SFFF Day 2 – Chillin’ with the Villains

The Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival went globe-trotting to start Day 2. The “Drawn from Around the World” block of animated shorts offered some enthralling works. Many conveyed a sad or lamenting poignancy. Keiro (Tatiana Jusewycz, Benoît Leloup, Franck Menigoz, Zoé Nérot, and Charlotte Poncin, 2016) traced a girl’s journey to adulthood and its effect on the giant creature that accompanies her, Beyond the Books (Jérôme Battistelli, Mathilde Cartigny, Nicolas Evain, Maéna Paillet, Robin Pelissier, and Judith Wahler, 2017) envisioned the highly detailed collapse of an impossibly immense library, the Spanish short Dead Horses (Marc Riba and Anna Solanas, 2016) revealed the brutality of war from a child’s perspective and amid fabric devastation, and the Indian film Schirkoa (Asian Shukla, 2017) imagined political strife in a world where citizens wear bags and boxes on their heads. Others brought the funny, like Daniel Sterlin-Altman’s Hi, It’s Your Mother (2017), about motherhood, blood loss, and middle class living told in crude claymation, and Deuspi (Megacomputer, 2017), a very short work about a pair of astonishingly inept stick-up men and their hilarious fates.

Three films stood out in the “Drawn from Around the World” block. Poilus (Guillaume Auberval, Léa Dozoul, Simon Gomez, Timothé Hek, Hugo Legrange, Antoine Leroy, and David Lashcari, 2017), which takes its title from the name for French WWI infantry soldiers, is an anti-war film told with anthropomorphized rabbits. In it, a young, harmonica-playing hare is caught in no-man’s land and is forced to defend himself with tragic results. Poilus is undeniably slight, but its world is gorgeously realized, from its lanky, Cat Shit One-realism to its colourfully punctuated middle sequence where the film’s central character defends himself on the battlefield against a fantastic monster. Aram Sarkisian crafts a snowy hell of murder and paranoia in —Winston (2017). Fevered letters recounting one man’s hatred for his neighbour offer a window into the main character’s descent into Poe-inspired madness and Sarkisian’s knack for stark design and affective montage (along with some great voice-acting) make —Winston a tiny masterpiece in the macabre. The animation block’s most audacious film was also its most successful. Nicolas Fong’s Yin (2017) takes the Myth of Aristophanes and transforms it into a psychedelic, M.C. Escher-inspired fantasia where unreal perspectives and impossible architectures work to divide the short’s would-be lovers. Fluid, intricate, and imaginative, Yin will likely set the standard by which all shorts at SFFF should be judged.

From acorns to oaks, the SFFF quickly switched gears to the epic with Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainness (2017). It’s difficult to imagine any film containing more action or plot than The Villainess. Almost laborious convoluted, it’s enough to say that The Villainess can be reduced to being a remake of La Femme Nikita. Kim Ok-bin plays Sook-hee, an already dangerous woman made into an assassin for a shadowy agency. Sook-hee’s loyalties are tested when her current assignments run aground of her past loves. Action in The Villainess is frequent and frenetic, from a ten-minute POV opening sequence through a crime den/drug factory, to an extended sword fight on racing motorcycles, to a daring car chase with Sook-hee steering a speeding car while riding on its hood. The film’s action aesthetic is all highly reminiscent of Hardcore Henry with its POV shakiness and its masked edits creating the appearance of a continuous shot. The Villainess abides this aesthetic style regardless of whether it explicitly assumes the perspective of a combatant or not and the film frequently shifts between participant and observer roles without an explicit cut, only adding to the movie’s cacophony of spectacle. What is more, The Villainess applies these same principles in telling its story, packing the film with narrative content, slipping between present-time and flashback without any formal break, and employing its propulsive power to smash through basic questions like who are these people, what do they want, and why are they fighting? The Villainess mostly resembles a video game with frenzied first-person action and over-wrought, melodramatic sequence breaks. Accept The Villainess for what it is and it may be the most thrilling thing you see this year.

There is something of a running joke about the SFFF programming films where animals are killed and so it’s no surprise to see Euthanizer (Teemu Nikki, 2017) on the schedule. What may be more unexpected is the film’s unlikely place as the most humane and conscientious work of the Festival. Finnish character actor Matti Onnismaa is Veijo, an amateur pet-killer offering discounted rates compared to the local veterinarian but a lot more judgment on the individual who bring their cat or guinea pig to his doorstep. Euthanizer‘s crime film conflict arrives compliments of a budding white supremacist, his request that Veijo finish off the family dog he can’t afford to spay, and a particularly despicable act that leads the film to its concluding vengeance. Nikki’s film has far greater depth than the usual revenge fantasy. Veijo’s stoic sympathy for animals is as much an act of penance as it is of benevolence, a complicated ethic explored in his flowering relationship with a nurse who cares for his ailing father and who is drawn to his sensitive but eradicating violence. Veijo wears his Nordic existentialism around him like a crown or like armour, bringing dignity in death where it was denied in life, assuming the creature deserves such respect. Euthanizer is about deciding which creature we all are – one deserving of mercy or one still owing atonement – and that makes it an unexpectedly poetic crime film deserving of a closer look.

Sensitive understatement had no place at SFFF’s midnight screening of Bad Black (Nabwana I.G.G., 2016), a gonzo action film from Wakaliwood, the DIY film industry of the Wakaliga slum of Uganda’s capital. The film’s title character (Nalwanga Gloria as Bad Black) is a street kid-turned-gang leader and gold digger who sets her sights on a rich man from the other side of town (Bisaso Dauda) and who steals from the local doctor (Alan Hofmanis) his father’s dog tags. This leads the doctor to being trained as a commando by a small but tough boy named Wesley Snipes and then going on a wild, gun crazy rampage. I can’t honestly say what else happens in Bad Black but it hardly matters. Bad Black exists to revel in a cinematic grammar that rejects narrative coherence or character motivation and to celebrate the lively spectacle of a community representing itself in cheap green screen effects and violent self-achievement. Wakaliga films are typically screened domestically with a live narrator riffing on the outlandish action and plot and this screening of Bad Black not only featured such a commentary track (complete with shouts “Supa Action!”, references to “poo poo water,” and an assurance that even the commentator can’t follow the plot despite being Ugandan) but also included onscreen shout-outs to the Hub City with captions like “Saskatche Keeck” (or some such expression). Few films can personalize their screening for an audience a continent away, but Nabwana I.G.G. and the Ramon Film Productions crew did just that, also sending for viewing multiple trailers of their films and a personalized introduction from Wakaliga to Saskatoon. It’s difficult to imagine a film better embodying the spirit of the Fantastic Film Festival and its aims of diversity, community, entertainment.  Thank you, Wakaliwood.

With a stacked day of screenings coming up on Saturday, the balance of our reports will follow next week. Check back for discussions on Dave Made a MazeBlade of the ImmortalNovemberLowlife, and more!

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SFFF Day 1 Report – Four Killers and a Dog

Even before I arrived in Saskatoon, I felt like Fantastic Film Festival-action was meeting me like a herald of things to come. It had something to do with the man waiting at my flight’s gate conspicuously wearing a black eyepatch that threatened spy movie villainy. It also had something to do with the man behind me in security and his laptop that tested positive for “explosive residue.” Fortunately for me, action-thrillers weren’t slated until Day 2 of the Saskatoon Fantastic Film Festival and my flight proceeded without complication, bringing me to Day 1 of SFFF and a block of films featuring some disturbed title characters.

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Night Swim (Rod Blackhurst and Bryce James McGuire, 2014)

Horror can be elegantly simple. Consider Rod Blackhurst and Bryce James McGuire’s Night Swim (2014), where a nighttime dip by Eve (Megalyn Echikunwoke) in a backyard pool results in an unexpected observer. Chills and scares are developed in the short’s brief four minutes using a novel idea and some carefully paced storytelling. Dive in, horror fans!

Puzzle of a Downfall Child (Jerry Schatzberg, 1970)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Puzzle of a Downfall Child.

Based on his own interviews with troubled fashion model Anne St. Marie, Jerry Schatzberg’s Puzzle of a Downfall Child is an unnervingly intimate, narratively-fragmented portrait of a top fashion model in personal and professional decline. Faye Dunaway, fresh from her star-making role in Bonnie and Clyde, delivers a tour-de-force performance as Lou Andreas Sand, once a celebrated model now shored up in an isolated beach house struggling to maintain her partial grasp on reality. Directly influenced by the European art cinema of Alain Resnais, Ingmar Bergman, and Michelangelo Antonioni and boasting a screenplay by acclaimed screenwriter Carole Eastman and supporting performances by Barry Primus, Roy Scheider, and Viveca Lindfors, Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a visionary film emblematic of the disenfranchised subjects, art-film sensibilities, and young, creative filmmakers that made the New American Cinema.

Disc Features:

  • New 4K digital restoration, supervised by director Jerry Schatzberg, with uncompressed monoaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
  • New interviews with Schatzberg and actor Faye Dunaway
  • Alternate opening sequence prepared by the studio
  • New interview with playwright Elisabeth Bouchaud
  • Fashion of a Downfall Child, scholar Drake Stutesman on the film’s costumes and fashion trends
  • Sounds from Across the Ocean, scholar Jay Beck on the film’s sound design
  • Trailer
  • PLUS: An essay by filmmaker and photographer Bruce LaBruce

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Snow-White (Dave Fleischer, 1933)

MMC! keeps our creepy October rolling with Dave Fleischer’s spook-errific animation classic, Snow-White (1933). This Betty Boop masterpiece was animated almost single-handed by Roland Crandall over six months, his reward for loyal service to Fleischer Studios. The short features an array of creepy gags and set-pieces, the highlight of which is the Mystery Cave portion where a rotoscoped Cab Calloway performs “St. James Infirmary Blues” as a ghostly Koko the Clown. I first saw Snow-White in a class on the Disney Company where the very knowledgeable professor cited the rotoscoped appearance of Cab Calloway as an introduction of realism into the film, something I never understood given the very fantastic animation applied to the phantom Koko transforms into and the almost unnatural, counter-intuitive physics of Calloway’s glides and moonwalks. Snow-White has been preserved by the National Film Registry and can be found on Blu-ray in Volume 4 of Olive Films’ Betty Boop: The Essential Collections.

Tougher Than Leather (Rick Rubin, 1988)

UNCONCEIVABLE! UNBELIEVABLE!

Trouble is just a beat away in this action-packed ’80s classic starring the Kings of Rock, Run DMC. The up-and-coming hip-hop trio of Run, DMC, and Jam Master Jay are signed to Strut Productions, a crooked booking agency laundering drug money for gangsters and aiming to exploit the group’s growing popularity to further their criminal schemes. When their close friend and roadie Runny Ray stumbles upon the illegal operation and is murdered in cold blood, the devastated musicians take the law into their own hands to avenge their friend’s death, facing racist thugs and armed gangsters in their pursuit of justice.

Co-written, co-produced, and directed by superstar record producer Rick Rubin and supported by a hard-hitting soundtrack featuring music by Run DMC, the Beastie Boys, Slick Rick, the Junk Yard Band, and Public Enemy, Tougher Than Leather is an urban Western that’s too tough to miss.

Special Features:

  • New High Definition digital transfer
  • High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentation
  • Original Stereo 2.0 and 5.1 Dolby Surround Options
  • Optional English SDH subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
  • Grammar Like a Hammer: The Making of Tougher Than Leather, a new documentary containing interviews with Darryl McDaniels, Rev Run, Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons, Chuck D, and Eddie Murphy
  • Run DMC music videos for “Run’s House,” “Mary, Mary,” and “Christmas in Hollis”
  • Theatrical trailer
  • Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring an interview with photographer Glen E. Friedman and a collection of his on-set photographs

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