Thursday, July 18, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 4, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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