Friday, August 22, 2014

The House at the End of Time--Alejandro Hidalgo (2013)

Dulce (Ruddy Rodriguez) struggles to survive her home in The House at the End of Time (2013)
Alejandro Hidalgo's The House at the End of Time, touted as on of the first Venezuelan horror films, masquerades as a Haunted House film.  The film opens with the above image as Dulce (Ruddy Rodriguez) tries to save her son, Leo, and her husband, Juan Jose, from what appears to be a mysterious force possessing her home.  The most vivid image in this opening is of Leo seemingly sucked into a doorway in the house's dank basement.  Fast forward to 30 years later, and Dulce, now an old woman, has returned to her home, albeit now under house arrest after serving time in prison for murdering her family.  She is undeniably a woman haunted--by her past, and the events that continue to confuse her.  This film's narrative mysteries and oppressive atmosphere nod to a couple of my favorite Spanish language horror films: Alejandro Amenabar's The Others (2001) and J.A. Bayona's The Orphanage (2007).  Still, there is more to this film than one might expect.

This cliched image of a woman, in her nightgown, on a staircase, with a knife, belies the film's true power
Unfolding primarily through flashbacks, The House at the End of Time uses many of the haunted house tropes with which we are familiar.  Strange noises repeatedly occur, from footsteps, to the frantic turning of doorknobs, to fevered pounding on the doors.  The layout of the house is utterly disorienting, with hallways leading to nowhere, bedrooms far away from each other, and a basement that stretches in all sorts of mysterious directions.  The secrets of the house are symbolized by the numerous locked doors always in danger of being breached (which also produces numerous scenes of Dulce fumbling with keys).

We share Leopoldo's terror
Much of the film focuses on Dulce's family--her two sons, Leopoldo (Rosmel Bustamante) and Rodrigo (Hector Mercado), and Juan Jose (Gonzalo Cubero), the kids' father and Dulce's no-good, alcoholic husband.  The chief conflicts occur as Leo and Rodrigo fight for the affections of a neighborhood girl, and Juan Jose learns that he is actually not Leo's biological father (something the audience learns relatively early in the flashbacks).  These revelations spur jealousy and even violent rage amongst the male characters, and unsurprisingly, Dulce's sacrificing, protective mother is the one who suffers for it.  The tensions in the film are pushed by showing children in frequent peril.

Dulce is determined to uncover what really happened to her family 30 year ago
Something is wrong with the house, and The House at the End of Time dabbles in the spiritual in order to explain things--but even those scenes are a bit of a ruse that adds to the film's layered confusion.  In one of the film's most creepy-fun scenes, a younger Dulce visits with a fortune teller/psychic in order to get in touch with the spirit world and figure out what's going on.  The spiritualist, Victoria, seems straight out of Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits (1965).  

Later, Dulce is visited by a Priest (Guillermo Garcia) who both believes in her innocence and was a childhood friend of her sons.  Since she cannot move freely, tied to her home, he agrees to do the detective work for her, looking through numerous documents in order to determine the house's sordid history--one filled with violence, mysterious events, vanishing family members, and all manner of "hauntings."  In delving into the house's past, the priest concludes that something seems to happen to it every 30 years.  And its almost another 30 years passed....

The horrors are back for Dulce some 30 years later
While much of what I've described so far might seem derivative of quite a few other haunted house films, one thing truly sets this film apart from the rest:  Time Travel.  I know.  This theme has been a near constant at this Fantasia Fantasia Film Festival, and I'm really trying to puzzle out why it's so in vogue at the moment.  Is it because technology has created some kind of gap between our experience of history and its representation so that the world seems infinitely manipulable?  Are these films trying to grapple with the notion that one never seems to learn from the past, so that fate and time paradoxes are intertwined and inevitable?  One thing that is consistent over all the films that I've seen exploring these ideas--someone always, always gets hurt. Casualties of time manipulated.  Yet in this film, there's also a degree of hope that lingers.

I'm not going to explain how time travel works in The House at the End of Time.  The title of the film is its own spoiler, but that little shift in narrative knowledge really changes the tempo and the perspective of the film.  This revelation gives the film quite a few "wow" moments, and takes what might seem like a somewhat typical horror film into a whole new dimension (pun intended).  The film is also surprisingly affecting in an emotionally poignant and moving manner.  While the film has relatively few characters, their nuanced performances, especially in scenes that highlight either pathos or humor, elevate the film in unique ways.  Some of the film's more religious overtones I found a bit heavy-handed, but as a whole, I was impressed by its unique mix of elements and themes.  Definitely worth seeing.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

At the Devil's Door--Nicholas McCarthy (2014)

Ashley Rickards as the babysitter from hell in At the Devil's Door

Nicholas McCarthy really knows how to make a house vibrate with terror and dread.  I deeply and sincerely love his film The Pact (2012), which is one of those films that I happened to find on Netflix (watch the trailer).  His first feature was about a seriously scary closet.  Okay, the film explored more than just "scary closets," but this calling card gave a strong sense of how McCarthy negotiated fear, women, madness, and cinematic space.  Even Casper Von Diem was good in it, and that's saying something.  So I highly anticipated his latest film.  I have some positive things to say about At the Devil's Door, but as a whole, it was a disappointing follow-up to his first film.  This second effort indicates how a bigger budget might actually hamper a filmmaker's creative integrity.  It feels like McCarthy is trying to please someone else or pander to a wider audience.  While I understand that motivation, I'm unhappy about the outcome.

The film opens with a young female narrator reading from some tome that warns the world about the devil, his mark, and the number 666--just in case we weren't clear that some devil/demon is involved based on the film's title.  Then the film follows a teenager (Ashley Rickards) fooling around with her new boyfriend.  He tells her about a quick way to make $500 by playing some game dictated by a creepy occult guy with mysterious motives.  He tells her to go to the crossroads and say her name, and he will know her, and that she's the perfect vessel, blah, blah blah.  She proceeds to blow her new windfall on some cool red kicks and some goth make-up and nail polish, but then she hears some weird noises coming from the armoire (which is basically a free-standing closet).  Before we know it, she's up in the air, being thrown around and invaded by some mysterious malevolent force...and then she no longer feels like herself.  We get to witness her being the WORST BABYSITTER ever, a truly great antidote to the over-earnest parents who think that their baby is the greatest kid on earth.  McCarthy also dresses the girl in a shiny, red hooded rain slicker, which really ups the fairy-tale, Red Riding Hood gone bad quotient.

What's hiding in the armoire?
Fast forward to Leigh (Catalina Sandino Moreno from Maria Full of Grace) as the sweet real estate agent who is eager to sell the girl's former home, fully unaware of the events that previously occurred there.  She finds a whole host of weird stuff, including a big burn mark in the girl's bedroom, a noisy armoire with a $500 roll of bills in its bottom drawer, and a mirror draped in black--which doesn't make her hesitate about selling the house AT ALL!  Luckily red-riding slicker shows up and lurks around the house quite a bit, distracting the good-hearted Leigh from selling the place quickly.  As you might imagine, things continue to go downhill from there.

The film becomes derivative in how it shapes its "possession narrative" and how it nestles horror within the fertile female body.  McCarthy does the "sinister home" beautifully, but he's less assured when it comes to the devil.  As the film progresses, he loses sight of his unique female characters, and quite literally treats them like "vessels" for something evil, moving from our red-riding slicker girl, to Leigh, to her artist-sister Vera (played by Naya Rivera).  The last twenty minutes of the film drag as the plot tries to tie up its loose ends; the biggest problem is that by the time we are left with Vera, the least compelling of the female characters, it's hard to really care what happens.

Sometimes Vera should look behind her
Still, At the Devil's Door has a few moments that, once witnessed, are literally burned into the spectator's brain.  McCarthy is more interested in leveraging atmosphere by stretching what occurs on the edges of the frame rather than adding a lot of telegraphed jump scares.  One particular image in front of a mirror is one of the greatest images from any of the films at Fantasia.  Also there's some awesome evil kid action.  Yet like Honeymoon, the film left me wanting more information in some places, and wishing the film "didn't go there" at other times.  What was missing most from McCarthy's second feature was the building of suspense.  At times, the film has an original vision, but in the end, it falls into too many well-worn tropes.  Too damn predictable.  While I'll still call myself a fan of his work, I'm hoping that his next film will be a bit more imaginative and unique.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Guardian--Helfi C. H. Kardit (2014)

Sooner or later I was going to encounter a film at the Fantasia Film festival that would make me rethink waiting in line for four hours for tickets for it.  Well, Helfi C.H. Kardit's Guardian is that film!  Hey, but since it's my fifteenth film out of twenty-five, I'm not that upset.  Also, I sat next to one of my favorite online critics, Andrew Mack from Twitch, who was very sweet, and also put up with these two people literally devouring each other/rabidly making out right in front of us.  Throughout the ENTIRE film.  Behind us sat another couple who had personally found the loudest chip bags on the planet, which they crumpled and crinkled repeatedly throughout the screening.  To top it all, there was a speaker issue with the dialogue track during the first ten minutes of the film, which tended to highlight the acute shaky camerawork and goofy choreography--before they fixed things and we started the film all over again.  So call me distracted.  Despite everything, Andrew wrote a really generous and upbeat review over at Twitch, which makes me feel a little guilty that I fully plan to trash the damn thing.  Oh well.

First off, I have no patience for bratty, whiny teenagers.  None.  In horror films, I'm usually completely okay with them dying, often the sooner the better.  I'm from the generation where you would leave the house in the morning, and your parents would expect you home for dinner, and who cares whatever the hell you did, as long as you didn't get pregnant, get arrested or do hard drugs.  Benign neglect.  No "helicopter parenting."  In Guardian, the teenage Marsya (Belinda Camesi) is constantly in a snit because her Mom, Sarah (Dominique Diyose) insists that her daughter learn martial arts and be able to protect herself.  Marsya would far prefer to hang out with her friend Thalia and whine about her mean Mom.  Well, it turns out that Sarah's on the right track, when a tough blonde criminal named Paquita (Sarah Carter) escapes from custody and seems hell-bent on getting a hold of her daughter.

Paquita is a lot more bad ass then you might think
Paquita is not the only person who seems to be after the whiny teenager and her protective Mom.  Some goons literally shred the family's house in deluge of bullets, and if that isn't enough, out comes the rocket launcher to finish the job.  The two somehow escape unscathed into their hidden muscle car straight out of Point Blank or Bullitt, and no matter how many car chases and bang ups that thing is in, it still manages to come out unharmed (hello continuity)!  Let me tell you, there are so many car chases and gun fights, and almost no one seems to ever run out of ammunition.  The end result of all this firepower is that the scenes lose all their sense of suspense, and actually just become tedious.  When, oh when, will someone get killed?  Someone who matters?  That's part of the film's problem: you don't really care about these people.  Is the cop, Roy (Nino Fernandez), going to allow the goon businessman-turned-politician Oscar (Tio Pakusodeo), to continue this unrestrained mayhem?  Do we care? What type of poetry will Oscar sport next in his utterly loony turn as villain?  That question is more interesting.

Another interchangeable AKB (ass-kicking babe)
Guardian is proof that throwing a bunch of "strong women" into a film, and then having them "Kick Ass" is just not enough to hold a film together (even if it was enough to make me interested in seeing it).  Sure, the violence and bullet fetish are both gratuitous, but it doesn't notably change the film by having all these weapons carried by babes.  At times, I thought I was watching an Andy Sidaris film, especially when the knife wielding babe who kills Sarah's husband in the opening 10 minutes, comes back to handle Sarah personally.  She does not reappear for the entire film until that moment, and then she just seems to keep pulling more knives out of thin air.  Oh, and she doesn't have a name.  Meanwhile, plenty of women seem to work with/for Paquita (who named this blonde?), but the only thing they seem to share is unmotivated loyalty toward her and a certain level of hotness.  They do not possess names either.  Thankfully, most of these women characters are dressed practically instead of wearing bikinis or stilettos, but that caveat doesn't make the film any more progressive.

Nameless female assassin from 10 years ago hasn't aged a day and shows up at end with the same knives
Fortunately, Guardian's narrative centers around women.  Unfortunately, Guardian relies on some very one-dimensional female stereotypes--cold, nonsupporting Mom, uber-sacrificial Mom, whiny teenager, ass kicking babe.  That's it.  Now I can understand that bullet-riddled spectacle might take precedence, but the extremely shaky camerawork, rigid choreography, and histrionic musical cues serve to undermine the visceral adrenaline rush of that spectacle.  I love handheld camerawork, but this camera movement had no motivation other than "ACTION!!!"  Combine those almost tedious, overlong action sequences with character about which we barely care and you have a rather big disappointment.  I didn't even stick around for the director Q & A because I couldn't fake enthusiasm for this film.  I wanted out of there.  Bummer.

The Creeping Garden--Tim Grabham and Jasper Sharp (2014)

Sums up the film pretty succinctly
The folks at the Fantasia Film Festival really do a marvelous job of carefully and thoughtfully describing the films on their roster.  They have to, with more than 80 features from which to choose, one has to be discriminating.  The Creeping Garden's description really swayed me, so I found myself on a rainy Monday afternoon nestled in the Salle J.A. De Seve theater watching a documentary about slime molds.  The charming co-directors introduced their film, and promised to stick around afterward for questions.  Soon I was immersed in a gloopy, eerie, slow-moving and utterly foreign universe.  Well, not utterly foreign.  I grew up in the woods, in the middle of nowhere, so I'd encountered these things before, but didn't think much of them.  Now, with this film, they became completely fascinating.  For slime molds are not just creepy fungi--they are hybrid creatures that continuously move.

Distinctive time lapse photography makes the slime mold a constantly roiling and slithering force of nature
The directors describe the film as a nature documentary in a "science fiction skin," and the atonal soundtrack combined with the time lapse photography really emphasizing the "creeping" quality of these organisms.  The documentary links this attraction to "natural wonders" to the first inklings of cinema, when magic lanterns carrying hollow slides were used to project for audiences images and shadows of the "natural world."  Slime molds were a part of early cinema experiments!

The film follows several "characters" who are even more obsessed with these slime molds than the film's directors. One scientist uses the slime mold's movements to create algorithms for robotics; another fellow programs a piano (a la John Cage) to play in a way akin to the changing behavior of slime mold; yet another works at a "Fungarium" where different varieties of fungi, and slime molds, are stored (there are something like 500 different species of slime mold)**

**when I went to verify that number, I got 450, 700, 500, you name it, so let's just say there are a lot of moving blobs out there.

Must Eat Brains!
My favorite interview subject by far was Heather Barnett, an artist who made fractal patterns from the movements and abstract designs of different slime molds, and then made things like wallpaper out of the patterns.  In another instance, she had groups of people tie themselves to each other, and "behave" like slime molds, interactively going after oat or rice flakes like hungry slime mold.  She was so creative and cool, I just wanted to hang out with her, even if she had an inordinate interest in what looks like a bunch of "my dog just got sick."

One of the directors revealed that he shot most of the slime mold footage in his kitchen.  Ewww.  They also wanted to do a scene where they had a slime mold gradually (through tame lapse photography) "eat" or "take over" a fake city set, but they just didn't have the money or the time for some of their ambitions.  Too bad.  Frankly, I really had no idea that I would like this film as much I did, but this representation of the slime mold universe alternated between creepy and just plain cool.  Worth checking out.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Seventh Code--Kiyoshi Kurosawa (2013)

Mr. Matsunaga tries to get Akiko to stop following him in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Seventh Code (2013)
I think I have a pretty good grasp of Japanese horror and its tropes.  I spent 3 1/2 weeks one summer studying Japanese language and culture, and while I can barely say anything to anyone at this point, some cultural factors have stuck with me.  So, Ringu, Ju-on, Pulse--I'm in fairly comfortable territory.  As you can see from my review of Jellyfish Eyes, there's some things about Japanese Pop Culture that truly, truly baffle me.  I like to be confused, but some events just seem kind of nutso.  So while I love Shion Sono's Suicide Club (2001), the notion that teen pop stars are a diabolical force that could destroy the world--well, I never got the cult of One Direction either, so maybe I'm just out of touch.  Seventh Code did not turn out to be the kind of film I thought it would be, which is a good thing.  To a point.

The film opens with young Akiko (Atsuko Maeda) chasing a car down that happens to be carrying Mr. Matsunaga (Ryohei Suzuki), a man that she met in Japan at a nightclub.  She seems to think that they formed a significant connection, while he barely remembers her at all.  Oh, and they are both in Russia because that country has both thuggish mobsters and a nuclear power issue, and I guess it was cheaper to film there.  He doesn't seem to question why she's chasing after him in Russia, and for a good chunk of the film, Akiko appears so hopelessly naive, you just chalk her persistence up to being a weirdo.  She keeps stalking Mr. Matsunaga until a couple of goons throw a sack over her head and dump her in the middle of nowhere.

The moment I figured out what was really going on
Akiko rather efficiently frees herself from the sack and her binding, and then gets back on track hunting down her crush.  She even manages to get a job at a restaurant run by a Japanese chef and a Chinese server, and enlist them in her story, which is odd because she's not all that likeable.  For the sake of the plot, they offer her a job, a place to stay, and the chef gets involved in uncovering Mr. Matsunaga's shady dealings with some bad Russians.

The Japanese Chef and Akiko investigate a weird thug hideout
Akiko wants to believe that Mr. Matsunaga is innocent of wrongdoing, but events serve to slowly but surely change her mind.  Or so it seems.  I figured out fairly early where the rest of the film was headed, but there were still some enjoyable, if utterly nonsensical, surprises along the way.  At one hour long, the film moves along at a decent clip.  Then, all of a sudden, there's this pop singing performance by Akiko that gets inserted out of nowhere.  WTF?

Akiko gives a full-on pop song performance with the cheesiest lyrics ever
Turns out that Atsuko Maeda was a prominent member of the Japanese Pop Idol group AKB48, so people are familiar with her singing.  This group is a big deal, and at one time had 48 members, and even performed a song on the Wreck it Ralph soundtrack, which proves without a shadow of a doubt that I know absolutely nothing about J-Pop.  O-o-o-kay.  But why does she sing HERE, in THIS film, out of the blue???  I don't know.

This film is very fun, but why it was paired with The Man with the Orange Jacket at the Fantasia Film Festival??  No clue.  The ending really is a crowd-pleaser, amusing as hell, and the film is definitely worth checking out, in all its glorious genre-bending weirdness.

The Man in the Orange Jacket--Aik Karapetian (2014)

"Woman in Peril," chased by a sadistic madman, is par for the course in Karapetian's The Man in the Orange Jacket (2014)
Like several of the films that I saw at the Fantasia Film Festival, Aik Karapetian's The Man in the Orange Jacket (Man in OJ) is an excellent example of squandered potential.  On the whole, the film is fairly derivative of films where a sadistic killer, out of misplaced desire turned to aggression, hunts down a bunch of unlikeable people in a remote location, and dispatches them through a wide selection of weapons/tools.  If Karapetian is attempting to craft a story where we are not sympathetic towards the victims or the perpetrator, he succeeds.  Yet the film has some significant moments that suggest that he's trying for something more complex and powerful--especially in regards to Eastern European class tensions.

The camera tracks our killer as he jogs on the property
Here is where the film works: the cinematography in the Man in OJ is simply stunning, and the multiple tracking shots in the beginning of the film as it follows the man (Maxim Lazarev) leave his harbor job, travel to his boss's home, kill both the big wig and his younger wife, and then proceed to live "large" in the mansion he has invaded--well, these images are gorgeous.  Karapetian masterfully manipulates the space of the mansion, and his opening and closing of the doors that divide this space increases the film's tensions exponentially.  Shadows and light create a misty, grey netherworld where what is real and fantasy becomes more and more unclear.

The Man in OJ lounges in his new-found solarium
The film also cleverly explores what it might be like to live like "the haves," when all one has known is what it's like to "have not."  The man initially struggles with his new luxuries.  He wears his male victim's clothes (even though they are not REMOTELY the same size), he lounges in his robe, he smokes his cigars (and hacks violently).  The man goes out to dinner, and gorges on rich food that he has no idea how to eat (when all else fails, use your fingers).  He then proceeds to get violently ill, and tries to recuperate in a bubble bath.  He's not even good at hiring prostitutes.  If I'm being generous, I would say that the film tries to critique the fantasy of affluent masculinity, suggesting that money and power are not easily obtained through violent class overthrow.  At the same time, does the film imply that wealth's pleasures are illusory, or that one just really needs to be "born to it?"  

The required half-naked dead girl, snuffed out after a long chase scene
Most of the film's deeper questions fall flat because of the seemingly requisite amount of gendered sexual violence on display.  This particular focus undermines any class critique, as the film frequently devolves into a "boogeyman" with a weapon chase narrative.  The film's kills are straight out of the "Carol Clover guide to slasher films," with the male character dispatched with one blow, and with the women gratuitously clad and on the run from an almost supernaturally empowered killer.  True, the man (in OJ) is shown to be both dis-empowered and riddled by guilt over his deeds, but that part of the film MAKES NO DAMN SENSE unless one chalks up the whole thing to fantasies nestled in his deranged mind.  Major cop-out.  

I initially was hoping that the film was transforming into a circular pattern, where another Man in OJ shows up, and, thinking the first man (in OJ) is the boss (who recently laid off thousands of people who work at the harbor), he goes all homicidal on him.  So the man who initially INVADES the home gets his home invaded, and so on, and so on, infinity.  (I think these time travel, mind fu** films are starting to infect my brain).  See, here is where the film had some real potential! Yeah, but that narrative does not happen.  Instead, the man seems to have a lot of misplaced, unmotivated guilt (which undermines all his previous actions), and then out of nowhere there's a really dumb Final Girl twist.  Really dumb.  Thankfully, the film clocks in at 71 minutes, so it's over pretty quickly.  I wouldn't say that it's not worth seeing for some of its visual inventiveness, but ultimately that The Man in the Orange Jacket disappoints.

The Midnight Swim--Sarah Adina Smith (2014)

June's (Lindsay Burdge) forlorn selfie from Sarah Adina Smith's The Midnight Swim (2014)
I cannot help but cheer when a new female filmmaker breaks out with a powerful, enigmatic film.  Sarah Adina Smith's debut feature The Midnight Swim (2014) has a mystical, ethereal quality which does not make it fit neatly into the "horror cinema" box.  Yet the film's mysteries, and their psychological effects on its characters, help create a very haunted atmosphere, saturated with dread.

The film begins as Amelia Brooks' three daughters, sensible Annie (Jennifer Lafleur), sensual Isa (Aleksa Palladino), and awkwardly neurotic June (Lindsay Burdge) reunite in the wake of their mother's disappearance.  None of the women seem especially surprised by their mother's "death," as her life had become focused on finding the bottom of a seemingly bottomless lake--one on which rests the family's vacation home.  The sisters are there, ostensibly, to get their mother's assets in order, but the focus of the story leans more heavily on the intricately knotted relationships between the siblings.  Watching the tensions and affections between these women blossom and unfold is one of the richest pleasures that the film brings.  Smith really nails the rhythms between female siblings.  Their recent loss brings out both their playfulness with each other, as well as their competitiveness.  Mental Illness lurks in their past as well.

Isa, June and Annie lip sych "Free to Be You and Me"
Joined by a childhood pal/crush, Josh (Ross Partridge), one night in fun, the women decide to invoke the "seven sisters" myth--a dark fairy tale that combines a narrative about entrapped femininity, female powerlessness, and nature's thirst for vengeance.  While initially nothing seems to come of it, as the weekend unfolds, strange events start to occur.  Dead birds show up on their doorstep, noises are heard in the night, and someone or something gets a hold of June's video camera and shoots night footage of a midnight swim.  Has one of the seven sisters come back to haunt them, or is their mother talking to them from the other side?

June's camera symbolizes her distorted worldview
The Midnight Swim could be considered largely a "found-footage film" in that from the film's earliest moments, the experiences at the lake are seen exclusively through June's camera lens.  Since June is a documentary filmmaker, this perspective does not seem initially that out of the ordinary.  Annie and Isa seem fairly used to the camera always being present (and recording).  Other characters, not so much.  In one particularly striking scene, a real estate agent over to discuss selling the house is the target of June's scrutiny, and her camera slowly and unnervingly zooms into close-up on this poor woman while she tries to talk to the other sisters.  The scene is funny, yet highlights June's use of the camera as a crutch by which she interacts with the world.  The film's focused visual perspective forces the spectator to spend the most time with June, seeing the world through her eyes.  Yet that perspective becomes problematic when it becomes more and more clear that June is an unreliable and perhaps rather unstable narrator.  The film's visual authority then becomes suspect.

The film's fairy tale elements are undermined by June's mental instability
June's tenuous grasp of reality somewhat tempers the film's aura of supernatural dread.  Even a film directed by a woman seems unable to escape the cultural struggles women filmmakers undergo to maintain narrative and visual authority.  Like another famous documentary filmmaker lost in the supernatural woods--Heather Donohue from The Blair Witch Project--June's single-minded interest in documenting the spooky events at the lake house are ultimately framed as misguided symptoms of a woman who cannot be trusted or believed.

Who actually is taking the Midnight Swim?
While I am mildly disappointed by the way mental illness is wielded in the film's narrative, and to whom it concerns, in no way does it truly take a way from this film's visual, aural, and narrative triumphs.  I don't know if two glowing reviews, from Twitch and Indiewire respectively, frame this film as an "critical darling," but I'll throw my hand in by saying that The Midnight Swim is one of the most striking and provocative achievements that I've seen at the Fantasia Film Festival so far.  I hope Ms. Smith gets a distributor for this film, so that more people can experience her sharply drawn and evocative world.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The One I Love--Charlie McDowell (2014)

Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) and Ethan (Mark Duplass) encounter some serious Twilight Zone sh** in The One I Love (2014)
Charlie McDowell's The One I Love (2014) was a delightful surprise at Fantasia--a subtle sci-fi film that's equal parts hilarious and touching, and even mildly creepy.  It's definitely the funniest film I've seen at the festival thus far (and the film is intentionally witty and wry rather than accidentally so).

The film's setup is that Ethan (Mark Duplass) has sometime in the recent past cheated on Sophie (Elizabeth Moss), and they are currently struggling in couple's therapy in order to manage their problems and move on.  Ted Danson has a very amusing, brief role as their therapist.  After trying to get them to play "in harmony" on a piano in his office, he finally suggests that they go to a romantic retreat to recapture the flame of their marriage.  Yes, this film has another "Cabin in the Woods," but this cabin is way, way upscale.  Both Sophie and Ethan are game for this therapeutic getaway, because their couples therapy sessions seem to be going nowhere.

Once they arrive at their destination, they proceed to relax and enjoy each other's company, having dinner together, drinking some wine, and smoking a little pot,  Each person, in turn, also explores the guesthouse, where they encounter some weird Twilight Zone sh** indeed.  The supernatural/sci-fi logic of the guesthouse isn't entirely clear, but the couple are willing to explore its possibilities.  Unsurprisingly, it comes to bite them in the a**.  In a quest to either provoke or discover their better selves, they find that fantasy is almost always better than reality.

Ethan promises to not spy on Sophie in the guesthouse, but he cannot resist
Elizabeth Moss as Sophie is just terrific in this film, and out of the two of them, I found her the most sympathetic.  Her emotional range is both nuanced and subtle, and I enjoyed everything single scene she is in.  Mark Duplass as Ethan...well...he's really good at playing that annoying schlub who is simultaneously uptight and judgmental.  I find him really unappealing, even in his "funny, surfer-dude" guise, when he is his "best self."  I realize that comment is cryptic, but I really don't want to give any of the fun of this movie away.  And it's really, really fun.  When you think about the fact that there are only three actors in the entire film (Moss, Duplass, and Danson), it's successes become even more impressive.

The film has some substantial unexpected twists, and a degree of menace (as it takes the notion of the uncanny doppelganger to a whole new level).  There are still a couple of plot fissures that don't ever really make sense, but like Animosity, the film is too well made to get riled up about some head-scratching moments.  I'm still trying to figure out what the therapist's end game is here, since he sent them on this little romantic (mis)adventure.  How does the physics of the place actually work, and how real are these people (any of them)?  Part of the fun is trying to figure this sh** out.  Nevertheless, Elizabeth Moss has a really fine career ahead of her.  Her performance is a knockout.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Han Gong-Ju--Su-jin Lee (2013)

Woo-hee Chun gives a stunning performance as the titular character in Han Gong-Ju (2013)
Steubenville, OH is now a place synonymous with the rape culture that permeates the U.S.  Victim blaming, slut-shaming, defending our young men because "boys will be boys," Elliot Rodgers--all of these instances of misogyny are intertwined with the use of technology to document it all.  Yet, rape culture and sexual violence against girls (and women) is a global problem, and South Korean filmmakers are tackling these issues in moving and powerful ways.  I first encountered this powerful vision upon seeing Poetry (2010).  Here an elderly woman tries to understand her own grandson's involvement in a gang rape.  She attempts to find beauty in a world riddled with casual misogyny and gendered violence--all while she struggles with the onset of Alzheimer's disease.  This film is simply breathtaking.

Su-Jin Lee's Han Gong-Ju, based on the 2004 Miryang gang rape case, frames its story through its victim's eyes, as she is exiled to another town and enrolled in a new school while her rapists go to trial back home.  Gong-Ju's experience of the events that happened that day unfolds gradually, in flashback, as she attempts to tentatively build a new life in a new place.  Unfortunately, in a culture that blames and ostracizes its victims of sexual violence, she has nowhere to turn and largely no one to trust.  One young girl attempts to befriend her, and she does her best to push her away, only grudgingly accepting her kindness.  This "toughness" is so clearly a facade for this desperately lonely teen, and it's heartbreaking to watch Gong-Ju's tentative smiles and fearful glances.  Like any wounded kid, she covers her vulnerability with false bravado.

Gong-Ju's musical talents attract (wanted and unwanted) attention
Like Poetry, Han Gong-Ju finds a delicate beauty in the arts, primarily through Gong-ju's soft voice and gentle guitar playing.  One of the subplots of the film involves her very real talent, and the way she must keep her voice hidden in order to avoid the scandal from which she has fled.  Yet her past comes to find her, and her secrets are discovered by the press (likewise, a filmed copy of the assault is leaked to the internet, further exacerbating her shame and victimization).

The film is undeniably an indictment of the culture surrounding these brutal acts, and sensitively explores Gong-Ju's delicate psyche while not overwhelmingly sensationalizing or exploiting the events that have triggered her exile.  Still, the casual misogyny, coupled with the macho posturing and bullying that intersects with rape culture, are represented with a queasy realism.  One doesn't get the full picture until the film's final moments, but by that time we are fully committed to Gong-Ju's character, and can only wish that she finds some semblance of peace.  Han Gong-Ju is both harrowing and highly recommended.

Predestination--The Spierig Brothers (2014)

Ethan Hawke is pretty intense as the grizzled protagonist in Predestination (2014)
The Spierig brothers make tremendously fun and wickedly smart films--ones that appeal to smart viewers who like to think when they go to the movies (and perhaps keep thinking afterward).  I'll never forget going to see Undead (2003) on a whim, even though it received a blisteringly terrible review from Entertainment Weekly's Owen Glieberman (who just didn't get it).  It's a zombie film with a female hero, an alien film, and just plain awesome (and hilarious).  In fact, it's one of the only horror comedies I've ever really liked.  Many years later, they made Daybreakers (2009), also starring Ethan Hawke.  The film created a detailed world where vampires were part of the fabric of society, outnumbering humans and struggling to feed when there is little to no human blood to be found.  These filmmakers are really strong at world-building and creating a visually rich tapestry of images, and Predestination continues there pretty stunning track record (three for three)!  The film is based on a Robert A. Heinlein story "All You Zombies" from 1958.

Trying to stop the Fizzle bomber
The film opens with an explosion that disfigures the main character, who wakes up in the hospital after reconstructive surgery and his voice has altered.  Hmmmm.  Turns out he (Hawke) is a time-traveler who works for a covert government agency that stops horrific crimes before they happen.  He's been tracking the "Fizzle bomber," who allegedly will blow up 10 city blocks in 1975.  So he goes back to the 70s on his final mission to try to stop the guy.  His deep cover is as a bartender at a dive bar in New York City.

One night at work he meets a unique, but rather grumpy person, who comes into the bar and wagers that he has the best, most compelling story to tell (for a full bottle of booze).  This stranger (Sarah Snook) proceeds to tell a twisting, tragic story that plays with gender--turns out that he is a former "she," born a hermaphrodite, who struggled with his gender identity, fell in love with a mystery man who knocked her up, mothered a child who was subsequently stolen from her, and now writes True Confession stories, and walks through this world, as a man (with the requisite sex organs).  Some of the film's strongest moments come from the detailed construction of this sci-fi world during these 60s flashbacks, where women are trained to service men in outer space as a part of the "Space Corps."

women training for their trip into space as "space corps"
Hawke's character, upon hearing his tale of woe, tells him that he can deliver the man who caused all of these rather tragic events, and takes him back to meet his earlier self (as a woman), in 1963.  Things get messier from there, because Hawke's character is actually actively recruiting the storyteller to become a time travel agent for this secret government agency, run by an enigmatic Noah Taylor.

There's more to "space corps" than meets the eye
I'll stop here because any additional description of the film will give too much away.  Suffice to say that one of the most annoying things about a time-travel film is the time paradox, and how that paradox is explained. From The Terminator series, to Looper, to Lost, to the awesome Sci-fi show Continuum, the time paradox tends to really muck things up, and skew any sensible logic to the film.  Now imagine if one raised the paradox to the NTH degree, and you have the clever, and rather sick, Predestination.  These filmmakers are committed to mind fu**ing the audience with this one.

Okay, so I hated Inception (Christopher Nolan, 2010), and I figure that opinion might make me decidedly unpopular.  That film just seemed like it was trying too hard to be smart, and made some viewers feel clever when the film wasn't remotely clever at all.  While Predestination is smarter than Nolan's pop mind fu**, I figured out part of the big twist within the film's first 10 minutes, and the rest of it not long after.  That discovery does not really hurt the film, though.  It's still a tremendously fun ride, that kept me thinking, albeit a little queasy, during the closing credits and beyond.  I would definitely check it out, and the rest of the Spierig Brothers work, while you're at it.

Honeymoon--Leigh Janiak (2014)

Things go wrong too quickly for Paul (Harry Treadaway) and Bea (Rose Leslie) in Honeymoon (2014)
Ah, Honeymoon. This film has so much potential, truly, but this tale of a Honeymooning couple who run afoul of something in the woods outside Bea's childhood family retreat just cannot rise above the questions it leaves hanging, or the gore and shock tactics that render women's bodies horrifying and disgusting.  I'm disappointed to see that this viewpoint, entirely told through the eyes of the male protagonist, Paul, is written and directed by a woman.  Heavy sigh.  This film is her first, and though it has some issues, I hope it is not her last.

The film suggests that one can never know one's spouse, especially if after finding her walking around in the woods in the middle of the night, he awakens to find her unable to brew coffee or make french toast adequately.  The HORROR!  Paul is suspicious and proceeds to test Bea at every turn, especially after going back to where he found her in the woods and finding her torn nightgown.  The biggest problem with this film is that there is no building of tension or slow burn.  Change happens very quickly, and the film has virtually no suspense.

Paul investigates Bea's sexy nightgown
While Treadaway is really quite delightful as Victor Frankenstein on Showtime's Penny Dreadful, and Rose Leslie is also great on Game of Thrones, there really is no chemistry between these actors in this film.  They seem to be sniping at each other very soon into the honeymoon, and the film goes to some length to maintain Bea's "mystery" by never getting into her head.  She's constantly scrutinized by her new husband, and the audience is supposed to be discovering the horror right along with Paul.  Yet, I found him so unappealing and unlikeable (his decision to go and catch fish in the early morning hours utterly idiotic), that I just wanted him to right away.  Instead, the camera follows him around as he (and we) piece things together.

"You Know Nothing, Paul!"
The world gets weirder as the story evolves.  The one clear thing is that "something bad" happened to Bea in the woods, and its affecting her body, especially her lady parts.  She has some nasty, scabby "mosquito" bites on her inner thighs, she starts spontaneously bleeding, self-mutilates herself at one point, and then there's a truly gross-out scare that sends everything into hyper-drive.  After that moment, Bea becomes completely and utterly abject, and one wonders just how things are going to all shake out.  Unsurprisingly, at this point in the film, Paul loses all interest in her--she's beyond saving.  Thankfully, she is kind enough to help him "hide," even after he's treated her so shoddily.

I can hint at references the film makes--to body snatching, the Evil Dead, possession narratives, alien abduction, The Wicker Man--but what you end up with is mere speculation.  The film never really reveals what happens in the woods, and the spectator is left hanging, attempting to fill in the many plot holes that the film leaves gaping open.  Honeymoon never reaches for cleverness or provides any explanations, which leaves one saying "Okay, then."  The film has so much potential, but it just squanders it.  I think even merely changing things by providing Bea's point-of-view would have made the film far more compelling.  Instead, we're stuck with Paul.

If you want to see a film that explores the abject, female body, but has a more fleshed out female protagonist, I would recommend the fore-mentioned Animosity (2013), or the smart and twisty Dutch horror thriller Left Bank (2008).

Harvest--John McNaughton (2013)

Katherine (Samantha Morton) losing it in The Harvest (2013)
John McNaughton has made some pretty intense films.  The last film of his I saw, Wild Things (1998) was really nuts.  So I shouldn't have expected any less from his latest, The Harvest (2013).  The beauty of the Fantasia Film Festival is that directors show up for Q & As after the screening and tend to really enhance the film's experience.  Without John McNaughton's wry humor and pointed contextualizing, I would not be as respectful of the film as I am.  Still, this film has serious, serious problems.

McNaughton's film is a twisted fairy tale about over-protective and abusive parents, terrible marriages, sick kids, and intrepid young teens fighting against adults who just don't understand.  Oh, and Peter Fonda plays "The Grandfather."

Katherine and Richard (Michael Shannon) are a hot mess
The film opens with a kid being knocked senseless by a baseball hit, and then Katherine, a pediatric surgeon, swooping in and saving his life.  She seems to perform these feats regularly, with Richard as a stay-at-home Dad who takes care of their sickly kid, Andy.  (Richard was formerly a NURSE, which may be how this dyfunctional couple met, but is now just a reminder of how essentially emasculated he is here).

Their son has been sick since birth, and they have him on a somewhat hinky experimental drug regimen that makes him tired, bed-ridden, and barely functioning. 

Andy (Charlie Tahan) must do his homework so he can be a doctor, not a nurse
Both Mom and Dad are really strict though, and make sure that Andy does his home-schooled homework.  Everything goes pear-shaped when a spunky girl, Maryann (Natasha Calis), moves in a mile away and starts skulking around their house, peeking in the windows.  She has recently lost her parents in an accident, and is living with her grandparents, one of which is played by Peter Fonda (who says "Far out" several times, in case we do not know who he is).  Maryann is looking for a friend, and for the sake of the plot, she latches onto Andy after seeing him through his bedroom window.  

pint-sized creeper Maryann
I don't know, you just kind of have to go with it.  Things become very Hansel and Gretel soon afterward, as Katherine does not want Andy to have any friends, and does her best to be creepy and menacing a la evil witch.  Someone yelled "Bitch" out loud in the theater, unsurprising for Samantha Morton succeeds in this fairly thankless, cliched role.  Things get crazier and there's a pretty decent twist towards the end, but the hoary gender tropes are mostly irritating.

During the Q & A, one fellow said, "I've seen so many scary things at this festival--vampires, werewolves, etc.--but nothing scares me more than the psychotic middle-aged Mom."  Yeah, dude, that's kind of the problem.  I would have loved to see a little more nuance to these characters, and for something to be at stake more than "CHILDREN ARE IN PERIL!"  With two fine actors like Morton and Shannon on-board, one would hope for more, but she's a screeching Gorgon and he's some kind of sad kicked dog who flinches all the time.  Then I remind myself that this guy directed Wild Things, which also seemed so utterly nutso, that I just should expect no less from a John McNaughton film. 

Many times during the screening, people laughed at seemingly "unfunny" moments.  Sure, moments of levity are often necessary in a very dark story, but giving the kid mini-marshmellows in his cocoa, or Richard getting dressed after having sex with an adoring drug rep--hilarious!  I did find myself laughing and shaking my head at Katherine much of the time.  Her temper tantrums were so epic, they just elicited chuckles and guffaws.  Samantha Morton must have needed a serious vacation after this film.  McNaughton pointed out that most female actors did not want to touch this role, especially those with kids.  Gee, no kidding.  BTW, Morton has a couple of kids.  I'm thinking that she should show them this film as a kind of cautionary tale--don't piss Mommy off.

The director, during the Q & A, referenced fairy tales and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and those kernels are there, but they are relatively buried under a histrionic Jody Picoult novel.  Eh.  I'd give it a pass.

Friday, July 25, 2014

White Bird In A Blizzard--Gregg Araki (2014)

Eva Green's deeply miserable Eve in White Bird in a Blizzard
Part of the appeal of all of Gregg Araki's movies is his witty, poignant, and pointed use of soundtrack material.  Watching White Bird in a Blizzard, which takes place in 1989-1991 respectively, was like bathing in the luscious sounds of that time (full disclosure, I was a DJ at a "new music" dance club during those years).  This Mortal Coil's "Fond Affections," New Order's "Temptation," The Psychedelic Furs' "Heartbreak Beat," Depeche Mode's "Behind the Wheel," Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Dazzle." This particular film focuses on Katrina (Kat) Connor (Shailene Woodley) in the wake of her strange mother Eve's disappearance.  While I didn't want to like Woodley (based on her stupid anti-feminist public comments), I found that the film's narrative structure, Araki's candid representation of female heterosexual desire, and her incredible supporting cast (including Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Thomas Jane, Gabourey Sidibe, Angela Bassett) allowed Woodley's Kat to win me over in the end.

Peppered with magical fantasy and fairy-tale moments, often subjectively arising out of Kat's dream life, White Bird in a Blizzard draws us not only into Kat's world, but her feelings about her family as she struggles to understand both her mother's unhappiness and her own sense of loss.  Araki crafts a deeply subjective portrait of Eve, skewed from the perspective of a disaffected teen riddled with burgeoning desire.  Told in the present, and through flashbacks, the film never wavers from Kat's view.  Kat is simultaneously astute and confused by her mother's behavior, yearning for the playful Mom of her past, but only encountering her empty shell as Eve fights her loneliness, aging, and loss of her sexual power just as her daughter's comes into being.  Green brings equal parts elegance, mystery, and despair into Eve, her resentment toward the family that she feels has trapped her boiling over into both passive aggression and vicious snipes.  Yet, both Kat and the audience feel deep sympathy toward her plight--the plight of so many women whose senses of self are buried in loveless marriages.  Kat's world seems rich in possibilities while Eva's seems devoid of them.

Gregg Araki tends to tell boys' stories, and he does so beautifully (Mysterious Skin, Kaboom), but here he explores a young woman's feelings and experiences with such nuance and power, the film  takes your breath away.  His wry take on sexuality is always refreshing as well, and Kat's sexual affair with a local police detective is represented with both thoughtfulness and candor.

In some ways, the mystery of what happened to Eve is both the focus of the story and beside the point, for in its telling, through Kat's distinctive point-of-view, one actually learns how incredibly complicated and confusing hetero-femininity can be.