All posts by Giles Edwards

Film major & would-be writer. 6'3".

CAPSULE: COMA (2019)

Recommended

Koma

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DIRECTED BY: Nikita Argunov

FEATURING: Rinal Mukhametov, Lyubov Aksyonova,

PLOT: Viktor awakens in his apartment to find the walls decaying in reverse and a strange cavalcade of architectural wonders dotting the skyline at improbable angles; then, he finds himself on the run from giant monsters.

COMMENTS: The title gives away the gimmick, and I knew it did—but I didn’t care. Even before we see our protagonist try and fail to obtain his bearings when he awakens in his apartment, we’re smacked with a beautiful show of some top-notch, wonderfully creative CGI buildings making up a future city whose center is graced with what looks like a modern reimagining of the Monument to the Third International. St. Basil‘s architectural motifs round out the metropolis. What is Coma? It’s a Dark City/Inception knock-off, sure, but a vodka-drenched one. And it’s all the more entertaining for it.

Viktor (Rinal Mukhametov), we eventually learn, was in a car crash while fleeing out-of-focus assailants. In Coma-land, Viktor immediately has to flee all-too-menacingly in-focus monsters: tall, thin-limbed beasts made of an ever-flowing inky substance catch sight of him as he exits his apartment. Just in the nick of time, a grizzled gang of survivors spots him and hoofs him out of trouble. There’s Phantom, the cynical soldier; there’s Fly, the female healer. Back at the survivor’s camp—reached via a multiplanar, but very stationary, bus wreck—there’s Yal, the older leader guy and… many more. Why did Yal send out his crack squad to get this ungainly beardo? We learn through exposition, montage, and a Moment of Trial.

The dismissiveness you may have detected here is meant as no more than gentle ribbing. Coma does a number of things incredibly well, not the least of which was keep my rapt attention throughout. Disregarding the (fairly) serviceable story and the (not too terribly) cardboard characters, we are left with a ceaselessly interesting vista of interconnected, odd-angled planes: different memories, we are told, of different inhabitants of Coma-land. They’re connected by wisps of ground; or not, as Viktor learns when he has to run straight down a pier to jump up into a piazza looming above. Firefights in this realm give “death from above” new meaning. And when our hero—an architect—learns how to use his special gift, things get even cooler.

The explanation provided for all this fantasy undermines the narrative while building its intellectual merits. I shan’t reveal the reveal, but suffice it to say, (movie) science has an explanation for all the goings-on, and it seems we may be bearing witness to one man’s pursuit of immortality. This being a Russian film, I cannot help veering into some sociopolitical observation. Viktor, in his waking life, seems to have been an idiot savant, an architect ahead of his time who was led to believe he could go on to create great, new things. As Yal makes very clear: in modern day Russia, change is only possible in your dreams.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Surreal, engaging, and philosophical, Coma’s creativity designs action around any possibility while debating life’s reality.”–Matt Paprocki, Do-Blu.com (Blu-ray)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: THE LOOSE ENDS.

A roundup of less-weird but still notable genre films screening at this year’s digital-only Fantasia Film Festival. If the descriptions intrigue you, look out for these in the coming months (given the current climate, most likely as digital rentals or streaming options).

Yummy: Lars Damoiseaux’ debut feature is the inspirational story of a young medical school drop-out who bravely overcomes his fear of blood…

Nah. It’s actually a zombie/Resident Evil rehash brimming to the gills with Eurotrash sensibilities. (It even has a “Chazz“-archetype character featured prominently.) The hospital-based zombie party is kicked off by a visit of a young woman, her boyfriend, and her mother heading to a skeezy Eastern European hospital so she can get breast reduction surgery (she complains of a bad back and difficulty running, though the hooting and ogling of all passers-by en route to the facility suggest another motive). Once there, surprise surprise, things are not all that they seem…

In festivals prior, I’ve been told that for many filmmakers, horror movies are a reliable ticket into the field: they’re generally inexpensive to make and attract investors because they invariably recoup their money. Yummy is a nice, diverting bit of fun and gore, with at least two “firsts” as far as I know: a character loses his penis by fire extinguisher, and a surgeon jams his arm into a high-powered shredder to stop an infection. Walking into this at your local stream-a-plex, you will know exactly what you’re getting into, and won’t be disappointed.

Sanzaru: Filipino mysticism and Southern Gothic collide in Xia Magnus’ tale of creepy, creepy family history. Magnus manages to make the wide open spaces of Texas non-existent, setting all the action in her contemplative tale of ghosts and memories at one remote ranch. Evelyn is the live-in Filipina aid to aging and decrepifying Texan matriarch, Dena, who is suffering from dementia, and prone to fits of shouting at an unseen assailant in the wee hours of the night. Evelyn hears these disturbances, among other cryptic and unsettling sounds, on the house’s room-to-room intercom system.

Sanzaru gets plenty of bonus points for atmosphere, which goes a long way to make up for the lack of focus. The Texas family’s backstory is fascinating, and deeply unsettling once fully revealed, and Continue reading FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: THE LOOSE ENDS.

FANTASIA FESTIVAL 2020: HANGOVER CAPSULE: DINNER IN AMERICA (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Adam Rehmeier

FEATURING: , Emily Skeggs

PLOT: Simon, the incognito frontman of the hyper-underground punk group “Psy-Ops”, is low on cash and on the run for arson charges when he has a meet-cute with a hyper-medicated superfan named Patty.

COMMENTSDinner in America is about as quirky a movie as I’d ever dare to recommend on this website. It’s a romantic comedy at heart, with strangely sweet romance and often savage comedy. It’s apt, also, that I write this review while hungover (or as hungover as a teetotaler can hope to be). The driving force and fury behind Dinner in America is one of the most punk of rockers ever to emerge from upper-class suburbia.

Don’t tell Victor (Kyle Gallner, with the mien of a latter day Thomas Howard) that I know his secret background, otherwise he’d smack me upside the head with a metal bat and then light fire to my house. We follow his journey from being a drug tester (where we see his first dinner, on which he loses his lunch) to a smitten jail-bird as he escapes from one scrape after another, spouting enough rage to power a small abattoir. The leading lady, Patty (a truly fascinating Emily Skeggs), is so far down the rabbit-hole of “manic pixie dream girl” that she’s on five different medications to have the merest veneer of normal. She is obsessed with “John Q. Public,” the lead singer of a punk band that’s so underground that their front man is on the run both from the law and from his privileged background.

The simmering rage in Dinner in America is hard to process: every character we encounter comes from a comfortable suburban background. However, as the story progresses, we learn that life’s edges are only smoothed over by money, ranch homes, and pre-fab gourmet dinners. There’s more than a hint of Teorema to be found, as Victor enters the lives of several strangers and immediately takes an axe to their civilized pretenses. In his first visit, he manages to seduce the mother, unhinge the daughter, and absolutely infuriate the racist father before smashing through their bay window and setting fire to their lawn. At dinner with Patty’s family, he adopts the guise of the son of missionaries and in the process liberates a household so weighed down by cyclical tedium that its patriarch is overwhelmed by the “heat” of unspiced beef.

Dinner In America‘s tone is best explained by the presence of Ben Stiller as the first-credited producer. (There’s even a nod to his Royal Tenenbaums character: of the long menu of jerks in this movie, the two worst are these upper-class track and field prats who are only seen out of their pristine track suits when Victor gets one up on them with a metal bat and a dead cat.) And the spirit of Syd Vicious lives on in the fractured singer, who only finds purpose in the form of hyper-weird, hyper-innocent Patty. Like the line from the track those two cut in his folks’ (mansion’s) basement, this is a sweet film in the “Fuck ’em all but us” vein.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the best, and weirdest, rom-com in years.”–Joey Keough, Vague Visages (festival screening) [link requires subscription]

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020 APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: UNDERGODS (2020)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Chino Moya

FEATURING: Johann Myers, Géza Röhrig, and ensemble cast

PLOT: “K” and “Z” drive their van around a clapped-out shell of a city collecting dead bodies and telling each other about their dreams.

Still from Undergods (2020)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: The various stories in Undergods interlock with a dreamy (at times, literally) logic worthy of Luis Buñuel. The various future-creepy scenarios are haunting, unsettling, and puzzling, but anchored by two of the most pleasant corpse-haulers one could hope to meet.

COMMENTS: Only the most fragile of barriers protect civilization as we know it today form the looming dystopia of tomorrow. Undergods two guides, body collectors “K” and “Z,” illustrate this point through their narrative dreams, which occasionally bump into reality and each other. Our affable van drivers share a camaraderie forged by their grisly work and offset by their friendly banter and shared can of rum. Moya’s stories unfold and unsteady us in the finest tradition of H.G. Wells, George Orwell, Phillip K. Dick, and the Black Mirror television series.

Undergods opens with an ill-boding narrative about a mysterious 11th-floor neighbor, Harry, who is locked out of his apartment and crashes with Ron and Ruth for the weekend, distressing the former and romancing the latter. After a bender, Ron encounters the apartment’s superintendent and learns that he and Ruth are presently the building’s only occupants. Harry is a charlatan. Ron and Harry scuffle in the elevator. The superintendent begins a tour, opening the door to a father and daughter prospective tenants with Ron’s corpse on the floor.

And so it goes in Undergods. That segment segues into a bedtime story being told by that father to his daughter, a story that itself segues back into the world of van-men K and Z. Like a game of “Sammy the Snake,” the chain of narratives grows and twists until, Ouroboros-style, it feeds back into to the conversation about dreams. The vignettes are invariably sad. Perhaps the happiest event is Dominic’s promotion to “head engineer”–which is small comfort, seeing as his wife’s first husband, presumed dead fifteen years prior, has just been released from a prison facility (found in K’s and Z’s milieu) and now she wants to leave him (Dominic, that is, not her recently returned husband). Undergods‘ plot is just begging for a diagram; but unfortunately I don’t make art, I review it.

Even before the first fully-fleshed story unfolds, the dystopia is firmly established. I don’t know what wreck of an old Soviet town Moya filmed in, but it is beautifully run-down and oozing with creepy grandeur. Ashy snow (or snowy ash) falls continually over the nearly-abandoned streets. The film score feels lifted from an early John Carpenter movie, providing further alienation whenever the electro-pop tones sound off. Undergods never seems to stop moving forward, until we find we never left the van. That’s all right: it’s scary outside, and K and Z have rum to share.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Chino Moya’s feature debut is a haunting, almost impenetrable film, one billed as a dark fantasy but that in reality resists categorization. It will leave you with more questions than answers, but if you let it suck you into its strange world, you might not end up minding that.” –Thomas O’Connor, Tilt Magazine (festival screening)

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: GILES WATCHES CARTOONS

“Circo Animato” 2020 program

Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

For a well-deserved break from reality, instead I spent my Sunday morning enjoying thirteen cartoon shorts from around the world.

“The Spinning Top” – dir. by Shiva Momtahen

An ornately told tale from Iran about an enthusiastic child who ends up trading his ability to sing and shout for a spinning top. The animation is distinctly non-Western, and beautiful. The little boy in question travels within an  ever-shifting frame of stylized flowers as he encounters the quilt man, pool man, and the salt man. The up tempo feel is brought down to earth when the salt man takes away the boy’s youthful vigor, leaving only the memories within the top.

“Kkum” – dir. by Kim Kang-min

This is the only foam-imation I’ve ever seen, and accompanying the weird look achieved by animating its weird narrative about a young man who is protected by his mother’s dreams with polystyrene. Four dreams in particular–“Fire,” “Insect,” “Pumpkin,” and “Corpse”–are highlighted, each heavily symbolic and lovingly rendered in Styrofoam. The short ends with the mother advising her son (grown, with wife and child) not to go out that day; the grateful lad thanks the heavens for the meticulous fence his mother has constructed around him.

“There Were Four of Us” – dir. by Cassie Shao

By a whisker, this was the strangest short of the crop—both to listen to, and to look at. The sound is purposely muted, as if one is listening to the dialogue (actually, mostly monologues) through a telephone propped against an old tape recorder. The visual element, however, practically shouts from the screen. What is going on here? There are too many clues, too many things going on, to be certain; the final shot suggests a hospital. And the garbled vocal exposition suggests a mental one, at Continue reading FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: GILES WATCHES CARTOONS

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL CAPSULE 2020: MINOR PREMISE (2020)

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Screening online for Canadians at 2020’s online Fantasia Film Festival

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Eric Schultz

FEATURING: Sathya Sridharan, Paton Ashbrook, Dana Ashbrook

PLOT: Ethan uses his brain-mapping device to “massage” his brain to greater heights of intelligence, but a drunken miscalibration leaves his mind splintered.

COMMENTS: It’s ironic that Minor Premise gets saddled with the word “minor,” whereas the short film upon which it was based carried the briefer but more forthright title, “Premise”. This could suggest, perhaps, a comparative deficiency (and act as insurance against stroppy reviewers), but that isn’t for me to say—I have not seen the seven-minute short that became the germ of the ninety-five minute feature. What I can say with certainty is that the title Minor Premise suggests a greater degree of nuance—and there is nuance aplenty in this delightful Cronenberg/Nolan mash-up.

The Cronenberg aspect: Ethan (a bleary-eyed Sathya Sridharan, who seems perpetually covered with insomnia grease) is a brilliant-but-anxious scientist who has just about perfected his father’s memory-imaging machine. Bitterly drunk one evening and reading his father’s notes (mysteriously sent to him), he decides to go full-in with his R-10 machine and grow his intellect with a little synapse massaging. Unfortunately, Ethan didn’t learn an important lesson from eminent teleportator Seth Brundle: never, ever, ever, dive into your own machine while drunk and annoyed. (There’s a reason top scientists are given grad students, y’know?)

The experiment leads to the plot’s Christopher Nolan angle, specifically a conceit similar to his early masterpiece, Memento. Ethan suffered from blackouts prior to this experiment, but afterwards he is reduced to a mere six minutes of awareness for every… how long? As a man of science, he uses each of his six-minute slices as best he can determine what is happening the rest of the time. He is aided by another six-minute self whom he doesn’t remember, but who leaves behind helpful recordings, and also by a comprehensive array of security cameras throughout the house. Working from .mpg files, note scraps, and strange clues in the form of accumulating debris around his home and lab, Ethan discovers that he has “massaged” his disparate emotions into equal, but isolated, Ethan-entities.

It is all too infrequent to come across thoughtful science fiction, but Eric Shultz’s debut feature fits that bill nicely. Minor Premise never gets as dark as Cronenberg (this is not a criticism), and isn’t quite as clockwork-clever as Nolan (a criticism, perhaps, albeit a minor one). But it demonstrates that a new and exciting talent has entered this woefully underpopulated scene. Minor Premise would hold its own in a high-minded pentad capping off the (wonderfully) smarty-pants narrative marathon of The Fly, Pi, Memento, and Primer. Schultz’s movie ends on a happy—and ambiguous—enough note to pleasantly round out your long evening of chin-scratching.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Though avowedly minor, the premise of Schultz’s film … is certainly convoluted and conceptually challenging… If Schwartz’s film messes with people’s minds metaphorically, the R10 does so literally – and there is a next-generation version of this device on its way. This is where the otherwise locked-in Minor Premise becomes political: because in today’s world of corporate control and narcissistic, lying leaders, we all know, and some of us fear, what it is like to be manipulated, deceived and gaslit by a psychopath.”–Anton Bitel, Projected Figures (festival screening)