Saturday, July 30, 2016

Fantasia 2016--Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children--Pedro Rivero and Alberto Vazquez (2015)

Birdboy takes flight in Pedro Rivero and Alberto Vazquez's Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children (2015)
If you strapped me to a chair and demanded that I tell you, chronologically, the story of Pedro Rivero and Alberto Vazquez's magical animated film Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children (2015), I think I would have a pretty difficult time.  Not because there is no story (there is) or that it's not compelling (it is), but that the film swept me so fiercely along by its striking visual world that I wasn't always paying attention to the film's subtitles.  The film was much more a stunning series of vignettes about a blighted group of survivors of some kind of nuclear (or biological) disaster and their daily struggles on an island that looks like it's constructed on a giant pile of garbage.

A denizen of this trash-filled world, perched atop a pile of corpses
The lion's share of the film's pathos focuses on Dinky, a white mouse, who with her friends Sandra and Little Fox, attempts to leave the island for greener pastures.  Dinky is also pining for the troubled, drug-addicted Birdboy, a lonely bird who watched his father perish, and is constantly hunted by the local constabulary.  He, like many of the characters in this bleak world, must fight his inner demon, who in his case is a real fire-breathing razor-beaked creature.  Drugs seem to keep those demons at bay (as they do for so many of us).

Birdboy's inner demon unleashes its wrath
Describing the film's plot though does not even hint at the tumultuous emotions that this film evokes.  The anthropomorphized animal characters are often sweet and charming, and sometimes terrifying.  Some of the more violent images may not be suitable for the five and under crowd, but this film is so visually gorgeous, and at time, hilarious, that the film balances its scares with bouts of humor.  Inanimate objects are also anthropomorphized, so some of the best lines in the film revolve around these objects appealing to their owners.  Dinky's alarm clock has its own narrative arc, and the rubber dingy that Dinky and her friends purchase to make their escape is quite chatty as well.  You will never think about piggy banks in the same way again.

Birdboy has access to a magic world full of light
Psychonauts, The Forgotten Children maintains just the right amount of ambiguity to make it rich in allegory.  The film thoughtfully alludes to Spain's history and heritage, but that knowledge isn't required to be swept away by this masterpiece.  Fantasia brought in co-director Pedro Rivero to introduce and answer questions about the film, and he was one cool cat.  I really appreciated his dry humor, and that wry quality was really reflected in this animated wonder.  Here's a link to the film's website so that you can see more of the film's glorious imagery. Every frame is a work of art.  Highly recommended. 

Fantasia 2016--Embers--Claire Carré (2015)

A Girl (Iva Gocheva) and Guy (Jason Ritter) try to recall intimacies in Claire Carre's brilliant Embers (2016)
Memories are what define us and ground us in space and time--they are our personal histories.  Certainly they are susceptible to manipulation and faulty recall, but they are also essential to the ways in which we interact with others.  The memories that we share are the building blocks of our intimate relationships.  The memories of our families give us warmth and comfort, or send us straight to therapy.  Memories of pain and suffering give us the strength to endure, but also protect us from danger (and from making the same mistakes).  So imagine a world, our world, devastated by a contagious neurological event that causes us to no longer have access to our past (retrograde amnesia), nor to be able to create and retain new memories for longer than short periods of time (anterograde amnesia).  This everpresent "now" is powerfully evoked in Claire Carré’s provocative and deeply moving feature film, Embers (2015).
A couple repeatedly experience the spark of new love
With lyrical imagery, and very little dialogue, Embers follows a group of survivors as they attempt to make sense of a world that continually slips from their grasp.  A couple (Iva Gocheva and Jason Ritter) wake together on a mattress, strangers to each other and to themselves.  The blue bandannas tied to their wrists suggest a connection, but it is one that they cannot recall, and they fear falling asleep only to wake with all their shared time forever lost.  One of the film's more haunting images is the Girl's gaze into a mirror, only to see an unfamiliar face, her own, staring back at her.  Another scene has the two characters standing in the light of stained glass windows in an abandoned church; this ethereal moment is simultaneously deeply romantic and heartbreaking.  The two repeatedly feel the burgeoning excitement of a "new love" while never having memories on which to build their relationship.

A boy wanders, momentarily tethered, yet unburdened by the past

A young boy (Silvan Friedman) wanders the ruins and the woods, humming to himself.  He connects with a Guardian (Matthew Goulish) who tries to help him, but who promptly forgets him shortly after they meet.  He next bumps into a lithe free spirit (Dominique Swain!!) whose arrested development is signified by her hair littered with children's barrettes, and a bed liberally coated with stuffed animals.  The boy then encounters a Teacher (Tucker Smallwood), whose home, nestled in the woods, is a refuge where he studies the epidemic.  One of my favorite moments has the man exclaiming at an interesting book, only to discover that he is its author.

Chaos (Karl Glusman) barely clings to humanity
One of the film's most provocative narratives follows loose cannon Chaos (Karl Glusman) as he travels through the ruins of a post-apocalyptic urban landscape, bubbling with confusion and rage.  He seems to respond to almost all stimuli with a fierce hostility, yet is still awed by the appearance of a white horse amongst the debris.  When he suddenly becomes the brutal victim of this tangled web of violent acts, our sympathies shift; where once I viewed Chaos with fear and suspicion, I came to regard him with the greatest empathy as his loneliness and confusion become as visceral as a kick to the stomach.  The scene where Chaos is victimized is also shot sensitively and without a hint of sensationalism, displaying Carré’s masterful ability to wring emotions from a scene with subtlety and grace.  Chaos also illustrates the actual positive aspects of "forgetting," for trauma cannot cling to you like a shroud if you forget painful events mere moments later.

The lonely Miranda (Greta Fernandez) craves freedom, even if it means losing everything that she has
Not all of the film's "survivors" are infected, and lonely Miranda (Greta Fernandez) chafes against the gilded cage in which she lives, knowing nothing for almost a decade of the world outside (when the global epidemic supposedly first took place).  She is safe within her isolated and sterile white bunker, but pushes against this life, wondering if her sheltered existence could actually be considered "living."  She also must realize that her adventurous desires come at a price.

The Boy and the Guardian wander the ruins
Frankly, my review cannot really do Embers justice; you just have to see this quiet masterpiece.  This cinematically daring and intellectually sophisticated film transports the viewer into a realm full of beauty amidst the debris and decay.  The images dazzled my eyes, and the narrative provoked much discussion afterward.  I'm eager to see more from this talented woman director, and there's a rumor that Carré's and Charles Strong's (the film's co-writer and producer) next project might be for television.  Fingers crossed!

Luckily, Embers will be screening at Fantasia a second time, on August 1st at 12:45pm...and if you unfortunately do not get to engage with this film on the big screen (a tragedy), it will be available On Demand on August 2nd.

Jules gazes at a swirling black hole floating above the Scottish countryside in Josefa Celestin's Event Horizon (2016)
As I've said before, one of the pleasures of the Fantasia Film Festival is the shorts programming that the festival organizers so carefully construct.  Josefa Celestin's absolutely gorgeous Event Horizon was just the perfect short to screen before Embers.  This brief visual feast follows a group of kids mesmerized by what appears to be a "cosmic event" hovering over their heads.  Jules, on the cusp of growing up and following her STEM field dreams, is convinced that this black cloud of stuff is both stunning and dangerous, and the only one of her gaggle of friends to take the apparition seriously.  She asks, "What would [Fox] Mulder do?" Indeed, she ultimately would make such a believer proud.  Check out the trailer for a taste, and hopefully the film will be released for you to experience in all its glorious wonder.  These two films illustrate what women directors can show us if given the chance!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Fantasia 2016--Aloys--Tobias Nolle (2016)

Aloys Adorn (George Friedrich) ventures into new realms in Tobias Nolle's evocative Aloys (2016)
Loneliness can sneak up on you.  Many of us are creatures of habit, and introverts can lead very quiet and isolated lives simply by moving through their daily routines without the smallest bit of human interaction.  I certainly am more than mildly familiar with this condition.  That's why Tobias Nolle's  Aloys (2016) is such a tender-hearted and gentle film about a loner who slowly, ever so slowly, emerges from his isolated cocoon.  The film's protagonist does not even realize he's acutely lonely until his hand is forced; yet this experience allows him, and us, to see the world anew.

After his father dies, Aloys spends most of his time in his apartment/P.I. Office
Aloys Adorn, the junior member of Aloys and Son's private investigation agency, finds himself unmoored after his father (who is his roomate) passes away--seemingly from a long illness.  Indeed, his identity is so wrapped in his father, that for much of the film, he refers to himself as "we," unwilling to leave behind the first person plural.  He continues to fulfill the agency's P.I. work, filming sordid trysts and cheating spouses--his sole human interactions are from the safe distance behind his video-cam lens. He even films his father's corpse, as if allowing for closeness would be both emotionally and psychologically too painful.  Yet there is something whimsical lurking under Aloys gruff exterior. Yes, he subsists on takeout Chinese food and rebuffs everyone who offers him support or comfort, but then he takes incredibly poignant and rather curious videos of sheep.

Vera educates Aloys on the fine art of "Phone Wandering"
Despite Aloys's determination to avoid all human contact, the people around him never stop trying to engage.  His neighbors knock on his door and he steadfastly ignores them, until one lamentable evening, passed out on the bus, he has his precious video camera and DV tapes taken from him.  A mysterious woman soon calls him, giving him clues as to who she is, and where she is through sound and visual description.  She trains him in the fine art of "phone wandering;" invented by a Japanese Neurologist as a way, with enough concentration and focus, to transport people into another realm.  It's also a way for two people, separated by distance, to feel like they are together, in the same place.

Yen Lee (Yufei Li) does not realize that Aloys is dining with "a friend"
While things are a bit bumpy at first, soon walls dissolve as Vera's (Tilde Von Overbeck) voice creates an intimate connection between them.  Cynical folks might think of this traveling as a shared hallucination, and the first signs of a severe mental illness, yet that would be missing the poignant charm of this film.  Aloys's tentative steps at connection, compelled by Vera, allow him to safely and carefully blossom and take joy in his relatively bleak world.  This meaningful step is one that in some ways saves the depressive Vera as well, and when Aloys finally decides to make this transformation tangible, this delicate meeting between two damaged souls feels just right.

Heaven sometimes can be other people
Tobias Nolle's Aloys is a deeply romantic and carefully plotted film, with strikingly composed scenes and a lively soundscape.  Like the best films, this moving character study swept me up in its emotionally-rich world and transported me to another realm.  It's a beauty, and a must-see.

Fantasia 2016--The Lure--Agnieszka Smoczynska (2015)

Golden (Michalina Olszanska) relaxes in the bath in Agnieszka Smoczynska's delightfully original The Lure (2015)
No matter what I've seen or will see at the 2016 Fantasia Film Festival this year, I pretty much guarantee that nothing will be as original or as visually and aurally inventive as Agnieszka Smoczynska's absolutely dazzling The Lure (2016).  This 80s musical fever dream about two beautiful but dangerous sirens/mermaids joining a nutso adult cabaret and finding love and food on land is startlingly gorgeous from its opening credits to its last poignant image.

Despite the Fantasia crowd's eagerness to meet this charming and talented woman director, alas, she could not make it to the festival.  In her stead, she sent a filmed introduction where Smoczynska explained how this film bubbles up from her childhood, combining fairytale elements with fond memories of being the daughter of restaurateurs.  All the while, what looked like her daughters danced with little flashlights in the background, the director's own little fairy chorus.  This sense of whimsy and fun permeated what at times could be a rather dark and foreboding tale.

One night on the beach, some wasted band members who work at a local nightclub encounter our two heroines, Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden (Michalina Olszanska) watching them from the water.  Since sirens are known for their seductive voices, the ladies begin to draw the men into the water with their bewitching song, singing "We won't eat you, my dear," although they surely will.  The sole female band-mate lets out a piercing scream, halting the process, but we soon realize that these savvy club employees see the benefits to Silver and Golden's strangely unique act, called unsurprisingly "The Lure."  They bring them to their boss, a raging pervert who is fascinated by the girls' lack of genitalia, until he pours water onto their lower half and they sprout magnificent muscular tails.  Everyone at the club quickly becomes mesmerized by their heavenly voices and their bodily transformations.

It's when Silver starts to fall for the tow-headed bass player of the band--a human--that things start to go off the rails.  Other members of the sea creature community (yes, there are others) warn the sirens that if one was to fall in love with a human, if he/she turned and loved another, superstition dictates that the siren would dissolve into sea foam.  The only cure for such a fate is to eat the fickle bastard.  While these women are certainly beautiful in their human guise, as hungry mermaids, they sprout razor sharp pointed teeth and a craving for human flesh.  Unsurprisingly, the denizens of the club soon realize that their lucrative new act is far more dangerous than they might initially appear.

Silver (Marta Mazurek) and Golden perform for the crowd in The Lure
Most of the film's energy comes from its unique and rather infectious musical numbers--and this praise is from someone who can honestly say despises almost all Musicals.  Spectators are introduced to the first of these scenes by a marvelous long take that tracks through the nightclub to the pulsing disco rhythms of I Feel Love.  These numbers feature a range of different styles--ballads, dance music, even a punk song that Golden performs with aplomb.  The film's dynamic mise-en-scene and cinematography ignite into a swirling array of sounds and images as number after musical number follow each other.  Everyone in the film gives energetic and strong performances, but no one outshines the two mermaid leads, who combine seductive grace and menace in equal measure.  The horror of the film is relatively subtle, but there's a "surgical" scene that elicited cheers from the Fantasia audience, who like a touch of gore with their fairy tale fantasies.

Silver looks over the wedding party from afar
Like Anna Biller's The Love Witch, The Lure explicitly comments on how fairy tale romance rarely ends well for the women (or mermaids) who succumb to such tales.  Certainly this fairy tale leans heavily toward the Grimm.  Like Biller's film, Smoczynska's debut feature is hyper-stylized, and its creative vision is also utterly unique.  With the dearth of female filmmakers showcased at Fantasia this year (and alas, most years), The Lure should convince everyone that more women's cinematic voices deserve to be heard.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Fantasia 2016--The Wailing--Hong-jin Na (2016)

A bravura gore scene from Hong-Jin Na's The Wailing (2016)
Horror films are notoriously populated by not-so-bright characters who make bad decisions.  Characters constantly go where they should not, trust people that are suspicious, and react in panic rather than rationally--and honestly, with all the blood, violence and mayhem suddenly surging into their lives, one can forgive horror protagonists for going a little nuts.  That's why Hong-Jin Na's protagonist, Sgt. Jeon Jong-gu (Do Won Kwak), rather surprisingly takes "the protagonist who makes poor decisions" to a whole new level.

Family members are brutally slaughtering each other in the formerly boring rural town of Goksung
For the most part, nothing seems to happen in rural Goksung, so when the Sgt. is called to investigate a brutal double homicide, his whole family excitedly chirrups that "someone has died."  This violence is only the beginning as a series of horrible murders, burnings, and mutilated bodies are found in rapid order.  To say Jeon Jong-gu is bumbling is a kindness.  He and his partner stumble from crime scene to crime scene, shocked and inept, as rumors of red-eyed cannibalistic demons, and the influence of a Japanese stranger, start to circulate.  The film does impress upon the spectator that these events are pretty dramatic, since not a lot happens in Goksung.

In the film's first 45 minutes, The Wailing's tone is a little wonky, as we are introduced to the main players, and basically witness Jeon's cowardly performance in a comedic fashion--making me wonder if the "comedy" is supposed to counteract the horror that really starts to sweep through the film at an unrelenting pace.  At one point, Jeon is called "A girly wimp with balls the size of peas," and this description is not unwarranted.  He's the guy who hides under the bed when attacked.

These cops kind of deserve the rocks thrown at them by The Woman with No Name (Woo-hee Chun)
For instance, a rather hilarious set-piece has Sgt. Jong-gu and his partner patiently guarding one crime scene while a woman (with no name) throws rocks at them.  While Jeon eventually speaks to her and discovers some important information about the case, it takes him a really long time to put the puzzle together--although he's at least suspicious of the "poison mushroom" theory proffered by the local medical community.

Is this Japanese stranger (Jun Kunimura) responsible for the violence that befalls Goksung?
This woman sets him on the path of a Japanese stranger who may be a catalyst for Goksung's current horrific decline, and when Jeon pays him a rather violent visit, the brutal violence that has spread like a curse through his town takes an extremely personal turn, as his daughter begins to exhibit symptoms of possession.

Jeon's poor daughter (Hwan-hee Kim) is possessed by vicious evil
Once Jeon's daughter is taken over, the film becomes a little more genre familiar as Jeon does everything he can to save her, including hiring a pretty expensive shaman to perform some extremely loud rituals.

The Shaman (Jeong-min Hwang) goes full throttle in an attempt to exorcise the girl
At this point in the film, I felt the most out of my depth, wondering if this kind of "shaman-for-hire" is actually still a part of contemporary Korean culture, or if it's limited to more rural pockets.  As I live in a country that still has its share of snake charmers and Scientologists, I figure anything is possible, but this type of ritualized religious performance seemed very over the top--which might be quite deliberate.  My cultural ignorance felt acute.

Hwan-hee Kim gives a harrowing performance as Jeon's possessed daughter
As I mentioned before, the film's horrific grip is motivated by Jeon's dumb decisions, but things ratchet up when his family's life is at stake.  The film's well-performed and orchestrated possession narrative takes center stage in the second half of the film, and propels the narrative into a series of bursting climaxes, as one rising tension is followed by another in rapid succession.  At 2 hours and 36 minutes, this film is rather long, but really never feels that way once things get rolling.  The film's downbeat ending is pretty much telegraphed from the start, but Hwan-hee Kim's tense performance feels like a fist closing around your heart.  This ending has divided some viewers, but I thought it hit just the right note.  See The Wailing on a big screen and with an audience if you can, but be sure to see it!

In homophobic, present day Russia, Pyotr (Alex Ozerov) hides a powerful secret
Special props to Blake Mawson for the simultaneously unsettling and timely PYOTR495 (2016), which screened at Fantasia prior to The Wailing.  Beautifully shot and wickedly paced, this short feels especially poignant in the wake of the Orlando massacre at Pulse nightclub and Russia's LGBT propaganda law.  Queer teen Pyotr meets up with a Grinder date for a hookup, but soon realizes that he's stepped into a horrific trap by homophobic Russian nationalists up for a little gay bashing "ultra violence."

This psycho Barbie is a super stylish Russian nightmare
The styling of this short is sleek and masterful, with the lighting, costumes, sets, and makeup creating a visual feast that at the same time is damn hard to watch--at first.  Not to give anything away, but Pyotr might not be so young, naive, and defenseless after all.  As Mawson was kind enough to point out, the film's awesome soundtrack by the inimitable Konrad Black is available for a listen here.  I'm looking forward to seeing more from this talented young filmmaker.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Fantasia 2016--The Eyes of My Mother--Nicolas Pesce (2016)

Kika Magalhaes gives a shattering performance as Francisca in Nicolas Pesce's debut feature The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
Making a black and white film these days is a very deliberate choice by a contemporary filmmaker.  Not only does this visual decision give a film a unique tone, but somewhat tempers its gore factor, denying us the reds, pinks, purples, and browns associated with hard-core guts and gore.  Nicolas Pesce's The Eyes of My Mother certainly has its share of "guts and gore," but reveals those moments in such a delicate and elegiac manner that the horror of the film slowly seeps into you until you are fairly drowning in its dreadful miasma.

The film opens with a trucker stopping on a desolate road at the sight of a woman collapsing into a fetal position far ahead.  The framing stays with the truck's cab as the trucker runs to assist her, as if the camera was a strange passenger.  Then an overhead aerial shot frames that fall from a different angle as the trucker stops to help the woman and then calls for help.  This scene is a flash to the future, as the film's timeline readjusts, and now it introduces us to young Francisca (Olivia Bond) and her Mother (Diana Agostini).  In what seems like a rural idyll, her mother tells Francisca the tale of St. Francis, living in the woods, who wakes one day to discover he has stigmata.  She drives home the point that "loneliness can do strange things," and indeed that very idea forms the core subtext for the entire film, for without her mother, Francisca would be very lonely.  Her father seems entirely absent, and she appears to be home schooled and duly isolated.

Perchance, a visitor breaks into their quiet existence, and Charlie (Will Brill) is a giggling mass of bad intentions.  When he forces his way into their house--first to use the phone, and then the bathroom--events deteriorate and Francisca's life is forever transformed.  That trauma haunts her from her childhood, to her teen years and beyond.  Upon her father's return (from wherever he might work), they bury her mother and lock Charlie (who is still alive) in the barn to live out his days.  At one point, she asks him why he murdered her mother, and he enthusiastically explains that "it felt amazing."  Those words will come back to haunt him.  One of Francisca's skills, taught to her by her mother, is eye and throat surgery, as she soon renders Charlie unable to see or speak.  It's a fitting bit of revenge, but becomes a rather cruel form of torturous living when other victims ensue.  After Francisca loses her father (although it's not clear exactly when that occurs), she finds other ways to fill the void of loneliness, and eventually forms her own makeshift family by brutal means.

Francisca's father "bathing" in The Eyes of My Mother
While the film gradually clues the viewer in, bit by bit, to Francisca's perverse understanding of both reality and family, the adult Francisca (Kika Magalhaes) creates a compelling sympathy toward her through her soulful performance.  Her isolation, and her early brush with violence, profoundly shape her future and her interactions with others.  Some plot holes emerge (how exactly did she learn how to drive), but this minimalist psycho horror show leaves just enough unanswered for spectators to fill in the holes with their own imagination.  While we are (thankfully) not privy to many violent events (because they happen offscreen), the subtle hits of horror shown contribute beautifully to the film's deeply unsettling nature.  One of the film's more fascinating approaches is how it oscillates between an almost claustrophobic intimacy and a very purposeful visual distancing.  The film also takes its time--scenes of horror unfold incrementally, sometimes testing our patience as we sit in dread worrying over what will come next.  I described the film to a friend as if Antonioni had made a low-budget indie horror film, and I still think the film is the perfect marriage of horror tropes and art cinema mood and style.  A stunning piece of work, The Eyes of My Mother is a triumphant, gorgeous first feature from Nicolas Pesce.

A voyeur dominates the film's spatial world in Jacob Nizzola's Agravoy (2015)
One of the best things about the Fantasia Film Festival is the creative pairings of shorts with features that the Fantasia team masterfully programs.  Jacob Nizzola's Agravoy beautifully complimented the feature's dreadful atmosphere, as we watch a voyeur (Barrington de la Roche--who looks a lot like latter day Iggy Pop) hungrily peek at the mysterious woman (Orion Ben) living across the hall.  She invites a handsome guy over (Adam Nash), and things take a pretty violent turn as the voyeur's jealousy bubbles over.  Stylishly shot and beautiful oblique, Nizzola's short playfully explores the cinematic possibilities of the peephole while cautioning viewers to not judge people by appearance alone.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Fantasia 2016--Beware the Slenderman--Irene Taylor Brodsky (2016)

An image of the contemporary internet boogeyman Slenderman
Documentaries are not objective, and they do not really try to be.  They have a message and an agenda, and part of the pleasure of watching them is discerning how effectively that particular point-of-view is conveyed.  That's why Irene Taylor Brodsky's Beware the Slenderman (2016) confused me in some ways.  One of the reasons the line for the film at the 2016 Fantasia Film Festival snaked all the way around the building was that the Slenderman is truly a terrifying visual creation, and many of us just wanted to be shaken up by this elongated, faceless boogeyman.  The fact that the documentary explores the real life attempted murder performed by two twelve year old girls helps draw us in all the more.

Beware the Slenderman focuses mostly on courtroom drama
Yet the compelling figure of the Slenderman frequently takes a backseat to the courtroom and family dramas that clearly drove Taylor Brodsky to delve deeper into the creature's phenomenon, and in many ways, the film is a thoughtful true crime drama.  Certainly, this film sympathizes with Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser's parents, rather than demonizing them or coating them with a hefty dose of blame.  Still, what motivates these two young outliers to commit this heinous act against one of Morgan's BEST FRIENDS seems muddy, even after nearly 2 hours of exploration.  Are these girls misanthropes?  Were they bullied?  Did the internet compel them to kill?  Were either of them mentally ill?  That last question seems to be the one on which the filmmaker focuses most explicitly, and while her look at this facet of the case certainly shifts one's perspective, suddenly the film seems like it should be called Beware of Schizophrenia.

Just not enough of this scary-long armed ghoul!
I think the biggest issue with Beware the Slenderman is that there's just not enough Slenderman.  I came to the screening to be scared by a boogeyman, but instead left thinking the doc is a cautionary tale about internet access for impressionable minds.  No Ipads in schools!  The scenes showing Anissa's younger brother completely enraptured by a cute, but rather sinister video game where some quacking bird ends up burnt to a crisp while he chuckles and snorts made me really glad that I'm both OLDish and do not have children.  Scary though, the film is not (unless you have an internet savvy preteen at home).  This doc is definitely worth a look, but you might want to wait until it debuts on HBO in the near future.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Fantasia 2016--Demon--Marcin Wrona (2015)

Zeneta (Agnieszka Zulewska) comforts her ailing newlywed husband Piotr/Pyton (Itay Tiran) in Marcin Wrona's Demon
Weddings are overwrought family reunions steeped in archaic traditions, where everyone wears a mask of faux frivolity and cheer.  Weddings are also a place where much alcohol flows, and family secrets and tensions tend to come to light when inhibitions start to erode.  If one had to imagine a worst-case-scenario for weddings, I think that Demon would fulfill that particular nightmare.  Londoner Piotr travels to Poland to wed his best friend's sister, Zeneta, someone he has clearly not known for long since his wedding is his first time meeting the rest of the family.  Zeneta's parents have gifted them the country house at which the wedding takes place, and it's definitely a fixer upper.
Hana watches as Piotr stands over where her bones lie
The night before his wedding, Piotr uncovers some bones dug up by a backhoe.  Suddenly he gets sucked into a black, bubbling mud puddle, and things take a turn....

A Priest marries Piotr and Zeneta in a very traditional ceremony
The bride and groom try to fulfill various wedding traditions
Piotr is really not feeling very well
Piotr's thrashing and shrieking cannot be misinterpreted as "dancing"
The next morning, family and friends gather to celebrate the couple's nuptials, but as the celebration unfolds, Piotr starts behaving ever more oddly, and feels...rather strange.  He starts to see things, and when forced to give a groom's speech, he stutters and gags, eventually spitting out the name "Hana"--much to Zeneta's dismay.  He's raising the ghosts of ex-girlfriends??  Well, not quite, but Piotr is at first haunted and then possessed by the poor dead Hana, and the mystery to her disappearance, and what she symbolizes adds a great deal of richness and nuance to the way Poland grapples with its violent past.

Piotr's groom's speech is both confusing and awkward
Itay Tiran's performance as Piotr is truly remarkable.  He balances sinister and vulnerable beautifully as he gradually gives himself over to Hana's possession.  The various attendees try to medically or rationally explain Piotr's transformation--he's really drunk, he has epilepsy, he's a lunatic--not willing to own up to their possible involvement in the Dybbuk's possession of Piotr's innocent outsider.  While a priest, doctor, and the family patriarch all weigh in, its a bumbling old Jewish professor who translates Piotr's Yiddish and realizes who is actually present.  Another standout performance is Tomasz Zietek as Ronaldo, a jealous young friend of the family who harbors a not so secret crush on Zeneta, and eagerly participates in keeping the family's secrets--in the process, creating one of his own in a fit of rage.

Zeneta's dreams of wedding bliss are demolished
Finally, there's Agnieszka Zulewska's devastating performance as Zeneta, a woman who on her wedding day sees her dreams of love and family destroyed.  She must bear the burden of coming to terms with, and recognizing, her own complicity in her family's, and Poland's, sordid past, and the ending to her story is fitting and irrevocably sad.

While it's early days at the 2016 Fantasia Film Festival, and I have a great deal more to see, Demon was the first film that powerfully rendered me speechless and overwhelmed.  This film is a powerful testament to the secrets and histories that we try to bury in order to "put on a happy" facade and avoid our horrifying past.  A must see.

Fantasia 2016--The Love Witch--Anna Biller (2016)

Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is addicted to love in Anna Biller's The Love Witch (2016)

It's certainly a testament to Anna Biller's incredible talent in constructing The Love Witch's rich set design and wonky period detail that until Trish (Laura Waddell) whips out a cell phone toward the end of the film, I had no real clue as to what time period in which the film is set. The opening reveals the lovely Elaine (Samantha Robinson) driving in a shiny red vintage car (with matching dress and luggage), and her voiceover only tells of her zeal to start a new life after a tale of heartbreak and emotional breakdown.  Flashes from the past show that Elaine's participation in a coven ritual has empowered her to start afresh, on a quest to experience love at its fullest.  The Love Witch is the story of that journey, and in a more significant way, the consequences that women must suffer in succumbing to the fairy tale myths about gender roles and love that are fed to them by society.

Elaine dines at the Victorian tea room with style
Period anachronisms are what give The Love Witch so much of its charm, as the film pays homage to great 70s occult films such as Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fay (1971), Baba Yaga (1973), Hammer films such as Countess Dracula (1971) or even some Jess Franco oddity starring Soledad Miranda--although I think The Love Witch does not tap into its queer potential.  Biller's film is rather exclusively focused on hetero fantasies and nightmares (I couldn't help wishing that Trish and Elaine would end up together).  Trish takes Elaine to an incredible Victorian tea room bathed in peaches and pinks, with a golden-tressed lass strumming a harp. A seedy burlesque club hints at Blacula by way of Blue Velvet.

Elaine and Trish hang out at Elaine's witch pad
Elaine making some witch items for a local new age shop
Elaine's apartment, borrowed from her fellow witch Barbara, is filled with kitschy tarot card paintings, a cauldron, and what looks like a well-equipped laboratory spewing smoke in day-glo colors.  Here Elaine makes her love potions that she tries out on several unsuspecting men--to ill effect.  In fact, a moviegoer sitting behind me kept saying every time a man interacted with Elaine--"Uh-oh, he's dead.  He's so dead."  Poor Elaine, she isn't trying to kill anyone.  She just wants LOVE!  Another nice thing about this film--no women were physically harmed in this flick.  A rare thing, even for a horror comedy.

Elaine's bewitching gaze
Much of The Love Witch is so delightfully hyperbolic, that laughter frequently echoed through the theater.  Elaine's sensual stare, enhanced by her witch powers, is so provocative, that it stops men dead in their tracks, zapping them like deer in headlights.  There's something pleasantly off-kilter about a film emphasizing the power of a female gaze.  While the film highlights Elaine's laser interest in being the object of a presumably male gaze, she tends to frequently be oblivious to her effect on others, which speaks to some confusions that the film employs.  Is the film playing to a "male gaze" or critiquing it?

Still, many scenes just add to the overall zany tone.  One of the true standout scenes is a horseback riding date that Elaine has with Sergeant Griff Meadows, a chiseled Bruce Campbell type (without the great chin).  As they are riding through a wooded area, they hear music, and literally stumble upon a performance and feast put on by the Renaissance and Medieval Players.  They sing "Love is a Magical Thing" and it's all rainbows and unicorns (literally).  The costumes, accompanied by the music, are just too, too good!

Griff (Gian Keys) gazes into Elaine's mesmerizing eyes at their faux handfasting feast
The couple are game for a quick costume change and then a handfasting, which Elaine revels in while Griff seems to amusingly tolerate.  Biller is making fun of every fairytale cliche she can find, while also jabbing playfully at the faux witchiness of Renaissance and Medieval fairs.  The soundtrack of this film is truly, truly inspired, and Biller has her hand in every great detail.  When the harpist sings "So tra-la-la and so La-de-da" with such heartfelt sincerity, I was hard pressed not to sing along.

Elaine is every (straight) man's fantasy, but is clueless about her own desires
Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, all this lightness is tempered by a rather dark heart.  At the film's beginning, Trish rightly calls out Elaine for some of her truly backwards beliefs, exclaiming "It's like you've been brainwashed by the patriarchy!" Both Elaine and her coven friends espouse the idea that women gain their power through their sexual wiles, but this power is limited only to a certain kind of glamorous, and largely unfulfilling seduction.  Elaine's head is so filled with notions of fairy-tale romance and an obsessive, overpowering love, that she gains little satisfaction from the elaborate steps she takes to secure the desires of the men around her.  In fact, she is so "brainwashed" that an entire scene shows her getting off to a chorus of emotional and verbal abuse spewing from the mouths of countless men, her father seemingly included.

Star (Elle Evans) and Moon (Fair Micaela Griffin) dancing very poorly at the burlesque club
The Love Witch had a few confusing missteps that muddy its message a bit.  The film does no favors for witches, suggesting (albeit hyperbolically) that these goddess worshipers are just perpetuating a rigid gender binary, and that they are only interested in fulfilling narrow narcissistic desires in a quest to bend the world to their will.  Instead of empowering the impressionable Elaine, her coven pals only seem to lead her toward her inevitable doom.  While the film seems to criticize the limited range of power that a woman's (hetero) sexuality elicits, scenes highlighting Elaine's wide variety of scrumptious lingerie are notable and numerous.  Further, the film is almost entirely narrated through Elaine's voiceover (yes, she's pretty unreliable as narrators go), but toward the end of the film, the narration suddenly switches to Griff.  Griff's thoughts emphasize that he's a complete cad, but I felt that this shift in narrative authority dis-empowers Elaine in some unfortunate ways.

Elaine rides off into the sunset with her fake prince and fake unicorn
When Elaine realizes that Griff is not her fated true love, she shatters, forever slipping into the fairytale world where she ultimately gets her prince (and her unicorn).  Alas, that world is both unreasonable and impossible for women fueled by such ridiculous fantasies, and the only recourse for Elaine is madness.  Anna Biller's The Love Witch is funny and entertaining, but ultimately supplies a sobering message to hopeless hetero romantics bent on getting their man.