken to an extreme, as her loss of control becomes rather tragic.  The film's ending also rings strange, as its message is not conclusive, but more a way of raising more questions of what the future might hold for these two angry citizens.  Tiger Girl is worth seeing for Ella Rumpf's portrayal of the charismatic Tiger, but overall, the film disappoints on some important levels.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Fantasia 2017--Game of Death--Sebastien Landry and Laurence "Baz" Morais (2017)

Teens end up playing the wrong game in Sebastien Landry and Laurence "Baz" Morais's insanely fun Game of Death (2017)
I've seen a lot of films so far at the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival, so I can be excused for getting my circuits crossed and going to the wrong film once, right?  Right?  While my plan was to see the Russian alien invasion flick Attraction (2016) at 1pm, I ended up (realizing too late to run across the street) attending Sebastien Landry and Laurence "Baz" Morais's nutso teen horror film Game of Death (2017) completely by accident.  To be frank, after watching the trailer, I had absolutely no interest in this film, and I thought it was going to be pretty dumb.  While the premise is ridiculous, it was so much FUN, that I have absolutely no regrets.  In fact, it has renewed my faith in horror comedies, which had solidified into granite after the previous night's abysmal Better Watch Out (2016), which I will not review for the sake of kindness.

The annoying Kenny is dispatched with truly awesome gore effects
The film opens w/ Beth snapchatting, instagramming, or whatever the f*** teenagers do in order to snarkily snipe at each other through social media, and her sarcastic quip about screwing her brother sets the tone: these kids are all annoying and relatively unlikeable, and I'm already eager for some of them to die.  They all gather together for a house/pool party on a nice sunny day, drinking and getting high, and what have you--parents who knows where.  I honestly cannot tell how old any of them are, but almost anyone under the age of 25 seems impossibly young.  They all think they are smarter than anyone, and are all dumb as stumps.  Therefore, they decide to play some electronically-assisted retro board game called Game of Death, just because.  As the trailer makes clear, the games rules are that they have to kill a set number of people (24) or they will all die.  Just to make sure they take things seriously, the game starts killing off the kids, claiming "one down" and laughing maniacally after each death.  Two of them die before the rest of the kids get a clue, and then homicidal impulses start to fly.  Oh, and the kills. The Kills!  Whether game induced or teen-perpetrated, the kills are just some of the most gory, ridiculous, and outright startling deaths I've seen in a while.  Granted, I tend to shy away from gore, but in Game of Death, you've got to revel in it.  Several times I turned to Alice, who was sitting beside me, and just said "wow."  Wow.

While Tyler and Ashley have reservations, brother and sister Tom and Beth enjoy the game a bit too much
Game of Death wears the descriptor "gratuitous" like a badge of honor.  Is there sex?  Of course!  A cross-cut scene of a woman experiencing oral sex while another woman gives an unnecessary-to-the-plot lapdance gets us started.  An incestuous make-out scene goes on way, way too long, and ends in a romantic shot of the "lovers" silhouetted in front of a setting sun.  The film features one of the most gorgeous and surprising animated sequences, stylizing the gore as a couple of characters go full-stop-massacre on a care home.

Some players, like Mary-ann, never quite accept that what is happening is real
From the first 10 minutes onward, everyone, and I mean everyone, is covered in blood (as a nice touch, Baz, one of the co-directors, introduced the film covered in the red stuff).  Just to be clear though, no dogs or little children were harmed during this film--which is a nice caveat; although, I did feel a loss at the murder of the lovely Marilyn, whose singing really added a nice touch to the overall tone.  Oh, and you find out a surprising amount about manatees over the course of the film.


In sum, a film that I would normally not give the slightest glance became one of my favorites of the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival, and I do recommend it if you are up for something gaggingly gory and over the top.  An IMDB reviewer claimed that the concept was great and the execution poor.  I would switch it up and say that the concept is beyond dumb (shades of reading the Necromicon in The Evil Dead--stupid kids), but the execution is witty, inventive, and that animation scene is a real standout.  Be sure to check it out if you are in the mood for some gory surprises.

Fantasia 2017--M.F.A.--Natalia Leite (2017)

Francesca Eastwood gives a powerful performance in Natalia Leite's provocative and divisive film M.F.A (2017)
I tend to shy away from rape-revenge films, as I find that they are often overly sexualizing and exploitative, and often too triggering in the way they represent sexual assault.  Still, rape survivors have stated that they sometimes find the cathartic nature of revenge explored in these films somewhat liberating.  Therefore, I attended the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival screening of Natalia Leite's (2017) version of rape-revenge, M.F.A., with a degree of enthusiasm and trepidation, as I hoped that the combination of women director and writer (Leah McKendrick who plays Skye in the film) would bring a necessary degree of freshness and sensitivity to the subgenre.  After sitting on, and mulling over, this film for a few days, I would say that it mostly succeeds, although I still have some reservations.  While I try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, I think some might be inevitable here, so be forewarned.

Noelle's assault brings out her burgeoning talents
M.F.A. follows Noelle (Francesa Eastwood), a young artist fulfilling an M.F.A. in fine arts at a ridiculously small arts school in Southern California.  She is shy and tightly wound, her art work uninspired and subject to withering critiques by her fellow students.  She's invited by the smarmy Luke (Peter Vack) to his house for a party, and when they retreat to his room upstairs, what starts off as a sweet make-out quickly turns into a vicious and brutal rape.  This scene is terribly hard to watch, and thankfully is one of only two sexual assaults represented in the film.  Nevertheless, both assaults are harrowing, and Leite in the Q & A states that she very carefully tried to focus on her female characters' distress and POV.  In some ways, she's in a tough position, trying not to be gratuitous, while simultaneously highlighting the brutality involved in order to make sense of Noelle's rather intense response to the ordeal.  I still think that she could have shot these scenes more carefully; I think some guys could totally read them as a turn-on.  After Noelle tries the "usual routes" for dealing with such assaults--therapy, reporting to the school, joining a survivor's group--she realizes that these types of experiences are ubiquitous and rarely find proper justice.  While I appreciate that the film shows a variety of approaches that different survivors take to their assaults, it really suggests that Noelle's take is the only one that acomplishes anything.  Once she decides to take matters into her own hands, the results are both powerful and ultimately destructive.

Noelle enacts her own form of "justice" on rapists and abusers
The ways in which Noelle achieves payback are both brutal and frequently satisfying, and Eastwood's performance makes you root for her throughout her transformation.  Yet the intensity of her response, and the specific changes that she undergoes, leave me really unsettled.  While the first murder could be seen as "accidental," Noelle starts to really get off on the blood and guts involved.  She becomes a much better artist after her assault, which is damn problematic; the philosophical discussions about art being about "truth" are kind of hackneyed and don't really fit.  Second, she also becomes a super sexy femme fatale who seduces all the guys she ultimately kills.  The fact that she becomes some sexpot that gets off on killing really undermines some of the more serious issues the film is raising.  I do not have a problem with her evolution into a vigilante, or the fact that the film rather smartly emphasizes that this type of reaction/behavior has consequences.  What I take issue with is the fact that Noelle becomes so overtly sexualized, that the film comes across as more titillating then it should.  The laughter of the guys behind me made me squirm (as it did an audience member who admitted that she too was a rape survivor).  Sure, people laugh sometimes when they are uncomfortable, but trust me--this film is NOT a comedy.

The television show Sweet Vicious tends to get the balance right between vengeance and humor, and M.F.A. at times reminded me of that series, with its combination of pitch black irony and social conscience.  Yet, at other times M.F.A. seemed to share more in common with some of the rape revenge films it is trying to critique (I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left).  I still think Leite's film is a remarkable accomplishment and well worth watching, and I regretted seeing it alone because I was eager to discuss it with others, particularly female Fantasia attendees.  During the Q & A, the majority of the audience (including me) were really silent, trying our best to digest what we just saw.  I'm still chewing on the film, which I think means that it has significant impact, and also suggests that Leite and McKendrick may have some important cinematic stories still to tell.  Still, the film has some problems.  I recommend M.F.A. with a warning to be prepared to be disturbed and challenged.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Fantasia 2017--78/52--Alexandre Philippe (2017)

Alexandre Philippe's provocative documentary 78/52 (2017) explores Janet Leigh's last moments in Hitchcock's Psycho
For a film that follows in depth a rather brief 52 second scene, Alexandre Philippe's 78/52 is one of the most fascinating investigations of cinema and the horror genre that you will ever see.  Unlike the rather good Room 237, which explores fans' obsessions surrounding Kubrick's The Shining, Philippe's unpacking of the notorious shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho properly pays homage to what might be considered the most seminal film of the horror genre, and one of its most shocking murder set pieces.  Setting the stage by shooting exteriors on the Bates Hotel and house set, the film leaves no aspect of this scene unturned, yet never feels boring, or "over-analyzing" as it unfolds.

Hitch believed that the Casaba melon was most analogous in sound to the flesh bag of the human body
For horror geeks, the film provides a host of pleasures, as many luminaries of horror filmmaking (with only Karyn Kusama as the female representative of the genre) extol the virtues of Psycho, citing its influences, and performing many feats of close textual analysis.  Various Hitchcock experts (all guys) explain how Psycho fits among Hitchcock's oeuvre.  Film editor Walter Murch is one of the most exciting luminaries featured, and he gives you a real blow-by-blow sense of how innovative the film's editing was, while also paying proper respect to Saul Bass's involvement.  Bernard Hermann's score is similarly unpacked and heralded as part of the scene's achievements, and there's a marvelous scene that explains how exactly the sound of a knife penetrating Marion's flesh came into being.  What the film really emphasizes, without diminishing Hitchcock, is that this film, like many, was a collaborative effort by many outrageously talented people, and that its legacy lives on in both classic and contemporary horror works.

The guys from Spectrum wax on about their love of Psycho (particularly Anthony Perkins)
While this film is ostensibly a "talking heads" documentary, it never feels stilted, dry, or stale, as the clips used to flesh out the conversations are well placed, gorgeous to look at, and often revelatory.  I would have liked to see more women interviewed for this film (I counted seven total), and I found this dearth a sad commentary considering that two of the film's producers (present for the Q & A) are women.  Nevertheless, 78/52, funded two years ago during Fantasia's own Frontiere's program, is so beautifully crafted, that I'm super excited for Philippe's next documentary project--an exploration of the infamous chestburster scene from Ridley Scott's Alien.  For lovers of Psycho in particular, and cinema in general, this film is an absolute must-see!