Sunday, July 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 29, 2017

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

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

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

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

Fantasia 2017--Friendly Beast--Gabriela Amaral Almeida (2017)

Inacio shores up his masculinity in Gabriela Amaral Almeida's taut thriller Friendly Beast/O Animal Cordial (2017)
Restaurants are strange places to work, full of delicate egos, macho kitchens, beleaguered waitstaff putting up with entitled customers, and crazy, penny-pinching owners who treat their workers like slaves.  So Gabriela Amaral Almeida's marvelous Brazilian Horror film Friendly Beast (2017) gloriously reveals when the rather typical state of restaurant work goes horribly off the rails.  While I still have quite a few films left to screen at the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival, Friendly Beast is the most overtly feminist film that I've watched so far, and reveals an exciting new female voice entering the horror scene.

The film takes place in a small Brazilian restaurant, where Sara (Luciano Pais) works for the narcissistic and horribly insecure Inacio (Murilo Benício)--whom the director admits is a rather well-known soap opera actor in Brazil, taking on a decidedly different role.  Inacio badgers his kitchen staff, including the queer POC chef Djair (Irandhir Santos), even taking credit for his culinary genius.  Sara waits on jerkoffs like Veronica and Bruno, entitled rich, white folk who expect the staff of color to cater to their every whim.  Things go decidedly pear-shaped at the end of the night when a couple of young thugs decide to rob the place.  Alas, this robbery isn't the restaurant's first, and Inacio is fully prepared, gun in hand, to prove that he's a "real man" able to fend off any and all threats.  He's also a cauldron of bubbling rage waiting to boil over, and when he does, rational behavior goes out the window.  The formerly avuncular owner becomes quite a different beast altogether, and his delicate ego makes everyone a target for his wrath.

Djair and one of the robbers, wait, bound and helpless, for their fate to be decided
Much of the tension of the film comes from the marvelously intimate set, as the locations are limited to the restaurant's tight spaces--the dining room, kitchen, and bathroom.  Amaral Almeida masterfully employs camerawork and sound to amplify the claustrophobic nature of the place, and even when some characters are not present for the rather gory violence underway, they cannot escape its presence, as it lurks right outside the door.  Her critique of masculinity and its perils is really smart, as she reveals through Inacio's unraveling that gender is a struggle for everyone across the spectrum of identities, and that there is no greater horror than trying to live up to certain gender ideals.

Sara's transformation over the course of the film is the film's most brilliant (and feminist) facet
The true revelation of this film is Luciana Paes' fearless performance as Sara, a character who goes through so many surprising and exhilarating changes as the action evolves.  Initially, Sara is a resentful worker forced to stay late due to some last minute customers.  Her fascination with the blond, entitled Veronica takes a significant turn, suggesting that one should be a lot more respectful of their fu**ing server, okay?  The film implies that she has a curious relationship to her boss, one that borders on a crush (and what the kitchen staff sees as "ass kissing").  That relationship also changes by degree, as tidbits of info are supplied to shift our understanding of Sara as a female character.  The events that unfold appear to liberate her in some ways, perhaps unveiling the beating heart of her primal energy just waiting for the moment of release. She combines the tropes of "final girl" and monster in truly inventive ways, and the ending of this film is a doozy--immensely satisfying.  This film also has a sex scene that is so astonishing, it will BLOW YOUR MIND.  I cannot get those images out of my head, nor do I want to!

As a debut feature, Friendly Beast is an incredibly accomplished and riveting piece of work.  It explores the intersections of race, class, and gender in an intelligent and sophisticated fashion while still being a bloody gory work that lies comfortably within the horror genre.  The film raises questions about women's desires, and the pressures on them to behave "appropriately," creating a feminist work that challenges many of the genre's common understandings of what role women should play.  I recommend it highly, and eagerly await Amaral Almeida's next film.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Fantasia 2017--Most Beautiful Island--Ana Asensio (2017)

Director/Writer/Star Ana Asensio embodies the strong yet vulnerable Luciana in Most Beautiful Island (2017)
Since I've had the pleasure of residing in Canada for the last few weeks, I've found myself describing my home country with a degree of shame and horror.  Trump's America is a place where difference elicits both hostility and resentment, and where a shockingly large number of people both wallow in bigotry and make people fear for their safety just for walking down the street.  Women, People of Color, Queer folks of varying gender identity, and Immigrants do not feel at home anymore (imagine being all of the above).  People here often respond that it's just another four years, but what this election has made crystal clear is that these tensions and hatreds have been everpresent, and that perhaps some of the more privileged just were not paying proper attention (or cultivating a denial bubble).  It's hard to explain how a big chunk of the population now lives in a state of terror, as bullying and hate are the norms, and are politically sanctioned.

Ana Asensio's brilliant debut film Most Beautiful Island gives spectators a powerful sense of what it's like, specifically for attractive female immigrants, struggling to make ends meet within particularly gendered circumstances.  Its slice-of-life approach is so jarringly real, that these days, this film can pass for a fu**ing documentary.

Luciana works a "party" with the promise of making a couple thousand bucks
The film follows Luciana, as she struggles to pay the rent for the sh**hole she lives in, where her roommate sensitively labels the food in the fridge "not yours," and giant cockroaches slither out of duct taped holes in the bathroom.  She juggles multiple odd jobs as an undocumented woman, including underpaid au pair to super-annoying brats, and dressing up as a sexy chicken to hand out fliers on the street.  When her "friend" Olga (Natasha Romanova) clues her in to a party where she can make $2,000, she sees a way to make her problems go away temporarily.  Her need for cash outweighs her practical knowledge that in a culture where immigrant women are treated like human garbage, what she might have to do for that money may carry too steep a price.

Luciana proves she's calm and cool under the most dangerous conditions
What starts off as a handheld camera exploration of Luciana's day, quickly transforms into an excruciatingly tense and gripping thriller as Luciana shows up for the "party," held behind a locked door in the basement of an isolated warehouse off the West Side Highway.  Women of various races, all dressed in little black dresses and stilettos, with matching bags on their shoulders, wait with curiosity, suspicion--and for those in the know, downright terror.  Genre favorite Larry Fessenden is even on hand to play a thuggish guard, leading women one-by-one in and out of the room.  To explain what goes down would be to do the film a grave disservice, but I will provide this teeny spoiler--if you suffer from arachnophobia DO NOT see this film.

Where can I get this gorgeous poster??
While Asensio started working on this film a good four years ago, this film is so stirringly timely that it's no wonder that it won the Grand Jury Prize for best feature at SXSW this year.  The film is so disturbingly real, that if you look carefully, you'll see POTUS part of the crowd attending the party.  Asensio deserves enormous accolades for this riveting film that had my heart racing long after it ended.  Please see it ASAP.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Fantasia 2017--November--Rainer Sarnet (2017)

A Kratt goes to work in Rainer Sarnet's November (2017)
In many ways, Rainer Sarnet's November (2017) epitomizes the very best that the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival has to offer: unique and relatively unknown films from far flung countries, sumptuous visuals, and a haunting score that transports you into to a strange, mysterious world.

Hans loves the serene and clean young baroness
November's narrative is relatively simple.  In the magical Estonian countryside, a young rural woman named Liina loves a scruffy young man named Hans, who loves a sleepwalking young baroness way beyond his reach--a sad case of loving the wrong person who does not love you in return.  Since these are the only young people in the vicinity, pickings are slim, and emotions ride high.  The pursuit of these love affairs leads to tragedy.  This tale has been told time and time again, but certainly not quite in the same way.

Llina's dead mother lurks under a willow tree
In November's dark woods, ghosts dressed all in white walk in processions and demand dinner, human-sized chickens hang out in saunas, lovelorn women turn into werewolves, collections of tools are animated through stolen souls, villagers use spit to form bullets, and witches cast spells and create potions.

A couple of men seem to have bartered their souls
The film's mystical, ghostly visuals feel like a cross between Guy Madden and Michael Haeneke, and the tone is equally somber as the poor live in grimy poverty, all the while resenting (and desiring) the German interlopers that occupy the manor.

Liina is willing to do what it takes to capture her true love's heart
The standout performance in the mix is Rea Lest's poignant turn as Liina, a young woman who dreams of a better, richer life and makes the most of her limited choices.  In a culture defined by a barter economy that resorts to stealing and theft, Liina struggles against her father's avaricious use of her virginity as a bargaining chip, fighting desperately to pursue her own desires.  Meanwhile, her object of desire, the dim-witted Hans (Jorgen Liik), feverishly chases after a young German baroness who considers the locals filthy and sinful.  His desires are far less interesting and much more simply defined, making him a less than substantial suitor for the glorious Liina. 

Liina's feral alter ego allows her to revel in more primitive desires
Alas, the fate of the fairytale is almost inevitably to police female desire and forcefeed us what's appropriate behavior.  Unlike feminist critiques of fairy tales such as The Love Witch, and The Lure, November's critical edge is not as clear.  I contend that Liina's relationship to werewolf lore hearkens back to Angela Carter's fairytale subversions in The Company of Wolves, although less overt or liberatory.  Still, the film's ability to transport us to a place hauntingly uncanny makes it truly remarkable. The film won an award for its hallucinatory imagery at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it made its North American premiere, and I feel really fortunate to have seen it on a big screen with fellow cinephiles at Fantasia.  I highly recommend it.

Fantasia 2017--A Day--Sun-ho Cho (2017)

Jun Young desperately tries to save his daughter Eun-jung from a deadly fate in Sun-ho Cho's A Day (2017)

I tend to find sentimental films rather disappointing, especially when they are couched in a daring, viscerally visual action thriller.  Therefore, while Sun-ho Cho's time loop thriller A Day certainly has plenty of crowd pleasing, eye candy charms, and a narrative structure that playfully unfolds, its "heart" is rather schmaltzy.

First, though, let me extol some of the film's pleasures.  As I have mentioned, I recently taught a class on "puzzle films," so time loop or "forked path" narratives, where characters relive narrative events repeatedly, with different variations, carry great appeal.  As per usual, the characters in such films must eventually "get it right" in order to escape the seemingly endless pattern of repetitions.  Phil Connors in Groundhog Day must let go of his selfish narcissism in order to progress; Lola, in Run, Lola, Run has to make less violent and morally bankrupt choices; and Colter Stevens in Source Code needs to discover the terrorist and stop a bomber from blowing up Chicago.  All of these "forked path"/time loop narratives tell moral tales, so Cho's A Day fulfills those kinds of expectations.

A Day has three characters who are stuck in an interconnected time loop
Initially, the film focuses on Dr. Jun Young Kim, who is returning home from a U.N. trip and reconnecting with his neglected daughter, Eun-jung, for her birthday.  What quickly becomes clear is that Jun Young is unable to prevent her death from a fatal traffic accident, which seems to occur no matter how many variations he tries.  He soon discovers that this time loop is shared by another character, Min-chul, an E.M.T. whose wife dies in this traffic accident as well.  Once these two connect, their mission is to save their damsels in distress from their imminent deaths.  Another character is caught up in the mix, but explaining his role would give too much away.

Eun-jung's death is one of the film's greatest visual pleasures
Sun-ho Cho knows how to craft a well-paced plot, and for his first feature, the film's narrative complexity, and the its resulting tension, are impressive accomplishments.  Yet, I found myself both thrilled and a little dismayed by the great pleasure I took from watching the film's incredible car crashes--the camera veering, wheels squealing, and bodies flying into the air in glorious slow motion.  There's something a little sick at work when some of the film's most exhilarating scenes are of a girl's repeated murder.  Still, one of the film's variations was so incredibly dynamic that it elicited a unanimous roar of approval from the Fantasia crowd.  The best way to see this film, by far, is in the SGWU hall packed to the rafters with enthusiastic fans!

All the "heroes" are men, the victims, women
On the whole, A Day is a really fun, adrenaline-fueled thriller.  Unfortunately, it's also an example of "patriarchy 101" where invalid daughters and pregnant wives are the only role that women play here, and the men are the only ones with any agency.  What could have been a rather sharp, dark revenge thriller is molded into a feel good film about love's ability to bring us together and conquer adversity.  Meh.  While I'm all for a world with a lot less hate in it, A Day's overall sappiness and gratingly  mushy heart just left me blandly cold.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Fantasia 2017--The Laplace's Demon--Giordano Giulivi (2017)

Characters lurk in the shadows in Giordano Giulivi's The Laplace's Demon (2017)
More frequently than not, Fantasia world premieres a unique cinematic gem that has been made with passion and wit, and flies under the radar of the films getting buzz during the festival circuit (including Sundance and SXSW).  Giordano Giulivi's cerebral, vintage-look thriller The Laplace's Demon is one of those rare finds that both dazzles the eye and tickles the mind with its innovative approach.  The fact that the film took 7 years to make, and four years to shoot, makes it all the more special.  One wishes that someone would stop throwing money at the Marvel Universe and give someone like Giulivi both the money and the time to make more cinematic art.

Karl's fascination with the ornate machinery of the mansion mirrors his experiments with determinism
I'm stealing from IMDB in my plot synopsis, since frankly I'm not sure I can do it justice: "A glass in free fall. Have you ever thought if it is possible to calculate into how many pieces it can break into? After numerous experiments, a team of researchers succeeds in doing just this apparently impossible task. Attracted to their experiment, a mysterious professor invites the scientists in his isolated mansion to know more about their studies. However, when they arrive, they are not greeted by their host but they are faced with a strange model of the mansion, in which some absolutely normal but incredible actions are acted. The researchers will soon understand to be involved in a new experiment in which they'll have to play a very different role than usual: that of the glass in free fall."

Laplace was an actual 18th century French mathematician, physicist, and scholar, and the film focuses on his fascinating interest in the potential mathematical ability to predict human behavior via a specific formula. A crew of scientists set out to work with the mysterious Dr. Cornelius, but then quickly realize that they are imprisoned in his mansion and are unwillingly part of a nefarious experiment put forth by their absent host.  The rich set pieces of the film's mise-en-scene are accentuated by the magnificent chiaroscuro lighting that heightens the film's tension, as the scientists realize that they are pawns in some deadly game.

The Laplace's Demon comes across as the lovechild of a noir Bava meets The Cat and the Canary
The film plays with philosophical questions of free will and determinism, but does so by paying homage to a variety of film styles and eras.  At times the film seems to play with silent film acting and gestures, while also employing many film noir stylistic flourishes.  Further, the film's mood combines a 30's Universal monster vibe, while firmly taking place in the now (based on cellphones and computer technology).  At the same time, some of the more deliberate editing choices hold on gazes often a bit too long, giving a taste of Lynch's Eraserhead by way of Bava's Black Sunday.  The sometimes hyperbolic, yet dreamy, acting is also reminiscent of Guy Maddin's strange netherworlds.  The film's timelessness really heightens its themes, and produces rich pleasures as it allows cinephiles to soak up the film's many references.  Nevertheless, the film is really unique, and never too derivative, offering a nice little twist at the end and landing on a properly bleak note.  I enthusiastically recommend The Laplace's Demon, and hope you will search out this visually stunning and clever film.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Fantasia 2017--Bitch--Marianna Paralka (2017)

Writer/Director/Star Marianna Palka goes rabid in Bitch (2017)
As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am all in when it comes to women directors, and I'll try to see anything directed by women within reason.  Therefore, I was pretty damn thrilled to see the screening of Marianna Palka's Bitch at the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival, coming off some hot buzz from Sundance.  I've been sitting on my review for a couple of days, mostly because I'm a bit ambivalent about it.  I applaud Palka for making an original, frequently hilarious, sometimes touching film that shines a light on the dazzling performance skills of her ex beau, Jason Ritter.  If you are not familiar with Ritter, please see Embers, a fantastic film from last year's festival (also directed by a woman), in which he shows his more dramatic chops.  He's largely a comedic actor, who you've probably seen on either Drunk History or Another Period.  Jason Ritter rocks, and he rocks hard in Bitch.

Bill Hart (Jason Ritter) spectacularly loses his sh** in Bitch
So you are probably wondering, why the ambivalence?  I highly recommend you see Bitch, for its definitely worth your time and money, but I was a little disappointed by the tonal shift the film takes in the latter third of the narrative.  Surprisingly, IMDB's summary kind of spells it out: "The provocative tale of a woman (Marianna Palka) who snaps under crushing life pressures and assumes the psyche of a vicious dog. Her philandering, absentee husband (Jason Ritter) is forced to become reacquainted with his four children and sister-in-law (Jaime King) as they attempt to keep the family together during this bizarre crisis."

Expectations are set up here.  To some extent, the film is about a woman who, under the pressures of life placed on women, snaps and "assumes the psyche of a vicious dog"--ergo the bitch of the title.  This reaction is based on an actual case in Scotland, and in these troubled times, it's a wonder that this kind of situation doesn't happen more often.

I would snap too if these were my kids
The scenes where Palka, as Jane, "becomes a dog," angrily barking, attacking her family, smeared with her own feces, and baring her teeth, are pretty "horror movie" scary.  Many times a handheld camera assumes her dog POV and you are left rather shaken by her transformation.  Understandably, every one in the family freaks out, including her 4 out-of-control kids and her sh***y husband.  Should they commit her to an asylum or accept this change as the "new normal?"  Bill wants the latter, while Jane's family (her sister and parents) insist that she needs help he cannot give her.

Cautiously visiting Jane/Mom in the basement
Let me be clear here.  You would snap too with this home environment.  The kids are ungrateful brats that scream at each other and burden Jane with everything, and Bill is the most useless human being alive.  Seriously, Jason Ritter's Bill is a borderline cartoon villain, he's so beyond terrible.  He goes to his job everyday (at which he is terrible), cheats with a woman at work, and does not do anything to help Jane AT ALL.  He comically doesn't know how to drive their mini-van, doesn't know which schools the kids go too, and sometimes forgets their names (or that they are even in the car).  Bill's hysterical meltdowns as things go from bad to worse are comic genius, and because of Ritter's skills, you really love to hate him.

Bill is forced to become a better Dad (and husband)

Here's where the film goes awry for me.  Once Jane becomes a dog, and can no longer communicate with others, Bill has to "step it up"--and he does.  He becomes close with his kids, patient with his in-laws, loving to Jane (despite the fact that she still wants to bite him).  Bill goes from being relatively horrible, to a peachy gem, in the course of about 6 months.  Sure he hits bottom (loses his job, is forced to sell his house), and these circumstances are wildly unusual (my wife is a dog), but what starts out being a film about women, and culture, and the pains one must endure, becomes a film about the redemption of another straight white guy, who ultimately wins back the love of his wife by performing the minimum requirements for being a decent father--go figure.

Bitch is inventive, unique, with a soundtrack that runs counterpoint to much of the darkness that infuses the film.  In the first half of the film, the combination of darkness with humor is pitch perfect and truly special.  Once the film slips into sentimental family drama mode, though, I just felt a massive wave of disappointment.  I was not alone in the audience, as other members at Fantasia revealed during the Q & A that they truly wished for a different outcome.  Yet other people absolutely loved it, and thought it hit all the right notes. So, you decide.  See Bitch as soon as it's available, support women filmmakers, and see Jason Ritter's tour de force performance.  He's utterly spectacular here.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Fantasia 2017--Radius--Caroline Labrèche and Steeve Léonard (2017)

Liam (Diego Klattenhoff) gives off a killer vibe in Caroline Labrèche and Steeve Léonard's Radius (2017)
Frankly, I didn't know what to expect from Radius. a Quebec sci-fi thriller that world premiered at Fantasia; there was very little information available, and no trailer so far.  Nevertheless, Radius is a fun, twisty surprise--a clever thriller with plenty of careful plotting, providing little morsels of narration to keep you guessing.

In synopsis, Liam (Diego Klattenhoff) wakes from a car accident to discover that anything within a 50 foot radius of him (birds, mammals, people) keels over dead. His mere proximity wipes out the local populace, but initially he thinks it's just a really nasty airborne virus.  Oh, and he cannot remember anything, including who he is, and just follows the info on his driver's license to get to his "home."  Not long after he holes up in his shed, trying to avoid all contact, a woman shows up at his door, and lo and behold, she stays alive despite being nearby.  Jane Doe (Charlotte Sullivan) doesn't remember anything either, but she figures out that she was in the car accident with him.  Seems that if Jane stays in a 50 foot radius of Liam, she cancels out his killer powers; but separate them, and the jig is up.  This particular quandary ratchets up the film's tension, as intimacy and proximity to others becomes the basis by which people live or die.

The police corner Liam and Jane, who are now considered suspected terrorists
While the premise of the film is compelling enough, if we do not care about the characters, their fate will not really matter too much.  As we identify with Liam's POV early on, we genuinely care about his unnerving predicament.  Questions are replaced by other questions as the story unfolds: who are Liam and Jane, and how do they know each other?  What actually happened during the car accident, to land them with these killer side effects?  Where Radius truly excels is in its careful plotting, as the backstory of these characters is revealed in bits and pieces as their memories return bit by bit.  I think I'm pretty keen on WTF narrative structures, but I did not see the major twist this film unveils AT ALL.  I think much of this twist's effectiveness is dependent on Diego Klattenhoff's strong performance, as he is a character with whom we identify and support throughout the film.  We want to figure out, along with him, and Jane, how all this happened.  Frankly, the "why" of these events is not as important as the revelation of what these characters are to each other--the "who" is more crucial.  I highly recommend Radius, a thoughtful and tension-filled thrill ride, and I applaud Fantasia for giving this little gem its world premiere.  Check it out!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Fantasia 2017--Replace--Norbert Keil

Rebecca Forsythe's Kira commands every frame in Norbert Keil's Replace (2017)
Norbert Keil's body horror extravaganza Replace is one of the most gorgeous films I have ever seen at Fantasia.  Seriously, every single frame was drenched in color, and the settings are glorious, whether a scene takes place in Kira's grunge chic apartment, a dingy (but colorfully-lit) nightclub, or the harsh, but stylish minimalism of Dr. Crober's office.  Like The Neon Demon, Replace is rife with sumptuous imagery that dazzles the eye, and I loved looking at it.  Wow.  At times the film replicated some of the very best giallos that I've seen, and there's a definite Argento look with a Cronenberg vibe.

Kira is understandably disturbed by her body's rapid decay
That said, the film also maintains some similar themes to Winding-Refn's art horror, as it focuses on Kira Mabon (Rebecca Forsythe), a young beauty who mysteriously develops some nasty skin rash where her body starts to decay at a rapid rate.  As this film is a horror film, we get to experience close-up shots with lots of icky sounds as Kira peels the skin right from her body.  The film purports to be a treatise on aging, as Kira's story is interspersed with her voice-over narration outlining her fear and contempt for the aging process.

The mysterious Dr. Crober (Barbara Crampton) may have answers to what's ailing Kira
She is yet another (white, thin) beauty who wants to remain that way forever, and she turns to the mysteriously calm/mad scientist Dr. Rafaela Crober (Barbara Crampton) for help.  Yet Dr. Crober seems to know more than she's letting on, and Kira's inability to remember what happened last week doesn't help matters.

Kira is forced to kill in order to maintain her haunting loveliness
When Kira's bodily deterioration starts to happen too rapidly, and a skin transplant looks to take too long, Kira takes matters into her own hands, and finds replacements for her skin in a series of rather gory and unfortunate murders.  She has become quite the monster.  Still, when we finally get answers to what's happening, the silliness of the film rises to new heights, even if some of the science that inspires the film is grounded in advancements in stem cell research and insights into the aging process.

Sophia (Lucie Aron) is the gorgeous "girl next door" who suddenly falls for Kira
My biggest problem with this film is that it's couched in a quasi-lesbian romance that makes no sense beyond a certain need for gratuitous shots of gorgeous women kissing each other.  I get the appeal (duh), but do we really need to watch monstrous queer women killers YET AGAIN??  Here's another white guy making a film about women and their monstrous desires, and he makes sure that there are as many topless shots of this implausible couple as possible.  It doesn't help that their scenes are shot in such hazy soft-focus with melodramatic music blasting behind them, as if they share some true love amidst the horror.  A critique on the perils of beauty culture and the relationship between femininity and aging?  Not really.

Still, Fantasia has this amazing ability to persuade me to give a film more consideration after I dismiss it for its flaws, chiefly by virtue of listening to the filmmakers talk about their film and the process of making it.  Just as I whispered something about the filmmakers having been totally wasted writing this doozy, Keil and famous genre stalwart and co-writer Richard Stanley (Hardware, Dust Devil) made a case for their film and its particular charms.  The person who really charmed me was Stanley, in his outback biker get-up, hair flowing, and sharp intelligence in his eyes, as he waxed on about gene therapy, the perils of aging, and the site of memory (is it in our brains or in our D.N.A.)?   Wow, okay.  He also suggested that the film nodded at vampirism, and I can see it, certainly.  He's incredibly smart and articulate, and I would have loved to talk to him for hours about whatever.

Crampton did research at the Buck Institute for aging for the role
Barbara Crampton was also onstage with her characteristic warmth and wit, and she let on that the role of Dr. Crober was originally intended for a male character.  While I'm delighted that she was chosen for the part, and certainly there needs to be more roles for women, I think it might have been better to have that part played by a man.  The Neon Demon's one saving grace was that it really emphasized how horrible men are in relation to women's beauty, and that they were really the driving force behind women killing themselves (and each other) in order to maintain their attraction and desirability. Crampton's role as a cold-hearted, ambitious mad scientist who ruthlessly capitalizes on women's vulnerability and vanity in order to make scientific discoveries does not do women any favors, and just perpetuates the idea that women are bitches who will destroy each other in order to get ahead.  Nice.

Replace is equal parts beautiful and problematic
So, should you see Replace?  Yes, if only to form your own opinion about the film, and also because it is truly gorgeous to look at.  The ending elicited an epic eye roll from me, the twist is beyond silly and undermines any romance that the film presents, but I'm still thinking about the film, and find its comparisons to The Neon Demon to be notable and important.  While its gender politics are a hot mess, this intriguing film is definitely worth a look.

Fantasia 2017--Animals--Greg Zglinski

Marital strife creates psychotic confusions in Greg Zglinski's Animals/Tiere (2017)
Fantasia rocked my world yesterday with its first of two screenings of Greg Zglinski's Animals (2017), a powerful and disturbing German film that ups the WTF quotient in terms of narrative twists and turns, all through a female character's troubled narration.  I haven't felt this thrilled and pumped about a German film since Fantasia's screening of Goodnight Mommy in 2015.  While I was disappointed that the director wasn't there to talk about his film, it was probably for the best, because I could just imagine some of the questions posed during the Q & A.  What exactly happened during the car accident?  How does Anna's novel relate to the film's events?  What is going on in the locked room in both apartments (a locked room--paging Freud)?  What's up with the suicidal animals (it starts with a goldfish)?  In my estimation, each and every one of these questions only triggers new ones, producing such a myriad of cinematic pleasures, I'm grinning wildly while I write this review.

Anna's combination of paranoia and ennui anchors the film
Ostensibly, the film follows Anna (Birgit Minichmayr), a children's book author embarking on her first grown up novel while vacationing for 6 months with her husband, Nick (Philipp Hochmair), a chef and serial flirt who she believes is undoubtedly cheating on her.  They rent their apartment out to a rather untrustworthy house-sitter named Mischa (Mona Petri) who breaks every rule they give her, and looks strikingly like the woman who lives on the third floor, Andrea (Mona Petri as well), and the woman at the ice cream shop in Vevey (Mona Petri yet again!)  In fact, the doppelgangers here fly fast and furious, and space and time lose all their boundaries.

Chef Nick decides to butcher the sheep he hit with a car (nice that they shaved it first)
Things go decidedly pear-shaped when Anna and Nick, en route to their house in Switzerland, hit a sheep, landing Anna in the hospital with another head injury (she had bashed her head tripping over a skateboard prior to their journey).  All this head trauma makes Anna not only rather unreliable, but forces her to question what is real and what is not at every turn.  Both Anna and Nick have very weird dreams about being killed by the other, and one cannot tell where dream begins and reality ends, or who is actually dreaming, and who is awake, and when.  This type of confusion leads to some pretty darkly humorous moments, with a creepy-looking talking black cat tying the different worlds together. Such FUN!

Mischa wants to find out what's behind the door
Head injuries abound, as Mischa seems to have her own series of mishaps, falling and injuring herself numerous times.  She encounters Andrea's ex, who insists that she is Andrea (hello, same actress), and there's a suicide that happens, or doesn't, and it's not certain when exactly.  Zglinski deliberately dresses Anna and Mischa in similar clothes, in mirrored spaces, experiencing similarly injuries--all to tie the two characters, and both their confusion and curiosity, tightly together.  Then, there's Andrea, who lives on the third floor, or not, and is Anna's alter ego, or not.  The crazy gets upped to eleven when Anna reads her novel (on which she cannot remember working) and it contains characters named Anna, Nick, and Mischa.  What???

Is Nick more than a catalyst for Anna's fantasies/nightmares?
Unsurprisingly, I zeroed in on Anna's rich and confused interior life, and how both her apartment in Germany (traversed primarily by Mischa) and her house in Switzerland, possess mysterious doors behind which lies...???  The film's mysteries keep one constantly guessing.  That's why I'm not sure how to read Nick's character.  Is he just the cheating catalyst for Anna's paranoia, or has he slipped into this film's alternate dimension/timeloop/marital hellhole along with Anna, after the accident?  Or is he really just a fictional character in Anna's twisted novel?  I have very few answers in this first time viewing, and hope beyond hopes that the film gets a strong distributor so that I can watch it again, numerous times, very, very soon.  A masterpiece, but I guess I shouldn't expect anything less from Fantasia.