Fantasia 2020, Part XLII: Sayo

Monday, October 12th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

SayoIn covering a film festival, one does not always select the films one sees out of a pure love of cinema. Or even love of genre. Scheduling plays a part, and sometimes delivers to you an unexpected delight. Fantasia 2020 had fewer happy accidents of scheduling due to its all-virtual nature, but as the festival’s final day wound down I found myself with just under three hours until all the movies would go offline — meaning I had time for the film I’d wanted to watch, plus an hour or very slightly more. Glancing over the schedule I found a movie I’d considered looking at which was listed at 61 minutes, and decided I should give it a shot.

Jeremy Rubier’s Sayo was scheduled with two shorts that I would not have time to watch, but it was intriguing enough on its own. A Japanese woman named Nagisa (Nagisa Chauveau) is mourning her twin sister, Sayo, whose last letter she’d never answered. After a ceremony at a Shinto temple in Tokyo, a strange taxi driven by a demigod (Jai West) takes her on a trip to the breathtaking landscape that is the land of the dead. There, she will face her grief even more intensely and perhaps come to some kind of peace.

Rubier, a Quebecois director living in Japan, wrote and directed the film after Chauveau recounted to him the true story of her twin Sayo. He worked out the story while reading Sayo’s letters, watching home movies of her (some of which appear in his film), and listening to her music (again, some of which is heard in the feature). In January of this year, according to Rubier in a fascinating question-and-answer session, he heard about the COVID-19 pandemic emerging and, having lived in China, at once guessed at what was coming and insisted on shooting the film right away; he finished the script in January and shot it (over six days) a couple months later.

It’s stunning to think that this film was entirely shot and finished in less than nine months. It’s beautiful, measured, and thought-through. The narrative is rudimentary, but the emotional content is powerful, and emerges through the visuals in a purely cinematic way.

It is true that this is mostly a mood piece, but it’s a mood piece that works. Given the short running time, the narrative framework’s as detailed as it needs to be. Nagisa moves through different places and different phases of grief, and what she’s feeling at any given moment is perfectly clear and comprehensible. She encounters temples and religious ceremonies as well as surreal moments, and has flashbacks of memories of her sister, and you have the feeling of her moving along a journey of coping with grief.

Chauveau does a remarkable job here, acting for the most part not against other actors but on her own against the landscape, sharing the screen with the beauty of woods or shoreline. Still, she brings out what her character feels at every moment. It is true that the nature photography is excellent, whether seen from her perspective or overhead through stately drone footage. But her acting means we see more than the elegance of pretty pictures; Chauveau gets across her character’s emotion in isolation so well, the landscape becomes a reflection of her and is animated by her grief.

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The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes: At the Movies with Basil (Rathbone)

Monday, October 12th, 2020 | Posted by Bob Byrne

RathboneColor_RathboneeditedI started writing a regular column for Black Gate in March of 2014. I’ve covered a lot of ground, but today we’re going to try something new. Earlier this year, I was watching Casablanca (yet AGAIN) on TCM, and I decided to do do a running commentary about it on my FB page. I know a LOT about that movie. TCM showed it again a little over a month later, so I did it again. It was fun.

I decided to do the same thing with a Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movie. But I watched it on Youtube, which let me pause it while I typed comments, and took screenshots. That worked satisfactorily. During Casablanca, I was so busy (mis)typing comments, I missed half of the movie.

So, this is a mix of my running commentary, with more information and fun stuff added in during composition of the essay. It’s a hybrid, but not as detailed as I normally write. We’ll see how it goes as we look at two films: Terror By Night, and The Scarlet Claw. I already wrote a full post on the second movie. I just felt like watching it again.

Of course, all fourteen Holmes films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were black and white. But colorized versions, both official and not, have been around for a while. I watched colorized versions of both films, via Youtube. Terror By Night was done by TCC (Timeless Classics now in Color). They’ve got a bunch of movies on their website. And the quality of this one was excellent. The best colorized Holmes I’ve seen. The Scarlet Claw was by ATC, and it was muddy.

TERROR BY NIGHT

We start with number eleven of twelve in the Universal Pictures series. Only one more Holmes movie remained, as Rathbone, tired of being typecast, walked away from the franchise (and the associated radio show).

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Fantasia 2020, Part XLI: A Costume For Nicolas

Sunday, October 11th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

A Costume For NicolasCritic Farah Mendlesohn introduced the term ‘portal fantasy’ in her 2008 book Rhetorics of Fantasy to describe stories in which a protagonist leaves their home and enters a new, larger, magical world. I’ve seen the term used often to refer to a specific subtype of these fantasies, in which a protagonist from conventional reality passes through a portal to a fictional realm and proceeds to quest about and have adventures. The rise of this more specific definition is not entirely surprising, given how common that kind of story is, perhaps especially with younger protagonists. Either sort of portal fantasy can present a character, confronted with a new and strange world, with an opportunity to grow and change. Or, instead, can be about reification of the character’s previous identity — a locking-in of who they are, after the success of a quest that aims to stop a bad change form occurring.

Such is A Costume For Nicolas, an animated film from Mexico. It’s directed by Eduardo Rivero and written by Miguel Uriegas, based on the book Pablo y El Baúl by Jaime Mijares (there’s an English version and a Spanish version, Un Disfraz para Nicolas; Fantasia presented the English version). The studio that made it, Fotosintesis Media, has a mission to create positive “social impact,” and so this film is a fantasy following Nicolas, a young boy with Down syndrome, voiced by a young actor with Down syndrome, Fran Fernández.

The condition’s not named onscreen, but informs the character: 10-year-old Nicolas is who he is, a happy child raised by his mother (voice of pop star Paty Cantú), who makes him costumes and tells him stories about a fantasyland where a powerful but mysterious wizard dispelled nightmares at a high cost. When Nicolas must go to live with his grandparents and his cousin David, he not only has to fit in at a new home and a new school, he also must stop the monster feeding on David’s nightmares — which leads both boys into the fantasy world of Nicolas’ mother’s stories. There, his costumes become a magic which gives them a hope of completing a quest to save the world and free David from nightmare.

It’s a lovely film that fundamentally works. It’s colourful and imaginative, the 2D animation always bright and energetic. The designs are excellent, particularly in the fantasyworld with its castles and magic. The human characters are good pieces of design, too, with expressive faces and figures a little like the adult humans of Calvin & Hobbes.

The story’s a little oddly structured, in that it’s a bit slow to get to the fantasyworld, and once it does it takes place almost entirely in that other realm. In other words, it doesn’t try to balance the two realities. But this works surprisingly well — Rivero and Uriegas perhaps understand that once we get fully into a story’s fantasy world, returning to a mimetic world can be a hard sell. The delayed gratification of the fantasy here may be tough for young children, clearly the primary audience of the film, who must wait for the really wondrous parts. But then again, it also means the film builds to its most spectacular moments, giving us a chance to get used to its visual style and to live with the characters.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XL: Fugitive Dreams

Saturday, October 10th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Fugitive DreamsThe Fantasia Film Festival usually runs around three weeks, but 2020 and its myriad of challenges meant this year’s festival lasted only two-thirds of that. Time moves fast, faster still during Fantasia, and so it came about that with a sudden shock I found myself in the final hours. I had three on-demand movies still to watch that I hadn’t gotten to, and only one on a fixed schedule, my first of the last day.

That film was called Fugitive Dreams, and it was directed and scripted by Jason Neulander from a play by Caridad Svich. It opens in an abandoned gas station where a Black woman, Mary (April Matthis) is about to slit her wrists in the ladies’ room. At which point a White man named John (Robbie Tann) bursts in, grabs some toilet paper, and almost incidentally stops her suicide attempt. The two of them, neither entirely mentally healthy, become squabbling comrades as they set out across what appears to be an empty midwestern America, sometimes riding the rails like hobos in old movies.

The exact era of the story’s difficult to pin down; after drive-in movies have been around a while, but probably before cell phones and the internet. On their journey John and Mary meet other drifters, including the menacing Israfel (Scott Shepherd) and his mute mother Providence (O-Lan Jones). Interleaved with this story are dreams, visions, and memories — along with lies and questions, notably about John’s background and parentage. It all makes for a surreal road movie without a real destination.

Most of the movie is stunning high-contrast black-and-white, and it’s quite striking — like an older film in its lighting, but a modern one in its visual storytelling. Some dreamlike segments are in colour, and while they look fine, other than a recurring image of a poppy field none of them quite match the stark beauty of the wide-open monochrome spaces, or of a nighted conversation in a shuddering boxcar. The acoustic soundtrack’s a fine match for the imagery, emphasising the way the film aims at evoking classic Americana. Old movies are referred to in dialogue, a kind of imagined paradise for John, and the sense of a road-trip film is very strong.

So are the religious overtones, visible in the names of the characters, and in the choice of an abandoned church for the film’s climax. But to what end is less clear. The empty church echoes the empty landscapes of the film, and hints at the characters’ abandonment by God; if you see them as searching for the divine, it’s certainly a downbeat symbol. But it’s a little unclear what the characters actually are seeking. A home, perhaps, but that’s left underdeveloped.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XXXIX: Lapsis

Friday, October 9th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

LapsisScience fiction has strong historical links to the adventure genre, but ideas-oriented science fiction tends to move away from adventure. Adventure fiction typically focusses on individual protagonists doing world-altering things, and a science fiction backdrop makes for a fictional world susceptible to alteration. But much actual social change is driven by organisations and groups, and science fiction that wants to talk about ideas usually acknowledges that. At the extreme you get something like Asimov’s early Foundation stories: tales in which the inevitable working-out of sociological forces are at the centre of the story, not the actions of a single hero. It’s not impossible to balance a quest-story about a single protagonist with a realistic portrayal of a world defined by its social structures, but tales that pull off both aspects are worth noting.

Which brings me to writer-director Noah Hutton’s Lapsis, an excellent near-future science fiction film that does both things very well indeed. Not too long from now, the quantum internet connects the world. To make the quantum computing systems work, cablers need to connect long cables between large cube-shaped nodes. These nodes are built in wilderness areas, so cablers have to walk through the woods trailing a wire behind them. They get paid well for this, in gig-economy fashion: if you have a cabler medallion, you log into an account, select a path, and take your cable along the path. You have to hurry to get the cable laid before a bot passes you by and steals the route, though, for if that happens you don’t get the points that’ll give you your payout.

Ray (Dean Imperial) is a blue-collar deliveryman whose boss gets busted, necessitating a search for a new job. Ray’s got a brother, Jaimie (Babe Howard) who he loves dearly but who suffers from a terrible fatigue-related condition, and to pay for an experimental treatment Ray strikes a deal with an underworld connection to get an under-the-counter cabling medallion. Cabling’s harder work than Ray expected, but things get really weird when he logs in to the account associated with the medallion — and finds a hoard of points already there. And finds other cablers grow hostile at the mention of his account’s name. Ray’s got to solve the mystery of the account, support his brother’s treatment, stay out of jail, and succeed at laying cable through a forest filled with people who seem to get stranger the farther he goes.

This is an excellent set-up, and Hutton explores it with profound intelligence and creativity. He has a background in documentary film, including two films about the oil industry and an ongoing project about an attempt to build a computerised simulation of a human brain; this perhaps helped him develop a future world that feels so deeply real. Lapsis is a thorough and solid extrapolation of the modern world, not just in terms of the macro scale of the class system and the gig economy, but in smaller stuff like the cheerful interface for the cablers’ accounts. Or the way the sharing economy has expanded to the point people rent storage space in their garage.

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Ellsworth’s Cinema of Swords: Laughing Cavaliers

Friday, October 9th, 2020 | Posted by Lawrence Ellsworth

The Court Jester

The Court Jester (Paramount 1956)

Swashbuckler heroes tend to be boisterous and aggressively cheerful, embracing whatever life throws at them, not reacting so much as over-reacting to every joy and challenge, happy to be outside the constraints that keep normal folk like us from picking up apples in the grocery by impaling them on the points of our swords. Swashbuckler films often have comic overtones because it fits the character of their devil-may-care protagonists. And some swashbuckler movies take the plunge into outright parody. Here are two of the latter, plus an immediate predecessor that helped pave the way.

The Flame and the Arrow

Rating: ****
Origin: USA, 1950
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Source: Warner Bros. DVD

Burt Lancaster burst onto the Hollywood scene in 1946 playing a tender tough guy in The Killers, a dark film noir based on a Hemingway story, and he soon earned a reputation for excelling at edgy, dramatic roles. But before Hollywood, and before his service in World War II, Lancaster had been… a circus performer. In the 1930s he was one-half of Lang & Cravat, a comical acrobatic act with his diminutive partner and lifelong friend Nick Cravat, who, as part of his shtick, never said a word, leaving all the snappy patter to Lancaster.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XXXVIII: Laurin

Thursday, October 8th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Laurin movie poster-smallTone is one of the most important characteristics of a story, one of the hardest to get right, and one of the hardest to discuss. The feel of a story, what is above and beyond the mechanics of plot or the construction of character or even the specifics of imagery, is a large part of what comes to mind when you think of a story after the story’s done. And tone can be the main concern of a storyteller; it’s a perfectly valid artistic choice to subordinate narrative logic or character motivation or whatever else to the feel the story’s supposed to instill. Or, at least, it’s a valid choice when it works. Which brings up the difficulty in describing tone. It’s often hard to explain what creates it and how well that succeeds, but more, the perception of tone can vary wildly. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. Particularly when the tone is abstract.

Which is all useful to remember in viewing Laurin. A German production shot in Hungary, it was written and directed by Robert Sigl and released in 1988. A 4K restoration’s drawn attention to the movie, and this year’s Fantasia hosted its Canadian premiere. The movie aspires to the tone of a dream or a fable, and whether it succeeds will likely depend on the individual viewer.

It’s set in a small town in Europe in the very early twentieth century. People have begun to disappear, particularly children. Laurin (Dóra Szinetár) is a young girl whose mother has died a bizarre death, and whose father is absent at sea. She’s drawn into the mystery of the missing youths, investigating castle ruins and a mysterious man in black.

And that’s essentially the movie. It aims at creating a dreamlike tone more than a tight dramatic plot, and at only 84 minutes, that’s not unreasonable. It is very slow, and the story simple. Dialogue’s mostly underwritten. Does it work? I would say some aspects, certainly. For me the movie was undermined by its way of telling its story. But that approach is probably central to what the film’s doing, and it’s possible I’m overly concerned with a narrative structure in which Laurin itself is less invested. There is the raw matter for a structured story here, but the movie is more interested in tone than structure. If you can put aside the desire to follow the development of a story and instead dwell in the moment of what you see, that tone might be enough for you.

To go into more detail, let’s start with what clearly works. The film’s gorgeous. There’s an intense autumnal atmosphere in the rich colours of the woodlands and the deep shadows of the night photography. Interiors of homes have the close, overstuffed feel of the late Victorian era (or, in this case, early Edwardian). Contrasting with both is a schoolroom setting that is appropriately muted and drab. There’s a lushness too in the detailed costumes, as there is in the movie’s use of long shots of forests and stone ruins. Note also that despite the feverish tone that emerges there are no special effects to challenge the mood.

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Fantasia 2020, Part XXXVII: The Day of the Beast

Wednesday, October 7th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Day of the BeastYesterday I wrote about a horror-comedy that worked because it found a strong balance between its horror and its comedy, while deriving both tones naturally from its characters. The movie I watched after that one was also a horror-comedy. But it was less successful.

The Day of the Beast (El día de la Bestia) was released in 1995, and has a 4K restoration on the way from the fine people at Severin Films. Directed by Álex de la Iglesia, and written by de la Iglesia with Jorge Guerricaechevarría, it follows a mild-mannered Spanish priest, Ángel (Álex Angulo). He’s cracked the secret code of the Book of Revelations, and worked out that the Antichrist will be born on Christmas Day. But he’s not sure where. So he’s decided to catch the attention of Satan, by committing all the sins he can think of. He’ll then sell his soul to learn where the Antichrist is being born, and go there to kill the infant. (Presumably, if you’ve gotten to the point of selling your soul to Satan, infanticide becomes a triviality.)

Ángel wanders through Madrid, gathering an eclectic variety of supporting characters. A friendly metalhead, José María (Santiago Segura), becomes his henchman. A mysterious TV psychic, Professor Cavan (Armando De Razza) may know something. And then there’s a mysterious gang going around murdering homeless people and leaving graffiti commanding “clean up Madrid”.

It all works very well for the first half of the film. Ángel’s plan is a ramshackle bit of plotting, but it works to get across the basic comedic idea of a cloistered man who doesn’t understand sin very well trying to be evil. Thanks to Angulo’s performance the movie gets a lot of mileage out of meek Ángel being bad, and on top of that the secondary characters are sketeched in with verve and originality. De Razza’s arrogant psychic makes for a good contrast with Ángel, and the way he’s set up and brought into the film works well.

Unfortunately, the movie then switches gears for the second half. It doesn’t really become a straight-ahead horror film as the first half occasionally hinted, though. It instead becomes something of an action movie, starting with an extended sequence in which the film’s leads escape from an apartment building. Various running-around ensues, none of which is particularly interesting, and the movie concludes with a sequence in which the leads are irrelevant to the working-out of the story. (You can almost see a parody of the visitation of the Magi, if you squint, but for no obvious purpose.)

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Fantasia 2020, Part XXXVI: Anything For Jackson

Tuesday, October 6th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Anything For JacksonMacbeth is one of the earliest true horror stories, in the sense of a story whose main aim is to play with the emotion of fear, and there’s a notable comic-relief scene with a gatekeeper right after the first gruesome murder. That scene became the subject of a famous essay by Thomas de Quincey arguing (roughly) that the horror’s made greater by contrast. So from the point where horror first began to emerge as a genre, storytellers have been conscious of the effect that comes from balancing horror with the everyday, and even with the comedic.

Which was in my mind on the next-to-last-day of the 2020 Fantasia Festival, which began for me with two horror-comedies. The first was a Canadian film called Anything For Jackson, which looked like it would lean more to the horror aspect. More precisely, it looked a little like Rosemary’s Baby, only in this case perhaps intentionally funny and maybe actually scary.

Directed by Justin Dyck and written by Keith Cooper, it stars Julian Richings and Sheila McCarthy as Henry and Audrey Walsh, an elderly couple still mourning the death of their daughter and her young son Jackson. As the movie opens, they’ve abducted a young pregnant woman, Becker (Konstantina Mantelos), a patient of Henry, an obstetrician. Henry and Audrey have an evil ritual that will implant Jackson’s soul in Becker’s child’s body. Whether Becker likes it or not. Becker doesn’t want a child and doesn’t want an abortion, but she also doesn’t want this. Yet her attempts to escape are only one of the complications and challenges the Walshes encounter.

This movie works because Dyck and Cooper nail the tonal balance of the horror and the comedy. The first shot is a long take, about two and a half minutes, of a nice slightly dotty older couple going about their morning routine and then abducting a terrified young woman. The shift from gentle comedy to something deeply wrong is managed well, and the movie consistently gets that shift right not only from scene to scene but within a scene as well. The pacing and the scripting are exactly right in exactly the ways they have to be.

The film looks nice, too, colours muted and shadows thick. Winter snow echoes the emotional coldness underlying the story, and emphasises the Walshes’ home as both a place of confinement and a kind of sanctuary (for the Walshes). But over the course of the film horror imagery grows, as the Walshes experiment with the Satanic text they’ve found — possibly the oldest book in the world, we’re told — and more and more innocents stumble into the story.

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Fantasia 2020 Part XXXV: Three by Jose Mojica Marins

Monday, October 5th, 2020 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

At Midnight I'll Take Your SoulBrazilian director José Mojica Marins died earlier this year at the age of 83. He made low-budget films across a number of genres, with his horror work best known. His character Coffin Joe (Zé do Caixão), introduced in the 1963 film At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (A Meia Noite eu Levarei sua Alma) is a kind of national ghoul of Brazil. Fantasia decided to honour Marins by making three of his films available on-demand through the festival, and scheduling a talk about Marins with his friend Dennison Ramalho on the last day of the festival; you can watch the talk here. I, who had never heard of Marins before this year’s Fantasia, decided to remedy my ignorance by watching the three films they were hosting back-to-back-to-back: At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, 1968’s The Strange World of Coffin Joe (O Estranho Mundo de Zé do Caixão), and 1971’s The End of Man (Finis Hominis). They’re three very different movies, and together made a fascinating experience.

What I’ve since learned about Marins from various sources: he was born in 1936 in São Paulo, and grew up making amateur 8mm and 16mm films. He released fumetti (comics with photos for illustrations), founded his own film company at 18, and in 1958 put out his first completed feature, a Western. He self-financed At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, which was based on a nightmare he’d had. Unable to find an actor for the lead role, Marins played it himself; he was already a striking figure, with fingernails grown out several inches, and for the film he added a beard, top hat, black cape and suit. Joe was an undertaker who grew obsessed with having a perfect son by the perfect woman, a character who threw overboard all morality and received ideas of good and evil in pursuit of his will — an explicitly Nietzschean monster. Joe was instantly popular in Brazil, returning in sequels and hosting horror TV shows. Marins would go on to make films in other genres until 2008, though (so far as I can tell) he remained on the margins of the Brazilian industry.

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is a black-and-white film in which we’re introduced to Joe, an undertaker in a small town, and follow him through a story of murder and rape in which he tries to father his ideal son. There is a fortuneteller who predicts a bad end, and a curse, a nasty bit with a spider, a climax in a graveyard at midnight. There’s an energy to the movie, and a definite fascination to Joe as a character — a monster in the gothic tradition, a human being who aspires to be something more than human.

The Strange World of Coffin Joe is an anthology film. The first segment, “The Dollmaker” (“O Fabricante de Bonecas”) gives us the story of an old dollmaker with three beautiful daughters; three youths plan to rape them, but their plans don’t work out as they expect. The second, “Obsession” (“Tara”), is a silent piece about a balloon seller who becomes obsessed with a beautiful woman; she is murdered, and he breaks into her tomb to violate her corpse. “Theory” (“Ideologia”) begins with an appearance on TV by controversial professor Oãxiac Odéz (played by Marins), who argues that humans are driven by instinct and not by intellect or by emotions such as love; this leads to a colleague and his wife, who disagree, being imprisoned and tortured.

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